By B L Miller
Copyright: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, etc. are owned by MCA/Universal. I only borrowed them for a little while. No infringement was intended. The rest of the story is mine and I hold the copyright to it. Do not use any part of this story without my written permission. I may be contacted at IQ139@aol.com.
Sex:This story contains scenes of two women making love. <smile> If this offends you, please don't read my story. There are plenty of other wonderful stories out there.
Violence: There are scenes of violence within this story.
For Julie - who always expects Amazons
Artemis and Athena listened carefully to Ares, searching for any sign of insincerity from their brother. It wouldn't be the first time he tried underhanded tactics to get the Warrior Princess back into his fold. "Artemis, dear sister..." he began, walking up behind her and putting his hands on her shoulders. "I'm only looking out for your best interests and those of your precious Amazons. You say that you have no doubt that Xena will always protect that annoy- I mean Gabrielle, your Queen. I'm just saying that perhaps you're wrong." he released the huntress and turned to Athena. "Athena, tell me, would you trust Xena to watch over Athens, your beloved city?"
"Why, yes of course...she's changed, Ares."
"Ah, before you say that, think about this...would you trust her to have complete control? To influence your government, have free reign in decision making? The woman who once tried to kill Hercules?" he looked at Artemis "And let us not forget Queen Melosa."
"That was to prevent a war, Ares, you know that." the huntress protested.
"So it seemed. Xena will do many things in the name of 'protection', won't she? Just think of how many villages she razed in the name of protection for Amphipolis." both goddesses shuddered at the memory of Xena the Warlord. Ares stroked his beard thoughtfully. "You trust her to protect Gabrielle. What if the name of that protection she destroys another village? Athena, she helped your army defeat the Horde, tell me...did she keep Gabrielle safe then? Or did bloodlust make her blind to the truth?" the Goddess of Wisdom closed her eyes at the legitimacy of her brother's words.
"She allowed her fear and lack of knowledge about the Horde to cloud her judgment." she admitted. "But she still protected Gabrielle, Ares."
"Oh?" he said slyly, knowing she had fallen into his trap. He waved his hand and an image appeared in the scrying bowl. Gabrielle outside the gates of the fort giving the wounded men water, Xena inside plotting the best way to destroy the Horde. The image changed, as he had directed, to the tall warrior sending a hatchet into the back of an escaping man, reminding his pure and noble sisters just how cold-blooded his former princess could be. Images filled the bowl, the visions he loved best, of his warrior princess riding through a village; her army at her back, the smell of fire and blood in the air, he had to stifle the urge to grin at the sickened faces of his sisters. "Now tell me, Artemis, do you still believe that she's the best choice for your Queen's protection?"
"Ares, she's not that warlord anymore. She's on the path to redemption." the huntress said firmly.
"Ah, and is that all it takes" She has proven time and again that she cannot protect the blond from danger." he waved his hand again and the images changed once more. Gabrielle dangling from a beam while Xena battled Callisto, Gabrielle tied to a pole with the totally incompetent Joxer, Gabrielle trapped on in a casket heading into the crematorium.
"She rescued her each time." Athena said firmly.
"Yes, she did rescue her those times." he walked around the room, his hands clasped, the forefingers touching each under just below his chin. "But it's only a matter of time before she doesn't. How close was Gabrielle to being fried?"
"Ares, this is just another one of your tricks to get her back." Artemis accused. "Xena loves Gabrielle. She won't allow anything to harm her."
"Really" She loves her so much that she let her marry that poor boy. Let her become a widow in the span of a day. There's a loving act." he sneered. "And who exactly was it that tried to kill Gabrielle and did kill her husband? Callisto, a vicious killer created by Xena. Tell me, Artemis...do you think harm came to your Queen then? How many nightmares has she had since then? How close did she come to losing her blood innocence?" he stopped the images in the scrying bowl. "Ah, but enough of that. The important thing is to prove that she's truly changed."
"Ares, Athena and I won't allow you to use Gabrielle in one of your little tests for Xena." the brown haired goddess warned.
"Oh, I don't want to give Xena a test, dear sister. You see, Xena is far too cunning for any kind of test I might throw her way. No, what I propose is for you to give her a test. One that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that she would never harm Gabrielle." he looked Artemis in the eye. "I ask again, are you so certain of the Warrior Princess?"
"I believe that Xena would never hurt Gabrielle, no matter what." the huntress said with conviction.
"Even if she were still a warlord?"
"She loves Gabrielle. And my queen loves Xena. There is nothing that can break that bond."
"Nothing? Even if Xena was a warlord again? With no memory of Gabrielle?" he baited. "Is your faith that strong? Do you believe that Xena would hesitate to use that little br- blond for her own personal gain?"
There was a long silence in Artemis' realm while the two goddesses considered their brother's words. Ares waited patiently, the taste of victory on his lips. Artemis looked at the scrying bowl again, the images swirling around in a montage of scenes thanks to her brother. She turned around to face him and Athena. "I despise treachery, Ares, you know that." her brown eyes bore into him, daring him to turn away. The God of War held his ground, his evil nature allowing him to remain steadfast and return the gaze. Treachery was an art form to him and he could play it better than anyone else. "The paramount question here isn't Xena, but rather the safety of my Amazon Queen with her. You were right about her actions with the Horde." her gaze turned briefly to her sister, who lowered her eyes in silent agreement. Artemis took comfort in that motion and continued. "I am concerned at how quickly she was able to return to her former ways. I wonder if Gabrielle had not figured out that the men were only asking for water what would have happened."
"Exactly, Artemis. What if Xena was a warlord again? Gabrielle would be nothing more to her than a pawn or a fetch-it girl. And if she crossed her, then what? Xena would treat her the same way she treated any of her lieutenants that disobeyed her." he smiled inside when he saw the exchanged glance between his sisters. "How will you ever be sure? Do you really believe that Gabrielle could ever be safe with Xena, knowing the warlord lies just below the surface?"
