"LIFE FROM DEATH"
An Original Xena Story
Copyright 1996 by
Patricia L. Givens
Okay, here is the usual stuff:
The names and titles in this story are the sole property of MCA. I have borrowed them here in an attempt to write fanfiction. No copyright infringement is intended. The story itself, and all aspects of it, other than those listed above, belong to the author, Patricia L. Ennis. This story may not be sold and may only be archived with permission or by those for whom it was written (i.e. Saddlehorn).
Also, this story is intended for mature adults (Over 18) who do not object to graphic (Well, semi graphic, maybe...no, it's graphic.) love scenes between partners of the same sex. If this offends you, or you are under 18, do not continue.
This is my first attempt at Xena fiction, I primarily write DS9 fanfiction, so I would greatly appreciate any comments you might have. Thanks!
This story takes place immediately after the happenings in the Thessalean Temple, from the episode "Is There A Doctor In The House?"
May the Prophets Walk With You!
Jadzia7627 AKA DAx =/\=
It was nearly dark when Xena glanced up at Gabrielle, trying to make out her features in the closing dusk. Taking in the red-golden hair that framed a too-pale face, she pulled on Argo's reins, bringing her to a quick stop.
"Hey!" Gabrielle grabbed onto the saddle horn. "What are you doing?" She tried to regain her balance and ended up with Xena's hand against her side to steady her. She looked at her warrior friend curiously. "I thought we were going to try for Atwir before nightfall."
Xena ignored her as she lead Argo off the road and into a sheltering copse of trees. She had pulled most of their equipment off and was reaching up for Gabrielle before she answered. "You're pale." Her voice was very flat. "You need food, warmth and sleep." She looked around the small clearing, cocking her head to one side to listen to the steadily increasing night sounds. "Atwir isn't going anywhere. We need to make camp and this is as good a place as any." She pointed towards a particularly dark area about 75 feet away. "There's a river through those trees, I want to try to catch some fish tomorrow. Our dried meat is running low."
Gabrielle sighed, but let herself be lifted from the saddle. As Xena helped her down, she smiled reassuringly, a very sweet, but rare, occurrence and Gabrielle found herself fascinated by how gentle the woman could be...when she tried. "You know, Xena," She made a concerted effort to keep her voice steady. "I'm not a child. I can get down from a horse on my own." As she slid to the ground, their eyes met and she wanted to take the words back. For a moment, no more than a second, she thought she saw hurt in those liquid blue eyes, but then Xena's face hardened, and it was gone.
"You're still hurt, Gabrielle. If I don't try to keep you from killing yourself, who will?"
The young bard nodded silently, angry with herself, and went to pick up her bedroll. As she bent down, a hard pain slammed into her abdomen, causing her to double over and fall to her knees.
"Gabrielle!" Xena was at her side instantly, grabbing her shoulders to keep her from slumping to the ground. "Leave it! I said I would get it for you!" She took a deep breath and gentled her voice. "You can't recover from a wound like this in just a couple of days. You nearly died, Gabrielle." She swallowed hard when she remembered that Gabrielle HAD died. "You've got to take it easy." She picked her up gently and carried her over to a fallen tree where she had been planning to build their fire. Leaning her against it, she lifted the bandage that bound the bard's abdomen and pulled out a rag and flask. "You've torn open the wound." She tugged the dagger out of her bodice and placed it between Gabrielle's teeth. "This will hurt, bite down when it does." She pulled the cork from the flask and poured a liberal amount of it's contents into the deep cut in her side, hearing the bard's sharp intake of breath and the sound of her teeth hitting metal. Before the initial pain had even passed, she had pulled out a needle and thread and re-sewed the opening. She cleaned the skin around it, and then turned her attention to the wound on Gabrielle's neck.
Once again, the gentleness of the warrior astounded her. The wound cleanings that the Thessalean Monks had given her had been very thorough, but extremely painful, almost to the point of causing her to pass out. The hands that touched her now were soft, and so very gentle, causing only the briefest moments of pain in the worst parts of the wound.
Xena had thrown her hair to one side, to keep it out of her eyes as she worked, and Gabrielle found herself studying her face. Her skin was dark from years in the sun, but it had a look of softness to it. The dark skin caused her eyes to stand out even more clearly, making them almost as blue as the clearest sapphire she had ever seen. She followed the line of an adorable nose to the red, full lips beneath it. They were parted and moved of their own accord as Xena continued to examine the wounds that marked her body. She wondered briefly what they would feel like, what they might taste like, and then tore her gaze away. "Well" She thought to herself. "These thoughts are certainly new." Shaking her head, she tried to figure out why she felt so nervous. It was just Xena. Right.
"Am I hurting you?"
"What?" She started, feeling slightly guilty, then shook her head quickly when Xena repeated her question. "No, why?"
"You keep shaking your head." She looked at the bard closely. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"Yes...I'm fine." She tried to smile. "Just thinking." She picked up a water skin and took a drink.
Gabrielle choked. Dropping the skin to the ground, she grabbed her side as she coughed violently. The pain was intense and she squeezed her eyes shut against the tears that threatened to run down her cheeks. The warrior thumped her lightly on the back until the coughing subsided. "I'm okay now." She wheezed.
"What happened?" Xena looked at her in concern. "You're not having trouble breathing, are you?" A light fluttering of panic started in the bottom of her stomach as she studied Gabrielle's face.
"No." She sighed. "I just...swallowed wrong." She turned her head away to hide a flush that crept onto her cheeks.
Xena continued to watch her for a few seconds longer, before retrieving the water skin from the ground. She took a long drink, thinking to herself that Gabrielle didn't lie very well. She thought briefly about questioning the bard, but decided to let it go. Enough time for that when she was feeling better. "I'm going to make the fire and set up camp. If you know what's good for you, you'll stay right where you are."
Gabrielle nodded, thinking she had angered her friend enough for one evening. She watched as Xena went about her work, wondering if her lie had been convincing. Somehow, she knew that it hadn't.
There wasn't much to setting up the camp, and what there was, Xena did efficiently. Within an hour, their bedrolls were laid out, the fire was blazing, and a rabbit was cooking on a spit. Xena sighed. With the work done, there was nothing to occupy her mind, which meant that it would go right back to Gabrielle. As much as she didn't want to think about what had happened at the Thestilean Temple, she didn't seem to be able to keep her mind from returning there. She had never felt that helpless in her life, and helplessness was not a feeling that the warrior princess was used to dealing with. But standing there, with her...she paused in her thoughts, wondering what Gabrielle really was to her. 'Best friend' didn't even seem close to covering it. But standing there, with Gabrielle dead in her arms, she had felt her heart break, something she hadn’t experienced in a very long time. She glanced over at Gabrielle and thought about all of the times she had tried to leave her behind, telling herself it was for the younger woman's own good. But now, she wondered if she had really been thinking about herself. By removing the one person that she knew could get through her defenses, she would remove the risk of losing her later on.
She studied the bard's face as though she were a statue, watching the firelight flicker in her eyes as Gabrielle watched the flames. There was something so soft about her, so trusting, so...touchable. She realized that she wanted to hold her, to feel her strawberry blonde hair against her skin, and trace the smooth planes of her face. Unbidden, the memories of the Temple rushed in, showing her Gabrielle's face as it had been, white, still...splattered with her own blood. She closed her eyes as a wave of panic ran through her body, ending in a fierce grip around her heart. She waited for the feeling to pass, steeling herself against the sick feeling she knew would follow. Leaning heavily against a nearby tree trunk, she breathed in the night air, trying to slow the pounding of her heart.
Once she had regained her composure, she turned back to the fire and found Gabrielle watching her, concern showing plainly in her expressive blue eyes. "Xena...are you all right? You look kind of pale."
Xena was silent for a moment, wondering what Gabrielle would do if she told her the truth. With a sigh, she headed towards the river. "I'm fine, Gabrielle. I'm going to take a bath."
“But…what about your armor?” Gabrielle called after her.
“I can manage for one night, Gabrielle. I did have to take it off before I met you, you know.” The silence that greeted her words made her turn around. The young woman was staring at the ground. No emotions showed on her face, but Xena knew she had hurt her. With a sigh, she walked back to the camp. “You know,” She reach behind her back and fumbled intentionally. “These buckles are a lot higher than I remember. Of course, I’m also out of practice. Guess I could use your help after all.” She sat cross legged in front of the bard, turning her back before she could see Gabrielle’s grin.
At first, it just felt like tugging as Gabrielle loosened the laces and buckles that held her leather tunic together. But as she got further beneath the layers of clothing, she began to feel the bards fingers through the thin fabric of her undergarment. She closed her eyes, savoring the softness of Gabrielle’s hands until they hesitantly reached to remove the last of her clothing. “No.” Her voice had an edge that she didn’t understand. “I mean…I need to wear something down to the river.” She was startled when she saw something close to regret flit across Gabrielle’s features, but then, she had seen relief as well. Picking up a clean tunic, she stood to go.
