~ My Weakness IS My Strength ~
Formerly titled For Love of a Warrior

by Kristien Damon
(a.k.a. Lawlsfan)

Disclaimers: This story contains depictions of passion and sexual contact between two adult and very consenting women. In addition this story contains limited depictions of violence and some language that some may deem offensive, but nothing worse than would be viewed on any episode of the show Xena:Warrior Princess. However, if depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.  Xena:Warrior Princess, its characters, and all related material are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures 1995-2000.  This story may not be copied and/or reproduced in any form without express written consent from the author. It was originally completed on 9/15/99 and was my very first fan fiction piece. Major revisions were completed and the story was republished on 6/17/01.

Thank you: A huge thank you to my friend, Lariel for providing very helpful and honest feedback which has allowed me, I hope, to make this revised story a much better read than the original version.

Feedback is always welcome at: lawlsfan@xenaeyes.com.  I would love to hear what you think. :-)

 

Carefully I bend over her and place my hand on the warrior’s brow, gently wiping away the rivulets of blood that have gathered there and trying to offer some comfort. I think I am in shock, for I’m feeling, but not really.

She lies battered and unconscious before me, her breathing shallow and labored. Suddenly, her eyes flutter open and with effort she manages to raise her bloodstained hand and place it behind my head drawing me down to her. Her words escape her lips in barely a whisper, "Remember Gabrielle, love is stronger…" Then she coughs and strains and her voice fades into silence. I feel her grasp slowly falter from my neck as her hand falls and comes to lie on the ground next to the hilt of her sword; it never moves again. And as her sapphire eyes relinquish their life fire, Xena Warrior Princess takes her final breath and stillness once again returns to the clearing around us.

Staring down at her lifeless form, my eyes well with tears. I cannot believe she is truly gone. Tenderly I reach for her and roll a wisp of her hair about my finger, silently relishing the softness and texture that I have so come to love. "NO! It can’t be over, you can’t really be…gone." With the realization starting to sink in, I suddenly grasp her shoulders and begin to shake her as though trying to rouse her from a sound sleep. "XENA! Please wake up, I need you." But the warrior doesn’t respond and after several moments, which seem like an eternity, I finally succumb to the reality that the warrior princess, my friend, my love is gone. She’s really gone. Reluctantly releasing my grip on her motionless form I lean down and kiss her eyelids. "I love you, Xena," I whisper as a tear slips from my eye and falls upon her battered face washing away a small portion of the blood, which until minutes ago had coursed feverishly through her veins. I shudder as I watch the tiny river of blood mix with my sorrow and meander along her cheek; down it flows to pool in the raven colored hair next to her ear. It seems to hold a beautiful brilliance as it shimmers in the late evening sun and I am transfixed. If only I could will these tears to wash away all the blood, the pain, the heart wrenching finality of this moment. Xena, you can’t go. You’ve got to fight this. You’ve got to win. You always win. But, I suppose it is not to be. She is truly gone and it’s my fault. If I weren’t in her life and she weren’t so worried about…

My despair is abruptly interrupted by the distinctive crack of a branch beneath a footfall behind me. My hand instinctively clenches the handle of the knife lying near my knee, its blade dulled with her blood. Despairing delusion grips my heart and burns straight into my soul. It’s him! I spring to my feet with the vision of a dying warrior princess still fresh and clouding my mind, and lunge with a lustful vengeance at the intruder. My blade mercilessly finds its mark. The intruder stumbles backward in shock, the knife protruding from his heart. His eyes remain firmly planted on me as the life slowly ebbs from his body and as he falls he reaches out toward me. Moving too quickly to escape his outstretched hands my own legs buckle, pitching me violently to the ground. Only then, while slowly regaining my composure, do I truly cast my eyes upon the victim of my anguished rage. Suddenly, I realize the enormity of my mistake and I can’t help but shudder. Before me lays the young villager that Xena and I had met mere hours before…

His name was Agronimus and I had delighted in his youthful exuberance when he’d first laid eyes upon the infamous Xena, Warrior Princess. He’d bounded about her showering her with question after question about her exploits and soaking in every reply with an expression of amazement and awe. Of course Xena eventually tired of this overabundance of adoration and came up with a plan to cool his fire for a while.

"Agronimus! Calm down. I need you to do me a favor," Xena said with that impish expression that only a truly experienced warrior watcher like I would pick up on. "I need you to go about the village and gather for me the following items." She hesitated and noted Agronimus staring at her eagerly as if he were a dog waiting for her to toss him a bone. She grinned and continued. "I need a length of rope, a frying pan, a horse shoe, a scroll, a net, a pair of turnips, and a tiny little stick figure made out of the finest hardwood you can get your hands on. Got that?" Agronimus shook his head affirmatively. "All right, now go on." She shooed him toward the door.

Xena winked at me as Agronimus merrily trotted off to do his warrior idol’s bidding.

I shook my head in amusement. "Ah yes, Xena. That ought to keep him busy for a while." Then with arched eyebrow I continued, "Now, while we’re waiting for Agronimus to finish your odd shopping mission for you..." I reach out and touch her arm. "How about a hot bath, some wine, and…?" 

The warrior suddenly spun around and strode off toward the stables to gather Argo.  "Come on Gabrielle. We’ve got to get moving if we want to reach Athens by nightfall."

I grinned as I watched Xena disappear into the stables. Of course she knew what I was hinting at. And she also knew as I did, that our friendship was growing in leaps and bounds toward something more intense than sisterly love. We’d never talked about it and yet somehow the message got through, riding on all the playful banter and innuendo we shared daily. But I knew that Xena would not and could not give in to it, just as I knew that I’d already strained the bounds of her warrior heart with my abounding love and compassion for a woman who within herself had known so little of these virtues. She was giving all she could at the moment, and that’s just the way it is and had to be. ‘Really Gabrielle,’ I taunted myself, ‘Could Xena continue to be the cold, calculating warrior she needs to be if she were to fully lose herself in you?’ I’m sure Xena wondered this too, hence her tenseness of late. My grin faded.

Later, as we started out of the village aboard Argo, I thought I caught a glimpse of Agronimus scrambling about behind the tavern cooking area, frying pan in hand and the tavern owner hot on his heals. I smiled broadly as I brought my hand to rest on Xena’s waist and felt the power of the warrior and her mount as Argo broke into an easy gallop. ‘Someday Xena, when your warrior days are done. Someday, I’m going to love you the way you deserve to be loved...with absolute passion and wild abandon.’


The piercing cry of a hawk flying above my head wrests me from my memory with a start and reality once again sets in. With a heavy heart I again look at the slain young man before me. At his side lays a small bag, the contents spilling onto the blood stained ground next to him, and as I stare blankly at a horseshoe and a turnip a shudder ravages me from head to toe. "By the gods, what have I done!?" Covering my face with my bloodied hands, my sobs of despair fill the silent meadow as the sun sinks lower and lower into the coming night. I lie on the cool grass beside the body of my beloved partner and friend, reach out my hand to her one last time, then weep myself into a fitful sleep...

*************

Gabrielle slowly forced her eyes open and with an anguished feeling boiling in her stomach, swept back the blankets and sat upright, her mind registering only one thought.

XENA!

She allowed her eyes to move slowly to her left not daring to move them too swiftly for fear of what she may not see there.  Finally her eyes beheld the most beautiful sight in the world and she sighed loudly in relief.

Xena, you’re here! You’re alive! By the gods, it WAS all just a dream. A horribly realistic dream…

The warrior princess lay sleeping peacefully, her breathing slow and rhythmic. Gabrielle, overcome with joy at finding her companion safe and sound, bent down closer and closer until she could feel the warmth of Xena’s exhalation on her cheek. She silently gazed at her partner trying to memorize every line and curve of her face, features she had studied so often without the warrior being aware. But this time it was different and as though she was seeing it for the first time. Tears of love and relief welled up into her eyes. Slowly, so as not to awaken her sleeping companion, she drew ever nearer to the warrior’s lips, her own lips quivering with anticipation. Then suddenly, a tear broke free from her eye and gently splayed upon Xena’s cheek. Immediately the sapphire of the warrior’s eyes was blinding the young bard and she gasped in surprise.

"Gabrielle! What…?" Xena started.

The bard fell back to a respectable distance, a blush flooding the skin of her face and neck. She opened her mouth to speak but no words would come and awkward silence fell between them.

