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Warning/Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, and, of course, Argo are the property of MCA, Universal, and their creators. The story that follows contains graphic descriptions of sex between women. It also contains descriptions of violence. If reading this is illegal where you live, or if you are under 18, or if you would find this type of material offensive, please stop reading now.
Gabrielle paused in her mending of a ripped skirt to watch her tall, dark-haired companion preparing a deer skin for tanning. She watched the long narrow fingers wield the scraping knife with strength and grace. She smiled as she thought of other uses for those same hands.
"What?" a warm, husky voice asked. Gabrielle realized that clear blue eyes were focused on her face.
So engaged was she in her fantasy that Gabrielle had to clear her throat before she could speak. Even then, her own voice was smokier than usual. "I was just wondering how long it will take you to finish that skin."
Eyes twinkling, Xena replied, "Uh-huh." Then, "I'm not really going to cure it, just prepare it enough that it won't spoil. This, plus those two smaller skins, will bring us some needed coin in the next village we come to."
"King Menestus would have paid you much more for rescuing his son from those bandits," Gabrielle reminded her.
Xena nodded. "You know I can't take payment for doing what is right."
"The deer might wish you would," Gabrielle teased.
The tall warrior's tone stayed serious. "I would never have killed this deer, or even those rabbits, just for their skins. But we'll need the jerked venison to keep up our energy when we enter the mountains, and that farmer's family will make good use of the fresh meat we left with him."
"It's getting too dark to sew," Gabrielle hinted.
"Well, I don't really need much light to do my work," Xena replied.
The smaller woman yawned. "We traveled a long way today."
"Oh, I don't think we came any farther than usual."
"I think I'll call it a night."
"Good night." Xena pretended to bend to her task.
Sighing, Gabrielle walked to a spot on the other side of the small campfire. Xena had earlier laid both sleeping robes there, side by side. Standing on her own blanket, the lithe young woman stretched and gave another dramatic yawn. With elaborate nonchalance, she began to unlace the front of her Amazon-style top. As it came loose, her small, firm breasts were exposed to the cool evening air. The uptilted nipples quickly stiffened. Dropping the top behind her, she undid the belt that held the short wrapped skirt in place. This, too, she dropped behind her, revealing that there had been no other garments between her skin and that skirt.
Gabrielle still stood, her body highlighted by the dancing flames of the campfire. Cupping her own breasts with her hands, she seemed to offer them to the god of the moonlight. "Let me do that," a voice sounded behind her.
Gabrielle looked up and over her shoulder, as if surprised that her companion had silently left her post on the other side of the fire. "I thought you didn't need light to continue your work."
"I don't," Xena growled, "but I didn't say what work." Reaching around the smaller woman, she took over the pleasant--and pleasing--task of cradling and massaging those pure white breasts. She bent to kiss a lightly tanned neck, the kiss turning quickly to nuzzling and gentle bites. Urgent hands covered hers and tried to push them lower. Resisting this pressure to hurry, she rolled each sensitive nipple between thumb and forefinger. She pressed her body against her lover's back and started that rhythm as old as the human race.
Her knees sending an irresistible plea to lie down, Gabrielle echoed their entreaty with her lips, "Please. . . .my warrior, please." Strong hands held her upright, but turned her so that the lovers faced each other, one bending to touch lips to lips, softly at first, then as hunger built, claiming entry as if by right. The smaller woman started trembling and would have fallen but for the supporting embrace. Showing mercy at last or surrendering to her own strengthening desires, the warrior allowed her love to sink to her knees, following this movement closely, never allowing their lips or bodies to part, still not relinquishing her sweet control.
"Please. . . .I want. . . ." Heart melting at these sighed words, Xena at last lay on her side and allowed Gabrielle to seek her beloved refuge in her arms. For a while, they enjoyed a quiet of mind and body, feeling a welling of love that fused their souls. Then, strong arms supporting her greater weight, the warrior loomed over the slight form, touching lips to lips, breast to breast, and, finally, mound to mound. Wanting more, small but strong arms clasped her shoulders, trying to draw her downward, asking to bear her full weight. Xena yielded, and, as she did, started rocking, passion building, but still controlled. Feeling that she would explode at any moment just from the sweetness of the contact, she raised herself, again bearing her own weight with those smooth muscles beneath bronzed skin. Gabrielle gave a small cry of dismay, and clutched her lover's back and shoulders.
