Of The Heart
(formerly Old Lessons)
From The Flophouse
I can't fight this feeling
And yet I'm still afraid to let it flow
What started out as friendship has grown stronger
I only wish I had the strength to let it show
I tell myself that I can't hold out forever
I say there is no reason for my fear
'Cause I feel so secure when we're together
You give my life direction
You make everything so clear
And even as I wander, I'm keeping you in sight
You're a candle in the window on a cold, dark winter's night
And I'm getting closer than I ever thought I might
And I can't fight this feeling anymore
I've forgotten what I started fighting for
It's time to bring this ship into the shore
And throw away the oars forever
'Cause I can't fight this feeling anymore
I've forgotten what I started fighting for
And if I have to crawl upon the floor
Come crashing through your door
Baby, I can't fight this feeling anymore
My life has been such a whirlwind since I saw you
I've been running around in circles in my mind
And it always seems that I'm following you girl
'Cause you take me to the places that I know I'd never find
And even as I wander I'm keeping you in sight
You're a candle in the window on a cold, dark winter's night
And I'm getting closer than I ever thought I might
I can't fight this feeling anymore
I've forgotten what I started fighting for
It's time to bring this ship into the shore
And throw away the oars forever
'Cause I can't fight this feeling anymore
I've forgotten what I started fighting for
And if I have to crawl upon the floor
Come crashing through your door
Baby, I can't fight this feeling anymore
Xena was tired. Her body ached. Her legs barely carried her up the steps to the front door of the Fireside Inn. It was well past midnight but she was only dimly aware of the hour. That little scuffle lasted much longer than she had anticipated. Diphobus' men were much more skilled and better armed than the last time she had run into them.
This town, Pardum,
situated as it is in the cleavage of two mountains in central Myceane made an
easy target. The warlord had chipped away at the settlement in a quiet terror
that Xena found unnerving. It took extreme patience and perseverance and Xena
knew Diphobus had more patience than Hades himself. Past experience with the
renegade Roman centurion had proved to be a lesson in humility for her. She
was almost too confident then and had nearly lost her head.
Underestimating Diphobus and his ability to be creative with available resources was something she would never do again. It had brought her down from her pedestal. The one that she sometimes finds herself on when in battle. Being the more skilled most of the time tends to gnaw at your ego and humility was not something the Warrior Princess considered a virtue.
Now, she was faced with the man again. Diphobus had been planning this one for awhile, she thought to herself as she crossed the empty inn's common room. That makes him even more dangerous. She considered the stairs before her briefly as she approached it. Why do they always have to make the sleeping rooms upstairs, she brooded as her legs thrust her onward. She groaned inwardly as she reached the top and turned down a narrow passage.
Stopping in front of a door, she braced herself on it's threshold, eyes downcast in thought and exhaustion. She and Gabrielle had originally planned on staying just one night and then moving on. But when she stumbled across an extortion racket, they had agreed to stay and make some inquiries. One night had turned into three and they still weren't any closer to determining who was behind the trouble.
An encounter yesterday with one of Diphobus' men brought a revelation that turned out to be much bigger than her earlier suspicions had led her to believe.
She had entered a tannery early that morning and saw a large, hairy beast of a man with his arms across a counter and the proprietor in grimy paws. Nose to nose, he growled at the old man and didn't hear when she had entered. The old man was wide-eyed and visibly trembling, sweat beading on his brow. Xenas ice blue eyes had darkened as she slipped silently up to the behemoth. Tapping him on the shoulder solidly to command his attention, her eyes glaring out from behind narrow eye-lids. Her jaw flexed as she set her teeth then she tapped him on the shoulder with four fingers again.
"Excuse me, pal, are you about finished? I really need to buy some leather and I cant do that with your hairy ass in the way," her voice low, it was more of a suggestion than a question.
The big man's nostrils flared wide, "Bitch, I know you didn't just touch me." He neglected to turn and face the voice, hearing it only to be female therefore he dismissed it as non-threatening. He couldn't have made a bigger mistake in two lifetimes.
Allowing her anger to brew, she placed a steady hand on the bully's shoulder only to have him shrug it away violently.
"Fucking bitch," he spat as he released his grip on the tanner and turned the upper half of his body to look at the dead woman who had just dared to touch him twice.
The last thing he saw was a disgruntled princess who tapped him a third and final time as her right fist connected with the left side of his face. His head swung around but the lower half failed to follow and Xena heard the wet snap that resulted.
Justice, she thought to herself. Recalling her fist as the body hit the plank floor of the workshop, she sniffed softly.
"Who you calling bitch, bitch?" she snarled down at him. Her eyes then quickly scanned the room for any of his companions and when finding no immediate threats, looked over the table for the tanner. Her brows bent in question at his absence. Stepping over the crumpled terrorist, she ducked her head under the counter. Her sudden appearance startled the already jumpy tanner and he squealed.
She smiled down at him. "It's alright, I'm not going to hurt you." Her voice was encouraging and the tanner reached out to take her offered hand.
He gathered his quaking knees beneath him and staggered out. Standing at his full height, although he was tall even for the men in his village, he didn't even come close to the towering length of the bronze amazon standing protectively beside him.
"Great Hera," he choked.
"Are you alright? He didn't hurt you did he?" Xena's face showed obvious concern and since he was still breathing, the old man found enough strength to nod at her. And, he considered, she had disposed, although he cringed at the word, of the ass who would have not thought twice about snapping his own neck. He looked down at the man and unconsciously placed his hand on his throat as if making sure his own head was still on straight. He then moved his eyes onto the warrior.
Xena felt sure the man was fine, just frightened. Who wouldn't be. That man was huge. She grinned slightly at the thought though, that, one punch had sent the man to Tartarus. There's that ego thing again, she thought as she rubbed her knuckles.
"Did you know this man?" she asked.
"N..N...Nathan, I think," the old tanner sputtered out. "Who are you?"
The tanner felt his heart jump right into his throat and he staggered backwards, reaching out to the table's edge for support. "Xena?" he whispered under his breath.
Xena ignored his reaction. She was used to it. She glanced around the room instead. Argo's bridle needed repaired and that was still foremost on her mind.
"I've heard rumors about you," he managed quietly.
Xena fixed him with narrow eyes. When he realized she was waiting for him to continue, he made a lame attempt to clear his throat. "That you no longer ride with death."
With a slow blink she shifted her gaze. "No," she said. "I no longer hold his reins, but as you can see, the thunder from his hooves still mocks me."
The tanner sensed something cryptic in her words, and swallowed uneasily.
"Would you mind telling me why this man felt the need to hold you four inches off the ground?" Xena asked as she browsed around the workshop until she found a crate of assorted leather pieces. Sifting through the leather straps and belts, she frowned. Too small, she thought. "It didn't look like a very friendly conversation."
The tanner blinked at her apparent lackadaisical attitude towards the deceased. Glancing down at him, the old man shrugged at the statement. "He was angry because my payment was late," the tanner said matter of matter-of-factly.
"You owe him money?" Xena glanced over at him, as her hands found a strap buried in a box of similar items. Too wide, she refused the piece and began to dig further.
"In a way," was the old man's response. "he was here for his protection money."
Xena's eyes furrowed. "Don't you think that seems a little..." Xena searched for the right word. Damn, where is Gabrielle when I need her. When she faltered, the old man grinned reluctantly.
"Not really, at least he was being a businessman about it. He wasn't just stealing it."
Xena raised unbelieving eyebrows at the proprietor. "That doesn't make it right." She finally said as she approached the counter where he still clung.
"There isn't much that can be done about it so we just pay them and they go away. They don't let anyone else in the town and there isn't any trouble like before. It's almost like we have our own army to protect us. Of course we have to pay them for those services."
Xena was baffled. Who had brain washed these simple people into believing this was a blessing not a crime. "There are more of them?" she inquired. The man nodded.
"Oh, yes, he," indicating to the dead man at his feet. "covered my shop and the six others on this side of the street all the way down to the crossroads. The others have their own customers."
Customers? Xena thought. This man can't be that naive. "Who is their leader?" She asked almost not wanting to know the answer.
"Some man named Diphobus. They camp down at the river Ostrander on the south side of the water shed." The tanner nervously glanced down to his feet.
Diphobus? The name hit her hard, making her bright eyes dim noticeably. She barred her teeth as she cursed under her breath. Friggin figures, she thought.."
The tanner began to regain some of his faculties and was now intent on stuffing the dead body under the table. Xena watched him. The corners of her mouth began to creep up into a wicked smile.
"You know," she said to the tanner as he found the body to be too large to fit satisfyingly. "If you cut off his arms and legs, he might fit better." It was an attempt to startle the man back into his senses, but it only proved to encourage him further.
He stood, his eyes focused on Xena, but also seemed to focus through her. It made her glance behind herself to see what he was staring at, but there was nothing there.
"Yeah, you're right," his affirmation brought her attention back around. "I.. I could just..." His hands drifted across his chest and hips as if searching for something, his eyes dancing across the room. "The bones, you know," he was lost in the idea. "Tough to cut through, but..."
Xena cut him off as she reached out a grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him close. "I was joking." she stated flatly. The old man looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. She released him gently.
"Why do you want to hide him so badly?"
"Oh, when they find him here, dead, they'll leave me here, dead, too." The reality of the circumstance built up his anxiety once more. Fear was a powerful emotion, Xena knew.
"Well, then, just tell them that I killed him and if they have a problem with that, then, they better hope that they find me before I find them," she growled.
The man nodded, the toe of his boot absently trying to push a non-compliant arm back up under the counter.
"How much?" Xena asked as she slammed a long, thin leather strap onto the counter top.
"T...T...Take it," the tanner stared at her. "It's yours."
Xena gave him an exasperated look and tossed him a couple of dinars from the pouch at her waist. "Tell them that I'll be watching." she said as she turned and left.
Considering the foe she was up against, she found herself almost anxious to settle scores with him. She determined that later that night she would take a ride down to the river just to see what kind of army the Roman had. Always better to know what youre aiming at before you go off half-cocked.
But that was for later. Right now she had a broken bridle to mend and so she steered towards the stable where Argo was being kept, then, she intended to plant herself at the crossroads tavern and listen for awhile. There was always a lot to learn in places where men were drinking. The ale made them careless, sloppy and unconsciously disloyal and many wars had been averted merely by eavesdropping on drunken soldiers.
Xena's thoughts of yesterday drifted away and she tired to shake the weariness from her head. Reaching out for the door she pushed her way inside the room.
"Xena," Gabrielle watched the warrior as she entered the room. The bard's eyes opened wide at the battered princess. Dirty, bloody, and smelling of beer and sweat. Xena managed to give her an apologetic look with an attempt at a grin that failed miserably.
