Part 1 of 4
by Eva Allen
DISCLAIMER: The characters Xena and Gabrielle, along with others who have appeared in the TV series XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, are the sole property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. All other characters are the clever invention of the author. The use of Universal's characters in this story does not constitute the author's intent to make a profit or otherwise infringe on the existing copyright. The interpretation of the characters in this story is purely the author's own. Copyright for this fanfiction held by Eva Allen, September, 1997.
Constructive criticism and/or unadulterated praise are always welcome! Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BE ADVISED: This story includes the depiction of sex between two consenting adult women. If this offends you, please find something else to read!
SEXUAL VIOLENCE WARNING: A rape occurs "off-stage" during the course of this story. It is not described in detail, but its aftereffects, both physical and emotional, are. If this type of subject matter is likely to upset you, please be kind to yourself and avoid reading this story.
"Xena, why won't you tell me where we're going?"
"Because it's a surprise."
"Oh," said Gabrielle and frowned.
Xena glanced briefly at her companion and smiled before returning her attention to the trees around them. They had been walking along this narrow woodland track since mid-morning, and now the sun was halfway down the western sky. More than an hour had passed since they had met another traveler. Argo's hooves clopped softly on the hard-packed earth, and birds called back and forth among the trees. Xena's sharp ears took in these sounds and then dismissed them, remaining alert to catch anything that seemed out of place.
"Is it pretty there?" asked Gabrielle.
"The place we're going."
"Oh," said Xena, bringing her thoughts back to the conversation. "Well, yeah, I guess it is."
"Have I ever been there?"
"Do you think I'll like it?"
"I hope so."
Gabrielle was silent for a moment, and Xena could almost hear the wheels turning inside the blonde head.
"Will we be the only ones there?"
"As far as I know."
They walked on a few more paces, then Gabrielle said, "Will it be . . . romantic?"
Xena stopped and turned to face Gabrielle. "What kind of silly question is that?" she asked in mock sternness.
"It's not a silly question! It's a perfectly good question!"
"Oh. I see." Xena had to work hard to keep from grinning. She strode forward again, and Gabrielle scurried to catch up.
"Well, will it be?"
"Will it be what?"
"Romantic!" Gabrielle skipped around in front of Xena and began walking backwards, watching the Xena's face. Xena gave up trying not to smile. She stopped again and laid a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "I suppose we could make it that way," she said, raising one eyebrow suggestively. The joy that lit up Gabrielle's face sent an unexpected thrill through Xena's body, and she quickly bent and kissed the bard on the lips.
"Mmm, this is going to be fun," Gabrielle murmured, as they started walking again. Then after a few moments, she said, "I just have one more question."
"Are we almost there yet?"
Xena laughed. "Yeah, we're almost there. We could have made it in less time, but I wanted to stick to back roads." She scanned their surroundings once more.
"You're still worried about Garron, aren't you?" Gabrielle said.
"A little, but he probably won't follow us. I just want to be careful, that's all."
"He made some pretty nasty threats."
"Yes, and if he got the chance, he'd act on them," Xena said. "We're just not going to give him the chance. Some people make threats and it's all talk, but not Garron--he means what he says. He can be really vicious, especially when he's angry. And he's clever, so that makes him even more dangerous."
"Well, we certainly made him angry enough, rescuing all those girls he had kidnapped so he could sell them at the slave market!"
"Yes, we made him angry, but here's the thing about Garron. He tends to get one idea in his head and that's all he thinks about--at least until the next idea comes along. Right now he's thinking about getting his revenge, but next week he'll have some totally new obsession. I figure if we can just stay out of his way for a few days, he'll forget all about us and we wonít have to worry about him anymore."
"I hope you're right about that," said Gabrielle. Then, with a well-aimed kick, she sent a rock bouncing down the road.
Xena looked at her friend and saw the worry in her face. "Look," she said, "I didn't mean to scare you. I honestly think there's very little chance that Garron followed us. We got out of there pretty quickly yesterday and covered a lot of ground riding double on Argo. That spot where we camped last night was well hidden and we didn't use a fire. There's no way Garron could know about this place we're going to. And we've come on back roads all the way."
"What about that village we went to this morning?" Gabrielle said. "That was on a pretty busy road."
"Yes, but we had to get some supplies somewhere, so I decided we could take the risk. It'll be fine, Gabrielle. Donít worry about it. I want this to be fun."
She put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, gave her a hug, and was rewarded with a smile. "Okay, I'll try not to worry," Gabrielle promised. "Just bring on the fun part!"
Xena began watching the left side of the track more carefully now, looking for a certain path she remembered. "I hope I can find this place again," she muttered. "It's been several years since I've been there. Maybe it doesn't even exist anymore."
"You mean you brought me all this way to a place that might not even exist?" Gabrielle exclaimed.
"It could happen. When you're with me, you just have to take your chances!" Xena grinned at her partner and then looked at the trees again. "Aha!" she said suddenly. "That might be what I'm looking for!" Pushing aside a branch, she revealed the opening of a narrow path. Before entering, though, she took a few moments to listen carefully and look all around them again. Satisfied that no one was in sight, she led Argo in among the trees.
"Here," said Xena, handing the reins to Gabrielle. "I'm going to go just a little ways ahead. You bring Argo." The dirt on the path was dry and hard-packed. That was good, Xena thought; they wouldn't leave any tracks. She glided off through the trees, staying a few paces in front of Gabrielle and Argo.
It took only a few minutes to reach the clearing. At the edge of it, Xena stopped and motioned for Gabrielle to stay back. With eagle-sharp eyes, she scanned the area, but saw nothing unusual. Birds flitted from tree to tree, chirping in an unconcerned way. And only a short distance from where she stood, a squirrel rummaged busily through the leaves. Everything was pretty much as she remembered it. On the other side of the short, grassy area, stood a small, wood cottage. Its thatched roof looked a little worse for the wear, but with any luck, it would still keep out the rain. Behind the cottage was a narrow line of brush and trees. Beyond that, she recalled, was a wide meadow where the grass and wildflowers grew almost waist-high by summer's end. From her left, Xena could hear the soft babbling of the clear creek which bordered the clearing.
Smiling, she turned around and beckoned. When Gabrielle reached her, she took Argo's reins and said, "Close your eyes." Gabrielle grinned and squeezed her eyes shut. Xena guided her to the edge of the clearing and stood behind her with her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "Now look," she said.
