Most of the characters herein belong to Renaissance Pictures, MCA/Universal, Studios USA, Flat Earth Productions, and any other individuals or entities who have an ownership interest in the television programs Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. This story was not written for profit and no copyright infringements are intended.
Violence: Were mixing Xena, Cleopatra, Marc Antony, and Octavian here. What do you think?
Subtext/Maintext: PG-13/R. Yep, X & G are in love. If that offends you, you might not want to read this story because you could find yourself enjoying it.
Questions/Comments/Suggestions welcome: email@example.com
Setting: This story falls sequentially after "A Solstice Treaty." Ive taken extreme liberties with history and religion here, but then, so does the show.
Note to Followers of the Series: My apologies for the long delay between posts. I took time off to write a story for the bard's challenge contest on the ex-guards mailing list. I'm not allowed to divulge which story is mine until the voting is complete, but I will eventually post it to MaryD's. It was a good exercise, but I have decided it will be my first and last challenge participation. I lost too much time and momentum on Cleo, and had to re-read most of it before I could pick up where I left off. It won't happen again. FYI - mushfest ahead in this section. Mostly getting from point A to point B with a lot of love in between. <G>
CLEOPATRA 4 A.D.
(posted July 10, 2000)
Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you;
for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge.
Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.
Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.
Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.
- Ruth 1:16-17, the Bible, New American Standard Version, copyright by God.
The warm sunny meadow was perfumed with the fragrance of fresh summer grass and flowers. She was reclining on a springy bed of bright green clover with Gabrielle snuggled up next to her, and they were both naked. They had just made love and her partner was fast asleep, her soft snoring lulling the warrior into a pleasant lethargic haze. She nuzzled the blonde head, inhaling deeply of her lover's pleasurable scent and sighed in blissful contentment. It simply didn't get any better than this.
She started to drift off on a cloud of utter happiness, when a cool breeze brushed across her arm, the one that was not wrapped around Gabrielle. Her arm hairs prickled, and she shifted slightly, trying to get more comfortable. She murmured and her skin twitched in irritation, her eyes still closed, as the wind picked up and it grew colder. In fact ... she frowned ... it was downright freezing ... but only on one side. What in Tartarus ...?
Xena rolled over toward the source of the chill, and opened her eyes. And barely managed to stop her forward momentum before she rolled off the bed onto the hard wooden floor. For that was where she really was, and it was dark. And she was not outdoors, she was still in their room at the inn in Cairo. True, she was naked and yes ... she glanced briefly toward her back where she felt that the slumbering bard was, indeed, tucked tightly against her, Gabrielle's arms encircling her waist in a loose embrace that filled her with a giddy warmth.
Damn ... she rubbed her jaw and stretched her legs out. Such a nice dream, too. Was a time when those were few and far between. Except ... why am I still cold on one side? She sat up partway, carefully dislodging her lover's hold on her before reaching down to tug the soft flaxen blanket up from the foot of the bed. They had been sleeping under the light top sheet, since it was summer in the desert, and even with the shutters open there wasn't much air circulating through the small room. It was cooler at night, but not enough to need many covers indoors, at least not under typical weather conditions.
The warrior was just about to settle back down against the thick pillow when a subtle movement caught her attention, moving along the edge of her peripheral vision. Instinctively, she reached up and grabbed her chakram from the high bed post, and in one continuous movement, flipped over and sat up on the edge of the feather mattress, weapon in hand and Gabrielle still obliviously asleep on the bed behind her. Xena cautiously panned the eerily quiet room, searching for whatever had set her defenses on alert, feeling her muscles tense and flex under the surface of her skin in edgy anticipation.
What the ...? A slightly luminous grey cloud was hovering in the corner of the room, swirling and changing shape, as it became more clear and slowly drifted toward her in a surreal motion that made Xena briefly wonder if she was still dreaming. Maybe Gabrielle's visions are invading my sleep. She pinched herself on the leg. Ouch. Okay. So I'm awake. The warrior's mouth opened and closed a few times, but no sound came out, as she tried to decide if was appropriate to talk to a ... what is that thing, anyway? She tilted her head to one side and her eyes narrowed, as she quietly appraised the apparition before her. "Let me guess. Saqqara?"
"Correct." The figure took on a more recognizable human form and moved closer to the apparently fearless woman, shimmying and swaying in the mostly-dark room. The moon had long since set, and the only light shining through the window was from the thick scattering of twinkling stars that hung low in the desert summer sky. "You're not afraid of me?"
The warrior's face remained impassive. "Sorry. I've seen many scarier things than you in my time ... let's see ... there was that whole dream scape thing ... Velasca ... Callisto -- on so many different levels ... Draco in love with Gabrielle ... Gabrielle in love with Joxer ... the Deliverer ... Dahak ... my partner suspended over a finger of fire while she was raped by a god ... Hope ... Gabrielle with a poison arrow in her shoulder ... Gabrielle falling into a lava pit ... the Berserker ... Alti ... the Destroyer ... wondering if I was going to lose Gabrielle to Najara ... my partner hanging on a cross -- twice ... watching Gabrielle slip back through that light into life, and wondering if I was going to get to follow her ... my mother catching me naked in bed with my partner ... Kallerine's bacchae sister Kama biting her on the neck ... Joxer in a pink night gown ... Joxer's cooking ... Joxer on almost any given day, for that matter ... all definitely a lot scarier than you, so take a number and get in line, if you're here to try to frighten us."
"I see." Saqqara was glad to find someone who wasn't afraid of her. It had taken a long, long time. "That's not why I'm here."
"Are you Khufu's daughter?" Xena was grateful that she had given her partner a fairly strong dose of sleeping herbs. The bard wasn't likely to wake up for a few more candle marks, even if there were a disturbance in the room.
The partly translucent being stopped, hanging completely motionless in the air for several long moments, before it moved yet closer to the warrior, whom she now sensed was not completely mortal. "Yes. Have you seen my father?" The voice had a forlorn child's tone.
"Um ..." Xena was completely unprepared for the question. "No."
"I've looked everywhere for him. Even in that big funny-shaped pointy temple they moved all our things into. I was pretty sure that was his tomb in there." The ghostly figure became even more human in appearance, its face downcast in a resigned and dejected expression. "So many of us ... I didn't believe them at first when they told me we were spirits, because I can still see everything, just like I always could but ..." Two vacant eyes looked over at the warrior. "How long have I been dead? I know it's been many decades, I just don't know how many."
"What?" Xena shook her head, trying to clear any residual sleep. She thought for a minute, unsure of how to respond. How do I explain a thousand summers to this ... girl? "Why don't you tell me what you remember ... what you do know? And then I'll try to fill in the gaps." I can't believe I'm having this conversation.
Saqqara managed to relay that after her father, the great pharaoh Khufu died, the last thing she clearly remembered was eating a wonderful meal with the remaining members of her family. After that, she went to bed and woke up in a limbo-like place, in which she hovered in and around the area of her own tomb in a confusing existence where time had no meaning, and she didn't understand for a long while that she was dead. She had attempted without success to cross over to the other side, but each time she was turned back by unseen forces. She would try to talk with people that entered the pyramid, but they didn't seem to see or hear her. She had wandered around alone and confused until she finally found others like herself, and was told that they were also dead, but none of them had crossed over into Ra's paradise either. They had banded together in an effort to comfort one another and to try to find a way to break the bonds that held their souls between heaven and earth.
Once she knew she was dead, she gradually developed the power to show herself to living mortals and to talk to them, just like she had with Gabrielle and Xena, but always with results much the same as she had gotten from the bard during their first two interactions ... terror followed by flight. When Gabrielle had entered her tomb, she had sensed the bard's capacity for great compassion and caring, and her ability to love with a pure heart, and had the impression that Gabrielle had connections with someone who might be able to help them cross over.
"... I think now that you may be the person who can help us." The ghost had slowly come to look much like the girl she had been, about ten summers old with long black hair and a white floor-length flowing gown, but much more translucent. "You've helped other bound souls to reach eternity, haven't you?"
Xena pieced together enough information to determine that the girl was probably poisoned at that last meal, most likely along with her other family members, so that they could be buried with her father to join him in the after life. As for Egyptian death and customs, or her experiences with Cyane and the Amazon land of the dead ... "Saqqara. I was able to help the Amazons who were trapped in limbo because I was extremely familiar with their culture and burial rituals. My rift with Alti was partially the reason they couldn't cross over. I don't know enough about your religious customs to even have a point of reference as to where to begin. I know almost nothing about Ra. The Greek gods have been enough to deal with, along with various Indian, far Eastern, and Celtic ones. How many other like you are there?"
"Hundreds. All dwelling in the area of those large 'pyramids,' I think I've heard them called. Some of us have been waiting for salvation for a very long time." A greyish smoky wisp of arm reached out and passed across the warrior's hand, as the girl forgot temporarily that she was no longer able to touch living people. "It's not just that you helped the Amazons. You're half god too, aren't you?"
