I thank Ren Pic and RT, JS, SR, LL, ROC, and all the other initials in NZ for letting me use their creations to write this story. I hope I haven't abused them too badly. If I have I promise to get them repaired or replaced at my expense.
This story contains a small amount of violence and just enough sex to be interesting. But not enough to be titilating. I always wanted to use that word in a sentence. Yes gentle reader I see Xena and Gabrielle as lovers. I hope in all the best ways that word can be used. Those offended by humans in love have my sympathy.
As for grammer and spelling I will only say what a friend of mine used in her disclaimer. 'To the God of Spelling I offer my profound apologies. The God of Grammer however can bite me.'
Yes, I encourage reader response. In fact I beg for reader response. Hello. Is anyone out there. Hello. Hello. Love me, hate me, make me write bad checks, just let me know you read the stories. I can be reached at Aleckk1@hotmail.com
So enough of this foreplay. The play is the thing. Submitted for your enjoyment.
BY JIM KUNTZ
With a quick snap of her head Xena peeked around the corner and down the long hallway. At the end was a heavy oak door securely padlocked with a thick chain and a oversized iron lock. Two guards in full armour lounged in front of the door. One, sitting on a small stool, spun a mace back and forth between his hands. The other, armed with a battle ax, leaned against the door idly picking at his teeth. Both seemed supremely bored.
"Take a look." Xena whispered.
Gabrielle followed the Warrior Princess' example and peeked around the corner. She noticed that one third of the way down the hall, close to the high ceiling, was a small uncovered opening, barely big enough for a person to fit through.
Xena looked down at her friend and smiled. "Now comes the tricky part." She whispered.
"The tricky part!" Gabrielle hissed in exasperation. "We just scaled a thirty foot wall in total darkness, crawled through Tartarus and back getting this far without being spotted and now we're to the tricky part!"
"Yep." Xena grinned.
"Fine." Gabrielle answered, composing herself. "Wonderful, so what's the plan?"
"The opening you saw is a ventilation tunnel. There's one in every hallway and room. Once I'm in I can crawl down to the treasury room, retrieve the Scepter and crawl back."
Gabrielle scowled. "Of course the two bully boys at the end of the hall will be struck deaf and blind and not notice any of this."
"Of course," Xena answered. "because a fast talking, think on her feet young woman I know will have them far too captivated by her charms to notice anything but her."
Gabrielle snorted quietly.
"So what your saying is I walk down there naked and offer each of them a quickie."
"Well, not too quick." Xena smiled.
Gabrielle looked up at her friend and mouthed a silent 'ha, ha'.
The bard wished they could just go down, knock the guards out and take Athena's Scepter but Xena had explained before they left Xora that she wanted the Scepter to just vanish from Valkor's treasury without a trace, leaving him no clues, no suspects and no idea where to start looking to recover it. It would be easier on everyone that way, if they could pull it off. Right now that looked like a big if to Gabrielle.
"Any ideas?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle took a few moments to plot her strategy, then looked at Xena.
"All right." She said. "I've got one. Are you ready?"
Gabrielle boldly stepped into the corridor and started to stagger toward the guards singing at the top of her lungs a bawdy song she had heard once in a tavern in Thebes. Both men came instantly alert. The one who had been leaning against the door approached the bard, grabbed her arm and shook her roughly.
"What are you doing here?!" He demanded harshly, glaring at her.
Gabrielle looked at him with bleary eyes.
"I don't know." She slurred. "What are you doing here?"
The guard smiled with contempt.
"Just how drunk are you?" He asked.
"Not drunk enough, I can still see you."
Suddenly Gabrielle brought her staff to the ready position and took a wild swing at at the guard, who easily ducked out of the way.
"Get away from me Ares." She yelled in a thick tongued voice. "I'm not sleeping with you tonight or any other night!"
Again Gabrille swung wildly at the guard letting the force of her swing spin her around. She stumbled clumsily backward and landed with a thud on her butt at the base of the door. The second man walked over by the first and the two guards stood, backs to the hallway, laughing till the tears came. And the Warrior Princess, in five bounding steps , was even with the vent and with a slight bend of her knees she propelled herself noiselessly into the small opening and disappeared.
Xena crawled quickly down the dank, pitch black passageway. She knew the squishy pellets she felt under her elbows and knees were rat feces and she hoped she would not meet any face to face in the darkness. She hated rats. Every few feet she felt along the wall in front of her to be sure she did not miss the opening to the treasury. Finally her arm disappeared into empty space. Eagerly she crawled after it only to be brought up painfully short when her head banged against an iron bar planted horizontally across the opening. 'When did they put this up' she thought. She remembered clearly six years before when she was in Valkors treasury haggling over the price of mercenaries. There had been no iron bar then. It was her habit in those days to size up every room full of valuables for a possible raid later.
Frustration building, Xena reached out and felt along the bar. First one end, then the other. Her searching fingers found encouraging news. The mortar at each end was poorly mixed and set and was already flaking out. And the holes the bar was sunk in were too close to the edge of the opening, giving the bar little support from the mud brick wall. Some slave laborer in a hurry and a overseer to lazy to check up on the work. 'Good for me, bad for Valkor' thought Xena. It would take a little time but her plan was still on track. Reaching down her leg she pulled a small dagger from her boot and working furiously she soon had all the mortar dug from around both ends of the bar. Once, twice, on the third smash of her palm against the obstacle the brick gave way at one end and Xena was able to pull the bar out and lay it in the tunnel beside her.
