OUT OF THIS DARKNESS
by Vada Foster
Copyright July 1997
Disclaimer: Warning.... This story contains some pretty graphic sex between our favorite warrior and her adorable little bard. There's also a bit of blood and violence, but no more than you might see any week on the show. Feedback of any kind is more than welcome, but if you really just want to bash me, I would just as soon that be private. (Really, I would just as soon you find something better to do than bash me, but that's just me...)
My email address is HRH Vada @AOL.COM
Oh, yes.. Xena and Gabrielle are the property of Universal MCA, and their names are used without permission, but what the hell, it's just good clean fun. Enough drivel. Read the story, already.
The last rays of the sun clung to the horizon in glowing reds and golds. Xena stood on the crest of a hill overlooking the breathtaking view of the valley with the ocean beyond it.
"Hurry up", she called to Gabrielle, who was several paces behind and breathing hard on the steep incline. "This is the most beautiful sunset I've seen in a long time."
"I'm hurrying as fast as I can.", she gasped as she reached the top. "It's no fair; you have those long legs, and I have these damned little stubs." She drew abreast of Xena, and stopped short as her eyes took in the panorama in front of her. Her mouth dropped open as she marveled at the colors. "Ohhh", she sighed.
"I happen to love those little stubs of yours", Xena smiled, raising one eyebrow in a suggestive look that said she also loved what rode on top of those stubs. She draped one arm around Gabrielle's shoulder, and pulled her close. "And the rest of the package, as well.", she added.
"Well, I'd just as soon have your legs as mine, especially when we're going mountain climbing like this," she grumbled, hiding her smile from the warrior.
"Gabrielle, it's a tiny hill. Not even a hill.", she amended. "A bump in the road."
"So it's a bump in the road; I'm still tired. Can we just sit down and rest for a while and watch the rest of the sunset before we go on?"
"Sure. Actually, we might as well look for a place to camp for the night. We'll never make Antea's place by night fall, and there won't be much of a moon tonight."
"Good. I'm not going another step." True to her word, she sat down in the road watching as the sun disappeared into the ocean. Xena dropped down beside her and wrapped her arm around her waist. With a sigh, Gabrielle dropped her head on Xena's shoulder. "Thanks. I needed this."
"Me, too. I forget how nice it is to stop and smell the flowers. Or watch a sunset," she kissed Gabrielle's hair, and drew in the intoxicating fragrance of her. How easy it would be to just forget about everything and pull off Gabrielle's clothes in the middle of the road and make love to her until she couldn't take any more. With a sigh, she rose to her feet and stood looking down at the bard. "But I would like to get our gear set up before
we lose the light completely. Do you want to stay here?"
"No. I'll come with you." Xena held out her hand and pulled Gabrielle to her feet. Surveying the area, the bard noticed several large stones forming a semi-circle, with the remnants of previous campfires at it's center. Other people had sought shelter from the wind from off the water inside the stone circle. "That looks like a good spot", she said, taking Xena by the hand. With a nod, Xena gathered up Argo's reins and the three of them made their way to their campsite.
On the hill overlooking the stone circle in a copse of olive trees, a man watched the pair as they laid out their camp. He and his two accomplices picked up their trail that morning as they left Athens, and had followed from a safe distance ever since. The closeness of the two women was not lost on him. He was betting his life that Xena would do anything to keep the blonde from harm. His mouth turned up in a sneer as he watched the warrior pull the shorter woman to her and kiss her. "Gotcha", he whispered.
Xena broke away from Gabrielle, and her eyes roamed around the surrounding country side. She had the uncomfortable feeling that she was being watched, and it sent chills up her spine.
"Something wrong?", Gabrielle asked softly.
"Maybe nothing. I just felt like someone was watching us." Gabrielle looked around, but could not see far in the gathering dusk.
"I don't see anything. Maybe it's your.....", she broke off, as a nanny goat with her kid emerged from a clump of high grass. "Oh, look, it's only a goat. And she's nursing a kid. We can have fresh goats milk for dinner!" She dug in the saddlebags for some of the oats they gave to Argo for treats, and held out a handful for the goat. The nanny was apparently comfortable with people, as she stood calmly and let Gabrielle pet her.
Xena was not entirely convinced that the goat was responsible for the chill she felt, but by then it was too dark to see much outside of the circle of their fire. She shrugged off the feeling, and went to fetch a bowl to catch the goats milk.
Gabrielle tossed the last of their wood on the fire. They had finished a meal of cheese, fruit and goats milk, and both of them were lazily dreaming by the fire. "There's no more wood. Do you think we should gather some more tonight?"
Xena stretched and yawned. "No. I don't think we'll need it for warmth tonight. Looks like it's going to be plenty warm enough. I'll collect some in the morning for our breakfast."
Gabrielle dropped down onto the bedroll beside Xena. "I'm convinced", she murmured, stifling a yawn of her own. It had been a long day, and both women had pushed themselves harder than usual, eager to reach Antea's home before night fall. Xena had under estimated the distance between Athens and Sounion, and they would still have at least three hour's walk ahead of them the following day. Gabrielle pressed her body up next to Xena's, and brought her knee up to drape over Xena's thigh. At the touch, a shiver went up Xena's body, ending at the triangle at the top of her long shapely legs. She was instantly wide awake, all thoughts of sleep banished by the touch of her precious bard. Deftly, she maneuvered herself out from under Gabrielle, whose eyes had already drifted closed. "Mmphh", Gabrielle murmured, curling into a ball.
"Oh, no you don't", Xena growled. She grasped the bottom of the shift Gabrielle had donned for sleeping, and worked it up the body of the limp bard. As her hand passed over Gabrielle's breast, the skin contracted and the nipple stood sharply at attention. Gabrielle's eyes flew open, and her thoughts of sleep went the way of Xena's.
"I thought you were tired", she whispered softly to the warrior.
"Not THAT tired. Never that tired, not with you." She pulled her own shift over her head and tossed it to one side. The flames from the fire gave her skin a golden caste. She looked to the bard like a golden idol. Gabrielle drank in every curve with her eyes, amazed once again that this goddess of a woman chose to be with her. Xena lowered herself on top of Gabrielle, insinuating her knee in between her legs. Gabrielle moaned and relaxed her legs, giving Xena full access to her body. When her thigh touched the soft wetness of Gabrielle, Xena shuddered and a groan escaped her lips.
"Oh, my little bard. Just the contact between our bodies does things to me that I wouldn't have imagined I could feel outside of the Elysian Fields." She brought her mouth to Gabrielle's, lightly running her tongue over Gabrielle's lips until they parted. She kissed her softly at first, but the bard pushed her tongue into Xena's mouth, igniting a fire that could not be quenched no matter how deeply they kissed. Trembling, Xena finally broke the kiss and began to kiss and nibble at Gabrielle's neck. She ran her tongue over her collarbone and into the cup at the base of her neck. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's waist and let her hands roam over the soft mounds of her ass. She pulled Xena toward her until she could feel Xena's mound against her own. Stretching as far as she could, she tried to reach around Xena's buttocks to touch the warm wetness with her fingers. Xena paused in her kissing long enough to grasp Gabrielle's wrist, which she gently placed beside her.
"Uh-uh", she growled. "None of that yet. Not until I'm through with you. You know what your touch does to my concentration."
Raising her hand back up to Xena's buttocks, Gabrielle murmured " But I only want to feel you. I promise not to break your concentration." Her fingers crawled closer to Xena's center, and the warrior found herself involuntarily turning toward her hand.
"Stop that!", she groaned. She caught Gabrielle's wrist again, and bringing it above the bard's head, she pinned her hand down. "Give me the other hand too", she ordered. Obediently, Gabrielle raised her other hand above her head, and Xena wrapped her long fingers around both wrists and held them there. Seeing Gabrielle stretched out like that sent a chill through the warrior. She looked so vulnerable, and at the same time strong; the muscles in her abdomen were taut. Xena wanted to run her tongue over the bard's stomach, but it would mean letting go of her hands. She picked up the shift she had removed from Gabrielle earlier, and with a deftness that surprised both of them, she bound Gabrielle's hands together. She tossed the strap of the shift over a stone, effectively pinning Gabrielle's hands and freeing her own.
Xena ran her tongue in lazy circles around each of Gabrielle's breasts in turn, rolling the nipples in her mouth and feeling them grow hard as pellets. She moved her mouth down to her stomach, and heard Gabrielle's sharp intake of breath as her chin touched the curly hair on her mound. She positioned her self between the bards legs, then she lifted her legs, placing one on each shoulder. She ran her hands over the soft insides of Gabrielle's thighs, and the muscles twitched at her touch.
"Ohhhh, please......", Gabrielle begged, raising her hips off the ground and encouraging Xena to touch her soft folds with her tongue.
"Patience, Gabrielle," Xena whispered against her thigh. She raised Gabrielle's hips even farther off the ground, until she could reach her buttocks with her mouth. She kissed and nibbled the soft mounds, and then ran her tongue along the divide between the cheeks. Gabrielle gasped again when she felt the tip of the warriors tongue push against the tightness of her small opening. Without realizing it, her muscles tightened against the intrusion. "Relax", Xena whispered against the bards smooth skin. "I wouldn't do anything to hurt you."
Gabrielle consciously relaxed. "I know...... It's just.....I......ohhh." Whatever she was going to say was lost when Xena resumed her exploration of her nether orifice.
"I want to know all of you", Xena purred. "I want you to feel me inside you, everywhere." Gabrielle moaned as her lovers words reached inside of her and plucked her nerves like the strings of a lute. Xena could feel the muscles dancing beneath her hands and mouth. She could feel herself grow wetter as her own body vibrated in tune with the bards. Running her finger through Gabrielle's soft curls, she lubricated it with the juices that were abundant there, and then brought her hand to the small opening. Once again, the tightening muscle resisted her. "Trust me," she growled low in her throat. "Give yourself to me completely."
"Yes, I do.. I want to, oh, gods, more than anything. What can I?........."
"Let your muscles go." She felt the bard go almost limp. "When I push my finger into you, think about how good it feels, and relax." Xena insinuated the tip of her finger into the small opening, and there was no resistance. "Yesss", she hissed, pushing more of her finger into the tight opening. She didn't want to risk hurting her inexperienced lover, so she went in only a short way and then withdrew to the tip of her finger and pushed it back in again.
While her finger continued to gently probe, she brought her thumb to the folds of her lovers lips, and slid it into the warm passage. She pushed her thumb inside as far as it would go, which caused her finger to withdraw until just the tip was still inside her. Then she reversed her motion, making sure that both openings were equally filled.
Gabrielle had never felt such a sensation. Her first reaction when the finger entered her was that it felt odd. Not necessarily unpleasant, but definitely foreign. When Xena began the rocking motion between thumb and finger, the feeling changed to one of complete oneness with her love. She gave herself to Xena with all of her heart, soul, and body, knowing that Xena treasured all of these things, and would guard them with her very life.
Without slowing down the movements of her hand, Xena leaned down and parted the lips guarding Gabrielle's clit with her tongue. Gabrielle thought she would die from sheer pleasure from all the attention she was getting. The first touch of that marvelous tongue started the avalanche in motion that would carry her over the edge of ecstasy. The feeling built until she thought she would explode. Her head whipped from side to side, and she pulled her hands free from the loose binding of the shift, clutching at Xena's shoulders. Xena knew she was almost there, and picked up the tempo with her tongue.
Gabrielle stiffened and pushed into her warriors eager face. "Xenaaaaa!", she called out as the explosive orgasm surged through her body. Xena clung to her, pulling every ounce of energy out of Gabrielle until the bard put her hand under her chin and lifted her head. "Enough.. Stop. . I can't... You're killing me.."
"Killing you nicely, I hope?", she queried. Gabrielle merely nodded; her voice seemed to have deserted her. Xena lowered the bard softly to the ground. Her finger and thumb were still nestled inside of her lover, and she kept them there as she climbed up her body. She lowered herself on top of the bard, trapping her hand between them. Tentatively she wiggled her thumb, and Gabrielle jerked.
Finding her voice again, the bard begged, "No.. Please. There'll be nothing left of me if you keep that up."
"That wouldn't do", Xena murmured. "Because I want to do that to you for the rest of your very long life." She withdrew her fingers from Gabrielle, which caused her to gasp involuntarily, the muscles clinging to the digits. Eagerly, Xena asked "Do you want.........?."
"No! Just a reflex... Gods, is there no satisfying you, woman?"
Xena chuckled, and snuggled into Gabrielle's neck. "I can never get enough of you, my little queen."
"Me neither", Gabrielle whispered. Her eyes were growing heavy, and she stifled a yawn.
Despite the fact that all the muscles in her body had been transformed into a gelatinous substance, Gabrielle tried valiantly to raise up and turn Xena onto her back so she could try out some of her own tricks on the warrior. She might as well try pushing a boulder up a mountain. "Xena," she mumbled. "Turn over."
"What?" She felt Gabrielle trying to dislodge her from her warm soft spot nuzzling her neck. "Not tonight. You're practically asleep already.. Tomorrow."
Gabrielle settled back down, loving the feel of Xena's soft breath across her breasts as she cuddled with her. "Mmmm. You promise?", she managed to whisper.
"I promise. Now go to sleep."
It was a promise Xena would not keep.
In the copse of trees, the man perched between the branches watched by the light of their fire as the two women made love. He was repulsed by it, but at the same time excited. He withdrew his member from his pants, and stroked it as he watched. Long before the little blonde cried out her completion, he erupted on the bough of the tree, biting down on his upper arm to stop himself from screaming. He stayed in his perch long after the women appeared to be asleep, knowing that the warrior was famous for her hearing. When it seemed clear that they were in a deep sleep, he climbed down from the tree with the grace of a cat, and silently made his way back down the hill to where his two accomplices waited for him.
As usual, Xena was able to disentangle herself from the bard without disturbing her sleep. She covered her up and tucked the blanket around her closely, as there was a slight chill in the morning air. She pulled on her leathers and boots, and collecting the water skins from the saddle bags, she made her way toward the stream she could hear just over the crest of the hill. She smiled to herself, remembering the way Gabrielle had reacted to their lovemaking the previous night. Xena loved to experiment with different things; so far she had never done anything that the bard did not like, and she hoped that wouldn't change. She wanted more than anything to keep her happy, and she knew that variety was the spice that Gabrielle favored. She hummed a tune as she filled the skins, then tying them around her neck, she collected wood for the fire and made her way back up the hill.
"You awake yet, sleepyhead?" She called as she approached the campsite. Rounding the outcropping of rocks, she stopped in her tracks when she saw three men with Gabrielle. Two of them gripped her arms. The man on the right held a knife to her throat, and the one on the left had one hand over her mouth. The third man sat on a rock, cleaning his fingernails with a very long knife. Gabrielle was wearing her sleeping shift wrong side out and backwards; clearly these animals had grabbed her as she slept, but at least they allowed her to cover her nakedness.
At the sight of her lover, Gabrielle began to struggle, biting down on the hand that covered her mouth. He yanked his hand away, but brought it back in a vicious slap across her face. Stunned, she stopped struggling.
"Don't try to fight them, Gabrielle. They'll only hurt you," Xena cautioned, her voice a menacing growl.
"Sound advice", offered the man on the rock. "We're not here to hurt your little wife, Xena. It's you we came for." He stood and put the knife he had been using on his fingernails in a sheath at his belt. He was slightly taller than Xena, with a shock of curly red hair spilling down to his shoulders. His face would have been quite handsome but for a plum colored stain that covered part of his forehead, eyebrow and cheek. Xena imprinted that face in her memory in a second; she would not forget it. "Oh, but I'm being rude", the man went on. "You must wonder who we are and why we're here."
"I know who you are. You're vermin. Some cowardly warlord has sent you to do his dirty work for him, right? Who is it? Krykus? Draco? Thanos?"
"Very good. Thanos said you were smart as a whip. And you're partially right. These two"; and he waved his hand to indicate the two men holding Gabrielle, "may well be vermin. They're Thanos' men, sent along to verify the job is done. I am Zarkadis, the assassin. Perhaps you've heard of me?"
"Yes. Am I supposed to be impressed?", she sneered.
The assassin laughed. "You are the feisty one, aren't you?." His tone turned menacing. "But that won't do you a bit of good, warrior princess. You'll still be dead when I'm through with you."
Without appearing obvious, Xena scanned the area around her looking for a potential weapon. She had not expected trouble, and left her sword and chakram at the camp when she went for water and firewood. Now her weapons were in a pile on the ground behind Zarkadis. If only she had thought to at least put her breast dagger down her cleavage before she left. Her only weapon was her skill in hand to hand combat, and her cunning. In a battle of wits, there was no doubt the two goons holding Gabrielle were completely unarmed, but the assassin was obviously good at his job.
"Don't bother. I made sure there was nothing within your reach that could remotely be used as a weapon. I didn't count on that bundle of wood you have in your hands, though. Why don't you toss it as far as you can to your right. And if you're thinking about trying to use a piece of that as a club, I would advise against it." Drawing his knife again, he touched the point of it to Gabrielle's abdomen. Xena turned and threw the wood several feet down the hill.
With a sigh, she turned back to face him. He put the knife back in it's sheath and smiled at her. "I followed you all day yesterday. I watched you closely, looking for your weakness." He turned to Gabrielle, and grinned. "And here she is." Gabrielle stood up straight, and stared right back at him. "Another feisty one. What an interesting breed of women they grow in this part of Greece"
"Leave her alone," Xena hissed, taking a step toward Zarkadis.
"That's far enough, princess, " Zarkadis growled. "I've heard about your moves, and I don't want to be within kicking distance of those lovely legs of yours." She stopped and glared at the assassin. "They say you have more lives than a cat, mighty warrior. But your lives just ran out."
"Not yet they haven't. What's Thanos paying you? I'll pay you double to let us go."
He laughed, and shook his head.
"Oh, no. He made it clear when I agreed to this job that failure would mean my death. There aren't enough dinars to make me risk his wrath. No, I have a job to do, and I intend to do it. The only question is whether I kill both of you, " he turned and nodded to the thug with the knife at Gabrielle's throat, who pressed the blade hard enough to indent the skin. He returned his gaze to Xena, whose eyes blazed with fury. "Or just you."
"If you harm her, by the gods, I'll see that you're in Tartarus before the day is over," Xena warned. "Swear on the head of Zeus that you'll set her free unharmed if I don't do anything to defend myself."
"I have no desire to hurt your little friend. You have my promise I'll let her go after....my job is done."
Gabrielle's eyes grew wider as she listened to the dialog between her warrior and the hired killer. She wished that Xena could give her some kind of signal to let her know that she had a plan to get them both out of this She couldn't believe that Xena would simply allow them to kill her without putting up a fight. "Gabrielle." Xena's voice penetrated through the crushing guilt she felt at having once again put both of their lives at risk. Tears began to leak from her eyes, even as she searched Xena's face for a sign to show that things would be all right. All she saw was grim determination. "Gabrielle", she said again more loudly. The bard blinked her eyes several times to show she heard; she was afraid to try to speak for fear the knife would bite into her flesh. "I've heard that Zarkadis is a man of his word. He'll let you go unharmed." She turned her face to the assassin. "You have to promise to leave her my things and my horse. She'll need her to take my body home."
"Except for your weapons, which I'll take to Thanos as a trophy, she can have the rest of your possessions. You have my word."
"No!" Gabrielle screamed, not even noticing when the knife drew blood. The assassin gestured to the man with the knife, and he pulled it away from her skin, but held it just in front of her. "No! You can't do this, Xena!" Tears now poured down her face, and she struggled against her captors, who held her tight enough to bruise her arms. "I won't let you die for me! I'd rather die than lose you again!"
"Stop fighting them, Gabrielle! Don't you understand? All you can succeed in doing is getting yourself killed. And they'll kill me anyway, even if I manage to take one or two of them with me. I would have died for nothing, don't you see?" Her blue eyes glimmered through a sheen of tears as she looked into the face of her precious bard.
"Xena, please, no! I love you, Xena... I don't want to live without you!! Fight them! You can win, I know you can, please...." Her words jumbled together as her voice rose higher in hysteria.
"I love you, Gabrielle. More than my life." She held her arms out to her sides, palms out in supplication. "Do it," she whispered.
Zarkadis knife was in his hand in the blink of an eye, and he crossed the small clearing to where she stood. "You deserve better than this", he whispered huskily. "I'm sorry." Quickly he pushed the blade into her abdomen, and then withdrew it. Her eyes opened wide in surprise, as if she couldn't believe it had actually happened. The very air seemed to thicken and slow her descent as her knees began to buckle. Zarkadis caught her by the shoulders and lowered her to the ground. "Gab.....", she whispered faintly. Zarkadis straightened up and turned toward the trio on the other side of the clearing.
"Let her go", he ordered. The moment she was released, Gabrielle flew to where Xena lay, and dropped down beside her. Stretching her legs in front of her, she put Xena's head in her lap, and caressed the face she had gazed upon adoringly for the past two years. The color drained from Xena's face along with her life blood that spilled on the ground.
"Gods, please don't let her die....Xena, look at me.. Please, Xena, stay with me. You promised.....You're my life...I ..." Her throat choked completely, and she couldn't speak. Tears coursed down her cheeks and splashed on Xena's face. She pressed her lips to Xena's forehead, then to her cheeks and finally her mouth. Xena's eyelids fluttered open briefly, and the corner of her mouth turned up as if she wanted to smile.
"Sorry....", Xena whispered softly. "...couldn't keep.....my promises." Her face grew slack and her body went limp.
Zarkadis watched long enough to be sure the warrior would not survive, then nodded to the men to start back towards Thanos' camp. He picked up Xena's chakram and tied it with a strip of leather to the top of his breeches. He strapped the scabbard to his back, and without a backward glance, followed the two men back the way they had come.
Unknown to the participants, another set of eyes watched the drama unfold on the hill. On his way to Athens to create his own special brand of mischief, Strife over heard an impassioned plea to the gods to spare the life of someone. Thinking it might be good for a laugh, he stopped to see what was happening, and saw that the life in question belonged to the warrior who was the object of his uncle Ares love/hate obsession. His mouth quirked in a wicked grin, as he thought about being the one to give his uncle the news of the passing of the warrior princess. The grin faded as he realized that Ares was as likely to be angry as elated with the news, and that being the bearer of those tidings might not bode well for him.
"Ah! I know", he said aloud, clapping his hands and skipping around in a circle. "I'll spare her life, but take her memory. No, ", he said, pacing back and forth and stroking his chin. "That's no good. She needs to remember being a warlord if she's going to be any good to uncle. I've got it!" His face fairly glowed and his eyes glittered with something close to madness. "She'll forget everything until she hears her name, and when she does, she will only remember her evil self, and not the things she's done since, or the people she met since she turned into a goody-goody." Watching Gabrielle whisper words of love and encouragement into Xena's ear, he realized she might have the power to sway the warrior, even without her memory. Tapping his fingers against his lips, he paced again, thinking of what he might do to prevent that from happening. "I've got it!", he crowed. "I'll sow a few seeds of hate and mistrust for the brat in there with her warlord memories. As time goes on, it will get harder and harder for her to hear what the bard says without flying into a rage. If she's standing in a downpour, she'll argue it's sunny if Gabrielle comments on the rain." He watched as the bard kissed the warriors lips "That was your good-bye kiss, Amazon Queen. Your warrior won't know you when she wakes up." He laughed until his sides hurt, and then sobered up when he realized that if he was going to spare her life, he really should do it before she expired completely. He gestured his hand toward the two women, and the wound which should have been fatal no longer damaged any vital organs. Still, the warrior needed to be taken to a healer to stitch up the wound and replenish the blood she lost. If she simply recovered, both Xena and Gabrielle would know that the gods were involved, and Strife preferred to remain anonymous until he could report to his uncle that the warrior princess was once again in his service. He decided to transform himself into a kindly old farmer with a horse and cart piled with hay. He would happen by the place where the warrior lay, and offer to take her to a healer.
"Hang on, Xena", he whispered. "I'm coming to save you!" His laughter filled the air, sounding to anyone who happened to hear it like the pealing of thunder.
Gabrielle was almost numb with shock and disbelief. Once again she held her beautiful warrior in her arms as her life ebbed away. If Zarkadis had not taken her weapons, the bard might have killed herself, to spend eternity with Xena in the Elysian Fields. But Gabrielle's optimistic side would not let go. Xena's chest still rose and fell as she drew shallow breaths. The bard put her head to Xena's breast, listening for the sound of her heart, which still beat weakly. "Have to stop the bleeding", she mumbled aloud. In her mind, she knew she was no healer and that there was nothing she could do for the woman she loved. But her heart kept repeating - you have to try - and she knew she would continue to do what she could as long as the warrior's heart continued to beat. Gently lying Xena's head on the ground, she jumped to her feet and ran to the saddlebags and pulled out blankets and a sleeping shift. Returning to Xena, she pressed the folded garment against her wound, and tearing a strip from the blanket, she carefully worked it under Xena's body to bind the compress tightly against her. She lifted her head and put a folded blanket under her, and carefully laid her head down again. The other blanket she spread over her, tucking it snugly around her.
"What else? What should I do, Xena? You're the one who always knows what to do." She dropped to her knees beside the fallen warrior. "Help me, Xena....." Softly she kissed the lips that had brought her so much pleasure in the past two years, with smiles and words and kisses. She could feel Xena's breath fluttering lightly against her cheek. Was it her imagination, or did it seem stronger than it had a short while ago? Gabrielle's heart leaped at the thought that Xena could still be saved. "I'll take you to Antea; she has healing skills. I know she can save you." She knew how to make a litter so that Argo could pull Xena to Antea's. She jumped to her feet and started looking around for poles long enough to use for the braces. The wood Xena had collected was far too short to be of use, so she started scanning the ground under the trees that lined the road. She heard a jingling sound coming from around the last bend in the road, and turned to see what was coming. In a few moments, a horse drawn wagon fully loaded with hay pulled into sight. Heedless of the fact that she was barefoot and wearing only a sleeping shift, Gabrielle ran into the road, straight toward the oncoming wagon. She waved her arms frantically and called out to the driver to stop.
"Whoa", called the driver to his horse, giving a steady pull to the reins to slow it down. By the time Gabrielle drew along side the horse the wagon had come to a stop. "Slow down, little lady. You'll bust a gut."
"You have to help me", Gabrielle panted, "My friend......"
"What're you doing running around half naked? A mite of a girl like you......"
"Never mind that! Please, you have to help me. My friend is hurt. Badly hurt. Will you help me?"
"Why didn't you say so? Where is he?"
Gabrielle pointed to the rocky outcropping at the top of the hill. "She's behind those rocks. We have to hurry... She's lost a lot of blood."
"Come on up here", the driver said, holding his hand down to Gabrielle and pulling her up to sit beside him. "Don't worry, little lady. I'll make sure your friend is taken care of." He gave her a wink and a smile. In her excitement over having exactly what she needed delivered like a gift from the gods, Gabrielle failed to notice the gleeful spark in his eye. "Gee up," he called to the horse, slapping the reins against its flanks.
Within minutes of arriving at the camp site, they had Xena loaded into the wagon. Gabrielle scooped up all of their possessions without bothering to organize them, and as a result, they would not fit in the saddlebags. Not wanting to take the time to fix it, she simply threw everything in a corner of the wagon. She whistled for Argo, and tied the mare to the back of the wagon. When everything was on board, she leaped up beside Xena and shouted "Let's go!" to the farmer. She took off her sleeping shift and pulled on her clothes and boots as they rode.
By mid-morning they reached the fork in the road that would take them into town. The farmer began to turn the horse toward town, but Gabrielle tapped him on the arm and shook her head. "We need to go that way", she said.
"But there's nothing down that way", the farmer protested. "Just farms and such. There'll be healers in town." He continued on his course.
Gabrielle grasped his wrist and tugged back on the reins. "No! Our friend lives that way. She's the healer I want. Please, stay on this road."
The farmer shrugged. "Suit yourself.", he looked back at the still form wrapped in blankets and hoped he hadn't miscalculated the length of time she could live without adequate care. It would be a shame to get this far only to have her die anyway. And in his present form, he would not be able to prevent it. "Hope this healer isn't too far down the road", he mumbled, leaning the reins on the horses neck to change their direction.
"Thanks", Gabrielle said with a smile. "It's not much farther now. I recognize these trees.." She kept her eyes on the side of the road, knowing that the path leading to Antea's cabin would be close. She spotted it, and pointed. "There. Turn in there." The farmer did as she asked, and after a few minutes, he could see a cottage in a clearing.
"How's she doin'?" he inquired.
"She's holding on," Gabrielle sighed, laying her fingers on the side of Xena's neck to feel the weak pulse. The farmer smiled.
"Good. Real good.", he said sincerely.
Gabrielle stood up in the wagon and shouted, "Antea! Hey, Antea!" The door to the cottage fairly flew open, and Antea emerged into the bright morning light with a huge smile on her face. The smile began to fade as she saw the blood that still clung to Gabrielle's hands and face. She broke into a run toward the cart.
"Gods, Gabrielle, what happened?," she said breathlessly. "Where's Xena....." She had reached the side of the cart, and saw the deathly pail form lying on the hay. Her eyes widened, and she gasped, "Oh........no.......", she swallowed a lump in her throat, and continued. "Is she......" She left her thought hanging in the air..