She looked back to find Gabrielle holding out her bodice dagger. “Keep it with you.” Her voice was low, almost husky and the bard’s eyes took on a questioning look. “This area is free of large predators, but I want you to have some sort of weapon, just in case.”
“What, Gabrielle?” She was sure her impatience was showing, but she couldn’t help it. More than anything, she needed to get away and think. A cold river would do much to cool her blood, which seemed on fire in her veins.
The young bard flinched and looked away, into the trees. “What about me?” She whispered, almost pleading. “I feel so…dirty.”
Xena’s face took on a much softer expression as she knelt next to Gabrielle and brushed fine hairs off of her forehead. “I’m sorry. I should have realized.” She picked up an empty waterskin and slung it over her shoulder. Finding several large rocks, she tossed them into the edge of the fire and smiled. “I’ll warm up some water when I get back. All right?”
Gabrielle smiled, “Thank you.”
The warrior nodded and headed down to the river.
Gabrielle watched her until she was out of sight, wondering at the pleasure she felt in looking at her friend. It was just as confusing as the thoughts about her lips. Oh, she had watched Xena before, but with a Bard’s vision. Taking in the events that she would weave into tales or studying her to learn how to use a staff or throw a Chakram. This felt very different. With a sigh, she closed her eyes and waited.
The water was freezing.
She hadn’t checked it before jumping in, and regretted it immediately. She had wanted cold, but not this cold! Oh well. Too late now.
With chattering teeth, she submerged herself, rubbing soap into her hair and over her body, trying to rush as fast as she could. She had hoped that the water would calm her down, but the effect was exactly the opposite. Every inch of her skin felt alive and every nerve ending sang as the water caressed her body. After a few minutes of brisk swimming to tire herself out, she filled the waterskin and pulled her tunic on.
When she reached the camp, Gabrielle was asleep. She kicked the stones out of the fire and laid the skin on top of it. Shaking the bard’s shoulder, she grinned. “I thought you wanted a bath.”
“I do..” Gabrielle mumbled and began to pull off her shirt.
“Here, let me help.” Xena reached down and slowly peeled the shirt away from her skin, being careful of the freshly sown wound in her side, then unlaced her skirt and pulled it away. She folded the clothes and set them aside. Turning back, she gazed at the young woman before her, her breath catching in her throat.
The moon was kind to Gabrielle, or rather, kind to Xena. It was full and shown down brightly, causing her pale skin to almost glow. And Gabrielle was beautiful. Her breasts were full and very firm, her stomach flat, her hips slender. She had seen her this way before, when they would swim together, but somehow, this time it was different.
She cleared her throat and grabbed a rag and soap, pulling the skin from the rocks as she knelt down beside her. She soaked the rag, and rubbed soap into it until it lathered, then looked to Gabrielle. “Tell me if I hurt you.” She whispered.
She started with her shoulders, rubbing them gently with the cloth , then moved down to her breasts. When she circled around and then finally over them, she thought she felt Gabrielle shake.
“That’s nice.” The bard whispered.
“Mmmhmmm.” Xena didn’t speak, but hummed under her breath. Her attention was entirely on what she was doing, her eyes following the trail of the rag as she ran it over Gabrielle’s skin. She finished with the bard’s upper body and re-soaked the rag before running it down her stomach, circling around the wound she had already cleaned. As she reached the girl’s abdomen, she looked up expectantly, her eyes widening at what she saw.
Gabrielle’s head was tilted back, her mouth slightly open, her breath softly ragged. Xena swallowed, she looked so much like a woman would, as you were making love to her. She let her fingers trail up the bard’s chest to touch her face, and Gabrielle immediately opened her eyes. “I’m sorry!” She rushed. “The water just felt so good…” She looked at Xena with fear in her eyes.
“I know, Gabrielle.” The warrior sighed. “Do you want me to continue, or do you want to do the rest yourself?”
Gabrielle glance down to where Xena’s hand rested, against the skin of her abdomen, right above her patch of red-blonde hair. Her heart began to pound as she contemplated her choices. She knew she would never be able to hide the pleasure she was feeling if she allowed Xena to continue her gentle ministrations. But the idea of stopping was not that appealing either. “I…can you?” She turned her face away to hide her flush. “Slowly?”
Xena nodded, astounded that Gabrielle wanted her to continue. She knelt between the bard’s legs and let water run down her body from the skin. Trying to be gentle, she washed her calves and thighs, before moving up to the triangle of pale hair between her legs. There she slowed her hand, running the cloth gently over her sensitive areas. When she pulled the rag up to re-soak it again, her fingers accidentally grazed Gabrielle’s swollen clitoris, causing a shudder to run through her small frame. Xena pulled away, surprised at the slick warmth that had touched her hand. She looked into Gabrielle’s panicked eyes and brought her fingers to her lips. She inhaled their scent deeply and then slipped them into her mouth.
“Xena..” Gabrielle’s voice was husky, and she remembered the way Xena’s had sounded before she headed to the river. With wild hope, she placed her hand against the warrior’s chest. “I think I’m in love with you, and I…I want...”
Xena closed her eyes against the words, but knew it was too late. The little girl she had saved so long ago was gone. She had been replaced by a young woman who had stolen her heart. She couldn’t remember exactly when it had happened, she only had the certainty that she had loved Gabrielle for quite a while now. She looked down at the pale skinned hand that ran in circles over her breasts. “Are you sure, Gabrielle? I won’t be able to stop, once we begin. I think I’ve wanted this for too long.” She looked into the bard’s pale blue eyes. “You can’t go back, Gabrielle. Just because I’m not a man, doesn’t mean it won’t count.”
Gabrielle laughed. “I know that, Xena. Why do you think I have waited this long? I wanted it to be you. It’s always been you…” A pained look crossed her face and she reached to her side. “But..”
“Don’t worry,” The warrior’s smile was private, her voice soft.. “Women aren’t like men, Gabrielle. Everything is gentle…if we want it to be.”
With a nod, Gabrielle laid back and took a deep breath. She thought briefly about closing her eyes, but decided against it when Xena pulled her tunic off. She had seen the warrior half naked many times, but never completely so, and never for her.
Xena lowered herself on top of her bard, making sure to stay off of her hurt side. With a slowness that made the young woman crazy, she brought her lips down until they tasted the sweetness of Gabrielle’s mouth.
A bolt of desire swept through the bard’s body, causing her to push up against the warrior as she opened her mouth to taste her tongue. Their first kiss was slow, long and sweet. She thought she could never get enough of Xena’s lips, until the warrior trailed them down her neck and closed them on one of her nipples. It was like nothing she had ever experienced. A deep burning ache started in the pit of her stomach, causing her to raise her arms and twine her fingers in Xena’s hair. With strength built from pure passion, she pulled the warriors head against her as she arched her back off the ground. She could feel Xena smile against her skin.
“So sweet, Gabrielle.” She brought her hand to the bard’s other breast, using her fingers to pinch her nipple lightly as her teeth bit gently on the other one. “You have wanted this, haven’t you? But not as much as I have..” She ran her free hand up Gabrielle’s thigh, bringing it up until it could take the place of her lips on the young woman’s chest. Then she slid her mouth down, dipping her tongue into her navel as she went. When she reached the top of her pale, fragrant hair, she laid her cheek against it, inhaling the sweetest scent she had ever known. “Gabrielle…”
“Please…” Was the only word the bard could remember.
With a sigh, she lowered her lips onto Gabrielle, parting her so that her tongue could reach into her depths. Her lips found nothing but softness and warmth, covered in a sweetness that was like nectar against her tongue. She opened her eyes to watch the bard’s face as continued to stoke her with her tongue. Gabrielle’s eyes had closed, her breath was coming in gasps, punctuated with the whispering of Xena’s name. She watched closely as she brought her hand down, circling the opening that led inside her. Slowly, she entered her, being as gentle as she could until the pain left Gabrielle’s face and a look of wonder replaced it. The look turned to ecstasy as Xena’s speed increased and she matched the strokes of her tongue with the strokes of her hand. It was only a few minutes before Gabrielle’s back arched, her hips bucked, and she fell back gasping.
“Xe..Xena….St..stop…I can’t take anymore.”
The warrior raised herself up to lay by her side, circling her nipples with the wetness on her hand. When she leaned in to kiss her, Gabrielle could smell her scent on Xena’s lips and touched them slowly, tentatively, with her tongue. After her first taste, she smiled and looked into Xena’s eyes. “What about you?”
“I’m fine, Gabrielle.” Xena laughed tiredly. “In fact, I’m perfect.” She wrapped her arms around the bard and pulled her close to her chest.
