The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, et al. belong to MCA Universal. They are used without intent to profit or infringe on copyrighted material. The story is copyrighted to me. No aspect of this story may be used elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the author. This story may not be altered in any way and this copyright information must appear in this work at all times.
Warning: This story contains scenes of intimacy between consenting adults of the same gender. If this offends you, or you are under 18 years of age, stop reading now. The author accepts no responsibility for non compliance of this warning.
Thanks to: My friend, beta reader, and editor, Natz. She gave me so many good ideas for this little tale, that I've lost count. Natz, I appreciate your help and enthusiasm. You're the best!
Comments can be sent to me at: email@example.com
And now, on to the story.
For the Love of...
The darkly handsome man smiled to himself. He stood in a richly adorned room, woven tapestries on the wall, incredibly detailed matching rugs underneath his feet, 'artistic' clutter everywhere, and watched as his sister idly plucked her lute, mulling over the conversation he had just had with her. Unknown to her, he referred to her and her eight closest sisters as "The Foolish Ones". They were always pondering over poetry, paintings, sculpture, and literature as if art was the passion that ruled the world. He knew differently, of course. One didn't command man's hearts and minds by whispering sweet words of love and beauty; one took control and wielded power as the God of War.
"But Ares, you never liked poetry much. And Gabrielle has been Calliope's chosen for so long, I don't think she would understand if I suddenly took an interest in her bard."
"Erato, my foo...," Ares cleared his throat. "...favorite sister." He smiled and nodded his head, hoping to cover his careless blunder. Seeing the blank look on the woman's face, he knew he hadn't been caught. "That's the problem. Don't you see? Gabrielle has been following Calliope's lead for far too long. It's time she honored you with her gifts too. Sure, Gabrielle's great with all the epic poetry. Who wouldn't be, traveling with the Warrior Princess? So many people to help or save, so many marauding warlords to stop. Let me ask you a question. When was the last time that Gabrielle wrote a love poem? Mentioned anything besides battle or blood? I think she just needs a change of scenery to get her to see the finer things in life."
"You think so?" Erato stopped strumming, and looked away from his darkly twinkling eyes. She was never very good at making decisions, which is why she chose to spend most of her time with her other sisters, the Muses. They tended to stick together, their own happy group against the larger one of their family. She looked down at her golden gown, frowning at her indecision. "It's true she hasn't written anything for me lately..."
"And isn't bound to, when you see who she's hanging out with. Centaurs. Amazons..." One more little push. Sometimes it just seemed too easy. "Unreformed warlords."
The Muse's head snapped up. "What do you want me to do?"
Ares raised his right arm, and made a half circle in the air. "Just watch."
A vision began to shimmer into view. Two figures, wrapped together in slumber, laid on their side under some blankets next to a small fire. A slight distance away, a larger shadow appeared to be a horse, head down in napping. They all appeared to be in a cave, or at least under a protective overhang, which kept the worst of the night's weather away from them. The scene looked gentle, serene, and not at all what Erato was expecting about an 'unreformed warlord.' Indecision again made her pause, her voice not really steady. "Are you sure?"
"Positive." Ares smiled, enjoying the victory already. He successfully kept the smile from breaking into a full face grin, realizing that the smile made him look charismatic and gracious while the grin would only show his more feral side, and lead Erato to guess his true intentions. Taking his sister's right hand in his own, they both pointed their index fingers at the smaller of the two sleeping figures, the one closest to the fire, who was being protectively held from behind by her dark haired companion. "Watch."
A small ball of energy formed within the sibling's clasped hands and flew towards the vision, striking the one by the fire in the forehead. It lit the area brightly for an instant and then silently burned out. Darkness fell around the two as before, and everything seemed peaceful.
"That's it?" Erato watched as the image faded gradually, until nothing was left to see of the two women, the horse, or the cave.
"That's it. Except for this." Ares suavely turned his sister's fingers in his own, and drew them up to his mouth, gently brushing his lips against the smaller hand of the Muse. "Thank you, sister." He dropped her hand and turned in one motion, walking towards a woven tapestry on the wall, disappearing before he had taken more than three steps.
Erato shook her head, feeling foolish. She really didn't understand what she had done, or why.
Xena felt Gabrielle stir next to her, and tightened her embrace, drawing the woman closer to her. Pleasant memories of the evening's lovemaking brought a smile to her face, and yawning quietly, she settled back down to return to sleep.
Gabrielle's eyes opened instantly. She didn't know what had woken her up, and disorientated, she felt an arm encircling her waist curl possessively against her, trapping her.
'Think,' the bard told herself, and that was when she noticed the pounding headache right behind her eyes. When she brought her right hand up to her forehead to rub the skin there, the blanket fell away from her, and in the light of the fire, she realized that she was naked. Her heart began to hammer in her chest. Things had just gone from bad to worse.
Eyes wide with fear, she searched for something familiar in the dim light. One object made her breath catch in her throat. She spotted a metal circular weapon, it's design and stones immediately recognizable. Gabrielle had never seen one before, but there was only one warlord, one woman who used this weapon. It was a chakram, and Gabrielle knew she was in more trouble than she could handle. Heart beating furiously, she had just convinced herself to slowly extricate herself from her captor's embrace when the person behind her sighed and threw a leg over hers, completely pinning her to the ground and in her keeper's trap. Without thinking, she scrambled away from the embrace, crawling on her hands and knees to the side of the cave, where she sat facing her tormentor, hugging her legs into her body. Gabrielle trembled uncontrollably, and she really didn't know if it was more from fear or the dampness of the cave.
"Gabrielle? Where do you think you're going?" Xena sat up, resting her upper body on her elbows. "Get back over here."
Panic gripped Gabrielle's heart. Trapped. Naked. Alone. And worst of all, she recognized her captor. It was Xena, the evil warlord the village elders had warned them all about. A woman so wicked, so heartless, that many villages simply surrendered to her army, hoping that she would at least spare them something before she and her followers left. And now she was this warlord's prisoner. The trembling became a shudder. "Please..."
"Please...?" Xena shook her head to clear the sleep from her mind, and sat up a little straighter. "Come back here."
It took all of Gabrielle's courage, but she said it. "No." She noticed right away the surprised look on the other woman's face. Warlords aren't used to being told 'no'. "Please," she gulped back her apprehension, and used her captor's name. "Xena, please just let me go. I won't...I won't tell anyone about where you and your army are. Please, I just want to go home."
"Army?" What was going on here? "I have no men." Gabrielle must be dreaming, but she looked wide awake.