Unsure of what was below the Warrior Princess lowered herself carefully into the darkness. When she let go of the edge of the vent, suprise, she landed on bare floor. Xena remembered the room being crowded with stolen loot but now as she felt her way toward the door, one hand on the wall the other waving in front of her, there was only emptiness. When she reached the door she quickly found the pile of oil soaked torches stacked neatly next to it and grabbing one she lit it with a strike of the two small flints she had carried in her gauntlet for just this moment. As she turned with the flickering light the suprise became almost shock. The great room was three quarters empty.
Xena shook her head and snorted. No wonder Valkor risked raiding the Xoran temple. He was close to ruin. 'The old days are passing away fast' Xena thought. If Valkors failing, all the warlords are failing. Soon they will be extinct in Greece. And as little missed as the Destroyer of Nations.
Xena stood silent for a moment by the door, ears straining. There were muffled voices, then laughter. Was Gabrielle telling a dirty story or still playing the fool. Whatever, all was well. Xena moved quickly to the end of the room where the remaining treasure lay, haphazardly strewn across the floor. Silver and gold plate, delicatly carved furniture, fine silverware and handsome carpets, a small chest half filled with dinars. And finally, a long thin box of finest cedar enscribed with a mural of Athena presenting Xora with the great Scepter as a pledge of protection for the new city. Xena opened the box half expecting to find the silver Scepter stripped of its jewels and band of diamonds around the grip. But all was intact. 'The Warlord must have a buyer who wants all or nothing' Xena thought
The Scepter was approximatly as long as Xena's sword so before leaving Xora she had attached two loops of leather to each end of her scabbard. Now she slid the Scepter into the loops and tightened them carefully. The Scepter would be safe there and not in the way if trouble came. The box would have to stay. Too bulky and awkward. The Xoran artisans would just have to create a new and better one.
Xena was getting a comfortable adjustment of the scabbard on her back when a shout brought her up short. The hallway. Gabrielle! The Warrior Princess raced to the door and pressed her ear against it. She could hear grunts, scuffling feet, the sound of metal hitting stone. There! The sound of the bard's staff hitting a breastplate. Wild with adrenaline Xena clawed at the door for a precious moment, but there was no handle on the inside to grasp and even with her great strength how long would it take to break the chain holding it from the outside. Rushing back to the vent she lept up like a panther, dropping the torch as she did.
Crawling furiously, Xena quickly negotiated the distance back to the hallway vent, the soft glow from the corridor torches making the opening easy to spot. When she reached the vent she threw herself heedlessly through it, executed a tight flip, and landed on her feet her sword instantly in her hand. She faced down the hall, ready to kill whom she must, but the sight that greeted her sent a shock of fright through her system, draining the color from her tan face and pulling a gasp from her throat. The door to the treasury stood open and on the bare stone floor in front of it lay the guard who had grabbed Gabrielle, motionless on his face, and at a crooked angle beside him, with her head resting in the small of his back, lay the bard.
In an instant Xena was at Gabrielle's side, kneeling down in an agony of suspence. Alive, dead. Xena winced to see that the bard's nose was smashed sideways and flat against her face, blood covering her mouth and chin and dripping down her neck. But thank the gods the blood was fresh and Xena could see it still oozing from the shattered nose. Gabrielle's heart was beating! Desperately, with hands and eyes, Xena searched the bard's body for any other wounds, wounds that might be even more dangerous, but to her immense relief she found none.
"There she is!!"
The words were shouted. In her anxiety for Gabrielle Xena had forgotten everything else, but now she looked up in the direction of the sound. At the far end of the treasury, close to Valkor's pitiful supply of loot, stood four warriors, weapons at the ready, one of them holding Xena's still flickering torch. For a long moment they hesitated, each of them looking into the eyes of the predator at the other end of the room. Finally the smallest of them summoned his courage.
"Come on then dammit!" He growled.
Like spurs to a horse his words sent them all flying toward Xena. The Warrior Princess' reflexes were faster however. Just as they reached the doorway the great wooden door slamed shut. They hurled their weight together against it and it gave way a foot before Xena could break the momentum, but then with an intense grunt of effort she used her powerful legs and back to slam the door closed again, knocking the men back into the treasury. Before they could recover the Warrior Princess had the thick chain pulled tight through the iron eye and again the door was securely padlocked.
Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open at the touch of Xena's hand to her cheek, but they were vacant eyes that recognized nothing. Xena gently pulled her up by the arm and positioned her carefully on her broad shoulder. With a grunt she stood up and placed her arm around Gabrielle's legs. She had only taken a step when the guard at her feet let out a soft gasping moan and raised his head. With a short vicious kick Xena snapped his head sideways and sent his helmet clattering halfway down the hall.
"Just not your day." She muttered through clenched teeth.
At the end of the corridor Xena turned right and in a few long strides was at the bottom of the steps leading up to the ground level dungeon door.
"I can... I can walk." Said a small breathless voice.
Xena's heart jumped to her throat to hear the words. Some of the suffocating tension she felt eased. She reached up and gently patted Gabrielle's butt.
"I've got you." She said, not bothering to whisper, wanting to be sure Gabrielle heard every word. "Just relax."
Xena went up the steps quickly but smoothly, keeping the jostling to a minimum. At the small landing at the top she carefully bent over and put Gabrielle onto her feet and straightened her and let her lean back against the wall. Gabrielle took a couple of ragged breaths through her mouth and then a wave of terrible nausea swept over her. She jerked forward violently and would have fallen if Xena's strong hand had not caught her shoulder. Her whole body shuddering with each convulsive heave the bard expelled every possible bit of lunch, dinner and swallowed blood from her stomach. When it finally ended she was so weak her knees shook. But she also felt a little better, her head a little clearer. She suddenly noticed that Xena was beside her, her hand on her forehead and the other wrapped around her waist holding her up. The powerful, reassuring presence made her feel almost giddy for a moment. 'Xena's here, everythings alright'.
