Most of these characters belong to Studios USA and any other owners of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. This story was not written for profit and no copyright infringements are intended. The story itself is mine. Please don't reproduce it, in whole or in part, without asking first.
A few ideas came from Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, "When Irish Eyes Are Killing," episode written by Grant Rosenberg. No copyright infringements intended toward DC Comics, Warner Brothers, or December Third Productions. NO, this is NOT a Xena/Superman cross-over. This is classic alt Xena/Gabrielle
Kallerine is back. Once again, this is not a Buffy/Xena crossover. Kallerine is an Amazon bacchae slayer who just happens to look like Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Violence: Take one warrior princess, blend thoroughly with a bardic Amazon queen, toss in the king of thieves, add one feisty red-headed druid, sprinkle in a few greedy villains, mix liberally with a handful of Amazons, and yeah, some swords are likely to cross.
Maintext: Rated R. Two women in love who sleep together as often as possible.
Questions/Comments/Suggestions welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org
Updates Only List: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/texbardupdates
Updates/Chat List: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/texbad
Setting: This story falls sequentially after "Divinity." For those new to the Xena/Gabrielle series, it is in order, "March the 16th," "A Solstice Treaty," "The Sixth Sense," Cleopatra 4 A.D.," and "Divinity." To read them, go to my website: http://home.earthlink.net/~texbard and scroll to the bottom to find links to MaryD's and ForevaXena.
Additional Background Info: A refresher note regarding framework within the show -- my Xena/Gabrielle series parts ways with the show after the 4th season. What that means is no pregnant warrior, no Eve, no 25-year ice cave time warp, no twilight of the gods, no new chakram, no angel Callisto, no Akhemi, and no battlin' bard (although Gab does fight in this series both with staff and with sais, she just isn't the killing machine she became in the 5th season). Cyrene, Toris, Amarice, Eponin, Gab's family, Eli, Hercules, Iolaus, all the Greek gods, and especially Xena, are very much alive. Octavian is still a very young Roman leader. Joxer is dead because he died in my first story. Callisto is in Hell for breaking her deal with the devil to not physically harm Xena during "The Ides of March." Also in this timeline, they last saw Alti during "Between the Lines," when Xena chakkied Gab's hair off. I have made Xena's history in the Norse lands a part of her history in the series, but only up to the part where she locked up Grindle, so in this Xenaverse, Grindle is still locked up with the ring. My Xena never has, and never will, set foot on the island of Japan.
Note on Tamara Gorski: For Herc fans, she was Morrigan, and appeared in half the 5th season episodes.
THE EYES OF EIRE
(a.k.a Amazons, Druids & Thieves, Oh My)
Warrior and bard were curled up in bed together, spending some quiet time in the remaining candlemark before dinner would be served in the communal dining hall. Raella took Morrigan to get her settled into one of the guest huts, while Eponin led the redhead's horse to the stables and fed and groomed her. Gabrielle made arrangements for a private dinner in their hut, just her, Xena, and Morrigan, and servers were scheduled to bring over their meal shortly after the dining hall opened up.
The warrior's consumption took a turn for the worse, and Gabrielle sat back against a pile of pillows, supporting Xena against her chest, cradling her in her arms. It was easier for the warrior to breathe in the semi-upright position. True, they could have achieved the same effect by simply propping Xena up against the pillows, but she felt horrible, and had an almost child-like need to maintain contact with her partner.
"Gods," the warrior took a deep breath after yet another coughing fit. "I hate this." Her stomach muscles hurt and she was certain that the next round would bring up a lung.
"Shhh." Gabrielle sponged her forehead with a cool wet rag. "I know. Try to sleep, love."
"Can't," Xena sighed, closing her eyes in spite of herself. "Everything hurts."
The bard winced at the painful rasping tone of her partner's voice. "Here." She gently pressed a spoonful of honey, lemon juice, and whiskey against the warrior's lips. "This'll help make your throat feel better."
Xena complied, sucking on the spoon briefly before releasing it. She swallowed, bringing tears to the corners of her eyes. "Feels like fire."
"Honey," Gabrielle ran her fingers through the long dark hair. "If you'll quit talking, it might feel a little better."
"Sorry," the hoarse voice mumbled. "Gabrielle."
The bard sighed. Since when did she become the talkative one? "What is it, love?"
"Can you please stop that?" Xena thrashed a bit, pulling up slightly
"Stop what?" A small hand pressed against the warrior's chest, forcing her to lay back down.
"I meant it, everything hurts." Wide blue eyes pleaded. "Even my hair follicles. Any other time, I love for you to play with my hair, but . . ."
"Oh." Gabrielle withdrew her fingers from the silky soft head. "Sorry. Didn't even realize I was doing that."
"Thanks." Xena turned on her side, her cheek pressed against a soft breast, and her hand wrapped around her lover's biceps. She curled her legs up, and sighed quietly, as the bard pulled the blankets up around her. She finally allowed her body to give in to the illness and the liberal dose of herbs she'd taken when they arrived back at the village. She felt herself begin to drift off, and one anxious blue eye popped open and peered upward.
"I've got you, honey, and Kallerine is in the next room keeping watch." Gabrielle kissed the top of her head. "It's okay to sleep. I'll wake you up when dinner arrives."
The eye closed, and Gabrielle felt all the tension drain out of her partner's body. My stubborn baby, she mused affectionately. The ride back to the village had been mostly silent, save for the sound of the horses walking, and the rustle of the wind through the tree branches. It wasn't unusual for Xena to travel in silence, but it was highly abnormal for her to not take the opportunity to size up anyone new, especially someone it appeared they might be spending some extended time with. She hadn't so much as asked Morrigan a single question.
The bard had attributed her partner's silence to not feeling well. Xena's pallor increased during the return trip, her normally-bronzed features appearing almost pasty. By the time they reached the village, the warrior was coughing almost continually, and Gabrielle knew from long experience that Xena almost certainly had a splitting headache as a result. She was correct. After arranging the private dinner, she returned to their hut to find the warrior collapsed on the bed, clutching her head between her hands.
Wrestling her partner out of her clothes, and convincing her to consume a liberal dose of mixed herbs, left both of them exhausted. You always have to go down kicking and screaming, don't you, love? The bard trailed her fingertips along a muscular arm, the warrior unaware of the attention in her sleep. But you're not fighting now, thank the gods.
It had taken a while for her to learn to read Xena's body language, and for the longest time, body language was her only true clue as to what the warrior was thinking or feeling. The stubborn woman was loathe to admit to any physical weakness, and would forge diligently ahead, enduring headaches, fever, and even sprained and strained body parts, rather than allow herself to rest or be coddled.
Gabrielle sighed, remembering a time not too long after she and Xena first began traveling together. They got into a minor skirmish, or more accurately, Xena got into a skirmish. It was before the bard learned to fight with a staff, back when she used to duck behind the nearest boulder or tree at the first sign of danger. She watched the warrior, as she handily defeated a handful of thugs with seeming ease. Xena had taken her usual share of punches and kicks, along with one nasty crack of a sword hilt against the back of her skull.
In the end, though, the beaten men had run for the hills, and the warrior bent over, gingerly grasping her dropped sword and returning it to its scabbard. She should have noticed how slowly Xena moved, but she'd been too overwhelmed with the adrenalin rush, and had run out from behind her tree. "Xena, are you okay?" She vividly remembered asking.
The warrior grunted, shaking her head affirmatively, not an atypical response, and Gabrielle took her at her word. For the rest of the day, no matter how hard she tried, it seemed she could do nothing right. Every word, every action, was met with cold silence or clipped angry one-word responses. By the time the sun began to set, and they neared a small village, the bard wanted nothing more than to get away from her dour companion. The thought of a tense evening around the fire made her stomach clench, and she carefully suggested they get a room at the local inn.
To her surprise, Xena had readily agreed. The warrior didn't often waste precious dinars on inns unless the weather was bad, and that particular evening had been almost perfect, save for Xena's own personal little black cloud, which seemed to have settled permanently over her beautiful dark head. Gabrielle had smiled for the first time, secretly planning to get separate rooms, the cost be damned. A few candlemarks apart sounded like the Elysian Fields.
When they reached the inn, the bard began haggling for the rooms, when Xena cut in and said one room would be fine. Gabrielle remembered her heart sinking, the thought of any more unpleasantness between them almost enough to send her running back to Potadeia. They ate dinner quickly, in complete silence. The warrior refused to stay for the evening entertainment, and further infuriated her companion by insisting that Gabrielle miss it too, and join her right away.
