Part 4: The Bard Continues
The Amazons have a word for what I was to Xena the first time I came to their land. But it isn't a very polite word, so I'm not going to share it with you. Receptacle is probably the closest word that I'm willing to write down. I was the receptacle for Xena's passion. Not that Xena didn't find release. She did, both when she gave it to me and by using my body as if it were a passive instrument to arouse and then quench her lust. After bringing me to climax, if she had not yet come, she would put my hand here, my leg there, and rub and thrust until she too cried out and trembled. Xena, she of many skills, able to make love to me and to herself.
The situation changed when I became an Amazon princess. Xena and I were passing through Amazon territory when she suddenly clasped her hands above her head and told me to hurry and do the same. From the trees above beautiful women swooped down like so many spiders on their threads. Two immediately caught my eye--and imagination, I admit. One was called Ephiny, and she was blonde and fit. She took a dislike to Xena and Xena to her. It was mutual distaste built on instant recognition of like for like. Even with no prize to fight over, they were natural rivals, and it showed. The other is harder to describe, partly because I knew her so briefly, and partly because it was before I understood that others besides Xena could capture my heart.
Her name was Terreis, and she told me that women were the equals of men and that men lorded it over us only because we let them. And she looked at Xena when she said this. It was almost two years before I understood that she wasn't only talking about women and men. This Amazon princess, for that is what she was, sparked my intelligence and challenged me to think for myself. And then she died. In the space of a few breaths, she went from vibrant health to. . . .a piece of cooling meat. But in that short time, she gave me the greatest gift anyone could give me. Then, I thought she gave me only her right of caste, an elevation from peasant girl to warrior royalty. But eventually I found her real gift to me, and that was my self-respect.
Terreis's death, planned by one more scheming warlord, almost caused a war that would have ruined the Amazon culture and destroyed one of the last strongholds of the centaurs. Xena and Ephiny put aside their natural enmity to become the only thing they could be other than lethal enemies: effective allies. Together, they proved the guilt of the warlord, saved me from committing what would have been murder, and brought together centaurs and Amazons, two ancient tribes endangered by their own stubborn nobility.
And I got my staff and my identity as an Amazon.
And my relationship with Xena moved to the second stage. As we left the territory of my new people, I was giddy with the newness of ME. Xena teased me by waiting for me to go one way while she turned the other. But I heard her laughing and realized the joke. And I kept walking. MY way.
It was full dark, and I had made camp when Xena showed up. Over Argo's saddle was a deer haunch. "Went the other way to hunt," she explained. She cut some of the meat into strips and, threading the strips onto sticks with vegetables from my pack, prepared a meal fit for . . . . an Amazon princess.
After eating the rare venison, rich juices running down my chin and fingers, I looked at Xena and decided that I would feast again before this night ended. First I told her a story.
"Once, not too far from here, quite close indeed, there was a beautiful princess. She had been told as a little girl that she needed to be very good. For if she was good and did exactly what she was told, someday she would receive a reward. When she asked what that reward would be, she was told to wait, that patience was part of being good."
I stopped talking.
Xena, who had really been listening, asked, "What was the reward?"
"She never found out."
"She wasn't very good and wasn't at all patient." With that, I moved slowly around the fire until I stood in front of the only OTHER princess in the immediate area. "Undress."
"I told you to undress." I drew up to my full height, which, since Xena was sitting on the ground, put my head a little above hers. "We are still in MY territory. And I order you to remove your clothing. Now."
I held my breath. And then Xena smiled. Rising, she looked down at me, and I almost lost my breath at the beauty of those white teeth and blue eyes in that high-cheeked bronze face . . . . Then, slowly, her eyes never leaving mine, Xena removed her armor and every stitch of clothing. For an instant, just one, I wondered if, without her guidance, I would know what to do with all THAT. But only for an instant. I had earlier placed our blankets near the fire. I pointed. "Lie down. There."
Xena did as I commanded, still smiling, humoring me, I suppose. I lay beside her, and, facing me, she murmured, "Aren't you going to undress?"
