I stood even as Ephiny rose beside me. Candlemarks passed as we sat on the steps of the Queen's hut. I didn't dare leave in case Adia should wake with good news and the Regent, ever the concerned friend, waited next to me. Now, we both stood staring at the evening sky as tendrils of light fell all around the village. I remembered seeing something called sky rockets when I was in Chin that were made with the black powder and these lights looked much the same, only these didn't fade into the blackness of the sky. The branches of light that covered the village sparkled and pulsed as if they were alive in some way.
"I don't know what it is, but it doesn't feel bad." Ephiny stated simply and I had to agree with her.
It was another candlemark or so before Adia awoke. She was understandably exhausted, but gave me an update before she dropped her body down onto the extra cot in the hut.
"First of all," the Healer looked up with a tired grin, "Gabrielle says to tell you that she loves you."
I found myself grinning with tears springing to my eyes all at once. More tears, Hades, I have to stop this, it's getting to be a habit.
"The interesting thing is that she can hear us...hear everything that's going on around her. We can talk to her and she'll hear us. She was able to summon Apollo," the Healer added with a yawn. "He placed a spell of protection over the entire village. No one will get any worse, but he can't heal them either. He said he'd be here in the morning to talk to you, Xena. He sounded like he had a plan of some sort."
Sartori seated herself next to Adia and listened to what her wife had to say.
"You know, Xena, Apollo looked a little...well, beat up. He was in full armor, but he looked like he'd been fighting." Adia commented before she yawned again.
"I know what you mean," I answered the Healer. "Ares looked the same way when I saw him."
"Well, we've been reprieved...for a while anyway." Ephiny said.
"Yea, I guess there isn't much more we can do until morning." I responded. "Adia, thank you."
It sounded rather weak to my own ears. Here, the Healer risked her own physical well being for my wife and the best I could come up with was thank you. The dark-haired woman understood, however and gave me a wry smile.
"Lets get you to your hut so you can get some rest." I said aloud.
"Sartori and I can do it," Ephiny responded. "You stay with Gabrielle."
When I closed the door to the hut behind the three women, I was suddenly glad to be alone with Gabrielle. Even though our conversation would be a little one sided, it thrilled my heart just to know that she was aware...of me, of our love...that there was still time to say the things I wanted her to hear.
I slipped on a cotton shift and got into bed with my wife as I have done for a long time now. I pulled her against my chest and wrapped my arms around her. Her skin didn't feel as hot and I figured that was Apollo's doing.
"I gotta tell ya, hon...this warrior's bones must be getting old because this bed sure does feel good at the end of the day. Remember when we first stayed in the Amazon village, when you accepted Terreis' right of caste? Remember how I could hardly sleep until I laid a blanket on the floor?"
I chuckled to myself at that memory. I was so accustomed to the hard ground that a soft pallet felt unnatural. I remember my wife felt like she was in Ellysia when she laid her body down on the soft, feather stuffed mattress. Of course, Gabrielle wasn't my wife back then. I gently kissed her temple and realized that was one of the memories I wanted to share with her.
"Gabrielle, do you remember when you met the Amazons and became their Princess?" I asked aloud. "Did you know that I was in love with you back then? Gods, I know I didn't show it, but I was sure it was just because you were so young and innocent and you looked up to me. I talked myself out of it every chance I got because I knew the last thing an innocent girl like you needed was a warrior like me in your life. I ended up hurting your feelings half the time with all of my quirky ways. I guess the other reason I never told you was that I never thought a young, intelligent, beautiful girl like you could ever love someone like me."
I brushed the hair off her face and realized that if I was going to bare my soul here I might as well go all the way. I mean how many times would I have to talk to Gabrielle without her being able to get a word in edgewise.
"You know why they put both of us in the same hut when we stayed with the Amazons? Melosa thought you were my body slave. I know I should have said something right then and there, but it seemed kind of convenient, ya know? You were so damned cute in those new leathers and I needed a way to keep those Amazons away from you. Well, most of them were terrified of me anyway so it worked out pretty well."
I smiled to myself because I knew that wherever Gabrielle was right now, her eyes were about to get as big as full moons.
"Melosa was pretty taken with you, too. I think she was the first to guess that you meant a lot more to me than I let on. She asked to...uhm, well, let's say...borrow you for an evening. I had to explain to her that I don't share my property well. She caught me watching you on the practice field with Eponin one afternoon; as usual I couldn't take my eyes off of you. She told me I didn't have to lie; I could have just told her that I was in love with you. Everyone knew how we felt about each other but us, my heart. Why in the world did it take us so long?" I finished in a whisper.
Finally, the candlemarks being awake caught up to me and I relaxed, holding Gabrielle in my arms, hearing her deep, even breathing. I felt the steady rise of her chest and the comforting feeling of all this took me gently into Morpheus' realm.
I felt the odd sensation before I was fully awake; perhaps that added to my confusion. I jumped from the bed clad only in my shift, grabbing my sword in one swift move. Hades materialized at the foot of the bed and a fear like I've never known clutched at my heart. I knew only one thing in this terrifying moment, and that was that I had no intention of giving Gabrielle to him.
"You can't have her." I hissed, raising my sword in what I hoped was a menacing manner, even though I knew it was futile to threaten the God of the Underworld.
Hades' brow knit together and his blue eyes looked confused. He didn't appear to be in a good humor and when he finally realized what I was talking about, he pushed my sword away in exasperation.
"Take it easy, warrior, I don't want the girl any more than you want to give her up. Apollo said we were to meet here."
Now it was I who was confused, that is until my senses went on overload and they started to materialize. Apollo was the next to show, followed by Ares, Athena, Aphrodite, and even Hermes. I met each of them at one time or another in my travels, but that didn't make me feel any less uncomfortable standing in the middle of my own hut, wearing only a thin cotton shift, and surrounded by half of the Olympian Gods.
Apollo immediately walked over to the bed and knelt beside Gabrielle, while I grabbed my leathers and tugged at the laces behind my back. Once I was dressed and pulled my boots on I felt a little more like myself. Apollo rose and gently took my hand. Gabrielle's father surprised me by leaning closer and placing a soft kiss on my cheek, much to Ares' consternation. I greeted the tall God as my father in law and could see nothing but concern etched in his features.
"Xena," he said and it was all I could do not to burst into tears right there...Gods, was I getting hormonal or what?
When I looked up they were all pretty much staring at their feet and, too late I realized that they were all Gods and had the ability to read my mind. This was gonna be a long meeting.
"Apollo, what's going on?" I asked, focusing my attention on the one person here I felt I could trust.
"I think you better give her the short version and speed this up, Apollo." Athena hastened her brother.
"She has to know exactly what she's getting in to, what's expected of her." Apollo turned his head in Athena's direction.
"Hey, I got an idea," I said testily, "how about talking directly to me instead of about me!"
Athena lowered her head, but looked a little put out. She and I had kind of a long running thing going. It can only be described as adversarial, yet in a non-violent way. She thought of herself as the ultimate female warrior and never liked the fact that most people thought I could kick her butt. I mean, she's a Goddess so that could never happen, but I think, deep down, she knew that if she didn't have the Godly powers...yea, I'd kick her butt.
"Xena, it does tend to get complicated in spots, but the long and the short of it is that Hera is trying to destroy mankind again."
"I thought since the little incident with Prometheus, Zeus had her under some kind of oath that said she agreed not to interfere directly with mankind?" I asked, knowing how the Gods could manipulate an oath to their own advantage.
"That's just it," Ares interrupted, "she's not doing anything to hurt mankind directly."
I looked back to Apollo for a less cryptic explanation.
"Hera is out to destroy all of you through us." Apollo explained. "She's declared war on the rest of Olympus, Xena, and as each God falls, so does the section of mankind that they patron. If she captures Ares," he nodded to his brother, "then warriors will fall. If Aphrodite is taken...lovers. Do you see? She's found the perfect way to destroy man, without spilling a drop of his blood herself."
"Then I take it Artemis has already been taken." I said flatly.
"Artemis was wounded, Xena" Apollo said, a pronounced wave of pain passing across his features. "She's dying." He finished and no one said a word, knowing that Apollo and his twin sister were like one entity. "Yes, Xena, there are ways that Gods can kill one another too." He added in answer to my look of surprise.
"And, if Artemis dies..." I started, not really wanting to finish that line.
"So do the Amazons...all of the Amazons." Aphrodite finished looking down at Gabrielle's still form.
"So, what's this plan you've got?" I said shortly, not wanting to deal with the possibility of losing Gabrielle.
"The Elixir of Life." Apollo answered.
I paused to look up into his face. "I thought that was just a myth."
"It's kept on the island of Delos."
"Frankly, I thought Delos was a myth too." I replied.
"Hardly, Xena, it's just well protected from human eyes. Delos is my birthplace and the Elixir is kept there, deep in the bowels of the island. One drop will cure mortal or God from any wound or sickness."
