For general disclaimers see Part 1. Just an additional note: This part contains a scene of graphic violence involving one of the main characters and some unexpected angst. For those who were expecting a giggly ending, sorry to disappoint. Apparently not my schtick. The characters pretty much dictated how this one went and you know how the gods can get when they're making decisions.
I could only do warm and fuzzy to a point. I hope you enjoy anyway. It was a treat to write this on the fly, but not something I'll be doing again anytime soon. Working on other projects starring my own casts of characters. Will try to post again after the holidays. Something new and different.
Oh yeah, this part is a little longer than the others, but I managed to push through to the end. Actually, I think my muse was pushing. I just went along for the ride. J
Happy Holidays everyone!!!
Feedback welcome at email@example.com.
Dawn was just breaking, as she entered the forest that bordered Amazon lands to the west and felt her hackles instantly go up. Xena had pushed Argo to the limits of endurance to get so far in such a short time. The horse was exhausted and so was she after their all-night ride. But still the warrior pushed on, albeit at a much slower pace now that they were in the dense forest. A chill gray mist still clung to the ground within the cover of the trees and Xena stifled the urge to shiver.
She knew where the Amazons usually patrolled and pulled Argo to a halt when she knew she was close enough to sense that she was no longer alone.
Several masked figures dropped from the trees as soon as Xena held her hands above her head in the signal of friendship. She dropped her arms to her sides, but remained mounted on the mare, as one of the Amazons stepped confidently forward and pushed her mask back on her head.
"Hello, Eponin," Xena greeted the weapons master with a tired smile.
"Eph told us to be on the lookout for you, but we didn't expect you to show up so soon," Eponin said, as Xena slid tiredly from the saddle. "Did Chilapa make it there that quickly?"
"Chilapa?" Xena shook her head. "I didn't see her."
Eponin scratched the back of her neck. "Huh," she shrugged. "So, if you didn't meet up with Chilapa, why are you here?"
"Thought I'd…um…" Xena stood with her hands on her hips and tried to come up with a reasonable explanation for the strange feeling of dread that had plagued her for the better part of her journey. "Why was Chilapa on her way to Amphipolis?"
"Gabrielle sent her to find you," Eponin answered.
"Okay, Eponin, what's going on?" Xena decided to just cut to the chase. "Is something wrong?"
"We were attacked," Eponin answered. "Another army breached our southern border and burned a path right through to the village with that sticky Greek fire. They also kidnapped a bunch of girls who were hiding in the meal hut and then the army retreated like a bunch of cowards." She shifted her stance and crossed her arms over her ample, leather-clad bosoms. "Don't know what they were after, except the girls. Several of our huts burned, but other than that things are okay. We only suffered minimum casualties, too. It was the weirdest thing." She shook her head. "Gabrielle organized a search party and went after the girls. She left just a candlemark before the midnight hour."
A myriad of emotions shot through the warrior, but her mask of indifference remained firmly planted on her features. That churning in her gut suddenly erupted in a full-blown ache at the woman's last words.
"Gabrielle went after kidnappers?" Xena asked.
Eponin grinned proudly. "She's learned a lot traveling with you, Xena. She read the tracks, figured out which ones were the girls' and even figured out that three of the kidnappers were women." The Amazon crossed her arms over her chest. "Then she stood up to Ignesia's crap and even managed to put the woman in her place. Although, there was that goat…"
Xena's gaze shot to the weapons master's. "Goat?"
"Yeah, this black and white goat showed up and walked right up to her, like he knew her or something," Eponin shrugged. "It was even stranger than the attack by the army. Is there somethin' we should know about, Xena? This really stinks worse than a wet centaur."
"Let's go," Xena said and didn't wait for the Amazon escort party to follow her as she continued on toward the village.
Eponin managed to catch up to the warrior's longer strides. "Hey, is somethin' wrong, Xena?"
"Other than my partner is off on another one of her hair-brained rescue missions?" Xena shot back with a frown. "No. What could possibly be wrong?"
"You don't think…" Eponin considered the warrior's words. "Gabrielle said she could handle tracking down the girls."
"Well, I don't care what she said, something went wrong," Xena stated emphatically.
"How do you know that?" Eponin shot the warrior a curious glance, as she tried not to trip over the gnarled roots sticking up in her path. "Everything's been pretty quiet since that army attacked. Not a peep from anything or anyone."
"Except the goat," Xena muttered.
"What's with the goat, anyway?" Eponin asked. "He took off when Gabirelle made a grab for him and hasn't been seen since. It's like he just..."
"Vanished?" Xena answered without missing a beat. "Yeah, I figured out why that stupid goat made my skin tingle every time he was around. I also figured out why he wasn't around when I was. The goat is Ares in disguise."
"Ares? As in God of War? That Ares?" Eponin whistled in awe. "But what's he want with Gabrielle?"
"Not sure yet, but I intend to find out," Xena said and picked up the pace until Eponin and the others were jogging in order to keep up.
Gabrielle kept trying to loosen the leather straps that bound her, back-to-back, with Solari. So far, though, all she'd managed to do was tighten them to the point that she could no longer feel her hands. Grinding her teeth in frustration, the bard shifted her position against the tent pole and heard a grunt out of the woman behind her.
"Please, My Queen," Solari winced in pain again. "They're too tight as it is. You're only making them tighter by wiggling around so much."
"You got any better ideas?" Gabrielle hissed in frustration again. "I'm certainly open to suggestions, Solari."
They were alone in the small tent. The other Amazons with them had been taken to another tent when the group arrived in the army encampment. Gabrielle wasn't sure what would happen to any of them, but was sure the separation didn't bode well for her or Solari. She ground her teeth in frustration and tried not to take her mood out on the other woman. So far she wasn't succeeding. Neither was Solari. They were both prickly.
"Yeah, just sit still and wait for an opportunity to escape," Solari winced again when Gabrielle lifted an arm and pulled hers along with it. "I'm sure they'll untie us when they feed us. All your efforts really aren't getting us anywhere, My Queen."
"I'm not waiting around for someone else to decide my fate," Gabrielle growled, as she finally gave up. "Ugh! This is not working."
"No kidding," Solari groused sarcastically.
Gabrielle turned her head enough that she could see the Amazon out of the corner of her eye. "Do you have something you want to get off your chest, Sol?"
"Not a thing, My Queen," Solari answered.
"It's just Gabrielle, Solari," the bard sighed in exasperation. She glanced around the tent to see if there was anything within reach that she could use to help her escape. "I'm only queen when we're in the village. Okay? Out here on the road…" She glanced around the tent again. "Or, rather, in this tent-it's just Gabrielle."
"I'm sworn to serve you as our queen," Solari countered in an annoyed tone. "Calling you by your given name is a serious breach of protocol, My Queen."
"Yeah, I'm sure it is," Gabrielle replied sarcastically. "I guess that would be too much to ask."
"Speaking of asking," Solari said. "I've been meaning to ask why you fell so easily for their leader's little trick back there."
Gabrielle sighed heavily. "Character flaw."
"Excuse me, My Queen?"
"Have you ever wondered why I rarely put myself-my character-into the stories I tell about Xena?" Gabrielle explained.
"Artistic license?" Solari shrugged. "Because you're modest and don't like talking about yourself?"
"No," Gabrielle shook her head and stared at the tent wall. "I was an active participant in everything that happened, but…"
Solari was listening intently, curious to hear this little tidbit of information about the woman who would lead their tribe, but who was never around long enough to do so. Her travels with Xena were the stuff of legend. But it always had Solari wondering why the bard was noticeably absent from her tales about the warrior she traveled with. Solari just figured it was artistic license of some sort.
"Do you ever wonder how people really perceive you?" Gabrielle replied. "How you look in the eyes of other people?"
"No," Solari answered with a head shake. "I just figure I'm an Amazon. That's all that matters."
"What if that's not really what matters?" Gabrielle prodded. "What if what it matters more that you do the things you do out of honor, duty and a sense of what's right?"
"Much of that comes with being an Amazon, My Queen," Solari answered. "We are a very honorable people and our first duty is to the tribe. After that we are bound by our duty to our queen-which is why I can't call you by your given name. So what does this have to do with a flaw in your character, My Queen?"
"Everything, I'm afraid," Gabrielle sighed. "I tell those stories because Xena is a hero."
"Shyeah, now," Solari scoffed. "I've heard tales of the other Xena-the evil one who wanted to rule the world and destroy anyone who got in her way. The stories don't really paint her in a good and noble light."
"Exactly," Gabrielle nodded. "And when Xena and I encounter a situation that requires her to put her sense of honor and duty before all else…"
"You're her voice of reason," Solari finished. "But how is that a flaw, My Queen? I don't see your reasoning as being flawed."
"Would you see it that way if I tended to always see the tankard as half full?" Gabrielle said quietly. "Life is not always made up of black and white situations. There are numerous layers of gray out there and we encounter them every day, Xena and I. It's sometimes difficult to see all good or all bad. But my stories paint Xena as a good and noble hero. I have to tell it that way in order for people to trust that what she's doing is in their best interest. It's become my job to change the stigma of her past, by expounding on the great things she does in the present."
"Are you saying she doesn't always act in the best interest of those she's helping?" Solari asked hesitantly.
"No, I'm saying that Xena has a better grasp on the Greater Good than many people," Gabrielle replied. "It's just hard sometimes to know exactly why she does what she does or acts the way she acts. Xena isn't black and white. Nor is anyone that we've encountered, including the gods. Some people act out of selfish greed or self-preservation. Others just do what they're told out of a sense of duty and honor. And some just want to dominate those weaker than themselves. A very select few actually know what's best for people and act upon it."
"So, what's that got to do with you?" Solari ventured quietly.
"I generally believe that the majority of people act unselfishly," Gabrielle answered. "I want to think the best people. I want everyone to be good."
"And when they're not?" Solari prodded.
"I generally get caught with my skirt down, so to speak," Gabrielle answered with a wry smirk.
"You thought that guy was actually delivering a message from Salmoneus," Solari nodded.
"No," Gabrielle shook her head. "I knew he was lying."
"Things aren't always as they seem, Sol," Gabrielle answered quickly. "That much I have learned from Xena. This encampment-these people-none of it is what it appears to be."
"Okay, now I'm really confused," Solari rolled her eyes. "How did we go from talking about your character flaw to things not being what they are-or seem?"
"I was once a naïve young shepherd's kid," Gabrielle continued with a wry smirk. "That naiveté got me into more trouble than I will ever admit, even to my sisters." The smirk grew into a full-fledged grin. "But I've learned to trust in who I am and why I'm here. Not here, here, but here on this earth at this time, here."
"My purpose," Gabrielle elaborated. "It may seem that I'm just the helpless sidekick who relies on the hero to save her from the evils of the world. But I'm not as helpless as I seem."
"Okay, now you totally lost me, My Queen," Solari said.
"Don't worry, things will unfold just the way they're meant to and all will be revealed," Gabrielle said and then went silent.
"You're beginning to sound like an oracle, My Queen," Solari commented when Gabrielle remained silent for several moments.
The silence stretched on for a while, as each woman pondered the conversation between them. Gabrielle knew without a doubt what she would do when the army commander played out his hand. She just wasn't sure yet how her actions would bode for the women who looked to her as their queen. She hoped her brief discussion with Solari would somehow bolster her esteem in the eyes of the Amazons, but held little hope that it would do anything more than paint her as the loyal sidekick to a murderer of their sisters.
Xena stood with her arms crossed in front her as she faced the Amazon council. Ten elders sat in their elaborately-decorated chairs with various expressions on their faces while Ephiny pleaded her case before them. The regent had already extolled on Xena's abilities as a warrior.
"We need to send more warriors after the rescue party," Ephiny said.
"We've no idea where they might be, much less if they're still alive," Kesstra said and received several silent nods of agreement. "Why send more warriors out into the unknown, when we have so few who are able to perform such physical duties any longer."
The outspoken councilwoman had a shock of gray hair on her head that belied her forty summers. Many of the councilwomen looked to her as their spokeswoman and she was more than willing to comply. Kesstra was often the voice of reason, where Ignesia was often the voice of bitter descent.
Ephiny just rolled her eyes. "The pregnant warriors aren't useless, Kesstra. They are more than capable of wielding a sword to protect the village."
"Then why didn't they when the army attacked the village?" Ignesia jumped to her feet and glared at the regent.
"The attack happened too quickly and ended too abruptly for any of us to mount a proper defense," Ephiny argued. "Many of the warriors barely had time to dress, much less arm themselves for the attack."
"We were too complacent," Ignesia raised a fist. "Those treaties lulled us into complacency, just like I argued they would."
"They did no such thing," Ephiny countered. "Besides, this isn't the time to go into that. We need to act for the sake of our sisters. I ask that we provide Xena with ten able bodied warriors who will go after the rescue party and bring them home safely."
Ignesia glared at the stoic warrior. "Xena is not an Amazon."
