Additionally, the story below contains references, explicit and implied, of a sexual relationship between two consenting adults of the same sex. If you are not of legal age to read this story, or such material is illegal where you live, or you do not feel comfortable with such content, please refrain from reading this story.
Timeline Notes: Set sometime late in 4th season, I figure. One of my characters, Mendices, is mentioned in "History Cast in Amber" (the very first story I ever wrote) and he's seen in more detail in "Compelling Associations" another of my general fiction stories.
If Memory Serves
(c) January 1999
"Everything ready?" Mendices asked her as they walked through the dark camp, watching the men sleeping. The moon high overhead cast soft rays of light down through the branches, illuminating their path.
Xena brushed her hair from her face. Then the breeze sent it into disarray again, making her sigh. "City's as good as ours."
"Are you ready for this?" He paused on the walk, putting a hand on her shoulder.
She looked around at the darkness. "I feel like I've been waiting for this moment forever."
"I'm going to join the night watch," he said, turning away.
She studied his back for a long moment, and realized she didn't want him to leave just yet. "Wait." She surprised herself by putting out her hand and catching the fabric of his tunic on the end of her fingers. "I... Will you pray?"
When he turned, she saw his brown eyes registered surprise even in the dark. "Quiet time on watch is ideal," he replied slowly.
He seemed reluctant to talk about it, Xena thought. Must be pretty personal. Maybe she shouldn't... but of late she'd been feeling like she needed direction. Someone in whom to place her trust. Her conversations with this man over the last few days flitted through her mind. Despite her lack of memory before he'd found her, Mendices had seemed very forthright and honest in their many conversations. She needed that, wanted it, and craved it with an intensity that startled her. She wanted Rome. Badly.
The sense of awesome power just out of reach tantalized her and the thought of Caesar groveling at her feet sent shivers down Xena's spine. Tantalized her. Gaining control of herself, she lifted her chakram from her belt hook, turning it over and over in her hands, caressing the pattern carved in each side, looking up at him and alternately looking away. With an edge of hesitance she sincerely wished would go away, she asked, "W... Would you show me?"
Mendices blinked. "You... want me... to show you how to pray? To?"
"First time for everything, hmmm?"
"Mendices," she confided. "I don't remember wanting anything more than this." Her eyes burned into his.
They had moved out of the camp proper, and started into the forest. He leaned back against a tree, crossing his arms over his chest. "Why do you think Ares will hear you?"
Xena leaned against another tree, letting her hands trace the rough bark. "I want vengeance."
"That's Ares' department all right." He straightened. "What will you give him?"
"To gain a god's favor, you have to have a sacrifice. Do you have one?"
She considered that. What did she have to give a god? "What did you give?"
"What ties you to Ares?"
He pursed his lips. "My... soul." His lips curled in a grin she thought seemed to be conveying an internal ironic thought.
Xena furrowed her brow. "Well, we'll see what he asks for."
"All right." Mendices gestured for her to precede him and the two walked up the hillside path together.
Xena took a deep breath of the forest, absorbing the damp oak and fern smells, cocking her head to the whistle of owls' wings as the night hunters searched for prey. "So where are we going?"
"There's a rock altar up here. A few others have offered sacrifices." Mendices slid past her on the path. She brushed her hand along his arm and their fingers twined together as he led her along.
The path wound up the hillside. Mendices finally stepped aside, pulling the branches of a thick bush with him. "This way." Xena stepped through into a clearing. This place was devoid of trees for about ten paces in any direction. A setting of flat stones had been assembled in the middle. The carcasses of several dead animals surrounded the bloodstained altar that glowed slightly in the moonlight.
"Here?" she asked, her voice betrayed a measure of uncertainty she was slightly ashamed to have him hear. She felt a heat spread across her cheeks.
"Yeah." the brown-haired man smiled with an air of pleasant expectation that she found oddly compelling. "A lot of the men come here."
She knelt at the altar feeling the dirt compress against her knees, and brushed her hands against the stained stone. "Animal sacrifice, huh?" He crouched at her back and ran his finger through a pool of partially coagulated blood. She watched his lips curl into a smile. His eyes brightened with an almost primal pleasure she could feel crackling the air around them. She touched his cheek. "All right. So show me."
He brought his own hand up, mimicking her gesture, brushing her cheek without thought, leaving a streak of the blood behind. "We need an animal sacrifice," he murmured, as their gazes caught and held.
Without thought Xena reached out and found her fist closing around a scurrying raccoon. Mendices rolled back on his heels and smiled, helping her to her feet. "Your dagger," he said, his voice thickening.
The clearing was dappled in darkness and light. Xena could feel her heart pounding in her chest, very close to painful, but exhilarating too. For a single suspended moment, Mendices' gaze became her whole world. She found herself panting, and pulled her dagger. As if in slow motion, she pulled her dagger, gazing down at the trapped animal.
The raccoon squirmed in her fist, its tiny nails scratching her forearm and hand in an attempt to free itself. Its squeals and cries dinned her ears. She shifted her grip, pressing its furry body against the stone. Under her hand she could feel its tiny racing heart in time with her own.
Xena brought the dagger against its fur, as the raccoon twisted against her grip. She felt Mendices' hand on her shoulder, suddenly staring into pale eyes, black irises rimmed in hazel green. Xena froze. "I can't do this," she said, dropping the dagger.
"Yes you can. If you want Ares' protection."
She lifted the squirming captured creature. "It's an innocent." Gazing back up at Mendices, Xena stated with total conviction. "I want to offer him Caesar's blood." Mendices frowned. Xena began to feel the doubt invade her again under his steady gaze. "I should do this in order to talk to him?" Mendices nodded. "All right."
Mendices stepped away from her, but she felt his gaze on her for the longest time. She said nothing more until the business had been done. The raccoon was gutted and laid over the altar, its blood adding to the stains on the stone. She struck a flint to the wood under the altar and dropped the carcass into the flames. The smoke undulated up as if its incense were to please the god and Xena took a deep breath. Dropping the dagger, Xena unsheathed her sword, grasping the hilt as she drove it into the dirt. "Ares, hear me."
She sat back and looked up at the stars twinkling overhead. Closing her eyes and squaring her jaw, she felt her way through her next words carefully. "I need your strength to do this. I need this." She choked on a soft sob. "I want the nightmare to end."
A dark shadow fell across her kneeling form; she could feel the chill suddenly surround her. Turning, she opened her eyes.
"Stand and present yourself," the male voice was deep and thick. The moonlight revealed a tanned face with ebony sideburns outlining broad cheekbones. His face was surrounded by sensuously disarrayed curly black hair. His piercing blue eyes looked on her with haughtiness. He seemed to look at her with familiarity, but she didn't remember meeting him before. Maybe she was already a servant of his... no, the sacrificial act had seemed bone-deep wrong.
"Ares?" She started to lift her hand to touch him and watched him back out of reach. "You look different than I imagined," she said, puzzled.
The god pursed his lips and furrowed his brow for a long moment. "Well, so it's a new start you desire?"
"I need help killing Caesar."
"I can't kill him for you. What will you give me for assuring your victory?"
She took a deep breath, caught in his absorbing dark eyes. "I want to be able to go home when this is over."
The God of War shook his head. "You summoned me, Xena. What will you give me in exchange for victory over Caesar?"
"I'll give you Rome."
"I don't want Rome."
She pulled her fingers through her bangs. "I don't have anything else," she exhaled a long held breath of exasperation.
Ares leaned close and lifted the charred raccoon carcass. "First time I've ever had an offering so reluctantly given."
"Its death seemed so pointless."
"Death is never pointless, Xena." He flicked the carcass out of his palm, listening a moment as it sizzled again in the flames. "It proves we're alive. Nothing else matters."
"Caesar dying by your hand, Xena. That moment will define you. Think about it." He passed a hand over her eyes bringing her a vision. As Caesar's death... her dagger in his chest, played in her mind, Xena continued focusing on Ares' voice. "Feel your heart pounding. Hear your blade in the air. It isn't death, but the magnification of life--your life."
"So you'll help me?" She began panting again, gasping for air as anxiety and desire each raged for dominance in her body.
"The vision is yours for a price."
Xena was caught up in the whirlpool of emotions, asking only, "What price?"
His voice was silky, reassuring. "You."
