Xena was struggling to hold on to the control of her own passions, afraid if she let them go completely she might hurt the bard in some way. It was a struggle she went through every time they made love, and so far she had won every battle. In the past, before Gabrielle, it hadn't mattered to Xena in the least if she injured a lover a little. A few bruises or scrapes, even the odd broken bone, had meant nothing to her. But with the gentle bard, she was determined never to give her story-teller a reason to fear the love the warrior felt or the passions Gabrielle invoked in her soul. So she fought to always maintain the control she had over herself.
Letting her fingers once again stroke softly over the sensitive skin of Gabrielle's back, Xena dropped her head to the bard's breasts. The bard's own hands were rubbing across Xena's upper arms as her lips and teeth nipped at the delicate places along the warrior's neck and shoulder. Gabrielle revelled in the softness of Xena's skin with the feeling of hard muscle and tendons underneath. The smell of leather, strong and almost overwhelming, mixed with the scent of Xena's own skin, served only to excite the bard even more. She would have happily stayed there forever, absorbing the smells of the woman she loved above all others.
Feeling Xena's hands move down her back and begin caressing the outside of her thighs was enough to bring a gasp to Gabrielle's throat and a smile to Xena's face at the bard's reaction. It wasn't until the first time she had made love with the warrior woman that Gabrielle realised just how sensitive her thighs were to the gentle touch of another person. Even when the bard had touched herself, she hadn't known the feelings which would shudder through her.
Xena raised her head, seeking out Gabrielle's lips. Two mouths joined in a passionate embrace of their own as the warrior's hands continued to stroke and caress the bard's thighs, occasionally reaching around to Gabrielle's back to run knowledgable fingers along the well-toned muscles. For several minutes, Gabrielle's world centred on the feeling of Xena's soft lips against her own and the warrior's sure hands drawing trembling responses from her body. The cool brush of Xena's gauntlet armour against her flushed skin would cause a soft moan to flow from deep within Gabrielle's chest, to be echoed by one from Xena.
Slowly, with each tantalising caress of Gabrielle's inner thighs, Xena let her fingers move closer to the warm, wet centre of the bard's passions. For the bard, this was the sweetest torture she had ever endured, but she did nothing to hurry the warrior's gentle lovemaking. Xena's knowing hands could draw sensations from Gabrielle's body that even the bard herself had never conceived could be there until Xena had finally come to her one night four seasons ago. Trusting the warrior with both her heart and her passion, Gabrielle was willing to permit the warrior to do whatever she pleased. She surrendered her soul completely to the other woman. Xena would never hurt her, and her desires would be fulfilled in ways Gabrielle had never thought possible before.
Xena's fingertips finally brushed against Gabrielle's aroused centre, causing the bard to groan with pleasure, her hips rocking forward, encouraging the warrior the deepen the touch. Gabrielle could feel the brush of armoured forearm along her inner thigh, the contrast in temperatures, hot skin and cool metal, arousing her further. Slow, gentle fingers circled the bard's centre, already bringing a moaning reply from the younger woman. Gabrielle reached over Xena's shoulders and grasped the uprights on the back of the chair, having given up the struggle to hold on to her own mind. Now it was just her body and the sensations Xena was bringing out with the soft touch of her fingers.
The warrior carefully wrapped her other arm around her lover so Gabrielle wouldn't slip or fall. The bard had lifted her legs, enveloping Xena's waist and the back of the chair, trusting the tall woman to keep her safe. Their lips locked together, the unhurried movements of the warrior's hand slowly pushed Gabrielle out onto the edge of her passion, holding her there for a seeming eternity. Gabrielle's entire body was shuddering in barely restrained orgasm, Xena holding the bard over the chasm of her own release. Unable to continue the kiss any longer, the bard allowed her head to drop once more onto Xena's broad shoulder. Shaking violently, Gabrielles legs tightened their grip around Xena's waist, her hands clutching strongly at the chairs uprights until her knuckles showed whitely through her tanned skin. The bard's lips were pressed hard against Xena's shoulder, barely muffling the cries coming from her throat. Tears of joy and pleasure flowed down the bard's cheeks, the warrior feeling their hot wetness as they rolled down her bare back.
