Chakram

by Aurelia

 

General Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and all other relevant "Xena: Warrior Princess" characters are the property of MCA Universal and Renaissance Pictures, and their writers. All rights are reserved to the legal owners, and no infringement is intended. All other characters are my own doing.

Specific Disclaimers:

VIOLENCE WARNING/DISCLAIMER:

A general violence warning, after all we are talking about Xena. There are a couple of scenes towards the end of this tale that may be distressing, so please be warned.

SEX WARNING/DISCLAIMER:

This story depicts a loving relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. Sexual content is there but not overtly graphic.

AUTHORíS NOTE:

This is an alternate timeline story, changing direction from "Destiny". The Warrior Princess and the Destroyer of Nations did not exist. Nor did Lao Ma, Borias or Hercules take part in moulding this particular Xena. This is the second story in this series, the first being "Gladiator". While this is a stand-alone story, you may want to read the first one to come up to speed with some details in this tale.

Some liberties have been taken with the Chakram of Darkness, so please read this story in the spirit that it was written.

THANKS:

I would like to give a BIG thank you to my Beta reader, Babel, and her ever-vigilant computer. She has put a lot of work in on this story to make sure it comes up to scratch. Thanks sweetie.

FEEDBACK: Any positive feedback is appreciated at mail to:aurelia_fan@yahoo.com.au

© July 2005

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Chapter 1

ĎMama! Look at that!" Xena couldnít help but smile at her daughterís intense curiosity. She was pleased at how easily the child had come to accept her in such a short time, especially with the dropping of the more formal Ďmotherí. Marina was proving to be even more of a joy in her life that she had been in the scattered visits over the last nine years.

"Look at what, sweetie?" A small laugh bubbled up in Xena as Marina looked up at her, her small features breaking into a full-fledged grin and her eyes glowing with love for her mother. Unexpectedly, she threw her little arms around Xena, nearly causing the woman to lose her footing. "Woow! Hang on there. Weíll fall over." Not that she would have minded. Xena returned the exuberant hug with one of her own.

"I love you, mama."

Oh damn, that is sooo cute. "And I love you Marina. What brought that on?"

"I donít know. Just wanted to say it."

"Well, you can say it anytime you want, sweetheart. Now, what was I supposed to look at?"

Marina grabbed her hand and led her to the railing, pointing to the water below. "What are those fishies doing?"

Xena glanced over the rail to spot a small pod of dolphins racing in front of the ship. "Well, my little busybody, those fishies are playing with the ship. Theyíre racing to see who will come first."

"But why are the fishies jumping out of the water?"

"Those fishies are called dolphins Marina."

"Dol Ė fin." Marina tried the word on her tongue slowly.

"Why are the dol Ė fins jumping out of the water, mama?"

Xena would never tire hearing her daughter call her mama. Her mothering instincts were now fully engaged and she turned to mush every time she looked at the miniature version of herself.

"Well, do you see the little holes on the top of their heads?" She could see the child looking intently at the water.

"Yes! Yes I can see it, mama! Do you see it?" She had to laugh at the girlís enthusiasm. Was she ever that young? Xena thought back to when she was a child and realized she must have driven her own mother crazy with question after question.

"Well that little hole is what the dolphins breathe through. They may be a fish but they breathe air like we do." How long did it take her to reach that conclusion? Hours and hours of studying them. What a joke of the gods this was Ė make a fish that had to breathe air to live.

"So they jump up to get a breath of air before diving back into the water."

"Can I go play with the dol Ė fins, mama?"

"Do you know how to swim Marina?"

"Swim? Can I swim?"

"Can you do this?" Xena made a swimming motion and could see that her daughter had no idea what she was talking about. "Never mind. When we get home, Iíll teach you to swim. Swimming is a way people can get around in the water. See how the dolphins move in the water?" The child looked back down into the water again watching the dolphins move along side the boat. She looked back up, her azure eyes shining with wonder. "Swimming can move you forward in the water, just like the dolphins."

"Oh!" Marina seemed satisfied for the moment and was content to watch the dolphins swim around, resting quietly in the safe haven of Xenaís arms.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Marina had finally grown tired and was having a nap. Xena stood at the bow of the ship, enjoying the feel of sea spray on her face. The ship slowly rolled under her feet and the sun blazed down on her mostly bare shoulders. It had been way too long and she so missed the joyous feeling of sailing.

They had been making good time and were now within distant sight of Greece. She was pleased that Marina had taken to the sea like she was born to it. It was another thing that they shared in common. Gabrielle, however, was struggling.

Xena glanced over to see poor Gabrielle in the same spot she had been on and off since they had left port at Ostia, hanging over the rail and heaving up her guts. Poor girl. Blue eyes softened. Some people just never got their sea legs. Not much longer, little one.

A pale face tinged with green moved from its position over the railing and faced her. She looks so miserable. Xena offered a smile in sympathy and winced as the face disappeared over the rail again.

She had gotten a chance to look at the captainís maps and by her reckoning there was another day or so before they would reach port. Not soon enough, looking at poor Gabrielle.

This journey had been wonderful and Xena revelled in her own new-found freedom and the freedom of sailing on the high seas once again. She had enjoyed the time she had to spend with both her daughter and her lover. It was something new and exciting to her Ė to be able to have the time to discover all the facets of her budding relationship with both of them.

Despite Gabrielleís occasional bouts of seasickness, they spent many hours together, talking, making plans and playing the odd silly game of star gazing. Both, however, were feeling the strain of abstinence. Neither wanted to shock the child and be forced to explain, but having tasted what the other had to offer made the task even harder.

The boat was quiet and she turned from her introspection to see the men watching her. Sometimes it was a curse to look the way she did. Even the conspicuous sword on her back did nothing to discourage the lustful looks she got. MenÖ But then again she couldnít talk Ė that was the same look she had when looking at Gabrielle, soÖ

But some of those looks had Xena worried, especially when they were directed at her partner. She kept herself close by when Gabrielle was on deck, not liking the sub-vocal comments from a couple of the sailors. She was thankful for her excellent hearing, otherwise there could have been trouble.

She glanced over to the far horizon and noted that dark clouds were beginning to close in. Just what her lover needed, rough seas, and it looked like the storm would strike before they reached land.

Leaving Gabrielle to her misery for a while, Xena went below decks and collected their belongings together, making a backpack of sorts if she needed to grab them quickly.

She went back on deck and the dark clouds had gathered more quickly than she had anticipated. "Gabrielle?" A sweat-slicked face met her gaze. "Címon, we need to get below deck."

Gabrielle looked around and saw the reason for Xenaís concern. Huge, rolling dark masses of cloud moved quickly in their direction, lightning streaking across the sky in spectacular fashion. Her eyes widened in fright. A pair of large hands rested on her shoulders and she looked up into blue eyes cooling in the darkening sky.

"Storm, ho!" There was a bustling on deck as the crew prepared for a wet night.

"Everything will be alright. Címon, letís go."

In their cabin Marina had awoken, a little frightened at the rolling of the ship. "Itís alright sweetheart. Just a small storm. Iíll be right here with you." Xena tried to sound as confident as she could under the circumstances as she gave her daughter a tight hug in comfort.

Over the next candlemark, the storm gathered strength, the rolling became a definite sway, swinging lanterns in all directions. Seawater began washing in the portholes, making walking slippery, and objects were flying in all directions. Things were getting dangerous.

Finding her backpack and making it secure around her, Xena gathered up her family and moved them towards the deck. She didnít want them caught inside if the ship went down.

She stuck her head outside and found the crew were fighting a losing battle, barely able to keep their footing. Lashing rain was making visibility nearly impossible. The ship was being tossed around like a toy in a bathtub. They could have been blown off course by leagues and no one would ever know.

She heard the cry, "Rocks ahead!"

She grabbed Gabrielle, trying to muster as much confidence and calm as she could. "Wait here with Marina. Should the ship start to sink, make your way to the top. Donít get caught below decks. Understand?" Gabrielle gave her a nervous nod. Xena hesitated for a moment and decided that if something happened she would regret not doing it, soÖ "I love you sweetheart." Xena brought Gabrielle into her for a quick kiss.

She looked down to see Marina watching them, a puzzled look on her young features. Hmmm, when we get out of this, I think a talk is in order. Here was another problem that was going to have to wait in line until they were safely on land.

Xena squatted down on her haunches, bringing the girl to eye to eye with her. "Honey, will you please do what Gabrielle tells you? For me? I will explain everything later." She pulled her daughter into a hug, her body warming the young childís chilled skin.

"Wait here," she cried and dashed out into the howling storm. The deck swayed from side to side, battered by huge waves trying to wash everything overboard. She battled her way to the wheel and grabbed it with two strong hands off the first mate struggling to keep control. She was steering blind and only hoped she was not getting them into more trouble. Pulling the wheel with all her strength to the right she felt the ship start to turn. Precious seconds went by as she held her breath for the collision, and the high-pitched squealing put her teeth on edge as the hull scraped over the sharp outcrop of rock.

They were not out of trouble yet. The heavy sheets of rain still made it impossible to see where they were going. She tied off the wheel and ran down to help the crew with the billowing canvas that was thrashing out of control. The sails were beyond repair, the shredded material flapping uselessly in the howling wind.

Along with the rest of the crew, Xena began grabbing handfuls of canvas, pulling it off the mast. Water ran is small rivulets down her face and into her eyes, blinding her. Continuing her task by feel only, she pulled the heavy material until there was no more. She brushed her fingers across her eyes, trying to get some of her eyesight back, but with the wind, the rain and the crashing of waves, it was impossible. Her senses were useless in this storm. The howling of the wind, the cries of the sailors washed overboard and the creaking wood made them dull and dampened.

She was taken completely by surprise by the whooshing sound and a yell, "Watch out!" just before everything went black.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Xena tested her surroundings with her other senses before opening her eyes. She could feel sand under her exposed skin, water lapping around her and the sun gently beating down on her back. She slowly opened her eyes, immediately regretting the action.

"Ow!" She couldnít stop the exclamation from leaving her lips as her head throbbed in time to her own heartbeat. She slowly tested each of her limbs and found everything intact except for the massive headache.

Her eyeball slowly swivelled and focused on the scene before her. Scattered up the beach were broken planks of wood, some of which she recognised had come from their ship. Shipwrecked! This was a sailorís worst nightmare.

Slowly, she pulled herself to her feet. A hand went to the back of her head and found a lump there. What happened? The last thing she could remember was somebody yelling, "Watch out!" She must have been hit in the head with the boom. That thing is hard!

Xena looked up and down the beach, scattered with debris. Looking out to the reef, she saw the remains of the ship, gutted and left to die on the rocks. Marina! Gabrielle! In a panic, she ran up and down the beach looking for them. Oh Gods, where are they? She could feel herself starting to unravel at the thought of losing them.

Some of the crew had washed up on shore, nearly all dead by drowning but she had found one or two that had been skewered by a piece of wood from the ship. The reality of it all crashed down on her unexpectedly and tears came unbidden to her eyes. Her attention turned to the shipwreck out on the reef.

