Disclaimer: The characters Xena and Gabrielle are property of Universal MCA. This story was not meant to infringe on any copyrights. This is a love story between women. It contains adult themes and nudity along with some light bondage. And the violence in this one is equivalent to a standard season episode.

If you are under the age of 18 go no further, this story was not meant for you.

Synopsis: Ares is up to his usual tricks as he successfully pulls Xena over into the dark side. It’s up to Gabrielle to take matters into her own hands and devise a plan to pull Xena back and destroy the dark power that controls her best friend.


The Dark Sword

By Allyson Heisey

March 1998

Chapter 1

Ares smiled with satisfaction as he held the newly made sword up against the blazing light of the forge. The blade shimmered and the black jewel in its hilt glittered darkly. He gazed proudly up and down its guilded length admiring its beauty. For my chosen one, he thought to himself with pride.

An irritated voice spoke from a female form that materialized behind him, "Ares, what is it now?"

"Ah, Artemis, so good of you to come." Ares replied cheerfully as he turned to greet his sister. The sword was held upright in both of his hands.

Artemis narrowed her eyes at the sword and approached the God of War.

"Beautiful isn’t it? I’ll wager you’d like to see Xena with this sword." Ares moistened his lips and his eyes roamed up and down its edges as he turned the blade in the amber light of the forge’s fire.

"Ares, if you want to give it to Xena, then just give it to her. Now, why did you call me here?" Artemis said with annoyance.

"My dear sister, you are so impatient these days." Ares scolded her good naturedly and sighed. "Oh, very well." He stretched out his arm and they winked out and then appeared on the top of a grassy knoll. A gentle wind blew in the air caressing the soft raven locks of his hair and Artemis’s long golden tresses. The tall grasses around them bent softly like waves in the ocean. The leaves in the trees in the forest behind them whispered and the animals scurried quietly in the underbrush. The sound of the wind was all one heard except for the occasional loud call from birds flying overhead. Below them Gabrielle and Xena were swimming together at the edge of a lake. They watched as Xena gathered Gabrielle into her arms and then kissed her.

"Pathetic." Ares grimaced with distaste.

"What’s the matter Ares, does the sight of two women who love each other distress you so?" Artemis couldn’t help but smile as she delivered the barb.

Scowling Ares said, "That woman will be mine. She is the ultimate warrior. The darkness lives within her. The other one, the blonde, she’s cute, but she irritates me and she’s smarter than she looks. She controls Xena, keeps her grounded, and she is constantly plucking Xena from my grasp." Ares brought up his hand and closed it into a fist for emphasis.

"Ares, is there a point to all of this? Besides, I thought you had given up on her." Artemis placed her hands on her hips and frowned up at the storm cloud that was her brother.

"No. I decided to try again. Oh yes, you see, I...am going to give this sword to Xena. And I...want to you to watch as your Amazon Queen dies by Xena’s hand." Ares declared as he lowered the sword before him, pointing it directly at Artemis.

"You can’t be serious! Why would Xena want to kill Gabrielle?" Artemis said in disbelief.

"Watch and see." Ares smiled wickedly and winked out leaving a very disturbed Artemis behind.

Artemis frowned and bit her lip as she watched the two women swimming and lounging in the clear sparkling waters of the lake.


"Okay, Xena, where are you?" Gabrielle muttered as she scanned the surface of the water around her looking for the slightest ripple or the smallest bubble that would give her a clue as to Xena’s whereabouts underneath.

"Yikes!" She exclaimed, startled by a feather light touch behind her knees. Xena popped up behind her and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle’s waist. Xena hoisted Gabrielle into the air and then let her fall back into the water. Smiling, Xena waited expectantly for Gabrielle to pop back up sputtering. A minute went by and still no sign of a sputtering Gabrielle. A light frown of concern appeared on Xena’s face as her eyes scanned the surface of the water anxiously. She moved forward but was suddenly grappled around the ankles. Off balance Xena fell forward face first into the water. As Xena went under, Gabrielle exploded from the water gasping for air. Xena slowly re-surfaced and approached Gabrielle who was grinning from ear to ear.

"That was pretty good. I didn’t expect that." Xena said and her face broke into a warm smile.

Taking Gabrielle’s hands in her own she wrapped them around her supple waist. Leaning forward she kissed Gabrielle softly on the lips and pulled the smaller body into hers. The contact with each other’s cool wet skin was tantalizing. Their kisses became deeper, longer, passionate. Xena walked backwards towards the shore pulling Gabrielle along. Gabrielle broke the kiss and taking Xena’s hand she led Xena up to their small campsite under the shade of some very large oaks and pines. Argo whinnied softly in acknowledgment of their return. They stood entwined together on their soft hand woven blankets where they continued to kiss and explore as the trees whispered around them.

Artemis exhaled sharply when she realized that she was holding her breath while watching the two women express their desire and their love for each other. She then smiled fondly at them and winked out.


Chapter 2

"Are we all set?" Xena asked as she settled their saddle bags behind the saddle.

"Yep. Where to?" Gabrielle queried shading her eyes from the sun’s glare.

"I don’t know. Let’s continue on this road for a while." Xena answered and squinted down the winding dirt road.

"Okay." Gabrielle yawned and picked up her staff wishing that their nap would have been just a little bit longer.

Xena mounted Argo and Gabrielle stepped up and walked alongside the tall war-horse. Xena glanced down at her companion and smiled. Sighing contentedly she returned her gaze to the road ahead. She scanned the short trees that lined the road and listened to the small animals scurrying in the underbrush. She let the light breeze caress her warm skin and appreciated its fresh earthy smell.

"Ow!" Xena exclaimed in surprise. She looked down at a grinning bard. Gabrielle had hit her on the leg.

"Punch bird!" Gabrielle declared, pointing to a blue bird perched on a branch ahead of them.

"Hmm." Xena displayed a mock scowl.

"Hey!" It was Gabrielle’s turn to look surprised. She looked up at Xena who had hit her on the arm with her foot. Xena pointed up into a tall elm.

"Punch bird!" She said smiling smugly.

Gabrielle squinted into the tree and way up high as so she could barely make out, was a blue bird.

"Humph." Gabrielle scowled.

"So, what’s the score?" Xena asked innocently.

Gabrielle glared up at her. It was a slight shift in the breeze and an acrid odor that alerted Xena. She brought Argo to a halt and looked around frowning deeply.

"What is it, Xena?" Gabrielle asked.

"Ares." Xena said with distaste. Scowling darkly she dismounted Argo and brought forth her sword. She scanned the immediate area around them trying to discern Ares location.

Above them, high on a ledge, Ares stood gazing down at them. He was smiling wickedly and then with one final glance at the sword he casually tossed it down. Xena turned sharply as she heard the air whistle slightly with the swords descent. She watched as it fell and landed point first into the moist earth. The air crackled and sizzled about them after the blade pierced the earth. The ground shook and rumbled sending up clouds of dust. A crack appeared where the blade had penetrated the ground and then it snaked outwards to where Gabrielle was standing. She watched in horror as it approached and widened. And it kept on widening. The chasm widened to about ten feet and was about twenty feet long. She tried to move away from it but with the ground rumbling she was unable to keep her balance. Xena was struggling to hold on to Argo’s reins as the horse reared in terror. As quickly as it came it was over. The tremors quieted down but Gabrielle was precariously close to the edge of the newly created chasm. She tried to shift her weight forward away from the yawning cavity but lost her balance and fell backwards into it sliding down the side.

"Xena!" She cried out as the fingers of her right hand snagged in a crack and held on.

Gabrielle’s feet scrambled to find a purchase against the rocky wall as her left hand searched around for a suitable hand hold. She could feel her right hand cramping in the attempt to keep her fingers wedged in the narrow crack. Loose rocks and pebbles bounced and rebounded past her. She looked up and waited for the familiar face of her friend. She was not disappointed, Xena’s concerned face peered down.

"Gabrielle, hang on!"

Xena rushed from the edge of the chasm to her sturdy buff mare. Snatching her whip from the saddle horn she ran back and unfurled the long leather thong down to her friend. Gabrielle grasped the tail and swiveled her wrist so that the leather was wrapped securely around it. Turning, Xena moved her end of the whip over her shoulder and dragged herself forward using her strength to pull Gabrielle. When she reached Argo she tied the leather strap around the saddle horn and instructed Argo to back up. She ran back to the edge and grasped Gabrielle’s arms and pulled her up to safety.

Peering down into the chasm a glimmer of light caught Xena’s attention. She glanced over and saw a pommel of a sword protruding from a pile of rubble just below them. Gabrielle followed Xena’s line of sight as she rubbed the circulation back into her wrist.

"What is that?" Gabrielle breathed.

Xena reached down and wrapped her hand around the pommel. She felt a slight tingle and a rush of energy surged through her as she pulled out the sword. The sword was plain in design except for a black jewel in its hilt and carved runes ran the length of the blade. Holding it up she examined it, turning it from one side to the other, the sunlight winking up and down the blade.

Gabrielle watched Xena admire the blade and a chill ran down her spine. Xena’s face was void of expression. Gabrielle got up and backed away involuntarily and she shivered as she felt another chill.

"I knew she wouldn’t be able to resist it." Ares said in triumph from his vantage point on the ledge. Stepping back into the shadows, he winked out.

Xena broke her gaze from the blade and looked around, her brows drawing together. She shifted her shoulders and tried to assimilate what had just happened.

"What is it?" Gabrielle asked when she noticed the look of confusion on Xena’s face.

"I don’t know." Xena lied. She didn’t know why it was necessary for her to lie. She knew it was Ares’s presence that she detected. And she knew that the sword was a dark gift from Ares and she should discard it, but for some reason couldn’t and it shouldn’t make a difference whether Gabrielle knew this or not. Shrugging mentally she walked over to Argo and slid the sword into the spare scabbard hanging on the side of the saddle.

Gabrielle dusted herself off and picked up her fallen staff. Xena walked back to Gabrielle and placed a hand on her shoulder. Gabrielle looked up and thought she saw Xena’s eyes flicker.

"Are you all right?" Xena asked.

"Yeah. My shoulder hurts a little though." Gabrielle rotated her shoulder and winced.

"Here, let me take a look at it." Xena said soothingly and turned Gabrielle around.

"It’s fine, really." Gabrielle insisted as Xena worked a hand under the soft material of Gabrielle’s top and stroked her shoulder blade. With her thumb she worked out a kink.

"There. How’s that?"

"Hmm. Better. Thanks." Gabrielle shifted her shoulder experimentally.

Xena smiled and gave Gabrielle a soft kiss. Gabrielle’s eyes closed when she felt Xena’s body press into her. Her heart skipped a beat when she felt the fingertips of Xena’s fingers brush lightly against the back of her arms and along her back. When they pulled back, Gabrielle looked up int soft baby blue eyes. She smiled at the intensity of Xena’s gaze. A gaze that conveyed her love for Gabrielle.

