"Ugh." Zo laid her palm against her forehead as she walked, trying to still the throbbing ache behind her eyes.
"Good Morning, Sir!"
She turned, ready to snap at whoever it was that thought it necessary to yell so early in the morning, then stopped herself short. "You're new, aren't you?"
The young man bobbed his head eagerly. "Yes, Sir!"
"Well, let me give you some advice," She grabbed him by the front of his shirt and pulled him very close. "When my eyes look like this," She widened them so he could see the red tracing across them. "NOTHING is good. Take the warning. Other's in this outfit might not be so nice."
She released him abruptly, watching as he stumbled backwards and then walked quickly in the other direction, his light colored hair looking too damn cheerful in the brightness of the new morning sun. "Kids..." She grumbled and continued on, slowing when she reached the opening of her own tent.
Zo reached out her hand, and then pulled it back. Reached out again, and pulled back. With a sigh, she leaned in close to the opening in the canvas. "Gabrielle," She said quietly. "Listen, I..." She heard a twig snap and looked behind her to find a small group of men watching her intently. She raised one eyebrow. "Do you mind?"
The men started and scattered in all four directions.
Zo turned back to the tent. "Listen, Gabrielle. I won't pretend to understand...what you're going through. It's been years..." She blushed slightly and ran her fingers through disheveled hair "Well, it's been a long time since I was in the same position. I'm willing to be patient. I mean, I don't know what you meant about the writing on your heart, but I think we could work it out." She plucked at the tent flap with her fingers, shocked that she felt what she was saying beating in her chest. "Gabrielle...if you give it a chance, I think I may surprise you. Can you do that?" She frowned at the silence that met her words. "Gabrielle?" Still nothing. "Gabrielle?" She grabbed the tent flap and pulled it back, stepping into the shadows within.
"What in Tartarus was that?" Draxen stood up quickly, knocking his head into the low crossbeams of the makeshift tent. Scowling in pain, he sat down heavily, and shook his wife's arm. "Derry. Derry...did you hear that?"
The woman nodded. "Sounded like Zo-" Her words were cut of by a large crash. "So did that." With a shrug, she rolled over and pulled up the blankets.
“Zo?” Draxen grabbed his breeches and pulled them on. “That sounded like a wounded bear.”
“It’s Zo.” His wife mumbled.
He finished pulling on his shirt and rushed towards the opening in the tent. “Stay here, I don’t know if it’s safe..” Draxen glanced back and saw his wife, her head buried in pillows, back rising and falling as she snored softly. He snorted. “Don’t worry, I’ll be careful.” Shaking his head, he ran towards his commanders tent.
Draxen skidded to a halt when he reached it, his mouth falling open at the sight before him. Zo’s tent, the largest in the encampment, was all but destroyed. Two of the supports had been knocked out (hence the crashing sound) causing the left half of the tent to sag against the ground. Large holes had been ripped through it’s fabric by various objects thrown from the inside. To his left was Zo’s favorite sword, to his right was her washbasin, cracked into four different pieces from the force of the impact. He was staring at it in confusion when another yell of rage came from inside. A moment later, a mace tore threw the tent and flew straight towards his head.
Draxen yelped and slammed his body against the ground, feeling one point of the weapon slice across his shoulder. When he placed his hand against the wound, it came away red. “Damn it.” He hissed between clenched teeth. “That’s enough.”
Steeling himself, he flipped up and charged the tent, spreading out his arms to knock into the raging figure inside. They both hit the ground hard, Draxen on top, Zo tucked beneath him. Her head connected solidly with the floor and she went limp.
With rising panic, Draxen knelt over her to check for a pulse, only to have slim, strong fingers wrap around his throat. The woman beneath him bucked, hard, and before he knew what was happening, he was flipped onto his back with two strong knees pressing into his chest. The hands around his throat began to squeeze harder as he looked up into crazed, hazel eyes. “ZO! Please!” His face began to get red as he fought against her. “Please!” His voice was barely a whisper, the words bitten out from between clenched teeth. His vision started to go black around the edges as his heart hammered wildly in his chest. Just before he blacked out, he felt the tension lessen, felt the grip against his artery loosen, then disappear completely. When he could see again, he was looking up into Zo’s concerned gaze.
“Draxen?” She whispered. “Are you okay?” She lifted one of his eyelids, frowning when she saw the red lines that indicated just how close she had come to killing him. “You know better than that, Drax. You know how I am, why did you come in here?”
Her second gasped for air, his head resting against the ground. “I...I didn’t want you to hurt yourself.”
“Hurt myself?” Zo snorted.
“Or anyone else.”
The warlord nodded slowly, easing herself off of his chest to sit beside him on the floor. She stared around at her ruined belongings before dropping her head into her hands.
“Zo,” Draxen knelt beside her, rubbing his neck. “What the hell happened?”
“She’s gone.” Her voice was very low, almost sad and Draxen’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Who? That girl? What was her name, uhm...Larabelle?”
“GABRIELLE!” Zo snapped at him, her fists clenched.
“Ah.” The warrior sat back on his haunches, his eyes contemplating the figure before him. Never. He had never seen her act this way over a GIRL. “What happened?” He searched for his words carefully, knowing Zo had never wanted friend in the past. “Did you fight?”
“Did you try to…” He gestured with his hand. “Against her will?”
“NO!” Zo’s face reddened slightly, surprising him again.
“Then why would she leave?”
Her forehead furrowed in confusion as she looked around. “You’re right.” Rising gracefully, she began to dig in the remnants of her quarters. Her breathe sharpened when she found what she was looking for: A pair of soft kid boots and an Amazon staff. Going to the back of her tent, she lift the fabric up off of the ground, sliding it in her hands until she found the opening. “Damn.”
Draxen watched as his commander slipped through an opening in the canvas, gave her a moment, and then followed. He caught up with her halfway across the slight incline that lined the back of her quarters. She was staring at the dirt, still soft from the morning dew. After a few moments, she looked up, death glittering in her bright hazel eyes. “What?” He swallowed.
“She’s was taken. By force. Dragged through here.” She grabbed a piece of light tan fabric from a nearby thorn bush. When she spoke again, her voice was low and dangerous. “Get the men.”
“NOW!” Her rage carried loudly over the still morning air.
Without another word, he hurried back to camp.
Gabrielle stretched hard, small sounds escaping her throat as her hands dug into the hay above her head. She pulled them out quickly, realizing that her whole body was starting to itch, but then, she felt too good to care. She reached to her right, seeking the warmth she had been cradled in for the last two hours, but found only hay, rich with her lovers scent. “Xena?” She mumbled, sitting up.
The bard’s eyes followed to sound of her voice to find her standing beside Argo, tending to the mare’s hoof. “So much for the warm afterglow.” Gabrielle smiled. “You’d rather go play with your horse.”
Xena turned to face her, a smile tugging at the edges of her mouth. “Argo was not my first choice. I didn’t think you would ever wake up.” She lowered the mare’s leg gently and walked slowly towards her, the look in her eyes sending a lovely flush up into Gabrielle’s cheeks.
Xena lowered herself into the hay beside Gabrielle and caught her with one arm around her back, pulling her close. The metal of the warrior’s breastplate was cold against the bard’s bare skin, but when she shivered, it was for a different reason altogether. While Xena’s lips trailed along her shoulder to capture the sensitive spot beneath her right ear, Gabrielle traced the patterns of the brass across her back. She wondered if any other woman had ever felt this way, had ever been pressed against her lover’s armor, shivering in the still-cool air. She wondered how many women Xena had conquered in her life. She found that she didn’t care about the men, but the women…
“Xena?” She tried to phrase the question in her mind, tried to find just the right words so that Xena wouldn’t turn away…or stop what she was doing to her neck.
She could hear the smile on Xena’s lips, the passion in her voice and decided to let it wait. “Never mind…” she breathed, wrapping her arms around the warrior’s neck.
Xena smiled against the bottom of Gabrielle’s chin and began to lower the bard gently into the hay.
Xena was on her feet in an instant and strapping on her sword.
“He’s probably just mad that we’re taking so long.” The bard looked around for her clothes.
“No, Gabrielle.” Xena tested the edge of her blade before sheathing it again. “That was fear.” She moved to the door, leaning in close to listen. A moment later, she slid the bolt and swung the door wide, allowing the panicked farmer to enter at a run. In one smooth, fluid movement, Xena slammed the door, bolted it, and grabbed the man by the back of his shirt. “Whoa…slow down. What’s wrong?”
The man was bent over at the waist, trying hard to catch his breath. “M…My…” He panted.
“Here.” Xena threw the man their wine skin. “Take a drink and calm down.”
The man did as he was told. When she saw that he could breathe again, Xena placed her arm gently on his shoulder. “Now…tell me what’s wrong.”
“My oldest boy just came in, riding like the blazes from the far back fields.” He looked at Gabrielle for a moment, noticing her disheveled appearance, but apparently thought better of saying anything. He turned his eyes back to Xena. “There’s an army headed this way. He says it’s a big one…and my son’s not one for exaggeration.”
The warrior felt her back stiffen. She turned to Gabrielle. “Get dressed.”
The bard finished lacing her shirt quickly. “What are we going to do?”
“Do?” The man’s voice rose in anger. “You’re going to get off my land. That’s what you’re going to do.” He shook his head. “Whatever’s following ya, it isn’t any of my concern. Now, I let you use my barn as a courtesy. Do me a courtesy and leave before they destroy this place.”
Xena nodded and began to re-saddle Argo. The farmer watched her, fear written plainly across his face. When she tried to nod at him reassuringly, he turned his back and went to speak with Gabrielle.
“That’s her, isn’t it?” He whispered. “Xena…the Warrior Princess.”
“Is it true? That she’s changed? That she isn’t a warlord anymore?”
Gabrielle nodded again. “Yes, it is. Now she fights for people like you. Sometimes they act like you, too.”
“Gabrielle.” Xena’s voice was steady. “Let’s go.”
The bard nodded, leaning towards the farmer to whisper, “If you needed her, she’d help you. Even after you asked her to leave. That’s how much she’s changed.”
“I’m sorry.” The farmer said quietly. “But I’m not part of this fight. I don’t need help. I certainly don’t need trouble.”
“Nobody needs trouble. It just seems to happen.” Gabrielle grabbed her bag and took her place by Xena’s side.
“Thanks for the use of your barn.” The warrior nodded to him. She had just reached for the bolt when she heard someone moving quietly outside.
“Xena…” Zo’s voice was soft through the heavy wood of the door. “I know you’re in there. I’ve come for Gabrielle. She doesn’t belong with you. Not anymore. Let her go.”
