by Ella Quince
DISCLAIMER: This story portrays an intense emotional and erotic relationship between two women. If this concept disturbs or offends you, or puts you at legal risk, I suggest you stop reading now. Anyone under the age of 18 should not read this story without the express permission of a custodial adult, but I will assume no responsibility for the consequences if you choose to show it to them.
The sun was halfway through its journey across the sky when I rode into a clearing in the secluded valley. My progress across the rough land had been slowed by the leisurely pace I set for my horse, one that matched the strides of my companion on the ground. Gabrielle could have walked faster if she talked less, but I was in the mood to listen to the music in her voice and to watch the play of sunlight on her reddish-gold hair. My patient silence seemed to be all the encouragement she needed to pour out her excitement.
"Yes," she said, "this place definitely has a literary feel to it."
"Really?" I studied the two steep banks covered with trees bent double with age. True, they cast tortured shadows on the faint, weed-covered path we were following, but otherwise the scene did not stir my imagination.
" 'An olive grove on either side / And yet one more of greater size...' " She turned in a slow circle, counting the decaying groves surrounding us. "One , two, three...yes, I just know this is the place! I've heard a poem about this very spot. If only I could remember the rest of the lines."
Lost in contemplation of classical literature, she paid little attention as I reined in Argo next to the well that stood in the center of the clearing. My own attention shifted to more practical matters, such as the flattened water skin tied to my saddle. As I dismounted, I could still hear Gabrielle muttering to herself, " 'Ta dum, ta dum, the curving road...' then, something about a rustic well."
"Rustic is one way of putting it," I said, with a dubious look at the crumbling stonework and the rotting wooden cover on top. My fingers traced a pattern of shallow lines that had been incised on the circular rim, but the letters were too overgrown with moss and lichen to be read now. Grabbing hold of a warped board, I tugged at the well cover, met unexpected resistance, then pulled again harder. The cover gave way with a groan and fell to pieces in my hands. "I don't think anybody has been this way in years."
" 'Stood guard around the Well of Sighs...' " recited Gabrielle, still rooted in place.
There was no sign of a bucket or ladle, even ones rusted into disuse, so I leaned over the edge and thrust my arm into the cool darkness until my fingers brushed against the surface of even cooler water. Despite the tight cover I had removed, the well was scented with the freshness of spring-fed water.
" 'Waiting for those who would lose...' " Her voice faltered. "...would lose... what?"
I straightened back up, my hand dripping from its immersion in the well.
"Got it!" she cried. " 'Waiting for those who would lose their sorrows!' "
I raised a cupped palm to my mouth.
"Of course, it's the tale of--" Gabrielle whirled around, then froze in place. "No, Xena!"
Startled by her sudden cry, I stopped, lowered my arm. My lips were still moist from the water I had sipped....
"Don't drink the water!"
Even as I yelled out, a wave of embarrassment washed over me. This wouldn't be the first time a melodramatic flight of fancy had made me look foolish in front of Xena. But then I saw all color drain away from her face. And worse than the sight of her suddenly pale skin was the blankness in her blue eyes.
As I took a hurried step toward her, the blankness was supplanted by another emotion. Too late, I recognized her look of rage. Seconds later I found myself flipped to the ground, flat on my back, with Xena looming over me. She planted a knee on my chest; her hands pinned my shoulders back.
"Who are you?" The scowl on her face was terrifying in its intensity.
"Xena..." I fought for breath against the crushing pressure on my chest. "It's me...Gabrielle."
There was no reaction from her, no sign of recognition. "Where did you come from?" She glanced back over her shoulder, her eyes warily scanning the empty clearing. "And what is this place?" she muttered as if to herself. "How did I get here?"
"We followed--" Her two hands wrapped around my throat, abruptly choking off my explanation.
"What's this 'we'?" said Xena angrily, shaking me. "I've never seen you before."
Fighting against the dizziness that threatened to cloud my senses, I mouthed the desperate words, "Let...me...breathe...."
She loosened her grip just enough for me to draw breath and whisper, "I can prove we know each other. You're Xena from Amphipolis. Your older brother is Toris; your younger brother was Lyceus, and you want to be laid to rest next to him in the family vault."
"How did you know that?" There was a chilling edge of menace in her voice, and her fingers began to tighten again.
"Because...you told me," I gasped. "Please...I'll explain."
"It was an accident...you drank from that well...the Well of Sighs."
Xena frowned. "What is this, a riddle?" She didn't sound as if she liked riddles.
"The Well of Sighs...is fed by...the waters of Lethe."
"Lethe, the water of forgetfulness." Releasing her hold on my throat, Xena rocked her weight back on the heels of her boots. "I suppose that could explain this situation."
"Yes." I took a long shuddering breath of air. "And evidently you've swallowed enough water to forget me, which means you've lost all memory of the last two years...or more."
"So how much more is the remaining question," she said, echoing my unspoken thought. Her stoic demeanor projected nothing deeper than a grim acknowledgment of her situation, but I knew her well enough to detect a vein of apprehension in her voice. Xena knew fear; she was just better than most people at hiding that emotion.
I pushed myself up to a sitting position. The ache in my chest was fading, but my throat was still raw and bruised. "What's the last thing you remember?" I croaked.
She pursed her lips, as if holding back an answer. Her eyes raked over my body, assessing it, measuring it. "You're fit enough, but you're not dressed like a warrior. Who are you, and why were we traveling together?"
"Well, I'm a bard and--"
"A bard! Why would I be traveling with a bard?"
"I'm also your friend."
Her eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Even less likely."
"You don't believe me," I said, startled by the realization.
"Why should I?" Xena flicked a hand in the direction of the stone well. "I've only got your word for any of this." She started when a gust of cool autumn wind rustled through the leaves of the orchard. Looking up, she tracked the position of the sun, which hung low in the sky even at noon. "But it was mid-summer when I..." She broke off with a sudden scowl and glanced down at her arm. In the bright light of day, I could just make out a fine white scar running from her wrist to her elbow. "And I was wounded this morning--"
"--in Atropis," I said. My stomach lurched, but instinct urged me to keep any sign of my alarm hidden. "You were knifed just after the town's surrender."
"I told you about that?" she asked with obvious puzzlement. "I wonder why. The fight only lasted a few seconds."
With a casual shrug, I looked straight into the ice-blue eyes of the warlord Xena, and said, "I forget how the subject came up." But that was a lie; I remembered all too clearly. She had awakened in the middle of the night, sweating and trembling, nearly choking up her dinner from the memories that had haunted her dreams. Memories of an elderly baker who had approached her with a mug of ale, then pulled out a bread knife and managed to cut her once before she killed him. She had ordered his body hung in the center of town as an object lesson to any other of the vanquished townspeople who were tempted to resist the plundering and sacking of their homes and shops.
"So how long ago was that?" prompted Xena.
After a quick calculation, I said, "Almost three years." Which meant this Xena had already encountered Hercules once, but was several months shy of the second encounter in which he persuaded her to seek a new life. This Xena still followed Ares, the God of War.
This Xena was a very dangerous woman.
"Three years..." After a moment's consideration, she shrugged. "Oh, well, could have been worse. A good gulp from that well would have wiped out every fighting skill I've ever learned." She rose to her feet and stretched. Then, in a movement so fast it blurred, she reached for her chakram and launched it through the air.
I instinctively ducked at the harsh sound of metal skipping off the stone blocks of the well, then whizzing over my head. A series of dull thuds followed, and in my mind's eyes I saw the disc careening against the olive trees. Once the high whining sound had faded away, I looked up and saw that Xena's hand was wrapped securely around the chakram once again.
"I hate it when you do that."
She smiled, and her eyes sparkled like sapphires. "Just checking my reflexes." Apparently satisfied by her body's response, she turned on her heel to face Argo. "Nice horse you have there."
There was a speculative edge to her voice that made my back prickle. "Actually, Argo is your horse."
Xena approached the horse eagerly, but ran her hands over Argo's flanks with uncharacteristic brusqueness. The mare shied away with a nervous stamping of her hooves. I was reminded of Argo's reaction to Callisto, and somberly considered that the comparison might be all too similar.
With a frown of disappointment, Xena said, "She's a bit high-strung. Still, she'll come in handy. I need to get back to my army as soon as possible. Where were they last camped?"
"Your army?" I quickly scrambled to my feet, sensing that I was altogether too vulnerable on the ground.
"Yes, my...Is there a problem I should know about?"
"You could say that," I said cautiously. As a bard, I was all too familiar with stories about dead messengers of bad news. Then again, judging from the impatient look on Xena's face, I suspected that a slow messenger was just as likely to come to harm. "You see, one of your lieutenants turned out to be a little more...ambitious than you suspected."
"Darphus!" she spat out. "It had to be Darphus!"
"Yeah, as a matter of--"
"That low-life scum! I'll gut him!"
"Uh, actually, you've already done that. And your fight made *such* a great story," I said, with what I hoped was a convincing display of enthusiasm. I quickly launched into an account of how Xena had lost control of her army, although my version was somewhat different from the one I had wormed out of Salmoneus; the warlord standing before me didn't look receptive to the idea of an alliance with Hercules. "And then you *plunged* your sword into Darphus, ending his vicious, mutinous life."
"And what about my warriors?" she asked with single-minded persistence. "The ones who ran me through the gauntlet?"
"Well," I said, with an expressive shrug, "most of them were dead by then, or running for their lives."
"I routed them all by myself, you say?"
"You were *very* angry."
She chuckled. "You're right. That is a good story...What did you say your name was?"
"Well, Gabrielle, I've lost warriors before." She grabbed hold of Argo's reins and led the horse onto the weed-choked path. "It's a setback, but one I can handle. You'll see how quickly I can raise a new army."
I froze in place.
Looking back over her shoulder, Xena called back, "Aren't you coming?"
"What? Oh, yeah, I'm coming." I forced myself into motion again, sprinting to catch up with her. "But, Xena, don't you think we should try to recover your memory first?"
"I don't know how, but there's got to be a way to--"
"I'm not going to waste time chasing after a mirage," she said briskly. "Maybe later, after I've secured my army."
