Awakenings

Part 1 of 3

by Friction
wlw@penn.com

Part 1 |  Part 2  | Part 3

LEGAL DISCLAIMER:

Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. Saras is the property of B L Miller, who kindly loaned her to me for this story. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.

LOVE/SEX WARNING DISCLAIMER:

At its best or worst (depending on your perspective) this story depicts explicit sex between women. If you’re under 18, live someplace where this is illegal, or it’s not your thing please try another story. There is a lot of wonderful fan fiction of every variety out there to choose from.

GENRE:

This is my own decidedly kinky brand of hurt/comfort. It’s 1st and 2nd season Xena/Gabrielle. (What can I say? I’m living in the past because I like it thereJ ). Lots of lusting and romance, so some might consider this Xenaerotica.

SPECIAL THANKS:

Unfortunately, my stories don’t spring from my mind smooth and error-free. By the time they’re posted they have been kindly proofed by three people: my partner and inspiration, Pam; our beloved reviewer, Lunacy; and last, but never least, my friend and mentor B L Miller. I can’t thank these women enough for the many hours they’ve spent helping me iron out all the rough spots. My stories are much improved as a result of their efforts. They’re the best!

Each time I complete a story, I wonder if it will be my last. With that in mind… please forgive my sentimentality. Writing is a labor of love for me. Over the past two years, I have received such wonderful responses from people kind enough to give my stories a try that I wanted to take time to thank you all up front. Your feedback has made me laugh, cry (in the best sense of the word) and thank my lucky stars that I posted that first story. It’s a joy, I have to tell you.

As always, I welcome comments or constructive criticism at mailto:wlw@penn.com

Now, on to the story…

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Awakenings

by Friction

*****

Part 1

*****

Not even the bright light of the moon could penetrate the depths of her cold, damp prison. Her stomach knotted with dread as she contemplated scaling the wall. Each time she tried, the loose sod crumbled under her feet, plunging her back into blackness and tormenting her bruised body.

Yet, in spite of her discomfort, she would attempt to climb until she was no longer able. It was the only way out, her only chance. Ignoring her sore muscles and the persistent pain in her shoulder, she took a deep breath and began again. The lower part of the wall was less difficult. She was able to use a small dagger to dig notches for handholds, but beyond that, climbing became extremely hazardous. Blindly groping for out-croppings, her progress was agonizingly slow.

After many candlemarks, she estimated she had climbed as many as twenty staff lengths. The effort was exhausting and had taken its toll physically. Her torn and bruised fingers throbbed dully as she repeatedly clawed the cold dirt. Although the numbness was a relief, she needed to be able to feel in order to secure her grip. Reluctantly, she flexed her fingers, wincing as the renewed blood flow awakened her raw flesh, bringing waves of pain, searing in their intensity.

She gritted her teeth, disregarding her body’s warning. There was no choice but to work through it. With dogged determination, she continued inching her way up the dirt wall. It was critical that she remain focused and carefully plan each move. A fall from this height could result in an injury that would trap her forever. With this uppermost in her mind, she cautiously stretched her leg to the next foothold.

As she shifted her weight, the muscle in her calf cramped in defiance. If she gave in to the pain, all would be lost. She groaned and attempted to change her position. A cold sweat broke out on the surface of her skin as she desperately searched for a handhold.

Just above her head was a good-sized rock. She closed her fingers around it tightly. There was no time to test its strength. Holding her breath, she pulled herself up, easing the weight off her aching calf. The muscle sang with relief. She held her position, resting the injured leg until her biceps burned from the exertion. More tired than she could ever remember, her abused body cried out for rest, yet she couldn’t afford to stop. Time was her enemy. Her strength was dwindling. She had to keep climbing.

A coyote howled in the distance. Its lonely cry filled her with hope, reminding her that life was above. She reached out with her sore leg and carefully felt for a secure place to step. The ground at this level was softer, a different consistency than that below her. She paused to gauge the reliability of the foothold, then cautiously committed.

It held.

She exhaled with relief. A cool breeze from above ruffled her bangs. She inhaled deeply, savoring the welcome sign that she was nearing the top. Her heart hammered anxiously. In all her attempts this was the farthest she’d gotten.

Suddenly, a cold fear gripped her. A mistake now would cost her dearly. Slowly, she reached for the next handhold and pulled herself closer to freedom. She was almost there. Five or more staff lengths and she would be at the top. She could see the starlit sky shining above her. Adrenaline surged through her veins in a hot rush.

She shifted her weight to take another step and groaned as she felt the ground give way beneath her. Her heart lurched as she clutched the smooth walls for something… anything to slow her fall. There was nothing.

As she plummeted downward, she knew she had failed, knew there would be no more chances. Excruciating pain radiated across her back when she hit bottom.

Mercifully, she lost consciousness.

*****

"What do you mean they’re missing?" Ephiny questioned.

"I’ve asked around. No one has seen either of them in almost a full day."

The regent shrugged. "You know how Xena likes wide-open spaces; maybe they decided to camp in the woods."

"That’s what I thought too," Solari replied. "But Xena didn’t show up for guard duty last night."

Ephiny’s brow furrowed, as she remembered Gabrielle’s uncharacteristic absence from the special council meeting yesterday. It wasn’t like the warrior and bard not to follow through on their obligations. "Perhaps something came up and they had to leave," the regent offered.

"I don’t think so. The queen’s things are still in her hut. Surely they would have told someone if they’d been called away suddenly."

"You’re right. It doesn’t make sense."

A brisk knock on the door interrupted their conversation. Eponin entered, her expression grim. "I thought you should know, Argo wandered into the village alone. There’s no sign of Xena or Gabrielle."

The three Amazons looked at each other with undisguised concern. They knew that under normal circumstances the warrior’s loyal mare would never leave her.

"Do you think it’s Temira?" Solari asked uneasily.

"We can’t rule her out," Ephiny replied, releasing an uneasy breath. "See that the guards are made aware of that possibility. I want the village put on alert." She quickly turned her attention to Eponin. "Get a search party together immediately. At first light, send out our best trackers. The minute they find anything, I want to be informed." The Amazons bowed and quickly exited.

In view of the information revealed at yesterday’s council meeting, the news of her friends’ disappearance was extremely troubling. The warlord, Temira, had returned to Greece and, considering her history with the Amazons and Xena, it was difficult to believe her friends’ disappearance was coincidental.

Unable to sleep, Ephiny spent the remainder of the evening poring over their newly revised defense plans. It was a struggle. Thoughts of the warrior and bard continually interrupted her concentration. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad had happened to them.

*****

The Amazons wasted no time forming search teams. Using the village as a center point, they fanned out, combing all the surrounding area within a day’s ride.

Eponin opted to go out on her own with Argo, hoping that with the absence of distractions, Xena’s mare might lead her to them. She mounted slowly, pausing to give the horse a chance to get accustomed to her. The mare fidgeted uneasily and although she was obviously uncomfortable, Argo reluctantly tolerated her new rider. Eponin gave the horse free reign, letting her lead the way.

After several candlemarks, they came to a halt near the outskirts of Amazon territory. Eponin scanned the clearing before her. In the faint light, she wasn’t able to detect anything out of the ordinary. Gently, she urged the horse forward. Argo reared back, refusing to advance. Eponin heeded the warning and slowly dismounted.

A seasoned tracker, the Amazon carefully examined the ground for traces of her friends. After nearly a candlemark, she found nothing and was about to return to Argo and wait for the others to join her, when she glimpsed a shallow imprint half-covered by leaves. She gently brushed the foliage away for a clearer view.

It was a booted footprint.

Skillfully tracing its path, she discovered others, two sets in all. The depth and distance between them increased suddenly, indicating a possible chase. Excited by her find, Eponin anxiously followed the trail.

After only a short distance she stopped abruptly and stared at a gaping hole in the ground before her. It appeared that the roof of a deep underground cavern had given way. Dropping to her knees, she listened intently.

It was deadly silent.

She peered into the ominous pit, but even her cat-like vision couldn’t penetrate the darkness of the seemingly bottomless hole. The Amazon cupped her hands and called down. Her words echoed back hollowly.

Getting to her feet, she raised her voice, signaling the nearest search party.

*****

Solari knocked briskly on the regent’s door before entering.

"Eponin found them!"

"Are they all right?" The regent asked anxiously.

"They’re both unconscious. They were trapped deep in an underground cavern near the southern border."

"Has the healer seen them?"

The warrior nodded. "Saras was sent for immediately."

"How serious are their injuries?"

"The queen’s shoulder was dislocated." Solari hesitated. "She’s been through a lot, but hopefully with time she’ll recover."

"And Xena?"

The Amazon’s jaw tightened momentarily before she spoke. "The warrior suffered a severe blow to the head. Saras won’t be able to determine the extent of the damage until she awakens."

Ephiny sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on her boots. "Where are they now?"

"Gabrielle was brought to her hut."

The regent noted the halting tone of the Amazon’s voice. "And Xena?"

The fighter paused uncomfortably. "There was some debate as to where she should be taken."

"What do you mean? Why wasn’t she taken to the queen’s hut?"

Solari stiffened. "There were those who thought she should be imprisoned."

"What?!" The regent straightened, giving the Amazon her full attention. "Why?"

Solari took a deep breath. "From what we found at the site, it looks as if the queen was defending herself before the ground collapsed."

"From Xena?!"

"The tracks we discovered indicated a skirmish between them."

"That’s ridiculous. I’m sure there’s an explanation." Ephiny fought to keep the sharp edge from her voice.

"There’s more." The fighter hesitated.

"Well...?" Ephiny looked at her impatiently.

"When we found the queen, she wasn’t fully dressed."

Ephiny shook her head in confusion. "What do you mean?"

"From the abrasions on her skin, Saras determined that the queen’s top had been violently torn from her body."

"And you think Xena’s responsible?"

The Amazon nodded. "The only tracks were hers and the queen’s."

The regent ran her fingers anxiously through her hair. "That’s crazy. Xena would never hurt Gabrielle."

"Ephiny... there was blood... Gabrielle was..." The Amazon’s voice tightened with anger as she continued. "She was violated."

The regent looked at her in disbelief. "Where’s Saras? I want to speak with her… now."

"She’s with the queen in the royal hut."

Ephiny took several steps toward the door, then turned. "See that Xena is made comfortable in her quarters. Then start rounding up everyone that had contact with them since they arrived. I intend to get to the bottom of this." She forcefully pushed open the door and quickly made her way across the village.

*****

The regent’s heart sank the moment she saw her unconscious friend. The young woman was deathly pale, a pained expression etched into her features. Ephiny clenched her fists in anger. She was determined to see that whoever had brutalized the queen paid dearly.

Taking a seat on the edge of the bed, she lightly ran her fingers over the queen’s cheek. It seemed one of the few visible areas on her body that were not scratched or bruised. The regent’s eyes were immediately drawn to the bard’s hands. The fingers were terribly swollen. Dried blood formed scabs over torn nail beds. She looked away sadly.

"Gods, Gabrielle what happened out there?" She glanced up at Saras, who stood silently beside the bed. "Has she regained consciousness at all?"

"Only when I set her shoulder. She was in a great deal of pain, almost incoherent. I gave her something to ease her suffering and help her rest."