"Yeah." Xena looked down with an almost imperceptible shake of her head before she looked back up, her eyes sad with her secret. "But I'm afraid that half of me is probably less able to help you than my mortal half. I ... know very little about that side of myself, or how to tap into any powers I might have because of it. I try to ignore it most of the time. I didn't inherit the most desirable god in the gene pool." Ares. Just the thought that he was a part of her caused feelings of shame and self-loathing to surface. She briefly considered the other gods, and realized that perhaps with the exception of Aphrodite or Cupid, they weren't such desirable parents either. Or maybe I did get one of the better ones. At least Ares makes no attempt to be anything other than what he is, the god of war. The thought surprised her, and she tucked it away for further pondering at a later time.
"Oh." Saqqara's form shrunk up a bit. "I had hoped that being half god and half human, you might be able to bridge the gap for us."
Hmmmm. "So you need someone who can communicate with Ra, and get him to let you into paradise?" Eli. "I think I know someone who might be able to do that."
"Really? Where? Can we go get them right now?" Since she had died while still a very young girl, Saqqara had retained much of her child-like enthusiasm, along with a child's impatience, and her ethereal form practically bounced up and down in place, circling in joyful random swirling patterns around the warrior's head. "Who is it? Are they very far away? How long do you think it will take for them to figure out how to help us?"
"No, I don't want to disturb him right now. Calm down. It's the middle of the night. I'll see him tomorrow morning. Now please, go back to Khufu's pyramid and wait for me until sometime tomorrow ..." The warrior indicated the wide open window. "... and for gods' sake, don't frighten my partner again. She's got enough on her plate without adding complete terror to the list."
"I'm sorry." Saqqara didn't want to do anything to alienate the warrior. Xena was the first ally she had found among mortals since her death. "I'll go now. I won't bother Gabrielle again. I didn't mean to scare her, I just sensed that she had a good heart, and might be willing to help us."
Xena smiled and looked over her shoulder at her slumbering partner, glad that Gabrielle was sleeping through this encounter with her so-called banshee. "She does have a good heart, and she would help anyone she could. She's just had a lot of traumatic experiences with unearthly beings, and she spooks easily because of it."
"You're very protective of her ..." Saqqara peered past the warrior at Gabrielle's curled-up form. ".. very gentle with her. You must love her very much."
"More than life itself." The warrior turned back to face the girl. "She's everything to me. I ... don't know what I'd do if anything happened to her. I would be completely lost."
"My father loved me and took care of me. I always dreamed someday I'd marry a man that would love me and treat me with the same kindness as my father did. I miss him. I wish he didn't have to die when he did. It would have been nice to get to grow up first." The ghost began drifting toward the window and the warm outside air. "You ... will try to help?"
"I'll do my best." Xena felt weary all of a sudden, and her shoulders slumped at this new complication in an already complex set of circumstances in their trip to Egypt.
"Thank you." Saqqara floated away into the night, but not without a backward glace to the tall thoughtful figure that remained seated on the bed, raking her fingers through her long tangled hair in agitation and annoyance.
Xena watched until she could no longer see the ghostly girl. Yeah, kid. Your father loved you so much that he had you murdered so he could take you with him. Makes Greek religious customs look wholesome by comparison.
Gabrielle's thrashing body behind her diverted her attention away from the window, and she turned and hovered over her troubled partner, placing one hand gently on the bard's side and rubbing it slowly. The bard's face was drawn up into a deep scowl, and her arms and legs were twitching, as she whimpered chopped-up phrases in her apparent nightmare. "No ... hurts. Don't."
Gods. Xena reached down and smoothed back the sweaty blonde bangs that were plastered across her lover's forehead. Must be dreaming about her uncle. Bastard. She started to pound the mattress in anger, and then thought better of it, realizing that it might wake her partner. Sometimes it was best to let a person ride out a nightmare rather than wake them, as long as they weren't doing anything to hurt themselves. It was the mind's way of working out things that were too unpleasant to deal with in the conscious realm.
"Xena." Gabrielle's hands clenched into fists and her whole body jerked violently before she curled into a fetal position. "No ... no nails ... please ... hurts her ... don't ..."
The warrior instinctively pulled her lover against her, and Gabrielle burrowed into her neck and shoulder. Xena felt the bard's body gradually begin to relax, as a few salty tears squeezed from Gabrielle's eyes and ran down the warrior's collar bone. The crucifixion. Been a while since she's dreamed about that. "I'm sorry baby." The warrior whispered, and brushed her lips across her partner's cheek. She could only assume that the whole discussion about Gabrielle's uncle had dredged up other painful memories in the bard's subconscious.
She lay there, lightly scratching the back of her lover's neck and staring out the window until she was certain the bard's nightmares had subsided. Looking up at the star patterns, she judged that she probably had a good two more candle marks until dawn to get some rest. She kissed the sleeping bard's forehead and finally surrendered to her own vague troubled dreams.
Gabrielle felt warm breath tickling her skin, and she forced her eyes open, smiling as she recognized her lover's face looking down at her. Best way to wake up, she mused silently.
"Good morning." Xena smiled back and leaned down, cupping her lover's cheek and briefly kissing her lips. I can never get enough of just touching her face.
"Morning." The bard stretched like a cat, feeling a satisfying release of tension with the action, as her body began to come to life. She rolled one eyeball around and studied the face so close to her own. The warrior was glowing with unabashed adoration. "Xena, what are you doing?"
"Something I'll never get tired of." The warrior tugged the covers back and ran one hand from her lover's shoulder all the way down to her bare hip, pulling Gabrielle closer to her and kissing her again, more deeply than before, until she could feel the bard's stomach muscles fluttering against her own, which reacted in sympathy, producing a tingling warmth in her groin. "Watching you sleep." She traced her partner's face with one fingertip. "So beautiful."
"I love you, Xena." Gabrielle rubbed her torso upward, making full contact with her lover's body, and lazily wrapped one leg across Xena's waist, hooking her closer toward her and gazing into the blue eyes for a long moment before she began a thorough exploration of the warrior's mouth and neck, feeling the warrior's heartbeat pick up speed and her breathing grow quite ragged. "Mmmm." The warrior's body began to move sensually against her, and Gabrielle purred with contentment. "Feels so good. Want you, Xena. Wanna feel you more." She started to move lower when a strong wave of pain coursed through her lower abdomen. "Oh." She pulled back and curled inward slightly, breathing in deep uneven gulps of air.
"What's wrong?" The warrior was instantly full of concern, the brief moment of heated passion regretfully pushed aside, as she touched Gabrielle on the arm and looked anxiously at the bard's distorted face.
"Whoa. I'm getting those cramps. You know ... like I get sometimes right before ..." She felt the pain resolve and beads of sweat broke out on her brow. "They're really bad this time."
"Oh. Probably cause your muscles got all tensed up last night while we were talking." Xena sat partway up and ran her fingers through her own long disheveled hair, trying to calm her reaction to what almost happened between them. Damn. Her inner thighs quivered with residual pleasure. Of all the rotten timing. Okay. Focus, warrior. Your lover's in pain here. "Let's draw you a hot bath. I know it's kinda warm outside already, but let's get it as hot as you can stand it. You start soaking and I'll go down and find us some breakfast and bring it up to the bathing room. I'll get you some mild herbs to take now, and give you something stronger when we go to sleep tonight. How does that sound?"
"I'm sorry." The bard read the warrior's evident frustration. "I'll make it up to you, I promise."
"Hey." Xena smiled and felt her skin begin to cool, at least in comparison to her temperature minutes before. "You don't owe me a thing. But, gods. I do love it when you take charge like that. Makes me feel ... mmmmm ... better stop thinking about it for now, okay?" The warrior smiled and winked. "There's more pressing matters to tend to at the moment."
"You take such good care of me." Gabrielle smiled sadly, remembering their discussion from the night before, and bits of her nightmare.
"It's an honor to look after you. Theres nothing I wouldnt do for you. You name it. If its in my power, Ill make it so." The warrior sat all the way up and took the bard into her arms, hugging her loosely, careful not to squeeze her tense midsection. "Love you so much, and ultimately, that's what it's all about, baby."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and concentrated on the healing warmth, allowing it to soothe her ragged nerves and wash away some of the painful memories she had divulged before they went to sleep. "I wouldn't have anyone else. Youre my life, Xena. I hope you know that."
Blue eyes met green, in renewed wonder at the love they had somehow managed to find with each other. It was still such a surprise at times, that in four years they had gradually moved from mere traveling companions, to best friends, to life-time lovers. This. Xena reflected on her dream of the meadow. It doesnt get any better than this. This is very very real.
The warrior finally reluctantly released her lover, and got up to retrieve the herbs from the table where she had left them, which she mixed together and gave to the grimacing bard. She apologized profusely for having not sweetened the concoction first, and then led her partner down the narrow hallway to the bathing room. She insisted that Gabrielle sit on a wooden bench in the corner while Xena filled the tub, pouring in some of the sandalwood oil the bard had purchased in the Cairo market, and disturbing the calm water as she vigorously used her entire arm to mix the oil in, filling the room with the earthy fragrance. She stacked more than enough towels next to the tub and then moved toward the bench and grinned.