There was a sharp intake of breath. "Oh, Xena! It's wonderful!"
"I was hoping you'd like it."
"I do! It's so charming and sweet and--" she turned a smiling face to Xena, "it's just perfect for us! How long can we stay?"
"I don't know . . . a few days, maybe a week. We'll have to see how bored we get with each other."
Gabrielle punched her in the arm. "You silly thing! We're not going to get bored!" She turned back toward the cottage. "Can I go look at it?"
"Let me go first, just to check it out. It will only take a second." Xena handed the reins back to Gabrielle. A few strides of her long legs took her to the cottage door, which stood slightly ajar. Drawing her sword, she paused, listening carefully, then abruptly kicked the door open. On the threshold she stopped again, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dim light before she stepped in.
The cottage was tiny--only one room with an earth floor. A stone fireplace stood at one end, its stick-and-mud chimney rising through the peak of the thatched roof. By the wall opposite the door, a pile of straw served as a bed. The only furnishings were a rough wooden table and two benches in the center of the room. One window in the front wall let in a little light and fresh air.
Xena backed out of the cottage, then walked around behind it to check out the shrubbery. The breeze blowing from the meadow smelled of warm grass and flowers. It had definitely been a good idea to bring Gabrielle here, Xena decided, smiling.
In front of the cottage again, she slid her sword back into its scabbard and called to Gabrielle. "Come on! The coast is clear!"
While Gabrielle inspected the cottage interior, Xena pulled the saddlebags, blankets, and cooking gear off Argo's back and dropped them on the ground. Then she began uncinching the saddle and breast collar.
"Xena, I absolutely love it!" Gabrielle said, as she came back outside.
"Good!" Xena responded. "Why don't you take this stuff inside, and here's the wineskin, too."
Gabrielle picked up the gear and carried it inside. Xena followed with the saddle and set it on the floor. Straightening up, she suddenly found Gabrielle's arms around her neck. "Thanks for bringing me here," the bard said. She pulled Xena's face toward her and they kissed, then kissed again.
"You know," Gabrielle murmured as she nestled her face against Xena's neck, "you're not very cuddly when you're wearing your armor. Why don't you take it off?"
"I will, Sweetheart," Xena said, kissing the top of the blonde head, "but not yet. There are some things I need to do first."
She left the embrace and headed out the door. Argo had wandered over to get a drink from the stream. Xena went to the mare and stroked her. "Let me get that bridle off of you," she said. "and you can eat your fill of sweet meadow grass." The horse raised her head and rubbed a dripping muzzle against the warrior's cheek. Xena laughed and began unfastening the buckles.
"Hey, Xena! I have an idea!" Gabrielle came trotting across the clearing.
"You often do," Xena remarked dryly.
"Know that pile of straw in the cottage? Well, it's kind of old and musty--did you notice? So what if we cut a whole bunch of fresh new grass to put on top of it? We could make it really thick, and it would be like our own little love nest, all soft and sweet-smelling--just like a meadow! What do you think?"
Xena pulled the bridle off over Argo's ears and turned to look at Gabrielle, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "And just how are you going to cut all this grass?" she asked.
"We could use your sword."
"My sword!" she exclaimed. "You want to use my sword to cut grass? My sword, which I keep polished and sharpened and ready to slice an enemy in two at a moment's notice? That sword?"
Gabrielle grinned. "Yep, that's the one I was thinking of!"
"Humph!" Xena started toward the cottage, carrying the bridle.
Gabrielle tagged along, keeping up a stream of suggestions. "We could cut this grass right here in the clearing. It's almost up to our knees and it's hard to walk in, anyway. There'd probably be enough to make a nice bed."
At the cottage door, Xena tossed the bridle inside and then reached out for Gabrielle's hand. "Come with me," she said and led her around behind the cottage. "You want grass? I'll show you grass!"
On the other side of the trees, they stopped at the edge of the meadow. The grass here was thigh-high, and intermingled with all kinds of wildflowers. Gabrielle slipped her arm around Xena's waist and they stood there for some time, watching the bees wandering from flower to flower. The sun was warm, the breeze soft. Finally, Gabrielle looked at Xena and said, "Do you know how much I love you?"
Xena smiled down into the green eyes. "I think I've got a pretty good idea."
* * *
They carried one of the blankets out to the meadow and began piling it full of grass. They worked side by side, Xena using the sword and Gabrielle a dagger. The work went quickly, and they had almost filled the blanket when Xena straightened up suddenly, her eyes fixed on a movement in the grass several paces away. Shifting the sword to her left hand, she reached out her right toward Gabrielle.
"Hand me the dagger," she said in a low voice, her gaze still focused on the place in the grass.
Gabrielle froze in mid-cutting stroke, then handed over the weapon. "What is it?" she whispered.
Xena took the blade in her fingers, hefted, and then quickly hurled it. There was a sudden movement, a squeal, and then silence.
"I hope it's our supper," said Xena. She handed the sword to Gabrielle, then waded through the grass to the spot where the dagger had disappeared. In a moment, she was back, prey in hand.
"Mmm, rabbit stew!" said Gabrielle. "My mouth is watering already."
They carried three blanket-loads of grass into the cottage. While Gabrielle arranged their harvest into a comfortable mattress and spread their bedding over it, Xena gathered firewood and then sat on the cottage doorstep and skinned the rabbit.
"I'll light the fire," Gabrielle offered. "I hope this chimney draws all right. Which saddlebag are the flint and tinder in?"
"I donít know--you'll just have to look." Xena brought the pieces of meat in and laid them on the table. That's when she noticed the clay mug full of wildflowers. "Well, isn't this fancy," she said, "flowers right on the table!" She picked up the mug and breathed in the sweet aroma. "Too bad you won't get any wine, though, since you used your mug for a vase!"
Gabrielle looked up from the saddlebag she was rummaging in and grinned. "Actually, it's your mug, but I'll be glad to let you share mine!"
"Hmm," said Xena. "Did you find the flint yet?"
"No. Oh wait, here it is!"
"Good. You go ahead and start the fire and get supper going. I want to look around again before it gets dark."
