Disclaimer: The characters Xena and Gabrielle are property of Universal MCA. This story was not meant to infringe on any copyrights. This is a love story between women. It contains adult themes, nudity and violence (battles).
If you are under the age of 18 go no further, this story was not meant for you.
This is my first attempt at writing alternate fan fiction. So, please, go easy on me. Constructive criticism is helpful, harsh criticism is not. E-mail me at and let me know how you liked the story. I will write more if I recieve responses!
Synopsis: Gabrielle and Xena's relationship is put to the test when Xena is reunited with an old flame. Gabrielle, Xena, and the Amazon's must battle a ruthless warlord to protect Xena's friend and her young daughter.
By Allyson Heisey
A caravan rolled by, its wooden wheels creaked and the kettleware hanging on its sides clanked and jangled. Gabrielle slowed then stopped. She turned and shaded her eyes with her hand against the afternoon sun to watch as another caravan jostled by. Her eyes were drawn instantly to the bolts of fabric that peeked out from the sides of the overloaded wagon.
"Gabrielle, you're falling behind." Xena called out and turned slightly in the saddle to look back at her companion.
"Xena, Look at all of the caravans!" Gabrielle said excitedly and moved forward briskly to catch up with her friend.
"Bolvia has the largest open air market in this province." Xena answered and reined her tall horse, Argo, to a stop.
A wide grin spread across Gabrielle's face. When Xena glanced down at Gabrielle she couldn't help but smile herself because she knew how much Gabrielle loved browsing in the markets to admire all the handicrafts and sample the exotic food.
"Great!" Gabrielle's eyes sparkled with excitement.
"I need to by more parchment...you know I ran out almost a month ago..." Gabrielle's arm waved in the air gesturing excitedly.
"And a new pair of boots, and maybe . . ."
"Oh, and you need to have a new sword made... and also..."
"Gabrielle!" Xena said a little sharper this time.
Gabrielle stopped talking, leaned on her staff and looked up at Xena, her eyebrow raised.
"Well, you do need a new sword," she continued, determined to continue the matter.
"I know." Xena responded softly. She remembered all of the nicks in her sword that she had honed out, all except a few which would cause those areas on the blade to become thin and brittle.
"I know the smith here." Xena turned around and looked up the road.
When she turned back she noticed the bards inquiring look and continued, "His name is Jonas. He was the smith when he traveled with my army."
Xena clicked her tongue and nudged Argo forward into a slow walk. They moved ahead walking side by side.
"Xena, that one caravan that went by, did it remind you of something?" Gabrielle said in a teasing tone.
"Oh, you must mean the one that clanked and jangled?" Xena gave Gabrielle a lopsided smirk.
"Yes, that very one." Gabrielle turned her head, looked back up at Xena and smiled wryly.
"Well, lets see, there were pots, pans, mugs, um...what was that big round object with a handle on the end?" Xena asked innocently using her hand to make the shape of the object she was describing.
Gabrielle smiled playfully. "A frying pan Xena, a frying pan!" She said and shook her head chuckling.
"Ah! Yeah, I kind of put a little dent in that one we had didn't I?" Xena made a wry face.
Gabrielle snorted. "That's an understatement."
"And if I remember correctly, you traded my whip for the new one, right?" Xena nodded and pointed to a caravan that was passing by.
Gabrielle turned her head and glanced over at the caravan. It had leather merchandise displayed on hooks, several of them holding finely crafted whips. Gabrielle looked sideways at Xena.
"Trying to give me a hint?" Gabrielle said enjoying the playful banter.
Xena barely smothered a laugh as they approached the city gates of Bolvia.
When they passed through the gates they continued on to the large plaza in the center of the city. It buzzed with activity. Vendors were busily setting up stands in preparation for the open market. Xena and Gabrielle weaved around the caravans searching for the blacksmith's shop. They followed the sound of bellows being pumped and metal being forged over the din in the plaza to the blacksmith. Xena dismounted and tied Argo to the post.
"Xena, I'm going to go ahead and locate a scrollmaker and buy some parchment." Gabrielle said as she turned in different directions trying to decide which street to take.
"Fine. I'll meet you outside the scrollmaker's shop." Xena noticed the confused look on Gabrielle's face and smiled inwardly, "Gabrielle, that way." Xena nodded in the direction behind Gabrielle as she pulled the saddle bags from Argo.
"Thanks." Gabrielle smirked. She turned and walked in the direction Xena indicated, her staff swinging by her side.
Xena entered the smithy and set the saddle bags on the floor by the counter. She observed Jonas as he hammered bronze studs into an armored breastplate. Xena absently fingered the breastplate she wore, and remembered with fondness M'Lila. M'Lia was the young slave girl who taught her how to use pressure points that paralyzed a persons limbs. She also saved Xena's life when Ceasar had crucified her and broke both of her legs. Unfortunately the young woman died from a crossbow bolt that was meant for Xena. Taking a deep breath Xena broke away from the thoughts of her past. An idea took shape in her mind. Xena looked down, fingered the pleats of her leather skirt, which was made by a leather craftsman when she was with Caesar. Her fingers moved over to her hip to trace the design on the chakram given to her by Lao Ma of the Kingdom of Chin.
"Xena!" Jonas shouted in surprise.
He hastened around the heavy anvil with a huge grin on his ruddy face and the two clasped arms in greeting.
"Jonas, I need you to make a new sword for me. However, there is something special that I would like to put on it."
Jonas nodded and said "Let me see your hand."
Xena extended her hand palm up. Jonas spread her fingers and rotated her hand. He nodded again and turned to a row of shelves where he selected four pommels that varied in thickness and length. Xena picked them up, one at a time, grasped them, flexed her hand, and finally selected one that felt like it was carved to fit perfectly. She then handed this one to Jonas and reached back to unsheathe her sword. Taking the sword, Jonas balanced it in the palms of both hands. Jonas turned once again, selected several swords from a rack, and after doing a weaving pattern with each of them, Xena selected one that had a blade to her liking. Xena smiled and nodded with satisfaction, as she handed this sword back to Jonas.
Xena left the smithy and strolled down to the scrollmaker's shop as Argo plodded along behind her. On the way she passed by a jewelers stand. She glanced at the wares and a sparkling soft green emerald caught her eye. She was enraptured by its brilliance and color because it reminded her of Gabrielle's eyes. She spoke with the jeweler about having the stone set into a custom designed ring. After she handed over payment to the jeweler, Xena turned and a smile appeared on her face.
As Xena untied Argo's reins she spoke, patting Argo's neck, "So, think she'll like it?"
Xena chuckled when Argo nickered and bobbed her head.
When Xena did not see Gabrielle wating outside the scrollmaker's, she shook her head.
"Honestly, Gabrielle." She muttered to herself and and entered the shop.
Xena suppressed a frown when she saw Gabrielle in an animated conversation with the hansome young scrollmaker. As Xena walked further into the shop the scrollmaker glanced up and his eyes widened. When Gabrielle noticed the scrollmakers expression, she turned and greeted Xena.
"Uh...Xena, I was just telling Tomas a story about the Titans."
Xena scowled and said "Gabrielle, are you about done? We need to get a room at an Inn before too many travelers arrive." She turned and strode from the shop. Gabrielle gathered up her packages and followed Xena out to the plaza like a obedient duckling following its mother.
They weaved among the chaos on the plaza with Argo in tow. Gabrielle noticed on several occasions women who walked behind men with wide silver and blue bracelets on their wrists.
"Xena, why are those women walking behind the men, and why do they all wear those bracelets?" Gabrielle asked as she chewed on her fingernail.
"Several leagues east of here there is a city called Woodfin, which is known for its slave trade. The silver bracelets identify them as slaves." Xena replied and her face darkened.
"How come some of them are chained and others are not?" Gabrielle interrupted sharply.
"The chains are usually for the new slaves, it discourages them from seeking freedom." Xena answered in a low voice.
They stopped at a large respectable inn that looked well maintained. When they entered the inn, Xena surveyed the tavern area. It was clean and there was a bright and airy feel to the tavern. The floors were covered in rugs and tapestries hung from the walls, rich in colors. A few patrons were seated near the bar in the early afternoon hour. Xena and Gabrielle made their way up to the bar to speak with the innkeeper.
"Xena, how long will we be staying?" Gabrielle asked when they approached the bar.
"You said you had a months worth of writing to do? How about a week?"
Gabrielle nodded smiling.
"OK, a week it is.
Xena turned back to the innkeeper. "I need a room with a bath."
The innkeeper raised an eybrow as he scrutinized Xena in her armor and then moved his gaze over to Gabrielle. Gabrielle smiled sweetly and moved forward. "We'd really like a nice room with a bath." She wrinkled her nose and continued "the bath we could really use."
The innkeeper's face crinkled as a wide grin spread across his face. "I believe I heard you say a week? Hmm, twenty dinars, and the stable is out back. My boy Peras will stable your mount." He said and turned his gaze back over to Xena.
"Thank you." Xena replied archly and set down his payment.
Xena turned to Gabrielle. "Why don't you go on up to the room while I go and stable Argo."
Gabrielle extended her arm as Xena draped the saddle bag over it.
"Xena, we've got entirely too much stuff in this saddle bag." Gabrielle grunted as she shifted the weight on her arm.
Xena supressed a smile as she turned and walked to the door.
The innkeeper placed his elbow on the bar and settled his chin in the palm of his hand. "So, that's Xena, the legendary Warrior Princess." He said as he watched the tall warrior leave.
"And I'm Gabrielle." She said cheerfully her eyes sparkling.
"Ah, you're a bard, right?" Recognition lit up his face.
"Yes." Gabrielle said as she moved closer to the bar and set the bags down on the floor.
"I'm Erman, the owner of this humble establishment." He extended his arms and smiled, revealing pearly white teeth.
"You know, it would be nice to have a bard in here once in a while." He said and looked at Gabrielle pointedly.
"I could stop down tonight." Gabrielle offered. "That is after a nice bath and a good meal." She said and smiled disarmingly.
"I'd like that Gabrielle, I'm sure you'll have some good tales to tell." Gabrielle's smile widened.
Pleased, he called out to a young girl who just emerged from the kitchen. "Lila, could you show this young lady to her room. The one up top at the end of the hall."
Gabrielle bent down, settled the saddle bag on her arm and followed the young girl up the stairs, down the hall across stone block floors and into the room. The ceiling was wooden-beamed, the doors made of solid oak with iron fastenings, and tapestries hung on the walls. Soft light slipped through high arched windows that opened out into a balcony. The bed looked like a great canopied sarcaphagus of oak and iron.
Gabrielle watched as Lila started a fire in the fireplace and lit smokeless lamps that spread their warm glow through the shadows. Lila turned to her and said in a shy voice, "I'll be back with bath water." She backed through the door and closed it behind her.
The room was slightly chilled so Gabrielle walked over and stood in front of the fireplace to warm her hands. At a quiet knock, Gabrielle walked back over to the door to admit Lila and several young girls who made their way back to the bathing room with the hot water. The bath looked inviting. Gabrielle stripped and sank down into the tub and laid back blissfully. She lathered herself from head to toe anxious to rid herself of the dirt and grit from the road. When she finished her bath and climbed out of the tub her stomach grumbled. After toweling dry she pulled on clean stockings, a forest green skirt with ties and a belt, and a loose fitting cream tunic. After grasping her staff from inside the door she left the room, closing the door softly behind her.
