"I’ll take the prisoners. You set up camp, send out the scouts. Then take first watch, all right?"

"Yeah," he said slowly. "OK."

"And Meleager," Xena began, hardly believing she was saying it, "use the time to think a little, huh? She does love you, you know." Whoa! What was that for, Warrior Matchmaker?

He relaxed, gave an embarrassed grin. "Yeah, sorry." He caught her eye, then scratched his beard. "But, you know, I could say the same to you." He tensed slightly, almost as if expecting to get a dagger in the face.

Xena narrowed her eyes. Blocked and counterattacked. That’s what I get for butting in. "Yeah, well, we’ve got work to do." She turned Argo. "Solari!" she called out, "let’s get those men on their feet…"

The short trip to the village was odd. Many of the slavers showed the usual surliness of prisoners being taken to justice, but perhaps half were strangely meek and subdued. A few even seemed to be quietly weeping. It was a look Xena recognized from her own face – a dark soul that had been shown just how dark it was, and had come to regret it.

Gods Lilith, the warrior thought, I don’t know what powers you have, but keep them away from me. She suppressed a shudder and kept riding.

The trip back, however, was much better. "Chickens?" Standing beside Argo, Xena raised an eyebrow as the small cages were stowed in one of the wagons.

"Yeah, well," Gabrielle seemed a little embarrassed. "I know they’ll need some grain and looking after, but we’ll all get tired of salted meat, and I figured a few eggs wouldn’t be a bad thing in the meantime…"

"Bartered for the grain though too, huh?" The warrior was just playing with her now, found herself kind of enjoying it.

"Well, they have lots of it, dried beans too. Good harvest last year … What?" the suddenly exasperated bard asked.

"Nothing," Xena said evenly, hiding a warm smile. "Just that you managed to trade two dozen worthless slavers for enough food to keep us all going for at least half a week … and you don’t seem a bit proud of it." The warrior absently brushed Argo’s mane. "Most folks I know would be boasting by now."

Gabrielle bounced on her toes and thumped her staff lightly on the ground. "I’ll boast when we get where we’re going. Besides," the bard replied, "I wasn’t the one who intimidated fifteen or twenty armed men into giving up without a fight – before noon."

Xena turned and took a step so she stood closer to the smaller woman. They were surrounded by random villagers and several Amazons, but as it always seemed to happen, at that moment there were just the two of them.

Xena looked warmly into the bard’s green eyes. "And I wasn’t the one who convinced a town to feed eight score people before sunset, Gabrielle."

"Xena, I couldn’t have protected those people."

The warrior smiled. "Don’t know about that. It was your plan that kept them from walking into an ambush." Xena gently placed her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. "We have different gifts, don’t we?"

The bard grinned. "You know, I think I like that."

"Me too."

A heartbeat later they were both mounted in Argo’s saddle, cantering down the road, the strawberry blonde in front laughing at something the warrior spoke in her ear as they rode away.

"Methinks I were lucky," the village elder said to Solari.

"Oh?" the Amazon replied, noting the way he looked at her, thinking he wasn’t too bad looking himself. "Lucky how?"

He leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, winking, "If I’d known the Queen were joined to the Warrior Princess, I might’ve bargained less harshly."

Solari suddenly realized he was much less intelligent than he seemed. "That’s lame, old man," she said proudly, folding her arms, "our Queen is the best negotiator on both sides of the Mediterranean. For what it’s worth, you got taken in your ‘bargain’ – supplies for eight score people for some lousy slavers? Come on!"

She shrugged away and turned back for one last taunt, seeing again that he really wasn’t bad looking at all … in a mature, older guy sort of way. "And they aren’t joined, old man – you wouldn’t have had a bargaining chip to stand on." Always leave ‘em guessing.

Solari hurried after her sister Amazons, then slowed, thinking. Why is that anyway? When I asked about them, Gabrielle shot that thought down pretty quick. Damn, too quick. Weird. By Artemis, why aren’t they?

* * *

The space inside Lilith’s wagon was somewhat confining, and Gabrielle knew Xena was uncomfortable in close quarters, yet the warrior stretched herself out and seemed at ease, picking up her goblet of cider and taking a brief sip. "So," the warrior began, characteristically not wasting words, "I hear you drink human blood."

Lilith gave a musical chuckle. "This I have heard of myself as well." The Priestess eyed Xena with a sly smile. "Of course, I also recall hearing the same of a certain Warrior Princess…"

Xena raised an eyebrow, then smiled wryly. "All right, fair enough. So, why are you immortal?"

"Luck," Lilith shrugged, smiling, reclining onto her side. "At times I am unsure whether it was good luck or bad, yet I cannot fail to see the irony in it." She turned to Gabrielle. "Young bard, I think you know my story, yes?"

"About how you left the garden? I think so. Was that how it happened?" Gabrielle seemed breathless, and was the only one of the three of them sitting up, cross-legged, leaning slightly forward with her own goblet clutched in her hands, forgotten. The young woman had met gods, yet an immortal, someone who had been there at the creation, this was something big.

"I know not the way you may have heard it, my story being told many times," Lilith smiled, "yet I think you have the bold strokes of it. In truth, as far as why I still live, it is because having been betrayed by both my companion and my maker, having left the garden, I was not there to receive the one god’s curse of mortality when Adam and Eve disobeyed him. Therefore I live on, never to age, and nothing can stop this body, which requires neither food nor sleep nor warmth." She sighed, though she still smiled. "Many times, however, have I thought they were the lucky ones, to know the peace of death."

Lilith closed her eyes. "I am, I think, the oldest who lives upon this Earth, as old at least as the Titans, who are long since imprisoned – I cannot say for sure, for I only learned of them later. I know only that Inanna, the power of creation, was there before the one god who made me, as I believe was even the Earth itself. Knowing of her, indeed, working through her, he made me first as the one who could give birth and carry the seed of life…"

Lilith exhaled slowly as tears rolled down her face, though her voice remained steady. "A gift I foolishly destroyed in my anger, killing my womb with the issue of demons, caring only that the children of Adam and Eve should suffer for their father’s pride."

The bard was spellbound by Lilith’s words, absently reaching for the warrior’s hand beside her. The callused warmth gripped her own hand gently as the Priestess continued.

"Adam … Ah, I remember still, watching as the one god formed him from the clay, Adam who has long since returned to it. I think of him still as a fool, vain and shallow – yet I could have loved him, if only he had not been so consumed with his own self-importance." The Priestess looked up, shrugged. "Perhaps the one god instilled him with this, to guard against feeling inferior for having been created last of all things, or perhaps it was some other feeling which simply became malformed. Thousands of years have I pondered it, and still it makes no sense. In the end he failed me, casting me out with his depthless vanity." She shook her head. "And so I am blessed, and cursed with life unending, as long as Earth endures, watching as the sons of Adam continue their self-important ways, and the daughters of Eve continue to indulge it, watching as they turn from this god to that, forgetting the power of creation that began gods and mortals all."

Lilith then gave a knowing, conspiratorial smile. "Yet it is Inanna who will triumph in the end, and I am her doorway back into the world."

"How so?" Xena asked.

"For many years, both during my time of darkness and since, I traveled the world, wandering aimlessly and everywhere, taking my pleasures as I found them…"

"Mounting men in their sleep," Xena said, then raised an eyebrow. "Well, that’s what Gabrielle told me."

"Xena!" The bard slapped the warrior’s knee as she blushed. Turning back to the Priestess, Gabrielle gave an embarrassed shrug. "That’s, um, the story I heard anyway."

Lilith grinned, but there was a strange gravity behind it. "This is probably because it is true, young one. During my dark years if seduction failed, then yes, I would take them as they slept, any who caught my eye. They would remember me as a dream, nothing more. Women would think of it as only that, a dream, yet in the morning the men would have other evidence, finding their seed spilled on them – for no reason I could ever comprehend, some found this disturbing." She gave a musical chuckle. "Ah, but when I found the love of the Goddess, I ceased to do such things, for pleasure must be freely given if it is to be shared."

Lilith stared upward, as if looking past the roof of the wagon. "Yet all those I have laid with, they became … changed, somehow. If I returned years later and found they had borne children, these children were always different. The men were giving and tolerant, the women intelligent and self reliant. These are not like the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, and looking upon them I realized … I knew…"

The immortal lowered her gaze, looking from Gabrielle to Xena, her eyes once again brimming with tears above a strange smile. "They are, somehow, mine. Not as the issue of my womb, long since dead within me, but the children of my heart, and this has passed to their children in turn, one generation to the next. It has not always bred true, but I have watched it spread, and grow, and they teach others by example. It was, I think, a gift from Inanna, she who stayed by me even as I was abandoned by other gods, even as I let my hate turn me from them. Always she was there for me, I realized in time. And in time, our children will lead the world back to her, to live together as one with the Earth, in peace, and wisdom, and togetherness."

Lilith reached out and gently touched the bard and warrior. "And you, Xena, and you, Gabrielle, I see into you, and know that you are both my daughters true, as surely as if I had given you life. You are my joy."

Gabrielle beamed at Lilith, turned to look at Xena, saw the warrior looking oddly thoughtful. After a pause, Xena sat up slightly. "Let’s talk about this ‘seeing into’ us thing. How is that? You said you weren’t an oracle."

Lilith looked at her with an odd half grin, wiping her eyes absently. "Indeed, I am not," she sniffled, smiling, "but after living among people for a few thousand years, one becomes very good at judging their moods and character. It is hard to describe, but I have come to feel it as a kind of vibration. It is not a gift I alone possess, and I have met others who can feel it as well. Indeed, through teaching the priestesses I believe that given time and study anyone can feel what is in others to some degree, although," she chuckled, "I confess I have had more time than most. If the emotion is strong I can even sense it from a distance, or feel things so clearly it is much like reading one’s thoughts."

"Can you vibrate back?" Xena asked, an edge of suspicion in her voice. "Cause someone to feel a certain way?"

Lilith gave a coy smile. "Ah, Xena, if you … I am sorry. To answer your question, no – I can never cause a person’s feelings, nor would I do so if I had such power. However, in truth, I have learned how to reach out, to nurture and release feelings that are already there, perhaps hidden, or push them away so other things can be felt more clearly. Calm someone who is lost in panic or fear, for example. Often it requires a touch, or an embrace, but again, when it is strong I need only be close. Indeed, it is how our ceremony works – with the help and focus of the other priestesses I feel the love and pleasure in those around me, then reach out to them and together we push it higher still, until the spirits of all who worship soar to a place where they can feel only joy, hear the love and harmony of the Earth, and there, perhaps, to find themselves as well."

The Priestess closed her eyes, and her voice dropped low. "Oh, and how I remember … in Sumer of times long past, when Akkad was at its height, in the spring the whole city would be there to celebrate the fertility of the Earth. The King would come to me in the center of the temple, and I would reach out and feel the pleasure of hundreds of coupled lovers … so many, none could resist the song, and even the stoniest of hearts could be opened to the love of the Goddess. Every pleasured moment I felt as my own, and I would return it to them a hundred fold, higher and higher, until we were all joined to the Goddess as one, flowing together in ecstasy and boundless communion with love and the song of life…"

Lilith opened her eyes and laughed, blushing lightly for the first time either had seen. "It is," she giggled, "as you say, ‘good work if get can get it’, yes?"

Gabrielle suddenly remembered to close her mouth, realized it had been hanging open for quite a while. She noticed Xena looking at her with a half grin and felt herself blush. The bard tried a nonchalant shrug as she turned back to Priestess. "Uh, well, I guess there are some advantages to being immortal after all."

"A few," Lilith replied wistfully. "A very few. I think I would trade them all, however, for one last great love, and the peace of death. Yet I have accepted this will not happen, and have learned, in a word, to live with living."

Gabrielle pursed her lips. "Do you love Meleager?"

"Yes," The Priestess replied, "he is a dear one. He is noble at heart, yet flawed in just the right ways, simple and human. His are weaknesses I find most charming, and he makes me laugh at odd times, something that few can do. He struggles to accept his own feelings and mine but," she grinned, "I can afford patience. I believe in time he will – indeed, I think it is not far off."

"But you don’t want him to know that you’re, um, who you are until then, right?" the bard asked simply.

"You speak the truth, young one," Lilith replied. "It complicates things, I have found. I do not hide my immortality, exactly, but nor do I announce it. Too many would seek me out only for that reason, not to listen to the message I bring them as a Priestess of Inanna, or to my feelings as a friend or lover."

