General Disclaimer: This is a fan fiction based on the television series Xena: Warrior Princess. All characters, locations, quotes, etc borrowed from the show belong strictly to the original creators and whomsoever holds the ultimate copyrights. There is no intention of copyright infringement or profit wherein this fan fiction is concerned. The remaining ideas, storyline, characters, etc are but a figment of my fevered mind and I will bear full responsibility for them.

Other Disclaimers:

Violence is inevitable and may even be overly graphic since a certain Warrior Princess is involved hence anyone who may be uncomfortable with such depictions are advised to avoid reading the story herein.

Please be warned that this story contains what could be considered BDSM, consensual and non-consensual though it is mostly hinted at. This theme is explored in a small part of the story and there is nothing overly graphic except for a whipping scene. However, anyone who finds this subject matter disturbing is hereby advised not to continue on to the story proper.

The story depicts a loving relationship between two consenting adult women and as such contain descriptions of a sexual nature, graphic and otherwise. In the event you are under the legal age wherever you may reside to be exposed to such contents or it is illegal in your country, please do not read any further. If a loving sexual relationship between two adults of the same gender makes you uncomfortable in any way, you might want to give this story a miss.

Please note that I will not be responsible for any trauma resulting from a failure to heed any of my warnings above.

Special Author's Note: Pardon the historical discrepancy rampant throughout this story with the presence of Sappho who supposedly lived in the 6th century BC, many hundreds of years before Julius Caesar apparently met his death. Since the show on which this fan fiction is based had Sappho very much alive in season 6 episode 19 of Xena: The Warrior Princess, I took the liberty of continuing that incongruity here. - CM

Sequel to Death Bonds

For Want Of Love

By Credos De Muse

credosdemuse@gmail.com


The brilliant clear blue sky marked another hot summer day where no breeze stirred. From where she sat under a helpfully shady tree, Gabrielle watched as perspiration poured down Xena's face, arms and legs. Droplets flew as the warrior princess whirled around in the dueling arena, going down on one knee and positioning her sword at just the precise angle to effectively disarm her opponent. In one fluid motion, Xena had spun into a simple leg sweep that laid her opponent flat on his back blinking into the noon day sun, her sword tip resting just above his adam's apple. Xena sheathed her sword to hearty applause from the watching dragon warriors and helped her vanquished opponent off the ground. Another warrior stepped into the arena to take his turn with the warrior princess. Shaking her head, Gabrielle stood up, one hand on her hip and the other holding a waterskin as she stared across the clearing at Xena. Having heard the bard's silent admonishment through their soul link, Xena held her hand up in apology and excused herself from the arena, her long powerful legs bringing her quickly and seemingly effortlessly to Gabrielle's side. Wiping the back of her hand across her forehead, she took the waterskin from Gabrielle and drained it in a continuous swallow. Xena tossed the empty waterskin onto the floor next to the others, gave Gabrielle a huge grin and headed back to the arena where three opponents now awaited her.

Smiling indulgently, Gabrielle settled back down onto the grass and picked up the scroll she had been working on quite unsuccessfully. Biting on the tip of her quill, she scribbled a few sentences before becoming distracted once again by Xena's battle cry. She looked up just in time to watch Xena execute one of her trademark flips which left four of her eight opponents on their backs. Gabrielle might be biased but there was something utterly mesmerising about the way Xena fought. It was sheer poetry, a dance of beautiful proportions especially since there was neither or death to mar it. Xena was enjoying herself and Gabrielle had every reason to be thankful for the warrior's amazing recuperative powers. Not half a moon ago, Xena's soul had nearly been destroyed while attempting to protect Gabrielle and the physical wounds she'd received from that foolish endeavour had been one of the worst Gabrielle had seen in their seven seasons together. Less than three days later, the stubborn warrior was up and about, her body a sea of pinkish scars that were all that was left of those horrendous injuries. Two days after that, Xena had started sparring with the warriors of the southern forest clan, building up her strength and stamina slowly but surely day after day. Just the day before, Ci Nu had flown them to northern Chin where they'd caught up with Eve and put her mind to rest about the rumours of Xena's death. Watching Xena dispatch the last of her opponent with ease, Gabrielle knew it was time they continued with their journey. Xena was fully recovered, in tip-top condition and raring to go. On top of her battle lust, Xena definitely had bucket loads of wander lust. The restless warrior could never stay in one place for long, not even when Eve was just a kid and Gabrielle had hopes of settling down with the Amazons to be a normal family. Gabrielle sighed and packed up her scrolls. It was time to drag Xena away from the dueling arena. Lunch was waiting and Gabrielle was famished.

***

The coolness of their bedroom was a welcome relief after the scorching heat they had endured outside. Gabrielle lay cradled within Xena's arms, her head nestled comfortably against Xena's shoulder as the warrior strode briskly towards the soft comfortable bed at the back of the room. She deposited the bard gently upon the bed, a small smile gracing her face when Gabrielle grumbled a half-hearted protest before turning over to snuggle down into the cool soft sheets where she resumed her none-too-gentle snores. Xena settled into a carved wooden chair next to the bed and started fiddling with the clasps for her breastplate. Her old armour still lay buried somewhere in the forests of Jappa and she was content to leave them there. The dragons had gifted her with two new sets of armour complete with breastplates, greaves, vambraces, epaulets, and boots reminiscent of her trademark armour except the leather was a dull red for one and a dark blue for the other. Not being averse to either colour, Xena had accepted the gift graciously and with much relief. The dragons were amazing craftsmen and the quality of the armour was much better than what she had been used to even when she was the destroyer of nations. But their gratitude hadn't stopped there. Along with the armour came weapons, the centerpiece of which was a custom-made sword that was beautifully balanced and a perfect fit for both Xena and her fighting style.

For Gabrielle, the dragons had made leather boots with built-in sheaths for her sais and that had made the bard rather happy. Being somewhat fashion-conscious, Gabrielle was relieved to finally get rid of the ugly cloth strips she'd wrapped around her boots to hold her sais. In addition, she'd been presented with new sets of clothes, all modelled after her current attire, ornately carved vambraces depicting a quill and scroll, a pair of custom-made sais and, lo-and-behold, a replica chakram that was an exact carbon copy of Xena's balanced chakram in both feel and function. That had been an amazing feat in its own right since Xena's chakram was supposed to be the only one of its kind. But somehow, it had felt strangely fitting for both soulmates to be carrying a chakram in their fight against evil. It was akin to a rite of passage and Gabrielle had definitely earned the right to carry the chakram and continue the fight against evil. When the bard had returned the chakram to her, Xena had been reluctant to accept it, likening it to a betrayal of her soulmate. But the dragons had eased her guilty conscience when they'd unveiled the replica chakram. Now the world had two girls with chakrams to contend with.

Her dexterous fingers eased the last clasp free and she lifted the heavy breastplate off, putting it away on the small table nearby. Leaning back into the chair, she interlaced her fingers behind her head and ran her eyes over the slumbering bard much the same way she should have examined her breastplate instead of just leaving it aside to be tended to later. After all, her weapons, armour and Argo had been the number one priority in her life for a long long time. At least until Gabrielle came along. But even then, necessity dictated that she tend to her sword and armour since they could mean the difference between life and death. For the past half a moon however, Gabrielle had been at the forefront of her thoughts. Not that she hadn't been before but never this exclusively or obsessively. To be fair, things had changed and even though Gabrielle had yet to clue in on just what that was, it seemed ready to turn their lives as they knew it all the way around. And Xena felt guilty. Because now that she was very much alive, her actions at the spur of the moment seemed to be overly rash and decidedly foolish. Her intentions had been good but they had been contingent on the fact that her chances of survival had been extremely slim to none. When Gabrielle had succeeded in bringing her back to life despite the overwhelming odds, Xena was left with a conundrum.

Gabrielle was pregnant. And Xena was the culprit. It had happened during the fleeting moment after the spiritual fight with the foreign dragon and before Xena's soul had been forcibly torn apart from Gabrielle's. In that moment, fatally wounded and feeling her tenuous grip on the land of the living fading fast, Xena despaired at the thought of leaving Gabrielle alone to deal with the loss of her soulmate once again. And so Xena had reached out, almost instinctively, to touch the core of Gabrielle's soul, thereby impregnating her in hope that this child of theirs would ease the pain somewhat and also make up for the emptiness in Gabrielle that had been caused by Hope. That was the plan. At least until Xena had woken in her own battered body with the taste of Gabrielle's insistent lips on her own. It was also there in Bimini that Xena had first sought the healer's advice. Considering the oriental dragons were able to see and read auras, Xena wasn't surprised when she learned that the healer knew about Gabrielle's pregnancy. It was one of the first things he'd noticed when he entered the fighting arena to check on Gabrielle following the tyrant's defeat. He assured Xena that the oriental dragons believed in respecting privacy and no one, at least from the southern forest clan, would breathe a word about the pregnancy to Gabrielle. Relieved, Xena thanked the healer who happened to drop a surprise of his own on her.

As it turned out, Gabrielle was carrying twins. One child would have been a handful though they might have found a workaround just like with Eve. But two? That was going to be tough and Xena found herself contemplating the idea of settling down somewhere to raise the children with Gabrielle even though Xena knew she would have problems staying put in one place for any length of time. As yet, she hadn't found a solution but she knew Gabrielle would likely head for either Amazon land or Potidaea. Alternatively, they could stay with the southern forest clan. The dragon village was secluded from the rest of the world so it would be safe for the children and Xena could always keep herself occupied sparring with the other warriors or they could use the village as a launching point since the dragons could get both Gabrielle and Xena to wherever they were needed within a day or less. Moreover, the clan chief had made them honorary clan members and offered them a home within the village. It was all feasible but everything would have to wait. Xena wasn't planning on breaking the news to Gabrielle. The bard would likely notice the signs herself and wise up to that though it would be a little harmless fun watching Gabrielle try to figure out how she got to be in the family way and attempting to explain her condition to Xena. The mischievous side of Xena rubbed its hands in glee then took a step back as the warrior princess reached for her breastplate.

***

One of the clan members returned bringing news of a merchants' fair set up in a nearby town and Gabrielle had immediately jumped on the chance to get in some shopping. Not that they lacked for anything while safely ensconced in the southern forest clan village. The dragons took care of their every need and the village sold nearly every merchandise anyone could possibly need. Then again, Gabrielle had never really needed a reason to go shopping. It wasn't something out of necessity so much as scratching an itch. Gabrielle loved a good bargain and that was something the clan village couldn't give her. The dragons absolutely refused to accept payment for anything and even if they did, Gabrielle couldn't in all good conscience bargain the price down on all those top quality goods. As a member of the clan, the dragons qualified as family and Gabrielle could never cheat or take advantage of them.

Xena didn't understand Gabrielle's idea of shopping and purchasing stuff which they didn't need but she'd learned to accept it as an activity that Gabrielle truly enjoy. Oftentimes, she would watch Gabrielle out of the corner of her eye while the hard-bargaining bard bickered with some poor merchant over the price of some item or other. That would invariably end with the merchant shaking his head in weary admiration while Gabrielle strode off with her latest prize grinning like a kid on her birthday. As long as Gabrielle was happy, there wasn't much reason for Xena to complain. And so it was that the two soulmates emerged from the mouth of the large cavern which hid the entrance to the dragon village. Both were dressed in red leather, Gabrielle in her usual halter top and skirt and Xena in her new armour. The blonde bard had retired her old boots in favour of the new and more stylish boots in which her sais rested snugly. Xena stayed with her tried and tested ensemble and her new sword hung in its scabbard across her back, ready to be drawn into action at the slightest hint of danger. More curiously, to those familiar with this odd couple, both carried identical chakrams on the right side of their belts. They took a casual stroll down the secret path before turning onto the main road that would lead them straight to the town they were headed for. It was still early in the morning and they were in no apparent hurry. Instead, they took the opportunity to savour the feeling of finally being on the road again. It felt strangely right and comforting and both knew their time in the dragon village would be ending in the next few days. Their presence earned them quite a few curious looks from the locals though these were fleeting at best. Anyone who happened to glance over at them quickly found something more interesting to look at when their eyes lighted upon Xena's forbidding visage. No one bothered them and without the eye-catching dragon tattoo that dominated Gabrielle's back until half a moon ago, they were just another pair of foreign warriors passing through Chin.

They arrived at the fair sometime in mid afternoon and were greeted by a veritable sea of humanity pulsing through the streets. Rows of temporary stalls lined both sides of each walkway, leaving only a narrow aisle for human traffic to pass through. The stalls were grouped according to the type of merchandise offered and the delicious smells wafting from the eastmost lane caught Gabrielle's attention immediately and that was where she headed, trusting Xena to follow as she pushed and shoved against the crowd. Shaking her head wryly, Xena caught up with Gabrielle soon after, the hapless bard finding herself inevitably being pushed one step backwards for every two steps she managed forward. Frustrated, Gabrielle scrunched up her face and prepared to bulldoze her way through when the crushing mass of humanity around her simply vanished. Perplexed, she looked up to find Xena grinning at her, an eyebrow quirked just so irritatingly so in jest.

“Why don't you let me lead the way?” Xena offered teasingly. “You're gonna be stuck here til dinner time if you keep this up.”

Gabrielle growled at the smug warrior. “You could have offered earlier and saved me the trouble of wading through this impenetrable sea of people.”

“Didn't get the chance. And that would have been no fun, would it?” Xena replied tongue in cheek then took pity on the hungry bard and strode purposefully forward, the crowd parting quickly before her like butter before a hot knife.

Gabrielle trailed in her wake, a petulant pout on her face. But the pout soon turned into a broad smile as they passed by stall after stall of succulent food. By the time they had completed a circuit of the food stalls, Gabrielle had her hands full. There were skewered meats, sausages and sweetened fruit, hunks of oily roasted pork and duck amongst other vaguely unidentifiable objects. One after another, they disappeared down Gabrielle's throat, the bard eventually burping in satisfaction as she polished off the last of her lunch.

Xena wisely chose not to look too closely, memories of the bard's weird food cravings during her last pregnancy still fresh in her mind. Bloody pork liver with melted cheese ranked right up there with raw squid as the darnest things Gabrielle had ever eaten and which Xena wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole. As long as Gabrielle didn't expect her to eat those strange foods, Xena would be fine. She tore a piece off the roasted pigeon in her hand only for it to be snatched out of her grasp before she could take another bite. Not even bothering to look behind her, Xena knew instinctively that the bard had filched her lunch. She turned into a small deserted alcove and caught Gabrielle in her arms as the blindly following bard almost crashed into her. Liberating the skeletal remains of the roasted pigeon from Gabrielle's greasy fingers, Xena threw it over her shoulder without a second glance. “Gabrielle, that was my lunch.”

“I was hungry. And we can always go back for more. Can't we?” Gabrielle looked up at Xena hopefully.

Easing her way around Gabrielle, Xena poked her head out of the alcove and caught sight of the local tavern just around the corner. “There's a tavern up ahead. Why don't we get some proper food there?”

“Oh. Ok. And we'll get some shopping done later?”

Xena sighed. “Yeah. C'mon.”

***

The tavern was unusually crowded due to the ongoing fair but Xena never had problems getting a table and today was no exception. She left behind a trail of disgruntled patrons nursing various bruises and sores but the immediate vicinity around her cleared and they found themselves standing in front of an empty table which a group of rowdy men had hastily vacated with their tankards of ale and bowls of stew. Gabrielle, oblivious to the going-ons around her, happily plopped herself down on the wooden bench, the hostile glares of her fellow patrons going straight over her head as usual. Xena made her way to the tavern keeper where she paid for two portions of the tavern special, a tankard of cold ale, and another of cider. On her way back to their table, she noticed a Greek boy of no more than 16 summers standing uncomfortably within the entrance of the tavern, his badly rumpled cream white linen robes smudged with a thick layer of dust accumulated from travelling on the road. Being rather short in stature and slim of build, he was having a hard time trying to look over the crowd, his leather sandals providing little protection from the heavy boots of the locals. Wincing from time to time, he raised himself up on his toes until a brief parting in the impenetrable wall of humanity before him provided a tantalising glimpse of a yellowish-blonde head in the middle of the tavern. Having apparently caught sight of his quarry, he tried pushing and shoving his way through but found himself gaining little if any ground. Exhausted, he finally gave up the struggle, rationalising that his target would need to pass this way to leave the tavern.

Xena had been watching the boy even as she made her way back to the ever-hungry Gabrielle. Placing her load on the table, Xena drained her ale, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, before saying, “I'll be right back. Need to check on something.” Seeing Gabrielle tuck into her plate of food, Xena added, “Gabrielle, try to leave me some food. I am kinda hungry you know.” The bard nodded absentmindedly, too busy devouring a leg of pork to answer Xena properly.

Sighing, Xena made her way to the tavern entrance. Towering over the Greek boy, she folded her arms across her chest and addressed him in a quietly menacing tone. “You looking for someone?”

Startled out of his reverie, the boy gulped as his eyes travelled up the length of Xena's body to look into icy blue eyes that seemed to promised a slow and painful death if she was somehow dissatisfied with his answer. At that very moment, he was cursing that beautiful spring day a moon ago when Blasios had entrusted him with the message. It was supposed to be a straightforward assignment, roughly half a moon travel to Chin, and another half a moon back. Finding the recipient shouldn't have taken him more than a few days but somehow, he'd been chasing leads from one town to another for nearly half a moon without even once laying eyes on the person he sought. The locals all had dark hair so it shouldn't have been to difficult to locate a blonde Greek bard in Chin but things hadn't turned out the way he'd expected. Today was the first time he'd laid eyes on anyone with blonde hair but no one had warned him about the steel-eyed woman warrior who would run interference with his chore. He opened his mouth to reply but only a faint squeak emerged. His throat felt stone-dry and he had to clear it a few times before he managed to whisper faintly, “I've a message for Gabrielle, the bard of Potidaea?”

Her curiosity piqued, Xena asked, “Who from?”

“Sa-sa-sa ppho?”

Taking pity on the petrified boy, Xena reached out a hand for the message scroll. “Give it here and you can g'wan home.”

“The scroll? But... I need to hand it personally to Gabrielle.”

“Well, she's busy right now. And the next ship to Greece leaves port in less than a candlemark. You'll catch it if you leave now.” Xena pointed out, gesturing impatiently with her hand for the scroll.

“Bu..” The messenger boy's protest was cut short when Gabrielle appeared by Xena's side.

Turning to the well-satisfied bard beside her, Xena noted her empty hands and shook her head in exasperation. “Gabrielle, you didn't.”

Gabrielle let loose with a loud burp. “Sorry Xena, I know you asked me to leave some for you but it was so delicious and before I knew it, there was nothing left. I feel guilty so I'll get you some food later at the fair? My treat.” She suddenly noticed the Greek boy. “Who's this?”

“He talks. Anyway, I can feed myself. But Gabrielle, no more stealing my food. Ok?”

Looking somewhat sheepish and appalled at her selfish and roguish behaviour towards her soulmate, Gabrielle nodded vigorously, “I promise!”

The boy stood watching the two of them, trying desperately to still his shaking hands. Xena! The warrior princess who slew the Olympian gods! Sweet Hermes, he better get out of here before she turned his wrath of him. “Erm, Gabrielle of Potidaea?”

“That's me.”

“I've a message for you.” He fumbled the scroll out, nearly dropping it in his haste to get it off his hands. “Here.” He thrust the scroll into Gabrielle's waiting hands, bolting helter-skelter out of the tavern without even checking to see if Gabrielle had caught it.

Gabrielle looked at the scroll in her hands then back to the rapidly disappearing figure of the messenger boy. “Xena, what was that about? He looked as if he had Cereberus chasing after him.”

Xena shrugged. “Guess he had a ship to catch. So, what does it say?”

Unrolling the scroll, Gabrielle scanned through the lengthy missive quickly, then slowed down to reread it once over, totally ignoring an impatiently waiting Xena. Granted, the message was simple enough and a few short sentences would have sufficed but Sappho wasn't an ordinary person. She was a reknown Greek poet that some have likened to the tenth muse and Gabrielle loved her poetry. Being on the road so much, Gabrielle had never attended any of Sappho's performances and that was something she regretted. On her last birthday, Xena had tried to remedy that but they'd arrived a day late. Gabrielle had been utterly gutted until she'd received her birthday present. Trying to make amends, Xena had asked Sappho to write a poem for Gabrielle and it had taken Gabrielle's breath away, the depth of emotions expressed in those few simple lines. And Gabrielle had looked into Xena's eyes, catching the uncertainty there as the warrior princess ventured onto unfamiliar territory, eschewing her usual guardedness. That had been her best birthday present ever. It wasn't just the poem but what it entailed. Xena had never been especially demonstrative or expressive regarding her emotions, choosing instead to bury them away deep within. That poem was Xena tearing down the walls between herself and Gabrielle, finally allowing the bard full access to her heart. There were still occasions when the warrior relapsed but they were few and far between and Gabrielle could usually tease it out of Xena after a while. Soaring over Greece that day in the arms of the woman she loved, Gabrielle had high hopes for their future together. Hopes that hadn't lasted long before being dashed cruelly in Jappa.

The rapid tapping of Xena's boots brought Gabrielle back from her little tour down memory lane and she grinned up at the raven-haired beauty frowning down at her. Good food and a neverending supply of sparring partners had done wonders for the warrior princess during their brief stay with the dragons. The warrior had filled out just a little and she looked decidedly strong, menacing and... yummy. Gabrielle felt a sudden need to feel the sculpted hardness of her warrior's body against her own bare skin but thought better of it as she took in the rowdy crowd around them. She would have Xena all to herself later. Gabrielle could wait. Fow now. Flashing Xena a predatory grin, she said, “It's an invitation from Sappho to the grand opening of her academy's new library...” Gabrielle frowned, referring back to the scroll. “the day after tomorrow. That doesn't give us much time does it? Hopefully the dragons would be able to fly us there. Good thing we're at the merchants' fair, we'll need some supplies for the road.”

“Was there anything else?” Xena gestured vaguely in the direction of the scroll with her chin, an eyebrow raised in query. She had caught the fleeting grin Gabrielle had given her and knew it for a promise. It spoke of unbridled passion and an all-consuming hunger. Xena felt her loins tighten in response. Hot passionate sex was something she could never grow tired of. Especially when it involves the feisty little bard to whom she'd lost her heart and soul so completely. That aside, something in the message had gotten Gabrielle excited and Xena wanted to know what it was. After all, she hated surprises.

“Erm... Yeah. Sappho would like a copy of my scrolls for the library and since it might some time for her scribes to finish them all, she thought I might like to teach at her academy for a while.”

“Corrupting the innocent young minds of virgin maidens is definitely you.” Xena quipped, tongue in cheek, a sense of pride welling up from the depths of her heart. Gabrielle had indeed come into her own, an accomplished warrior and talented bard nonetheless. It would be an honour for the young bard and Xena wondered whether she should remove herself somewhere else to allow Gabrielle to bask in her long overdue glory. “I'll go get Argo II and check out the lay of the land since we were last in Greece. We'll meet up later.”

“Xena! What are you talking about? Sappho specifically invited us both. We're going to Mytilene. End of discussion.” Gabrielle exclaimed, her free hand punctuating her point in the air vigorously. A momentarily sense of panic gripping her at the thought of being separated from Xena again. It was purely irrational but she'd almost lost Xena for good recently and her heart wasn't ready to revisit that anytime in the near future. Dying was one thing but to lose the other half of your soul forever is quite something else altogether. And with Xena's propensity for courting danger and, by association, death, Gabrielle wasn't planning on letting the stubborn warrior out of her sight for the forseeable future. They would face the good and the bad together, just like always. And when the day came to bid the world goodbye, they would do it together as well. After all, their soul-link wouldn't allow it any other way.

“But Gabrielle, what am I supposed to do while you're out with the young girls? I've never been good with any of this bardic stuff, it just puts me to sleep. And I need to check on Argo II before the stable master decides to sell her.”

“You could go fishing or visit with Orpheus while we're in Lesbos. Depending on the number of scribes they have copying my scrolls, we could be there for about a moon or so. I can't be teaching those girls every day for a moon, I'll probably go mad. We could take little breaks from time to time and head over to the mainland for some excitement if it doesn't find us first. Let us just attend the grand opening so I can entrust my scrolls to the scribes. We can then go collect Argo II and leave her with Lila and Sarah. I'm sure they wouldn't mind. Please Xena, just come to Lesbos with me.”

Xena looked into those haunted green eyes and found herself unwilling to protest any further. It wasn't a huge sacrifice on her part and if Gabrielle kept her word, they would be out on the road again before long. And of course that was that little matter of Gabrielle's condition. For all Xena knew, Lesbos might just be the place Gabrielle needed to settle down in though Xena was going to make sure Gabrielle stayed far away from the bacchae forest. She wasn't taking any chances now that the bard was carrying their children.

With an exaggerated sigh, Xena capitulated, earning herself a huge grin from the greatly relieved bard and an equally passionate kiss. That wasn't the wisest thing to do in a crowded tavern full of lecherous rogues but Xena chose to savour the moment. One hand reached out instinctively to collide with the ugly mug of a lumbering brute intent on forcing himself into the action, the other hand holding Gabrielle snugly against her as she pivoted out of the tavern. Gabrielle ended up with her back against the outer tavern wall, the warrior princess pressed firmly against the length of her body while a conveniently placed boot tripped over two more lust-filled barbarians before the rest backed off, having thought better of tangling with the tall dark warrior woman with the mean left hook.

***

By the time they returned to the village, it was dark, the sun long since bedded down for the day. Thankfully, Gabrielle's constant craving for food distracted her sufficiently enough to avoid any frivolous purchases other than a calligraphy set which Xena could grudgingly accept as somewhat useful if the bard should ever decide to abandon the quill and pick up the brush instead for her writing needs. That aside, they'd managed to stock up on cooking utensils just in case Xena somehow decided to use one of them as an impromptu weapon ever again. And there were the various spices and cooking herbs, some of which Gabrielle had grown to love during their short stay with the dragons. That was all they really needed, the dragons having already thoughtfully taken care of the rest.

