By: B L Miller
Copyright: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, etc. are owned by MCA/Universal. I only borrowed them for a little while. No infringement was intended. The rest of the story is mine and I hold the copyright to it. Do not use any part of this story without my written permission. I may be contacted at IQ139@aol.com.
Sex:This story contains scenes of two women making love. <smile> If this offends you, please don't read my story. There are plenty of other wonderful stories out there.
Violence: There are graphic scenes of violence within this story.
The battered ship rocked back and forth as the relentless waves continued to crash against the sides. The twenty Amazon passengers huddled together below deck, each thinking of their loved ones and praying to their beloved Goddess Artemis to get them home safely.
The seas had been calm as they left the Isle of Lesbos, most visiting family members, some to see the great Sappho, still others just to relax in the hot springs. None suspected that their visit might end up costing them their lives. The ship had just passed the point of no return when the waves started to unexpectedly rise.
Artemis gazed down at the scene in her scrying bowl. "My children.", she cried as she watched the water crash again and again upon the decks of the weakening ship. There was no time to waste. Donning her quiver and one of her silver arrows, she picked up her bow and left her realm.
Just as they were about to give up hope, the passengers were amazed at the sudden calming of the waters around them. Several Amazons, overcome with curiosity and the claustrophobic surroundings, went up on deck. The scene they witnessed would stay with them the rest of their lives.
Sitting astride the mighty Pegasus, Artemis fired her sixth silver arrow into the water surrounding the ship. The last wave heading for the ship lost its energy and the sea finally calmed. From her vantage high in the skies above, she saw several Amazons and ship crew members run up on deck. She was just about to go back to her realm, satisfied that all was safe and well with her beloved Amazons, when the sea rumbled violently. A safe distance from the ship, the watery form of Poseidon rose, dwarfing the once mighty vessel, now barely able to make it to shore.
"Uncle.", Artemis said coolly as she gently stroked the mane of the white flying horse. He aimed his trident at his favorite niece.
"ARTEMIS!", he spoke with a fury that rumbled through the skies. The mortals watching the spectacle cowered at the sound of his voice. "Do you know what you have done?"
"I couldn't let my Amazons die needlessly!", she shouted back. "There was no need. They prayed to me for help and assistance. How could I deny them?"
"You know better, daughter.", Zeus appeared in the sky above them, the dark form of Hades standing behind him. The mortals all lowered their heads in fear of the gods. "That ship and all aboard were to perish today. Their passage across the river Styx has already been paid for. What you have done by interfering cannot go unpunished."
"Brother, allow me to destroy the ship now, before they can reach land.", Poseidon interrupted. Indeed it would be less than one candlemark before the ship would be beyond any possible danger.
"No!", Zeus roared. "If my daughter is to be punished for her act, then that act must be allowed to continue along its course. Hades, you will have to wait for their souls. Poseidon, provide them safe passage.", he turned his attention back to his daughter, given to him by the beautiful Leto. Artemis presided over childbirths, despite being a virgin, because she caused her mother no pain during her birth. It greatly saddened the ruler of the gods that he had to punish his daughter. "Artemis, you have violated a scared rule amongst gods. I would have expected this from Ares, but certainly not you."
"I did what I felt was right, father. I do not regret my decision. If I had it to do again, my actions would not change.", her light brown eyes flared with self-righteousness and determination.
"You may very well regret your decision, Artemis.", he said solemnly.
All the gods were summoned to Mount Olympus for the special trial. Artemis stood straight, her chin raised, as Zeus read the verdict and punishment.
"Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt and Moon, Virgin caretaker of Childbirth, you are guilty of interfering with the lives of mortals outside of your realm. Had your action been taken on dry land, this tribunal might not have been called. However, your actions resulted in thirty seven lives being taken from Hades. Thirty-seven lives that the Fates must now continue to weave. The fact that most of those lives were your amazons makes no difference. This indiscretion cannot be taken lightly. My daughter, like your brother Ares, you need to learn what life as a mortal is like.", he reached forward and took her silver bow, quiver, and arrow. "Your punishment is this, Artemis. You will be cast down to the world as a mortal, with all the feelings and sensations that a mortal has. Your bow, arrow, and quiver will be scattered throughout the land. Hermes will give you one clue as to where the first item is hidden. Only when you find that shall you receive any clue as to where the next one is hidden, and so on. You will not be allowed to reenter Mount Olympus nor communicate with any of the gods, until you have either completed your quest or die.", his eyes burned with the seriousness of his statement. "Make no mistake, my daughter, if you die as a mortal, you will be sent to the Elyssian fields for eternity, just as any mortal would."
Artemis lowered her head. Aphrodite and Athena let out small gasps. The severity of the punishment was not expected. Even Ares' eyes grew wide at the words. He never expected his father to punish one of his daughters so harshly. Artemis looked up her father and her uncles seated at either side of him. "What about my Amazons? Who will watch over them?"
"I will, sister.", Athena stepped forward. "I will protect your Amazons as fiercely as I protect Athens.", her look went straight to Ares. "Your children will be safe, Artemis.", the God of War nodded slightly in defeat. He knew that to defy his father's favorite daughter could cost him his godhood again.
"Artemis.", Zeus looked down at his daughter. "Your punishment begins now. I grant you only the option of deciding where you wish to appear.", he leveled his thunderbolt at her, already knowing her answer.
"I wish to be with my beloved Amazons."
Ephiny was walking across the grounds when she saw the single thunderbolt coming at her. There was almost no time to think before the bolt struck the ground near the temple. The crackle that accompanied it reverberated throughout the village. The brightness of the lightning bolt caused the Amazon to be blinded for a moment. When her vision returned, she saw a large, burnt out area in front of the temple where the bolt had landed. Lying in the center of the burn spot was a young woman, no more than twenty-five summers. She was dressed in deer skins that were only a few shades darker than her light brown hair. Ephiny ran over toward the fallen woman, all the while yelling instructions to the Amazons that were approaching.
Reaching the unconscious form, Ephiny turned her over to check for injuries. She let out a startled gasp as she recognized the face. She had seen that same face countless times on the statue in the temple. Ephiny suddenly found it hard to breathe as she stared at the face of Artemis.
"Xena, how can you stand there and tell me that this field isn't pretty?"
"Gabrielle, it's just flowers. It's not like it's a horse or anything.", the warrior replied in a bored tone.
"Not a romantic bone in your body, huh?", all Gabrielle got for an answer was a crooked smirk. "You know, Xena, it wouldn't hurt for you to try and relax once in a while."
"Oh, you do enough relaxing for the both of us.", the warrior said as she patted her on the shoulder. "Come on, we need to find a safe place to set up camp. There won't be that many candlemarks of daylight left.", as she walked away, Xena chuckled to herself as she imagined the pout that was most certainly on Gabrielle's face at the moment.
The fire burned slowly, keeping them warm as they slept. Xena's eyes opened quickly, her senses alerting her to approaching danger. Gabrielle shifted slightly as her sleeping body tried to get comfortable on the hard ground.
Her hand clamped down on the bard's mouth as she shook her awake. "Someone's coming."
Xena was fully dressed and backing up into the trees. Gabrielle pulled her staff up tight against her and pretended to be sleeping.
As the warrior had warned, within moments a horse and rider broke through the clearing. Even in the pale light of early morn, Gabrielle could make out the distinctive garb and markings that signified Amazon. She rose quickly and made a sign of peace as the rider quickly dismounted. The black stallion ambled off to join Argo in a nearby clover bed as Xena came out from the trees. Blue eyes met green as unspoken words were exchanged. There was trouble at the Amazon village.
"Regent Ephiny sent me to find you, my Queen.", the rider said as she gratefully accepted the waterskin from Gabrielle. "Your presence is required immediately."
"What's the problem this time?", Xena asked as she started to assemble their belongings.
"Artemis is in trouble."
The Amazon, Tylia, told them all she knew, which wasn't much. "So she just fell from the sky?", Gabrielle questioned as they walked alongside each other. Xena looked down at them from atop Argo. Tylia loosely held the reins to her black horse, allowing it to walk slowly behind them.
"There was a great thunderbolt, as if Zeus himself sent her. By the time I was sent to look for you, she hadn't woken up yet."
"And Ephiny is sure that it's Artemis?", Xena asked.
"Ephiny said she looks exactly like the statue." Tylia replied. "I didn't get a chance to see her."
"Uh huh.", the warrior muttered. Gabrielle shot her a look before turning her attention back to their traveling companion. Xena remained lost in thought for the rest of the ride.
Once they entered the village, they headed straight for the temple, only to be stopped by Ephiny. "She hasn't moved since we found her three sunrises ago. You two look exhausted. Why don't you go bathe and rest. We'll send word if there's any change."
"Who's with her now?"
"Taras the healer and Julia the priestess.", Ephiny answered. "Now you two go. I'll have food sent to your hut. Besides, you certainly don't want to go see Artemis dressed like that."
Gabrielle looked down at her sweaty, dirty clothes. She nodded her head and followed Xena to the baths. As a royal guard waited outside, the two women quickly undressed and sank into the tub.
"Ahhh, this is sooo nice." Gabrielle purred as she closed her eyes and laid her head back on the edge of the tub. Xena sat across from her, watching through hooded eyes. The bard's arms were stretched out along the edge, causing her breasts to rise and fall as she breathed.
"Yes it is.", she replied. Xena didn't even try to think about how long she had been admiring Gabrielle's body or how long she had desired her young friend. It seemed impossible to believe that the beautiful creature lounging naked in the tub with her was the same frightened girl she had rescued just two summers ago. Gone was the baby fat, replaced with firm muscle that only served to accent her graceful curves. A familiar warmth spread through the warrior's body as her mind raced with imaginative thoughts of a carnal nature. Xena didn't know why she put herself through this exquisite torture, the object of her desires scant hands away, yet still unavailable. Her mind carried every image of Gabrielle, every fleeting glance or stolen look. She kept those visions with her, bringing them out only when she was alone. Only then could she release the tensions that were built up inside her while her mind filled with erotic thoughts of her beloved bard.
Deciding that the torture was now too much, Xena quickly washed up and climbed out of the tub. "I'm going to go check on Argo and then get some rest." She said as she pulled on the clean tunic provided by the Amazons.
"Okay, I'll be there in a little while. I think I'll wander over to the food hut and see what Maras has to offer." Gabrielle said.
Xena paused to take one more glance at Gabrielle's naked form before leaving. She knew that Argo would get only a quick brushing before she headed to the hut to deal with her desires alone. As Xena left the bath hut, she smiled as she thought about how frequently such moments of self-indulgence were now necessary. Although modest, Gabrielle revealed herself to Xena often enough to make such moments almost a daily ritual, usually performed while out hunting for dinner.
Several candlemarks later, both women, now rested, headed to the temple. Ephiny was waiting for them. "She woke up briefly and said your name, Gabrielle.", there was no mistaking the shock that appeared on the young queen's face.
"Me? Artemis called for me?", it was still hard for Gabrielle to accept that as Queen, she was Artemis' chosen. Of course there were still times when it was hard for the young woman from Potodeia to accept that she was queen of the entire Amazon nation.
"Yes. I think you should go and see her now. She may wake up again soon." Ephiny held the door for Gabrielle as she entered the temple. She tried to hold the door for Xena, but the tall woman reached out with her long arms and grabbed it herself.
Gabrielle sat in a chair next to the pallet in the priestess' room. Darkness fell slowly as they waited for the goddess to wake up. Artemis moaned softly before opening her eyes. "Ga...", the eyes closed as she fell back into unconsciousness.
"I'm here, Artemis." She reached out and took the goddess' hand in her own. Xena leaned against the wall as they began their long vigil over the fallen deity.
Apollo's chariot was just beginning to make its daily ascent when Gabrielle was woken up by Xena's hand on her shoulder, gently shaking her. "She's waking up."
"Thanks.", Gabrielle yawned as she sat up and stretched. She gratefully accepted the mug of tea offered by Julia, the priestess. The three women watched as Artemis moved her head from side to side before finally opening her eyes.
"Where...?", her voice, once silvery and smooth, now seemed hoarse and raspy. Xena took the mug from Gabrielle's hands and offered it to her.
"You're in your temple, my goddess. The Amazons brought you in here when you fell from the sky.", Julia explained. It took a moment for the confused Artemis to remember and understand.
"I've been cast out.", she said softly. Xena's face remained stoic as the other women's faces registered their shock at the news. As she sipped the tea, Artemis detailed the events leading to her being banished from the immortal realm. Xena and Julia listened quietly, an act that seemed impossible for the curious bard, who interrupted constantly with questions.
"So do you know what you have to do to regain your godhood?"
Artemis sighed and took another sip of the tea. "My bow, arrows, and quiver have been placed in different locations throughout Greece. I don't know where they are or what I have to do to get them.", she handed the now empty mug back to Gabrielle. "Hermes will give me a message telling me where I have to go to find the first item."
"My Goddess,", Julia exclaimed. "Surely you aren't expected to leave the village and look for these items yourself. We have several well-trained warriors who would be honored to...", her words were cut off by Artemis' outstretched hand.
"I am expected to, Julia." , she smiled gently at the crestfallen look on the priestess' face. "I will not go alone, my child. I expect Gabrielle to accompany me."