"No, but she will be if you don't shake a leg", the driver of the cart grumbled, jumping down to help the women remove the wounded warrior. The farmer took Xena's shoulders, and Gabrielle was about to take her feet, when Antea tapped her on the shoulder.
"Gabrielle, go get the door. I'm stronger than you are; I'll help carry her." Wordlessly, Gabrielle nodded and walked briskly in front of them to open the door. Antea preceded the farmer, and turned toward the bedroom. Gabrielle pulled back the curtain that separated the bedroom from the main part of the cottage and stood aside for them to enter. They deposited her on the bed as gently as if she were made of glass.
The farmer straightened up and gave Gabrielle a smile. "You take good care of her, now", he said.
"I will." She threw her arms around his neck, and hugged him tightly. "I don't know how to thank you", she said. "If you hadn't come along....." Her voice trailed off.
"No need to thank me", he said gruffly, trying to extricate himself from her arms. "Anyone would have done the same."
"Maybe. But they didn't. You did. And I'll always be grateful to you." The farmer had crossed the room, and was nearly out the door.
"You won't be grateful for long", he muttered under his breath, as he opened the door and stepped outside. Gabrielle was about to ask him to repeat what he said because it hadn't made any sense to her, when Antea called from the bedroom.
"Gabrielle, I need your help." Gabrielle spun around and trotted to her friends side.
Antea wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder, and gave her a squeeze. That was all the inducement she needed to start the tears rolling down her face again. She buried her face in Antea's neck and sobbed. Antea wrapped her arms around her, and rubbed her back in a soothing motion, crooning into her ear. "Shhhh, baby. It's going to be OK. But you have to be strong for her. Help me take her clothes off so I can get to the wound, OK?"
Gabrielle nodded, choking back the tears. She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and took a deep breath. "S-sorry. It just all caught up to me.. Won't happen again. What do you need me to do?"
Together, the bard and Antea managed to remove Xena's leather without reopening the wound. Antea removed the blood from around the wound carefully, noting that it was a very clean cut; once in and back out with no tearing. If the knife had been angled slightly differently, Xena could not possibly have survived. As Antea stitched up the cut, Gabrielle told her all she knew about the assassin sent to rob Xena of her life. It struck her as odd that the man would have made such a mistake. Well, it was not for her to question their good fortune. With a lot of luck, and a great deal of rest, Xena should recover completely.
When they had done everything they could do for Xena for the moment, Gabrielle allowed herself to sink down to the floor beside the bed. She grasped Xena's hand and laid her head down by her shoulder.
"I'll leave you two alone for a while", Antea whispered. "But you need to eat something soon to keep up your strength. I'll go fix something and then come back for you."
"Thanks, really, but I'm not hungry. Just tired. I'll take a nap, if that's OK."
Antea nodded. "But just a short one. You really have to eat, hungry or not. I'll see you in a little while. " Gabrielle smiled, then closed her eyes. Within minutes she was asleep.
"Hey, sleepy head. Wake up." Gabrielle smiled to hear Xena's familiar morning greeting. She stretched and rubbed her eyes, and when she opened them she was surprised to find herself looking into Antea's face instead of Xena's. Her smile faltered, but she bravely put it back on. "Ready to have a bite to eat?", Antea queried, leaning over Gabrielle to check her patient. Xena's heart beat was stronger than before, and her breathing seemed more deep and even.
"Maybe I could eat something now." Gabrielle's stomach growled noisily at the mention of eating. She realized she had had nothing to eat since early the previous night. "A horse might be enough to......" She jumped to her feet with a look of panic on her face. "Argo! She was tied to the back of that wagon! Oh, gods, our things were on that wagon!"
"Calm down", Antea soothed her with a pat on her shoulder. "Argo's in the stable, and your things are in the other room. Your farmer friend put the horse away. Even brushed her out for you. He left your gear out there, and I brought it in." Gabrielle visibly relaxed. She felt guilty for not taking care of Xena's horse as the warrior would have done, and once again was grateful to the kind farmer whose assistance made the difference of life and death to her beloved warrior. " No horse on the menu today. I'm afraid you'll have to make do with chicken", Antea teased. Gabrielle's stomach answered for her with a resounding growl.
"Chicken sounds wonderful.", she said with a laugh. "But I need to wash up first. I'm still covered with......Xena's blood." The smile melted from her face as she held her hands in front of her and saw the red that clung to her.
Antea wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and hugged her tightly. "I heated some water for you. It's in a bucket by the stove. You clean up while I check our patient again." Gabrielle nodded, and started from the room. "And Gabrielle", the bard stopped and turned to her. "A thought is a deed. Think of her well and healthy, and she will be."
Gabrielle managed a small smile.
"Thanks, Antea. You're a god send." She pulled back the curtain and left the room.
Antea sat on a stool by the side of the bed. She brushed some strands of long dark hair out of Xena's face, and her fingers caressed the warriors cheek before she withdrew her hand with a sigh. "I don't know if you can hear me", she whispered to the pale woman who, despite her pallor, had the countenance of a goddess in Antea's eyes. "You of all people know that I talk a good game, but I don't have the natural skill for healing that you do. I'm counting on your will to live to save me from making a liar of myself to Gabrielle. Don't let me down, my beautiful princess." Leaning down, she pressed her lips softly against Xena's lips. "I'll always love you", she murmured in Xena's ear. Was it her imagination, or did Xena's eyelids struggle to open for a few seconds before returning to deathly stillness?
"Any change?" Antea jumped slightly at the sound of Gabrielle's voice.
"I'm not sure. She might have tried to open her eyes a moment ago, but it could just be wishful thinking. At least she seems to be resting comfortably."
"It's almost full dark, Antea. Why don't you get some rest, and I'll sit with her a while? You can take over again in the morning." Antea would have preferred to stay by Xena's bedside until she regained consciousness, but she knew it was important to the bard to be close to her lover, so she simply nodded and stood up. Gabrielle settled onto the stool and took Xena's hand in her own. "She's so pale. She looks almost like she's made of wax. And her hand is cold."
"It's from loss of blood. She'll look a lot better when she builds it back up again. Don't worry." Crossing to a chest at the foot of the bed, she took out another blanket and spread it over the still form. "This ought to warm her up."
Gabrielle tucked the blanket around Xena carefully. "Thanks again, Antea. Get some sleep, and I'll come and get you in the morning."
"Good night. Both of you." She pulled another blanket and some clothes from the chest, and quietly left the room.
Gabrielle dreamed she was standing at the bottom of a pit. On all sides of her, animals the like of which she had never seen snarled and reached out their sharp claws to rake them over her skin. Xena stood on the rim of the pit with a rope, which she lowered to Gabrielle. The rope barely reached her, and Gabrielle had to jump to get hold of it. When she did, it threw Xena off balance, and she tumbled into the pit, landing with a bone crunching thud. The animals were all over her in an instant, and the last words she said to Gabrielle were "Climb out while they kill me."
"NO!!" She jerked upright on the stool, her heart pounding furiously and her forehead glazed with sweat. Her eyes darted frantically around the unfamiliar room. They landed on the sleeping warrior, and even as the dream began to fade, the horrible reality of the previous day came back to her. "Never again", she said through gritted teeth. "I'll leave you before I ever let you sacrifice yourself for me again, do you hear me?"
Daylight was beginning to filter through the window, and Gabrielle knew she should let Antea take over so she could get some proper rest. Even as that thought went through her mind, the curtain parted and Antea came in.
"I heard you cry out. Are you all right?," she asked, her trembling voice not masking her concern.
"I'm fine. It was a dream. A nightmare, really." Antea came and stood beside the bard, and rested her hand on her shoulder.
"My turn. See if you can rest. A bit later I'll start a fire and make us some breakfast."
Gabrielle put her hand over Antea's hand on her shoulder and squeezed it.. "You'll spoil us both with this kind of treatment," she said with a laugh. She rose from the stool and stretched her stiff muscles. She felt exhausted, even though she knew she had dozed off several times the night before. As she slept, some part of her was alert for any sound or movement from the bed, so she may as well not have slept at all. "Call me if there's any change. Any thing at all."
"Of course. Now scoot. I have a patient to tend to." Gabrielle slipped away while Antea was listening for the sound of the heart that beat in time with her own.
Antea was in the process of tying a clean bandage around Xena's ribs when her patient flinched. Quickly, Antea brought her eyes up to Xena's face to see a look of pain. She loosened the knot she was tying, and Xena's features relaxed somewhat. Antea took her hand and squeezed it, and felt a small squeeze in return. As she gazed at Xena's face, she noticed that the color was quite a bit better than it had been the previous night. If she didn't know better, she would have thought she was simply sleeping. Even as this thought went through her mind, Xena's eyes opened, and turning her head slightly to get a better look, she stared into Antea's face. Antea smiled from ear to ear at the sight of the beautiful warriors blue eyes, but the smile wavered when there was no answering smile from Xena. "Can I get you anything? Something to eat or drink?", she asked.
"No", Xena responded after a lengthy pause, then she seemed to think better of it. "Yes. A drink.....of water." She closed her eyes again, as if the effort of talking was almost too much for her. Antea jumped up from her stool, and strode across the room.
"OK, I'll be right back with water. And Gabrielle. She made me promise to fetch her the moment you woke up." With that she stepped into the other part of the cottage, where Gabrielle slept curled up in a ball. She touched her shoulder, and Gabrielle jumped. "Sorry. Didn't mean to startle you."
"You didn't.. Well,", she grinned, " I guess you did, but it's OK." She yawned and stretched.
"She's awake. At least she was a moment ago. She asked me for some water. Why don't you go say hello while I draw a bucket?" Gabrielle was on her feet before the words were out of Antea's mouth, and she fairly flew across the room. "That is, if you want to", Antea said with a little laugh.
Xena was looking around the room when Gabrielle came in, and her eyes took in the young woman without showing any emotion at all. Gabrielle was so relieved to see her awake, and with a rosy color in her cheeks that she failed to notice. Gabrielle dropped on to the stool and clasped Xena's hand in her own. "Thank the gods!", she intoned. "I was so worried. I was afraid we wouldn't get you here in time, and I.........", she broke off in mid sentence. "Listen to me. Always talking about me. How do you feel?" She reached down to brush some strands of long dark hair out of Xena's eyes and caress her cheek. There was still no response from the warrior.
Xena raked her tongue over her lips to moisten them. "Where is this place?", she asked at last.
"It's Antea's cottage", Gabrielle replied, with a look of confusion on her face. "You had to have seen her a few minutes ago. She said you asked for water."
"Yes, I saw her. But I don't know her. I don't seem to....remember anything."
Gabrielle could not believe what she was hearing. Her first thought was that Xena was joking with her. "Quit kidding around.", she said with a half hearted laugh.
"I'm not.....kidding." The look on her face was sincere, but Gabrielle had known her to tell outrageous stories with a completely straight face, and she wanted to believe this was one of those times.
"Oh, come on. You know me....."
"No. I don't. I don't even know myself." Gabrielle searched for the truth in Xena's eyes, and saw only confusion and uncertainty there. The same blue eyes that had looked on her with love and longing, and occasionally with anger and regret, now darted around the room as if she were an animal trapped in a cage. Gabrielle took a step closer to the bed, but before she reached the fallen warrior, Antea walked into the room with a large mug of water.
"Here you go", she said with a warm smile. Xena turned toward her, and the anguished look in her eyes melted the smile from Antea's face. Thinking that Xena was in pain, Antea hurried to the side of the bed, gently nudging Gabrielle to one side. "Are you in a lot of pain?", she asked quietly. "I can make you some tea to ease it, and help you rest."
"No... I mean, yes. There is a lot of pain." She grimaced as she shifted on the bed, causing the pain to flare up sharply. "What happened to me? I don't....." Antea opened her mouth to respond, when Gabrielle jumped in quickly.
"She doesn't remember who she is, Antea. She doesn't know me.. or you." Antea knelt by the side of the bed, and studied the frantic eyes of her patient. They appeared normal to her. In Antea's experience, memory loss was usually caused by an injury to the head, causing the pupils of the eyes to dilate. She had to admit her knowledge of what caused memory loss was very limited.
With what she hoped was a reassuring smile she said, "You'll probably start to remember things soon. You shouldn't worry." She elevated Xena's head and brought the cup of water to her lips. Xena took several gulps, and then pushed the cup away.
"Enough", she said softly. "Tell me... what happened."
"We were attacked by thieves on the way to visit Antea", Gabrielle said, giving Antea a look that clearly said "let me handle this". Antea nodded imperceptibly, and Gabrielle continued. "I ran to get Antea, and when I came back, I found that you had been stabbed. We managed to get you here with Argo's help..."
"Who's Argo?", Xena mumbled. Gabrielle could see that her energy was waning, and that within minutes she would be asleep again.
"She's your horse." Gabrielle brushed a few strands of hair off of Xena's face, and lightly caressed her cheek. Xena's eyes were barely open, and she struggled to stay awake. "Why don't you sleep now. We'll tell you everything you want to know after you get a bit stronger, OK?" She leaned down and kissed Xena softly on her forehead.
" 'kay," Xena breathed, and her face relaxed. Gabrielle touched Antea's arm, and indicated with a nod of her head that Antea should come with her into the other room. Wordlessly, the two women left the room.
In the kitchen, Antea stopped and turned to Gabrielle, crossing her arms in front of her chest. "What was that about?", she asked. "When she gets her memory back....."
Gabrielle put her finger to her lips and shushed Antea.
"Not so loud. I don't want her to hear."
Lowering her voice to a whisper, Antea continued. "Gabrielle, she won't like it that you lied to her. Why didn't you just tell her the truth?"
"Because she doesn't know who she is. And I don't want her to know." Antea's mouth dropped open as she listened. She started to say something, but Gabrielle shook her head no, and put her hand over Antea's mouth. "Listen to me before you say anything. When she said that she didn't remember who she was, it occurred to me that that assassin will be spreading the word that the Warrior Princess is dead. He even has her weapons to prove it. As long as the world thinks she's dead, it's safer to let Xena stay dead. This is a chance for her to start over again. She won't be a target any more for every warlord and thug who wants to make a name for himself. Don't you see, we can live in peace....."
"We?", Antea asked with a note of sarcasm in her voice. "Gabrielle, she doesn't even know you. Assuming she doesn't get her memory back, what makes you think she'll want to go settle down somewhere with you? She might even fall in love with someone else. A man, perhaps."
"She fell in love with me once", Gabrielle said stubbornly. "I'm betting my future that she will fall in love with me again."
Antea shook her head, even though she knew her arguments were falling on deaf ears. "She will probably get her memory back, Gabrielle. And when she does, you and I both know she will go after the man who tried to kill her. Even if you have managed to get her to settle down somewhere, all that will change when she remembers what really happened. I'm afraid she'll be angry with you for deceiving her like this."
"Let me worry about that, Antea. Please. I have to at least try to keep her safe. She was willing to give up her life for me. I owe it to her to see that she gets a chance to live out that life in peace."
"OK", Antea conceded. "I'll go along with you. But if we have a hope in Tartarus of succeeding, we'd better come up with a plausible story about who and what she is, so we can fill her in when she wakes up."
"You're right", Gabrielle acknowledged. "We can think it up while we make something for her to eat. She's going to be starving when she really wakes up." Keeping their voices low, the two women worked together preparing food, and creating a past to present to their sleeping friend like a new set of clothes.
The sun had long since dropped over the edge of the world when she awakened again. The room was lit by a kerosene lamp and a few candles. By the flickering light, one of the women who had saved her sat sewing on a garment. She tried to remember the name the other woman had called her, but it was no use. Nothing came to her. She cleared her throat and said "Excuse me....."
Instantly, the young blonde woman was beside her, a smile on her face. "Decided to join us, did you? Are you hungry? We fixed up something for you." She didn't add that they had cooked up a whole lot more than meat and potatoes to feed to the warrior.
"Yes." Xena smiled. It was the first smile Gabrielle had seen for two days, and it made the bard want to throw herself into her arms. "I think I could eat something."
"Great! Antea makes the best lamb stew in Greece. Wait'll you taste it." And with that, she ran from the room.
Antea heard the sound of their voices, and was already ladling stew into a bowl. She looked up as Gabrielle came into the kitchen. "How's our patient?"
"Hungry." She took a deep breath, and squared her shoulders. "This is it, Antea. Show time. Are you ready?"
Antea shrugged. "Ready. Gods help us." She placed the bowl of broth from the stew and a mug of port on a tray, and followed Gabrielle into the bedroom.
".....near the Gulf of Corinth."
"Do I still have family in Aetolia?", Xena asked, then brought the bowl with the broth to her mouth. "I thought you said this was lamb stew? Where's the lamb?"
"No," Gabrielle said. "Your mother died when you were a child, and your father bled to death several years ago from an injury on the farm. Seeing him die before your eyes was what made you realize you had to be a healer." Xena nodded. She tried to get her mind around the things she was learning about her past, but none of it had any meaning for her at all. "And we figured the stew itself would be too rich for you, and just brought you the broth."
"Jacinthe, would you like some more port?" Antea asked.
Xena smiled. "No, thanks. I feel light headed already. I could use some more of this wonderful broth, though", she said, holding out her bowl to Antea. Antea stood up and took the bowl from her.
"Anyone who calls my broth wonderful can have all she wants", she quipped. "Be right back", she said with a wink at Xena. She raised one eyebrow at Gabrielle as if to say "keep the story on track". But she needn't have worried. The bard was in her element, spinning a story for Xena that was well thought out and rehearsed. She may have only been performing for an audience of one, but it was the most important role of her life, and she intended to play it for all it was worth.
"Gabrielle", Xena said, rolling the name around in her mouth as if she were tasting it for the first time. " What did I.... do I do? For a living, I mean."
"You're a healer", Gabrielle said without hesitation. "And a very fine one. I hope you'll recall your skills The world needs more people like you, Jacinthe." Gabrielle had given Xena a name she had loved since she was young. She always planned to use that name for her first born daughter. She no longer had illusions about becoming a mother; it was not part of her life plan. But she could still call someone she loved by that name. She and Antea had practiced in the kitchen, saying "Jacinthe" over and over until it had become more comfortable. It would not do to slip and call the beautiful warrior by the wrong name.
Xena sighed. "I hope I do, too. Nothing I hear is familiar to me. It's like listening to a foreign language. Even my name doesn't sound right." Gabrielle tensed. Was she going to be undone almost before she started? But then Xena smiled again, and Gabrielle let out the breath she had been holding. "But I'm sure it will sound right. In time. Guess I'm being impatient. How long has it been since we were attacked?"
"Two days. Well, almost two days. It was early yesterday morning. You really are recovering very well. Antea says you might even be able to get out of bed in another couple of days."
"I'm in no hurry. There's nothing I want to get out of bed for." Gabrielle tried to keep the disappointment off of her face when she heard those words. "For me", she wanted to shout. "You want to get out of bed for me.. to love me, to be with me." Instead, she grasped Xena's hand, gave it a squeeze, and simply smiled what she hoped was an encouraging smile.
"You'll feel differently when you're not in so much pain", Gabrielle soothed. "Why don't you rest a while, and I'll tell you the story of Pan, the nymph god of woods and fields. Seems one day, Pan, who had the hoofs and horns of a goat, and was very ugly, happened across a nymph........." Xena's eyes drifted shut, and Gabrielle fell silent. She sat for several minutes just staring at the beautiful face so calm and relaxed in sleep. She longed to lie down beside her and pillow her head on the generous breasts that had given her so much pleasure and comfort in the past. In telling the story that she and Antea had fabricated to give Jacinthe a sense of herself, Gabrielle hadn't included the fact that they were lovers. It would have been easy to create a past that had Jacinthe and Gabrielle in love with each other, but it struck Gabrielle that it would be wrong to manipulate Xena in that way. She prayed that Jacinthe would come to the same place on her own. If she didn't, Gabrielle was determined to woo her and win her all over again. Gabrielle kissed her own fingertips, and gently touched them to Xena's lips. With a sigh, she settled back in her chair to keep watch over her love through the night.
On the morning of the forth day, Xena woke feeling well enough to try to get out of bed for a while. Gabrielle was sleeping in a chair with her head resting on her shoulder. Xena was sure that was uncomfortable, and wondered why Gabrielle chose to spend the nights sitting in a chair. Carefully she swung her legs to the side of the bed and lowered them to the floor. Using her elbow and then her arm, she gradually raised her upper body until she was able to sit up. Leaning forward, she reached out and touched Gabrielle on her knee. "Gabrielle" , she said softly. The bard was instantly awake, sitting up straight in her chair.
"What's the matter?", she asked quickly, before she realized that Xena was sitting up on the bed. "Oh, Xe......", she bit back the word she was about to utter and amended it. "Gee, you're....up. Why didn't you call me first? I would have helped you." Gabrielle stood to stretch out her muscles. Sleeping on the ground was more comfortable than sleeping in that chair, she thought. She vowed to sleep on the floor by the bed that night. Her neck was stiff and sore, and she rolled her head from side to side to try and get the kinks out.
"I knew you were going to be stiff when you woke up from the way you were sitting", Xena said. "Why don't you come sit here where I can reach you, and I'll see if I can rub some of the pain out for you." She parted her legs to give Gabrielle a place to sit on the floor in front of her.
"Oh, no, that's OK", Gabrielle said quickly. She didn't know if she could trust herself just yet to sit between Xena's legs and keep her hands to herself. "It'll be fine. I can just... Ow!" She had moved her head a bit too far to one side, and a pain shot up her neck.
"Don't argue with me", Xena said in a mock stern voice. "Get over here." Meekly, Gabrielle nodded, and with a resigned sigh, she lowered herself to the floor in front of Xena. Xena's knees on either side of her, and her hands touching her neck made Gabrielle want to melt into a puddle on the floor. She forgot about the pain in her neck as the skillful hands kneaded and rubbed the knotted muscles. Being close to Xena was all she wanted - all she needed - to feel complete. If Jacinthe did not come to feel the same love for her as Xena had, she could be content just to be near her, sharing her life as they had before they became lovers. "Does that feel better?" Xena's soft voice interrupted her reverie.
"Oh, my.. Yes... Much. I think you must have remembered your healing skills."
"Hm. You're right," Xena nodded. "My fingers seemed to know just what to do, even though I didn't consciously think of it." Gabrielle had to bite her lip to keep from elaborating on some of the other skills she hoped those fingers would still know how to do. A smile lit up Xena's face. "Maybe my memory will start to come back, too," she enthused.
"Yeah", Gabrielle responded with less enthusiasm. "We can only hope." She forced herself to get up from the cozy nest created by Xena's legs, and standing before the warrior she looked into eyes that had begun to glow again with the promise that things would one day be all right. "Shall we go for a little walk? You up to it?"
Xena nodded. "I'll scream if I don't get up and stretch my legs pretty soon. I don't feel...right lying in a bed."
"That's probably because you spend most nights sleeping under the stars. You said it felt more natural to you than being cooped up inside four walls." Xena started to get up, and a grimace came across her face. Gabrielle hurried to her side. "Let me help you up", she said, draping Xena's arm over her shoulder, and wrapping her arm around Xena's back. Together they stood up, and slowly made their way across the room. Xena did not remove her arm from Gabrielle's shoulder, which was just fine with Gabrielle.
The kitchen was still dark when they got there, and the stove was cold. Antea must be out taking care of the animals, Gabrielle mused. Unlike her not to have started a fire first. Gabrielle guided Xena to a chair in the kitchen, and carefully set her down. "I'll start the fire and see about fixing you something to eat", she said. "Don't try to get up on your own, OK?"
"Yes, Mother," Xena said with a grin. Planting her elbows on the table, she watched as Gabrielle laid the fire. She tried to conjure an image of herself and this perky blonde imp traveling together, and the picture wouldn't come together. Gabrielle had told her that they had been traveling together for several years; a wandering bard and a healer with the tools of her trade in the saddlebag that was stolen by the thieves who accosted them. She wished she could remember any of that. In her dreams she would sometimes see flashes of what might have been memories, but the harder she tried to hold the images, the faster they fled from her mind, leaving her frustrated and confused. Sometimes she saw Gabrielle in those dreams, and other times Antea. Her cheeks flushed as she remembered a particularly vivid picture of Gabrielle lying naked in a wooded glen. She saw hands - her own hands - caressing the soft flesh. She shook her head to dispel the image. It made no sense to her so she rejected it as a true dream, and not a memory. If only she could tell the difference.
"Jacinthe". Gabrielle's voice pulled her from her reverie. She looked up with an inquiring quirk to her eyebrow. "Would you rather have eggs or porridge this morning?"
"Both", she answered with enthusiasm. "I think my appetite is starting to pick up."
"You got it," Gabrielle replied. "I'll go gather some eggs." She picked up a basket and headed for the door, turning around and giving Xena her best stern look. "Remember, you stay put unless someone is here to help you, all right?"
"Nag, nag,", Xena said playfully. "I'm not going any where. Just you remember that I'm starving in here and hurry back." She watched through the window as Gabrielle made her way to the chicken coop. Antea emerged from her workshop by the stable and waved at Gabrielle as she passed. They exchanged a few words, then Antea nodded and continued on her way to the cottage. Her arms were full of clothing and boots. Some of the clothing was made of leather that was the same light brown color as the britches Antea wore. Antea bounded up the steps to the cottage and through the door with a spring to her step.
She saw Xena sitting at the table and came over and kissed the top of her head.
"Gabrielle told me you were up," she said brightly. " I figured you would probably be on your feet by this morning, so I've been working on something for you to wear." They had told her that her spare clothing was in the stolen saddlebag, and that the clothes she was wearing when she was attacked were no longer wearable. She had been wearing one of Antea's sleeping shifts the past several days, and it barely covered the mounds of her buttocks.
" Antea, you're so kind to me. Both of you. How will I ever be able to thank you?", she said sincerely.
Antea laughed. "Don't thank me yet.. You haven't seen the clothes!" She pulled the leather garment from the stack in her arms, and dropped the rest on the table. Xena's eyes opened wide as she saw that what Antea held was a pair of britches very similar to the ones she was wearing, only longer. "I only had a few scraps of leather around, so the best I could do was lengthen the legs on one of my pairs of britches. I know it isn't what you're used to wearing, but I figured it will do until we can get into town and pick up something more suitable." Xena took the britches from her. The leather felt soft to the touch.
"They're........lovely", Xena stammered.
Antea laughed until tears came to her eyes. "No they're not. But at least they'll keep the wind from howling up your backside for the time being. And I think this tunic should fit you with no alterations", she continued, picking up a blue cloth tunic from the table. She held it up to Xena's face, and nodded. "Yep, goes nicely with your eyes. I thought it would. And these boots... well, they're a monstrosity, but I didn't have the right materials, so I threw them together with what I had." The boots were made of several different shades and textures of leather in a patchwork design. "If you tell anybody I made those boots, I'll swear you're a liar."
Xena laughed. "I like the way they look", she quipped. "Patchwork. Just like the pieces of my life...."
"Still. It's our secret. You, me and Gabrielle. Deal?"
"Deal. Maybe you could help me bathe after breakfast, and I could put on my new clothes?"
"Sure. I need to change your bandage anyway." The door opened, and Gabrielle entered carrying a basket brimming with eggs.
"Those are the busiest hens in Greece", she grumbled. "They were laying eggs faster than I could pick them up!"
Antea took the basket from Gabrielle. "Great!", she enthused. "The perfect number of eggs to make the perfect omelet. Will you fetch a bucket of water to heat for the porridge?"
Gabrielle groaned. "Fetch this, fetch that.. I feel like a slave girl", she grumbled. But she turned and marched toward the door. Xena sat and watched the two women who were responsible for her being alive, and even though she could not remember them from her past, she knew without a doubt that she loved them both with all her heart.
Xena woke long before the sun. She could hear Gabrielle's soft breathing from the pallet on the floor by the side of the bed. Even after Xena was well enough that she no longer needed someone to sit with her through the night, Gabrielle insisted that she remain close by. Xena simply shrugged and accepted it. It actually did make her feel safe and protected to know the younger woman was close by.
This morning she felt strong enough to go out on her own without her two mother hens to cluck along after her. She eased herself off the end of the bed and collected her clothes from the top of the chest in the corner. Without a sound, she crept into the other room and pulled her britches on. It still felt odd to have that leather against her legs. She knew without a doubt that she never dressed like this in her life previously, but for now she could live with it. She pulled on her boots and slipped the tunic over her head. Opening the door noiselessly, she strode out into the early morning.
At first she walked slowly, as there was still very little light, but as the sun began to make its appearance, she picked up her pace until she was running. It felt good to use her muscles and to feel her heart beat accelerate. She felt more alive than she had since waking up a week earlier. The morning breeze cooled her cheeks as she ran, and her hair fanned out behind her. She slowed her pace when she realized she was quite far from the cottage; farther than she had gone on her many walks. She wondered if she should turn around and go back the way she had come, to avoid getting lost in the woods that surrounded Antea's property. Winded, she sat on a log beside a pond the stock must have used for a watering hole.