Inexorably, Xena slid down the small body, her lips brushing strong stomach muscles beneath soft skin. She lay her head in the hollow between Gabrielle's hip bones and blew out soft breaths until the young woman took her dark head in both hands to encourage her to continue the journey. When she did, she left an empty place that almost made Gabrielle regret her own urgency. Reaching at last her destination, the warrior paused to savor this sweet victory, a victory with no enemy, no conquering that was not desired by both contestants. Sweetly, almost shyly, she parted the musky folds and probed them with her lips and tongue. Nearly faint with passion, she paused to recover and heard a sigh escape the lips of her partner, a sigh that would have pierced even a heart harder than hers. "Please. . . ." brought her back to what she had called her task, sweet work, labor to be wished for every moment of her day. . . ."OHHH. . . ." signaled the release that followed, every muscle joining this sound in surfeit of passion, as her lover reached the heights both had sought on her behalf. Moving up, this return journey accomplished much more quickly than the first, Xena gathered her shuddering lover in her arms and, now urgently seeking release herself, used her own desperate rhythm against that sweet hip and thigh to find her own release. Together, these two bodies, these two souls, became as one in sleep, as they had been in waking desire.
Feeling a welcome weight against her body, Gabrielle smiled against the warm hand that lay across her mouth. It was still dark, and she glowed with the realization that she inspired a passion that would rob her strong warrior even of desire for sleep.
"Someone is near," Xena whispered, so close her soft breath tickled the other woman's cheek. Gabrielle was now awake and aware that this was no love game. She nodded, and Xena removed her hand. "Dress quickly." Hurriedly locating the clothing discarded hours before, Gabrielle complied. She saw in the dim light that Xena was already dressed, although barefoot and wearing no armor. "When I roll to your left, you roll right. Your staff is within an arm's length. Take it with you." Another nod. Then, sharply, but still softly, "Go!"
Each rolled swiftly in her appointed direction, Gabrielle grabbing staff and Xena sword as they went. Gabrielle took up a defensive posture between embers of last night's fire and the nearby woods only to see Xena rush the woods, seemingly heedless of any danger. Xena's right hand held her sword, and her left lashed suddenly out, and then it too held something sharp, and Gabrielle realized that object was an arrow. Still, Xena ran on, straight ahead, no hesitation, no changing of her direction. Gabrielle followed but was soon outdistanced. She stopped to try to judge which way to go among the tall trees. Her comrade was suddenly beside her, calm, but alert, and not even breathing hard. "He got away."
"Yeah. Only one." Xena knelt to study the forest floor. "His boot is as long as mine and wider. A man, I'm sure. He's either a fast runner, or he knows how to disappear into thin air."
Gabrielle was getting her breath back. "And he's an archer."
"Right." Xena studied the arrow she still held in her hand. "It's a little longer than usual, further proof that he's a tall man. Long arms. The fletching isn't one I'm familiar with. It reminds me of feathers I've seen used in the northern mountains though."
"Do you think he was after us? Or just looking for someone to rob?"
"I don't know. Probably us." Xena hesitated and looked away before she went on. "He's been following us for a couple of days."
As expected, Gabrielle exploded. "What? You knew that, and you didn't tell me?"
"He could have just been traveling in the same direction."
"But you didn't think so."
"Well. . . .no. He always stayed about the same distance behind. And, when I decided to stop early yesterday, so did he."
Gabrielle considered this. "That's why we stopped when we did. You wanted to see what he would do. I thought you . . . ."
Xena smiled. "Yeah, that too! But you're right. I wanted to see what he would do."
"But why didn't you just go back and find out? You're usually not shy about asking why someone's dogging our trail."
Xena looked uncomfortable.
Her friend and lover finally understood. "We're not going to start that again, are we? When things changed between us, we talked that all out. You promised you wouldn't go back to being over-protective, changing how you do things just so I would be safe."
"Promises like that are more easily made than kept," the warrior said honestly. "I didn't see any reason for a confrontation--not until I was sure he was following us."
"But when he stopped early last night, you knew."
"Yes. I was going to work along our back trail this morning and catch him unaware." She shook her head. "He probably figured our early stop last night meant I was onto him. I can't believe I let him get that close to our camp."
"You were a little tired."
"No excuse." But she grinned, pleased with herself about the reason for her exhaustion. "Best thing to do about a mistake is not to repeat it."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow.
"The _mistake_," Xena emphasized. "I hope to repeat the other many times in the years we'll spend together." She broke the shaft of the arrow and dropped it on the ground. "Let's break camp and move on. I'll soon know if he's still with us."
As they returned to the camp, Gabrielle held in her breast a warm hope. Her warrior had, at last, spoken of a future, and it was a future in which they were still together.