“But, I want to-“
“Shhh.” Xena placed her still damp fingers against Gabrielle’s lips. “Enough time for that later. I’m not going any where,” She tightened her embrace. “And neither are you. Rest, get your strength back.” Her smile lit up the darkness. “Trust me, you’re going to need it.”
End Part I
Gabrielle let go of sleep slowly, opening her eyes to a sky still dark blue with the receding night. She could smell water on the softly blowing wind, and it helped her to remember where she was. With a long sigh, she ran her fingers through her hair and thought about her dream. Her dream where Xena touched her gently, covering her with the softness of her lips...
It took her a few moments to realize that the coolness she felt was the breeze caressing her naked skin. Her eyes widened slightly and traveled to the pallet she was laying on. Buried beneath a blanket, she saw a few locks of dark chestnut hair falling across a beautiful forehead. Her heart began to pound in her chest as she accepted the fact that her dream had been real. That Xena had bathed her and made love to her in the moonlight.
"I'm not a virgin anymore." She whispered softly, smiling at the absurd pleasure she got in being able to say those words. "You were my first."
With a tenderness born of the love in her heart, she leaned down and briefly touched her lips to Xena's, running a finger across her cheek before rising to throw a log on the fire. She felt a strong rumbling in her stomach and looked at the spit where a black lump was still hanging. With a soft laugh, she threw it into the bushes for the wolves and searched through their packs for food. She found only a few sticks of dried meat and looked at them without enthusiasm. A morning such as this deserved a feast, she thought, not the dried remnants of some animals carcass. Digging further, she found her knife and placed it into the groove she had cut in her staff, tying a leather thong around it to hold it in place. She also found the roots Xena liked to make into tea, and set them in a pan with some water to steep while she was gone.
That done, she pulled on Xena's tunic and headed down to the river, using the same path the warrior had used the night before, now made visible by the pale light. When she reached her destination, she laid down on the riverbank, supporting her body with her elbows so that she could turn her face up to the approaching sun. Closing her eyes, she thought about the tunic she was wearing and the woman who had worn it the night before. When Xena had returned from the river, there had been something in her eyes, something...reachable. And somehow, her body had known it. She'd had no knowledge of sex, or what to expect, but what had happened had exceeded even her dreams. She thought back to the many dreams she had had of her friend, the first few had been images of herself saving the warrior's life, of being useful. The other's had involved them growing closer, and Gabrielle gasped slightly as she realized that her dreams had mirrored her life, only her life had ended up surpassing them, taking Xena as a lover before she had in her sleep.
Her musings carried her way beyond dawn and she felt her fair cheeks begin to heat up in the morning sun. At least, she thought it was the morning sun. It might have been the last few thoughts that had run through her mind about her warrior and finding out what it might be like to make love to her, to touch her, to...taste her.
With a sigh, she stood and stripped off the now-beloved tunic, one she would surely weave a story around some day, and stepped slowly into the river. She was able to ignore the pain in her side until the cold water covered it, then she had to grit her teeth against the hard ache that ran through her body. After it had passed, she raised her staff and stood very still. Waiting a few minutes, she saw dark shapes begin to move around her feet. She let several of the shadows go by, knowing they would not be big enough and that she would probably only have the strength to do this once. She had just started to shiver when a large shape swam between her calves, grazing the skin on one of them with it's gill as it went. With a powerful downward stroke, she slammed the makeshift spear through it's body and into the sand underneath.
She smiled slightly, knowing it wasn't really the way Xena did it, but the result was the same, if you didn't count the hole. She tried to pull her staff up but the pain in her side prevented her. With a frown, she grabbed the fish by the tail and dragged it out of the river with her left hand. Reaching the bank, she laid on the sand and allowed the sun to dry her skin. When most of the moisture was gone, she slipped the tunic over her head and went about cleaning the fish. After removing the skin, bones, and anything that resembled innards, she had two very large filets, which she wrapped in leaves and headed back to camp. Along the way, she found herbs growing wild and picked the ones she would need, being careful to only take the leaves so that the plant itself would continue to flourish.
She was surprised to find Xena still asleep when she reached the fire. Usually by this time the warrior princess was up polishing her armor or drinking her tea. Gabrielle took pride in that, hoping she had some part in her being so tired. She sprinkled the herbs onto the fish and re-wrapped them, setting them in the fire to cook. The green leaves would keep the meat from burning while the herbs gave it flavor. A wonderful aroma filled the air and she had just finished making Xena's tea when the warrior finally awoke.
Gabrielle smiled when Xena looked just as confused as she had felt that morning. She laughed out loud when the warrior looked under the blanket at her own naked body. "It was real." Her look became tender. "It was too wonderful to be a dream."
"I'm glad you think so too." She stretched, as immodest as ever, and Gabrielle felt as though her eyes were unable to move from the soft, tan skin that rippled over the warriors muscles. Xena reached out and flipped Gabrielle's hair, which had come in dangerous proximity to the fire, back over her shoulder. With a grin, she teased, "Let me get dressed before you burn off something we both might miss."
The bard flushed and looked away, a guilty smile playing on her lips. She still watched the warrior out of the corner of her eye as she looked around for her tunic and then realized that Gabrielle had it on. "Well, I don't think I am going to fit in your clothes, Gabrielle."
"Find something, because you're not getting this back."
"Really?" The warrior's eyebrow arched. "How many dinars do you want to bet that I'll be able to wrestle it off of your body?"
Gabrielle swallowed. "I didn't know you could wrestle..."
"I have many skills."
The lecherous look on Xena's face made Gabrielle laugh. "All right, you can try after breakfast. Here, put this on for now." She pulled one of the Warrior's older shirts from her pack and threw it to her.
"Hmph." Xena looked at it for a few moments before smiling and tugging it on. "What smells so good?"
"Fish!" Gabrielle smiled proudly. "I caught it this morning. While YOU were asleep!"
The smile she had expected did not come, instead there was a look of anger. "You went fishing? While I was asleep? Gabrielle, do you have any idea how dangerous that was?"
"It wasn't that dangerous," The bard shook her head. "There isn't anyone around here for miles."
"I'm not worried about people, Gabrielle." The warrior advance on her and Gabrielle sat back on her heels. "What about animals? Snakes? What if you passed out and drowned?" She knelt next to the bard and pulled her tunic up to examine the wound. "What if this gets infected? Have you cleaned it since you went in the river?"
The bard looked at the ground. "No."
Xena sighed softly and stroked the younger woman's drying hair. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I know you meant well. But water can carry sickness, especially if gets into an open wound. Let me clean it for you..."
"After breakfast?" She asked hopefully. "I'm really hungry. In case you forgot, neither one of us got to eat last night."
The warrior smiled. "All right. You win. After breakfast."
Gabrielle brightened and pulled her into a sitting position. She poured tea into two mugs from her pack and used the end of her staff to push their meal out of the fire. Opening the leaves carefully, she slid the fish onto a rock and broke a hunk off, holding it up to Xena's mouth. "Try it."
The warrior bent forward and took the morsel, closing her lips around the bard's fingers in the process. Gabrielle held her breath until her fingers were released and then swallowed hard. "G-good?" Her voice shook.
"Very." Xena nodded and fed a piece to Gabrielle. "You've outdone yourself. Thank you." She added after a moments thought.
"You're welcome." She looked at the warrior and smiled. "Anything for you."
Xena looked up quickly but Gabrielle had gone back to eating. She had been unprepared for her reaction to the bard's words. She'd had no time to think. No time alone. She felt a panic start in her stomach and had to stare at the ground to calm herself. The oddest thing was, it was not an altogether unpleasant feeling. She ate the last few pieces of her meal quickly and sat back to sip her tea and watch the younger woman brush her hair.
"Would you like me to brush your hair, Xena?"
"No. I..." She sat her cup down. "Would you like me to brush yours?"
Gabrielle's jaw dropped slightly. "Really?" Her smile was enough to light up all of the dark places in the warriors heart, enough to make her think that maybe, just maybe, she had a chance at being happy. But then, she had been happy for a while now. Ever since she had saved this annoying little bard...
"I'll try it." She moved behind Gabrielle and pulled the brush from her hand. "Tell me if I'm hurting you. I don't have a lot of practice."
Gabrielle sat patiently as Xena began to brush her hair, her heart filling with wonder when she felt those strong hands tremble against her neck. After a few minutes, the brush stilled and she felt Xena's lips against her head.
"Gabrielle..." Her whisper was hoarse, needful.
Turning around she met the warrior's hungry lips with her own, parting them so that Xena's tongue could taste her mouth. She let herself be lowered to the ground, running her hands under Xena's shirt and pulling it over her head. Her own tunic disappeared in the tangle of arms as the warrior caressed her body. Lips touched her cheek, her throat, trailed over her breasts, but did not stop until they reached the place they wanted to be.