The warrior princess now fully awakened from her slumber sat up and looked at her partner with wonderment. "Gabrielle, is everything OK?" She'd noticed the remnants of tears in her companion’s eyes and couldn’t help but notice the blush as well.

"Sure Xena, everything’s fine." Gabrielle smiled reassuringly. "I just had a bad dream." In silence, she contemplated whether she should tell her friend all the details of her nightmare. She’d had prophetic dreams before and fortunately she and Xena’d been lucky so far, the prophecies had not come true. But she couldn’t help thinking that maybe someday one would, and it frightened her terribly. For now she really didn’t even want to think about it so she decided to let it pass. She shivered slightly and Xena, believing her friend was cold, reached up and pulled her down to lie next to her in her bedroll. Gabrielle thankfully nestled her head into the warrior’s shoulder and the dream was temporarily forgotten.

"Do you want to tell me about it?"

"Maybe later." Gabrielle snuggled contentedly closer and gently draped her arm around Xena’s waist. Right now I just want to stay like this forever, she thought.

A comfortable silence blanketed them for several long moments as they both lost themselves in thought and the simple pleasure of each other’s company. Gabrielle was as usual first to break the silence.

"Thank you, Xena."

"For what?" the warrior asked, her hand absently stroking the bard’s silky golden hair.

"Well…just thank you for being here and for being you." The bard glanced up at her companion sheepishly. Well that was truly poetic response now wasn’t it, bard.

A playful smile crept across the warrior’s face. "Oh, is that all." She lifted the younger woman’s face toward her own. "For a minute I thought maybe I had been practicing one of my many skills in my sleep." 

Gabrielle grinned as she brought her hand up to rest lightly on Xena’s left cheek. But instead of quickly removing it like she usually did, she allowed it to linger there, stroking gently. Both women’s smiles slowly faded the longer they stared into each other’s eyes, sharing an unspoken something that neither could deny but that each knew could not be. Yet even that knowledge could not stop a thrill from running throughout the bard’s body like a thunderbolt from Zeus. And when Xena did not immediately pull away as she so often did, the bard could feel against her arm her companion’s heartbeat responding in rapid fashion. Wanting only to make the moment last, Gabrielle quickly slipped her hand behind Xena’s head and began to draw her nearer, needing and willing all their doubts to be dispersed through one simple, loving kiss. But it was not to be, for just as their lips were a mere wisp away from each other, the warrior suddenly broke from her grasp and scurried out of the bedroll and quickly away.

"Come on Gabrielle. We can’t lie around here all day. We’ve got to get moving if we want to reach Athens before tomorrow’s eve."

As the warmth of her partner’s body disappeared, Gabrielle felt the fire within herself rendered once again to a smoldering ember, a spark that’d been lit the day she’d met Xena, Warrior Princess. For as long as she could remember she had wanted to be as close as one could get to this person with whom she shared her heart, her pain, her joy, and her sorrow. How she longed to share her fantasies with her as well. But for now the fantasies were far overshadowed by a haunting dream that she hoped could not come true. Watching Xena saddle Argo like so many mornings before, the bard shivered for a moment and then quickly set about putting out their campfire.

*****

The sun rose higher in the morning sky as the two women drew nearer their next destination. Gabrielle was so busy languishing in the warmth and security of the rays upon her face that she failed to notice that Xena and Argo had stopped dead in their tracks beside her. She was aroused from her stupor by an all too familiar tone in Xena’s voice.

"Hi boys," the warrior said in a low timbre. "Looking for trouble?" She snarled sarcastically. "Well this could be your luckiest unlucky day cause you just happened to look in the right place at the wrong time and found us…"

Gabrielle spun around and followed Xena’s gaze toward a group of young ruffians appearing from the tree line. The glint of a half dozen well-polished swords told her that they probably weren’t here to simply welcome them to the neighborhood. She grasped her staff at ready and prepared to give them all a wicked good taste of the Amazon Queen. "Yeah, you found us!" she shouted in bold echo of the warrior princess. Xena momentarily looked at her companion and Gabrielle returned the look with a confident nod of her head as if to say ‘let’s do it.’

Without any further hesitation the warrior deftly dismounted and sent Argo off to a safe distance. Then she drew her sword and stepped in front of Gabrielle, a protective posture that the young bard found comforting yet at the same time disquieting. For reasons other than sheer pride she wanted the warrior to know that she could take care of herself, that Xena didn’t have to be distracted and constantly worrying about her welfare in a battle. With a look of stern determination etched across her face she stepped forward and took up a position to warrior’s immediate left. Xena cast her a puzzled glance.

Taking note of the warrior’s moment of distraction, several of the men attacked Xena at once while another flew by them and headed toward Gabrielle. In the midst of parrying with one man, the warrior agilely sidestepped another and sent him flailing headfirst into a tree behind her, knocking him unconscious.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle quickly dispatched her attacker with a staff blow to his stomach and then a swift upper cut to his jaw. He stumbled backward blindly, a look of utter disbelief mixed with pain etched across his face. A second attacker ran by him on his way to the same fate at the hands of the determined young Amazon Queen.

Xena quickly handled her attackers with the ease of a seasoned fighter, then stood back and silently watched from the sidelines as the women she most admired and loved in the entire world wreaked havoc on the various body parts of the remaining hapless would-be assailants. She smiled as she realized how much Gabrielle had grown and come into her own over the past few years; she hardly recognized the powerful and confident battling bard she saw before her. She is something. As she stood there watching her companion work she felt a familiar stirring deep inside, a feeling of deep pride and yet something else too, something desirous and dangerously close to breaking down her stoic facade. But shaking her head, she quickly quelled that stirring as best she could. I simply cannot let these feelings rule me -- I have to be able to focus at all times, especially in a battle. There’s too much at stake to be doing so much feeling.

"Xena?"

Gabrielle’s voice roused the warrior from her thoughts. She turned to look at the bard and immediately noticed a cut on her friend’s shoulder. A steady stream of blood flowed toward the younger woman’s elbow and dripped onto the ground beneath creating a small red pool at her feet.

"Gabrielle, you’re hurt!" Xena swung her arm around the smaller women’s waist to guide her to a downed log nearby. "Sit down and stay here while I get something to put on this." She hurried away to find Argo and her medicine pouch.

Gabrielle watched the warrior go, totally oblivious to the throbbing pain that shot up and down her arm from her wound. She was lost in her thoughts. Did she see how good I am with my staff, how I was able to take care of myself, how much I’ve learned from her and from the Amazons about fighting and surviving in a battle? By the gods how I need her to see that. How I want her…

Xena quickly returned with a poultice and some medicinal herbs and gently placed the poultice on Gabrielle’s wound. Suddenly wrenched from her thoughts, the bard grimaced in pain.  The warrior smiled wryly. The cut was long but not too deep so she decided that stitching would not be necessary.  There was silence for a moment as the bard gazed plaintively down at her wound.

"Do you think it’ll leave a scar, Xena?"

"Nope. Should be good as new in a few weeks."

Much to the warrior’s surprise Gabrielle huffed and rolled her eyes playfully. "Well then, what in Tartarus did I just go through all that for? No battle scars mean no warrior badge of honor." She sighed. "Gods know the Amazons will never believe me when I tell them what happened. They’ll just say ‘sure my queen, we know that Xena bailed you out just like she always does’ and then they’ll bow to you for saving my ass."

Xena looked at Gabrielle and suddenly it hit her. Seeing through the veil of jovialness surrounding the bard’s comments, she now knew what her companion had been up to when she so boldly took her place beside, and not behind her today. She looked into the bard’s eyes intently. "Gabrielle, I…" The younger woman held her gaze and the seasoned warrior’s heart began to race as though she were in the midst of yet another fight. But this was a tough one, perhaps the toughest she’d ever have to face. Sharing her feelings had always been that way. Gathering her composure as best she could she blurted out, "Gabrielle, we have to talk," then quickly averted her eyes back to the medicinal task at hand. She swabbed the bard’s wound pensively.

The bard sensed that something out of the ordinary was going through Xena’s mind because that warrior gaze rarely lost its mark, and it’s mark just a moment ago had been into her eyes and on trajectory for her soul. "Yes, Xena. Go on," she urged ever so gently, sensing that her companion would rather bolt than talk right now.