The sun had dipped below the treetops, sending long shadows across the clearing. Xena scouted back along the trail to the road, then made a wide circuit through the woods around the cottage and meadow. She moved slowly, watchfully among the trees, making as little noise as possible. She scanned the sky for signs of smoke rising from a campfire, but saw only the wisps rising from the cottage chimney. Argo, grazing in the meadow, raised her head and wickered softly at Xena's approach. The warrior princess stroked the mare and laid her face against the warm neck. "You like this place, too, don't you, girl?" she said. "It would all be perfect if I could just shake this nagging worry about Garron." Argo shook her head and snorted. Xena moved to Argo's head and rubbed the velvety nose. "Thing is," she continued, "I can't see any sign that he followed us, so why do I keep worrying that he did?" The mare nuzzled her neck, and Xena laughed and kissed her on the nose. "Okay, I need to get back to Gabrielle. Good night, Argo."
As she started back along the far edge of the meadow, Xena caught the scent of something juicy. "Blackberries!" she exclaimed. The brambles were nearby and heavy with fruit. She plucked a berry and popped it into her mouth, savoring the sweet taste. She hadn't come prepared for berry picking, though. How could she carry enough of them back for supper? After thinking for a moment, she loosened the laces of her left forearm bracer and slipped it off over her hand. Holding it upright, with the small end resting in her palm, she quickly filled it up with berries. "That ought to do it," she said, and headed back to the cottage.
* * *
"It smells good in here," Xena said as she pushed open the door.
Gabrielle looked up from her seat at the table, where she was cutting up vegetables by candlelight, and smiled. "The rabbit meat is already in the pot. I just need to add these and then let it all simmer for a while."
The glow of the candle on the golden hair and smiling face made Xena catch her breath. She moved to the table and sat down on the other bench, never taking her eyes off Gabrielle, who was now bent over her work again. Xena took a berry out of her bracer and held it out.
"Look what I found for dessert!" she said.
Gabrielle glanced at the berry and then at Xena. "I thought we were going to have something else for dessert," she said coyly.
"Mmm, well, we can have that, too." Xena grinned. "Open your mouth." She fed the blackberry to Gabrielle, then leaned over and kissed her gently on the lips.
"Very sweet," said Gabrielle, chewing thoughtfully.
Xena got up and looked around for something to put the berries in, finally settling on the frying pan. She laid her bracer on the floor near the saddle. Her sword and chakram she placed close to the bed, so they would be handy if needed in the night. Then, sitting down again, she removed her shin guards and began unlacing her boots.
Gabrielle carried the vegetables to the fireplace, where she dropped them into the pot and stirred the mixture. A moment later, she was kneeling in front of Xena, helping undo the boot laces. "You were gone a long time," she said softly. "I was starting to worry. Is everything all right?"
"Everything's fine. I just wanted to make a really thorough check."
Gabrielle tugged on Xena's boot and it slid slowly off. Then she pulled off the other one. Xena wiggled her toes and flexed her ankles. "Ah," she murmured, "it's always a relief to have those things off."
"Yeah, that's why I took mine off before I started cooking," Gabrielle said. "Ready to do the armor?"
Without a word, Xena raised her arms and Gabrielle unfastened the buckles. Then, standing up, she lifted the whole contraption off over Xena's head. "You've already done part of my job for me," the bard said, indicating the arm where the bracer had been.
"I always like to be helpful," Xena said, holding out her other arm. Gabrielle unlaced the bracer and removed it, followed by the smaller ones from the upper arms.
When all the armor was off, Xena, still seated on the bench, caught Gabrielle's hands and pulled her around to stand in front of her. "Sit down," she said, nodding toward her lap. Gabrielle laughed, straddled Xena's legs and sat. The warrior brushed Gabrielle's hair back with gentle fingers and admired again the effect of candlelight on her face. "You are so beautiful, Gabrielle," she said softly. "I'm a lucky woman." Then pulling the bard toward her, she began to kiss her--quietly at first, but then with growing passion.
Gabrielle ran her hands over Xena's back and shoulders, her breathing quickening. "Maybe we should go directly to the romantic portion of the evening," she whispered into Xena's ear, "and eat supper later."
"Mmm, there's a thought." Xena kissed the base of Gabrielle's throat and continued up her neck.
"Are you hungry?" Gabrielle asked.
"Uh-huh. In more ways than one!" Xena said, nibbling at her lover's earlobe.
Gabrielle giggled and squirmed with pleasure. "So what do you want to do?" she asked.
"I donít know. It's a tough decision."
For a moment, neither one spoke, but the nuzzling continued. Then Gabrielle straightened up and looked at Xena. "Well, you know," she said, tracing a line with her finger down Xena's nose to her lips, "you were really embarrassed the last time your stomach growled while we were making love."
Xena caught Gabrielle's finger gently with her lips and teeth. "Mmm, I remember that," she mused. "Maybe that means we should eat first."
"Eat supper, you mean."
"Gabrielle!" Xena said, feigning shock. "I can't believe you said that! You used to be so innocent!"
"I've been hanging around with you too long, I guess," Gabrielle said, laughing. With a quick kiss, she slipped off of Xena's knees and went to the fireplace to stir the stew.
"Shall I open the wine?" Xena asked.
"Good idea. I still can't believe we bought a whole skin of wine just to bring with us--we've never done that before."
"Well, maybe we should do it more often." Xena rummaged through their pile of belongings until she located the wine and their second mug. Carrying them back to the table, she filled the mug almost to the brim.
"In fact," Gabrielle continued as she poked the fire and added a few more sticks, "I couldn't believe how much stuff we bought in the village this morning--fresh vegetables, bread, cheese, wine, even salt! Where did you get the money for it?"
"The people in the last town took up a little collection. They were glad to have their daughters back, safe and sound." Xena knelt down at the hearth next to Gabrielle and held out the mug with both hands. "You first," she said.
Gabrielle put her hands over Xena's and drew the mug toward her. "Here's to us," she said and drank, then moved the mug toward Xena.
"To us," echoed the warrior, smiling over the rim of the mug.
After that, they sat at the table, the mug between them
"How much money did they give you?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena laughed. "Oh, are we still on that topic? Twelve dinars."
"I thought you didn't like to accept money from people."
"I don't, usually. Or if I accept it, I like to give it to someone who really needs it."
"So why did you take it this time . . . and then spend so much of it on us?"