Xena applied a fraction more pressure against Gabrielle and felt the sudden tightening of every muscle in the bard's body, the shaking so strong it almost threatened to throw both women from the chair. Gabrielle's head snapped back and an almost primal scream roared from her throat as the breaking of the tension within her body tore through her. Xena held on firmly, never stopping the slow circling of Gabrielle's centre, drawing the release out for as long as the other woman could stand.
The bard finally relaxed, crying and shuddering in Xena's strong, loving arms. The warrior gently wrapped her hands around Gabrielle's thighs and lifted her limp, unprotesting body against her own chest. Walking slowly, Xena lowered the bard onto the bed and lay down beside her, letting the still weeping woman burrow into the comfort of her embrace. After several minutes, Gabrielle calmed and simply lay in Xena's arms enjoying the closeness, listening to the taller woman's even heartbeat.
"You make me feel so special sometimes, Xena," Gabrielle whispered. "I'll always love you for the way you make me feel." The bard's lips began to softly kiss the valley between Xena's breasts.
"Relax a while, Gabrielle. We have all night," Xena said, gently placing her own lips against the blonde hair under her chin. "I'll always love you too. You gave me hope when I honestly thought there was none."
Xena listened while Gabrielle's breathing deepened slightly as she allowed herself to slide into a light doze. Still embracing the bard closely, the warrior permitted her own eyes to close for a few moments. She was anything but sleepy, though. Xena concentrated on unlocking the tight muscles along her back and shoulders. Once again she had won her battle to maintain control over her passions and not let them go completely. More than anything she feared losing that control over herself. In many ways, it was like walking a knife-edge. It didn't matter whether it was her passions, her anger, her rage or even her sense of humour; she was terrified of letting any of her emotions have full rein, afraid she would be unable to bring them back under control if they should ever be released.
Though she feared a full release of her passion, she was more afraid of the anger and rage she knew was burning deep in her soul. Stepping off the path of destruction she had been on may have changed her life, but it didn't stop the red heat of her rage from burning within. It was only the iron control she had over it that kept it in check.
Even the decision to always be a gentle lover with Gabrielle had been a conscious choice on the warrior's part. It had meant seeking something of herself that she thought was long gone, and that was why it had taken the tall woman so long before she could bring herself to go to the bard. She'd had to find the gentle part of herself that existed before the Warrior Princess, before Cortese. Xena hoped she had found that part of herself because she knew, lurking just beneath the surface, there was that other Xena, the one that didn't care how painfully or roughly she made love to another. That Xena sought only the physical release of orgasm, having little or no regard for the person she was with. Gabrielle deserved better than that, and Xena knew it. However much she loved Gabrielle, that other Xena was always hidden nearby, waiting to take from the other woman what the bard was freely giving from her heart.
Xena felt the dozing bard stir against her chest as the younger woman slowly woke. Soft lips began to explore the curves and planes of the warrior's breast, reigniting the passion in Xena's soul. Taking a moment to strengthen the control she had on her emotions, she allowed herself to enjoy, at least in part, the feeling of raw passion flowing through her veins. Regardless of how hard the battle may be to always maintain control over herself, Xena was not prepared to give up on the wonderful feelings the younger woman drew from her heart and soul, even though she could never allow herself to feel them completely. The little she did experience was barely enough to quench the hunger in her soul.
"Did you notice the look the guard on the door gave us this morning?" Gabrielle asked as the two travellers made their way across the compound headed for the stable.
"What look?" Xena queried back. She had seen it but hadn't wanted to embarrass the bard by saying anything.
"That raised eyebrow and a blush like I haven't seen anywhere except inside a pomegranate," Gabrielle replied.
"What do you expect? Someone was screaming loud enough to outdo a harpy last night. And I am pretty sure it wasn't me." The wicked grin on Xena's face told the bard everything she had wanted, and not wanted, to know. "Just because parts of the palace are made of thick cave walls, not all of it is, especially the door to our rooms. But you tend to forget things like that in moments of, um, passion."
Gabrielle poked the warrior striding along next to her just under her side armour. It was like poking a rock wall. "So gag me next time, will you?" the bard grumped.