"For Caesar?" She felt lightheaded, an enormous bubble of shock simultaneously flooding her body and too, lifting her high from the ground. She dimly felt his hand on her arm. So this is what it's like to lose your soul to a god...
"For Caesar's death, I want you." He caught her in his arms as her legs went limp. The warmth made her think of her mother, when she insisted on a hug after a skinned knee when Xena was a child. "Victory is yours, Xena," he said.
She closed her eyes and felt herself falling asleep. "Anything. As long as I can go home," she murmured. "I'm tired of being alone."
"You'll never be alone again, Xena. I promise." She felt a light pressure as he kissed her hair. "Sleep. The morning of battle will be upon us soon." Her limbs began to course with the strength of thousands and her head pounded with the visions of killing and death. Her nostrils flared, breathing in the imagined odors of blood and her ears dinned with the future cries of the dying. Power. Life over death. She felt assured of victory.
Ares would help her claim it. He
was filling her now with the knowledge, strategies, and skills right now.
She was certain of that as she floated in the miasma of emotion, half caught
between sleep and wakeful eagerness.
The pre-dawn light filtered in from the corridors high windows as the blonde walked from her quarters to the opposite end of the merchant's home. She passed the entrance to the shop, and thought momentarily of leaving.
But it was likely the merchant was already there, preparing for the day ahead, which no one except her seemed concerned about. She'd tried to tell the guard who'd come to wake her. He'd shrugged, said that Rome would never fall to an outside power, and left her to dress for her duties.
Turning another corner, Gabrielle walked into the cooking room and reported for her duties. "The mistress wants you to help her in her bath before you accompany her to market."
The market, Gabrielle thought. But... "What about the army outside?" The cook looked at her as if she hadn't spoken. Without another word, Gabrielle picked up a hard bread roll before walking out.
At the bath, the merchant's wife was just finishing. She lay on her stomach, a servant rubbing lotions into her feet, while another rubbed oils into the skin of her shoulders and back. At the sound of her entrance the woman looked up from her hands. "Ah, good. Bring me my clothes." The woman was unexceptional, thought Gabrielle, as she brought the peach colored dress over. As she sat up Gabrielle could see she was moderately well built, with shoulder-length brown hair and pale white skin, made paler, creamier and softer by the years of lotion and oils.
The bard helped her into the gown, securing the ties at her waist, bosom and finally shoulders.
"You're quiet," the woman commented. Startled to be engaged in conversation, Gabrielle's eyes were wide when she looked up. The woman's hand cupped her chin. "You're the one who was beaten last night." Silence. "Well, say something."
"Well, Gabrielle. I take it you're not usually clumsy." The woman's voice was deep, smooth, but edged with amusement at the blonde's expense.
The bard sought words carefully. "No. I'm not."
"That's good, because I need help at the market today."
"What of the army at the gates?"
"I am Talia of Rome, daughter of a Senator. I need fear nothing and no one."
Gabrielle frowned. "It may not be enough."
"What do you mean?"
"The army out there. I don't know how yet--or why. But Xena, the Warrior Princess, leads it. I'm almost certain of it."
Talia's eyes had grown wide. "How do you know this? Are you a spy? You are new to my husband's home. Are you a spy for this Xena?" The merchant's wife grasped Gabrielle's wrists painfully.
"No! I'm not sure. I--I thought I heard her last night." Gabrielle pulled herself from Talia's hold. "I just--I don't want anyone to get hurt."
"The Roman army is the finest in
the world. It's this Xena woman who better watch out." Talia turned away.
"Now, come with me."
The sun was fully visible on the horizon. Its orange light bathed the marble edifices surrounding the market as Gabrielle trailed Talia. Her first stop was the spice caravan coming in from their camp outside the city. The cart had only just come to a stop surrounded by anxious patrons when it seemed the world exploded.
A bright light burst on the ground near Talia's feet erupting in a cloud of powder. As Gabrielle pulled the woman away another powder bomb exploded in their path. The air filled with the sounds of screaming and loud thundering hoofbeats.
"We've got to find you cover," the bard insisted. They jumped aside as a mounted Roman patrol raced past to engage the enemy before it actually breached the city.
More bombs exploded as Gabrielle ushered Talia inside a shop. Crouching with the woman behind the counter, she finally stood to run out when Talia's voice drew her up. "Where are you going?"
"Something's wrong. Maybe she didn't think she could get into Rome without help." Gabrielle took a deep breath and coughed at the smoke-filled air.
Talia looked at her strangely. "Why would a military commander come looking for you?"
"I'm a friend of hers. I wonder," Gabrielle trailed off, wondering what could have made Xena doubt herself so much that she was unwilling to come to Rome alone to rescue her. She shook her head. In a few hours, maybe less, she'd have her answers. "I'll go meet her. Find out what's going on."
"You're one girl. A small one at that. How do you intend to stop a war?" Talia called after her.
Gabrielle bit her lip. Confusion kept her focused inward for a long moment after she left the relative safety of the shop. A horse and rider blew past engaged in close combat with a Roman soldier. The bay horse's legs nearly trampled the small compact blonde. She rolled out of the way and came up looking at the rider's back.
The flash of a sword caught her eye and she turned to see a Roman fall, his killer's face revealed in the smoke beyond.
The crystal blue eyes in an ebony framed face were as familiar to the bard as her own breathing. But the mask of pure rage, unchecked battle lust that twisted those beloved features.
Not since their battle with the Horde had Gabrielle seen that face. Xena threw her head back, shaking her unruly mane of hair from her cheeks, wrenching her sword free of the Roman's stomach. Her voice pierced the air with her battle cry. She turned around pinning the blonde to the spot.
There was a long moment of hesitation in the warrior. Gabrielle's heart began to soar as she felt a moment of joy at their reunion, even in these dire circumstances. However suddenly the blue eyes hooded, focused on something else entirely. While their gazes remained locked, Gabrielle had the strangest experience of feeling Xena slice her blade through the belly of another Roman attacker. She felt the heavy slowness in her arms and the initial resistance of flesh before it all suddenly gave in a rush of blood. All around them both the battle raged, Greek killing Roman and Roman killing Greek. Then the brunette was running toward Gabrielle, sword up, tip extended. Gabrielle reached out her hand.
"Death to Romans!" The bard found herself strong-armed aside. She stumbled, barely keeping her footing as she turned in place. As the invading soldiers took up their commander's cry, Gabrielle watched Xena kill two more Roman soldiers.
The woman's name welled up from the bard's stunned breathless chest. "Xena!" She caught the warrior's attention only for a split second. Wild blue eyes focused on her face, registered surprise then drifted away and caught back up in the raging battle.
Gabrielle ran forward, but the battle melee kept her from the brunette warrior's side. At first she managed to dodge the various combatants. Xena left a trail of death as she plunged deeper into the heart of the city. Screams of "Death to Rome!" alternated with "I want Caesar!" as the wild-eyed warrior struck any armed person who ventured near.
The bard was suddenly faced with opposition. A Greek who thought she was after his commander to do harm raised his shield and sword. Plunging forward, Gabrielle twisted, grabbed a pole support from a shop canopy and knocked him senseless. He collapsed to the dirt unconscious, his face frozen in surprise. "Sorry," she whispered as she ran on.
The interruption cost her. The warrior had managed to lose her in the time it took for Gabrielle to free herself of the opposition. "Xena!" she risked yelling, hoping to draw out the unseen warrior.
"Ay-yi-yi-yi-yah!" Gabrielle spun to see Xena leaping high over her head out of a building to her left. "Why are you following me?!" The warrior yelled, lifting her sword over Gabrielle's head.
"I wanted to make sure you're all right!" Gabrielle yelled back, fear strangling her voice.
"A Roman slave!" Xena suddenly had Gabrielle around the waist, her sword pressed across the blonde's throat. "More likely an assassin!" Gabrielle could smell the sweat on the warrior's body, feel it slipping between them where their bodies touched. Muscles flexed and Gabrielle came very close to swooning from the overpowering sensations of fear between them. She figured it was her own reaction. She had no more time to think as the warrior's hand plunged into her clothing, searching for something. "Where's the knife you planned to slip between my ribs? Where is it?" The bard was flung into the dirt.
"What's wrong with you? Xena! It's me, Gabrielle!"