"So why don't you just get it and heal your sister?" I asked, always the suspicious one.
"First of all the protection placed around the Elixir won't allow any immortal into the room where it's kept. Secondly, the minute one of us interferes directly, that gives Hera leave to do the same. I think you and I both know what kind of power she wields. She could destroy this entire world in a single day. If we simply help you to obtain the Elixir--"
"You're playing by the rules." I finished. "Gods...you're worse than a bunch of children." I snapped. Not one of them disagreed with me.
They needed my help just as much as I needed theirs so they were being unusually tolerant. I regretted my outburst when I finally looked at Apollo and saw that he watched Gabrielle's unconscious form. He had a big stake in this too it seemed. He finally got to know his daughter after all these years and it was apparent to me from the start that he loved her dearly. Not nearly as much as her wife, however.
"Okay, how and when? Give me all you got and let's get this show on the road." I said quickly.
I didn't need to consult with anyone else, their fears and opinions wouldn't change my mind. I told Gabrielle that if she wanted the Golden Fleece, I'd leave on the journey tomorrow. Well, indirectly she needed this mysterious Elixir and one journey is much like another to a warrior.
Apollo and I sat at the table inside the Queen's hut. The rest of the Gods joined their forces on Olympus to keep Hera's armies at bay. We chose to talk here so Gabrielle would know what we were doing and when. It drives my wife crazy not to be a part of my adventures. It was almost noon and the sun was high in the sky and Apollo was still explaining portions of the map to me. He described pitfalls and traps, monsters and guards until I began to feel this wasn't going to be an in & out kind of job. At one point he paused and looked up at me.
"Xena, will you be able to remember all this?"
I just raised an eyebrow up high and gave him my best smirk. He smiled back, a touch of embarrassment in his face. I think he'd momentarily forgotten to whom he was speaking.
"The Stone Palace is at the center of the island." He said, referring to the island that was situated deep underground, in the very depths of Delos. "I've already alerted my priests, they won't give you any trouble and they'll help you where they can. You will find trouble from Hera's men, though. She sent warriors to guard the Palace the moment fighting broke out among us. I haven't told anyone else this, Xena, but I think Hera wants the Elixir too. Not just so we can't get our hands on it, but I think she wants it on hand should anything happen to her own self."
"That sounds pretty much like Hera...always out for number one." I couldn't help muttering.
"Don't underestimate her warriors, Xena, they're very good." Apollo commented.
"I'm better." I stated matter of factly.
Apollo smiled again and for the umpteenth time I was reminded of how similar he and Gabrielle were. His green eyes sparkled when he spoke and when he smiled, his nose kind of turned up like hers does. Gods, I miss her. I was staring at her still form when I felt the touch on my arm.
"We all want this, Xena and I'll do everything in my power to defeat Hera." Apollo said sincerely.
I placed my other hand on top of his. "I know you will Apollo. That makes two of us."
"You're going to have more than just guard trouble once you're inside the Stone Palace. The place is a maze of locks and traps. Anyone who makes it that far had better be able to pick a lock."
"Then I know just the person I need to go with me." I smiled as I thought of an old friend. "So, how do I get to Delos in the first place?" I asked.
"Time is the all important factor. You'll have to allow me to transport you there and bring you back. Anything else would take too long.
I nodded my head even though I hated the thought of leaving my body in the hands of a God, hoping that when I arrived where I was supposed to be that I had all my parts with me.
"You're going to have to let me off in Corinth before we go on to Delos. There's a certain King of Thieves that I'll need to take with me and last I heard he was spending a small fortune up in a brothel in Corinth.
"A brothel?" Apollo arched an eyebrow. "Then he may not want to go with."
Oh, he'll go allright...once I convince him that it would be a wise move, health wise."
Apollo chuckled. "Then we'll go at first light. I can travel to Corinth with you and send the two of you on to Delos from there. Are you up for all of this, Xena?"
"Sounds like the kind of outing I dream of." I answered.
A few more moments of chit-chat and Gabrielle's father left. It was late afternoon by the time I ate a little something and told Ephiny what I was doing. As usual, the Regent wanted to come with, at the very least send some Amazons along. I had to explain to her that this was the kind of trek where having more people around would only make it that much more difficult. She gave in but I could tell she didn't like it.
When I got to the hut, Sartori sat by the side of the bed. She was reading from some scrolls to Gabrielle. I smiled at the sight. I guess that's what I looked like in here, talking to Gabrielle like she was going to get up and answer me any minute. Sartori read a list of petitions that were to be decided on by the Queen. When she saw me she lowered the scroll and looked as if she just realized how late it was. She stood and gave Gabrielle's hand a squeeze.
"Just a little work that the Queen will have waiting for her on her return." She said, holding the scroll up. "Don't you think for a minute that you'll be able to get out of work this way, my Queen." Sartori finished, speaking directly to Gabrielle.
Once more I was alone with my wife, lying in bed, her body resting in my arms.
"I love you, Brie." I said softly, simply because it had been a while since the last time I said it.
"I would go anywhere and do anything for you, my heart, you know that don't you? I'd follow you to the very ends of the world, Gabrielle." I couldn't help chuckling a little at that statement. I remembered when I followed her around Athens without her knowing, another story I wanted her to know about.
"Brie, do you remember when you left to go to the Academy For Performing Bards in Athens? Remember how easily it seemed that I let you go, not that I could have or would have stopped you from fulfilling your dreams, but did you ever wonder about that? I never really left you, love. Of course, I know you're going to smack me as soon as you get back, but I followed you around Athens. Honey, I didn't know what else to do." Okay, I realized to myself, now I sound like I'm trying to rationalize the whole experience.
"I mean, I couldn't stand just letting you leave and I would have been worrying about you all the time anyway. I guess by then I pretty much thought of you as mine and I didn't like the fact that it might not be true. Gods, I drove you crazy back then didn't I, my heart? I wouldn't allow myself the luxury of having you because I didn't think I was good enough for you, but I didn't want anyone else to have you either."
I kissed Gabrielle's warm lips and held her tighter. It was very true. I could never find the courage to tell Gabrielle of the feelings that grew inside of me for the young bard, feelings that grew stronger and more powerful every day. I even had physical flings on occasion just to try and talk myself out of the notion that my heart was no longer my own. The experiences were disappointing at best. Each time I kissed someone else I likened the feeling to what I felt simply being close to Gabrielle. In the end nothing could compare. I watched, and on some occasions I thought I saw a flicker of the same passion being returned in kind, but still I kept my silence. I never said a word, even on that day that I play over and over again in my mind. I know I should be past it all now, I mean, Gabrielle is my wife and we love each other, but I should have been her first.
There are times when I'm lying in the darkness, holding Gabrielle close to me, that I think of the day she married Perdicus. I can't go back and berate myself because Gabrielle and I have both made our peace, as well as forgiveness, with one another. We realize what is in the past cannot be undone, but sometimes...sometimes the wanting of it so bad overwhelms me. If I could have but one wish in my life with Gabrielle, I wouldn't ask for wealth or an expensive home. If I were granted just one wish, it would be to go back to that day when Gabrielle told Perdicus yes. I would swallow my damnable pride and bare my heart to the young bard, who was still more girl than woman. I would offer to love her and protect her for the rest of our lives if she would only choose me...If I could be her first.
"I have to go now, Brie." I bent over to kiss my wife.
It felt strange to kiss those lips that didn't respond to my touch. They were warm, though, and if I didn't know better, I would have swore that the corners curled up ever so slightly in a smile.
"I love you, my heart." I whispered. "Remember...I'll never be gone from you for long, Brie, and to find me all you have to do is look inside your heart."
I kissed my wife again and stood at the open door to the hut as Ephiny walked in with an armload of scrolls and a small bag of personal belongings. The Regent agreed to stay in the hut and look after Gabrielle while I was gone. I smiled slightly at the juggling act the Amazon was doing before she finally dumped the items on the bedside table. Ephiny acted like I wasn't even in the room as she began speaking to Gabrielle and my smile grew even larger.
"Don't think for one minute that you can get out of work this easy, my Queen. I'm going to sit here and read every one of these petitions and treaty requests to you and when you get back you can damn well do your own work!" The Regent's low voice deadpanned and I knew wherever Gabrielle was she was having a good laugh at her friend.
I looked back through the open door once more in my wife's direction and found it hard to get my feet to take that first step.
"I'll keep a close eye on things here. Best speed, Xena." The Regent said.
"I'll do my best Eph. So long, Brie. I'll be back before you even have time to miss me." Then I took a deep breath and walked out of the hut.
Apollo was already waiting for me, but when I reached the bottom of the steps I almost ran into Eponin standing there outfitted for a journey. I immediately knew what the dark-haired Amazon had in mind.
"I go this one alone, Ep." I said.
