Disclaimers: The NG3 (new goddess trilogy) of Xena, Gabrielle and Callisto belong to RenPics and Universal/MCA, all copyrights and applicable legal stuff is theirs. This is a piece that is not meant to infringe on any area of copyright/intellectual property. They also have rights to any other characters whose name is recognizable from the broadcast airing of said show from 1995 to the present 1998. However, all other characters are mine to lay claim to and I do so. No copies of this story may be posted at any site without the express consent of myself or the web-owner where this story is posted or without the disclaimer listed in full. Please pay attention to the following disclaimers as they apply to the story as a whole and NOT just to specific chapters.
Additional disclaimers courtesy of Wildcat (firstname.lastname@example.org), (c) Wildcat, 1997.
LOVE/SEX WARNING/DISCLAIMER: This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story. VIOLENCE/EXTREME VIOLENCE WARNING/DISCLAIMER: This story depicts scenes of extreme violence and/or their aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.
In the darkness, three figures stir: Sky blue eyes startle open at the sound of a voice screaming "I hate you." Beside her, the smaller figure of her lover trembles at a nightmare that has her tossed about in the wake of her warrior lover's fury.
Father away - alone - eyes the color of polished steel whip open and see only black.
Struggling for breath - in the cool glade, the warrior shakes her head of the dream memory. She looks down at the shaking figure beside her and gently wraps herself around the tense, muscular form. She begins to murmur softly, brushing wispy tendrils of the strawberry blonde hair back. She feels the tension slowly ebb as she gazes at the moonlit profile - watching the jaw unclench beneath her murmured whispers and soft touch, and wishes that the anxiety that twists her muscles into knots were as easily dismissed.
In the pitch black, the sound of hands struggling to move before realizing that they are shackled. A sharp intake of breath and muttering. Chains clank against more tugging only to discover the shackles still hold. The soft sound of fingers dancing like moths wings beating matches the rhythm of the whispered voice. The chains clank once again. Nothing has changed. In the shadowed chill, a stillness settles in the figure's body.
Finally, sleep comes once again to the troubled warrior as she curls around the body of her lover. Looking, by all appearances, to be offering shelter and protection.
Appearances that belie the trepidation she feels. A bare flickering of approaching torch light illuminates the darkened cell where the third figure, a woman, is shackled. Eyes close for a moment; small ripples undulate along the neck as she swallows several times. The stillness, the darkness...The muscles along her jaw tighten into a corded ridge as teeth clench together, forcing lips into a tight thin line. She is trying to deny the feeling that was unfurling in her chest. Something she had not felt in many years, the beginning of fear. Leagues away, the stuttering of frantic heartbeats, the catch in the breath of the sleeping lovers and the same billowing emotion catches a breeze and opens. She shakes her head and slows down her breathing. She tries to trap the shrieking sound of fear she feels scrabbling its way up her spine, digging into her heart and clawing at her throat. Tears slip silently from her eyes and the sound breaks free, ripping from her throat like a banshee's wail. The scream fills the air, reverberating through the darkness, pouring back like molasses to smother her.
This time - forest green eyes open in alarm with the gasp caught in her throat that becomes a cry "No." Immediately, the arm slung over her whips away and she feels both abandoned and strangely secure. The two figures sit up - not quite looking at the other.
There is a shadow moving towards her, leaning over her. Soft silken hair brushes against her cheeks and the cloying spicy scent she thought she would never smell again assails her senses. Her screaming stops as abruptly as it had started. "Welcome my sweet. I am so glad that you could make it on such short notice." Velvet soft lips brush against her ear, the voice soft and low.
Nightmares?" The warrior asks, knowing what the answer was. "Uhm, yea, and you?" Comes the soft reply."Yea..."
"Aillia!" The woman chokes out turning her head away from the searching lips.
"You know, I am the only one who can hear you scream. I like that thought, don't you? Gives us more privacy. And as I remember, I could make you scream." Aillia nuzzles the warmth of her captive's neck. The woman yanks her head away and then turns to glare into the mirror image of her own face. The details a little sharper, a little colder, luminescent eyes cold and flat as ore. "Gee, no birthday cards, no holiday greetings, I didn't know you still cared." The woman snarls at the smiling mask. "Of course I care." Aillia said softly, leaning over and pressing her lips forcefully against the prone woman's.
"Want some water?" The warrior asks, handing the skin to the figure who sits with her arms wrapped around her knees, gazing into the last glowing embers of the fire. "No, thanks." A weak smile. This is not a new ritual for them, even since their return from the land of strange riddles and song. It was during the night, when they slept, that the images that led them to their plunge over the waterfall came back.
The woman struggles, jerking her head away, she spits into the darkness.
"Unh unh unh, little sister." Aillia wraps long fingers around the other's jaw and she yanks her head back so that it is facing her again. "You...with your noble heart- Your honor" Aillia's lips curled into another sneer around that word. "fighting the good fight, for the greater good, and doing the 'right' thing. You would not. No. Could not kill me." Aillia pulled back slightly, her fingers now lightly tracing the contours of the face below her. "And after all that, after you defeated me, humiliated me, nearly crippled me, you left me in the care of those imbecilic cows from the village who had hired you to begin with. Made sure I would always be well taken care of. And I was...I could think about it and thank you and your stupid friends every waking moment." Aillia's voice drops to a whisper, her nails digging into the woman's malleable flesh.
"Enslavement and torture have never been the preferred methods of benevolent leaders. Aside from those details, you're right, they all loved you. As for the rest, I know, I was there." The woman laughs beneath the nails tearing her flesh. Aillia yanks back as though she's been slapped, raking her nails across the woman's cheeks and jaw. She looks at the prone woman for a moment, and then begins to smile at the sight of blood rising up through scarlet lines.
"Ohhh, I'm sorry, you're bleeding. Let me clean that up." Aillia leans back down and begins the lick the bleeding scratches. "You still taste delicious." She murmurs, letting her hands dance once more across the other's collarbone, down towards her chest. "Don't miss me or this, too much." Aillia said, pressing her lips tightly against the other woman's, forcing her tongue and the taste of blood into the others mouth before standing abruptly. She wipes her lips with the back of her hand and laughs before disappearing back towards the light. In an instant, the room plunges back into the darkness, although the captive figures it had to be lighter than Aillia's heart. She tries to calm her pounding heart and not taste her own blood. She swallows hard, trying to push down the bile that was rising in her gullet.
The pre-dawn light found the three figures each, finally, stilled by the sleep of those too tired to grapple any longer with demons, either physical or ethereal. Stealing instead to the blissful unconsciousness of sheer exhaustion.
Gabrielle walked along the dusty path, she could see Xena up ahead, unpacking Argo and setting up camp. Lately, it seemed, as though the warrior always had a reason to 'scout' ahead. Yet, in the bright light of Apollo's glory - the shadows that haunted their evenings could be pushed aside.
"What a walk." Gabrielle mused, "Did I ever think that being an adventurer would have so much walking? Sure, be adventuresome, see the world, live on grass, bark and berries and develop permanent blisters on your feet." She allowed herself a small grin. "I'm beginning to sound like Salmoneous." Thoughts of the talkative salesman made Gabrielle wish for the simpler time - before these past few moons - before Britannia...Gabrielle's thoughts were interrupted by a rustling in the overgrown grass beside the road. She gripped her staff, moving slowly towards the edge of the road. This time the rustling was accompanied by a gasping cough. She stepped carefully into the grass, her staff poised. She stopped, puzzled by the sight. She saw a bare back, hunched over, muscles rippling along the spine as a lone figure convulsed in another coughing fit.
"Xena!" Gabrielle called out automatically, lowering her staff only slightly. She saw a flash of dark hair as the figure raised its' head towards the sound of her voice, then disappeared back down as another round of spasms racked it's shuddering form. Xena came racing through the grass, her arm back, hand on the hilt of her sword. Gabrielle smiled and nodded towards the heaving figure. Xena smiled in response as she moved towards the figure, her hand still poised by the hilt. Gabrielle followed, trying to peer around Xena. Xena stopped, reaching back and stopping Gabrielle from getting closer. "What is it? What's wrong?" Gabrielle tried to maneuver past Xena's arm. "Gabrielle, get me a blanket from the saddlebag." Xena said, lowering her hand from her sword. "What is it? What's wrong?" Gabrielle asked, still trying to see around the taller woman. "Gabrielle, please."
Gabrielle trotted back to where Argo stood grazing. She reached up and pulled a light blanket from the worn leather bag. She made her way back to there Xena was now crouching, settled on her haunches. Gabrielle could see the figure still curled away from them. She handed the blanket to Xena who took the material leaning forward, placed it over the figure's shoulders. "Go," -cough- "away...You don't know what you're..." Another violent spasm shook the body, "Doing." Xena ignored the woman's protests and wrapped the blanket tighter.