Ephiny met the healer’s eyes expectantly. "Did she say anything at all that would shed light on what happened out there?"

Saras released a heavy sigh before answering. "She cried out… ‘No Xena, please!’"

The regent shook her head in disbelief, still finding it impossible to imagine the warrior doing such a thing. "Other than her shoulder, how is she?"

"Well… there are no broken bones, but she’ll be very sore for some time to come."

"Can you tell from her injuries what may have happened?"

"No, not really. The only thing I can say conclusively is that..." The healer cleared her throat awkwardly. "She’s no longer a virgin."

Ephiny released a tense breath. "What about the fall? Could that have caused it?"

"Anything’s possible, but it’s not likely."

"And Xena? What’s her condition?"

"She has many bruises and contusions, not all of them caused by the accident."

"I... I don’t follow you."

"There are bite marks on her shoulder and scratches on her back." She looked at Ephiny sheepishly. "I’m guessing they were inflicted by Gabrielle. They’re minor injuries, only significant as evidence."

The regent cast her a sharp glance and Sara immediately backed off.

"It’s Xena’s head injury that concerns me most, but I won’t be able to determine the extent of the damage until she awakens."

"Is there a chance she won’t survive?"

"The longer she’s unconscious, the worse the odds."

Ephiny opened her mouth to speak, then hesitated. She could hardly bring herself to voice the question on her mind. "Saras, do you think Xena did this to Gabrielle?"

"Normally I would say no." She paused and looked at the regent. "But I can’t explain what we’ve found."

"Can I wake Gabrielle to question her?"

"I think it would be ill-advised. She needs rest now, more than anything."

"How long before I can speak to her?"

"Probably not until morning."

"Damn," the regent cursed. "I was so preoccupied by the news of Temira that I didn’t take time to talk to them when they first arrived. If I had, maybe this would make more sense."

"I think we’re all a little distracted by the warlord and the danger she poses to us."

Ephiny nodded. "Did you speak with either Xena or Gabrielle?"

"No, I can’t say I did. I…" Saras paused reconsidering. "But there was something odd that happened after the council meeting. I had just exited the conference hut, when I realized that I’d forgotten my cloak. As I turned to go back, I saw Xena slip out the door. I wonder if she was in the back room while the meeting was going on."

"You think she was spying?!" Ephiny exclaimed hotly, her voice projecting more anger than she intended.

"I don’t know what to think… Xena does have a history with Temira. I… thought that was one of the reasons she was excluded from the meeting."

She nervously met the regent’s eyes. "Perhaps she was gathering information for her."

Ephiny jumped to the warrior’s defense. "The meeting was held to get the input of council members. It was never my intent to exclude Xena because of her past. I’m sure she hasn’t had any contact with Temira since her warlord days."

"Then what was she doing there?"

"I don’t know, but I find it difficult to believe that she would suddenly take up with Temira again... that she would betray the Amazons.... and Gabrielle. She knows Temira is my enemy."

Saras shrugged. "Yes, but..." She measured her words before continuing. "It was widely believed that Xena and Temira were romantically involved. Many felt a lovers’ quarrel was the only thing that kept them from uniting to conquer all of Greece."

Ephiny raised her hand to dismiss the healer’s words. "I remember the stories of their sexual exploits. I never believed there was much truth in them."

"Maybe not, but..." The elder hesitated, the wheels turning in her mind.

"But what?"

"Well... I can’t help wondering if Gabrielle discovered something and that’s why they fought."

"You’re jumping to conclusions. At this point we don’t know what really happened."

"Of course, you’re right. Until the queen awakens, we won’t know anything for sure."

Even though Saras’ words were nonjudgmental, Ephiny saw traces of doubt lingering in the healer’s eyes. "I’d rather you didn’t discuss this with anyone until we’re sure what really happened. The last thing we need is to spread unfounded rumors."

Saras acknowledged her request with a respectful nod.

Ephiny glanced once again at the bard and released a heavy sigh. "I’ve got to meet with Solari and Eponin. Keep a close watch on them and notify me immediately if their condition changes."

*****

A curtain of impenetrable darkness surrounded her. She raised her hands protectively and made her way through the blackness. Her keen senses detected nothing. She was utterly alone.

She cried out, but no sound escaped her lips. Her voice was swallowed by the void. There was nothing but the blackness, desolate and barren. She was unable to see, hear or feel. It seemed as though her body was gradually losing substance, as if, slowly, she was ceasing to be. In a terrifying revelation she understood that the void meant to consume her, take her inside.

And somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind she wanted to yield to it… It would be so easy. Every fiber of her body longed for the solace the darkness offered.

Instinctively, she struggled against her unseen enemy. Yet, with each moment that passed she felt her will softening. The darkness enfolded her like a warm cloak against a bitter wind. The urge to surrender was nearly overwhelming.

*****

Angry shouts erupted from the regent’s hut. Ephiny immediately recognized the voices of her fellow Amazons. Eponin and Solari were engaged in a heated argument. She pressed her fingers firmly to her temples to relieve the tension and slowly approached. Taking a deep breath, she pursed her lips in frustration and stepped inside.

A hush fell over the room.

Solari looked up anxiously. "Any change in the queen’s condition?"

The regent crossed to the table and poured a glass of ale. "No, she’s still sleeping."

"What about Xena?" Eponin asked.

"Her injuries are more serious. She hasn’t regained consciousness." Ephiny watched the Amazons exchange angry glances. She didn’t bother to mask her irritation. "You two want to tell me what’s going on here?"

"It’s nothing," the Amazon protested.

Ephiny set the mug down with an agitated thud. "This is no time for dissension. What’s this about?"

"We disagree about Xena’s treatment," Eponin confessed. "Were you able to learn anything from Saras about what happened in the woods?"

Ephiny looked pointedly at both women. "Nothing discussed here leaves this room. Are we agreed?"

The regent took a full breath before continuing. "Aside from the physical evidence you’re already aware of, Saras saw Xena exiting the tribal meeting room after yesterday’s conference."

"Spying!" Solari accused.

The regent released a frustrated sigh. "We don’t know. But it’s possible."

Eponin stepped aggressively forward. When she spoke, her voice was tinged with unrestrained bitterness.

"I can’t believe you’re even considering that. Xena has defended this village. She’s saved my life... and yours too."

Ephiny raised her hand in warning. "I don’t need you to remind me of that. I’m not convinced about any…"

Solari interrupted. "It’s my recommendation that Xena be jailed until we discover what really happened."

"You’ve got to be kidding!" Eponin exclaimed.

Solari ignored the Amazon’s protest and continued. "Should she awaken, it would give us more control over the situation."

"Guilty until proven innocent," Eponin said angrily.

Solari glared at her. "Are you capable of restraining her if need be?"

"That’s enough!" The regent turned to Solari. "Xena sustained a serious head injury and will be treated in her own hut. The decision’s been made. It would take a lot more evidence than we have for me to change my mind."

Solari shook her head in disagreement. Eponin took a threatening step toward her.

"Sit down, both of you," Ephiny ordered.

Reluctantly they took a seat.

The regent glanced from one to the other. "This will be a rational discussion. Is that understood?"

The Amazons nodded, struggling to hold their tongues.

The regent turned her attention to Solari. "I have to say that I have trouble believing that Xena would maliciously hurt Gabrielle. I’ve seen nothing in their relationship to indicate that it had become strained. You seem to feel strongly about this. I’d like to know why."

"I’ve heard things from the villagers," she offered confidently.

Eponin cast her an icy glance.

"Like what?"

"The young tracker who escorted them into the village told me she suspected something was wrong when they first arrived. Normally when they visit, they share the same quarters. But when she approached the queen’s hut with Xena’s saddlebags, Gabrielle nervously requested that the warrior’s belongings be placed elsewhere."

"That doesn’t mean anything," Eponin objected.

"Say what you will... they were staying in separate huts," Solari said pointedly.

"I want to question this tracker myself. Arrange for her to meet with me this afternoon. Is there anything else I should know?"

"As a matter of fact, there is." Solari looked at Eponin. "Serena, the cook, told me that Xena was in such a hurry leaving Gabrielle’s quarters the other night that she knocked her down. She also heard the queen call out after Xena, saying, ‘I know what you really want.’ "

Eponin shook her head in frustration as Solari continued. "I don’t pretend to know what Gabrielle may have meant, but Xena never even stopped to apologize to Serena. She just hurried away."

Eponin could no longer hold her tongue. "Ephiny, I can’t sit here and listen to this. It’s ludicrous!"

"Maybe to you," Solari responded calmly. "But for me, these incidents add up to something that shouldn’t be ignored." She turned to the regent. "There’s more you should know. The blacksmith was out for a walk that night and saw Xena at the northern fire circle angrily pacing back and forth, holding a ceremonial pipe."

She glared at Eponin. "We all know the law... it’s forbidden to partake except in ritual."

"Did she see her smoking it?" the regent asked.

Solari shrugged. "Why else would she have it?"

Ephiny patiently repeated her question. "Was she seen smoking it?"

"No, but Xena did walk off into the woods with it."

"Anything else?" Ephiny asked, suddenly feeling very weary.

"No, but then I’ve only spoken with a few people."

"What about you, Eponin? Do you have anything to add?"

"I saw them at the sparring competition… They interacted normally, almost playfully." She glanced angrily at Solari. "It sickens me that you’re so quick to doubt Xena." She took a heavy breath and looked to the regent. "It’s wrong for us to condemn her when she is not able to defend herself."

Ephiny raised her hand. "I agree." She turned to Solari. "Xena’s earned our trust."

"But..."

Ephiny cut her off. "I consider Xena a friend, and at this point these events aren’t enough to make me think she betrayed us or the queen." She raised her hand to silence the disgruntled Amazon. "I’m not taking these charges lightly. Rape and attempted murder are both punishable by death. Trust me when I say I intend to find out what really happened. Meanwhile... don’t lose sight of the known enemy here... None of us are safe if Temira has returned to Greece. Your energies need to be focused on maintaining the security of this village."

Both women nodded.

"All right then. We’ll meet again tomorrow." The regent stood, indicating that, for her, the discussion was over.

*****

The next morning, Ephiny rose early in order to check on her friends’ condition. As she made her way to the queen’s hut, she noticed that the village was unusually quiet. Those Amazons she passed seemed visibly ill at ease. It was obvious that rumors about Xena’s attack on the queen had spread despite her best attempts to control them.

She slowly opened the door to Gabrielle’s hut and nodded to Saras, who sat beside the bed mixing an unguent. "Any change?"

"No, she’s still resting."

"What about Xena?"

I’m afraid it doesn’t look good. She hasn’t...." Gabrielle’s moan interrupted her.

"Xena?"

The young woman opened her eyes and looked anxiously around the room. "Xena!?"

Ephiny hurried to her side. "It’s okay... you’re safe."

As the queen struggled to rise, pain radiated through her shoulder, causing her to cry out. Her eyes were wide with fear.

The regent pressed a calming hand to her chest to ease her back. "Gabrielle, did Xena hurt you?"

"What?" The bard forced herself upright, wincing as her muscles seized. She grabbed Ephiny’s arm fearfully. "Is... is Xena all right?"

