See Chapter 1 for disclaimers.
The overnight rain had given away to bright sunshine as Gabrielle awoke to an empty bed. She had quickly become accustomed to being snuggled up against Xena, who often woke up before her but stayed in bed until Gabrielle was awake as well. It felt strange to be alone. She knew this was a feeling she was going to have to get used to, despite how much she hated it.
She had known this woman only a few short weeks and already she was unable to sleep without that heartbeat drumming slowly in her ear. She realized she was not going to be able function without her from now on. It would be like missing an arm, a leg... or a heart – she would not be complete without her.
Gabrielle gave Xena some space to get herself ready for their journey, seeking Marina's help to pack up their camp. She knew that it was as much mental preparation as it was the donning of her armour and weapons.
Xena emerged from the forest in her new leathers and armour, standing there like one of those bronze statues of Rome's heroes. This was how she pictured her partner, a larger-than-life hero.
"Wow!" Gabrielle expressed her appreciation of the new clothes.
"Yeah, not bad." Xena had been secretly impressed with the Roman's work.
"Makes you look... bigger."
"Bigger? That's all I need. Aren't I big enough already?"
"Pretty impressive, Xena. Where did the pattern come from?" She reached out and ran her fingers over the embossed pattern on the armour, following the contours of the woman's body. A hand wound behind her and pulled her in. They didn't have time for this, but damn she was so sexy in all this leather. Gabrielle pulled the dark head in to share a warm, wet kiss that was slow and full of promise.
Xena cleared her throat. "I had seen something similar a long time ago." Xena felt a touch of remorse as she remembered back to her days on the high seas. She had grown rather fond of a young girl who had stowed away, and despite their language difficulties, they had found other ways to communicate.
Guilt crashed down on her as she watched Gabrielle's eye glow with unfulfilled desire. She's looking at me that way and I'm thinking of a long-lost love.Don't do this, Xena. Here is the person you will share your life with.
She had always wondered what had happened to that young foreigner who had wormed her way into a cold woman's heart. Who had taught her many things about life... and love; who had taught her "the pinch" with a certain amount of trepidation but had trusted Xena not to kill her. Caesar had separated them so she had no idea if the girl had survived or not. Don't dwell on it. Let the past stay in the past.
After a moment, Xena continued, "I described it to the armourer and this was what he came up with. I rather like it."
Gabrielle felt her heart do flip-flops looking at this woman who now showed her another facet of herself. The warrior. Everyone loves a warrior, right? Oh yeah, very sexy.
Xena took in the look of admiration and preened under her partner's intent gaze. She sighed. "No point putting this off. We ready to go?"
Gabrielle sadly looked around what had been their home for the last few days, fondly remembering it as a special moment in their lives. Maybe when this was all over they could find another beach somewhere and try to re-capture this wonderful feeling...
"Yeah." But she sounded less than enthusiastic. They grabbed their packs and slowly began their journey, struggling with each step. Gabrielle had her staff with her and Xena was pleased to see her little reed dolly peeking out of Marina's backpack.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
They had only moved half a dozen steps before four men stepped out from the thick undergrowth of the forest, one or two whom she recognised from the ship they had been on. They were dishevelled and their demeanour was serious. Xena looked them over with distaste. Only four? The amount of noise they were making, I thought there were more.
The designated leader of this rough group spoke with menace. "Don't give us trouble, Xena. We just want your supplies."
"Now why should I just hand them over to you?" She would have willingly given it to them if they had asked, but since they were demanding it, well... well that was different.
"Because we outnumber you and I really don't want to have to kill you."
Both Xena and Gabrielle couldn't help but laugh at the threat. They obviously hadn't heard of her, not that it would have mattered in Xena's mind. This battle was over before she had even removed her sword from the scabbard on her back.
"You think so? I think you overestimate your chances there, Acacius."
The leader became decidedly nervous now that Xena spoke his name. It was like marking him as a target.
"Oh, yes. I know your name," she purred. "And Nikomedes, behind you. I make sure I know my enemies." Nothing escaped her on the ship, and these two were sexual predators of the highest order. It took all her willpower not to rip their hearts out when then openly ogled Gabrielle during the voyage.
There was furious shuffling and shifting of weapons. Acacius' fist tightened on his weapon, the long scar on his forearm stood out in bold relief from the tension.
There was a whisper on the wind as Xena's sword slid out of its safe haven, the sun glinting off the newly sharpened weapon. She twirled the sword in a show of manual dexterity, causing the sailors to look at each other in dismay. Hesitation and uncertainty had now replaced the confidence and arrogance that had been present just a moment before.
"Xena!" Gabrielle's cry alerted her to movement behind her. Keeping the four men in front of her she shifted to take in the younger woman in her peripheral vision.
Two more men had arrived and were slowly moving in on her partner and her child. What had started as an exercise had now turned deadly.
She spoke to Acacius. "You leave her out of this or I will take each and every one of you apart." Her voice dropped to its lowest register, the vibration tickling their eardrums.