'Obviously a concussion,' thought Xena 'but how bad. Will she pass out again.' A black cloud passed through Xena's heart. 'If she dies I'll kill everything in this damn place down to the cockroaches!!!' The Warrior Princess shuddered at the depth of her anger. She had not felt it this strongly in a long time. She pulled up her leather skirt and ripped a long length from the woolen shift underneath. Kneeling down she gently wiped the blood from around Gabrielle's broken nose and the blood and vomit from her lips and chin. After a few moments the bard's hand came up and weakly grabbed Xena's wrist.
"Stop fussing Xena." Gabrielle whispered. "You don't look anything like my mother."
Xena looked into the bleary, unfocused eyes and her heart sank to see how much the bard was suffering. She wanted to say something funny and reassuring but seeing Gabrielle's abused face Xena could only drop the shift and let the back of her hand tenderly caress the bard's cheek.
Gabrielle tried to smile but failed.
"I'm alright." She gasped. She tried to focus her mind. 'Where are we, what's happening'.
"Xena." She said finally. "Are we in trouble?"
"No." Xena answered emphatically. "Your playmates are safely locked downstairs. No one can hear them. And there's no sound of alarm in the courtyard. We're still in control of the situation."
"Your in control of the situation." The bard corrected. "I'm barely in control of my bladder."
Xena bit her lip to keep from laughing. She looked at her friend with different eyes. 'When did this little woman get so tough' she wondered. 'Four years ago you would have been weeping on my shoulder, now you make jokes. Gods Gabrielle I do love you so'. Xena put her hand on the bards shoulder and squeezed, then pushed her back against the wall.
"I'm going out for a quick look in the courtyard. Don't move. I'll be right back."
Gabrielle heard the heavy door squeek open, then close. She leaned her head back and snorted some of the blood out of her sinuses and spit it out. The effort made her face burn. For the first time she thought, 'how bad is it'. Hesitantly she brought her hand up to her face but when it reached where she thought her nose should be, nothing. A little involuntary rush of air escaped her lungs. She started to move her fingers closer to her face, hand trembling, when a shape loomed out of the fuzzy grayness around her and a strong hand grabbed her wrist.
"You're as beautiful as the day I first saw you Gabrielle." The Warrior Princess' firm, almost fierce voice answered. She brought her face so close to the bard's that Gabrielle could finally see something clearly. Xena's wonderful smile.
"Is my best girl ready to leave this party?"
"Oh yes." Gabrielle answered. "I'm not having any fun at all."
"Well then, here's the exit plan. The moon has been covered by clouds. You can't see ten feet. So we're going to use the darkness and take the fast way out. We're going straight across the courtyard to the wall, find the stairs, they should be close and to the left, then up to the parapet and down the walkway till we find our rope, about sixty or seventy yards I should think. Once we have it we're out."
Gabrielle finished in her mind the sentence Xena left unsaid. 'And I'll kill anyone we meet along the way'. The thought made the bard cringe inside and brought a bitter taste to her mouth. She remembered well the Xena she had met four years ago. Who killed without a thought anyone foolish enough to challenge her with a sword in their hand. The Xena who kept a large rag in her saddle bags just to wipe the blood and gore from her leathers and weapons. But she also remembered the morning two years ago when, while packing up a camp, Xena had pulled the rag from its pouch and announced nonchalantly, after examing it for a moment. "I hardly use this thing anymore. We could make better use of the space. I'll get rid of it." Gabrielle remembered watching intently out of the corner of her eye as Xena dug a small hole under a bush at the edge of camp, dropped in the rag and covered it. And how the Warrior Princess had stood still and silent for a long time staring sightless into the early morning mists, lost in her thoughts. The bard knew some small part of the past was being let go and buried at that moment and the happy thought of it had sent her off on a cheerful all day talking marathon until finally, as they prepared supper, Xena had walked over, placed a hand behind the bard's neck, a finger from the other to her lips and said, "Gabrielle, if you don't stop talking I'm going to gag you." Then Xena did something she had never done before. She brought her head down until her forehead pressed gently against Gabrielle's, their noses touching, and she looked into the bard's eyes with such frank, open affection that it sucked the oxygen from her lungs, and she whispered, "Gabrielle, your the world to me. My life is better everyday you're in it." It was one of Gabrielle's proudest achievements, that her influence had helped Xena overcome her thoughtless bloodlust, and now it sickened her to think that the Warrior Princess would stain herself with blood tonight because of her.
"I'm better Xena." The bard gasped. "We can go out the way we came in."
Xena instantly understood the meaning behind Gabrielle's words and a spark of anger flared.
"No we can't." The Warrior Princess answered evenly, trying to control her voice. "You have a concussion. You could black out at any time, or start heaving again, and we'll be trapped in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, with no clue where the gate or anything else is. I wish I could carry you Gabrielle but I'll need my hands free if we run into trouble, but we are taking the fast way out. End of discussion."
End of discussion. The bard hated that phrase. It always infuriated her when Xena used it. But her head was pounding now with a blinding headache and her stomach was beginning to churn. Like it or not Xena was right. They had to get out now. Reluctantly Gabrielle nodded.
"All right then." Xena said, relieved, knowing how stubborn the bard could be. "We're out of here."