The bard stomped angrily up the wooden stairs, emphasizing her own displeasure with every step, never noticing that with each crash of her boot, Xena's shoulders visibly tensed together. When they reached the room, Gabrielle slammed her bag down on one of the beds, and began pacing back and forth, ranting at Xena for her rudeness, and demanding an apology and an explanation.
The warrior appeared to ignore her, methodically removing her armor and leathers, and donning a sleep shirt. She sat back on the other bed, eyes closed, and patiently waited until Gabrielle paused to take a breath. "Are you finished?" Xena finally snapped at her.
"I might just be finished for good," the bard shot back at her. "I don't understand Xena. You're downright ugly to me all day, you insist that we share a room when you obviously can't stand to be around me, and you won't even let me enjoy the minstrel downstairs. It can't possibly be because you want to spend a pleasant evening talking with me. What gives?" She remembered tossing her hands up in defeat.
The blue eyes closed for the longest time, while the warrior collected her thoughts. "Sorry." She finally mumbled.
That's it? Just 'sorry'?" the bard fumed. "About damned time you apologized . . ."
"Gabrielle," the warrior interjected. "I needed you here with me. I don't think it's a good idea for me to go to sleep for a while, and all I want to do is sleep."
"Huh?" Gabrielle spun around and looked at her friend, studying her face intently for the first time that day, noting the tense thin set of the warrior's lips, and the tiny lines etched into her forehead.
"I . . . think I might have a concussion." Sheepish blue eyes blinked. "That guy that smacked me on the head this morning . . ."
"Xena." The bard was by her side in an instant. "Why didn't you say something?"
"I started to," the warrior looked down. "Seemed like the more I tried to talk, the angrier we both got. I figured there was nothing I could do anyway, might as well keep going until we found a place to rest. Can you . . . um . . . get a candle and shine it in my eyes, let me know if my pupils both react the same way?"
Gabrielle complied, and sure enough, the warrior's right pupil failed to react to the candlelight. That set the bard in action, as she obtained herbs for her friend's headache, and made up an ice pack to apply to the sizeable knot on the back of Xena's head. It was the first time the warrior ever allowed her young companion to take charge.
The bard remembered an almost meek request from Xena that Gabrielle share her bed, and tell her stories to keep her awake. Gabrielle climbed in, at first sitting beside her friend. As it became apparent that the warrior was too weary and hurt to hold her head up, the bard urged her to lay her head against her shoulder.
It was the first time Gabrielle held Xena. She smiled, remembering just how good that had felt. The warrior's soft hair spilling over her shoulder, and the rock solid body pillowed against her, her arms wrapped around the long torso to support her and help her sit upright. She told stories for most of the night, patting Xena gently on the arm or the cheek whenever she began to nod off.
Finally, in the early candlemarks of dawn, they checked the warrior's eyes again, and both pupils seemed to be reacting properly. She remembered her friend's exhausted sigh of relief. As she started to move to her own bed, the deep voice made one final plea, "Stay."
To her complete and utter surprise, she found herself pushed gently down against the pillow, as Xena once again rested her head on Gabrielle's shoulder. That had felt even nicer, and it was a sweet moment, as the warrior made herself completely vulnerable, falling asleep in her younger friend's arms.
The bard smiled at her memories. You were so embarrassed when you woke up that afternoon, weren't you, love? She stroked the dark head. Glad we got past that. She realized that now, quite the opposite was true; Xena was most likely to become distressed if Gabrielle wasn't curled up with her when she woke up. Don't you worry, Xena. I'll do my best to always wake up next to you.
As if reading her thoughts, the warrior stirred, taking a firmer grip on the bard's arm. A long sigh escaped her lips, and she nuzzled her face against Gabrielle's chest, drawing in the comforting scent of her lover's skin, even in her sleep. The bard allowed her partner to settle down, and then issued a series of soft birdcalls.
Kallerine appeared in the doorway and raised her eyebrows in silent question. Gabrielle crooked a finger, motioning her to the bedside. "Can you go tell the dining hall to hold our dinner for an extra candlemark? And inform Morrigan of the delay as well?"
The slayer nodded in understanding, and left her charges alone to rest. When she returned, both warrior and bard were sound asleep.
When dinnertime rolled around, Xena was still out to the world, and Gabrielle postponed their meeting with Morrigan until breakfast. Kallerine dutifully went to tell Morrigan. The relieved redhead admitted that she was completely exhausted, and more than willing to wait until she got a good nights' sleep. The slayer had dinner delivered to the guest hut, and returned to guard duty for the queen.
The warrior slept fitfully, waking up several times in dazed confusion, instinctively calming down when she realized Gabrielle was the one who was holding her. Each time she woke, the bard managed to get her to take another dose of herbs. The warrior alternated between raging fever and bone-deep chills, going through several sleep shirts. Miraculously, sometime after midnight, she fell into a deep sleep, and didn't wake again until just before dawn.
She opened her eyes, blinking in the pearly gray light that filtered across the bed. Her head was still resting against her partner's chest, her body reclining against the bard's firm stomach, and her legs nesting between Gabrielle's legs. She grinned, and turned her head, placing several kisses along the exposed swell of a curved breast, which peeked out above the collar of the bard's sleep shirt. Gabrielle purred softly, not opening her eyes, her legs wrapping around the warrior's hips, pulling her in closer.
"You must be feeling better." The green eyes opened, meeting a pair of impish blue ones.
In answer, the warrior moved to the other breast, giving it equal treatment. When one hand crept up to push the bard's shirt aside, Gabrielle gently stopped it. "Uh-uh. Hold that thought for a while, honey. Let's make sure you're really back up to speed first, okay?"
Xena grinned and placed one last kiss on her favorite plaything, or more precisely, one of her favorite playthings. Her hand slipped down and under the bard's sleep shirt, making lazy circles against the toned abdomen with the flat of her hand. "I feel great." She sighed contentedly, feeling her partner's fingers combing through her hair.
"Breathe for me." Gabrielle smiled, feeling warm tickling air against her cleavage. "Not there, stud. Sit up and take a deep breath."
Black eyebrows waggled and the warrior complied, drawing air into her lungs. "No wheezing." She breathed again, more deeply. "Feels clear."
"Good." The bard stretched, extending her legs and tensing her muscles, wiggling her toes pleasantly. "Let's take a bath and get ready for breakfast with Morrigan."
Xena frowned. "What happened to dinner?"
"We slept through it, honey." The bard brushed an errant lock of hair out of her partner's eyes. "I couldn't bring myself to wake you up and force you to sit through a meeting feeling as bad as you did."
"Gabrielle . . ." the warrior began to protest.
"Hush." The bard traced the pouting lips. "Morrigan was tired too. This morning is better for all of us."
Xena smiled and nipped the finger, before she grasped it and leaned in, making light contact with her lover's lips. She pulled back and nuzzled her partner's neck, and then moved in again with more pressure, enjoying a long leisurely kiss. "Mmmm." She cradled Gabrielle's head with one hand. "It's been too long."
"Yeah." The bard began unlacing her partner's sleep shirt. "You wanna get naked with me?"
"I can't think of anything I'd rather do." The warrior helped Gabrielle take her own shirt off.
"Then get in the tub with me," Gabrielle teased. "Let's take it slow, honey. I'm serious. If you do okay today, then tonight . . ." She batted her blonde lashes and maneuvered herself off the bed and onto the floor, urging the warrior to follow her to the bathing room. "Come on and snuggle up with me in some nice warm water."
Xena didn't need to be asked twice, her partner's bare body the only incentive she needed to follow her almost anywhere Gabrielle might lead. Soon, they were sharing a hot bath, alternately washing and playfully splashing each other. When they were both clean, Xena wrapped herself around the bard from behind, not content until they were plastered together. "Feels so good, just to hold you." She kissed her partner's neck.
"Xena." Gabrielle turned in her arms to face her. "I know you've not been well since you returned from the cave, but for you, you've been awfully cuddly. Not that I mind," she hastily added. "Is everything okay?"
"Yeah." The warrior frowned, peering down at the water in thought. "Part of it is just that I like to feel you close when I'm sick." She looked partway up and briefly smiled. "When I was laying in that cave, I'm pretty sure I already had a fever. My thoughts got kinda fuzzy. I remember laying there, shivering so hard I was sure something in my middle was going to break. Every muscle in my body hurt, and I had one moment when I wondered if I was going to make it through the night. It was so strange. I left you that morning thinking I'd be back in a few candlemarks. It never occurred to me when I left that something might happen that could potentially . . . keep me from returning."