Throughout the day, Xena stayed with Gabrielle, either walking beside her while leading the mare Argo or insisting that her friend mount also and ride behind. Although the red-haired woman did not like riding the tall horse, she did like leaning against the warrior's back, holding her in a tight hug, smelling the fragrance of her leather garment, of her hair and skin, feeling the softness that covered muscles of iron.
It was late afternoon when Xena helped Gabrielle swing down from the horse and then herself leaped lightly to the ground. Motioning for the other woman to follow, she led Argo away from the trail and into the forest. She looked around until she saw a fallen tree. Someone had begun to harvest the dead wood, but they had not yet moved all the lengths of log that they had cut. "That will do," Xena said. "Help me lift some of the wood onto Argo's saddle."
"This seems an odd way to gather firewood," Gabrielle commented. "You must be planning quite a campfire!"
Bending to pick up one end of a small log, Xena grunted, "Lift, don't talk." Gabrielle lifted the other end and, together, they lay it carefully across Argo's saddle. They repeated this process until several of the lengths of wood were in place. Then, taking some thin rope from a saddlebag, the warrior lashed the load to the saddle. She tested it to make sure it wouldn't shift or chafe. "That should work."
Gabrielle wiped sweat from her brow. "Would you like to share the reason for this now? Or is this some sort of weird surprise?"
"I hope to surprise someone," Xena answered. "I'm going into the forest to work my way along our back trail. This extra weight on Argo will make whoever is following us think that I'm riding while you walk beside." Gabrielle looked puzzled, so Xena continued, "A horse with a rider makes deeper tracks."
"You think someone can tell the difference between a riderless horse and one with a rider just by looking at the tracks?" Gabrielle snorted.
"I can," Xena stated. "And I learned a long time ago not to assume that an opponent has lesser skills. That kind of thinking gets you in trouble."
"What am I supposed to do?"
"You walk along beside Argo. Hold her reins, but make sure you walk back by the stirrup the way you do when I'm riding, not in front as when you lead her. Can you do that?"
Gabrielle searched for any condescension in those last words but found none. "I can do that. But why don't we both just go back and find out what's going on?"
"That man got away from me last night. I don't think he would be any easier to catch in the daylight." Xena realized what was behind Gabrielle's question. "I'm not going back by myself because I'm protecting you. The only way I can catch him is if he thinks I'm still traveling with you. Your job is just as important as mine."
Feeling that important still meant less dangerous, Gabrielle couldn't think of an alternative to Xena's plan, so she nodded and led Argo back to the trail. When they reached the trail, she urged the golden mare on but lengthened the reins and stepped back so her shoulder was even with the left stirrup. When she glanced back, Xena, who had been standing near the trail, was gone.
As she walked, Gabrielle occasionally spoke to the horse, but mostly she was quiet, listening for shouts or sounds of battle from behind. At one point, thinking that she had heard something, she pulled Argo to a halt and looked around. Nothing. She turned back to see a large man standing in the trail no more than a horse length in front. In his hands was a bow, an arrow notched on the taut string. He spoke quietly. "Drop the staff and walk calmly toward me." Argo pinned her ears and took a step toward the man. "Let's change that. Drop the staff, then tie the horse beside the trail." When Gabrielle hesitated, he added, "Or I'll kill the horse. Stay on my side of the horse as you lead her."
Reluctantly, Gabrielle let her staff slip from her fingers. She soothed Argo with soft words and touches as she led her to the side of the trail and tied her reins to a small tree. All the while, the small woman wished for Xena's height and skill so that she could leap into the saddle and escape or even run the archer down.
"Now walk toward me," the man ordered. "If you do as I say, I won't harm you."
Not believing him but feeling she had no choice, Gabrielle walked slowly toward him. When she was within an arm's length of the man, he lowered the bow and delivered one swift punch to her jaw. Her last conscious thought was to wonder what Xena would do to this man.
At about the time the stranger was carrying Gabrielle away from the place of her capture, Xena realized her own mistake. She had been following a man's tracks through the forest and puzzling over the backtracking of his steps: trail to forest, forest to trail. She finally found the place where the spacing between the tracks lengthened, showing that their owner had starting running. Running in the direction Gabrielle was now traveling alone. Xena felt sudden fear that, in trying to unravel the trail that had been left for her, she had missed the man's true intention. Knowing that she would both be more vulnerable and make better time on the forest path, she chose that route, throwing away all caution as she raced toward her friend.