"You're not well and you need help. We have a camp nearby." Xena clasped the edges of the blanket, pulled the bottom ends together and scooped the woman up. This was no small feat considering the force of the spasms that shook her body. The woman continued to struggle weakly, barely able to catch her breath, much less free herself. She gazed up at Xena intently. When Xena caught that gaze, she felt a ripple of something that disturbed her, a breeze that caught the darkness that cloaked her. Shifting silver eyes bored into blue, Xena could see her reflection in that gaze. She tore her eyes away, disconcerted by the rise of her own darkness. Ever since Solan's death, how close to the surface had that fury lain? Gabrielle gasped when she saw Xena turn around holding the woman in her arms. The woman turned her head towards the sound, Gabrielle saw blood drying down smudged cheeks, the rusty flakes around her lips as well. Like Xena, once Gabrielle met the woman's gaze, she could not pull herself away from those luminescent eyes. She stared at the eyes that gazed at her, silver hued and shimmering. Dark pupils filling the center like polished obsidian. The wounded woman closed her eyes in a grimace of pain, Gabrielle looked up at Xena, she saw a strange look in her lover's own startling blue eyes. A look that she was not unfamiliar with of late. Gabrielle reached out and gently pushed back dark hair that had fallen in the wounded woman's face. The woman jerked her head back slightly at the touch, her eyes whipping open. "It's OK. You just need to rest and get those wounds tended to. Maybe a bit of broth will help too." The woman's pupils were beginning to dilate, a shadow of terror spreading the darkness with the edges metal tinged. Xena could feel the woman's muscles bunching beneath blanket, she gently applied pressure to the base of the woman's neck and along her spine. Those eerie eyes rolled back, the woman sighed and was unconscious.
"Who do you think she is?" Gabrielle asked, falling in step beside Xena as they made their way up the road to the campsite. "I don't know. I think we would have remembered tales about a woman with eyes such as hers." Xena replied quietly absorbed by her thoughts.
"Is it me or are wounded people always falling across our path?" Gabrielle asked solemnly.
Xena looked over at the bard and seeing the sparkle in her green eyes, arched one eyebrow.
"Certainly no stranger than every village we arrive at being under attack or facing an impending one."
Gabrielle laughed easily, "Good point."
Xena grinned back, she couldn't help herself at the sound of Gabrielle's laughter. Somedays, it felt like this, like old times. This had always been one of the small pleasures of traveling with Gabrielle, her uniquely optimistic way of viewing the world. Until recently...
They stepped into the small clearing where Xena had started to set up camp.
"How did you get the fire started already? You weren't that far ahead of me." Gabrielle asked looking at the fire, shaking her head as she tossed her pack and staff off to one side. Xena said nothing, just shot her a mild 'look' as she knelt and gently set the woman down on a pile of leaves and moss, slightly away from the fire.
"I didn't get any water boiling yet, we'll need some to tend these wounds. I don't know how long she'll be out." Xena, still kneeling beside the woman, called to Gabrielle. Argo trotted over and began munching at the moss near the woman's head. Xena rubbed the soft velvety nose as she gazed into the forest. "I'm going to see what herbs I can find. These wounds need to be cleaned up." Xena said absently as she rose and headed into the forest. "I'll get to them. Then I'll start something stew like for dinner." Gabrielle said to the departing warrior as she poured water from the skin into a small pot hanging over the fire. There was a rhythm they each had, even after all this time. They could keep up the pattern until sleep came back to remind them of what still lay unresolved. Gabrielle shook her head and turned towards their guest.
Gabrielle could not help but look at the prone form of the woman. The poor woman had been left by the side of the road naked. She shook her head again, this time at the plight of the woman. Despite everything she had seen traveling with Xena, despite everything, it still startled her just how callous people could be to one another. She knelt down beside her, a moist rag in her hand, gently wiping away the dried blood. She noticed that the scratches did not look that serious for the amount of blood and she could discern no source of injury for the blood on the full sculpted lips. Gabrielle stopped for a moment, gazing at the woman's cleaned up face. Dark hair, darker than Xena's, fell away from the face in soft ebony waves. A strong jawbone and cheeks that swept up towards those star touched eyes, now closed. Gabrielle bent down closer, studying the long, soft, dark eyelashes.
Suddenly, silver eyes whipped open and Gabrielle was not only trapped by those unfathomable eyes, but felt the woman's hand closing around her throat.
"Acccchk." Gabrielle choked out.
"What are you doing?" The woman's hoarse voice asked.
All Gabrielle could see was her own reflection as she tried to gasp out a reply past the tightening grip around her throat.
"Te, ten.." Gabrielle started to cough, her eyes watering.
"Let her go." Xena's voice drifted down past Gabrielle's ears. The woman shifted her gaze up past Gabrielle and then the grip was gone.
"Nice reflexes." Gabrielle coughed, leaning away from the woman.
The woman struggled to sit up for a moment. Xena kept one eye towards her as she knelt beside Gabrielle. "Are you all right?"
"Yea. Just a little surprised." Gabrielle nodded, rubbing her neck where the viselike grip had been.
The woman sighed, collapsing, the mild exertion had cost her. "What were you doing so close to me?" She asked, her voice still hoarse, pulling the blanket back around her. "I was tending your wounds. I was just looking to see, um, to see if they were...infected." Gabrielle stood quickly, suddenly embarrassed. Xena's puzzled glance settled first upon Gabrielle, then to the woman, and then back to Gabrielle.
"These herbs need to be steeped if there is any water left. I can administer them to the wounds." Xena held out her lightly clenched fist.
Gabrielle accepted the crushed aromatic herbs and flowers. She smiled down at Xena and headed towards the fire where she let the crumpled items fall into the smaller pot. She stood by as they steeped. "Who are you? Why did you bring me here when I told you not to." The woman rasped. Xena turned back to face the woman, her expression was closed as she replied, "First, who are you?" "I am...L'ankhe'chien- you can call me Ankh. It's easier than my full name." The woman answered softly, closing her eyes.
"I am Xena, that is Gabrielle. We bought you here because you are not well and night will be falling soon." Xena watched Gabrielle who was walking back with the steaming pot balanced gingerly at the end of a stick. Xena let a small smile cross her lips at the young woman's determined expression.
"What are you smiling at?" Gabrielle asked as she approached Xena.
"Hmmm." Xena said as she took the pot off the end of the stick and set it down beside her. Gabrielle sat down across from Xena and watched. No matter what, she loved this part of Xena, the healer. Xena tossed the rag that Gabrielle had been using in the pot to let it steep in the herbal brew.
Ankh turned her head away from the smell that was emanating from the pot. Her insides were still clenched like a fist and the new smell was not helping much. "How long have you been ill?" Xena asked. "I haven't been." Ankh muttered, her arms moving protectively over her stomach as she felt another wave of nausea begin to build.
Before Xena could clean the wounds with the herb bouillon, Ankh bit her lip and rolled away from the warrior and bard. Her naked form slipped from beneath the blanket, curling back into a tight ball. Ankh felt the shredding of her insides begin again. She began rocking softly, every fiber from her groin to her head screamed in agony as she succumbed once again to the wracking convulsions that swept through her body like winged furies. "Xena?" Gabrielle asked looking up at her lover then back at the shuddering form. There was no noise except the horrible sound of retching with no relief. Xena shook her head slowly, and gently reached out to touch the sick woman's shoulder. Her skin was clammy, Xena could feel the rippling muscles as she moved, trying to pull away from her touch. Through the blinding haze of pain, Ankh heard the younger woman's question and felt someone's touch on her shoulder. She hated the small whimper that escaped her lips. She tried to pull away from the touch, even as the image of Aillia's hands on her face flashed before her. A thought flickered like a firefly before pain overwhelmed her again. "P..Pah...Poi---sssssoon." Ankh hissed through clenched teeth. "What?" Gabrielle and Xena said in unison as they leaned in closer. "Poi...son." She choked out again.
Xena leaned back on her haunches, deep in thought for a moment before reaching for the pouch that she had set down by the make shift bed. She rummaged around for the item she was looking for.
"Poison? How could she have been poisoned?" Gabrielle asked, concern on her face as she watched the woman curl tighter into herself, muscles tensing in a battle they could not see. Xena shrugged her shoulders and moved quickly to the other side of the woman so she was facing her again. She pressed a small dried yellowish curl of root against the taut line of the woman's lips.
"Valekah root for the pain, it should relax you enough to speak more easily." Ankh opened her lips and nodded. Her eyes still shut and body wrapped in on itself. "Gabrielle, will you stay? I'm going to make her a detoxifying tea. Sorry, it looks like your stew will have to wait a bit." Xena gave Gabrielle a lopsided grin before picking up the pot and heading back towards the fire.
"I can whip up something else." Gabrielle replied then looked down at the woman. Despite how tightly the eyes were shut, she could see tears leaking out.