"What in Hades happened to you?" Gabrielle was used to Xena getting into fights often enough, but from the looks of her friend, it had been more than a bar brawl. "You look like you tried to play fetch with Cerebus, and you were the bone."
Xena reached out for support on the back of a chair and would have missed had Gabrielle's hand not caught her. The bard reached around Xena's waist to guide her to the chair and felt a wetness on her back. Pulling her hand away, she found it covered with blood.
"Does any of this blood belong to you?" She asked as she settled Xena into a chair. Xena grimaced as she sat, her face then relaxed as her body collapsed into the chair.
"I feel like hell," was all she could say.
A grin crossed Gabrielles lips. "You smell like it too. What happened?" Gabrielle retrieved a wash rag from beside a tub and dunked it in. Squeezing the water out, she began to wipe her friends face. "Are you alright?" She asked when their eyes met.
"I think so, just tired," Xena closed her eyes as Gabrielle wiped her neck. Placing the wash rag down, she knelt beside the warrior and began to remove her breastplate and sword.
"Xena, what happened? Whos blood is this?"
"Any of about fifty men or maybe more, I don't remember. I quit counting. There were too many to keep track of. They just kept coming so I just kept swinging. I haven't fought like that since... well, since Tripolis." Xena frowned at the reminder of the day the bard had been poisoned by a Persian arrow. The berserker in her had emerged then if only to protect Gabrielle. And tonight, it had reared it's ugly head again as she fought for her own life. As Xena's eyes drifted back to that time, Gabrielle dropped her brows in concern.
Lifting the armor over Xena's dark head, she set it aside and propped the sword up against it. She then began to remove greves and boots. "Why were you fighting so many men?"
Xena shook her head. "My ego," she admitted.
Gabrielle raised a questioning eyebrow at the warrior. "Your ego?" she repeated as she ran her hands over bare feet and calves up to Xenas knees looking for wounds. Finding none, she took hold of weary arms and began to remove arm bands and wrist bracers.
"That's an even longer story, Gabrielle." Xena watched the bard's hands as they ran up and down her arms. She gave a mild shiver at the feel of the soft fingers searching for injuries.
"Well why don't you tell me the short version about what happened tonight," Gabrielle stood up and moved to Xena's side.
Xena looked up at her. Green eyes glared down at her waiting for an explanation to her battered body. Xena smiled slightly. Gabrielle, you worry too much. I'm a big girl, I can take care of my self. I'm still here aren't I? She swallowed her heart back down into her chest. Ah, who am I kidding. I like the way she takes care of me. Fusses and worries until I come home safe and in possession of all my parts. I don't think I could have made it this far without her. And yet, why do I continue to put her through this. Why do I make her restless at night with the knowledge that if I am in a fight the next day, will I be injured or killed or will I slip by unscathed, pressing my luck. I'm sure she thinks that my luck will run out one day. Skill and experience can bring you only bring you so close to the shore before the tide turns back out. Gabrielle is the only thing that keeps me from getting lost in that sea again. And still I refuse her and take her for granted. Xena sighed closing her eyes.
"Well," she heard Gabrielle's voice from behind her, still waiting for the story. With a sag of her shoulders she relented and leaned forward as the bard's fingers worked the laces of the leather tunic.
"Gabrielle, it was a little skirmish by the river. I told you that Diphobus has set up camp..."
"Skirmish?" Gabrielle repeated, her eyebrows shooting up. She helped the warrior wiggle out of the leather and then gathered the ensemble together to stack it in the corner of the room. She then turned to look at Xena.
The beautiful warrior sat uncharacteristically lethargic in the hard chair, shoulders forward, head low, eyes hooded. Her face pained and weary. Sitting in the dingy white linen tunic that clung to her body, her dark skin appeared healthy and vibrant in the candlelight, despite the grime and gore. Gabrielle gazed at her. She was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. Even Aphrodite couldn't compare, she thought with an apologetic glance thrown towards the heavens. Xena was even more beautiful when impassioned by battle or some other challenge that teetered on the edge of danger. Her bright eyes would sparkle and skin would flush as her strong, brave heart pounded out the rhythm of a distant war drum only she knew how to dance to.
Gabrielle loved to see her like that. She knew the warrior didn't have much happiness in her life and any small temptation that might give her pleasure she would beat down and steel her self against. Gabrielle bent her eyes in wonder at that. She walked over to Xena and placed her hands on tired shoulders.
"I guess you know that you are bleeding from a cut on your back," Gabrielle said matter-of-factly, as she reached for the wash rag. She rinsed it and wrung it out, then placed it over the wound on Xena's shoulder blade.
"Am I?" the warrior asked through closed eyes. "I didn't know." She leaned back against the chair and felt Gabrielle take hold of her other shoulder. "I can't feel anything right now but your hands."
Gabrielle smiled at that. "There must have been some pretty big boys in that skirmish," she said sarcastically. "It takes an awful lot to put you in this kind of shape."
Xena smiled. She felt Gabrielle lift the rag and examine the wound. "Will I live?"
"As usual," Gabrielle placed the rag by the tub and dipped her hand in. The water was still quite warm. It hadn't been that long ago since she had ordered the bath drawn to the room. She returned to Xenas side and reached out for her elbow, placing a guiding hand on her lower back, she urged the woman to stand.
"Come on," Gabrielle walked her to the tub. "the water's still warm." She placed Xena's hand on the side of the tub to steady herself and waited while the weary warrior relieved herself of her breeches. Reaching down to the hem of the tunic, she lifted it slowly over Xena's head and, tossing it aside, helped her friend ease down into the water.
Xena visibly relaxed as she slid under the water letting it settle well above her shoulders. She felt Gabrielle's hands on her head tilting it back to rest on the back of the tub.
"Just relax," Gabrielle smiled. "Let me do all the work."
Xena let herself drift somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness. Feeling safe and content, she dropped her guard completely to allow Gabrielle to salvage some small part of her abused body. She found that secret place she keeps deep inside. The one only Gabrielle had been allowed to see her in. Then again, Gabrielle was the only one she trusted and that had taken years. Despite betrayals from both of them, the core of their friendship, the heart and soul of it had remained intact and it had taken the sacrifice of pride to help them find their way back. But with that journey came a new realization and one that neither was really prepared to face.
Xena was happy with their relationship. Relieved she had someone to share life with, although she regretted the kind of life she had exposed the young bard to. Still, Gabrielle wasn't the type to hang around anywhere she wasn't comfortable. She had repeatedly advised Xena that "she was more than happy to simply follow her across the friggin world until they both fell over the edge". Xena smiled as she remembered the conversation that had occurred too long ago on a road too far away.
Gabrielle's hands on her hair shook her from her memory. "What are you smiling at?" Gabrielle asked as she sat on a chair by the tub. She had pulled another chair closer and draped a couple linens and towels across the back of it and placed a small empty jar on the seat with a wedge of soap. Taking the lye soap in her hands, she dipped them in the water and began to build up a soft lather.
Xena opened her eyes at the sound. "Nothing, just thinking."
"Must have been a pretty nice thought," Gabrielle mused out loud. She put the soap aside and took Xena's hair into her hands. Xena sighed and closed her eyes again as gentle fingertips pushed the lather onto her scalp and through her dark tresses. Gabrielle smiled at her again.
"Feel good?" she asked as she worked her way from the roots to the ends.
"MmmHmm," was Xena's throaty reply.
"I like the way your hair feels," Gabrielle replied. Soft and silky, she thought privately. She watched as she placed her palms flat to Xena's head and let the wet strands slip lazily through her fingers as she pushed the lather out. I could do this all night, she raised her eyes to stare towards the fireplace at the thought. Gods, I really could, if only she would let me. It seems like lately she doesn't want to be near me. We haven't touched much since, well before Britannia. There was that night by the sea after we surfaced from Illusia. She just held onto me all night, not talking, mostly crying quietly, but I did my share of that as well. It just felt so good to be with her. Now, it seems we tiptoe around each other. Sometimes she'll just sit and stare at me and not offer any explanation. It would be a little disconcerting if it were anyone but her, but to have those blue eyes watching my every move, it makes me feel..I don't know, I can't tell what I feel lately. She has me so confused. I wonder if she feels the same way. We should talk about it, but we don't even do much of that anymore. Ever since Rome and dying on that blasted cross, words have been hard for both of us. One thing has changed, though. We seem to touch more. Speaking without words. She's so funny when it comes to physical expression that her caress always leaves me wondering where it came from and hoping it will return. So I take the simple pleasures of her when I am offered them and dare not initiate anything more. Maybe one day we will get back to where we were or at least somewhere beyond it. 'Til then I am content to sit here and run my fingers through her hair and believe she's enjoying it as much as I am.
"What are you smiling at?" Xena asked as she glanced up at the bard.
But Gabrielle didn't answer her. "Lean forward," she said instead, dipping the jar into the water. Xena did as told and let Gabrielle place one hand on her chin and tip her head back slightly. She then placed the same hand on Xenas forehead to block the flow of water from her eyes.
Gabrielle let the water pour out slowly and watched as the soapy streams fall down her friend's shoulders, back and chest. Captivated, she filled the jar for rinsing more times than was necessary just to watch the little rivers descend over Xena's body. She returned the jug to the chair and then pressed her hands in to the dark hair again to push out the excess water. When she pulled her hands away, Xena sat back and looked up at her.
The bard returned a soft smile as she placed soapy hands on a dirty neck. Xena closed her eyes and lifted her chin up so she could give better access. Drawing her hands around the back of the warrior's neck, Gabrielle let her fingertips massage the tense muscles for a moment before sliding her palms across wide shoulders.
She found herself becoming lost in the action. Almost habitual or was it by instinct, she wasn't for sure, but something profound moved her hands to caress more than simply wash the body of the submerged warrior. She felt her face flush almost immediately and wondered at the heat. Being attracted to the warrior wasn't new to her, but this feeling was more than she could simply say as being a crush. The nearness of the estranged warrior was intoxicating and to touch her was like a wonder drug that she had become addicted to. She dropped her eyes in uncertainty and pulled her hands away.
Xena waited. When she didn't feel the gentle hands return after a minute, she frowned slightly at the loss and opened her eyes.
Gabrielle shifted her gaze quickly not wanting Xena to see her distress. Picking up the wash rag from the table, she soaped it in the water. She caught Xena's eyes briefly.
"Your face is filthy," the bard said. "Close your eyes."
Xena nodded and felt the rag scrub her cheeks and forehead, then inspect her ears gently. She smiled through the soap.
Gabrielle smiled back at her uncontrollably. She rinsed the rag several times in an attempt to rinse the face and neck.
"Did I get it all?" Gabrielle asked soaping the rag again.
Xena ran a hand over her neck. "I think so."
