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
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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 click on the link for my stories.
Additional Background Info: 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)
The rag-tag group sat on rough benches at a long table in a tavern near the harbor of Pirgos. Both Amarice and Raella were nursing tall mugs of herb-laced tea, fighting off what the warrior hoped were minor colds, and not the more severe consumption from which she herself had just recovered. Eponin groused, fussing with her leathers and slugging back a tankard of strong ale in a futile effort to put a damper on her own foul mood. Xena was off to her cousin's stables with Kallerine in tow. The younger Amazon had jumped at the chance to assist her idol in taking the horses for safekeeping until they returned from Eire.
"So . . ." Gabrielle urged Morrigan. "Tell us about Eire. What's it like?"
The druid sat at the end of the table, one booted foot propped against the sturdy crossed table legs in a posture that very much reminded the bard of her soulmate's body language. With Xena it usually meant one of two things: either the warrior was feeling cocky, or she was merely feeling comfortable with her surroundings. Morrigan simply appeared to be relieved to be sitting down.
They had traveled from dawn until dusk the prior day, and then elected to travel on through half the night, reaching the inn near midnight. The innkeeper had been more than eager to assist them in securing rooms when they roused him out of bed. The inn was all but empty in the dead of winter, and he needed every dinar he could get. The exhausted group of women slept in, and had only been up for a few candle marks, already making preparations for the long sea voyage yet to come.
"Eire . . ." Morrigan dropped her foot to the floor and sat up taller, her face becoming animated as she spoke. "It's the most beautiful place on earth, with valleys and hills so green, ya would swear they couldna be real. Early in the mornin', ya can step outside, and the air smells so fresh and clean, perfumed with flowers and thick grass. The people are a friendly lot, and most of 'em 'ave never met a stranger. Some days, the storms will rage and the winds howl, and others, the sun will come out in a blaze o' glory."
"Can't wait to see some of those green hills," the weapons master smiled for the first time that day.
"Sorry to disappoint ya . . ." the druid regretfully responded. "Actually, at this time o' year, most o' Eire will be covered in snow."
A collective groan made its way around the table, and Eponin's face took on a permanent scowl. She got up without a word, and stormed up to the bar, returning a long while later with a fresh tankard. She sat down in a huff and took a large gulp, swiping the back of her hand across her mouth to remove a foamy moustache.
Gabrielle barely made out her muttered "gods-be-damned winter" comment, and pursed her lips in thought. A gentle tug at her sleeve caught her attention, and she turned to meet two bloodshot eyes.
"Gabrielle," Amarice's shoulders slumped, and she was leaning on her forearms against the tabletop, her features pale from low-grade fever. "I . . . um . . . I've never been on a boat. Some of the others, back in the village, they mentioned something called the sea sickness. Is it really that bad?"
"Not a good person to be asking," a low voice answered from behind them. "Gabrielle's the only person I ever met who got sick while the boat was still tied to the dock."
The bard peered up and over her shoulder. A pair of smiling blue eyes twinkled back at her, and she spared a grin for her memories of her much younger self. "True, but Xena taught me a sure-fire cure." Gabrielle took Amarice's hand and showed her the pressure points that she had used to ward off the crippling waves of nausea that she had first been introduced to on Ulysses' boat. "Just think twice about what you eat while you're using them."
"Why?" The tall Amazon was already practicing, just in case, her fingers pressing deeply against her inner wrist.
"Numbs your taste buds." The wind-blown warrior removed her cloak and hung it on a nearby peg, before she plopped down at the other end of the table and immediately propped up a booted foot, causing Gabrielle to smile.
"Yeah, I ate a good portion of a raw squid the first time I ever used them." The bard watched Amarice turn greenish-gray, and the tall woman bolted out the front door of the tavern. Oops. Forgot she was already feeling puny. "Sorry," the bard yelled after her.
"That doesn't bode well for the trip," Xena commented, her eyes sweeping across Raella and Morrigan, and coming to rest on Eponin. "What's wrong with Pony?" She leaned over, talking low into Gabrielle's ear.
"Don't know. She's either tired of the snow or cycling." Quizzical green eyes paused in thought. "'Course we are talking about Pony here. She's just one degree more gruff than on a typical day."
"Good point." Xena leaned back, making contact with the wall directly behind her. A barmaid brought her a mug of port, unbidden, the young woman blushing and smiling at her as she slowly backed away from the table.
"Geez." The weapons master watched the obviously smitten girl disappear back behind the bar. "What is it with you? I swear, all you have to do is walk into a place, and the women fall at your feet." Eponin's frown grew more pronounced, and she took another healthy sip of ale.
"What?" Wide innocent eyes questioned her. "Whaddad I do?" She looked over at Gabrielle, who was suddenly very interested in the stained table top, a tiny grin playing at the corners of her mouth.
The bard nudged her leg. "Nothing, stud. Not a thing. Just drink your port."
A genuinely puzzled warrior complied. "Just sat down at the table, that's all," she muttered softly between sips.
"I know. It's okay, honey." Gabrielle caught the barmaid watching them. The girl was admittedly pretty, with long wavy brown hair and big hazel eyes. Her trim figure was set off nicely by a form-fitting soft woolen dress in a pale yellow hue. Their eyes met, and the bard slipped a proprietary hand into the crook of Xena's arm. The girl tossed her hair over her shoulder with disdain, and turned pointedly away. Heh. Gabrielle grinned smugly. Mine.
The exchange was not lost on the warrior. She waited, biding her time until the barmaid turned back around. The girl batted her eyelashes meaningfully, but the warrior pretended not to notice. She set her mug down and curled the fingers of her other hand around the one resting against her arm. Just as Gabrielle felt their hands meet, and looked up at her, Xena tilted her head, finding her lips, where she planted a quick firm kiss.
"Wha . . .?" The bard licked her lips in pleasant surprise.
"I don't care about any women falling at my feet." She squeezed Gabrielle's hand. "The only one that matters is seated right here next to me."
Her words were low, for Gabrielle's ears only. From the other end of the table, a wistful Morrigan watched them. Xena continued to speak softly to her partner, and the bard commented thoughtfully back to her, her face glowing with quiet joy. While she couldn't hear their words, the love between the two women was starkly evident.
"Get used to it," Eponin quipped. "They've been like that for almost a year now, with no sign of letting up."
"Only a year?" Morrigan turned to face her, grateful for the diversion. The chemistry between warrior and bard stirred up longings she thought she had managed to suppress.
"Well . . ." The weapons master
drawled, looking up at the thatched ceiling as she made mental calculations.
"They've traveled together for about five years now. Truth be told, when Xena
died that first time, I could have told them they were in love way back then."
"The first time?" The druid suddenly felt the need for a drink of her own. "How many times 'as she died, exactly?"
"Two for sure," Eponin answered matter-of-factly. "'Course, even before we had that first funeral pyre for her, the Queen talks about a time when Xena was hit with a poison dart. She swears she thinks Xena died that time too, so it may be three times. Definitely at the crucifixion. And that other time that I mentioned. That was when Gabrielle first became our queen." She looked toward the end of the table, trying to reconcile the self-assured woman with the much more uncertain girl she had first met.
Even Gabrielle's face had matured in a few short years, taking on angles and planes that replaced the chubby cheeks the weapons master remembered. Not to mention the muscular body that the bard carried with a confidence beyond her tender years. There was no trace of the layer of baby fat that had once covered the body of a much more naïve Gabrielle. Guess keeping up with Xena would do that to a person.
Her thoughts were interrupted, as Kallerine entered the tavern supporting a very pale Amarice. "Xena, I checked out that flyer like you asked. It's current."
The warrior looked up from her private conversation and smiled broadly. "Good. What did you tell him?"