“Let me go?” Gabrielle looked at Xena. “What does she mean?”
“She thinks I’ve kidnapped you.” Xena smiled softly. “Figures.”
The bard sighed. “Maybe I should say something.”
“No, Gabrielle.” Xena placed her hand on the bolt. “She won’t believe it unless she sees you for herself. Get back.” She waited until they were both against the back wall before speaking. “Zo?” The Amazon didn’t answer, but Xena knew she was there. “Gabrielle wants to tell you something. I’m going to open the door. If you truly care for her, you’ll hear her out.”
“YOU?” Zo’s voice was outraged. “You would tell ME what I should do? IF I truly care for her?”
“Yes, Zo, if you truly care for her.” Xena slid the bolt and backed up, her right hand clasped lightly around the hilt of her sword.
The door swung open slowly, and she could see the Amazon’s silhouette against the bright daylight outside. Her sword was drawn, clasped in her left hand…her fighting hand, the one she only used when she was out for blood. Xena knew Zo’s fighting style, she had taught her most of it. But she also knew that the Amazon had a good amount of natural talent, especially with her left hand. “Zo…” She brought her own sword up in a defensive posture. “I don’t want to fight with you.”
The Amazon laughed. “Are you afraid, Xena? Hmmm….I’ve never seen that in you before. It’s very becoming.”
“I’m not afraid of you, Zo. I just don’t want to hurt you.”
The smile vanished. “Hurt me? Take care of yourself, Warrior Princess.” Zo stepped forward, her sword arm arcing over her head in a vicious blow aimed at Xena’s shoulder. It never hit it’s mark.
Xena grunted as the Amazon’s sword slammed into hers, her arm shaking under the force of the blow. She saw Zo’s arm tremble as well and reached out to grab the hilt of her sword.
Both women swung their heads towards Gabrielle, even as their hands still fought over the weapons.
“Stop it, Zo.” Gabrielle stepped between them and pushed them apart. “This is between you and me. Xena didn’t do anything.”
“Didn’t do anything?” Zo’s voice registered her astonishment. “Gabrielle, she took you by force. You can’t tell me that’s not true.”
“Well,” The bard gave her a quirky half smile. “It’s not *exactly* true.”
“Not exactly true…” The Amazon’s tone became sarcastic. “Then what exactly IS the tru…” She stopped mid-sentence and glanced around the barn, her nostrils flaring. When she realized that the musky scent was coming from the woman before her, understanding slammed home and her face darkened. “Tell me it was by force.” She whispered. “Please.”
Gabrielle looked at the ground as she shook her head. “I’m sorry Zo.”
The warlord was silent, staring at the ground. When she finally raised her eyes, Xena recognized the fury flashing in them. She took one step forward only to stop when Zo raised her sword.
“No further…Amazon Queen.” The words were spit from between gritted teeth. Expressionless, she slid the weapon across her palm, cupping it to catch the blood that pooled within. She gazed down into it for a moment, before flinging it towards Xena, catching her in the face. “That’s thrice you have taken what I have loved, warrior. From now until the day I die, I will call you enemy.”
“Zo…please.” Gabrielle ran towards her, ignoring the panicked hand that tried to hold her back.
The warlord looked at her coldly. “You are dead to me, Gabrielle. More so than even Terreis. And you,” She pointed at Xena. “You WILL meet me in battle. Two days from now, at the first light of dawn, you will meet me.” She slid her sword into it’s scabbard. “Or I will destroy every village that falls in my path…until you do.”
Gabrielle watched her go, then turned to Xena. “She didn’t tell you where.”
“I know.” Xena put her sword away. “Finding her is part of the game. It always was.”
“This isn’t a game, Xena.”
“I know that, Gabrielle.” She tried to hold on to her patience. Wordlessly, she nodded to the farmer and swung up into the saddle, pulling the bard up behind her.
The rode in silence for almost an hour before Xena felt the bard shift behind her. “Xena?” She said softly.
“Can you beat her?”
Xena didn’t answer.
“Xena?” Gabrielle leaned to the side, trying to see the warrior’s face. “I asked-“
“I heard you.” She pulled Argo to a stop. “I was better then, Gabrielle. But it’s been a long time, and she was good to begin with. I’d say yes, but nothing is certain.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Promise me something?”
“Don’t hurt her.”
Xena turned her head. “Don’t hurt her? Gabrielle, I don’t know if-“
“You said anything.”
The warrior studied her lover’s face, taking in the concern that was evident in her eyes. “You care for her.”
“She would have been a good friend. She led me to understand… Of course I care for her.”
Xena nodded. “I won’t hurt her.”
Gabrielle sighed in relief. “So what’s our plan?”
“First,” Xena urged Argo into a fast walk. “We get some rest.”
“But we only have two days.”
“I have an idea where we can get the information we need. A night’s rest won’t set us back as much as we need it. There’s an Inn in Treton where we can get four walls and a door. I know I’d feel better if we had them around us tonight.”
The bard nodded and fell silent, laying her cheek against the softness of Xena’s shoulder. She wondered for the hundredth time if this was all her fault.
She didn’t think the answer would make her feel much better.
“Zo.” Draxen looked over at his warlord, taking in the darkness of her eyes. When she didn’t answer, he pulled on the reins, moving his mount in her direction. They had been riding hard for the past four hours with nothing from Zo except barked commands when they needed to change direction. The men were tired, irritable and hungry. They wanted to know where they were going and while they would never question the Amazon herself, they had absolutely no problem with harassing him every chance they got. “Zo!” He reached out his hand to grab her arm only to pull it back, wincing in pain, as a resounding crack filled the air. He hadn’t even seen her raise her hand.
“Don’t touch me, Draxen.” Her voice was low and angrier than he had ever heard it. This woman was not the warlord he knew. “Not now.”
“Fine.” He snarled, his patience breaking. “But stop, for Hades sake, before the men rebel.”
Zo looked behind her, taking in the tired and angry faces of the men behind her. She took a deep breath as she realized what she was doing. Xena had to pay, but that wouldn’t happen if her army turned against her. “Fall out. Make camp.” She waved the men away. “Get your rest…there won’t be any tomorrow.” She turned to find her second studying her. “I told you, Draxen. This isn’t a good time.”
“What are you doing, Zo?” He tried one last time to reason with her. “I know your angry, but Xena isn’t someone you want to go up against. I know I don’t want to go up against her.”
“So,” Zo sneered. “You’ve gone coward?” She saw the warrior’s face harden and smiled. “Now that’s the Draxen I know. You just follow my orders and we’ll all get out of this alive.”
“Fine. But I think it would make the men feel better if you told them where we’re going.” He turned his face away. He didn’t want to look into her eyes anymore. The stranger looking back was not someone he wanted to know.
Zo snorted. “The one place where it won’t matter if Xena wants to fight me or not, she won’t have a choice. The one place where she has to follow.” Here eyes took on a faraway look. “You’re a smart man, I’m sure you can figure it out. Now tend to the men.” She spun her horse and headed off alone.
Draxen watched her ride away, his mind working over everything she had said. He thought back to the things his warlord had told him in the past few days, about Xena, about Gabrielle, and even about herself. His mouth settled into a grim frown when he realized just where they were going.
It was early evening when Xena and Gabrielle finally rode into Treton, the first small town just north of The Raven’s Claw. The warrior’s eyes searched every corner of the street for trouble, but found only farmers and merchants who cast no more than curious glances their way. Satisfied that no one was watching them, Xena headed Argo towards the inn.
“The Dancing Stag.” Gabrielle read the sign swinging over the door as Xena slid out of the saddle. “Sounds interesting.” She started to dismount.
“Stay there.” Xena called over her shoulder. “I’ll help you in a minute.”
“Hmph.” The bard grunted in frustration. “I am perfectly able to get down off of Argo myself.” With a stubborn set of her shoulders, she slid to the ground.
Xena turned just in time to see Gabrielle land in mud up to her ankles. The bard’s mouth fell open as it slipped between her toes.
The warrior tried not to laugh as she tied Argo to the rail.
“You could have said something!” She threw a disgusted look at her lover before dragging herself out of the mud.
“I believe I tried.” The warrior grinned. “Still, jumping off a horse without boots on is not the smartest thing to do.”
“I forgot I left them-“ Her eyes widened. “My staff!”
Xena hung her head slightly, she’d been waiting for this. “I forgot to grab it. I’m sorry.” She watched as Gabrielle’s face fell. “We’ll get it back…your boots too.”
“I don’t care about the boots…but my staff.” She sighed. “Ephiny gave that to me. What’s she going to say when she hears I lost it?”
“I said I’d get it back and I will.” She placed her hand on the bard’s arm and squeezed gently.
Gabrielle nodded. “Well, at least your mother still has the staff-head. I guess I could fit it to another-“
“Gabrielle,” Xena pulled her closer. “You won’t have to do that. I promise.”
Gabrielle studied her lover’s face and knew in her heart that the warrior would do whatever it took to get her staff back. Something in that scared her. “It’s just a piece of wood. If we can get it back, great. If not-“
Xena just shook her head and smiled. “Come on, let’s go get a room.”
“What if they don’t have any available?”
“Oh, they will.” Xena smiled again.
“I hate it when you get cryptic on me.”
The warrior only laughed and led her lover into the inn, taking great pains to remind her to wipe her muddy feet before entering. The glare she earned with that remark kept her chuckling for a while.
Inside, The Dancing Stag was very clean and very warm, it’s patrons respectful and quiet. Due, no doubt, to the very large man seated beside a very large mace down at the end of the bar. He was an impressive looking specimen. Thick of chest, strong of arm, with a vacuous look about him. Everything one could hope for in a bouncer.
Xena raised her hand and clasped his arm in passing. “Hello, Titan.”
“Xena!” The goliath stood and tightened his grip on her arm. “I didn’t expect see you again, quite so soon.”
“Well, it seems we have need of a room.”
“We?” He looked behind her to take in Gabrielle with an appreciative smile. “Is that the one?” He smiled at Xena’s warning look. “She wasn’t lying about the ‘fresh, young’ part was she?”
The warrior gave him a dark look. “Just tell me where she is.”
Gabrielle turned towards the melodious voice to take in a vision in white, standing behind the bar. When she saw a smile light up Xena’s face, she felt her stomach turn with jealousy.
“Rylan.” The warrior took the barmaids hand. “Bet you weren’t expecting me.” She grinned good naturedly when Rylan peered over her shoulder at the bard behind her. “Kyla has a very big mouth!”
“Naw,” The barmaid laughed at Xena’s incredulous look. “Well, maybe a little. But then, some things are quite obvious as well.”