She was stripping off her armour and leathers before she had given it another thought. She had to know once and for all. Stowing the backpack and her clothes safely in the underbrush away from the beach, and placing a marker so she could find it again, she ran down the beach, stretching her long legs as she lengthened her stride and arced cleanly into the surf. Dressed only in a thin cotton shift and carrying a knife, she swam strongly through the breaking waves out towards the wreck.

The water was cool and clean and teaming with marine life. Trying to keep her fear at bay, her mind logically gathered in all the threads that would aid her in her survival Ė food, water, fire, shelter Ė but she couldnít help adding her family to that list. That last point was what would make her survival bearable.

The enclosed cove seemed to be predator-free. There was plenty of fish for food and it looked like dangerous sea creatures were not able to get past the reef. That would mean these waters were relatively safe for swimming. Good to know.

She reached the wreck in no time at all and scrambled to get a hold to haul herself on board, the constantly breaking waves making standing on the tilted deck difficult. She quickly scanned the surface and saw a couple of dead bodies caught on broken wood, not yet claimed by the sea.

Gingerly, she made her way to the stairs to go below deck. Supplies were scattered everywhere, some spoiled by seawater but others looked salvageable. But that was not her immediate objective. Frantically she searched around, terror tearing through her like a knife. If they werenít on board, then the chances of her finding them alive were not good.

She was just about to give up looking when a glimpse of blonde hair tucked away under the bunk in their cabin caught her eye. Nooooo! Her mind screamed out in pain.

"Gabrielle?" There was no answer. Oh Gods, answer me!

She tried again. "Gabrielle?" She crossed the distance in a matter of seconds. Grabbing around under the bed she found an arm and gently pulled. Gabrielleís body came out, her arms safely wrapped around Marina in protection.

She laid them out and quickly checked for life. Pulses were thready and breathing shallow but they were alive. Bowing her head, Xena quietly sent up a prayer of thanks to the heavens.

Time slipped by as Xena silently guarded her precious cargo. Marina lay in her lap while a strong arm gathered in Gabrielle to her side. Relief washed over her and swept her away, her battered emotions finally giving away to the events of the last day, while the two people she most loved in the world lay blissfully unaware of her emotional crisis.

The real world barged in on Gabrielleís grey world with a bang. Everything ached, from her hair to her feet. Scratchy eyes refused to open. Through a haze, a gentle pressure on her arm caught her attention. She tried to speak but it was too hard, and only a small rush of air escaped her lips.

"Gabrielle?"

That low voice she had recently come to crave beckoned to her and she could do little else but reply. "Yeah?" She didnít even recognize her own voice, which sounded dry and broken.

ĎOh Gods!" Gabrielle could hear the raw emotion in that voice and struggled to pull up her hand to cup the tear-streaked face watching her. "Are you alright?"

Xena couldnít help but laugh. How ironic a statement that was! "Am I alright? Gabrielle, are you alright?"

"Ask me next week." Gabrielle so wanted to go back to sleep, to leave the worldís problems behind for a little while longer.

Xena, watched as the bloodshot green eyes closed and she drifted off into peaceful slumber. One downÖ She turned her attention to the child lying in the cradle of her legs. This was the first unguarded look she had of the person who was of her flesh and blood.

She could see a lot of herself in the child, besides the obvious features of midnight black hair and the electric blue eyes behind the closed eyes. She had the same high-planed cheekbones and aquiline nose. Marina was a bit of a late bloomer, unlike Xena who had been all long legs and arms even at Marinaís age, but she suspected that the child would soon have a growth spurt and put some length into her limbs.

Sheís finally mine! Xena had a hard time accepting that Marina was finally staying with her. All the childís life had been small snippets of a life with a mother whom she saw episodically at the whim of a cruel and arrogant father.

Her eyebrows drew together in concern. While her daughter was a bright and exuberant child, she wondered about her child-like demeanour. Marina certainly did not have the maturity of a nine year-old and her writing skills were only starting to bloom, but she knew the child was very bright, picking up her new language with amazing speed.

She suspected that the adults who looked after her closeted her away from the outside world for many of her informative years, only allowing her out perhaps when her inquisitive nature became too much. Well, she was going to change all that when they got home.

Finally, she spared a thought for the unselfish act of a woman who had given her life to help her. To help them. Emotion tore through her at the memory of a woman who had become, for a short while, her mother. I wonít forget you motherÖ

 

Assuring herself that both of them were out of immediate danger, she turned her intellect to getting them to dry land. As much as she would like to stay here until they were ready to travel, high tide would force them out of this haven soon. She knew Marina didnít know how to swim and she wasnít sure about Gabrielle either.

While they rested, she began looking around for something to get them to shore with. Working quickly, she found a piece of broken decking, flat enough to take both of them. She wedged a plank of wood into the break and began using her weight and strength to tear the splintered wood away. Pleased with her work, she put the raft to one side.

Checking on her patients and seeing that they were still asleep, Xena quickly gathered as much as she could. Wet blankets were filled with anything that was salvageable. Flasks of water, wine and oil, sealed barrels, clothes, weapons, maps, lanterns, flints, anything that could be at all useful, whether she thought she needed them or not, was collected. She would sort it all out later on dry land

High tide would be approaching overnight and could very well lift the wreck off the reef and take it out to sea. This may be her only chance and she was going to take as much as she could carry in the one trip. Once on dry land, she would not be leaving her family alone until they were back on their feet.

She lashed Gabrielle and Marina down to stop them sliding off the raft. Her collected bootie was secured in a torn sail wrapped around a frame and she set off, swimming along side the raft, steering it through the reef towards the beach. It was very slow going and extremely hard work, especially with the drag of the canvas raft floating behind, but she eventually got back to land without incident.

Exhaustion was eating at her flagging reserves as she struggled to carry everything up the beach to safety. She had a little fresh water and unspoiled food salvaged from the ship before collapsing into a dreamless sleep.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Chapter 2

Xena slowly came back to her senses a long time later. A small hand was patting her cheek and a tiny voice was calling to her. "Mama! Mama! Wake up, mama! Gab Ö Gab Ö Gab Ö lilelle says I gotta ask you if I can play. Please mama, wake up! I wanna go play!" Blue eyes slowly opened to find a young face inches from her own. Smacking her dry lips, Xena nodded her head slowly and the child ran off in search of adventure.

"Donít go too far!" Xena tried yelling but it came out no more that a harsh croak.

"I wonít!" The childís voice carried back to her on the warm breeze.

What time is it? She looked up at the sun to find it nearly at its zenith. Great Mother Hera! A good eighteen candlemarks had passed. She knew she had been tired yesterday, but she had never slept that long in her life.

"Well, hello there." Gabrielleís voice was a welcome balm to her tired and aching body. "I think I should be thanking you for saving our lives." Xenaís gaze softened as she looked on her heartís desire.

"No need to thank me, Gabrielle. It was only self-preservation on my part."

Xena could see the quizzical look on her partnerís face. "If I hadnít rescued you then my life would not have been worth living."

Who knew Xena was such a romantic? Gabrielle reached out her hand and brushed away her loverís errant dark locks.

"So what have you two been up to while I had a nice sleep?" They both knew she was changing the subject and decided it was probably for the best at the moment.

"Well, your daughter has been itching to go and play. I kept her busy as long as I could. As you can see, weíve found some dry wood for a fire at least. I was waiting for you to tell me what to do next." Gabrielle looked over to her partner and as Xena contemplated the question, a slow, sexy smile crossed her lips.

"What Iíd like to do next involves a bed, but that would need some explaining, and Iím not quite up to that yet. Iím sorry itís been so hard for you Gabrielle, but with Marina around itís been a bit awkward." She saw the look of sympathy in those pale green eyes. "Iíll talk to her in the next day or so since it looks like weíll be here for a while at least. Iím not going that long without touching you!" She added a waggle of her well-defined eyebrows to illustrate her point.

Gabrielle let out a laugh at Xenaís antics. Things may not be so bad after all. She moved her body into a seated position, preparing herself for whatever Xena was about to tell her. "So, what is our situation here?"

Xena thought for a moment. "Well, stating the obvious, weíre shipwrecked."

Gabrielle gave her a look of astonishment. "No!" She pursed her lips before continuing. "Even I figured that out!"

Xena chuckled and looked out to the reef. The ship had broken in two but the two halves still seemed intact. "First impression is that weíve been blown off course to an island that I didnít know existed."

Gabrielleís gaze dropped to the ground, then lifted to where Marina was playing. "So, itís hopeless then."

"Not hopeless, no. I donít have all the facts yet. I managed to salvage some of the goods off the ship yesterday when I found you. Iíll swim out again this afternoon if you two are alright to manage by yourselves for a while. I want to get as much off the ship before the sea takes her."

Gabrielle nodded in agreement. Time was of the essence.

"Can you stay with Marina while I scavenge? I donít want her wandering off."

"Not a problem."

A large hand moved over to grab her much smaller one. Gabrielle looked up into vibrant blue eyes that shimmered in the noonday sun. "Donít worry, weíll be fine. Iíll get a shelter up when I get back and there are plenty of fish out in the water. We wonít starve."

"What can we do while youíre out at the ship?" Her partner seemed to be bearing the brunt of the workload and she wanted to contribute her share.

"Well, a little more firewood would help if you can find it. Some branches or fronds that we could use for covering our shelter would be good too. And keep an eye out for any type of fruit or tubers that we could eat."

Gabrielle made a mental checklist, ensuring that the jobs would keep her little helper close at hand and busy.

"Ummm, Gabrielle?"

Sheís asking. That canít be goodÖ "Yeah?"

"Can you cook?"

"Er, yeah. A little. Why?"

"Thatís good, because I canít."

Well, hereís my contribution to this little adventure. "You may change your mind though. I havenít had a lot of practice lately."

"Honey, as long as it isnít incinerated, Iím there."

"In that case, while youíre out there, see if you can find a pot or two to cook in."

"Iíll try. In the meantime, how about I see if I can catch a fish or two for lunch?"

"Sounds good. Can you help me with the fire before you go?"

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Marina watched her mother with her new friend, Gablilelle. She turned her young mind to the problem, trying to figure out what was going on. She absently patted the wet sand into a pile, adding more and more until it was up to her chest. They had kissed. What did that mean? It wasnít like when she and mama kissed. She compared it to all the events of her life, trying to find that elusive jigsaw puzzle piece that would make the picture whole.

The two adults sat together, heads bowed in quiet conversation. Her mama reached for Gablilelleís hand and kissed it. She knew that mama really liked her but how much? She had a faint memory of seeing a young couple back in Rome who acted this way. What was it her teacher had said? They were in love. She didnít fully understand what that meant, but they acted like how other mamas and papas acted towards each other. She studied the two women closely, noting their nearness to each other and the easy conversation between them.

Do they love each other like other mamas and papas? They seemed happier together than the mama and papa she had when she was growing up, who acted as strangers both to her and to each other. She knew they didnít want her but they had to look after her. The only thing that had made it worthwhile was the time she had with her real mother - those little spots of sunshine in an otherwise drab life. So, could she accept these two women in front of her as her new parents? I think so.

