Disclaimer :Some characters are copyright MCA/Universal/RenPic, others aren't. The story is mine.
Warning :This story features Xena and Gabrielle as more than "just friends", but there's nothing explicit.
Bard's Boring Bits :This was my very first attempt at Xenafiction, other stuff escaped before it. During its storage it has occasionally been dusted off and polished. Thanks to my beaters Ann, Michael and Pam for making it a better story. If it's not, blame them, I had nothing to do with it. It was like this when I got here, honest!
Thanks to "anonymous otter", and Marie for the treacle.
Special message to BlindzonElyzon. "I know where you live. Be afraid. Be very afraid." <grin>
Historians Note :This story takes place 'somewhen' in the first or second season.
IN THE NAME OF LOVE
by Claire Withercross
The female warrior awoke to the sound of hoofbeats and the raised voices of her army outside her tent. She grabbed her sword and went out to investigate.
The horse and its rider, swathed in their own misting breath and smoke from the campfires, looking like some magical beast, circled in place a short distance away.
"Step back," the warrior ordered her men.
The rider stared hard at the warrior, blue eyes boring into blue eyes, and spoke. "You've beaten me this time, my army is pulling out at first light."
The warrior nodded.
"A word of warning... no, a promise," continued the rider, smiling coldly. "Next time I see you, I'm going to kill you. I'll break you into little pieces and scatter you to the corners of the world. By Ares, I swear."
With a tug on the reins, Xena rode away.
She woke without fuss, just opened her eyes and stared up at night sky. It was the same dream - same memory - again. For the past couple of weeks Xena had repeatedly relived that moment when she had conceded defeat before Ashcul. It was only a single episode of many in her life, why was it coming back to her now? Maybe because it was her last defeat.
'It wasn't my last defeat,' she thought. 'That was Gabrielle.'
She caressed the part of the bard's body under her hand and placed a gentle kiss on the red-blonde locks by her mouth.
To win a battle you have to outthink, as well as outfight your enemy. The easiest way to win, of course, is to outnumber your opponent. However, if you find yourself up against an enemy of superior numbers it is still possible to win. It's just a matter of coming at them from the direction they least expect: it's called outflanking.
'I've been outflanked. A smaller force has captured my heart.'
Xena closed her eyes and settled down, the dream/memory fading.
By daylight she always forgot about it.
Xena tightened the saddle on Argo and glanced at the blonde hair just visible over the horse's back.
"Have we got everything?" asked the warrior.
"Except this," Gabrielle replied, holding up a burnt and battered frying pan.
"Put it in the saddlebag on your side."
As Gabrielle stowed the pan Xena gave a quick look around the campsite. The fire was completely extinguished and the remains scattered. Only a dark smudge marked its previous existence. There was an area of flattened grass a short distance away, but that would spring back up within the day.
'What am I doing?' she asked herself.
Covering her tracks was only something she did when she was being followed. She shook her head to dismiss the feeling and mounted the horse with ease. As she settled in the saddle she reached down to pull Gabrielle up.
Gabrielle allowed herself to be hauled into the saddle behind the warrior. She placed an arm around a leather clad waist and pulled herself close, breathing deep of the warrior's scent. Her nose wrinkled involuntarily.
"I think you need a bath," mentioned Gabrielle.
"You're not too fresh yourself."
The bard frowned and sniffed herself. "Are you sure?"
"Positive," said the warrior, looking over her shoulder. "Either that or I was sleeping with Argo last night."
The golden mare snorted at the insult.
Gabrielle dug a finger into the warrior's stomach. "Hey! It's 'be nice to bards day' today."
"Yeah. So watch what you say or I'll report you."
"Ooooh, you've got me shaking," the warrior chuckled, and nudged Argo into a walk.
They rode off down the road, only the bard's occasional sniff interrupting the silence. Thus, it was by unspoken mutual agreement that they stopped at the river later that morning.
Gabrielle was first in, surfacing in a spray of water and slicking back her hair. Xena smiled as she watched her lover lean back and start to drift on the slow current.
"Hurry up, Stinky!" called the bard.
"Yeah, yeah. Don't nag," replied the warrior, putting her armour down next to her weapons. She slipped easily out of her leathers and dived into the river. The explosion of water around her head obliterated all senses. As things settled down she opened her eyes and saw sunlight flash on the surface just like it would on a sword...
....the sunlight flashed on her sword just like it would on the surface of water.
"Ya!" The cry was almost sexual. The expression on Xena's face that accompanied it could almost be mistaken for ecstasy.
The warrior spotted the leader of her opposing army, Ashcul; the blonde-haired leader looked back. Xena's face took on a hard countenance and she drove her sword through her immediate opponent without looking at him. Then set off through the fighting towards her opposite number.
