This story contains adult themes depicting explicit sexual relations between consenting adult women. If you are under the age of 18 or reading this material is illegal where you live, please do not read further. The author accepts no legal responsibility for non-compliance with this warning.
Xena was aware of everything going on around her. Lyceus had just tossed her the sword and wanted her to use it. But she couldn't. She didn't want to return to the life of being the Warrior Princess. She didn't want to go back to being known as the Destroyer of Nations. She wanted to stay with Lyceus. She wanted to stay with Gabrielle. A different Gabrielle, it was true, but it was Gabrielle, nonetheless. She was tired of fighting, tired of being a target, tired of looking over her shoulder. And maybe, just maybe, this Gabrielle could learn to love her the way that her Gabrielle loved the Warrior Princess. She also knew that this Gabrielle would be safer, much safer than the other one had ever been. And so Xena held the sword at her side. She fought without its edge slicing into human flesh. She knew how to debilitate her foes without killing them. She had at least learned that in all her years of fighting. It was working and she was proud of herself. Even after Lyceus implored "Don't fight Destiny!", Xena held her killing instinct in check. A difficult task indeed as she knew that many of the worthless scum that fought for Mezentius, Caputius and Krykus deserved to be dead.
But then Mezentius charged at Gabrielle. Xena saw him before he even made a step towards her beloved. And she saw the sword in Gabrielle's hand pointed at the treacherous warlord, aimed directly at his gut. She saw the gleam in the slave girl's eyes as she readied herself for her first triumph over death. But Xena would have none of it. She wouldn't allow this Gabrielle her first kill. In her mind's eye, she saw Gabrielle plunge the sharp sword into the slaver's stomach and imagined Gabrielle relishing in the glory of her deed. She wiped the image from her mind and within an instant, dispatched of the soldier in front of her. She came to Gabrielle's aid, simultaneously knocking the sword out of her hand and dropping the surprised Mezentius on his back. Lyceus finished the deed and ended Mezentius' life in one fell swoop of his blade. With Krykus, Caputius and Mezentius all dead, their stunned henchmen fled the great hall and Xena's small band of rebels escaped the warlords' fortress unscathed.
The town of Amphipolis was a town in celebration. At first they were stunned by the news that the three warlords had banded together with the intention of invading their small town and making all its inhabitants their slaves. Then they made secret plans to defend against the great warlords and with the leadership of Lyceus, Xena and Maphias, they killed 'em all. In the aftermath, all of the surrounding towns came to celebrate as well, as they knew that if Amphipolis went down to the trifeckta, they would most certainly be next. Luckily, the warlords were defeated and they all knew it was simply a blessing from the gods. They gave thanks in joyous celebration.
Gabrielle sat in the corner of the tavern in uneasy silence. She wanted to run away from this place. Away from all these people who had long since succumbed to the various alcoholic intoxicants. She hated the raucous noise they made during the festivities. It reminded her too much of Mezentius' drunken outbursts. And always by the end of the night, she would be expected to join him in "celebration". She shuddered again at the memory. She made up her mind sometime in the last full day, that she would rather die than become a slave again. Gabrielle took a long sip from her wine goblet and watched from afar the dark haired woman who had saved her life.
She observed the heroic woman from Amphipolis wade her way through the crowd. Xena nodded at Gabrielle, indicating she would be there momentarily. The young girl smiled back an acknowledgement. She knew Xena was obligated to accept all the thanks and well wishes the townsfolk were bestowing upon her, but Gabrielle wanted to leave this tavern and go back to Xena's dwelling. She was tired. Every muscle and bone in her body ached, but she didn't want to walk the distance by herself. She still didn't feel very safe. She was afraid one of Mezentius' men would jump out of the bush and drag her back into slavery. Even the noisy tavern with all its painful memories was better than being alone out there in the dark. Soon she would ask Xena to take her back.
There was something about the brave woman that intrigued Gabrielle like no one else before. Her heart sank when she noticed Maphias at Xena's side. Gabrielle didn't know why, but she felt a pang of jealousy at the way he held his arm around Xena's waist. She had heard they were to be married soon, and she knew she should be happy for the couple, but she didn't want to watch him put his hands all over his bride-to-be. She wanted to be the one to----
"How are you doing?"
"I'm fine, Xena," Gabrielle answered, although she hardly felt fine.
"You don't look fine, you look tired," Xena said and put a reassuring hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. She turned to Maphias.
"I'm going to take Gabrielle up to the house. She needs to get some rest." Xena looked back at Gabrielle for confirmation. The young girl nodded agreeably.
Maphias' face fell in disappointment. He was hoping Xena would spend the night with him. Granted, he knew she had been acting strange lately, but they were betrothed and he was hoping Xena would be in the mood to celebrate, but this young slave girl dashed all his plans for the evening. He gave in to Xena's determination as he knew it was futile to argue with her once her mind was made up. And clearly it was.
"All right," Maphias said. "Take good care of her, Xena. I'm sure it's been a long day for her." Then he gave Xena a peck on the check. "I'll see you in the morning." Xena ignored the subtle display of affection, her eyes completely focused on Gabrielle. She turned to the girl, effectively dismissing her betrothed.
"Come on, let's go, sleepyhead," Xena smiled at the redhead.
They walked through the town's laneways in silence as the noise coming from the tavern became a distant din. Xena was grateful to have an excuse to get away from the man to whom she was betrothed. She supposed he was nice enough, but with Gabrielle in her life, even if it wasn't the Gabrielle she knew, she didn't want to think about anyone else. All she remembered was the love of her life, in that other life, who loved her and guided her back time and again along the path to redemption. She could never give that up so easily.
"I'm sorry I made you leave the party early," Gabrielle broke the silence of the night.
"Don't be sorry. Actually, I was dying to get out of there," Xena said evenly, a crooked smile played on her lips.
Gabrielle paused for a moment, unsure if Xena was merely humouring her. "You were?" she asked dumbfounded.
"I can only take so many toasts to my so-called bravery and Lyceus was no help, reminding everyone every five minutes." She didn't mention that Gabrielle had also given her the perfect excuse to get away from Maphias.
Gabrielle nodded in agreement, the realisation dawning on her that she had read Xena perfectly. "Yeah, you did seem more and more uncomfortable with every cheer."
"You noticed that, did you?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle said quietly, not quite sure why Xena wasn't surprised that she did, even if everyone else was oblivious.
"I'm just sorry I didn't come and get you sooner," Xena said regretfully.
"Sooner? What do you mean?"
"I saw how uncomfortable you were, it must have reminded you of.... you know.... him," Xena didn't even want to say the evil slaver's name for fear her anger would rise up again in full force. She steeled herself against it, willing herself not to think of the things he may have done to her beloved. She took in a deep breath and gained control of her emotions.
"Yeah, but how did you know....?" Gabrielle didn't finish her thought. A wave of relief washed over her as she realised that this amazing woman just knew her heart, but she didn't know why and frankly she didn't care. She was too tired to think of that now. They approached Xena's dwelling and entered the dark house.
"Here, try this on." Xena handed Gabrielle a sleeping shift that had once belonged to her mother. Her heart ached again knowing that her mother was not there to celebrate the victory of the town, but she promised herself that from now on, she would make her mother proud of her. There would be no Warrior Princess for her mother to be ashamed.
