Disclaimer: Xena:Warrior Princess is a trademark of Renaissance Pictures. Story mine, main characters not. Women and sex, plus one or two four-letter words.
© May 1997 Charmer
This is the last part of a trilogy which began with "Comparing Notes". It picks up immediately where "Turning Tables" drew to a close.
Argo trod steadily along the track. It was a good road, level and well worn, and dry from the warm summer weather. The going was easy.
The warrior relaxed into the horse's gait, her shoulders back, her dark hair lifting gently behind her in the soft breeze. Her leather and armour shone in the morning sunshine.
Xena looked down at the exquisite burden draped across the saddle in front of her. She let her gaze drift across toned legs, trim hips, a firm waist... she smiled.
'Xena, can I get up now?'
A loud sigh drifted up from somewhere around Argo's left shoulder.
'Xena, I'm uncomfortable,' Gabrielle complained.
'No you're not.'
'My ribs hurt.'
'No they don't.'
The mare continued on at a regular pace. In the trees off to their right a woodpecker hammered persistently against some tough bark.
'I've been here for hours.'
'No you haven't.'
The woodpecker paused, as though breaking off to listen. After a few moments the harsh tapping resumed.
'And the blood's running to my head.'
'No it isn't.'
Gabrielle sighed again, impatiently. 'Well that's funny,' she said with heavy sarcasm. 'I could've sworn the blood was running to my head. After all, it's my blood, and it's my head, but I suppose you know best.'
Xena grinned silently. In fact she had taken care to ensure that Gabrielle wouldn't suffer when she reached down and hauled the young woman bodily across the saddle. The warrior sat back a few inches, allowing the slim bard to rest securely between her and the saddle horn. Gabrielle couldn't be too uncomfortable, at least not yet.
However that wouldn't make the ride any less embarrassing for her.
The bard suddenly shifted and started to wriggle backwards. Xena clamped a hand across her back and held her firmly in place.
'No!' the warrior warned. 'I don't want to risk seeing your blabber mouth for a while yet.'
Gabrielle growled angrily but stopped struggling. 'This is so unfair.'
'Really.' Xena sounded bored.
'Yes, really! It wasn't all my fault.'
'Oh? You decide to tell a pornographic story about me to a hall full of strangers, and it's not your fault?'
'I said it's not all my fault. I didn't tell them it was about you.'
'No, you just provided a detailed visual description, so any passing lout will instantly recognise me as the main character.'
'If you hadn't reacted like that they would never have known for sure! Where is my staff, by the way?'
'Safe. I slung it through a saddle loop.'
They plodded on for another minute. The woodpecker's tapping faded behind, while the noise of humming insects increased as the air warmed around them.
'Are you going to make me ride like this all day.'
Gabrielle drew in a sharp breath. 'Oh, I can't believe you're serious!'
'Then why did you bother asking?'
'I...' Gabrielle broke off. She didn't seem to have an answer to that. Eventually she spoke up again, her tone apologetic. 'Xena, I'm sorry about the story. I guess I just didn't realise how easy it would be for people to figure out who I was talking about.'
Unseen, the warrior broke into another smile. She adjusted the hand that was pressed against Gabrielle's back until she found the young woman's behind. She stroked her leisurely through the soft skirt, tracing the smooth curves up and down.
Gabrielle made a little sound which was half surprise, half pleasure.
Xena reined Argo in, and they came to a gentle halt.
'Why have we stopped? Can I get up now?' Gabrielle started to move again, but Xena held her down with her left hand, quietly caressing with the other. Gabrielle lifted her head and looked about awkwardly. 'We're at a cross-roads,' she announced.
'Uh-huh.' Xena's right hand found its way underneath Gabrielle's skirt.
The bard stiffened. 'What are you doing?'
Gabrielle's sharp query was met with silence, and gently roving fingers which tugged away her underwear and began to stroke her inner thighs. The bard's eyes widened.
'Xena!' she hissed. 'We're on the open road! Someone could pass by any moment!'
'Hmm,' Xena agreed casually, 'it's a busy junction.' The warrior's hand continued to roam.
Gabrielle moaned sensuously, but squirmed with embarrassment.
'You're doing this to punish me,' she protested weakly, 'you're treating me like a child.'
Xena laughed. 'I'm certainly not treating you like a child,' she countered. 'If I were, your rear end would be getting a very different kind of attention. And it might yet.'
'Don't you d-' Gabrielle started vehemently, biting off the last word. She clearly realised the folly of challenging the warrior into carrying out her threat.
'I'll make you a deal,' Xena resumed, drawing a lazy finger up along the apex of Gabrielle's thighs, making the bard tremble. 'You let me have my way with you here on the road, like this, and afterwards I'll let you get up.'
Gabrielle whimpered softly, and shuddered as the warrior's touch back-tracked lightly towards her centre. 'What... what if someone comes?' she breathed.
'That's okay, you're allowed to come.'
'You know what I mean!'
'Do I?' Xena's thumb began to circle a very sensitive spot between the bard's legs.
'Yes!' Gabrielle half gasped. 'What if someone passes by, on the road?'
'What if they do?' Xena noticed Gabrielle's thighs part slightly in response to her caresses.
The bard's voice grew a little desperate. 'You'll just carry on? In public?'
'Oh I see,' Xena responded playfully, 'you're worried about the humiliating publicity. Strange, you didn't seem concerned when you told everyone that story about me.'
'Don't you think this is rather different? Actually doing it here on a horse!'
'Argo will be patient.'
Gabrielle groaned as Xena moved her hand up again and tickled her soft cheeks. The warrior noted that the bard's skin was becoming flushed. She grinned at the speed of the young woman's arousal.
'All right,' Gabrielle yielded. 'I've had worse offers.'
Xena arched an eyebrow. 'Have you? Well then, there's just one more detail I need to mention before we proceed,' she added, and leant in to whisper, 'you mustn't make a sound.'
Gabrielle was quiet for a moment. 'What?' she asked feebly, with a note of apprehension.
'Think of it as a test.'
'Of what? The prolificacy of miracles?'
Xena frowned slightly. 'Huh?'
Gabrielle turned sharply to throw up a triumphant stare. 'Ha ha! You don't know what it means, do you?'
The warrior's eyes narrowed. 'Not a sound,' she confirmed. 'Or else.'
Inevitably Gabrielle failed the grade on that score.
At one point during the proceedings a farmer passed by, driving a cart so heavily laden it looked like it was about to topple over. Despite her earlier threats, Xena guided Argo to one side of the road out of his way, and paused in her task. This break in the action placed considerable stress on the bard's composure.
The farmer nodded to Xena in recognition of her giving way, and noticed the girl slung over the saddle like a sack of grain.
'She all right?' he asked cautiously.
Xena smiled pleasantly. 'She will be. Thanks.'
The farmer took another look at the prone figure, whose knuckles clenched white into fists, and whose teeth gnawed the thick fabric of her shirt. He urged his old cart-horse on quickly.
It didn't take long after that to bring Gabrielle to a quivering climax. Xena stroked her behind gently as the bard came down again with ragged breaths.
'You weren't exactly quiet,' Xena chided softly.
'I was pretty damn quiet in the circumstances,' Gabrielle informed the ground.
'No. I heard at least three whimpers, a definite gasp, and two distinct "oohs".'
'You're incredibly cruel.'
'Which by my calculation amounts to six noises which need to be accounted for.'
'Oh, let me guess...'
Xena raised her hand and gave the bard a sharp slap.
Gabrielle turned her head to look up, fixing the warrior with narrowed green eyes.
'Ow,' she uttered darkly.
Xena nearly fell off the horse. Gabrielle's tone or her expression alone would have been enough to send her into uncontrollable laughter. The combination of both almost cost the warrior her equilibrium.
'Oh Gabrielle!' Xena struggled through her mirth. 'You're a gem.'
'Yeah. An emerald, with a sore butt.'
Gabrielle watched the unusual spectacle with mild amusement, until the warrior recovered enough to slide an arm around the bard's waist and lift her into a sitting position in front of her.
Gabrielle straightened her clothes awkwardly and leaned back into Xena, finally getting herself comfortable. Xena wrapped both arms around the bard's shoulders and hugged her close, burying her face in sunny hair, breathing in the woman's scent.
'Gods, you're so... so...'
Gabrielle waited. 'I'm so what?' she prompted eventually.
'Um, I can't think of a word good enough.'
Xena felt Gabrielle shake with a silent giggle.
'Good thing you're the warrior and I'm the bard, isn't it?' said Gabrielle, placing her hands back on Xena's thighs.
Xena's grip tightened, matched by a sudden tension in her chest and throat. She blinked hard, and rested her face against Gabrielle's soft neck.
'And I'm too mean to you,' the warrior confessed in a muffled voice.
A few moments of silence followed. Then Xena felt Gabrielle's hands moving further behind, searching under her leathers for the warrior's underwear.
'Yes, but I can get you back for that,' Gabrielle said gently.
It only took a day to reach their destination. Gabrielle walked the rest of the journey, which was more dignified than the method of her departure from Taephos and less distracting for both of them. They didn't encounter any trouble along the way.
'It's the weather,' Xena observed. 'When it's this hot, bandits get too lethargic to bother.'
'So even bandits have some brains.'
'We're nearly there,' Xena announced as she ducked through some particularly lush foliage which encroached on their path. 'I can hear.'
Gabrielle paused as Xena guided Argo through the leafy passage ahead. 'Hear what?' she called after her, following quickly.
After a few minutes they emerged from thick trees into open pasture, flat and expansive under a cloudless summer sky. There were people everywhere.
Gabrielle gave a low whistle when she saw all the brightly coloured tents and stalls.
'Wow, Hercules has outdone himself,' she breathed.
'He had help,' said Xena, her eyes immediately drawn to a robed figure with receding grey hair and a neat beard.
'Your grandmother won't do, Shasta,' the balding man was telling a pretty dark girl who stood in front of him with her arms folded. 'It's got to be you, or maybe your brother...'
Shasta sniffed through a delicate nose and glanced at a tall narrow tent erected nearby. 'Who came up with this kissing booth thing anyway?' she asked sulkily.
'That doesn't matter,' the older man said quickly and shoved a painted sign into her arms. 'Now string this up and get to work.'
Shasta shrugged away to the tent with sullen acquiescence and the man turn round. He spotted the new-comers immediately and his small eyes glittered in his round face.
'Xena! Gabrielle! Over here!'
Gabrielle's face lit up and she trotted over. 'Salmoneus!' She planted a kiss on the entrepreneur's cheek, much to his delight. 'Are we in time?'
'In time? In time! The solstice isn't until tomorrow. Plenty of time... to spend, spend spend!'
'We didn't bring much money,' Xena's low voice came in from behind. She had dismounted and was leading Argo by the reins.
'No matter,' said Salmoneus, undaunted, 'you can help in other ways. I've been looking for someone to replace Gypsy Lee. She dropped her scrying mirror and broke a toe. Ha, didn't see that coming. How about it, Xena? It's all in a good cause.'
Xena's eyes narrowed.
'Trust me,' Gabrielle interrupted, 'you don't want to hear Xena's impression of anything mystical, and her acting really sucks. We'll find something else for her to do. Now where are the others?'
Salmoneus put an arm around the bard and began leading her towards the main tents. Xena followed, eyeing them both sourly.
'Hercules is off somewhere trying to patch up an argument right now, but Iolaus is around. In fact...' he peered across the field into the distance, 'yes, I think that's him over there.'
Gabrielle followed Salmoneus' pointing finger and her eyes widened.