Taking the hand before it slipped back beneath the water's surface, Gabrielle rubbed the rag over Xena's fingers paying close attention to her nails. Then, keeping those fingers in her own hand, she moved the wash rag up and down the long, muscular arms in smooth strokes.
Xena watched her. When the whole arm was soapy, she smiled at her partner's meticulous attention to detail. Strange coming from this spontaneous redhead. Never wanting to stay at the same inn twice unless the food was extraordinarily appetizing. Never really telling a story the same way twice, and to Xena's pleasant surprise, Gabrielle's fighting technique with those asian sais was always changing. To this Xena smiled in silent approval. Keeps your opponent on their toes.
She felt Gabrielle rinse her arm and then heard her quietly request for the other. Xena obliged. She was too tired to pick an argument, although she loved to banter with the bard like she loved to breathe. It rarely took much prodding before the bard would burst into a tirade at which the warrior would just stand and smirk. Gabrielle just left herself wide open to jibes far too often and Xena rarely resisted the opportunity to irritate the little amazon further.
Gabrielle had become her intellectual companion as well as partner, but it was times like right now that the warrior cherished the most, which she also found slightly disconcerting if not totally out of character. Never one to need human closeness, the constant fussing of the bard had mellowed her out to an extent. Gabrielle didn't nag, usually, and always knew what to say and when to say it. But the way she could say volumes in just a single touch scrambled Xena's brains. Placing a comforting hand on a trembling shoulder or arm, holding a reluctant hand, the way she slept next to the warrior so close and all curled up with an arm thrown over and her nose buried deep into her neck or shoulder. Not wanting to be a replacement for the girl's mother , she had pushed Gabrielle away at the beginning. But her resolve had slipped away with the years and now, here she was, a cold mountain in the face of certain death all but reduced to a shuddering idiot when in the bards company. The Warrior Princess had become a perpetual prisoner of a tiny storyteller.
She didn't remember the exact time of day or what the weather was like or where they were headed when she had placed all her trust, and her life, completely into the young woman's hands. Atypical to her character once again, she didn't care.
Right now she was so relaxed that if Gabrielle turned against her at the last second she would never know it. She would bleed to death in a tub of tepid water with a heartwarming thought of her best friend the last thing on her mind.
As Xena continued to drift, almost asleep, she heard Gabrielle speaking softly but couldn't understand what she was saying. Almost as if watching the whole scene from somewhere near the ceiling, she saw herself reclined in the peacemaker's arms as she continued her gentle washing.
Xena was amazed at the smile caressing Gabrielle's face as her soapy hands glided over long dark legs, then smoothed over her stomach.
As her mind floated above them, she tilted her head in wonder when Gabrielle's hands stopped short of her breasts. She noticed how the green eyes softened but remained fixed upon her chest. She felt as if something was drawing her closer as she hovered over the scene .
Slowly, Gabrielle resumed her attentions onto Xena's chest but was reluctant to touch the warrior's breasts, daring one dip into the submerged cleavage and then quickly withdrawing.
Why did she do that? Xenas displaced mind thought. Moving even closer, she saw how flushed the bards face had become, but before she could ponder it, she felt herself thrown back into her body violently.
She bolted upright, eyes searching the room.
"Xena?" Gabrielle jumped at the sudden change in position of her friend. Xena looked at her momentarily confused.
"You must have fallen asleep," Gabrielle explained. Gods!
"Yeah, I'm just real tired, I guess," Xena's brows furrowed down at the dream she had been shaken from.
"Here, let me get your back," Gabrielle leaned over the side of the tub and quickly scrubbed her clean. "You're done now, if you just want to get your," Gabrielle handed Xena the wash rag. "You know, other parts."
Xena looked at her a moment before accepting the rag.
Gabrielle stood and replaced the chairs at the table that occupied the center of the room. She didn't face the tub again until she heard the warrior stand. Reaching for a towel she met Xena as she was climbing out to stand dripping on the floor.
"Here," Gabrielle handed her the towel and then laid another on the bed. "Dry off then come over here so I can look at your shoulder."
Gabrielle fussed with the towel for a minute and upon turning was startled to see the damp warrior standing beside her.
"Feeling better?" she asked as Xena sat on the bedside.
"Much," Xena held the towel to her face for a minute then looked into Gabrielle's green eyes. "Thank you."
Gabrielle grinned as she twirled her finger indicating that she wanted the warrior to roll onto her belly. "For what?" She asked as Xena stretched out onto the towel over the blankets.
"For taking care of me," Xena said wearily into the pillow.
"My pleasure," Gabrielle took the towel from Xena and finished drying her body, then draped it over her upper thighs and buttocks to keep her from getting chill. You mean to avoid distraction. A voice inside Gabrielle's head snickered at her. She shook the laugh clear and refocused on the injury on Xena's shoulder. "Looks good."
"Your," the bard faltered slightly feeling her cheeks pink up. "your wound. It's not that deep, and it won't need any stitches. It'll heal pretty quickly."
"That's good," Xena mumbled. "Nnnnh," she grimaced as Gabrielle's fingers gently inspected the tender area.
"I'm sorry," she glanced into Xenas face. "I just wanted to make sure it was clean."
"Sallright," Xena slurred sleepily.
Gabrielle got up from the bed and went to their saddlebags to retrieve the herb bag. Pulling out the separate bags inside she found the comfrey root and calendula and then pulled out the bowl they used to mix the herbs in. She went to the fireplace and drew a cup of hot water from the pot near the flame and after adding the proper proportions of the powdered root and crushed flowers, she added a little hot water to the mix to make a thin paste. She then collected a bandage from the open bag and returned to Xenas side with the items.
She looked at the warrior for a moment while the poultice cooled. She seems so peaceful. Gabrielle let her eyes wander over the warrior's dark head. If you didn't know her you might think she is an innocent young woman who hasn't seen hard work or blood or death.
Gabrielle pulled her thoughts from the direction they were headed and applied the poultice to the injury. She covered it with the square bandage and then tested the skin around the violation. Frowning, she placed her palms on Xena's upper arms.
"All the muscles in your back are out of whack," she stated to the dozing princess. She began to press some out and when Xena didn't protest, she positioned herself on the bedside and began to massage the bunched muscles into quivering submission.
Gabrielle looked at the warriors back closely. Scars, some small and others more readily apparent littered the woman's back. Only innocent looking from a distance, I guess. Gabrielle thought. Although scarred in numerous places only one stood out. Curving from Xena's right side at the bottom of her rib cage up to the tip of her right shoulder blade. As Gabrielle considered it, it wasn't an ugly scar but rather a beautiful badge of courage. Thin and almost invisible unless the light fell across it just right. It was a soft pale streak against a dark backdrop. It reminded Gabrielle of a shooting star against a moonless midnight sky.
Her left hand passed over it slowly as she moved to squeeze the warrior's shoulders. She retraced the path on her way back down and drifted a fingertip across the length of it.
Xena's back quivered under the touch and Gabrielle watched it tremble.
"You've never told me what this scar is from, Xena?"
When Xena didn't move to answer, she studied it closer, tracing it's illuminating path to the side of her rib cage. The muscles quaked again. She thought she heard Xena whimper, so she placed her palm flat against it.
"Does it hurt?" she asked.
"No." Xena answered softly.
Gabrielle continued her caress without taking her eyes from the scar.
"It's just the memory that hurts," Xena offered.
Gabrielle regarded her friend as her hands floated over the strong back and shoulders taking care not to disturb the new scar in progress.
After a silent minute, Gabrielle queried. "What happened?" She tried to visualize Xena taking a blow protecting a baby or challenging a ruthless brigand. Heroic to the bitter last.
"It was a long time ago," Xena recounted. "Back before..well...back before you unfortunately."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle scooted down to knead the tight flesh of Xena's thighs.
Xena sighed at the feel of the hands pressing into her skin, feeling as if they were actually under the skin, touching her in a way more intimate than she had ever known. As if they were reaching for her soul. Sighing again she sought to de-rail the bard's questions.
"It was during the time when I led Ares' army. The story is long and drawn out. Remind me one day when it's raining and I'll tell you." She fell silent hoping the bard wouldn't dig for information. This is one of the stories she tried to protect the bard from. No one should ever go through what I did. And if Gabrielle is none the wiser of such things, then she'll be happier and thank me in the end. Xena tried to reason it out.
Gabrielle didn't press the story. She knew that if Xena wanted to tell her, she would. It must be something she cares not to remember, or at least doesn't want me to know about in an effort to protect me. Gabrielle smiled slightly, but inwardly cringed at the thought. Heroic deeds shattered and lay in ruins at her feet.
"Ares thought I needed a lesson in humility," Xena said quietly as she turned her head to the side Gabrielle was sitting on.
"Ares?" Gabrielle repeated unbelieving. "Teaching humility?"
"Like I said, it's a long story." Xena felt herself compelled to confide in her friend. I mean that's what friends are for right? I don't have to tell her the whole story, just the really humiliating parts. She truly has no idea who I was, maybe this will shock her into reason. That I am dangerous to be around. There are those who would see me dead and kill those near me without a second thought to do the job. Ares especially.
Gabrielle began to have second thoughts at hearing this story. Xena's reluctance to share it should have been enough for Gabrielle to realize it was going to be messy and painful for Xena to tell and her to hear. Why do I always have to kick a dead dog? she asked herself. Her answer was cut short by Xena's deep throaty voice.
"Anyway, because I wouldn't destroy a certain village in a particular way that he wanted me to, he told me I was acting like a disobedient child and decided to punish me accordingly." Xena continued, all but melting under the warm hands and firm fingers still stroking her thighs.
Gabrielle's eyes widened. "What did he do?" She heard Xena clear her throat.
Well, here it goes. "He had this belt...that.. he used to hold the scabbard for his sword at his side. It was big. Wide and thick and it had a buckle in the shape of a ram forged by Hephaestus."
Xena felt Gabrielle's hands stop as she listened to the story. She shifted under them slightly when she began to feel the heat that they gave off. Xena slipped her arms up under the pillow and squeezed it to her face.
"He was so angry. Angrier than I have ever seen him. He easily took my wrists between the fingers of his left hand and pushed me across the corner of a table. He pulled a small blade out and cut my clothes away." Xena fell silent, her memory drifted on though. After a moment she continued, her voice low and cautious. "He took his sword from it's scabbard, and I thought he would surely kill me. He had a fire in his eyes, and insane fire. But he just set the sword aside and loosened the belt. He let the scabbard drop away and he took both ends into his hand."
Xena opened her eyes. She could hear Gabrielle's breathing. The weight of her upper body supported by the hands resting on Xenas thighs. Xena groaned inwardly at the feather light pressure.