Tired and not a little hungry, they made their way to their lodging, smiling gratefully at the cook who fell into step beside them, a huge tray of piping hot food balanced expertly on one hand and another tray of sweet delicacies in the other. While they continued on into the bedroom, the cook stopped in the front hall where he deposited the trays on the dining table, leaving silently through the main door and closing it gently behind him, granting Xena and Gabrielle the privacy they would no doubt require. There wasn't a single dragon in the clan who was ignorant of the soulmates' passionate love for each other and it was even said that the dark warrior had somehow impregnated the golden one with her self-sacrificial love. Whatever the truth may be, it was at least apparent to all and sundry that the power of their love could rival even the gods themselves. No wonder the sacred dragon had chosen them as his deliverers and the southern forest clan, and all oriental dragons for that matter, will forever be grateful. The story of their love and triumph over death and evil will be passed down from generation to generation so that the oriental dragons will never forget. There is much to be learned from history and that is the reason for the scholars' diligence in keeping accurate and current.

***

Xena was tired. Nothing drained her more than following Gabrielle through throngs of people flitting from one stall to another looking at merchandise that served no practical purpose whatsoever. She could travel for miles on Argo II or fight off an entire army without feeling half as tired as she did right about now. Dropping the parcels on the floor, she plopped down onto a chair and started to release the clasps holding her breastplate in place.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle looked almost ready to fall asleep on her feet as she trudged into the bedroom and flopped onto the bed, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. “Gods, Xena, I'm so tired, I don't think I'm getting up anytime soon. But there's a tray out there in the hall screaming out my name.” Uttering a low groan, she turned to watch Xena as she shrugged out of her leathers and into a skin-coloured linen shift. Gabrielle groaned again, cursing her sluggish body even as her heart started to race a little faster at the brief glimpse she'd caught of the firm sculpted body which was now hidden under that simple linen shift. “Xena, come here.” She called, her eyes never leaving the chiseled features of her soulmate as she sauntered over to loom above Gabrielle. “You're too tall.” She admonished, pouting just a little as she closed her eyes. “Kiss me.”

Pale blue eyes twinkling with amusement, the warrior princess bent down to brush her lips ever so slightly against Gabrielle's, the velvety softness of which parted ever so invitingly at her touch. Bracing herself against the bed with her hands, she kissed the bard once more, their lips creating an air seal in which they sucked hungrily at each other, tongues dancing erotically within the moist enclosure of their locked lips. It was a while before they came up for air, both panting with arousal as their hearts pounded as one. And just beneath the thunder of their hearts, Xena heard the unmistakable sounds of Gabrielle's stomach growling fiercely. Chuckling, she gave Gabrielle a chaste kiss on the cheek and headed for the door.

“Xena! Where do you think you're going?”

She glanced back at the flushed bard and winked before disappearing from sight.

Gabrielle sunk back down into the bed, her body warm and tingly all over, a throbbing ache between her legs. Perhaps it had something to do with their soul-link but she could never get enough of Xena or kissing her. Everytime they kissed, Gabrielle didn't want to stop. It was like a drug and all she wanted was to go back for more. Somehow, it just like coming home and she needed to lose herself in it. She'd never felt that with anyone else. Not even Perdicus. Kissing Perdicus had been nice but it had just been a kiss, nothing more. Her stomach growled once again and she groaned aloud. No Xena and no food, life's just peachy. Lying on the bed, she contemplated getting up but immediately abandoned the idea when she realised none of her muscles were exactly cooperating at the moment. Sighing, she closed her eyes, silently cursing the warrior princess for leaving her in the lurch. Moments later, her eyes flew open when the first tray rattled noisily as it was laid down by her side. A second tray soon followed the first and Gabrielle had tears in her eyes as she realised Xena had heard her hungry stomach and gone to fetch food for her. The bed sunk down on the other side as the warrior princess slid down beside her, propping herself up on one elbow.

“Hey.” Xena whispered, laying a kiss on the corner of Gabrielle's right eye and wiping off the tears from the other. “I got you some food.” She gestured to the heavy trays on Gabrielle's left. Xena guessed the hormones must be playing havoc on Gabrielle's emotions as she noted the tears trailing down the bard's face. “I love you, Gabrielle.” She kissed the bard, running her free hand lightly down Gabrielle's body to lay flat upon her stomach as Gabrielle nipped gently on her bottom lip before running her tongue over it. “Mmmm...” Xena leaned in closer to deepen the kiss, losing herself once again in that incomparable feeling of belonging. So lost in fact that the low grumble of Gabrielle's stomach startled her to full alert mode, causing her to instinctively roll off the bed to land in a defensive crouch with her hands ready before her. It was a full heartbeat later before she realised what had happened. Consciously relaxing her body, she shook herself mentally and reclaimed her earlier position next to Gabrielle who looked at Xena as if she had lost her mind. It was such a priceless look that Xena found herself bursting into hearty laughter before subsiding into a more or less controlled chuckle when she noticed Gabrielle glaring daggers at her.

“I was getting ready to do battle with your stomach.” Xena teased then relented as the bard blushed a deep crimson. “Here.” She said, leaning over Gabrielle to pick up a juicy piece of meat from a platter and dangling it just above Gabrielle's mouth. “C'mon. I'll feed you.” Gabrielle opened her mouth obediently, her face still warm from blushing. Careful to avoid choking Gabrielle, Xena carefully lowered the meat into the bard's open mouth, taking pleasure from the contented sigh as Gabrielle slowly chewed and swallowed. Upping the ante somewhat, she snagged another piece and held it between her teeth, allowing Gabrielle to gradually draw her closer until their lips met whereupon the warrior princess finally released her hold on the tiny morsel.

“Mmmmm...” Gabrielle took the rest of the meat into her mouth and kissed Xena, tracing the warrior's lips with her tongue. “That's nice.” She murmured. Combining food with foreplay was a fantastic idea and Gabrielle silently admonished herself for not coming up with that idea herself. After all, she was a bard and bards were supposed to be creative. Warriors were not known for their creativity but Xena wasn't your ordinary warrior and she could be very creative if she wanted to.

A candlemark later, most of the food had been consumed in a similar manner and Gabrielle's stomach had finally retreated in on itself, thoroughly sated and contented. Her other appetite however was now a raging fire that consumed her almost completely and she launched herself at Xena who caught her effortlessly. “Xena! Let me go!”

“Sorry Gabrielle but I'm hungry. My turn for dinner.” Xena pushed Gabrielle back down on the bed, kissing her hungrily while she expertly teased the bard out of her clothes. Once she had Gabrielle fully naked and compliant in her arms, she reached under the pillows and retrieved the linen sashes she'd hidden there earlier. Raising Gabrielle's hands above her head, Xena tied them together at the wrists, making sure they were tight enough that Gabrielle could not get free but not tight enough to restrict blood flow. Looking down into quizzical emerald green eyes, Xena smiled reassuringly. “Trust me, Gabrielle. Just relax and enjoy.”

Gabrielle looked into those lovingly gentle blue eyes and gave a small nod. “I trust you Xena.” A brief flash of regret passed through Xena's eyes but it was gone almost as soon as it appeared and Gabrielle knew the warrior was still haunted by those moments in their past when she had hurt Gabrielle either directly or indirectly. And even though Gabrielle had forgiven her long since, Xena still came down hard on herself. Scrunching her abdominal muscles, Gabrielle lifted herself up just enough to kiss Xena, reiterating, “Xena, I trust you. Completely.”

Xena flashed Gabrielle a small smile, grateful for the vote of confidence. She wound the second linen sash around Gabrielle's head before tying it off snugly, effectively blindfolding the bard. Gabrielle lay there docilely, her hands stretched out above her head, her face serene. Xena leaned back slightly and took the time to just savour the delectable sight before her, watching the play of those taut muscles under that smooth sun-browned skin. Her fingers gently traced a path down one side of Gabrielle's body and the bard shivered in anticipation. Xena looked over at the remains of their dinner tray and separated some of the more interesting pieces of food from the others. She absentmindedly picked up a piece of tender meat and popped it into her mouth, chewing as she decided where to start.

Her eyes flitted over the food and landed on the dumplings. They weren't too big, bite-size to be exact and they were perfect. Xena popped one into her mouth, her lips framing the moist slippery morsel. Bending completely over Gabrielle, Xena allowed her hair to fall forward and trail across Gabrielle's body as she used the dumpling to glide down Gabrielle's body, tracing a path from the hollow of Gabrielle's throat down through the cleavage before circling each breast beginning at the base and pausing at the tip of Gabrielle's nipple before spiralling her way back down and towards the stomach where she drew circles around Gabrielle's belly button. Xena watched Gabrielle squirm as the dumpling passed each erogenous zone, stopping just below her navel and no further. Xena moved back up Gabrielle's body, retracing her steps in reverse. Once done, she shared the dumpling with Gabrielle, ending the little moment with a lingering kiss that promised more to come.

Next came the main course. Using Gabrielle like a human tray, Xena draped juicy cuts of meat across Gabrielle's shoulders and chest; licking and kissing her way all over that region while picking up each morsel gently with her teeth, smearing some of the sauces or juices on Gabrielle's skin before eating them. She repeated this exercise with fruits and dumplings on Gabrielle's abdomen, running the cool sweetness of the fruits over certain erogenous zones and the warm stickiness of the dumplings across others. This was followed by dollops of gooey sweet desserts heaped upon Gabrielle's breasts and stomach which Xena licked and sucked clean with agonisingly slow movements, stopping every so often to share a kiss with Gabrielle. By the time Xena was done, Gabrielle was quivering with barely suppressed desire, her legs spread wide open, the center of her womanhood glistening invitingly. Unfazed, Xena took a mouthful of cold ale and commenced sucking on Gabrielle's nipples, eliciting a loud gasp from the bard as the cold liquid engulfed her sensitive buds. While Xena alternated between teasing each nipple and taking fresh sips of cold ale, her fingers traced the outer edge of Gabrielle's nether lips then dipped into the warm moistness between those lips, spreading the natural lubrication over and around Gabrielle's erect clitoris. Once Gabrielle had been thoroughly lubricated, Xena pushed her knee between the bard's legs, rocking rhythmically against Gabrielle even as she continued her attention on Gabrielle's breasts.

Gabrielle moaned as the first of many orgasms hit her and she bucked against Xena's thigh. Being unable to see Xena's administrations and having her hands held in place by Xena's strong fingers made the bard feel extremely vulnerable and that intensified each sensation, bringing her faster and closer to the edge time and again. After that final wave, Gabrielle felt Xena withdraw physically. One moment, she was there and the next, nothing. Gabrielle sagged back onto the bed, her abdominal muscles aching from the intesity of the orgams and panted, waiting for Xena to untie the blindfold and free her hands from their restraints. Instead, fingers grasped her thighs, pulling them gently but insistently apart. Too tired to protest, she acquisced. Xena's hair tickled the inside of her thighs and Gabrielle braced herself for what was to come. Unfortunately, she wasn't prepared for the sensation that hit her next. Biting back a gasp, she arched her back involuntarily, allowing Xena greater access to what she sought.

Xena had taken another sip of the cold ale, this time applying her mouth, tongue and teeth to the engorged nub between Gabrielle's legs. Using her cold tongue, she teased Gabrielle's clitoris, sucking on it while her fingers played around the edge of the pink throbbing oyster that was calling to her. She breathed in deep, savouring the musky sweetness of Gabrielle's sex. Xena placed Gabrielle's knees on her shoulders to give her better access. Taking another swig of ale, she dived in, her tongue parting the folds in search of the delicious nectar within. With her thumb continuing in a circling motion around Gabrielle's clitoris, Xena's tongue danced around the moist confines, darting in and out, working in tandem to bring the bard screaming once then twice before Xena switched positions. Crawling sensuously up Gabrielle's body, she kissed the bard, letting Gabrielle taste herself on Xena's mouth and tongue. Her fingers continued their little dance below. Still kissing Gabrielle, one hand reached up to hold Gabrielle's hands in place while she inserted two fingers into the bard, moving rhythmically in and out, slowly upping the pace before gradually increasing the number of fingers until her entire hand disappeared within those hungry folds to form into a fist within. That drew a breathless groan from Gabrielle then the bard started sucking hungrily on Xena's lips as if she could somehow drink her in. Xena continued her pumping motion, experience helping her walk the fine line between pain and arousal as she increased the intensity until she felt Gabrielle's insides spasming as the bard writhed beneath her. To prolong Gabrielle's orgasms, Xena kept her hand still within until the contractions conspire to push her hand out completely.

Collapsing onto her side, Xena removed both the hand restraints and blindfold before enfolding the spent and extremely sticky bard in her arms. They remained cuddled together that way, neither saying a word, both just content to bask in the afterglow of their lovemaking. Gabrielle was the first to break the silence, having finally recovered sufficiently to make an attempt at speech.

“Xena, that was incredible!” Gabrielle gushed, struggling to turn herself onto her back but failing miserably. The various food sauces smeared all over their bodies acted like some power adhesive, holding them firmly in the position they'd ended up in. Gabrielle tried to use the edge of the bed to pull herself away but that didn't work either. “Erm... Xena, we're kinda stuck together.”

“We need a bath anyway. C'mon.” Xena pulled herself upright, arms still wrapped around a bemused Gabrielle.

“You realise I don't really have a say in this. I mean, we're kinda stuck together so wherever you're going, I'm along for the ride.”

“Gabrielle, that's kinda the point. I'm enjoying every moment of it. Aren't you?” Xena's long strides brought them to the edge of the bath by then and she slipped immediately into the warm water, stooping a little so that Gabrielle was immersed up to her neck in the soothing liquid. Before long, the water had dissolved the sticky residue on their bodies and Xena finally released the bard. She picked up the soap from the side of the bath and they took turns washing the food residue off their skin and out of their hair. Once done, they towelled themselves dry then returned to their bedroom to assess the carnage.

The bedsheet was covered in a variety of food stains and so were the pillows. Those definitely needed to be changed and Gabrielle hunted around for clean sheets, wondering if they'd have to make up their sleeping rolls on the floor instead. Xena returned the food trays to the hall then stripped the stained sheets off the bed, dropping them into a heap on the floor. Meanwhile, Gabrielle had found a clean set of linens laid out neatly just outside the bedroom.

Gabrielle returned to the bedroom with the clean sheets and set about making up the bed. While she smoothed down the sheets, a sudden thought occurred to her. “Xena, do you think the dragons can read minds?”

“Nope.”

“You sure?” Gabrielle finished fiddling with the sheets and sat down on the clean bed. “I don't think they just happened to leave the sheets out for us today. So I was just wondering if they somehow read our intentions and made preparations?”

Amused, Xena leaned against the wall, hands folded across her chest, a smirk lurking upon her face. “Gabrielle, they don't need to read our thoughts. Anyone with an ear knows just what we have been up to. It's not exactly a mystery.”

Gabrielle had the good sense to look sheepish. “Oh. I guess they can hear me huh? Of course they can. What am I saying? Why didn't you warn me?”

Xena shrugged. “We have nothing to hide. It's honest. It's true. It's passion. I love it. Especially when it's my name you're screaming. Call out someone else's name and I won't be that forgiving.”

“Oh well, nothing we can do about that now. And we're leaving tomorrow. I'd better let the chief know about that first thing in the mor--” Her words were cut off abruptly by a huge yawn. “ning. Xena, I think it's time for bed. You coming?”

“Be right there.” Xena pushed herself off the wall and doused the lights. She picked up her sword and chakram, laying them on the left side of the bed, within easy reach before crawling up beside Gabrielle to lie down right smack in the middle of the bed.

Satisfied that her pillow was in place, Gabrielle stretched out on top of Xena, resting her cheek against one soft breast while her hand reached up to rest upon the other. Lulled by the warmth emanating from Xena and the regular lub-dub of her heartbeat, Gabrielle drifted off almost immediately, her gentle snoring punctuating the silence of the night and drawing Xena into a contented slumber shortly after.

***

Xena awoke just before the crack of dawn as always. Gabrielle lay in her usual position atop Xena, tousled blonde head tucked just below Xena's chin, her right hand and leg draped across the width of the warrior. Xena carefully maneuvered herself out from under Gabrielle, taking care not to jostle the bard overly much as she climbed out of bed. In truth, Xena knew there wasn't any need for all this cloak and dagger stuff. The bard was a naturally heavy sleeper and it would have taken an earthquake of massive proportions to even disrupt that rhythmic snoring of hers. Then again, Xena didn't want to take her chances where Gabrielle was concerned. Especially not now when she was carrying their children. Gliding silently across the room, Xena picked up her leathers and dressed quickly, lacing up her boots, greaves and vambraces. Breastplate in one hand, chakram and sword in the other, she headed out of the bedroom, pausing momentarily at the door to glance back at Gabrielle. Satisfied to find the bard sound asleep, Xena strode out the door.

The forest was silent in that time of day just before night gave way to dawn. The nocturnal animals had retreated back to their nests or dwellings for the night and the other animals had yet to wake. In that silence sat Xena, her back ramrod straight and her hands resting loosely upon her thighs in meditation. She was decked out in her full armour, her sword and chakram within reach upon the forest floor to her right. This time of the day had always been hers and hers alone. That short reprieve before the start of just another hectic day. Her routine usually began with half a candlemark of meditation and ended with another half a candlemark of meditation. In between came the sword drills which usually lasted a full candlemark as she worked on her jumps, flips, swordplay, incorporated techniques she'd picked up along the way, or practiced some new moves she'd thought up. Xena usually took time to analyse recent events while she sat polishing her sword or tending to her armour at the end of each day but she'd leave the majority of the thinking and planning to the next day, after she'd had a good night's rest. As it was, there wasn't really that much to plan. They were headed for Sappho's academy on Lesbos and that was that. And after the grand opening, who knows? They had planned to collect Argo II from the stables where they'd left her nearly three moons ago but Xena knew better than most that plans were often subject to changes especially where they were concerned and Xena was as ready as she had ever been.

Returning to Greece after such a long time away would be interesting and with most of the Olympian gods gone, Xena's greatest concern was Ares. The Greek god of war had always been obsessed with the warrior princess and despite what Ares had done for them and what they had in turn done for Ares while he had been a mortal, their last meeting had seen the god of war return to his old tricks. And that did not bode well for the future of their children. Unable to lure Xena back to his side, Ares might just decide to target Xena's offspring instead. A clean slate with the fully untapped potential that was Xena and the chance to influence that in anyway he desired. That would be just right up his alley and both Xena and Gabrielle would their work cut out in keeping him away from their children. The smart choice would be to get rid of Ares before he had the opportunity to wreck havoc with them but Xena felt somewhat indebted to the god of war. Ares had loved her, choosing to give up his immortality in order to save the two most important women in her life, Gabrielle and Eve. And for that, they'd restored him to his former godhood. But even so, both Xena and Gabrielle had glimpsed a different side of the formally ruthless god of war and Xena felt obliged to give him another chance. Besides, Greece would descend into chaos without a sitting god of war and having witnessed the result many seasons ago, she knew that someone had to pick up the slack if she ever got rid of Ares. It was better to deal with the evil you knew than to fight that which you are unfamiliar with. Knowing Ares as well as she did gave her an advantage and she would like to keep it that way. Perhaps one day Ares would push her too far but for now, she was satisfied to remain vigilant.

***

The village's rooster let loose with a throaty crow as he greeted the new dawn, signifying the beginning of a new day. While the rest of the village slowly awakened, the kitchen was bustling with activity as the cooks and their assistants prepared breakfast for more than 300 ravenous dragons. Elsewhere, the sentries were being relieved by their replacements for whom the kitchen had served up breakfast early. Meanwhile, Gabrielle was snuggled down in the covers, gently snoring, oblivious to the absence of her soulmate or to the fact that Xena was currently sneaking back into the village without alerting the sentries. Everyone was engaged in their daily routine, a routine Xena had become familiar with after observing them for the past half moon. The clan chief was ensconced within his prayer room, paying respects to the clan ancestors and making offerings to the four dragon gods. Ci Nu was preparing for another day of training at the dueling arena, her apprentices gathered around her as they went through the training schedule for the day. The healer was in the hospice overseeing the treatment of a young, inexperienced dragon who had been gored by a boar while out hunting. His assistants scurried around the hospice as they carried out the healer's instructions, preparing the medicine and equipment accordingly.

Xena stood at the entrance of the hospice watching the busy scene within and debating whether she ought to return later. The healer was usually alone in the hospice this early in the day but the dragons were a healthy bunch that rarely needed his services. It was rare for any of the dragons to get injured now that the wars and infighting were over but the patient was young and had likely froze instead of jumping out of the way when the boar had charged him. The wound in itself wasn't overly serious, having missed skewering any vital organs and the dragon would make a full recovery in no time given proper medical treatment. Deciding against intruding, Xena turned to go but had barely taken a step before a hail from the healer stopped her.

“Xena! Please come in.”

“You've a patient to tend to. I can come back later.” Xena answered, body half-turned towards the healer.

“No, no. Come in. My assistants have everything under control.” He beckoned his senior apprentice over and passed on some final instructions before gesturing for Xena to follow him. “We can talk in my study.” Noting the look of concern of Xena's face, the healer added, “There's nothing to worry about. They will call for me if needed. My study is just around the corner. Shall we?”

With a final backward glance to ensure everything was indeed under control, Xena nodded and allowed the healer to lead the way. They exited the treatment area via a side door and turned down a corridor which ended rather abruptly just a short distance later. Two doors stood before them, neither distinguishable from the other. The healer pushed open the door on the right to reveal a small study dominated by two floor-to-ceiling shelves filled completely with scrolls of all shapes and sizes. A huge desk was pushed up against the third wall, its surface similarly taken up by more scrolls. A straight-backed wooden chair was pulled up to the desk and three more identical chairs were lined up right beside the door. The healer gestured for Xena to make herself at home but chose wisely not to press the point when the warrior princess decided she was more comfortable standing.

Without any preamble, Xena said, “We'll be leaving for Greece later today. Thought you should know.”

The healer nodded, not overly surprised. He knew both Xena and Gabrielle must have been itching to be on their way again now that Xena was fully recovered. “You look good.” He observed.

Xena open her arms wide, inviting the healer to take a good look at her. “I feel good. Better than brand new actually.” She grinned.

“And the poison?”

“That ain't poison. It's pure unadulterated evil. Been there, done that, Gabrielle has the scroll to prove it too.”

“Evil's poison to the soul. You know that better than I do.” The healer countered, unconvinced.

“I cannot imagine what it would have done to an essentially good soul like Gabrielle's but for someone like me? Evil's a part of me and I'm used to keeping it on a tight leash. In fact, it kinda helped me recover faster than I would have on my own.”

Using his innate ability, the healer examined Xena's aura carefully, searching for any signs of anomalies. What he found instead was a blindingly bright purplish-gold aura that radiated strength and vitality wherever he looked. If he had been amazed before, he now found himself utterly speechless. He had never seen any mortal with such a majestic and powerful aura. Then again, no one really believed Xena to be a mere mortal. No mere mortal has ever held their own against Hercules or even the gods themselves but Xena had done that time and again. But her aura clearly marked her out as mortal. Ah, the mysteries of the warrior princess. He shook his head in surrender then beamed a huge smile at the waiting warrior. “Xena, you're in perfect health.”

“Told you.” She smirked then turned serious. “What about Gabrielle and the... you know.”

“They are all fine. I have been keeping an eye on Gabrielle. After all, she's not as elusive as you are. Have a safe trip. I wish you both well.”

“Thanks. For everything.” Xena stuck out her hand and pulled the healer in for a quick hug and back thump before making some lame excuse and hurrying off.

Framed in the doorway of the study, the healer watched Xena make her way back to the treatment, a satisfied smile on his face. I will never forget either of you.

***

After leaving the hospice, Xena found Ci Nu at the dueling arena and informed her of their departure later that day. The clan chief had previously assigned Ci Nu to the safekeeping and transportation needs of the duo. Xena explained Gabrielle's hopes of reaching Lesbos before nightfall and Ci Nu nodded her understanding. Since the flight to Lesbos was supposed to take approximately ten candlemarks, she suggested they should leave just after lunch. The timing sounded about right and Xena agreed readily. She left Ci Nu to make preparations for departure and headed back to their lodgings. Entering through the front door, her sensitive hearing immediately picked up Gabrielle's snoring. The bard was apparently deep in sleep and when Xena stuck her head into the bedroom, she noticed Gabrielle was in the exact position Xena had left her in earlier.

Shaking her head in wonder, a half-grin on her lips, Xena stripped out of her armour and boots before padding towards the bed where she leaned down to lay a kiss upon Gabrielle's forehead. The fair-haired bard stirred, blinking sleepily as she gradually focused on the twin blue orbs inches from her own. A smile stole across Gabrielle's face and she playfully pushed Xena away, causing the langy warrior to roll off the bed, landing on the wooden floor with a rather audible thump. When Xena did not immediately reappear, Gabrielle scooted to the edge of the bed and peeked over. Xena lay on the floor with nary a care in the world, as if it had been her intention all along. The mischievous glint in those baby blue eyes gave her away however and Gabrielle squealed, frantically backpedaling to get her head and shoulders back onto the bed. Unfortunately for the bard, Xena's reflexes were lightning quick and Gabrielle found herself being swung off the bed to end up straddling a very naked warrior princess. While Xena grinned up at her, Gabrielle blushed a bright red as she realised just how aroused she was by the touch and feel of her soulmate's stomach muscles flexing directly under her womanhood.

Leaning back, Gabrielle looked down at her soulmate, liking what she saw. Xena was a beautiful woman and only the gods knew how many men and women alike have fallen head over heels for the one-time warlord. She remembered how she'd once joked that men just couldn't resist Xena's blue eyes and leather get-up but there was more to it than just that. There was also that sensual energy to the warrior that many men found nearly impossible to resist and which often turned them into blubbering idiots with no other thought than to possess Xena. Ares was one prime example. Gabrielle's favourite however was moments like this, when the warrior's ever-present guard was nowhere to be found and her smiles came straight from the heart. She leaned down to kiss Xena, twisting her hip to grind her by now well-lubricated womanhood in small circles against the warrior's taut stomach. “You are so beautiful.” She breathed into Xena's ear.

Xena's grin widened. “Have you been taking henbane again?” She teased, increasing the stimulation by subtly rotating her stomach in the opposite direction from Gabrielle's movements.