"You know, this will be the first time I've had a bard as part of my forces." She laughed at the thought. "But I like the idea. You're entertaining, and that could be good for morale."
"Great! Steady employment." I suppressed a shudder at the thought of facing a host of warriors assembled under the rippling purple banner of the Warrior Princess. But at least it was a convenient excuse for staying with Xena. "I know lots of stories. In fact, there's a tale about--"
"Later," said Xena curtly. Her good humor vanished like smoke whipped away by a high wind. "I need to start making some plans."
*So do I,* I thought anxiously. *So do I.*
Evidently warlords were used to being served. Unlike our usual routine of shared duties, that evening Xena sat down with her back propped against a tree and took a catnap while I set up camp and cooked our supper.
Later, after she had eaten, she openly studied me, tracking my every movement as I walked back and forth through the campsite laying out our bedding.
"How long did you claim we've been traveling together?"
Startled by the hard edge of skepticism in her voice, I said, "Nearly two years now." I settled myself on the ground, close enough to the fire to feel its warmth, but not so close that my face would show too clearly. It had been a long day, and I didn't have the strength to disguise my every expression. "You saved my life," I said, and covered my growing nervousness by recounting the circumstances of our first meeting, again carefully editing out the altruistic aspects that might not impress this arrogant warlord sitting cross-legged by the fire.
She listened impassively while I spun my tale. At its conclusion, she said, "And since then?"
"Oh, well..." I had spent the day preparing myself for this question. With luck, my answer would launch the first stage of my plan to bring Xena back to herself. On the other hand, it could wind up getting me killed. "We've been traveling around from province to--"
"Some mercenary work when money ran out. Otherwise, just passing through every podunk village in Greece."
"I'm not really sure why. Maybe you decided to take a break from the warlord trade," the dryness in my throat threatened to choke me, "or just maybe you had plans you wanted to keep to yourself." There was no way for me to judge whether her silence was ominous or simply a sign that the inquisition was over. My hope for a reprieve was short-lived.
"And we always make camp like this?" she asked.
I caught her expressive arch of an eyebrow, but was bewildered by its meaning. "Like what?"
Xena pointed at the bedding. "Me over here...you way over there."
"Oh, that...Well, yes." Flustered by the unexpected turn in our conversation, I tried to explain what I barely understood myself. "I...you...this is how we've always done it."
"If you say so," she said with a shrug. "But after two years, it seems rather odd to me."
*It does to me, too,* I admitted for the first time. And I winced inwardly at the memory of the one time I had tried to set our blankets side by side. Xena had taken one look at the new arrangement and stalked out of camp. By the time she returned, late the next morning, I had gathered up our bedding and packed it away in Argo's saddlebags. We had never exchanged a word about her reaction, and I had never dared to repeat my mistake.
However, judging by this Xena's remarks, evidently there had been a time when she would have reacted...differently. Just what form that difference might take was too unsettling to contemplate.
I tried to keep my gaze fixed on the fire when the warlord stood, stretched, and began to unbuckle her armor, but I was irresistibly drawn to the movement of long limbs as she cast off her leathers. This woman possessed the same muscular grace as the Xena I knew, but moved in a more fluid manner, like a dancer. And after she had slipped beneath the blanket of her bedding, this Xena looked over her shoulder at me, catching me in the act of watching. With a wry smile, she said, "Good night...friend," and then rolled over.
When the pounding of my heart finally slowed to normal, I sought out my own bed. But the moon had risen to its lofty perch in the night sky before I fell asleep.
"So how come you know so much about me?"
I started at Xena's sudden question. The silence between us had stretched for over an hour, ever since we had broken camp that morning and resumed our trek through the narrowing valley. I looked up her and said, "I'm your friend; you tell me things."
"Funny. I've never been much of a talker." There was a studied carelessness to her comments that warned me of danger.
"Well, I *am* a talker. So, sometimes I think you tell me things just to keep me quiet." Her lips quirked into a smile. "And we've been traveling together for so long that even though you only reveal some personal detail about once a week, it adds up." This time, to my relief, Xena actually laughed out loud.
"You're very clever," she said. "I'll have to remember that."
The remark sounded more like a threat than a compliment, I decided unhappily. However, since she had finally emerged from her reverie, this was a good opportunity to proceed with my plan.
"Speaking of remembering," I said evenly. "I have an idea...There's an oracle that might be able to help us restore your memory, and her temple is only a few day's journey from here."
"An oracle, huh?" Xena kept her eyes on the road ahead, seemingly indifferent to my suggestion. "I've never had much faith in oracles."
"Oh, but this one's good, believe me. That's why you went to her before."
With a sidelong glance at me, she asked, "What for?"
"To save mankind."
"I get the feeling you're about to tell me another of your stories."
I grinned. "Only if you're curious about how you freed Prometheus from enslavement by the gods."
"You have a very lively imagination," said Xena wryly. "But go ahead anyway. It'll help pass the time."
"Well, it all began one fine morning when we were attacked by a band of mercenaries. One of the men was badly wounded when a knife severed his windpipe, and he began to suffocate."
"There's an easy fix for that. All it takes is a hollow reed and a sharp knife."
"Yes," I said, "And that's exactly what you did. You had me bandage the wound after you'd inserted the--"
"Wait a minute!" Her sudden frown made me nervous. "Are you telling me I saved the life of some thug who tried to *kill* me?"
"Well, yeah." Thinking fast to construct a plausible excuse, I said, "I guess he had information you wanted, and since he couldn't talk--"
"You guess?" she said sharply. "What kind of information?"
"Xena!" I threw up my hands in exasperation. "I'm a bard, not a mind reader. First you get on my case because I know too much about you, then you get annoyed when I *don't* know everything about you. *I* don't know why you do things. Heck, I'm lucky if you even tell me where we're going!"
"So why do you travel with me?" she asked.
"I'm beginning to wonder," I said as tartly as possible. As I had hoped, the warlord's suspicious nature was providing the opportunities I needed to set and bait my trap. "Now do you want to hear this story or not?"
We both lapsed into a sullen silence.
By late morning the ancient valley had narrowed into a high-walled canyon that barely left enough room for me to walk beside Argo. The faded road we had followed had worn itself into oblivion, becoming nothing more than a dusty streak on the rocky ground. Studying the path before me, I noted with growing uneasiness that the canyon walls continued to converge, then took a sharp turn to the right. My steps slowed at the thought of what might be waiting on the other side of the blind turn. Instinctively, I looked to Xena for guidance, only to find that she had already reined Argo to a stop...behind me.
"Go on ahead," she said calmly. "I'll follow."
"Excuse me? Is that a polite way of saying I'm expendable?"
She shrugged. "Nothing personal. Consider it a field promotion to scout."
"I was happier as a bard," I said dryly. Nonetheless, I tightened my grip on my staff and moved forward. Judging from Argo's placid demeanor, the way ahead was probably quite safe; even if it wasn't, I was too proud to give the warlord reason to question my courage. To my relief, we passed unchallenged through the dying end of the canyon and were greeted by a peaceful vista of rolling meadows beyond.
Glancing back at the mountainside, I marveled at how the exit from the valley was almost undetectable. If I hadn't known exactly where to look, my eye would have passed over the narrow cleft, mistaking it for a shadow in the fold of rocks. It was no wonder the valley had remained untraveled for so long. The entrance Xena and I had found several days ago was hidden by the tangled growth of trees and vines; on a hunt for food, Xena had chased after a hare and accidently stumbled upon the deserted track that had eventually led us to the Well of--
*Oh!* It suddenly occurred to me that our passage through the valley was not the chance occurrence we had both assumed. Looking up at the warrior princess, restored to her former ferocity, I whispered, "Ares...."
"What?" asked Xena, turning in the saddle.
I bit my lip, then said lamely, "The air is colder here than in the valley."
With obvious disinterest in my comfort, she returned to her study of the landscape. Her eyes skimmed the horizon, then fixed on a smudge to the northwest. "There's smoke, probably a good-sized settlement with a tavern. I'll start there," she said as she kicked Argo into motion.
*Start there...to raise an army,* I thought miserably as I broke into a jog to keep pace with her mount. *And somehow I've got to stop you.*
For the first time in two years, I felt completely and utterly alone.
With unerring instinct, Xena wound her way through narrow town streets to the seediest and most ominous of taverns. The last coin in my purse went to the crippled old man who led Argo away to the stables, and when I followed Xena across the threshold of The Cloven Hoof, I choked on the overpowering smell of smoke, stale wine, and sweating bodies. To my embarrassment, I remembered this was exactly the sort of establishment I had delighted in visiting during the early days of our friendship. In my youthful enthusiasm I had thought such places were thrilling and exotic. Eventually, however, the novelty had worn off, and as Xena's confidence in her new life had increased, we had gravitated toward less colorful lodgings. Now, as the soles of my boots scraped on the gritty floorboards, I longed for the haven of a boring and respectable inn. At the very least, it would have been clean.
Our entrance was marked by a drop in the level of raucous guffaws and braying voices. Only a few heads turned to openly stare, yet I could tell all eyes were fixed on us. A murmur of recognition rippled through the room, then one figure detached itself from the crowd around the bar and swaggered up to confront Xena. The man's moon-face was the grey color of unwashed skin and his leather tunic was blotched with greasy stains.
"I've heard of you," he said with a sneer. "You're Xena, the warrior princess. Or at least, you *used* to be a warrior."
I caught my breath and willed myself to remain silent.
"Used to be?" said Xena curiously.
"Yeah, as in 'used up'. Word is the warrior princess has gone soft." He eyed her ample bustline with a leer. His curling lips glistened wetly. "But don't worry, soft is good." Pushing his beefy chest up against her breastplate, he said, "Why don't you take off that armor so I can see just how soft-- "
He gave a low grunt and his eyes widened with surprise.
"What was that?" asked Xena with a look of concern. "I didn't hear you."
The man took a step back. In the silence that suddenly blanketed the tavern, I could hear a liquid gurgling noise coming from his throat. A pink froth bubbled onto his lips.
"Don't be so shy." Xena smiled as she reached out and yanked on the knife handle protruding from his chest. "I'm a very nice person once you get to know me. If you live long enough to get to know me."