Her mind put the piece into the puzzle and to her it was complete. She would consider Gablilelle as part of her family. As to what that entailed she had no idea yet but now that her mind had given it a name, she was content with the way things were for the moment.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Now you two behave while Iím gone." Xena couldnít help but smile at her small family. Despite their dire situation, she was very happy to have the chance to spend time with them without the intrusion of civilization. "Here, take this." Xena handed over a dagger to Gabrielle. She could read the question on her face before Gabrielle even asked it. "Just in case." Her eyes flickered down to Marina. "You could use it to cut down fruit and dig up anything worthwhile."

"Címon Gab .. Gab .. li . lelle." A small hand grasped her own and tried to drag her away.

Gabrielle lowered herself down onto one knee. She could see the child was having trouble getting her mouth around the Greek name, having only spoken Latin all her life. "Marina, come here. How about you call me Gabby?" She looked up to the benevolent eyes of her partner. "Only you though. I know your mama can say my name." Please, oh please keep saying my name.

"Gabrieeelllleeee". That low alto voice pierced through her to her core, setting off a wave of tremors through her body. She looked up to piercing blue eyes that shone with mischief. And you know it too, you wench.

One final glance and a Ďbe carefulí look and Xena sprinted off down the sand to the water. She grabbed the two rafts and began her half-league swim out to the reef. Gabrielle grabbed the childís hand and they disappeared into the brush in search of firewood and food.

"So, honey, you gonna help me with some chores? Your mama is relying on us to help her. You think we can do that?"

The young face nodded enthusiastically. "Look, thereís some wood over there Gabby!" The child practically dragged her to the spot, Gabrielle having to lift her feet quickly on a couple of occasions to avoid tripping. She is so much like her mother.

She had a momentary pang of her own. What would it be like to have life growing inside me? To have the child grow up to look like me? Her thoughts stopped when she thought of her current situation. If she stayed with Xena, and she knew that was pretty certain to happen, then the odds of her ever having a child were poor. She would only want to have Xenaís child but the impossibility of that left her with only one other choice. If she really wanted one she thought Xena wouldnít object, but would she end up killing anyone who came near her? She put herself in Xenaís position and hoped she could be magnanimous enough to let it happen. Who am I kidding? Iíd kill them all.

She put the thought away for another day and helped Marina, who was struggling with a tree branch that was nearly as big as she was. They began dragging dead wood towards the beach.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The waterline in the wreck was now up to her knees and she was wading through rooms that, up till yesterday, had been mostly dry. As requested, she found the galley and managed to find a pot or two, a skillet and some utensils. She carefully searched the stores for any food that could be salvaged. Sealed pots were carefully checked and some valuable herbs and spices were a pleasant discovery. She found a couple of canvas sacks and began filling them with small items that had been missed on her first search yesterday.

A couple of short swords had been found tucked away in the Captainís cabin and she took them. Since the rescue yesterday, the safety of the three of them weighed heavily on her mind. While her own fighting skills were more than adequate to protect them from danger, she knew logically that she couldnít protect them twenty-four candlemarks a day. That would mean that Gabrielle was going to have to learn to defend herself.

She looked down at the sword in her hand. Could she ask Gabrielle to kill someone? Despite her life, she knew Gabrielle was still an innocent inside. So what could she teach her? She had an answer, but would Gabrielle agree to it?

Xena searched both halves of the wreck for another couple of candlemarks, pain-stakingly going through each cupboard and box for anything they could use. She had managed to fill up the two rafts again, and felt that they could be quite comfortable with what she had found.

In one last final sweep of the entire ship, she found a piece of parchment that had fallen to the floor and ended up under the Captainís bunk. She tucked it away in the canvas bag for later perusal.

Standing on the broken deck in the afternoon sun, Xena closed her eyes and let the warm breeze flow over her damp skin. She could almost feel the floor beneath her sway. It was a feeling she had never gotten tired of. Her eyes turned towards the beach and saw two small figures moving around. Scanning up and down the beach, she thought she saw movement up the far end. Had someone survived? That was possible.

Tomorrow she was going to have to go looking for other survivors. Today, she would make her family comfortable. She spent a moment longer absorbing the feel of the sea before diving into the water and steering her precious cargo back to dry land.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Gabrielle felt that their search had been quite successful. A pile of dead wood sat in the middle of the sand near their fire. An even smaller pile of food sat next to it, a handful of figs and a few tubers being the most exciting discoveries from a full candlemark of looking.

Marina was getting restless, so Gabrielle had her help put everything out to dry on the warm sand. There was nothing worse than trying to sleep with a wet blanket. This gave her the chance to look through what Xena had found on the ship the day before. There was some dried and salted food that could be added to the stores, plus any fish that Xena could catch. As she had said, they wouldnít starve.

Gabrielle joined Marina at the shoreline and helped her build a castle out of wet sand as Xena slowly made her way towards the beach. Marinaís skin was getting a little pink and she felt her own skin prickle with sunburn.

She was about to move back towards the shade of the nearby trees when she looked up and saw Xena emerge from the sea. "Sweet AphroditeÖ" The woman stood up in the water, cascading droplets in all directions as her flimsy cotton shift clung to her, outlining every muscle and sinew in sensuous detail.

Gabrielle had never felt a hunger so deep as she did looking at this woman who strode out of the sea like a nymph. A siren more likely - her attraction reaching so deep inside that she thought she would die from want. Those blue eyes, that outshone the sea from which she had just emerged, looked deep into her own and held an answering glow. If the child had not been there, she would have taken her there and there on the sand.

Xena watched in amusement as Gabrielle quietly panted. I must have been a picture coming out of the water, if that look is anything to go by. She couldnít help but react to Gabrielleís sensitised state. I canít wait much longer.

"So, what have you two been up to?" Is my voice lower than usual? She thought Gabrielle was about to dissolve into a puddle. Must beÖ

Marina watched the exchange with some confusion. Itís this love stuff againÖ "Come on, mama. You said you would build a shelter. Can I help?"

"You sure can, sweetie. First, let me get this stuff off the rafts and then weíll start." She turned to a bewildered Gabrielle. "How about you build up the fire while shortie and me here start on a shelter?"

"Huh?" She was having enough trouble trying to collect her scattered wits, let alone trying to get anything comprehensible out of her mouth. Nothing Ö nothing had affected her like this. It was all she could do to stop herself walking over to the woman. Címon, stop this! Thereís nothing you can do about it at the present.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

The shelter went up without incident and the three of them sat around the fire eating dinner in the dying light. "So how was today, Marina?" Xena suspected that her daughter saw this as one big adventure.

"Mama, it was fun. Gabby and me found lots of wood. Can we go back for more tomorrow?"

"We sure can. In fact, weíll go for a little walk tomorrow. You like that idea?"

"Can we? You and me and Gabby?"

"Sure can, little one. Itís been a long day and it promises to be an even longer one tomorrow. How about you get some sleep?"

Marina came up and gave Xena a big hug and a sloppy kiss. She threw herself into Gabrielleís waiting arms and did the same. "Goodnight, mama, Gabby."

The two women joined in unison, "Good night."

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Xena looked across the fire to a pensive Gabrielle. Dark emerald eyes caught her attention and smouldered with unfulfilled desire. Oh by the Gods! The poor girl looked like she was going to explode. Both sat in silence, impatiently waiting for Marina to fall asleep.

Xena stood and looked inside the shelter at her sleeping daughter. Without a word, she extended her hand to the seated woman. Pulling her to her feet, Xena steered Gabrielle into the forest behind them. When they were at a suitable distance, Xena turned her around and pushed her up against a tree. Passions overrode any hint of propriety. They were both too far gone to worry about where they were and time was short.

It had been way too long and the simmering tension that had been present since the afternoon sent them both into a frenzy. Love was shuffled to the side as lust, passion and want drove their desires to a frantic pinnacle, ending in them both sated and panting.

Xenaís ears listened for any sign that the child had woken. She pressed her forehead to the smaller woman plastered against the tree in front of her. "Sorry."

"Please, donít be sorry about this."

"Never. Iím just sorry that I had to resort to a tree instead of a bed, my love. You deserve better than this." As an afterthought, "I didnít hurt you, did I?"

"Donít be silly. Did you hear me complaining? Gods, Xena, that was amazing."

A sexy smile crossed Xenaís face. "I aim to please."

Gabrielle swatted her shoulder. "Very funny." Under the light of a full moon, she looked into the cooling azure eyes, still seeing desire swirling around in their depths. She pulled the dark head in and lovingly kissed her, searching out and finding her loverís tongue in a slow, sensual dance of seduction.

Gabrielle flipped them over so Xena was leaning against the tree. "My turn," she whispered, and then slowly and deliberately showed her lover how much she had come to mean to her.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Back at camp later, "Iím going to have to talk to Marina, arenít I?"

"You donít have to Xena. If we can keep control of this and be careful, she doesnít have to know." Gabrielle knew logically the smart thing to do would be to protect the child from sexual matters. Wasnít life hard enough to cope with at the moment without throwing in sex on top of it? She felt a pang of hurt that maybe Xena didnít want to acknowledge their relationship to the child.

"No. She has to know. After all, next to her, you are the most important person in my life. She should know that." She looked down to find her large hand captured by two smaller ones.

"Iíll find a way." The thought terrified Xena.

"WEíLL find a way," Gabrielle reassured her.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Chapter 3

Marina emerged from the shelter, refreshed and ready for a full day of fun. She ran over to her mother who was sitting quietly, like a silent sentinel, looking out to sea. "Hello, mama!" She threw herself into waiting arms, surprised when Xena didnít answer. "Mama?"

"Hmmm?"

"Whatís wrong?"

"Nothingís wrong, sweetie. Why do you ask?"

"Whereís Gabby?" Just as she spoke she saw Gabrielle emerge from the surf a short distance down the beach. She had no clothes on!

"Mama, what is Gabby doing? Where are her clothes?" Xena looked in the direction of her partner, who was shaking water off herself like a damp dog.

"Gabrielle is having a bath honey. You donít bathe with all your clothes on, do you?"

"But, mama, youíre not supposed to look!" Marina grabbed her mamaís face and turned her away.

"Why arenít I supposed to look?"

"Because itís not right!"

Xena tried very hard not to laugh at the indignant look on Marinaís face. Her sense of decency was making a stand at this display of nudity. Gabrielle laid out a blanket on the warm sand, laying down to receive the sunís attention like some sun worshipper.

"What is she doing now?"

Xena glanced over to where her partner was lying. "Well, she canít very well put her clothes back on while she is all wet. Sheís just waiting for the sun to dry her skin before getting dressed again." Marina accepted that explanation.

Xena stood up and offered a hand to her daughter. "Why donít we go get some breakfast?"

"What about Gabby?"

"Sheíll come a little later. Letís go." Xena took the childís hand and they sauntered up the beach to find food, leaving Gabrielle to finish her bath.

 

After breakfast, Xena came down to find Gabrielle quietly soaking up the sunís rays. "Just what do you think you are doing?" Xenaís voice had dropped an octave and she could hear the want in it.

"Just having a bath. Why?"

"You are shocking poor Marina. Never mind what you are doing to me."

"Well, what was I supposed to do? I stank like a horse and I needed a bath. I canít very well bathe with my clothes on."

"Youíre doing this on purpose, arenít you? Getting me back for yesterday?"

"Why would I do that? Xena, where am I supposed to go?"

"Further down the beach."

"How far is further down the beach?"