"I don't see what that has to do with it, Ignesia," Kesstra said. "Xena is a friend of the Amazons and has shown nothing but support for our queen. I agree with Ephiny's assessment and support her request."
Six of the ten councilwomen nodded their agreement, while Ignesia merely scowled silently from her seat. Hers was the chair farthest from the queen's throne to the regent's right. That seat was given to the member with the lowest status on the council and was usually held by the youngest councilwoman. Four council members would have to die or step down in order for her to take the seat closest to the regent, which then put her five seats from the place of honor. Only those of highest esteem, besides the regent, were granted permission to sit to the queen's left.
During the days of Melosa's reign, Ignesia's mother, who died two summers prior, had held the seat of honor on Melosa's left. That was when Terreis was princess and sat in the chair of highest honor to Melosa's right. Since Gabrielle's ascension to the throne and Ephiny's appointment as regent, the seat of honor was given to Pilar, head weaver and adviser to the queen. Ignesia's place next to the queen had been usurped by a commoner in the dissenter's eyes. Ever since Ignesia had openly shown her support of Velasca, she had been made to suffer the humiliation of losing her place of honor on the council. She was determined to eventually reclaim what she'd lost.
"I concur," Pilar added with a slight nod of her own gray head. "Xena has much experience dealing with armies and will know what to do if our queen has fallen into enemy hands. I give my agreement to allow her to take ten warriors and pursue Queen Gabrielle and her party."
"Is that a consensus, then?" Ephiny looked to the other council members and was satisfied that only Ignesia and one other refused to nod their agreement. "Then the matter is settled." She turned to Xena. "You may choose whomever you wish to take with you, Xena. I bid you good hunting." She nodded her head and waved a hand, as she sat down on her throne.
Xena nodded slightly and noticed the smile lifting the corners of the regent's lips. She knew Ephiny would wait for the rest of the assemblage to disperse before leaving. Xena had seen the slight lift of the regent's chin that was their silent signal for the warrior to stick around, but out of sight.
Xena walked outside into a moonless torch-lit night and paused just outside the hut door. She noticed Eponin lurking just to her right and snuck up on the weapons master.
"Boo," Xena said close to the woman's ear.
"Ahhhh," Eponin jumped and turned to confront her adversary, then lowered her arms. "Hey, Xena."
"You waitin' for Ephiny to come out?" Xena smirked at the woman who was trying valiantly to regain her composure.
"Somethin' like that," Eponin answered. "They take you up on your offer in there?"
"Somethin' like that," Xena nodded.
"And why didn't you just go after her maj by yourself?" Eponin asked. "We all know you don't have to answer to anything the council says."
Xena shrugged. "Turning over a new leaf, I guess."
"A new leaf?" Eponin scoffed. "More like a bushel of poison oak, if ya ask me."
Xena's brow rose. "You sayin' I'm an irritant, Eponin?"
"Nope," Eponin shook her head. "I'm sayin' you don't have to listen to the council. That's all. Not like you to ask permission to go after Gabrielle. You're more the 'Go get 'em and ask questions later' kinda person."
"Like I said, I'm turning over a new leaf," Xena smirked wryly. "Besides, Gabrielle's fine where she is."
That got a raised brow from the weapons master. Then Eponin's expression turned suspicious.
"Are you sayin' you know where Gabrielle is?" Eponin finally asked.
Xena crossed her arms over her armored chest and let the stoic mask fall into place. "I'm not saying anything."
"Does Eph know?"
"Ugh!" Eponin exclaimed in frustration, before she realized the council members were slowly making their way out of the hut. "That's my cue."
"Hey, Eponin?" Xena called after the woman who was about to step inside the hut.
"Tell Eph I'll see her after all this is over," Xena winked at the weapons master and disappeared around a corner out of sight.
Gabrielle had given up trying to free herself from the leather bindings that held her and Solari. Her wrists ached from all her futile efforts and she was frustrated beyond belief. So, she just sat there listening to the activity outside the tent.
It was nighttime and several torches cast golden light outside the tent. She couldn't see much through the opening, but she knew the men were probably eating their evening meal. Her stomach chose that moment to make itself known with a loud growl.
"I'm hungry, too," Solari said. "Do you think they forgot about us?"
"Not likely," Gabrielle replied.
"Then why hasn't anyone been here to see us since they tied us up in here?" Solari added.
Gabrielle shrugged and was sorry she did when the muscles in her shoulders and arms protested the movement. "Honestly, I don't know."
"How do you think the others are doing?" Solari decided to continue the conversation, rather than sit quietly and ponder their fate. Those thoughts were just too much to bear, she realized. "Do you think these guys are taking better care of them than they are us?"
Just then they heard loud, raucous laughter only a few paces away from the tent they were in. The laughter was followed by a loud curse and then more laughter. A woman's voice said something unintelligible and then more laughter followed.
"Somehow I don't think so," Gabrielle answered.
"Gods, you don't think…"
"I really hope not," Gabrielle cut her off before she could finish the sentence. "The village is trying to cope with enough pregnant warriors as it is."
Solari shook her curly head. "Do you think…"
"Not likely," Gabrielle interrupted again. "You're tied up in here with me. They must know that you're someone of importance, or they would've thrown you in with the others."
They heard more raucous laughter outside the tent.
"Good evening, ladies," a man suddenly pushed aside the tent flap and entered.
Malachae carried a large tray with various items on it and set it down on the ground near the women. He removed the wooden bowls and mugs from the tray and then glared at the two women.
"I'm gonna untie ye," he said. "Now, no funny stuff. There's two armed guards outside just waitin' for the chance to run ye through." He turned his attention fully on Gabrielle. "Do I have yer word that ye'll not try to escape, yer majesty?"
Gabrielle glanced up at the older man and frowned. "Do I have a choice?"
He shrugged. "Everyone's got a choice. Do I have yer word?"
"You have my word," Gabrielle answered. She was relieved when he untied her, but the relief was short-lived when the circulation returned and her hands tingled painfully. "Will you at least tell us why we've been kept here all day without so much as a word from anyone?"
"Commander's orders," Malachae answered, as he finished untying Solari.
Gabrielle grabbed one of the wooden bowls and sniffed its contents. It didn't smell too bad, so she took a tentative bite and realized it was some kind of stew. She didn't want to know what the men were hunting down to put in the stew, so she just ate it without comment. She watched out of the corner of her eye as the soldier moved just out of her and Solari's reach.
"Are you just a regular soldier?" Gabrielle asked when she'd finally filled her growling stomach enough to quiet its protests.
"I'm one of the lieutenants," he answered. "Name's Malachae."
"I'm Gabrielle and this is Solari," Gabrielle said with a nod. She grabbed one of the mugs and sniffed its contents, then took a sip of the heady brew. "So, who do we have to thank for our…" she glanced around the sparse tent, "luxurious accommodations?"
Malachae actually chuckled at the jibe. "Our commander isn't one for plush finery. He's a soldier, through and through. No need for a lot of extra accoutrements when you're fightin' the good fight."
"And is it?" Gabrielle glanced up from her food with a raised brow and waved her spoon in his direction. "I'm not sure I understand why your army is targeting my sisters or why they kidnapped our girls and sold them to a slave trader."
"It's what the commander wants," Malachae evaded. "He's right sore at the Amazons-at you-for what happened to his brother."
"His brother?" Gabrielle knew she was getting somewhere and wanted him to keep telling her what she needed to know.
"General Varagus was the commander's brother," Malachae replied. "Ye killed him. Sent a bunch of yer women in to slaughter him and his officers like a bunch o' sheep. The commander's incensed that his own flesh and blood got caught with his britches down."
"He marched on Amphipolis and destroyed it," Gabrielle countered. "He was about to do the same to Potidea, a village just a few leagues to the west of Amphipolis. My warriors did what they had to do to stop the army from decimating everything in its path."
"Weren't no one killed," Malachae argued. "The general was just doin' what he was ordered to."
"By whom?" Gabrielle cocked her head and glared at the man.
Malachae suddenly realized he'd said too much. He nervously rubbed the back of his neck. "Time for the two of ye to finish up. The commander'll be by in a little while. Ye can ask him all yer questions when ye see him."
Gabrielle blew out a frustrated breath as she turned her back to the tent pole. "Can you at least not tie our hands together so tightly? It cuts off the circulation."
Gabrielle felt the man's gruff hands on her wrists, as he looped the leather thong around both her hands and Solari's. She flexed her muscles and waited patiently for him to bind her hands to Solari.
"There ye go," Malachae tested the bindings one last time. "It won't be long afore the commander comes to visit. Don't go nowhere." The last was said with a gruff chuckled, as he stood up, collected the dishes and left the tent without another word.
"Wanna tell me what you just did?" Solari whispered.
"Not sure yet," Gabrielle replied as she relaxed her arms and tested the bindings.
The bindings were looser than they had been before, but she wasn't sure her extra efforts would yet pay off. Without a word she went to work on the rough leather in the hope that she could pull off a trick Xena had tried to teach her once. It wasn't something she'd ever done before, and she didn't know if it would work. But if it did…
Xena crouched low in the bushes at the edge of the army's encampment, not far from where Gabrielle and the others had been earlier that day. She could clearly see several tents in the middle of the encampment and was sure Gabrielle was being held in one of them. She'd applied the pinch to one of the sentries and learned that Gabrielle and her retinue had been captured. She'd also learned the fate of the girls who had been taken. It was all starting to come together.
Xena waited silently for the right opportunity to do what she needed to do. The men were already deep in their ale mugs, which meant it wouldn't be long before many of them succumbed to the effects of the alcohol. Her mind raced with possible scenarios. She also watched closely for any sign of that elusive goat. Xena knew he was there-waiting, biding his time. She also knew Ephiny and the others were just about to join her.
"Hey," Xena whispered and put a finger to her lips, as the regent came up next to her.
"Hey yourself," Ephiny whispered back and signaled to the others to stay low and out of sight. "You got anything yet?"
"They're here," Xena answered.
"Which 'they' are we talking about?"
"Gabrielle, Solari and the others," Xena said.
"Are you sure?" Ephiny asked and received a quick nod. "What about the girls?"
"They're with Salmoneus," Xena replied. "He's probably taken them someplace safe, where he can send word back that he has them."
"You're on a first-name basis with a slave trader?" Ephiny shot the warrior a skeptical look.
"Salmoneus isn't a slave trader," Xena said. "He's a businessman who dabbles in…this and that."
"Apparently 'this and that' also includes slaves," Ephiny shot back sarcastically. "He'd better not put those girls on a boat headed to the slave markets of North Africa or Alexandria. I'll hunt him down and kill him myself."
Xena snorted. "Hardly."
"I hope you're right," Ephiny conceded with a shrug. "So what's the plan to free Gabrielle and the others?"
"Not sure yet," Xena said as she kept her eyes on the encampment. "I'm working on it."
"Better work fast," Ephiny said as she motioned with her chin toward a group of soldiers headed toward one of the smaller tents. "Don't know if we can handle more pregnant warriors in our midst. We certainly can't afford to lose anymore of our numbers."
They watched as several of the soldiers entered the tent with raucous laughter and hearty guffaws from their companions. Two of the soldiers immediately flew back out of the tent and landed at their comrades' feet, much to the amusement of those in the vicinity. Xena and Ephiny couldn't hear everything that was going on so far away, but they knew things would eventually get out of hand. Xena just hoped Gabrielle was holding her own.
Gabrielle looked up when she heard the tent flap being pushed back. A torch preceded a man's entrance into the dim interior and she had to squint against the sudden brightness. Solari shifted behind her and Gabrielle could feel her bindings nearly fall free. She just stayed still and let the man move closer to her. As she watched him approach, she realized he wasn't very intimidating for a seasoned army commander.
"Gabrielle of Potidea, I presume?" Kalgred handed the torch off to Malachae, who stood just behind him.
"Who wants to know?" Gabrielle glared at the man.
Kalgred chuckled and absently stroked his goatee. "I must say, you're not nearly as…intimidating as I thought you'd be."
"Guess that opinion is shared by both of us, then," Gabrielle answered, as she stared at straight ahead at his crotch rather than crane her neck to look up at him. "Should I be impressed that I'm in the presence of the esteemed commander of this band of merry men?"
He chuckled again. "A witty response. I like that you have a sense of humor." He waved a hand and Malachae immediately bent down to untie the women. "My apologies for the rather crude accommodations." He looked around at the sparse interior. "I'm sure you understand we weren't expecting to entertain guests."
Gabrielle felt the leather thong fall away, as she glanced at the older man hovering mere inches from her face. They exchanged a knowing glance, but neither one spoke as she saw his expression mirror his surprise at the loose bindings. She merely smirked, stood up and glared at the man before her.
"Put her with the others," Kalgred waved a dismissive hand, as Malachae pulled Solari to her feet and ushered her out of the tent.
"Will she receive the same treatment as the other women you're holding?" Gabrielle asked defiantly. "We could hear what your men were doing to them, even from here."