Gabrielle looked wildly around the cave. It was true she saw only Xena by the fire, but the others must be around. They were probably camped outside, or on patrol, keeping the perimeter secure. She shivered again, as the dampness wrapped itself around her body.
Xena got up quickly, and Gabrielle cowered against the wet wall of the cave, convinced that the warlord was about to punish her for refusing her demands. The woman advanced on her and then stopped. Instead of beating her, Xena tossed one of the blankets that made up her bed to her. Gabrielle instantly wrapped the sleeping fur around her, grateful for this warmth, but still suspicious of the woman behind the gift.
Xena immediately recognized the look in her lover's eyes as fear. She knew the shivering woman was not playing a game with her from the way she flinched when Xena gave her the wrap. Gabrielle was absolutely terrified of her. Thinking furiously, the warrior paced by the fire, trying to figure things out. Gabrielle didn't appear sick, and she would have told her if she was during dinner. And they hadn't had any wine last night, so that ruled out that possibility. Something else must be wrong. She whirled back to face her partner, and instantly regretted her behavior. Gabrielle flinched again, and covered her head, as if preparing to be pummeled. 'Go slow,' Xena told herself, and then retreated to the bedroll, wanting to give Gabrielle enough room to feel at least a bit less threatened. She covered herself with the other blanket, not only to hide her own nakedness, but to appear less intimidating to her bard. "Gabrielle, do you know who I am?"
Gabrielle raised her head and pulled the blanket closer to her, all the while thinking that the warlord was playing with her. "You're Xena, the Warrior Princess. Some call you Destroyer of Nations. Others say you're the daughter of Ares." She saw the other woman look away after the last comment. She knew right then that it was true...Xena was Ares' daughter. Gabrielle glanced furtively at the cave's entrance, her only route to freedom. She just didn't know how she was going to escape from a warlord who reported directly to the God of War.
'The daughter of Ares, that's who she thinks I am. No wonder she's scared.' Xena tried to keep the pain out of her voice. "And you. Who are you?"
Not understanding what tricks the warlord was trying to pull, she answered honestly. "I'm Gabrielle, from Poteidaia."
"Anything else?" Xena desperately wanted Gabrielle to remember something, anything. She thought quickly. Maybe a pleasant memory would hurry her recollection. "Gabrielle, who's the Queen of the Amazons?"
"Amazons?" Gabrielle looked away. Why was she constantly changing subjects? Gabrielle decided that Xena wanted to keep her off balance for some reason. The headache was making it close to impossible to think clearly. "I don't know any Amazons. Legend says their greatest queen was named Cyane, but she's been dead for many years."
The pain caught Xena off guard. Her own involvement in Cyane's death, and now this cruel joke that someone was playing on her through her bard was almost too much to bear. Xena slowly turned away from Gabrielle and stared into the slowly dying embers of the fire. She didn't know how it had happened or why, but in her gut, she was sure that the recently mentioned God of War was behind it. Gabrielle had no memory of their meeting, no idea that she had wanted to follow Xena on their journeys, and didn't even remember their friends Ephiny or Solari. Desperate to bring her bard back, she reached for any idea that might help her, and thought quickly. "Do you see that staff leaning against the wall beside you? It was given to you by the Amazons."
Gabrielle was now convinced that Xena was lying. Maybe she would find out some answers of her own if she asked more questions. "Why would the Amazons give anything to me?"
"You're their Queen."
That was unexpected. But if it was true, it would be a reason why she was with Xena to begin with. She wanted a ransom. "Then...why aren't I with them now?"
"Because..." Xena gazed into the green eyes of the woman she loved, and cringed inwardly at not seeing the love reflected back. A stranger's eyes flicked across hers warily, never stopping on any object long, constantly searching for a way to escape. 'What do I say?' Xena thought. 'That you and I love each other, and travel the world together? That you're my light, my soul, my partner, my wife? That no matter what happens, we're there for each other, and can't live without the other? Gabrielle, you're breaking my heart! Is our bond that easy to forget?' Xena turned back to her lover. "I can't answer that question. Only you know the reason."
Gabrielle debated about pushing the warlord further, and then decided to take a chance. "So if I wanted to visit them, you would let me? I could go right now?"
Pain made Xena's heart beat faster. She heard the eagerness in the bard's voice, and felt the sharpness of loss embed itself into her heart. One lone thought kept her from trembling herself, and it was the only hope she had. The Amazons had a skilled healer. With Artemis' help, maybe Mari could restore Gabrielle's memories. The warrior took a quick glance to the mouth of the cave. "Yes, you could go right now. But it's only a few candlemarks until dawn. It's probably best if you leave then."
Gabrielle nodded to the woman. "I'll wait. And you'll let me leave?" she asked again, realizing that she wouldn't be sleeping any more this night. She couldn't chance it, knowing that Xena was probably just waiting for the chance to tie her up and prevent her from leaving.
"Yes. Now why don't you come back to the fire, and warm up some more? You must be chilled to the bone."
"No, I'm OK where I am. I'll stay here."
Feeling like she lost her already, Xena curled up on her side, facing away from Gabrielle, even though she knew what was going to happen. After a few minutes, she deepened her breathing, pretending to fall back asleep. As soon as she did, she heard Gabrielle stealthily move about the cave, getting dressed, and trying to be as quiet as possible as she planned her escape. First one tear, and then another, and another, dripped onto the bedroll as she heard the bard exit the cave.
Gabrielle slowly crept out of the cave, sure that the first thing that she would see would be a sentry ready to shove her back into her captor's hands. She couldn't believe her luck...no one was around, or maybe they were asleep on the job. Wouldn't Xena be furious when she realized that not only had she escaped, but that her guards were incompetent. She shivered in the pre-dawn light. The only clothes she could find besides a pair of leather boots that looked like they fit her was a short brown wrap-around skirt, and an incredibly small and ugly green cloth top that didn't keep her warm at all. She shuddered at the memory of waking up naked next to the warlord. Her mind refused to speculate on the reasons why she had been naked, or what Xena had done to her. It was better just to think about escaping, even though it was difficult with the way her head was throbbing. She left the sleeping fur that the warlord had given her because she didn't want to have to carry too many things on the road. That would attract suspicion, and she wanted to get away from Xena's army as quickly as possible. Taking a bag that the clothes were neatly folded on, Gabrielle also grabbed the stick that the woman had told her was hers. At the very least, she could stamp out any bugs on the ground before she laid down to rest. She winced as a stabbing pain in her head accompanied that thought.