The Warrior Princess grabbed Gabrielle's wrist and slowly opened the heavy oak door, trying to minimize the scraping noise of wood on stone. When it was halfway open she stuck her head out and listened. It was well after midnight now. The quietest, sleepiest time of night. All the torches lit in the courtyard and around the various entranceways at sundown had used up their fuel and sputtered out. Xena looked up. The half moon was still covered. The blackness was almost total. Perfect. The Warrior Princess had long ago learned what a useful friend darkness was to her. Men fear the dark because of what they might unexpectedly encounter. But Xena knew she could depend on her quickness and unmatched killer instinct to handle any sudden meetings. For her darkness was a comfortable cloak she put on to make herself invisible, an element she swam through like a fish through water.
Orienting herself with the doorway, Xena knew forty to fifty paces in a straight line should carry them to the wall. Pulling Gabrielle out and closing the door Xena started across the courtyard, eyes and ears straining, mind silently counting the steps. Gabrielle followed behind concentrating on taking one step at a time and not stepping on Xena's heels. Between the darkness and her watery eyes the Warrior Princess was invisible to her, but the iron grip on her wrist gave her confidence. She knew no one born of woman could break that grip until Xena was ready to let go.
After forty paces Xena put her arm out and at fortyeight her hand collided with rough masonry. She pulled the bard up beside her against the wall and stopped to listen. Only the sound of a lonely cricket could be heard. Xena reached up and gave Gabrielle a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder then she began edging them along the wall toward the stairs. After a few dozen paces the hand Xena was running along the wall came across the indentation and flat horizontal surface of the steps. She pulled Gabrielle close and put her mouth to her ear.
"We're at the steps. Half way up we'll pause for a moment."
Xena's lips sensed the movement of Gabrielle's ear as she nodded her head. At what she estimated was halfway Xena stopped and crouched back against the wall. Gabrielle felt the motion in her arm and did the same, glad for the moment of rest. The headache and nausea were getting worse. Xena carefully unhooked her chakram and moved her wrist around in small circles, getting the muscles loose. When they came across the night watch on the parapet silence would be the key. One swift cut across the throat, all the way to the spine, vocal chords and jugular in one motion. He would be dead when he hit the ground and never make a sound.
Xena stood and started to pull Gabrielle up when a sudden ragged whistle burst out from down the parapet, in the direction of where they had hidden their rope. Instantly Xena was crouched low again against the wall, a long arm across Gabrielle's chest pinning her to the wall as well. The whistle moved slowly toward them. Sometimes Xena thought she recognized a tune in the sloppy, wavering noise. Other times it souned only like the last attempt of a bored man to keep himself awake. Closer and closer the whistle moved till it was right above them and then it was past and moving steadily away till it was gone, swallowed by the darkness. 'The gods were with him tonight' Xena thought.
"The gods protect the blind and the foolish." Gabrielle gasped in a whisper.
'She told me once she could read my thoughts' Xena chuckled to herself. 'I need to be more careful what I'm thinking'.
The Warrior Princess pulled Gabrielle up and they quickly mounted the last steps to the parapet and started for their hidden rope. Xena had coiled the long rope tight and with a big sticky gob of pitch attached it to the outside of the wall a few feet below the edge of the parapet. She knew no one could see it from the ground in the dark and that no watchman ever leaned out to look straight down the wall. But there was a danger now that had Xena pulling Gabrielle along faster than she really intended. Going out the way they had come in would have led them directly to the ropes hiding place. Now Xena would have to guess the approximate location, and if she missed there would be no time for wandering up and down looking. Plan two would have to go into effect and Xena did not have a plan two.
After fifty yards the Warrior Princess began stopping at each break in the parapet to reach down and search for the rope. The stopping and starting made everything worse for Gabrielle. It took all her will not to drop to her knees and begin retching. After ten yards with no rope Xena's mind was racing desperately. She was about to give up and head for the main gate to bludgeon her way out when her hand felt a sticky wad of goo.
The rope was long enough to allow Xena to throw each end to the ground after wrapping it halfway around one of the crinolines of the parapet. The Warrior Princess bent her knees and backed into the bard.
"Put your arms around my neck and jump up and wrap your legs around my waist." She whispered.
Gabrielle hesitated. "Xena, I'll choke you."
"Gabrielle, just do it." Xena answered, exasperation creeping into her voice. "Hurry up."
The bard wrapped both arms tightly around her friends neck and jumped weakly up to wrap her legs around Xena's waist. After a moment of adjusting to be sure she was secure Xena gathered both strands of rope in her powerful hands and stepped out and down, using her legs to control her descent. The sudden weightless feeling was almost more than Gabrielle could stand. She pressed her mouth to the back of Xena's neck to keep from vomiting and for a desperate moment she felt as though she would black out. When the descent stopped with a jolt as Xena's feet found the ground Gabrielle immediatly unwrapped herself and fell to her hands and knees convulsing violently. Xena looked down in an agony of fear for the bard but she knew she had to get the rope down before she could help her. By the time she had pulled it around and it cascaded down Gabrielle's convulsions had stopped. She lay down, only her elbows propping up her head and shoulders, but her head drooped almost to the ground.
Xena sat down cross legged beside the bard and gently lifted her and rolled her over so her head was in her lap. With gentle hands she began rubbing Gabrielle's temples and stroking her cheeks. Xena knew from experience how paralyzing and disorienting the pounding ache from a concussion could be. How every beat of the heart seemed to thunder in the brain. Gabrielle closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on the feel of Xena's hands, tried to turn her mind away from the pain. 'How can this hard woman be so tender in her touch' Gabrielle wondered. Her hands look worse than a blacksmiths, calloused, smashed knuckles, several fingers crooked from poorly healed breaks, yet the bard always felt like a babe caressed by its mother when Xena touched her.