Xena glanced down at the other woman, grateful she was still too sleepy to see the look in her blue eyes. Gagging the bard was never going to be an option as far as the warrior was concerned, not even as a joke. Aside from genuinely enjoying the sounds of love Gabrielle made when they were together, it was just too close to some of the things she had done to other people long ago, things she never wanted to do with the gentle bard. If Xena ever permitted herself to perform even that small act, who knows how long it would be before the warrior was doing far worse. She shuddered at the thought.
"You all right, Xena?" Gabrielle asked, noticing the slight trembling from the warrior beside her.
"Yea, I'm fine. Just a little cool this morning," the warrior quickly replied, hoping the other woman didn't see the look of bleak fear in her usually icy eyes.
"Thought you warrior types didn't feel the cold. Glad to see you're human after all," the bard muttered to herself as they entered the stable.
Xena immediately headed for the stall where Argo was being stabled, picking up her saddle as she passed. Gabrielle stood in the warming patch of sunshine at the open doors, enjoying the smells of the building. She had fond memories of another stable, far away from the Amazon Nation, where the two of them had taken shelter from a thunderstorm. Surrounded by sweet smelling hay and fresh grain, Xena had finally come to the bard and offered herself as a lover, an offer the younger woman had willingly accepted. Gabrielle smiled to herself. She could still remember the hesitant approach the warrior had made, even though it was the one thing the bard had wanted above all else. It had been like the warrior was afraid of something, something that Gabrielle was still trying to figure out after all this time.
The bard was still re-playing the wonderful memories of that entire night inside her head when she heard a faint sound above her. Pulling herself back into the here and now, she glanced over her head. All she could see was the ladder leading up to the hay loft and the dark hole of its entrance. A quick glance at Xena showed she was still busy talking to Argo and getting her saddled up for the day ahead. The bard thought it wouldn't take a moment to investigate the noise she'd heard. Putting thought into action, Gabrielle decided to see what the sound had been, knowing Xena was close by if there was any trouble. Grabbing the rope to pull the ladder down, the bard quickly climbed into the loft above.
Usually the hay loft was bright and airy, but someone had closed the big bay doors they used when hauling the hay bales into the loft. It left the room dim and warm, filled with the scent of summer hay, the smell of horses rising up from below. There was some light coming in from the hatchway behind her, and Gabrielle used this to see if there was anyone in the loft. Moving as silently as she could over the hay covering the floor of the loft, Gabrielle tried to listen for any sounds above the slight rustling she was making. Stopping for a moment, she focused her ears carefully. Over in the far corner she could just make out the faint noise of someone weeping softly.
Not wishing to startle whoever it might have been, Gabrielle walked as quietly as she knew how through the bales towards the whimpering little cries. To the bard's ears, it didn't sound like a child, and she guessed it might be one of the grown women. Common sense also told the bard that only a grown warrior could have pulled the ladder up behind her. Gabrielle's soft heart was already reaching out to the unknown woman just on the other side of the bales. Stepping around the last of them, the bard could faintly make out the sight of a small Amazon warrior sitting hunched over her knees, trying to stifle the sound of her tears by wrapping her arms around her face. She must have been moving more quietly than she realised, because the warrior suddenly leapt to her feet, surprised, her hands coming up defensively.
Gabrielle stood very still, holding her hands out in front of her. "It's all right. Really. It's just that I heard you crying from downstairs and thought you might like to talk to someone," she said softly.
The warrior's eyes grew wider as she realised just who was standing in front of her. "P P Princess G Gabrielle. I'm sorry. I didn't know it was you," the woman stammered, quickly dropping her defensive stance. "I'm fine. Truly. I don't need anyone to talk to," she continued, embarrassed.
"For someone with tears all down her face and such a woebegone expression, something tells me you might like to talk with someone. You just feel uncomfortable with the idea of talking to me because I am supposed to be a princess," Gabrielle said, putting her most winning tones into the words.
The warrior hung her head. That was exactly how she was feeling. She hadn't thought the Princess could be quite that perceptive. Then again, she had only ever seen Gabrielle working out on the training ground or standing beside the Queen on the platform in the compound; she had never really spoken to her at all. "I really don't want to take up your time, Princess. You have too many other important things to do," the warrior said, barely raising her head to speak.