"Fair enough," Xena said, sitting up, "but speaking of Meleager, he’ll be getting off watch soon, and some of us do need sleep." The warrior gave Gabrielle a playful nudge.

The bard chuckled and nudged back. "One last question though, for now," Gabrielle said, turning back to Lilith, "who else knows – in this camp anyway? Don’t want to give anything away."

The immortal smiled. "Morgin, and the priestesses of course, though not their acolytes. That is all."

The warrior raised an eyebrow. "You do manage to keep pretty quiet."

Lilith laughed. "You overestimate my gifts, warrior Xena. It is not, after all, the sort of thing that comes up in casual conversation – ‘Lovely sunrise, and by the way, are you an immortal?’ I think not."

They all chuckled. "C’mon bard," Xena said, hauling Gabrielle to her feet. "You’ll have the whole trip to ask the rest of your million questions. Right now, you need your rest."

"Good night Lilith," the bard said as they opened the flaps and hopped out of the wagon.

"Sleep in peace, young Gabrielle. And you, Xena," the immortal called after them.

"So, can we trust her now?" the bard asked playfully once they were well away from Lilith’s wagon.

"Let’s just say I trust her more than I did," Xena replied around a wry grin. But I don’t like the idea of someone who can play with my emotions, whether they’re mine to start with or not. The warrior furrowed her brows, looking thoughtful.

"Dinar for your thoughts?" Gabrielle broke in.

"Hmm? Oh, sorry," Xena shrugged. "It’s been a long day," she smiled, "and for me it’s not over yet. I have to relieve Meleager, take my watch. Good night Gabrielle … Gabrielle, is something wrong?"

The bard made herself smile. "Nah, go on. I’ll, uh, I’ll keep your bedroll warm. See you in the morning." She turned and strode towards their spot in the camp. Oh no, proud warrior, nothing’s wrong. Nothing at all. Just that after spending a nice day feeling closer to you than I have in ages, you’re going to end it by wandering off. Business as usual for the short sidekick.

Laying down, Gabrielle sighed. No, that’s not fair either. She’s got a hundred people to take care of right now. What’s between us will have to wait. We’ve had a million looks and words and little touches and sometimes more and never talked about them, and now is not the most practical time to start.

"But I swear Xena," the bard said out loud as she closed her eyes, "when this trip is over, we’re going to find some nice, safe, isolated spot and have one monster of a talk."

* * *

Stophacles stomped his foot, paced back and forth, remembered to spit in disgust. "Not good," he said simply. Then louder, "Not good!"

"Not a problem either," Klytus reassured him. "In fact, I think it’s worked out fine."

"And just how in Tartarus do you figure that?" Stophacles was still livid with anger from realizing that the scouts – all of them – had simply stopped sending regular reports. No one in his much-too-large camp had received as much as a note in three days.

Klytus shrugged. "First, if they’ve eliminated the scouts it can only mean one thing – they’re finally on the move…"

"Tell me something I can’t guess," Stophacles spat back, then spat again for real.

Klytus sighed, decided that mid-morning was as good a time as any to start drinking, and grabbed his mug. "Second," he continued patiently, "losing their scouts has made Race and Pollux angry –"

"Oh gods," Stophacles groaned, covering his eyes. "That’s the last thing we need – they’ll both want more money."

"Nah, took care of that," Klytus reassured his partner, dumping the dregs of last night’s ale onto the ground, then stepping towards the cask. "Had a chat with ‘em this morning. I humbly report that I got them to quit hating us and got them focused back on Meleager and those whores he rides with."

"You’re a wonder Klytus," Stophacles replied. "I don’t know what I’d do without you."

"Same here," Klytus smiled, dipping his mug and filling it. "Still, it was pretty easy – there are very few mercenary captains who have any love for Amazons. Losing twenty of their best scouts just made ‘em hate the Amazon Nation even more."

"Not bad," Stophacles mused, turning it over in his mind how he might use that later.

"Yeah well, like I said it, was easy," Klytus replied. He took a swallow of ale, reminding himself he’d have to send for a couple more casks soon. "Anyway, we’re on to plan Beta – your plan from the start, by the way."

"Should have been plan Alpha. It was easier to begin with," Stophacles said smugly. "A caravan that large and unusual can’t move anywhere without being noticed, and they pretty much have to cross at Byzantium. Just keep sending small groups of men to hang out in taverns across eastern Thrace – they’ll turn up news sooner or later."

"Yeah well, time is money," Klytus sighed, settling back into his chair and taking another swig.

"No problem," Stophacles chuckled. "We shouldn’t have all these hired troops around and just leave ‘em doing sword drills and buggering each other. Tomorrow we’ll send out a raiding party or two, have ‘em bring back some flesh. Sirrus will be in a buying mood this time of year, and he’s only a day or so west. A little spending money will make everyone happier."

"Stoph, pour yourself an ale," Klytus said, raising his mug. "I knew there was a reason I keep you around."

Stophacles chuckled again, filling his own mug. "Not the only reason, I hope."

Klytus took another swallow, watching his muscled partner over the rim of his mug. "So tell me," he said finally, "is this objection to buggery just among the hired help, or in general?"

"Well," Stophacles replied, settling into his own chair next to Klytus and licking his lips, "rank does have its privileges."

* * *

The next few days were great as far as Gabrielle was concerned, in spite of everything. During the time they traveled to Byzantium the caravan only came across one other band of slavers, a small one which the scouts spotted well before the main group was anywhere near them. Xena, Meleager and a few others snuck into their camp in the night and captured them easily.

There was little other trouble, and Gabrielle spent most of her time riding with Lilith. True, there was a period every day after the noon meal when the immortal and her priestesses would close themselves up inside a wagon for an hour or so to meditate, and during this time Gabrielle walked with Solari, since Xena was often too busy.

The rest of the day Gabrielle was glued to her seat in the wagon across from the vastly ancient Lilith, a bit in awe, just letting the immortal talk and studiously writing everything down. Hearing so much history from someone who’d been there was an amazing experience for the ever-curious young bard. Lilith was patient, full of humor, and could recall almost every sensory detail, no matter how insignificant.

There were the odd times and places Lilith didn’t seem to want to talk about, but this wasn’t anything new for Gabrielle. Skirting around a rough subject was second nature to someone who traveled with Xena, and the bard was adept at letting certain things drop and asking about something else.

Knowing that Lilith could sense her every emotion made Gabrielle extremely self-conscious at first, but soon it just made things much easier – no matter what sort of offhand comment she made, she never had to backtrack and explain herself. It’s a lot like talking to Xena, the bard thought. Xena just knows me so well I can say almost anything, and most of the time she knows just how I meant it, no matter how stupidly I say it.

And in fact, her daily history lessons with Lilith paled next to what Gabrielle began to feel happening with Xena, despite the little time they could spend together. True, the warrior was busy safeguarding the caravan along with Meleager, Morgin, and Solari. It was also clear that, ultimately, everyone looked to the ex-warlord to keep them safe, a burden Xena accepted without a shrug.

Yet Gabrielle knew her companion well enough to sense that inside, Xena wasn’t as calm as she seemed. The warrior had a lot of weight on her shoulders, and Gabrielle quickly determined that somehow, she would create a space where Xena could relax.

The day after the attack by Penthus and his men, Gabrielle had told a couple of stories to the women gathered around Lilith’s tent, then excused herself while Xena was still out checking the perimeter. By the time the warrior returned to the spot where the two of them were to bed down for the night, Gabrielle had laid out their bedrolls, had a mug of soothing herb tea ready along with a couple of pastries saved from the evening meal, and a large bucket of warm water set near the small fire.

"And what’s all this for?" Xena asked, raising an eyebrow as she stepped into the firelight.

"For you," Gabrielle replied simply. "Come on big warrior, have a seat, sip your tea, and let’s get you out of that armor."

Xena gave a wry smile but accepted the mug and sat where Gabrielle indicated. "And how do I rate this kind of pampering?"

"Just think of it as payback for all the room service," the bard said warmly as she undid the clasps and buckles. Xena snorted but made no other comment as she dutifully sipped her tea while her armor and boots were patiently removed.

"Come on," Gabrielle insisted, "leathers too."

"Say again?"

"Well, you don’t want them wet do you?" the bard teased. "You need a wash, oh Xena, Warrior Stinkweed – I couldn’t possibly get any sleep otherwise."

"Well if it bothers you that much, I could always bed down with Argo," Xena replied reasonably.

"Just help me out here," Gabrielle chided with mock sternness as she tugged on the shoulder straps. With a sigh, Xena raised her arms and with a little wiggling, the leathers and breeches were soon carefully laid beside the armor.

Gabrielle mentally steeled herself for what came next. "Now, stand up." She dipped a square of linen in the warm water by the fire and squeezed it out over the warrior’s body several times until Xena was thoroughly wetted down, then carefully averted her eyes while she handed Xena the soap and waited until the tall … and gods, incredibly beautiful … woman had lathered herself. Finally Gabrielle lifted the bucket and rinsed the warrior off.

There, see? That was easy enough, the bard noted as she toweled Xena dry, to the warrior’s wry amusement. Just ignore the fact she’s completely naked and be calm and businesslike. Not as if you haven’t seen it before. No problem.

Gabrielle had a single weak moment as she knelt and dried the backs of Xena’s thighs, when her eyes, level with the warrior’s solid buttocks, were diverted by a tensing ripple of muscle. Without conscious thought, the bard ran the linen over Xena’s backside again, even though it was already scrubbed.

Then she quickly caught herself and nonchalantly continued down the warrior’s legs. The process complete, she helped Xena into a dry shift.

"Sit," Gabrielle said simply, leading Xena to her bedroll. Then the bard began methodically massaging out the day’s tension.

"Mmm," Xena yawned minutes later, settling over onto her stomach, "I could get used to this."

"Good," Gabrielle replied, continuing to work. "Then you won’t mind it again tomorrow."


"You’re to report for compulsory unwinding this same time every night until we get to Macedonia," Gabrielle said matter-of-factly. "You have to take care of everyone else from sunrise to sunset – and a watch in between, I might add – so for an hour before bedtime, I’ll take care of you."

"Gabrielle…" Xena began, started to rise.

"No arguments Xena," Gabrielle insisted, gently pushing her companion back down. "You can do that stoic warrior thing with everyone else, but I know better. It’s a simple fact that you’ll be more alert if you’re rested and refreshed. I don’t seem to have any other responsibilities on this trip, so I’ll assume you’re my responsibility … Period."

Xena gave a low chuckle. "Stubborn like a mule," the warrior said quietly. "’Sides, kinda always wondered … what it’d be like t’have … Amazon attendant…" she mumbled. Moments later, she was fast asleep.

Gabrielle smiled, knowing there were few people the warrior trusted enough to relax and drift off with that way. She gently caressed Xena’s back for a few moments longer, then pulled a blanket over the sleeping woman, took off her own boots, and lay down beside her. She ran her hand over the raven hair for a moment. "Pleasant dreams, Xena," she whispered.

* * *

The next morning, the warrior arose feeling better than she could ever remember feeling while pulling duty. Admit it Xena, the warrior chuckled to herself, stretching pleasantly under the pre-dawn sky, she had a point. Didn’t even realize how tense I’ve been. Gods, if I had an attendant like her in my army I could’ve conquered all of Greece by the time I was twenty. The idea sobered her a little, but she quickly pushed it aside. I guess the only thing I’m happier about than that I didn’t have one then is that I do now.

Then she paused again. Gods, I really am happy. How’d that happen? I’m in the middle of an armed camp, on a fool’s errand to guard the most tempting target in the Known World, probably in worse danger than I can even guess, and I still feel great just to be alive. Makes no sense. She regarded the small woman at her feet, noting again how pretty Gabrielle was as she slept. Then again…

The warrior sighed, looked up at the pale sky. "I need a run," she said out loud, then stretched for a moment and took off at an easy jog in the direction of the road.

By the time Xena had returned from her brief exercises and some light drills, Gabrielle was sitting up and rubbing her face. The warrior smiled. "Morning, sleepyhead."

The bard stared at her with bleary green eyes. "Lemme guess – you’ve just spent the last hour lifting boulders or something, and now you’ve come back to scold me for being merely human and needing my sleep, right?"

"Something like that," Xena replied, still smiling. "But I guess I can hold off on the scolding part." She stretched a little. "Actually, I really do feel good…" She looked to her companion. "Thank you, Gabrielle."