"Xena’s unconscious. She suffered a severe head injury."

"Where is she?" Gabrielle questioned, her voice on edge.

"In her hut, but…"

The bard immediately attempted to stand, but her legs buckled beneath her. The regent caught her and eased the young woman back onto the bed.

"You’re in no condition to go anywhere," Saras muttered as she checked the bandages on the young queen’s hands.

"Gabrielle... you should rest," Ephiny added, knowing better than to defy the feisty healer.

"No! I have to see her!" With a great deal of effort, she used her good arm to push herself up onto her shaky legs. "Please, take me to her."

Saras threw her hands up in defeat when Ephiny wrapped an arm around the insistent woman. "Fine, go to Xena. I need to check on her too." She leveled a look at Ephiny. "We’ll talk later."

The regent glanced away and adjusted her grip around Gabrielle. A private reprimand from the sharp-tongued healer was never something she looked forward to. She nodded and led the bard to Xena’s hut.

*****

The small blonde froze in the doorway as she stared at the unconscious warrior. A wave of dizziness washed over her, and Ephiny had to grasp her waist to keep her from falling.

Xena’s body lay lifeless on the bed. Her face was severely bruised, giving her the appearance of someone who had been brutally beaten. Ominous shades of red and purple colored the skin surrounding her eyes. Her arms lay still at her sides. The movement of her chest was barely visible, her breathing frighteningly shallow. The once vital and powerful warrior seemed a mere shadow of her former self.

Aided by Ephiny and Saras, Gabrielle slowly made her way across the room and eased herself down on the bed. Tears overflowed her eyes and slowly slid down her cheeks. She lightly ran her fingers over the ugly bruises on Xena’s face and raised her hand to her mouth to stifle a sob.

"Will she be okay?" She asked in a tremulous voice.

Saras wrung out a damp cloth and placed the cool compress behind the warrior’s neck. She shook her head uncertainly. "She’s been unconscious for two days. That’s not good. The longer she’s out, the greater the chance she won’t recover."

Gabrielle’s eyes filled with concern.

"I’ve done all I can." Saras replied sadly. "Now, nature has to take its course."

The young queen gently took the warrior’s hand in her own. The unnatural coolness of her skin sent a chill through the bard. Ignoring her own tender fingers, she massaged gently, in an attempt to transfer some of her warmth. "Xena, I… I’m so sorry." She pressed her lips to the warrior’s fingers and wept softly.

Motioning for Saras to leave the room, Ephiny walked to her friend’s side and laid a comforting hand on the young woman’s shoulder.

After long moments the queen looked up.

The regent shifted uncomfortably. "Gabrielle, I know this is difficult, but I need you to tell me what happened out there."

The queen’s eyes darted away anxiously.

Ephiny took a seat beside her and laid a gentle hand on her arm. "Saras saw Xena sneaking out of the conference hut after the council meeting."

Gabrielle’s cheeks flushed and she bit her lip nervously. "W… what difference does it make?" she stuttered.

"It was a closed meeting. We were discussing our strategy for dealing with the warlord Temira, an enemy of the Amazons."

"I don’t understand. Why do you think Xena would be interested?"

"She once joined forces with Temira."

The queen stiffened, her shoulder throbbing painfully. "That doesn’t mean anything. It was a long time ago."

As awkward as it was for Ephiny to talk to her friend about this sensitive topic, she didn’t have much choice. It was essential that she understand what had really happened. "Gabrielle, I have a lot of unanswered questions." She paused. "There are things I need to ask you."

The young queen didn’t respond. She looked upon the unconscious warrior as if in a trance.

Ephiny reluctantly pressed on. "Did you and Xena fight in the woods?"

"W… what do you mean?"

"I’m sure this must be very difficult for you, but I have to find out the truth. I know you care for Xena a great deal but you don’t have to protect her... not now."

"What do you think she’s done?" Gabrielle asked apprehensively.

"I... I know what happened." Ephiny rushed on, obviously uncomfortable. "The healer told me you were violated... we found signs of a struggle where you’d fallen... your top was torn from you."

Gabrielle’s mouth opened but no words came.

Ephiny grasped her arm sympathetically. "I know how hard this must be, but I need you to tell me what really happened."

The bard shook her head in disbelief. "This is all a big mistake." She took a heavy breath. "I... I don’t know anything about this warlord... but Xena wasn’t spying."

"How could you know that?" Ephiny questioned. "You missed the meeting... you weren’t even there."

"But I was." Gabrielle met the regent’s eyes. "I was in the closet... with Xena."

*****

The regent couldn’t disguise her shock. "But… why?"

"It’s a long story." The bard’s head throbbed and her shoulder ached as she struggled for words to explain. Pinching the bridge of her nose between two fingers, she tried to remain focused.

Ephiny’s brow furrowed with concern. "Are you all right?"

Gabrielle looked up wearily. "I’m really tired. Could we talk later?"

"Of course," the regent replied guiltily. "Can I help you back to your hut?"

"No... I’m staying here." She looked down sadly at Xena and released a heavy sigh.

The Amazon nodded in understanding and turned to leave.

"Ephiny, could you dispatch a messenger to Amphipolis? Her mother should know."

"Certainly, I’ll send someone right away." Glancing back as she closed the door, she saw Gabrielle reach for the warrior.

*****

The young woman lifted Xena’s hand and brushed her lips gently across the cool surface of her skin. How could she explain to Ephiny what she didn’t understand herself? Turning the warrior’s hand over in her own, she ran her fingertips lightly over the palm, marveling at the long graceful fingers that yielded such strength. Since the saddlebag incident, she had been almost obsessed with them. Like the warrior, they were both powerful and gentle, harsh and compassionate. The contradictions fascinated her.

She thought back to the night, four moons ago, when it first began. ------

After miles of travel, they had stopped to set up camp. As was their routine, Xena had gone into the nearby woods to hunt while she began preparing their meal. She could never have guessed that day, one that had started like so many others, would end up turning her world upside down and changing her life forever.

A pot of water simmered over the campfire as Gabrielle cut up vegetables for their stew. The boring job was made even more tedious by her dull paring knife. Unable to tolerate the minor irritation another moment, she got up with a heavy sigh and walked to Xena’s saddlebag.

Plunging her hand deep inside the overstuffed pack, she searched for the sharpening stone and felt a solid object beneath her fingers. It was heavy like a whetstone, but larger. Curious, she pulled it out and unrolled the soft leather cloth covering it.

Inside was a rod of solid black marble, about two fingers wide and slightly longer than her hand. One end was rounded, the other flat. Baffled, she ran her fingers down its length. It felt cool and smooth against her skin, pleasing to the touch. The substantial weight of the stone was oddly comforting. When she held it up for closer examination, it shimmered beautifully in the firelight.

Gabrielle puzzled a moment, then, realizing Xena would be back soon with dinner, hastily re-wrapped the unusual object. As she stuffed it back into the saddlebag, she detected a pleasant musky scent. Raising her fingers to her lips, she inhaled deeply. Instantly she recognized the aroma, a scent similar to her own and yet very different.

Heat rose to her cheeks as it dawned on her what the object had been used for. Embarrassed by her discovery, she quickly looked around for the warrior. Luckily, there was no sign of her.

She returned to the fire, sharpening stone forgotten, and stared into the flames. The thought of Xena pleasuring herself with the smooth rod caused her pulse to quicken. Her mind conjured visions of the warrior on her back with her legs spread, pushing the marble deep inside. Without conscious thought, she raised her fingers to her lips and breathed in the intoxicating scent.

Her mind flooded with questions. When did Xena do it? And how often? Was it possible her friend had used the rod while she slept barely an arm’s length away? Suddenly, erotic images of the warrior and the rhythmic movement of her hands preoccupied her thoughts.

Again she inhaled the heady aroma. It was definitely the scent of a woman, but was it Xena’s? Surely, it had to be... or did it? This disturbing thought only raised more questions. She felt her chest tighten. Had Xena used it on another woman? Suddenly, Gabrielle felt curiously uncomfortable. When could such a thing have happened? They had been traveling alone for at least a moon. Would the marble hold the scent that long?

A rush of unfamiliar and irrational emotions washed over her... anger, betrayal and much more. She sat in stunned silence as she realized she was jealous. With an eerie urgency, she tried to push the notion of another woman from her mind. Xena had never shown an interest in women before. At least, not in front of her. But then, the warrior wasn’t the type to openly display her emotions.

She tried to calm herself with the voice of reason. In all the time she’d known the warrior there were no signs that she slept with women. But what about before? In her warlord days, Xena had almost been a different person. It suddenly occurred to her that she didn’t know her friend as well as she thought.

Her mind filled with wild notions as she lifted her hand and took in the scent once again. It was subtle, yet compelling. Just like she imagined the warrior would smell. Was it Xena’s essence that coated the black marble?

"Gabrielle?..." The voice startled her, bringing her back from her thoughts. She looked up to see the warrior standing beside her.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I... I was just thinking."

"How’s the stew coming? You got the vegetables done?"

"I, errr..." The bard stumbled with her words. "The blade of my knife was dull. It’s taking me longer."

"Use mine," Xena offered, handing Gabrielle her dagger. Their hands brushed lightly and the bard felt a tingling race across the surface of her skin.

The warrior picked up the dull knife and set it aside. "I’ll sharpen this for you later."

Gabrielle nodded and nervously began cutting the remaining vegetables, her hands trembling slightly. Unaccustomed to the sharper knife, she slipped, slicing her finger. "Ouch!"

Xena looked up from the rabbit she was adding to the pot and reached for the bard’s hand. Pulling it close, she examined the small wound.

Suddenly, remembering the scent of the marble on her skin, Gabrielle quickly yanked her hand back. "It’s okay... I... It’s not very bad."

Without thinking she brought the injured finger to her mouth and sucked lightly. The coppery taste of blood flooded her senses, but her imagination detected more, a subtle flavor that made her breath catch. She dropped her hand nervously into her lap.

"Gabrielle, are you sure you’re okay?" The warrior asked, her concern evident. "You seem a little flushed."

"I... I... don’t feel well," she said truthfully.

Xena reached over and pressed her fingers to the bard’s forehead.

"Hmmm, you’re a little warm, but there’s no fever." An intense heat lingered where the warrior’s fingers had been and suddenly Gabrielle felt as if she might burst into flames. She took a drink from the waterbag and tried to collect herself.

Xena picked up her flask and poured a little alcohol onto a cloth. With the detachment of a healer, she reached for her friend’s injured hand and held it in her own. "I want to clean out that cut."

The bard melted under the warrior’s gentle touch, the strength draining from her body. She couldn’t take her eyes off Xena’s hands. Her thoughts kept returning to the black marble rod. She glanced up shyly, then quickly looked away. Desperate to put some distance between herself and the dark-haired woman, she stood and went to her bedroll as soon as Xena finished. "I... I think I’m going to lie down for a while."

"Good idea." The warrior said, smiling softly. "I’ll wake you when dinner’s ready."