Xena's eyes seemed glazed with a haze. She saw Gabrielle there, but somehow there was no recognition. The bard had expected tokens of their relationship. A tentative hug, a hurt smile or an "I'll be right back." She thought she had known Xena. However right at this moment, it was and it wasn't Xena standing before her. The brief fleeting thought alarmed her: Xena's been enchanted.
The warrior gave her a blank look before turning and sliding her sword into the stomach of a Roman who'd crept up behind her, her eyes cold as ice. "Well, you're no assassin. You want help to escape then? Fine." Even the warrior's voice was detached. Not the usual warm tones she would use when they had talked. Xena pulled a strip of gray green cloth from her weapon belt. "Make it out of the city and this will get you escorted to my camp."
Gabrielle looked away from the wild blue eyes, feeling a wild tingle when she felt Xena's touch as the cloth came into her hand. Numbly she closed her fingers around it. Tears clogged her throat. She could only watch in silence as the warrior ran off deeper into the heart of the city. She looked blankly at the blue-green cloth. Safe passage into your camp? Why can't you take me away from this yourself? What's happened to you?
Questions rained down in Gabrielle's mind as furiously as the firebombs and explosions erupted around her in Rome's streets. Gabrielle heard none of it as surprise and fear roared up, seized her throat, choking off her breath and turning the edges of her vision black. She had a sudden crazy thought that she'd found another double. Could it be? Within moments she collapsed to the street, unconscious, overwhelmed by the reunion, which hadn't been really a reunion, with a person who couldn't possibly be Xena, but somehow was indeed.
Xena continued on storming through the city, but something tugged at her consciousness making her turn to look at the spot where she'd run across the young blonde Roman slave.
She witnessed the young woman's collapse some yards away and felt her heart stop. Why it should do that, she hadn't the faintest idea. With an economy of motion, she spun on her heel, dispatched a Roman who had moved behind her, and crossed the open space. Xena experienced a frisson of unexplained fear as she bent over the blonde, feeling along arms and legs for injury.
Nothing. Gently she examined the pale face. A bruise and several scratches stood out in clear relief, beginning to pucker on her cheek. Absurdly Xena wondered if one of her men, or a Roman taskmaster, had given the girl the injuries. Tentatively she eased an eyelid open to check the girl's eyes. Xena let her breath out when she saw that the pupils were normal. Unconscious then. Nausea cramped her stomach. An innocent, she thought. Damn.
The sounds of fighting came closer. Taking precious moments to study the colorless face and tracing through the blonde's disheveled locks Xena came to a decision. She quickly slung the unconscious girl over her shoulder, bearing her away from the center of the street. Her ice blue eyes scoped for a safe place Propping the girl up against a storefront, the warrior blocked her body from the street with her own while the battle continued.
"C'mon, wake up." She lightly patted the girl's cheek and touched two fingers to her throat, searching for a pulse. It was faint, but the girl was indeed alive. Oh, thank the gods! She thought, wondering simultaneously when and why she had become so concerned with an insignificant or such a liability in a war zone. "C'mon. Wake up, girl."
The woman's eyes fluttered open by degrees and then alarm registered in the green depths. "Wha--?" She blinked, focused and stared up at Xena. Her face registered a slow smile, her cheeks blooming again with healthy color. The warrior backed up quickly however as the slender hand sought to touch her face. "Oh, thank the gods. It's you." The girl shook her head and rubbed her eyes, as her voice grew stronger, and rubbed her eyes. "I was dreaming this awful-" Her words trailed off as she caught a glimpse of the scene beyond the warrior's protective stance. "Xena?"
"You know my name." Xena growled. The young woman started as if struck. The Warrior forced herself to moderate her abrupt tone. "We've got to get you to a safer spot. What happened? How were you injured?" The brunette gestured to the street demanding an answer.
The woman looked, furrowed her brow, then gazed back up at Xena. "I... fainted. I've never done that before."
"Being in the middle of a battle will do lots of strange things." Xena looked around, wondering what to do next. She watched her men scrambling around dead soldiers, but her mind did not dwell long on them, instead turning quickly back to the matter of the girl. Frustration and inner confusion were evident in her expression as she returned her concentration to the young woman.
Puzzled green eyes green eyes flickered back and forth between Xena and some point beyond the warrior.
There was a long moment of silence, then the girl's eyes widened sharply. Instinctively, Xena twirled rising to her full height. Swinging her sword out in a strong arc, she cut off the arm of the Roman who had raised his own weapon to strike a blow to her unguarded head.
Xena turned back around, the soldier immediately forgotten as he collapsed holding his intestines in his bloody hands. The woman was hiding her face in shaking hands. Xena realized what a shock the unconscious act had on the girl, and said, "I'm sorry about that." She reached down and grasped the delicately boned forearm. "Come on. Let's get out of here."
"Xena, what's going on?"
The constant use of her name by a person she didn't know jarred Xena's composure. She spun the girl in place and growled. "What in Hades is your name? We ought to at least be on equal footing! You seem to know me!"
The girl went pale for a long moment, then swallowed, put her hand over Xena's fingers on her arm, said, "That hurts. Let me go." Her voice was firm and only the trembling of her bottom lip revealed her fear. "I don't understand what's happened to you."
"I'm a warrior, here to kill Caesar. Simple as that." The blonde pulled away, wandering a bit before looking determined to find a hiding place. The battle had moved further away from this section of town. The warrior studied the girl's back as she moved out of reach, letting her eyes travel over the slim muscular form. The shapeless chiton did nothing to enhance the slender figure, nor anything to hide the finely muscled arms and legs. Suddenly, Xena realized that the girl limped. "Wait." Slowly the girl turned, favoring her right leg. "You're hurt."
Absently rubbing at her thigh, the Roman slave offered, "I must've hurt myself falling when I fainted."
The raven-haired warrior closed the gap of space between them and lifted her hand to the girl's shoulder, only to pull it back at the last moment. "I... I'd like to help you." Xena found herself saying, absorbed in those emerald eyes.
Tentatively the girl nodded. Xena slipped her arm around the girl's waist. "Lean on me," Xena said quietly. "Um," she waited until the sound brought the girl's face around. "Will you tell me your name?" She tried to fathom the enigmatic expression behind those green eyes.
With an expression Xena determined was inquisitive, the young woman said, "Gabrielle." Xena heard a distinct note of resignation in the young voice.
"Where were you from, Gabrielle?"
She felt the girl's hair slide across her arm as she nodded. "It is."
"We'll be going back there after this is over. You're welcome to join us." Then, letting the silence fall between them, Xena carefully led the way toward the city gate, avoiding the remaining hot spots of battle. Shaking her head, she realized she would rather pull out for now, get some things settled, and then return in the morning. She waved off a Greek soldier who gestured that he would take the girl. Xena gave a gruff order at another who ran up to give her a battle report. It could all wait; she didn't entirely understand why she felt that way, but something compelled her to get the young woman to safety before anything else happened.
Shielding her eyes with a free hand, Xena gauged from the sun that it was already after midday. Perhaps she could lead her men and care for the girl at the same time. She looked at her army, saw some of them waver with exhaustion. They'd been fighting a long time. Again she made a spur of the moment decision.
"Retreat!" she yelled, feeling the girl in her grasp flinch at the volume. Well that couldn't be helped. "Pull out! Back to camp!" Though, why she was even worried about a slip of girl.... Xena looked down at the disheveled blonde in her arms and felt the warmth of their bodies mingle where this Gabrielle leaned against Xena. The warrior tugged her closer, to more easily steady the limping girl, all the time wondering if she had truly gone mad as she noted that they had been winning. Many Romans lay dead and dying on the ground.
Xena melted into the retreating mass of her army of soldiers. Some dragged wounded comrades while others limped into ranks, all pouring out of the Roman gates. Some looked slightly confused, but several saluted her with their weapons as she passed. Once on the hillside, Xena turned and watched the Roman military close off the city. Communicated through their touch, she felt the young blonde start to shiver. "C'mon. You're hungry I'll bet." The woman gave her a strange look followed by a half-smile. "What?" Xena asked with exasperation.
"You always think I'm hungry." There was plainly felt elation behind the simple words.
"I don't know you," Xena insisted. "I'm hungry. I figured you would be too."
The smile fled instantly, and the blonde's quavering voice offered a sincerely depressed, "Oh."
Xena felt like kicking herself. Then like kicking the girl, for all the sudden frustration she was feeling. "Just... Let's go." She took a deep breath and guided the girl by the arm past the rear guard sentries and into the camp itself.