The warrior shook her head. “In any case, we need a room. We were hoping-“
“Of course.” Rylan waved her statements away. “Anything for you.”
Xena smiled and turned to her lover, her eyes taking in Gabrielle’s steadily darkening face. “I’ll tell you about it later.” She whispered.
“Yes,” The bard’s tone was very firm, making the warrior’s eyes widen. “Yes, you will.”
“Titan,” Rylan nodded to her warrior. “Show our guests to the best room in the house, draw them a fresh bath and get them a tray from the kitchen. Leave the mace, I can watch the room while your gone.”
Xena grinned as she followed the big man, pulling the bard along behind her. She wondered how Rylan had ever been captured by slavers. That girl had a tough streak in her, Xena could tell. It was something she used to look for when she was recruiting.
She was pleasantly surprised by the room they were given. It was definitely not the dark, dank room with the roughly hewn bed that she was used to receiving. This room was rather large, about half the size of that tavern downstairs, a corner room with windows on two sides. There was a large fireplace to her left, with a table that held all manner of soaps and scented sands, for the bath presumably. The bathtub itself was an incredible sight. It was square, made of stones held tightly together by thickly smeared mortar. The inside was lined with smooth, sanded wood, soft to the touch. Xena shook her head when she realized that it was big enough for two. “Kyla does have a big mouth.”
“That’s the second time you’ve said that.” Gabrielle left Titan to build up the fire and came to stand beside her lover. “Who is Kyla?”
Once again, the warrior only smiled. “Later.” She squeezed the bard’s arm. “I need to go scout, make sure no one is sneaking up on us. Stay here? Please?”
Gabrielle nodded, knowing not to argue this time. “All right.”
Xena smiled, relieved. “Titan will bring you what you need.”
“He isn’t a real titan…is he?”
“No. His mother just had a long labor… and a really good sense of humor.” The bard smiled, sending an ache through Xena’s heart. “I’ll be back.”
Gabrielle watched her go before turning her attention to the man stoking up the now raging fire. “Thank you.”
Titan nodded. “You’re very welcome. Are you hungry?”
The bard listened to her stomach rumble and shook her head. “I’ll wait for her to get back. Can you ready the bath and bring the food at the same time?”
The big man nodded. “What time would that be?”
Gabrielle shrugged, “I’m not sure. I wanted to get a little sleep. I’ll come get you, okay?”
He nodded again and quietly left the room.
Once he was gone, the bard let out a long sigh and headed for the bed. Stretching out, she thought about where her lover had gone. She knew Xena, she knew her very well. Gabrielle believed that she had gone scouting, but she also knew that, if the warrior did meet up with Zo’s band while she was out, she would try to end the threat then and there.
It was a very disquieting feeling to not know when your lover would return, or if she would return at all. She had never worried this much in the past, but then, she had never met anyone like Zo before either.
And it was all her fault. All of it. She covered her eyes with her arm and felt warm tears against her skin. If only she could have reasoned with the Amazon. If only she had known her own heart. If only she had known Xena’s. If only…
Gabrielle’s eyes flew open as the voice carried across her mind, seeming to come from everywhere at once. “Who’s there?” The room was dark, darker than she remembered. Sliding to her feet, she turned in circles as the room disappeared around her, leaving her to the darkness.
Xena moved through the trees like a shadow, her eyes and ears alert for any sign of an approaching army, but the only sounds that reached her were the night owls in the trees and her own heart beating in her chest.
Satisfied there was no one waiting to ambush her or Gabrielle, she slowed to a walk, finally coming to a stop beside a small, clear brook. Finding a smooth, flat rock, she flipped it atop her knuckles as she sank down beside the creek. The night was clear, the stars very bright, and the moon shined down strongly, it’s reflection caught in the placid waters closer to the edge.
For the first time, she allowed her mind to wander back to the events of that morning. How she had kidnapped Gabrielle, unbelieving of her own reasons for doing it. How the bard had made her tell the truth. How the girl had loved her.
Xena smiled. No, not a girl. She hadn’t been a girl for quite a while, and after this morning, could never be again. She was a wonderful, sweet, young woman. One that had stolen an old warrior’s heart, more than anyone else ever had.
She stared up at the gorgeous night sky and tried to remember if she had told her how she felt. She couldn’t remember. That wasn’t a good sign.
Xena glanced down at the stone in her hand and felt one tear slide down her cheek. This was Gabrielle. Gabrielle was the rock. She was the river that would run wild across the land, without the stone to hold it. She ran her fingers across it gently, then skipped it across the water, her heart turning over as it sank into it’s depths.
Xena watched the ripples disappear as she placed two fingers on each side of her temples, trying to quell the fierce headache that had started behind her eyes. “Philosophy.” She grunted, making a promise to herself to leave that kind of stuff to Gabrielle.
“You just skipped your lover.” Xena whispered, her shoulders shaking with laughter. A few moments later, her headache was gone and so was she, back the way she had come.
Gabrielle walked slowly, her eyes searching for any sign of light. In the end, the light found her, growing around her until she could see quite clearly. There was green grass beneath her feet, a blue sky above her. In the distance, she saw a camp, a hundred tents and beyond them, a hundred more. When she was close enough to see people moving between them, she had estimated over 400 tents, all of them tightly grouped, a large, imposing structure at their center. She stopped behind the last row of tall, summer wheat, hiding in its shadow as armed men passed her by.
“Okay.” Gabrielle looked to the left, and then the right, trying to figure out where she was. She didn’t recognize the land. Her head snapped up when a woman stepped out of the commanders tent, her red-gold hair shining in the sun. “Great.” She frown. “There I am again.” Gabrielle craned her head when another figure appeared, her jaw dropping when she recognized that blonde, lithe form. “Zo…”
“Draxen! Get the men ready for drill. The scouts saw her less than a day back. I won’t be caught by surprise this time.”
Zo’s second bobbed his head before moving away, leaving his warlord to wrap her arms around her lover. “Gabrielle.”
Her double did not answer.
“Come on, Gabrielle.” The Amazon kissed her neck. “She killed three of my men, including the husband of your best friend. She has to pay for that.”
Gabrielle watched in shock as her twin nodded slowly and felt her heart shrivel in her chest. She was agreeing with Zo, about killing somebody. And she knew who that somebody was.
“I promise, she won’t suffer.”
Her twin nodded again, and began to pick fresh herbs from the patch at her feet.
“Gabrielle.” The Amazon’s voice became deeper as she wrapped her arms around the girls waist, placing her lips against the neck offered to her. Gabrielle could almost feel Zo’s lips, feel her hands against the skin on the back of her arms. She swallowed, hard. The reaction was there, mirrored in her twins face. Only, her twin held something more as well. Love. She could see it, and it broke her heart.
Zo pulled her close in a last, fierce hug before leaving to join her men. Her twin remained, emotions warring in her eyes until she dropped to one knee and turned her face up to the sky. “Please…” She whispered into the wind, then turned and walked away.
Gabrielle followed her as long as she could, then turned her attention to Zo. The Amazon stood before her army, hundreds of men, all fighting beneath her banner. Zo gave orders that were clear and abrupt, her tone carried an air of authority that Gabrielle hadn’t heard before. Her smile was gone, and so was the easy way she used to have about her, the caring compassion she had showed for her men. Now, there was only a Warlord where a woman had been before. She was even curt with Draxen, as she ordered him to watch over the training.
And Gabrielle knew what they were training for. They were training for Xena. To kill her if they could.
With a small frown, she turned away, heading back into the field of wheat where she had found the light. “All right, Emony. Tell me… What is this that you’ve shown me?”
“Nothing of consequence.”
Gabrielle opened her eyes to find Emony beside her, both of them sitting on the edge of the bed.. “Nothing of consequence?? Zo was going to kill Xena. And I did nothing.”
The alchemist nodded. “True, yet still, it is nothing of consequence. It is merely a faint trace of what might have been. I thought that you should see it.”
“Because you’ve been blaming yourself for destiny.” She touched the bard’s cheek gently. “I wanted to show you what would have happened, had your choice been wrong.”
“But, she was so strong. She had more men, more power. And I was with her-“
“Love is a catalyst in all of life, Gabrielle.” Emony cut her off. “Sometimes, not a good one.” She took the bard’s hand. “You, for example. Once you convinced yourself you did love her, you would have died by her side. That is the working of your soul.”
“And Xena,” Emony continued as though she hadn’t spoken. “Do you really think she would have ever stopped trying to get you back? You, the one person to ever truly reach her heart?”
“She said that?” Gabrielle looked at her suspiciously.
“No, child.” She smiled. “Your warrior would sooner break her own arm that speak words such as those. But it is what’s in her heart.” Her voice gentled. “And Zo… She would do anything to keep you.” Her eyes became distant. “The only way to keep safe that which other’s want, is to destroy those that might take it.
“And the only way to destroy someone that strong, is to become someone just like her.” Gabrielle finished for her.
Emony nodded. “Your love would have given her strength. The strength to rule the world, through fear, and through violence. Right now, that’s all she knows.”
“Right now?” Gabrielle grabbed her arm.
But Emony only shook her head. “Not yet, child. Not yet.” Time seemed to stop as the witch raised her hand and touched the bard’s cheek very gently.
Gabrielle’s eyes widened as the distance in Emony’s eyes seemed to lessen, as what was hidden became almost clear. There was pain and loss, suffering and…and…love? She felt the alchemist’s emotions coursing through her body, felt her soul shifting in the rock, crying out for…for someone…for someone with a face a lot like…
Emony pulled her hand away quickly and the bard’s body shuddered violently, the thoughts and feelings ripped from her heart and mind.
“Wha…” Her heart was pounding as she tried to catch her breath. “What was that?”
“Not yet.” A single tear trailed down Emony’s cheek. “I’m sorry.” Her eyes became tender. “You just look so much like… No. No, not yet.”
With a small shake of her head, the alchemist faded and Gabrielle started out of her sleep.
Her eyes sought out each dark corner, even though all of her other senses told her she was alone.
Xena wasn’t back. She didn’t know how much that should worry her, but she did know that if she sat there and thought about it, she’d drive herself crazy. But what to do instead?
Gabrielle smiled. She’d been thinking of something all day… Glancing down at herself, the smile faded as she took in her muddy breeches and crumpled poet’s shirt.
“Hmmm.” She grunted. “Nope.” Tucking in her shirt, she headed downstairs.
Rylan was pouring ale and Titan was back in his place at the end of the bar, his club right beside him. He smiled at her as she came near, but Gabrielle only nodded and passed him by. “Rylan.”