"Don't worry, Xena knows what she's doing, you'll be feeling better in no time. There was this time, we were traveling through a war zone..." Gabrielle did what she knew how to do best and launched into a story, knowing that just the sound of another voice chattering might help the woman. She told stories to please herself as well, stories that showed Xena's gentler side, the healer in her. Gabrielle talked while watching Xena's graceful efficiency as she prepared the tea.
Despite the bolts of pain that kept ripping through her body, Ankh could heard the bard's love for the warrior.
Gabrielle began to rub the cords of muscle that stood in stark relief against the woman's spine, already launching into her next story. When she told these stories, everything else seemed to fade away. It was like being in Illusia, right before they left. When she still felt like Xena could always be there to protest her. What neither one of them realized was that she couldn't save her from herself. Whether it was the valekah root or the gentle touch of the bard, Ankh did not know, but the pain slowly began to recede.
Gabrielle smiled as the woman visibly relaxed. Ankh uncurled and rolled back onto her back, rolling onto Gabrielle's knees before the bard had a chance to scoot off the blanket. Ankh's breathing was becoming deeper, steadier.
Gabrielle blushed slightly at the naked woman lying before her, her eyes drawn to the intricate scar that curved it's way up her sternum and flared just beneath her collarbone.
"You wonder about the scar?" Ankh spoke, her voice a hoarse whisper, her eyes still closed.
"Oh, uhm, no...I was...Well, I didn't mean to look. But, well, it's very detailed." Gabrielle stammered. Ankh opened her eyes and gave a remarkable radiant half smile to the bard. Her smile lighting up those eyes that were drawing Gabrielle in again.
"You are a storyteller then, Gab - Gabrielle." She asked, rolling the 'r' and extending the 'i' slightly. Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief at the question, tearing her gaze away to look back at Xena, "Oh, yea. Let me tell you about the time we were on our way to see an old friend of Xena's who..." She turned back to the sound of Ankh making a small noise in time to see the woman's eyes close again.
"Are you OK?" Gabrielle leaned over, pulling the blanket back over the woman's form. Ankh opened one eye as she felt the blanket settling over her. "Fine, just not sure how long the Valerkah root will keep this at bay." She managed a small grin. "Oh, don't worry, Xena will have that tea done in no time. She knows what she's doing." Gabrielle chattered on, the feeling of discomfort lessening.
Ankh didn't know that she had drifted off until she started at the soft touch on her shoulder. She saw Xena leaning over her with a mug of foul smelling tea.
"Thank you" she whispered, lifting her eyes to look up at Xena.
Xena met her gaze calmly as she asked, "Why do you think you've been poisoned? How?"
"The scratches on my face, and the blood on my lips." Ankh gave a wry laugh, "Let's just say a kiss is not always just a kiss." Ankh marveled at the crystalline blue of the warrior's eyes, she turned back to find Gabrielle still sitting beside her and looked at the equally vibrant green of the younger woman's. "It isn't meant to be fatal it seems. Some of this detoxifying tea, lots and lots of water and a good steam should help clear it out of your system a bit quicker." Xena said, wondering if the pang she felt at the look Gabrielle gave their patient was justified or not. Every time she looked into the stranger's eyes, there was that disconcerting ripple in the shadowed part of her soul.
"Gods, she is exotic." Gabrielle marveled, as she met the woman's appreciative gaze, then turned towards the woman who had captured her heart. The woman who she had chosen to walk this path with. The warrior did not see the look in the bard's eyes as she busied herself with her small pouches of herbs.
Ankh leaned up on one elbow and sipped at the hot liquid. She grimaced at the bitter taste. Xena finished with her herbs and dried powders, moving to sit on a nearby tree stump. Gabrielle let her hand brush against the warrior's ever so lightly before heading towards the saddlebags to see what she could find for food.
Ankh turned back to Xena and nodded her agreement to the diagnoses about the poison drowsily, feeling the effects of the valerkah root. "Wasn't it just like Aillia?" She thought to herself as her eyes lidded shut.
Xena and Gabrielle sat in silence by the campfire, as it seemed they so often did of late. Xena couldn't help but notice that every time she looked up from the drying of herbs and roots she had gathered that Gabrielle was gazing at the sleeping woman. Ever since she had fallen back asleep, the sound of Gabrielle's voice was quieted. Xena remembered evening's when the bard had spoken deep into the night, pondering questions, telling stories.
Whenever she felt Xena's glance, Gabrielle would smile at her. This did not help alleviate the small gnawing feeling in the back of Xena's skull. Xena scowled into the fire, she was being foolish. Xena knew that Gabrielle must be fascinated by the stranger with silver eyes. She was an attractive woman, despite the condition that they had found her in. The first time Xena had met that straight forward gaze, she herself had felt an odd tug in the pit of her stomach. Xena wasn't used to being on the receiving end of eyes as electrifying as her own. Was Gabrielle enthralled by those moon kissed eyes? She shouldn't be jealous, she had no right. After all they had been through, Xena wondered why she should doubt the depth of the young bard's love. Although she might not blame her - a flicker of guilt at the recent horrors that had taken place between them.
Gabrielle was acutely aware of Xena's silence. How was it that the words failed her whenever she needed to speak to the warrior these days? Both of them still tended emotional wounds, so they were cautious now with each other. Gabrielle sighed, not unlike dogs that had been beaten down and now flinched at any sound. Guilt burdened them both, they had left their hatred behind in Illusia but there was no immediate tonic for the things they had said and done before their arrival to the whimsical place. Even with Solan's gift, they had so much left to heal. Gabrielle watched Xena work at sorting and separating the various items, the only time Xena seemed to look up was when she was checking on the sleeping woman. Everything had been fine today for most of the afternoon, even after the arrival of the woman.
Gabrielle smiled sadly to herself, maybe this wounded traveler had put a damper on Xena's plan for their evening. Not very likely, they had not been intimate on a regular basis, the touch of the other felt too raw, exposed the nerve and then dug in. Gabrielle cleared her throat, the sad smile still on her face when Xena looked up.
"Was dinner all-right, even if it was bread and cheese again?" She asked conversationally.
Xena nodded and went back to organizing her medicine pouch. Gabrielle didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Instead, she moved to sit beside Xena, resting her arm gently on the well muscled forearm.
"Xena? Who do you think did this to her?" Xena looked at the delicate hand on her arm and sighed softly to herself. How long would this gap exist between them? She had no reason to be angry at Gabrielle, even if Gabrielle was attracted to the stranger. No, that would just be an excuse for not dealing with the everything else that hung between them before the arrival of the stranger. Noticing that someone was striking was not the same as wanting to be with them. She turned her head to look into Gabrielle's eyes, the sadness and love she saw made her heart ache.
"I can't say. When she recovers a bit of her strength, we can ask her. Find out if it is a fight worth engaging in or if our paths should part as soon as she is a bit better." Xena replied, answering the spoken question, not the unspoken one.
"What about that scar on her chest? Did you see it?" Gabrielle played along, it was easier to talk about the woman than to sit in silence.
"I did. My guess, is that it is some sort of mark indicating a rank or membership to something." Xena speculated, her voice soft.
"No." Both Xena and Gabrielle turned towards the sound of Ankh's voice, a little less hoarse but not much. "How are you feeling?" Xena asked in a neutral voice.
Ankh did not miss the tone, or lack thereof, but couldn't understand why it would be there. "Feeling a bit more human." Her lips curved into a small smile. "Then we can move you towards the fire." Xena stood and moved towards Ankh.
"And I found this shift, it isn't much, but it should be enough until we get to the next village." Gabrielle followed Xena to their guest. "Thank you both." Ankh murmured as she tried to rise, lurching forward instead.
Xena caught her by the elbow and steadied her while Gabrielle slipped around with the shift.
Xena watched as Gabrielle slid the worn fabric over the other woman's head. Once the shift was on, the warrior picked Ankh up easily and carried her over near the fire.
"Thank you again." Ankh smiled weakly as Xena set her down.
"How long have you two..." Ankh started to ask before she caught the look in the warrior's eyes. "Traveled together?" she finished the question seamlessly. The pain in her gut gone, she noticed what she had not noticed before, a tension...No, that wasn't the word. Something between the two women was out of sync. For some reason, Ankh didn't know why, the thought made her sad.
Gabrielle smiled a genuine smile, launching into the tale of when and how she had first met Xena. Telling the tale, Gabrielle remembered when she had first seen the imposing warrior. Standing before the slaver, in nothing more than her shift. All grace and fury as she dispatched the slavers. And when she saw her before the villagers of her home town, so proud and yet refusing to fight back, even if they would have stoned her to death. When she spoke of the moment that she found Xena in her brother's crypt, Gabrielle paused. The look in those blue eyes, she could still remember what she thought to herself that day, that no matter what, she wanted to be there for this troubled woman. She wanted to keep her promise to the glimmer of hope that flashed in those cerulean deep eyes. Gabrielle ended her tale with, "And since that day, I couldn't imagine my life without the Warrior Princess." Over Ankh's head, she saw Xena gazing hard at her.