She never slowed until she saw the spot where Argo stood tied and saw also that the golden mare was alone. Drawing her sword, the warrior approached. Argo whinnied, and it was a sound of welcome, not of alarm. Whatever had happened here was done. Xena patted the horse, then knelt to study the tracks. Here the man had entered the trail. Here was the staff Gabrielle had dropped. No sign of struggle. There Gabrielle had led Argo to the tree and there approached the man. In this spot, the small woman had fallen, but there was no blood. Then one set of tracks, the man's, re-entered the forest. To Xena's knowledgeable eyes, they were enough deeper than before to indicate the dear burden he carried.
The tall warrior's heart lurched, then steadied. Her sweet companion was alive, or he would have had no reason to carry her away. Now she would be the one who followed. She would be the hunter. She smiled, but it was a feral grin that boded no mercy for her prey.
Turning, she drew a knife and cut away the rope that held the logs on Argo's saddle. Leading the horse into the forest, she then removed saddle and bridle and turned the horse loose. "Wait here, my friend. I think he'll stick to the deepest forest now. I'll make better time on foot." With a final pat on the horse's sleek neck, she took up her tracking task again. It did not escape her notice that this time the man's trail was easily followed.
When Gabrielle regained consciousness, she realized that she was slung across the man's back and that both her wrists and ankles were tightly bound. Although her jaw hurt, she felt no other pains. Before she could decide whether to hide the fact of her consciousness, the man lowered her feet to the ground. "I know you're awake," he told her. She looked up into steady gray eyes in a face tanned and lined by exposure to sun and wind. His hair was dark, streaked with the first signs of gray, not overly long, but raggedly cut, as if by his own hand and knife. His clothing was leather, dark brown and supple, a hunting vest and shirt and laced leggings and boots.
She started as a knife appeared in his right hand. Leaning down, he cut the thong around her ankles. Picking it up, he looped it through the thong that still bound her wrists. Giving a small tug on this new lead, he said, "You'll walk now. But keep up, or you'll need to be carried." He started forward, and, determining to watch for a chance to escape, Gabrielle followed.
Soon the forested land began to slope upward, and then the trees became sparser and were replaced by scrubby growth and rockier terrain. The man's pace never slackened, and, and as used as she was to walking, Gabrielle had to labor to keep up. Once or twice, he jerked the thong he held, causing her to wince at the pain in her wrists. At her slight gasp, he paused and studied her face. Seemingly realizing that she was doing her best, he kept the same relentless pace but started helping her over the rougher places. She tried to resist the hand with which he supported her over larger roots and around rocks and boulders, but his touch was as matter-of-fact as it was insistent, and she came to feel he really might not harm her.
Finally, it became too dark to travel over the rough landscape. Coming to a relatively flat place, the man said, "We'll camp here." He pushed Gabrielle down by a scrubby tree and used the same thong to tie her ankles. From the pack he carried, he took a length of braided leather, with which he secured Gabrielle's bound ankles to the tree. He knelt beside her for this and fixed her with a long look. Gabrielle braced herself, not wanting to think about what might come next. "You're going to be cold tonight," he said. "Can't help it. We'll be at my permanent camp by tomorrow night. I have skins there." With that, he rose and left her alone. She worked for some time at her bonds before, exhausted, she fell into a deep sleep.
A hand roughly shook her shoulder. "Xena?" She tried to stretch her cold muscles and, realizing the limits on her movements, remembered where she was. She looked again into gray eyes instead of the familiar blue.
The man held close to her mouth something that looked like bread dough. "Eat."
"What is it?"
He chuckled, a low, throaty sound. "Picky eater, huh? It's Spartan ration." At her questioning look, he explained, "Sesame, honey, poppy, and a root called squill. Eat. You'll need the energy." When he held it to her lips this time, she allowed him to place it in her mouth. The texture wasn't pleasant, sort of gritty, but the taste was sweet. As she swallowed, he was already releasing her ankles and replacing the braided leather rope in his pack. He tied the thong to the bindings on her wrists and, putting a firm hand under her elbow, helped her rise. "Come on." He hefted his pack and again turned up the slope.
Although she had expected the meager ration to leave her hungry, Gabrielle was soon surprised that she not only felt no hunger but that she felt more energy for the climb than on the day before. She also knew that she should be stiff and sore and that there was something that should worry her, but she felt none of those things. She told herself that she was stronger than she knew and that her confidence in Xena was such that there was no reason for concern.