Gabrielle tensed, and felt comforting fingers stroke her back. "I didn't realize it was that bad," she said in a shaky whisper.
"I'm not sure it was," Xena tried to reassure her. "But with the fever, I thought it was that bad at the time. I remember thinking that I might never get to hold you again, never feel your body against mine again, and it was so ironic to me. It struck me how quickly something so precious might be snatched away, and I got to wondering if I was starting to take you . . . take us . . . for granted." She placed an achingly tender kiss on her partner's forehead. "I don't ever want to take you for granted, Gabrielle. I want to treasure every moment we have together."
"If it makes you feel any better, I can't remember the last time I thought you were taking me for granted," the bard breathed softly into her lover's ear. "I've felt very loved for a very long time now."
"Me too." Xena captured her lips in an almost reverent kiss. Much of the earlier passion was gone, replaced with unhurried tenderness, and a simple need for affirming physical connection. She nibbled softly for a long time, never increasing the pace, until they were forced to come up for air. The warrior touched foreheads with her partner, feeling Gabrielle's breath tickle her upper lip as their chests rose and fell unevenly. "I love you, Gabrielle." She brushed her lips against the bard's one more time. "Just in case I've failed to tell you in a while."
"You show me Xena, every day." Gabrielle hugged her partner tightly. "But it's nice to hear it every now and then."
A soft knock at the door indicated Morrigan's arrival, and Xena crossed the room to let her in. "Morrigan, welcome." The warrior stood aside, waving the shorter woman inside.
Morrigan looked up at her hesitantly. She stopped just inside the doorway, removing a moss-colored cloak. "Thank you." Xena took her wrap and deposited it on a wooden hook.
"How is your hut?" Gabrielle appeared from the kitchen where she was making mint tea.
"Oh." The redhead closed her eyes for a moment. "It's lovely, just lovely. After days and days o' travlelin', I can't tell ya how nice it was to sleep in a real bed with a fire blazin' in the fireplace. I felt decadent." She smiled charmingly.
"Please, have a seat." The bard indicated the table, which was covered with a full breakfast recently delivered from the dining hall.
"Oh, my." Morrigan's eyes grew wide in appreciation. "Keep up this hospitality, and I may not want to return to Eire."
"Speaking of Eire," the warrior sat down across the table from her. "Why did you come to see me?"
"Not one to mince words, is she?" Morrigan cocked one red eyebrow at the bard.
Gabrielle laughed. "That would be correct." She passed a basket of fresh hot sliced bread.
Morrigan accepted, absently buttering her slice as she stared out the window. "Where to begin . . ."
"How do you know Hercules?" The warrior asked helpfully. She noted clouds gather in their guest's blue eyes.
The redhead sighed. "We met at the worst o' times, fer bot' of us. Hercules was brought to Eire on a wave and a prayer. He was in mournin', blamin' 'imself fer Ioalus' death."
"We heard about that," Gabrielle interjected quietly. "Thank the gods he's alive again. I can't imagine what it would have been like for Hercules without him." Green eyes blinked, and the bard felt Xena's strong hand squeeze her thigh under the table.
"He was at 'is worst, and so was I." Morrigan looked down. "I've done terrible, shameful things. I'll spend the rest o' ma life payin' fer ma past."
Xena's eyes grew wide for the briefest second. Wonder how much of her story is exactly like mine? "You might be surprised. Redemption can come from surprising places." She spared a meaningful glace with her partner, and her voice was low as she spoke. "I have a feeling my question about you and Hercules might warrant a whole separate meal. You don't have to . . . share anymore than you're comfortable with."
"Thank you, Xena." Morrigan studied the solemn face. "It's not that I mind tellin' ya my story, but it might be best if I get to the heart o' my visit here first, if ya don't mind."
"We don't mind at all," Gabrielle smiled warmly.
"Hercules didn't tell me a lot about ya, Xena. He told me a little bit about yer travels, and told me that if I ever needed some serious help and he wasn't available, I could turn to ya in his absence." Blue eyes met blue. "I hope I haven't come to ya out of turn."
"No." The warrior smiled. "Not at all. Hercules is one of my best friends. I owe him a world of gratitude. I'd do almost anything for him, or for one of his friends."
The redhead drew in a long shaky breath. Might as well drop ma first fireball now. "I'm the last of the druids of Eire. I killed the druid guardian of justice, and as a result, I became the guardian of justice." She studied the carefully-controlled surprise on her hosts' faces. "The others were all murdered later, after Hercules helped set me on the right path. If not fer Hercules, I woulda been murdered too. I was with 'im when they were killed."
"Who murdered them?" Gabrielle sipped at her tea.
"An evil god named Dahak." Morrigan watched as the bard choked on her tea. Gabrielle's face grew pale as the falling snow, and Xena was immediately at her back, steadying her in her chair.
"Easy, sweetheart." She gently rubbed her partner's shoulders. "I believe all of that happened before Hercules killed Dahak."
"Correct." Morrigan's brows knitted in confusion. "I didn't mean to startle ya. I take it ya know of Dahak."
"Yes." The warrior drew the word out. "May he rot in the underworld forever."
"I couldn't agree with ya more, Xena." The redhead took a bite of eggs and continued. "The druids weren't always good. Their history, it goes back, further than recorded time. For thousands and thousands of years, they served the gods, often with evil intent. Only over time, did they break away from the gods, and developed their own followers. The gods were none too pleased with 'em, and did everything to punish the druids and their peaceful followers."
"The gods are selfish everywhere," the warrior almost snarled.
"That would be true, at least in ma own experience." Morrigan sat back in her chair, smoothing a brown and blue tartan wrap that covered her from waist to mid-thigh. "For years, the druids kept guard over a relic, the mask 'o the ancient ones. It bears two magic stones, the eyes of Eire, and the mask along with the stones, hold the secret to the druid's powers. Even in their absence, the mask allowed the gifts of the druids, faith, mercy, virtue, and all the other good spirits, to continue in the world. I wasn't indoctrinated into the ways o' the mask, wasn't even told about it until after the druids were murdered. It was kept in a secret cave, far underground. Because I didn't know about it, I failed to keep watch over it."
"Let me guess, it's missing." Xena leaned forward on her forearms, intently interested in the direction the conversation was going.
"That would be correct." Morrigan sighed sadly. "Maven, the deceased druid guardian of knowledge, he came ta me in a dream and warned me that the mask had been stolen. He wasn't able to tell me who stole it, and I got the impression 'is spirit was bound. He did say that a long time ago, the mask was cursed by the god Kernunnos. If the mask ever left the care of the druids, dreadful things could happen. If it falls into the hands of a dead god, it could bring the god back to life. In the hand of any god, it could be dangerous. They can use the powers of the mask to take control of the world or of other gods."
"Dahak." Gabrielle's face grew pale again.
"I'm not so sure." Morrigan patted her host's hand. "I'm more inclined to think Kernunnos 'imself managed to steal the mask."
"Why do you think that?" Xena munched on an apple.
"Because I killed Kernunnos." Morrigan watched the warrior swallow an unchewed bite of apple.
"Damn," Xena rubbed her recently-sore throat. "That hurt." She took a soothing sip of the honey-laced tea, and her eyes narrowed in thought. "If Kernunnos stole the mask, why hasn't he used it yet?"
"That's the missing piece of the puzzle." The druid absently rubbed her temples. "There's more than one person or god at work 'ere. I tried to enter the chamber where the mask was kept. There was an invisible force in place. Try as I might, I couldna pass nor penetrate it. I'm alone in Eire. I immediately sent for Hercules, but received a message in return that he'd gone with Iolaus to Sumaria to see Nebula. There was'na way to reach 'im."
"Well." Xena shifted in her chair, crossing a boot-covered foot over her opposite thigh. "Regardless of who stole the mask, we need to recover it. It sounds like it's too dangerous in the wrong hands."
"That 'is true. Do ya think ya can help me, Xena?" Morrigan's blue eyes silently pleaded.
"I don't think I have a choice." The warrior studied her unusually silent partner. "Gabrielle, I think I'm going to need to go to Eire. You don't have to . . ."
"Where you go, I go." The bard's voice left no room for argument, and Xena chose to wait until they were alone to re-visit the issue.
"Okay." Blue eyes warily turned to Morrigan. "Anything else I should know?"
"I'm a demigod?" The druid offered uncertainly.