"Just what you said," the slayer guided her lover back to the table and helped the tall redhead sit down. "Told him an old friend was interested in the job, and would be down in a bit to discuss the terms of the position."
"Perfect," the rich voice purred.
"Flyer?" Gabrielle looked first at Kallerine and then back at Xena. "Job? Xena, what job? I thought we were going to Eire."
"We are." The warrior produced a rolled up piece of parchment from her belt, carefully laying it flat on the table surface.
The bard read it twice and smiled. "Oh."
"What?" Eponin got up and made her way around, peering over Gabrielle's shoulder, slowly reading the carefully lettered flyer. "You gonna hire yourself out as someone's first mate?"
"That's the plan," the warrior leaned back, clasping her hands behind her head and stretching out her long legs under the table. "With any luck we'll all get free passage to Eire as part of the deal."
"I didna know you could sail a boat, Xena." Morrigan joined them, taking her turn at perusing the parchment.
"I have many skills," the warrior raised one eyebrow, effecting a nonchalant attitude. The Amazons were familiar with the oft-repeated phrase, but nonetheless nodded their heads in heartfelt agreement. Only Gabrielle rolled her eyes, and gently poked her partner in the ribs. Xena dodged the offending digit and captured the bard's hand, not letting go. "So, is everyone ready to go on a little cruise?"
The group slowly got up from the table and collected their bags. Gabrielle slipped away from them and cornered the innkeeper, intent on talking him down from his original quote of ten dinars per room. As she opened her mouth to speak, the barmaid knelt down to wipe up a puddle of spilled ale. When she reached out, her dress slipped down slightly from her shoulder, revealing an ugly purple bruise across her back.
"Can I help you, miss?" The innkeeper forced her to look back at him.
"Um . . ." The bard absently opened her belt pouch, handing him forty dinars without thought. "Yeah, just paying for our rooms."
The man looked at the coins, turning one of them over in his hand. He looked from the coin to Gabrielle. "Hey, isn't this your face on here?"
"Uh-huh." The bard sat down on a stool at the bar. "I'm Queen Gabrielle of the Greek Amazons."
The barmaid heard her and stood up, turning around and listening quietly. Gabrielle winced internally, studying the girl's face at much closer range. The remains of a fading bruise circled one eye, and there was a long angry welt across her collarbone that disappeared beneath the neckline of her dress. She can't be more than sixteen summers old.
"Huh, well what do you know?" The innkeeper's eyes narrowed, and he smirked sarcastically. "Here I was hosting royalty, and I didn't even know it." His emphasis on the word 'royalty' made it clear that he had little use for Amazons, and place little value on whoever might lead them. He made his way into a back room to hide the coins, leaving the barmaid alone behind the bar.
"Could I get a cup of water?" The bard asked politely.
The girl drew a dipper from a bucket and poured up the requested drink, handing it to the bard at arm's length.
"Hey." Gabrielle gave her an encouraging smile. "I'm an Amazon, not a cannibal."
The girl appraised her for a silent moment, but her earlier attitude was completely gone, replaced with quietly piqued interest. "Never met an Amazon before."
"Now you have." The bard held out her hand. "I'm Gabrielle. What's your name?"
"Johanna." The girl briefly clasped forearms with her.
"What happened to your eye?' Gabrielle motioned toward the fading bruise.
"Oh." The girl looked nervously back toward the room where the innkeeper had gone. "Bumped it on the counter when I was bending over."
"How about your back?" The bard watched the fearful eyes grow angry.
"That's really none of your business." She looked down, rolling her hands in her apron.
Gabrielle leaned forward. "He beats you, doesn't he?"
Pained hazel eyes looked back up, and the girl nodded almost imperceptibly.
"Uncle," the girl whispered. "Father died last year."
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle closed her eyes in painful memory. Are there any loving uncles in this world? "Where's your mother?"
"Never knew her, she died giving birth to me." Johanna looked around again and busied herself wiping down the bar.
"Do you want out?" The question hung in heavy silence.
"I . . . I can't . . ." A single tear trickled down the girl's cheek. "How?"
"It's up to you," the bard whispered. "If you want out, be at the large boat at the very end of the docks by sundown."
"But . . ."
Gabrielle heard heavy footsteps, and the innkeeper appeared back in the doorway. "Everything okay out here?" He eyed them suspiciously.
"Yes. Fine." The bard re-shouldered one of her bags. "I was just leaving."
"Safe journey." His words were flat and insincere. He disappeared again.
Slimy piece of centaur dung. "I have to go, Johanna," she locked eyes with the girl. "Your choice. You want out, you be there. Ask for Xena."
"Xena?" The girl watched her new friend, who was already standing at the side of the tall attractive warrior she had flirted with earlier. That's Xena? She felt faint, and gripped the edge of the bar.
"Everything okay?" The warrior looked back over Gabrielle's shoulder, where the barmaid was watching them with great intensity.
"Yeah, for now." The bard followed her gaze.
"You sure?" Xena read the unmasked pain in her partner's eyes, and rested a concerned hand on her shoulder, squeezing it and urging her closer.
"I'll fill you in when we get to the boat." Gabrielle leaned in, accepting a warm side-hug.
"Okay." The warrior raised her voice so that everyone could hear her. "Let's get going, then. Last boat on the right at the end of the docks."
They stepped out into the cold air, picking their away across the inn's yard and down a cobbled path that had been cleared of snow. The dirty white banks were piled up on either side of them, but luckily, the skies were clear and bright blue, promising at least a brief reprieve from more blizzards.
Soon they reached the wide wooden docks, their feet making a loud collective clatter as they passed a long double row of well-kept cargo boats, most of them in port for the duration of winter. At last, they reached their destination, and the warrior moved past the rest, walking up the gangplank and stopping just on the edge of the ship's deck.
"Ahoy," she called out. "I hear you're looking for a first mate for a voyage to Eire."
A portly man stood up, appearing from behind the ship's wheel, his back to them. He spit into a cup and wiped his mouth. What damned woman thinks she can captain a boat? He turned around and slowly a smile appeared, framed by a long white beard. "Xena!"
"Hello, Ronan." The warrior clasped forearms with their old friend.
"Hi." Gabrielle carefully stepped aboard, followed by the four Amazons and the druid.
"Gabrielle!" Ronan moved forward, engulfing the bard in a bear hug. Her feet briefly left the ground before he set her back down again.
"Yer hired, and the two of ya can 'ave the first-mate's cabin, just like last time." He studied the small entourage standing behind them. "Who are yer friends?" He looked back at Xena. "What takes ya to Eire, Xena, it's a cold time o' year to be travelin'."
"We're on a mission, Ronan." The warrior grinned. "'Bout the only reason you'll ever find me on a boat.
"Mission?" Ronan tugged at his beard. "Xena, the last time I took ya on a mission, ya ended up fighting a war in Egypt."
The warrior laughed quietly. "True. This mission isn't quite the same. Here, meet another friend from Eire, Morrigan." She introduced the druid to the captain.
His face tilted to the side, and he thought for a long moment. "You . . . I know you."
"Ya do?" Morrigan placed her hands on her hips, and then she gasped softly. Visions of a dock in Britannia, and a bittersweet kiss flooded her brain. Blessed be. "Yes, ya do." It was her turn to clasp forearms. "I'm a friend o' Hercules."
"Yes." The captain smiled warmly. "How is Hercules? Have you two tied the knot yet?"
"Couldna tell ya how he is." Morrigan looked down at her feet. "Nice to meet ya, Ronan. Can ya direct me to ma cabin?"
"Sure." A puzzled captain raised a questioning eyebrow at Xena.
She mouthed the word 'later' back at him.
"Xena, Gabrielle, ya know where yer cabin is." He pointed toward the small deck-side room at the back of the boat. "If you'll excuse me, I'll get the rest o' yer crew settled below deck." The Amazons and Morrigan dutifully followed him down the narrow ladder, large fearful eyes peering back at warrior and bard, right before they all disappeared from view.