At that moment, the Goddess of Wisdom made a statement would soon cause one of the most heated exchanges in the history of Mount Olympus. "Even if Xena had no memory of Gabrielle, she would still never allow any harm to come to her. Their love is too great and the warrior is not the animal you make her out to be, Ares. I would stake Gabrielle's life on it." before Artemis could recover from the shock of her sister's words, Ares broke into a sinister grin.
"As you wish, dear Athena." he bowed in a sweeping motion at his sisters. "The challenge is accepted." his evil and chilling laughter filled the chamber as he disappeared. Athena lowered her head, waiting for the explosion she knew was coming.
"You, you made a challenge with Ares? And you're the Goddess of Wisdom?" Artemis raged. "You're giving him exactly what he wants, another chance to win Xena back!" she balled her immortal hands into fists. "And you're using Gabrielle to do it! You know what Xena was like. How can you think she won't do anything to hurt Gabrielle?" Athena was certain that if her sister got any more angry that smoke would pour out of her ears. "And to top it off, you staked Gabrielle's life on it!" Artemis sputtered to a finish.
"Please calm down, Artemis. If you were mortal, you'd have a stroke. Now just think about it for a moment. You told me once that Gabrielle was the calming factor that kept Xena on the right path. Are you saying now that she isn't?"
"Did you forget in your quest to best our brother that it wasn't Gabrielle that turned Xena, but rather Hercules?"
"Are you saying that your queen isn't capable of turning Xena around? Do you have so little faith in their love for one another?"
"Xena won't even know who Gabrielle is, much less that she loves her!" Artemis protested. "You made sure of that with your boast!" she was still fuming and her words dripped with her anger. Far below Mount Olympus great storms rolled over the land as the Moon Goddess let loose on her sister. "And even if she does survive this ordeal, do you have any idea how much damage that can do to their relationship? Xena may not remember everything, but Gabrielle will!"
"Artemis, you should visit Aphrodite more often. You have to believe in their love."
"For your sake, sister, their love had better prevail. There isn't a place on Mount Olympus that can hide you should Gabrielle fall victim to the Warrior Princess' blade." Artemis moved in close, her eyes burning into her sister. "I swear it on my Amazons. If Gabrielle dies, Zeus help Athens." Athena could only gulp at the intensity in her sister's gaze. She had no doubt that she meant every word.
"The Gods must be fighting again." Gabrielle commented, looking at the teeming rain just outside their small cave. "Wonder what it's about this time?"
"Probably nothing more than their petty little games that they like to play." Xena replied as she tossed more wood on the fire. A series of thunderclaps struck with such ferocity that the bard jumped back from the mouth of the cave. Instantly the warrior was by her side, hands on the younger woman's shoulders "Whatever they're arguing about, it must be pretty serious for the storm to be this bad." mentally the warrior was concerned. Rarely did anything good come from a battle between gods and more often than not it was nothing but trouble for mortals. She felt Gabrielle shiver beneath her hands. "Come on, let's get you near the fire."
No matter how hard the bard tried, she couldn't shake the feeling of foreboding that came the instant the rains started. Something was wrong, but she didn't know what. Xena had caught a pheasant for dinner but Gabrielle did nothing more with her share than pick at it until the bird was cold, she shove the plate away from her. The warrior arched an eyebrow in concern. "Gabrielle, you barely touched dinner. Are you feeling all right?" without waiting for an answer, she reached over and placed her hand on the younger woman's forehead.
"I'm fine, Xena, it's just...I don't know, I just have a feeling that something terribly wrong is about to happen." she said with a shaky voice, her green eyes filling with unshed tears. Gabrielle found herself immediately enveloped in the warrior's strong arms.
"Shh...it's okay. I won't let anything happen to you." Xena pulled her into her lap and held her close. The blue eyes looked down at the bard with concern. She'd never seen Gabrielle so spooked before. The warrior gently rubbed her hand up and down the bard's back in a comforting motion. After almost a full candlemark of comforting the young woman, Xena was finally able to get her calmed down enough to carry her to her bedroll and continued the gentle rubbing of the bard's back, gently lulling the younger woman into sleep.
Long after she heard the soft snore emanating from the bard, Xena continued to lay there, gently stroking the long blond strands of Gabrielle's hair want watching the steady rise and fall of her chest. The warrior longed to curl up next to her and hold the bard all night long, to feel the warmth of Gabrielle's skin against hers, to bury her face in the golden tresses, to pretend that they were lovers settling down for a peaceful night's sleep. Gabrielle shifted slightly, drawing the warrior out of her musings. Xena placed a soft kiss on the bard's forehead before moving over to her own side of the fire and falling into a restless slumber.
A silvery white owl fluttered into the cave and transformed into the Goddess Athena. With a wave of her hand, she made certain that both mortals would continue to sleep, leaving her to complete her task undisturbed. She collected all of the scrolls from the saddlebag as well as the ink and quill. She then removed all the personal items that they had given each other over the last two and a half summers of traveling together. Combs, bracelets, even a small lamb that made noise when its tail was pulled. Ah, the winter solstice, Athena recalled. Xena had given the wooden gift to Gabrielle. The goddess quickly finished her task, effectively removing any trace that the two women belonged together. A shimmering light appeared behind her. Athena knew without looking that her sister was there. "Artemis, you know you can't interfere in this."
The moon goddess looked down at her sleeping Amazon queen. "I'm not interfering, Athena. I just wanted to see my chosen one last time." she knelt down and brushed a lock of hair off the sleeping bard's face. "Be strong, little one. Trust in your love and be strong." she bent down to place a kiss on Gabrielle's cheek but was stopped by her sister's hand on her shoulder.