Xena finished bandaging Gabrielle’s wound and started to place the remaining medicinal items back in her pouch. "Gabrielle, I…I’m very proud of you. You’re certainly not that little girl any more, the one who attached herself to me back in Poteidaia." Closing the flap on the medicine pouch, she smiled wryly at the memory of a very young and fanciful little girl begging, ‘you have to take me with you, you can’t leave me here. Teach me everything you know.’ Her gaze shifted back to her young friend’s eyes. "I want you to know that…"  

The warrior hesitated when she felt the hand that Gabrielle, who’d been listening intently to her companion’s every hesitant word, had absently placed on her thigh. The touch set off that wave of feelings within her again and she could feel a flush beginning to crawl slowly up her neck and into her cheeks. Glancing down at the bard’s hand, she fought the urge to lose herself completely to it. Oh no! Not again. I've got to be strong.

Gabrielle noticed the sudden drift in Xena’s eyes and realized what she had done. She started to pull her hand away but Xena caught it, raised it to her lips, and grazed the back of it with a gentle kiss that sent the young bard’s head and heart reeling.

Xena slowly raised her eyes again to meet Gabrielle’s wistful gaze. "I need you…" she hesitated and took a deep breath.  "I need you to know that I do believe in your abilities to fight beside me. It’s undeniably a beautiful thing to watch when you get going." She grinned as she recalled the bard’s prowess during their most recent battle. Her grin slowly faded, however, as she continued with what she knew she had to say. "But Gabrielle, I also need you to know that I am and always will be a warrior. And a warrior needs to be able to focus at all times, and I just feel that if I were to allow --"

Gabrielle quickly raised her hand to cover the warrior’s lips stopping her mid sentence. "S-h-h. Xena, you don’t have to say it." She smiled reassuringly and then leaned over to wrap her arms around her companion’s neck drawing her near. "I know, and it’s all right. We can wait, until the time is right."

They remained in that embrace, for how long neither could be sure, the beating of their hearts echoing each other. They seemed suspended from time and place, lost in an essence of love that only true soul mates could know. It was Argo who finally broke the spell by nuzzling Xena in the back as if to say, ‘Come on, break up this love feast and let’s get moving. You two can get on with this later, after we’ve found a nice comfy stable.’

Xena placed a kiss on the bard’s forehead before rising to take her place aboard her trusted mount. A devilish grin crossed her lips as she gazed down upon her companion. "Ah, Gabrielle. Since I saved your ass how would you like to plant it up here behind me so that you don’t walk it off. After all, if it goes what use would I be then my queen?" Her eyebrow arched whimsically.

The bard shot a silent and playfully vicious look over her shoulder as she strode off with a regal and haughty bearing down the road.

Xena amusedly watched Gabrielle go and waited until she was nearly out of site over the crest of the hill ahead before she urged Argo into a gallop to follow her. As she approached the bard from behind, she suddenly leaned over and with an outstretched arm caught her friend mid-stride and heaved her easily up into the saddle behind her.

The stunned Amazon Queen could do nothing but wrap her arms lovingly around the warrior and simply enjoy the ride and the closeness being there provided.  She grinned broadly. "By the way Xena, why do you think those guys attacked us?" 

"Geez I don't know, Gabrielle," Xena said with a twinkle in her eye. "Maybe they were looking for slave girls and the possessor of a certain firm young ass caught their eye as prime trading material. Or, maybe they really were just looking for trouble. Either way, they had to go through me to get to you." 

It took the bard a moment to decipher what exactly Xena was saying but when it finally did hit her she promptly leaned forward and playfully bit the warrior princess squarely on the shoulder eliciting a loud ‘ack!’

"Trouble huh!  Why I'll show you trouble." Gabrielle snuggled into the warrior’s back.  "By the way, Xena did I thank you for saving my firm young…"

The bard’s words were lost to the wind as Xena suddenly urged Argo into a full gallop -- to make up for lost time of course.

*****

They arrived in the village just after dark and the bard immediately proceeded to try to find them a place to shelter while Xena visited the local tavern. She’d heard that the warlord Petricus was in the area and had been wreaking havoc on some of the nearby villages. She also knew from experience that the local tavern would be the best place to get the latest information on his whereabouts. Although she didn’t really want to have to deal with him right now, if she had to she would do whatever it took to stop him from ransacking and pillaging any further. It was partly because she was trying to make up for all the destruction she’d caused in her dark past. But mostly, it was just plain fun. She grinned devilishly as she pushed her way through the tavern door.

Taking up a place at the bar she ordered a tankard of mead and quickly surveyed the room while the barkeep poured out her order. At first, no one person caught her attention. That is, until her eyes came to rest on a dark figure seated in the corner. The figure seemed oddly familiar though she could not clearly make out the face beneath a hooded cloak. Just then Gabrielle burst into the tavern and announced that they had a room at the inn but if they wanted it they’d have to go now because it was the very last one. Xena smiled absently at the bard and then turned back toward the table in the corner. Oddly the figure seemed to have vanished into thin air.

A look of confusion mixed with concern crawled across the warrior’s face and the expression was not lost on the bard. "Is everything alright, Xena?"

Xena smiled reassuringly at her companion, gulped down the last of her mead and then followed the bard out into the night, her skin crawling the entire way.


They arrived at the inn to find that a small fire in the hearth dimly lit their tiny room and provided a comforting, soft glow. It felt good to be inside and out of the elements after so many days on the road. Gabrielle had managed to talk the innkeeper into providing them with some sustenance in the form of semi-cold broth and a small loaf of bread. It wasn't much, but it was enough to break the knawing hunger that had been raging in the bard’s stomach for the past two hours. Xena didn’t seem much in the mood for eating as she sat in a chair staring blankly out the window so Gabrielle set the warrior’s share of the broth near the fire to warm it in case her companion would want it later. Then she turned her full attention to Xena and decided to try a bold move in an attempt to crack this foul mood that had suddenly befallen her friend. If this doesn’t work, I don’t know what will. I should at least get some kind of a reaction. Hmmm. Anyway, a girl can hope can't she? She grinned devilishly.

"Xena?"

"Yes, Gabrielle," the warrior replied quietly without looking away from whatever it was that was holding her interest out the window.

Gabrielle moved closer to the bed, her fingers slowly unlacing the front of her top. The cloth soon parted revealing the tender white skin in the valley between her breasts. "Xena?" she repeated, this time in a lower, seductive whisper. The warrior princess remained oblivious. Gabrielle, beginning to get exasperated, decided that perhaps a more direct tactic was in order so she quietly approached Xena from behind and placed her hands on the warrior’s shoulders and began to massage the tense muscles she found under her fingers. Xena responded almost immediately to the touch by moaning softly. The bard smiled broadly. Now we’re getting somewhere.

"Xena, what happened in the tavern?" Gabrielle asked as she continued her onslaught on the warrior’s tight muscles. She felt the tautness beginning to slip away.

Xena signed and sank lower into the chair. "I, ah...saw someone I thought I knew. Uh...someone dark, and ah...mysterious. Mmmmm, Gabrielle don’t ever stop. OK?"

"Hmm, dark and mysterious." Gabrielle continued to work her hands along the warrior’s neck and shoulders eliciting soft groans as she kneaded more knots from her companion’s muscles. "Sounds rather like one warrior princess I know. Who do you think it was?"

Xena shivered slightly and her skin began to crawl again. There was only one person or thing that could do that to her and she did not particularly want to utter his name at this moment. But she knew the persistence of her bard and she knew she’d never get a moment’s peace unless she offered her something in response. "I’m not quite sure it was who I thought just yet but you’ll be the first to know when I find out," she said more tersely than she had intended.

Gabrielle sensed from her tone that Xena was hiding something but she didn’t want to risk losing the headway she had gained toward getting her companion out of her dark mood. So she dropped the conversation and instead turned toward the bed again, subtly allowing her loosened garb to fall to the floor as she walked away.

Xena turned to look at the bard. What she saw caused her eyes to widen in surprise. She could see the distinct change in color between where the cloth had covered Gabrielle's flesh and where it had not. It was very sexy to say the least. Meanwhile, Gabrielle had started to loosen the leather belt that held the bottom half of her garb securely around her hips and Xena watched in fascination as this last article fell away as well. It hit the floor and her heart fluttered, her breath quickened, and it took every ounce of warrior strength to maintain her place at the window when all she really wanted was to run to the bed, gently guide her Amazon Queen down onto its softness, and make ravenous love to her.