Xena shifted her weight on the hard, wooden bench, then turned sideways so that she could stretch her legs out toward the fire. She met Gabrielle's gaze for a moment and then looked away. "I guess I wanted this to be special . . . for you . . . for us. We've never really had much time alone together, and it's been, what, a couple of months since we first became lovers--"
"It's been two months and--" Gabrielle stopped to calculate, "sixteen days."
Xena laughed. "Yes, well, I might have known you've been keeping track. Anyway, I know it was selfish of me, but I thought maybe it was okay to indulge ourselves for once. And I've still got five dinars left--I'm sure we'll find something useful to do with that."
Gabrielle gave Xena's hand a quick squeeze. "Hey," she said. "Even a warrior princess deserves to have a little fun sometimes--and so does her sidekick!"
"You think so?"
"I know so!" Gabrielle picked up the mug and took a long drink from it. "How'd you know about this place, anyway?" she asked, setting the mug down and wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
"Oh, I have my ways," Xena said, winked, and took a big swallow of wine.
Gabrielle was silent for a moment, watching her, then asked, "Have you ever been here before with . . . a lover?"
Xena blew out her breath softly and smiled. "No, Gabrielle, it was nothing like that. I came here two or three times with my army; one of my scouts discovered the place. The first time we had several wounded with us. We took care of them in the cottage here and the rest of us slept out in the clearing. The other times we just came here to lay low and rest up for a few days between battles--or I guess I should say 'raids.' Those times I slept in the cottage--alone--and the men slept outside. I don't know why the place is here--who built it or lived here or anything like that. I hadn't even thought about it for years."
"I'm glad you thought about it now," Gabrielle said. Getting up, she went to the fireplace and began stirring the stew again. Then, without looking up, she said, "Xena, can I ask you something? You don't have to answer, if you don't want to."
"Okay." Xena wondered what kind of question was coming. Picking up the mug, she took a sip.
"Well, I was just wondering, uh . . . how many people have you slept with?"
Xena started and choked on her mouthful of wine. "Whoa, Gabrielle!" she said, coughing. "Now you're getting into territory you don't really want to be in!"
"Okay, I'm sorry. I never should have asked that!" Gabrielle busily poked at the fire and added more sticks.
Xena coughed again and then sat studying her lover for a few moments. "Come over here and sit down," she said gently.
Gabrielle sat, and Xena handed her the wine mug. "Let me try to explain something," she said. She waited until Gabrielle met her gaze and then went on. "You know who I was and what I was . . . before. I slept with a lot of people--a lot of men--back then, but that didn't necessarily mean I loved them. Sex was just a tool that came in handy for me in doing my job. I used it to reward men, to control them, to make alliances. It had more to do with power and politics than with love."
She paused for a moment, picked up the mug Gabrielle had just set down, and took a sip. Then she went on. "I know you've probably never thought about sex in this way, but can you try to understand?"
"Yes, I think I can," said Gabrielle, "but you don't look at sex that way now, do you?"
"No, of course not. That's one of the things that changed for me--one of the things Hercules helped me see. Since then, I have only slept with people I truly cared about--people like Herc and Marcus . . . and you." She reached out for Gabrielle's hand. "You're the only woman I've ever made love to, and I swear by Aphrodite that I love you more than I've ever loved anyone else." She raised Gabrielle's hand to her lips and kissed it. "Isn't that what you really wanted to know when you asked me that question?"
"Yes," Gabrielle whispered. "Thank you, Xena."
There were a few moments of silence, then Xena said, "As long as we're doing personal questions, could I ask you something?"
Gabrielle looked a little surprised, but she nodded.
Xena took a deep breath, then let it out. "When we make love, do you ever feel--" she paused, looking for the right word. "Do you ever feel disloyal to Perdicas?"
"Mmm, well, yes, at first I did--a little. But then I thought about how Perdicas would want me to be happy, and I am happy--being with you. Besides, it's not the same, somehow."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that Perdicas and I grew up together; he was like a brother to me. I loved him a lot, but it was a different kind of love from what I feel for you." There was an intensity in her green eyes that struck deep into Xena's heart. "With you," Gabrielle continued, "I feel something deeper, like--it's hard to explain--but like we're two parts of the same whole. I feel as if we were somehow destined to be together--that we always have been and always will be, throughout all of time. I guess I see us as soulmates, Xena. That's the best word I know to describe it." She stood up suddenly and turned away. "You probably think I'm crazy, saying all this, but it's how I feel." Then she turned back to look at Xena. "Do you think I'm crazy? Have you ever felt any of these things I'm talking about?"
"Yes, I have," Xena said, in a voice that trembled slightly, "but I never had such beautiful words to describe them." She stood up and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle, burying her face in the golden hair, breathing in the scent of her. How long they stood there, she didn't know, but finally she let go. "Hey," she said with a smile. "Is that stew ever going to be ready?"
* * *
They didn't talk much while they ate, content simply to enjoy each other's nearness.
"I think this may be the best stew you've ever made," Xena said at last, as she scraped the bottom of her wooden bowl.
"It is good, isn't it? Do you want some more?"
Gabrielle quickly refilled both bowls while Xena used a dagger to cut a couple more slices of dark bread from the loaf they'd bought that morning.
"The bread's good, too," Xena said, biting off a big mouthful.
"This is fun, isn't it--kind of like children playing at keeping house," Gabrielle said, with a grin. "Maybe you should retire from the warrior business and we could settle down someplace in a cute little cottage like this. I could write scrolls and bake bread, and you could putter around in the yard--maybe grow vegetables or something. What do you think?"
Xena looked at her with one eyebrow raised sardonically. "Sorry, Gabrielle," she said, "but somehow I don't share your vision."
Gabrielle laughed. "I didn't think you would. I really can't imagine you as anything besides a warrior . . . and a lover," she added softly.
Xena grinned crookedly and reached for the frying pan full of berries. "Here, have some dessert," she said with a wink.
They fed berries to each other, giggling, until the fruit was all gone and their lips and tongues were stained purple.
"Are you still hungry?" asked Gabrielle.