"Dinar a dozen," the warrior shot back. "Anything else?"
"Kernunnos is the father of my daughter, Brigid." Morrigan's face was drawn with worry. "If he did steal the mask, I hafta stop 'im, before 'e uses it to try to harm her."
Xena closed her eyes, silently cursing Kernunnos, Dahak, and a dozen other gods, just for good measure. Hercules, I have a feeling you are going to be the one who owes me, by the time this is over.
After breakfast, Xena excused herself and retired to the stable, ostensively to make some repairs to various saddles and harnesses that she used for equine training purposes. Gabrielle tolerated the ruse, fully aware that her partner didn't need the tack in question until after their joining, in the early spring when her training classes would start up again. The bard gave Morrigan a tour of the village, steering clear of the stable area. They drew curious glances from the various residents they passed, as the Amazons generally didn't have many visitors during the winter season.
The druid seemed especially impressed with the vast array of weapons the Amazons kept in storage, and asked Gabrielle if she'd like to participate in some drills after lunch. The bard considered that. She had been feeling lethargic from lack of activity, and there was a part of her that simply needed the challenge. Yeah. Maybe a little exercise is exactly what I need.
They made their way to the dining hall and took a seat at the queen's private table, which was set off in a corner beside tall windows that overlooked the central area of the village. Servers brought large bowels of hearty venison stew along with a steaming loaf of nutty brown bread. Gabrielle stabbed at the savory offering, and realized that her partner was part of the hunting party that brought in the kill that fed them throughout the winter.
"Gabrielle, ifen, ya don't mind, can I ask ya a question?" Morrigan waited patiently, until the Amazon queen looked up.
"Sure." Gabrielle smiled in an attempt to be hospitable.
"Is Xena upset at me fer asking fer her help?" The druid tore a piece of bread from the loaf.
"No," the bard sighed. "When she said she'd do almost anything to help a friend of Hercules, she meant it."
"She just doesn't seem to be very happy with ma presence." Morrigan frowned.
"Morrigan, Xena and I have a kind of complicated history. Some of our darkest days were a result of some terrible things that Dahak did to us. Just bringing up his name is enough to put both of us on edge." Gabrielle hoped the information would be enough to appease her guest until she got a chance to talk to Xena and find out exactly what was going on in the warrior's head.
"Oh, I didn'a know that." The druid's eyes filled with remorse. "I've seen some of Dahak's evil ways. He tried ta use Iolaus to re-enter the world. Hercules had ta make some difficult choices." She paused, remembering Iolaus' body, laid out on an alter. They knew that Dahak was the spirit inside the body, but Dahak did a pretty impressive job of impersonating Iolaus. She shuddered. It had torn Hercules' heart out. The demi-god was forced to perform an exorcism on his best friend's dead body, including using a dagger to make some ceremonial cuts. Dahak simulated the same screams of pain that Iolaus would have made if Hercules had been cutting him. It had left everyone involved shaken and unsure of themselves. "I think it hurt 'im pretty badly."
"I don't doubt that." Gabrielle chewed on a large piece of potato. "We haven't seen Hercules in a very long time. Xena and I weren't even a couple at the time. Iolaus asked for our help after Serena was killed, and Hercules was blamed for it by his villagers."
"Ahhh." Morrigan's eyes peered out the window in thought. "The golden hind. Hercules told me about 'er. I feel very bad fer 'im. He's not had an easy time with the ladies." She turned back around and released a sad sigh. "Gabrielle, Hercules and I were more than friends."
"I gathered as much." The bard remembered their conversation with Ronan. "I don't mean to pry, but what happened?"
"Eire needs me and Greece needs Hercules." Blue eyes blinked sadly. "It wasna' meant to be."
"But you love him?" Gabrielle didn't need to ask, it was written all over Morrigan's face.
She paused for a long minute, looking down at the table and gathering her thoughts. At last the druid looked back up. "Gabrielle, Hercules and I were both born with unique gifts, and unique responsibilities. Sometimes, ya hafta choose the greater good over yer own personal desires."
"The greater good," Gabrielle mused quietly. "Morrigan, sometimes the greater good gets re-defined. You should have a chat with Xena about it. I think you might find the conversation rather revealing."
"Right now, I can'na imagine having a conversation with Xena about anything, no offense intended." The druid's rolling brogue washed pleasantly over the bard's ears.
"No offense taken. Xena's my life-partner, and even I sometimes have trouble approaching her." Gabrielle chuckled. "I say we finish this up and go do those drills. I think I could use the distraction right about now."
Morrigan smiled broadly and tossed her head back, enjoying the third round of drills. "Yer a fine opponent, Gabrielle." She circled the bard, her dagger held out in front of her chest at arm's length. "I would'na guessed ya possessed the level of skill that ya do." She dodged a sai, stepping back and parrying the second sai that followed behind it.
"You have to remember who taught me how to fight." The bard grinned, jumping up and over Morrigan's leg, as the druid spun around with a roundhouse kick. Gabrielle came back at her with a direct kick of her own, getting inside the druid's defenses, pulling the kick slightly so that she pushed against Morrigan's upper thigh, rather than giving her an all-out hit which would have been quite painful.
Morrigan laughed as she stumbled backward before quickly re-gaining her footing. "That woulda left a smart bruise."
"Xena pulls her blows when we spar." Gabrielle raised her sais in a defensive position. "Otherwise I'd be black and blue a good deal of the time.
The druid pondered that. She was well aware of the tall dark presence looming behind a tree many paces away from the practice yard, but she was fairly certain that Gabrielle didn't know Xena was watching. She was equally sure that for some reason, the warrior preferred it that way. She was hidden in the shadows, and was blocked by several rows of cheering and curious Amazons, who had all turned out for the unexpected afternoon entertainment.
Prior to sparring, Morrigan and the bard had decided to have a free-for-all of sorts, Morrigan fighting with her dagger, her weapon of choice, while Gabrielle chose her sais. They also determined that kicking, punching, and other direct body force was also allowed. It had been a most satisfying afternoon, and both women were pleasantly winded, and covered in a fine layer of sweat.
The druid had been blessed with lightening-quick speed, one of the benefits of being half goddess. She could literally move from one spot to another one quite far away, in the blink of an eye. For the sparring, she chose to refrain from using the gift, as she didn't want to have too much of an unfair advantage over her completely human opponent.
Morrigan won the first round, a long bout that ended when she managed to disarm the bard, kicking one sai from her hands while she used her dagger hilt to knock the other one free. Gabrielle held her own though, and with surprising determination, came back in the second round, winning it by hooking the dagger with the prongs of one of her sais, and twisting it from Morrigan's grasp.
The third round would determine the overall winner. It had been going for almost a half candlemark, neither woman really either gaining or losing ground. There were several close calls, when it appeared the match was over, but each time the apparent loser managed to avoid being disarmed.
The druid stepped around Gabrielle, as the two women eyed one another, moving in a slow circle, each one waiting for the other to make a move. Behind her, Morrigan sensed the warrior's growing impatience, combined with a touch of anxiety. She frowned, deciding to prove herself on a level that Xena would understand.
With sudden force, she lunged forward, getting her foot between Gabrielle's ankles, and with one smooth swipe, the bard was on her back. Before she could recover, Morrigan kicked one sai loose, sending it flying across the courtyard. As the bard swung the second sai around, the druid grabbed it, pulling and jerking, forcing Gabrielle to roll to her side and then to her stomach to hang on.
Gabrielle groaned in frustration, as she felt her grip slipping, and helplessly watched the sai leave her fingertips. Then she felt the dagger hilt pressed into the side of her neck. Morrigan paused there, listening intently. She heard the hiss of metal, as Xena drew her chakram being from her belt loop. The druid turned her head, just a fraction, and blue eyes met blue. She smiled and withdrew the dagger, slipping it into the sheath over her hip.
She held out her hand and Gabrielle took it, as Morrigan hauled her to her feet. While the bard brushed her leather pants off, the druid turned again and watched. Xena nodded, an almost imperceptible gesture, and lowered her chakram. The druid clasped forearms with Gabrielle. "Good fight." Morrigan patted her on the back.
Gabrielle gave her a half-smile in return. "Nice moves. I wouldn't mind learning a few of them sometime."
"I'd be glad to show ya, Gabrielle, anytime." She peered back toward the tree. The warrior was nowhere to be seen.