Ashcul surveyed the battle from horseback and saw the determined way that Xena was headed towards her. It was time to put her plan into action. She gave a shrill whistle and signalled her army.
Xena saw the signal and noticed Ashcul's army start to move back. Then she heard the whistling above the noise of the battle and immediately looked skyward.
"Incoming!" she screamed, and sprinted forward, falling to the ground and curling into a ball at the last moment.
She told her brain that the noise of the impacting boulders was nothing more than rock on mud. If she allowed herself to believe the truth of what the sickening crunching was, she'd lose control. The first volley was immediately followed by a second, and then a third. When no more volleys were evident, Xena raised her head and glared at Ashcul.
The blonde woman pulled a wisp of hair from her face and offered Xena a sad smile before ordering her forces to withdraw completely.
Xena eventually found the strength in her legs to stand up and survey the carnage. Nearly half her army was dead or fatally wounded. Enough of those left alive were too injured to continue fighting anytime soon.
There was only one option left....
...Xena surfaced gasping for air.
"Xena! Are you okay? Xena!" the worried bard swam over to her friend.
"I'm okay," said Xena, shakily. She shook the water from her face. "I'm okay," she repeated.
"Are you sure?"
Xena smiled, reached out and put a reassuring hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "I'm sure."
'What's happening to me,' thought Xena.
"I'm fine," she added.
She had a vague recollection of seeing something under the water, but the more she tried to chase the image, the more it eluded her. She mentally shook her head to dispel the uneasy feeling and looked into the concerned green eyes of the bard.
Xena pulled Gabrielle to her and placed a slow kiss on her lips, eliciting a pleasurable sound from the bard.
"Oh yeah," panted Gabrielle. "You're more than fine."
The warrior leaned in for another kiss. The bard responded and wrapped her legs around the warrior's waist allowing herself to be completely supported by her lover.
As Xena pulled back for breath a grin formed on her lips. "Race you to the other bank."
Before Gabrielle could agree to the challenge Xena had dunked the bard's head under the water, slipped from her legs and was stroking for the target.
"Hey!" cried Gabrielle, spitting a stream of water at the retreating warrior. "That's cheating."
After their swim they lay on the riverbank allowing the sun to dry them.
"I've seen enough of Greece," said Gabrielle twirling a reed between her fingers. "What about north?" She tucked the reed between her teeth and turned her head to look at Xena.
"Y'okay. We'll go north," replied the warrior lazily, eyes shut soaking up the warm rays.
"Or south, we could cross the sea to Egypt?"
"Y'alright. South," sighed Xena.
"You know, you could show a bit more enthusiasm for where we're going. I mean, not everyone has the same opportunities as us."
"Waayy," said Xena flatly. "Is that enthusiasm enough?"
"I think it might be better to do the north now. While it's summer," Gabrielle ignored the warrior's feigned sarcasm, she knew deep down that Xena enjoyed travelling.
"North it is."
"But they say in Egypt in summer the sun is almost directly overhead. And they have those pyrawhatsits. Those big stone monument things."
"Yeah, those too."
"There's mountains in the east that touch the sky," Xena informed the bard.
"Really! Wow!" Gabrielle propped herself up on an elbow and looked down at the recumbent warrior. "I'd like to see them!"
"They're just mountains," Xena replied with indifference.
"But still. They actually touch the sky!"
"Well, not quite touch."
"Oh," Gabrielle sounded deflated as she lay back down. "We'll go south then."
"It'll be hot," warned Xena. "You'll burn and get sore and that means we won't be able to...."
"North it is then," sighed the bard.
"You haven't considered west yet."
Gabrielle flicked the half-chewed reed at the giggling warrior and jumped on top of her.
They travelled north at an easy pace. Something niggled at the back of the warrior's mind, but with a little effort she could ignore it.
Xena opened her eyes. Something was wrong.
She untangled her limbs from the sleeping bard at her side and reached for her sword. With senses on full alert she patrolled around the campsite.
Only the immediate surroundings of the camp could be seen in the faint glow of the fire and nothing seemed amiss there. She tuned her hearing to ignore the faint rustle of the wind in the trees, and the chirp of insects; nothing. Her nose filtered the overpowering smell of the fire and she could detect Argo's aroma, nothing else.
There was nothing unusual. Everything was as it should be.
Argo nickered a greeting as she came near the mare.
"Hey, girl," she whispered, patting a flank. "You don't seem bothered. Maybe it's just me."
When Xena returned to the bedroll, Gabrielle was still sleeping; still no surprises for the warrior. As Xena settled down and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle, the bard made a contented sighing noise in her sleep. The warrior envied her friend's peaceful sleep.
Gabrielle woke slowly, and in a fruitless exercise, threw an arm out to the side. As ever, Xena wasn't there. It was dream of Gabrielle's that one day she would wake up and her warrior would still be asleep by her side.