They had both slipped on light tunics for the walk between their room and the bath, and she playfully tugged at the hem of her lover's clothing. "Here. Let me help you with this." She took her time, teasingly drawing the bard's sleeveless linen shirt over her head and pausing to admire the view, as Gabrielle managed to blush very nicely for her. She then lifted her partner up, and carried her to the side of the tub, slowly lowering her into the bath inches at a time as Gabrielle's body became accustomed to the hotter-than-usual water temperature. The warrior knelt next to the curved half-barrel, and lost track of time, as she massaged the bard's scalp and shoulders while Gabrielle merely leaned back against the side of the large wooden structure.
"Hmmmm?" Xena was humming under her breath with her eyes closed, and she had a dreamy look on her face, getting lost in the sensation of her lover's silky hair against her finger tips.
"What's gotten into you this morning?" The bard was amused, despite the pain in her middle. She's so attentive when she knows I'm hurting. Gods I love this woman.
Blue eyes fluttered open. "You." The warrior stood up and leaned down over Gabrielle's shoulder from behind, depositing a leisurely kiss on her partner's lips before she moved toward the door. "You are always under my skin. In the very best of ways. And I hope you always will be. I'll be back in a minute with breakfast, your majesty."
Gabrielle giggled as her partner disappeared. She loved Xena in this mood. Well .... she loved Xena all the time. But the warrior's little puppy-dog looks, and the loving attention, especially when Xena knew that no sex would be forthcoming as a result, it was times like this when Gabrielle understood just how special what they had was, and how lucky they were that they had each other. The physical part of their relationship ... it was great ... mind-blowing as a matter of fact... but what had grown between them, it went so much further and deeper. She smiled, imagining them old and grey, still totally crazy about each other, chasing one another around the Amazon village and scandalizing their other sisters. She remembered their discussion about the yoga master in India. Gotta get her to start working out with me. I want her flexible for a long time to come.
Her thoughts were interrupted, as Xena tapped on the door and then backed in, with a large tray filled up completely with every kind of breakfast food imaginable. "You expecting company, love?" The bard eyed the spread with an bemused smile and a tiny shake of her head.
"No. Just wanted to make sure that no matter what, I got something that would agree with your cute little tummy." The warrior set the tray down on the bench and picked up a flat knife and a slice of multi-grain bread, giving it a generous swipe of butter along with a drizzle of honey. She locked eyes with Gabrielle, and leaned across the tub, holding the offering in front of her partner, who took a bite and then gave Xena a playful glance, before she licked a drop of honey from the warrior's thumb and then proceeded to kiss the long fingers for good measure.
A sexy grin graced Xena's face, as she manually feed her lover her entire breakfast, stealing nibbles of ham, cheese, bread, melon, and eggs, not to mention little nips of the bard herself, while Gabrielle was chewing. She didn't stop until the bard held up a hand insisting that she couldn't take another bite lest she burst. Xena decided that an exploding bard would be a bad thing, and pushed the tray aside and stood, yanking her own tunic off and dropping into the water next to her partner.
"Want me to scrub your back?" She stole one more kiss and picked up a bathing rag and a cake of soap, dunking the linen material below the surface to saturate it before she began to lather it up.
"Yes." Gabrielle turned slowly in the warm water, allowing a seductive glance over her shoulder, as she offered the side in question to her lover. "Thank you."
They slowly bathed each other, all the while exchanging gentle kisses and sweet terms of endearment, along with sensual touches to sensitive spots known only to each other from candle marks of very pleasurable discovery and exploration. Xena was in the middle of rinsing her partner's silky hair when a fist banged on the outside of the door.
"Hey." An irritated gravely voice yelled at them. "Ain't a private bathing chamber for crying out loud! Time to let someone else have a go at it."
"Get lost." In chakram-like fashion, the warrior hurled an empty tin plate across the room, hitting the door dead center, and causing Gabrielle to cringe as it clattered loudly to the floor, with a deep dent in the edge.
The persistent man pounded on the door again, adding a kick for good measure. "I said, my turn!"
"Gabrielle stay put." Xena hurdled the edge of the tub, grabbing her sword, which was resting in the corner next to the bench and stomping the short distance to the door. She flung it open, sending it slamming against the wall with a crash that left a crack in the mud-plastered surface. "Someone has no patience. Didn't your mother teach you how to take turns?"
"Bu ..." The rather large dark-haired man's mouth flew open, as he was stared down by six feet of angry naked dripping warrior. A warrior with a really big sword that had wet rivulets running down the gleaming blade into a puddle on the floor.
Xena eyed the extremely filthy man and her lip curled up on one side, as she delicately sniffed the air and almost gagged at the stench that permeated the air around the hairy behemoth. "I'd say you haven't seen the inside of a bathing room in quite some time. It won't kill you to wait another candle mark. But I might if you don't." She snarled. "Now. One more time. Get your stinking carcass out of my sight before I do something that might really embarrass you."
The man turned without another word, and took off down the long narrow hallway toward the stairwell, which he practically tumbled down in his haste to put distance between himself and the menacing figure that stood watching him. Satisfied that they would be left alone, Xena closed the door and spun around, to find her partner with her face buried in one hand. "What's the matter?" She cocked her head to one side and tried to look innocent, to no avail.
"You have no shame, do you?' Gabrielle looked up and smiled with appreciation at her assertive lover. It still took her breath away to see Xena standing over her in all her bare glory, the tanned muscles covered with tiny drops of moisture that only served to enhance her appeal. Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to ravish the warrior, and hated the physical circumstances that were going to preclude such activities for a few days. "Come back over here, honey, and keep me warm."
The warrior returned her sword to the corner and climbed into the water, settling down and beckoning the bard with a crooked finger, a wicked grin on her face softening perceptibly as Gabrielle drew closer. Xena reached across and grasped her lover's wrists, helping her across the last few inches of space. "Straddle my lap, love, facing me."
"Xe ..." Gabrielle bit her lower lip anxiously. "On almost any other day ... I'd ... but I'm not feeling so good. I'm sorry. I'm really not up to ..." She found herself lifted anyway, and then settled down gently where the warrior wanted her, and she looked into the pale blue eyes that were full of love, and banked desire. Xena was actually trembling, her legs jerking slightly beneath Gabrielle under the water.
The warrior sighed and nibbled her way across the bard's jawline and stopped at her ear. "It's not about sex this time, sweetheart. Although I think you know I always want you. I'm gonna try to help you work out some of the tension and pain in your lower back. Hang onto my neck and brace yourself against me. I need both hands."
"Oh." Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the broad shoulders, clasping her hands together behind the warrior, and felt strong fingers working at the muscles around the base of her spine, digging into the hard knots that had developed there. It hurt at first, and Gabrielle tried not to cry out, but gradually she melted into the attention and closed her eyes, laying her head against Xena's chest. She gasped, as the warrior moved one hand across her hip and around in front, coming to rest on her belly, where Xena made large comforting circles with a flat palm, while her other hand continued to work on her back, seeking out even the tiniest painful spots with expert precision.
After several long minutes, the skilled hands stilled, resting softly on her partner's fair skin under the water as Xena brushed her lips across the beloved wet head. "How are the cramps?"
"Gabrielle?" The warrior looked down and realized her partner had dozed off, the bard's arms still circling her neck and the small body rising and falling with the deeper breathing of sleep. "Must be doing better." She gently shook the slumbering bard. "Gabrielle. Love, we need to get out of here before the water starts cooling off too much, or the cramps might come back. Besides, my skin is starting to resemble a dried-up piece of fruit."
"Cramps?" A confused bard looked up. "Oh. Right. All gone." She kissed a nearby collarbone with leisurely nipping motions of her lips. "Magic fingers to the rescue."
Xena chuckled and lifted her partner and climbed out of the tub, wrapping Gabrielle in a large fluffy towel before she sat her down on the bench. "Hold on a minute." She quickly dried her own long body, slipped her tunic back on, and grabbed her sword and Gabrielle's tunic, before she picked up the bard, still encased in the towel, and carried her back to the room. She deposited her partner on the bed and pulled the sheet up, tucking it under Gabrielle's arms before she sat down next to her partner and leaned close to speak softly into the bard's ear. "Get some rest. I'll go wait for Eli. Do you want to see him, or should I tell him you're not up to it?"
"Mmmm." The bard's eyes were already closed and she reached out, idly stroking her lover's thigh, enjoying the feel of the smooth skin beneath her fingertips. "No. I promised him we'd talk some more today. Come get me when he arrives."
"Okay. Go to sleep, sweetheart. I'll be right downstairs if you need me." Xena bent over and pecked her partner's head, before she got up and left the room, silently closing the door behind her.
Cleopatra had been quietly thoughtful throughout breakfast, observing the complicated man across the table, who in so many ways was a stranger to her. True to Xena's prediction, Antony had awakened from his drug-induced sleep in an extremely frisky mood, not remembering a thing about his encounter with the warrior. The Egyptian had indulged him for a few candle marks until she finally feigned a headache and managed to escape to a smaller bed chamber off her main one. By the time she emerged to see if it was safe to come out and possibly talk to him, the Roman had consumed several flasks of wine and was passed out drunk on the large bed in the main bed chamber, his normal state of existence late in the evening.