"Don't need to," I said. "Not for what I'm going to do."
Roughly, much rougher than Xena was with me, I took her by the shoulders and turned her on her back. Then I straddled her trim waist and, leaning over, pressed my mouth to hers. I thrust with my tongue and forced open soft lips that would have yielded as readily to a gentle request. My tongue did battle with hers, and I felt when her amusement changed to desire. She reached for me, and I slapped her hands away. I knew that her strength outmatched mine, and I expected her to overpower me to regain control. She dropped her hands to her sides.
When I tired of raping her mouth, I slid to her breasts. Knowing from her movements what she wanted me to do, I touched these abundant mounds with my hands, but not my lips. I kneaded and shaped them, pressing and pinching the tender flesh, carefully avoiding contact with her nipples. Xena went wild, wriggling beneath me, trying, without using her forbidden hands, to get me to touch those erect and aching points. I moved down, now resting my weight upon her hip bones and taut belly. I gazed into her eyes, now pleading as mine had so many times, and I bent over her. My mouth lowered to her left breast, and she thrust the nipple up, trying to meet me half-way. And I bit her, on her darkened aureole, shocking her and me, as she felt the unexpected pain, and I tasted for the first time my lover's blood. Loving balance in all things, I leaned over her other breast and bit that one, too, in the same place. Xena groaned, and I knew that this sound was not made by pain.
Relenting just a little, I flicked my tongue across first one nipple and then the other, just one slight touch before I ran it between her breasts and down the center of her muscled abdomen. I slid my body down, allowing room for my mouth to trace a path to her navel, pausing long enough to lick a ring around that place that once nourished all this beauty. My gratitude caused me to flick my tongue in and out of this shallow opening, a mere foreshadowing of the one below. Then on down, across the belly now so tight, I could have played it like a drum.
Then there was stiff, coarse hair inside my mouth. I had wondered how this would be, if the texture would repel or entice. So close to the object of my desire, the musk of Xena almost overwhelmed my determination to savor every new experience. I grasped with lips and teeth and pulled the dark foliage of Xena's mound. She jerked, and I realized that I would have to be careful to not send her beyond her own control or mine.
I skipped down to Xena's thighs, now trembling with both passion and the effort of controlling it. I kissed the inside of each and, finding how tender the skin was over muscles hard as iron, bit down, this time not drawing blood but pinching hard enough that she moved her legs apart. My head found entrance to Elysium. I inhaled and paused to look. I felt hands on the back of my head and stiffened my neck, ready to resist, but the hands withdrew. My heart nearly broke with love as I realized what this withdrawal must have cost her. Carefully, I parted her wet folds and, without touching the waiting nub, a small heart beating accompaniment to my own, I ran my tongue along either side. Her hips thrust upward, and I knew how little time was left. But the feel and taste was such I had to repeat the motion to confirm that anything in life could be this good.
The next part scared me, as Xena had always refused this part to me. Xena was no virgin, so there should have been no reason to hesitate. But what if I hurt her? She was thrusting harder now, and I heard a voice I knew was Xena's but with a pleading tone I had never heard, "Please. Please. I need. . . ."
I touched her opening and her sudden upward straining left no doubt about what need she meant. Before I could change my mind, I slid two fingers inside and rapidly moved them in and out against the pressure of her walls. "More." Her sigh removed my last reserve, as I added another finger to my desperate thrusting and, leaning over, took that heart-shaped nub of flesh into my mouth.
Xena went completely rigid and gave a strangled cry that told me I had killed her. Then every muscle in her body violently convulsed. I started to withdraw my hand, afraid that I really would injure her in this violent tumult, but her muscles held me tight, in an embrace more intimate than anything I had imagined. And then, still fully clothed, touching, yet not being touched, I discovered what Xena had known all along. My own muscles tightened, then relaxed, beginning that ancient and relentless release, driving from my mind all thought, filling my body only with sensation--and with love.