"Xena?" she mumbled.
She sat up and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. As her sight cleared she saw Xena crouched next to the fire, gently stirring it into life. The warrior turned and smiled at her.
That's one smile worth waking for, Gabrielle mused. "Do you want-"
"Hush," Xena cut her off abruptly.
"Quiet," hissed Xena. She stood up and drew her sword. The feeling she had last night was back.
Gabrielle stared dumbstruck at the warrior as she slowly circled the camp.
"Come on out," called Xena to the forest.
"As you wish."
Xena whirled around at the voice and saw a short woman with long blonde hair come out of the trees behind Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, get over here quick," ordered Xena.
The bard grabbed her staff, scrambled to her feet and moved to Xena's side. Xena pushed her gently back behind her.
The woman held her arms out. "I'm unarmed," she stated simply.
Xena ground her teeth as she remembered her promise the last time they had met. Every muscle in her body was screaming to jump over there and plunge her sword into the woman. It was the thought of Gabrielle seeing her kill an unarmed person in cold blood that held her back.
"What do you want?" growled Xena.
"Do you remember what you said when we last met?"
"Yes," snapped the dark warrior.
"I'm here to see if you're going to keep your word," the woman chuckled. "Or not."
Xena lowered her sword slightly and took a couple of steps closer. "It was a promise made in anger. I've changed," she said in a controlled voice.
"I know, I've been hearing stories. I'd thought I'd come and see if they're true. It's not easy living knowing someone is out there wanting to kill you." The woman's mouth twisted into a crooked grin. "As I'm sure you know."
"Consider yourself reprieved," Xena forced herself to say. Even as she said it she was scanning the woman for possible hidden weapons and whether she could reach her before she drew one.
The woman inclined her head in thanks. Xena tensed expecting her to attack, and considered if now was a good time to get a pre-emptive strike in.
"Thank you. I was hoping we could ride together."
"I don't think that's a good idea."
"We're not exactly friends."
"Maybe not. But I've always admired your skill and bravery. I even respected you a little. You had a code of honour you stuck to. Not many people can claim that about themselves," the woman paused thoughtfully. "Not even me," she added quietly. She shook her head to dismiss a thought and smiled brightly. "You're putting your past behind you, why can't we put our past behind us?"
"Uh, you two obviously know each other," interrupted Gabrielle. "And if you're not going to fight would someone care to make some introductions?"
Xena turned to her lover, she had momentarily forgotten the bard was there, then immediately turned back to the other woman, realising for a brief moment she had turned her back on her. "This is Ashcul. Ashcul, Gabrielle."
"Nice to meet you," smiled Ashcul.
"Why were you fighting each other before?" asked Gabrielle.
Xena kept silent, so Ashcul answered.
"I led an army to drive away a band of marauders that were looting villages in my home region."
"Oh," was all the bard could say. She cast a sympathetic glance at her lover, who was staring hard at the new arrival.
An uncomfortable silence fell over the campsite.
Ashcul clapped her hands and smiled. "Anybody hungry? I'm famished, been travelling all night and I've not eaten."
"How long have you been here?" inquired Xena.
"A few minutes," replied Ashcul. "Why?"
Xena shook her head. "Nothing."
After breakfast, under the pretext of making a call of nature, Xena made a quick scout of the surrounding area. She found Ashcul's horse tied to tree. When she placed a hand on its neck she found it hadn't completely cooled down from its journey.
When Xena returned, Gabrielle was laughing at something Ashcul had said. They both turned to look at her with slightly guilty expressions. Xena chose to ignore them and picked up her pack.
"We should make a move," she said.
"Am I invited?" asked Ashcul.
Xena was silent. Gabrielle opened her mouth to add her support for Ashcul, when Xena replied.
"I guess it can't hurt," the warrior said without feeling.
"I'll go get my horse," she stood up and started to walk out of the campsite. She paused and turned to look back. "Don't go without me," she said before moving off.
As Gabrielle helped Xena dismantle the camp she kept glancing at the silent warrior, concerned about the sullen mood that had descended on her friend.
"I'm glad you're not going to kill her," said the bard, partly to elicit a positive response from Xena, partly to break the silence.
"She told you about that?" Xena stared uncomfortably at the younger woman.
Gabrielle nodded. She stepped next to the tall woman, looked up into her face and placed a comforting hand on her. "It's okay," she reassured with a smile. "That was the old you."
"It was only a few months before I met you," said Xena, turning away and returning to the task at hand.
"You've changed," Gabrielle said to her lover's back, slightly hurt that Xena should turn away from her.
'That's what I said earlier,' thought Xena. 'So why do I still want to kill Ashcul?'