Overseeing the catapult units for Xena, Ares noticed the pullout of the Greek troops only as they emerged from Rome's gates. What insanity is this? He searched the retreating warriors for a familiar brunette.
He didn't spy Xena for the longest time, seeing instead hundreds of confused weary faces. Was Xena injured and another ordered the retreat?
Even as he ordered the artillery to give cover for their retreating comrades, Ares had another terrifying thought. It spurred him into a run down to the city. Xena's dead.
The two words fell over each other in his head. Terror constricted his chest and he stumbled on the uneven terrain. As he came within shouting distance of the first of the Greeks, he called out, "What's going on?"
"Commander called a retreat," one shouted helpfully. He was assisting a fellow soldier with a long gash from thigh to mid-calf.
"Why? Where is she?"
"Pro'lly saw sum'thin'," the soldier shrugged in reply.
Ares spun in place and pulled his sword, racing toward Rome. He ordered all the men to fall back and secure the camp. Each face he passed he identified, searching for the one as familiar to him as breathing.
"Damn you, Xena!" He cursed muttering under his breath "If you've gone and gotten yourself killed..." He trailed off when he reached the main body of Greek troops that the Romans pursued beyond the city gates. Quickly identifying friend from foe, he wielded his weapon in support of the Greek retreat.
His blade sank into belly after belly, severing arms and legs in quick-as-lightning slices. He had only half his mind on the task at hand. Instead many of his senses were more keyed to finding the missing Warrior Princess. A chill coursed over his spine and he instinctively leapt skyward tumbling heels over head until he twisted and landed looking the other way. His sword came up to ward off another attack.
Instead of an attacker, the god had a clear view of Xena moving away and up the hillside. Leaning heavily on the warrior's left arm was a slightly built blonde, garbed in slave clothes.
He watched the two, even as Xena paused, almost searching the air for a long moment, but when she turned, she looked straight past him, to the city gates which were groaning as they were pulled shut. Xena's uncanny ability to feel his presence seemed to have fled the warrior along with her memories.
With a heavy heart he started toward her and the blonde, torn between drawing her attention and getting close enough to identify the injured blonde slave. Amazingly he was nearly upon them, watching Xena's face change as she shifted her gaze from the gate to the girl, when it seemed the brunette warrior finally noticed him.
"Yes?" He gestured toward Rome. "What happened?"
Xena's blue eyes flared briefly with a white, hot flame of anger. "We need to regroup. The Romans were ready for us."
"They won't be any less ready tomorrow, Xena! Strike now while the opportunity is here!" He watched her glance surreptitiously down to the blonde on her arm before she squared her jaw and scowled back at him. "I will get him tomorrow." Her voice dropped to a menacingly low register and Ares watched the blonde head come up.
It was indeed Gabrielle whom Xena had apparently rescued, he realized with a heavy heart. Her green eyes fell on Xena's face with a mixture of fear and confusion.
Xena must have caught the look because she next dismissed him completely. "We'll not discuss it, Mendices. Take the flank reports. I'm going to eat." The flippancy in her voice told him all he needed to know. He was expected to tend to things while she tended to the girl.
He fumed but said nothing. He couldn't, without revealing too much. So he had to stand there and watch the warrior solicitously help the blonde bard continue up the hillside path. He wondered if Xena had any idea who the girl really was.
He pounded a fist into his other palm. He had been absolutely certain that the prayer session had awakened "Xena the Destroyer of Nations." The night's experience had left him drained as he gave over so much of himself in order to fulfill her wish. Now it seemed the whole process had been nullified by one look at a child-faced girl with blonde hair and devastating green eyes. "Damn that bard!" he growled, turning away and finally organizing the retreat.
Ares had became so distracted that he narrowly avoided a Roman sword. Viciously transferring his anger at the warrior and bard, he hacked the soldier in half, gloating with heaving breaths as the glazed eyes stared up at him from the dirt where the man's head had fallen.
The voiceless mouth, as the man's soul separated for its journey, brought Ares very nearly to his knees with a single praising word: "Ares."
He felt as if his stomach was being torn out straight through the wall of his chest. Helping Xena was severely dividing his loyalties he realized. Even as he felt himself offer the welcoming salute to the fallen dead now walking as shades on the battlefield... his battlefield, he felt regret, confusion and anger in equal measure.
Being a god was a god-awful business
sometimes. He glanced over his shoulder and instantly identified the brunette
and blonde making their way up the hillside still. Gods be damned, I'm
going to kill that girl!
Gabrielle, leaning heavily on Xena's arm, had a minimal vantagepoint from her position, but studied everything she could for clues as to what was going on. She was hesitant to ask, feeling this woman under her touch would be angry instead of pleased by her questions. Already, she was having a hard time separating this stranger from the touch that her body recognized as intimately familiar. The hand now cupped under her elbow and the other tucked against her ribs had brought her hours of pleasure.
Wondering if she might be able to awaken something in Xena, Gabrielle tried her own "touch" test, resting her hand across the warrior's barely visible collarbone trying to pretend it was an attempt to right herself.
"Hold on," the warrior said, pausing against a tree. "Problems?"
Gabrielle blew her breath out across her face, but shook her head. "I'll walk on my own thanks." She fought to keep away the aggravation she felt from her failed attempt to elicit a pleasant reaction. The bard had sensed not a single moment of passion flaring in the warrior, and began to think again about the possibility that this wasn't Xena, but some other impostor.
Xena's hands fell away from her abruptly and the bard started walking away. "My tent is down this path," the warrior's voice called out after her. Gabrielle only nodded absently walking aimlessly, lowering her head and studying her feet.
"Watch it." Xena was suddenly grasping her shoulder, pulling her to a stop. Gabrielle looked up into intent blue eyes. "You were about to walk into a tree."
Xena's brow furrowed, but she let go. "There aren't any other women here. You'll have to sleep in my tent."
Gabrielle closed her eyes feeling the likely pain that would bring from night after night of sleeping so close, yet being so far away from the warrior's heart. "I... couldn't," she stumbled to a halt trying to think of a refusal that Xena would understand. "I... snore," she grasped at the broken bit of straw in that lie.
"Doesn't matter. I'll be working on this campaign most of the time."
Gabrielle found her gaze drawn up at the quietly voiced comment. "Oh." The familiar profile of Xena gazing off toward the afternoon sun met her green-eyed gaze. Xena was bothered deeply by something, she knew. "I... could help you. A... pallet in the corner will be enough."
Xena shifted in place. "You would be my personal slave?" Gabrielle couldn't stop her nose wrinkling in distaste at that title. "My handmaid then. What compensation do you want? Gold?"
"What would I do with gold?" The bard let herself shrug. "I... safe passage back to Greece?"
Xena's eyes narrowed as she considered the request. Finally Gabrielle saw the warrior's chest expand in a deep breath. "All right," the warrior said, turning to begin walking again toward her tent.
The blonde fell into step behind the brunette, studying her long muscular back encased in the dirt and blood-spattered leathers. She noticed the bruises and cuts from battle. Her gaze fell to the wrapped bound wrist that seemed extra tightly wound. "Your wrist. What happened?"
The warrior's blue eyes drifted down to her wrist. She shrugged. "Four days ago I fell off a cliff."
Four days? Just after their battle with the slavers then, the bard realized. Gabrielle's eyes widened at that. Wow. The bandages were bloody, and the bard realized that today's fighting if not entirely reopened had aggravated the injury. "I... could change the bandages for you."
Saying nothing, Xena pulled aside the tent flap and gestured with the bandaged hand. "Go on."
"You're very quiet."
Gabrielle looked up, hands freezing in her task. "There doesn't seem to be much to say." Actually, the bard thought, she hadn't spent this much time silent since the hours alone in the punishment cell in Rome. It was beginning to wear on her nerves, she acknowledged, and was almost pathetically grateful that Xena had finally said something.
They'd been in here--Xena's tent in the middle of the Greek camp--for the last two candlemarks. The warrior had sent away the healer, a plump man named Yerkes, saying that her "new girl" would tend her.
Until she'd been mentioned, Gabrielle sat quietly in the corner on a small chest, watching the warrior gradually remove her various arms and armaments. She also ate the food that Xena ordered given to her even though she declined her own bowl, leaving it unattended on the table until the minced meat pie was too cold to be edible. The emotions crossing Xena's tanned face as all this happened were both familiar and still, somehow, tainted with painful unfamiliarity. A tightening of her lips for which Gabrielle could not identify a reason followed the slight pinch at the corner of her blue eyes when she felt a pull on one of her injuries.
