Disclaimers: Yeah, yeah . . . I don't own the characters in this story. It's not for profit; it's for Steph, because she rocks and because she asked, like, three years ago. <g>
Violence: We are talking about a story with Xena, Warrior Princess, right?
Language: Nothing you won't hear on tv.
Sex: Well, I wouldn't read this at work unless you're the boss, or you have your own office. Maybe not even then . . . No, probably not.
Special thanks to Jeri, my underpaid research assistant and sounding board; to Medora MacD, who rules as an editor and advisor, and who can spot a dangling participle in the blink of an eye; and to my favorite bard, Linda Crist, who would definitely be world champion in a Xena, Warrior Princess Trivial Pursuit tournament and whose Xenaverse I prefer to the one on my dvds.
Series note: This takes place sometime after India, but before Endgame.
Bad guys note: While writing this story it occurred to me that Bacchus only turned girls into bacchae. With a little research I discovered that bacchants are votives or followers of Bacchus and can be either gender.
"I can't wait to get back to the village!"
"I know . . . " It's all you've talked about since we set out.
"I've missed my sisters. It always feels like we're going home; does that make sense?"
"Sure. The Amazon village is the one place we go where you're viewed as more than just my traveling companion."
Gabrielle's eyes grew wide as her head shot up toward Xena. "What do you mean?"
Does she really not realize they all assume we're lovers? Or does the idea of being my lover repulse her that much . . . ? "What I meant is that they acknowledge your skills as a leader and warrior in your own right, separate from me. Aside from when we're alone, it's the one place you can truly be yourself. It should feel like home." By now a beautiful blush had spread across Gabrielle's face.
"Oh." Gods, that's not what I thought she meant at all. Surely she knows that no matter where we go, people assume we're lovers. Of course, she'll never see me that way . . . They walked along in silence until Gabrielle stopped playing the 'if only' game and started thinking about their arrival back in the village. Finally she observed, "It has been a long time, hasn't it?"
"It's not like it's been years, but after our time in India, it feels that way." Gabrielle's silence after this observation caused Xena to glance at her. She could see the bard chewing on her lower lip. Worried about your homecoming, Gabrielle? "You're almost as excited as your Amazons are going to be to have their queen make an unannounced appearance at their Fall Harvest Festival."
"You think so?"
"Of course I do," Xena reassured. She tried not to laugh at the way Gabrielle brightened at her reassurance. I wish she wouldn't doubt herself so much. "I'll tell you what, there's a village below the mountain pass we're going to use tomorrow," she began as she motioned toward it with her head. "What do you say we stop there for the night? A warm bed and a hot meal sound better than a cold night on the side of the mountain."
"That sounds perfect." With that decided, they unconsciously quickened their pace, looking forward to a night off the road.
When they reached the village in the late afternoon, their arrival was met with cautious looks and suspicious stares. So what else is new? The village itself was unremarkable. A little tattered looking even, considering it was the end of the growing season and the warmest time of the year was now behind them. There was a blacksmith with stables, a small store, a few small buildings, one of which belonged to the healer according to the sign above the door, and a tavern, which they hoped had a few rooms to rent on the second floor.
However, the closer they got to the tavern, the more uncomfortable they became. The townspeople seemed to scurry and hide - not that they hadn't received that reception before as well - but this was somehow different. "Xena?" Gabrielle questioned quietly.
"I know. But even as a warlord I never traveled this part of the country. I don't think it's me."
Once they arrived at the tavern Xena remained outside while Gabrielle went in to negotiate for a room and, with luck, a bath. While waiting, she continued to study the locals as they dragged through their daily routine. Their eyes were hollow, surrounded by deep, dark circles. And their body language, to a person, was that of the defeated. Their heads were hung and their shoulders were slumped as if carrying some unseen burden. Xena had just begun to make a list of possible causes when shouting erupted from inside the building. Concerned for Gabrielle, she immediately left her post and burst through the door.
"You're being ridiculous!" an infuriated older woman yelled at her husband. "You've lost all common sense."
"I'm just trying to be careful!"
"I understand that, but they've arrived during the day for mercy's sake. You've moved beyond cautious to unreasonable. And it's not like we don't need the dinars." The man's shoulders began to signal defeat. "Besides, what are you going to do, send them on their way? At this time of day how far do you think they'd travel before stopping for the night?"
"Not far enough . . . " he admitted.
"That's right; not far enough. I won't have that on my conscience. Would you?"
The man turned back to Gabrielle who, along with Xena, had been observing the altercation in complete confusion. "Would you like baths and dinner also?"
"Yes, please, although we'll just need one bath." This brought his eyebrows up in surprise.
"Okay... How long will you be staying?"
Gabrielle started to answer that they would just being staying the one night, but Xena spoke first. "We're not sure. We've been on the road a while and could do with some rest." Gabrielle glanced at her companion, but did not contradict her statement.
"Here are the dinars for tonight's stay. We'll pay daily, if that's alright with you."
"That's fine," the wife decided. "Supper will be ready in about an hour. I'll go and prepare the water for your bath so you can clean up before supper. Your room'll be the first door on the right. The bath is at the end of the hall. I'll let you know when the water is hot."
After thanking them for their services, Gabrielle and Xena climbed the stairs and entered their room. Gabrielle smiled when she saw a fireplace and the small bed against the wall. Gee, guess we'll have to sleep close tonight . . . She caught herself before the huge smile she felt crept across her face. Gods forbid Xena figure out what she was thinking. Speaking of Xena . . . "What're you looking at?"
Xena didn't turn away from the window she was examining. "Look at this; you'd think we were on the first floor of a castle the way this window is secured. It has dual bolts at the bottom that fit down into the pane and a beam to lock down into support racks, holding them shut from the inside."
Leaning out over the window sill, Gabrielle looked down the straight drop to the ground and then up to the eaves. "Unless they're expecting someone to drop down from the edge of the roof or to be invaded by someone possessing as many skills as you, I don't see what they could be expecting to happen."
Xena smiled at the compliment. It seemed silly to her that Gabrielle's adoration of her skills would still mean so much to her after all these years, but it did. Could that be because you're in love with her? She suddenly realized Gabrielle was looking up at her expectantly. Uh oh, I missed something. "I'm sorry, I was wondering if every building in the village is this well fortified. What were you saying?"
"I was saying that I wondered if every building in the village is this well protected." Gabrielle smiled smugly.