"My men are easily amused," Kalgred regarded her with a critical eye. "Don't worry about the Amazons, they're fine. They know how to hold their own."
"Okay," Gabrielle conceded hesitantly and crossed her arms over her chest. "So?"
Kalgred motioned for her to take a seat on a low bench near a wall. "Please."
"I'm well rested, I assure you," Gabrielle merely stood her ground.
They were alone in the tent, but Gabrielle didn't feel the slightest trepidation in the man's presence. Kalgred was a big man and quite muscular, but there was something about him that teased at the edges of Gabrielle's consciousness.
Kalgred turned away from her and paced a few steps. "There is no more time for games, I'm afraid," he waved a hand and his appearance suddenly shimmered as he transformed right before her eyes.
Gabrielle wasn't sure whether to gasp in shock or just stand there with her mouth wide open in reaction to the man's sudden transformation. So, she did the next best thing. She merely hid her reaction behind one of Xena's famous masks of indifference. The man-or god, rather-standing before her wore a gold crown and black and red robes. She recognized him immediately and was impressed that Xena had actually hit the mark on this particular score.
"Hades," Gabrielle said, as he turned to face her with a handsome grin. "So what do I owe this earthly visit? You don't usually grace us with your presence, unless something is awry in the Underworld. Last time you sent Marcus up here as a messenger. Thanks for that, by the way."
"Let's just say, I'm taking care of business for someone with a higher purpose," Hades said.
"Doing Zeus' bidding?" Gabrielle smirked knowingly.
"It doesn't really matter," he said as he moved to stand in front of her. "What matters is I'm nearly finished with the job that I was assigned to do here. Once everything is in place, I can return to my realm and continue overseeing the dead."
"So, what do you want from me?" Gabrielle eyed him speculatively. "I'm just a shepherd's kid and, last I checked," she glanced down at herself, "I'm not dead."
"And you're Xena's partner for life," he watched her brow lift at his words. "Yes, we all know how important you've become in the last few years, Gabrielle. So much so, in fact, that there are a number of parties vying for your attention."
"Aphrodite and Ares?" Gabrielle asked.
"Not just those two," he waved a negligent hand, "although Ares has become more devious in his dealings of late." His eyes rolled in exasperation. "I really don't see what he sees in you mortals."
"Me either," Gabrielle shrugged. "If you find out, would you clue me in?"
"Zeus himself has, however, learned how valuable you are in the greater scheme of things," Hades continued. "But I'm sure you have no idea what I'm referring to."
"Not a clue," Gabrielle slowly shook her head.
Hades paced several steps and turned to face her. "You know that by implanting his seed inside you, Dahak inadvertently made you into somewhat of an enigma to us."
Gabrielle was more confused than ever at his obscure revelation. She tried to follow his reasoning, but only came up with a complete blank where she and Dahak were concerned.
"Exactly what are you saying, Hades?" Gabrielle finally asked. "I don't see how…"
"Dahak's offspring, the one you named Hope, grew within you-no matter how short a time you actually carried that…demonic beast," his expression mirrored his disgust.
"It wasn't exactly a choice," Gabrielle glared at him in irritation. She knew he was a god, but his tone was accusing and it was wearing on her last nerve.
"No," Hades acknowledged. "But the truth of the matter is you were touched by the demon known as Dahak. Not only that, but you carried his offspring."
"I carried her for no more than a day," Gabrielle clarified. "It's not like we formed some demonic bond or a psychic connection. I'm not a demon, Hades." She glared at him in annoyance.
"No, you're not," Hades said. "But you were touched by the blood that ran through her veins, as much as she was touched by yours."
"She was pure evil, Hades," Gabrielle argued. "I'm not anything like her or her demonic…"
Hades stood in front of her and grasped her upper arms in a vice-like grip. "We know," he said with a gentle smile. "But we also know that your…um…experience with Dahak and Hope changed you in ways that you have yet to discover."
"What?" Gabrielle's gaze met his. "What are you saying?" She shrugged away from his hold on her and took a step back from him. "Are you saying…"
"I'm saying you have no idea what this could mean for both you and Xena," Hades interrupted. "You carried the offspring of a very powerful demon, Gabrielle. You nurtured that offspring, no matter how short the time was that your body bore that burden. You are now capable of much more than you could ever imagine."
Gabrielle's expression turned suspicious. "Why are you telling me this, Hades? What's in this for you? Why did Zeus send you here with this elaborate farce, just to deliver such an ominous message?"
"Do you remember when Xena had that encounter with the Fates?" Hades asked.
"Remember? She almost lost her mind because of what they tried to do to her," Gabrielle ground out angrily. "She also nearly killed her own mother in order to satisfy their supposed need for vengeance."
"And how did Xena respond to their claim?" Hades prodded with a knowing look.
"She told Ares he was her father," Gabrielle replied. "Wait, I don't understand what this has to do with…"
"Xena wasn't far off the mark, Gabrielle," Hades said. "She does have godly blood running through her veins. Not enough to give her immortality, but enough that she is able to pull off extraordinary feats which others only dream of."
"I still don't understand what that has to do with me," Gabrielle pressed.
"Your connection to Dahak's offspring makes you just as powerful as Xena, except in your own right," Hades explained. "That makes you an extraordinary individual and a mark for those who would use you for their own ends."
"Okaaaaay," Gabrielle said. "And?"
"The grapevine on Olympus is alive and well, Gabrielle," Hades continued. "Don't think the gods-we-are so secure in our place on Olympus, or in any realm, that we are above using mortals to accomplish the impossible."
"I'm not naïve," Gabrielle said. "I know those stories have some truth to them."
"And do you know that Zeus and Ares really have visited several women throughout history in the guises of their husbands?" Hades eyed her speculatively.
"So, Xena was right?" Gabrielle countered. "Is Ares her father?"
"Only Ares knows the answer to that," he evaded. "All I can say is that Xena's little confrontation with the Fates flustered him enough to have him seething in his throne room for days afterward."
"So, what are you telling me, then?" Gabrielle prodded.
He regarded her for a moment. "Sometimes a wolf in sheep's clothing is neither sheep nor wolf," he said. "Sometimes he is something else altogether."
"What does that mean, exactly?"
"I've said too much already," Hades replied and pulled away. "Suffice it to say, you need to be on your guard, Gabrielle. Like I said before, you are now a powerful person of interest, not only to mortals, but also to those in the immortal realms."
He didn't wait for her reply and simply straightened his shoulder before he vanished in a haze of gray smoke.
"Ugh!" Gabrielle waved a hand to clear the smoke away and muttered, "Can't they at least give a person some warning before they just up and disappear? Is it really too much to ask? I, for one, don't think so."
It only took Gabrielle a moment to realize she was alone and unfettered in the tent. She quietly snuck over to the opening and peered outside, relieved to see her two guards standing with their backs to her. She stepped away from the opening and peered around the dark space. She knew from the long hours spent tied to the tent post that there wasn't much in there for her to use as a weapon. Then it occurred to her that she could just crawl out beneath the tent wall at the back.
Gabrielle moved cautiously to the tent wall and felt down it until she was at ground level. She pushed on the cloth wall and felt it give slightly. Unfortunately, however someone had managed it, the wall was somehow attached to the ground. Gabrielle continued along the tent wall in the hopes of finding a weak point that would pull away from the ground. It wasn't to be.
When she finally reached the other side of the tent opening, she stood up and growled in frustration. She then ran her hand through her short-cropped hair and sighed. Now what?
"Hey, sweet pea," Aphrodite's voice behind Gabrielle made her jump.
"Aphrodite, what are you doing here?" The bard turned to face the newcomer, who was peering at her through the darkness.
"I came to see how you're holding up," the goddess answered, as she stepped into the dim light cast by the torches outside.
"I'm fine," Gabrielle shrugged. "Other than I'm now apparently a magnet for gods to pop in and out on unexpectedly now. It's really wearing on my last nerve, let me tell you."
Aphrodite gave Gabrielle her best empathetic look of sympathy. "Awwww, poor baby."
Gabrielle just rolled her eyes. "You want to pop me out of here?" Gabrielle asked hopefully. "That might give me some measure of peace, Aphrodite."
"Not what I'm here for, kiddo," Aphrodite shook her full head of blond curls.
"So, why are you here?" Gabrielle asked drolly, as she crossed her arms over her chest again. "Hades was just here. Are you going to feed me the same line of elusive gloom and doom that he just did?"
Aphrodite shot her a confused look. "Hades was here?"
Gabrielle just nodded. "Mmhm. He just left. Took the Olympus Express and left me standing in his smoke screen." She scowled. "Not a nice experience, incidentally."
The goddess glanced around until her gaze fell on the bench that Hades had indicated earlier. She walked over to it, dusted it off with a disgusted scowl and sat down in a flourish of pink fabric that wafted around her.
"So what did he tell you, sweet pea?" Aphrodite finally asked.
Gabrielle sighed heavily. She was tired of being held captive, tired of the gods and their interminable games-just plain tired. She walked over to the tent pole and gingerly slid down it until she was sitting on the ground with her knees pulled up and her arms resting on top of them. She let her head rest against the tent pole and just stared into the darkness until her eyes drifted closed.
"He said something about…" she thought about what he had actually said. Most of it was so vague that it made no sense. "I think he was trying to warn me about something. He talked about Dahak and Hope, then said I had some kind of power because of my connection with my daughter-my dead daughter, I might add." She opened bleary eyes and focused on the goddess. She could see that Aphrodite was silently nodding. "He mentioned Zeus and Ares and their penchant for disguises. Not sure where that was going. He was a little vague in the end." She waved a negligent hand and let her eyes drift shut again.
"No sleeping, sweet pea," Aphrodite suddenly piped up. "You need to stay awake until Xena has a chance to spring you from this place." She looked around and cringed. "Why do mortals think places like this are suitable for anyone?"
"Tired," Gabrielle muttered, as she tried to fight against the fatigue that was slowly pulling her down. It was so hard to stay awake after everything she'd been through. She sighed heavily, "Just wanna catch a li'l shuteye. Not too long. Jus'…"
The goddess watched the bard relax completely, until all Aphrodite could hear were Gabrielle's soft snores. The goddess looked around the tent and decided to take a chance. She knew Xena was close by, but she also knew there was something going on that she needed to take care of. With a last glance at the sleeping bard, the goddess raised a hand and waved it, disappearing is a flash of pink, white and red heart-shaped sparkles that quickly dissipated and plunged the tent into complete darkness.
Xena watched the soldiers finally settling down for the night. Campfires burned low and many of the men pulled worn blankets or furs over themselves to stave off the night's chill. Many of them just lay where they'd fallen in a drunken stupor and only a few stragglers were still on their feet.
One soldier headed right for her and his intent was clear, as he undid the clasp on the belt of his pants. Xena waited until the man was right in front of her and then reached up and yanked him off his feet. Without a single sound, she incapacitated him and left him in an unconscious heap on the ground beside her.
"Nice," Ephiny whispered, as she quietly approached the warrior and settled in next to her. She glanced over at the unconscious soldier with his pants partially open. "He a friend of yours?"
"Funny," Xena answered with a quiet snicker. "Are you and the others ready to get this show started?"
"And if we run into any of these guys that are still standing?" Ephiny shot Xena a quirked-brow look.
"Try not to make too much noise when you take them down," Xena smirked. "The less noise the better."
"Are you sure you wouldn't rather have a whole lotta noise?" Ephiny asked in all seriousness. "We're great at diversions-catch them off guard and really put some fear into them. Maybe we can scare them off for good." She motioned behind her and one of the Amazons handed her the regent's mask. Ephiny put the mask on and shook it out. "Amazons are experts at intimidation," her voice was muffled behind the mask.
Xena's smirked turned into a full-fledged smile. "Okay, but just remember there are only a handful of you against an army that outnumbers you twenty-to-one."
"Not bad odds, really," Ephiny shrugged.
Xena could hear the smiled in the regent's voice, even though her face was completely covered by the hand-carved wooden mask. Dried reeds and thatch stuck out from all over the edges of the mask, making it look even larger than it actually was. Xena glanced at the other women and noticed they were all similarly adorned. She shook her head and wondered at the wisdom of this plan. Oh well, she resolved.
"Let's get this over with and get back to the village," Xena whispered loud enough for the women to hear. "I just want my bard back."
Ephiny snickered. "Nice."
It was dark. Really dark. Peaceful. Quiet. Serene, but dark.
And then she saw a faint glow. No, she perceived a faint glow, as if someone were holding a lamp high overhead-very very high overhead. The glow didn't do much to illuminate the room she was in. It just made the shadows loom more ominously, like specters in an eerie nightmare. A dream. That's exactly what it was, a dream.
"Hey," a familiar husky voice said in a hushed tone, as she felt someone sit down next to her.
"Where are we?" Gabrielle cleared her throat. "What's going on?"
"Shh," a slender finger touched her lips, as a hand gently pushed her onto her back and against silk sheets that wrapped themselves around her like a second skin. "It's okay, Gabrielle."
