Gabrielle rose early. She sighed as her hand fell on the cold empty blanket next to her. Well at least I woke early and without Xena to prod me. She would be proud of me. The young strawberry blonde stepped quietly weaving among the furniture and made it out the door without awaking any of her friends. Once outside she ran to the stable. I need to hurry. I have a real bad feeling about all of this. "Hey Argo." She ran her hand over the palomino's mane. "Now let's get you saddled hmmm? The sooner we get to the Amazons the sooner we can get back to Xena." Argo butted her. "Yes girl." Gabrielle chuckled. "I miss her too. Xena wherever you are you better be okay." She leaned against the golden fur. "All my love is with you. Be safe." She whispered softly to the wind. Rising she led the saddled horse out into the morning air. "Okay Argo let's go." She swung into the saddle, looked toward the cabin and whispered good-bye before tapping her mount lightly.
"Gabrielle's gone." Makarios burst into the common room.
"What?!" Themis jumped to her feet Anastasius snagged her and pulled her back down on the bench. "No need to hurry." He said amused.
Odell made for the door and Eunice merely smiled. "Did you expect anything different?" There was laughter in her voice. "She promised us she'd wait til morning...morning has been here for a few candlemarks." She smiled at the stunned faces. "Come, she's off doing what she needs to do. What she promised she'd do. Now if I remember correctly we have two more people that have to leave this morning."
"True." Odell smiled at his wife's wisdom and returned to his seat by the fire. "And what do you propose?"
"Me?" She smiled warmly. "Nothing. We have a wedding to get ready for and a cabin to turn into a home." She looked at her son.
A stunned Makarios still stood by the door. Anastasius stood up. "I think that's our cue." He walked toward Makarios. "Wha...?" Makarios blushed. "Ya, right. Our cue. The horses are ready. I left them just outside the door."
"Then all you need is this." Eunice handed her son a bag. "Food for the journey." She smiled. "I think you'll be too busy to do much hunting.
"Thanks mom." He hugged her close. So much I want to tell you ...so much I'm afraid of.
"Anastasius, Makarios, be careful." Themis hugged her brother and chastely kissed her lover. She turned to her parents, trying to hide the tears of fear in her eyes.
Anastasius stepped forward. Her reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder. She stopped. Gently he turned her around and placed a finger under her chin. He looked soberly into her eyes. "I'll bring your brother home safely...as for me haven't you learned you have nothing to fear...I'll be back."
"I know." She smiled tremulously. "It's just not fair. I...we finally have a chance at happiness and this happens."
"We will have happy times." He hugged her close ignoring the family standing around. "You help settle your parents in and we'll be back before you know it." He bestowed a kiss on her forehead and stepped back swinging into the saddle before he could change his mind. He looked over to Makarios and grinned at his parents fussing. "Come my friend, the faster we leave the faster we will get back."
Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief as she entered familiar woods. She sensed the sentries watching and slid off Argo. Her staff was fastened to Argo's saddle, much like a sword and knowing the watchers were her Amazons she left it there, raised her arms up over her head and clasped them together in the classic friendship pose. Half a heartbeat later she was rewarded with by the sight of masked people sliding down vines enclosing her in their circle. She waited as they acknowledged her going down on one knee and as one breathing "Our Queen."
She lowered her arms, a smile on her face. "Rise." Her eyes twinkled. "Solari." She hugged her friend. "I need an escort to the village. Trouble rides a forest not far from here."
"Xena?" Solari's eyes were full of concern.
"She's fine. Keeping an eye on the men that want to start a war." Gabrielle grabbed Argo's reins and fell in step with her friend a guard of three formed a half circle behind them. "I'm here to get help."
"Help?" Solari skipped a step. "It's that bad?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Xena thought so. I'll fill you in on what I know once we see Ephiny."
The small party paused as they entered the village. Gabrielle felt the tension ebb. This...if not for Xena would be home. She glanced toward the warrior's practice field. Epinon was busy with what looked like a new class of staff trainees. She thought of her own training at the older warrior's hands.
"No." The quiet command had the beginnings of frustration in it. Gabrielle shuddered. It was so unfair. She wasn't a warrior. Why did she have to learn all this stuff? Xena isn't too happy with this whole thing and I'm scared...what if they say I have to stay here? "Ouch." She dropped the staff and grabbed her shoulder. "That hurt."
"If you were out on the road you'd be dead." Epinon said through gritted teeth. "An enemy wouldn't have pulled back when she realized you weren't paying attention. Like it or not you received the Right of Caste...you are now an Amazon Princess and need to learn to act like one...to fight like one...to be one that others can look up to." She tilted her staff down and flipped Gabrielle's staff up into the air catching it and holding it out to the young woman. "So?"
Gabrielle stared hard at the older woman. She knew what the amazon warrior was saying, she just wasn't sure what she should do. She wished she could ask Xena. That's an idea...what would the Warrior Princess say... er do? She squared her shoulders, suddenly she knew, a peaceful feeling settled over her and she reached out her hand. "I am an Amazon." She grasped the staff. "I will learn the staff...learn our laws and do the best I can to help my sisters." She stepped back and slipped into the first stance the warrior had taught her.
Epinon grinned and tilted her head studying the small lithe woman before her. There was something about this one...something that was easy to overlook...she said the words first silently...My sword is yours to command Princess Gabrielle...then outloud, "My sword is yours to command Princess Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle?" Solari tapped the princess on her shoulder. "Are you okay?"
"Huh?" Gabrielle blinked and brought her mind back to the present. "I'm sorry I was just thinking." She moved toward the Queen's hut knowing she'd find Ephiny there, residing over whatever disputes were presently of concern to her nation.
Solari rolled her eyes. Just thinking? And wouldn't I like to know what that grin was for. Turning to the women behind her she quickly dismissed them and jogged after her friend and princess. No way I'm gonna miss out on this one.
"Gabrielle!" Ephiny jumped to her feet interrupting the red headed amazon that was presenting her case to the regent. "What brings you here?" She looked over the bard's shoulder. "Where's Xena?" Suddenly fearful of her Queen's reason for coming back to them.
Gabrielle twisted her lips and let a small laugh fall from her mouth. "Don't worry she's fine...we're fine." She flashed a bright smile at the gathered amazons. "But..." She wrapped her arms around her regent and whispered. "...I do need to speak to you privately." She stepped back. "It's good to see all my sisters again. I wish I could say it was because I missed you that I came, but that is not true. I promise though that as soon as possible I...Xena and I will come just to visit."
Ephiny cleared her throat noisily. "You are all dismissed." She turned to the red head. "Delan, we will continue where you left off as soon as possible."
The red headed woman bowed. "I understand, my queens." She stepped briskly out of the cabin.
Ephiny waited until all except the council had left and nodded to Solari to close the door and stand guard. She winked as her friend obeyed the command, standing at attention inside the cabin. She raised a brow at Gabrielle, who bit back a giggle, but nodded her acceptance of the situation.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and stepped over to the table, where the council of the Amazons - no - where her council waited. I have to remember what Xena said. Command is half skillful manipulation...acting and half knowledge. I can do this. I will do this. "I've come to you my sisters to ask for help. Less than a week ago Xena ran into a band of mercenaries..." She began her tale, using techniques she'd learned as a bard. "...and so I have come here to ask for a squadron of our warriors to return to the Pel forest. To roust the enemy and take back that which is ours."
No sooner did Gabrielle finish talking then bickering broke out. Ephiny and a few others where ready to run to the aid of Xena. Many of the others were wary about getting involved in an altercation removed from their own woods. Gabrielle listened for a few minutes. When she was positive she'd heard every argument for both sides she rose to her feet and waited silently. Xena I hope I can pull this off. She steeled herself as she lowered her eyes, bringing her brows into a stern furrow and mimicked Xena's menacing look.
One by one the arguing amazons fell silent. Many shifted uneasily; those standing from foot to foot, those seated lowered their eyes to stare uneasily at the table in front of them, and a few rolled their shoulders as the tenseness of their queen seemed to roll onto their own shoulders.
"I understand your reluctance to join in this battle." Gabrielle let her eyes rove from person to person, "The main argument for fighting in it is that these people are using woods that are claimed by us, even we haven't used them recently. Should we just give up land that belongs to us? Woods that are meant to be protected by Amazons, that are ours to hunt." She let a very real sigh be heard. "I am your Queen. I could order you to fight with me, but I won't." She looked skyward and silently said a quick prayer that she was doing what was right. "I am going back. I will fight and I would like my Amazon sisters to be beside me in this battle." She swallowed her fear. "I need an answer now. There is no time to waste. I'll be waiting outside."
Solari stepped away from the door and held it open as Gabrielle swept through it. She stepped forward to follow her friend and her queen, paused and looked back at the council. "The queen will not ride out alone no matter what the council decides." She stepped quickly through the door and letting it fall shut behind her. "Gabrielle, wait." She called after the young blonde.
Gabrielle stood with her back to Solari. "I don't have time for this." She said as she felt the other woman come up behind her.
"I'm coming with you."
Gabrielle spun around surprised. "They couldn't have voted that quickly."
"I don't care about the vote." Solari looked steadily into Gabrielle's eyes. "I care about my honor, my family, and my friends."
Gabrielle felt tears rush to her eyes. She wet her lips and blinked. "But don't you have to abide by the council?"
"The council?" Solari laughed. "Gabrielle for one, you are the Queen and if you ordered us to nothing they said would make a difference. Second, Amazons are free to choice their own path. Occasionally that means leaving the village as Ephiny did when she married Phantes, or you did when you chose to stay with Xena, if I chose to leave with you no one will stop me. Even if the Amazons won't follow you into battle."
Unseen Epinon had come up behind the two talking women. "Who won't follow who?" She said anger seeping into her voice. "And where's Xena?" Her eyes darted about looking for the warrior and fearing the answer.
"Ep!" Both women exclaimed.
Shaking her head Gabrielle laughed. "No it's nothing like that." She grinned as the warrior blushed. "Xena's keeping an eye on some mercenary types in the Pel Forest. I came to get some help."
Solari rolled her eyes at Gabrielle's explanation and stepped in. "What she means is Xena's in the woods waiting for some backup because she thinks this time it might be more than she can handle."
"When do we leave?"
Solari bit back a laugh.
Gabrielle stared open mouth at Epinon. "That's it? When do we leave? Don't you want to know what you'd be up against? "
"No." The warrior shook her head. "You and Xena need our help. That's good enough for me. Let me get my traveling kit."
"But?" Gabrielle spoke to thin air. Epinon had already headed toward her hut. Solari smiled at her young queen, who shrugged. "I guess it may be selfish Solari, but I am glad that at least you and Epinon will be with me."
"Not just us, my queen." She pointed toward the waiting warriors that had accompanied her to the village. "I believe they are awaiting your command."
"My command?" Gabrielle's eyes went wide. "But?"
"Well they did escort you to the village. They know Xena wasn't with you. Amazons aren't stupid..."
Gabrielle glanced back at the hut she just left and forward to the waiting guards, then to the woman at her side. "I don't know what to do." She admitted. She was tired, worried, and scared, but she couldn't tell them that. She had to be strong. Xena was depending on her.
Solari started at the call.
Gabrielle turned wearily toward her friend and regent, "Ephiny?" She said questioningly. Knowing in her heart it had been too quick. She squared herself against the bad news. Xena I failed. She cried inwardly.
"Can you come back in?" Ephiny nodded her head toward the hut and held the door open.
"Ahh," She tossed a quick glance at Solari who nodded encouragingly. "I guess so." She smiled tensely at her friend as she walked back into the hut. She held her head high, every inch the queen they had made her.
She stopped at the head of the table and looked carefully around the room, acknowledging each individual before speaking. "I assume a decision has been reached." She broke the silence.
Ephiny grinned, "Yes. You're our Queen. It is Amazon land, even if it has been unused for years. Well I am willing to be your mouthpiece while you are out following your heart we have all pledged to follow you." Now the smile had reached her eyes. "So lead us to Xena and we will fight for you."
Oh gods! She wanted to hide her head in her arms. How could she do this? Earlier she was afraid they wouldn't come with her. Now she was afraid because they would. These are my friends...my family, how can I lead them into battle? I'm asking them to be prepared to die for me...I can't do this. Fear filled her heart and she started to panic.
Ephiny watched the change come over her friend. She leaned over and whispered in her ear. "Breathe." She commanded. "Think of Xena."
Gabrielle felt a smile spread over her face. Eph sure knew the right thing to say. Thoughts of Xena calmed her. Xena thought she could do this and there was no way she was going to let Xena down. She tightened her jaw, and raised her chin a little. "All right. If I have the support of the council I'd like to take two squadrons with me. That will leave enough warriors here to defend the village if need be. We leave in the morning." She turned to Ephiny. "I'll need some help in choosing which warriors to take."
Ephiny nodded. " Shallan is the one you want to help you with that. She is our War Leader. She knows everyone's strengths and weaknesses. Come on, I'll take you to her hut."
Gabrielle stretched wearily. She glanced around her hut. It seemed so strange to be standing here without Xena. Gods I miss her. She sat on the edge of their bed and immediately remembered the first time she sat here with Xena.
She sat silently with her head down, afraid to look at the imposing figure standing in the doorway. She had sensed Xena's anger at the whole situation and was afraid of what her traveling companion was going to say.
Thinking back she realized just how off guard Xena had caught her with her actions. Instead of ranting about it the warrior had quietly walked across the room and knelt at her feet.
"Do you want to stay here?" The warrior asked, carefully schooling her own thoughts on the subject. "Is this what you want out of life?"
"I don't know." The frightened young girl wailed. "I guess it's kind of exciting. I mean being a princess and all, but..." her voice trailed off. She was frightened and still unsure of what Xena thought or wanted. "If I stayed here what would you do?"
Xena snorted. "I'd continue doing what I've been doing. Just like before I met you."