Choosing to ignore the awkward position she was in, Xena continued with that thought. "And if they are, what are they protecting the people here from?"
"Is that why you told them that you didn't know how long we'd be staying?"
"There's obviously something wrong here. If we can do something to help . . . " Xena looked up at Gabrielle as if she were startled. "I'm sorry. I totally forgot about the Harvest Festival."
"It's okay, Xena." Gabrielle gently took Xena's hands in her own. "I love that your first thought is to help others."
"Maybe we could come back this way after the festival," Xena offered as compromise.
A sudden rustling of activity below drew their attention, turning them back to the window. The shop keepers and workers were all closing for the day - all of them, at the same time. Animals were secured in the blacksmith's barn. Windows were shut and locked. People hurried out of sight as soon as their buildings were secure.
"That's strange, Xena. It's at least another half candlemark until sundown. They're all closing, but none of them are coming to the tavern. Not even for a drink after work, much less for supper." They continued to watch the activity below. "There's an urgency about them, don't you think?"
"I think you're right, but what on earth could they be afraid of?" Xena scanned the horizon, but detected nothing unusual. Gabrielle leaned against her, nervously wrapping her arms around her waist as she continued to watch the last of the villagers disappear for the night. A woman stopped as she walked across the road in front of the tavern. She looked up at the two women standing in their embrace. There was no prejudice or malice in her stare.
"She looks so sad," Gabrielle observed as the woman continued on her way. "What could possibly make her feel so sad?"
Glancing down, Xena took a moment to savor the contact and then concluded, "What ever it is, I think we'd better lock up too. Better safe than sorry."
"I think you're right, Xena. Maybe we should stay a couple of days."
"I think we could spare at least a day or two and still reach the Amazon village before the festivities get started." As she wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's shoulders a knock came at the door, startling them both.
"Your water's ready, ladies." Damn, here we are in a possibly dangerous situation and I don't even hear an old woman clopping down the hall because I'm too busy thinking about how good it feels to hold her in my arms!
"Thank you," Gabrielle called out. "Let's go, Xena. I'll scrub your back if you'll scrub mine." Xena shook her head ruefully as Gabrielle moved across the room toward their pack in search of soap. Oh yeah, that's gonna help my concentration . . .
Gabrielle was out of the room first and down the hallway. Xena stayed behind a minute to remove her body armor, then followed. The room was small; so was the tub. As Xena shut the door, Gabrielle began to remove her silk skirt. "It's a little small, but we can both fit. We'll just have to maneuver around a little bit to get each other washed." Xena turned to the wall as she started removing her leathers. If I didn't know better I'd think Aphrodite was trying to kill me!
"Come on, Slowpoke!" Xena heard the water moving behind her as Gabrielle stepped in the tub. "Ooooooh, this is perfect!"
For some time now it had been getting harder and harder for Xena to be naked in front of Gabrielle. Her body responded so obviously to her presence that she was sure Gabrielle would figure out how attracted she was to her. As she turned, Gabrielle was already busying herself with a wash cloth and the soap. Xena held her breath as she stared.
Gabrielle had submerged completely as soon as she sat down. Now short blonde hair was slicked back and water was trickling down her shoulders and chest. Her eyelashes were wet, causing them to cluster together, an effect that made her sparkling green eyes seem huge. The swell of her breasts teased above the line of the water, but the water was still clear enough to see the weight of them suspended beneath. Her nipples were taut and pink, a rose pink that made things tighten deep within Xena. It felt like some kind of big cat were crouched inside her and ready to pounce, to explode at any moment.
"What are you waiting for? Come on," Gabrielle beckoned as she spread her legs to give Xena enough room to sit down, "I'll wash your hair."
Oh, Sweet Aphrodite. I will never make it through this. Xena clasped the edge of the tub and stepped in between Gabrielle's legs. She started to sit so she would be facing her instead of leaning against her. "Wrong way, silly." Good try, but no . . . She tried to think of a quick excuse, but with Gabrielle gazing up expectantly at her, there was no escape to be found. She turned and sat down. "Scoot back just a little so I can reach you." She felt Gabrielle's legs spread farther apart, a sweet pressure against her ass. Closing her eyes, she could imagine that same sweet pressure against her hips if she were lying on top of her, a slight resistance that promised more to come. Gabrielle's nipples brushed tender circles across the back of Xena's rib cage. Fingers threaded up through her hair and across her scalp. It was slight scratching, not too much, but rough enough; it relaxed her. It was perfect. The tension she constantly carried on the road drained from her body. Here she was safe, and yet in more danger than she'd ever known. It was too much to fight, too much to resist. Okay, I surrender . . .
After she rinsed Xena's hair, Gabrielle trailed her hands across broad shoulders. She knew every scar, every scratch. She had watched secretly for hours on end. She held the rag in one hand as excuse to caress long muscled arms. She slid her hands slowly down and back up again. A thought occurred to her. She hesitated for a moment and then dared to drag her hands across Xena's chest. Xena leaned her head back to rest on Gabrielle's shoulder. The contact between them increased torturously. Her breasts pressed fully into her warrior's back as their bodies met down the length of her. Unconsciously she pulled her heels up, resting her calves behind the back of Xena's legs. This opened the area between her legs. Closing her eyes, she could imagine being turned on, face to face to with brilliant blue eyes, and then taken as she had so often dreamed. I just want to kiss her neck, to cover with love those scars I put there. Softly she nuzzled Xena's ear. Her lips parted with a kiss. I can't wait anymore.
A banging at the door caused them both to jump guiltily. "Ladies, your supper is ready."
After their bath, the women went downstairs for supper. The innkeeper stayed in the kitchen while his wife served them. While they were dressing, they had devised a plan to see if they could find out more information from her. Gabrielle started the conversation as a plate was placed before her. "I'm sorry. I didn't get your names when we came in today . . . "
"I'm Alondra; my husband's name is Dante." And with that she turned to go back to the kitchen.
Alarmed by her sudden departure, Gabrielle called after her. "Alondra, I was wondering . . . " Slowly the woman turned. As she did, it became very clear that she was every bit as weary as the other villagers. Her shoulders were bent with some unseen weight and her eyes had huge circles under them. "Do you ever have some sort of dinner crowd?"
Oh boy, this woman is guarded! "Well, I'm a bard. Usually when we stop at an inn for the night I tell a few stories and then split whatever tips I receive with the owners. I was kind of hoping to do that here but, well, it seems to be just us dining tonight."