"No, Artemis. You know that a kiss of protection isn't allowed."
"Thanks to you." she spat bitterly as she rose to face the goddess of wisdom. "You still had no right to make a deal with Ares." Artemis waved her hand and a table appeared, a scaled down version of Athens covering the top. Both goddesses walked over to it. Artemis grinned almost evilly at the vision before her, reminding Athena of the look Ares was so famous for. Faster than the goddess of wisdom could react, Artemis brought her fist down, crushing the Coliseum into little pieces. Athena nodded solemnly, the silent threat acknowledged. "Finish your task, sister." Artemis said, changing into a shimmering form and disappearing. Within heartbeats, the table and all upon it also dissolved into nothingness. Athena let out an involuntary shudder at the memory of her sister's fury.
The goddess knelt down next to the sleeping warrior and passed her hand over the chiseled face, her touch draining Xena's memories. Athena stopped at the point just past when the warrior went through the gauntlet of her own men in order to protect a baby. The goddess rose and walked over to Gabrielle, repeating the words of her sister. "Be strong, Gabrielle. Only your strength and love can guide Xena back." she reached down and moved the bard's staff closer to the sleeping form, just in case. Athena moved to the mouth of the cave and took one last look at them before turning back into an owl and flying away to Athens.
Xena awoke before the first rays of dawn appeared in the morning sky. Without opening her eyes or moving a muscle, she tried to take in her surroundings. The hard surface beneath her told her that she was in a cave. Once certain that there was no threat, she opened her eyes and looked around. A golden mare stood just outside the cave entrance, chewing lazily on the wet grass, but what caught the warlord's attention was the young woman sleeping peacefully on the opposite side of the fire. Without making a sound, Xena crept over and knelt down next to her. She had no recollection of finding anyone after leaving her army. Her blue eyes fell upon the staff laying at the blond woman's side. She picked it up and studied the markings. The well worn wooden weapon bore the markings of Amazon Xena carefully moved the weapon out of reach of the sleeping woman, then sat back on her haunches and to decide what to do. After a few moments, the warlord walked over to the saddlebags and rummaged through them until she found some rope. She bound the sleeping woman's wrists firmly behind her back before rising and grabbing her sword. Xena fought the urge to laugh at how easily she had captured and restrained an Amazon. "Wake up, Amazon." there was no movement. The warlord reached out and placed her boot on the blond's rear, shaking her forcefully. "I said up!" she snarled.
Gabrielle stirred and immediately realized that her hands were tied behind her. She rolled onto her side and saw her best friend looking down at her, sword pointed at her throat. "Xena, what are you doing?" she protested, groggy from being so rudely awakened, not to mention the restraints. Had she focused on the blue eyes boring into her, Gabrielle would have noticed the lack of recognition. Instead, the bard rolled into a sitting position and scowled. "I don't know which lesson you're trying to teach me, Xena, but let me out of this." She shrugged her shoulders to indicate the binding. "And put that sword down."
"Well, you know my name, that's good." She kept the sword leveled at the bard. "Now, who are you and why are we here in this cave?"
"Who am I? Xena, did you hit your head on something?" before Gabrielle could react, the warlord was upon her, shoving her hard back down onto the ground and jabbing at her throat.
"I will not ask again." She snarled. It was then that the bard noticed the look in the warlord's eyes. This was no training game. She swallowed and tried to remain calm.
"G-Gabrielle." she said, dimly aware of the thin line of blood trickling down from her nose.
"That's better. Now, why are you here?"
"W-we travel together. There was a storm...Xena, please?" she croaked, feeling blackness washing over her. The warlord's fingers found her throat and with a painful twisting motion released the pinch. Gabrielle rolled onto her side, partially to ease the pain in her hand and arms from laying on them on the hard ground and partially to keep Xena from seeing the true fear in her eyes.
"How many of you are there? Where are your Amazon friends hiding?"
"There's no one else. I swear. You and I travel together, Xena."
"I don't travel with Amazons." the warlord said flatly, not believing a word of it.
"Well you travel with me." Gabrielle shot back angrily. "If you'd let me loose, I'll prove it to you." she expected perhaps a protest, but certainly not the laughter that burned her ears.
"Nice try, Amazon." Xena said without a trace of humor.
"Look, if you'd just let me get to the saddlebags..." she watched the tall woman rise and walk over the corner where their gear was kept. Gabrielle took the opportunity to roll to a sitting position and raise her knee to wipe the blood from her nose onto the edge of her skirt, grimacing at the memory of feeling the pinch.
Xena opened every flap and searched every compartment, looking for any sign that the Amazon was telling the truth. All she found were medical supplies, a close and spare shift for herself, her cape, and foodstuffs. "And just what is it that I'm supposed to find?" she queried.
"My scrolls." Gabrielle replied, confused. How could Xena miss seeing them?
"No scrolls." she double checked the compartments. "No scrolls, no clothes, nothing that could possibly belong to you."
"That's impossible! All my scrolls? There's nothing?" Gabrielle's mind raced to figure out what was going on, nothing made any sense. Why didn't Xena remember her? Where were all her things? "Xena, listen to me. I know it doesn't make sense, but I'm telling you the truth. We travel together, we have for over two summers now. Please you have to believe me." she pleaded.
Instantly Xena was in front of her, the blue eyes piercing like daggers into her. "I don't have to believe you, Amazon, and I don't believe you."
"Then how do you explain us being in this cave? Xena, please untie me, my wrists are really starting to hurt and I need to make a trip to the woods." she squirmed a bit to make her point. For a moment she feared that Xena would make her suffer but then the warlord reached behind the bard and hoisted her up to her feet roughly.
"No tricks." the tall woman warned as she half-guided, half-dragged the bard out of the cave. Once outside, Xena released her painful grip on the Gabrielle's upper arm and stood there.