Part 5: All in a Day's Work
Before Xena was too pickled in ale to recognize them, the three men showed up. The first thing the stupid one asked was, "Where's the bard?" Her fist drove him to the floor before his voice finished rising for the question. Either she pulled her punch, or it was four days of alcohol and little sleep that kept her from breaking his jaw.
"I'll get my things."
As the other two helped him up and, luckily for him, after Xena was out of earshot, he complained, "Really. I thought she always traveled with a bard."
The four rode swiftly to the north, with Xena pushing them and herself. Her golden mare, tired of being in a stable and fed only the tops of grasses, stretched out, dropping low and long, her nostrils widening to suck in air that did not stink of too many men and too many horses. They stopped twice to camp, and the warrior woman let them know on both occasions: "Your fire and camp are here. Mine is over there." Though they rose at dawn, she was up before them, running, drilling with her sword, honing muscles that had not really had time to atrophy. When they had eaten and she had worked until she gleamed with the sweat of exertion, they mounted and rode north again.
On the third day they reached the valley of the Hone, and, with the sun still high in the sky rode into the camp of a small army. Xena looked around. A few young men strutted around the camp, their belts drooping with the weight of daggers and swords. Amateurs, but well-armed.
"Xena!" The man who approached her was well-built and wore armor that shone with newness, not the patina of use and polishing. Xena knew him for a prosperous trader, not for any skills in war. "My lieutenants and I were just going over the situation of the day. We had not expected you so soon, but you are welcome to join us. Unless you wish to rest."
"Thelonius, your message said urgent, and I spent almost four days at a tavern waiting for your men. I think I've had enough rest." She strode into the largest tent, knowing it would belong to this would-be general of a mostly imaginary army. A group of men, all past the usual age for (living) warriors, all dressed in their own idea of soldier garb, crowded around a large table. On the table was a large map and, to Xena's jaw-dropping surprise, on the map were little wooden horses and men. Half the horses and men, she saw were white, the other half black. She had to smile as she realized that some of the white toy men resembled the men standing around the table. Picking up one carved soldier a little larger than the others, the tall warrior looked back and forth between it and Thelonius. When she raised an eyebrow, he had the sense to blush. Xena carefully studied the map, then placed the Thelonius figure at approximately the location of this tent. Then she stepped back and waited.
"Warrior," Thelonius began, "we are facing an enemy that has come from the north to threaten our villages and fields, to say nothing of our most profitable trade routes. They are led by a giant named Warnah who . . . ."
"A giant?" Xena questioned.
Thelonius pointed to the largest black figure, this one at least twice as tall as the ordinary effigies, and the only one on the map larger than Thelonius's own. "Is this figure accurate in size--compared to your own, not the others?"
"Then he's not a giant, not even close." Xena looked around the map and then said, "Do you have a plan to defeat this Warnah and his army?"
Thelonius nodded to a portly man in the intricate armor that indicated a Thessalian hourac, or leader of hundreds, and that man proceeded to explain the map, using a long stick to move the men and horses around as he did so. Xena soon figured out that the armor's original owner was probably dead on some field of battle and had been laid to rest without it. At the thought of this imposter trying to gain entrance to the Elysian Fields and running into that hourac while wearing his armor, Xena smiled. Finishing his demonstration and happy with this result, the man nodded his many jowls and beamed in return.
Thelonius spoke up eagerly, "What do you think, Xena?"
"I think if you made the map smaller and divided it into squares, this would make a great game."
"Never mind. It looks like your whole plan revolves around avoiding this 'giant.' "
"That's it exactly!" Thelonius agreed. "We'll move around and attack here and there, picking off his men, until Warnah is isolated with only a few followers. Here!" Dramatically, he stabbed the center of the map with one forefinger.
He looked a little embarrassed. "Well, then we had hoped. . . . hoped that you . . . "
"You brought me here to kill your giant." She picked up the toy representing the leader of the opposing forces and returned him to his original place. Then, flicking the figure with her finger so it fell on its side, she added, "Then let's go do it. Now."
Xena was out of the tent before Thelonius stopped staring at his fallen giant and was mounted before he ran to Argo's side. "I need a white flag," she told him. "I'm sure you have one."