Gabrielle's face registered shock while Xena maintained her stoic face. The only indication that the warrior had heard the comment was the slight, almost imperceptible narrowing of her eyes. "No.", the blue eyes locked with the brown of Artemis.
"You have no say in the matter, Xena."
"I will not allow Gabrielle to be put in jeopardy.", her tone was firm. "Julia is right, you have plenty of warriors to choose from to help you."
"Xena, can I talk to you for a moment?", without waiting for an answer, Gabrielle grabbed her forearm and pulled her off to a far corner.
"What?", Xena kept her tone low, but made sure it conveyed her annoyance. "Gabrielle, there's no reason for you to be put in such danger. I have no doubt that the trials that Zeus has set up are going to be more dangerous than any we've faced before. I won't let you put your life in jeopardy like that."
"Let me?", Gabrielle said indignantly. "Let me?", her voice rose slightly. "Xena, you are my best friend, but you don't control me. I don't need your permission."
"Gabrielle, that's not what I meant."
"Of course it is, Xena, or you wouldn't have said it.", the green eyes flashed with anger and defiance. "I'm going to help her. Whether you choose to or not is up to you.", Gabrielle turned to walk away when Xena's hand reached out and grabbed her wrist.
"You know I'll go wherever you do, Gabrielle. I just don't like it. I hate being used by the Gods."
"Artemis isn't using us, Xena. She's asking for help.", she looked down at her wrist and waited for the warrior to release her grip. The two women stared at each other for a moment before Gabrielle moved back to Artemis' side. Xena waited a moment, then walked over and stood behind the bard, maintaining a protective presence. Julia sat on the opposite side of the bed, casting cool looks at the tall warrior who seemed so disrespectful to her goddess.
"I would be honored to help you, Artemis.", Gabrielle noted the look of relief on the huntress' face.
"Good, we'll wait until Hermes delivers the first message. Until then, I would like to walk around and see the village from this new perspective.", just then, Artemis' stomach gave a rumble that reminded Xena of the bard's noisy belly. Gabrielle chuckled until she saw the frown on Artemis' face.
"I think the first place you should visit is the food hut.", the bard said with a smile.
"Why?", she asked. Even Xena almost chuckled at the confused look. Gabrielle smiled gently, putting Artemis at ease.
"You're hungry. That's why your stomach growled."
"Oh. I guess there's a few things I have to get used to." Artemis swung her feet over the edge of the bed and stood up. Only Xena's quick reflexes kept her from stumbling to the ground.
"I guess walking would be one of those things.", the blue-eyed warrior said wryly. Gabrielle flashed her a look before taking Artemis' other arm to give support.
"Don't mind her, Artemis. She's always like that."
"I know, child."
"Oh yeah, heh heh, I guess you would know that, being a goddess and all." The bard said sheepishly. Artemis smiled and patted the small hand.
Everywhere the three women went, a crowd of loyal Amazons followed, all trying to catch a glimpse of their goddess, as well as their radiant young queen. Ephiny assigned the entire royal guard to encircle and protect the two women, even though she knew that Xena would never allow any harm to come to either of them. Artemis smiled at Ephiny in appreciation of the gesture. They walked around, Gabrielle continuing to lend her arm in support of the huntress as she learned to use her mortal legs. "Everything looks so different from down here.", Artemis commented as she looked around, taking in the new view and sensations.
As they passed the communal flower garden, Artemis let out a gasp of joy. "Gabrielle, can you smell that?" She breathed in deeply. "All those wonderful fragrances.", with the wonderment of a child, Artemis bent down and sniffed a lilac bush. "Oh, so pretty." Gabrielle answered as many questions as she could about the multitude of flowers that made up the garden. A young woman was at the far end of the garden, on her knees, tending to her task with one eye while the other was trained on the mortal version of her goddess. She almost fainted when Artemis spotted her and walked over. "Are you the one responsible for this garden?"
"Y-yes, my goddess." The woman answered as she lowered her head. Artemis put her fingers on the woman's chin and gently urged her to a standing position.
"You are Milaka, daughter of Rouna. Your garden is very beautiful. Thank you for sharing it with me."
"Uh...", the kind words from her goddess as well as the gentle touch were too much for Milaka. She fainted.
Although once a powerful goddess, Artemis was a babe in the woods when it came to the normal day to day activities of mortals. Looking at the long tables filled with food, she had no idea what to eat or how much of it to eat. She decided to follow Gabrielle's lead and put on her plate whatever she saw the bard place on hers. Xena stood behind her, doing her best not to grin as she watched both plates fill higher and higher. Gabrielle was chattering away, totally oblivious to Artemis' imitation of her. Of course, no one dared tell the goddess that she was taking too much food. To the amazement of all, Artemis matched Gabrielle bite for bite, swallow for swallow. Several Amazons stopped eating just to watch the spectacle. Xena ignored the goings on and quickly consumed her meal, only to wish she hadn't. Now finished eating, she was forced to sit there and wait while the other two ate and chatted. Gabrielle was gently grilling the goddess about Mount Olympus, the various gods and goddesses, and anything else she could engage Artemis into talking about. After three full candlemarks of dining and chatting, they finally left the food hut. Maris, the head cook, watched them leave, making a mental note to substantially increase the amount of food put out for the evening meal.
In the evening, Artemis retired to the temple to meditate and rest after a day filled with wonder and excitement. In all her eons as a goddess, she never experienced life through the eyes and body of a mortal. Her senses seemed dulled, somehow, less precise than she was used to. Closing her eyes, she tried to pick up on the thoughts of her Amazons. To her utter dismay, the only sound she heard was an owl hooting to the night sky. Not being able to read mortal's minds was definitely going to be a disadvantage, she decided. As the new sensation of tiredness swept over her, Artemis thought about the events that led up to her banishment. She slipped into Morpheus' arms for the first time, her last waking thought was her firm conviction that she had done the right thing by interfering with Poseidon and Hades.
Gabrielle laid awake, listening to the rhythmic scraping of the whetstone against the blade of Xena's sword. She looked across the room. "Xena, do you think that Zeus was right?"
Xena looked up from her task. "Gabrielle, what Artemis did affected more than just the people on that ship. Her actions will affect future generations. I'm not saying that Zeus was right for banishing her, but I do agree that the gods shouldn't interfere with the day to day lives of mortals.", she set the sword and stone down and settled under the covers on her pallet. "Get some sleep. I have a feeling that tomorrow is going to be a very busy day."
"Good night, Xena."
Long after Gabrielle had fallen asleep, the warrior laid awake, watching her. Xena studied the rhythmic rise and fall of the bard's chest, her ears tuned to the steady, deep breathing. Quietly slinking from her bed, Xena walked over and knelt down next to her. She gently brushed a loose lock of hair from the soft face. Unable to resist, Xena placed a gentle kiss on her forehead before returning back to her own pallet.
After breakfast, Gabrielle and the royal guard escorted Artemis to the training grounds so she could witness a demonstration from the archers. Xena had volunteered for the hunting party and would be gone for most of the day. Upon arriving at the grounds, the queen and goddess watched as archer after archer showed off her skills with the bow and arrow. When all the archers had completed their display, Artemis stepped forward and silently asked one of the women for her bow.
Stepping into position, the brown haired goddess raised the bow, set the arrow, and let the wooden shaft fly. The point imbedded itself slightly above and to the left of the center of the target. Of course the audience knew better than to say anything. Frowning, Artemis set another arrow into position and pulled back the bowstring. This time the arrow rang true and found the correct mark. She allowed a smile of satisfaction to play across her lips. She handed the bow back to the archer and returned to Gabrielle's side. "I'm not used to that bow.", she said. The bard nodded and smiled in agreement with the explanation.
Without warning, the wind picked up, then calmed again. Some dust settled in Gabrielle's eyes, blinding her momentarily. She turned her head and rubbed her eyes. "What's that?", she said as she noticed a scroll laying on the ground behind Artemis.
"Looks like Hermes has finally paid us a visit.", the goddess said as she picked up the gold scroll. She turned back to face Gabrielle. "I believe the quest is about to begin." Artemis removed the silk band and unfurled the parchment. She looked at it for a moment, a quizzical look coming over her face. Shaking her head slightly, she handed the note to Gabrielle. "I don't understand it."
Gabrielle took the scroll and read the message aloud. "Look to the nest between the two eggs and you shall find your first trial." Her bard's eyebrows furrowed as she tried to figure out the riddle. "I don't get it. Do you have any idea what it could mean?"
"No. The nest between two eggs? It just doesn't make sense."
The three women set out the next morning. The Amazons provided Artemis with a white mare, bow and arrows, and the necessary supplies for traveling. Xena rode on Argo while Gabrielle walked between the two horses. Xena hadn't figured out the riddle yet but still insisted that it had to be some sort of a marker for a town or village. Careful scrutinizatoin of all the maps in the Amazon village showed one small village that fit the description, Kiveron, six days north.
"I think we should stop and rest." Artemis said after two candlemarks. Her new-found muscles were beginning to ache from the horse ride.
"Not a chance." Xena said in a bored tone, ignoring the dirty look from Gabrielle. "We won't stop for at least three more candlemarks."
It was exactly three more candlemarks before Xena finally allowed them to stop. Gabrielle set up the camp while the warrior and huntress went to catch lunch. By the time she had a small fire going and a spit made, the other two women came back with plenty to eat.
"What's it like? Being a mortal now instead of a goddess, I mean."
"Well, Gabrielle, there are some things that seem the same but there are many things that are different." Artemis replied. The bard sat forward on the edge of the log, thoroughly interested in this rare exchange of information from an actual goddess. "Well, eating is different, for one thing. I find that mortal stomachs seem to constantly need filling."
"Not all mortals, just Gabrielle's." Xena quipped.
"Don't mind her, she's always been a poor conversationalist." The bard said as she shot another look at her best friend. Xena shrugged and went back to polishing off her share of lunch. "Do go on, Artemis."
"I find the need to do other things more frequently too." Her gaze went off to the woods. Gabrielle nodded with understanding. "My muscles ache and my lower back is sore from riding. We could have been there by now if I was allowed to keep Pegasus." She sighed. "Oh well, I guess that's part of the punishment. Some things seem to be the same. I'm still capable of using a bow and arrow and I still have all my knowledge, although I cannot look into the minds of mortals."
"We need to get going." Xena interrupted.
"Of course." Artemis agreed, pretending not to notice the curt tone in the warrior's voice. Not being one to hide her feelings, the huntress was unable to keep the hurt look off of her face. Xena had turned to saddle up Argo, but Gabrielle did notice and made a mental
note to talk to Artemis later about Xena's stoic nature and to talk to her warrior about being nicer to the Moon Goddess.
Less than half a candlemark on the road, the three woman came upon a small band of thugs. "Lookie at whats we got here, boys." The apparent leader said as he rubbed his grimy hands on his equally grimy red shirt.
"Boys, there are two ways to go about this. You move aside and let us pass and you don't get hurt, or you don't let us pass, we beat you senseless, and then we move on." Xena's throaty voice purred. Gabrielle recognized the tone and instantly tightened the grip on her staff. Xena was in a mood to fight.
The four thugs broke into an uproarious fit of laughter. Red Shirt looked at the leather-clad woman carefully, noting the large sword strapped to her back. His laughter lowered down to a small chuckle, then complete silence. "Who are you?"
"Ahh, now you ask." Xena teased. "Does the name Xena mean anything to you?" She smiled in satisfaction as Red Shirt and his men turned noticeably paler. "So, do we pass without incident, or do we open you up and see if your blood matches your shirt?"
Allowing his brain to operate for a rare moment, Red Shirt moved to the side of the road to let the women pass. His men hesitated for a moment, then followed him. Xena urged Argo forward, making certain to keep herself between the men and Gabrielle. As she expected, Red Shirt reached for his sword just as they came within range.
"Ayiyiyiyi!" Xena somersaulted off of Argo, her feet landing squarely on Red Shirt's chest. Gabrielle swatted Argo on the rear, sending the golden mare out of the way.
"Artemis! Take cover in the bushes." The bard yelled as she began to engage the thug in the blue shirt. Gabrielle's staff whirled in the air gracefully, her mouth set in the same grim line that she had seen so many times on her companion. Unfortunately for her, Blue Shirt was skilled in fighting sword against staff and handily blocked her blows.
Green Shirt moved away from the sword wielding woman in leather and worked his way behind Gabrielle, intent on taking the small woman down. With all of her attention focused on Blue Shirt, she failed to notice the man sneaking up behind her. Only when she heard the whistling sound of an arrow and heard Green Shirt's gasp of pain did she turn her attention behind her. The last thing Gabrielle saw was Artemis standing there, holding her bow. The arrow had imbedded itself deep into Green Shirt's back, the crimson now flowing freely from the body on the ground. Blue Shirt swung hard, the flat of his blade connecting solidly with the side of Gabrielle's head.
"Gabrielle!" Xena heard Artemis' cry and glanced in their direction. She saw the huntress send an arrow into Blue Shirt's chest. With a feral cry, Xena unleashed her anger at the two remaining men. Within moments, it was over. The warrior turned her attention to Gabrielle. Artemis had the bard's head cradled in her lap as she stroked the blond hair, unmindful of the blood. As Xena approached, she heard the huntress murmuring softly to the dazed bard.