Ankh smiled and chuckled appreciatively, ignoring the exchange that took place above her. She was, if nothing else, a good audience. "Now you tell us a story." Gabrielle said, glancing back down at Ankh. It was a rare pleasure to find someone who had stories to tell. Xena spoke before she thought to stop herself. "Perhaps you could tell us the story about who would poison you and leave you by the side of the road in a place you are not native too."
The tension returned to Ankh's body and the easy smile disappeared from her face.
"They are one and the same warrior. There is no need to trouble you with details. This is not a battle you need to concern yourself with. I offer my thanks for your kindness, the warmth of your fire and am indebted to you for your healing. As soon as I can, I will find a way to repay your kindness."
Gabrielle shot a sharp look at Xena before placing her hand gently on Ankh's shoulder. How was it that she found herself with not one but two obstinate warriors? She knew the look on Ankh's face, had seen it often enough on Xena's. Closed and hard...Did they honestly believe this effectively dispelled the shadow that still lingered in their gazes? "Ankh, you don't need to tell us anything. It is just that, well, whoever did this to you has no great fondness for you. And I think we are beginning to develop one." Gabrielle said smoothly.
Ankh sighed and relaxed back into the make shift bed. "My apologies gentle bard, and to you as well warrior. I am still not quite...myself. I do not act as a traveler thankful for such kind and gracious company." Ankh offered another smile.
Gabrielle replied, laughing, "Apology accepted. I don't know how pleasant I would be if I had spent all day heaving my guts out!" Ankh burst out laughing, and even Xena chuckled at Gabrielle's tone.
Xena brought out another longer piece of the valerkah root and handed it to Ankh. "This should help you sleep through the night, and tomorrow we'll find steam caves that are near here. The other details can wait until then." She offered a small smile which Ankh returned as she took the root from Xena and slipped it into her mouth.
"Perhaps, tomorrow, on the way to the caves, I can tell you what you'd like to know. Right now, I would like to blissfully await the sleep that the valerkah root should bring. Again, I am indebted to you both."
Gabrielle nodded, and Xena gave a curt nod before Ankh rolled away from the fire and settled in. Xena still could not meet Gabrielle's gaze as the young woman turned back towards her. Gabrielle leaned over and kissed Xena on the cheek, "I am going to set up the bedrolls." She murmured as she moved past the warrior. Xena looked after her lover, no admonition, no reproach. There rarely ever was, even after the scene at the top of the cliff. Even after her journey to the temple of Mnesymone. Xena checked over the small bundles and piles she had made. Satisfied, she went and checked on Argo and their supplies. She made a quick sweep around their campsite before she made her way back to where Gabrielle was waiting, already nestled beneath one of the covers. Their bedrolls side by side. Xena shook her head, chiding herself and her unease as she began to take off her armor.
Gabrielle turned towards Xena as she heard the sounds of the warrior taking off her armor and setting her sword and chakram within easy reach. Xena slipped beneath her blanket and lay staring at the stars. This was the time when the night spread before them, not as a welcome respite from the day, but the unwelcome reminder of the things they still left unsaid. "Xena." Gabrielle whispered, gazing at the profile of the beautiful woman beside her. Telling the stories to Ankh had released a sort of ache in her heart. An ache for what had been...What still was. Who would she be lying to if she said that she didn't want to be with Xena?
"Yes, Gabrielle." Xena replied, not trusting herself to turn towards the sweet sound of her lover's voice.
"Are you attracted to Ankh?"
The question hung between them for a moment. Xena almost wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the question. It was the last thing she was prepared for. "No!"
"Do you think I am?" Gabrielle continued, reaching out to touch Xena's smooth shoulder. The warmth of the soft skin comforted Gabrielle.
"Are you?" Xena asked as evenly as possible. This was not what the conversation was really about though, and they both knew it.
"Xena. My warrior princess..." Gabrielle murmured, letting her fingers glide across the shoulder to trace the still woman's collarbone.
Xena put her hands over bard's roaming fingers. She turned to face Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle...." She said in a soft voice.
"I know Xena, I know. Do you still think me such a child?" Gabrielle moved her hand to cup the warrior's face, gazing into night shadowed eyes. "No, you aren't a child. I would understand if...Just for...I mean, she isn't unattractive, and even in her current condition she has an air..." Xena let the words pour out of her.
Gabrielle put her finger over those soft lips. Lips she had lain awake so many nights and wished to kiss. "Xena of Anthipolis, what do I have to say to you to make you understand? You are all I wanted. How would I move without my soul touching against yours? How could I ever unweave you from me? How should I withhold myself so that my depths do not vibrate at your presence and still at your absence? Sweet love of mine, how?" Gabrielle whispered softly. She knew that she meant it. The three days after Solan and Hope's death, when the woman she loved turned away from her, and the knowledge of all that had happened burdened her so. So much anger and pain, and threaded through it, the thing that scared her the most was that she had truly lost Xena. Lost her for good and that fear motivated everything else. Trying to lay blame. A wounded animal knows only to strike and that was what she wanted. She wanted Xena to know...How much everything hurt, but especially how much it hurt when Xena turned away. Xena's heart melted at Gabrielle's words. She wrapped her fingers around the hand that hovered before her lips. She leaned over and kissed the woman beside her. Infusing it with the love that filled her heart for this young woman, the love that had marked her heart as belonging to this one and this one only. The two women settled more comfortably against each other, resuming their communion of lips and tongues. Rediscovering what eluded them so many nights previously. Ankh drowsily heard the soft murmuring and then the silence punctuated by their kissing and soft sighs. "I cannot involve these women in my troubles. Love is fleeting and hard enough even in the best of times." Unbidden, Ankh felt a pang of guilt. She hadn't even thought of her lover since her arrival here. Before she could think of what she was going to do, the valerkah root took effect and she melted into sleep.
"Callisto." A sultry voice whispered into the darkened chamber.
The blond figure trimmed in black leather did not move.
"Callisto of Cirrah. I have need of you." The voice whispered again.
A slight tremor ran through the wiry frame, after another moment dark, dark eyes finally opened. "I don't remember ordering anything-" A sing song voice floated through the room.
"Turn and look at me spirit of vengeance. I come to speak to you about the warrior you hate."
Callisto leapt to her feet and spun around, flashing a wicked grin as she faced the hooded figure. "Why bother? I really have no interest in the 'Warrior Princess' any longer. Leave me be." She sneered.
"We can be of mutual assistance, I assure you. All you need to do is distract someone who is traveling with your warrior. I can make it worth your while."
Callisto's eyes lit up, and then she frowned, shaking her head. "No, no, no...You're not listening to me." Her hands began to glow as she turned towards the figure.
"You want this to end, don't you? After the fiasco with the child of Dahak. I can be of help to you. Delay the traveler they have rescued until after the Equinox."
"Oh that rescuing thing. Such an annoying habit that Xena picked up. I tried to tell her- it's the company she's been keeping." Callisto swirled one finger around a blonde strand of hair. Cocking her head, she looked across the shadowed chamber to the hooded figure. "Who are you? Who is the traveler?" She finally asked, a cunning smile crossing her lips.
"I am Aillia, and the traveler is...Well, I'll tell you her true name in time. Interested? If you're not, then I can leave now, let you get back to your busy schedule." The figure gestured to the cave that Callisto sat in.
Callisto stopped twirling her hair, anger flashing across her features. How dare this woman...Her lips curled back into a grimace, Callisto shrieked and leapt through the air towards the other figure. Aillia sidestepped the virago easily, snatching hold of the armor as she flew by and yanking hard. Callisto backflipped, Aillia swept the blonde woman's feet out from under her. She grabbed hold of the tangled blonde hair forcing her into a kneeling position.
"We could play like this all day, 'Goddess'." Aillia purred as she gazed down at Callisto. Callisto snarled and spat at the woman.
Aillia forced the immortal's head back and leaned down. Pulling the cowl away from her face, she gazed down into dark eyes with her own sparkling silver eyes.
"Mmm. Yes, you'll do very nicely."
Callisto looked into those eyes and felt something else spark along side her rage. "What's in it for me?" She asked, torn between wanting to slam her fist into the face that stood above her or pull it closer towards her lips. "Torment Xena, the possibility to make her suffer. Do what you will, make the wedge between the warrior and bard wider. I don't care. I know that alone should be enough for you, but as an extra perk, I'll throw in a passionate lover who is powerless before you. As I said, delay them. And when all is said and done, you may get your wish for release." And you before her, Aillia kept the rest of the sentence to herself.
Callisto narrowed her eyes, her lips curling back again. "I have no use for love or lovers."
"My sweet, I did not say a word about love. I agree, love is a fool's folly." Aillia leaned in closer, pulling Callisto's head back. "I spoke of a lover. A passionate lover. Passion. Desire. Someone to fuel and satiate your hunger, your need." Aillia brushed her lips against Callisto's ear, "You do know about need don't you? The ache that burns into your very core? The want--oh yes, the beast that prowls within you. For you, you pulsate with vengeance for the warrior. And something else-hmmm? How long have you burned? Screaming out, to find a way, any way, to satiate this fire?"