She had actually been glad for the chance to think, really think, about what she was going to say to her current lover. She knew Xena meant business, and had no reason to believe the warrior had lied to her about her encounter with Antony's men. The Egyptian was saddened by the decision she was almost certain she would have to make, to withdraw her support of her lover's quest for Rome, and throw her backing behind Xena and Octavian, something part of her was loathe to do, if only for her son's sake. Not to mention that on some level, she had almost hoped that her relationship with the Roman might eventually develop into something more real and lasting than just one of mutual convenience.
When she could delay no longer, she took one last sip of her white wine and orange juice, and gathered her courage against the butterflies that were performing an intricate dance in her gut. Despite their intimacy, there was no doubt that she was sleeping with a powerful and dangerous man. "So, I understand that Xena the warrior princess is in the city." She knew immediately that she was treading on shaky ground.
Antony paused in the middle of lifting a forkful of fluffy omelet to his mouth and eyed her suspiciously, wondering where the comment had come from. "How did you know that?"
"I hear things." Cleopatra chose her words carefully. "It's not like she blends well in a crowd." The Egyptian's palace staff was under strict orders not to divulge the warrior's visit with the queen a few days before to either Antony or any of his men. She trusted her people implicitly. They were descendants of the same servants who had lived and worked in the palace since the days of the ancient ones. They were born and bred with discretion as a watch-word, and would give up their lives, if need be, to protect the queen they had vowed to serve.
"True." The Roman smiled insincerely. "Yes. She is here, and my men have been keeping an eye on her since we first learned of her presence here yesterday. She's an old friend of yours, is she not?"
"More of an acquaintance. She helped me out once." Cleopatra leaned forward and rested her weight on her elbows on the polished ebony wood table, steepling her fingers in superior body language. "I owe her my life."
"Oh do you?" Antony finally chewed and swallowed the eggs and chased it with a long drink from a tankard of pure red wine, his own hair of the dog answer to a hangover. The pounding headache and roiling war in his stomach had already begun to subside before breakfast, as he began the day as he had ended it the night before, with a flask of wine and a handful of medicinal herbs.
"Yes." Cleopatra looked directly into her lover's eyes, trying to read the Roman's true feelings regarding the warrior princess. "My sources tell me some of your men had a bit of a skirmish with her down near the river yesterday morning." Heard she kicked their collective asses and sent them running back to you with their tails tucked between their legs. She chuckled inwardly. "Is that true? If so, your men obviously have a death wish. From what I hear, Xena almost never loses a fight, even if it's her alone against several others. Did you know she defeated an entire division of the Persian army single-handedly a few years ago?"
The Roman froze for a split-second, and quickly recovered his composure. "Yes. I've heard the myths regarding the warrior princess' legendary fighting skills. I'm not convinced. And yes, it's true that she took on a regiment of my men yesterday. Damned self-righteous bitch killed several of my best soldiers."
"I was also told that those soldiers attacked some of the followers of Eli, the prophet, upon your direct orders." The cornered expression on her lover's face told her everything she needed to know. "What do you have against Eli? Isn't he a messenger of peace?"
"He's a threat to our plans. He messes with the people's heads, making them think beyond their daily lives. He causes them to believe they can have it better than they do now, and that religious and political figures are not necessarily to be obeyed." Antony's voice grew hard and cold. "He must be eliminated or driven back to India where he came from. He could do a lot of damage and this is a very critical time in Egypt."
"First of all ..." Cleopatra was on her feet in an instant, and in her lover's face. "... you do not have authority to release your troops to attack anyone in Egypt. I still rule here, in case you've forgotten that little fact. I decide what is best for the citizens of this county, not you. And I have given you my army and navy because I believe you are the better choice to rule the Roman Empire over Octavian. Don't make me re-think that decision."
"But our countries are to merge as soon as I defeat him." The dark eyes tried to appease her. "You will be my queen ..."
"You haven't won yet." The furious Egyptian cut him off. "I will not have you defying me or usurping my power. We are a team, or so I thought. And secondly, Eli is unarmed and talks of peace. How can he be a threat to you? He certainly has no thoughts of raising an army or otherwise fighting you."
"He preaches non-violence. I don't want my soldiers effected by him. And he talks of a great king to come, who will rule the world by love. I am to be the only ruler, along with you of course ..." He quickly corrected himself. "... besides, I just don't like him. I don't believe in peace. I believe the strongest will win and the weak are destined to serve. The things he speaks of are complete rubbish, and I don't like it."
"Leave ... Eli ... alone. And his people too." Cleopatra shook a finger in front of the Roman's startled eyes. They had had very few arguments during their time together, and he preferred to keep it that way. "And something else. I heard that you once tried to rape Xena's sidekick, Gabrielle." Her eyebrows drew together in an angry frown and she stood back with one hand on her hip, obviously expecting an answer as she tapped her long manicured nails on the table with a clicking noise that got on the Roman's nerves and threatened to make his headache resurface.
"Oh. That." Antony dismissed his actions with a negligent wave of his hand. "Water under the bridge. And she managed to escape. Her loss. I could have taught her a few things. She would have learned to enjoy my attentions after a while, if she would only have given it a chance."
"You ... condone rape?" The Egyptian's voice rose an octave, the outrage and disappointment clearly communicated by her tone and body language.
"It's not rape when it's a slave or a prisoner. They are considered to be property. She was a spoil of war between Caesar and Bodaceia. Female prisoners should expect to provide certain forms of ... entertainment ... when they are captured. It goes without saying." The Roman was growing annoyed with the interrogation. "You should know that."
"It's always rape if one of the parties doesn't want it." Cleopatra slammed the flat of her hand down on the table, with a resounding smack of skin against wood, causing Antony to come out of his chair. "You ... should know that." The enraged Egyptian snarled at her lover, her face etched with incredulous displeasure at his attitude.
"Darling. Please calm down." The Roman switched tactics, and hesitantly caressed an olive-skinned arm, hoping to win his lover back over with charm and diplomacy. "I'm sorry. I'll leave Eli alone, if that's what you really want. He's really nothing in the grand scheme of things. And if there's any doubt, there have been no other women, slaves or free, since you and I got together. And I promise to keep my hands off the prisoners in the upcoming war with Octavian. You have nothing to worry about." He lied on all counts, with a twinkle in his eyes and a smile on his face, masking the rapidly-building distrust he felt as he watched his relationship with the queen of Egypt begin to disintegrate before his eyes. Pity. He mused. She's been nothing, if not enjoyable.
"Very well then." The Egyptian leaned in and placed a platonic kiss on his cheek. "You're forgiven. I have some business to take care of. Shall I meet you on the terrace for a late lunch? I have a few minor affairs of state to tend to this morning, so I'm tied up until then."
"As you wish." Antony lifted an elegant hand, returning the kiss, and watched his lover leave the room, with more than a hint of irritation.
Both knew what they had to do.
The warrior sat at the end of the long bar, nursing a tall mug of plain apple cider, silently studying the other patrons of the inn. It was the calm period of time between breakfast and lunch, and only a few people occupied the room, mostly locals, sitting scattered randomly at round tables, many of them near the windows where they could see the ongoing bustle of the market area outside, as it wound down after several days of busy trading.
Her acute sense of hearing picked up idle snippets of conversation, and she gathered from one table of local merchants that it had been a successful trade period for most of the entrepreneurs that had traveled to Cairo to buy and sell their wares. At another table, a mother with two boys appeared to be waiting for her husband to join them. Her sons were restless, squirming in their seats and asking endless questions about the things they saw through the large window next to their spot. And at the table in the far corner ... the warrior grinned and shook her head in amusement ... a young man was desperately trying to get an attractive young woman to go up to his room with him. Wrong time of day for that, buddy.
After almost a candle mark, Eli cautiously poked his head into the dark room and smiled when he made eye contact with the warrior. "Xena." He strode somewhat confidently across the room, now that he had a familiar face to greet him. He didn't spend much time in taverns, and felt completely out of his comfort zone. Not that Xena's stoic presence provided much more comfort, but it was better than being completely alone. "Where's Gabrielle?"
"Up in our room." The warrior inclined her head toward the stairs. "Not feeling so great, I'm afraid."
"Oh." The Devi looked worried. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"No, Eli." Xena chuckled. "There's nothing wrong that won't go away in a day or so. Female stuff. And not a word. She'd die of embarrassment if she knew I told you."
Eli's ears turned pink. "No problem. I won't say a thing. Shall I come back tomorrow, or wait for you to send word, or ..."
"No. She's not completely incapacitated. She wants me to go get her when you arrive." The warrior swung one leg around, resting her foot on the ground, prepared to get up. "Besides, I have something to discuss with you, and she'd wring my neck if I share it with you before I share it with her. It's a bit of a mystery we've been dealing with, and I think I've about got all the pieces of the puzzle worked out."
"What sort of mystery?" The Devi's curiosity rose, along with a healthy dose of caution. He'd been involved in a few of the warrior's and bard's mysteries, and knew that with them often came mortal danger as well. Not to mention ample opportunities for him to watch Xena commit countless acts of violence, all in the name of defending him, something that went against his personal convictions but that he was powerless to control or stop.
"Let's just say I think you may be the missing link. Be back in a bit. Don't go anywhere." Xena grinned wickedly and slapped him on the back, before she went up to the room, leaving Eli to stew over things with a great deal of trepidation. What is she dragging me into now?