The track was wide enough for two carts to pass but the trees were thick right to the edge of the trail. The women rode side by side; Ashcul on the right, Xena and Gabrielle on the left. Xena had insisted on riding on the left without giving a reason, but she guessed that Ashcul knew why. She wanted her sword arm next to the blonde warrior.
The journey was pleasant enough, the weather was just right, not too warm, not too cool. Gabrielle and Ashcul spent most of the time chatting and getting to know each other. Xena ignored most of it, she saw no harm in Gabrielle being friendly with her former enemy. Besides, Gabrielle wouldn't have it any other way, she would be friends with anyone, and despite their past, Xena didn't think Ashcul was a bad person.
She just wanted her dead.
"Company," said Xena, pulling Argo to a halt.
Ashcul pulled her horse up a few strides further on and turned and squinted at her riding companions. "Four, off to the left," she said after a short while. She smiled slowly. "Two each."
"Don't I get any?" asked Gabrielle looking around Xena's shoulder.
Xena patted her lovers thigh. "You just write about this one." She slipped out of the saddle and drew her sword.
As if on cue, four men brandishing swords burst out of the trees. Ashcul jumped from her horse and landed lightly on her feet in front of the men with her sword drawn. Xena stepped up beside her. The men paused briefly before charging as one.
Ashcul disarmed the one nearest her and used the hilt of her sword to hit another as she kicked the first one in the thigh. The attacker who took a blow to the head crumpled to his knees and fell forward, unconscious. Ashcul grinned at the first as he staggered about clutching his numb leg.
Xena blocked a blow from her first attacker and kicked him in the stomach sending him into the sword of the final thug. Before he could extract his sword from his comrade Xena struck him. She felt movement by her right and swung her sword in that direction. Ashcul blocked the blow to her head with inches to spare.
Gabrielle gasped in shock, it had happened so fast she didn't have time to call out, and sent silent thanks to the gods that it turned out all right.
Xena panted heavily, staring at Ashcul, adrenaline coursing through her body. The bloodlust had taken control for a moment and for a few heartbeats more she wanted it to take control again. She let out a frustrated grunt and sheathed her sword.
"Xena, are you okay," asked Gabrielle, concerned, as she rushed to the dark warrior's side.
"I'm fine," she grunted, pushing past the bard and jumping onto Argo's back. She automatically reached down to help Gabrielle into the saddle behind her.
As Gabrielle settled into the saddle and put her arms around Xena, she could feel the built up tension in the warrior.
"Are you sure?" she asked.
Xena took a deep breath, regaining some composure. "I'm fine," she repeated, gently patting an arm encircling her waist.
Ashcul climbed silently back onto her horse and nudged it into motion without looking back.
Xena followed. After a minute she pushed Argo to catch up. Once alongside she looked across to her old enemy. Eventually Ashcul returned the gaze. Xena broke eye contact and kicked Argo into a gallop.
"Xena, what are you doing?" cried Gabrielle hanging on tightly.
The warrior pulled Argo to halt, reached around and pulled Gabrielle, less than gently, from the saddle. She turned Argo and rode back to Ashcul, pulling up in front of the other rider forcing her to stop.
"Why did they attack us?" Xena demanded of the other woman.
"They didn't ask for anything," continued Xena. "Most robbers make some demand."
"Maybe they weren't robbers," said Ashcul. "Go back and ask. I think I left my two alive."
Ashcul nudged her horse around Argo and Xena grabbed the reins halting her departure. The blonde stared at the hand, then looked straight ahead, and waited patiently to be released.
"This doesn't feel right," said Xena. "Ever since you turned up I've been on edge."
"It can't be easy for you," Ashcul conceded.
"It's not that. It's something else. I almost killed you back there. I don't make that kind of mistake."
"You mean you wanted to kill me," laughed Ashcul. She saw the dark look on Xena's face and stopped laughing. "Everyone makes mistakes at some time. Even you."
Xena could feel the anger building up inside her. She wanted to strike out at her former foe. She was losing her self-control.
'By the gods, it feels good,' she thought.
An apology, a smile, a kiss, a hug, the promise of a hot bath, a good meal and a real bed for the night was all it took to placate an angry Gabrielle. Xena had worked that out in the short time it took to return to where she had unceremoniously dumped the bard.
Xena had accomplished the first six, and the seventh and final item was a mere formality. She popped the last piece of bread into her mouth and leaned her chair back against the wall. A freshly scrubbed Gabrielle eyed the disappearing morsel with disappointment.
"You couldve saved it for me," said the bard.
The warrior reached into her mouth and pulled out the half-chewed bread. "Here you go," she held it out towards Gabrielle.
The young woman smiled. "You dont think I would? It wouldnt be the first time Ive had something out of your mouth. The things Ive come across in there dont bear thinking about."
"Then come and get it," the warrior teased, and tossed it back in her mouth.