"We don't ever have an evening crowd anymore." She was turning to leave again when Xena entered the conversation.
"Why is that?"
"Folks go home early around here."
"We noticed. The whole town shut down before the sun had even begun to set."
Now Alondra was truly suspicious. "Seems like you two notice quite a bit. What brings you to our village?"
Xena looked at Gabrielle, allowing her to decide how much to share in their conversation. "We're on the way to the Amazon lands," Gabrielle offered.
"Are you two Amazons?" she asked as she sized them up carefully.
"Well, she is. Actually, this is Queen Gabrielle of the Amazon Nation." As Xena spoke, Gabrielle's posture carefully changed from casual to regal. Gods I love it when she steps into her Queen role.
"Queen, huh?" Alondra replied skeptically. "And what about you? Are you an Amazon too?"
"No, this is Xena." Gabrielle watched Xena's body shift uncomfortably, as if she were worried that they would be asked to leave immediately.
"Xena? The Warrior Princess?" Alondra was suddenly much brighter. "Really?"
"That's right . . . " Will I ever stop worrying what reaction I'm going to receive when people find out who I am?
"DANTE!" Her sudden yell for her husband startled them both. "DANTE, COME HERE!!"
Her husband hurried out of the kitchen, a rag in one hand and a wooden stake in the other. "What is it?" He looked very worried.
"Dante, guess who this is?" Her husband glared at her as he went from panicked to annoy in a heartbeat. "You'll never guess!"
"Then why do you want me to guess, woman?"
"This is Queen Gabrielle, of the Amazon Nation," she announced as she held her hand out toward the small blonde to his left, "And this is Xena, Warrior Princess."
He had looked as skeptical as his wife had upon meeting Gabrielle, but when Alondra introduced Xena, his entire stance changed. It wasn't defensive, but he faced her completely and moved the stake to the hand already holding a rag. "Is that true? Are you Xena?"
"I started hearing stories about you a couple of years ago. They said you had stopped warlording and had started helping folks who need it. Is that true?"
Gabrielle beamed with pride. "It's absolutely true."
"But I haven't done it alone." Xena looked away from the couple to smile adoringly across the table. "Gabrielle and I travel together. And it's true that we help people when we can." She turned back to face the owners, who were still standing. "You want to tell us what's going on in this town?"
"If we do, will you try to help us?"
Glancing back at Gabrielle, Xena looked for unspoken permission and received it. "If we can . . . "
Xena and Gabrielle finished their plates while their hosts finished shutting down the tavern for the night. Then they all reconvened in front of the fireplace. Dante had proffered a jug of ale and four mugs; Alondra offered small bowls filled with a sweet pumpkin dessert. Xena sat in a chair with Gabrielle on a blanket on the floor between her legs. They all sat in silence for a while, nursing their mugs of ale and dessert. Finally, Xena broke the silence. "So, what's going on?"
"Bacchants," Dante spat out.
"Well, we really don't know that for sure," corrected his wife.
"Oh, Alondra, what else could it be?"
Gabrielle's body had tensed measurably at Dante's answer. She wanted desperately for him to be wrong. "What makes you think it's bacchants?"
"A couple of months ago, one of the village girls disappeared. They found her body down by the river. She was completely white, as if all the blood had been drained out of her." He paused as if steeling himself for what was to follow. "It didn't look like she'd been, you know, violated. But her throat . . . I've never seen anything like it. It's like it was completely torn out from one side to the other. Two deep gouges side by side, again and again, each time tearing away more flesh." He swallowed hard, "Like it was eating . . . "
"And it couldn't have been a wild animal?" Xena offered.
"No tracks except for where her feet were dragged around where we found her. It was a circular type pattern, like she was rocked back and forth."
They were all quiet as that information hung in the air among them. It was Alondra who broke the silence this time. "Two or three days after we buried her, another girl went missing. This one was older. They've all been older than the first."
Gabrielle looked away from the flames, startled. "All? How many have there been?"
"From our village, seven: four girls and three boys."
"How long has this been going on, Dante?" asked Xena.
"Since the beginning of the summer season."
She calculated roughly the number of weeks it had been and then something occurred to her. "You said from your village. What did you mean by that?"
"There are other villages around the base of this mountain. When we started losing our youngsters, we sent word to other villages to warn them," Dante explained. "Turns out we were too late. They'd been losing their young too."
Xena was distracted by a hand stroking up and down from her knee to the bottom of her calf. She would've enjoyed it if Gabrielle's hand hadn't been trembling. She turned back to the couple and asked the hardest question yet. "How many total?"
A tear spilled down Alondra's face as Dante answered. "Thirty - four that were never found."
"Gods . . . " It was all Gabrielle could whisper as she looked back to Xena. "That's an entire generation lost from this valley." All Xena could do in reply was stroke her hair lovingly.
Then Dante's statement sank in. "You said, 'that were never found.' What does that mean?"
"We haven't lost any from here, but the other villages . . . Well, after the young folks all disappeared, the bodies of adults started turning up. And dead animals, too. We have to lock everything up at night, or it turns up dead in the morning." Alondra added that they hadn't seen a traveler from the other side of the mountain in weeks.
"They're feeding . . . " Gabrielle concluded. She turned to Xena, who nodded in agreement.
Dante continued after he gave their story time to sink in to their guests. "We sent for a holy man, but he never showed up and we never heard from the young man we sent to find him. We eventually assumed he was lost too." Alondra turned, sobbing into her husband's shoulder.
"You knew this young man well?" asked Gabrielle cautiously.
Dante looked at her with tear - filled eyes and answered, "He was our son."
Their conversation continued long into the evening. They spoke of things they had tried and what the villagers did now to protect themselves. Nothing had seemed to work but to lock themselves in their houses before sunset and not come out until dawn. Gabrielle had hugged both of them before climbing the stairs with Xena to their room. She thought of the small bed against the wall and was now glad for another reason that she would have to lay in Xena's arms all night long.
As they changed for bed, Gabrielle remembered to ask Xena something that had been bothering her. "Xena, why didn't you tell them we've faced bacchae before?"
"Because I didn't want to lie to them and I didn't think the fact that we had both become bacchae to defeat them would inspire a lot of trust."
"Good thinking," Gabrielle acknowledged as she rummaged around in their pack.
"What are you looking for?"