The man swayed on his feet, then crumpled to the floor with a whimper. Xena wiped her blade on his back before tucking the knife back into its sheath on her belt. Stepping over the fallen body, she walked up to the largest, surliest looking man in the room and, with her voice pitched suggestively low, said, "You're more my type. Buy me a drink."
The roar of laughter that swept through the room signaled approval and acceptance. A flagon of wine was quickly pressed into Xena's hand, and she guzzled it down with obvious relish.
Taking refuge in a shadowed corner of the room, I sagged against the wall and swallowed hard to calm my roiling stomach. I had seen Xena wound opponents before, even kill them, but always in self-defense and always as a last resort; this casual knifing was nothing more than revenge for a petty insult. Perhaps not so casual, though. It was the memory of cruelties like this that fueled her nightmares, so at some level the warlord must have known the high price she was paying for her pride.
As the tavernkeeper dragged the wounded man out of the room, I whispered a prayer to Asclepius for his recovery. A faint streak of red marked the body's passing, but it was soon scuffed and trampled away by the crowd of men who were gathering around Xena, all clamoring for the honor of buying her the next drink. Judging from her encouragement of these attentions, the evening promised to be long and tedious. But I could suffer through it, I decided, as long as I escaped the notice of these--
"So who's your little friend?" called out a scrawny, ratfaced man, jerking his thumb in my direction. Evidently he hadn't been able to muscle his way close enough to Xena, so he'd turned his attention elsewhere. "Is she a camp follower...or one of your *warriors*?"
I cringed at the hearty guffaws that met this witticism.
"Wrong on both counts," said Xena, although she also had laughed at the crude joke. "My little friend is a bard. In fact, she's going to provide some entertainment for us tonight." The warrior princess flashed a mocking grin at me. "You did say you were a bard, didn't you?"
"Yes, I did," I replied, meeting her challenging gaze without flinching. I could feel her eyes following me as I made my way to the tavern's makeshift stage, nothing more than an old table whose legs had been shortened. Stepping up onto the stage, I paused to reflect on the nature of my audience and the kind of tale that would capture the attention of these rowdy men. Then, without having made a conscious choice, I opened my mouth to speak and the words formed as if by instinct. "Death comes to us all, but when Death came to claim King Sisyphus, he had figured out a way to trick her."
As I settled into the rhythm and cadence of my narrative, I noted the slight lift of Xena's eyebrow. This subtle gesture was an open admission of surprise, perhaps even of grudging admiration. And the story -- in which the warrior princess figured prominently -- kept her riveted. At the conclusion of Death's harrowing adventure, as I basked in the enthusiastic applause from the room, Xena sidled over to the platform.
"Prometheus enslaved, Death in chains...where do you come up with these things?"
I laughed at her consternation. "I'll have you know that was a true story."
"If you say so, Bard," she said with a skeptical frown. "But there's no profit in helping gods. It's no wonder we're broke."
"Well, not for long. Let me get back to work earning some dinars." Waving her away, I quickly launched into another story, and then another. I kept up a steady flow of words, gradually raising the volume of my voice to compete with the rising volume of noise in the room. I spun tale after tale until my lips were parched and my throat began to tighten, threatening to trip up my tongue with dry coughs. To my relief, as yet another tale drew to a close, I saw Xena threading her way through the crowd, a large mug in hand. "Oh, great, I was really getting thir--"
"No more of those love stories. Stick with battle epics." She gulped her drink, then added, "In fact, let's hear some of *my* battle epics. Tell everyone how I conquered the city of Thermae."
"Thermae? Sure, I'll do that," I said, my voice tight with indignation. The warlord was arrogantly flaunting one of Xena's bloodiest conquests, one that had haunted her with bitter regrets. "And while I'm at it, shall I also tell how you burned Cirra to the ground?"
The pale color that washed across Xena's face might have been a trick of the flickering torchlight, but the sudden clenching of her jaw was not.
*That was stupid,* I admitted to myself as I watched her stalk away. *I can't forget who I'm dealing with. My next mistake could be fatal.* Nevertheless, I took some comfort in the fact that even as a warlord, Xena had been rocked by the tragedy at Cirra.
Too tired to remain standing, I lowered myself down to the edge of the stage and searched my memory for a fresh story. When nothing came to mind, I sighed and said, "Death comes to us all, but when Death came to claim King Sisyphus, he had figured out a way to trick her." As I had suspected, the few men who were still listening were too drunk to even notice the repetition, so once Death had escaped her chains for the second time that evening, I grabbed the battered donations bowl by my side and abandoned the stage.
Dumping the contents of the bowl onto an empty table in a far back corner of the tavern hall, I quickly sorted and counted the various denominations of coins. I grimaced at the total. An evening's work at a decent inn would have yielded twice this amount. Evidently weary travelers and prosperous merchants were a more generous audience than drunken mercenaries.
A hand covered the pile of dinars. "Is that all?" asked Xena, scooping up my earnings.
"It's more than enough for a night's lodging and a good breakfast," I said defensively.
"Yeah, I suppose it would be." She turned away, taking the money with her.
"Hey!" I frowned as Xena's words sank in. "What do you mean by--"
"The next round is on me, boys!" she shouted out. The answering cheer from the assembly drowned out my protest. Xena tossed the coins onto the tavern bar, and seconds later I had nothing to show for my evening's labor except a dozen tankards of ale being drained almost as quickly as they had been filled.
With a weary sigh, I sank down onto a low bench and considered my situation. Thanks to Xena, we had no place to sleep tonight. Although, from what I had observed of her incessant prowling through the crowded room, she had no intention of sleeping at all. I briefly considered spending the night with Argo, but judging from the filthy condition of the tavern itself, chances were the tavern's stables were even less appealing. No, it seemed I would have to stay here in the common room watching Xena charm the mercenaries.
And charm them she did. Even as the men got drunker and meaner, she held center stage in the carousing. With a sharp tongue and an even sharper blade she bested the few warriors who were foolish enough to challenge or insult her. Once defeated, each man in turn displayed his wounds -- shallow cuts meant to warn rather than disable -- like badges of honor, and laughed the loudest when the next opponent was brought down by her hand. Whereas the Xena I had known smoldered with repressed power, this Xena painted an image of herself that was larger than life, mercurial, charismatic. This Xena, I acknowledged, was the Warrior Princess who could lead men into battle, chanting her name even as they died.
"Time for you to join the party," a nasal voice whispered in my ear.
I whirled around to find Ratface looming over me. Recoiling instinctively, I winced when my back hit the sharp edge of a table. I was cornered.
"Take a hike!" I said, but he only laughed.
"Now that's not very friendly."
"I'm not in a friendly mood." My annoyance turned to indignation when he reached out to fondle my breast. Knocking aside his groping hand, I hissed, "Are you willing to die for a cheap feel? Because Xena will kill you for what you just did!"
He hesitated, his hand suspended in mid-air as he cast a wary glance across the room. "Oh, yeah? Why should she care what we're doing?" Despite his bravado, there was a tremor of fear beneath his sneer, and he paled slightly when Xena looked straight at our corner of the room, her eyes narrowing as they pierced the shadows...
...and then she turned away.
Ratface guffawed and turned back to face me. "You had me going there for a minute." Then he tried to plunge his hand down the front of my top.
"Get your hands off me, you cretin!" I cocked back my fist to punch him in the stomach, only to feel my elbow caught in a strong grip.
"She's feisty enough for two of us," said a second man as he quickly pinned my arms behind me.
"As long as I get in first," said Ratface. His fingers had worked their way down far enough to pinch one of my nipples.
Ramming my knee straight up into his chest, I knocked a blast of rancid breath out of my attacker, but the man behind me quickly wrenched my arms farther back and chuckled when I gasped at the sharp pain. "No more of that," he said softly, "or you'll break something."
Ratface wheezed out, "I *was* going to pay you for a good time, but now *you* owe *me.*" He grabbed hold of my legs. "C'mon, Dolus, let's just take this little transaction outside."
My anger gave way to genuine alarm as I felt Dolus lift me up off the bench. Without my staff, I was no match for these two men. Nonetheless, I drew a deep breath and steeled myself for a struggle that might well cost me a broken bone or two. I had just tensed my leg muscles for savage kick when the two men skidded to an abrupt halt.
Xena was standing in their way.
"Where do you think you're going?" the warlord snapped, but my relief evaporated when I realized the comment was directed at me. "Sorry, boys, but my bard is still on duty. So she'll just have to wait until later to have her fun."
After a moment's hesitation, the two men exchanged a look of resignation and released their hold on me. I stumbled and would have fallen except for Xena's steadying hand, but once I regained my balance she pulled me out of the shadows and back to the center of the room. I could feel my body starting to tremble in delayed reaction to fear -- and a sense of betrayal -- but before I could voice my anger, Xena said, "Did they hurt you?"
When I could trust myself to speak calmly, I said, "No."
She studied my face, then nodded. "You're no coward." Grabbing a mug from a passing servant, she pressed it into my hands. "Drink this." The port warmed a trail down my throat and loosened the knot of tension in my stomach. But then Xena cocked her head toward the storyteller's stage, and said, "Now get back to work."
"No! No, I--"
"Do it!" she ordered. "You can't afford to look weak in this crowd or you'll be a target again. And there's no point in our traveling together if you're going to get into trouble every time I turn my back."
I nodded, then stumbled my way to the stage. When I began my tale, my voice quavered, and I was too exhausted to embellish the bare bones of the story's plot, but it didn't really matter. In the midst of the drunken revelry, no one was listening to me anymore.
I awoke on a straw pallet, with streaks of strong morning light filtering through half-closed window shutters and the comforting sound of Xena's slumber-steady breathing beside me. A few hours before dawn she had won the room and a small purse of dinars in a knife-throwing contest. I vaguely remembered her urging me up a flight of wooden steps to the second-floor of the tavern to claim our prize...and then remembered some of the shouted obscenities from the crowd as they watched us leave together. The words had meant little to me in my sleep-fogged state, but now I recognized them as crude and vulgar predictions of what Xena would to do to me when we reached our quarters.