Not sure he had been insulted, Thelonius gestured to an aide, who soon produced a long stick with a snow-white banner. Xena smiled and took it. "You coming?" Thelonius and his lieutenants managed to mount their unfamiliar warhorses and followed the woman warrior from their camp.
It was only over the crest of the third hill that they encountered the first pickets for Warnah's camp. "Stay here." Waving the flag of truce, Xena rode forward. One soldier tried to grab Argo's bridle and was rewarded with a painful bite for his trouble. "Tell Warnah that Xena is here to meet him in single combat. The army of the successful champion wins the field."
"No battle?" a soldier, not the one bitten, asked.
"Only between your leader and me."
"All right!" The soldier turned and ran in the direction of the camp, happy to live another day and confident of the outcome of the single combat. He was back in less time than Xena thought it would have taken to speak the offer. "Warnah says come to him." He looked at Thelonius and the others. "He says your seconds are also welcome."
"More like spectators really," Xena responded, but she waved the flag at the others, indicating that they should accompany her.
The small party rode into a camp that already seemed to be celebrating victory. Dozens of rough-looking soldiers had formed a large circle on a flat place just beyond the farthest tent. Inside the circle, Xena could already see the reason for their confidence. While not a giant, the man who stood there was one of the biggest human beings Xena had ever seen. Dismounting, she handed Argo's reins to Thelonius's aide. He seemed a nice young man, likely to become competent if he lived, so she said quietly to him, "If I lose, ride like Hades out of here. Don't go back to your camp. You can have my warhorse." To Thelonius and his lieutenants, she said, "Stay here. This may take a while."
As she walked toward Warnah, she looked to neither left nor right, and the enemy soldiers parted before her. Reaching the center of the circle, she looked up at her opponent. And up. He was two full heads taller than she and almost twice as broad. She understood how people who had never seen a giant could call him one.
"Do you agree that single combat will decide the winning army? And that the winner will decide the conditions imposed on the other side?"
"I do." The voice boomed from that barrel chest and could be heard far beyond the circle of his own men. "Xena."
"You know of me?" she asked.
"I know you're tricky," he said, and she looked up into eyes that held more intelligence than she had hoped. And no fear. "No chance for tricks here. What weapons?"
"Then swords and fists and feet," he specified. "The last one breathing wins."
Xena looked at the weapons he mentioned. All of his were half again as large as hers. "Agreed. And no tricks. A straight-out fight to the finish."
With that, swords were drawn, and the fight began. Knowing that big men are slow, Xena kept moving, sticking with her sword and withdrawing, always circling. At first this worked, and she inflicted some painful, but not debilitating wounds. Then, as the afternoon wore on, she began to tire, and his sword strikes came closer. Once he brought his sword down right over her head. She caught it on the flat of her blade, but, as he pushed downward, she felt first one knee buckle and then the other. Only by suddenly releasing her resistance and letting his blade slide off the point of hers was she able to keep from being sliced in half. As she rolled to the left, his booted foot caught her in the side, and she felt ribs crack. Following up this blow, he backhanded her across the jaw with his free hand and raised his sword for another strike. Xena used the momentum given by the slap to roll to the edge of the circle and then flip nimbly to her feet. Rubbing her jaw as if his blow was a joke, she smiled.
Unused to opponents getting up after he had squarely tagged them, the big man shook his head in amazement. This might take a little longer than he had planned. Xena circled again, always staying a little more than a sword's length, a HUGE sword's length from Warnah. Again, she stuck and ran, stuck and ran. He could not touch her with his sword, but twice more he landed vicious blows that sent her tumbling toward the crowd. Although she smiled and refused to show it, one blow broke her left arm just below the shoulder. The other landed on the same ribs that had been cracked. She knew one more hit or kick or even fall would drive those ribs into her lung and consign her to a death with red froth on her lips.