Gabrielle looked up, and spied Johanna way down at the end of the dock, a small bag clutched at her side. Uh-oh. That was quick. "Xena, about that talk I wanted to have with you . . ."
The warrior heard the approaching footsteps and turned. She squinted and then looked down at her partner, who was peering guiltily up at her from beneath pale lashes, and smiling her most charming smile. Xena groaned internally. Why can't we ever go anywhere without complications? She gazed sternly at the bard, her voice low and controlled. "Gabrielle . . .?"
Gabrielle got Johanna settled into a lower berth and emerged topside, pushing wind-tossed bangs from her eyes and cautiously surveying the deck. She spotted the warrior leaning over the back railing and staring out toward the endless horizon. Xena shifted, sensing her presence, and turned partway around. Blue eyes swept the bard's frame and nodded her head in an inviting gesture.
Thank the gods. Gabrielle quickly closed the distance between them and took up a position next to the warrior, assuming a similar stance, her forearms resting loosely over the railing. "You mad at me?"
"No." Xena continued to study the water, her heavy cloak in place against the brisk breeze. Only her head was exposed, but she was impervious to the cold.
"I'm sorry I didn't talk to you about it before we left the tavern." Gabrielle looked up at the sharp profile. "Didn't realize how quickly she would act." The bard shivered, drawing her own wrap more closely around her body.
"No need to apologize." The warrior turned to face her, involuntarily pulling a forest green hood fully over soft blonde hair. "Can't have you catching cold, now can we?" Gabrielle smiled. "I'm just trying to figure out what to do with her. This mission is complicated enough as it is."
The bard hung her head and kicked half-heartedly at the bottom rail. "Guess I've caused you trouble again, huh?"
Damn. Xena reached out and placed one hand over Gabrielle's. "No. You did the right thing, Gabrielle. I would have done the same. I'm just not sure that she should go along with us. I may wait until dusk and take her to my cousin's by the back streets. He could harbor her there until we get back from Eire."
"And then?" The bard twined their fingers, feeling impossible warmth mingled with her own ice-cold hands. "She isn't exactly Amazon material." A quirky smile graced her lips, as Xena's other hand closed over their joined ones, rubbing them to provide extra heat.
"True." Xena pictured the yellow dress and ribbons in Johanna's hair. "I'm thinking she might make a good server in mother's inn. Figured maybe after our joining ceremony, mother and Toris could take her back to Amphipolis with them."
"How many servers can Mom handle?" Gabrielle laughed softly. "Have you heard how Maniah is working out?"
"Behaving perfectly." Xena's upper lip curled, remembering the elder Amazon's attempts to harm her partner. "She better, or I'll kick her bony butt straight to the Amazon land of the dead, even if I have to wade through waist-deep snow to do it. Speaking of kicking butt . . .. " She trailed off, as two men approached the boat at a rapid pace.
"Is there a girl named Johanna on this boat?" A large man with broad shoulders crossed his arms, resting one boot on the edge of the boat, the wind riffling a thick black beard. The innkeeper stood behind him, his face twisted with rage.
The warrior listened intently, closing her eyes and cocking her head to the side. The muffled sound of boots shuffling against wood reached her ears, along with the faint hiss of several swords being drawn. She focused, doing the math in her head, counting around two dozen men hiding just beyond the dock house at the other end of the pier. She leaned over and whispered into Gabrielle's ear. "Go get Ronan and tell him to come up here. Get Pony and Morrigan, too."
"But . . ." The bard's hands were itching to draw her sais.
"Please, Gabrielle. I need you to do this." Xena's own hand wrapped around her chakram.
Two pairs of eyes warred for a moment, and the bard gave in. With a final worried glance, she climbed down the ladder to the lower deck, out of sight. The warrior watched her leave, keeping the two men in her peripheral vision. Finally, she stood to her full height and faced them. "And what if she is here?" She strode forward, stopping just short of the bearded man, her feet planted firmly on the deck a shoulder's width apart, her own arms crossed. "You come to add a few more bruises to the ones you already gave her?" Ice blue eyes bore through the innkeeper.
"Be careful what you accuse me of, warrior." The innkeeper moved from behind his muscular shield. "You're Xena, aren't you? I could haul you in for a dozen outstanding bounties."
The warrior caught herself, just in time, keeping her reaction in check. It was so easy to forget that in many parts of Greece, indeed, the known world, she was still very much a wanted woman with a price on her head. She ignored the icy finger that ran up her spine, and moved even closer, stepping off the boat and onto the gangplank, forcing the bearded man to step backward. "You wanna haul me in?" She allowed the full force of her personality to surge to the forefront. "And all you brought was lughead here?" She gestured toward the larger man. "You may be able to intimidate defenseless young girls, but it's gonna take a lot more than the two of you and a score or so of amateur soldiers to bring me down." An evil grin graced her lips, as the two men blanched, realizing their hidden army was no secret.
They quickly recovered. "We'll see about that." The innkeeper whistled, and the group of armed men appeared from around the dock house, tramping along the boards in a disorganized fashion until they stood directly behind the other two men. "Now, either you let us aboard to retrieve my niece, or you take on the Pirgos militia. Your choice."
Xena scanned the angry faces, grateful that her cousin wasn't among the troops. She heard footsteps behind her, recognizing Eponin's solid gait along with what she had come to recognize as Morrigan's light tread. The two women stopped on either side of her.
"Trouble?" The weapons master held firmly to a thick Amazon quarterstaff.
"Yeah." The warrior looked to the side. "Seems these men think they're going to take Johanna back to the inn so her uncle here can continue to use her for a sparring bag."
"Well now . . ." Morrigan placed her hands on her hips. "Aren't ya a fine lot 'o cowards. Two dozen o' ya against three helpless women."
Helpless? Xena smirked. The druid was rapidly growing on her. The smirk disappeared as she watched the militia move forward, readying for a skirmish. She heard Ronan's heavy steps on the deck and thanked whatever gods might be listening. "Ronan, shove off!"
"Xena . . ." Gabrielle ran from the captain's side to the edge of the deck, prepared to jump to the dock. Kallerine was on her heels, the slayer's sword already drawn.
"Gabrielle, you and Kallerine help Ronan with the sheets." She spoke without looking at her partner, keeping a wary eye on the men in front of her. "I know you want to fight, but we've got this covered. Ronan can't pull away from the docks without help. I need your muscles on the boat."
The bard hesitated, and then spoke in a surprisingly soft voice. "Okay. You just get yourself back on this boat in one piece, or there isn't enough water in the world to keep me from swimming back to your side." She began pulling up leather bumpers that protected the side of the boat from colliding with the dock.
"That feeling is mutual." Xena made the 'I love you' sign with one hand behind her back, and doffed her cloak, balling it up and tossing it onto the ship's deck. She drew her sword. "Pony, Morrigan, help me out as long as you can, but when the boat is ready to turn and head out to sea, get yourselves aboard. I'll hold them off until the last possible minute and then I'll join you."
"Right." The weapons master held the quarterstaff horizontal to the ground, prepared to parry with her first assailant.
The bone-chilling wind cut through Xena like a knife, mingling with the boiling blood that rushed to the surface, a sensation she welcomed with open arms. It was the part of her that entered a fight with confidence, reveling in the battle for its own sake. She let out a wild yell and launched upward, flipping over twice and landing solidly on the dock. With one swift motion, she disarmed the first man that approached her, sending his sword skittering across the weathered boards and into the water. A forceful kick to the gut sent the man himself tumbling in after it.