Nothing like that had happened. The two of us had fallen into the single bed, and then almost instantly into unconsciousness.
But what if Xena *had* done those things? I wondered. From what little she had revealed of her days as a warlord, she had held few scruples concerning extortion or even murder. Why should she balk at forcing herself on an unwilling bedmate? I tried to imagine Xena's mouth pressed hard against my own, her hands groping my naked breasts, a muscled thigh forcing its way between...
I stopped the parade of images as I considered an even more disturbing question. Just how unwilling would I have been? The rapid beating of my pulse offered an ambiguous answer. Was I reacting with fear or with that other strong emotion that had welled up inside of me the first time I had laid eyes on the warrior princess? After all, this warlord had transformed into a woman who had saved me from Draco's marauders. How different could these two persons be?
Glancing over at Xena, I nearly cried out her name. In sleep, her face had softened. The wariness lurking in her eyes was masked behind closed lids; the harsh curl of her lips was smoothed into a half-smile. She looked just like the Xena I loved. And the knowledge that an honorable and compassionate woman was in there somewhere -- buried deep beneath layers of bitterness and rage -- filled me with an aching need to reach out, to somehow touch the familiar....
My hand hovered just a hairsbreadth away from her cheek when she stirred. I pulled back, but not fast enough to escape the notice of steel-blue eyes.
"Good morning," I said, hoping my voice sounded less shrill to Xena's ears than it did to my own. I flushed under her silent scrutiny, all too aware that her muscular frame was gathering tension like a coiled spring.
Then, with a grunt, she rolled out of bed and reached for her armor. "This isn't going to work," she said as she buckled her breastplate into place.
I fought down a surge of apprehension. "What do you mean?"
"I need money, real money, not that handful of dinars you earn telling tales." She slapped bracers around her wrists as she talked. "It takes gold to buy warriors, gold to buy supplies."
"Yeah, well, that's not exactly hot news."
"What's that crack supposed to mean?" she demanded.
I shrugged and fell silent, then gasped when she lunged forward and shook me by the shoulders.
"I'm in no mood for games, little bard," hissed Xena into my face. "So if you have something to say, spit it out!"
I clawed away her hands. "If you need money now, then you knew that when we started out together."
I resisted the temptation to unfurl my entire scheme now. If my answers came too easily, Xena would grow suspicious. "And I suppose you've been working at it."
"If you'd bothered to tell me what you were doing, I could help you now," I said angrily. "But since you didn't--"
"All that traveling around..." Xena whirled away, then slammed her fist against the wall. "Yes! By the gods, there had to be a good reason for all that aimless wandering. Otherwise, it was years wasted." I held my breath as she paced the length of the narrow room. Turning on her heel, she demanded, "Come on. We're leaving."
I scrambled off the bed, biting back any comments that would set off her hair-trigger temper. I was about to reach for my pack when she stepped in front of me.
"Gabrielle..." She uttered my name like a low growl. "You'd better be right about this oracle."
I nodded, struck dumb by the threat in her voice. This time there was no doubt about what emotion had set my heart racing.
It was fear.
"Xena...wait up...I can't...." My voice gave out as I staggered to a stop. Leaning on my staff, I tried to catch my breath. From the moment we left town Xena had set a brisk pace that pushed me to the limits of endurance, and there was no trace of mercy written on her face when she reined in Argo, only an impatient scowl.
"I just need...a short rest."
"Catch up on your own time," said the warlord. With a kick of her heels, she urged Argo forward into a trot and left me standing alone in the road.
"To Hades with you," I muttered, then gulped for more air. When I could finally breathe without pain, I resumed my walk with a steady stride that would eat ground without leaving me winded.
Usually I took great joy in walking, especially in rolling countryside such as this, but today my anger and the need to hurry robbed me of that pleasure. I must have thought about many things over the course of that long day, but all I remember was muttering curses at the warlord who had abandoned me so easily. Of course, my Xena was also quick to leave me behind on our journeys, and this uncomfortable parallel blurred the line between her and the warlord. By mid-afternoon, when I discovered there was only a crust of bread in my shoulder bag, I was irrationally furious at both of them.
I followed Argo's tracks until the light began to fade, and still there was no sign that Xena had stopped on the road. Dusk darkened into night. Unsure of my way, my steps faltered. I rested at the base of a sheltering tree until a full moon revealed the road once again. An hour later, chilled and light-headed from hunger and thirst, I finally staggered into Xena's campsite.
She was stretched out by the fire, wrapped in her blanket. Without even opening her eyes, she said, "Took you long enough."
I was too miserable to reply. Dropping my staff to the ground, I seized a charred rabbit leg lying on a stone by the dying fire and gnawed at the scraps of flesh surrounding the bone. The meat was cold and tasted of ashes. I washed it down with a half-dozen swallows of water, then fumbled open my bedroll and crawled beneath the blanket. It seemed my head had just hit the ground when Xena was prodding me awake with a swift kick to my ribs. My eyes flew open at the rough call. Dawn barely illuminated the campsite.
"Get up now or you can carry your own bedroll," she said curtly, and strode away into the woods.
Early rising was not my specialty, but I was alarmed enough by Xena's brusque threat to stumble to my feet and fold up my bedding. I gave up any hope of enjoying our usual hot breakfast when I noticed the cold ashes of the fire had already been kicked apart and Argo was fully saddled.
Taking advantage of Xena's absence from camp, I tucked the bundled blankets into a saddlebag, then risked a furtive pat to Argo's neck. Uttering a soft whicker, she turned and nuzzled her velvety nose against my hand. It was a comforting moment for the both of us, this attempt to touch the familiar in the midst of so much strangeness, but I dropped my hand at the sound of Xena's boots coming up behind me. Too late, I realized I had just squandered my one chance to rifle the packs for food.
Shouldering me aside without comment, Xena vaulted into the saddle. A quick, hard twist of the reins pulled Argo's nose around and a slap to her rump set the horse in motion.
If tears could have eased my gnawing hunger or soothed the dull ache in my muscles, I would have cried. But tears were useless, and I needed all my strength for walking; so, dry-eyed and silent, I retrieved my staff and began another day's march.
Argo must have been as tired as I was. Throughout the morning I found signs that Xena had stopped often to let the mare graze. In fact, I might have made better time keeping up with them if I hadn't stopped to forage for myself. All I managed to find were a handful of late-season berries and a few tasteless mushrooms. After that I chewed on a bitter-tasting root and fought the temptation to curl up in a nest of dry grass and sleep. In sleep I could escape the pain of my aching feet and my throbbing head...and forget that Xena was responsible for my misery.
For the past two years we had led a spartan existence, one without many luxuries, but compared to my situation right now our daily life had been filled with riches. She had never let me go hungry, and despite her gruff complaints she was quick to indulge me in sleeping late or taking scenic detours. Her reserve could be disconcerting at times, but she had never been cold or indifferent or cruel toward me. But now...
...now Xena was in trouble. She needed me. If I let her ride away, there was no guarantee she would find her way to the oracle or recover her memory. And then I'd lose her forever.
I quickened my pace, determined that this time I would catch up to the warlord before nightfall.
Dusk had just started to leach color out of the landscape when I caught a faint whiff of burning wood and overcooked meat. Following my nose, I found my way to a clearing where Xena was stirring a bubbling pot of stew hanging over the fire. I knew this meal was probably every bit as wretched as any she had ever cooked, but I was so ravenous that it smelled delicious.
"I saved you some," said Xena, and nodded her head toward a bowl set to one side of the fire.
"Thanks." I was so grateful that I forgot to be wary of any favors offered by a warlord.
She waited until I had grabbed the bowl and was turning to find a place to sit. With a sudden movement of her boot into my path, she tripped me. My supper went flying through the air as I fell to the ground, landing awkwardly. Gasping at a sudden stab of pain, I tried to roll off my wrenched shoulder, but Xena's boot stamped down on my right wrist, pinning me in place.
"Why are you doing this to me!" I screamed out.
"Why are you letting me?" she demanded. "Why don't you just turn back?"
I almost missed it: the opening I'd been waiting for all this time. Blinded by rage and exhaustion, I teetered on the edge of a trap that the warlord had set for me...then pulled back just in time to throw my own net over her. "The treasure," I sobbed, letting loose real tears to cover my lie. "I wanted...my part...."
Xena laughed and lifted her foot. "That's more like it."
As I rubbed at my sore wrist, I said, "You knew?"
"I knew there had to be a reason you were so determined to recover my memory, and I knew you weren't telling me why."
She reached down and helped me to my feet, lifting me as easily as a feather. By the time I had taken a seat on a fallen log, she had ladled out another helping of stew. I greedily gulped it down while she laid out our bedding. Then, when I was wiping the last bit of gravy from the bowl and licking my fingers, she settled down on her blanket and faced me.
With a feral grin, Xena said, "So tell me about this treasure."
"Not just any treasure," I said. "Sumerian treasure." I quickly sketched out a tale of Xena tracking down clues to the location of the lost Sumerian treasure, a tale that was very convincing because so much of it was true. Fortunately the warlord didn't remember that we had already found our way to the cavern filled with gold and jewels.
"I wasn't supposed to know about it," I said ruefully, "but I've overheard enough of your conversations to figure out what you were doing. And you were really close to finding the last clue, so as soon as you get your memory back we'll be rich!"
"I'm your partner, aren't I?" With a winsome smile, I added, "Besides, it wouldn't take much gold to make me happy. Really!"
With a chortle, Xena said, "It wouldn't take much effort to kill you either. Really."
"Hey! I'm your friend!"
Shrugging, she said, "Friendship is a luxury for the poor and the helpless; the rich and powerful can't afford it."
"Oh." I sighed heavily. "I guess that's why you're a warlord and I'm a bard. A terminally naive bard."
"There are advantages to being naive, Gabrielle," said Xena. "If you were any less naive, I probably wouldn't have kept you around. As it is," she yawned, and stretched out on the bedroll, "you've lasted longer in my company than any of my lieutenants."
"Two years is a record?"