The voice was familiar, but the feel was somehow…wrong. Fingers gently brushed her cheek and trailed down her throat. It was wrong, but it felt so…right?
"Why is it so dark?" She asked in a hushed whisper.
"Shhhh," soft lips met her lips and sent tingles of desire throughout her being.
It was like nothing she'd ever experienced and soon she was lost in exquisite sensations that coursed throughout her entire body. It happened so fast that she was unprepared for the intensity of it. Burning waves of passionate desire raced through her and ignited every fiber of her being. Her head spun as her lover's body covered hers. The fires quickly flared into a full-blown conflagration that threatened to consume her.
"No!" Gabrielle managed to call up just enough willpower to push the woman away. "This isn't…talk to me, Xena."
She gasped for breath and her thoughts became a confused jumble, but she still knew something…wasn't right. She had just enough sense left to know that the situation was absolutely wrong. She kept a hand up and felt a bare mound of flesh press insistently against it. What was happening?
"Gabrielle," the voice purred and another wave of overwhelming desire rolled over her.
She was suddenly floating on a cloud so intoxicating that she felt completely lost in it. Lost. She didn't want to lose herself-didn't want to lose her sense of self, her identity. Xena had never asked that of her. Why was she…
"Shhh, don't fight it-don't fight me," the low voice purred more insistently. "This is meant to be, Gabrielle. It's time…please…"
That feeling of pure unadulterated euphoria poured over her again and this time she couldn't fight it. Sensations she had never experienced suddenly brought every sense, every last fiber of her being, alive. Her senses were so heightened, in fact, that she could smell…
"Wait!" Gabrielle gasped breathlessly, as she pulled away again. "Why do you smell like…wet goat?"
Her lover grunted in frustration before resuming her insistent attentions. Gabrielle's mind and body cried for release from the exquisite torture that flowed around and through her with renewed force. Swirls of breathtaking lights in all the colors of a rainbow danced behind her closed lids, while a blazing heat coalesced in the very center of her being.
She opened her eyes and was amazed at the sparkling display of dazzling lights that wrapped around the two of them. Xena was aglow and her eyes shone with a lust for life that Gabrielle had never seen in their-brown depths? And then the dark head was moving down her body, as warm lips left a trail of tingling exquisite desire that was too much to bear.
"X…Xe-" Gabrielle gasped as her lover found her center and brought her to the pinnacle of the ethereal.
Their bodies melded together so perfectly, flesh-to-flesh, soul-to-soul…
Her name, shouted at the top of Xena's lungs, was like icy water pouring down on her head and brought Gabrielle instantly awake. She gasped for breath as the world around her suddenly flared in a blaze of torches. Xena's battle cry pierced the silence, as the warrior attacked with sword raised high over her head. But the warrior's efforts were in vane when a blazing fireball shot from the hand of the God of War and sent Xena flying across the room, where she landed in an unconscious heap.
Gabrielle looked up at the naked god towering over her and her stomach plummeted. Then she suddenly realized what he'd nearly done to her. Hades' words suddenly slammed through her mind with staggering force that sent a wave of nausea roiling through her.
The tent was suddenly filled overly crowded with people and gods, but all Gabrielle could do was seethe with an unreasoning rage.
"ARES!!!" Gabrielle screamed in frustration and anger, as she jumped to her feet and slammed her entire body into him with such force, and so suddenly, that he was taken completely by surprise.
The God of War staggered back several steps and wiped a smirk from his bearded lips with the back of a hand. He glanced around at those now standing in the tent, and his expression turned brooding. His fellow gods surrounded him and they were all watching silently with expressions that showed how much they disapproved of this latest stunt of his.
Athena was scowling and had her arms crossed over her ample bosom. Aphrodite looked far angrier than he'd ever seen her, and he briefly wondered if she'd try to harm him. Hades stood to one side and was nodding, but his expression showed he wasn't happy. Artemis was there, as were a number of others. Ares didn't care. He'd failed to complete his task and that rankled on him more than anything. He glared down at the woman at his feet.
"The cavalry arrives just in time," he shrugged and snapped his fingers. His clothes magically appeared on his body and he adjusted them casually. "Damn the Fates for their timely interference...again."
"I knew it!" Aphrodite shouted. "Ares! You son of a…" His angry glare stopped her cold and she just clammed right up.
"Caught with your pants down, eh, Ares?" Hades chuckled. "Can't say I'm not all that surprised." The Prince of the Underworld glanced at Gabrielle with a raised brow. "Don't say I didn't warn you, mortal." And then he disappeared.
"Zeus will hear of this latest betrayal, Ares," Athena seethed. "Don't be surprised if he doesn't ban you to farthest reaches of the earth for this."
Ares just rolled his eyes and snapped his fingers. He was suddenly standing before them all fully clothed and smirking proudly. His bravado returned and he turned a charming half-grin on the onlookers. He noticed Xena slowly getting to her feet to stand defiantly before them all.
"What can I say?" He shrugged and surveyed his fellow gods. His eyes met Xena's and his smirk grew into a full-fledged smile. "Can't blame me for trying, eh, Xena?" But before she could answer, he disappeared in a blinding flash.
Gabrielle turned her full attention on the warrior, as Xena approached her. She could see the hesitation in the warrior's eyes.
"I'm all right," Gabrielle said with a nod. "He didn't…" She let the words hang there.
The hesitation quickly disappeared, as Xena took Gabrielle into her arms and gave her a comforting hug. The two just stood there, silently reveling in the moment, until a throat cleared nearby.
"You two lovebirds wanna get out of here?" Aphrodite stepped forward into Xena's line of sight.
"Gabrielle," Artemis suddenly stepped up next to Aphrodite. "The Amazons need you." She glanced away and then back again. "They need your help," she glanced at Xena, "both of you."
It was then that Gabrielle heard a loud commotion outside the tent. Shouts from both men and women rang out around the tent and the clash of weapons could be heard. Gabrielle didn't let go of the taller woman in her arms, but put a possessive arm around Xena's waist as they walked to the tent opening. Both women peeked outside and saw that the Amazons were in a heated battle with the soldiers in the encampment.
Xena breathed out a heavy sigh. "I told her not to make a lot of noise," she growled, as she let go of Gabrielle and pulled her sword from the sheath at her back. "This just gets better and better," she muttered as she lifted the weapon high overhead and yelled her battle cry, "Chiyaaaaaaaaaaa!"
Gabrielle watched as Xena engaged two soldiers at once. The bard was at a loss. She didn't have her staff and couldn't see anything nearby that she could use as a weapon. She ducked back inside the tent and was slightly disappointed that it was empty. Not a single one of the gods was there to offer assistance and there was nothing in the tent to use as a weapon, either.
"That's just great," she muttered, as she shot back outside and waited for an opportunity to dash across the encampment.
Flickering firelight cast eerie shadows throughout the encampment. Gabrielle searched for a suitable weapon, while trying to stay at the perimeter of the main fracas. Amazons with swords charged their adversaries with single-minded determination. They all wore war masks that made them appear more intimidating than she knew they actually were. She smiled internally with pride, as she continued to hunt for a weapon.
"Gabrielle, here!!!" Someone shouted to her right. She turned her head in time to see the sword fly toward her. She managed to reach up and catch the hilt of the sword with both hands.
Gabrielle didn't have time to think about what she was doing. Three soldiers suddenly charged toward her with loud battle yells. She noticed they hadn't had time to don their armor. A rush of adrenaline welled up inside her, as she readied herself for the first strike. Each man wore a course overshirt and plain brown homespun pants. But the swords raised menacingly above their heads told her the men weren't concerned about their sparse attire. And their intent was clear. The sword in her hand made her an instant target. Xena's words from long ago echoed in her head, as she spun the weapon in imitation of her taller teacher.
Gabrielle met the first soldier's blade and deftly sidestepped away from the other two men. Her smaller size gave her a slight edge against the three men, but she knew they would eventually find an opening in her defenses. Her sword clanged loudly as it met one blade after another in a blinding flash of maneuvers that surprised even her. She put all her training with her staff to good use and tried to push from her mind that she was not actually using the wooden weapon.
Unfortunately, the sword was not a staff. The silver blade gleamed in the firelight, as one of her opponents slid past her guard and lunged toward her with his arm and blade outstretched. She didn't hesitate and plunged her own blade into his chest with bone-grinding precision. His momentum drove the blade to the hilt and it was all Gabrielle could do just to hold on with all her might. She felt another rush of something overtake her, as he dropped to the ground. She yanked the blade from his body with an angry snarl and turned to face the other two.
A tall soldier with dark hair swung for her head and she reacted just in time to stop the blade with her own. Long hours spent sparring with Xena were finally paying off, as she met her two remaining opponents' blades in turn. But a niggling doubt in the back of her mind gave her pause. What was she doing? Why did she suddenly feel invincible in the face of her enemies? And could she continue fighting with the strength and skill that suddenly came so easily to her?
She gripped the hilt firmly with both hands and met the dark-haired attacker's blade. Then she swung the blade around and felt it slice through flesh and bone. Much to her surprise, the man's head immediately separated from his shoulders. Gabrielle watched in astonished horror as the head went one way and the body another. The tangy scent of blood assailed her, and she felt a frenzied rush of satisfaction wash over her. It was intoxicating and…Then a searing pain in her side brought her up short, and she suddenly realized the other attacker was behind her.
An intense rage overcame her as she rounded on the man. She snarled loudly and swung her blade on instinct. The blade sliced cleanly through his midsection, spilling his entrails on the ground in front of her. Red-hot blood spewed from the open wound and splattered all over her, as the man glanced down in shocked horror. His expression would forever be burned into her consciousness, as his eyes took on a glassy look before he dropped to the ground and lay in a pool of his own blood.
Her senses heightened by the blood that clung to her, Gabrielle rounded on yet another adversary racing toward her. He yelled at the top of his lungs as he raised his sword to strike. She waited for just the right moment and then ducked his swing. Every fiber of her being came alive as she thrust her sword into him with more strength than she knew she possessed. The impact of his body slamming against hers didn't even phase her as she yanked the blade sideways and pulled it free. His momentum carried him over her and he, too, fell to the ground in a bloody heap.
But that wasn't the end of it. Gabrielle could feel her own blood surging insistently through her veins, as she looked for her next opponent. She spotted three soldiers ganging up on one lone Amazon and didn't hesitate to rush to meet yet another challenge. With another loud cry of outrage, Gabrielle jumped the man closest to her just as he was about to land a death blow to the back of the Amazon's head. Like a wild animal, she grabbed his hair, yanked his head to the side and bit into his ear.
The salty tang of blood on her tongue just instantly fed her sudden insatiable lust for blood. Even as he struggled to rid himself of the wildcat on his back, Gabrielle held on and continued her assault. Without a thought for what she was doing, Gabrielle bit clean through his ear and then ran her blade across his throat until she felt his body convulse against her. She put a hand to his slit throat and reveled in the feel of the blood oozing between her fingers, then she jumped free of him in time to go after another of his comrades.
Her next opponent had watched in horror as she killed his friend. Blood ran down her chin and covered her from head to toe, as she turned on him with a feral smirk. He shook with fear as he realized she was nearly unstoppable. She slowly stalked toward him with sure strides and licked the blood from her fingers with relish. He was terrified that she was about to spring on him.
"Wh-who are you?" He asked, as she continued toward him with deadly purpose.
"Your worst nightmare," she growled in a low voice that even she didn't recognize.
Somewhere in the back of Gabrielle's mind she knew what she was doing was wrong. The man backing away from her was little more than a young man, with a fresh growth of beard on his otherwise smooth cheeks. The fear in his eyes spoke volumes, but Gabrielle was too far gone to care. He was the enemy and she had to kill him in order to satisfy the uncontrollable bloodlust that was racing through her.
"I don't want to die," he whimpered, as a tear rolled down his dirt-streaked face.
"You shoulda thought of that before you attacked my friends," Gabirelle growled and raised her sword high above her head.
He managed to block her overhead attack, but was not so lucky when she swung the blade sideways. She managed to catch his upper arm and slice through his sleeve. He blocked her next strike and the one after that, but eventually left himself open to a thrust that pierced his side just below his ribcage. He grabbed the wound with his free hand and felt blood seep between his fingers, as he continued to fend off her blade with his own. But his efforts were no match for her. She found another opening and this time he couldn't sidestep enough to avoid the upward thrust she delivered through his stomach. His eyes bulged as the blade pierced all the way through and emerged from his back.
"Why?" He gasped into her face, as he gazed into eyes gone mad with bloodlust.
Gabrielle silently watched him fall and stood over him with a smile of satisfaction that quickly turned to abject horror, as the full impact of what she'd just done hit her and hit her hard. The sudden and inexplicable rush of adrenaline left her as quickly as it had come over her. She looked down at the dying young man and watched as blood bubbled up into his mouth and spilled down his cheeks. He coughed globs of it until his eyes suddenly became unseeing and he went completely still.