“I don't need henbane to see how beautiful you are. Anyone with eyes can see that.” Gabrielle countered, tracing the contours of Xena's face with her index finger before stealing another kiss.

Xena grunted noncommittally. She pushed herself into a sitting position, drawing a gasp from Gabrielle as she slid the bard down her body until she was sitting in between muscular thighs, her legs wrapped around the Xena's hips, their womanhood mashed together.

Holding each other close, they began an erotic dance, their hips gyrating in counterpoint, their juices combining to provide just the right amount of lubrication as they drew each other closer and closer to the precipice of passion. Both women shuddered, reacting to the intense stimulation in their nether regions, their backs arching as first one then the other gasped, their eyes closed, their heads thrown back then brought forward in slow motion as they rode each wave of pleasure. And finally, the muted cries of release, their bodies spent, their heads slumped forward, their faces buried into the bosom of their lover. There they remain, locked in each other's possessive embrace, just savouring the moment and burying themselves in the delicious scent of each other.

“How. Do. You. Do. That?” Gabrielle asked, panting heavily still.

“I've many skills?”

“Xena!” The bard protested.

“Seriously Gabrielle. Were you expecting an answer?” Xena got to feet, pulling the winded bard with her. Cupping that cherubic face in her hands, she held Gabrielle's gaze, her tone soft. “You have that effect on me too.” She laid a gentle kiss on the bard's forehead and stepped away, all business once again. Sniffing her armpit, Xena made a face. “A little too ripe. Time for a bath.” She padded over to the bath, disappearing behind the bamboo screens.

Shaking her head, Gabrielle watched her go. The usually stoic warrior still found it awkward to talk about her feelings at times. Whenever that happened, Xena would immediately change the subject and find something else to do, as if afraid of Gabrielle's response. It was an instinctive reaction, one that Gabrielle had often mistaken for rejection during their early travels and it had taken her nearly two full seasons with Xena before she recognised it for what it was. After all, to Xena, the quintessential warrior, showing weakness or vulnerability was an absolute no-no. And baring one's heart was as vulnerable as it gets. Even if it is to your soulmate. And with that in mind, the bard made her way to the bath, intent on showing her warrior princess just how much that little revelation meant to her.

***

Following a feisty session in the hot bath, the soulmates joined the southern forest clan for a hearty breakfast at the communal dining hall where Gabrielle proceeded once again to demonstrate the fine art of making huge amounts of food disappear down her gullet, a feat only rivaled by her earth-shattering belch at the end. That garnered quite a bit of laughter from the gathered dragons who should have been offended by Gabrielle's abhorrent table manners but the lovable bard had won her way into the hearts of all present and it seemed that she could do no wrong. Milking the moment for all it was worth, the bard rose to her feet and took a bow, her face crinkling in delight as racuous applause broke out intermingled with hoots of approval across the dining hall.

Gabrielle raised her hands in acknowledgement of the clan's adoration, waiting for the applause to die down before giving a final bow of thanks. Resuming her seat, she turned to Xena, expecting the warrior to roll her eyes at her in exasperation. Instead, she found impossibly blue eyes staring at her in what could only have been utter adoration. Closing her eyes, she waited for the kiss she knew was headed her way. Xena's lips were incredibly soft, implausibly gentle, an undeniable promise of love, now and forever. And when it was over, they lingered there, their lips and noses barely touching, their breaths a gentle sigh.

“What was that for?” Gabrielle murmured.

“Just wanna show you how much I love you.” Came the whispered reply.

“You love me because I burp louder than a Viking?” Gabrielle teased.

Xena smiled. She lifted Gabrielle's hand and kissed it. “That too. C'mon, let's go look for the chief.” She nodded at the dragons grinning indulgently at them. “Or would you rather charge admission?”

“You know Xena, that's a really good idea.” Noticing Xena's raised eyebrow, the bard continued, “But I'm not ready to share you. Probably never.” She winked then cleared her throat to address the voyeurs. “Sorry guys but show's over. And... No, she's not for sale.” Gabrielle grinned.

Xena rolled her eyes at the bard and they exited the hall to a cacophony of catcalls.

***

They visited the chief's dwelling and wandered through the village but were unable to find any no signs of either the clan chief or Ci Nu. According to Ci Nu's assistant at the dueling arena, the chief's daughter had left the arena shortly after speaking with Xena and hadn't been seen since. Puzzled, they had turned to the hospice, hoping somehow that the healer would have some answers. Unfortunately, they discovered the healer had similarly disappeared after his private chat with Xena. Upon questioning, none of the dragons appeared concerned at their absence and the soulmates decided to take their cue from the rest and return to their lodgings.

A little over a candlemark later, two travel packs lay side by side on the wooden floor ready to go. The generosity of the oriental dragons had made packing a veritable struggle as the soulmates attempted to somehow stuff everything into their individual travel packs. Normally, Xena preferred to travel light but since that was out of the question, she applied herself diligently to the problem at hand and eventually subdued the travel packs with little more than a bout or two of creative swearing while a wrly amused bard watched on.

Gabrielle lay on her stomach in the middle of the bed with a scroll in one hand and a quill in the other, her legs waving aimlessly in the air. She was attempting to put the finishing touches on their latest adventure in Jappa but the right words would not come. Growling with frustration, she threw the scroll onto the bed and rolled over onto her back, her right arm covering her eyes.

Xena looked up from where she sat wiping down the blade of her sword with a cloth. “Whassamatter?” She drawled, holding the sword up to the light to make sure she hadn't missed a spot.

“I can't seem to find the right words for the ending.”

“Have you tried 'The End'?” Xena asked absentmindedly, her sharp eye having caught sight of a speck of dirt near the hilt. Frowning, she ran the cloth over the spot, ducking at the last moment as a fluffy pillow sailed over her head and smacked the wall behind her with a loud “whup”. “It worked the last time.” The warrior countered.

Gabrielle had pulled herself into a sitting position on the bed, her eyes narrowed. “Xena, I am a bard for crying out loud. What kind of artistic licence is 'The End'? It is so mundane. So uninspiring. So... Dead.” She reached for the second pillow but stopped abruptly as it finally struck her. “Dead. That's just it. Xena, you're a genius.” Gabrielle exclaimed, picking up her scroll and scribbling maniacally on it.

“Glad to be of service.” Xena smirked and rolled out of the way, the second pillow hitting the exact spot on the wall where Xena's back had been leaning just moments ago. “Hey, I helped!” She protested, coming up from the roll to lean against the doorframe, her sword poised inches away from the exposed neck of a semi-amused Ci Nu.

“Nice reflexes.” The dragon warrior observed.

“Xena!” The bard admonished.

“Helps keep us on our toes.” Xena joked. She sheathed her sword, a twinkle in those mischievous blue eyes as she moved aside to let Ci Nu pass.

Ci Nu gave Xena a half-smile. She had grown to like the foreign warrior woman in the short time she'd spent in the village as a actual living being. For Ci Nu, a warrior with few peers even amongst her fellow dragons, being bested by a mortal in a fight of any form came as a rude shock. And Xena had done it time and again, the dragon warrior never once coming close to beating the formidable blue-eyed warrior in fair or unfair combat. Every day, Ci Nu had stood on the sidelines, observing Xena while she sparred, hoping to find some weakness she could exploit in their next rematch. One day, Ci Nu noticed Xena reacting slower to a surprise attack from the back which the warrior had barely managed to block using her vambrace. During their next sparring session, Ci Nu had gone for that exact same move, certain she could pull it off with her superior speed to finally get one up on the foreigner. Xena had surprised her however by twisting deftly to one side and trapping Ci Nu's twin blades between her palms. This had resulted in Ci Nu losing her weapons and finding herself at the wrong end of Xena's sword. The warrior had winked at her while offering her a hand off the ground and Ci Nu knew immediately that she had been tricked. Ci Nu's respect for Xena had risen several notches after that.

“My father has sent me to request your presence at his abode. If you ladies could follow me?”

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. “Is something wrong?” Xena asked, concerned.

Ci Nu shook her head in negation. “Everything's fine. My father would just like to speak with you both before you leave our lands.”

“Sure.” Gabrielle replied. “We tried looking for him after breakfast to tell him we were leaving but he wasn't in the village. And neither were you. Guess we should thank you for saving us from hunting him down later.”

“I was only doing my duty.” Ci Nu demurred. “I'm sorry you were unable to find us this morning. We had some matters to attend to at the ancestral cave outside the village.” She noticed Xena's frown and intuitively understood the source of the warrior's confusion. Ci Nu hurriedly explained. “You wouldn't have noticed any caves in the surrounding forest. It does not exist on the physical plane and the clan elders are the only ones who are able to access it. Come, my father awaits.”

“Let's go then.” Xena said, indicating for Ci Nu to lead the way. When Ci Nu had first mentioned a cave outside the village, the warrior princess thought she might finally be losing her edge after cheating death more times than any mortal should ever be able to. After all, she had explored every single inch of the surrounding forest and there hadn't been a crack in the mountain, much less a cave. For someone as reliant on her senses as she was, the idea that she had missed an entire cave during her explorations was downright frightening. If that had indeed been the case, she would have to seriously look into the possibility of retirement. But warlords don't get to retire. And even though she hadn't been a warlord for seven seasons now, she knew the chances of her growing old and grey were nigh impossible. Xena tucked those dark thoughts out of the way. Ci Nu's explanation had reassured her that all was right with her world. As right as it could ever be anyway and Xena would live to fight another day. Alongside Gabrielle. That was all that mattered.

***

The room they were in was some ways off the main hallway and tastefully furnished. A familiar fragrance permeated the room which Xena recognised immediately as red sandalwood. Her eyes lit upon the huge wooden table dominating the room before wandering to the other pieces of furniture, confirming her suspicions. All the furniture in the room were made of the highly prized and extremely rare red sandalwood which were normally reserved only for royalty. Red sandalwood furniture are usually reddish-purple in colour but darken over time to turn almost completely black. In all her travels, Xena had only encountered genuine red sandalwood furniture twice. Once in Lao Ma's residence where she learned the true value of red sandalwood and the other was in Ming Tien's throne room. The dragons might not be royalty but being immortal had its perks, and wealth was definitely one of them. But Xena believed the furniture to be a gift to the clan chief from one of Chin's royal family. For services rendered. Usually such services tended to be on the shady side but Xena wasn't in any position to judge. After all, she had assassinated Ming Tien as a long overdue favour for Lao Ma.

At a gesture from the clan chief, Ci Nu bowed and left the room, swinging the heavy oak door shut behind her, leaving the two soulmates to wait upon the chief's pleasure. Luckily, they didn't have to wait long.

“I understand that both of you are planning on leaving today.” Seeing their nods of assent, the chief continued, “Wherever your journey may take you, I pray you remember that you will always have a place here with us. I want you to have this.” He took two pure white jade tokens out from his voluminous sleeve and pushed it across the table.

The jade tokens had been elaborately carved into the shape of a dragon resting on three of its legs. One of its forelegs was raised up to its mouth, a transparent crystal ball encircled within its claws. Gabrielle reached out a hand to touch the token nearest to her and hurriedly snatched it back when the crystal ball started pulsing with a purplish-golden glow upon contact. Intrigued, Xena reached for the other token and was rewarded with a similar awakening of the crystal though the pulsing faded away after a short while. She tried the other token and encountered a similar response.

“What's it for?” Gabrielle asked. She had gotten over her initial surprise and was now running her fingers over the intricately carved features of the token, taking in the little dips and protrusions on the jade piece.

“They identify you as one of us. But more importantly, those tokens provide a direct link to the southern forest clan. You can contact us simply by holding the token and calling on our clan.” He explained. “Once the summons has been sent out, we will be able to trace your location using the token.”

Gabrielle frowned, staring down at the little jade token in her hands. “So it works by some kind of magic? What if the tokens fall into the wrong hands?”

“It's not so much magic as a spiritual link. Remember the ceremony we held to adopt you into our clan? That ceremony created a special bond between yourself and the southern forest clan, not unlike your own soul-link. This link allows you to be recognised as a member of our clan and hence bypass the magical wards we have protecting the entrance to our village. That same spiritual link activates the tokens and sends out the summons. In the hands of anyone else, the token is only a pretty jade piece and nothing more.”

“Chief, you and your clan have been more than generous in your hospitality, gifts and assistance during our stay here. I speak for both Xena and myself when I say we can't thank you enough for all you have done for us. We accept these tokens glady. As a symbol of our affiliation to the southern forest clan and as a reminder of the love and friendship everyone has shown us. Thank you.” Gabrielle said, tucking the little jade token into the inner lining of her belt.

The chief smiled. “We have both of you to thank for our lives and all the oriental dragons will forever be in your debt.” He raised a hand to forestall any argument from Gabrielle. “I know your argument very well but it is a fact you delivered us from the tyrant and for that you have our gratitude. You must also agree that it is solely up to us how we express that gratitude. We are a people of honour, Gabrielle, and we always pay our debts.” He looked over at Xena. “You understand, don't you, Xena?”

“I do.”

“Then it's settled.” The chief declared, hugely relieved. Gabrielle could be very stubborn and he wasn't looking forward to arguing with her.

“I have a favour to ask.” He said. “I would be grateful if you'll allow two of my dragons to travel with you. Ci Nu and Fei Cui.”

The chief had expected one or the other to protest but only silence greeted his statement. Two sets of eyes were fixed on him, one pair pale blue, the other a light forest green and he felt slightly unnerved. As chief of an oriental dragon clan, not much fazed him but there was an intensity in those eyes that scared him just a little. Everyone knew about Xena's trademark glare which put the fear of all gods into the recipient of said glare but this wasn't it. Truth told, there was nothing intimidating about them, just an unexplainable intensity which seemed to burn its way down into his very soul. Shaking off the unsettling feeling, he proceeded to explain himself.

“My daughter came this morning to ask my permission. But it was something I already had in mine. Even if she hadn't suggested it, I would have. She is my only offspring and the day will come when she will take over from me as chief of this clan. Fortunately, that day is far off in the future for she still has much to learn.” He gave them some background on Ci Nu's childhood and upbringing before starting on the story of Ci Nu and Fei Cui. The telling took the better part of a candlemark in the absence of any interruptions. Both Gabrielle and Xena being content to let the chief tell the story his way.

“So... you want us to teach your daughter love.” Xena deadpanned.

“Yes. Seeing the two of you together is a lesson in love all in itself. Only someone who was blind would miss it. And I think that's one of the reasons why my daughter asked to travel with you. She sees love as a form of weakness but you Xena, have earned her respect as a sterling warrior and she is unable to reconcile your prowess in battle with your selfless love for Gabrielle.”

Xena quirked an eyebrow at this, the corner of her mouth twitching into a wry smile, but it was Gabrielle who spoke next. “I can definitely see some resemblence between them and us.” She said. “Fei Cui's an innocent scholar with idealised romantic notions just like me. And Ci Nu's a silent warrior who bottles up her emotions and doesn't do love. Sounds just like a certain tall dark warrior I know.” Gabrielle smirked, her eyes twinkling merrily at her scowling partner.

“And what were we doing this morning?” Xena demanded.

Gabrielle blushed a bright red and kicked Xena under the table. “I didn't mean now. And you don't have to go around telling everyone what we have been up to. You might not believe in modesty but most people do.” Turning to the bemused chief, she apologised. “I'm so sorry you have to hear this.”

“It's not as if no one knows.” Xena mumbled under her breath. Gabrielle's kick hadn't done her any damage though Xena couldn't say the same for Gabrielle. She had caught the bard wincing when her boot impacted her greaves. That was one lesson Gabrielle had never managed to learn in their many seasons together: attack the warrior princess at your own peril.

Gabrielle glared at Xena, cursing herself for attempting to kick the warrior in the shin. From the way her toes were hurting, she felt sure they must be broken. Fighting back a grimace, she tried to smile at the chief in reassurance but from the look of concern on the chief's face, she wasn't quite sure she'd managed it. “Ci Nu and Fei Cui are welcome to travel with us if they don't mind. It would be useful having two dragons around especially when we can get to places faster by flying.” Gabrielle said.

The chief was about to thank Gabrielle when they were both startled by Xena who had pushed back her chair and was making her way to the other side of the bard. They both watched as the warrior knelt down beside Gabrielle and lifted the offending limb to rest on her knee. She unlaced the boot and tenderly slid it off Gabrielle's foot, revealing swollen toes a deep purplish-blue in colour. Gabrielle let out a squeak of protest as Xena gently palpated her foot. Satisfied that no bones had been broken, Xena stood up, dropping Gabrielle's boot into the bard's lap. “Chief, if you'll excuse us, I think we're done here. There's something I need to attend to before we leave today.” Bending down, she slid her arms under the bard and lifted her out of the chair, cradling Gabrielle close to her bosom.

The chief nodded his understanding and Gabrielle wisely chose to keep her mouth shut. She knew Xena was upset with her for hurting herself needlessly and somewhat thoughtlessly and Gabrielle would be the first to agree with her. With all the swelling, it would be a miracle if she managed to get her foot back into her boot before Sappho's grand opening. It had been a stupid thing to do but unlike Xena who was so comfortable walking around in the buff, Gabrielle had been brought up in a farming community where sex and public display of nakedness were considered taboo. She had come a long way since then but she still had problems talking about their sex life in front of others. In fact, she had never done so even though she had actually written about it. She had a separate scroll case just for them and those scrolls would never make it to Sappho's library. They were her very own private scrolls and she had never even shown them to Xena though she suspected the warrior princess knew about them.

“We're gonna get you fixed up.” Xena murmured as she carried the bard out of the chief's dwelling and into the surrounding forest.

***

Gabrielle sat by the stream, her left leg folded under her and her right leg immersed in the cool spring water up to her knee. Her boot was placed right beside her, the sai in the holder within easy reach of her right hand which she was using to prop her body upright. Xena had carried her there and left her with instructions not to lift her swollen foot out of the water before heading back to the village for some medical supplies.

The coolness of the spring water had dulled the throbbing pain to a more manageable dull ache and from what Gabrielle could see, her toes no longer resembled fat little purplish sausages. Since there wasn't much she could do while waiting for Xena's return, Gabrielle's mind wandered back to the story the chief had told them. As she'd mentioned earlier, the story of Ci Nu and Fei Cui seemed eerily familiar, give or take a few centuries. Their love story, or lack of, had started nearly five centuries ago when Ci Nu narrowly saved the young dragon scholar from being defiled by a band of unruly thugs. Having been trained from young, all dragons are competent fighters and hunters hence they can never be considered defenceless or harmless. In theory, Fei Cui was more than capable of holding her own in a fight but she had been young then and the thugs had surprised her. Fortunately, Ci Nu had been the warrior tasked to her protection and she'd arrived at the nick of time. And that was when the young scholar had fallen head over claws in love with her rescuer. For nearly two centuries, Fei Cui had followed the dragon warrior wherever she went and Ci Nu had grudgingly tolerated her presence just as Xena had tolerated Gabrielle. Until the day Fei Cui finally cornered the dragon warrior and confessed her true feelings, certain in her heart that they would be reciprocated. Unfortunately, her little confession had the opposite effect and it sent Ci Nu literally running for the hills. When Ci Nu returned more than a decade later, she studiously avoided any contact with Fei Cui. On her part, the scholar had taken the hint and kept her distance from the brooding dragon warrior. When the clan wars had started, Ci Nu urged her father to send Fei Cui away in an attempt to keep her safe and he had agreed. Even though Ci Nu never once expressed her true feelings for Fei Cui, the chief was convinced the two dragons were very much in love with each other and he just wanted his daughter to be happy. However, the oriental dragons have traditionally frowned on relationships which did not allow for procreation. And to make matters worse, as the chief's only offspring, Ci Nu had the sacred duty of continuing the family lineage and producing an heir. All of those restrictions definitely did not help matters and Ci Nu's personal belief about love just made things worse. It was the chief's hopes that the soulmates could change Ci Nu's perception and pave the way for the two dragons to finally acknowledge their love for each other.

The romantic in Gabrielle was only happy to help. Having been through the exact same struggles with Xena, Gabrielle knew there weren't any easy answers. There never were. Some things just had to be experienced personally. And love was definitely one of it. She looked up at the sound of footfalls and smiled as the warrior princess came into sight. A familiar longing started up in her loins and her grin broadened as she contemplated a candlemark or two of recreation before lunch. Ever since Xena had returned from the dead, Gabrielle had trouble keeping her hands off the warrior princess. Not that she could before but it had never been this bad. And travelling with companions when she had it this bad wasn't going to be easy. But they would find a way around it, they always did. At least they didn't have to worry until they were on the roads again. After all, Sappho ought to have a nice little room for the them to indulge in life's little pleasures.

Kneeling beside Gabrielle, Xena put down the bowl she'd been carrying and pulled Gabrielle's leg out of the water. The cool spring water had done its job well and the swelling had gone down considerably. If she squinted, she might just convince herself it was back to normal. Sitting down, she propped Gabrielle's foot on her knee, careful to keep the injured area elevated. Picking up the bowl, she smeared the cool concoction all over Gabrielle's toes and foot before proceeding to wrap a bandage snugly around it.

Curious, Gabrielle picked up the bowl and brought it up to her nose. The sharp pungent smell caused her to wrinkle her nose. Turning to Xena, she asked incredulously, “Onions? You are putting raw onions on my foot? They're going to stink forever.”

“It's onion and salt. Smell's not that bad.” Xena said, putting the finishing touches on the bandage and examining her handiwork critically. “No boots though. And stay off that foot for today. One more application tonight and you should be fine.”

“But onions? Don't you normally use comfrey leaves or arnica flowers? Are we freshly out?” Gabrielle frowned, deep in thought. “Didn't we recently restock? I seem to remember the healer giving us some.”

Xena barely hesitated in her reply though she knew better than to tell Gabrielle the real reason for using onions. Comfrey and arnica would have been her usual choices except they weren't good for pregnant women. “Didn't want to unpack so I just got these from the kitchen. Works just as well.” She shrugged, trying to act nonchalant and nailing it as usual.

“Oh. Guess I forgot about that. After all the effort we went to packing this morning, it would have been a bad idea huh. But gods, the smell.” Gabrielle lifted her foot experimentally, pleased when she encountered no pain. Impishly, she asked, “This isn't a Xena repellent by any chance is it?”

“Gabrielle...” Xena growled threateningly.

“Yup, didn't think so.” Gabrielle chirped. “I'm glad it isn't. Xena, you want to come on over here? I'm a little incapacitated at the moment.” She joked, motioning to her bandaged foot.

Chuckling, Xena crawled sinuously over. “I can make it more than a little.” She smirked.

Intense deep blue eyes hovered above her and Gabrielle swallowed hard, her mouth suddenly dry with anticipation. “Oh I bet you can.” She managed to croak just as those baby blues descended on her.

***

“Xena, you do realise I can walk don't you?” Gabrielle groused from somewhere near Xena's right breast.

“The word you are looking for is hobble.” Xena said. She had both their travel packs slung over her left shoulder and the bard once again cradled in her arms. “Got a problem?”

“Yes. I mean, no. It's just I don't need you babying me.”

“It's not babying, Gabrielle. It's just practical. Stay off that foot today and you'll be up and about tomorrow. Unless you prefer to hobble around at the grand opening?”

“Ok, fine. But you don't have to carry me everywhere like I'm an invalid. Give me a staff and I'll get around just fine.”

“Didn't hear you complaining earlier.” Xena said dryly.

“Well, that was different.”

“Gabrielle, humour me. Just for today.” Sensing Gabrielle's imminent protest, Xena added, “Please.”

That magic word was all it took to quell Gabrielle's objections and they continued the rest of their journey in silence. Before long, they turned a corner to find a dragon and an unfamiliar woman waiting for them outside the chief's residence. The woman was dressed in scholarly whites, a gold-inlaid staff leaning against the wall by her side. She was surprisingly petite and as the soulmates drew close, Gabrielle was pleased to note that the woman was nearly half a head shorter than herself. Her hair was a lustrous black that shone in the rays of the afternoon sun and she had picture perfect features marred only by a small mole above her left eyebrow. Her hands were small and delicate like a child's, the nails well-trimmed. Close up, she smelled of roses and peaches. And her voice, when she spoke, was like the sirens themselves.

The first thing she was to introduce herself though Xena and Gabrielle had both arrived at the same conclusion by then. This was the infamous Fei Cui and they had no doubt whatsoever as to how Ci Nu had lost her heart completely to this magnificent specimen of the female persuasion. In fact, Gabrielle would probably have been worried if she hadn't had utter faith in Xena's devotion to her and her alone.

Once the introductions were out of the way and they had been assured the dragon was indeed Ci Nu, Xena helped Gabrielle onto the saddle riding on Ci Nu's back before securing their travel packs to the pommel in front. After Xena vaulted onto the saddle behind Gabrielle, they watched while Fei Cui assumed dragon form, a process that took place in a blink of the eye. Moments later, they were airborne and on their way.

The journey was unremarkable except for two short breaks along the way. They alighted at a deserted clearing a few miles out from Mytilene just as the sun was setting. After all their travels throughout the known world, Gabrielle had since ceased to be amazed at how they could leave Chin just after lunch, travel for ten candlemarks and reach Greece just before sunset. Xena had explained the phenomenon to her once. Due to the vastness of the known world, Apollo's chariot would need some time to transverse the skies and since the sun always rose in the east, it was only logical that the day would start earlier in the eastern countries and later in the western regions. started earlier in the east. Depending on how far west they were, the day would begin and end later, sometimes even a full day later. Xena thought the world was round and Apollo's chariot was continuously running in an east-west direction. Gabrielle had dismissed it as a joke until Iolaus secretly confided in her that Hercules had said the same thing once. That had given Gabrielle some food for thought and she decided there must be some truth to it. After all, if the world was flat, what's to stop the seas draining straight off the edge?

On hindsight, it might have been a smarter choice to land somewhat nearer to their final destination instead of walking the five miles or so it took to reach Sappho's manor. Unfortunately, dragons weren't exactly easy to miss and they had a duty to the other oriental dragons to keep a low profile outside of their lands. A dragon sighting would only serve to spread unnecessary terror and fear amongst the humans and possibly start a witch hunt that could only end in disaster.