Gabrielle lay on her side by the fire, watching her friend with a new awareness. The way the firelight reflected off the warrior’s silky hair was hypnotic. Even the most basic tasks seemed to take on a heated sensuality when Xena performed them. She felt a pleasant fluttering in her stomach as thick slices of potato and carrot slid from the warrior’s long graceful fingers into the pot. Her eyes followed Xena’s every move, noting how the muscles in her forearms flexed as she stirred the soup.

She found herself wondering what it would be like to be caressed by those capable hands, to be held in her strong arms. Was Xena as commanding in bed as she was in battle? Her mind flashed back to the marble rod. Did she tremble when she climaxed? Did she cry out?

Gabrielle swallowed hard and wiped her damp palms on her skirt. Nervously, she turned on her side, with her back to the warrior.

The sensations rushing through her were thrilling. Never had she been more aware of her own body. It all but demanded she take notice. A warm wetness pooled between her legs. Reflexively, she squeezed her thighs together. The slight friction made her quiver.

The tension building inside her was unbearable. Gabrielle longed for release and was contemplating a trip to the woods when she heard Xena get up. She turned and nearly gasped aloud as she watched the warrior kneel beside the saddlebags. Panic seized her. What if Xena discovered she had unwrapped her...

"What are you doing? " the bard blurted.

The dark-haired woman stopped and looked over her shoulder. "I was going to sharpen your knife. Did I wake you?"

"No... I... ah... you don’t have to do that. I can take care of it."

"No problem. It will only take me a minute."

Xena turned her attention back to the saddlebag, digging deep inside. Gabrielle couldn’t breathe. The search seemed to take an agonizingly long time, as if the warrior were moving in slow motion. Finally, Xena pulled out the whetstone and walked back to the fire. The bard released a shaky breath and tried to calm her rapidly beating heart.

"How are you feeling?" the warrior asked.

"Better," she croaked, her throat tight with anxiety. She’d never felt more confused in all her life. ------

Three sharp knocks at the door of the Amazon hut interrupted Gabrielle’s recollections.

"Come in."

Saras quietly entered the room. "I just wanted to check on you both. How’s the shoulder?"

"It’s fine."

The healer gently probed the tender muscle with her fingers, ensuring it was set properly. Gabrielle winced and clutched the arm tightly to her side.

"Do you need something for the pain?"

"No, thanks."

"It would help you rest."

"Really, I’ll be okay. It’s Xena I’m worried about."

"Me too," Saras admitted as she went to the warrior’s side. She felt Xena’s pulse, then pulled back an eyelid to examine the pupil.

Gabrielle wrung her hands nervously. "Is there any improvement?"

The healer released a heavy sigh. "No, not that I can see."

The bard ran her fingers anxiously through her hair.

Saras watched her sadly. Her heart went out to the young woman. "Xena’s very strong. It’s my hope that her body is healing internally even though we can’t see its progress."

Gabrielle nodded. "Is there anything I can do to help her?"

"Aside from applying a poultice periodically, I’m afraid there’s not much to be done. We’ll just have to wait this out."

Green eyes, once vibrant, were now red-rimmed and weary as they looked to the healer. Saras understood the helplessness Gabrielle was experiencing. She felt it too. And although there was little to be done for Xena, the healer wanted to make the waiting easier for her queen.

"Massaging her limbs regularly would be helpful, but I’m afraid I don’t have the strength in these hands that I used to."

"I can do that," the bard said eagerly.

Saras smiled softly. "Good. I’ll leave you to get started. But, don’t forget, your body’s healing too. Try to get some sleep."

*****

Sleep. When was the last time she’d had a full night’s sleep? The evening she had discovered the marble rod began the first in a chain of restless nights.

Gabrielle ran her fingers lovingly through the warrior’s dark bangs. Moving Xena’s right arm out from under the covers, she began massaging it tenderly. Slowly, the strong muscles relaxed, unconsciously responding to her touch. She warmed at the reaction. Perhaps even after all they’d been through, the bond between them had not been completely broken.

At least for her, their special connection remained.

Things had become so complicated. Her awakening desire for the warrior added a new and pressing element to their relationship. For the bard, there was no denying it was love in the most romantic sense of the word. And almost as soon as she had discovered it, she had wanted to tell Xena how she felt, but the moment never seemed the right. ------

There had been one night on their way to the Amazon village when she had nearly revealed her heart. Xena was unusually cheerful and the timing seemed perfect. But, the unexpected arrival of a messenger to their camp interrupted her confession and the moment was gone.

The note the messenger left behind had immediately altered the warrior’s good mood. She became suddenly edgy and distant. When Gabrielle inquired about it, Xena tossed the note into the fire and nervously explained that Amphipolis was having trouble with bandits. The warrior had been adamant about handling it alone.

Gabrielle felt uneasy staying behind but reluctantly agreed to go on to the next town to wait and shop for needed supplies. It had been a mistake. Their time apart had dragged on endlessly.

As she sat waiting in the local tavern, she regretted that she hadn’t insisted on going. She would have given almost anything to have the warrior sitting beside her now. Her loneliness was made more desperate by her deepening attraction to her companion. Their separation seemed almost a physical pain.

If she didn’t tell Xena how she felt soon, she was certain her own body would betray her. Since the saddlebag incident, images of the warrior haunted her dreams. Now, even her waking thoughts were dominated by erotic visions of her sensual companion. The bard was terrified she would cry out in her sleep or worse. She had to tell her and soon.

Gabrielle jumped as a mug of ale was slapped down on the table. A tall fighter stood over her. She looked up wearily. He was the third in his group to proposition her. Rejecting him with a practiced grace, she walked to the bar and struck up a conversation with an unthreatening young man just to keep others away.

She tried to look interested as he rambled on, but his self-involved stories made it increasingly difficult to pay attention. Her mind continually wandered to back to thoughts of Xena. Abruptly, she decided to retire to her room. She was too concerned to remain. At dawn, she intended to head to Amphipolis and beginning looking for her friend.

Just as she opened her mouth to excuse herself, a hush fell over the room. Without looking, she knew the warrior had entered. Quickly ending her conversation, she walked over to her friend and gave her a big hug. Xena stiffened and gently backed out of the embrace.

For Gabrielle the brief contact was wonderful. All at once, her senses came alive. Beneath the strong smell of leather she detected a subtler scent that was distinctly Xena’s. It was utterly distracting. The desire to fall back into the tall woman’s arms was overwhelming. And although the noise in the room had quickly returned to normal, the bard barely noticed. For her, there was only Xena.

Gabrielle stood in awkward silence for several moments, her heart racing.

"Want to go up to my room?"

Startled that she had given voice to her thoughts, and embarrassed by the suggestiveness of her question, the bard felt her skin flush hotly. "I mean… I thought you might want to get cleaned up before we ate."

Xena nodded indifferently and headed upstairs.

Gabrielle was both relieved and disappointed that the warrior seemed oblivious to the desire hidden beneath her words. As she climbed the stairs behind her friend, she watched the gentle sway of the warrior’s hips and resolved that somehow she would gather her courage. Tonight was the night.

Xena walked to the basin beside the bed and began to wash her face and hands, casually running the damp cloth across her neck and chest. Gabrielle swallowed hard. It took all her will to pull her eyes away from the gentle slope of the warrior’s breasts.

"I expected you yesterday," she commented, trying to ignore the gentle pulsing between her legs. "Did everything go okay in Amphipolis?"

"It’s a long story," Xena answered uneasily.

Hoping to coax a few more details from her friend, Gabrielle continued. "I’ve been a little worried."

"Things just took a little longer than I expected, nothing worth mentioning."

The bard took her hint and eased off the subject. "It was pretty dull here. I kept wishing I had gone with you."

Xena glanced at her curiously. "From what I could see, it looked like you were having a pretty good time."

"No, not really. Why would you think that?"

"You seemed quite taken with the young man at the bar," Xena replied as she dunked the cloth in the water and wrung it out thoroughly.

"Oh, him. I was just passing time until you got here."

"Right." She raised a doubting brow and ran the cool washcloth down her arm.

"Really. I wasn’t interested in him." Gabrielle replied quickly. "I was just about to leave when you arrived."

"Could’ve fooled me." Xena smiled.

She winced at the warrior’s misinterpretation. "Never," she insisted. "He’s not my type."

"Oh? Then, what is your type?" The warrior asked with interest.

"I don’t know." Gabrielle paused, once again trying to call up her courage. "The strong, silent ww... ones, I guess." She forged ahead nervously. "What about you? What type are you attracted to?"

"It’s been so long I’ve forgotten." Xena replied sarcastically. She reached for the towel and quickly dried her face and hands.

Gabrielle looked up shyly and asked the question that had been haunting her since that night by the fire.

"Have you ever been attracted to a woman?"

Xena hesitated a moment, startled by her friend’s question. "Well... yes, some women are fascinating."

Steeling her nerve, the bard pressed further. "Sexually attracted?" Her cheeks flushed with color as she waited for the warrior’s reply.

Xena smiled at her friend’s innocence. "Gabrielle, what are you getting at? Don’t tell me you’re suddenly attracted to women." She visibly tensed when the blonde shyly looked away.

Gabrielle slowly lifted her head and met the warrior’s eyes. "Well, no... not suddenly, and not all women… just one." The bard took a deep breath. "You."

Xena stood mute, stunned by her friend's confession and the all too serious expression on the bard’s face.

Her silence hung in the air, a wall between them.

"Please... say something."

"I... I don’t know what to say." Xena replied, eyes dancing anxiously.

Gabrielle’s entire body trembled as she forced her words. "How do you feel about that? Are... are you attracted to me... at all?"

The warrior looked down at her boots uneasily.

Hopes dashed, Gabrielle silently wished the ground would open and swallow her. "I... I’m sorry... I shouldn’t have said anything... it’s just... I hoped..." The words caught in her throat.

The vulnerability in her friend's voice tugged at the warrior’s heart. "Gabrielle, I... I... you know I care about you... You’re my best friend."

Xena’s words cut like a knife. Her dreams shattered.

The pained expression on the young woman’s face was almost more than the warrior could bear. "You’re very beautiful. I... It’s not that I don’t..."

Gabrielle looked up sadly. "But… you’re not attracted to me... not in that way."

With great difficulty Xena met the bard’s eyes. She paused, groping for words. "I… well… yes."

"Yes?" Gabrielle couldn’t keep her hands from shaking. Her pulse quickened. "Yes you are, or yes you’re not?" She asked, trying not to hope.

The warrior took a deep breath. "Yes, I'm attracted to you, but…"

The bard’s heart hammered as she took an anxious step forward.

Xena stepped back, raising a hand protectively before her. "Gabrielle, wait… I... I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to act on this."

"Ever?!" She questioned, suddenly deflated.

"Listen... You’re bright, attractive... You could have any man... any woman you wanted."

"But I want you."

"It can’t work."

"Be…because I’m a woman?"

Xena took a deep breath. "No, it’s not that."

Gabrielle looked down shyly. "I… I don’t excite you?"

"You do…" The warrior swallowed and looked away awkwardly. "We’re too different. I... I... can’t give you what you need... I don’t have it in me."

"But you already have. Can’t you see? This is just the next logical step."

"There’s nothing logical about this. It’s... it’s crazy."

"Then, let’s be crazy." She reached out to touch the warrior’s arm.