The warrior was thinking things her bard could not fathom. The pain of that realization kept tears just behind the green eyes.
Xena opened and closed her hand when Gabrielle finished securing the bandage. "That will do." Her hand rested in the girl's cupped fingers. The contact point tingled, and she lifted her blue eyes to fall into fathomless green. "You should get some sleep."
"I--What about you?"
Xena shook her head. "I've got to make rounds. See to the perimeter. That sort of thing." She'd removed her armor plates and now Gabrielle's hand slipped against skin and leather, bringing a heated sensation to both. Xena found herself tracking Gabrielle's hand until it stopped out of view on her shoulder. Fingers traced a bruise. "You should have this rubbed with liniment."
Why am I not pulling away from this? Xena asked herself even as her vision shrunk to nothing more than a piercing, curiously warm pair of green eyes. She took a deep breath, surprising even herself when words poured forth. "Afterward I really have to make rounds."
The girl's face cracked into a breath-stealing smile, her cheeks dimpling and, Xena noticed, a soft ridge appearing in the bridge of her nose. "I... All right."
Xena reached up and slid the leather straps from her shoulders, feeling the warmth depart as the girl moved her own hands away. "Would it be easier for you if I laid down?" She didn't understand her solicitous behavior toward this unknown woman, but was unable to stop herself from keeping her contact and... making her happy.
The blonde's eyes widened then she seemed to gain control of her reaction. "That would be... easier."
"All right." Xena found her voice fading to a whisper in response to Gabrielle's quiet acquiescence. A few minutes later, she had stripped from her leathers, and unlaced her shift. She laid herself on her stomach on a low couch. Resting her head lightly on her crossed arms, she turned her blue eyes on the girl who stood transfixed just out of the full circle of candlelight. "The liniment is in the smaller chest."
Eyes half-hidden from view, Xena watched Gabrielle move to the chest and rummage for the liniment among her treatment supplies. "Found it," she voiced softly, turning around and showing the small jar. The girl walked into the circle of light, her hair catching the light from the candle highlighting it in orange and red. Xena watched her expression stiffen in marked time with the measured steps she used to cross to the couch.
She watched the jar top come off. She became unusually self-conscious around the girl's uncertainty and closed her eyes. Her other senses tuned to every move the girl made. She heard the soft thwosh sound as fingers dipped into the gray colored cream. She heard the light rubbing sound as the liniment was warmed and softened on the blonde's fingers. She smelled the sharp peppermint odor released into the air by the heating process.
"It might be a little cool," the woman said quietly just before her fingers tentatively touched Xena's back. It wasn't though. The combination of the girl's preparation of the liniment and the heat from her fingers and Xena could feel it soothing her aches and bruises.
The girl obviously had some experience doing this sort of thing. Her motions were at first prodding carefully and then more firmly, working the liniment in ever widening circles into the warrior's back. Fingers found the separate layers of muscle and strongly massaged the length and breadth of each. The heels of her palms, warm with liniment, isolated the bruises across Xena's biceps, sending penetrating healing deep into those well-worked muscles.
The warrior found herself soon drifting toward sleep, and even the thought that she shouldn't did not keep the feeling of hazy comfort away. Xena let the two sensations of duty and sleepiness war for a short time before resigning herself to the requirements of duty.
The girl had been extremely quiet during the process, moving from Xena's upper back down across her lower back and finally to tend the muscles in her legs. When Xena spoke, she did so with care to disrupt the peacefulness as little as possible. "That will do."
Her words however were responded to as if they were cold ice water thrown on the girl's face. A high flush from strain had reddened Gabrielle's cheeks and forehead, but now the underlying skin color washed pale. Xena saw Gabrielle's hands snatched away as she rolled over and sat up. Gabrielle pushed at a stray lock of hair that had come undone during her work. The brunette found herself reaching out and settling that hair behind the girl's ear, feeling its silky length slide over her fingers. "Be careful," the girl whispered, turning her cheek absently to press against the warrior's wrist.
Pain lanced through the warrior's chest, restoring her gruff nature as a defense against the weakening feeling that weighted her belly at the touch of the girl's soft face. She actually felt the muscles of her face stiffen, and tension returned to her recently relaxed back muscles.
Xena stood quickly, watching with a confused combination of regret and anger as Gabrielle backed away from her, dropping her hands to her side.
Pulling her shift together with a few painful snaps of her wrists, Xena stepped into her leather gambeson with a few more. "Go to sleep," she said gruffly, turning on her heel and striding out of the tent.
Outside, Xena sucked in several breaths, feeling the cold night air fill her lungs. "Damn." She consciously put aside the pain in her wrists, back and legs. Only a moment ago the pain lessened to nothing in the girl's skilled hands. Time for business. She looked out at the few milling soldiers, walking carefully among their sleeping comrades. "Victus," she called one to her side.
"Find Mendices. Tell him I've gone to take watch at the western posts."
"Do you want him to bring something to you?"
A soft sound tickled at her sensitive hearing and then just abruptly stopped, like a cork had been stuffed back into an open wineskin. Xena shivered as she felt a deep physical need sweep over her body. Glancing back at her tent, she shook her head. "No. I need to talk to him about... tomorrow."
Victus saluted her and nodded. "Yes, ma'am. Right away."
Alone at last in Xena's tent, Gabrielle stood in the middle of the open space, and felt the tears begin to flow. She couldn't hold them back any longer. Walking stiffly she returned to the dark corner, out of the candlelight and sat back down on the chest, looking at her small, half-eaten platter of food, then over to Xena's cold untouched platter.
She reached out to touch it, noticing her hands shaking. Vivid recall placed her hands once again on the warrior's back, sliding easily, familiarly over knotted muscles, quickly becoming languid under her touch. She snatched her hands back and hugged them under her arms. Oh gods!
She bit her lip, but a whimpering cry escaped anyway. Finally, she pushed her hand over her quivering, damp lips and shut her eyes tightly against the tears. The sound stopped, but the tears would not be halted.
I've got to get out of here. She hung her head, letting the tears bathe her knees as she hugged them. "I can't." Gods. "Why is this happening to me?"
"Happening to you?! What do you mean to you!?"
Gabrielle's head shot up and she wiped futilely at her tear-filled eyes, trying to pull herself together.
A large man stood over her, hand resting over his sword hilt, a muscle flexing in his cheek, and a deep glower in his brown eyes. Gabrielle recognized the man who had briefly argued with Xena as they came off the battlefield. "If you're looking for Xena. She went out on watch."
The calm answer seemed to disarm him. "You mean she actually left your side? Amazing." Gabrielle furrowed her brow. "Oh, hell. Never mind." He backed away, his hand gripping the tent opening.
"Um..." Gabrielle cleared her throat quickly. "What's your name?"
He leveled brown eyes at her, shrugged and said, "Mendices."
Gabrielle frowned. "When--Have you known Xena long?"
Again his gaze leveled at her, but he quirked an eyebrow at her, saying, "I've known her longer than anyone."
The bard's frown deepened trying not to reveal how much that revelation hurt. "Oh. I'm sorry to keep you."
Mendices said nothing to that, only nodded and frowned once himself before departing.
Gabrielle went to the tent opening and looked out through the loose cloth. Campfires, hundreds of them, dotted the hillside. With the average of 10 men per fire, Gabrielle realized Xena had managed to assemble a force nearly 5000 strong. In only four days? She heard the sizzle of meat on a nearby campfire and glanced in the direction of the sharp odor.
"Hey, you want some?" A baby-faced soldier with a shoulder bandage waved her over with a deer haunch in one hand. His companions whispered furiously among themselves, and their expressions became fearful. One slapped the younger man's injured shoulder making him wince.
"I..." She wasn't really hungry, but she didn't want to cause trouble. "All right." As she came closer, the majority of the men at that fire backed away slowly until they were just barely inside the firelight. "I'm sorry. Is there something wrong?" she finally asked. She stopped moving as she came up next to the young man who'd first spoken to her.
"The Commander brought you out of Rome, didn't she?" one replied by way of answer.
Gabrielle wondered why that was important, but shrugged and said, "Yes. We, um, ran into each other."