"This," she announced as she turned to face Xena with a brush in her hand.
"You know, you just washed my hair this afternoon." The memory made goose bumps race across her skin.
"I know, but right now I'm too scared to lie down and go to sleep. I'd have nightmares for sure." She moved to the bed and sat down, scooting against the wall at the head of the bed. "I need to do something relaxing."
I can think of something to do to relax you. Xena caught herself lusting after the beautiful blonde sitting on her bed, praying to every god she could think of that she hadn't just said that out loud. Seemed like she'd been praying to the gods a lot lately. That's because I finally have something to pray for.
Happy to oblige, Xena sat on the bed between Gabrielle's legs. She pulled the covers over their legs not because she was cold, but because she would be too tempted to touch Gabrielle's firm bare legs on either side of her. They stayed like that for a long time in silence, long gentle strokes perfecting the shine in her hair until Gabrielle spoke. "Have you figured it out?"
"Figured what out?"
"I don't know; where are they, what're they doing? And why did the villagers find the first little girl dead, but none of the other young people? And then other bodies started showing up after the kids were all gone. Why the gap?"
"What makes you assume I can think clearly while you're brushing my hair?"
The brush hesitated for a split second, then continued. What made me say that? She stopped too. Now she's wondering the same thing.
Why would me brushing her hair distract her? Gabrielle wondered. Afraid to ask the question out loud, she decided to play it off. "No, seriously Xena . . . What have you figured out?"
Xena breathed a deep breath of relief and began with her thoughts so far. "Well, the first thing is the little girl they found. Whatever killed her must've been very hungry. She was too small to put up much of a fight, but probably big enough for a meal." She felt the body behind her shudder. Reaching under the covers with both hands, she gently began to caress the legs on either side of her. This isn't about sex; she's scared and I need to be able to reassure her. Still, her hands trembled in spite of her rationalization. "Since then," she continued, "I think since then it's been building a colony or worse yet, an army."
"What's the difference?"
"If it were just a colony, it wouldn't matter who was chosen. But only the young and strong have been chosen. That's why their bodies were never found, but others' were. Sounds like recruits for an army to me."
"An army for what?"
"I'm not sure, but based on the fact that all the victims have come from villages surrounding the base of the mountain, I'd be willing to bet that they're holed up in a cave somewhere up the mountain."
"Still, an army on a mountainside . . . I think you're right, but what would they have to gain living on a mountain?"
"Well, most travelers won't be able to cross in one day; especially if they're carrying goods to or from market. And if it's a caravan, that'd be all the better. They'd be stuck camping on the mountain for the night. The humans would have no real defense and yet the bacchants would live in an almost impenetrable fortress."
"And there's no real way to go around this mountain range, is there?" Gabrielle asked as she began to put two and two together.
"Actually, there's only one good pass through this range for days and days. That's why there are several villages scattered at the base of this particular mountain."
The brush was laid in Xena's lap as Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's waist. She rested her cheek against the broad back in front of her and sighed deeply. "You know the thing that scares me the most?"
"If it's just a colony, it's just a matter of taking them out a few at a time."
"And if it's army," Xena prompted gently.
"Then it's a war . . . "
They sat like that for a long time, silent with their own thoughts. Eventually, Xena moved to check the window and door again and put a night log on the fire. When she lay back down, she rested on her back and opened her arms. Gabrielle eagerly moved away from the wall, putting her head on Xena's shoulder. Two strong arms wrapped around her. Sweetly she began to nuzzle her face against the soft skin beneath her, moving more toward Xena's chest in the process. The tension in her shoulders eased as Xena slowly moved one of her hands along the lines of Gabrielle's back.
The fire had burned down when Xena awakened. Gabrielle had stirred in her sleep. She was making soft sounds, almost like purring. Instinctively, she turned her head and kissed Xena's chest. Once, twice, with the softest lips she could ever imagine. Xena took a deep breath to calm her racing heart. It was then that she noticed Gabrielle's hand on her breast. And it wasn't still. Sensuously her fingertips traced the curve of the breast across the top and to the outside. As they rounded the side they moved toward the middle; Gabrielle's respiration had increased now and her hips and legs were starting to writhe slightly under the blankets. As her hand moved toward Xena's nipple, it was intercepted.
I don't know who she's dreaming of, but I won't live through the night if I let this go any farther. Xena gathered the wayward hand in her own and brought it to her lips to kiss. She prayed in earnest this time. Please Aphrodite, please let her be dreaming of me. She brushed the top of Gabrielle's head with a kiss and settled the unruly hand wrapped inside her own on her chest. Two blonde eyebrows furrowed together in frustration, followed by an unhappy sigh. Could that be any cuter?
Xena was distracted from her thoughts by movement outside their window. It fluttered like a bird, but the sound from the air it was moving with its wings was entirely too large. "Gabrielle." Gabrielle stirred as Xena gently shook her, but used pressure from her arm to keep her still. "Sweetheart, shhhhh . . . Listen."
Gabrielle was suddenly alert, adrenaline rushing through her body. She tried to listen for anything that wasn't her heart pounding in her ears. And then she heard it, outside the window. One, two, no, more sets of wings than that. "They're here?"
Xena nodded silently before she moved to get out of bed. Without a word she picked up her sword and chakram, creeping toward the window. Behind her, Gabrielle clutched the blanket, terrified. As she reached the window, a small piece of wire slid through the crack. A hook had been fashioned on the end; it searched for the bolts at the bottom that helped secure the window. Clever. Xena moved to position herself so she could thrust her blade through the crack between the shutters. Then, just as suddenly they were gone, the wire hook left dangling, abandoned. She froze there for minutes, waiting for their return. Finally, she turned to Gabrielle.
Xena shook her head slightly. "I don't know." With one look back at the window, she began to pace around the room to release the anxiety she'd been controlling. She rolled her neck from side to side and swung the sword around carefully in long, slow arcs, loosening the muscles in her shoulders. That and the fact that I can smell Gabrielle's desire from here; I can't lay back down with that sweet ambrosia to tempt me. She began talking, hypothesizing about the bacchae's attempt to enter their room. But it fell on deaf ears.
Gabrielle just watched her. She never ceased to be amazed by Xena's transformation to and from battle readiness: calm, focused, and then later pacing, like a caged animal that had once tasted freedom. It was while she watched Xena unwind that she realized she was aroused. Pieces of a dream came to her in flashes, images of Xena's body under her hands, her mouth. And then she realized she was wet. Unbelievably, dripping wet.