Light snowflakes fell steadily to the ground, dusting the tree branches and the woodpile, along with the dark brooding figure that reclined on a padded chaise-style bench. Gabrielle stood in the doorway, watching her partner, who had been sitting out in the cold since just after dinner was over. The warrior had not shown up for lunch or dinner, and the bard found out from Kallerine that her partner had appeared at the back door of the dining hall for both meals, collected a sandwich each time, and then had disappeared back into the barn.
She sighed. It had been a very long day. Once Xena left the stable, Gabrielle went over, just to see what her partner had been up to all day. The community stables were spotless inside. The warrior had mucked out every stall, groomed every horse, and had re-organized the feed bins and the tack storage room. Not a single item was out of place, and the stables smelled sweetly of fresh straw. The bard suspected the Amazon stables currently rivaled those of the Roman Empire in cleanliness and organization.
The bard pulled her cloak more tightly around herself, and hesitantly covered the short distance to the bench. "Hey there."
Stormy blue eyes slowly met her gaze. The warrior nodded in recognition.
"The stables look great." Gabrielle chewed nervously on her lower lip.
"Mmpphh." Xena's face showed just the vaguest hint of pleasure at the praise, before she retreated back into whatever internal place she had been hiding all day.
Okay. The bard stepped closer. This is going to be more difficult than I thought it would be. Now what . . ?
"Good work with the drills," the low voice commented, startling Gabrielle to the point that she physically jumped.
"You . . . were there?" Green eyes were incredulous.
"I heard the crowd cheering. Came out to see what was going on." Xena's lips twitched slightly. "Damned good showing on your part."
"But I lost." The bard sighed unhappily, her shoulders slumped in defeat.
"Gabrielle, she's a demi-god." The warrior suddenly felt even sadder than she already was. She thought about the young girl from Potadeia who couldn't even hold up a staff, and tried to reconcile it with the woman who stood before her. Gabrielle had equaled the druid for most of the match, yet the blonde was obviously upset at the loss. When did she get so competitive? Did I instill that in her?
"I'm so sorry," Xena whispered, and looked down at her lap, brushing away the light layer of snow that was collecting on her cloak.
"'Sorry' for what?" The bard carefully sat down, perching on the very edge of the bench. "Xena, look at me, please."
The warrior had never looked more lost. As she peered back up, Gabrielle could see an aching sadness in the depths of the blue eyes, as if she could see all the way to the bottom of Xena's soul. She cried out softly in response, a muffled whimper accompanied by hot tears that stung her eyes and threatened to spill down her cheeks. "Xena." The name was a breathless plea. "Please don't shut me out. I can't stand it. When you hurt, I hurt too."
Long arms reached out and snared her, and the bard found herself wrapped in a fierce crushing embrace. She could feel her partner shaking, feel the warrior's pounding heartbeat and her breath, as it came in uneven streams against the back of her neck. "You're the most precious thing in all the world to me," the low voice gasped out.
"It's okay." Gabrielle stroked the dark head, rocking gently in her partner's arms.
"No." Xena let out a short angry breath. "It's not okay. I took you there. I left you alone. I wasn't there for you, and we both paid the price for it. If I hadn't gotten you back . . . gotten us back . . . I would have killed myself. I didn't deserve to get you back, and I don't know why in the name of all that's good that I've been blessed enough to have you in my life. I'll be damned if I'm going to take you back there again."
So. The bard continued her silent comforting touches. I was right. She had suspected that Xena was struggling with her memories of Britannia and her promise. I'll never leave you behind again, Gabrielle. "Xena." The bard continued to hold on tight, her chin tucked over the warrior's shoulder. She spoke softly into her partner's ear. "We're not going to Britannia, we're going to Eire."
"Close enough," the stubborn voice mumbled.
"Okay. Yes . . . it is." Gabrielle pulled back only enough to make eye contact. "We don't know that Dahak is part of this . . ."
"I don't care." Xena's eyes sparked. "If there's even the slightest chance . . ." She pounded her fist against the thick cushion they sat on. "I was there, Gabrielle. I watched. Don't you think I knew what Dahak was doing to you? Do you know how many times I wanted to die because I knew I was the one who took you there? And I . . . couldn't . . . stop him. It tore me into a million little pieces. I still don't have all of them back." The warrior was shaking uncontrollably. "I won't go. Eire can go to Tartarus."
The words hit the bard with almost a physical force. They had talked about Dahak and Britannia, and everything that happened afterward. Had talked about it until they were blue in the face. Yet this was the first time the warrior had ever expressed how painful Dahak's violation had been to watch. Gabrielle shivered and looked up at the cloud-covered sky. "Xena, let's go inside. It's cold." She inched back and held out her hands. "Come on."
The warrior allowed herself to be led inside the hut, and was vaguely aware of shrugging out of her cloak. Before she knew it, she was sitting in bed, wearing her oldest softest sleep shirt, and Gabrielle was back in her arms again. "I could release you from your promise." The bard closed her eyes, rubbing her hand idly up and down her partner's arm.
"You'd stay behind if I asked you to?" Xena looked down, resting her chin on top of the blonde head.
"I would, but I don't know what you'd come back to, Xena." The bard spoke quietly. "I'm part of you. And you're so deep inside of me that I can't tell where you begin and I end. It's not a short trip to Eire and we have no idea what you'll face once you get there. I'd be beside myself with worry the entire time you're gone. And if . . . something were to happen to you . . . if you didn't come back . . ." She trailed off sadly. "Xena, I know you want me to stay here to keep me safe from harm. But leaving me here . . . I think that would do more harm than me going with you. You're my life."
Xena swallowed audibly, pushing back a strong wave of emotion. "Gabrielle, no matter what happens to me, you've still got your family, and the Amazons. Life would go on . . ."
"No!" The bard spit out the word. "You're my family. If your life were to end, so would mine. My body might go on, but my soul would be dead. Xena, I want to wake up with you every morning, and lay down beside you each night. I will follow you, for the rest of your life. And if the day comes that you don't wake up, I pray to the gods that my own end will come swiftly. You once told me that I gave your life meaning. You've given me more than meaning, Xena, you've given me life itself."
"I don't have to go . . ." the warrior offered helplessly.
"Yes. You do." Gabrielle sat up, swiping the back of her hand across her eyes. She sniffled and reached out, touching her partner's face in a simple familiar gesture that caused the warrior's eyes to close in reflex. "It's who you are. I know that. I accept it. If you start compromising who you are . . . for me . . . I'll lose you long before you die. You help people who can't help themselves. It's what you do. And I follow along, and I help you, and I . . . take care . . . of you. That's what I do."
The bard's fingers played against her partner's soft skin, trailing back and forth across a downy cheek. "I never minded walking in the shelter of your shadow Xena. It's the safest warmest place on earth." She captured a single tear, as it trickled down Xena's cheek.
"Funny." The warrior gave her partner a tiny crooked smile, her lips trembling slightly. "I always thought that wherever you walked, the shadows were driven away. That's why it's always so warm there."
"Then please don't ask me to stay here," Gabrielle whispered.
"I won't." Xena drew her into a gentle hug. "I promised I'd never leave you behind again, and I don't break my promises." She kissed the top of the bard's head, and then her forehead, and then nibbled down her jaw line.
Their lips met, slowly at first, in what she intended to be a gentle affirmation. But the emotions were too thick between them, and she found herself swept away on a warm surge of passion. Gabrielle responded, pulling her closer and inviting her to explore further. "I recall making you a promise this morning," the bard smiled against her mouth. "How are you feeling?"
"Like collecting on that promise." The warrior was already tugging at her lover's clothes, tossing them aside and lowering Gabrielle down on the mattress. She growled softly as her own clothing was removed, and their skin touched in an explosive burst of sensation. "Mmmm." The warrior purred into her lover's ear. "You feel so good."
Gabrielle arched upward, sliding against her lover, increasing the contact, while her hands wandered along a muscular back. She cried out as full lips claimed her, blazing a leisurely trail from her mouth down her neck, and across one of her breasts. Xena used her tongue to good effect, drawing a strangled unintelligible sound from the bard's throat. "Ooo." She moved to the other breast. "Wonder if I can get you to do that again?" She repeated her motions and chuckled, as her lover complied.
Xena continued to tease the bard, paying special attention to her breasts, and the sensitive skin of her inner thighs, coming close, but never quite making contact with the place Gabrielle wanted her touch the most. Gabrielle was panting with frustration, offering small whimpers of encouragement whenever the long fingers dipped between her legs. She finally grasped the warrior's hand. "Xena, please."
