See Chapter 1 for disclaimers.
The day was bright and sunny and the glade was picturesque. Sitting against a tree, Gabrielle breathed in the wonderfully fresh, clean air, letting her lungs fill to capacity before breathing out in utter contentment. Xena's head lay in her lap, her eyes closed and a shy smile playing around those full, rose-red lips. Emerald eyes tracked down the muscular body laying in a relaxed posture, arms and legs crossed in casual repose.
Gabrielle watched in amusement as she lightly brushed her finger over Xena's face, her partner trying to swat away the distraction. Electric blue eyes opened, coming into sharp focus and showing her the full range of emotions lying behind that façade. A callused finger came up and caressed her face, lingering on the plane of her cheek.
The large hand continued its path around to the back of her neck and pulled her down, sharing a long leisurely kiss. This was a kiss of commitment, freely given to the other without expectation or demand. It was a slow exploration, and they were both happy just to enjoy the simple contact and the silent company of one another for a while.
The sun's journey across the sky eventually put them in the shade and the temperature dropped, sending goose bumps skittering across Gabrielle's cold skin. Xena stood and extended her hand down to her partner. Lifting her up, she led the younger woman back out into the warmth of the sun's rays and found a small mound of sweet-smelling grass. Xena's eyebrow rose in question as they both looked at the makeshift bed in the sun.
Eyes the colour of the meadow surrounding them darkened and a smile full of invitation crossed those perfectly shaped lips. The distance between them shortened dramatically and long fingers fumbled for ties, trying to gain access to the treasure beneath.
Gabrielle gasped as the cooling air touched her skin, to be moments later warmed by wandering hands. How does she do that? She had barely found the ties on Xena's outfit and she was already naked. Practice... lots and lots of practice. Or maybe it wasthe long fingers. Cringing at the thought of where Xena would get all that practice, she opted for the latter reason. Yeah, it was definitely the long fingers.
When warm lips brushed her earlobe, her fingers lost their ability to function. "Arrggh!!" A small chuckle escaped Xena's lips at Gabrielle's frustration and she brushed the small hand away, lending her own longer digits to help in the cause.
"There you go," and breathed a sigh as the warming touch was reciprocated. Xena's lips returned to their previous spot, tasting skin on their downward journey along her partner's neck. A gentle nip elicited a welcome response.
Gabrielle felt her knees begin to buckle under the onslaught. Lay down Gabrielle. Nothing happened. Gabrielle... lay down before you fall down. Still no reply. Do it stupid!
Finally the message got through and Gabrielle pulled them both down to the springy mattress. Gabrielle quickly flipped over her bigger companion, feeling in the mood for giving rather than receiving. She looked down at that face she had come to dream about, even in her waking hours. Closing her eyes, her fingers mapped intimate territory as they slid over the silky skin beneath her, her mind's eye easily able to fill in the details her vision could not.
Hands, nearly as familiar as her own, caressed her back gently as she was allowed to roam over the perfect body so freely given for her to play with. And as she opened herself fully to the emotions this woman could stir in her, Gabrielle felt herself truly blessed for having known her.
As the sun continued its homeward journey for the day, two eager bodies revelled in the sun, the fresh air and their love for one another in the peace and quiet of a lonely meadow.
Later, as they lay facing one another on the crushed grass, Gabrielle ran her hand over the expanse of Xena's back, pulling back at the sensation of smooth skin. Raising herself onto one elbow, Gabrielle leaned over and looked closely. Blue eyes opened, watching her.
"What happened? Where did they go?"
"Ares." Xena felt that was all the explanation that was needed.
"What did he do, Xena?" Gabrielle could feel her ire rising.
Xena reached across, grabbing Gabrielle's hand. She waited for the smaller woman to look at her before continuing. "He tried to get me to join him, but you knew that. He just tried a little harder this time, that's all."
"And how did he try to win you over?" Xena could hear the jealousy oozing out of that statement.
"Why? You're not jealous or anything, are you?" She couldn't help but tease her a bit. Her ego preened under the sudden attention.
"Me? Don't be silly." Gabrielle tried to laugh it off but both of them knew better. Of course she was jealous.
"You have nothing to worry about, Gabrielle. I am all yours, just as you are mine." That statement made it final. There would be no more doubt.