"Um..." the bard shifted uncomfortably. "Xena, I can't get my breeches down while my hands are tied. Look, I swear I won't go anywhere." she yelped in surprise when she felt Xena come up behind her and lift her skirt.
"I don't trust you, Amazon. You've lied to me enough already." the warlord said as she hooked her fingers under the thin material of Gabrielle's breeches and pulled them down.
"Xena, I can't do it if you're going to stand there and watch me." she said, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment.
"Then I'd say you have a problem." the warlord said dryly.
"At least turn around." the bard said angrily, the pain in her full bladder overriding her newfound fear of her best friend. In the blink of an eye, Xena's fist flew out, connecting solidly against the side of Gabrielle's jaw, sending her backwards against the side of the cave. The bard tasted the blood in her mouth where her teeth cut her cheek. The warlord's powerful hand gripped her jaw painfully, forcing the bard to look into the stormy blue eyes.
"Never tell me what to do, Amazon." she said through gritted teeth. Gabrielle knew that her face would bear bruises from her best friend's fingertips. She nodded her head slightly in defeat. Xena released her grip and stepped back. Face flushed with embarrassment and fear, Gabrielle squatted down, keeping her eyes focused on the ground ahead and not at the barely controlled violent look on Xena's face. The bard realized that this was not her friend anymore, whatever happened, Xena was back to her warlord ways and the young woman gulped in fear, although she wasn't sure if the fear was for her friend of for herself. She stood back up and waited for Xena to help her get her breeches back up, something that the warlord made no move to do. Rather than asking for help and possibly enraging the raven haired woman again, Gabrielle stepped out of them and silently returned to the cave, followed closely behind by the woman who was still debating what to do with her.
Xena mixed up a cup of tea for herself and sat down on her side of the fire, using the saddle as a backrest. Gabrielle sat on her side, just away from the wall, which was too cold to lean against. The warlord picked up her whetstone and began sharpening her sword, her eyes flitting to the cave entrance every so often to look for signs of more Amazons. With the quiet disturbed only by the sound of stone against steel and the occasional crackle of the fire, Xena tried to piece together what was going on. The last thing she remembered was leaving her army, battered and beaten by the gauntlet of men, but alive. She looked down at her armor. Less than what she normally wore, but still usable. Try as she might, Xena couldn't remember when she had acquired the armor, much less the horse and saddlebags. The saddle she recognized as her own, but other than the cape, cloak, chakram, and her leathers, that was about it. And what of the woman...Gabrielle, she recalled the name, what of her? She didn't appear to be much of a threat, yet she carried an Amazon fighting staff. She claimed to be a friend. While it was true that Xena allowed Amazons into her army from time to time and that they usually were far more capable than their male counterparts, she couldn't imagine this little one being of much use, especially with just a staff. And what of the lies about scrolls? Surely this one was up to no good.
"Um, Xena? Do you think I could have something to drink too?" Gabrielle asked softly, still afraid of the taller woman's violent temper. The bard didn't know what to think about what had happened. All her belongings were gone as well as her scrolls, it just didn't make any sense. She remembered the previous day's storms and the dream she had last night. A soft voice telling her to be strong, to believe in her love for Xena. The Gods, it had to have something to do with them, Gabrielle realized. The warlord ignored her request, continuing to sharpen her sword. The bard stared at the fire. That was the only explanation. The Gods were somehow involved. No doubt Ares, the blond mused. She swallowed, trying to ease her parched throat. "Xena, can I please have some water?"
The warlord stopped sharpening her sword and glared at the Amazon. She rose in one fluid motion and picked up the waterskin. It was full, so there must be a water source nearby. She could afford to spare some water. Xena knelt down in front of the restrained woman and unstopped the skin. "Open up." she squirted some water into Gabrielle's mouth.
"Thank you." the bard said quietly. Xena made no indication of hearing the remark, simply rising, returning to her side of the fire, and resuming her sharpening.
"Where are we?" Xena asked after a few moments.
"About a day south of Minos." she replied. The warlord nodded and continued her sharpening. The information disturbed her. Minos was at least a good three or four quarter-moon journey from where she had left her army. Try as she might, she couldn't come up with anything to fill in the gap. Drugs, that had to be the answer, Xena thought. The Amazon must have drugged her.
Gabrielle noticed the change in Xena's features. The jaw tightened, the eyes narrowed accusingly at her and the muscles in her neck stood out. The warlord rose and went to the saddlebags, searching through the variety of herbs until she found what she was looking for. She pulled out the small pouch of white powder and frowned. Xena had no way knowing how much she had but was convinced that this had to be how the Amazon had managed to get her so far without her knowing being able to recall it. Without looking, she released her chakram. The flying disc of metal clanged off the near wall and sailed just over the top of Gabrielle's head before hitting the far wall and coming back to the warlord. Xena walked over and knelt down in front of the now trembling woman. "You drugged me." she said flatly. "That's why I can't remember anything. What price is the Amazon nation paying for my head these days? Not that I can remember ever striking one of their villages." her blue eyes burned with anger. "Or is it another warlord that you're working for? Perhaps some little village that wants revenge on the Warrior Princess? Tell me, Amazon, what made you think you could possibly capture me?"
"Xena, I didn't-" she was cut off in mid sentence by a strong slap across the face.
"I can't believe a word you say." she stood up and jerked Gabrielle into a standing position, noting the muscles in the shorter woman's biceps. "I'll give you a sporting chance, Amazon." she unhooked her chakram and cleanly cut the hemp holding Gabrielle's wrists together. The bard brought her hands around front, her hands rubbing the raw skin. Xena walked over and picked up the staff, turning it over slowly in her hands before tossing it Gabrielle. The bard caught it easily, her eyes widening in understanding.