Iolaus sat in a sturdy wooden chair suspended a few feet off the ground. The short blonde man looked comfortable enough in the oversized perch despite the fact that he was soaked to the skin. His damp boots dangled in the air over a huge tub which was filled to the brim with water. To one side a couple of small children were floating toy boats in the water, struggling to reach over the tub's tall sides. On the other side the construction from which Iolaus was suspended boasted a few pulleys, levers and a bright red target. Another child was trying, with little success, to hit the target with a wooden ball.
'Hi Gabrielle!' Iolaus kicked his legs and waved rapidly when he saw the trio approaching with the horse. 'Hi Xena!' He lurched suddenly and grasped at the chair arms as his movements threatened to slip him into the tub. He righted himself again. 'You two here for the solstice?'
'Is this all the crowd you're pulling?' said Salmoneus, noting the single young punter with the ball.
Iolaus shrugged and glanced across at a bored-looking woman lounging nearby.
'We need a better attraction,' the bored woman droned, holding up a dish containing three lonely coins. 'He's only been in once.'
'Hmm,' Salmoneus stroked his trimmed chin, 'I'll think about that one.'
'What's going on?' Gabrielle asked. 'This doesn't look like the usual summer solstice celebration.'
Salmoneus turned and beamed at her. 'It's not,' he said excitedly, 'it's a fund-raiser.'
Again Salmoneus put his arm around the bard and lead her off. Xena adjusted her step behind them.
'I helped Hercules organise some games here a while ago, and we thought why not try a fayre too, to raise money for worthy causes.'
'What worthy causes?' asked Xena, following closely.
'All kinds of worthy causes. Orphans, widows... you should know about them, Xena...'
Gabrielle gave him an annoyed look but Xena didn't respond.
'Money for a new school in Corinth, repairs to the temple in Bulos...'
'What happened in Bulos?' Gabrielle asked quickly.
'Erm... someone knocked over Apollo's statue. Apparently a rather important bit broke off.'
'And how big is your cut?' Xena interrupted.
'How much are you creaming off the top?'
Xena growled. 'How much are you taking in commission?' she said through gritted teeth.
'I'm not taking any commission, Xena,' Salmoneus responded serenely. 'This is all voluntary.'
Xena halted as the other two walked on. She stared after them, then gave Argo a gentle tug.
There were stalls and activities all over the place, but Xena noted that despite the number of people milling around not much money was changing hands.
'This is a farrier demonstration,' Salmoneus explained as they passed what looked to the warrior like an extremely makeshift blacksmith's forge. 'And that's a fletcher engaged in his craft,' he pointed to a solitary man surrounded by arrows.
Gabrielle frowned in puzzlement. 'What are they doing here, Salmoneus?'
'They're demonstrating their skills, of course.'
'But why drag them from their villages? We can see this any day of the week.' Gabrielle seemed concerned as she looked around. 'Shouldn't they be celebrating like the rest of us?'
Salmoneus sighed and led her away. 'They will be. This is just the lead up. The real fun begins on the solstice, and then the dinars will start rolling in.'
The one place where coins were flowing freely was a large white construction which Salmoneus called the beer tent. The entrepreneur and the bard disappeared inside, leaving Xena wondering what to do with Argo. She left the mare to herself at a nearby water trough and wandered in after them.
The air inside was warm, sweet, and slightly stuffy, but bright thanks to the thin fabric walls. Wooden benches and trestles rested unevenly on a flattened grass floor. At the far end of the tent one huge trestle was balanced on upright barrels, and the numerous if inexperienced staff behind the bar were doing a healthy trade.
Xena shouldered her way to the front and had no trouble getting instant service, draining half a mug of ale on the way back to the trestle where the other two were sitting. She plonked the second drink in front of Gabrielle and sat down beside her.
'So this is going to be a regular thing, then?' Gabrielle asked Salmoneus, taking the mug and sipping without sparing Xena a glance.
'Sure. We figure the games every four years and this fayre for the summers in between. We'll make a big impact with this one and the word will spread. They'll be pouring in from all the cities next year.'
Xena slurped noisily. They both ignored her.
'So you have a programme?' Gabrielle prompted eagerly.
'A programme? But of course. This is a professional operation.' Salmoneus began to tick off his fingers. 'Tumblers, parody, bonfire, sausage-eating contest...'
'Parody?' Gabrielle repeated.
'Actors,' Salmoneus explained, and lowered his voice a little. 'Don't tell them I called it a parody, they'll get so offended. Between you and me they're not that talented, but when it comes to egos actors are almost as bad as warriors.'
Xena let her empty mug drop hard on the table and stood up with a snort.
'Where's Hercules?' she demanded.
Salmoneus looked up quickly. 'You'll find him in the meadow.' He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. 'There's been a bit of a confrontation.'
'Good,' Xena huffed as she weaved away. 'Even his droning is better than this tosh.'
Gabrielle turned to Salmoneus as the warrior disappeared through the tent flap.
'Hee hee,' she said with a grin, 'you're getting almost as good at teasing her as I am.'
Xena stalked towards the meadow and inhaled the scent of the river on the late afternoon air. Ahead she recognised the familiar bulk and yellow shirt which were the trademarks of the son of Zeus. He had his broad back to her and seemed to be involved in a very heated discussion with three other men.
Xena squared her shoulders and smiled grimly. She found herself looking forward to a little strife right now.
Just as she was getting close the three men turned on their heels and strode away. Hercules gestured after them, then stopped with his hands on his hips. Xena watched them retreat with disappointment.
'Trouble?' she asked.
Hercules turned and smiled warmly at her approach. He gripped her forearm in a firm handshake.
'Oh, some people from a nearby village.' He dismissed them with a wave. 'They don't like our festival.' The two warriors started to wander back.
'Don't you mean "fund-raiser"?' Xena asked with mild sarcasm.
Hercules smirked and looked at his feet. 'That's right. We're raising money for charity.'
Hercules looked at her. 'No really. We are raising money for good causes.' He sighed heavily. 'It's just not going very well so far. Those people back there are from Nelos. They say we've stolen their ideas and their customers. Apparently they always have a summer solstice festival.'
'Doesn't everyone?' Xena frowned.
'Sure. But apparently not everyone includes a "tug-o-war" and a "duck-chair" and "climb-the-maiden".'
'Are you hungry, Gabby?'
Gabrielle looked up and grinned at the newcomer. Salmoneus had just taken off to deal with some fayre-related emergency, leaving her by herself in the beer tent.
'Iolaus! Here, sit down.'
The small man returned her grin and sat down opposite her, placing a plate between them on the table. He was still rather wet but seemed to have made some attempt to dry his hair. That would explain why it was sticking up like a hedgehog's coat.
'What have we here?' Gabrielle eyed the plate with interest.
'Cheese wrapped inside bread, with bits of pickled stuff.' He picked up a large chunk and started eating.
Gabrielle took a piece and turned it over in her hand. The bread was as thick as a door step. She struggled to take a bite, then nodded appreciatively.
'Hmm. Nod bath.'
Iolaus signalled for one of the bar staff to get them some drinks. The woman rolled her eyes at his laziness but started to comply.
'What were you doing in that chair?' Gabrielle asked as soon as she was able to get a coherent word out.
'The one over the big tub of water.'
'Oh that.' Iolaus struggled with another mouthful. 'It's the duck-chair. Pay a dinar and you get six shots at the target. If you hit the target straight and hard...' he flipped his hand sharply to one side, '...the chair tips.'
Gabrielle giggled. 'And it's supposed to be fun? Watching people getting soaked?'
'Well you're already laughing. Depends who it is really. Needs to be someone famous.'
At that moment the woman arrived with their drinks.
'Use your own legs next time, blondie,' she snorted. 'It's not like we're getting paid to do this.'
Iolaus nodded and meekly handed over a coin.
'Everyone's volunteering,' he explained after the woman had gone. 'You know, for charity.'
'And you volunteered for the duck-chair?'
'Well it was either that or climb-the-maiden.'
Iolaus smirked. 'You'll see tomorrow.'
Gabrielle noticed the full mug before her. She studied it.
'Er, Iolaus, I already drank one of these,' she said uncertainly.
'So? Have another.'
The bard considered carefully. 'Last time I drank with you I had a bit too much.'
The blonde man frowned, then appeared to remember. 'Oh yeah.' He giggled. 'We all did, didn't we? You, me and Herk.'
Gabrielle wiped some dark pickle from her lips. 'Yeah, well, I got into some trouble because of that.'
Iolaus raised an enquiring eyebrow. Suddenly recognition lit up his eyes.
'With Xena?' he asked.
'Hmm. I seem to be making a habit of it.'
The blonde man's expression dissolved into pure mischief.
'She didn't like you discussing her... um... her... with us...?'
'That's right.' Gabrielle manoeuvred her jaw around another large bite and chewed thoroughly. It was tasty but quite hard going.
Iolaus took a drink, his eyes never leaving her face. They gleamed brightly. 'You got into trouble, huh?'
Iolaus paused, then leaned forward, licking his lips. 'Did she spank you?'
Iolaus concluded that he only had himself to blame for the spray of cheese and pickle that promptly pebble-dashed his face.
'Xena!' A woman's voice rang out across the field.
Xena turned away from Hercules and Salmoneus, glad for any diversion from their tedious discussion of tomorrow's menu. Apparently someone had forgotten to bring the goat they'd promised and the entrepreneur wasn't at all convinced that there would be enough flame-roasted feast to go round.
Xena smiled broadly when she saw a blonde woman in amazon garb trotting towards her. 'Ephiny.' She grasped the amazon's arm in a firm warrior grip.
'I didn't know whether you'd make it,' Ephiny said with unconcealed delight.
'I didn't know you were coming at all,' said Xena, relieved to get some new company.
'Well, I brought the little'un.' Ephiny winked. 'He really wanted to come and it was a good opportunity for us to be together. Is Gabrielle here?'
'In the beer tent,' Salmoneus interjected helpfully.
Ephiny's eyes shone brighter. 'I must go and say hello.' She grinned and hurried off.
Xena sighed as her hopes retreated.
'Salmoneus?' she asked after a while, interrupting the men's conversation again. 'Do you know what prolificacy means?'
Salmoneus looked at her blankly, then brightened. 'Nice invention! Might use it is a slogan one day. Now, Hercules, we simply must beg ourselves some more supplies...'
Xena turned away abruptly, simmering.
It was dusk by the time Xena hauled Gabrielle away from a circle of admirers with curt apologies and led her quickly from the campfire. Being high summer that made it late indeed, and much too late as far as the warrior was concerned.
'Xena, that wasn't exactly polite,' Gabrielle told her, sounding mildly miffed.
Xena's tone was impatient. It had been a very long, boring evening.
'If it's not Salmoneus it's Iolaus. If it's not Iolaus it's Ephiny. If it's not Ephiny it's some idiot who thinks your staff is "oh so cooool". If it's not some idiot who likes your staff it's a bunch of kids who want a story...'
'Well sorry I'm so popular,' said Gabrielle, not managing to keep all her delight at the obtuse compliment from her voice. She put her arm around Xena's waist and squeezed. 'Hey,' she added with a note of seduction, 'does this mean you're dragging me off to have your wicked way with me?'
Xena smiled down at her. 'It just might.'
'Because if it does, maybe we should apply some thought to our destination.'
Xena slowed. They both looked about them. Small fires burned across the field where various groups had settled to talk and bed down for the night. From the shadows cast by flickering oil lamps it was clear that all the tents were occupied too.