"He and I share a bond, I suppose you'd call it. His power draws my dark side, where my fighting skills live inside me. We share a bond in death and blood, Gabrielle. He wishes it were more but I'm not interested. I have everything I want right in front of me." A shy smile crossed her lips as her eyes shone with the love she had for the small blonde lying next to her.
"When he approached me, I was falling fast into that pit I had lived in after I left home. I thought I was doomed to begin all over again. Later, I noticed that my arrow wound had disappeared." She looked at her arm where the scar had been and rubbed her finger over the useless stitches in her leg. "And so the lash marks it seems. He must have used a bit of his power to try to bring me over to him."
"Well, some good came out of it then, right?"
Xena remained silent.
"Right? Isn't it?" Gabrielle could sense something wrong. "What is it?"
"I didn't want to lose those lash marks, Gabrielle."
"Why on earth do you want to keep them?"
Xena's mouth opened and closed a couple of times as she tried to express what her mind barely grasped itself. "They were part of my punishment, Gabrielle. My trial by fire, as it were. Without them, I feel that I have atoned for nothing in the last ten years."
'That's silly." But she could see that Xena was serious about this. She obviously felt that she deserved them.
"We both know that you suffered for those lashes, Xena. Isn't that enough?"
"No, it's not." Those pleading blue eyes begged her for some sort of resolution to this dilemma. How could she appease the older woman's sense of justice?
"What do you want me to do? I hope you're not asking me to give you the lash, because I won't." She tried to put some levity into the situation but worried at Xena's pensiveness.
"Those lash marks reminded me that there were consequences to my actions, Gabrielle. That all those years of chaos and mayhem came at a price. I need them as a constant reminder of what can happen when I lose sight of cause and effect."
"Maybe you can ask Ares to give them back to you."
Xena glared at her with an 'as if' stare. She had unwittingly been given the ability to heal. The last thing she would do would be to deliberately ask him for something. Any boon of the gods came at a price.
"Let me think about it." The lengthening sun drew them into a pool of lethargy. Eventually drooping eyes gave way to increasing sleepiness. Entwined, they finally succumbed to the drowsiness that had been tugging at them for some time.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle awoke in the darkness, feeling desperately around in her empty bed for her missing partner. Tears welled in sleepy eyes, cascading down cool cheeks and pooling on the sheets. It was all a dream...
The next morning, she sought out Cyrene. "I can't stay." She was on the verge of tears, trying to express what her soul was crying out to do. "I have to go and find her and bring her home."
Cyrene could see the young woman had been crying during the night, her red-rimmed eyes sad and lifeless. "Please, both of you, return to me safely." She gathered her in and gave her a warm, loving hug.
Gabrielle whispered into her ear, "Please, look after Marina. If something happens, tell her... tell her I'm sorry, but I had to be with Xena at the end."
Cyrene pulled back, "Now you listen to me, you will be back for her. I don't want to hear talk like that! She is not going to grow up without her parents."
Sadly, she looked up, "I need to find a temple or shrine."
"You're in luck, there's a shrine to Aphrodite just outside the next village, about two candlemarks away. Go say goodbye to Marina and I'll find someone to guide you."
"Thank you, and goodbye," she whispered.
"Until you return," Cyrene promised.
Now comes the hard part.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Marina looked up at the creak of the door, quickly pulling her bed sheet over what she was trying to hide.
"Marina, honey?" That melodious voice attracted her attention.
"Hello." She tried to sound nonchalant and busily preoccupied. She searched frantically for her reed dolly.
"What are you up to?"
"Nothing." But she couldn't look Gabby in the eye.
"What are you hiding there?"
"Nothing..." Oh oh.
"C'mon, show me what you're hiding."
Blue eyes, their colour subdued with her uncertainty, looked up through dark lashes to the woman approaching her bed. She slowly pulled back the covers to reveal a large egg, about twice the size of a duck's egg, orange in colour, sitting in a nest of clothing.
"Where did you get that?"
"I found it."
"Where did you find it?" It was like pulling teeth, trying to get information that the girl obviously didn't want to give.
"On the island."
"When did you find it, honey? I don't remember you picking this up."
"The last night we were there. When we went for that walk."