It was late afternoon before they halted again. The man gave Gabrielle water from a small bag he carried and placed in her mouth another of the doughy pills. As they continued their journey, Gabrielle realized that the slope was rougher and steeper still and that they were actually scaling the side of a mountain. The air was growing chill, but the exertion was such that she did not notice the cold. Before dusk, they reached the edge of the tree line, and here they stopped. Looking around, Gabrielle realized that this was the permanent camp of which the man had spoken. A three-sided lean-to had been constructed of branches, brush, and bark. In front of it was a firepit that obviously had seen repeated use. Her eyes followed the slope upward toward the snowline but stopped at a nearer sight that turned her blood cold.
About halfway between the last hardy tree and the snowline was a stone. The stone was flat, a square as long and wide as a very tall man and about as thick as a temple step. In the center was a ring embedded in the very rock itself, and to the ring was attached a thick chain. Even from a distance, Gabrielle could see that this was no ordinary chain.
Following her gaze, the man led her closer to the stone. From here she could see clearly what was so strange about the chain. Each link was as wide as a man's hand, and there were no openings in the links. It was as if the chain had been forged as a whole, each separate link already fastened to the next. A thick band of iron completed the chain, the link joining with it as seamless as the others.
"This was a place of sacrifice for an ancient people," the man said. "No one can figure out how the ring was sunk into the rock or how the chain was made. Some say Atlas placed the anchor and that Hephaestus himself forged the links."
A chill shook Gabrielle's slight frame before she could control it. The man shook his head and turned her from the stone. "Don't worry, young miss. That is not your place."
As Xena examined the faint tracks and scratches on the rocky ground, she knew that she was gaining on Gabrielle and the man. She knew that she would come upon them by dark. She also knew that Gabrielle was traveling well and was relatively unharmed. She was no closer to understanding why her friend had been taken in the first place. Of course, the experienced warrior suspected that she was walking into a trap. She would have to approach with caution, but she had no doubt that she would overcome the man and rescue the one person who mattered to her beyond all others. If she couldn't save Gabrielle from one man, then what good were all her knowledge and skills?
Xena walked silently as the sun set beyond the mountain for she knew her quarry was little more than a breath away. Suddenly the evening air was rent by desperate screams of pain. There was no doubt in the warrior's heart that these screams issued from the throat of her best friend. Holding on to what caution she could, the warrior left the faint path before making a headlong rush up the slope. She dodged the first arrow and grabbed the second and the third just before the ground gave way under her. She clutched at the sides of what seemed to be a deep hole. As she fell, pain exploded in her right foot and thigh. Thinking she had broken her leg, she reached down to feel a sharp point protruding above her knee. A bone? Then she realized what this hole was. Branches and leaves had been used to disguise what was probably a natural depression in the mountainside. She had fallen on one or more of the sharpened stakes placed at the bottom. She was in a boor pit.
"Warrior!" She looked up but couldn't make out the owner of the voice in the gloom above. "Throw me your sword and that round weapon you use. Then I'll lower a rope and pull you out."
"Lean over a little farther, and I'll throw you both!" she threatened.
"My guess is that you're injured," the voice responded. "I doubt that even you could have avoided all of the stakes. And don't forget that I have your friend. Wouldn't you like to see why she was screaming?"
"Who are you?" Xena yelled. "I like to know who I'm killing."
"They call me Bram the Hunter," he responded, "but your killing days are over. Throw me your weapons. Or prepare to hear more screaming."
Thinking that she might still be able to jump from the pit, Xena attempted to lift her leg off the stake. That failing, she grasped the point and pulled the stake from the ground and through her own muscle. The pain as she did so told her that it was the same stake that had pierced her foot. Having freed herself, she soon realized that, wounded as she was, she did not have the ability to free herself from the pit before this Bram could further harm Gabrielle.
"Your weapons, warrior. Or I return to your friend."
This time, Xena loosed her sword, not to fight, but to surrender it to an enemy. She flung it out of the pit. As the man stepped back, she considered her chances with the chakram but decided that the odds were not with her--or with Gabrielle. She threw that weapon also beyond the edge of the pit. A knotted rope was lowered, and the man stood silhouetted against the faint moonlight again. She could make out his bow and arrow pointing into the pit.
"There's a loop at the end of the rope. Place that around your wrists and pull it tight. Try to climb the rope, and you're dead. So is the girl, but she'll die slow." Xena examined the loop and realized that it was of a type she knew well. Hunters used it for snares for, once tightened, it could not be loosened, only cut. Knowing that she still had her daggers, she would hope for a chance to cut it when she reached the top. Xena placed her hands through the loop and pulled it tight. She saw the man place his bow aside and begin hauling her up. Although she knew that she was a dead weight, she noticed that he did not seem to have to strain. As she approached the top, she bunched her muscles, planning how she would reach a dagger when he pulled her over the edge. As she prepared, the already dim world went black.