"Look, before you say no, think about this Xena. I know you don't need a whole tribe in your way, I know how you like to work. I understand the need for having Autolycus there, but you need at least one more warrior in case things get dicey."
I was prepared to argue, but barely got passed opening my mouth and taking a breath.
"Xena..." The warrior paused and I watched as she struggled with the tears that were common place around here now. "Gabrielle means a great deal to me, as do you. Please...as a warrior I can't sit here protected in this village while someone else goes off to save my own people. Don't ask me to do that, my friend."
What was I supposed to counter that one with? I understood exactly what she was saying and as a warrior I agreed with every word.
"Hope ya know how to cook," I held out my hand as she grasped my forearm, "because without Gabrielle along we could get mighty hungry before this is all over."
We exchanged a warrior's handshake and Eponin looked up at me. "Wait a minute, you mean Gabrielle does all the cooking? Well, I may have to rethink this now."
I punched her in the arm good-naturedly and indicated to Apollo that we were ready.
"First stop, a brothel in Corinth." I said to the God and without any more of a preamble than that I found my body experiencing the strangest sensation I'd ever felt.
It felt as if my body exploded into a million minuscule pieces, then those pieces rushed forward as if caught in the center of a swirling vortex. I knew my brain was still together because I was able to think, but I wasn't aware that I had any physical shape. Suddenly, as swiftly as we took off, it seemed like all those tiny pieces were coming together again. Gods, I hoped they all ended up in the right spot.
Apollo easily materialized in front of us, but I felt like my body was suddenly way too heavy and I had to bring myself up sharply to avoid landing on my face. Eponin did just that, ending up face down in the dirt. That's when my stomach caught up to the rest of me and I fought desperately to keep my breakfast down. Much as I anticipated, Eponin lost her battle with her morning repast.
"That's gonna get old in a hurry." I drawled to Apollo, helping a weak-kneed Eponin to her feet.
"Sorry about that, Xena, I should have warned you. Mortals tend to have a bit of trouble with materializing that way." Apollo apologized.
Apollo hit pretty close to the mark by dropping us in one of the many side alleys off Corinth's busy city streets.
"I wasn't sure which brothel you were interested in." The blonde God said. "So, I put us in the district."
"You mean we're going to an actually brothel?" Eponin asked.
"What did you think I meant when I said we're going to a brothel in Corinth?" I asked the confused Amazon.
"I don't know...I thought maybe it was a code word for something." Ep looked up, her face turning a little pink.
I laughed at my traveling companion. "We need Autolycus and last I heard he was staying at a brothel in Corinth. Chances are it's at Tai Li's place, but if my hunch is wrong, she'll know where we can find him."
"How do you know this Tai Li?" Eponin asked the question I hoped no one would.
"I refuse to answer on the grounds that I met her long before I knew Gabrielle." I said in a low drawl. Even Apollo couldn't help but grin a tiny bit.
"It's called the Pink Lotus, come on, it's a couple of streets north of here." I replied and we set off.
"Well, well, the Warrior Princess finally come to visit me again and she bring friends."
We all turned at once to see the slender Asian woman walk directly up to me and put on a most seductive smile. The small woman was older than her body displayed her to be and when she ran her hands along the muscles of my arms, it was extremely hard to tell my body not to react.
"Tai Li," I said grabbing her wandering hands and holding them prisoner in my own. "I don't go by that title anymore. A lot has changed since the last time we saw each other."
I knew my face must have been turning red because right then and there a vision of what I did in this brothel the last time I was here with this beautiful woman flashed into my mind.
"I'm looking for a man." I added.
"You...looking for a man? You right, things have changed." She laughed and I could hear Eponin give a little snort. All I could do was turn even redder.
"I mean I'm looking for a friend, I have reason to suspect he might be enjoying some of the scenery in your establishment. He's tall, dark hair, a tad good looking, and much more full of himself than he has a right to be."
"Ahhh, the King of Thieves!"
"That would be him." I answered. Only Autolycus would bandy that title about in a whorehouse.
"Oh, yea, he been staying in the suite on the top floor. With the way he throw his money around, I give him any girl he want, as long as he want. What about you warrior?" Tai Li started those hands moving again and I felt like I was trying to keep track of a giant squid with a hundred tentacles. "I remember a time when you used to come in and throw money around plenty too."
By this time Eponin had her hand over her mouth and I just knew it was to stifle the laughter that was about to break free any minute now. I was more worried about the expression that I couldn't see on Apollo's face. My father in law was watching another woman paw at me and he was behind me so I couldn't catch a glimpse of his face. Gods had a lot of quirky ways and seeing his only daughter's wife playing touchy-feely with the Madame of a whorehouse might be the kind of thing he would not find amusing.
"Uhm, Tai Li...look...I'm married." I finally blurted out.
The Madame looked a little stunned by the news. She folded her arms across her ample chest and stared at me in disbelief.
I hadnt told her, to whom I was married yet, perhaps she forgot who Gabrielle was. A few summers back after I helped out in that ridiculous Miss Known World pageant, Gabrielle and I decided we deserved a week in a big city. I suggested Athens and I figured Gabrielle would jump at the chance. My bard wanted to see Corinth. I didnt have as good a time as I thought I might, at least when we were out in public. A lot of people knew the Warrior Princess in this town, correction...a lot of women knew the Warrior Princess in this town. I had garnered a reputation in a lot of parts of Greece, but Corinth and its plentiful whorehouses saw quite a bit of my action in the old days.
Gabrielle and I were strolling around the lanes of the market booths when I saw Tai Li coming straight for us. The small Asian woman was stopping at various booths examining the wares. She looked up as Gabrielle and I passed and as much as I wanted to ignore her so it wouldnt come out who she was, my integrity wouldnt allow it. If I was able to walk into the Pink Lotus in broad daylight, then I certainly shouldnt be embarrassed to know the women that worked there.
Introductions were made and for a brief heartbeat, I thought I saw a flash of jealousy in Gabrielles emerald eyes. Hindsight tells me now thats what it was, but at the time I didnt think it possible. Of course, my bard being the young woman she was, graciously spoke with Tai Li and soon I found myself strolling behind the two small women, holding a growing pile of market purchases. The Madame was gracious in her own way. It wasnt good business to let husbands wives know their men did business at the local brothel and so Tai Li was very closed mouth in answering my bards questions. I was sure she assumed Gabrielle was my lover and I didnt discourage that notion.
By the time we left the market, Gabrielle knew no more about my history with Tai Li and the Pink Lotus than when we all met. The Madame, however, discovered just about everything about my small companion. Finally, when Gabrielle walked over to look at a market stall filled with delicate hair combs, Tai Li pulled me down to her level and whispered in my ear.
"Don't you come by my place no more, warrior. Little Amazon Princess should be all you need from here on in." Then she smiled and waved to Gabrielle, leaving me standing there rather speechless.
When I walked up to Gabrielle she was holding a small ivory hair comb and when I saw her hand it back to the vendor, realizing it wouldn't fit into our budget, I plucked it from her fingers. Reaching into my pouch I pulled a few hidden dinars out and paid for the comb, then, much to my bard's surprise, I handed the gift to her.
"What's this for?" She looked at me rather stunned.
"For just being you, Gabrielle," was the only answer I could give.
I assumed when I first walked in the Pink Lotus that Tai Li thought I left the small blonde by the wayside, since she was looking like she wanted to pounce and devour me. Now she stared at me like I just handed her a bit of information that was impossible to believe.
"You...married...for real?" She finally asked. "Let me see." She ordered as she held her hand out. So she did remember who Gabrielle was after all.
I pulled my gauntlet off and extended my right arm. She took hold of my hand and turned it over to look at the inside of my wrist. There, no larger than a dinar, was a small tattoo, an Amazon marriage knot. The mark was a sign that I was a bondmate to Amazon royalty, Gabrielle had a similar tattoo on the inside of her wrist.
In many ways the mark was a comfort to me. To the rest of the world, it was a sign of commitment. A person may be able to hide a piece of jewelry that signified their marriage, but this was a little harder to disguise. To me, my mark was a like a brand, signifying ownership and all the responsibilities that entailed. I belonged to Gabrielle just as she belonged to me and the mere notion comforted me. It is a major responsibility...to own someone so completely, to be held accountable for their well-being and happiness. It was one that I know Gabrielle took as seriously as I did.
"Well, Amazon Princess got you after all, eh?" Tai Li smiled and for the first time since entering the establishment I felt relaxed.
I smiled back at her and nodded my head. "Only now she's an Amazon Queen and I think I'm the one who finally caught her."
She laughed again, understanding the significance of that statement. "I just send new girl up to your friend's room. Why don't you have a drink on the house and he be done soon."
I looked around and my companions agreed, except for Eponin. The Amazon and Tai Li were making a little eye contact and when Apollo and I sat down at the table in the corner to enjoy our port, Eponin rushed up to the table with a definite gleam in her eye.