"And you're not important enough to rate some of that time?" Gabrielle countered firmly. "Perhaps you could start by telling me your name, seeing as you already know mine," she said, softening her tone.
"I am called Jadaxious, Jadax for short, Princess," the warrior answered, her fingers twisting in the ties of her short Amazon skirt.
"Please, just call me Gabrielle. Most of the time I don't feel the least bit like an Amazon Princess," the bard said as she moved closer to the tearful warrior. "Why don't we sit right here and chat for a while? No one will bother us up here, and it is nice and warm."
The two women sat down together between the bales of hay, Jadaxious trying not to look uncomfortable with the way Gabrielle nestled in close. In a strange kind of way, it made her feel protected, and she felt herself slowly relaxing against the other woman. Perhaps she could talk to the Princ Gabrielle, she thought. Jadaxious felt as though she had been carrying her secret forever, and it might be a relief to finally tell someone else about it.
"So tell me, Jadax. What is so awful that you have to hide in the hayloft to cry about it?" Gabrielle asked gently.
The warrior swallowed back on her tears for a moment and whispered, "I'm in love with Queen Ephiny." Being able to give voice to her secret at last broke the fragile dam she had been using to hold the majority of the tears in check, and Jadaxious gratefully collapsed into Gabrielle's supportive arms, weeping despondently. Somehow, through the sobs she managed to force out one more sentence. "And she doesn't even know I am alive," she wailed.
Gabrielle held the weeping woman gently against her shoulder as Jadaxious's tears seemed to pour from some deeply hidden well-spring. She was crying so hard, she didn't even notice the appearance of a tall, dark-haired warrior woman as she stepped around the hay bales. Gabrielle half whispered, half mouthed silently to Xena and her questioning eyebrow at the sight of the distraught warrior, "This might take a while. Why don't you go on without me."
Xena shook her head, feeling a little irritated. She had been looking forward to spending some time completely alone with the bard in the forest before examining the mountain pass, and she wasn't going to lose that opportunity for anything. She quickly pointed to herself and made eating gestures with one hand, indicating she would go and have some breakfast while she waited for the bard. Pointing to Gabrielle, the warrior silently asked if she wanted anything brought up to the hayloft.
Glancing down at the woman still sobbing in her arms, Gabrielle nodded. "In about two candlemarks or so," she whispered to the tall woman standing next to her.
Xena nodded in reply before walking back through the hayloft. She was starting to understand what the bard had meant about inconvenient interruptions. Smiling to herself as she stepped off the bottom of the ladder, she wondered if any of the other women would be up to a little training session with her. Some light exercise would be just the thing to take some of the kinks out of her back after spending the night on a far too soft bed.
Gabrielle waited patiently as the worst of the storm of weeping passed. By the time the tears had slowed to a trickle down the warrior's face, the bard thought it might be time to start talking. "Feeling better?" she asked gently, wiping the last of the tears from the woman's face with her fingers.
"Mmmm. A little," Jadaxious replied, not moving from the support of the other woman's arms.
Thinking to herself, Gabrielle remembered a little helpful hint from Xena when the bard was unsure of where to start something. Begin at the beginning. Good advice to use now, she thought. "Can you tell me the first time you saw Ephiny, Jadax?"
The warrior sighed deeply before answering. "About three summers ago, in my village. She was with a party of warriors who had come to negotiate something, I don't know what; I wasn't a warrior myself yet and they wouldn't let me too close to the meeting. I had to watch everything from the back. I stood on a box so I could see over the other women, though. I can remember thinking how beautiful she was, even from behind," the woman said quietly, her face starting to glow with the memory.
"Then what happened?" Gabrielle prompted. She could feel that Jadaxious badly wanted to talk about this, having had it locked inside for so long. All she needed was an opening and the bard was giving her that.