Xena's tongue slid over Gabrielle's clit, taking the small nub in her mouth, grazing it very lightly with her teeth. While her mouth worked there, her fingers trailed down and slid inside. There was no pain this time, only a steadily building wave of pleasure that started in her feet and traveled up her body until she thought the top of her head would come off. Her hips moved of their own accord, pushing her harder against Xena's tongue and her fingers, which had curled inside of the bard and found a high, slick spot that threatened to rob her of her senses. Without thought, Gabrielle's hands came up and wound themselves through Xena's hair. Unable to speak, they showed the warrior where and held her there until her vision blackened and her heart felt as though it would stop. An echoing cry broke from her lips and scared the birds from the trees. Panting, she pulled her lover's head away and collapsed back onto the ground.
"That...that was fast." She whispered.
"Well, you're new." Xena smiled as she traveled up the bard's body to lay in her arms.
Gabrielle laughed weakly and kissed her. The taste and scent of her mouth tore through her senses, sending her hand wandering down the warriors side.
Xena caught it in her own and pulled it back up between them. "Time enough for that later." She kissed Gabrielle one last time and then moved away. "It's well beyond morning. We need to clean your wounds and get moving. We'll need some salve from Atwir, to make sure you don't get an infection, and I need to..." She looked at the bard, an unreadable expression on her face. "I'm going to take a bath," She smiled. "I need it. I'll bring back water for you too."
Gabrielle watched her go, confusion apparent on her face. Her heart and mind were warring with each other, one trying to piece together what had just happened, while the other was lost in the feelings and emotions running rampant in her young body. She loved Xena. Xena had to love her too, she felt it whenever the warrior’s hands touched her body.
"It's just going to take some time." She said to herself. "Give her some time."
Laying back, she studied the sky and waited, thinking she had been doing a lot of that lately.
An hour later they were on the road. Xena had broken camp quietly, packing everything together and strapping it to Argo without saying a word. She had insisted that Gabrielle ride the horse, to save her strength, and walked beside her, navigating Argo around the many rocks and holes in the road.
Gabrielle watched her, wondering what was going on in her mind. Xena had never been the talkative type, but this was too much silence, even for her. "What's wrong?" She felt her heart leap into her throat when Xena's clear blue eyes turned in her direction. She choked back her fear and whispered, "Do you regret it, Xena?"
"No, Gabrielle." The warriors voice seemed very tired. "I don't regret it. I'm just...thinking." She turned her gaze back to the road, but not before Gabrielle had seen the look in her eyes.
She could have sworn it was sadness.
You said you would give her some time remember? Gabrielle chided herself. "How long before we reach Atwir?"
"We'll be there by tonight." She looked up at the bard and sighed. "I was thinking about you, Gabrielle. About when you died."
Gabrielle was speechless for a moment, but that didn't last long. "Hypocrites said that you cried. Is that true?"
Xena laughed quietly. "I don't think 'cried' is exactly the word for what I did." She pulled off her Chakram and tied it to Argo. She didn't really have a reason to, but her hands needed the busy work. They kept trying to reach for the bard. "I raged, Gabrielle. I think I would have destroyed the temple, if you hadn't come back."
"Really?" Gabrielle's eyes were wide.
Xena nodded. "I don't know....I guess I had never thought of you...being gone. I mean really gone. I wasn't ready for that. I don't ever want to be ready for that."
Gabrielle reached down and touched the warriors cheek, feeling her heart ache when Xena closed her eyes and leaned into her palm. She didn't pull back until Argo stumbled slightly. With a sigh, she grabbed onto the saddlehorn as Xena turned her attention back to the road. "I guess we should talk about it later, when we reach Atwir."
The warrior nodded. "I've heard there's a good inn there." She smiled up at her. "They have a performance area. I believe they have a tournament this time of year."
"For bards?" Gabrielle's voice filled with excitement. "Do you think I could...?"
"Well, you're certainly good enough. I won't try to stop you, as long as you promise not to tire yourself out."
"I promise!" Her smile was that of a child. No, Xena corrected herself. Her smile was that of a beautiful young woman, confident of her talent.
Xena laughed and quickened their pace. "We'll see."
The air had just begun to cool with the approaching evening when they entered the Village of Atwir. Gabrielle turned her head from side to side, looking into each of the open storefronts that lined the main pathway and smiled in delight. She looked down and caught Xena watching her, an indulgent grin on her face.
"What's so funny?"
"Nothing...nothing," The warrior looked like she wanted to laugh. Slowing her pace, she moved behind the horse. "I just want to get out of the way in case you decide to ride Argo in to shop."
Gabrielle laughed in spite of herself, "Very funny. But you don't have to worry. All I want right now is a hot bath and a soft pallet."
"That's all, huh?" One of Xena's eyebrows quirked up and a sensual smile played briefly on her lips.
Gabrielle blushed to the roots of her hair, bringing another soft laugh from the warrior. "Sorry." She grabbed onto the saddlehorn with nervous hands. "I guess I'm not used to you looking like that...about me.." Her voice was so filled with gentle wonder that it made Xena's heart ache. Without thinking, she reached up and touched the bard's leg lightly. The smile she earned with that one small touch felt like sunlight after a cloudy day.
A second later, her face went cold and her hand dropped to her side. For a moment, Gabrielle thought she had done something wrong, until she followed Xena's gaze as it passed her and settled on three men coming towards them. They had been looking at the bard with unsettling appreciation, an appreciation that turned businesslike when Argo turned away from them and they caught sight of the warrior.
Xena gave them one, discouraging glance before turning to Gabrielle. "Go on ahead to the inn. Find someone to talk to, preferably someone big, and wait for me." Before the bard could speak, she slapped Argo on the flank, pushing her lightly in the direction of the inn. It was all Gabrielle could do just to hang on.
She didn't watch her go, but instead leveled a steady gaze on the advancing men and shifted her scabbard lower on her back, making it easier to reach her sword. They wore the insignia of some lesser army, but she knew them for what they really were, mercenaries....willing to sell themselves to any cause, as long as they were paid.
When they were within ten feet of her, two of them hung back while the third advanced, an ingratiating smile on his face. She didn't move or flinch as his eyes raked over her in a vulgar display of interest, but something in her eyes went stony, and it caught him dead in his tracks less than three feet away. He cleared his throat and squared his shoulders, whether for her benefit, or the benefit of his men, she didn't know. "Warrior." He inclined his head slightly in greeting, hardly able to lift his eyes above her chest. “I’d like to discuss…business.”
“Business?” Xena smiled coldly, one eyebrow arching up into her bangs. “What business would that be?”
“The blonde,” The soldier continued, too dumb to have seen the look of warning. But then, he hadn’t been watching her face. “How much?”
“How much for what?” The smile left her face and her jaw clenched reflexively.
“A night, a week,” His face brightened as he finally looked up. “Unless you’re willing to sell her outright. I could offer you a handsome sum.”
Xena stared into his eyes as the smile returned to her lips. “I’ll tell you what…uhm,” She cocked her head to one side. “What did you say your name was?”
“Well, Kyldus, I’ll make you a deal.” She shifted her body into a fighting stance. “If you can kill me, you can have her.”
The mercenary’s jaw dropped slightly, then lifted into a feral grin. “All right, girl, if that’s the way you want it.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way.” She stood her ground as he advanced, pulling his sword from its scabbard as he came. They circled each other for a few moments before he shouted and raised the sword above his head for a powerful downward blow that never hit it’s mark. He sliced into empty air as Xena launched herself over his head, flipping in midair to come down hard on the back of his neck. She felt bones crunch beneath her boots, then flipped on final time to face the other two men coming towards her. They didn’t think before they attacked, they simply ran straight for her, swords outstretched, each hoping to impale the warrior before she could get into the air again.
Xena obliged them, standing with a smile on her face, hands outstretched and beckoning. At the last moment, she jumped straight up, kicking out with both legs in time to catch each of them in the face. They were both face down in the dirt by the time she touched the ground.
“Hmph.” She snorted and strode over to their leader. With a quick jab of her fingers, she shoved his vertebrae back into position and slapped him awake. He looked up at her with a mixture of fear and respect, not to mention a good dose of hate. “Now listen to me, little man.” She ripped the insignia from his shoulder and held it up in front of his eyes. “The name’s Xena,” she waited as his eyes went wide. “The girl is not for hire, the girl is not for sale, and you can’t win her. So, if I ever see you near her, if I ever even see you look at her from a hundred paces away, I will destroy your lord’s entire army, and place the debt on you.” She waved the scrap of leather in his face. “Then I’ll watch as they flay your carcass.” She smiled. “Do we have an understanding?”
Kyldus nodded, wincing as his damaged spine ground against itself.
“Good.” Xena tucked the symbol into her bodice. “Now get out of here.” She looked at the other men, who were just beginning to stir. “And take your trash with you.” She slammed him into the ground and walked away without a backwards glance.
