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WARNING: This story contains strong adult themes. There is a graphic description of sexual activity between adults of the same sex, as well as descriptions of rape and of other violent acts. If you are under 18 or if this is illegal where you live or if you find these themes offensive, stop reading NOW.
AS DARKNESS FELL
As darkness fell, the tall warrior placed her sleeping robe and that of her companion by a small campfire. Straightening, she let her gaze fall on the young woman who was placing their few cooking utensils in a small tow sack. The firelight played upon that beauty's hair, making it appear now red, now purest gold. "Come here," the warrior ordered. The smaller woman approached and gazed up, meeting blue eyes as clear and cold as ice. "Undress." Again, the fair-haired one complied, soon standing naked in the warm night air.
The warrior stepped closer, just short of touching. Her eyes never leaving those of her companion, she slowly removed her own clothing, first armor greaves and leggings, then the engraved armor that shielded her shoulders and her breasts. Next she dropped the leather skirt that also marked her as a warrior, then stripped off the close-fitting leather garment that was the only other clothing that she wore. She stood there proudly, her skin illuminated by the campfire and a bit of moonlight, an alabaster statue, perfect in design and execution, a masterwork by some celestial craftsman. The smaller woman's eyes drank in her form, from mane of hair, the purest black, to angular planes of a beautiful face, full lips, the muscled lines of her body softened by perfect mounds of breasts. "Lie with me." The warrior's voice was husky, the note of command now intensified by desire.
Dropping to the robes, the warrior pulled the other woman with her and, lying on her back, positioned the other above her, stomach touching stomach, full soft breasts meeting, melding into their mates. With her hands and her own motion, she led the object of her desire to meet her mounting need. When the other would slow, she urged her faster, crushing her lips with her own, taking possession of her mouth and all of her body. Securing consent through strength and force of her own will, she took what she needed, the pressure within her body building, dominating every cell, as the other woman's thrusts turned to grinding, and the pressure within her burst.
In past days, she would have felt this release as satisfaction, would have rested, cradling her dear lover in her arms. But now she felt only a quickly building craving, driving her to desperate passion. Shifting to her side, she changed the other woman's position so they lay spooned together, her belly and breasts against her lover's back. One arm reached under and around to fondle and tease a breast. She heard a gasp and knew that she could give release by that one motion. Her free hand dipped over and down, seeking that secret space between her lover's thighs. She worked intensely and rubbed a calloused finger and thumb against that tender nub of flesh, slick with their heat and mingled desire. Smaller hands clutched at hers, an admonition whose intent she didn't try to read. The mouth that she had bruised with kisses opened, but it was only to gasp a name, "Oh, Xena. . . ." Her hands hurried on, seeking to achieve their goal. She knew that she was dangerously close to taking the other woman to that place beyond release, but she could not stop. She hoped to hear no words imploring an end to her fevered assault. Then smaller hands clutched her wrists, and a smaller body bucked violently against her own. Only then did she relax, and, still possessing the other woman with a tight embrace, fall into a dreamless sleep.
Just when her soul's darkness had returned, Xena could not say. Months before, Gabrielle's and her friendship had turned to physical desire. Aware of her own advantage of strength and experience, Xena had been a gentle lover, leading her beloved companion through words and actions, patient with her hesitations, never asking more than Gabrielle was prepared to give. Sometimes Xena had been shocked by the depth of her own reactions, the tenderness that accompanied every act of love. More than once, Gabrielle had looked into blue eyes filled with tears and sweetly kissed them from angled cheeks.
Then all had changed. The tenderness was gone, replaced by an empty longing, a desire that seemed to cloud Xena's mind as completely as the battle haze that allows one warrior to kill another and hear the pitiful dying cries as incitement of further violence. So the pair's sweet love-making turned into a conquering, with no more compassion than a master coupling with a slave.
When Xena awoke, it was past dawn, and Gabrielle sat beside the burned out fire, her green gaze solemn. She was fully dressed, her usual brief skirt and top replaced by blouse and full-length skirt. Xena realized this garb was a signal and knew how serious the trouble was when she herself considered if it was a sign that she would heed. The warrior reached for her own clothing and hurriedly dressed. Finding a water skin nearby, she splashed her face and drank. Reluctantly, she turned toward Gabrielle.
"Xena, please sit there." Gabrielle spoke softly and indicated a spot nearby, but not too near. Xena quietly followed this request. "I won't go on this way. I won't be treated as a thing, not a person."
Denials sprang to Xena's mind but never made it to her lips. Instead, she asked, "You're leaving me?"
Gabrielle struggled to control her voice. "I don't want to. The way I see it, we have two choices. Either we figure out what is causing this, this darkness, that has come over you, or we part."