Xena backed away. "Gabrielle, I’m sorry. I... I... can’t do this..." Without looking back, she rushed out the door and down the steps.

Knowing better than to follow, the bard fell back on the bed. Her heart hammered excitedly in her chest. For better or worse, she had done it: she had revealed her feelings. And although the warrior obviously had… misgivings, at least she had admitted that she was attracted to her.

Unfortunately, the happiness that thought brought was short-lived. An uneasiness swept over her as she recalled the warrior’s expression as she hurried from the room. It was one she’d never seen before: fear.

*****

Candlemarks later, when Xena hadn’t returned, Gabrielle went down to the tavern. She spotted the warrior in a dim corner of the room and slowly walked toward her.

As Xena watched her approach, she downed the remainder of her ale and quickly motioned for the barmaid to get her another.

"You okay?" The bard asked shyly.

The warrior nodded.

Desperate to ease the tension, Gabrielle took a seat beside her friend. "So tell me about Amphipolis. Anything new there?"

Unfortunately, her attempt to change the subject seemed to make her friend even more uncomfortable.

Xena stared into her empty mug, avoiding her friend’s eyes. "Just a small group of raiders."

"Anyone you knew?"

The warrior merely shook her head as if she couldn’t bring herself to speak.

"How are your mother and brother?"

"They’re okay." Xena took a long drink of ale.

The bard exhaled nervously, unsure of how to put her friend at ease. Just as she was about to try another tact, a burly man stepped up to their table. He turned to Xena and winked. "Want to go up to my room?"

Gabrielle winced at his line and watched her friend’s features harden with distaste. She gave him a sympathetic look as she wondered which of her trademark lines Xena would use to send him on his way.

"Well?" he questioned.

The warrior didn’t respond. She seemed lost in her thoughts.

Trying to save her friend the effort, the bard spoke up, her tone mildly annoyed. "Excuse me, but we’re talking here." She glanced at Xena, expecting her to quickly dispatch the unwanted suitor. Instead she watched uneasily as the warrior’s body language abruptly changed. Her stomach clenched into a tight knot as Xena cast him a flirtatious glance.

The somewhat intoxicated man grinned lecherously and staggered forward.

"Why don’t you get us a bottle." Xena suggested, her voice void of any real emotion. He nodded eagerly and walked to the bar.

"You can’t seriously be interested in him," the bard blurted, unable to disguise the hurt in her voice. "Why are you doing this?"

The warrior gulped the last of her ale. "Why do you think?" she questioned, leveling her eyes on the young blonde. "I’m an ex-warlord, not the type of person that builds long-term relationships. This is about sex… just like all the others before him. It… it’s all I’m capable of giving." The warrior slid her chair back, readying to leave.

"Don’t do this..."

"This is what I am," Xena said flatly.

"Who are you trying to convince, me or yourself?"

The warrior shook her head sadly. "Gabrielle, you can’t see beyond what you want me to be."

"You’re wrong..." She felt the tears about to come and stood abruptly. Her chair clattered noisily to the floor as she turned and rushed out of the door. Gabrielle fled the tavern, escaping to the first building she came to, the barn. Her mind was awash with images of Xena in bed with the drunken fighter. She was devastated and powerless to do anything. It was all too clear that the warrior meant to prove they were wrong for each other.

The bard clenched her fists in frustration and kicked a stall door. Argo snorted. The young woman reached out to calm her. "She doesn’t want him. How could she do that to herself... and to me?"

The barn door creaked noisily. Gabrielle spun around to find Xena standing solemnly in the entrance. Her relief that the warrior hadn’t slept with the drunken fighter was quickly overpowered by her anger at the way that Xena had treated her.

"That was quick, even for the likes of him," she said bitterly.

Xena seemed relieved by the flash of anger in her young friend’s eyes. Perhaps it was easier than viewing the pain she had inflicted.

"I’m sorry."

"Why?" Gabrielle retorted harshly. "It’s none of my business who you sleep with, is it? After all, we’re just friends… right?"

The warrior stood in silence.

"Or maybe, I’m not even that to you."

The bard’s words pierced Xena’s heart. She took a hesitant step forward, her hands trembling. "Gabrielle… I’m sorry. It was a stupid and cruel thing to do. I... I tried to explain earlier... that I would end up hurting you, that we need different things…" She looked away, then met the bard’s gaze. "You and I... It wouldn’t be what you think... what you want."

Seeing the anguish in Xena’s eyes drained the fight out of her. "How do you know what I want?" Gabrielle questioned gently.

"I... I know what I am, and that... you don’t need or want."

"You’re wrong," the bard said fiercely.

The warrior shook her head and tried to explain. "Gabrielle… The life I led... before you knew me. It’s part of me. Some of it I... I can’t let go."

"I… I don’t care. It doesn’t matter."

Xena spoke, her voice barely a whisper as she struggled to keep her emotions from surfacing. "Can’t we forget this... attraction and go on as we were?"

"I don’t understand," the bard said desperately.

"I… I don’t trust myself… what I might do..." She nervously met the bard’s eyes. "You’re so important to me. I… never dreamed that I could have someone like you in my life. Your friendship is such a gift… one that I don’t deserve. I... I don’t want to lose that. Please, Gabrielle."

The warrior’s heartfelt admission touched her deeply. In all their time together Xena had never asked her for anything. Yet, through the years, she had proven her loyalty and friendship again and again. She knew Xena cared for her. Maybe she was asking too much. What they had was special. Somehow, it would have to be enough.

The bard sighed heavily. Disappointment shone clearly in the vivid green of her eyes. "All right, if that’s what you want."

Xena released an anxious breath, her relief obvious. "Then it’s settled." ------

The sounds of Amazon children running past the warrior’s hut brought Gabrielle back to the present. She looked down at her unconscious friend. Her eyes filled with tears as she remembered their agreement. At the time, she had been so sure it would be honored.

*****

Eponin and Solari sat in strained silence, waiting for the regent. Their disagreement over Xena’s guilt had driven a wedge between them. An uncomfortable tension hung in the air, as they carefully avoided each other’s eyes. Both looked relieved when Ephiny finally entered the room.

They rose in greeting.

The regent casually motioned for them to be seated and immediately began to update them. "I’m afraid there’s still no change in Xena’s condition, but Gabrielle has regained consciousness."

"Is she going to be okay?" Solari questioned.

"It looks like she’ll be fine."

"Did she say anything about what happened?" Eponin asked anxiously.

"Gabrielle’s still very weak. She was too tired to go into detail. But one thing was very clear… she’s standing by Xena."

"What did you expect?" Solari charged. "Xena can be very intimidating."

"You’ve got to be kidding!" Eponin retorted angrily. "She’s unconscious."

Ephiny rolled her eyes at their bickering and turned to Solari. "Have you considered that the sex may have been consensual?"

Solari’s face reddened. Although uncomfortable discussing their queen’s personal life, she couldn’t hold her tongue. "I just can’t see her... not with Xena. Gabrielle’s so... innocent... so naive."

"Things aren’t always what they appear," Ephiny commented.

"That may be true, but just the fact that she was a virgin up until now lends some credibility to my view."

Eponin shook her head angrily and jumped to the warrior’s defense. "With all the opportunities Xena has had over the years, why would she wait until now to violate her… why would she wait until they were on Amazon land? She knows rape is punishable by death under our laws. Think about it. It just doesn’t make any sense."

"Obviously something changed in Xena’s life." Solari replied confidently and turned to face the regent. "I brought someone with me. She’s waiting outside. I think you both need to hear what she has to say."

Solari opened the door and motioned a girl of barely sixteen summers inside. The young woman bowed to the regent.

"This is Alyssa."

Ephiny gestured to the chair at the end of the table. "Please take a seat." The girl obeyed, shyly avoiding the regent’s eyes.

Solari laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "No need to be nervous. Just tell them what you spoke to me about earlier."

Alyssa clasped her hands in her lap and took a full breath before beginning her story. "Less than a fortnight ago I accompanied a small group of our traders to Amphipolis. We were eating in a local tavern there when I overheard an older woman at the table behind us mention Xena. She said the warrior had just arrived and was seeing to Argo."

"I… I was excited about seeing her… and the queen." She rushed to explain. "The last time they visited, Xena taught me a couple of moves." The young girl smiled. "I… I wanted to show her how much I’d improved." Suddenly self-conscious, she stopped. It was obvious that the warrior had made a big impression on the young girl.

Solari handed her a cup of water. Grateful for something to steady her shaky hands, she held it tightly.

"I… I went out to the barn." Alyssa nervously took a sip and set the cup down.

She looked up shyly at the regent. "I... I don’t know how to... I mean... it’s kind of embarrassing."

"Just tell them what you saw," Solari encouraged.

"I... I figured they were tending to Argo so I just walked in." The girl looked down unable to meet the regent’s eyes. "When I opened the door, I saw Xena kneeling over a woman in the empty stall across from me. She… she wasn’t the queen. Her hair was red and she had orange-colored eyes."

Ephiny stiffened at her description.

The young amazon continued awkwardly. "At first, I... I thought that they were fighting. They both were out of breath, sweating." The young girl looked up uneasily, her cheeks bright red with heat. "Xena had the woman’s hands pinned to the ground over her head. They… well…"

"What are you saying?" Eponin asked impatiently

"They... they weren’t fighting." She said bashfully. "The woman’s tunic was..." She swallowed hard, her mouth suddenly unbearably dry. "It was... torn open." The girl wrung her hands nervously. "I... I tried to back out of the barn, but they had seen me. The red-haired woman was laughing. She... she pulled her hands free from Xena’s grasp and looked straight at me. I... I wanted to run, but something in her eyes held me. I couldn’t move."

"Did she say anything?"

"She smiled at me and said, ‘Kind of ruins the noble-warrior image, doesn’t it.’ " The young Amazon picked up the cup with trembling fingers. "She... she told me to have a seat... that I could watch the real Xena in action." Her face colored deeply with embarrassment.

"I... I... just stood there like an idiot until Xena hollered at me to get out." The girl’s eyes widened with fear. "The anger in her voice brought me to my senses. I… I ran." She bowed her head shamefully.

"Is that everything?" Ephiny asked gently.

The girl nodded. "I... I was so embarrassed that I never mentioned it to any of the others." Her eyes welled with tears. "I didn’t realize until today that the red-haired woman was the warlord Temira. I... I should have told the others. If I had only said something, maybe we could have captured her. I…"

The regent’s features were uncharacteristically hard. "Temira is a formidable opponent. It’s best your small group didn’t challenge her." She rose abruptly from her chair. "You may leave."

Alyssa bowed solemnly and exited.

After the young Amazon left, the room was eerily quiet. Ephiny looked out the window. She seemed miles away.

It was Solari who was the first to speak. "It seems clear that Xena has renewed her relationship with Temira. No doubt, she was spying when Saras saw her."

Before Eponin could voice her disagreement the regent spoke up. "I’m not so sure."

"What do you mean? It’s obvious she was sexually involved with Temira," Solari argued.

"That much may be true." Ephiny said. "But when I spoke with Gabrielle, she told me that Xena wasn’t alone inside the closet. She was with her."

"What were they doing in the closet?" Solari asked, unable to mask her surprise.