"Xena, can you lend me some dinars?" The warrior asked.
"Hey, I told you we were coming to a brothel first, you should have brought some from home." I ribbed her.
"Oh yea, right. Like you ever take care of the purse strings." She jibed right back.
I looked up sheepishly at that remark for it was true. Gabrielle usually took care of our money and I rarely knew how much we had if I didn't ask.
Apollo reached into the tattered cloak he wore to hide his armor and tossed a small bag of coins at Eponin.
"Have the time of your life, warrior." He smiled, and like his daughter, when Apollo smiled all those around him smiled.
"Hey, Xena," Eponin whispered to me, "is she worth it?"
"Ep, she'll make you see colors you never knew existed." I told her and watched as the Amazon and Tai Li walked upstairs arm in arm.
Apollo and I made small talk through 2 mugs of port, but finally a silence descended on us and when I looked up at last I realized that it was the small blonde back home that captured both of our thoughts. I cleared my throat and pushed away from the table. The last thing I wanted to do was start crying again.
"I think I'll head upstairs to find Autolycus...I shouldn't be too long." I said and the God nodded his head, not knowing what else to say either.
I could tell from the sounds coming from the other side of the door that things were just winding down. This was the room the bartender indicated belonged to my friend and so I figured barging in would be completely appropriate. Hey, I let him finish, which I thought was pretty big of me considering the circumstances. I pounded heavily on the door and then thrust it open. I leaned against the open door frame and waited for the thief to look up. The young woman saw me first and tried to cover herself, which I find extremely odd considering where we are. That's when Autolycus covered his ass with the sheet and looked over his shoulder.
"Auto, baby," I drawled...our little long-standing joke.
"Xena...I should have known, he pulled the sheet higher and rolled off the young woman. "What, some orphans need rescuing and you just can't do it without my help, right? Only you would bust in at a time like this."
"If I remember correctly you did the same thing to me once...and we were most definitely not finished." I said referring to a time in Amphipolis. We stayed at mother's inn and Autolycus was there too. Gabrielle and I started a little something in the baths that we shouldn't have and once we got rolling, we simply had too hard of a time stopping, so we went for it.
"Hey, if I remember correctly that was not a private bath and if you hadn't of wanted to be caught you should have stuck a chair under the doorknob." He replied. "It was definitely worth the price of admission, though." He grinned.
"I need your help, Autolycus." I said seriously.
"Oh great. Whenever you need my help it means it's for the greater good, which means there's nothing in it for me. Besides, what are you doing in a place like this? Gabrielle wouldn't let you within a league of this place. Where is the little chatterbox anyway?"
I don't know if it was what I said or the look on my face that changed his mind.
"Gabrielle's...she's not well." I stated.
He was silent for a few heartbeats, all the while staring into my eyes.
"Give me a few minutes to get dressed," was all he said.
"I'll be downstairs." I responded soberly and left the way I'd come.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and then saw Autolycus slide into a seat at our table.
"Autolycus, this is Gabrielle's father," I explained.
"But, I thought--"
"Her real father." I finished.
He shook hands with Apollo. I left it to the God if he wanted to tell my friend who he really was.
"Well, The King of Thieves at your service. You look rather familiar to me." Autolycus mused as he shook the God's hand.
"I should Autolycus, you've stolen enough goods from my temples, I'm sure my face was on some of it." Apollo said with a grin.
Auto looked at me and I couldn't help smiling too. My friend looked a little panicky.
"Apollo, my friend Autolycus." I said, trying to stifle my laughter.
"Did I say King of Thieves? Well, what's in a title...it's a label and I hate to label people, why just the other day--"
"Autolycus...he doesn't care." I stopped my friend's rambling.
"No harm done, Autolycus." Apollo said with a small smile.
They all stared at me then, expecting me to speak. For Autolycus' benefit I related the condensed version of what was happening and watched as the expression on his face grew more serious. I knew I would take grief from the thief for sucking him in on this little vacation in Tartaurus, but that didn't matter much to me now. I wondered how well I hid my shock when Autolycus looked me in the eye and said,
"When do we leave?"
I looked in turn at my friends and lowered my eyes to my own hands, folded on the table in front of me.
"Look, you two need to know that this could very well be a one way trip. All of a sudden I don't feel so comfortable bringing you in on this and I'd prefer it if you both just stayed here." I blurted out.
I tried to give them out in case they were as worried about this journey as I was. I needn't have worried about their level of commitment.
"Oh, sure, I'm beginning to see how this is gonna be," Autolycus nudged Eponin and I could only stare at him in confusion. "The great Warrior Princess goes off on her own and saves the known world, and when they ask us where we were during the whole thing, we can say we were in a bar. Then all the glory goes to the Warrior...nobody will even remember the name of the thief and the Amazon. Well, forget it. I'm not about to be left out on all the loot that could come my way from this one."
Eponin had a huge grin on her face during the thief's tirade. "Ditto." She stated.
I could only shake my head at the two. It was hard for me to except such unconditional friendship from anyone but Gabrielle...I was at a loss for words.
"You two are completely pathetic...and I love you."
I'm not sure I really meant for that to come out and we all kind of gruffly exchanged the sentiment in low mumbles. Gods, I am getting hormonal!
Autolycus had a few things to attend to before he left and Eponin said since we were waiting for him, she trailed off as her eyes settled on Tai Li. I motioned them both away and told them we'd all meet here in the bar in two candlemarks. Apollo decided to pop onto Olympus and see if there were any changes in the way the battle was progressing, which left me on my own.
I found a nice table in the back, against the wall, and ordered a port. I leaned my chair back on two legs and watched the patron come and go through the bar and then into Tai Li's establishment. It didn't take long before I was thinking of Gabrielle and wondering how she was. I wondered if she would be able to grasp my thoughts from so far away and I gave her a silent 'I love you' just in case.
Autolycus surprised me, but then again it was really no surprise. I think once he knew it was Gabrielle in trouble he already decided he would stand up and fight, so to speak. You see, Autolycus was in love with Gabrielle. It didn't bother me because first of all I knew my friend would never do anything about it, and secondly, just about everyone we ever ran into fell at least a little for the small blonde. He admitted it on my wedding day of all days. Oh, I don't think he knew what he was confessing to, but as we stood apart from Gabrielle and some of her Amazons, Autolycus seemed to sober up.
"Don't ever mess this one up Xena." Autolycus said. "Don't ever get tripped up and fall on your face with this one."
"Why?" I chuckled.
"Because there are too many of us waiting in line to take your place."
I laughed out loud and slapped his back. "I'll keep an eye on my feet." I replied.
I could tell by the look in his eye that he was serious. He and I had always shared a great deal of sexual innuendo in our verbal spars with one another, but the look on his face told me that the way he felt about Gabrielle was on a whole other level. Then of course he had kissed her. I mean, I kissed her, he was just along for the ride. Gods, that kiss.
It was one of the most perfect moments in my entire life...and I was dead. Before Gabrielle was able to save a small bit of the Ambrosia, enough to bring me back to life, I didn't think I would ever see her again. When she opened her eyes and was in a level of reality where she could actually see me, I nearly wept. I had so much I wanted to say to her, first and foremost was how much I loved her. And not as in 'you're my best friend' kind of love, but deep down, 'this is it and it's forever kind of love.' That's when I realized I couldn't do that to her.
If I confessed my love and wasn't able to return to the living, what would my bard go through? She would have all these feelings, that she may not have shared, just dumped on her and she would have to through the rest of her life trying to reconcile them without me around. And, what if she did feel the same way? Would that have been any less cruel?
So I kissed her.
It was a truly perfect kiss, our tongues barely making contact as we parted our lips. I knew, for at least that one moment, that Gabrielle felt something for me too. If she hadn't let her mind wander, we would have stayed in that alternate plane. I remember thinking later that it was a good thing Gabrielle's concentration faltered or else I would have had a very hard time letting go of that sweet mouth.
I wonder now if it was Autolycus' hand on her backside that brought her back to reality. Gods if my wife could have seen the look on her face when the thief asked her if we got everything straightened out...the expression was priceless. It makes no sense to lie to myself and I have to admit that Autolycus was a good sport about being smacked around later. You see it was my hand that found its way to Gabrielle's rear. I mean, it was his hand, but...well, I put it there. I guess I can admit it in my own thoughts, but I definitely felt that if I wasn't going to return to the living, well, I figured I was going to grab a handful of that attractive ass on my way out.
I know, pretty lame from a warrior with a code of honor, but desperate times sometimes make you do crazy things. Love makes you do even crazier ones.
Soon, my companions joined me and I was amazed that I was sitting there reminiscing for over two candlemarks. When Apollo joined up with us all he would say was,
"No change. Gabrielle is still fine, though."