"Xena, no, please, you don't want to do this." she pleaded while readying her staff. The warlord had already retrieved her sword and was twirling it around in her hand.
"I don't want revenge on someone who was trying to kill me? Defend yourself, Amazon."
"Don't do this, Xena, I beg you." she backed up toward the mouth of the cave, silently fearing that escape would be impossible.
"Ayiyiyiyi!" the leather clad woman yelled as she somersaulted over Gabrielle to land between her and the exit. "Going somewhere?" she taunted. "Come now, Gabrielle, where's that Amazon spirit?" she lunged forth, sending her sword in an arc toward the bard's right side. Gabrielle brought her staff to a vertical position, barely blocking the blow. She steeped back, readying herself for another attack.
"Xena..." she brought her staff up above her head to block the next blow. It was delivered with such force that the bard's hands stung from the contact. "This...isn't you...please listen to me...it's the gods...please...." she said between parries. Every blow was sending Gabrielle back further into the cave. She continued to defend herself, knowing full well that Xena would never allow her an opening to attack unless it was a setup. What she didn't expect was Xena grabbing and handful of ash from the fire and throwing it in her face. Blinded, Gabrielle was helpless to the leg sweep that followed. In a heartbeat, her staff was out of her hands and Xena's sword was at her throat. Tears filled the bard's green eyes, but not just from the ashes.
"Scared, Amazon?" she taunted, pressing down slightly against the soft skin of the bard's neck with her sword. Gabrielle knew better than to move.
"Y-yes, I don't want to die, Xena." she said softly, her voice cracking with fear.
"You should have thought of that before you tried to kill me." the warlord replied.
"Xena, you don't want to do this." her mind focused on one thought. "Unless you want the entire Amazon nation to come down on you."
"For one warrior? Amazons aren't that stupid. Why would they possibly wage a war with me over you?"
Gabrielle swallowed, the steel of Xena's sword pressing harder against her throat. She said the only thing she could think of to save her life, the one thing she knew better than to reveal to a warlord, any warlord, much less one who needed money to raise a new army. "Because I'm their Queen. If you kill me, they'll never stop hunting you." she felt the pressure against her throat ease slightly. Sensing that Xena was listening, she continued. "Do you really want to be number one on every Amazon's list of people to kill?"
"I'm number one on many people's lists, what difference would a few Amazons make?" she pulled her sword back. "However, perhaps you are worth something to me alive." she said before sending the hilt crashing against the side of Gabrielle's head. "If you are indeed their queen, you are worth something to me. If not, it makes no difference if I kill you now or later." She stood up and walked away from the unconscious form.
Gabrielle awoke to find herself atop Argo, her hands securely tied to the saddlehorn. The pain in her head was a quick reminder of what had happened and she sadly realized that it wasn't a dream. Looking up, she saw that they were approaching the outskirts of Minos. She felt the hard metal of Xena's armor pressing into her back and the evening wind had pushed the warlord's cape forward to rest against both their thighs. The pommel of Xena's sword bounced in rhythm to Argo's steps, pressing against Gabrielle's hip. A quick glance to the side told the young queen that her friend was now wearing her sword on her side again, something she hadn't done in almost two summers.
Eponin and Solari were sitting in the tavern, enjoying the last day of their vacation before returning to the village, both blissfully unaware of the threat to their beloved queen just outside the door.
Xena dismounted and tied Argo to a nearby post. She wasn't planning on staying long. She reached up with her chakram and cut the ropes that held Gabrielle's hands to the saddlehorn. "Down." she commanded. The bard did exactly what she was told. Xena pulled a knife out of her boot and held it close to Gabrielle's neck. "Don't forget that I will kill you without a thought, Amazon."
"I know." she said solemnly. "I know."
When the door to the tavern opened and Gabrielle stepped in, both Eponin and Solari smiled at their good fortune. It had been far too long since they'd seen their friends. Their smiles quickly faded, however, when they saw not only the multitude of bruises and cuts that littered Gabrielle's face but also the knife held so close to her bare abdomen. "Ep, what..."
"Shh." the stout but powerful Amazon replied. She had never seen Xena in a cape before and had to admit that she looked even more powerful and intimidating than usual. Gabrielle stared at them, her eyes betraying a deep fear while Xena's gaze encompassed the entire room before settling at their table. Ahh, I knew she had to have help, the warlord thought to herself as she roughly led Gabrielle to their table. Uncertain as to what exactly was going on but concerned for the safety of their queen, Eponin slipped her knife out of its sheath and held it just below the surface of the table. There was no friendliness in the tall woman's blue eyes, a fact that Eponin found very disconcerting.
"Is she your queen?" Xena demanded, stopping just short of their table.
"Of course, Xena, you know that." Solari replied as she rose to her feet. "Gabrielle, what happened?" she took a step toward the bard and the warlord immediately took a step back, the hand holding the knife wrapping itself around Gabrielle's neck.
"Don't come any closer." Xena warned, her eyes darting from Eponin to Solari and back. "You tell your people that I have her and if you want her back alive it'll cost fifty thousand dinars."
Eponin rose to her feet quickly, sending her chair flying backwards in the process. The tavern quieted immediately as the patrons paid attention to the four women standing in the center of the room. Suddenly everyone remembered somewhere else they had to be at that moment instead of within range of what appeared to be an upcoming fight between a group of Amazons. Only the bartender remained and he was hiding behind the bar, silently wondering why he too didn't find somewhere else to be. Xena tightened her grip on Gabrielle's neck. "Fifty thousand. One dinar less and she dies."
"Xena, I don't know what's going on but there's no way we're going to let you leave with her like this." Solari warned, her own sword coming out of its scabbard. Eponin did likewise, switching her knife to her left hand pulling her own sword out with her right.