Gabrielle turned her back and removed the dress Xena had given her earlier. It once belonged to Xena's mother and she felt honoured that the older woman felt she was worthy enough to honour the memory. Gabrielle's own mother had disappeared nearly two winters ago, along with her father and sister. She had not heard a word about them since she had been kidnapped into slavery and she was certain that her parents were long dead. Although she had never really gotten along with her family, very much feeling like a fish out of water, still she had never wished them dead. She was fairly certain her sister, Lila, was alive, as a girl her age was a prime commodity, but she had no idea where she could have gone or to whom she had been sold. But woe to those if Gabrielle ever found out. She was certain she would kill them with her bare hands if need be.
"I have some healing salve I could put on those scars," Xena offered, breaking Gabrielle out of her tormenting past.
"What?" Gabrielle turned to look at her scarred back, cringing, like she always did when she looked at the etched lines. They were an all too graphic reminder of her recent station in life. "Sure," she answered knowing that Xena was only trying to be helpful. Maybe the healing salve could erase some of the scars and the bitter memories that went along with them.
Gabrielle sat patiently on the bed as Xena prepared the herbs and began to apply the pasty ointment to her back. She leaned into the strength of Xena's strong hands and despite her tense nerves, she began to relax. She was surprised to find herself enjoying the gentle ministrations and felt tingling sensations all the way down to her loins. It unnerved her. Her body had never responded to a woman before, but somehow she knew Xena was no ordinary woman. Heretofore, the only pleasurable sex she had been allowed was from Mezentius, and that was hardly what she would call pleasure. However, despite her unfortunate circumstances, on occasion he excited her and she would rather die than admit it. Actually, she hated herself for responding to such a monster at all. But, Xena was different. Gabrielle was enjoying herself and relaxed into the soothing hands of her saviour.
Xena rubbed the balmy ointment into the taut muscles of the young girl's back. Her heart broke as she traced the deep lines that criss-crossed her flesh. Some were more recent lashes and some very old. But each one served as a reminder of what might not have been if The Warrior Princess had saved Gabrielle and her sister from slavers that fateful day when Draco attacked Potedeia. She shuddered and closed her eyes against the images that haunted her of what that scum Mezentius had inflicted on this Gabrielle. It was clear that not only did she suffer enormous pain at his hands, but he also effectively silenced the wondrous oral gifts the woman had to offer.
"There you go," Xena said, trying to lighten the mood of the suddenly stifling room. It gave her great pleasure to be able to touch Gabrielle, even though she knew she may never be as intimate with this young woman as she was in that other place. She lifted up the sides of Gabrielle's shift and adjusted it securely on her back. She started to leave the room and say goodnight. She knew the young woman had to be utterly exhausted.
"Xena," Gabrielle stopped her before she could reach the door. "Could you stay, I mean, would it be all right, I mean, I don't think I could sleep all alone in here." Her eyes pleaded with Xena with an unspoken fear. She had never slept alone in a room in her entire life. First, growing up, she had shared a room with her sister, Lila, and then the slavers. Well, slaves were never allowed to sleep alone.
"Sure, Gabrielle, I'll just go change." Xena turned and left the room quickly although to the untrained eye, she had left at a normal pace. She didn't want Gabrielle to see the tears that were about to flow freely from her eyes. They were tears of sadness that the woman she loved was in so much pain and fear. She would gladly comfort her and protect her from any demon that threatened to frighten her away. She quickly changed into her sleeping shift and returned to the room where Gabrielle lay.
When she returned, Gabrielle was under the blanket and stared absently into the candlelit warmth of the room. Despite her fatigue, the young woman had not fallen asleep, even though Xena thought for certain she would. Xena slipped quietly under the covers and lay on her side. She enjoyed the sheer comfort of having Gabrielle so near to her. She suppressed an urgent need to wrap her arms around the young woman and annihilate her fears. She wanted to make beautiful love to the woman of her dreams and kiss away her pain. But she held back, knowing that the woman lying in the bed was not her beloved, she was not her Gabrielle. Nevertheless, it gave Xena comfort just to be able to lay there and shield the woman from unknown terrors.
"I'm afraid he'll come and take me back," Gabrielle said into the quiet room.
"Oh Gabrielle," Xena whispered.
She lifted herself from the bed and opened her arms to the former slave. The young woman readily accepted Xena's welcoming embrace.
"He won't come back," Xena soothed, as she held Gabrielle tight to her chest. "He's dead and he's never coming back," she promised. "You're safe with me, Gabrielle, I promise. You're safe with me."
Xena held Gabrielle in her arms for a long time before she heard the gentle even breath of her slumber. What she expected to hear were tears from Gabrielle but none were forthcoming and she noticed that the only tears of the night were her own.
Xena felt Gabrielle's hot tongue snake its way down her abdomen. It melted the soft skin of her belly button and continued its descent to the hairs below. Her triangle was soaked with the juices of her excitement and Xena could not suppress the moan that erupted from her throat. Gabrielle never failed to ignite the passion within her and she never tired of the bard's manipulative tongue. With Gabrielle's encouragement, Xena's thighs began to angle towards the bard's mouth as she desperately needed to feel Gabrielle's hot tongue between her legs. She surged upward and intertwined her fingers into the bard's hair, aiming her face closer to her need, then------
Xena awoke with a start, a sensuous groan stuck in her throat. She looked down at the sleeping woman and the sudden realisation of where she was flooded her consciousness. She inhaled a deep breath, grateful that she had not disturbed the girl's heavy sleep. She enjoyed the feel of the smaller woman on her chest and decided to lay in bed a while longer, at least until Gabrielle was ready to rise.
Xena absentmindedly stroked Gabrielle's hair, enjoying the protective comfort she provided the young woman. She glanced at Gabrielle clutched at her waist and smiled. The young woman had held her throughout the night and even in her sleep, Xena felt an occasional arm draw her closer. She refused to entertain the nightmares the girl might have had in the middle of the night, and was awakened periodically by the sound of Gabrielle's helpless cries. She held the girl tighter and smoothed her soft golden hair. In the quiet of the early morning, she was content just to lay there and feel the rhythmic breathing of the sleeping woman. Would she ever want to go back to her old life and the way things were before? she asked herself for the millionth time since she'd been there. She didn't know, she only knew she had to help this Gabrielle.
Gabrielle stirred in her sleep and nudged her face deeper between Xena's breasts. Her hand roamed up the length of Xena's side and sent goosebumps along the sensitive flesh. The young woman moaned slightly and Xena wondered what the girl was dreaming about. Despite knowing that this was not her Gabrielle, her loins began to stir to the girl's gentle touch. She knew she should awaken her before things went too far, but she didn't want to disturb Gabrielle from her deep slumber. She was hard pressed not to pretend that this young woman was her very own Gabrielle from that other life.
Then she felt Gabrielle's hand reach under her shift and caress her thigh. It took all of her formidable strength to stop Gabrielle from going much further. She shook the young woman's shoulder, waking her and Xena sat upright in an effort to pry the girl off of her. If she didn't stop now, she knew she'd do something now she would later regret. She didn't want to take advantage of the girl's vulnerability and ask for sexual favours. For Zeus' sake, the girl had been through enough of that in her recent past, she knew.
"Xena?" Gabrielle awoke confused. "Are you going somewhere?" She touched the small of Xena's back and the warrior froze inside. By the gods, why does her touch do that to me? Xena wondered. This Gabrielle, that Gabrielle, it didn't matter. If only, she wished silently, if only.