She laughed, allowing the joy of the fight to take over. Another soldier came after her, his sword swinging out dangerously close to her leather-clad thigh. She hopped up, jumping over the blade, and came down on top of it, wrenching it from his surprised hands. Fiery blue eyes snapped, and she head-butted the man, watching him stumble backward and take out three of his companions.
Bring it on.
As she parried her way through two more opponents, she was aware on a secondary level of the ship moving behind her, and the two stalwart companions that fought on either side of her. "Pony!" the warrior sent another sword to Poseidon. "Get on the boat! You too, Morrigan."
Eponin grunted with dissatisfaction, swinging her staff at knee level, sweeping the innkeeper himself off his feet. She laughed heartily as he landed with a thud on his rear end, cursing as he rolled and tried to stand up. Take that, lard-ass. She took off at a run, reaching the end of the dock, planting her staff firmly at the end and using it as a pole-vault. She sailed across several feet of water, tucking and rolling when she hit the ship's deck, feeling a strong hand haul her up. "Thanks." She looked up into the slayer's eyes.
"No problem." They turned to face the ongoing battle on the dock. "Shouldn't they be trying to get on board by now?"
"Yeah." The weapons master scratched behind her ear. "They should."
On the dock, the warrior found herself back to back with the druid. "Morrigan, you need to go now."
"Same would be true fer you, Xena." The druid deftly punched a soldier right between the eyes, watching him drop to the dock, out cold.
"I can take care of myself," the warrior hissed through gritted teeth, slamming her elbow into a man's jaw, hearing the bone crack, along with his resulting scream.
"So can I." Morrigan pushed off the warrior's back, spinning and kicking another soldier in the kneecap, knowing she had shattered it as his face contorted in agony.
Four men suddenly surrounded Xena. Shoving down a moment's guilt, she sunk her sword to into a soft belly, withdrawing it and just as quickly swinging it to the side, taking off another man's hand, his own sword inches from her neck. Blood spurted across the dock, spraying her black leather pants and vest. Her nostrils flared, drawing in the coppery scent that only served to draw spare reserves of energy from deep within her gut.
With two of her opponents down, she faced the third, who sprung toward her with a battle-axe. She grabbed the wooden handle and shoved hard, slamming the axe hilt into the man's chest. She jerked it from his hands and hefted it over her head, intent on splitting his skull, when her nape hairs prickled and she felt a fire slicing at the back of her neck. She spun around, kicking the axe wielder aside in the process, only to watch her fourth assailant fall to the ground, blood gushing from a wound to the back of his shoulder, his hand curled around a knife that was also covered in blood. The druid was standing directly behind him, calmly wiping her dagger on her pants leg.
"Thanks." Xena felt the blood trickling down her neck and reached behind her back. She could feel the wet sticky warmth and a sizeable gash where the man had gotten to her. "I think it's time to get out of here, don't you?"
"I couldna agree more." Morrigan tucked her dagger into its sheath. "'Cept fer trouble standing there at the end o' the pier."
The warrior turned where the ship was headed out to sea, and saw the black bearded man standing between them and the boat, his arms crossed triumphantly. "So what are you going to do, warrior?" he shouted at her. "Head into town? You're a wanted woman there. Swim out to sea?" He laughed loudly. "The water's ice cold and the boat's already too far for you to escape hypothermia before you get there."
Xena merely grinned, an evil twist of her lips that the man could see, even from where he stood. She thought of her partner. "I'd ride through the gates of Tartarus and back to get to that boat. You think a little cold water is going to stop me?" She turned to Morrigan. "I can make it, can you?"
"Yer not the only one with many skills, Xena." The druid clenched and unclenched her fists in preparation. "You get there yer way, and I'll get there mine."
"That's what I figured." Xena eyed the dock area, her eyes landing on the crow's nest of a tall ship. "See you on deck."
"Aye." They clasped forearms, and Morrigan took off in a blur, running toward the end of the dock, passing the startled man as she kept going, her feet skimming the surface of the water. She laughed, reaching the boat and grasping a trailing rope, grabbing it and hoisting herself onto the deck, much to the astonishment of Gabrielle, Eponin, Kallerine, and the captain. She removed a pair of damp boots and stood, facing back toward the dock.
"You . . . you . . . " The weapons master trailed off. "Great Artemis, how did you do that?" Eponin recalled the druid clearing the snow for them in a similar fashion, but had no idea that Morrigan could literally run on water.
"Gift o' ma heritage." The druid frowned. "But what about Xena?"
"She'll get here." Gabrielle moved to the railing with quiet confidence.
Xena eyed the bearded man and gauged her distance to the crow's nest. She struggled with herself. Take him out or not? Her gaze fell on the ship, which was still moving out to sea. Not. She ran toward him, planting her hands into the deck and executing a series of back flips, flying up and over his head and grasping the rim of the crow's nest. She took a firmer grip on the nest with one hand, reaching out and grabbing hold of the tall wooden pole that ran down the middle of it. She curled both hands around it and began swinging around in swift circles. With a wild yell, she let go, launching herself out into clear space.
From the deck the bard watched, her heart clenching in her chest. Come on, Xena.
Xena felt a surge of fear and realized it was coming from her partner. Don't worry, love, I'm almost there. She arched her back and flung herself even higher, as she continued to tumble end over end through the air, the churning waves lapping far below her. With a blur, she was grabbing onto a line that ran from the top of the center mast of the ship. She rappelled downward with ease, landing lightly on the deck. And reflexively reached out, grabbing Gabrielle as the bard ran to her, throwing herself into the warrior's arms.
"Shhhhh." She stroked the blonde head, feeling the compact body trembling against her. "It's okay, I made it."
"I knew you could do it." Teary green eyes peered up at her. They held on tightly, and the rest of the world faded away, as Gabrielle remembered the first time the warrior had made an impossible leap onto a ship. "I think you did more flips this time." The bard found her sense of humor. "This'll be an even better story than the first one."
Oh gods. Xena closed her eyes. "It was no big deal, sweetheart. Just a little jump is all."
"That was no little jump." The bard held her at arms' length, studying her with a critical eye. "You're covered in blood." She watched Xena flinch and her eyes narrowed. "Xena." She moved closer. "Spill it. Where are you hurt?"
"I've got a little cut at the base of my neck." The warrior could still feel warm blood running down her spine between her shoulder blades, beneath her leather vest. "It's nothing . . ." She groaned as Gabrielle was at her back in an instant. ". . . really."
"Xena!" The bard tugged at her, drawing her toward the first mate's cabin. "Come on. You're going to need some stitches. And I need to get you out of those filthy leathers."
"Hold on." The warrior turned to face the others. "Everybody okay here?"
"Fine." The weapons master answered for all of them. They had all heard Gabrielle's story of Xena's leap onto Cecrops' boat, and all had pictured it in their minds, but seeing the warrior actually execute the move brought home anew the knowledge that their friend could do impossible things, often with seeming ease. "Xena . . ." Eponin walked up to her, out of hearing of the others. "How did you . . .? What I mean is . . ." She licked her lips, trying to give voice to her thoughts. "Morrigan is a demi-god, right?"
"Right," the low voice answered evenly, offering no further information or encouragement.
"But you . . ." Brown eyes met blue. Something passed between them, and the weapons master nodded slightly. She slapped the warrior lightly on the arm. "Glad you made it here safely."
"Thanks." Her eyes lifted, up and over Eponin's shoulder. "Ronan, things under control here if I go to my berth for a while?"
"Go on, Xena." The captain grasped the large wheel. "It's a few candle marks earlier than we planned on shoving off, but it only means we get to Eire a few candle marks sooner. Go get yerself cleaned up. I'll give the rest o' yer mates some basic sailing instruction before we reach open water."
"Good enough." Xena allowed herself to be led to their cabin.