Callisto felt the tightening and then slow release of excitement spread through her body. Triggered by the warm breath tickling her ear, the strength of the fingers that gripped her hair and the purring cadence of the stranger's voice. She turned to gaze into those mercury eyes. "You are trying to beguile me." Callisto's murmured, her voice huskier than she intended.
"It is a talent I have." Aillia whispered back, her eyes burning into Callisto's.
Callisto trembled beneath the gaze, from deep within, the desire she had kept in check all her mortal and immortal days slipped it's bounds and raced along every nerve leaving a fire hotter than Hephaestus's forge in it's wake. She pulled the other woman down, her lips seeking Aillia's hungrily. Aillia smiled to herself, returning Callisto's kisses with equal fierceness.
Callisto moaned, her lips and tongue burning as she sought to devour this woman who would devour her back. So skilled were Aillia's kisses that Callisto's could focus on nothing else, her hands clutched the woman's shoulder's, pulling her down to her. Aillia flowed over her, straddling Callisto's hips, grinding down slowly as she settled in. Callisto groaned at the delicious weight of this woman. Her hands struggling to pull her warmth even closer. Aillia broke the kiss and pulled away slightly, smiling. Callisto slowly opened her eyes, trying to catch her breath. Aillia's fingers dancing along her neck and collarbone were not helping. Aillia leaned back down and covered Callisto's lips with her own again, swallowing the sounds of her pleasure as her hands moved over silky flesh in time to her tongue in Callisto's mouth. Callisto's hands fumbled along the back of the robe, she tugged and felt it slide away in her hands. She reached up to reveal the next layer of clothing and met instead with skin that was warm and soft. She slowly raked her nails across the smooth contours of the body above her. Her hands gripped the hips that were still grinding gently against her. Sliding under and around she pulled at the already deliciously spread legs. Aillia arched, opening her thighs a bit wider. Before Callisto could dip her fingers into the moist apex of Aillia's pleasure, the woman whispered into her mouth. "Be careful, daughter of Cirrah, desire can be many things."
"Uhm hmm. I'm a big girl, I can take care of myself." Callisto murmured back as her fingers brushed against the damp curls, seeking and teasing. "As you wish." Silver eyes smoldered, Aillia reached down grasped Callisto's wrist and she thrust her hips down against those probing fingers. She groaned into Callisto's neck, her lips and teeth working over the sweat slicked flesh.
Callisto's sense reeled when her fingers plunged up into the slick velvet warmth and she felt the sting of teeth against her neck. Aillia slid her tongue down, tracing a rivulet of sweat until it disappeared into Callisto's armor. She released Callisto's wrist and maneuvered her own hand beneath the leather skirt and undergarments to thrust two long fingers deep into the more than ready blond goddess.
"Now." Aillia murmured, her voice vibrating into supple flesh. Callisto struggled, trying not to succumb so quickly, then she felt the ripple of electricity Aillia's voice caused, the long fingers penetrating and curving into her. Her body trembled, and she felt Aillia's body also begin to shudder, Callisto threw back her head and screamed her release. Lost in the sensation of the muscles clenching around her fingers and the spasmodic waves that washed over her, she collapsed against the woman still leaning against her neck.
"Is that a yes then?" Aillia murmured, lifting her head to look at the flushed face of blonde woman. "Gods...Yes." Callisto gasped her reply, starting to untangle herself from the other woman.
"Then let's move on to finalizing the contract, shall we?" Aillia said as she moved her hips back down on Callisto's fingers, while her own fingers wriggled sensuously against the still clutching muscles. She silenced Callisto's reply by smothering the blonde's lips with her own. -----
Xena's eyes flew open, she glanced down at the sleeping form of the bard. There it was again, a slight moaning. She leaned over, worried that her lover was having another nightmare, although, tonight, she certainly hoped not. Not after earlier. It was not the bard. No, she slept soundly, peacefully. Xena turned and found her weapons beside her, her hand grasping the hilt of her sword, she looked around. The fire was barely glowing, everything else seemed quiet. She found the form of Ankh and listened again. This time, the moan unmistakably came from her. Xena quietly rolled out from the under the blanket, what corner she was left with.
"One good turn is all it takes to get the blanket." Gabrielle had replied to Xena the first time she mentioned the bard's habit of wrapping herself up completely in any available bedroll. That memory made Xena smile in the darkness. Could it be as simple as that? Remembering the times they had shared, so many good times, before these last few months.
She crept towards their guest, pausing along the way to add a few more sticks to the fire. When she reached the other woman, she was only slightly alarmed at the sheen of sweat that made the shift cling to her body. The tea must be working she thought. Ankh arched slightly, another soft moan escaping from her lips.
Xena peered down, the woman's breathing was shallow and rapid. Xena sat, watching her for a moment longer. Slow realization crept across her features as she realized that Ankh was not in pain, instead, she was reacting like a woman being touched by her lover.
Xena was about to creep away when the other woman sat upright, her eyes open, and her lips forming around a scream. Xena quickly placed her hand over the other woman's mouth, not wanting to wake the bard.
Ankh did not struggle but bit back the scream. Her eyes were not filled with passion but terror. She reached up and pulled the warrior's hand away from her mouth. "I, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you." She said, shivering slightly as the night air made contact with her skin. Xena pulled the blanket up over the shivering woman. "Thank you." Ankh pulled the blanket tightly around her.
"Is there something you'd like to talk about." Xena finally said, sitting on a log nearest the woman. Ankh looked over at the warrior. Her heart still racing from the images that burned into her mind.
"Warrior- tell me about...desire." Ankh finally asked, not meeting Xena's gaze. "Not quite what I had in mind." Xena replied dryly. Ankh sighed, "Perhaps I am destined to accept your help, but I do not want any harm to come to you or your companion. You have had a rough journey these past few months, yes? Nor do I want to come between you. You know that you are bound soul to soul? "
Xena didn't reply, but continued to gaze at the other woman. Ankh didn't appear to notice that there were no answers to her observations. "That is why I ask you about desire. Can you control your own?"
"I've seen what desire can do. Desire is a longing, a craving. It is an appetite that cannot really be satiated, filled, met. Not even by the object of the desire. That is the danger of desire." Xena finally replied after some pause.
Ankh nodded, still not meeting Xena's gaze. "Why do you ask me about desire?" Xena asked, her tone gentler noting that this woman before her was obviously troubled by her dreams. Ankh sighed. "I wonder sometimes, if I am a prisoner of my desire. Not just desire, but any compelling emotion. My lover." A pained expression crossed her face, "My lover I burn for, but I do not know if I love her."
Xena was not sure what to say, she almost wished that she had let the scream wake Gabrielle up. This conversation was treading into dangerous ground for the warrior. Any overwhelming emotions, like rage...Or thirst for vengeance.
"Gabrielle, she is the light for your darkness isn't she?" Ankh asked softly.
Xena briefly narrowed her eyes at the woman, but she saw no malice, just the shadow of a deep sadness.
"I once thought she was. Now I wonder if it is only that I have shown her the darkness." Xena answered slowly, almost surprised at her own words.
"My lover is a beautiful woman, cursed by a darkness born into her soul. She has a rage that taps into something that I don't know if we mortals should know while we walk this earth. I took my dearest friends into the greatest danger we had ever faced to save her. " Ankh hunched tighter into herself. "I saved her. It seems to be something I am compelled to do. When I first saw her, my heart stopped beating for a moment. I was enthralled by her beauty. That was all I saw and knew only that she spoke my name and how it quickened of my pulse. The first time I felt her touch I melted, as did she at mine. I believed that was love and that it would save her." She gave a harsh laugh.
"I do not think that such an intention is bad, but trying to save someone from themselves is an impossible task, you don't know what face their torment takes." Xena said, her eyes locking onto Ankle's. Or how it can manifest. Would she have wished that someone could have spoken these words to her, before she tried to save the world and forsake Gabrielle in her quest for vengeance. "Then you are a wiser woman than I Warrior. I have just begun to learn this lesson. But I am bound to her, and cannot walk away. I fear if I walk away, she will fall into her darkness and never return. That is something I cannot bear to unleash on the world."
"You can prevent it?" Xena asked, puzzled. She had been unable to quell her own dark urges when she stormed the Amazon village looking for Gabrielle. How could Ankh prevent her lover from succumbing to the darkness? "Yes, in a manner. I saw her darkness manifest itself. Trust me when I say that it is not like your darkness or even my own. She is half hydra or some such beast, she transforms into a monster. Blood and destruction the only thing she craves to satiate her desire. I had to stop her, had to. Lives were at stake, families, children, everything. So I stood before her and blocked her way. She attacked and almost killed me. At the last moment, she turned away from her fury. A healer from the village I had saved, healed me. Created some concoction that was made from her blood and my blood. Bound us by our blood and the desire that beat in our both our hearts. I am sorry, do you really want to hear more?" Ankh paused, shaking her head.