'Hmm,' Xena pondered, 'there are a lot of people about.'
'How about that?' Gabrielle pointed into the distance. Xena followed her gaze towards a lonely wagon parked at the edge of the field. It had been left by itself, set back from the rest of the camp site.
'Looks promising,' said Xena, and they headed towards it.
'Ooh, looks even more promising,' Xena remarked as they arrived. The bottom of the open cart sported stacks of rugs and bolts of cloth.
'Yeah,' Gabrielle agreed, 'with our usual luck it could've been a manure wagon.'
They climbed in over the side and Gabrielle immediately flung herself down on her back, luxuriating against the piles of soft fabric. Xena watched her movements with growing delight.
'Hussy.' She smirked.
Gabrielle grinned up at her. 'Any complaints?'
'None that I can think of.'
Xena removed her weapons and armour quickly.
'Hey, don't I get to do that?' Gabrielle pouted.
Xena shrugged out of her leathers and dropped down beside her, pulling the bard into a tight embrace. Her mouth found Gabrielle's lips and began to explore boldly.
Gabrielle sighed with contentment. Her hands fluttered up and down Xena's sides, stroking the warrior's curves through the thin linen tunic. Her fingers found their way beneath the hem and under the warrior's underwear. They knew the route well and quickly plunged deep into Xena's core.
Xena gasped in surprise and broke the kiss. She stared into the angelic face beside her.
'Gabrielle!' she exclaimed.
'You said you couldn't wait,' the bard said innocently.
Xena blinked at her. 'I... I...'
Gabrielle laughed mischievously. 'Big brave warrior, ravished by a little bard. Mind you...' she slid her fingers easily against Xena's tight walls, '...you were plenty ready for me.'
Xena moaned with pleasure. 'I guess so...'
Keeping her hand where it was, Gabrielle sat up and rolled Xena on to her back. She knelt between the warrior's legs, parting the strong thighs. Xena raised her knees instinctively and the bard smiled. The warrior watched with building arousal as Gabrielle used her free hand to unlace her own shirt. It fell open to reveal firm breasts, pale in the dusky light.
Xena gave a low, appreciative whistle. Gabrielle grinned and began to circle above Xena's opening with her thumb. The warrior's eyes closed and she flexed her legs against the warm body between them.
Suddenly the exquisite movements stopped. Xena waited, then opened one eye. She saw that Gabrielle was frozen, staring at something to her right. Xena opened her other eye and twisted her head to look. Her eyebrows shot up.
A man stood beside the cart. More accurately, he leant on it for much needed support, the ale mug in his hand threatening to spill its contents over the side. A strong smell of alcohol rode on his uneven breath and even in the fading light his eyes appeared bloodshot. They peered down at the two women with mild interest.
'Do you mind!' Gabrielle declared. It wasn't really a question.
The drunk man answered her nevertheless.
'Yeah. This is my frigging wagon.'
Silence reigned for a few moments while Gabrielle's mouth formed a perfect round shape. Eventually she found her voice, barely.
Apparently the bard realised how much she was revealing, for she started to struggle with her shirt laces. Seconds later she decided that the task would be better accomplished with the use of both hands, and quickly withdrew the other one from beneath Xena's tunic.
The cloth merchant's glazed eyes widened when he saw where her equally glazed fingers came from, then seemed to dismiss it. He drained his mug, tossed it awkwardly over his shoulder, and began to clamber into the wagon.
'What are you doing?!' Gabrielle demanded with horror. The bard and the warrior only just had time to roll to the side as the drunk landed heavily beside them.
'My wagon, my bed... sleep...' he mumbled something incoherent to finish off before settling face down into the rugs and lying still.
The two women looked at him. Then they looked at each other. Xena prodded him hard in the side but got no response.
'Out cold,' she said.
Gabrielle groaned impatiently. 'Damn! Now we'll have to look for somewhere else. I was just getting into that.'
'So was I.' Xena eyed the bard and smiled seductively. 'No need to let him spoil our fun though, Gabrielle.'
Gabrielle didn't seem to hear her and tied the last knot on her shirt, looking up with surprise as Xena pulled her into another embrace.
'Xena?' she queried.
Xena pulled her down and kissed her.
'Xena!' Gabrielle jerked away.
'What?' The warrior looked puzzled.
'We have to find somewhere else.'
'Why? He's not going to wake up, and he's not in the way.'
Gabrielle stared at her. She cleared her throat. 'I can't, Xena. Not with him there.'
Xena sighed, showing some annoyance. 'Come on, Gabrielle...'
The bard stiffened. Anger clouded her features. 'No thanks, Xena.'
Xena watched her, then shrugged. 'Okay, I'll move him.' She sat up.
Xena started, then looked at the bard blankly. 'What's wrong with you?'
Gabrielle's movements were growing bad-tempered. 'I know you can do it when someone else is lying right next to you, but I can't,' she said firmly, and started to get up.
Xena caught the harsh tone in her voice. 'What's that supposed to mean?'
'I think you know,' Gabrielle said coldly.
Xena frowned. Something was going on here. She pursed her lips.
'Then tell me, Gabrielle,' she said dryly. 'Then you can be sure that I know.'
By now Gabrielle was standing upright in the cart, smoothing down her clothes with hard, determined strokes.
'Marcus,' she clipped.
An awkward silence followed. Eventually Xena resumed.
'I thought you were asleep.'
'Not for long!' Gabrielle retorted angrily, and leapt out of the cart.
Xena watched her lover stalk away, her mouth open in surprise.
'Does this mean I don't get any more tonight?' she called after her.
Gabrielle didn't look back.
The warrior sat in the wagon as the night grew darker around her. She looked down at the man sleeping on the rugs, and suddenly thumped him hard in the back.
The drunk snored.
Xena was woken at dawn by the screaming hordes of Tartarus. She seized her sword from the scabbard that lay next to her and leapt to her feet, her long tangled hair whipping about wildly as she spun her head from side to side.
Luckily she had slept in her boots and leather tunic, removing only her armour and weapons to ensure a comfortable night on the ground. After the previous evening's disappointment the warrior had joined a boisterous crowd by one of the larger fires, sharing their drinks and jokes until the small hours. She'd been pretty miserable throughout.
Now Xena shook the sleep from her brain and braced herself for attack. Her jaw dropped in astonishment at what she saw.
The camp was being invaded by a panicked herd of squealing pigs.
The warrior blinked hard. At least four dozen pink and black torpedoes on legs charged across the field, screeching and bolting through tents and stalls, leaving destruction in their wake. The raucous pig noises were soon accompanied by the cries of humans caught unawares, and the predictable wailing of terrified children shaken too early from their beds.
Xena took a second to convince herself that she wasn't hallucinating as the porcine legion bore down on her. It proved to be a mistake. Two particularly fast pigs came right at her, dragging the remains of Shasta's kissing booth behind them. Xena managed to leap over them as they charged heedlessly beneath her, and cleared most of the ragged tent that followed. Unfortunately some trailing guy-ropes caught her ankles as she landed, and the warrior instantly found herself on her back, skimming the dewy grass at something close to twenty knots.
The pigs picked up their pace at this new and frightening burden, dragging the warrior hard across the field. Xena managed to hold on to her sword and leant forward to cut the ropes, but suddenly found herself knocked back again as the manic creatures found a rough course through the fletcher's stall. A neat row of feathered shafts had been planted upright in the ground, ready for finishing. Xena's helpless form reduced them to match-wood as the pigs pounded through the flimsy workshop.
Suddenly sporting feathers in her hair, the warrior continued to surf the grass on her back. She twisted onto her side and raised her sword for another attempt to cut the ever-tightening ropes, and her eyes widened in horror. She was headed straight for the smoking remains of a fire pit.
Just in time Xena slammed the hilt of her sword hard into the ground and tillered herself clear of the hottest embers. She skimmed the edge of the fire, churning up warm ash in her wake. Coughing wildly, the warrior made a desperate swing at the snares on her boots, and finally cut herself free. She skidded to a halt.
Half blinded by the swirling ash, Xena scrambled to her feet, only to find the ground hurtling back up towards her as yet another panicked pig slammed snout-first into her shins. She landed flat on her face.
'Shit a brick!'
She shot out an arm and grabbed the pig by a hind leg. It squealed and writhed against her, but she knelt up without losing her hold. Another pig shot past her on the other side, and she grabbed that one too in a similar fashion. Breathing hard, the warrior ignored the creatures struggling wildly in her grip and gazed about at the destruction.
Most of the herd had cleared the camp by now and were racing off towards the woods at the far end of the field. It had all happened in seconds, but the results were quite devastating. Less than half the stalls and tents remained intact, and all around her people were flailing about in shock and confusion, trying to make sense of what had happened.
'Xena! Are you all right?'
Xena turned to see Gabrielle trotting towards her. The young woman looked as though she had dressed in a hurry. She was carrying a small piglet in her arms.
'I'm fine,' Xena replied shortly, still getting her breath back. The warrior noticed Ephiny arrive behind the bard.
Salmoneus appeared in a silk-trimmed nightshirt. 'Those Nelos maniacs!' he howled, hopping mad. 'This is sabotage!' The man looked as though he were about to burst something vital.
'Are you sure it was them?' asked Ephiny.
Hercules and Iolaus rolled up a moment later. Iolaus looked like he was sleep walking.
'I'm afraid so,' Hercules droned. 'They drove the herd in from that rise over there.' He pointed towards a wooded hill.
'Whose pigs are they?' Gabrielle wondered.
'Probably their own. They'll be rounding them up again now to take them back to their village.'
'Well let's go sort them out!' Xena erupted. She got to her feet with difficulty and promptly sneezed as ash went up her nose.
'There's no point,' said Hercules, 'they're just farmers, a bit jealous, that's all. They've had their revenge so they'll probably leave us alone now.'
'I'll give them rev-' Xena started to argue but three more sneezes racked her body.
The others regarded her with amusement. The warrior's bronzed skin was hardly visible through a layer of grey ash, and bits of feather clung to her hair and one eyebrow. Gabrielle giggled.
Xena looked at her. The warrior couldn't help noticing that while her own pigs were fighting furiously to get free, Gabrielle's piglet was resting peacefully in the bard's embrace. Xena also noticed that a few bits of straw were stuck to the young woman's dishevelled hair and clothing. The warrior's eyes narrowed suspiciously, and she covertly inspected the others for similar signs. She studied Ephiny closely, but found no evidence. She peered at Iolaus next, but with the same result.
Iolaus glanced at the skid marks on the ground. 'I think you've discovered a new sport, Xena.'
Xena snorted. By now a crowd was gathering. People were anxious to find out what had happened and what was going to be done about it, if anything.
'So we're not going to do a thing?' Xena demanded of Hercules.
The big man gestured helplessly. 'What do you want to do? Skewer a few villagers for old time's sake?'
'Leave it, Xena,' said Gabrielle. 'Hercules is right, they're just farmers.'
Xena growled in frustration. 'Hera's tits!'
Childish laughter broke out behind her. Xena turned to see a group of children sniggering behind their hands, and several mothers looking at her reproachfully. The warrior bit her lip and turned away from their accusing eyes.
Suddenly Salmoneus stepped forward, a fresh smile brightening his round face.
'Hey,' he said with typical optimism, 'I think Xena and Gabrielle just solved tonight's menu problems!'
Gabrielle frowned, and she clutched the piglet protectively to her chest.
'No one's eating my pig,' she said defensively.