When she reached the landing at the bottom of the stairs, she blinked in surprise. The number of patrons had nearly tripled. Erman, the innkeeper motioned her to a table and brought out her dinner. They chatted amiably while she ate and she mulled over a story for the evening. Pursing her lips she got up and strode over to a padded high backed chair on the hearth. The din in the tavern died down as she set her staff against the chair back and settled herself into the crimson cushions.
"That's the bard that travels with the Warrior Princess!" One patron remarked to his friends. A hushed whisper travelled through the crowd. Gabrielle took a deep breath and surveyed the room. Leaning forward she began the story about a faraway land called the Kingdom of Chin. As Gabrielle wove the tale, the patrons in the inn were enraptured by the intricate traditions of the far east and by her deep, smooth voice.
When Xena entered the inn the only sound she heard was Gabrielle's silky voice. She skirted to the back of the tavern to sit against the wall. She watched Gabrielle as she spoke, the crowd was mesermised, caught up in the tale she had spun. Occasionally Gabrielle would rise from her chair and move across the hearth like an actor performing on stage.
The innkeeper's eyes followed Xena when she strode to a table in the rear. He went back to the kitchen and emerged a short while later with a platter. He walked around the bar to where Xena sat and placed the platter and a mug of port in front of her. When Xena glanced up he winked and ambled back to his bar.
Famished she dug in to the roasted chicken and fresh vegetables. At the mention of Lao Ma's name Xena stopped chewing suddenly and looked across the room at Gabrielle. Their gazes met for an instant. Xena remembered her Asian mentor who was the wife of Lao Tzu of the Land of Lao. She had healed Xena's legs and provided her with a way to reach her inner self, a way that would help lead her to her own redemption. Her eyes stung suddenly with unshed tears when she listened to Gabrielle tell of the Emperor Ming T'ien's vile and vicious treatment of the inhabitants in the Kingdom's of Ming and Lao, including his own mother, her mentor, Lao Ma. Towards the end of the story Gabrielle became more animated in describing the downfall of the vicious emperor. The story concluded when she illustrated how Xena brought down his temple. Xena casually finished her dinner, ignoring the stunned glances thrown in her direction.
The crowd was speechless and still when the tale came to an end. Anticipating this Gabrielle smoothly introduced the tale of how Autolycus, Joxer, Xena and herself were able to prevent Joxer's brother, Jett, from assassinating Queen Cleopatra. The crowd laughed uproariously at her hilarious description of Joxer hanging by his underpants from a plant hook on a wall, and suffering from a very painful wedgie.
Gabrielle rose and nodded to the patrons at their applause. She stepped down from the hearth and made her way to the back of the room and sat down across from Xena.
"You didn't tell them about Ming T'ien's demise." Xena said softly and gazed into Gabrielle's face.
"No, I didn't." A look passed between them.
Erman, the innkeeper, approached their table and set down a mug of cider and a plate of apple cobbler for Gabrielle.
"Anything else for you, Xena?"
"Yeah, another mug of port."
Erman nodded and then smiled at Gabrielle. "Those stories were wonderful, Gabrielle. How would you like to come back again tomorrow night?"
"Sure. I'd love to!" Gabrielle grinned.
"Xena, a bath has been prepared for you." Erman said as he peered over at Xena.
"Thanks." Xena said and smiled.
Erman returned her smile, turned and walked back to the bar humming to himself.
Xena watched as Gabrielle finished her desert and marveled at how the young woman could put away so much food.
"Hmm, I'm stuffed." Gabrielle said contentedly and patted her stomach.
"All right, I think it's time for me to take my bath." Xena said as she rose from the table.
"Yeah, the smell of leather I don't mind, but right now the only thing I smell is horses and sweat." Gabrielle said smartly as she drank the last of her cider.
"Gee, thanks." Xena replied sarcastically and rolled her eyes.
Gabrielle giggled as she got up from the table. Xena took Gabrielle's arm and propelled her forward a few feet with one hand. They made their way to the stairs and up to their room. Once inside Gabrielle unbuckled Xena's breastplate and scabbard as Xena hurriedly shucked her leathers and tunic. Xena stepped into the tub and sighed as she sank down into the steaming water. Gabrielle sat down on the ledge above the tub. She picked up the soap and sponge and dipped them, lathering the sponge well and began washing Xena's shoulders and arms. Xena's eyes closed and her head fell back in supplication. Opening her eyes slowly she looked up at Gabrielle.
"You know, when I look at you, I see the purest, the kindest person I've ever known, someone who is full of wonder and stories and would never give up on anything or anyone." Xena said.
Surprised, Gabrielle started and thought about what Xena said for a moment. Shaking her head sadly she said "I'm not perfect Xena, I've let you down, and I've disappointed you."
"Neither one of us is perfect, Gabrielle." Xena turned around slowly and took Gabrielle's hand in hers. "You have been the most constant thing in my life. We know a lot about each other. Most of it we've learned from experiences shared. But we do not know everything about each other because it is not possible. No two human beings can know everything about each other, even in the best of circumstances. That's why certain things we do will always remain a mystery to everyone else."
"You're right. There is a lot about you that I don't know, but I do understand you. Perhaps not as well I as I would like to, but well enough."
"Yes, you do. But, I bet you didn't anticipate this." Xena said, her eyes widened mischievously as she reached out and grabbed Gabrielle by the waist and pulled her down into the bath fully clothed.
Gabrielle woke the next morning to bright blue eyes staring into hers.
"Hmm." Gabrielle mumbled grumpily at first then smiled and snuggled deeper into Xena's arms. Waking up next to Xena felt right. It felt secure and comforting, the way it was supposed to feel when one woke within one's own home.
"Come on, Gabrielle, time to get up." Xena brushed a lock of Gabrielle's hair across her forehead.
Suddenly Gabrielle blinked her eyes open.
"Xena, can we go to the market place?"
"Well, I need to go visit Jonas and pick up my sword."
"Well, all right."
Xena, normally not one for shopping, followed Gabrielle from stand to stand and sighed in exasperation when Gabrielle lingered too long. At the shoemaker's Gabrielle selected a new pair of boots and haggled with the shoemaker to get him down to a price that suited her. Smiling, she picked up the boots and handed them to Xena who stood behind her. Xena took the boots resignedly, rolled her eyes and sighed heavily. Gabrielle slowly counted out the dinars into the shoemakers hand.
Gabrielle then walked over to a vacant wooden bench, sat down and extended her arm for the boots. Slipping off her old boots, she put the new ones on. Gabrielle stood up and flexed her legs testing the suppleness of the new leather.
"Gabrielle, I'm going to go over and see Jonas to pickup my sword. Why don't you go ahead and look around. I'll meet you here. And...uh, do try not to get into trouble."
"Huh, me?" Gabrielle pointed to her chest and gave Xena an innocent look.
"Yes, you." Xena replied wryly.
"Xena, now what kind of trouble could I possibly get into here?" Gabrielle said as she extended her arm.
"I don't know, and I don't want to find out." Xena said over her shoulder.
When Xena walked into to the blacksmith's shop Jonas looked up from dousing a red hot sword in a large barrel. The metal hissed as it was submerged in the water and steam billowed upwards. Sweat beaded on his forehead and ran down the sides of his face and neck.
"Good afternoon, Xena." He said smiling and wiped his perspiring face with a well used cloth.
"Good afternoon to you too, Jonas."
Jonas strode over to his forge and pulled down a wrapped bundle from a shelf. Carrying it in his hands he approached the counter and handed it over to Xena. Xena pulled back the folds of cloth and stared appreciatively at the gleaming sword. Picking up the sword she rested it on both palms and examined the new design that she had asked Jonas to put on the blade. On both sides going down the blade was etched a quill, exquisite in detail from the tip of the feather which began just below the brass pommel, to the pen tip at the end of the blade.
Xena smiled and nodded at Jonas, a pleased look on her face. Jonas smiled back and laughed, it was a big, hearty laugh. Xena gave Jonas her old sword and after a few practice twirls she sheathed her new sword, swinging it up and over her head and into the scabbard on her back.
"Thank you Jonas, it's beautiful." She said softly.
"Only the best for you, Xena." He said with a hint of reverence in his voice.
Xena extended her arm to Jonas. He clasped her forearm and they nodded solemnly. Xena turned around slowly and walked out into the bright sunshine that streamed down from lightly clouded skies. Standing out in the street she cocked her head and listened for Gabrielle's voice.
"Seven dinars, and not a dinar more. That's more than its worth."
Xena smiled and turned towards the sound. She grinned at the young redhead leaning on her staff. Xena walked over to stand behind Gabrielle and watched over her shoulder as Gabrielle fingered the material on a bolt of cloth and haggled with the merchant.
"Fine." The merchant said. He picked up the bolt and snipped several yards of the soft cloth. Gabrielle handed over the dinars and picked up the material.
"Thanks, this is perfect." Gabrielle backed up and bumped into Xena.
Gabrielle started then flushed at the unmistakable feel of Xena's breastplate and from the familiar feel of Xena's body.
"Uh...Xena!" Gabrielle said as she spun around and looked up into azure eyes.
"Find what you needed?" Xena inquired with arched eyebrows.
"Yes! Isn't this soft?" Gabrielle held out the copper hued cloth. "I can't wait to get rid of this old wraparound!"
"Hmm, can't tell which is softer, your skin or your new wraparound skirt." Xena said casually as she stroked the soft material.
"Hmm." Gabrielle chuckled and her face flushed slightly, again.
Xena smiled down at Gabrielle then turned and chuckled humorously. As Gabrielle followed Xena back to the inn she narrowed her eyes and noticed the new sword on Xena's back. Saying a brief hello to Erman they passed by the bar and continued on up to their room.
"Xena, that tickles!" Gabrielle giggled.
"Gabrielle, stop wiggling."
"I can't help it, you know how sensitive I am."
Another burst of giggles from Gabrielle and Xena rolled her eyes.
"Gabrielle, you are making this difficult."
Gabrielle wiggled again.
"Gabrielle, now stop! Let me finish what I am doing."
"I'm trying, really, I am."
Xena finished rubbing the soothing salve on the bottom of Gabrielle's feet.
"There, feel better?"
"Much. I guess it will be a few days before my new boots are broken in."
Xena got up at the sound of a quiet knock on their door. Pulling back the bolt she swung the door open to admit Lila, the innkeeper's young daughter.
"My father wanted me to tell you that dinner is ready, and Gabrielle, he would really like for you to tell another story tonight."
"I would love to. Xena, are you ready? I'm starved!"
"Naturally. Didn't you get enough to eat at the market?"
"Um...yeah, but it was just...you know...a bite here and a bite there." She said shrugging nonchalantly.
Xena shivered inwardly at the vision of Gabrielle biting and nipping her neck and shoulders.
"Xena?" Gabrielle inquired noticing the whimsical look on Xena's face.
