When Gabrielle finally crept back up the stairs, she felt much worse. The conversation with Eli had lasted far into the night. In truth, she didn't really care if Eli had killed a bacchant to save Xena's life. But was she truly on the Way of Love if she felt this way? Her head hurt and all she wanted to do was lie down beside her love and stop thinking for a little while.
As she slipped in the room, she heard Xena fussing quietly. Alarmed, she went to her bedside. Xena was having a bad dream. Her breathing was heavy and her body twitched uncontrollably. "Shhhhhh, Sweetheart. I'm right here. Shhhhhh, it's alright." She placed her lips against Xena's forehead and whispered soft, comforting words until she calmed down. Once she was still again, Gabrielle quickly removed her clothes and donned her shift before crawling in bed.
The two women immediately combined their bodies beneath the covers. Never again would they have to sleep afraid to touch one another. This is the Way of Love . . .
When Gabrielle finally awakened, it was almost midday. Xena was lying contentedly beside her, watching her sleep. Seeing that face through sleepy eyes, Gabrielle smiled blissfully.
"Hi, Beautiful." Gabrielle's smile widened. "Do you have any idea how many mornings I woke up hours before you just to watch you sleep?" Xena's voice was thick with emotion, but content. "And how long I have dreamed of saying those words to you as soon as you opened your eyes?"
"Do you really think I'm beautiful?"
"Oh Gabrielle, you are the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. More beautiful than a sunset, or a bird in flight . . . You take my breath away."
Tears welled in Gabrielle's eyes and spilled down her cheeks. "And I'm supposed to be the bard . . . "
Xena smiled and tried to close the distance between them, but winced in pain as her broken ribs protested. Gabrielle was worried until Xena lay back on the bed and the signs of pain left her features. Once she was settled, Gabrielle smiled sensuously and teased, "I'll come to you."
"I wish you would."
Gabrielle unconsciously licked her lips and then pressed them against Xena's. They kissed at an unhurried pace, savoring the ability to actually enjoy one another sexually. Xena held Gabrielle's head in her hands and traced the outside of her lips with a soft, pliant tongue until Gabrielle's tongue stole out to wrestle with the protruding object. They giggled as they playfully kissed and teased one another. Finally breathless, Gabrielle hovered over Xena. The new lovers stared deeply into one another's eyes until a blanket of want covered them, drawing them back together again.
Their kissing was suddenly needy and urgent. Xena maneuvered her knee between Gabrielle's legs, raising it until her thigh touched a very wet center. Gabrielle threw her head back and gasped at the contact, writhing slowly against the pressure. Xena's hands moved under Gabrielle's shift to intently massage her breasts. Gabrielle's pace increased as she rode the thigh beneath her, her hands resting on either side of her lover's torso to give her leverage.
Xena could no longer wait to taste Gabrielle's breasts. Her hands moved to the bottom of the barrier between them with the intent of ripping the shift open. Gabrielle's pace was feverish. "Oh. Baby," she moaned at the lost touch. "I need . . . "
A knocking on the door of their room evaporated the intensity between them. Gabrielle struggled to stop her hips, still searching for unfulfilled promise. "Oooh . . . Oh, gods," she lamented as she fell off to lie beside Xena. She allowed one arm to fall across her eyes as she panted, "We have got to get some privacy."
This prompted both frustrated women to burst into laughter. The knock came again. "Just a minute," Gabrielle called out as she and Xena began to straighten their clothing. Before getting up, she paused to kiss Xena one last time. It was a confident, tender kiss of closure for their encounter. "I love you."
"I love you, too."
Sighing regretfully, Gabrielle stood to go unbolt their door. Eli stood there shuffling his feet nervously. "Alondra wanted to know if you two were coming downstairs for lunch or if you'd like her to bring it up here."
Her first urge was to strangle him, but she laughed it off and said, "Wait a minute, I'll find out." Walking over to Xena's bedside, she asked the patient, "Do you feel like going downstairs for lunch or would you rather eat up here?" Xena's first response was to roll her eyes.
"I think I can make it downstairs as long as there's not a crowd. I don't want to have to get into my leathers."
Gabrielle looked incredulously at Xena. "The whole village has already seen you in nothing but your shift. What does it matter now?"
The look on Xena's face said that she hadn't thought of that before. "Well," she offered as excuse, "I was in so much pain then that it didn't matter. Now it matters."
"I can see if they have a robe you could borrow," Eli offered.
"That would be fine, Eli," Gabrielle replied, still laughing at her partner. "If not, just ask Alondra to bring our lunch up here."
Half a candlemark later Gabrielle hovered as Xena gingerly made her way down the stairs. Eli had obtained an old sleeping shirt of Dante's, which hung loosely over Xena's sore body.
"I hope you don't mind, but I waited to eat lunch so I could join you," Eli called from a table set for three.
"That's okay, Eli. I actually wanted to talk to you about this blessed water Gabrielle was talking about upstairs."
Eli looked pain stricken, but quickly resigned himself to the need for this conversation. He pulled out a chair on the near side of the table, inviting the injured warrior to sit down as agreement to their conversation topic.
The first part of the meal was accompanied with talk of the messengers that had all departed that morning. Eli joked that he was fairly certain Nolen had been more afraid of entering the Amazon lands than of crossing the mountain range after reading Gabrielle's instructions, something that caused them all to laugh heartily.
Eli suddenly grew more serious when he added that he had sent two vials of blessed water with Nolen in the hope that it would help keep him safe.
"Tell me about this blessed water, Eli. Where did you get it?"
"I blessed it. It's ordinary water that I pray over."
"And that somehow changes the water to make it deadly to bacchants?" Xena was clearly skeptical.
"I know. I didn't understand either at first. Let me tell you the whole story and maybe it'll make sense."
"Please . . . " Xena agreed.
"After leaving India, I was traveling back to my own people when I entered a city that was cursed in much the same way as this one. It once had a huge marketplace where people journeyed from distant lands to trade their wares. Then one season, people started turning up dead. At first they thought it was some kind of plague, but it turned out there were never any symptoms of illness, just bite marks on their neck and such a great loss of blood that they always died." Gabrielle and Xena glanced at each other uncomfortably as Eli paused for a drink.
"When I entered the village, they asked me for help. I had no idea what to do, so I spent several days fasting and in prayer. An answer came to me that made no sense, but I trusted it. I walked to the fountain in the middle of the city and began to pray over it. I asked the One God to cover this city with His protection. Then I ordered the citizens to take some of the water and cover the outside of their doors and windows with it and to make sure they were in their homes by nightfall. The killings stopped."