What on earth am I going to do? With her sense of smell . . . I wish she'd stop wasting all that energy pacing and just come over here and take me.
She pulled the covers up to her shoulders. Never taking her eyes off of Xena, she slowly moved one of her hands between her legs. So what if she smells me? Her center throbbed, aching for the want of Xena's touch. What would she do, leave? Or would she come over here and finish this for me? Oh so carefully, Gabrielle began to make circles around the tiny bundle of nerves that was, for the moment, dominating her rational thought. She fought to control her ragged breathing. The urge to push against her hand, to thrust her hips hard in an effort to sooner end her torture caused her to grit her teeth. All the while, the object of her desire paced just out of reach.
Suddenly, Xena wheeled back toward the window, waited three heartbeats, and then turned to Gabrielle. A million thoughts raced through her mind: I'm caught, she knows what I was doing, she did smell me, maybe now she'll finally make love to me, what if she doesn't want me, and . . . belatedly . . . She called me "Sweetheart." It was at that exact moment that Xena sprang toward their door. "Gabrielle, go downstairs, but do not go outside, no matter what." With that she charged out the door and down the stairs wearing only her shift, weapons in hand.
Fear washed away Gabrielle's lust in one huge wave. She threw the covers back and moved toward the door. Hesitating for only a moment, she turned back and grabbed one of the wash clothes they had drying over the back of a chair. It was barely damp, but it was enough. She wiped her sticky hand and made two quick passes between her legs to erase the evidence of her desire. It was then that she heard screaming from outside. She dropped the rag and ran downstairs.
Alondra and Dante were already in the dining room. Dante was bolting the door. "Where's Xena?" Gabrielle demanded.
Alondra turned to her; her face held confusion, as if Gabrielle should have already known. "She went outside."
Dante intervened. "There was screaming outside. Xena unbolted the door to leave. As she went outside she told me to bolt it behind her." He looked as if he wanted to say something else, instead only shaking his head when he had no words.
Gabrielle wanted to yell at him for allowing her warrior to go outside alone, but knew there had been no choice. If the bacchants outside were attacking someone, Xena was going to try and save them. All she could do now was wait.
The sounds that Xena heard were that of the hunter and the hunted: pounding feet, scared cries, heavy panting, an incautious thrashing through the forest. It only took a moment to deduce why the bacchae had given up on breaking into their room; they had found easier prey. As she raced through the building toward the door, she mentally checked off all the weapons she didn't have to fight what she knew awaited her. She had her chakram and sword, but there hadn't been time to put on her armor. There's never a Dryad bone around when you need it . . . Dante locked the door behind her as she concluded that the only hope she had would be to decapitate the bacchants. Pausing long enough to get a good bearing on where the chase was occurring, she wheeled to her left and ran around the end of the tavern. She heard Gabrielle's frustrated cry right before she plunged into the near total darkness of the nighttime forest.
"Keep running, Nolen! Stop looking back over your shoulder and just run!!" was the first clear part she could identify from the chase. She gasped as she realized, I know that voice!
"I see a light through the trees!" This voice sounded young.
Xena leaped into a tree and crouched on a bough roughly 12 feet above the ground. She poised there waiting until two winded and desperate men ran beneath her. Following close behind was a young male bacchant. He was laughing, toying with his prey before the kill. Don't you know it's impolite to play with your food? Xena launched into the air, swinging her sword at the approaching killer. Fire and smoke burst into the air as the young bacchant's head fell from his body.
She hadn't hit the ground before a second bacchant crashed into her. She flew into the trunk of tree, getting the wind knocked out of her. Another followed right behind, pinning her to the tree. He was punching her body so fast she didn't slide down the tree. Her mind whirled looking for options. Then inexplicably, the bacchant that was beating her burst into flames.
Xena fell to the ground. No sooner had she landed than a bacchae pounced on her. The force of the descending predator knocked her flat on her stomach. She hit her head against the protruding root of a tree. Dazed, she fought to remain conscious. The pain from wicked claws digging rows across her shoulders helped.
Raising her head slightly, she caught a glint of light off her chakram. Grasping it firmly, she twisted beneath the unsuspecting bacchae. One quick slash and the fanged head rolled to the side, followed by bright orange flames and acrid smelling smoke.
"What do you mean we have to go help?"
"We have to make sure Xena's okay."
"You know her??"
"I do; we're friends, I think."
From the darkness came the answer. "I'm okay," Xena mumbled blurrily as she struggle to sit up. "And yes, we are definitely friends. It's good to see you, Eli." She managed a crooked smile before she collapsed.
There was a forceful pounding on the door, causing the three people waiting inside to lurch to their feet. "Mom! Dad! Open up!!"
"Nolen?!" Alondra cried out. She hurried toward the door, only to be intercepted by her husband.
"Wait wife," he ordered sternly. "What if he's one of them?"
"He's not, and neither am I. I am the man you sent for. Now please let us in, Xena's been hurt."
That was all Gabrielle needed to hear. She raced past the hopeful parents and flung open the door. The young boy stepped aside to hand Xena off to Gabrielle's care, but it was awkward, Eli lost his grip, and she fell into Gabrielle's waiting arms. They went all the way to floor; Xena's limp body landed resting in Gabrielle's lap. She never looked up to see the tearful reunion between Nolen and his parents or the man bolting the door behind them. Quickly she started assessing Xena's injuries.
There was a huge purple and blue bruise on the right side of her temple. She moved her free hand along both arms and her ribcage, checking for broken bones. Xena gasped and wheezed. It was then that she started to feel the sticky substance oozing onto her legs. Shifting her weight, she sat Xena up and moved to look at her back. Her shift was shredded and angry red gashes tore across her shoulders. The top layers of skin were simply gone; she would stitch what she could, if anything at all.
"Gabrielle, let me help you get her to your room."
It was the first time she looked up. Eli's eyes were worried and there was a tightness around them that spoke of exhaustion and fear. She would've burst into tears if she'd had the time.
"Eli, thank the gods."
"I'll just stick to The One I know. But believe me when I tell you He will be receiving many thanks later." He smiled a confident, mirthful smile that reassured Gabrielle, if only momentarily. "Now, is your room upstairs?"
They laid Xena on the bed facing the wall. "Eli, go back downstairs and have Alondra bring water and whatever medicinal herbs she has to me. Then you and Dante double check all the windows and doors in the building. The bacchants were trying to break into our room earlier."