Acacius, seeing they were six to her one, re-gained his confidence. "Oh no, Xena. That little blonde is an added bonus. The six of us and her; just the thing to while away the hours."
Gabrielle watched the transformation and it scared her. With each step towards her adversaries, Xena shed her gentler self, taking on a hardness and determination Gabrielle hadn't seen before. The woman fairly exuded an air of menace. She was going to have to get Marina away from this before she saw too much, but she had problems of her own. Two desperate men moved deliberately towards her. "Xena!"
"Just like I showed you, Gabrielle. It's just you. Do it!"
Uncertainly, she brought up her staff, preparing herself for the first strike. Keep it simple, Gabrielle.
Surprisingly, her block held, the sword sliding off her staff and to the side. She was pleased with herself but had to line herself again quickly for the next strike. She knew she was in trouble because they would keep hitting her while she just defended. Xena had four men to defeat, so she was on her own and had to protect Marina.
Memories of all those years of holding back pounded in her head. While she hesitated, one of her two attackers started to move around her towards Marina. "Nooo!" It was the danger to Marina that galvanized her attack. Her staff was swung with purpose and great strength, and before she had time to think, both men were unconscious on the ground.
Xena kept the four men in front of her at arm's distance, not engaging them seriously while Gabrielle was in danger. She heard the two loud thwacks from the staff, followed by the dull thuds of two bodies hitting the ground, and breathed a sigh of relief. She wasn't sure whether the imminent danger would set off Gabrielle's self-preservation instincts, but she was glad to hear the obvious results.
"Gabrielle? Take Marina out of sight." Don't let her see this, please.
"Let me know when you're finished."
"This won't take long." She now turned her full attention to the four hapless victims in front of her. "You should have checked up on me, Acacius. If you had, you wouldn't even be trying this."
"Stop talking, Xena. Let's get this over with. I'm in the mood for a blonde."
The colour in her sky blue eyes slowly drained away, to be replaced by the palest of pale blue, ice cold and hard like their owner. "Over my dead body, Acacius. Give my regards to Hades." She moved in quickly, engaging the leader in solid swordplay. In a matter of moments, she had disarmed him and powered through a stroke to remove his head from his shoulders.
The three remaining sailors stepped back in awe. "Who are you?"
"Now you ask? I was the Champion of Rome, you idiots." Without another word, they dropped their swords and ran off, not looking back at any time.
Xena stood for a moment, letting the adrenaline flowing through her to run its course. She surveyed the carnage left behind. What a waste. Had they waited until she had left they could have had it all... except for Gabrielle, of course. No one could have her except the one she had chosen. Lucky me.
She wiped her sword on the dead man's clothing, having trouble sheathing it. Had it been that long since she had her own weapons? Damn, it used to be easier than this.
Gathering her belongings she headed down the beach, detouring into the bushes to gather her family. She kept herself between Marina and the view back towards their shelter, not wanting the child to see the results of her actions. There were some things she still wanted to preserve in her daughter.
* * * * * * * * * * *
They reached the head of the path just before midday and decided to stop to eat before moving off into unknown territory. Lunch was a sombre affair, each of them emersed in their own thoughts.
Xena could see that Gabrielle was upset. "Gabrielle, you did the right thing. You've done well."
The young woman looked at her still-shaking hands. I don't know if I can get used tothis. "I know I had to do it, Xena, but it doesn't mean I have to like it. I could have killed both of them."
"But you didn't. If you hadn't stepped in, Marina could have been killed. You saved her life and I thank you."
The praise elicited a small smile from the blonde. "You're welcome," she whispered, looking shyly up at her partner through long lashes.
Xena felt a lurch in her chest. Damn! How does she do that?
"C'mon. Let's go." The tall woman offered a hand and Gabrielle grabbed it, being physically pulled to her feet with negligent ease. "Marina, honey, let's go for a walk." Xena quietly slipped a tattered piece of parchment into Gabrielle's hand. Before she could ask, Xena replied, "It's a note for my mother, if you meet her."
Gabrielle smiled at her quizzically. "Don't ask. If something happens and you get the opportunity, give it to her for me, alright? I want Marina safe and sound at home."
Storm clouds gathered in those young eyes, pale green darkening to deep jade, holding a question Xena was loathe to answer. "Just remember I love you, Gabrielle, with all my heart."
I hate this, I really hate this. She may just be taking precautions, but Gabrielle could feel Xena slipping away from her. She was losing her gentle lover to the warrior, and while she knew that she needed that to be successful, it was like losing part of her soul.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
The path wound gently towards the centre of the island, and was easy and comfortable to traverse. They made good time and found a small clearing to set up a shelter for the night. Xena afforded them a small fire and they hunkered around it to absorb the little warmth it gave.
The stars overhead were barely visible through the overhanging trees. "That one looks like a goat," she whispered.
"You say something?"
She sighed and looked over at the sad green eyes watching her. "No... nothing." She cried inside for the loss of those early days when their love was young and innocent. Those days were now gone.