Gabrielle suddenly stopped and turned back. She’d sensed that someone had been at the window only a moment before, and had a creepy feeling that someone’s eyes were locked onto her backside. She’d become too familiar with the feeling since starting to travel with the warrior princess. Squinting slightly, she studied the opening and the darkness beyond for a long time trying to pierce the blackness. She saw nothing. Whoever was there had apparently vanished, or never existed in the first place. She shook her head, puzzled.

Xena followed the bard’s startled gaze to the window and saw nothing, only darkness and a lantern light radiating from the tavern just across the main village path. Funny, she thought to herself. It was as if Gabrielle had sensed someone's presence there but yet I didn’t.  Maybe that warrior sixth sense of mine isn’t as keen as it used to be.  I’ll have to work on that. She turned back from the window to look at Gabrielle again. Just not right now. At that moment all thoughts of the warrior were lost to the desires of the woman as she gazed upon her beautiful companion standing completely nude before her. She momentarily caught the bard’s eye then quickly glanced away toward the fire.

Gabrielle’s fear was suddenly replaced by mild amusement. Aha! She could tell by the look on Xena’s face that she’d caught her companion relishing her with her eyes. Now that part of this entire situation she was sure of. Sitting down on the edge of the bed, she cast her most alluring gaze toward the warrior, not knowing for sure what response she would get, but at least assured that she’d helped to lift her companion’s mood.

Xena’s gaze slowly relinquished the fire and returned to meet Gabrielle’s eyes, but this time it did not falter. She didn't move either, just sat and stared in awe. And perhaps it was the unnerving window experience, but suddenly Gabrielle felt quite exposed causing her innate modesty to kick in. Bashfully, she reached behind her to raise the bedding up across her shoulders to cover herself. It was then that she noticed Xena rising from her chair and starting toward her. She held her breath, as the woman of her fantasies slowly closed the gap between them. Indeed, it seemed an eternity to the young bard before she felt the warrior’s hand cup her chin. She turned her face upward and found herself face to face with a dream; a dream she was sure to wake up from too soon. Meanwhile, the blanket slipped unnoticed from her shoulders and came to rest on the bed behind her.

Kneeling between Gabrielle’s thighs, Xena’s mouth finally sought the warmth she knew she’d find in her companion’s lips. As their mouths tentatively explored each other her hands moved slowly down the sides of the bard’s neck, then lower and lower still to touch the softness she had denied herself for too long. She wondered at how her hands seemed in control of her being as they wandered the length and breadth of her partner’s body, exploring every inch, studying, memorizing, and just feeling.

Gabrielle’s breathing was becoming very rapid and every so often a low moan radiated from deep within her throat. She was amazed at how gentle this hardened woman could be as she leisurely explored her body. But she wanted to conduct her own explorations too, so pulling away for only a moment she urged with her eyes for the warrior to undress. Xena complied without hesitation and as the last article of clothing fell away the bard gasped at the magnificent form revealed to her from beneath the leather garb. "Oh Xena, you truly are…" But she never got the words out. For the warrior had ardently reclaimed her lips and entwined in each other they fell back onto the bed, each in her own way determined to make this a night they would both remember forever. In the midst of their ecstasy neither woman noticed the dark figure turn and move silently away from the window and disappear into the night.

*****

Gabrielle awoke to a warming ray of sunlight streaming through the inn window and playing across her face. She stretched and yawned and wondered why various muscles throughout her body felt like they had been rolled over by a chariot filled with three hundred-pound warlords. Now what in Tartarus could I have been doing that could have overworked all those muscles I never knew I had? Was it the battle with those thugs yesterday? Nah, it couldn’t have been. She and Xena had been through countless battles and she’d never felt this way afterward. Maybe she was coming down with something. Nope, she felt absolutely fine otherwise. She lazily stretched again. Suddenly it hit her and a tingle ran the length of her body as she recalled the events of the previous night.

"By the gods! That woman truly does have many skills," she sighed into the blanket that partially covered her face. Smiling and closing her eyes again she wanted nothing more than to languish a bit longer in this warmth of feeling. She knew she had never felt like this before, even with Perdicus. "Oh, sorry Perdicus," she mumbled quietly as she silently reminded herself that her slain husband could hear her thoughts. "I love you dearly sweet husband, but not even you could hold a candle to…" Suddenly the door to the room burst open and there she was.  "Her." Gabrielle smiled lasciviously at the form in the doorway.  A plan was beginning to formulate in her mind as to how she could tempt the warrior back into their bed for yet another few hours or even better, days. But before she could finalize her plan Xena had started packing their belongings.

"OK sleepy head! Time to get moving. We’re losing daylight here," the warrior said as she pranced back and forth across the room with the urgency of a caged griffin.

Gabrielle studied her partner’s movements for a moment and soon decided that perhaps it would be in her best interest to rise and shine. Besides, if they were to get to Athens early enough it would mean more time for…

"Gabrielle!"

Startled out of her dreamy state by the sound of the warrior princess growing more agitated with every passing moment, the bard struggled to unwrap herself from the bedding. "Alright, I’m coming," she mumbled as she sat tottering on the edge of the bed, neither her body or her mind yet willing to free her from the previous night’s rapture.

Meanwhile, the frazzled warrior princess hesitated to steal a glance at the bard’s still nude body. She smiled as she remembered how every curve and line of it had come to be permanently etched into her memory; how she now knew where to touch, how hard or soft, how fast or slow. The puzzle that was the physical sensuousness of Gabrielle had been solved and a deep reverence had resulted.  Yet she was still very much perplexed over her inner turmoil between her feelings of love and erotic desire for the bard, and her warrior's need for absolute focus and control. A warrior must be in control of all of her senses, all of the time, she thought. The smile slowly faded, for she knew the potential consequences of the choice she’d made last night, how much a single instance of distraction or of uncertainty could cost her on the battlefield. And if she lost Gabrielle…

"Oh warrior princess?"

Xena was roused from her troubling thoughts when the unclad bard suddenly leapt from the bed and enveloped her with her arms. She smiled and kissed the top of the smaller women’s head. "Yes my queen, and how may I serve you?" she inquired playfully, her mood suddenly lifting and the doubts of earlier dissipating into the calm peace which she seemed to find in the bard’s loving embrace.

"I’m so hungry," Gabrielle declared with a seductive huskiness in her voice.

Xena took a step back then and held the bard at arm length.  "Ahem. Gabrielle we’ve really got to get going," she said in the firmest voice she could muster.

Just then a low rumble erupted from the bard’s stomach. She grinned sheepishly. "No really Xena, I AM hungry. Do you think we could stick around long enough to get something? I must have worked up an appetite in my sleep." She winked as she turned away to gather up her garb, each article still lying where it had fallen the night before. Within minutes she was fully clothed and heading out the door with Xena in tow.

 

Gabrielle sat down at a table in the corner of the tavern while Xena went to see if she could talk the barkeep into frying up a late order of turnip mash. As an afterthought she placed an order for some mead and then casually glanced around the room, carefully sizing up the faces of her fellow tavern goers. Although it was a bit early, she hoped the mead would help to take the edge off of her misgivings that just wouldn’t let her heart rest or her mind stay focused. There was now little doubt that she had lost her heart and soul to Gabrielle. But her mind was filled with fear that the warrior may be lost to Gabrielle as well, and the thought of losing her edge on the battlefield and possibly losing the bard because of it sent waves of apprehension coursing through her.

"That’ll be two dinars," the barkeep growled as he set the turnip mash and mead on the bar. Xena placed the payment before him and gathered up the goods. She’d just started back to their table when suddenly that crawly feeling overtook her again. Stopping mid-stride, she carefully surveyed the room but noticed nothing and no one out of the ordinary. "I’ve got to get a grip," she mumbled to herself as she continued across the room and took a seat beside the bard.

"About time you got back here" Gabrielle said, grabbing for her food before Xena had even finished sitting down. "I missed you."

Xena looked sidelong at the bard and watched her hungrily begin devouring the offering. "Yeah, I can see that," she said with a grin then turned her attention to her mead and drank of it deeply, closing her eyes as she felt the liquid hit her empty stomach. Her skin was crawling, and she had this battle raging inside her, and her partner had no sense of either. This could prove to be an interesting day.

"Hey!"

The shout rattled her brain back to reality and Xena sat straight up in her chair, tensing and ready for action.

"Aren’t you Xena, The Warrior Princess?"