"They were trying to break in?"
"Eli! Just go!" He didn't have to be told again; he spun toward the door and hurried down the stairs. Gabrielle took a deep breath to calm herself. She would apologize later for yelling at Eli, but right now, all she could think of was Xena's injuries.
Quickly creating a plan, the blonde tore Xena's shift down the side and above the shoulder. She ripped a strip of the cloth off the ruined garment and tied long dark tresses out of the way. Slowly she tipped Xena over so she was lying on her stomach. Once her bottom shoulder was free she removed what was left of the shift and tossed it on the floor. Lovingly she turned her patient's face toward her so she could try and tell when she was in pain.
"Xena? Honey, can you hear me?" There was no recognition on Xena's face. Gabrielle scowled. Alondra interrupted her thoughts, bustling in with a large pitcher of water and several packets of herbs.
"Here's everything I have. What can I . . . Oh my, those scratches are terrible."
"She's had worse." Gabrielle's voice was matter of fact, disguising the emotions she was fighting to control. "I'm more worried about her concussion and her ribs."
"What do we do?"
"We wash out the wounds and powder them heavily so they don't get infected. We need to hurry. She needs to be turned over so we can wrap her ribs and elevate her head."
As they cleaned the wounds, Xena squirmed uncomfortably. It was obvious she was in pain, but Gabrielle was resolute that they couldn't risk giving her anything for the it. As soon as they were finished, they would have to wake Xena up if they could. The longer she slept, the less likely it would be that she would ever wake up.
After Gabrielle was satisfied that the wounds were clean, she picked up several packets and smelled each individually. Choosing three, she combined the contents in a small bowl and sifted them together. Sprinkling them across Xena's shoulders, she then covered the wounds with a clean cloth. With Alondra's help, she rolled Xena over and elevated her head. Alondra had laid out long strips of cloth they could use to wrap Xena's ribs. They sat her up and she moaned pitifully. "I know, Baby, I'm sorry. I'll try to hurry," Gabrielle whispered sweetly. Once they were finished wrapping her ribs, she checked the cloth across Xena's shoulders once more and laid her back on the bed. She pulled the blankets high enough to cover her breasts, then replaced with a cooler one the now warm cloth that had covered the protrusion on her head.
"That's all we can do now, Alondra. Thank you for helping me." She spoke without ever looking away from Xena. "I've kept you away from your son long enough. Why don't you go back downstairs and check on him."
"Alright... I'll be back later." Alondra left the room without an acknowledgment of her promise.
Once they were alone, Gabrielle began talking. Her voice was low and husky; it was a lover's voice. "Okay, Xena. You've napped long enough. The sun is rising; time to wake up." She paused, waiting for some sign of consciousness. There's so much to say. Please don't let me be too late. Adoringly, she stroked her cheeks and kissed one of them lightly. Hovering above the beautiful, damaged face, she whispered, "I have something to tell you. I need you to wake up so you can hear me, so you can look into my eyes and know that it's true. I love you."
She hesitated again, as if those magic words would animate the woman before her. "Maybe I should be more clear. Xena, I'm in love with you. I've waited my whole life to say those words and know I would mean them for the rest of my life. I've been too afraid to say them before. Afraid of what you'd think; afraid that you didn't feel the same way. But after our battle with Alti and then the promise that all of our lives would be spent together, well, I'm just not afraid anymore. So wake up, Blue Eyes. I have something you need to hear."
With that, she moved to the lips she had coveted for so long and kissed them. She lingered there, lost in the contact. And even though Xena didn't respond, she knew in her heart that Xena felt her love and would fight all the more to return.
Gabrielle tried every half candlemark or so to wake Xena. Around mid - morning, Eli came in the room. "You should get some sleep."
"I didn't ask if you were alright; I said you needed to rest."
Gabrielle sighed deeply. Eli was prepared to continue this argument, but was surprised when he won his case without further pleading. "You're right. I'm exhausted." She glanced up at Eli to give him instructions. "She needs to wake up. Try every half candlemark. If I don't wake up when she does, make sure you wake me."
She stretched and yawned once before carefully climbing across to insert herself between Xena and the wall. She lay on her side and stared at Xena's face for a long time. Eli was about to scold her when she leaned over and brushed Xena's lips with her own. She never looked at his face to see his surprise, or the smile that followed; she just lay down and closed her eyes.
About midafternoon, Gabrielle rose to find Xena still unconscious. Alondra, who had replaced Eli, convinced her to wander downstairs and get something to eat. After dressing, Gabrielle descended the stairs to find an entire room full of people fell silent. She surveyed the room, sizing up the villagers gathered there. They looked . . . hopeful.
Dante stepped forward to address the room. "Folks, I'd like to introduce you to one of the women we told you about. This is Queen Gabrielle of the Amazon Nation."
There was a rustle that swept through the crowd. Gabrielle couldn't tell if they were impressed or doubtful. Nonetheless, she had donned the invisible cloak of royalty upon her introduction. Now she stood, waiting for them to reveal what they were obviously waiting on.
A man stood and spoke from a central table. "Queen Gabrielle, I'm Milas, the village leader. We were wondering what you had planned."
This took her by surprise. It was always Xena that had the plan. "I'm not sure I know what you mean."
"Well, now that the warrior woman is injured, what do you plan to do to help us?" Gabrielle stared blankly, looked to Dante, and then back to Milas. "I mean, you are still going to help us, aren't you?"
Gabrielle was still exhausted. She hadn't slept well thanks to the worry that she would miss even a moment of Xena's consciousness. And now there was a whole village crammed into one room, waiting on her to speak. She waited several heartbeats and then announced, "I have a plan."
A collective sigh of relief escaped from the villagers. Meanwhile, Eli looked shock.
"Let me get something to eat and then we'll talk about it." The noise level following that statement was a clear indication that they were agreeable to that. She retreated to the kitchen in search of food, closely followed by Eli.
"Do you really have a plan?"
"You sound surprised, Eli."
"I guess, well, I mean it's not that you're not capable, it's just that . . . "
"I know - Xena's always the one with the plan. Well, Xena hasn't woken up yet. And until she does, it's obvious that these people need to believe that someone is going to help them."
"Help them? Against bacchants. How are you going to do that?"
"Well, I have the rest of this meal to figure that out, don't I?"