She quietly opened the door to their cozy room and slipped inside, crawling onto the bed and straddling her sleeping partner on all fours, pausing for a moment to take in the peaceful features on her lover's face and wishing that she could just let Gabrielle sleep. She knew better though, and leaned down, slowly kissing her way up Gabrielle's neck until she reached her lips. The warrior really wished she could just stay there and get under the covers with her lover, and let the healing power of physical connection work its magic on her partner's spasming inner muscles. She laughed when the bard woke up and pulled her leather-clad body down on top of her, closing the small distance between them and encouraging Xena's advances with tiny murmurs of pleasure that only served to light a fire in the warrior's center.
"Mmmm. Eli here?" Gabrielle combed her fingers through her partner's hair and smiled as Xena leaned into her, increasing the contact between their bodies and moving against her in a suggestive manner, that caused the bard's own body to react and press back into her lover. "Gods. We need to stop, don't we?"
"Yeah." Xena kissed the bard deeply, in spite of her own answer, and then released a long quivering breath. "And yes, Eli's downstairs. How're you feeling?" The warrior touched her lover's stomach with a flat hand, gently stroking the soft downy skin. Gods. I can't believe how much I want her right now. She sighed ruefully, knowing she'd have to wait a few days.
"Much better, thanks to you." The bard rested one hand on top of Xena's, guiding her movements across the flat plane of her belly, and pushing the hand down across her upper thigh, gradually leading the long fingers inward, while she looked up at her lover with passionate eyes that conveyed her desire in no uncertain terms. "I wish ..."
"Me too." With great effort, the warrior forced herself to ignore the warm body she felt reacting to her touch, and delicately extracted her hand from between them, bringing it up to caress Gabrielle's face. "What is it about knowing you can't have something, that makes you want it even more?"
"More than you usually do?" The bard snorted with laughter. "As if that were possible."
"Hey." Xena put on her best offended look. "You getting your jollies at my expense?"
"Never. Your um ... appetite ... is one of the many things I love about you." Gabrielle laughed again. "Besides, it's only fair I get some humor out of all of this."
"And why's that?" The warrior lightly tickled her partner's ribs.
"Oh. Stop it." The bard slapped at her lover's hands. "Sensitive right now, remember?"
"Sorry." Xena sat back on her heels, her bottom resting across Gabrielle's hips, but her weight supported on her own legs. "I'll behave. You were saying?"
"I should at least get a laugh, because you are about to start cycling with me, but you never have any pain when you do." The bard poked out her lower lip. "That is so unfair, Xena."
"Well ..." The warrior moved aside as Gabrielle sat up. "I've always pushed my body so hard, that I often went as much as half a year without even having a cycle. I got more than a few pregnancy scares out of that, believe me. But after I had been with you for a couple of summers, gradually my body fell into sync with yours. For some reason, it just seems to happen between women who live in close proximity to one another. And you ..." Xena reached out and touched her lover's shoulder. "... no one has ever been as close as you."
"I did that?" The bard smiled and patted her partner's hand on her arm, and then got up and started rummaging through her bag for a loose tunic to wear, deciding that she felt too bloated to expose her midriff, even though Xena constantly assured her that her stomach always looked flat, no matter what time of the moon it was.
"Yeah. It's all your fault." Xena moved in behind her and helped her adjust her clothing, and then wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's waist, pulling her back against her and resting her chin on the bard's head. Gods. I am not gonna make it for much longer. The warrior forced the lascivious thoughts down, hoping she could keep from torturing herself for a few more days. I feel so close to her. Closer than ever. It is so damned unfair.
"Glad to be of service." The bard turned and pecked her lover on the cheek, reading her lover's thoughts as she noted the slight flush to Xena's bronzed features. "Let's go down and talk with Eli. He's probably wondering what's taking so long."
Cleopatra stood unobtrusively around the corner, against a wall near the room where Antony was meeting with some of his most trusted military advisors. As one of her own servants walked by with a tray full of mugs and a pitcher of water, she snagged the surprised girl by the arm, and dragged her aside, almost upsetting her cargo. "Meleah, I need your assistance."
"I'm your humble servant, your highness." The girl bowed slightly and lowered her dark lashes. "I'm here to do your bidding, my queen. What do you need from me?"
"Take your time in there. Serve the drinks slowly. Ask if they need re-fills. Whatever you can do to delay." She peered around the corner toward the closed doors, wishing she could disguise herself and go into the secret meeting herself. "Listen carefully to everything that is said, and when you cant put if off any longer, leave as quietly as possible and come to my private quarters. I want a full report of everything you hear. Every last detail, do you understand?"
"Yes my queen." The girl continued on her way, carrying the tray up over her head, balanced perfectly on one spread-out hand while she used the other to work the door knob. Her long skirt swished around her legs, as she moved slowly around the long cypress wood table, reaching over the left shoulder of each man at the table to place an empty mug in front of them. She then made her way to the sidebar, lifting the large pitcher of cool well water, which had slices of oranges and lemons floating in it. She paused for a moment, turning her head slightly to hear better, while she used a small paring knife to slice up more oranges that were piled in a shallow ceramic bowl.
"My sources tell me that Octavian's troops have landed on the coast of the Sinai peninsula, and are marching across the desert this way." Antony looked around the table. "Is everything in place?"
"Your men are ready, sire." Casca, one of Antony's army captains responded, lifting his empty mug and peering at it with annoyance. "Girl." He turned toward the servant. "Hurry up. I'm absolutely parched. This desert living does not agree with me."
The girl hastily finished her task and lifted the large pitcher, balancing the bottom on the palm of her hand to steady it. She filled Casca's mug first, and then made another circle around the table leisurely filling the mugs as the soldiers continued to plot against Octavian.
"What about Cleopatra's navy? Has she prepared to move her ships into the waters of the Suez?" Casca swirled the citrus-flavored water around before sipping it with great appreciation, feeling the welcome liquid moisten his cracked lips and cottony mouth. "Damned desert. I'm just not used to this dry air. I can't wait to get back to Rome."
"The navy has already been commandeered up the Nile where it will maneuver the tributary into the gulf at Bur Safaga." Antony flipped through some notes while peering at a map on the table in front of him. "The Egyptian queen has already promised her complete support in the battle against Octavian. He will only have land troops. Any attempt to cross the Suez onto the mainland will result in the annihilation of his army. He will be forced to march across the narrows on the northern coast of the Mediterranean, and when he does, we will block him in on all sides."
"Splendid." Casca clapped his hands together and rubbed his palms in anticipation of the victory to come. How sweet it will be to watch that unworthy little spawn die the death he so richly deserves. His eyes suddenly narrowed. "What of our other plan?"
"Everything is ready." Antony spoke low and deliberately. "Once I have defeated Octavian, certain actions will be put into motion. There are those ... who ... have their orders. They know what to do."
"Such as?" Casca leaned back lazily in the buttery leather chair, tipping his head back and downing the remains of his mug before snapping his fingers and holding it up for a re-fill.
"Leave that to me." Antony eyed the servant girl, who had paused in mid-pour. He watched her warily and continued. "Let it suffice to say that I have no intention of sharing my kingdom with anyone." He saw the girl's eyes grow wide, but she made no other movement than to collect her tray and exit the room. A little too quickly for his liking. "Excuse me. I need to take care of something." The Roman rose from his seat. "Let's re-convene for an after-dinner discussion. I want to go over the sequence of plans for transporting the armed unit that will be moved in behind Octavian's troops once he reaches the narrows."
The men began to talk among themselves, as Antony hastily left the room, his eyes darting down he side passages so as not to miss Meleah if she had detoured from the main hallway. He followed the long corridor that led toward the palace kitchen, and spotted the servant girl as she disappeared into the garden just off the hallway, where the queen's private well was housed. "Did you learn anything in there?" He snuck up from behind and grabbed her arm roughly, jerking her around to face him.
The Roman's voice and touch startled the girl, and she dropped the bucket she had drawn up. It tumbled down into the long dark well-shaft, the thick hemp rope rapidly unrolling from the free-spinning crank, and the bucket finally hit the water way down below with a muffled splatter. "I don't know what you speak of." Meleah's eyes were wide with fear, as she felt a warm pricking sensation, and looked down to find a small dagger pressed against her rib cage.
"You were spying on us, weren't you?" Antony increased the contact of the sharp blade and twisted it slightly, tearing through the thin material of the girl's dress and nicking her skin, drawing blood that quickly stained the white fabric.
"No." Meleah winced and backed up until she was pressed firmly against the tall stone wall that was built around the well opening. She was trapped, with nowhere to turn to and no place to run. She swallowed hard, realizing that the enraged Roman knew the truth.
"Oh, I think so." Antony plunged the dagger in, feeling it rip through cartilage until it pierced the girl's heart. She gasped and her eyes fluttered, as her knees began to buckle and she placed both hands over her wound, the warm blood flowing over her fingers onto the brown sand and stone they stood on. Slowly, almost as if in a dream, she sank down to the ground in a crumpled heap.