I knew he said that for my benefit and I guess the word fine was a relative term here. I understood that Gabrielle could get no worse physically, but I'm sure living alone in her dreamscape is a form of Tartaurus for her.
We stopped in a few shops at the north end of town and purchased some supplies we would need. It was mid afternoon by the time we were ready to go. I was rather shocked at the way Apollo grabbed me and hugged me, placing a very gentle kiss on my cheek. It was something a father would do and the weird part about it was I kind of liked it.
"I'll be placing you on Delos, right in front of the cavern that will lead down to the Stone Palace. Do you remember the map and all I told you, Xena?"
I nodded my head. I found myself unable to speak, overwhelmed by emotions. Apollo looked scared to death and I knew that this just wasn't about me and Gabrielle anymore; this was about every last human in the world.
"I won't fail." I found myself saying with a steely resolve.
"I have one last gift to give you." The God said and Apollo grasped my hand.
Surges of I don't know what shot through me and I nearly dropped to my knees at the sensation. It was an incredibly powerful impression and my face flushed in embarrassment considering the feeling reminded me of something akin to an orgasm. This exchange only lasted for a few heartbeats, but it left my hands shaky as Apollo loosed his grasp on me.
"The strangeness will wear away in a moment or two." He responded, understanding what I was going through. "It won't help you materialize any fireballs, but the strength I've given you will give you an added edge." He explained. "When you need the most strength, concentrate on what gives you power in life, and the force will be there for you.
Then I knew what the unbelievable feeling was. It was adrenaline, plain and simple. The rush that went through me was like the feeling I get when I start to fight; only this was much more concentrated and intense.
"Sure, she gets the God powers, we get swords." Autolycus looked at Eponin as he deadpanned. "That seems fair."
Without another word Apollo sent us on our way.
The trip to Delos barely affected me this time and I could only surmise that the cause was the power that Apollo infused me with. On the other hand my two companions were on their knees in the sand, tossing up the port that they consumed earlier.
"How many more times do we have to do that?" Eponin asked, rising to her feet.
"Sorry about that guys," I apologized and helped each of them to stand and get their bearings. "Hopefully the next time we do that we'll be going home."
"I won't be recommending this anytime soon to my travel agent." Autolycus fussed, trying to compose himself. "Okay, Xena what now?"
They both looked at me and I had the pleasant task of informing them that we were to enter the yawning cavern we faced.
"I was afraid that's what your answer would be." Eponin muttered as we prepared to enter the cave.
We were all a little in awe of the massive cavern. I don't think I've ever been something quite as large before and the walls seemed to be made of some type of multicolored crystals that sparkled when the light from our torches hit them. Apollo said to immediately take the path to the right and we veered that way, feeling the path grow steeper as we went. Finally we came to the edge of the cliff, below us a drop off into complete blackness.
I tossed one of our torches down into the blackness, knowing we wouldn't need them once we descended. All three of us leaned over the edge and waited for what seemed like an eternity until the flame was extinguished by the inky blackness. We all straightened up and looked at one another. A loud audible gulp was heard as we all three swallowed at once.
"You sure he said veer to the right?" Autolycus asked, worry evident in his voice.
"Yea, we have just to make a little climb to get to the bottom." I answered.
"Xena I don't think we have enough rope to make it even half the way there." Eponin added.
I pulled the pack from my shoulders and rummaged until I found three lengths of rope. Apollo said they were a gift from Aphrodite. I had a few gifts like this in the sack that I carried, and my father in law said I would know when each of them would be needed. This seemed like a good time for the rope, especially since there was three of us and three lengths of rope.
"Is that to hang ourselves with, because you don't seriously think that is going to take us to the bottom?" Autolycus complained.
"They're a gift from Aphrodite and the rope is supposed to grow in length as you need it."
I tossed the other lengths of rope to my companions and tied the end of mine to a stalagmite, which appeared to be growing out of the cavern floor. I fastened the other end around my waist and back again and waited while the other two prepared theirs similarly. Once they were finished we all looked down again and they looked to me.
"I take it that means I go first?" I asked dryly.
"Well, it is your expedition." Autolycus answered watching a bit of gravel go over the side.
I positioned the balls of my feet on the edge of the drop off and tentatively let my weight go against the rope. I gave a weak grin and motioned for Eponin to hand me one of the torches. I found it a bit unsettling that the last thought to roam through my head, as I let my complete weight lean into the rope I was suspended from, was that I hope Aphrodite didn't take all those wise cracks of mine personally. This would be a very bad time for her to get even.
I descended into the dark and once the cliff face disappeared and I lost a place to put my feet, I felt a few heartbeats of apprehension. I could feel the length of rope dangling behind me, but miraculously it grew as our descent continued. Dropping into the pitch black, no sound but our own breathing and drops of water as they fell into cavern pools, I began to talk to my friends. When Eponin answered the first time I could tell by the strain in her voice that she felt the same anxiety. I hoped that if they had something to concentrate on, it would take their minds off of the nothingness we plunged into.
"Ep, has Autolycus ever told you about the statue of Pax?" I started with a grin.
"Pax? What the heck is that?" Eponin answered.
"Oh, just a little statue about twenty feet high that was supposed to be the personification of peace. The thing came up missing during the annual celebration and guess who happened to be in town."
"Autolycus...I'm impressed." Eponin replied. "How did you make off with something that big?"
"I didn't, hey, Xena...tell her what really happened!" Autolycus responded.
I had them talking at least. Hopefully now their minds were on the story being related and not what was below us. I encouraged Autolycus to tell the tale. I only kept one ear open, since I lived it along with the thief. I have to admit that suddenly my thoughts strayed to my bard once again. She and I had decided to play a couple of outrageous character in Auto's little espionage ploy. He pleaded with me saying he had to get his title as the King of Thieves back and so Gabrielle and I promised to do it his way...finesse and subterfuge over brawn. We had to head to Mykonos to follow the thief who really stole the statue, but I'll forever remember a very short interlude Gabrielle and I shared in that bedroom.
Of course, this was before my wife and I revealed our feelings for one another, but this was about three years after I met Gabrielle. We had experienced some intense healing after the rift that developed between us. It was right after some very emotional times. Most memorable to me was the time spent in that barn, waiting for the Persian army to attack and realizing that if my bard died from that poison arrow, I would rather die in battle than live without her. That's when I made her the second biggest promise of our lives, that even in death, I would never leave her.
Gabrielle went through the torture of playing judge, jury, and executioner for Crassus while we were in Rome and she finally felt the healing waters from Mnemosyne's temple after that. It was a rough season for us emotionally, but Gabrielle and I grew closer as friends, not realizing that both of us wanted to progress further in the relationship. I often wonder how differently things would have turned out for Gabrielle and I had Autolycus not burst into that room on the island of Mykonos when he did.
We saved the statue and Autolycus regained his crown, but we were forced to wait until the next day to sail from the island. That night was only one of many torturous evenings I spent being consumed by my desire for my innocent young bard.
"Xena, you're hurt," Gabrielle said when I turned toward her after I closed the door to our room.
I followed her eyes and remembered the wound that I acquired earlier that day. It was right underneath the left breast portion of my armor, a small slice in my leather where my ribs began. "Oh, yea...I kinda forgot."
"Forgot? Xena, it looks like it's three inches long." Gabrielle fussed in that way that made me realize that there would be no rest until I let her stitch it closed for me.
By the time Gabrielle gathered a few first aid items from our bags, placed water in a bowl, and was waiting for me on the edge of the bed, I actually thought about where my wound was.
"Here let me help you." Gabrielle said, relieving my fingers, which suddenly went quite numb, of the task of removing my breastplate. "Pull your leathers down," she said rather matter of factly.
I was so thankful that she turned her head to thread the needle after she said that. My eyes were about to pop out of my skull at the thought of Gabrielle attending to me a few inches away from where I really needed her to be ministering to me. I stole a few glances back at the door and simply thought about bolting, but what would I use as an excuse?
Gabrielle turned to face me again. "Xena...what are you waiting for? Are you okay?"
"Oh, sure." I managed to croak out.
I slid the leather straps off of my shoulders and peeled the close fitting leather down my body. I steeled my jaw as my body reacted to the cool air, not to mention the blonde's stare. I had it down to my waist when Gabrielle spoke up.
"You might as well take them off for the night and I'll sew that tear for you too." Oh, yes...let the torture begin.
I was left standing in front of the woman who captured all my fantasies and secret desires with nothing but my breeches on, and when she placed her hands gently against the outside of my breast, I wanted to moan, groan...whimper. I wanted to pull her head closer and watch her enclose a very tight, aching nipple into that warm inviting mouth of hers. Instead I clamped down and began grinding my teeth together.
"Xena, this is kind of difficult when you clench your stomach muscles like that. Here, why don't you lay on the bed."
I sat down and felt the pressure of her hand on my shoulder push me back against the bed. Oh, Gods...Hades take me now because Tartaurus couldn't possibly hold a worse torture for me.