"Only in one way now," Xena said. Reaching out, she pulled the bard toward her and covered the soft mouth with her own. As Gabrielle's lips parted, Xena slipped her tongue into her lover's mouth and began to explore the teeth and velvety tongue. Her breath quickened, and she heard Gabrielle's do the same. Standing up, she pulled the bard up with her and felt Gabrielle's arms wrap around her in a tight embrace. Then she bent and trailed kisses across the warm neck, where she could feel the pulse beating ever more rapidly.
Gabrielle sighed softly and let her head fall back. "Oh, Xena," she whispered, "you're so good!"
Xena smiled as she gently kissed the collarbones and white skin of her lover's chest. She cupped one breast in her hand, feeling the nipple already beginning to harden under the fabric. Kneeling, she untied the laces and slid the bodice off over Gabrielle's arms. Then she buried her face in the wonderfully soft breasts, her mouth seeking and then finding a nipple, kissing it first, then sucking, gently, gently, then harder. Gabrielle moaned with pleasure, entwining her fingers in Xena's dark hair. Xena felt her own thrill of pleasure, strong and deep; her heart was beating faster now, her breathing becoming ragged. She moved to the other breast, sucking again, savoring the nipple, using one hand to massage the first nipple at the same time.
After a little while, moving lower, she unfastened Gabrielle's skirt and eased it down over her hips and thighs. With gentle fingers, she touched the triangle of golden-brown hair and felt the bard shudder with delight. Her fingers slipped easily into the warm wetness, over the tender folds of skin, and then up inside of her.
"Oh!" Gabrielle gasped, as she almost stumbled. Her fingers tightened their grip on Xena's hair.
Xena slid her hand slowly out of the pleasure place and looked up. "Hey," she said, "try to leave me a little hair, okay?"
Gabrielle's eyes flew open and she quickly loosened her grip. "Oh, I'm sorry! Did I hurt you? I just-- You were making me so weak I could hardly stand, so I had to hold onto something!"
Xena laughed. "Maybe it's time we tried out the love nest," she said.
She held the skirt while Gabrielle stepped out of it, then stood up.
"Now you," said Gabrielle. She turned the warrior princess around, unlaced the leather dress, and helped her take it off. Xena quickly slipped off her undergarment and tossed it into the pile of discarded clothing. She blew out the candle and the two women embraced, delighting in the feel of skin against skin. Then, suddenly, Xena bent down and scooped Gabrielle up in her arms.
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked in surprise.
"I just wanted to see if I could do this."
"Well, of course you can. You've caught me in mid-air before--surely you can lift me!"
"I guess you're right," Xena said, crossing the room in two easy paces and laying Gabrielle on the bed. When she dropped down beside her, the bard pushed Xena over onto her back and eased her body on top of the warrior's. Propped on her elbows, Gabrielle traced Xena's cheekbone in the dark with a gentle finger. "I love you so much," she whispered. Then their mouths met in a kiss that sent shivers through the warrior woman's body. She ran her hands over Gabrielle's shoulders, back, and buttocks, loving the feel of the smooth skin. She moaned softly as the bard slid her leg between her thighs and pressed it against her. Then Gabrielle was kissing her breasts, teasing the nipples with her tongue, sucking in a way that could only make her moan again.
"Like that, do you?" Gabrielle asked.
"Can't you tell?"
Then Xena felt her lover's thigh again, rubbing so deliciously against her. She caught Gabrielle's face in both hands, pulling her up for another deep kiss, savoring the feel of that tongue in her mouth. She moved her hand down then, sliding it between their bodies until she located the mound of soft hair and the sweet folds of skin. Gently, she began massaging them.
"Oh, Xena!" Gabrielle whispered, collapsing against her and burying her face against her neck.
"Roll over." They turned together, Xena easing herself partway onto Gabrielle, her fingers still in place, finding now the spot she knew would give the most pleasure. The flesh tightened under her fingers and Gabrielle began to breathe in quick, short gasps.
"Is that a good place?" murmured Xena.
"It's perfect--don't stop!"
Propped on an elbow, Xena took one of Gabrielle's nipples in her mouth again. The bard's body began to move rythmically against her. She moaned and then moaned again.
"That's it, Darling, you're almost there," Xena said softly. "I love you, Gabrielle!"
Then Gabrielle cried out, her body arching and spasming with pleasure. Xena held her, marvelling, as always, at the gift of joy she was able to give to this sweet woman.
After a few moments, Gabrielle lay still again and sighed. "Mmm, that was a good one," she said.
"I noticed. Want more?"
Gabrielle smiled coyly. "Yeah, if you're offering."
Xena grinned and descended the bard's body with a trail of kisses. Then pushing the thighs apart, she eased between them, breathing in the musky smell of Gabrielle's sex. With her tongue, she sought the pleasure place again, stroking it gently, tasting its sweetness.
"That feels so good, Xena! Oh! This isn't going to take long!"
And it didn't. Xena held onto Gabrielle's thighs, feeling once more the wonder of joy coursing through her lover's body. "Again?" she asked, when it was over.
"No, that's plenty for now. Just come up here by me."
They lay in each other's arms for a little while, and Xena traced lazy designs on Gabrielle's chest with her finger.
"How did you know what to do?" Gabrielle asked. "I mean, the first time. If you'd never made love to a woman before me, how did you know how to do it?"
"Just kind of made it up as I went along, I guess," Xena said.
Gabrielle laughed. "You're crazy--do you know that?" In a quick movement, she rolled over on top of Xena and kissed her. "Okay, it's my turn now."
"You just had your turn."
"I mean it's my turn to make you squirm and groan."
Xena laughed. "I'm your willing victim!"
It began simply enough. A little nibbling on the warrior's earlobes and gentle blowing in her sensitive ears sent shivers all the way down to her toes. Then it was the breasts again, her nipples teased into hard knots by Gabrielle's eager mouth. Xena could feel her heart starting to pound again, and when the bard touched the dark hair between her legs and then her clitoris, she gasped.
"You're really wet!" Gabrielle marvelled.
"I wonder how that happened," Xena said with a half grin.
She thought she had never felt anything as wonderful as Gabrielle's tongue stroking her. She thought, in fact, that she might explode with the pleasure of it. "Oh, Gabrielle," she said, panting, "that's so--"
The wave of sensation burst over her before she could finish the thought. Writhing and moaning, she clutched at Gabrielle's hair. Joy coursed all the way to the ends of her fingers and toes, leaving her tingling and weak with its passing. Then Gabrielle was beside her again, kissing her, brushing back the hair from her face.