She turned to face Gabrielle, who looked even more ravishing and beautiful in the morning light. "No, I'm right here, I just had a crick in my neck and I needed to sit up for a minute. That's all." Xena twisted her neck a few times and elicited a few snaps and cracks to convince Gabrielle of the excuse she'd made up.
"Do we have to get up now?" Gabrielle asked.
"No, not if you don't want to." Xena laid back down on the bed.
"Thanks for staying with me last night," the young woman said quietly.
"It was nothing, really, I didn't mind at all."
"When do you have to be at the tavern, don't you have to be there early?"
"My brother usually handles the early morning crowd, I'll go over a little while later."
"Are you going to be sparring with swords later? I'd like to watch and maybe learn----"
"No!" Xena gasped. "I don't want you to learn how to use a sword."
"Why?" Gabrielle asked, puzzled by Xena's reaction. "If you can learn, I can learn too."
"No, it's just not something you should learn." Xena was emphatic.
"Why? You don't trust a slave with a weapon? Is that it?" Gabrielle asked bitterly.
"No, that's not it!" Xena cried. She grasped both of Gabrielle's shoulders and held them. "Listen to me, Gabrielle. Once you pick up a sword, you become a target."
"Yeah, and once you don't have a weapon, you become a victim." Gabrielle's caustic tone sliced a dagger straight through Xena's heart. "Just teach me some defensive moves then," Gabrielle pleaded. "Some weapon for self-defence. I've seen you fight, Xena, you're good. Why don't you want to teach me?"
"Because once you kill someone, everything changes. I've seen what can happen to people and I don't want that to happen to you."
Gabrielle pondered Xena's answer for a moment, surprised that Xena would care what happened to her. "Have you ever killed anyone?" she asked, wondering if Xena spoke from personal experience.
The question hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity. Xena took in a deep breath and contemplated the inherent lie in the question. No, was the answer in this life. But in reality, she had killed many times over and she had been forever changed by it. Either way, her answer would not be the truth.
"No," she croaked, her voice barely above a whisper.
"All I know is if I had known some self-defence, I would have at least had a fighting chance against Draco's men."
"No you wouldn't have, you would've been dead."
"Well, maybe that would have been better," Gabrielle muttered.
"Please, don't say that!" Xena exclaimed.
"Look, Xena, all I know is, I never want to be kidnapped and taken into slavery ever again. Please, just teach me a defensive weapon or some moves. Please?"
Reluctantly, Xena gave in, "All right," she said sadly, although she had absolutely no intention of allowing Gabrielle to pick up a sword.
Gabrielle approached as Xena sparred with the amateur militia. She was in awe of Xena's prowess. There wasn't a man among them that was better than the raven haired beauty. Only Xena's brother, Lyceus, was an equal match, and at times, even he was losing the battle. The strength and grace with which she easily dispatched of her simulated foes made the young girl tingle inside. She had never seen a woman with such power and athleticism and pure grace. Rumour had it that the Amazons were once a fierce and noble tribe, but where were they now, she snorted. Disbanded mostly, after being destroyed by the recently deceased warlord, Krykus.
Gabrielle hovered on the perimeter of the practice area but she very much wanted to be a part of the combatants' circle. Whoever said that women couldn't be a part of the town's defence was sadly mistaken. All they had to do was take one look at the tall dark haired woman that held her own against Amphipolis' toughest men and they had their answer. Granted, Gabrielle knew she could never be as strong or skilled as Xena, but still, given time, she was certain she could hold her own. And woe to any person who dared attack her after that.
"Xena!" Gabrielle yelled above the clanking of swords and other weapons under the midday sun. Xena smoothly extricated herself from the matching pairs as the twenty or so participants continued uninterrupted.
Xena walked the short distance to where Gabrielle stood, hoping against hope that the young woman would forget about her desire to learn the power of a sword. She made a short detour to a nearby tree and picked up a long branch that could double as a walking stick. She strode over to Gabrielle and handed the raw weapon to the redheaded woman.
"Here, you can start with this."
Gabrielle took the stick from Xena and looked at it with disdain, holding it at arm's length.
"What in Hades is this supposed to be?" she sputtered in exasperation.
"It's a weapon, if you----" Xena started to explain.
"Xena," Gabrielle cut her off. "I thought you were going to show me the sword. Don't treat me like a child. What am I supposed to do with this? Break it over somebody's head?"
"Exactly," Xena said evenly. She held her rising anger in check and gritted her teeth at Gabrielle's immature and ignorant behaviour. This Gabrielle was certainly less in awe of her than the other one and she wasn't sure how long her patience would hold out. She decided a vivid demonstration of the stick's power was in order. Xena turned to the practising men behind her and called four of them over to where she and Gabrielle stood. She ordered them to attack her.
Instantly, Xena snatched the weapon from Gabrielle's hand and, without turning around, drove the back end of the stick into the midsection of one man, immediately taking the wind out of his lungs. He collapsed to the ground in a heap. Without pause, Xena whirled and drove the front end of the stick into a second man's abdomen, knocking him out of the fray. She twirled the stick high above her head and swiped the side of the third man's head, dropping him to the ground, and the final man, she aimed behind his knees and took his legs out from under him. All four men were down on the ground writhing in pain before Gabrielle realised what Xena had done. Gabrielle gazed at her in wide-eyed wonder.
"Take it easy, Xena," one man groaned from the ground.
"Do you have to hit so hard?" another whined.
"Sorry, boys," Xena said with a smirk on her face as the men limped off to re-join the practice circle. She stood looking at Gabrielle as she leaned with one hand on her staff and the other on her hip.
"Xena, I.I.I.I....I'm sorry," Gabrielle said contritely, looking down at the ground. Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and forced the young woman to look up at her.
"Hey, apology accepted," Xena smiled warmly and for a moment azure blue eyes got lost in emerald green. She wanted to take Gabrielle in her arms and kiss her full on the mouth and for a fleeting moment, she knew the young beauty wouldn't object. Finally, Xena reined in her emotions and said, "Listen to me, Gabrielle. A staff can be a powerful weapon. It's a good place to start and besides," she said as she reached up to brush a strand of hair away from Gabrielle's face. "I didn't help you escape just so you could get yourself killed."
Both women laughed as the tension of the day melted away.
Xena and Lyceus silently prepared food for the evening meal, each lost in their own thoughts of the day. Gabrielle was in the other room preparing the table for four settings.
"I've invited Maphias to join us for dinner tonight," Lyceus said, shattering the silence like a stone crashing through a pane of glass.
"Oh, yeah?" Xena asked distractedly. Her mind was firmly fixed on a certain strawberry blonde whose body was beginning to sprout muscles from the daily training routine Xena inflicted upon her in the past quarter-moon. When they sparred that afternoon, Xena allowed the girl to trip her with the staff, but then Gabrielle was instantly sorry that she may have hurt the bigger woman. Xena grinned at the memory of being prone on her back, feigning injury and then pulling Gabrielle down on top of her. In the blink off an eye, Xena had them rolling over so that she was the victor once more. Xena's hair hung down around her shoulders and she saw an unmistakable glint of desire in Gabrielle's eyes. Both women stopped giggling and laughing as time suspended. Xena began to lower her lips to meet Gabrielle's. The younger woman's lips parted in anticipation, her eyes questioning Xena's intention. And then, someone yelled her name and came running over the hill on the horizon. Lyceus needed her back at the tavern. The spell was broken as Xena leaped off a prone Gabrielle and extended a hand to help her up.