"About a league that way." Xena waved her hand frantically in the direction of the distant shore. Gabrielle couldnít help but smile at the older womanís flustered state.

"Xena, Iím far enough away as it is. You know very well that if something happens I donít know how to defend myself. The safest place at the moment is here."

Xena took a deep breath. "Yeah, yeah I know, but Marina is not used to seeing this and youíre making it very hard for me to appear disinterested in front of her. Youíre not helping matters here, Gabrielle. Youíre dry now, so please get your clothes on. Iím barely hanging on by a thread." She practically threw the linen shift over her partnerís body. Xena towered over the woman lying casually on the blanket, and her eyes couldnít help but scan down the perfectly sculptured body that had been on display moments before. She closed her eyes, trying to calm her raging emotions, and walked away, slowing retreating up the sand to find her daughter.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

After breakfast Gabrielle found Xena seated under a tree bordering the beach. The woman seemed deep in thought while idly fashioning a reed doll for her daughter. She patiently waited for Xenaís eyes to track to her, but finally gave up in defeat. Even clearing her throat didnít distract the older woman.

"Xena? Are you alright?"

"Hmmm? Oh, Gabrielle."

"You were deep in thought there."

"Yeah, sorry."

"You O.K.?"

"Just thinking, thatís all."

"That must have been some pretty heavy thinking there." When Xena didnít answer, she continued. "Iím sorry about this morning. I should have had my bath earlier, while Marina was still asleep, but it was too cold. I suppose the last year and a half in slavery took away a lot of my inhibitions. I should have been more sensitive to your daughter."

"No, Gabrielle, you are right. She needs to learn that the human body is not something to be feared. We should take this opportunity to teach her about life before my family, friends and total strangers all try to change her." She took a steadying breath, trying to say what needed to be said. "As hard as it is, we have to control ourselves. Sheís too young to see this sort of thing."

"I know that only too well, but you make it very hard for me to control myself. The way you look at me just makes me want to be bad, you know what I mean?" She could see the tight lines around Xenaís mouth. "Iíll try, Xena. Iíll try very hard. OK?" She offered a small smile to the pensive woman.

Xena said nothing. She needed to mend some bridges, and murmured, "I just canít believe a woman as beautiful as you could ever be interested in me." She saw blue eyes rise up to look into her own. "You are a miracle in my life Xena. You not only saved my life, you saved my soul." Fingertips lightly traced her cheeks, the rough skin catching on the fine hairs of her face.

"So when I see you staring at me likeÖ like you want to devour me, well I just canít help but tease you a bit. It drives me crazy to drive you crazy."

Xena sighed deeply. How could she be angry with her? She felt exactly the same way. Placing the doll on the grass, she grabbed Gabrielleís smaller hands in her own. "Do you know what I said to Antillia that first day I saw you on the auctioneerís block?" Blond hair swayed from side to side. "I said nothing. I was struck speechless. Antillia thought I had gone nuts. I was waving my hands around like a mad woman."

"From the first moment I saw you, Gabrielle, I was lost. So utterly lost. It scared the Hades out of me."

I know only too well myself. Why do you think I fought it? Gabrielle could sympathize with her partner. It may have taken her a little longer than Xena to accept, but she eventually came to the same conclusion.

"So, I know how you feel. I thank the gods every day for bringing you into my life. The last ten years had all been worth it. For if I wasnít in Rome, I would never have met you."

This gave some insight into Xena she hadnít seen before. The last ten years of her life had been a living hell and for her to claim it was worth it, well it was certainly saying something that was for sure.

"And you are the beautiful one, Gabrielle. You take my breath away constantly. But if you want to tease me, please make sure that I can take advantage of it O.K.? Itís hard to be left hanging all the time."

"Understood, but now you know how I felt yesterday when you came out of the water like some sea nymph. I was so wound up I could barely walk." A smile passed between them. "So, whatís happening today?"

"I was thinking that we go for a walk up the beach that way." She waved her finger towards the long stretch of beach. "When I was out at the wreck yesterday, I thought I saw movement at the end."

"Thatís good, isnít it?"

There was silence. "Isnít it?"

"I donít know. The little voice inside me is telling me to beware. Itís never been wrong before. You two are coming with me. Iím not going to separate us, just in case."

Gabrielle started to make a move to rise. "Before you go, I wanted to discuss something with you..." Oh Hades! "I want to teach you to use a weapon."

Gabrielleís head was shaking from side to side even before she voiced her concerns. "Oh no, no, no. Thatís your job, my warrior."

"But, GabÖ"

"NO, Xena."

"At least tell me why."

"I, I just canít."

"What is it that scares you?"

"Nothing... nothing." She spoke too quickly, giving Xena a clue that there was something definitely stopping her.

"Címon, tell me whatís wrong. Itís nothing to be afraid of Gabrielle."

"I just donít want to, alright?" Gabrielle started fidgeting, pulling away from her partner.

"Iím not asking you to kill anybody. I just want you to be able to fend off an attack thatís all."

"Iím not going to use a sword, Xena."

"I didnít say anything about a sword. I was thinking of a staff. With your compact body and quick movement, you would be good at it. Would you at least try for me? Please? Iím worried about leaving you two alone without at least some form of protection."

Gabrielle stood, visibly agitated, and paced back and forth. Xena reached out, grabbed her hand and pulled her down to the ground. "Now, listen! Talk to me!"

How could she explain to her partner this unreasoning fear? "From very early on I wasÖ taught that rebellion was not tolerated. Even as a child I was expected to tow the line."

Xena could see her struggling to express herself. This was something that Gabrielle had lived with for a long, long time. Something that was ingrained from childhood.

"Do you know what itís like not to fit in? That what you wanted to do was looked down upon? To be humiliated and intimidated into being what you just couldnít be? This... what you want me to do would have meant swift punishment, Xena. I donít know if I can do this."

How do I help her through this? She had always been encouraged to express herself and her spirit soared under the freely-given freedom. While she had been gently guided into adolescence, she had learnt from her own mistakes, not from what others had instructed her to do. This is what she needed to give her partner Ė gentle guidance and freely-given freedom. But there was little time and this was necessary. Maybe laterÖ

"There will be no retribution here, Gabrielle. I can understand your dilemma, I really do, but you need to learn this. Iím so sorry."

"Why?"

"Because if we get separated for any reason, you are on your own. Just you. You need to be prepared for anything, Gabrielle. You have to do this - for you and for Marina. Look, weíll take it slow and steady. A little bit at a time, alright?"

Sighing deeply, Gabrielle knew that Xena was right. Every time she went off to hunt or fish orÖ whateverÖ it left them at a disadvantage. She could see the logic of it, but still, she found it hard to see herself able to attack someone.

"Let me think about it."

"Good enough." Xena stood and extended her hand down to the small woman and helped her up.

"Letís go get ready for this little jaunt."

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The walk was postponed until lunch when Xena decided to hide their supplies, just in case. The uneasy feeling she had at breakfast had not gone away. While Gabrielle and Marina covered over a part of their supplies in plain sight, Xena moved the bulk of the goods into the forest. Some she buried and a second cache was placed on the wooden raft and hoisted into the canopy overhead. She didnít want to come back to find all of their supplies gone. Hopefully, the small pile of equipment left near the shelter would appease whoever might want to rob them.

 

They enjoyed lunch in companionable silence. Xena ate lunch pensively while mulling over in her mind what to say to her daughter. After last night, things could get embarrassing for all concerned unless she had a mother-to-daughter talk real soon. There was no time like the present.

"Marina, sweetheart, come here and sit down." The child settled at her motherís side and looked up with keen, intelligent eyes. Here goes nothingÖ

"I think we need to have a little talk aboutÖ Gabrielle and I." Blue eyes glanced over to green and Gabrielle sat back against a tree, mildly amused at Xenaís discomfort.

"You know that I love you, right? And you love me." Marina nodded enthusiastically and threw her arms around her mother. Xena glanced over the childís shoulder in exasperation at her partner. Marina was puzzled but let her mama speak. Is this about love and stuff?

"I love you but I also love Gabrielle. And she loves me." Xena sighed. This was harder than she thought. She looked up at Gabrielle. Help me out hereÖ

Gabrielle just shook her head in the negative. She was having too much fun seeing Xena squirm under the regard of one small child.

"Well, the love between you and I is different from the love between Gabrielle and I." Where am I going with this? Round in circles by the sounds of it. Letís try a different tact.

"Do you know about love between grown-ups? How they touch each other? Hug and kiss?"

Marina slowly nodded. So it was love... Could Gabby be her parent also? That thought appealed to her Ė both mama and Gabby could look after her.

"Well, sometimes they hug and kiss andÖ stuff." Xena could feel the blush creep up from chest. She heard the chuckles coming from a very amused Gabrielle, who was not intimidated in the least by the blazing blue eyes staring at her. She finally took pity.

"Marina. How do you feel about your mama and me?"

"Do you and mama like hugging and kissing?"

It was now Gabrielleís turn to blush. She heard the quiet chuckle next to her. "Yes I do honey. Itís nice and warm and comforting. Itís how I tell her I love her."

"Then why donít you just tell her?"

"Thatís one way, Marina, but sometimes grown-ups need to express it in lots of ways. By a simple touch, or a kiss, or a hug, or by simply saying ĎI love youí. So if you see me give your mama a hug or a kiss, Iím just saying ĎI love youí to her."

You think itís that easy Gabrielle? Just wait until she catches us. If her daughter had one-tenth the curiosity she had at that age she will be getting an education earlier than expected. Hope youíre not worried about getting caught. What a sight that will be! She only hoped she didnít hit the child into next week if she thought they were wrestling and decided to join in.

Xenaís libido struggled under the yoke of abstinence and she knew that if she didnít do something soon to solve this problem, there was going to be trouble. Perhaps in a day or so she could go looking inland for a spot for a more permanent structure with two bedrooms and a very thick wall.

What Gabby said, Marina understood. Why didnít mama just say that in the first place? Before she could stop herself, Marina blurted out, "Are you both my parents now?"

Oh boy. "Do you want me to be?"

The unruly mop of black hair bounced up and down.

"Can I ask you why?"

"Isnít that what people in love do? Have kids and look after them?"

"Yes they do, Marina. What would you like to call me?" Gabrielle could see the child was struggling for an answer.

"How about just call me Gabby for now. Maybe later we can come up with a better name. Is that alright mama?" Gabrielle thought she better ask the person most affected by this turn of events before she agreed. A larger unruly mop of midnight black hair bobbed up and down.

Marina jumped up and gave them a hug, each in turn, then sat down. A frown creased the childís brow and Xena immediately became anxious. "Whatís wrong, honey?"

She was pensive for a moment then answered. "My other parents were never happy like you two, and they didnít love me like you do. I never saw any of that love stuff. And that other man who used to come and get me. I didnít like him at all. He was angry all the time."

Xenaís blood began to boil. "Did he do anything to you?" Gabrielle looked over in concern as she heard the steely edge in Xenaís voice.

"No. He did nothing. He just came and got me to take me to you."

Xena couldnít help herself, but she wanted to know how much her daughter knew. "Did you know who he was?"

Marina nodded slowly and a lone tear trickled down the childís face, melting the hearts of both parents.

"Did he tell you?"