Gabrielle glanced at the bloody blade in her hands and it was her undoing. The world spun wildly and the wound in her side suddenly flared in agony. She felt hot bile rise in her throat and could do nothing more than double over in pain and anguish. Blackness suddenly threatened to send her reeling, but she managed to push it back with the last of her willpower. She glanced up in search of the one person who could help her and saw Xena turn toward her. In that moment, as their eyes met, the blind rage that had overcome her earlier dissipated completely and left her feeling weak and disoriented.
"Xena," the warrior's name on her lips came out barely above a whisper.
Xena saw the agony in Gabrielle's eyes, even from across the encampment. She was engaged in a battle with more than half a dozen soldiers, but her concern suddenly turned to the woman she loved. She yanked her chakram from the hook at her hip, hesitated for less than a heartbeat as she mentally calculated the disk's course and then let it fly. She didn't bother to wait around for the weapon to do its job and raced over to catch Gabrielle before she fell.
"I got ya," Xena's voice close to her ear did nothing to stop the rush of darkness.
Gabrielle was not surprised to find Xena right there with her just before her legs finally gave out. The darkness closed in until only a pinprick of light remained. And then she sank into a deep pit of darkness that took her breath and threatened to take her very life.
It was dark. Peaceful. Quiet. Serene.
Gabrielle came instantly awake and shot up in bed. She looked around in panic, as the last vestiges of a dream made her heart thump frantically in her chest. She jumped when she realized she wasn't alone.
"Shh, it's all right, love," Xena's familiar voice next to her was a boon to her battered soul.
Gabrielle glanced at the vaguely familiar surroundings of the Amazon Queen's hut and relaxed. She glanced to her right and noticed Xena watching her with a mixture of curiosity and hesitation. The warrior was seated in a wooden chair and Xena stared expectantly at her.
"What happened?" Gabrielle asked. "How'd I get here?"
Xena smirked. "I brought you back," she answered. "Thought it would be better than remaining in the army's encampment for any length of time. Certainly has a much homier feel to it, don't you think?"
Gabrielle nodded with a hesitant half-smile. "Ephiny and the others?"
"Safe," Xena answered. "Ephiny left a little while ago. I think she is really worried you won't wake up." The warrior sighed. "I admit I was, too."
"I'm okay, I think," Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief, then tensed again. "Ares?"
"Haven't seen his sorry hide since he bugged out on us the other night," Xena answered with a frown. "I'd sure like to wring his neck for what he tried…"
"Xena," Gabrielle said and turned frightened eyes on the warrior. "Can you…" she patted the space next to her in the bed.
Xena didn't hesitate and joined the bard. She wrapped strong arms around the shaking woman and held her, speaking soft words of comfort as she rested her chin on the bard's short-cropped hair. She was a little startled by Gabrielle's reaction, but was patient enough to wait out this emotional storm.
"I'm here," Xena soothed in a low voice and gently rocked the bard in her arms. "It's okay, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle buried her face in the familiar crook of Xena's shoulder and let the tears flow freely. Sobs wracked her body as she cried out all the guilt and sorrow she felt for what she'd done. Her jumbled thoughts raced, as memories from that night assailed her. Ares' attempted assault was so fresh in her mind that she wasn't sure if he'd really done something to her or not. She couldn't tell, but the prospect of it frightened her. And then there was that sudden, inexplicable rage that had overcome her…
"I'm scared, Xena," Gabrielle sniffed and finally found her voice again.
Xena pulled back and looked down into the tear-streaked face of the woman she loved. "Of what?"
Gabrielle wiped the tears from her cheeks in an effort to compose herself. "Of what happened the other night." She sniffed loudly and glanced at the open window. The sun was shining and she briefly wondered what day it was. "How long was I out?"
"We got back here early yesterday morning and you slept all day and night," Xena answered with a shrug. "Nissia came by yesterday and we managed to take care of the wound in your side. It wasn't deep enough to cause any real damage, but deep enough that you needed stitches. You're lucky that blade didn't catch you a little higher. I might have caught you between the ribs and then we'd really be in trouble. As it is there'll be a scar, but I don't think it'll be too noticeable."
Gabrielle glanced down at her usually-bare stomach and noticed a bandage wrapped around it. Her gaze rose to Xena's and she noticed a frown marring the warrior's brow.
"One of them got behind me after I…uh…um..." Fresh tears sprang to her eyes and she impatiently wiped them away. "I killed them, Xena."
Xena considered for a moment. "I saw you fighting with a sword," She said. "How'd that happen?"
Gabrielle nodded and sniffed. "I couldn't find a suitable staff and I didn't have mine with me, obviously. I think Ephiny tossed the sword to me when three soldiers were barreling down on me."
Xena's dark brow rose. "Ephiny was fighting behind me, Gabrielle. She was there the whole time. Said she had to guard my back 'cause you weren't there to do it for me."
"Oh," the bard considered that for a moment. "Well, someone threw it to me. It sure sounded like Ephiny's voice." She ran a hand through her already sleep-disheveled hair and frowned. "None of it seems real anymore."
Xena sighed and rubbed her face in frustration. "Can you explain what happened before I…um…we arrived in the tent?"
Gabrielle swallowed with difficulty over the sudden lump in her throat. "I…" she cleared her throat and looked away. "I think it was a dream…or, rather, a nightmare."
"And?" Xena gently prodded when the bard didn't immediately continue.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and let it out with a shudder. "You…I…" her eyes met Xena's and saw only trust and understanding in their baby-blue depths. She took another deep breath and let it out more slowly. "You came to me, but it wasn't you. I know that…I knew that. It felt…wrong." She shook her head as the intense guilt once again washed over her. "I tried to fight it-fight against what was happening to me-but…"
"Ares," Xena growled. "He uses his power to seduce you into doing his will. It can also have some nasty side effects."
Gabrielle nodded. "It seemed so real, and yet…I knew it wasn't you. I smelled…" she scrunched up her face in thought. "He smelled like wet goat." They both chuckled. "I can't believe I fell for it, even after both Hades and Aphrodite warned me that someone would try something."
"They warned you about Ares?"
"Not about him so much as they were warning me against letting my guard down," Gabrielle answered and shoved her hand through her hair again. "I can't believe I let it happen anyway."
"Don't beat yourself up over it, Gabrielle," Xena said. "When Ares decides to use his godly powers it's really hard not to give in to that seductive pull."
Gabrielle looked up and met Xena's gaze. "You didn't."
Xena smirked and nodded. "I did." She blew out a breath and looked away. "When he first came to me I didn't know how to fight against his seductions. Then again, I wasn't really trying, either. We…" She shrugged.
"You were lovers," Gabrielle finished the thought with an understanding nod. "I see now how strong his powers can be when he's after something."
Xena gently touched the bard's cheek and smiled. "I never wanted you to have to go through anything like that."
Gabrielle snorted. "Not an experience I want to repeat anytime soon, either. I don't know if I'm strong enough to…" She let the words hang.
Xena took Gabrielle's face in her hands and bent forward until their foreheads touched. "You are far stronger than you give yourself credit for, Gabrielle. You managed to pull away from him before he finished what he'd started."
"Only because you showed up to break the spell," Gabrielle said breathlessly.
They were sharing the same air and it was intoxicating to the bard in her vulnerable state. She didn't know what effects she was still experiencing, but she knew that Xena's closeness was sending shivers of unexpected desire charging through her. It was electric and all she wanted was to meld herself to the woman-become one with her. She reached for Xena and was a little put off that Xena was wearing her armor and leather.
"You're a little overdressed, don't you think?" Gabrielle chided breathlessly.
Xena's head came up and she listened intently. "Not really, no," she answered with an apologetic half-smirk. "We're about to have visitors."
Gabrielle was a little surprised when she heard the sounds of footsteps approaching several moments before there was a knock on the door to the hut. She glanced at Xena, who quickly jumped from the bed and stood next to it.
"Come!" The warrior called out in a clear voice.
"Am I interrupting anything?" Salmoneus said, as he peeked his head in the door. "Heeeyyy!!!" He gave them a broad smile that instantly lit up the room, as he stepped fully inside the hut and moved aside to allow Ephiny and Eponin to enter behind him. "It's so good to see you finally awake, Gabrielle." He glanced at Xena and smirked uncomfortably, as he joined the warrior next to the bed. "Xena here was really worried." He winked conspiratorially at the bard. "Didn't think she would ever calm down." Xena's answering growl made him jump, but he stood his ground. "Down, warrior."
Gabrielle snickered at the antics of her good friend. "I hear we have you to thank for rescuing our sisters, Salmoneus."
He actually blushed and lowered his head. "What can I say?" He shrugged. "All in a day's work."
"And it's gonna cost us plenty," Ephiny added.
Gabrielle looked from the regent to Salmoneus. "You're not charging the Amazons to rescue those girls, are you?"
"Nonono, nothing like that," he held up a staying hand. "I'm just proposing a little business venture…"
"He wants us to open the village up for a market day," Eponin glared at the balding man with her arms crossed over her chest.
"It's really a lucrative undertaking," Salmoneus defended. "Win, win all the way around." He flashed everyone his most winning smile, but they all could see the beads of sweat on his brow. "Hey, a guy's gotta make a dinar where he can, ya know."
Gabrielle, ever the voice of reason, piped in with, "Oh, I don't know. Maybe it's not such a bad idea. It might give the weavers and other artisans a chance to show off their talents and skills in a familiar setting. It would also show outsiders that the Amazons have nothing to hide."
"Gabrielle," Ephiny couldn't believe her ears. "We can't just open up the village to a bunch of nosey outsiders. The ramifications of that would be…"
"Security would be a nightmare," Eponin interrupted. "We already have enough on our hands trying to keep those damned horny villagers from sneakin' in here unannounced."
"You could just combine the two," Salmoneus, ever the master manipulator, chimed in with a hopeful grin. "Make it a festival and invite the locals to join in the festivities. You could make a boatload off the liquor sales alone. Not to mention what you could charge for…er…stud fees?"
Twin snorts and a snicker greeted his suggestion.
"You want Amazons to play prostitute to a bunch of…" Eponin choked the words out.
"No, I think he's actually suggesting we become brood mares," Ephiny shot an offended glare at the man.
"Not prostitutes or brood mares," Salmoneus quickly corrected. "You ladies would be in complete control of the…um… situation. And you could time it to coincide with your moon cycles. Badabing! Win, win situation."
"Okay, let me get this straight," Ephiny glanced at both Xena and Gabrielle, noting their amused smirks, before she set her skeptical gaze on Salmoneus. "You want us to hold a festival to the goddess Demeter? We already have one of those during the harvest. It's called the Thesmophoria. We honor the goddess with the fruits of our labor and our priestesses burn offerings to procure her favor."
"That's harvest time," Salmoneus waved a negligible hand. "What about the other eleven moon cycles of the year?"
"You want us to throw a festival every moon cycle?" Eponin couldn't believe her ears. "Artemis' left tit, man! You don't know what you're asking. Why, the security alone would be an absolute nightmare. Not to mention…"
"Down, Pony," Ephiny chided.
"Can I say something?" Gabrielle piped in again and received twin glares and another snort. She shot Xena a raised-brow look, before returning her attention to the two Amazons. "I don't think you would have to throw a festival every moon cycle in order to take advantage of what Salmoneus is suggesting. You could just start out small and work slowly until you have a more firm hold on the situation."
Salmoneus' excitement suddenly grew with Gabrielle's words. "Yeah, you could start small with just the market stalls and some food and spirits, then work your way up to a full-fledged celebration that would last for two, maybe three days. The marketing on such an undertaking would need an experienced hand…"
"Down, Salmoneus," Gabrielle quipped. "You're not an Amazon."
"No," he looked down at his brightly-colored robe and patted his belly. "I'm certainly not an Amazon, but…"
"The Amazons will need to decide whether or not this is a viable undertaking," Gabrielle added.
"It would need to be brought before the council and then a vote would have to be taken," Ephiny continued. "And the way things are going right now, it might take several moons before a decision would be reached." She turned a pointed gaze on Eponin.
"Uh, yeah," Eponin responded. "Didn't it take six moons to iron out all the details of those treaties with the villages?"
Ephiny nodded. "Yes, it did."
"Okay, so we've established that it would take a miracle from Mt. Olympus to get this going. I get it," Salmoneus shot the two Amazons a knowing scowl. "Don't say that I didn't try to extend the proverbial olive branch to you ladies."
"Can we just move on?" Gabrielle watched all eyes turn to her. "We've established that Salmoneus has a valid idea that needs work…and approval from the council," her gaze caught Ephiny's 'Don't-even-go-there' gleam. "Moving right along. What's been happening since I've been…um…" She shot Xena an expectant look.
"We laid waste to the army," Xena put in. "Those soldiers who weren't injured or killed…"
"Ran like the cowardly bastards they are," Eponin added with a satisfied smirk.