Xena felt the intensity of her feelings and she knew Gabrielle could see it in her eyes. Everytime this happened, Xena could feel her fear. Fear of loving, needing, wanting. She was afraid of being in love! A fearless ex-warlord was afraid of love! She laughed at herself. She was afraid of loving this beautiful woman who stood before her. She chuckled at the irony. Then for some unknown reason her face twitched and she felt strange.

Gabrielle saw the twitch and the flicker in Xena’s eyes. "Are you all right?" she asked.

Xena blinked and said, "Yes, I’m fine."

She smiled at Gabrielle and then walked over to Argo. Settling herself into the saddle she looked around once again and furrowed her eyebrows in thought.

"That was some quake. I don’t recall any happening in this area before." Gabrielle mused out loud.

"Yes, it was rather strange." Xena agreed.

"Strange? What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked with a puzzled look on her face.

"This area has never had a quake. If you look closely it was only in this small area." Xena pointed out.

They both turned and looked at the large hole in the ground.


Chapter 3

The duo continued on the path and came within sight of a small village. Xena was quiet, content to let Gabrielle do the talking. She was restless, something wasn’t quite right and she shivered lightly. Rotating her shoulders she concentrated on control and tried to figure out what was happening to her. Several times she caught herself unconsciously stroking the hilt of the sword that hung from her saddle horn. Gabrielle practiced orating one of her new stories as they continued to travel along. At one point when she looked up she could have sworn she saw Xena’s face and shoulder twitch.

Gabrielle mulled several questions over in her mind. It was a quake that came out of nowhere. Why? Is Ares behind this? And that sword, where did it come from? Ares again? She looked over at the sword that was nestled in the protective sheath against

Xena’s saddle. There’s something about that sword, she thought. Just looking at it made her uneasy. She looked up at Xena, who sat straight in the saddle and was deeply focused on the village ahead. She seems a little different, Gabrielle thought. But how? She just couldn’t put her finger on it.

Gabrielle’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of chaotic activity coming from the village. They passed women who were crying and weeping openly. Some were supported by a family member or friend as a wagon carrying their dead or wounded loved ones passed by. Gabrielle and Xena looked at one another with concern and continued on through the village. They stopped before a healers hut where most of the activity seemed to be taking place. Spotting the healer, Xena made her way to him.

He was a tall, young man with a head full of thick curly red locks. He was rinsing his hands in a large basin that was tinged pink with blood. As he moved to the next injured person he looked up at Xena. He stared at the dark raven beauty standing before him for a moment and then quickly snapped his mouth shut when he realized that he was gawking at her. Xena smiled at him noting his discomfiture.

"What happened?" She asked.

The healer tore his gaze away from the intoxicating sight of this female warrior and bent over a leg that was badly cut. Pulling out his needle and thread he began sewing it shut.

"The warlord Mecossa razed this village and several others nearby. What you see is what is left of us. Except for our militia. They arrived too late." He answered as the needle moved expertly in and out of the skin and closing the wound.

"Who’s the leader of your militia?" Xena inquired watching him work and dabbing at the wound with a sponge she had just picked up.

"Verton. He’s over there." The healer indicated with his head. "But, he’s not doing well." He lifted his gaze to hers, the meaning clear. Xena nodded in understanding. Xena placed her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder and looked over at her companion.

"Gabrielle, could you help him while I go talk to Verton?"

"Sure." Gabrielle replied as she picked up the sponge in Xena’s hand. She watched Xena move away and make her way to the soldier that the healer indicated. He lay on a narrow cot and was surrounded by his loyal officers. At a glance Xena could see that his wound was a mortal one.

"Xena." He whispered. Xena hid her surprise at his sudden recognition of her. At his gesture she tilted her head and leaned closer to his mouth so she could hear his fading words.

"You must...lead them. We...cannot...lose." He exhaled slowly, his body slumped and his eyes drifted shut. Xena reached out and pressed her fingers against his neck checking for a pulse. Finding none she placed his hands across his chest and lifted the blanket over his body. She stepped back and turned to look at his officers who were looking dejectedly at the shrouded body of their leader.

"I’m sorry." Xena said with a tinge of regret in her voice. "Look, I don’t know exactly what is happening here, except for the fact that a warlord named Mecossa is responsible for this." She shuddered and gritted her teeth as something cold and dark seemed to descend upon her.

"Yes, not only is he vicious, but he’s smart too." A young sandy haired man spoke up. He was powerfully built and stood slightly apart from the rest of the men. He gazed cautiously at Xena. He knew of her reputation as a vicious warlord. She was not at all what he expected, however he sensed that a part of her vicious temperament still lurked within her and was being tightly controlled.

"What’s your name?" Xena asked. Her voice took on a slightly hard edge under his scrutiny.

"Zargon. I’m Verton’s lieutenant." He paused briefly then continued, "Will you help us? We must defeat Mecossa or he’ll continue to raid this village. The people here don’t have much left."

Xena glanced briefly at the other men and ground her teeth from the battle that she was raging with her conscious. The darkness that was invading her thoughts was becoming stronger. Ignoring the warnings from her conscious she brought her gaze back to Zargon and said through clenched teeth, "Yes." He blinked in the cold glare and shifted his gaze to a spot on her forehead. Smart man, Xena thought when she noticed him shift his gaze. He’s not easily intimidated and seems trustworthy. I think I’ll keep him by my side. For now, she calculated coldly.

"Is there a place my friend and I can stay?" She asked him, her tone softening slightly. Xena clenched her hands into fists at her side trying to control the darkness that was spreading through her. She knew she would eventually lose this battle, just as she knew that Ares and the dark sword were responsible for the changes occurring within her. She wanted this, she wanted to lead an army. She wanted to spill blood. And yet she knew that this would destroy her. She wanted to talk to Gabrielle, tell her what was happening, but she couldn’t. It was too late, the power of the dark sword almost controlled her now. She couldn’t find the strength to act against it.

She glanced over at Gabrielle and their gazes met. Gabrielle saw coldness in Xena’s eyes and her stomach clenched.

When Xena looked at Gabrielle, she saw compassion, and she saw love. This warmth chased away some of the chill in Xena’s eyes. She turned her attention back to Zargon.

"Yes, you can stay at my uncle Sal’s inn. He keeps it clean and respectable and he’s also a good cook. I can take you there later. Come, let me introduce you to the troops." Zargon bade Xena to follow him. Gabrielle frowned when the soldier and Xena walk past her and out of the hut.


Chapter 4

Gabrielle and Xena settled comfortably at Zargon’s uncles inn. It was called The Wooden Barrel. Inside the tables and seats were constructed from wooden barrels and was well lit by several candelabras. Even the bar area was constructed from wooden barrels. A cozy and warm fireplace gave a cheerful ambiance to the tavern. The rooms were clean and the food was good. Zargon’s uncle cooked every meal that he served much to Gabrielle’s delight.

Over the next several days Xena organized Verton’s militia in preparation for another one of Mecossa’s raids which everyone knew would happen again soon. Gabrielle noticed that something was different about Xena. At first the distance between them didn’t bother her. Sometimes Xena needed her space and Gabrielle understood that. But this time it felt different. Gradually the distance widened and Gabrielle grew concerned. Whenever she tried to approach the subject, Xena would conveniently find something to do, or somewhere to go. This evening Gabrielle decided to take a stroll to where Xena’s troops were practicing their drills. She stood on the hill and looked down at the forms grunting and writhing with effort. She found Xena almost instantly. Xena sat upon Argo surveying the men and occasionally she would lean over and talk to Zargon. Zargon would then yell out instructions to which Gabrielle couldn’t understand.

Gabrielle thought back over the events of the day. Today was when she knew that something was terribly wrong with Xena. Earlier in the morning she saw Xena order the men to split up into groups for drill practice. Several of the men refused to join in with the soldiers in the drills. They complained that Xena was driving them too hard and because she was no longer a warlord she had gone soft and that’s why she was always on her horse. Xena calmly dismounted Argo and strode up to them. She brought out her sword and stood silently. The men grinned thinking that they just came upon their good fortune. They didn’t live to collect on it. Gabrielle shuddered at the memory. She remembered the argument they had this morning about the incident.

"Why did you do that?" Gabrielle rounded on Xena.

"Do what? Kill them?" Xena snapped.

"Yes!" Gabrielle snapped back.

"They were cowards, and they would have betrayed me." Xena explained through clenched teeth.

"But you didn’t have to kill them!" Gabrielle said angrily.

"Gabrielle, this is about war! People die." Xena shouted. Xena rounded on Gabrielle as if to grab a hold of her, but Gabrielle deftly stepped back out of range. She checked her anger and took a deep breath.

"War! What war? Xena, there is no war! What’s happening to you?" Gabrielle reached out and clasped Xena’s arms.

"What!" Xena exclaimed in surprise.

"You said you were only going to help them get organized. Now you’re leading them! Xena, this isn’t good." Gabrielle warned.

"Gabrielle, I am going to lead these men to victory. It’s what they want." Xena said bitingly and shook off Gabrielle hands.

"No, it’s what you want. You’ve changed and I don’t like what you’ve become." Gabrielle’s face was sad and framed with concern.

"Gabrielle, we’ve seen each other at our absolute worst. This is not the same thing."

"Xena, I don’t understand." Gabrielle said confusedly and shook her head slightly.

"Gabrielle, there are over one-hundred soldiers out there at my command. Many of them want to be the one to put their claim on me. Do you understand that?" Xena said darkly.

Gabrielle sucked in her breath slowly when it dawned on her. Xena is the Warrior Princess. Many men, and women, would love to challenge the Warrior Princess and perhaps become famous for killing her. Gabrielle shivered at the thought and wrapped her arms around herself.

"Gabrielle, right now I trust no one, except you. When I’m not here I want you to be careful and listen to Zargon. I think he can be trusted, but watch your back." Xena warned.

Xena’s face was full of concern for Gabrielle and she reached out and held her. Xena kissed Gabrielle’s forehead and gazed down into her serious green eyes.

"Tomorrow I’ll be leaving at dawn and I want you to stay here. I’m going into battle with those men. I’ll send someone for you when it’s all over." Xena looked up and gazed out the window.

"You’re going to attack Mecossa aren’t you?" Gabrielle looked up and tried to look into Xena’s eyes.

There was a beat of silence, then Xena responded quietly, "Yes."

It was her eyes, Gabrielle realized, that scared her. The warmth that was usually present when Xena looked at Gabrielle was slowly ebbing from them and they were becoming colder and harder. Gabrielle mulled the images over and over in her mind and saw clues that hinted that Xena was struggling to control powerful emotions just under the surface of her stoic exterior.

Gabrielle shut her eyes tightly and then opened them and glanced back over to the dark warrior who was now engaged in mock combat on the open field and wished that she were anyplace but here. Xena was merciless on the soldiers that were parrying with her. Her fists and feet landed solidly on tender and vital areas. Gabrielle winced at each groan she heard knowing that these were seasoned soldiers that were being beaten. Gabrielle turned away when Xena taunted them, urging them to get up and act like men only to kick and pummel them back down again.