The warrior's head lifted as she stared at the low ceiling over them. "After the negotiating party left, I found I couldn't shake her image from my mind. I dreamed about her every night. I knew I had to see her again, but I couldn't leave the village until I was a warrior myself. So I trained hard and learned as much as I could." A look of intense sadness crossed Jadaxious's face and she dropped her head to look into her lap. "But when I finished my training, well, I wasn't much of a warrior, being so short and thin."
Gabrielle took a moment to have a long look at the warrior still wrapped in her arms. It was true that Jadaxious was on the small side, but so was the bard, and that had never stopped Gabrielle from doing anything she wanted, including fighting with Xena. Running her eyes quickly along the other woman's body, the bard could see she didn't have the muscular development Gabrielle was used to seeing on the other Amazons, or even herself for that matter. The warrior's strength appeared more whip-cord. And there was nothing wrong with that at all.
"So what did you decide to do?" the bard asked.
"I decided to become a forest scout. Being so small, I was very fast. No one can travel through the trees faster than I can, and I could get into places other warriors would never fit. I can run like the wind too. I've never met anyone who can run as fast or for as long as I can," Jadaxious replied.
"Uh huh. And then?" Gabrielle said.
"About three seasons ago, I heard that the village here needed some forest scouts. Something about a lot of the warriors being killed or injured. The news had gotten a little distorted when it travelled, I think," the other woman answered, thinking carefully about what exactly she had heard at the time.
Gabrielle stopped to think for a moment too. It probably would have taken a full season for the news of Valeska's attack to get out, and there had been several injuries among the warriors, many of them quite serious. The bard hadn't realised it at the time, but somehow the news of Valeska turning herself into a god with the ambrosia must have travelled beyond the village and been heard by who knew how many others by now.
Gabrielle found herself thinking about Jadaxious in a new light. It would have taken a lot of courage, Amazon or not, to leave her home village, travelling alone to finally arrive here, all the while not knowing if she would be accepted by the warriors of this village. What the small warrior felt for Ephiny must be very strong indeed for her to do all that, but Gabrielle herself had taken off after Xena, admittedly for the adventure, yet she had still followed the warrior even though Xena hadn't been too happy about it to start with. "So after you arrived, what happened?" she asked, now curious.
The woman sighed sadly. "Oh, I found they did need warriors, all right. The big, tall, muscly kind. And that wasn't me." A single tear slipped from the corner of Jadaxious's eye and ran down the side of her face.
"I don't understand. If they didn't need warriors like you, how come you're still here?" Gabrielle queried.
Jadaxious smiled. "Eponin saw me just as I was getting ready to leave and sorta challenged me to a race through the treetops. I don't know why she did it, but I've never turned down a challenge in my life, so I accepted. Beat her fair and square too. After she came down herself, she said I should stay because my talents would be wasted anywhere else. So I did," she explained, still not understanding the other warrior's reasoning at the time. "I usually patrol the western border region, but I broke my ankle in a small battle with some raiders and have been back in the village recovering for the past moon and a half. In fact, the splints were only taken off this morning, but it will be a few seven-days more yet before I can go back on patrol again."
The bard looked at the warrior beside her, thinking she knew why Eponin had challenged Jadaxious. Every time the small woman mentioned Ephiny's name, she lit up like someone had placed a brightly burning torch inside her. Eponin must have noticed it from the beginning and had found a way to keep Jadaxious in the village. Hiding a smile, Gabrielle thought she really must have a chat with Eponin about this and see what could be done to get Ephiny to notice the compact little warrior. Something deep inside the bard told her this gutsy woman might be just the person Ephiny needed to ease some of her burden as Queen, not to mention the fact Gabrielle did want to see her Amazon friend happy as well. Anyone who could hold that much love inside and not say or do a thing about it for so long must have a very strong character indeed.
"Look, I won't say anything to Ephiny about this," Gabrielle started to say. Jadaxious shot the bard a look of gratitude. "But if you feel the need to talk some more. You know where my rooms are and you're welcome to visit whenever you want."
The sound of hay rustling behind them told both women that Xena had returned with whatever was being served up for breakfast that morning.
"Why don't you have something to eat and rest here for a while? I'm sure no one will bother you, and if you're supposed to be recovering, then no one will miss you on a patrol detail either," Gabrielle said just as Xena's long legs came into view from around the edge of the hay bales.