She tried to guide the wandering hand where she wanted it, only to find the tables turned, as the warrior took her hand, gently kissing the bard's fingertips before sliding it down a washboard stomach. "Show me what you want." Xena breathed into her ear. "Touch yourself for me, sweetheart."
Gabrielle blushed, and hesitated, but the warm eager passion in Xena's eyes encouraged her, and her hand dropped down between her thighs. The warrior rolled onto her side, curling against the compact body so she could get a better view. She continued to use her fingers to tease her lover's breasts, occasionally dipping her head and kissing the bard. Xena watched the dark green eyes, observing the increasing heat that burned there, her own desire rising to meet that of her lover.
"Gods, I want you." She pressed against the bard, capturing an earlobe and flicking it with her tongue. "Do you want me to take over?"
Gabrielle whimpered and nodded affirmatively, her unoccupied hand reaching out and pulling the warrior's face down for a lingering kiss. Xena moaned softly, teasing the bard's lips for a long moment. She pulled back and studied the flushed face. "Do you want my hand, or my mouth?" She chuckled, as an insistent hand pushed determinedly against the top of her head. "Mouth it is, then."
She kissed her way down the muscular stomach, pausing to pay attention to her lover's navel, while she used her shoulders to gently nudge the bard's legs further apart. She was moving close to one of her other favorite playgrounds, and she sighed with contentment. Xena loved everything about Gabrielle's body, and the scent of the bard's passion was driving her own passion up several notches. "You're so beautiful." She paused to give loving visual tribute to the bard's most private parts, before lowering herself further down, kissing Gabrielle's inner thighs and finally giving her lover the most intimate kiss of all. With knowledge born of the many nights they'd spent together, she finally used her lips and tongue, drawing Gabrielle up and over the edge. Since she couldn't talk, she reached up, stroking the bard's stomach in a comforting motion, grounding her lover as she slowly brought her back down.
She crawled back up Gabrielle's body, nuzzling her neck, while she maneuvered herself, straddling one of the bard's firm thighs, her own desire already at a fevered pitch she could no longer deny. "I need you, so much." She lowered the rest of the way down, grinding sensually against her lover's leg. She groaned as she felt two hands firmly grasp her backside, guiding her motions. "Mmm." She curled her body over. "Kiss me."
Gabrielle reached up with one hand, threading her fingers through the long hair, drawing Xena forward and consuming the full lips with a series of deep lingering kisses, while her fingertips trailed around sensitive breasts. The bard broke off, looking up at the warrior. She loved watching Xena like this, so wild and free, and yet so vulnerable at the same time. "Come on Xena," the bard kissed her again. "Show me how good it feels."
With a growl that rose up from her gut, the warrior let go, sharing her release with hooded blue eyes that threatened to burn right through Gabrielle. The bard gasped at the sensation, the shared intimacy almost too much to bear. At last, the warrior collapsed into her arms, the taller woman using her remaining energy to simply breathe, while Gabrielle's fingers played gently up and down her back. "I love you, Xena." She whispered against overheated skin. "Thank you for respecting my need to go with you."
"Mmmm." The warrior rolled off of her, landing on her side and reaching out, using the flat of her hand to make long gentle strokes up and down Gabrielle's torso. "Don't know what I was thinking."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle smiled and tilted her head in question.
"I don't know how I could even think of running off to Eire without you." She gave her lover a sexy little smile. "I can't imagine going for that long without touching you. Or feeling your touch."
"Just one of the many benefits of letting me tag along." The bard shifted and crawled into long open arms, that closed around her, pulling her close until their bodies were touching all along their lengths.
Xena felt her partner's body molded against her side, and her lover's solid heart beating against her ribs. Her fingers automatically started up a soothing massage of toned back muscles. "That benefit barely scratches the surface of what you mean to me," she whispered into a convenient ear, before she planted several kissed on the blonde head.
Gabrielle sighed and buried her face against Xena's neck. In a short time, the warrior felt the warm breath on her skin coming in longer streams, signaling that the bard was asleep. She reached down and pulled the blankets up over both of them. Tomorrow, she mused. We'll start planning this trip tomorrow. She released her fears. Tomorrow would come soon enough. What she was feeling right now was too precious, and she was determined to let it sink into a place that would carry her past the fear.
She tightened her grip, holding onto the love.
A driving head wind made the group of travelers feel as if they weren't moving forward at all, as biting cold stung their faces and penetrated even the thickest of furs. The horses plodded forward, making painfully slow progress in the deep snow, their breath vaporizing in the air in front of them. Despite the wind and the cold, the hardest part of the trip was behind them, as they had successfully maneuvered the high treacherous mountain passes and were now on the down slope. With any luck, they would reach the docks of Pirgos in a few more days.
Xena pushed her hood down off her head and looked back, appraising the party. She took a long breath, drawing the crisp cold air deeply into her lungs, allowing it to rejuvenate her. Gabrielle and Morrigan apparently didn't share her affinity for the cold, both of them directly behind her, and neither woman speaking in the icy conditions. Following next were Kallerine and Amarice, with Eponin and Raella bringing up the rear. They all looked miserable. Satisfied that everyone was keeping up, the warrior tugged her hood back into place and faced forward.
They had been traveling for two days. Gabrielle left the Amazons in Chilapa's capable hands, while Xena handpicked her guard unit. She told Gabrielle she wanted a dependable group, since they didn't know what they were up against. That was partly true. Her lips formed a thin grim line. And I want her among friends if anything happens to me.
The whole truth was that normally, Xena didn't like to travel with such a large group. The more people that joined them, the more necks she had to worry about saving if they were attacked or encountered life-threatening weather. She would have preferred to travel with only Gabrielle and Morrigan, but too many other issues factored into her decision to call upon the services of the four additional Amazons.
Morrigan had left Brigid in Eire with Bronagh and his family, friends of hers in her home village. Their first order of business upon arrival in Eire would be to leave Raella and Amarice with Brigid for extra protection. Both Amazons were experienced fighters, and the warrior didn't want to take any chances with the life of an innocent little girl, especially if the mask they were trying to recover was missing due to foul play by any number of gods.
Eponin and Kallerine had been the more obvious choices. The warrior trusted both Amazons with her life and that of her partner. She needed them. Xena couldnt bear the thought of Gabrielle alone, if anything were to happen to her. Pony and the slayer would see to it that Gabrielle was safely escorted back to Greece.
With each step, her apprehension grew. She hated it. I gotta shake this before we get to Eire. Fear is my enemy. Yet she couldn't shake it -- a nagging doubt about their mission and its outcome. A vague sense of dread had settled into her subconscious, and she knew she had been even harder to deal with than she usually was, alternately snapping at anyone who spoke to her, or rewarding them with complete silence.
Against every protective instinct, Gabrielle was with her. The events in Britannia played themselves out over and over again in her mind, and invaded her dreams. She woke up tired both mornings of the journey, feeling as if she hadn't slept at all. Oddly, she felt no fear coming from Gabrielle. Lao Ma's gift, the ability to sense fear in those she loved, lay dormant, unneeded in the light of the bard's honest and heartfelt trust in her. While Xena tossed and turned in their bedroll each night, Gabrielle slept like a baby.
She looked up, cursing silently at the gathering clouds, dark gray billows, heavy with snow. Guess wishing for a blizzard-free trip was asking too much. She pulled Argo over to the side of the trail and waited for everyone to catch up. "We need to move faster. There's a fair-sized cave about two candlemarks from here, with a nice long tunnel between the main cavern and the entrance. If we're lucky we'll get there before those clouds up there open up and dump on us."
The rest of the group looked up, and registered every reaction from fear to annoyance. Gabrielle cleared her throat, her voice raspy from a rare lack of use. "Do we need to gather up some firewood now and haul it with us, just in case? If it starts snowing too hard before we get there, we might not be able to cut any later."
"Good point." The warrior reached down, retrieving a small axe from a loop on the side of the saddle. "I'll build a liter to carry it on, if the rest of you will start gathering."
"Xena." Morrigan dismounted and took large steps toward Argo in the nearly hip-deep snow, at least for her small frame. "Which way is the cave?"
The warrior peered down the road. "There's a fork in the road down a ways. We'll take the right path. There's a large bolder at the top of the trailhead hat leads up to the cave. It's pretty obvious. I think it gets used a lot as shelter, and the path has been cleared of trees to make it wide enough for horses to pass comfortably. We just follow the path until it dead-ends at the cave. Simple enough."
"If ya will give me the axe . . ." The druid held out her hand politely. "I'll forge ahead and break the trail, chop some wood, and have a fire burnin' by the time ya reach the cave."