Xena looked up when all of them were down and writhing in pain. She was breathing hard but she felt exhilarated, she felt powerful. Her gaze traveled over to where Gabrielle was standing. Gabrielle’s head was bowed and her back was turned. The sight deflated her, and then it incensed her. How dare she! Xena fumed. These are my men, my army! She doesn’t know a twit about control, about power, or about war! Xena’s lip curled and twitched as dark rage surged through her. Then Gabrielle turned. When Gabrielle’s warm eyes sought out and captured Xena’s cold ones the rage simmered and Xena fought to tamp it down.

When Gabrielle turned and saw the men twitching on the ground she was horrified. Swallowing against a dry throat she brought her gaze up to Xena’s face. What she saw frightened her, and then suddenly it was gone. As much as Xena denied it, Gabrielle still believed that something was happening to her best friend. Something dark, something evil was creeping into her soul, and Gabrielle didn’t know what to do to stop it.

Gabrielle turned back around and walked slowly back to the village, her right hand held her cloak closed at her chest and her staff swung by her side. The young woman’s hair sparkled golden in the fading light and her green velvet cape swirled seductively around her ankles. Xena watched the petite form move away with regret. She hated what was happening to her, and yet she reveled in it. She wanted to run to Gabrielle, sweep her into her arms and make wild passionate love to her right there in the hollow of the field where the grass was fragrant and soft and where they would be shielded from prying eyes by a canopy of fir trees. And then a cold chill came over her and she wanted to stalk up to Gabrielle, grab her from behind and force her...No! Xena gritted her teeth and struggled to push the thought away.

As if sensing Xena’s distress, Gabrielle turned and gazed up at the tall form standing forelornly against the somber hues of the setting sun before turning back and continuing on to the village.


Chapter 5

Horses brayed and men screamed in agony. Weapons and plating clanked. Tendrils of mist snaked out and thickened creating a thick blanket of low lying fog. Xena looked into the dark skeletons of trees that loomed around her, trailers of vine and moss hung on lower branches. The mist stirred as if by an invisible hand. Then a breeze swept through, furling and unfurling the cape around her. Her hair fluttered in the strange odorless breeze as she sat upon her dancing dark mare. Then there was more screaming, and fire, the smell of fear and blood. She looked down at her hands, they were covered with blood, it dripped and ran down her black leather. She felt the madness, the rage and then suddenly a face, colorless in death, appeared out of the mist next to her and pulled her from her mount. She landed face down in the soft earth, the feel of leaves and grass soft against her cheek. As she raised herself unto her knees she looked up and flung her arms across her face as row upon row of a skeletal horde closed in.

Xena woke and sat up suddenly, her eyes were wide in her terror, and she was gasping for breath. Her shift was damp with sweat and her hair clung to her damp skin. Traces of the dream still whispered darkly to her.

She looked down at Gabrielle’s sleeping form and her face relaxed. Must be nice to be able to sleep peacefully, she thought wistfully. Then she smiled bitterly, I deserve to have nightmares to remind me of my sins, she reminded herself. Goosebumps traveled across her skin as the familiar tingle of the darkness swept over her and vanquished her guilty conscience. Disentangling her feet from Gabrielle’s legs she padded over to the wash basin. She stripped out of her damp shift and bathed with the cold water. She braced herself on the night stand and sighed deeply letting the shock of the cold water invigorate her. Then she put on her leathers and stepped over to the chair and sat down. She watched Gabrielle sleep while she performed her meditation excersises that would help her force the nightmare from her mind.

As the first rays of Apollo appeared on the horizon its soft rays filtered through the window of their room and struck the polished wooden floor giving it a burnished look. Xena stood, stretched and walked over to Gabrielle and kissed her lightly on the lips. She straightened and gazed down at the young woman. The young woman had turned over on her side and was hugging Xena’s pillow to her chest. Her blond hair fanned out around her and several silky tendrils lay across her throat. The strap of the silk nightgown had slipped over one shoulder baring the soft flesh of her breast. Xena reached down tentatively as if to caress it, but then stopped and withdrew her hand. She didn’t want to wake her and she really wasn’t in the mood talk. She had stayed out late last night in an attempt to avoid another confrontation with Gabrielle. When she returned shortly after midnight, Gabrielle was still waiting up for her. She recalled their conversation with a pang of guilt.

Xena had just walked into the room and was removing her armor when she heard the bed sheets rustle and a sleepy voice mutter, "I was wondering when you were going to decide to come to bed."

"Sorry I woke you." Xena said as she removed her leathers and boots.

"You didn’t wake me." Gabrielle said and yawned.

"Gabrielle, do you mind if I have some of the covers?" Xena asked as she slipped under the sheets.

"Sorry." Gabrielle apologized and re-arranged the sheets over them. Xena closed her eyes as soon as her head hit the pillow and she could feel Gabrielle watching her.

"Xena, I..." Gabrielle began.

"Gabrielle, I really am tired. Go to sleep." Xena spoke more sharply than she intended. Apologize to her, idiot, she scolded herself. She gritted her teeth against another chill and turned over on to her side instead.

"Fine." Gabrielle said flatly.

Xena felt Gabrielle shift and turn over on to her side as well and they each slept on their side of the bed for the rest of the night.

Sighing, Xena gathered up her weapons and with a quick glance back at Gabrielle she padded quietly out the door. Once outside the inn she picked up her pace and strode quickly to the stables. As she saddled Argo her hand brushed over the pommel of the dark jeweled sword and she gazed at it. Her hand grasped the hilt and she enjoyed the stimulating sensation that swept through her. She removed her hand quickly when she heard Zargon enter the stable. She turned to face him and brought Argo around.

"Xena, the men are ready." Zargon informed her.

"Good. Let’s go." Cold fire flickered in Xena’s eyes. Zargon moved ahead towards his steed. He did not see the evil grin on Xena’s face as he mounted his horse.

Xena swung up onto Argo and together they galloped across the town into the encampment. As Argo’s hooves thundered into the camp the soldiers took up arms, straightened their tunics and scurried to their posts and snapped to attention. Xena dismounted then turned and walked along the front row of men inspecting them with narrowed eyes. Her armor glinted in the soft rays of the rising sun. Her cape swirled about her and wisps of her hair lifted in the light wind. Zargon walked silently by her side and occasionally flicked admiring glances in her direction. His skin prickled with excitement at the sight of this warrior princess striding along beside him. Towards the end of the line she stopped when she heard a whisper and then a snicker. She spun around and leveled an icy glare at two men. One visibly gulped and the other stared back unpreturbed.

Her smile was chilly when she spoke to the defiant one in a commanding tone, "You. Come here." The man strode forward boldly to stand before her. He returned her stare unflinchingly, the defiance shining in his eyes. "Must have been funny. Is there something you’d like to share with me?" Xena asked and her brows lifted slightly. Xena’s mouth tightened and her eyes slitted when he didn’t answer. There was a loud crack as she backhanded him across the mouth drawing blood. "Twenty lashes for this one." She said with disgust and signaled for him to be taken away. Seizing his chin in her hand she leaned forward and said in a frosty tone, "I do not tolerate disobedience or insolence. Take him." When the two men moved forward to escort him to the whipping posts he swung his arms and grappled with them. Xena stepped forward smoothly and with her fingers jabbed him painfully at the base of his neck. He crumpled down to his knees and the blood flowed slowly from his nostrils. His hands clawed at his neck, seeking a release from the invisible choke hold. Xena looked down at the pathetic figure then back to the men before her with an unfeeling gaze.

"From now on, when I give an order, I expect it to be followed. No questions, no comments, not even a blink. Is that understood?" Xena commanded in a flat authoritative voice. The man on his knees ceased clawing at his neck, his eyes rolled back into his head and his gasps stopped. He fell forward, dead. Several of the soldiers gulped, visibly shaken by what they had just witnessed.

"Now, you all know what your orders are. The first and fourth troops to the front and with me. The rest of you move forward." The men abruptly broke their formation to do as she bided and to be as far away as they could from her.

Xena’s larger troops headed for Mecossa’s fortress while Xena and her smaller troops headed in the opposite direction to flank Mecossa from the rear.

Gabrielle and most of the villagers were lined up along the street to watch Xena’s army go by. The villagers were cheering, raising their hands and their homemade weapons in the air. Xena sat straight on a dancing Argo and was smiling proudly. Gabrielle stood at the front quietly, leaning on her staff. When their eyes met the smile faded from Xena’s face for an instant before she looked away. Gabrielle watched Xena’s retreating back until she could see her no more. Gabrielle turned away sadly and walked alone back to the inn.

When Xena and her army reached the crest of the hill they looked down at the small fortress below. Xena shouted her battle cry and they surged forward. Leading them was Xena, her sword arm was raised high and the blade of her sword winked in the bright light of the sun. Argo was sprinting forward, showing cords of strong muscle in her legs with each powerful stride. Xena leaned forward on the saddle and urged Argo to run faster. Xena’s dark adrenaline pumped furiously through her veins as she listened to the sound of the thundering hooves of her army behind her. They stampeded across the flat and grassy plain, the dust and broken grass billowing behind them in their wake.

Yes! The power. The passion. A cold fire was burning through her, she was tingling in anticipation. Xena could feel the icy heat of the darkness and it was becoming darker and stronger. Her heart beat furiously, the wild battle lust burst forth and the fervor shone brightly in her eyes.

They thundered down the slope past sentries rousted awake by the pounding hooves and battle cries and into the midst of Mecossa’s encampment. The surprise attack caught Mecossa’s men unprepared and chaos ensued. Xena grinned evily as she watched them scramble for clothing and weapons. Then Xena and her men fell upon them. Xena’s larger troops swooped down from behind and stormed the fortress. The gates were forced open and they swarmed inside. Xena swung and sliced her way forward from the encampment to the now open fortress gates. As she twisted to one side to avoid a thrust a heavy mace snagged her sword and it flew from her hand. She swung her chakram as she unsheathed the jeweled sword from its protective scabbard. Her hand tingled and she felt the familiar dark power. The chakram whizzed forward and sliced through her attacker’s chest and then circled back. Xena caught the chakram and twirling her sword she galloped forward and impaled him with it. She could have sworn she heard the sword sing as she pushed him from it with her boot. She stared at the blade, crimson with blood and an evil smile spread across her face. She took her thumb and forefinger and squeezed the blood from the blade. With lidded eyes she swung Argo around and galloped back into the foray, forgetting that her original intent was to secure the fortress. Occupied in fighting the men around her she didn’t see Mecossa and his heavy infantry flee the fortress and head for the safety of the hills.


Chapter 6

Several days passed until finally a soldier rode into the village and asked for Gabrielle at the inn.