Almost immediately they scurried closer. "Pretty good tumble then?"
Gabrielle could feel her cheeks heating, but managed to reply evenly, "I don't know what you mean."
"Ah, sure you do," another stood, wiping his hands on his leather leggings. Gabrielle translated his look and blanched. She guessed what he was driving at...
And ran back to the safety of Xena's tent. They think I'm her whore, she thought with the heat of humiliation full in her cheeks as she moved back to sit down once again in the darkness.
The implication would keep her safe while she was in camp, Gabrielle realized with a small reasonable portion of her brain. The rest of her brain and her body collapsed at the knowledge that without Xena's memories of their relationship, Gabrielle had jumped out of Roman slavery and was now simply the personal servant of a Greek warlord.
She stared at the candle, nearly burned down to its base and irrationally thought: Out of the frying pan into the fire, before burying her face in her hands and giving free vent to her lonely tears. There was no fear that Xena would discover her this way. The warrior, now warlord, was out surveying Rome, making plans to flatten it in the morning.
Ares wended his way to the higher ground lookouts, where several of the men had told him he could find Xena. Pushing through underbrush as the trail narrowed, he finally emerged on a small promontory. The raven-haired warrior, her face caught in the small amount of light from the half moon overhead, sat against a tree, a sword leaning against her boot and her arms wrapped around her knees.
Her steady gaze took in the valley below and the faint lights of Rome. "Hello," he said.
She didn't look at him. "Are we ready for a dawn attack on the city again, Mendices?"
The god lowered himself to the ground mimicking her posture. "Yeah. The injuries today were nothing. We'll still be at full strength." He studied her profile trying to divine her thoughts and found, as usual, he couldn't. No matter how close they had become over the last few days, she was the only mortal he'd ever found impossible to read. Her moods were just too mercurial. "Why did you break off the attack?" He tried to make it sound casual, but it wasn't.
She flexed her arm, resting her chin against her knees. "Looked wrong," she said distractedly.
Ares tried a different tactic. "I had the high point. Couldn't see anything. Tell me what you saw?"
She said nothing for the longest time. Then slowly, "I can't explain it. There was a change in the battle formations inside the city."
"Before or after you found the girl?" He tried to keep the anger out of his voice, but now couldn't take the words back. Damn. He waited for her response.
Xena finally looked at him, and in that he counted himself a small victory. "Are you implying that I don't know how to run a command, Mendices? Girl or no girl, I saw a military reason to pull out."
With a flash of insight he realized she was lying. He wasn't sure exactly how he knew that. Maybe it was the tightening around her eyes, the utter defensiveness in her voice, or the wary look past his shoulder. The knowledge fed his anger. "I thought we shared a trust, Xena!" He came to his feet quickly and watched her do the same. "How quickly priorities change. I thought you wanted Caesar. Now you want this girl, don't you?" He scoffed. "For a brief time I thought you wanted me. But now I've been supplanted... again." He growled. "By that sweet-mouthed little bard!" He swung his sword at Xena's head. The warrior's own was there to deflect it.
They circled one another on the promontory. He watched her muscles flex as she held off his blade, then she dropped, released the block, rolled and came up on his other side even as he turned to meet her thrust. Xena said nothing, only parried his blows, and dodged his thrusts. "Well, damn you, say something!" He yelled trying to shove the hilt of his sword into her stomach. She leaped over him.
Xena's eyes flashed in the moonlight. Ares thought instantly of Gabrielle when he saw the slight tint of green shining in them because of the light. "I won't lose again!" he yelled, swinging wildly, and watching Xena duck away from his weapon.
He threw his body against hers, knocking them both to the ground and their weapons fell aside with a clatter against the rocks and broken wood. They rolled over each other, and Ares found himself at the edge of the promontory, neck straining to keep his head up. She was on top of him, straddling his stomach, raining punches down on his face and chest. He grabbed her hands. In an instant he had traded places with her and they hadn't moved closer to the edge by more than an inch or two. "Do you want Caesar dead, Xena? Do you?" He shook her by the shoulders fiercely, venting his anger.
"Damn you! Yes!"
He growled. "If I kill him for you will you cease thinking about the girl?"
"Ares has promised me that Caesar's blood will be on my hands!"
He threw himself from her. "Then I trust you won't lose focus again!"
Triumphantly, Ares saw the instincts rise in Xena once more. Her blue eyes glittered with anger, with the promise of coming battle. "Caesar will be dead by nightfall," she swore.
"The glory of battle, the thrill of the fight. To win! This is what it is to serve Ares, Xena. There is no room for soft girls and soft feelings." She nodded. He could see the hunger for the fight in her again and it made him smile grimly. At last, he thought, feeling Xena's and his strength intermingle. His anger fed her and her pure will asserted itself. He eyes glittered like a highly buffed blade in the moonlight, molten metal ready for him to hone sharp.
Together they raced back to camp, leaping in rhythm with one another, bodies as charged as their emotions. He heard her heartbeat inside his head and the pounding paced him. "I've got you," he murmured to himself, letting her outrun him in the last few steps. When she moved beyond his reach, Xena turned once before slowing to a walk. He watched as she almost absently rubbed the thigh of her injured leg. His will swamping hers, Ares now realized, was what gave her the ability to ignore her pain.
She accepted salutes from several of the men, moving quickly through the camp to her tent.
With his broad smile still in place, Ares turned to Victus. "Yeah?"
"Is there anyone out on the promontory watch?"
"Go on yourself," Ares told him.
"Yes, sir." Victus looked in the direction of Xena's departure. "We move again in the morning?"
"Yes. First light." Ares dismissed the soldier with a wave.
Victus jogged up the trail to the promontory. Ares waited until he was out of sight before slipping behind a nearby tent and finding his way to the altar glade.
He looked around and called out, "Hermes!"
Cheeks warm, and feeling the flush pleasantly swamping her senses, the dark-haired warrior pulled her slightly damp hair off her neck, feeling the cool night air shift across her bared skin. "Wow," she murmured. That felt... Xena queried herself with surprise. Great. She'd needed that, she realized, the sudden freedom, the explosion of energy, and the time to clear her head.
Xena looked at the tent flap and suddenly only the most superficial edge of her relaxed state remained. What do you want to do about the girl? she asked herself, reaching for the tent flap. Maybe you'll be lucky and she'll be sleeping.
Xena ducked into her tent. The lighting inside was cast in a flickering orange, from the strategically placed candles. One by her bedding shed a circle of light on the turned down covers.
Another on the supply chest illuminated her weapon-cleaning supplies. She moved toward it now. A third candle jostled and the flame wavered as she brushed past the low table. The slight metallic clatter drew her gaze and she paused.
Across the table, head down on her crossed arms, the girl Gabrielle had fallen asleep. In her hand was one of the warrior's tunics. The lacing had been removed and a small tear closed with stitching. Xena leaned closed and studied it. Fine job of stitching, she realized. Carefully done, the fabric's nap looked as if it had never been damaged.
The warrior was a fair hand at the stitching, but had seldom seen such careful work by others. She studied the sleeping blonde's face. That she would do such for me... The warrior could not quite wrap her mind around the idea.
The girl's head moved slightly as she reacted to something in a dream. Xena paused while reaching out to take the tunic. The blonde's movements quieted once again. Carefully, the warrior slid the tunic from underneath. Her hand lingered on Gabrielle's wrist, absorbing the warmth and a sense of contentment, before she gently set it back down.
It also drew her eyes to examine the close detail of the young face. Smooth, rounded cheeks met at a small pert nose, dusted gently with sleep-shifting pale lashes. The corners of her mouth were slightly risen. Amazing. Gabrielle slept with such an air of utter relaxation. Even only knowing a little of the girl's latest experiences, that she could just lower her guard so completely and fall asleep was unique in Xena's experience.
"How did you end up in Rome from so far away?" the warrior mused in a whisper, drawing closer and lowering to a crouch. She braced herself with a hand against the table, only inches away from the blonde's right elbow. "Gabrielle?" There was no response for the longest time. Xena had almost decided on leaving her there, and was beginning to rise once again, when she sensed movement. Concentrating in fascination, she watched the girl come awake.
First there was a slow shifting of the young woman's shoulder muscles and a slight increase in her breathing. Then her hand moved. Over Xena's. The contact made the warrior jump, and the resulting movement startled the blonde. Her green eyes snapped open, pinning the warrior in place more effectively than a thrown dagger could ever pin her to a wall.