As she sat there catching her breath, she was observed from a distance by Strife, who was beginning to wonder if the warrior princess would ever hear her name uttered, which would set her back on the road towards Ares. He had looked in at the cottage from time to time during the past week. Enough to know that neither of the women the mighty Xena had aligned herself with would consciously say her name within her hearing. He must either remove Xena from them, or let them think that she was not within ear shot and hope that one of them would let it slip. Even now, the women were both awake, and were in the kitchen talking about their plans to keep Xena from realizing her true identity. If he could get Xena home in a hurry, she might just over hear that conversation. With an evil grin, he gestured at the log Xena was sitting on.
Without warning, the log under Xena's hand crumbled. The wood was old and rotten and apparently the pressure of her hand was enough to shatter the fragile outer layer of wood. Xena heard a sound. A humming sound that got louder by the second. Looking down, she saw what almost looked like brown parchment within the hollow log, and the sound was coming from there. Her eyes widened as she recognized the reddish brown insects with streaks of yellow that began to boil out of the ruined nest. Instantly, she was on her feet, and in seconds, she had reached the edge of the pond. Grabbing a reed from the edge of the water, she threw herself into the deepest part. Rolling onto her back, she put the end of the reed in her mouth so she could breath, and prayed that no part of her body was exposed to the air. Unsure how long it would take for all of the insects to disperse, she stayed there for several minutes before raising her head to see if they were gone. There did not appear to be any sign of them. She climbed out of the pond carefully on the other side, in case any of the hornets were still in the nest. She was completely covered with the slimy gray clay like mud that lined the bottom of the pond. Without question, she needed to head back to the cottage and wash this mess off. Having rested long enough to get her wind back, she broke into a run again and headed for home.
She glanced into the stable when she got back to see if Antea was up and about. Apparently she was, as there was no sign of her. Xena was passing near the kitchen window when she heard Antea's voice.
".......hard enough to carry it off here when there are just the three of us. I don't know how many times I have almost said her real name and had to bite my tongue."
Xena had not intended to eavesdrop, but when she heard those words, she stopped and leaned against the wall to listen to this conversation that so obviously concerned her.
"Don't you think I know that?", Gabrielle responded wearily. "I've done that, too. But it's getting easier every day. And once I get her away from all the places where she's known, and the people who know her...."
"That's my point. Even if you can find such a place..... wait, hear me out." Gabrielle must have started to say something, and Antea cut her off. Xena could picture the two of them in the kitchen - apparently deciding her own fate. I should confront them, she fumed silently. But not without hearing more of what it is they are keeping from me....and why. "What you are asking of her - and of yourself - ", Antea continued, "is that you give up everything. Have you thought of that? Her family, your family, all your friends. They are all part of that past you want to leave behind. And what if she should get her memory back? That could still happen, you know."
"I'm going to take her to Crete. She's never been there that I know of, so no one will recognize her." Xena could hear the anguish in Gabrielle's voice. It was almost as if she were pleading for Antea to believe that what she was saying was possible. Or maybe it was herself she was trying to convince. Gabrielle went on, "Antea, I know it's a risk. Do you think I haven't had those same thoughts every night since I made the decision to do this? It kills me to know I have to lose my family, and I feel guilty every time I think about cutting her off from hers. But I have to! I can't stand the thought that another hot headed warlord wanting to make a name for himself by killing Xena......."
The words continued, but Xena did not hear them. She felt as if she had been struck by lightning, creating a funnel into her soul though which a myriad of memories poured. She clutched her ears as if to shut out the steady stream of bloodshed, violence and hatred that flashed through her mind. Faces; people, alive and dead, marched in front of her as if in a parade. She watched them die, and she didn't care. A village was burning. Children ran screaming, looking for fathers that would never tuck them in bed again. And she hardened her heart. The fortunes of war.
She saw her own army allied against her with Darfus as their leader. Stripped of her armor, she was beaten by her own men; stumbling, broken, barely alive. She remembered falling to the ground....and then nothing. She searched her mind for something that would connect that time with this, and there was a void. Had they stabbed her and left her to die, only for Gabrielle and Antea to find her and save her?
Antea.........she remembered her now. In a time before she was a warlord, this beautiful woman had taken her in, taught her the skills she needed to survive against the warlord that threatened her own village. Would she have done that, Xena mused, if she had known that she was giving her the tools to mold herself into a killing machine? That she would one day rival the most ruthless of warlords?
She tried to picture Gabrielle in her life, and could not. Her first remembrance of Gabrielle was waking to see her by the bed. Those brief flashes of herself making love with Gabrielle must have been a dream, not the memories she had hoped they were. This woman was nothing to her; yet she presumed to make decisions that would forever alter the course of her life. How dare she? The warlord, who had fallen to her knees as if beaten down by the memories of the life she had led, now stood up tall. With a purpose to her step, she strode to the door of the cottage and kicked it open.
Gabrielle and Antea both whirled to see an apparition more frightening than Medusa storm through the door. It took a moment to register that it was Xena, and that she was covered in mud from head to foot, her hair standing out in spikes. Only the eyes, blazing as blue as the hot summer sun were recognizable.
"Jacinthe", Gabrielle began, and Xena looked at her with disgust in her eyes, freezing the rest of her words in her throat.
"Save it", Xena snarled. "I know who I am." In three steps she crossed the room, stopping in front of Gabrielle. The fingers on her hands twitched as if she was barely able to restrain herself from striking the younger woman. "I should kill you for trying to rob me of my identity." Clutching the bodice of Gabrielle's top, Xena pulled the bard up until her face was only inches from her own. She could see fear in the green eyes that looked back at her. It was a look she was familiar with, having seen it in the eyes of so many of her victims.
"Xena! Stop it!" Antea implored her, grasping at Xena's arms to try to pull her away from Gabrielle. With barely a glance at her, Xena forced Antea's hand back until the wrist threatened to break, causing Antea to sink toward her knees. Xena let go of Antea's hand, and raising her foot, she put it against her shoulder and gave her a push. Antea sat down hard on the floor.
"I'll get to you in a minute." Her tone was menacing enough that Antea thought better of trying again to get her to release Gabrielle. She lowered her eyes, but beneath the lids, she was watching for an opportunity to intervene. Satisfied that Antea would not get in her way, Xena turned back to the bard, who appeared more frightened now than she had a moment before. The corner of Xena's mouth turned up in an evil grin, and she raised her eyebrow. "What made you think you had the right to keep my past from me?", she roared. Tears had pooled in the corners of Gabrielle's eyes, and began to spill down her cheeks. She opened her mouth to speak, but words failed her for one of the few times in her life. "Well?!, Xena snapped. Releasing her grip on the bard, she pushed her backward; when her knees encountered the back of the chair she had been sitting in while talking to Antea, she dropped into it again. She never took her eyes off the face of the warrior. "Nothing to say for yourself?, Xena spat contemptuously. "A bard without words is like...a warrior without a sword. You disgust me." She turned away.
Swallowing repeatedly to keep from crying, Gabrielle finally found her voice.
"I....only w-wanted to ke-keep you safe." Gabrielle burst into sobs, and laying her arms on the table, she buried her face in her hands as she surrendered herself to her sorrow.
Xena reached down to where Antea still sat on the floor, and pulled her to her feet. "Shut her up", she ordered. "I'm going to go get this filth off of my body, and when I come back, she had better be composed. Or gone. Makes no difference to me." Jabbing her finger into Antea's chest, she snarled, "And then you and I need to have a long talk."
Turning on her heel, she stalked from the cottage.
Antea hurried to Gabrielle, and put her arms around her shoulders. The bard turned to her, and buried her face in her chest. Antea stroked her hair and whispered soothing noises. She was in shock herself, unable to believe that Xena had behaved as she had toward Gabrielle and herself. And she knew that Gabrielle had to be devastated. Antea was not surprised that Xena was upset over the deception, but she could not understand the unreasonable anger at the bard. Surely she must know that Gabrielle only did what she did because she loved her. Then like lightning it hit her; Xena must not have recovered all of her memory. She must not realize yet what Gabrielle meant to her. Antea gently lifted Gabrielle's face and wiped the tears from her cheeks.
Putting on as much of a smile as she could muster, she said softly, "Gabrielle, pull yourself together. I think we have to assume she meant what she said." Gabrielle nodded. She had reached the same conclusion herself. "I think maybe I know what the problem is", Antea continued. "It seems like she only recovered part of her memory. I don't think she knows what you two meant to each other yet."
"You're probably right", Gabrielle croaked. Her throat was raw from crying and she could scarcely talk. "Antea, it wasn't just that she didn't remember me. I might understand her being upset, or even angry. But she was vicious and cruel. I have never seen her like that, even at her worst. It's almost like she's a different person."
"In a way she is a different person. If she doesn't remember you, it stands to reason she thinks she's still a warlord. But if she got back part of her memory, she could get the rest. We just have to be patient with her, try to find out how much she does remember, and help to fill in the blanks."
"What if... she never remembers?"
"I don't know", Antea said with a sigh. "I guess we'll just have to wait and see."
Xena slid the britches down her legs and kicked them off. She would burn them as soon as she found her own clothes. Grasping the tunic she pulled it over her head, tossing both garments in the kettle of water she was warming over the fire. She poked them under with a stick until they were thoroughly wet. That done, she walked to the edge of the stream and lowered herself into the cool water. Mud sluiced off of her body in brown rivulets. She could only imagine what a nightmarish appearance she made when she burst into the cottage. Thinking of how the bard had deceived her, she could feel the anger rise again. Antea would have to be punished for her part in the deception, but in her heart, she knew it was Gabrielle who formulated the plan. And it was Gabrielle who would soon know the wrath of the warrior princess.
"Here she comes", Antea warned from her vantage point by the front window. Wearing nothing but a shift that she must have found in the stable where Antea had been sleeping, Xena stopped in the yard to spread her wet clothes out over some bushes, and was now heading for the cottage. She did not look any more pleasant than she had when she stormed out of the house earlier; if anything, she looked even angrier. "Are you up to this?", Antea's tone was compassionate. As much as she loved Xena, she would have taken great satisfaction in punishing her for the anguish Gabrielle was going through. If Xena were rational at all, she would have realized that Gabrielle's actions were prompted solely out of concern for her well being, and let the subject drop. But the woman who walked up the path to the cottage was not rational, and Antea feared they were both in for another unpleasant time with the warrior.
"I'm as ready as I'm going to get, I think. I'll fix her a plate of food; that usually improves her mood considerably." While Xena was bathing, the two women had cooked up a slab of bacon and prepared some pan bread. Gabrielle had scrambling eggs with herbs chopped up in them, which was one of Xena's favorites. She arranged the food on a plate and set it on the table just as Xena came through the door.
"Where are my clothes?," Xena snarled to no one in particular, but Gabrielle had the distinct impression that the venom in her voice was aimed at her. It gave her a chill.
"They were ruined...." Gabrielle started. Antea cut her off.
"I'll get them. They're in my workroom." At the confused look on Gabrielle's face, she said to the bard, "I couldn't throw them away. I cleaned them up as best I could, and put on some new leather. I knew she might regain her memory, and I figured she'd want them." Turning to Xena, she continued. "It'll take me a few minutes. Why don't you have some breakfast?" She walked out the door, closing it quietly behind her.
Xena nodded her assent, and took a seat at the table. Gabrielle pushed the already full plate in front of her, and without a word, Xena began to eat.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. She had to somehow convince Xena that her motives were well intentioned, despite the fact that the warrior seemed determined to shut her out. "Xena," she said softly. The older woman gave no sign that she heard, and continued to eat in silence. "Please," Gabrielle implored somewhat louder, "I don't know what you think about why I wanted to keep your identity a secret, but I want you to know that I did it to protect you. Thanos sent an assassin to kill you, and the man used me to....."
Xena pushed herself back from the table, and rose from her chair so fast that she sent it crashing across the room. She whirled to look into the face of the bard, who had stopped mid sentence when the warrior began to rise. Once again, Gabrielle stared into eyes that flashed blue fire, and instinctively, she backed up. The warrior continued to advance on her until Gabrielle's back was against the wall. "Who put you up to this?' Xena seethed. "Thanos is my ally. What reason would he have to send an assassin out to get me? And what sort of spell did you use to get Antea to go along with you in your little deception?"
"Spell?" Gabrielle's voice quavered. She cleared her throat and went on. "I didn't....Antea didn't think it was a good idea, but.....I ...." She realized that her explanation was doing nothing to further her case, and she stopped. Trying a different tack, she started again. "Antea said she didn't know what caused you to lose your memory, so she had no idea if you would get it back. I thought if we created a new life for you, one without warlords and violence.."
"Enough!" The warrior bellowed. "Are you completely incapable of giving a straight answer to a simple question? If you planned to fabricate a story about a warlord wanting to kill me, you should have thought of someone besides Thanos. We're ...friends.". Gabrielle knew that Thanos was once a trusted lieutenant and sometimes lover of the Warrior princess. She felt a sense of revulsion at the thought of her lover in the arms of the murderous warlord. With a sigh, she realized she would have to amend her thinking. This Xena was not her lover. Never had been. And by the way things were going, never would be. Xena's voice brought her mind back to the situation at hand. "I feel I owe you a debt because you did help Antea to save me, and for that am grateful. But I don't trust you. I have no use for people I can't trust. They tend to get a person killed. I suggest that you say your good byes to Antea and be on your way. "And Gabrielle," she fairly spat out the name, "this evens my debt. You would do well to stay out of my way in the future. Understood?"
Gabrielle felt as if an iron band had been wrapped around her heart, and with each word that fell from the warrior's mouth, the band got tighter until she thought it must break completely in two. Numbly she nodded, feeling tears begin to tumble down her face with the movement.
"I'll....." Words failed her. In shocked silence, she walked to the bedroom where her pallet still lay on the floor, and collected her belongings. As she passed back through the kitchen, she noticed that Xena had resumed her place at the table, and was calmly finishing her breakfast, as if nothing had happened. Gabrielle had to bite the insides of her cheeks to keep from crying out in anguish over having been so completely misunderstood by this woman that she loved with all her being. She quickened her pace for fear she would not be able to control herself, and knowing that even if she threw herself on Xena's mercy, she would only hear more scorn and abuse from the warrior. She hit the door with her shoulder, and virtually fell out of the cottage, nearly colliding with Antea.
"Whoa! Gabrielle, what..." Gabrielle skirted around Antea, and kept going. Grabbing her by the arm as she passed, Antea spun the bard around to look into her grief stricken face. "What happened? Gabrielle, please, tell me what happened!"
"She....." Gabrielle gulped, and her lip trembled. "She told me I had to leave. She says she doesn't trust me."
"That's ridiculous", Antea sputtered. Letting go of Gabrielle's arm, she turned and started toward the cottage. "This is my home. She has no right to say you have to leave. I'm going to talk to her."
"Don't!" Gabrielle put herself between Antea and the door. "All you'll do is get her angry at you, too. It's better if I just go. You didn't see the way she looked at me, Antea. If her eyes had been a sword, I'd be dead. I don't know that woman in there. I don't think I want to."
"Gabrielle, our Xena.....", she caught herself and quickly amended, "your Xena is part of her. Underneath the surface of the warlord is the woman who saved my life. And yours."
"More times than I can count." Gabrielle nodded with a sigh. "She would not have given up on me, no matter what. And I won't give up on her. But Antea, what can I do? She'll scarcely look at me, and won't listen to anything I say."
"I don't know yet, Gabrielle. But we'll think of something. Maybe it would help to know what it was that made her quit that part of her life the first time."
"Hm. She doesn't talk much about those times in her life. I know Hercules was involved, and Iolaus. I'll go through my scrolls and see if I can piece together what I know of those days."
"Good idea. Your scrolls are in the saddlebag, aren't they?" Gabrielle nodded. "That's in the stable . Why don't you go have a look while I go talk to her. And Gabrielle," the bard looked up at her expectantly. Antea smiled, and kissed her on her forehead. " Don't give up hope. We'll do what ever we have to do. Because we love her."
Gabrielle smiled. She looked more like her former confident self, and it gave Antea a good feeling. "OK. I'll stay out in the stable until you tell me she's going to be all right with my still being here." With that, Antea continued her course to the cottage and Gabrielle headed for the stable.
"Took you long enough.", Xena snapped when she saw Antea walk in with her leathers over her arm. "Did you have to skin the sheep?"
Antea would have chuckled to hear those words coming from the mouth of the Xena she knew from before, but she was not sure this Xena meant it as a joke. She handed over the garments without comment. Xena stripped off the shift and dropped it to the floor. The sight of Xena naked always took Antea's breath away, and this was no exception. Even though she had been ministering to her and had seen her naked several times the past week, there was something about the warrior standing tall and proud that stirred her as no one else ever could. The gasp she could not quite suppress was not lost on the warrior.
"Do you like what you see?", she asked seductively.
"I....We have to talk", she stammered.
Xena raised her eyebrow suggestively, and the corner of her mouth turned up in a smile. "There's plenty of time for talking. Later." She dropped her leathers on the floor and took a few steps toward Antea. Her eyes locked onto Antea's, and Antea stood for several moments transfixed, unable to look away, unable to move. Xena was almost within reach when Antea was able to tear her eyes away, and she took a step backwards.
"No. Now. It's important. It's about Gabrielle...."
Xena shrugged, and narrowed her eyes with distaste. "There's nothing to talk about. I sent her on her way."
"And I stopped her." The warriors eyes glittered with anger, but she controlled herself. This was Antea, and she would allow her to have her say. And then she would do whatever pleased her. "Xena, this is my home. I welcomed both of you into it, and Gabrielle is still welcome here, no matter what you say. I know you can hurt me.. Kill me, if you choose to, but I don't think you want to. So you're just going to have to accept that Gabrielle will be staying. Agreed?"
Turning on her heel, Xena strode back to where she had dropped her leathers on the floor and bent down to grab them. For the moment, her desire to please Antea overwhelmed her distaste for the bard, and she would allow her to stay. But if it seemed the annoying brat planned to interfere in her life again, all the bets were off. "You sure know how to kill a mood", she grumbled. She stalked into the bedroom to dress, and Antea breathed a sigh of relief. She did not know how long she could hold out against Xena if she were truly bent on seduction. If the warrior had gotten close enough to touch her........ No, she chastised herself. Don't even think that. Even if Xena did not know she belonged to Gabrielle, Antea certainly did. And she had to be strong. For all of them.
"How's it going? Find anything useful? " The bard was in an empty stall, with scrolls spread out all around her. She nodded enthusiastically.
"Well, the beginning of the end of her career as a warlord seems to have been when her army forced her to run the gauntlet. She was beaten almost to death, and at the end, even though they let her go, she lost control of her army. After that, she fought with Hercules against her own army. As far as I know, she never looked back."
"What could have caused her army to go against her like that?" Gabrielle shrugged.
"I don't have anything written down, but as I remember, it had something to do with a baby. Her second in command ordered the army to kill every living soul in a town Xena had ordered them to attack. When Xena found out that he had killed women and children, she was irate. He thought she was getting soft. And she proved it by saving a baby that had somehow been overlooked during the slaughter."
Antea absorbed the facts and tried to cull out from them the underlying reason for Xena's renouncing her murderous ways. Finally it came to her. "It's her conscience, of course. In her heart, I don't believe she ever wanted to hurt any innocent people. Killing was expected of her as a warlord, and she did it to get the respect of her men. But when she came to me as a young woman and asked me to teach her how to fight, it was only to defend herself and her loved ones from evil people. I think that finally, all of the innocent blood that had been shed in her name was too much for her."
"So", Gabrielle tried to think how they could use Xena's conscience to turn her away from the path she seemed determined to follow. "We have to put her in a position so that she will have to kill an innocent person. Or chose to let them live."
"Yes. That might open her eyes. The hard part will be finding a person willing to risk the warriors wrath... especially if we're wrong."
"No problem. I'll do it."
"Gabrielle, we already know she doesn't lean toward killing women and children. I think we need a man for this job. And it can't be any one she knows."
"If she doesn't remember me, I would imagine that means she doesn't remember the people we both know. Maybe one of them...." Her face brightened and she snapped her fingers. "Autolycus! He's proven himself to be a good friend to us both, and I'm sure he would be willing to help." She smiled remembering when Xena was in Autolycus' body, and had kissed her. How shocked she and Autolycus both were to open their eyes and see each other's faces.
"OK. That's settled. The problem will be finding him."
"Oh, I know who can find him," Gabrielle said confidently. "The queen of the Amazons will send out the whole tribe to find him, if necessary. It means I will have to leave here after all... at least for as long as it takes to get to the Amazon camp and back. That ought to please her", she added with a rueful smile.
"I'm not sure that's such a good idea...", Antea began, picturing once again the image of the beautiful warrior standing before her nude. Just thinking about it was enough to make her wet. She needed Gabrielle there to keep Xena from pursuing her. "I should go," she continued.
"Oh, yeah, that's gonna happen", Gabrielle said sarcastically. "She would just as soon see me dead. If you were not here to prevent that from happening, I might just end up that way. No, thanks. I have to go. But it shouldn't take me more than 4 or 5 days. You can handle her till then, can't you?"
In her mind, Antea screamed NO.. Should she tell Gabrielle that Xena had already tried to seduce her? No. It would only hurt the bard to hear that. And she believed that she could hold her off for the time it would take for Gabrielle to return. "Well.... I hope I can", she answered without a great deal of enthusiasm. "Maybe you could take the horse, and get back here sooner."
"Now you want to kill me too? I like Argo fine, as long as we're both walking on our own legs. I can tolerate her when I have Xena to hold on to, but by myself..," She shook her head emphatically. "Nope, I'd do better on foot." She crossed to where Antea stood, and throwing her arms around her shoulders, she hugged her tightly. "But it's nice to know you want me to get back soon."
You'll never know how much I want you to get back soon, she thought. She returned the hug, and then gave the bard a playful slap on her butt. "You'd better get going pretty soon, then. The sooner you go, the sooner you get back."
Gabrielle began gathering her scrolls, and rolling them carefully, she put them back into the saddlebag. "How about putting together some provisions for me to take along, while I get these scrolls put away?" Antea nodded, and turned to leave the stable. "I'm going to leave these here; too awkward to try to carry all this without Argo. Will you keep an eye on them for me? I would hate for anything to happen to them."
"Sure. Put the saddlebag in the tack chest. It should be safe enough there." Gabrielle nodded, and resumed her work. Antea walked slowly back to the cottage, trying to formulate a story to explain why Gabrielle was leaving, after she had insisted to Xena that she stay. Might as well tell her a half truth, she decided. Not so likely to be caught in a lie.
When she walked into the cottage, she found Xena opening cupboards and banging around. Every chest in sight was standing open, and the contents in complete disarray.
Xena whirled at the sound of her footsteps, but the look of anger on her face faded somewhat when she saw that it was Antea.
"Where are my weapons?"
"They were taken. The man who tried to kill you took them." She decided not to add that he had taken them as a souvenir for Thanos, since Xena did not believe that Thanos had sent an assassin to get her.
With a bellow of rage, Xena swept her arm across the counter top in front of her, sending jars of herbs and dishes crashing to the floor. "I'll kill him", she seethed. "With my bare hands if I have to. What's the cowards name?"
Gabrielle had told Antea the name of the hired killer, but she could not remember it. Better to claim she had never known than to admit she forgot. "I don't know if he said his name, Xena. I wasn't there. Gabrielle was."
"Well. Isn't it handy that the meddlesome little brat is still here? Tell her to come in here. I want to talk to her."
"No," she answered quickly. "I mean, she's gone. She...decided to go spend some time with the Amazons . She should be back in less than a week."
"I can't wait that long", Xena snarled, bringing her fist down on the table with a thump. "That bastard is already more than a week ahead of me; I can't lose any more time. I'm going to go hunt for her."
Antea grasped Xena's arm. Her fingers tingled as she felt the rock hard muscle. God's, give me strength, she prayed. "I'll make you another chakram, and a sword too. There's no reason to go after her. This way when you do catch up with the man who tried to kill you, you'll be armed."
Xena grunted her assent. It made sense. But she was eager to be out and doing. The inactivity of the past week had taken its toll on the warrior.. "How long will it take you to make the weapons?"
"A week, tops. Gabrielle should be back by then."
"All right. You have a week. I'm going to go for a run. Have something ready for me to eat when I get back." Without a backward glance, she stepped through the door, and started off at a trot through the field.
"Yes, Your Majesty", Antea said when the warrior was well out of earshot. What have I let myself in for this time, she mused.
The wind in her face was invigorating. There was just a slight tang of salt from the sea nearby, and she drew it into her lungs in large draughts. Cresting a hill, she paused a moment to look at the peaceful farms laid out below her. She toyed with the idea of terrorizing some of the farmers, just to hone her skills, but decided that was beneath her. Instead, she started running down the hill, building up speed until she thought she was about to fly. How great to be alive! She could tell from the new scars on her body that she had survived a good many more close calls than she could remember. The missing part of her memory must account for several years of time. It frustrated her to not know where she had been and what she had done for all that time. No matter. It would come back to her in time. And if it didn't, she could piece together as much as she could from tales told by the bards. Reluctantly, she had to admit to herself that even though Gabrielle did not bring forth any recollections, she nevertheless did seem to feature in her life for the past few years, at least. Antea would not have allowed herself to be taken in by the bard, so even if Xena did not trust her, she grudgingly conceded that she might still serve a useful purpose, if only to fill in the blanks in her memory.
Gradually she slowed her pace. Clearly she was not up to this kind of all out run so soon after being injured. She walked for a while, looking for a nice shady spot to sit and catch her breath before starting back. Several trees lined the banks of a stream a short distance away, and she struck out for the cool shady trees. She dropped to her knees and cupped some water in her hand, quenching her thirst only after several hands full. Dropping down under a tree, she leaned up against the trunk, and listened to the sound of the stream. Within minutes her eyes started growing heavy, and her chin slowly dropped toward her chest.
......."Xena!" The voice echoed as if from the bottom of a well. She looked around, but there was no one in sight.
"Where are you?" She called in return. Spinning in circles, her ears were alert for the sound of the voice; she knew she could pinpoint the location if she heard it again. As she turned around, she glanced down and saw that she was naked. For some reason, it seemed all right that she had no clothes on, but she felt vulnerable without her weapons. Frantically she looked around, and at last she saw both her clothes and her weapons lying beside her bedroll. Relieved, she continued listening for the voice.
"Call out again so I can find you!"
"Here I am!" Xena turned to where the sound came from, and saw a waterfall spilling into a pool of clear water. Behind the cascading water, she could make out a form that obviously was not part of the natural rock formations. She trotted to the edge of the pool and dove in gracefully, coming up behind the waterfall. Reaching out with one hand, she felt the ledge of rock until her fingers encountered soft skin, and grasped the ankle and pulled. With a shriek, the woman lost her balance, and tumbled into the waterfall. Xena pursued her, and when she caught her, she wrapped her arms around her middle. One hand drifted down the soft smooth skin until it encountered the even softer curls at the apex of the shapely legs. The woman had been struggling in a playful way until Xena began to insinuate her finger inside of her. She ceased her struggle, and leaned her body back against the taller woman, running her hands over Xena's well muscled thighs.
"Oh, Xena, you make me feel so wonderful", she growled into Xena's ear. She ground her buttocks into Xena's mound until the warrior thought she would scream. She removed her hand from the warm folds of her lover, and putting one arm behind her knees and the other behind her shoulders, she lifted her up out of the water and carried her to the bank of the stream. Laying her lover down on the grass, Xena pulled herself out of the water as well, and laid down beside her. She ran her fingers softly over the wet skin, and listened for the sounds of pleasure her lover made. Sighs and moans and shudders accompanied every touch. She pressed her lips against her lovers mouth, and felt the lips part to welcome her exploration. Moving from her mouth, she planted kisses on each eyelid and cheek, then the warm hollow of her neck. Her hand found the luscious breasts, and began to knead first one and then the other. The nipples hardened to little pebbles between her fingers. Putting her mouth where her hand had been, she began to suck the delectable flesh. Running her tongue down the torso, she admired the taut muscles that gathered beneath her touch like a cat waiting to spring. She drank the water that was still pooled in her lovers navel, and then brought her mouth to the smooth skin of her inner thigh.
"Ooohh, yessss." The sibilant sounds of her lover urged her on. She parted the curly hair with her tongue, and then ran her tongue slowly over the outer lips, teasing. "Please....I want to feel you inside me", her lover moaned. Without removing her tongue, Xena insinuated her finger between the slick folds, feeling the muscles of the warm channel grip her tightly. "More.....", her lover begged, and she complied by adding a second finger.
She increased the tempo of both tongue and fingers until the writhing body she lavished her attention on virtually exploded from the force of her orgasm.
Xena clung to her, reluctant to let these marvelous feelings pass into memory. Laying her cheek against the abdomen that was now still, she whispered softly, "My beautiful Gabrielle......"
"NO!" With a shout, Xena sat bolt upright. Her eyes flew open wide, and she had to look around in all directions to be certain she had just been dreaming. The violent motion as she sat up caused a sharp pain in her side, and she sat back against the tree again, trembling from both pain and anger. She had no idea how the bard was able to plant dreams in her mind, but undoubtedly it was the same way she had managed to coerce Antea into going along with her in her scheme to deny Xena her memories. If not for the fact that the meddlesome blonde had somehow wormed her way into Antea's affections, she would send her on her way, despite Antea's protests.