I lay there and had to resort to meditative practices. Gabrielle's soft touch and gentle loving manner was sidling its way into my very soul and I wondered what she would think if I reached out and took her hand in mine, placing it over my breast? At the very least, I wondered what she would say if I asked to kiss her, to make love to her?
She finished and helped me with a cotton shift. The wound wasn't affecting me at all, but the bard's nearness definitely did something to my control.
"Gabrielle...I need to ask you something."
I thought I saw a touch of something odd in her eyes that day, in that moment, but I dismissed it. I look back now and wonder what a fool I was not to have recognized my wife's look that tells me she loves me and that I am her whole world. Back then I sure missed it.
I leaned closer and whether it was the scent of her skin, or the warmth in those green eyes, I knew I was going to kiss her.
That's when the door burst open and Autolycus barged in.
"Hey, either of you two have a little salve I can put on these aching muscles? Uhm...oops, did I interrupt something?" Autolycus broke in.
"No!" We both answered in unison a little forcefully.
We both began to blush so I have no doubt in my mind what the thief suspected. After all, he was there the season before for the kiss. I don't know if he and Gabrielle exchanged any words, I only remember stalking off in my cotton shift and boots, with a mumbled, "gonna go check on Argo." I was halfway through the castle when I realized that we took a ship to the island and Argo was back on the mainland in a cozy stable.
I was so caught up in my own memories that I didn't notice how light it was becoming all around us and I wondered how long it had been that way. We could see the bottom of the cavern now and were perhaps two hundred feet from the gravel surface. I was amazed at the beauty of such a place and my first thought was how very much Gabrielle would love this place. The thought of my wife was what brought me out of my memories of the past.
When my feet touched down on a firm surface once again I had to shake the stiffness out of them. It took Eponin and Autolycus a moment or two until they had their legs back under them also. We still held our torches in the air and I was rather amazed that what Apollo explained to me was absolutely true. He said we wouldn't need torches or lamps beyond this first immense cavern because of something called Fire Quartz. I didn't know what that substance was, but I put the torch out and motioned to Eponin to do the same. I turned and gazed at the walls of the huge cave and noticed they sparkled and glowed as if lit from behind. The walls of the structure looked like folded draperies found in castles that stretched from ceiling to floor. A waterfall from high above fell into a pool below bathed in an eerie green light. It too glowed as if from its own light source. Great stalactites hung from portions of the ceiling, while stalagmites pushed up from the floor. It was the largest, most beautiful cave I ever saw and judging by the silence, my friends agreed.
To the left of where we stood was the great waterfall and just to the left of the pool where the water fell, was an opening about half as tall as myself. I started moving and had to remember that this wasn't a sight seeing trip.
"Remember, keep your eyes open. This is just the beginning." I said to the two behind me as we crawled through the undersized opening.
We barely began traveling along the well-lit path that Apollo gave me instructions to follow when a large armored soldier jumped into the middle of the path we were on. Interestingly enough, his armor was all flash. Painted flames adorned the breastplate and the mask he wore over his face had the image of a skull painted on it. He did a few high kicks in the air and began tossing his sword from hand to hand, taunting me.
I looked at the guy like he'd lost his mind. I couldn't sense anyone else around so I just turned my head slightly to look at Eponin. The Amazon shrugged her shoulders and loosened her crossbow from her back. We watched the lunatic warrior for the few heartbeats it took for Ep to notch an arrow, and then she took a step forward.
"Stand down and surrender your sword." She commanded.
He began to twirl the sword around a little more forcefully and took a step closer to me. I already had my sword drawn and this guy must have known who I was, still he advanced. Finally he lunged at me and as sparks jumped from our blades, where metal encountered metal, I took one last look at the Amazon.
"Go for it, Ep." I said.
Eponin raised her crossbow and the mysterious warrior never wavered. Ep let loose an arrow that buried itself easily into his flimsy armor. The arrow imbedded itself deep into his chest and he sunk to his knees, his face in the dirt. I kicked him a couple times before reaching down to remove his mask.
A burning sensation rose in my throat as I swallowed down the bile that forced its way up. Lifting the mask pulled the warrior's whole helmet off and thousand of beetles and roaches poured from the form of the man. I backed up quickly, but not before the stench of rotting flesh assailed my nostrils.
"I guess Hera knows we're here." I said simply.
The path we were on widened and we stopped to take a few swallows from our water skins. It was time to share a little more about where we were going in case the unthinkable happened and I was injured or incapacitated in some way. I knelt down to the cave floor and began drawing in the dirt, going slowly to ensure that my friends remembered this little lesson.
By the time we stood and were ready to continue, I was ready to tell them about the next chamber we would be entering. Apollo called it the Cavern of Lost Souls. He wouldn't tell me who these lost souls were, but he was very explicit in his directions, do not listen to them. I explained this to my companions.
"I don't get it," Autolycus responded. "What could they know about us?"
"I don't know the details, I only know Apollo said they would try to get in your mind and mess with your head. Their goal is to get you to take their place and they'll use any thought in your head to do that. Remember...don't listen to what they have to say." I finished and we continued on down the wide path that kept leading us steadily downhill.
The walls on either side of the path soon contained a gruesome display. As we walked we noticed that the rock face was carved with hundreds of faces, some captured in a moment of agony, others looking forlorn and weary. We passed by the carvings, keeping our eyes on the path ahead of us and moving as quickly as we could. Suddenly, I had the uneasy feeling that I was being watched. When I looked up to assuage my fear, I couldn't stop the gasp that left my throat.
"Don't look up...not even to save your life. Keep your eyes in the path. And keep following me." I yelled behind me before they had a chance to look up also.
I stared and became horrified, and I have seen a lot in my lifetime. The carvings were all real flesh and blood and the terrifying thing was that the faces all looked familiar to me. I kept putting one foot in front of the other, slowly plodding along, trying not to acknowledge that their eyes followed after me. That's when I first heard it.
"Xena...Xena?" A male voice called out to me and I knew immediately who it was. I tried not to respond, but it was so hard. Finally I caught sight of him.
"Lyceus?" I asked.
He nodded as much as his limited movement would allow.
"This is your doing, Xena. If you had been quicker, I wouldn't have died at Cortes' hand that day. Why Xena...why did you let him kill me?"
"No, Lyceus, that's not how it happened and you know it." I knew I shouldn't be responding but it was torture not to.
"I'm dead because of you, Xena. You let your little brother die that day. Wouldn't you trade places with me if you could?" The face that looked like Lyceus asked.
"No. I'm sorry, I can't. It's not really you!" I turned my face from the wall and moved forward quickly. I felt the cool breeze hit my face and I knew we were almost out. I should have known they would save the best for last.
"Don't leave without me, Xe...you promised. You promised..." Gabrielle's mournful wail called after me and I kept walking.
"Even in death you said...even in death you would never leave me. I died, Xe. Before you could get back with the Elixir, I died."
"Nooo!" I shouted, covering my ears.
"You failed, Xena. You were my champion and you let me get sick and now I'm dead. You can't bring me back this time." Gabrielle's facial apparition accused.
"I'm so sorry...." I cried, my hands still over my ears to try and block the sound.
"Xe...join me. Even in death...that's what you promised. Is there really any reason to go on if we can't be together?"
I felt my head shaking back and forth. It was true. Gabrielle died; I failed her again. What good would life be without my bard? I found my hand reaching out, extending to some unseen force to bring me to my wife. I tried to move my feet forward, but after a few steps I was frozen in place.
"Nooooo! Stop it!" I screamed, trying to take control once again.
A sharp blow to the small of my back surprised me and knocked the air from my lungs. Lying on my stomach just inside the entrance to another portion of the caves, my head felt clearer already. I lay there gasping for breath, and looked to the ground beside me to see both Eponin and Autolycus, each on one side. It appeared as if my companions had literally shoved me the remaining few feet of the way.
"Sorry," Ep said. "I didn't know what in Tartaurus was going on, but I wanted out of that place in a hurry."
"I never thought I'd be so thankful for someone hitting me." I smiled weakly.
We got to our feet and decided to take a break and catch our breath. A pool of fresh water was not too far away and Autolycus volunteered to fill the water skins. I sat down on a rock ledge and began chewing absently on a piece of dried beef.
The words that I heard that manifestation of Gabrielle saying continued to echo through my consciousness. I remembered that day...that promise. I made promises to no one in this life, but Gabrielle. And I never uttered the words unless I truly believed them. My wife always seemed able to extract an oath from me, especially if she asked for one. On that day, though, she didn't ask, not with words or in any way that a bystander would recognize. Perhaps it was because she didn't ask that I made the vow.
Even in death, Gabrielle...I will never leave you.