Gabrielle's eyes were sea foam green at the moment... catching and reflecting the candlelight in the tent. In her half-sleep there was a warm smile playing at the girl's lips, which were soft and dry until the tip of her tongue came out and wetted them tentatively. Xena suddenly felt herself take a breath. Until that moment she hadn't realized she'd stopped. Then her heart pounded as Gabrielle spoke.
"Xena! You startled me." Gabrielle broke their gaze and looked around. Xena settled on the bed and turned her own gaze back to the girl, watching as the young woman slowly sat up straight, stretching tentatively. Lithe muscles swirled under the tanned skin and the tendons in her throat briefly stood out with prominence as she arched her chin and looked toward the top of the tent.
"The tunic is well done," Xena found herself saying, stumbling over her thoughts as she watched the blonde's throat move gently through a reflexive swallow.
"I'm glad you like it," Gabrielle replied, her voice thick with recent rest.
"What else can you do?" Xena asked, setting aside the tunic before standing and beginning to work on removing her greaves and boots.
"I... can cook."
She sensed there had been something else the young woman was going to say. "And?"
"I... can tell stories."
Xena looked back at the blonde in surprise. "Stories, huh? What kind of stories?"
"About warriors, war... and peace... great kings... magic... and well... happiness, too." She was quiet for a long time, then finally she admitted. "And tears." She looked back to Xena. The warrior realized she would have had to be blind to miss the glitter of tears in the young woman's eyes. "I tell stories of what I've seen."
"Magic, huh? What kinds of magic have you seen?"
The gently pointed chin came up slightly and each corner of her mouth edged up just slightly, though her eyes were still terribly sad, the warrior realized. "There are some magics I just hope to see... someday," the young storyteller said. "But I've seen wishes come true... and promises kept beyond all hope of life... or death." Xena remained very still, holding herself against the shiver that skittered along her spine. The girl's green eyes took on a sparkle from the candlelight. "I've seen impossible things come to be. Surely they were moments of magic?"
Xena held herself very still under the flickering emerald gaze. "I've seen magic toss people around rooms, bruising bodies and breaking bones. I've seen magic heal the irreparable," she countered, remembering Lao Ma's potent powers, both giving her back her legs, and then later used against her.
It was now Gabrielle's turn to be silent. Xena unfocused for a moment, watching a moment in her past taking place.
"Lie back, Xena," Lao Ma's liquid voice flowed over the tired warrior. She had exhausted her newly returning strength serving Ming Tzu dinner that evening.
Having promised that the warrior would learn much about restraint and the proper moments for shows of power, and the benefit of strategic meekness, Lao Ma now raised her hands over Xena's nearly useless long legs. Straining, Xena tried to watch and to understand how the healing was happening, even as she felt the changes. A languor settled over her head, and she drifted into sleep.
"Xena?" The silky voice of the Ch'in woman slipped into her unconscious and she rose toward it, awakening...
When she opened her eyes a warm, small hand laid over hers on the table. "Xena?" Gabrielle was studying her face earnestly. "Are you all right?"
The brunette looked from the fingers lightly intertwined with hers up to the soft piquant face. Concern darkened the green irises like a thick forest after a rainstorm. She pursed her lips and nodded, "Yeah. Fine. So... wanna tell me a story?"
The blonde straightened and took her hand from atop Xena's. The warrior swallowed hard and hid her spate of disappointment. "W... Are you hungry? Would you like something to eat?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. She shook her head. "No. Morning'll be soon enough. I just thought you might like to find a better place to sleep."
Those startlingly liquid emerald eyes immediately tracked to Xena's bed. The warrior's gaze followed. She could feel tremors in the small body transmitted through the table. "I... Just some blankets. I'll take the floor."
Xena studied the fear-filled face and couldn't find a way to object without challenging the girl needlessly. But she tried anyway. "The floor is uncomfortable. Certainly after being enslaved..." She reached for the girl's arm.
"No!" Xena watched Gabrielle leap away from her, backing against a wall of the tent a dozen paces away. "G--Go to sleep, Xe--Commander. I'll work on--your leathers." The green eyes had caught sight of something behind the warrior. "Um. You had a visitor earlier. Mendices."
Xena smiled and stood to her full height. "Yes. He found me." She felt a warm rush remembering their conversation and the run back to camp.
The green eyes widened, drawing Xena's gaze back to the small face. "Is he...? Never mind. Forget I asked." She turned away from the warrior.
"He's my captain. Second in command," Xena supplied. Studying the slim line of the blonde's back, the brunette felt a sudden overwhelming urge to assure her. "Competent soldier."
That seemed to draw the young woman back around. "Oh, um." Gabrielle looked around briefly, keeping her gaze from meeting the brunette's. Xena didn't know what she'd seen, too trapped in the attempt to capture those green eyes with her own, but the young woman's next words changed the subject. "Are you attack--Are you going into Rome again in the morning?"
"I'm attacking Rome again, yes," the warrior replied honestly. "What of it?"
Xena had a quick revisit of the vision of Caesar lying dead at her feet. Her voice was rough when she responded, "I found Romans in my homeland--Your homeland," she reminded the girl pointedly. "I'm here to see there are no more incursions."
Gabrielle frowned. "Killing Caesar will accomplish that?"
"Cut off the head of the beast," Xena intoned. "And it dies." She turned on her heel, feeling a spurt of aggravation that she was even explaining herself. Striding to the bed, she pulled off her leathers as she went, dropping onto her bed in only her shift as she bent over to unlace and remove her shin guards and boots.
As her feet relaxed without confinement, she felt regret for her abrupt tone. When she looked up, Xena found the blonde sitting on the floor, arranging blankets in slow, careful movements. Stealing glances every other moment or so at the warrior's feet. She looked down at her feet, and noticed her unconscious stretching and flexing. She stopped it, returning her gaze to Gabrielle. The young woman's shoulders under the Roman toga moved smoothly, rippling with sleek muscle. Xena knew instinctively, uncertain exactly how she knew, that she had hurt the girl's feelings. "You will stay here in the morning."
There was a pause in Gabrielle's motion. Her hand stilled on the blankets. She brought her head up and Xena could see the effort it took for the sheen of tears not to fall. Good gods, she's crying, the brunette tossed aside her last boot, and the loud thud in the silence made the warrior jump slightly.
The young woman's eyes shot up to hers, green intermingling with blue, until the rest of the tent was on the edge of awareness, her vision narrowed to the blonde woman's soft face.
Gabrielle's eyes were slightly pinched, worry drawing them tight, and uncertainty pursing her lips. Xena didn't feel herself moving, but suddenly she found herself on the floor, stalking the girl, her strong arms flexing like a panther. Gabrielle's eyes never left hers. Suddenly she was close enough to reach out and grasp a soft shoulder. The green eyes widened slightly and then Xena pressed her lips to the young woman's for a searching kiss.
Who are you? Who am I? Why can't I get this right? What's happening to me? As thoughts exploded and tumbled all around in the warrior's head, she felt the other woman's hesitation and then acquiescence.
Warmth generated between them, heating
Xena's throat. She felt her body tighten in reaction and then let her hands
slide over Gabrielle's body into the soft golden hair at her nape, holding
their mouths together. "Gods, Gabrielle," she murmured, entranced by the
taste, smell and feel of the woman suddenly beneath her on the tent floor.
Hearing her name, in passion, on Xena's lips, Gabrielle knew she was lost. Awakened to Xena's closeness that she could sense even in deep sleep, the bard had barely managed to keep her emotions in check. When drowned in the warrior's lake blue gaze, she had not prepared herself for the sudden onslaught of emotions that choked off her breath and made her long for Xena's touch.
Then suddenly it was just there. All over her, penetrating through her haze, very real and yet very surreal at the same time. The bard in her sought to find words to express it. When she came up with one, the battle for self-control was over. Home. By the gods, home at last. She returned Xena's kiss, ventured touches of her own, alternately watching Xena's responses and then being overwhelmed by her own.
They were nude against one another, and it didn't matter how it had happened. The tensions floated away in this flood of non-verbal communication. Gabrielle laved her tongue over Xena's throat absorbing the speeding pulse beating there. She felt the warrior's kisses all in her hair, forehead, then cheeks. Once again the warrior's lips fell to hers.