"Yes," she said dryly. "In my business, two years can be a lifetime...." She stared into the fire for a long time, then asked in a low voice, "During all the time we were travelling together, what did I say about losing my army?"
"Not much, really." Then, against all reason, I yielded to the sudden impulse to tell Xena something of essential importance about herself. "I don't think you missed them at all."
I saw the subtle stiffening of her muscular body, an involuntary confession of tension, but she didn't protest my statement.
Edging a little farther out onto dangerous ground, I said, "It was if you'd grown...bored...with that part of your life." And this was as much as I dared reveal about the turning point in her dark past.
Silence stretched between us once again as she stared unblinking at the dancing flames, her face a mask of impassivity.
At last she shook her head and said, "Go to sleep. We have another early start tomorrow morning." And she closed her eyes.
The oracle's temple was just as I remembered it: a massive stone monument nestled in a placid valley. Eager to seek out answers, I led the way down the flight of steps that cut to the heart of the monolith. The faintest whiff of incense swirled up to greet us and I heard the wild beat of a drum from somewhere behind thick walls.
"Okay," said Xena, as she trailed behind me, "so this oracle told me where to find the sword that would free Prometheus, but what exactly was this trial I went through to learn that secret?"
"Well..." My foot faltered for a moment, betraying my apprehension. "I don't really know."
Xena grabbed my arm, jerking me back around to face her. "What do you mean, you don't know? I thought this was one of your most popular stories?"
"It is. But you wouldn't tell me what happened here, so I've always had to make up the details myself."
"How bad can it be?" I asked. My arm was starting to ache in her grip. "You came out of the temple without a scratch on you."
"It's never that easy," she said grimly. "There's always a price." She gave me a hard shove down the last few steps, and I stumbled into a chamber lit with torches.
The oracle was waiting for us.
I had expected a wizened crone with haunted eyes, but she was a vibrant woman with a lush and supple body draped in ribbons of a sheer orange cloth. Her attendants, one dressed in dark blue and the other in green, stood on either side. When the oracle looked at me I saw knowing laughter barely masked behind her sultry ochre-colored lids. Her one glance seemed to promise me the answer to every question I had ever uttered and some I hadn't yet thought to ask.
With a sensuous swaying of her hips, the oracle circled around us both as if inviting us to dance, then stopped in front of Xena. "You've been here before..." a sly smile formed on her lips, "...or maybe not." Then, holding out her palm, she said, "What will you give?"
Xena frowned. "Explain."
"What will you give to recover what you've lost?"
With a sigh, Xena said, "Twenty dinars. It's all I've got."
"Not good enough. I don't accept dinars."
"What *do* you accept?"
"A nail, a lock of hair...a finger."
With a grimace of distaste, Xena said, "You're right, we won't be doing any business today." She beckoned to me. "Let's go, Gabrielle."
"No." I stepped forward to confront the oracle myself. "Tell me how to recover Xena's memories."
"And what will *you* give for her answer?"
"Anything I have. Everything I have."
The oracle smirked and said, "We shall see."
"I thought you could drive a hard bargain," muttered Xena under her breath.
"This isn't exactly the time or place to haggle," I shot back. She was obviously puzzled by my action, and I saw the shadow of a darker emotion -- suspicion -- pass across her face.
At a signal from the oracle, her attendants stepped aside to reveal a hideous statue that had lurked behind them. A huge serpent's head, larger than a man's body and studded with teeth the size of my hand, jutted out of the wall. The oracle hauled on a lever and the jaws parted, revealing a ribbed gullet that stretched back into shadows.
Next, the oracle lit a candle and the flickering light revealed a long chain running down the spine of the serpent's body; it ended at a clay tablet. The oracle placed the candle on a table, with the flame licking at a taut rope. "You don't have much time," she said, and I knew without asking that when the rope had burned through, the jaws would close.
I had to crawl into the mouth of the serpent to grab hold of the chain. Pushing down my panic, I took a deep breath and pulled. Nothing happened. I pulled harder and felt a faint quiver. Summoning all my strength, I heaved yet again and managed to set the tablet in motion. Focused intently on my task, I dragged the slab forward one torturous inch at a time.
My nose warned me when the rope began to char, and out of the corner of my eye I could see Xena pacing restlessly. "Gabrielle..." She took a step toward me, but a priestess blocked her path. "Let it go, Gabrielle."
"Not yet," I gasped, and strained harder. "It's...still...too...far."
The acrid smoke of burning rope grew stronger. One last heave and I released the chain. My fingers brushed against the clay surface and....
Hands grabbed my waist and I was yanked backwards seconds before the stone jaw came crashing down. The tablet, still lodged in the statue's mouth, shattered into a cloud of dust.
"I almost had it!" I cried angrily, twisting out of Xena's grasp.
"You almost died!"
"It doesn't matter." The oracle smiled smugly at us both. "There was nothing written on the tablet."
Xena started to lunge forward, but I pulled her back. She snarled, "What kind of a trick--"
"Not a trick," said the oracle, "a test. You passed the same test once and were willing to risk a hand to save Mankind. Your young friend was willing to give up her life to recover your past."
"It was a bad bargain," said the warlord coldly.
"That's not for me to say." Then, with a playful curling finger the oracle beckoned me to follow her to a small chamber where we could not be overheard. Reaching into the folds of her robe, she presented me with a small stoppered bottle.
"Here's what you must do," the oracle said, "and where you must go."
I listened intently to her instructions and nodded grimly at her warnings.
I set a northwesterly direction for our journey after we left the temple, and Xena did not argue or even demand an explanation.
"Don't you want to know where we're going?" I asked.
"You paid for the prophecy, not me." She gave a light tug to Argo's reins and fell into step beside me. Then, to my surprise, she said, "Tell me one of your stories."
"Uh, sure." I chose an epic tale which was had always been one of Xena's favorites; evidently her tastes hadn't changed too much because the warlord appeared to like it too. Since she showed no sign of boredom or impatience, I launched into another story, and then another, and so we passed the rest of that day with her listening to me talk. By the time we made camp that night, at the base of the mountain the oracle had named, I could almost believe Xena and I had returned to our familiar traveling days. She even gathered an armful of wood and stoked the fire, a chore she had left for me ever since losing her memory.
Then, as we readied for bed, she stripped to her shift. Dark hair cascaded down her back and her skin glowed golden in the firelight. With the grace of a leopard, Xena moved in front of me, and said, "You almost died back there at the temple. Why?"
I shrugged. "I told you -- there's an incredible treasure to be found."
"You're very greedy for one so young," she said with a mocking smile.
"Yeah, well, it means a lot to you, too," I said uneasily, "and we're friends, after all."
When I didn't answer, she reached out to stroke my cheek. Her hand curled under my chin and tilted my face up for a brief meeting of lips.
Xena frowned, evidently puzzled by the confusion she could read on my face. "Have my kisses changed that much?"
I felt a flush of warmth cross my cheeks. "I...I...wouldn't know." I needed more air because all of sudden it was difficult to draw breath, but when I tried to take a step backwards, she snaked an arm across my back and held me in place.
She shook her head in disbelief. "Don't tell me we've never even kissed before?"
"Of course n--" I broke off, flustered by the memory of the one time Xena had kissed me, on the day of my wedding to Perdicus. "At least, not like...not...."
"Not like this," she said in a husky voice as she bent down over me once again.
Much later, I whispered back, "No, not like that."
Oh, I had dreamed of being kissed by her, but not even my dreams had prepared me for the hunger raised by the real touch of her lips and tongue. With a shake of my head, I reminded myself that these desires were being used against me by a warlord who could not be trusted. I broke away from the circle of Xena's arms, and this time she did not try to stop me. Instead, she just gave a curious quirk of one eyebrow, and said, "You want this."
"No," I said, but even I could hear the lie in my voice.
With a sly smile, she reached up and slipped her linen shift off of one shoulder, baring a full breast. "You want this," she said once more, and I couldn't trust myself to reply, couldn't even tear my eyes away from the billowing curve of flesh. Her fingers sought out mine. With a grasp so light it seemed ridiculous to fight against it, she guided my hand until it hovered just above the bare breast.
"Go on," she urged in a throaty voice. "Touch me."
I could have resisted my own desire to be touched, but the desire to touch her was beyond temptation. Dry-mouthed, breathless, I brushed my fingertips against the dark aureole of her nipple.
"Oh, yes," she whispered, her eyes closing in a languid motion. She shrugged her shoulders, and the loose shift fell to the ground, baring her entire body. "Do that again."
With increasing boldness, I stroked and caressed her incredibly soft breasts. Xena arched her back, pushing herself against the palms of my hands, and moaned. It was an intoxicating sound, and I longed to draw more such reactions from her. "Xena...I don't know what to do."
"Don't you?" She reached out, threaded her fingers into my hair, and pulled my head down until my lips touched puckered skin. "Start here."
My first kisses were tentative, gentle, until she murmured, "Harder." That one word unleashed my hunger to lick and suckle with abandon, to fill my mouth with the taste of her skin.
When she began to loosen the ties of my clothing, I admitted defeat. I let the warlord disrobe me, even pull off my boots. Whatever this self-indulgence might cost me later, I would just have to pay the price. There were limits to my self-control, and I was well past them now.
"So we've never made love before," murmured Xena as she drew me down onto the blanket by the fire, then stretched out beside me. "But you like what we're doing, don't you?"
I gasped a soft, "Yes," as our bodies nestled against each other, bare skin brushing against bare skin.
"You'll like this, too...."
She bent her head down to my breasts. The warm kiss of her lips was followed by the rasp of her tongue across my nipples. Then a gentle nip of her teeth released a flood of heat that coursed through my limbs, and I groaned a formless plea for something more, something I couldn't even define.
"So eager," she said with a throaty chuckle as her fingers traced lazy patterns across my back. "You'd be even more eager if you knew what I was going to do next."
Xena whispered words into my ear that made me shiver with anticipation. Those shivers deepened when her hands trailed slowly downward to fulfill her promise.
"So why is regaining my memory so important to you?"
"What?" The question caught me by surprise, jolting me with an awareness of danger. My mind groped for clarity, but it was so hard to focus on anything but the hands caressing my inner thighs. "I t-told you...the treasure...."