Xena awoke at dawn to find herself lying in the middle of the large stone. The iron band was fastened securely to her unwounded leg. She tried to see how the band could be pried open, but it didn't seem to have a place where her clawing hands could find purchase. She studied the chain and soon saw that its strange construction would thwart any attempt to pull it apart. Although her foot and leg screamed with every movement, she rose and tugged upward on the chain, trying to pull its anchor from the rock. Finally, she lay back down, exhausted.
"Xena!" The cry came from a little farther down the slope. She looked for its source and saw a beloved form. Tied to a tree in what looked like a hunter's camp was Gabrielle. Alive. Unharmed?
"Gabrielle," Xena called, "are you all right? Did he hurt you?"
There was a short period of silence.
"He broke two of my fingers. Oh, Xena, I tried not to cry out." Gabrielle's voice was anguished with guilt. "I didn't on the first. But then, with the second. . . ." Her voice trailed off in crying, not for her pain, but for her friend's.
Xena felt anger build until she was sure she could rip the chain from anything that held it, but when she rose and tried again, it was with no more success. She realized that Bram had walked from the lean-to and that he was watching her. She dropped the chain but stood defiantly as he approached. He looked at her with interest and something that she thought approached respect. "I'm sorry about your friend's hands. I set the fingers after I brought you into camp. They'll be fine, straight as ever."
"Why did you hurt her?"
"You know that, warrior," he answered calmly. "I told her to call you, and she refused. I had to make her scream. She was the bait for my trap."
"What are you going to do with her?"
"When all this is over, I'll take her down the mountain with me and turn her loose." He studied his captive. "Don't you want to know what I'm going to do with you?"
Xena shrugged. "I guess you plan to kill me. Isn't that the point of this whole thing?"
"Who sent you?" When he didn't answer, she added, "I don't know you. And you don't seem to bear me any particular grudge yourself. Believe me, I've seen hate before, and when I look at you, I don't see it. So, obviously, someone sent you."
"I suppose he would want you to know," the hunter said. "I was hired by Elphisus."
"Elphisus," Xena repeated. "So this is about Elia. But why now? After all these years?"
"As long as Elia lived, she made her father promise to leave you alone. When she died, he could at last take revenge on you."
The tall woman's voice was a whisper. "Elia dead?"
"She died last winter in a sickness that swept her husband's village. She and her youngest child. I was a hunter for that village, and I was sent to tell Elphisus the news."
"And, even before he mourned his daughter, he thought of revenge on me?"
Bram shrugged. "Maybe this IS his way of mourning."
"When will you do it? Kill me?" Xena asked.
"This morning," he said matter-of-factly. "That way the girl and I can get back down the mountain before dark."
"May I speak to Gabrielle? I'm afraid for her."
"I told you I wouldn't hurt her."
"Strangely enough, I believe you." Then she added, "But that isn't what I'm worried about."
"I guess it might help her to talk to you." The big hunter turned and walked back toward the camp. Xena, relaxing her reserve for a moment, let herself think about the girl Elia and accept that she no longer walked the earth. Allowing herself to feel one kind of pain opened the way for another, and she sat down as a spasm of agony shot through her wounded leg.
"Oh, Xena, he didn't tell me you were hurt," Gabrielle cried from nearby. Xena opened her eyes to see a sight she had missed for two days. Her beloved friend's red hair was wild and tangled, and her face was dirty and tear-stained, but she was still the most beautiful woman Xena had ever seen.
Gabrielle reached out bound and bandaged hands to try to touch skin that looked fever-hot, but Bram restrained her. "At least see to her wounds," she cried. "And give her a drink."
"It would be a waste of medicine and water," the hunter said. "I don't have either to spare."
"What do you mean a waste?" the young woman asked. "You hurt me, but you set and bandaged my fingers. And you've fed me and given me water. Why does she deserve less of your mercy?"
"Don't talk to me, " Bram replied. "Talk to her."
"Gabrielle," Xena began, "if he'll let you, sit on the edge of the stone. We need to talk while we can." To Bram, she added, "Is it all right as long as I don't touch her?"
Gabrielle looked at the hunter, who nodded. She sat on the stone, close to her friend, but not touching. "You sound like you're giving up, Xena. I've never heard you do that before. We'll get out of this. We always do."
"Tell her," Bram ordered. "She'll take it better from you."
"Tell me what?" Gabrielle stared at Xena, who finally met her eyes.
"Bram plans to. . . .execute me this morning."