She shook her head. Marina could not seem to find the voice to speak. She paused for a moment and tried again. "I heard them talking. What did I do to make him hate me, mama?"

Xena held her daughter in silent comfort while she battled with what to tell her; the truth or something that would appease her young mind?

"I donít think it had anything to do with you, sweetheart. It had more to do with me. He knew that I loved you and he used you to hurt me." It broke her heart to tear down the childís father, but she didnít want her thinking that it was anything she did either.

"Do you understand? He never really got to know what a special child you are. He didnít want to know. But I love you with all my heart and Iím sure that Gabrielle does too." She looked up to find shining emerald eyes watching the two of them. "And we will do our best to love you and protect you."

Gabrielle studied her partner as she spoke and caught the quiet glow of love residing in those blue pools. While she felt the same commitment as Xena did, she silently wondered if this promise could stand the pressure of the outside world when they got home.

The three of them sat quietly for a while absorbing the conversation they just had. For the moment, things would be fine.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The sun had just passed its mid-point in the sky when they set off down the beach. Each carried a backpack, loaded with supplies in case the afternoon walk became an overnight camp. Xena had found each of them a Ďwalking stickí as she called it, but Gabrielle knew it was a staff. She was trying to get her used to the idea of carrying it.

Marina stopped and started all the way down the beach, picking up shells and rocks and running back to show the two women, who walked side by side. Xena felt she should have brought another bag as Marinaís stash of shells and rocks steadily grew. She had to resort to surreptitiously dropping the occasional shell when her daughter wasnít looking.

They reached the spot that Xena estimated had been where she had seen the movement. Gabrielle asked Marina to show her the shells she had collected while Xena studied the area. Someone had been here but the fire pit was cold to the touch. It hadnít been used for at least a day. She looked back down the beach to where their shelter was and realized they were in plain sight of whoever was here. There was no way he could have missed them. Why all this hiding?

Her search area expanded and she found footprints heading down a well-defined path towards the centre of the island. Further exploration down that path was necessary, she knew that. What if there was a whole village down there? What if they werenít really shipwrecked at all? Xena felt a bit sheepish at the thought that she could have possibly got it all wrong. While one part of her wanted to go off after the mysterious stranger, another part pleaded caution. After all, there was no hurry. The path was fairly easy to find and they could come back when they were more prepared.

"Letís go back." Xena herded her little brood in the direction of their shelter.

"Didnít find what you were looking for?"

"Yep. Found a path."

"Then why arenít we following it?"

"Because, Gabrielle, we are not prepared for it or whatever danger there is in there." She cast a glance to Marina, making sure Gabrielle saw her. The younger woman remained silent for the time being. But knowing Xena, she doubted that she would be content to sit back at their shelter and do nothing.

 

Chapter 4

 

While Gabrielle was teaching Marina how to cook, Xena poured over the maps recovered from the ship. She knew roughly where they were when the storm struck. By her reckoning they had only been in the storm-tossed seas for a candlemark or two before they hit rocks, but for the life of her she couldnít see any islands within that vicinity on any of them. This island simply didnít exist. That thought tickled the back of her brain. If the island didnít exist to the mortal worldÖ

That raised even more questions though. Had they been deliberately steered to this island, and to what end? Did only the three of them survive? Where was everyone else?

Marina proudly walked up with a bowl in her hands. "Dinner mama!"

"Thank you sweetheart. What have we here?"

"Fish stew. Gabby showed me how to make it."

"Well, thank you Gabrielle." She looked up to jade eyes watching the two of them with quiet joy. My family.

"Now, letís eat." Xena kept her suspicions to herself, to wanting to add to their already complicated circumstances.

"Oh, by the wayÖ I found this in one of the sacks you brought back yesterday." Gabrielle handed over the tattered piece of parchment. Xena put down her bowl and examined the paper. It contained a set of nautical directions. She suspected where those directions would lead, but she put it aside until she was alone

Around the campfire, the three of them sat and talked and laughed at little word games. Xena even showed Marina the star gazing game she and Gabrielle played from time to time. Finally, sleep overtook the child and her mother carried her to bed, tucking her in with her makeshift dolly.

She came back to the fire and sat down.

"Do you want to tell me whatís going on in that brain of yours?"

"Nothingís going on." But that didnít appease the young woman seated across the fire.

"Címon Xena. Stop trying to protect me. Youíve figured something out and youíre afraid to tell me." There was silence. "Thatís it, isnít it? How bad can it be?"

"Bad." That was all she said. What more could one say? She bowed her head in silence. Xena could feel those eyes boring a hole into the top of her head. Damn! "You may wish you hadnít asked."

"Let me be the judge of that. I think I have a right to know all the facts."

"Keep in mind these are just my suspicions, not fact."

"Well, your suspicions are just as good as anybody elseís facts." That brought a smile to the older womanís face.

"Iíve studied the maps and this island is not on any of them."

"Are you sure youíre looking in the right place?" Blue eyes came up to meet her own. "Stupid question Ė of course you are. You wouldnít make those sorts of mistakes."

"Iím only making an intuitive leap here, but I figure if this island doesnít exist to the mortal world, then Ė"

"Then perhaps it belongs in another plane of existence. Such as, say, a playground of the gods?" Gabrielle completed her thought.

Smart girl. Sheís gonna keep me on my toes in our old age.

"Why are we here, then?"

There was silence across the campfire. "This isnít something thatís going to come back and bite me in the butt, is it?"

"Maybe. Iíve done a lot of bad things in my life, Gabrielle, so it could be connected to any one of them. Then again, it may just be coincidence that we are here. Be very careful what you ask for, Gabrielle. You may not want to know about my past. Itís not pretty."

"Didnít we go through this last time? How much worse can it be than what you did as a pirate?"

Again that silence. Gabrielle was quickly realizing that she didnít know the woman she was in love with at all. Címon girl, pull yourself together. You knew that loving her meant everything she was. Besides, the woman in front of you isnít anything like what she is going to tell you. Remember that.

"I want to know." Gabrielle stood up and moved around next to Xena. Seated, she took her partnerís hand and waited patiently.

Xena took a deep breath then began her tale. "When I was fifteen summers old, my village was attacked by the warlord Cortese. During that attack, my younger brother died and Cortese laid waste the township. On the head of Ares, I swore revenge for my brotherís death and set off in pursuit. While I could fight and was strong and determined, I had no direction for my rage. So, with my youthful exuberance, I went off in search of blood, death and revenge."

"I stumbled into the first temple to Ares I could find and offered my sword arm and demanded justice. To my surprise he appeared before me and offered to train me. He became my mentor, Gabrielle."

During her speech she hadnít been courageous enough to look into her loverís eyes, fearful of the horror she would find there. Eventually, her curiosity got the better of her and she looked up to be met with a patient gaze.

"So he trained me to fight and offered me an army to exact my revenge with. I didnít realize then how strong and seductive that sort of power can be. I was young and passionate and soon was overtaken by the power of having an army under my control to do with as I wished."

"Iíd forgotten about Cortese, only to discover later that I had become him. I was doing what he was doing. Raiding villages, disrupting livesÖ" Xena hung her head in shame. "Destroying families."

"So, Gabrielle, if I had been at home and not in Rome, you could very well have been facing me that fateful day in Potadeia." A lone tear trickled down the high-planed cheek, followed by another.

Gabrielle thought long, hard and very carefully about what she was going to say next as it would have a big impact on the distraught woman next to her. Long moments passed before she spoke. "That may be, Xena, but I believe that we were meant to be together no matter what. I think you would have felt what was between us, even then."

She moved down onto her knees, facing Xena, before continuing. "The fact that you are agonising now over what you have done tells me that you have changed. Itís in the past, let it go." Xena seemed unconvinced. She was going to bear this guilt for the rest of her life, no matter what Gabrielle said.

"Donít feel guilty, Xena. Ten years in the gladiatorial arena is more than enough punishment for your past deeds. Be happy with the way things are now."

Eyes brimming with tears met her own. "I am. You know Iím happy. There are just times, like now, when it all comes back and threatens to swallow me whole."

"I will always be here, Xena. You wonít be alone anymore."

The stars moved slowly overhead as the two women took consolation in one another, just enjoying the simple contact of a gentle hug.

 

"So, who do you think is responsible for this then?"

"It could be anyone. I made a lot of people angry, gods and mortals alike, in my time."

"Mortals?"

"That piece of parchment you gave me had nautical directions on it. So yes, a mortal could have been responsible for this."

Xena watched the blondeís features harden. "Well, I donít care who it is, heís in for a fight then. I own your heart and your soul and Iím not going to let them destroy you! No one is going to take away what is mine!"

Xena couldnít help but smile at the girlís possessive nature. Gods, she is so cute when sheís all fired up! "I want you to do something for me." Gabrielle nodded. "If you can get off this island, please get Marina home for me."

"No. No, Iím not leaving you. Weíre in this together. Iím not running away at the first sign of trouble, Xena." Gabrielle started pacing, getting agitated at all this talk of separation.

"Calm down!" Xena pulled her partner into her lap but Gabrielle was having none of it. She was angry and feeling very self-righteous. "This is only if something happens to me. I want to make sure Marina is taken care of, thatís all."

"If something happens to you, Xena, you better try your hardest to get back to me, because if I have to come after you, even if I have to stand in front of Hades himself, I will be well and truly pissed off!"

Taking great gulps of air, Gabrielle could feel her heart trying to jump out of her chest. She knew logically that Xena would never abandon her but it scared her that what was to come was out of her hands. She wanted to fight for her lover but the war could be over before she even had the chance to take a swing at whoever was responsible for thisÖ

Xena observed her partner in her agitated state and couldnít help but feel pride for her defence of their love, ready to face anyone and everyone. Blue eyes darkened in arousal as she watched her stalk around the fire, arms waving wildly in frustration, her blonde hair in disarray, her skin flushed and damp, breasts heaving, those green eyes flashing with sparks of fire and her body quivering in indignation. Maybe we should make the most of the quiet time we have.

"Gabriieeelllleee." The young woman stopped short at the deep rumbling of her name. She looked over to see those blue eyes nearly black. Oh. Her body answered the call and all thoughts of gods and battles disappeared in a puff of smoke.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

The sun had barely begun its path across the sky when Xena awoke. Gabrielle had attached herself like a clinging vine and she hadnít the heart to disengage herself from the soft body nestled next to her. Snuggling back into the warmth of the embrace, Xena floated in a state of semi-wakefulness, her mind filtering through all the information of the past few days, formulating a plan here and there.

She heard a nearby rustle and knew Marina had woken up. Her eyes opened to see the girl looking at them, a look of hurt on her face. "Come here sweetheart," she whispered and her daughter climbed into bed with them, burrowing into the welcoming arms of her mother. Surrounded by her family, Xena gave up trying to get up and let herself slide back into the land of dreamless sleep.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Marina, come on! Donít be silly. You canít have a bath with your clothes on." Xena had decided to follow Gabrielleís example and stood at the waterís edge naked. She was trying very hard not to laugh at the outraged look on her daughterís face. Marina was steadfastly refusing to take her clothes off. "All right then, donít complain to me when you start to itch."

She waded into the gentle surf, enjoying the cool water on her skin. She looked back up the beach to see Gabrielle watching her with hooded eyes. It constantly amazed her how easily they could affect each other this way. A look, a sigh or a word and they would be looking for a quiet hideaway.