Finally, with the sun dipping behind the hill to the west, and tried beyond endurance by the stings she was inflicting, the 'giant' hurled his mighty sword at her. With a roar, he rushed her. She leaped toward him, instead of away, and he was unable to stop his momentum. As he overshot his target, her sword flashed in the red light, its sharp blade slicing deeply into the back of his left knee. Hamstrung on that side, he staggered and then fell as her sword did its work on the other side. Yelling in pain and with the realization of his imminent death, Warnah struggled to reach the sword he had abandoned. Taking her sword in both hands and gritting her teeth against the pain in her damaged arm, Xena managed to raise the blade above her head and bring it down on the back of his neck. Another blow severed his head and sent great gouts of blood onto the closest soldiers.
Xena stood holding her bloody sword in front of her, waiting to see what Warnah's army would do. There were long moments of silence. Then, an army no longer, the men in the circle left their places and quietly began the long journey home.
Part 6: The Bard's Final Chapter
For a while, we WEREN'T.
I've made many small blunders in my life, and one mistake that almost ruined it. You see, I accepted about Xena and me what most people thought, that we were warrior-lovers, women travelers releasing each other's passions, best friends forever, but only temporary lovers. Someday we would leave the road and take men as husbands. I, at least, would bear children to whom I would tell my stories of adventure. Hadn't Xena herself acknowledged this by taking my innocence but steadfastly refusing to take my virginity?
Someday came, and I wed. Everyone knows that story. I married for. . . . an idea of marriage, I think. And thinking to save him, I killed a good man.
I also killed something in Xena. I saw it die as she kissed me after my wedding and lied about coming to visit me. We soon traveled together again, but it was as friends and, at times, almost not even that. Those were confusing times, and I wasn't sure who I was, and often scarcely recognized my traveling companion.
Gradually, we both healed, and I waited nightly for Xena to come to my blanket, but she never did.
Then she died.
Oh, there are people still who say that didn't happen. You know, dead's dead, and all that. Food for the worms. But Xena died and then came back. For me. And when she came back, she was different. It's hard to explain it. She still didn't touch me, except for a hug or a kiss, sister stuff, but the warrior woman was obsessed. No matter what the cost to herself, she would save me and kill the ones who threatened me. Sometimes, it was no matter what the cost to me.
I thought Xena was paying me back for what I did for her when she was dying--and when she was dead. For helping her to want to come back and for fighting the one who would have kept her from doing it. Paying me back.
She paid me back all right. She did to me what I had done to her. She chose a man. And had the nerve to tell me that my love had taught her how to love HIM. They're right: payback's a bitch. Well, her great new start didn't work out. The bastard went from widowed to separated to "my wife doesn't understand me," but he finally stayed with the one who wore the ring, and it was Xena and I who sailed away.
After too much time on too many ships, Xena and I were finally back on dry land. She offered to stay a few nights at an inn so I could rest up and get used to walking on a surface that didn't constantly come up to meet you--when it wasn't falling away. I said, "No, thank you. Let's collect Argo and head into the mountains."
Xena was happy to be back in the saddle and only a little surprised I agreed to ride. I asked her where we were going, and she asked, "Do you remember a lake? The one with the calm surface and the small stone beneath?" My hands around her waist, I nodded against her shoulder. She knew that was one of my favorite places.
At the lake, we set up camp. "What, no bandits?" I asked. "No soldiers? Or brigands? No ruffians looking to make a reputation?"
Xena looked around. "No, for now it's just us." It was a hot day, and she wore just her leather battle dress, her armor lying nearby with Argo's saddle. She pulled one shoulder strap down. "Want to go for a swim?"
"No." I said those words Xena hated to hear. "I want to talk." I was sitting on "our" log, and I patted the space beside me. Without arguing, Xena straddled the log so she could face me. "It was bad enough that you chose that man over me. Did you have to thank me for it? Thank me for changing you so that you would be good enough for a man?"
She blinked. "Is that what I did?"
"I did what I did because. . . . I thought it was my last chance."
"To be a woman."
"What?" I would have risen and stalked away, if she hadn't grabbed both my shoulders and held me in place. "You don't think you can be a woman--with me?"