At the news Gabrielle scrambled out of her chair and practically ran down the stairs. She stood before a dark haired young man who smiled at her.

"Xena sent me to escort you." He said and bowed slightly to Gabrielle.

"Escort me?" Gabrielle asked, puzzled.

"Yes. Xena is waiting for you. I will take you to her." He answered softly.

"All right. Let me get our things. I’ll be out shortly."

Gabrielle turned and walked back up the stairs deep in thought. She had heard that Mecossa had fled during the attack. She wondered why it had taken two days for Xena to send an escort to her. Several times she almost left to go in search of Xena but decided against it and did what she was told. Back in their room she retrieved her staff, their belongings and with one last look she closed the door and walked downstairs into the tavern. She bade the kind innkeeper, Sal, farewell and strode out the door.

Her escort extended his arm down to Gabrielle from the horse on which he sat. She took it and climbed up behind him and gripped on to his waist as he spurred the horse into a fast cantor. They rode north for about a candlemark when her escort brought his mount to a slow walk as they entered the forest. When the outcroppings parted they emerged out onto a wide grassy field. In the middle of it she saw what looked like a tiny castle. Her escort nudged the horse back into a fast cantor and when they neared the building her stomach flipped uneasily at the sight of encampments around it. As the horse thudded through the camp she glimpsed soldiers in various stages of training. Suddenly she was in what was not a castle but a small fortress. She was surrounded by stone walls and several small buildings. Her escort brought his mount to a halt, dismounted and helped her down. Gabrielle turned at the eerie sound of the closing gates behind her.

"Gabrielle, this way." He turned and moved off towards a staircase that rose against the fortress wall to a large building and Gabrielle followed. As she climbed the stairs she looked around her and noticed that the fortress was heavily guarded. A sense of foreboding came over her as she followed the soldier up the stairs and down a hallway that was well lit by sconces in various recesses in the walls. She glanced at the richly woven tapestries that hung from the ceiling on either side and at the various artifacts displayed on tables against the wall.

They stopped before the only heavy oak door that had lit sconces on either side. At his knock, Gabrielle heard Xena’s rich voice bid them to enter. As the door swung open Gabrielle’s breath caught. Xena stood by a large glowing hearth, a golden goblet resting casually in her hand. She was not dressed in her leathers but in a uniform. Gabrielle’s eyes widened in astonishment and shock. The gold breastplate was ornate and covered Xena’s front torso. She wore a leather tunic underneath that was stained purple and studded with gold. Her shoulders were covered by stiff leather pads and gold studded plaits dangled decoratively from them. Her pantaloons were of purple satin with a short blue wrap-a-round. Blue leather sandals adorned her feet. Her raven hair spilled down over both shoulders from beneath a golden headdress that was layered with gold coins and her brilliant blue eyes sparkled. Resting on one hip was the familiar chakram, while on the other was her neatly coiled whip. Gabrielle caught a glimpse of the ill-fated sword in the scabbard on Xena’s back. Gabrielle’s gaze wandered back to Xena’s face. She was absolutely stunning. Remembering that her mouth was still open she snapped it shut.

"Thank you Garrion, that will be all." Xena waved dismissively at Gabrielle’s escort who bowed before turning and closing the door behind him.

"Hello, Gabrielle." Xena flashed Gabrielle a wide smile.

"Xena." Gabrielle walked towards Xena eagerly and looked up into those magnificent blue eyes. What she saw behind them froze the blood in her veins. She turned away quickly, squeezing her eyes shut and covering her mouth with her hand.

"So Gabrielle, you see it too?" Xena murmured and the smile slipped from her face.

Gabrielle turned back around to face Xena, her face composed. "What happened to you, Xena?" She asked softly.

"What happened to me? I’ll tell you what happened to me. I’m not only a just warrior again, but also a leader of men." Xena laughed shortly.

"No." Gabrielle whispered in dismay.

"Come, Gabrielle, sit. I had dinner prepared for us." Xena said in a strange voice.

Gabrielle stared at the stranger that was Xena as they walked over to an alcove in which a table was set with a light dinner. Xena indicated Gabrielle’s seat so she sat down. She watched Xena walk towards her own chair, the silk fabric of her pantaloons shimmered and the armor sparkled from the light of the fire. She strode proudly to her seat and sat down. She picked up the wine decanter and as she refilled her goblet she flicked a sultry gaze at Gabrielle. Gabrielle watched the rich red wine flow from the decanter into the golden goblet. She was vaguely aware of Xena’s gaze upon her and a light flush crept up her neck. Xena set the decanter back down and leaned back in her chair. She held the goblet by the fingertips of both hands and continued to gaze at Gabrielle in a lightly sultry way. Gabrielle gave in and looked up and met those blue eyes. The coldness in them seemed to melt away and she saw the Xena that she knew. By the Gods, Gabrielle thought, she looks so regal, so powerful, and so sexy. Gabrielle stared at Xena, fascinated and then shook her head lightly and turned her gaze to the food on the table.

I know what you were thinking, Gabrielle. You like what you see. But wait until you see the rest of me, will you still love me then, huh, Gabrielle? Xena mused silently. As Gabrielle helped herself to some food, Xena took another sip of her wine and stood up. She walked over to Gabrielle and stood behind her and rested her hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders. Leaning down she murmured softly into Gabrielle’s ear.

"I’m sorry I can’t stay and chit-chat. I must check on my men, so please, remain here until I return." Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat when Xena’s lips brushed across her lobe.

Gabrielle stopped chewing on her bread and swallowed with some difficulty. Xena’s voice wasn’t cold but it had an edge to it that Gabrielle recognized. "All right. I’ll wait here." she agreed and waited to see what Xena would do next.

Xena kissed Gabrielle’s cheek and walked to the chair by the fireplace where she picked up a dark blue cloak lined with purple silk. She fastened it about her neck and adjusted its folds, sweeping a section over one shoulder. Gabrielle stared openly, unable to tear her gaze away. Whoa! She is so beautiful, Gabrielle thought, mesermised by the woman before her. Xena smiled at Gabrielle’s admiring gaze and walked over to her. Leaning down, this time she kissed Gabrielle tenderly on the lips.

"Xena, wait..." Gabrielle said softly and touched Xena’s arm as she was about to move away. "We really do need to talk."

Xena frowned and said, "Gabrielle, not now." Her tone held an icy warning and her eyes flashed.

Gabrielle clenched her jaw at the change in Xena’s expression and voice. It pained her to see this magnificent woman, the one she loved, changed before her very eyes in the span of only a few days. Gabrielle drew herself up and squared her shoulders. She took Xena’s hands in her own and watched how her touch softened the hardness in Xena’s face and brought warmth back into the cold eyes.

"That look and that tone may have had me shaking in my boots when we first met, but not anymore. I know you too well." Gabrielle smiled up at Xena.

When Xena gazed down into Gabrielle’s eyes her heart thudded against her chest. She rubbed the inside of Gabrielle’s palms gently.

"You can read me that well, huh?" Xena asked and smiled. Her face twitched as the familiar coldness swept through her. She fought it for as long as she could, her hands gripped Gabrielle’s, nearly crushing them.

"Xena! You’re hurting me." Gabrielle gasped.

Xena dropped Gabrielle’s hands as if they burned her and squeezed her eyes shut. Gabrielle saw the flurry of emotions that crossed Xena’s face. Xena opened her eyes and looked down at Gabrielle’s concerned face. Xena backed away when Gabrielle tried to reach out to her.

Holding out her hand to warn Gabrielle away, Xena said, "I’m sorry, Gabrielle." Xena then turned abruptly and strode out of the room, her cape swirling about her feet.

Muttering some very colorful invectives to herself about a certain stubborn and prideful Warrior Princess, Gabrielle stood up and moved over to the window behind her. She folded her arms and scowled. She looked down to the cobbestone courtyard below and watched Xena mount Argo, her cape billowing around her lightly in the evening breeze and then settling down on Argo’s flanks like a blanket. Xena signaled and several guards scurried about pulling levers next to the gate. The mechanism that cranked into gear groaned as the gates swung open. Xena then turned Argo and galloped out of the fortress, her cape lifting up from Argo’s flanks to dance in the wind. Gabrielle watched from above the fortress walls as Xena rode down the road and into the encampment just beyond the fortress and dismount.

Gabrielle unfolded her arms and placed her hands on the window sill. She leaned on her arms and bent her head. Dear Artemis, please help me, she whispered. I’ve got to do something or I’m going to lose her. It may take everything I’ve got, but I’m not going to let her slip into the cracks and be gone. Please, please help me find out what’s going on and how to stop this, Gabrielle prayed.

Gabrielle lifted her head and gazed back down at the court yard. The tapping of soldiers boots and the clopping of horses hooves echoed softly. The sound of a hammer against and anvil could be heard from the building directly across from her. Looking over to her right she watched as the gates closed with a groan. Two guards stood by and conversed while their hands rested on the hilts of their swords at their waists. A cool breeze swept by and she detected the scent of the stables to her left.

Closing the shutters against the cool evening air, she turned from the window and strode over to one of the chairs by the blazing hearth and sat down. Gabrielle looked around and took in the furnishings of the room. There was an window in each wall framed by an alcove. In one alcove was the dining area complete with a large trestle table and cushioned chairs. Candles burned brightly on the table that was still laden with their light supper. In the other alcove was a slanted desk covered with several maps and several chairs were arranged around it. In the next alcove there was a sunken tub that was partially hidden by a screen. Glancing to the other side of the room her eyebrow rose. Nestled into a corner was a wide bed with a canopy. From the canopy semi-sheer curtains hung loosely and were gathered at the canopy posts. Several large pillows, some silk, some cotton, were spread across the casually made bed. Silk sheets peeked out from thick pelts and shimmered in the candle light. Candles flickered from the mantle above the fireplace, the night stand next to the bed, on shelves next to the tub, and from sconces in the walls. A few rich tapestries hung on the walls and the floor was partially covered by plush carpets and furs. The room wasn’t lavish in decoration or furniture but it had an exotic and romantic feel to it. She turned her gaze back to the fire and stared into the flames pondering what she knew so far. Then she jerked and sat up straight, her eyes widening. The sword! She said out loud. I have got to get the sword away from her! That’s the answer, she realized and began pacing back and forth in front of the hearth. But how? Her brow furrowed in thought.


Chapter 7

On the way back to the fortress Xena pulled Argo to a stop at the top of the knoll. There she sat upon her mare and surveyed her army camped below. Their campfires glowed bright against the evening darkness. Images of previous battles and raided villages during her warlord years superimposed themselves over the calm image of her army’s camp. Her breath escaped from her lips in swirls of white in the frosty air. Her nostrils flared suddenly and her back stiffened when she sensed Ares presence. She saw him materialize out of the corner of her eye. The God of War sauntered over and stood beside her and joined her gaze down at the campfires below.