"How can you . . . ?" Xena held out the axe, even as she spoke, watching a slightly mischievous sparkle appear in Morrigan's blue eyes.
"I'll see ya soon," The druid took the axe. "Probably less than two candlemarks, if I blaze a proper path for ya. Take care o' ma horse, will ya?"
With that, the druid took off, her legs moving in a circular blur. She disappeared from view, leaving five astounded Amazons and one chuckling warrior in her wake. Behind her, the snow from the trail flew up on either side, leaving a nice shallow trough in the middle for them to follow.
"Well I'll be a one-winged pegasus." Eponin shook her head in amazement. "How in Hades does she move that fast?"
"She's a demi-god." Kallerine answered.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a brief knowing glance. "However she does it, we should get moving and take advantage of it." The warrior lightly nudged Argo's sides and the palomino stepped back into the middle of the trail. The mare arched her neck inquisitively, liking the less-stressful conditions. The remaining snow in Morrigan's path barely covered her hooves, and she picked up the pace of her own accord, prancing almost playfully. Xena encouraged her, clicking with her tongue and urging her forward in a race against time and nature.
The others followed grimly behind. Gabrielle looked anxiously up at the sky. She could almost smell the snow. She knew it wasn't logical, that snow didn't have the same distinct scent that rain often did. Still, there was a clean cold taint to the air. She shivered, despite the fact that she was quite warm, bundled up in her new cloak and a few layers of clothing underneath it, including her own heavy deerskin leathers, a gift Xena had made for her after the Amazon's fall hunt.
The leathers consisted of suede pants and a long-sleeved suede fringed top. The top was long, falling to her knees with a draping fringed hem. After the warrior finished making the basic set, she had painstakingly added decorative beads and boning to the front of the top. Completing the ensemble, Xena also made her a pair of heavy suede knee-high boots that were lined with lamb's wool, keeping her feet toasty warm. She wriggled her toes in appreciation, grateful that sewing and cobblery were among her partner's many skills.
"Shhh." Xena held up a hand behind her, using sign language to indicate that they should all stop and be absolutely still.
Gabrielle looked up, following the warrior's line of sight. Up ahead in the trees, a buck stood, staring directly at them, snuffing at the air with his moist black nose. Xena's hand crept quietly toward a bow and quiver of arrows that were tucked against Argo's saddle. Before any of them knew what was happening, the resounding twang of the bow met their ears, and she sank a single arrow directly into the animal's heart. He dropped to the ground instantly, never knowing what hit him.
"Good." The warrior grunted, re-packing the bow. "If we can dry and smoke what we don't eat tonight, we should have a pretty good store of meat to carry us through the boat trip without having to buy a lot of extra food in Pirgos." She guided Argo to the fallen buck and dismounted, withdrawing a large dagger from her boot.
Gabrielle also slid out of the saddle, tramping her way through the trees to Xena's side. "Need some help?"
"Nah." The warrior was already making a clean slice through the soft hide. "I'm gonna give you some of this meat to take on ahead and start cooking. I'll get the rest of it prepared for drying and smoking overnight."
"Great. Good job, honey." The bard reached out, stroking her partner's cloak-covered shoulder. She felt a shrug, and withdrew her hand. She knew it was an unconscious action, not directed at her personally, but it stung anyway. The warrior's defenses had been heightened since they left the village, and Gabrielle swore she was so prickly, she half-expected to wake up and discover her partner had sprouted quills overnight. She sat back silently on her haunches, well out of the way, waiting for Xena to finish carving out a nice set of deer steaks.
The warrior wrapped the meat up in a section of the hide and handed it off to her partner, not making eye contact, already intent on the rest of her task. "Go on. I'll meet you all at the cave in a bit."
"Okay." Gabrielle stood and brushed the snow off her legs and rear end. "You . . . um . . . want me to untie our bedroll from Argo's saddle and take it with me, so we can go ahead and make camp?" You even plan on sharing a bedroll with me tonight? The bard mentally slapped herself, glad the last comment remained unspoken. That would so not make things any better.
Xena paused, hearing the hesitant note in her partner's voice. She sighed quietly. Please, Gabrielle, don't give me a hard time right now. "Yeah. That would be great." She half-turned and managed a smile. Green eyes studied her, and some of the doubt disappeared from Gabrielle's face.
The bard tucked the deer hide package into the crook of one arm and reached out with the other one, patting the broad shoulder once more, this time without feeling a shrug. Xena looked back up at her. "Sorry."
"I know." She squeezed the shoulder.
"There's . . . um . . . in that cave, there's a nice little set-up. Main room's at the end of a long tunnel, like I said. When you first enter the main room, if you look off to the right, there's a smaller room." She paused, black lashes blinking slowly. "Snag it for us. If I recall, it will already have a fire pit dug out in the middle, so we can have our own room and our own fire."
The bard studied her partner, her hood dropped back and long dark hair spilling wildly over her shoulders. Her tanned cheeks blended into a nice rosy color from the cold and her eyes were a vibrant shade of blue. Gabrielle decided that against the snowy white backdrop, she had never looked more beautiful. "Sounds cozy."
"It is," Xena replied nonchalantly, re-adjusting her position to get a better grip on the deer. "It'll be nice and warm once we get a fire going. Private too. We can even melt some snow and heat it up, take a make-shift bath."
"Gods that sounds good." The bard smiled. "Even though it's cold, I'm starting to feel a little ripe."
"Nah." Xena's lips twitched into a strange half-smile, and she cocked her head to one side. "Your natural scent . . . it . . . oh, never mind . . ." She trailed off and ducked her head, leaning more fully into her task, as the half-smile worked itself into a full one, and she shook her head in wry amusement. "Go on." The warrior gestured with a bloodstained hand. "Lead your subjects to the cave, my queen. I won't be too far behind."
Gabrielle noted the teasing tone, along with what she was certain was a faint blush that had nothing to do with the cold. "You know, if you take your time, you'll probably arrive just in time for dinner and get out of any pre-dinner chores."
"Good point." Xena chuckled. "Except that the storm is coming, and I need to go ahead and set some of this to smoke. It'll take all night to do it properly."
"Oh. True. Shall we go ahead and dig a smoking pit for you?"
"Yeah." Blue eyes glinted. "Make Pony do it. It'll be good for her."
The bard laughed, and made her way back to the Amazons, who were waiting a polite distance away from the couple. She re-mounted Star, swinging lightly into the saddle and settling her long cloak into place. "Come on, we have dinner to cook and a camp to set up before the snow hits."
"Gabrielle." Raella fell in beside her. "Can you spare a few moments tonight after dinner?"
"Of course." The bard eyed her speculatively. "Is anything wrong?"
"No. Not right now." Raella grinned. "I couldn't hear what you and Xena were talking about, but I was watching, and I swear the transformation in her demeanor was clearly visible, even from where we were. I was just wondering if you could give me some pointers on . . . how shall I put it . . .?"
"Kicking warrior butt when their attitude needs adjusting?" Gabrielle finished for her, grinning back conspiratorially.
"Yes, exactly," Raella peered back at Eponin.
"Hey." The weapons master had been riding within earshot, and sidled up to her tall auburn-haired partner. "I resemble that remark."
"Yes you do," Raella and Gabrielle spoke in unison, before bursting into laughter. Eponin merely scowled, and fell to the back of the line.
A blazing fire crackled, casting a red-orange glow up the jagged walls of the main cavern. Dinner was long since over, and everyone had paired off in smaller private chambers. Everyone except Morrigan, who found herself quite alone. She sat cross-legged on her bedroll, which was spread out near the fire. She and the others had worked out a watch schedule, and she had agreed to take the first round. As she warmed her hands, she kept an ever-attentive ear turned toward the tunnel that led to the cave's entrance.
The snowstorm had finally hit, whistling and swirling outside, the winds chasing each other and occasionally winding their way into the cavern. She detected a change in the musical sounds, indicating a full-fledged blizzard had settled in. She sighed, and thought of her daughter. "Sleep well, love," she whispered softly.
A deep voice coughed behind her, and she spun around. "Oh." She relaxed. "Xena. I didna hear ya walkin' up."
"Couldn't sleep," the warrior answered gruffly. "Figured I'd take my shift early if you'd like to go ahead and turn in."
The druid remembered Gabrielle's suggestion that she talk to Xena, and she studied her hands briefly, before looking up. "I'm not much fer sleepin' maself tonight. Would ya care ta join me?"