"Tell me he didn't?" Gabrielle finally asked.
Xena was quiet for a moment, then she turned her head back to the wall and closed her eyes.
"He did," she swallowed. "He thrashed me 'til I bled and when I cried out he thrashed me more." She listened for Gabrielle's breathing before continuing. "The one end with the buckle got away from him and that's what cut me."
Xena could feel the story sinking into her companion. She could almost see the disbelief in her face and pain in her eyes.
"Oh, Xena," was all she could manage when she found her voice. "Thats horrible."
Xena smiled into the pillow. "Which part? Being spanked by a god or having a god feel the need to do so?"
Gabrielle's jaw fell. "Both." She shivered uncontrollably. "What did he want you to do to that village?"
"You don't want to know," Xena felt comfortable enough with Gabrielle to reveal that humiliating tale, but there were some things she would never be comfortable talking about with anyone, even the bard. "I don't want you to know."
Gabrielle immediately felt their trust compromised.
"It's to protect you, Gabrielle," Xena told her knowing what the bard would be thinking. "I don't ever want it to happen to you."
Gabrielle's eyes drifted over Xenas back. "I guess I never really realized some of the things you have been through," she just couldn't find the words.
"You don't have to feel sorry for me," Xena lifted her head slightly.
"I," Gabrielle felt her heart roll over in her chest. "I just want to help soothe old scars." she finally admitted softly.
Xena swallowed her own heart back down for the second time that night. "You have," she whispered. "You do."
Gabrielle looked at her then down at her hands. Her chore forgotten during the tale, she had lifted her weight up and moved her fingers to the outside of Xena's hips under the towel mindlessly. She stopped abruptly when she realized what she was doing and found herself staring at the towel covering the aforementioned flesh. I wonder.
"You alright?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle flashed her eyes up to Xena's brunette head. "Yeah, I was just thinking..."
Xena smiled to herself. Yeah, I know what you were just thinking. She shifted to pull the pillow away from her face. "No." she stated flatly.
Gabrielle looked at her confused for a second. "No what?" She began to pull her hands away.
"No, there aren't any scars there. There's only the one." Xena answered.
Gabrielle blushed slightly. How did she know that was what I was thinking? "Yeah, well, I don't remember ever seeing any." she said so quietly, Xena had to strain to hear her.
Gabrielle recovered quickly. "I said that's good."
Xena released a breath. "Yeah, I guess so. You can't sell damaged goods, you know." she joked.
"Ah," Gabrielle swatted at her. "How can you say that?" She replaced her hands on the warrior's thighs as she rolled over under the towel.
"If I didn't laugh about it, I'd go insane," she admitted, draping a forearm across her eyes.
There was an uncomfortable silence between them. Gabrielle was finding it hard to look at Xena except at the graceful line of her arm where it meets the shoulder and neck.
"You scared me tonight," She admitted to the warrior. When Xena didn't answer, Gabrielle placed her hand on her belly. Xena flinched uncontrollably. Gabrielle waited. "I thought you might really be hurt by the way you looked when you came in."
Xena dropped her arm to cover a small hand with her own. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle." She said with apologetic eyes. They stared at each other.
So blue. Gabrielle thought. I could just drown in them.
"I know I put you through a lot," Xena's face bent in frustration. Her heart felt like breaking and yet she wasn't quite sure why. "I don't know why you hang around."
"You know why I hang around," Gabrielle moved to kneel on the floor near Xena's head. She put her other hand out to touch her dark, damp hair and let it run through her fingers.
Xena just looked at her and tightened her grip on the small hand.
"Close your eyes and go to sleep. I'll be right here," Gabrielle urged quietly.
Xena obeyed out of sheer exhaustion. After awhile, as she crept closer to the edge of sleep, she felt the tender pressure of Gabrielle's lips on her own. She thought the kiss might have lingered, but she wasn't sure. She thought she felt a calming hand stroke her stomach, but uncertainty pushed it from her mind. As she fell into the darkness of slumber, she thought she might have pulled Gabrielle's body down onto her own, but sleep remembered it only as a dream.
Knuckles whitened around the hilt as Xena's blade found purchase in flesh and bone with a decapitating swing that left her right hip and finished over her left shoulder.
One last, mighty push of the headless heart brought a fountain of crimson to Xena's exposed throat and chest.
As the blood slid over her breasts and into the valley between, she spun to face the approach of a battle axe. Dropping back to her left, her eyes followed the path of the blurred blade as it breezed past her.
That was too close. her mind screamed. Closer than anything has ever come.
Gripping her sword with both hands, she retaliated with an upward swing that landed with a solid, debilitating crunch to the attacker's elbows.
A sharp pain then twisted into her right shoulder and she fell to one knee. Looking up over the injury, she saw a sword making a finishing swing at her head.
Lifting her own sword, hilt up, she thrust it in the direction of the stroke and braced for the impact. The deflection sent her to the earth. Rolling onto her back, she made a determined thrust upward into the star- filled sky. She felt the tremendous weight impaled on the other end come crashing down onto her. With a deafening groan, she struggled out from under it.
Xena was nearing the limit of her ability to defend herself. She had been on the defensive the whole fight and just barely been able to do that. Her arms burned and legs trembled beneath her and fingers held her sword in a death grip. Her vision was obscured by blood and sweat and the darkness of the vale under a moonless heaven.
So this is it? She thought. This is the battle field where I will finally lay down. Not too bad, suits me fine. Its beautiful here. Stream nearby, forest stretching into the west and mountains pushing up into the starry east. This would be a peaceful place to feel the last drop of life spill from my arteries.
A bowstring brought taught echoed in her ears and with a instinctive jump, she hurled herself into the cool night air as the arrow sailed under. Taking her chakrum from her side, she sent it spinning towards an invisible assailant before her feet even returned to the ground. Hearing a surprised cry as the weapon introduced itself to the archer, she nodded to herself.
"But tonight's not the night."
A quiet then fell. She turned in all directions prepared for another onslaught and was relieved to find on one else standing. With a heavy sigh she sheathed her sword and looked at the scene at her feet.
Bodies were strewn everywhere, some moving, some silent, all unable to pose any kind of threat towards the Princess. She strode past, her eyes glancing around until she came to the sniper.
Reaching down to pull the embedded chakrum from the mans abdomen, she heaved upwards and the body came with it. After three or four pulls, it took a great yank with two hands and a foot planted on the chest to dislodge the steel circle.
Wiping it unceremoniously on the body's clothing, she returned it to her hip and then turned to inspect the carnage once more.
I'm getting too old for this. She thought wearily. Unable to stand any longer she collapsed to the ground, chest heaving from exertion.
"This is the last time I try to out drink a whole fucking platoon." she determined out loud as she thought about the events that had brought her to this bloody vale...
She had finished with Argo just as the sun was making it's way behind the trees. Dusty and sweaty from the heat of the stalls, she headed towards the rain barrel at the corner of the barn. She removed her arm bracers and gauntlets and thrust her arms into the water. Cooling herself in the rain water, she scrubbed the dirt away, then splashed her face, neck and chest. With the help of an old rag, she dried off as she stood in the shade the building created.
Feeling refreshed, she looked around the main street of Pardum. It was a small town, with all the structures placed in a circle around two main roads that crossed through the center of the marketplace. The market took up a considerable amount of the center of the town itself and it was easy to see that the town had really been built around it, and it had come after the roads had been made. At the center of the market was the temple fountain of Demeter and around it on four sides were the other patron gods of the town. Near the stables, smithy, tannery and mills was a statue of the god Hephaestus. To the north of him across the street was an image of Aphrodite and across the street from her, Hera, and opposite her was Apollo who sat cleverly in line with the setting and rising sun. It sat behind him and rose to his stone gaze. The late summer sun was glaring near his shoulder and it cast rays off of his head and towards the fountain. The water sparkled as it cascaded over Demeter's hands as she knelt to bless the liquid.
Xena had been impressed by the layout of the town and it only frustrated her further to see that it was easily defensible and yet these people did nothing to stop the army that was harassing their peace and harmony. There was something definitely going on under the surface of this city. The so called protection was no more than a mild bother, or it should have been only that to a town of this size. But they were allowing it to happen. Maybe, they really did want Diphobus' services and maybe he only wanted the easy collection of cash, but Xena was reluctant to consider that knowing her opponent well. Too easy and he never does anything the easy way. Always clever and cryptic and elaborate. On the other hand, this town didn't have a militia. Maybe it was neglected in the original plan or they just felt they really didn't need one. But I don't believe that, either. It's all very strange. And I'm going to find out what's going on here. There are people who will talk if given the right incentive. She smiled at her joke about what Gabrielle called her 'pinch interrogations.
"Gabrielle." She said as she watched the sun sink behind Apollo and throw an ethereal light around him. I think she won't mind terribly to stay here until I do a little routing around. Plenty of shops to keep her busy and Gods' know we need a rest. The whole year has been nothing but nonstop. One thing after another and all of it beyond imagining. I never would have thought that we could do the things that we did to each other. I know why she protected the damn child, but she should have trusted my judgement. I guess I lost that back in Britannia when the demon was born. Then I tried to destroy her. She shouldn't have trusted me anymore. But she did. She refused to believe my vision of that mountain. She found her path and lost it defending me. Gods, I even tried to drag her into hell with me. More reason not to trust me. She told me we could just start over, but it's not that easy.
Xena turned away from the statue and blinked the brightness of the sun from her eyes. She began to walk towards the fountain and found herself captivated by it. The water descended from a jar on the goddess right shoulder and spilled out onto an outstretched hand that hovered over the pool. The fingers of the statue had been separated and the palm placed up to cleverly disrupt the flow. It scattered across the pool in drops both large and small. Xena watched it's plunge from the jar to the hand and her thoughts drifted to her companion again.
We were like that once. She thought of the two of them. We used to rush into life like the water from that jar. We were happy, well, I was. Never knew anyone that could make me feel so much joy and peace from simple words and gestures. "It's the simple thing's in life, Xena". She told me that one day a few years ago and I couldn't imagine what she meant by it. Then she showed me. She had a lust for life just because she was alive. And soon I began to learn how to live also. Her subtle direction and teachings went straight to my heart, although she probably thinks they went right in one ear and out the other. I should have told her. I should have told her how much she means to me. But I put it off, and then, Britannia and Dahok or was it Caesar? Both. We both have to take the blame, I guess. My quest for Caesar gave opportunity to Dahok. Now, like the water from that hand our lives are thrown into the hazard. So many pieces I don't even know if we could find them all to put it back together. I don't even know if she wants to. Gods know that I want to try if she'll give me the chance.