"Hmm? Oh, after you." Xena replied quickly and closed the door.
At the bottom of the stairs they met Lila and followed her to a table at the back of the tavern. As soon as they sat down food was brought from the kitchen and placed before them. Gabrielle licked her lips at the heap of meated loaf and inhaled deeply through her nose, inhaling the savory aroma. Xena glanced over at the young bard and stifled a chuckle. Erman came by and set down their cold drinks and inquired as to what story Gabrielle was planning to tell that night.
"Hmm, I don't know. We'll just have to wait and see." She said and smiled impishly.
"O.K., O.K., don't tell me." He said grinning.
"So, what story will it be tonight, Gabrielle?" Xena asked as Erman walked back to the bar.
Gabrielle merely raised her eyebrows.
"Fine, don't tell me." Xena said in mock annoyance.
When Gabrielle finished her dinner the patrons in the inn glanced at her expectantly.
"Well, looks like they are waiting for you." Xena remarked.
"Yeah, it's a larger crowd tonight. Well, here goes."
Gabrielle got up and moved towards the chair that she had occupied the previous evening. Setting her staff against the chair back she fingered the staff and mulled over the story she was about to tell. Grasping the staff again she stood it upright next to her and began the tale of the Amazons and the Centaurs.
The crowd gasped as she described her heroic deed in trying to protect the Amazon princess who died during an ambush. Their shock gave way to awe when she told of how the right of caste was passed on to her, as the new Amazon Princess.
Xena smiled and got up from the table and walked towards the door. On the way to the stables to check on Argo, her thoughts drifted back in time vividly remembering how Gabrielle threw her body over the Amazon Princess who lay wounded amid flying arrows. Gabrielle possessed the courage that the Amazons respected. Her skill with the amazon staff was remarkable and she held her own whenever they were involved in a skirmish.
Xena's smile faded when she remembered the day Gabrielle truly became a woman. She saw Gabrielle's deep grief over her death. Gabrielle took on a band of mercenaries who wanted to snatch her body for a few dinars. Gabrielle had returned to the Amazons and brought Xena's body with her, and realized the real reason Valesca wanted to be Queen, and saw that she was a danger to all and had to be stopped. There Gabrielle came to terms with Xena's death and was prepared to move on with her life, but would never forget what the Warrior Princess had meant to her. Xena saw courage, love, strength, and wisdom in her Amazon bard.
This was the turning point in their relationship. Their friendship now bound them closer than blood ever could.
Xena squeezed her eyes shut and hastily brushed away a tear with the back of her hand. Patting Argo tenderly, she put the grooming brushes away and checked Argo's feed and water. Taking a deep breath she composed herself and returned to the inn.
When Xena entered their room, Gabrielle glanced up from her scroll, smiled and went back to her writing. All you could hear was the scratching of her quill marching across the parchment.
Xena glanced over at the bed. There, laying coiled neatly, was a leather whip. Picking it up she examined the suppleness of the leather. Smiling she picked up the pack on the floor and turned to Gabrielle who was still writing in her scroll.
"Thank you, Gabrielle."
"You're welcome." Gabrielle replied. She paused briefly and smiled to herself.
There was a soft knock at their door as Xena unbuckled her breastplate and set it on the back of the chair. Xena strode over to the door and opened it to admit four young girls carrying buckets of water. They all trouped past Xena to the bath. After the young girls had made several trips and the bath was full, Xena locked and bolted the door behind them. Xena slid off her boots and set them aside. She picked up her sword, chakram, and a pack from under the bed and headed to the bath. She then took a bottle of perfumed oil from the pack and poured a liberal amount into the bath water. Next she set up candles around the bath and lit them. The candles bathed the area with a soft warm glow. Xena removed her leather tunic and stepped into the steaming water. She laid back, closed her eyes and allowed herself to relax.
"Gab-ri-elle!" She called out, her eyes still closed.
Gabrielle, upon hearing Xena call her name, smiled and put down her quill. She removed her boots and walked back to the bath where Xena was languishing. Xena slitted her eyes and watched as Gabrielle removed her top and skirt and walked slowly towards the tub. Gabrielle descended the steps and waded towards Xena skimming her fingertips over the surface of the water.
Xena reached out with both arms and wrapped them around Gabrielle and pulled her against her naked body. Gabrielle then folded her arms around Xena's neck and kissed her lightly. Xena shifted Gabrielle around so that she was holding her in her arms. She slowly turned in a circle smiling at Gabrielle who seemed to be radiating an internal glow.
Gabrielle gazed into Xena's eyes, eyes that foreshadowed a woman on the verge of passing into middle age too young. She wanted to bring the warrior further out of her self-imposed shell and into the mainstream of life. She viewed her friend as a challenge in that regard. The challenge it represented intrigued her beyond anything she had known.
Sometimes Xena was not always good company, but Gabrielle had the patience and perservance to stay with her. Sometimes Xena would do or say things that Gabrielle did not understand. Xena would do these things because it felt right to her and Gabrielle would go along with it even if she didn't agree or understand it. She trusted Xena. Gabrielle paused in her thinking, struck by the implications of that last thought.
She forced a quick smile when Xena looked at her curiously.
"What's on your mind, Gabrielle?"
Xena raised an eyebrow.
"Xena, you are who you are today, I mean, you left behind your old life to find a different existence from what you have known. You care about others. You have always been there for me."
"Gabrielle." Xena regarded her solemnly. "Gabrielle, I love you. I will always be there for you."
Xena gathered Gabrielle into her arms and waded to the edge of the tub where Gabrielle picked up Xena's sword and chakram. Xena then proceeded to the other end of the tub and ascended the stairs, the water sluicing off of her lean body. As Xena set Gabrielle on the bed Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's neck and kissed her passionately. Xena lowered herself over Gabrielle, but Gabrielle grinned suddenly and flipped Xena over to land on top.
They slept and then woke later that afternoon. The light from the high, arched windows that were glassed and latticed flooded the room. Xena sat up, got out of bed and walked to their packs from which she pulled out an intricately wrapped package. Gabrielle's eyes widened and her mouth opened in surprise. Climbing back into bed, Xena smiled and looked into Gabrielle's eyes.
Xena extended her arm and gave the package to Gabrielle. Eagerly, Gabrielle took the gift that sat in the palm of Xena's hand. Opening it carefully she extracted a small ornately crafted box. After opening the box her eyes widened further with shock.
Xena observed Gabrielle, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. Gabrielle reached out and tugged gently at the object that sat snugly in its cushion. The green gemstone sparkled and glowed with warmth. Gabrielle examined the gold prongs that clasped the stone. She noticed that the prongs were part of the ends of a feather. Turning the ring to further examine the band she saw that it was a finely detailed quill, one on each side of the gemstone. Her hand flew to her mouth and tears glistened in her eyes. Meeting Xena's gaze she reached out and pulled her into a hug. Releasing her, she placed the ring in Xena's hand and extended her own. As Xena slid the ring onto Gabrielle's finger their lips slowly met.
Erman led them to their table in the back corner of the tavern. As Gabrielle sat, Xena slid herself against the wall and settled herself in her seat. She set down Gabrielle's cider and took a large swallow of her port. Erman emerged a little while later from the kitchen and set down their dinner. Gabrielle stared at the huge portion of roasted stew. She closed her eyes and breathed in the savory aroma. Xena glanced up as four new patrons entered the inn. She speared a piece of lamb as her eyes followed them to a table in the next row. Suddenly Xena's arm froze midway to her mouth. Xena's face was like stone. Frowning, Gabrielle looked behind her to see what had gotten Xena's attention. The small woman at the end lifted her arm, a silver and blue bracelet sparkled in the lamplight, to smooth back a golden lock that had fallen forward from a delicately sculptured face.
"Xena, do you know her?" Gabrielle inquired, her tone low.
Xena placed her fork back down on her plate. "Yes, her name is Nona. She was in my army." Xena's gaze moved slowly from the woman back to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows questioningly.
Meeting Gabrielle's gaze Xena continued, "She was not a warrior. She was an archer, one of the best. I trained her."
Xena's eyes narrowed slightly but her face remained expressionless.
Gabrielle glanced back again at the foursome. The warlord had seated himself at one table while the women seated themselves at another table directly across from him.
Xena rose slowly to her feet.
"Xena..." Gabrielle said in a warning tone as she reached out and grasped Xena's arm.
Xena glanced down at Gabrielle, placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, and said "I'll be right back."
Xena walked over to stand in front of the warlord. He was dark haired and bearded, and heavily muscled. There was a moment of silence as the two faced each other.
"I would like permission to speak to one of your slaves." Xena said stiffly.
The warlord's eyes narrowed, a hint of suspicion in his sharp green eyes. He surveyed her from head to toe then brought his gaze slowly back up, lingering at her breastplate, then to her mouth. He laughed dryly, the scars on his face showed whitely against the tan.
"Sure, but she is not for sale." His smile was sardonic.
Anger flooded through her, but she forced the feeling aside and walked over to the table where Nona sat. Nona glanced up at Xena with quiet recognition. Xena pulled out a chair and sat, her gaze never leaving Nona's face.
"Hello Nona." Xena said quietly.
"Xena." Whispered Nona with a careful glance at Lucus, the warlord, who was watching them warily.
Xena continued to gaze at Nona's face, amazed that she remembered every detail. She had grown into a woman with stunning features. There were noticeable changes in her face, especially around the hazel eyes flecked with gold. A few small deep lines were etched in just under her eyes which indicated a profound sadness.
Nona leaned forward and whispered softly "Even though I can move about the province freely with an escort, I must still inform Lucus and he does not allow us to have visitors outside his presence. Come visit me at Lucus' villa tonight, we can talk privately there. It is located across from his vineyard and my part of the villa is on the east end. I will leave a lit candle on the patio when it is safe."
Xena nodded without comment and rose from the table. She turned and walked back to where Gabrielle sat watching her anxiously.
As Xena sat down she shook her head and brought her hand up quickly to cut Gabrielle off as she was about to speak. "We'll talk when we get back to our room."
They stared at each other across the table.
"O.K..." Gabrielle snapped her mouth shut on the rest of whatever it was she was going to say after a warning look from Xena.
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder and stared at the warlord who stared back. His brows were knit above hard eyes that glittered suspiciously.
"Oh." Gabrielle understood Xena's caution now.
They finished the rest of their dinner in silence. Gabrielle chewed her bottom lip mulling over the way Nona and Xena had looked at each other during their brief conversation, and the magnetic attraction that simmered between them.
Back in their room, Xena told Gabrielle what had transpired between Nona and herself downstairs during dinner.
"Xena, you loved her didn't you?" Gabrielle frowned thoughtfully.
Xena looked away and out the window at the full moon. With a deep sigh she finally replied "Yes."
Not missing the look on Xena's face before she looked away, Gabrielle said "And I think you still do."
Xena spun her gaze back to Gabrielle, her face unreadable. "I'm going out to the stables and check on Argo." Xena announced stiffly as she stood up and walked to the door.
Gabrielle frowned at Xena's retreating back until the door closed. She began to feel an uneasiness settle in the pit of her stomach. Sighing deeply, Gabrielle rose from the bed and moved to the small table where her unfinished scrolls lay. Picking up her quill, she chose one of the scrolls, and after reading it briefly, began writing.