The last night before we were separated...
"Can I keep it, Gabby? Please?"
"I suppose so. Keep it and ask your mama when she gets back." IF she gets back.
Gabrielle moved closer to the egg, running her fingers over the rough surface of the shell and listening to the faint scratching coming from within. Was there any harm in her keeping the egg? Maybe it would help her in the long lonely days to come.
"Keep it warm, Marina, and it may hatch for you." She pulled the covers over the top, putting the egg into a nice, warm cocoon. She pulled Marina into her lap. "I have to go away for a while, Marina. I'm going to go and get your mama and bring her back home. OK?" The girl started to wriggle. "No, sweetheart, your mama needs help and I have to go. Be good for grandma, please."
"But why, Gabby? First mama, and now you. Why?"
"You know your mama is a strong fighter, right?" The girl nodded enthusiastically, despite the tears collecting in her eyes. "Sometimes that isn't enough. She needs someone to stand beside her and show her she is not alone. Do you understand?"
"But why don't I come too? I can stand too."
"I know you can, honey, but she will worry if you are in danger. She wants you to look after grandma. That's your job, to look after her and protect her." She looked pensively at the bed. "And now you have this egg to look after. That's your job too. By taking that egg you're now its mama, and mamas have to look after their children. That's the rule."
Marina slumped in defeat. "All right."
"That's my girl. I'll get mama and come back as soon as I can." Gabrielle didn't have the heart to reveal the harsh reality that they may not come back at all. "I don't know how long that will be, Marina, but think of it like when you were seeing your mama back in Rome. It may be a long, long time, but you will always be in our hearts and our thoughts and we will try very, very hard to get back here."
Gabrielle pulled the child into a long, warm hug, trying to instil into the child all that she felt for this family whom she had adopted as her own. She really wanted to get to know this child of Xena's, to watch her grow up into adolescence and hopefully be part of guiding her into adulthood.
She quietly gathered her belongings and her staff and left, passing Cyrene on the stairs as the older woman went to divert the child's attention away from the separation. She looked into those familial blue eyes and silently said goodbye, before closing the door and starting her journey.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
The dawn of a new day and Xena felt only mildly like wanting to face it. Last night's dream had been just what she needed, but it only increased her need to feel Gabrielle in the flesh. Her partner had only been gone a day and she already missed her.
She afforded herself a small fire to prepare some herbal tea. While sipping the hot beverage, she contemplated what the day would hold. Hopefully, today would bring her within sight of the Temple and this would all be over.
With no one to talk to and nothing to do, Xena packed up quickly and moved on. For the moment she brought her feather shield. Not one to waste an opportunity, she was not about to forego something that could help her. If it protected her once, then it may do so again.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Steps echoed around the large Hall, gradually becoming louder at the approach of a lone figure. Three women, untouched by the passage of time, were gathered around a loom, studying the results of their work. Out of the shadows stepped a tall man, standing there regally observing them.
"Atropos, Lachesis, Clotho" He addressed each one in turn, accepting the bow of their heads in tribute. "You have requested my presence."
Atropos stepped forward, shears grasped in a wrinkled hand, "Yes. Events are moving quickly and your intervention may be needed."
This was highly unusual. It was usually forbidden for the gods to intervene in the matters of mortals. For the Fates to summon him meant that the future of the world could very well be at stake.
"It seems, Zeus, that Xena is within sight of the Chakram." Clotho was loathe to say the word out loud, and it sent a shiver through her ageless body.
A rumbling could be heard through the Hall. "How did this happen?" Zeus's voice had picked up a steely edge to it.
The three women looked at each other, none of them wanted to be the bringer of bad news. Lachesis, who had been standing in the background, stepped forward. "It seems that your son, Ares, put her there."
"Foolish boy!" Zeus's anger grew and the rumbling increased, shaking the Hall itself.
Atropos spoke, "All is not lost."
In concert, the three Fates made their final plea. Lachesis began, "My lord, help must come from..."
Clotho continued, "those you least expect."
Atropos finished, "Look to your children."
This requires some thought. He stroked his beard and contemplated the cryptic words. "Thank you. I will take your counsel under consideration." He lengthened his strides as he left the Hall of the Fates.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Continued in Chapter 9
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