"Several days later a man came to me from outside the city. He asked if I had vanquished the curse that had ruled over his valley. Of course, I had no idea what he was talking about, so he told me this story . . . "
"He said there was a wealthy man from a far away isle that traveled through their land on the way to market twice a year. The man's name was Galen. Apparently one morning he woke up complaining to the innkeeper that he had been bitten by something in his sleep. By midday he was stalking around the inn, talking out of his head. He ordered raw meat and ale for his meal. After the meal, the ranting became worse. He kept saying he needed to find the blood, that the bat would be back to lead him to the blood. He scared the innkeeper and his wife so much that they threw him out."
Gabrielle interrupted the story with a question. "Did he stay in the village?"
"No. He left all of his belongs and charged wildly down the street, asking everyone he met if they knew where the blood was. Everyone ignored him until he passed two students coming out of their school. He stopped and sniffed them. They asked him what he wanted and he replied that he was looking for the blood."
"What'd they say?" Anticipating his answer, Xena cringed as she leaned forward.
"Well, one of them screamed and ran away. The other burst into tears and started babbling something about a cave. He grabbed the poor child and asked where the cave was. Now she was crying too hard to speak. She just pointed down the road leading out of the village."
"Did he hurt her?" Gabrielle asked worried.
"No, that's the weird thing. The man assured me he let her go and took off running in the direction she had pointed."
"How did he know all this?" Xena was still skeptical.
"The second girl was his daughter."
This seemed to satisfy Xena, who was by now in a good deal of pain again. She carefully stood up to walk to the fireplace, hoping a change in position would help. After several long moments she turned back to Eli and asked if that was the entire story.
"Almost. He said that for months Galen had terrorized the countryside. He killed savagely, often entire families at a time, tearing their throats out and drinking their blood."
"How do they know it was him?" Gabrielle interrupted.
"The man I was talking to said the scenes where he left the bodies were bathed in blood, like he was out of control when he killed them. There were bloody hand prints everywhere." Eli paused as he looked down at his cup. "And the teeth marks on their necks weren't made by an animal."
Xena crossed her arms and began very slowly to pace. "But why then did this Galen leave to go to the city?"
"He said over time when they found victims, the killing sites began to be less violent, less bloody."
"He was getting better at his craft," Xena concluded.
"I would assume . . . Then he said one day the killings just stopped. It wasn't long after that the rumors of a plague in the nearest city started to circulate."
"Sounds like he went on to bigger and better things." Gabrielle looked up at Xena and abruptly ended her train of thought. "That's enough for now. Xena, it's time for you to take another dose of herbs and get some sleep." She felt guilty for not noticing sooner, especially when Xena didn't argue with her. She must really be hurting . . .
They were almost to the stairs when Xena paused and looked back at Eli. "One more thing . . . Did the man you met say where all this had taken place?"
"Yeah. The Bacchae Forest."
Gabrielle got Xena back upstairs and lying on the bed before stirring up the herbs that would help alleviate the pain. Returning to the bed, she prompted Xena to drink by holding out the cup to her. Xena responded by making a face.
"I'll give you a kiss if you'll drink the whole cup."
Gabrielle smiled as she gave in. "Two kisses, but you have to drink all of it."
Xena grinned triumphantly. She took the cup from Gabrielle and drank the entire contents, after which she handed the cup back to Gabrielle and looked at her expectantly. Gabrielle just shook her head as she leaned over Xena's face. She licked her lips sensuously as she bent toward expectant lips only to turn her head wickedly at the moment, kissing Xena twice on her cheek.
"I said I would kiss you twice," Gabrielle explained as she rose to put the cup on the table. "I didn't say where."
"That's just mean . . . "
The blonde turned, her mouth gaping open at the last comment. "You're pouting!" she accused.
"Am not," Xena countered as she crossed her arms over her chest, only to move them again when it hurt.
They played at this little standoff for several heartbeats before breaking into fits of laughter. "My poor, abused Baby," Gabrielle pronounced as she crossed back to the bed and lay down between Xena and the wall. Relenting, she closed the distance between them for an indulgent kiss. As she pulled away, Xena whispered, "And . . . ," after which she received another one.
Xena sighed deeply. "I want to make love you."
"I want you to be able to make love to me."
"Oh, I'm able . . . " she countered smiling lecherously, "But . . . "
"Bu - u - u - ut . . . " Gabrielle repeated encouragingly.
"But I think you're right. I want to wait. I mean, we've already waited so long that I don't want to wait one instant longer." Xena paused to pick up one of Gabrielle's hands, holding it in both of hers. "On the other hand, we've waited so long that I want our first time to be something we can look back on and treasure for the rest of our lives."
Gabrielle was overwhelmed with Xena's thoughtfulness. "Well now, what girl could say 'no' to a proposition like that?"
Xena smiled, relieved that Gabrielle understood her intentions.
"I guess it's a good thing Eli interrupted us earlier then."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because two heartbeats later and we both would've been naked and," Gabrielle paused for effect, moving temptingly close, "There would've been no stopping after that."
Xena gulped. The sexual tension hung in the air between them, making it hard to breathe. "So we're waiting?"
"We're waiting," Gabrielle agreed.
That settled, they snuggled together for what was suppose to be an afternoon nap. The problem was, neither one of them could go to sleep. Finally, Xena broke the silence. "We never dumped the blood. After the battle with Bacchus . . . All the girls returned to being humans, we said goodbye to Orpheus and Joxer . . . "
"And we just left," Gabrielle finished for her. "Gods Xena, what have we done?"
"We haven't done anything. How could we possibly have known that a bat would drink that blood and become possessed?"
"Do you think it bit anyone else?"
"I don't know," Xena answered thoughtfully as she stared at the ceiling. "What I do know is that this bacchant has had almost two full years to evolve into something very smart and very scary."
The villagers had agreed to meet two candlemarks before sundown. Here they compared maps individually constructed of the mountainside surrounding the pass. Men and women huddled around tables, discussing landscapes recalled with faulty memories. They laid all their maps out and pieced them together as best they could. Xena and Gabrielle agreed they would make one master copy of the map, then smaller copies dividing the area into sections to be searched. Note taking and scouting tactics were reviewed. At different points during the discussion, both stressed the necessity of allowing ample time for people to return to their homes in safety at the day's end. Before the meeting adjourned everyone agreed to meet back at the inn for their assignments immediately after dawn.
After the inn was locked down for the evening, Xena and Gabrielle went back to the hodgepodge spread of map pieces and began constructing one giant map on a huge piece of parchment. They stopped long enough to eat supper and eventually, after all the landmarks were properly placed as closely as they could figure based on the information they had, Xena's pain caused her to relent. She went upstairs to lie down while Gabrielle and Eli finished labeling the map and tracing sections of it onto smaller pieces of parchment.
Finally, exhausted, they matched up different areas to search with teams of volunteers. Eli noticed about halfway through that neither Xena nor Gabrielle was assigned to a search team. He wasn't either.