But she only laughed at my stuttered answer. "I don't believe you," she said as her fingers ruffled across soft hair, then dipped lower, approaching the one place where they were most desired. "You're not interested in wealth, certainly not enough to die for it. No, you were willing to die for *me*." Her voice was husky, melodic, tantalizing. "I can see it in your eyes every time I touch you here...and here..." closer, circling ever closer, "...and here."
"Oh, gods!" Instinct set the driving rhythm of my hips as they rose and fell, seeking a pleasure almost beyond bearing. My hands clenched on Xena's shoulders, groping for an anchor against the storm that raged through me.
"You're in love with me, aren't you?"
"Yes!" I didn't know whether I cried out an answer to her question or simply cried out at the velvet soft touch gliding over the sweetest spot on my body. It didn't matter anymore. Nothing mattered except for the exquisite shudders rippling up from between my legs. There seemed to be no end to the waves that rocked me, gathering more and more strength until they consumed me. And when the sensations finally ebbed away, I was left dazed in the wake of their fiery passage.
The warlord gathered my trembling body into her arms, pulling me close. She nuzzled against the nape of my neck, her warm breath tickling sensitive skin. "What's happened to me over the last few years, Gabrielle?" she asked in a whispering voice. Her hands were wandering again, blazing a new trail of sensation across my skin, promising me another ascent to ecstasy. "Isn't it time you told me the truth?"
"Please, Xena, don't kill him!"
I saw a spark of relief light up the man's eyes. Backed up against a tree, with the point of a sword pressed against his jugular, he still dared hope he would survive this day. Whether he deserved to live was not for me to judge. Despite his large, muscular build, his unshaven face was gaunt and etched with lines of hunger; perhaps desperation had driven him to prey on travelers.
"Is this one of the changes you were talking about?" Xena asked, more curious than indignant. "Letting scum like this live?"
I didn't see her twitch a muscle, but a spot of blood welled up under the sword point and began to trickle down the man's neck. If he hadn't been so terrified of making the slightest movement, I think he would have burst into tears.
"He's not dangerous, just pathetic." Not to mention stupid and inept. He handled his sword like a farmer wielding a pitchfork, yet he had attacked the two of us without a second thought. I might have looked like an easy target as I rooted on the forest floor in search of the plants I needed, but there was no way he could have missed seeing that Xena was a warrior. I guess he thought he was more than a match for a woman; I was trying my best to give him a chance to learn from his mistake. "Just let him go. You won't be sorry."
"I'm not sorry now." But she lifted the sword from the man's throat anyway, and growled, "Get out of here before I change my mind." As she watched the thug flee through the forest, she heaved a sigh of frustration. "I don't see the point."
"Fewer nightmares, for starters," I muttered.
She whirled around, a look of thunderous rage on her face. Then, without warning, she swung her sword in a wide, killing arc.
Diving to the ground, I heard the whistle of the blade as it passed over my head. Wide-eyed, frozen in place, I stared up at her.
"Don't ever..." Her jaw clenched down, cutting off her words. Her eyes blazed and her chest heaved as if from a long run. Finally, when her breathing had slowed, she spoke to me in a low voice still threaded with menace. "You know entirely too much about me."
Not daring to speak, I waited to see if that knowledge warranted a death sentence.
"Finish what you were doing," she said flatly. "I'll meet you back at camp."
Sheathing her sword, she turned and stalked away.
The leaves I had gathered wilted quickly on the warm, flat stones that circled the firepit, but they would not be fully dry and brittle until tomorrow morning. I had already scouted out the wide fissure in the south face of the mountain and confirmed it was the entrance I sought. So now there was nothing left to be done for the rest of the day except wait.
Restless, I rooted in my pack until I found the carefully wrapped bundle I had carried away from the temple. After unwinding layers of cloth, I lifted the oracle's bottle up to the light. The glass was tinted a pale blue that reminded me of the rare color of Xena's eyes when she was calm and at peace. The bottle's rounded base nestled perfectly in the hollow of my hand, and the slender neck rested on my thumb like the head of a sleeping dove.
I fingered the glass stopper that was chained to the rim and marveled that this small bottle would soon hold Xena's lost memories. If all went according to plan, by tomorrow night I would be sitting around this campfire with my friend, laughing and telling stories, and the warrior princess would have returned to her place in the past. It was a familiar and comforting scene to imagine, but would it really be like that? I missed Xena dreadfully and wanted her back at any cost, but after last night....
What would we be to each other when Xena returned? For that matter, what had we been to each other before now?
She loved me, of that I was certain, and there were times I had glimpsed some fire in her love that echoed my own longings. So when Perdicus had asked me to marry him, I said no, and waited for Xena to step forward, to give me some sign that eventually we would begin to explore new territory. But she had remained silent; my hopes faded...and Perdicus offered me his love a second time.
Poor Perdicus, so sweet, so tender. My wedding night had ended with a rolling murmur of pleasure that I had thought would be enough to quench my craving for Xena's touch. But if I'd known then what true desire felt like, if I'd known how fiercely my passion for her could burn, I don't think I could have settled for the gentle gift he offered me.
My bittersweet reflections were interrupted by the warlord's return from bathing in a nearby stream. A blanket was draped carelessly about her shoulders, but it did little to hide her glistening body. She was no less stunning in broad daylight than she had been by the light of our fire last night, and even half-naked she strode through the campsite with all the arrogance and self-confidence of a warrior sheathed in armor.
"Do you have everything you need now?" she asked, with a curious glance at the bottle in my hand.
I set the oracle's gift to one side, then reluctantly said, "Yes."
She laughed at my obvious apprehension. "Relax. I'm not interested in the details, just as long as you know what to do. A good warlord knows when to delegate and when to take matters into her own hands."
Casting aside the cloth she had wrapped around herself, Xena knelt down before me. "And speaking of hands...." She rested the tips of her fingers on my knees and smiled suggestively.
"Why?" I asked curiously. "You've already gotten what you wanted from me."
She shrugged. "It's not as if I didn't enjoy myself too."
"I don't think you did, actually." Pressing the palm of one hand lightly against her chest, I said, "All the time you made love to me I could feel your heart beating slow and steady. You weren't the least bit aroused."
My observation was met with a frown. "You noticed that, did you?"
"Yes, because I wanted to...please...you. And I didn't succeed."
"I was preoccupied," admitted Xena wryly. "Interrogations require a clear mind."
"I see." I lifted my hand to brush back a damp lock of hair from her forehead. This woman didn't recoil from intimacy, I realized, perhaps because these gestures meant nothing to her. Yet the Xena I knew often stiffened under the very same touches....
With a smirk, the warlord said, "Besides, you wouldn't be interested in what *really* pleases me."
"And what would that be?"
She leaned closer to whisper an explanation in my ear, then pulled back to study my face. She seemed almost disappointed by my lack of reaction. If she had been trying to shock me, she hadn't succeeded.
"I may be inexperienced," I said evenly, "but I'm not ignorant. I've heard of that before." Although, I had to admit, none of the erotic poetry I had read included such concrete and vivid detail as her description. "And if that's what you like, I'll do it." I almost laughed out loud at the startled expression that crossed her face. It was the first time I had seen the warlord caught off balance. "So that wasn't a serious request?"
She grinned sheepishly. "No, not really."
My heart skipped a beat at this glimpse of a gentle, teasing Xena. If only I could hold on to her for just a little while longer.... Leaning forward, I whispered my own seductive words in her ear. "You may have been joking, but *I* wasn't."
I heard the soft catch in her breath, so before she could make any excuses, I pushed her shoulders back all the way to the ground. As her long legs stretched out on either side of my body, I realized that what I had just promised was even newer to me than what we had done the night before. I wasn't entirely sure I could bring her pleasure this time either, but there was only one way to find out. So I laid a trail of kisses from between her breasts down across her stomach, then lower still.
"Most people find me intimidating." Her voice was already hoarse with anticipation. "But that doesn't appear to be a problem for you."
"I'm impulsive by nature."
"Lucky for me," she murmured.
I laughed, and the warm touch of my breath parted the way for me.
Pausing for a moment, I inhaled the musky fragrance of Xena's arousal, then lowered myself into a realm that overwhelmed me with unfamiliar sensations. I found textures smoother than the finest silk, and an unexpected sweetness. I found pleasure, enough for the both of us. There could be no lies here, no clever mimicking of passion. Her body cried out its need with clenching muscles and ripening folds of flesh, and as desire took liquid form, her practiced and sensual moans gave way to raw, guttural sounds. Xena's driving pulse beat against my lips, against my tongue. I slowed my pace -- reluctant to end this feast of the senses too soon -- and ignored her awkward, urgent pleas for release. My own body trembled in sympathy, but with ruthless selfishness I held us both in check as long as possible. Finally, when I felt my control begin to shatter, I set her free with one last hungry kiss.
Her cry ripped through me, shaking me with more force than hands, severing the cords that bound me to thought, lifting me so high I touched the flaming skirt of Apollo. This was my true deflowering, the scorching destruction of my innocence. Now I understood why words like 'passion' and 'desire' were invocations of such power that even the gods were moved by them. And I wondered if I could ever speak of love again without shuddering at the memory of this moment.
I was content to lie still, recovering my breath, until I heard a softly uttered, "Gabrielle...."
I raised my head from the soft cushion of Xena's thighs. She was propped up on her elbows, studying me with an expression of somber speculation. In an instant I knew I had given myself away and revealed a depth to my love that unsettled her. I wondered, uneasily, what she would do with this knowledge.
With some self-consciousness, I sat up and began to tug my rumpled clothing back into place.
"What if this scheme doesn't work?" she asked me as she also sat up. She seemed more composed in her nakedness than I did clothed, and although her face was still flushed, her voice was cool and uninflected. "What if we can't restore my memory?"
I shook my head. "We will. The oracle said--"
"But if we can't?" she insisted. "What are you going to do?"
"I'll stay with you," I said quietly.
"As the bard to my army? Or as my whore?"
I flinched, but remained silent.