"Xena, listen to me. Gabrielle is your friend. You don't want to do this." the stocky Amazon said, her eyes darting from the frightened green of her queen to the ice blue of what was apparently now her captor. Eponin took a step forward, her brown eyes focused on the knife at Gabrielle's neck.
"Lies, all lies!" the warlord snarled. "I knew I'd find Amazons here. Waiting for a report on the status of your prisoner? A great capture for the Amazon Nation, huh? The bounty must be pretty high for you to stupidly risk your queen's life. Did you think I wouldn't escape?"
"Xena, I don't know what happened but this isn't you. You and Gabrielle are best friends. Please, put the knife down and we'll talk. You can come back to the village and have Saras look at you, perhaps you hit your head on something..."
"Quiet!" the warlord growled at Solari. "I know what the white powder can do and I know how you tried to use it to keep me from escaping. That's all over now. I'm the one giving the orders, not your precious little queen." she jerked the knife slightly for emphasis. "Fifty thousand."
"I can't let you leave with her." Eponin said, taking another step closer, her own adrenaline racing. Gabrielle's eyes were wide with fear. It was obvious to the Amazons that whatever was going on, their queen was in grave danger.
"Who's going to stop me, you?" she sneered. Solari tried to circle around behind Xena, but the warlord was having none of that. Before the tall Amazon could react, the knife that was at Gabrielle's throat flew through the air, imbedding itself deep into Solari's bicep. Eponin made a split heartbeat decision and charged at the warlord. Unable to wield her sword and keep her grip on Gabrielle, Xena released her grip on the bard's neck and reached down, striking a pressure point on the young woman's upper thigh. With her hostage incapacitated, Xena shoved her to the ground and leveled her sword at Eponin. "Wanna play, Amazon?" she taunted, twirling her sword in preparation of the battle. Unable to use her right leg, Gabrielle started to drag herself across the floor. Solari took advantage of Xena's preoccupation with Eponin to reach down with her good arm and help pull Gabrielle out of the way. Together they worked to release the pressure point while the stocky Amazon kept Xena engaged.
One by one the tables and chairs of the tavern found themselves tossed about as the two sword-wielding women made room to maneuver. Having sparred many times with the raven haired woman, Eponin knew well Xena's style of attack. The warrior she knew left little if any opening and she hoped that the crazed woman in front of her now was more prone to carelessness, although deep inside she doubted it. Xena brought her sword down, connecting solidly with the Amazon's, and the fight was on.
Solari's arm was covered with blood dripping from her wound, yet she paid no attention, her primary concern at the moment was getting her queen out of danger and then helping her friend and Amazon sister. Although her leg screamed from the after effects of the pinch, Gabrielle forced herself to her feet, leaning on Solari for support. "Come on, Gabrielle, we have to get you out of here."
"No, I can't." the bard replied. "I can't leave Xena like this. I can't let her become a warlord again."
"What?" Solari said incredulously. "You can't be serious. Gabrielle, look at you. You look like she used you for punching practice and she wants to hold you for ransom. How can you even think of staying with her?" the sound of sword against sword continued to ring throughout the tavern as the two skilled fighters continued to exchange blows, neither able to land anything significant on the other. Although Xena had the height and strength advantage, Eponin had the advantage of knowing the raven haired woman's style of attack and used it to keep herself alive.
"Solari, what do you think will happen to the Amazon nation if I escape now? Xena thinks the Amazons tried to kidnap her and sell her off to another warlord for the bounty. Do you think she's just going to ignore that?"
"It doesn't matter, Gabrielle. What's important is keeping you safe and alive."
"No!" the bard said. "My safety isn't what's at stake here. It's the safety of the entire nation. If I escape, she'll declare war on the Amazons. How much more blood would be spilled then?"
"Gabrielle, listen to me. This isn't your Xena we're talking about here. Whatever's going on, she's a warlord again. You can't change her and you can't stop her. Please, come back to the village. We can organize a group of warriors to go after her and bring her back. Maybe Saras can help."
"There's nothing that a healer can do for her, Solari. What's happened to her has to be the work of the gods."
Although a fierce warrior in her own right, Eponin could only stand up so long against Xena's continued onslaught. The warlord showed no signs of wearing down and in fact was grinning as she continued to rain down blow after blow on the stocky Amazon. Solari retrieved her sword and moved in to assist Eponin, hoping that they together might be able to subdue the warlord. Gabrielle hobbled over to the corner and retrieved a mop, using her foot to break the head off and create a makeshift staff. As good as Xena was at fighting, having two well trained Amazons facing her made it more difficult that she would have liked. Unlike most men she faced, these two women kept their distance from her, neither trying to press an attack nor were they falling for her false openings. It was time for new tactics. With a blood-curdling cry, Xena somersaulted through the air, landing on one of the still upright tables. Before Eponin could react, she found her chin colliding with the well-placed heel of Xena's boot, sending her down to the floor, dazed and groggy.
Gabrielle knew she had to do something. Both Amazons were injured and no longer in any shape to face the barely sweating Xena. She looked at the fireplace and knew what she had to do. Eponin was on her back, rolling to avoid the warlord's blows that alternated between her and Solari, who was rapidly growing weaker from the loss of blood. Gabrielle moved in close, keeping one hand on her makeshift staff and the other tightly closed around a handful of ash. "Xena! You want me, come get me!"
"I thought you didn't want to die, Gabrielle." Xena said, taking a step toward her. Eponin seized the advantage offered her by the queen's distraction and threw her sword at the warlord, praying to Artemis to make her aim true. The blade struck Xena in the right thigh, just above the knee, slicing a clean gash that although not deep enough to do any damage to the muscle would still require stitches. The desperate move also left the stocky Amazon with nothing more that her knife for protection. Gabrielle chose that moment to open her hand and throw the ash into Xena's face.