Gabrielle was interrupted a little while later by a knock at the door. Picking up her staff she strode to the door and opened it. Lila stood there smiling.
"Gabrielle, we have another large crowd tonight. Father was wondering if you would tell another story again."
"Sure, I'll be down in a few minutes." Gabrielle replied with false enthusiasm.
Lila's smile widened as she turned and walked back down the hallway. Gabrielle stood at the doorway and watched the girls retreating form. Turning, she stepped back, closed the door quietly and leaned against the sturdy frame. Squaring herself she took a deep breath, opened the door again and strode softly down the hall to the waiting crowd below.
Gabrielle was already in bed when Xena finally returned later that evening. Xena walked over to the window and folded her arms across her chest. She looked up at the full moon, her face twisted as if in a vise. Unsheathing her sword she pulled out a polishing cloth from a pack on the floor and sat down in the chair that faced the window. She put the sword across her lap and stared at the quill design that was illuminated by the bright moonlight. She took the polishing cloth and rubbed it across the design with tenderness.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. Cries of the wounded echoed across the battlefield. The skies opened up and the rain sluiced down bathing the once green pasture crimson with blood.
"Nona!" Xena cried frantically. She galloped between boulders, past bodies writhing in agony, searching for the woman who had taken an arrow to the shoulder.
She searched the bloody terrain for hours then found laying beneath at tree a longbow with distinctive markings. Dismounting quickly she picked up the bow and combed the area for its owner.
Time seemed to come to a standstill. Xena knelt at the edge of the grove and sat in silence as she looked up imploringly into the dark skies.
Clenching her jaw Xena shut her eyes tightly against the memory.
Sheathing her sword, Xena turned and glanced over at the lumpy form in the bed which was completely engulfed by the coverlet. Xena smiled fondly, then turned back and stepped out the window onto the balcony. Leaping up into the air she backflipped and landed softly on the roof of the inn. Leaping from rooftop to rooftop she backflipped again and landed quietly in Lucus' vineyard facing his villa.
After hearing the soft whooshing sound after Xena had leaped, Gabrielle rolled over, pulled the coverlet down from her head, and looked over to the window. She pulled back the coverlet, sat up, walked over to stand before the window and gazed up at the full moon. She stared out, the colored slivers of moonlight slipped downward and dappled the road and buildings below. Her delicate face lifted to the colored streamers of moonlight, a small frown creased her forehead and a hint of uncertainty clouded her eyes.
Xena made her way stealthily through the vineyard to the villa wall on the east end. She leaped up onto a thick tree limb and surveyed the courtyard. A candle shone brightly in a scone on the patio. Xena launched herself from the tree to land soundlessly in front of the softly billowing curtains.
Slipping inside, she looked over the room that was illuminated by the soft glow of candlelight. To her left was a bed with the covers already turned down. Laying across the chest at the foot of the bed was a white silk robe. Fingering the silk, she turned her head at the sound of water. Picking up the robe, she approached a beaded curtained doorway. Looking between the beaded strings she saw Nona soaking in a marble tub. Soft candlelight reflected off marbled walls and the air smelled of jasmine. As if sensing Xena's presence, Nona lifted her head and gazed directly at Xena through the beaded curtain.
"Hello, Xena." She said smiling.
Xena parted the beaded strings, slipped in, and stopped just before the tub. She looked down and returned Nona's smile. Nona held Xena's gaze as she stood up and slowly walked towards end of the tub. The water cascaded down her smooth alabaster skin. Xena gazed at the sight before her and watched as more of Nona's body emerged as she ascended the steps of the tub. Xena unfolded Nona's robe and gazed into her golden eyes. Nona turned suddenly, slipped her arms into her robe and fastened it in the front.
She then turned back and looked into Xena's cobalt blue eyes.
"You are even more beautiful than I remember." Xena whispered.
"My, aren't you a conversationalist!" Nona smiled and a slow grin formed on her face.
Xena stroked the side of Nona's face with her fingertips. Nona closed her eyes and covered Xena's hand with her own. Xena leaned down and kissed her lips softly. Nona responded and their kiss lingered then became passionate. Xena unfastened Nona's robe, slipped her hands inside to slide up the silkiness of Nona's back and pressed her against Xena's body. When Nona's bare skin came into contact with Xena's metal breastplate and wristband, shivers ran down her spine. Sliding her hands up Xena's arms she unfastened Xena's sword, which fell to the floor. She brought her hands around to the front and unfastened Xena's breastplate, which dropped down to the floor next to the sword. She slid her arms under Xena's and began unlacing the leather tunic. While pressing Nona against her, Xena tugged off her wristbands, armbands and removed her chakram. When they finally parted, Nona removed Xena's boots and tunic, took Xena's hand and led her into the tub.
Gabrielle was standing out on the balcony, her arms were wrapped around herself in the cool early morning air. She watched the moon descend and the first faint rays of morning color the horizon. She turned, stepped through the window, and got dressed. She lit the candle on the table and sat down. She picked up her quill and after some quiet deliberation picked up a new parchment. She stared down at the blank scroll and twirled the quill between her thumb and forefinger. She bit down on her lip trying to quell the tears that threatened to spill down her face. She felt alone and afraid. The uncertainty was troubling and her hands began to shake.
"You're up bright and early." Xena spoke from the balcony startling Gabrielle practically out of her wits.
"Yes, well, I have a lot of catching up to do." Gabrielle replied feigning nonchalance. She glanced up at Xena briefly and then brought her gaze back down to the quill in her hand.
"Have you eaten breakfast yet?" Xena asked. Conflicting emotions raged through her, battering her.
"No." Gabrielle replied shortly.
"Well, lets go and break our fast and I will tell you what I know about the warlord Lucus." Xena said over her shoulder on the way to the door. Gabrielle caught the light scent of jasmine as Xena walked by.
They sat at their usual table eating breakfast, Gabrielle less talkative than usual. Xena attempted to make light conversation, but every time she looked at Gabrielle she was overwhelmed with guilt.
"Gabrielle, I believe you wanted to know how Nona became a slave?"
At Gabrielle's affirmative nod, she continued, "She was captured by slavers a few days after she left my army. We were fighting the Centaurs and I lost a good deal of my men. She was wounded and could not find anyone from the group she was fighting with. So, she left and was walking to the nearest town when she was captured. She was then sold into slavery, to Lucus."
"She has been a slave for a long time." Gabrielle replied sadly.
"Yes, to a brutal man. She would not tell me what was done to her, but I know he has not been kind her." Xena could not keep the anger out of her voice.
Gabrielle shuddered, remembering how close she and the other girls in her home village came to being captured by a slaver before Xena came along and rescued them.
"Gabrielle, Nona has a young daughter who will soon come of age. Nona is frightened for her, she doesn't want her daughter to suffer through what she has. She wants to put her daughter under our protection, but she needs a home."
"The Amazons will take her in and give her a home." Gabrielle replied.
"I am the Queen after all." She continued at Xena's questioning glance.
"All right. I will talk to her about it tonight." Xena said suddenly.
"You're going back to visit her again tonight?" Gabrielle asked and felt her throat tighten.
"Yes." Xena said her eyes looking everywhere but at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle thought it through for the moment, trying to decide what else she should ask on the matter, but decided in the end that there was really nothing further to ask.
After breakfast Xena rode Argo to the outskirts of the small village. She shambled down through the meadow and began the descent towards the bowl of the valley. They raced across the fertile fields. The trees slipped rapidly away besides her, and the ground passed smoothly beneath. She breathed the air and let the stiffness in her body slowly work itself out as she mulled the problem of Nona over in her mind.
Reaching a small shady grove she dismounted Argo and let her roam freely to graze on the tall grass. Unsheathing her sword she glided and spun, the blade gleamed brightly in the midday sun. The practice helped her release some of the frustration and anger at herself. And it helped fill the time.
What should have been a day of rest and relaxation for Gabrielle was full of trepidation. Her silent musings interrupted her concentration and her quill stilled often. She yawned and stretched, wishing for nothing more than a good nights sleep.
Gabrielle was once again already in bed when Xena returned. Xena moved to the window and looked up at the moon, only half full this night. its brightness revealed the turmoil on Xena's face. Unsheathing her sword and pulling out a polishing cloth from the pack on the floor Xena sat in the chair facing the window and put the sword across her lap. Xena stared at the quill design that was illuminated by the moonlight. She laid the polishing cloth across her knee and stroked the design with her fingertips lovingly.
Perhaps the problem was not with her but within herself. Maybe the real problem was that she didn't have the things Gabrielle needed or wanted. Perhaps she had lost everything good about herself in her past. Xena grimaced painfully. She didn't want to think that, but perhaps it is so. She was surprised to find tears in her eyes. She brushed them away hastily, grateful that no one could see.
Sheathing her sword with an audible snap, Xena turned and glanced at the still form in the bed that was completely engulfed by the coverlet. The Warrior Princess's face was like stone. She turned and stepped out the window onto the balcony. Leaping up into the air she backflipped and landed softly on the roof of the inn. Leaping from rooftop to rooftop she backflipped again and landed quietly in Lucus' vineyard facing his villa once again.
After hearing the soft whooshing sound after Xena had leaped, Gabrielle pulled back the coverlet, sat up and walked over to stand before the window. She stared upwards at the moon and swallowed hard.
She stepped out onto the balcony, the lights of the village glimmered through the evening gray. Conversation and light laughter drifted up from the tavern below. Her view misted as tears began to trickle down her face. The feeling of overwhelming uncertainty gripped her, and she brought her hands up to her face. She sobbed quietly, sliding down the wall to a sitting position on the balcony. The tears flowed freely, her chest heaved and hurt with the pain. Her tears pooled in the crevices of her fingers as she felt the loss deep within her soul of the person whom she loved more than life itself. She wanted to scream. She wanted to cry out Xena's name. Gabrielle grieved for the woman who had loved her so much and for the woman who came back from Tartarus to be with her again.
Xena entered Nona's domain in the same fashion as the previous night. Nona was sitting on a dais brushing out her long silky hair which shone even in the faint candlelight.
"Hello Nona." Xena said.
Nona turned and smiled. "Hello Xena" she replied. "Come, I want you to meet my daughter."
They walked quickly down the hall and entered a small room. A young child slept in a small bunk against the wall. Xena stood and stared down at a beautiful young girl with silky raven black hair and a delicately featured face like her mother. Nona leaned down and kissed her daughter lightly on the forehead. She then touched her lightly on the shoulder and the young girl's eyes opened. Her eyes were a deep emerald green.
"Xena, Desiree is a very special child." Nona said as she smoothed away the dark hair from her daughter's forehead.
Nona looked back down at her daughter and began to sign. Xena smiled at Desiree and placed her hand on the side of the child's face, cupping it gently. Desiree smiled back at Xena and drifted back to sleep.