"I’ll bet it wasn’t spying." Eponin smiled, sarcasm dripping from her voice.

*****

The void was relentless, her situation hopeless. As she wandered aimlessly through the darkness, even her memories were lost to her. Her isolation was complete. Time had lost all meaning. Gripped by despair, she dropped to her knees, utterly desolate, and slowly began to yield to the nothingness the void promised.

"Xena!" The warrior’s name tore from Gabrielle’s lips as she abruptly surfaced from her dream.

In her nightmare she was falling. She woke with a start just before hitting the unyielding ground, as if some unseen force had caught her at the last second. Disoriented, she looked around the room in confusion. Relief washed over her as she realized she had been dreaming, but her solace was short-lived. As her eyes focused on her unconscious friend, she understood that the worst part of her nightmare had been true. Tears welled in her eyes as she looked down at the warrior. She kneeled beside the bed and lightly caressed her friend’s face.

"I know as long as your body lives you’re somewhere inside, fighting to come back. I can feel you. Please Xena, if you can hear me, give me a sign."

For a long moment, she watched. There wasn’t the slightest indication that the warrior had heard or understood. She pressed her lips lightly to the bruised cheek. "I’m so sorry. It… it should have been me." Tears slid down her cheeks and splashed on the dark-haired woman face. Xena never moved.

The warrior stiffened as her ears detected a distant sound, a woman’s voice, sweet and soft. She strained to hear, but almost instantly it was swallowed by the blackness.

Had she imagined it? If she was losing her mind, she welcomed the madness. The momentary break from her solitude brought tears of yearning, and for a moment she thought she could feel their cool dampness on her cheek. The voice that seemed her only hope echoed in her mind, familiar and bittersweet. She got to her feet and moved toward it with new resolve.

*****

"Come in."

Gabrielle looked up as the regent entered. She stopped massaging Xena’s calf and gave the Amazon a soft smile.

"How is she today?"

"Still unresponsive." She glanced down sadly. "Saras is very concerned."

Ephiny laid a comforting hand on the young woman’s arm. "Don’t lose hope. Xena is strong. If anyone can pull out of this, she can."

"I know. It’s just… she looks so helpless. I… I’m not used to seeing her this way."

The regent nodded sympathetically. Ephiny’s mind raced as she contemplated how to broach the delicate topic she needed to discuss. She’d been dreading this all day. "Gabrielle, if you’re up to it, I need to speak with you." She crossed the room and pulled out a chair gesturing the bard to the table. Reaching for the kettle hanging over the fireplace, she poured her a hot cup of tea.

The young woman gently lowered Xena’s leg and joined the regent.

"I’m sorry to have to burden you with questions. I know it’s a difficult time. If there were any way around this, I wouldn’t bother you."

"What is it?"

"I’ve learned that Xena met with the warlord Temira in Amphipolis. Did you know anything about it?"

Genuine surprise registered on the young woman’s face. "No."

"Has Xena been to Amphipolis recently?"

"Well… yes. She went home to take care of some raiders. But she never mentioned anything about a warlord."

The regent’s grave expression made the queen anxious. "Ephiny, whatever you’ve heard, I’m sure it can be explained."

"One of our young Amazon traders claims that she saw them together in Amphipolis."

Gabrielle spoke up quickly in Xena’s defense. "The meeting could have been coincidental. Maybe this woman was leading the raiders."

The regent continued nervously. "The girl walked in on them... in the barn." The uneasiness in Ephiny’s voice left no doubt as to her meaning.

Her friend’s words hit her like a blow. Gabrielle took a shaky breath. "Is this person reliable? Maybe she misunderstood."

"I think she’s telling the truth," the regent offered sadly. "It’s commonly believed that years ago Temira and Xena were lovers."

Gabrielle’s mind reeled as the weight of the past few days threatened to overwhelm her. As unsettling as it was to discover Xena had kept this meeting secret from her, it was even more disturbing to find out that she might have renewed her relationship with Temira. She looked at Ephiny with pained and questioning eyes. "This Amazon saw them... having sex?"

"It’s her story that the warlord’s clothes were torn open and Xena was on top of her, holding her down."

The bard struggled to clear the image from her mind.

Ephiny gently laid her hand on the young woman’s arm. "The villagers are nervous, Gabrielle. Temira could pose a serious threat to us."

"Even if they were…" She battled with the thought. "Even if they were together, it doesn’t prove Xena was conspiring against the Amazons."

"No. Maybe not."

Anger rose suddenly in the frazzled young woman. "What do you mean ‘maybe not’! Xena would never betray you or the women of this village! After all we’ve been through together... after all she’s done, how could you doubt her?" Gabrielle struggled to control her raging emotions. Stress and lack of sleep had taken their toll. "What will it take for you to forgive Xena her past mistakes? How many times does she have to lay her life on the line to earn your trust?!"

"Gabrielle, I…"

The bard cut her off abruptly. "I… I think you’d better leave. I’d like to be alone."

Ephiny stood slowly and crossed the room. She turned when she reached the door. "Gabrielle, I’m truly sorry. My first concern has to be the safety of this village. I have to look at all the angles… even when it goes against what I want to believe." She left, closing the door quietly behind her.

*****

Long after the regent had gone, Gabrielle sat at the table. Her heart was heavy. She deeply regretted her outburst. Regardless of how she had defended Xena, she understood Ephiny’s caution and doubt. It was a painful admission. If it was true that Temira had summoned Xena, then the warrior had gone to her willingly and without hesitation.

The bard’s chest tightened as a wave of jealously rushed through her. She tried to remind herself that she had not revealed her feelings to Xena until the warrior had returned from Amphipolis. Still, it wounded her deeply to think of her companion in the arms of this woman.

Hot tears burned her eyes. Although their friendship had been important to Xena, deepening their relationship hadn’t been. When the warrior rejoined her after Amphipolis, she hadn’t wanted anything more from Gabrielle than friendship. Their relationship remained platonic, as Xena had asked. Her chest tightened as she recalled the confusion and hurt she had felt after the warrior’s rejection.

Exhausted, Gabrielle slowly walked to the unconscious woman’s side and knelt beside her. As tears rolled down her cheeks, she spoke aloud the words that loomed so painfully in her thoughts. "Why, Xena? Why did you go to her?"

From deep within the void Xena heard the familiar voice. The depth of sadness in it beckoned to her. She concentrated with all her being. Ghostly images wavered in the murky blackness before her. She gasped as her vision slowly came into focus, her memory returning. She could see her mother’s barn in Amphipolis. Joy washed over her as she spotted Argo, her loyal mare in a nearby stall.

As she moved toward her, she saw a tall slender figure step out of the shadows. It was Temira, the woman she had come to see. The redhead was as beautiful as Xena had remembered, as imposing as any goddess.

"Glad to see you could make it."

The warrior’s pulse quickened as her body recalled the heat of warlord’s touch, the lust she had incited all those years ago. She could almost feel the sexual energy radiating off the redhead.

"So Xena… what do you think? Have I changed?" She turned gracefully to give the warrior a complete picture.

"I doubt it," Xena replied caustically.

Temira smiled. "I was referring to my looks. But, speaking of character… I hear you’ve become somewhat of a hero." She lifted a doubting brow. "You’ll have to excuse me, but I’m having some trouble wrapping my mind around that. You were so good at being bad."

"Things are different now."

"So I understand. And you have a traveling companion." Temira took a step forward, her orange eyes sparkling with mischief. "It’s a pity you came alone… I was so looking forward to meeting the woman responsible for taming you. She must be an infinitely skilled lover to have seduced you away from your wonderfully wicked ways."

"We’re just friends. Something you would never understand."

"Oh… I understand, all right." Temira winked.

"It’s not like that." Xena insisted, avoiding Temira’s eyes.

"Right…" The warlord laughed mockingly. "I’ve seen your little ‘friend.’ That sweet body is much too delicious for you not to have indulged."

She noted Xena’s uncomfortable expression and thoughtfully stroked her lip with the tip of her index finger. "Or is that why you’re here? Looking for a quick fix, an outlet for your passions, perhaps?" Xena stiffened at her comment.

"So your na´ve bard doesn’t have a clue about the true nature of the woman she’s been traveling with." Temira smiled. "Innocence that pure is so very enticing. How have you managed to keep your hands off her?"

Xena’s face flushed.

Temira was genuinely surprised by the uncharacteristic display. "I think I’m going to have to meet her in person."

The dark-haired woman’s eyes flashed dangerously. "Leave her out of this."

"Ah… but it’s too late for that… she’s in it up to her juicy little neck, isn’t she?"

"That’s enough," Xena warned.

Temira reached up and stroked the warrior’s cheek teasingly. "Struck a nerve, did I?"

Xena angrily pushed her hand away.

The warlord licked her lips sensually. "Evidently your newly acquired altruism hasn’t stripped all the life from you. I can still see the fire smoldering beneath that miraculous control." She grinned triumphantly. "I always did bring out the best in you."

"Why did you ask me here? What do you want?"

"Come now… Do you really have to ask?" The redhead grinned.

Xena took a step toward the door. "I don’t have time for games."

Temira grabbed her wrist. A ripple of sensation washed over the warrior.

"I can feel your heat." The warlord whispered, closing the space between them. Xena recoiled, jerking her arm back.

"Gods... you’re ripe for it," Temira purred. "How long has it been since you had someone who really knew what they were doing?" She brushed her pelvis seductively against the warrior’s hip. In a wave of heat, Xena felt the blood rush to her sex. She stood transfixed as Temira leaned closer, her breath teasing the tender skin of her neck.

"Remember how good it was?" Temira’s sultry voice reminded. "I can quench that insatiable thirst." She leaned back and tore open her tunic, exposing her firm breasts, the nipples fully erect.

Xena stood motionless, her heart beating at a dizzying pace.

Slowly, the redhead’s fingers closed over the warrior’s wrist, guiding Xena’s hand to her chest. Without hesitation her fingers closed on the responsive flesh. Temira’s head fell back in pleasure, offering the silky skin of her neck. Xena hungrily bent to taste it, the flesh melting beneath her lips like honey.

Temira’s hands tangled in the warrior’s hair, encouraging her to explore further. Xena’s body flooded with sensation. "Mmmm… yes. I feel how much you want it."

Xena growled and pushed the warlord roughly back. The redhead leaned seductively against a pile of hay. "Come to me."

It was all she could do to deny the warlord’s command. "No."

"You say no, but I can feel your heat." She reached out and ran her hand over the curve of the warrior’s hip. "Let me release you. It’ll be sooo good."

Xena took several steps backward, her heart pumping double-time. Gods, how she needed it. The warlord had been right. It was the reason she had come. But now that she was here, confronting her desire, she realized a painful truth… Temira couldn’t give her what she truly wanted. It wasn’t Temira her body ached for. It was Gabrielle in all her innocence that she fantasized about. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to clear her mind of sensual images of her young companion.

"We’re two of a kind, Xena," Temira purred.

The warrior heard only Gabrielle’s voice, whispering her name. As she opened her eyes, the redhead captured her lips in a searing kiss. The warlord’s hands were everywhere, setting her body afire. Her tongue demanded Xena’s response. Each touch was part of an intricate seduction intended to conquer. Gradually, the dark-haired warrior relented, lost in sensation.