The young blonde strode over to Marina and seemed to be in deep conversation with her. She could see the mop of black hair bob up and down and her shift was removed. The child came screaming down the sand and leapt into her motherís waiting arms. She still had her breeches on but it was a big step from being fully clothed.

Gabrielle went back to her task under the shade of a nearby tree. Gods what that woman could do to her! The rope looked a mess at present. She had been trying to separate it into a number of strands, some of which would be used for a makeshift bow or two. Xena had found some flexible wood good enough for the bow itself but they were short the string.

Nimble fingers went back to their task while pale green eyes watched mother and daughter playfully bathe in the surf. Slowly and painstakingly, she managed to separate half a dozen strands thin enough for stringing a bow.

After washing, Xena took the opportunity to start teaching Marina to swim. White foam from flailing arms and legs made it near impossible to see if the child was if fact going anywhere. The amount of energy Marina was burning up to swim would guarantee that they would get some peace and quiet that afternoon.

Gabrielle watched the tentative swimming lesson continue, and enjoyed the look of utter joy of such a simple task plastered all over Xenaís face. So intent had everyone been on Marinaís progress that no one had noticed a fin in the water, slowly weaving its way closer to shore. The shark was just about on top of them before Gabrielle screamed out a warning. Xena swivelled to meet her attacker, barely able to get her arms up before the creature was on top of her.

Gabrielle watched in horror as the shark attacked, and it took precious seconds for her to respond, grabbing her knife and running down the sand into the water. She splashed through the surf, heading for Marina while Xena wrestled with the beast.

Marina thought mama was funny, splashing around in the water with great enthusiasm. She stood stock still watching, not aware of the imminent danger. Gabby grabbed her arm and pulled her towards the sand, pushing her over before turning to run back into the water.

"Xena!" Her voice was hoarse with emotion. White wash made it impossible to see where her partner began and the shark finished. She held hope though; at least the water wasnít red. She waded up to her stomach, feeling around underwater for familiar skin. Touching an arm she grabbed hold tightly and pulled, lifting Xena out of the water.

The creature was proving to be quite strong and determined and it was taking all her skill to stop those powerful jaws from closing around one of her limbs. The shark was crafty and managed to keep her below the surface. Her lungs were slowly leaking her dwindling air and the pressure began to build in her chest. She needed to get to the surface for air but the creature kept nudging her down to the bottom.

She had just about reached the point of no return when a small hand latched onto her arm and pulled hard, lifting her towards the surface and her salvation. The shark had broken away and was now circling them both, the predator of the sea moving in on its prey.

Pulling in great gulps of air, Xena kept herself between Gabrielle and this denizen of the deep, and now armed with a knife, she waited her chance. But her nemesis was clever, trying to herd them out into deeper water where they would be easier targets.

As getting back to shore was now no longer possible, Xena was going to have to end this, once and for all. Gabrielle was barely able to stand in the deeper water, the gentle pull of the outgoing tide nudging her in the direction of her hunter. Xena spared a quick glance at her partner, her eyes glowing with the richness of their love, and imparted all that she was in that one look. "Go." Taking a steadying breath, she dove into the water towards her enemy, knowing that one of them would not be returning.

Gabrielle felt helpless as she returned to shore. She had to be there with Xena, but putting herself in danger by staying was not an option; they could not leave the child alone. Silently, on the sand, Marina and Gabrielle stood hand in hand, as the life and death struggle took place not fifteen paces away, watching events unfold before them.

Xena went after the shark but it swam just out of her reach, waiting for that elusive chance when she would have to re-surface for air. This was a wily creature and was not acting like a normal shark.

Itís funny what goes through oneís mind in a life and death struggle. Sometimes itís the worth of oneís life, or the loved ones left behind. Sometimes itís what to cook for dinner. Xenaís mind contemplated the island they were on. What was going on? These were not shark-infested waters, and this creature hunted like a human. Instinctively, a shark should just attack, not manoeuvre her or wait for an advantage. This was not normal in any respect.

The pain in her chest intensified as her need for air increased. She was either going to drown or be eaten. With the last speck of air in her lungs and the dwindling strength in her body she lunged at it, sending it skittering away. With that precious few seconds, she broke the surface of the water and gasped, working furiously to get oxygen back into her blood. A menacing fin broke the water not far away, picking up speed as it came towards her.

This was it. The shark was just about upon her when she forced her hands through the water, landing on its snout and vaulting herself over the top of it to land with a splash behind. She grabbed the knife from her teeth and swiftly cut through the tail. The fish swam out of reach, trailing blood in its wake from the deep gash.

Xena tried to wade back to shore but the shark made another pass, its teeth grazing her thigh, leaving a deep cut of its own. Now they were even. She was standing in waist deep water and better able to stand. The water was clearer here and she could see the menacing eye of her hunter, and the malevolent intelligence residing there.

This beast, she surmised, had to be a product of the gods; perhaps a guard to stop anyone escaping the island. There was obviously something on this island worth killing for.

Xena and her opponent faced off against one another, like combatants in a gladiator ring. She had lived, breathed and fought in this type of battle for the last ten years of her life. This she understood only too well. Kill or be killed.

The creature moved towards her, its movements now sluggish and ragged because of the damaged tail fin. Xena could feel the warm blood ooze out of her leg, its heat dissipating as it hit the cold sea water. The stinging from the salt galvanized her senses, focusing her attention on the killing machine coming right at her.

She could feel her blood pump in slow even pulses, as it always did in battle, as her mind narrowed down to one object in her field of vision. The shark came closer and closer, its giant head raising up in the water as it prepared to attack. Massive jaws filled with rows of jagged teeth were now clearly visible, opening wider and wider until they nearly obscured her vision.

Knife in hand, she waited until the last possible moment. Just as the beastís mouth closed around her, she pushed the knife up through the roof of its mouth up into its brain. Razor sharp teeth grazed her back as she made her escape. She stood back and watched the death throes of this ungodly creature.

With the remains of her energy, she staggered back towards the beach, landing clumsily in the bubbling surf. She turned to watch her enemy continue to struggle until life left its body. Lifting her head to the sky, she closed her eyes in relief.

"Are you alright?!" Xena could hear the panic in Gabrielleís voice.

Xena barely had the energy to answer. "Hmmm." Everything ached. Her head pounded from the beginnings of a massive headache and the various nicks and cuts were making themselves known.

"Címon, Marinaís worried." She helped her partner up onto her unsteady feet. Thatís an understatement. It had taken a considerable amount of Gabrielleís strength to stop the child from running to help her mother. Then again, it had taken the rest of her strength to stop herself from doing the same thing. Standing there helpless, trusting her partner to take care of it, had been the hardest thing she had ever done in her life.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

"I thought you would have been half-way down that path by now."

Xena leant back, observing her handiwork on her bleeding leg. Their provisions were poor for needle and thread, so there was not much gut to hold the gash together. "Iím not going until Iím ready." She pushed aside the throbbing in her leg.

Gabrielleís studied the damaged leg, wincing every time the bone needle pierced her partnerís skin. "How can you do that?"

"Hmmm?"

"How can you do that to yourself?"

"Someone has to do it. You want to do it?" The momentary lapse of concentration took her mind off the pain.

"No way! I couldnít push a needle through you, Xena."

"But what if itís on my back where I canít reach? Then youíd have to. Here." Xena handed over the bloodied bone needle.

Gabrielle extended a shaking hand and took the offering. She looked at the sharp point and then the wound, trying to settle her queasy stomach.

"I canít do this."

A large, warm hand touched her cheek, causing her gaze to lift to calm blue eyes across from her. "Itís alright Gabrielle. You can do this. Try."

She took an experimental stab with the needle, feeling the skin give way under the sharp point, sliding the bone until it re-surfaced on the other side of the wound. Her stomach turned at the sight. Gabrielle looked up at Xena for a reaction and was met with a look of cool disinterest. If she didnít know better, it was as if Xena didnít even know that she was stitching her up. The hand on her cheek continued its gentle caress, affirming that everything was fine.

"I hope youíre not going to make a habit of this. Iíll do it, but I wonít like it."

"Good girl." The comment was so quiet that Gabrielle wondered if she had heard it at all.

To take her mind off what she was doing, Gabrielle continued the previous conversation. "I just donít understand why youíre taking your time about this. Why arenít we walking down that path now?"

"Because we donít have the supplies to just go stumbling on in there. Weíre just about out of fresh water and I want to try some hunting a little later." She hesitated, "And I want to have a bit of time to teach you the staff."

She could see the gathering storm clouds in her partnerís face. "Donít fight me on this, please Gabrielle. If something happens," she held up a hand to stop any reply, "if something happens, I want you to at least have a chance of fighting back. I know I canít teach you much in the time I have, but if I can explain some things I know, you can figure out the rest if needs be."

"Why are you talking like this? Itís scaring me."

"Thereís something more going on here, and if my suspicions about this island are correct, then itís going to be very dangerous. Iím just trying to give you every chance to survive if something goes wrong."

"If something happened to you, Iíd be right behind you." A gentle tear rolled down the young womanís cheek, to be intercepted by a work-roughened finger. A quiet understanding passed between them. "But I know I have to live for Marina, so please give me every chance to live a long joyous life with you."

"Iím not going to throw my life away, Gabrielle. Itís taken me all my life to find you and Iím not going to waste this opportunity, but things happen unexpectedly." Xena thought for a moment, wanting to express what was in her heart. "I want you to know that you are the best thing in my life, and both you and Marina have brought me great joy. These last few weeks have been wonderful, and I will do everything in my power to make sure that continues."

 

Marina observed the two women from her hole in the sand. Lately theyíd been hugging and talking a lot, and looking very sad. A frown creased her brow as she saw Gabby starting to cry. She picked up her seashells and wandered over to her mama.

"Here Gabby."

Gabrielle started crying harder at the unexpected present from the young girl.

"Thank you, sweetheart."

"Why are you so sad Gabby?"

"Because she didnít like hurting me with this needle." Xena interjected as she held up the offending object. She glanced over to Gabrielle and pleaded silently not to say anything.

"Yeah. I canít stand to see your mama in pain." Gabrielle hated lying to the youngster but acceded to her partnerís wishes.

"So how about you two come looking for water with me, eh?" Xena was desperate to move the conversation away from potential disaster.

Gathering up the empty flasks, they set off into the forest behind them. Xena strung the bow and took her new weapon with her, slinging the arrows in its makeshift quiver over her shoulder, in case the opportunity for food presented itself. Of course, she never went anywhere without her trusty sword either.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Ancient trees towered overhead as Xena slashed her way through the undergrowth. Their legs and arms were a mass of scratches from dry brush and an eerie silence hung over the area. It was like the very air itself was alive.

The atmosphere was oppressive and it felt as if the forest was physically closing in on them. Stumbling through the mass of bushes, they burst onto an open meadow, with a small stream trickling beneath a grove of weeping willows. The scene before them was strangely peaceful and at odds with the wild untamed nature outside the grove.

The water was cool and sweet and a welcome treat after sweating through the outside barrier. They filled all their flasks, testing their weight and knew it was going to be tough going getting them back to camp.