"What is causing it is me," Xena said. "It's who I really am. It's all the evil that I tried to leave behind me. All the habits of ten years of darkness. I was a fool to think that I could change. To think that I could be with you in love and not harm you."
"I don't believe that," Gabrielle said. "You are good."
"For ten years, I treated everyone the way that I'm now treating you. The men and women that I summoned to my bed were there because they fit some purpose that I had in mind." She felt near tears and harshened her voice to fight against any hint of self-pity. "I'm acting true to form."
"Have you wondered why I have accepted this treatment up till now?" Gabrielle asked. Xena's look of surprise confirmed her suspicions, that the tall warrior had simply assumed her submission. "At first, when our love-making changed, I found it exciting. To think that you could be so overwhelmed with desire for me. Then I was disturbed, thinking that what was happening might seem wrong, but that I was still the innocent, shocked by things that you needed. Finally, you started to hurt me, and I knew that this couldn't go on."
"I hurt you?" The warrior's voice was small, and her eyes dropped. She knew that she would kill anyone who hurt her best friend in such a way. If the injury had been dealt by herself, could the penalty exacted be any less? "Were you so frightened of me that you never struggled or asked me to stop?"
"Would you have stopped if I had asked?" The question was so direct that Xena had to meet her eyes.
There was a slight hesitation, then, "Of course."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I wasn't sure, and I couldn't take the chance."
"The chance? Were you that afraid of me?"
"I was that afraid _for_ you. What if I had asked you to stop or struggled against you, and you had persisted? What if you had taken what you wanted over my protests? Xena?"
Xena opened her lips to answer, but no sound came out.
"What would our 'love-making' have become then?"
The answer, when it came, was quietly, but clearly, spoken. "Rape."
Gabrielle nodded. "I hoped that you would stop, but I couldn't take the chance. For, if I drew that line, and you crossed it, our relationship, our love, could never be repaired."
"You don't think it's beyond repair now?" Xena couldn't think of any reason for the small hope that wanted to grow within her breast.
"We can still return to what we were, to being both friends and lovers," Gabrielle said kindly, but her usually soft voice was iron as she continued. "The only way that can happen is if we discover what made you change. I think the answer is along our back trail. Something happened, something you don't even recall, that brought this darkness upon you. If you agree to go with me to discover what that was, I'll stay with you. If you don't, I'm leaving now, and we'll never be together again."
Surrendering any resistance, the warrior nodded.
For days, the companions walked and rode along the route they had most recently followed. They made the same camps, entered or avoided villages according to decisions already made. In each place, the result was the same. Xena saw nothing in these places that stirred a memory, that deepened or lessened the blackness in her soul.
As much as she could, Xena avoided touching the woman who stirred her desire almost beyond human resistance. When she thought she would go crazy, she raced away on her golden mare, but returned when she found that distance did not lessen the hunger. She tried exhaustion, driving herself to run for miles and to drill with her weapons until not a tree stood along the trail that did not bear scars from her solitary battles. Finally, Gabrielle returned to her restless bed and allowed her to expend her desire. Ashamed as she was, Xena could not refuse what her friend offered and her own body demanded.
As they approached one small village, particularly squalid and poor, Xena realized that they had come to an end. "We don't need to go into this place, Gabrielle. It's finished. I give up."
Gabrielle felt her heart stop. "What do you mean?"
"Tell me where you want to go. Athens? Home? I'll see you safely there. Then we are done."
"Are you that afraid of what you'll find here? You know, Xena, I never before thought you a coward." Her words were calm, unchallenging, but they brought an angry flush to her companion's cheeks.
"I'm no coward. I'm also not fool enough to think we'll find answers in those hovels."
Without responding, Gabrielle started toward the village. She was only a few steps ahead, when Xena, leading the horse, put out a hand to stop her. "No. You can't go there."
"Remember? You didn't enter when we passed by here before."
Gabrielle stood quietly, her usual open expression shrouded.
"You stayed in camp. I went in to see if I could buy some bread." Xena studied the small collection of huts. "They hadn't any food to spare, and I returned empty handed."
"And you barely talked for two days," Gabrielle observed.
"I'm hardly known to be talkative."
"And then you changed toward me. Once darkness fell, you seemed to forget who I was, what we were to each other." Gabrielle, too, studied the poor buildings. "I think it started in this town."
"I'll go in, but I go alone." Xena's voice was firm, although the hand that held the horse's reins trembled. "Can you find the place where we made camp?"
"Yes." She started to say something else, but then turned and walked back the way they had come. "I'll wait. Just be sure you return."