Walking as slowly as she could, Xena willed herself to calm down. Gabrielle hadn’t been hurt, but the rage she felt burned as deep as when Marcus had died. She realized with a start that the bard had stolen more than her heart, she had taken her soul as well.
By the time she could see the inn, her heart had ceased it’s pounding and she was able to force a smile onto her lips…a smile that quickly died when she caught sight of Gabrielle. The bard’s back was turned to her as she conversed with a lovely young woman, a barmaid by the look of her. She tried to swallow the sour taste in her mouth, but felt it strengthen when the woman placed a hand on Gabrielle’s arm, laughing and pointing towards the inn. An instant later the maid swallowed hard, having caught sight of Xena and the look on her face. Waving goodbye to Gabrielle, she hurried off.
The bard turned, a confused look on her face, then smiled when she saw the warrior. “Xena!” She called. “I’m glad you’re okay. Did you have much trouble?”
“No.” She said simply. “I thought I said 'someone big'.”
“Yes, well,” The bard’s smile was bright. “Delphi found me sitting out here. There was no one else around, and since her father owns the inn, I thought I would be pretty safe with her.”
Xena snorted and looked at the sign above the tethering post. “Inn of the Three Daughters.” She shook her head. “Stupid name for an inn. Did you meet the rest of the daughters?”
Gabrielle looked at her in confusion, unable to understand the hostility in her lover’s voice. “No…no. There aren’t any other daughters. Delphi said that her father thought Inn of The Daughter was a pretty dumb name, so he did the best he could.”
“Oh…Delphi said, did she?” The warrior turned to pull their bags from Argo, knowing she was being unreasonable, but not really caring at the moment.
Gabrielle stared at Xena’s forbidding back for a few moments, and then decided on a lighter approach. “She said there are rooms available at the inn.” She came around the warrior to smile up into her face. “Should I get one or two?”
Xena looked down at her, her face made of stone. “Whatever we can afford.”
The bard’s jaw dropped as the warrior went back to tending her horse. Without another word, she headed inside. Once she had gone, Xena’s shoulders slumped and she leaned her head against Argo’s neck. “What in Hades did I do that for?” Argo snorted in reply. She didn’t understand it either. Xena reached down to grab their packs, but another hand beat her to them. She looked up into clear green eyes and had to bite back a hostile remark as Delphi stood, shouldering their supplies.
“My father sent me to get these.” Her tone was cool, but nothing more. “I’ll send the boy out to stable your horse. We don’t expect guests to do those things. Please, follow me.” She walked back to the inn without waiting to see if Xena would follow or not. After a few moments, she did.
The mood inside the inn was surprisingly pleasant. It was brightly lit, and looked fairly clean, the benches and tables were flat and smooth from years of polishing, and the fireplace was free of old ashes and the other debris that usually littered the hearth in such places. Xena didn’t kid herself though. She recognized several of the faces behind mugs of mead as dangerous men who would attack without provocation. After a final glance into the common area, she looked towards the bar, surprised to find Gabrielle looking down into a flagon of ale. Moving to her side, she touched her lightly on the shoulder and smiled, trying to hide her embarrassment when she turned around. “Gabrielle, I-“
“I could only get one room.” The bard lied. They had five rooms open, but she’d be damned if she'd let Xena get away with this. “I’m afraid you’ll have to share it with me.”
“I’m not afraid of that.” The warrior smiled and reached for her hand.
Before she could grab it, Delphi was standing between them. “We’ve taken your tuck up to your room.” She smiled at them both, but Gabrielle in particular. “We’re drawing water for your baths and laying clean sheets. If you would like, we will gladly serve you evenmeal while you’re waiting.”
Xena gave her a look of pure ice but nodded, allowing the barmaid to lead them to a table in the far corner. Putting her back against the wall, Xena stared out into the room as Gabrielle took her seat.
“Will there be bards tonight?” she asked Delphi.
“Unfortunately, no. Our local bard was injured in a riding accident yesterday.” She looked Gabrielle up and down with an appreciative eye. “You look like the bardly type. Perhaps you could...”
“Bardly?” Xena whispered to herself. “That’s not a real word.”
Gabrielle ignored her and smiled. “I am a bard. I’m rather tired though. Maybe tomorrow night.”
“Good timing. The competition starts tomorrow.”
“Could we get some food?” Xena interrupted.
“Of course.” The barmaid grinned. “We have salt pork, mutton, and a nice lamb stew. There are vegetables, fruit, and bread too.” She glance at the warrior. “You look like the hungry type. I’ll bring a bit of everything.” With a lilting laugh, she headed off to the kitchens.
She knows, Xena thought to herself. Damn her.
The warrior dragged her attention to the young woman before her. “What Gabrielle?”
Xena shook her head. “I don’t know.” She realized what a poor answer that was and quickly looked into the bard’s eyes. “You have to be careful, Gabrielle. There are people who will want you…and they won’t be nice about it.”
“Like those men at the market?” Her eyes sparkled in the candlelight and Xena found it very distracting.
“Exactly like those men in the market. They saw a piece of property they might like to own.” She touched the bard’s cheek lightly. “I don’t want you to get hurt, Gabrielle.”
As if on cue, a large, foul smelling man stepped up to their table, draping an arm around the small blonde and breathing rancidly into her face. “Hello girlie. What’s say you and me have a good time?”
“I say..” Xena began to rise but was stopped in her tracks when a pan met quite solidly with the back of the ruffian’s skull, sending him sprawling over their table. She stared down at him in shock and then up into the Delphi’s laughing green eyes.
“Mendices!” The barmaid called to a giant of a man who was lounging in the corner. “Get rid of this dung. And, before he steps foot in this Inn again, make sure he knows the rules.”
Mendices nodded and grabbed the would-be Romeo under the arms, dragging him from the inn. After a few moments, she heard the sound of a body landing in a water trough.
“Sorry ‘bout that.” Delphi reached behind her and took their food from a servant. Setting the platters in front of them, she sent Xena an amused glance before heading off to tend bar. The warrior watched after her for a few moments before starting to pick at her food. After a few bites, she realized she had lost her appetite and settled back to watch Gabrielle eat everything she had been given, and most of what was one her plate as well.
“Aren’t you hungry?” She managed between bites of food.
“Not at the moment.” Xena drawled. “maybe later.”
“In that case…” Gabrielle took the bread and salt pork from her plate, as well as the fruit, and stuffed them into her pouch. “I’ll save it for you until you want it.”
Xena felt her heart soften with that one small gesture. She had just reached out to touch her again, when Delphi slammed two mugs down between them.
“Can I get you anything else?” She asked sweetly.
“No!” The warrior’s tone was firm as she stood and pulled Gabrielle to her feet. “We’d like to go to our room now.”
Delphi looked down at the bard, waiting for her to nod her acquiescence before leading them up the stairs and leaving them at their door.
Xena slammed through it and then slammed it behind them. “Go ahead and bathe. I’ll wait till your done.” She started to unbuckle her breastplate, brushing Gabrielle’s hands away when she tried to help.
“What is wrong?” The bard’s tone was demanding.
“What’s wrong?” Xena repeated, looking down at the back and breastplates in her hands. “What’s wrong?” With a laugh that turned into a fierce cry, she hurled the armor at the far wall, shattering a small mirror that had been hanging there.
Gabrielle took a step back, frightened. “Xena?”
The warrior’s mouth made a perfect ‘O’ as she stared at what she had done. “Oh, Gabrielle, I’m sorry.” She looked at the bard and felt her heart shrink in her chest, She thinks I’m going to hit her! “Please don’t look at me that way. I will never hit you.”
Gabrielle relaxed slightly, reaching out to touch her arm. “Can you tell me what’s wrong?”
“No.” She whispered. “Well, aside from Delphi.”
“Delphi?” Gabrielle looked confused. “What about her?”
“I see the way she looks at you Gabrielle. I know how much she…wants you.”
“Wants ME?” The bard tried to remember any specific look or words and couldn’t. “She’s just being friendly.”
“Yeah, a little too friendly.” Xena sighed. “You just don’t see it.”
‘Well, what if I did? What difference does it make? The way I see it, loyalty would have to do with me, not her. Are you worried that I might…”
“Gabrielle..” She placed a hand on her arm.
“That’s it isn’t it? You’re worried that I’m going to want to be with someone else.” She brushed the warrior’s hand off as a hurt look crossed her face. Hurt and anger. “Is that how little you think of me?
“Well, I think it is.” Gabrielle’s face flushed. “For your information, I’ve had lots of chances to be with people, and still do, but I never have. I wanted to be with you.”
Xena’s ears heard nothing but that one phrase, ‘and still do’. Her eyes squeezed shut as a hand closed around her heart, crushing it within her chest. “You still do, huh? Like Delphi I suppose?”