The unexpected offer caught her off guard, and the warrior's back stiffened in reflex for a moment. She wasn't used to strangers seeking her company. "Um." She paused and looked around the small enclosure. "Sure." She sat down on a flat rock across the fire and picked up a long stick, poking at the coals to busy her hands.
Xena cocked her head, listening to the storm. "Guess there's not much need for a watch at this point, huh?"
"No." Morrigan rested her forearms loosely on her crossed legs, drawing formless pictures on the dirt-covered cave floor. "I canna imagine anyone out on a night like this." A beat. "So, have ya ever been to Eire?"
"No." A pained expression clouded the dark features. "I think I've been everywhere but there."
"I've heard o' some of yer conquests, Xena." The druid chose her words carefully. "Valhalla isn't so very far from ma homeland."
The warrior closed her eyes and unconsciously rubbed her thumb against her middle knuckle, still able to imagine the intoxicating sensation of the rhinegold against her skin. She shivered and warily eyed her companion. "If you've heard even half of the havoc I wreaked in Valhalla, I'm surprised you came to me for help."
"Ah, now there's the irony." Morrigan locked eyes with her. "Ya see, I've done a bit o' wreckin' of other people's lives maself. I'm hardly one to be judgin' anyone else."
Hmmpphhhh. Xena sized up the diminutive form across from her, trying to imagine what on earth such a small person could have done that was so horrible. "You've heard about me, but I've heard almost nothing about you." She chose not to share Rhonin's brief observations regarding Morrigan's relationship with Hercules. "I was just a two-bit greedy hard-headed kid, until Ares got ahold of me. He made me a warlord. I followed him blindly. I would have done anything for him. I served him and no other god."
"I had a similar relationship with Kernunnos." Morrigan's mouth tasted bitter, as her former lover's name rolled off her tongue. "He seduced me and after I bore Bridgid, 'e 'ad me. I did such terrible things. I hunted down and killed anyone who followed the druids."
"I crucified anyone who defied me." Xena scooted closer to the fire, drawing her knees up and wrapping her arms around her legs.
"I ripped the hearts out 'o men's chests," the druid shook her head sadly.
"I got my own brother killed," the warrior offered.
"I allowed my daughter to be raised by Kernunnos, instead of fighting for her."
"I gave my son away " Xena stopped. I gave my son away to the centaurs. She felt a fist curl around her heart. She hadn't engaged in such a manner of one-upmanship since her warlord days. "Listen to us."
Morrigan blinked in shock, and her heart sank. "Sometimes I look back, and I canna believe I was the one who did those terrible things."
"Yeah." The warrior whole-heartedly agreed with her.
"If it weren't for Hercules " They spoke in unison and then stopped, eyes wide in recognition of just how much they had in common.
"Hercules." Morrigan whispered the name, the wistful expression on her face not lost on the warrior. "How well do ya know 'im, Xena?"
The warrior's lips twitched into a tiny smile. I don't think she really needs to know that. "He was the first person who gave me a chance, after I decided to change. The first one to believe in me. He didn't have much reason to, if I really think about it. It must have been the fates. He had every reason to kill me, or at the very least, leave me on my own. Leaving him behind was one of the hardest things I ever had to do."
"Why did ya leave 'im?" The druid rested her chin in her upraised hands, her rapt attention focused solely on Xena.
"I spent the ten summers before I met him following Ares, blindly depending on him to guide me and validate me." The warrior stopped for a moment. She'd never really given voice to all the reasons she left the son of Zeus behind. At the time, a part of her thought she was in love with him. "It would have been so easy to fall right back into that kind of dependence with Hercules. True, he would have been a better person to stake my future on than Ares, but I knew that if I wanted to be truly strong, I needed to find my own way. I was very confused."
"How did ya do it " Morrigan pushed down an ache that threatened to cut off her breath. " go on alone like that?"
"I didn't." Painful memories came flooding in, clouding her vision and making her heart race. "I wandered the foothills alone for several weeks. I thought and thought about what I had left to live for." She swallowed. "I came up empty-handed. I hated myself and everything I stood for. I found no reason to live and every reason to die. I planned to go home and see my mother and my brother Toris one last time. Then I was going to take my own life."
The druid gasped silently, and said nothing. I felt the same way. If I didna have Bridgid, I might 'ave chose the same path.
Xena took her chakram from it's loop and turned it over and over in her hands while she spoke. "I didn't even make it home. I couldn't bring myself to face them after all the pain I'd caused them, so I began to prepare myself to die. I was in the woods outside a small village, Potadeia, burying my armor and weapons, when I found my reason to keep going."
"And what was that?" Morrigan hung on every word, desperate for any knowledge she could glean from her new-found friend.
"Gabrielle." That really was it, wasn't it? Don't kid yourself, warrior. You can shout until you're blue in the face that you decided to live so you could fight evil. That's a crock. You decided to live because some half-grown wide-eyed kid grabbed hold of your heart and wouldn't let go.
"Gabrielle," she repeated. "You see, Morrigan, I thought I had to be alone. I couldn't have been further from the truth. I needed to be with someone, but Hercules wasn't the one I was meant to be with. Gabrielle was."
"But what do ya do when ya have to choose?" Tears swam in the druid's blue eyes.
"Choose?" Xena was genuinely puzzled at the question.
"Yes, choose." Morrigan drew in a deep breath and blinked, willing the show of weakness away. "What do ya do when ya find yerself standing between Gabrielle and the greater good? How do ya decide which path to take?"
"Oh." The warrior placed her chakram back on its loop. "That's easy. For me, Gabrielle is the greater good."
"Was it always that way?" Morrigan pinned her with the question, and the warrior sat back, considering it.
Was it? "No." And when did that change for me? She thought back, to India, and watching her partner toss her staff into a flowing muddy river, her own heart plunging in right after it. She had been so certain that along with her staff, the bard was ready to discard her as well. And so she'd done what she always did, made the first move, giving Gabrielle that option, telling her that she should consider following Eli for a while.
And somehow, Gabrielle had said just the right thing that snared her heart back in. She is a bard, isn't she? Xena looked at that river, and no longer saw obstacles, but possibilities. They were two forks of a river, forever entwined, traveling toward the same sea and a common destiny.
On that riverbank, facing an uncertain future, she knew there was no going back, and no walking away from a young girl who had grown into the wisest of young women. They stood together, watching the water flow, and she silently gave her heart back again, this time letting go of it completely and leaving it in the hands of someone who was admittedly, much more than a friend.
"No. It wasn't always that way." She looked down, plucking at her boot laces, long hair framing her face in shadows. "There were many times that I almost made the mistake of choosing other people or other causes over Gabrielle." She looked up. "I love her. I've loved her for a very long time now. I don't think I deserve it, but for whatever reason, she loves me. I had to make a decision. I may not deserve happiness, but she does. And of all the crazy things, she tells me that being with me makes her happy. I'm not going to deny her that. Once I made that decision, the other choices became much more simple. Nothing, and no one will come between us. She comes first."
Xena stood up abruptly. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I think we can safely suspend guard duty for the rest of the night. I'll see you in the morning."
Morrigan shifted, stretching out on her bedroll. She waited until the warrior was almost inside the passage that led to her and Gabrielle's room. "Thank ya, Xena."
The warrior paused and looked back over her shoulder. "Welcome." Her eyes flicked over the room and the druid, and the lonely fire. That could so easily be me. Don't wait too long to decide, Morrigan.
Her whole body reacted, as she neared their tiny alcove and heard her partner's soft snores, and took in the scent that was uniquely Gabrielle. Stealthily, she discarded everything and donned a woolen sleep shirt. She banked their fire and added a couple of logs, and then crawled under the thick furs.
The bard was curled up on her side, facing away from her, and the warrior wrapped as much of herself around her partner as she could, burying her face in the short blonde tresses and sighing at the softness of her partner's hair and skin.
Gabrielle stirred and snuggled back into her. "Guard duty over already?" A sleepy voice asked.
"No." Xena pulled her tightly back against her, slipping a hand inside her partner's sleep shirt and rubbing her belly in slow lazy circles. "No need. Blizzard's raging outside."
"Oh." Gabrielle began to drift off again, the comforting touches lulling her into a pleasant warm haze.
"Go back to sleep, sweetheart." The warrior kissed her on the back of her neck. She listened, as the bard's breathing slowed. "I love you." The words were the faintest whisper against Gabrielle's ear. She smiled, as the bard managed to whisper them back, right before she fell asleep.
Continued in Chapter 3