As soon as they entered it and closed the door, Gabrielle found herself pressed against the door, as a primal growl escaped from the warrior's lips, right before they claimed her mouth in a series of fierce kisses. "Xena . . ." The bard gently placed her palms against a blood-spattered chest. "You're hurt."
"Mmmm. Kiss it and make it better." She nuzzled a warm neck and nipped at salty skin, while her hands deftly removed the bard's cloak.
Gabrielle could feel the energy rolling off her partner in waves, recognizing a full-fledged case of battle lust. She debated, the musky sweaty scent of her lover's body wafting up to her and sending her own senses careening inside. "Honey." She allowed her voice to drop to a low soothing tone. "You have no idea how much I want you right now . . ."
"Oh, I beg to differ." Warm lips nibbled at the bard's jaw line. "I think I have a pretty good idea." She chuckled at the flush on her partner's cheeks.
"Okay, so you do." Nimble fingers worked at the black vest, pushing it off Xena's shoulders. "But wouldn't it be better if we take a quick bath, get all nice and clean first? Not to mention it would be a whole lot better if I stitch up that cut before you bleed to death."
"Dunno." The warrior was intent on removing the soft deerskin leathers that were keeping her from her goal. "What a way to go." The bard's fringed top came off, and cool air washed over her bare upper body, sending goose bumps dancing across her fair skin.
"Xena . . ." Gabrielle pleaded softly, her defenses rapidly deteriorating as she felt warm hands begin to map her torso. "Please."
The warrior released a heavy breath and pulled back, her knuckles trailing against her partner's soft face. "Okay." She leaned in, kissing the bard lightly on the lips. "Let's get busy heating up some water, so we can get that bath out of the way."
"Good girl." The bard wrapped the solid body in a warm hug, whispering quietly in Xena's ear. "You'll get your reward later, I promise."
A much cleaner warrior lay face down on the bed, her shoulder muscles twitching slightly as Gabrielle carefully stitched up the gash that ran from the base of her neck at a diagonal toward her right shoulder blade. The tiny pricks of the needle were annoying, but nothing she wasn't used to after ten years as a warlord and over four more years on the road with her partner. Her eyes were closed, taking in the fresh lavender scent of the soap they had used to bathe, along with the cold clean salty air that wafted into the cabin from outside.
"Almost done." The bard tied off a stitch and prepared to make the next one. "Just a couple more."
"Ummpph." Xena shifted under the quilt that covered her up to her armpits. "How's the stomach?"
"So far, so good." Gabrielle realized that she hadn't used the pressure points at all, and hadn't really needed to. Weird. She thought about that. Or maybe not.
"I guess on the way to Egypt the water was a lot rougher." Blue eyes blinked open, studying the nubby bedding at very close range. "Or maybe after all the time you've spent on boats, you're finally getting your sea legs."
"Maybe." The bard's voice was quiet.
Too quiet. "You okay?" Xena rolled over a fraction.
"Be still." A firm hand pushed her back into place. "I'm fine. Just thinking."
The long body settled back into place. She doesn't sound fine. "You sure your stomach is okay?"
"Yes." Gabrielle began sewing the last stitch. "I was just thinking about Ulysses."
Oh. The King of Ithaca hadn't crossed her mind in a very long time. "Anything in particular, or just in general?"
"I was thinking about my nausea that time." Busy fingers tied off the final knot, and the bard set the needle and gutting aside. She lifted a small pouch of powdered antiseptic herbs and began untying the leather binding that held it closed.
"That was your first boat trip, huh?" Strong shoulders relaxed, no longer tensed for the needle stabs.
"Yeah." The sharp odor of the herbs assaulted Gabrielle's nose as she opened the bag, and she turned her head aside to sneeze. "But my stomach started hurting before we ever got on the boat."
Xena grew very still. Her throat muscles worked, as she swallowed a couple of times. "You . . . didn't tell me that. Maybe something you ate?"
"I don't think so." The bard carefully sifted herbs through her fingers, sprinkling them liberally over the stitched wound. "I got on that boat fully expecting to lose you."
The warrior closed her eyes. Was I going to leave her behind? She felt Gabrielle stir, closing up the pouch. She rolled over onto her back, looking up at her partner's profile, as the bard leaned over to place the herbs back into her healer's kit, which was resting on the floor. No. "You were never going to lose me."
"But you said you loved him." Gabrielle pushed a lock of blonde hair behind her ear and turned to face her.
"I didn't say that." Xena reached out, grasping the bard's hand and pulling it over to rest flat against the quilt covering her stomach.
"You did too." Why do I still feel jealous, after all this time? the bard berated herself, ashamed of emotions that were almost as fresh as the day she first felt them.
"No, I said I wouldn't have felt the way I did about Ulysses if you hadn't taught me how to love." The warrior stroked the back of her lover's hand with her thumb, trying to form her words.
"Same thing." Gabrielle searched the wide-open blue orbs. "Isn't it?"
"No." Xena squeezed her hand. "I never got to finish. Ulysses interrupted us when he spotted land. Things got complicated after that, and then I lost the courage to explain."
"Did I miss something that day?" The bard smiled, as she felt her hand lifted, followed by soft lips feather-light against her knuckles.
"I think we both did." The warrior scooted closer, until her shoulder was pressed against Gabrielle's thigh. "I said that you taught me how to love. I cared about Ulysses. I loved you, Gabrielle. Even way back then. When you asked me if I said 'love' and I admitted that I did, I hoped so badly that you would see that I meant you and not him."
Gabrielle carefully replayed the scene in her mind, remembering the overwhelming sense of loss she had felt at the time. Her chest felt tight all over again, exactly as it did on the deck of Ulysses' ship. "I thought you meant you loved Ulysses."
A bittersweet sadness was reflected in the warrior's eyes. "That was the part I was about to try to explain, when we got interrupted. Remember when you told me to follow my heart?"
"Yeah." The smaller hand moved higher, resting over the heart in question.
"What did I tell you?"
"That I was part of your heart?" Gods. I missed a lot that day.
"Yeah. Just a second . . ." Xena sat up, propping some pillows against her back and tugging at her partner's hand, until the bard was tucked comfortably against her side. She pulled the covers up over both of them. "Gods, I was so afraid to tell you how I felt, and I kept saying things that I hoped you would decipher, I guess. I didn't want to go with Ulysses, and I didn't want you to want me to."
"I didn't want you to. I was just trying to be unselfish." Especially after Perdicus. Gabrielle tilted her head up, looking at her partner's strong jaw line. "I had to fight myself, Xena, because every fiber of my body wanted to drop to my knees and beg you to stay with me."
"No need." She kissed the blonde head. "My head told me that Ulysses would have been a good choice. My heart . . . it already belonged to you."
"And mine to you." Gabrielle reached up, cupping a bronzed cheek and drawing Xena down. She allowed herself to drown in the blue eyes for a long moment, before she gave in to her cravings, making solid contact with her partner's lips, savoring the warmth of their connected bodies. "We were just plain silly, huh?"
"Mmm-hmmm." The warrior untucked the towel that was wrapped around the bard's body. Hungry eyes roamed over bare skin as it was revealed to her, and she ducked her head, planting a trail of kisses across the curves of Gabrielle's breasts. Her earlier fire was banked, the battle lust tempered by the relaxing bath and the pillow talk, replaced by stronger feelings of love, pure and simple. "We're still silly." She tickled her partner's ribs, smiling when the bard giggled.
"Oh." Gabrielle gasped, as the tickles turned to sensual strokes, which worked their way slowly down her body, teasing her, and drawing powerful sensations from her, that demanded more of the knowing touches. She was dimly aware of being lowered down on the soft mattress, and cool air dancing across her skin, before Xena covered her completely, the solid warm body brushing against her naked skin as they moved together, establishing a gentle constant rhythm.