And I meant it. I did something I never thought I'd do. I gave up. Me, who can always pull that one last little trick or perform one final miracle to save the day. I couldn't save my bard and I knew that life would hold no appeal for me once I was without her.
And, she looked at me, her eyes so full of confidence in the decision she once made, two summers before, to follow an ex-warlord. To leave her home and all that she knew and loved. Her eyes burned with the fever of the poison, but I saw something else on that day. I saw a fire in those green depths that told me that my young companion developed beyond me. She surpassed me with her wisdom and convictions. Like the warrior she spent two summers emulating, her courage became all she had and she stood at the very entrance to Hades Domain and felt no fear.
When the apparition accused me of failure, it got to me because that's exactly what I was feeling lately. I am the Queen's Champion and it is my job to protect the Throne from seen as well as unseen foes. It was too late now, but it's true, I should never have allowed the Queen in those infirmary tents.
My feelings went deeper than failure, however. It was guilt, plain and simple, that was plaguing me now. If I couldn't save my wife from this illness, just like I couldn't reverse the effects of the poison from that Persian arrow, was I still willing to follow her into death? That was what troubled my thoughts since my wife fell ill.
There was a time when I would have had to die; life would have been unbearably painful without Gabrielle in it. Now, the pain would be no less, but through my wife's love and compassion to this old warrior's soul, she showed me that perhaps I could go on. I would not want to, and life would probably hold little else besides loneliness, but Gabrielle has infused a strength in me that I never knew I didn't have. She has given me something I never knew was missing before...the strength to live my life without her. And, for that I felt guilty.
Eponin came over and sat down beside me, bringing me out of my melancholy thoughts.
"Can you talk about it...what happened back there? I mean, what was that all about, Xena?" The Amazon asked in a quiet voice.
I didn't look up, just continued to stare at my boots.
"Guilt." I answered. I didn't offer any more explanation than that and she didn't press. Before too long we were on our way again and I had a feeling that what I just experienced, was only the beginning.
When Autolycus returned from filling up the skins we were more than ready to put some additional distance between us, and the Cavern of the Lost Souls. We passed by the large pool that Autolycus just left and, referring to the map in my head, I easily located the ledge we needed to climb to. It wasn't anything I couldn't flip to, but might be a little trickier for my companions. It was a ledge that extended over the pool of water, a good twelve to fifteen feet above the water's surface. The bad part was that if you stood on the pool's edge, jumped and missed the ledge, you would end up sliding straight down a deep ravine. We quickly decided that I would jump to the outcropping and lower my whip to give the others a hand. Eponin came after me with no problem, but I was grunting at the effort of pulling up the thief.
"You're getting old, Xena." Autolycus teased, once at the top.
"Hah. You need to go on a diet." I countered.
"Oh you think so, huh? I'll have you know that this figure has tempted the greatest beauties of Greece."
"Tempted them to do what?" Eponin shot back.
"Oh, I get it...you women all stick together."
We all chuckled good-naturedly. For a few moments it was almost as if we weren't on a mission for our lives, but merely having a benign adventure. Autolycus thought twice about his weight as we peered over the ledge. We came to a dead end and this was the bottleneck Apollo told me about. Handholds were cut into the rock all the way down the wall like a built in ladder. About forty or fifty feet down the hand holds disappeared into a hole in the ground. I knew, from Apollo's instructions, the tunnel would narrow considerably, before we hit the ground. Then the tunnel was supposed to open up into another large cavern approximately twenty feet further.
Eponin was an excellent rock climber so she volunteered to go first. Autolycus would follow her and I would bring up the rear, just in case there was anyone following us. I had to admit that from Apollo's warnings, I expected more in the way of armed soldiers.
"Just remember, Auto...you fall on me and I'll break you like a twig." Eponin said with a wink in the tall man's direction.
"I just love it when a woman plays rough." Autolycus replied with a grin.
The climb over the ledge and down wasn't too difficult, rather like climbing down a stationary ladder. The only tricky part was keeping your grip. This cave was like any other and water dripped from every rock and through every crevice. Water seeped from the cliff face and the carved hand and foot holds not only became slippery, but ages of erosion wore the carved areas smooth in some places.
Eponin took her time and carefully checked each spot, making sure it was safe, before placing her booted foot in the next opening. I heard Autolycus groan and knew the big man was at the bottleneck. We had our packs in our hands and we passed them down to Ep, who tossed them to the bottom. I already removed my scabbard from my back and handed my sword down as well. I could feel my armor scrape along the tunnel, but I was able to make it through the narrow shaft without any trouble.
Once we put our feet on solid ground, we had to duck our heads slightly to move through the rest of the passageway. We came out into a long wide cavern, not as high as the first cave we entered, but longer. Immediately to our left was a deep pool, in which water fell from the crevices in the rocks above. The stalagmites that rose up from the cave's floor were numerous; some came down from the ceiling in thick columns. It looked like a forest of stone and suddenly I had that feeling. It was a tingling down my spine that told me trouble was near.
"I got a bad feeling about this place." I said to my companions and all three of us drew our swords.
It didn't take long until they stepped from behind the columns. They all wore the same flashy armor as the first warrior Eponin nailed, but these guys were a lot better. There were three of us and perhaps twenty-five of them...I figured the odds weren't bad.
I didn't wait around for them to talk or make an offer; I pretty much knew their order was probably to bring Hera my head. I gave out with a throaty battle cry and did a front flip in front of the closest two. I brought my sword sharply against the first one's blade and at the same time kicked out with my right leg and doubled over the second. When his knees hit the ground, his head soon followed. I spun and brought my blade across the first warrior's middle, the steel easily slicing him in two.
I caught their movement out of the corner of my eye as Autolycus and Eponin both used their swords effectively, the Amazon adding a short sword in her free hand that confused the warriors with broadswords. Autolycus wasn't trained as a warrior, but he held his own as well and I focused my attention on the next four that came at me.
I leaped into the air, my boot heading straight for the chest of the first attacker. He fell and took the legs out of the second man. The remaining two smartened up and stopped their charge, waiting for me to come to them. I advanced a little slower, but they didn't worry me much. By this point instinct took over and I was all skill and intuition. Besides, now I could feel some of Apollo's power flowing through me and I wasn't getting as tired as I usually did. I leaped again and split my legs apart, kicking each man with an uppercut to the chin at the same time. It didn't incapacitate them, but it sure made them think twice.
Before they could even rise to their feet, I instinctively thrust my blade behind me, pulling it in a swift motion, from the chest of one of the warriors. We pushed on; the three of us staying relatively close together. We advanced toward the back of the cavern and suddenly there was only us. The bodies that were strewn about the cavern floor were either dead or dying.
"Well, that could have been worse." Autolycus panted.
Without warning, two or three dozen more men rushed from the end of the cave we'd just come from.
"You were saying." I shouted over the oncoming clamor.
We worked ourselves out onto a flat ledge and when I looked down I realized where we were. Below us was a steep incline of rock and mud. I knew this was where we had to go anyway so I crept closer to the edge and peered over again. It was about a five-foot drop from the ledge to the incline.
"Remember the lake I said we had to go through to get to the palace?" I barked.
They both looked at me and then over the side, realizing what I was suggesting.
"Whatever we're gonna do, we better do it in a hurry!" Eponin yelled.
"Follow me!" I cried as I flung my body over the ledge and landed on my backside, sliding straight down the steep hill.
It was wet so I picked up momentum in a hurry. I hit the water with such an impact that I almost skipped across the surface like a stone. It wasn't easy treading water with the heaviness of my armor weighing me down and a sword in one hand. Once the other two hit the water I motioned them under the outcrop of rock where we could hang onto the rocks to catch our breath and, especially, where we would be safe from the volley of crossbow arrows that were coming our way.
"Okay, we needed to be here anyway. The opening is at the bottom of this pool, about twenty feet down. Just take a deep breath and follow me. Any questions?"
When they shook their heads I took a couple deep breaths and dove under. I didn't have to expel much strength as my own weight carried me rapidly to the bottom. I could see the opening easily as if there were light coming from the other side. When I pushed my way through I experienced the same odd sensation that I did when I came through the underwater portal to the Underworld. I hit the ground and unfortunately, heartbeats later; Autolycus came through and landed on top of me, knocking the air from my lungs.
"Oh, yea...you're definitely going on a diet." I grumbled once I could stand and talk.
Amazingly enough our clothes and packs were perfectly dry. Part of me wanted to press on immediately, but we were to make a right turn and cross the Black Lake by way of a rope bridge, suspended hundreds of feet above the water. I had a feeling such a spot had the makings for a perfect ambush, so I elected that we rest for a while. We agreed that we needed the rest and would sleep for a candlemark each, leaving two of us awake at all times. Autolycus and Ep said they were too fired up to sleep so I stuffed my pack under my head and like a good warrior, fell asleep almost the instant I closed my eyes. My last thought was a vision of a blonde head and bright green eyes.