Xena turned toward the voice and found herself staring into the eager face of a young villager. She quickly estimated his age to be about seventeen and he seemed harmless enough. He was staring back at her in total awe and with mouth agape. "Yes, and who might you be?" she asked as she turned back to her mead.

"By the gods, you are, you are. I can’t believe…geez! Oh! I’m Agronimus, but most folks call me Aggy. Wow! You’re really here!"

Xena heard a muffled gasp come from the direction of Gabrielle but before she could respond to that, her young adulator was pelting her with question after question about different battles she had fought and warlords she had foiled. Although he was severely testing her reserve at this particular moment she politely answered his barrage of inquiries. She didn’t realize that the bard had quite suddenly lost all interest in the food she had been devouring just moments before and that the color had drained from her face.

Gabrielle’s thoughts were swirling in chaos. This cannot be happening. She looked at Xena and the young man who was transfixed by the warrior's every word. By the gods this cannot be happening again. The last time she’d dreamed prophetically of Xena dying it had been vividly clear to her. Watch out for the man with the double edge sword, he’d come down through the roof and strike Xena from behind. Whether her visionary warning had altered the course of their fates by preparing Xena for his assault she could not say, but in the end that dream did not come true. The man had come as envisioned but Xena turned the tables on him. Still it had been too close.  And this newest dream was so very different for all its vagueness. She wondered if Xena would even believe her if she told her of it or brush it off as her imaginative bard’s mind playing tricks on her. After all, what information could she possibly offer to convince the ever-skeptical warrior? There was this young kid’s appearance.  But he could just be a coincidence; there could be any number of Agronimus’ around here, the name wasn’t that unusual. And there was something different about him in reality.  No, she didn’t know who would attack them, she didn’t know why, and she didn’t know when.  She had to know those things; the warrior would want to know. Right now all she had was a gut-wrenching feeling that somewhere on the road between here and Athens Xena would die, and she would kill this adoring youth innocently buzzing about the warrior princess like a bee at a honeycomb. She shivered, then quietly excused herself and went to the bar to order another mead for Xena, and although she usually didn’t drink the stuff, a second one for herself. She drank it down in several large gulps then slowly walked back toward the table, her arms and legs suddenly feeling like rock weights threatening to draw her under the surface of this pool of confusion and dread, which had suddenly become her existence.

*****

Gabrielle waited outside alone, lost in her turbulent thoughts while Xena entered the stables to saddle Argo for the final leg of their trip to Athens. Suddenly, the bard felt a presence behind her. She turned to find herself staring into the stern face of the God of War. "Ares! What --"

The darkly handsome apparition quickly smothered her mouth with his hand. "S-h-h! Gabrielle, we need to talk." Gabrielle fell silent and glowered at him. "You know that you and Xena are heading for serious trouble right?" he asked as he lowered his hand and rested it on the hilt of his sword.

"I know we’re heading for Athens," the bard declared defiantly trying to hide the fear and apprehension that gripped her with his appearance and from the feeling that they were now dealing with more than just a prophetic dream. With the God of War around anything could happen, and it usually wasn't good.  And on top of it all, the mead hadn’t helped to calm her earlier and it wasn’t helping her now either; it had only served to give her a raging headache. She scowled at him mercilessly.

The war god casually moved behind the bard and leaned his face in close to her ear. Gabrielle could feel the singe of his hot breath on her neck and it further infuriated her.

"I know what happened in the inn last night," he said smugly.

Shocked, she spun around to confront him again. "It was YOU at the window!" she hissed, her eyes shooting sparks when she realized that the great Ares, God of War had been a voyeur to her and Xena’s most intimate moment.

He returned her fierce gaze with his trademark overconfident smirk. "Well ah, yes. And you see this is the trouble." He crossed his muscular arms and stood glowering at her. "Xena is a warrior. She should be my warrior queen, but --"

Gabrielle brashly interjected, "But she has decided to become a warrior for the good of all of us and you just can’t handle that, or her not being devoted to you."

Ares did not flinch or alter his gaze as he responded to the bard’s indignation. "Well yes, on one hand that’s true. But you see the real problem you and I have here, Gabrielle, is that she’s losing her warrior edge and it’s all because of you. Do you know that she didn’t even sense me at that window last night? That is so not like her. She is the only mortal who can feel me you know. That’s why I wonder how you --" He appeared momentarily puzzled but quickly shook it off. "Well anyway, she is in love with you and now," he paused again and a roily look crossed his face, "Eh! She is in lust with you too. The warrior in her is all but lost to us both now.  That's why I have to put an end to it."

Gabrielle stared at him blankly for a moment. Then a sly smile flashed across her lips. "Why Ares, I do believe you’re jealous."

"Really Gabrielle. Why would the God of War have to be jealous of anyone or anything? Where do these crazy notions of yours stem from?" He smiled arrogantly. "No, this is simply a business venture. You know, looking after my assets. And as you might have noticed, she’s got some mighty nice ass… ahem…anyway." His smile faded as he callously continued. "Bottom line, Gabrielle, because of you Xena is rapidly losing her value to me and unless you do something to stop it, the great Warrior Princess will have to die today.  I'll just have to call her a bad investment and move on."

Although she already knew what his answer would be, Gabrielle felt compelled to ask anyway. "How?"

"How will she die?" As he spoke Ares casually drew his sword and studied his reflection in its brilliance. He absently stroked his moustache.  "Well let’s just say that the warlord Petricus has been offered sufficient motivation to --"

"Insure that the great God of War doesn’t lose his prized asset to an irritating little blond from Poteidaia." The bard smirked. "So if you can’t have her, no one will, right?"

"As a matter of fact, yes."

Gabrielle smirked. "Always the big selfish kid, huh Ares? Not willing to share your toys."

Ares sheathed his sword and placed his hands on the bard’s shoulders, his penetrating gaze shooting flaming arrows straight into her soul.  "Listen, I don’t need a lust-infested, love-sick, do-gooder woman with a big sword, among other things," he smirked and continued, "wandering around beating up my warlords, destroying my armies, and generally wrecking things for me now do I? Think of what that would do for my image. Anyway, if the irritating little blond truly loves the warrior princess she will tell her…" He paused, shivered, and grunted in disgust before regaining his composure. "She’ll tell her that this abominable love affair has been a huge mistake and then pack it for home."

Gabrielle turned away from him to look at the stable where Xena was busy readying Argo for their trip. "So if I do this you’ll call off the attack?" she asked in her calmest voice as she watched the door to the stable begin to swing open.

"Quite simply Gabrielle, you are the key to setting the warrior free and giving her back her life, and her true destiny. Just remember that. Rest assured, I’ll be waiting to welcome her home where she belongs." And with that the war god vanished as quickly as he had appeared.

 

Xena emerged from the stables to find Gabrielle looking like she had seen a ghost. "Hey, you all right?" she asked as she gently touched the bard’s shoulder.

Gabrielle turned her eyes toward the warrior princess and suddenly she could not hold back the tears. She knew what she had to do and that knowledge enveloped her in despair. "Xena, I..." Her voice faltered as she tried to force the words to cross her lips.

Just then Xena caught site of Agronimus approaching from behind the tavern and hurriedly looked around for some quiet place that they could go to escape the boisterous young lad. She grasped Gabrielle’s hand and started toward the stable.

The stable was dark and quiet and empty except for an old sway-backed mare that paid them no mind as she munched contentedly on some oats. Xena led Gabrielle to an empty stall near the back wall and gently urged her to sit on the saddle blanket that she had thrown down over the straw. She took a seat beside the sobbing bard and tenderly drew her close. "Gabrielle, what is it?" she asked, anxiously wiping a tear from the bard’s face.

The bard pulled away and managed to gather herself somewhat. She knew that if she were to maintain her resolve she could not look at her love, so instead she cast her eyes on the toe of her boot. "Xena, there is something I’ve been meaning to tell you --" The words had barely escaped her lips when the stable door opened interrupting her.

The visitor paused in the doorway and surveyed the interior. "Xena! You in here?" he called out.

The bard's heart sank even lower when she recognized Agronimus' voice.

Remaining silent, the two women anxiously waited for him to leave. After what seemed like an eternity the young lad apparently decided that he had just missed his warrior idol and walked disappointedly out the door. 