"----remember him, don't you?" Lyceus was saying.
"Huh?" A smile as wide as the Aegean Sea spread across Xena's face.
Lyceus took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly, barely containing his frustration. "Maphias. Tall guy. Dark hair. Cute, in a goofy sort of way. Remember him?"
"Yeah, you said he's coming to dinner."
"That's right," he said condescendingly. "Rumour has it that you two are engaged. There's supposed to be a wedding. It's all over town, I hear."
"No need to get sarcastic, Lyceus."
"Well, he's been wondering when he's going to get to see his betrothed. You've been spending so much time with that girl, Gabrielle."
"I've been training her in self-defence. It's very important to her."
"Yeah, I'm sure it is. But do you have to spend so much time with her, Xena? At least see Maphias once in while, you're starting to make him think you're never going to marry him."
Xena had no answer for this. She actually had no intention of marrying Maphias, especially now that Gabrielle was back in her life. However, now was not the time to discuss it with Lyceus. She would have to talk to Maphias first.
"I'll talk to him," Xena finally said.
"Well, actually, I told him you invited him over, so...." Lyceus admitted sheepishly, knowing full well that his sister hated it when he made decisions for her.
Xena raised an eyebrow at him, but somehow she couldn't get angry with him. He meant well, Maphias was his friend, and neither of them had any idea that Xena was madly in love with Gabrielle. She forgave him.
Lyceus quickly changed the subject. "So what's with Gabrielle, anyway? I mean she follows you around like a little puppy dog, she never leaves your sight, not even to sleep."
"She's afraid the slavers will come back."
"Yeah, I can understand that. Those warlords were atrocious from the stories I've heard. So when do I get to spend time with her?"
"What do you mean?" Xena asked perplexed, clearly missing the intention of her brother's question.
"I mean, I'm unattached, she's unattached....." he trailed off letting Xena fill in the blank.
"She's not interested," Xena said quickly, straining against the pang of jealousy that swept through her.
"How do you know that? She told you that already?"
"No," Xena said through gritted teeth. "She just isn't!" Xena said adamantly, unable to keep the anger out of her voice. She turned her back away from Lyceus and pretended to busy herself by washing some vegetables in the water basin.
"Xena, why are you getting so angry? I just asked a simple question."
"I'm not angry," she said, although the strain in her words belied the truth. "It's just that she's had it rough lately and she doesn't need any, um, complications in her life right now," Xena offered lamely, hoping that excuse would appease Lyceus for the time being.
"Yeah, you're right, Xena, I understand," Lyceus replied, although he had no idea why Xena was so upset with him. His only explanation was that he knew Xena was extremely loyal to her friends and he supposed she felt especially protective of the former slave girl.
"I'll go help Gabrielle get the table ready, okay?" he offered, anxious to leave Xena alone with her thoughts. Sometimes he just didn't understand his older sister at all but it was best just to let her be. Quickly and quietly, he left the room.
Xena, Gabrielle, Maphias, and Lyceus shared the evening meal amidst innocuous small talk. Maphias chattered on about town business and Xena listened half-heartedly. Inside, Xena was seething and had trouble maintaining her civility as Lyceus fawned over Gabrielle like a lovesick boy spellbound by Aphrodite. Every little casual touch between them brought her blood to a boil. To her immense relief, Gabrielle didn't seem to reciprocate and to Xena's discerning eyes, she seemed to remain cordial at best. In fact, several times she caught the young girl steal glances her way when Lyceus wasn't looking. It made her heart melt and it was the only thing that kept her rooted to her seat.
"So is everybody ready for dessert?" Lyceus cheerfully asked when the courses of the meal were finished. Everyone agreed dessert was in order. "Gabrielle, could you help me with this?" he asked.
Xena glared at Lyceus as he led Gabrielle into the room and left her alone with Maphias. She knew her brother was being considerate in allowing her some time alone with her groom-to-be but all she could think of was that he would be spending time alone with her Gabrielle. Stop it! Xena scolded herself. This Gabrielle is not yours. But Maphias is, she reminded herself with resignation. She brought her thoughts back to the present and the man who sat beside her. She dreaded the devastating news she would have to give him but she knew it would be best that they got it out of the way. And soon.
"Xena, could we take a walk after dinner?"
"Sure, Maphias," she said distractedly.
"What is it? You seem distracted," he said.
"Well, we need to talk," Xena said as she pulled herself together and gained control of her thoughts. Gabrielle was certainly driving her to distraction and she needed to get things straightened out with Maphias. It wasn't fair not to tell him that the wedding was off.
"What is it? Has something happened?" he asked.
"I don't want to talk about it right now, I'll tell you later," Xena answered softly. She didn't want to break his heart in the moments before Gabrielle and Lyceus returned to the room. As if on cue, they entered the room with dessert, saving Xena the agony of revealing all before she was ready. Her face lit up again when she saw Gabrielle approach the table. Xena's eyes followed her every move as her hair fell across her shoulders in radiant beauty.
Maphias watched the transformation in Xena's face when Gabrielle re-entered the room. His heart sank and he had an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Something had changed, he knew. And he also knew it had something to do with the young woman, Gabrielle.
Xena and Maphias walked along the road that led away from Amphipolis. Nocturnal sounds enveloped them and the heavy night air fostered an awkwardness that was difficult to surmount. The uneasy silence between them was clouded with Xena's thoughts that continually drifted back to the lovely vision of Gabrielle waiting in their room. Xena dreaded the news she had to give Maphias but she couldn't go on pretending that she would follow through with their marriage. However, she preferred not to tell him how she felt about Gabrielle just in case the young woman chose not to return her affections.
They broke the silence in the exact same moment and stopped along the trail to regard each other.
"You go ahead," Xena offered.
"All right. I know you haven't been yourself lately and.... well, I just want you to know that I'm a very patient man. I told you before I'd wait for you and I mean it." Xena followed him off the path as he held out his hand and led her to a nearby tree. He wrapped his arms around her and tried to kiss her but she pulled away.
"What's wrong, Xena?"
"I don't think this is a good idea," she answered.
"What? A man wanting to kiss his bride-to be? Since when is that not a good idea?"
Xena held her breath a long time, wondering just how she would break the news to him.
"I'm sorry, Maphias, it's just that----" she faltered.
"What, Xena? Will you please tell me what's going on?" he pleaded.
"I don't think we should get married," she finally admitted.
"I realise right now isn't a good time, Xena, but once the dust settles and things get back to normal----" he left the rest of his plans unspoken.
Xena took in a deep breath and looked up at the brilliant mass of the speckled dark sky, unable to return Maphias' hopeful gaze. For a fleeting moment, she wished she was back in that other world with her other Gabrielle. She wished that she was making slow sensuous love under these same stars with the only person she loved above all the realms of the gods. But then she knew Lyceus would be dead and the Warrior Princess would be alive and well. For Zeus' sake, she mused, life used to present her with much easier choices.
"I don't think so, Maphias," she said quietly. "You and I can't----"
"What do you mean, Xena? You don't want to get married? The engagement is off?!" He asked angrily through clenched vocal chords.
"I'm sorry," Xena said softly.
"But why?!" he nearly shouted.
"I don't know."
"Yyou, yyou, don't know?!" Maphias sputtered. "You're breaking off our engagement and you don't know?!"