The bard grinned, felt herself blush a little. "Well, I’m glad. And you’re welcome." An impish look crossed her face. "So um, how just how good do you feel?"

Xena raised an eyebrow. "Good enough to toss you out of that bedroll if you can’t get out yourself."

"Couldn’t hold off the scolding part for long, could you?"


"OK, OK … I’m up – see?"

From then on, each night during what Xena jokingly referred to as "Gabrielle’s Ritual", the bard felt the closeness between them growing again. It was, the young woman thought, a nice side effect. Makes me wish I’d thought of this sooner, the bard mused. Like two years ago.

A couple of nights later, after the warrior’s rubdown, Xena stayed awake long enough to lie back next to Gabrielle, just so they could look for patterns in the stars together. It was a game they had played many times, but somehow hadn’t in a while. The bard also noted that Xena had settled on taking first watch. It meant that Gabrielle had to stay awake for an extra couple of hours before Xena returned for The Ritual, but it also – the bard couldn’t help notice – meant they could drift off to sleep together, and wake together in the morning.

Gabrielle soon found the hours during the day talking with the ancient and wise Lilith oddly unimportant compared to these precious moments with Xena. In fact, while riding in the wagon each day she often found her attention wandering with thoughts of the warrior. C’mon here bard, Gabrielle reprimanded herself, you’ve got someone who’s been around since the world was created sitting right in front of you, ready to tell you almost anything you want to know, and all you can think about is getting back to Xena.

But she had to admit to herself it was true. Questions, answers, history, philosophy – nothing meant anything until Xena rode by, made some comment, then rode away again. When the caravan stopped for the mid-day meal, Gabrielle always made sure she had it ready for the warrior, so they could eat together and talk about inconsequential things, or not say anything at all.

They were back to the way they’d always been, circumstances aside. Actually, even better. And it was wonderful.

She should have known it wouldn’t last.

The night before they reached the Bosphorus, Xena was lying comfortably on her stomach while Gabrielle knelt at her side, working her small, strong hands over the warrior’s back. Knowing that tomorrow’s crossing of the strait would be one of the roughest parts of the journey, Xena seemed a little more tense than usual and the bard took special care, finding every knot and sore spot. She chatted away quietly as she did, just rambling on about what she had talked about with Lilith earlier, not even really paying attention to what she said.

"She and Meleager are in some kind of holding pattern," the bard went on. "She says he’s gotten comfortable with how close they are, but can’t quite bring himself to admit it. I told her about that talk I had with him while we were with the Amazons – remember the one I told you about?" Though Artemis knows I only told you half of it…

"Mmm-hmm," Xena agreed. The warrior was dangling on the edge of sleep, and her temptation to simply give in was fighting with her desire to stay awake so the two of them could lie close and drift off together. When that had become important to her Xena couldn’t say, but it had, and she’d accepted it before she even consciously noticed it.

"Anyway," Gabrielle went on, her voice like an anchor keeping Xena within the realm of the conscious, "Lilith thanked me for my help. Then I … well, I couldn’t help telling her how nice it was spending this time together with you every night, how much, you know, closer and more relaxed you’ve been. She kind of laughed and said she was glad she could help me too. You know, I don’t think immortals are as aloof from the rest of us as they’re made out to be."

It took a moment for the implications of Gabrielle’s words to sink in, but suddenly the warrior was wide awake. "What did you say?"

The bard felt Xena’s back go rigid, was suddenly confused. "I, uh, said I don’t think she’s as aloof…"

"No," Xena replied, raising and half turning her head, "before that."

"She said, um, she said she was glad she could help me too, I guess." Gabrielle wondered how she’d managed to say something wrong. "What’s the matter Xena?"

Xena rested her chin on her crossed arms. Wrong? That Whore Priestess has been pushing you and me closer since day one, that’s what’s wrong! And I let you spend all that time in her wagon, knowing how Lilith can manipulate someone’s emotions. Dumb! The warrior closed her eyes, mind racing. All right, I don’t know why she’d do that, but she’s an immortal and who knows why she might do anything?

Then some other part of Xena broke in. Hold on now. Admit it’s also possible Lilith has had nothing to do with how Gabrielle has been treating you, and even if Lilith has, Gabrielle might not even know it. Take this slow, or you’ll hurt Gabrielle, and whatever is going on that’s a risk I won’t take.

It took only a split second for this to flash through Xena’s mind. "Nothing," the warrior replied, forcing herself to relax. "I guess it’s nothing."

But Gabrielle felt the change, and felt her heart plummet at the same time. Oh Artemis, no! she screamed inside. What did I do? When am I going to learn to keep my mouth shut!

"Heh, that’s good," the bard said weakly, "thought I’d upset you for a moment there." She went back to working her companion’s muscled back, but the feeling was gone.

* * *

Xena arose as soon as she was certain Gabrielle was asleep, donning her leathers, armor and weapons as usual, but instead of moving towards the central watch post, she headed directly for Lilith’s tent. No point in being subtle, the warrior figured, spitefully. The state I’m in, she’s bound to feel I’m coming.

Xena pushed past the flaps of the tent, found Lilith reclined on her cushions. There were a few scrolls spread out around the Priestess, but the immortal faced forward, arms crossed. "So," Lilith said evenly, "you are angry with me, I can see."

"Yeah, you can see all right," Xena spat. "But it’s what you can do that interests me. Tell me what you’ve been doing to me and Gabrielle. No poetry, no philosophy. The truth … Now!" she growled.

Lilith gave a half smile. "I am, I think, tempted to ask what you plan to do if I do not care to answer, or how you will insure I do not lie?"

Without warning, Xena launched herself at the Priestess, automatically jabbing forward to cut off the flow of blood to Lilith’s brain – a silly thing to do to an immortal, but it would probably immobilize the smaller woman if nothing else.

In a blur Xena found herself on her back, Lilith lying beside her, the Priestess’ arms and legs twisted and locked through her own in a hold the warrior recognized, but which surprised her. It was a hold of last resort, since although it didn’t require much strength, any attempt to escape would leave them both with broken bones if it succeeded. Then it quickly dawned on Xena that Lilith would recover in moments, but she’d be helpless. For an immortal, this hold was perfect.

Dumb, the warrior scolded herself, she’s had thousands of years to practice, probably forgotten more moves than I’ve ever heard of and she can’t even get tired. A frontal assault was an idiot’s game. Xena made herself relax. "All right Lilith," she said evenly, "you’ve made your point. Now what?"

Lilith leaned in and affectionately whispered into Xena’s ear. "How about I tell the truth, brave one? Would that be acceptable?"

Although it wasn’t easy, given the hold, Xena managed to turn her head to face the Priestess. "Like you said, how do I know I can trust you?"

Lilith laughed. "Very well. I offer you a deal, warrior – I will release you and make no further struggle. Pummel me if you so choose. I will not stop you. But know this – if you do not, then I will tell you the truth, bare and plain, and hide nothing. All this I swear before Inanna, may she reject me forever if I lie."

Lilith tilted her head forward until their faces were almost touching, her voice just above a whisper. "However, brave warrior, perhaps more important than whether I will give the truth, is whether you are ready to hear it."

Xena found herself pausing for a moment. "Ready when you are," she said flatly.

"So be it," Lilith answered.

The Priestess carefully extricated herself and pulled away until she lay on her side, head propped on her hand with a seductive glint her eye. "Now, shall we begin the beating? Might I send for ropes? Or perhaps you would prefer leather thongs?"

Xena sat up, rubbing her wrist, the thought occurring to her that Lilith might actually be serious. The warrior wasn’t amused. "Maybe later," she sneered.

Lilith cocked her head. "Then I take it you have questions. Ask."

Xena tried to get her glare back. "That first day we met, you pushed Gabrielle and I to … you made us get closer. Why?"

Without losing eye contact, Lilith went from playful to sober in a single instant. "That I apologize for, Xena," she replied. "Indeed, it shames me, for I did so to help fulfill a bargain –"

"What!" Xena narrowed her eyes. "A bargain? With who?" she demanded.

Lilith shook her head. "As I said, I apologize. I have told you of my first night among the Amazons, when I spoke with Artemis –"

"Artemis? So she’s behind it!" the warrior stood, clenching her fists, eyes darting around as if she expected Artemis to appear any moment. When will all you blasted Olympians leave me alone!

"Xena," Lilith sighed, not moving. "Mortals have little time, and this will go much more quickly if you let go of your anger and listen. Do you see?"

Xena shot her a look. "Well why don’t you just ‘reach out’ and calm me down?"

Lilith rolled onto her back, one arm behind her head, sighing as she stared at the ceiling. "This I could do, but it would serve nothing. I say again – you overestimate my gifts. One such as you would shake it off in mere heartbeats. You came to me for the truth, and I have sworn truth before Inanna. Hear it or leave. To one such as I, to whom this memory will be as that of a moment’s breath, it matters not."

Xena thought about it, then made herself calm. "All right," she said finally. "Go on."

The Priestess turned to look at Xena for a moment, then inhaled slowly. "As you are aware Xena, as Queen of the Amazons, Gabrielle is the favored of Artemis. I should also tell you that I believe, although I do not know with certainty, that your bard was somehow her chosen even before Terreis gave her the Right of Caste – indeed, it is possible this is why it happened. I tell you this only because I have sworn to hide nothing. In itself it does not matter. What is important is that, as her favored, Artemis is bound by the laws of Olympus to listen to Gabrielle’s prayers, and must in time respond to what she prays for."

"Gabrielle?" Xena blinked in confusion. "What could she pray for?"

"You," Lilith responded simply. "Always for you. She prays for your safety every time you enter battle. Every night she prays you will sleep in peace, and every day she prays you will let go of your guilt. She prays you will find happiness. She prays her love is strong enough for you both, that should she die, you will not return to darkness. And, at times, she prays that you will some day love her in return, though not often, as this is all she ever asks for herself."

Xena was stunned. By the gods Gabrielle, I knew you loved me, but I had no idea … No, damn me to Tartarus, yes I did, the warrior growled at herself, it’s as plain as the sun. It’s there in every look and gesture and breath she takes. And how many times have days passed without me even smiling back? "But…" Xena struggled, "she has to know I … love her…"

"As you choose to believe," Lilith replied. "Yet Gabrielle has never been as sure as that. So Artemis offered a bargain: She would allow her Amazons to protect my followers on our journey, if I would do what I could to see that her chosen would be happy, by seeing you be happy, and by finding the love Gabrielle has so long wished for. I agreed, on condition that I saw what the Huntress saw."

Xena set her jaw and focused on Lilith again. "And what was that?"

Lilith smiled, shifted around. "When you entered my tent that day, even without using my gifts the bond between you was so strong, so plain, I thought Artemis had given me something for nothing. I admit as well that my joy at being reunited with my dear one filled me with love, such that I wished only to share it. And so, that one time, I reached out to you both and released what you felt for one another. It shames me now, but in truth it was so easy, I did not see the wrong in it."

"Oh, and why think it’s wrong? It’s what you do, isn’t it?" Xena asked, trying to make her suspicion rise.

"Ah Xena," Lilith breathed. "You have a heart that is heavy and guarded in a way so close to my own I did not at first see it for what it was. And Gabrielle – her very openness to those around her hides her depth from them." The Priestess shook her head slowly, then looked up again. "Xena, immortal I am, but I am also very human. I can make mistakes. Only when I saw into you and spoke to you later that night, and did the same with Gabrielle nights after, did I realize the love you both so carefully reach for is one I have seen only rarely, and experienced much less. To push you together might, in truth, make you happy – indeed it would, I am sure, spare you no little pain – but it would rob you both of so much more. You must, in a word, find each other, and by your own path, for as this happens you will each heal and grow – together. You can fill each other’s hearts and souls in ways you have barely begun to see, Xena, and for two such as yourselves, the journey is as important as the destination."

"Spare me your romantic notions," Xena replied, more spitefully than she felt. "In all that time Gabrielle’s been spending with you, don’t pretend you haven’t been pushing her. How long does this ‘reaching out’ thing last?"

"Xena, I pretend nothing," Lilith smiled gently. "I tell you, in perfect honesty, I can affect someone only as long as they allow it – as I said, you would shrug it off in a single breath if you wished to feel otherwise. As for what has passed between me and Gabrielle, we have done naught but talk."

"Oh no, Gabrielle said you were glad to help!"