"Want more?" the bard asked with a raised eyebrow.
"No, that one was enough for now," Xena said. "It may have been the best one I've ever had. Just lie on top of me--I want to hold you."
They lay quietly for some time, as their breathing slowed and their heartbeats gradually returned to normal.
"Xena," said Gabrielle with her mouth against Xena's ear.
"Do you think it's wicked to be so happy? I mean, when there are so many people in the world who are poor and sick and miserable?"
"Wicked? No, I don't think so. Maybe if we never tried to help other people it would be wicked, but we can't save the whole world, just the two of us."
Gabrielle pushed herself up on her arms and stared down at Xena. "It's funny to hear you say that, because sometimes I would swear you really do think we can save the whole world--or at least that we should try."
Xena considered for a minute. "I guess it's just that I have so much evil in my past--I don't know how I can ever atone for it." She reached up and touched Gabrielle's face. "I certainly never thought I deserved the kind of happiness I've found with you. It's scary sometimes, because I'm afraid it will all be taken away."
"Don't say that, Xena. You deserve to be happy, and I want to make you happy."
"Good," Xena said with a grin. "You can start by getting off me now and pulling up a blanket. I'm too tired to discuss philosophical questions tonight."
"Goodnight, Love," Gabrielle whispered as she spread the cover over them. They snuggled up close together and soon were asleep.
When Xena opened her eyes in the soft light of morning, the first thing she saw was Gabrielle, leaning on one elbow, looking at her.
She closed her eyes again, since they didn't really feel like being open yet. "What are you doing?" she murmured.
"I'm watching you sleep."
Xena opened only one eye this time. "Why?" she said, and closed it.
"Because I don't get to do it very often," said Gabrielle. "You're usually up before I am, and if I do happen to wake up during the night, it's too dark to see you." She touched Xena's cheek softly and Xena opened her eyes again. "You just look so relaxed and peaceful . . . so beautiful. And you didn't have any nightmares."
"No. I don't think I've ever had one on a night when we've made love."
"Well, we know the cure then," Gabrielle said with a wink.
"Yes, I guess we do." Xena smiled and pulled Gabrielle toward her. They kissed a gentle and lingering kiss, and then they made love again--tenderly, slowly--the way two people do who have all the time in the world to spend together.
"What are we going to do today?" asked Gabrielle while they were finishing off the rabbit stew for breakfast.
"Anything you want."
"Mmm, know what? I'd really like to spend some time writing, if that's okay. We've had so many adventures lately that I'm kind of behind on my scrolls."
"Sure, you can do that." Xena smiled at her. "You can do anything you want to."
"But what will you do?"
"Me? Oh, I'll find something. I can try to get the grass stains off my sword and sharpen it up again. Brush Argo. Go for a swim. There are lots of things I can do."
Gabrielle studied her for a few moments.
"Xena, you know you hate sitting around in camp. Why don't you go out exploring for a while, or go fishing? Maybe you could get us some carp for dinner."
The warrior frowned. "No, that's not a good idea, Gabrielle. I don't want to leave you alone here."
"Are you still worried about Garron?"
"Have you seen anything at all to make you think he followed us?"
"No," Xena admitted.
Gabrielle laid her hand on Xena's arm. "Look," she said, "I have a really good feeling about this place. I feel perfectly safe here, and I would feel safe staying here alone, if you want to leave for a while. Really. And besides that, I can take care of myself. I've got my staff and I know how to use it. I'm not a child, Xena. You don't have to watch out for me all the time."
Xena stared at her, considering. "Are you sure you'd feel safe?" she said, at length.
"Because if you have any doubt at all, just tell me and I'll be glad to stay here with you--I mean that."
"I have no doubts, Xena."
"Well, it would be nice to get out and look for some herbs," she said hesitantly. "I'm almost out of the ones I use most often. And I could probably catch a fish or two while I'm at it, if that's what you want. I won't be gone more than a couple of hours, I promise."
"Yes, Xena, that's a good idea! I want you to go. I know you'll have more fun than you would sitting around watching me write."
Xena smiled. "How well you know me, My Love." She kissed Gabrielle quickly on the forehead as she got up from the table. "I just want to have another look around before I leave."
She put on her breastplate and bracers, then settled the sword on her back and the chakram at her waist. After first checking on Argo in the meadow, she made another circuit of the entire area--not as wide this time--and saw nothing to alarm her.
"Everything looks fine," she told Gabrielle when she got back.
"See? What did I tell you?" Gabrielle said, giving Xena a quick kiss. "Now get out of here!"
Xena took only a minute to find her herb bag and a short piece of rope to string fish on, then she headed across the creek to explore the area south of the cottage.
"See you later," she called to Gabrielle, who smiled and waved.
The land was hilly and rough, but Xena's long legs covered ground easily. She took in deep breaths of fresh air--partly because it smelled so good, but also because she was trying to calm the last bit of fear that still gnawed at her--the fear that Garron somehow, in spite of all her watchfulness and precautions, had managed to follow them. But surely she would have seen something. He would have given himself away somehow; he wasn't that clever. She had to stop worrying. Gabrielle was right--she could take care of herself. She had become a skilled fighter and Xena was often amazed these days, watching her . . . but against Garron? She wouldn't think about it. She would think about the morning sun on her face and the wind in her hair and where the best herbs could be found and how good it felt to be out rambling around like this.
She didn't travel in a straight line, and she paused often to take her bearings so that she would be able to find the way back easily. The herb bag filled up quickly, as she stopped here and there to dig choice plants with her dagger. She climbed a ridge and in the narrow valley beyond, she was particularly glad to find a clear, cold stream, shaded by willows. "Willow bark," she murmured. "Good for relieving pain. I always seem to need lots of willow bark." And while she was here, she thought, she might as well see if she could catch some fish.
The sun was high, and she realized she had been gone more than an hour already. Quickly, she pulled off her shin guards, boots, and bracers, and waded in. The cold water felt good in the growing heat of the day. Tilting her head to one side, she listened carefully, then moved into deeper water, where she knew the carp lingered in the shade of the far bank. It didn't take long to snatch a couple of fat ones from the water with her bare hands and toss them onto the bank. Two would be enough for tonight. She could always come back another day to get more.