"I was confused. I thought you didn't really love me, that I was just who you were with for now." I saw tears in her blue eyes and, holding me tightly as she was, she didn't brush them away. Slowly they spilled over and rolled down her tanned cheeks. I realized I didn't want this talk any longer. I wanted to taste those tears and see if they were as salty as the sea. "Gabrielle, I love you. Love you. I couldn't stand to be with you, touch you, have you touch me and know that someday you would leave me to start your real life."
"So you decided to leave me."
She nodded, letting go of my arms, but still letting the tears fall and run their course.
"You coward!" She recoiled as if slapped. "Every time we love, we take a chance. Don't you think I take a chance every day I love you? The chance that this will be the day you ride into battle and don't come back? The day some younger warrior challenges you, and you hold back just a little too much, trying to let him live? Or maybe you're just galloping Argo through a safe, open field--and she stumbles? Why do you think I'm always so insistent about coming along? Just because I can't stand to be left out? NO! It's because I don't want to be sitting back at camp when some stranger rides up with your limp body slung across his horse. At least I can be with you when things go wrong and know that I did everything I could do. To save YOU. YOU!"
Xena swallowed, and I watched how her throat moved. And saw that the tears had reached that vulnerable spot where breastbone meets collarbone. Leaning toward her, I touched my lips to that small hollow. "Salty," I said, "as the sea." And then Xena was sobbing, and I reached out to hold her in my arms.
She murmured something, but I couldn't hear her. I pulled back to look into her face, a question in my eyes. "Forever," she whispered.
We rose together and walked to the bank of the lake. Undressing each other, we paused to touch and taste before stepping into the cool waters. There was none of our usual splashing and ducking, for what we were engaged in was serious play. Our hands explored as if we had never known each other before. Our lips and tongues followed, excitement building until we must seek dry land or drown.
As aroused as we were, there was none of the rush, none of the feverish desperation that had always been ours. That, I knew, would come again, but this time was different. This was a ritual, a ceremony, a sacred joining unlike any we had had before. Xena spread out a blanket on the bank and lay on her back. I lowered myself upon her and found arms ready to enfold me. We kissed, and it wasn't one kissing the other, one dominating, the other receiving, we kissed each other, a mutual joining of our lips and tongues, our breaths, our souls. Xena lifted me so she could take my breast inside her mouth. She suckled sweetly, love in every soft tug and nuzzle. She turned me and raised herself so her breast was above my mouth. I chuckled, tempted for one instant to bite, but instead I captured this white abundance, pale below the crescent marked by exposure to the sun. I took all I could pull into my mouth and, curling my tongue around the nipple, sucked as a hungry babe upon her mother. Xena gasped, and I knew she felt it to her very core.
I released her, thinking to suckle the other breast, but Xena straightened her arms and pulled out of my reach. She looked into my eyes, a steady, serious gaze. I started to speak, but she lowered her mouth to mine and stopped me. She whispered one word, "Forever," and, quickly moved downward, not touching me except for the tickling of her long, dark hair as it trailed across my breasts, across my stomach and belly. This was enough to set me afire, causing me to thrust upward, wanting more, wanting, wanting.
With none of her usual slow teasing, Xena raised my legs and placed them over her shoulders. As she parted my folds, I said, "I'm no longer a virgin."
Straightening for one second, she replied, "It wouldn't matter if you were." Then I felt a sudden pressure between my thighs as what had been empty was filled. Steadily and with no hint of gentleness, she worked her fingers in and out, matching her increasing rhythm with my thrusts. As I felt the tension build and move up my body until it suddenly held me rigid, she curled her fingers and touched her thumb against that poor nub, aching and ignored until now, and I thought my bones would break from the force of my sudden release. As my body wracked with delicious spasms, Xena thrust but twice against my thigh, her hot moisture renewing the intensity of my climax, and then she joined me, convulsing in shared ecstasy.
When we were spent, my lover, my woman, crawled up into my arms, and we slept together by our lake, knowing what lay beneath its calm surface. And knowing that some changes are good.