"Go back to Poteidaia, Gabrielle. That's where--"
"Stop it!" I shouted. "That's not an option. I tried to do that once before. I thought I could get over what I was feeling by going back home, but it just made things worse. Even after my marriage, I still loved you, still wanted..." I broke off. My need was too raw to be spoken of out loud.
"So if your Xena doesn't come back, you'll settle for a murderous warlord?"
"You're not two different people, Xena. Who you are...who you will be...all of that is part of you right now. In time--"
"No!" Her strong hands took hold of my face and forced me to look at her. "Don't kid yourself." The grim line of her mouth twisted into a grimace. "And don't hang around waiting for me to change again. History won't repeat itself on that score."
"Maybe not,"I said reluctantly. "But it doesn't matter, because the oracle's plan *will* work."
Then I reached for her, pulling her body to mine, my lips searching for hers. For whatever reasons of her own, she let me make love to her again.
Slowly, very slowly, I reached for the pouch tied to my belt. Yet, even that measured motion was enough to raise another ominous hiss from the Guardians. There were three of them, three serpentine bodies slung low to the ground and creeping their way toward me on stumpy legs. Even in the dim light of the narrow cavern their iridescent scales glittered like newly polished jewels, and their scimitar-like claws chimed like bells on the flagstone floor.
My hand closed around the soft leather bag and the Guardians hissed louder. Despite their steady advance, I held my ground. A quick pull at the leather ties opened the neck of the pouch and released the pungent smell of burnt leaves into the air. All the plants I had gathered yesterday had been reduced to this small pile of ashes.
"Come on," I urged the monsters. "Come a little closer."
I hefted the weight of the pouch in my palm and tried to judge how much of the powder I could afford to throw at each Guardian without running short. The movement of my arm set off another round of hissing, another creeping advance, and the tinkling sound of gnashing crystalline teeth. I was surprised by the fragrance of their breath: crushed rose-petals and a hint of mint. These were very decorative monsters, although no less deadly for all their beauty.
"I think that's far enough," I said, and flung the first handful of ashes at the nearest Guardian. There was no time to watch its effect. The remaining two creatures immediately lunged toward me, and I scrambled to dodge their gaping mouths without moving too far away. I couldn't afford to miss. I threw out a second cloud of ashes, then a third...and watched as the trio of Guardians swayed in place, then sank to their bellies. Their faceted eyes grew dull with sleep, then closed.
I breathed a sigh of relief. The pouch in my hand was empty; the ashes were completely scattered. There had been just enough--
A soft sneeze exploded behind me.
Four Guardians? Horrified at my miscalculation, I whirled around to face the monster unarmed....
"I got tired of waiting," said the warlord gruffly. Her right hand was curled around her chakram; her left gripped my staff. She glanced over the sleeping Guardians and smiled ruefully. "Nice work."
She tossed me the staff, then clipped her chakram back onto her belt. "Now what?"
"Just follow me," I said and led her to the fountain tucked in the far end of the cavern. The delicate sound of falling water was music to my ears. I had followed the oracle's directions faithfully, and every step of our journey had matched her description, which meant we were only minutes away from completing our quest.
A stone spout had been set into the back wall of the cavern, and water from some subterranean stream trickled out of the spout and was collected in a semi-circular pool below. The containing wall was unadorned and constructed of the same ancient brickwork as the Well of Sighs. Setting aside my staff, I pulled out the oracle's bottle and dipped it in the pool. It filled in an instant, and I carefully wiped away the excess water beading on the outside of the glass.
"So I drink this and get my memory back?" said Xena with obvious skepticism. "Just like that?"
"Uh, not quite," I admitted. "According to the oracle, the water has to be mixed with a few drops of your blood."
"I might have known," she said with disgust. She pulled out her breast dagger and held the point up to the tip of one finger. Taking a deep breath, she winced in anticipation of the cut, then froze.
"I hate this," muttered Xena. She stared fixedly at the sacrificial finger.
"Xena, you've got scars from a dozen battle wounds, but you can't nick your own finger?"
She scowled fiercely, but still didn't pierce her skin. "That's different. When I'm in the middle of a fight I don't feel a thing. This is so...premeditated."
She snorted. "Yeah, well, that's easy for you to say. Why don't we use *your* blood instead?"
"Not a good idea,"I said. "You'll wind up with memories I haven't even--" I broke off, alarmed by my inadvertent revelation of the oracle's stern warning.
"Let's get this over with." Xena jabbed the knifepoint home and grunted at the sight of spurting blood. "There, that should do the job. Hurry up before I bleed to death."
With a relieved laugh, I said, "Call me an optimist, but I think you'll live." Stepping closer, I lifted the bottle to catch the drops of blood dancing on the end of her finger...
...and the warlord's other hand clamped onto my wrist with a crushing grip. Crying out at the sudden pain, I watched in horror as my numbed fingers loosened. With lightning fast reflexes, Xena pushed me aside and caught the falling bottle. Only a few drops of liquid spilled out before she pushed the stopper back into place.
She grinned at the untainted water in her hand. "Memories not yet gathered, eh? Just think, Gabrielle, this little bottle holds three years of the future...for someone."
"That someone is you," I said.
She flicked her tongue over the cut on her finger, then chuckled. "Did you really think I would follow through with this plan? What kind of a fool do you take me for? I suspected this water was worth far too much to waste on reclaiming my memories. Now I know I can charge a king's ransom in gold for the knowledge it brings. And gold will buy me an army."
"No, Xena!" I swept up my staff and dashed to block her way out of the cavern. Facing her I declared, "What you're planning is wrong. And someday you would hate yourself for becoming a warlord again. So you can't leave here before you drink from that bottle."
"Who's going to stop me?" she asked with a raised brow. "You?"
Despite my dry throat, I managed to say, "Yes."
"Don't make me kill you, Gabrielle," she said with an exasperated sigh. "I've grown rather fond of you."
My hands clenched reflexively on my staff. With effort, I relaxed my grip and brought my mind into focus. I would need every ounce of strength and all my concentration to last even a few rounds against her. "I'm not letting you out of here."
"How annoying." Her eyes glittered like polished stones as she drew her sword out of its scabbard. Since the blade was long and heavy, she usually wielded the weapon with two hands for maximum control. But even fighting one-handed, with the bottle locked in her left fist, she could make short work of this battle.
Her first few swings were slow and easily blocked, a deliberate ploy to dull my reaction time by forcing me to adjust to a leisurely pace. I broke into a cold sweat as I waited for the inevitable escalation to real combat.
When it finally came, her attack was so swift and furious that my teeth rattled from the collision of staff and blade. Yet Xena was still toying with me because she could easily have side-stepped my defense and delivered a fatal blow. Instead, she had aimed for the center of the staff, hitting it with the flat side of her blade rather than the cutting edge. But just in case I was tempted to underestimate the deadly nature of our game, she nicked my upper arm as we disengaged.
Her next tactic was a dancing pattern of thrusts and feints that led me to trip over my own feet, sending me sprawling to the ground. The slap of her blade to my backside added a further indignity to my fall, and derisive laughter rang in my ears as I scrambled back to a fighting stance.
Over and over again I was cut and bruised, tripped and thrown, but I still struggled to deflect each of Xena's sword blows.
"Aren't you tired of this yet?" she asked as once again her blade glanced off the polished Amazon wood.
I shook my head, too winded to waste breath talking.
"Well, I am." Stepping back out of the staff's reach, she cocked her left hand, then tossed the bottle high up into the air. "Oops," she said softly.
"No!!" Dropping my weapon, I launched myself upward. My outstretched hands caught the fragile vessel and wrapped around it, safely absorbing the shock of my body dropping back to the ground. But the leap had left me exposed to attack. Too late, I saw Xena's boot lashing out and felt a blow to my midsection that lifted me off my feet and slammed me against the cavern wall. I was so stunned by the impact that I couldn't breathe. Helpless, paralyzed, I slid down to the ground in a crumpled heap.
Too dazed to move, I could only stare as Xena strolled toward me, sword swinging back and forth in a deadly arc.
I had always wanted to face death with courage, but I couldn't help myself. I shut my eyes when I heard the high whistle of the sword's approach.
It should have been the last sound I heard, but time stretched onward and I was still alive, still gasping for breath. I opened my eyes. The point of a gleaming blade hovered just inches in front of my nose. It was mesmerizing, like the head of a viper poised just before striking. I forced myself to look up, along the full length of the sword, to the face of the warrior who wielded it.
The edges of Xena's mouth were curving upward, but there was no comfort in her amusement. It was the cold, calculating smile of a predator playing with its prey. Her blue eyes were chips of flint, devoid of compassion.
Then, as if on a whim, she whisked the blade up over her head and drove it into the sheath strapped to her back. She squatted down, a contemptuous sneer on her face. "Nice catch, Gabrielle." She plucked the bottle from my weakened grasp, then leaned forward and kissed me lightly on the lips. "Thanks."
I tried to shake off my stupor as she rose to her feet and walked away. All I could manage was a whispered, "Xena...don't...."
With an incredulous laugh, she turned back and said, "You never give up, do you?"
"Not me...you." I drew a shuddering gasp. "You've never given up...never been...afraid of the truth...never been a coward."
"Coward?" Her lips curled into a snarl. "Watch your mouth, Bard, or I'll gut you after all."
"I don't believe you...You don't want to kill me." I managed to push myself up to a sitting position. I couldn't possibly stand on my feet yet, but at least my voice was stronger. "And you don't want to be a warlord anymore."
She stiffened in place.
"It wasn't just Hercules who convinced you to reform," I said with gathering confidence. "You already had doubts about who you were and what you were doing. You were on the verge of facing the truth about yourself. Well, that's what you hold in your hand right now -- the truth. And if you were brave enough to deal with it before, you can do it again. Drink the potion, Xena."
Her fingers tightened around the glass, as if to crush it. "I'm a warrior, Gabrielle. If I swallow this poison that warrior dies and a stranger will take my place."
"It's not poison," I said. "It's your salvation."
She fell silent, but her grip on the bottle did not loosen. When she finally spoke, her voice was low and mocking. "And why are you so eager to embrace my truth, Gabrielle? Will truth keep you warm at night? Will truth runs its fingers over your skin and through your hair?"