Xena just glared at him but said nothing, her own anger rising at the tone he was taking with her. It wasn't easy for her to hurt him this way, but she knew in the long run, he'd be much happier with someone else. Someone who loved him. Even if this Gabrielle never returned her affections, her heart would forever belong to the strawberry blonde. She began to walk further down the road to allow Maphias to cool off.
They walked along in silence for several paces.
"Xena, I don't understand it. I don't know what's gotten into you lately. Is there----?" he paused. "Is there someone else?"
Xena turned sharply toward Maphias. She was about to say something but held her tongue. "No, not really," she said finally. To Xena, it was as close to an honest answer as she could get. Yes, there was someone, but no, not really. She really did not have Gabrielle. That was the truth.
Maphias persisted. "What's that supposed to mean? Either there is or there isn't? Does it have something to with----" Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks as the minute details of the past few days gathered together and struck him like a bolt of lightening from Zeus himself.
"It's Gabrielle, isn't it, Xena?" he accused.
Xena stopped and turned to face him. "What about her?"
"There's something going on between you two, isn't there?"
"There's nothing going on, Maphias," Xena replied, although she sorely wished there was.
"Yes there is. I saw the way you were looking at her at dinner. At the time I wondered about it but I put it out of mind. You're calling off the engagement because of her?!" he asked incredulously.
"It's not like that," Xena said through gritted teeth. The closer Maphias got to the truth, the angrier she became. She wasn't sure if she was more incensed at him for seeing right through her or at herself for behaving like a foolish nymph when Gabrielle was near.
"Xena, she's not worth it," Maphias spat out, not believing a word of Xena's protestations.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"She's just using you, Xena. She wants to learn the sword and as soon as she does, she's going after those slavers. Then where will you be?"
"What are you saying?"
"She's been asking anybody and everybody about a sword and how to use it. She says you won't teach her."
"Well, I won't," Xena admitted. She was disappointed that the girl was going behind her back about the sword, but that could be easily resolved, she assured herself. There was no way Gabrielle could keep something like that a secret for long. She would just have to change Gabrielle's mind about seeking revenge.
"So what are you going to do when she leaves here?"
"I'll go with her," Xena declared, finally conceding that at least something was special between the two women.
"And do what, Xena? Face it. She's ruined, she'll always be just a slave girl. She-----"
Xena's hand sprang up before either she or Maphias realised that she held the fate of his life on the tips of her fingers. The forest around her faded into a forbidding darkness and the sounds of the night were all but rendered mute. Her hand tightened around his throat and she saw nothing but Maphias' bulging eyes frantically search for a sliver of life. He struggled helplessly against her and she wanted nothing more than to squeeze every last drop of blood out of his fragile throat.
"She....is....not....ruined," Xena said, her voice as calm as the waters on a temperate pond. Only her dark cerulean eyes reflected a treacherous rage that could surely end his life.
Fortunately for Maphias, a warning from The Fates, "one drop of blood and everything changes back", echoed through her consciousness and she dropped the gasping man to the ground.
Xena examined her hand in shocked horror while Maphias gasped at her feet. Despite everything, Xena was graphically reminded that her lethal warrior skills remained a constant companion, and with a bad temper to boot.
"Xena!" he choked. "Are....you....crazy?!" he wheezed between breathing in long gulps of air.
"I'm sorry, Maphias." Xena knelt down to help him up.
Maphias regarded her warily and Xena saw the panic reflected in the eyes of a man who had just faced certain death but had somehow managed to miss Charon's boat. He got to his feet under his own power.
"I'm fine," he said overconfidently, trying to clamp down on the alarming terror he felt. "Let's just go back to the village."
Silently, they walked back to Amphipolis, neither one saying a word.
Gabrielle stretched out on the bed and waited for Xena to return. The two candles in the sleeping room they shared illuminated it with muted colours of yellow and orange. She was exhausted from the long day of practising with her staff and helping Xena and Lyceus with the chores of the tavern. Nevertheless, her mind was fully alert. Before she left, Xena gave Gabrielle a reassuring smile that the young woman took to mean she would be back soon. By now, Xena had learned that the young girl would not fall asleep without the older woman by her side. Her nightmares were subsiding, but the nagging fear of Mezentius' return still haunted her subconscious.
Gabrielle's thoughts drifted lazily back to the bright afternoon when she had sparred with Xena. She was becoming quite proficient with the staff but her true interests lie in the lethal power of a sword. She knew someday soon that Xena would teach her the deadly weapon. She had to, it was the only weapon that would make her feel safe. She saw that safety in Xena's eyes when they sparked with a fierceness she had yet to know. And Gabrielle knew that's what she wanted. Then she wanted to find that slaver, Shiros, and know the power of a sword plunging through his heart. One way or another Xena would teach her, whether she wanted to or not. For Gabrielle, it was the only way.
She thought again about how proficient Xena was with a sword and other weaponry and that with her many skills, she would make a great warlord. She wondered if Xena had ever considered it. She was a natural leader and if truth be told, Gabrielle imagined she would look incredible in leather warrior garb. She smiled at the vision and her cheeks flushed involuntarily. Not for the first time since she'd met Xena, she wondered how different she would have felt if Xena did the things to her that Mezentius did. Her heart raced again at the possibilities. She wanted to give Xena pleasure in the most intimate of ways but she was afraid she might reject the affections of a mere slave girl. Make that, ex-slave girl. And besides, Xena was betrothed, she reminded herself.
On the other hand, there was a moment that afternoon when she was quite certain that the raven-haired beauty would kiss her. Her entire body ached to be taken by her and she would have welcomed it completely. But then, they were interrupted by someone calling Xena back to the tavern and the moment was lost. Even at dinner, she found that she couldn't keep her eyes off of Xena, and to her surprise, every time she looked Xena's way, the woman's piercing crystal blue eyes stared right back at her. And every time, her heart swooned into the lovely woman's enchanting gaze.
Gabrielle heard the door open and Xena walked in, as radiant as ever.
"You're still awake?"
"Of course, Xena, I was waiting for you."
Xena quickly changed into her sleeping shift, relieved that Gabrielle hadn't noticed anything was amiss. She wanted to put the incident with Maphias out of her mind. She reached for the healing ointment beside the bed. It had become a nightly ritual between them that Xena would rub the salve into Gabrielle's scars. They both wanted them to heal as swiftly as possible. Xena sat on the bed as Gabrielle lowered the back of her shift to submit to the older woman's healing touch.
"So how was your walk with Maphias?" Gabrielle asked.
"Fine," Xena said curtly, hoping that she could steer the conversation onto another topic. She definitely did not want to go into the details of her little talk with Maphias or the altercation that ensued. She was still ashamed and in a state of shock of how she had overreacted to his unkind words and she didn't want to discuss the subject of the sword right then. She'd had enough arguing for the evening.
In addition to all that, she didn't want to admit to Gabrielle that she and Maphias were no longer betrothed or the reason why. She especially wasn't ready for that. Xena's mind echoed with the wild explanation she could give Gabrielle. Oh, and by the way, Gabrielle, I've known Maphias my entire life and I've only known you for a quarter-moon, so I've decided not to marry him because I'm madly in love with you. And oh, did I mention that on top of that I nearly killed him because he said spoke ill of you? Mad, she would call her, simply mad.
"So when's the wedding?"
"I don't know," Xena answered vaguely. By the gods, she wanted to get off the subject of Maphias. Anything, but him. "These scars are healing nicely, they should be practically gone by the next full moon," she said in an effort to change the subject.