"Why aren't we listed?"
"Because Xena isn't well enough to make a trip up the mountain yet and she won't let me go without her."
"Does she know this?"
"Yes, we had this argument earlier today. I guess you could say we both won."
"And what about me?"
Gabrielle was too tired to argue. "Eli, you're the only one that can bless the water. You're not going anywhere near that mountain." She turned to go upstairs, but Eli was persistent.
"And that's just it? My opinion doesn't matter?"
Gabrielle sighed deeply, not wanting to argue with her mentor. She turned back to answer, "That's right. No matter what your opinion is, you're not going. I'm in charge. Not you, not Xena. Me . . . The other day, after Xena was injured, I came downstairs to a room full of people waiting for guidance. You hadn't taken the lead or even told these people what you know about Galen. You waited for one of us to do that, so I did it. And even though Xena woke up, she's not going to try to override my authority here. We're sending them into very dangerous territory, Eli. They have to have one person they turn to. With the Amazons coming, that person is me. So you're not going, because I say you're not going." She turned back to the stairs, but Eli asked one final question.
"Tell me Gabrielle, how are you going to lead the villagers and your Amazons into battle and remain on the Way of Love?" Without answering, Gabrielle climbed the stairs.
The fireplace had already been stoked for the night. I hope Alondra did that. Xena shouldn't be bending or lifting yet. Gabrielle sat down to enjoy the quiet, waiting a long while before she stood to undress. A pan of water was warming by the fire in order for her to wash off the day. After removing her clothes, she pulled a chair closer to the warmth of the open hearth. The warm water felt wonderful. It had been a busy day. Between their lunch with Eli, the meeting with the villagers, her argument with Eli, and the overwhelming frustration of not consummating her relationship with Xena, all she wanted to do was unwind.
An idea formed in her head. She spared a glance at Xena, who was resting comfortably asleep in their bed. I know she's right, but I was so close today to climaxing in her arms. We've waited so long. Her pulse quickened at the memory. Reclining in the chair, she closed her eyes and let the memory wash over her again. She could still feel it all. The tender kisses, the strength in Xena's thigh as she rode it up and down, Xena's hands on her breasts, fondling, teasing, pinching . . . Gabrielle took a deep breath and allowed her hands to flow across her skin. They moved down her legs and over her hips, across her ribs and up to her breasts where she reenacted Xena's earlier touches. She caressed and squeezed herself, tweaking her nipples, rolling them each between a finger and thumb. "Oh, Xena," she softly groaned. Soon her hips were lifting off the chair, moving in vain to find Xena's hands to stroke her.
The urge finally became too much. Leaving one hand on her breast, she trailed the other down across her stomach and between her legs. Her folds were dripping with desire. Her blonde head fell back in ecstasy as she began to move her hand in slow, purposeful circles. Gabrielle's breath was burdened, her chest heaving as she pursued release. As she approached climax, her hips began to buck, thrusting her swollen bud into her hand hard and fast. She held her breath as the moment approached until finally she expelled that deep breath and most of the cares of the day with it.
She stayed like that in the chair until her pulse slowed, still she moaned as she removed her hand from between her legs. Gabrielle busied herself with a rag and the warm water. She winced slightly as she cleaned between her legs, a lingering sensitivity calling out for more. Now relaxed, she donned her shift and carefully crawled in bed beside Xena. After kissing her goodnight on the cheek, Gabrielle lay on her back and took a deep, relaxing breath.
"That was unbelievably sexy."
Gabrielle gasped at the comment and sat straight up in bed. "You watched!" She then squealed and plunged her face into Xena's shoulder to hide.
She's so adorable. "Well, I started to say something, but gods, you were so unbelievably beautiful and then you whispered my name; to know that thinking of me could make you feel that way . . . wow. I couldn't help myself. I had to watch."
"I can't believe you watched." It sounded like a mantra.
"Please don't be mad. It was beautiful, just like you."
What could she say to a compliment like that? She couldn't be mad. Then she thought of an alternate plan. She scooted up so her lips were hidden beneath Xena's ear and whispered, "Did it excite you?"
Xena shivered at the question. "You know it did."
"Let me see . . . " With that Gabrielle began to drag a hand down the center of Xena's body. The warrior unconsciously parted her legs in anticipation of her intent. She took two fingers and drew them through Xena's folds. Clearly no longer in control of the situation, Xena gasped at the touch and tried to gain purchase against Gabrielle's hand. Instead, the queen removed them dripping with sweet, sticky desire.
Leaning up on one elbow, she brought the two fingers to her mouth and slowly suckled, moaning until every drop was gone. Xena's mouth was dry. "I can't believe you just did that."
"It's the cost of your ticket for tonight's show." Her revenge secure, she turned away from Xena toward the wall. She made a production out of getting comfortable, ending with rubbing her back and in particular, her ass, against Xena before settling to go to sleep. "Goodnight, Sweetheart."
Gabrielle dropped immediately off to sleep. Xena, on the other hand, was not so fortunate.
For four days the villagers went out to map and explore their mountain. Every morning they dropped the previous day's results off at the inn and informed Gabrielle about which area they would be searching that day. While the villagers were gone, Xena and Gabrielle updated the map. Eli paced and prayed. By the third day he was anointing all the doors and windows in town with water he had blessed. Xena was still skeptical, but she figured it couldn't hurt.
On the fifth day there was a commotion in front of the inn just before dark. Xena and Gabrielle went outside to see what was going on. "Look! It is the Queen!" rang out from the large group of leathered and feathered women.
"Ephiny!" Gabrielle called out as she ran to embrace her regent. "I'm so glad to see you!" Looking over Ephiny's shoulder, there were at least twenty Amazon warriors on one knee, waiting on her to acknowledge them. Pulling from her embrace, Gabrielle greeted them. "Welcome sisters."
As they rose, Xena crossed to greet Eponin. "Hello, Pony. How are you?"
"I'm doing well, Xena. The villagers tell me you had a little bit of trouble though."
"Yeah, have they told you what's going on?"
"Well, they tried, but they were so excited they didn't do a very good job of it," Pony answered, laughing.
About this time, Alondra came running out of the inn calling for Nolen. Gabrielle looked across the crowd of Amazons and villagers, but didn't see the young man she had sent to retrieve her warriors. "Ephiny, where's Nolen?"
Alondra heard this question and yelled, "What do you mean, 'Who's Nolen'?" Nolen is my son, the one she sent to find you."
Ephiny looked from the now hysterical Alondra to Gabrielle. "I'm sorry, my queen. I don't know who you're talking about. We came because something in these mountains is affecting our trade route. No one came to deliver your message. We only learned of your presence here from the villagers we met on the mountain side."