Gabrielle pounced and clamped her mouth over the taller womans. After a few moments struggling the bard pulled back, the bread held triumphantly between her teeth.
"Where did you learn a trick like that?" asked Xena, grinning.
"I have this friend," replied Gabrielle. "She's got many skills."
Gabrielle watched as the grin slipped of Xena's face to be replaced with a troubled look.
"Hey!" said Gabrielle, touching Xena on the arm. "What's up?"
Xena focused her attention on her lover. "Nothing, I... I'm sorry for dumping you out of the saddle earlier."
"You've already apologised."
"I know. I just felt I needed to do it again. You're too forgiving."
"Something's bothering you. Is it Ashcul?"
"No," Xena lied.
Gabrielle stared at her.
"Yes," the warrior admitted.
"What exactly is the problem? Is it because her army beat your army?"
"No. I've lost other battles. Ashcul was the last, but....."
"I don't know. I can't put a finger on it. I started feeling this way before she turned up. It's as if I've got an itch I can't scratch."
"I like her," said Gabrielle.
Xena raised an eyebrow.
"Not that way," Gabrielle chuckled.
"I'm pleased to hear it. Though I know she won't be interested in you."
"What's wrong with me?"
"You're not her type."
"Oh! What is her type?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I guess it takes all types to make the world."
Xena and Gabrielle lay, bodies entwined, in bed after making love. Gabrielle was already asleep. Xena smiled to herself at making up with the bard, it was one of her many skills. She gently eased a numb arm from under her sleeping lover, and closed her eyes.
Sleep eluded her.
She tried to avoid too much movement in case she woke Gabrielle. But it was no use, she couldn't get comfortable. She pushed the sleeping bard off her, got out of bed and sat in the middle of the floor where she tried to meditate.
All that went through her mind was her first meeting with Ashcul....
....It was the strangest tavern entertainment Xena had ever seen. The blonde woman was blindfolded and balancing on the tips of the toes of her left foot, her right leg was extended out to the side, her arms outstretched. She barely wavered. She charged people five dinars to try and knock her down, and if you succeeded you got twice your money back.
Xena was impressed. Several men from her army had taken up the offer, and failed. The most affect had been a slight wobble when one of them ran at her full pelt and hit her with his shoulder.
Darphus leaned over and whispered in Xena's ear. "Fools, they should go for her weakest point, the leg."
"Why don't you have a go then?" challenged Xena. "Then when you fail, I'll have a go. Wager you fifty dinars."
Darphus couldn't refuse a challenge like that. He swaggered up to the stage and paid his fee. He took a brush from the barman and stood behind the balancing woman.
"When youre ready," she told him.
He swung the brush at her ankle. At the last possible moment she jumped just high enough to avoid the swipe and landed delicately on the tips of her toes. Darphus growled and brought the brush back for another swing.
"Only one attempt," said the woman. "Unless you want to pay again."
Darphus cursed, threw the brush down and stormed back to his seat.
Xena laughed loudly and clapped him on the shoulder. "I'll show you how it's done."
She paid her money and slowly circled the woman. 'Everyone has a weakness, no one is unbeatable,' she told herself. 'Except me, of course.'
"I can wait all night," said the woman. "But I'm sure you've got some battle to fight."
Xena came to a halt in front of the woman. "Are you ready?" whispered Xena. 'Yes!' she thought triumphantly as a moment of indecision flickered on the woman's face. 'I've found the weakness.'
"I'm going to do it now," said Xena.
She watched as the woman's body prepared for the assault, and waited.
The woman trembled minutely. Now was the time to strike, when the woman's readiness was waning.
Xena kissed the woman on the lips.
The woman took a step back, unfortunately her right leg was still extended and she fell flat on her backside. She ripped off the blindfold to see who had defeated her.
Xena extended a hand to help her up.
"Well done," said the woman accepting the offer. "No one has ever beaten me before."
"I'm not no one," replied the warrior. "I'm Xena."
"Destroyer of Nations, yes, I know."
"My reputation precedes me. I'm flattered."
The woman muttered something under her breath.
Xena tightened her grip on the woman's arm and yanked her closer. "What did you say?" she growled.
"I said, 'it's an honour'."
Xena smiled. "No you didn't. You said, 'it's nothing to be proud of.'"
"If you knew what I said, why did you ask?"
"To see if you were brave enough to repeat it louder. To see how strong you are." The woman tried to pull away but Xena kept a tight hold. "Strong women fascinate me. You fascinate me. You perform a neat trick, I'd like to learn it."
"I don't teach."
"You do what I tell you," countered Xena. "Come to my room tonight. I'll pay of course; fifty dinars."
"I'm not some harlot you can buy."
Xena chuckled. "You are if I want you to be."
"And if I refuse?"