Gabrielle felt tears form in the corners of her eyes. “Yeah…I guess so…”
“So why are you here?” Xena felt each word like a knife in her heart. Oh well, she thought. Hell and too late to go back now. “Get out of here. Go find someone you can touch. Go on!!” She shoved the bard towards the door.
Gabrielle pressed one hand to her mouth, trying to keep herself from sobbing. With a strangled cry, she threw the door open and fled.
Xena sat very still, waiting for the ache in her heart to pass. When it didn’t, she sighed and went about removing her boots. By the time she had removed the second guard, she was regretting everything she had said and done. Throwing them onto the bed behind her, she opened the door and looked down the hallway. Gabrielle’s name died on her lips.
At the far end of the hall, she could see them. Delphi had her arm around the bard, trying to talk to her as the blonde’s small frame shook with her tears. After a few moments, she placed a small kiss on Gabrielle’s brow and led her into a nearby room. Xena was rooted where she stood until she heard the bolt catch, then a frightening anger swept through her. She slammed her armor back on, strapping on her sword and chakram as she slid into her shin guards. Throwing open the window, she dropped onto the ground below, not trusting herself to walk through the riffraff gathered in the common room. She sent one hurt filled glance towards the room Gabrielle had entered, and then went silently into the night, her heart raging as her long legs ate the distance beneath them.
"I...d-don't understand." Gabrielle's voice caught as she paced back and forth, tears streaming from her eyes. Delphi took her by the shoulders and tried to steer her towards the bed, but the bard was too worked up. Feeling the flushed skin of her own face, she walked over to the window and threw it open, wanting to feel the coolness of the night air. Glancing down, she saw the pale oval of a face looking up at her, and the brief look of pain that flashed across it. "Xena!" She yelled, leaning further out. But the warrior was already gone, the softly swaying bushes the only evidence she had been there at all.
Gabrielle felt a surge of panic run through her and started to climb out of the window before she noticed Argo being led into the stables by one of the inn workers. With a sigh, she glanced in the direction that Xena had gone. She didn't like anything that had happened, but at least she knew she'd be back. Wiping her eyes, she turned back to Delphi. "Thanks." She tried to smile. "I really appreciate you listening to me."
"Hey," Delphi touched her gently on the arm and smiled, making Gabrielle wonder if Xena had been right after all. "I just want to help you."
Gabrielle looked up at her with shy eyes. "Is that all?"
"Well," The barmaid sighed and slumped onto the bed. "That wasn't all, not at first. When I saw you outside, you looked so sweet, and so lost. I thought it might have been nice to...well...you know." She ran her hands through her hair, and then pulled at the chain around her throat, rubbing her fingers against the symbols carved into it. "And then I saw your big friend, and well, I thought she had purchased you or had taken you by force. Especially because of the way she was acting. Now I know I was wrong. The way I acted was wrong. I have a husband," She hung her head slightly as though she was ashamed of herself. "I love him very much, but he's away fighting with his lord and I take a lover from time to time. Always women, it's simpler that way. But I never considered that a woman could truly love another woman. I was wrong." She touched Gabrielle's face lightly. "I know all of this is my fault. Tell me how I can help."
Gabrielle smiled at her. "Well, I am flattered." She sniffled. "But I would have said no. I do love her, Delphi."
"I know." she smiled. "I can see it in your eyes...when they're not swollen that is."
"But I don't think it was all your fault. You made her jealous, yes, but..." Gabrielle chewed her lower lip.
The bard stood and began to pace again. "She said something strange. She said for me to go and find someone that I could touch."
"You've never touched her?" Delphi's eyes grew wide in disbelief.
"Oh, well," Gabrielle stammered. "I've touched her...but I guess I haven't ever REALLY touched her. Not like...well, not like that."
"I don't know." She sat down heavily. "Every time I tried, she either told me to rest or...well..." She blushed again.
"You're too easy, Gabrielle." Delphi laughed. "You'd never last a minute working in a tavern! But you are right about one thing, there's more to this than jealousy." She put her arm around the bard and squeezed with friendly affection. "Still, there's nothing you can do until she decides to tell you what is going on. No sense in making yourself sick about it."
"What else am I going to do?" She smiled half-heartedly.
The barmaid got an evil gleam in her eye. "I have an idea..." She grabbed Gabrielle by the hand and pulled her up.
"Uh...Delphi?" A timid half smile played on her lips. "Whatever it is, it's not going to make Xena angrier...is it?"
"Well," Delphi said matter of factly. "That depends on how she feels about sharing you."
She laughed out loud at Gabrielle's look of horror as she dragged her out of the room.
Everything was out of focus, the forest, the ground. Everything seemed darker as well, although she knew that was just a trick her eyes were playing on her. No wonder, there wasn't a drop of moisture left in them. She had been running for almost an hour, crying softly the whole way. With a bone rattling sigh, she pulled up short beside a huge oak tree. Laying her hands against it's trunk, Xena tilted her head back and screamed her rage at the now-full moon. It did nothing to ease the ache in her chest, only serving in making her throat hurt as well. She tried to tell herself that most of the ache was over exertion, but she knew better. That kind of ache had a peace to it. This ache was the worst she had ever known.
Running her hands over her face, she shoved them into her thick, chestnut hair, yanking it back severely and tying it into a ponytail with a piece of rawhide. When she pulled her hands away, she studied them in the moonlight, remembering how they had looked against Gabrielle's fair skin., how they had had trembled beneath the bard's gentle gaze. With a small cry, she slid down the tree to sit in the dirt, her knees drawn up, her chin atop them. She had been a beast, she knew that. She had treated Gabrielle as though everything was her fault when, in fact, none of it was.
She turned her face up to the moon and thought about her options. She could leave, take Gabrielle back to Potedeia, or better yet, Athens, and continue on alone. Not an appealing idea. Or, she could keep Gabrielle with her and just take their relationship back they way they had come. They could go back to being friends. She snorted. Yeah, right. There was one thing she had to do, no matter what else followed. She had to tell her the truth. She would wait a little longer, until she was done....with whatever. The thought of what the 'whatever' might be sent a bolt of pain through her chest. She closed her eyes to allow it to pass and felt a searing pain shoot through her arm, accompanied by an angry grunt.
She was on her feet in an instant, senses alert, eyes aware of her surroundings. There was nothing but the wind and the nightbirds. With a grimace of pain, she twisted to examine her arm. There was a long gash above her left elbow. It wasn't very deep, but it bled well. She was reaching for a needle from her pouch when the grunting came again and something slammed into her legs, knocking them from beneath her. Flat on her stomach, she looked up to see the creature that had attacked her.
It was an enormous boar, with tusks well over a foot long, standing at least four hands tall. It looked at her with wild, feral eyes and charged again. She reach up quickly and grabbed it by the tusks, struggling to rise to her knees as the animal squealed and twisted in her grip. Something about the animal brought out her rage again, and she fought back with a strength that surprised her. She felt no remorse for her anger, as the animal was trying to kill her. Even when she had pushed his head back to the point of breaking it, he tried to lunge at her, gauging one of her hands with the tip of his tusk. With a final surge of strength, she pushed back all the way, hearing bone snap beneath her hands. She sat like that for a few moments, trying to calm the pounding in her heart, then released the creature, watching as it's head slumped onto the ground.
Xena stood slowly, wiping her hands on her leathers as she pulled the sword from her back. She ran a finger down the blade, testing it's sharpness as an idea formed in her mind. Raising her nose to the air, she inhaled deeply, smiling at the scent of water.
"Well," She whispered to the animal. "At least you won't have died in vain," She flexed her arms and began to slash at the fallen boar, cutting through fat and muscle to reach the organs beneath. She wrapped her prize in a piece of leather and wiped her blade on the animal's hide before sliding it into it's scabbard. "Thank you."
Tucking the package into her pouch, she ran towards the water. As she did, she felt her rage begin to resurface. But this time the rage was not directed at Gabrielle, nor was it directed at herself. This rage was for the Gods alone.
And one God in particular.
"Are you sure this is a good idea, Delphi?" Gabrielle asked skeptically.
The barmaid put an arm around her shoulders. "I think it is a wonderful idea." She started to pull her along and Gabrielle gave up struggling. After all, it was something that she wanted too.
Delphi didn't release her until they had reached the stage, then she deserted her, leaving her trying to smile down at a group of people who looked every bit as rough as any she had ever seen. She knew her worry showed plainly on her face and she didn't think she would be able to come up with a story when her heart was out in the darkness with Xena. She had just opened her mouth to apologize when a mocking voice came out of the crowd.
"Come on! Get the little girl off the stage, so a real bard can get up there." The man stood when several of his comrades started laughing. "Everyone knows girls can't be bards! All they want to talk about is flowers and love."