With a groan, she rose slowly to her feet, and turned towards the cottage. The thought of Antea waiting for her gave her a bit of energy, and with a lightness in her step, she headed home.
Antea tied a leather thong around the top of a cloth sack filled with fresh fruit from her orchards. She placed the sack on the table beside the other provisions she had been assembling for Gabrielle. Not knowing how long it might be before Xena returned, she had set to work immediately after she left the cottage. She wanted Gabrielle out of sight before the warrior returned and caught her in a lie. Gathering up the sacks, she left the cottage and crossed to the stable. As she walked, she saw again in her mind the look on Xena's face as she dropped her leathers to the floor and walked toward her. She had felt herself drawn to the imposing warrior as a moth is drawn to a candle flame. And like a moth, she had no doubt she would be badly burned if she found herself on the bad side of the warlord. Could she handle Xena while Gabrielle was gone? She liked to think she could, but the truth is, the Xena she was faced with today was a complete unknown. She had no doubts about the Xena she still loved with all her heart, but this woman seemed only to bear a physical resemblance to that Xena. The more she thought, the more she realized that it might be a big mistake to let Gabrielle leave.
"What kept you, Antea?", Gabrielle hissed from the dark recesses of the stable. "I was beginning to think you forgot I was out here", she pouted.
"No.. I'm sorry it took so long. It's just.. Xena wanted to talk, and then I had to go pick some fruit."
Grabbing the bags from her hand, Gabrielle started sniffing each one. "Where's the fruit? Haven't had anything to eat today, and I'm starving."
"It's that one", Antea said pointing to the sack with the leather thong on the top. " Gabrielle", she began, and then stopped to think about how she should word her request. The bard looked up from her exploration of the contents of the sack with a quizzical look on her face. "I..... The more I think about it", Antea continued, "the more I think it might not be such a good idea for you to leave."
"Why not?", Gabrielle mumbled around a mouthful of succulent orange. Her trusting eyes met Antea's, patiently waiting for an explanation. Looking into her guileless face, Antea could not bear the thought of telling a lie to her. It was bad enough that they had both lied to Xena; and been caught at it. She needed Gabrielle as an ally, and that could not be accomplished with deception. Even so, she could not meet those green eyes as she explained.
"She....wanted to seduce me, Gabrielle. I put her off, and I hope I can continue to do that, but..." The stricken look on the bards face cut Antea like a knife. Even so, she could no longer look her in the eye as she continued. "You know how...persuasive she can be. And the side of her we are seeing now.... well, I don't know what to expect from her. She's a warlord now, used to taking what she wants. What if she doesn't take no for an answer?"
Gabrielle swallowed hard a few times, trying to choke down the lump in her throat, but it was useless. The rest of the orange she had been enjoying so much a few moments ago dropped from her fingers without her knowing it, landing in the straw and dust of the stable.
"What if she doesn't? How will my being here make any difference if she wants to.." She couldn't finish her thought. On some level, as soon as she realized that Xena's memory had only come back in part, Gabrielle knew that there was a very real possibility that the woman she loved would not choose to be with her. But she had carefully avoided contemplating what it might mean if the warlord chose Antea, whom she loved from her past. A past that no longer included Gabrielle.
"I don't know, Gabrielle. But I hope that she will be less inclined to....force her attentions on me as long as there are three of us here. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't know what else to do. Gabrielle, I.... you know I love you." Gabrielle nodded mutely. Antea captured her hand, still sticky with the juice from the orange, and held it softly in her own. "And I love Xena." She lowered her eyes, but kept a firm grip on the bards hand. "Gods help me, I love her more than I should." A tear leaked from the corner of her eye, and traced a path down her cheek. She scrubbed it off with her free hand and continued in a soft voice. "I don't know how long I can resist her, Gabrielle. Part of me doesn't want to resist at all, and it kills me. I don't want to hurt you, or let her hurt you. But if you're not here to......"
Gabrielle tugged her hand free of Antea's grasp a little more forcefully than she intended. "I understand", she said in a husky voice. "I should be grateful that you're still willing to try to resist her, knowing how you feel about her. I thought you were over her."
Antea smiled ruefully. "How does one get over Xena? I learned to control my emotions, that's all. And I was doing all right until she let me know she wanted to make love with me. I'm just human, Gabrielle. You know what a powerful attraction she exerts. I don't want to act on it, I meant that. Will you help me?"
"Yes. Of course I will. And I'm sorry for doubting you. I'll stay. We'll come up with a new plan."
"And an explanation of why you're still here; I told her you had left already. And we need to do it soon.. She should be back any time now." Together they went back to the cottage to await the return of the warrior and hatch a new plan.
The first thing she saw when she opened the door to the cottage was the bard. Her eyes narrowed to slits, and she hissed "What are you doing here? She told me you were gone."
"I tore the sole off my boot", Gabrielle said quickly, and Antea held up the boot that she and Gabrielle had deliberately damaged in order to explain Gabrielle's return. Antea was in the process of replacing the leather. "I came back to see if Antea could fix it for me, and she told me you wanted to talk to me about the assassin."
"Yes. I need to know everything you can tell me about him. Starting with his name." Xena crossed to the kitchen and dipped herself a generous mug of water from the bucket on the counter. She then sat on a stool opposite Gabrielle at the table to study her face as she talked so she could gauge the sincerity of her words.
"Oh, gods... his name. Something like Zagrias, but not that. Started with a Z. I think." Her expression was one of genuine uncertainty.
"You might remember if I cut off the flow of blood to your brain", Xena snarled, beginning to rise from her stool. Gabrielle's eyes widened in fear, and she pushed herself away from the table, nearly falling in her haste to get out of Xena's reach. Antea dropped the boot she was working on, and put her hand on Xena's shoulder, pushing her back to her seat.
"Xena", she pleaded "there's no need for that. She's trying to remember. Give her time." Xena turned her cold gaze on Antea, and then glanced at her shoulder where Antea's hand still rested. Quickly, Antea withdrew her hand. She mentally chastised herself for forgetting once again that this was not the Xena she knew. "Please", she added.
"Zabadis? Zeradus? Xena, I wasn't close enough to hear very well. It sounded something like that." Gabrielle had regained some of her composure, but her voice still shook as she spoke. She had never would have thought she could fear Xena as much as she did at that moment.
"Could it have been Zarkadis? Birthmark on his face?"
"Yes! That's him, that's the guy!" The relief in her voice was evident. "But you said you didn't know him."
"I don't. But I know of him. Up and coming assassin for hire, and reputed to be very good at what he does. I don't know why I'm alive to talk about it. That kind of mistake is very costly in his line of work."
"He just misjudged the angle of the knife, or the depth of the wound. There was no question, he thought you would be dead shortly after he left."
"Why didn't he kill you, too?"
"He said his contract was to kill you only. He had no quarrel with me, he said." She lowered her eyes, not certain how Xena would take her next comment. "And you made him promise he would leave Argo so I could take your body home for burial."
Once again she sounded sincere, but Xena could not understand why she would have asked this annoying woman to take her body home. She had not thought of home since she regained consciousness, and now that it crossed her mind, it seemed even less likely she would have wanted to be taken there. Her mother made it clear when last she saw her that she wanted nothing more to do with her daughter, and that was fine with Xena. She needed no attachments, no distractions. She glanced out of the corner of her eye at Antea who had resumed working on the boot, and amended her thinking.. Well, maybe a little distraction... She pictured Antea as she had known her in her youth, her body a combination of compact muscles and voluptuous curves. She was older, but still a strikingly beautiful woman. Xena's heart beat accelerated a bit just thinking about making love to her.
Antea's eyes were on her work so she did not notice the appraising look the warrior gave her, but it was not lost on Gabrielle. If she had had any doubts about Xena's intentions toward Antea, she no longer did. The desire was evident for anyone to see. Gabrielle felt like pieces of her soul were being broken off and ground to dust under the warriors heel. She tried to console herself with the knowledge that this was not her Xena, but it didn't help. Not wishing to witness whatever might happen next, she rose from her chair and took a few steps toward the door, before Xena's voice stopped her in her tracks.
"Where do you think you're going? I'm not finished with you yet. I have to know everything about this scum if I'm going to find him. And I will find him." Her eyes gleamed with vicious intent, and an evil smile turned up the corners of her mouth. With a sigh, Gabrielle returned to her seat, and proceeded to tell the warrior everything she could remember about the incident.
They ate in silence. Before the meal began, Gabrielle tried to get out of eating with them by saying she wasn't hungry, but even as she said it, her stomach growled to reveal yet another lie. She had eaten nothing since the small bit of orange that morning, and truthfully she was very hungry, but she could not bear the thought of watching Xena watch Antea as she had been doing during all of Gabrielle's story about the attempt on her life.
For her part, Antea felt uncomfortable under the obvious scrutiny of the blue eyes, but she tried to ignore it, hoping that Xena would get the idea that she was not interested and shift her attention elsewhere. More than anything, she did not want to be left alone with Xena. The warrior smiled for the first time since Gabrielle had begun her story when the bard said she was going to the stable to check on Argo, and would eat later.
"No!" Antea said before Gabrielle could make her escape. "You must be starving. Why don't you eat with us? You can check Argo later. Or maybe Xena would like to? I'm sure the mare misses her." She pleaded with her eyes for Gabrielle to stay with her, and at last the bard relented. Xena merely frowned. She watched Gabrielle sit, and with a shrug, she began eating. There was time later for what she wanted to do with Antea. Plenty of time.
While Antea and Gabrielle cleaned up the dishes, Xena went to the stable to brush Argo. The palomino was as unknown to her as Gabrielle, but the horse nickered and lipped the warriors hand as if she were a long lost friend. Briefly she wondered what had become of the bay that had carried her into many a battle, but she knew it was pointless to wonder. There was emptiness where that knowledge should have resided. Except for her dreams, which seemed to feature the exasperating bard, she reminded herself. She meant to confront her about the dreams, certain that the blonde was somehow responsible for them, but she had been deflected by her fascination with Antea. Of all the lovers Xena had had over the years, her first love was still the most passionate. And she was determined to recapture that intensity.
Gabrielle paced in the small kitchen as Antea put the finishing touches on her boot. The task finished, she handed the boot to Gabrielle to put on. It was even more comfortable than the other boot, which the bard had broken in while walking beside her warrior.
"Thanks, Antea. This feels great." The older woman gave her a smile, and collected the tools she had used to repair the shoe.
"If there's time, I'll replace the other one for you."
"Why wouldn't there be time? I'm not going anywhere, and Xena still needs to finish healing before she goes after the assassin."
"Yes", Antea sighed. "But she wants me to make her some weapons, and I suspect she'll want to be on the road as soon as they're finished, whether she's completely healed or not."
"Oh...I see." But she didn't really understand. Was she supposed to infer that Antea would be going with Xena when she left, which would explain why she would not be able to sole the other boot? And what of herself? Did Antea expect her to sit here patiently waiting for the two of them to return? In spite of herself, she could feel her anger rise as if Antea had already betrayed her. Without realizing that Antea had risen from her seat and walked to where Gabrielle stood, she was suddenly aware of the older woman's arms about her waist, enveloping her in a hug.
"No, I don't think you do. We - both of us - have to go with her when she leaves. Our only hope of turning her away from this path she's on is to be there, watching for an opportunity. If we let her walk away, we may never get our Xena back."
Gabrielle was ashamed that she had questioned Antea's motives again, and embarrassed that her thoughts were so transparent. Of course she meant for both of them to go. How could she have thought otherwise? She hugged Antea in return. "I'm an idiot. Pay no attention to me, will you?"
Antea laughed, and kissed Gabrielle on the tip of her nose. "You're certainly not an idiot. If you were, you wouldn't be able to help come up with a clever way of making Xena think it's her idea for us to go along on this mission of hers. Come with me while I work on her new chakram so we can put our heads together." With a nod, Gabrielle linked her arm with Antea's, and together they made their way to Antea's work shed to hatch another plot.
Xena could hear their voices through the wall that the stable shared with the work shed. Only the occasional word was audible, the rest was simply noise. She could tell from the sound of a hammer on an anvil that Antea was working on something. Xena's weapons, if she was smart. And of course, she was smart. And beautiful. Her auburn colored hair now had several strands of silver, but other than that, the years had been good to her. She was still trim and well muscled, owing to the manual labor she worked at day in and day out. Xena longed to run her hands over that body. She knew from the look in Antea's eyes when she stripped earlier that day that her former lover still desired her. Xena must get her away from the bard so she could make love to her. Just thinking about it made her wet. For some reason - perhaps Antea's protective instincts toward the younger woman - Xena was reluctant to confront the bard in front of her with her suspicions about the spells she was certain the little witch had cast. She would wait for an opportunity to catch the bard alone and make sure she knew she did not want her interfering in her life any more.
The evening meal was filled with silences, punctuated only occasionally by the scrape of utensils on plates. Never one for idle chatter, Xena simply sat and ate. Her eyes lingered on Antea frequently, with a smoldering look that clearly transmitted her desire. For her part, Antea kept her eyes averted to avoid sending signals to Xena that she shared the attraction. Gabrielle could do nothing but watch, her own appetite lost. After pushing her food around her plate for what seemed like an eternity, the meal was over, and Gabrielle rose to clear the dishes. Antea picked up the bucket and started toward the door to fill it, when Xena grasped her wrist.
"Let her", she said with a jerk of her head in the direction of Gabrielle, "clean up here. I want you to have a look at my wound. It's feeling warmer than it should, and I want to make sure there's no infection."
Antea was fairly certain there was no sign of infection in the wound; it was healing nicely the last time she looked at it. But she could not afford not to look, in case Xena was right. With a sigh, she handed the bucket to Gabrielle. "Would you mind fetching the water? I shouldn't be long." Gabrielle accepted the bucket wordlessly, and stepped out the door, pulling it shut behind her. Antea turned her attention to the warrior. "OK", she said with a little smile. "Let's have a look." Grasping the hem of Xena's leather bodice, Antea started to lift it up, when the warrior grasped her wrist again.
"Not here. She'll be back in a minute. Let's go in the bedroom." Without waiting for a response from Antea, she started for the bedroom, pulling Antea along.
"I don't think that's........" Before she could get her thought out, they were in the bedroom, and Xena had stopped.
"I do", Xena said huskily. With her back still to Antea, she said "Help me with this leather. It's still a bit painful to reach the laces."
"There's really no need to take it off completely. I can..."
"I want it off." The tone of her voice brooked no arguments. Antea was glad Xena's back was to her, as her fingers trembled slightly while she unfastened the laces of the bodice. As the smooth skin of her back and shoulders were revealed, Antea had to swallow repeatedly to keep herself from saying something she knew she would regret. She raged at the injustice of this entire situation. Before Xena and Gabrielle had come to visit her the first time, Antea would have jumped at the chance to get back into Xena's life. But now.... Even if Xena never recovered her memory completely, and continued to shut Gabrielle out of her life, there was no way Antea could allow herself to benefit from the bards misfortune. Her sense of honor would never permit it. Shaking her head to clear the vision of the half naked warrior from her mind, she brought herself back to the purpose of this trip to the bedroom - at least as far as she was concerned. She stepped in front of the warrior, who still clutched the bodice to her chest. With a wicked grin, she dropped the garment as Antea reached for the top of her skirt to expose the wound. From the look of hunger in Antea's eyes before she averted them, Xena could tell that she had achieved her objective. With a laugh, she encircled Antea's waist with her arms, and pulled the older woman toward her until their bodies were touching. Xena's lips were inches away, and moving closer with every second. Unable to tear her eyes away from Xena's, Antea was hypnotized by the nearness of her. The sound of the outer door opening galvanized her, and she managed to untangle her arms from Xena's embrace, and grasping the warrior's biceps she pushed away from her.
"No. Stop. Please." She said in a ragged gasp. The blue eyes still held her in their gaze, but now they blazed with annoyance at having been rejected a second time.
"I know you want me", Xena growled. "I could tell by the way you looked at me just now. Why do you fight me?" Leaning closer again, she whispered in Antea's ear. "I could force you, you know. You're no match for me anymore, teacher."
Antea's mind screamed, oh, gods, yes.. Force me, please, then it won't be my responsibility, and I'll still be able to look Gabrielle in the eyes. "I know you could", she finally said. "But the Xena I loved is not a rapist, and I don't think you are either."
"Don't bet on it", Xena hissed through clenched teeth. "I'm used to getting what I want, one way or another. I don't know why you're resisting me, but I can promise you, I won't be patient for long. You just keep that in mind." With that, she released Antea, and gave her a little shove toward the door.
"Your wound?" Antea asked, coming back again to the reason for being there.
"It's fine." Xena retrieved her leather from the floor and started to put her arms through the straps, then changed her mind. She tossed it in a corner, and picked up her sleeping shift instead. "I'm tired." She said, her voice emotionless. "Leave me now." Grateful for the chance to escape, Antea turned and fled the room.
The next few days passed in more or less the same fashion. Xena would rise early each day and go for a run while Gabrielle and Antea prepared breakfast. To avoid the awkwardness of the first few days of Xena's awakening to herself, Gabrielle took her meals apart from the other two. Antea gave up trying to get her to join them, and Xena was just as happy to have the bard out of her sight. She had not pressed Antea any further, but the sexual tension was still there, a constant reminder of the warrior's threat.
The evening of the forth day, Antea was finally finished with the new weapons. When the evening meal was finished, Xena took the sword and the chakram out to get the feel of them. The weight of the chakram was slightly different than she was used to, and it would take a bit of practice before she would feel really confident with it, but she was certain she would be able to handle most any situation. Drawing the sword from its new scabbard, she took a few practice swings. Again, it seemed a bit awkward, but that could have been due to her convalescence. Other than running, she had done very little to keep in shape, and the muscles in her arms protested somewhat at the motions she was forcing them to do. One more day to practice with the weapons and to get the muscles used to the activity, and she would be ready to set out after the assassin.
Xena had spent the next day sharpening the sword, cleaning her tack, and practicing with the weapons. She only stopped at the cottage for meals, and then was back out working again. After the evening meal, which Gabrielle had eaten earlier as was her habit, the bard had gone to the stable to brush the horse. Since the Warrior Princess had awakened, Gabrielle had had no physical contact with anyone, except for the few comforting hugs Antea had given her. Desperate to have contact with something, she had spent hours grooming the horse, until the white of her mane and tail glistened like sunlight sparkling on water. Argo seemed to relish the attention, and in fact, began to look toward Gabrielle with the nickers she used to reserve for the warrior alone. Patting her soft muzzle, Gabrielle murmured to the mare.
"Well, at least something good has come out of this nightmare. Looks like we finally bonded." As if she understood the words, Argo bobbed her head up and down. Gabrielle blinked a few times. "Huh. Glad you agree with me. Now if only I could get your mistress to bond with me. When I'm in the room, it's like she looks right through me as if I wasn't even there." She pulled an apple out of the pocket that Argo was pushing against with her nose. "Is this what you're looking for?" Argo bobbed her head again. Gabrielle just shook her head; what an amazing creature this horse was. It was a shame it took something like their current predicament to bring her closer to this gentle giant. She held her hand out, and Argo gently took the apple from her palm. As the horse stood there munching, Gabrielle resumed her narrative.
"I want to cry every time I see the way she looks at Antea. It's like she wants to eat her with her eyes. " Tears began to spill from her eyes, but she didn't seem to notice, and made no effort to brush them away. "She used to look at me that way. It made my entire insides turn to mush. I want....wanted her so much." Her voice caught in her throat, and she fell silent, giving in to the tears that it seemed were never more than a memory away from falling. She buried her face in Argo's neck and sobbed.
"Put some provisions together. We're heading out of here in the morning."
Antea put down Gabrielle's boot and looked up at the warrior as she honed her sword for what seemed like the hundredth time since the previous day.
"Are you sure you're up to it? It really hasn't been long enough to...."
"I know what I'm capable of." Xena snapped. " Don't question my decisions." Antea had finally managed to get Xena to keep her hands off of her long enough to actually get a good look at the wound, and she had to admit, it had healed nicely. Even the scar seemed to have faded already, as if by some divine intervention. Sheathing the sword, Xena rose from her chair and stretched. She felt like a cat in a cage, and if she didn't get out of this cottage soon, she would likely start clawing at anyone that stood in her way. Even Antea, whom she still hoped to bed - with her consent.
It suddenly registered on Antea that Xena had said "we". She was relieved that she would not have to resort to any ploys to convince the warrior to take them along; the decision had been made.
"I'm going to get some air." Xena started for the door, and then turned back toward Antea, who had started to rise. "Alone", she added.
With a helpless shrug, Antea settled back in her chair. She had tried to run interference every time Xena and Gabrielle were together, and for the most part, there had been no trouble. Xena appeared not to even notice Gabrielle any more. Antea hoped that was a good omen.
Gabrielle did not even hear the warrior until she was almost upon her. She had cried herself into a state of near exhaustion, and had lain on her pallet trying to banish all thoughts of the blue eyed beauty from her mind. Argo nickered a welcome to her mistress, and Gabrielle opened her eyes to see Xena standing above her. Her heart began to thud in her chest. This was the first time Xena had consciously looked at her in days. Her eyes held nothing but contempt, however, and the bard cringed away from her in fear.
"Get up. I want to talk to you." She spoke as one who expects to be obeyed without question, and Gabrielle scrambled to her feet as quickly as she could. She stood before the taller woman with eyes cast downward, submissive.
"I'm leaving here tomorrow", Xena began. "Antea is going with me. You're going to lead us to the place where Zarkadis attacked me, and show me which direction he took from there. And then you are going in the opposite direction. Clear?"
"I can help you find him", Gabrielle said meekly. I know what he looks like, I......"
"I don't need your help!" Xena roared, catching Gabrielle by the chin and staring into her face. "I only want to know one thing from you." She lifted upward on Gabrielle's chin, and the bard had to stand on her toes. "How did you put those dreams into my head?"
"I...don't know what you're talking about", Gabrielle stuttered.
"Liar!" She thrust the bard away from her as if she were covered in vermin. "They aren't memories! You are not the stuff my dreams are made of! Stay out of my head, if you know what's good for you." She paced the length of the stable, and then turned back to the bard, hands on hips. "I've let you stay because it was her home, and Antea wanted it. I have ignored you when I would just as soon have swatted you like a fly. And I won't do it any more, do you understand me? I won't be deceived by you any more." She turned again, and headed for the door. Over her shoulder she added. "We leave at first light. Be ready."
Gabrielle stumbled backward a few steps, and felt the wall behind her. In the aftermath of her encounter with Xena, had lost her strength to stand, and simply slid down the wall and collapsed in a heap on the floor.
Gabrielle had wakened every couple of hours during the night fearful that she would sleep past first light and risk the wrath of the Warrior Princess. She was dressed and had her bedroll packed long before the sun appeared. She saddled Argo, and then sat down by the door of the stable to wait. A figure approached in the pre-dawn gloom, and she tensed until she heard Antea's voice call out her name.
"I'm here", she called out, "on the tack chest." Antea came through the door with her arms laden down with fruit, as well as Gabrielle's boot, which she had finished re-soling the previous night. She dropped the boot at Gabrielle's feet, and handed the fruit to her, except for one apple which she fed to Argo.
"Xena told me what she plans to do. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. I was hoping she might let you come along, but she won't even discuss it."
"I think she may be starting to remember me." Antea had been standing by the horse, but she whirled and came running back to the bard. Gabrielle was pulling on her boot, and Antea lowered herself until she was at eye level with her.
"What did she say?", she asked eagerly.
"She dreamed about me." Antea's face fell.
"A dream isn't necessarily based on a memory."
"That's what she said, too. But I got the impression this must have been more vivid than just any dream. It's the only hope I've got, Antea. If it was a memory, the rest could come back. I thought about it all last night, and I know I have to be close by in case the rest of the memories come to her. I'm going to follow you from a distance. I need for you to leave me signs showing what direction you are going, so I don't have to spend a lot of time trying to track you. Slow her down every chance you get so I'll have a chance to keep up."
"Oh, Gabrielle, I hope you're right. And I hope this works."
"I do, too."
Antea could see a faint pink and orange glow beginning to paint the eastern horizon, and knew Xena would soon be up, if she wasn't already. She needed to hurry back to the cottage to make her breakfast. Gabrielle stopped her with a hand to her arm as she was walking out the door.
"Antea. I know how hard it must be for you to.. continue to resist Xena." Antea opened her mouth to speak, but Gabrielle put her fingers to her lips. "I just want you to know that if you... do give in, I won't blame you."
Antea hugged Gabrielle, and kissed her forehead. "Don't worry. I can hold my own. I think I'm stronger than I used to be. But thanks for being willing to forgive me. It means a lot to me. Xena will be wondering what I'm up to. I'd better get back. See you in a little while."
Gabrielle watched her walk to the cottage, and thanked the gods that she had such a great friend to count on.
It was late afternoon when they crested the hill with the rock formation that had very nearly been Xena's tombstone. Xena had ridden ahead, and was out of sight, but Gabrielle knew she would circle back shortly. The bard tugged at the leg of Antea's breeches, and Antea reined in her horse.
"That's the place", she said pointing to the outcropping of rocks. "I'm kind of surprised Xena didn't spot it and wait for us. There can't be too many places around that look like this." As they walked that day, Xena had grilled Gabrielle again for any detail that she might have omitted before. Gabrielle told her as much as she could remember of the layout of the area. Seeing those stones again gave Gabrielle a chill. She could see Xena standing there with her arms out at her sides, offering her life in order to spare her own. It renewed her determination to make Xena remember what they had had together.
At the sound of hoof beats, both women turned to see Xena galloping toward them. As much as Gabrielle had wanted to remove Xena from the life that had put her in constant danger, she had to admit that the warrior astride her war horse looked "right". More than anything, she wished now that she had not tried to deceive her. Things might have been very different between them if she had told the truth.
Xena came to a stop a few feet from where they stood, and vaulted from her horse.
"I found where he watched from. There's a tree at the base of that hill over there with lots of footprints around the bottom. And evidence that a man spent some time in the branches of the tree.." Gabrielle could see that the branches were high enough to afford a fairly clear view of the area where they had made love. She blushed thinking about what the man had seen from his perch. In her heart, she hoped that when Xena saw this spot, it would trigger the memory of the good things that had happened there before a killer stepped between them, but she showed no signs that anything was familiar. The hope that Gabrielle had clung to eroded away, like sand through her fingers.
It was to late to go much farther that night, and Xena decided to make camp in the same area, hoping that in the light of day she might be able to spot some sign that might tell her more about her would be killer. Gabrielle had told her that he had two accomplices that were in Thanos' army, and that the three of them had headed toward Athens on foot. Xena would go in the opposite direction. She grudgingly conceded that Gabrielle could make camp that night with Antea and herself, but in the morning she wanted to see nothing of the bard but her backside as she walked away. Leaving the two women to start a fire and lay out their camp, Xena made her way to the stream, which she was surprised to notice was just where Gabrielle said it would be, in hopes of bringing back some fish for their meal.
Gabrielle watched as the warrior walked away. Hundreds of nights they had done just exactly this; they were an efficient team, each knowing her task, and performing it. She could not help but think that this might be the last night she would spend in the company of the woman she loved. She swallowed the lump that was in her throat, believing that if she could just make that go away, the tears she could feel collecting in her eyes would not fall. Antea's arm snaked around her shoulder and pulled her into an embrace.
"It'll be OK, baby", Antea whispered soothingly.
"You said that before", Gabrielle said with a quaver in her voice. "And look what happened. She hates me."
"Well, I was half right. She did get well."
Gabrielle knuckled the tears out of her eyes, and tried to smile. It came off looking like a grimace. "But she didn't really. Not completely well. If she had, she would have her memory intact, and she wouldn't be treating me like I was the enemy." Gabrielle stopped and stared at Antea, while an illusive thought that had been flitting through her mind for days finally stopped long enough for her to examine it.
"It doesn't make any sense. Why is she so vicious to me when both of us lied to her about who she was? She acts like I personally invented lying, and have been perfecting it ever since. But you..... the only time she has been angry at you is when you did something to defend me."
Antea might have added that the other times she had been angry were when Antea had rebuffed her. Instead she said, "Huh.. You're right. How could we both have missed seeing this for so long?"
"I think we... had a lot on our minds", Gabrielle said softly. She paced around the fire, which was now burning quite nicely. "But the more I think about it, the more I realize that there has to be another hand in this. Someone who doesn't want to see me and Xena together again. Or who wants to make sure that Xena continues on her course as a warlord...."
She stopped and turned to Antea. In unison they said, "Ares."
"Of course! That would explain everything", Antea mused, "including how Xena was able to bounce back so quickly from a wound that should have killed her."
"Yes." Gabrielle nodded. "And what better way to make sure I don't fill in the missing pieces in her memory than by making her doubt everything I say."
"OK, so now we suspect we know who's behind this. What can we do to make things right again?", Antea said, glancing over her shoulder to make sure Xena was still out of earshot.