Xena nodded, wishing that Gabrielle were awake to hear this tale, to offer words of comfort. The story caused chills to run up Xena's spine. Attacked and almost killed...
"From that day, we have been together. Sounds romantic, yes? Except my sacrifice only stopped her from killing me, it did not contain her darkness, she did not contain her darkness. I have spent many seasons by the side of this woman and I have always been there to stay her hand. If I couldn't, I would try and soothe the grief she had caused. I didn't know it would never end. When we are alone I can keep her fairly calm." Ankh paused at some memory. "I awoke once to find that she had killed a friend, a companion from my days as an adventurer. She had to she replied, non-plussed by the corpse between us. She was 'protecting' me." Ankh swallowed hard at the memory, then shook her head. "My hands are as stained with the blood she has spilled."
"Did she ever strike you? Did you let her, hoping to still her rage or prevent her from directing it past you?" Xena asked gently- sensing there was something missing from this tale.
Ankh looked up at Xena, her gaze guarded. "I was a captain in the... -I am a warrior..." She did not finish her thought, wondering what she could possibly say to convince Xena and herself that it was not true that she had suffered on more than one occasion trying to quell the furious rage that possessed her lover. That she hadn't spent long hours healing herself in the shattered remains of a room while her lover would sleep beside her.
Xena knew then that she had. She felt the crashing wave of remorse sweep through her when she thought of how she had struck Gabrielle. More than that, had wanted to kill her...
"Do you love her?" Xena asked so softly, Ankh wasn't sure she heard her correctly.
"Pardon? Love? What's love got to do with it? Forgive me, it is only since I have been away from her that I can think of these things. Something in your past Warrior and your darkness, troubles you. I do not believe it can compare to the darkness of one who was cursed with a rage that is not of this world." Ankh saw the shadow that crossed Xena's blue eyes.
"Then you have no idea." Xena replied.
"You have a lover who chooses to be with you. Whatever it is that has happened, you have a wonderful thing you share. You know of what I speak, don't you? You are bound by true love and you each made the choice voluntarily. Did you think the path of love would be so easy? Yet still you are side by side. So I say to you, rejoice in your love. Declare it from the mountains." Ankh shot a dazzling smile across to Xena.
"Go back to sleep Xena, hold your love until dawn nudges you awake, and then gaze into her eyes to drink in the love she holds for you before we start off again." Ankh said, still smiling. "My problems I can wrestle to the ground a little bit longer."
"If you need anything..." Xena started to say. Could this stranger see what she could not? No, Xena knew she had to accept the full responsibility of what she had done. She could not undo it, but last night, finally, some of the power of the love she felt for Gabrielle and vice verse began to sink in again.
"Go to bed Xena. We can discuss this at dawn's light." Ankh cut her off gently. Xena slid back under her corner of the covers. To her surprise, Gabrielle rolled over, her green eyes shimmering with tears as she lifted the blanket to fully cover the warrior.
"Have we both been so blind? We should listen to the woman, warrior of my heart, you are my other half that makes me whole, now and always." Gabrielle whispered as she snuggled against the warmth of her lover's body. Xena's heart clenched as she wrapped her arms tightly around the smaller woman.
"And you are mine. Always, mine." Xena whispered back, the words catching in her throat.
Ankh gazed into the fire, not feeling much better than she had when she had awoken. Her heart churned at the warrior's insight. She feared going to sleep and risk seeing the blonde warrior from her earlier dream or suffer the nightmare of past nights. Her blood pounded loudly in her ears as she tried to ignore the ache between her legs and the chill in her heart.
Xena opened her eyes to the morning stillness. The horizon was just shifting to gray, no ribbons of rose to indicate Apollo's arrival just yet. She nuzzled the red-blonde hair lying against her shoulder, content to listen to Gabrielle's steady breathing. Xena had loved mornings that allowed her to savor the infrequent peace of holding her lover. Lately, it was not a luxury she woke up to. She remembered her conversation with Ankh and turned her head to catch sight of the other woman. Ankh still sat before the fire that she had obviously continued to feed throughout the night. Her luminescent eyes were a darker shade than the previous day. She looked worse this morning than she had the night before. Xena noted the water pail beside the woman and suspected that her haggard appearance had less to do with the poison than something Xena knew she had no herbs or powders for. Sensing the movement, Ankh turned her gaze to meet the warrior's. She gave a small smile and a nod.
Gabrielle opened her green eyes and turned to see her warrior's blue ones peering back at her. She smiled and wrapped her arms around her lover's neck. Instead of nightmares, she had had the most delicious dreams, dreams of pleasure. Of soft cries and skin against skin.
"Morning." She murmured as she leaned up to brush her lips against the warrior's.
"Morning." Xena whispered back into the silky soft lips. Wondering at the slight urgency she felt from the bard.
Reluctantly, Xena pulled away and stood. "We can make the steam caves by mid-day if we leave now."
Gabrielle looked up at the statuesque brunette, scowling. Xena let a small chuckle escape from her when she saw the bard's expression. Gabrielle glared at her, then looked past her towards the sound of light chuckling and saw Ankh laughing from her seat across from the bard. Gabrielle groaned and rose from the bedroll.
"Great, two warriors who find the same things funny first thing in the morning." She grumbled, grabbing the water pail and heading towards the small pond.
"She isn't a morning person is she?" Ankh said, still chuckling. "She likes to be coaxed into it." Xena answered with a smile as she bent down to roll their bedding. "Don't we all? Here, let me do that, it appears to be about the right speed for my contribution to breaking camp." Ankh moved beside the warrior. Their eyes met and everything that Ankh had not said earlier, she knew did not matter. In some primal way, they were of kindred spirits. They were allies.
Xena had guessed correctly, by mid-day they had arrived at the steam caves. The morning journey had passed quickly, with the aid of Gabrielle's staff, Ankh managed to keep pace. They made a few rest stops, but the walking seemed to help Ankh regain her spirits. Gabrielle was delighted to find that not only was Ankh an appreciative audience but also had many tales of her own to add to the bard's repertoire.
"Here we are. A bit of time in the caves and hot baths should make you feel like a new woman." Xena said as they approached a wizened woman who sat in the shade under a thatched overhang.
"Mid day travelers seeking a bath are ya? A dinar each then, includes a scrub." The woman spoke, her dark eyes darting over each of them. Her gaze flew from Xena to Gabrielle, then she added, "Two extra dinars for a private cave." Gabrielle blushed and was about to retaliate when to her surprise, Ankh moved towards the woman, "Ah maman, surely since they won't be needing to have the scrub included, 3 dinars would suffice for the too brief time our journey allows us to stay?" Ankh said smoothly, bowing slightly before the older woman.
"Eh? Young pup, I still need to eat." The woman replied shaking her head.
"I agree with your wisdom elder, but you are allowed the luxury of a living from the blessings of Gaia's breath. Surely, two dinars cannot affect the bounty she has provided for you?" Ankh gazed into the bright eyes in the crinkled face.
"Oh yer a charmer are ya? Bah, 3 dinars then to spare me more of your yakking." The woman gave a quick nod towards the door behind her, breaking eye contact with Ankh.
Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other and shrugged. They smiled and thanked the woman as they moved past, Gabrielle dropped three dinars into the waiting palm. Ankh followed the couple in, "A thousand blessings will return to your home." She said as she went in the door. "Hah!" was all she heard by way of response.
She had slipped out of her meager garb and set it in the basket her companions were placing their clothes in. Xena and Gabrielle watched her disappear into the public steam rooms.
"She never really told us who or what she was trying to find. Did you notice that?" Gabrielle asked, folding her bilious green top and placing it on top of the pile in the basket.
"Mmmm. I wonder. How is she going to be able to do anything without any supplies? She has no weapon, no armor, and no clothes really. We can't afford to arm her." Xena replied absently, watching instead the small muscles ripple up her lover's forearms as she folded her top. "You're not really listening are you?" Gabrielle teased, hearing the distraction in Xena's voice.
"Oh, I was...I was just wondering if you still remembered those dreams you had last night that you intimated as I was mounting Argo." Xena said, ushering Gabrielle in the direction of the private caves.
"Why yes, warrior princess, I do. And I think it's time to find out just how flexible you really are." Gabrielle laughed, allowing herself to be directed to one of the private caves. ----
Ankh drank from the cistern of cool water in the middle of the cave. Around her, two or three older women, villagers from nearby she suspected, lay on the smooth ledges carved into the cave walls. She could feel the sweat breaking out over her body and moved to settle against a leaning rock. Closing her eyes, she savored the hot moist heat surrounding her. Her mind began to drift, the exercise from the walk, the lack of sleep from the previous night and the hot hot cave all conspired to relax her muscles. How long had she drifted she didn't know, but a soft voice bought her back to her surroundings. "Scrub?" A woman's voice asked. Ankh opened her eyes and smiled at the woman before her. She had sandy blonde hair and hazel eyes. She stepped back momentarily when she saw Ankh's eyes, then collected herself and asked again. "Yes, thank you." Ankh said, moving to lie on the flattened ledge the woman pointed too.