The barmaid turned soft brown eyes and a gentle smile in her direction. “Yes?”
Gabrielle smiled back. “I need your help.”
Xena tied Argo outside of the inn and grabbed a medium sized pack from her back. Tossing the stable boy a dinar, she smiled. “Take care of her, would you?”
The boy nodded eagerly and begin to loosen her mare’s tack. She nodded in satisfaction and slipped inside, her guard raised, but there was nothing to greet her except the cheery warmth of the fire and Rylan humming softly to herself. With a weary sigh, she sat down at the bar and smiled. “A port, Rylan?”
Xena looked at the men seated around the fire, each of them drinking a mug of ale, then looked backed to the barmaid. “Closed?” One eyebrow lifted as she tried to hold on to her patience. “A port, Rylan.”
“She said the bar was closed.” Titan walked up behind her and laid his huge hand on her shoulder very gently. “She means it. She’s in a mood.” He smiled. “Why don’t you go on up and I’ll get her to send a bottle up to your room.”
Xena nodded slowly, here eyes never leaving the expressionless face of the young woman she had thought was her friend. “I hope you feel better, Rylan. Very soon.”
The barmaid watched her go, then burst into laughter, slapping Titan on the back. “Who knew you were such a smooth talker.”
The big man grinned and went back to his stool.
Xena paused outside of their room, running her fingers through thick, dirty hair. “Great.” She whispered to herself. “I’m a mess.” She had ridden hard to get back as quickly as possible. This meant crossing streams where they weren’t meant to be crossed and dealing with the mud Argo had kicked up in her face. It hadn’t bothered her at the time, she was used to the messy part of being a warrior. But now, standing outside her lover’s door, she wished she had asked for a bath before heading up here. But then again, Rylan would have probably told her the pump was closed as well.
She cracked the door open slowly, her nose catching the thick scent of burning incense while her eyes registered the flickering of candles. Confused, she stepped inside and looked around, closing the door behind her. “You must have been busy, Gabrielle.” She whispered to the empty room.
The lamps were out. In their place, the softer glow of dozens of candles threw shadows against the walls. The fire was burning merrily, it’s wood crackling in the stillness of the room. Most of the candles surrounded the bed, some even placed on it’s headboard. The table beside it was laden with food, grapes, olives, bread and cheese, and even a leg of lamb. Beside this sat a short squat bottle that made Xena grin from ear to ear. Her port. She reminded herself to thank Rylan in the morning.
The incense didn’t even bother her, as it normally did. She breathed in deeply and tried to place the scent. It was like the wood, a little like the water…and a lot like Gabrielle. She had just begun to call for her lover when she felt hands touch her waist from behind.
“That was pretty quiet.” Xena smiled. “You’ve been practicing.”
“Shhh.” The bard’s voice was just a whisper. “Be quiet.” She used her hands to stop the warrior as she tried to turn around. “Stop.” Her tone was gentle, but commanding and brought a weakness to Xena’s knees that she wasn’t used to feeling. “Just do what I tell you.” She took the pack from the warrior’s hand and threw it into the corner.
“Gabrielle…” Xena’s tone held a note of uneasiness, a feeling that fled from her quickly when her lover laughed quietly behind her. She would never forget the sound of that laugh, gentle, loving, almost a caress as it wrapped around her heart. “Oh my…” The gentle laughter came again, and she started slightly as a soft cloth was tied across her eyes. “I don’t know about this, Gabrielle.”
“Do you trust me?”
Xena realized it wasn’t really a question so much as a statement. One to remind her exactly who was asking. “Yes.” She left no doubt in her voice for Gabrielle to hear.
“Then just be still.” She could hear the smile in her lovers words and could see it in her minds eye. A soft, slightly puzzled smile. A smile of wonder. The same one she had seen before, right after they had made love.
Her warrior’s body behaved quite well, obeying her directions to be still as small, silken hands slid down over her arms, pulling off her bracers, followed by her armbands. Quick fingers unchained her breastplate and she heard it thunk to the floor. When those gentle hands unlaced her leathers, Xena felt her heart begin to pound, and no amount of her vast training could make it behave again. “Gabrielle…”
The bard didn’t falter, but Xena heard her breath quicken, felt her hands move faster as they slid the leather down off her hips. A moment later, a strong arm slid around her waist and she was urged towards the bed. She sat lightly on it’s edge, a moan escaping her lips as Gabrielle’s hands traveled across the tops of her thighs, sliding inward, finally, to separate her knees. Her hands went instinctively to the bards head, her fingers curling into soft, strawberry hair, but Gabrielle only laughed. “No, no. Not yet.”
Xena released her reluctantly, her hands burying themselves in the blankets beneath her, as her lover pulled off her boots. The only thing left was her shift and she raised her arms obediently when Gabrielle pulled it over her head. “What next?” She whispered with a smile that faded into something else as warm lips close on her nipple. “Oh…”
“Didn’t I say be quiet?” Gabrielle smiled. “Do what I say and I’ll do anything you want...”
Xena swallowed and nodded, allowing herself to be led to the tub. With a long sigh, she lowered herself into the steaming water and laid her head against the wood inside. The water was scented, lilac and something else, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Whatever it was, it was relaxing her, and she grinned as Gabrielle began to lather her hair. “So nice…”
The bard smiled, amazed that Xena had let her go so far, yet here she was, going further. She worked her fingers through the warrior’s hair over and over, making sure every inch of it was clean, then she began to massage her scalp, followed by her temples. She rinsed every bit of the soap from her head, being careful of her eyes. When she was done, she picked up a new bar of soap and lathered her hands until they were white. Starting at the warrior’s neck, she slowly eased them down, first over her collarbone, then across her chest, her fingers closing firmly around each nipple, making Xena jump. Her hands slid lovingly over firm abs, and across a tight, flat stomach, before dipping into the cleft between her legs. The slickness her fingers found there was enough to make Gabrielle tremble. She couldn’t stop herself from exploring for a moment, her fingertips lost in the softness of her lover. A few minutes later, she shook her head and continued down Xena’s body, earning a groan from the woman beneath her spell. Gabrielle smiled. “Not yet.”
“When?” Xena growled.
“Oh, you are the impatient one aren’t you? Funny, you waited long enough for the first time.” Gabrielle’s grin was wicked. “You can wait a little longer now.”
Xena laughed in frustration and let her bard finish washing her, loving the feel of her hands against the muscles of her calves.
“All right.” Gabrielle pulled her hands away and stood. “Get up.”
With a huge grin, Xena stood, the water streaming off of her in a dozen tiny waterfalls. She stepped out of the tub with Gabrielle’s assistance and stood as her lover began to dry her skin with gentle strokes of a soft cloth.
“Now the fun part.” The bard chuckled. “Stand VERY still.”
Xena tensed her muscles and waited, a slight frown on her face…until she felt Gabrielle’s soft hands, warm with heated oil, begin to massage her body. Her eyes closed beneath the blindfold and she turned her face towards the ceiling, her body beginning to tremble.
“I said be still.” Gabrielle laughed.
“I’m going to do this to you sometime,” Xena’s voice was barely a whisper, her breath ragged in her throat. “and see how still you can be!”
“Mmmhmm.” Gabrielle swallowed and kept herself focused, knowing that if Xena touched her now, she would give in and that was not what she wanted to do. She wanted to stay in charge, she wanted to feel what a warrior felt, what Xena had felt, when she had made love to her. She also wanted to see her quiver…see her shake. She wanted to feel those long fingers in her hair, pushing her down, moving her mouth… “Oh…” Gabrielle stopped, her concentration broken, her hands still moving in circular motions against the warrior’s stomach.
“Gabrielle?” Xena reached up to remove the cloth from her eyes, but Gabrielle’s hand beat her to it and held it where it was.
“Not yet.” She tried to slow her wildly beating heart. “Let me finish.”
“Gladly.” She lowered her arm but held onto Gabrielle’s fingers, lacing her own between them. As the bard’s hand continued down, she squeezed them a little harder. “Hurry….” She whispered, letting her go.
Gabrielle’s fingers slid over Xena’s thighs, working the last of the oil into tan, firm skin. Closing her eyes, she leaned forward and kissed the warrior’s stomach. The oil was pleasant against her lips and enhanced the scent of her lover’s skin, blending to make a fragrance so intoxicating that the bard thought she could die right there without a single regret. “No.” She smiled to herself. “Not yet.”
Gabrielle took the warrior’s arm very gently and led her to the bed. Leaving her there, she went to the window and threw it open, letting in the cool evening air. Looking down, the bard smiled and waved a hand to Titan, who was waiting below. He nodded and walked off.
A few moments later the sound of drums filtered through the window in a rhythmic beat that kept time with Gabrielle’s heart. Swaying slightly, her eyes closed, the bard moved to the center of the room. “You can take that off.” She whispered.
Xena reached up slowly, the anticipation so sweet that she almost regretted the end of the game. Almost.
The sight that greeted her took her breath away.
The muddy breeches and barely white shirt were both gone, replaced by folds of forest green silk cut low over Gabrielle’s breasts and reaching to the ground. The waist was tight, laced up the back, showing every curve of muscle in the bard’s strong abdomen. The sleeves reached down to slender wrists while her shoulders were left with nothing across them but the silk of her hair. “By the Gods.” Xena whispered, her heart a powerful ache within her chest.
“Yes, Gabrielle?” The warrior trembled, unable to take her eyes from the woman standing before her.
Xena’s body was moving before she had actually willed it, sliding her arms around Gabrielle and lifting her to the bed. Settling her body on top of her, her hands went to the back of the bard’s head, pulling her close as she captured soft lips with her own. They were as warm as she remembered, but much, much bolder.
Gabrielle parted her lips eagerly, her tongue flickering against Xena’s as she brought her hands down to curve around the firmness of the warrior’s buttocks, pulling her lover’s hips down against her own.
Her passion carrying her beyond her patience, Xena reached behind Gabrielle’s back to the laces holding her dress together.
“Oh no.” Gabrielle grabbed her hand and brought it to her lips. “Me first.” She laughed. “Or else I’ll never get my turn.”
The warrior’s eyes widened as Gabrielle pushed her onto her back and knelt over her, her skirt pulled up to her knees. Slowly, she lowered herself until she was sitting on Xena’s abdomen, her skin bare beneath her dress and soft against the warrior’s own.
Xena closed her eyes, her hands trembling as they reached up for Gabrielle’s shoulders, only to be caught and forced back to her sides.
“Patience, woman.” The bard laughed. “Open your eyes.”
Xena did as she was told, swallowing hard when Gabrielle’s hands went to the back of her dress and began to loosen the laces. “Let me help.” She whispered.