"Well, for starters, if we have something we want her to know, you need to be the one to tell her, not me." Gabrielle frowned as she realized that she had already told Xena the direction the assassin had taken, and given her current lack of credibility with the warrior, that was pretty much a guarantee she would go another direction. She feared that if Xena took another route, and failed to find a trace of the killer, she would blame Gabrielle for misinforming her, even though it was she who chose which path to take. To get her headed toward Athens, Gabrielle would tell Xena that she was mistaken, and in fact the men had gone the opposite way. Once Antea was acting as Gabrielle's voice, the complications would lessen. She hoped. "And we'll have to find Ares and get him to untangle this whole mess somehow."
"Sure", Antea said with a hint of sarcasm in her voice, "that should be a piece of nutbread. He's probably sitting on Mount Olympus now, just waiting for us...."
"I'll come up with a way to contact Ares, don't worry. You just have to keep Xena on the right path, and make sure you leave me markers so I can follow." She threw her arms around Antea, and gave her such a hug it knocked the breath out of the older woman. "Oh, Antea. This is the first time in days I have believed that it really may be possible to get Xena back to her old self. Well, I don't mean her *way* old self, I mean the old self from before she was attacked.." Antea gave her a wry grin and shook her head, as if to say *kids*. "You know what I mean", she said in mock anger, and punched Antea lightly in the shoulder.
"I sure do. And I agree." Looking over Gabrielle's shoulder, she saw Xena coming up the hill with a string of fish. "Here she comes. You better put that long suffering look back on your face, or she'll know something's up."
"Shhh", Antea cut her off in mid word. And except for explaining to Xena how she must have got her directions mixed up when she told her which way the assassin went, Gabrielle was quiet the rest of the night.
Xena and Antea stood on the crest of the hill, watching as Gabrielle walked away. She said nothing at all to Xena that morning for fear of setting her off, and after giving Antea a quick hug, she gathered her bed roll and scrolls and left. Antea had made her a rough map of some short cuts that she could take on foot that she hoped would make it easier to keep up with them on horseback. She also mapped out the logical route that she and Xena would take to Athens, and indicated on there some places where she would leave markers for her if they should take another route. Her step was lighter than it had been for days as she cut across fields to put herself ahead of the two women.
During the course of their traveling that day, Antea came up with as many reasons to stop or slow down as she could. Xena was beginning to get irritated with the pace they were setting. Shortly after mid day, when Antea said she just had to stop again and go behind some bushes for the fifth time, Xena couldn't take it any more. She drew abreast of Antea and snarled into her face.
"Put a cork in it. Keep up or go back. We're not stopping again until nightfall. Got it?"
"But Xena, I'm hungry. Can't we stop and have lunch? Just a quick one?"
"Arrrgggh, you're as bad as that annoying brat! Always whining about food, or being tired, or not having enough sleep......" She stopped in mid sentence, and realized that Gabrielle had not done or said any of those things this past week. She blinked a few times, then shook her head to clear it. She must have created an image of how the bard would act, based on what she knew about her. She could not accept that she might actually have remembered something, if that something suggested that Gabrielle truly did figure in her life somehow.
Antea caught what Xena said, and noticed the look of confusion on her face. Taking advantage of the thread that Xena had already begun, Antea chimed in. "That's her, all right. Sleep her life away if you'd let her, and eat everything that wasn't nailed down. When you two were visiting before, I remember one morning......."
"Enough!" Xena roared. "Stop and eat if you must, but spare me the ode to Gabrielle. I don't want to hear another word about her."
Not wanting to push Xena too far too soon, Antea simply nodded and slid off her horse. She unpacked some provisions from her saddle bag just before Xena snatched the reins roughly from her hand, and led both horses to a patch of grass so they could eat as well.
Antea laid out a simple meal of cheese, bread and fruit, and after hobbling the horses, Xena dropped down to the ground beside her and began to eat. Taking her cue from the warrior, Antea sat quietly. But unlike Xena who ate quickly without bothering to taste the food, Antea took tiny bites to prolong the meal.
Unable to stretch it out any further, Antea finally rose and began to pack away the foodstuffs. Xena made no move to get up until Antea stopped before her with the horses reins in her hands. She handed Argo's reins to the warrior and mounted her own mare. Without a word between them, they started off down the road.
Gabrielle couldn't be sure how far she was from the pair she was following, so despite a little chill in the descending evening , she did not make a fire. She had kept up a fairly steady pace all that day, stopping only when absolutely necessary. She even ate her meager lunch on the move, which was unusual for her. No markers along the way alerted her to a change of route, so she stuck with her course until the coming of dark forced her to choose a place to stop. As she laid out her bedroll on a grassy knoll, she noticed the smoke from a fire less than a mile ahead of her. With a silent thanks to Antea for slowing the warrior down, Gabrielle laid down on her bedroll, and within minutes she was asleep.
"I said, sleep well", Antea repeated. She laid on the far side of the dwindling fire, watching Xena through the glowing coals. The warriors skin was painted orange by the light. It made Antea want to reach out and touch her, to see if the color would come off on her hand. With a sigh, she shut her eyes, willing the image of the blue eyed beauty to leave. Not giving in to Xena was about the hardest thing she had ever done. Fortunately, this evening Xena seemed pre-occupied, and her attempt at seduction was half hearted. Antea only hoped the cause of her pre-occupation, when it was revealed, was not something that would be worse in the long run than being raped by Xena.
"Yes. You too," Xena finally answered, but her voice was remote and toneless. Something had been nagging at the back of her mind all day, but every time she thought she could get hold of it, it slipped from her grasp. As a result, she had been more than usually quiet and withdrawn, and she knew she had snapped at Antea several times. When Antea pleaded exhaustion this evening as Xena lightly touched her lips to Antea's neck, Xena tamped down the flare of anger that made her want to seize the woman and do whatever struck her fancy to pleasure herself. It did not seem like her. She knew herself, and it was not in character for her to take no for an answer so many times from anyone. Something had changed in her. It was something to do with the time she had lost, she knew that. If only she could remember everything. With a sigh, she rolled on her side, and fell into a fitful sleep.
She walked into the tavern, and her eyes scanned the crowd as she searched for Gabrielle. A voice called out "Xena!" from the back of the room, and she turned to see Gabrielle's hand waving. The crowd parted as the warrior made her way through. Some made way out of fear, but more and more she could see respect in the eyes of these honest folk who were just the same as the legions of people she had once cut down with scarcely a thought.
Gabrielle's smiling face looked up at her from the table, and she patted the bench next to her. "Pretty crowded in here, but I think we can both fit, if you don't mind being cozy." There was a playful tone in the bards voice that said she knew Xena would not mind the closeness.
"I don't mind", she said huskily, sliding onto the bench beside Gabrielle. The warmth of the bard where their two bodies were pressed together kindled a flame within the warrior.
Leaning close so that their conversation would not be over heard by the other patrons, Xena whispered, "Why don't we take our meals in our room where we can get more...comfortable." It was a statement, not a question.
"An excellent idea. But I think the food part can wait until later. That's not what I'm hungry for right now."
"I was hoping you'd say that", the warrior grinned. "But I know how you like to eat."
Gabrielle put her mouth to the warriors ear, and lightly touched her tongue to the rim of her ear before whispering. "I like to eat you more than anything on earth." The touch of the tongue and the words made Xena shiver uncontrollably. "You fill me with love and warmth until I feel I can't hold any more. The gods on Olympus at their most sumptuous banquet don't feast on anything as wonderful as you."
"Ohhh", Xena sighed, feeling a surge of wetness between her legs. Taking Gabrielle's hand, she rose from the table without another word, and led the two of them through the throng of people and to the stairs leading to their room. Her long legs took the steps two at a time, and the bard had to stumble to keep up.
They threw themselves through the door, and put the wooden bar in place that would insure they were not disturbed. Gabrielle's practiced hands had Xena's armor off in a matter of moments, and the leather dropped to the floor right after it.
"Sit down. Let me get your boots", Gabrielle urged, and Xena obliged by perching on the edge of the bed. Gabrielle grasped the bottom of first one and then the other boot and worked them off of her lovers legs. From that angle, she could just see the curls that covered the treasure she so longed to possess. With a groan, she felt her own wetness run down her thigh. She dropped to her knees in front of the warrior, and began to run her hands over her well muscled thighs. Leaning down, she brought her lips to the inside of those luscious thighs, and as lightly as she could, she ran her lips over the soft skin. Xena shivered at the touch. She wanted to feel those lips and tongue in her warm center, but she knew Gabrielle enjoyed taking her time. The tip of Gabrielle's tongue brushed over the moist curls as she moved from one thigh to the other, eliciting a moan from the warrior, who thrust against her.
"Not yet", the bard whispered, nipping the inside of Xena's thigh with her lips. "I want you to beg me first, my warrior."
"Oh, Gabrielle, please....", Xena moaned. "I want to feel you inside me."
"You'll have to do a lot better than that. Perhaps you haven't suffered enough yet, hm? Let me see what I can do." Gabrielle worked her hands under the shift which was the only garment Xena still wore, and tugged it out from under her buttocks. Standing up, she pulled the garment up and over Xena's head, and tossed it in the direction of the rest of her clothes. Gabrielle pushed Xena's legs together and then straddled her with one knee on either side of her thighs. She pulled off her skirt to expose the blond ringlets to the warriors hungry eyes. With a smile, she spread her own legs wide, until her body was lowered so that her mound came into contact with Xena's, and her wetness mingled with that of her lover.
"Feel how wet you make me?", she purred.
"Gods, yes," Xena nodded, and reached for the smaller woman. Gabrielle intercepted her hands, and laced her fingers through Xena's. She kissed the fingers of each hand, and then slowly lowered Xena back onto the bed, following along so that their bodies were pressed together, mound to mound and breast to breast. Releasing Xena's fingers, Gabrielle ran her hands through Xena's raven hair, pulling her face to her own. Lightly she kissed the warriors lips, running her tongue between them and tasting the salty sweet warmth of her mouth. Xena opened eagerly to receive Gabrielle, and her tongue sought the confines of the bards mouth. As the kiss deepened, Gabrielle rolled slightly off of the warrior, to allow herself access to her body. Gabrielle's hand stole down to find and cup Xena's breast, her fingers teasing the nipple to hardness. Xena arched her back, and Gabrielle slid farther to the side, freeing the other breast. Obligingly, she molded that breast in her hand, once again causing the nipple to become a large pellet. Gabrielle brought her mouth to Xena's breast, running her tongue around the nipple until the surrounding skin puckered to a fraction of it's normal size.
Gabrielle draped her leg over Xena's thighs and pushed against her until she could feel Xena's hip bone against her wet center. Xena rotated her hips as she felt the soft pressure of Gabrielle's warmth against her. Involuntarily, Gabrielle nipped a little harder on Xena's breast than she wanted to as she felt the bone against her clit.
"I'm sorry", she murmured. "Hope I didn't hurt you."
"No, no", the warrior moaned through clenched teeth. "Lovin' every moment of it."
"In that case........" Gabrielle captured the other breast in her mouth, sucking and playing with the nipple with her teeth. Reluctantly she removed her leg from Xena's abdomen, breaking the contact with her hip. But she had other things in mind that could not be accomplished from that particular angle. Straddling Xena once again, this time with her knee between Xena's thighs, Gabrielle ran her tongue down Xena's stomach. She teased it into her navel for a new moments before continuing down. Adjusting her legs so that she was now positioned between Xena's legs, she worked her way down to the curls. Her mouth against the hair, and asked, "What do you want?" The words caused the folds of skin to vibrate, and the warrior to groan.
"I...... I want to feel your tongue on me." Gabrielle's tongue flicked out, slightly parted the folds of skin, and then withdrew. Xena jerked at the touch, and pushed her mound toward Gabrielle.
"Surely you want more than that," the blonde teased. "And you're not going to get it until you ask me nicely."
"Ohhhh, Gabrielle. You know what I........"
"I want to hear it. Oh, and now would be the time to start begging, I think. Beg me for what you want. Or I roll over and go to sleep." Xena knew it was an empty threat, that the bard would never leave her in such a state. But clearly she wanted to play, and Xena would have to play along. In fact, the idea rather excited her.
Swallowing her embarrassment, she murmured "I want you open me up with your tongue and suck all the juices out of me." Gabrielle groaned when she heard those words, and dipped her tongue into the sopping folds.
"I want to feel your fingers inside me so that I am completely filled with you. And I want you to take my clit in your mouth and suck it until I come." Gabrielle trembled so hard it was all she could do to comply with her lover's requests, but she managed to work first one finger, then two, and finally three inside of Xena without removing her mouth. She felt the hard bud with her tongue and teased it until it seemed like it would explode, and then backed away.
"Now. Beg," she rasped, keeping her mouth poised just far enough away that Xena could not reach it by raising her buttocks off the bed.
"Please, oh please, Gabrielle.. I need you. I'll die if you don't make me come right now. Oh, gods, I beg you, please........"
That was it. Gabrielle could not have held out herself a moment longer. With a groan, she buried her face in Xena's curls, working both her mouth and her hand until she could feel the explosion ready to happen. A cry started to come out of Xena that built in intensity as her orgasm built. Her buttocks raised seemingly of their own accord, and Gabrielle clung to her without losing a beat. Xena's head whipped from side to side until, with a scream, she came.
"Gabrielle!!" She woke from a deep sleep to find herself drenched in sweat, and so wet between her legs that it was as if she had just had some very intense sex. Disoriented, she looked at the bedroll on the other side of the fire, expecting to see Gabrielle. But it was Antea's light brown hair she saw, as she lay on her side, facing away from the warrior. As she laid there, the dream came back to her vividly. And the more she remembered it, the angrier she got. Something inside her refused to allow her to even think of Gabrielle without anger and distrust. But the dream was more than a dream. She knew it. Yet even acknowledging that brought the anger back. Trembling in rage and frustration, she threw off her bedclothes, and jumped to her feet. Skirting the long dead fire, she crossed the clearing and kneeling down, she took hold of Antea's arms, spinning her around to face her.
Antea had heard Xena cry out Gabrielle's name , and was therefore not surprised to see her awake. She was surprised to see her face just inches from her own, however, her eyes wild and angry in the pre-dawn gloom.
"Xena, what...", she began, but the warrior cut her off by crushing her mouth to Antea's. Xena grasped the top of the shift that Antea wore, and ripped it down the front. Antea caught her hand as she was bringing it to her breast, and with a great effort, she was able to pull her mouth away from the warrior.
"Stop. Xena, please don't do this. It's not me you want, Xena. I beg you." Hearing those last three words brought the dream back again, and with it the anger. Xena wrenched her arm from Antea's grasp.
"Who are you to tell me what I want? , she bellowed. "I know what I want, and I've waited long enough to get it."
"Xena, listen to me, please.. Please listen. It's Gabrielle you love, not me. You called out her name just before you came to me." Xena stopped and listened. The words did not make her angry when Antea spoke. She could see tears running down the sides of Antea's face, and she realized she might have hurt her. Xena gathered the torn ends of the shift, and pulling it together, she covered her up as best she could, handing the ends to Antea.
"I'm listening", she said sharply.
With a tremble in her voice, Antea said, "I woke up a few minutes ago because you cried out in your sleep. The name you called was Gabrielle's, not mine. If I thought for a moment you really loved me, I would have given myself to you long ago, but...."
"I do love you, " Xena argued. "I never stopped loving you."
"I know you love me. But you're in love with her. And someone or something has put these notions in your head that you shouldn't believe her. The same someone that only gave you back part of your memory."
"That doesn't make any sense", Xena said, a touch of annoyance in her voice. "Why would anyone care who I love, or whether I believe her? And why only give me part of my memory? There has to be some physical reason for it, an injury to the head, maybe."
"I thought of all that.. Believe me, there was no injury anywhere except the stab wound. Which by the way healed awfully fast, don't you think?"
"OK, suppose that's true. Who would want to split us up? And what would they gain by taking my memories?"
"You tell me. Could be Ares. I suspect he would go to any lengths to get you back."
"Get me back?", the warrior said with a sneer. "I wasn't aware I was his to lose."
Not sure how to respond to that, Antea said nothing. Now that the threat of physical harm seemed to have passed, Antea could feel her heart beat slowing down, and her breathing returning to normal. She was having a hard time continuing to sit up, so she let herself fall back onto her bedroll, clutching the ends of her ruined shift together at her breast.
Xena looked down at this woman that she loved, and noticed smudges under her eyes that told of several sleepless nights spent lately. Xena knew that many of those nights had been spent sitting beside her as she slept. But for the rest of the time.... Had she remained sleepless out of fear of what Xena might do? The warrior felt a stab of guilt at putting such a look on that beloved face. And what of Gabrielle? There did not seem to be any rational reason for the feelings that surfaced every time she thought of the bard. And if what Antea said was true, and they really were lovers ... No, she couldn't face that right now.
"I'm.....sorry", she said softly. "Go back to sleep, if you can. It won't be light enough to travel for a while yet." She stood up and then slowly walked to the other side of the camp, thinking she might actually lie down and get a little more sleep. But even before she reached her bedroll, she new she was too restless to sleep. Deciding that a walk in the morning air would clear her mind, she set out on foot through the trees, heading back the way they had come.
Gabrielle rolled over and unconsciously flung out her arm to encircle the waist of the woman who had slept beside her for the past two years. Her arm found only air. Minutes earlier, she was wakened by the sound of Xena's voice calling out her name. They were too far apart for her to have actually heard that, so she knew it was only wishful thinking on her part. With a sigh, she withdrew her arm, and determined to go back to sleep, she closed her eyes.
As she started up the side of a small hill, Xena heard the unmistakable sound of a person thrashing about in their sleep. Automatically, her hand reached for her sword, and silently she made her way to the top of the hill. The back of the sleeping person was toward her, but there was no mistaking the red blonde hair of the bard. Sheathing her sword, she crept closer, her anger mounting at every step as she realized the bard had ignored her order to go the opposite direction. Her emotions were at war within her. Anger was the strongest, and was winning, but guilt over having treated this woman who was instrumental in saving her life so cruelly, was holding it's own. Confusion over her past and uncertainty over her future threw themselves into the fray. She had almost decided to go back to her own camp and had already turned around, when she heard the sound of Gabrielle's voice.
"Oh, Xena," she sobbed softly, "I miss you so much. Please come back to me, safe and whole. My life is empty without you."
Xena whirled around and strode into Gabrielle's camp. She made no effort to hide the sound of her approach, and the bard turned at the sound of footsteps to find an enraged Xena bearing down on her. She scrambled backward until she came up against a tree, but by then the warrior was on her. Xena grabbed her shoulders and pulled her to her feet, pushing her roughly into the tree. Gabrielle could feel the bark gouging the bare skin of her arms, but she made no effort to resist.
"Xena, I.....", she began, but the warrior released one shoulder long enough to slap her soundly across the face before she could go farther.
"Be silent!", Xena roared, grasping her shoulder again, and shaking her until Gabrielle could taste blood from her teeth biting down on her tongue. Bringing her face up close enough for the bard to see the tiny specks in her eyes, Xena hissed, "I don't want to hurt you, by the gods I don't. But if you ...don't ....shut....up.... I don't know what I'll do." She punctuated the space between her words by jabbing Gabrielle in the chest with her finger. Gabrielle nodded, hoping that gestures did not have the same effect on her as words did. Xena stopped poking her in the chest, and backed up a step or two, so it seemed gestures were acceptable. Gabrielle consciously clamped her jaw shut to avoid saying anything at all, and at last Xena calmed down enough to speak in a normal voice.
"Antea told me about her theory that a god was responsible for this predicament." Gabrielle was not about to argue that it had been her theory, and send Xena off in a completely different direction again. "If that's true", Xena continued, " and we can figure out which god it is, we may be able to get our lives back. All of our lives.", she added pointedly. "But my first business is with the hired killer. He may be the one that brought the god down on us in the first place." Her eyes gleamed with hate, and her mouth curled in a sneer. "And I want to see his face when it's his turn to die." She started down the hill, but halfway down, she turned back to the bard.
"You can come with us. You have a stake in this too." Gabrielle's face lit up at the prospect of being with Xena when she sorted out the god who had brought this upon them all. In her mind, there was no doubt Xena would be the victor. And she prayed silently that they would be able to resume their lives together.
Xena helped gather her belongings while Gabrielle hastily pulled her clothes on. Within moments they were ready to go. Taking one more look around to make sure she had not missed anything, Gabrielle started to say, "OK.........", but stopped herself before she went farther.
"Not another word", Xena snarled. "Anything you have to say to me, you say to Antea and let her tell me. I won't be held responsible for anything I do if you talk to me. You ride double with Antea, and stay far enough behind me to be out of range of my hearing."
Gabrielle nodded. Xena started off with Gabrielle following a fair distance behind.
Antea was surprised to see Xena come back into camp that morning with Gabrielle in tow, but she knew better than to comment on it. She also couldn't miss the red welt on Gabrielle's cheek, and the tiny drop of blood in the corner of her mouth. Her first response was to lash out at Xena in defense of Gabrielle, but she thought better of it. It was impossible to know what might set the warrior off, and she did not want to land on Xena's wrong side. One of them in that boat was more than enough.
She had already started breakfast, figuring Xena would not go far. Gabrielle's mouth watered at the thought of eating something hot for a change, and her stomach produced a series of growls. Antea heaped a generous portion into Gabrielle's cup, and a like amount in the warrior's. Gabrielle might have protested at what a tiny amount was left for Antea, except that she had learned her lesson about speaking. She smiled her thanks, and began to eat ravenously. As soon as they were finished eating, Xena saddled Argo and packed her gear. Without waiting for the other two to finish packing, she mounted up. She turned to Antea.
"I'm going to start out now. Keep me in sight, but don't get too close. I can be with you in a heartbeat if there's trouble. Just call out. I'll circle back every so often to make sure you're OK." She touched her heels to Argo's sides, and the mare took off at a gallop.
Gabrielle and Antea had to move quickly just to keep the warrior in sight. It was a relief to be able to speak again, but even so, Gabrielle was silent for most of the ride, never certain just exactly how far the range of Xena's hearing might be.
The trio arrived at Piraeus late in the afternoon. Xena located a stable near a tavern, and had already given Argo over to the stable hand before Antea and Gabrielle arrived. She walked out to meet them, and pointed down the street to indicate where they should stable Antea's horse.
"I'll be in the tavern back two streets from here", she told them. "Come and find me when the horse is taken care of.." After Xena walked away, Gabrielle slid gratefully off the back of the horse, and walked beside Antea as they made their way to the stable. It reminded her of the countless hours she had spent walking by the side of her warrior, and she had to consciously refrain from reaching out to touch Xena's thigh, as she frequently did. Sometimes just a touch was enough to keep them connected. She transferred her staff to the hand closest to the horse to stop herself from reaching out to touch.
As they walked toward the tavern, Antea finally asked what had happened to cause Xena to strike Gabrielle in the face. The bard's fingers came up to touch the cheek which was no longer swollen, but still tender to the touch. She had almost forgotten about it.
"I started to talk", she explained. "I don't think I said two words before she hit me. It's getting worse all the time. A few days ago I could at least speak in whole sentences. She wasn't happy, but at least she wasn't trying to physically hurt me. I hope we can get to the bottom of this before I open my mouth accidentally, and she kills me."
"So do I", Antea said, encircling Gabrielle's shoulders with her arm as they walked. "So do I."
Xena was involved in a conversation with the barman when Gabrielle and Antea walked into the dimly lit tavern. The warrior had been watching the door as she spoke and she waved to get Antea's attention. Antea began to make her way through the crowd with Gabrielle behind her, but Xena shook her head no while gesturing with her fingers in a motion like a mouth opening and closing that Antea interpreted to mean Gabrielle should stay behind. She pointed to a table on the far side of the room, and whispered into Gabrielle's ear.
"Why don't you take a seat over there? I'll see what she wants and come back." Gabrielle nodded and did as she was asked.
By the time Antea reached the bar, Xena had downed her cup of port and the barman had gone on to serve other customers. Antea squeezed between Xena and the man next to him, and in the process, her breast brushed against Xena's arm. Xena's eyebrow rose, and a smile quirked the corners of her mouth as she looked into Antea's face.
"Hmm, I liked that", Xena said huskily. "Are you sure you don't want to..." Antea's head was shaking back and forth as she returned the warrior's icy gaze.
"No. Remember Gabrielle?"
"How could I forget", Xena grumbled. "You remind me constantly."
"One of us has to remember...for all our sakes", Antea whispered. "So, were you able to find out anything about the killer?"
"No. At least this barman hasn't seen him. But the owner might have, and he'll be back in a few hours. I think we should split up; there are three other taverns in town, and we can each check one. We'll meet back here later. The barman gave me directions to the one farthest away. After I leave, you and Gabrielle can find out how to get to the other two. I'll see you back her in a little while." With that, she turned and strode from the room, never even glancing toward the corner where the bard sat alone.
Gabrielle hurried through the door of the tavern again, brimming with news of at least the general direction the assassin had taken. She saw Xena seated at a table in the back, and without thinking, she started toward her with a spring in her step. The scowl on Xena's face stopped her short, and she spun around and headed for the bar without opening her mouth. She sat at the bar, and pounded her forehead with the palm of her hand.
"Gods!", she grumbled aloud. "When will I remember that she's not the same Xena?"
Beside her, a man well into his cups with his head on the bar, opened one rheumy eye and looked at the bard without really seeing her. "Shees...dead", he slurred. His eye rolled back in his head for a moment before the eyelid drifted half over it. It gave Gabrielle the creeps to see him apparently looking at her out of the bottom of his eye. She started to move away, when suddenly the words he had said penetrated, and she took a closer look at the drunken man. Despite the layers of grime that coated his tunic, she could see that it was the same scarlet color the thugs that accompanied the assassin had worn. Jumping from her stool, she whirled around, intent on bringing Xena's attention to the fact that one of the men was right here in this tavern...
"Right, Gabrielle.. That'll do a lot of good. She'll kill you and ignore him completely." Another patron near to the bard looked at her as she mumbled to herself, and shook his head. Probably figured she was hooked up with sleeping beauty over there, she mused. Deciding she had nothing to lose, she smiled at the man who had just looked at her as if she were nuts. "Excuse me, sir", she said in her best normal tone of voice. "I have to go look for someone. Will you do me a favor?" Without waiting for him to answer she continued. "If this man...my brother...wakes up before I get back, and starts to leave, will you please go and tell that tall dark haired woman over there", she inclined her head in the direction of the table Xena occupied, "that...um, Zarkadis...that's my brother...want's to talk to her?"
The man looked at her and scowled, but finally he nodded.
"Thanks", Gabrielle threw over her shoulder as she elbowed her way to the door and out into the street. She paced up and down impatiently for a few minutes, trying to decide whether she should go in search of Antea, or wait for her to return. It seemed unlikely the drunken warrior would be getting up and walking out of the tavern any time soon, but she finally decided she should stay where she was and watch for Antea. At least then she would be able to keep an eye on the door, and could tackle him if he made a move to leave.
She turned toward the sound of footsteps coming from the direction Antea had taken when the three had parted earlier, and recognized the form even from this distance.
"Antea!", she called, waving to get her friend to pick up her pace. Thinking there was some problem, Antea came at a run, skidding to a stop in front of the bard.
"What is it?" , she asked breathlessly. "Something wrong? Where's Xena?"
Gabrielle shook her head impatiently. "Nothing's wrong. Xena's inside. But Antea, one of the men that was with the hired killer is in there! I couldn't tell Xena because.... well, you know why I couldn't tell her. I'll show you which one he is, and you can get Xena to question him." Grabbing Antea's hand, Gabrielle pulled her through the door and over to the bar where the warrior still snored as if he didn't have a care in the world. That would certainly change once Xena had a "talk" with him.
"That's him", Gabrielle whispered, pointing. She could have shouted; the man may as well have been dead.
"I'll go get Xena", Antea said, already making her way toward the table where the beautiful warrior sat nursing a mug of port.
Xena watched her approach, and a smile lifted the corners of her lips. She was struck
again by what an attractive woman Antea was. But then her eyes slid past Antea and landed on Gabrielle, and the smile melted from her face. What was it about the bard that could raise her anger to a boiling point so quickly? Rationally, she had to admit to herself that the woman was attractive, clever, and very sexy if you liked the waif type. If things were different, she might... "Stop", she cautioned herself silently. For the moment, things were as they were, and she could do nothing about it. Better not to think about things outside of her control until she could figure a way of dealing with it.
"Xena", Antea stood before her, a frown creasing her brow. "Did you hear what I said?"
"Does it seem like I heard what you said?", Xena asked sarcastically.
"No, that's why I..."
"That's your answer, then", the warrior snapped, cutting her off in mid sentence. "What have you found out?"
"I didn't find anything myself. But Gabrielle says one of the men that was with the assassin is right here in the bar..."
"Why didn't you say so?", Xena hissed, leaping to her feet, knocking over her stool in her haste.
"I did...", Antea whispered to Xena's back as she elbowed her way through the crowd. With a sigh, Antea followed in the warrior's wake. She nearly collided with Xena when she stopped abruptly several paces from the bar.
"Which one is he?" Antea drew up beside Xena, and pointed to the sodden heap at the far end of the bar.