Creeping along the side of the hill that housed the cave, she continued to search for any of Xena's men. Still grateful that she didn't see any, she glanced at the night sky, trying to find her favorite stars, the group that made up a figure that looked like a bear. With the dawning light, it was hard to spot, but she finally found it. For a brief second, and it was probably a trick of the coming light, it no longer looked like a bear, but a dipper. A picture of a dipper and a bucket of water popped into her mind, reminding her that she was thirsty and hungry, and goaded her to continue on her way. The tail of the bear would point her the way to Poteidaia. She hoped that there weren't any Amazons between her and her village. It was an odd story that Xena told her, that she was their queen, and Gabrielle was determined to stay clear of anyone who might know the Warrior Princess.
She followed along the hillside, watching the forest creep closer to her path. When there was only a short distance between the trees and the path, she ran for the woods, hoping that no one saw her. Gabrielle felt safer in the forest, the dense covering providing some measure of seclusion from any prying eyes that might be watching her, even though the rustling of the night animals frightened her a little. She could hit them with her stick if she had to, and anything was better than staying with that fearsome woman. It seemed her luck was turning because within a candlemark, she came upon another path that vaguely followed the bear's tail, and she also found a stream to quench her thirst. She didn't have any bags or skins to carry any water, so she drank as much as she could to keep her stomach quiet. It helped for a little while, but soon her belly was back to making it's emptiness known. Thankfully, dawn had arrived and she could spot berries growing on some bushes along the trail, so she ate as she walked, her confidence increasing as she purposely imagined that each footstep was taking her closer to the safe shelter of her home.
Xena waited a half candlemark after Gabrielle left the cave before rising and packing up her things. She wanted to give her partner enough of a head start before she started tracking her. Xena didn't know how much Gabrielle remembered, if anything, of their years together. Frustrated, she ran her hands through her long hair. If she lost all of her fighting skills, she would be easy prey for anyone she met on the road. The woman had to make sure that nothing like that happened to her. She threw some dirt on the fire, and stamped out the last of the dying embers. After saddling Argo, she loaded the packs on the mare, and took the reins, drawing the horse out of the cave. "Let's go find her, girl," she said to the horse, and felt comforted when the mare nickered in approval.
The warrior stooped to look at the ground outside the cave's mouth. Even in the dim light, Gabrielle's tracks were easy to find. She had done nothing to hide them. That told Xena all she needed to know, and with a sinking feeling, she realized that Gabrielle had most likely reverted back to the naive girl she had first met so long ago. She was also headed north, not south to Amazon country as she had implied. Xena was sure that her lover was going back home, to Poteidaia. Again grabbing Argo's reins, Xena led the horse along the hill, and then into the woods as they followed Gabrielle. She let her warrior mask slip into place, a stoic look on her face that didn't hide the determination beneath it.
Gabrielle had walked all day and was growing tired. She had kept to the path through the woods most of the time. When she had heard others approaching, she would hurriedly scurry into the trees, hiding herself from any strangers on the road. She was successful in remaining unseen, but the berries were not enough to keep hunger away. Wishing for a warm fire and a meal to go with it, she again entered the trees to find a safe place to stop for the night. She found a small campsite that looked like it had been used before; there was a ring of stones for a fire, and even a small pile of wood nearby for the next traveler to use. She wished she knew how to start a fire, but it wasn't something she really needed to know in Poteidaia. Her father had always taken care of the hearth, and if the fire had ever gone out, he would either restart it, or get an ember from a neighbor. Gabrielle dropped her bag, and sat down on the ground, leaning her back against a tree. She closed her eyes and dreamt of home, knowing that her parents were probably sick with worry about her. Smiling, she imagined the reception she would receive, as she first hugged her mother, then her father, then her sister Lila. She wasn't sure how far away she was from her village, and nothing had seemed familiar on her journey today. She didn't even know how long she had been gone. Hopefully tomorrow she would begin to see the landmarks that would tell her she would soon be home.
Gabrielle had just begun to doze off when her stomach reminded her that it was still empty. She sighed and rubbed her belly, knowing she would never be able to catch anything for her dinner. Her father had always been the one to slaughter any of their farm animals or provide fish from their stream. And while she was thinking of streams...she could faintly hear running water. She grabbed her stick and got up to investigate. At least she could drink her fill again.
The stream was wide but shallow, and Gabrielle could see fish swimming almost within reach as she bent over and scooped water up into her mouth. She wished she had paid more attention when her father had talked about fishing, but it had seemed like such a boring pastime that she had only listened half-heartedly. She promised herself that she would do better in the future, determined not to make the same mistakes again. As soon as she got home, she would make her father take her when he next went to the village fishing stream. She straightened up, and dragging her stick behind her, walked slowly back to her camp.
Gabrielle reached the clearing, but something was different, and felt wrong. The hair on the back of her neck stood up, and without thinking, she swung her stick in front of her, holding it in her two hands, parallel to the ground.
Then she saw the fire. She held the stick out in front of her in one hand, and warily approached the camp. A fire was now glowing brightly in the small ring of stones, and next to it, lying on a bed of large leaves, was a rabbit, already gutted and skinned, ready to be cooked. Even a leather bag of water was nearby, filled to the top with the cool liquid.
She turned wildly around, again searching the area for strangers. She didn't see anyone, but she had no idea who had left the meal, or why. She didn't even know if they were coming back. Her stomach growled, as she looked at the welcome sight of a meal in who knew how long. She sat down and threw another stick into the fire. Whoever had left the rabbit must have known that the camp was occupied, because she had left her bag when she went in search of the stream. And who would leave a skin of water when there was a cool supply so nearby? Thinking back to her childhood, she remembered her wish before she went to the stream, and stories from her youth about wood nymphs that sometimes helped travelers. She had thought they were just myths, but now was happy that it looked like those old legends must be true. She shook her head and gave up on trying to figure the mystery out. Gratefully, she skewered the hare, and held it over the fire to cook. She looked around once more, sure that now that she had made the decision to eat the rabbit, that someone would show up and demand it back. Gabrielle shook her head, determined to concentrate on the positive. At least tonight she would be warm, dry, and not hungry. And with the nymphs looking out for her, she was sure that she would get home safely.
Xena watched Gabrielle cooking her dinner from high up in a crook of a tree. She was far enough back in the darkness of the woods that the young woman wouldn't see her, yet she could still keep her in full view and protect her. Her heart ached in longing, and she just couldn't leave Gabrielle cold and hungry on the road. She'd watch her and make sure nothing bad happened to her. And somehow, she would have to get Gabrielle to remember her.