"Artemis, let me." Xena knelt down next to them and took the precious bundle from her. "You're hurt, but not too bad.", she said, earning a small smile from the bard. The warrior let out a sharp whistle and was rewarded with the sound of Argo approaching. Cradling Gabrielle in her arms, Xena stood next to the warhorse. A different whistle and Argo lowered her front legs, then her hind ones, allowing the warrior to simply step over her and into the saddle. "Artemis, in the right front saddlebag there's some bandages." Without a word, the huntress stepped forward and removed the bandages after struggling with the buckle, another new experience. It was only when she handed the cloth to Xena did the warrior notice the trembling in Artemis' hands.
"Is she going to be all right?"
"Yes, but we'll need to stop for the night. Artemis, take Argo's reins, I need to concentrate on Gabrielle." A slight nudge from her knees sent the horse into a standing position. The bard rested her head against the strong chest, her chin touching the cool metal of Xena's breastplate. "Relax, Gabrielle. I'll take care of you.", the words were spoken so softly that she barely heard them. The next candlemark was spent in almost complete silence, interrupted only by Xena telling Artemis which way to go to reach a safe place to camp for the night. The huntress noted that the warrior's blue eyes never left Gabrielle, not even to see where they were going.
They reached a small glen edged on one side by a gentle stream. Sliding down from Argo, Xena carried Gabrielle over to a soft patch of earth and sat down, laying the bard's head in her lap. "Artemis, get me the waterskin, more bandages, and the needle and tread. I'm going to have to stitch the wound closed." Noting that the goddess hadn't moved, she raised her voice and spoke in a more commanding tone. "Artemis, now!"
The tone and force of the words broke through the huntress' paralysis, moving her into action. She quickly found the items requested and handed them to the warrior. The huntress watched as Xena quickly and expertly stitched the wound closed. Once finished, the warrior made no effort to release Gabrielle from her arms.
"I can sit up, you know."
"Suit yourself.", Xena said as she moved her arms out of the way. Gabrielle sat up quickly.
"Oh, my head." Her hand went to the throbbing temple, touching the bandage.
"I've told you never to turn your back on the enemy."
"Sorry." Her head was pounding and all she wanted to do was fall back into Xena's arms.
"Don't be sorry, just improve." The two women chuckled at their long standing private joke. "Guess you get out of making dinner tonight."
The thought of Xena and cooking was enough to force Gabrielle back into a sitting position, although much slower than before. "Oh no, that's not necessary, Xena. I'll cook dinner. I'm not in the mood for 'burnt on the outside, raw on the inside' tonight."
"Good, I wasn't looking forward to trying to cook anyway." Xena looked up at the sky. "There are still several candlemarks of daylight left. Why don't we go down to the stream and wash up?"
"Sounds good. Can I wash my hair?" Gabrielle asked. "I really hate the idea of all that blood dried up in it." Xena lifted the bandage and looked at the stitches.
"I'll wash it for you."
"Okay." Gabrielle responded casually, although inside she was thrilled. There was just something about the way Xena washed her hair that made it seem less like a cleaning and more like a gentle massage. Gabrielle made a mental note to get Xena to wash her hair more often.
Both women were in the water and just beginning to wash up when Artemis appeared at the edge of the stream and started to remove her clothing. Averting her eyes, Gabrielle spoke up. "Artemis, I'm sorry but we aren't maidens.", remembering the story told to her in her youth about the Moon Goddess bathing with young virgins.
"Well, that may have mattered as a goddess, but as a mortal, I'm dirty and need to wash up. I'm sure I can trust the two of you."
"Makes no difference to me." Xena muttered. "Come on, Gabrielle, let's get the blood out of your hair." She had just stepped behind Gabrielle when Artemis removed her last vestige of clothing. Both women were totally awestruck at the huntress' perfect features.
"By the gods..." Gabrielle gasped. Xena mutely nodded. Artemis smiled gently and immersed herself into the water. She swam until she was still within sight but just out of earshot before settling in to bathe. "Xena, she's beautiful." The bard's voice was filled with awe.
"Yes she is, Gabrielle.", she agreed. "But you have to remember that she is, or was, a goddess." Silently Xena thought that although Artemis had an exterior beauty that couldn't be denied, it didn't hold a candle to the radiant beauty of the young woman next to her. "Are you ready for me to wash your hair?" Gabrielle smiled and nodded, closing her eyes in anticipation. Unlike her ears, which Xena insisted were always dirty and in need of a good scrubbing, her hair was treated gently, as if it would break with the slightest amount of effort.
Artemis waited until both women had dried off and returned to camp before she exited the water. After washing all the dirt, grime, and blood from her body, she had spent her time in the water watching her two companions. The looks that she saw Xena giving Gabrielle whenever the bard's back was turned confused Artemis. She had always disliked the idea of her chosen spending all her time traveling the countryside with the former warlord, assuming that Xena was just using Gabrielle. The look she saw when Xena was gently washing Gabrielle's hair was that of pure love and devotion. From her angle, Artemis couldn't see what the bard's reaction to Xena's touch.
Little was spoken during dinner, Gabrielle was too busy eating and Xena was her usual stoic self. The huntress noted, however, that the warrior's attention was clearly split between eating her dinner and keeping an eye on Gabrielle. She also noticed that Xena only looked that way at Gabrielle when the bard's attention was elsewhere. As the evening wore on, Artemis was convinced that Xena was in love with the young queen.
"I'm going to take another look around the perimeter.", Xena announced as she rose to her feet. Gabrielle looked up from her scroll and nodded.
"I'd like to accompany you.", Artemis said as she stood up and grabbed her bow. Xena scowled but the look that Gabrielle shot her silenced any argument.
"Fine, just don't make noise and don't get in my way.", no release tonight, Xena thought to herself.
They were well beyond earshot when Artemis asked to take a break. "I'd like to talk to you."
"We need to finish searching the area and then get back to camp, Artemis. I don't have time for idle conversation.", Xena scowled as she started to walk away.
"You're in love with her, aren't you?" Those words brought the tall warrior to a halt.
"You don't know what you're talking about.", she protested, although she knew that the huntress was correct.
"Don't I, Xena? I've been watching. I see the way you look at her."
"This is none of your concern, Artemis.", Xena's voice carried a threatening tone. "All you need to worry about is finding your mantles and then you can go back to Mount Olympus and ignore us again."
"I have NEVER ignored Gabrielle, or you.", the huntress' words were full of anger and hurt.
"Save your concern for Gabrielle. I don't need or want it."
"You don't think I care?", angry and upset, Artemis reached out and grabbed the warrior's arm. "Xena, I have watched you. I've seen a young girl who sang a song as beautiful as the nightingale. I watched that young girl turn into one of the most fearsome warlords the world has ever seen. I watched you try to defeat my half-brother Hercules and lose. I've seen it all, Xena."
"Is there a point to all this, Artemis?", Xena asked in a bored tone.
"You don't think I care, Xena, but I do. I watched you with her. I've seen the way you look at her. You love her so much yet you refuse to let her into your heart. Why?"
"Artemis, you were banished from Mount Olympus for interfering with mortals. Take a hint and stay out of my affairs.", she snarled. Before the huntress could reply, Xena stormed off into the thick foliage.
"Where's Xena?", Gabrielle asked when she saw Artemis return alone.
"She went for a walk."
"Oh.", Gabrielle wondered if words had been exchanged between them. Xena was not known for her tact when it came to conversing with the gods. She rose and laid out her bedroll. "I guess we'd better get some sleep. It's going to be a long walk tomorrow."
"Gabrielle, why don't you ride with Xena or get a horse of your own?", Artemis asked as she laid out her bedroll, positioning it an equal distance from Gabrielle and from where Xena would most likely lay hers.
"First of all, we can barely afford to feed Argo. Secondly, horses and I aren't always the best of friends. I had a pony when I was a child, but there's no way that a pony would be able to keep up with Argo in a dead run."
"No, I suppose not.", Artemis agreed as she settled into her covers. Both women turned to see Xena stride into camp.
"Xena, how much longer do you think it will take to get there?"
"At least five more days, Gabrielle, possibly more. Now go to sleep.", she said as she banked the fire for the night and laid out her bedroll.
"Goodnight Xena. Goodnight Artemis."
"Goodnight Gabrielle." They answered in unison. Artemis smiled, Xena frowned and rolled over, wishing for this quest to be over with as soon as possible.
The next three days were quiet. Gabrielle kept Artemis entertained during the day with stories about the gods and mortals, doing her best to keep the huntress and the conversation away from Xena. She needn't have bothered. Xena did her best to stay a fair distance ahead of them, remaining just within earshot in case of trouble. Meals and nighttime were quiet affairs, with each woman isolating into their own little worlds. Xena went through her hypnotic rhythm of cleaning her sword while Gabrielle retreated to her scrolls. Artemis sat quietly, gazing into the flames or meditating.
The fourth day brought more trouble down upon them. Xena had just enough time to warn them when six bandits came flying out of the bushes at them. Xena jumped off of Argo and engaged three of the bandits, leaving the others for Gabrielle and Artemis to deal with. Gabrielle swung her staff, deflecting a blow from one of the men. Artemis raised her bow, aiming at the man closest to her. With the lack of distance between them, he easily swung and knocked the bow out of her hands. The huntress fell back, feeling fear for the first time in her immortal life. Just as the sword was coming down at her, a whistling sound filled the air. Metal clanged against metal as the chakram connected with his sword. "Ayiyiyiyiyi." Artemis watched as Xena sailed through the air, her boots connecting with his chest. Within moments, it was over. Half the men were dead, the other half unconscious.
"Anybody hurt?", Xena asked, although her attention was focused completely on Gabrielle, who nodded that she was okay.
"Artemis, are you all right?", the bard asked as she helped the huntress to her feet.
"Yeah, fine.", she replied as she dusted the dirt off of her clothes. "I don't understand why they feel the need to attack us."
"Men just seem to have this thing for wanting to fight with Xena.", Gabrielle joked, drawing a look from her best friend. In a lower, more conspiriatory tone, she added, "I think it has to do with the leather."
"I heard that, Gabrielle."
"Did I mention that she has excellent hearing?"
"I see that.", Artemis chuckled as they resumed their trek.
Kiveron was a small mining town, nestled between two large mountains and bordered on the third side by a wide river. "I'm surprised that village hasn't been sacked before.", Xena said as the trio looked around.
"Why is that?", Artemis asked innocently.
"It's too easy a target. All an army has to do is come straight at them. With the river and the mountains, there's no escape. This place is a warlord's dream."
"Oh.", Gabrielle said, letting the subject drop. She didn't want to bring up Xena's past in front of the goddess.
"Let's get into town and see what's going on. Artemis, be on the lookout for your mantles. One of them has to be here somewhere.", Xena took one more look at her bard before climbing back on Argo. "And Artemis, it would probably be a good idea not to mention who you are."
Once inside the town, Xena headed toward the stables with Argo, leaving Gabrielle to deal with getting rooms and meals. Artemis followed the bard to the entrance of the tavern.
"Artemis, I think I should explain a few things to you before we go in there. Once inside, I want you to stay directly behind me. Don't say anything to anyone, okay? The men in places like this are usually dirty and foul mouthed. Just ignore them and remain focused on me. If there is any kind of trouble, just stay quiet and let me handle it." Gabrielle didn't want to sound so firm, but she knew what could happen if Artemis didn't do exactly as she said.
As expected, the tavern was full of drunken men, most smelling as if their bodies hadn't seen soap in weeks. Gabrielle spotted a table in the far corner. "Stay right behind me and don't say a word." Keeping her staff at the ready, the bard led them through the gauntlet of leering men. Gabrielle smiled to herself upon reaching the table. It only took a few strikes of her staff to make their way through.
"Why did they bother us?" Artemis asked as she took a seat next to the bard.
"Because that's what they do, Art...you know something? We need to come up with a different name for you."
"Because we can't keep calling you Artemis." Gabrielle lowered her voice as so not to be overheard. "You know that mortals consider anyone who bears the name of a god or goddess to be cursed."
Artemis nodded in agreement. "So what name should I use?"
"I don't know. Let's think about it." She looked at the huntress thoughtfully, noting the soft brown hair, the deep, dark eyes, the creamy white skin. A bright smile came over her. "I've got it. We'll call you Fawn, you know, like a deer?"
"You do know that the deer is my most sacred animal. Yes, I like Fawn."
"Well, then Fawn it is."
Gabrielle ordered three mugs of port and three dinners. Artemis and her sipped their port while waiting for Xena to join them. "So, tell me about how you and Xena met.", Artemis asked, although she already knew the story. She just wanted to hear the story from Gabrielle's perspective.
"She rescued me from slavers and...", her gaze was drawn to a large brute of a smelly man that was headed their way. "I'll handle this." She gripped her staff and glared at him, doing her best to imitate Xena's intimidating stare.
"Now look.", the bard smiled as sweetly as she could. "I'm sure that you think that there is something at this table that is for sale, but you are mistaken."
"Oh, I think you are the one who is mistaken, dear." He reached out and placed his meaty paw on Gabrielle's shoulder. She brought her staff up, catching him squarely in the groin. A quick reversal connected with his chin, sending him backwards. He wiped the blood from his lips and snarled at the blonde woman. "You're going to pay for that, you bitch."
"Uh oh", she muttered as she rose to a standing position. As his fist moved toward her, another fist moved even quicker to smash against the side of his face.
"Can't leave you alone for a minute, can I?" Xena drawled as she stepped over the unconscious man and took a seat.