By the time Xena reached the first house, dread sat in her chest like a stone. Without pausing, she led the horse to the far side of the village and stopped before a hut even poorer than all of the others. Inside, an angry voice was raised. She heard the sharp sound of a slap and then the duller thud of a fist against a body. There was a woman's cry and the wail of a young child. Without pausing to request entrance, the warrior pulled the rickety door open and stepped through. The interior of the hovel was one small room, poorly lit by sun through the now open door and one window cut into a wall. The floor was dirt, and there was no furniture and few possessions. Rags on the floor suggested where the inhabitants sat and slept.
A broad man in rough-looking clothing was so engaged in beating a woman that he did not immediately notice Xena's entrance. The woman did, however, and her gasp alerted the man that they were not alone. A small boy, thin and big-eyed, quieted in mid-wail and hid behind his mother.
"What do you want?" the man growled, taking a threatening step toward the tall intruder.
Xena, never one to give ground, surprised herself by stepping back.
"I said, what in Hades do you want?" He stopped then to study the woman who had entered his home. "I saw you in the village a few weeks ago." A leer split his lips to reveal blackened and broken teeth. He dropped the hand that had been raised to hit the woman and touched himself through his dirty trousers. "Maybe I know what you need."
With that phrase and movement, the past came crashing down on the warrior. She was again a girl of fifteen, a child-woman who had known only love and kindness. Every touch she had received from birth to that moment, whether an embrace or a spank on the bottom, had resulted only from a caring purpose. Then men, so-called soldiers of the monster Cortese, had entered her village. On that day, she had learned fear and shame. Her body had been desecrated, and her mind and soul had been seared with pain and helpless rage.
And the man standing before him had been one of those men. He had taken her first, as others held her. He had said much the same thing, "I know what you need." And he had touched himself in that way. She had not really known what he meant, until he lay atop her in the dirt and tore at her with those rough, filthy hands. And then, with no preparation, no warning of what would come, he had entered her in one sudden thrust. She had thought she would die and had feared that she would not. Finishing, he had punched her in the stomach and laughed. "That's for the brat I just planted," he had said. Then he had helped hold her for the others, making ribald comments as each one took his turn.
She realized that he was studying her and wondered if he had recognized her. "Do you know me?" she asked.
"Nah," he answered, "but I'm going to."
With no further thought, she hit him and, to save lifting him from the floor, caught him as he fell.
The horse clearly didn't like her smelly cargo, but Xena, for once, showed no patience with her balking. Quickly, she led the horse out of the village and followed a path into a nearby forest. When she felt they had traveled far enough that screams and cries would not be heard in the village, she pulled the still-unconscious form from the saddle and this time let him fall heavily to the ground. She led the horse a short distance away and unsaddled her. She patted the loyal animal and said, "Graze. I'll be a while." With that, she turned her attention to the man.
Hating to touch him with her hands, she used the toe of her boot to roll him over so she could see his face. She confirmed that she had not been mistaken in the dim light of his hovel. In order to move more freely she removed her sheathed sword and the belt from which her chakram and other weapons hung. She selected a long, two-edged knife and knelt over the still form. With a few well-planned slashes, she freed him of dirt-encrusted shirt and pants. She saw that he still wore a rag that served as some sort of undergarment, and she left him that.
Still loathe to make physical contact, she looped a rope around each of his wrists and used those to drag him between two stout trees. She took the other end of one rope and looped it around one of the tree trunks, above the highest branch she could reach. She repeated this procedure with the other rope and pulled the ropes tight, lifting the man so that he hung suspended between the trees, arms outstretched, toes barely touching the ground. He groaned, and she smiled, showing teeth that looked sharp as those of a predatory beast. "Yes," she encouraged him. "All is in readiness now. It's time for you to come around." Feeling an urgency to get about the business that lay ahead, Xena removed her water bag from the saddle and squirted some of the liquid into his face. When he sputtered, she poured some into his mouth, and he swallowed. "Good," she said. "Now wake up." She slapped him twice, hard enough to rouse him, but not so hard as to make him lapse back into unconsciousness. He opened eyes that were first glazed, then startled, as he realized his predicament.
"When did you leave Cortese?" Xena asked, her voice intense, but reasonable.
She punched him in the chest. "When did you stop traveling with Cortese?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," he gasped.
She lowered her aim and hit him again, this time putting a hint of her true power behind the blow. When she thought he could speak, she asked, "How long after the attacks on Amphipolis?"
His eyes widened a bit more at the mention of her home village, and she suspected some understanding was forming. "Not long. A few months."
"Why did you leave his band of cutthroats?"
"I wanted to settle down, start a family." Some hope entered his eyes. "You saw my wife, our little boy. You wouldn't take a man from his family. . . ."