Sensing Xena’s surrender at hand, Temira snaked an arm around the warrior’s waist and slid her free hand under Xena’s leathers.

The warrior was delirious with need. She moaned in rapture, voicing her heart. "Gabrielle..."

Temira pulled back angrily. "Don’t delude yourself. She can’t imagine the strength of your need… let alone satisfy it."

Temira ran the tip of her finger across a jagged scar near the nipple of her right breast. "Remember the time you left me this little memento? Come now… don’t kid yourself. One night with you would send the bard running back to her village."

Xena’s mind reeled at the memory.

"She doesn’t even know that you want her, does she? Have you asked yourself why you haven’t told her, why you hide your desire from her? Deep down you know it’s true. She could never understand what drives you. You’re too different. That’s why you came to me."

Xena stepped back, Temira’s words pummeling her like blows.

"She hasn’t shown the slightest interest, has she? I hear that farm boys are more her style."

Xena angrily shoved her back. "Shut up!"

Temira continued to taunt her, voicing the very same doubts that plagued the warrior night and day. "You can’t deny your nature. When have you ever played by the rules?"

Xena turned from the warlord in an attempt to dodge the stinging truth in her words.

"You’ve fantasized about what you’d like to do to her, haven’t you? Well, eventually your reserve will snap and you’ll take what you want, like you always have."

"No!… I could never hurt her… I…" But even as she said the words, she doubted herself.

"Believe me. This can only end badly, for both of you… I know."

Xena stood trembling, wanting to run but unsure if her legs would hold her.

"Your fate was sealed by the choices you made long ago. Don’t fight it. One time with me and I promise, you won’t think of her ever again." The warrior tried to break away but Temira’s strong arms locked around her waist.

They struggled, falling to the ground, wrestling until they were breathless. At last, Xena won the top position, pinning the warlord’s hands over her head.

"You need things she’ll never understand."

"No!" Xena said desperately.

"She needs things you can’t give her."

Temira looked into the warrior’s eyes. " Is she worth sacrificing your destiny? For what? Half a life? You’ll never truly possess her... not the way you want. Listen to me. Greatness is within your grasp. Together we can have it all. Can you really give up everything for this woman?"

Golden light streamed through the partially open door, bathing Xena’s face. She closed her eyes against the brightness and it was Gabrielle she saw: Gabrielle’s gentle smile, Gabrielle’s sparkling eyes, Gabrielle defending her against her own villagers, Gabrielle walking alongside her, sharing the good and the bad. Tranquility washed over her. She eased her grip on Temira’s wrists and straightened.

"Yes, I would give up everything…"

As the barn door creaked both women looked up. A young Amazon girl stood transfixed in the doorway.

*****

Gabrielle wiped her eyes and gazed at the unconscious warrior. Since she had met Xena, the warrior had always been there for her. Suddenly, she was flooded with guilt. Jealously had made her quick to believe the words of a young trader she didn’t even know. She was no better than the rest of them, doubting her friend without any real proof.

It was so easy for the Amazons to envision Xena, the former warlord, betraying them. But she, their queen, in all her innocence, was above suspicion. She had new sympathy for the unending battle Xena fought overcoming her past.

She found it painfully ironic. Loyalty was an integral part of the code the warrior lived by. Gabrielle was certain the warrior hadn’t broken Amazon laws. Xena would never betray them.

But she had. If they only knew...

Her thoughts wandered back to their first night in the village. She and Xena were sitting quietly, enjoying the starlit sky, when a group of Amazons approached. The young women were so engrossed in their conversation that they never noticed the warrior and bard at the edge of the woods.

"Have you seen Xena spar?"

"Yeah, she has phenomenal energy."

The wiry brunette winked. "I’ll bet she’s incredible in bed." Nervous giggles erupted from the young Amazons.

Xena rolled her eyes. She had intended to stand and reveal her presence but when she saw the sadness in her friend’s eyes she paused.

"Like you’ll ever find out," the youngest of them quipped.

"You never know," the brunette said confidently.

"Yeah, right," her friend smirked.

"Well... it’s not like she’s involved or anything."

"No? What about the queen?"

The brunette laughed. "The warrior would eat her alive! She’s way too inexperienced for Xena."

The flip comment stung and Gabrielle closed her eyes, not wanting to see Xena’s reaction. The warrior sat in silence until the voices faded in the distance.

"Gabrielle, I..."

"Don’t," the bard said painfully. "That’s pretty much how you feel. Isn’t it?"

"No, it’s not." The warrior replied gently. "It’s what’s inside that matters."

"But, what’s inside me… you don’t want," the young woman acknowledged sadly.

Xena swallowed hard. "You’re not the problem. It’s me."

Gabrielle’s anguished looked made the warrior’s heart ache. It was unbearable to know she was the cause of the young woman’s misery. She longed to take her in her arms and tell her the truth… that she did want her… more than the air she breathed.

If the bard only knew how desirable she found her innocence and inexperience, only knew the fantasies the warrior entertained, night after night, of her writhing beneath her demanding touch. Gabrielle was not alone in her pain. Xena suffered too. It was a continual torment to be near the bard and know that she could never have her, that she could never be what the young woman needed.

How could she ever explain her driving need to take control, the thrill she got from completely dominating her sexual partners, how much she loved to make them beg… first for her to stop and then for it to never end.

It was so far from the tender and gentle lovemaking Gabrielle envisioned. The bard would be shocked and appalled if she knew. She would leave her, destroying the friendship Xena had come to cherish more than life. A terrible sadness swept over her. The greatest of physical pleasures was not worth risking their special relationship for. The warrior’s rational mind would not allow it.

But there were other times, times when something darker… something powerfully seductive took over, times when there was nothing but her need and the overwhelming desire to quench it.

The bard looked to her now, confusion and pain brimming in her eyes. Xena had no words, no solution. Unable to face her friend another moment, she got up and walked quickly into the woods. She trembled as she envisioned the bard’s pleading eyes, the slope of her breasts, the silky softness of her… Xena pushed the thought back as a familiar molten heat spread outward from her core. She broke into a run, her long, desperate strides carrying her deeper and deeper into the forest.

*****

Gabrielle remained sitting under the stars long after the warrior had gone. Although she had promised Xena she could set her feelings aside and just be friends, she had failed. She had honestly tried to put her desire for the warrior behind her, but couldn’t. On some deep level Xena’s rejection had wounded her, forcing her feelings painfully to the surface.

The warrior didn’t see her as a sexual being but some na´ve tagalong she enjoyed traveling with. Her instincts told her that no matter what Xena said, she was at least part of the problem. The bard found herself questioning who she was and what she wanted. She thought back to the night that the warrior had pleaded for them to keep their relationship platonic. What could she have done differently?

No answers came. She got up and walked into the forest.

Nearly a candlemark had passed when in the distance Gabrielle heard the low murmur of voices. In a small clearing, she spotted half a dozen young Amazon women sitting around a fire, talking. A tall, brown-haired woman held an ornate ceremonial pipe.

As the queen approached, the Amazons glanced at one another fearfully, then stood and bowed. The bard motioned for them to be seated.

The young woman holding the pipe remained standing. She spoke nervously, reaching out to hand the pipe to the queen. "I...I accept full responsibility. I know it’s against our laws."

"Then why did you do it?"

"Enlightenment… The sacred herbs open the mind... give glimpses of our destinies."

"You’ve done this before?" Gabrielle asked, her tone more curious than condemning.

The Amazon bowed her head guiltily. "Yes. I... I..."

"It works? You’ve seen the future?"

Relieved that the queen showed no outward signs of anger, the Amazon relaxed. "Yes, and not just the future. They induce a dream state that helps you see the present more clearly too."

Gabrielle handed the pipe back to her and started to leave.

"Y… You aren’t going to turn me in?" The woman stuttered in surprise.

Gabrielle shook her head sadly. "I know how compelling the need to understand can be."

The woman felt the pain behind her queen’s words. "If you’re looking for answers, the sacred herbs may help. We... we would be honored if you joined us." The other Amazons nodded in agreement.

"Thank you… but…." She hesitated. It was one thing to ignore their violation of Amazon law but quite another for her to participate. Yet, she rationalized, as queen it was her responsibility to watch out for them, make sure nothing bad happened. She took a tentative step toward them.

The Amazons parted their small circle to make space for her. Gabrielle took a seat. She watched with great interest as the woman to her left passed the bowl of the pipe over the fire, then brought the hollow end to her mouth. Inhaling deeply, she held the drug in her lungs for a long moment before exhaling. Immediately, the Amazon’s body dissolved in total relaxation. Gabrielle looked on in amazement.

The next woman in the circle picked up the pipe and repeated the procedure. One by one each of them smoked the exotic herbs and fell into a trance. None of them appeared to suffer any ill effects. Their expressions were relaxed and contented.

The woman sitting beside her was the last to partake. Soon she fell into the same carefree stupor. Gabrielle looked down at the pipe lying at her feet. She thought of Xena, and her frustration surged. The young Amazon’s words tugged at her. Could the herbs really give her answers, help her to understand the warrior? Suddenly it seemed that she had little to lose in trying. She hesitated only momentarily before lifting the pipe to her lips. A gentle hand on her wrist stopped her. It was Xena.

"This is a powerful drug," the warrior warned, taking a seat beside her.

"Have you ever smoked it?"

"A long time ago," Xena admitted.

"Does it really reveal your destiny, make things clearer?

"For some it does. It affects people differently."

"I want to try it."

"I don’t think that’s a good idea."

"Why not?"

"The images can be confusing. They’re not always helpful."

"Did you learn from the experience?"

The warrior shrugged. "Some things. But that’s not the point. I don’t think it’s right for you."

"You mean you don’t think I can handle it," Gabrielle stated with annoyance.

"It can be hard on the body... and on the mind. That’s why it’s only sanctioned in ceremony."

"Your body and mind could take it!" Gabrielle said, suddenly angry. She motioned to the women lying on the ground, deep in meditative trances. "They can handle it. Is it just me that you think can’t?"

"It’s not that at all," she said patiently. "You don’t need this. You have a sense of yourself that those women will never find, a sense that can’t be achieved this way."

The bard’s anger softened. She drew a weary breath. "Xena, I’m hurting."

She looked up to meet the warrior’s eyes, trying to find the words to explain how she felt. "Ever since I told you how I felt, you’ve distanced yourself from me. We don’t talk. Even when you’re with me... it’s like I’ve lost you." She reached out and laid her hand on the warrior’s arm. "I miss you. I…"

Xena pulled back from her touch, shutting her out once again. The bard’s eyes closed against the hurt.

"Gabrielle, I’m sorry." The warrior stood nervously, not knowing how to ease the young woman’s pain.

The bard looked up, eyes filled with tears. Xena’s discomfort was obvious. "Go ahead… leave," she said sadly.

The warrior was miserable. She had never felt so completely helpless, so incapable of taking action.

Gabrielle turned away, her fingers tightening their grip on the pipe. Slowly, she lifted it to her lips. Desperate to understand, she inhaled the sweet-tasting smoke. Her skin tingled as the drug filled her lungs. Suddenly, an intense heat spread outward from her chest, radiating through her limbs like tentacles. Her body went completely limp as the drug claimed her.