Xena straightened her back and pursed her lips at the pool. She turned and strode away towards the nearest tavern. Stepping up to it's door which was propped open to allow for air circulation, she stepped through and stood momentarily to adjust to the lower light. Sweeping her eyes across the tables to calculate the nature of the patrons, she determined this was not the tavern of soldiers. She moved to the bar and catching the eye of the maid behind it with the flash of a coin, she turned to look at the crowd. Not very large, only six or seven men that occupied three tables. Two at two separate tables and three at the other. They were farmers and mill workers. Common citizens here to relax from the days labor and cool off from the heat.
"What'll it be?" the barmaid asked.
Xena turned to look at her. "Ale." She stated flatly. The woman nodded and went to fetch it. Upon returning, she traded the mug for a coin from the stack Xena had placed on the bar and then went to tend the others.
Xena closed her eyes as the dark liquid quenched the dryness in her throat.. A dryness she didn't realize was there until she opened her mouth to answer the serving girl. Finishing the ale, she placed it at the edge of the bar opposite her. She leaned her elbows on the edge nearer and let her head sag a little between her shoulders. Her thoughts were unusually nagging and the warrior was tired of the direction they seemed to be taking of late. Fingering the coins before her, she knew that those thoughts had always been there, if only in the back of her mind, but always there. She had had the willpower to keep them at bay before, and now...now it seemed to be all she thought about.
"Another?" the bar maid asked. Xena simply pushed another coin in her direction and never looked up.
So why now? She wondered. I've never had a problem with this before. But I've never felt this way before, either. Xena reached for the mug and took a cleansing swallow. So what is the problem, here? It's not because of Solon. I've already forgiven her for that. I know it wasn't really her fault. So, there really shouldn't be anything between us any more, but there's still something that keeps us apart. She used to sleep beside me every night. We eventually combined our bedrolls since we sleep so close, it was, what... to keep warm, or to be there when the other had a nightmare? Or was it something much more complicated?. Something that was deeper than either of us was really aware of? Ever since Illusia, we have slept in our own blankets, but close, just not skin to skin like before. Close enough to feel the other shift in her sleep, but not able to feel the rise and fall of the other's breathing. So, what is it that keeps me restless at night and distant in the daylight with thoughts of her? Gods, I think about her all the time. Even when she is right in front of me, I can't concentrate. She distracts me.
Xena turned that over in her mind for a minute, fueling the thought with another swallow of the warm ale. She stared down into the mug and watched as she swirled the cup around. "She does distract me."
"What's that?" the bar maid leaned in the warrior's direction, ready to get another drink for her.
Xena shook her head at her with a dismissing wave of her hand. Okay. Let's go with this. She distracts me. How does she do that? Well...
Xenas brows bent in frustration at not being able to answer her own question. She just does. I know she doesn't do it on purpose.
"I know she hasn't a clue that she even makes me feel this way." Xena said.
"And how is it that she makes you feel?" the bar maid asked her as she neared the leaning warrior. Xena looked at her, unaware she had even spoken out loud. The bar maid wiped the counter in front of her and put another mug of ale down on it.
"You said that she didn't have a clue she made you feel this way. What way is that?"
Xena wanted to brush the woman off but found herself looking for the answer instead.
"I'm not sure. It's...a little complicated."
"Love always is, sweetheart. They make it that way so you cherish it more when you find it." The woman stated simply and then moved on to other customers. Xena was left staring at the empty space where she had stood.
Love? That's not it. She knows that I love her and I know that she loves me, I think. Maybe that's it. I don't know if she still loves me. She certainly doesn't touch me anymore. Doesn't want to be near me. When I get up the courage to reach out to her, she flinches or moves away quickly. Like she doesn't want to be near me. Xena felt her heart constrict in her chest. I wouldn't blame her if she doesn't even like me anymore. I don't like me. I tried to murder her for Ares' sake. She should hate me. But she is still with me. She still follows me around...
"Or do I follow her, now?"
Xena was getting confused and now she had to face the fact that Gabrielle may not want to be with her and just couldn't find a way to tell her. Maybe I should just leave and make it easy for her. Xena thought about it for a heartbeat before shaking her head. Yeah, like I could do that. It would be like cutting out my heart. So, I'm back at the beginning.
"And where was that?" She asked herself. Love. So, I can't leave her. I can't live without her and I can't live like we have been, close but not touching. It's killing me. I'd die without her and yet I feel myself dying with her. Gods, this can't go on.
Xena pushed up from the counter abruptly. She finished the ale in one swallow and then downed the other. I need a distraction of my own.
She left two coins on the bar and headed for the door. As she stepped out onto the street she saw the sun was down and evening was blanketing the market place. She glanced around and then made a deliberate path to the Fireside Inn.
Several blocks later she found the establishment busy with the late crowds. Some loitering outside and in the doorway, these she had to push past as she headed for the common room. Once there she saw the reason for the swelling throng and smiled the first heartfelt smile she had had in weeks.
There in the center of the room was her friend. On a table hastily made into a stage, she sat, cross-legged. There were chairs all around her with a body in each one. When the chairs were taken, they had crammed themselves onto table tops and others littered the stairway to the sleeping rooms. Standing room only. Xena thought. Just the way it should be.
The bard was engaged in a re- telling of the story of Bacchus, the God of wine and his Maenads. With her attention on the description of the ceremonies the Maenads would make to their God, Gabrielle had entrapped her audience with detailed accountings down to the naked dances and frenzied orgies they would engage in. The crowd was all but mesmerized by the bard and she by them. Her voice adjusted to the people in the back even as they pressed closer. They hung on her every syllable and swayed to her meter as she told with such passion of the blood sacrifices and unnatural metamorphoses that consumed the Bacchae.
Xena continued to smile as she threaded her way closer. When she realized she would get no closer to her friend, she stopped and stood to listen with them.
Gabrielle worked the crowd effortlessly. She was surprised that she no longer felt the stage fright she once did. She held the audience and fed from them, giving them what they gave her in return. The wonderful feeling of hearing a good story. She swept the throng with her eyes, seeking to connect with each pair, watching for reactions and adjusting to the atmosphere easily. Her eyes fell on two that stared back with another kind of gaze. Pride. She smiled at Xena and raised a hand slightly towards her. Xena lifted her head in acknowledgement and raised her eyebrows. She looked around the room and then shook her head at the bard, who simply shrugged slightly and smiled in return.
After a while, Xena worked her way to the bar and found the barman.
"What can I get you, warrior?"
"Something to write on?" Xena asked hopefully.
The man studied her for a moment then turned to the task. He returned with a small scrap of papyrus with writing on one side, but placed it down so that Xena could see that the other side was empty, and handed her a quill.
"Thanks," she said and bent to scrawl a note to the bard. She then flagged the man back over and handed him the note. "Can you give this to the bard when she is finished?"
He looked at her.
Xena stretched her hand out and gave him two dinars. "I'd really appreciate it." The man took the dinars, the note and the quill and gave her an exasperated look to which she smiled sweetly.
Then she plowed her way to the door and went to search for some soldiers.
Gabrielle turned to the voice and was greeted by a meaty hand sticking something into her chest. She took the scrap and questioned him with her eyes.
"That big warrior-type asked me to give you this." He said, and mission accomplished, left her to her reading.
Gabrielle looked at the scrap over in her hands. Tomatoes, corn...huh? She turned it over and smiled. Ahhh. It read...
"You seem to know how to attract a crowd, and you still have your clothes on, funny that."
Gabrielle chuckled. Xena was recalling a very interesting encounter last year when a very drunk bard decided it was little to warm for clothes and stripped her top off to the pleasure of drunken patrons. Xena had let her dance around in a circle for all of five seconds before she grabbed the bards top, then thebard. She had thrown her over her shoulder much to the delight of the crowd and the bard and headed for their room.
Gabrielle smiled to herself. They probably thought she took me up to the room to ravish me. Not that I would have minded, but I would have rather been sober to remember it the next morning.
She returned her attention to the note.
"I'm going to do some poking around in the local taverns.
A man named Diphobus is here making some trouble, has a camp nearby. Know him from way back. Just want to check up on a hunch. Don't wait up."
Gabrielle smiled. Guess she's off to find some trouble. Let's see if I can make my own kind of trouble. Minus the naked dancing, of course. The bard shook her head at herself and headed for the bar for a late dinner.
Xena bellied up to a bar herself. She had come across this one on her third try and found it was liberty heaven for soldiers and warriors alike. It was just her type of place, too. Dark and smelly, lots of veteran fighters, like herself, engaged in all manner of festivity. Be it drinking, arm wrestling, cards, or the occasional bar brawl, she was in her element here. Lots of beautiful women moving from lap to lap, the majority were bare breasted and one was completely naked. Xena smiled her appreciation at the show and suddenly wished for those days with her army before the real corruption began. Before Ares got a hold of her.
She surveyed the crowd once more assessing the dangers and finding the exits. It was a packed house. These men were definitely Diphobus' men. Most of them anyway. The others were no name's or trying to make a name and just here to blow off some steam. No real threats, or nothing she couldn't handle without breaking a real sweat. So she turned to the bar and slammed a handful of dinars on the counter and with a smile, launched into full Warrior Princess mode.
"What the Hades do you have to do to get a port around here," she bellowed out. She got some grunts of approval thrown at her and a few whistles, and more than a few assessing stares. She ignored them and tapped her hand irritably on the counter.
A young bar maid, barely old enough to have her moon let alone tend this tavern of debauchery came to get her order.
"Yes, warrior, what'll it be?"
"Port." Xena said "And keep them coming." She tapped the stack of coins and watched as the girl went to the keg. Upon returning, the girl took the coin and watched as Xena pounded the port down. She shook her head at the warrior and went to fetch another.
Xena shook her shoulders to settle to burn of the alcohol and then turned to face the room. As she gazed out she made eye contact with several soldiers. Assuming she was giving a signal they would have to be dead to refuse, each one stood to make his way to her only to realize in the next heart beat they would find themselves dead if they did.
Xena gave her best 'move and regret it' look and came away the victor. One big guy thought he would try his luck and after adjusting his leather and armor a bit, he made an attempt to run his hand through his hair and steered towards her.
Xena had turned her attention back to the bar as the fresh port arrived and was in mid swallow when she felt the man come up behind her. She manage to finish the swallow and fight the rising bile at the same time. The smell drew her lip up uncontrollably as he leaned on the bar next to her.
He placed one hand on the bar and then extended a finger to drift over the soft flesh of her upper arm. He grinned at his own bravado and shot a look back at the table where his friends were snickering their encouragement. He looked back at the warrior and dropped his touch lower on her arm.
Xena resisted the urge to flatten his huge nose right to his face and merely regarded her mug of port. "Something you like to say to me?"
"Oh, yeah." he snorted. "How about you and me go upstairs and burn off some of this alcohol."