Xena waded out, picked up the fish, ran the rope through their gills, and tied it. Then she shook the water off her arms and legs, sat down on a shady rock and put on her bracers. She was just thrusting one foot into a boot when all at once she heard a sound that made her blood turn to ice. It was Gabrielle screaming.
Scrambling to her feet, Xena cast a panicked look around. Where had the scream come from? Had Gabrielle followed her? She saw no one around, nothing out of place in the placid little valley. Then she heard the screams again.
"Xena! Help me! Xena!"
She heard the cries plainly, and yet they seemed to come from nowhere. Then suddenly she realized that she was hearing them, not with her ears, but from somewhere inside of her. It was strange, but that was the only way she could explain it. Sitting back down, she began to lace the boot as quickly as she could with trembling fingers. Something was terribly wrong--she understood that much. Gabrielle needed her and here she was in the hills at least half a league away. It seemed to take forever to lace the boots, even though she skipped many of the eyelets. Finished at last, she slapped on the shin guards, grabbed up the herb bag and fish, and set out running.
The uneven ground hindered her speed, and she had to take time to find the landmarks she'd noted earlier. She had come farther than she intended to, and it was taking much too much time to get back. Her breath came fast and hard, and sweat trickled into her eyes. Then, glancing up as she dashed through an open area, she saw the smoke. It rose in a black column above the trees, some distance off. She stopped short, staring at it, her heart sinking as she realized that it marked the place where she estimated the cottage to be. "No!" she whispered. "Dear Zeus, don't let this be happening!" Then, drawing a shuddering breath, she plunged onward.
She didn't stop again until she had skidded down the last hillside and cleared the meadow creek in a single flip. Landing in a crouch, she dropped the herb bag and fish, drew her sword, and stood up.
There wasn't much left of the cottage. The dry wooden walls and thatch roof had apparently fallen easy prey to ravenous flames. The only thing still standing was the stone fireplace. Blackened rafters, beams, and clumps of thatch still blazed and smoldered on what had once been the cottage floor.
Xena scanned the clearing for some sign of life, but saw none. "Gabrielle!" she called. "Gabrielle, where are you?" The crackling and hissing of the fire was the only answer. Cautiously, she moved toward the blaze. The wind shifted then, bringing her the acrid smell of burnt wood, thatch, and something else-- A vision of Cirra flashed suddenly across her memory, and she heard again the screams of people being burned alive in their houses. "No, I won't think about that now," Xena muttered. She shook her head sharply, and as swiftly as it had come, the image was gone.
The heat of the fire kept her a couple of paces back from the blackened ruins, but she saw the body almost immediately. A crumpled form, charred past recognition, it lay near the center of the cottage. Xena closed her eyes as a shudder ran through her, and she bit her lip hard to keep from crying out. "No!" she groaned. "Gabrielle, no! Please!" Her knees felt like water. Sinking down in the grass, she let her sword drop and buried her face in her hands. She remained like that for several moments, trying to control her trembling, then forced herself to look at the body again. With the hair and clothing burned away, it was impossible to tell much about it. Was it really Gabrielle? Picking up her sword, she stood up and moved slowly around the ruins, her eyes never leaving the grotesque, black figure. It seemed bigger, somehow, than she would have expected her lover's body to be. When she reached the back side of the cottage, she caught a glimpse of the boots, which were not as thoroughly burned as everything else. They were, she realized with sudden relief, much heavier and larger than Gabrielle's boots.
But if Gabrielle wasn't dead, then where was she? And who had burned up in the cottage fire? Xena looked around the clearing again. "Gabrielle!" she called, then listened. A burning rafter broke with a soft pop, and she jumped. Backing away from the ruins, toward the line of shrubbery and trees, she tuned her ears to detect any sounds that weren't made by the fire. "Gabrielle!" she called again. That's when she heard the whimpering. A wounded animal, she thought at first. The sound seemed to come from a dense stand of bushes nearby. Sword at ready, she moved in that direction. Yes, here was the place where twigs had been broken when someone or something had pushed through. Xena parted the branches with her sword, peered in, and then stepped into a narrow space among the shrubs.
It took her a moment to spot Gabrielle, who was huddled deep in the shadows of the bushes. She sat hugging her knees tightly to her chest, her face buried against her arms. Stepping closer, Xena could see that the golden hair was tangled with grass and matted with what appeared to be blood. She sheathed her sword and knelt in front of her companion. "Gabrielle?" she said softly. The whimpering stopped, but there was no other response. Xena reached out and laid both hands on the blonde head.
"Don't touch me." Gabrielle's voice was low and ominous, like a growl.
Xena froze and then slowly withdrew her hands. "All right," she said. She was silent for a moment. "What happened, Gabrielle?" she asked then. "Are you hurt? I want to help you."
Gabrielle's head snapped up. "Oh, now you want to help, do you?" she said in a tone as sharp as any dagger. "Where were you, Xena? I needed you. I was screaming for you and you didn't come!"
Xena's breath caught in her throat. Through tangles of red-gold hair, she saw the crazed light in Gabrielle's eyes, the dark bruises on her face and arms, the cut and swelling over one eye. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "I should have been here."
"Yes, you should have." Gabrielle glared at her and then laid her head on her arms again.
Xena studied the huddled figure, desperately wanting to touch her, but not daring to. "What happened here, Gabrielle?" she began again. "Can you tell me?" There was no answer. "How badly are you hurt?" Still nothing. Xena took a few deep breaths, trying to calm a rising sense of panic. Looking frantically for clues, she suddenly saw what she had not before, because of the dense grass and shrubbery in which the bard sat--Gabrielle was wearing nothing other than her boots. "Where are your clothes, Gabrielle?" Xena asked.
"I burned them!" Gabrielle said, looking up again. Her eyes were narrowed, her voice hard. "They've all gone up in smoke, just like our little love nest!"
Xena stared at her, chilled by a growing realization of what must have happened. "Whose body is that in the cottage?" she asked. "Is it Garron's?" A look of raw fear flashed across Gabrielle's face. She nodded, shut her eyes, and let her head drop once more.
Xena reached out to touch her, but then remembered and withdrew her hand. "What did he do to you, Love?" she asked as gently as she could. "Did he rape you?" A shudder was the only answer, but it told her all she needed to know. "Damn him!" she hissed, and slammed her fist against the ground. "I hope he's roasting in Tartarus!"