"Execute?" Pure green eyes shifted to the hunter's face. "You mean murder? Is that what you are? An assassin?"
"I'm a hunter," he said. "I was hired to hunt your friend."
"But why, Xena? Why now when you are doing so much good? Who could be so heartless?" Gabrielle glared at Bram again and seemed about to spring at him, when Xena spoke again.
"For once, I'm going to tell you a story. Then maybe you can understand, accept what may happen. And come out of this thing whole." Xena took a deep breath and then began.
Soon after I started my army, when it was not much more than a small group of bandits, we needed to cross the territory around a town called Antimphae. This was an area many avoided because it was controlled by a headman named Elphisus. The people of this area were more warlike than most who tilled the land, and Elphisus was a formidable leader. But I was young and intent on building a reputation. I saw that crossing this land would say to others that my path was my path, and that no one would stand in my way.
When we entered the territory there was some resistance led by this Elphisus, but my men and I pressed on until we were right outside the town. I knew that we weren't really strong enough to take it, but I laid siege just as if I expected victory. To be honest, the town continued with its business much as it always had. We stayed on the outskirts and watched the townspeople, occasionally launching a flight of arrows just to see them run. It got so we knew most of the people by everything but their names. One of my men pointed out one young girl because of her beauty and because of her fearlessness in the face of our arrows. He called her the "golden one" because of her fair hair.
After a while, our siege did begin to have an effect on the town. With no one able to go in or out, the town's trade died. And the farmers who had run to the town for safety could not get out to tend their crops or animals. In effect, we were a nuisance. On the other hand, my men were getting bored, and I couldn't figure out a way to get into the town. And, even if my pride had allowed me to abandon the siege, we couldn't turn our backs to the town's defenders and let them hound us out of their territory.
Luckily, the town's elders got tired of the siege even faster than my small army. A delegation came to me under a white flag and offered a bargain. They would pay tribute to me in the form of a couple of wagons of food and other goods, and my army and I would just go away. At this point, this was almost better than I had hoped, since I could claim victory, but I was bothered by Elphisus's absence from the delegation. The elders informed me that Elphisus was against the bargain, but he had been outvoted. I said that I would agree to the bargain on one condition. My army had to be allowed to march THROUGH the village with Elphisus watching. And we had to be allowed to choose as hostage one young person of the town. The hostage would be released when we left Antimphae's territory. The old men didn't like my bargain as well as their own, but they agreed.
The next morning, I led my army through the town to the central plaza. There I dismounted and strode over to where the elders stood. I had no trouble picking out Elphisus, from his angry expression and his military bearing. I spoke to him directly. "Let me see the young people so that I may choose our hostage." Elphisus only spit on the ground in front of me, but one of the other elders ordered the young people to file into the plaza.
Of course, I noticed right away that one young woman was missing. The "golden one" was not there. Turning to my men, I gave them the signal we had arranged in case of treachery on the part of the town. The archers notched their arrows and the others readied their weapons for a charge. When the elders protested loudly, and the people gathered in the plaza scattered for cover, I shouted that the bargain had been broken. We had been promised our choice of hostage, but the townspeople had hidden one young person from us. Begging me to avoid a slaughter, the elders quickly produced the missing girl. Her name was Elia, and she was the only child of Elphisus.
As you can guess, I quickly chose Elia as the hostage. With her at my mercy, I was sure that even Elphisus would allow us to pass unmolested, with our tribute, from the territory. I had one of my soldiers place her on his own horse, and I led her back to my army's encampment.
As we began our journey, I told Elia that, if she would promise not to run, she would be allowed to ride on her own, unbound. She agreed and seemed to enjoy her situation as if it were an adventure. I watched her carefully, less concerned that she would break her word than that my own soldiers, a rough, violent lot, would molest her.
What happened in the next few days, or, rather nights, is not something I'm proud of. Elia was a hostage and thus deserving of every protection I could offer her. For that reason, and that reason alone, she shared my tent. On the first night, when I returned from checking on the sentries, she was already asleep in my bed. When I lay down, she rolled over and snuggled against me. It was pleasant, and I let her do it. This happened also the second night. On the third, as she snuggled against me, I realized quickly that she was wearing nothing under the cover of the blanket. The next day, we would be out of her father's territory. All I had to do was get out of that bed and spend the night sleeping on the ground. I did not. Before that night, I had lain with men, and usually it was for less than loving reasons. But I had never known passion with a woman. . . . Elia and I made love that night, and I learned something of what there could be between women.