"You need to burn off more than alcohol, tubby." She readied for the angry blow but it never came. She heard his friends laugh at her joke but he took it all in stride.
"I'm a...large man, this is true, but that just means there's more of me to love. More than enough for you, beautiful." He continued to stroke the one finger up and down her arm.
"Why don't you go find someone else to help you work off your excess...spirit, friend. You're more man than Id ever care to handle." She shifted her arm away from his touch and took another swallow from her port.
The soldier held his ground and shot another look of determination to his friends. He did withdraw his finger but leaned in closer to Xena until he was pressed up against her arm.
"I don't think you heard me right, wench." he said sweetly. "I asked you to come work up a sweat with me. That means you and me, together. Unless you'd like some more company, I think I can...arrange that." He smiled at her as he waited for her to answer.
Xena took the last swig of her port and then pushed away from the bar. "As in, you and me?" She asked him, turning her eyes on him at last.
"As in, you and me." He confirmed.
Xena allowed her eyes to drift over the man's visage in apparent size-up. "Let me give you a little insight, friend." she finally said.
"First of all I don't even like men. Second, you are the poorest excuse for the male species that I have ever seen. I mean, look at you. You have terrible manners, disgusting breath, no teeth, what...had planned on gumming me to orgasm? And whoever designed your uniform has no sense of fashion, your sword is rusty, your boots have holes in them, there are creatures setting up house in your hair, there's yesterday's dinner in your beard, guess you're saving that for later, huh? You're ugly, fat, and...you smell. I mean you aren't even interesting enough to make me sick." Xena halted her catalog long enough for the man to take inventory of himself.
He then looked at her and extended his hand. "So...let's go. Yeah?
"Not in your wildest, wet dreams, pal. Now go away before I make you go away." Xena dismissed him with a turn of her head and reached for a new mug of port. The bar had fallen silent in anticipation.
The man stood there regarding her for a moment and when she didn't make a move in his direction, he reached out to hurry her along.
The last thing he saw was a vision of a goddess descending upon him from on high.
Xena caught his hand as he reached for her and brought her knee up to meet his elbow. After a satisfying snap, she maneuvered him, face first into the bar and then slammed her mug of port into his dazed face. He slumped, unconscious, to the floor with a thud. Xena straightened her shoulder and took in the crowd.
"Any more would-be suitors?" she asked darkly.
When they all went back to their previous conversations and activities, she smirked. She then reached down and found his coin purse. "I think you owe me a drink, pal."
She returned to her spot at the bar and was met by another mug of port. She flashed a smile of thanks at the bar maid who merely shook her head and returned to her duties. She looked up when she felt someone else behind her.
The man's friends were picking him up and shuffling him to the door. One lingered near her as he supervised the effort.
"Are you always this uptight?" he asked her casually.
"Is your friend always that stupid?" She countered.
His shoulders shook with a laugh. "That's to be sure. All brawn no brain. You know, the type."
"Yeah, I know the type." She wondered at his refusal to include himself in the category. She studied him further. He was tall, nice looking, actually very handsome. Blondish hair and with green eyes that practically sparkled. Clean complexion and clean uniform. Spotless skin. Maybe he wasn't in that category after all. There was something about him that she found familiar, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it.
"Well, I guess they took care of him." the man continued as he watched his friends reenter the tavern and take up their seats once more.
"What did they do with him?" Xena asked as she watched their return.
"Left him out by the horses. He'll be safe there. Who says you have to leave when someone decides to take a nap?" He looked at her and found that he actually had her attention. Growing bolder he gave her a smile that she felt compelled to return.
"Buy you another port?" He offered.
Xena considered it. There didn't appear to be any one else worth looking at and talking to at the same time and she had to get her foot in the door or she would never find out what Diphobus was up to. So, nodding her assent, she made a space at the bar for him.
"Name's Gardus," he reached out his forearm to her.
She eyed him a second the reached to take his arm. "Xena." She watched his eyes widen and a smile form on his face.
She just looked at him. "Ya got a problem with that?"
He shook his head. "Hell no. Damn, the warrior princess, right here in front of me. Gods, I'm surprised you let ol' Framinius off with just a nap."
"Framinius? Oh,...stupid. Yeah, well,...just his lucky day, I guess." Xena sipped her port and cringed slightly as she felt his continued stare.
"May I?" He indicated towards the bar.
Xena shrugged her shoulders and watched as he sat on a high stool beside her. 'What is it about him? He doesn't look the type to be hanging around Diphobus' bunch. But looks can be deceiving. Gabrielle sure looks unassuming but interrupt her dinner and she's a harpy.'
Xena held that thought as Gardus lifted his mug in salute to her and flashed a beautiful smile, which was salute enough in her mind. 'Just like Gabrielle.' Then it hit her. 'Just like Gabrielle.' She repeated to herself as she looked at him. She mentally shook her head and dropped her eyes. 'Holy Helmet of Athena. I'm in love.' She stated simply. 'Terribly and irreversibly in love.'
"Hey?" Gardus leaned towards her a little. "You alright?"
Xena looked at him. "Yeah." She raised her own mug in salute and allowed the brown liquid a slow descent as she picked up the pieces of her mind. 'Gods, what am I doing? Can I be any more obvious? Next thing I know there will be birds singing and little maids throwing rose petals at my feet. Well warrior, you've made yourself a nice hole, now lets see if you can keep from pulling the dirt back in on you.'
"So, Gardus," She began. "What's there to do around here for fun?"
"Well, now, that all depends on what you consider fun." Gardus said with a grin. "Now, me and the fellas, we have all kinds of fun. Doesn't take much to entertain drunks." He watched Xena, gauging her reaction. When he received a slightly curious shift in her eyes, he smiled. "You up for our kind of fun, warrior princess?"
Xena gathered her dinars, then pushed away from the bar and settled her shoulders.
Gardus stood and plowed a way through the crowd to the table his friends were occupying.
Oblivious to their arrival, the four soldiers continued their discussion until Gardus cleared his throat to gain their attention.
"Boys, I want you to meet a friend." He said cautiously but with a smile. His friends fell quiet and all eyes went to the warrior princess. "This is Xena, Destroyer of Nations."
There was evident pride in his introduction, but inwardly Xena cringed at it. It was a part of her past and one that she would rather have forgotten but her infamy preceded her and she knew she would never be completely rid of the terror a single title could instill. This was one of the times she brandished her celebrity. She would need to convince these soldiers she was one of them, if not a leader of an army similar to the one they belonged to. Reputation can be as smart a weapon as charisma, and she had plenty of both.
She stood silently and sized them up as they eyed her curiously. They were big men, all well-armoured, strong and weathered. These weren't rookie fighters, these were seasoned veterans who had seen and contributed their fair share of destruction. Xena knew she needed to be on her toes and pushed all the preoccupations of the earlier day from her mind to have it braced for any sign of trouble. All at once she found it. In the eyes of the soldier opposite the table from her. His dislike was apparent in his face although he made no move towards his weapons. Xena leveled her gaze right at him.
Gardus watched the warriors stare and felt the air fairly sizzle with tension.
"If only Fram' had known who he was talking to, huh?" He attempted to alleviate the hostility but to no avail. "On second thought, he might be pushing up daisies instead of napping." Gardus said under his breath.
"Were you thinking with your crotch again, Gardus? We don't want her around, she's a murderin' bitch." The soldier finally spat out.
"You lookin' to add your name to that list?" Xena asked without so much as batting a eye.
When the soldier made a move to stand, Gardus jumped in.
"Now wait a minute Metis, she'll tear you apart and you know it. Now let's just all calm down and be sensible about this. Alright? Listen, now, she was just looking for some fun and I asked her to join us. Nothing but warriors throwing back a few and sharing war stories, right?" He glanced over at Xena for silent and hopeful confirmation. She nodded once very slowly, her eyes never leaving Metis'.
"Right, now, make some room and let's drink." Gardus moved a chair from another table and pushed it towards Xena. She waited for Metis to settle back down into his chair and then joined them. As his friends returned to their previous conversation, Gardus gave her an apologetic smile to which she raised an eyebrow. He only smiled brighter and Xena felt herself relax just a bit.
"So, what is your pleasure, Xena? Another port?" He leaned towards her as the barmaid arrived.
"Sure," She threw her dinars into the pile near the center of the table. "You keep some interesting friends, Gardus."
He smiled into his drink. "Oh, don't mind Metis. He's just jealous. Hates to see women with bigger arms than his own. Gives him a complex."
Xena shot another glance towards Metis as fresh port was placed before her. She couldn't tell for sure but knew nonetheless that the man would be trouble. It was one of those gut feelings she always gets when meeting someone for the first time. 'First impressions are always lasting impressions. And I make it a rule never to trust anyone who calls me a bitch in the first five seconds. Call it veracity after that, if you live long enough to get to now me that well.'
"So what brings you guys here? You on leave or just off duty?" Xena asked trying to keep from sounding investigative.
"Off duty, thank the Gods. 'Bout time, too. I just came off of a forty-eight hour watch. I tell you, I really needed this tonight." Gardus lifted his mug a drank copiously from it.
Xena nodded in sympathy."Know how that can be. What rank are you? Surely you can assign someone else to take your watches."
Gardus beamed at the assumption that he was an officer, despite it's inaccuracy. He wasn't going to tell her he was only a grunt and a yeoman at that. The warrior princess would certainly not find scroll work and watches very interesting. Oh, he had been in battles and could hold his own but not nearly as much as the men beside him. Now they were the true warriors. Trained to fight. Trained to kill. No, he was just a lowly papyrus pusher with delusions of grandeur. He would never get Xena into his bed if she knew his real rank so he did what any normal, hot-blooded soldier would do. He lied his ass off.
"Well, sure, I could, but I took the watch for another so he could go see his family, you know. Gets real lonely when you're on a mission, so when the fellas get the rare opportunity to have their wives visit, how can you say no. I mean, it really helps the morale. Keeps the boys in line, if you know what I mean."
"That I do. Sounds like you treat your men rather well. That might come in handy one day." Xena played along and managed to not roll her eyes at his posturing. She had baited the hook and now she had to stomach the catch.
"What do you mean?" Gardus inquired.
"Well, I'm not saying that there are any problems in your ranks but, there comes a time in every army when a warrior feels like he deserves a little more...responsibility. And if your superiors don't feel the same way, well it's always nice to have some loyal men to back you up." Xena watched as he digested her comment. "Just in case." She added as she swallowed her port.
Xena's attention was diverted to the barmaid as she returned to refill their drinks. She was young and quite attractive, with golden hair that was held away from her chest and neck by a single band of leather tied loosely behind her head, the soft curls drifting around and framing her face.
"Yes, well, I can see where that might be handy. I'll keep that in mind." Gardus let the delusions vault around in his head for a moment then looked at her intently.