"Glorious isn’t it? You know, Xena, you are the best. Such beauty. Such power. You bend men to your will and they tremble in your presence. You make me proud." Ares beamed. He ran his fingers down her thigh caressing the silken texture of her pantaloons. He smiled at her reaction to his touch, he could feel the goosebumps on her skin from under the thin material. Xena felt her body react to his touch, especially when Ares’s intent was to provoke desire in her. She involuntarily let out a small gasp and then tugged on Argo’s reins. The horse side stepped a pace or two away from the God of War, who smirked at her, his ego was swelling with this new power over her.

"Save it, Ares. I know you are behind the power of this sword!" she snarled.

Ares feigned hurt feelings and turned to looked up into Xena’s face. "But it’s a beautiful sword. I made it especially for you." Xena glowered down at him. "What? You don’t want it? Okay, then give back." Ares held out his hands, waggling them for the sword and Xena grimaced. He chortled when he saw her struggling, fighting against the swords power. "What’s wrong, Xena? Can’t give it up?" Ares continued taunting her. He crossed his arms and tapped a finger on his chin. "Now, why is that? I’ll tell you why. You can’t, because your will isn’t strong enough to resist its power."

"Why, Ares?" Xena asked through clenched teeth.

"Because I want to see you in all of your glory." Ares spread his arms wide and looked up into the night sky. "I want to see men at war! It’s exhilarating! And you will bring that to me!" he shouted, then he looked back at Xena and brought his arms back down. "There’s one thing I don’t understand. Your friend. You seem to have taken an exception to her, yet you treat your men like dogs." he stated with a twisted smile.

Xena turned and growled at him. "That’s because I love her and I trust her."

Ares raised his elegant brows in surprise. "Really Xena, have you forgotten that she is capable of betraying you?" he countered smugly.

Xena looked away and clenched her jaw, compressing her lips into a thin line.

"Well, you think on that. Enjoy my gift." With that his form began to fade and then disappear. Xena’s face turned angry and dark, her eyes mere pinpoints as she glared over at his vanishing form.

Snorting with disgust she turned Argo and headed back to the fortress. Upon entering through the gates she summoned one of her men. He ran up to her and saluted when she dismounted Argo. She ran her gaze up and down his uniform and stepped up closer to him and gave him a sultry look.

His eyes locked onto hers and she purred, "I need you to deliver a message to Mecossa for me." Reaching down she extracted a dagger from her boot. "I want you to take this dagger and kill his second in command, his son. You will find them camped behind that second hill." Her voice was low, husky and seductive. The soldier reached out and took the dagger, slipping in into his sword belt. Xena snatched him by his collar with both hands and kissed him forcefully and passionately, pulling his body against hers fully, but it was just an empty promise of a liaison. To the young soldier it was an honor bestowed upon him. Should he succeed, an evening with the Warrior Princess was his reward.

The young soldier did not hide his passion or his need when he returned her kiss. He could feel her breasts pressing against his chest and the heat radiating from her body. His senses were intoxicated with the scent of her. He moaned inwardly when she broke the kiss and stepped back. "Now, go." she commanded and he nodded, drunk in his desire. He turned and mounted his horse and was gone. Xena turned away and her mouth twisted into a sour smile. Young fool, she thought and laughed wickedly. Her sardonic smile evaporated when she thought of Gabrielle. Please help me, Gabrielle, Xena pleaded silently as she turned her face up to the stairs. A chill passed through her and the darkness invaded her thoughts once again. Oh, stop it! she berated herself. There is nothing she can do for you now. Squaring her shoulders she climbed the stairs and walked quietly down the hallway. Silently she opened the door to her suite and slipped in looking for the golden haired bard.

The fire in the hearth was burning low but the room was cozy and warm. All of the candles had been extinguished except for those near her bed. The candles flickered and cast soft shadows accentuating the folds in the curtains that hung from the canopy and were drawn around the bed. Xena raised an eyebrow and padded over to it quietly. She parted the semi-sheer curtains with her hand and her eyes widened in surprise at what she saw. Gabrielle lay partially within the satin sheets that exposed her naked limbs. Her back and thigh were uncovered and her golden hair fanned out across the pillows. Xena touched her golden hair and felt warmth spread through her. Her heart began to beat faster and her breathing deepened. Smiling, Xena removed her cape and let it drop to the floor. She unbuckled her armor, her weapons, her tunic, all of it falling to the floor. Gabrielle stirred and opened her eyes. She smiled up at the warrior taking in the muscular and tanned body and put aside thoughts of what Xena had become. Xena’s eyes sparkled as she leaned down onto the bed. Gabrielle saw the Xena that she knew when she looked into those eyes. She reached up and circled Xena’s neck with her arms as Xena leaned down further and lightly pressed her lips against Gabrielle’s. Gabrielle closed her eyes and tightened her embrace. Pulling Gabrielle to her, Xena rolled over onto her back and pushed Gabrielle up so that she was straddling Xena’s hips.

"Hmm, this is wonderful." Gabrielle said quietly as she looked down at Xena with smiling eyes.

Xena gave her a lopsided grin and pulled the sheets away from her. Xena caressed Gabrielle’s back and buttocks and then pushed her own hips up against her and watched the beginnings of desire spark in Gabrielle’s eyes. Xena then grasped Gabrielle’s hips and pulled them towards her. Passion smoldered between them like the glowing red embers in the massive hearth.


Chapter 8

The next morning Gabrielle woke and looked over at Xena who was still asleep and lying face down on a pillow. Her body was still tingling from Xena’s lovemaking the night before. Smiling, she turned her head over to her side and when she looked down she saw the sword lying on the floor. The black stone winked at her. She reached out and started to wrap her hand around the hilt, but Xena’s hand appeared suddenly and grasped her wrist.

"Do not...touch...the sword." Xena sat up and pulled Gabrielle’s arms towards her as if she didn’t want Gabrielle anywhere near it.

"Why not?" Gabrielle watched Xena’s face closely noting that her eyes had reverted back to being cold and unreadable.

"Because you can’t. And don’t try to take it from me, Gabrielle. I will kill anyone who tries. Even you." Xena scowled darkly in warning and looked away to hide the fire that was beginning to burn in her eyes.

"By the Gods, Xena! Listen to you." Gabrielle was shocked. Her sweet thoughts of their passionate and tender lovemaking evaporated as she stared at the woman she loved. Hurt, she closed her eyes and fought back tears. How could Xena not feel the effects of the intimacy that they had just shared? Gabrielle thought painfully. It’s almost as if it never happened. As if she never opened up and willingly gave herself to me. This hurts, Gabrielle cried silently.

Gabrielle placed her hands to either side of Xena’s face and turned it towards her. Xena’s eyes were burning with such intensity that Gabrielle shivered inwardly. "It’s the sword, isn’t it, Xena? It’s like an addiction, it’s feeding you hatred, and you’re enjoying it."

Xena snapped her head out of Gabrielle’s tender caress angrily. She knew Gabrielle spoke the truth. Through the dark haze she saw Gabrielle’s golden hair fanned across the pillows. She saw herself looking up at Gabrielle’s beautiful face as it tilted back in estcasy and she could feel the cuts in her shoulders and over the knuckles of her hands where Gabrielle’s nails had dug. She felt dizzy. She felt nauseated and her head swayed slightly. She remembered the swell of emotions that she felt during their lovemaking and she shut her eyes tightly.

"Xena, you can fight this. Please, you have got to get rid of that sword!" Gabrielle pleaded and grasped Xena’s arms and shook her, forcing her to look at Gabrielle.

Gabrielle, I want to talk to you, but I can’t, Xena cried out silently. She opened her eyes and had trouble focusing them and when she did she was met by Gabrielle’s concerned and intense gaze. She knew she was hurting Gabrielle and hated herself for it, but she didn’t want Gabrielle to leave her.

If only I could find the right words, the right things to say, I just might be able to get her to talk, if only for a little while, Gabrielle thought anxiously. She saw the unfocused look in Xena’s eyes and was immediately concerned. Xena’s face had drained of color and she was breathing hard.

"Gabrielle, I’ve tried! Its power is too strong and it has me now." Xena gasped and pushed Gabrielle’s hands away and stood up. Since her first touch on the sword she could sense herself slipping away slowly day by day. She didn’t realize what was happening until too late. She hated not being in control and this darkness was stripping away what little control she had. At first she fought it and was almost able to withstand the call of the sword, but then she lost control of that and from there she fell into it’s spell. What she didn’t understand is why her feelings for Gabrielle remained unchanged. She didn’t feel anger or hatred towards Gabrielle like she did for everything else around her. But that could change, and that thought scared her.

"No. I won’t give up. We’ll get through this." There was steely determination in Gabrielle’s voice. She watched Xena pick up her clothes and said softly, "Xena, we’ve been through worse and survived."

Xena paused as she pulled her tunic down over her head. She gazed at Gabrielle and for an instant her eyes softened in remembered pain.

"I know, Gabrielle. But how do WE fight this?" she snapped and with a sharp tug she pulled the tunic the rest of the way, pulled up her pantaloons and buckled on her armor and weapons.

"My feelings for you haven’t changed, Gabrielle. I don’t feel angry with you or hate you like I do with everything else around me. I thank the Gods for that." Xena said softly. She looked into Gabrielle’s eyes and felt emotions she hadn’t felt in a long time. She tried to grab a hold of that and fight the darkness that was swelling within her, trying to gain control over her emotions and thoughts. She thought about the sword and how it was changing her. She felt its strength and power, the seductive pull, like lust. The desire for blood, killing, and it was all so easy. She felt pain, pain for having hurt Gabrielle, for exposing her to this darkness. To the cruelty, the cold blooded killing, but sending her away wouldn’t solve anything. Perhaps Gabrielle might be able to find a way to break the spell.

"I love you Xena." Gabrielle whispered. She knew that she still loved Xena even though right now she was more afraid for her than of her. Xena was frightening, evil, and she was a murderer. And it was all Ares doing.

Xena’s face was grim. "To be honest with you, Gabrielle, I don’t feel love right now, but sometimes when I am with you...I don’t know, maybe I do. There is just so much darkness in me and yet it doesn’t seem as dark when I am with you...it almost seems to fade, weaken somehow." Xena reached out and caressed Gabrielle’s cheek. "Perhaps there is a way to break Ares spell. Gabrielle, I need your help." Xena shivered when the darkness suddenly descended over her and squelched the emotions that had surfaced and her eyes hardened once more. Gabrielle saw the dark and dangerous look come back into Xena’s eyes. She grasped Xena by the arm and tried desperately to find the words to bring the Xena she knew back. Even though Gabrielle’s grip on Xena’s arm was a strong one Xena removed it easily with a quick twist of her arm. Picking up the sword she gazed at it briefly then slung it over her back after a quick hard glance at Gabrielle. Without another word she strode out of the room.