"How long were you watching?", Gabrielle asked as she smiled and handed the warrior the third mug of port.
The food arrived and all three ate heartily, Gabrielle explaining the name change between mouthfuls. "The barmaid said there is only one room available, but it does have two beds." Xena merely nodded and continued eating, her mind filled with visions of curling up next to Gabrielle without needing cold weather as an excuse. There was nothing they could do for the moment except wait and see what happened.
Artemis fell asleep quickly, leaving Xena and Gabrielle to perform their usual nightly routines. Xena leaned against the headboard, methodically sharpening her sword while Gabrielle leaned against the wall, writing down notes about their current adventure. It gave Xena the perfect opportunity to sit and study her friend. She watched the way the candlelight bounced off the smooth cheeks, the way Gabrielle's lips moved silently as she worked. "What are you working on?", she asked softly.
Gabrielle looked up from her writing, catching an unfamiliar look in the blue eyes before Xena turned her face back down to concentrate on her sword. "Uh, just some thoughts about today. Hmm, that's funny."
"You never usually ask me about what I'm writing." Gabrielle's thoughtful look was answered with a small smile before the feelings became too much for Xena.
"I'm going to get ready for bed.", the warrior muttered as she rose and started to remove her armor. Gabrielle quickly set her scroll and quill down and moved to the edge of the bed.
"Hey, that's my job, remember?", she joked as she moved Xena's hands out of the way and began to undo the clasps that held the breastplate. "Did you get hurt in the battle today? You seem a bit stiff."
"No...I must just be tired.", she groaned at her lame excuse. The fact was that the young woman's gentle touch stirred the passion in her. Xena concentrated on her breathing, silently praying that her bard would hurry up and end the sweet torture.
Once they were both down to their shifts, Gabrielle climbed into bed and moved near the wall. The bed was barely large enough for the two of them to lay side by side, so she rolled over onto her side, giving the extra room to Xena. Unable to resist the opportunity, the warrior curled up against her, wrapping her arm around the small waist. "Not much room.", she quietly explained. Gabrielle nodded and pressed up against the strong frame behind her.
"It's okay. I don't mind.", she murmured and snuggled closer. Xena relaxed and both soon fell into a contented sleep.
Artemis woke up to see the two women intertwined. She smiled softly and quietly rose from her bed.
"You don't have to be quiet, Artemis. Gabrielle can sleep through a war."
"Oh.", she said. Xena sighed and slowly extricated herself from the softness of the sleeping bard. She quickly got dressed and put on her boots.
"I'll go down and get breakfast for us. You stay here and don't open the door for any reason until I return, you understand?", she took one last look at Gabrielle before leaving the room.
By the time Xena returned with the food, Gabrielle was up and dressed. "Oh, look at all the food!", she exclaimed as she watched the tray being set on the small table. The warrior chuckled at the wide eyed stare from the soft green eyes.
"I can't believe you brought up all this food.", Artemis said as she reached out and grabbed a piece of fish.
"Considering how much food the two of you put away, I had to make sure there would be some left for me.", Xena teased as she took her seat.
"Did you find out anything?"
"No, Gabrielle. From what I've seen, everything is peaceful. There's no sign of anything amiss."
"Maybe this isn't the right place. Maybe the message had nothing to do with a place, maybe it meant something else.", she turned to Artemis. "Do you have any ideas?"
The huntress looked up from the food she was eating. "None of this makes any sense to me, Gabrielle.", she sighed. "Perhaps it does mean something other than a location."
Xena quickly finished up her breakfast. "I should think you two can find something to occupy yourselves while I look around town.", she rose and looked at her young friend. "Gabrielle, do me a favor, try to stay out of trouble, just this once?"
"Funny. Yup, you're really funny, Xena."
"I know.", the warrior smirked. "Oh, and Fawn?", she looked at the huntress, "I don't want to have to pull you out of any scrapes, either."
"Now look, Xena.", Artemis rose, her anger building. "I am not some child you can boss around. I am the Moon Goddess, protector of the Amazons. You may not like me, but you will treat me with some kind of respect."
"People have to earn respect, Artemis.", she turned and headed out the door. A long silence passed between the bard and huntress.
"Come on, Fawn. Let's go shopping."
"You'll love it.", Gabrielle said as she grabbed her hand. "I know how to get a bargain."
"What exactly are we looking to purchase?", Artemis asked as they strolled through the maze of carts and table that displayed the various wares that the village had to offer.
"Well, for one thing, we need more thread and some new needles. We're constantly stitching either our clothes or our bodies. It's a job hazard.", both women chuckled at the joke. "We also need a couple of knives and a small pot, she's always denting mine, and more cloth for bandages and parchment and ink and..."
"Gabrielle, doesn't your jaw ever ache?" The bard looked at her for a moment before realizing that she was being teased.
"Funny, very funny. Taking lessons from Xena?", she quipped as they approached a small table covered with several bolts of cloth. Gabrielle smiled and picked through them, shaking her head at the coarse cloth and again at the sheer, fine cloth. "We need something...absorbent.", her eyes fell upon a bolt of hemp. "Perfect." She looked up at the merchant. "How much?"
He smiled as he thought of the easy sale. "Ah, that is an excellent choice, my dear. It is very popular and I'm afraid that what you see is all I have left.", his smile became toothy as he prepared to close the deal. "I can you let you have it for, say...five dinars?"
"Five dinars?", she exclaimed. Artemis watched the exchange with interest. "For five dinars I can purchase the best room in town. The best I can possibly do is...", she looked around the table until she spotted the spools of thread. "...two dinars and that's only if you throw in a spool of thread."
The merchant looked as though he was going to explode. "Two dinars? There is no way I can let this fine material go for so little. Four Dinars."
"Three.", she countered, her green eyes never leaving his as she stared him down.
"Well...", she set the cloth down and started to turn away.
"All right, three dinars.", his voice carried the tone of his defeat.
"And the thread.", she reminded. He sighed and handed her the thread. Gabrielle grinned as she tossed him the coins.
"I can't believe you talked him down like that." Artemis said as they continued on their purchasing spree.
"Oh, that's nothing. I have a way with words." Gabrielle grinned. "Sometimes I can even get Xena to see things my way."
"You care about her very much, don't you?"
Gabrielle turned her head toward the midday sun. "I can't imagine my life without her. She's my friend, my protector, my mentor. Xena would do anything to protect me and take care of me. She knows that I would do the same.", she gestured toward an empty bench and they sat down. "I know she doesn't think much of the gods."
"No, she doesn't. She blames all of us for Ares.", she responded, the tone conveying the hurt. Gabrielle nodded and placed her hand gently on the huntress' forearm.
"It's not just Ares. Every time the gods enter her life, trouble usually follows. As I was saying, I know she doesn't care much for them, but I remember a time when she got down on her knee and prayed to you not to let the light go out of my eyes."
"I remember.", Artemis replied. "She didn't know if anyone was listening. I was.", she lost herself for a moment in that memory. Her young princess in pain, on the verge of losing her blood innocence. The strong warrior bending down and praying for the first time in many winters. Bringing herself back to the present, she apologized. "I'm sorry, go on."
Gabrielle nodded and continued. "There is so much good in Xena, so much that she wants to do to help the world. She's not the person she once was. There are times when I look at her and all I see is a woman who needs to be held and loved and other times when I see the only person I can turn to for comfort. I have no regrets about following her."
Artemis thought about saying something to Gabrielle about Xena's feelings for her, but then the warrior came striding up to them.
"Let's go. I know what's going to happen.", she said firmly as the two women stood to follow her to the inn.
Once inside, the three women quickly headed upstairs to the privacy of their room. Artemis and Gabrielle sat on the beds while Xena took a spot near the window and stood. "There's a band of thieves led by a warlord named Riberious. They've already threatened the village with complete annihilation unless they agree to turn over the gold in the mines."
"What's the plan, Xena?", Gabrielle asked, knowing that the warrior already had one in mind.
"From what I could gather from the town elders, this group is mostly on horseback. We should be able to use that to our advantage."
"The old pull the rope, catch their necks, pull them off the horse thing, huh?", she said in a bored tone reminiscent of her best friend. Xena smiled at her.
"Well, only if I can't come up with anything new and original.", she quipped.
"Excuse me for interrupting, but how can you be so sure that the townspeople won't get hurt if you put up a fight?"
"Artemis," Xena used the tone that Gabrielle found most irritating, the I-can't-believe-you-don't-get-it voice. "Some of the people will get hurt, some will even die. I can't prevent that."
"You can't do anything to keep them from being hurt? If I had my powers..."
"That's why you don't have your powers, Artemis. This isn't about you or me. It's about these people. They have to stand up for themselves."
"I could go to Riberious and tell him who I am and threaten him if he tries to attack this village.", she offered.
"And would you watch this village all the time, every day? The amazons are your people, yet you can't watch over them constantly. These people need to be able to defend themselves, otherwise they're always going to be looking over their shoulders for the next attack."
"Artemis," Gabrielle jumped in to help explain. "Look at it this way. When I first met Xena, I didn't know how to make a fire or anything like that. At first, she would make the fire, and that would keep me warm for the night. But what would happen if she wasn't there anymore? So she taught me how to make a fire by myself. Now I can stay warm forever. Instead of always picking the right kind of berries, she taught me so I would know. It's the same with these villagers. We can't stay here and protect them forever. They have to learn how to defend and care for themselves."
"I never thought about it like that before. I was only thinking of saving their lives.", the huntress replied solemnly. Xena smiled at Gabrielle in appreciation of her talent with words. It was met with an equal smile of thanks for all the lessons learned.
After a quick meeting with the village elders, Xena and Gabrielle split up to instruct the people and set up defenses. Artemis was assigned to help pass out skins of water to the sentries and help set up an aid station for the men that would soon be wounded in battle. "Now I understand why Gabrielle needed to buy so much cloth.", she said to herself as she started to cut the bolt of material down into strips and bandages.
As the battle started, Gabrielle and Artemis reported to the medical tent. "Fawn,", she said, remembering to use the alias, "start setting up basins of water and throw some more logs on the fire outside, we may need it to cauterize wounds."
"Cauterize...you mean burn these poor men? Prometheus made a huge mistake when he gave mortals the gift of healing. If you prayed to Apollo..."
"If we prayed to Apollo and sat around waiting for an answer, half the people we treat would be dead.", Gabrielle responded a little more forcefully than she meant. "I'm sorry, but Xena is right about this. We have to learn to take care of ourselves."
Just then the first of many men to fall in battle was brought in. "We have work to do.", Gabrielle said firmly as she went to examine his wounds. She knew that if it was anything she couldn't handle that she could send for Xena to help. She also knew which ones couldn't be helped by anything other than a gentle voice and a soft hand to lead them peacefully over to the other side.
As planned, a taut rope cut down the first bandits to enter the village. With the rope in place, many of the riders were forced to forego their horses, putting them at a disadvantage to the villagers. Another group ran into a pit dug during the night and covered with thin sticks and straw. Still more were brought down by arrows. Xena battled with the villagers, helping to stem the flow of marauders and turn the tide of the battle.
The severity of the injuries increased as the battle went on. Several times Artemis had to excuse herself from the gory sights and step outside. She let out a gasp when she saw a young man being dragged in, an arrow sticking hideously out of his abdomen. "Gabrielle!", she yelled as she guided the men inside.
"Over here.", the bard answered as she quickly washed the blood off her hands from the previous patient. "Okay, lie him on his side.", she locked her eyes with his and spoke softly. "My name is Gabrielle, what's yours?"
"Saral.", he gasped.
"Okay, just relax, Saral. I'm going to tell you a story while I do this, okay?", she gently opened his shirt, pulling one arm free and exposing the wound. She proceeded to clean the area with the wet cloths while telling her tale. "There once was a man who...", she continued to speak softly, relaxing him as she determined the course of action. "Saral, the arrowhead has to be pushed through. I'm sorry."
"Do it. I don't want to die, Gabrielle.", his soft voice pleaded with her. Remembering Xena's warning about muscles clenching in anticipation, the bard made a quick decision. "Okay.", without warning, she grasped the shaft of the arrow and pushed the head through his back. He screamed out in pain. Artemis winced and shook her head at the sight. Gabrielle acted as if this was something she did normally, although truth be told, this was the first time she had ever had to remove an arrow from someone without Xena standing right there next to her. "You did fine. The arrow is out. Now, where were we in that tale? Oh yes, the handsome prince...", she instructed a nearby member of the walking wounded to help her keep Saral still while she broke off the head. Not being as strong as Xena, Gabrielle was forced to use a sharp knife to cut a notch out of the wood before being able to snap it. "Shh, you did fine.", she said as he screamed again. She maintained the smooth, calming tone as she slowly pulled the shaft out. "Fawn, go outside and place a knife blade in the fire. Once it's orange, bring it in here."
"Fawn!", Gabrielle yelled, stopping the huntress in her tracks. "Use several layers of cloth to protect your hands from the heat.", she said, remembering how everything was still so new to her.
"Right.", she nodded, grateful for the reminder.
"Okay Saral, this is going to hurt. Do you want me to go get Xena to cut off the feeling?", she asked as she gently rubbed his shoulder.
"No, I know you won't hurt me more than you need to.", he croaked. She smiled and gave him a sip of water from the nearby skin.