Gabrielle wanted to just relax and let herself melt away under Xena's hands but she forced her mind to focus. 'We cannot stay here' she thought. 'My self indulgence is endangering us'. Get up! The bard opened her eyes and could see the Warrior Princess' face hovering fuzzily above her. She put her hand to the ground and tried to lift herself. A strong hand was immediatly on her chest pushing her down.
"I can make it Xena, let's go."
"Naw," Xena grinned. "I need to rest a moment. You must be getting fat. It wears me out hauling you around these days."
"Liar." Gabrielle answered. "You never get tired. And if anyone is getting fat it's the lazy butt riding the horse."
"Ouch." Xena grimaced. "Don't get personal. You know how sensitive I am about my figure."
They both laughed at Xena's joke and for a precious moment the pain in Gabrielle's head eased. Xena placed her hand lightly on the bards forehead.
"We've got some time." She said seriously. "We'll rest a little longer."
"Hey!" Gabrielle gasped suddenly. "I totally forgot. Did you get the Scepter?"
"Of course." Xena answered, suprised. "Didn't you see it on my back when we came down the rope?"
"Only thing I saw was the back of your neck while I tried not to throw up on you." Rasped the bard.
"Hmmph." Xena grunted.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and enjoyed the massage for a few moments but she soon felt Xena's touch become slower and more distracted. She opened her eyes to see the Warrior Princess staring out into the darkness.
"Xena?" The bard whispered.
"Solon used to throw up on me all the time." Xena said quietly, in a far away voice. "Every time I pulled him off my breast and tried to burp him up it came all over me. My milk was poison to him I guess. If I hadn't given him to the centaurs... I think he would have starved to death. He deserved so much from me, Gabrielle, and got so little. Yet the last thing he said to me was 'I love you mother'."
After a long pause Xena whispered in a ragged voice. "Why Solon, why should you love me?"
Garielle was used to Xena giving her only the smallest of peeks at the most unexpected of times into the darkest places of her soul. But this was almost more than the bard could bear. Each word seemed to tighten an iron vise around her heart until finally the pain of it drowned out every other sensation. She longed to find some way to help her friend get out from under the boulder of guilt and regret that she carried on her shoulders. But the bard had learned long ago that after a lifetime of association and competition with brothers, boys and men that Xena had no feel or patience for the normal patterns of female sympathy. She spoke bluntly and responed best to bluntness in return.
Gabrielle sucked in a great lung full of air and began speaking, anger rising in her voice.
"How dare you! That beautiful soul saved us. He gave us back to each other when we were trying to destroy ourselves. Do you think he did that out of some perverse desire to see you spend a lifetime wallowing in guilt and self hatred. I won't have you dishonor him that way Xena. Your son loved you and wanted you to be happy and you will accept that if I have to pound it into your thick skull with my staff!"
There was a long, tense silence as Gabrielle gulped air and looked up at Xena staring motionless into the night. Finally the Warrior Princess' low angry warlord voice snaked out.
"That's mighty bold talk," Xena looked down at the bard and the corner of her mouth twitched up into that mischevious grin that said she was laughing at some private joke she had just told herself, "for a woman who just left her staff lying back in the hallway by the treasury."
"Damn it." Gabrielle gasped in dismay. "Xena why..."
"Hey, I can only carry so much. But I will try to be fair. Next time I'll take the staff and leave you."
Xena was pleased to see that Gabrielle smiled in spite of herself.
"Feeling better?" She asked with concern.
"Yes." Gabrilled answered. "I do. Let's get out of here. Okay."
Xena lifted Gabrielle to a sitting position then jumped to her feet. She pulled her up as well then threw one of the bards arms over her neck and with a sweep of her arm she picked the Amazon Queen up and pulled her close to her chest.
"You don't have to do this. "The bard said, annoyed. "Put me down."
"No, if you're going to get fat I better start getting used to the extra weight."
Xena walked quickly toward the tree line she knew was in the distance, although she could not yet see it. The first fifty yards were across the carefully leveled dirt of the killing field that surrounded the fort. The next hundred was through thigh high weeds and grass where the trees had been cut for the construction of the fortress. Finally Xena came to the dark looming shapes of the forest. She stopped and gave a low whistle. No sound answered. After a few moments she whistled again. This time she could hear the sound of a large body moving through the underbrush. It got closer then stopped.
"Here Argo!" Xena hissed.
The rustling started again and in a moment the large four legged shape of the warhorse materialized out of the gloom and stopped in front of Xena.
"If you're getting too old for this I can always trade you in you know." Xena said, annoyed. "There has to be some nice farmer with twelve kids somewhere who needs a gentle old saddle horse."
Argo bobbed her head and snorted. Xena put Gabrielle's foot in a stirrup and with a grunt flung her up on the saddle. She then grabbed Argo's bridle and pulled her head around.
"Gabrielle's hurt." She said into the mare's ear. "Be careful and go back to where you were waiting. I'll be back soon." She then reached up and scratched Argo behind the ears in that special spot. Argo arched her neck with pleasure. "Now go!"
Argo turned away and moved slowly off into the darkness, the bard clinging with both hands to the saddlehorn.
Free of Gabrielle it took Xena only a few moments to race back to the fortress wall, being careful to retrace her steps as much as possible. Collecting the rope and wrapping it around her shoulder, she found the large leafy branch she had brought when they first approached the wall and began making large sweeping motions along the dusty ground, obliterating their tracks. Backing away from the wall she swept as she went until she reached the high grass. When she reached the trees Xena threw away the branch and bore to the left, quietly calling Gabrielle's name. After a few dozen steps the bard answered and Xena was quickly standing beside Argo, patting her shoulder.