Ankh surrendered to the woman's scrubbing. She floated hazily in the sensation of hands covered with soft sea sponges lathering her body. She drifted her way into a light sleep. In this nether state, she became aware that the hands had slowed down, there was no mildly coarse sponge texture separating her flesh from the woman's hands. The hands circled languorously over her chest, sweeping across her abdomen and over her thighs. She felt one hand firmly grasp her ankle and raise her leg slightly, the other hand kneading into her sore calves. Ankh opened her eyes as she felt the woman's hands moving along her inner thighs, massaging lightly. She gazed down and saw the blonde warrior from her dreams. Ankh gasped as the other woman let her soap slick palms slide up over her hips and back up her stomach. Ankh wanted to move, but could not move a muscle, just watch as the woman traced every slope across her front with her hands and fingers. She never looked at Ankh, if she noticed that she was being watched, she gave no clue. Ankh's pulse raced and she felt the ache from last night begin again in her groin. The cold splash of water made Ankh jump. She blinked and looked into the confused hazel eyes of the young village woman. "Are ya all right?" She asked, holding another bucket of water. Ankh glanced down and saw that the young woman's hands were still encased in the sea sponges.
"I'm fine, I must have dozed off." The woman smiled and tossed a second pail of cold water to finish rinsing her off. Ankh thanked her and went to sit in the hot baths. She sank in thankfully, closing her eyes, wondering if she was losing her mind or if the poison was a hallucinogenic as well. She moved off to one side as she felt another person enter the bath. This time when she felt hands trying to open her knees, her eyes flew open as she reached to grab whoever was there. She saw the large brown eyes of her dream lover fading as her hands whipped through air, she was alone.
Ankh shook her head, took a deep breath then disappeared beneath the hot water. When she came up for air, she slicked her hair back away from her face and rose from the bath. Her body felt better for being clean, but now she was beginning to worry about her mind.
"Xena." Gabrielle asked her head settled in the crook of Xena's shoulder, her fingers drawing patterns across the warrior's glistening abdomen. Such desire, their lovemaking had burned with such urgency. As if by sheer consumption, they could each lay claim to the other. It had not been so fierce or desperate since they had first become lovers. Her heart still pounded.
"Yes." Xena replied drowsily, her own fingers lightly grazing the bard's neck and shoulders, tracing the scratches that were just beginning to fade.
"When Ankh was speaking about not knowing if she loved her lover anymore, why did you think of me?" Gabrielle lifted herself from her position and looked down into the deep azure eyes.
"Gabrielle," was Xena's only reply as she looked up into the other woman's unwavering gaze.
"I'm serious, if you doubt my love, why do you stay with me? It has been hard, yes...Harder than I ever thought it would be. But I think it is fairly obvious my love for you goes to the depths of Poseidon's realm and soars as high as Mt. Olympus. I cannot ever imagine my life without you, even when it seems as though it would be easier to die than go on. I am with you because I want to be." "But all the things that have happened. Can you forgive me? I can't forget..." Xena replied, her own eyes reflecting back the equally powerful love she felt as she wrapped her arms around her lover's neck and pulled her down for a kiss.
"All the things that have happened have made us stronger. Not because we wanted too." Gabrielle murmured back into the kiss, before a new wave of desire crashed over her and she succumbed to the fire that was re-ignited.
The two women glowed from the heat of the caves as they made their way back to the dressing area. Gabrielle ducked into the public caves to see if she could locate Ankh. Her eyes scanned the room, the cave was empty save for a young woman relaxing by the cistern in the middle of the cave.
"She's not there. Where could she have gone without her shift?" Gabrielle asked as she moved towards their basket of clothing. Xena shrugged, tugging her leather bodice into place.
They finished dressing and then heard the sound of Ankh's laughter coming from outside. They stepped out into the bright day to see her sitting at the foot of the wizened woman, surrounded by several women who were also seated. "I have won again, Maman. This is an interesting game. Do we play again?" Ankh said as she scooped up the small handful of dinars that lay before her.
"Young pup's luck, that's all." The older woman barked, scowling.
When Ankh saw her companions step outside, she rose from her position.
"Maman, I have no need to take your earnings, already these clothes are enough. I keep only 4 dinars so that I may eat in the next village, the rest returns to you." Ankh handed the woman back the dinars she had just scooped up, bending down to hug the woman.
"Peh- starry eyed pup, you must cause your mother nothing but grief." The woman replied taking the money back and allowing herself to be hugged.
"Aye, that I have been told. May you prayers all be answered, Maman." Ankh stood and moved towards the stunned bard and warrior.
"You're wearing new clothes." Gabrielle said as Ankh approached them, taking in the slightly overlarge brown tunic cinched by a leather belt.
"I am, no offense to your generosity, but wandering around in a shift, well..." Ankh winked as she held out her hand to Gabrielle. Gabrielle opened her hand, and looked down as Ankh dropped three dinars into her palm.
"For the steam, and the least I can do for your kindness."
"How did you get the clothes and money?" Xena asked, frowning slightly.
"When I asked about clothes that may have been left behind, Maman asked me to play a game. If I won, then in exchange I could choose from the pile. After I won my clothes, she bet me a few dinars. I agreed."
"You had no dinars to bet." Xena said threateningly as the three women moved towards Argo.
"Well, no, I didn't. I made the bet promising that you would pay if I lost." Ankh replied scratching the back of her neck to avoid having to look at the warrior's glare.
"Ankh, I suspect that there are some things that are better left unsaid." Gabrielle laughed at Ankh's boldness and her squirming with discomfort beneath Xena's gaze. Gabrielle saw the corners of Xena mouth tugging into a smile as well.
"Right. I take it you are both relaxed?" Ankh quickly changed the subject, still not quite looking at either woman.
"Very, and you?" Gabrielle asked, tugging her staff from the pack that hung at Argo's side.
"I feel like a brand new woman." Ankh replied, her gaze still everywhere but her traveling companions.
Xena strapped her sword on and then leapt on to Argo's back. "Let's go then, the next village isn't too far and Ankh reminded me that I am famished."
"Uhm, yea, we can grab lunch, and who knows what Ankh will grab before we leave there." Gabrielle teased as they set off down the road again. "Bartering is good for a person. Helps keep the mind sharp." Ankh mumbled as she fell in step with the bard.
"Not unlike learning to barter for supplies and bringing back a donkey, right Gabrielle?" Xena called down from Argo.
Gabrielle blushed at the mention of Tobias. Sensing a shift in the attention she had drawn to herself, Ankh pressed immediately for more details. ------
Gabrielle was just finishing the story of their Soltice adventure to Ankh's great amusement when Xena pulled Argo to a halt. All the women paused, Ankh turned her head slowly towards the trees just off to her right. Xena's gaze moved to the thicket to the left. "Get down." Xena cried as she slid off Argo's back, slapping the mare's flanks and sending her away. Ankh grabbed Gabrielle and pulled her to the ground.
A small flurry of arrows passed over their heads followed by the sound of feet moving through the underbrush. All three woman leapt to their feet and moved into defensive postures. They moved into a circle, backs facing in, Gabrielle stood ready with her staff, Xena's sword drawn and poised, while Ankh crouched, scanning the brush
"I gather 8 maybe." She called out to Xena.
"Hmm, 8 if they were real warriors, I'd say 10 cowards." Xena replied, her eyes lighting up at the prospect of battle. Ankh laughed and then heard the battle cries as 4 men rushed towards her, and she knew that their buddies were coming in from the other side. Gabrielle displaced one immediately with a blow from her staff, the one behind him was a bit more agile and leapt over the falling form of his comrade to engage the young bard.
The two remaining men turned and looked at Ankh who held no weapon and smiled at each other. They rushed at her from either side, swords raised in the air. She skipped towards the attacker to her left, placing a kick firmly beneath his chin, as he fell backwards she flipped over him and turned to face his partner. "Three can be such a crowd sometimes." She laughed as the man bellowed and lunged, she sidestepped him and bought another sound kick up across his gut then elbowed him across the back of his neck.
Turning she watched Gabrielle find an opening and dispatch her second attacker. Ankh watched Xena for a moment, she had already taken care of 3 of the attackers that had swarmed towards her and was easily on her way to defeating the other two. By the time Gabrielle's second attacker hit the dirt, they were the only three left standing.
"Highwaymen." Xena sneered as she stepped over the bodies.
"Robbing hapless travelers." Gabrielle agreed moving past the unconscious forms.
"Indeed." Ankh said, kneeling beside the second one that had battled Gabrielle. She rummaged for a moment, and found what she was looking for. She snatched the medallion from his neck and the heavy purse that hung at his side.
"What are you doing." Xena moved back towards Ankh.