Artemis watched as Gabrielle, whom she thought of as a fragile young woman, placed the searing hot blade against his stomach and then again across the wound in his back. The entire time Gabrielle kept speaking in soft tones, comforting with her voice and touch as she completed her task. Even when she had finished tending to his physical wounds, the young bard continued to talk to him, lulling him into a slumber with a peaceful story.
"Gabrielle.", Artemis called her over much later, after most of the wounded had been treated. "I just wanted to tell you that what I saw you doing today was nothing short of amazing. Even as a full goddess, I couldn't have comforted him as well as you did. You truly have a talent for healing."
"Everything I've learned about healing comes from Xena. I've seen the way she treats the injured, and I try to do what she would have done.", Gabrielle explained.
"I could never be as good at healing the inside as you are, Gabrielle.", both women turned to see Xena standing before them. The bard jumped off of the stool that she was sitting on and ran to the warrior's side.
"You're hurt.", she exclaimed as she put her arms around the taller woman and led her to an empty pallet. Her fingers nimbly removed the armor and leathers that kept the extent of her warrior's injuries from view. Artemis went to get a basin of clean water and bandages.
"I'm fine, Gabrielle.", she protested as she tried to stop the probing fingers that were moving around her ribs.
"Lay down and be quiet.", the bard ordered as she placed a firm hand on Xena's shoulder and pressed down. "Now, not a word unless you're telling me where it hurts."
"Gabrielle...", she said as she arched an eyebrow. One look at the determination in the storyteller's face was enough to make her sigh and lie back.
"Let's see what we have this time...hmm, good gash, nice and jagged. I just love to stitch those up.", she reached for the needle and thread, placing them nearby. Artemis returned with the water and cloth. "Thanks.", Gabrielle said, her eyes never leaving her charge. "And what do we have over here?"
"Sorry, not my fault.", she answered as she looked at the piece of metal before tossing it out of the way. "Would you have preferred that I left that piece of a dagger in you? Hmmf, I didn't think so. Now let's see what else we have."
It took two candlemarks for Gabrielle to finish patching all the wounds and scrapes that Xena had received. She worried that Xena was in more pain that she was letting on because of her ragged breathing when the ribs were being bound. "There, all done.", she handed Xena a clean shirt. "It's looser than your shift would be. You'll be more comfortable."
As the three of them headed out of the tent, Artemis noticed an object hanging from a knife imbedded into the side of a tree. "My quiver!", she shouted as the unexpected emotion of joy flooded through her.
"I guess she passed her first test.", Gabrielle said as she smiled broadly.
"Uh huh. Now we find out what the next challenge is. Look.", she pointed at the huntress, who was unrolling the scroll that was nestled inside the quiver.
"What does it say?", the bard asked as Artemis returned to their side.
"It says 'The second trial lies down the deepest path to the lair of the Last One.' I don't understand.", she shook her head. "My father is being too vague."
"I think it refers to all these tunnels.", Xena said as she looked at the nearby mountain.
"How will we find the deepest one?", Gabrielle asked as they walked back to the inn.
"We'll ask the miners. I'm sure someone knows where the deepest tunnel is.", the warrior answered.
"I'm not sure I'm going to like this.", the bard murmured as she thought of the cold, dark tunnels. Xena leaned over and gave her a gentle one-armed hug.
"Don't worry, Gabrielle. I'll protect you."
"I know you will.", the look of adoration and trust in the green eyes was almost overpowering to Xena. She smiled slightly and released her hold, mumbling something about getting to sleep and an early start in the morning. Artemis placed one arrow in the quiver before fastening to her back. To Xena and Gabrielle's quizzical looks, she merely replied, "The quiver gives me an endless supply. No need to worry.", she allowed a smile to come to her lips as she walked past them.
Despite Xena's protests, Gabrielle insisted on sleeping with Artemis or on the floor. "There's no way I'm going to take the chance of hurting you by rolling over in my sleep.", she turned her attention to the huntress. "Artemis?"
"Of course you are welcome to share my bed. As uncomfortable as it is, it just has to be better than the floor."
None of them slept comfortably. Xena tossed and turned, partly from discomfort and partly because she wasn't used to sleeping in an inn without Gabrielle next to her. It was rare indeed when they would decide to get separate rooms, either money or her protective nature would insist on a single bed. Gabrielle's light snoring and wiggling kept Artemis from getting comfortable, although she knew that true comfort couldn't have been found on the lumpy pallet anyway. The bard's dreams were filled with the crimson visions of the day's events, causing her young body to twitch and flinch. The strong arms that used to hold and comfort her through the nightmares were on the other side of the room.
It took less than a candlemark to find out where the tunnel was and reach it. Xena had packed several days of food, some clothes, flint, oil, and medical supplies into a pack. She fastened it to Gabrielle's back before hefting the bedrolls onto hers. The need to keep Artemis' quiver clear kept the huntress from having to carry any of the supplies, though she was forced to carry Xena's sword and scabbard. All three women each carried a waterskin.
"Everyone stay behind me. Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouths shut. We don't know what we're up against.", Xena took the torch from the holder and started to cautiously enter the tunnel. The obsidian walls reflected little light, forcing the trio to remain close to one another. Several times Artemis missed seeing the other women stop and ran into Gabrielle's back, causing the bard to bounce into the warrior. Both mumbled apologies to Xena, who merely scowled and reminded them to be quiet.
Two candlemarks into the trek, the tunnel started to slope downward. "At least we know we're on the right track.", Gabrielle quipped, trying to lighten the tense mood. To her surprise, Xena turned and gave her a small smile.
Xena's boot slipped on a wet spot on the smooth rock. Not wanting to take a chance of the torch landing in any puddles, she let the blankets on her back cushion her fall while she kept her arm out, protecting the flame. Gabrielle stopped and put her hand out to keep Artemis from running into her. Taking the torch from Xena, the bard reached out with her other hand and helped her to her feet. "We have to be careful.", she took the flame and moved it about, trying to see the ground beneath them. She frowned. "The floor is too wet and steep. We'll never be able to walk without slipping."
"How else are we going to get there?", Artemis asked, slightly annoyed at the latest development. She was beginning to feel closed in and desperately wished for fresh air. Gabrielle noticed the increased breathing and placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
"We crawl.", Xena said firmly as she knelt down. Having to carry the torch, she didn't have the luxury of using both hands and knees. They moved along slowly, Xena alternating the arm that held the light. She refused to pass it to Gabrielle, citing the need for it to be in front.
"Okay, let's take a break.", the warrior said as she rolled into a sitting position, leaning her back against the smooth wall. Without saying a word, Gabrielle moved next to her.
"Your arms ache.", it wasn't a question and she didn't wait for an answer. She took the torch from Xena and handed it to Artemis. "You should have said something."
"Gabrielle, you worry too much about me."
"I only worry because I care so much about you.", she removed the bracers and massaged the sore muscles. "Doesn't that feel better?"
"Mm.", in the blackness of the tunnel, the bard couldn't see that Xena's eyes were closed. With practiced ease, Gabrielle's fingers sought out and relieved every ache in the powerful forearms. No words were exchanged as the young woman continued her ministrations. Artemis couldn't see very well, even with the torch, so she closed her eyes and took advantage of the break to rest for a few moments. Xena allowed the gentle massage to continue as long as she could without being obvious. "Okay, let's get going."
"We take turns with the torch this time.", Gabrielle said firmly as she handed Xena the bracers. The warrior reached out and placed her fingers on the bard's forearm.
"Gabrielle, thanks. You do that very well, you know.", she gave her a slight squeeze before taking the torch from Artemis. She didn't need light to know that her young bard was smiling from the unexpected compliment.
They stopped once to eat and several times for short rests. The tunnel was getting gradually steeper as the floor seemed to get even slipperier. Gabrielle's knee slipped, sending her down, her still tender temple connecting with the heel of Xena's boot.
"Ow, ow ow ow ow.....", she groaned as she grabbed her head and rolled around, not noticing that she was soaking her clothes as well as the pack in the process. Xena twisted and pulled her up to a sitting position, holding out the torch for Artemis to take from her.
"Are you all right?", she asked as she checked the wound for signs of renewed bleeding. She released a breath slowly as she felt no new blood. Xena's hand moved behind Gabrielle. "Great.", she muttered as she felt the wet cloth. "Stay here. Artemis, give me the torch.", she held the light near Gabrielle's head, visually verifying what her hands had told her in the darkness about the wound before turning and heading forward into the darkness.
Xena inched her way along, grimly noting that the slope was getting more pronounced. She was still within earshot when the tunnel suddenly dropped steeply, sending the warrior sliding down several body lengths before landing on smooth, flat ground. A quick examination of the area showed that the running water channeled into a small crevice, leaving the ground dry. The plateau was just large enough to accommodate the three of them comfortably. She threw her chakram, imbedding it into the soft rock, then set the torch into it. "Gabrielle, Artemis.", she yelled, her voice echoing off the black walls.
"Right here.", Gabrielle responded from just above her. "Where are you? I can't see a thing."
"Gabrielle, stay where you are, there's a steep drop off.", she warned, but it was too late.
"Whoa!", the bard yelled as she felt herself sliding downward. Unseen, but familiar strong hands caught her just before she would have reached the ground. Although Xena couldn't see her, she followed the sound of her voice and just managed to catch her.
"Easy now, I've got you.", she said as she cradled Gabrielle in her arms. "You okay?"
"Yes, thanks to you. You're always saving me.", in the dim light, Xena couldn't see the look of adoration in the green eyes, but she could feel it in the tone of Gabrielle's voice. Before she could respond, Artemis called out from above.
"Okay, hang on.", Xena called back before reluctantly releasing the storyteller from her embrace. "Artemis, take off your bow, quiver, and my scabbard. Push them forward so they fall down here."
It didn't take them long to set up their makeshift camp. With no wood to start a fire, dinner was cold dried meat and small sips from the waterskins. Xena removed the items from the pack, trying not to let her disappointment show at all the soaked items.
"Are any of the c-c-clothes dry?", Gabrielle said through chattering teeth. Artemis pulled the torch out of its holder and brought it close to the shivering bard. Xena swore under her breath and unwrapped the bedrolls.
"All the clothes are wet. You'll have to wrap yourself up in the bedrolls.", she said, trying to keep her frustration out of her voice. The clothes were wet and there was no way to dry them in the damp tunnel. Artemis helped the bard wrap herself up in the blankets.
"Xena, I'm s-s-sorry about the clothes."
"Nothing we can do about it now, Gabrielle."
"Xena, would thin sticks work to build a fire?", Artemis asked. A smile crept to the warrior's face as she followed the huntress' line of thinking.
It took only a few moments for Artemis to pull enough arrows out of her endless supply from her quiver for Xena to get enough wood to start a small fire. Artemis kept busy pulling more arrows out and snapping off the points, making a small pile to feed the fire. The obsidian walls absorbed the light rather than reflect it, keeping their small area dim. The warrior looked over at the still shivering bard. "Come sit next to the fire."
Gabrielle complied, moving slowly to sit near the small fire, but trying not to be too close to Xena, who she was convinced was mad at her. Artemis laid out the last bedroll and snuggled into it. "I'm tired but I don't know if I can get any sleep on top of this rock.", she stated simply. Both women nodded in agreement. Even the hard ground was softer than the flat stone. Xena pulled her sword and whetstone out and began to sharpen her blade. There was no way to make the fire large enough to heat the cavern to a point where the clothes would dry and Gabrielle knew it. Her head drooped as she stared into the fire.
"Forget about it.", Xena said without looking up from her task.
"Forget about what?"
"Whatever it is that you're moping about. Let it go, Gabrielle. There's nothing that can be done about it anyway.", she looked up in time to see the bard do an all over shiver. "Why didn't you tell me you were still cold?", she said as she removed her armor and set it safely out of the way. Xena threw more arrow shafts into the fire before joining Gabrielle under the blankets.
Both women were sitting up, Gabrielle's head leaning against the warm chest behind her. "Looks like Artemis was able to sleep after all.", she mused as the looked over at the sleeping form. She felt rather than heard the soft chuckle from Xena.
"Your skin is like ice.", the warrior said as she ran her hands up and down Gabrielle's arms, trying hard not to think of how soft the skin felt to her touch or the fact that the woman she dreamed of was sitting naked in her arms.
"You are always warm.", Gabrielle said as she snuggled deeper into Xena's embrace. She let out a contented sigh and closed her eyes. "You know,", she said as she yawned, "I could fall asleep like this."
"Let's set the blankets out and lay down. I'm not in the mood to sleep sitting up.", Xena said as she forced herself to move back from the softness and stand up. She let Gabrielle sit there while she laid one blanket on the ground, folding a third of it over upon itself in an attempt to make it softer for the bard. Gabrielle smiled at the gesture.
"Hmm?", she replied as she curled up against the bard's back.
"I think I'd be warmer if you didn't wear your leathers. I mean, if you don't mind. It's just that your skin is warmer.", she let out another shiver as if to prove her point. After a brief mental war with herself, Xena pulled her leathers off and pressed up against Gabrielle, wrapping one long arm around the small waist.
"Better?", she asked as she mentally concentrated on anything other than the sensation of their naked bodies touching. Gabrielle nodded as she drifted off into a contented sleep. Xena laid there, absentmindedly stroking the bard's belly with her fingers and wondering how she ever survived without Gabrielle in her life. Only when she gave in to the comfort and softness that was her bard and buried her face into the honey colored hair did Xena finally doze off.