Gabrielle emerged from the kitchen half a candlemark later. She felt better now that she had eaten. She took the stairs two at a time to check on Xena before addressing the villagers. There was no change. She brushed her lips once across Xena's and went back downstairs disheartened.
"Okay, let's start with the basics," Gabrielle began as she walked to what had once been a stage. "We know that the enemies we face are bacchants. Xena and I have fought Bacchus before. The first thing you need to do is get it out of your heads that you're going to rescue any of your children." There was a low grumbling in the crowd.
"Look, I'm sorry. I know that's harsh. But the fact is it's been too long. A new moon has come and gone since your young people disappeared. They are bacchants now, not the ones you once loved." This argument was met with silence. She was right and they knew it.
"Xena and I discussed it last night before she was injured. We don't believe they are trying to build a colony."
A voice shouted from the back, "Then why are so many of them gone?"
"If they were just trying to acquire numbers, they would've taken anyone they could catch. They've only taken the youthful, the strong. We believe their leader is trying to build an army to control the trade route across the mountain."
"Gods help us . . . " one woman whispered.
"First we have to help ourselves," Gabrielle responded. "At first light tomorrow we are going to do the following things: A swift runner is going to cross the mountain. He will travel light and move like his life depends on it, because it does. Others are going to travel to all the villages in the valley carrying a message. If these messengers don't think they can make it there and back in one day, they'll have to stay there overnight." A survey of the room garnered nods of understanding and approval. "Each village in the valley needs to map out the mountain area in front of them. We need detailed maps of caves, of anywhere they think the bacchants may be hiding. They'll have to go out at first light every day and return before dusk. The next day they'll pick up where they left off. We will be doing the same thing here. Every other day each village will have to send a runner here with a copy of their map so we'll know how much progress they've made, if any."
Someone called out, "What is the mapping for?"
Gabrielle took a weary breath and continued. "Two reasons: One, it will help keep track of what areas have already been search and what areas still need to be explored. Two, we have to know exactly where the bacchants are based so we can develop a strategy of attack. We can't kill what we can't find."
"That trip across the mountain sounds like a death sentence. What is so important that we have to risk another person's life to cross through that pass?"
"Warriors. If they have an army, we're going to need one too."
"And where is this messenger going to find such an army?" the voice challenged again.
"Perhaps you weren't listening; I am Queen of the Amazon Nation. If I bid them, my warriors will come."
"Even to fight bacchants . . . ?"
"They will fight who I tell them to fight, and before that they can help us scout the mountain to find their lair. They are excellent trackers."
"What are we going to do once we find them?" a different voice asked.
The Queen drew a breath to answer, but was interrupted by a weak but determined voice across the room.
"We're gonna kill 'em all."
What the relieved blonde really wanted to do was rush across the room into Xena's arms. But the Queen was in charge of the meeting; she had to dismiss it.
"It's almost nightfall; before we go, I'll need volunteers to go to the villages with our instructions. These messages will be ready for you to pick up here at dawn tomorrow. We also need one volunteer to travel to my Amazon village across the range and return here with them."
"I'll do that," Nolen said as he stepped forward.
Alondra, who had accompanied Xena down to the dining room spoke out in alarm, "Nolen, no!" She moved to him, placing her hand on his face while pleading her case. "We were so certain we had lost you. We just got you back. Please, please don't go."
Instead of answering his mother, he turned to his father. "I'm young and strong enough to make this run. Everyone else in the village is either too young or too old. It has to be me."
Dante hesitated for a long time, then nodded his head. There was a moment that passed between them, that one magical moment when a father realizes for the first time that is boy is now a man. "He can do it. If anyone can, it'll be him."
The son's chest swelled at the compliment. He put his arms around his mother to offer comfort as she sobbed.
"Good enough," Gabrielle announce with a nod. "All the other volunteers meet with Dante and Eli to receive your assignments. We'll see you back here at first light." And with that she turned away and headed to Xena, who was still leaning against the door frame.
"You look like Hades," she pronounced with a smile. "And you shouldn't be out of bed." Her scolding sounded lighthearted, but sincere.
"Thanks. I was just thinking that you looked really great up there. Besides, I didn't want to miss all the fun."
Gabrielle just shook her head and laughed as she carefully moved under Xena's arm to help support her. "How much did you hear?"
"All the important stuff."
"Good, now let's get you back to bed."
Xena leaned heavily on Gabrielle as they climbed the stairs. "How do you feel?"
"Like I was mauled by a bear."
"Well, you look like it. That's for sure."
"Thanks." A smile in Xena's voice lessened the sarcasm. As they reached the door to their room, Xena hesitated a moment, catching the queen's gaze. "It sounds like a great plan, Gabrielle. I'm really proud of you."
Even the deepest weariness and relief couldn't stop the smile that spread across Gabrielle's face. "Thank you. That means a lot to me. Now stop stalling; you have to lie down."
Xena laughed out loud, which caused her to grab at her ribs as she moved into the room. "You know all my tricks, don't you?"
"You'd better believe it." Gabrielle helped Xena sit on the edge of the bed. "I'll tell you what. Can you sit in a chair long enough for me to check the scratches on your back?"
"Sure. They're starting to itch. How many stitches did I take?"
"None? They sure feel bad enough to have had plenty."
"They were deep, but too wide. The skin was completely gone over the gashes. I couldn't pull the edges together." Regret sounded in her voice. "I'm sorry. I know there will be scars, but I'll help you with the salves to lessen them as much as possible."
"I know you did everything you could. Please don't feel bad for giving me good care just because you couldn't fix things the way you thought they should be. Their healer couldn't have done any better."
"I know, that's what he said this morning when Dante brought him to see you." She still sounded disheartened.
Xena decided to let that go for now. "How many ribs did I break?"
"Three, maybe four. They're all bruised to Hades."
"Good thing that bacchant burst into flames when he did. He was really working me over."
"Burst into flames?"
"Yeah, I guess his fists were going so fast they caught on fire," Xena teased.
Gabrielle smiled at Xena over her shoulder as she prepared her workspace. Alondra had provided a fresh basin of water and clean rags. The bowl with the herbs in it was still about half full from the night before. "Come on, Sweetheart. Let me help you."
Xena managed not to hesitate at the term of endearment. She grabbed the arm Gabrielle was offering and switched to the chair. "Where'd you get this shift?" Gabrielle asked.
"Alondra gave it to me."