When they returned to Nona's sleeping quarters Nona's expressed her concern for her daughter. Xena told her about the Amazons, and Nona agreed that it would be a wise decision to allow the Amazons to adopt her. Nona reached up and cupped Xena's face with her hand. She then slid her arms around Xena's shoulders and placed her palms behind Xena's neck. She pulled Xena down and kissed her deeply and passionately. Reaching up, Xena gently pulled Nona's arms down from around her neck and stepped back. She looked at Nona's face, moving her gaze down the strong jawbone, to the hollowness at her neck and then back to Nona's face only to be caught by Nona's gaze and sly smile.
"So, tell me about her." Nona said looking at her curiously.
"Gabrielle." Xena said quietly.
"Yes, the beautiful bard that I hear travels with you." Nona said.
There was a long moment of silence, then Xena sighed, and a brief flash of pain crossed her face.
"Xena...you love her." Nona smiled in understanding.
"Yes, very much." Xena replied, her eyes softening.
"She really did win your heart. You don't usually talk about your feelings. Then again, you usually don't say much at all." Pausing, and then continuing Nona said "Speaking from the heart is difficult, but it is also honest."
"Xena, you must remember that you have changed your life, you have left behind the old, to find a different existence from what you had known. It will be a challenge for you, but I believe it will pull you out of the mire of your previous existence. I think Gabrielle believes this also."
Xena looked away from Nona and shut her eyes. Nona grasped Xena's chin firmly, forcing Xena to look back at her and open her eyes. Nona saw tears pooling in their depths.
"Xena, you and I were not meant to be. Deep down, we have both known this all along."
"You have a sword that is etched with a bards quill." Nona whispered leaning forward.
Xena's eyes widened in surprise.
Nona smiled and said "Last night after you drifted off to sleep, I went back into the bath and picked up your things. Your sword had slipped part way out of your scabbard. I saw part of the design, so I pulled it out to look at the rest of the etching."
Xena took Nona's hand in her own and said "Sometimes things happen for a reason, sometimes it is a good thing. I believe that what has happened between us was what could have been, but right now I see how much I do love Gabrielle." Both women smiled and embraced each other.
Gabrielle struggled to write, her hands shook, but the words began to flow through her and a story was begun. Xena watched Gabrielle struggle to steady the quill in her hand. She walked quietly behind the bard and laid her hand on her shoulder. She felt Gabrielle flinch, and she did stop writing and look up, but did not turn to look at Xena.
"Gabrielle." Xena spoke softly.
When Gabrielle still didn't turn, she stepped over to the table and shoved it away. The table slid across the floor and thumped against the wall. Xena moved in front of Gabrielle, took the quill gently from her hands and knelt, putting the quill on the floor next to her. Xena then took both of the bards hands in her own.
Looking up at Gabrielle she said "Gabrielle, please, look at me."
Gabrielle slowly lowered her head and met Xena's gaze. Xena resisted the impulse to swallow at the hardness and hurt she saw in Gabrielle's eyes.
"Gabrielle, I know you want talk about this."
"You slept with her, didn't you Xena?" Gabrielle said, her eyes narrowed and she removed her hands from Xena's.
"Yes." Xena whispered holding Gabrielle's stony gaze.
Just as Xena sighed and glanced down at her hands, Gabrielle hit Xena with her open hand. Stunned, Xena and went flying backwards onto her rump in surprise. Gabrielle sprinted for the door and snatched her staff along the way. She ran down the back stairs towards the kitchen and out the rear door into the woods. Xena jumped to her feet and shook her head quickly.
"Whoa! That stung." She said out loud and rubbed her jaw.
She then sprinted out the door after Gabrielle. She followed Gabrielle's into the woods. Xena stopped suddenly, sensing Gabrielle's presence, and then ducked as Gabrielle lunged from behind a tree swinging her staff. Gabrielle then used the momentum to pivot around and bring the staff back towards the middle of Xena's back. Xena spun quickly and caught the staff in her right hand. Placing her left hand on the other end of the staff she yanked it right out of Gabrielle's hands. Xena tossed the staff to the ground, grabbed Gabrielle by the front of her top, pulled her in, and wrapped her arms around her.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry." Xena whispered into the bards ear.
"Xena, let me go." Gabrielle said sharply and pushed against Xena's ribs.
Xena dropped her arms and looked down into Gabrielle's face.
"You're sorry!" Gabrielle snapped angrily her nostrils flaring.
"Did you think about what I was going through these last two nights?" Gabrielle's hands tightened at her sides and she leaned towards Xena, the hurt and anger evident in her face.
"No Gabrielle, I didn't." Xena replied honestly as she held up her hands pleadingly.
"No, you didn't think about that did you?" Gabrielle was shaking, she was so mad.
Xena flinched in spite of herself.
The hard edge in Gabrielle's voice left them both shaken. They stared at each other in silence for a moment feeling the distance between them widening as if a chasm had opened.
Gabrielle spun around, picked up her staff and walked briskly back to the inn.
Xena sighed, her hands on her hips, and watched Gabrielle's retreating back. What was I thinking? She said to herself and shook her head sadly. "Big mistake, very big mistake." She mumbled disgustedly.
Suddenly Xena's head snapped up. She sensed something wrong up ahead at the inn. She broke into a sprint, zipping past Gabrielle, who then broke into a run after Xena.
The innkeeper was attempting to lift the prone form on the ground. Xena interceded him and lifted Nona in her arms. Desiree, who clutched her mothers hand, looked up at Xena with frightened eyes.
"Bring Desiree inside." Xena instructed Gabrielle, nodding towards the door.
Gabrielle attempted to soothe the young girl.
"Gabrielle, Desiree is deaf." Xena said.
Gabrielle looked at Xena quickly, and then back to Desiree. Gabrielle smiled, and scooped the young girl into her arms. Desiree relaxed and put her arms around Gabrielle's neck. Xena and Gabrielle carried mother and daughter up to their room. Gabrielle knelt to set Desiree down and when she looked up, she saw blood stains on the back of Nona's shirt.
"Xena, her back." Gabrielle said looking pointedly at Nona's back.
Xena sat Nona on the bed and peered around to look at her back. Cursing under her breath, and with Gabrielle's help they removed Nona's shift and laid her face down on the bed. Xena reached for her pack next to the bed, took out cleanser and healing salves. Gabrielle brought over a basin of clean water and towels. Gabrielle watched Xena gently cleanse the bloody welts and lovingly apply the soothing salve. When she was finished, their gazes locked for an instant.
"I wonder why he did this?" Gabrielle asked looking sorrowfully down at the woman.
"He probably found out that I came by for a visit without asking for permission first." Xena replied her voice dangerously low.
Gabrielle got up and put the basin back on the stand. Returning to the bed, she handed Xena one of her clean shifts. Gabrielle helped Xena sit Nona upright so they could put the clean shift on her. They laid her back down and looked towards the young girl who was leaning against the bedpost staring at both of them. Xena moved over to Desiree and knelt before her. Xena signed to her and reassured her that her mother would be fine. Xena's fingers felt stiff and they jerked while she was signing and she vowed to start practicing more to improve the flexibility of her fingers.
"I didn't know you knew how to sign." Gabrielle said fascinated.
Xena grinned, but before she could say anything Gabrielle said " I know, I know, you have many skills."
"Xena, when Lucus finds out that Nona is gone he will come here looking for her." Gabrielle said with a worried frown.
"I know. I'm going to get another horse and buy more supplies. Pack up our things, we will leave when I get back."
"But even if we go to the Amazons, he will still track them down."
"That's where your diplomatic skills come in my bard, we may have to fight his army of mercenaries."
Gabrielle was sitting at the desk writing in her scrolls with Desiree dozing in her lap, when she heard faint moans from Nona. Carefully putting Desiree on the cot next to the table she picked up the waterskin and walked to the bed.
Nona winced when she opened her eyes. She blinked and willed her eyes to focus. She turned over onto her back and winced again. She regarded the young woman kneeling next to the bed for a moment.
"Hi, I'm Gabrielle. I'm a friend of Xena's." Gabrielle said and handed her the waterskin.
Nona smiled and accepted the waterskin. Taking several swallows, she turned her head to look over at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle winced inwardly when she saw the haunted look of sadness and pain in Nona's eyes.
"I'm glad to finally meet you Gabrielle." Nona said quietly. "Xena has told me all about you."
"Really?" Gabrielle's eyebrow raised.
Nona handed the waterskin back to Gabrielle. When Gabrielle put her hand on the waterskin Nona's gaze was drawn to the brilliant sparkle from Gabrielle's ring. She took Gabrielle's hand in hers gently and examined the ring.
"This is a beautiful ring Gabrielle. Xena gave this to you didn't she?" Nona asked as a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
Gabrielle nodded wordlessly.
"Xena loves you Gabrielle." Nona said sincerely.
"Gabrielle, tell me, has Xena shown you her sword?" Nona asked suddenly.
Puzzled, Gabrielle shook her head.
"Gabrielle, ask her to show it to you."
The door opened and Xena walked in. Relief showed on her face for an instant in seeing Nona sitting up and talking to Gabrielle.
"Nona, what happened?" Xena asked as she knelt down before the bed next to Gabrielle.
"Xena, He knows that you have been by. So, this morning he tried to take Desiree away from me. During the struggle I hit him over the head with his prized vase." She laughed without humor.
"Oh, don't worry, he's not dead. Although, I probably should have killed him. But, I can't go back now, he will separate us and probably sell me to someone else." Her face flushed with anger.
"I won't let Desiree live a slaves life! Please Xena, help me!" She pleaded.
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged looks.
"All right then, we must go. Now." Xena handed Nona a set of new clothes and boots.
"Xena, where will we go?" Nona asked as she pulled on a pair of brown breeches.
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged a knowing glance.
"To the Amazons." Gabrielle replied.
After Nona changed into her new clothes, Nona woke up Desiree while Xena and Gabrielle picked up their packs and belongings. They walked quietly down the back stairs and out the rear door.
Nona walked over to the horse that had a sheathed bow slung across the saddle. She turned, looked at Xena and smiled. Then she turned back to the horse and withdrew the bow.
She wrapped the curved end around her ankle, pushed down on the top of the bow, pulled up the bow string and slipped it in the notch at the top. She then pulled out an arrow from its quiver, inspected the feathers and the metal tip. Nodding with satisfaction, she put the arrow back into its quiver. She then slung the bow over her head and rested it crosswise across her body from her left shoulder. She mounted the horse and extended her arm for Desiree. Xena lifted Desiree and seated her behind her mother.
Xena mounted Argo and extended her arm out to Gabrielle who grasped it and was lifted up behind Xena. She wrapped her arm around Xena's waist and dug her fingers into the leather belt. She clasped her staff tightly and rested the butt end of the staff on the toe of her boot.
They spurred the horses into a fast gallop.
They rode until the sun began to fade. They had worked their way to the valley slope, then started up the rim and followed the forest's edge. Below them the valley lay wrapped in shadows in the failing light. They made camp that night within a copse of fir on a knoll overlooking the valley. After they set up camp, Xena went out to explore the perimeter. Seeing two rabbits in a small clearing, she slowly lifted her chakram from her belt and said a prayer to the Gods for providing them with fresh meat for their evening meal.