It took most of the morning to clear up the mess, but the general consensus was that much of the destruction was no great loss. The most important structures had survived, being the sturdiest, and no one seemed concerned with the demolition of the small stalls and tombolas. Shasta in particular seemed quite pleased about the demise of her kissing booth. Xena didn't take much notice of her thinly-veiled remarks on the subject, until she noticed the bits of straw lodged in the girl's curling black hair. They looked very similar to the bits she'd seen on Gabrielle. Identical, in fact.
Xena watched the young woman carefully. She was very attractive, with liquid brown eyes and dark olive skin. However she didn't appear to be paying any special attention to Gabrielle, at least not in public, so Xena resisted the urge to confront her and went to the river to clean herself up.
Still wearing her tunic, Xena waded into the gentle flow and began to wipe the leather down to get rid of the ash grime. Gabrielle followed her a few minutes later, and sat on the bank next to Xena's abandoned boots.
'You okay?' Gabrielle ventured after a while.
Xena nodded quickly and rubbed at a stubborn grass stain. 'Where did you sleep last night?'
'Shasta let me share her cart.'
Xena stopped rubbing, still bent over in the water. She froze while the river coursed gently around her hips. She looked up at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle was watching her.
'And did you sleep much?' Xena asked.
Gabrielle regarded her steadily, then raised a nonchalant eyebrow. 'Not a wink,' she said casually.
Xena drew in a sharp, painful breath. She shivered suddenly, although she hadn't been in the water long enough to chill.
Gabrielle waited a few moments, then continued. 'I was too busy thinking about you.'
Xena exhaled and straightened. She aimed a soft gaze at her lover.
'That was cruel, Gabrielle.'
'You know what I mean.'
'You deserved it for asking,' said Gabrielle, but not too harshly.
'I know. I'm sorry.'
Gabrielle smiled gently. 'Come here.'
Xena waded to the bank and climbed up towards her, flicking back her damp hair. As she drew near Gabrielle put out a hand and gripped the warrior's firm thigh. The bard leaned forward and kissed the smooth skin, then pressed her cheek against it. She sighed.
'I'm sorry too. About what happened. It just... it just brought back painful memories.'
'I never realised.'
'You know I love you.'
'I love you, Gabrielle.' Xena laced her fingers in Gabrielle's soft sunset hair and caressed her quietly. 'And I'm sorry. I know I can be insensitive.' After a few moments she knelt down and hugged the young woman close to her own body.
'Ugh!' Gabrielle protested. 'You're soaking!'
'Isn't that what you always say?'
Gabrielle pushed Xena down onto the grass and sat astride her waist. Xena blinked up at her, trying to shield her eyes from the sun with one hand.
'I want to do things to you, Xena,' Gabrielle whispered.
'To me?' Xena prompted, feigning surprise.
'Bad things, Xena...' Gabrielle put her hand surreptitiously behind her own back.
'Bad? How... oh!'
Gabrielle grinned as her finger found the very place it had withdrawn from so abruptly the night before.
'I've got news for you, my little friend,' Xena sighed, 'that's not at all bad...'
'Shhh...' The bard's eyes danced and she eased forward slightly to get more leverage. The hand behind her back moved slowly up and down, her thumb pressed against Xena's most sensitive spot.
Xena shaded her eyes with the backs of her hands and moaned, her lips parting. She felt Gabrielle's small weight pressing down against her, and began to move her hips in time with the bard's gentle strokes. The sun warmed her exposed skin while Gabrielle warmed her hidden core, teasing her gently towards release.
When it came it was sweet and tender. Xena sighed into the morning air and lay blissfully still. Gabrielle laid herself down carefully on the warrior and touched the parted lips with her own, tangling her fingers into silky dark hair. They kissed softly, almost chastely, and glimpsed their souls in each other's eyes.
Eventually Gabrielle eased herself away. 'Come on, sweet. Let's see what this solstice is all about.'
Gabrielle's piglet found a good home with a young family. The three children were ecstatic with their new pet, although their apprehensive father expressed some concerns about piglets having the habit of growing into seriously large pigs. However that inevitability was a lifetime away as far as the youngsters were concerned, and Xena wondered whether the poor man would ever dare to sell the thing, much less eat it.
A grand tug-o-war was the first major item on the day's agenda. A long thick rope was produced, and some of the punters piled soil into a heap and doused it with buckets of water, creating a swathe of mud in the middle of the field. Xena eyed the mud and decided there and then that she would not be persuaded to take part in this festive venture. She had only just got clean, and it was obvious that the mud was the penalty for being dragged over on the losing side. She wasn't prepared to risk it.
Iolaus came close to whining at her to change her mind, but the warrior remained firm, even when she was accused of being the wrong kind of stick-in-the-mud. Iolaus giggled at his own lame joke, but the dark warrior merely thinned her lips at him and he quickly gave up trying to persuade her.
Xena joined Hercules to watch the sport instead. A unanimous vote had already decided that the son of Zeus would not be allowed to take part, since this would be discouraging for whichever side was unlucky enough not to get him. He sat down next to the warrior and mumbled something about folk taking this half man half god thing too seriously.
Gabrielle, Iolaus and Ephiny gladly joined in on one side. The rope was strung with dubious precision across the mud swathe, and two solid farmers tied the ends around their waists as anchormen. Teams were agreed after much cheerful argument, and the tug eventually got underway. The event proved to be a glorious riot for all participants. There were about forty people involved, plus a large number of toddlers who kept running back and forth, gleefully switching sides whenever it looked like one team was about to cave in. The contest lasted several minutes and was in danger of reaching a stalemate, until Ephiny got her side to chant a rousing amazon war song which focused their minds and synchronised their feet, and finally gave them the edge. The losing team were literally dragged through the mud.
Xena was a little disappointed at the result. She had wanted an excuse to take Gabrielle off to a secluded stretch of the river and give her a thorough washing down.
The solstice got into full swing with music and play-acting and archery competitions, but as the day wore on the warrior found herself getting restless again. She was still silently furious at the men of Nelos for giving her such a rude awakening. Gabrielle had brought her temper back from the brink with her impromptu performance on the river bank, but the heat and her boredom and the vast numbers of children were getting to her now.
Xena thought she got on passably well with kids, but some of these were testing her patience to the limit, which wasn't very far where the former warlord was concerned. The children ran around relentlessly, yelling and not looking where they were going, invariably with sticky hands and sticky mouths, and leaving honey-cake booby-traps everywhere. There wasn't a chair or a square yard of grass that was safe.
Xena sought refuge in the beer tent. At least in here when their raucous games got too loud someone shooed them out once in a while. The warrior considered rounding up the ringleaders herself and scaring them into silence, but decided it wasn't worth it. She had already made a name for herself with some of the parents after her blasphemous indiscretion that morning.
After a while Gabrielle, Iolaus and Ephiny came in to join her, apparently realising that she had withdrawn her company. Hercules brought in five bowls of fresh vegetable soup and they sat around one trestle, catching up on each other's news. Conversation eventually turned back to the day's activities.
'You know, Herk, you'd better hurry and finish building that ring,' Iolaus gestured with his spoon.
'Ring?' Gabrielle repeated, her curiosity easily piqued.
Iolaus grinned toothily. 'Herk's volunteered for wrestling duty,' he chuckled. 'Anyone who pays a dinar gets to wrestle the son of Zeus. Salmoneus' idea.'
Gabrielle looked at Hercules a little warily. 'You're not going to hurt anyone are you?'
Hercules cocked an eyebrow. 'Apparently fifteen children are already signed up to thrash me,' he dead-panned, and rose from the table. 'Wish me luck, someone, please,' he sighed as he waved goodbye.
'Good luck, big boy,' Xena said dryly, and smirked.
'Hey!' Gabrielle turned to her, 'You're volunteered too, you know!'
Xena paused in her eating. 'I am?'
'Yeah. I told Salmoneus you'd be happy to help. He's made the arrangements.'
Ephiny and Iolaus glanced at each other across their bowls of soup.
'Gabrielle,' Xena said coolly, 'you shouldn't have done that without asking.'
'Ah, I know, I'm sorry,' Gabrielle held up her palms in pacification, 'I couldn't find you at the time. I didn't realise you were hiding in here.'
'I wasn't hiding...'
'Well, okay, sorry, but it's done now. You're in the programme. In fact you're on in a few minutes. Loads of people are looking forward to it.'
Xena sighed. Great. Just what she needed. Play-fighting with an endless stream of those little sticky monsters.
'Okay, if it makes you happy,' she yielded, 'but I'm not using my sword. It would be too dangerous.'
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows. 'Oh no Xena,' she elaborated, 'I didn't volunteer you for the fighting.'
Ephiny and Iolaus glanced at each other again. Their spoons took meandering courses towards their waiting lips.
Xena frowned. 'What did you volunteer me for?' she asked suspiciously.
Ephiny and Iolaus froze, their spoons lodged in their mouths. Their eyes widened and locked, then edged back towards the warrior and bard.
Xena stared at Gabrielle. She swallowed hard.
'You... you didn't...' she whispered weakly.
'Just for a couple of hours,' Gabrielle reassured her, apparently oblivious to the warrior's distress. She picked up her bowl and tipped it back to drain it.
Xena closed her eyes, then opened them again. It didn't work. She was still at the solstice festival, in the beer tent, under a death sentence.
'Gabrielle, I can't.'
The bard returned her stare. 'Of course you can,' she encouraged. 'Anyway, you have to. Everyone's expecting you. Salmoneus says you're already drawing a crowd at the tub. You'll make a fortune.'
'Well hurry up.' Gabrielle indicated Xena's bowl, which was still half full.
The warrior looked down at the soup. It was suddenly very unappetising.
'Do you want it or not?' asked Gabrielle. Xena shook her head, and the bard grabbed the bowl and drained it too. She stood up and took Xena's arm.
'Come on, then,' she said brightly, heaving the warrior our of her chair. Xena followed silently as Gabrielle led her towards the tent flap.
Ephiny and Iolaus watched them go, then slowly resumed their eating. They glanced up at each other once or twice, hesitantly, and finally locked eyes again. Then in a sudden rush they dropped their spoons and dashed out of the tent, leaving the soup unfinished.
Salmoneus had not exaggerated about the crowd. Adults and children alike were gathered about the water tub, more than ready for a show. Everyone had heard stories about the legendary Warrior Princess and a lengthy queue was forming at the target. The woman with the money dish was having a hard time keeping the fast growing pile of coins stable.
A huge cheer went up as the mighty warrior appeared, resplendent in her battle armour, Gabrielle tugging on her arm as though it were a leash. The bard led Xena through the expectant throng to the side of the tub, and indicated the chair which was swung to one side for her to climb into. She smiled up at Xena warmly.
Xena looked up at her scaffold, and resigned herself to the inevitable.
It was well into evening when Gabrielle heard a squelching noise approaching.
The day had gone very well for the bard. She had watched an enthusiastic production of Sophocles, learnt the basics of juggling, and achieved second place in the sausage-eating contest. She spent the last hour locating and fixing up a small tent that was still reasonably intact, stealing a couple of chairs from the beer tent, and laying out their bedrolls for later on that night. This time, the bard told herself, they would be prepared with a decent place to sleep. Argo stood contentedly outside munching in a nosegay, and their packs were stacked neatly in one corner.
The squelching sounds got steadily louder, until Xena appeared through the tent flap. Gabrielle took one look at her love and melted.
'Oh, my brave warrior!' she exclaimed, rushing forward to take Xena in her arms, heedless of the drenched leather clinging to the woman's chilled skin.