Xena heaved a huge sigh and turned back to Gabrielle. "Now I don’t think we’ll be interrupted again unless the old gray mare runs out of oats. So what is it that you want to tell me?" Her concern mounted when she realized that the bard was averting her eyes from her intentionally.

Gabrielle was fighting to keep her composure and the reappearance of Agronimus and the memories of him in her dream threatened to drown her further in despair.  As she began to speak, somehow she managed to maintain calmness in her voice that belied all the turmoil she was truly feeling inside. "Xena, I think that what happened last night just wasn’t right for me. I mean I love you and all, but…" She paused trying to find the words that would soften the blow she knew she was dealing her beloved friend.

Xena cupped her hand under the bard’s chin and lifted her face toward her own. "Gabrielle, I know. You’re just confused right now and so am I. I love you too and…" Her words trailed off as the bard shook away her hand and once again cast her eyes to the ground.

"No Xena. You don’t know. I have to go home. I just have to go home and get my feelings straightened out. You have to know that we’ll both be better off for that," Gabrielle said quietly, her voice beginning to falter again as the tears once again filled her eyes.

Xena looked at her companion with puzzled anguish. She fought desperately to ward off the tears that were beginning to blind her own eyes. Maybe she’s right. Maybe we would both be better off. She shook the thought right out of her head.  No, that can't be true, not after all we've been through. I just can’t let her go; I need her. Now it was the warrior's turn to study the ground as her feelings started to override her normally stoic ability to maintain control. "No Gabrielle I don’t know that," she replied emphatically.  "But what I do know is that I couldn’t be who I am without you. You are my strength, my joy, my light, my life, and maybe even my destiny." Her voice cracked as the tears she’d been holding back began to break free.

Gabrielle allowed her eyes to follow the track of a single tear down the warrior’s face. "And your weakness," she whispered as she reached over to gently stroke Xena’s hair, the threat of Ares’ plot temporarily pushed to the farthest recesses of her mind. 

"Yes Gabrielle, you are my weakness. And for so long – no, too long I tried to deny you because of that. But don’t you see? Through loving you, and believing in you and who you are, I am able to rally the strength to fight the dark warrior I used to be, that I could still be if...I lost you. That weakness for you and your love is my real strength, it keeps me going forward instead of back.  It’s what made me the warrior I am right now. I can’t lose you.  I just can't."

Gabrielle looked deeply into Xena's eyes and behind the anguish and tears she saw it, there was a light. Indeed, there was not a hint of darkness, just a pure and honest compassion, the deepest love, and a beautiful light that was Xena’s wounded but healing soul. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She knew what she had to do. Ares you bastard, she cursed the God of War silently. You are not going to put out that light! No matter how this works out or what I have to do to get her out of this, I won’t let you smother that light with your darkness. And with a newfound sense of resolve she reached up and drew Xena to her and kissed her. Yep, she knew the how and the why, now if she only knew the when she just might be able to prove to Xena once and for all that not only could she take care of herself, but she could take care of the warrior princess if she needed her to. Yet right now not even that mattered as she gave herself over to the burning within her as the kiss they were sharing intensified. Her resolve deepened with her desire; she was going to save her warrior from the darkness, one way or the other.

*****

The old mare whinnied and stomped her foot. Xena opened her eyes and looked around her. For a moment she was not at all sure where she was or why she was there. "Wow!" she declared as her eyes fell once again on the bard’s radiant face. "There is just something about the way that you love me my queen."

Gabrielle grinned as she realized that she too had been totally lost in the moment. "And you, my dear warrior princess," she said breathlessly.

Xena looked around again and realized that the sun was climbing higher in the sky. She started to rise. If we're going to make Athens by nightfall…

"Xena?"

"Yes, Gabrielle." The warrior adjusted her armor and greaves then reached for her sword and chakram.

"Is there a more scenic route to Athens then the one we’re on?" Gabrielle asked. She tried hard not to look at the warrior princess for fear that Xena would see the apprehension slowly returning to haunt her.

Xena stopped what she was doing, and appeared somewhat bemused as she stared at her companion. "Scenic? Since when are you concerned about scenic huh?" Without waiting for an answer she turned and started heading for the door while Gabrielle finished lacing her boots. "I just assumed that since you prefer walking to riding that the shortest and most direct route would be more to your liking."

"Xena, I just thought --"

The bard’s words were lost on the warrior princess as she walked through the door and out into the bright sunshine. "We haven’t got time, Gabrielle."

 

The sun had nearly reached mid sky by the time they started the final leg of their journey. Xena, aboard Argo was puzzling over why she had to keep pulling up to allow the bard to catch up. It seemed that Gabrielle was dallying for a reason but Xena couldn’t figure out what that reason could be. Several times she stopped and tried to urge the bard up into the saddle behind her but to no avail. She decided not to push the issue just yet since the bard also seemed to have fallen into a sullen mood. "That’s the problem with women," she muttered amusedly under her breath. "They’re so moody." She resigned herself to simply enjoy the silence; a change from the usually endless chatter the bard always amazed her with.

Gabrielle could feel the miles melting away under her feet as she plodded along. Every once in a while she glanced up to take in the horse and rider in front of her. What a magnificently beautiful sight; the golden mare with wildly tousled white mane and tail in perfect contrast to the warrior princess with hair the color of night tossing about in the wind. She took it in and processed it to memory not knowing if by the end of this day she would ever enjoy this splendor again. A debate was raging within her. Am I doing the right thing? I could have bartered Xena’s soul to Ares but instead I may be sending her to her execution. Unfortunately the God of War had decided that if he couldn’t have Xena no one else would either. Maybe he's bluffing. He wouldn't really kill her, would he?  Gabrielle had to believe that what she was doing was for the best. Ares must not be allowed to extinguish the light in Xena’s eyes and turn her back into the dark warrior of the past, even if she had to die. She was sure Xena would want it that way.  And besides dreams don’t always come true. Trying hard to hold on to that meager shred of hope, the troubled bard plodded on in silence.

The air was beginning to cool as the sun sank lower toward the horizon. Xena estimated that they could reach Athens just after nightfall. She pulled up on Argo and waited for the bard who was still lagging some distance behind. Needing to stretch her legs, she dismounted and waited with slight impatience for the bard to reach her. Suddenly, she heard the distinctive zing of an approaching arrow and she reacted instinctively by falling to the ground. Her eyes wildly sought out the bard who was as yet totally unaware that anything was happening. "GABRIELLE!" she shouted as she gathered her legs under her.

The bard was immediately snapped out of her road weary trance by the sound of Xena’s anguished cry and the sight of the warrior princess crouched low on the ground. She glanced to the tree line but saw no sign of life so she ran immediately to the warrior’s side. "Xena, what is it?" she asked as she crouched down beside her.

"Oh not much, someone just tried to pierce my left ear with an arrow. We’ve got to get out of here and find some cover. Come on!" She grabbed the bard’s arm and started a mad sprint for the tree line across the clearing from where the arrow had come. They made it into the cover of the wood just as a second volley of arrows whipped by them and thudded into the ground and trees around them.

"Xena, it’s Petricus," Gabrielle blurted out as she slid behind a tree and out of sight of the archers.

The warrior looked toward the bard in astonishment. "What…?" She glanced back toward the far wood line. "How do you know that?"

"You see, I had this dream. And then Ares --"

"Ares, what does he…?" The warrior’s words faded off as she noticed several forms appearing from behind the trees across the clearing. She was shocked to discover that one of them was the young man she’d met back in the last village. The other two were holding him at knifepoint and he had a look of sheer terror on his face.

Gabrielle gasped. "By the gods Xena, it’s Agronimus."

Xena glowered menacingly at the approaching group of wretched humanity. "Yeah," she said calmly. "You stay here Gabrielle." She drew her sword.

Gabrielle grabbed her arm to stop her. "No Xena, I’m coming with you," she declared defiantly. Something was bothering her about this scene but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it yet. Where is Ares? And things are playing out just like in my dream.  I can’t just let her walk out there, unawares. I have to protect her. "If Ares has anything to do with this you know as well as I do that we can surely count on a setup. You’ll need someone to watch your back."

Growing more irritated that Gabrielle seemed to know more about this situation than she should, Xena threw off the bard’s grasp and replied tersely, "You can watch my backside just fine from here. Now I don't have time to discuss this any further."  She started to walk toward the open.

Gabrielle reached out to grab Xena’s arm again but the warrior reacted with lightning fast speed and before the bard could even blink she was secured with a bullwhip to a trim sapling.