Xena walked to the small stream where she skinned the rabbits and filled the waterskins. She looked out across the stream. The ripples in the water twinkled in the bright moonlight. On the way back to the camp she stopped and picked several mushrooms and herbs that would make a flavorful broth. At the campsite, Gabrielle had set up a fire and smiled when she saw Xena approach with meat for dinner. Gabrielle spitted the rabbits over the fire and using several ingredients, including the mushrooms and herbs that Xena gathered, soon had a savory stew simmering. Tired from the strenuous ride, dinner was a silent affair.
After eating, Nona stood up with a dozing Desiree in her arms, placed her on the fur pallet and laid down next to her. Xena went over to them after she picked up a pack next to her saddle on the way.
"We need to change your dressing." Xena said and knelt down.
Nona sat up slowly, turned her back to Xena and removed her shirt. Xena gently cleansed the healing welts and applied more salve.
"The welts are healing nicely." Xena said as she returned the salve back inside the pack.
Nona slipped her shirt back on, turned and laid her hand on Xena's arm gently.
"Thank you." She whispered.
Xena smiled and nodded.
Xena covered them both with the pelt and moved to the edge of the camp where she sat down on a flat boulder. She unsheathed her sword and using her polishing cloth began her nightly ritual of polishing the blade.
Gabrielle put aside her bowl, stood up and stretched. She strode over to the bedrolls stacked by Argo and picked them up. She unceremoniously dumped Xena's bedroll by the fire, then walked to the other side and rolled hers out. She snuggled down and became comfortable sleepy as she stared into the flickering flames of the fire.
Xena finished polishing her sword, took one last look at the blade and then looked over at the sleepy bard. Sheathing her sword, she got up and knelt next to Gabrielle. Xena grasped Gabrielle's shoulder firmly.
"Xena, don't." Gabrielle warned her voice almost a growl.
Taking her hand back Xena stood up and walked back around the small fire. She unrolled her bedroll and sat staring at the young bard on the other side. She listened to the silence that settled over the valley and searched the darkness for shadows. Finally, she removed her sword and chakram and placed them within reach. She laid down on her bedroll, pulled the pelt up over her and rolled over on to her side.
"Gabrielle...Gabrielle...wake up!" "We need to get moving." Xena said shaking the bard awake.
Gabrielle moaned and sat up reluctantly, her face squinched in a pout. Gazing through sleep fogged eyes she noticed that Nona was cooking breakfast. Her stomach grumbled as the spicy aroma of sausage wafted past her nose. Her mouth watered and her stomach rumbled even louder. As Gabrielle ate her breakfast she looked at the forest around her. The air was cool, the sky was clear and filled with sunlight that streaked the backdrop of forested mountains which glimmered crystalline with morning dew.
After breakfast the group traveled on. They wove through the tangle of forest and mountain rock. The mountainside lifted into the morning sunlight, a maze of trees and rocks wrapped in thin trailers of mist. Gabrielle looked upwards toward the mountain's summit, watching the mist swirl and stir like ribbons drawing through the air. Towards midmorning the swirling mists evaporated as the rays of the sun warmed the earth. As they approached a section of the road that narrowed, Gabrielle felt Xena tense in her saddle. She reined Argo to a halt, looked behind her at Nona and nodded. Nona pulled her bow up over her head with her right arm and with her left reached back and pulled out an arrow from its quiver and notched it. She spurred her horse forward and to the left of Argo.
Nona handed the reins behind her and Desiree took a rein in each hand. In the meantime, Gabrielle readied her staff and Xena quickly unsheathed her sword. At Nona's nod they moved forward slowly. Xena looked back again at Nona and nodded up at the boulders. Nona concentrated on listening for movement from the mountain rocks above. Suddenly she twisted, raised her bow and let loose the arrow. The arrow zinged and sank into the neck of a mercenary who toppled over and thudded to the ground. At that moment three mercenaries burst forth from the shrubbery and advanced on Xena. The underbrush next to Gabrielle stirred and two more emerged. Gabrielle swung her staff around her back and brought it back to the left swiftly disabling one mercenary with a solid blow to his jaw that flipped him sideways and knocked him out cold. Following the momentum she used her right hand to flip the staff above her head to slam the butt end down on the second mercenary with a sharp crack to the crown of his head. The mercenary's eyes rolled back, and he crumpled down to the dirt.
A second arrow zinged and a gasp was heard from above as another mercenary toppled down with his hands clenched around an arrow that protruded from his chest. Xena had already taken care of two mercenaries who where sprawled on the road unconscious. Xena swung her sword in an underhand loop to block a thrust from the last mercenary. He lunged forward again and his head snapped back from the contact with Xena's foot. This time the mercenary pulled a second sword from his belt and ran forward swinging both swords in the air. Xena gave her battle cry and plunged her sword deep into his chest. The mercenary's eyes bulged and the two swords stopped just inches from Xena's neck. Taking her right boot she placed it on his chest and pushed him off her sword. Gabrielle shuddered at the scraping sound.
Nona handed Desiree her bow and along with Xena dismounted. They dragged the mercenaries off to the side of the road. Nona walked back to her mount and looked into Desiree's eyes which were round with astonishment. She smiled at her daughter and reached her arms up to her. Desiree leaned down and hugged her mother. Releasing her, Nona patted Desiree's thigh. Nona then remounted and the foursome continued on.
That night just before sunset they followed a pathway that wound in a series of twists and turns circling a stream. The small stream ran down off the rocks through a series of rapids that flashed coppery in the dappled sunlight. The pathway crisscrossed the stream's banks and disappeared into the trees. Xena choose a suitable camping site off to the side of the gentle stream. Nona, Desiree, and Gabrielle waded into the stream eager to wash off the gritty dust on their bodies. Xena removed her boots and waded into the clear, crisp water looking for a suitable spot to fish. Finding a good spot, she stood motionless and then snatched up a wiggling trout and flipped it over to the bank. Desiree gawked and watched as Xena caught three more in a similar fashion. Xena looked back and grinned devilishly at Desiree as Gabrielle and Nona laughed at the comical display.
As Xena banked the campfire, Desiree accompanied Gabrielle in the search for firewood. Gabrielle smiled at the young girl when she stopped to explore, her curiosity obvious in her face at the wildlife around her. On the way back Desiree stopped and reached out to touch a bright crimson flower. Gabrielle happened to glance over her shoulder. She spun suddenly and caught the young girls hand before she could touch the colorful bud. Shaking her head Gabrielle conveyed the message that the flower was poisonous. The young girls eyes widened in surprise. Taking Desiree's hand they walked on back to the camp and stacked the wood near the campfire where Xena was preparing rabbits on a spit over the fire and Nona was busily putting together a savory stew.
"Xena tells me you are a bard." Nona spoke across the fire to Gabrielle and signed to Desiree.
"Yes, I am. I love to tell stories." Gabrielle smiled down at Desiree.
Desiree's eyes lit up and she swung her head around to look at Gabrielle.
Seeing the desire for a story in Desiree's eyes, Gabrielle moved over to sit closer to Nona and Desiree.
"Well let's see..." Gabrielle pondered for a moment, her finger tapped against her chin.
"Hmm...Ah! I've got one! Let's see, I believe it goes something like this...There was once..." Gabrielle began in her silky bardic voice.
Desiree folded up her legs and watched in anticipation as her mother interpreted the story for Gabrielle.
Xena glanced over at the trio and a corner of her mouth attempted a smile. The smile faded, however, when she glanced over at the fire. Her bedroll was on one side and Gabrielle's was on the other.
The next morning they woke to the sound of the gurgling stream that lapped against the earthen banks and rock falls, the only sound in the cool morning. The mist slowly settled around them and lent a hazy cast to the morning sunshine.
The foursome continued their routine of preparing breakfast and breaking camp. They saddled the horses and moved on. They had to push their way past the pine and spruce to keep on the trail. Xena felt the unpleasant sensation of being followed. The forest deepened and the mist grew thicker. The trees loomed tightly all about them, like skeletal sentries. Suddenly Xena tensed and brought them to a halt.
Gabrielle noticed the tenseness in the warrior and sat up straight bringing her staff in closer to her side. She heard the slight rustling of the brush and saw the flitting shadows out of the corner of her eye.
"Everyone dismount... slowly." Xena said quietly.
They dismounted and Xena unsheathed her sword while Gabrielle readied her staff. Nona pulled Desiree closer and behind her. Abruptly Xena drove her sword into the soft earth just as masked warriors descended upon them from the trees above. Gabrielle leaned her staff on her chest and clasped her hands above her head in the Amazon signal for peace. Xena clasped her hands above her head also. Glancing over at Gabrielle and Xena, Nona imitated the gesture. An Amazon approached Gabrielle and slipped her mask upwards and back to reveal her face.
"Ephiny!" Gabrielle exclaimed in surprise.
"Hello, Gabrielle." Ephiny reached out and they embraced one another tightly.
Xena walked forward and clasped forearms with Ephiny in greeting.
"Come, we will lead you back to the village." The Amazon's tanned face crinkled in pleasure.
Gabrielle reached into her pack to retrieve her Amazon staff head that proclaimed her status as Queen of the Amazons. Fitting it onto her staff, she glanced over at Xena as she was sheathing her sword. She glimpsed an etched design on the shimmering blade as it slid smoothly into its sheath.
"So, how are you Gabrielle?" Ephiny asked her curly hair glimmering golden in the sun.
"I'm fine Ephiny. Look, I need your help." Gabrielle turned and motioned for Nona to come forward.
"Ephiny, this is Nona and this is her young daughter Desiree." Gabrielle introduced them.
Ephiny inclined her head slightly in acknowledgment.
As they continued their walk, Gabrielle told Ephiny the reason she brought Nona and her daughter to the Amazon village.
When Gabrielle finished Ephiny turned and took Nona's hands in hers.
"You are welcome among us, and you may stay if you wish."
As Nona and Desiree settled back Ephiny grasped Gabrielle's arm.
"Gabrielle, what's wrong?" Concern was etched in the young amazon's face.
Gabrielle remained silent as she looked down at her boots, watching them move forward then fall back as they walked along the path.
"Gabrielle, why isn't Xena up front with you?"
Gabrielle stopped suddenly with a determined expression on her face.
"Ephiny, I really don't want to talk about it right now. Xena and I will work this out somehow. O.K.?" Gabrielle said in a tone that rang of finality.
"Fine." Ephiny replied and studied Gabrielle's retreating form. She glanced back to look at Xena. Her eyes narrowed when their gazes met.
When they entered the village they followed Ephiny inside her hut. Xena told Ephiny and Gabrielle what she knew about the warlord Lucus. Ephiny brought out the province map and spread it out on the table. Xena walked over and anchored the corners with small stones from a box that Ephiny had set down. Xena studied the map and chose several red stones placing them in a circular pattern around the Amazon land.
"Ephiny, I will need five scouts." The Warrior Princess announced.
Ephiny looked over at the Royal Guard standing just inside the door and nodded. She turned about quickly, left the room and then returned a short while later with the Amazon scouts. Xena assigned three scouts to their locations on the map and then instructed the last two scouts to ride towards Lucus' garrison and report back with his army's location.