Gabrielle woke up before the sun was too high, and was stunned to find a fish baking on a spit above the fire. She had let the fire die down the night before, but now in the morning, it was again giving her warmth in the chilly dawn, along with sending her the delicious aroma of browning perch. Gratefully, she poked at the fish and decided that it was cooked enough, just as her stomach reminded her that it was empty. She took a bite, the tender meat of the fish practically melting in her mouth. Licking her lips, she took another bite, and another, before finishing off her breakfast with the last of the water from the skin. She wiped her hands on the grass of the clearing, and then went to the stream to fill up the water bag, moving quietly, hoping to catch sight of the wood nymphs. She was positive the nymphs were helping her. Who else could have set up the spit and start cooking the fish without waking her?
After filling the bag, Gabrielle returned to the camp, slightly disappointed that she was not able to spot any of her night-time helpers. She threw dirt on the fire, and stamped out any remaining embers before picking up her bag and heading back to the trail. Still carrying her stick, she continued on her walk to Poteidaia.
Xena and Argo followed behind the blonde woman. The warrior was glad to see that Gabrielle hadn't forgotten everything, that she was careful to get off the road when others were approaching. That made Xena's job that much easier, since she didn't want to spook the woman by letting her know she was being followed. She continued after her lover, trying to come up with a way of communicating with Gabrielle without scaring her.
Gabrielle walked until just past sunset, happy that she had begun to find familiar landmarks. She would be home sometime tomorrow, and would have enjoyed the day more if it hadn't been for the deep headache that she couldn't seem to shake. She had taken many breaks along the way to fill up her water bag when she found a stream, and to throw cold water on her face and neck, but nothing seemed to help. She hoped that after getting a good night's rest, the ache would finally go away.
The blonde entered the woods, looking for a likely spot to spend the night. No welcoming camp was waiting for her like last night, but she did find another small meadow that looked safe. Dropping her bag, she went off in search of another stream, hoping to take a quick dip to get the dirt of the road off. Also, and she couldn't help but feel a little foolish for thinking it, she wanted to give the wood nymphs a chance to help her again, if they really were out there.
She found a mid sized stream, and taking off her skirt and the ugly top, again wondering where she would have gotten such a hideous thing, she slipped into the water. Unbidden, a thought came to her. She saw herself in another stream or pond, holding a wiggling fish above her head, and proudly telling someone, "I did it!" A stabbing pain hit her between the eyes once more, and gasping at the intensity, she left the water to sit on the bank and rub her temples. Slowly the pain receded, but still throbbed tediously behind her eyes. Weary of the ache, she dressed and headed back to her meadow, her energy sapped for the day.
Hardly daring to hope, but helpless to do otherwise, she desperately wondered if she would find anything waiting for her at the camp. She let out a small chuckle, feeling like a child on Solstice Eve, and then couldn't believe her luck when she saw not one, but two fish waiting for her. A glowing ember was just starting to catch some kindling that nestled around it in a hastily made hearth. She blew on the ember to get it to catch quicker, while at the same time sending a prayer of thanks to not only the wood nymphs, but to Hestia, Goddess of the Hearth and Home.
Gabrielle cooked only one of the fish, determined to bank the fire more carefully tonight so she could cook the other in the morning. Her simple dinner tasted delicious, and she thought she had never had such a wonderful meal. Her headache even subsided for a bit, and after eating her fill, she curled up on her side facing the fire, and fell asleep.
Xena watched her lover fall asleep. She had seen her on the riverbank, and had guessed that Gabrielle's head was aching from her actions and expressions. It was just one more thing that Xena had no control over since Gabrielle didn't trust her. She would have liked to give the woman some of the medicine she carried, but couldn't think of how to get it to her without revealing that she was there. It was better to keep her in the dark about her presence. They were almost to Poteidaia anyway, and once there, Xena could approach Gabrielle's family. Herodotus, her lover's father, hated her. She hoped that Hecuba, Gabrielle's mother would help. And Lila liked her somewhat. She'd wait until Gabrielle was home safe and felt secure before approaching any of them.
Morning came quickly, but the second fish tasted as good as the first, and after making a quick trip to the woods for a fresh supply of water, Gabrielle kicked down the last of the dying fire and continued on her walk. She was closer to her village than she had originally thought, and again wondered how long she had been gone. She walked a little faster, knowing that she would soon be home.
Xena sat atop Argo, concern written on her face. They were now only half a candlemark away from Poteidaia, but there was a band of about twenty five thugs coming up behind them. "Perfect, just perfect," she said to herself. The warrior didn't know if she should ride ahead and warn the village, stay and try to fight them all off, or gallop up behind Gabrielle, scoop her up, and carry her kicking and screaming the rest of the way.
Option one was out of the question. Gabrielle's family would wonder why Xena was there without their daughter. Option two would only slow up the band, and possibly get her injured, and unable to keep a watchful eye on her lover. She'd be no help to Gabrielle that way. The third option was out too. Gabrielle would never be able to trust again her if knew she was being followed. Xena decided to continue following the bard, but wanted to get closer to her. That meant leaving Argo where they were, and taking to the trees.
She slid off the mare's back, and scratched the horse on her neck. "OK, girl. You take cover until I need you. I'll be back as soon as I can," the warrior said, and then gave Argo a thump on her hind quarters to get her moving into the woods. Climbing a tree, Xena moved from branch to neighboring branch, desperate to catch up to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle's feet were almost flying. She was now on the main road, the one that would take her to the main gate of her village. She could see the walls of Poteidaia already. Her head still hurt, but soon she would see her family. Each step she took brought her closer to ending her ordeal.
The road was getting wider with each step she took. The trees that had lined the road were thinning out, making way for the multitude of carts and wagons that made their way in and out of the main gate of the trading village. Dust swirled by her feet as she quickened her pace. Concentrating as she was on reaching her destination, she didn't hear the band of thugs gaining on her. What she did hear caused her to stop dead in her tracks. Somehow she knew that things had been going too well. Fear became a lump in her throat the size of a goose's egg.
Gabrielle turned just in time to see her kidnapper flip head over heels several times as she catapulted her way from a tree to land a few feet behind her, with her army racing to keep up.
"Gabrielle!" It was a shout of warning, but the look of abject terror in her lover's eyes made Xena wince inwardly. She had to get her to safety, and quickly.
Hearing her name on her captor's lips broke Gabrielle's inaction. She turned and ran for the village, yelling a warning as she went.
Xena whirled on the band, and reached behind her for her sword. "Dammit, I don't have time for this," she growled as she parried two sword thrusts from the first thug, and kicked a second hard in the gut. Hearing the village gate close in the background and at last knowing that Gabrielle was safe, she unleashed all her frustration and anger of the past few days onto her opponents.