There was more laughter and Gabrielle steeled herself against it as a story surfaced in her mind. "Oh, you think so, do you?" She smiled. "Well, let me tell you a story that I not only know, it's a story that I lived as well." She waited until the room had quieted somewhat. "The forest was filled with a fine smoke, that smelled of burning wood and destroyed lives, as Xena and I made our way through the woods that make up the border between Thessaly and Mitoa-"
"Wait a minute!" The same man cut in. "Xena? The Warrior Princess? You must be joking! Everyone knows she's just a myth!"
"No, I'm not joking." Gabrielle stood as straight as she could. "And she's no myth. I was going to tell you how she saved a temple full of soldiers and stopped the Mitoan-Thessalean war, but if you don't want to hear it..." She started to leave the stage.
Her heckler was immediately grabbed by one of his friends and slammed down into his seat. "Be quiet, ‘Tires. I want to hear this story." He looked up at Gabrielle with a smile. “I've wanted to hear it for a while now. I am Dophycles. My brother was in that temple. He said there was an incredible woman there, who saved his life. He also said that she traveled with a small blonde bard named Gabrielle. He tried to tell me what happened, but he was always a few apples short of a bushel, and the knock he took in that battle shook most of what sense he had left right out of him. Please, tell it."
She turned her head to the side to consider his request, then smiled when the rest of his group joined in the encouragement. “All right. But you have to listen.” She looked pointedly at the heckler. “Otherwise you might miss something.”
She almost laughed when they nodded in agreement. How very much like boys these men were. But then again, it was rare that she had met a man who did not act like a child in one way or another. “Okay, where was I? Oh, yes…that’s right.” She crouched slightly, extending her hands in front of her. “The air was filled with a fine, mist-like smoke that smelled of burning wood and destroyed lives. Xena and I were trying to make our way through the forest that separates Mitoa and Thessaly. The southern route would have been safer, but much longer. And, as you all know, Xena feels no fear. We had just outsmarted a group of ravenous Thessalean soldiers when we heard a moan off to our left…”
Delphi smiled as Gabrielle got into the story. The young bard was an incredible story teller, and an incredible woman. She sighed, pushing away her regret, and began to refill glasses.
Xena’s rage carried her beyond the river and into a glade flanked by a row of tall trees. Her eyes darted from one side to the other until she found what she was looking for. With a dark grin, she headed towards the grove.
Her eyes had almost passed over it, only catching on the slight glimmer of the moons reflection on it’s surface. “Give me water, grass and Trees,” She mumbled under her breath. “And I’ll find you an altar.” She forced herself to slow to a walk, holding the precious bundle in her hands carefully.
The altar had been long forgotten, she could tell that much by the length of the grass. Another sign of it’s abandonment was the irregularity of the blood marks. The grooves made by the athames had long ago been sanded down, by time or wind, or both, and the bloodstains had settled deep, creating an almost marbled appearance in the moonlight.
She brushed the leaves and dust away, and cut down the grass with her sword. Afterwards, she laid the sword lengthwise along the altar’s top and opened the leather she had wrapped around the still-warm heart of the boar. She slid the bloodied mess along the blade of her weapon, and then set the heart down beside it. Xena frowned as she worked. She had always hated this foolishness, but the God’s demanded what the God’s demanded.
That done, she threw her head back and howled towards the waning moon, her voice taking on the eerie note of a dying wolf as it trailed into nothingness. Crossing her arms, she waited.
She didn’t have to wait long.
A golden shimmer appeared behind the altar, strengthening until she was unable to look directly at it. She turned her head to the side until the flame was gone. When she could see again, a beautiful dark-haired woman stood before her.
“Well, well, well.” The woman moved gracefully from behind the altar. “Xena, the Warrior Princess….whatever can I do for you?”
Her note of playful ignorance angered Xena, who curled her fingers into fists and tried not to lose her temper. “You know damn well what I want, Athena.”
“Do I?” The God walked around her slowly, clucking as she took in the warrior’s appearance. “Is it possible?” She laughed, a light, silvery sound. “That you are actually MORE attractive than the last time we met? When was that, Xena? How long ago?”
“Seven years.” Xena’s voice was flat, she didn’t want to betray anything that she was thinking. “It’s been seven years, Athena. It’s been long enough.”
“Has it?” The Goddess lost her playful tone as her anger got the best of her. “Do you think so?” She turned back towards the altar. “I don’t.”
“Wait!” The warrior grabbed her lightly by the arm, then pulled her hand back quickly at the jolt of power that stung her fingertips. “’I…I’m…”
“Don’t tell me that you are trying to apologize!” Her lips quirked into a sneer. “Not you! Not the ‘Warrior Princess’!” Her eyes narrowed in interest. “What’s happened, Xena…have you gone and fallen in love?”
Xena knew she had flinched, her eyes had betrayed her. She steeled herself against the anger she expected to come.
But the goddess only laughed. “How fitting.” Once again, she turned to go.
“You don’t understand!”
The look in her eyes would have killed Xena, had it been a sword. “I don’t understand?” The goddess advanced on her. “Wait…” Her eyes took on a faraway look and her tone got slightly sarcastic. “I remember the story you told me that night….after I had found you, after I had healed you.” Her jaw tightened. “After I had allowed you to make love to me and lay spent in your arms, wanting only to touch you in return. You wouldn’t let me, but instead told me this wonderful little story. About a girl…oh, what was her name? Anenome? Persephonon?”
“Asephony.” Xena’s voice was very low. “’Seph.”
“Ah, yes.” Athena grinned. “Asephony." She walked over to the altar and lifted Xena's sword, her hand absorbing the blood as she ran it along the blade. She looked at it thoughtfully before picking up the heart, which vanished in a tendril of smoke as she smiled thinly. "You cheated, Xena. That was not a wolf's heart."
"I know." She was getting tired of the goddess' banter. "I couldn't see wasting a perfectly good wolf."
"But a boar is fine?"
Xena shrugged. "It attacked me."
Athena nodded and, after taking a final look at the sword, threw it to Xena. "It's nice to see that you’re still using it."
"My father did give it to me, Athena."
"Yes, but I blessed it. As did Ares." She laughed ruefully. "Poor Ares, he is so enchanted with you....and you...you would reject all the gods wouldn't you? But, that is not the point we are trying to get at, is it? Where were we? Ah yes, Asephony." She unstrapped her shield and let it fall to the ground, where the Gorgan's head that adorned it shined clearly in the moonlight. "I don't have to dress for this do I?" She didn't wait for Xena's answer. "So there I was, laying in your arms, my heart open to you," She pulled a silver thunderbolt from it's quiver on her back and threw it into the ground, causing the earth to shake. "And what did you do?" She shook her head. "You rejected me. And all because of some little human."
"She was not just some little human!" Bitterness crept into Xena's voice. "She was-"
Athena held up her hand. "Spare me," She threw her helm onto the ground. "You already told me. She was your light, she was your dream....she was your life..." She waved her hand in the air. "And she was enough to make you turn down the love of a goddess. Even though she was dead."
The warrior clenched her hands into fists again, feeling her short nails cut into the toughened skin, trying to steel her heart against the memories.
"She died because of you, didn't she?" The goddess smiled sweetly. "And even with all your skills and all your powers, you couldn't fix that...could you?" She waited until Xena shook her head. "Her family killed her....because she loved an unclean woman. There she was, all set to marry a prince, and then you come along, the dreaded warlord, stealing her heart and taking her virginity. What's a family to do?"
"Enough!" She placed the back of her hand against her mouth, trying to stave off the lump she could feel growing in her throat.
"But, Xena," The goddess touched her lightly on the cheek. "You're asking for my help. I need to make sure I remember everything...clearly." She slinked back to sit atop the altar. "You said you could never allow yourself to be loved by another woman, isn't that true?"
"Yes." She raised her eyes to meet the God's. "But that was a long time ago. Let me go."
"All I did was give you what you wanted." She smiled. "The enchantment doesn't even affect you, Xena. Only the woman who would dare go where a goddess was denied. None may live who attempt such a thing!"
"And I have lived by that," Xena said fiercely. "I have lived my life, content with the love of men even though it was never enough, knowing I could never love another woman the way I loved Asephony." She swallowed. "But I was wrong. "
"So," The goddess’ face contorted into something between rage and laughter. "I was right. You have fallen in love." She placed a hand upon her chin. "Whoever could it be? That mousy little bard perhaps?" She laughed at the warrior's surprise. "Did you really think I would ever forget about you? I have watched you ever since that day, in one form or another. Did you think it coincidence that all you have loved, fell by the sword? Gabrielle will be no different." She waved a hand at her armor and it disappeared. "Goodbye, Xena."
"Wait!!" The warrior rushed forward. "Haven't you forgotten something?"
The goddess turned to look into Xena's smiling face, a frown upon her own. "What?"