"Run!" the bard yelled, wrapping both hands around the mop handle and positioning herself between Xena and the Amazons. Solari helped Eponin to her feet but neither moved toward the exit. Without taking her eyes off the temporarily blinded warlord, Gabrielle yelled at them again to escape.
"Not without you!" Eponin said, taking Solari's sword from her and preparing to engage Xena again.
"If you don't leave she'll kill you! Run! Tell Ephiny not to worry about me!" the ash didn't blind Xena as much as Gabrielle had hoped and she quickly found herself on the defensive. Fortunately, the thigh wound kept Xena from doing any acrobatics that would have allowed her to get to the wounded Amazons. "Go!" Gabrielle shouted as she parried another blow designed to force her back closer to Eponin and Solari. The two Amazon warriors desperately wanted to stay and protect their queen but understood the importance of her command. Beaten and wounded, they stood no chance against the angry warlord and someone had to warn Ephiny about what had happened, not that they really understood themselves. Against their training as Amazon warriors and against their better judgment, Eponin and Solari followed their queen's order and backed up toward the door.
"How will we know where to deliver the ransom?" Solari said through clenched teeth, her bloody arm now throbbing painfully. Eponin was still hoping against hope for an opening to disable Xena and rescue Gabrielle. The warlord's sword came down at just the right angle and snapped the wooden mop handle in two. At the same time Eponin lunged forward, Xena reached down and in one fluid motion, unhooked and released her chakram. The usual element of surprise was lost on the Amazon, who was well aware of the weapon and had been waiting for Xena to use it. Eponin brought her sword up in front of her body at just the right moment, deflecting the chakram away from her throat and her probable death. Unfortunately, the ricocheting weapon sliced downward, slicing through her upper left thigh at an angle almost parallel to the bone. Now out of energy, the chakram clanged to the ground and skidded to a halt near the far wall. Xena was done toying around with them. One quick movement of her own bloodied leg and she brought Gabrielle to the ground, her sword at the bard's throat in much the same fashion as she had done in the cave. For several breaths, no one moved or made a sound.
"At the northern edge of your lands, near the hunting grounds. There's a field there, a place where your archers can't reach from the trees. Have the ransom there in six days. Have it loaded on a chariot and make sure the horses of your best Amazon bred stock. I'll know if they aren't." she warned. "If I see one Amazon, I'll kill your precious queen without a thought." she hauled Gabrielle up to her feet, keeping one arm wrapped around the bard's neck. "Now get out of my way."
Xena rode hard, pushing Argo more than she ever would under normal circumstances. Her leg throbbed painfully but she didn't dare stop until she was certain she couldn't be found by the Amazons. The site she finally settled on was a good half-candlemark from the road. It afforded her a clear view of the surrounding area, was easily defendable, and also had a small pond for water and bathing. The warlord chuckled to herself as she dismounted. At best she was only six candlemarks from the edge of the Amazon lands yet was certain that they would think her much further away. It was the perfect place to hide and care for her injury. Despite the tightly wound bandage, Xena's blood seeped through and covered not only her leg but also Argo's right side. She dismounted, leaving Gabrielle tied to the saddle horn.
Gabrielle looked down at her with the one eye that wasn't swollen shut. No matter how hard she tried to hold back the tears, they still continued to flow. In all the time she had been with Xena, she never once feared for her life from her. Today was a different matter altogether. This wasn't her Xena, the one that held her when she was scared, that taught her how to fish and make fires and scout and handle her staff. That wasn't the woman she was with now. This Xena was cold, calculating, short with the temper and quick with the fist. This woman scared Gabrielle, scared her more than when Draco had tried to enslave her so long ago.
Xena pulled the needle and thread out of the saddlebag and looked at her bloody bandage. The sword wound was in the back of her thigh, an area most difficult for her to reach. She pressed down on a pressure point to lessen the bleeding and removed the bandage. The dim light of dusk and the position made it hard for her to see the gash, much less stitch it.
"If you let me down, I'll help you." Gabrielle said quietly, uncertain if she should offer but unable to do otherwise. No matter how she was acting, Xena was still her best friend. The warlord looked up at her and contemplated the offer. They were certainly far enough away from civilization that any thoughts of escape weren't possible. She reached back one more time to see if she could do it herself.
Gabrielle trembled slightly when she saw Xena rise and head towards her, knife in hand. The warlord reached up and rested the blade on the rope. "No tricks." she warned. The bard nodded silently and waited for the bindings to be cut before sliding down from the saddle.
"Um...we'll need a fire for light." Gabrielle said cautiously. Xena said nothing but limped over and picked up a thick branch from the ground before heading back to where she had been sitting before the Amazon spoke. She reached into the saddlebag and removed her flint. Within moments she made a torch that would provide enough light for the blond to work with. Gabrielle knelt down next to her and reached for the torch.
"No. I'll hold it." Xena said firmly. The bard nodded and waited for the dark haired woman to roll onto her stomach. Gabrielle inhaled sharply when she saw just how deep Eponin's blade had gone. She felt Xena tense up at the first touch of the needle against her skin. With gentle, loving hands, Gabrielle began making the series of small, tight stitches and felt the muscles beneath her relax. She remembered back to the last time she had to stitch Xena up. It was after another fight in a tavern, only that time the leather clad woman was trying to defend her honor from a smelly behemoth of a man who thought the Amazon was available for his pleasure. The memory made Gabrielle smile and she was grateful that Xena couldn't see her face. "You're very gentle, Amazon. Are you a healer as well as a queen?" there was no sarcasm or threat in the warlord's tone, just curiosity.
"No, I'm no healer, Xena. I'm a bard." she replied as she pushed the needle through again.
"Then tell me a story." the warlord prompted.