Nearly a candlemark later, they entered the city proper. Gabrielle brought out Sappho's invitation and they were waved through by the guards who kindly gave them directions to Sappho's residence. Not a few curious glances followed the four travel companions as they wound their way through the crowd. Most of them looked quizzically at the fair-haired woman riding snugly on the tall dark warrior woman's back and the outlandish looking pair who followed closely behind. Chagrined at the numerous looks thrown her way, Gabrielle chose to keep her face buried in Xena's dark mane, breathing in the familiar mix of perspiration and leather emanating from the quietly labouring warrior. Thankfully, their journey through the city was brief and they soon found themselves standing in front of an imposing behemoth of a building lit by little lamps placed within niches spaced evenly around the structure.

A servant took Gabrielle's invitation and returned moments later with Sappho herself who literally threw herself at Xena in unfettered excitement, engulfing the hapless warrior in a tangle of arms and legs. The impromptu hug lasted a little longer than usual and Xena's apparent discomfort had Gabrielle struggling mightily to control herself from bursting into laughter. Meanwhile, the servant stood unobtrusively to one side, a knowing smile on his otherwise impassive face as the dragons fidgeted nervously behind, unsure how to react to the unlikely sight before them.

After what seemed an eternity to Xena, Sappho finally extricated herself from the warrior princess, a beatific smile on her swarthy face. “Xena, it has been a while hasn't it? You're looking good, real good.” She said, blatantly checking out the increasingly uncomfortable warrior.

Taking pity on her poor soulmate, Gabrielle cleared her throat and introduced herself. “Sappho, thank you for inviting us to the grand opening of your library. It's an honour to finally meet you in person.”

Soft blue-black hair fell in gentle curls around narrow shoulders as the small but voluptuous poet lifted honey-coloured eyes to regard Gabrielle. “It is indeed a pleasure to finally meet you Gabrielle. I have heard so much about you and your works. When Xena showed me one of your scrolls in Thebes, I experienced first-hand just how captivating your stories are. You are an extremely talented bard Gabrielle and I'm glad you could make it.”

It wasn't everyday that a highly admired and reputed poet threw compliments her way and Gabrielle couldn't keep the huge grin off her face. “Thanks Sappho but I'm nothing compared to you.” She said self-effacingly.

“You have a rare gift Gabrielle. A gift for bringing words to life. Anyone who reads your scrolls are transported into your world, sharing your adventures, the pain and the joy, death and life, love and hate. And most importantly, your stories bring hope to everyone, a belief that everything is possible. That is something everyone needs in this day and age where a pall of despair hangs over the known world like a deadly plague.” Realising how morbid she sounded, Sappho quickly turned on her smile. “Let's get you ladies settled down for now. You will join me for supper, won't you?” Without waiting for an answer, she beckoned for the visitors to follow, the skirts of her pale yellow dress sweeping the marbled floor as she sashayed through the main entrance.

***

A guest room had been made up for them on the second storey of the huge manor just down the hall from Sappho's own bedroom. For a guest room, it was spacious, complete with a small bath area accessible via a small door. A monstrous four-poster bed lay hidden behind a veil of soft silk, covered with satiny smooth bed covers and a mountain of fluffy pillows. Spanning the ceiling directly above the bed was a huge mirror that elicited distinctly varied reactions from the room's new occupants. Gabrielle was totally flummoxed by the presence of the mirror, having never encountered such a bedroom setup in her travels with Xena. The warrior princess, being no stranger to exotic arrangements, was secretly pleased with the mirror. Xena was always looking to further Gabrielle's education and this was a golden opportunity. She could just about imagine the look on Gabrielle's face when she finally understood what that mirror was for.

Two wooden chests lined up against the wall contained flowing dresses of varying colours. When Xena picked one up, she realised the dresses in one of the chests had been tailor-made especially for her while the other seemed to be for Gabrielle. Two boxes resting on the dressing table contained pieces of jewelry designed to match the outfits Sappho had so thoughtfully provided. A closer examination revealed a small wooden chest half-hidden under the bed and Xena could only grin at the contents she found nestled inside. She had to admit the poet was indeed thorough albeit a little unconventional in her hospitality towards her guests.

After depositing their possessions in the guest room, the soulmates made their way to the dining hall where they found Ci Nu and Fei Cui sipping watered wine. Unwilling to take advantage of Sappho's generosity, the dragons had decided to put themselves up in a local inn and explore the Greek city while Xena and Gabrielle attended to their commitments. Xena suspected the dragons weren't too comfortable with the idea of sharing a bed, even if the bed in question was big enough to accommodate half a dozen average adults comfortably.

The long narrow dining table had been set up for five. Sappho, as the host, sat at the head of the table with Gabrielle on her immediate right and Xena next to her while the dragons took up seats on Sappho's left. An endless supply of watered wine set the mood for the meal and neither Xena nor Gabrielle could remember the last time they partook of a proper Greek dinner. There were platters of appetisers containing a healthy selection of various seafoods, salads, greens, cheeses, olives, and fresh fruits. These were greeted with great enthusiasm by Gabrielle who seemed to be utterly famished despite having devoured most of the little snacks Fei Cui handed out a candlemark earlier. In contrast, Xena picked at her food, pretending not to notice when Gabrielle stole most of the food off her plate. This was followed by a hearty main course comprising of roasted hare and fresh fish, the former finding a new home in Gabrielle's cavernous stomach while Xena contented herself with pieces of fish and bread soaked in olive oil. Throughout the meal, Sappho and Gabrielle kept up a steady stream of conversation, amongst which was a lively discussion about meters and their uses. Somehow, Xena knew the subject matter had more to do with bardic stuff than exact distances.

When the meal ended, Xena offered to accompany the dragons to an inn just down the street where they could procure suitable lodgings for the duration of their stay in Mytilene. Being unfamiliar with the city, the dragons readily agreed. Sappho and Gabrielle's discourse had turned to 'form' and neither looked up as the three women excused themselves from the dining room. Xena stopped by the guest room to pick up her cloak which she draped across her shoulders, the hood pulled low over her face. Leaving the manor, Xena led the way, her back rounded as she consciously slumped her shoulders forward. To further disguise herself, she adopted an uneven gait, leaning hard on her right leg and rolling off her ankle. The dragons kept a fair distance behind her, having understood immediately what was required of them when Xena told them her plan.

After she had led the dragons to the inn, Xena turned down a small alley, meandering through the city until she reached her destination. Standing before her was a ramshackle building, a seedy tavern that was known more its drunken brawls than its ale. But Xena wasn't looking for a drink. She was looking for information and this shady establishment was where it was at. The flimsy door wavered uncertainly on its hinges as she let herself in, the smell of unwashed humanity and booze hitting her like a physical blow. For a moment, she stood framed in the doorway, her head bent, face hidden in the shadows cast by her hood. An uneasy silence descended on the shady watering hole as all heads turned to regard the newcomer. Eyes sharp as flint and eyes bleary with drink alike watched her every move, her pained rolling gait, the weary carriage of her shoulders before dismissing her as an old git, a threat to no one.

Xena sidled up to the bar and took an empty stool in the corner. Instead of her usual money pouch, Xena had secreted a few oboloi and chalkoi in the inner folds of her cloak before leaving Sappho's manor. In an establishment like this, flashing a silver drachma or dinar was akin to signing one's own death warrant. Liberating a silver obolus from its hiding place, she slid it across the counter and the tavern keeper immediately made it disappear, returning to deposit a crusty tankard before her. Nodding her thanks, she wrapped her hands around the grimy exterior and stared down into its unfathomable depths, looking to all the world as if she planned to drown her sorrows in it. The ale or mead or whatever the tavern keeper served in this dingy place looked questionable. Xena had dranked in many taverns throughout the years, some good, some bad, and some downright evil. A simple whiff of the concoction in the tankard convinced her that this brew definitely belonged to the last category. While she nursed the drink, somehow managing to spill a little more on the counter with each 'sip', her sharp ears took in the surrounding conversations.

There were the usual skirmishes and a few full-blown wars in Greece but nothing that required Xena's intervention. Things seemed to be quiet on the Roman front, the new emperor Claudius taking the opportunity to consolidate his position after Caligula's death. Elsewhere, Egypt had fallen into Roman hands though rumours have it that the Egyptian rebel army had fallen back into Arabia to work on their plans for overthrowing the Romans. It would seem that Egypt did indeed have use for a girl with a chakram and Xena mentally reminded herself to bring this matter up to Gabrielle at an opportune time. On second thought, there probably wouldn't be any. With Gabrielle pregnant, Xena was loathed to bring the bard anywhere near a war. Bad things seemed to have a habit of happening whenever they were in a warzone. First there was the time Xena's pride brought the two travellers through a war-torn forest where Gabrielle died and somehow came back to life. And let's not forget that little debacle in Britannia where Xena's thirst for revenge against Cesar exposed Gabrielle to Dahak's influence which resulted in the bard losing her blood innocence and more importantly getting impregnated by Dahak. What happened with Gabrielle's resultant offspring proceeded to drive a wedge between them, not to mention all the heartache and pain they would have saved themselves and everyone if the entire episode had never happened. Perhaps she could convince Gabrielle to let her go off alone to Egypt, though Xena seriously doubted that.

The warrior princess was about to call it a night when she heard Sappho's name mentioned from the table behind her in hushed tones. Her attention piqued, she sifted through the snatches of conversation drifting from the rest of the tavern and latched onto a gravelly voice emanating from somewhere to the left.

“....put off the job for a few days.”

A mid-tenored cultured voice immediately piped up, “This operation must be carried out before the grand opening at high noon tomorrow. Lord Aeschylus' reputation rests on it. There can be no delays!”

“But.” Here, the gravelly voice sank even lower. “Xena's here. And in Sappho's house no less! I'm not tangling with that one.”

“Xena's probably in her sixties by now. What's there to fear? Her time of glory has passed. But what does it matter? She's not going to care about some manuscripts. I say, be a man and do it!” The cultured voice mocked.

56! Xena corrected in her mind somewhat grumpily. Age was always a touchy matter where she was concerned. That was the main reason Xena refused to celebrate any of her birthdays, claiming to have forgotten whenever Gabrielle had pressed her. And with those 25 years spent in deep freeze, any reminder of her age wasn't really welcome.

Gravelly voice again. “I don't know 'bout that. My man inside tells me she ain't one year older than 30 and deadly as ever. Even if she doesn't care 'bout those pieces of parchment, it won't be easy pulling this off under her nose. That one don't miss much, I tell ya.”

“Yea or nay, Hyginus. Your word now. If nay be your answer, I shall bring my business elsewhere. There are many who would jump at the chance to gain the favour of Lord Aeschylus and bag some gold while at it.”

Xena was out of her seat before Hyginus replied. From what little she'd heard him say, he was a cautious man and going up against the legendary warrior princess wasn't something a man like him would risk, even for a sack full of gold or promises of one.

“Nay Pyrrhus. Take your gold wit' ya. There ain't enough gold in there to risk my life.”

Pyrrhus, Lord Aeschylus' lackey with the cultured tenor, gave a huff of disgust, the legs of the barstool scrapping against the rough stone floor as he pushed himself away from the table to leave. Xena had limped her way to the door by then, calling little attention to herself as she slipped out the door and merged into the shadows beyond where she waited. On her way past the table, she had taken a good look at Pyrrhus and it wasn't long before the foppish youth emerged from the tavern, one hand constantly reaching up to reposition the gaudy hat perched precariously upon his small round head as he flounced away into the night, alone.

Still she waited. To be rich, unarmed, and unescorted by guards in these parts of the city late at night was downright suicidal. Pyrrhus' greatest mistake had been uttering the magic word 'gold' and just as Xena suspected, a small figure snuck out into the alley not thirty heartbeats later, its head swivelling quickly to pick up the trail of its mark. In the darkness, the furtive being could have been mistaken for a young boy but the stubbles on the chin, the remnants of a poorly trimmed beard, sealed the deal for Xena. This was a dwarf, a fully grown man trapped in the body of a child. Dwarves were rare but not unknown. Years before, Xena had found one on a battlefield, dead as the corpses of the soldiers beside it. Intrigued, she gave orders for the body to be brought to her tent where she spent some time studying it. Some say dwarves were actually curse offspring of a group of adventurers who had angered some god or other while trying to steal from a temple. It was true that the gods were capricious at best but Xena believed the cause to be more mundane, a medical condition of some sort.

Whatever the cause may be, it wouldn't stop the dwarf from waylaying Pyrrhus. For a moment, Xena was tempted to let the dwarf carry on with his plans but she quickly thought better of it. The dwarf would only delay the inevitable and Pyrrhus was bound to find some desperate grunt before high noon tomorrow to carry out his master's plans. She slunk out of the shadows to land a hard chop on the dwarf's neck. Catching the small body before it fell, she deposited it into the small alcove she'd been standing in moments earlier. The dwarf would have a sore neck when he awoke but the alcove should shield him from questing eyes while he lay unconscious and keep him from losing what little valuables he had. That done, she hurried after Pyrrhus.

***

The foolish youth wended his way through the dark alleys without a care in the world and it was more blind luck than the name of his patron that saw him arrive at his destination a half candlemark later unscathed. The building he entered was in a sorry state, the wooden walls rotted in many places to allow light from within to shine through and dot the muck-covered streets outside. Afraid the roof might collapse under her weight, Xena found a conveniently shaped hole in one of the walls and hunkered down to spy on her quarry.

A brutish man sat at a rickety table, one hand curled possessively around the ear of an ale mug. A healed scar ran white across one cheek, not one whit out of place on a face lined prematuredly by a hard life. The candlelight reflecting from his eyes hid their true colours but those orbs looked dull, not so much from drink as from disillusion. He looked up as Pyrrhus drew near, his lips curled in contempt as he recognised the interloper.

“Ya got yerself lost, Mister Pyrrhus? What would ya want with the likes of me in a hovel like this?” The brute demanded. He took a long slug from the mug, wiped the foam moustache with his damp sleeve and slammed the mug back down on the table, causing it to wobble alarmingly.

“Stathis! Do not frown at me thus. I bring you a business opportunity and a means to regain favour with our beloved Lord Aeschylus. Will you not welcome me with open arms, Stathis?” Pyrrhus withdrew a small pouch from his colourful tunic and threw it on the table.

The pouch skidded across the table top and collided with the ale mug with the tantalising clinking of silver. A huge paw grabbed the pouch and upended it over the table, shaking it vigorously to dislodge its contents. Ten silver drachmas fell out, glittering in tandem with the candlelight. “Ten drachmas? What business are you about, Mister Pyrrhus? Lord Aeschylus does not throw good silver away.”

“It is but a simple task, Stathis. A task that needs be completed before high noon on the morrow. If you agree, the drachmas are yours. And another five gold coins upon your success.”

“Tell me about the job, Mister Pyrrhus and I will give ya my answer.” Stathis said. He took another swig from his mug and let loose a loud belch in Pyrrhus' direction.

Waving a limp hand before his face in a vain attempt to disperse the ale fumes surrounding him, Pyrrhus finally gave up and used the thumb and index finger of his other hand to gingerly pinch his nostrils shut, adding a distinctly nasal tone to his mid-tenor. “Before high noon tomorrow, seek out the main foyer of Sappho's new library and burn all the scrolls you find there. Whatever else you do, make sure all the scrolls in the main foyer are destroyed before high noon tomorrow.”

“Sappho's library eh? She's having that grand opening of hers tomorrow at high noon, ain't she? Ya have something against her, Mister Pyrrhus? Burn that library of hers, ya say. Ain't gonna go over too well with her ain't it?”

Pyrrhus stared wide-eyed at Stathis, unable to believe that the uneducated brute could have an actual thought in his head, much less question him. “All you need to know is the nature of the job and the reward. Are you saying you don't want it?”

Stathis narrowed his eyes at Pyrrhus' condescending tone. He took another healthy swig from the mug, this time using the back of his hand to wipe the foam from his mouth. “Gold is gold, Mister Pyrrhus. And I ain't one to quarrel with that.” He swept the drachmas unhurriedly back into the pouch and stuffed it inside his tunic. “I'll need help though. And what if we get caught?”

“Hire all the help you need, Stathis but you're not getting any reimbursement for that. And if you should be dumb enough to fall foul of the law, just remember that Lord Aeschylus had nothing to do with your actions.”

“Nothing new there.” Stathis mumbled under his breath.

“What did you say?” Pyrrhus demanded.

“I'll do it. Just get my gold ready, Mister Pyrrhus.”

***

Having heard enough, Xena faded back into the shadows just as Pyrrhus stepped out into the alley. Not even bothering to look around, he turned left and headed in the general direction of the town square. Xena waited until the young man disappeared from sight before checking in on Stathis.

Having refilled his mug from a hidden ale cask, Stathis resumed his seat at the table. He patted the bulge near his chest reassuringly and was reaching for his mug when a small blade plunged headlong into the table just inches from his questing fingers. With a start, he whipped around, his right hand reaching instinctively for the knife he kept on his belt. What he found instead was air. There was no one behind him and his knife was nowhere to be found. Perplexed, he looked around, searching the seemingly empty room for answers.

“Nice knife.” Came a familiar voice from behind him. Stathis turned around slowly, his eyes staring disbelievingly at the apparition seated across the table from him.

Xena twirled the knife lazily in her hand. “Hello Stathis, it has been a while. Why don't you sit on down.”

Warily, Stathis sat down and faced the warrior princess. “Xena. Ya're looking well.”

“You still have the scar.”

His left hand rose unbidden to trace the scar across his left cheek. He remembered the day more than 35 years ago when an army had descended on his village like a whirlwind, raiding for supplies and valuables and killing any man who stood in their way. Stathis had been caught unawares outside, carrying out some chores for his mother. At the time, he had seen only seven summers but he knew enough to hide from the fierce men with the sharp weapons. He hid under an overturned cart, his heart pounding wildly, watching the labouring horses thunder by, their hoofs churning up the dust on the streets. Screams and shouts soon filled the air but no one came anywhere near where he was hiding. He waited what seemed like long candlemarks before the horses thundered back the way they had came, carrying the dangerous men away. Thinking himself to be safe, he'd crept out from his hiding place and started down the street towards home. Barely three steps later, he'd come face to face with his first corpse. Shocked out of his wits, he'd screamed, a stupid thing to have done, but he was just a kid and didn't know better. A soldier, drawn by his cries, had found him and thought to have his way with him. When the man started fumbling with his pants, Stathis finally understood his intentions. He'd struggled and the soldier had cut him on the cheek with his dagger in warning. Afraid for his life, Stathis had resigned himself to his fate but he wasn't prepared for the blue-eyed goddess who appeared seemingly by magic. Words were exchanged but Stathis heard nothing, his full attention fixed on the goddess before him. Before he knew it, the soldier was lying on the ground convulsing in pain, his hands wrapped tightly around his stomach from which blood gushed liked a fountain, his manhood severed beside him.

The goddess had brought him back to her tent where she'd sewn up the cut and bandaged it. Later, Stathis would learn that the goddess was actually the warlord whose army had pillaged his village. She never explained why she'd saved him from the soldier and Stathis had been too scared to ask. Once his wound had been taken care of, the warlord escorted him back to his village personally where he found his family intact but worried sick over him. After the warlord left, his parents told him he was lucky to be alive, that the warlord was an evil ruthless woman whose hands had shed blood of thousands upon thousands of innocent people. No one could explain why she'd returned him to his family and they definitely refused to believe she'd rescued him from a would-be rapist. Over time, Stathis had learned to keep his mouth shut about what happened that day. It was just too much trouble. Until now.

“Ya never did say why ya saved me that day.” Stathis ventured.

“It wasn't important. Why don't we about Pyrrhus and his little task instead.” Xena countered. She stopped in midtwirl and threw the knife into the air where it flipped once before landing to firmly embed itself in the table.

“I guess ya heard ay? Or have ya been following me?”

“Let's just say I have an interest in stopping Pyrrhus. You wanna do this the hard way or the easy way?” Xena asked, fixing Stathis with her trademark glare.

“Ya realise ya don't scare me none, do ya? Everyone says ya're a heartless warlord but I reckon naw. Else I wouldn't be here now, would I? Ya not be wanting Sappho's library burned to the ground, that ain't something the warlord Xena woulda done now, would she?” Stathis said somewhat smugly though where he got the courage from, he didn't know. If his luck held the way it had all his life, he just might find himself stuck on the wrong end of Xena's sword today and Stathis figured that wouldn't be a bad way to go at all.

Xena sighed to herself. Her do-gooder ways had dented her reputation as a bloodthirsty warrior irreparably and even though she really didn't much care for it, that reputation was useful when she needed to get things done without resorting to undue force. “I'm not here to play games, Stathis. We can do this the easy way, you agree not to carry out the job for Pyrrhus tomorrow and I'll not kill you. The dead cannot negotiate. And neither can they earn any gold. The choice is yours, Stathis. Choose wisely.”

Stathis sat there studying Xena for a while. He took note of her menacing stare and the tension captured within that well-sculpted body that was just begging for him to make a wrong move. He knew Xena did not make any idle threats but he was almost certain she wouldn't kill him unless he forced her to. Stathis couldn't help but admire the vitality of the warrior princess. She should be older than him but she didn't look as if she'd aged much in the 35 years since he'd last saw her. Like everyone else, he'd heard the stories of how she'd spent 25 years sleeping in an icy cave and now that he had seen her for himself, he knew those stories had been truth. Stathis sensed her restlessness and realised he had a decision to make. He gestured at his surroundings and picked his next words carefully. “Ya see how I live and ya should know how tempting gold would be. I offended Lord Aeschylus and lost my job there. A man needs earn enough to eat, drink and keep a roof over his head. But I be no fool, Xena. If I had a choice, I wouldn't break no laws. I like Sappho and though I be uneducated, burning scrolls must be a terrible sin. Ya have my word, Xena, I will not touch Sappho's library.”

“You're a smart man, Stathis. And you're right, I would hate to kill you. Meet me here at dawn tomorrow, there's something else I need to do. And when all is done, maybe Sappho has need of a good strong man in her employment.” Xena rose to her feet and made her way to the door.

“Ya going after Lord Aeschylus, ain't ya. I'll be here. Nowhere else to be. And, Xena, don't ya worry. Ye reputation's safe with me.” Stathis called after the warrior princess.

A ghost of her smile graced Xena's face at Stathis reassurance but she gave no signs she'd heard. She stepped through the half-skewed door and disappeared into the darkness.

Stathis remained looking at the door, deep in thought. When he turned back to the table to retrieve his knife, he noticed an 'X' carved into the wooden grain, the right stroke considerably longer than the left. Stathis gave a hearty chuckle at the calling card Xena had left. He raised his mug towards the door as a salute to the warrior princess and drained it in one long swallow.

***

Unsurprisingly, Xena returned to find Gabrielle snuggled up in one small corner of the four-poster bed, her snores reverberating around the room. She removed her dusty cloak and deposited it on the back of a chair. This was soon followed by her sword, scabbard, chakram, and finally her breastplate. Free of all encumbrances, Xena shrugged her shoulders, trying to work the kinks out of her back and between her shoulder blades. After carrying Gabrielle on her back for five miles and hunching her shoulders through the better part of the last few candlemarks, the warrior princess was definitely feeling the strain and a hot bath would do much towards easing some of the tension out of those oft-abused muscles. She unlaced her boots and tucked them under the chair, then proceeded to remove her greaves and vambraced before finally stepping out of her armour. Naked as the day she was born, she padded unhurriedly over to the bed where she stood looking down on the woman who had stolen her heart that day outside Potidaea those many many years ago. Xena was tempted to wake the bard but she was loathed to disturb Gabrielle's peaceful slumber.

The decision was taken out of her hands when Gabrielle, sensing Xena's presence, stirred to wakefulness. Emerald green eyes bleary with sleep, snapped to immediate attention as they took in the sight before them. Gabrielle literally catapulted out of the bed to throw her arms around Xena's neck and bury her face into the warrior's long black locks. “Xena!” Gabrielle exclaimed. “You're back! What took you so long?” She extricated herself from Xena's reflexive embrace and wrinkled her nose disapprovingly. “You are kinda ripe. And you smell of ale. You mean you were out at a tavern while I was waiting all this time for your return?”

“Guess you're feeling better.” Xena observed drolly. “I was just about to take a bath. Wanna join me? And yes, I was in a tavern.” Green eyes narrowed into the icy glare of a ravenous bard robbed of her desires and Xena knew she better explained herself fast. “Now Gabrielle, before you get mad, I wasn't out drinking, I was looking for information. And I learned something.”

Gabrielle stood on the bed with her hands on her hips and regarded her soulmate. She hadn't smelled any ale on Xena's breath which meant the warrior princess hadn't been drinking. And even though she really wanted to rant and rave at Xena right now for leaving her high and dry, what she really wanted was to take the warrior princess where she stood. The dull ache between her thighs had blossomed into a raging fire. Like a woman possessed, she stripped off her clothes, leaving them in a pool around her feet before tugging impatiently at the vambraces around her forearms. Sensing her urgency, Xena helped her out of her remaining boot, expertly removing the bandage on her injured foot in one smooth motion. In the next moment, Gabrielle's arms had reclaimed their position around Xena's neck, her thighs firmly wrapped around the warrior's waist. Her mouth locked onto Xena's, hot and demanding, and the warrior princess returned her passion.

Somehow, Xena made her way to the bath where she managed to mix hot water into the tepid bath without once interrupting the kiss. She stuck a foot into the bath, and satisfied with the temperature, she lowered herself into the water, taking the concupiscent bard with her. Feeling the hot water lapping at her bottom, Gabrielle squirmed against Xena and without having to be told, the warrior princess slid farther down into the bath until Gabrielle was able to stand on her own two feet. Releasing Xena's neck, Gabrielle ran her hands down Xena's back, one hand moving to the front to cup a breast while the other continued downward to knead a buttock cheek. The bard nipped along Xena's collarbone, her teeth leaving firm imprints in the sun-bronzed warrior's skin. Knowing Gabrielle, Xena kept her hands to herself. When the bard was in such a mood, she dictated their lovemaking and any overtures on Xena's part would get in the way of Gabrielle's desires.