Hearing Ephiny's accounting, Alondra collapsed. Dante had appeared at her side at some point and began helping her back in the inn. "Xena, it's getting dark."
Xena looked at the horizon and nodded. "Gabrielle, we need to get everyone inside and button down for the night." She nodded her thanks to the villagers who had found the Amazons and urged them to hurry home too.
Once inside, Gabrielle began getting her warriors organized. Solari took charge of arranging the tables so there would be sleeping space for the warriors who wouldn't have beds upstairs. Chilapa organized a cooking detail to relieve the grief - stricken Alondra and Dante. Ephiny decided who got beds upstairs and who would sleep below. Meanwhile, Xena and Pony studied the maps they had so far. Pony made some additions and recounted their meeting with the villagers.
"We had just discovered a cave and were about to scout it out when we heard calls from below us on the mountain. It was the villagers. They tried to tell us what's going on and that we shouldn't go in the cave. Well, you know me. We're already there, why wait?" Xena laughed with understanding as Pony continued. "Then one of 'em said that our queen had told 'em specifically not to go into the caves. When he knew Gabrielle's name and could describe her, Ephiny pulled us off and said we had to come back to the village first."
"It's a good thing she did. If you managed to find the right cave, there's no way you would've been prepared to face what was on the inside." Xena could see Pony bristle at her comment. "Calm down, Pony. You know I'm not talking about your skills; I'm talking about this enemy."
"What in Hades is it?"
"Let's wait until Gabrielle gets everyone settled. She'll tell you and Ephiny first. We'll put together a plan and then explain it to the others."
Eponin was historically not a patient woman, but seeing Xena's resolve she changed the subject. "So have you made an honest woman out of my queen yet?"
"Pony! I can't believe you said that!"
"Why? Everyone knows . . . "
Xena cut her off short. "NO, everyone thinks they know."
"You mean you and Gabrielle have never . . . ?" There was a look of complete dismay on Eponin's face.
"What? And you and Ephiny have?" Pony's expression changed to one of embarrassment. "That's what I thought."
"Some warrior women we are, huh? Scared of a couple of girls."
"Damn right we are . . . " With that they both laughed out loud, knowing it was true. Xena looked over to see Ephiny and Gabrielle standing by the stairs with two plates of food each. "I think that's our signal. I'll get a jug of ale. You grab four mugs."
In the privacy of Xena and Gabrielle's room, the four friends spent their time during supper catching up. After the plates were returned downstairs and a pallet was laid for Ephiny and Eponin in front of the fireplace, the subject turned to the business at hand. The Amazons listened for better than a candlemark. Their expressions mirrored a story that went from bad to worse as they listened.
"I figure the girl who told Galen where the cave was must've been one of the girls we saved from Bacchus," Xena added to their story.
Gabrielle looked surprised. "I missed that, but it makes perfect sense. As a matter of fact, I'll bet the girl that ran away from him was too."
"Probably," Xena agreed. "The question now is what's next?"
"Well, I think you two were right in assuming that they're holed up in a cave. From what we saw, there's no other place on that mountain to be safe during the day," Pony began. "That means we have to search all the caves."
Ephiny looked worried. "And then what Eponin? You just go blazing in there and do battle?"
"No," Xena interjected. "That won't work."
Pony was perplexed. "Why not?"
"Because there's still over 30 of them and every one of them is as strong as three of us. Because if we go in their den, we're on their territory, which will give them an even bigger upper hand."
"And because we have to rescue Nolen." All three women turned to look at Gabrielle.
"I know you're upset about Nolen, but he's one of them now," Ephiny said, trying to comfort her queen.
"I'm not upset, I'm mad. And it's not too late. Xena, tell them it's not too late."
"Actually, Gabrielle is probably right." Xena turned to look at the confused Amazons. "There hasn't been a new moon since his disappearance. Bacchus used to hold the final ceremony for his converts on a new moon."
"Let me get this straight," Pony said, leaning forward. "You want us to not only defeat these bacchants, but you want us to save some boy?"
Gabrielle looked away from the table to the fire. "He's not a boy. He's a young man, and he was brave enough to volunteer to deliver my message to you, knowing he would have to travel all alone through the pass to get there." She looked back at Pony and finished her thought. "Sounds like a soul worth saving to me."
Eponin looked properly shamed. "I'm sorry, my Queen. Of course we'll do everything we can to find him as well."
"If that's the case we'll have to hurry," Ephiny observed. "The new moon comes in thee nights."
Suddenly, Xena jumped to her feet. "Of course! Why didn't I think of this before?" With that she leapt to her feet and charged toward the door.
"Should we follow?" Gabrielle called after her.
Xena looked back at her from the doorway. "No, Honey. I'll be right back." And with that she was gone.
Meanwhile the other two Amazons at the table were looking curiously at Gabrielle. "Honey?" they both asked at once.
Fortunately for Gabrielle, Xena wasn't gone too long. When she returned Gabrielle was being grilled by her two friends, but was sitting resolutely silent in her chair. Only the grin gave her away.
Xena had gone downstairs to find the map they had been updating daily. They moved the mugs of ale out of the way so it could be spread across the table.
"What are we looking for?" Gabrielle asked as Xena studied the map intently.
"This!" Xena announced as she pointed to a cave marked on the map. "I don't know why I didn't think of it before. It was when you mentioned that Nolen had traveled alone that made me realize what I was missing."
"Didn't think of what before, Xena? What are you talking about?" Gabrielle was completely confused.
Then Pony got it. "He was traveling alone. No big caravan or trade wagon, just him."
It was Ephiny's turn to ask this time. "Excuse me warrior girls, could you clue us in?"
"They had to be able to survey traffic through the pass. If they were too far off the route, they never would've found Nolen," Xena explained. "This guy Galen was rich, right. What if he remembers?"
"Remembers being rich?" Ephiny was still lost.
"He misses what he once had," Gabrielle concluded. "That's why he built an army. Not just for safety or power, but so that he could acquire the riches he once possessed from victims on the trade route."
The four women all sat there for a moment and let that sink in. When Gabrielle pointed to the map, the other three women followed the line she was tracing. Along the line of the trade route, there was only one cave marked. "You're right. It's the only one. It has to be that cave."
Xena looked at the three women in turn and asked the next logical question. "Now we know where we're going. What do we do when we get there?"
The women spent the next candlemark discussing their options. Finally they decided just to send scouts up the next morning and then try to come up with a plan later that evening.
"I think we should go downstairs and tell the others what's going on. They have a right to know what we're facing," Gabrielle announced as she stood to stretch. "Xena, Pony, do you want to pick the scouting party or ask for volunteers?"
The two warriors looked at one another and said, "We'll choose." The women that love them both laughed at their response.
"Ooooh, there's a big surprise," teased Ephiny, which only caused Gabrielle to laugh harder.