Jadaxious nodded in agreement, feeling much better for having talked to someone about what was in her heart.
"You ready to go, Gabrielle?" Xena asked as she squatted down and placed a tray of food in front of the two seated women.
"Just give me a heartbeat, Xena," Gabrielle replied. She quickly stuffed meat and softly cooked grains into the pocket of some flatbread and then climbed to her feet. "Ready when you are," she said, taking a large bite from the bread. Gently patting the shoulder of the other woman, the two travellers left the hay loft.
Once they were well out of hearing range, Gabrielle asked, "Could we make a short stop at Epinon's hut, Xena? There is something I need to talk to her about for a little bit."
"Something I should know about?" Xena questioned.
"Only if you want to, Xena." Gabrielle replied, stuffing another mouthful of bread and meat between her hungry teeth.
Sitting astride Argo, both women left the last the trees behind them, slowly moving up the rocky path that would take them to the mountain pass. Gabrielle had her arms wrapped loosely around Xena's waist, her head resting against the taller woman's shoulder. The bard quietly hummed some song from her home village as she relaxed into the gentle sway of the horse beneath her. Xena could feel her own muscles starting to unlock again after the brief but intense lovemaking they had just done in the woods. She had been finding it harder and harder to control her emotions over the past several moons, and the last few days had been particularly so. Under normal circumstances, she would not have stopped at all, simply because she had a mission she should be focused on, but for some reason, surprisingly, she had given in to her own arousal. The candlemark or so they had spent rolling naked in the leaf litter wasn't going to make any real difference to what they were supposed to be doing anyway, or so Xena kept telling herself.
Xena let Gabrielle's soft humming soothe her a little. Bubbling away, just beneath the surface, was the anger and rage she feared releasing so much. Her iron control on them was starting to slip, and Xena dreaded to think what would happen if they were ever unleashed. She hoped it would never happen, but nothing she did seemed to ease the sense of impending doom she felt hovering close by. Deep in her heart, Xena knew she still carried all those years of anger, rage and hate inside her. Fighting for good was not going to take away all of horrors she had seen or done. Even working out with several of the Amazon warriors that morning had felt, well, too good. She had called a halt to the training session early before the anger had gotten a chance to come bursting out. It was a close call but she'd managed to clamp down on it again, though it was just barely in time.
Passing around a final outcropping of rocks, Xena and Gabrielle reached the post where the last guard had been taken. The small hide the guards usually stayed in was still there, along with a tiny stone-lined firepit. Any other sign of life was either well-hidden or simply not there. This had been one of the least favoured of the guard sites because the stiff breeze whistled up the from the ravine below almost constantly. It was a hot, windy post by day and freezing cold and even windier at night.
"Hard to believe someone would volunteer for this post," Gabrielle said as she quickly dismounted from behind Xena. "Theres nothing up here except wind, rocks and more wind."
Xena took a moment to poke her head into the small hide before answering. "Some people are just like that, Gabrielle. Like to be alone with their thoughts," she replied, seeing why Kaliope would find this place attractive. A person could do a lot to thinking up here. "Ephiny said that Kaliope saw the shade from the next guard post down," Xena said, almost to herself.
Stepping towards the edge of the cliff, Xena looked over carefully, running her eyes over the rock for anything that seemed out of the ordinary. At a point almost directly under her feet but several body lengths down, there was a shadow which didn't look quite right to her. The edges were too distinct and the angle appeared at odds with the way the sun was shining above them. "Gabrielle, there something down there I want to have a closer look at," the warrior said over one shoulder.
"Fine with me. I'll be happy to stay right here with Argo for the time being. That edge is just a little too high for my liking. Besides, you're the one who always plays rock-spider anyway," Gabrielle answered.
Xena gave the bard a grin and a nod before lying down on her stomach and carefully swinging her long legs over the edge of the precipice. Feeling with her toes, she found the first of the footholds and began a slow climb down to the strange shadow. A few moments later, the tall warrior was level with it and staring at another clue to the puzzle.