Xena recognized the tunic he wore as one of Thanos' army. Once again what she had assumed to be a lie from the bard had proven to be true...if indeed this man had been one of the thugs that had assaulted them. She had only Gabrielle's word for that too, until she could get this miserable excuse for a man sober enough to find out for herself. She strode to his side, twined her fingers into his greasy hair, and pulled his head up off the bar. His eyes rolled around in his head, but refused to focus.
"Wha?", he slurred. His breath was enough to drop an enemy five paces away. Xena averted her head and drew away from him, but kept her fingers in his hair.
"Open your eyes", she growled. "I want to talk to you."
"OK, OK.... you don' hafta...yank me bald headed..." He made a conscious effort to open his eyes and focus on the monster... for surely only a monster would have dragged him from such a peaceful dream. Slowly a woman's face swam into focus. Black hair, blue eyes. Tall, and wearing armor... Familiar. He knew that face. Suddenly it hit him. His eyes widened, and his mouth opened and closed, as if he were trying to say something but could not find the words.
Xena could not be sure whether he was simply reacting as he would to any warrior that seemed to take a personal interest in him, or whether it was only herself that could generate the look of fear she read in his face.
"Do you know who I am?" He nodded, and a bit of spittle ran from the corner of his mouth and trickled down his chin.
"You're...you're...dead." Her eyes narrowed, and her mouth twisted into an evil grin.
"Is that a fact?", she spat, her voice fairly dripping with venom. "Well, then, I guess you're dead too. If I'm talking to you this must be Tartarus."
The man looked around frantically.. He knew he was alive when he came in the bar. He only had a few mugs of wine; well maybe more than a few, he really couldn't remember. But dead? Surely he would have remembered dying. He ran his hands over his body, searching for wounds. Xena removed her hand from his hair, and wiped the grease on his tunic.
"Stop it. You're pathetic...but you're not dead. Yet. You have a whole lot of talking to do first." She grasped his arm and yanked him from his stool. His knees threatened to buckle, and she jerked him upright. "Antea. Take his other arm." Antea had been watching the exchange from a few paces away, but she was there in an instant, propping up the drunkard while Xena dragged him from the bar.
Gabrielle followed the procession silently, realizing that by identifying this man for Xena, she may well have signed his death warrant. She almost wished she had not seen the man; his blood would be on her own hands if the warrior killed him.
Xena turned right when they came out of the tavern, and headed for the town square they had passed on the way into town. She remembered noticing a large fountain with a statue of Poseidon at it's center. Around the next corner she saw it, and half dragged, half carried the man to the edge of the fountain, dumping him into the brackish water. He thrashed about and finally managed to get his head above water, but the warrior put her foot on his chest and pushed him under. He tried to grasp her ankle and dislodge her, but his feeble attempts had no effect on the warrior. After what seemed far too long to Antea, Xena finally removed her foot, grasping a handful of his tunic and pulling him to the edge of the fountain. Clinging to the marble, he coughed up a good deal of water and threw up the contents of his stomach. Xena stood well back from him and watched with a look of revulsion on her face. When it seemed there was nothing left in his lungs or his stomach, Xena approached him and pulled him from the fountain. She leaned him against a stone wall and squatted down so that their eyes were on the same level.
"Let's have a friendly little chat, shall we? You tell me everything I want to know about the snake who tried to kill me, and I just might let you live."
The man blinked a few times and tried to focus on the fearsome countenance in front of him. He still didn't quite understand how she could be here inflicting pain on himself, when she should be stoking the fires of Tartarus. He wished she would go back to whatever nightmare world she inhabited, and leave him to his drinking. He licked his lips and tasted the sour liquor and foul water. His stomach clenched again, but then stayed still. She was looking at him; clearly she expected him to say something. What had she asked? Something about the assassin. He could scarcely remember the man.
"I don't know anything about him", he finally said in a quavering voice.
Xena grasped his shirt and hauled him roughly to his feet. "Wrong answer." She dragged him toward the fountain and pushed him in again. He rose to his knees and began crawling to the edge of the pool, when the warrior put her hand on the back of his head and pushed his face hard into the cold marble. Pain flared as the cartilage of his nose gave with a satisfying crunch. He slipped back into the water where once again the long leg of the warrior held him down. His arms flailed wildly for several moments, and then he was still. Xena hauled him out again, draping him over the edge of the pool. She pushed on his back a few times, and he coughed up quite a bit more water. Blood streamed from the remains of his steadily swelling nose.
"That's gotta hurt", Xena said shaking her head. "You might want to give a little more thought before you answer the next time." She reached out her hand and grasped one of his, pulling him to his feet. Despite the beating he had taken, he seemed quite a bit more sober and steady on his feet. The last of the liquor had left his system, or he was more afraid for his life than he was drunk.
"You broke by dose", he whined.
"You're lucky that's all I broke, friend. Now tell me about this assassin. Did Thanos hire him? And where was he going when he left here? Come to think of it, why are you still here?"
The man nodded, which caused his head to feel like it might explode. Taking a deep breath through his mouth, he stood quietly for a moment before he answered.
"Yes. It was Thados who hired him. He was cabbed out near Khalkis. As far as I dough, that was where he was goig." Khalkis. Not too far from Athens, it should be no more than a couple of days. With luck, he may still be there, and she could deal with both Thanos and Zarkadis.
"And why aren't you with them?"
"I...I have a probleb with drigig. I had too much to drig ad they coulded wake me. So they wed od withoud be."
Xena laughed in spite of herself at the ridiculous way he sounded. "If you were too drunk for them to wake - which I can believe, by the way - how do you know they tried to wake you?"
"The whor...ub, I mead, the youg lady thad was with be told be. Two days later."
Xena paced around considering what to do with this broken man. It seemed unlikely he would be able to tell her anything more that was useful. As drunk as it seemed he had been, it was fortunate she was able to get as much out of him as she had. She thought about killing him to prevent him from running to Thanos to tell him about the resurrection of the Warrior Princess, but it seemed unnecessary. He was doing a fine job of killing himself with alcohol, and it did not seem likely he was going anywhere soon. By the time his nose healed and he was up to traveling, she should have concluded her business with Thanos and Zarkadis and be well on her way.
"Go back to the tavern and buy a drink", she said, pressing two dinars into his palm. "If I hear you went running to Thanos to try to warn him about me, I promise I will find you and inflict a most gruesome death on you. You got that?" If he had any last vestiges of loyalty to the warlord he once served, she thought the more immediate threat of a Xena returned from the dead should keep him here, but it was better to be sure.
"Thag you, oh, thag you. I wode say adythig to hib, I probise."
"Get out of my sight", she ordered. He turned and fairly ran back toward the tavern.
Gabrielle and Antea had watched Xena dealing with the poor drunk. Antea had to restrain Gabrielle from intervening when it seemed certain the man would soon drown. In her mind, the words "All my fault" kept playing over and over like a tune she couldn't get out of her head. If he died, she would not forgive herself.
But Xena's instincts were excellent. She seemed to know exactly when to let him up. And cruel though her methods were, she got the information she wanted out of him. "Is this the way she's going to be from now on?", Gabrielle wondered. She was relieved when Xena sent the man on his way with nothing more than a broken nose. Then Xena turned and walked toward the two of them, and Gabrielle removed herself to a cautious distance where she could hear, but hopefully not provoke the warrior.
"Did you hear that?", Xena asked Antea. Antea nodded. "At first light, we leave for Khalkis. I booked us a room at the inn I went to this afternoon. Much nicer than that place", she said nodding toward the tavern they had recently vacated. "We should go get some rest." She took Antea's hand, and led her down the street. Antea turned around and looked at Gabrielle and shrugged her shoulders as if to say there was nothing she could do. Gabrielle nodded and pointed toward the stable to let her know she would stay there with the horses. After Xena and Antea rounded the corner and were out of sight, with a sigh, Gabrielle plodded toward the stable.
"Help me with my armor", Xena ordered, standing with her back to Antea. She no longer asked for things, she simply demanded. She expected unquestioning obedience. The tone of her voice left no room for discussion. Antea understood why armies had fought and died for this woman. She wished that she had the strength to say no to her, but her fingers were working to unfasten the armor even as she was thinking that. She laid the armor on the chest at the foot of the bed, and was going to go spread out her bedroll when Xena caught her wrist.
"The boots too. And the rest of my leather." Her blue eyes held Antea's fast. She sat on the edge of the bed and raised her leg. Wordlessly, Antea sunk to her knees and grasped the boot, pulling it over the well muscled calf then moving to the other leg. She dropped the boots to the floor and then stood up.
"Can you take off the rest yourself?"
"Yes. But I want you to." Xena stood up as well to give Antea easier access to the leather garments.
"Please, Xena. I thought you understood. About Gabrielle."
"That's a past I don't remember. In this time and place it's you I want. I will force you if I have to. You choose." Antea shook her head no and stepped closer to Xena, reaching for the ties that held the leather to her body. Tears ran unchecked down her face as she dropped the garments to the floor, then reached down to grasp the hem of the shift. She worked it up the long graceful body and over her head, tossing it aside. Her breath caught in her throat as she beheld the most beautiful woman she had ever seen, standing naked before her.
"Gabrielle, forgive me", she mouthed silently, bringing her lips up to meet Xena's. The mere touch of her lips to Xena's was like being struck by lightening. She gasped from the enormity of emotions coursing through her, and the want for this woman that could over come all of her senses. Pulling back slightly, she stared into ice blue eyes that were half lidded with desire.
"Xena... Will you answer one question for me, honestly, before we...make love?"
"If I can", Xena said huskily, brushing her lips over Antea's and feeling the smaller woman tremble beneath her touch. She wrapped her arms around her hips, and pulled her to her, feeling the heat radiating from the cleft between her legs.
Antea put her hands on Xena's chest to push her far enough away so that she could see her eyes again when she responded to her question. "Do you ever...dream of me?", she asked softly.
Xena stared at her with a look that clearly said her dreams were populated by someone else. The warrior dropped her hands to her sides, saying nothing. It was all the answer Antea needed. Backing away from Xena, Antea reached down and picked up the shift she had discarded earlier, and held it out to the warrior.
"You may as well put this on", she said, trying to sound convincing despite the tremble she could not quite keep from her voice. "You can rape me if you want to, but there's nothing you can do to make me make love to you."
"Are you testing my patience?" Her eyes blazed as she snatched the garment from Antea's hand. She made no move to put it on.
"No. I'm testing your friendship." Antea returned the gaze without flinching, until Xena finally turned away. Antea's shoulders visibly relaxed and she gave a small sigh of relief.
Xena drew the shift over her head, then she collected the rest of her clothes from the floor, pulling them on quickly. She thrust her feet into her boots, and then finally picked up her armor and scabbard. Holding her weapons in her hands she turned back again to Antea.
"I don't know why you're putting us both through this. Gabrielle couldn't be farther from my mind."
"She may not be on your mind, but she's never far from mine. She's standing between us as solidly as if she was in the room with us, and I can't ignore that."
Xena strode across the room, coming to a stop inches away from Antea. She ground her jaws together and hissed through clenched teeth, "What ever you think you're protecting by keeping me at arms length doesn't exist. If we never made love again, it would still not drive me into Gabrielle's arms."
"If you still feel that way a year from now, come find me."
Xena gave a disgusted snort and whirled on her heel. She jerked the door open and stepped through, pulling it closed with a crash. On her way down the stairs she encountered a man making his way up. She curled her lip in a sneer and snarled "Get out of my way". When he didn't move fast enough to suit the angry warrior, she drove her elbow into his middle, sending him down the stairs on his backside. The man was too dumbfounded to say anything, but he was smart enough to scramble completely out of her way so she could get past him without feeling compelled to strike him again.
She went out through a side door to avoid going through the crowd in the tavern and made her way to the stable. She toyed with the idea of saddling up Argo and taking a long ride, but it had been a long day, and the horse needed her rest, even if the warrior was too keyed up to think about sleeping. Making her way to the back of the stable, she found the stall where Argo stood munching on a pile of hay. The mare looked up when she recognized the tread of her mistress, and whinnied softly. Xena smiled and rubbed her soft nose. It was then she noticed a pallet laid out in the empty stall next to the palomino, with the unmistakable red blonde hair of Gabrielle visible above the blanket. The bard was tangled in the bed clothes, with one arm and one leg exposed. As she watched , the younger woman rolled over in her sleep, and her hand groped beside her for the lover that wasn't there any more. Xena ached for the pain and loss this woman had suffered at her hand. She feared that if she continued to stare at her, the anger that over came her even at the sight of the bard would chase away her rational thoughts, and more than anything, she needed to think. She turned away and walked to the front of Argo's stall from which she could not see Gabrielle. Dropping her armor to the straw covered floor, she sank down to the ground and leaned against the wall. She picked up a blade of straw and began to shred it with her fingers.
"Gabrielle, I know you can't hear me. Thank the gods I can't hear you, or I'd probably be trying to kill you." She spoke in quiet tones, afraid that the bard might waken and inadvertently say something, thinking that Xena was back to herself again. "I know I've been horrible to you. And to Antea. Even when I'm striking out at you, part of me is screaming at me to stop, that it isn't right, that I'm not like that any more. But I push those thoughts away, and the anger takes over, and..." A tear pooled in the corner of her eye, and slid slowly down her cheek. She swallowed a few times and took a deep breath. " At least when I was a warlord, I could justify my actions in my mind. It may have been for nothing more than wealth or power, but at least I knew why I was doing what I was doing. But now... I almost raped Antea, several times. And I love her. I have no reason to hurt her. And you... I can't remember you when I'm awake. But when I sleep I can feel the love that I had...have for you. I hate to wake up. I hate what I've become, and I hate the look of pain I see in your face every time I do something to hurt you." Her face was set in a look of grim determination as she said. "I can't...I won't live like this any more. I have to fight these feelings of anger. I know they're unreasonable, and I won't give in to them. I want to be the woman you loved again. Don't give up on me. Please."
With a sigh, she stood up and retrieved her bedroll and laid it out in front of Argo's stall. She put her sword and chakram within easy reach, as was her habit, and then laid down.
"Goodnight", she whispered to the silent form in the next stall.
Gabrielle tried to keep her breathing deep and even in case Xena was listening. She had no idea what had wakened her. Normally she could sleep through a herd of stampeding horses, but for some reason her ear was attuned to the sound of Xena's voice, and when she began speaking, the bard was instantly awake. It was the first time since Xena had recovered part of her memory that she had shown the side of her that Gabrielle knew. It was all the bard could do not to run to her and take her in her arms. Her heart broke to hear the anguish in the warrior's voice. She was more determined than ever to stay by her. Knowing that Xena was going to fight the demons that plagued her made Gabrielle believe that even if they could not find the god responsible and get him or her to set things right, there may still be hope for her with the warrior.
Xena found herself in absolute darkness. She could feel something solid beneath her feet, but she had no sense of a floor or walls. Holding her hand as close to her eyes as she could, she tried to will herself to see it, but the darkness was impenetrable. Stumbling first in one direction, and then another, she encountered only empty space. There was no sense of menace. There was simply nothing. Her heart beat accelerated as she contemplated the void around her. Picking up her pace, she held her hands in front of her in case she should encounter a solid object, but the void was endless. After what seemed like hours alone in a dark that was still as a tomb, her mind cast about for some relief from the fear that she would perish in this formless space. The only thing that offered a haven from the unremitting dark was to picture in her mind the face of the woman that she loved. Nothing else had form or substance for her. As she pictured Gabrielle, the darkness was pierced by a bolt of light so far away it appeared no wider than a golden thread. But she knew she had to reach it The light was Gabrielle, and if she could reach her, she would be free of her dark prison. She ran until her lungs threatened to burst, and the light was no closer than it had been when she first saw it. She stumbled on, but still the light danced tantalizingly out of her reach. Finally in exhaustion she collapsed, her heart pounding wildly in her chest, her breath coming in ragged gasps. Tears leaked from her eyes, and she called out "Gabrielle!" in a voice that trembled with pain. Immediately the light was above her. She rose to her knees and looked up to see, framed within the circle of light, Gabrielle's face. Xena owed no allegiance to any god, but at that moment, she thanked every one of them for granting her the vision that floated above her. She rose to her feet, and reached up toward Gabrielle's hand, which she had thrust into the beam of light. Her fingers were just out of reach, even with Xena stretching up on her toes as far as she could. Gabrielle smiled at her, and even though her lips did not move, Xena heard her say,
"Don't give up, Xena... Your place is in the light now." With renewed enthusiasm, Xena found energy to leap into the air, but with no walls or other objects to use to propel herself, she was only able to achieve a few feet, which fell short of her goal. Determined, she continued to jump until her legs began to tremble with the effort, and at last, refused to raise her more than a few inches off the ground. In frustration, she collapsed once again, and laid there trying to catch her breath. Gabrielle's beautiful face still hovered over her, the smile never wavering, her hand extended.
"I need you, Gabrielle", she whispered softly. In less than a heart beat, Gabrielle was close enough to reach up and touch.
"That's what I needed to know", Gabrielle said. She twined her fingers with Xena's, and effortlessly it seemed, she began to lift her out of the darkness toward the light. Xena's heart soared as she drew closer to Gabrielle. She closed her eyes and brushed her lips softly against the bard's, and sighed.
"Oh, Gabrielle...." When she opened her eyes, she was lying on a bed of straw in the stable. She had wakened before the sun, so she couldn't see Gabrielle in the darkness, but she could hear her breathing. Quietly she stood up, collecting her armor and bedroll as she did. She made her way to the door of the stable and opened it. The faint glow of the morning sun was just visible, and by it's light she put on her armor and attached her sword. She went into the inn which was dark and silent except for the kitchen, from which the sounds of food preparation could be heard. Hearing those sounds made her realize she was hungry, and she promised herself a hearty meal before setting out in search of the assassin.
Taking the stairs two at a time, she stopped in front of the door to Antea's room. She knocked softly, and when there was no answer after several moments, she knocked again more loudly. As she was raising her hand to knock a third time, the door opened, and a very sleepy Antea looked out at her.
"Sorry it took so long to get the door", she said stifling a yawn. "I didn't sleep well last night. Seemed like I just fell asleep and here you are. Time to go?"
"Yes. But I need to talk to you for a minute first. May I come in?"
"Sure." Surprised to hear Xena ask instead of demand entrance, Antea stepped back to allow the warrior to enter. She followed her into the room and closed the door behind herself. Xena walked to the far side of the room and stood facing the wall.
"You can get dressed.", the warrior said over her shoulder. "I won't... bother you any more, Antea. I'm sorry for what I did last night..."
"Tried to do", Antea cut her off. "You did stop. Thank you for that." She stripped off her sleeping shift and began to dress.
"Don't thank me for grudgingly behaving like a normal human being", Xena said with a sigh. "You should never be subjected to that kind of treatment. Nobody should."
"You're right", Antea said softly. Fully dressed, she walked to where Xena stood, and put her hand on Xena's arm and gave her a reassuring squeeze. The warrior put her hand over Antea's and lightly caressed her fingers. Antea was so surprised by the gesture that she very nearly pulled away, but she sensed that there was no need to distance herself from the stoic warrior.. Something had changed in her since the previous night. She wondered if Gabrielle had been involved, but hesitated to ask. Perhaps Xena would volunteer more information in time.
"Does this mean you accept my apology?" Xena asked, sincerity ringing true in the soft tones of her voice.
"Yes, I do. But I think there's someone else who needs to hear those words far more than I do."
"I know", she sighed. "I spent half of last night trying to figure out how I could...make things right with Gabrielle. But I can't. I can't trust myself not to hurt her. Not yet. I feel as if I'm at war with myself. Part of me wants to gather an army and go destroy Thanos and Zarkadis completely." Her eyes glittered with a hint of battle lust, and the color rose in her cheeks. The pull from the dark side of the former warlord was strong, and Antea knew that it would take all of Xena's strength to resist that siren song. "But then I think of the things you and Gabrielle have told me about these last few years, and I want to be that person. It feels right to me, even though I can't remember it. If I can't find a way to get this spell lifted from me, I will learn to be around Gabrielle. My dreams are full of loving her. It just about kills me every time I wake up and realize I can't just go and take her in my arms, or listen to her chatter about some funny thing that happened to her that day." Tears welled up in the corner of her eyes, and she turned away from Antea quickly hoping she would not see. She paced the room, stopping with her back to Antea.
"I miss her... And I don't want to hurt her any more."
Antea crossed to where Xena stood, and turned the warrior to face her. Her beautiful face was streaked with tears, and contorted with pain. Antea wrapped her arms around the tall woman, and pushed gently on the back of her head until her face was buried in Antea's neck. Xena hugged Antea tightly, as Antea stroked her from the top of her head down to the small of her back in comforting gestures. They stood like that for several minutes until Xena raised her head, brushing the last of the tears from her face.
"Thanks", she said with a little smile. "I guess I really needed a hug. You're....a better friend than I deserve. I'm glad you stuck with me."
"You'd have done the same for me." She kissed Xena on her cheek, and then turned to pack her belongings. "Gabrielle will probably be awake by now. We should get going."
"I'll finish packing your things. Why don't you go bring Gabrielle up to the inn and we can have a hot breakfast before we get on the road?" Antea smiled and nodded. Xena was serious about overcoming her anger toward the bard if she was willing to sit down and eat with her. Antea could hardly wait to tell Gabrielle about the change in the warrior. She took the stairs two at a time, and ran to the stable as if she had wings on her heels.
The stable door opened with a rusty squeal, and Antea peered into the semi-darkness trying to spot her friend. "Gabrielle", she called out softly. Two horses recognized her voice and answered with whinnies and snorts. But there was no reply from the bard. Stepping inside, she called again a little louder, and this time there was an answering mumble from the far stall. Tossing hay to both horses as she passed by their stalls, she found Gabrielle sitting up and wiping the sleep from her eyes.
"Morning, sleepyhead", she said as she bent down to pull some bits of straw from the strawberry blond hair.
"Mmmmff", Gabrielle said, yawning and stretching. Antea reached for Gabrielle's hands and pulled her to her feet before the bard even knew what happened. "I'm up, I'm up!", she grumbled. "You don't have to yank my arms off."
"Sorry. I just wanted to make sure you were really awake so I could tell you the great thing that's happened..."
"Xena loves me", Gabrielle interrupted, "and she's not going to give in to her anger any more because she doesn't want to hurt me."
Antea blinked a few times, and then shook her head. "How did you know?", she asked, genuinely perplexed.
"She told me last night. Well, she didn't really tell me; she thought I was asleep. But I heard." Gabrielle took Antea's hands in her own, and spun her around a time or two, then threw her arms around her shoulders and pulled her into a hug. "Oh, Antea, you can't imagine what it felt like to hear her say that. With no waking memories, and in spite of this damned curse or what ever it is, she loves me. I never knew love could be strong enough to withstand all that. And all for me!"
"I know. Don't rub it in", Antea grumbled, but she was smiling. Gabrielle's own smile dissolved as she recalled what else Xena had said.
"She also said she had tried to...rape you. I'm so sorry, Antea. Did she hurt you?" Gabrielle studied Antea's face, trying to fathom the emotions she saw there.
"No. She didn't. But I have to be honest with you, Gabrielle. I came this close", and she held up her thumb and forefinger a brief distance apart, "to going along with it willingly." She couldn't stand the look of hurt she saw in Gabrielle's eyes, and she turned away. She bent down and picked up Gabrielle's blanket and started to fold it up. "We should hurry", she said trying to divert both of their minds to other thoughts. "Xena asked me to bring you to the inn for breakfast. Don't want to keep her waiting..."
"I told you I would understand if you gave in to her, Antea. And I meant it."
"I know you did, baby", Antea murmured. "Understanding is one thing. Trust is another. I don't think you would ever leave me and Xena alone together without worrying if we...."
"I trust you completely", Gabrielle insisted.
"Thanks. That's good to know. I'll try not to make you feel your trust has been misplaced. Now shake a leg. I'm starting to get hungry."
Xena was already seated and plates were laid at the table for three. She began to get impatient when the two women had not appeared after what she believed was a reasonable time, and she felt the beginning of a frown creasing her forehead. When the innkeeper approached the table with a flagon of tea for the warrior, it was all she could to do keep from snarling at him. Quickly he placed the mug in front of her, and then he backed away hastily. Xena realized that the look on her face had probably put the fear of the gods in the man, and she made a conscious effort to smile. Taking hold of the handle of the mug, she raised it in a salute to the innkeeper.
"Thank you", she said. The man returned the smile.
"'Welcome", he said. "Be back directly with some bread and porridge." He disappeared into the kitchen just as the outside door opened and Antea and Gabrielle came in. Xena's heart pounded in her chest as she watched them walk toward the table. A whirlwind of emotions swept over her as she beheld Gabrielle's trusting face. Once again she had to smooth the wrinkles from her brow that might have given the bard cause to fear her. She willed herself to smile.
"Sit across from me, Antea. You sit over there, Gabrielle." she said, inclining her head toward the far end of the table. "And please, don't say anything. I have to do this slowly, and I'm afraid that might be too much for now. If you have something to tell me, say it through Antea." Gabrielle leaned over and whispered into Antea's ear, and then sat down where Xena had asked her to. Xena looked at Antea quizzically.
"She said thanks for making this effort for her. She knows how hard it must be, and she appreciates it."
Xena turned in her seat so that she was facing Gabrielle. "You're welcome. And please know that I'm sorry for all the pain I've put you through." Gabrielle nodded, and smiled. The innkeeper showed up at that moment, his hands full of warm bread and a steaming pot of porridge. The three women ate a hearty breakfast in companionable silence.
The city of Khalkis was between Athens and the strait of Evripos. It was mid-day when the trio arrived. They followed the same procedure they had in Piraeus; each woman went to a different tavern and made esquires about Thanos as well as Zarkadis. If the warlord were encamped nearby, the locals would certainly know it. The sun was starting to sink into the ocean before Xena found a barman who was certain he had seen Zarkadis within the last couple of days. He had also heard that Thanos was camped in the hills to the south of the city. As before, the three women rendezvoused at the first tavern they had come to, and shared what information they had been able to glean from the locals.
Antea had discovered that Thanos was in the habit of sending two or three men into the market once a week for vegetables and fruit, and the following day was market day. It should be a simple matter of watching for the red tunics, and following them at a discrete distance to find the camp.
Gabrielle told Antea to relay that Zarkadis was staying at an inn on the waterfront as recently as the previous night. The innkeeper was not certain if he would be coming back, but he gave Gabrielle the name of a brothel, and the woman there who had been Zarkadis' constant companion for the better part of a week.
Xena was pleased with their collective efforts. She knew both the assassin and the man who hired him would be within her grasp before the sun went down the next day.
"I'm not sure when I'll be back. I've taken a room for you two. You should get some sleep."
"What about you? You should rest too", Antea argued.
"I will, after I've found Zarkadis."
"Can we help?"
"No. This is something I need to do alone. But thank you. Both of you."
"Where will you be....after?" She did not need to finish the question. They both knew
Xena planned to kill him.
"In the stable. I don't want to...disturb you if I come in late."
Gabrielle scowled and shook her head. As usual, she was keeping a safe distance and staying quiet, but she was not happy with the direction this was going. She gestured to Antea to come closer so she could whisper into her ear. Antea listened, nodded, and then turned to Xena.
"She...", she stopped herself , reconsidered, and then began again. "We would rather you come back to the room, so we'll know you're all right."
Xena gazed into Antea's face for a moment, then shifted to Gabrielle, who nodded. "All right", Xena agreed, "but don't give me a hard time if I wake you both up."
"That's the point", Antea chided her softly. " If you don't wake us up, how will we know you're home safe?"
Xena raised her eyebrow and twisted her mouth in a crooked smile. "Point taken", she growled. "Now stop chattering at me so I can get out of here... and come back", she added. Without looking back, she walked out of the inn.
The directions the innkeeper had given Gabrielle were surprisingly easy to follow and very explicit. She decided he must be a regular customer of the brothel himself. The building was two story, half timber and half stone. She stood in a doorway in the building opposite the brothel, and watched as several men came and went. She finally decided she could stand there all night and never see him, if he were already inside, or had come and departed. Crossing the street, she pushed open the door and found herself in a parlor lit only by the fire in the fireplace, and a few candles that guttered in sconces on the walls. Several low couches were occupied by women who appraised her frankly when she came through the door. A well dressed woman, somewhat older than the rest, detached herself from a couple of girls, who continued to cast interested looks in Xena's direction. Smiling, she approached the warrior.
"Something we can pleasure you with?" She swept her hand in a gesture to include all of the women in the room. "Some of these young ladies are very skilled in the art of loving women. You wouldn't be disappointed, I can promise you."
"I don't doubt that", Xena answered, feeling a heat rising to her cheeks in spite of herself. "But that's not what I came for." The welcoming smile faded from the Madame's face, and Xena amended quickly. "Another time, perhaps. They're very lovely." She had no intention of returning to sample her wares at any time in the future, but it would serve no purpose to insult the woman. "Actually, I'm looking for a man. About as tall as I am, with a plum colored mark on his face."
"That'd be Zarkadis. I know him."
"Is he here?" Xena felt her heart beat accelerate at the thought that she could be so close to her quarry.
"Might be.", the woman answered vaguely. "People don't much like it when they're disturbed while they're......well, if he was here, what would it be worth to you to know which room he's in?"