The Roman withdrew the narrow blade and stooped down, wiping it negligently across the girl's stained tunic. He looked around and then shifted, grunting as he lifted the slim dead body and stood, panning the garden once more before he hefted the girl up and over the well wall, dropping her into the dark damp shaft. She broke the water surface with a loud splash. Antony peered down into the darkness and watched with satisfaction until the body sank into the murky depths, out of sight. He made a mental note to himself to consume no more well water while he was staying in the palace.
Eli and Xena dismounted from their camels, and the warrior turned and held out her arms, as Gabrielle took a deep breath and slid down into them, feeling strong hands break her landing in the soft sand. She looked over at the pyramid of Khufu and squared her shoulders, wondering what was in store for them, but determined to hide her fear, lest Eli and Xena be detracted from the task at hand. She pulled a light scarf around her head, feeling the scorching afternoon sun beating down on her to warm the pale material against her hair.
The warrior had already moved over next to the Devi, and their heads were bowed together over a set of notes they had made in the inn during several rounds of plain apple cider. Gabrielle trudged across the short distance toward her friends, her booted feet slipping in the thick loose sand which sifted beneath her feet with each step, slowing her progress. In her belt pouch, she had a large ring of various keys that Xena had pilfered from a hook on the wall at the end of the bar in the inn. The warrior had decided they might be useful in unlocking the door that led into the pyramid, not to mention the thick sealed vault that housed the body of the great Khufu himself.
"What do we do now?" The bard stopped at her partner's side, feeling a long arm absently settle across her shoulders.
"We go talk to Saqqara. And the others." Eli had been watching the interaction between warrior and bard during their earlier discussion, and the trek from Cairo across the Nile to Giza, and was fascinated at the closeness and the sensitive communication between the two, both through word and action. He knew Gabrielle wasn't feeling her best, and Xena's concern for and attention to her partner had endeared her to the Devi, as he viewed her in a new light. The cool, collected, dangerous edge was still there, no doubt. But where Gabrielle was concerned, the warrior's face noticeably softened, and her actions conveyed deep love for and a fierce protective nature toward her lover.
Throughout their meeting in the inn, Xena had constantly touched Gabrielle, on the arm, the leg, the hand, or the face, and she had made sure that the bard was as comfortable as possible. In between her relay of her encounter with Saqqara during the night, the warrior was continually up and down, making sure Gabrielle's mug of cider stayed full, getting a cushion for her to sit on, and retrieving a small snack for the ever-hungry girl. At one point, Xena had gone so far as to leave the table to go back up to the room and get another dose of the pain-killing herbs for Gabrielle to take, mixing them into a tall mug of orange juice to mask the bitter taste.
The bard had rolled her eyes in mild embarrassment, and told Eli that while Xena was normally attentive, that the warrior was in hyper-care-giving mode due to her not feeling so well. Gabrielle briefly considered telling Eli about her talk with Xena regarding Lila and their uncle, and then decided that much as she loved Eli, and as close as they were, she still wasn't comfortable talking about it with anyone other than her partner. As the warrior returned to the table, the bard had grown quiet, snuggling into her partner's side and listening to Xena talk with Eli while she softly caressed the fine hairs on Gabrielle's arm.
The bard had actually dozed a bit, as the herbs flooded her bloodstream, working on the nerve endings that had the muscles in her lower abdomen screaming in pain. Every now and then she would open one green eye and look over at Xena or Eli, and then the eyelid would flutter closed again, as she realized that for this particular mission, her presence was welcome, but she didn't have to do anything other than show up, or not show up at all if she so chose.
During the camel ride to the pyramids, Xena had kept one arm firmly attached to Gabrielle's, which were both wrapped tightly around the warrior's waist. "Xena." The bard was doing her best to go with the rocking up-and-down movement of the hairy beast they were perched upon.
"Yes?" The warrior turned her head slightly, and idly stroked her lover's hand.
"You're ... um ... how can I put this?" Gabrielle allowed her thumb to join into a dance with Xena's fingers. "You're very touchy-feely today."
"You complaining?" Xena pivoted even further around in the broad leather saddle, in an attempt to make eye contact.
"No." The bard pecked her partner on the lips, as the warrior leaned closer inward to hear her better. "It's really nice. Just wondering if there's any particular reason."
"You mean other than I love you more than anything else in the world, and I'm counting the minutes until I can crawl into bed and snuggle up with you?" The warrior chuckled, and kissed her lover back before she grew more serious. "Gabrielle. I ... just feel really close to you today. I hate that we have to take care of so many different things when all I really want to do is go somewhere where we can be alone and I can hold onto you. I wish ... I could make everything better. I mean ... about the things you told me last night about Lila and your uncle."
"Just telling you about it helps make it some better." The bard felt warm tears sting her eyes and she quickly looked down, swiping at the corner of one eye. "It means everything to me that you care, Xena. This hasn't been the easiest trip for me. I think you know that, though."
"Hey. I hope you know I always care. Always" Xena's grasp on the arms around her waist grew impossibly tighter. "I'm sorry, love. And I do know. As if the rough boat crossing, Cleo's goons trying to kidnap you, and then Cleo trying to jump my bones weren't bad enough, it seems like a lot of personal stuff has been dredged up for you. Dahak and Hope, and now your uncle and Lila. And I guess facing Eli wasn't real easy for you either."
"No." Gabrielle smiled. "It wasn't. You've ... um ... become a lot more perceptive, Xena." She reached up with one hand and touched her partner's face, just a brief brush of her fingertips across a high cheekbone, which elicited a sad smile.
"There are a lot of things, Gabrielle, that I have sensed about you in the past. I mean before the crucifixion. I just ... sometimes didn't express myself very well. Didn't know exactly what to say to you." The warrior felt a small hand rubbing gentle circles against her stomach. "After we came back, we made a lot of promises to each other. Not all at once or anything, but as things came up. Like no more lies. And no more secrets."
"I'm glad about that, Xena." The bard realized that Eli, while not right beside them, was close enough behind to probably pick up a good portion of their conversation. She briefly glanced back at him and was rewarded with a smile of understanding. She smiled back before turning her attention back to her lover. "So many bad things happened to us in the past simply because we didn't talk to each other."
"Yeah." The warrior looked down at the saddle horn and the arms around her, and shook her head slightly. And felt her own eyes water. Damn. I hate that. She sniffed, trying to muffle the noise, knowing she hadn't from the soft kiss she received on her shoulder. After everything she's been through because of me, she still loves me. She sighed and looked directly ahead, gaging the distance to the pyramids with blurred vision. "I made another promise that I didn't really tell you about, because I didn't want you to know in case I failed miserably."
"What's that, honey?" Gabrielle nibbled at the skin she had just kissed, and continued rubbing her hands in soothing circles on Xena's belly.
"That I would do my best to try to hear you. Not just what you say. I want to understand you and to hear the things you don't say, the things you feel ... I ... oh Centaur crap!" The warrior struggled somewhere between her emotions and her spoken words, feeling as if she were floundering in a pool and couldn't figure out how to move her arms to swim. "I'm not making a hill of beans bit of sense, am I?"
"Xena." The bard's chin quivered slightly and she took a deep breath at the constricting sensation in her chest and throat, as she tried to hold back the flood that threatened to spill down her face. "You have never made more sense in your life. I ... love ... you. I can't even begin to tell you how much. Especially when you say something like that. And you have never failed me."
"But what about ...?" A single bardic finger pushed against her lips and she kissed it in silence.
"Ever." Gods I wish we were just about anywhere but on this stupid camel in the middle of the desert about to go face some bizarre ghost that has chosen us to be her personal passageway to eternity. The bard wanted desperately to be completely face-to-face with her lover. "I'm not saying you ... we ... haven't made mistakes. But ultimately, you have always come through for me. As for your promise to yourself, you have excelled beyond my wildest expectations."
The warrior was quiet for a long moment, as she finally allowed the pent up tears to wash down her face. She wasn't weeping or sobbing. It was just a small grateful release of a fear that she would never be able to be what Gabrielle needed her to be on an emotional level. Maybe I can get this right after all. She smiled, and crooked one leg over the saddle horn, and managed to turn a little more than halfway around to face her partner, who was also shedding a few tears of her own.
"Look at us." Xena ran her thumb under the bard's jawline, collecting the drops of moisture that clung to the fair skin, almost ready to drop and join the others that were dampening Gabrielle's green tunic. "We're a mess." The thumb ran further down, along the length of the bard's neck and tracing the curve of her collar bone, before it circled the edge of the tunic, outlining the upper swell of a soft breast through the thin material that separated skin from skin. Aware that Eli was close by, Xena stopped herself and let out a frustrated breath, turning forward again to face the pyramids.
The bard laughed and smiled through the remaining tears, and rested her cheek against Xena's back. "I really, really, wish ..."
"Me too." The words echoed their earlier ones in the inn.
"Hormonal?" Gabrielle playfully nipped at a patch of bare skin just above the top edge of the leather battle dress.
"You got it." Xena felt the skin on her back twitch pleasantly in response to her lover's attention, and it was all she could do to concentrate on staying on the camel.
"Anything I can do to help?" The bard let go of her partner with one hand in order to lift the long dark mane aside, and allowed her fingertips to perform a sensual dance up the warrior's exposed neck.