A blow to his face ended his plea. "From what I saw, they'll thank me." She hit him again, and the hope died. "Where are the others? Those who entered Amphipolis with you? The other vermin who came to rape and burn?"
He tried to shrug, but his position prevented it. "Dead," he said. "Either later on at Amphipolis or in some other place. Men didn't last long with Cortese."
She nodded, sure he was telling the truth. It didn't matter anyway. If there was anything else he had to tell, he would scream it out later. After a while, she wouldn't even have to ask.
Leaving the man, she returned to her pile of weapons. She returned the long knife and selected a smaller one with one notched edge. It was the kind of blade called a boning knife by hunters. This she slipped for safe-keeping behind a strap on her right boot. She would make use of it later. For now, she picked up her long, braided whip and gave it a couple of practice cracks. She watched her prisoner as she did this, and, with each sharp report, he cringed. She was again smiling as she approached him.
The tall woman turned, her smile dropping to reveal the hidden snarl. A figure dressed in Amazon garb and carrying a staff emerged from the forest. She hesitated at the look on the warrior's face, then came resolutely onward to stand between Xena and her prey.
"Get out of here, Gabrielle!" Xena commanded. "You don't want to see this!"
"I was listening," Gabrielle said. "For once, you were the one not paying attention to your surroundings. I heard your questions and what he answered. I think I can guess the rest."
"It's a common enough story, isn't it?" Xena asked. "Just something that happens when bandits or soldiers take a village. It nearly happened to you. It would have, if I hadn't come along."
"That's right. You saved me. Me and my sister and all the young girls of my village." She took a step toward her best friend. "That's why I know you can't do this thing, Xena. You've left all your evil, all your darkness behind. You do good; you _are_ good!"
"I'm going to kill him, Gabrielle. He's not much, but I'm going to destroy what's there. Then, when he begs me to kill him, I'll do it." She directed a look at her prisoner, who nearly fainted from fear. "That's more of a mercy than he gave me." She directed her gaze back at her companion. "Don't you see? If it hadn't been for him and for those others in Cortese's band, I might never have become what I did. Oh, they didn't do the job alone. After them, there were others who finished what they started. But, if it hadn't been for him and his friends, I might have become the woman I was meant to be."
"Who do you sound like?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena blinked. She shouldn't listen any more. She started forward, whip in hand. She had work to do.
"You heard me. What self-justifying, whining bitch do you sound like?" She again stepped between the big woman and the man.
Xena's voice was soft. "Callisto."
"You aren't going to torture that man," Gabrielle stated firmly. "You aren't going to kill him."
Xena's head had dropped, but now it came up. She looked down from her full height. "And I suppose you and your little staff are going to stop me."
"I'll try," the small woman said. "I'm sure you'll defeat me. You may even be able to do it without injuring me. But you still won't kill him."
"You just said you can't stop me. Who will?"
Xena shook her head and started forward. Gabrielle whipped her staff around to form a barrier. "You won't do this, Xena, because you left all this behind a long time ago. You aren't evil. You have learned to control the darkness that used to overpower you."
With a move so swift Gabrielle didn't see it coming, Xena snatched the staff from her hand and used it to sweep her feet out from under her. She then leaned down and, grasping the small woman by the shoulders, flung her across the clearing. Landing at the base of a great tree, Gabrielle struggled to regain her feet, but could only kneel and fight to pull breath into her deflated lungs. Xena dropped the whip, but pulled the boning knife from her boot as she walked relentlessly toward the bound man. She walked around him and placed the point of the knife below his left ear. "I've dreamed of this for almost half my life," she whispered. She pressed the knife point into his throat so that a thin trickle of blood traced its way toward his collar bone. Gabrielle had regained her breath, but she knelt still, afraid a movement on her part would signal the man's death and her friend's final damnation.
Propelled by a quick movement of wrist and arm, the knife slashed once, and then again. His bonds cut, the man slumped unconscious to the ground.
Xena walked to her friend and held out a hand. Gabrielle grasped the hand gladly and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. Xena put her arm over her friend's shoulder and whistled for the horse. "Let's get out of here." She directed but one glance over her shoulder. "I'll be damned if I'm giving him a ride home!"
That night, as darkness fell, the warrior laid out two sleeping robes, one on each side of the fire. Removing her outer garments, and putting on a short, light-colored shift, she lay down. The fair-haired woman added several small sticks to the fire, then approached the spot where her friend lay. The warrior looked up, a question in her eyes. Not breaking eye contact, the woman stood over her and slowly removed each item of her own clothing until she stood naked, her perfect form backlit by the firelight. She knelt and soon held the other's shift in her hands. With a sly smile she threw it over her shoulder and crawled into welcoming arms. As they made slow, gentle love, each woman knew that she finally had come home.
The Bard's Corner