"Okay..." came the surprised and slightly pleased reply. Even though it was an order and not a question, Gabrielle was still happy that Xena wanted to hear a story. She thought carefully about which tale she wanted to tell. Obviously anything they had been through was out of the question as were any stories about Hercules. She took a deep breath and wet her lips. "Once upon a time there was a great hunter who dared to hunt on sacred ground...." she proceeded to tell Xena the story she had once told the leader of the Minatoan army, trying hard not to think about how close she had come to death at that temple in Thessaly. Xena listened intently, the soft words drawing her in and blocking out the pain of her wound. Gabrielle drew the story to a close at the same time as she finished applying the fresh bandage. Xena rolled over and looked at her in the torchlight.
"Why?" she held the torch up to see Gabrielle's face. "I'm holding you for ransom, I've tried to kill you and your friends, yet you still helped me. I ask again, why?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath and thought carefully before answering. "I lost a dear friend recently, someone who meant more to me than anyone else in the world. I didn't do this for you, I did it for her."
"I'm not your friend."
"I know." the bard replied, trying to keep the sadness out of her voice. She shivered slightly in the cool night air. Xena stood up.
"Can you cook?"
"Fine." the warlord looked around, pleased with the amount of branches and fallen wood she saw. Within moments she had a small but warm fire going. Gabrielle reached for the saddlebag to get their foodstuffs but then stopped and looked expectantly at Xena, waiting for permission. The warlord nodded and watched as Gabrielle pulled the different items out of the saddlebag and poured some herbs into the pot for tea.
"I need to go get water for the tea." the bard said, not wanting to make any move that might upset the warlord, who seemed to be rather calm at the moment.
"I'll get it." Xena replied, walking over and taking the pot. She looked at the amount of herbs and frowned. "Is that all there is?"
"No, but there's enough in there for your tea." the bard replied. So unsure of what would set the leather clad woman off, Gabrielle was afraid to assume she could have a cup as well and thus only put enough in for Xena.
"Give it to me." she took the pouch of herbs from the bard and added more than enough to the pot for both of them.
Ephiny was awakened by the frantic pounding on her door. "Come." she said groggily, rising to her feet and reaching for her clothes. Ilanna, Ephiny's assigned guard, entered and began rapidly trying to explain what was going on. Ilanna joined the Amazon nation during her twenty-first summer after having escaped a slave ship from Egypt. Now four summers later, her Greek had improved to a point where she was easily understood despite her thick accent. Easily understood, that is, when she spoke slowly. At the moment however, the only words that Ephiny could understand were Eponin, Solari, and Saras. The mention of the healer's name in the same sentence as her closest friends struck a chord of fear deep into her heart. "Ilanna...Ilanna calm down." the blond Amazon said, reaching out and putting her hands on the copper toned woman's shoulders. "What happened?"
Ephiny entered the healer's hut reluctantly. The report she wrangled out of her near hysterical guard told her little save that her two friends had been attacked in Minos and that Eponin had been hurt so bad that she had to be carried in on a travois. Now in Saras' hut, Ephiny saw that the words hadn't been exaggerated. Saras and one of her assistants were working feverishly to stitch the deep gash that threatened to drain all of her friend's life blood. Eponin was unconscious, something that the regent thought must have been a blessing considering the severity of the wound. Solari lay on the other bed, her upper arm heavily bandaged. Ephiny didn't need to see the wound to know it must have been a hades of a fight. Solari's clothes were covered in blood and the blond ruler silently prayed it didn't all belong to her Amazons. She sat down on the edge of Solari's bed.
"How's Ep?" the tall, dark haired warrior asked quietly. The healer in Minos did little to help them, merely wrapping the wounds tightly with bandages and telling them to return to their village for treatment. Minos was the closest village to the Amazon lands, slightly more than four candlemarks away, yet there were still people there who resented the strong and independent tribe of women. Unfortunately for Eponin and Solari, the healer of Minos was one of those people.
"They're still working on her." Ephiny replied, casting a glance over at the other bed. Saras called for more water, bandages, and thread. That was not a good sign. If there was one thing the Amazon healer was known for it was her tendency to always have more supplies at her side than she needed. To have her call for more meant that the wound was far worse than she had anticipated. Ephiny looked back at Solari. "Can you tell me what happened?"
Solari licked her lips nervously. "We were sitting in the tavern and Xena and Gabrielle came in." she watched Ephiny's eyes light up at the mention of her friends' names. Solari swallowed hard, knowing that the blond Amazon wouldn't like what came next. "Eph, Xena's changed. She's a warlord again." the look of surprise turned to a look of confusion.
"No, that can't be." she said incredulously. "There must be some mistake. What did Gabrielle say?"
"Gabrielle couldn't say much. She's being held hostage." Solari replied.
"Hos-no, that's not possible. By Xena?" Ephiny shook her head in disbelief.
"Yes, Eph. By Xena. She's demanding fifty thousand dinars for Gabrielle's safe return." she looked over at the other bed where her best friend was being tended to. "Xena did this to us." the dark haired Amazon said angrily.
"Where's Gabrielle? You didn't leave her with Xena, did you?" Ephiny asked worriedly. If the leather clad warrior was out of control, there was no telling what she would do to her.
"We had no choice, she ordered us to leave and warn you." she debated for a moment before continuing. "She fought Xena to try and protect us." Solari decided to keep the knowledge of their queen's appearance to herself. Telling Ephiny about the signs of physical abuse would only get her more upset. "Xena's demanded the money be placed in the middle of the old field on the northern edge of our lands. She said that if there was any sign of Amazons that she'd kill Gabrielle without a thought." the dark haired warrior looked over at her bandaged shoulder. "Ephiny, I believe her. There was nothing in her eyes but anger and rage." Solari said. Saras came over and placed a hand on Ephiny's shoulder.
"She needs to rest. Come, I want to talk to you." the healer said. Ephiny nodded and followed her out of the hut, Ilanna close behind.
Continued - Part 2