Gabrielle looked up at the strong face of her companion and fell into those beautiful blue eyes again. Would it really be that easy for you? She thought the words but didn't speak. She took a deep breathe and wet her lips. Xena stayed kneeling at her feet looking into her eyes as though telling her that whatever decision she made it would be okay. "And if I choose to stay with you?" That brought a smile to the harsh face and it was a smile that even then caused Gabrielle's stomach to do flip flops.
"Then we continue to do what we've been doing." Came the quiet reply.
"But what about the Am- " Xena interrupted Gabrielle with a hand over her mouth. "I'll take care of the Amazons." She promised.
"And she had." Gabrielle sighed. That had been a major turning point in their life and she hadn't realized it at the time. Artemis, Athena, keep her safe for me. She covered her face with both hands. "I'm not ready for this." She muttered. "And Xena was how old when she started leading armies?" A knock at the door and a soft voice interrupted her musings.
"Gabrielle?" Ephiny called. "Are you awake? Can I come in?"
"Yes." Gabrielle quickly rubbed her eyes. "Come in."
"Hi." Ephiny smiled at her friend. "I thought you might like some company." She glanced uneasily around the room. "I guessed you'd be having a hard time sleeping."
"Ya." Gabrielle shrugged sheepishly. "I guess I ah um..." She snorted at herself. "Well you know."
"Ya, I do." Ephiny smiled. "That's why I brought this." She held up the wine skin.
Gabrielle laughed outright. "I think Xena would have appreciated that more than me."
"Ah but you need it more tonight." Ephiny took a sip and passed the skin to Gabrielle. "Go ahead take a little. It'll help you loosen up enough to sleep and if this problem is anywhere as bad as I think it'll be you'll need all the rest you can get."
Gabrielle sipped the wine enjoying the slow spread of warmth it instantly brought to her. She closed her eyes and sighed. "I can't do this Ephiny. I'm not a leader."
Ephiny bit her lower lip an leaned forward. "You can do this." She spoke earnestly. "You have it in you...you do." She clasped Gabrielle by the shoulder. "Three years ago you accepted this...then you couldn't lead...now you can. You've proved that in the times you spent here with us."
Gabrielle took another sip. "But this..." She shuddered. "It's asking people to die for me." She shook her head. "I don't want people to die for me."
"No." Ephiny took the skin back. "Not for you, but for themselves. For their own values, for each other." She took a swig. "Would you die for Xena?"
"What kind of a question is that?"
"Would you die for me?"
"Ephiny? I don't understand!" Gabrielle became agitated. "You know I would."
"As I would for you." Ephiny smiled. "And yet you would deny me and the rest of your friends the same right?" She looked Gabrielle straight in the eye and held her gaze. "Is that fair to us?"
Gabrielle stared thoughtfully at her friend. The one woman besides Xena that had taught her so much about friendship. She chewed her lip worriedly. "I... I... I ne...never looked at it that way."
"I understand." Gabrielle continued to chew her lip nervously. "These are my people, my responsibility. I will lead them and I will try to see to it that as few as possible die so the nation may live on."
Ephiny smiled. "Good. That's all I can ask." She took another long swig and handed the skin to Gabrielle, who immediately lifted it to her mouth. "I just wish I could go with you."
Gabrielle lowered the skin, swallowed and licked her lips. "Me to, but one of us has to stay with the village."
"You could stay." Ephiny looked away for a moment. "I could lead the war party and you stay here."
"No." Gabrielle shook her head. "My place is out there. Your place is here."
"You sure?" Ephiny placed her arms on her friend's shoulders. "I mean I am more of a warrior than you."
"And you want to keep me safe." Gabrielle stood up and crossed her arms defiantly.
Ephiny dropped her eyes. "Yes." She admitted warily. "I do want to keep you safe. You are my friend and my queen." And silently she added besides I could never face Xena if anything ever happened to you.
Gabrielle sighed heavily. "I know." She stepped closer to her friend. "But I can't stay here. Xena is out there. That's where I belong. Can you understand that?"
Ephiny closed her eyes. Artemis, when did she grow up? "Ya, I can understand."
"Good." She clasped her friend close. "Now get outta here. I have to get some sleep."
"Yes my queen." Ephiny bowed her head, retrieved her skin and walked out.
Gabrielle collapsed on her bed. "Oh Xena I miss you and I am so afraid..." She closed and a tear trickled down her cheek.
"Gabrielle?" A small hand patted her hair. Gabrielle blinked awake. The hand dropped away and tear-filled eyes strained to look into her own.
"Oh." A slight smile parted her lips. "Acacia." She opened her arms and the child slipped into them. She held the trembling form close to her. "What's wrong?" Gabrielle whispered the words, afraid of the answer. Had they made a mistake leaving the child with the Amazons? "Acacia?" She lifted the child's face to look at her. "Why the tears?"
Acacia sniffed and rubbed a hand across her eyes. "Xena." Tears fell again.
"Oh no." Gabrielle wiped the tears away and clasped Acacia close. "Xena's okay." Gabrielle rocked back and forth with the girl.
"But," Bewildered eyes looked up at the queen. "If she's okay why are you here alone?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath. How much to tell a child? I wish Xena were here. She'd know what to say. She thought of the warrior woman and the answer came to her. Gabrielle smiled at the child in her arms. They had told the girl that this was their family and that would be explanation enough. "Xena and I needed some help so I came to get a few of our sisters."
"Can I come?" The child asked excitedly.
"No." Gabrielle said firmly but gently. "The help we need is in the art of war and you my dear are only just learning. In a few years you will be ready to assist us as the women that ride with me tomorrow are doing now."
Acacia frowned. "Will you get hurt?"
Gabrielle bit back a laugh. "I don't know. I can only promise that we will try not to let anyone get hurt."
"Will you come back with the others?"
"We'll see." She smiled. "If all works out well Xena and I will come back for at least a short visit soon. Okay?"
Acacia nodded happily.
Gabrielle tousled her hair. "Good. Now let's get some sleep."
Acacia's eyes lit up. "I can stay with you?"
Gabrielle nodded and laid back on her cot.
"Good." The child wormed her way tightly against the bard's side. "I missed you." She sighed happily as her eyes drifted shut.
"I missed you too little one." Gabrielle whispered into the dark hair and pressed her lips against the child's head, before closing her own eyes.
Xena rolled her shoulders to ease the ache that came from sitting still for so many hours. She rose to her feet and examined the paintings on the wall. Once again they appeared normal. She rolled her tongue around worriedly. Silently she made her way through the cave to the front entrance.
"Are the images reality?" She stopped in front of the old man.
"I don't know." Chronos admitted. "The sprites won't say."
"I need to know." She said.
"And all I can tell you is time will tell."
She snarled. "No, I won't wait for time to tell me." She turned towards the woods, and looked back over her shoulder. "The images are false. I won't let them be true." She stomped into the woods.
Chronos laughed. He turned to one of the sprites. "I think she was upset by the images." He looked to where she'd disappeared. "She was so upset she forgot to ask about time. Yet that's what she came here for." He twirled his walking staff haphazardly. "And that's what they will need to stop him."
Xena fought to contain her rage. The pictures had to be only possibilities not the only way. I can just kill him now. Before the others arrive. Before she gets here. She leaned her head against a tree. I can't live without her. This can't be her destiny. I won't let it be. She stayed still willing her body to calm down. A plan. I need to come up with a plan.
"Arhahahahahahaa." A sinister laugh filled the air. Xena spun around. "Too late warrior princess." She heard the words as something knocked her to the ground. "Bind her tight." Were the last words she heard as darkness descended.
Xena stifled a groan as awareness slowly returned. The rough hemp rope abraded her. A tug against the binding had nearly brought panic. She needed to be free to protect Gabrielle. She could feel the rough bark of a tree against her back. She yanked the rope tightened.
"You won't be going anywhere." A voice that was familiar and amused sounded in her ears. She forced her eyes open despite the fact that the throbbing was enough to make her want to smash her own head against the tree. Gregor. "Ugh." She closed her eyes. "That's not a sight for sore eyes." She muttered.
The same evil laughter that she had heard before being knocked unconscious filled her ears again. Her eyes flashed open. "You?!" She snarled angrily and yanked at her binds. The ropes pulled even tighter.
"Ha. You never should have turned nice. It ruined you. Three years ago I would never have been able to catch you unawares." He spit at her feet. "Now look at you." He rolled his eyes. "Pathetic."
"Untie me and we'll see just how pathetic I am."
"Oh I don't think that would be a very good idea. No," he tilted his head. "I think I'll let your friend Gregor have you."
"I should have known you'd be a part of this." She glared at the man. "It reeks."
"Yes." His eyes gleamed. "Actually after you tried to kill me I set up this little hideaway. The best thing you ever did for me was to banish me from your army." He laughed. "It made me the man I am today."
"Man?" She laughed. "You're no more a man today then you were last time I saw you." She looked meaningfully at his crotch. A sneer plastered on her face.
His eyes glazed. "And you'll pay for that!" His hand flew across her face. "It's easy to a beat an unarmed person." She touched her lip with her tongue, tasting the blood. "At least you were armed when I took care of you."
His face turned purple with rage. He stepped in and slapped her again. "I've waited six years for this. I mean to take you down Xena and I don't care what tool I use to do it."
Stas and Makarios paused by in a small clearing. Stas sensed something was wrong. The further into the woods they'd moved the more uneasy he grew. Now stepping into this clearing he knew something had happened here. He closed his eyes and stretched with his other senses. Something, his nose twitched. That smell. His eyes popped open. "Mak-"
"Stas!" Makarios was kneeling by an Oak tree. He turned to his companion and fear shone from his eyes. "This is Xena's." He held out a small pouch.
The big man nodded. "She was here and I think captured. Come on." He bent low looking for clues and following an almost hidden trail through the woods. They hadn't gone far when they heard voices. The two men looked at one another.
Makarios shook his bow at Stas. Stas nodded his agreement and pointed to the right, holding up three fingers. He nodded agreeing silently to the plan. Get in position and attack in three minutes. He'd always been a good shot. It might even up the odds somewhat. He stepped into position and now he could see Xena tied to a tree. He shuddered. The man standing before her was a cruel one. He recognized the slight insane look. He watched as the man pulled his arm back, and let loose a slap that if she hadn't been tied would have knocked the warrior woman down. The slap echoed in the woods, and Makarios clenched his weapon tighter forcing the desire to kill the man down. Not yet wait for Stas to get in position. The smile of cruel anticipation on the man's face making his mouth go dry with fear. He forced himself to lift his bow and set the arrow. Wait. He reminded himself. I'll know when.
Stas waited until his friend was out of sight, before laying down and wriggling his way in closer to the clearing. He moved slowly and purposely toward the scent that was Xena. He needed to get as close as possible if he were to free her. If it wasn't too late. A smile came to his face as he heard her voice taunting, goading her captor. He was close enough now. How many men were there? He risked parting the brush in front of him. Six, seven , eight that I can see, probably double that amount. Not bad odds. We can do this. He grinned. A chance to battle again. He let the battle fever rise in his veins. The heat, the smell of the blood waiting to be spilled filled his nostrils, and he knew it was time. Rising he drew his sword and stepped into the clearing. "It's easy to beat an unarmed person." He grinned at the startled faces, and let a sneer form on his face. His disdain for the bandits clear. "Especially one tied to a tree. How about you try me instead."
Makarios hesitated not at all. The sight of Stas standing at ease in the bandit's camp was all he needed. He took aim and let loose. Cocked a second arrow and let it fly before the first arrived. As the first arrow found it's mark, Stas' sword took the life of the man closest to him. The one that had been threatening Xena. Cleaving down and through his chest effortlessly, before swinging behind to slice through the rope that bound Xena to the tree. Once freed from the tree Xena rose awkwardly and with feet still tied together joined in the battle. Makarios let loose a second arrow, getting the bandit that had crept up behind the big man. Xena laughed. She grabbed the sword from the fallen man and sliced the rope that bound her legs together. "Now we'll see who has who." She murmured to the remaining men. "Thanks for the help." She spared a glance toward the big man. "I take it Gabrielle arrived."
"Yes." He parried. "She said to tell you she'll be here shortly." He flipped the sword out of his enemy's hand and followed through with a quick slice to the man's throat.
Xena blanched as she heard his words and renewed her fight. Much as she wanted to see her lover she no longer wanted the bard to come any where near these woods. Kicking the man she was fighting knocking him against a tree before an arrow came out of no where to pin him there. Her laughter filled the air. "Thanks Makarios!" She hollered. "Both of you?" She cocked an eyebrow at the man fighting by her side. "I would have thought one would stay at the cabin."
"What and let you have all the fun?" Stas said as he dispatched yet another man and smiled at her. Turning around as no new fighters came to battle him. Makarios stepped out of the woods. The ground was littered with bodies. "None escaped." Came the quiet assurance.
"Good." Xena lifted a knife off of one of the bodies and began slicing the ropes off her wrists. "Thanks for killing him." She nodded toward the first man to have fallen." Stas raised a brow in question. "I should have done that years ago."
"You knew him?"
"Oh ya." She grimaced. "I threw him out of my army after I crippled him."
The two men looked at the body puzzled. "Crippled? He looks okay to me."
"Look again." She sneered. "Only this time take his pants off." She snorted at their look and instinctive reach to their own crotch. "Ya. I cut it off. After I caught him raping a little girl...he'd already finished with her brother." Anger at her own weakness filled her, and weary of it all she slumped to the ground. "I should have just killed him." She shook her head sadly. Why didn't I just kill him back then? "I should have just killed him." She swore softly.
The two men slightly pale at her words looked uneasily at one another. The bigger one stepped forward and crouched at her side. "Killing him would have put him out of this world, but not made him suffer as the past several years have besides it's a moot point now." He reached out and clasped her shoulder. "Come on. Forget him. It's over. We need to go forward now. Let's go set up a camp and you can fill us in on what's going on out here."
Xena let him drag her to her feet. Makarios joined them. Her weapons in his hands. He held them out. "Thanks." She slipped the chakram into it's spot at her waist, and the sword slid back into it's sheath with a comforting sound. "Come on." She stepped towards the woods, glanced back at the body of her tormentor and shuddered slightly. "I know the perfect place for us to rest."