By mid-morning the next day, Xena was mentally on edge, sensing her travelling companions were getting decidedly nervous.
She felt a displacement of air and the fine hairs on her skin all stood up on end. About time...
A deep chuckle bounced around the forest before the air in front of them shifted and swirled. A barely visible form twisted and turned until it solidified into a giant of a man, topping Xena's height by a full head.
Seeing them together, Gabrielle could swear that they were related. Both dressed in black leather, their demeanor exuded confidence and sensuality. Their hawk-like features hinted of a similar parentage but Gabrielle knew that to be wrong. Still, if she didn't know better...
"Well, hello, there sweet cheeks. Where have you been?" Ares ignored everyone else.
"In Rome, Ares. Not that you helped. And it makes me wonder how you got us here."
"Well, I called in a favour from my uncle."
"It's good to have relatives, eh Ares? Let's cut to the chase. What do you want?"
"Xena, I'm hurt. Can't I say hello to my favourite mortal gal?"
An elegant eyebrow raised in disbelief. "Alright. Now that you're back home, I want you back in the fold."
"Not interested, Ares. I have a family now."
The tall tod finally turned his attention to the two remaining members of the party and seemed unimpressed. He turned his attention back to the one person who held his interest. "Tell you what I'll do – you help me and I'll help you."
"I'm listening". She saw out of the corner of her eye Gabrielle moving towards her and she held up her hand. "What's the deal?"
"I'll send these two home if you go on a little errand for me."
"Errand? What kind of errand?"
"Just a small one. There is a temple along this pathway and inside is a weapon, a chakram. Just go in and bring it to me."
"Yep, that's it."
"What's the catch?"
"What makes you think there's a catch?"
"With you, Ares, there's always a catch. Besides, we were going home before you interfered. You manipulated this situation to your own benefit. Why should I help you?"
"Because I can send these two anywhere in Greece if I want to. Don't push me, Xena." The air crackled around the dark-haired god as his temper rose. Sparks rippled along his skin, charging the air with static, and his dark eyes took on a fiery glow.
Marina started to cry and buried her head in Xena's chest. The warrior gave Ares an outraged look. "Look what you've done, Ares. You upset her."
"Like I care. Do this, Xena, or you will live to regret your decision."
Gabrielle had finally had enough. "Now you listen. I don't care who you are! She said butt out, so just leave."
"Now, listen here blondie. You are this close to being a small pile of ash."
"Yeah, you and whose army?"
He raised his hand and a small ball of energy began to form. Xena stepped in between them and he stopped his attack. "Send them home." Xena said quietly, her deep voice cutting through the cacophony of sound.
"No, Xena, I am NOT going to Amphipolis alone, you hear me? I refuse to go to that place without you." Damn you, Xena, you knew this was going to happen, didn't you? You give me a note for your mother in case - why didn't I see that coming?
Both Gabrielle and Marina faded out, leaving Xena and Ares alone. The silence was deafening. Now she could concentrate on getting herself out of this mess.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Damn. Damn. Damn. The queasy feeling left her unsteady on her feet. Gabrielle reached over and picked up the fallen Marina. They were in farmland district and it looked hauntingly familiar. She pulled the child into a gentle hug.
"Gabby, where's mama?" Marina was frightened when that man just appeared out of the air.
"Your mama will be alright. C'mon let's get you home." Gabrielle tried to sound confident but she was fooling no one, least of all herself. Standing, she grabbed the small hand and they began walking down the path to a nearby village.
They stopped, spotting a farmer tending his field, and called, "Excuse me, sir, but what village is this?"
"Amphipolis, young woman."
"Thank you." At least he put them down in the right place. He could very well have sent them to the far corner of Greece. Alone and without protection they would have been easy prey for local bands of brigands. Small mercies.
"Can you tell me where the inn is, kind sir?"
He left his work and came over to her. He pointed down the path, "See that large building there with smoke out the chimney? That's Cyrene's place."
"Thank you again." So, Xena's mother still lived. She only hoped that she would be as friendly as this farmer was...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Now we're alone, what do you really want, Ares?"
"I told you what I want, Xena. I want you in front of an army scouring the countryside in my name. You remember what that was like, don't you? All that lovely killing and maiming." His voice was like dark honey, and he moved closer to her so she could feel the lure of his power. Like old times.
This was the link that they shared like no one else; a common bond in blood, death and glory. He let the seductive pull of his power stretch out to encompass them both and she felt the full dark power of the God of War flow through her. It was intoxicating and pulsed in time with her own heartbeat.
It scared her that it was so easy to fall back into the warm pool of his attraction. This was going to be harder to resist than she had at first thought. The last ten years passed away as if they never existed.
She struggled to speak. "S... so...so why do you need this chakram?"
"With this weapon, civilizations will fall to you. We can share the world. The world, Xena." His voice remained low and hypnotic.
"I thought this chakram was for you."
"In your hands, Xena, and in my name, it will be mine. As you will be."
Continued in Chapter 7
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