"Yes warrior, and help her I have," Lilith replied softly. "As we have talked, often we talk of you. She loves you so greatly, yet she fears she will make some mistake, perhaps push you away. There have been few she could turn to for advice on such things, and in this I have counseled her as I am able, and am happy to have done so. Yet I swear before Inanna I have done no more than this, nor will I, not for gods nor mortals. Anything Gabrielle has done or said, she has done for her own reasons, and no other."

Then Lilith gave a wry smile. "This is true also of any feelings you have had in return, and whatever these may be, I am not the one to blame. That responsibility lies in your heart warrior, and yours alone. If it is truth you seek, brave one, I suggest you look there."

Xena suddenly felt dizzy. The immortal’s words drove through her like a naked blade. Is that what I’m doing? Trying to find some excuse to avoid how Gabrielle makes me feel? Why would … I feel … anything … Oh gods… "Why are you telling me this?"

Lilith’s smile warmed. "Because you asked."

"And I’m supposed to just believe you?" The warrior’s eyes narrowed.

Lilith met them evenly, open and calm. "Yes."

Xena searched the Priestess’ face for a moment, found she couldn’t hold her gaze. The warrior adjusted her bracers absently, avoiding Lilith’s eyes. "I have to go stand watch now. Thanks for … not breaking my arm."

"There is no need to thank me, Xena," Lilith said as the warrior opened the flap of the tent, the Priestesses’ voice following as she left. "The greatest truth is that I have said little you did not already know."

Xena walked slowly to where Argo was tethered. "C’mon girl," she patted the mare’s nose. "Let’s find Meleager, huh? Give that stallion of his a rest? What do you say? You like Melampus, don’t you?" Argo whinnied softly.

Xena took the reins in her hand and strode off in the general direction of the central post.

It was going to be a long night.

* * *

"Gabrielle? Gabrielle … C’mon bard, wake up…"

Gabrielle stirred, mumbled, started to turn back over. With another insistent nudge she groggily lifted her head. "Uhh … yeah OK, cuhmmin…" One bleary eye opened, took in the color of the sky, then rolled back around and fixed an accusing glance on the warrior. "Bit early, innit?"

"Yeah, it is," Xena smiled lightly, clad only in her leathers as she knelt beside the bard, "but we’re crossing the Bosphorus today and things are going to be rough enough. I don’t want them any rougher, so I had something I wanted to say."

"Whoa … waitaminnit," Gabrielle struggled up until she was propped back on her elbows, shook her head to clear it. "Let me see if I get this … You got me up early so we could talk?"

Xena’s smile widened but she gave a nonchalant shrug. "Yeah…" Her smile tightened, stayed firm. "I guess I did."

"Hang on, I gotta make sure I’m awake for this." The bard sat up fully, rubbed her eyes and brushed her hair back, then settled her totally conscious gaze on the warrior. "OK, what is it?"

Xena looked down for a moment, took a breath. "Gabrielle," she began, "I want you to know that the past few nights have been … very special…"

Gods no! Gabrielle screamed inside. Here’s where she tells me it has to stop…

"…which is why I’m sorry for tensing up on you last night. It didn’t really have anything to do with you. Not really. Not at all." The warrior exhaled and shook her head slightly. "It was my problem, not yours." Then Xena straightened and smiled. "You can pamper me any time."

The bard blinked. "That’s … it?" Merciful Artemis … did she just apologize?

For a moment the warrior looked thoughtful, then just raised her eyebrow. "Yeah…" She shrugged again. "I guess that’s it."

Gabrielle nodded, smiling slightly, though she still looked confused. "Well … OK. I’ll um, I’ll keep doing it then – pamper you, I mean."

Xena laughed once, which sounded both amused and relieved. Then the warrior tentatively ran her hand through Gabrielle’s hair and gently cupped the back of the bard’s head. "Good," Xena nodded, smiling but oddly uncertain, pale blue eyes staring into green. "That’s good. ‘Cause … I think I need it."

Xena’s words and the warmth her eyes made Gabrielle’s heart do strange things inside her chest – like it didn’t know whether to speed up or stop entirely. I can’t be awake, the bard thought. Because I just thought I heard Xena say she needed me. Nope, not awake. Still asleep. Gonna open my eyes now any second.

Gabrielle closed her eyes. "Pinch me."

"Say again?"

"I have to be dreaming this," the bard said in perfect seriousness. "Convince me I’m awake. Pinch me."

"Hmm … I’ve a better idea – sleepyhead," came the sly reply.

A moment later, Gabrielle found herself being tossed out of her bedroll – and straight up in the air. Her eyes flew open wide as Xena caught her, then, laughing, tossed her up again. In spite of herself, the bard squealed in surprise and delight.

When Gabrielle was safely back on the ground, the warrior settled her hands on the smaller woman’s shoulders, her thumbs tracing tingling circles in the smooth skin. "Convinced?"

Xena’s smile was brighter and warmer than the morning sky.

Her heart pounding, Gabrielle laughed around the knot that suddenly formed in her throat. Her vision blurred as her eyes brimmed with tears. "Xena?" she managed to gasp, blinking.

The warrior’s incredible blue eyes were also brimming over, and a single drop ran down Xena’s cheek as she nodded, still smiling. She leaned closer and whispered, simply, "Yes."

Gabrielle’s arms flew around her warrior, gripping her as if life depended on it, feeling the warmth that flowed from Xena’s strong arms as they folded around her in return. "Gods," Gabrielle sobbed into the embrace, "I love you Xena … love you so much…"

"Gabrielle," Xena breathed, pressing her face into Gabrielle’s hair, "I am so … sorry … for so many things." She shut her eyes, the scent and feel of the woman pressed against her and the strength of their emotions threatening to overwhelm her. Xena pulled her bard tight and let them. "I love you Gabrielle … I am so in love with you. Never, ever doubt how much…"

They held each other close. How long it lasted, neither could say, nor did they care. The warm bond of love between them, shared at last, was all that mattered.


Chapter Five

"I’ve decided I’m cursed. That’s got to be the explanation," Gabrielle said matter-of-factly. Lightning crackled overhead, and wind-swept rain rattled the tent around them with a fresh assault, as if to underscore the bard’s words.

Lying naked on her stomach, Xena tried to turn her head to look at her companion, then, wincing, thought better of it. "Gabrielle," Xena sighed, softly, "what in Tartarus is that supposed to mean?"

"Gods, Xena." The bard tried to hide her frustration, but found she wasn’t being very successful. Instead she concentrated on smoothing more salve across the warrior’s heavily bruised back, then adjusted the bindings around Xena’s lower ribs, making sure they were snug but not too tight. "It’s just that for, I dunno, I guess half a year now, I’ve been imagining what our first night together would be like –"

"Funny," Xena broke in, "I thought we’d been together for more than two years…"

"Xena!" Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "You know what I mean!" she blushed, giving the warrior a playful poke.

"Arhrrrgh!" Xena hissed, gritting her teeth.

"Oh gods! Xena I’m sorry!"

"No, no," the warrior couldn’t help laughing. "Don’t worry about it … just don’t do it again, all right?"

Gabrielle reached over and picked up a small wooden bowl. "Here, Xena," she said apologetically, "have a little more – on me." She gave a strained chuckle as she carefully tilted the herb mixture up for the warrior to sip.

"Thank you Gabrielle," Xena said warmly after taking a swallow. "But no more herbs, all right? I do want to wake up in the morning."

The bard set the bowl aside, then found herself staring at it. This stuff should really be hot, but it’s pouring rain and we can’t even make… She stifled a sob.

"Gabrielle, please, what’s wrong?" Xena asked quietly – this time turning to face her companion no matter how it felt.

"Oh, Xena," the bard lay down on her stomach and gently pressed her face into the shoulder of the woman she loved for a moment, then propped her head up on her hand, running the other restlessly through the warrior’s hair. "It’s just … I pictured a nice big bed in a warm inn somewhere, maybe a still clearing under the stars. We’d have a nice, you know … a romantic little fire going…" The bard groaned. "Gods, Xena, I always pictured a fire." Her whole body shook with disappointment. "I mean, it’s not fair! This morning everything seemed so perfect, like anything was possible…"

Xena managed to roll over without wincing, keeping contact with the bard as she did. She wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and pulled her close, cradling the strawberry blonde head against her shoulder, just enjoying the fact that she could. "It’s all right, Gabrielle. Everything’s all right," she soothed. "Besides, this isn’t so bad," the warrior smiled, "I’m here. You’re here. We’re even warm and dry – well, sort of. Can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be."

"Ah Xena," Gabrielle chuckled, sniffled. "My Warrior Optimist – how’d that happen?"

Xena gathered her bard in an affectionate squeeze. "Well, it’s easy, really. You just keep thinking, ‘OK so far’, and remember that no matter how bad things are, it could always be worse."

It was an offhand comment, just a joke, but Gabrielle shivered. Yeah. Could’ve been a lot worse. You could be dead.

* * *

They had held each other that morning until the sounds from the camp around them made them look up. Giggling and a little embarrassed, Gabrielle gazed up at her warrior. My warrior, she thought, I guess I can really think that now. Like the sound of it. "Guess we should get our stuff ready to go, huh?"

Xena smiled. "Yeah, we’ve got a Tartarus of a day ahead." She sighed ruefully. "Sorry my timing isn’t better. Didn’t really plan on things going like that."

"Nah, don’t apologize," Gabrielle replied, giving Xena another squeeze. "We can talk later. We’ve got our whole lives to work this out … We do, right?"

The warrior suddenly felt like she was standing at the edge of a very high cliff. Then in her mind, something fell into place. Never thought about forever before. Then again, I never had a reason to. "Yeah," Xena hugged her partner again. "We do."

Gabrielle shivered with joy hearing this. "So," she said, "if we have to wait a few more days until we’re by ourselves again, it’s no big deal. Besides, it’ll give me some time to think, get things straight in my head. I’m kinda new at this."

You and me both, Xena thought, holding Gabrielle a moment longer. Having finally admitted to herself that she could, the warrior felt oddly reluctant to let go. Finally, she gave her bard one last squeeze and pulled away. "Come on," she grinned. "We’ve got a camp to protect, bad guys to fight with … all that stuff."

They packed their belongings, which took slightly longer than usual since every time they glanced at each other they couldn’t help letting their gaze linger. Gotta get a grip, Xena chided herself, lives depend on me here and I’m acting like a schoolgirl.

Finally, they joined the caravan and resumed the journey west. Gabrielle was beside herself as she jumped up into Lilith’s wagon. The Priestess immediately gave her a warm hug. "Congratulations, young one. I am so happy for you."

"Guess it shows, huh?" the bard grinned.

"This is true enough," Lilith smiled back. "Indeed, I was with Morgin watching the sun rise, and even from the rear watch post could I feel it. I confess Morgin seemed very confused when I suddenly felt the need to embrace her. It was, I think, quite a surprise."

Gabrielle blushed. "You’re telling me."

At the head of the column, Meleager was droning on. "…so the only dangerous part is the actual crossing." The graying warrior turned in his saddle a bit to face Xena, found her staring down the road with a half smile on her face. "Hey!" he said, then louder, waving, "Yo, Warrior Princess!"

Xena turned to look at him, the same half smile still firmly in place. "What?"

"Have you been listening to a word I said?"

She raised an eyebrow, then faced forward again. "No, and I didn’t need to either. We talked about all of this yesterday, remember?"

Meleager grunted, but noted the lack of malice in her voice, and realized she had enough of a point to not be too insulted. As they rode through the morning, he glanced over at her from time to time, but she never lost that half grin and faraway look in her eyes.

Finally he couldn’t stand it any more. He waved his hand at her again, getting her attention. "Hey, uh, Xena? Are you, you know, OK?"

"What makes you think something’s wrong?" she asked back, still even-toned, still grinning.

Meleager cleared his throat. "Xena, we’ve been riding together for what, almost a week now? I’ve seen you ride angry, I’ve seen you ride cautiously, but I have never, ever seen you ride while grinning from ear to ear. To be perfectly honest, it’s kinda frightening."

Xena shrugged. "Guess it’s just a nice day."

Meleager gave the sky a dubious glance. "Oh, yeah," he drawled, "I can see that – from the way that storm is building it’s bound to be a doozy, but then, crossing the Bosphorus with a score of wagons even in clear weather ranks a nine and a half on the Labors of Hercules scale. Aw, Hades, yeah … that really does cheer me right up. Wow, what a great day!"

She smirked. "Guess it depends on how you look at it." Still smiling, she shook her head and faced forward. "Don’t worry Meleager, I’m sober as the Oracle and sane as Aristophanes. Whatever happens, I’m ready for it. In fact, today I feel like I could take on the Titans buck naked with a wooden spoon."