"Now, like I said Gabrielle. You stay here." With that Xena turned and strolled casually out onto the battlefield, her skin crawling all the way. Oh yeah, there was only one person or thing that could do that to her. All right. Let’s play, Ares.

Gabrielle watched Xena move away and struggled to get her hands free but the whip held. "Xena…" she whispered as renewed visions of a dying warrior princess flashed through her mind. Wait a minute, she thought, something isn’t right. How did Agronimus know where we were heading when we left the village? Neither of us had mentioned it to him. And how could he have gotten here before us? Ares. "Gods! Xena!" she called out frantically but the warrior princess was totally focused on her goal and didn’t hear her. "I have to tell you about my dream! Please wait, come back!" She continued desperately trying to free herself but it was to no avail and Xena was gone, walking straight into the God of war's snare.

The warrior warily approached the threesome before her, carefully scanning the tree line behind them as she walked. She saw nothing out of the ordinary and stopped before them just out of sword range, her own weapon poised at her hip. "Hi fellas. Friends of Petricus I presume? So where is the old boy anyway I’d like to give him a personal greeting." Xena sneered vehemently at the two knife wielders who glanced anxiously at one another but remained silent. She didn’t notice the dark sparkle of anticipation in the eyes of their captive, Agronimus. "All right, so why don’t you just let the boy go and then I can go easy on you," she said as she tensed for the first strike she innately knew was about to come. They had after all drawn her out here into the open for a reason.

And then it happened.

Suddenly the ground erupted around her as Petricus’ army jumped up and out of the cleverly camouflaged pits they had dug hours before. Xena sprang into action. She reached out and grabbed Agronimus and sent him tumbling along the ground toward the far wood. "Run Aggy!  Run for the woods!" she shouted before quickly turning back to the melee closing in around her. By her estimate there must have been thirty men. "Well I do love a challenge," she said to herself as she dove headlong into the heat of yet another battle. Just then she felt her skin begin to crawl and for a mere moment she hesitated and glanced over to the woods as Agronimus disappeared into them.

Gabrielle saw Agronimus stumbling in her direction. "Hey, over here!" she called as he drew nearer. He seemed rather undisturbed by what was happening as he sat down next to her. Just another thing to add to the growing list of things that seem wrong about him all the sudden. "Do you think you could turn me loose here?" she asked warily. He turned to look at her and she immediately recognized something in his eyes, something dark and sinister, and all too familiar.

"Ares," she hissed softly.

He smiled at her and coolly responded, "Ah yes, Gabrielle. I was wondering how long it would take you to figure me out. Neat trick huh? And quite a fine view of the battle you have from here isn’t it?" He looked back toward the clearing turned battlefield and as he did the form of Agronimus faded into Ares.

Gabrielle was stunned. It was all becoming quite clear to her now. "You used me, from the start. My dream, Xena’s death, making me think I’d kill Agronimus. It was all a lie. Somehow you gave me that dream and you wanted me to believe that Xena dies because she is too distracted by me. And of course you knew I would do anything to get out of taking an innocent life. It was all a scheme to try to get me to leave Xena, to you. You figured if I broke her heart and just left, it’d only be a matter of time before she’d come back to you."

He turned back toward her with a maniacal grin. "Yeah, and it would have worked if that women out there wasn’t so irresistibly good at everything she does. Well obviously you know what I mean since you fell for it. Oh well, too bad she’ll have to suffer the consequences of your irritating inability to control your carnal urges, my dear. And just out of curiosity, was it really worth it, is she really that good?"

She glared at him, her eyes glazed with pure hatred. "Yes, she really is that good. She’s too good a warrior for you. ‘Good’ is definitely a great word to describe Xena, Warrior Princess." A subtle smile crossed her lips as she remembered the other part of her dream that she knew Ares could not have been responsible for. "But there is something else Ares." She pensively scratched the side of her chin. "Why do you suppose, since you masterminded it all, that in my dream Xena’s dying words were ‘love is stronger’?  That doesn't sound like something to come from a god who knows nothing of it."

The perpetually smug expression quickly faded from the God of War’s face and was replaced by puzzled surprise as he turned toward the bard. "Love is stronger than…what? Now wait a minute, there was nothing in my contract with Morpheus about love. Hmm, I’m going to have to have a talk with the God of Dreams when I get back. We had a deal." He looked away again, a fleeting look of insecurity on his face. But as he gazed out toward the battleground before him the old smugness quickly returned. "Ah, but what does it matter now, Gabrielle?" He pointed toward the field. "Look out there, it’s too late for your beloved warrior princess. You should have taken me up on my offer and walked away. Pity, she would have made a great warrior queen." He laughed sadistically then disappeared.

Gabrielle looked out toward the middle of the clearing and her breathing halted at what she saw. Xena was lying sprawled on the ground and the warlord Petricus was straddling her, a knife poised high above his head aimed at her heart. Helpless to stop it, the bard shut her eyes as tight as she could.

*****

Xena was still woozy from the blow she had taken to the back of her head. She hadn’t seen it coming. Now she found herself lying flat on her back and frantically searching the ground around her with her hands. Where’s my sword? Then realizing she was being restrained, she shook her head and tried desperately to focus on the menacing form towering over her. "Thank you Xena," she heard a voice cut through the fogginess. "Killing you will make me a legend and Ares, God of War will have me sit at his right hand." As her vision cleared for just a moment she saw him raise his hand above his head before she suddenly blacked out again.

Gabrielle could not bring herself to open her eyes. All she could do was think about Xena and how much she loved her and how she was failing her. Yeah, some love. Your loving her to death bard. You shouldn't have been so selfish and should've told her about the dream. But no, you wanted to be her hero for a change. Trying desperately to block out what she knew was happening in front of her, she allowed her self to slide fully into her memories knowing this was the only way she could keep her sanity at this moment. Resurrecting visions of the love they had made not even a full day ago, it was all so vivid to her even yet. She could almost feel the warmth of Xena's flesh as it pressed against her own, remembered how she’d melted into that sea of sapphire as the warrior had softly whispered she loved her more than life itself. She could feel every sweet and gentle touch, every heartbeat and breath, every pleasure beyond anything she had ever known before. But more than anything, she could feel the love that they shared every day. Sitting there next to that tree in a meadow of death and despair, she allowed herself to slip down into that love, further and further, drowning and wanting to let go and remain there forever. Even as she knew Xena was dying, she wanted to die too, because she didn't know if she could live without her. But as she sank deeper into this notion, from somewhere inside herself arose a voice saying, ‘Remember, Gabrielle. Love is stronger...’  And suddenly she was reminded that where there’s love, there is always hope and strength.  Now if only she could get to the warrior and remind her too. Somehow she had to get to her, but she was still tightly restrained and couldn't move. Then it hit her and she knew what she had to do, the only thing she could do: love Xena with all her might. She began shouting at the top of her lungs, hoping beyond all reason that her words and her love would somehow get through to the warrior lying out there in that field.

"Xena you can’t go! You’ve got to fight this…"

 

The great warrior princess lay motionless and Petricus hesitated for an instant. This is just too easy, he thought to himself, and hardly sporting of a great warlord like myself to kill an unconscious and totally defenseless woman. But Ares, God of War had promised him a kingdom full of wealth and fair maidens among other things for the warrior princess’ head. Well then he had to oblige. He prepared to plunge the knife up to its hilt into her heart.

 

Through the blackness and resignation of imminent death blanketing her mind Xena could barely make out the faint outline of someone very familiar who appeared to be reaching out for her. The face wavered in the blackness and remained unidentifiable until from out of the silence she heard a voice, an unmistakable voice she’d come to cherish above all others. "You’ve got to fight this…" Instantly, as though the voice had triggered a spark and fire within her mind, the darkness began to lift. "You’ve got to win. You always win..."   The warrior heard the words and suddenly the wavering face came into perfect clarity, with unmistakable deep emerald eyes and a beautiful face which seemed framed in a golden halo of light. It was a vision of hope, and of love, and it was her weakness. And somehow she knew at that moment it was her destiny to love this weakness forever. "You’ve won my heart. I love you!" The last of the darkness dissipated completely as the warrior princess found her strength.

"And I love you," Xena said as she opened her eyes, and with lightning quickness and strategically placed fingertips, struck out at the form hovering above her.