No one but Xena noticed the brief glimmer of sadness in Gabrielle's eyes. She knew the bard was remembering the soldiers she'd killed. Xena also knew it would weigh heavily on her younger companion's conscience for days-maybe even weeks-to come. She silently vowed to do all she could to soften the blow. But Xena still feared for her lover's mental state and the emotional toll those deaths would take on Gabrielle in the near future.
There was also something else niggling in the back of the warrior's mind. Gabrielle had mentioned that Ares had seduced her with his powers. Xena remembered her own early experiences with the War God. She also knew he had managed to somehow weave that power inside her in such a way that she would become overcome with bloodlust in the heat of battle.
Xena glanced down at the bard and saw a touch of something in the woman's expression that hadn't been there before. She couldn't put a finger on just what it was and decided to explore the topic further when she and Gabrielle were alone.
"Right, Xena?" Green eyes met startled blue.
"Hm?" Xena was suddenly caught flatfooted and looked at the expectant faces around her.
"I said, we should send an armed contingent of warriors back to the encampment to bury the dead," Gabrielle repeated.
"Oh, yeah, sounds good to me," Xena nodded and received a questioning look from Gabrielle.
Ephiny noticed the silent exchange between the two women and decided that was their cue to leave. "Eponin and I will take care of rounding up enough women for the job."
"I guess I should get back to my room at the inn in Thasos," Salmoneus said, as he sidled his way toward the door ahead of the two Amazons. "I'm glad you're okay, Gabrielle," he added as he left the hut. "Ladies," he gave Ephiny and Eponin a nod.
"Good to see you're doing better, Gabrielle," Ephiny added. "I'll drop by later this evening and fill you in on all the mundane business going on around here," she glanced at the warrior and said, "Xena." Then both she and Eponin left the hut and shut the door behind them.
Xena sat down on the edge of the bed, took one of Gabrielle's hands in hers and smirked. "Always a circus around here."
"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed with a tired sigh. "Salmoneus is the same as always. Never stops trying to make a dinar when he can get away with it."
"Yep," Xena nodded.
They sat there in companionable silence for a few moments, each lost in their own thoughts. It was Xena who finally spoke again.
"You wanna tell me what really happened out there the other night?" Blue eyes watched the bard intently.
Gabrielle hesitated while she gathered her errant thoughts. She knew exactly what Xena was asking, but didn't quite know how to put it all into words. Then she smirked at the ridiculousness of that notion, until she realized Xena was waiting expectantly for her to speak.
"We never really worked on more than basic sword fighting before," Gabrielle said. "Remember when Callisto killed Perdicus and I tried to badger you into teaching me how to use a sword?"
Xena nodded sadly. "I wouldn't do it until you poked me so hard that I knew you meant business."
"But I couldn't do it," Gabrielle shook her head at the memory of that dark time. "Even with all that anger welling up inside of me, I couldn't raise a sword or dagger against even Callisto."
"No," Xena agreed. "Not until Britannia."
"Even then," Gabrielle raised her chin defiantly. "Killing Meridian was more accident than anything. I don't even remember how the dagger got into my hands in the first place. It was just there and then…" She swallowed audibly. "Then so was she. I can still see the look in her eyes when the blade…" She shook off the memory of Meridian's shocked expression. "It happened again." She sighed heavily and leaned back against the wall behind her. "But this time it was a lot different."
"How so?" Xena prodded.
Gabrielle looked up into eyes filled with tenderness and understanding. "I didn't hesitate and killing those men wasn't an accident."
Xena's brow furrowed at the words. "You mean you meant to kill them?"
Gabrielle nodded and didn't bother to wipe away the tears that spilled down her cheeks. "I don't know what happened or who put the sword in my hands, but when I looked up and saw those men coming, I just…I felt something well up inside me, and then I was fighting them with everything you taught me-and more." She sniffed loudly and wiped some of the tears away. "I can't explain what happened or why. I just knew what I had to do and I did it."
Xena reached over and cupped Gabrielle's jaw, wiping the tears away with her thumb. "I'm so sorry."
Startled green eyes met watery blue. "What are you sorry for, Xena? If you hadn't at least taught me the basics, I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you right now. I had no business being there without a weapon in the first place."
"I just…" Xena sniffed away the tears that were threatening to spill from her eyes at any moment. "I never wanted you to become like me, Gabrielle."
"And what exactly does that mean, Xena?" Gabrielle's tears stopped instantly with Xena's words. "Do you see yourself as some kind of monster? You're a warrior, Xena. I admire you for the skills you've managed to acquire over the years. Why in the world would you say such a thing?"
"You don't use violence to solve your problems, Gabrielle," Xena explained. "I never wanted you to kill anyone, even if killing was the only way to save your own life. That's not your way. And the only reason I taught you the basics of sword fighting was because you goaded me into it. I knew you wouldn't actually use it on Callisto when the chips were down. Just like I don't think it's right for you to use one now."
"Oh, so it's okay for you to use a sword to kill people, but it's not okay for me to do it?" Gabrielle's hackles were suddenly up. "What? Do you think I'm better than you because, up until this point, I didn't fight like a real warrior and kill anyone? Am I supposed to believe that all those workouts and training sessions with the staff were never supposed to eventually make me into something more than just your trusty, mouthy sidekick?"
"Gaaabrielle," Xena blew out a frustrated breath. "That's not what I meant and you know it."
"Then what do you mean exactly, Xena?" Gabrielle shot back with an angry scowl. "Please enlighten me."
"You're a good person, Gabrielle," Xena tried to explain. "It's not in your nature to kill people."
"And you're not a good person, Xena?" Gabrielle countered. "When did it become ingrained in your nature? Hm? Were you a born killer? Or did Cortese make you that way? Or was it when you went off with Borias to conquer the other half of the known world? When did you realize that killing was the only way for you to get the job done?"
Gabrielle could feel the rage building inside her and didn't know how to control it. She'd never experienced anything so intense before and was sure it was a side effect of her encounter with Ares. She suddenly couldn't sit still. Jumping out of the bed, she paced like a wild animal, despite the painful pull the action caused to the stitches in her side.
"Gabrielle," Xena cautiously watched the agitated woman. "What's wrong?"
Gabrielle lifted both hands up to grab either side of her head and dug her fingers into her scalp. The rage within her was building to a fevered pitch and she lost track of everything around her. Each breath heaved in her chest and she wanted nothing more than to hit something-hit anything at that moment. The feeling became so intense, in fact, that she looked wildly around for something to take the aggression out on.
"Calm down, Gabrielle," Xena rounded the bed and stood several paces away from the bard. "You need to breathe deeply and let it out slowly." She moved closer and reached a hand out to touch Gabrielle's shoulder, but the bard drew back and looked at her with wild eyes.
"DON'T!!!" The frantic bard screamed and threw herself against the wall behind her in an effort to keep from hurting the warrior.
Xena saw it then and knew instantly what was happening. Ares' touch had awakened something more than just bloodlust in Gabrielle. That bloodlust normally remained dormant in the majority of the populace. Even combat-experienced soldiers seldom experienced it. But this was much more. It was much more intense than even she had experienced.
"Hit me!" Xena shouted to the wild-eyed woman. "Come on, Gabrielle! Hit me right here!" She pointed at her jaw and waited patiently for the woman to comply.
"NOOOOOO!!!!" The bard doubled over, as if in complete agony.
Xena knew Gabrielle's conscience and her pacifistic tendencies were warring with the uncontrollable bloodlust that Ares had unleashed within her. The warrior knew, first hand, what those opposing forces were capable of doing to the woman. She also knew there was only one way to release Gabrielle from the bloodlust's hold.
Xena grabbed Gabrielle's upper arms in a vice-like grip and shook her. "You have to let it out, Gabrielle! There's no other way!!"
Gabrielle felt the sweat pouring off her as the bloodlust took control and built to a fevered pitch. Her heartbeat was pounding so loudly in her ears that she could hear nothing else. And the moment Xena grabbed her she knew she couldn't hold back any longer.
With strength neither woman knew Gabrielle possessed, the bard wrenched herself from the warrior's grip. She then launched herself like a wildcat at the taller woman with a fierceness born of desperation. Every fiber of her being came alive, as she pounded her bare fists against the woman standing before her.
Xena knew what to expect, but wasn't quite prepared for the viciousness of the attack launched against her. Gabrielle's fists landed blow after painful blow in a tirade of unexpected proportions. The blond woman was no longer her lover, her partner in life. This being was something else entirely. Xena realized she couldn't do anything more than protect herself against the beast that had been unleashed. All she could think to do was let the bloodlust play itself out. But it took every ounce of self-control on her part for Xena not to fight back.
Gabrielle felt some part of her detach itself from the animalistic frenzy that overcame her. She experienced a degree of detachment as she dealt blow after blow to the woman she knew in the back of her mind that she loved more than life itself. But the mad rush of uncontrollable rage that coursed through her was in complete control of her actions and, despite her best efforts to regain control, she was caught up in its possessive grip.
And then they both heard the deep male laughter just before the God of War appeared in a blinding flash behind the bard.
"That's it, Gabrielle!" Ares hissed into the frenzied bard's ear. "Show her exactly who you are! Make her see how powerful you've become!"
Xena raised her arms to defend herself against the fury of Gabrielle's blows. Each punch, each impact of those small fists was more powerful and landed more painfully than the one before. The seemingly unending barrage was so fervid that Xena suddenly worried that the bard was actually going to beat her to death.
"Gabrielle, stop!" Xena managed to cry out, as the bard backed her into a corner. "STOP!!!"
"Don't listen to her, blondie!" Ares goaded. "You have her where you want her! She's yours! Finish her and take her place at my side!!!!"
The words penetrated the blood-red haze like a slap and suddenly Gabrielle realized what she was doing to the battered woman in front of her. She felt the rage flare again, but this time she managed to find the willpower to turn away from Xena and direct her aggressions to the imposing figure behind her.
Ares knew a brief moment of something akin to fear, as Gabrielle suddenly rounded on him and launched herself at him with all the fury of a rabid beast. Blow after blow, the once-docile bard was suddenly completely and utterly out of control. Ares raised his arms to fend her off, but only managed to give her the opening she needed. She ducked beneath his upraised arms and plowed head-first into him, knocking him back several steps.
"SON OF A…" He barely managed to get the words out before he toppled backwards and lay sprawled on his back. He didn't get a chance to say more, as he found his arms full of screeching, scratching and biting bard. "GET HER OFF ME!!!" He shouted and was just able to grab one of Gabrielle's arms in a vice grip.
Xena could do nothing more than slide down the wall behind her, as she tried to catch her breath in the wake of the bard's attack. She watched with a certain measure of satisfaction as Gabrielle turned her seemingly mindless bloodlust on the unexpected God of War. But when Gabrielle actually took Ares down-something Xena had never actually been able to accomplish-she stared in utter amazement.
"What do you want me to do, Ares?" Xena asked in answer to his shouted plea for help. "You unleashed the bloodlust within her! You should be able to fix what you did!"
"IT'S NOT THAT EASY!!!" He shouted, as he managed to grab the feral bard's other wrist. "THIS WASN'T SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN!!!"
"So you admit you caused this?" Xena shot him an accusing glare. "Your efforts to seduce her turned her into this uncontrollable beast, Ares! Only you can undo what you did!"
"I just…It wasn't…" He stuttered over the words, as he tried to come up with a reasonable explanation for the hellcat who was now biting ferociously at his hands. "This never happened with you, Xena!"
"I wasn't touched by a demon, Ares," Xena shoved off from the wall and gingerly rose to her feet. "You should do your research before you start dabbling in things you can't possibly understand." She smirked down at him with an 'I-told-you-so' smirk. "You'd better remove the enchantment you placed on her the other night or…" She shrugged.
Ares struggled to hold onto Gabrielle's wrists, as she continued to squirm and writhe in his grip. "FINE!" He finally conceded, as he closed his eyes and concentrated all his efforts on reversing what he'd done to the bard.
Xena waited with baited breath as vivid waves of light and color engulfed the still-struggling bard and penetrated into her very being. Gabrielle suddenly stiffened in the war god's grip and went completely still. Then she cried out in intense agony, as the swirling colors and light coalesced around and through her. Her arms flew out to her sides and her head fell back, as beams of white light shot from her entire body.
And then Gabrielle collapsed in a heap next to the prostrate god. The light disappeared and everything went completely still.
Xena glanced from the unmoving bard to Ares. "Is she…" She didn't wait for a response, as she dropped down next to Gabrielle and took her into her arms. "Gabrielle?"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Ares rolled onto his side and got to his feet with as much dignity as he could muster. He waved a hand at the two women on the floor. "You're welcome, by the way."
Xena shot him an angry glare. "This was your fault, you stupid bastard!"
"Me?" Ares put his hands to his chest and shook his head. "How was I supposed to know she'd become an uncontrollable fiend? I can safely say there isn't a mortal alive-or dead, for that matter-who has ever reacted to my…um…charm so violently. She…" He pointed at the unconscious woman in Xena's arms, "is…that's not normal, Xena. Believe me. It shouldn't have happened like that. I swear."