"You're forgetting, I'm the Destroyer of Nations, I could destroy you easily." Xena let the woman pull away from her. "I'll be expecting you, don't disappoint me."
She didn't disappoint.
"I never caught your name earlier," said Xena letting the woman into her room.
"Ashcul," the warrior tried name for size. "Unusual. A bit like you I expect." She gestured to a jug of wine on the table. "Pour me a drink."
"I thought you wanted me to teach you my trick. Not be a servant."
Xena placed a heavy hand on Ashcul's neck. "I told you earlier that you'll be whatever I want you to be."
Ashcul shrugged out of the warrior's grip and poured wine into a goblet. She turned to look at Xena sat on the bed.
"I can't reach," said Xena, holding out a hand.
"Let me help you," said Ashcul, and threw the drink into the warrior's face.
Xena leapt off the bed just in time to avoid the knife. She didn't have time to berate herself for allowing the woman to enter her room with a concealed weapon before she had to defend herself again.
Ashcul snarled, pulled the knife out of the bed and swung it at Xena. The warrior kicked out and sent the knife flying away. She hit her attacker in the face and sent her sprawling onto the bed. She jumped onto the prone woman's chest forcing Ashcul's breath out, and hit her in the neck.
"I've cut off the flow of blood to your brain, you'll be dead in thirty seconds. Unless you tell me why you did that."
Ashcul forced a smile and said nothing. Blood flowed from her nose, ran down her cheek and pooled on the bedding.
Xena waited as long as she could and struck the woman again to release her. "I can keep doing this all night until you talk," she told the recovering woman, and struck her again.
"And then you'll kill me," Ashcul gasped. "So what does it matter, I'm already dead."
"I can make it quick and painless, or long and painful. You choose."
Ashcul smiled and closed her eyes.
Xena counted the seconds. She moved her hands into position to release the pinch when Ashcul's hands shot up and held them tightly. Xena tried to shake their grip without success.
"I can do it myself, thank you very much," said Ashcul. She slowly opened her eyes and breathed deeply.
Xena was shocked. Time was up. Ashcul should have been dead. Before she had recovered from her shock she found herself flying backwards off the bed.
"I guess, I'll have to do it the hard way," laughed Ashcul. "See you on the battlefield. I'm not going to let you walk all over this country without a fight."
With those parting words Ashcul dove out of the window and into the night...
...Xena breathed deeply and returned to the present. She found herself looking down at the sleeping bard and gently placed a hand on her lover's throat.
'So easy to squeeze the life out of her, or snap her neck,' she thought idly, applying a bit of pressure.
Gabrielle stirred. Xena jumped back as if scalded.
'Zeus, what am I doing?'
Ashcul lay awake in the dark room, and sighed heavily. She knew he was there, but even she couldn't ignore him forever.
"What?" she asked flatly.
"I see you're still alive," said Ares conversationally.
"Don't sound too disappointed."
The god of war chuckled and stroked his beard. The laughter was cut off abruptly and he glared at the woman on the bed. "We had a deal," he stepped over to the bed, leaned over and pinned Ashcul to the pallet. "You'd hate it if you didn't keep your part of it," he whispered threateningly.
"You're a god. What's the hurry?" she asked, unimpressed by his attempt to terrorise her.
The god pushed himself upright. "It's you that needs to hurry," he sneered. "That pain is going to get worse every day until you do what you have to."
"What pain?" she laughed.
"Oh, you're good. I'll give you that. But you're forgetting, I'm a god, I can see your pain," said Ares. "After all I am the one who's causing it."
"You won't let it get too bad, or I won't be able to do what you want."
"I can make it last forever," the god threatened. "And I can always get someone else to do the job."
Ashcul jumped off the bed and stood toe to toe with the god of war. He almost looked scared of her for a second. "I'll do it in my own good time," she said sweetly. "Now be a good god and let me get some sleep."
The god snarled as he disappeared.
Ashcul sank onto the bed. 'Sleep,' she thought wryly. She hadn't slept since she made the deal. The pain that felt as if every part of her was being pierced by a thousand knives, the pain that made her want scream out at every little movement of her body, the pain that Ares was inflicting on her, wouldn't let her.
Gabrielle woke up and reached out to the empty space next to her.
'Maybe one day,' she thought hopefully.
"Xena?" she mumbled.
She prised her eyes open and looked around the deserted bedroom. The bard got out of bed, yawned and stretched. Her stomach rumbled.
"Let's go find Xena and then we can fill you up," she replied to her stomach, giving it a soothing pat.
She exited the bedroom and was almost knocked down by Ashcul, who was running down the corridor.
The warrior looked at Gabrielle, panting to get her breath back. "Where is she?" she gasped. "Where has she gone?"
Gabrielle had no idea what she was on about, and said so.