Xena wearily wiped her forehead with the back of her hand.
'Come and sit down, my love,' Gabrielle insisted, guiding the tall woman to one of the chairs and pressing her into it. Xena made a distinctly soggy sound as she found contact with the wood.
Gabrielle held Xena's face in her hands and made her look up into her eyes.
'Tell me,' she said seriously, 'what hideous warlord did this to you?'
Xena sniffed. 'Toby.'
'Toby? He must be a fiend of Tartarus itself.'
'He is.' Xena nodded, pushing a stray strand of wet hair back behind her ear. 'Toby the Terrible.'
Gabrielle frowned deeply. 'Toby the Terrible,' she repeated frostily. 'I shall go forth and smite him for the evil he has done you. Where shall I find him?'
'In his tent I think. His mother came and called him in for his evening nap.'
'Ah,' Gabrielle nodded carefully, 'I take it Toby the Terrible is a warlord of tender years.'
'Six,' Xena confirmed. 'But he sure can throw.'
Gabrielle laughed and kissed her deeply. 'Well then,' she said gently, 'since this warrior has vanquished you so thoroughly, perhaps we should leave him to enjoy his victory. There should be honour between enemies.'
'I suppose so. But I'm really going to have to give this tunic some attention when we get out of here. It's taking a real battering.'
Gabrielle brushed her lips against Xena's ear. 'I hope you'll save some attention for me,' she cautioned.
'Always...' Xena began to kiss the bard's throat.
At that moment they heard a male voice calling from outside.
'Gabrielle? Are you in there?'
Gabrielle sighed. 'Yes, Iolaus. What do you want?'
'Erm... I don't want anything,' the man's disembodied voice drifted easily through the cloth walls. 'It's Hercules. Apparently you and he promised to teach Ephiny how to make... honey dip?'
Xena's eyes widened, and she looked up at the bard, bemused.
'Oh yeah,' Gabrielle acknowledged hesitantly, 'tell him I'll be right there, okay?'
They heard the small man's soft retreating footsteps.
'You're going to teach cooking?' Xena was incredulous. 'You're hopeless!'
Gabrielle glared down at her.
'I'm not that bad. Besides, honey dip is one of the few things I can do really well. Lila and I used to make a huge batch for the harvest celebration. We used to dunk apples in it.'
Xena stuck out her tongue. She couldn't imagine the sweetness of a ripe apple combined with the strong sweetness of honey. Thinking about it further, she could imagine it, and wished she hadn't bothered.
'So what are you going to do with this honey dip?' she asked suggestively.
Gabrielle gave her a gentle tap on the nose.
'We're making it for the children! The more we feed them with sweet stuff at the midnight feast, the more decent food there will be left for us.'
'Gabrielle! That's so underhand!'
'I know,' Gabrielle giggled, 'but I don't think the kids will complain, do you?'
Xena rolled her eyes. The thought of all that sticky ammunition at the toddler army's disposal wasn't appealing.
'I have to go,' Gabrielle announced, and straightened. Xena pulled her back and embraced her once more, before releasing her with obvious reluctance. The bard glanced over her shoulder as she exited the tent.
'Dry yourself, Xena. There's a good girl.'
The smells from the cooking area were intoxicating. Two large pigs roasted over fires, while men and women bustled about with fresh loaves and fish and stacks of chopped vegetables. Several cauldrons were bubbling away, releasing herb-laden aromas into the evening air, and a young man stood guard over an enormous quantity of simmering punch.
Ephiny stood before a bench in the preparation tent. She looked down apprehensively at the huge mixing bowl in front of her, an oversized wooden spoon in one hand and a jug of cream in the other. The amazon wore a large white apron, liberally spattered with lost ingredients. Gabrielle and Hercules hovered on either side.
'How slow?' Ephiny asked.
'Dead slow,' Hercules replied.
Ephiny regarded the spice and honey mixture in the bowl.
'How slow is dead slow?'
Gabrielle gestured sharply. 'As slow as you can pour it without not pouring it.'
The amazon turned dubious eyes in her direction. 'We're not talking alchemical precision, then?'
'No. This is a kitchen, not the forge of Hephaestus.'
'I think I'd be happier forging a sword.'
'I'm sure you would, Ephiny, but it's getting rather late, and unless you want to lose all that pork to fifty ravenous kids I suggest you get a move on.'
Ephiny sighed and returned her attention to the task in hand. Very carefully, she began pouring the cream into the honey mixture, stirring awkwardly with the spoon.
'You're doing fine,' Hercules encouraged. 'Try to keep the blend smooth.'
'How smooth is smooth?' the amazon asked without looking up.
Hercules looked at Gabrielle hopefully. She shrugged helplessly.
An eager voice piped up behind them.
'Mother, can I try some?'
Ephiny craned her neck and located her son. The young centaur was standing right behind her, prancing excitedly.
'You're not supposed to be in here,' Ephiny warned. 'No children in the kitchens... it's too dangerous.'
'I just want a taste,' the child insisted.
'Go back and play,' Ephiny said over her shoulder, 'you can have some when it's ready.'
'When will that be?'
The amazon struggled with her task as she tried to convince her son to leave.
'Soon. We're in the final stage right now.'
The young centaur licked his lips and frowned at his mother's back. 'Just let me try it on the spoon...'
The amazon turned awkwardly and opened her mouth, ready to give the child a stern retort. She inadvertently caught the edge of the bowl with her elbow and it spun away from her. Hercules shot out a large hand and grabbed it, but not before half the viscous contents ended up down Gabrielle's front.
'Shit!' said Ephiny.
Hercules trotted into the dimly-lit beer tent. He knew the untrained bar staff had plenty of spare cloths, and right now Gabrielle was in need of some. He spotted a pile of rags abandoned next to a flickering oil lamp and picked them up, turning quickly on his heel. As he headed back towards the open flap he did a sudden double take.
Xena was sitting at a table with a line of ale mugs in front of her. A dark man sat opposite her, with a similar line of mugs ranged along his side of the table. They were obviously engaged in a drinking competition.
Hercules watched with building concern as the dark man lifted a mug carefully, put it to his lips, and proceeded to drain it. A few drops trickled out of the corner of his mouth, but he successfully swallowed the rest and turned the empty mug over, dropping it down hard on the table. He took a deep breath, and grinned at Xena expectantly.
The warrior smirked at her rival, and picked up a mug from her own line. Slowly, she began to down the contents, tipping her head further back. At that moment Hercules saw the man slide out of his chair, and watched with growing recognition as an identical figure covertly took his place.
Hercules groaned. He remembered these swarthy round-faced twins from similar personal experience.
He didn't need this. The con-men were taking a real risk with the former warlord. If Xena caught on to their trick as he had once done, eventually, there was bound to be trouble. He recalled his own annoyance and subsequent hangover, and didn't relish the idea of breaking up a fight that involved the warrior princess. With a sinking feeling he counted the number of up-turned mugs already stacked at one end of the table. Nine each already.
Hercules took a deep breath, and strode forward. 'Xena!' he called out loudly.
Xena slammed her empty mug upside down on the table, giving her opponent a lop-sided grin of triumph. Her fellow drinker nodded, grinning appreciatively, and reached for another full mug.
'Xena!' Hercules repeated, placing a restraining hand on the man's wrist. 'I think you should go check on Argo, Xena.'
Xena looked up, and focused carefully. 'What? Why?'
Hercules' grip tightened as the man recognised him and started to pull away. 'I just passed her. She looked like something was bothering her,' he shrugged one shoulder. He knew he had the warrior's attention.
'What?' Xena demanded, starting to rise. She steadied herself against the trestle.
'I don't know, I'm not an expert like you... I just thought you should take a look.'
An unpleasant light flickered in Xena's eyes. 'If one of those kids has fed her something...' she began with a snarl.
'She's probably okay,' Hercules back-pedalled a little, 'I just thought you'd want to know, that's all, just to be safe...'
Xena nodded harshly and turned to go. 'You did right...' she broke off and turned back, eyeing the swarthy man at the table. 'Um, Hercules, will you watch my wager?' she asked as an afterthought.
Hercules grabbed her pile of coins from the table and handed them back to her. 'Why don't you two call it a draw,' he suggested firmly.
Xena considered briefly, then let it go. She stashed the coins and hurried outside, lurching slightly.
After she had gone Hercules turned to glare down at the man still pinned in his chair. The prisoner gave him a guilty little smile, and swallowed. Hercules shook his head and glanced around, searching for the man's accomplice. He located the other twin backed up into the shadows, looking sheepish. Hercules withdrew his hand, and his former captive began rubbing the circulation back into his wrist.
'Do you boys have any idea what she'll do to you if she catches on?' he said incredulously. The brothers looked at each other, then shrugged. Hercules rolled his eyes in disbelief.
'You think I gave you trouble when you tried this with me? You have no idea...' he muttered wearily. He picked up his cloths and walked away, turning back briefly. 'And don't try this with anyone else!'
Minutes later Hercules arrived back at the kitchens and handed the cloths over to Gabrielle and Ephiny.
'Xena's drunk,' he announced flatly.
Firelight and torches spread out thinly across the field as darkness fell, casting flickering shadows that could confuse even the most sober of eyes. After stumbling against the water trough and tripping over two guy-ropes, Xena eventually found Argo next to their tent where Gabrielle had left her. The warrior spent long minutes giving the mare a thorough inspection, which included peering dimly at her shoes in the semi-darkness, and concluded that there was absolutely nothing wrong with her horse. She turned away from the bemused creature and snorted.
'Stupid boring man.'
She looked around despondently, and snorted again.
'Stupid boring fund-raiser.'
The warrior wandered around the tent three times and found the door, then pushed her way inside. It was dark and empty.
'Gabrielle?' she called out. There was no response.
'Gabrielle?' she repeated, louder, on the off chance that the bard might materialise out of thin air. She didn't, and Xena scowled.
Long moments of indecision followed, until Xena grappled her way to the realisation that she was tired of carrying her sword around. With difficulty she unlaced the scabbard from her back and dropped it on the bedrolls. Her chakram quickly followed. Half a minute later, the warrior thought she might as well get rid of her breastplate as well, and struggled long and hard with the clasps. Letting her armour fall next to her sword, Xena concluded that ditching her greaves and bracers wasn't worth the struggle involved, and looked for the door again. She had lost her bearings during her efforts, and spent another minute trying to locate the elusive opening. A sudden flare of firelight from outside finally put her straight, and she wandered back outside.
Someone had lit the big bonfire in the middle of the field. Flames licked around the bottom of the pyre, and smoke poured out the top and wound its way towards a starlit sky. The warrior sniffed the air, drinking in the smell of woodsmoke, and caught something else on the night air. A hungry grin spread slowly across her face. The pigs were roasting. Of course, the midnight feast must be nearly ready by now...
With renewed purpose, Xena strode towards the cooking fires.
Gabrielle glanced up at Ephiny's warning, and followed the amazon's concerned gaze. She frowned, and bit her lip.
'I'll go get her,' Gabrielle volunteered, and dropped her last honey-soaked rag into the wash bowl. Most of the sweet mess had been cleaned up.
She took a deep breath as she walked out towards the confrontation. A stricken cook was trying to explain to an impatient warrior why she couldn't give her a plate of pork.
'It... it's not done yet,' the cook insisted. The young woman held her skewer defensively in front of her. Her hand betrayed a slight tremor as the warrior towered over her.
'Now look,' Xena said menacingly, enunciating with care, 'you may be pretty, but I'm hungry, and I won't take no for an answer.'