'So you've met Chronos." Stas said slowly after listening to his friend's tale. "And what did you think?"
Xena tilted her head at the men that sat before her. "He's an interesting character, with interesting friends. Don't you think?" She turned her blue eyes onto Anastasius' eyes, ignoring Makarios startled indrawn breath.
He chuckled. "Yes. I agree. How did you know I knew him?"
"I watched the wall."
"He showed you?" Stas' shock was obvious. "But...I mean, I he..." He shook his head as though trying to clear it. "I find this hard to believe." He held out a hand forestalling any argument. "No. I don't doubt your word. I just find it difficult to fathom." He wet his lips and pulled his upper lip into his mouth sucking on it. "In all the years I have known him he has refused to let me see the wall." He looked at his companions. "And I knew it existed. Unless I am mistaken you just learned of it's existence."
"That's true." She tore a piece of meat off the rabbit leg she was holding and chewed thoughtfully. "And I almost wish I hadn't looked." She swallowed, took a sip of water and continued. "The future doesn't always hold things you want to see." Her eyes darkened and her voice lowered. A note of sadness entered and both men shook. It showed a lot of death. Deaths of loved ones." Her eyes glistened. "And I am not willing to pay that price. I will not allow that...those deaths to occur."
'So we change the plan." Stas rubbed his chin. "Who dies?"
"No." She shook her head. "No one dies." She glanced from one to the other. "I won't let anyone die to stop this pig." She picked at her teeth. "I will move against Gregor tomorrow. You guard Chronos."
Makarios stared unsure of what to do. It sounded like something had gone wrong since last time he'd seen Xena. And her eyes they were cold. Sent a chill right through him. He rubbed his arms. I wish Gabrielle was here. She'd know what to do.
Stas chuckled. "I don't recall enrolling in your army." His eyes sparkled. "As a matter of fact the last time I remember enrolling in an army I think I was a couple of hundred years younger than I am today."
Xena clenched her fists together. The rage stayed just below her surface. "So you refuse to do it?" Her voice managed to stay calm, but she was amazed that her heart hadn't jumped out of her chest.
"No." He raised one brow at her. "I question the wisdom of your method of battling our enemy. One against how many, when there is no need for it?"
"There's a need." Her voice was terse, her eyes furrowed with an unseen pain. "I can't risk it...can't risk innocent lives."
"You?" Makarios broke in. "It's not your decision. It's up to each of us to decide when to fight and when not to. Don't deny us the right to fight for our homes...our people."
Xena threw her head back and took a deep breath. She squeezed her eyes shut. Why me? She let her breath out slowly and wet her lips. "A right to fight..." She opened her eyes and looked into Makarios' eyes. A couple of months ago she wanted to kill him, and a month before that he'd wanted to kill her, now all she wanted was to find a way for him to live. "...and a right to die. That's what you want." Her voice was low and throaty a certain chilling quality that made his heart skip a beat.
"If it means dying for our home, for our loved ones I for one am prepared to do just that." He sounded a little miffed that she'd had to ask, that she acted as though he shouldn't be willing to die for his family. He frowned and let his anger seep into his voice. "What? Do you think you're the only person with the right to fight for home and family? Are the rest of us supposed to stand aside and watch you fight? "
She blinked more than a little taken aback by his attack. She nodded her head slowly. "You're right." She admitted. "I've always been like that." She looked away remembering the past. Remembering her first step into the darkness that would be her life for ten years.
"Lyceus, no!" Xena screamed as she saw her brother go down. Her sword flashed left and right spilling blood of any within her reach as she fought to reach her little brother. Villagers and mercenaries alike shrunk away from her. She stood over her brother's body and fought until no more marauders were left standing. Her arms tired and her sword and clothing covered in blood she knelt and wept at his side. She wept until Toris came and told her it was her fault. She believed him. Her own mother turned away when she managed to drag her weary body home. She carried Lyceus with her and placed him on his bed. She knew somehow she'd failed them. It's why they hated her. She'd make it better. She'd find a way to protect the whole village. She'd find Cortese. Make him pay. No one would ever do this to Amphipolis again. Not as long as she lived.
She blinked returning to the present. "What do you want to do?"
Makarios glanced at Stas. The big man sat silently waiting. He looked down at his feet and back at Xena. The warrior woman was waiting for him to speak. "I don't know." He shrugged. "I only know that I want to be a part of the group that ends this threat. I don't want to sit behind the lines twiddling my thumbs and waiting for someone to come tell me it's over and we can all go home.
She nodded her understanding and looked at the big immortal sitting next to her. Sighed when she saw his smirk. "Fine." She raised one brow. "We'll revise the plan. She said glaring at his apparent smuggness. "Do you have any ideas?"
"A few." Anastasius admitted. "And they don't include sacrificing any warrior princess'." He bit back a grin at her look, but continued speaking. "I take it you know where the main camp is?"
Xena snorted. "Yes. I've been there." She drew a quick map on the ground and the three fell into a heavy discussion on battle tactics.
"My Queen there's a small village up ahead." Lessa gestured with her head. "Do you wish to send a scout ahead?"
"Call me Gabrielle." The red head pleaded. For two days she'd been trying to stop the woman from calling her queen with no success. She sighed. Hearing the title always made her shiver a little. It seemed so removed from everyone, and she hated that. "And no, I don't see a need for an advance scout. The villagers know me. We'll have no trouble."
Solari glanced sideways at the Lead scout. A tilt of her head and Lessa sat back in her saddle, without another word. Solari pulled her own mount closer to Argo. "Gabrielle?" She said barley above a whisper.
"Hmm?" Gabrielle murmured without taking her eyes off the road in front of her. She was remembering the last time she walked down this path with Xena at her side.
"I was just wondering," She began hesitantly trying not to offend her young queen. "Do you think the villagers might be scared when they see a troop of twenty Amazon warriors heading there way?"
Gabrielle rubbed her forehead. "I'm not cut out for this." she muttered under her breath. "I hadn't thought of that." She admitted as the full effect of Solari's words penetrated her mind. "Halt the troop." She called to her Lieutenant.
The woman did as requested and swung her horse back to join her queen. "What is it my Queen?"
Gabrielle sighed. "Call me Gabrielle." Another one that insisted in the formalities.
Solari stifled a laugh at the look of frustration on her friend's face. "Briala, our queen truly hates formalities. Please drop the title."
"Sure Sol." The tall auburn haired warrior smiled at her childhood friend before turning to her young queen. "Gabrielle, why are we stopping here?"
Gabrielle glared at Solari. "I want to go ahead to the village and warn them that we're coming so they won't be frightened by us."
"Good idea." She nodded her approval. "I'll choice two of our scouts for the task."
Gabrielle smiled, "No, you don't understand. I'm not sending someone. I'm going to go myself."
"You're what?" She asked appalled by the prospect. "No way." She folded her arms angrily. "I can't allow you to risk your life in that manner."
Gabrielle's eyes flashed angrily. "You can't allow it?" She questioned with a deceptively calm face.
"That's right. Your life is worth too much to our nation to allow you to enter into such an unknown."
"Well I am going." Gabrielle forced herself to stay calm, after all these women were just concerned with her well being. She clicked her tongue, pulled on Argo's reins and without looking at either woman started towards the village.
"Gabrielle wait." Solari grabbed Argo's reins, wincing at the anger that flashed in her queen's eyes. I agree you have to be the one that enters the village." She spoke quickly, before her friend's anger had a chance to let loose. "But not alone. Take two of the guards with you." She saw the hesitancy in Gabrielle's eyes and pressed her luck. "Please."
Gabrielle sighed sadly. This was worse than being with Xena. "Fine, but only two."
Solari grinned and quickly called two of her best swordswomen to accompany the queen. She watched the three women for a moment before turning to Briala. She patted her friend's shoulder. "Don't worry." She murmured encouragingly. "When Gabrielle gets in these moods it's best to find a way to help her not hinder." She smiled. "Even Xena loses when our Bardic Queen puts her foot down."
"Ya," Briala grimaced and turned her face toward Solari. "but I'm the one that's gonna have to face Xena if something happens to the Queen."
Solari blanched. Face Xena if something happened to Gabrielle? "I'd rather face Velaska again!"
"Me too." Briala said sorrowfully.
The two watched silently as their queen moved further away and closer to the village.
Gabrielle edged Argo slightly to the front of her guard. She kept Argo moving at a slow but steady pace toward the village. She smiled as they approached the village. For her it was a sign that soon she'd be reunited with Xena. The Pel Forest was less than a half day's journey from the small village. Too small to warrant a guard she noted hoe quickly the streets emptied of women and children. Only men, and armed men at that, remained on the streets by the time they reached the small inn she had stayed at with Xena. She let her eyes sweep through the scattered men, searching for one she knew by name. Spotting one near the inn, she smiled. "Karston." She called as she slid off Argo. "Hi."
"Gabrielle?" The tall blonde man stepped away for the wall. "Is that you? It is. Where's Xena? What's going on? Why are you with these..." His voice trailed away as he took in the stance of the two women warriors. Although they had not drawn their weapon their hands were on the hilts and they had moved in front of Gabrielle.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Amazons," she muttered under her breath. "Areta, Rayna, step aside." She spoke through clenched teeth. "Sorry Karston they tend to be a little over protective."
He swallowed his fear. "Ahm, why?" He glanced nervously from Gabrielle to her protectors.
Gabrielle sighed and with a slight apologetic look replied. "I'm their queen."
Karston's eyes nearly popped out of his head. "Their queen? Really?" He stepped back a pace. "But I thought you were a bard? And what about Xena?"
"I am a bard." She took a deep breath. "Look it's a long story and one we really don't have time for. As for Xena, me and some of my Amazons are on our way to join her right now. I rode ahead with these two to let you and your people know we aren't invading just traveling through."
"Oh." Karston turned to one of the men that had come up behind him and raised an eyebrow. The man stepped forward and others milled closer. "Father, this is Gabrielle, the bard that I told you about. Gabrielle this is my father, Philander Elder of our village."
The man stepped forward and bowed his head. "A bit more than a bard I think." He offered his hand. "Come join in me in a drink."
Gabrielle smiled. "Thank you, but first I must be sure my amazons are welcome here."
"Of course." Philander turned to the men circling them. "These warriors wish safe passage though our village. They have no desire to bring harm on us. I say we allow them to come through."
Gabrielle carefully watched the reactions of the men in the crowd. None appeared to resent his words. She tapped Areta on the shoulder. "Go back to the others tell them it is safe for them to enter the village." She tilted her head to look up at Philander. "And now for that drink?"
"This way." Philander waved an arm toward the door of the tavern.
"My Queen?" Areta hesitated.
Gabrielle squeezed her arm. "Go. It is safe. Besides I still have Rayna to guard my back." She smiled.
Areta glanced briefly to her partner before nodding to her queen. She leaped onto her horse and twirled it around raced out of the village.
Gabrielle smiled at the retreating form and ignoring the shadow at her back stepped quickly into the tavern. She waited for her eyes to adjust to the dim light before stepping further into the tavern. Without thought she headed for the last table in the left hand back corner of the room. The few men that had followed her into the tavern, and Rayna joined her at the table.
"Ale for all." Karston called to the barkeep.
"No." Gabrielle spoke quickly. "Thank you, but I prefer cider."
"My apologies." He turned back to the bar. "Make that cider for one and ale for the rest of us."
"So what is this long story of yours?" Karston asked as he slid a tankard across the table to his father and placed one in front of Rayna. Before sitting next to her. "Will it explain where Xena is?"
"Oh yes." Gabrielle snorted. "It'll explain where Xena is." She paused as the door swung open, frowning as she noted the manner of men let in.
Rayna's eyes followed those of her queen and she shuddered. The five men that had entered were unkempt warriors. The type that always meant trouble for her and her kind. She sighed and looked to her queen for guidance.
Gabrielle chewed her lip worriedly. If Xena were here she'd know what to do. The men were talking boisterously and downing ale almost as quick as the barkeep could pour. It was only a matter of time before a fight broke out. She glanced around the room. Most of the townspeople were slipping out the door.
Philander leaned forward and practically whispered his fear evident in his voice. "Perhaps we should go to my cabin and discuss this."
Several of the men sitting with them nodded their agreement. Karston opened his mouth to protest, but shut it again as two of the men causing the fear suddenly loomed over Gabrielle.
"And what do we have here?" An uncouth man with wild slimy brown hair reached out and tousled her hair. "How much for a tumble lass?"
She shuddered. "I'm not for sale." She stated pulling her head away from the filthy hand.
"Everyone's for sale." He leaned closer and grasped her chin. "You might want to be nice to me." He whispered. "Soon I will be one of the richest men in all of Greece."
Rayna jumped to her feet. "Unhand her."
Gabrielle smirked. "I'd take her advice." She allowed him to hold her head, but grasped her staff hidden from his view by the table. "I am not some whore and I don't like rich men."
He laughed. "Oh really?" He glanced at his friends who were egging him on and glanced at Rayna standing by, hands held ready. "I suppose you like women warriors?" He sneered. "Like this one."
Gabrielle knocked his hand away. "Yes." Her eyes glinted. "As a matter of fact I do. Now please go. We're not looking for trouble." As always she tried to talk her way out.
The tavern had grown silent. All eyes rested on the back table. The rest of the man's companions rose to their feet, prepared to join in on the fun.
Anger flashed across his face and he reached out to grab the pretty blonde again. This time he twisted her hair in his hand and yanked hard. "That wasn't very nice. I want you to be nice."
"Oh I am very nice." Gabrielle's eyes flashed. "But not to pigs." Her arm came up and this time it held her staff. She let it snap against his wrist as she rose to her feet.
Rayna leaped backward drawing her sword as she moved. Two of the men sitting with them slid off the benches and hid beneath the table. Karston kicked the bench back and drew his own sword. Philander, having no weapon of his own stepped back to watch the fight. His eyes darted from the figure of his son to that of is companions.