Xena awoke to the pleasant weight of Gabrielle's head against her breast, one arm and leg thrown across her long body. She gently rolled the sleeping bard off of her and stood up, stretching as she worked the night's rest out of her bones and muscles. She dressed and fed more shafts into the fire as she waited for the others to wake up. In the near complete darkness, it was impossible to tell if it was day or night, or how long she had slept. Although she felt rested, she knew that she was capable of going on only a few candlemarks rest while Gabrielle required at least seven or eight candlemarks. Artemis seemed to take after the bard in that respect too. Xena heated up some tea for herself and ate her meager breakfast in silence as she mentally reviewed their surroundings. The drop to the area that they were in was too high for any of them to get back out the way they entered. Not knowing what was ahead of them didn't help to ease the warrior's mind at all. A quick mental inventory told her that even with rationing, they only had enough food for three days. She wondered if Artemis' quiver could perform the same miracle with food that it did with arrows.
Three candlemarks later, all three women were awake, fed, and ready to continue on their journey. Xena removed her chakram from the wall, took the torch, and led the way. The tunnel leading away from where they slept was wide and dry, allowing the women to cover the distance at a much quicker rate. Gabrielle filled the air with stories of Hercules, to which Artemis was quite pleased. So long as Hera was underfoot on Mount Olympus, the subject of her half brother was taboo. She interrupted the bard often, asking questions or requesting clarification on certain points. Xena was glad that Gabrielle had chosen not to tell stories about her.
It took over twelve candlemarks for them to finally reach the end of the tunnel. All were well aware that there wasn't enough food to cover the journey back. Xena's hope that the quiver might be able to replicate the remaining food was dashed when the huntress explained that it could only be used for arrows, which was why the second scroll didn't continue to repeat itself once removed.
The tunnel opened up into a huge cavern, illuminated by red hot rocks. The heat alone was enough to make all three women perspire, much less the imposing figure that sat in the middle of the room. Xena moved in front of Gabrielle, a protective habit that she found she still couldn't break away from. She silently wished she had made the bard bring her staff along instead of deciding that it would be better to leave it back at the inn.
"Xena, is that what I think it is?", the young woman asked with awe and fear in her voice. Artemis simply continued to stare at the large, scaly creature.
"It's a dragon. Very old if the color is any indication.", she said, noting it's inky black color. "I thought they were all dead."
"This must be what the scroll meant. The last one.", Gabrielle said quietly, in fear of waking the massive winged creature. The dragon's head moved and snorted, a puff of smoke appeared from the two large nostrils.
"Stay behind me.", Xena said as she pulled her sword from the scabbard on Artemis' back. She slowly entered the cavern again, this time keeping large rocks between her and the dragon. A low growl filled and reverberated off the walls as the dragon's red eyes locked with the ice blue ones of the warrior. For several long moments, no one spoke, the mammoth creature continued to maintain eye contact with the sword carrying human.
"I don't understand what this has to do with my quest.", Artemis said quietly to Gabrielle. Xena held her hand out to silence the huntress.
"So...you have come to slay the last dragon, have you?", the winged creature lifted a paw and licked it, totally nonplused. "I must say I've waited a long time for someone to come and challenge me. There is no way that you can defeat me with that little thorn, woman.", the deep voice was obviously female.
Artemis moved up next to Xena and lightly touched her forearm. "Xena, let's find a way around her. This can't be the trial."
"I have a feeling that it is.", Gabrielle said softly. "She is the last one, just like the scroll said."
"I won't stand by and watch the last dragon be slaughtered.", the huntress said vehemently. She addressed the dragon. "What is your name?"
The dragon looked at the soft brown eyes before answering. There was something familiar about the human with the bow and arrow, something gentle and safe. "My mate called me Shalia. I haven't spoken that name in many winters.", there was a touch of sadness to the dragon's voice that pulled at Artemis' heart. "He was caught in a rock slide and the humans butchered him."
"How did you end up here?", Xena asked.
"This was our lair until the rock slide. I've been trapped in here ever since.", Shalia let out a deep breath, sending a wall of smoke and heat in their general direction. Xena immediately stepped in front of Gabrielle to protect her.
"How have you survived in here all this time? I mean, it's not like there's a constant food supply or anything.", the bard said, although she remained behind the leather clad woman.
"I am cursed by the gods, pure one. So long as my heart is not pierced, I will not die. I am forced to remain here forever, entombed within my own lair for eternity."
"The gods would not curse you. The immortality that was bestowed upon you was a gift.", Artemis said haughtily, remembering the day that she and Apollo bestowed that gift upon the mighty winged creatures. It was under Apollo's direction that they be given the one vulnerability of their hearts, lest they have no fear or compassion.
"Bah, a gift. It is a gift to live day after day, trapped in a place that used to bring pleasure and joy? To be unable to fly through the air? To be alone?"
"Perhaps we can help you find a way out of here.", Gabrielle offered. Xena reached back and put her hand on Gabrielle's forearm.
"No, that's not what she wants.", in a louder voice directed at Shalia, she said "Is it?"
"Xena, you can't be thinking...", Artemis said, her brown eyes growing dark at the thought. "No! I won't allow it. She is the last one. Once she is gone, there will be no more."
"Artemis, don't you see how unfair it is for Shalia to go on suffering here?", Gabrielle spoke up, moving out from behind the warrior and addressing both the dragon and the huntress. "She is all alone here. If you let her go, she can be with her mate again."
"Artemis? The goddess of the hunt?", Shalia said as small puffs of smoke came from her nostrils. The red eyes darkened. "You are why I cannot die and you call it a gift? I beg you, goddess, free me from my prison. Let me go."
"I only meant to help. Perhaps we can free the rocks and let you out of here."
"I have tried for twelve winters to move the rocks that keep me trapped in here. Do you really think that you three can move them?"
Xena looked at the large pile of boulders that covered what was once a large opening. It was obvious that there was no way to move them, even if Hercules was there. "She's right, there is no way to move those rocks."
"Then you have no choice but to kill me, warrior woman. Take your little sword and plunge it into my heart. Kill me and set me free.", the deep dragon voice was ringed with sadness.
"No, I will not allow this.", Artemis angrily cried. "You are the last one, Shalia. I will not allow Xena to take your life."
"I won't kill her, Artemis. This is your quest, your trial. It's up to you to do it.", Xena said as she dropped her sword on the ground, no longer fearing the lonely dragon.
"Artemis, can I talk to you privately?", Gabrielle asked as she guided the huntress back into the tunnel. Xena stayed in the cavern, keeping an eye on the mighty winged creature.
"Gabrielle, nothing you can say will make me change my mind. When Apollo and I decided to give them the gift, it was because they were in danger of extinction, of being no more. How can I take the life of the last one?"
"Artemis, listen to me. I know it's hard for you to understand, what with being a goddess and all, but all creatures need companionship. I know you thought you were doing the right thing by protecting them, but it's time to let go. Let Shalia go and be with her mate. Don't you think she's suffered enough? If something were to happen to Xena, if she should...", she didn't finish the thought. "I wouldn't want to go on if I thought that I would never be with her again in the Elyssian fields...or Tartarus."
"But there are other people who can take her place, Gabrielle. You can make new friends. Surely Shalia would be able to find a place where she would be happy."
"The only place that makes me happy is by Xena's side. The only place that will make Shalia happy is to be by her mate's side. Let them be together, Artemis. You are a kind and compassionate woman. Surely you can see now that letting her go would be for the best."
"Gabrielle, what if you're wrong? What if she could find happiness just by being free?"
"I know that she misses him very much. To go day after day without the peace of mind that someday she could be with him again must be unbearable. I can see why she sees your gift as a curse. I know it would be for me.", she said the last words in a softer tone as the thought of life without Xena filled her with a sense of sadness worse than when she lost Perdicus. Artemis put her hand on the bard's shoulder.
"You really wouldn't want to continue on with your life without Xena?"
"It's not a case of wanting to continue on, I couldn't continue on without her.", she said sincerely.
Artemis stepped back into the cavern and walked over to Shalia. "I didn't know. I understand now."
"You will release me?", the deep voice of the dragon asked. Artemis took a deep breath before returning her gaze to the red eyes that were begging for an answer.
"I will release you."
With tears in her eyes, Artemis raised her amazon bow and took aim. After a momentary hesitation, she released the string, sending the arrow true to its mark. Xena bolted from her position and knocked the huntress to the ground as Shalia howled in pain and slumped limply to the ground. "Thank you.", she said before closing the red eyes one last time.
So overcome with emotion was Gabrielle that she buried her teary face into Xena's chest, ignoring the unyielding breastplate in her need for comfort. The warrior held her tenderly, gently stroking her hair as the blue eyes watched thin wisps of smoke escape from the now-dead dragon. "Gabrielle, look."
Getting control of her tears, the bard turned her head and saw what Xena was referring to. The drips of blood from the arrow wound turned into small winged insects, taking flight and sailing above their heads and up the tunnel. The two women watched as hundreds and hundreds of the small flying creatures formed and left the lair. "Flies."
"No,", Gabrielle corrected. "Dragonflies."
Within moments, Shalia's body dissolved away, the only sign she was ever there were the insects still making their way out of the lair. Soon they too were gone. Xena maintained her hold on Gabrielle the entire time. Artemis smiled warmly as the last dragonfly flew from sight. "As one life dies, another is formed. The new...", she looked at Gabrielle, "dragonflies will find acceptance in the world that Shalia and the other dragons could not. One had to die so that others could live.", she smiled with the new understanding and the knowledge that she had indeed passed her second challenge.
A gust a wind signaled the arrival and departure of Hermes. Following the direction of the breeze, they saw the glimmer of silver that signaled Artemis' bow. Gabrielle separated from Xena to run over and hug the huntress, who was actually smiling with joy. The trained senses of the warrior instantly alerted her to danger. A slight tremor shook the lair. "Run!", she screamed as she bolted toward them.
They barely made it into the opening where the bow had been found when the stalactites crashed down from the ceiling. Xena pushed against the other women's backs, forcing them to the ground as she covered them with her own body. Fear raced through their minds as the cavern collapsed around them.
"Everyone okay?", Xena asked as she slowly lifted herself off of them. As she stood, a cloud of dust fell off her back, along with several small and not so small stones. Her armor did little to protect her from the pounding of the stones. She stretched, forcing herself not to grimace.
"I'm all right.", Gabrielle replied into the darkness. "I can't see a thing."
"I'm here, but I hurt my arm.", Artemis replied from somewhere behind Gabrielle. Running her fingers along the wall to get her bearings, Xena approached them.
"Where are you?", the pitch blackness made it impossible to see.
"Over here, Xena. Just follow my voice.", Gabrielle said. Within a heartbeat, she felt the strong fingers of her warrior upon her shoulder. Xena smiled in the darkness at the familiar sensation of Gabrielle's skin beneath her fingertips. The bard took the strong hand and guided it until Xena felt the cloth of the huntress' tunic.
"Gabrielle, feel around and see if you can find my chakram.", she said as she examined Artemis' arm by touch. "Nothing broken, but I think your wrist is sprained."
"It hurts a lot.", the huntress protested.
"That's because you're not used to pain. I could cut off the feeling to your arm if you like.", she offered as she felt Gabrielle come up against her and hand over the chakram. Xena was once again glad for the darkness.
"No, thank you. I've seen you do that to other people.", Artemis replied, causing the usually stoic warrior to chuckle.
Taking an arrow from Artemis' quiver, Xena broke the point off before striking her chakram against the wall to cause sparks. Within moments, she had the end of the shaft blazing with a small fire. Holding three shafts together, the warrior made a small torch. The dim light showed that the entrance was hopelessly sealed. "Guess we go that way.", Xena said, pointing into the dark tunnel ahead of them. All were aware that they no longer had any food or water or even any of their supplies. The only items to have made it through with them were the quiver, bow, and chakram. Not even one waterskin was to be found.
"The scroll!", Artemis yelped as she tried frantically to move some of the rocks.
"Stop!", Xena pulled the huntress back forcibly as the loosened stones now started a small avalanche , blocking the exit even more. Not a word was said as they silently acknowledge that the scroll was hopelessly buried, and with it, the clue for the third trial.
The catacombs branched out in several different directions. Xena insisted that they stick together as they began to search for an exit. The tunnels were dry and large enough to walk upright. Following the main vein for several candlemarks, they eventually reached a dead end. "Artemis, give me an arrow.", Xena said. Using the metal point, she marked the wall. "This way we're not running around in circles.", she explained. "Let's head back and start looking down the other tunnels."
Gabrielle entertained them with stories as they walked, all three trying to keep their minds off of their empty stomachs, which were taking turns making themselves known. "Not even rats down here.", the warrior grumbled.
"The gods wouldn't have left us down here without there being a way out.", Gabrielle said, trying to cheer up her companions.
"There wasn't a chance to read the third scroll. I have no idea what the next challenge is."
"This isn't enough of a challenge?", Xena quipped as she came to yet another dead end. She marked the wall again. "We have no food, no water, and right now...", she looked at the long tunnel they had to walk back through to get to the main one. "...no way out of here."
Sixteen different branches of the catacombs were searched and sixteen times they ran into a dead end. Gabrielle had stopped talking long ago due to the overwhelming thirst that made her throat raspy and dry. Finding a small alcove, Xena decided that it was time to stop and rest. Artemis produced several arrow shafts to make a small fire.