She had just stopped a crafty thug from plunging a blade into her back when the village archers started their attack. Arrows from the tall battlements flew towards the group, scattering the thugs in every direction. At last deciding that the village wasn't worth dying for, and tired of fighting off this crazed warrior, the leader of the marauders called a retreat and disappeared into the woods.
Xena sheathed her sword, glad that she could finally be able to attend to Gabrielle in a place that she felt safe. Almost too late, she heard the whooshing sound of another arrow behind her. Whirling, she grabbed the shaft out of the air, only to see several more coming right for her. Xena cursed her carelessness when she felt first one, then two arrows strike her. Pain exploded in her left arm and leg as she crumpled to the dusty ground outside of Poteidaia.
A moan escaped her lips before she could stop it. Slowly gaining consciousness, the warrior found her right wrist chained to the main support beam of a barn. Dressed only in her shift and boots, she saw her armor and weapons leaning against a wall, out of her reach. The ground underneath her was cold, and when she tried to move to a sitting position, her ribs groaned in protest. Apparently the villagers had taken advantage of the situation, and had continued to rough her up while she was helpless to stop them. "Brave bunch," she muttered to herself. Finding a comfortable position at last, she leaned her aching body against a bale of hay. She licked her dry lips, wishing she had her water skin, but she had been so concerned about Gabrielle, that she had given the woman their only container.
Xena assessed the situation. The arrow wounds had been haphazardly dressed, so at least the villagers planned to keep her alive for a little while. She could see through the slats in the uneven window that the sun was nearly down. She must have been out most of the day. The manacle on her wrist was an old one, but she knew with some effort, she could break it. That wouldn't really help her situation with Gabrielle though. Gabrielle didn't trust her, manacled or not. She had to reach her somehow. Behind her she heard a door open, and turning, she saw the woman she loved.
Gabrielle was dressed in a longer skirt, and wore a long sleeved blue top much like the one she had when they had first met. The grim look of determination was new too.
"You made a mistake following me. You must have known that my village wouldn't let you take me away again." Gabrielle stared at the woman at her feet, seeing a wild animal, untamed and untrustworthy. "There will be a trial, but unfortunately, only for you. All your soldiers ran off. Not very loyal, were they?"
Xena at last raised her head and looked into the green eyes that had once held love for her. She could feel tears starting in her eyes when she saw the hatred in Gabrielle's expression. "I've told you before. I have no men," she said quietly.
"Not now anyway." The blonde turned away from the warrior.
"What? What did you say?" Gabrielle turned back to the beaten woman.
"Could I please have some water? I'm very thirsty." She licked her lips again, hoping that Gabrielle would at least help her that much.
Gabrielle paused, indecision on her face. She didn't want to get too close to the woman, not knowing what stunts she could pull. But Xena did look tired and thirsty. She took a step closer. "No tricks?"
Xena sighed. "No tricks."
Gabrielle went to the outside of the barn where her family kept their rain barrel. She picked up the dipper, and once more, the thought of the bear stars pushed itself into her mind. Her headache also made itself known again. She shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts but it was impossible. She filled the dipper, and returned to the barn.
The woman had not moved and mutely watched as Gabrielle approached her. Fear once again played across the younger woman's face, indecision warring with fright.
"No tricks. I promise, Gabrielle."
Her eyebrows down in determination, and not sure if she liked the woman using her name, Gabrielle knelt before the warlord and offered her the dipper. Instead of seeing the woman's face though, she saw a fearsome warrior, his face painted with reds, greens, and white, while feathers and bones adorned his hair. She felt the dipper slide from nerveless fingers as the headache emerged full force. "Kal..."
"Ughh," the blonde groaned, and without thinking, Xena reached for her.
When Gabrielle felt Xena touch her, it broke her inaction. She scooted back on her hands and knees, out of reach of the warlord. "Stay away! Don't...don't touch me!" She rubbed her temples, desperate to relieve the headache somehow.
"But your head..."
"Don't! Don't..." Gabrielle stood up and ran from the barn. "Don't talk to me!"
The dipper lay on the ground of the barn, it's contents making a puddle in the dirt and loose hay. Xena groaned inwardly. What a mess she had just made of her opportunity to talk to Gabrielle. She was sure the woman would never visit her again.
Less than a candlemark later, the barn door opened again. Lila, Gabrielle's younger sister, entered. With her she carried some cooked chicken and a large mug of water. She placed the items on the ground within Xena's reach and then stepped back, folding her arms across her chest. "Gabrielle's been telling us some pretty wild stories."
"Like you kidnapped her and wanted to ransom her off to the Amazons."
Xena shook her head. "Lila, you know your sister. Does that sound like her?"
Lila looked the warrior in the eye. "No. But it sounds like you."
The warrior sighed. "Gabrielle and I have been together for years. Why would I now want to ransom her off, get rid of her?" Xena thought furiously . "You and I don't always agree on what's right for your sister, Lila. But you must know that I love her."
"Maybe. At least I thought I did until I saw you leading that army right towards us." Lila stood a little straighter and glared at Xena.
"That wasn't anyone's army. That was a group of thugs determined to get rich off of attacking helpless travelers and storming undefended villages. Poteidaia just happened to be their next target."
Lila put her hands on her hips. "If that's true, then why does Gabrielle hate you? She's terrified of you, and she's convinced father that you have to be put on trial to answer for every crime she says you've done to her."
"And what crimes were they?"
The young woman thought about it. "She hasn't said. Even when I got to talk to her alone in our room, she wouldn't answer me. I don't think she knows herself."
"Lila, take care of your sister. She's having terrible headaches, so make sure she takes something for it." She shook her head sadly, worrying about her lover. "I have an idea of what's going on here, I'm just waiting for my guess to be confirmed." Xena looked at the plate before her. "And thanks for dinner."
"It was mother's idea," the girl replied, and turning, she left the barn.
Gabrielle stretched out on her bed, happy to be home. Although her reception wasn't quite like what she envisioned, it was still a relief to be back in her own village. Of course, one thing did mar her reunion with her family. She couldn't believe that Xena had followed her the whole way back, and then had waited until they were in sight of the village gates before trying to capture her again. Luckily, the warlord's plan had failed and she was safely chained in the barn.
Her headache was a bit better, thanks to Lila. Her sister had made a strong medicinal tea for her even though she had never mentioned that she was suffering from the stabbing throbs of pain. Gabrielle thought back to her last painful attack. She had been bending to give the warlord water, and somehow the scene had changed. It seemed familiar, even the strange word 'kaltacka' recognizable. She knew it meant 'water', she just didn't know how she knew it. Thinking about it seemed to make her headache worse, so she turned her thoughts to her family.