Well-trimmed nails raked down the warrior's back, drawing blood and eliciting a guttural growl in response. She tossed her head back and felt Gabrielle latch on immediately with her lips and teeth, sucking and biting at that sweet spot just below Xena's jaw. Pleasure bordered upon pain but Xena lapped it all up, surrendering herself to Gabrielle's ministrations on her body. Fingers played along the inside of her thighs and she spread them wider, feeling the half-crescents of Gabrielle's nails digging into the soft sensitive flesh just inside the crease at the top of her leg. Throwing her head back, Xena felt Gabrielle take her roughly, almost violently, her arm pistoning furiously, her palm slamming hard against Xena's pubic bone, her teeth clamped down firmly around one nipple. And Xena rode it all, all the way to its wondrous conclusion.

***

“Gabrielle, you wanna tell me what's wrong?” Xena drawled lazily from where she lay sprawled against the edge of the bath aching from just about every part of her body. In her warlord days, she'd liked her sex rough and fiery, especially where men were concerned but she had always been the aggressor. That was until Gabrielle came into the picture. Gabrielle had changed her, in more ways than one. Before Gabrielle, sex was just that, sex. And nothing more. It was a means to an end, the necessary scratching of a natural itch. But Gabrielle had brought love into the equation and Xena had learned how nourishing a gentle loving caress could be to her heart and soul. The bard was a fiery and passionate lover but she had never pushed the boundary between pain and pleasure the way she did today. Something was bothering her and Xena had an idea just what that might be.

Gabrielle roused from her exhausted stupor and looked over at the spent warrior beside her. For a moment, her eyes seemed unable to focus but that soon passed and she stared disbelievingly at the sight before her. Xena was covered in a myriad of bruises and scratches, with prominent teeth marks interspersed throughout. Lifting a trembling hand, Gabrielle gingerly traced a deep purplish-blue bruise on Xena's right breast. “Good gods Xena! I hurt you... I never meant to... Oh Xena, what have I done?” She lamented, tears streaming down her cheeks.

“It's okay Gabrielle. I don't break that easily.” Xena drew Gabrielle into her bosom and stroked the bard's back reassuringly. “Shush now, don't cry. It's okay.” Unfortunately, that didn't have the desired effect Xena was hoping for. Instead, it had the exact opposite effect and Xena felt decidedly out of her depth as Gabrielle's body starting shaking with the intensity of her sobs. Afraid she might say something to make things worse, the warrior princess chose to silently hold Gabrielle, rocking the bard in her arms until the crying subsided.

When the crying fit had passed and Gabrielle once again had full control of her voice, she whispered remorsefully, “Xena, I'm sorry. So sorry. I don't know what came over me. Gods, I'm a terrible person. How could I ever hurt you this way? I'm so sorry Xena. I--”

“Gabrielle.” Xena interrupted firmly.

The bard craned her neck to look up at Xena's face, past the swell of the warrior's breasts. “Yes, Xena?” She responded breathlessly, almost afraid of what she would see in those pale blue eyes that had always held unwavering love and regard for her. The warrior's face was an unreadable mask and Gabrielle's heart sank.

“Gabrielle. It's okay. You know I like it rough sometimes. It's fine. Really.”

“Then why am I not convinced? Xena, you trusted me. And I hurt you. This goes beyond rough. It's almost like abuse... Or... or... even rape! Xena, how can you tell me it's fine?”

“I was more than willing, Gabrielle. That's not rape. And I'm stronger than you. If I didn't enjoy it, I could have stopped you at anytime. But I didn't. What does that tell you? Gabrielle, act, don't react. Go with your gut. You know what I'm saying is true.”

And Gabrielle did. Xena could have stopped her if she wanted but she hadn't and Gabrielle remembered how Xena had bucked wildly against her near the end. And the release had been spectacular. So much so that Gabrielle had been caught up in the waves of pleasure Xena had shared through their soul-link. Realisation dawned upon her and she frowned up at Xena. “You liked it.” Her tone made it sound like an accusation.

“That's what I was trying to tell you.”

“Does that mean you didn't like the other times I've made love to you? Xena, that's a long time to settle for 'diddly'. And if that's true, I am going to--”

“Gabrielle! Listen to me carefully now. I said I like it rough sometimes. Not everytime. And you're a great lover. After all, you learned from the best.” Xena ended with a self-satisfied smirk.

“Someone's got a huge ego, huh. Though you definitely have many skills.” At that, Gabrielle paused, biting her lower lip to stifle a moan as the thought of Xena's many skills sent a tingling down her body to nestle within her thighs. When the sensation finally passed, she continued, “So I guess you're not mad at me?”

“I'm not mad at you, Gabrielle. But I want to know what's wrong. You gonna tell me now?”

“What's wrong? Xena, nothing's wrong. Except what I did to you, that is.”

A raised eyebrow was Xena's only response.

“I mean, I guess... I... Sappho... She's really nice, and talented, and pretty. And she's crazy about you, Xena. Totally. After you left, she couldn't stop gushing about how wonderful you were. She even made up a poem on the spot about you. Your eyes, your face, your body, your very presence. Gods Xena, she didn't come outright and say it but I knew she wanted to bed you!” Gabrielle's voice had been rising throughout and the last was said with a shout.

“So you decided to stake out your territory.” Xena said calmly, no hint of judgement in her voice.

Gabrielle stared up at Xena with her mouth agape. She worked her mouth a few times and finally managed to squeak out, “I was, wasn't I. Oh Xena, I'm sorry.”

“It worked out. And I don't mind. But Gabrielle, don't you trust me?” Xena asked, hurt apparent in her eyes.

“Xena, don't say that.” Gabrielle took Xena's hands in her own and held them to her chest. “I trust you. You know that. I was just jealous. Jealous of the way she looked at you, talked about you. And I guess I felt a little insecure. Sometimes, I am convinced the Gabrielle you fell in love with was that innocent young farm girl from Potidaea, the one who became a bard. But now I'm a warrior and--”

“And I still love you.” Xena finished for her. “Gabrielle, you became a warrior for me. And I love you for that. Even if you didn't, I wouldn't have stopped loving you. I love you because you are Gabrielle, not Gabrielle the farm girl, or Gabrielle the bard, or Gabrielle the warrior. You and I, we are meant to be together, forever, and nothing's ever gonna change that. Heaven and hell, life and death, neither could keep us away from each other and that's how it will always be.”

“Oh Xena, you should have been a bard. You say the most wonderful things.”

Xena waggled her eyebrows playfully at Gabrielle. “I have many skills. But first, I need your magic hands on my back. Got a knot the size of Tartarus there.” She turned around, revealing the numerous scratches on her back.

“Gods Xena, your back. I did that?”

“Gabrielle, focus. I need you to work out that knot in between my shoulder blades. Can you do that?”

“Er... Right.” She felt along Xena's back, studiously avoiding the bloody scratches. “There. And here. And another one there. What have you been carrying on those shoulders on yours?” Gabrielle froze suddenly as the answer hit her. “Wait. You got all that from carrying me here?”

“Partly.” Xena sighed as Gabrielle eased the last kink from her back.

“I'm not that heavy.” Gabrielle protested once Xena had turned over to face her.

“Never said you were.” Xena drawled, leaning back against the side of the bath.

“But--”

Xena stopped Gabrielle with a kiss. “I think the lady does protest too much.”

“Mmmm....” Gabrielle gave up without a fight, her body melting into Xena's as the warrior princess demonstrated another of her many skills.

***

The room was still shrouded in darkness when Xena opened her eyes. Gabrielle was fast asleep, her snores more muted than usual, a sure sign that the bard was utterly exhausted. They had retired to bed less than three candlemarks earlier and Xena heaved a sigh of relief when she managed to ease herself out from under Gabrielle without the bard once stirring. Dawn was still a couple of candlemarks away but Xena wanted to get an early start. There was much to be done today before she met up with Stathis. Her daily routine aside, Xena wanted to spend some time checking out Sappho's library. Having never been there personally, she needed to familiarise herself with the layout of the place. There was no telling how Lord Aeschylus would react when found out the library hadn't been torched as ordered. Xena had her suspicions though and she'd shared them with Gabrielle last night. After hearing Xena's plan, Gabrielle had agreed to stay with Sappho and attend the opening ceremony while Xena staked out Lord Aeschylus' residence.

Considering they might have a fight on their hands today, Xena had given Gabrielle's foot a thorough checkup last night. She asked Gabrielle to rotate her foot in circles and was pleased to note that the bard was able to perform the full range of motion in both directions without any pain. The foot was also no longer tender to the touch and the swelling had all but subsided. For good measure, Xena had applied a fresh poultice and she gently palpated Gabrielle's foot now, noting with satisfaction that the residual swelling was gone. Xena slipped into her leathers and laced up her greaves, vambraces and boots. Picking up her breastplate, sword and chakram, she allowed herself to feast her eyes once more upon her soulmate before sneaking out of the room.

***

Compared to Sappho's manor, the library seemed almost puny in comparison, its rectangular footprint only half that of the manor though it too comprised of two storeys. The building was constructed out of white marble, the construction material of choice in Greece at the time. A small recessed door in the left side of the library opened out onto a little alley which was framed by Sappho's academy on the right. The door was barred from the inside and even though someone trying to sneak in might try that particular entrance, Xena thought Lord Aeschylus would prefer to make a grander and more public entrance once Stathis' duplicity was discovered. After all, he would want to crash the opening ceremony which would be held at the main entranceway. Windows had been built into the library about two and a half man-heights above the ground, presumably to allow light and air into the building. Conceivably, fire arrows or incendiary objects could be lobbed into the library through those windows and Xena decided a little side trip into the library was warranted. Marble did not burn but wood and parchment definitely would.

Taking a quick glance around to make sure no one was watching, the warrior princess shimmied up one of the columns lining the front of the library. From there, it was relatively easy to make the simple leap across to one of the windows. Grabbing hold of the window sill, she pulled herself up and peered into the gloom beyound. Once her eyes had adjusted to the dimness within, she could see the main hall or foyer down below. A shrouded object stood smack-dab in the middle of the hall. Gauging from its size, Xena guess it must be a statue of one of the Greek goddesses. Most libraries chose to honour Athena but with Athena long gone, Xena thought Sappho might have chosen one of the muses or maybe even Aphrodite. After all, Sappho was well-known to be a devotee to the goddess of love. The area surrounding the statue was empty but Xena could make out rows of shelves near the walls, sheltered from the elements by an elaborate overhang built into the library. Xena wasn't sure if the builder had flaming arrows in mind when the building was designed but the shelves where the scrolls would be kept were indeed well-protected. Any incendiary object flung through those windows would land far from the shelves where they would do minimal damage, if any, to the marbled flooring.

Nodding her head in approval, Xena turned around and somersaulted lazily through the air, her knees bent upon landing to absorb the impact. She took one last look at the main entrance and the wide promenade it opened out onto. This was where the skirmish would occur if Lord Aeschylus' men decided to crash the party and Gabrielle would be right in the middle of it. She had planned on sending Stathis to help out Gabrielle before the grand opening but now she wasn't so sure. It was better to be safe than sorry and satisfied with her scouting mission, Xena loped off in the direction of the inn where she'd left Ci Nu and Fei Cui. It was a little early for the dragons to be up and about but Xena could always leave a note with the tavern keeper and that was what she set out to do.

When Xena came into sight of the inn, she wasn't overly surprised to find a familiar figure nervously pacing back and forth in the shadows of the stables. Nearing the figure and realising she was lost in her own thoughts, Xena cleared her throat, that small sound shattering the silence of the night and causing the figure to whirl around with twin blades in hand.

“Ci Nu, you're up early.” Xena greeted in a casual voice. “Or I should say... You haven't been to bed yet.”

The shadowy figure sheathed her twin swords and performed a brief bow. “Xena. I could say the same for you.”

“Mine's by choice. Yours, hardly so. And since we will be travelling together, could we dispense with the bowing? We're all friends here. No need for all that formality.”

Ci Nu pondered Xena's request for a short moment before shaking her head in agreement. “Friends? I like the sound of that. And I guess you know why I am wearing a rut in the ground outside of the inn instead of tucked up soundly in bed asleep. But since you're up early by design, I presume you have something to take care of. Is there anything you need our help with?”

“Trouble's expected at Sappho's opening ceremony today and I thought you might appreciate some action. Gabrielle will be at there but I would feel better if she had some help.”

“Sounds good. Does the invitation extend only to me or does it include Fei Cui?” Ci Nu asked.

“Your call, Ci Nu. It's gonna go down at high noon.” Xena replied.

“I'll be there, Xena. Is there anything else?”

“Yeah, get some sleep.” Xena gestured to the entrance of the stable. “The stable's one of my favourite places to catch some rest. Especially when you ain't welcome in bed.” Xena winked at Ci Nu and sauntered off towards city gates.

Stunned, Ci Nu stood watching Xena's retreating back for a moment, wondering whether her face had given her away or if the warrior princess was just an expert at reading people. Since Ci Nu had perfected the warrior's mask centuries ago, she decided it had to be the latter. Shaking her head, Ci Nu headed for the stables and a pile of prickly hay on which to bed down in. It wouldn't be as comfortable as a bed in the inn but she had only herself to blame. Ci Nu had initially planned to get separate rooms at the inn. They were well able to afford it and she wasn't sure sharing a room with Fei Cui was the best way to go. Ci Nu hadn't been overly surprised when her father, the clan chief, had told her Fei Cui would be tagging along on her little adventure with Xena and Gabrielle. She hadn't been too pleased either, not that it mattered. Her father's decision had been final and Ci Nu was stuck with Fei Cui. Ci Nu liked Fei Cui. Actually, she liked the scholar a little too much and whenever they shared a room, the sexual tension between them made her twitch like a dog infested with fleas. Fei Cui, for her part, seemed to enjoy Ci Nu's discomfort. She would take advantage of every opportunity to brush against Ci Nu or deliberately parade her nakedness in front of the warrior. It drove Ci Nu absolutely crazy and that was why she had been pacing out near the stables where Xena found her.

Somehow, between arriving at the inn and speaking with the innkeeper about the rooms, Ci Nu had fallen prey to Fei Cui's womenly wiles, something the scholar seemed to be an expert at wielding in addition to that staff of hers. They had ended up getting just that one room, which wouldn't have been that bad if there had been two separate beds. But no, the first thing Ci Nu had noticed when she opened the door was the singular bed in the middle of the room. And when she returned downstairs to ask the innkeeper to change rooms, she was told all the rooms were taken. How convenient! Ci Nu suspected Fei Cui had something to do with it but it had been too late to change inns and she had no choice but to make do with what they had. Somehow, things had gone downhill from there and all of Ci Nu's warrior training hadn't helped keep her desires at bay. As usual, Fei Cui had taken full advantage of the situation and it wasn't long before Ci Nu found herself licking her lips while she stared blatantly at the lithe form of the scholar. It had taken all her self-control not to take Fei Cui right then and there. She had started toward the scholar with that exact intention in mind but she'd veered off at the last minute and walked purposefully out the door without a backward glance.

All that pacing had taken the edge off her desires but Ci Nu still found it difficult to shut her eyes and surrender herself to sleep. Her feelings for Fei Cui confused her and she felt strangely vulnerable whenever the scholar was around. It was almost as if her heart was running around outside of her own body and that scared her. Was this what love was about? Ci Nu didn't know and she wasn't sure she wanted to find out. Troubled, she tossed and turned on the pile of hay before sleep finally claimed her just as the first rays of the dawn sun crept over the horizon.

***

Stathis had been waiting for Xena when she dropped by at the crack of dawn and they'd immediately headed for Lord Aeschylus' mansion on the other side of the city. One candlemark later, they stood at the foot of a hill, looking up towards an unsightly structure perched at the top, half hidden by a grove of trees. Lord Aeschylus' mansion had turned out to be more of a castle than a simple manor and its location made it nearly impossible to spy upon the inhabitants within. Unless you were a monkey. Or in this case, Xena. The surrounding trees loomed above the mansion's outer walls and Xena had already found the perfect tree from which to carry out her surveillance. She'd initially planned on keeping Stathis with her until Lord Aeschylus or his men made their move; at which point, she would send him to warn Gabrielle. Sappho's academy and library were less than a mile away and that plan would have worked too. But with the only vantage point high above the ground, Xena had to switch to plan B. Not that she'd had it all worked out but she was good at thinking on her feet and that was exactly what she did now.

It was always good to know the person you were dealing with and Xena had never crossed path with this Lord Aeschylus of Lesbos. “Tell me about Lord Aeschylus.” She bade Stathis.

“What do ya wanna know? He's a lord. Proud as all get out. Round 'bout my age. Tight with his gold or silver. He ain't real mean but it's said he keeps a harem of sex slaves in the basement. Not that I ever heard or seen anything while I was working there.” Stathis paused, brow furrowed in thought. “Now that I think 'bout it, I got me thrown out cos I accidentally stumbled into the basement one night. Got me nowhere and I was drunk outta my mind. Always thought it was the drinking that cost me my job. Mighta been the basement, after all.” He mused somewhat darkly.

“How do I know Lord Aeschylus when I see him?” Xena asked, her voice hard. The idea of sex slaves disgusted her. Not that she hadn't done so in her previous incarnation as the Destroyer of Nations but that didn't make it right. Xena had never been one to make excuses for her actions but Gabrielle didn't share the warrior's qualms. The bard postulated that Xena had kept the sex slaves as a misguided attempt at finding love. Xena had been quick to discredit that idea though she knew better. Sex was supposed to be just that, wasn't it? But the one-time warlord had found some small measure of comfort in it. And she'd even deluded herself into believing that the sex slaves genuinely cared about her. Now that Xena had the real deal, she knew better. Mentally slapping herself, she brought herself back to the present where she caught Stathis in mid-sentence.

“...decked out in jewelry and gold.”

Hazarding a guess, the warrior princess said, “So if I see someone your age dressed in finery and adornments, that's him?”

“Ya got that right, Xena. Though I be doubting ya be seeing Lord Aeschylus himself. He never leaves the mansion. Pyrrhus sees to his needs outside so ya're gonna have better luck looking out for that poncy git.” Stathis chuckled.

“Alright Stathis. You're done here. Remember, high noon.”

“Aye that, Xena. Look for a lass with fair-hair and green eyes 'bout yea high at the library, right?”

“Her name's Gabrielle. She's expecting you.” Blazing blue eyes suddenly locked onto Stathis murky brown orbs. “And don't even think about laying a finger on her, you hear?” Xena practically growled.

Stathis swallowed convulsively and unconsciously took a step back. “No sirree. I'm not laying one hand on your woman. I swear. Won't even catch me looking at her funny-like.” He laid a hand on his heart as if swearing fealty to his lord.

With a predatory grin, the warrior princess melted into the surrounding forest. Running up a tree, she flitted from branch to branch with barely a rustle. Arriving at the tree she'd picked out earlier, Xena surveyed the empty courtyard below and found a comfortable spot to settle down and wait.

***

Gabrielle had just returned from breakfast with Sappho where she'd updated the poet on what Xena had learned the night before. The poet took the news calmly and it didn't take much persuasion from Gabrielle to get the full story. It seemed that Sappho and Lord Aeschylus had been lovers at some point in their life though they were no longer so. Sappho wasn't forthcoming with the reason for the latter and Gabrielle hadn't thought it prudent to ask. However, during their time together, Sappho wrote an entire collection of poems about their sexual relationship though no names had been mentioned. Those poems were amongst the works to be displayed at her new library and Sappho believed them to be Lord Aeschylus' sole target. Any other scrolls caught in the fire would just be collateral damage.

When Lord Aeschylus first learned of Sappho's intent, he'd sent envoys to dissuade her but she'd steadfastly refused. They were part of her life work and the poet was rightly proud of them. Since his name wasn't mentioned anywhere in the poems, Sappho couldn't see how they could possibly tarnish the lord's sterling reputation in Lesbos, or so the envoys argued. Soon after, construction on the library had ground to a halt. At first, building materials had gone missing at the construction site and when the builder tried to purchase more materials, none of the merchants would do business with him so Sappho had to arrange for supplies to be shipped in from Alexandria. Then when the supplies finally arrived, her builders were no way to be found. Convinced that Lord Aeschylus was behind the sabotages, Sappho had confronted him and finally agreed to keep the poems private. The next day, her builders had magically appeared at her doorstep and construction on the library had proceeded without any further delays. Eight days ago, Sappho had given Lord Aeschylus a personal tour of the library as proof she'd kept her word. But that had been a ruse. Three days before Xena and Gabrielle arrived, Sappho had snuck the poems into the library where they now rested on a shelf in the main foyer. From what Xena heard, it would appear that someone had ratted her out to Lord Aeschylus.

“He's going to try to crash your opening ceremony, but we willl stop him.” Gabrielle said reassuringly.

“Of course you will my dear.” Sappho cooed and patted Gabrielle's arm as if she was the one needing reassurance instead. “We are leaving for the library in a candlemark. There are some final preparations to make for the ceremony. My dear, wear something nice, won't you?”

***

Looking through the dresses in the chests Sappho had provided, Gabrielle gave an unhappy sigh. Every single one of those dresses were lovely and the bard desperately wanted to try them on. But they would only be a hindrance when the fighting started so Gabrielle had to settle for one of her usual outfits. Thanks to the dragons, she had more than one choice of colour and she picked black. Gabrielle changed into her new outfit and took a moment to admire herself in the mirror. Black made her look sleek and sexy and Gabrielle couldn't help but grin as she imagined the look on Xena's face when the warrior princess caught sight of her later. Who knows? Maybe it would distract her enough to get her conked on the head. Just like old times.

After carefully packing the dresses back into the chests, Gabrielle was practising some moves with her sais when the air suddenly exploded in pink sparkles. Whirring around with her sais ready, she was greeted by the sight of the goddess of love lounging on a beach chair decked out in a bright pink bikini and wearing sunshades.

Before Gabrielle could wrap her mind around the futuristic looking items, Aphrodite raised herself up on one elbow and pushed the shades down her nose to peer at the bard, revealing a very uncool raccoon-like tan around her eyes. “Eh, howzit cuz? Long time no see.”

Having finally recovered some of her wits about her, Gabrielle relaxed her defensive stance but kept her sais in her hands. The pink sparkles and lingerie-like attire was all Aphrodite but the goddess of love didn't sound like her usual ditzy self and there were those weird objects and the even stranger language. “Aphrodite.”

Aphrodite squinted at Gabrielle then sat bolt upright. She exclaimed, “Auwe, you stay hapai wot? Like how sista?”

Totally confused and having absolutely no idea what Aphrodite was saying, Gabrielle frowned. “Stay where? Aphrodite, could you please switch to Greek. I don't understand a single word you're saying.”

“Oh, like whatever.” Aphrodite groused. Rising to her feet, she snapped her fingers and the alien objects disappeared in a golden shower. She was once again decked out in her usual garb though she looked rather comical with that uneven tan of hers. Spying herself in the mirror, the goddess of love did a double take and quickly fixed the problem with another snap of her magic fingers. Strutting in front of the mirror, she gave a squeal of delight. “Oh, you gorgeous goddess, you.” She enthused.

“Erm, Aphrodite? What are you doing here?”

Obviously enamoured with her own reflection, the goddess of love took a while to tear herself away from the mirror to reply. “Why, sweet pea. The same reason as you, of course. Sappho's dedicating the library to the goddess of lurve. And I just had to come for the par-teh! Sappho throws the best shindigs, ya know?”

Convinced of the goddess' authenticity, Gabrielle slipped the sais back into her boots. “Of course, Aphrodite. I should have known. What was that strange language anyway? I don't think I've heard it before.”

“Well, sweet cheeks, I'm not surprised. It's kinda like-- from the future, ya know? I found this group of islands some distance east of Jappa. They have like the most bodacious waves ev-ah! Like my usual surfing spots just can't compare, you dig? Those islands are all about the lurve. Aloha. That's like definitely my kinda place. All those yummy hunks with their six packs, sun-bronzed and all sculpted flesh. Mmm-mmm...”

“Oh-kay... I get the picture, Aphrodite. It's your version of paradise huh. But how do you keep your powers outside of Greece?”

Aphrodite waved a dismissive hand in the air. “Well, me and the big kahuna over there just hit it straight off. He's a stud, he is. And there ain't no one better at the game of love than yours truly. The islanders love me, how could they not? No one can resist the goddess of lurve.” She purred.

“So, they worship you. I'm happy for you, Aphrodite.”

“Thanks Gabs.” The goddess of love practically beamed at the bard. “I guess congratulations are in order. Or should that be condolences? You are still with tall, dark, and difficult, right?”

“I'm sure you heard all about Xena's death in Jappa. But that's history. She's alive and taking care of business as usual so I guess I'll accept your congratulations. Aphrodite, you know nothing can keep us apart. Not even death.”

“Jappa? Hmmm... I didn't hear anything. Guess I was too busy boogieing on those waves. Reception over there's a little spotty. But sweet cheeks, I was talking about you being--” Aphrodite used her hands to indicate a bump over the stomach. “Does warrior chick even know?”

“Say what?” Gabrielle exclaimed, unsure if she'd read Aphrodite's implied meaning correctly.

“Come on Gabby. We are friends right? You can tell me. Who's got you all knocked up and flustered? Not that you don't look good. Actually, you look kinda hot. Though don't tell warrior babe I said that. You never know when her jealousy rage might kick in.” Aphrodite paused and looked at Gabrielle meaningfully. “Though I might have to wait my turn. Someone's gonna get a chakram in the balls for this.”

“Aphrodite, are you trying to tell me I am pregnant?”

An amused chuckle filled the room and both Gabrielle and Aphrodite turned to find themselves suddenly sharing the room with the god of war.

“Uh-uh-uh. Someone's been a naughty little bard, I hear. Oh this is priceless. What do you think Xena's gonna do when she hears her girlfriend has been unfaithful? Hmmmm...” Ares stroked his goatee, a self-satisfied smirk on his face. “I think a new Xena's going to be born. Or in this case, reborn. Oh, I can't wait.” He wiggled his fingers at Gabrielle and blew her a little kiss before winking out in a flash of light.

“Ares!” Gabrielle screamed then turned to stare at Aphrodite with smoldering green eyes.

Aphrodite cringed. “Oopsy. That's not good, is it?”