Xena sat down, resting her aching back against the smooth wall. Artemis laid down and quickly fell asleep. Gabrielle stared at the fire as she contemplated the situation. "Xena?", she said in a small voice.
"Hmm?", the blue eyes opened and saw the fear that was evident on the young face.
"Do you think we'll find a way out?"
"Come here.", she said, holding her arms out. Gabrielle quickly moved into the warm embrace. "Don't worry, Gabrielle, we'll figure out something.", she said reassuringly, although inside the warrior was filled with the same fear.
Xena woke up much later to a dead fire on the ground and dead weight on top of her. The honey colored hair laid across her chest, one arm and leg thrown over her. After several moments of gentle nudging, the warrior was finally able to extricate herself from the sleeping bard. Within a few moments, she had the fire blazing again. A quick look over told her that Artemis was still sleeping. She crawled over and placed a soft kiss on Gabrielle's cheek before rising and searching out some more tunnels on her own.
Gabrielle awoke to find Artemis sitting up and tossing more shafts into the fire. "Where's Xena?"
"I don't know. She was gone when I woke up.", the huntress' normally soft voice was now as raspy as the bard's from lack of water. "Gabrielle, do you really think that she can find a way out of here?"
"I'm certain that if anyone could find a way out, it would be Xena. You don't know her, Artemis. I've seen her do some pretty amazing things.", in a softer voice, she added, "especially if it means trying to save me."
"I've seen some of the depths that she has gone to save you, my little queen. She's battled Poseidon and Ares to protect you and I suspect she would die rather than let you be hurt.", Artemis wondered if she should tell the young woman of the warrior's feelings for her.
"I would do the same for her, if needed.", Gabrielle said firmly, putting a hold on the huntress' train of thought. "She's the first thing I see when I wake up and the last thing I see before going to sleep. You may not believe this, but I'm quite happy being with her. Some people look at Xena and all they see is the warlord, but when I look at her, I see the good that she's become. There's a gentle side to her that few people know about. I've seen it."
"Gabrielle, don't you miss not having a home, a place to call your own?"
"No, my home is with Xena. Wherever she goes, I go. Besides, I have a home with the amazons, if I ever needed it.", she laughed lightly, "Of course, I would never leave her again."
"Never? Gabrielle, you shouldn't say never. What if you find someone?"
"Find someone? You mean like another husband? I don't think so, Artemis. Perdicus was a nice, gentle man and I cared about him a great deal, but being married and having children is not what I want in life anymore."
"And what do you want in life, Gabrielle?"
"To be with Xena. To help right the wrongs and protect the innocent with her, to do everything I can to help her in her quest for redemption."
"And for that you would give up everything? Your dreams of becoming a bard, your right to rule over the amazon nation?"
"Artemis, I haven't given anything up. When I told Xena that I wanted to go to Athens, to the academy, she did everything in her power to help me get there. I won the competition, you know."
"I know. I also know that you left the academy to continue traveling with her."
"At the academy, I would have just been telling stories. With Xena, I live them. And as for the amazons, she has never told me that she didn't want me to be queen, never. It was my choice to leave the village and pass control over to Ephiny. Xena would never force me to do something that I didn't want to do, you have to believe that, Artemis."
"I do believe you, Gabrielle. You have to understand that you are my chosen. I just want to make sure that you're happy."
"When I'm with Xena, I'm happy. It's just that simple."
Gabrielle gazed into the fire, her mind obviously somewhere else. The conversation yielded much information to Artemis. She now knew two things. One, that Gabrielle was unaware that she was in love with her best friend; and two, that she was also unaware that her best friend was in love with her. The huntress was now glad that she held her tongue. She hadn't realized the depths of the bard's feelings for Xena. This wasn't a simple case of an older, more experienced woman falling for a beautiful younger woman. That happened all the time with her amazons. This was definitely more. This was a young, inexperienced woman slowly learning her feelings and a woman who had seen too much of life finally letting a light of love and hope into her once blackened heart. The two women continued to sit quietly, neither wanting to reveal their thoughts or speculate on their current situation.
Xena came back a short time later, the tightness in her lips answering the unspoken questions; no water found, no exit located. Gabrielle tried to keep a look of hopefulness on her face, but the warrior saw it for what it really was and felt her heart breaking at the gesture. Betraying no emotions on her face, she spoke crisply and precisely. "I marked the entrance to every tunnel I went through and found dead ends. The ones with other tunnels leading off of them have slash marks to indicate how many tunnels I found.", she scooped the pile of arrowheads up and split them between the other two women. "If you go down one of the branches, mark it with a circle when you enter it, and a slash through the circle when you leave. That's the only way we'll be able to find each other if something happens."
She paused for a moment to collect two piles of shafts, handing one bunch to Gabrielle. Xena also paused to give herself time to breathe after speaking for longer than she normally would. She had no choice, with the maze of tunnels that all looked the same, she had to make sure that they all knew exactly what to do. "If you find an exit, water, vegetation, signs that someone else was here recently, anything, yell to let the others know.", she looked Gabrielle square in the eye, "And don't forget to mark your tunnels...clearly.", the last word said in a slightly more commanding tone that barely covered the unspoken fear. It was far too easy to get lost in the labyrinth of dark tunnels.
They stopped at the first branch off of the main tunnel that contained other branches. Several slash marks as well as a crossed out circle stood out against the black wall. "There are eleven tunnels off of this one and I've only explored the first two fully."
"Xena, don't you think we should split up, I mean really split up? You continue to explore this area while Artemis and I start on the next two tunnels off of the big one.", Gabrielle beamed when she saw a brief smile play across the warrior's lips as she realized the logic behind the suggestion.
Xena figured that it took two candlemarks for a torch made out of three shafts to burn down. She held the torch in her left hand and enough shafts to make two more torches in her right hand. She knew that Gabrielle had at least as many and Artemis could make all she wanted from her quiver. "Make sure you use less than half of your torches before you start to head back."
"Better to come back with some light than not to come back because it's too dark to see, huh?", the bard said as she tilted her head and smiled. Even in the dim torch light, the green eyes twinkled.
Gabrielle's suggestion to split up was quickly rewarded. The second branch that she examined yielded a small pool made by a trickle of water running down the wall from a crack near the top of cavern. It was too small to bathe in, even for a small woman like Gabrielle, but by the gods it was water. She let out a shriek of joy as she buried her face into it. Remembering Xena's warnings about salt water, the bard pulled her face out and cupped some liquid in her hand. A quick taste told her that she had indeed found a source of fresh water. She immersed herself in the cool liquid, swallowing several times before having to lift up and gasp for air.
The three women stopped their exploration to settle and enjoy the absolute refreshment of the cool water. Their chances of staying alive long enough to find an exit suddenly increased dramatically thanks to Gabrielle's discovery. Had they stuck to Xena's plan of exploring only one secondary tunnel system at a time, they would not have found the pool for at least two more days.
All track of time was lost in the continual darkness. The lack of sunlight did nothing to improve any of their moods. They would wake up, drink as much water as they could, then went in their separate directions to explore the labyrinth. Xena and Gabrielle carried more shafts with them in their attempts to go deeper and deeper into the tunnels. All were losing weight rapidly as they demanded their bodies move on despite the lack of any food. Several times Artemis and Gabrielle found themselves completely exhausted after a few candlemarks of searching. Xena's fortitude was stronger, but after over a quarter moon without food, the strain was showing on her too. With no sword to sharpen, she found herself with nothing to do except sleep when not out searching. Gabrielle was running out of stories that didn't involve Xena and was starting to alternate between the two, much to the warrior's displeasure. It didn't help that Artemis sat there, entranced, listening to every word. Gabrielle even replayed every story about the goddesses and gods that she knew. Each one of which caused a lively debate with the moon goddess about every detail. Xena would sit silently and listen, sadly noting the increasing prominence of the bard's ribs and the increasing lack of enthusiasm to her voice. Artemis sadly watched the decline in all of them and cried many times in the privacy of her tunnels as she struggled to figure out what her third trial could possibly be.
In the quiet solitude of her set of tunnels, the goddess-turned-mortal thought again about how her interference in mortal affairs caused tragedy and sorrow. She understood the first two trials, so what was the third? Artemis' mind focused on her two companions, dying slowly because of her. She blinked and shook her head slightly as the answer formed in her mind. She now knew what she had to do to pass the third trial...and save all their lives.
As they all started to settle in for another rest, Artemis stood up and fastened her quiver to her back.
"Where are you going?", Xena asked as she sat up.
"I feel invigorated and want to continue exploring.", she lied. "I'll be gone at least four candlemarks.", maybe longer if needed, the huntress thought to herself.
"Be careful, Artemis.", Gabrielle said as she too sat up, tossing a couple of shafts into the fire.
"I will.", with that, the moon goddess left.
"You tired?", the bard asked.
"Me either.", Gabrielle said as she rose and sat down right next to Xena, close enough for their thighs to touch. "I need this, Xena.", her green eyes shone with unshed tears. "I'm scared. I don't want to die here."
"Gabrielle....", Xena pulled her into her lap, shocked at how much weight the bard had lost. While not skin and bones, It was enough to make anyone think her sickly. Unable to control herself any longer, Gabrielle buried her head into the warrior's neck and sobbed. Strong but thinning fingers stroked the honey hair as a rare tear fell from the blue eyes.
"I-I'm glad you're here with me.", she choked and looked up. "I know that's selfish, Xena, but if you are the last sight I ever see, I'll be happy."
"Shh, don't talk like that, Gabrielle.", she said in a soothing tone as she placed a gentle kiss on the bard's forehead.
"I love you, you know.", she said as she moved up and gave Xena a chaste kiss. When she pulled back, she saw a mixture of fear and something she couldn't identify. The warrior's eyes lowered to stare at the ground. It's now or never, she thought to herself.
"Gabrielle...you know how I feel about you.", she paused and gave a short laugh. "No, you don't, do you? You don't know because I never tell you."
"It's okay, Xena. I know."
"No.", she put her finger on the bard's lips to silence her. "I need to say this, Gabrielle. You are, above and beyond all else, the most important person in my life.", she took a deep breath and looked into the green eyes for courage before continuing. "And I love you.", her finger moved slowly, tracing the outline of Gabrielle's lower lip. "I have for a long time.", Xena looked away from her and lowered her hand.
Several heartbeats passed before Gabrielle reached up with a slightly shaky hand and touched Xena's cheek. "You never told me. I didn't know.", she pressed with her fingertips. "Xena? Look at me...please?...there, that's better.", she gave a small smile in an attempt to remove the sad look on the warrior's face. She now knew what the other look on Xena's face was. The same deep love that she felt. There was something else now, too. She had seen this look before, desire. The bard's heart skipped a beat when she realized the look was for her and her alone. She knew this was more than a physical desire, it was a desire of the heart. In her mind's eye, she imagined what it would be like to share such intimacy with Xena. Gabrielle's gaze flickered between Xena's blue eyes and her lips as she slowly, hesitantly moved closer.
"Gabrielle...", she whispered as their lips became close enough for their breaths to mingle.
"Tell me again.", she urged softly.
"I love you.", it was barely a whisper, but it might have well been a shout for the power it had. "You don't have to...", all words were silenced as the bard's mouth pressed up against hers.
Gabrielle's lips were far softer than Xena imagined. She brushed her lips across the bard's again and again as she savored the sensation. She pulled the lower lip in and sucked gently, causing a soft gasp from the younger woman. All fears that this wasn't what Gabrielle wanted disappeared as she felt a shy tongue come out and touched her lips. "Gabrielle...", her voice was low and throaty she released the lower lip and entered the storyteller's mouth. Xena was unable to suppress a moan as she tasted the sweetness that was Gabrielle for the first time. When their tongues connected, Xena felt it all the way through her body, ending with a tightening in her loins. Gabrielle's eyes had closed at the first contact of their lips. All her senses was filled with the gentle kiss that spoke more than words about what they meant to each other.
Gabrielle moved one hand down to touch the leather strap on the warrior's shoulder, eliciting another moan. Xena's hand moved under the now loose top and cupped one perfect breast. Neither woman knew which moaned or if it was both of them as the bard arched her back, pressing herself into the strong fingers. Xena pulled her mouth back and planted small kisses up the jaw until she reached the earlobe. "Gabrielle...."
The sensation of Xena's warm breath on her ear and her fingers manipulating her nipple made the young woman dizzy with pleasure. "I...never...knew.", her voice came out in small gasps as the warrior's warm mouth worked its way down to her throat, the soft tongue brushing against her pulse point. "Xena...unh, yes...."
"Gabrielle....", her mouth moved back to capture the soft lips again and again, feeling both their passions rising. The bard's hands began a tentative exploration of Xena's body through the soft leathers. Her hand pressed and squeezed the right breast, causing the warrior's eyes to close tight at the long awaited sensation. Xena's own hand continued to massage and excite Gabrielle.
"Xena....", the huskiness of the bard's voice fueled the warrior's own passion. Their kisses continued as strong fingers deftly unlaced the green top, exposing the soft mounds to the Xena's hungry gaze. The look of want and desire both excited and scared the storyteller. She had never known passion such as this, the desire to be totally one with another person. With the simple act of a kiss, her whole world had changed. She now understood her need to be physically close to Xena all the time, the looks that the warrior gave her whenever someone else showed interest in her, all the clues and signals that she had naively missed. She watched as the ice blue eyes grew dark with desire as they gazed down at her half naked body. "Xena...please, I want...but I don't know how...."