Gabrielle swung her staff knocking his hand back. She stepped back with her right foot and turned sideways raising her staff she blocked the upward swing of his sword and with a slight twist of her wrist she caught the hilt of his sword and pulled it away from him. A quick thrust and then twirling the staff over her head she brought it straight down on the top of her head. The man went down and Gabrielle turned her attention to Rayna.
The amazon was battling a man slightly smaller than herself. She swung her sword expertly. Swords clashed noisily. She blocked he parried she thrust and as he blocked she slipped under his guard and
her sword slid home. He fell with a startled expression on his face.
"Gabrielle!" The scream reached her ears as she sensed the steps behind and she thrust the staff backwards catching her attacker off guard. The man screamed. She twirled around and slammed the staff against the side of his head. The bone cracking could be heard throughout the tavern and sides heaving she glared angrily at the fallen man. Rayna stepped up beside her. "Are you okay?" The amazon warrior asked.
Before Gabrielle could answer a loud noise was heard from the front of the tavern and the two women and their friends - the only people still standing all rushed for the door and were met at the door by Gabrielle's Amazons.
"My Queen!" Briala paused sword in hand and angry eyes glaring.
Solari smiled. She glanced around the room and laughed. "Too late again." She sheathed her sword. "Just once I'd like to get in on a fight before you or Xena end it." She said defusing the tense atmosphere. "So what happened?" She moved over to the bar. "Hey what's a girl gotta do around here to get a drink?"
Solari sighed as she caught sight of the forest that was there destination. She swallowed her fear at seeing Xena again. Not that she didn't like or approve of the tall warrior, but she had a nagging suspicion that the warrior wanted Gabrielle as far away form the upcoming fight as feasible and might take her being in the fight out on the amazon warriors with her.
They rode out of the low rolling hills covered in grass, with their tree lines that marked streambeds and river bottoms and into the valley that led to the forest, with sunset just a candlemark away.
"Gabrielle." Briala turned her mount towards that of her queen. "Do we press on or do we stop for the night?"
Gabrielle hesitated. To be this close to Xena...she sighed. There was no trail and she truly had no idea where Xena was holed up. "Better to wait the night through." She glanced to her right. "We'll make camp here. Far enough away from the wood's edge that no one can attack us using it for coverage."
Briala rose in her seat. "Camp time." She called and the call was heard echoed down the line. Each woman knew what her assigned tasks were an fell to preparing camp at once.
Gabrielle slid off Argo and patted her neck whispering as she fed her an apple. "Almost Argo. I can almost smell her. I bet you can't wait to see her again huh?" Se let her eyes slide over the forest. "Me too."
Dusk had settled in by the time the amazon camp was set and all the women were fed. The guards were set and Gabrielle rested comfortably by one of the small fires. Thoughts of Xena filled her mind and she reached for her scrolls. Better to keep busy then sit and fret. She opened her bag and preparing her quill settled in to write about her and Xena's last adventure.
Xena paused, something felt different. She waited head held high. Nothing. She glanced at her companions. Sighed. Perhaps it's just getting to m...this separation from Gabrielle. "I'm going to check the perimeter." She rose and slipped silently out of the camp. She paced restlessly through the trees, sorting by scent the varied plants and animals life hidden by the darkness. She spotted the glow of firelight in the distance and paused. More mercenaries come to join Gregor? Or perhaps? Her heart quickened...Gabrielle. She breathed the name. Yes. Silently she slid from tree to tree getting ever so much closer to the encampment. She spotted the first guard. Amazon. Her heart began to sing. It was her love. She wanted to run to her gather her up in her arms and her heart thudded. Panic. The wall images. No! She screamed silently, rooted in her spot. A lone tear rolled down her cheek. Her lip curled involuntarily and a small snarl escaped. No! I won't let that happen. A smile came to her face. Time to have a little fun. She slipped past the first guard, aiming for the inner camp where she knew her love waited.
Xena stood in the shadows watching Gabrielle writing. The shine of the red-gold hair in the firelight made her heart pound. She watched in fascination as the hand holding the quill traveled slowly up to her face and she rested it against her cheek, the tip of her tongue showing as she concentrated on her next sentence or perhaps it was a single word that made her brows come together in a furrow that brought a large grin to Xena's face. She couldn't wait any longer in one fluid movement she moved from the shadows to sit on the log opposite Gabrielle.
Gabrielle chewed on her bottom lip. I need a new way to describe Xena's eyes. She brought her hand up to rest on her cheek while she thought. Briefly she closed her eyes drawing a picture of Xena in her head. Cerulean. She smiled ya, cerulean. She opened her eyes to write and blinked. "Xena?" For a moment she thought her longings had conjured the Warrior Princess. She shook her head to rid herself of the dream, but Xena remained. A smile slowly spread over her features. She rose and stepped forward. "It is you?" She breathed and the familiar scent of leather and herbs filled her nostrils. "Xena."
The warrior smiled and her arms opened to catch the smaller woman as she launched herself from across the fire. "Gods but I missed this." She murmured as she buried her face in the red-gold hair and just held on tight.
Gabrielle sighed. Her heart filled with joy. Complete. I feel complete again. "I love you." The words reverberated through her into Xena's chest and filtered through the warrior woman into the darkest corners of her soul chasing away the fears that had been forming in their time apart. She shuddered with the reaction.
Xena pulled back to look into the sea green eyes that held her soul. She lifted one hand and brushed a strand of hair back, placing it behind the bard's ear.
Gabrielle stood very still with Xena's arm resting warmly about her shoulders. She was barely breathing , her senses tuned exclusively in to the warrior. She listened to the slow, steady beat of her heart and her breathe started to synchronize with it. "I love you." She repeated.
That brought a crooked smile to her face. A single beat of the heart. "I know." Came the quiet voice. "I love you too." She admitted, dragging the bard back into her arms and raising her face, lowered her own, and as lips met passion flared. "I've been missing you." She murmured as her hands stroked the bard's bare midriff. Her lips nibbled at the corners of her mouth.
Gabrielle moaned. "I've been missing you too." Se shivered as Xena's hands came to rest on her breasts.
"I've been thinking about this ever since the last time." Xena ran her palms across Gabrielle's palms. "Are you sharing a tent?" She licked the bard's ear.
"No." Gabrielle gasped, as fire ran down her back and a throbbing started deep within her.
"Good." Xena lifted the smaller woman up and began walking slightly unsteadily toward the tent. A smile formed as she sensed another body close by. "Hi Solari." She continued past the startled amazon a slight chuckle bubbling up as she made it to the tent.
"You are bad." Gabrielle whispered as Xena bent low and entered her tent. "How'd you get into camp anyway?"
Xena slowly lowered the bard to her feet, cherishing the feel of the body sliding down her own. A low chuckling noise tickled it's way past her throat. "I walked right through your guards." She nuzzled Gabrielle's neck.
"You just wanted a new reason to tease them." Gabrielle couldn't keep her pride in her warrior's skills from shining through.
"True." Xena admitted as she reached for her lover's lips. Their mouths fused and within seconds they were lost in each other. No more words, no gentle patience, the fierceness of their hunger taking them towards the bedroll on steps punctuated with powerful kisses and mad flurries of activity as they tore each other's clothes off in a frenzy of need.
"Xena?" Solari's mouth dropped open in surprise. "Damn. We'll never live this one down." She continued on her way to the campfire. Smiling at the scattered scrolls she bent to put them away.
"Solari?" Briala glanced around . "Where's the queen?"
"In her tent."
"Oh, thanks." The Lieutenant headed toward the tent.
Solari stifled a laugh. "I don't think you want to go there." She called.
Epinon entered the campsite. "Go where?"
"Why not?" Briala asked puzzled.
"Xena's with her."
"Xena?" The two women glanced at the tent and back to Solari. "You sure?"
"Oh ya." She smiled. "She paused long enough to say hi." Solari set the queen's bag aside and grabbed a wineflask. "No reason for us not to have a small drink or two." She took a sip and passed the bag on.
"Damn how'd she get past us?"
Solari laughed. "Just be glad she wasn't in the mood for pranks."
"Pranks?" Briala looked from Epinon to Solari. "The Warrior Princess pulls pranks?"
Epinon lowered the wineflask. "Boy does she ever." A gentle smile lit her features as she told the tale of the first time she witnessed the Warrior Princess' wicked sense of humor.
"Oh." Xena rolled her eyes in disbelief. "Come on Epinon." She glanced at her companion. "Do you honestly believe that she can stop me?"
"It's her job." Epinon explained patiently. "And she's very good at it. I've never seen anyone get past her."
Xena rolled her tongue. "So if I were to make a bet with you you'd bet she'd detect me and stop me from entering the village without a challenge."
"Right." Epinon frowned, "But you're already here."
"Ah, so the trick is in leaving without being spotted and returning without being spotted." Xena grinned.
"I'll do it."
"How will I know you really did it?"
Xena paused, "Ahm..." She snapped her fingers, "I got it. Who's standing guard at the west end tower?"
"I'll go there. She can verify when I arrived and when I left."
"And how about when you sneak back in? I mean if you sneak in no one will see you and how will I know you came through her checkpoint?"
Xena grinned evilly. "You'll know." She turned away, turned back, "Oh and Epinon you'll owe me big time when I return."
Epinon stared nervously after the disappearing warrior. Na, she wouldn't do anything to cause trouble not Xena. She muttered to herself before dismissing the idea and headed for her cabin.
A scream in the middle of the night woke her and she ran half naked out of her hut and witnessed half the village in various forms of undress rushing toward the scream weapons in hand. A quick look around and she headed not towards the scream, but towards the queens hut. I f they were under attack that's where she wanted to be. She pulled up short as she spotted Xena lounging lazily against the queens hut.
Xena raised a hand to her mouth pretending to yawn. "Hi." Looking Epinon up and down she raised one eyebrow curiously, "New mode of dress?" She asked a devilish glint in one eye.
"What did you-?" She cut off her question as Gabrielle came stumbling out of the hut.
The queen rubbed her hand across her eyes. "What's that ruckus?" Her look took in Epinon's state of undress, blinked, looked again, sighed and turned to her friend. "Xena?"
The warrior fidgeted. Epinon's eyes nearly popped out of her head at the sight. "What?" She feigned ignorance. Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Why is half the village running around undressed and who's screaming, and what did you do now?"
"Me?" Her mouth opened in shock. "Who says I did anything?"
Gabrielle folded her arms and glared at her warrior. "If you hadn't done anything you'd be out there straightening out this mess."
Xena shuffled her feet. Caught. She shrugged. "It was a bet." She mumbled under her breath, tensing as an Amazon approached.
Gabrielle's nose wrinkled at the sudden smell. She turned to see who it was and bit her lip. "Ephiny?" The name was pulled from her lips in shock.
"I'll kill her." Ephiny glared at Xena as she attempted to make her way around Gabrielle. Gabrielle held out her hands effectively holding the amazon warrior away form Xena. "Wait a minute. How do you know it was her?"
"How many other warriors do you think could get past me when I'm on guard duty? She nearly shrieked the words. "And it wasn't enough to get by me but this? She had to do this!!?"
Gabrielle turned to Xena, "Well? What do you have to say for yourself?" She glared hands on hips.
Xena shrugged. "Nothing." Silently she held her breath.
Gabrielle's glare wavered between Xena and Epinon "Fine. If neither of you have anything to say both of you go take Ephiny's place on duty. And stay there until I say you're relieved!" She turned to her friend. "Come on Ephiny. I think a bath will take of your problem."
Epinon grinned through watery eyes, the stench was horrible. Any punishment was worth this. "How'd you do it?"
"Come on." Epinon pleaded.
Xena shook her head. "A woman has to have a few secrets."
Epinon growled, "But you did it to Ephiny! Come on I've never been able to sneak by her...even when she's sleeping." She looked admiringly at Xena. "And you not only made it past her, you managed to spray her with skunk odor. How?"
The warrior ignored the comment. One never knew when one might need to do the same again. Xena glanced sideways at Epinon. "I think you could go put some clothes on before we start the patrol."
Epinon looked at herself. A small smile formed. "I think I'll skip the clothes, if you don't mind I don't want to risk the queen's wrath by being late for duty."
Xena raised one eyebrow. "I don't mind, I'm enjoying the view." She smirked. "But I know your queen, and she isn't going to let us in before nightfall. You sure you want to stay undressed in the middle of a patrol," She paused wetting her lips, "where anything could happen....until she comes to relieve us?"
"Ah," Epinon turned a brilliant red. Great that's all I need Gabrielle ticked at me because of her lover. "Wait here. I'll be right back."
Xena chortled softly. That had been worth it...I'll make it up to Ephiny and Gabrielle will forgive me if I play my cards right tonight. She smiled in anticipation.
Briala looked at each of her companion's carefully. "You're not pulling my leg?" And at the shaking heads she turned her gaze to the queen's tent, a thoughtful expression on her face. "How long did the queen keep you out there?"
"Till three candlemarks past nightfall." Epinon grinned. "She came with the relief guard." She shook her head in memory. "But that's a tale for another day." She stood up and stretched. "Time for us to get some sleep." Silently she padded toward her bedroll.
Briala looked at Solari. "It's true?"
"Yup." Solari stood up. "I was there."
Briala still looked unconvinced. "But Xena and Ephiny get along...aren't they friends? I always thought they were."
"Ya, they're friends." Solari chuckled. "Xena has a way of getting people to forgive her...it's complicated." She hesitated a moment, but knew Briala didn't know...hadn't ever seen Gabrielle in action. "And Briala all the tales you've heard about both of them are true."
"The queen too?"
"Oh ya, she doesn't kill, but she's a fighter...worth dying for." And with that she walked off leaving the first lieutenant to ponder her words.