The warrior wrapped one arm beneath her lover, pulling Gabrielle's body up, drawing her closer, feeling the bard responding to her in a way that still made her heart turn over at the wonder of the strong emotions that ran between them. God's. It's like we're sharing the same skin. "You're the best part of me." Her lips nibbled at the sensitive spot next to her partner's ear. She felt Gabrielle tense, arching against her, and then the flutter of the bard's stomach muscles, as she found release. She located the bard's lips, swallowing her cries with deep soulful kisses.
A while later, she lay on her back, Gabrielle plastered against her, her arms circling the completely relaxed body. She continually rubbed the bard's back in warm lazy circles, occasionally brushing her lips against a tousled blonde head. "I think I heard the dinner bell."
"They can bite me." Gabrielle nuzzled her partner's neck, greedily inhaling the musky earthen scent of moist warm skin.
"Not if they want to live." The warrior gently patted a bare behind. Her hand planted firmly against the toned backside, pushing the bard up. Xena grinned and nipped at an exposed collarbone. "I'm the only one that gets that pleasure, I hope."
"Got that right." The bard shifted, crawling on top of her. She straddled Xena's hips, settling comfortably across them, her hands reaching out and stroking warm inviting skin. She smiled, as the warrior's eyes fluttered halfway closed in response. "I can think of a couple of things I'd like to nibble on, myself."
"Oh?" A sexy eyebrow arched in question. "Do tell."
"I think I'd rather show you." A gentle laughed bubbled up, as Gabrielle leaned over, her lips finding highly sensitized spots with unerring accuracy.
They were late for dinner.
Most of the ship's passengers were gathered around a wide half-barrel of burning wood that was carefully latched to the top deck of the boat, well out of the way of any sails or lines. The barrel was carefully filled with sand, all the way up to the top, with a pit dug out in the middle for the fire. Several buckets of water sat nearby, just in case. The fire provided a welcome heat, and a chance for the group to share stories, jokes, and a large flask of warm spiced wine. Even a quietly-observing Johanna had joined them, although the girl appeared shell-shocked at the abrupt shift in her circumstances. The seas were mercifully calm, although Ronan grumbled occasionally from behind the wheel. Calm seas meant little wind to draw the ship across the water.
Despite the lack of high waves, Amarice was still below deck, fighting a combination of a nasty head cold and gut-shredding seasickness. The only other passenger who was away from the fire was Morrigan, who was leaning against the railing at the very front of the boat, enjoying the light cold spray that blew in her face as the boat skimmed the water's surface. Xena was perched behind Gabrielle, or more accurately, around Gabrielle, her legs and arms providing a warm nest the bard had settled into after they shared a late dinner. The bard had told a few short stories, but seemed mostly content to lean back and take in some tales Kallerine had launched into, sharing her experiences as a bacchae-slayer.
The warrior's eyes occasionally flicked from the fire and the small group of Amazons, to the loan figure at the front of the boat. Grudgingly, her respect for the druid had grown exponentially since they first met, and she found herself wondering what might lie ahead for them, once they reached Eire. Something niggled at her, and she quietly began untangling herself from Gabrielle. "You mind if I go talk to Morrigan for a bit?" Her lips brushed against the bard's ear.
"No." Gabrielle patted a leather-clad thigh. "Just means more wine for me."
"Careful." The lips moved to the back of her neck, stealing a quick nibble before the warrior stood. "Stuff is sweet and it goes down smooth. It has the tendency to sneak up on you and bite you in the butt."
"Ill keep that in mind." Her body was still pleasantly sated from their earlier activities, and from the warrior's behavior, the almost imperceptible touches and nuzzles they had shared beside the fire, she suspected Xena felt the same way. Gabrielle peered up at her, one eye offering a ghost of a wink.
Xena repaid her with a dazzling smile. "Save my place." She turned, striding gracefully across the slightly-pitching deck, her footing sure and steady, with no need of the railing for balance. She slid into the spot next to Morrigan, giving the druid a slight nod in greeting.
"Nice evenin'." Morrigan glanced sideways.
The warrior looked up at an inky black sky that was dusted with hundreds of sparkling stars. She lazily tracked several star patterns, familiar as old friends, which she had often used to guide her own boat in her early days as a warlord pirate. "That it is."
"I don't mean ta be unfriendly." The druid gestured toward the laughing group behind them. "I felt the need ta be alone for a wee bit. I miss ma daughter somethin' fierce."
"That's gotta be tough." The warrior's throat worked in a painful swallow, her eyes gazing out toward where the sea met the sky.
Morrigan mentally slapped herself, remembering that Xena said she had given her son away. "Sorry, Xena. Do ya . . . ever get to see 'im?"
"No." The warrior needed no explanation of whom the druid referred to. "He died a few years ago."
Well, Morrigan, remove one boot from yer mouth and promptly shove t'other in its place. She closed her eyes. "Oh." Her voice was very soft. I didna' know."
"S'okay." Xena turned partially, facing the druid and studying her with a hesitant eye. "Morrigan . . . this mask we're trying to find. You said it was cursed if a god gains control of it. What about mortals? Do they have anything to gain by possession of it? I was just thinking about that, and wondering if we're looking in the wrong place for our thief."
"The only thing a mortal might possibly gain would be the favor of a god they might steal the mask for. Or maybe a handful of dinars." Morrigan's eyes grew thoughtful. "But I pity the mortal who takes the mask."
"Why's that?" Xena's hair whipped back, as the breeze grew stronger.
"Any mortal who is in love with someone, if they hold the mask, they will feel compelled to sacrifice their lover to the druids. It's another part of the curse of Kernunnos." She studied the angular profile. "Xena . . . I need yer help to find the mask . . . but when we find it, I should be the only one to actually touch it. I canna risk you and Gabrielle to the evil of Kernunnos."
The warrior snorted. "Between the two of us, Gabrielle and I have survived two crucifixions each, a dive into a lava pit, and the fires of Tartarus itself. Do you honestly think I'd let a mask or the curse of some petty god come between us?"
"Xena . . ." Morrigan faced her fully, fists planted firmly on her hips. "The curse will fall equally on any mortal who possesses the mask, even those of exceptionally strong will. Even you."
"I got a secret." The warrior smiled bitterly. "I ain't all mortal." Thanks, Daddy. She spared the briefest of thoughts for the god of war. "No one on this boat, except for Gabrielle, knows that. I'd appreciate it if you'd keep it quiet."
So. That answers that. Xena's 'dinar a dozen' comment hadn't fallen on deaf ears. "I thought as much. Yer secret's safe with me." Morrigan leaned back against the railing, facing away from the troubled figure next to her. "Still . . . I do not know what the mask might do to a demigod. I know I'm a demigod, but being a druid I think protects me from the curse. Would be a wee bit strange fer me ta want ta sacrifice someone to maself."
"If you did . . . want to . . . who would it be?" Gotcha. The warrior watched the druid's blue eyes grow wide, and then watched Morrigan's shoulders slump, her red head bowed down over the railing.
"I think ya know the answer ta that question." The pale eyes glowed with unshed tears.
"Does he know you still feel this strongly about him?" Xena stepped cautiously onto the outskirts of a sensitive chat, territory that became increasingly easy with Gabrielle, but was still tenuous at best with anyone else, particularly a relative stranger.
"No." Morrigan's eyes snapped. "And I plan fer it ta stay that way. There's no need ta stir up somethin' that canna be."
Oh. Very touchy subject. The warrior mentally retreated, storing the information away to ponder later. "I see." She shifted, moonlight refracting off her bare head in blue-white highlights. "Listen . . . I appreciate your concern . . . about me and the mask. While I'd never let anything come between me and Gabrielle, at the same time, there are some things I'm not willing to risk." Not anymore.