"Not a one." Xena stated matter-of-factly. "It should take them hours to find the first sign of us in the morning. If we press hard we shouldn't have any problems with a pursuit."
Xena swung up behind Gabrielle and took Argo's reins in one hand and put the other around the bards waist.
"How's your head?"
Gabrielle leaned back against Xena and felt Xena's chin rest lightly on the top of her head. The contact with her body felt good, like wrapping a warm cloak around her shoulders on a chilly night.
"My eyes are better." She answered quietly. "Everything isn't blurry anymore."
"That's a good sign." Xena said encouragingly. "Maybe this will just be a mild concussion."
Gabrielle closed her eyes. "I hope so."
Xena gave Argo a light tap with her heels and let the big palimino pick her own way through the heavy brush. It was slow going but Xena was content to let Argo set the pace. She knew many horses would have refused altogether to move through such difficult undergrowth in the dark but Xena had total confidence in Argo's courage and in her judgement. She would find the way through without any distracting direction or encouragement from her. After half a league they came to a slow, meandering creek with a low bank on their side and a higher bluff on the other. Xena let Argo rest and drink til she was satisfied, then urged her into the water. They had come up this stream when approaching the fortress the night before so the Warrior Princess knew the bottom was solid and the water never deeper than Argo's belly. They would be able to stay a full two leagues before it widened and deepened and they would have to leave it. By then it would be light enough to pick the right spot to exit.
Great oaks and birch lined both banks of the stream, their leafy branches reaching out to form a tent over the slow flowing water. The bard let her head rest against Xena's chest and concentrated on the sights and sounds around her, hoping her senses could overwhelm the pulsing pain in her head. The gloom was lessening quickly as the sun approached the rim of the earth. The birds were coming alive with the light. Gabrielle could see jays and starlings flitting in the branches above her. Frogs croaked their love calls, one overlapping the next. And there was always the steady rythmic splash of Argo's legs moving through the water. A dragon fly suddenly flashed up into the bards vision and hovered for a moment, a foot from her face, regarding her curiously, then zoomed past her ear with a low hum.
"Do you see what I see?"
Xena let her senses soak up everything around her.
"Yes my love. It is extraordinarily beautiful isn't it."
Gabrielle closed her eyes. 'My love', she thought. 'My heart always jumps when you say that. Am I selfish to wish you said it more often.'
The stream began to widen. The canopy above parted. Xena began watching for a rocky patch where Argo could climb from the stream without leaving a track. Finally, just as the sun poked its orange disk above the horizon she spotted what she was looking for. With a slight chuck of the reins she brought Argo to a halt. Xena tapped the bard on the shoulder and pointed.
"We'll get out there, but first let's take care of a little business."
Gabrielle raised her head. "What business?"
"Here." Xena answered. "Throw your leg over and turn around to face me."
The bard did as she was asked. Xena slid back onto Argo's rump and fished around in a saddlebag until she found the small rag they used to clean their cooking utensils. She bent down and soaked it throughly in the cold clear water and then straightened to face Gabrielle.
Xena's stomach shriveled and a shiver went up her spine, but her face betrayed nothing but calm indifference. The nose that had been sideways and flat outside the treasury was now puffed out like a red misshapen tomato in the middle of the bards face. And behind the tomato were two deep purplish eyes. Dried blood was spread over Gabrielle's mouth and chin and down her neck to her breasts. Through the swelling Xena could see that the cartledge was still smashed sideways. It would have to be straightened, swelling or not.
'You idiot' Xena thought. 'You should have straightened that nose back in the hallway while she was out. You panicked didn't you. You were so afraid you couldn't think and now you've made things worse for her. Lyceus, Marcus, Borius, Solon. Oh Gabrielle, when will I add you to the list of my victims?'
Xena carefully daubed away the blood, working from the breasts up to the chin and mouth. Then with a warm smile to the bard she let her hands go to each side of Gabrielle's nose and with a sudden violent jerk snapped the cartledge back into its proper position. Gabrielle squealed in pain and her hands grabbed Xena's wrists and tried to pull them away from her searing nose but Xena was too strong.
"No Gabrielle no." The Warrior Princess said through clenched teeth. "Don't touch it. It will only hurt more."
The bard eased her grip a little.
"I'm so sorry I had to do it that way, but it had to be done and pain anticipated is always worse."
Gabrielle let her grip relax completely and slid her hands down to Xena's elbows.
"Gods Xena, that hurt." She sighed.
"I know it did."
The bard took some long deep gulps of air and tried to calm her pounding heart. Xena dipped the rag again into the cold water and washed Gabrielle's cheeks and forehead and then daubed at the tears of pain that were flowing from her eyes.
"Not one of our more successful missions, huh." Xena said with a sympathetic smile.
"Oh, not a total disaster I guess." The bard said finally. "We got what we came for and it will make a good story. And King Tyros will owe me a fancy new staff I think. Good thing I left that heirloom Ephiny gave me with my sister. She would have a cow if I lost that. I wouldn't want Ephiny mad at me."
"Got that right." Xena chuckled. "She'd kick both our butts. You know she'd hold me responsible."
Xena wrung out the rag and replaced it in the saddlebag. She was fishing around in another sack for some apples to share for breakfast when she noticed Gabrielle slowly leaning over to look down into the steam. She put a hand to the bards cheek and gently turned her head back.