Xena woke suddenly. Was it the small woman pressed against her side, the new morning sun filtering through the tent, the muted sounds of camp life all around her or just her internal clock going off. She relished the feel of the young woman in her arms. She listened to the deep even breathing of her partner and knew she slept peacefully. She pulled the sleeping woman closer and kissed the top of her hair. Much as she would love to spend the day cuddling they had other things to do and people waiting on them. She slid down and kissed the sweet red lips, deepening the kiss as she felt the bard start to respond. "Morning sleepyhead." She smiled as bleary green eyes blinked open and Gabrielle reached for her. "Ready to face the Amazons?"
Gabrielle burrowed into her lover's chest. "No."
Xena smiled and tightened her hold. "Can't say I want to either, but Stas and Makarios are probably worried about me."
"Xena!" Gabrielle pulled away from the warrior. "You didn't?" Her mouth dropped open in surprise. "You left those men alone and didn't tell them where you were going or that you wouldn't be back!?"
Xena shrugged almost apologetically. "Well I didn't know when I left that I wouldn't be back." She pulled the younger woman back into her arms and kissed her. Then pulled both of them off of the bed. "Come on." She dropped her arms. "Get dressed." She smiled at Gabrielle's sad face. "Hey," She reached out and grasped her friend by the chin and looked deeply into luminescent green eyes. "You're the one that was worried about the men. You get the amazons ready and I'll go get the men."
"Without breakfast?" Gabrielle stood hands on hips.
Xena shrugged, her eyes twinkled. "Food is not what I'm hungry for."
"Xena!" Gabrielle pushed her lover. "What am I gonna do with you?"
"I can think of more than a few things." She wiggled her eyes suggestively.
Gabrielle's eyes sparkled. "And right after we take care of Gregor the One eyed you can tell them to me...and if you're lucky I'll do it."
Xena pulled Gabrielle close, molded her to her body, and ran her hands up and down the young woman's sides. She leaned in for a kiss. Gabrielle's lips parted and Xena slipped her tongue in deepening the kiss until the two of them drew back breathing raggedly. Smoky blue eyes looked into misty emerald eyes. "The things you do to me." She drew a shaky hand across the bard's cheek. "I've missed you."
Gabrielle smiled tremulously. "Ya," She said shakily. "same here." She moved her head into the big callused hand reveling in the feel of the rough skin against her cheek. "I really need to be with you."
Xena shuddered. "You will be. I promise." She whispered huskily, capturing the sweet lips in her own. "I don't want to let you go." She admitted lowering her head to rest on the top of the bard's head.
"I know." Gabrielle murmured from the comfort of her lover's embrace. "But we have..."
"Responsibilities." Xena finished the sentence. "Okay, I can take a hint." She brushed the bard's hair tucking it behind her ear. "One more kiss and I'll get my armor on."
Stas sat staring at the fire. "Damn." He swore quietly. "She never came back." He tossed a stick into the fire. "I should have gone after her." He rubbed his face and glanced over at Makarios. "What are we gonna do now? If she's been taken..." His voice trailed off.
Makarios sipped his water. "If anything's happened to her I don't think I could face Gabrielle." He made a face..."when did water turn so bitter."
"Here let me taste that for you." A hand plucked the water bottle from Makarios. "Tastes sweet to me."
"Xena!" The two men jumped up. Makarios smile threatened to crack his cheeks. "But what-" Stas crushed her in a welcoming hug that would have broken a smaller woman in two. "But where-" The men stumbled over each other and their words.
Xena's eyes sparkled. They'd really been worried. Her heart swelled. It had been so long since anyone except for her bard had cared. She twisted her lips up in a mocking smile. "I got tired of your cooking so I found someone that was willing to invite us over for a meal."
Stas laughed. Just the way her eyes were sparkling he knew she'd met up with Gabrielle. He glanced at his future brother-in-law. "Let's go. Anything has to be better than that leftover stew."
"After you." Makarios bowed low and waved an arm at Xena.
Xena grinned cockily and stepped past the two men.
"I want everything except food and utensils packed." Gabrielle said to Briala and Solari. "When Xena gets back I want everything ready to move. I'll wait to have my breakfast with her."
"Is there anything else?"
Gabrielle thought for a moment. "Yes. I want the two of you and Leda to join us at breakfast."
"For breakfast?" Briala questioned. "But-"
Gabrielle interrupted with a smile. "It's a nice thought, but we do have a battle to discuss."
Solari nodded her head. "I'll inform Leda on my way to the patrol." I always knew she had it in her, Solari smiled to herself as she walked away. Wait til I tell Ephiny about this adventure...she'll be glad to know Gabrielle can rule, and bummed that she missed it.
Gabrielle watched her second and third in command walk away with a brief smile on her face. Who would ever have thought...oh if my friends from Potedaia could see me now." She sighed and headed for her tent. If she expected the others to be ready when Xena got back she'd better hurry and pack herself.
Xena ripped into a piece of meat and chewed thoughtfully as she listened to Stas present his argument against using the Amazons to flush out stragglers from Gregor's band.
Solari frowned at the big man. "Are you saying you don't think my girls are up to it?"
"No." He said placatingly. "I am saying it's too dangerous for anyone. Once we get Gregor and the rest are running like scared pigs why should we bother with them?" He turned to Xena. "After all once he's gone the threat is over." He tilted his head. "Right?"
Xena swallowed her meat and looked on the small gathering placidly. "Possibly." She took another bite. "But it's best to be sure. This threat isn't a small one. If Gregor is after Chronos' time crystal you can bet that more than one of his people know what he's seeking and where to find it."
Makarios piped in. "So does that mean we kill them all?"
Gabrielle blanched. "No!" She exclaimed. "To kill in the midst of battle is one thing but my warriors will not kill cold-bloodedly."
Xena bit her lip. "No, Gabrielle. I have no intention of allowing that type of mass murder." Her face showed the hurt that she felt that her bard could believe her capable of that again.
Gabrielle's eyes softened. She reached over and grasped Xena's arm pulling it into her lap and twining her fingers with the warrior's. "I know you feel that way." She let her eyes slide over to the men seated across form her. "It's them I was unsure of." She pulled her eyes back to Xena's and let the warrior look into here eyes seeing the truth of her words.
Xena felt the pain slip away. Her bard didn't think she was a monster capable of nothing but murder. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Once we route the main camp we will have to round up the stragglers. Find a way to get them back to the village for trial and ensure the safety of Chronos and his friends."
Solari listened thoughtfully. She had her own ideas but knew the warrior wouldn't agree. The only good crook was a dead crook. But she was sworn to do as Gabrielle ordered. She glanced at Briala, and smothered a laugh. The war-leader was definitely not amused by the turn of conversation. She slid her eyes over to Leda. The head of the Archers was leaning back sipping a tea and taking it all in.
Leda listened to the ramblings for a few more minutes. She watched the former warlord grow more restive with each passing minute and wondered how she managed to maintain her cool outer shell so much of the time. Deciding they'd wasted enough time she cleared her throat, waiting for her queen to acknowledge her. "My queen, I have a few questions and a few suggestions."
Xena grinned. Nothing like a slap in the face to make sure we all knew who held the seat of power as far as the Amazons were concerned. She squeezed Gabrielle's hand. Gabrielle squeezed back as she acknowledged Leda. "Yes?"
"If this Chronos character is so important and he is here in these woods shouldn't some of us go to him and to protect him?"
Xena smiled. A legitimate question, let's see how they intend to answer it.
Anastasius glanced around the fire. "I for one think that's an excellent suggestion. Chronos is a good man. The creatures that keep him company are in many ways like little children. They deserve to have someone protect them."
Briala spoke up. "You know them?" Her voice was harsh.
"Yes." He glanced at the rest of their mates. "They're not demons." He explained. "Those are tales told in order to keep travelers to a minimum. They're safer that way."
"They don't sacrifice? And eat humans?" Leda questioned quickly.
Xena butted in. "No." All eyes turned her way and she grinned. "I met them a few days ago. Actually I enjoyed a very tasty stew..." A small chuckle fell easily form her throat as she spotted the shocked looks. "I must agree with Stas and Leda," she looked at the immortal. "A small contingent from our war party should stay at Chronos' camp. She forced herself to not look at Gabrielle. Hoping the bard wouldn't see through her this time. "They are not equipped to fight and Gregor is after Chronos and his time crystal."
Briala and Solari nodded their understanding. Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. She knew Xena too well. The warrior hadn't brought this up on purpose. She'd let someone else mention it. What was her plan?
Makarios nodded thoughtfully. "But who should go to Chronos and who to fight Gregor?"
Xena bit back a grin. This was the opening she was waiting for. According to the pictures, Solari, Gabrielle and Makarios needed to be saved. She bit her tongue. No way was she going to suggest it. Gabrielle would be livid.
Stas looked into the eyes of Xena and knew the secrets she'd tried to hide two nights before. Makarios was fated to die. "Makarios." He waited until his future brother in law looked to him. "Would you consider guarding the ex-god?"
"Me?" Makarios was startled. "But why me? I'm not that experienced. Who would help me?"
"As Queen I would think Gabrielle would be responsible for the disbursement of her Amazons." Stas replied with a pointed look at the young bard.
Gabrielle jumped slightly startled by the unexpected turn of events
Briala interrupted. "Not only is that true but I must impress upon my queen the importance of maintaining good relationships with the denizens of the forest." She wet her lips nervously. "That is if you truly mean to repopulate these woods with amazons."
Xena turned to he bard and raised an eyebrow questioningly. "Repopulate?"
"Well it was just a passing thought." Gabrielle shrugged.
Perhaps, a glint entered her eyes. Xena looked into her bard's eyes. "If you want it then it will have to be you that goes to meet Chronos. He wouldn't deal with anyone less than the queen. He might be dethroned but he is still proud."
Gabrielle pressed her forehead against Xena's, oblivious to the others sitting around the fire. "I don't want to go there. I want to be at your side." She whispered the words.
"I know." Xena breathed into her face, not moving away. "But remember what I told you at the inn?"
Gabrielle shuddered. "This isn't about us...it's bigger than us."
"Yes." Xena kissed her. "How many amazons did you bring?"
"Twenty." Gabrielle moved and Xena drew her into her arms.
Solari bit back a grin. Oh Eph is going to be so sorry she missed this.
"So if we split the force in half..." Xena let her voice trail off. Gregor had at least fifty men.
Stas took up her thought. "Ten Amazons, me and you? Against fifty of his men?"
Solari frowned. "Who's to say it'll be Gregor and all fifty of his men you'll be fighting." She started a little at her own words. Without realizing it she'd made up her mind to volunteer to be with the ex god. Interesting. She made a mental note of it, but forced her concentration to the matter at hand.
Xena blinked slightly shocked by the fire in Solari's voice. "We don't." She admitted. "I wish I could know that the whole troop will be there when we attack, but if I believed that I wouldn't want to split our troop in two."
"So you think some of them will be going after Chronos?" Gabrielle asked.
"Without a doubt." She answered.
"And we should protect him?" Again Gabrielle questioned Xena.
"If he's taken...if Gregor gets the crystal." Xena's eyes suddenly looked haunted. "We're doomed. Us and everyone we ever cared for."
"Because of a crystal?"" Briala looked shocked.
Gabrielle leaned back and pulled her knees up, "Then we will have to stop him." She looked at Xena. "I'll have to go to Chronos."
"Yes." Xena ignored the rest of the group. "You not only have a way with words, but I think the Sprites are expecting you."
Gabrielle quirked her lips and looked sideways at her partner. "What makes you say that?"
"Ask them." She smiled sadly and turned to the others. "How do we determine who goes with Gabrielle and who goes with me?"
Solari's mouth dropped open in shock. They were splitting up? "I'm with Gabrielle." She blushed. "I mean that is if my Queen will have me I would be honored to fight at your side." Her eyes silently pleaded. Please say yes. Ephiny will never forgive me if anything happens and I wasn't there to prevent it.
Xena sat still. This was Gabrielle's decision. She wanted nothing more than to gather her bard into her arms and run far from this battle. Fear threatened to overwhelm her. The pictures form the wall haunted her every thought. It was getting close...how could she stop the pictures from becoming reality?
"How are the queen and those chosen to accompany her to defend the gods home?" Leda asked.
"In the cave is all they need. It's a matter of getting everyone inside and protecting them from attack." Stas replied.
The Amazons turned to Xena for verification. She nodded. "Whoever is there should be in a good defensive position. It shouldn't take too many to hold them off."
"So we wouldn't need the full squad." Gabrielle put in.
"No." Xena spoke slowly her mind churning away as she accepted and rejected ideas. "Half a squad should do it." She glanced at Leda. "Archers, four of them, all good with sword, staff, or chobos, in case they break through. Solari you'll have to do for main sword." She turned to her lover. "Gabrielle? Do you mind my making the decision for you?" A corner of her lip quirked up. "I am better suited to this."
"And you are my Champion." Gabrielle smiled and squeezed Xena's hand. "I will go with whoever you recommend."
An inexplicable warmth flooded the warrior's being and she closed her eyes. To be so trusted...she couldn't fail. She opened her eyes. "Then it's settled. Leda will pick four of her archers to go with you, Solari, and Makarios." She let her eyes rest on the man that had been her enemy. "Gabrielle is in charge." She said in a tone that left no argument. "You do whatever she says without hesitation. Understand?"
He nodded his agreement. As long as he got included he didn't care who he followed.
"Great we leave in half a candlemark. Make sure everyone knows their place in the plan."
The small gathering broke up quietly leaving the two lovers alone.
Gabrielle sat silent for a minute trying to figure out the best way to approach Xena. She loved the feel of her warrior's powerful body at rest next to her. She sighed. Something was wrong. Had been since they started their little powwow. Even if no one else had noticed she had sensed the unease. "Xena?"
She put her worries in the warrior's name.
Xena closed her eyes. How much do I tell her? Last night it was easy to forget, but this morning talking about the battle and all...death...her death...it can't be. She clamped down on the fear of that loss. The loss she wasn't certain she could survive.
No answer. Now the bard knew something was really bothering her lover. She pressed closer, squeezed the hand that she still held and tried again. "Don't shut me out." She lifted the face, turning it to face her own. "Please love, talk to me."