“No.” Gabrielle’s tone was teasing. “I know your kind of help. And I’ll be asleep five minutes after your done!” She smiled as the silk came free from her shoulders. Leaning forward, she kissed Xena with a passion that startled her. She caught the warrior’s hands again when they tried to slip into the open folds of her dress and pushed them up over her head. “I said it’s my turn.”
Xena smiled and relaxed her muscles, her heart beating wildly when Gabrielle’s lips moved down to her neck, her teeth biting gently at the sensitive skin beneath her right ear. More than anything she wanted to crush the bard to her, to give in to her passion and take control of the situation. But the strength in Gabrielle’s arms and the determination in her eyes told her how much this mattered to her, so she stayed right where she was.
Gabrielle’s lips left Xena’s neck and traveled across her collarbone before sliding down to caress the tops of her breasts. She released Xena’s arms, bringing her hands down to steady herself as her mouth closed around the warrior’s nipple.
Xena’s back arched as Gabrielle’s fingers found her other breast and began to squeeze gently. Wanting to feel her lover’s skin against her, she reached down and closed her fingers on soft, green silk, pulling it quickly over the bard’s head.
Gabrielle smiled against Xena chest as the warrior pushed up against her. Bringing up her knee, she slid it between the warrior’s thighs, pushing them apart. She closed her eyes as she settled herself between them, the warm wetness against her belly almost more than she could bear.
“Yes…” Xena moaned, her fingers raking across Gabrielle’s smooth, pale back until they rested on her shoulders.
The bard kissed the valley between Xena’s breasts before taking her other nipple between her lips, suckling it gently.
The warrior groaned. “Please…”
“Please what?” Gabrielle’s tone was teasing. “I’m new at this remember? You have to show me what you want.”
The hands on her shoulders began to push her downward, and she smiled as she dipped her tongue into a perfect navel. “Here? Or…lower?”
“You’re teasing me.” The warrior sounded breathless, almost weak, her words very soft.
“Yes. Yes I am.” Gabrielle lifted her head from where her lips had just began to touch soft, curly down. “Would you like me to stop?”
“Don’t you dare.” The warrior growled and wrapped her fingers in strawberry hair.
“Your wish is my command.” Sighing, she lowered her face to nuzzle the warrior’s hair with her nose. The scent she found there made her weak. “By the Gods…” With a hunger she had never felt before, she dipped her tongue into the soft pink flesh between her lover’s legs.
It was nectar. That was all that she could think, all she could whisper as her tongue began to move faster against the soft nub of flesh her mouth had found. She heard Xena moan from above her, felt her fingers tighten in her hair. She slid one hand down the warrior’s stomach and around her questing mouth.
“Yes..” Xena shuddered as Gabrielle’s fingers slid inside her, her entire body already aching from her sweet lips. “Faster…”
The bard moved her fingers faster, reaching further, curving them until she touched a high, smooth place that made her lover gasp.
Xena moved her hips against Gabrielle, caught in the rhythm of the drums, each beat another stroke of the bard’s tongue, another thrust of her fingers. She let go of Gabrielle’s hair, for fear that she would hurt her, placing her hands on her shoulders instead. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest, in her ears, she could feel her body reaching it’s limit as she her vision darkened. “I love you.” She whispered.
Gabrielle quickened her pace again, one arm wrapped around the warrior’s thigh, trying to hold her in place. Lost in the taste and scent of her lover, her own hips moved against the bed, making her wet and driving her crazy. When Xena finally shuddered one last time, her back arching, a low moan escaping her lips, Gabrielle didn’t want to stop. She wanted to go on loving her warrior forever. It was Xena who finally dragged her away.
“Gabrielle…” Xena laughed softly. “Stop…stop…c’mere.”
The bard laid her cheek against Xena’s hair for a few moments, drinking in the sweetness of her scent, before climbing up the warrior’s body to nestle in her arms. “Did you mean it?” She whispered, her voice very small.
Xena smiled. “Yes, I did. I love you, Gabrielle. I have for a long time. I just didn’t know it.” She laughed. “I’ll have to thank Sylas if I run into him again.”
“Sylas?” Gabrielle turned to look up into her eyes, but the warrior only grinned.
“I’ll tell you about it sometime. But, for right now,” She pulled the bard closer. “I believe you said you’d do anything I wanted.”
Gabrielle smiled, “I did, didn’t I?”
“Mmmhmmm.” Xena pulled her in for a long, slow kiss before rolling over on top of her. “Now it’s my turn.”
Gabrielle stretched and opened her eyes . The room was dim, only a few candles left burning, the rest had burned themselves out. There was a pleasant weight across her stomach, a soft warmth against her side and she sighed in contentment, snuggling closer to the warrior sleeping next to her. In a few short hours they would be on the road, heading towards Zo…and a war. It seemed a million miles from where she was right then, and she wanted to enjoy it while she could.
She reached up casually to scratch her nose and was caught by the smell of her fingers. Closing her eyes, she breathed in a scent as fresh and clean as the woods after a rain and as sweet as honey on her tongue. It was all she could do to keep from slipping them into her mouth.
“Is this the afterglow you were talking about?”
Gabrielle started, opening her eyes to find Xena looking down at her. She hadn’t even felt her move! “Yes.” She slid her hand behind the warrior’s neck and pulled her down for a kiss. “It most certainly is.”
“Well.” Xena kissed her one last time. “Glow in your sleep. We both need our rest.”
Gabrielle nodded, rolling over on her side so that Xena could curve around her back. As she did, the stone slipped on it’s chain, sliding against her skin to rest against her left breast. The bard could feel it glowing warmly and pulled it away from her skin with two fingers, surprised Xena hadn’t asked her about it yet.
“Have you ever heard of something called a Lath?” Gabrielle lay very still, gazing into the stone.
“Why ‘Of course’?” She asked. “I never heard of it.”
Xena sighed, realizing sleep was lost, for a few minutes anyway. “All warrior’s know of the Laths, Gabrielle. Most have sought after them, at one time or another.”
“Because they are five of the most powerful weapons in existence.” She kissed the back of the bard’s neck. “Now get some sleep.”
Gabrielle’s mouth fell open as Xena slid an arm around her stomach. She looked down at the stone in her hand and swallowed.
Draxen’s arm slid out across his bed, reaching for someone who wasn’t there. He pulled himself out of sleep with a sigh. This always happened for a few days after he had seen Derry. Unfortunately, that never made it any easier.
Stretching, he pulled on his breeches and boots before stepping out into the moonlight. The night was incredibly clear, the sky a million points of brilliant light. He fancied that his wife might be looking up at the same stars too, and wondered, not for the first time, what kept him out here. What held him to this life that seemed to just grow darker every day. It hadn’t been like this in the beginning.
Shaking his head, he turned towards the fire, surprised to see a familiar figure still sitting beside it.
Draxen walked up quietly, not wanting to wake her, should she be asleep. “Zo?” He whispered. “You awake?” He waited for a moment before turning back towards his tent.
“Are you sure?” He tried to find her eyes, to see what mood she held in them, but her face was lost in shadows.
“I’m sure. Sit…please.”
Draxen lowered himself onto the makeshift bench across the fire from her. He watched the flames silently, remembering how many times they had done this in the past, the two of them, just sitting and talking until the sun rose up around them. “It’s different now, isn’t it?”
Zo turned her face to look at him and he could see the faint tracks of tears where they had dried on her cheeks. He was almost as surprised by that as he was by the coldness he found in her eyes. “Yes. Yes it is.”
“Why, Zo?” He slid closer to her. “Why does it have to be? You are a magnificent warrior. I could make you a Queen… That’s what we were going to do…remember?”
“I remember.” Her voice was very soft. “I remember everything.” She dropped her gaze back to the fire. “Have you ever lost anything, Draxen?”
“What do you mean?” He shrugged. “What? Like a dagger, or something?”
“No,” She laughed, knowing it was what he wanted. “And don’t play the fool, Drax. It doesn’t suit you.”
“All right.then, yes, if you must know. I understand what you’re talking about.”
“Do you?” Hard hazel eyes caught and held his own. “Do you know what it’s like to hold everything you’ve searched for you’re entire life in the palm of your hand… and then lose like that.” She snapped her fingers. “Not once, not twice, but three times?”
Draxen swallowed. “I lose my wife every time we leave.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Not exactly the same thing but-“
“Close enough.” Zo whispered. “Now, imagine that she isn’t there, the next time you go home.” She watched his face harden. “How would you feel about the person that took her away?”
“About the same as you. But a lot of what I did about it would depend on whether or not she went willingly.” He reached out and squeezed her shoulder. “I know you, Zo. Probably better than anyone. And this…this all consuming rage, this madness… This isn’t you.”
She was silent for a moment, her face turned away. When she looked at him again, the fire cast an eerie glow across her cheeks and danced wildly in her eyes. “It is now.”
The warrior cracked one eye open to find her lover watching her. She sighed. The look on Gabrielle’s face meant that sleep would be lost for a while, if not for the rest of the night. “It’s late.” She growled. “You should be asleep.”
“I know.” Gabrielle pulled the sheets up around her shoulders. “But I think we need to talk.”
The serious tone in her voice caught Xena by surprise. “All right.” She pulled her self up to lean against the headboard. “About what?”
“I need you to tell me about the Laths.”
“The Laths?” The warrior raised on eyebrow. “you woke me up in the middle of the night to tell you a story?”
“It’s important. Please…”
Xena studied her for a moment before nodding. “As long as you tell me why.”
“Afterwards.” Gabrielle swallowed.
The warrior thought about arguing for a moment, then let it pass. She poured herself a glass of port and sipped it slowly, trying to wake up her vocal cords as her eyes read the worry on her lovers face. After a long sigh, she began. “There are five Laths in existence, the first four being the Elemental Laths, which were created by the power of the Gods.” Xena glanced up to make sure Gabrielle was paying attention. “Centuries ago, Zeus left Mount Olympus in search of the greatest alchemists ever born to man. After years of searching, he chose the four best suited to his needs. Those four were Tirycles, Nomaphalous, Bestus, and Rydonys. To them he offered what their hearts desired most… power. The deal was simple. All four would be given near limitless power, second only to that of the Gods, and one hundred years in which to use it. In return, Zeus commissioned the making of four amulets, and the right to any component he might need for their construction.”
“The alchemists agreed quickly, taking their power and his designs out into the world. They were not good Lords, they were not fair men, but then, Zeus didn’t care about such things. The Gods rarely do. They spent their hundred years , each trying to conquer the others, all of them pillaging the lands they ruled. And through it all they continued to search for everything Zeus required, finding all the components that he needed to make what he desired. All of them but one.”