Her father was very happy to see her, but he had surprised her when he asked her about the Warrior Princess. When Gabrielle had told him that she had escaped from the woman, her father had grabbed her in a big hug and twirled her around the room, kissing her all the while. Her mother was equally happy to see her daughter home, but seemed a little concerned when she heard the vehemence of Gabrielle's hatred of Xena. Hecuba didn't say much, instead letting Herodotus shower their girl with affection.
Lila was acting a bit strange, at first asking her all sorts of questions of the time she spent with Xena. Truthfully, Gabrielle couldn't answer her. Every time she tried to recall details of her absence from Poteidaia, her headache would increase a notch in intensity. It bothered her that she couldn't remember how long she had been with the warrior. For all she knew, it could have been months or even years that she was held captive by the warlord. And after Lila had taken the evening meal to the warlord, she had wordlessly made that herbal tea for her. Her whole expression had seemed more guarded, more cautious. Maybe she should ask her father to take the meals out to Xena, just to keep Lila safe.
Gabrielle sighed and brought her favorite blanket up closer to her chin. It was good to be home. And maybe tomorrow she would visit Perdicus.
It had been a long night for Xena. After the sun had gone down, the coolness of the damp air had worked it's way into her bones. She had finally stopped shivering and had decided to stand up and test the strength of her injured leg when the door of the barn burst open.
"You killed him! How could you! Perdicus was so gentle, so kind! You...!" At a loss of words, Gabrielle advanced on Xena, and balling her hands into fists, she began to pummel the warrior's chest. "Don't deny it! You were there!"
"I was there," Xena agreed sadly, recalling how she had cradled Gabrielle after Callisto had run her sword through Perdicus. The warrior tried to grab Gabrielle's wrists to stop her wild swinging, but one punch got through and landed on the soiled dressing that covered the arrow wound on her arm. Xena hissed in pain as a fresh supply of blood leaked out of the bandage. She sank wearily to the ground.
"I could kill you!" the blonde snarled between clenched teeth at the woman at her feet.
'You already are,' the warrior thought to herself. To Gabrielle, she said quietly, "I'm sorry." She held the woman's eyes with her own briefly, looking into their raging violence.
"Why have you been torturing me like this? What have I ever done to you!" Gabrielle practically screamed in her fury.
Mutely, Xena shifted away from the woman. She couldn't let her see the tears in her eyes. Resting her forehead against the pole she was manacled to, she turned her back to Gabrielle.
"I hate you." The words were said quietly but Gabrielle uttered them in such a low tone, and so deadly serious, that Xena knew it was true.
Gabrielle had been in her room for candlemarks and had cried herself to sleep, when there was a soft knock on her door, and Lila came in. "Sister? There's someone here to see you."
The blonde sat up on her bed, and as she rubbed her aching head she felt the puffiness of her eyes. "Who is it?"
"A friend. Come on and see."
The two women entered the main room of the house. Sitting in her father's chair was a warrior, dressed in heavy armor. His skill as a fighter was evident; his gray hair and beard were a testament to his ability to win battles and live to fight another day.
Gabrielle glanced at Lila out of the corner of her eye, unsure of what to do. She looked back at the man, and with a shy smile extended her hand. "I'm sorry...do I know you?"
The man stood up and had taken Gabrielle's hand when Lila poked her in the ribs. "Silly! It's Meleager!"
At the sound of the name, the older sister let out a soft moan and pulled her fingers out of the warrior's grasp. Bowing her head, she massaged her temples, the headache threatening to make her physically ill.
"Gabrielle? Are you all right?" Meleager helped his friend to the chair he had been sitting in, and knelt before the woman. He grasped the neck of his armor with both hands and pulled down on it, a habit he had when he was concerned about something. "You do look a little pale."
Herodotus entered the room. "She's fine, now that she's home. She just needs some rest."
Lila had left the room and soon returned with another mug of the healing tea. Gabrielle accepted it gratefully, and even though the medicine did little to stop the pounding of her head, she smiled at the woman and their guest. "Meleager? I...haven't been feeling well lately, and I seem to have forgotten how we met. Why don't you tell me about it?''
Concern in his gray-green eyes, the older man pulled a chair closer to his friend and sat down. "Well, the first time I saw you was when you and I saved Poteidaia from an army of mercenaries. The second time, you and Xena..."
"Ooh," the blonde moaned. Her hands flew up to her temples again, as a particularly sharp pain stabbed her behind her eyes.
Quickly Herodotus jumped into the conversation. "We don't speak about that woman in our house. It's uh, bad luck."
Meleager shot the man a questioning look, his eyebrows knitted in worry. He turned back to his friend. "Are you sure you're OK?"
"Yes. I just need to rest to get rid of this headache. I'll be fine, really." She looked at the man and smiled wanly, wishing she could remember him. The pain increased another notch as she concentrated on his handsome features.
Hecuba joined the rest of the gathering, wiping her hands on a towel. "The mid-day meal is almost ready. Meleager, we'd be honored if you'd join us."
The warrior rose from his chair. "Thank you for your offer, Hecuba. But I have to be in Thrace by night fall. I just dropped by for a quick visit, to see if you or your family needed anything."
"No, we're fine," Herodotus covered quickly, and a bit nervously. He didn't want a friend of the Warrior Princess poking around any longer than he had to. It was best to get him on his way as fast as possible.
"Well, all right." Meleager bent down once more, and looked Gabrielle in the eyes. "You send word if you need me...OK?"
"I will." The headache pounded. "Thank you."
Meleager dipped his head in farewell to the rest of the family, and left the home of his friends.
Meleager entered the barn. If Herodotus caught him, he'd explain that he was looking for oats for his horse. "Xena? What are you doing here?" He saw the warrior chained, her back to him.
"Hello..." Xena turned to the man. "...Ares." The name sounded like a curse on her lips.
The gray haired man smiled, and with shimmering light glowing around him, turned into his true form. "I never could trick you for long." Ares' smile grew broader, and he shook his head in pleasure, his dark wavy curls flattering his face. "That's what I like about you."
"What do you want?" Xena tried unsuccessfully to keep the edge of anger out of her voice.
"What do I always want? You. But if I can't have you, no one else can." His smile turned smug when he saw the dark circles under Xena's eyes. "Things not going well with your little groupie?"
"They would be if you would just stop those headaches. I can forgive you torturing me, but Gabrielle is out of the question."
Ares laughed. "Sorry, no can do. She has to have time to get over you. And in the meantime," he held out his right hand to her, a glowing green ball forming on his palm, "...this is for you."
The ball looped it's way towards her, hitting Xena in the stomach. Clasping her good arm around her belly, she doubled over in pain, barely able to keep her head up. Ares' chuckling rang in her head as Xena glanced sideways in time to see him disappear in the dim light of the barn.