"Let's go," said Pony, stalking toward the door.
"She hates it when I tease her," Ephiny whispered as she followed to the door.
Xena grasped Gabrielle's elbow gently to keep her from leaving. She looked to Ephiny waiting at the door and said, "I'll tell you what. You two go on downstairs. We'll be there in a minute."
Gabrielle interpreted this move as a romantic one. She wrapped her arms around Xena's neck and looked up at her adoringly, waiting for a kiss. Instead, Xena took a deep breath and announced, "Sweetheart, I don't want you to go tomorrow."
This was not what Gabrielle had anticipated. She dropped her hands and turned away from Xena. "Why not?"
"Is your path still the Way of Love?"
"You know it is."
"Well, I talked to Eli yesterday and according to him, the Way of Love is still strict nonviolence. Even against creatures that are no longer human."
"What does that have to do with going on the scouting party?"
"What if we find something in that cave that we're not prepared for?"
"So what if we do?"
"What are you going to say to your Amazons, to Ephiny and Pony, your friends, when they're risking their lives in a battle with bacchants and you're not even carrying your staff? You're still figuring out what the Way of Love is. How are they supposed to understand it? The only thing they're going to hear is that their queen will no longer fight beside them in battle. Are you ready for the consequences of that announcement?"
"What if they ask you step down as queen? Are you so sure of the Way of Love, right now, this moment that you'd be willing to hand the rite of caste to Ephiny and walk away?"
Gabrielle had tears streaming down her face. She shook her head "no" in response to Xena's questioning, but didn't speak.
"I love you. And if your path is the Way of Love, that's fine. But my path is still the Way of the Warrior. In most circumstances I don't worry about protecting you. I know I'll be able to handle the situation. But I don't think Krishna is going to help me grow 4 additional arms tomorrow if everything goes to Hades in that cave." Xena paused, then crossed the room to take Gabrielle in her arms. "I just found out you're in love with me. I can't bear to lose you now."
Gabrielle spent the time in Xena's arms gathering her thoughts. Opening a gap between them, she looked into those brilliant blue eyes and knew that her partner wasn't angry that she wouldn't fight, only scared. "My Love, I know you want to protect me. But don't you see I have to go tomorrow for some of the very reasons you named. How am I supposed to face my Amazons when I send the very best of our warriors and trackers to face a powerful enemy and yet I don't go with them? How can I ask them to risk their lives, when I won't risk my own?"
"Because they are willing to defend their own lives. You're not."
Gabrielle was losing this battle and she knew it. "What about Nolen?"
"What about him?"
"You and I are the only ones that have seen him. If you're leading the scouting party and doing your best to make sure that everyone is safe, how are you going to look for Nolen?"
Xena took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "I wasn't."
"You weren't going to look for him? But you said yourself that he isn't truly one of them until after the new moon."
"And if he's in that cave with over 30 other bacchants, how do think I'm going to get him out alive? His mind's not right, Gabrielle. He won't come willingly."
"So you've given up on saving him." The look on Xena's face answered her question. "Well, I can't live with that."
"There may not be any other way. What do you want me to do Gabrielle? Do you really want me to lead your warriors into a battle inside a cave that I don't think we can win, just so we can try save a young man who volunteered for an assignment he knew damned well he might not survive?"
"Xena, you're not the one that sent him. I sent him through that pass. I have to know if there's anything we can do to save him. I'll be safe enough surrounded by warriors, if my only job is to find him. And you'll be safer, too. I'm worried that you'll be distracted looking for him because you know I want so desperately to find him and get hurt in the process."
Xena looked sadly at her one great love. "Are we going to have this argument every time?"
"I don't know, are we? I know that yours is the Way of the Warrior. It's who you are. But if my path is the Way of Love, under what possible circumstances would my place not be by your side? You are my love. Where you go, I go. Remember?"
Their fight was finished and left behind as they walked downstairs to talk to the Amazons. When their meeting was over the scouting party had seven members. The queen was one of them.
The scouting party left the inn the exact moment the sun broke over the horizon in the East. They traveled until mid - morning when they stopped briefly to eat and review the plan. Xena addressed the group. "Remember, we're not here to do battle. We're only here to figure out if this is the bacchants cave and if there's a way we can attack them and not lose all our forces. Also remember that today your queen has only one assignment; she is going to look for Nolen in the event that we encounter the bacchants. Solari, you go where she goes; if you get in trouble, don't wait to call for help. The queen is unarmed. We must protect her."
They all looked at Gabrielle reassuringly. They never questioned Xena's explanation. They simply accepted that this was the best way to accomplish their objective. All the while, Gabrielle battled feelings of guilty, knowing she was responsible for Xena's lies by omission.
The party reached the mouth of the cave less than a candlemark later. Entering two by two they flanked the walls, one looking up and one looking ahead. Not far into the cave, the walls narrowed into a bottleneck space leading to another room. Xena let the way, with Gabrielle tucked safely in the middle of the line.
Crouching at the far opening, Xena waited for her eyes to adjust to the growing darkness. She was quickly able to distinguish four sleeping bodies. Stepping to the middle of the room, the Amazons filed in behind her. Four of the warriors stationed themselves by a bacchant. Gabrielle made a quick check to make sure none of them was Nolen. After giving the all - clear sign, each produced a small vial of Eli's blessed water. On Xena's signal, they poured the contents of their vial onto the unsuspecting bacchants' forehead. They didn't even scream; they just burst into flames.
The effectiveness of the water caused slightly unnerved glances all around. The flames had burned brightly for only an instant, but long enough for Xena to worry that they might have attracted attention to themselves. They waited in the small room for long, tense moments until they were sure no one was coming.
There was another opening on the far side of this room. As Xena approached it she felt an increased draft, which meant the other room was larger. She also smelled a sickly, rotten smell. Looking over her shoulder, the Amazons were all making sour faces. It doesn't smell like death though. It smells like . . . rotten eggs! Yes! Xena pointed to Gabrielle and Pony and then at her own chest. She signaled that they were going to look inside the opening.
The room was huge, with large fires burning around a pool of water in the center. Gabrielle anxiously looked for Nolen while the two warriors took inventory of their surroundings. Bacchants were littered around the room, lost in heavy slumber. Exchanging glances, Xena and Pony nodded to one another. They'd seen enough. Xena's signal to pull out caused Gabrielle's shoulders to drop disheartened. I was afraid of that . . . thought Xena.
Silently the women retreated from the lair. They continued to move wordlessly down the mountain until Xena called them to a stop. Pony drew a replica of the large room on the ground for the others to see. Xena and Gabrielle both added details they remembered.
"How does this help us?" Solari asked. "It looks like there's only one way in; that means only one way out. And if you'll excuse me, it looks like a big - ass room."