"Xena!" Gabrielle shouted at the closing door. She fell back down on the soft bed and pondered the situation with her head in her hands. Artemis shimmered into existence but was unseen by the Amazon Princess. Artemis strode over to Gabrielle and murmured a few words. Gabrielle yawned and her eyes drifted closed as she laid back. Artemis stroked Gabrielle’s soft gold locks and gazed at her fondly. She reached out and touched the amazon staff that was leaning against the wall next to the bed and it glowed for an instant. Artemis leaned down and whispered into Gabrielle’s ear. "The sword and the staff, Gabrielle. The sword and the staff, you must bring them together. Be strong. Think of your love for her. Follow the light." With these tender words Artemis left.

When Gabrielle woke Apollo was pouring its light into the room through the long cracks in the shuttered windows. The long narrow beams of light warmed her torso as she stretched and yawned. Her brows furrowed in thought as she tried to grasp the words that were at the edge of her conscious. Shrugging she dressed and walked over to the window and opened the shutters. She blinked in the strong light and then as her eyes became accustomed, she looked out over the walls of the fortress and saw Xena’s army milling about. She then turned and sat down at the table and pulled out one of her scrolls. Breathing deeply she unfurled it, picked up her quill and began writing. In the midst of writing her head snapped up and the words, hills, staff, and sword, echoed in her mind. Puzzled, she mulled the words over and over, and then it all came together. An image of the sword imbedded in her staff appeared and her brows furrowed together in thought. The only way this could happen was to get Xena away from this fortress and remove the sword from her possession. Glancing out the window at Xena’s army Gabrielle began to formulate a plan.


Chapter 9

The warlord Mecossa was enraged at the brazen attack and murder of his son. He glared at the young man kneeling before him with hatred. He reached out and grasped a handful of thick hair and pulled the young man’s head back. The young man struggled then grunted as his captors pulled his arms tighter around his back. In one hand Mecossa clenched the cloth insignia of Xena’s army and in the other he held the murder weapon. With a snarl he strode forward and dragged the blade of the dagger across the front of the young man’s exposed neck.

A lone horse trotted into the encampment, its reins dragging in the dirt. Tied to it was the lifeless body of the young soldier Xena had sent out the night before. The sentries walked the horse through the camp to Xena. She cut the cords that bound him on the horse with a swift stroke of her sword and let his body fall to the ground. She casually flipped him over and searched for her dagger and did not find it. Satisfied, she ordered his body removed for burial. Taking the reins of the now owner-less horse she walked through the camp until she spotted Thora, a promising young archer. Xena had been spending time with her, training her in the use of the long bow and crossbow. In time Thora could be one of the best that Xena trained.

The young woman jumped to her feet eagerly and walked briskly to Xena with a broad smile on a soft face that was framed by wavy auburn hair and soft brown eyes. Xena smiled inwardly at the woman’s eagerness and her mouth twitched when she noticed how close the woman stood next to her. Wordlessly Xena handed her the reins and raised an amused eyebrow when Thora brushed against her to lean forward and stroke the horse’s neck. Thora looked over her shoulder at Xena and smiled her thanks. Her eyes moved down to Xena’s neck and hovered there for an instant before moving back to meet Xena’s eyes again. Xena turned and strode away, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. She pictured Thora, her feet planted firmly, her strong arms pulling back the taught bowstring, the satisfied smile on curved and lusciuos lips as the arrow found its mark. She often wore a brown tunic that was laced low in the front and gave a tantilizing view of the top of her breasts and ample cleavage. Xena often found her eyes wandering down into the soft valley when she instructed the young woman from over her shoulder. The feel of the woman’s firm buttocks against her thighs distracted Xena when she guided the woman’s body and fingers through the finer points of archery. Xena rubbed the inside of her mouth with her tongue to hide her mischievous smile. She’s still no competition for Gabrielle, Xena thought with amusement. No one can compete with that fiery temper. But, I wonder what she would be like... Her fantasy of the wavy auburn haired woman vanished when she spotted a scout riding hard towards her.

"Xena! Mecossa’s army is headed this way! he shouted as he pulled his heaving mount to a halt.

"Fine. Let them come." Xena said calmly. "Which way are they headed?" she asked with a cold smile. "He has two groups moving up from the west and one large group headed directly this way." he answered. She had already anticipated that Mecossa would retaliate quickly so she signaled Zargon and ordered that the men be sent to their positions. "Come and get me, Mecossa." Xena said darkly and peered over the hill with hooded eyes.

Mecossa and his army crested the hill above the fortress and stopped. They were fanned out in a line, several men deep and the sunlight glinted on steel armor and weapons. Men shifted in their saddles and pulled on reins to dancing horses. Mecossa sat upon a spirited gray mare that danced with anticipation. Lifting his sword he signaled his army forward. The silence was broken by the battle cries, the clinking of armor and plating, and by the thundering hooves of a hundred horses. The ground vibrated as they charged down the slope. Xena and her army waited calmly in front of the fortress. She sat tall on Argo and her eyes slitted when Mecossa’s army dashed forward. A cold thin smile formed on her face. When Mecossa’s army was within a hundred or so yards from the walls of the fortress she raised her sword and issued her battle cry. As her men charged forward bodies emerged from hidden recesses in the ground along Mecossa’s flanks, surrounding him. He was trapped.

Turning his mount around in a circle he surveyed his position. His men were being pressed inward by Xena’s army and he had little room to maneuver. There was a deep and pervasive stillness to the air as men grunted and screamed around him. Then he spotted her. She was looking directly at him. His rage flared anew and his mouth twisted into a snarl. She just sat there and smiled back at him. It was a cold, heartless smile. She urged Argo forward and cut down his men easily and effortlessly as she made her way towards him, her sword plunging and slicing. He nudged his mount into a cantor and they met with a clash of swords. With a flick of her wrist she swiveled her sword and backhanded it against his hilt. His sword was gone from his hand in an instant. Sweat began to trickle down his back and his hand smarted from the blow. She slowly rounded on him and smiled in triumph when she saw the look of desperation in his eyes. She watched him, studying him as a cat might a cornered mouse.

"What’s the matter Mecossa? No words of greeting, no brave admonishments, not even a threat? What’s seems to be the problem? Cat got your tongue?" Xena’s laugh was hollow.

"You killed my son, you murdering bitch!" he screamed at her.

"Believe me, I know how it feels, but I wanted you here. And it worked." She sneered.

Blinded with fury he snatched a sword from one of his men and arced it towards her. He was stopped in mid stroke by Xena’s forward thrust. He gasped and turned his head to gaze into her cold eyes. Xena pulled out her sword and let him topple forward on his horse and down to the dust below. She held up her sword and watched the blood run down the blade.

Behind her Gabrielle stood in the alcove of the fortress looking down at the battle raging below. Bodies littered the field and spilled blood stained the ground a dark red. Gabrielle leaned on her staff and shut her eyes tightly at the grim picture. She opened them again to see Xena plunge her sword into the warlord. Gabrielle watched as Xena withdrew the sword and held it up before her and shuddered at the sight of Xena wiping the blade with her fingers. Gabrielle’s heart thudded against her chest in anguish and she swallowed a sob. She took a deep breath and turned away from the window. In order for Gabrielle to put her plan into action she needed more information about the fortress exits. She decided to take this opportunity to explore the fortress. She moved forward to the large wooden door and opened it a crack.

Peering out the door Gabrielle did not see any guards patrolling the hallway. She slipped out of the chambers and walked quietly down the hallway across smooth granite stone and made her way cautiously down the stairs. She slipped in and out of shadowy alcoves whenever a guard would walk by. She almost sneezed in one that was covered with spider webs and layered with dust. When she reached the courtyard she moved silently against the shadows of the stone wall and made her way to the rear of the fortress. There, just to the left of the stables was a barred wooden door. Gabrielle smiled and just as she was about to lift the bar over the door, a pair of hands seized her by the shoulders from behind.

"Hey!" she yelped in surprise.

"Just where do you think you are going?" Two guards stood behind her while the other two gripped her about the forearms.

"It’s...it’s not what you think." she explained and she tried to shake them off.

"Really? Come on. Xena gave us orders to keep an eye on you." They marched her forward.

"She did, huh?" Gabrielle said dejectedly.

"Yep, and she told us exactly what you would try to do." he said and grinned at her.

"Great." Gabrielle didn’t like the way things were going and she certainly wasn’t looking forward to seeing what Xena had planned for her.


Chapter 10

Glowing with her defeat over Mecossa, Xena left her instructions for the prisoners with her new lieutenant, Zargon. She was dirty, hot and sweaty and was looking forward to a bath in her chambers. She galloped across the fields into the fortress and to the stables where she took the time to feed Argo and groom her. On the way to the stairwell the guards who caught Gabrielle informed Xena of the woman’s attempt to escape.

The words were no sooner out of his mouth before she seized him by the throat and lifted him a few inches off the ground. "She wasn’t harmed was she?" she growled in his ear.

"NO! No, we took her back up to your chambers and restrained her as you requested." He tried to resist the urge to pry Xena’s hand from his throat.

"Very well." Xena released her hold on his throat and the soldier sank back down gratefully to his feet and rubbed at the chafing marks around his neck.

Xena was amused by Gabrielle’s attempt to escape. She just knew that the bard was going to try. Her smile widened at the thought of the bard secured in her chambers. She licked her lips unconsciously and looked up the stairwell.

She purposely heavied her steps so that Gabrielle could hear her approach. Her boots thudded thickly on the stone steps and the sound became more pronounced as she approached the door to her chambers. Unlatching the door she swung it wide.

Gabrielle heard Xena’s footfalls as they climbed the stairs and moved towards the door. She lifted her head and swiveled it towards the door as it swung open. Xena stood framed by the doorway and what she saw made her smile and an amused expression appeared on her face. Her long cape swished to a stop around her feet and she swung the right portion over her shoulder. Her armor and her chakram gleamed in the firelight. Her hair was wild, spread over and across both shoulders, and her eyes gleamed with suppressed mirth.

Xena brought her hands to her hips. "Well, well, I hear you had quite an adventure today." Xena stepped into the room, closed the door and locked it.

"Xena, I..." Gabrielle moved her shackled wrists in an attempt to gesture.

"Uh, uh. What did I tell you Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle looked at up Xena as she approached and bit her bottom lip. She tried not to look at the blood that spattered the leather and breastplate.

"Hmm. What am I going to do with you?" Xena reached out and caressed Gabrielle’s face. She then turned and walked to the hearth where she unlaced her cape and draped it over a chair. She turned back around to face Gabrielle with her hands on her hips. Gabrielle stood in the middle of the room with her arms suspended above by restraints which were buckled around her wrists and laced with lambs wool. Xena’s gaze traveled lazily over Gabrielle’s body. Gabrielle watched Xena’s eyes turn sultry. She swallowed hard and felt her own heartbeat quicken.