Meleager felt his jaw drop so far he was vaguely surprised it didn’t bounce off his saddle horn. He shook it off, tried to collect himself. "Well, I’m, ah, glad you’re in … top form."

"You don’t know the half of it."

The Hellespont, narrowest point on the Bosphorus strait, was just about a third of a mile across, and Byzantium rose from its western shore. The city had grown rich off the commerce that had to cross the strait and the shipping that had to pass through it, and did both by means of its ferry. The ferry ran on a very long loop of chain that spanned the strait and was kept moving continually by means of two ten-foot-diameter, horizontal drive wheels, one on either shore, turned by teams of sturdy draft horses. This kept one line moving east and one line moving west, all day long and sometimes into the night. The ferry boats weren’t wide but were long enough for dozens of passengers, plenty of livestock, or a couple of wagons, and were equipped with a lever for gripping or releasing the chain as it moved, to slow or stop the boat as needed. When a ferry boat reached one shore, it was transferred to the other line and sent back. A dozen or so could be moving at any time – the only limitation was the number of horses that could fit around the drive wheels to handle the weight.

As it crossed the strait, the chain passed over a series of rafts anchored in a line about twenty yards apart, which kept the chain from sinking into the water and putting too much strain on the drive wheels. It also, not coincidentally, blocked ships from passing, which is why a chain was used – any sailor with a blade could snap a rope, a lesson that had been learned the hard way.

For a price, guards stationed on the rafts would use the built-in winch to lower the chain in its grooves far enough under the water for the ship to pass over. The bigger the ship, the more rafts had to be involved to produce the required slack, and the more spectacular the fee.

As a transportation system it wasn’t terribly fast but it was unusually reliable, moving goods and people across the strait regardless of wind or tide, and even in mildly rough weather. It also required scores of men to run, constant maintenance, dozens of fresh horses every hour, and made such an awful racket anyone who could possibly afford it lived as far away from the docks as possible.

It also made so much money King Androphus was thinking about building another one.

The skies hadn’t started to rain yet by the time the caravan reached the hill overlooking East Byzantium, but the pitch-dark clouds that stretched from horizon to horizon left little doubt it would, and soon. This left them with a difficult decision: Start sending wagons across and risk leaving some stranded on the eastern shore if the weather grew bad enough to close the ferry, or set up camp and wait for the storm to pass, which meant they could all be stuck here for days. Either way, "here" wasn’t the ideal place to be stuck.

East Byzantium had grown rapidly after the ferry was built, and in all the wrong ways. If Byzantium was the jewel of the Agean, East Byzantium had become the compost pit. The main street was still decent enough, and for travelers who needed a room to wait for the morning ferry it was pleasant enough.

Beyond that first row of inns however, it went rapidly downhill. The men who worked the ferry did so in shifts: Three days on the west side, three days on the east, with one day off. Most had made their homes on the other side of the Bosphorus, and like anywhere full of working men with steady wages and nothing to do at night – not to mention being safely separated from their wives – East Byzantium was filled with rough taverns, gambling dens, brothels, and businesses that catered to any other vice you could name.

Staying outside East Byzantium would mean doubling the watches. Slavers wouldn’t be the problem, given the weather would be bad. But once the locals found out there was a caravan of whores – Sacred though they might be – camped on their doorstep, there would be no end of trouble, regardless of the weather.

"Send the wagons over," Xena said finally. "Save the soldiers for last. That way anyone who’s stuck here will be well protected. The ones who make it across can get rooms in Byzantium. Androphus is a greedy bastard and his people aren’t crazy about him, but he was one of Alexander’s generals. This place may have gone to Tartarus, but he keeps his own city safe enough."

"Makes sense," Meleager agreed. "Better than leaving everyone here." He gave a wicked grin. "This place – ahhh, Xena, I could tell you stories…"

"Could tell you a few myself," Xena chuckled wryly. "All right, priestesses and acolytes first. Morgin, put a couple of Guardians on each boat – you all know each other, can tell if something’s wrong. Just have them keep an eye on things when they get to the other side. We’ll meet by the city gates."

"This will be done," the guardian nodded.

"Solari, the Amazons go last – if anyone has to be stuck here, you can take care of yourselves."

"No problem," Solari agreed. "Besides," she added, peering down the hill, "it might be kind of fun."

"When will you and I cross?" Gabrielle asked.

Xena thought for a moment. "With the Amazons," she said finally. "I want to spend as little personal time in Byzantium as possible."

"How come?" Gabrielle asked. "If it’s safe…"

"Let’s just say anyone who rode with Alexander won’t like having me around." The warrior grinned, taking hold of Argo’s saddle horn and mounting up. "Bloodied their noses once – tarnished that ‘invincible’ image. Most of ‘em still carry a grudge. Come on, let’s move."

A light, misting rain had started to fall by the time they reached the ferry station. If the real stuff just holds off for another hour, Xena thought, we’ll be over the hump. Although she hadn’t thought about it much until now, she realized she was growing eager to get this journey over, to be back on the road – just her and Gabrielle. Have to watch that, she cautioned herself, haste makes mistakes.

Xena let Lilith barter for their passage. They were the Priestess’ dinars after all, and the immortal seemed to have an inexhaustible supply – which had proven handy during the almost constant bartering for supplies the caravan was forced to do at every village and town it passed through.

The warrior watched from the corner of her eye as Lilith talked with the ferry master, noting the way she laughed occasionally, then would casually brush the man’s arm. The man smiled and nodded, waving expansively at the contraption he was in charge of. Finally he accepted a small bag of coins along with a hug, then dropped the bag into his money chest without even counting it.

"Got a good deal, I suppose?" Xena observed wryly as Meleager boosted Lilith into her wagon.

"A very good deal," Lilith laughed. "He was a most reasonable man." She looked down at the aging warrior. "Dear one, I shall see you on the other side."

"See you soon," he replied. "It’d, ah, be kinda lonely sleeping without you." They kissed lightly, if warmly, then he signaled for the wagon to move aboard.

The wind rose a bit as time passed, but the rain stayed light. Xena found a spot on the platform over the main drive wheel. It took a moment of stern intimidation to be let up there, but it was the only place she could get to that was high enough to keep one eye on the ferries.

The other eye she kept on Gabrielle. They’d passed this way a few times before, but this was the first time the ever-curious bard had a chance to get a really good look. The young woman seemed fascinated by the system. Xena couldn’t help smiling as she watched Gabrielle chatting with the workers. Gods she’s cute when she’s curious – so serious about everything.

Xena sighed and looked out over the Bosphorus. A small trireme had been passed over the chain, and a larger square sail was approaching from the north, moving quickly with the growing southern wind. She turned her attention back to the bard, who had apparently satisfied herself about the ferry for now, and was headed back towards Xena.

"So, what do you think?" the warrior asked with a smile.

"What?" Gabrielle shouted from the foot of the ladder. The guards began to approach the young woman, then looked up as the warrior stamped her foot hard enough to be heard over the rattling chain – which wasn’t any small accomplishment.

With another stern glare at the guards from Xena, Gabrielle was waved on. The bard quickly ascended the ladder. "Sorry," Gabrielle half shouted, "what did you say?"

Xena pulled the bard close, then closer still, until she could cover the young woman’s ear. "Just wanted to know what you thought … about the ferry," the warrior said.

Gabrielle shivered a little at being held, at having Xena’s words blown over her ear. "It’s incredible," the bard quickly replied, only as loud as she had to and be sure she was heard over the clanking din. "Do you know how many horses it takes to keep this thing going all day? Marvelous engineering," she said, not quite as matter-of-factly as she tried to.

"I’ll bet. Takes a lot of planning to make something this loud," Xena grinned.

"Maybe," Gabrielle crinkled her nose playfully, "but it beats a long, wet walk."

Xena laughed and wrapped an arm around the smaller woman’s shoulders. Gods, it feels good to just be able to do that. The warrior smiled to herself, then looked back over the strait. The square sail was close enough now that Xena could just make out the main deck.

The warrior went stiff. Cages. Empty cages. Gods! The men gathered on deck were all heavily armed.

Gabrielle felt her partner go tense. "Xena, what’s wrong?"

"Trouble," the warrior hissed. "Real trouble. Find the Amazons. Tell them to keep everyone moving." She pulled away and stood on the edge of the platform.

"What are you going to do?" Gabrielle asked.

"Figure a way out of this! Just go!" To her relief, the bard simply headed for the ladder and hopped down.

Xena scanned around, searching for some way to intercept the rapidly approaching square sail, finding nothing. Swimming against the current would take too long, and with the steady cross wind no boat could make it in time either – even if she could find one to commandeer.

She clenched her teeth in angry frustration. Only a few hundred yards separated her from where she needed to be – a distance she could’ve run in half a minute. A long wet run, she mentally snorted.

Her head snapped up. The thought was crazy. Don’t think. Move.

Xena flipped down off the platform, landing in front of the ferry master. She lifted the stocky man by the front of his shirt and glared into his eyes. "Keep that chain moving," she hissed. "Keep it moving no matter what, or I swear I’ll come back and rip your spine out! Got it?" She got a wide-eyed nod in return.

Xena dropped him and ran full-tilt down the loading dock, then put everything she had into a spinning leap off the end. "CHEEE-YAHH!"

The added height of the dock let her get almost as far as the first support raft. She came down with both feet on the moving chain and bounced off it, fighting for balance. She came down again, steadier, and ran along it for the three steps it took to reach the raft. The moving chain was as thick as her arm but covered in grease and partly submerged in the water – her boots could barely find purchase. Don’t think. Move.

Another leap and she was halfway to the next raft and running along the chain. As long as she kept moving her momentum carried her through minor slips and she could use the brief second crossing each raft to get her balance back.

Xena ignored the incredulous men stationed on the rafts, ignored the shouts coming from the ferries she passed, ignored the sounds of battle coming from the square sail, which had just reached the ferry line. She ignored everything but the bouncing, rattling chain under her and the rhythm of the water.

Xena was nearly there when she heard the arrows coming. She caught one and dodged the rest but the unexpected movement upset her tenuous balance and she skidded off into the water. She managed to grab the chain with one hand and her head broke the surface just as the pull of the chain slammed her into the side of the next raft.

Unprepared for the impact, she was momentarily off guard as the chain caught on her armored shoulder and she was dragged out of the water onto the raft. The shoulder pulled free a second later but that left her trapped in the guide groove, the heavy chain rattling over her chest.

"Nhaauurrgg!" It was like being pounded by a hundred hammers all at once. One arm was pinned beneath her and there was no way to get enough leverage to lift the chain off. She raised her head, howling with anger, searching for anything that might help, her jarring vision barely making out the winch that raised and lowered the guide. In a rage she kicked at it.

That knocked loose the release and instantly she was pulled underwater. The added buoyancy was enough to let her free herself, and she twisted out from under the chain, rolling on top of it and grabbing hold, pulling herself hand-over-hand back to the surface.

Her body was screaming at her. Her armor had taken the bulk of the punishment but she had no doubt she was injured. How bad she couldn’t tell, and couldn’t take time to care. Don’t think. Move.

She broke the surface and pulled hard on the chain, launching herself out of the water and landing on the final raft. She took a quick glance at the ferry. Next to the far wagon Morgin and Dulith were fighting a pitched battle against eight men. They fought well, but the narrow boat left them little room to move.

Around the nearest wagon, six other slavers were trying to shackle a group of priestesses – with varying degrees of success. The white-robed women took every opportunity to kick and gouge their would-be captors, and seemed to know just where it would hurt the most.

"Good girls," Xena muttered. She took a deep breath and launched herself into the ferry, screaming her battle cry.

She landed with a loud thump and gave a nasty grin she didn’t really feel. "This a private cruise or can anyone jump in?"

Two men came at her and she sidestepped one, backfisting him and sending him over the side. She spun and kicked the second in the gut, then landed a vicious chop across his throat that put him straight down on the deck. She drew her sword and leaped at the other four, making efficient work of it, not even trying to be subtle. She couldn’t afford to – the pain in her chest made her feel like throwing up.

More men started to hop down into the ferry from the deck of the square sail. Gotta get this thing moving, get it away from here. The drive lever was near the front of the boat. Xena hurled her chakram at the side of the far wagon. It rebounded off the planking, shredded the throat of Morgin’s nearest opponent, tripped the lever, and bounced solidly off the helmet of the last man to jump from the square sail.