Ephiny threw a sideways glance at the younger woman, smiling ruefully. "Don't worry, Solari. I know that look," she said as she nodded toward Xena. "She's got a plan."
Xena looked a little embarrassed, then turned to Pony. "Did you see the water?"
"Yeah, it was coming from the far wall. There was an opening about halfway up and then it streamed down the wall."
"Do you suppose that comes from an inside source or the surface?"
Pony thought about that a moment and then reasoned aloud, "If I had to guess, I'd say it was melted snow, which means there's an inlet from the surface. Why"
"Well . . . " Xena began.
The youngest member of the group suddenly spoke, interrupting Xena. The older Amazons all looked at her, dismayed, except for Gabrielle, who was watching Xena to see if she was going to reprimand her.
Xena took a deep breath and exhaled carefully. Pony said was a good kid. She's just young. We'll talk about timing later. "Okay. Go ahead." Now it was the Amazons' turn to look at Xena, shocked by her tolerance of the interruption.
Suddenly embarrassed, the slight young woman hesitated. Regaining her courage after a smile from Gabrielle, she asked "What was that terrible smell?"
Time to teach, Xena . . . "What did it smell like to you, Talia?"
She thought about it for a moment, then decided. "Rotten eggs."
"Exactly. Good." Talia beamed under Xena's compliment. "They call it sulphur. It usually comes from a spring in the ground."
Gabrielle looked doubtful. "I didn't see a spring."
"I didn't either, but that doesn't mean it wasn't there. It could've been out of sight or in another room." Xena replied. "This is very good news for us."
"How's that?" asked Ephiny.
"Sulphur gives off a gas. There was a huge build - up of it in that room."
Pony was smiling now. "And is this gas flammable by any chance?"
"Yes it is."
"But Xena, how are we going to ignite the gas without blowing one of us up?" Gabrielle asked, worried. "We have no black powder from Chin. How could anyone get close enough to ignite it and still get out before the explosion?
"No one could," Xena agreed.
Talia spoke up brightly. "That's why she wondered about an outside water source."
She hadn't realized she was interrupting again, but since she was right Xena decided to let her continue. "Go on . . . "
"If we could gather enough oil, we could pour it into the water. It would eventually end up in that big room. Then we light the oil and boom."
The Amazons all looked from Talia to Xena expectantly. "Well done. Pony was right about you. Now don't interrupt me again." She smiled to take the sting out of her admonishment, allowing Talia to beam under the warrior's compliment.
"What now?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena looked from Gabrielle to Pony and asked, "We've got, what, less than five hours of daylight left?"
"And it's more than three hours down the mountain."
"A little less going down," Pony agreed.
Xena nodded her agreement. "Gabrielle, I need you to take the Amazons down the mountain as quickly as possible. Use your best judgment. If you think your runners can get to the other villages by nightfall, send a message asking for them to gather all the oil they have and bring it to us at first light in ale barrels. Pony, you and Talia and I are going to look for this water source." Talia practically hopped up and down she was so excited. "Don't be too glad I chose you. We're going hard and fast for the next five hours." Xena said sternly. She bobbed her head with understanding.
Xena pulled Gabrielle off to the side. "Hurry going down this mountain, but be careful." She smiled as she leaned to whisper in the blonde's ear. "After all, I'm well now. We don't need you injured to slow up the process."
Gabrielle blushed, surprised at Xena's attentions. She tilted her head to Xena's ear and replied, "You're the one going hard and fast, remember. Come back to me in one piece." With that she quickly kissed Xena's cheek and turned to leave. The returning Amazons followed behind as Gabrielle began running.
Xena turned to the remaining two, both of whom were standing there with their mouths wide open. "Let's go. And don't run with your mouths open." Stifling a giggle the warriors chased after Xena, who was already on the way up the mountain.
Too many candlemarks later, Gabrielle stood outside waiting in the dark. She paced back and forth, chewing on a fingernail.
"My Queen . . . " When she didn't respond, Ephiny walked up behind her and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle, looking out into the darkness will not bring either one of our loves home any sooner."
Sighing, Gabrielle agreed. "I know, but I just can't stay there."
"And yet it isn't safe for you out here, either."
Gabrielle placed her hands over her face and took deep calming breaths. Ephiny continued, "If I don't bring you back in, I'm afraid Eli will come out here to carry you inside."
This caused them both laugh. "He could try," Gabrielle retorted. Then she paused. "I know you're right. Let's go in. There's no sense in having all of us in danger."
As they turned to go in, the sounds of a chase preceded Xena and Pony into the village. Pony was carrying Talia over her shoulder while Xena followed, looking behind them for attackers. Ephiny called for the Amazons, who came pouring out the front door. Each one had a weapon in one hand and a small clay vial of blessed water in the other. They formed a protective wall around an exhausted Pony, who handed Talia off to Chilapa.
"Here they come!" Xena shouted. Six bacchants swarmed around the group of women. A battle ensued. The bacchants swooped down at the women, slashing at them with their claws or trying to knock them down.
Solari sliced at one with her sword, leaving a gash across its chest. Stunned, the bacchant paused long enough for her to hurl the clay vial at it. The vial broke on impact and the bacchant burst into flames. Immediately, two things happened. One of the pieces of clay flew toward a nearby bacchant, striking it cleanly in the head. It fell to the ground, unconscious. The other bacchants were shocked by the explosion and scattered, all turning to fly back to the mountain.
Cautiously, the Amazons surrounded the downed bacchant. He lay motionless on the ground. One of the women opened her vial, intending to pour it the creature.
"Wait!" came a call from behind them. They turned and then made room for their queen, who was walking toward the bacchant. She paused to look at Xena. "I have to check."
She took a staff from a bystander and flipped the creature over. Gabrielle gasped, "Nolen!"
The Amazons tied Nolen up in the barn. Once he regained consciousness he hissed and spat at them, struggling against his ties. Gabrielle made the decision to tell Dante that Nolen had been found, but felt it was best for neither he nor Alondra to see him in this condition.
Back inside, Xena was helping Chilapa tend Talia's wounds. Gabrielle approached the women as they worked to mend an angry gash on the young Amazons' left shoulder. A small reel was sticking out from between two of her ribs. There was blood trickling out of it. She wanted to ask what happened, but instead put her hand on Xena's shoulder and softly said, "I'll be in bed. Don't stay up too long. The messengers all left this afternoon; we should have barrels of oil here in the morning." Before she walked away, Gabrielle gently rubbed her hand back and forth soothingly across Xena's tense shoulders,.
When she opened the door to their room, Ephiny looked up from the floor. Pony was sound asleep in front of her, curled up like a child. The regent was curled around her back, holding her securely. Gods, what happened on that mountainside? Gabrielle held up one hand to keep Ephiny where she was and then crawled under the covers of the bed she shared with Xena.