"I called you and you came, I gave you sacrifice. You owe me an answer."
"You did not follow the rules, Xena." Athena protested. "That was not a wolf's heart."
"It doesn't matter," Xena smirked. "You accepted it. You came, even if it was just to gloat. by your own law, Athena, you owe me an answer."
The goddess growled, wondering where Xena had learned of the sacrificial oaths she had made to her favored subjects and that, whether she was angry with her or not, Xena was one of them. "Ask your question, insolent woman."
"How can I free myself from your curse?"
Athena laughed. "You cannot."
"Come on, 'Thena." She used the pet name that had always grated on the goddess, even when she had been in favor. "Every curse has a condition. Something that makes it work," She smiled, realizing her mistake. "Or not work. I will rephrase my question. How can I be freed?"
The goddess’ face contorted in rage as she picked up her thunderbolt. With a snarl, she flung it into the trees, catching one dead center, causing it to burst into flames. "A pox on you, Warrior!" Her voice was malevolent.
"Answer the question."
Athena glowered, whispering through gritted teeth, "You would try to outsmart me? The goddess Athena? I sprang full grown and armored from my father's brow. I am the virgin goddess of war!"
Xena's left eyebrow lifted slightly at the mention of the word 'virgin' and Athena slammed her fist onto the altar, cracking it into two pieces.
"You..." She raised her fist, then dropped it slowly, knowing she could not kill her. Ares would not be happy, which, in turn, would anger Aphrodite. She cared little for Ares...his disdain for women did not make him a favorite. But Aphrodite...to anger the beautiful goddess was something she would not do. "All right." She turned her back to try and handle her anger. A mortal should not have this affect on a god.
When she had herself under control, she glanced back to Xena and smiled sweetly. "You must take what you do not want, from the one who would give you everything."
Xena's forehead furrowed in confusion. "What I do not want? I don't understand."
"That is not my concern, mortal." Athena began to fade. "I have given you your answer. The rest is yours to solve." She smiled. "Remember, Xena, I am a god. One day you will have to pay for your insolence."
It only took her a moment to fade away, leaving only the echo of her voice as proof she had been there at all. Xena found herself staring at the shattered altar. She looked briefly at her sword before putting it away and was surprised to find words etched along the blade where the goddess' hand had touched. It was in a language she did not know. She slid it into it's scabbard and headed back towards the inn.
She may not be able to read it, but Gabrielle surely could.
“…And so Marmax sent his men to stop the attack and take word to the Thessaleans that he would speak to them at last.” Gabrielle finished the story with such passion that the room erupted in cheers. She blushed slightly and mumbled, “Thank you.”
She started to leave the stage, accepting their praise with a smile, when Dophycles stood and blocked her way. “Wait.” He took her hand and led her back to the center of the platform. “You left something out.”
He nodded slowly. His voice was soft, but carried easily over the now still room behind him. “Your story matches what I could piece together from my brother’s babbling, so I know you are telling the truth. But you left out one part of the story. The only part my brother could remember with any clarity, because it affected him so profoundly.” He released her hand and sat down. “You died, Gabrielle. Isn’t that where the story really ends?”
Every head in the room turned to Gabrielle, accompanied by the sound of breaking pottery as a mug slid from Delphi’s hand. The barmaid gave up any pretense of cleaning up the shards and came around the bar to watch the Bard intently. “You died?” The words were flat, unbelieving.
Gabrielle studied their faces for a few moments before nodding and turning her attention to the floor. It was a long time before she looked up again. “Yes, I died. I left the temple to try and help a boy that had been left behind during a battle,” Her face was red and Delphi thought her heart would break to look at this courageous woman, who would sing the praises of another, but never one about herself. “I was attacked by a Mitoan, I guess he thought I was the enemy, and I was wounded, here,” She stretched to show the wound she had been hiding beneath the top of her skirt. “And here.” She pointed to an angry red line at the base of her neck. “I died right after Marmax declared the war over, and sent his men to stop the killing.” She looked out above their heads, staring at nothing. “I went to a place,” Her eyes filled with wonder. “It was incredible. Every loved one I had ever lost to death, was waiting there for me. The sky was blue, the air was warm, and the smell of hyacinth was everywhere. They pulled me to them, and held me close,…and I knew the joy of the Elysian Fields.” The memory receded and she looked at their faces. “It was beautiful.”
“Why did you come back?” The voice belonged to Delphi. “How did you come back? Hades would never let you go.”
Gabrielle laughed softly. “There are those on earth that even the immortals owe in one way or another.” Her smile became private. “Through all the joy of the Elysian Fields, I heard something that touched my heart. I heard something more beautiful than the heaven I was standing in.”
“What was it” Dophycles asked when the bard fell silent for a few moments.
“A voice.” Gabrielle swallowed hard as her heart began to ache. “It was her voice. Screaming out for me not to go. And it was almost like…like..” She clenched her fist as she tried find the right words. “It was almost like I could hear her heart break,” She looked up, but didn’t see the tavern. Instead, her eyes saw Xena’s face as it had come to her in the fields. “She was crying…for me to wake up.” Her expression took on a far away look as memories that she shouldn’t have had finally came to light. ‘Don’t you leave me! Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!’. She came back to the present and realized that she had said those words out loud. Every eye was one her. Every breath was held. “And then I was awake. My chest hurt horribly, lungs burning on the inside from lack of air, and body aching on the outside from her rage.”
The crowd was silent, completely spellbound. Except for one. The one who hadn’t believed her in the first place. ‘Tires stood up. “You want us to believe that you left the Elysian Fields? To come here?” He looked around in disgust, his tone mocking. “Why would anyone do that?”
“Because,” Gabrielle smiled down at him, her eyes soft. “She is the sun on my face after a long, cold night. She is the truth in my stories, the courage in my heart, and the hero in my dreams. She is my warrior, strong as ten men, who can hold me more gently than anything I have ever known. She is everything to me. The Elysian Fields paled next to that.” Gabrielle took a deep breath. “And finally I knew. She cried for me. She raged for me….she needs me.”
“The WARRIOR?” He laughed. “You’re talking about Xena, aren’t you?” He turned to his men and pointed at Gabrielle. “This worthless little bard would have us believe that the Warrior Princess needs her.” His eyes swung back to her, full of contempt and a hatred that she didn’t understand. “Why would a warrior need you?” He sneered. “Why would Xena cry for a useless thing like you?”
“Because she loves her.” Came a voice from the back of the tavern.
All eyes turned to Delphi, who shook her head quickly and gestured to the area beneath the stairs, where the torch light didn’t reach. A figure sat there, back against the wall, a slightly darker shape amidst the indistinct shadows.
The figure rose in silence, getting to it’s feet without making the slightest sound. Every breath in the room was held as she stepped into the light.
There was no mistaking the thick, black mane, no denying the sky blue eyes. “Xena.” She heard her name travel the room on the breath of a whisper, recognition striking fear and awe in even the most stalwart of the those present. She ignored their stares and headed to the stage where the bard still stood, quiet and unmoving. Her only thought was to reach her and take her somewhere private, somewhere they could talk.
Gabrielle watched her come, unable to move, paralyzed by the words she had just heard Xena say. At least, she thought the warrior had said them.
Xena had almost reached the platform when the idiot who had been taunting Gabrielle stepped out in front of her, blocking her path.
“The mighty Xena,” He snickered. “Gone soft, eh? I heard you had become a do-gooder. Well, don’t worry, I’ll put you out of your misery…and then I’ll see what’s so…special…about your girl.”
She didn’t even blink as her fist slammed out, connecting with the side of his head before he could think to block it. His body crumpled without a word.
She moved her eyes to rest on Dophycles, some part of her wondering what he would do, but he merely smiled, nodding to himself in approval. “He’s had it coming for a while now, Xena. I will not fight for a fool.”
She nodded almost imperceptibly and dismissed him as harmless, and brought her attention back to Gabrielle. She reached the stage, looking up at pale blue eyes and strawberry hair. Without speaking, she held out her hand.
“What did you say?” The bard whispered.
Xena looked behind her, discomfort playing largely on her features. With a resigned sigh, she opened her mouth to speak, only to have Gabrielle still her lips with a finger against them.
“Don’t.” She smiled gently, understanding Xena’s reticence. The Warrior Princess was not supposed to have emotions., to show them in public would be considered a weakness. “Later.”
The warrior’s relief was apparent in her eyes. “Please, Gabrielle. Come with me. We need to talk.”
She nodded and Xena reached up, placing large, gentle hands around her waist, lifting her off the stage and to the floor. They left the tavern quietly.
Dophycles watched them go and then stood over his fallen comrade. He waved two others forward. “Dump him in the horse trough. Make sure he knows that he is no longer welcome to travel with us.”
He waved to Delphi for another drink and sat down to think about Gabrielle’s story.