"But----" Gabrielle paused. She could sense that Xena didn't want to talk about Maphias. It was just as well, she didn't want to talk about him either. After dinner, when they first strode off into the night together, Gabrielle fought the onslaught of envy that washed through her, her only comfort knowing that Xena would be back in their room later that night. What she would rather talk about was the near kiss that Xena gave her that afternoon. "Yeah, I'm glad to hear it. Xena, do you think the lines will ever go away completely?"
"Most of them will, but there may be one or two that will stay for a while. This salve is really helping, though." Finally, a new topic, Xena thought. She concentrated on massaging the ointment into Gabrielle's soft skin and shut out all other events of the evening. She focused on her breathing and took the effort to calm herself down.
Soon after, she was faced with a new dilemma. The feel of Gabrielle's smooth skin beneath her skilful hands. She would never get used to simply touching Gabrielle this way without feeling something. By the gods, her skin was so soothing and in her other life, this kind of touching often led them into lovemaking. It was with great effort, that she withheld her hands from wandering further down Gabrielle's back. "There you go, all finished."
Gabrielle turned around, but didn't pull up her shift like she usually did. She watched as Xena's eyes immediately zeroed in on her breasts, then she paused a moment, and self-consciously looked away. Xena returned the ointment back to its place on the bedside table.
"We should get some rest now," Xena said as she blew out the candles and lay back on the bed. She turned on her side away from Gabrielle. Did this young girl really know how she was effecting her? Xena wondered. If she didn't know any better, she would swear the girl was flirting with her. And she wanted nothing more than to take her, but maybe it was just wishful thinking on her part. She supposed that if she had kissed Gabrielle earlier that afternoon, she would have her answer but she still wasn't sure what her reaction would have been. She couldn't bear the thought of this Gabrielle rejecting her romantic overtures.
Gabrielle lay quietly in the darkened room. She was disappointed that Xena hadn't taken the bait. For a moment, she was sure she saw an unmitigated hunger in Xena's eyes. But then, Xena turned away. Maybe it was just wishful thinking on her part. She wondered what had changed between now and this afternoon. Unless. Unless she misread Xena's intention. Maybe she had just imagined that Xena was about to kiss her. Maybe Xena's visit with Maphias changed her mind. Oh no, her mind screamed. That betrothal thing again. Gabrielle closed her eyes hoping that Morpheus would come soon and escort her into dreamland.
Xena awoke just before First Light, like she had done every day of her life since she could remember. She was still on her side and Gabrielle clutched at her waist, her full breasts mashing into her back. Xena remembered the sight of the young woman's breasts from the night before. She had ached to caress them, but she was afraid she had misread Gabrielle's intention and didn't want to frightened the young girl. Gabrielle stirred in her sleep and unconsciously slipped a hand over Xena's breast, shaking her out of her reverie. She wasn't sure how long she could refrain from seducing the young woman. Her nipple stood at attention and despite her best efforts, her loins surged with a tingling desire. It was uncanny how this Gabrielle was so much like her own and somehow her body knew it. She removed the roaming hand back to her waist and covered it with her own.
"So what happened to your friend?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena was surprised Gabrielle was awake. She wondered for just how long, but she pretended nothing was amiss. "My friend?"
"The one you said I reminded you of. What was her name?"
"She's gone now," Xena answered cryptically, avoiding the revelation of her friend's name. Despite being awake, Gabrielle continued to press her breasts against Xena's back and it was driving the warrior to distraction, however, she didn't bother to adjust her position.
"It sounds like you two were very close. Were you?"
"Yes, we were," Xena answered softly, wondering what Gabrielle was getting at.
"Like sisters?" Gabrielle persisted. "Or more?" she asked. After a moment, she brushed her lips lightly across the back of Xena's shoulder, raising tiny goosebumps across her tender flesh.
Xena lay motionless, wondering if she imagined the whisper of Gabrielle's lips graze her skin. Gabrielle was quiet for a moment, even though Xena felt her shift behind her as her hand moved up along Xena's side to rest close to her breast. Too close.
"Was she beautiful?" Gabrielle continued her questioning, her breath caressing the fine hairs on Xena's neck.
"Yes," Xena croaked, her breath accelerating at a rapid pace.
"As beautiful as you?" Gabrielle asked as she bit down into the nape of Xena's neck, while her hand found a resting place on Xena's generous bosom. Xena moaned involuntarily.
"Don't----" she gasped.
"Don't feel obligated," Xena said, unable to face Gabrielle for she surely knew her resolve would collapse if she looked into the young woman's eyes. She was mightily afraid that Gabrielle felt indebted to her and that her repayment was sexual favours, like she had done for the past two winters of her slave's life. She wanted Gabrielle badly, but she did not want the young woman under those circumstances in spite of her body's carnal betrayal.
"I don't, Xena." Gabrielle nipped at the lobe and breathed hotly into the warrior's ear. "You're beautiful and you do things to me." The redhead emphasised her point by relaxing the full of her body into Xena's back. "I've never been with a woman before but you're all I think about," she whispered. She reached for Xena's hand and squeezed it between her legs, forcing Xena to roll over to face her. What she saw was a golden-haired goddess with shining emerald eyes.
"Does this feel like an obligation to you?" Gabrielle asked. Xena stared unblinking at Gabrielle and swallowed hard. Her hand was saturated by Gabrielle's overflowing juices and she knew no woman could ever fake a reaction like that. It matched her own aching need and she no longer wanted to hold back her passion.
"No, but I didn't think you would-----" she managed to say before her words died in her throat. She watched as Gabrielle removed her shift to reveal her ample breasts. The nipples were hardened by her arousal and the hunger in her eyes glowed in the pre-dawn light. Gabrielle guided Xena's hand to the fullness of her breast and the warrior grazed her thumb across an erect nipple, eliciting a low moan from the young woman.
"Xena, please----" Gabrielle whispered as she offered her breast to Xena's mouth. "Show me." The warrior hungrily sought out the waiting nipple and sucked on it greedily. She pulled the erect nub between her lips and swirled her tongue around its tiny head. A corresponding moan escaped Gabrielle's lips as she surrendered to Xena's oral pleasures. Finally, Xena's mouth released the defenceless nipple and hunted down the other sensitive nub. Her tongue traced looping circles around the fleshy mounds and settled on the second hard pebble. Xena had almost forgotten how much she missed her own Gabrielle. She could spend hours getting lost in her lover's ample breasts and sometimes her Gabrielle allowed her the luxury. But this was a new time and a new place and a new Gabrielle. A Gabrielle who appreciated her lavish attentions just as much.
Xena pushed Gabrielle back on the bed and took a direct route to her mouth. She wanted to capture the young woman's lips and claim them as her own and soon discovered a soft warm mouth eagerly waiting for her. Both women groaned upon contact and Xena slipped her tongue inside, whirling a passionate dance of love. Xena laid her full body on top of Gabrielle's and the warrior was beside herself with desire. Her hands roamed the length of the smaller woman's torso as she felt soft curves melt into her own. She heard Gabrielle's grunts as the smaller woman tried to remove Xena's shift. It was the only thing that stood in the way of flesh upon flesh.