The next day, I passed by a group of soldiers who were laughing. One was a young man who had joined us while we were besieging Antimphae. He was, I remembered, from a nearby village dominated by the larger town. The other men were listening to him as he talked about Elphisus. "He's the meanest man in the whole territory. Wait until he hears about what his daughter did with Xena--and not a mark to show any force was used. He'll lash her skin off with his own hands and then throw her in a sty to live with his pigs." He glanced up to see me and suddenly stopped talking. I gave him a hard look and walked on.
Walking into my tent, I saw Elia dressing with care. She smiled and twirled around so I could see that she had made herself even more beautiful for me. I slapped her before the welcoming expression left her face. I continued to hit her until her body was bruised and her face and my hands were covered with blood. Then I put her across my saddle and rode with her to the place appointed for her release. As she slid to the ground in front of a small group of villagers, stunned looks on their faces, I heard a cry of rage and saw Elphisus launching himself at me, sword drawn. Drawing my own sword, I batted his aside and clubbed him with the hilt.
I rode back to my army, and we crossed into the neighboring territory. I never saw or heard of Elphisus or Elia again.
Gabrielle sat quietly, looking at her own hands, as if imagining Elia's blood there--or Xena's.
Hoarse from this unaccustomed spate of words, Xena again drew Gabrielle's attention. "Bram told me that Elia recently died and that Elphisus sent him to hunt me down and to kill me. It's because of what I did to Elia that I must die."
Gabrielle turned her gaze to the hunter, who still stood nearby. He looked at her and then at Xena. "I lied."
"What?" Xena asked. "About Elia? Is she. . . ."
"Elia's dead," he said flatly. "That part was true. She and our youngest child died during last winter's sickness."
Xena's voice held wonder. "Your youngest?"
"Elia was my wife. She and I were married soon after she recovered from the beating you gave her," he explained. "Oh, I know, a simple hunter doesn't seem like much of a match for a headman's daughter, especially one as beautiful as Elia. But, even though the beating convinced everyone that she did her best to resist you, and that what you did was rape her, Elphisus still considered her damaged goods. He offered her to me on the condition that we live a quiet life apart from him and his town."
Gabrielle broke in. "But this Elphisus still sent you to kill Xena?"
"No. That's the part I lied about. Elphisus died years ago, never relenting toward Elia or seeing his grandchildren." He looked directly into Xena's eyes. "You were wrong about the hate. I've hated you since the first time I heard about your rape of Elia. Even before she was my wife, I thought about what it would be like to kill you. When we were married, that was the wedding present I offered her, your death. It was I, not Elphisus, who promised her that I would not harm you. We had a good life together. I want you to know that. Elia was a good wife and a good mother, in spite of the sadness that came over her sometimes. . . ."
"So, when she died, you decided that you were released from your promise, and you could finally kill me."
Bram nodded. "That. . . .and one other thing." He struggled to tell the rest. "When Elia lay dying, I bent over her, thinking to hear her last words to me or to our children. But what she said, I thought that what she said was 'Xena.' "
Evening found Xena and Gabrielle alone in the small lean-to near the top of the mountain. Xena's wounds were bound, and the tea she had sipped through the day had brought her fever down. Although she would not be able to travel for several days, Gabrielle knew her friend's recuperative powers and did not doubt that she would soon be well.
Bram had left his pack, including the doughy pills, water bottle, and medicinal roots he carried. Gabrielle offered one of the pills to Xena. "What is this?" Xena asked.
"Bram called it Spartan ration," the younger woman explained. "It's pretty good, and it's more filling than you would think."
Xena laughed. "Did he tell you what was in this?"
"Sesame, honey, poppy, and squill root," Gabrielle recited.
"Do you know what poppy is?"
Her friend shook her head, looking puzzled.
"Opium poppy, dear," the warrior started to explain. "Oh, well, never mind. I feel too good to need any of that, and I hope you do, too."
Gabrielle lay her head on Xena's chest. "I'm just glad Bram couldn't go through with killing you after hearing what really happened between you and Elia."
Xena tilted Gabrielle's head by touching her chin. "Are you really all right about that? You know that it was long before I met you and knew what true love was. You know that I would never hurt you? No matter what happened or what anyone thought?"
Gabrielle reached a bandaged hand to pull Xena's lips to hers. "You did what you thought was best for Elia. Sometimes, I forget how young you were at the time. Do you know that I'm older now than you were when you were becoming a warlord? When you were trying to decide how to save the future of another young girl?"
Xena hugged her beloved friend to her and, giving her a gift reserved for her alone, cried in her presence, tears saved for all those years, mourning for a night of love shared by two young women, mourning for the nights that might have been.
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