"No Gabrielle." Xena put her finger next to her eye. "If you need a mirror look right here. See yourself in my eyes."
Gabrielle gazed a long time into those clear blue warm loving pools and then sighed.
"No Xena, I've never looked that good."
"Just the opposite." The Warrior Princess said quietly, moving her face closer to the bards. "My eyes will never do you justice."
Xena cocked her head sideways and tried to kiss Gabrielle but just as their lips touched the bard pulled away with a yelp.
"Gods, my nose must be enormous." Gabrielle gasped, blinking her eyes against the pain.
"A little swollen yes." Xena answered with a smile. "But swelling always goes down. A few days will take care of it. How's your head?"
"Better. It's just a dull pounding now. Not like it was back at the fortress. The nausea has gone away." The bard put a hand down and rubbed her flat belly. "In fact I'm..."
"Hungry?" Xena said with an arched eyebrow. "You know Gabrielle, your corpse will still be eating nutbread three days after you die."
The Warrior Princess pulled out the biggest, reddest apple in the ration sack and handed it to Gabrielle then brought out a smaller one for herself.
"We need to go Gabrielle." Xena said after a few bites. "Valkors scouts will be out looking for us now that it's light. We'll have to eat as we ride."
The bard nodded and swung herself around in the saddle. With a touch of her heels Xena set Argo in motion and carefully guided her onto a outcropping of rocks that stretched down from a low bluff into the water. It took some delicate balancing and a tough jump onto the bluff but Argo never made a misstep.
Once on dry land Xena hurried Argo on for six leagues across great open meadows and through several strips of old, undergrowth free forest. Twice she doubled back for a short distance and then made a half circle out and around and back to her original course to confuse the trail. When she struck the Corinth to Xora road she went half a league toward Corinth before leaving the road and making another great half circle to pick up the road two leagues from where they first encountered it.
When the sun reached its zenith they stopped briefly to eat, stretch their legs and visit the bushes. Argo had a good drink from a small pond by the road and then they were on the way again pressing hard. By the time the sun set behind the low Peloponese hills more than thirty leagues seperated the Xoran Scepter and Valkors stronghold.
Xena guided Argo off the road into a small stand of trees and found a shallow depression where they could lay their blankets without being seen from the road. She quickly unsaddled Argo and let her loose to rest and forage while Gabrielle set up a cold camp. Dinner was some apples and dried beef washed down with a skin of water. Xena noticed in the dying light that the swelling in the bards nose was shrinking but that only allowed a better view of the deep purple of Garbrielle's two black eyes.
Xena couldn't stifle a sigh. 'How close did you come to death today my love,' she thought. 'That blow was aimed at driving your nasal bone into your brain. I know. I've killed more than a few that way. What bit of luck or reflex saved you. I'm failing you Gabrielle. When I let death come this close I'm failing.'
Gabrille crawled under the blankets and held up the blanket on Xena's side.
"Come on." The bard said, looking intently at the Warrior Princess. "You know we're both exhausted. Don't stay up. Come and snuggle so we can both sleep."
Xena smiled a little half smile. Snuggling with the bard was one of lifes true pleasures. It was an invitation not refused lightly. She quickly unbuckled her armour, shed her boots and joined Gabrielle under the blankets. Gabrielle softly stroked Xena's hair and cheek and her nose was shrunk enough that she could let her lips brush back and forth on Xena's. The Warrior Princess wrapped her arms around the bard and pulled her close.
"That was a nice bit of rescue back there." Gabrielle whispered into Xena's neck.
"No, that was a poor piece of planning." Xena answered evenly, her eyes staring far away into the dark.
The bard thought briefly about arguing but she was too tired. And before she could think another thought she was asleep.
An owl hooting low in the trees brought Gabrielle back from the world of Morpheous. She opened one eye and listened for a moment till she was sure of the sound. She rolled back to press herself against Xena's warm body but she rolled all the way over without finding her.
Gabrielle opened both eyes and reached out a hand. Xena's space was empty and the blanket was cold to the touch. She had been gone for a while. Gabrielle lifted her head and looked around. It was a clear starry night. The clouds of the night before had moved on. She could see the dark shapes of the trees but no Xena. The bard hated it when Xena disappeared without a word like this. She pulled back her blanket and stumbled to her feet. Waking up was always a drawn out process for Gabrielle.
"She's probably by the road. Let's see, the road is.... that way."
Gabrielle started to slowly stumble and bumble in the general direction of the Corinth road. As she approached the edge of the stand of trees she felt the strangest tickle behind her ear. She reached up sleepily through a yawn and scratched it but her hand was hardly down when the tickle returned.
"Damn bug." The bard hissed, annoyed. She slapped at her ear and turned around.
"AAHH." Gabrielle gasped, startled.
Not three feet away from her face was an upside down Xena peering at her with an upside down arch of her eyebrows and a little twig with a leaf at the end in her upside down hand.
"By the gods, Xena. Most people stop acting like a twelve year old when they turn thirteen."
"Is that so?"
Xena swung her arms and did a graceful flip to the ground.
"Well, your words might carry more weight if you weren't a grown woman stumbling along like a sleepy five year old dragging her blanky behind her."
"What." Gabrielle looked down and in her hand was the end of her blanket which she had failed to release when she got up to find Xena. The bard hid a sheepish grin behind her hand.
"Well, I wouldn't be a sleepy five year old if you would just tell me when you're leaving. I don't like it when you just disappear." Gabrielle's tone began to get warmer and she stared straight into Xena's eyes. "Yes I worry to much. But you may have noticed we lead a rather active and worrisome life. So I'm asking you, please humor my weakness and tell me what you're doing. That's all I ask."