Wordlessly Xena walked over to the tub and pulled on a lever. The sound of flowing water was heard and then a splash as it emptied into the tub. She picked up a flask of what looked like a honey colored liquid and poured a generous amount into the tub. The scent of Jasmine permeated the air. Xena unbuckled her armor and leathers and removed her weapons. Setting them aside she removed her boots and her shift. She turned and stepped into the tub, gliding into the water and submerging herself. She reached the other side of the tub and pulled back the lever to turn off the flow of water.

Gabrielle watched silently, marveling in how beautiful Xena’s body was. She observed the shifting of muscles in strong legs, the firmness of Xena’s back and buttocks as Xena strode to the bath and sank down. Their eyes met briefly when Xena turned around and lathered her sponge. Gabrielle followed the course of the sponge as it moved across Xena’s skin. Xena then submerged herself and climbed out of the tub the water sluicing off her skin. She walked towards Gabrielle, her skin glistening with scented water and her hair was plastered to her face, shoulders and back. Xena’s gaze traveled down Gabrielle’s body as she picked up a towel and rubbed the moisture from her skin.

Xena moved forward slowly, her gaze traveling back up to meet Gabrielle’s intense eyes. She dropped the towel and picked up her whip, curling it in her hands. Xena stopped before Gabrielle and fingered the golden tresses that splayed across the bards shoulders. Gabrielle’s eyes were wide and her gaze alternated from the tightly coiled whip in Xena’s hand to the curves and crevices of Xena’s naked body.

"They didn’t hurt you did they?" Xena asked as her fingertips moved lightly across Gabrielle’s shoulder to the hollow of her neck.

"No." Gabrielle breathed and stared into the cool liquid depths of Xena’s eyes. They had lost the hardness and were now soft and smiling.

"Good. I’ll kill anyone who does." Xena’s fingers traveled up Gabrielle’s neck and then down the side of Gabrielle’s face along the jawbone. Xena’s brows furrowed together when Gabrielle flinched slightly and she removed her hand.

"Gabrielle, I’m not going to hurt you." Xena said sincerely.

Gabrielle chortled lightly. "Xena, I’ve seen the way you’ve treated your men. I’ve seen the cold rage in your eyes. You’re not exactly yourself these days."

Xena sighed and her face softened. "I don’t hurt the women I keep."

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed. "Keep! Xena, I am NOT your kept woman." she said angrily.

Xena smiled, amused at the burst of temper. "No. Of course not. I didn’t mean it that way."

"But that’s what you said." She was still mad and stared Xena down.

"And that’s what you heard." Xena replied melting from the intense gaze.

Xena moved forward until their bodies were touching. She raised her hands and trailed them down along the underside of Gabrielle’s arms. She kissed Gabrielle and explored her mouth as her hands moved down along her ribs and Gabrielle moaned as they brushed across the material of her top over the swell of her breasts.

Gabrielle couldn’t control the way her body responded to the familiar touch. Her lips parted when Xena kissed her, and her fingers flexed involuntarily wishing they could touch the warrior’s skin. Her breathing deepened and her knees felt weak. She felt her excitement building and met Xena’s urgency with a passion of her own. She could smell Xena’s scent, the leather and the acrid tint of metal under the lightly fragrant spice of jasmine. Gabrielle gasped when Xena stepped back and gazed at her with hooded eyes. A smile tugged at her mouth as Gabrielle wrestled with her restraints and glowered at Xena. Xena moved forward again and embraced Gabrielle. The tail end of the whip brushed against the soft hairs on Gabrielle’s exposed back.

"Xena, take these off of me? Please?" Gabrielle asked urgently between gasps.

"Hmm. I don’t know. I kind of like you there." Xena’s gaze swept over Gabrielle again and Gabrielle gave her a withering glare.

"Oh, all right." Xena relented. She unbuckled the restraints around Gabrielle’s wrists and pulled Gabrielle into her arms. They sank down unto the soft fur pelts on the floor as the logs in the hearth shifted and the fire blazed anew.


Chapter 11

They were still entwined in each others arms in the early morning hours. The smoldering fire from the hearth cast a soft glow over their skin. Xena glanced over at Gabrielle who seemed to be dozing. Xena shifted slightly trying not to disturb her.

"Going somewhere?" Gabrielle asked and opened her eyes looking directly at Xena.

Caught, Xena mustered a false smile and said, "No, I was just stretching."

"Xena, why are you lying? You were trying to sneak out, weren’t you?" Gabrielle asked flatly.

"All right. Yes, I was." Xena sighed tiredly.

"Why?" Gabrielle snapped.

"I have things to do!" Xena snapped back .

They eyed each other uneasily for a moment. Gabrielle stared into the now familiar cold eyes, the Xena she knew was gone again. Breaking the silence Gabrielle asked, "You’re not fighting again today are you?"


"You are." Gabrielle chortled dryly. "Who, or should I say, what will it be this time? A village?" Gabrielle asked sarcastically.


"Okay, A village. Why don’t you just satisfy my curiosity and tell me which one? You know I’ll dig at this until I get an answer." Gabrielle said angrily. Her eyes were stormy and she stared Xena down.

"Raden. It’s Mecossa’s home village." Xena answered shortly and her lips twisted hatefully.

Gabrielle was dismayed at this news. Upset and knowing that she could do nothing to stop Xena she turned away from her and wrapped the pelts tightly about herself. This can’t be happening, she thought. She closed her eyes wearily and resigned herself to the knowledge that things were only going to get worse. She had to get Xena away from here, and soon. She broke the silence and said sadly, "Fine, you do what you have to do." And so do I. She pulled the pelt up closer to her chin as if to draw some comfort from its furry softness. If Xena had looked into Gabrielle’s eyes she would have seen the sadness there.

Sighing heavily at the distance Gabrielle placed between them, Xena rose and rubbed at her temples. She slept poorly again and scowled. She gritted her teeth and struggled for control over the darkness so she could talk to Gabrielle. She really didn’t mean to be so cold and harsh to her. Xena’s heart ached for the pain she was causing Gabrielle. Some where deep down in the darkness that was her soul she sensed a spark of light, the love of her life. And she knew who that love was. The darkness had become so pervasive now that the times she could be herself with Gabrielle were decreasing rapidly. She needed Gabrielle desperately and yet she needed to think about getting her as far away from her as possible. No, that wouldn’t work, she would just track her down. No, she needed to find a way to break this cursed spell. Perhaps Gabrielle’s attempt to escape was a sign that she was working on the problem. Failing to gain control over the darkness her lips twitched and a shudder jerked her body. She let the darkness descend and take control of her once more. She dressed and left the room without a word to Gabrielle.

Gabrielle got up after she heard the door shut and dressed quickly. Her heart felt heavy and she was afraid. She wasn’t afraid for herself but for the gathering darkness that was claiming her friend. It was like watching an approaching thunderstorm. Xena was becoming more and more wild, and spiraling out of control. I must leave now, and I hope I can get far enough away so that my plan has a chance of succeeding. And if it doesn’t, I will always remember the good in her and the love we shared, she thought sadly. She could feel her anxiety building and her stomach was tied in knots. She sank to her knees and prayed to Artemis. "Dear Artemis, " Gabrielle prayed softly, "I’m asking you for your help and for your guidance once again. I know that you have already given me the knowledge in how to solve this dilemma caused by Ares. Please guide me once again." Gabrielle’s eyes moistened and a tear rolled down her face. "Where am I to go? I know it is in the hills, but where? Please give me the courage and the strength to do what I must do. I love her so. I would willingly give my life to save hers." Gabrielle bowed her head and reflected on what she had just said. Lifting her head she stood and picked up her staff. She blinked when she felt warmth radiating from it. Her brow furrowed and she shook her head in puzzlement, dismissing it as a figment of her imagination.

She padded over to the window and gazed out into the morning light. Xena was just riding through the gates, Argo’s mane waving and shimmering in the golden rays of the mid morning sun. She watched Xena’s form shift smoothly against Argo’s strong strides. Her raven hair and royal blue cape whipped about behind her in the wind. With moist eyes Gabrielle turned away and gathered her belongings. She opened the door a crack and peered out. Seeing no guards she snuck out the door and padded quietly down the hallway. She didn’t come across a single guard as she slipped in and out of the alcoves. She figured that they were all occupied in preparing for the upcoming battle. She could sense the tension in the air. The fortress seemed utterly silent as she made her way to the foot of the stairs. Thankful for her good fortune she moved quickly down the stairs and to stables near the back exit. She slipped inside and surprised two guards who were saddling their steeds. Before they could react to her presence Gabrielle swung her staff across one and then the other spinning both of them in a full circle. Twisting the staff back around she swung the staff in the opposite direction and it connected solidly with both of their skulls. Slowly they sank down into the soft hay of the stable floor.

She snatched the reins of one of the horses and guided her out of the stable. She yanked the heavy wooden bar from the exit door and propped it down against the wall. She opened the door and walked out, the horse following behind her. Quickly she placed her foot gingerly in the stirrup and pulled herself into the saddle. She slapped the reins and took off in a fast gallop from the fortress across the grassy field into the forest.

She picked her way ahead carefully, slipping through the massive trees and ducking low-hanging branches with mossy trailers. The mare she rode stepped over rotten logs and moved nimbly around large boulders. She followed a worn path and arrived at a village where she purchased provisions that she would need for the long ride to the hill country where she would meet Xena if everything went according to plan.

Meanwhile, back at the fortress, Xena had just returned from her morning inspection of her army and was standing before the two guards. "She got past you, huh?" She looked down at the two guards who were sporting swelling shiners along with assorted bruises and she chortled. "She didn’t happen to say where she was going, did she?" They both shook their heads and backed up against the wall. She smiled and snatched both of them just under their chins, lifting them up against the rough stone wall. "Okay, did anyone see which direction she took?" she asked flatly.

"She was riding...east towards the hills..." one guard replied chokingly.

She dropped them like sackcloth’s and with a swirl of her cape she turned and marched down the stairs and mounted Argo. "Yah!" She shouted as she galloped through the still open gates and across the field after Gabrielle. Oh no, Gabrielle, you won’t get away that easily. And why do I have this feeling you want me to chase you? Hmm? Xena whispered into the wind and her eyes narrowed.

Xena followed Gabrielle’s trail through the forest and stopped at the same village to replenish her provisions. At the shop she asked the merchant as to whether or not he had seen Gabrielle. "She’s smaller than I am, has blond hair, beautiful green eyes, wears a very short halter, has fabulous abs and carries a staff." The shop owner chuckled and said, "She was here, all right. She gave those ruffians over there a lesson in staff tactics" He nodded to a group of young men that were gathered outside a tavern across the street. Xena’s mouth gave in to an involuntary grin and she thanked the merchant. As she walked across the street towards the tavern the young men looked in her direction and stared. She glanced at them as she walked by. They were sporting some nasty bruises on their faces and arms. She smirked and laughed inwardly. Not bad. You’re really getting good at this Gabrielle, Xena said to herself with pride. She glanced at the tall hills beyond the trees as she entered the tavern. Taking generous swallows of her ale she pondered why Gabrielle left. What are you up to Gabrielle? Xena mumbled and strummed her fingers on the table. Finishing her ale she stood up and plunked down the wooden mug. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand she strode out of the tavern. She stroked Argo’s neck and frowned over at the hills as she pulled herself into the saddle. She spurred Argo into a fast trot back into the forest.