“Aphrodite, do something! You've got to stop Ares! I can't be pregnant! I haven't been with a guy since Perdicus!”

“Well, you are definitely pregnant. And with twins too. Look, I'm sorry Gabs but I'm the goddess of love. What do you want me to do? Put a love spell on Ares? Like that's going to make things better. Not that he needs one to fall in love with warrior chick, you know.”

“Xena's going to throw a fit. And of all the people to break the news to her, Ares is the worst possible choice. Oh gods.” Gabrielle sunk into a chair and buried her face in her hands.

“Aw, sweet pea, it's gonna be alright.” Aphrodite conjured up a bar of white chocolate and offered it to Gabrielle. “Here, try this. It's one of my better kept secrets. I call it 'pure love'. One bite of this and all your troubles will just melt away.”

Gabrielle lifted her head, took one look at the proffered offering and groaned loudly.

***

The courtyard below had burst into life a candlemark earlier and Xena watched intently as Pyrrhus rounded up a group of men in the courtyard. She couldn't hear him from her perch high up in the tree but after he left, the men started gathering weapons and torches from what she presumed to be a storage room near the back and dumped them in the middle of the courtyard. Once that was done, they split into small groups scattered around the courtyard chatting or gambling to while away the time. Pyrrhus also posted a lookout on the walls, presumably to search the skies for a sign that Stathis had carried out his end of the bargain.

Xena leaned back against the trunk to wait. High noon was still a candlemark away and it would be a while before she had to make her move. She was just getting comfortable when Gabrielle's voice floated through their soul-link.

Xena? Ares is headed out your way. No matter what he says, don't believe him. I'll explain later. Just trust me Xena. Okay?

A prickling at the base of her neck warned her she was no longer alone. Well, he's here .

Aloud, she said, “What do you want Ares?”

With a throaty chuckle, the god of war materialised in front of Xena. “Oh Xena Xena Xena, how I have missed you. Seems the rumours of your death in Jappa have been greatly exaggerated.” He licked his lips as he ran his lustful gaze over the figure of the warrior princess. “Oh yeah, you are looking real-- swell.”

“Ares, stop eyeballing my breasts.” Xena said with a hint of amusement in her voice. “Anyway, thanks for your concern. But as you can see, I'm still very much alive. Don't you have a war to get to?”

Tearing his eyes away from her bosom, he adopted a puppy dog look. “Xena, you hurt me. I just arrived and you want me to go?”

“You know I'm never returning to you, Ares. It's just not gonna happen so why don't you save yourself the trouble? Forget me, Ares.”

The softness in Xena's voice caused the god of war to blink in confusion but he quickly regained his composure and arrogance. “We were so good together, Xena. You and me, we were made for each other. You can feel it, can't you. Deep down inside, you know you want it.”

“I told you before Ares, you have always gotten to me but you ain't good for me. Not then and definitely not now. My place is with Gabrielle. And that's where it will always be.”

“You should learn to choose more wisely. Gabrielle obviously doesn't share your devotion. Or maybe you're losing your touch, Xena. Cos your little blonde girlfriend decided she needed a man to warm her bedrolls. And now she's pregnant. Xena, the warrior princess has been made a cuckold of. Don't you wish you'd stayed with me instead? Whatever you may say of me, I have always been faithful to you. Doesn't that mean anything?” Ares said somewhat spitefully.

Surprised that the god of war had learned of Gabrielle's pregnancy but relieved he hadn't figured out the truth, Xena decided to keep it that way. “I made my choice Ares and I don't regret it. If Gabrielle has been with someone else, that's between me and her. Keep your nose out of it Ares. There's nothing there for you.”

Enraged at Xena's response, Ares spat, “Xena, you have gotten soft. The Xena I knew would never have taken that slight lying down. Heads would fly and the ground drenched in the blood of thousands. But you, you are just a love sick mortal. What magic does that irritating blonde have anyway?” He didn't wait for a response but disappeared in a huff.

“That Xena died a long time ago, Ares. And that's who you were so madly in love with. Not me.” The warrior princess whispered into the silence, feeling an unexpected sadness at the thought.

***

The sun was nearly at its zenith, its harsh rays beating down with a vengeance upon the suffering populace below. Perspiration beaded Gabrielle's upper lip and forehead, coursing down the contours of her face to drip upon the sizzling hot ground. Greeks dressed in an assortment of finery congregated under the overhang of the library, imbibing cool drinks served by Sappho's retinue of servants while indulging in gossip with their peers. Ci Nu leaned casually in the shade of a nearby doorway, her eyes darting first one way then another as she searched the area for signs of trouble. Stathis arrived a little after Ci Nu and at Gabrielle's request, now shadowed Sappho as the poet mingled amongst her guests.

Gabrielle absentmindedly mopped the perspiration off her brow with the back of her hand. The bard was still struggling to come to terms with Aphrodite's revelations about her pregnancy. Considering Gabrielle hadn't lain with a man since Perdicus, the current circumstances were ludicrous though with the gods' constant meddling in their lives, Gabrielle couldn't rule out divine intervention of one form or another. Unsurprisingly, the first god to cross Gabrielle's mind had been Dahok. The evil god had impregnated her many many seasons ago and even though it hadn't been actual rape, it might as well have been. She had been taken against her will and tricked into losing her blood innocence but all that paled when compared with what her child had wrought. In her naivete, she had welcomed the child with open arms, blood of her blood, flesh of her flesh. The bard had named the child, Hope; convinced the little bundle of joy nestling in her arms was the physical embodiment of the hope she'd lost when she went against everything she believed in and made a conscious decision to kill someone. Xena, with her vast experience and intimate knowledge of evil, had seen the child for what she was, the offspring of Dahok, a physical embodiment not of hope but of evil. But Gabrielle had thwarted the warrior princess' attempt to kill her daughter, fleeing into the protective arms of the banshees who had kept Xena occupied while the bard fled with her daughter, her only hope. If she had been rational, she would have realised something was wrong. Why would the banshees have protected and worshipped her if her child was only an innocent baby? But Garielle hadn't stopped to think, the only thought in her mind was to protect her child. From Xena, who pursued them with a vengeance, determined to rid the world of an evil before it could come of age and be unleashed upon the innocent occupants of the known world. And Xena had caught up to them, as Gabrielle knew she would. Thinking quickly, the bard had lovingly placed her daughter in a basket and lowered it into the river below, her heart breaking as she watched the basket carried away by the current, bringing her daughter with it. She'd lied to Xena then. Lied to her best friend that Hope was dead. And oh how that had returned to haunt her, to haunt them. Before the year was over, Hope had returned, as a young child, to carry out her father's will and destroy all the people Xena loved.

Gabrielle had unwittingly led Hope straight to Solon, Xena's son. That was when the rift started, the rift that almost destroyed both Xena and Gabrielle. Hope had killed Solon and Gabrielle had killed Hope. And she'd nearly taken her own life as well. There had been so much pain, so much guilt, so many regrets. Gabrielle never wanted to go through that again. So she'd asked Aphrodite, hoping the goddess of love could tell her who the father was. But Aphrodite hadn't a clue though she swore on her godhood that both father and offspring were mortal. There were occasions in their past when the goddess of love had been less than truthful but Aphrodite was her friend and the goddess looked terribly sincere albeit somewhat flustered at the mischief her revelations had brought about. It wasn't Aphrodite's fault that Ares had been eavesdropping in the vicinity. The goddess' reassurance had eased her fears somewhat though she still didn't understand how she came to be with child. Half a moon ago, Xena had been confined to the healer's hut recuperating after her recent return from the dead. They hadn't been intimate during that period of time though Gabrielle doubted the warrior princess could have impregnated her even with her 'many skills'. Perhaps Eli had something to do with it. Aphrodite seemed convinced there wasn't any sign of divine intervention, good or evil but Gabrielle had run out of reasonable explanations. It also didn't help knowing that Ares had found Xena and she hadn't heard from the warrior princess since.

Retreating into the convenient shade of a nearby tree, Gabrielle chewed on her lower lip pensively. She was tempted to reach out to Xena through their soul-link, to seek some form of reassurance in their connection. But she was afraid that she might find rejection instead. Xena was known to be rather jealous and possessive where the bard was concerned and Gabrielle knew the reverse was also true. When she first learned of Xena's pregnancy those many seasons ago, Gabrielle had immediately thought of Xena's many male lovers. She'd all but accused the warrior princess of cheating on her with one of them and despite Xena's protests of innocence, the bard had seethed inwardly at the thought of her soulmate entwined with another in the throes of passion. It wouldn't be such a stretch for the warrior princess to feel the exact same way Gabrielle had on that occasion. And Gabrielle couldn't really blame Xena. Now, she could only trust the warrior princess' undying love for her. They could sort out the rest later. Together.

***

The sun was barely a finger away from its zenith when Pyrrhus reappeared out in the courtyard. Shielding his eyes, he looked up at the lookout who shook his head solemnly. Nodding his head in acknowledgement, Pyrrhus beckoned for the lookout to join the men below. By the time the men in the courtyard had lit the torches and armed themselves, Xena had seen enough. Treading lightly, she returned the way she came, trusting her unerring sense of direction to guide her.

A paved road wound like a snake from the foot of the hill to the fortified gates of the mansion and the scuffing of boots could be heard as Lord Aeschylus' men marched down the hill in pairs, led by a singular figure in front. Their numbers were a score and five, each wielding a club or mace in their main hand while their off-hand held aloft a burning torch. Pyrrhus was not amongst them, having apparently decided to leave the dirty work to men more suited for such labour. They were more than halfway down the hill when the silence was shattered by a blood-freezing ululation. Every man was frozen on the spot as a dark figure whirled through the air and landed effortlessly in front of their leader. The figure turned out to be a woman with piercing blue eyes and hair the colour of the night. She was dressed in a red leather battle dress reinforced with brass. A round metallic object hung upon her hips and the pommel of a sword could be from over her right shoulder. The woman warrior pursed her lips, accentuating her high cheekbones and a collective gasp went up from the men before her as they took in her beauty. Her voice, when she spoke, was sultry.

“Hallo boys. Headed somewhere?”

Silence followed, the men all too busy gaping at the beautiful apparition before them. They watched speechless as a singular eyebrow rose slowly, arching high to disappear under her bangs. An amused smile tugged on the corners of her mouth, drawing attention to her luscious lips.

Tired of the inaction, the warrior princess cleared her throat loudly and with that, the spell broke.

“Halt woman. This hill belongs to Lord Aeschylus and no trespassers are allowed.” The leader declared pompously, having somehow recovered his wits and remembered his duties.

Raising her hands in mock surrender, Xena quipped, “How can I halt when I'm standing still?”

The leader stared at her in confusion. Falling back on the familiarity of ritual, he demanded, “State your business or suffer the wrath of Lord Aeschylus.”

Xena smirked. “I'm here to stop you. Whaddya say boys? Care to play?” Drawing her sword from its scabbard, she held it out in front of her in a position of readiness, her stance half-staggered.

The men just stared at her disbelievingly. They outnumbered her twenty-five to one and instead of turning tail and running, this woman warrior was challenging them to a fight!

“Oh c'mon now.” Xena growled. “Come get some!” She rushed the leader, grabbed his belt with one hand and threw him almost nonchalantly over her shoulder. Picking up the leader's spluttering torch, Xena quickly sheathed her sword and turned to meet the onslaught.

Having watched their leader go down, the men charged towards the waiting woman warrior as one. At the last moment, Xena pirouetted out of the way, one foot stuck out to send the men at the front stumbling. Unable to arrest their momentum in time, the men behind in turn tripped over their fallen comrades, causing a miniature pileup. Flailing arms wielding weapons and torches alike connected with the faces, heads, bodies, legs and arms of their compatriots and it wasn't long before most of the men were out for the count, caught in the midst of friendly fire, so to speak. Fifteen men were left standing. Now wary, the remaining men spread out to surround Xena on all sides, weapons at the ready, their torches long since discarded. The warrior princess turned around slowly, carefully surveying her opponents, the torch she had appropriated as a weapon twirling lazily in her right hand.

From this ring of fifteen, four men stepped forward, two in front of the warrior princess and two behind. Waving their clubs menacingly, they advanced on Xena. The men in front engaged her first, working in tandem. One swung his club at her head while the other aimed for her legs, reasoning that Xena could only counter one or the other. At the exact same instance, the two men behind closed in, seeking to catch the warrior princess off-guard while she was distracted. Just as the men were about to strike, Xena launched into the air, somersaulting upwards and causing the four men to take out each other. Landing outside the circle, Xena immediately spun into a roundhouse kick. Heads snapped back, bodies hit the floor and then there were eight. Not waiting for the men to react, Xena launched into a series of continuous handsprings, putting herself back within the much-diminished circle of men. Regaining her feet, she swung the torch like a club, catching two of the men off-guard. The remaining six men glanced nervously at each other as they backed away from Xena. As one, they dropped their weapons and ran back towards the mansion.

Rolling her eyes, Xena grumbled, “This is no fun.” She discarded the torch and somersaulted in front of the men. “Sorry boys, can't let you go. It's bedtime.” Grabbing the nearest man, she swung him around like a whirlwind. By the time the dust had settled, all six lay in an unmoving heap upon the ground. Dusting her hands off, the warrior princess surveyed her handiwork. A soft sound to her left caught her attention. Grabbing the chakram off her belt, she sent it spinning into the air to embed itself in the trunk of a tree, mere inches away from the exposed throat of the leader whom she had left largely unscathed. The leader cringed, shying away from the deadly looking weapon and backpedaling straight into the well-muscled legs of a certain warrior princess.

Reaching down, Xena pulled him up by the front of his tunic, leaving his feet dangling some ways off the ground. “Not so fast, boy. I want some answers.”

“Anything, lady. Please... Don't hurt me.” He pleaded.

“You were headed for Sappho's library.” Xena said. “What was the plan?”

“We were supposed to meet up with Trachis and his men. They were to crash the ceremony while we torched the library in the chaos that ensued.”

“How many men? Are they armed?” Xena demanded impatiently. She had to warn Gabrielle. If she wasn't too late already.

“At least thirty. Like us, they were to be armed with clubs. But unlike us, Trachis loves bloodshed.”

“Thanks.” Xena murmured. She knocked the leader out with a punch, tugged the chakram out of the tree and started running for Sappho's library.

***

Gabrielle! Another group's headed your way. At least thirty of them. Armed with clubs and not afraid to use them. Xena's warning rang loud and clear in Gabrielle's mind. I'm on my way.

Startled out of her thoughts by Xena's warning, Gabrielle quickly scanned the surroundings. Civilians, guests and gawkers alike crowded in front of the library. If a fight should break out right now, there would be too many innocent lives on the line. She had to get everyone out of harm's way. I'm on it. The bard sent via their soul-link then started for Ci Nu. The dragon warrior read her intentions and met her halfway. “They are coming. Thirty strong or so. We need to get these people to safety before they arrive. Can you help disperse the crowd? I'll ask Sappho to bring the guests into the library.” Seeing Ci Nu's nod, the bard gave her a grateful smile and made a beeline for Sappho.

The poet was chatting enthusiastically with a handsome young man and Gabrielle was loathed to interrupt but there wasn't time to stand on ceremony. Offering a hurried apology to the young man, she dragged Sappho and Stathis off to one side and repeated Xena's warning. “Sappho, why don't you get everyone into the library and start the ceremony? Ci Nu and I will handle things here. Make sure you shut and bar the main door. No matter what happens, do not open the door until either Xena or I give you the all clear.” Gabrielle turned to Stathis. “Help her. And stay with her. Please.” Stathis' eyes narrowed in understanding and he gave a curt nod before leaving to help usher the guests into the library.

“Aphrodite?” Gabrielle called.

A flash of light heralded the arrival of the goddess of love. “You rang, Gabby baby?”

“Aphrodite. We have trouble. I've asked Sappho to barricade herself and her guests in the library for the ceremony. Stathis will be watching out for her. But I'll feel better if you're there too. Just in case some of the guests aren't as friendly towards Sappho as they appear.”

The goddess of love frowned, staring down at her fingernails. “But sweet cheeks, I just had my nails done. What if they get chipped?”

Gabrielle placed her hands on her hips and glared at the petulant goddess. “Aphrodite, Sappho is in danger.” She enunciated carefully.

“Oh. Why didn't you say so?” Aphrodite exclaimed, one hand placed theatrically over her heart. “Of course I'll look after her. Don't worry Gabs, no one's touching my number one faithful without my permission.” With a giggle, the goddess of love vanished into thin air.

Rolling her eyes, Gabrielle gave an exaggerated sigh then approached the nearest group of onlookers to convince them to leave.

***

Xena had nearly reached the library when the sound of fighting and the unmistakable smell of blood assailed her senses. Taking the final turn at a sprint, she saw Ci Nu and Gabrielle fighting back to back against a huge group of men who smelled as if they hadn't bathed since the last full moon. At a quick glance, the enemy numbered nearly two score, with another ten men or scattered on the ground in front of the two women. With a grim smile, the warrior princess drew her sword and let loose her warcry. It was time to even the odds a little.

With a simple flip, Xena vaulted over the heads of the attackers to land between Ci Nu and Gabrielle. “Glad to see ya.” She greeted them. “Time to clean up the streets.” She quipped before charging off to engage the enemy, her sword whistling through the air like a death song as she parried and thrust, twirled and sidestepped, carving a path through the foe.

Gabrielle chuckled at the warrior princess' enthusiasm, her eyes following Xena's mesmerising dance only to see the warrior princess disappear under a writhing mass of unwashed bodies. Distracted, the bard barely avoided a well-aimed morning star, the spike grazing her temple to draw blood. Snapping her attention back to the task at hand, she landed a blow on the wielder's solar plexus, causing the man to drop to his knees gasping for breath. The bard quickly dispatched him with a kick to the head then rotated the sais in her hand, blades crossed to stop another spiked club inches from her face. Pushing off from her back foot, she forced the club away. Before she could follow up with a roundhouse punch, another man had rushed her, his simple club swinging in an arch towards her head. Gabrielle went down on one knee, allowing the club to swing over her head. Using the knuckle of her sais, she delivered three quick punches to his abdomen before exploding upwards to land a powerful blow on his chin and send him spinning unconscious to the ground.

Behind Gabrielle, Ci Nu dispassionately dispatched assailant after assailant, her twin swords weaving in delicate patterns before her, her swordplay a beauty to behold as she easily disarmed first one then another. One sword swooped downwards while the other traced an arc upwards, leaving two men writhing on the ground grasping their injured limbs. Blood littered the ground before her and no small amount stained her chainmail armour but the dragon warrior herself remained unscathed. Sensing two men sneaking up on their flanks, Ci Nu yelled for Gabrielle to hit the ground. When she was certain the bard was out of harm's way, the dragon warrior twisted into the air, her swords extended outwards. Spinning around like a whirlwind, she easily cut down the six men that surrounded them before landing half-crouched where she had started, swords extended on either side of her. Any onlooker would have been amazed at this little demonstration but Gabrielle was too busy taking care of the next attacker to do more than mumble her thanks to the dragon.

A short distance away, Xena launched herself upwards, throwing off the men who had been piled on top of her. Turning around, she grabbed a discarded mace from the ground and threw it spinning end over end to take out one of the men in front of Gabrielle. Blue eyes met green eyes for a moment and the soulmates grinned at each other. Hearing footsteps behind her, Xena dropped into a handstand, kicking backwards with both legs like a bucking horse. Her boots connected with flesh and one of her attackers flew backwards, bringing down two of his cohorts who happened to be standing at the wrong place at the wrong time. Springing back onto her feet, she met another attacker head-on. Intercepting the man's club with her sword, she used her superior strength to force him back. Taking advantage of his loss of balance, she sidekicked him into oblivion. Xena whirled to face another attacker as he rushed her, his mace held aloft. Grabbing his raised arm, she used his momentum against him and threw him onto the ground, ending any further participation on his part by stepping on his exposed throat.

It wasn't long before the previously empty promenade was thoroughly littered with bodies. Of the fifty who had descended upon the library, only six remain. This small knot of men stood off to one side, warily watching the three women advancing menacingly upon them. They had watched in awe and no little trepidation at the seeming ease with which the three had dispatched their fellow men. Some would have labelled them cowards for having avoided engaging in the fight thus far but they were all thankful to be alive and unharmed for the moment. When the women were less than three strides away, the group of survivors reached an unspoken agreement. Abandoning their weapons, they turned tail and fled, their legs pistoning madly as they sought to put as much distance as possible between themselves and three goddess of doom. There was a black blur and a crack as Xena's whip snapped out, wrapping itself around the ankle of a straggler. A powerful tug took his feet out from under him and he found himself becoming more intimate with the ground then he had planned.

The warrior princess turned the man roughly onto his back then grabbed a fistful of his tunic. Pulling him close, she gave him a good dose of her patented warrior princess look before growling, “Where's Trachis?”

“No..no..north of Delphi?” The man stammered.

“I don't have time for games.” Irritated, Xena gave the man a good shake. “I meant your leader.”

The man raised his hands in a placading gesture. “O..oh... Him. He's in th..there.” He gestured towards the library.

Releasing her death grip on his tunic, Xena shoved him. “Alright. Get on outta here before I change my mind.”

Without having to be told twice, he sprang off, running as if Cerberus himself were snapping at his heels.

“Lord Aeschylus must have the city authorities in his pocket huh.” Gabrielle observed disapprovingly at the glaring absence of the city guards.

“No surprise there.” Xena answered with a shrug. “C'mon, let's go check on Sappho.” Noticing the dried blood on Gabrielle's forehead, she ran a thumb lightly over it and was relieved to note it was only a scratch. It would have to be cleaned and dressed but Xena was pleased that they had all escaped relatively untouched against such odds. Not that she was surprised in the least. After all, Gabrielle had been her protege, now a kick-ass warrior in her own right; and Ci Nu was one of the best warriors she'd ever fought with or against, having honed her fighting skills for over nine centuries.

Gabrielle stopped Xena as she reached for the library door. “Let me.” The bard cleared her throat, projecting her voice to reach the occupants within. “Sappho, Stathis? The coast's clear. Is everything ok inside?”

There was the sound wood rasping against wood before the library doors swung open to reveal a smiling Stathis. “Hey Gabrielle, Xena. C'mon in. Sappho's 'bout to start the partying.” He took a peek over their shoulders and joked. “Guess ya started without us eh?” He stood aside to let them pass before closing the library doors behind them and slid the crossbar back into place.

Three pairs of eyes were drawn immediately to the statue in the middle of the foyer. It towered over everyone, even the goddess of love who stood before it. Aphrodite was all smiles as she struck a pose, mimicking that of the statue's. “Hey girls, whaddya think? Did they manage to capture my awesomeness?”

“Aphrodite, no one can ever capture the true measure of your beauty. But it's a good likeness.” The perceptive bard replied.

“Yeah. Can't compare with the real deal though.” Xena affirmed, having understood immediately what Gabrielle was trying to achieve. If it made Aphrodite happy, a few nice words wouldn't hurt, especially after all the goddess of love had done for them.

“Aw shucks, you girls really know how to make a goddess happy.” A preening Aphrodite beamed at her favourite girl group. “I've got a present for you.” She gestured behind her where two men lay bound together like mummies, bright pink mummies.

“Trachis, I presume?” Xena asked, looking at the unconscious men with no little amusement. Both men were coated from head to toe in a bright pink powdery substance and wrapped from neck to ankle in a bright pink gauze-like material. Pink was definitely not their colour and Xena had a nagging suspicion that the goddess of love had been overly liberal in her use of cosmestics, especially rogue on the two men.

Aphrodite shrugged. “Sorry warrior babe, they didn't introduce themselves and I didn't care. Like, they were totally rude and not my type.” She sniffed in disdain. “And totally no respect. I mean, they tried to steal my thunder during the dedication ceremony!”

“You did good Aphrodite. I think it's time I paid Lord Aeschylus a visit.” Turning to Gabrielle, she said, “I know how much you love parties. And I heard Sappho's are the best of the lot. Why don't you stay and enjoy yourself?”

“Par-teh!” The goddess of love squealed excitedly and disappeared in a shower of confetti.

“Oh boy.” Gabrielle sighed. From what she'd seen, this was going to be one wild party and she wasn't exactly in the mood right now. Sparing a glance at the stoic warrior princess, Gabrielle couldn't help but wonder what was on her mind. Was Xena using the party as an excuse for leaving her behind or did she really want Gabrielle to have a good time? Both were equally plausible and the bard was torn. She really didn't want to attend the party but she wasn't looking forward to imposing herself on Xena after that little bombshell earlier today. All she wanted at the moment was for Xena to hold her close and tell her everything would be alright. But who was she kidding? The bard couldn't help but let out another sigh.

Gabrielle looked troubled and Xena didn't blame her. It was her fault after all. What had she been thinking? Keeping a secret of such proportions from the bard. Especially in view of how much pain Gabrielle's last pregnancy had been for both of them. The truth, of course, was that she had panicked. And who would have thought that possible of the legendary warrior princess? But then again, nothing was normal where Gabrielle was concerned. Firstly, she lost her heart and soul to the bard from that very first day. Then she'd completely broken down in Thessaly when death stole Gabrielle away from her. Xena hadn't cared that she looked like a babbling idiot or even what the people witnessing the event would think of the warrior princess. Her one consuming thought at that moment was Gabrielle. She couldn't lose her. Not then, not now, not ever. Gabrielle made her whole. With the bard by her side, Xena could take on anything and anyone. She was her source, her motivation, her heart, and her home. Closing the distance between them, the warrior princess enfolded the bard in her arms, her chin resting affectionately atop that head of gold. “Gabrielle, everything will be fine. I promise.” She cooed.

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's waist and melted into the warm embrace. She didn't know how the warrior princess had read her mind, or even if she had but she didn't really care at this moment. It was all she wanted, needed, and that was enough for now. As long as she was with Xena, nothing else really mattered. They would get through this together. Just like always.

“I'm going with you.”

“You're gonna skip the party? Gabrielle, you love parties.” Xena frowned in concern.

“Sappho won't miss me but you will.”

“I won't be gone that long, Gabrielle. Might even be back before it's over.”

“Xena, who are you kidding? You don't do parties. And anyway, you'll need my help with Lord Aeschylus.”