Xena leaned back and straddled the waist of the smaller woman. She tugged her shift over her head and tossed it to the floor. Her damp undergarments were quickly discarded as well and her sweating body gleamed in the faint glow of daylight. Her hair hung down across her shoulders and she trailed the strands across Gabrielle's abdomen, raising small goosebumps along her skin. Her probing fingers found Gabrielle's drenched mound and she dipped into the overflowing nectar and inhaled deeply, breathing in the scent of the young woman's arousal. It thrilled her to no end knowing that this Gabrielle was just as eager as the other one always was. Xena covered Gabrielle's mouth with a fierce kiss, then leaned in to nibble on Gabrielle's ear.
"You like what I'm doing, Gabrielle?" Xena whispered huskily as her fingers slithered along the opening of the redhead's hot entrance.
"Yes, very much," Gabrielle moaned.
"Your voice," Xena breathed hotly. "Makes me----" Xena could hardly form coherent sentences as she anticipated the sound of Gabrielle's luscious voice. "Tell me---" Xena moaned as her tongue trailed a path of hot kisses along the redhead's neck, nipping gentle bites along the way. "---how it feels."
"Like I've died and gone to the Elysian Fields," Gabrielle moaned. She raised her hips to meet Xena's fingers but the warrior held back not wanting to enter her just yet. Gabrielle writhed in frustration and she interlaced her fingers through Xena's hair, silently pleading with the warrior that she needed her deep inside.
"Talk to me," Xena murmured against Gabrielle's chest and she began a slow descent to her dripping wet centre.
"By the gods, Xena," Gabrielle moaned huskily, her voice driving Xena further down her abdomen where she left a blaze of searing kisses in her wake. "I'm ready for you, Xena, I need you inside me." Her voice quavered with the heat of passion but it was no less audible in conveying what she desperately needed from Xena.
Xena reached the hairs of Gabrielle's triangle and licked the damp fur doused by the young woman's juices. It took a moment for Gabrielle to realise where Xena's mouth was headed but when she did, her slick opening convulsed with renewed fervour.
"Yes, Xena, yes, I need to feel you on me. I'm so ready, you're driving me crazy, please, l need to feel your tongue. Ohhhhh------" Gabrielle sighed as Xena burrowed her tongue into her liquid opening. A fire raged through her as she felt the vibration of Xena's moans reverberate inside her. For the first time, she felt the soft caress of a woman's mouth upon her and she writhed with undulated passion. Soon, Xena moved her mouth up to Gabrielle's engorged clit and plunged two fingers deep inside her. Gabrielle bucked wildly on the bed as she matched Xena's fingers thrust for thrust. Xena kept her mouth firmly attached to Gabrielle's mound as her tongue flicked ardently at the sensitive bud.
"Oh, Xena, how do you do that?" Gabrielle gasped. "You.... I....." She gave up trying to speak as a shattering orgasm swept through her and left her heaving and panting on the bed. After a few moments, Xena extricated herself from Gabrielle and covered the smaller woman's body with her own. Gabrielle searched out her mouth for a searing kiss and her hand found its way to the warrior's dripping centre.
"Hmm, Xena, you're so wet," Gabrielle whimpered as she slipped first one finger, then two, inside her.
"You're so-----" Xena began to say, but Gabrielle's fingers plunging into her cut off all rational thought. She moaned loudly.
"So I got you just a little excited, didn't I?" Gabrielle panted heavily, as her hand built up a rhythmic beat that matched the steady pulse of their breathing.
"Yes! Gabrielle, ah!-----"
"I like being inside you, Xena, I like feeling how wet I make you. I made you this wet, didn't I?"
Xena merely grunted. The young woman's uninterrupted pumping would have her flying in seconds and she was surprised by the speed that Gabrielle was bringing her to climax. The few words her own Gabrielle uttered during their lovemaking always drove her insane, but it had never been like this. The bard had never been this bold.
Gabrielle continued her verbal assault.
"You make me wet, too, but you already know that, don't you?"
"Yes! Gabrielle, I'm----" Xena couldn't finish her thought as she welcomed the onslaught of her imminent orgasm.
"Do you want to taste me again?"
A guttural growl was all Xena could manage. The thought of burying her face into Gabrielle's sweet centre once again was enough to topple her over the edge and into sheer bliss.
"We better get up, there's a lot of chores to be done this morning," Xena advised, even though she didn't move a muscle and follow her own advice.
"Hmm?" Gabrielle asked as her fingers drew lazy circles on Xena's abdomen. She was content just to rest her head on Xena's chest and listen to the warrior's heartbeat until the end of time.
"I said, we should get up. There's lot of things we have to do today," Xena reminded Gabrielle, although she hardly felt like getting up herself and she knew the young woman wasn't moving anytime soon.
"Uh huh," the redhead answered, although she could scarcely think of anything more important than satisfying the older woman's libidinous needs.
"Can I ask you a question?" Xena questioned.
"Um hm," Gabrielle responded, clearly still in a haze in the afterglow of their lovemaking.
"Did you, um, 'talk', when you were with.... you know.... him?" Xena was curious if the young woman had ever sweet talked during lovemaking before or if it was a first as well. Nevertheless, she clearly had a natural talent for it and she imagined her other Gabrielle would have it too, if they ever tried it.
Gabrielle lifted her head to look at Xena directly in the eye. "No, I never wanted to do that for him," she said. A shadow crossed her face momentarily. "I fantasised about it, though. When I dreamed about the love that Aphrodite intended, often I talked through it." She reached for Xena's hand and kissed the palm, then pressed the back of it to her cheek. "Someone just like you were always in those dreams."
"It was beautiful, Gabrielle. You have a natural talent for it," Xena smiled. She pulled Gabrielle into her strong arms and held her tightly in her embrace. They remained that way for a long time. The chores of the day could wait.
"Xena, what in Hades did you do to Maphias?" Lyceus demanded. He cornered Xena in the cooking room while Gabrielle waited on tables in the main room for the mid-day meal.
"What did he tell you?" she asked guardedly.
"Nothing. He just said that you called off the wedding and that I should tell you to watch your temper. What happened?"
"The wedding is off," Xena said simply, not wishing to go into further detail, especially now that things had changed with Gabrielle.
"I mean, what did you do to him? He looked awful this morning."
"I don't want to talk about it, Lyceus."
"Does this have something to do with Gabrielle, I mean, you've been spending so much time with her lately?"
"No, not really, I just don't want to marry him," Xena replied, although she knew it wouldn't be long before Lyceus figured it out on his own. She could never hold back secrets from her little brother.
Lyceus cocked his head to one side as he saw Xena try very hard to avoid his gaze. Xena could never successfully fib to him, he always knew, and now was no different. Her strange behaviour over the past quarter-moon coalesced in his mind and it became perfectly clear to him what was wrong with Xena. He knew exactly. She'd been struck by Cupid's arrow.
"You're in love with her, aren't you?" he asked quietly. Xena didn't answer, she remained with her back turned against him, not wanting to let her brother see the emotions that threatened to spill down her cheeks. Lyceus closed the distance between them and put a comforting hand on his older sister's shoulder.
"It's okay, Xena. She seems very nice. And beautiful too," he added with a broad smile.
Xena let out a long sigh and exchanged a reassuring hug with her brother, "I'm sorry about Maphias. Really, Lyceus, he's a good man. It's just that Gabrielle, well, she's----" Xena found herself at a loss as to how to describe what she felt about Gabrielle. There were no real words that could do the adorable woman justice.