A familiar anger began to rise in her breast, and she tried to tamp it down. Despite that, her eyes glittered, and her hand reached for the sword on her back. She withdrew it slowly, then simply held it up in front of her. "What's it worth to you to keep your head on your shoulders for one more day?" she hissed through clenched teeth.
"Second floor. Third door on the right." Xena returned her sword to her scabbard, and pulled two dinars from her cleavage. She pressed them into the woman's hand, and wordlessly walked to the stairs. Turning, she put her finger to her lips to silence the women in the parlor, and without making a sound, she climbed the stairs.
She stopped outside the door, where the sounds of lovemaking carried clearly through the flimsy door. She waited until the sounds were no longer audible, put her hand on the handle and opened the door.
Zarkadis sprawled on his stomach with one arm outflung over the nude body of an attractive brunette. Not anticipating trouble, his response was at first annoyance that someone had apparently come into his room by mistake. He rolled over, reaching first over the side of the bed where he kept a knife in case he might need it for "persuasion".
"What are you doing ..." Mid-way through his sentence, he caught sight of the warrior. His eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. She couldn't be alive. At most, she was moments away from death when he left her. She could not have survived. This was a trick of some sort, a clever ruse. "Very good", he acknowledged with sincerity. "You look enough like her to be her sister."
"I haven't got a sister", Xena said, pulling her leather skirt down to show him the scar on her abdomen. Once again, his eyes widened, and he shook his head.
"That's impossible. Xena was this close", and he help up his fingers a scant distance apart, "to dead when I left her. There's no way that little girl could have saved her."
"I was thinking the same thing myself", Xena admitted. "Thought maybe you could tell me who else might have been in that clearing that would have the power to keep death at bay."
"No one. There were two of Thanos' men and me, and your little wife, praying to the gods to save you." He did not know when his thinking had switched from being certain she was not Xena, to knowing without doubt that she was the real deal. Without Xena's girlfriend as a bargaining tool, Zarkadis knew he had little chance against the warrior with nothing more than a knife. He seized the woman who crouched beside him on the bed, and dragged her in front of him, using her body as a shield. As they had done with Gabrielle, he brought the knife to her throat, and glared at Xena as if daring her to try anything.
" I know you have a weakness for women. You wouldn't want me to kill this lovely young thing, now would you?"
"Oh, but you're wrong. That was the Xena you did manage to kill. Why should I care what becomes of this whore?" Even as she spoke, she watched for an opening so she could get the woman out of harms way.
"I don't believe you."
Xena shrugged, trying to appear unconcerned. "So kill her." A look of pure terror was written on the poor woman's face as Zarkadis brought the blade into contact with her throat. To divert his attention, Xena whirled around as if she had heard something behind her, and Zarkadis craned his neck around to see what it was she saw, moving the blade slightly away from the vulnerable flesh. In that moment, Xena bent her knees and launched herself into the air, coming down on one foot beside the bed. The other foot kicked out and caught the assassin by the wrist, sending the knife into the air. Xena grabbed the woman by the arm and pulled her out of his grasp, releasing her well out of his reach.
"You were right", Xena hissed through clenched teeth. "I lied." Over her shoulder, she said to the woman who huddled near the foot of the bed. "Get out of here." Not waiting to be told a second time, the woman scrambled for the door on hands and knees. As she was leaving, she saw the knife on the floor, and without hesitation, she grabbed it. She scrambled into a far corner and sat with her knees up, the knife blade pointed into the room. If this warrior was willing to risk her life to save her, the least she could do was back her up, if she needed it.
Zarkadis laughed. "I under estimated you. Again. Now I understand why Thanos sent me after you instead of going himself. You're a formidable foe. And I", he indicated his nude body with a wave of his hand, " appear to be at a complete disadvantage. Unless you'd be willing to toss me my sword?" He pointed to the chair near the side of the bed farthest away from himself.
"You certainly are at a disadvantage." Her eyes leveled at the mans penis, which had shriveled to it's normal size, and was smaller than most. "Gabrielle can do more for me with one finger than you could with that pathetic thing." And she realized as she said it that she was remembering - while awake - the feel of making love with Gabrielle. The thought made her heart swell, and her attention was distracted from Zarkadis.
Zarkadis saw the look on her face go from repulsion as she gazed at his flaccid member, to something like elation. He could laugh off taunts about his skill with weapons, since he knew he was one of the best, and few who taunted him lived to do it twice. But he was embarrassed at the size of his penis, and would not tolerate criticism from anyone. While Xena's eyes drifted from him to a space on the wall, where she was clearly seeing something of her own creation, he rolled off the bed, snatching his sword from the chair, and coming to his feet swinging it at the warrior.
Xena brought her blade up in time to deflect the blow that would surely have severed her arm if she had been a few seconds slower in coming out of her reverie. As it was, his blow caused her to stumble backward a few steps. He was on her in an instant, catching the hilt of her sword with his blade, and flipping it out of her hand. She ducked the next thrust of his sword, but the tip caught her upper arm as he brought it down, cutting a bloody swath from her arm band to her elbow. Xena bent sideways, cocked her leg, and kicked him solidly in the middle of his exposed crotch. He cried out like an animal with it's foot caught in a metal trap, and doubled over with his hands trying in vain to protect his injured parts. He fell with a thud onto the blade the terrified woman still held firmly in front of her. The look on his face as the blade ran through his back and pierced his lung was one of utter surprise. He drew one or two ragged breaths, and then was still.
Xena rolled his lifeless form off the legs of the woman who was pinned under him. She pulled her to her feet, and then led her to the bed where she sat her down and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders. The woman was in shock, her face white, her eyes glassy and unseeing. After several minutes, the color began to return to her cheeks, and her eyes focused on the warrior standing before her.
"I di - didn't mean to kill him", she stammered. "He - he, fell on the knife."
"I know. Shhhh, it's OK", Xena said, wrapping her arm around the woman's trembling shoulders. "Nobody's blaming you. I'll make sure they know what happened."
"You're b-bleeding", the woman said when she finally noticed the trail of blood running down Xena's arm. "Let me wrap that up for you." Having something to do gave her purpose, and the tremble was gone from her voice. She rose from the bed, wrapping the sheet firmly about herself, and strode to a chest in a corner, where she pulled several swatches of fairly clean looking white cloth out of a stack of the same. "They get rough sometimes", she explained. "I keep a supply of bandages around, just in case." She dampened one cloth with water from the pitcher on top of the shelf, and cleaned up the wound, which had almost stopped bleeding. She bound the other cloth tightly around Xena's arm, tied if off in a knot, and tucked the ends under the knot.
"You've had a bit of practice at this", Xena said, admiring her skill.
The woman shrugged. "Rough line of work. I get more practice than I'd like."
"I'm sorry about....all this. I hope you weren't close to him."
She shrugged. "He was just a man. His dinars were as good as any. He would have killed me without blinking. No, I don't feel bad about killing him."
"I'll explain what happened to your..people, and send someone up to help get rid of this mess", Xena said, gesturing at the dead assassin.
"You know who I am?"
"Everyone knows who you are", the woman said smiling. "Once a warlord, now a hero for people who need help."
"I wish I could be as sure of that as you are ", Xena whispered under her breath as she walked out the door.
Walking back to the inn, Xena reflected on her brief recollection of Gabrielle in the moment before Zarkadis lunged at her. That moment had very nearly cost her her life. She also had to admit that her reflexes, as well as her physical strength, were not up to a level where she could afford to be distracted during a fight. If she did the same thing when she went up against Thanos and his men, the out come might be very different than when her foe was a single naked man. She had to concentrate fully on where she was and what she was doing if she was to come out of this in once piece.
Zarkadis had not given her any useful information about who had caused the memory loss she experienced. It seemed obvious that Gabrielle, in her eagerness to save her lover, had undoubtedly called down what ever god it was that had caused her to heal when she should have died, and also wiped out the recent past from her memory. The most obvious culprit was Ares. The God of War was one of the most jealous gods Xena knew of, and she had no doubt that he would stoop to any means to win her back if she strayed from the fold And Xena could no longer deny that there had been a change in her over the past few years; if a stranger such Zarkadis bed partner knew she had reformed. She decided that when she was finished with the warlord who brought all this on her in the first place, she would visit Ares temple, and seek out her old "friend".
She reached the inn where Gabrielle and Antea would be waiting for her. The tavern was already closed for the night when she came in, but she persuaded the barman who was cleaning up to pour her just one mug of wine. Downing it in a few gulps, she set the empty mug on the bar, and rose to go to their room.
At the top of the stairs, Antea and Gabrielle sat, peering into the gloomy interior of the inn.
"Someone's coming", Antea whispered.
"It's Xena", Gabrielle replied. "I'd recognize that tread anywhere. Thank the gods she came back."
"Let's go back in the room so she won't know we've been sitting here waiting for her", Antea said as she got to her feet.
"Too late", Xena said vaulting up the last few risers. "I hear you up there, whispering like a couple of harpies." In truth, it made Xena's heart swell to think that they cared enough to wait up for her, but she wasn't ready to share her thoughts with them just yet.
"Guilty as charged ", Antea said lightly. She could tell by the tone of Xena's voice that she was touched by their concern, but the big strong warrior princess did not want them to know she was as human as anyone else. " Come inside," she continued, opening the door to their room, and holding it open for both Gabrielle and Xena to enter. "Tell us what happened. Did you find him? Is he......was he able to tell you anything useful?"
"Yes and no. I found him, but he didn't have much to say. And he won't be doing any more talking except in Tartarus." Both women looked stricken, even though they had fully expected her to kill him. Xena went on. "And no, I didn't kill him. He fell on a knife and pierced his lung. But he did tell me one thing. He told me that you", she leveled her gaze at Gabrielle, who almost flinched but managed not to, "prayed to the gods to spare my life."
"That's right! I...." She stopped herself, clapping both hands over her mouth. Xena's eyes had narrowed, and her jaw clenched at the sound of Gabrielle's voice, but she made no move toward her. Gabrielle could tell that it was difficult for the warrior to retain her composure. Xena's chest expanded as she drew in a lungful of air, and then she blew it out. It seemed to calm her. Gabrielle dragged Antea to the farthest corner of the room and whispered in her ear. After several moments, Antea walked back to where Xena stood.
"She had forgotten about calling out to the gods when she thought you were going to die. Now that she thinks about it, she said you had lost all color and were barely breathing, and then suddenly you seemed to improve. Remember, I told you I thought there was a god involved in this."
"Yes, you did. I wasn't so sure then, but the more I learn, the more I think you're right." She turned and looked at Gabrielle. "Both of you." Gabrielle smiled. Xena continued, "And as soon as this Thanos business is out of the way, I intend to confront my dear old friend Ares. "
Xena woke before the other two, dressed, and crept down stairs. She instructed the innkeeper to wait about an hour, and then take breakfast to the women in her room, and tell them that she would be back later in the morning. She walked briskly to the stable to shake off the morning chill, and by the time she arrived, she was warm. Argo whinnied a welcome at the sound of her mistress footsteps. Xena saddled the mare, promising her that she would give her an extra helping of oats when they returned later in the morning. Argo butted her with her nose as if to say it was all right with her. She lead her from the stable, leaped onto her back, and turned her head south toward the hills.
It took less than an hour to reach the landmarks she had been told to look for. She knew that sentries would be posted from that point on, so she dismounted and left Argo in a grassy area with a stream flowing through it. There was a fairly well used trail that clearly led to the warlords camp, but she chose an animal trail through the underbrush, and crept silently toward her foe.
As she had expected, there were sentries posted at several points along the way. They were not particularly vigilant, as she was able to get close enough to hear the conversation that two of them were having without their knowing she was there. Nothing they said was of any interest, until one of them mentioned a raid they planned to make against a small village some two days march to the east. If Xena was successful, that village would never know how close they came to being pillaged.
Xena climbed into a tall tree to get a better view of the surrounding country side. From there, the tents of Thanos' camp were visible. The soldiers seemed to congregate mostly around the area where food was being prepared, at the front of the camp. There were no sentries in the back of the camp where the tents were laid right up against a sheer cliff. Thano's was in the center of that group of tents. She decided she would come in from the back, either down the cliff face, or from the dense forest on the side. Climbing down from the tree, she made her way over to the side. There were no animal trails there, and the going was not as easy, but there were also no sentries to be found until she was at the edge of the forest. Making a note of his location, she retraced her steps until she was back on the deer paths. Within a half hour, she had arrived at the glen where Argo waited for her.
"You don't think she went after him already, do you?", Gabrielle asked for the second time.
"No. I mean, I don't know, but I doubt it. She has a whole army to deal with this time. I think she may want some back up." She wished Xena had wakened them to let them know what her plans were, instead of sending the innkeeper to wake them. They had finished their breakfast some time before, and were both anxiously waiting to know what the warrior wanted them to do.
"I wish I could talk to her... Sometimes it's all I can do to stop myself from saying what I'm thinking, or feeling, or.... anything. She never did talk much, but I miss those times we shared when she was in a mood to talk. I miss Xena."
Antea hugged Gabrielle, and kissed the top of her head. "She's determined to get the spell lifted. And you know there's not many things more formidable than the Warrior Princess when she's determined to do something."
"I know... I just wish it would happen NOW. Xena always told me I have no patience..." Her voice trailed off, and she slumped down in her seat. They sat in silence, once again waiting for Xena to return.
It was close to noon before Xena finally walked into the tavern. Antea nudged Gabrielle the moment she saw the warrior, and they were on their feet before Xena's eyes had accustomed to the dim light well enough to even see them.
"Xena!" Antea called. Xena turned toward the sound of the voice, and saw Antea waving from a table in the back. Xena asked the innkeeper to send some food to the table for all three of them, and made her way to where they stood.
"Sit down", Xena said smiling at them. "I ordered us some food. I'm starving."
They settled around the table, and within a few minutes the innkeeper was there with bread and several kinds of meat. "Dig in," Xena said, as she began to eat.
As they ate, Xena filled them in on what she had seen at Thanos' camp. They listened without comment. When Xena told them she planned on taking him on alone, Gabrielle shook her head vigorously, and Antea opened her mouth to speak, when Xena cut them off.
"Before you start voicing your objections, hear me out. I can use you to help tie up any sentries we come across. It may also be necessary to create a diversion at the front of the camp so I can get in more easily. But I want to face that scum by myself. This is just between the two of us." Arguing was pointless. Xena finally agreed that if she could not handle it alone, she would give them a signal to let them know they should jump into the fight. At least they would be close enough to help if Xena needed them.
They purchased several lengths of rope for tying up soldiers, and one very long one for Xena to use to lower herself down the cliff, if necessary. She hoped to go through the forest, since coming down the cliff would mean waiting for nightfall, and it could be treacherous in the dark.
They left both horses in the same glen where Xena had left Argo earlier. Xena led Antea and Gabrielle to the game trail, and they followed behind carrying rope and cloth to bind and gag the soldiers as she subdued them. When they reached the pair of sentries, they sent Gabrielle out on the road pretending to be hurt and in need of help. While the men were examining Gabrielle's ankle for an injury, Antea and Xena came up behind them. Xena put the pinch on one while Antea clubbed the other on the head hard enough to put him out for a while. They were bound and tied in a matter of minutes, and dragged to a clump of bushes where they were effectively concealed from anyone passing by on the road.
"Two down", Gabrielle muttered aloud as she pulled the leaves from her hair that clung to her when she was helping stash the soldiers under the bush. Without warning, her forearms were seized by two strong hands, and she was lifted off her feet and slammed against a tree trunk.
"You have got to shut up", Xena snarled inches from her face, her blue eyes blazing with fury. "I need every bit of my attention focused on what I have to do. The sound of your voice could get us all killed. Don't test me now. Understand?" Gabrielle swallowed back tears and nodded. Xena released her, and she stumbled away from her, rubbing her arms where the marks of Xena's fingers showed promise of the bruises that would become.
Antea put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and murmured soft words to her that Xena couldn't hear. The warrior cursed herself for not being able to control her temper. Gabrielle had not said anything to warrant such an outburst, and it made her wonder if she could keep her promise to be able to stay around Gabrielle in the event she was not able to get this curse removed. And there was no doubt in her mind, this was a curse. Being forced to hate the woman that she knew she loved was tearing her up inside. The memories were nothing - she could get along nicely without them. But she feared she would be forced to leave Gabrielle for her own safety. Before she started out again, she turned to the bard who stood in the shelter of Antea's arm.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I wish I could explain what it does to me when you speak. I don't want to lash out that way. It just...happens. For now, please stay behind Antea as we move forward so you can get her attention if you need help, but don't get close to me. I know you didn't mean to say anything, but it doesn't matter what you say or why you say it."
"You won't hear her again", Antea promised solemnly.
By the time they reached the edge of the clearing where the bored sentry sat up against a tree half dozing, they had left eight men trussed up like winter solstice geese. Unlike that morning, however, there were many more soldiers milling around in the vicinity of the large red tent. Thanos must have called his lieutenants in to discuss his plans for sacking that nearby village. It would be suicide to go in there without some sort of diversion. She motioned for Antea and Gabrielle to move well out of hearing range of the sentry.
"This isn't going to work like I planned", she explained. "There are too many men within shouting distance of his tent, and I'm not in shape to take on his whole army. We'll have to climb to the top of that cliff, and I'll try and lower myself directly behind his tent."
Gabrielle tugged on Antea's sleeve to get her attention, and then motioned for her to move a few steps away from Xena so she could whisper to her.
"She says what if we created a diversion to draw the soldiers to the front of the camp? She's afraid you might dislodge some rocks on the way down , and if they heard you, you'd be a sitting duck on the cliff face."
Xena shook her head no. "Too risky. I don't mind using one of you to divert one or even two of these cretins, but these men are like animals when a beautiful woman comes along. They...well, it's out of the question." She turned and started walking toward the side of the hill that would take them up to the cliff. Antea fell into step behind her, and Gabrielle did too, but only long enough for Antea to make sure she was there. Then she stopped and made her way back toward the road that would lead into the front of the camp.
After walking for no more than a few minutes, Antea realized that she did not hear the sounds of footsteps behind her, and she stopped and looked for the bard. When there was no sign of her after several moments, she ran back down the path thinking perhaps Gabrielle had stopped for some good reason. There was no sign of her.
"Damn it, Gabrielle. What are you up to?" She turned around and ran until she was close enough for Xena to hear, and then called out her name. The warrior reversed her direction and a few moments later she had reached Antea.
"What is it?"
"Gabrielle. She must have turned back. I retraced my steps for quite a while but couldn't see her." Xena's jaw clenched and unclinched as she digested this information. Antea thought at first it was anger she saw in the face of the warrior, but her eyes did not have the glint that they did when rage took control. It was fear she saw. Worry for what might happen to the bard.
"Looks like there's going to be a distraction after all.", Xena said grimly. "I'm going to take out that sentry and wait for the rest of the soldiers to get wind of it. Here's what I want you to do." Antea listened to Xena's plan, and when they reached the place where the deer trail led to the main road into the camp, they parted company.
Gabrielle watched from one of the sentry posts, now unoccupied, as the soldiers moved about the camp. Now that she was here, she was not certain what to do that would bring the soldiers to the front of the camp, and not get herself hurt in the process. The helpless woman trick had worked on the sentries, so perhaps she could use that again. She mussed up her hair, ripped her skirt, and pulled her blouse halfway down her shoulder. Using the waterskin the sentry had left at his post, she made up some mud and smeared it generously over her face, arms and legs. By the time she was through, she figured she must look pretty ill used, and hoped these soldiers had enough compassion in them to not take advantage of a woman in distress.
Figuring Xena had had enough time to discover that she was no longer following, and get in position near the warlord's tent, she took a few deep breaths, and ran wildly into the camp, waving her arms to get as much attention as she could.
"Help! Somebody, please, help me!" The men had stopped what they were doing, and all eyes were now on the filthy looking wild eyed blonde that came charging into their midst.
"There's slavers out there, and they're coming this way! They caught me, but I got away. They must have thirty or more slaves, must be worth a fortune." The word "fortune" had the desired affect. The leaders were getting to their feet, and calling for the rest of the men to assemble in the front of the camp. Their voices relayed the promise of something to increase the size of their purses to the farthest corner of the camp, where Xena had already put the sentry to sleep.
Thanos emerged from his tent long enough to find out what was going on, and to pretend as if the entire expedition to get the slavers bounty was his idea, and then he went back inside. Within minutes, all of the soldiers were gone from around his tent, and Xena crept, silent as a cat, across the small clearning and to the flap of his tent. Pulling it aside, she leaped through the opening, catching the warlord in the middle of a bite of cheese. He choked and his eyes grew wide. She crossed to his side and thumped him in between his shoulder blades, and the bite of cheese shot out of his mouth.
"Surprise", she growled as she drew her sword and put the tip of it underneath his chin. "I'm the last person you expected to see, I'll wager." Her eyes took in the furnishings of the tent, and as she expected, her chakram and sword were prominently displayed beside the warlord's hammock. Without removing the tip of the sword from his chin, she walked around him until she was able to reach the weapons. She hung the chakram on the hook at her waist, and thrust the sword into her scabbard. "I'd love to stand here and chat, but I'm afraid a friend of mine has got herself into a bit of a bind, and I need to make sure she's OK. And you, my old friend, will be my bargaining chip for her. On your feet." She pushed the flat of the blade against the underside of his chin, and he practically scrambled to his feet. As soon as he was standing, she shifted so that the broad side of the blade was against his throat, and grasped his right arm, twisting it up behind his back.
"After you", she said with mock civility, thrusting her knee into the back of his leg to start him moving.
"I never wanted to kill you", he whined as he walked ahead of her through the camp. "It was Zarkadis' idea. He....thought it would improve his reputation, and I ..."
"I can tell you, it did nothing for his reputation, and even less for his life expectancy." She did not bother to tell him that she had not personally ended the life of the assassin. He might co-operate more fully if he thought she would kill him without batting an eye. As that thought processed through her mind, she realized that she really did not intend to kill him, unless he forced her to. More than anything else, that convinced her that she really was not a warlord any more.
They reached the front of the camp, where soldiers were in the process of strapping on weapons and saddling horses. What ever ruse Gabrielle had used to gain entrance to the camp seemed to have backfired, as they had her gagged and tied to a tent pole. She appeared to be unharmed, and for the moment no one was bothering her. Xena decided to leave her where she was; at least she could not inadvertently say something that would cause the warrior to lose sight of her goal.
"Tell them to stop whatever it is they're doing", Xena hissed in his ear. "There's nothing out there to interest them, or you.."
"It was a trick", Thanos called to his men. "There are no slavers. This was just to get you fools up to the front of the camp so this crazy bitch could get her hands on me. And it worked." Now that Thanos was among his men, he was putting on an act of bravado.
"Grab her friend...ack", he began, but Xena applied pressure with the sword and it bit into the flesh of his neck. Blood ran down his neck and disappeared in the red fabric of his tunic.
"Touch her, and he dies", she warned.
While all eyes were on Xena and the warlord, Antea darted behind the soldiers so quickly and silently that no one even looked her way. She crouched behind the tent that Gabrielle was tied in front of, and whispered, "Gabrielle!" She prayed that there were no soldiers within the tent to hear the sound of her voice, but when no movement or sounds issued from inside, she figured it was safe enough to crawl over toward the bard.
Gabrielle turned at the sound of Antea's voice, and saw her making her way silently toward her. In case someone should look in her direction, Gabrielle turned back around so she was facing the crowd that stood around the warrior and the warlord. In a moment, she felt the motion of a knife sawing through the rope that bound her ankles, and when that was done, her arms were freed. She pulled the gag from her mouth, and assuming that Xena and Antea had devised some plan, she followed Antea as she crept further into the camp.
One among them watched the proceedings with more than a little interest. In the guise of a soldier, Strife eagerly waited to see how well his plan to bring Xena back to the fold would succeed. The only way to know for sure was to test her, and this seemed as good a time as any. Ignoring Xena's warning, he turned and loped toward the pole where the bard had been tied up...and saw no one
From where she stood, Xena could no longer see the place where Gabrielle had been, but she was confident that Antea had managed to free her, as they had discussed. They knew that it was likely Gabrielle would have thrown herself into the midst of this band of cutthroats without thinking what they would do to her if whatever scheme she had come up with failed. There was little doubt in Xena's mind that she would have been captured, as had been the case. Xena saw the soldier break away from the others and run in that direction, and then stop short. She smiled as she realized that meant she was right. Gabrielle must be out of danger, at least for the moment. Thanos did not know that, however, so Xena continued with the ruse, and even though the soldier had stopped, she put more pressure on the sword until the cowardly warlord cried out to his men.
"Stop! Don't do anything to hurt the girl! She'll kill me!"
To keep up the pretense of being a soldier, Strife had no choice but to pretend not to pursue the bard, if that was what his leader commanded. He vowed to slip away as soon as it was practical and go in search of her. When he had checked in on his "project" from time to time over the past few weeks, he could not help but notice that, despite his hate spell, the warrior was trying to over come her anger toward the bard. That did not bode well for the outcome of this little game. He hoped that Xena would prove herself by killing this worthless coward, as she should have done the assassin before him. Too bad that whore had interfered. Ah, well... This would be the test. Today could be the day Strife returned the Warrior Princess to Ares and earned his respect, which he could never quite do, despite his best efforts. He blended into the crowd of soldiers and watched, a wicked smile curling the corners of his mouth.
" This is between the two of us", Xena addressed the assembly of men around her. "This sniveling coward hired an assassin to kill me, because he was too afraid to take me on himself." A few of the men whispered among themselves. It was obvious that it was not common knowledge that Thanos had tried to have Xena killed. The looks on their faces made it clear that Thanos had dropped several notches in their estimation. Xena continued. "But I don't carry a grudge. I'm willing to take him on in a fair fight, one on one, which is more of a chance than I was given. If I win, you break camp and walk away from here, leaving Khalkis and all the surrounding villages alone."
"And if you lose?", one of the soldiers called out with a sneer. Xena shrugged.
"Khalkis is yours, and you can do whatever you want with me...if I'm still alive." Several men perked up at the mention of doing whatever they wanted with this gorgeous creature. They rather hoped Thanos would win, even though the prevailing opinion was that he did not stand a chance against the Warrior Princess.
Thanos' first lieutenant stepped forward. He looked at Thanos' face and saw fear, but he saw determination as well. The man had no chance to keep the loyalty of his army if he refused this challenge, and he knew it. Thanos nodded his head imperceptibly to avoid further injury by the sword. The lieutenant fixed his gaze on the liquid blue eyes of their opponent. "Thanos accepts your challenge", the man said. To the assembled soldiers, he added, "None of you is to do anything to interfere, or you'll have me to deal with." To a man, they backed away, leaving a wide circle around the two in the center.
a released her grip on Thanos' arm, and pulled the sword away from his neck. She threw the sword intXeno the ground at his feet, and pulled her old sword from the scabbard. "There you go, Thanos. I'll let you use my sword. How's that for sporting?" With a snarl, he grabbed the handle of the sword and yanked it from the ground. Xena smiled and tipped her head to acknowledge her opponent. She stood and waited to see what he would do so that she could devise a strategy to deal with him. He charged like a bull, and she side stepped, catching him on the arm as he went by and leaving a trail of blood. He whirled around and bellowed in rage and charged again. The man had the fighting skills of a two legged centaur, but none of the grace. It would be incredibly easy to kill him. Instead she cut him on his other arm, causing him to drop his sword.
"Pick it up, Thanos", she hissed at him. "Or would you rather die like the sheep you really are?" He glared at her and snatched up the sword, but instead of charging, he approached her slowly, and swung his sword in an arc that she neatly parried. Repeatedly he tried to find an opening, and each time she met his thrust almost effortlessly. The momentum of one thrust carried him past her, and before he could turn around, she kicked out and swept his legs out from under him. He landed on his back with a thud. In an instant she was on top of him, the point of her sword touching his abdomen at the same point where Zarkadis had stabbed her. "Did he tell you how he stabbed me?", she asked with acid dripping from every word. "Did he tell you he held my lover at knifepoint so I wouldn't put up a fight?" Without moving the sword, she knelt down beside him so she was inches away from his face. His eyes were glassy and wide with pure terror. She smiled and whispered into his ear. "Shall I tell you what it's going to feel like to have my blade pierce through your body?" She applied a small amount of pressure, and blood blossomed up around the point of her sword. "No, let it be a surprise..." She stood up and grasped the sword in both hands and flexed her arms to deliver the killing strike...when she heard Gabrielle's voice in her head:
"Don't give up, Xena. Your place is in the light..."
Her eyes widened, and she looked around, certain that she would see Gabrielle nearby, but there was no sign of the bard. She waited for the anger that should surely follow, and felt none. And the words had a ring of truth to them. Looking back down at the man who wept openly, she felt nothing but pity for him. She sheathed her sword and bent down again and said, " I won't let you drag me back into the darkness. It's over." She straightened up and stepped away from him. "Go home", she said to the soldiers. "You have families that need you more than this pathetic coward." In twos and threes the men drifted away, some of them taking her at her word and walking out of the camp, others gathering belongings to take with them. Thanos' army was no more.
Angry at watching his plan blow away like a cloud in a hurricane, Strife metamorphosed into the image of Gabrielle as she appeared the last time Xena saw her. Perhaps hearing the bard speak would be enough to push the warrior over the edge. If that failed...well, he could still walk away, and his uncle would be none the wiser.