Embedded directly into the rock was a solid iron eye-bolt, with a tiny length of cow gut rope still attached. The colour of the rope almost matched the surrounding rock, and Xena was sure that if not for what she had thought was a strange shadow, she would have never seen it from above. Rubbing the gut rope between her fingers, Xena muttered to herself, "This stuff costs the earth to buy, and iron eye-bolts aren't exactly a dinar a dozen either." Taking the breast dagger from the top of her bodice, she inserted it into the eye of the bolt and carefully unscrewed it from the stone. "Must have taken quite some time to get this thing in," Xena mumbled to herself as the bolt slowly emerged.
Above her, Xena could hear the crunch of gravel as Gabrielle moved around, probably doing everything she could to avoid looking over the edge of the ravine. The sudden clatter of Gabrielle's staff hitting the ground startled the warrior, and she almost dropped the bolt as its last thread loosened. "You all right up there, Gabrielle?" Xena called out. There was silence for a few moments, broken only by the whistling of the wind as it passed her ears. "Answer me, Gabrielle. This isn't funny," she shouted above the wind noise. The only answer she got was a nicker from Argo. There was no reply from the bard herself.
Tucking the bolt into the top of her bodice along with her breast dagger, Xena quickly scrambled up the rock face again. Slowly raising her head so just her eyes were above the edge of the ravine, she looked around, searching for the bard. Spotting the other woman's staff lying on the stone near the little firepit, Xena wrenched herself up the last body length, her armour scraping on the edge of the ravine as she passed, and drew her sword the moment her feet hit the ground. Crouching slightly, Xena spun in a tight semi-circle trying to see any sign of Gabrielle. She fully expected the bard to pop out from behind a rock outcropping with a silly grin on her face. Stalking carefully towards Argo, eyes seeming to look in every direction at once, Xena quickly realised that Gabrielle was not playing some kind of game.
Gabrielle had disappeared in the same way as the seven other women before her.
Xena could feel herself getting angry. She was no longer trying to puzzle out which god was interfering with the Amazon Nation, nor was she trying to understand how a shade could be taking the women. After seeing that eye-bolt, Xena knew she was dealing with a flesh and blood person. What she didn't understand, and had not given a lot of thought to yet, was what in Tartarus this unknown person had to gain from kidnapping the Amazons or Gabrielle.
A quick search of the immediate area and the nearby rock outcroppings didn't offer up a single clue about who had taken Gabrielle or how they had managed to disappear so completely and quickly afterwards. Packing Gabrielle's staff into the saddle-bags, Xena mounted, trying to decide with path would lead her to her lover. There were at least six paths away from the lookout post. Some led into the forest, below and others moved further down the mountain following the edge of the ravine.
The warrior cleared the anger from her mind for a moment to think things through logically. It took more effort than she was used to, but eventually she felt she had regained control over herself again. Any path along the ravine rim would have little cover and plenty of open spaces between the rock outcroppings where an enemy could be spotted. Logic dictated a more hidden retreat. That eliminated two of the paths straight away, the one they had travelled up on and another leading down the other side. But it still left four paths Gabrielle could have been taken along, and she was getting further and further away as Xena sat there trying to figure out where to go. Taking the path which made the quickest return to the forest below, Xena set off in search of Gabrielle, the barely controlled rage making her eyes icy and her face hard.
Her eyes scanned intently over the path and into the undergrowth on both sides looking for any sign of someone having recently passed. All the marks Xena did see were old and worn. Very few people went up to the mountain lookout unless they had to be there, and the guards usually took the same path up that Xena and Gabrielle had used.
Right at the bottom of the path, long before it would meet up with the main path to the village, Xena finally spotted something in the undergrowth. Quickly dismounting, she walked over to the tiny, brightly coloured thread caught on a small thorn in the bushes. Its very brightness was what had made it so easy for her to see against the dark greens and browns of the forest. After working it loose with gentle fingers, she carefully ran her fingertips over it. "Homespun," she muttered to herself. "No one wears much of this here. Most of the women wear leather or buckskin." Letting the light shine on the thread from over her shoulder, the warrior noticed the colour seemed too bright for something which should have been hanging on the thorn for days if not longer, according to the other marks she had seen along the path. Someone had passed through these bushes very recently indeed.
Continued - Part 3