Xena sighed. "It's nothing." And at Gabrielle's look of hurt. "Nothing more than usual." She dropped her eyes. "I just wish I could keep you out of it." She flinched from the anger she knew the bard would throw her way, but it didn't come. She risked opening an eye. And her mouth dropped open in surprise. Gabrielle instead of complaining was crying.. "Gabrielle?" Her own looked into tear-filled pools of green. She reached and brushed a strand of red-gold hair back from her bard's face. "Why the tears?" She asked confused.
"You." She bit her tongue trying to hold back the tears. "You still don't trust me. You still want to leave me out of the fighting. I've worked hard to prove myself, to fight at your side and always you do this." She flung a hand in the air and turned away from the warrior princess. "I'm sorry I'll never be good enough for you."
Xena looked confused. "Wha? Gabrielle that's not it." She rose to her feet, reached with one hand but let it fall short of the bard's shoulder. "I trust you with my soul." She shook her head. "I just don't trust what would happen to me if anything happened to you. Or what it would do to you if you killed."
Gabrielle fell back, shocked at Xena's words. "All this time I thought it was my fighting you didn't trust." Her voice was low and husky. "And it wasn't that at all." She couldn't keep the wonder out of her voice. "It's because you were afraid for me...for more than one reason...but mainly afraid that I'd kill?" She turned to face her lover, tear-filled eyes brimming with love. "Which were you more afraid of?" she wet her lips. "That I'd revel in it...or that killing someone would destroy me?"
As the question echoed in Xena's ears Gabrielle reached out and caressed her cheek. It was her undoing. She collapsed, head in her hands. "I'm not that humane...I feared for myself as well as you."
Gabrielle moved her hand to the raven hair and stroked it gently. "Silly. I heard that. I also heard the part where you were afraid of what it would do to me." She sighed. "I can't pretend that I haven't thought about it, wondered about it." She shook her head. "And I just don't know...I guess it all depends on the how and the why. But I know that when it does happen we'll be together and you'll help me deal with it." She looked towards the bend where her amazons waited. "And if it happens today...saving the world from a madman bent on using time for his own twisted purposes will be worth my blood innocence."
Xena drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Whatever happens I don't want you to ever lose your exuberance for life." She hesitated but spoke despite knowing Gabrielle would get angry again. "And I want you to promise me you'll not lose your blood innocence to save my life."
"I can't do that." Gabrielle began angrily, but forced herself to pause and take a deep breath. Slowly she let it out and began again, this time almost in an apologetic tone. "I don't have time to discuss this now...but when this little battle is over we are going to have a very long chat about you and worthiness."
She kissed the top of the bent head. "Now unless you want my subjects to think we separated in anger please kiss me like you'll never let me go."
Xena lifted tear stained eyes to her bard. "I love you...more than life itself." She stood up and took Gabrielle into her arms. Her thumb stroked the softness of her lower lip. "You are my life." She breathed the words as she lowered her head and captured Gabrielle's smile with a heated kiss.
Xena's mouth scorched Gabrielle's with a blistering passion slowly she parted her lips to allow the warrior entrance and she moaned as she invaded the dark recess of her mouth. Her arms instinctively wrapped around Xena.
Xena shuddered, her passion threatening to override her good senses. She forced herself to gentle the kiss. Gabrielle groaned as she sensed the change. She wanted the fire. Frustration blazed in her eyes as she opened them and found herself staring into molten blue lava. Her lips parted involuntarily and her breath came in small gasps.
Xena rested her head on Gabrielle's forehead. "Listen to my heart." She said. It was berating as furiously as though she'd just fought twenty men. She shuddered again as she attempted to gather her control. She moved. Her finger trembled against Gabrielle's cheek as she brushed it softly. "I've gotta go."
"Come back to me." Gabrielle lowered her gaze, knowing that if they maintained eye contact neither would leave.
Xena stood still, her chest heaving and her passion rising again as her eyes swept the bard's body. She turned away with a groan, but as she turned, "count on it."
Gabrielle smiled. She lifted her eyes and watched as the tall warrior strode to her waiting forces and leaped onto Argo. "Gaia keep her safe." She muttered, as she had so many times before.
"And so the bard comes." Chronos smiled at the fighting force that descended on his quiet glade. "Do sit and rest a spell." He gestured to the Amazons and their male companion. "My friends and I have a nice little dinner roasting and the fire is large enough for us all to share."
Gabrielle frowned slightly before forcing a smile. "You were expecting us?" She stood before the farther of the king of the gods and wondered that she felt no awe.
Chronos raised one bushy eyebrow and repeated his gesture for her to sit. "The warrior woman left much unsaid?" He said in a questioning tone.
Gabrielle glanced at Solari, who shrugged. "Xena's not much on words." She smiled.
"True." He held out a mug. "Spiced wine." He said in response to the unasked question. "It'll kill the chill."
Gabrielle accepted the drink and smiled as forest sprites sprang into action carrying drink to the rest of her party. She sipped the wine. "Oh. This is good." She sat on a log next to the god of time and studied him. He was a small man with a long flowing white beard and an unruly head of thick white hair. His eyes were a sharp pale blue.
He grinned and wiggled his bushy eyebrows. "And now my dearest Bard would you like to witness that which the Warrior witnessed?
Gabrielle couldn't help but smile at Chronos, but she gnawed at her lower lip. Xena hadn't been worried for nothing. She looked at her friends and warriors. "As much as I'd like to do that I think we should talk about defending you and your friends from the Warlord that wants to take over time."
Chronos smiled. "It's your choice." He rose to his feet. "Come let's move to my home." He turned to the Sprites. "And you my children, with me? Or to the trees?"
"Father be safe?" The young one that had brought Xena questioned tears in his eyes.
Chronos smiled gently at the youngster. "Swift," He patted the Sprite's head. "The warrior did as promised.
Swift turned to the others of his race. "Then we go to the trees. It's safest for us there. We will come again when the fire roars once more." Turning he leapt into the air and disappeared into the branches of a tree and the others rose with him.
Gabrielle gasped then grinned at Solari. "Perhaps our Warrior friend as a little of the Sprite in her."
Solari smiled back. "It would explain that particular move, but..." She cocked her head at her queen. "what about the rest of her many skills?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I guess we'll have to continue looking." She turned back to the former god. Chronos stood smiling at her. "Lead on." She commanded uneasily. Something about the way he looked at her made her feel strangely worried.
Solari paused at the cave's entrance. "My Queen." Gabrielle turned eyes questioning. "There's coverage enough to hide a couple of us above the entrance way." She nodded to the trees surrounding them. "With your permission I'd like to..."
Gabrielle looked thoughtfully around the cave and back to her friend and guard. She smiled and nodded. "Two out here?" She said questioningly.
"Three." Solari responded. "One above and one to either side. Archers all." And at Gabrielle's acceptance she called forward those she wished to place as guards. "Malantha, Kara and - "
"Makarios." Makarios interrupted Solari.
Her eyes flashed angrily at the man. Her lip curled in a sneer but before she could speak he continued.
"Gabrielle can be your witness that I am very good with a bow." He glanced at the young Queen and made a sheepish grin. "what she can't tell you is I really hate closed in places." He shrugged, and turned full face to Gabrielle. "If you command me to go into the cave I will and I will fight honorably in your defense, but I would be happier fighting out here."
Gabrielle patted the young man's shoulder and turned to Solari. "Let him be our third guard. On our travels he proved his worth to Xena and me both in hunting and in battle."
Solari nodded the fire in her eyes dimming. "Fine. Can you make bird calls?"
Makarios shook his head.
"Okay..." Solari stared thoughtfully into the distance. "Can you make any type of call?"
"No." He shook his head again. "Do I really need to?"
"No." Gabrielle interrupted again. "Solari, he'll be on guard with two others. They can send the alert. It'll be all right."
"Yes, my Queen." Solari turned to the two warriors she had called forward. "Kara take the left, Malantha take the right. The man will take the center." The women faded into the woods.
Makarios winked at Gabrielle nodded to Solari and stepped into the brush.
Gabrielle turned to Solari, "He's not all that bad."
"He's a man." Solari muttered.
"Yes," Gabrielle laughed and if there were no men we wouldn't exist." She stepped into the cave. "They are good for some things...just remember we don't judge we accept."
"Right." Solari shook her head slightly and turned to their remaining companions. "Either side of the door." She commanded and both Amazons stopped and took position. "Gabrielle?"
"Huh?" Gabrielle let her eyes wander over the interior of the cave. A soft yellowish light was coming form the back of the cave. Chronos stood bathed in the light.
"I think this is far enough in, don't you?"
Gabrielle blinked. "Ya, this is good." She watched as Chronos came forward.
"Welcome to my home." He grinned. "Are you sure you won't follow me to the wall of life?"
Gabrielle's eyes bugged out. "Wall of life?"
"Yes." Chronos eyes sparkled with the joy at surprising the young woman.
"Well..." Gabrielle hesitated. "It sounds intriguing, but..." Sadly she shook her head. "It'll have to wait. We have a job to do." She turned back to Solari. "No need to be uncomfortable. I'll start a fire and we can sit near the entrance."
Solari looked at the old god and back to her young queen. She licked her lips as a plan entered her mind. "Why don't you go to the inner cave with him." She let her eyes glide over her queen to rest on the old god. "We can guard the entrance." And you'll be safer inside away from the battle.
Gabrielle frowned. Solari wasn't the type to indulge in what she considered useless pastimes. What was she up to? She bit the inside of here cheek to keep from grinning. "Oh no my friend. They'll be time enough to indulge my idle curiosity after the battle."
Solari rolled her eyes. Bagged. "Okay." She turned to the entrance, "We wait here then." She leaned against the wall, it was going to be a long night.
Xena stood shrouded in the darkness, dawn was but minutes away. She shivered as the cold fall wind brushed against her skin. Winter wasn't far away. She listened to the muted chatter coming from the camp over the small rise where she and her small band were hiding. She shivered again. Her band of warriors...Gabrielle's Amazons...a small smile formed at the thought...and better than any army she'd ever led. The Amazons were the quietest woods people she'd ever led. Living and hunting deep in the forests had taught them how to walk silently, how to keep their bearings, and how to be alert to the subtleties of the wilderness.
Turning to face the waiting warriors she left the smile in place. No words silence was the key to their winning the coming battle. She pointed to Epinon, Briala, Leda, and Stas. Four squads...they could do this...they had to. The four joined her. She tapped Leda and pointed to the trees. The Archer grinned and made to move. Xena held her back. Pointed at the band and raised three fingers. Take three others. Leda mouthed the words and Xena nodded. Leda turned to Briala. In her mind the War leader was her commander in her Queen's absence. Xena raised one brow. Briala nodded her acceptance of Xena's commands, spreading her hands questioning what the Warrior Princess wanted from her. Xena held up five fingers and Briala nodded. The Warrior turned quickly to Stas and held up four fingers and to Epinon three fingers. Then kneeling she drew a quick sketch of what was needed, placing an initial by each of the four entry points to the camp. The others nodded agreement and she rose to her feet.
Now that the battle was near Xena's manner changed. She had been indifferent, looking bored on much of the march, but now there was a gleam in her eyes and she waited rocking silently on the balls of her feet while her chosen leaders pulled their squads together. Briala choosing who would go with Stas. When the squads were assembled she looked into each one's eyes and smiled her most feral smile, and with a wave of her hand scattered her troop to their four corners.
As they silently disappeared into the brush Epinon caught her eyes with her own and the laughter, the joy of battle shone in her deep brown eyes. Xena's grin widened. Yes here was another that understood what flowed in her veins and reveled in it. Today's battle would be good. Slowly she moved forward, her companions falling into place behind her. They paused as one at the edge of the campsite and waited silently for the birdcalls that would tell them the others were in place.
The call sounded, once from the trees twice from the east, north and yes there's the west call. All were ready. Xena nodded to her companions. Then quickly she rose to her feet and strode into the enemies camp. She drew er knife and without aim let it fly into the chest of the first man that looked her way, A second knife was out and away before the cry to arms went out.
"Ayiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" The battle cry sounded through out the camp as Xena drew her sword. She met an attacking warrior head on and the battle joined in full force. A somersault and she landed on a man intent on taking Epinon down and her eyes rested briefly on Epinon's acknowledging a friendship never spoken of. Slicing and kicking her way through the camp she left a wide path of destruction behind her. Searching but never finding Gregor Xena came face to face with Stas.
"There's too few warriors here." He shouted above the din.
Xena stopped in midstep. Her eyes opened wide and her heart thudded with fear. "Gabrielle!" She dispatched the warrior she'd been clashing swords with, let loose her chakram and took down the two headed for Stas. "I've got to get to her." She let loose a whistle and began running for the edge of camp, taking out any of the enemy that got in her way and somersaulting over her fellow warriors. Argo appeared and she somersaulted onto her back.
Briala stopped fighting and stared uncomprehendingly as Xena galloped near her. Xena let loose with her chakram, ending the life of a bandit that had snuck up on the woman. She shouted as she thundered past the stunned Briala. "You're in charge." And she was gone.
Thud! Feet knocked Briala to the ground and a sword came down and with a wicked slice took off the head of the man that had been aiming at Briala. Epinon reached down and pulled the fallen woman up. Looking into the still shocked eyes Epinon explained. "Our Queen's in trouble."
Briala's eyes took on a deadly coldness. "For the queen!" She shouted.
"For the Queen!" The shout went up on all sides and the small band fought with a renewed fervor that quickly overwhelmed the larger force.
Briala left a small group with Epinon in charge, to clean up the mess and raced after Xena. Stas led the way as he was the only one of their group that knew where Chronos' cave was. Epinon watched them leave with a heavy heart. "Come on." She turned to the few that remained with her. "The sooner we take care of these fools the sooner we can join our friends."