"This must've been fun to put on."
Was that jealousy? Not sure of the implication, Xena looked up at Gabrielle. "Not really, why?"
"Because it's going to be even less fun to take off . . . " Ah, not jealousy.
"Why are we going to take it off?"
Sighing impatiently, Gabrielle began to lift the bottom of the shift as she explained. By the gods she's a stubborn patient. "Honey, I want to rewash your back, but it would be better if we could do it without getting your shift soaked."
It struck Gabrielle as strange that Xena was suddenly so compliant. Gods, I called her "Honey." What was I thinking? "Are you sure you're okay?" There was concern on her face as she stopped trying to remove the shift and knelt in front of her love. What's she thinking?
"I'm okay, really. You're right. This needs to be done and it'll be better to get it over with so you don't have to wake me later."
Once consent was given, Gabrielle reached for the shift. Carefully, she helped Xena move one shoulder and then the other until it could be pulled over her head. She hadn't meant to hesitate, but after she freed Xena of the shift, she sat back and stared.
Xena's breasts were perfect. Even the battered body around them and the angry purple bruises that mottled them couldn't diminish their perfection. Her nipples were dark and painfully erect under her scrutiny. Gabrielle's respiration increased while Xena held her breath. Knowing she had revealed her desire, she tore her eyes away from the temptation before her and looked up into blue eyes filled with longing. Their gaze was interrupted when Xena suddenly looked away, terrified of her feelings, of opening herself up to hope.
Gabrielle made a decision. Her emotions were unchained. The fear of losing Xena in this lifetime, of never confessing her true feelings, and now, the relief of having that chance emboldened her. She leaned forward and guided Xena's face back so she would have to meet her gaze. After reestablishing eye contact, she reached with her other hand and gently cupped one of the heavy breasts suspended before her. Her hand moved slowly, stroking its underside until her thumb bravely wandered across the center to the nipple. The sensation drew her eyes away from Xena's; she had to see what she had dreamed. It was a whisper of a touch, circling the outer ring. Emotions ran thick as her hand began to tremble, moving up to brush the erect nipple with her palm. Rolling her hand over, Gabrielle traced a line with the back of her fingers to Xena's collarbone and along her neck. Finally, with both hands holding Xena's face, she took a deep breath and confessed, "I love you, Xena. I've always loved you."
Xena opened her mouth to speak, but merciful fingers moved to hold her silent. "Let me finish . . . I'm in love with you, Xena. I don't know if there was some unnoticed line we crossed or if it has always been this way, but I am in love with you. The very thought of you makes me tremble. There are moments when I'm sure I'll die if you don't touch me." The look on Xena's face was priceless, literally worth anything - her life, her love, everything she had to offer. "I want you. And what's more, I need you. Not just beside me, with me every day, but physically, intimately I need you."
Xena was panting with emotion, her chest rising and falling quickly. "Now I know we'll have to wait . . . " Gabrielle smiled seductively, "I want you healthy the first time we make love. But I couldn't wait one instant more to tell you, to show you. We were meant to be more than friends. I belong to you, body, mind, and soul. And you belong to me. Now. Forever." It was a kiss for the ages that sealed their love. Tender, searching, reassuring . . .
Once the kiss had broken, Xena looked at her in wonder and breathed, "Am I dreaming?"
"No, Sweetheart. Why?"
"It's just, I dreamed of this for so long . . . " That was all it took. The walls Xena had spent years building around her heart tumbled in the embrace of an Amazon Queen. Tears streamed unbidden down her face.
Gabrielle held her gently, placing butterfly kisses along her neck and cheeks. Leaning back, she wiped the tears from Xena's face while fighting tears of her own. "It was my dream too. But neither one of us is dreaming now. I'm here. I will always be here, right here in your arms."
A tremor shook Xena's body, causing her beloved to smile knowingly. "Now, I would love to think that my touch caused you to shiver like that, but I'm willing to bet the cold on your exposed back had something to do with it. Let me tend your wounds, and then we'll get you into bed."
"Just me?" It was a pleading question, laced with apprehension.
Gabrielle kissed her briefly again and looked deeply into her eyes. "No, my love. Not just you."
Gabrielle talked Xena into drinking some herbs that would ease the pain and help her sleep. She lay by her side, gently stroking her hair and face until Xena's breathing was deep and steady. I could do this the rest of my life. Thinking back to her confession and Xena's response, she smiled. Maybe I'll get to.
With a great sigh, she forced herself to get up. There were letters to draft before the messengers carried them away at dawn. There were four other villages in the valley; she drafted a letter to each village elder and wrote one for Ephiny. She also wrote a quick note for Nolen with instructions on how to respond when confronted by the Amazons so they wouldn't kill him before he had a chance to deliver her message. Xena was sleeping peacefully, her breathing slow and steady. Gabrielle checked the locks on the window for good measure and then slipped quietly out of the room. She intended to leave the letters of instruction downstairs for Eli and Dante to distribute at dawn. Maybe after this I can get at least a little sleep.
When she reached the bottom of the stairs she heard someone sobbing. At first she thought it might be Alondra, concerned for Nolen's safety. But as she surveyed the room, she saw only Eli lying prostrate on the floor in front of the fireplace. It was Eli who was weeping. Concerned, Gabrielle crossed the room and knelt next to him.
"What's wrong Eli?"
"I have broken my vow."
"To walk in the Way of Love?"
Even the mention of it caused him to continue weeping. "Yes."
"I don't understand. How?"
"I have taken a life."
Gabrielle was stunned. "You . . . ? What happened?"
"Last night, while Xena was being attacked, I killed a bacchant."
"You killed a bacchant? When?"
"He had Xena pinned to a tree. He was hurting her so badly, I had to try and stop him. I had a small vial of blessed water with me. I knew it worked to keep them out of homes, but I never guessed . . . " He began to sob again.
"You never guess what, Eli?"
"That when I threw it at him, the vial would break and he would burst in to flames."
Gabrielle remembered what Xena had mentioned earlier about the bacchant and how it seemed to just suddenly catch on fire. "So you saved Xena's life . . . "
"But I saved her at the cost of another."
"You do know that bacchants are no longer human. They're beings that serve Bacchus, but their souls are dead."
"Nonetheless Gabrielle, I must view them as living beings and so must you."
Gabrielle sat back, stunned. I have to choose between the Way of Love and helping Xena fight an army of bacchants? Oh, gods . . .