Her words were stopped by a kiss so gentle, so full of love and tenderness, that she though it impossible to have come from her stoic warrior. "Gabrielle...", another soft kiss ending with a flick of her tongue across the bard's lips. "...trust me."
"I do.", Gabrielle answered as the green eyes locked onto the blue. Only one heartbeat passed before the warrior moved down to claim the soft mouth again. Kissing her bard was far more pleasurable than Xena ever imagined. She slowly pushed Gabrielle down to the ground as their tongues continued to dance together, each tasting and being tasted by the other. She stretched her long body half onto the bard's smaller one, again taken aback by the sheer intimacy and pleasure of so simple an act. There was no question in the green eyes as Xena's mouth lowered to have its first taste of her erect breasts.
The gasp that left the bard's mouth momentarily stunned and worried Xena, who tried to pick her head back up, but was stopped by a surprisingly strong hand pressing down on her raven hair. "Don't stop...please.", Gabrielle said, her voice husky with the desire that was filling her soul. "I need...", she tried to come up with the word to describe what it was that she needed. "...you."
"You have me, my Gabrielle. You've had me for a long time.", she said before her mouth resumed its previous task. Her long arm reached down and stopped against the bard's hip, gently massaging it through the amazon skirt. Gabrielle's fingers started to clasp and unclasp the long strands of hair that were wrapped around them as her hips started to move in a small rocking motion. Xena's mouth returned to the bard's as her hand worked to remove the last vestige of clothing between her and the treasure she sought.
The soft golden curls glistened with her desire. Xena moved her hand over the triangle of hair, moaning into the bard's mouth when she felt the intense moisture. A small hand wrapped around her wrist, pulling her away. "Wait...", the bard said as she pulled away from the intoxicating kiss. "I want to see you too."
Xena pulled back and rose to her knees. As she reached up to reach her leather straps, Gabrielle moved into a kneeling position in front of her. "Let me.", she reached forward and lowered first one, then the other strap, taking a moment to enjoy the unhindered view of the strong shoulders before tugging the leather downward. She inhaled deeply as the warrior's breasts and tight stomach were revealed to her. Without saying a word, Xena rose to a standing position. So slowly that it was almost painful, Gabrielle lowered the garment the rest of the way, her gaze never leaving the dark patch of hair that was level with her eyes. Xena's legs trembled as she felt the bard's warm breath so close to her center. She stepped out of the leather and knelt down in front of her awe-filled bard. "In all the times I've seen you naked, it's never affected me like this.", Gabrielle said as she wrapped her arms around the taller woman's waist, pulling her closer. "I never imagined...I mean, I knew it was possible, but..."
"I know, Gabrielle, I know.", she said softly before returning her mouth to its favorite place to be. Their bodies pressed together, belly against belly, breasts on top of breasts. There was no room for air between them as their kisses communicated their love and exchanged their souls.
Xena felt the slim hands move their way from her back to the sides of her breasts. Their eyes locked as Gabrielle slowly moved them forward to cover the pebbly flesh that contracted and hardened at the contact. The warrior shuddered as she felt the warm mouth replace one hand. Her own hands moved involuntarily to bury themselves in the honey hair, pulling her love even closer. The bard's mouth and tongue worked a magical spell on the warrior, driving all thoughts from her mind save the sensations the younger woman was causing deep within her.
As much as she wanted to surrender herself to Gabrielle, the urge to bring the bard to that pinnacle of pleasure was greater. Xena pulled back reluctantly from her questing mouth and claiming it with her own. It took only the slightest of effort to press the excited bard onto her back. "Gabrielle....", she sighed as she buried her face in the golden tresses until her lips found an earlobe. "I love you, Gabrielle.", she murmured over and over as the walls around her heart collapsed. When she heard the words returned in kind, Xena swore that the Elyssian Fields couldn't hold a candle to the eternal joy she felt at the moment.
Gabrielle cried out when she felt the warrior touch her in the most intimate of ways. As much as she tried to keep her eyes open and focused, every movement of Xena's fingers overwhelmed her senses and forced them closed. What started out as soft moans and sighs quickly turned to cries and gasps of unintelligible words mixed with Xena's name. Her hips moved of their own volition, matching the pace set by the warrior's questing fingers. As she felt herself rising beyond any previously known point, Gabrielle reached up and wrapped her arms around Xena's neck, pulling their bodies together. She held on tight as her body trembled with the impending climax. She dimly heard the warrior's throaty voice murmuring words of encouragement and love to her as she crossed over to a kaleidoscope of colors and sensations. Her cries echoed throughout the cavern before she collapsed, spent, into the strong tanned arms of her love.
Artemis smiled when she heard Xena call out Gabrielle's name in a scream of passion. Without looking, she knew that the arrow within her quiver was now made of silver instead of wood. Her body felt lighter as she crossed back into her full godhood. Her father's voice echoed in her mind. "You did well, my daughter. You learned that interference, whether deliberate or not, has its consequences."
"My third trial was the two of them.", it was a statement, not a question.
"If you had said one word to that girl of the warrior's feelings, you would have pushed a wedge between them that might never have been mended. She was not ready to hear those words until she had examined her own heart. You may return home when you are ready."
Artemis floated slightly above the ground, relaxing for a while longer to give the lovers more time alone.
Both women were dressed when she finally returned to the alcove. She found Xena sitting up, leaning against the wall with Gabrielle curled up on her lap, her head nestled against the warrior's neck. Their faces shone with both the afterglow of their lovemaking and their indescribable happiness. "Is anyone hungry?"
"Artemis, you're a goddess again!", Gabrielle said joyfully as she moved off the warrior's lap and gave the huntress a hug. "But how did you...?"
"My third quest was in front of me all along.", she smiled at the quizzical look from the bard. "It was you two. I've known since the first night we camped that Xena was in love with you."
"You did?", Gabrielle looked over at Xena, who merely shrugged and smiled.
"I did. You don't know how many times I wanted to say something to you, to tell you exactly what she felt about you and what your feelings for her meant. I'll admit at first that I didn't say anything because, frankly, I didn't think that Xena was the right choice for you. But as time went on and I saw just how much you loved her, I realized that I was wrong. That's why I left earlier, to give the two of you some time alone."
"It worked.", Xena said as she gazed at the vision that was her Gabrielle.
"You know, Xena, I don't think I've ever seen you look so positively happy and content.", the comment from the goddess was met with a smile from the warrior and a furious blush from the bard. Artemis chuckled. "Okay, enough teasing. Let's eat, then I'll get us out of here.", she said as she raised her silver bow and fired a silver arrow onto the ground. The impact turned the arrow into a tray of breads, vegetables, and meats. The two mortals ate ravenously, both practically choking on their food in an effort to get it down. With the slightest movement of her fingers, Artemis calmed their stomachs, which after not having food for so long were beginning to protest the sudden deluge.
With renewed energy from both the food and the strength of their love, Xena and Gabrielle followed Artemis down the main tunnel until they reached the area where the rocks had fallen and blocked their way. "Stand back", the huntress said as she fired a silver arrow at the barricade. The large rocks disintegrated into sand, opening the way for them to enter the dragon's lair. Another arrow at the old rock slide opened the lair to the outside world. The lovers covered their eyes at the bright sunshine after being in the dark tunnels for so long.
"Isn't it just wonderful?", Gabrielle sighed as she stepped out and breathed in the fresh air.
"Yes, it is.", Xena answered softly, but her attention wasn't on the clear sky or the fresh air. The bard turned and gave her a special smile in understanding. Artemis came up behind them carrying Xena's scabbard and sword.
"I'm afraid the rocks scuffed up your scabbard pretty good, but your sword appears to be undamaged.", unknown to the warrior, Artemis had touched the hilt of the weapon and given it her blessing. She handed it over to the grateful Xena, who quickly strapped it to her back.
"Thank you, Artemis.", Xena said. Turning to look at her lover, she added, "For everything."
"Yes.", Gabrielle added, her eyes meeting the warrior's. A moment passed as the women shared unspoken thoughts with each other.
"Is there a place that I can take you ladies to?", Artemis asked. Gabrielle looked thoughtfully at her warrior for a moment before answering.
"Someplace secluded and private would be nice. I think Xena and I need some time alone to sort everything out before we go back to dealing with warlords and towns in need again."
"So be it.", she said as she stepped forward and placed a hand on each woman's shoulder. "You risked your lives to help me and for that, I will be eternally grateful. Gabrielle, you have a heart that shines brighter than any star. Your wisdom and love will persevere no matter what the circumstances and every life you touch is better off for knowing you.", she turned her attention to the tall warrior. "Xena, you've shown me that the blackness that once touched your life is gone, replaced with the good that you kept buried for so long. Know that there is at least one god that loves and looks out for you.", with a final squeeze on their shoulders, she smiled. "I bless the two of you as my chosen. Let no other god or goddess interfere or cause harm to either of you.", her voice carried the words to Mount Olympus, where they were heard by all. She gave them both a gentle smile. "You shall have as much time as you need. When you feel ready, return to the amazons and we'll have a celebration to rival summer solstice."
With a flash of light, Xena and Gabrielle found themselves in a secluded glen with a perfectly calm stream running nearby. There was no sign of Artemis, but the warrior quickly found Argo munching away on some sweet grass nearby, all their gear neatly stacked nearby. Gabrielle wandered over to the edge of the stream and stared at the setting sun. Apollo's chariot was a deep orange on the horizon, casting a warm glow across the land. Strong arms encircled her waist. "Xena?"
"Hmm?", she was quickly losing herself to the warmth of the bard's body against hers.
"Do you have any regrets?", her voice carried the trepidation she felt. Xena's grip on her midriff loosened as the warrior turned her around to face her.
"Gabrielle, the only regret I have is that I was too scared to tell you of my feelings sooner.", she brushed a stray lock of golden hair off the bard's forehead. "But do I regret making love to you? Never.", she pulled Gabrielle closer and lowered her voice. "If I could, I would make love to you again and again until the sands of time run out.", she sealed her statement with a kiss full of promise and love. "I love you, Gabrielle. What we have will never diminish or weaken. It can only grow stronger."
"And you call me the bard.", she said as a tear fell from her green eyes. "I love you too, Xena. I want to spend the rest of my life with you."
"And you shall, my love. And you shall."
They spent the next several days were spent enjoying their love for each other, learning each other's bodies and adjusting to the new depths of their relationship. Sometimes they just sat together by the fire, simply enjoying the feeling of holding each other close. They realized that this indeed was the once in a lifetime love for them. There would be nothing and no one who could ever come between them again. Gone was the fear on both sides that the other would one day leave, replaced with a contentment that only comes from finding the other half of one's soul.
Finally, it came time for them to move on and head for the amazon village. Argo had been enjoying the rest and had fatten up a bit, as did both women, who were now back to the weight their bodies were used to. They took the journey slowly, neither feeling like ending their private time too soon. They walked or rode together most of the time before finally admitting to each other that they each preferred their normal mode of transport. They arrived at the amazon village, Xena riding on Argo with the young bard walking alongside her.
Artemis had communicated what happened through her priestess, Julia. The amazon nation had been waiting for the couple to arrive so they could start the celebration. Julia retired to the temple to pray to the moon goddess while the others were starting to set up for the festivities. Barrels designed with steel sides to contain fires were placed throughout the village and filled with lumber soaked with flammable oils. Multitudes of drums and other percussion instruments were laid out in a semi circle in the middle of the village. Trays of food and skins of drink were freely passed around as the sounds of laughter and merriment increased. Several amazons began a traditional fast paced dance and quickly dragged their young queen in. Xena stood back and watched as her lover danced and laughed, thoroughly enjoying herself. At one point, Gabrielle turned and locked eyes with her and smiled a special smile that would forever be reserved for the warrior. Once again, Xena felt her heart melt with the tenderness and thoughtfulness that was her Gabrielle.
By the time the moon was high in the sky, the festivities were in full swing. Although occasionally separated, both were well aware of where the other woman was. There was no jealousy or fear, just a comfort that came from the knowledge that they would always be together. Unseen to any of the women, Artemis passed through the crowds of women, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the party. Her gaze came to rest upon her companions throughout her trials. They were standing together, Xena leaning against a pole for support while Gabrielle leaned against her, the long night of drinking and dancing wearing her out. Both women wore a look of such utter happiness and joy that Artemis couldn't help but smile.
"You think we can turn in now?", Xena asked as she felt the bard's head bob again. "You're falling asleep on me. You don't want me to carry you to our hut, do you?"
"Hmm,", her green eyes locked with her lover's blue ones. The fires burning brightly illuminated their faces in an orange glow that only made them look more beautiful to each other. "I guess it's late enough.", her eyes twinkled with an unspoken thought of what the privacy of their hut could bring. Xena caught the look and felt a tug in her abdomen.
As Gabrielle lay sleeping in her arms, Xena turned her head and looked at the setting moon in the early morning grayness. "Thank you, Artemis."
From high on Mount Olympus, a pair of soft brown eyes smiled down at the couple. "No Xena, thank you."
Well, how'd I do? Comments may be directed to me at IQ139@aol.com
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