"What do you mean?" I asked, as apprehension shivered up my spine.
"Think, Gabrielle. This noble Xena you want back never even kissed you, did she?" She lifted the bottle above her head. "What truth is in here that kept her from wrapping her arms around you and pulling you to her breast? If I drink this water, I'll remember why I've never made love to you..."
Her words cut through me like a knife.
"...and I may choose never to make love to you again."
The knife twisted inside me.
"Is that what you want, Gabrielle?" the voice demanded, "a return to simple friendship without the touch of my hand on--"
"No!" I cried out. "No...this isn't about me..." Those words had been Xena's, uttered on the brink of death, a reminder of the greater good. Taking a deep breath, I repeated, "Drink the potion, Xena."
She flinched, and the muscles of her long body tensed as if for battle. "You can't force me to do this."
"No, I can't." I made no move to wipe away the tears coursing down my cheeks. "You have to trust me that it's the right thing to do. That it's what *you* would want to do."
Her face twisted with a pain that mirrored my own. Her fist clenched, and I heard the sharp crack of breaking glass. Lifting her face up, she caught the rain of blood-stained liquid on her tongue. Then, when the last drop had fallen, she lowered her arm and dusted the shards of glass from her bleeding palm.
"Who would have imagined I'd be defeated..." she faltered, began to sway on her feet, "...by a bard."
"Xena!" I scrambled to my feet in time to catch her when she pitched forward. The weight of her body filled my arms and forced me down to my knees. I could feel spasms racking her limbs, then her head fell back in the crook of my arm. Blue eyes fluttered shut.
"Xena? Xena?" I called out to her over and over again as I clutched her body, pleading with her to return to consciousness.
From behind me I heard the low hiss of a Guardian rousing from its sleep.....
I reined Argo to a halt, calming her nervous stamping with a reassuring pat and a murmured endearment. The clearing looked just like Gabrielle had described it, if a little bleaker this overcast autumn morning than it would have been several weeks before.
"Thank the gods," said Gabrielle as she scanned the dusty ground for tracks. "Nobody else seems to have been through here since we left."
Jumping down from Argo's back, I knelt by the side of the well. My hands sifted through the crumbled pieces of a rotting well cover.
"So, do you remember any of this?" asked Gabrielle softly.
I held my breath, stilled my mind, and waited....
"No," I said at last, and rose to my feet. "The last thing I remember clearly was the two of us entering this valley. After that..." After that, a wrenching sense of disorientation as I fought my way to consciousness and found myself wrapped in Gabrielle's arms. There had been a look of such incredible grief and despair on her face that my first thought was to comfort her...but there hadn't been time for that luxury.
"Let's get to work," Gabrielle said, breaking into my reverie with uncharacteristic briskness. "I don't want to stay here any longer than we have to."
We set about our task without further discussion. Pulling out the tools and boards that had been lashed to Argo's saddle, I began to hammer together a new well cover while Gabrielle chipped away at the worn inscription on the ancient stonework.
As we worked in companionable silence, I reflected on our return journey to this hidden valley and my own increasingly unsettled reactions to my companion. Perhaps it was my "absence" that had made me see Gabrielle in a new light upon recovering my memory...or perhaps the events of my forgotten week had changed her. Either way, the differences were subtle, difficult to describe. She seemed to walk with a hint of new grace, as if the lingering traces of adolescent clumsiness had finally dropped away from her body. Her delight in the world was as strong as always -- it sparkled in her blue-green eyes -- yet she talked about it less. In ways too varied to categorize, her manner was a shade more controlled and self-assured than when we had first entered this valley. Somehow, over the course of a handful of days, Gabrielle had flowered into full maturity. Before, she had been pretty; now, to my consternation, she verged on being beautiful. And yet she herself seemed unaware of the changes, or was reluctant to act upon them.
In the tavern where we had stopped the night before, the tavernkeeper's son had shyly approached our supper table and engaged Gabrielle in conversation. I had made a conscious effort to repress my scowl, sternly reminding myself that I had no right to resent his presence. In fact, I grudgingly recognized that he was an appealing young man -- if you liked that type -- which Gabrielle certainly had up until then. But that evening she had been polite, even kind, yet resolutely unresponsive to his mild flirtations. And afterwards....
"Are you sure you wouldn't like to go?" I said.
"Go where?" asked Gabrielle with a look of puzzlement, as she thrust her spoon into a bowl of apricot pudding.
"To the festival dance. The dance you were just invited to by that young man." The one who had looked like a lovesick puppy by the time he had excused himself from our table.
"Oh, that." Gabrielle shrugged. "I didn't think you liked festival dances."
"*I* don't, but he didn't ask *me*. So why don't you go have a good time. You've earned it after what I put you through this week."
"Would you stop looking so grim," she scolded. "I've told you over and over again that you didn't hurt me."
"Right." My eyes automatically skimmed over the healing cuts and fading bruises on her arms.
Heaving an exaggerated sigh of exasperation, she said, "Look, I challenged a warlord to a fight, which was pretty reckless, even for me. But I've gotten just as bruised from some of our practice sessions."
With effort, I kept my voice level when I replied, "I could have killed you."
"Yes, you could have," she said gently, "but you didn't. You *chose* not to. And you even let me talk you into drinking the potion." There was a hint of laughter in her voice when she added, "Which proves that even a warlord is no match for a bard."
"Thank the gods for that," I said with an answering smile, then returned to the topic Gabrielle was so adroitly avoiding. "If I remember correctly, just last month you were dying for an invitation to a dance."
Another shrug from my young companion. "Last month I was...curious."
"And this month?"
"This month I'm...not," she said casually.
Too casually, I decided uneasily.
With a radiant smile born of sudden inspiration, she said, "Let's go for a walk through town instead."
Gabrielle licked the last dollop of pudding off her spoon with a leisurely curl of her tongue, a gesture that was altogether too distracting for comfort's sake, and I spent the rest of the evening resolutely averting my gaze from the one sight that pleased me most: her face.
As if we were attuned to each other's motions, Gabrielle cleared the last incision of moss and grime from the rim of the well just as I drove home the last iron peg on the new cover.
"What does it say?" I asked curiously, as I studied the freshly cut letters. The language was not one I recognized.
Gabrielle's fingers traced over the phrase as she read aloud, "Ye who would lose your sorrows, drink from this well." Leaning over the edge, she peered into the darkness below. "Considering the dire consequences, that's not much of a warning for thirsty travelers. Leave it to the ancients to perfect the art of understatement."
"All the more reason for us to be here," I said, hefting the new cover up to the lip of the stonework. I positioned the wooden disk over the opening, then hammered the cover down in place until it was fitted so tightly that only an axe blow could remove it. "There, that's the best I can do." However, as I gathered up our tools I noticed that she was still staring at the newly capped well. "What's wrong?"
"It won't last forever."
"Nothing ever does," I said with a shrug.
"No, I guess not."
Hearing an unexpected note of sorrow in her voice, I reached out, touching her shoulder, and felt the sudden knotting of muscles beneath my hand. This tension was also new. Pulling my hand away, I said, "Gabrielle, you *have* told me everything that happened...haven't you?"
She turned to face me, and the pause before she spoke foreshadowed her answer.
"No," she said. "I haven't."
A tendril of dread curled around my throat, threatening to choke me. "Why not?"
She drew a deep breath, as if gathering her courage. "Because I knew it would change things between us."
"It already has."
"Yes, I guess so," she said thoughtfully. "I thought perhaps, since you didn't remember...but I guess there's no going back...because *I* remember."
"Tell me what happened." I steeled myself for a new revelation of violence, and a new burden of guilt. I was completely unprepared for what I heard instead.
"You kissed me."
"I what?" I struggled to make sense of this matter-of-fact statement, searching Gabrielle's face for some clue to her emotions. I read an expression of guarded amusement...plus a hint of something deeper that would not show itself.
She continued. "You wanted information from me, and you seemed to think that kissing was an effective interrogation technique."
With a strangled laugh, I said, "It can be...under the right circumstances."
Gabrielle looked me straight in the eye. "Well, it certainly worked with me."
My world turned upside down.
Fighting to regain my equilibrium, I tried to match her bantering tone. "One kiss and you talked?"
"Oh, I'm made of sterner stuff than that." Her gaze did not waver. "It took more than one."
A sudden flush of heat set my cheeks on fire. Resolutely ignoring my body's betrayal, I said, "Just what kind of information was I after?"
"I'm not sure I want to answer that question."
I almost missed my cue, but when I did catch her meaning, I still hesitated. My life had been tarnished enough by self-indulgence, and I had vowed to shield Gabrielle from that part of myself, but the rising impatience in her green eyes weakened my resolve. How much harm could there be in this one small intimacy? Even so, I only allowed myself a fleeting brush of lips. "Are you ready to talk now?"
"No," she said with an obstinate frown. "I'm afraid you've seriously underestimated my resistance."
*More than one kiss.... *
Giving in to temptation, I grasped Gabrielle ever so lightly by her slender waist, drew her closer, then bent down again. This time our kiss was thorough and searching...and lasted far longer than I had intended. Above all else, I had always feared that Gabrielle's hero worship made her too vulnerable to my demands, and that if I ever approached her, she would submit to desires that weren't of her own making. But there was no way I could mistake her knowing response for naive submission; it was her lips, her tongue, that were leading this dance.
When we finally pulled apart, she lightly pressed her fingers against the base of my neck. "I can feel your heart beating..." she smiled as if to herself, "...very fast."
Then, stepping out of the loosening circle of my arms, she said, "We'd better get back on the road. The sooner we get out of this valley, the sooner we can make camp and continue this interrogation."
"Continue..." I stared at her as I absorbed the implications of her statement. Swallowing hard, I asked, "Gabrielle, just how far did I...did we...." Words failed me.
With a teasing glint in her eye, she said, "You can be very persuasive, but I can be very stubborn. It made for an interesting combination."
And by nightfall I learned just how well Gabrielle herself had mastered the art of understatement. [Comments can be sent to Ella Quince care of: email@example.com ]
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