"That ever happen to you?" He asked quietly hoping he hadn't insulted her.
"Mmmm, once or twice." Xena answered. The barmaid leaned over Metis' shoulder and Xena was treated to a view of the girl's ample bosom straining for liberation from her bodice. Xena let her eyes soak up the sight as the girl reached over to fill another mug. The warrior's gaze drifted up the slim neck and met the two smiling eyes of it's owner. Without thought Xena licked her lips and watched the girl work her way around the table. "But, they never achieved their goal." She offered to Gardus.
"Why is that?" Gardus lifted his mug to the barmaid as she neared, head inclined towards Xena.
"Because I killed them" She stated flatly. As the maid came to her side of the table Xena leaned back in the chair and smiled when she felt the girl lean against her and reach around to fill the mug. The girl's breasts pressed firmly into an armored shoulder and Xena couldn't still the shiver the contact created within her.
"With ambition comes consequence, Gardus. It's not enough to want something. You have to be willing to suffer the outcome as well." Gardus thought about her words as he studied his port.
The double meaning was not lost on the maid whose answer was to increase the pressure of her breasts against the warrior and draw them teasingly along the back of her neck and through ebony hair as she moved away. Xena looked up at the girl and received a smoldering gaze with a sexy little smirk. She watched the girl's hips as they swayed back to the bar, then turned her attention back to the table.
Gardus was oblivious but the other soldiers had not missed the flirtation and they each smiled with an inner knowledge that their friend was definitely going home alone this night. Xena returned the smile slightly and swallowed a healthy bit of port to refocus her mind.
"So, Xena," One of the other soldiers spoke up. "Where is your army?"
The question brought Gardus out of his reflection and he looked at her curiously.
"Amphipolis," Xena knew this question was coming and had already prepared herself for the deception. "They have holiday routine for the annual fall festival. Amphipolis gives quite a party and my men needed a reprieve. Like you said before Gardus, it helps morale following a long campaign."
"And where was your campaign, Destroyer? I know of nothing in this area, or Greece for that matter. In truth, I had heard rumors that you gave up our way of life after one of your lieutenants overthrew you."
"Lausus," Gardus challenged. "What do you think..."
"No, it's alright." Xena cut him off. "You haven't heard of anything because we haven't been in Greece. We spent the past year overseas. I had a debt to repay in the Kingdom of Chinn."
"Chinn? Never heard of it." Lausus disputed.
"Me either. Where is that, Xena?" Gardus asked.
Xena was the picture of calm. She knew this story well so remembering a lie wasn't going to be the problem. Not revealing her uneasiness about the subject would take some acting. The last thing she need right now was to start to think about Gabrielle and that horrible trip across a foreign land. But her eyes would reveal nothing to the soldiers and they would be forced to take her at her word or die calling her a liar. She had the upper hand and she knew it so she closed the door Gabrielle had built in her walls and threw the latch.
"It's in Asia. China to be exact. A friend there needed some help so we packed up and took a road trip."
"That must be a long way from here. You took your whole army with you?" Gardus was unable to keep the fascination from his voice. Xena gave him one of her slow grins.
"That must have been expensive. How did you finance such a campaign? Even the great Xena doesn't have that kind of dinars just laying around." This time it was Metis who spoke up.
Xena considered him over the edge of her mug. 'He's not that stupid. He's trying to catch me off guard. This is the one of the big fish. He's probably their captain. I might actually have to take him out early. An accident while doing sword drills, of course. He just zigged when he should have zagged. Can't have anyone think I would commit a murder in cold blood these days now can I.'
"Actually, Metis. The key to financing a campaign is knowing how to use the resources of the objective. Chinn is a very rich land. Not just in money, but in foods, livestock and other laborers, all of which are just waiting for a warlord to put them to work. But the one reason that I took my whole army with me is because Chinn has a unique fighting style that I wanted my men to learn. Once I was sufficiently comfortable with the army's new abilities we took over the palace and acquired the royal treasury. You see, there is always a way to finance a campaign. And now my army is much better equipped to handle other more...formidable campaigns."
"Who...like who?" Lausus was just a bit concerned for his job security and would like to know a head of time if the Destroyer was focusing in that general area.
Xena smiled. "Don't worry, Lausus. I'm not going to overthrow your commander. Actually, I was just thinking that an alliance might benefit my next campaign."
They all looked at her waiting to know who would be the next nation to fall under the warrior princess' boots and hopeful that they might actually be a part of it.
"Rome." Xena left nothing to their imaginations. A single word was all that needed to be said and the impact was unmistakable.
The soldier who had sat quiet all evening now gave voice in a slow, grave whistle.
"Wow" Lausus contributed. "That's..that's deep."
Gardus simply swallowed a lump from his throat. All three soldiers looked to Metis who was staring right at Xena.
He pondered it thoughtfully for a few minutes before speaking. "That's very ambitious, even for you, princess. And I think our commander might be interested in your offer, if, it is a legitimate offer. You see we are extremely loyal to him, so if he orders us to follow you, we, by our devotion to duty, will obey. But know this, Diphobus isn't a man who likes to be played and we aren't soldiers who like to be unwitting pawns."
Xena inclined her head to Metis. "If your leader, this Diphobus, will hear me, I think that an alliance will benefit, not only our combined forces, but all of Greece. And isn't that what we are all fighting for. A better homeland? Able to defend herself against foreign invaders like Rome? Let's beat Rome to the punch and take them before they take us. With my army and yours, we can stop them now before they turn their imperial eyes toward our home, our Greece." Xena found herself giving a speech that she honestly believed in. Her conviction was so strong that the soldiers from other tables had paused to listen to her speak. Their eyes glazed over with a promise of a better tomorrow. And when she had finished, her throat constricted with an emotion she had to call up from a passion she thought she had left in Britannia, the soldiers had stood to gather around the small table and voiced their commitment to a new alliance with the warrior princess.
Metis watched the show with cautious eyes. Xena could take over their army with ease and he knew it. His only worry was when she was going to do it, before or after Rome.
Gardus barked out at the barmaid to bring more drinks and slapped Xena on her shoulder. "See, I knew we were going to have fun."
The warrior simply smiled and watched as the barmaids moved furiously about the small common to top off mugs and smirked as one in particular lingered at her table, personally filling her mug.
Gardus stood before anyone could taste the ale and cleared his throat.
"I think a toast is in order." He smiled and lifted his mug. "Gentlemen?"
The soldiers erupted into a well rehearsed response. "Fuck you."
Xena snorted and downed her port. The blonde hovering close by filled it immediately, then turned to everyone else at the table. Xena watched as the room quieted down and the soldiers returned to their chairs. She met the gaze of Metis who raised his mug tentatively in salute. She inclined her head once again and settled into her chair with utter confidence. 'This is where it all starts to get tricky.' She thought. 'If I do this right, I find out what Diphobus is up to and I'll be one step ahead of him when he realizes he's been duped. And that one step is all I need.'
"Xena, remind me never to ask you what you really like to do for fun, eh?" Gardus shifted his chair a little closer to the warriors and leaned in close to her. "If planning campaigns takes this little effort, I'd hate to see you with tunnel vision."
"I didn't think this up over night, Gardus." 'More like in two seconds. Great Gods, and I thought Gabrielle could find trouble without asking. She's just going to love this story.'
When she allowed her thoughts to linger just a little too long on her friend, she closed her eyes momentarily to regain her control. At that same moment an opportunity was seized and the warrior felt a very pleasing brush against her back. She smiled realizing it was her personal barmaid once again filling her mug. When she opened her eyes, Metis and Lausus were watching them. She glanced over at Gardus who was in conversation with the other soldier. When she felt the girl move to her side and lean over the table to fill their mugs, she let her eyes wander over the girl's backside and then brought her gaze back up to Metis and Lausus. She watched for their reactions when she reached her hand out and gripped the warm flesh of the girl's thigh and tugged her into her lap. The girl wasn't surprised to find herself deposited onto the gorgeous warriors lap and didn't offer a protest. On the contrary, Xena was the one surprised when she found herself lip-to-lip with the girl. After a moment she simply closed her eyes and proceeded to kiss the girl soundly.
The girl found herself on the receiving end of a frustrated warrior's attentions. Xena reached up to the girl's head and took hold of it to control her movements, then without asking, plunged her aching tongue past responsive lips. Xena ravished her mouth without pause and only when she heard a small moan escape from the girl did she slow her ministrations. Despite the obvious differences, the only thing Xena could think of was Gabrielle and with that thought, she nursed sore lips tenderly before pushing the flushed girl away. Xena had to blink several times to shake the image from her mind and recover her constitution.
The laughter at the table at the barmaid's obvious dilemma brought the warrior back to the present. Gardus sat with his mouth agape which Lausus politely reached over and closed. Metis continued to watch the warrior though. Xena knew this was a test all of the sudden. Metis had taken Xena's moment of weakness and turned it into a test of his faith. She swallowed her regret at having kissed the girl and let her thoughts drift back to Gabrielle. She would understand. A warriors gotta do what a warriors gotta do, right? Isn't that what she always says? Xena pushed the girl up to straddle her lap, then took her wrists and shoved them painfully behind her back. The girl squealed in discomfort but wasn't really complaining.
"Oh, you like that don't you?" Xena asked her. "Betcha like to be tied up, too. Tell me. Do you want me to tie you up and have my way with you?" Xena brought her face in close to the girl and pressed her lower body in against her armour. The girl moaned unabashedly and dropped her head to the warrior's shoulder. Xena let her breath drift over her captive's neck and chest and couldn't stop the smile that formed when she inhaled the girl's passion. "Oh, you're wet aren't you?" She whispered so that only the blonde could hear her. Xena sensed the shift within herself. It was so subtle that she almost didn't feel it. This had been a way of life for her and she fell back into it with such ease that it momentarily shocked her. She pushed the girl away just enough to look in her eyes. Looking to see that fear or doubt that would help her keep the demon at bay, but what she saw only fed the beast and Xena was helpless against it. She was the warrior princess once more.
Xena brought her right hand across the girl's thigh and slid it down her leg, then lifted the hem of the dress up into her lap. She felt the girl shiver when her hand slipped underneath the fabric and smoothed over her heated skin. Xena dropped her head to the blonde's cleavage and let her lips brush across the erupting swells. Drifting a finger towards the girls center, she was met with a river and let a moan escape.
"Do you want this?" She asked the young girl. "Do you want me to take you here, in this common? In front of all these men?" Xena let her lips whisper over the enticing throat as she spoke. When the girl simply moaned, Xena pulled her hand from under the dress and grabbed a handful of hair. "I require an answer." She demanded.