Her heart lurched, remembering a decision to leave the bard behind, while she tore Hades-bent-for-leather across Roman territory, intent on one purpose. Killing Caesar. Never thinking that anything would happen to her beloved soulmate. Not with Amarice to protect her. Not with the peaceful Eli. Not at home in Greece. No. Caesar was the enemy, and he was far away from Gabrielle. It never occurred to her that the now-slain emperor's hand would reach out, far beyond the Roman border, snatching up the one person that mattered, and sending them both on a one-way trip to ultimate pain and agony. All because of her hatred for Caesar. And then she remembered another long journey, her intent to kill Caesar just as strong. She shuddered.
"This trip . . ." Xena struggled for words. "It's taking us . . . Gabrielle and I . . . very close to a place that was very hard for us."
"She mentioned that." The druid felt, rather than saw it, as the warrior paused, drawing a deep breath into her lungs in an attempt to drive away the darkness in her soul. "Although she didna tell me much about it. Only that it involved Dahak."
The tall figure relaxed a little. "Yes. It did. I really wanted her to stay with the Amazons this time, but I promised her a while back that I'd never leave her behind again, unless it was by her choice."
"Xena . . ." A tiny smile quirked at the druid's lips. "With a promise like that, ya do realize that yer never going to travel anywhere alone, ever again, dontcha?" Morrigan had observed enough to know that Xena's devotion and tenacity was matched only by that of her beloved soulmate.
"Yeah." The warrior acknowledged the truth with a smile of her own. "I'm more lucky than I have any right to be." She twitched her cloak into place. "Once we find the mask, we can re-group on how best to retrieve it. Deal?"
"Deal." Morrigan's eyes strayed toward the fire circle, to be met by green ones that peered back with great concern. "I think yer love is missin' yer presence, Xena."
A rare blush crept up the warrior's bronzed cheeks, visible even in the low lighting.
"Go on with ya." The druid gave her a playful shove. "I'll be over there shortly. I just need ta sing a wee lullaby to Brigid first. I promised her before I left that I'd sing to her every night, no matter where I might be."
The warrior's entire body heaved in a long sigh. "Okay." She stepped carefully across the deck, which was rocking quite a bit more than when she left the fire circle. Reaching the group, she silently slipped in behind her partner, resuming their original position, her arms and legs wrapped protectively around the bard. "Miss me?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle leaned back, her hands resting lightly against the ones that were pressed against her stomach. Kallerine had finished yet another bacchae-slaying story, and Eponin had jumped in afterward, sharing the story of her deceased sister Lysia, a former Amazon commander who was favored by Zeus himself. As the weapons master's words carried across the circle, the warrior's sharp ears picked up a high soft sound, as the druid's song drifted by on the wind. She recognized the tune and joined in, her lips once again close to Gabrielle's ear, her voice so low that only the bard heard the whispering song:
Someday when I'm awf'ly low
When the world is cold
I will feel a glow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight.
Oh but you're lovely
With your smile so warm
And your cheek so soft
There is nothing for me but to love you
Just the way you look tonight
With each word my tenderness grows
Tearing my fear apart.
And that laugh that wrinkles your nose
Touches my foolish heart.
Lovely, never, never change
Keep that breathless charm
Won't you please arrange it 'cause I love you
Just the way you look tonight.*
Her lips brushed softly against the bard's head, as the song ended.
"That . . ." Gabrielle turned, her face glowing in the warm firelight. "That was. . ." Her voice caught, and a single tear trickled down her cheek. "Thank you."
The warrior reached out, catching it with her fingertip. "I love you." She mouthed the words.
"Hey." Eponin interrupted them.
"My story-telling that bad?" She scowled at her queen's tears, unaware of their
source. "Your majesty . . ." She enunciated the words, knowing that only Gabrielle
would catch her sarcasm. "I realize you're the only true bard among us . . ."
"No." The bard sniffed and smiled. "The story is good. Really. I just got a little sentimental for a minute there. Sorry."
"Uh-huh." The weapons master looked from warrior to bard, her face etched with skepticism. She detected the faintest hint of an impish smile on Xena's lips, along with the gentle flush that warmed Gabrielle's cheeks.
The stories went on long into the night, and much later, the warrior roused a sleeping Gabrielle, supporting her as they finally retired to their cabin. Dawn found them in contented slumber, wrapped in each other's arms.
Gabrielle sat in the crow's nest, taking her turn at watch. Two long weeks had passed, and the boat-weary passengers were anxious to reach Eire, looking forward to the prospect of dry land and getting off the ever-rolling ship. A stiff icy wind blew at her back, and she pulled her cloak up around her shoulders, grateful for her deerskin leathers and warm lined boots. While she was cold, two pairs of long woolen under things kept her from being miserable, and facing away from the wind spared her the worst of the constant pummel. At least she could see without having to squint.
When they first set up the duty roster, Xena had tried to steer Gabrielle away from the crow's nest, but the bard had insisted that she should take her turn just like everyone else. The warrior had quietly argued about that, unreasonably so in the bard's eyes, until she remembered a near-fall from the same crow's nest, on their way to Alexandria. She pulled the warrior aside and quietly assured her that she would be extra careful. It took some convincing, but Xena finally gave in, privately realizing that she was being her usual over-protective self when it came to Gabrielle.
Once duties were assigned, the group fell into a comfortable routine that involved meal preparation, general upkeep of the ship, keeping watch, and helping with the sails. The warrior and Ronan took turns at the wheel, Ronan by night and Xena by day. Kallerine had taken a keen interest in the workings of the ship, and had gradually learned enough to occasionally relieve the two more seasoned sailors if they were temporarily needed elsewhere.
Raella and Amarice remained below for most of the voyage. Just as the warrior feared, their colds had settled into their chests and developed into full-blown cases of consumption. Her supply of medicinal herbs was running low, and she doled out doses as sparingly as she could, and still provide effective treatment. Both Johanna and Eponin followed her from patient to patient, observing her, and both women learned enough to help with administering herbs during the times that the warrior was occupied with other activities.
On this morning, she had chosen to tend to them herself, and the bard sensed, rather than heard, as the warrior emerged from below deck, her steps almost inaudible, a stealthy manner of moving that was second nature. Gabrielle turned and looked down, smiling and shaking her head. Xena's hood was hanging down her back, and Gabrielle briefly wondered why Cyrene had even bothered to sew a hood onto the cloak. "Hey," she called out.
Blue eyes lifted, tracking toward her, sparkling in the early-morning sunlight. "Hey yourself." The warrior loped over to the nest support pole, lazily grabbing hold of the ladder rungs and climbing up to join her partner. "Any sign of land?" She dropped down into the nest.
"No." Gabrielle burrowed against her. "Mmmmm. You're nice and warm."
"Here." Xena opened up her cloak and invited the bard to crawl closer. She settled her arm and the thick heavy wool around Gabrielle's shoulders. "Want me to relieve you for a while? Kallerine is doing fine at the wheel."
"No." The bard reveled in her personal warrior-sized heater. "Just stay here and keep me company."
"I can do that." She rested her cheek against the blonde head, or more accurately, the soft brushed-wool hood that covered it. "We should reach Eire by nightfall, if Ronan and I have calculated correctly."
"I can't wait to take a bath in fresh water," Gabrielle mused. "Not to mention eat something besides dried venison and fish." She paused, idly tracing the leather stitching on the sides of the warrior's legs. "Other than that, though, I've actually enjoyed the trip."
Xena considered that and smiled. "Yeah. It's been kind of nice, hasn't it?"
"Uh-huh. It's been a nice break from running the Amazons. And I haven't been sick very much. I've only needed the pressure points a couple of times." She leaned into the warrior, wrapping one arm around Xena's middle. "I've really enjoyed the time with you."