"Have you heard enough?" Xena asked loudly to the air around her.
"Oh, I think we've heard more than enough," Athena answered as she magically appeared on the far side of the room.
Hades, Aphrodite, and Artemis appeared next to her and they all wore accusing glares as they stared daggers at the God of War.
Ares rolled his eyes. "Oh, that's just great," he sighed in exasperation. "I suppose you're all going to run to the old man and give him the lowdown on my latest little scheme to take over the known world."
"He might just take away your powers for a while as punishment for this latest stunt," Athena crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him. "It would serve you right, Ares. You've really overstepped your authority on this one."
"Yeah," Aphrodite stood with her hands on her hips. "Maybe he'll even take away your earthly privileges for a while." She glanced at Xena and Gabrielle. "At least long enough for my two babes here to have a little peace." She shot Xena a conspiratorial wink. "I think it's the least they deserve after all the crap we've poured on their heads lately."
Artemis shot the blond goddess a disgusted glare. "Oh, please, Dite. It's not like these mortals actually matter in the greater scheme of things. They don't, you know."
"Oh, really?" Aphrodite countered. "Since when do the Amazons not matter to you, Arty? Gabrielle is one of your queens, after all."
"Yeah, and there'll be another to take her place when she passes from this life," Artemis shot back. "We were all there when she lied so convincingly about passing on her right of caste. You really think I care what happens to her now?" She shot a smug glare at Xena. "I'm sure she's rectified that little oversight. Eh, Xena?"
"It doesn't matter," Aphrodite said. "Queen or not, Gabrielle and Xena are bonded by their love for each other. That's all that matters. And they deserve a chance to express that love in this lifetime. They deserve the chance to be together."
"Are you so sure?" The Amazon goddess shot the Love Goddess a raised-brow look.
"Do not mess with mortal love, Arty," Aphrodite cocked a hip and scowled at the redhead. "You do not want to find out what happens when you cross me. I have a whole arsenal of love potions at my disposal, and you have a village full of pregnant Amazons. Put two and two together and you get…mmmm…a population explosion?"
Athena stepped between the two goddesses and put a hand up to each of them. "That's enough!" She shouted impatiently. "We're not here to argue about the bard's status as queen of the Amazons or her standing as a mortal. We're here to pass judgment on Ares for his crimes against these mortals and for his failure to heed Zeus' warning to leave them alone." She lowered her arms and turned her attention to the leather-clad God of War. "Do you wish to speak up in your defense, Ares?" Then she scowled at him and rolled her eyes. "As if your pathetic pleas for mercy would fall on anything but deaf ears at this point."
Ares held his hands out to his sides. "I think I'll take my chances…" But before he could use his powers to disappear from their midst, a loud crack of thunder pierced the skies above.
The door to the hut flew inward with such force that it slammed against the opposite wall and splintered into a thousand shards. And then the god of all the gods was standing in their midst in a cloud of swirling white smoke. All eyes turned to the silver-haired god clothed in flowing silver robes that glimmered when he moved.
"Not this time, son," Zeus glared at Ares and held a hand up when the God of War tried to disappear again. "It's time for you to finally face the consequences of your actions. I've allowed you free rein for far too long. Not anymore."
The Father of all the gods raised his hand above his head and a bolt of sizzling lightning suddenly appeared. Without hesitation, he launched the bolt at the God of War and watched with a satisfied grin as Ares took the bolt in the center of his chest. Ares glanced down at his smoking chest and then up at the assembled gods with a look of pain. The air around him crackled with energy as his anger flared.
"I will never…" he ground out between clenched teeth.
"You will return to Olympus and await my judgment, Ares," Zeus glared sternly at the War God. "If I have to make another trip down here to locate you, there will be no end to the suffering you will experience at my hand. Do I make myself clear?" His voice remained calm and even, but his tone brooked no argument.
Xena remained completely still throughout the entire exchange. She could feel Gabrielle slowly stirring and hoped the bard would follow her lead. She glanced down and saw the bard's green eyes slowly flutter open. Xena motioned around her with her eyes and held her breath as Gabrielle slowly followed her gaze.
Gabrielle's eyes widened in surprise at the scene playing out above them, as she took in the fact that so many gods surrounded her and Xena. She knew from the descriptions she'd heard over the years that the silver-haired figure standing a few paces away was none other than Zeus himself. She shot a questioning look at Xena and accepted the warning look in the warrior's eyes and the minute, barely-perceptible shake of her dark head. Gabrielle didn't want any more confrontations and was too worn out and confused by her earlier exertions to care what was happening. Time enough later to get all the particulars.
Ares rolled his eyes and sighed heavily when he realized he had no other choice but to do as Zeus ordered. He glared daggers at his fellow gods, who were watching him with a mixture of amusement and satisfaction. Athena grinned smugly and shot him an 'I-told-you-so' nod. Ares didn't have to look at Hades to know the God of the Underworld was waiting impatiently to return to his realm.
"Fine," Ares finally said. "I'm outta here." He waited for a nod from Zeus before he disappeared in a more subdued flash.
Gabrielle let out the breath she hadn't known she'd been holding as soon as Ares was gone. She glanced up and caught Zeus looking directly at her. A shiver of fear raced down her spine and she shifted uncomfortably.
"You, my dear," Zeus said in an irritated tone, "have caused more trouble lately than any mortal we've run across since…" He put a finger to his chin and considered, then glanced at the other gods still loitering nearby. "Well?"
"Search me," Aphrodite shrugged. She walked over to him and kissed his cheek. "See you at home, Daddy. I got stuff to take care of."
He smiled uncharacteristically, as the Love Goddess waved enthusiastically at Xena and Gabrielle, then disappeared in a shower of pink and red hearts. Then Zeus turned his attention to the three remaining gods.
"Well?" His smile vanished and a stern scowl appeared. "What are you three still doing here?"
"Um," Athena stepped forward, glanced at Xena and Gabrielle, then shrugged. "Later." And then she, too, was gone.
"Don't you have a realm to oversee, Hades?" Zeus turned his glare on the God of the Underworld.
"Absolutely," Hades answered with a quick nod. "I think I'll make sure Toxeus and his cohorts are staying where they belong and not sneaking around causing anymore trouble." He glanced around at the others, "Always a pleasure, ladies." And then, he too disappeared.
Artemis knelt down on a level with Gabrielle and looked the bard in the eye. "I'm keeping my eye on you, mortal," she said and then vanished in a subdued shower of silver sparkles.
"You two have certainly managed to cause quite a stir with my children," Zeus returned his attention to the two women. "I'm not sure whether to be angry with you or to thank you." He shook his head and absently stroked his silver beard, then his eyes met Gabrielle's again. "Did Hades deliver that message I sent him here for?"
Gabrielle swallowed and cleared her suddenly dry throat. "He delivered a message. I'm not sure it was the one you wanted me to hear."
Zeus glanced from Gabrielle to Xena and waved an accusing finger at her. "Don't think that I haven't kept a close eye on you, warrior." One of Xena's brows rose. "You've been nothing but trouble ever since you managed to get caught in Ares' crosshairs."
Xena just glared at him. "It wasn't intentional, I assure you," she said drolly.
"No, I'm sure it wasn't," an amused smirk played at the corners of his mouth. "So, the question remains, what shall I do with the two of you?"
"If I may?" Gabrielle spoke up before Xena could launch herself at the imposing god. "I'd like to make a suggestion."
Zeus considered her for a long moment, like he would give consideration to an insignificant ant or a pebble in his shoe. "Go on," he finally said.
With Xena's help, Gabrielle managed to stand up and face the Father of the Gods without shaking too much. Her equilibrium still hadn't completely returned and she was feeling a little overwhelmed by the fact that so many gods seemed to be taking an interest in her and Xena. It was a little too much, but she managed to push it all to the back of her mind and concentrate on the here and now.
"Just tell them to leave us alone and we'll stay out of affairs that concern them," Gabrielle said in a clear voice that was far stronger than she would have anticipated. She leaned into Xena and rested her head on the warrior's shoulder in an uncharacteristic display of public affection. "We just want to be together and share whatever time we have left with each other."
A silver brow rose on the god's forehead. "That's all you want?" He skeptically eyed each woman in turn. "You don't wish for immortality? Or a chance to change the world?" His eyes met Xena's. "Are you sure you wouldn't like to rule the known world? Maybe you still think you can atone for all the grief you caused when you were gallivanting across the countryside as a warlord?"
Xena lifted a hand and shook her head with a smirk. "Been there, done that-didn't enjoy all the responsibility that went with it."
Zeus actually chuckled at Xena's jibe and put a finger to his chin again. "I'm not sure I can keep my children from interfering in your lives again. They seem to be very intrigued by the two of you, and I can only speculate as to the reason for that." He shot Gabrielle a knowing look.
"Could it be because we're both touched by the blood of the gods?" Gabrielle shot back with a knowing gleam of her own.
Zeus narrowed his gaze at her for a moment, as if he were trying to read her thoughts. "I'd say that's a distinct possibility, my dear. I believe I have underestimated you both, and for that I sincerely apologize." That got surprised looks from both women, as he raised a staying hand. "Oh, don't think it pleases me to apologize to mortals, especially two female mortals who are more trouble than they are worth. As Father of the Gods it is my responsibility to ensure that all creation remains on the path the Fates have decreed. You two have managed to disrupt that path so many times that the Loom is no longer a thing of order and tranquility. You have changed not only your own destinies, but the destinies of countless others who are now walking paths other than those set before them at their birth."
"We make our own destiny," Xena said with a wry half-grin, as she squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder and kissed the top of her blond head. "We don't wait for anyone to choose that destiny for us."
Zeus glared at her. "Yes, I'm learning that about you both."
"May I ask a question?" Gabrielle spoke up when it seemed the two were going to just stare daggers at each other.
"What question would you ask?" Zeus pulled his gaze away from Xena's and looked down at her smaller companion.
"Will you bless our union?" Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena and held her close, as she met Zeus' steady gaze.
Zeus' response was entirely unexpected and had both women frowning in confusion. He actually burst out laughing so hard that it looked as if he would not be able to recover enough to answer the question.
"If he does not, then I will," came another voice-this one female and as full of confident authority as Zeus' own.
Hera stepped up next to her husband with calm assurance, despite Zeus' continued amusement. She glanced from him to the two women staring in open awe.
"I don't know what he finds so funny," Xena commented with a brief nod to the newcomer. "Gabrielle merely asked a simple question."
"And one that does not beg a simple answer, I'm afraid," Zeus finally recovered enough to speak, then he sobered as he spoke his next words. "We did not create humanity as male and female so that two women or two men could unite. Do you realize how disruptive it would be to the greater scheme of the continuation of the species if we blessed such a union?"
"Artemis has blessed the unions of the Amazons for generations," Gabrielle sited.
"Yes, well…" Zeus crossed an arm over his chest and rested the other on it, as he absently rubbed his bearded chin.
"She's right, you know," Hera quickly added. "And there is an entire colony of women on Lesbos who have found love within each other's arms. They live in peace and harmony, giving aid to the needy and sharing their bounty with those who have nothing. I've even had the opportunity to hear some of their poetry and see the art they have created over the years. Impressive."
Zeus rolled his eyes to the heavens and turned on the Mother of all the Gods. "Must you bring that up just now?"
Hera merely smirked. "True love cannot be shackled within the bounds of a technicality, my dearest," she spoke to him directly. "Aphrodite has followed these two in their burgeoning relationship and has found that the love they share is as real and true as the love shared by any other couple. They have already pledged themselves as partners for life. How can we not bless them equally, as we would any other loving couple? Do they deserve any less, just because they share the same anatomical composition?"
"And their ability to produce offspring?" Zeus countered with a raised brow, as his gaze remained fixed on the two mortals standing silently before him. "We created sexual attraction in order that the species would continue to thrive and prosper. Two…er…females cannot produce offspring. It goes against the natural scheme of things. Human love was not meant to evolve in this fashion. It is an abomination. And until these two find a way to reproduce, I will not extend my blessing on their union. And I forbid you from doing so, as well."
Hera put a hand on Zeus' arm and looked imploringly at him. "As we have discovered, my love, human love is unpredictable. But, I assure you, the love that these two mortals share is quite real and runs quite deep. They are an enigma, not an abomination. Just because they can't reproduce doesn't mean we shouldn't bless their union."
Gabrielle was more than a little surprised to hear Hera, Queen of the Gods and Mother of All Creation, defend her relationship with Xena. She'd heard stories about the goddess' jealous wrath against those her husband found favor with. Hercules himself was a product of Zeus' insatiable lust for beautiful mortal women. It amazed Gabrielle to be in the presence of the gods, much less in the presence of Zeus and Hera. To have them arguing over her request went beyond anything she could have ever imagined.