The girl trembled uncontrollably. Her eyes caught those of the warrior's and she realized she was being given a chance to back down. She considered the humiliation of being taken in public and weighed it against the pleasure such an act could deliver. Those wicked blue eyes were boring holes into her soul and in them she saw a compassion so undisguised, she knew that there would be only this one time when she could live her fantasy without fear for her life. Silently she envied the one who received that look on a day to day basis. With this she gave up the last ounce of control she had and lowered her eyes from her deliverer's. Xena smiled at the submission. She replaced her hand under the peasant dress and pulled the girl closer to her.
"I wont hurt you," She whispered into the young girl's neck. "Just relax," She pressed a finger into the blonde's moist recesses and closed her eyes when the heavy head settled onto her shoulder once more. She ran her finger through the wetness and touched lightly on the swollen bud drawing another moan from the blonde. Extending her tongue, the warrior tasted the skin beneath her lips and then opened her mouth onto it. In calculated, even strokes, she pulled the flesh in and then released it softly. Pushing her finger deeper into the girl's sex, she caressed the inner lips firmly before circling the swollen bud. The blonde began to shift in her lap, trying to guide the warrior's teasing digits.
Xena immediately stopped her stroking and bit down on the salty skin under the young girl's jaw. Whimpering in protest at the loss of sensation between her spread legs, she brought her betraying body to a halt and was rewarded with a tender kiss against her chin and lips by the warrior. Xena then resumed her exploration and recruited a second finger in the effort. Sliding deliciously back and forth, grazing a throbbing pebble on the upstroke, Xena urged her captive into a rhythm so achingly slow there almost no perception of motion. Strong, white teeth raked over a delicate collarbone before dropping lower to the soft flesh beneath. The rhythm accelerated gradually by design until Xena felt a rush of liquid against her palm. She knew the maid was ready and tested the small opening with a tentative fingertip. Without warning, she pushed past the first ring and into the velvety warmth.
Shuddering muscles danced around her finger. Xena knew that her goal was only a few strokes away, but she played it out, hoping to give the girl something other than the shame to remember in the nights to come. So careful was she not to cause any trauma or damage to the girl's sex. So attentive was she to every moan, shiver and gasp that anyone just walking into the tavern would have thought them to be lovers. Xena's mind sought out Gabrielle as she worked another finger into the saturated cave. Her heart constricted painfully at the thought of holding Gabrielle so intimately. Sharing herself so casually with her friend brought a timid sob that she quickly bit back. Her young captive heard the quiet gasp and pressed her lips against the beautiful warrior's cheek. She dropped another kiss onto an ebony blanket near her temple and then placed her lips close to the warrior's ear.
"Do it." She pleaded. "Please."
Xena felt the request pound in her head and began to pump her fingers to match ragged breathing. As the pace continued, the girl drew back and gripped both of Xena's shoulders to center her struggles for release. Xena looked up at the rosy face, brow damp with exertion and features slack in ecstasy. She added her thumb to the frenzy and rubbed the girl's clit in time to her plunging fingers. She let the blonde take control of the thrusts and simply enjoyed watching as the pace slowed and then picked up sporadically.
The girl was no virgin. She knew what felt good and how to prolong it. Xena felt a little relieved and began to enjoy the feeling as the girl rode her lap. She felt for the smooth spot, deep within the void and brought her fingertips to bear on it. Fingernails cut into her shoulder where her armor exposed her neck so she moved her free hand up the girls back to press her upper body closer for support as the girl's crisis neared. Unable to still the roaming hand, she stroked the young girl's sides and then gripped her hip for the last few thrusts. With a name reverently whispered, Xena latched onto the throat before her and branded her mark into the sweet skin.
The girl threw her head back as the waves crested, slamming into her like the sea against the shore. With every wave, it brought another behind it until the sand of her beach gave way and she dissolved into a froth in Xena's arms. Shuddering and gasping in recovery, the blonde rested her forehead against the armored shoulder. Xena waited for the the young blonde to regain some of her cognizance and then slid her fingers from their prison. A soft rush of air accompanied a tremor and with weary eyes, the conquered looked upon the conqueror. Xena gave a small but rejuvenating smile and the girl returned it. It was their secret. Two fantasies shared. The girl stood casually and without a backward glance went to the back room of the tavern.
"Well, that was quite a show you put on." Lausus praised her.
Xena simply raised her fingers to her mouth and finished what she had started.
"So, are we going to go see this commander of yours or what?"
Metis laughed out loud. "Fired up now, aren't ya? It's a little late to see Diphobus. But I will talk to him tomorrow and send you word about a meeting. Oh, and don't worry about Framinius, we'll take him back with us." With that said Metis stood and he and his silent friend took their leave of the table.
Xena dared a glance at Gardus who shook his head at her. Lausus huffed into his mug as he drank.
"What?" Xena asked in all innocence. "Do I have something on my face?":
The two busted into immediate laughter, accompanied by a dark liquid that sprang unceremoniously from Lausus' nose. Xena frowned in disgust and waited for their childish giggles to subside.
"Gardus, you talked about some fun. Care to take that on the road?"
He regarded her thoughtfully. "Where did you have in mind?"
"Let's go for a ride." She stood and gathered a few of her dinars and went to the bar to get two wineskins to take with them. When she returned to the table she found the two just where she had left them staring after her. "You coming?" She asked and headed for the door.
Gardus and Lausus gave each other a look then followed the warrior into the street. Xena had already mounted Argo, so she waited until there were in their own saddles and then headed out of town towards the river.
After a while of riding through the forest and passing the wineskin around, Xena decided to press the advantage.
"Hey, Gardus," She called over her shoulder. "Tell me about this Diphobus."
Gardus had slouched forward in his seat and as he raised his head to respond to the question he teetered off the side to land on the ground solidly. Xena pulled up when she heard Lausus laughing. She turned Argo back towards the two and dismounted to help Gardus to his feet.
"Had a little too much to drink, huh? Here we go." She hefted him up and sat him down onto a fallen tree branch. He looked at her dazedly and then his eyes rolled back into his head and he fell to the ground unconscious. Xena gave a snort of disgust and then looked up at Lausus who had stopped laughing and hung draped over his horse's neck, moaning miserably.
"Great." Xena got to her feet and pulled the man down. She positioned him next to his sleeping friend and barely got out of the way when he rolled over and emptied his stomach near her feet. "Thanks." She muttered to herself. Looking up to the moon she, gauged the time to be just after midnight. So with a defeated sigh she threw a blanket from one of their saddles over them then mounted Argo.
"Well, guess if you want something done, you had better do it yourself. Come on girl."
Xena rode for another candle mark through a dark canopy of trees. Fog had begun to seep from the forest onto the trail she followed and Argo's hooves created a swirling pattern as she stepped through it. Coming out of the thick wood she found herself in a hollow vale. The stars stretched forever in all directions and Xena couldn't help but wish Gabrielle were with her to compliment the beauty. The sound of rushing water drew her attention from the night sky and she pushed Argo in it's direction.
As she crested a small hill she began to smell the faint traces of burnt wood. Dropping off Argo's back, she crouched down and she made her way up. The wet, dew covered grass licked at her upper thighs and arms as she moved. It might have been the damp grass beneath her or the sight of the war camp nestled snug in the vale beyond, but Xena was helpless against the shiver that shook her body.
She counted the fires and swallowed reflexively at the large number. 'Two hundred fires means around two thousand men.' Blowing out a breath, she studied the layout of the camp. She made out the watch standers easily and found the perimeter of the camp to be relatively unguarded. 'It doesn't really need any defense. Who would attack an army this large?' Xena got to her feet and proceeded over the hill towards the rear quarter of the camp. Without any tress or brush for cover and a full moon high overhead, the warrior had to crawl through the knee high grasses to keep from being seen. A long candle mark later, Xena reached the outer edge and quickly worked her way around to the cluster of tall tents towards the south side. Stopping several times to avoid passing guards, she creeped under a supply tent's tarp that stood near the tent cluster. Peeking through a slit she made in the wall and tried to determine which was Diphobus'. Knowing the man like she did, it wasn't very difficult to narrow it down to the two small tents near the center. Strictly military in color and design, it was practical and aesthetically plain. 'Once a Roman, always a Roman.'
Xena crept to the backside of the tent and paused to listen for voices. Hearing none she cut the tent wall and peered inside. Lamps were turned low for the night and cast shadows across the room. Xena let her eyes adjust for a moment then silently entered the tent. Walking over to a desk cluttered with documents and maps that sat near the center, Xena threw one look towards the tent door and began to sift through the stack on the table.
'Maps for Pardum and local Myceane, as well as farther up into Thessaly and Macedonia. And Metis thought I was being ambitious. Xena continued to probe the scattered pile when something in the corner of the room caught her eye. Reflected what little candlelight remained from a small footlocker near the back of the tent where she had gained entry. Abandoning the desk, she knelt by the locker and picked up a small silver medallion shaped to resemble the head of a lioness. She turned it over in her hands and then reached into the locker to pull out a single leather pouch. Xena spared another glance towards the door as she opened the pouch. Inside were more maps and documents. The maps were of places she didn't know except for one. Themyscira. What does he want with the Amazons? Xena flipped to the next one and found a strange writing in an ancient language.
Footsteps nearby and shouts in the camp alerted Xena. She quickly put the medallion into the pouch and tucked it away under her breastplate. Leaving the tent, she slid back around the way she came but was seen by a group of guards. Xena gave up trying to hide and just ran for the forest.
Once over the hill she
was stopped in her tracks by the sight of small detachment of Diphobus' soldiers.
Cursing under her breath she reached back and drew her sword. They stood between
her and the forest. She knew if she could make it to the forest she could loose
them long enough to find Argo, get back to Gabrielle and head for the Amazon's.
But now she wasn't so sure. The cool night air lifted her hair about her face
as she stood there. The silence of the vale erupted into battle as the soldiers
charged her all at once.
Standing on the hill top observing the battle was a woman. Strands of fiery red hair floated in the breeze about the pale face and rich green eyes.
Diphobus came up to stand beside the woman and together they watched the ensuing slaughter.
"She has the prophecy." Diphobus spoke after a while.
"No matter. By the time they figure it out, they will have led me right to it. By then it will be far too late for my divine sisters to stop me."
The two continued to watch as Xena cut down every soldier with chilling violence.
"It's dangerous to play with Xena. If Ares ever found out..."
The beautiful woman laughed. "Ares' plans for the warrior are shortsighted. He seeks only to rule this world, but his weakness is that he needs her to do it for him. Once I have the lion, he wont be a problem. The Amazons are the stepping stone. My sister's pathetic sorority will be the first to fall. A delicious reward for all their help. And with them goes Artemis, and then shall the mountain topple to the ground."
Continued in Part II