"Oh. Let's not go there right now, okay?" Xena wanted nothing more than to grab her partner, get off the camel, and run behind the nearest sand dune to act upon the urges that were warring in her system.
Gabrielle laughed, and wrapped the arm back around Xena's waist. During the four or so moons since they had taken their relationship to the physical level, they had learned a lot of things about each other. One of those revelations had been that the warrior's libido came out in full force while they were cycling, compounding her normally high sex drive even more. It made for some playful frustrating exchanges between them, not to mention some very satisfying experiences once the cycle was over. Now, that energy, combined with the deep emotional exchange between them, brought forth needs that were almost more than either one of them could control.
"A few more days, and I promise I'll take care of you." The bard smiled and allowed her lips to brush across a muscular shoulder one more time. She got a low guttural groan in response, along with a firm grip on her bare thigh. Gabrielle merely laughed again. The brief remainder of the trip was spent in subtle teasing touches that were lost on Eli, but that clearly communicated promises of things to come between warrior and bard.
As they stood near the pyramid and Xena and Eli engaged in animated conversation regarding Saqqara and how best to proceed, Gabrielle knew that the fingertips that were running up and down her bare arm spoke volumes as to where at least part of Xena's attention was focused. It was her little secret, and a small part of her reveled in the knowledge that she was the focus of the warrior's primal, unapologetically sexual urges, boiling just under the deceptively calm surface. Occasionally, Xena would look over at her, a tiny little smile playing at her lips, and Gabrielle knew that Xena knew that she was aware of the warrior's thoughts. It only served to heighten the chemistry between them.
Finally, they agreed to simply enter the pyramid and go to the chamber where Saqqara's sarcophagus rested. Xena made quick work of merely knocking out the two surprised guards that hovered in front of the tomb entrance, using her sword hilt efficiently and almost painlessly, much to Eli's chagrin. The warrior leaned over and checked pulses on the two unconscious men. "They'll live." She chuckled. "But they may have one Tartarus of a headache for a while after they wake up." She tied them together, back to back, just in case, and then took the key ring from Gabrielle.
Eli and the bard stood back and watched, while the warrior picked at the lock on the thick door, her ear pressed against it listening for tell-tale clicks as she tried each of the useless forged-metal keys on the ring. When nothing happened, she growled in frustration and flung the whole set against the sloped brick wall of the structure, stopping to watch them slide back down the rough angled surface into the sand. "Where's Autolycus when we need him?" She quipped, as she once again drew her sword.
Gabrielle winced as Xena swung the sword back and then swiftly forward, striking the metal lock plate dead center with the hilt, knocking it loose. The warrior re-sheathed her weapon and with a solid kick, managed to remove the entire lock casing and plate the rest of the way from the door frame. She grinned with satisfaction and pushed the door open, emitting a slight whiff of cooler air from the sealed tomb.
Xena retrieved a torch from a sconce just inside the doorway, and single-handedly flipped a flint and striker from her belt pouch, quickly working the tools between her thumb and fore-finger to light it. She motioned for Gabrielle and Eli to follow her, and they silently entered the dark tunnel, following the bobbing light source as Xena led the way, painfully aware of every noise they made, as the sound was amplified and reverberated off the high cool walls around them. The warrior paused and looked down a side hallway, and cocked her head. "Saqqara's tomb is down that way, right?"
"Yes." Gabrielle felt a large hand close over hers in the darkness, and she squeezed it briefly.
"Ready?" The warrior looked anxiously down at her lover, the green eyes wide in the faint light emitted from the torch.
"As I'll ever be." The bard smiled into the inky blackness and then turned back toward Eli. "Just a little ways down here. Not much further."
The Devi merely nodded and followed behind the pair, his senses attuned to the silent cries of many tortured souls, causing his nape hairs to prickle and stand on end. Abba. What am I getting myself into? He had learned a lot about his powers as a Devi during the year or so since he had met Xena and Gabrielle. True, he could heal the sick, and had raised a few people from the dead, including Gabrielle. And he had cast out evil spirits and felt a call to pave the way for the entry of a more loving way of living into the world. But while he had brought spirits back from the dead, he had not helped send them on to their resting place. This would be a first, if he was successful.
They approached the small anti-chamber with caution, and Xena pushed the door open, looking around the silent stuffy room. Finding nothing but the sarcophagus and the myriad of objects that had been placed there upon Saqqara's death, the warrior shrugged, entering the tiny closed-in space with an anxious Gabrielle and Eli in tow. She placed the torch in the sconce on the wall, and instinctively drew the bard to her side, wrapping her arm around her partner's waist to keep her close.
"Well." The bard eyed the gold-plated mummy case. "Now what?"
"We wait, I guess." The warrior looked over at Eli, raising one eyebrow in question at the pensive expression on the Devi's face. "Unless Eli has some insight we're not privy to."
The Devi closed his eyes and moved toward Saqqara's coffin, placing his hands delicately on the surface of the smooth wood. "There is a great deal of unrest here. Many confused souls. And ..." He stopped, licking his upper lip nervously. "... I think there are certain spirits here ... or a presence ... that isn't happy we have come."
"What kind of presence?" Xena felt her partner's body stiffen and Gabrielle clung more tightly to her side.
"I can't tell for sure." Eli turned to face them. "It may be a god. Or possibly a demon. Maybe even the soul of a mortal."
"Great." The warrior looked down at the bard, and even in the low lighting could tell her partner was afraid. Gabrielle was trembling slightly, and her breathing was coming in quick uneven breaths. "Gabrielle. You don't have to stay. I can take you back outside if you want."
"No." The bard reached up and trailed her fingertips along Xena's jawline. "Where you go, I go, remember?"
"Yeah." The warrior leaned in, kissing the fair head. "I remember."
Gabrielle felt a cool breeze and the familiar tickling sensation on the back of her legs, and her heartbeat pounded into her throat. "Xe ..." She looked around fearfully. "... she's here."
Xena also felt the change in the room temperature, and Eli moved in next to them, his senses suddenly overwhelmed with a great melancholy from the spirit in the room. A soft grey mist in the darkest corner grew in density, and Saqqara slowly became visible, taking on a shape similar to the one she had held at the time of her death. "You came, just like you said you would." The restless soul hovered in the air several inches from the warrior.
"Yes." The warrior held her ground, resisting the urge to duck as the young girl's arm reached out in an attempt to touch her, and slid through her instead. Xena felt a strange cool sensation as the apparition ran through her midsection. "Saqqara. I've brought the person I told you I thought could help. This is Eli." She placed one hand on the Devi's back, pushing him forward a few step against his will. "Eli. Meet Saqqara."
"I know who he is." Saqqara's voice was a faint high-pitched hiss. "They told me he was coming."
"They?" Xena's eyes slitted halfway closed and she unconsciously ran her fingers along the edge of her chakram, her nerves in hair-trigger mode.
"There are some immortals ... and mortal souls ... at work here." Eli broke in. "Two opposing forces at war with one another."
"He is correct." Saqqara drifted closer to the Devi. "You can feel all of us, can't you?"
"Yes." Eli sensed that the spirit was harmless. "So many of you trying to break free and cross over. Yet something holds you back."
"Follow me." Saqqara shimmied toward the door and floated in place in the hallway until Xena grabbed the torch and emerged first, still holding onto Gabrielle while Eli flanked her on the other side. With measured steps, they made their way down the dark passage until the ghostly figure disappeared through the door that sealed the main burial chamber of the pyramid, the tomb of Khufu's mummy.
The warrior stopped and placed her free hand on her hip. "It'd be nice if she'd think to let us inside." She kicked at the bottom of the heavy barrier with the toe of a well-worn boot. "Not like we can just de-materialize and follow her." Xena placed both hands on the iron-encased wooden door and ran her palms along it, testing it for weakness. There was a lock plate, but the seams along the edges of the door appeared to be molded into the frame itself. "Guess we could always go get some axes and cut it down." She stood up on her toes and pressed against the door, feeling along the top edge for any cracks.
"Xena ..." Gabrielle tugged at the warrior's skirt. "... you might want to step away from the door. I think ..."
Suddenly, a dull shaft of light that the bard had noticed shining from inside the keyhole grew brighter, and lasered out, piercing the darkness with a blinding flash. The ground beneath their feet began to shake and rumble, and the warrior instinctively pushed Gabrielle and Eli behind her, and widened her stance for better balance on the unstable pyramid floor. She drew her sword and hunkered down slightly, prepared to spring in any direction, as the thick wooden door and the iron molding began to crack and splinter. "I gotta be more careful what I wish for ..." Xena muttered under her breath.
"Xe ..." The bard's eyes were wide with fear, and she clung to a leather-bracered forearm, unconsciously hooking one finger up and under the edge, and pulling at it with nervous agitation.
"Baby." The warrior gently pried the fingers away from her armor. "You're digging into my skin."
"Oh. Sorry." Gabrielle let go and felt a large hand grab each of hers, Xena from one side and Eli from the other.
"Get down!" The warrior yelled at the top of her lungs, diving backward and covering Gabrielle's body with her own, as the door to the sealed vault exploded outward, propelling hundreds of iron and wood fragments through the tunnel at lightening-quick speed. The loud rolling thunder-like quakes continued to rock the inner cavern, gradually diminishing as the dust and debris sifted downward, settling on and around them.