"Hey, you don't need to explain, I saw the way you were looking at her from the first time you two met. I'm sorry I didn't realise what it meant before." He laughed. "I guess I should consider myself lucky you didn't lose your temper with me, too."
"You got that right, little brother," she laughed as she good-naturedly ruffled the mass of curls on his blonde head.
Xena drove Gabrielle hard in practice. The clacking of wood against wood was the loudest sound heard amidst an occasional grunt or holler.
"Come on, Xena," Gabrielle baited as she parried to her left, which she had determined was Xena's so-called weaker side. "You're holding back."
"You couldn't handle it if I didn't," Xena grinned.
"Oh, yeah? Try me," Gabrielle baited.
Within a few seconds, Gabrielle found herself prone on her back, staring up at the high cloudless sky. She struggled to her feet with a snort.
"No fair, Xena, you didn't even give me a chance."
Xena laughed. "And you think those other guys will?"
"Well, you got a point there. Come on, let's try it again."
"No," Xena said evenly and began to walk towards the tree where the water skins and the rest of their belongings were.
Gabrielle stood watching the sway of her hips for several long moments as she daydreamed about what those hips felt like under her probing hands. An idea percolated in her mind and her face broke out into a broad grin.
She let her staff slip to the ground and crept up behind Xena in the hope of catching her unaware. She aimed for the broad shoulders of the bigger woman and lunged. Xena heard Gabrielle's footsteps from the inception of her plan and stepped aside to catch the smaller woman barrelling over her shoulder. She slid down on top of her in a heap on the ground. Her mouth found Gabrielle's eager lips and the two women rolled one over the other atop the luscious green landscape.
"Well, well, well, what do we have here? Two little lovebirds all alone in the woods?" a male voice bellowed from a nearby copse of trees.
Xena and Gabrielle hastily scrambled to their feet.
The man was instantly recognisable as Shiros, a lieutenant in Mezentius' former army. He was accompanied by Kholeus, another one of the slavers. Both men were heavily armed. Gabrielle instinctively hid behind Xena, half of her warring with the fear that he would sell her to slavers again and the other half wished she had a sword to reward him with a slow, painful death.
"What do you want?" Xena asked calmly. She saw the leer in both men's eyes that spoke volumes about their intentions. They unsheathed their swords for good measure.
"That little slave girl, for starters. Mezentius always said 'hands off', but he's dead now, so the way I see it, she's fair game." Both men steadily closed the distance between the two women, one on either side, like lumbering scruffy book ends.
Xena risked a peek to where her sword was strewn at the base of a tree. Part of her was grateful that it wasn't within easy reach of her lethal hands. It would be all too easy to lay waste to these two scumbags, but instead she comforted herself with the strength of the staff. She knew Gabrielle had left her weapon out in the clearing and only hoped the young woman had enough sense to stay out of it.
"Stay behind me," she murmured to Gabrielle.
Both men advanced on Xena as she positioned herself defensively. Gabrielle backed up to allow Xena room to manoeuvre and her line of sight zeroed in on Xena's sword lying at the nearby tree. Slowly, she crept away from the three combatants and towards the sword, intent on adding another weapon as their last line of defence.
Shiros thrusted his sword at Xena, intent on disabling her grip on the staff. Xena easily side-stepped him and drove her staff into his back, dropping him like a sack of potatoes to the ground. The second man, Kholeus, found an opening but before he could use it, Xena landed a solid blow to his head with the front end of her stick. He fell to the earth in an unconscious heap. Behind her, Shiros grabbed her staff, whirling Xena around to face him and she lost her grip on the weapon as it fell to the ground. She let fly a high kick which Shiros blocked and she used the disadvantage to begin a high arc into a backward body flip.
All time suspended. Xena's world slowed almost to a standstill as the high circle of the flip made her feel as if she were floating freely in space. From her high altitude, she watched from a seemingly great distance as her eyes fell helplessly on Gabrielle. The young woman had raced over to her prized blade, had picked up the heavy weapon and was heading directly into the fray. She aimed Xena's sword at Shiros' back and the solid metal sank deep into him as his life's blood spurted out in all directions. Regaining consciousness, Kholeus struggled to his feet in a daze and saw the young redhead's satisfied grimace as she yanked the sword out of his cohort's back. In retaliation, he plunged his sword deep into her heart. Finally, Xena landed gracefully on the hardened soil. But it was too late.
"Gabrielle!" she screamed, her face contorted in anguish. She raced to the young woman's side and pressed her bloody and lifeless body close to her. "Gabrielle! Oh Gabrielle!" she cried as tears flowed freely down her cheeks. Gabrielle was dead. All time ground to a halt as Xena knew she had a choice to make. There was a way to bring Gabrielle back. There was a way to bring her mother back. In the end, the price would be losing Lyceus again and reclaiming the Warrior Princess for better or worse. One thing Xena knew about her destiny above all else. She could not live without Gabrielle. Almost as suddenly as the tears had appeared, they stopped. A cold rage overtook Xena and she looked up at her would-be captor and he backed up fearfully when he saw two icy blue eyes intent on pure unadulterated murder.
The words between her and the Three Faces of Fate came back to her with vivid clarity.
"All is restored until the first time you draw blood in anger," Lachesis had
"What are you saying?" Xena had asked, mystified by the vague statement.
"Spill so much as a drop of blood in rage and everything changes back," Clotho had explained.
"But I'm a warrior. How can I obey that?" Xena had asked.
"As a warrior, you can't!" Atropos had answered.
"Well, I am a warrior," Xena announced out loud, her spoken words bringing her back to the present. "A Warrior Princess."
Kholeus had no idea what that pronouncement meant and a puzzled look crossed his face as he wondered if the grieving woman had completely lost her mind. Before he had a chance to gather his wits and run for his life, Xena was up on her feet, sword in hand. In two swift deliberate moves, she had drawn blood and ended his miserable life. Everything changed back to her original destiny with Gabrielle.
"Xena! Behind you!" Gabrielle yelled.
Without thinking, Xena instinctively disarmed the young boy and knocked him to the ground on his back. She pointed her sword at his neck, grateful that the Fates had bequeathed him a second chance. This time, the boy would have his life back.
"Get up. You've got a second chance. Swear you won't waste it by killing."
"I swear it," the frightened boy promised.
"Get out of here," Xena warned and the boy scrambled to his feet and raced into the forest. He had no clue how close he had come to ending his young life.
Gabrielle hurried over. "He dropped something," she said as she reached on the ground and picked up the item. She examined it. "It's a Berilis token."
Xena took the token out of Gabrielle's hand and turned it over her fingers. A smile played on her lips as she remembered the precious time she'd spent with Lyceus and how much the medallion meant to him. Xena wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder and drew the bard close, ecstatic to be back in her own world with her own Gabrielle.
"What's this for?" Gabrielle asked, unsure of the sudden display of affection from the usually stoic warrior.
"Just for being you," Xena answered, as a far away vision danced before her eyes.
"Uh huh," Gabrielle said, skeptical of Xena's enigmatic response. "You okay?"
"You don't seem yourself."
"No, you're wrong. I'm more myself than ever," Xena announced as she held the token tightly in her hand and walked away from the Temple of The Fates.
"Xena, aren't you going to go back inside?" Gabrielle hurried after her.
"Do you think The Fates have our lives planned out?" Xena asked, wondering what Gabrielle's philosophy on The Fates was. She knew the bard always had a philosophy on just about everything.
"If they do, I wish they'd tell me."
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