'But you've got to wait 'til it's cooked!' the woman pleaded, her voice tightening in desperation.
'Smells cooked to me.'
'Please, just another half an hour...'
'What's up Xena?' Gabrielle arrived at the warrior's side and put a firm arm around her waist. The young cook gave the newcomer a grateful look.
Xena swayed slightly in the bard's embrace.
'This little lovely won't give me any food,' she growled.
Gabrielle flashed the woman an apologetic smile.
'Well I'm sure she knows what she's doing,' she soothed, guiding Xena away and back towards the preparation tent. 'We've got some honey-cakes you can try while you wait.'
'I don't want any frigging honey-cakes!'
'Xena!' Gabrielle rebuked sternly. 'Get a grip! Another half hour won't kill you!'
The warrior growled impatiently, but allowed herself to be led into the tent. Gabrielle rolled her eyes at Ephiny, who couldn't help smiling. Hercules produced a chair and Xena sat down heavily, folding her arms across her chest.
Just then Salmoneus entered carrying a large tray.
'Punch is up!' he announced with enthusiasm. 'All cooks get first dibs!'
The man grinned as the workers crowded around him, grasping the steaming mugs and commenting appreciatively. His eyebrows went up as Xena shot out a hand and seized a mug for herself.
'Xena!' He smiled his surprise. 'I didn't know you liked cooking.'
'I prefer drinking,' the warrior muttered thickly, and tasted the hot punch. Apparently she found it to her liking, for most of it was soon gone.
Ephiny gave Hercules a worried glance. The big man shrugged his shoulders. Gabrielle sighed quietly beside her.
'I guess I didn't realise how bored she was,' she murmured.
'Hmm. Don't worry,' Ephiny reassured her, 'Xena can hold a lot.'
'Iolaus!' Salmoneus beamed brightly as the blonde man appeared at the tent flap. 'Have a hot punch...'
Iolaus stepped inside, but didn't take up the offer. He quickly located Hercules, and glanced between them, his expression apprehensive.
'Guys, we've got a problem,' he said seriously, 'the men from Nelos are back.'
A hush fell in the tent.
'Back?' Salmoneus repeated, getting a panicked look in his eyes. He pushed the tray into the nearest person's arms.
'That's right. And there are about ten of them this time.'
Hercules stepped forward. 'What do they want?'
'Erm...' Iolaus looked uncomfortable, 'their pigs.'
'Their what?' Salmoneus gasped.
'They say we stole three of their pigs,' Iolaus elaborated. 'And they've come for them...'
'Oh NO!' a furious voice exploded. Everyone started as Xena leapt to her feet. 'That's IT!' she thundered, tossing her mug aside and taking an ungainly step towards the door.
Gabrielle gave her a look of horror. 'Now wait a minute, Xena!' The bard dashed in to intercept her. 'I think we can sort this out without-'
'They accuse us of stealing their bloody pigs? After what they did this morning!' Xena's voice rose dangerously, and she reached behind her shoulder for her sword, which wasn't there, fortunately. Fire raged in her piercing blue eyes. 'I'll teach them to ruin my morning, and my dinner!'
Salmoneus also leapt forward to divert the warrior as she started for the door again.
'Xena, don't trouble yourself,' he urged quickly, 'we'll handle this...'
'That's right, Xena,' Gabrielle nodded fervently, 'Salmoneus and Hercules can go talk to them. It's their festival. You just wait here for the feast...'
'I'll bust their spiteful heads wide open!' the warrior snarled. She ignored their panicked protestations, shouldering her way past.
'No Xena don't!' Gabrielle pleaded, trying to catch her arm.
Xena backhanded her out of the way.
It wasn't the most powerful strike. It wasn't much more than the angry swat one might use against an annoying wasp. Unfortunately it was Xena doing the swatting, and the blow caught Gabrielle's cheek with enough force to knock the bard hard into Salmoneus, where she would have fallen if the quick man hadn't caught her.
Gasps of shock pierced the air, and moments later two fists collided simultaneously with Xena's jaw. One was Ephiny's; the other belonged to Iolaus.
Xena's head didn't know which way to snap as the double impact warred for effect. The rest of her body met no such dilemma, however, and the warrior sailed back to land on the ground with a mighty crash, demolishing the wooden chair on her way down.
Ephiny and Iolaus gaped at each other in surprise, then locked wide eyes on the fallen warrior. They edged apart nervously as Xena shook her head and started to rise. Her teeth bared angrily while her eyes burned between her two attackers, swiftly debating which one to pulverise first, and apparently deciding upon both. She launched herself at them with a yell of anger. Someone screamed.
Only Xena's brief entanglement with the broken chair spared them as Hercules rushed in from behind and grabbed her.
'Coming through!' Hercules cried as he forced the furious warrior towards the tent flap. Someone with quick wits dashed ahead and tugged at the laces to widen the gap, while Xena quickly realised her new predicament and started to struggle violently. Her elbow smacked into the big man's thigh as he twisted his groin to one side, only just avoiding something a great deal worse. Hercules grunted but held on, charging out into the night as the cloth parted in front of them.
People scattered as the two struggling figures ploughed across the field. Xena fought like a harpy, but a harpy somewhat the worse for drink. Hercules clung on to her from behind and warily kept out of reach of her jabbing fingers, aware that Xena's pressure point skills would fell him quickly if given the chance. The strong woman reacted ferociously when she realised they were headed towards the water trough, and it was all Hercules could do to keep his face clear of her punches.
As it was he suffered some agonising kicks to his legs, and only his determination and demi-god strength got them to their destination. Forcing Xena's waist against the trough, Hercules managed to manhandle one of her arms behind her and pushed her head down hard into the murky water.
The water came close to boiling as a result.
Xena's free fist pounded the liquid surface, then pounded the side of the trough, then reached back and tried to pound the man behind her. Hercules seized that arm too and used both his powerful hands to grip Xena's wrists between her shoulder blades. It took all his strength to hold her. After a few seconds he let her up enough to breathe.
'Bastard!' she howled, dripping and enraged.
Hercules shrugged his eyebrows. 'Can't argue with that technicality,' he conceded with a grunt, and forced her back under water again.
Xena's struggles ensured that the big man got a liberal drenching as well, but that hardly mattered. He let her up after a few more seconds.
'Son of a bitch!' she roared.
Hercules scowled darkly. He pushed her down again, for longer this time. When he pulled her up she coughed out water.
'Say what you like about me,' he growled, 'but if you ever insult my mother again...' He didn't bother to finish as he shoved her head back into the trough and held her there.
Xena's struggles grew more desperate and angry bubbles broke the surface around her shoulders. After a suitably painful length of time Hercules hauled her up again. The soaked warrior choked and gulped in a lungful of air.
'I'll rip your fucking head off!' she spat furiously.
'Not cooled down yet?' he asked shortly, and ducked her again.
Between subsequent bouts of rage and near-drowning sessions, Xena's struggles gradually weakened. She got through a lifetime's worth of curses, managing to insult every aspect of the man possible, from his divine siring to his personal hygiene. Hercules found himself blushing deeply at some of the more colourful phrases, and wondered from which hideous campaign she had picked up such foul imagery.
He was almost as soaked and weary as his captive by the time Ephiny appeared at his side, brandishing a coil of new rope and a determined jaw.
'What's that for?' he croaked, letting the gasping warrior hover over the water for a moment.
'I'm taking her back to the Amazons,' Ephiny said flatly. 'They will judge her.'
Hercules raised his eyes to the night sky. 'Ephiny,' he groaned, 'get this in perspective...'
'She struck Gabrielle!' Ephiny retorted. 'Gabrielle is Amazon royalty.'
'Ephiny!' he repeated sharply. 'We don't need to get the Amazon Nation involved. This is a personal issue, for Gabrielle and Xena to sort out themselves...' he glanced at his prisoner, '...once Xena's sober.'
Ephiny's glare crossed to Xena and back. 'She should be punished according to our laws,' the amazon declared.
'And what do you think that will do for Gabrielle? Come on, Ephiny. They're friends. And they're our friends. Think what you're proposing.'
Ephiny faltered. She glared at Xena's drenched form again, grinding her teeth. Eventually she relented, but with obvious disgust.
'All right,' she muttered, and spun on her heel.
Xena chose that moment to make a break for freedom. With a yell she flung back her soaking hair and smacked her head hard against Hercules' nose.
Ephiny whirled back to see the big man spurt blood, and launched herself to his aid. Between them they managed to subdue the drunken warrior again, and regarded each other across Xena's back, breathing hard.
Her face only an inch from the injured demi-god's, Ephiny raised the coil of rope in wordless enquiry.
Unable to speak through his eye-watering pain, Hercules merely nodded.
Salmoneus dipped the clean rag in the water to cool it again, folded it carefully, and gently pressed it against Gabrielle's smooth cheek. The bard spoke little as she sat in the small store tent, staring at the crates in the corner. She murmured a quiet thank you as she took the rag from his kind hand, but didn't seem to want to talk to him. He noticed a tear forming in the corner of one moist green eye, and tactfully turned away, setting the bowl down on the ground by his own chair. When he looked back a few moments later the tear was gone.
Salmoneus felt his own eyes prickle, and swallowed painfully. He picked up his tepid mug of punch - now there was an irony, he realised grimly - and offered it to her. She took it silently and sipped a little, before handing it back.
'Do you want me to get you anything else?' he asked softly.
Gabrielle shook her head.
Outside the store tent others were more vocal. Gabrielle's two blonde champions paced a few yards away, waiting to hear if she was all right. Through the door Salmoneus could see Iolaus nursing his damaged fist, wincing and grunting as he tried to shake out the pain. Ephiny was marching to and fro, apparently oblivious to her own swelling knuckles, and muttering angrily. The odd word drifted into the tent, such as "drunken" and "bully" and "warlord". Salmoneus glanced at Gabrielle, and realised that she was listening. His chest tightened when he saw how much hurt there was in her beautiful face, and he stood up.
'I'll be back in a little while,' he reassured her, and trotted outside.
'Do you two think you could go and be pissed off somewhere else?' he whispered harshly as soon as he reached them. Ephiny and Iolaus stared at him, then looked over his shoulder at the store tent, then looked guilty.
'How is she?' Iolaus asked softly.
'More upset than anything,' Salmoneus replied as he guided them out of earshot. 'It's just a bruise.'
'I'd like to give Xena a few bruises,' Ephiny muttered, her eyes cold and threatening.
'Where is Xena?' Iolaus asked.
'Don't worry. Hercules and I took care of her. She won't be any more trouble tonight.'
'Are you sure?' Salmoneus sounded unconvinced.
'Yeah. I'm sure.'
As the sun rose over the sleepy camp site Ephiny emerged from her tent with an empty bucket. She walked all the way to the nearest river tributary to fill it with icy mountain water, breathing deeply of the crisp morning air along the way. She carried the water back to the camp carefully, not wanting to waste a drop. On entering her tent she halted and braced her feet, then flung the bucket's entire contents over the woman draped in the chair.
To the amazon's immense satisfaction Xena lurched and gasped into consciousness. The dark warrior shuddered at the harsh cold, and tried to wipe the water from her eyes, only then discovering that someone had roped her arms behind the back of her chair. She shook her wet hair clear of her face and blinked the drops from her lashes. Her squinting eyes found Ephiny's silhouette, looming over her.
'Room service!' Ephiny chimed, and quickly jumped well out of reach of Xena's feet, just in case. As she did so the morning sunlight hit the warrior full on through the open flap, and Xena squeezed her eyes shut in a pained grimace.