Gabrielle panted, exchanging her breath with the warrior's, madness overcoming her. I'll take us away from here, she thought desperately. I'll give your memories back. Please remember me. Remember. Gabrielle heard the mantra-like words tumble around in her head. She put her hands on Xena's cheeks. Gods the warmth, she thought, pulling the warrior to her again for a kiss. It was then she tasted salt.
She had no moment to dwell on it. A shadow fell across them both and something snatched Xena from Gabrielle's grasp. The cool air was a shock to the blonde's heated senses, pebbling her nipples and making her cry out in passionate groans. Struggling to sit up, she searched the tent's dim interior for Xena. She found the warrior struggling in a fierce grip. Mendices held her fast, growling something unintelligible. If looks could kill... the bard realized, turning her face from those searing brown eyes. When she steadied her emotions, she turned back, watching him snatch up the leather and brass armor.
"What in Tartarus are you doing?!" At Mendices' demanding words, Gabrielle's cheeks heated even as she saw Xena bristle and throw herself from the soldier's strong grip.
Xena's color was still flush, and it burnished her skin golden as it was added to by high indignation. "Mendices, get out!"
"I demand an answer!" the brown-haired man grabbed for her arm, only to have her pull away again. She turned, and threw a roundhouse kick at his stomach. He neatly dodged it, then grabbed her leg and yanked her off balance. Together they collapsed to the floor, Mendices throwing his fists, and Xena blocking the intended blows.
Gabrielle shook her head and leaped on Mendices' back. "No!"
With a casual push, the muscular male threw her aside. "YOU! Stay! Out! Of this!" He spun on her then, kicking Xena in the stomach and landing hard against the retreating bard's stomach. "Damn you to Tartarus for screwing with her! I *had* her you bitch! I had her!" He swung at Gabrielle's head, only her arms thrown across her face prevented damage.
Xena grabbed his wrist when his hand rose to strike again. "Mendices! Get! Out!" She pulled him away from the now cowering Gabrielle. First things first, she thought. "Get out of here before I kill you!"
Mendices brandished a dagger from his calf sheath. "Try it," he challenged in a cold threatening voice. "And I'll kill you just as dead as I'm going to kill her." His chest heaved and he waved the dagger in the air toward the bard.
Gabrielle froze. Xena's eyes widened. "Touch her and I'll kill you," she voiced, letting her voice drop to its lowest register.
Mendices leaped past Xena, and managed to have Gabrielle in his hands before Xena could grab him. When she did, his weight fell against the blonde, and all three fell, the young, small bard on the bottom. Xena stabbed her fingers into his wrist, deadening the nerves and causing the dagger to fall. "Gah!" he groaned, rolling away from Gabrielle and holding his pained hand. Xena was just as quick and the dagger was suddenly in her hand, sinking into his thigh. "Gods be damned!" he screamed, slapping away the weapon, and squeezing his bleeding leg.
Xena grabbed Gabrielle and half dragged, half lifted the blonde away from the flailing soldier and into her arms, before collapsing against the bed. She panted, catching her breath. "Get out!" she ordered him when his eyes finally focused on her. "Leave this camp, or I'll have you killed."
His eyes glowed with firelight from the nearby candles, and something else, Gabrielle realized. Half in a daze, she still had enough presence of mind to grasp Xena's waist. Instinct, and knowledge of her lover's body, rose and Gabrielle gently squeezed to draw down the warrior's maddened haze. Gradually she felt the hammering heart begin to slow. She watched as the brown-haired soldier fell backward and another soldier stampeded his way into the tent. "Romans!" was the only thing he said before running on.
Picking himself off the floor, Mendices groaned. Both women watched him as he stood and rubbed his pained thigh. Damn, but it hurts like Hades' own torments, he thought, noticing the blood trickling out and coating on his clenched fingers. He kept his face still so that they wouldn't know his pain. "I will win you back, Xena," he promised in a low ominous voice, stumbling toward the tent entrance.
Gabrielle hugged Xena even as the warrior plowed to her feet. Please don't go she pleaded silently. "Get something on." Xena firmly disentangled herself from Gabrielle's clutching hands. The bard watched both the anger from the encounter from Mendices and the passions of their own earlier encounter disappear from Xena's face. Now her blue eyes glittered like ice, and the fluid body moved with deadly precision.
"What are you going to do?"
"Fight my war," she replied. She settled her shoulders into the armor and shifted the weapons belt at her waist carefully. When she looked up again, Gabrielle saw a brief echo of their earlier shared moment of sweetness touched her lips as Xena whispered, "then I'm going home."
Xena slipped the sheath over her back and turned away. As she stretched to adjust the straps, she found her hands tangling with another pair. She glanced back to see green eyes looking up, a resigned smile on the delicate features. "I'll get this for you," the bard said, her tone sliding over Xena's mind like a warm, soothing blanket. She felt the tugs and then a light push, before a cautious, "Be careful," followed her out of the tent, into the moonlit night.
The bard strode back to where her clothes lay on the floor, and started to pull on the Roman garb then stopped. I have to go after her, she realized. "Better look for something a little less noticeable," she said quietly, dropping the white linen and going instead to Xena's chest.
Inside she found a long tunic and slipped it over her head. On her frame its length made it a short dress. She secured a belt from the trunk also and tied it around her waist. The sleeves were roomy, but came halfway down her arms. The fabric bunched, riding high on her hips and she realized she'd need leggings. Rummaging, she finally came up with a small pair that looked like they had come from Ch'in. Purple and made from a thick silk, the pants were loose on her legs, but gathered tightly at waist and ankles. Lastly she pulled back on the pair of small Roman house shoes she'd been given back in the city. One last thing...
Gabrielle looked around the tent and her gaze fell on a thick stick lying against the tent wall. Though bending sharply at one end, the rest looked sturdy enough and smooth enough to serve as a weapon similar to her lost staff.
It will have to do, Gabrielle thought, snatching it up and ducking out of the tent, her eyes unused to the darkness as she plunged into the woods amidst others of Xena's soldiers and on toward Rome and the Romans riding up to meet them. As she pulled back her hair from her face and tied it with a leather string, her palm brushed her cheek and she felt the sting of a painful bruise. Likely Mendices' work, she thought, remembering the maddened man's rock-like fists. It's a wonder I'm not dead, she marveled, feeling now too, the bruising on her ribs where he'd thrown several punches. Xena had stopped him before too much damage could be done.
The constant flow between her battle instincts and the feelings she had around the young bard were like to drive her mad, Xena thought, and was again glad of the distraction of war. It was so much easier to wield a weapon than lay open the ravaged pieces of... her heart? Where in Tartarus had that thought come from?
On her way to the battlefield, Xena paused, squeezing at her throbbing stomach, and closed her eyes to regain some balance. Only getting away would do that, she thought. Long strides, feeling the night breeze against her legs, only intensified the throbbing between Xena's thighs. Warmth likely twice as hot as the sun itself coursed through the warrior's body and she stumbled against a tree.
Vainly she tried to regain her control, but it was gone, utterly stripped away in the heat of a consuming passion drowning Xena again just with the thoughts of it. Green eyes floated in her vision, the floating image of creamy soft skin made her palms itch.
She scraped her fingers along the tree bark, using the pain to focus herself. It didn't hurt enough. Not nearly as much as leaving that girl on the floor of her tent, when every one of Xena's conscious and unconscious muscles twitched in desire to return to the pleasure. She closed her eyes and bumped her head against the tree, the only part of her that seemed to be capable of anything.
Incredible. By the gods, what have I been doing with myself? Drowning. The dams have overflowed and caught me in the river's swelling tide. That snapped her head up to look around. She was a poet now? What in Tartarus...? She was glad of Mendices interruption and scared of the weakness she would have succumbed to had he not flung her away from the girl.
A different kind of passion flowed through her. Flashing her teeth, Xena grinned. Now to take out Caesar. It was torture but she made herself growl. "Xena, you're a soldier. Shut up and soldier." She pulled her hands against her face, rubbing her cheeks briskly trying to wipe away the remembrance of the young woman's soft touch, and the evidence of her own tears.
Up ahead, she caught sight of Mendices springing to horseback and howling the command to charge. Blood pumping through her body she turned from bodily lust to bloodlust, and raced forward to engage the Roman advance troops.
Continued in Part 4
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