At first I didn't realize I was dreaming, it all seemed so real. The sun was high up in the sky and birds and butterflies flew across my field of vision. Then, I saw the small blonde lying on an outcropping of rock, her arm hung over the low ledge as she twirled her fingers absently in the clear pond water. This was Gabrielle's place, the small pond outside of the Amazon village where she came to get away from everything. Adia told me this was where she found my wife when she entered her dreamscape. Gabrielle and I did this once before, but it was a mystery as to how we could end up sharing a dreamscape. I only knew that it would give me the chance to hold my bard again.
"Brie?" I called out softly.
She turned her head and the look on her face could melt any warrior's heart, this one in particular. The look of unconditional love and devotion that always smiled out at me from Gabrielle's face still had a way of stealing my breath away.
"Oh, Xe!" she exclaimed, once her brain registered that I was truly there.
I barely let her feet touch the ground once I caught her up in my arms. "Gods, I love you, Brie." I cried out.
"Xena, I missed you so much." Gabrielle murmured against my neck.
"I missed you too, baby. Brie, how did you do this...get me into your dreamscape?"
"Me? I thought you did it. I'm already asleep." my wife countered.
"I'm afraid it was me." A deep voice behind me answered.
I turned, quickly positioning my body between the stranger and Gabrielle. I drew my sword before I stopped to think that if this were a dream, what was a stranger doing there? He was tall, nearly seven feet tall was my guess. He had a small mustache and beard and deep set brown eyes, and his skin was the color of polished ebony. His bald head and flowing robes caused him to look like a mystic. That's when I realized who he was.
"Very good, warrior. Apollo's daughter..." he bowed slightly in Gabrielle's direction.
"Are you really Morpheus?" my wife asked.
"Yes, your Majesty, I am." The tall God responded, out of respect for my wife's Amazon status.
"I'm not sure I understand." I said warily.
"I am not a warrior, Xena, I am a God with, shall we say, limited skills. I focus my abilities in the world you see around you, the dreamscape. Apollo explained to me the gravity of our situation against Hera and I am here to do my part. I cannot give you powers or stand with a sword at your side, but I can give you and your Queen this time together. It may not be all that you desire, but remember...it is your dream."
He didn't say another word, just dematerialized in front of us, leaving us both a little shocked, yet deliriously elated.
"Should I have brought up the trial he put me through to become his bride." Gabrielle said with an arch to her eyebrow.
"I don't think Morpheus ever had anything to do with that, love. That was simply a case of his priests and henchman debasing his temple and the mystic beliefs." I answered. "Hey," I said turning and wrapping my arms around my wife. "Where were we?"
I leaned down and pressed my lips to Gabrielle's soft full ones. She felt so good, she always felt like the perfect fit with my arms draped around her. I didn't want to think about the reality that waited for me when I awoke. I simply wanted to be with my wife and enjoy the deep, abiding love we shared.
"What have you been up to all this time?" I asked as we walked to the sunny ledge and sat down. I watched as a number of large trout swam under the shaded area the outcropping provided. "Hey, I bet the fishing's great."
That comment earned me a smack in the arm, but I expected it. As a matter of fact that was the reason I said it. Gabrielle was never much of a fishing buddy, but she sure loved to eat them.
"I talk to myself most of the time, or talk to the trees and the butterflies, just about anything to stay sane. I don't know how you do it, Xe, enjoy the silence. It's deafening."
I laughed out loud at my wife's description of the blessed silence I reveled in. "So, what have you been talking to the trees about, love?"
She snuggled up against me and we sat there, shoulder to shoulder.
"I've been working on some new stories. At first I didn't think I could because I didn't have any writing materials, but then as soon as I thought about it a quill and parchment showed up, lying right beside me. I tried that with food, but it's just not the same." She looked rather serious and I couldn't help laughing again.
"Would you like to hear a story?" she asked with excitement.
Now, this is the point where I usually groan or roll my eyes. Gabrielle is unequaled as a bard, but I still give her a hard time over listening to her stories. I'm sure that part of her expected the same treatment and it felt so good to be able to surprise her.
"Yes, please." I replied with just the proper amount of enthusiasm.
Oh, I love that look. Gabrielle's eyes sparkled and her smile stretched across her whole face. It was an expression of more than joy. Even before we became lovers, she seemed to come alive at my praise. Her whole being displayed her happiness at pleasing me, and when I took the pleasure she offered, it only served to intensify her satisfaction.
She motioned me toward her and rearranged herself so that my head lay in her lap. The exquisite feel of being cradled by my wife was second only to being able to gaze up at her beautiful face as she wove her tale. The story she told was light and funny and I found myself laughing out loud in spots. Gabrielle had a great sense of humor and she spiced up the narrative by making it slapstick funny in certain areas, and dryly humorous in others. She threw in just enough sex; the lines delivered in a low sexy voice, that at the end of the recital I could feel a growing dampness between my thighs.
As her tale concluded, Gabrielle reached down and flicked my lips with her tongue before capturing my mouth in a breath-stealing kiss.
"Oh Gods, Brie." I groaned, feeling the dampness become a slow trickle of liquid fire
"Xe, can we make love in the dreamscape?"
I returned her question with a sexy, lopsided smile. "I don't see why not...My Heart, I've made love to you in my dreams for seasons now."
I pulled her down until she lay beside me. I had a thought and decided to see if the dreamscape could be controlled the way Gabrielle conjured up a quill and parchment. I closed my eyes and wished. Suddenly, my wife and I had our naked bodies pressed together and a shudder ran down the length of my spine at the delicious contact.
We both moaned at the feel of bare flesh. The trickle suddenly became a flowing river.
It was no where near enough, however, and I spread my legs and pulled my wife's body tightly to me. This time it was Gabrielle's turn to groan once her thigh made contact with my drenched center.
She wedged her muscled leg between mine and began a slow sensual grind against me. With each smooth movement, a little more pressure was applied, and I felt the tight bundle of nerves between my legs pulsate strongly.
Gabrielle leaned over me and I couldn't resist the full breasts, swaying above me, just out of my reach. The moment my wife saw what I had my eyes on, she began to tease, keeping the flesh just out of reach. She had to have known that I could be teased only so long considering the state of arousal I was in. I growled loudly and grabbed the firm mounds of flesh, pulling them each toward me and enclosing my mouth around both nipples at once.
"By the Gods! Oh, Xe...yes." Gabrielle moaned.
My wife's moans filled the air, not to mention the sound of wet flesh slipping and sliding together. The sounds, the scent of Gabrielle's arousal, her touch as she positioned her fingers between her thigh and my sensitive folds, all served to carry me higher. She used her thigh to press her fingers harder into my flesh. My hips bucked at the sensation and I knew that I didn't want to come alone. Not to be left out, I slipped my own long fingers into my wife's silky folds, teasing and reveling in the soft, warm wetness.
Gabrielle cried out and spread her legs further, continuing the motion against me. As she eased herself lower I thrust three fingers inside her and pumped in and out, letting her hips dictate the rhythm. Just as suddenly I felt my wife enter me. I felt so full I had to wonder how much of her hand she had inside me. Her thumb ran in a tight little circle against my clit and I knew that if she kept that little move up, I was toast.
I used my free hand to massage the breasts that swayed temptingly before me. I was so close, but I wanted Gabrielle with me. I pulled her to my mouth and sucked on one nipple as if it was the first time I tasted the delicacy.
"Oh Xena...Gods...yes, oh yea...oh yea..." My wife began to chant, rocking her hand inside me and pressing her chest against me harder.
I felt the tremors in my own legs first. I continued the thrusting in and out until Gabrielle's moans stopped and turned into high-pitched whimpers. Just as I felt the first spasms clenched at my fingers buried deep inside her, none too gently, I bit down on the nipple inside my mouth. Gabrielle's whole body convulsed violently against my own and, unable to control my own passion, the sound of her ecstasy brought me to my own climax. We shivered in each other's arms as tiny aftershocks reeled us both. There was a word for this kind of satisfaction...absolute bliss.
I love you, My Heart." I whispered, once I could breath again.
"Mmm, love you too, warrior." Gabrielle replied sleepily, snuggling deeper into my embrace.
Neither of us could keep our eyes open and yet we knew that when I awoke, it would be into the waking world.
"Xena...your watch." I heard Eponin say and I was instantly awake. I splashed some cold water onto my face and looked with aching sadness at my reflection in the shallow pool. I missed my wife already and yet, I felt the way I always do after making love to that woman...invigorated, loved, and completely satisfied.
I came back to discover Eponin fast asleep and Autolycus drawing in the dirt with his dagger. Before I could wipe it off my face Auto looked up. From the expression on his face, I could tell he suspected what my goofy grin was all about.
"Must have been one Tartaurus of a dream, that's all I have to say."
I chuckled softly so as not to wake Eponin. "You don't even know the half of it, friend."
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