"Xena! Where is she?"
"Xena?" asked Gabrielle with a frown.
"Yes, Xena. Argo's not in the stable. Xena must be gone with her."
"Gone? Gone?" the bard repeated the word, not quite understanding what Ashcul was trying to say.
"Yes, gone. As in, not here."
Gabrielle looked back into the bedroom. Xena's pack was missing.
"She wouldn't go without telling me," she said, more to try and reassure herself that Xena couldn't be gone. "She wouldn't go without me," she added quietly.
They were on the road as soon as possible, riding double on Ashcul's horse.
"She could be anywhere," cried Gabrielle plaintively.
"She went this way," said Ashcul, pointing at the ground. "Those are Argo's tracks."
"However, she's moving a fair bit faster than us."
Gabrielle sagged. "Maybe she wants us to stay?" she suggested.
"You said yourself, Gabrielle, she would have told you."
Xena allowed Argo to move at her own pace, she had pushed her trusty horse hard for longer than she liked, and when Argo stopped to feed she merely sat on the horses back.
Realising that she had almost hurt Gabrielle had made Xena to run. Ever since Gabrielle followed her Xena had worried about the young womans safety. She spent a lot a time agonising over the possibility that she could be indirectly responsible for Gabrielle getting injured, but she had never entertained the idea that she herself would do it.
For Gabrielle's sake she had to leave the bard behind.
After feeding, the golden mare had started to move slowly down the track. It was then that Xena spotted the cart.
A red mist descended.
Gabrielle's stomach rumbled, they had left in such a hurry she hadn't eaten, however, no matter what her stomach said, food was a long way from her thoughts.
Ashcul heard the noise. "Time to stop."
"We've got to keep going," Gabrielle implored.
Ashcul brought the horse to a halt. "The horse needs to rest."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to complain but recognised the need to rest the horse. Without it they would have no chance of catching up to Xena.
They sat on a fallen tree chewing on road rations.
"Why do you stay with Xena?" asked Ashcul out of the blue.
"What do you mean?"
"You're so different. You don't seem to have anything in common," explained the warrior. "You're kind, gentle, while Xena's...."
"Not," Gabrielle supplied.
"I love her," Gabrielle said forcefully. She looked at Ashcul as if daring her to suggest a reason why she shouldn't.
"Huh!" Ashcul snorted. "I don't believe in love. Lust, yes. Love, no."
"That's rather cynical," commented Gabrielle.
"Possibly," Ashcul conceded. "But I think love is something invented by bards in order to try and make the rest of us feel inadequate."
"Well, I love Xena, and she loves me."
Tears threatened, but Gabrielle held herself together. She needed to retain control to find Xena.
"You never knew her when she was leading her army."
"What is it with you?" demanded Gabrielle angrily.
"She wasn't a very nice person," persisted Ashcul.
"She's told me what she was like," countered Gabrielle. She didn't want this argument, but she was going to make damn sure she won it. "I know she wasn't perfect, but she now only fights for good, to protect the innocent and weak. She's not a power hungry warlord anymore."
"But you've only seen her good side."
"What's your point?" snapped Gabrielle.
"If she went back to the way she used to be. If she went back to being a power hungry warlord bent on conquest....would you still love her?"
"Yes," replied Gabrielle instantly. "You don't stop loving someone because they do something you don't like."
"You don't?" Ashcul queried sincerely.
"No," replied the bard softly. "Not if you truly love someone. But as someone who doesn't believe in love, I wouldn't expect you to understand."
"So you'd stay with her?"
Gabrielle paused for a moment. "Only until I knew I couldn't change her back," she admitted. "But I wouldn't stop loving her."
Ashcul nodded thoughtfully. "I need to tell you something."
They saw the first body later that afternoon. A young man, his throat cut, lying in the middle of the track. A little farther on, just around the bend, were two more bodies and a horse drawn cart. A woman and child lay dead in the back of the vehicle.
Gabrielle started weeping at the sight. It was obvious the woman had died shielding her baby from the attacker.
Ashcul and Gabrielle both turned at the sound of hoofbeats. Xena rode into view, a bloody sword in her hand. She glared at them briefly, pulled on Argo's reins and galloped off.
"Xena!" cried Gabrielle.
Ashcul pushed her horse to follow.
"Xena, come back!"
Ashcul turned down a narrow trail into the dense woods by the road. She pulled up sharply as she entered a clearing.
"What are you doing?" demanded Gabrielle. "Don't let her get away."
"I'm not," replied Ashcul, jumping from the horse.
Gabrielle only saw a blur as Xena flew from the trees to land next to the blonde warrior. She got down from the horse, but could only look on in mute impotence as Ashcul backed up, drew her sword slowly and let it fall to the floor.