Evening descended rather quickly as the sun disappeared behind the hills. Gabrielle built up her fire by adding more wood and turned the rabbit that was roasting on a spit. She bought her meal from a hunter back at the village. She also purchased potatoes, carrots and soothing herbal tea. She was far up into the hills and it was very quiet, except for the occasional hoot of an owl and the faint chirping of crickets from the valley below. She felt very alone but the temple of Artemis wasn’t too far away in Amazon territory and Gabrielle felt safe here. For some reason she felt utterly calm and at peace. She stared into the fire and she saw an image of Xena’s smiling face, blue eyes sparkling, and raven hair flowing around strong shoulders. Images of Xena resurfacing from the waters of lakes and streams, the water sluicing from her lean form, her eyes a radiant blue and her hair slick against her tanned skin. Xena enjoying her favorite pastime, fishing. The smile that lit up her face as she caught her slippery water foul and threw them to shore. The fierceness that she displayed as she fought in battle, the feral snarls, the dangerous glint in her eyes, and the sound that her chakram made as it whizzed through the air. The passionate sounds that she made during their lovemaking and the way her mouth and tongue danced across Gabrielle’s skin. Gabrielle shook herself out of her reverie and mixed together the ingredients for her soup.

Xena struggled to push aside the darkness as she approached the outer rim of Gabrielle’s camp. She sighed heavily with relief as it receded. Xena stood in the shadows and watched the young woman in the light of the fire and experienced an odd sense of serenity as well. She remembered when Gabrielle was an innocent young girl from a small village, who was betrothed to what she thought was a gentle man. She chuckled to herself when she recalled Gabrielle talking about the boring and stupid part of her betrothed. Her face then fell as she saw images of Gabrielle suffering time and time again from vicious warlords, thugs, and Kings. Her innocence was lost bit by bit along the way. Gabrielle was jaded now. She has seen how cruel human beings can be to one another, how selfish and insidious the Gods can be. She has witnessed and even suffered herself emotionally and physically horrible acts forced upon her by Gods and humans alike, myself included, Xena amended. She swallowed slowly and a tear rolled down her face. Oh, Gabrielle, you have no idea how I feel about you. I took you from a safe and sheltered life into this. This life of cruelty and hardness, she thought bitterly. Gabrielle was no longer a young innocent girl. She was now a grown woman. A beautiful woman, Xena reminded herself. She wanted to gather Gabrielle into her arms and just keep her there. Hide her from the rest of the world. Hide her from the horrors of life. An image of Gabrielle falling into a lake and sputtering as she resurfaced made Xena smile. The emerald eyes that threw sparks when she was angry, ephasizing her passionate nature. The tightening of her neck muscles, the extending of vocal cords and the narrowing of the eyes. She was beautiful when she was angry. Xena caught herself before she chuckled out loud. The soft murmurs and deep moans that Gabrielle made when Xena gave her pleasure...Xena took another deep breath and steadied her nerves.

As Gabrielle ate her soup she stretched her ears, like Xena taught her and listened to the sounds from the forest around her. She heard leaves in the trees whisper in the quiet breeze and a fleet footed animal scurried through a brush behind her. An owl hooted softly and then she heard it, it was a soft rustle, very faint. She dropped her soup and snatched her staff, rose and spun, swinging it around in a sharp arc, but a hand shot out and stopped it. Xena’s eyebrow rose as she stared down at Gabrielle. Gabrielle pulled the staff roughly from Xena’s grip. The fire crackled and snapped as they looked at each other in strained silence.

"So, why did you leave?" Xena’s eyes narrowed. "You wanted me to follow you, didn’t you. Why?"

"Because I love you, Xena." Xena frowned and Gabrielle peered into the deep blue eyes of her friend with compassion. "You don’t really understand love do you?"

"No, Gabrielle, I do know what it is." Xena was starting to feel uncomfortable with the direction that this conversation was going. The word ‘love’ brought her fear to the surface.

"Do you?" Gabrielle knew she was treading on treacherous ground. Triggering Xena’s anger was a very dangerous thing to do, but she was willing to risk her life.

"Yes! Yes, I know what it feels like, I just don’t understand..." Xena began.

"You don’t understand the kind of love I have for you. You have been a warrior for so long that the emotional part of you is buried so deep that you aren’t able to think about the feelings of others." Her voice cracked with raw emotion and her eyes were stormy.

"Gabrielle..." Xena’s voice warned through gritted teeth.

"No!" Gabrielle shouted. "I am not finished!" Gabrielle shook the end of her staff at Xena and Xena glared down the staff at Gabrielle as she continued, "You justify your actions with the rationalization that the end will justify the means, regardless of who gets hurt. You call it being ‘focused’. You know how to manipulate other people’s emotions, and you have been doing it for so long that I don’t think you know how to truly love another human being." Gabrielle spat bitterly. Her emotions spewed forth and her hand was gripping the staff so tightly that her knuckles had turned white. She watched Xena carefully, prepared for Xena to strike out at her.

The words hit home and they chipped away at Xena’s defenses. Xena blinked rapidly from the barrage of words from Gabrielle. Each truth brought the fear and the pain closer to the surface, like a knife slowly twisting in her heart. Gabrielle’s steady gaze unnerved her and her emerald eyes gleamed brightly. Xena’s heart beat faster and louder as the dark icy rage began to surge through her veins. With a snarl she spun and unsheathed her sword, the black onyx stone glittered menacingly in the moonlight. Then she lifted the sword over her head, twirled it and her face twisted with hate.

"No!" Gabrielle shouted and caught Xena’s sword with her staff as it began its deadly descent towards her head. Stunned, Xena snapped her head up at her sword. She tugged on it but it remained imbedded in Gabrielle’s staff, which she held above her head. Gabrielle yanked at the staff pulling the sword right out of Xena’s hand. Xena looked down blankly at her empty hands. Gabrielle reached out with her other hand and wrapped it around the sword’s hilt. It burned, but she would not let go. Xena’s eyes widened in astonishment, frozen in her tracks. Upon contact with the sword Gabrielle not only felt the burn but also the dark power. She felt the bright power flow from her staff and collide with it. Her body trembled as she wrestled for control. Remember the love. Follow the light. These words spoke to her from the recesses of her mind. She saw an image of Xena smiling down at her and she saw the light. Her brows furrowed in concentration as she wrapped herself around it. The darkness began to fade and her body ceased in its tremors. The hilt of the sword now felt cold in her hand. She opened her eyes and glanced down at the sword. It was coated with frost. She pulled it free from the staff and brought the sword up over her head.

Xena watched Gabrielle with concern and was frozen where she stood. In slow motion she saw the sword above Gabrielle’s head and then watched as it arced downward.

"No!" Xena screamed and reached out towards the sword, her hands grasping empty air.

The blade shattered into a thousand mirrored shards as it hit Gabrielle’s staff.

Xena brought her hands to her temples as her face contorted in agony. She shook her head slowly from side to side fighting the explosive pain that shot across her skull. A scream was torn from her before she slumped forward surrendering to unconsciousness.

Gabrielle sank down unto her knees breathing hard. She crawled towards Xena on her hands and knees. She pulled the unconscious warrior into her lap and cradled her through the night.

Gabrielle had inched backwards and leaned against the rough bark of an elm and was dozing lightly. She woke frequently during the night to check Xena’s pulse and to make sure she was still breathing. She watched the stars sparkle in the evening sky and then watched as the first rays of Apollo brightened the horizon. Xena would stir occasionally and Gabrielle would look down fondly at the head that was nestled in her lap. As the morning rays of the sun passed across Xena’s face, her eyes opened and she looked up into Gabrielle’s soft green eyes. Intense emotions flickered across Xena’s face as she sat up shaking her head and wiping a hand across her eyes.

"Oh, Gabrielle." Xena murmured sorrowfully.

"Shh. It’s all right. It’s over now." Gabrielle said soothingly.

Xena looked down at the forest earth and then moved forward to kneel before Gabrielle, her head bowed. She was burdened with guilt and even shame. She was ashamed that she even had thoughts about Tora and that she took advantage of Tora’s willingness to please her. Even though it wasn’t sexual, she felt that she betrayed her loyalty to Gabrielle. She had killed needlessly, she manipulated, and brutally toyed with her men. Xena stared down at the ground and pushed a green elm leaf around in the dirt. She tried to summon the courage to look at Gabrielle, the one and only woman that she would ever love so deeply.

Gabrielle took Xena’s face between her hands and gazed into eyes that were troubled, filled with a pain she could only imagine. She pulled Xena to her and they comforted each other. They held on to each other tightly savoring the familiar feel of their bodies pressed close. The leaves in the trees rustled softly in the gentle breeze. There was a soft patter as ripe acorns fell. Gabrielle turned her head slightly and kissed Xena’s soft cheek. Xena looked up and gazed into Gabrielle’s eyes. What she saw made her heart soar. Gabrielle looked down at her with love. The kind of love that comforted, forgave, healed and soothed. Xena felt warm all over. The darkness was gone, that is except for the darkness that was and always will be a part of her soul.

Artemis stood on a ledge that gave her a clear view of the campsite below. Tears were glistening on her cheeks and her face was alive with happiness for her Amazon Queen. Ares, meanwhile, scowled menacingly next to her with his arms folded against his chest. His eyes shot daggers at the blond woman who held the Warrior Princess in her arms.

Xena broke away from Gabrielle reluctantly and gazed into her eyes. What she saw there made her heart swell further with happiness. She reached out and caressed Gabrielle’s cheek. They looked at each other as Gabrielle leaned into Xena’s caress and reached for Xena’s other hand. Gabrielle brought Xena’s callused hand to her lips and kissed the open palm softly.

"Gabrielle, thank you. You always come through for me, no matter what." Xena whispered.

"That’s what friends are for." Gabrielle murmured and smiled. She wrapped her arms around Xena’s neck and leaned forward kissing the warrior on the lips. Xena pulled Gabrielle into her arms and they lay back on the soft forest floor. Xena then nuzzled Gabrielle’s neck.

"Xena, we really do need to have a chat with Ares."

"Gabrielle, right now Ares can wait."

Xena leaned forward and reclaimed Gabrielle’s lips. Gabrielle was completely unaware that they were being observed by the two Gods from Mount Olympus. Xena, on the other hand, sensed their presence but chose to ignore them, for now.

"You have to admit, Ares, my Amazon Queen is quite clever and very resourceful." Artemis commented wryly.

"Yeah. I guess I have to admire her in a way. She was rather cunning, and smart." Ares said as his scowl dropped into an amused grin.

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