Petricus felt his legs suddenly go numb. "What in Tartarus…?" Startled and confused, he dropped the knife and grabbed his now useless appendages.

Xena threw him off her, rolled over, grabbed her sword, and sprang to her feet ready for action. The warrior princess was back, alive and well, and complete with a fun loving grin on her face, appearing as though she was ready to take on the known world if she had to.

Petricus stared at her in amazement then he realized what had happened. She'd put the notorious pinch on his legs. "GET HER!" he shouted at what remained of his dumbfounded army. They swarmed around her brandishing their swords, albeit a bit tentatively after having just witnessed what they’d witnessed. For all they knew this Xena woman was not even human.

Meanwhile, still bound to a tree in the woods, Gabrielle heard the sudden commotion arising from the clearing. She opened one eye hesitantly and focused in on the source of the din. Suddenly both eyes sprang open and her face lit up with joyous relief. For there was the warrior princess doing what she did best, turning men into mice with a skill and ease no other mortal possessed. "YAHOO!" The bard tried to jump up but was yanked back down by her restraints. She contented herself for now to watching the warrior work. She sighed deeply; by the gods how she loved to watch that warrior work.

After parrying with several of the soldiers and knocking several others unconscious with well-placed kicks, Xena flew up into the air and in a heartbeat landed lightly near the warlord, Petricus. Quickly taking up a position behind him she planted her sword firmly across his throat. "Hello Petricus," she said calmly in his ear as the mob surrounding her stopped dead in their tracks in amazed silence. "Now how about you tell them to put down their weapons and start heading back to whatever smelly cave you all call home so you and I can have a little heart to heart." She watched the warlord intently and noted a bead of sweat beginning to roll down his face. Still he refused to give in to her will. She pressed the sword tighter against his airway. "Do it! Or I’ll be having a chat with just your heart."

Feeling the edge of the blade biting viciously into the flesh of his throat, Petricus finally nodded to his henchmen and they dropped their swords and started walking away.

"Now let’s have that talk, shall we." Xena quickly released the pinch on the warlord’s legs and pulled him to his feet. "Why did Ares want you to attack me?"

Petricus stayed silent and glared at her defiantly.

"Hmm, griffin got your tongue huh? Well maybe this will help you regain the power of speech." Xena struck the sides of his throat with her fingers and pinched off the blood flow to the stubborn warlord’s brain. His eyes bugged out of his head and he fell with a thud to his knees before her.

"Now, I’ll ask you once more. Why did Ares…?"

Xena hesitated as in the midst of her interrogation that old familiar crawly feeling once again came to call. Turning around slowly, she casually drew her sword up and pointed it menacingly at what seemed to Petricus to be nothing but thin air. "Hello Ares," she said calmly.

Appearing with the tip of Xena’s sword resting just under his chin was the God of War. "Xena, I’m glad to see you’re back to your old self. At least it hasn't all been for naught." Ares raised his hand calmly and pushed the tip of her blade away from his throat. "Have I ever told you you’re the only mortal - - oh yeah. I did, didn’t I?" He smirked.

They were abruptly interrupted by a strangled voice pleading. "Please, ack…could someone…ugh…ah…"

Xena and Ares both turned toward the sound. The warrior suddenly realized she had left Petricus suffering from her neck pinch and calmly leaned over to release it. As Petricus slipped to the ground gasping for air she immediately turned her attention back to the war god. "Now crawl home!" she shouted at Petricus over her shoulder while she continued to glare undaunted at Ares. The beaten warlord stumbled to his feet behind her, looked apologetically toward the God of War who cast him a sneer, then limped off down the road and out of sight.

"So why the ambush, Ares?" Xena asked as she sheathed her sword with a smirk. Somehow she knew the mighty God of War did not wish any further confrontation on this day.

"Xena, my dear warrior queen…" Ares began as he slowly maneuvered his way around to the warrior’s back. "I mean, warrior princess. Surely you can see what has been happening here. The warrior in you was nearly swallowed up completely by this disgustingly vile affair you’ve got going with that irritating little blonde…"

"Gabrielle." A smug and knowing expression crossed Xena’s face. "Ares, her name is Gabrielle."

"Yeah right, Gabrielle." He let his eyes travel the length of her body from behind before leaning in closer to her ear. "As I told her earlier, this was simply business. Someday Xena, I will get you back. But I don’t want half a warrior when that day comes. I want all of you. You see your little friend had a choice. If she had chosen correctly and left you to go back to Poteidaia, none of this would have happened. But instead she chose --"

"Love!" Xena spun around to face him, her eyes aglow with deep blue fire. "She chose to believe in the strength and power of love. And even you couldn’t beat that. Could you? It’s the one thing you’ll never be able to master, overcome, or understand."

Ares shifted his gaze toward the woods and then back. He backed away from her and an arrogant grin stole back across his face. "I won’t give up you know, so you better watch your back." 

"I've got Gabrielle to watch it for me," Xena said with a smirk.

"Ri-i-i-ght." He returned the smirk, then frowned. As he faded away, he quickly added.  "I just simply cannot understand what you see in her when you could have...well...me."

"I win," Xena said. She smiled and started for the woods. That little blonde ought to be getting awfully irritated by now.

*****

Xena knelt down beside the bard and started to untie her binds. As soon as her hands were free, Gabrielle starting swinging and narrowly missed connecting with the warrior’s left cheek. Xena ducked and quickly grabbed the bard’s fists and held on, her grasp tightening even more as Gabrielle continued to struggle. "Hey, what was that for," she asked with a half grin.

"Xena, don’t you ever tie me to a tree and leave me to watch you die again!"

"But Gabrielle, don’t you see? If I hadn’t of tied you to this tree we might both be dead now.  Ares would have seen to that.  But, as it is we’re both very much alive because you were here, safe and sound, and loving me." She felt the bard finally start to relax and released her hold on her hands. "I need you to be around for a long, long time. OK?" Then before she could blink she found herself with Gabrielle’s arms wrapped around her neck in a hold so tight she feared her wind would be cut off. 

"OK," the bard said as she slowly released the warrior from her vice-like hold.

"Good, now tell me something. What's this about secret meetings you're having behind my back with the God of War?"

Gabrielle simply smiled. "It's a long story. I'll tell you later, on the road to Athens.  I need a hot bath and a meal, soon.  Or I'm going to get grumpy."

"Well, all right.  I sure wouldn't want that.  But you know, Ares does have a certain charm and you're still so young and naive --"

The bard slapped the warrior on the arm.  "Xena! Stop! Are you jealous?"

The warrior scowled. "What? Me? Nah. But I can be concerned a bit.  He is a god, and does have powers--"

"But we've got the power of us, haven't we. Now can we please stop talking about Ares?  It makes my skin crawl.  Trust me, I'd be his worst nightmare if he tried anything on me." 

Xena grinned and then whistled loudly for Argo.  The big palomino trotted up and snorted a greeting.  The warrior patted the mare on the haunch and reached down to tightened the girth on the saddle.

Gabrielle suddenly grew solemn as she watched the warrior preparing to mount her horse.  "Xena, I really thought I had lost you," she said almost in a whisper. 

Xena turned and smiled reassuringly, then took the bard into her arms. "Oh, Gabrielle. You didn’t lose me.  Sure, the warrior in me was about to breathe her last out there on that field. But then somehow, some way, the power of your love for me set the warrior free and now she too knows where her true strength lies. And you know what, because you’ve set the warrior free, the woman within her, you know the one you met last night and earlier today, has got an awful lot of free time on her hands to devote to loving the strongest, most beautiful woman she's ever known." Blushing slightly, she traced the bard's cheek lightly with her finger. "Gabrielle, I will never let doubts, or fear of failure come between us ever again. I feel like our love is --"

"Stronger," Gabrielle interposed with a wry smile.

Xena was surprised and a bit bemused. "Well yeah, but I was going to say--"

"We'll talk about that later too," Gabrielle interrupted quietly as she gazed deeply into Xena's eyes, searching and eventually finding that the light was shining brighter than before. "Right now, I'd just like to say welcome back warrior princess." She added playfully, "Now get out of the way and let me at this woman you’ve been talking about."

In an instant she found herself lying on her back on a soft bed of leaves with the most beautiful woman in the world about to plant a huge and passionate kiss on her eager lips. And as she drifted off into the ecstasy of the moment she whispered, "Wow, I sure am glad that dreams really do come true…"

The end

 


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