Gabrielle sat down at the other table and picked up a quill and wrote her request for assistance on several parchments. Sealing them, she handed one to each of the messengers and dispatched them to the other Amazon villages nearby.
When the meeting concluded Gabrielle and Xena walked with Ephiny and Solari to join the festivities that always began whenever she visited the village. They walked out into the sound of drumbeats that were just beginning and to fires that cast a warm glow about. The day was slowing fading into dusk. The light from the sunset filtered everything with an amber hue.
Gabrielle was known for her enormous appetite so there was an abundance of food. Gabrielle joined Ephiny and the other amazons and left Xena standing by herself. Xena stood without moving, her face was as hard as iron and she watched as Gabrielle chatted happily with her amazon sisters.
"Xena, come join us." Nona spoke up from behind her.
After they had picked up their portion of food they sat in a clear area and ate. Xena ate her food in silence. Nona glanced over at Gabrielle and then back to Xena, whose face had cinched into a deep scowl.
Soon afterwards Gabrielle was prodded to tell stories to which she happily obliged. After she told her last story, a young Amazon Gabrielle's age handed her a wine skin to quench her thirst. Gabrielle sipped the sweet Amazon wine greatly, the smooth liquid coated her parched throat. Gabrielle and Armory struck up a conversation, trading jokes and passing the wineskin back and forth. Gabrielle, having drunk more wine than she should have, put her arms around Armory and the two of them giggled. Armory told Gabrielle about her carving skills and invited Gabrielle to her dwelling to show her the carvings. The two women rose, supporting each other and staggered to Armory's hut where Gabrielle 'oohed' and 'aahed' at the beautiful carvings that ranged from wood to alabaster. They sat on Armory's bed and continued to chat. Slowly Gabrielle dozed off and was followed in turn by Armory.
Through narrowed eyes Xena watched as Gabrielle staggered off with Armory. Xena's mind raced and her pulse quickened as adrenaline cursed through her veins. She clenched her hands and repressed the powerful urge to follow them and take Gabrielle away forcefully. The observation was not lost on Nona.
"Is it a custom for the Queen and her Consort not to eat together?" Nona asked carefully eyeing Xena warily.
"No, we always eat together." Xena replied quietly staring in Gabrielle's direction.
"I see. I take it she knows what happened between us." Nona said placing her hand on Xena's arm gently.
"Yes." Xena replied through clenched teeth.
"Xena, I'm sorry." Nona said with regret in her voice.
"It's all right Nona, you didn't know. It's my fault." Xena admitted as she turned her head to look sadly at Nona.
With this Xena slipped her warrior facade in place which prevented Nona from being able to read her further. Nona sighed and glanced over at Desiree who was nodding off but struggling to stay awake.
"Xena, I'm going to put Desiree to bed and turn in myself." Nona said as she stood up and leaned down towards Desiree.
"Xena, talk to her and give her time," she continued with a smile of encouragement.
Xena watched as Nona scooped Desiree into her arms and walked to her hut. Xena then stood up slowly and walked alone into the woods. She slipped like quicksilver through the shadows and stopped before a towering cedar.
Pulling her sword from her scabbard she sat down at the base of the tree and stared at the quill design on the blade which shimmered brightly in the moonlight.
She knew that she had always been something of a loner, and sometimes thought that the death of her brother had just reinforced what was already there. In her warlord days, she drifted, the days ran together, the events merged indecipherably. She slowly slipped away from herself. She often wondered what might have happened had she not come across Hercules, the one person who finally broke through, and changed her way of life.
She felt a twinge of sadness pass through her. It was strange, but until she met Gabrielle, she never thought that she would experience the feelings of being loved.
She didn't want Gabrielle to love her, not so completely, not so unconditionally. She was afraid of what that meant.
"Gabrielle." She murmured sadly and trailed her fingertips across the quill on the blade.
She leaned her head back against the tree and looked up into the night.
Morning followed night as it always does. Xena woke, her mood was dark, and her nerves were on edge after a sleep troubled with a vicious and depressing dream of death and personal futility. There had been people dying her dreams. They had died all about her, and she had been powerless to save them, it was she herself that was killing them. They were nameless faces in her waking life, but they had seemed quite real in her sleep.
She tried to wake so she could escape what was happening. There was that sense of timelessness that occurs when the subconscious suggests that waking may never come and that the only reality is the dream.
When she did finally open her eyes, the dawn filtered down, streamers of sunlight filtered through the trees. She rose, settled the sword on her back and walked back to the amazon village.
Gabrielle woke and winced at the pounding in her head. She started when she noticed an amazon still sleeping next to her. She breathed a sigh of relief that she was still fully clothed and attempted to move. In doing so, she woke Armory who grimaced at the pounding in her head also. They both looked at each other and groaned. Gabrielle stepped out of bed, lurched out the door to the back of the dwelling and leaned down towards the high grass where the contents of her stomach ended up. She was joined by Armory within minutes. They both looked at each other and laughed. Arms around each other they walked down to the bathing pools unaware that they were being watched.
Xena watched them walk towards the bathing pools. Scowling she turned and walked back to the to the tree in which she sat under all night. She sat back down under the tree, her forearms dangled over her knees. Her breathing slowed and her head bent until her chin rested on her chest.
The threads from the tapestry of last nights dream entwined within her memory and tugged relentlessly at her. She could not forget easily what had comprised so many years of her life.
She stared down at a single white crocus flower. The tears flowed unbidden down her face and stained her leather tunic a darker shade of brown where the droplets fell.
Gabrielle, wearing a soft green Amazon tunic with matching armbands and headband, walked into the woods searching for a clearing. She brought up her staff and began practicing her techniques still miffed that Xena was able to disarm her so readily back at the inn. Gabrielle did not know that she was only a few paces away from where Xena sat. Xena watched Gabrielle practice and smiled when Gabrielle incorporated a new maneuver into her routine.
Gabrielle tried not to think about Xena. She tried not to think about the ambivalent feelings, but the more she tried not to think about them, the more she did, and in the end she gave it up and accepted what was inevitable, whatever that may be.
She let the feelings buffet and rage within her, let the doubts and the uncertainties gnaw, and found that she gained a certain measure of strength by being able to withstand them.
She remembered in the beginning the aloofness and the hardness of the Warrior Princess when they first met. Now, years later her presence felt comfortable and reassuring and she felt protected in the warrior's presence. Xena was a frightening presence, hard and brutal, a warrior with a warrior's demeanor. There was blood and death, an entire history of survival that Gabrielle could only begin to understand.
She forced these thoughts from her mind and concentrated on the movements of her staff and her surroundings.
Xena rose to her feet and strode into the clearing. She unsheathed her sword with a gentle hiss. At the sound, Gabrielle spun and deflected Xena's sword as it descended. It thunked thickly, deflected by Gabrielle's staff. They smiled at each other amiably and sparred vigilantly. It was several hours later when Gabrielle's arms began to tire. Gabrielle's body was drenched in sweat, and her hands were cramped from gripping her staff. Xena brought her sword down to rest by her side.
Gabrielle stared at the gleaming sword and frowned thoughtfully. She extended her arms, palms up, and looked up into Xena's blue eyes.
"Xena, show me your sword." She asked suddenly.
Xena raised an eyebrow but placed the sword gently across Gabrielle's palms. Gabrielle glanced down and stared in awe at the finely detailed quill etched into the long blade. Moved beyond words Gabrielle looked up, blinked and stared at Xena absolutely speechless.
"Is my bard speechless?" Xena crossed her arms over her chest and grinned like a Cheshire Cat.
Gabrielle started to say something, stopped, tried again, and then just shook her head.
Tears flowed freely down Gabrielle's face. Xena picked up her sword, slid it into its sheath and pulled Gabrielle into an embrace. Gabrielle sobbed quietly into Xena's soft breast. Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's head and brushed her lips against the soft silky hair.
"I'm sorry Gabrielle, I didn't mean to hurt you, I have been miserable without you." Xena whispered in a choked voice.
Gabrielle looked up into Xena's misty eyes. Xena cupped Gabrielle's face in the palms of her hands and kissed her softly. She pulled back and looked down into soft green eyes that pooled again with tears.
She pulled Gabrielle to her and they sat down on the forest floor that was soft with pine needles and moss. Xena held Gabrielle tenderly until her tears stopped. Suddenly Gabrielle scrambled to her knees and punched Xena solidly on the shoulder.
"OW!" Xena exclaimed grasping Gabrielle's arm, her eyes wide in surprise.
"You deserved it! I was really mad at you!" Gabrielle shouted angrily.
"Yeah, I know." Xena flinched inwardly and averted her gaze.
"Does the pain of your old life still haunt you, Xena?" Gabrielle asked suddenly.
Startled, Xena jerked slightly and turned her head to gaze back at Gabrielle. Green eyes held icy blue ones.
"Perhaps you will let me stay with you long enough so that the pain will instead become just a memory?" Xena replied softly.
"I wouldn't want it any other way." Gabrielle said smiling.
She bent her head close and kissed Xena's forehead, cheek and mouth. Gabrielle understood Xena more than she had known.
Buckling on her breastplate and settling her sword on her back, Xena grinned as Gabrielle tugged her top back into place. Gabrielle looked up and put her arms around Xena's neck, pulled her down and gave her a lingering kiss. Xena lifted Gabrielle into her arms and moved quickly through the trees, down the path to the hot springs. She climbed the steps of smooth granite that was ringed with cottonwood and cedar to the top of the small ridge. There she flicked the 'Unoccupied' sign over with her foot.
She set Gabrielle down and they gazed downward at the meadow which turned into a sprawling valley and then rose again miles distant into a wall of mountains that formed a dark barrier against the skyline.
Xena looked over at Gabrielle as she unbuckled Xena's sword and breastplate. Gabrielle then removed the chakram and set everything down on the ledge. She stepped behind Xena and began unlacing the leather tunic. Xena tugged off her wristbands and armbands. Gabrielle slipped the tunic up over Xena's head, took the wrist bands and armbands and set them on the ledge with the sword and breastplate. She then knelt and pulled off Xena's boots. Gabrielle stood back up and Xena unlaced the front of Gabrielle's soft leather tunic while gazing into the bards sparkling green eyes. Xena untied Gabrielle's tunic, slipped it forward, and placed them on the ledge with her things. Xena knelt and tugged off Gabrielle's boots. When Xena held out her hand, Gabrielle smiled into Xena's intense blue eyes.
Hand in hand they stepped into the hot spring and sat down on the ledge and submerged their bodies in the steaming water that came up to just below their shoulders. Xena ducked under and submerged herself completely. Gabrielle watched as Xena disappeared and then to emerged slowly until her eyes were just above the water. She noticed the mischievous look in Xena's eyes and slowly backed away. Xena advanced, matching Gabrielle step for step.
"Uh, Xena....Xena...now wait a minute!" Gabrielle said as she extended her arm and took another step backwards.
Xena disappeared again under the water. Xena swam down and tickled Gabrielle behind the knees as she swam between Gabrielle's legs eliciting a shriek from the startled bard. Gabrielle shrieked again as Xena appeared behind her and tickled her ribs. Gabrielle spun around and lowered herself backwards and splashed water onto Xena with the palms of her hands. Xena splashed back. They splashed each other, laughing and sputtering.