When all movement and noise ceased, Xena cautiously raised her head and spat out a mouth-full of sawdust. "Phafffttt! Ugh. I had to have my mouth open right when that thing blew." She looked down at the small body underneath hers. "Gabrielle?"
"I'm okay, but you're squishing me." The bard pushed upward, bracing one hand against an armor-covered breast as she tried to remove six feet of warrior from on top of her torso.
Xena grinned and rolled over. "We gotta stop meeting like this."
"What?" Gabrielle realized where her hand was and blushed. "Oh." She smiled, remembering her first encounter with Saqqara and the subsequent collision with her partner when she retreated.
"Eli. You okay?" The warrior held out an arm and the Devi grabbed onto it, hoisting himself up to a sitting position.
"Yes." He looked toward the now-open doorway. There was still soft shifting light coming from inside the main chamber, along with some almost inaudible hissing sounds. Eli felt his skin prickle again, and he was certain is wasn't from the fine layer of dust that was coating his hair and clothing.
Xena followed his gaze and then looked at the Devi, pulling Gabrielle up and against her in a protective gesture. "Um ... Eli. You getting any special feelings about this one way or the other, 'cause I gotta tell ya, if these dead people are looking for my help, they sure aren't doing much to convince me I'm welcome here."
"It's not the dead souls who caused that explosion." The Devi gestured around them. "At least I don't think it was. There's some force here, holding them back. I can't quite get a grasp on who or what it is ..."
"Who?" The bard found her voice and looked fearfully toward the mummy's lair. "As in, there's some sort of person in there ... or a god ... or something that ..."
"Gabrielle." Xena brushed some small pieces of debris from the blonde head. "Let me take you outside. You really don't have to be here if you're afraid. I don't want ..."
"No." The bard returned the favor, combing bits of wood splinters from her partner's dark locks. "It's just ... sometimes situations like this ... it reminds me of Dahak. That's all. I just ..."
"There's going to be no convincing you to leave, is there?" The warrior smiled crookedly with unspoken wishes that her partner would choose to be in a safe place over standing by her side. Then again. She mused inwardly. I wouldn't send her in there alone. Why would I expect her to let me go in without her?
"No." One word, unwavering and certain, as Gabrielle reaffirmed one of the promises they had so recently discussed, that neither one of them would ever leave the other behind again, unless it was the choice of the one being left.
Eli stood up and fluffed out his robes, causing dust to fly into his own face, which sent him into a coughing spasm. Xena jumped up and thumped him on the back several times. "Thanks." The Devi waved her off. "I'll be fine." He wiped his face with the back of his hand and ran his fingers through his beard, dislodging several large splinters and iron fragments.
Gabrielle pushed up from the floor with one hand, and found herself pulled the rest of the way to her feet by her partner's strong hold underneath her arms. She released a long shaky breath and silently followed, as Xena led the way toward the open lair. Eli brought up the rear as they cautiously entered the long-undisturbed chamber. The warrior looked around for the source of the swirling light and the hissing noises, and could see nothing except the long overly-ornate sarcophagus and several
large piles of jewels and coins that filled the four corners of the high-ceilinged room.
"Wow." The bard's eyes grew wide with wonder. "Xena. What a waste. Look at all of that. It could be used to help so many people." She started to move toward one of the piles of sparkling multi-faceted gemstones, when the hissing noise in the room grew ominously louder.
"Gabrielle." The warrior reeled her back in with an outstretched arm. "Stay close, okay? We can look at everything after we settle this." She looked around and sighed with disgust. "Okay. Whoever you are, you can dispense with the dog and pony show and cut right to the chase. I've dealt with gods before. And demons. And dead people. And the underworld. Scare-tactics usually don't go over well with me, and I'd just as soon know exactly what you have in mind."
Saqqara materialized in front of them, shaking her head violently. "You shouldn't talk like that. You'll make him really really angry."
"Who, in the name of Zeus, is this 'he' or 'it' or whatever the Hades is causing all the commotion?" Xena crossed her arms over her chest. "And you, Saqqara. You came to me for help. I didn't have to listen to you and I certainly didn't have to drag my partner and my friend in here and put them in danger. Why don't you tell me what's really going on here, 'cause I've had about enough of your deceptive antics."
"I ..." The greyish form of the girl shrunk into and around itself. "... I'm sorry. I was afraid if I told you the truth, you wouldn't come. Everyone else is afraid. Why would you be any different?"
"I've been different all of my life. Why change now?" Xena smiled grimly. "Come on. Get on with it, or I'm walking out of this place and you can hang around here for eternity for all I care. You may think you need me, but I have very little use for you at this point."
"My father." The spirit's voice was low and trembling. "He won't let anyone cross over. He's angry because his body is missing."
"What?" Eli and Xena spoke in unison, looked at each other, and then peered at the large mummy case that was laid out on an ebony wood platform.
"He's determined that no one else will enter Ra's eternity until his body is recovered. He said if he can't cross over, then no one else can either. I haven't seen him in a long, long time, until today. I'm sorry I lied to you. The explosion. That was all of us opening the door to let you in. It was so forceful because he wanted to keep you out. He doesn't like living beings trespassing in here."
"Who is 'we'?" The warrior looked at the ghost skeptically. "Exactly how many of you are there?"
"No one has crossed over since my father died. There are hundreds of thousands of us." Saqqara floated back and forth between Xena and Eli, dipping up and down as her wispy appendages gestured wildly about. "We are everywhere, but most of us dwell in the pyramids, even the ones who weren't buried in them."
"Wait a gods-be-damned minute." The warrior began pacing around in small circles. "You're telling me that not a single person who has died in Egypt since Khufu died has been allowed to cross over?"
"Correct." Saqqara began to trail behind the warrior, hovering a few feet from the ground. "Can you help us? Or you?" She made a pass around Eli's head before resuming her position behind Xena.
"Don't know." Xena moved toward the sarcophagus. "I knew what to do with the Amazons. But I have a feeling that this will call for something besides drinking blood and gyrating around a campfire."
"Huh?" Gabrielle and Eli had both heard parts of the warrior's story about the Amazon land of the dead, but Xena had withheld the information regarding bonding with death by blood sacrifice.
"Sorry." The warrior turned toward her partner. "I'll explain it to you later. I know. No more secrets. I didn't tell you, only because I thought it might make you feel sick to think about it. It does me sometimes." She grimaced, recalling drinking a gourd full of horse blood, and a fight with Alti. It was the first time she saw the crucifixion vision. She had often wondered if the shamaness had somehow been tied up in bringing about their deaths, or if she had merely been the vessel that first made Xena aware of her pending doom. And she sometimes pondered if perhaps each time she had seen that vision, if Alti had not somehow been responsible for it. She shivered. Naima had made it clear that not only were her and Gabrielle's souls eternally linked. Alti's was also linked with them. It wasn't a question of if they would meet again, but of when.
Xena shook her head to clear it of the bad memories, and she continued walking toward Khufu's mummy case, until she hovered over it, her hands resting lightly on the surface. "Well." She withdrew a dagger from her boot and began prying at the wide metal clasps that held the sarcophagus closed. "If there's no body in here, I'd sure like to know what is."
"I wouldn't do that if I were you." Saqqara floated over in front of the warrior. "My father has declared that anyone who defiles his tomb will suffer the consequences."
"What consequences?" Xena pried the last metal plate lose and with great effort, lifted the heavy lid open. She peered inside to find the case quite empty. "Well I'll be damned. Wonder what happened to him?" She shrugged. "Looks harmless enough."
"Xena." Gabrielle's voice was at least an octave higher than usual, her words coming out in a terrified squeak.
"What?" The warrior spun around and gasped, as one by one, torches on the walls that they had not noticed before sprung to life with wildly flickering flames that filled the room with ghostly moving shadows. "What in Tartarus ...?" Suddenly, a great whirlwind swirled about the room and a shaft of light pierced the center of it. Xena looked up toward the pointed top of the chamber, trying to see where the light came from. Without warning, she was lifted up and hurled about the room in a spiraling updraft, rising higher and higher above the floor. Her arms and legs flailed about as she tried to grab hold of something, anything, to stop her rapid upward ascent. She looked down and yelled. "Gabrielle!"
"Xena!" The bard lunged toward the warrior's feet, which rose up out of her grasp. "Xena!" Gabrielle screamed as her partner floated higher and higher and then disappeared with a blinding flash of light through an invisible portal. As quickly as it had come, the wind died down to nothing and the torches on the walls lowered to a flicker. The room was deathly silent for a heartbeat as Eli and Gabrielle looked around and up in confusion, trying to figure out what had happened. The warrior was simply gone. Vanished without a clue or trace as to where she went.
"Nooooo!!!" The sound ripped from the bard's throat, piercing the darkness as she fell to the ground on her knees, sobbing. Eli stood by in mute shock as Gabrielle looked helplessly up toward the high empty space above her where the warrior had disappeared, the tears streaming down her face as her hands clasped and unclasped in fists of rage and despair.
Continued in Part 8
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