Xena's desperation communicated itself silently to Argo and the great war-horse moved at an incredible pace, choosing her own trail. The miles disappeared beneath her hooves at a surprising rate and still Xena's heart refused to quiet down. Her lover's name reverberated over and over in her mind. Sanity was a thread from snapping. Argo slowed to a stop and Xena glanced around. Not far now. "Good girl." She patted the horse's sweat soaked neck and slid off her. She paused to adjust her weapons and tied the reins loosely to the saddlehorn. "You'll be okay here." She rubbed the horse's nose. "I'll call for you as soon as I can." Argo nudged her mistress and Xena gave her a small half smile. "I know. I'm going to get her now." She gave the horse one last rub. "She's okay. She has to be..." Tears in her eyes she turned to make the last part of the journey alone.
Just out of sight of the cave Xena paused, straining her ears, listening to the silence. Her heart skipped a beat. Was she too late? She shivered and strained her eyes against the growing darkness. No one nearby. Slowly, silently she walked the path. Stopping at the edge of the small clearing. A fire burned brightly and bodies were strewn haphazardly about. Fear clenched her heart and she stepped out of the darkness and into the light. Her eyes drawn to the still forms within the fire glow.
A voice from the cavern's entrance. "Xena?" Fear, sorrow, despair in the calling. She turned and her breath caught in her throat. "Gabrielle?" She opened her arms. "Gabrielle!" The young woman threw herself into the strong arms and sobbed into the strong chest. Xena's arms closed tightly around her. "Never again." She whispered to her young love. "I'll never let you out of my sight again."
"Solari's hurt bad." Gabrielle spoke through her sobs. "Makarios nears death...Ilithya says he won't make it through the night. Malantha is dead. She threw herself in front of me." Her hold on the warrior tightened. "I...I..." It was too much. She couldn't talk the tears came faster.
Xena lifted the bard up and cradling her close to her walked to the cave and entered the well lit room. One glance was all it took to see what was happening. Ilithya rose from a cot and came towards them. Gabrielle's sobs wracked her body.
"She refused to sleep." The healer warrior said. "She stayed by the man's side until she heard a noise outside."
Xena nodded her understanding. She leaned down to place the trembling girl on an empty cot. Gabrielle's arms tightened and she whimpered. "Gabrielle, it's okay. I'm right here." The girl's grip made it impossible for Xena to lay her down. She sat in the cot instead and pulled the girl into a sitting position. "Hey," She spoke softly. "It's okay. I've got you. Come on look at me." She brushed a hand across the tear streaked cheek and pushed a few strands of red gold hair out of her way. Gabrielle refused to look and burrowed her head deeper into the warrior's chest.
Xena's eyes took on a bewildered expression. She's seen Gabrielle in every emotion possible or so she thought. This she didn't understand. She looked from her young lover to the Amazon healer warrior and the healer looked to the ground. Shame shone in her eyes. She lifted a tea from the fire and poured it into a mug. "Here." She handed it to Xena. "Perhaps you can get the queen to drink it. A tea that will help her to sleep. She needs the rest." Xena nodded. "Gabrielle." She nuzzled the neck of the woman. "Love, please" She felt the sobs stop, the heaving chest tucked against her side struggle for breath. "Please love, I need you to drink this. It'll help you feel better."
"Nothing will." Gabrielle muttered into the strong chest. The horror at her own actions overwhelmed her sense of being and she shuddered.
Xena lifted her lover's head. "Please. Drink it for me." She pleaded.
Gabrielle unable to bear the pain and sorrow she heard in her love's voice nodded. "For you." She said in a trembling voice.
Xena smiled and wiped the damp hair from the bright green eyes. She lifted Gabrielle's head up and placed the cup to her lips, smiling encouragingly as the bard's lips parted to accept the tea. She cradled Gabrielle until the young woman fell asleep and then lay her carefully upon the cot. Lovingly she pulled the blanket over her and tucked it in. A quick kiss to her forehead and she straightened up and turned to assess the situation.
A young Amazon lay tossing and turning on a bedroll near the fire. Solari lay white and silent against the far side of the fire and Makarios...she shut her eyes against the pain. The healer was pulling the blanket over his face. She steeled herself and went to Solari. An arrow in the shoulder...bandaged ...and she pulled the blanket down. She bit her lip, a gut wound...not good. She turned to the young Amazon that lay sleeping. "And her?" She asked the healer.
"She's fine. Malantha was her sister. I gave her a sleeping potion." Ilithya shrugged. "Pain of the heart...only time will help that wound."
"Hmm..." Xena's eyes flicked to Gabrielle. "And her? What happened to cause her to fall apart like that?"
"I think that's her story and one she'd rather tell you herself." The Ilithya said with a smile to take the sting out of her words. "Just love her." She glanced at her Queen. "She needs that right now..." She turned back to her tasks.
Xena frowned. A few years ago she'd of taken the healer's head for not answering her question. Today she wanted to strangle the answer out of her, but she'd wait. Her stomach did flip flops as she looked at her lover. She sighed. There was plenty of work to do. She turned to face Ilithya. "Chronos?" A jerk of the hand. She nodded and moved toward the back of the cave., paused at the entranceway to the picture cave. "Gregor One-eye?" She swallowed the bile the name caused to rise in her throat.
"He's one of the ones we put in the fire pit."
Xena grinned. "At least he got what he had coming to him." A littler happier knowing that the battle had been won she headed into the picture room to look for Chronos.
Kara turned from her post. "People coming."
"See if it's ours." Xena commanded, rising to stand in front of Gabrielle.
Kara slipped out of the cave and called. An answering bird brought a smile to her lips. She stepped back in. "It's Briala."
Xena turned to Gabrielle. So pale and lifeless. She bit back a sigh. "Gabrielle." She paused to force her lover to look at her. "They're your people. You need to greet them."
The bard nodded and rose to her feet. An indefinable ache in everything she did. She paused to glance at the sleeping Solari, "Will she be all right?" She lifted swollen eyes to Ilithya. The warrior healer nodded, but spoke not a word. She avoided looking at Makarios. Steeled herself and stepped outside just as the band of warriors broke coverage. Xena stood silently by her side offering her quiet strength.
"My Queen!" Briala reined in her horse and sliding to the ground strode forward. "We were victorious."
She knelt before the small queen. "But not without cost. A few of our sisters this day hunt for Artemis in her holy forest."
Tears sprang to Gabrielle's eyes. More deaths...on her hands...she forced the tears down. "Our sisters died gloriously." The words sounded hollow in her own ears. "When we return to our village we will pay homage to their memories." She faltered. Xena laid a warm hand upon the small of her back and she garnered strength from it. "Our sister Malantha also hunts in the holy forest of Artemis and our friend," She turned to face Stas. "Makarios has gone on to the Elysian Fields."
"No!" The cry tore from Anastasius against his will. He ran to the cave. Gabrielle and Xena followed.
The sight of the blanket shrouded body caused him to stumble and fall to his knees. "Makarios!" He threw his head down and sobbed onto the lifeless chest. My friend, my brother. It should have been me."
Xena clasped his shoulder. "Stas...he was a good man." She glanced at the bard, but Gabrielle was lost in her own fears and for once unable to offer the comfort she was normally so good at. "I'm sorry...we're sorry."
Stas looked up at his warrior friend. "He was the first real friend I ever had. I'd give my life for him."
A chill voice came from the corner of the room. "Would you?"
They all turned and looked. Chronos advanced slowly toward them. Power emanated from him in a way none of them had ever seen. "Would you give your life for him?" He asked again as he glided to a stop before the kneeling man.
"I would." Stas swallowed his fear.
"Despite the fact that today you have more to live for than ever before?" Chronos raised his voice in doubt.
Stas closed his eyes briefly and let the love he felt for Themis fill him. To have had that for such a short time...he opened his eyes. "Yes. Despite the fact that today my life is worth living I would gladly give it for him." Forgive me love, but I have lived many lifetimes and your brother not one.
Chronos caught and held the immortal eyes with his own piercing blue ones. A full minute past as he judged the worthiness of the gift offered. "A life for a life is possible." He looked around. "You are to be witnesses." He looked down at the man that had finally learned the lesson of life and his glance softened. "Life must be taken in order for life to be given." He raised his hand and the changed. A bright green glow filled the cave and the women fought to keep their eyes open.
Xena clasped Gabrielle close to her and watched in amazement as a force was pulled out of Anastasius and bent by the will of Chronos into the body of their dead friend.
"Call to him." Chronos demanded. "If you want your friend back and not just this empty husk call him to you with all the love you have."
"Makarios!" Stas pulled the body of his friend to him. "Makarios, please answer...your parents need you...Themis needs you." He looked pleadingly at Xena. "I don't know what to do."
Xena looked apologetically at Gabrielle before letting the girl go and kneeling by the cot. She grasped Makarios by the head and forced his eyes open. Staring into the empty eyes she called with all her strength. "Makarios!" Her eyes pierced through his burning into his brain. "It's not time for you to go. Come back." She paused. "Ask Ilena. She wants you to live." She pulled him into a sitting position and propped blankets behind his head. "Makarios." She called again.
A gasp, his eyes rolled back and he blinked. Recognition entered his eyes. "Xena?" And a glance over her shoulder. "Stas?" He tried to lift his head and let it fall back down. "I had the strangest dream."
Xena smiled and clasped his shoulder before relinquishing her spot to Stas. Gabrielle slipped up to her side and placed one arm around her waist. Xena moved her own arm around Gabrielle's shoulder and pulled her close. "Come on. We have a miracle to announce."
Chronos smiled at the loving scene and turned to walk back to his throne. He paused as the warrior and the Amazon Queen stopped next to him.
"I thought you said a life for a life?"
"I did." He glanced back at the men. "I wonder when he will realize what I meant."
Xena grinned. "It's good. You're a good man Chronos."
"Me?" He laughed. "I am and always will be the father of time...and time is many things." He stepped towards his door, turned to Gabrielle. "Last chance?" And at her quick no a grin. "Thank you and goodbye." He stepped through the door into his private sanctum.
"What was that all about?" Xena asked puzzled.
"Oh, ever since we got here he kept trying to get me to come see his wall of life." She sighed. "I wonder if it would have changed what I did if I had."
Xena sensed the unease and fear that ran through her friend. "Want to tell me about it?"
Gabrielle turned and burrowed into Xena's arms. Gaia, but she felt safe here. How do I explain what happened and what I felt...feel today. "Later...after we get the Amazons settled." She looked up into worried blue eyes and her heart leaped for joy. She smiled. "I want to be alone with you."
"Tonight." Xena leaned down and brushed the soft lips. "I promise. Just you, me and Argo." She tossed her head towards the woods. "Out there far enough away so they can't hear us. I know the perfect spot."
"Good." Was Gabrielle's only response. Xena's embrace tightened for a minute, then loosened. "Come on." She opened her arms to allow Gabrielle to step out of them. "Let's go organize the Amazons."
Gabrielle didn't move. She tilted her head back into Xena's chest. "I can't do it anymore." She whispered the words, but Xena heard and gathered her close. "You can." She kissed the top of her head. "You will." She squeezed her tight. "I'll stay by your side the whole time." She let go. Gabrielle stepped away and looked up into her eyes. She bent down and kissed her again. "It'll be okay. You just tell them you want them to go home...who's in charge and that we'll join them in the village within two moons. Okay?"
Gabrielle nodded, but reached out and clasped Xena's hand to her.
The Amazons settled Xena prepared Argo for departure. One last check on Solari. The slim, dark haired warrior would be all right. They Amazons were busy building a travois for her and a few days rest before they headed home should be enough for her to make that grueling trip.
Xena paused by Briala's side. "Tell Epinon the Queen will be by sometime in the next two moons...in time of Acacia's ceremony."
Briala nodded. And just how did Xena know when the young girl's ceremony was going to be? She watched silently as the dark haired warrior somersaulted onto her horse and leaning over helped the young queen up. What was it about the woman? She shook her head and sighed heavily before turning to her job.
Xena and Gabrielle rode silently through the forest. Xena content in the feel of her lover's arms wrapped around her waist and Gabrielle content in losing herself in the smell of her warrior. Safe and loved...that's what the mix of herbs and leather would always mean to her. She laid her head down upon the warrior's back and closed her eyes.
Xena reined Argo to a halt and smiled. The glade was perfect. Gabrielle would love it. A small pool at the foot of a medium sized waterfall gurgled a welcome as she tapped her young lover's hands. "Gabrielle?" She called softly. "Wake up." She twisted in her seat, grinning as the hands tightened at her waist. "Hey, I think you'll be more comfortable on the ground."
"Oh." Gabrielle said fuzzily. She let go of Xena's waist and rubbed her eyes, blinking to bring them into focus. "Oh Xena it's beautiful." Her eyes took on a look of wonder, and she slowly took in the sight. The waterfall, the pool for swimming, a big flat stone for sunning, the forest to their back and a small meadow for Argo to graze in. "It's perfect." She slid off Argo and walked toward the water. "How did you find it?"
Xena paused Argo's saddle in hand. "It was back when I was still...let's just say I was out scouting and I stumbled across it." She dropped the saddle and removed the reins. She slapped Argo lightly on her rump. "Go ahead girl I'll come brush you later." She turned to face Gabrielle. "I never told anyone about it...it was too pure...too beautiful for anyone I knew then." She placed her hands on the younger woman's shoulders. "I spent one night here and stayed awake soaking in the beauty wishing I knew someone that would appreciate it."
Gabrielle reached up and covered Xena's hands with her own. "Thank you." She leaned against the warm body and just soaked up the strength that ran through Xena.
"Hungry?" Xena asked as she wrapped her arms around her. Gabrielle shook her head. "No?" Xena frowned. "When did you eat last?"
Gabrielle snorted. Anger was welling up inside her and she didn't know where it was coming from. "Who knows? I had more important things to do then think about food."
Xena's frown deepened. Gabrielle not care about food? This was really serious. "Okay." She spoke slowly. In that case why don't I set up a cozy little lean too...in case the weather turns nasty and you just relax in the sun."