Xena flipped sideways as she caught it, making sure she was in mid-air when the lever grabbed the chain and the ferry took a sudden lurch forward. This made her the only one who kept any semblance of balance and she took full advantage of it, laughing in spite of her pain as she landed among the momentarily helpless men who were fighting the Guardians, kicking, spinning and slashing, sword in her right hand, chakram in her left.

Morgin quickly got to her feet and thrust her wooden sword hard into the midsection of her remaining enemy, then spun and cracked him equally hard across the side of the head. She grinned at Xena, saluted her silently, and leaped towards the last few slavers.

The guardian had help, as at that moment Meleager vaulted up onto the deck and immediately joined in. Xena raised an eyebrow but decided she could ask about it later. She grabbed Dulith as the smaller blonde rushed towards the fight. "Dulith, wait. I think they can handle it. Go check everyone else – see if anyone’s injured."

Then Xena had a thought, scanning around. "And where’s Lilith?"

Dulith furrowed her brows. "I’m not … Goddess!" she cried. "I believe she climbed aboard the slave ship!"

Xena shut her eyes tight. Curse you Priestess – what’d you go and do a damn fool thing like that for? She took a deep breath, not liking the way it felt. "All right Dulith, stay here and help." The warrior gave her a smile and a quick wink. "I’ll be right back."

Xena jogged around the small battle, checking to make sure Morgin and Meleager had things well in hand, then flipped off the stern. She covered the growing distance to the raft easily, but the landing sent a jolt through her upper body. Ignoring it, she jumped up and caught hold of the rail of the square sail, then hauled herself over.

She expected trouble. She got a shock.

The deck of the ship was strewn with bodies. Twenty or thirty. Slavers, sailors. Some in armor, some not. Soft, pained groans came from everywhere, and there were weak attempts at movement in places.

Otherwise, it was still and quiet.

Lilith sat in the middle of it all, turned partly away and leaning back against the mast, her arms clasped tight around one drawn up knee. She turned her head slowly and gave the warrior a smile, but her eyes were so dead they seemed almost black.

Warrior and immortal looked at each other for a time, the wind whistling in the rigging, flapping in the lowered sail.

"Hello Xena," Lilith said finally, a disturbing, quietly manic edge in her voice. "I am sorry you have – how do you say it? ‘Missed the party’?" She laughed.

It wasn’t a pretty sound.

The warrior cautiously moved towards the Priestess, stepping over the unconscious forms around her. "Lilith," Xena said softly, "are you –"

"Injured?" The immortal laughed again.

Xena liked the sound even less than the last one.

"I was going to ask if you were all right – and I didn’t mean injured." She took a step closer.

Lilith regarded the warrior for a moment, then leaned her head back, closing her eyes. The rain had picked up, and the Priestess let it fall on her face.

"I am fine, Xena," she said wearily. The mania seemed to have passed. "I am fine." She sighed.

After a moment Lilith opened her eyes and looked around. Her voice was slow, quiet, and infinitely sad. "I am fine, Xena. It is … this world that is not fine. It is these selfish, unthinking sons of Adam, who know only how to take, and who will not listen to the Earth around them … can listen only to violence, and hate, and pain. That is what is not fine."

Lilith gazed up at the taller woman, bitterly swallowing a sob as she hugged herself. "I grow weary of it, Xena. I am so very, very tired … I do everything I can … I must believe it will help … yet every day I fear that it will never, ever be enough."

"I know, Lilith," the warrior said gently. "I know. I haven’t even lived for one millennia, and I feel it too." She chuckled mirthlessly. "Especially since I started out just making things worse."

The Priestess gave a rueful smile. "That would make two of us."

Xena held out her hand. "Come on. There’s a lot of people here depending on you to show them a better way." Then the warrior added, smirking, "And if it’s all the same to you, I’m hurt, and tired, and I really want to get out of this rain."

Lilith laughed again, and it sounded much warmer this time. "Ah, Xena," she said, a twinkle in her eye as she took the warrior’s hand and let herself be hauled to her feet, "Gabrielle is very lucky to have found you first."

"Hades!" came a shout from behind them. "What in the name of the Goddess happened here?"

Meleager stood at the bow, looking over the deck, his mouth open, eyes wide.

The two women looked at each other and chuckled. "A party, Meleager," Xena replied. "One Tartarus of a party. Glad you could make it."

"Dear one…" Lilith crooned, nimbly crossing the littered deck and wrapping her arms around him.

"Heyyy…" Meleager mumbled softly, holding her close.

Xena winced, and not just from the throbbing in her chest and back. She looked out over the water. Gabrielle was probably still on land and wouldn’t be along for a while. Probably worried sick … No, that’s no good … Admit it – you want to feel her arms around you, let her words soothe you, feel her warmth. Gods Xena, you just admitted you loved her this morning. I can’t believe I need her this much.

Crossing the deck was more painful than Xena hoped. She did a quick mental inventory. Ribs … several are definitely cracked. She twisted experimentally, took another breath. Yeah, one broken … low … lungs are fine though. Head feels all right – that’s good. She prodded her abdomen gently. Little early to tell if there’s anything internal, but I don’t think so. Damn – nasty bruise on the back of my thigh … riding’s gonna be fun for a few days…

With a stout kick Xena dropped the anchor line and they used it to clamber down to the raft, then hailed the next ferry. His arm around Lilith, Meleager glanced at the warrior, taking in the slight gray tinge on her face. "Sorry I couldn’t get here faster, Xena." He chuckled self-consciously. "I uh, couldn’t quite manage that ‘running over the chain’ thing – had to settle for pulling myself hand-over-hand…"

"It’s all right, Meleager," Xena gave him a tight grin. "Better late than never."

They rode on to Byzantium in relative silence. After sitting down for only a few minutes Xena began to feel herself stiffen up, so she chose instead to pace the cramped deck, her mind never straying far from thoughts of her bard’s loving embrace. As they landed, Meleager and Lilith climbed into one of the wagons, Meleager giving a loud groan as he settled back, the Priestess hovering over him.

Xena thought about climbing in after them, then figured it was better to keep her body moving until she could get the healing kit from Argo’s saddlebags. And Gabrielle will be along soon. "See you two by the gate," she announced. "I’ll find Morgin and make sure the scouts are away." As the wagon trundled off, the warrior rolled her head around, noting how her neck was going sore as well. Great. Well, I guess it could always be worse.

Then it got worse.

"Xena, the Warrior Princess," came a deep voice from the crowd. "I should’ve guessed you’d be behind all this trouble."

"Androphus," Xena sighed. She put on her best sarcastic smile and turned to face the tall, imposing figure, noting the dozen guards around him. "Long time no see. How’s the leg?"

"Better," he said, eyes narrowing. "The last few years it only hurts on rainy days." As if on cue, thunder rolled overhead.

"I’m in no mood to spar with you Androphus," she replied, putting an edge of menace behind it. "I’m just passing through. See you around." She turned to leave.

"You’re not going anywhere," Androphus casually raised his voice. "You’re under arrest for interfering with the ferry. That’s a hanging offense in Byzantium, I’m happy to say."

Xena laughed, turning back to him. "If I’d wanted to interfere with your precious ferry it’d be in a million pieces by now. I was attacked while riding it. I defended myself. End of story."

"That will be for the judge to decide – too bad I’m the judge. Guards, arrest this woman and take her to a very deep dungeon…"

"You’ll do no such thing!" A familiar voice shouted. "What manner of ungrateful, flea-bitten, wharf rat would stoop to arresting the one who just pulled his fat out of the fire?"

Androphus went red with anger as he spun to watch the crowd part for one very indignant bard. He snarled, "Who dares insult me like that in my own city? I am King Androphus of Byzantium and you will address me as royalty you snotty bitch, or I’ll have you flogged!"

Before the words were even out of his mouth some thirty heavily armed women broke through the crowd as well, falling into rank and file behind the diminutive strawberry blonde who purposefully strode to within a couple of feet of the tall king, defiantly crossing her arms as she glared him straight in the eye. "I am Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons by Terreis’ Right of Caste, and I will address you as I see fit. This woman is an ally of the Amazon nation and I will not see her insulted as a common criminal!"

Xena didn’t know whether to be angry at Gabrielle, frightened for her, or simply burst out laughing. Instead, she just folded her arms and watched. All right, my bard, let’s see you get us out of this one.

Androphus was proud, but he was no fool – he was outnumbered at the moment and he knew it. "State your case," he grumbled.

Gabrielle turned to face the crowd. "Citizens of Byzantium, hear me!" she began. "I, Queen Gabrielle and my caravan have traveled here from the Amazon nation because we heard the fabled Byzantium ferry was the safest passage across the Hellespont."

Nice one – hit him right in his pride. Xena smiled to herself.

"Imagine our shock when we were brazenly attacked by pirates within earshot of this very place. And did the great King Androphus lift a finger to help? To his shame he did not!"

"My harbor patrols are the finest in Greece," the King said loudly, quite calm.

"Is that so?" Gabrielle shot back. "Then look, great King – the pirates’ ship is even now still anchored by the line. Your toll takers at that raft – citizens of Byzantium, need I add – are missing. Where is your harbor patrol? Hiding from the rain?"

There was some laughter from the crowd, mixed in with a growing murmur of discontent.

"There was no need to dispatch them," Androphus replied. "We have the pirate right here!" he said smugly, pointing at Xena.

"Androphus, you’re a fool," Gabrielle shot back, her voice dripping with condescension. "This woman is my general. It was she who fought off the pirates, and was forced to do so all but single-handed because you failed to help!"

"Are you out of your mind?" Androphus asked, still smug. "This is Xena, Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations! Who else would launch such a ‘brazen’ attack?" This got a few words of agreement from the mob.

"Androphus, I say again – you are a fool. That’s the pathetic response of a wounded pride," Gabrielle folded her arms, speaking as if talking to a small child. "If she were the leader of those pirates, why is she here, calmly walking on the shore? Certainly, she could have easily sailed away by now – you have no ships on the water to stop her."

This got another big laugh, but Gabrielle wasn’t finished. "I should also point out, Androphus, that by insisting on her guilt in the face of my testimony you’re coming perilously close to calling the Queen of the Amazons a liar, and our vengeance for this kind of insult is well known. I’m willing to forego what you’ve said so far because you’re obviously a little slow, but judging by the so-called ‘security’ I’ve seen here, I suggest you don’t push my anger any further. Now, go back to your palace and count your coins."

Androphus turned purple with rage, but the cheering crowd was clearly against him, and he had too few guards to make an issue out of it otherwise. "Very well," he spat. "Take your ‘general’ and go. You have one half hour to get out of my city or I’ll come back in force and arrest every last one of you for … something!" He spun and limped angrily back in the direction of the palace gates, his men hustling to follow.

Trying to maintain her regal bearing, Gabrielle quickly walked to where Xena stood, but once she was near the warrior all pretense dissolved. "Gods Xena!" she gasped, running her hands down the other woman’s arms. "Are you OK? I saw you get run over by the chain … I was so scared…"

Xena couldn’t have wiped the grin off her face if she tried. She gripped Gabrielle’s shoulders just tight enough to know she was really there and said softly, "Yeah. I’m all right now … boss." She laughed, trying not to wince. "So when did I become your general?"

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Best I could come up with – I figured ‘this woman is my girlfriend’ wouldn’t have exactly the um, authoritative ring to it I was looking for."

"Fair enough," Xena chuckled. She pushed a wet lock of hair back behind the bard’s ear. "Thank you Gabrielle. That could’ve gotten ugly. You did good."

The smaller woman looked down, blushing. "Any time," she mumbled, then looked back up with an impish grin. "Besides, in the ‘get us out of tough spots’ category, I think you’re still ahead by roughly a thousand."

Xena smiled and gave her bard’s shoulder an affectionate squeeze. "C’mon, we’d better get out of here. Where’s Argo?"

"Just over there, by the docks," Gabrielle replied, pulling away, looking out over the strait. "So where in Tartarus are those harbor patrols anyway?"

Xena shook her head as she walked towards the mare, hiding the effort it took to simply put one foot in front of the other. "Paid off if they’re lucky. Dead if they aren’t. Maybe they really were just scared of the rain," she smiled. "Who knows? Doesn’t matter. We’ve crossed. Come on."