Gabrielle and Marina dangled their hot feet in the cool stream, watching the water gently cascade over the well-worn rocks. Xena checked the perimeter, looking for anything that would be of help to them. Using her new bow, she managed to bag a couple of rabbits, her mouth already watering at the thought of fresh meat for dinner.

Wisps of smoke finally caught her attention and she called over her two travelling companions. They approached the small hut slowly, continually watching out for a trap to be sprung.

It was a strange little house, a single room structure with windows and shingles. Out the front was a tiny vegetable garden. How civilized! Xena couldnít help but make mental sarcastic remarks at the absurdity of such a dwelling.

The thick windows gave out no light and looking in proved fruitless. Xena was about to knock on the door when it opened unexpectedly. A wizened old man, bent with age and sporting a long white beard, greeted her. "Come in Xena."

Stranger and stranger. "You know who I am?"

"Iíve been waiting a long time for you."

"You have? How come I didnít know that?"

"Your destiny was foreseen long before you were even born. Xena, the great warrior. Great things are expected of you, my dear. All three of you have an important role to play in the great tapestry of life."

This is rubbish. "I think you may have me mixed up with someone else."

"No, no mistake. You are Xena of Amphipolis, are you not?"

"Yes, but Ö"

"And you, little bard, are Gabrielle of Potadeia?" This mysterious man had all the answers.

"Bard? Iím not a bard." Gabrielle was confused.

"Not yetÖ" He just smiled knowingly.

"Enough of this. Why are you here? Is this island real?" Xena wanted some answers.

"As real as it needs to be." Now he was talking in riddles.

"No word games, old man. Does this island exist in the mortal realm?"

"I think you have answered your own question, warrior."

"Stop calling me warrior. Iím no warrior. Who are you?"

"My name is Theron, but you have not heard of me."

"Whom do you serve, Theron?"

"I serve the gods, but I am directly responsible to the Fates. It is by their will that I am able to foresee your destinies."

"Do you know why weíve been brought here?"

"All will become clear soon, Xena of Amphipolis. You will be sent on a quest, warrior, and it has been ordained that I warn you. The journey will be fraught with danger and your very lives will be at stake. The prize itself may not turn out to be what you expected." Riddles again.

"What is the name of this island?"

"Demnos, little bard."

"Never heard of it."

"I doubt that anyone has."

"What is the prize?"

"I can tell you no more, warrior, except beware. What may seem a great prize could turn out to be a terrible burden. Think carefully before acting."

"ButÖ"

"No, no more. I have revealed too much already. I am pleased to meet you, hero. Now it is time for you to go and prepare yourselves for the great task ahead of you." The seer extended his hand for a handshake and it was only then that Xena could see that he was blind. She grabbed his arm and offered a warriorís farewell.

"You may like to help yourselves to some of the vegetables from my garden on your way out. The island is not very productive for food, so feel free to return if you need food or water. The gods are watching you, Xena." With that final statement, he closed the door.

"What was that all about?" Gabrielle didnít really expect Xena to have an answer and she seemed as perplexed as she was.

"I have no idea. But I wonít pass up any vegetables though." She emptied one of the canvas sacks holding the water flasks and began digging. Her stomach rumbled at the thought of rabbit stew.

The return trip to their camp seemed a lot easier than the earlier trip from the beach. It was nearly as if the forest had given them permission to pass through. Since meeting with Theron the island seemed more hospitable towards them.

A great quest, eh? Well, he said that we were destined for great things. So, does that mean we will survive this? She didnít want to take his prophecy as truth, as destinies had a way of going awryÖ

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Chapter 5

As Xena had hoped, Marina toppled over with exhaustion, giving her plenty of time to start teaching Gabrielle the basics of staff use. They faced off against one another, armed with stout wooden sticks and thin cotton shifts, the overhead sun beat down on their glistening skin, adding heat to the already healthy dose of adrenaline.

"Now, do you remember the first move I taught you?" Gabrielle nodded her head, her tongue sticking out to aid her concentration, but seriously distracting Xena. Concentrate here or she is going to knock your head off. But that tongue shifted over her full lips, licking them with moisture, sending Xenaís libido up a notch. If it wasnít necessary to teach Gabrielle, she could think of another exercise that would be much more beneficial to both of them at this point in time. Xena shook her head in the hope of dislodging the image from her brain. She looked up. Nope, still there.

Gabrielle looked with concern at her partner who seemed to be fighting some internal battle. She watched the piercingly blue eyes darken before her eyes and knew exactly what Xena was thinking. Her gaze wandered down the torso in front of her and her mind wandered to the same place. Weíre not going to get much more done today.

By mutual consent, they gave up fighting of one sort for a while and turned their attention to some wrestling. Well, they justified it as wrestling in case they got caught.

Bodies and minds were overheated and the sea beckoned. Warm hands skimmed over sun-darkened skin, the trail of fire left behind extinguished by cool clean water, washing away all sweat and dirt of the dayís activities.

It was not only a coming together of two bodies but a merging of two halves of one soul. Xena felt her spirit calm under the steadying hand of the one person who had come to mean everything to her. As Gabrielle loved her with great passion and joy, Xena felt at peace with the world, a feeling she had never experienced before. Time had stopped for them and in this period of grace they abandoned themselves to their love for each other.

 

Marina awoke a couple of candlemarks later to find her parents hitting each other with sticks. After a moment of panic, her mama explained that she was teaching Gabby to use the stick to defend herself. In fact, her mama gave her a stick of her own and she used it to pound a tree while Gabby tried to hit mama. Grown ups!

 

The rabbit stew had been the best food Xena had had in a long time and made a point of complimenting Gabrielle for it. She looked out to the wreck, which by now was nothing more than a mast sticking out of the water. The sea had finally claimed the skeleton of the ship. It seemed so long ago since the shipwreck, but it was in fact only a matter of days.

As she gazed over the ocean, she let her senses absorb the sights and sounds that she loved so well. The shark carcass has disappeared during the night and she caught sight of two fins drifting along the water near the reef, a silent warning that escape through the water was no longer an option.

"Hey, donít look so sad."

"Was I?"

Gabrielle could see the quiet depression sitting over Xenaís shoulders like a well-worn cloak. "What has you so sad?"

"We have one more day."

"We could just stay here, you know."

"Youíre not in the least bit curious about where that path leads?"

"Not at the moment, no. Can you honestly say that the last couple of days have not been wonderful?" Gabrielle wanted Xena all to herself, without the interference of anyone else, save Marina.

"No, I canít. But I feel we have to at least try to find a way off this island. If the search comes to nothing, we can always return." Xena could see the contentment on her partnerís face and was hard pressed to continue. "Donít you want to try to get home? Before you met me, that was all you wanted to do, if I recall."

"Yeah, it was, but my priorities have changed. You, and Marina, are all that matter to me now." The comment brought an indulgent smile from the older woman. "I have to admit, for a shipwreck, this has been pretty special."

They both managed to avoid talking about the seerís predictions for the time being. The thought of a great quest was scaring the willies out of both of them.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

The sun broke the stillness of the last full day for them. Xena had a lot to accomplish before this day ended and she started early. She and Gabrielle had an early morning staff lesson, working on the finer points of a couple of moves and consolidating basic exercises to help build her upper body strength. Over breakfast, Xena sat with her family, explaining some concepts of staff fighting to Gabrielle, resorting to drawing figures in the sand to illustrate some point or other.

She watched the intelligent green eyes opposite her absorb the information. The young woman proved to be a very good student. She was agile and strong, picking up the instructions quickly and executing them very well for someone who had just learned the moves.

She secretly wished she had more time to teach Gabrielle as she was thoroughly enjoying the exercise of imparting some of her hard-earned knowledge and experience to her partner. She could see that, given time, Gabrielle would be very, very good at it and she found that she was enjoying this new aspect of their relationship and the closeness that resulted from it. Maybe if she survived this, Gabrielle would like to continue the lessons. She could live in hopeÖ

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

"Marina, honey, do you want to come with me to get some more vegetables?" Xena looked over the childís head to the enquiring eyes of Gabrielle. The childís head nodded slowly.

"What do you want me to do?" Gabrielle didnít know whether to feel hurt or not at being left out of this little hunting party, but suspected that Xena had something to say to Marina that she was not supposed to hear.

"Could you gather some more wood? Weíll only need enough for today. Weíll be packing up tomorrow morning." She could see the sadness there in those pale eyes but her plan was now in motion and putting it off was not going to make the separation any easier.

Gabrielle stood there watching the two figures walk into the forest until they were just specks in the distance, swallowed up by the vegetation surrounding them. She felt a roiling in her stomach, something akin to jealousy, over the fact that she was not party to the conversation that would be taking place. Stop it, Gabrielle! Itís not like youíre married or anything. That thought didnít stop the hurt though.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

"Honey, is something bothering you? You were awfully quiet this morning." Xena had an idea what it was but she wanted to hear it from her daughter. But the child refused to answer, steadfastly following her motherís footsteps through the uneven undergrowth.

They found the meadow again with little problem. They picked their vegetables and Xena showed her some hunting tricks, managing to snare a small pig which she hoped to smoke this afternoon for their journey.

Under the shade of a willow, they rested. "Marina, now listen to me. Tell me whatís wrong. Thereís not much time left and I want to know what is bothering you."

Blue eyes, tinged with anger and frustration, looked up at her, surprising her with the emotion hidden in them. "Itís her!"

"But I thought you liked Gabrielle."

"But you like her more than me!" Ah, just as I thought.

"Why do you say that?"

"Because you were giving her hugs in bed. You didnít do that with me. Why?"

"Remember when I told you about grown-up love and how it was different? Well, it was some grown-up hugs that we were sharing." The child was not convinced. "I shared some hugs with you, didnít I?"

The child nodded, but she was still far from happy. "You spend all your time with her!"

"But I spend time with you too. Isnít that enough?"

"No, its not. Youíre my mama, not hers!" Marina stood up and stomped off in the direction of their camp.

"ButÖ Marina, where are you going?"

"Iím going home!"

Xena could do nothing but follow a few steps behind. Marina didnít want anything to do with her at the moment so all she could do was stay out of her way.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Gabrielle could see even from a distance that something had not gone well. The child kept walking and sat down the beach, pounding her fists into the wet sand. She looked around to Xena who shrugged her shoulders.

"What happened?"

"Sheís jealous."

"Of me?" I know how she feels. Funny, weíre each jealous of what the other has, which ironically is the same thing.

"Yep."

"Let me go talk to her."

"I donít think thatís a good idea at the moment, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle ignored Xenaís plea and continued down the beach to where the child was burying herself in the sand, sitting down with a thud. The child didnít even stir from her preoccupation with the sand.

"SoÖ" Fiery blue eyes turned to look at her. Woow! Sheís angry.

"O.K. Hereís your chance. Tell me what is bothering you."

The pounding continued and it looked as if Marina was just going to sit there without speaking. Before Gabrielle was ready, the child launched herself at her, toppling them both into the wash of the breaking waves.

"Sheís mine! I donít want you here any more!" This was serious stuff.

"Why, honey? What did I do?"

"Donít call me honey. Iím not your honey, or sweetheart. Go away! You are no longer my friend."