Gabrielle nodded. Her eyes closed in relief...much as I want Xena to know I really don't want to tell her. Later will do just fine. She whimpered a protest as Xena let her go., but smiled as she was spun around and kissed. She opened her eyes and watched Xena walk into the woods. My love...Her eyes glazed over and her smile deepened. I'm the luckiest woman in the world.
Xena smiled as she caught sight of her beloved bard lying on the flat rock, by the small pool. She made short work of setting up the lean-to and building a fire and hurried to join her young lover. "Hi" She jumped up to sit with Gabrielle.
"Hi." Gabrielle smiled sadly. There was no putting it off. Now she was going to have to tell Xena everything and...her heart sank...Xena would be so disappointed in her...I just hope she doesn't hate me for it.
Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle. "So ready to talk to me yet?"
A wry smile appeared. "Reading my mind again?" She shook her head. "I was just thinking about how to tell you."
Xena felt the bard shake and tightened her embrace. "Start at the beginning and take as much time as you need...I'm not going anywhere." She nuzzled her lover's neck.
Gabrielle grinned. For a woman of few words her warrior always seemed to know just what to say to make her feel good. For just a few minutes she basked in the glow of their love. Then slowly, haltingly she began to speak.
"At first things went pretty much as we expected it to. We waited both in and outside of the cave's mouth for the attack. They came at dawn and there were more then double the number we expected. Still we fought on. Malantha was one of the ones stationed outside and when I saw her go down I ran out to stand over her." She stopped and patted the suddenly white hands that encircled her waist. "I know it was stupid." She loosened the grip that threatened her breath and brought the hands to her lips. "I couldn't help it...I just ran...I had to protect her."
Xena lowered her head to rest on Gabrielle's, not even attempting to hide the trembling that ran through her body. "I know...it's one of the reasons I fear for you...your courage...it's also one of the things I love about you."
Silence reigned for more than a few minutes as the two soaked in each other's love. A hawk glided lazily overhead and a deer came to drink at the pond. The sun was starting it's downward swing and a rosy red glow filled the sky. Xena smiled...if not for the woman in her arms she doubted she'd ever take the time to look at a sunset, but now...she drew in a deep breath and let out a sigh of contentment, before breaking the silence. "If you don't want to talk about it it's okay."
"No." Gabrielle protested. "I want to tell you." She hung her head and played with their entwined fingers. "I need to tell you."
Gabrielle's pain tore at Xena's heart and she pulled the bard closer. "Whatever...I only need to know if you want to tell me." She nuzzled Gabrielle's neck breathing in the herbal scent that was a wondrous toxin to her.
Gabrielle let her head loll back on Xena's shoulder. It would be so easy to ignore it...not let Xena know, but if she did that where was the honesty...she shuddered...no she had to let the warrior know. She smiled as Xena's grip tightened. She always felt so safe in these arms. She cleared her throat and sat back up. Xena loosened her hold but kept her arms around the bard.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and began again. "Needless to say as soon as I ran out Solari had to follow me." She shook her head and wiped a hand across her face. Between the two of us we were doing a pretty good job of keeping them away. I don't know when Makarios went down." Her voice picked up and her words began to tumble over themselves. "I was too busy fighting for my life, for Malantha's life and then Solari went down. I continued to fight, but they were coming at me in groups of three and four...I was tired." The tears formed in her throat and she choked. "I fell and my staff went flying." She dropped her head. "When I rose I had Solari's sword in my hand and I swung it. I didn't even hesitate I just swung and swung and swung..." She bit her lip. "I'm sorry. I know I disappointed you. I know you never wanted me to kill. I'm sorry...I've tried not to. I wanted to stay the innocent you loved but I couldn't." The tears started to flow. "I didn't mean to lose my blood innocence." She let go of Xena's hand and dropped her head into her hands.
Xena listened in shock. Her surprise at Gabrielle's words evident. Gabrielle killed someone...more than one...how'd she manage not to kill herself with a sword? Her eyes blazed with rage...at herself for not being there...not protecting her. My poor love. Disappointed? What? She shook her head, fighting to remain calm. "Gabrielle?" She lifted Gabrielle up into the air and spun her around to face her, before pulling her into her lap. "Look at me." She nudged her chin and looked with sad blue eyes at the misty green ones that looked up at her. "I love you." She kissed the bard. "I could never be disappointed in you." Although her words were calm the passion made her voice tremble.
Gabrielle's mouth dropped open in surprise. This was not what she'd expected. No something was wrong. She shook her head. "How? How can you love me? I did something you constantly told me not to do."
Xena cradled her in her arms. "I'm sorry." She kissed the top of the bard's head. "I know I constantly told you not to touch the sword." She wet her lips. "But I never told you not to defend yourself...or your friends...I've killed thousands...I didn't want you to feel the pain I know from taking a life, but I'd rather have you alive and safe then stand by and not kill someone intent on destroying you." She watched the color start to return to the younger woman and gently stroked her cheek. "I'm sorry. I know how hard it must be for you. Taking a life...it's..." She closed her eyes and laid her head upon Gabrielle's shoulder, unable to fully explain that she understood the pain of first kill. Especially when the pain was so closely tied to the joy at the triumph of victory. Please don't let this change her too much.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and let the words flow out explaining it as she relived the battle. "I remember the shock that filled me as I saw the red spurt and the smell of copper as a hot thick red liquid came gushing all over me. The tangy taste of something unfamiliar as I licked my lips and pulled. The sword felt slick as I pulled it out of his body and it made a strange noise as though air was escaping from somewhere...but I didn't stop. No, I turned and sliced another man across the chest he went down. The death hadn't slowed me down at all. I remember thinking it wasn't me doing it...my hand wasn't mine...it belonged to some avenging angel." She laughed a shrill nervous sound that echoed hollowly among the trees. "The tangy smell of blood filled my nostrils and I breathed in another death. An arrow sped past my ear," She reached up and touched the tip of the ear. "I turned swinging the sword," She shook her head, "...it was all instinct. I used it in place of my staff, it was lighter and not as long, but I swung it as I turned and saw it aiming for my opponent's head. I felt the jarring impact as the sword met at the neck, and then it was moving through it." Again came the nervous laugh and Xena clung tighter. "It was like slicing beef." She licked her lips and spared a quick glance at Xena. And the head rolled away and like a ball it rolled back towards us. I couldn't help myself I watched it rolling and as it stopped I looked down to see a One-eyed face gazing sightlessly up at me. I killed Gregor One-Eye...I ended the war." She was shaking like a leaf, but she couldn't stop now. "I couldn't move. I stood staring at his sightless head and all I could remember was what you had said about him...and a fierce gladness filled me. I smiled...I wanted to kick his head...I laughed." Shock was in her voice. "And suddenly I realized what I was doing... and the bile rose in my mouth." She looked up at Xena and her face was a mass of confusion. "I was glad he was dead. Even as I stood there feeling sick I was glad I killed him...glad he you didn't have to see him again...I never hated so strongly...never wished pain on anyone, but as I stood there I was wishing that I he could have died a little slower..." She looked back down at her hands, hands stained with blood. "The only thing that stopped me was the sounds around me intruded. I heard footsteps running, then a familiar voice in my ear, and it was enough. I collapsed, throwing up everything that was in me." She let her voice fade away, wishing she could do the same.
Gabrielle laid cradled to the bosom of Xena as one might cradle a baby. Tears racked her body. I can't tell her that the rest of the day was a blur...learning that Makarios and Solari were severely injured Malantha dead...not a one besides me got off without a scratch...and I had been the reckless one. Finally I understood the battle berserkers that the men of my village used to talk about. I reveled in killing the man that had made Xena tremble. I am worthless...how can Xena still love me?. Afraid of the disgust she was certain was there she refused to look at the woman that continued to hold her safe.
"Gregor? Dead?" Xena sat stunned. She'd thought the man had gotten away scot free. Relief followed by anger spread through her body. She wanted to be the one that destroyed him. Show him what it was like...to grind his face beneath her heel. I wanted to kill him...and she did it...not only killed him but gleefully. Hatred rose and Ares dark power filled her. It blazed from her eyes...she felt it burn it's way into her soul and she fought it. Not now...Gabrielle needs me. Her heart sank. I caused this. I changed her. A bleak sorrow entered her soul and her eyes darkened with pain. She sat in utter confusion and only Gabrielle's deep need for her held her anchored in the present.
Xena rocked with the young woman cradled in the safety of her strong arms. She murmured in an obscure dialect the words strange but soothing and Gabrielle let the warrior's voice wash over her, cleansing her, accepting her, and she sighed with contentment as her eyes drifted shut and sleep overtook her.
Xena sat for hours cradling the bard as she slept off her exhaustion and somewhere along the way the thoughts that were running through her mind began to spill from her lips. "My love. It's all my fault. How different your life would have been if I had made you stay home. If I never rescued you - you'd be a slave...bitter and more than willing to kill. But what if I had sent you home...would you be happily married with children? I no longer know what would have been better for you. You're definitely my better half and I don't want to live without you. Amazon Queen, Bard, Best Friend...Champion of the Underdog...I'd of expected no less from you...how do I convince you that it was all right to kill this time?
That I'm not disappointed in you. That I was afraid of what killing would do to you, but I shouldn't have been. It was never you afraid to kill. I think you were always willing to do what needed to be done...even to kill if needed...you certainly begged me often enough to teach you the sword. It just was never your first choice. It was me...from the first moment I met you I was afraid of what it would mean if you killed...the changes it would cause...afraid you would fall down a dark and twisted path - such as mine. You are too strong in your convictions...and how do I explain that...my weakness and your strength?"
Gabrielle woke slowly. Words were drifting in and through her like a balm from heaven. Explaining, sanctifying her actions. She stayed still and listened. The words penetrated the heavy fog that she'd felt herself fall into at battle's end. She loves me still. She's not disappointed. She expected it to happen sooner or later. It's one of the reasons she tried to leave me behind. Her heart began to soar. The heavy weight disappearing beneath the invading light. She opened her eyes and smiled up at the most beautiful shade of blue she'd ever seen. "I love you too." She said as soft moist lips claimed her own. Long minutes past as the two reaffirmed their trust and love to one another.
Xena pulled back and stared deeply into the vibrant green eyes of her young lover. "You are beautiful." Her voice was husky, her breathing erratic and her eyes smoldered with a passion that set Gabrielle's loin to aching.
Gabrielle let out a soft mew. Xena's warm breath on her face sent chills chasing down her spine. She wet her lips. "I was so afraid...afraid you wouldn't love me anymore." She smiled tremulously at the warrior.
Xena pulled her back to her molding her body closer. She reached out and pulling Gabrielle's hand from around her neck placed it on her chest. "Can you feel that?" She left her hand lying above the smaller one and together their hands moved in tangent with her heartbeat. "That's what you do to me." She lifted her now shaking hand to stroke the silken cheek. "It's what you always do to me...proof that I could no more stop loving you then I could voluntarily stop breathing."
Gabrielle smiled. "I heard your words...what language were you speaking?"
"M'Lila's." Xena pushed the red gold hair away from her beloved's hair. "I always thought it was a pretty language."
"Hmmm." Gabrielle murmured. "She was special huh?"
"Ya." Xena whispered her rely. "She taught me to live again...then Caesar destroyed that...revenge was too good for him...." She closed her eyes and a tear trickled down her cheek. "...and Caesar taught me to hate." She let her head fall back. "Too late...I understand what she asked much too late."
Gabrielle lifted her head to gaze into Xena's eyes. "Asked?"
"Yes." Xena brushed her lips with her own. "She asked if I hated Caesar...and I didn't have a chance to answer." She wet her lips. "But it would have been yes. Especially after he killed her." She glanced away, ashamed of her past.
"What happened?" Gabrielle held Xena's face in the palm of her hands and gazed worriedly at her.
Xena could deny her nothing. "When M'Lila saved my life Caesar sent his army after us. A small group found us at Niklio's and attacked..."A shudder ran through her body and she let a tear fall. "...she threw herself in front of me to save me." She lifted bewildered eyes to Gabrielle. "She barely knew me...we were just learning to communicate...and she died for me." She swallowed the tears. "And all I could get out of Niklio was the repeat of his response to why she saved me. It wasn't my time."
Gabrielle kissed away the tears and cradled the raven head to her bosom. "It wasn't your time to die?"
"Ya." She gave a short harsh bark of laughter. "If she'd only known all the lives I've destroyed...if she left me hanging on that cross...they'd all be alive."
"Not true." Gabrielle rebutted angrily. "Someone else would have run rampant over them. Someone else may not have had your compassion. Imagine if you weren't there? What would have happened to the Centaurs and the Amazons? All good people and all the countless others we've helped." She was truly agitated now and let go of Xena to rise and pace. "And me? If you had died all those years ago..." Her voice trembled. "Who would have been kneeling in a meadow outside of Potedaia two and a half years ago? Who would have saved me?"
Xena's eyes followed Gabrielle as she paced. It was crazy and she knew it, but she felt so much better when Gabrielle ranted about her comments. "I'm sorry." She managed to squeeze the statement in as Gabrielle took a deep breath. "I didn't mean anything by it."
"Yes you did." Gabrielle corrected her. "But I want you to forget all that stuff." She walked over and knelt at the former warlord's feet. "It's time for us to move on." She placed her hands on Xena's knees. "It's time you forgot about atoning and we started enjoying life. It's a wondrous gift and one we need to share. "
"Yes." Gabrielle whispered softly, clasping Xena and pulling her to her feet. and moving toward the lean-to.
Xena grinned. "Only if you promise the same."
Gabrielle sighed a small smile formed on her lips, her eyes lit from an inner glow. "You got me."
Xena smirked and winked. "Ya I did."
"Okay. I promise if you promise."
Xena raised both eyebrows suggestively and Gabrielle laughed.
"I Promise." And an answering light glowed from her eyes. Gabrielle would be okay...She mused as she allowed herself to be dragged to the lean-to. Once inside though and she was going to show the bard what it meant to take time to live.
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