“Why's that?” Xena asked, now genuinely confused.

The bard wandered off to one of the shelves where she took out a bundle of scrolls. “Because of this.” She said, waving the scrolls in the air. “These are the scrolls Lord Aeschylus is after. Seeing the warrior princess about to interrupt, Gabrielle quickly added. “Xena, you know I read faster than you. I'm going to go through these scrolls and see if I can convince Lord Aeschylus that they are harmless.”

“So what do they say?” Xena asked.

“I haven't even read them yet. I'll read them on the way. Let's go.”

“I have a better idea.” Xena grabbed Gabrielle's hand and dragged her to a nearby table. “Why don't you get started on those scrolls while I get us some lunch. I'm starving and you must be too. Especially now that you are eating for--” Xena gestured towards Gabrielle's stomach.

Conflicting emotions flitted across Gabrielle's face. “Xena, I-”

“Gabrielle, you said we will talk about it later. And we will. Once Lord Aeschylus has been taken care of.” Xena led the bard to a chair. “Now, just sit down here and don't go anywhere.” She commanded.

***

Clouds had brought some reprieve from the scorching heat. Xena and Gabrielle stood at the foot of the hill looking up towards the mansion at the peak just as Xena and Stathis had done so earlier that day. The scrolls, which Gabrielle had read during a rather long and protracted lunch, were an absolute showcase for Sappho's incredible talent as a lyric poet. They contained a collection of poems describing in some detail the emotions and feelings experienced and evoked during sex. It was deeply personal and extremely erotic. And just as Sappho had attested to, there was no mention of Lord Aeschylus or anyone else. What was interesting however, was the kind of sex that was alluded to in some of the poems. Sex that involved chains and pain, torture and restraints. Such sexual practices weren't exactly unheard of, at least according to Xena, but they reeked of depravation to the upstanding folks of a cultured society. Lord Aeschylus would definitely have found his reputation tarnished beyond repair if word had gotten out about his sexual proclivities.

That little nugget of information also helped shed light on the rumours about the sex slaves he kept in his basement. Xena did not doubt the basement was Lord Aeschylus own little playground where he indulged his sexual fetishes. Now more than ever, the warrior princess was determined to break into Lord Aeschylus' basement. She had a hunch and what she found in the basement would either prove her right or terribly wrong. At least the pieces of the puzzle were finally starting to fall into place. Aloud, she said, “It's time to visit the basement.”

“Basement?” Gabrielle repeated uncomprehendingly. “Weren't we planning to confront Lord Aeschylus?”

“Yes, Gabrielle. That's why we are going to the basement.”

“Xena, is this another test? What has the basement got to do with Lord Aeschylus?” Gabrielle frowned. “Wait, don't tell me. I can do this. You said the basement was where Lord Aeschylus' sex slaves were rumoured to be kept. And we are headed for the basement because we are looking for Lord Aeschylus...” Gabrielle's face was scrunched up in thought. “But Xena, it's the middle of the day!”

The warrior princess crossed her arms over her chest, one eyebrow raised in amusement. “So?”

“Oh.” The bard coloured slightly in embarrassment. “Time of day really doesn't matter, does it? Guess I spoke without thinking again, huh.”

“I noticed.” Xena said dryly. “C'mon then. Let's get going.” The warrior princess started up the winding path, her senses on high alert. After the little welcome party she'd given Lord Aeschylus' men earlier that day, Xena wouldn't have been overly surprised to find the hill practically crawling with muscle. But all was quiet, not a soul to be found on the path or the surrounding forests. It would appear that Lord Aeschylus' men had fled the scene of their little altercation with the mystery warrior woman and returned to their stronghold to lick their wounds. Her heightened senses did pick up something interesting though. Someone was staring intensely at her, and had been for some time.

Without breaking stride, the warrior princess called out softly, “Gabrielle...”

“Mmm?” The bard answered distractedly.

“Stop staring.”

“But that's a really nice butt you've got there. A very sexy butt.” Gabrielle protested, her eyes riveted to the object in question, her eyes dark with desire.

“That may be so. But you're distracting me.” Xena said matter-of-factly.

“Oh, I am, am I?” Gabrielle literally purred.

“Gabrielle...”

“Yes, Xena?” The bard replied in a voice literally dripping with desire.

“Don't even think about it.”

“But...”

“Not now, Gabrielle.”

The bard could detect a hint of exasperation leaking around the edges of that last statement and she could just imagine Xena rolling those baby blues of her. “Later?” The bard asked hopefully.

“Later.” Came the amused reply.

“Xena, I'm going to hold you to that.” Gabrielle shouted happily after Xena's disappearing silhouette, her face fixed in a silly grin.

A faint chuckle far ahead was her only answer.

***

Standing on a sturdy tree branch overlooking the mansion, they finally understood why the hill had been left unmanned. From their vantage point above, it was obvious that Lord Aeschylus or probably Pyrrhus had ordered every guard under the lord's employ to retreat in full force to the mansion. In fact, the mansion resembled a besieged city, albeit on a smaller scale. Men lined the ramparts at regular intervals, armed not with bow and arrows but with melee weapons. That alone spoke volumes about Lord Aeschylus' level of military expertise, or in this case, the lack thereof. Four sentries manned the gates while more men milled about the courtyard, with no hint of order whatsoever. The leader of this motley crew was known to Xena. He sported a shiny new black eye, courtesy of the warrior princess; and was more concerned with his aching head than anything else going on around him. A quick scan of the courtyard revealed more of the walking wounded, men who had lost their bottle and who were definitely not looking forward to another fight, especially against the scary warrior who'd kicked their butts in such humiliating fashion that morning.

The gates to the mansion stood wide open, manned by four sentries. Since the sentinels on the ramparts would have sounded the alarm and mobilised everyone in the courtyard before an intruder came within striking distance, Xena guessed the sentries must have been placed there to offer some token resistance before reinforcements arrived, not that they would have taken that long. Xena sighed. No good commander, expecting an attack, would leave the gates open or make sitting ducks out of his men. An archer could have picked off the sentries and even the men on the ramparts from one of the nearby trees with ease. And it would have been just as easy to slip off into the forest and down the hill without getting caught. From a purely tactical standpoint, Lord Aeschylus' mansion was a nightmare to defend and the naivete of whoever was in command didn't help matters at all. With all the defences geared towards the main gates, Xena knew it would be easy enough to make their way to the back of the mansion and sneak in that way.

Having no prior knowledge of the mansion's layout, there were so many things that could go wrong with that approach and Xena didn't feel particularly adventurous right now, not with Gabrielle along for the ride. She knew she was just being overly protective as usual, something the bard found stifling at times. But Xena couldn't help it. Gabrielle meant the absolute world to her and the warrior princess would do anything to keep her safe. A direct frontal approach would probably be best. She could let Gabrielle talk their way in to see Lord Aeschylus. Even if that failed, the dungeon or holding cell would likely be situated in the basement which was exactly where Xena wanted to go. And if all else failed, there was the tried and tested method of bashing in heads. With more than half of Lord Aeschylus' men ready to run instead of fight, the odds were heavily in their favour.

Moments later, cries from the sentinels on the ramparts rang out as the pair casually sauntered up the path and into view of the mansion. Armed men swarmed out of the main gates like ants, taking up position just behind the sentries in ranks two deep. The leader stood slightly apart, his fingers twitching nervously around the hilt of the sword hanging sheathed by his side. The incessant pounding in his head ratcheted up a notch, determined to keep pace with his racing heart when he caught sight of the unannounced visitors. His muffled groan drew a few puzzled looks from his own men and he felt his innards turn into ice cold water at the thought of facing the mystery woman warrior once again. His men outnumbered the warrior and her companion 20-to-1 but he did not greatly favour those odds. The warrior had trounced them barely two candlemarks ago despite them outnumbering her 25-to-1. If her companion was even half as skilled as she was, the leader knew they were in for another humiliating defeat. The morale of his men was dangerously low after the beating they had taken at the warrior's hands and if they felt the same way he did, it was obvious they didn't stand a chance. That the warrior hadn't gone for any of her weapons yet gave him hope. Hope that she wasn't here looking for a fight.

The leader lifted a hand, signalling his men to hold position and await his orders. He took a moment to ensure his orders were being carried out before stepping forward. “Halt!” He called down to the two women, wincing a little as the sound reverberated around his aching head. “Come no further or we will arrest you for trespassing.”

An amused glance passed between the soulmates but they stopped in their tracks. “Is this how you welcome visitors?” The warrior princess asked dryly, one eyebrow arched, a hand gesturing to the show of force before them.

“Is that what you are? Visitors?.”

Xena shrugged but it was Gabrielle who spoke up. “I am Gabrielle and this is Xena. We are here on behalf of Sappho to seek an audience with Lord Aeschylus.”

The leader stood appraising the two women as he mulled over Gabrielle's words. Xena, the warrior princess. And Gabrielle, Xena's young protege, the warrior bard of Potidaea. If the stories were true, they were legends who had gone up against insanely strong foes and not only survived but defeated them all. He could hear the murmuring of his men behind him as they sought to come to terms with the identity of the women before them. It was said that they fought for the greater good, righting wrongs and defending the weak wherever they go. That they were here now on behalf of Sappho would probably mean she had been wronged somehow. Somehow, he wasn't overly surprised. Orphaned at a young age, he had been taken in by Lord Aeschylus and been in his service ever since. The lord was never overly demonstrative but he was fair and kind. He had the utmost respect for the lord and he loved the man like the father he never had. Lord Aeschylus had been in love with Sappho and the acrimosity between the two after their recent fall out left the leader baffled. The lord had moped around his mansion ever since his relationship with Sappho ended and the self-important Pyrrhus had taken it upon himself to manage Lord Aeschylus' affairs. The leader would have like some answers but as a lowly hireling, it wasn't his place to question the lord or his decisions. Xena however, was another matter altogether. His mind made up, he addressed the women once again, “If you promise not to cause trouble, I will have someone announce you to Lord Aeschylus. It is his choice whether to grant you the audience you seek.”

“We are not looking for trouble but if someone wishes us harm, we will defend ourselves.” Gabrielle replied.

There was a pause as the leader considered the wisdom of allowing two deadly warriors free rein within the mansion but he knew they could have easily forced their way in and the decision was an easy one. “Fair enough. I'll have you announced.”

***

The soulmates strode down a long corridor, flanked on all sides by Lord Aeschylus' men as they followed the leader to the audience hall. The procession made barely a sound as it neared their destination, the thick carpeting covering the entire length of the corridor absorbing the impact of their booted footfalls. The strong scent of frankincense wafted out of one of the rooms they passed and the brief glimpse they caught of the room revealed a shrine, a statue of Aphrodite holding center stage above a well-tended altar filled with offerings of jewelry and sweet perfumes. Considering that Aphrodite was also the goddess of lust and pleasure, it wasn't a surprise that Lord Aeschylus numbered amongst her many worshippers. That was at least one commonality between Sappho and Lord Aeschylus.

A few short steps later, the corridor veered left, running a short distance before terminating in ornately carved double doors made out of hammered gold and inset with various precious jewels. Xena smirked. As pretty as the door looked, it was hardly practical and would not stand up to a well-placed kick from the warrior princess. The herald standing at strict attention beside the door puffed out his chest at their approach. At a nod from the leader, the herald took a deep breath before letting loose in a deep booming voice that echoed strangely within the close confines of the corridor. The doors swung silently open and the leader led them through.

They found themselves in a huge hall, half again as large as Sappho's own dining hall. Colourful tapestries lined the walls, where Aphrodite featured prominently in each and every one of them. One of these showed Aphrodite and Ares entwined together in bed as a furious Hephaestus could be seen through the bedroom door, his trusty hammer in hand, ready to smite the war god for cheating with his wife. Xena nudged Gabrielle, using her chin to direct the bard's gaze towards the tapestry in question. Gabrielle's eyes widened at the sight and Xena smirked once again. Aphrodite's affair with Ares hadn't exactly been a secret and that was one the reasons Xena had chosen to restore Ares to Olympus to keep Aphrodite company. For the main part, it had been about balance. But it had also been about guilt. Both Ares and Aphrodite had helped them while the rest of the Olympian gods were busy trying to kill Xena's daughter Eve. Restoring their godhood did not make up for the loss of their family but at least they had each other and their fondness for each other helped made things easier somewhat.

The only chairs in the audience hall were up on a dais in the back. Though chair was an serious understatement since any of the three could have easily passed for a throne in one of the smaller kingdoms. A familiar figure stood beside the largest chair, once again decked out in some frilly colourful number that grated on Xena's nerves. Lord Aeschylus was nowhere to be seen though Xena wasn't overly surprised. What did surprise her however was the leader's reaction to Pyrrhus. His eyes narrowed into slits and his lips straightened into a thin line. The leader obviously wasn't overly fond of the man though Pyrrhus himself seemed utterly oblivious of the hostility directed his way.

“Lord Aeschylus is otherwise engaged at the moment but he has instructed me to stand in for him. Has Sappho sent you here to intercede on her behalf?” He demanded pompously.

“We are not here to intercede for anyone. There's been a misunderstanding and we are here to clear that up. It would be best if we could speak to Lord Aeschylus directly to prevent any further mischief.” Gabrielle said.

Pyrrhus stared at Gabrielle as if she had grown a second head. “Did you not hear me? The lord is busy and has not the time to entertain friends of the harlot Sappho. Speak to me or speak not at all. It's your choice.”

Gabrielle fumed at his condescending manner and his use of the word 'harlot'. Sappho might have been an ardent worshipper of Aphrodite in her pursuit of love and lust but she was a respected poet, not a whore. “Sappho is not a harlot. With men like you at Lord Aeschylus' side, I'm not surprised that was a misunderstanding in the first place. There is no way we can clear anything up if you persist in that attitude towards her. Since Lord Aeschylus is otherwise indisposed today, we will return tomorrow for an audience with him.”

“Guards, escort these women off the premises at once. They are not allowed to enter these premises ever again.” Pyrrhus commanded gleefully. To Gabrielle, he said, “This was your only chance and you blew it. We will not meet again.” He waved his hands at the guards to lead the visitors away.

The leader did not bother to acknowledge Pyrrhus command. He turned and strode out the double doors, gesturing for his men to follow. Xena and Gabrielle had little choice but to go along for the ride.

Plan B? Gabrielle asked Xena silently.

We wait and see. I have a feeling things will turn our way. Xena answered.

So no bashing of heads? The bard pressed on.

Not yet. Maybe later.

Good. I want to wipe that smug look off his face. The audacity of the guy, calling Sappho a whore! He needs to be taught a lesson.

Don't worry Gabrielle, he won't be smug long. Not after we find Lord Aeschylus anyway.

Halfway down the corridor, the leader came to an abrupt halt. Turning around, he addressed the man bringing up the rear, “Kadmos, go back to the courtyard and tell the men to stand down. The threat is over.” To the other two men, he said, “You two, go grab a bite. You are to relieve the sentries at the main gate in half a candlemark.”

One by one, the men saluted and left, none of them questioning his orders though they looked back once or twice, concern etched upon their faces.

“Your men care for you.” Xena observed quietly.

The leader shrugged. He waited for the last of his men to disappear from sight before gesturing for both women to follow him. He led them through a small door and into a secluded tunnel. Doubt gnawed at him and he took his time checking the surroundings to ensure they were alone, trying to use the opportunity to calm his nerves. Trusting these strangers with his concerns was a huge risk but one he felt compelled to take. Pyrrhus' smugness in the audience hall had set off all the warning bells in his head and the leader was convinced Lord Aeschylus himself was in some sort of danger from the cocky bastard. On his way back to where he'd left them, he rehearsed what he was going to say but words deserted him when he noticed the intense stares levelled his way. His mouth was suddenly dry as a desert and he desperately needed a drink.

“You're worried about Lord Aeschylus.” Xena put into words what the leader obviously couldn't. “And wanted to know if we will help.”

“H...how did you know that?” His mouth worked a few times before he finally got the words out.

Xena opened her mouth to reply but Gabrielle beat her to the punch. “She has many skills.” The bard announced smugly. Gabrielle grinned happily at the warrior princess only to start chewing on her bottom lip when she caught the look Xena shot her way.

“That wasn't what I was going to say. But it will do.” Xena remarked drily.

“What were you about to say?” The leader asked, watching the little interplay between the two women with some interest.

“Doesn't matter. I need you to show us the way to the basement.” The warrior princess replied.

“The basement?” The leader frowned, as confused as Gabrielle had been earlier. “You can't be meaning to go to the holding cell are you?”

“She has a habit of doing that.” Gabrielle piped up. “Jumping from one seemingly unrelated matter to another. But she has her reasons. And I've found she's always right. There is more to the basement than just a holding cell isn't there?”

A lightbulb seemed to go on in the leader's mind. “You mean to go to the restricted area, don't you. It is off-limits to all the staff except Pyrrhus and no one really knows where the entrance is--”

“But you do.” Xena finished for him.

“Yes, I used to make a game of stalking Lord Aeschylus when I was a kid. There's a secret entrance around back. I'll show you. But what are you planning to do when you find Lord Aeschylus?”

“What Gabrielle said in the audience hall. Clear things up.”

“So you won't hurt him?” The leader asked, seeking reassurance.

“Our promise still stands. But no guarantees for Pyrrhus though.” Xena said.

“Oh, do with him as you will. No one here will stop you.” The leader grinned at the two women. “In fact, if you don't mind, save some for me. I've wanted a piece of him ever since he first walked through those gates.”

“I'm afraid you'll have to stand in line. He's mine. But I'll see what I can do.” Gabrielle winked at the leader. “By the way, I do believe we haven't had the pleasure of making your acquaintance.”

“Where are my manners? I'm Podarge. Thank you for your help. It has been an honour meeting you two.” He said, grasping their forearms in a warrior's greeting.

“Don't thank us yet. We haven't done anything.” Xena reminded him. “Alright. Let's get a move on.”

***

The back wall was a strange place for a mural, there being nothing more than dirt packed earth choked full of weeds. In fact, this mural was not so much a form of decoration, since there was no one to admire it, as a means to disguise something. The artist had painted the mural around the hidden entrance to the basement, incorporating the rectangular void in his masterpiece as just that, a door. It might not have been creative, but at least it was smart. Painting over the entrance would have been a mistake. Opening and closing the entrance would have caused the paint around its edges to crack and eventually fall off, calling to attention the very secret it sought to hide. According to Podarge, the catch that activated the entrance mechanism was hidden in the black orbs of the servant girl kneeling beside the door.

Crouched behind a weathered wooden cart, they made plans. The ground in front of the entrance had been recently disturbed. Xena was certain the tracks belonged to Pyrrhus but there was no telling how long he planned on staying in the basement. It could be in a few heartbeats or it could be many candlemarks later. If they went in now, they had the advantage of surprise. If they waited for Pyrrhus to leave, they would be ceding that advantage to him. Since neither Xena nor Gabrielle were fond of surprises, they opted for the former. They would infiltrate the basement and check out the situation below while Podarge stayed up top to keep watch.

A muffled click was followed by a low muted grinding as the rectangular slab of marble receded deeper into the wall before sliding to the right. It took a while for their eyes to adjust to the relative darkness after the brightness of the afternoon sun but once their vision cleared, they could make out a set out of steps immediately to the left of the entrance leading downwards. Before venturing further, both women drew their weapons, Xena unsheathing her sword while Gabrielle bent down to liberate her sais from her boots. Taking the stairs at a cautious pace, they descended slowly, their way lit by torches lining the walls at pre-determined intervals. Before they were halfway down the flight of stairs, the grinding sound started up again, causing both women to tense momentarily before relaxing when they realised the mechanism had reversed itself and returned the door to its original position.

At the bottom of the stairs, the tunnel widened considerably, enough for two people to walk comfortably abreast. But they proceeded as before, with Xena leading the way while Gabrielle picked up the rear. A sharp crack came from somewhere deeper within, the sound consistent with a whip. The soulmates shared a concerned look and increased their pace. The tunnel continued straight ahead before veering sharply off to the right and they could now hear someone grunting as they cracked the whip over and over again. Xena held up her hand, warning Gabrielle to stay back while she stuck her head out cautiously and peered around the corner. The tunnel opened out into a huge room, roughly the size of Sappho's guest bedroom. Chains, shackles and various forms of restraints adorned one of the walls, a variety of whips and instruments of torture lay in a rack beneath them. A small cage, barely large enough for an adult human being, sat in the middle of the room, unoccupied. Various torture devices were scattered about the room. There was a stock, a rectangular rack with shackles on all four corners, a wooden table complete with restraints, and a crucifix with leather restraints where the nails would have gone. Those were only the devices Xena could see from her limited point of view and she did not doubt the room held more surprises. A complex pulley system had been set up near the back and this was where Pyrrhus stood, his back towards them, a cat o' nine tails held loosely in his left hand. His attention was obviously focused on the bound and gagged form suspended from the pulleys and he laughed hysterically as he cracked the whip at the air around the helpless figure which jerked spasmodically with each crack of the whip.

Stathis had told Xena Lord Aeschylus could be identified by the amount of jewelry adorning his person but the blindfolded man was naked as the day he was born. He had been hogtied and suspended from the pulley by his wrists and ankles so that he faced downwards, his back arched in a decidedly uncomfortable position. Xena squirmed a little where she crouched. This was a little too close to torture for her comfort. His pale skin had been marked in a few places. There were patches of red where hot candle wax had been dripped onto his skin and a few raised welts showed where the whip had struck flesh. This might be pleasurable to some but something was off. The warrior princess couldn't put a finger on it but Pyrrhus' playmate didn't seem to be enjoying himself as much as Pyrrhus was.

Xena took a moment to mentally warn Gabrielle about what she was about to see. Palming her chakram, she stepped around the corner. “Why don't you pick on someone... who can actually fight back?” The warrior princess drawled before letting loose with her chakram.

Startled by Xena's voice, Pyrrhus whirled around to confront her only to be distracted by the chakram as it whizzed by his head. Instinctively, his eyes tried to follow the flight of the silver disc through the air instead of focusing on the more immediate threat of an armed and dangerous Xena standing a few paces away.

A metallic clank sounded as the chakram ricocheted off the back wall at an angle, sparks flying. Recognising that all-too-familiar sound as the cue that it was, Gabrielle burst forth from behind Xena, her powerful legs pumping furiously as she sprinted past the warrior princess and behind Pyrrhus' back to where his playmate hung struggling furiously. Out of consideration for the man's modesty, she averted her eyes, quickly scanning the area nearby for something with which to cover the man and hopefully break his fall when Xena's chakram finally sliced through the ropes holding him aloft. Her emerald green eyes lit upon a pile of clothing laid out neatly on top of a nearby rack, notably the two thick cloaks lying there. Why anyone had need for such thick cloaks in the heat of summer was beyond the bard's understanding but they would be perfect for her needs. Now all she needed was something to lay it on, to make a litter of sorts. A huge wooden frame came skidding her way and Gabrielle looked up to find Xena's baby blues twinkling in amusement at her, a half smirk on her face. Nodding her thanks, she flashed the warrior princess a grin of her own then quickly set about the task of stretching the cloak over the wooden frame. Gabrielle was just about done when she heard the chakram heading back their way. She hurriedly finished and slid the frame into place under the man just as the chakram sliced through the ropes. As planned, the stretched cloak cushioned the man's fall and Gabrielle cut the man free before wrapping the other cloak about him.

Meanwhile, the chakram had whizzed past Xena and vanished into the passage through which they'd come, a series of metallic clanks testifying to its continued flight out of sight. Pyrrhus, having followed the flight of the chakram as best as he could, had now turned to face Xena. Oblivious to Gabrielle's presence behind him, he cracked the cat o' nine tails at Xena maniacally, his face contorted into an ugly visage. “You! What are you doing here?” He snarled. “No one intrudes on my domain without my permission! No matter. You're not leaving here alive.” He raised his whip to lash out at Xena.

The warrior princess had sheathed her sword during the chakram's flight and she now stood at the ready, her hands held in front of her like a dragon's claws, ready to counter any move he might make. “Oh, don't you worry about that.” She said, indicating Pyrrhus' last statement. “You would do better to worry about her.” Xena gestured behind Pyrrhus to the sai-wielding bard.

Pyrrhus whirled around, his raised arm instinctively swinging down in an arc to bring the cat o' nine tails to bear on this new threat. By the time he had completed his action, he found Gabrielle grinning smugly at him, completely unscathed. Caught off guard, he stared down stupidly at the remains of the whip handle he held in his right hand, then back up at Gabrielle. He hadn't seen her move but she had somehow severed his whip with her fork-like weapons. Unbelievable! And she looked so harmless!

“Oops. Guess you lost your little toy. But don't worry, I didn't.” Gabrielle teased. She flipped the sais in her hands, knuckle facing forward and landed a numbing blow on Pyrrhus' arm, causing him to drop the whip, or what remained of it.

Behind him, Xena watched on, nonchalantly raising one hand to pluck her chakram out of the air. She absentmindedly tossed the chakram straight up in the air and jutted out her right hip to catch its descend on its hook around her waist.

“Now that's taken care of,” Gabrielle said, indicating the whip. “This is for calling Sappho a 'whore'.” She said, jabbing him in the solar plexus with the knuckle of her other sai, bringing him to his knees desperately gasping for breath. “And this is for torturing that helpless man over there.” She added, whipping her right hand around in a roundhouse punch that landed square on his left temple, causing his head to snap violently to the right and knocking him straight out.

“You're getting quite good at that.” Xena drawled as Gabrielle sheathed her sais. “But now someone would have to carry him outta here.”

Gabrielle rolled her emerald green orbs at her soulmate. “Xena, I have been practising, you know. And we could always leave him here.” She said, indicating the various forms of restraints around them. “This is almost like a dungeon in itself.”

“Y...yes. Leave him here.” A male voice spoke up behind Gabrielle, his voice gaining strength and conviction with each word.”

Both Xena and Gabrielle turned to regard the man they'd rescued. He was now fully dressed in the clothing Gabrielle had found laid out on a nearby shelf and despite his injuries, he carried himself in a way that spoke of someone used to authority. “Lord Aeschylus.” Xena inclined her head in acknowledgement.