'Oh, not a hangover?' Ephiny taunted. 'And I was going to bring you a lovely breakfast. Guess you won't be wanting that now.'
Xena looked up at the amazon sideways.
'You do a fine Callisto impression,' she drawled.
Ephiny smirked, but it quickly became a scowl.
'And you do a fine mean drunk woman-beater impression,' she hissed.
Xena's face fell. She looked away quickly, finding the sun-starved grass at her feet.
Ephiny watched her for some moments. Drawing her knife, the amazon stepped behind Xena's chair and sliced through the ropes.
'I'll get you some breakfast,' she said in a calmer voice as she left the tent.
Xena emerged from Ephiny's tent a few minutes later. She peered around painfully, relieved that no one else appeared to be up yet. She needed time to gather her thoughts, and to deal with the sick sensation in the pit of her stomach. She knew that feeling wasn't necessarily part of her hangover.
Her jaw ached badly, but the ache in her heart was worse.
She spotted Ephiny beside a freshly revived fire, preparing something in a blackened pot. She walked over. The amazon looked up as the warrior approached, and reached for a wooden dish. She spooned something pale and lumpy into the dish, stood a spoon up in the thick concoction, and held it out to her guest.
'Here,' she said tonelessly, 'eat that.'
Xena eyed the stuff warily and tried some on the wooden spoon. It was bland, which suited her fine. She sat cross-legged beside the fire as Ephiny served up some for herself.
They ate in silence for a while, Xena staring into the fire, Ephiny staring at Xena. After a few minutes Xena spoke up.
'You never have lost that habit of watching me, have you?'
Ephiny said nothing, but continued to gaze at her, spooning methodically. Eventually the warrior spoke again.
'I'm such an idiot.'
'Yes you are.'
Xena put down her bowl and sighed, but there was no self-pity in her tone. 'I can't believe I did it.'
'What? You can't believe you got drunk or you can't believe you hit Gabrielle?'
Xena stared at the bowl for long agonising moments, before eventually meeting Ephiny's cool gaze.
'I'd better talk to her.'
The amazon nearly dropped her breakfast. 'Sweet Artemis, Xena! You want to talk? You? Since when did you fix something with talking?'
Xena stared at her, open-mouthed. 'What do you expect me to do?'
'I don't know! Maybe you should talk,' Ephiny threw down her empty bowl and stood up. 'But I tell you this, Xena...' she leant down abruptly and seized the warrior's shoulder in a tight grip, '...if you ever hurt her again, I'll do more than punch you. And I'll only be the first in a line of many!'
With that the amazon stalked back to her tent.
Xena watched her go, then picked up her dish again.
'Well you're a lot of help,' she muttered quietly.
Salmoneus was rather more. He calmly informed Xena that Gabrielle wasn't badly hurt, and that she had gone back to her tent early last night to sleep. With obvious compassion he told her how the bard had reacted after Xena had been dragged away, and the warrior was quietly grateful for his gentle candour. He lent her a cake of soap and she went to the river to wash off the previous day's grime. She passed the water trough on the way, and grimaced at its murky cloudiness, so apparent in the daylight.
The camp awakened very slowly. Most people had partaken heartily at the midnight feast, and danced around the still smouldering bonfire long into the night. Xena concluded that the festival would not actually finish until later in the day, when people would feel more inclined to start packing things up. She spent a full hour bathing, then another drying off in the sun. Then she spent a long time doing very little apart from avoiding people and drinking lots of fresh water. At around midday, her headache finally gone, she made her way to the kitchens and helped herself to some leftovers. She even found some cold pork, and crunched moodily on the crackling. A couple of people eyed her inquisitively but she ignored them, and they didn't approach. She knew they knew what she had done. Gabrielle didn't appear.
After she had eaten Xena admitted that she couldn't put it off any longer. She walked apprehensively to their tent, unlaced the door, and entered.
Sunlight shining through the fabric made it light inside. Gabrielle was sitting in one of the chairs, fully dressed, her hair neatly combed, waiting. The empty plate by the bedrolls indicated that she had been out to get breakfast at some point, or more likely someone had brought it to her. Her eyes travelled upward as Xena came in, and focused clearly on the tall warrior.
Xena tugged the flap shut behind her with awkward hands, and turned round to face her. She opened her mouth to speak. Nothing came out. She looked down at her feet, tried once more, and failed again. She sighed.
Gabrielle broke the heavy silence.
'How do you feel?' she asked gently.
Xena closed her eyes. It was so typical. She had hurt Gabrielle, and the bard was asking her how she was. It was almost more than she could bear.
'Fine,' she managed eventually. 'Ephiny's porridge sits so heavy in the stomach I couldn't throw it up if I tried...' her voice cracked.
Gabrielle looked up at her sadly.
Xena took a long slow breath, calming herself. She tried again.
'What happened with the men from Nelos?'
The warrior mentally kicked herself. Typical Xena too, she realised... skirting the most important subject again.
The bard shrugged. 'Salmoneus invited them to share the feast. He really won them over.'
Xena looked at Gabrielle's face properly for the first time, and saw the discoloration over the bard's cheekbone. She felt her own heart disintegrate with guilt.
'Gabrielle, I'm so sorry...' she began, almost a whisper.
Gabrielle nodded silently.
'I... I'm so sorry I got drunk...' the warrior continued.
Gabrielle frowned slightly. 'So this time it's down to Dionysis,' she said quietly.
'Well, last time it was Ares' fault, remember? In the jail? This time another god's to blame...'
Xena's jaw dropped.
'Oh no, Gabrielle, no...' she almost choked, stepping forward, 'no, it's my fault...' she turned away, unable to look into the face of the woman she loved. She stared at the tent wall, tears springing into her eyes. Moments later, she heard Gabrielle's soft sigh.
'It'll be okay,' the bard said gently.
Xena turned back, and saw the love in the woman's eyes reaching out to her.
'We're okay,' Gabrielle added.
Xena hung her head, relief and remorse waging a painful battle in her chest. 'Can you forgive me, Gabrielle.'
'I forgive you, and I love you.'
Xena wondered how she could deserve such a woman. She could only conclude that she didn't.
'How can I make it up to you?' she asked softly, staring at the ground.
When Gabrielle still hadn't responded after several moments, the warrior raised her head fearfully. She found the bard gazing upon her, a near-smile tugging at the corner of her gentle lips. Xena's heart did a little jump.
'Can I make it up to you?' she asked meekly.
Gabrielle's lovely mouth broke into a smile. 'I think I know a way,' she answered.
'Yes. Now, I think, would be a good time.'
Xena inhaled sharply. She thought she probably knew what the bard had in mind. She started to approach.
'Ah ah!' Gabrielle held up a warning hand, and Xena halted, confused.
'What is it?' the warrior asked, afraid that she'd got it all wrong. But Gabrielle merely leant back comfortably in her chair, and gestured casually with her hand.
'Strip,' she commanded.
Xena paused at the quiet authority in the young woman's voice. She smiled. 'All right.'
'And don't talk.'
The warrior's hands paused at this on their way down to her boots, then continued silently. Xena removed her greaves and untied her laces, then pulled off her boots, discarding them on the bedroll where her armour already lay.
Gabrielle watched intently as Xena straightened again and took off her bracers. She nodded with approval as the warrior slipped gracefully out of her leathers and lay them aside. When Xena was down to her linen tunic Gabrielle held up her palm again.
Xena stopped, and waited. Gabrielle shifted her position slightly in the sturdy chair, resting her elbows on the wooden arms, parting her knees. She pointed downwards.
Xena grinned. She complied with one fluid movement, kneeling on the dry grass at Gabrielle's feet. Gabrielle smiled languidly.
'Now,' the bard breathed, her tone lazy, 'I desire to be... pleasured. All over.'
Xena's grin deepened. She couldn't hold back the remark that leapt forth from her lips.
'I think I can do that.'
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. 'You do? Well then...' her voice dropped to a sensuous whisper, 'there's just one more detail I need to mention before we proceed...'
Xena sighed, and smirked up at her, remembering her own ultimatum. But Gabrielle smirked back.
'...You mustn't use your hands.'
Xena's eyes widened briefly, then narrowed. She stared up at her lover, who's expression filled with mischievous challenge. The warrior considered this, then carefully laced her fingers together in the small of her back, willing them to stay there of their own accord. There was a strong possibility that she might forget to keep them there during what was to come.
'Sure you can manage that, Xena?' Gabrielle teased.
Xena nodded mutely.
'Okay. You can begin with my toes.'
Xena looked down at the bard's feet. Gabrielle was wearing her boots. The warrior spared her a quizzical glance, but Gabrielle simply smiled expectantly. Xena pursed her lips, and bent down to the top of the soft leather on Gabrielle's left leg, carefully taking a lace between her teeth. She tugged, and the knot fell loose.
It took several minutes of delicate work, but Xena eventually dealt with the laces on both boots, loosening the leather all the way down the calves until Gabrielle could kick them off easily. The bard crossed one knee over the other to give Xena better access to a foot, and the warrior leant forward, taking a little toe into her warm mouth. She sucked gently, and grazed her teeth along the top. She pushed her tongue between two toes, and heard Gabrielle giggle. Xena's eyes looked up at the bard over the delicate foot, and saw that Gabrielle was resting her chin in her hand, grinning down at her. The warrior smiled against the soft skin, and slipped her tongue between the next two toes.
Xena slowly worked her way along each toe, licking and nibbling tenderly. When she came to the end, Gabrielle switched position to present her other foot, and Xena began lavishing the same attention on that one, hearing the bard's soft sighs of pleasure. Eventually Gabrielle lowered her leg, and Xena began a gradual exploration of a firm calf. She worked her way up slowly, kneading the muscles with her teeth. She twisted her body and placed her lips against the back of Gabrielle's knee, swirling her tongue slowly against the sensitive skin. Gabrielle moaned. After a while Xena moved to the other leg, repeating the exquisite motions, and noticed that the bard was starting to tremble under her touch. She shuffled further forward between Gabrielle's legs and bent her head to a creamy thigh.
'Wait,' Gabrielle whispered. Xena paused, and looked up. Gabrielle's eyes were lidded with desire. 'My arms are feeling a little neglected,' the young woman breathed.
Xena stood up carefully to maintain her balance, and edged to the side of the chair. Gabrielle laid her arms out flat on the chair arms, palms upward, and closed her eyes. Xena bent down and began placing feathery kisses along the smooth pale skin, tracing dainty lines from elbow to wrist, and pressing full lips into the woman's open palms. She leant further over Gabrielle to do the same for the other arm, her long hair brushing against the bard's tight abdomen. Gabrielle shuddered.
Delicious minutes passed as the warrior patterned kisses over every inch of the bard's bare skin, finding her neck, her face, brushing her lips lightly over small ears and soft blonde eyelashes. Gabrielle enticed the full lips to her own and they shared a long ripe kiss, their tongues entwining sweetly. Eventually Gabrielle broke away, breathless.
'Time you worked your way down,' she managed hoarsely.
The warrior was getting just as aroused. She longed to tear the bard's clothes away and grapple her to the ground, but somehow managed to hold herself in check. Her breath became ragged as she knelt at Gabrielle's feet and leant forward between the bard's breasts, taking the shirt laces in her teeth and pulling hard. Her movements were less controlled this time, and she struggled to separate the thick fabric, jerking the edges aside and burying her face in the soft mounds beneath. She sensed Gabrielle's chest rise and fall against her cheek, and felt the rapid beating of the woman's heart. Xena moaned, and took a nipple into her mouth, sucking it to hardness.