She must've fallen asleep. Sometime much later, the fire had burned down and Xena was lying in bed. Gabrielle was surprised when she realized she was already securely in Xena's arms. She lifted her head to find Xena staring at the ceiling.
Gabrielle sighed and then whispered, "What happened?"
A tear stole from the corner of Xena's eye. "Damned kid." Her chest began to quiver as she fought losing control of her emotions. Gabrielle tenderly wiped the tear away and kissed where it had fallen.
"It wasn't your fault."
"How do you knowthat? You weren't there."
"Xena, it could never be your fault. You're not perfect. You make mistakes. But you never make those mistakes in battle. Never." Xena glanced at her quickly, then looked back to the ceiling. "Now tell me what happened."
"We found the inlet for the water. I knew we were pushing it time wise, but the kid can run with me easily. I figured we'd be alright. We were almost to the bottom of the mountain when they started tailing us. They attacked us from the air. Then they tried to circle around in front. I was afraid Talia would lose her head, but she didn't.
Then at one point, she suddenly veered off to the left. I didn't know why, but I trusted her because to that point she had done so well. The next thing I know a bacchant is coming at me from behind a tree. I hear a war cry and the next thing I know that kid has launched herself off a ledge above me and is flying through the air. She tackled that thing midair. They twisted and lurched until they finally fell to the ground. By the time I got there the bacchant was dead and Talia was struggling to breath." The tears began to fall again. Gabrielle moved to hold her in her arms. "That kid saved my life tonight. And now she's struggling to keep her own downstairs."
Gabrielle kissed the dark head resting against her twice and then spoke. "Xena, do you remember what you told me about Nolen? That he'd made his own decision, knowing the risks. Well, Talia did the same thing today. You know as well as I do that if you hadn't chosen her to stay, she would've asked."
"Yeah, but did she have to be a damned hero?" Xena whispered.
"So you and Pony have the corner on being heroes? Come on, Xena. She did what Pony had trained her to do. And she followed her instincts, which sound pretty amazing to me."
She could feel Xena smile against her chest. "It was pretty amazing. Even I was impressed until I saw them crash to the ground. Then I was just scared."
"Xena look at me." Gabrielle took her warrior's face in both hands and looked directly into her eyes. "We both have to climb that mountain tomorrow and kill an army of bacchants. We have to let this guilt go. Both of us." She paused to let that sink in. "We got lucky. Nolen and Talia are here with us and there's still a chance to save them both. But we can't go up there tomorrow thinking about them. We have to leave them here, physically and emotionally. Okay?"
Xena closed the distance between them and brushed Gabrielle's lips with her own. "When did you get so wise?" She asked as she leaned their foreheads together.
"Well, I know this warrior . . . " She smiled instead of finishing her sentence. "Come on, let's get some sleep."
By midmorning, oil from all the villages had arrived by wagon. There were 15 ale barrels total. They fixed harnesses so the small barrels could be strapped on the Amazons' backs. Before they left, Gabrielle went to check on Nolen, who was sleeping soundly. Xena went back inside to find Talia awake. "Hey kid."
"Hi," she whispered. Her throat sounded dry.
"Are you thirsty?"
Talia shook her head up and down once. Xena fetched a cup of water from the adjoining table and held it so she could drink. "Thanks. You ready to go?" She sounded weak and disappointed.
"Yeah, we're about to head out."
"Wish I was going with you."
"Hey, you were the hero last night. At least let me blow up the mountain, will ya?" Xena teased.
Color rose in Talia's cheeks with Xena's remark. "Well, okay. Maybe just this once."
Xena smiled in spite of her worry. This kid has spunk. I like that in an Amazon. "You just rest, because there's going to be a party tonight when we get back." With that promise she turned and walked out the door.
The climb was hard labor even without heavy barrels of oil. It was torturous with them. Xena and Pony had paused regretfully at the site Talia had fallen and then looked at each other angrily. Ephiny was watching with Gabrielle from a distance. "These things are so dead."
"Oh, yeah," the queen agreed.
The climb to the water inlet took them well past midday. As the women were setting down their loads by the stream, Pony paused to look at the sun's position. "Xena, my friend, we had better be right about this because there's no way in Hades we'll ever get back to safety before dark."
Xena looked up as well and agreed. "I know, Pony. I know."
"Then let's get to it," Eponin ordered loud enough for all the women to hear.
Each woman took the stopper out of her barrel and waited for her turn to begin pouring the oil into the stream. Xena was careful to make sure that the next Amazon in line was pouring before the preceding barrel ran out. Pony emptied her barrel last as Xena took out her flint and lit a torch. "Is everyone ready?"
A cheer went up as she touched the torch to the top of the water. A blue flame rushed toward the wall and down the inlet. A sudden silence settled over the Amazons as if they were holding their collective breath. Time was marked with pounding heartbeats.
Gabrielle came up behind Xena and slipped her hand through her arm. "How long do you think it will take?"
"I don't know. I'm pretty certain we had enough oil to cover the distance between here and the cave. I just don't . . . " Xena's thought was interrupted by a giant storm of rock exploding from the side of the mountain. Most of the women were knocked to the ground; all reflexively covered their heads.
"Yeah!" called out Pony. Without thinking she grabbed Ephiny and kissed her soundly. The other Amazons let out whistles and cat calls.
Xena looked at Gabrielle and grinned evilly. "Good idea," she announced, as she grabbed Gabrielle to kiss her.
"Xena," she protested quietly.
"What? Not in front of the kids?" she asked teasingly.
"There are no kids here, my Queen," Solari called from above.
This caused a great round of cheering from the Amazon warriors. Gabrielle, embarrassed, buried her head under Xena's chin. She was laughing so hard she was shaking. Braving a look up at Xena, she shook her head in surrender and wrapped her arms around the warrior's neck. Xena paused to flash a roguish grin at the others before kissing their queen soundly. After the kiss, Gabrielle called to her sisters and said, "Let's go girls. We have a party to go to!"
The triumphant group of warriors arrived happily after nightfall. Members of the other villages had traveled to greet them after seeing the explosion. A huge bonfire was burning. There were people dancing and clapping to music and food lined long tables outside the inn. Talia was resting happily from a reclining chair by the door.
As they approached the bonfire, there was a rush to greet them. People shook their hands and slapped them on their backs. They were led to the food and drink with a trail of villagers behind them. Xena and Gabrielle had managed to sidestep the overwhelming reception, preferring to stand back and watch the joy displayed before them.
"I was afraid they'd be angry," Xena commented absently.
"Angry?" Gabrielle looked up at Xena, confused, "Why would they be angry? We saved their villages and restored their trade route."
"We killed their children."