“On the last day of the hundredth year, Zeus came to them, one at a time. He found each of the four as he expected them to be, old and dying, so frail they couldn’t even stand. And powerful enough to challenge even him, if they had had the strength to do so.”
“But Zeus was not a fool. He had given them limitless power, and a hundred years to reap it’s rewards, but he hadn’t given them youth. With every passing year, their minds became stronger as their bodies became weaker. When the he finally returned to call in his debt, they were too weak to speak or try to stop him. It was only then that they were told what they were helping to create. The Elemental Laths.”
“Each Lath would control one part of nature and could be used to shape it as the Gods wished. For that, Zeus took their souls. In a cauldron made of lightening, he mixed each one with sand, breaking in the bone of the earth to help hold it together, then he crushed it between his palms until each part joined with the others to form a perfect stone. From Tirycles, he created the Blue Lath, to control the tears of the heavens. From Nomaphalous came the Brown Lath, to control the earth and it’s movement. From Bestus he made the Red Lath, to hold the heat of fire. And from Rydonys came the White Lath, to control the blowing winds. They did not fight him, they didn’t even try. For that, Zeus rewarded them. He took away their consciousness, and made each one just a stone.”
“How cruel.” Gabrielle whispered.
“Not so cruel A stone can’t tell the passage of time.”
“Xena, what’s the ‘bone of the earth’?”
“Silver.” The warrior stretched. “or copper, or gold. Any one or all three, as long as the metal is pure.”
The bard nodded. “Go on.”
“When the four alchemists were dead and the amulets complete, Zeus returned to Mount Olympus. He placed the Laths in the Hall Of Winds, for all his children to use and there they stayed for centuries, until Hera, caught up in a fit of jealous rage, scattered them across the earth. Both the Gods and men alike have searched for them ever since.”
“And the fifth?” Gabrielle asked.
“The fifth?” She pulled the bard back to lay against her. “The fifth was the final and most powerful Lath. It was made less than two hundred years ago, and not by any God.”
“By The Great Alchemist. Perhaps the greatest alchemist that has ever lived.”
“You sound like you were impressed by him.” Gabrielle drew her knees up and rested her chin on top of them. “I didn’t think you particularly approved of people who tampered with nature.”
“I don’t.” Xena downed the rest of her port. “But what I’ve heard of this alchemist, makes me wish I’d known her.”
“Her?” The bard’s eyebrows went up and she leaned forward. “A woman…”
“Yes.” The warrior frowned slightly at the lines that creased her lovers forehead. “She lived in a small village called Laned…” She stopped for a moment, her eyebrows knitting together… For a moment… Shrugging, she continued. “It wasn’t too far from here, as I remember. Anyway, she wasn’t well liked, being far too powerful for the likes of a small hunting village. The elders tried everything they could to make her go, but she refused, being held there by a force more powerful than herself…”
Xena started, amazed to find herself getting so caught up in a child's tale. She flushed slightly. “Love.”
“Ahh.” Gabrielle grinned shyly. “Love of whom?”
“A healer. An incredible healer. Some say that she was the other half of the alchemists soul.”
“Something tells me that this story does not have a happy ending.”
“No. No it doesn’t.” Xena slid one arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer. “The healer was a simple farmer’s daughter. Her parents didn’t care for the alchemist any more than the elders did. When they found out about the love between them, they offered their daughters hand to the prince of a nearby kingdom. An offer that would have been laughed at, if not for her extraordinary abilities. The prince agreed, offering protection and prosperity for all of Laned.”
“And when the healer refused to marry him?”
Xena didn't answer.
“She didn’t refuse, did she?” Gabrielle felt a lump in her throat.
“No. She did what was best for her people. She promised her heart to her lover when they reached the Elysian Fields, but gave her hand to the man her parents had chosen.”
“What happened to the alchemist?”
“She lost her faith.” The warrior sighed, her heart heavy. How close had she come to doing the same? “She couldn’t stand to wait a lifetime, but she couldn’t bear to leave her lover unattended either. So she went about practicing heresy. She gathered all the information that she could from the writings of Nomaphalous, gleaning the rest from legends and myths, until she had the things she needed.. On her lover’s wedding night, she called down the power of the Gods, using Athena’s grace to change her cauldron to the stuff of lightning, and taking from Hephestus the strength to grind the stone. The last thing she added was the soul from within her chest. She pulled it out and laid it carefully on top. Then she watched with dying eyes as her Lath began to form and when it was done, it was a stone like no other, possessing a beauty to rival even those Zeus had created. At it’s core was the charm of truth and love, and the desire to return it to the person for whom it was intended.”
“So, the stone went to the healer?”
Xena shook her head. “No, she never saw it. Zeus made sure of that.”
“What did he do?” Gabrielle breathed.
“He learned what was happening when she called down the power of the Gods. When she was dead, and all that remained was the stone, he went to her and gathered it up. He tried to remove it’s charms, but he couldn’t undo what the other Gods had done. So, instead, he cursed it, and the two of them. To the alchemist, he gave everlasting consciousness. He gave her thought, and feeling, so that she would know the horror of being trapped within her prison.”
“And the healer?”
“To the healer he gave a brutal form of immortality, so that she would know eternity without the other half of her soul. But he didn’t give her eternal life...instead, he gave her the lives of her children.”
“What?” Gabrielle felt her heart go cold.
“Her soul would take the bodies of her children. Casting them down to Hades, before they took their first breath.”
“That’s… That’s…” The look of horror on the bard’s face said what her words could not.
“Then Zeus forbade them to ever be together. The stone and the healer could never touch, the two souls could never meet.” Xena snorted. “Their names could not even be said together in the same breath, or they would both be destroyed and separated forever.”
“So, when the charm on the Lath caused someone to try and reunite them…”
“They, themselves, would have to fight to stop it.”
“Goddess,” Gabrielle’s voice was very small. “To be forced to fight against the one thing you want more than life… How awful.”
“Yes.” Xena nodded sadly. “It is.”
“And there’s nothing that can be done? Nothing that can change it?”
“There is always a way out of a curse, Gabrielle. But in two hundred years, they haven’t been able to find it.”
“Xena, what were their names?”
"The healers name was Kylein…” The warrior bolted upright.
“What?” Gabrielle looked at her in concern. “What is it?”
“I met her….” Xena whispered. “I met the healer.” She ran her finger across the smooth skin of her leg.
“Denal..” She grinned. “Laned… Hades, it’s right there!” Her eyes widened. “That means The Stone is nearby. Gabrielle-“
“The Stone Of Emony?” The bard looked up at her.
“Yes! I…How did you know the Alchemist’s name?”
“Xena, why haven’t you seen this?” She pulled the blankets away and held the amulet up in her palm.
“I have. It’s very pretty. What’s the point here?”
Gabrielle looked down at the stone in her palm, it was glowing bright pink and cast a rainbow of colors across her lover’s face. “What do you see?”
The warrior leaned closer. “A particularly attractive piece of rock. I was going to ask where you got it, but it didn’t seem terribly important.”
“Because you were focused on me instead…” She whispered. “And she focused my attention on you. She was protecting herself…”
“No!” Emony’s voice sounded in her mind “ Not just protecting myself. Protecting your destiny, so that you don’t end up like…like…”
“Like you…” Tears pooled up in Gabrielle’s eyes, rolling down her cheeks before she could stop them.
“Gabrielle?” Xena grabbed her shoulders. “Gabrielle, what’s wrong?”
“Xena, look at the stone.” She whispered. “Please… see it for what it truly is.”
The warrior gave her a concerned look, but turned her attention to the stone in the bard’s palm. For a moment, there was nothing, just a dark, attractive stone that she didn't really want to look at. In fact, the harder she stared, the more her eyes wanted to look away. "It's charmed." She reached out and touched it with the tip of her finger, pulling it back quickly as a searing pain burnt through her skin.
“What in Tartarus was that? I ...” Xena’s voice trailed off as the stone began to glow, sending multi-colored rays all around them. “Gabrielle?!” She reached out quickly, trying to catch the bard’s shoulders in her hands, but they closed on empty air.
Xena felt panic wrap around her heart as she slid out of their bed. For a moment, she could see faint trails of color, almost as though the stone’s light had been embedded in the walls.
Then there was only darkness.
Draxen saddled his horse quietly, his heart heavy. He had never thought himself capable of what he was about to do, but he didn’t have any other choice. Pulling himself up into the saddle, he rode out of camp.
Zo watched her second ride away. The darkness in her screamed for his head, raged through her body, tried everything it could to get her to follow him.
To get her to kill him.
Unconsciously, she reached for her sword, strapping it on while the anger burned in her chest. But she had only gone two paces when she stopped. Unbuckling the weapon, she looked at it through the eyes of a stranger.
“You…boy!” She called out to one of the new recruits, one that looked vaguely familiar. He ran to her side quickly. “Do you fear me?”
The young man looked at her for a moment, then bobbed his head. “Yes, sir.”
“Good.” She ran one finger across his smooth, hairless cheek. “You are my second.”
“Draxen has seen fit to desert us, boy. Would you turn down the position?”
“No, sir.” His voice quavered slightly. “But, if he has deserted, shouldn’t we change course… or something?” His heart shriveled in his chest when she turned her cold, hazel eyes on him.
“Nothing changes. If he betrays me, he dies. Now get the men ready, we march in one hour.”
“Yes, sir!” He strode away quickly, barking orders to her startled men.
“Listen to him, he holds Draxen’s place.” She screamed at them. She watched as her warriors scrambled to comply. “Don’t let me down, Boy.”
“I won’t.” He swore. “By Ares, I won’t.”
Zo nodded. “Remember that. Your life depends on it.”
He swallowed, trying to remember how to breathe as he watched her walk away.
“Gabrielle!” The warrior reached out, sweeping her arm through the darkness. “Where are you?”
“Just stand still. It’ll find us in a minute. Trust me, I’ve done this before.”
“What will find us? Oh…” She blinked as a bright light began to glow around Gabrielle. For a moment, it was blinding. When it faded, they were both at the base of a mountain. There were three sets of stairs climbing up away from them, the middle one crumbled, but the other two still intact. “I guess we climb.” She shrugged.
“NO!” Gabrielle gabbed her by the arm. “Those aren’t for you.”
“How do you… Oh, wait, I forgot..” She smiled sarcastically. “You’ve done this before. What is going on, Gabrielle?”
“I don’t know where to start.” She sighed.
“Try the beginning.” Xena reached out and gently lifted the stone from her chest. “Like where you got this.”