They met up with the rest of the caravan by the gates. The original plan had been to camp just outside the city walls, but in light of Androphus’ mood it was decided to push on. However, within an hour the rain had become a torrential downpour and it was clear they had to stop. Xena supervised the set-up from astride Argo – the warrior’s body hurt all over and she didn’t trust her ability to stand.

When the warrior had finished her duties as best she was able, she trotted back to the center of the camp and saw Gabrielle waving at her from one of the tents. "Xena, here!" the bard shouted. "This one’s ours!"

Xena nodded wearily and stopped Argo in the nominal shelter at the side of the square tent. Bracing herself, she slid out of the saddle. The bard chose that moment to hurry around to help out, and found her warrior hanging heavily on the saddle horn to keep from collapsing.

"Merciful Artemis!" Gabrielle gasped. "Xena you’re hurt! C’mon, lean on me here .. lean on me … Here we go …"

She got the warrior inside and laid back on the bedrolls. "Oh gods, Xena! How bad is it?"

Xena caught the bard’s wrist and smiled affectionately. "It’s not that bad Gabrielle – really. A few cracked ribs … maybe one broken … some other lumps and bumps. Mostly I’m just stiff and a little cold." She held the smaller woman’s hand in her own, rubbing it affectionately. "Go get the saddlebags and healing kit. A good night’s sleep and a warm blanket and I’ll be fine."

Gabrielle ran her hand slowly over the Warrior’s breastplate, seeing how battered it was for the first time. "Gods Xena," she said quietly, "look at your armor … you could have been torn in half…"

Xena smiled and covered the bard’s hands again. "That’s why I wear it, Gabrielle." She idly caressed the smaller woman’s thigh. "Go on. Get the kit. I promise I’ll be here when you get back … boss." She chuckled.

Gabrielle sniffled and nodded, then hurried outside. By the time she reached Argo she couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. She stood in the rain for a long minute, pressing her face against the cold, wet leather of the saddle, sobbing uncontrollably.

Finally she forced herself under control and slipped off the saddlebags, then thought a moment and removed Argo’s saddle as well, grunting with the effort of lifting and setting it over a nearby tree branch. Picking up the saddlebags, she spent a few seconds wiping off her face before she pulled back the tent flap and ducked inside.

* * *

"Gabrielle? Are you all right?" Xena shook her slightly. The bard had been staring off into space for minutes. "C’mon bard – I’m the one who just swallowed half a bag of pain herbs."

Gabrielle started. "Yeah … I’m OK. It’s just been a … Well, it’s been a really long day. You’re right though – it could be worse."

Xena settled back a bit. "Ah … Gabrielle," she sighed, pulling her bard closer, until they were lying side by side, looking into each other’s eyes. She sketched a finger lightly over Gabrielle’s forehead, her nose, her cheeks. "Tell you what," she whispered, shuffling closer, "lie back a little…"

Gabrielle gathered herself with more sudden determination than she ever imagined she could muster. "No, Xena…" She pulled away. "Come on – you’re hurt. This isn’t right…" The bard propped herself up. "Please, don’t make this … any harder than it is." She reached out to stroke her warrior’s raven hair. "We’ve waited this long, we can wait a little longer, OK?"

Xena took a breath, then smiled. "Yeah," she said simply. "Always looking out for me, huh?"

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, then nodded seriously. "Yeah. Always."

Xena relaxed onto her back again, pulling the smaller woman close. "Well, I’m sorry tonight couldn’t have been more … special."

Gabrielle smiled and pressed her cheek against Xena’s warm shoulder, kissing it lightly, noting the uncomfortably close, soft swell of Xena’s breast. "It’s … OK. You’re right – we’re together, that’s what matters. It wasn’t like you planned on getting hurt. Did I ever tell you how much of a hero you are?"

"I think you’ve worked it in a few times." Xena gave a dreamy smile, the herbs obviously taking effect. She held Gabrielle tight for a moment, kissed her forehead lightly, then let her go. "Come on then – I’m drifting off as it is. Let’s get some sleep."

The bard rose somewhat reluctantly, then fumbled around in their bags until she uncovered a shift. Xena chuckled. "Don’t bother," the warrior said gently, settling back and closing her eyes, "It’s a luxury I’d have to move too much to put on."

The smaller woman nodded and covered the warrior with a blanket. Earlier, the bard had slipped out of her own wet clothes and into a shift, but in her haste to tend to Xena she hadn’t bothered to dry off first and now it was damp and clammy. She sighed and pulled it over her head, then carefully toweled herself with the last dry square of linen they had left. When she was finished Gabrielle suddenly realized she didn’t have another shift to put on. I could slip into Xena’s… She glanced over her partner for a thoughtful second. The warrior seemed fast asleep already.

Still naked, Gabrielle got her own blanket and lay down beside the other woman, deliberately not looking at her as she blew out the small lamp. "Good night, Xena," she said softly, settling onto her side, facing away from the warrior.

After a moment, she heard Xena’s dreamy-quiet voice. "Gabrielle?"


"Come closer."

The bard rolled over. Shifted a little.

"C’mon," Xena said softly, her words slurring a little. "Under the blanket with me. It’ll be … warmer." She chuckled softly.

"Xena, you’re hurt…"

Another soft laugh. "Didn’t mean climb on top of me. I just want to … know you’re really there."

Gabrielle slid under the other blanket, felt the warrior’s strong arm go around her and gently pull her closer until she lay with her head pillowed on Xena’s shoulder. "Is this OK?" the bard asked, feeling a little breathless.

"Perfect." The warrior sleepily kissed the top of her head, then settled back. "’Night, Gabrielle."

"Good night, Xena."

The bard just lay there for … well, she couldn’t tell how long, listening to Xena’s slow, steady breathing. Very little of their bodies were actually touching, but Gabrielle could feel every single inch, burning warm against her skin. She tried to relax, just drift off. Couldn’t. Suddenly she trembled.

"Hmm?" The warrior stirred. "Y’all right?"

"Sorry Xena," the bard sniffed. "I just … can’t sleep."

Xena stroked her hair. "Ahh … Gabrielle," she said softly. The warrior spoke from a half conscious doze. "Jus’ try and relax … listen to my voice … let yourself go … breathe … easy … one breath at a time … we’re warm, dry … together … hear the rain on the roof? … it’s slowed now … the wind is calm … gentle … just a little patter … hardly even a sound … soothing…"

Her voice went on for a little while longer, saying anything and nothing. Within minutes, they were comfortably warm and asleep in each other’s arms.


Chapter Six

Xena gazed down at her sleeping partner. Thanks to a slightly too high dose of herbs, the warrior couldn’t remember exactly how they had wound up naked together sharing a bedroll, but she had to admit it was a pleasant way to wake up. Gabrielle was nestled very nicely against her, the bard’s head on her shoulder with a hand resting across her belly, their hips and thighs touching lightly. Oh yes, very nice. Could get used to this. Her smile widened. Gods, I just hope I have plenty of chances…

The rain had stopped in the night, and the sun was just getting ready to rise. In the dim light Xena took her time taking in every detail of Gabrielle’s sleeping face. By the gods you’re beautiful. The warrior chuckled to herself, remembering when Gabrielle had said those words to her while the bard had been drugged with henbane. How long ago? Seems like a thousand years.

So much had changed since then. The warrior’s heart warmed at the memory of Gabrielle standing toe to toe with Androphus and not giving an inch – no matter her bard barely came up to the level of his chest. The little girl who had followed her from some nameless village and needed constant rescuing had grown before her eyes into a strong, confident young woman – a woman who could beat the stuffing out of a platoon of raiders, argue a god out of his boots, and still have the energy left to hold a room spellbound with her tales at the end of the day.

And in that time she had also managed to grow around one ex-warlord’s stony heart. "I love you Gabrielle," she said, quietly, just to hear herself say the words. She looked at the pleasantly sleeping face once again, stroking it gently. "And by the gods, you are beautiful."

The smaller woman began to stir, then slightly opened her eyes. Her face broke into a dreamy grin. "Mmm, hi…"

"Morning," Xena replied, smiling back. "Sleep all right?"

"Yeah…" The bard closed her eyes again and nuzzled her head against Xena’s shoulder. "Slept wonderful…"

"Me too."

Gabrielle snorted sleepily. "You would … you were kinda doped up…"

The warrior smiled. "So, did you take advantage of me in my drugged condition?"

The bard shook her head, her red-gold hair inadvertently brushing across Xena’s breast. "Nahh … course not…"

Xena’s smile broadened wickedly. "Then how come we’re both naked?"

Gabrielle’s head snapped up. "Oh gods – we are aren’t we?" She sat abruptly, uncovering them both. "Um, well, see, here’s what happened –"

"Xena! You’d better come hear this!" Meleager called out as he poked his head inside the tent.

He blinked. "Uhhh … aw Hades." Then he was gone.

"Hrrr, yah … well!" he blustered loudly from outside the tent. "I’m uh … I was just passing by somebody’s tent here on my way over to where uh, the horses are tethered I guess … Got something real important to say to Xena and … Wow, I um, I just hope she happens on by in a couple of minutes or so … Oh yeah … Just headin’ straight there…" he babbled as he walked away.

Gabrielle turned bright, absolute, beet red from head to toe just before she groaned and pulled the blankets completely over herself and curled into a tight ball. Xena pressed her hands over her face and tried desperately to hold back the screaming fit of giggles that threatened to burst out any moment – if not for the bard’s sake, then for the sake of her own tender ribs.

Finally Xena got herself under control, then sat up and ran her hand over the fur-covered bundle beside her. "Come on my little nymph," she teased. "Looks like the real world needs us again."

"I’m not going anywhere," came the muffled response. "I’m staying right here until I sink into the ground!"

"Gabrielle…" Xena smiled warmly and embraced the lump as best she could. "All right, stay there until that cute blush of yours wears off. But we do have to get going sometime – we still have a job to do. Remember all that talk about the greater good?"

"That counts for being poisoned – not embarrassed to death!" The bard groaned.

"All right," Xena said, giving her a last squeeze and moving towards her leathers, "but I’m getting up."

Gabrielle gave another muffled groan and didn’t move or speak further as Xena quickly and efficiently donned her leathers, armor and boots, turning to the lump as she made her way out. "Stay there as long as you want," she teased, pausing before the front flaps, "but try to get up before they pack the tent with you in it, all right?" There was a slight shifting and another groan from under the fur as Gabrielle nodded slightly. Xena grinned, then said quietly, "And as far as I’m concerned you have nothing to be embarrassed about – you’re beautiful … and I love every inch of you."

With that, the bard’s pale – though still blushing – face poked out from beneath the furs, bearing a wide, if sheepish, grin. "Meet you for breakfast then?"

"Deal," the warrior replied, smiling at her love one last time before stepping outside. She briefly checked on Argo, noting how her saddle had been carefully set over a nearby tree branch. Still smiling, she moved it to a patch of sunshine to dry, then gave the horse an affectionate pat on the neck. "Always looking out for us, isn’t she girl?" Argo nickered in agreement.

Xena found her way to where the rest of the horses had been tethered. Meleager was giving Melampus a nominal brushing. "Morning," he said without looking at her, obviously trying to suppress a grin. "Guess your injuries aren’t that bad … I uh, saw the, you know, bandages."

Xena casually leaned back against a tree. "I’ll be fine," she said, "and next time, try knocking first."

Meleager’s head dropped as he blushed. "Sorry about that. Didn’t think … Guess after all the grinning you were doing yesterday, should have put two and two together." He turned to her, smiling. "I’m happy for you though – both of you. Gabrielle … she’s pretty special."

"Yes," Xena replied evenly, unable to suppress a slight smile, "she is." She pulled away from the tree. "Now," she said with a more serious note, "what’s so important you had to roust me out of bed?"

"Oh, yeah, that," he replied, tucking the brush into his saddlebag, "a couple of the scouts came back about a half-hour ago – with a prisoner. Come on, it’s easier if they tell you…"

The camp was full of activity as they walked. Many more tents than usual had been set up because of the rain, and were all being taken down and stowed. Soon the two of them reached the spot where a pair of clearly exhausted Amazon scouts were seated on the end of one of the wagons. A couple of Lilith’s followers had just brought them each a steaming mug of tea, which they gratefully accepted. On the ground was a bound, armored man, who snored fitfully.

"Tanith, Adrea," Xena nodded to the scouts. "What’s the story?"