Down below several Amazons smiled knowingly at the shrieks from their Queen and then grinned widely at the sounds of laughter.
The cheerful mood ended when the two amazon scouts that Xena had dispatched earlier rode into the village and brought their lathering horses to an abrupt halt.
Ephiny, Gabrielle, Xena and the Royal Guards were gathered in Ephiny's dwelling. Xena was leaning over the table studying the map. She pushed back, smiled and revealed her strategy. The Royal Guards left to gather the Amazon warriors and give them their instructions.
Nona entered Ephiny's dwelling a short while later dressed in her Amazon garb, her quiver of arrows and bow slung across her back. Xena nodded to her and proceeded to give instructions to the Royal Guards who would be staying behind to defend the village.
Gabrielle approached Xena, put her arms around Xena's neck and pulled her down for a kiss. They pulled apart, looked into each others eyes, and then embraced each other tightly. Xena gave Gabrielle a brief kiss and pulled back. Gabrielle watched the warrior mode in Xena shift into place. Xena then turned and walked out accompanied by the Royal Guards.
About a league from the village they met the Amazons from the Almean Tribe. Xena signaled the Amazons to their assigned areas and watched them disappear into the great forest trees with Nona among them.
Xena sat on Argo behind the shrubbery where she had a good view of the road. She focused on her surroundings, tuning out the breeze and the movement of small animals in the undergrowth. A birdcall filtered through and she smiled and unsheathed her sword. When she heard the thundering of hooves she spurred Argo out into the road. The riders thundered into view as they galloped around the bend, clouds of dust in their wake. Arrows flew and several of the riders fell. The Amazons descended on the mercenaries from the trees. Xena let out her battle cry, her sword held out, and galloped into the foray. Metal clanged, and voices huffed and grunted in fury.
Xena fought with lethal madness, disemboweling several men, and cutting the throats of several more that sprayed her with their blood making her face look even more feral. She cut her way down the middle of the men dividing them while the Amazons attacked them on either side mercilessly.
When a birdcall sounded behind Xena, she turned in her saddle to see a scout galloping down the road. Xena turned and spurred Argo into a gallop to meet up with the scout.
"There are more men approaching from the east side!" The scout cried out.
Xena and the scout galloped back towards the village and then to the east to wait for the next wave of mercenaries.
There they were met by the Creza Tribe. Shortly after the Amazons disappeared into the trees another birdcall was heard. Xena sat on a dancing Argo and waited for the men to appear, a wicked smile on her face. The men stopped in surprise at the sight of the tall warrior covered with blood sitting on a buff colored war horse and twirling a sword. The Amazons took advantage of the surprise and attacked.
"Yah!" Xena yelled, she twirled her sword, and again lunged into the foray. Xena effectively cut the men down, slicing and hacking, creating an opening down the middle of the melee. One mercenary dropped back from the group and was attempting to turn back. Xena grinned, placed her hand on her chakram, and brought it out from its hook.
"And just where do you think you're going?" She said in a low voice that dripped with sarcasm.
"Dah!" Xena yelled, and the chakram whizzed as it spun down the middle of the foray and embedded itself into the mercenary's back. The mercenary slumped forward and he slowly slid off his horse.
Xena rode down the middle, stepped down from Argo and pulled the chakram out of the mercenary's back. Looking up at the sound of another birdcall, she remounted and galloped back up the middle to meet another scout.
"The group coming from the west is moving south to the Village!" The scout informed her.
"Gabrielle!" Xena cried in alarm and spurred Argo into a fast gallop towards the village.
As she sped down the road she could hear that the fighting was already underway in the village. The Suma Tribe was skirmishing with another group of mercenaries just outside the main compound. Then she saw that Lucus and a group of his men had surrounded the Royal Guards. However, the Royal Guards were holding their own. They were cutting down the mercenaries in quick succession. Gabrielle was wielding her staff, its movements almost a blur as she effectively disabled the men around her.
Xena saw three mercenaries advance and swing swords and a mace on Gabrielle. She deflected the blows with her staff but was knocked off balance. She fell on her back to the ground with the staff still held up before her. The Royal Guards dispatched the last of their attackers and quickly came to Gabrielle's aid by attacking two of the mercenaries. Gabrielle arched her back, pushed off from the ground and landed on her feet. She lowered herself into a crouch and swung her staff at a mercenary aiming for his legs. Before he could bring his mace down again his legs were knocked out from under him. Gabrielle pivoted, rose from her crouch and rotated the staff up and around in an arc. She then brought the staff down and slammed the butt end on his chest. His limbs jerked, then went still.
Xena finally approached the village and somersaulted from Argo when she was close enough to Lucus and Gabrielle. She landed softly behind Lucus and unsheathed her sword in one fluid motion.
"Looking for me?" Xena drawled, she twirled her sword and waggled her eyebrows.
Lucus spun around at the husky voice and swung his sword. His swing was blocked by a sword that glimmered dully through a thin coat of blood. Lucus swung his sword again, and again, only to have his blows smoothly deflected. Xena was grinning and pacing around him like a hunter stalking its prey. Thunder rumbled in the distance as the sunlight faded into the darkening sky.
Suddenly Xena snarled and lunged attacking Lucus viciously. Lucus was deflecting Xena's heavy blows when Xena's fist connected with his face, knocking him backwards and off balance. Angered, Lucus redoubled his efforts, and made the mistake of leaving his midsection wide open. Lightning flashed as Xena's sword plunged into his midsection. The warlord looked up into Xena's face which was dark with bloodlust. Her lips were curled into a snarl, and her ice blue eyes bored into him turning him cold.
As he sank to his knees, Xena pulled out her sword and looked at him with disgust, her lips still curled in a snarl. A stillness surrounded the area, like a mantle of hushed silence. Xena spun around, her dark hair whipping out around her to fall over a hunched shoulder. With narrowed eyes and a feral smile she saw Gabrielle and the Royal Guards staring at her with awed reverence in their eyes. When she gazed at Gabrielle, she exhaled slowly and calmed the dark adrenaline that rushed through her veins.
She strode over to Gabrielle, her bloody sword at her side. Gabrielle looked up at Xena's face, which was spattered with blood. The skies opened up and the rain sluiced down. Rivulets of red turned pink as the water cleansed her skin. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's waist and laid her head on her breast. Xena laid her cheek on top of Gabrielle's head, put her free arm about Gabrielle's waist and drew her close. The sword was held loosely in Xena's other hand and the blade gleamed dully in the subdued light of the afternoon storm.
That night a huge feast was prepared for the celebration. Some Amazons were wounded but none seriously, and none perished during the battle with Lucus and his army. The Amazons looked at Gabrielle with newfound respect in their eyes.
None of the Amazons touched the food until Gabrielle and Xena each finished loading their plates. A group of dancers began a fast dance, moving to the beat of the drums and to the staccato of beat sticks.
Their stomachs now full Gabrielle and Xena sipped wine and watched the dancers. Ephiny chatted amiably with them both. Gabrielle glanced over at Nona, who sat with Armory and Desiree sat sandwiched between them. All three of them were smiling and laughing.
When Armory took Desiree and Nona's plates and walked back to the tables, Gabrielle got up and walked over to Nona. Sitting down, Gabrielle and Nona looked at each other for a moment.
Nona spoke first breaking the silence.
"Gabrielle, Xena loves you very much." She gave her a studied almost somber look.
"I know, um...look..." Gabrielle replied awkwardly.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry for hurting you, I didn't know about Xena's feelings for you." Nona spoke with genuine feeling.
"I realize that, but I still think about it when I see you and Xena together." Gabrielle responded honestly.
Nona sighed and took Gabrielle's hands in her own.
"I love you both, you have given me my freedom." Nona's eyes met and held Gabrielle's gaze.
Gabrielle and Nona looked at each other and smiled and embraced each other tightly.
Gabrielle then smiled at Desiree and hugged her. Gabrielle was glad that the young girl was enjoying her new life with the amazons. She wore amazon garb that matched her mother's and had made the beaded necklaces that they each wore. Over the last few days Nona had taught her how to use the bow and Desiree practiced with the other young Amazon girls.
Xena raised an eyebrow at Gabrielle when she returned and sat back down. Gabrielle took a long drink from her wine goblet and smiled reassuringly at Xena. Xena started to comment then changed her mind.
Ephiny approached Gabrielle and bowed. Gabrielle took another swallow of her wine, grinned at Xena and walked with Ephiny to join the dancers. Xena's eyes widened and both eyebrows rose when Gabrielle turned to face her. Gabrielle moved seductively to the beat of the drums. Xena hastily took another swallow of her wine.
The tempo of the drums increased and became louder as more and more Amazons joined the dancers. Gabrielle drank from the wineskin as it was passed around and became more and more relaxed. Her dancing became smoother and more seductive as she swayed to the music. Xena drank the last of her wine and simply stared, her eyes were a brilliant blue and danced.
Nona and Armory looked down at Desiree's smiling face and then smiled at each other while Ephiny and Solari exchanged knowing grins.
They stood before Jonas the blacksmith. Nona held out her arms and looked down at the silver and blue bracelets. Jonas turned the bracelets, and as the loops appeared he looked up into Nona's face. Nona stared at the loops, nicked and scratched from where the chains had been pulled through to remind her that she was a slave. Tears pooled in her eyes. Nona took a deep breath and clenched her jaw. Gabrielle saw the tears and put her hand on Nona's forearm. Jonas placed both of Nona's wrists on the anvil. He then took a small saw with fine teeth and began sawing on each of the bracelets. He took a long handled pincer ad pried them off. Nona looked at her wrists and felt naked without the bracelets. Gabrielle put her arm around Nona's waist. Xena moved forward and put her arm around Nona's waist as well. Nona massaged her wrists and tears rolled down her face.
"Well, here are the bracelets." Jonas said and held them out in his hand.
"Melt them down." Xena said sharply with narrowed eyes.
Jonas turned and tossed them into the scrap bin without hesitation.
The women turned and walked out of the blacksmiths shop their arms around each other.
When they returned to the amazon village Xena and Gabrielle gathered their belongings and walked to where Argo patiently stood. Xena grasped forearms with Ephiny, Solari and Nona. Xena turned and slung the packs over the back of the saddle.
Nona looked into Gabrielle's soft green eyes. Gabrielle smiled and both women hugged in farewell. She pulled away from Nona and looked down at Desiree. Gabrielle knelt down and gave the young girl a hug and signed "I Love You." Desiree's face lit up and she wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's neck and hugged her. Xena wrapped the strap of the scabbard around the horn of the saddle and extended her arm down to Gabrielle. Gabrielle grasped Xena's arm and was lifted up and behind Xena. Gabrielle wrapped her arm around Xena's waist and rested her staff lengthwise on her knee.
Xena spurred Argo into a slow walk and they rode out of the compound.
"Gabrielle, take that ugly thing off of your staff, it's staring at me."
Gabrielle grinned, removed the beak and put it in the pack behind her.
"Xena...um...I was wondering... at the market..."
"Well...there was this..."
"And...well...at this one stand I saw..."
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