A short time later, the barn door opened again. Lila saw Xena curled on her right side, facing away from her. Thinking that the woman must be sleeping, she left the food she had brought within easy reach and closed the door behind her.
Gabrielle was looking out the window of her childhood room when Lila entered. She turned around to greet her sister, and was surprised at the concerned look on her face.
"Gabrielle, why don't you remember Meleager?"
"I don't know. He seems familiar...did we really save Poteidaia like he said?" Somehow, the blonde could just not image making all the plans and setting all the traps that the warrior had assured her they had. It seemed like such a far-fetched idea, she somehow being courageous enough to save her neighbors like that. Her headache thumped dully behind her eyes. "It's like I was a different person or something."
"I was what?" Gabrielle brought her hand to her temple and rubbed.
"A different person. You used to be happy. You used to tell stories. What happened, Gabrielle?"
"What happened?" The blonde whirled to face her younger sister, her voice growing louder in anger and frustration. "How can you ask that? Xena happened! She kidnapped me, she did all sorts of things to me..."
"Like..." The groan escaped her lips as Gabrielle again brought shaky fingertips to her temple. "I don't know..."
Lila grabbed her sister's hands and led her to her bed. "I'm sorry Gabrielle. I know it hurts you when you try to remember. Why don't you tell me a story instead?"
Gabrielle was perplexed. "I don't know any stories, Lila."
"Sure you do! You're always writing them down! Where's your bag? Your scrolls should be in there."
The blonde pointed at her bag leaning against the wall of their room. Her heart pounded wildly in her chest. She was suddenly scared because she didn't know what she would find in that bag. Her sibling handed her the item, and reaching in gingerly, she pulled out the first thing her fingers touched. It was some kind of carved totem, the head and beak of a fierce bird. She had no idea what it was. "Is this mine? Or did you put it in there?"
Lila took the strange carving from her trembling hands, and turned it over, examining it. "It's not mine, but you know what? It looks like it could fit here." The younger sister grabbed Gabrielle's staff, and placed the totem on the top of it, making the fighting stick look more fearsome and lethal. "Yes, I think it does belong there." She turned to her sister with a smile, but found her curled up in a ball on her pallet. "Gabrielle? What's wrong?"
Gabrielle stared at the staff and totem. It did look like they belonged together. Her head throbbed relentlessly, the pain bringing tears to her eyes. She looked at her sister, seeing the concern written on her face. "I'm OK, Lila. I just need to take a nap. Would you close the curtains for me? The light is hurting my eyes."
"Are you sure you're OK? I could make some more tea for you."
"No." The older sister sighed. "Thank you. I think if I can just take a nap, I'll be able to shake this headache. Wake me for dinner, will you?"
Lila bent down and kissed Gabrielle on the forehead, noting the clammy skin. "Sure. But get well. Promise?"
Gabrielle didn't answer. Instead, she pulled the blanket up over her eyes, blocking out more light from the room.
Gabrielle napped listlessly. Her dreams were filled with odd images of warrior women dancing, and someone teaching her how to use the stick. She clearly remembered a curly blonde haired woman telling her that the staff was not a toy and that it was an Amazon's first weapon. The scene changed wildly, and the Amazon was now imploring her to choose her champion. "I choose..." the dreaming Gabrielle couldn't complete the sentence. "I choose..," she turned to see behind her, and there was...
"Time to get up, sister. Dinner is ready." Lila shook Gabrielle's shoulder, jarring the woman out of her dreams. "Is your headache any better?"
Gabrielle sat up in bed, and tried to get the dream to finish it's vision, but it was too late. The scene was gone, and she had no idea who it was that was standing with her in that strange memory. With a gasp, Gabrielle realized it was a memory, and not a dream. She really did know the Amazons...just like Xena said. The pain exploded in her head and wincing, she rubbed her eyes.
"C'mon, Gabrielle. I'll make you some more tea."
"No." The blonde looked into the concerned eyes of her sister. "No, I'm fine. But I'm not really hungry. I think I'll take Xena's dinner out to her." Maybe she could get the woman to talk to her again.
"Are you sure you want to do that? Father told you to keep away from her."
"I'll be all right. Besides, what can she do? She's still chained, right?" Gabrielle got off the bed and headed for the kitchen, Lila not far behind.
Hecuba had just finished making a tray for the Warrior Princess, and was about to carry it outside when Gabrielle entered the room and stood in front of her. "I'll do it, Mother."
The older woman glanced over her shoulder at her husband, who was building a bigger fire in the hearth. "Your father..."
"Doesn't have to know. Let me, Mother." With very little resistance, Gabrielle took the tray from the woman, and headed for the barn.
The light was dim in the run down barn. Xena was still curled up on her right side, facing away from the door. The previous meal was left untouched, and even the door banging closed behind the blonde didn't cause her to stir. Gabrielle didn't like what she saw in front of her.
Erato had watched everything that had happened in the barn since her brother had appeared to torment Xena. She knew that Ares called her one of "The Foolish Ones," and she certainly felt that way now. When he had first approached her and asked her help, it had seemed like a good idea. Getting Gabrielle away from The Warrior Princess would give the bard more time to write poetry, but nothing like that had happened. She paced back and forth before the vision she was seeing. She didn't know if she should intervene, but one thing was sure. Gabrielle had lost all desire to write anything. Looking surreptitiously over her shoulder, positive that Ares knew what she was up to, Erato clasped her hands together, and willed a ball of energy into life. Soundlessly, she sent it on it's way to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle felt a force of energy rock into her, clearing her head. The headache was finally gone. "By the gods," she whispered, unaware that the tray she had been holding crashed to the ground. Before her Xena lay silently, unmoving. She raced up to her and knelt behind her, gently lowering the warrior to the ground. Xena was burning up with fever, her hair plastered to her face, the blue eyes closed but not in restful slumber.
"Leave me alone." Delirious, the warrior shivered from the effects of the fever and the chill air of barn.
"What have I done? Oh, Xena." Gabrielle brushed the sweaty hair off the woman's forehead, the skin underneath her hand hot to the touch. She eased away from her lover and raced to her home.
Herodotus was just joining the others at the table when the front door burst open and banged against the wall behind it. Standing in front of him was his daughter, her hands balled into fists at her side.
"How could you? How could you let me treat her like that!" Gabrielle advanced into the room, anger flying from her eyes.
"How could I do what? Treat that murdering harpy for what she really is?" Herodotus shouted, his own anger showing in his quick temper. He stood up and took a deep breath, gentling his tone. "Gabrielle, I did it for you. I love you. Is it so wrong to want you back where you belong?"