Gabrielle whimpered. She began to slide down in the chair.
Xena crossed to the other breast and closed her lips around it. She twirled her tongue against the tightening flesh, pressing it down, then flicking it up again. Her teeth squeezed lightly, and Gabrielle gasped into her dark hair.
'Down...' the bard ordered her, with difficulty.
Xena obeyed, sliding her lips down the woman's taut muscles. She gripped the hem of Gabrielle's skirt in her teeth and pulled it up out of the way, finding the underwear beneath. Another lace blocked her path, but Xena was practised now, and the single strand quickly fell away. Gabrielle lifted her hips as Xena worked the fabric down with her mouth. The warrior tugged the small garment past the bard's legs and threw it aside with a toss of her head, then descended into silky blonde curls. She felt firm legs widen for her, and glancing up she saw that Gabrielle was gripping the chair arms tightly. She grinned against the softness that demanded her attention between the young woman's thighs.
Hands still gripped firmly behind her back, Xena fluttered her long dark lashes against the delicate skin of Gabrielle's inner thighs, delighting in the bard's shivered responses. Gabrielle's scent was heady and inviting, and Xena found that she couldn't prolong her ministrations much further. She teased open Gabrielle's most intimate folds with her mouth, and began to stroke slowly with her tongue.
Gabrielle groaned. Xena could see that her lover's eyes were shut tight as she revelled in the powerful sensations. The warrior darted her tongue in and out, varying her pace as Gabrielle's body slid down even further to accommodate her. She found the bard's pink centre and flicked against it repeatedly.
The warrior felt Gabrielle's fists clench in her hair, pushing her against the soft flesh, holding her in place. Xena drew in struggled breaths as strong thighs tightened around her, and she quickened her pace. She sensed the bard stiffen, and reached out with her hands to grasp trembling hips as Gabrielle spasmed against her. Muskiness poured all over her.
Xena pulled away to see Gabrielle's head fall back against the top of the chair, her face flushed with ecstatic release. She watched, breathing hard, as Gabrielle opened her eyes and focused on her. Suddenly the bard grabbed the warrior's wrists and launched herself forward. Xena landed hard on her back, Gabrielle on top of her. A small knee pushed between her thighs and rubbed vigorously, the warrior's flimsy underwear no barrier to the rough sensations.
'I knew you couldn't keep your hands off me!' Gabrielle husked, her breath warm on Xena's throat.
With Gabrielle's weight pressing her wrists into the ground and the wonderful friction between her legs, Xena exploded. She cried out into honey-red tresses, jerking wildly against the hard ground, drenching her underwear.
Moments later Gabrielle collapsed on top of her. Xena tugged her hands free and folded her arms around the bard, hugging her tightly to her chest. She never wanted to let this woman go.
After a while, the warrior turned her face and spoke softly into the bard's ear.
'Gabrielle, of all the times I've got wet these past couple of days, that was by far the best.'
By mid-afternoon the camp was alive again. Xena woke from her dose as happy voices broke through her dreams, and found the bedroll empty beside her. She looked about the small tent for Gabrielle, but there was no sign of her. Untroubled, Xena rose and dressed, returning her weapons to their usual places and lightly adjusting the fresh braid in her hair. Gabrielle was getting so good with braids.
She stepped outside and glanced around. Where was everyone?
Walking round to the other side of the tent, Xena realised where everybody had gone. A large crowd was gathered at the far end of the camp, and there seemed to be a lot of cheering and whistling going on.
Xena strode across the sunlit field. As she approached she made out a strange wooden structure reaching towards the trees. A tower had been built - over twenty feet high - and a tall pole about a foot thick was wedged up against it at a sharp angle. Drawing closer, Xena realised that someone was struggling to climb up the pole, and someone else was sitting at the top of the tower, legs swinging enticingly over the edge. That second someone turned out to be Gabrielle, wearing a lacy white dress and munching cheerfully on a honey-cake.
The crowd urged the climber on, encouraging him with whoops and cheers. The young man seemed to be making very heavy weather of it as he struggled towards the woman waiting up above, and Xena realised that the thick pole was smeared with some kind of grease. The intrepid contender clung desperately to the slippery wood with his arms and knees, but it was clear that his strength was failing. Only half the way up, he started to slide helplessly back down. The crowd roared as he hit the ground and rolled away, shaking his head in defeat.
Xena drew along side Salmoneus.
'What's this?' she exclaimed.
'Welcome to climb-the-maiden!' Salmoneus beamed. 'We didn't have time to for it yesterday, so I just had to squeeze it in today before everyone goes home. It's the most popular event of the festival!'
Xena laughed. 'I thought you said this was a fund-raiser.'
'Well it still is. But I'm not charging for this little number. It's too hard.'
The warrior gazed up at her beautiful bard, who was laughing happily as the next climber sprang up the first few feet of the pole towards her. Drinking in the breath-taking sight of golden hair and sparkling green eyes, Xena considered what else, precisely, might be getting hard around her. The raucous cheering had already started again.
'What happens if someone gets to the top?' she yelled in Salmoneus' ear.
'Why, then the lucky climber gets the maiden,' he laughed. Suddenly his expression turned panicky. 'Oh, Xena, it's perfectly okay,' he added quickly, a slight sweat forming at his temples, 'all she does is kiss them.'
Xena gave him an amused smile. 'I take it no one's managed it yet.'
'Well Shasta came pretty close, but her heel caught in her dress and she took a bit of a tumble. Good thing Hercules insisted on those old straw mats of hers.'
'I see. Well, I'd better show them all how it's done, then,' she grinned. 'By the way, Salmoneus, I have news for you,' she indicated Gabrielle, 'that's no maiden.'
Salmoneus stared at her back as she stepped forward through the heaving crowd. 'Well they're not that easy to find,' he protested after her.
The latest contender didn't last ten seconds, and Iolaus was next up. Gabrielle laughed and stuck her tongue out at him as the small man began a careful ascent. Muscles rippling beneath tight leather leggings, Iolaus climbed steadily upwards, bracing himself against the slippery surface with comparative ease. The crowd shouted and whistled their support, growing louder as the lithe blonde figure edged ever closer to his prize. The bard's feet dangled inches above his outstretched hand, and it looked as though he was going to make it.
Breaking off a piece of honey-cake, Gabrielle threw it at his head. It bounced off his eyebrow, breaking his concentration, and Iolaus suddenly found himself sliding to the side. He gasped in surprise as his body swung helplessly underneath the pole, where he dangled for a few moments, limbs wrapped upside down, struggling to regain his position. His boots slipped from their greasy grip, and his locked arms soon followed. With a cry of disappointment he dropped to the mats below.
The crowd applauded a valiant effort, and cheered even louder when Xena stepped up as the next contender. The warrior stood at the foot of the pole, peering up at her quarry with a wicked gleam in her eye. Gabrielle grinned, and scrambled to prepare a batch of sticky missiles for her new assailant.
Xena laughed gleefully, and launched herself up the pole.
The warrior's initial leap took her half way to the top. The onlookers gasped, and clapped wildly. Their encouragement grew deafening as Xena edged her way up the steep, slippery surface, only briefly steadying herself with her hands past the most treacherous parts.
Gabrielle pelted her with honey-cake, but to no effect. The warrior's boots inched their way up the sharp incline relentlessly. When she was still at least three feet from Gabrielle's toes, Xena launched herself into the air, flipped a somersault, and landed beside the bard on the sturdy tower with a delicious smirk.
Gabrielle shoved her last piece of honey-cake up into the warrior's mouth, and laughed with delight as Xena caught her up in her arms, twisted back round, sat down on the pole, and allowed them both to slide swiftly to the ground.
'I think we have a winner!' Salmoneus shouted above the din.
Xena landed on her feet and claimed her kiss from the exquisite prize in her arms.
'I might have known you'd volunteer for this game, hussy!' she laughed in Gabrielle's ear.
'I might have known you'd insist on winning!' Gabrielle smiled.
The late summer afternoon promised another warm evening. Small birds argued high in the trees for the last of the tastiest insects, their songs carrying like pipes in the peaceful woodland air.
The lightest of breezes rustled lush leaves on the uppermost branches. Far below, nocturnal mammals slept undisturbed in the undergrowth, dusk still a few cosy dreams away.
Peering through a gap in the canopy, evening sunlight found two figures in a secluded glade. They were engaged in some private activity across a fallen tree trunk. A saddled horse waited nearby, looking bored.
'Gabrielle, can I get up now?'
Xena sighed at the ground. Her awkward position afforded her a fine view of several wood-lice scurrying about in the forest litter, but not much else.
'Come on, Gabrielle.'
'I haven't finished yet.'
'How long does it take?'
Xena got no response. Another minute passed, and a brightly coloured butterfly fluttered in front of the warrior's face. She blew at it, causing it to dart away.
'Hurry up, Gabrielle!'
The bard sighed noisily behind her. 'Will you be patient? I don't want to leave any of this inside you.'
'You've been fiddling with me for hours!'
'Don't exaggerate, Xena. Now shut up and let me get on with it.'
Half a minute passed. Xena's knees were growing numb, so she shifted slightly to ease the pressure. Gabrielle's voice protested from her rear.
'Keep still, Xena. I need the light.'
'Oh for crying out loud...'
'It's still stuck... just let me give it one more-'
Xena cut her off with an uncharacteristic shriek of pain, which she quickly stifled by clamping her teeth around her fist. The warrior's eyes closed tight.
Unseen, Gabrielle inhaled sharply. 'By the gods...'
Xena took a few seconds to re-compose her stoic warrior demeanour, then turned her head to look. She found Gabrielle staring open-mouthed at the evil splinter she now held in her hand. It must have been at least two inches long, and stained a tell-tale red.
'By Artemis, Xena... this must have really hurt.'
Xena eased herself up from the tree trunk and started to put her clothing back in order.
'It did,' she admitted sourly.
'You know, I think we should keep this as a souvenir,' Gabrielle said brightly.
'Don't push it, bard.'
Gabrielle realised what Xena was doing. 'Wait!' she commanded, flicking the splinter away. 'That went in at a deep angle. I should put something on your... your... to make sure it doesn't get infected.' She scrabbled about in their belongings for the medical supplies.
Xena ground her teeth audibly, but re-adjusted her clothing and leaned forward over the trunk again.
'Now this is going to sting,' Gabrielle warned.
'Just get on with it.'
Xena winced silently as Gabrielle applied an ointment which proved to be both sore and cold. Afterwards she stood up gingerly and smoothed down her leathers.
'Thank you,' she muttered, gathering up Argo's reins.
Gabrielle re-packed the bag quickly and joined her, frowning. 'Xena, you must have been in agony. Why didn't you say something at the time.'
'Right,' the warrior replied with irony, 'I'm going to announce to a crowd of peasants that I've got a splinter in my arse.'
'Well that's what you get for sliding down wooden poles on your butt,' Gabrielle said smugly, 'but we still could have done something about it before we left.'
Xena began to lead them out of the glade, a little stiffly. 'If you must know, Gabrielle, I didn't realise it was still in there.'
'I think I'll walk for a bit,' Xena decided.
'Good idea. You don't want to take any risks with a war wound of that nature.'
Bard and warrior headed slowly back towards the path.
'I suppose this means you'll want to be on top tonight,' Gabrielle said after a while.
'You don't mind?'
'No, it'll make a change...'
End of the Trilogy
Return to Charmer