Leaning more heavily on Xena for support, Gabrielle just stared in wonder at the deities and listened intently to their continuing argument. She tried not to give in to the exhaustion that was threatening to take her down again, but it was really hard not to. Her legs were unsteady and she could feel her muscles starting to shake with the effort it was taking to remain standing.
"Are you okay?" Xena's whispered question close to her ear was full of concern.
"Tired," Gabrielle whispered back.
Abrupt silence suddenly made both women look up. Both Zeus and Hera were watching them intently, with a measure of uncharacteristic curiosity rather than rebuke at their quiet exchange. Hera turned her ice-blue gaze on Zeus and one dark brow rose.
"See?" She said. "Theirs is not a superficial platonic relationship, my love. What they share goes far deeper than even we could fathom."
Gabrielle blushed to her roots. "Um, can we just forget I asked you to bless our union?"
"Why, my dear?" Hera stepped forward, placing a hand on her chest, as if she were deeply offended by the bard's words. "I don't understand why you would ask and then rescind the request."
"Because she's exhausted," Xena said. "Not only was she injured during that little ambush Hades and Artemis cooked up, but Ares infused her with his powers and awakened something inside her that even he couldn't control."
Hera gasped in surprise and shared a confused look with Zeus. "What are you saying?" She glanced down at Gabrielle. "What does she mean?"
"Uncontrollable bloodlust," Gabrielle answered. "His powers of seduction apparently had an adverse effect on me that even he didn't foresee. It unleashed…well, I'm not exactly sure what it did to me. I just know it was something I don't ever want to repeat again. I'm just glad he took it from me before I could cause more harm."
Zeus leaned in and whispered something in Hera's ear. A dark brow rose on the goddess' eternally youthful face. She glanced at him with an unspoken question shining in her eyes. He merely shook his head, as if to say 'We'll discuss it later.'
"We will talk to the children about their unnecessary interference in your lives," Hera conceded as she clasped her hands in front of her and returned her attention to the two women. "We make no promises, but we shall both endeavor to keep them from interfering in the future."
"Ares will be on a short leash for his part in this debacle," Zeus added with a scowl. "He knows better than to use his gift so carelessly. I assure you it won't happen again."
"Thank you," Xena gave him a concessionary nod.
"Yes, thank you," Gabrielle said softly.
"We'll leave you alone, then," Hera said, as she hooked an arm through Zeus'.
Not another word was spoken by the two gods as a blinding flash enveloped them and they vanished. A rush of wind blew around the room, repaired the splintered door and set it back in place, before all was quiet in the hut again. Xena glanced down at the woman in her arms and noticed the tired smile of relief. She easily picked the bard up in her arms and carried her over to the bed, where she deposited her gently. She brushed the hair from the bard's forehead and placed a gentle kiss there.
"Get some sleep, love," Xena said. "You've earned it."
Gabrielle snuggled down beneath the covers and eyed the warrior. "I'd sleep better if you were lying here beside me."
A dark brow lifted, as Xena considered the request. With swift movements, she quickly divested herself of her armor and leather, until she was only wearing her shift. She then gingerly climbed in next to the smaller woman, took Gabrielle in her arms and settled in for an afternoon nap with the bard tucked snuggly against her shoulder. As she lay there listening to the sounds of village life outside, it wasn't long before Gabrielle's gentle snores joined the other noises and lulled the warrior to sleep.
A seven-day later, Gabrielle sat in the shade of an oak tree and watched Xena and Eponin sparring in the open field spread out before her. The sun was high in the sky and its warmth cast the shadows from her heart for the first time since her encounter with the gods.
The bard was still having a hard time reconciling all that had happened. Xena had insisted she remain in bed for a few extra days, when the warrior had awakened to discover that Gabrielle's wound had reopened. The warrior had silently re-stitched the wound and then firmly tucked Gabrielle beneath a pile of blankets. The bard had almost gone crazy as the days wore on and she remained idle. Then Nissia had visited and declared her fit to leave her bed.
Gabrielle took a bite of the juicy red apple in her hand, as she continued to gaze at the two combatants. She noted that the weapons master's hair was plastered to her face and sweat was running in her eyes. Then Gabrielle looked at Xena and noticed the warrior wasn't even breaking a sweat. That brought a smirk to her lips.
"Dinar for your thoughts," Ephiny said, as she sat down next to the bard and grabbed the apple from her hand. "Or not." She took a bite of the apple and handed it back. "I'm sure you're marveling at the irony of that matchup."
"Not exactly," Gabrielle shook her head and continued eating her apple. "They're not exactly evenly matched, are they?"
"Not a bit," Ephiny grinned and shook her head. "Eponin's gonna be running herself to the breaking point in an effort to improve her skills after this little bout with Xena." She shot the bard an enthusiastic grin. "Can't wait to snuggle up with all those hard muscles, let me tell ya."
Gabrielle snorted. "It does have its advantages."
"Do tell," Ephiny brought her knees up and rested her chin on a fist. "I'm glad to see you out and about, kiddo."
"It's good to be out of that hut, let me tell you," Gabrielle nodded. "Not that I'm complaining, but it is in serious need of a decorator if I'm going to spend any more time in it. The décor is seriously lacking. There isn't even one of those colorful rugs on the wall to distract a person."
Ephiny considered the bard's words for a moment and then nodded. "I guess I have to agree with you there, my friend. We just weren't expecting you to spend as much time there as you have over the last few moons. You're usually not here long enough to use the hut for more than a night's rest. But I can see your point. I'll mention it to a few of the artisans and see what we can come up with."
"Thanks," Gabrielle said.
"So, you ever gonna tell me what happened to you and Xena the other day?" Ephiny asked.
Gabrielle shot the regent a questioning glare. "What makes you think something happened?"
"I came by and tried to wake you," Ephiny continued. "Xena told me to get lost. And you didn't bat an eyelash. I dropped by a candlemark later to bring you both some food, when neither of you showed up for the evening meal. You were both out. Neither one of you moved a muscle."
"You mean to tell me you entered the hut and Xena didn't take your head off?" Gabrielle asked in surprise.
"I even made some noise so she didn't think I was trying to sneak up on her," Ephiny added. "She didn't budge. It was really strange." Then a smirk played at the corners of her mouth. "You two looked really cute all snuggled up together, by the way."
Gabrielle blushed profusely. "Thanks…I think."
"You're welcome," Ephiny smiled. "So?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "You really don't want to know what happened, Eph. Believe me."
The regent studied Gabrielle intently for a long moment, as the bard watched the sparring match. "I know something happened to you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle turned her gaze on the regent. "Oh?"
"I can see it in your eyes," Ephiny nodded. "There's something there that wasn't there before." She narrowed her eyes as she studied her friend. "I'm not sure what it is, but you're…different somehow-more mature, maybe? You're definitely not the same, unsure woman you were when you returned here with me from Amphipolis."
"Encounters with the gods will do that to you," Gabrielle shrugged off her comment.
Ephiny nodded and let her gaze rest on her friend a moment longer before she, too, turned to look at the combatants. "Maybe someday you'll tell me what happened."
"Maybe," Gabrielle acceded.
Ephiny suddenly winced when she saw Xena slip past Eponin's guard and deliver a blow to the unsuspecting Amazon.
"Ooo, that's gonna leave a mark," the regent commented. "Looks like I'll be delivering some tender loving care to a certain weapons master tonight." She winced again as Xena slammed the hilt of her practice sword into Eponin's midsection. "Okay, that's it," she said, as she stood up and marched over to the two combatants.
Gabrielle just sat there and watched the scene play out in front of her with a content smirk. She chuckled when Ephiny grabbed Eponin's arm and yanked the injured weapons master off the practice field. Then she glanced over to find a pair of laughing blue eyes watching her. Xena walked up and sat down next to her.
"Is this seat taken?" The warrior smirked.
"It is now," Gabrielle answered as she leaned against a bare arm with a grateful sigh.
Xena wrapped her arm around the bard's shoulders. "How're you doing?" She kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "Not overdoing it, are you?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Not a bit. I have a wonderful partner who keeps a very close eye on me." She kissed the bare skin of Xena's shoulder. "She keeps me in line and believe me when I say she has her work cut out for her."
"Sounds like a real stickler," Xena smirked.
"I think she just loves me," Gabrielle snickered.
Xena's eyebrow quirked. "Oh, she does, does she? I just might have to meet this woman and straighten her out. Sounds like she's honing in on my territory." She growled low in her throat.
"Why, if I didn't know any better, I might think you were the jealous type, Xena," Gabrielle shot the warrior a teasing smirk.
"Not a bit," Xena answered in all seriousness. "I just don't like anyone messing with my woman."
Gabrielle couldn't hold it in any longer and burst out laughing. She laughed so hard, in fact, that tears ran down her cheeks. When she finally got her laughter back under control, she patted Xena's leather-clad belly affectionately.
"You are such a goof sometimes, Xena."
"Takes one to know one, love," Xena replied with a teasing smirk.
"Yeah, I think I've heard that one a time or two," Gabrielle added with a wry smirk. "So, how much longer do I have to take it easy? I seem to recall being fit enough to travel after that little episode in Thessaly. And I actually died that time."
Xena considered the question for a moment. "I was thinking…"
"About?" Gabrielle turned enough that she could see Xena's face more clearly without straining her neck. She kept a firm hold on the warrior as she did so.
Xena stared off into the distance for a moment before shifting her gaze back to a pair of expectant green eyes. She absently rubbed her fingers against the bard's warm skin. "Oh, I don't know," she finally said. "Maybe we could stick around here for a little while longer," she shrugged. "You could do the queen thing for a while and I could…" a gleam of mischief entered her eyes. "I could teach these supposed warriors a thing or two about battle tactics, strategy…you know, warrior stuff." She glanced in the direction of the village. "Eponin and I still haven't finished our…um…"
"Your contest of wills?" Gabrielle shot her a chiding glare. "From what I could see, you kicked her butt, Xena. I don't think she'll be begging you for a rematch anytime soon. Ephiny certainly has her hands full commiserating with the poor, battered woman."
"Battered?" Xena scoffed. "You don't think I took a few good hits?"
Gabrielle rose up enough to meet the soft, warm lips and deposit a heartfelt kiss. "I'm sure you have a few, honey. I'll definitely have to check you over once we return to our hut."
"Okay," Xena said and then she scowled at the smirk playing at the corners of the bard's mouth. "Hey, I even managed to break a sweat."
A blond brow rose. "Oh, please."
Xena conceded the point, because she really hadn't exerted herself enough to perspire. "I guess I'll have to settle for the full-body exam, huh?"
"I'll be thorough, I promise," Gabrielle leaned up and placed another quick kiss on the warrior's lips.
"Can't wait," Xena smirked.
"So," Gabrielle resumed her place in the crook of Xena's shoulder, "you really want to stay here for a while?"
"It's a thought," Xena nodded.
"Okay, who are you and what did you do with Xena?" Gabrielle deadpanned.
Xena chuckled. "I'm right here, love. I just think we need to stick around and make sure things don't get out of hand with Salmoneus and that latest scheme of his."
"Seriously?" Gabrielle shifted positions again so she could look at Xena.
"No, not really," Xena shrugged. "I'm really thinking that we need to lay low and make sure the gods aren't going to come crashing down on our heads again. This whole thing has just been…"
"Weird?" Gabrielle finished for her.
"Absolutely," Xena agreed. She gently rubbed the backs of her fingers against Gabrielle's cheek. "That whole mess with Ares really had me worried."
Gabrielle leaned into the touch and let her eyes drift shut. "Mmm, me too." She opened her eyes and looked at Xena. "I didn't know what was happening to me and I couldn't control myself when that…feeling came over me. It was like I was trapped in a berserker's body and had to just watch myself do all those terrible things. I still have nightmares."
Xena wrapped her arms around the bard. "I know."
Gabrielle snuggled closer to the warm body. "I know you know. I'm sorry, Xena."
"Sorry for what?"
"For getting myself into this whole mess in the first place."
"You didn't disguise yourself as a goat, seduce yourself and then infuse yourself with Ares' godly charms, Gabrielle," Xena argued. "It's not your fault."
"No, but I went off half-cocked again," Gabrielle conceded. "And I almost tore you to pieces in that hut we're sharing."
Xena placed a gentle kiss on Gabrielle's head. "And I still love you more today than I did yesterday."
"Mushball," Gabrielle chided.
"So, we're staying for a while?" Gabrielle asked with a touch more hope in her tone than she'd intended.
"I think I can live with that."
And they watched the sun dip toward the western horizon as several pairs of Amazons continued to spar on the practice field before them. Neither woman wanted to move as they basked in the late-afternoon glow and shared a peaceful moment in each other's arms.
Author's Note: This was my first attempt at writing a story and posting it on the fly. I'd really like to know how it went and if it bombed or not. Please send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org. I check it daily and promise to reply with a little note, when possible. Thanks again for sticking with our beloved characters as they take a little detour on their journey. I anticipate a sequel in the near future. Cheers!
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