"Yes, it is wrong. You knew I couldn't remember things, and you let me believe every lie and half truth that came up. Now are you going to help me carry her in here, or not?"
"I won't." He sat back at the table, turning his back to his eldest daughter.
Hecuba looked up at Gabrielle and made her decision. She had just started to rise from the table when her husband clamped his hand down on her wrist, rooting her to the spot.
"You aren't going out there either." His voice was low, and his eyes were still dark with anger.
With her free hand, Hecuba peeled his fingers from her arm. "Yes, I am." Wordlessly, Lila joined the other two women.
The women entered the barn, and while Hecuba reached above the door for the key to Xena's manacle, Gabrielle hurried to her woman's side. The warrior had not moved from where she had left her, and now in addition to the shivering, Xena's teeth were chattering with the cold. The three half carried, half dragged the larger woman to the house. Herodotus was nowhere to be seen as they laid Xena on Gabrielle's bed. Lila went to get fresh water to bathe Xena's face, as Hecuba and Gabrielle worked on removing the warrior's boots.
"I'm sorry." Hecuba kept her head down as she worked on the laces of the tall boots. "I didn't understand what was going on, and when your father saw the chance to have you home again, I didn't stand up to him."
"Mother." Gabrielle had finished removing one boot, and brushed her mother's hands away from the other, preferring to do the work herself. "I love you. But my home is with Xena now. I love her, Mother. More than life itself." The second boot was placed on the floor.
"I think I knew that from the day you left with her." Hecuba hugged her daughter, and then wiped her tearing eyes with her hands. "Let me help you with the other bed."
They had just pushed Lila's bed up against Gabrielle's, when the younger woman returned with two bowls of water and some salve for Xena's injuries. She had noticed that they were still oozing a dirty discharge, and the dressings needed to be replaced.
Gabrielle gratefully took the medicine from her sister, and then asked their mother to leave. Closing the door behind Hecuba, Gabrielle first cleaned the wounds with Lila's help. She was angry with herself that even with her memory loss she had let her fear and ignorance dictate her treatment of the injured woman. But she was also upset that her sibling had gone along with her parents and allowed her to believe that Xena had kidnapped her.
"Lila, I understand Father treating Xena like he did, but why didn't you help me? Xena could have died if I hadn't regained my memory." Gabrielle took the second bowl of water and wiped down Xena's face, hoping that it would relieve some of the heat of the fever. Even with three blankets thrown on top of her, the larger woman continued to shiver.
"That's not fair, and you know it Gabrielle. It's true that I'm a little...jealous...of your closeness to her, but I did try to help." She took the cloth from her sister's hands, and dipped it into the bowl of cool water. "But every time I tried to push you into remembering, your headache always got worse. You didn't even recognize Meleager." She handed the cloth back to her sister.
"I'm not sure it was Meleager." Gabrielle bent over and patted the cloth on Xena's forehead. "My headache's gone now, and it disappeared at the same time I recognized Xena." The older sister stood up and taking the bowl from Lila's hands, she placed it on the table. "Lila, Xena means everything to me. I thought you knew that. And after this," she shook her head sadly, "I doubt I can ever come back here, knowing how Father feels."
Lila put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "Don't say that! Both you and Xena are important to me and Mother. Don't let Father lock you out of our lives."
Instantly regretting her words, the blonde hugged her sister. "All right. But you have to promise me to start standing up to him more. Don't let him push you and Mother around so much."
"I'll try, Gabrielle. But promise me you won't forget about us."
"I won't." She hugged her sister again. "You won't mind if we have the room to ourselves tonight, do you? I need to stay with Xena and make sure she's OK."
"Sure. Call me if you need anything, though." Lila grabbed her sleeping shift and left the two women alone.
At last finding nothing else to do, Gabrielle undressed and climbed into bed, hugging the woman to her.
Xena's eyes opened instantly not sure what had woken her. Disorientated, she felt an arm encircling her waist curl possessively against her. Then she felt the soft small breasts of the woman behind her press into her back, as Gabrielle shifted against her cradling her like a spoon. Smiling for the first time in days, Xena laid her head back down on the pillow, her fever broken and her life back together.
Gabrielle was the first to rise, and trying not to wake the injured woman, she carefully peeled back the old dressing, happy to see that the punctures were finally scabbing over. She put more ointment on the wounds, and started to dress them again when she noticed smiling blue eyes watching her.
"You do that well." Xena smiled at her partner.
"Don't say that. I almost let you die." Gabrielle looked away, not able to keep eye contact with the woman she loved. "I'll understand if you leave. I've treated you so badly."
The warrior sat up in bed and grasped Gabrielle's arms with her own. "I'll leave. But only with you."
"How can you forgive me so easily? The terrible things I said..."
"You didn't mean them. You didn't know who I was, and you acted on instinct. You were frightened of a warlord you didn't know. Ares' warlord."
"Ares?" The bard raised her head and finally looked her lover in the eye.
"Yes, Ares. As Meleager. He visited me in the barn yesterday." Xena felt the woman flinch in her arms.
"Oh Xena, I'm so sorry." Gabrielle pulled closer to her woman, and throwing her arms around her she buried her head against Xena's shoulder. "I should have known."
Xena closed her eyes and drew in a breath slowly. It was so good to feel Gabrielle back in her arms, that she almost didn't hear what the smaller woman had said. "Hm?"
"I asked you if you had left me the food in the forest. The fish, the rabbit. It was you, wasn't it?"
"I couldn't let my little bard starve, could I? I had to make sure you were safe."
Gabrielle squeezed Xena tighter. "I love you."
"Sweetheart, whatever I do, I do for you. You're the best part of my life. And I love you, too."
"I know that now. And I promise not to forget again." The bard sniffled back some tears, and leaned back to smile at her lover. "I've missed you. Even when I didn't remember you, I knew there was something that I was lacking." She paused. "Why do you think Ares tried to break us up?"
"With Ares, the answer is always simple. For the love of war, he wants me back. These twisted little diversions not only keep him busy, but he actually thinks one of these times they'll work. But he always forgets that the love I have for you is stronger than anything he can come up with."
"Thank the gods." With a little pressure, Gabrielle pushed Xena back down onto the bed. Her hand had a will of it's own, as it started caressing the soft material of the shift that covered Xena's stomach. Mindful of what she had almost lost, she surrendered to the powerful emotions of loving Xena.
Turning her smoky eyes to met Gabrielle's, Xena kissed her woman softly and quietly, the passion building effortlessly. They existed for the love of each other, and that was something Ares could never take away.
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