Gabrielle looked back at the people celebrating, amazed. "I hadn't thought of that."
"You didn't kill their children, Xena" Eli said from behind them. "Galen killed their children." Xena didn't speak, but nodded her head in comprehension. "I know you're both hungry and tired, but there's something you need to see."
The women followed Eli to the barn where Nolen was still tied up. He was awake and struggling against his bonds again.
Gabrielle looked from Eli to Xena and asked, "Why is he still a bacchant?"
"I don't know." Xena was confused too. "I assumed that when we killed Galen he would return to normal like the bacchae had after we killed Bacchus."
Suddenly there was a crash through the roof of the barn. A tall figure with pale skin and a distorted face landed directly in front of them. He was powerfully built and had one long fangs on either of this mouth. "Then ya shounna assumed ya killed me."
"Galen?" Xena asked, shocked.
"Indeed. I believe ya must be the one that killed me army today."
"But how . . . ?"
"Come now, Warrior. Ya dinna really expect me to sleep with tha children, did you?" He laughed and it made Xena's skin crawl.
She turned her head to the side and said over her shoulder. "You two get out of here. Go get help." As Gabrielle and Eli fled to the door, Xena grabbed her chakram and squared off with the bacchant. "You're right. I killed your army today and tonight, I'm gonna kill you."
She prepared to lunge at him, but he held up his hand toward her, causing her to pause. "Perhaps later, but truthfully, you're not why I'm here."
With that Galen launched back out the roof of the barn. Nolen cried after him, but was left, forgotten. Xena spun toward the door and the now screaming crowd. She ran outside to find the village in absolute chaos. The Amazons had drawn their swords, looking skyward. Many were retrieving their small vials of blessed water.
Eli was trying to hurry everyone indoors when Galen landed directly in front of him. Without a moment's hesitation he reached out and grabbed Eli by the neck, lifting him so his feet dangled above the ground. "This is the second time ya've had somethin' to do with me losin' muh home. You'll not be doin' it again."
"Put. Him. Down." Xena growled.
Galen turned to face his opposition, but didn't set Eli down. He found Xena flanked by a wall of warriors who were carefully attempting to circle around him.
"Now look, I'm plenty mad at the lot of ya, but I only came for this fella here."
"Why him?" called out Gabrielle.
"Unless I'm mistaken, he's the only one that cun bless the water. Warriors cun be beaten, but I have no answer tuh this holy man's magic. Now if ya don't mind, I'll be takin' this fella and havin' my leave of ya."
His answer was Xena's chakram severing the arm holding Eli. He screamed with rage and looked incredulously at his wound as Eli hit the ground and crawled away.
Xena went on the offensive. "Sheeeeyah!" she cried as she lunged through the air at him. She launched a kick at his head as soon as she landed. He blocked it with the stub of his amputated arm, unfazed. He shoved his other hand into Xena's chest, sending her flying through the air.
Pony and Solari attacked next. They landed blows with their swords, but Galen seemed to not notice the wounds. Suddenly he punched Pony in the face, snapping her head back viciously. In response, Ephiny hurled her vial at him. A small flame burned on his back but he didn't burst into flames. He bent his knees and launched into the air, but Xena's whip caught him around the ankles and she jerked him back to earth.
"Where do you think you're goin'," Xena taunted.
Encouraged, others began throwing their vials at the bacchant while Xena joined Solari in the fray. Her sword in one hand and the chakram in the other, she worked with Solari to batter the now burning Galen, who was again on his feet. Finally, an opening appeared. Xena sliced the chakram down his chest and Ephiny splashed an entire bucket of blessed water into the wound.
Suddenly he was burning from the inside out. His face contorted in anger as he sent one last scream up to the sky. And then he was gone.
Xena clasp wrists with Solari in thanks and then went to check on Pony. Gabrielle was standing with her arm around Ephiny's waist as Chilapa was assuring her that the unconscious Amazon would be just fine. "I guess you showed him," Gabrielle teased as she bumped her hip against Ephiny.
"Well," she said angrily, "He hit my girl!"
Gabrielle laughed as she continued. "Your girl, huh?"
Ephiny kneeled beside Eponin and took her hand. "Yeah, my girl."
"Sounds good," Pony mumbled. She looked up at Ephiny, bleary - eyed, and smiled. "Did you kick his butt, Baby?" The Amazons surrounding them all burst out laughing.
Gabrielle was enjoying this moment with her sisters when Xena's voice sounded beside her ear. "You need to come." Without question, she followed Xena back to the barn. Dante was standing in front of an angry and frantic Nolen; he was holding a bucket of blessed water that he had retrieved from one of the barrels Eli had been placing around the village all week. Eli stood beside him, speaking quietly to him.
"I don't care what she said!" Dante yelled at Eli. "Look at him! He's still one of them!"
And he was. It was a bacchant laying before them, not his son. "I can't let him live like this, killing others, drinking their blood. I can't."
Xena stepped away from Gabrielle and walked toward the distraught man. She held out her hand and offered, "Do you want me to do it?"
"Xena, no!" cried Gabrielle.
Without looking at her, Xena answered her cry. "I remember, Gabrielle. I remember what it felt like knowing he had taken you." She shook her head resolutely at the memory. "I wouldn't have let you live like that either."
Dante was sobbing in front of Xena. With tears streaming down his face he looked into her eyes and managed, "Thank you." He handed her the bucket and turned away.
Xena looked over at Gabrielle with a face full of regret. Then without hesitation she wheeled toward Nolen, throwing the contents of the bucket on him. He screamed and struggled against the ropes. Pieces of the distorted bacchant face began to fall away.
Miraculously, his human face began to emerge beneath the melting façade. As he came to his senses, Nolen stopped screaming. His father sobbed uncontrollably until he heard, "Father?"
Not believing his ears, Dante spun toward Nolen. He raced across the room, taking his completely human son in his arms, ropes and all.
Xena looked at Eli, who was staring at her in shock. "Hey, don't ask me. It's your water . . . " She handed him the bucket and walked to Gabrielle, folding her in an embrace. Leaning back, Gabrielle reached up to Xena and kissed her. Once their lips parted, a brilliant smile illuminated her face. "My girl."
Xena returned the smiled and agreed. "Yeah, your girl."
They laughed together as they turned toward the door. Suddenly Gabrielle spun toward Xena and accused, "You knew that was going to happen!"
"I did not!" Xena exclaimed. "How could I know that?"
"I don't know. You have many skills."
Xena stopped walking to slide her arms around Gabrielle's waist. She leaned toward Gabrielle's ear and burred seductively, "Once we get to the Amazon village, you're going to discover that I have an entire set of skills you have never seen."
Having its desired effect, Gabrielle trembled in Xena's arms. "Are we leaving tonight?"