They both turned, Gabrielle smiling and Xena scowling.
“You were in the bar.” The warrior accused.
“Yes.” Emony walked towards them. “In a sense.”
“I think you owe us an explanation.” Xena growled.
“Owe you?” The alchemist grinned. “I see. For showing you your hearts, for bringing you together, for saving destiny, I owe you?”
“All right,” Xena crossed her arms. “Thank you very much. NOW explain.”
“And what would you have me explain?”
Xena turned to Gabrielle. “Does she always answer a question with a question?”
“You get used to it.” The bard nodded.
Emony reached out, stopping her fingers just shy of Gabrielle’s cheek. “No, she is right. It is the time for answers.” She sighed. “Ask what you will, warrior, but know that Gabrielle will tell you all that has transpired later. For now, my time is limited. Make your questions count.”
“Why did you help us?” Gabrielle looked into her honey green eyes.
“For many reasons.” She smiled gently. “Because destiny is served by doing so, because each of you holds half of the same soul,” She looked away. “Because you remind me of her… And you both remind me of us.”
“I remind you of who?”
“Kylein.” Xena answered for the Alchemist. “You look like Kylein, Gabrielle. And more than that. You both have the same gentle spirit, the same heart. I noticed it right away. She’s Kyla now, isn’t she?”
“Yes.” Emony nodded.
“How did you set that up? How did she know?”
“There has always been a link between us. We cannot speak, but we can share images, more so when we have to fight against being rejoined. Another gift from Zeus. We are at our closest, when we must fight to be apart.”
“Then all that talk about Zo becoming a powerful warlord was-“
“Absolutely true.” Emony finished for her. “Everything I have shown you is true. Everything I have told you, is true. The center of the stone is truth.” She sighed. “More often than not, I have turned away from the truth in a persons soul. This stone and I have traveled far in the hands of the undeserving, but we always end up here. Kylein is my destiny. As Gabrielle is yours, and you are hers.”
“So you did this to right the path of fate?” Xena looked at her skeptically.
“Take away a person’s destiny, and what do you have left?” A single tear slipped down her cheek. “Your lives will touch the hearts of so many.” She turned to Gabrielle. “You are a farm girl who learned to be a warrior, of words and with your staff. You have faced death and loss, and still refused to let it eat away your soul. And you.” She turned to Xena. “You have taken the evil in your heart and turned it out. You would give your life to atone for your actions, you would give anything to change the things that you have done. There is no more darkness in your soul, Xena. Only shadows of what used to be. You deserve each other, and that is the greatest compliment I can give you both.”
Silence stretched between them as Xena studied the Alchemist’s face. Finally, she nodded. “Then I do owe you thanks.”
“No,” The dark planes of Emony’s face softened. “Thank you. You let me into your dreams, into your hearts. You let me share the love in your souls. That’s something I haven’t had…for a long, long time.”
Gabrielle thought her heart would break at the sadness of the her words. “Is there nothing we can do for you?” She reached out and touched Emony’s hand without thinking. That simple contact sent a thousand images coursing through her mind as waves of emotion crashed into her pounding heart. When the alchemist finally pulled away, she stepped back, dazed. “How long has it been?” She gasped. “Since someone touched you?”
“An eternity.” Emony closed her eyes. “ You cannot help me, Gabrielle.”
“Goodbye, Gabrielle. I will think of you both. I beg you, think of me.”
“Wait!” The bard tried to reach her as she faded away, but Xena grabbed her and held her close.
You cannot help me, Gabrielle….
The bard opened her eyes, Emony’s words repeating in her mind. She turned to wake Xena and found the warrior watching her intently.
“Are you going to tell me what’s been going on?” She raised one eyebrow.
“No. Not right now.” She wrapped her fingers around the Lath, now cold and dark. “Right now, I need your help.”
“To do what?”
“To help Emony.”
“And what about Zo?” Xena said gently. “Have you forgotten that we need to be somewhere tomorrow morning?”
“Xena, do you trust me?”
“With my life.”
“Then let me sleep a little longer.” She saw the doubt in her lover’s eyes and smiled. “I think Emony gave me something…when I touched her. I think she gave me the means to help her. But this has only ever worked when I’m asleep.”
The warrior sighed. “All right. But if I find out this is just a trick to get me to let you sleep late…”
Gabrielle laughed and kissed her gently. “I… I think I need to be alone.”
Xena nodded. “I’ll go look for my own answers.” She slid out of bed and into her armor. “About where we can find Zo.”
“Who will you ask?”
A slow grin spread across her Xena’s face. “Oh, I have an idea…” She gave her lover one last kiss and turned to go.
“Did you ever search for the Laths?”
The warrior hesitated, strapping on her sword before answering. “A long time ago. When I thought I could use them to rule. Why?”
Gabrielle smiled casually. “Just wondering.”
Xena looked as though she didn’t quite believe her, but smiled anyway. “I’ll be back. Keep the door barred.”
The bard nodded, leaving their bed to do as she was told. When the room was secure, she took a long drink of Xena’s port, grimacing at the taste. “How do you drink this stuff?” After a dipper of water to wash it down, she slid back between the sheets.
“All right, Emony. You said to think of you, and I am. I know you can’t help me with this, just please, don’t get in the way.”
Closing her eyes, she drifted off to sleep.
Xena glanced up at the sky as she rode, her eyes counting the stars and the shadows as she figured the time in her head. She had a little over an hour before the first light of dawn crept over the mountains. It would have to be enough.
Squeezing Argo gently with her knees, she mumbled a soft apology and a solemn promise involving oats and a certain brush Gabrielle carried in her bag. She’d have Hades to pay for using that brush, but right now, the risk was worth it.
Xena smiled when the mare nickered and quickened her pace. “Thanks, girl.” She rubbed the horse’s ears. “as fast as you can...”
Half an hour later, Xena pulled up short in front of the warrior’s compound, her eyes narrowing as she took in the shattered gate that had once stood ten feet high. It looked as though it had been hit by a giant, it’s hinges twisted and hanging off to the side. Drawing her sword, she slid off of Argo and stepped inside, her ears catching a sound that definitely had no place there.
No, more than silence. It was a dead sound, the same quiet you found in graveyards and gutted villages. Even the air was still.
Xena moved silently, her steps making no sound as she crept from one building to the next. What she found puzzled her.
There was no blood, no destruction, in fact, no sign of any kind of altercation at all. And yet there were no people. Each building was empty, it’s furnishings left neatly arranged as though the occupant might return at any time. Somehow, Xena didn’t think they would.
Satisfied that she was alone, the warrior turned towards the Raven’s Claw. Her eyes widened as it came into view.
The Inn was gone...destroyed. And destroyed was a gentle term.
There wasn’t one single board or brick left standing, just a pile of rubble that reached nearly to her shoulders. She made one pass through what was left, collecting bits of rope as she went. Each rope had a leather gather at one end that closed around an iron hoop. The other end was ragged, as though it had been snapped.
The pulled it apart, Xena thought to herself. The Inn, as it had been, was a large, two story building, built to withstand almost anything. The sheer magnitude of what Zo had done was staggering. And the number of men and horses she would have needed to do it was inconceivable.
“An army...” She shook her head. So that’s where everyone went.
Lifting her face into a cool, passing breeze, Xena froze.. There was something... She breathed the air in deeply. It smelled....like copper... ?
Cursing softly, she turned her attention to the ground. It didn’t take long to find what she was looking for.
A thin trail of blood...leading from the wreckage into the trees behind it. At first just a few drops, then a steadier stream, until she knew she was hunting a dead man. Still, she had to hope..
The trail ended abruptly at the base of a huge tree, the ground beside it stained an impossible shade of red. Her eyes panned from tree to tree until a drop of fluid landed on her shoulder. Looking up, she swallowed.
Hanging from the tree was a bloodied mass, barely recognizable as a man. With a flip of her wrist, Xena sent her chakram spinning up into the branches. It found it’s mark, slicing through the rope around the victims ankles before gliding back to her hand. She caught the body as gently as she could, letting the corpse’s own weight drag it to the dirt, where it landed face down.
She didn’t need to roll him over to know who it was.
She told me you’d be coming. And that she’d kill me if I helped you find her.
“I guess you were right.” Xena grunted in frustration. “So much for my answers.” She glanced at the Innkeeper coldly, trying hard to feel sorry for the man and failing miserably. Her eyes narrowed when she noticed that the body was leaning at an odd angle, as though there were something large sticking out of his chest.
With one foot, she caught the innkeepers body under it’s arm and flipped him onto his back. Protruding from his chest was a ten inch dagger, it’s hilt made up like the head and neck of twin bronze dragons. “Zo.” The warrior growled, grabbing the weapon and yanking it free. With it came a piece of parchment so soaked in blood that she hadn’t seen it at first. It was carefully folded, almost as though the writer had known it would be getting wet and wanted the message to remain clear.
Xena opened it slowly, her own blood turning to ice as she read the four words written there.
See you in Potedeia...
Gabrielle’s eyes flew open, her hands fluttering up over her heart. She felt the seductive fingers of a dream receding, felt it slip out of her mind, even as she tried to hold onto it. What was it? She couldn’t even be sure it was a dream, more than a nightmare. She had an overwhelming sense of being surrounded, mixed in with the heartache of an unbearable loss. What was this?
Standing up, she felt her head connect solidly with a hard, cold ceiling. “What the...” Rubbing her eyes, she swung her head from side to side, her glance catching on the thin, web-like glow of the multi-faceted walls.
“Faceted?” Reaching out a hand, the bard slid her fingers across the smooth, glasslike stone, her skin registering cold spots as well as warm. When she realized that there was no exit, panic settled in her chest. She was trapped inside the stone...
Gabrielle tried to focus on finding a way out, but the ache in her heart was growing at an alarming rate. The ache of loss...
“Emony.” She whispered. “Is this what it’s like? Is this all that you’ve had? For 200 years?”
There was no answer.
“This is cruel.” Gabrielle felt tears course down her cheeks. “How could Zeus do this? How did you survive?” She didn’t expect the Alchemist to answer. It was her job to find the answers now. Closing her eyes, she gave herself over to emotions raging inside her. When she opened them again, the stone was gone, as was the loss, replaced instead by a seedy tavern. Gabrielle wondered briefly who she was in this vision, but a brilliant smile from across the bar was all the answer she needed.
“Gabrielle!” Xena moved towards her, her smile growing with each step.
“Xena!” The bard took one step and stopped abruptly, a fierce sense of fear and panic settling firmly in her chest. And the closer Xena got, the more panicked she became. “Stop!” She held her hand out, placing it between them. “Don’t....”