"That's the best bit," Xena whole-heartedly agreed. "I feel bad for Pony and Kallerine. They've both been worried about Raella and Amarice. That's gonna throw a hitch in our plans, I'm afraid."
"Yeah." Gabrielle's brows furrowed. "Not a good idea to leave two sick Amazons to guard Bridgid, huh?"
"Nope." Xena studied the horizon, her nostrils flaring. If she concentrated, she could smell traces of soil and rock on the wind. Soon. "I'm gonna ask Pony to stay with Bridgid, and take Kallerine along with us."
"Let's see . . . Amarice, Raella, Johanna, and Bridgid. Xena, that's going to be the babysitting job from Tartarus." The bard squeezed her partner and looked up at thoughtful blue eyes. "She's not going to like that."
"No, she's not. I don't know what's gotten into her, but I'd rather try to ride a Minotaur than deal with her, the way she's been." Xena snorted. Eponin had become a good friend over the years, but her attitude was getting on the warrior's last nerve. "You have any idea what's going on?"
"I've tried to talk to her, but she just brushes me off." Gabrielle had watched the weapons master, silently observing and mentally cataloging the various incidents that seemed to set her off. "Although I have a pretty good idea."
"Clue me in, please." Xena shifted, giving the bard her full attention.
"I think she's suffering from a case of warrior princess envy." Gabrielle watched her partner's mouth open to protest, and she cut her off. "Think about it, honey. Before we moved to the village, Pony was it. The best fighter, the best tracker, the one they all looked to in times of crisis. She's young enough to be at the peak of her fighting abilities, but old enough to have the respect of the elders. Even Chilapa depended on her. Pony's been around. Seen a lot. You heard her stories about her sister Lysia and Queen Hippolyta. She was a girl during that era, saw all of Melosa's era, and outlived Ephiny's reign as regent. It's gotta hurt to go from being the top dog to being second best at everything."
"Third." The warrior gently corrected her, observing quiet startlement in the bard's eyes. "They look to you now, too, my bard. And you can whip Pony in quarterstaff and sais."
"Xena! That's not true . . ." She stopped, remembering more than a few decisive victories over the weapons master in the practice ring. "Gods. You're right." Her head dropped and she looked down at the woven slats of the crow's nest base. "What are we going to do?"
"She just needs to get over herself," Xena reasoned.
"It's not always that easy." The bard looked up, involuntarily tracing dark eyebrows with her fingertips, before arranging the unruly locks framing the warrior's face. "It took me a long time."
"You?" Xena was incredulous. "You never . . ." She paused, seeing the truth in the green depths. "Did you?"
"Come on, Xena. Remember when I bought this?" She gingerly tugged the breast dagger from beneath the black vest. "Why do you think I bought it?"
"You wanted a weapon." The warrior shuddered, remembering her journey through Morpheus' dreamscape, and her fight with her own dark side, all the while, her heart pounding with the fear that she wouldn't reach her new friend in time. A friend that even then, had come to mean much more than she was willing to admit at the time.
"Yes." Gabrielle twirled the dagger in her hand. "I wanted a weapon." She pointed it at her partner. "Because you had one. And I wanted to be just like you."
"Gimme that." In agitation, Xena snatched the knife from her partner and tucked it back where it belonged. "Sorry." She grinned sheepishly. "So how did you get over your . . . envy?" The word sounded strange to her ears. And why in the name of the gods would anyone want to be like me, especially a gentle soul like Gabrielle?
"I can't say exactly when." The bard plucked at the thongs that held her sais against the outsides of her boots. "Partly, it helped when I became an Amazon princess and learned to use my staff, because then I was able to help defend myself, so I felt more independent." She smiled shyly. "And part of it was when I realized that you valued my non-warrior gifts. My stories and my cooking ability and my negotiating skills."
Xena flinched. How long did it take me to express any of that to her? She had no idea just how often I was envious of her. Oh, my bard, I valued those skills because I wanted so much to be like you. "Why did that help?"
"You helped me see that it was okay to be myself." She stroked a high cheekbone. "You have no idea what a gift you gave me, Xena."
"I . . . I did?" Incredulous blue eyes blinked.
"Yes, you did." She smiled. "Being myself wasn't such a good thing back in Potadeia. I was expected to be a good cook. Made me better marriage material. Cooking wasn't an unusual skill. As for story-telling, and negotiating . . ." She broke off, looking down and shaking her head sadly. "Those talents were frowned upon in girls. I was supposed to be meek. And quiet." She looked up in mild amusement. "Yeah. Imagine that. Me. Trying to be quiet."
The warrior pictured what her partner must have been like as a child. Bet she was curious about everything. And always getting into trouble. Not so different from how she is now. She smiled briefly, before she suppressed a surge of anger. How could anyone not value the things that at their very core, make their child who they are?
"Gabrielle." She tightened her hold in a reassuring hug. "All those nights . . . when we were camped by the fire . . . it would have been very lonely if not for your stories. That first time . . . when you left to go to the academy . . . I barely slept the entire time you were gone. I'd gotten used to your voice. I missed talking with you until we fell asleep. If you hadn't come back . . ." She drew in a deep breath, and felt soft lips against her cheek.
"Funny. I remember going to sleep each night in that broom closet they assigned me to at the academy, and I felt the same way. I missed having you there beside me, arguing with me about star patterns, and giving me grief about some of the questions I'd ask you." She smiled. "I knew . . . after a couple of nights, that no matter how the contest turned out, I couldn't stay there. I told myself I needed to go back to you because I would have better story fodder that way. The truth is, I missed my best friend. The adventures had nothing to do with it."
"Nothing at all?" A pleased grin played at the warrior's lips.
"Xena, if you decided tomorrow that you wanted to settle in some backwoods village, and join a knitting circle, and sell doilies for a living, I wouldn't love you any less than I do right now." She gave the warrior a playful poke in the belly.
"As if." The warrior laughed heartily, but the honest sentiment in her lover's eyes warmed her to the bottom of her heart. She really means that. It filled her up to almost overflowing. She doesn't care what I do. She loves me just for myself. It felt strange and wonderful at the same time, an unconditional love she hadn't experienced since she was a child, sitting on the edge of her bed each night while her mother combed the snarls out of her hair. Maybe someday . . . she stored the knowledge away for future reference. The future. Yeah. "Thank you. Means a lot. I . . ." She stood up in mid-thought, her eyes squinting toward the horizon.
"What is it?" The bard carefully rose up next to her, gripping a strong biceps for support.
"Look." A long arm pointed toward a thin grayish fuzzy spot at the edge of the water.
"Land?" Gabrielle's eyes grew wide.
"Yep." The warrior turned and yelled down toward the deck. "Land, ho!"
"All right!" Kallerine repeated the cry from behind the wheel, into the hatch, listening as it reverberated through the corridor below her.
Within minutes, Eponin, Ronan, Johanna, and even Amarice and Raella scrambled topside. All of them leaned over the railing, straining to see what could not yet be seen from deck level. Morrigan appeared last, her heart thumping wildly in her chest. She ran along the railing and frowned, finally moving to the base of the crow's nest. She looked up hopefully.
"I'm going down to talk to Pony." Gabrielle patted the warrior on the arm. "But I suspect you're about to have company." She slowly picked her way down the pole, taking the curved rungs one at a time, always making sure she was in solid contact with the pole. "Here." She landed safely on the deck. "Go on up. There's room now."
"Thank ya, Gabrielle." The druid scaled the pole with swift grace, coming to rest in the basket next to Xena.
"See." The warrior directed her toward the tiny patch of land. The scent of soil was growing stronger, and her keen eyes detected small black spots in the sky nearer to land, winter birds in flight.
"Eire." Morrigan's voice was filled with quiet joy. "Blessed be."
*"The Way You Look Tonight," Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields
To be continued in Chapter 4
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