Ashcul backed away with her arms spread wide. "I know how much you want to kill me, but for your sake - for Gabrielles sake - think before you do it."
Xena stepped closer with her sword poised to strike. "Why?" she growled.
"You'll be making a big mistake. One you'll regret."
"No," Xena said through clenched teeth. "Why do I want to kill you so much?"
"Ares," replied Ashcul, taking a further step away and circling back towards Gabrielle. "You promised to kill me in his name. He's making you feel the blood lust and using me to lure you back. If you kill me in anger youre his forever."
"Don't listen to her."
Xena whirled at the voice. The god of war stood a short distance away. Xena backed away from him.
"Kill her," he suggested casually, pointing at Ashcul. "You know you want to."
Gabrielle finally found her voice. "No, Xena. Don't listen to him," she pleaded.
Ares shot the bard a dark look. "Kill the brat too," he turned back to face Xena. "She's holding you back from your destiny."
"She's not going to do it, Ares," said Ashcul. "I'm stopping this game right now."
"Game?" bellowed Xena, turning her attention back to the warrior.
"I'm already dead, Xena. Slipped and fell getting out of the bath," she gave a humourless chuckle. "Hardly the ending I expected. Anyway, I ended up in Tartarus and Ares made me an offer I should have refused. If I could get you to kill me, to carry out your promise in his name, he'd let me into the Elysian fields. In return he'd control you and you'd fulfil your destiny as the Destroyer of Nations.
"I'm prepared to make that sacrifice so it doesn't happen," she concluded.
"It's not that simple, Ashcul," said Ares. "Only by dying at Xena's hand can release you from that pain, otherwise you'll spend eternity trapped in that body with that pain getting worse and worse with no release."
Ashcul laughed and walked over to Gabrielle. "I only need Xena to kill me. You need Xena to kill me out of anger, not love."
Ashcul withdrew a dagger from her tunic and placed it at Gabrielle's throat. The bard looked at Ashcul, uncertain.
"Trust me," Ashcul whispered to Gabrielle. She turned to look over her shoulder at Xena. "I've been selfish, I'm sorry. When I ended up in Tartarus and you were still alive, being happy, I... I was angry. After all, I was the good guy! But Gabrielle has taught me a few things about friendship. About love. You're lucky to have her.
"I'll count to five, You know what you have to do. One."
"What are you doing?" demanded Ares.
"Xena," Gabrielle said softly.
"I love you."
"Stop this!" shouted the god.
"Ashcul?" said Xena tentatively.
"I said, stop this!"
"I love you, Gabrielle."
"Do it," she mouthed in reply.
The sight of Gabrielle in danger had become an all too familiar sight in the short time she had known the bard. And everytime it happened it turned the warrior's blood cold. Her own death was of no concern to her, but Gabrielle's was another matter. The thought that anyone could hurt such an innocent, let alone hurt the woman she loved was enough to concentrate the warrior's attention. Only Gabrielle's safety was the issue. Only their love mattered.
"-v..." Ashcul fell to the floor, Xena's chakram embedded in her back.
Even Xena had not see her chakram fly, she had reacted so quickly.
"NO!" bellowed Ares, and disappeared in a cloud of smoke.
Gabrielle stepped away from Ashcul's body and put a hand to her neck, it came away bloody. Xena rushed to her and scooped her up in a hard embrace. The internal struggle of the last couple of days had gone.
"I'm sorry," the warrior mumbled into the bard's hair. "I'm so sorry."
"It's okay," said Gabrielle. Xena was holding her too tightly but she was just glad to have her warrior back. "It wasn't your fault."
"It was. Everything I did was down to me. If I'd been stronger...."
"Hush!" Gabrielle commanded.
"No, I must explain. I've always had to battle inside myself. Since I met you the battle has got easier. Your love has given me strength to fight, and something to fight for. To stop myself giving in to the dark side."
"But it was Ares that was making you feel that way."
"But I gave in," insisted the warrior.
"It's over now," soothed Gabrielle. "You've won."
"This time," said Xena coldly.
"Could you let me breathe a bit?"
"What? Oh sorry," she loosened her embrace.
They stayed holding each other in silence.
"Gabrielle," Xena said gently, breaking the silence. "The cart on the road..."
"I know that wasn't you," said Gabrielle. "The old you never killed helpless women and children. I never thought for one moment that you'd sunk that far."
"I arrived too late save them," said the warrior remorsefully. "A few minutes earlier and I might've been of some help."
"But I killed the men who did it in cold blood."
Gabrielle considered her reply to the warrior's words for a moment. "I know," she repeated eventually. "I still love you." Loving the warrior was hard sometimes, but maybe the difficulty was what made it worthwhile.
Love : the word resonated within the warrior. A simple word, and one that is used by a lot of people, but only a lucky few get to know its true meaning: Gabrielle.
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