“Lord Aeschylus?” Gabrielle parroted, confused. Xena threw her an amused glance, as if to say, “Who else were you expecting it to be?”

The man drew himself up to his full height, his public persona apparently reasserting itself. “Indeed. I am he. And you have my gratitude for taking care of that wretched being.” He nodded towards the unconscious Pyrrhus. “Though perhaps you might care to explain who you are and what you are doing on my estate.” Despite his age, he had kept his body in relatively good shape, and he could have easily passed for a man ten summers his junior. His face wasn't overly masculine though the strong jawline and high cheekbones combined to make him attractive, if not downright handsome. But what struck Gabrielle most was the kindness in his eyes. It was a little incongruous, considering his little secret and what he had put Sappho through but it was there nonetheless.

Xena nodded for Gabrielle to take over before walking up to the unmoving heap on the ground. She picked Pyrrhus up, slung him casually over one shoulder, and made her way to a standing rack where she proceeded to chain him up.

Gabrielle reluctantly tore her gaze away from Xena's butt and turned back to the patiently waiting Lord Aeschylus. She introduced themselves then began with Xena discovering the plot to burn Sappho's library, following it with the attack by Trachis' men earlier that day. She then summarised her little chat with Sappho and how they had decided to clarify matters with him so that Sappho might be left in peace. Gabrielle described their reception by Pyrrhus and Podarge's concerns, and how it had led them to the basement and the present situation. She ended by saying, “So you see, it was all a misunderstanding. I have her poems here if you want to take a look.”

“But it wasn't a misunderstanding.” Xena corrected. She'd stepped up close beside Gabrielle and laid a possessive arm around the bard's waist without consciously realising she'd done so. And Gabrielle's body had responded all on its own to Xena's close proximity by leaning into the warrior princess, her hand instinctively reaching back to rest upon a well-leathered butt cheek. Seemingly oblivious to Gabrielle's hand, Xena continued. “It was a plot against Sappho. Pyrrhus made up those accusations and you believed him. Your reputation would have been on the line if what he said was true. So you gave your blessings to sabotage the construction works but that wasn't enough for Pyrrhus, was it?”

“I loved Sappho.” Lord Aeschylus replied, his shoulders hunched forward ever so slightly, as if the full weight of his folly had finally alighted upon them. “Still do. But I trusted Pyrrhus.” He gestured to their surroundings. “Had to. And he had never let me down before. On hindsight, I should have known. But after Sappho left, he was all I had.” He looked up at them pleadingly, hoping they would somehow understand.

“And so you chose denial.” Xena continued for him.

Lord Aeschylus shook his head with a sigh. “I should have paid more attention to what Pyrrhus was doing. It wasn't until he let slip his plans to destroy Sappho that I finally realised what I'd done. And by then it was too late.”

“Because you were in the middle of one of your 'sessions'.” Xena said.

“You make it sound like therapy.” Lord Aeschylus said with a wry smile. “Not that you're wrong though. Sometimes I think that is exactly what it is. A means of keeping me sane in a world where appearances are everything.” He gestured at their surroundings once again. “This is the only place I can be myself. This is where I leave all my insecurities and pain. Ha! Why am I telling you this? It doesn't make a difference, does it? I'm ruined. Dragged my family name through the mud. Just as my father once feared. I am a disgrace, is what I am.” He hung his head in shame.

“No one's ruined. Except maybe him.” Xena indicated the still unconscious Pyrrhus. When Lord Aeschylus gave no indication of having heard her, the warrior princess gave Gabrielle a mental nudge. Some help here. Sensitive chat time.

Gabrielle sighed and gave Xena's butt cheek a reassuring stroke before detaching herself from the warrior's side. Walking over to Lord Aeschylus, she laid a comforting hand upon his shoulder. When he finally looked up, she said gently, “Everyone makes their own choices, it is a fact of life. And we have to live with the consequences of those choices, good or bad, right or wrong. But we all make mistakes. It is inevitable. Believe me, I have had my share of them. Some so bad, I didn't know how to carry on. But I did. We can't change the past but we can learn from them. From what I have heard, you are a fair and kind man. This doesn't change that. You are entitled to your personal life as long as it hurts no one. And I seriously don't see how this does. Though perhaps you ought to be more prudent in your choice of partners.”

“You... you really think so?”

“I know so.” Xena said even as Gabrielle nodded. “Your secret's safe with us.”

“Thank... you.”

“Let's go then. Before Podarge decides to barge in.” Xena said.

“What about him?” Lord Aeschylus asked.

Xena shrugged. “It's your estate. Your man, your choice.”

Gabrielle glanced over at the rack where Pyrrhus hung like a rag doll. “I don't understand. Why would he go to all that trouble to hurt Sappho?”

Both Lord Aeschylus and Xena looked at her incredulously. “Jealousy.” They said in tandem.

“You mean he was jealous of Sappho?”

Xena nodded. “Guess he didn't fancy sharing.”

Lord Aeschylus laughed. “You can say that again. Pyrrhus was never good at sharing. He wasn't happy when I started spending more time with Sappho than with him. And before he knew it, I was talking about marrying Sappho. That really set him off. Not that it mattered.”

“Why? What happened?” Gabrielle asked.

“Sappho rejected my proposal.” He shook his head self-deprecatingly. “In fact, she was so upset, she refused to talk to me for nearly six moons.”

Gabrielle took out Sappho's poems and handed them to Lord Aeschylus. “Why don't you read these. I think it'll help you understand how Sappho feels about you and why she was so upset. You can return them to her personally once you're done. Perhaps then, you'll have an idea where to go from here.”

Lord Aeschylus took the scrolls from Gabrielle, his hand unconsciously stroking the parchment. “Thank you. Both of you. I owe you so much. How can I ever repay you?”

“We'll be leaving Lesbos soon. Why don't you take care of Sappho for us?” Gabrielle grinned.

“That's not a problem. I would have done so even had you not brought it up.” He studied them, finally understanding what they meant. “Can you at least stay for dinner? I would be remiss as a host if I didn't at least feed you after all you've done for me.”

“Of course!” Gabrielle agreed enthusiastically while Xena smirked.

“That's settled then.” Lord Aeschylus said chirpily. “I'll ask Podarge to escort you to the audience hall while I change out of these day-old clothes. Wouldn't do for me to be so sloppily dressed while dining two such gorgeous women now, can I?” He winked and bowed, indicating for Xena and Gabrielle to precede him.

***

Head of shaggy blond hair comfortably pillowed on Xena's shoulder, right hand resting possessively on a pert breast, Gabrielle was close to dozing off. It had been a satisfying day and she was tired. Xena had made good on her promise, bringing the bard to a screaming release no less than five times in the past candlemark or two. Not that Gabrielle actually cared how much time had really passed. After all, it wasn't as if they had any pressing business to attend to. Or did they? Something nagged at the edges of Gabrielle's consciousness. She seemed to have forgotten something, something that had been troubling her for the better part of the day. Something important...

It was nearly a full candlemark later before Gabrielle awoke with a jerk, startling Xena out of a sound sleep. “Nightmare?” Xena asked somewhat groggily as she propped herself up on one elbow, her other hand reaching out to caress Gabrielle's shoulder.

“Xena, you have been strangely calm today.”

“What's so strange about that?” Xena said, running the pad of her fingers down Gabrielle's spine, drawing a shiver of anticipation from the bard.

“Xena, you are distracting me.” Gabrielle complained half-heartedly.

The warrior princess just smirked, her eyes taking over where her fingers had left off as she studied the firm trim body of her young bardic lover appreciatively.

“Xena...” Gabrielle struggled to compose her thoughts even as her body tingled in response to the naked heat in those dark blue eyes. “I... I was expecting you to be more... jealous...” She finally managed.

Caught off guard, Xena blurted, “Jealous?”

“You know, about me being pregnant? I mean, come on Xena, you know how jealous you can be when it comes to me.” When Xena didn't respond, Gabrielle forged on. “Remember Phyleus? This cute guy I was snuggled up with while we were hiding from the Titans? I will never forget the look on your face when you found us. We hadn't even been friends that long and you were already jealous. Actually, you looked as if I had broken your heart. Then there was the time when we were freeing Prometheus. I was just having a friendly chat with Iolaus but I guess you didn't like the way he was looking at me so you dragged me away from him. And let's not forget Najara.” She stopped when she glanced over at Xena and noticed the stormy look on her face. “Okay, let's forget about her. Xena, you even threaten any man who so much as looks at me the wrong way. How can you be so calm about this? I--”

A sudden thought occurred to Gabrielle, stopping her short. “Unless you already knew about it!” Emboldened by Xena's silence, she broke into a rant. “Xena, you knew didn't you. That's why you have been so nonchalant about it. You knew I was pregnant and I bet you knew how it happened. And you kept it from me. How could you!” She punctuated that last statement with an accusing finger which accidentally landed on the soft mound of Xena's right breast.

An awkward silence ensued, both women frozen in the moment, Gabrielle's index finger still dimpling Xena's breast. Ten heartbeats passed, then another ten, and another before Xena gently pushed Gabrielle's finger away, rolled out of bed and started pacing. Back and forth her legs carried her, back and forth her mind went, her jaw working noiselessly as she tried to figure out what to say. She'd been through time and again, prepared one speech after another only to discard each as new considerations came to mind. Unfortunately, her final version hadn't taken into consideration this exact scenario and now that it was time for her command performance, fresh doubts assailed her. It shouldn't have been so difficult. The gods know she had always been blessed with a quick and agile mind; her ability to think on her feet and formulate a plan at the last moment being the key to her roaring success as a warlord and a warrior. Unfortunately, that ability did not extend to sensitive chats. Xena knew she could be emotionally awkward at times, an in-built defence mechanism she couldn't see to shake completely even after all these years with Gabrielle. She could feel Gabrielle's eyes upon her, tracking her every move, and that only served to make things worse. Perhaps if she went at it another way...

“Gabrielle, I'm not good at... sensitive chats.” Xena ventured, stopping abruptly in her tracks and turning to face the bard. “Yes, I knew. I just didn't know how you would react.”

The warrior's face was an impenetrable mask but Gabrielle could see the turmoil raging within those pale blue eyes of hers. This was the woman who had demonstrated the pinch on herself, held her hands, looked into her eyes, blood trickling from one nostril, and told her that was how she wanted to spend the last thirty minutes of her life, looking into Gabrielle's eyes. All when Xena had really meant 'goodbye Gabrielle, I love you'. Xena hated seeing Gabrielle hurt, but more than that, she hated hurting Gabrielle in any way. Suddenly, Gabrielle understood what was troubling the warrior princess, understood her hesitancy. “Hope.”

“Hope.” Xena echoed. She could still see Gabrielle as she had been then, her long straw blonde tresses streaming behind her as she fled from the persistent warrior. A bundle held tightly against her bosom, wrapped in a soft blanket the same colour as the sack cloth dress she'd worn. Through a forest, across a stream, up a hill they went, the scent of wildflowers abloom dogging their every step. Until the ragged cries of Gabrielle had brought Xena running. Running, her heart pounding like a crazed drum in her chest; running, her fear for Gabrielle driving adrenaline through her body; running, her certainty of purpose gnawing bitterly at her heart. She'd found Gabrielle hunched over a cliff where she claimed she'd thrown Hope after the baby tried to strangle her. But Xena knew what a mother's love for a child could do. After all, she had carried Solan still streaked in birth fluids through the night and into enemy territory, all so he could be safe. At first she'd doubted Gabrielle but with Hope nowhere to be found and Xena had believed the bard's claims, until that fateful day when Hope's reappearance had left both women deprived of their only child.

Gabrielle was lost in her own memories though they differed from Xena's. She remembered Xena's anguished screams, the sound of the warrior's heart shattering into a million pieces as she cradled Solan's limp and unresponsive body to her. Her self-loathing and pain as she poisoned Hope, cursing herself for doubting her best friend. Wishing she was dead, the mouth of the water skin just inches away from her lips; it would have been so easy but something had stopped her. And she'd learned why when Xena came into view after she'd drained the poisoned into the ground. The look of pure hatred on the warrior's face had caused her heart to skip a beat, as if Xena had physically stuck a dagger into her chest, piercing deep within to bite into that deceitful organ within. “Bad memories, huh.” She whispered.

Xena nodded, a faraway look in her eyes. There had been nothing but hatred when she rode into the Amazon village that day, nothing but rage when she dragged her best friend those many miles behind her horse, nothing but pain when she stood at the edge of the precipice holding Gabrielle aloft. An offering, a sacrifice. The crashing of the waves far below, the salty tang of the cool air barely registering in her berseked state. Nothing had registered until that frenzied kick Gabrielle had landed on her forehead. If things had turned out differently, Xena had no doubt she would have killed her best friend that day. She shook her head violently, trying in vain to dislodge the sound of Gabrielle's voice screaming loud and clear, 'I hate you!'. No, that had definitely not been one of her better days, not be a very long shot.

The pain emanating from the warrior princess was enough to snap Gabrielle out of her own. Crawling on all fours, she climbed off the bed and closed the distance between herself and Xena. Her hand reached out of its own accord for the warrior, as if the demons they still carried could be exorcised by touch alone.

A buzz of energy hummed through their veins when Gabrielle's fingers grazed Xena's upper arm and the warrior flinched visibly from the contact. She shook her head vigorously when Gabrielle reached for her again. “Don't.” She said, her voice ragged with emotion. “I don't like myself very much right now.”

Ignoring the warning, Gabrielle drew closer, pressing her naked body flush against Xena's, her hands reaching up to pull the warrior down towards her, their lips meeting tentatively. A shiver ran down their bodies at the contact and they sighed, their bodies relaxing to melt into each other. Deepening the kiss, they sought to breathe each other in, both needing, both surrendering, filling themselves with the all-encompassing love that is their other half. After a long moment, they finally disengaged, blue and green eyes alike shining with love, their negative emotions defenceless against such an onslaught.

Taking a moment to catch her breath, Gabrielle tenderly tucked Xena's hair behind her ear. “Xena, you never did like yourself much. It's a good thing I like you enough for both of us.” She teased.

“You do, do you?” Xena rumbled, her breath hitching in her throat at the thought. “What did I ever do to deserve you, Gabri-elle?” She murmured, her voice catching on the last syllable.

“Xena, I could say the same about you.” Gabrielle laid a finger on Xena's lips, effectively shushing her. “And before you say it, let me say that you are the best thing that ever happened in my life. Bar none. So stop beating yourself up about it.” She chided softly.

Xena turned her face away. “Gabrielle, how can you say that? I tried to kill you? I was a monster, a killing machine with only one purpose in life: revenge.” Xena said, self-loathing once again evident in her voice.

Gabrielle turned Xena's face back towards her. “Xena, we're not doing this again.” She stated emphatically. “Remember our little talk after Illusia? And what we discovered? Without Ares and Callisto inciting us against each other, things would have turned out differently. I know it. We might have struggled a little initially but we would have worked things out eventually. Just look at where we are now.” She flashed a smile at the warrior princess.

Shaking her head in surrender, Xena decided to let the matter go even though she knew better. She remembered the clearing in the forest just like it had been yesterday. She had just taken care of Callisto and was heading back to the centaur village when she'd stumbled upon Gabrielle. A piece of burlap covered the figure of a child beside her, the forlorn look upon the bard's face leaving no doubt whatsoever that the child was Hope. And that Hope was dead. She watched as Gabrielle lifted a water skin to her lips and even though Xena couldn't smell it from where she was standing, she knew instinctively that it contained poisoned. That the Gabrielle she knew could have murdered her own child was shocking enough but for that same Gabrielle to take her own life? It was unthinkable. At least, it would have been if Xena hadn't been consumed by hate. The bard had needed her and the Xena who had been Gabrielle's best friend would have rushed over and wrapped the obviously strickened bard in her arms. But that Xena was dead, in her place a heartless monster remained, one that would like nothing than for Gabrielle to down the poison and save her the trouble of killing the bard herself. Instead of feeling relieved, she'd been disgusted when Gabrielle chose to empty the water skin into the ground. That was when Xena finally showed herself, hatred etched upon every plane of her face as she glared at Gabrielle. Oh how Xena wished she could turn back time. There were so many things she wanted to make right. But Xena had learned a long time ago that there was nothing she could do to change the past, only the present; which meant living with her guilt every single day for the rest of her life.

“Xena, you are planning on telling me, right?” Gabrielle piped up upon seeing how Xena seemed lost in thought. “How I can be pregnant when I haven't been with a man since Perdicus. Who's the father? Come on Xena, the suspense is killing me!” She huffed, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. “The father isn't some evil, bloodthirsty god with plans to take over the world, right?” Gabrielle had been joking but doubts started to creep in when she noticed Xena's expression. “Right?” She asked uncertainly.

“Gabrielle, if you mean Dahak, Hercules took care of him a while back. Permanently. So no, he has nothing to do with this.”

Suspiciously, almost accusingly, Gabrielle said, “There's a but somewhere in that sentence, isn't there Xena. What are you not telling me?”

“Gabrielle, the person who impregnated you isn't a god but there was a time when the rest of your description would have been spot on.” Xena said forlornly.

It took a while for Xena's words to register in Gabrielle's mind but when they did, she backpedaled furiously, stopping only when the back of her calves came into contact with the footrest of the bed. Slumping down onto the soft mattress, Gabrielle shook her head in denial. “No, this can't be right. I haven't been with anyone other than you, Xena. You know I would never betray you that way. So how could an evil, bloodthirsty warlord with global conquest on his mind get close enough to make me pregnant? I'm not a child, Xena. I know how babies are made. And I definitely did not get up close and personal with--” Green eyes narrowed when what she'd just said finally dawned upon her. Gathering her legs under her, the bard launched herself at the warrior princess.

Even though she had been expecting the assault, Xena still found herself flat on her back, her arms raised in token resistance as the livid bard rained down blows on her head and shoulders. When Gabrielle showed no signs of stopping after a while, Xena cried out, “Ow, ow!” The mock punches didn't actually hurt but Xena was starting to get aroused. She couldn't help it. Ever since Bimini, she hadn't been able to keep her hands off the delectable bard. The attraction had always been there but it seemed to have nearly tripled since they re-established their bond beside the Fountain of Life. And it definitely didn't help that they were both naked.

Gabrielle stopped in mid-flail and narrowed her eyes at the warrior princess. “I wasn't even using any strength, Xena. What do you mean by 'ow'?”

“Well, I had to get you to stop somehow.” Xena paused and raised a meaningful eyebrow at the bard. “Before we end up doing something else. And once we get started, it's gonna take a while. So unless you are willing to wait, I think you should get off me.” She finished with a lascivious grin.

Staying exactly where she was, Gabrielle slapped the warrior princess' arm. “It's not my fault a certain someone's forever horny. Or did the mock fight get your juices running?”

“Says the pot to the kettle. I'm sure the wetness I feel on my stomach isn't sweat. Given how you were grinding against my abs moments ago, I have a fairly good idea what it might be. Who's the horny one now?” Xena teased.

Gabrielle lifted herself off Xena and stared down at the warrior's glistening abdominal muscles. “Oh, so that's what it was. I thought it was perspiration.” She said nonchalantly though her nose was crinkled up in her trademark cheeky grin.

Tweaking an erect nipple dangling near her face, the warrior princess countered, “This little fella doesn't seem to agree with you.”

“Xena!” Gabrielle squeaked in protest. “Stop distracting me!” She scuttled off to one side, her hands crossed protectively in front of her breasts.

“Wasn't that what I said?” Xena drawled, raising herself up on an elbow. She ran a finger across her stomach and slowly brought it to her mouth, pausing momentarily to ensure Gabrielle's attention was all on her before licking it suggestively.

Gabrielle licked her lips, her mind imagining that talented tongue applying its many skills to some other region on her body. Her groin tightened in response and she found herself starting towards the grinning warrior. Barely holding herself in, she forced herself to scoot further away from temptation. “You had me going for a while there. Xena, I really thought some bloodthirsty warlord had ravaged me while I was unconscious or something.”

“I have been called that more times than I care to remember. But I seem to recall you being more than willing so ravage ain't the right word.”

“Xena, that was before. You're not a bloodthirsty or evil warlord anymore. And willing as I may have been, how did you actually get me pregnant? I mean, I know you have many skills, but this? Come on Xena, that's a little hard to believe even for you.”

“Technically, I was dead at the time so the usual rules might not apply.”

“You mean, you got me pregnant when we--” Gabrielle swallowed hard, unable to complete her sentence. If they hadn't succeeded in reviving Xena, how was Gabrielle supposed to explain away her pregnancy? 'Oh, my ghostly lover fathered my child, and by the way, she's a woman.' That was a sure way to find herself chained up in an asylum just like Orestes, the man punished by the Furies with insanity for failing to avenge his father's death.

“Actually, no.”

“No?” Gabrielle asked thoroughly confused.

“It was some time-- after.”

“After?” Gabrielle echoed uncomprehendingly.

Xena rubbed the back of her neck with her free hand. She didn't like talking about that moment. Staring death in the eye was something she'd done a million times before but staring at oblivion was a different type of animal altogether. An animal the warrior princess hoped she would never encounter for the rest of her life. “I'm sorry I never gave you a choice Gabrielle. But I didn't have much time and I thought I would never see you again. It just felt like the right thing to do.”

The pieces finally started falling into place for Gabrielle. She stared at Xena in shocked comprehension. The bard had some idea of the sacrifice Xena made when the warrior intervened to save her during the showdown with the dragon tyrant but Xena refused to talk about. Ostensibly, it must have been a terrifying ordeal for the warrior princess, not that Gabrielle could even begin to imagine. What must it have felt like knowing only a few heartbeats stood between yourself and complete annihilation? Not just of the physical body but the spiritual essence of who you were: your soul. Gabrielle hadn't thought about it much. Had actually avoided thinking about it. Sometimes, she was certain no mortal person could ever sacrifice as much for her as Xena had. Time and again, the warrior princess had jumped into danger knowingly and willingly, heedless of the consequences to herself, all for the sole purpose of getting to Gabrielle and saving her. And Gabrielle felt guilty for putting Xena in those situation, especially that time in Madador when the warrior ended up a convenient punching bag for Gurkhan's men all because Gabrielle had been blinded by revenge. That had been the worst beating Gabrielle had ever seen Xena suffer but even that paled in comparison with what happened with the oriental dragons. Yet, all the stubborn warrior could think about in that moment had been her, Gabrielle.

Scooting over to Xena, Gabrielle ran an affectionate hand through the warrior's raven black tresses. “Because you didn't want me to be alone. Xena, thank you.”

“So you're not mad?”

“I should be but how can I? You're always watching out for me, Xena. So thank you.”

“For what, Gabrielle?”

“For loving me, of course.”

“So we're good?”

“We're good. Though I wonder...”

“What?” Xena asked, her head cocked to one side in curiosity.

“Xena, do you think we could do it now that you're not dead?”

“Gabrielle...” Xena rolled her eyes at the bard. “Both of us pregnant is a bad idea. But it should be possible.”

“Well, why don't we give it a try?”

“Now?”

“Why not?” The bard ran one finger tantalisingly down Xena's stomach, circling her belly button before venturing lower.

“Mmm... Why not indeed.”

***

Xena and Gabrielle stood in close proximity before a polished brass plaque hanging above a scroll-laden shelf set some distance from the library wall, their fingers intertwined. They studied the words inscribed upon the shiny surface.

Here lies the literary works of Gabrielle:

Bard of Potidaea; Amazon Queen;

Favoured of Aphrodite;

And Eternal Soulmate to Xena, Warrior Princess.

“Gabrielle, I'm glad you finally got the recognition you deserved. It was long overdue.” Xena said, squeezing the bard's hand encouragingly in her own. And it reads like an epitaph though I better not mention that. Xena thought to herself. Aloud she added, “But what's with all the titles? Favoured of Aphrodite?”

“Sappho insisted and I couldn't dissuade her. Xena, it is her library. She gets to decide how she wants to present the scrolls. That third title was Aphrodite's doing. She happened to pop by and whispered it into Sappho's ear herself just before the engraving was done. So I guess that's how I'm going to be known for posterity.” Gabrielle shook her head in amazement. “Xena, this is really a dream come true. Who would have thought the naïve little farm girl from Potidaea could become a famous bard? But you know what, Xena? Of all those apellations, one and only one matters the most to me. Care to guess?”

Xena scrunched up her face and pretended to consider Gabrielle's question seriously. “I kinda like the Bard of Potidaea. Don't you?” Catching Gabrielle's dirty look from the corner of her eye, she hemmed and hawed before finally saying, “But you'll always be Gabrielle to me. That's just who you are. Gabrielle.”

“And you Xena, you're a rascal, that's what you are. My favourite is the last one. Because my life would be nothing without you. This way, everyone who reads my scrolls will know where my inspiration comes from.”

“It has always come from here.” Xena laid a hand over Gabrielle's left breast, an inexplicable flutter in her stomach as she felt the strong firm beating of Gabrielle's heart.

“And here.” Gabrielle said lovingly, mirroring Xena's actions to lay a hand on the warrior's chest. “You are my inspiration, Xena. Your strength, your courage, your passion, your pain, your unrelenting spirit, your honour, your sense of loyalty, your humility, your heart and your love. I would never have become the woman I am today without you Xena.”

Xena answered with soft lips which Gabrielle greeted like a beloved old friend. “What about here?” she murmured, her free hand resting gently upon Gabrielle's as-yet flat belly.

Gabrielle smiled widely and covered Xena's hand with her own. “Soon, Xena, soon.” She kissed Xena again, breaking free after a long moment to whisper breathlessly, “Have I thanked you for this wonderful gift yet?” Gabrielle felt Xena's lips curl into a smile against hers.

“None necessary.” The warrior princess said after stealing another kiss.

“Oh, but I absolutely insist.” The bard said playfully, her teeth gently taking hold of Xena's lower lip. “Why don't we adjourn to the bedroom.”

Xena chuckled. “You have something in mind?”

“Yup. I'm thinking we should explore that little chest of pleasures Sappho so thoughtfully provided.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Xena agreed readily and swept Gabrielle off her feet and into her arms, eliciting a startled squeal from the bard. “And off we go.” She said, her powerful long legs easily eating up the two miles to Sappho's manor.

The End

 

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