For effect, he manufactured a few tears in Gabrielle's eyes, and made her look even more disheveled than she had when tied to the stake. If Xena thought that someone had brought harm to her, Strife was certain that person would be made to pay with his life.
Running from behind a tent, he called out to her.
"Xena! Thank the gods! I thought they were going to kill me." Xena looked at the person she thought was Gabrielle, her eyes wide. Within her mind, the part of her that despised and distrusted the bard demanded that she lash out at her, silence her once and for all. But the part that loved and trusted her was stronger now. She took a deep breath, and then another, and after a few moments, she was calm and able to speak in a normal voice.
"Gabrielle, please, get Antea to speak for you. Just a little while longer. I know I can control this, if I......"
"But I'm tired of being quiet!", Strife whined. "I'm a bard. Talking is what I DO." Strife came closer to Xena, and pointed at the warlord, still on the ground at her feet. "And why did you let that man live when he tried to kill you? He would have killed you in a heart beat if he had you on the ground. Why don't you.........?"
"Enough!" Xena shouted, covering her ears with her hands. Even though the side of her that longed to live in the light was dominant, it was nearly impossible to withstand the voice in her head that insisted that she silence her. It grew louder with each passing moment. "Don't do this to me, Gabrielle. I don't know how much longer I can take this, and I don't want to hurt you..." Xena turned away from the bard, and started for the path to the forest, believing that Antea would be there. Thanos siezed the opportunity to crawl away while Xena's back was turned, and when she made no effort to go after him, he rose to his feet and took off at a dead run. Strife watched him run away and smiled. He had planned on goading Xena into killing Thanos, but if he kept pushing, he might succeed in getting her to off the meddlesome bard, and that would be even better. He followed her as she walked away, whining in his best Gabrielle imitation.
"But Xena, they tried to rape me! Aren't you going to do something about it? You should kill them all for what they tried to do to me."
The words that she was hearing penetrated beyond the cacophony of sounds in her head, and Xena realized for the first time what Gabrielle was asking her to do. Kill them? It was impossible. Gabrielle would never have said that. Even if she were trying to get Xena to do the opposite thing from what she was saying, she could not tell her to kill anyone. It was simply not in her nature. Xena stopped in her tracks and turned around.
"Who are you?", she said through clenched teeth. Knowing it was not Gabrielle was one thing; the voice sounded like Gabrielle, and that was all that mattered to the dark side of the warrior. "You might as well give it up. I won't kill for you, no matter what you say." She looked closely into the eyes of this person who was taunting her, and she knew for certain it was not Gabrielle. There was no warmth in those eyes at all. "Is that you, Ares? Show yourself."
Antea and Gabrielle had hidden inside a wagon while Xena confronted Thanos, and when they saw the men leaving, they came out of hiding. The few men remaining ignored them as they made their way to the front of the camp where Xena should be. They emerged from behind a tent to see Xena in conversation with...Gabrielle. Neither woman said a word, but both of them picked up their pace until they were almost running. When they were within a few feet of Xena and the woman she was apparently in a heated debate with, "Gabrielle" turned toward Antea and the bard and smiled.
"Well, if it isn't the two meddling bitches", the imitation Gabrielle sneered. As he spoke, he metamorphosed again, this time into a kindly looking farmer. "I saved her", he spat at them, "not you. She would have died if not for me. And what did you do to thank me? Turned her back into a goody-goody. I should turn you into marble statues so you won't be able to get in my way again. If my uncle knew..." He stopped himself in mid-sentence. He had not planned on divulging his identity to them. But perhaps it was better they knew it was him than that they thought it was Ares. If Xena called on his uncle to remove the spell that he himself had created, he would know that Strife had tried - and failed - to lure the illusive warrior back into his fold. The flesh of the farmer melted away, and in his place stood Strife, dressed in shiny black leather, and grinning from ear to ear.
"It was only a joke", he said with a shrug. "I was just trying to see how far I could push you. Pretty funny, huh?" The three women stared at him with somber expressions. "Hey, how come nobody's laughing?"
"Ha. Ha.", Xena said in a menacing voice, drawing her sword as she advanced on the mischievous god. "And just when did you plan to let me in on your little joke? After I had killed Gabrielle? You knew I wouldn't be able to forgive myself if I did that, and figured I would return to your uncle, didn't you?" She was standing nose to nose with him, the tip of her sword touching the underside of his chin.
"You can't kill me", he said with a half hearted laugh. "I'm a god."
"Maybe not", she agreed, "but I can hurt your reputation plenty if I tell your uncle what you tried to do."
The smirk he was wearing turned into a frown, and he stamped his foot like a petulant child. "He wouldn't believe you."
"Why wouldn't he? He knows I'm honest, regardless of whose side I fight on. Besides", she added with a gesture to Gabrielle and Antea, "I have witnesses. So, what do you say you take this little "joke" off of me right now, and I won't say anything to your uncle."
"Sure, sure", he agreed hastily. "I had planned on doing that anyway. Really. It was just a joke, I swear!" He gestured with his hand and then smiled. "There. All gone. Check it out."
Keeping a safe distance in case he had been lying, Xena turned to Gabrielle and said "Say something, Gabrielle."
So used to keeping her mouth closed around Xena, it took the bard several moments before she could utter a sound. "What shall I say?", she asked hesitantly.
Xena waited for the rage that had been her constant companion for the past several weeks, and felt nothing. "Tell me to kill someone..." She thought about it for a moment. "Thanos. Tell me to kill Thanos."
Gabrielle's mouth dropped open, and she stared at Xena as if she couldn't believe what she was hearing. "Why would I tell you to kill Thanos? Or anyone?"
"You wouldn't", Xena said grinning from ear to ear. She could look into Gabrielle's face and not feel the loathing that had forced her to turn away from her for so long. But she realized she still had no memories of their time together. She turned back to Strife and said. "That was only part of it. I want my memory back too."
"Oh, yeah", he said with a laugh. "I was just about to get to that." He gestured again with his hand...and Xena staggered from the images and feelings that filled her being. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to be moving along. I thought I might start a little riot in Athens for fun. What do you think?" And he was gone before any of them could reply.
The weight of the memories was too great for Xena; she stumbled and fell to her knees. The dreams she had been having were a tiny fragment of the beautiful moments she had shared with Gabrielle. Her heart swelled almost to bursting with the love that was now the only emotion she could feel for Gabrielle.
"Xena! Are you all right?", Gabrielle cried out, throwing herself down beside the warrior.
"Yes. Yes, I'm fine... I just need a minute to...take this all in." She rocked back and forth on her knees, feeling her heart fluttering wildly in her chest.
"Let me help you up", the bard said rising to her feet. She extended her hand to Xena, who grasped it with both of hers. Gabrielle pulled with all her might, and the warrior stood up. "Do you remember now?", she asked quietly. "Everything?"
"Everything", Xena answered firmly. Gabrielle nodded silently. She took a deep breath, drew back her arm, and slapped Xena across the face hard enough to make her stumble backward and almost fall.
"Wha... Why did you do that?" Xena asked, rubbing the side of her face and feeling a welt there.
"That's for what you tried to do to Antea."
"Gabrielle, that was not called for", Antea chastised her in a firm tone. "I told you she apologized for...that."
"That doesn't matter", Gabrielle fumed. " I can understand her behaving like a warlord when that was all she could remember. But there is no explanation.. no justification for trying to rape you. That's just.. barbaric."
"You're right", Xena sighed, casting her eyes down to avoid the look of accusation on Gabrielle's face. "I'd give anything if I could...take back everything I did. Gabrielle, you can't know how bad I feel for what I did. I've apologized; I don't know what more I can do..." Her voice trailed off
The frustration, hurt and anger that had built up in the bard during the previous weeks kept her at arms length from the warrior. Her heart ached to be in Xena's arms, holding her, telling her how much she loved her, and how much she had missed her. But her head told her Xena had tried to betray her love and trust by forcibly making love to Antea. Gabrielle could have understood Antea giving in to Xena, knowing that the spark of love she felt for the warrior was never more than a breath away from fanning into a flame. But she could not forgive Xena, much as she wanted to. She needed time to adjust to the latest developments in their relationship.
Antea was torn between her two dearest friends. She understood Gabrielle's need to lash out after the ill treatment she had received at Xena's hands. But she hated that
Gabrielle had slapped Xena for something Antea herself had already written off as the act of a mischievous god. For all she knew, Strife had been pulling Xena's strings at that moment. She wanted to tell Xena it was all right, and that she did not hold it against her, but she did not want to alienate Gabrielle. Finally she decided the safest course of action was to remove herself entirely, and allow them the space to work out the problem together. She cleared her throat and said, "As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing more you need to do, Xena. I know you", and she put the emphasis on you, "would never knowingly hurt me." She turned to Gabrielle, and put her arm around the bards shoulders. Gabrielle was trembling, whether from cold or anger, she didn't know. Her lips were set in a grim determined line. Antea kissed her forehead and gave her a squeeze. Speaking softly in her ear so Xena could not hear, she said, "Baby, I know you're mad at Xena the Warlord. But please, don't take it out on Xena your lover. Look at her. She looks like she wished she had died back in that clearing. Is that what you wish?"
The question caught Gabrielle off guard, and she responded immediately. "Gods, no! I just... Oh, Antea. I don't know if I trust her. How can I be with someone I can't trust?"
"I can only tell you that I would trust her with my life. I hope you come to that same realization before you do something irreparable."
Xena had taken a few steps away from the two women as they spoke. She knew instinctively that Antea was on her side, and was trying to reason with Gabrielle. Best to trust her instincts...and her friend. She sat on a stump and absently played with the imprint of Gabrielle's hand on her cheek. She couldn't blame her; if she herself had been subjected to the kind of treatment Gabrielle had endured over the past few weeks, she would have done worse to her tormentor. She ached to think of how Gabrielle's love and respect for her must have eroded away more each day. She only hoped there was enough left to rebuild. And the desire on Gabrielle's part to do that. For herself, she wanted nothing more than to hold Gabrielle, and to listen to her sweet words again. She looked up as Antea broke off from talking to Gabrielle and walked to where she sat.
"Well, old friend, I'm afraid this is going to take some time to heal", Antea said softly. She took Xena's hand in hers and ran her thumb over the palm. "I know she still loves you. But you know how stubborn she is. Be patient with her. She needs to learn to trust you again."
"But I didn't....." Xena began in an anguished voice. Antea cut her off by putting her fingers over her lips.
"I know you didn't. She knows that, too, or at least part of her knows it. Be there for her when she's finished working this through in her mind. It'll be all right. I have a sense for these things. Hey", she said lightly, "maybe I should be an oracle, huh?"
Xena tried to smile, but it was more of a grimace. "Yeah.", she said.
Speaking louder so that Gabrielle could hear, Antea said, "I guess it's about time for me to head home. My neighbor is supposed to be feeding the chickens, but he's more likely to be feeding chickens to himself. Gotta protect the flock. Or what's left of them."
"I'm going with you", Gabrielle chimed in quickly. "I left some of my scrolls in your stable."
Antea shot a glance at Xena, who looked pained that Gabrielle was choosing to go with Antea. But she shrugged to indicate that what ever Gabrielle needed to do it was OK with her.
"Of course you can come with me", Antea said sincerely. "But what about Xena?"
"I wasn't trying to say that Xena shouldn't come too. I just...I don't think I can travel with her. On Argo. I'm not ready for that kind of closeness. I need to ride with you, or better yet, walk by myself. I've got a lot of..thinking to do."
Xena nodded. Of course she had to agree to Gabrielle's conditions. How could she not? She wanted only to be near her for as long as it took to put the unpleasant memories of the past few weeks behind them.
A light rain had started to fall just before they reached Khalkis, and by the time they entered the city it had turned into a downpour. Xena had seen the signs of the coming storm as she rode ahead of Antea and Gabrielle, who walked most of the way. Without the frantic pace dictated by Xena's thirst for revenge that necessitated Gabrielle ride double with Antea on the way out, they set almost a leisurely pace going back. It was not until it was obvious they would not make shelter before the rain hit that Xena doubled back and suggested that Gabrielle mount up behind Antea so they could make better time. Gabrielle looked for a moment as if she might ride with the warrior instead, and Xena's heart leaped at the possibility of having her close. But finally, she turned to Antea who lifted her up into the saddle. Resigned, Xena set out at a canter, and Antea did the same.
Gabrielle shook the water from her hair and stomped her boots to remove the mud before she entered the tavern. It was the same one where she had found the unfortunate soldier whose nose would forever lean to the right, and she glanced toward the bar where he had been sitting, but he was not there. She was relieved. Her guilt over having identified him to Xena weighed on her mind. With a sigh she walked to where the innkeeper was pouring wine from a large wooden barrel into jugs, and asked him if he would bring meals for three to the table in the corner. None of the nearby tables were occupied, and the three of them would have privacy. Recognizing her from the night before, he narrowed his eyes and said gruffly, "There won't be no trouble here tonight, will there missy? Can't have your big friend beating up the paying customers now, can I?" Apparently the soldier had brought his two dinars here last night to spend and explained the reason behind his new "look".
"No. No trouble tonight. Sorry about last night, but it was...unavoidable." The man mumbled something she could not hear as he turned and made his way to the kitchen to tell his wife to put three meals together. She supposed she couldn't blame him for his response. After all, he had not seen the soldier do anything to deserve the beating he took, and clearly he did not hold with unwarranted violence.
Gabrielle sat so that she was able to see the door, and when Antea and Xena came through, she waved to get their attention. Xena was laughing at something Antea had said, and the beautiful sound of her laughter made Gabrielle smile. It felt as if a fist had seized hold of her heart and was squeezing it. She wanted to be the one to make her laugh like that. Wanted to kiss her and hold her and tell her she loved her. But she couldn't make herself say the words. In time she knew she would feel differently.
"What's so funny?", she asked as they reached the table. Xena sat in the chair beside Gabrielle so she would have a view of the door, a habit she had never tried to break. Her thigh was against Gabrielle's, and the touch of her flesh was enough to send shivers rippling from her own thigh to the very center of herself. She moved her chair over just far enough that they were not touching, as she found the nearness of Xena distracting enough without the electricity generated by the touch.
"We were talking about how Antea slipped on the way out of the stable, and landed in a pile of...you know ."
"I wondered what that smell was", Gabrielle said with a laugh.
"But I changed my britches", Antea said in a petulant voice. Then she sniffed and realized that she did indeed have a bit of an odor. "Maybe I better go wash up a bit. Be right back." She walked away, leaving Gabrielle and Xena sitting in an awkward silence.
Xena cleared her throat. She looked at Gabrielle and said softly, "Gabrielle. I'm so sorry for the way I've treated you these past weeks. You did everything you could to save my life, and I repaid you with harsh words and violence." Tears began to run down her cheeks, but she seemed not to notice or care. "I did a lot of thinking on the ride here from Thanos' camp. If you...don't want to be with me any more, I would understand. But I pray you'll let me stay close by, and try to make it up to you."
"Oh, Xena", Gabrielle practically sobbed, "I do want to be with you. It's just...I'm afraid of what you became. When I came to the realization that the hate you had for me must have been someone else's doing, I was able to...distance myself from that. I hated it, but I didn't blame you. You didn't know me, after all. But Xena, you did know Antea. Knew her and remembered her, and loved her. And in spite of that, you almost raped her. What kind of person does that to someone they love? It scared me, Xena. You scared me."
Xena's face was a mask of anguish. She closed her eyes and sighed, then took a deep breath. "I don't expect you to understand this", she finally said tremulously. "Being a warlord is about power. Power and control. I hungered for it. Ached for it. The sheer boredom of waiting for my wound to heal enough for me to take my revenge against the men who tried to murder me was driving me mad. Thanos and Zarkadis were not there for me to punish, and I took out my frustrations on the people closest to me." She lowered her eyes and said through gritted teeth, " Being a warlord is also about building walls around you to protect yourself. About keeping emotions like love and compassion tamped down, because those emotions make you weak. Anyone who can break through those walls and stir those emotions can control you. Rape is also about power and control, Gabrielle. I never meant to harm Antea, please believe that."
"I...I think I do", Gabrielle said, blinking back tears of her own. "Just give me a little more time, Xena."
"All the time you need", Xena said softly. Gathering Gabrielle's hand in her own, she kissed the palm of it, and then released it.
The innkeepers wife approached their table with a tray laden down with two mugs and two plates of food. "Where's the third plate?", Gabrielle asked. "I ordered three."
"Your friend left", the woman replied. "She said to tell you she was worried about the chickens, and would see you at home. Said you would know what she meant." She put the plates in front of them, and turned to leave. After taking a couple of steps, she turned back and added, " Oh, by the way, she took a room for you two. I told her I only had one left, and it might be gone soon, so she paid for it on the spot." She returned to the kitchen without further discussion.
Gabrielle shook her head and smiled. "That Antea. She has got to be the sweetest person in the known world."
"Well, I think she's one of the top two", Xena said with raised eyebrow, looking directly at Gabrielle..
"Oh, you...", Gabrielle said with a little laugh. How good it felt to sit with Xena and laugh again. To talk to her, and not see that look of hatred spread across her beautiful features. "We should eat this while it's still reasonably warm", Gabrielle said, digging into her plate of what appeared to be stew.
Xena had already put a bite in her mouth, and said "Too late.. Already tepid. But it tastes good." They ate in silence for a while, relishing the first meal they had had since breakfast many hours before. The innkeeper himself came to their table a short while later with a small loaf of bread which was actually still warm from the oven. They used it to clean up every morsel remaining on their plates, and then sat back contented.
"What now?" Xena asked. The rain was still coming down, though not as heavily as it was before, so a walk around the town had no appeal. The choices were to sit in the tavern, and very likely get drunk, given the number of hours left before they would normally go to sleep. Or to retire to their room and , she hoped, continue their conversation in private.
"It's still early", Gabrielle responded. "Maybe I could offer to entertain with a story. Who knows, maybe they'd give us the room for a story, and we can give Antea's dinars back to her."
"Sure. I'd love to hear a story." Xena was disappointed that Gabrielle did not want to go to their room right away, but she made sure it didn't show in her voice. Besides, she had not had the pleasure of hearing the bard tell a story for what seemed like forever, and it would be nice to listen to the musical tones of her voice.
Gabrielle walked to the bar, and crooked her finger for the innkeeper to some closer so she could talk to him. Xena could see him nod every now and then, and finally he pointed to a chair on a raised platform, and the bard went to the designated spot and sat down.
"My name is Gabrielle", she said to the fairly large crowd of patrons who had come in to get out of the storm. "And I'm going to tell you the story of how Xena and Hercules freed Prometheus from his chains, and restored the gifts of healing and fire to the world....."
Xena sat with her elbows on the table, and her chin cupped in her hands, listening to every word the bard uttered. She had heard the story many times before; it was one of Gabrielle's favorites and she told it often. It wasn't the story but the storyteller that held her spellbound. The simple joy of being able to listen to her again filled her with warmth. Gabrielle told one story after another, and the hush in the room made it clear that every ear was on her. Xena was proud of how far Gabrielle had come from the simple peasant girl who dreamed of being a bard to the strong woman whose words gave pleasure to so many.
The sound of people clapping brought Xena out of her reverie, and she saw that Gabrielle had finished her last story and was coming toward the table. Her cheeks were bright from the elation she always felt when the crowds showed that they really liked her work. A bright smile lit her lovely face. Several people spoke to her as she crossed the room, and Gabrielle thanked each one for their complements.
"Wow", she said when she finally reached the table. "They really seemed to like my stories. Haven't seen a response like this since...well, for a long time." She almost said something about the silent isolation of her recent past, but thought better of it. Xena looked so happy for her that she feared it would spoil the moment to bring that up.
"How could they not?", Xena said enthusiastically. "You were brilliant. Some of them even stopped eating to hear you better. They loved you", she paused a moment and then said softly, "I love you."
"And I love you," Gabrielle responded automatically, realizing that fact had not changed despite everything that had happened. This was the woman she loved. Her actions when she believed she was a warlord were reprehensible to Gabrielle, but the actions were not the woman. At the end of the day, Xena overcame the murderous urges and refused to kill, even before Strife had lifted his spell. The good in her was stronger than the darkness inside her, and Gabrielle's fear of her lessened with each passing moment.
In the time since they had first come into the tavern, the tables around them had filled up so that they were no longer in a private little corner. A man gave Gabrielle a sidelong look when she told Xena she loved her, and the warrior caught it out of the corner of her eye.
"Do you have a problem with something?", she asked the man in a menacing tone.
"No, no", he protested quickly. He resumed eating and did not look in their direction again.
"Maybe we should go to our room to continue this conversation", Gabrielle suggested.
Xena looked at her lovers face, and thought she saw a twinkle in her eye that said she wanted to do more than talk. Xena stood up and walked around the table, her eyes never leaving Gabrielle's face. "I'd like that", she said softly.
Gabrielle took her hand and together they made their way to the stairs.
A fire had already been started in the hearth and the room was deliciously warm when the two women walked in. Rain still fell steadily outside, and the temperature had dropped considerably since earlier that day when they first went into the tavern. Xena thought about Antea, and hoped that she was indeed staying somewhere in town that night, and had not started out for home in the rain. In her heart she knew that Antea had simply wanted to leave the two of them alone to hopefully resolve their differences, and she said a silent thank you to her.
Gabrielle dropped her bedroll on the floor at the foot of the bed, and turned to look at Xena who was bending down to add a log to the fire. The firelight danced across the highlights of the warriors hair, creating a fiery halo around her head. Gabrielle's breath caught in her throat at the sight of this beautiful woman. She melted inside to think of what it would feel like to touch the skin that glowed bright gold in the firelight. As tough as the warrior was in battle, she still had soft smooth skin that begged to be touched. But Gabrielle could not reach out to her.. Not yet. She had to get some things off her chest first.
"Xena." The warrior rose from in front of the fire, and looked at the bard inquiringly.
"I'm sorry I hit you. I had been keeping my anger bottled up, out of fear... Of you. And the moment I felt like it was a tiny bit safe, I wanted to hurt you for all the wrong I thought you had done to both of us. But I shouldn't have. I know it wasn't you doing those...things. And you didn't deserve that. Forgive me?"
"There's nothing to forgive", Xena said, crossing to stand in front of the bard. She looked into the gray green eyes that held a hint of sadness, where before they shone with nothing but love. "I deserved that, and more. What I said to you before about what it means to be a warlord was true, but it was also an excuse. And I know there is no excuse for what I did, spell or no spell. And what ever I have to do, I'll spend the rest of my life trying to take that sad look from your eyes. I pray you'll let me." Xena held out her hand and Gabrielle reached out to take it in her own.
"I will", she said with a sigh.
"Can I hold you?", Xena asked tremulously.
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes", she whispered. "I've missed that so much." Xena wrapped her arms around the body that seemed even smaller than she remembered, and pulled the bard close. Gabrielle laid her cheek on Xena's breast, and listened to the sound of her heart beat. She inhaled the natural fragrance of the warrior that was so intoxicating she could feel herself getting dizzy. Wrapping her own arms around Xena's waist, she clung to her as she would have to a wooden plank in a rough sea. Xena's fingers caressed her cheek, and danced lightly across her lips. Gabrielle's soft breath on her breast was about to drive Xena mad, but she dared not make a move until Gabrielle let her know it was OK.
"I've missed it too", Xena acknowledged. "Even when I was forced to hate you, I saw you in my dreams, and I loved you in that dream world. Part of me never stopped loving you, and tried to resist...but the spell was strong. And last night I had a dream that was different from the rest. I was in complete darkness, and no matter what I did, I couldn't see a way out. And then I thought of you, and it was as if the sun had just come out. You reached for me, and told me I belonged in the light. It didn't matter that you were so much smaller than I was, you pulled me up effortlessly. And I knew then I would never give up fighting the darkness, as long as you believe in me."
"I believe in you. And I believe in us. And I believe if you don't make love to me pretty soon I might have to resort to...teasing." Gabrielle reached up to kiss the warrior, and ran her tongue across her lips, then insinuated it into her mouth. Xena groaned and opened her mouth to accept the exploring tongue. Her arms tightened around the slender bard, and her hands roamed up and down her body. She picked her up without breaking the kiss, and carried her to the bed and laid her down. She removed her armor to avoid hurting the bard, and then began to remove Gabrielle's clothes. When the smaller woman was fully naked, Xena laid down beside her on the bed. Putting her fingers under Gabrielle's chin, she turned her head toward her, and leaned over to kiss her again.
Gabrielle broke away after several minutes and murmured into her ear, "Let me help you take off your clothes too. I want to feel you, not leather." Xena nodded and rolled onto her side away from Gabrielle, who deftly untied the straps to release the leather garments. Xena shrugged them off, and then tugged her shift over her head. Naked, she returned to Gabrielle's side, and her bare breast brushed against the bard's, causing both women's nipples to stand at attention. "Oh, that's so much nicer", Gabrielle purred. " You're awfully soft...for a warlord."
"Ex-warlord", Xena corrected. "And you're the one who's soft", she added, trailing kisses down Gabrielle's chest. Gabrielle's nerves seemed to be on the very surface of her skin, as every touch from the warrior's lips caused her to twitch and moan. Xena's mouth eagerly sought the tantalizing places that had been denied to her for weeks except in dreams. And the reality of loving Gabrielle once again felt better than she could have imagined.
Xena eased Gabrielle's knees apart, and lowered her body so that her face was inches above the curly mound at the bard's center. "What would you like to do, Gabrielle?", she murmured in a throaty voice. She tongued the warm inside of Gabrielle's thigh while waiting to hear what her lover wanted her to do to please her.
Gabrielle jumped at the touch of her tongue, and her legs opened wider involuntarily. "I want...to taste you. At the same time you taste me", she finally managed to gasp.
Xena shifted around on the bed so that her thighs were beside Gabrielle's head. Lifting one leg, she straddled the bard and lowered herself so that her wet folds were within reach of Gabrielle's tongue. Xena burrowed under Gabrielle's thighs with her hands, and was able to reach the damp curls and part them with her fingers. Even as she did, she could feel Gabrielle's tongue softly running up and down the length of her labia. She moaned, and brought her own mouth to the fountain that waited for her. Hungrily they each lapped at the juices that seeped from each other. It had been so long, they were both nearly frantic from the need to bring the other to completion, and they had to consciously slow down to prolong the exquisite torture.
Xena felt her climax begin to build, and she couldn't postpone it any longer without risking losing it. She ground her hips down on Gabrielle's face, and the bard responded by sliding two of her fingers inside the warrior as she increased the pace of her tongue.
"Ohhhh", Xena moaned against her soft flesh. "Oh, oh, yes." She lifted Gabrielle's buttocks off the bed to expose more of her folds, and thrust her tongue inside her as far as she could reach. Gabrielle moved her hips in a rhythmic motion as she felt her own climax just moments away.
"Come with me", Xena whispered, and the words sent Gabrielle over the edge even as Xena toppled into the same chasm. They clung to each other as if their very lives were dependent on it, until finally they collapsed, exhausted, onto the bed. It was all Xena could do to shift her body again so that her head rested on the pillow, with Gabrielle nestled in the crook of her arm. Xena kissed the top of the bards head and said, "Thank you."
"Hmmm", Gabrielle muttered. "For what?"
"For allowing me back into your life." Gabrielle smiled and hugged Xena with the arm that was draped over her torso.
"I could say the same. I think we were...meant to be together." Xena pulled her small body closer, and Gabrielle snuggled into her breast, delighting in the smell and taste and feel of her. With a sigh, her eyes closed, and she drifted into a contented sleep.
Sunlight poured through the shutters as the two women slept, so tangled in each other that it was impossible to tell where one left off and the other began. Xena woke first, but was reluctant to disturb the bard by trying to get up, so instead she hugged her tightly, and fell back to sleep herself.
The next time she opened her eyes it was to see Gabrielle sitting on the side of the bed, fully dressed, with a steaming mug of tea in her hand. Xena yawned and stretched, and Gabrielle frankly admired her sinewy body.
"I brought you some tea", she said unnecessarily, since Xena was already reaching for the mug.
"I saw that", the warrior said smiling. "How did you manage to get up without waking me?"
"It wasn't easy. Took a long time. But I'm patient."
"Since when?", Xena said with a laugh, and then ducked as Gabrielle playfully slapped her shoulder. "Careful", she admonished. "You'll make me spill my tea."
"I'll make you spill more than your tea", Gabrielle said in a low growl, taking the mug from Xena's hand and placing it on the table near the bed. She threw herself on top of the warrior and began to run her fingers lightly over her breasts and down her stomach, watching the goose flesh rise on her skin.
"If you keep that up, we won't get out of here today", Xena said, but her tone indicated she would have no problem with spending the day exactly where they were.
Gabrielle shrugged. "We have no warlords to chase, no villages to save. I think we can take a day and just...enjoy it. Tomorrow we can head towards Antea's and get my scrolls. Today is for us." She looked at Xena for confirmation, and the warrior gave her a crooked smile and an arched eyebrow.
"Anything to please my Queen", she said humbly. And true to her word, she spent the rest of the day doing that very thing.
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