"Trust me, they'll not be troubling anyone else. They have failed in their mission and their mistress is not the forgiving sort." Ankh replied as she rose. Xena raised an eyebrow before whistling for Argo. Ankh held up the medallion,"Hecate." She said grimly before tucking it into her belt.
"Goddess of mysteries and magic? She who stole from Hera? The Goddess of Night?" Gabrielle said with a touch of wonder.
"That is she." Ankh answered before heading back down towards the road.Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a look and then followed the other woman." Great." Xena muttered, battling yet another deity, and one that wasn't known for being especially nice.
If she had another day go by and not have to hear from any deity, that day could be soon enough in coming. Ankh's earlier demeanor gave way to silence and brief interludes of stories by Gabrielle.
Gabrielle stirred the pot of stew that was bubbling over the small campfire. Ankh had been more than generous in replenishing their supplies. She had disappeared briefly after their lunch at the Inn and returned clothed in new clothes. The dark leather was soft and supple looking. It was a simple design, a tunic and loose pants. No added protection save for rivets that added chain mail to provide protection to her upper arms. Gabrielle noticed that she wore no bracers or greaves. Not even knee high boots. The utter lack of weapons made the ensemble look even more incomplete. "That fits well for off the rack." Gabrielle had joked as Ankh handed her the rest of the purse. She was not rewarded with a smile or reply. Gabrielle couldn't help but notice the tension and silence that had hung in the air since the attack. Ankh moved away from the young bard. She needed to get away, wanting to check the freedom of movement of her new outfit. Gabrielle turned and watched Xena moving through their small camp, thoughts of the steam cave rose unbidden to her mind. The way her skin had glistened, her muscles rippling beneath the gleaming bronze sheen as she had arched into the pleasure that Gabrielle lips and tongue were giving her. Gabrielle shook her head, first her dreams last night, now this. It was a far cry from the last few weeks but still. A small blush crept across her neck and towards her face. She wasn't complaining.
Xena watched as Ankh slipped quietly into the forest, saw her glance back over her shoulder to ensure that no one saw her disappearance. Xena debated letting her go, but something about the way the woman had been acting since the attack prompted her to follow. She caught Gabrielle's eye and mouthed "Be right back." and nodded towards the already hidden form of Ankh.
Gabrielle nodded and settled back by the fire. Thoughts of her lover dancing in her mind. Xena crouched and studied the ground, then the leaves above her. Ankh was rather adept, stealthy and light. She hadn't had someone like this to track in quite some time. The nearly full moon helped Xena follow like a shadow, only occasionally glimpsing sight of her quarry. Finally, Xena came to a small clearing in the woods. She stopped, settling into the foliage.
Xena watched as Ankh stood for a moment. She appeared to be collecting herself before falling back and executing a series of dizzying quick leaps and kicks. Her arms a blur of motion as her body arced and twisted in a fluid series of movements. Her feet landed lightly on the mossy ground and she stood, poised.
Ankh paused to listen to the forest around her. The slight rustling of leaves, the wind and the silence. Silence she wished she could absorb into herself. She drew a slow steady breath and fell back slightly. Rocking gently on the balls of her feet, she lifted her hands and began to weave the air with slow intricate designs. The supple leather moved comfortably with her movements.
Xena and Ankh both tensed slightly, Xena crouched lower, blue eyes scanned the shadows around the clearing and then up to the treetops. Ankh merely slowed her movements ever so slightly. Xena caught the flash of black leather and blonde hair moments before she saw it spinning through the air towards Ankh. Her fingers reflexively clutched the Chakram at her waist.
"Callisto." She hissed at the sight of the blonde goddess, her eyes narrowed.
Ankh sidestepped and turned to face the figure that landed behind her, her arm coming up easily to block the blow. Her moon reflected eyes met with earth dark brown eyes. A small involuntary gasp escaped as she recognized the warrior lover from her dreams. She saw the slightest flash of surprise in the other's eyes before she had to deflect another attack. Callisto moved forward, pressing the other woman back easily with her attack. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw the face that turned towards her. Not quite the same, the hair dark and flowing wave like to frame that face. Not pale, flat and silken, but certainly the same silver eyes that ignited her core.
Ankh ducked away from Callisto's steady attack and got behind her. She did not attack though, something in her feared initiating any sort of contact with this woman. Her body had already begun to respond to the mere sight of this warrior who had haunted her dreams. Callisto whirled around, facing off with the woman. Xena watched the interaction, her Chakram poised, but taking no other action. Callisto had not said a word, which was odd considering how much she loved to taunt and torment her victims during battle. The question was not how Callisto had escaped but why. Xena felt the cold rage come over her again. She had left Callisto trapped beneath the mountain for a reason. Ankh gazed at the woman, her heart beginning to pound in her ears, her lungs tightening. She was beautiful. The strands of unkempt blonde hair that hung over those brown eyes, the curve of dark brows, the curl of those lips. Callisto met the gaze, following the angles and curves of the face before her. The heat of her desire burned beneath her skin with a snarl she charged at the woman. Ankh stumbled backwards, her earlier grace gone as she tripped over an exposed root and fell back against the trunk of the tree. Callisto moved in and trapped her there, her arms on either side of Ankh's shoulders, her face inches away.
Holding that luminous gaze, slowly, methodically, she spoke the words that Aillia had told her to speak-
"L'ankha'chien, bar'aes te mier bar'aes miet du'vuer. Sek'ien mier, fier'nyech mier, cher'jechin mier iru du'vuer." -burn for me as I burn for you. I am your need, your want, surrender to your desire for me as I do mine for you.-
Ankh moaned as she heard the words coming from the dream's lips. This woman could not know what she was saying or else she would not say it. She leaned back into the tree, trying to escape the face before her and the desire that was igniting in her body. Callisto saw the smolder start in those mercury eyes, she leaned forward to graze her lips against the other's. She felt a glimmer of resistance as Ankh tried to turn away, Callisto moaned as the her newly discovered godlike hunger flared in her again feeling the resistance melt away and then Ankh's almost urgent response.
Xena's rage transformed into shock as she watched stunned at the exchange. What had Callisto said? The look on Ankh's face had been one of what? Shock, panic, fear, and then abject surrender. She watched as Callisto pressed Ankh into the tree, positioning her thigh between the other woman's legs. Grinding ever so lightly, her hands twined into Ankh's dark hair. Ankh pressed into the body against her, her own arms snaking around Callisto's back, pulling her tighter. Light and dark hair mingling as they locked in that passionate embrace. Xena backed away slowly, her own breath quickening at the display of desire before her. She made her way quickly back to camp.
When she got there and Gabrielle glanced up to meet her gaze, she saw the slow burn in those green eyes ignite.
Callisto gazed down at the face beneath her. Feeling the warmth of the body beneath her. She wanted more of this woman. More of the taste of her, the sound of her, the feel of her. She bent down to lightly kiss those sculpted lips, feeling Ankh's hands moving slowly along her spine, over her hips, trailing back up along her ribs to slide over her shoulders and wrap themselves in her hair, pulling her closer to the teasing tongue and lips beneath her own. Callisto moaned, exhausted but still not satiated, and powerless before her need.
Aillia watched from her vantage in the woods, smiling at the image before her, pseudo Goddess and mortal lying on the forest floor. She chuckled at the sheer brilliance of it. Callisto burned with a want that matched her stupid sister's. Hecate was right, the godling was no match for a true deity's power. The world could pass them by, so consumed were they. Ankh would lose everything and be Aillia's, forever. Watching Ankh roll so that now she was over Callisto, and the trail of her fingers as they fluttered down the blonde's side, Aillia felt a small pang of...jealousy? Nonsense, she sneered, soon enough, Ankh will be only mine.
Ankh leaned down, her lips kissing along the slope of Callisto's jaw to her ear. Nibbling at the lobe, she murmured into it.
"How can you be this good?" Before moving down the sensitive skin along the neck, already colored with small marks from her earlier attentions. She flicked the tip of her tongue out, tracing the outline of the collarbone, sucking gently at the hollow at the base of her throat. Beneath her lips, she could feel the blood pulsing, feel her heartbeat accelerate.
Callisto felt her body respond to Ankh's kisses, already parts of her aching for those lips to make their way to them. She placed her hands on Ankh's shoulders and stopped her slow descent.
"Look at me." She asked, her voice hoarse from earlier screams and new kindled need.
Callisto did not know why she had stopped the woman and asked her to look at her. Gazing into those shimmering eyes staring at her with a tenderness beneath the fire, Callisto felt something else shifting loose. Making it's way as opaque as milk in a stream into her heart.
Callisto pushed the sensation aside, and pulled the woman back towards her lips, re-igniting the inferno that lay so close to the surface for both of them. She heard Ankh's willing moan and surrendered to the blaze as it consumed them both again.
Before Callisto had pulled her back to her lips, Ankh saw the flash of emotion that crossed like lightning over the plains of her eyes.
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