Gabrielle could feel the pain down to her soul. This child, whom she had come to love as her own, was disowning her. She was heartbroken but she was going to fight for her. Enough is enough!

"Now you listen to me, young lady. You stop this at once! You look at your mama. What do you see?" Marina looked up at the beach at the tall woman, seated in the sand looking downcast. "You have broken her heart, Marina. She survived ten years for you. Ten years! All she wanted to do was to die but she lived for you in the hope that one day she would have her little girl back with her."

Marina remained quiet, watching her mother with sullen eyes.

"Iím sorry that you feel that way about me, but I love her with all my heart and would do anything for her. People like me will come and go in her life, but you are her little girl and you will always be her little girl. She will love you no matter what."

The blue eyes lost a little of their animosity as she listened to Gabrielle. She had always liked Gabby. Why was it so hard to share her mama?

The young woman held out her arms and she reluctantly crawled into them. She whispered in her ear, "Iím the one who should be jealous, Marina. You will always have her love. I hope I do too but Iím not certain that will always be the case."

That last statement made Marina feel better. Maybe she wasnít second after all. She looked up into sad green eyes and realized that Gabby felt like she did. All this love stuff was hard work.

"Now, go and give your mama a big hug. It looks like she could use one." Gabrielle pushed the child to her feet and nudged her in the direction of her mother. A slow smile crossed her features as she watched mother and daughter reunite with a warm, gentle hug.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Gabrielle stayed behind to look after the makeshift smoking box covering the cooking meat, which Xena hoped would be enough for their needs. She didnít want to waste time hunting unless it was absolutely necessary. Her reflexes would be on hair trigger until this was all over and looking for food would be a serious distraction.

She watched from the trees as mother and daughter played at the waterís edge building wet sandcastles, Xena trying to reinforce their tentative bond. Marinaís outburst this morning had shaken her mother to the core. Xena had quietly approached Gabrielle after things had been smoothed over and thanked her profusely for her help.

The child seemed a little more subdued but she was enjoying the one-to-one time with her mother. Little did the girl realize that if they got back to Amphipolis - no, not if, when the got back to Amphipolis - she was going to have to share her mother with even more people. Tantrums were going to be part of life for a while until she became confident in her relationship with Xena. It was going to take understanding on all sides.

Her mind wandered to future days and what it would be like. Xena said she would get her home to see her family. Then what? She hoped that Xena would ask her to stay with her but would she? It was idyllic here and life was so much simpler. Would the pressure from both families drive them apart?

The tall woman emerged from the surf, water sluicing off her lengthy frame in sheets. The child next to her waddled up, still bathing with her breeches on, looking a lot more relaxed than a candlemark before.

Xena laid out a couple of blankets in front of Gabrielle in the sun. Wet bodies sighed in relief as tired muscles relaxed under the heat. Xena raised her head and looked ahead. "You looked deep in thought."

"Hmmm? Yeah."

"What were you thinking about?"

"Us."

"Us?"

"The three of us." Gabrielle made a point of including Marina. A tiny mop of dark hair moved as the girl looked up. "Just thinking about what weíre going to do when you get home."

"What brought that up?"

Do I raise this now? It may be my only chance. "Things are a lot simpler here than they will be back home. Your family - my family, if theyíre still alive Ė there will be pressure and expectations."

"What are you saying?"

"Where do we go from here, Xena? Am I going to get left in Potadeia?" There. Itís out.

There was a guarded look on the older womanís face. "Do you want to be left at home?" Gabrielle could nearly see the hurt in her eyes.

"No. No I donít. IÖ I just donít know how you feel about it. Rome and here are different places and times, Xena. We are going home to people who know us. What is our future after this is all over?"

"First of all, I promised I would take you home. ThenÖ then, I donít know." Xena didnít know how to ask her to stay.

"What do you want out of this relationship, Xena?" Gabrielle looked over to see Marina watching the exchange carefully.

Xena took a deep breath and hoped that she was not about to destroy what they shared. "I want you with me, Gabrielle. I want us all to be a family." She paused, "I need you."

A sweet smile broke out on the young blonde, sending laughter lines skittering across her sun-tanned face. "Just what I wanted to hear. I love you too." Her small hand reached across the gap to caress the tanned cheek of her partner.

She turned her attention to the youngster, "And what do you think, Marina? Do you think we can all be a family together?" Both women waited with baited breath while the child thought about her answer.

Marina still had some residual resentment towards Gabby, and she could see that her friend had done nothing to deserve it, but she still couldnít help feeling that way. She wanted Gabby to stay, she really did, but it was hard to answer, so she just nodded. Maybe later she could say sorry.

The three of them remained silent until moisture on wet bodies evaporated and they could get dressed.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Preparations were nearly complete. Xena finished her instruction to Gabrielle, keeping the moves simple and direct. They exchanged some basic blows, enough that the young woman could defend herself and retaliate if need be.

Clouds gathered overhead, hinting that showers were close at hand. The two women grabbed some canvas and threw it over their shelter, extending it over the fire. Supplies had been sorted, most of which were going to be discarded as they could only carry sleeping gear, food and water.

Marina went to bed early, physically and emotionally exhausted from the day. Xena put her long arm around Gabrielleís shoulders and pulled her in, both enjoying the shared body heat as the temperature dropped with the cooling rain.

Together, they watched the dying sun sink into the sea, giving the water a fiery glow, until all that was left were clouds heavy with rain. As twilight descended and the light began to fade they sat side by side, feeling the touch of skin against skin, listening to the light pattering of raindrops hitting the shelter.

Xena stood up and leaned over to check her sleeping daughter. Reaching down, she hauled Gabrielle to her feet and led her out into the shower, gently laughing at the confused look on her partner's face. Slowly, hand in hand, they wandered down along the waterís edge, letting toes mingle with the surf-soaked sand.

At a suitable distance, Xena pulled her young lover into an easy embrace, moulding herself to the vibrant body under her fingers. It still surprised Xena how easy her relationship with Gabrielle was. With all the others, it had always been a matter of her and whoever she was with. With Gabrielle, her heart and her mind agreed that it was always "us". Such unconditional love and trust given so freely had made that unconscious decision so very, very simple.

In the dying light, she gazed down to those verdant eyes, darkening with the arrival of night, and read all that Gabrielle was within those depths. She knew her eyes returned the emotion when she saw their look soften. She brushed her thumb over wet skin before she slowly pulled in the one she held so dear for a kiss that spoke volumes.

Rainwater cascaded over the two of them, soaking their shifts to transparency. Xena spared a glance back to the shelter, pleased to see that all still remained quiet. She turned her attention to the shorter woman, her large hands slowly running over all the dips and curves her mindís eye knew by heart.

There was no hurry here, only gentle affirmation and loving intensity. Tonight could possibly be their last together, and she wanted Gabrielle to carry this night with her in her heart, as she would do. For her, it would be a living beacon in a land full of dark memories.

By feel, Xena peeled off Gabrielleís soaked shift with some difficulty, the material refusing to give up its territory so easily. There was a quiet chuckle in front of her as she pulled harder, nearly hearing the sucking noise as the cotton gave way under her constant tugging. Warm hands replaced cold material and slowly heated the cool skin in front of her.

Xena lowered them to the sand, using their shifts as a barrier to the itching sand. Breaking surf gently bubbled around them, bathing them in effervescent water. With the light all but gone, Xena closed her eyes and used her other senses to slowly explore the warm, moist skin beneath her lips and fingers. She delighted in the gasps and whimpers she was able to elicit from the young woman, using them to push both of them to a higher plane of pleasure.

She continued her gentle assault, using her knowledge of the mapped skin beneath her to lovingly and reverently discover the many facets of her partner all over again. It brought her great happiness that there was no pressure to perform here, but merely to express her boundless love for Gabrielle in all its flavours, until finally her loverís cries broke the silence, her joy shared with the heavens above.

Xena lay her head on Gabrielleís chest, listening to the rapid heartbeat until it slowed and calmed. Small hands buried themselves in her wet hair, slowly massaging her scalp with firm fingertips. A hand moved to her shoulder and she looked up out of habit, forgetting that she couldnít see her in the dark. The firm young body moved and she found herself on her back on the sand, their wet shifts balled up in the middle of her back.

Xena arched up, grabbing the wadded material and moving it aside. Her body glided over the slick sand, the cool water flowing around her periphery and tickling her sensitised skin. She closed her eyes and gave her emotions free rein as warm lips teased and taunted her, promising, but not delivering, the pleasure to come. A smile touched her lips as an errant tongue darted out and coaxed a response from her, tantalizing her until she growled in frustration. A wicked little chuckle could be heard above her and she grabbed Gabrielleís head and brought her in for a hungry kiss.

"Donít do this to me," she whispered.

"Itíll be worth the wait, I promise you." The disembodied voice dripped with emotion. "I love you, Xena. Now and forever."

"And I love you too, Gabrielle. Until the end of time." Two bodies took a moment to reaffirm their bond, as two souls made a solemn promise to one another for eternity.

Xena felt her wild and untamed spirit settle under the warm and loving touch of her little blonde. It was a place where only her partner could take her, where there was no outside world. It was only the two of them, suspended in time, and her soul could find peace for a while. There was no past to atone for and no future to live up to; only the now, without worries or fears, alone with the one person she was meant to be with.

She lay quietly as Gabrielle resumed her roaming, immersing herself in the sensations her lover was so cleverly drawing from her. Talented fingers found all her secret places, while soft whispers of love and devotion gently guided her towards completion. Xena soon found herself at that spot Gabrielle had been in not long before.

They lay entwined for quite a while, letting their emotions and bodies cool in the receding surf. Finally, the chill of the night forced them back up, foregoing wet shifts for dry, warm ones once they returned to their shelter. Slowly they wandered back to where Marina slept, each lost in their own thoughts.

Gabrielle stood in front of the fire, letting its warmth seep through her chilled skin. Xena retrieved a couple of dry shifts, emerging from the shelter to quietly watch the young woman standing in the firelight. Her eyes took in the young body, perfectly sculpted and well toned, unblemished by time or scars. She was truly beautiful and Xena felt her heart squeeze at the thought that this woman was really hers, that they were bound together by mutual love and commitment for as long as they both lived. And then some.

Gabrielle could feel Xena watching her even without her eyesight. She opened her eyes to see what she already knew. But it was not a look of want or desire, but one of adoration and understanding. She knew what Xena was silently saying to her, and she replied with a look of her own.

As the night wore on, they sat in front of the fire, sharing a warm herb tea, talking about inconsequential things to pass the time. The gentle lapping of water at the seashore was joined by the sound of raindrops, blending into a harmonious symphony of nature that lulled Gabrielle into sleep, wrapped in the arms of love.

With Gabrielle snuggled into her chest, Xena watched the firelight slowly dwindle until all that was left was embers, the dying light reflecting off pale eyes watching her precious family in slumber. Today was the last day. Xena contemplated the last few days and locked them tight in her heart as a small miracle in her life. It had been a chance to live a quiet life with her family without expectations or demands from the outside world.

Tomorrow, she would put aside her gentler side and take on the mantle of the warrior. She would don her armour for the first time in quite a while, and with that would come the responsibility that mantle bestowed on her. Tomorrow, it beginsÖ

 

Continued in Chapters 6-10

 


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