Xena regarded the green eyes for a long moment. Eyes so expressive they could convey anger, concern and affection all in the same glance.
"You were so tired I thought you would sleep through the night." Xena said slowly. "I was wrong. I won't leave you hanging like that again. In the future I will tell you what I'm doing."
Gabrielle smiled her happiest smile. Xena only said she was wrong once a year. The bard wished she could remember what day it was so she could mark it down.
"I didn't apol..."
"Now what were you doing out her anyway?" Gabrielle asked brightly.
Xena arched an eyebrow and the corner of the mouth twitched up in a look of bemused irony. Finally she shrugged her shoulders.
"There is still the possibility of pursuit. I found a nice niche in that tree and I was watching the road."
"They would have shown by now if they were coming, don't you think?" Gabrielle said hopefully. "Come to bed and get some rest."
"No." Xena answered with that finallity that always ended any argument. "We've had enough go wrong on this mission. We'll play it safe."
Gabrielle sighed. "Well, then I'll stay up with you."
"Of course you will." Xena smiled.
"I will." The bard said with determination.
Xena reached out and took Gabrielle's hand and led her over to a large thick oak. She sat down on the side facing the road, legs extended, looked up at the bard and patted her lap.
"Come on." She said invitingly, with a grin.
"Xena, I'm not a child." Gabrielle said with exasperation. "I said I would stay up with you."
"I know." Xena replied soothingly. "But it will be a while before sunrise. We might as well be comfortable."
Gabrielle considered for a moment. Pride and exhaustion or surrender and Xena's comforting lap and blissful sleep. The bard shrugged her shoulders. "Okay." She squeeked and threw herself down to the ground and let her head snuggle into Xena's lap. 'All my decisions should be this easy' she thought.
Xena helped the bard spread the blanket over her and tucked it in around her legs. She let her hand make slow tender circles on the top of Gabrielle's head. The bard grasped Xena's other hand, pulled it to her face and kissed the palm then placed it down on her breast over her heart.
"I love you Xena." She said in a whisper as she closed her eyes.
Xena looked down and smiled. "I love you Gabrielle."
Xena laid her head back against the oak and fixed her eyes on the road. The owl that woke Gabrielle began its slow mournful hooting again. The Warrior Princess watched as a mother raccoon and three babies marched out of the wood, crossed the road and disappeared into the high grass of the meadow on the other side. Crickets silenced by the humans noisy movements began to chirp their love calls again, accompanied by the low throbbing of cicades. Xena felt the breeze freshen on her cheeks and she took in a deep breath and enjoyed the faint scent of pine in the air. She looked down at Gabrielle's peaceful face and brushed back a strand of hair that had blown across her eyes. She let her sense of touch enjoy the steady rise and fall of her hand over her heart. Her mind drifted away aimlessly through a hundred different memories and sensations, all peaceful, pleasant. Amphipolis, Lyceus, Mother, Marcus, Gabrielle.
With a start Xena realized there was something on the road. She focused her eyes intently just in time to see a doe startled by her movement bound back into the sheltering wood. The Warrior Princess shook her head. 'What is this feeling warrior,' she thought, 'that has you so distracted? Is it happiness? How out of touch with yourself can you be that you don't even recognize the emotion anymore.' Xena looked down again at Gabrielle's sleeping form. Her body completly relaxed, her face radiating contentment. 'The demons are losing the battle for my soul love. You're winning. I should have known you would. You've always been stronger than me. Your love will always be stronger than my rage. Each day, despite myself, I surrender more to you and happiness. Gabrielle of Potadia, Bard, Queen of the Amazon Nation, dearest love of my life, I don't deserve you but I can never let you go. Your the best part of me.' Xena leaned down and lightly kissed Gabrielle's forehead and let her fingers caress her cheek. The bards head rocked back and forth once and she made a pleased little sighing sound. Xena smiled so happily she thought for a moment her face would crack.
Xena shook the bards shoulder.
"Gabrielle. Wake up. There's trouble!"
One eye popped open, then the other.
Gabrielle threw herself up to her knees, a fist rubbing the sleep out of her eyes while her head swiviled back and forth trying to identify the threat.
"Where? What trouble?" She said, confused that nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
"There's going to be trouble... if you don't wake up and share this glorious sunrise with me." Xena said with a warm smile.
Gabrielle focused her eyes out to the distant east. The huge orange wavering disc of the sun was a blazing semi-circle on the horizon throwing deep purple shadows down the far Corinthian hills. High cirrus clouds brought in by the night breeze glowed as orange as the sun while the clear sky around them was the deepest most perfect blue Gabrielle had ever seen.
"Oooohh." Was all she could say in wonder.
The bard quickly scooched around and sat down next to Xena, pressing herself close. She threw the blanket over both of them. She could feel the morning chill even if Xena's hardened body could not. Once they were settled and comfortable Xena's hand found Gabrielle's and in silence they enjoyed the breathtaking beauty of the beginning of another day.
As they were breaking camp Xena explained they had two options. They could press hard all day and arrive in Xora around sundown and have the pleasure of a hot bath and meal before retiring to a real bed and clean blankets. Or they could take a more leisurly ride, with less stress and weariness, and make Xora by noon the next day.
"Well, I don't know about you," Gabrielle said as she rolled up their blankets, "but we haven't had a bath in five days and the smell of sweaty leather can get pretty pene..."
Gabrielle abruptly stopped talking when the cloth Xena was using to rub down Argo smacked her on the side of the head.
END OF, THE FORTRESS. COMING UP NEXT THE CITY.
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