The warrior knelt beside her and drew her tenderly into her arms. Gently she carried the small woman back to her hut and laid her down on the bed. Lovingly she unlaced the bard’s boots and eased them off, her fingers lingering briefly on the young woman’s calves. Setting the boots on the floor by the bed, she pulled up the covers and tucked her in.

Gabrielle looked so beautiful in the soft candlelight that Xena couldn’t resist stroking her cheek affectionately. Green eyes opened in an unfocused haze as the bard reached up and firmly grabbed the warrior’s wrist.

"Easy..." Xena soothed. "It will pass."

"The visions I..." As her eyes slowly focused on the warrior, they filled with wonder. She smiled. "I know what’s in your blood."

Xena listened, trying to decipher her cryptic words.

"I know what you want... what you need…" The bard whispered breathlessly.

"Gabrielle, try to sleep."

"I know how you like it..." Xena tried weakly to free her wrist.

"Slow... relentless..."

Stunned by the bard’s words, Xena froze in place. Gabrielle pulled the warrior’s hand to her lips and drew the tip of Xena’s index finger into her mouth. Wantonly, she closed her lips around it, sucking gently.

The sensation sent a jolt to the warrior’s core. The feel of the young woman’s mouth drawing on her finger as her tongue swirled around the tip was electric. Xena couldn’t breathe.

Gradually, the bard eased her grip, letting her lips caress the warrior’s finger as it slid over the sharp ridge of her teeth. With single-minded purpose, her hand slid behind Xena’s neck, taking hold. "My blood burns too," she whispered. The erotic quality of the bard’s voice sent shivers across the surface of the warrior’s skin. "You’re in my blood..."

The blonde slowly leaned toward her. Xena’s pulse raced as she weakly held the young woman at arm’s length.

"Gabrielle, it.... it’s the drug. You… you don’t know what you’re saying. You’re playing with fire."

The bard traced a sensual line down the warrior’s throat with an inquisitive finger. "I’m drawn to fire," she purred. "The brilliance... the heat… the danger..."

She looked deep into the warrior’s eyes as if drawing from her energy. "It calls to me. I don’t fear its power."

The tips of her fingers lightly caressed the curve of the warrior’s neck, her touch penetrating Xena’s very being. The warrior inhaled sharply. She felt as if she would burst into flames.

"Fire is vulnerable to people who understand it." Gabrielle purred, as her finger painted a searing trail to the edge of the warrior’s cleavage. She paused, allowing Xena to focus on her words. "I know all about fire... and I want to play."

The dark-haired woman pulled away and stood on shaky legs. Her eyes never left the bard as she backed toward the door.

"You can’t run... I’m in your blood too. I know what you need… what you really want."

In her haste to flee the hut, Xena ran into the cook, nearly knocking her down. She broke into a run, never looking back.

*****

The next morning found Xena standing nervously outside the queen’s door. Although she wanted to check on Gabrielle, she was hesitant to face her after what had happened the previous night. The bard’s unusual behavior had her thoroughly unhinged. She felt herself poised at the precipice, dangerously close to giving in to the darker side of her nature.

Long after she fled Gabrielle’s hut she wandered back to the fire circle. All of the young Amazons had returned to the village, but the pipe had been carelessly left behind. She picked it up and dumped the ashes in her palm, dividing them into two narrow lines. The temptation to inhale the drug and lose herself in its mind-numbing effects was nearly overwhelming.

Xena thought of how much she wanted to make her fantasies of the bard reality. If she allowed the drug to break down her resistance, nothing would stop her. Gabrielle would be hers at last, to do with as she pleased.

She slowly raised her palm and blew the powder into the air. Pacing back and forth, the warrior angrily chastised herself for entertaining the thought. A chill ran down her spine as she wondered if Temira had been right. Would she eventually weaken, succumb to her desire and take the bard as she had fantasized? She raised the pipe in front of her and brought it down hard across her knee, snapping it in half. ------

For now, her desires were under control. Xena took a deep breath and raised her hand tentatively to knock on the bard’s door. She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn’t hear the footsteps behind her.

"I’m not in there."

Xena spun around to see her friend standing behind her.

"I... I just came by to see how you were feeling," the warrior replied anxiously.

"Great, and you?"

"I... I’m fine."

There was something about Gabrielle’s smile, a confidence, she found unnerving. "I’ve... ah... got to get going. They’re expecting me at the sparring match." She pointed in the general direction as if to clarify her words.

"I wouldn’t want to make you late." The bard winked. "I’ll catch up with you later… You can count on it."

Xena nodded uncomfortably and turned. As she walked away, she felt the weight of the bard’s stare. Quickly she increased her pace, hurrying out of sight.

As Gabrielle watched her go she thought of her experience with the drug. The images she had seen of Xena while in her trance were startling, at times even a little frightening, but above and beyond that, they were exciting. The herbs had not only given her a better understanding of Xena but of herself as well.

She smiled and headed in the direction of the sparring match.

*****

Gabrielle leaned against a tree, watching the competition. Xena was phenomenal. There was something raw, almost primal, in the warrior’s expression. Her eyes sparked with vitality as she played with her opponent, like a lioness toying with her prey. The bard felt a rush of excitement flood her belly. She wanted more than anything to be on the receiving end of that look, not in battle but in bed.

The warrior knocked her opponent down and prepared to finish the fight. Defeated, the Amazon uttered the safe word: "Mercy." Xena abruptly stopped and gave her a hand up.

"Next?" the warrior called.

Gabrielle stepped up, staff in hand.

"Very funny." Xena smiled. "Okay, who’s next?"

"I am," the bard insisted. The dark-haired woman grasped her by the elbow and took her aside.

"This is not a regulated sparring match like you’re used to. Contact is permitted and encouraged."

"I understand that."

"I don’t think you do." Xena explained. "When we spar I take it easy on you. I hold back."

The bard knew this was true. She had always sensed it. When they practiced together the warrior’s eyes were distant. Xena studied her moves with an analytical detachment.

That was part of the problem. It was clear that all too often she viewed the bard as her charge. She treated Gabrielle as if she were a delicate flower that would be bruised or somehow diminished by contact, never comprehending that the sweetest flowers don’t relinquish their scent unless they’re handled.

She met the warrior’s gaze and winked suggestively. "Maybe I’ve been holding back too."

Xena exhaled in frustration. "Okay… It’s your body," she warned. "When you’ve had enough, stay down and say ‘mercy’… Understand?" Her blue eyes locked on the bard for emphasis.

"Perfectly," Gabrielle replied. Raising a playful brow, she moved teasingly close. "Are you ready to begin? Or were you planning to talk me into submission?"

Xena was not amused. She turned abruptly and headed for the center of the sparring area. The bard followed, squaring off in the middle. When their eyes met, Gabrielle’s pulse quickened. There was no mistaking the warrior’s intent. Xena’s expression was predatory. The bard was no longer a student but an opponent she meant to defeat.

It never crossed Gabrielle’s mind to be afraid. This was the side of the warrior that thrilled her, the side that fueled her darkest fantasies. The bard was charged with excitement, pumped with a sexual energy that seemed boundless. She understood there was little hope of defeating Xena, but that wasn’t the point. Her goal was to prove she was strong and could take a great deal of punishment. In her mind, she had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Throwing caution to the wind, she twirled her staff in a showy display, deliberately aiming wide. The breeze from the near miss made Xena’s adrenaline surge. The warrior’s manor immediately changed. The bard had made the first move, been the aggressor. That would change.

Xena moved with catlike grace as she menacingly circled the smaller woman. She swung hard but Gabrielle’s staff easily absorbed the blow.

"Is that the best you’ve got?" the bard teased.

The warrior’s lips turned up in a menacing smile. "Don’t worry, you’ll feel the next one." Without hesitation, she attacked with a series of furious strikes. The violent blows reverberated through Gabrielle’s staff, stinging her hands.

It was quickly apparent that the bard was outmatched. Even so, she managed to block Xena’s forceful blows, time after time. Her sheer determination made up for what she lacked in skill. Unfortunately, her strength couldn’t hold out forever and she knew it. The warrior was slowly wearing her down, toying with her.

Xena feigned left, then swung to the bard’s right, putting a great deal of force behind her swing. The staff struck its mark, connecting firmly with the bard’s thigh. It was a wicked blow. The sharp, fleshy slap of wood on muscle was so loud it broke Xena’s concentration. She stared in disbelief as a bright-red welt rose on the bard’s sensitive skin.

Gabrielle’s face never betrayed the burning pain radiating through her leg. Instead, she remained focused, taking advantage of the opening. With a powerful downswing, she caught the warrior solidly on the hip. Xena immediately snapped out of her haze.

She gazed at the bard in confused amazement. The wild look of triumph in the young woman’s eyes shocked her. Suddenly on the defensive, the warrior changed her tactics and raised her staff, forcing Gabrielle back. She pressed forward with a flurry of blows intended to end the battle quickly. The sound of wood striking wood was deafening.

Using her great strength, Xena savagely pushed the bard backward. Gabrielle lost her footing and stumbled, falling to the ground. In an instant, the warrior was on her, straddling her aggressively. The bard raised her staff to hold her off, but the larger woman pushed down, increasing the pressure slowly. Xena had her and was taking great pleasure in the bard’s defeat.

"Say the word," she taunted.

"No!" The bard exhaled and pushed up with all her strength, locking her elbows against the warrior’s advance." Xena smiled and kept up the relentless pressure, using her weight to her advantage. She was almost lying on top of the smaller woman as she pressed her staff to the bard’s. Gabrielle’s arms trembled as she held her off.

Excitement flashed in the warrior’s eyes. Sensing her imminent win, she was relishing the bard’s struggle.

In a bold move, Gabrielle bent her knee, bringing it up between Xena’s legs, her thigh pressing firmly against the warrior’s sex.

The moist warmth of the warrior’s body instantly penetrated her skin. A rush of adrenaline surged through the bard. She released a low, sensual growl and ground her thigh into the source of the warrior’s heat.

Startled, Xena pulled back.

The expression on the warrior’s face was priceless. If not for her predicament, the bard would have laughed. Instead she used the opportunity to roll out from under Xena and sprang quickly to her feet.

The Amazons cheered wildly at the apparent upset. Although the bard’s arms were rubbery and weak, she held her weapon ready.

Xena stood bewildered, waiting for her friend to make the next move. Most unexpectedly, Gabrielle dropped her staff at the warrior’s feet.

"Mercy."

The onlookers gasped in surprise. No one, including Xena, had foreseen this turn of events.

As Gabrielle bent to retrieve her staff, she cast the stunned warrior a wickedly seductive glance and whispered breathlessly so only Xena’s sensitive ears could hear.

"You’re so wet."

Before the warrior could respond, the bard turned and walked past the exuberant crowd. Xena’s eyes followed her until she disappeared from sight, barely noticing the next challenger to step forward.

Under cover of the woods, Gabrielle stopped and ran her hand across her damp thigh. She lifted her fingers and inhaled the familiar aroma, the scent from the black marble. Her suspicions confirmed, she smiled.

*****

Continued...Part 2


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