“Gabrielle? Are you all right?” Xena reached out a hand to touch her cheek.
“DON’T TOUCH ME!”
The warrior pulled her hand back quickly, her cheeks flushing red as she turned away.
“Wait...” Gabrielle called out weakly. “That’s not...I mean.... I didn’t mean....”
“Right...” The warrior walked away, glancing back once before stalking out of the bar.
“I get it...” The bard watched her go, her hands curling into fists. “To be forced to fight against the one thing you want more than life...”
Gabrielle shook her head. No more of this. There were no answers in these memories, only pain. And she didn’t think she could take any more of it.
No, there was only one place where she could find her answers, only one memory that could possibly help her. “Now.” She clenched the stone in the palm of her hand. “Show me...”
There was no light this time, just the vague feeling that everything around her had shifted followed by a bone numbing coldness. Shaking violently, she fought to open her eyes.
“Still so stubborn...” A deep, rich voice filled the space around her. “Lie still, let it end.”
Gabrielle struggled harder, finally managing to open her eyes enough to see the room around her.
Aged and weathered, Zeus stood before her, holding the stone that carried her soul. He noticed her struggles and smiled in her direction. “If the truth be told, I thought you gone from this world. All except your soul. I supposed I shouldn’t be surprised. You had no respect for your place when you were yet living, why should it be different now?” He laughed. “Perhaps this is better. This way you can hear what your heresy has wrought.”
Looking into the stone, he marveled at her creation. It was flawless. Even the four he created held fractures within. But not this one, not the Stone of Emony. “I cannot undo what you have stolen from the Gods. This stone is, and shall remain, a Lath... But it will never reach Kylein. It will never know her palm, just as she will never know her children.” He set the crystal as he spoke, sliding it into a silver brace attached to a simple chain. “For her, eternity without family, or love. For you, an eternity to think on what you have done, an eternity alone, with the knowledge of what you have caused.”
Gabrielle watched as Zeus held the Lath up by it’s chain. “An eternity to find the light hidden within the darkness. An eternity to find the enemy who is to be your only friend.”
“There it is.” She smiled. Letting her eyes close, Gabrielle tried to will herself away, but she didn’t have the strength. “No...” She whispered.
With a strange, sick feeling, Gabrielle felt herself begin to die.
Xena kept her eyes on the road ahead, trying to concentrate on the path before her. At the breakneck speed she was running Argo, any stone or rut could make her stumble... and cost her mare a leg.
She tried not to think beyond her surroundings, but it was so hard not to let her mind drift back to Gabrielle. It was so hard not to wonder what she was doing, and if she was ok....
She didn’t see him until it was too late, only a black shape swinging down from the branches overhead. His lower legs connected solidly, brushing her off of Argo’s back and onto the hard, cold ground.
Xena was on her feet in an instant, her sword drawn and pointed towards her attacker. “I remember you...” She hissed. “Where is she?”
Draxen stepped out of the shadows and held his hands up. The moon had long since vanished, but the predawn light was enough for Xena to see that his hands were empty. She lowered her sword slightly, drawing a small circle in the air with it’s tip.
With a nod, Draxen turned slowly in a circle, raising his vest to show her that he carried no weapons at all. “I did not come here to fight you, Xena.”
“Well, that was a pretty stupid way to say hello.” She lowered her blade completely, but did not put it away. “What do you want?”
“So talk. I don’t have much time. Make it quick.”
“Zo’s going to Potedeia.” He ran one hand over the stubble on his cheeks. “She intends to flush you out of hiding. She knows you couldn’t let innocent people die, let alone the family of your...” He stopped short when Xena raised her eyebrows dangerously. “Friend.”
“She’s more than a friend,” She nodded at him and, deciding he was no threat, returned her sword to it’s scabbard. “But what does that mean to you?”
He shrugged and turned his face away. “I don’t know. A week ago, I would have said that it meant nothing. But that’s not true anymore.”
For a moment, she thought he wouldn’t answer, then he turned and met her eyes. “Because it’s real.” He said quietly. “And that’s very hard to find.... and even harder to lose. Zo thought she had it, and to be honest, so did I.”
“You’re both wrong.” Xena whistled for Argo and began a quick check of the mare’s tack.
“I know that, Xena.” He walked around so he could see her face. “I think she knows it too, but she doesn’t want to accept it.”
“Right.” Xena snorted. “Look, this is all very entertaining, but I have an army to stop-“
“I can help you.”
She turned around slowly, mistrust evident on her face. “Why would you do that?”
“Because the woman leading this army is not the Zo I know. When Gabrielle left, she took more than Zo’s heart. She took her hope.”
“Hope?” Xena repeated, sarcasm dripping from her voice. “Well, that seems fair...she was more than willing to take the hope of those four girls I rescued from her slavers. And what about the innkeepers hope? Won’t do him any good any more...unless it’s in the shape of a bucket.” She started to climb into the saddle and felt a strong hand on her arm. “Let go of me, Draxen. Trust me, it’s in your best interest.”
He pulled his arm back but did not move away. “And it’s in your best interest to hear me out.”
Xena looked into his eyes and saw honesty...and something else. “All right. You have five minutes.”
Draxen nodded and took a deep breath. “The slaving was not her idea.”
“Okay, whose idea was it?”
“You’re a second, you don’t have the authority...”
“Yes, I did. That is what you don’t seem to understand. Zo was not a warlord. Oh, sure, the villagers called her that, and so did her men. But she was a general more than anything. She and I built this army up together. We started less than three years ago, hand picked every man, and one or the other of us personally trained each one. When we were done, we had over seventy men, and nearly as many horses.” He smiled sadly. “And that’s not counting the mules.”
“Uh huh.” Xena glanced up at the sky. “Is there a point here?”
“Yes!” Draxen finally snapped at her. “The point is, Zo built this army like no other. The men followed her because they wanted to, they trusted her, believed in her. And never once did she let them down. We never pillaged any villages, never killed any innocents. Yes, we were hired mercenaries, yes she sent us into war, many times, but always on the right side. And always with compassion for her men... and herself.”
She studied him silently for a few moments. “That isn’t how she tells it.”
“Not to you.”
Xena thought about that, then nodded. “Go On.”
Draxen swallowed. “You took away her life,” He held up a hand at her protest. “I know it wasn’t your fault, call it bad timing, but when you killed the man she had been sent for, that’s exactly what you did. May I?” He pointed to her waterskin.
Xena nodded, watching as he took a long drink. She smiled when he wiped it clean before handing it back.
“Thank you.” He looked up at her. “You took her heart too, you know, when you left the first time.” He sighed. “Then you took Gabrielle...”
“I didn’t ‘take her’.” She said quietly. “Gabrielle made her choice.”
“I know. But all Zo sees is you, taking something from her again.”
“That’s no excuse..”
“Xena,” Draxen stepped closer. “If Gabrielle had chosen Zo, would you still be using that argument? Or would you do anything that you could....not to believe it?”
Xena thought about that for several long moments, then sighed. “All right. So what am I supposed to do about it?”
“Just don’t hurt her.” He pleaded. “She has a good heart, and someday she might even believe that again.”
“Don’t hurt her...” Xena shook her head. “I seem to be hearing that a lot. Why did you start slaving?”
“To get her what she wanted... a way out. She didn’t want to be a General anymore. She wanted to find somewhere to call a home, and someone to share it with. Slaving brought in a lot of money. Enough to buy her a way out.” He lowered his eyes. “It isn’t something that I’m proud if... “
“What about the Innkeeper?” Xena’s hand wandered to the hilt of her sword. “Was that you too?”
“No. She’s got herself a new second now, one that’s eager to prove his worth, and his loyalty. He ordered the man killed.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I was there, Xena. No one saw me, but I saw them. Zo did destroy the Raven’s Claw, and she did take the men for her army. But she had already headed out when her man sent out the assassins.”
Xena sighed. This just got better and better.
“There’s something else.”
“The men she leads now do not have her sense of honor, they do not share the ideals that she and I used to have. They sense a rabid leader and a lot of quick money. With them at her back, she’ll never stop. She won’t have to.”
Xena frowned. “You’re right.” She stared into his eyes. “So how can you help me stop them, and her?”
“First your word...that you won’t hurt her.”
“You have it. I will not hurt her... unless it’s the only way to stop her from hurting someone else.”
Draxen didn’t look happy about the added condition, but he finally agreed. “All right. This is how I can help: I know where they are. And I know where they’re going.” He laughed bitterly. “Hades, I chose the routes they’re taking to get there. I can tell you where to cut them off, Xena. If you leave within the next two hours, you can catch up to them long before they reach Potedeia.”
Xena didn’t waste time. Every sense she had was telling her to trust this man, and that was enough for her. Grabbing a map out of Argo’s pack, she unrolled it onto the ground and knelt beside it. “Show me.”
“There.” Draxen pointed. “That’s where they are.” He glanced up at the rising sun. “They’ll be moving by now. But you can catch them here.” He slid his finger down, bringing it to rest next to a small meandering line.
“The Kirys River.” She nodded. “That’s smart. Fresh water, fresh fish... and it leads straight to Potedeia.” Jumping up, she tucked the map into her belt and took Draxen by the shoulders. “All right, now listen to me. I need you to go ahead to the village. Whatever it takes, you need to get there first. Mobilize the people, get them out of town... just in case.”
“No.” He shook his head emphatically. “I’m going to be there when you catch up to her.”
“She’ll kill you.”
“Maybe,” He shrugged.
“You don’t care? Gabrielle said you have a wife. What about her?”
Draxen turned slowly, his eyes very clear in the new morning sun. “I have loved two women in my life. To one I gave my heart, to the other... my loyalty. I would gladly die for either of them.”
Xena straightened and slowly extended her arm. “I hope some day to call you friend, Draxen.”
The warrior gripped her arm tightly, meeting her eyes one last time. “I hope that day is tomorrow.”
She watched him as he headed back into the trees. A few moments later, she heard the creak of leather and the sound of a horse running at a full gallop.
Satisfied that he had been alone, Xena finished checking Argo’s saddle and grabbed on to the horn, using it to pull herself up. Just as she swung her leg over the mare’s back, she felt a wave of nausea hit her, followed by a darkness that threatened the edge of her vision. Somewhere in her mind she saw Gabrielle laying very still... too still.
The word echoed through her mind like a thunderclap. It was Emony’s voice, but it sounded hollow.... almost...empty.
Panic laced itself around her heart as she grabbed up the reins. “Yah!”
Argo knew that tone of voice. She took off running, settling into her fastest gait as Xena leaned forward in the saddle.
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