Tanith gulped down a swallow of tea and took a breath. "Well, we scouted ahead until nightfall, then started looking for shelter from the storm – came across a small inn and decided to stay there. There were no rooms left, so we just took a seat in the tavern, got some food. That was when Adrea noticed the men at one of the tables…"

"They wore the insignia of the scouts we came across outside Amazonia," Adrea finished, "the ones with messengers. The three of them were pretty drunk, and kept babbling about ‘whores’ and making jokes – didn’t take long before it was clear they were talking about Lilith and the rest. Innkeeper said they’d been asking every traveler who came in if they’d seen our caravan. The two of us, um … well, we enticed them outside, then knocked them out."

Tanith spoke. "We questioned them a little, but they were drunk and angry and we didn’t get much out of them except that they’re part of a large force."

"How large?" Xena asked.

"They wouldn’t tell us," Adrea answered. "It pretty much slipped out by accident. After that they clammed up. That was when we decided to bring this one back, right away – he seemed in charge. We rode all night."

"And the other two?" Xena asked.

Tanith gave a grim half smile. "We hid the bodies well off the trail. My call. Couldn’t bring all three and couldn’t risk letting any of them go." She sighed, shrugged. "It was quick."

Xena just nodded. "All right. Good work. Get some rest. Now, let’s get him awake and see what he knows…"

* * *

"I could borrow a horse," Gabrielle tried to sound reasonable.

"Gabrielle, please." Xena smiled, but knew it was half out of reflex. She adjusted a buckle on Argo’s saddle. "We both know you hate riding and I need to move fast – in fact I’d rather go alone. I’m only letting Morgin come because sending two doubles the odds one of us will make it back."

The look of shocked concern on the bard’s face made Xena pause. She turned from Argo and faced the smaller woman. "Not that I think it’s dangerous – it’s just a scouting trip, nothing more. Even I don’t plan taking on an army by myself."

"Then why can’t the scouts go?" Gabrielle asked. "Isn’t that their job?"

"Yes," Xena said simply, "but scouting reports are no substitute for seeing first-hand. This is serious, Gabrielle. I wouldn’t go if I didn’t think I had to."

The strawberry blonde stamped her foot in frustration. "OK, OK … It’s just … I mean…" Her words sputtered off.

Xena smiled warmly and ran her hand over the bard’s hair, then gave Gabrielle’s shoulder an affectionate squeeze. "I know," she said gently, "and I don’t want to be apart from you either. Like I said, my timing is awful. I’m sorry."

Gabrielle looked up at her warrior’s face as she blinked back a tear. "I mean … we haven’t even gotten a chance to kiss yet…"

Xena grinned, pulled the smaller woman closer. "Well that I can fix…"

Gabrielle found it strangely hard to breathe as Xena’s lips lowered towards her own. This is happening … this is real… It was just like she remembered from limbo – those wonderful, intense blue eyes growing larger, filling her vision. She thought they were the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

The warrior lowered herself until their lips were almost touching, pausing for just a moment. Gabrielle could feel Xena’s light breath, smell the mix of leather, jasmine soap and something underneath that was just Xena, and it made her dizzy. Then the warrior gently covered Gabrielle’s mouth with her own.

The lips were soft, so very, very soft, yet strong and warm … so different from any others she had ever felt. Gabrielle parted her own slightly and suckled them, feeling an arm circle her waist while a hand cradled her head – which was good because just then Gabrielle didn’t think she could support herself any longer. The kiss grew slowly from gentle to more insistent as their mouths caressed each other for a timeless moment, tongues just hinting at the edges. Gabrielle felt the love between them so clearly she thought her heart would burst.

Finally, the smaller woman broke away and pressed her face into the warrior’s shoulder, her breathing ragged. She didn’t move, panting lightly for a few moments, then gave a strange, gasping laugh. "Aw gods … I…" She raised her head, opened her eyes and looked around. "Mmm…" The young woman smiled, "Nope, not the Elysian Fields after all…"

"Say again?"

Gabrielle gave an embarrassed giggle. "Well, I just figured if you ever did that I’d cross over for sure. Imagined I’d shake apart or burst into flames … stuff like that."

Xena lifted an eyebrow. "I see. Disappointed?"

"Nah. This is better," Gabrielle nuzzled against her warrior’s neck.

Xena held her a little tighter. "Mmm … how so?"

"Oh, simple…" Gabrielle looked up into those beautiful, pale blue eyes. "It means we can do it again…" The bard giggled. "Only, maybe without the armor next time?"

"Deal." Xena said, hugging her bard close. The warrior gave a slow, and very contented sigh.

Gabrielle’s heart warmed at the sound, realizing she’d never really heard her companion do that before. The bard was suddenly thoughtful, looking up again into Xena’s face. "Just make sure there is a next time, OK?" She brushed a hand across her warrior’s cheek. "Come back to me Xena, in one piece … promise?"

"I promise," Xena said softly, "two days, maybe three, no more. I’ll catch up with you at Kesan – it’s a nice, well defended city, and Meleager knows the councilor. You’ll be there by nightfall. You’ll be safe."

"Xena," the bard sighed, "for the next few days, my safety will be the last thing on my mind."

"I know," the warrior replied, giving Gabrielle one last squeeze. "See you as soon as I can."

Xena pulled away from her bard, then quickly turned and mounted Argo. She rode away without looking back, just so Gabrielle couldn’t see the pained expression on her face. The kiss had left her feeling weak and oddly shaken in a way she hadn’t felt in a very long time. Intended as a nice little gesture of love and affection, it had turned out nothing like she’d expected, affecting her more deeply than she thought possible. She didn’t think Gabrielle could tell sense her reaction, but she could still feel the strawberry blonde’s lips on her own, only now it burned like fire. Can’t believe I need her this much, the warrior thought again.

Xena shook her head to clear it, scanning around for Morgin so they could get moving. Get a grip on yourself warrior, she thought sternly, focusing on what she had to do, this moment, and the practicalities at hand. Yeah, love is wonderful but you’ve got other things to worry about right now. Get focused or you could get yourself killed.

* * *

Xena and Morgin had ridden at a fast canter for most of the morning, pushing their mounts as hard as they dared. Just before mid-day, the guardian announced, "Xena, Dumuzi must slow down. He isn’t as strong as Argo. Indeed," she laughed softly, "Argo is much like her mistress in that regard – I can think of few who are."

The warrior gave a playful raised eyebrow. "All right." She pointed with her head. "There’s a stream a couple of miles from here – we’ll stop and water the horses." They slowed to a brisk walk and continued on.

As they rode, however, Xena found herself becoming oddly restless. It took a while, but she finally put her finger on why: The silence. When Argo had been at full canter she hadn’t noticed it, but now that the pace had slowed and there was nothing else to occupy her mind, it was deafening. She rolled her head around and tried to set aside her restlessness, then got annoyed it wasn’t working. Never noticed how Gabrielle talks all the time, she thought. No, that’s not true – at first it drove me crazy. Guess I got used to it. When did I start to need it?

"So tell me," Xena said, as conversationally as she could, "how did you meet Lilith?"

Morgin looked at her for a moment, as if surprised. "Perhaps," she said at length, "I should ask if you’d prefer the long version or the short one?"

Xena shrugged. "Got nothing but time until tomorrow. Go on as long as you want."

Morgin smiled. "I hoped you’d say that. I’m not a fine storyteller like Gabrielle, but this one I enjoy – even if it’s hard to tell in places, it does have a happy ending."

Xena gave a half grin in return. "Sounds familiar. Go on."

Morgin looked forward and thought for a moment. "I don’t know who my parents were. I don’t know where I was born, or even when," she began. "This saddens me at times, but I’ve learned to live with it. I know only that I was sold into slavery when I was so young that it was all I knew, in a land far from here, in the city of Ubar, many weeks to the south and east. I’ve come to believe – perhaps hope is a better word – that I was orphaned or unlucky. I don’t want to think of my parents as the sort who would sell so young a child."

Xena nodded. This was a story she’d heard before, too many times.

"Anyway," Morgin shook her head as they rode, "those first years weren’t too bad. I was a kitchen girl – the house was a royal one, large and wealthy. The woman who ran the kitchen was Reyna. She was old and short and fat. Maybe my memory plays with me to think of her being as wide as she was tall, but I do remember her as roughly spherical." The guardian laughed. "Most of the other young ones were scared of her. I loved her. She had her domain, and she ruled it. I admired that, and I think she loved me too in her way. I scrubbed all the pots and pans, even the ones I didn’t have to. She would hold me in her lap then, and while she scolded me for never making them shine quite enough, she would hug me. When we broke the rules we all felt the sting of her switch, but I alone was hugged, because I did my chores so well. I wanted so much to please her. It was … a happy time."

The warrior rode on, looking straight ahead. How many children have I sold off? I tried to spare them from death, but maybe death would have been more merciful. Gods Morgin, if that’s the best you had… Xena suppressed a shudder and kept listening.

"I must have caught someone’s eye," Morgin went on, "because when, by my reckoning, I was twelve summers old, I was sold again to a whoremaster, to live in the largest brothel in the city. I was given to Chandra to be taught – a courtesan. I wasn’t even allowed to say goodbye to Reyna. I cried for many days."

Morgin continued without a beat. "Chandra was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I was enchanted by her, and the seeming power she had over…" The guardian laughed lightly. "Um, her ‘clients’? At first I was too young to understand, I only knew that those who came to her chambers every night treated her like a goddess. During the day she taught me how to dress and walk, how to serve meals and pour wine, how to use makeup and play the lyre. Like Reyna, she was quick to punish me when I failed to please, yet she also showed me how to pleasure myself, something I hadn’t tried before, and encouraged me to do it often. This I loved – indeed," she chuckled, "I suppose I still do. In truth, I know now she only did it to arouse my interest in physical pleasure, so later this would make me more willing to serve the desire of others, but it was a pleasure all the same, and mine alone."

Xena’s jaw tightened. The ex-warlord was no stranger to brothels, but hadn’t given much thought to how those who worked there had learned their trade. To hear of a land where it was as institutionalized as any other guild – with "apprentices" that young – sent chills down her spine.

The guardian went on. "In time she let me stay with her as she worked her clients, and I learned of the sexual arts by her example. Her lessons became more … personal, and sometimes I was also given lessons from trusted others. I was blooming into womanhood then, my own desire growing, and since I was just a slave I didn’t think it strange at first. In fact, I liked it, in part for the pleasure it brought me, but also because when pleasing others I felt some measure of control … and I was the center of attention. I envied those who wielded power and wished something more for myself, but I had been made to serve for so long I actually hated myself when I rebelled, although in time that would change. Not many years later my virginity was bid on, and sold."

Xena took a sharp intake of breath. She had bought a virgin once. The girl was young – very young – and seemed scared, but had been very pretty. At first the warlord told herself she would be easier on the girl than any of the rough men who were also bidding, might even let her alone. But once the two of them were in her room, the girl had submitted so willingly…

The warrior almost fell out of the saddle. She acted like property, so that’s the way I treated her. Ravished her like wild animal, then all but forgot about it. Didn’t think … didn’t care … there was a person inside.

Xena hadn’t realized Argo had stopped moving until Morgin placed a hand on her arm. "Xena? Did I say something wrong?"

The warrior pulled away. "No," Xena shrugged, smiling nonchalantly around her pain. Her ribs had begun throbbing too. "Bruise on the back of my thigh. Go on."

Morgin nodded as if she understood. "Ride when you’re able."

Xena took a firm hold on Argo’s reigns and kicked the mare forward. "You wish," she shouted, loud but matter-of-fact. "Race you to the stream…"

* * *

Gabrielle and Solari walked on either side of Meleager at the head of the column, the caravan keeping a slow pace as it followed the coast. Kesan offered safety, but the relatively narrow isthmus of eastern Thrace had only two main roads – it was a box ready for a trap, and they waited for the regular reports of the scouts to tell them the way was free of any threat.

Just to keep the conversation going, Gabrielle asked, "So um, Meleager, how are things with you and Lilith?"

"Oh, fine," the aging warrior responded, voice even. "We’re, you know, doing fine – she doesn’t get on my case about not being able to be around her during the day and we, well, spend … quality time at night. Everything’s fine."

Gabrielle and Solari exchanged looks. The Amazon shook her head lightly, looking down the road. "So in other words the two of you aren’t talking much, but you, oh Mighty one, are happy the two of you can make out like bunnies when you get off watch. A warrior’s dream, that is."

"Hey!" Meleager began, "It’s not like that! We’ve reached an understanding, that’s all."

"Hey, no problem," Gabrielle deadpanned, "Understandings are good."

Continued...Part 4 of 6

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