She closed her eyes for a moment and tried to get her emotions under control. The important thing right now was to find out how badly Gabrielle was hurt and to help her. There would be plenty of time for anger later. She opened her eyes and regarded the unmoving figure before her.
"Gabrielle," Xena said quietly, "you've got to let me touch you. You're hurt and I want to take care of you." She put her hand on Gabrielle's arm, but the bard jerked away.
"You should have taken care of me before, Xena," she said, looking up. "Why didn't you come when I needed you?"
"Gabrielle--" Xena reached out again, but suddenly the bard lunged at her, screaming and beating at her face and chest with clenched fists. Xena caught the flailing arms and tried to control the barrage, but Gabrielle proved stronger than she expected. Afraid of adding more injuries to those her lover had already suffered, Xena quickly decided on another tactic. She slid her hands up to Gabrielle's shoulders, her fingers seeking just the right points near the neck. It wasn't easy in the midst of such a struggle, but after a moment, she found the two spots and deftly applied pressure. It was a technique the bard had once dubbed the "modified pinch." Designed not to cut off the blood to the brain, as her regular pinch was, but simply to produce a state of light unconsciousness, it was useful for relieving pain while doing surgery or treating wounds. Almost as soon as she applied the pressure, Xena felt Gabrielle go limp and saw her eyes roll back. With gentle hands, she caught the bard and eased her down, stretching her out in the grass.
She hadn't expected to see so much blood. It seemed to be everywhere, smeared over Gabrielle's breasts, stomach, and thighs. For a moment, Xena couldn't identify the source, but then she saw the gash in one breast. Snatching some large leaves off a nearby bush, she used them to apply pressure to the wound. While waiting for the bleeding to stop, she tried to think what supplies she needed. A blanket to keep Gabrielle warm, some cloths for cleaning and bandaging, something to put water in--probably the cooking pot. She stopped in mid-thought, realizing suddenly that all the things she needed were in the cottage . . . and the cottage had burned down. "Gone!" she whispered. "Everything we own is gone!" She shook her head in disbelief, then mumured, "Well, this will be an interesting challenge!"
Xena checked the wound and saw that blood was no longer oozing from it. She needed to get Gabrielle out of these bushes and into the sunlight where it was warmer. And she would need a lot of water. Maybe someplace near the creek would be good. She stood up and looked down at the still form on the ground. Although bloody, the bard appeared peaceful enough. Surely it would be all right to leave her alone for a few minutes.
Xena pushed her way out of the bushes and stood blinking in the sunlight of the clearing. The fire had died down mostly to embers and a few small tongues of flame, but the ruins still radiated a lot of heat. She moved closer to survey the damage. The iron cooking pot sat on the hearth, where they had left it this morning, and she could just make out the frying pan lying near the center of the room, under a half-burnt rafter. At least she would be able to retrieve those two things. Where their bed had been, however, there were only ashes now. No hint of straw, grass, or even blankets remained.
Xena circled the cottage, and stopped near the front door, as her eyes fell on a framework of charred leather and fur. "My saddle!" she groaned. Not much remained of the bridle, either. She could, of course, ride bareback, but it would be practically impossible to do any fighting on horseback without a saddle. And although Argo was well trained, riding her with no bridle for guidance might prove tricky. Argo! Where was she? Was she all right? Xena turned toward the meadow and whistled. She was relieved to hear the familiar whinny as the mare trotted towards her, but just short of the clearing, Argo stopped and stood tossing her head nervously in the direction of the cottage ruins. Xena went to her. "That fire's got you spooked, hasn't it, girl?" she murmured soothingly. She stroked the golden neck, then checked the mare quickly for injuries, and found nothing to alarm her. "Okay, Argo, you look all right to me. I need to take care of Gabrielle now, and tomorrow you can help me get her into town somehow." She gave the horse an affectionate slap, and Argo turned and trotted off.
The warrior walked to the creek and picked up the herb bag and fish she had dropped earlier. Then she continued along the bank in the direction away from the meadow. Near the point where the stream left the clearing and entered the woods, there was a large rock, almost waist-high. It stood in a sunny spot, only a pace or so from the water. Xena studied it for a moment, then laid the herb bag in the grass near the rock. She dropped the fish into the cool creek water and tied the stringer to a bush. Then, after glancing around, she took off her weapons and armor, laid them beside the rock, and hurried back to Gabrielle.
Gathering the limp body into her arms, she carefully pushed her way out of the bushes. She carried Gabrielle across the clearing and laid her down in the grass near the big rock. In the bright sunlight, the bard's bruises and bloody wounds stood out starkly against the pale flesh. Xena stared at her for a short while and then gently touched Gabrielle's face. "This is all my fault," she said. "I should never have left you here alone. You needed me and I wasn't here for you. I'll never forgive myself."
She swallowed hard and took a deep breath, then tried to think about getting Gabrielle cleaned up. What she needed was a cloth of some type, but she didn't have one. After a moment's consideration, she went to her herb bag, emptied it out, and laid the herbs in neat piles beside the rock. The bag was made of a soft, suede-like leather which was reasonably absorbent. It wasn't really the best thing for the job she was about to do, but it was all she had. Kneeling in the grass between Gabrielle and the creek, Xena dipped the bag into the water and wrung it out. With slow, gentle strokes, she washed the blood off of her lover's face and arms, then carefully cleansed the breast wound. The gash was long, but not too deep, she noted. It really ought to be stitched to keep it clean and minimize scarring, but their needle and thread had undoubtedly been casualties of the fire.
Dipping the soft leather again, Xena washed Gabrielle's stomach, thighs, and knees. Then she gently rolled the bard over to check her back. She found more bruises and some dried blood, which she sponged off. The boots could be cleaned later, she decided. There was no sense in getting Gabrielle's one remaining article of clothing wet right now.
Xena paused for a moment then to steel herself for the part she had put off until last--the part she did not want to see, but knew she must. Easing Gabrielle's legs apart, she examined the tender flesh, now cruelly bruised and torn. With loving fingers, she softly touched the places she had touched in a very different way only that morning. Xena closed her eyes against the tears which suddenly blinded her, but she could not stop them. A deep sob shook her body, and then another, as the tears coursed down her cheeks. What was wrong with her, she wondered. She never cried like this. With great effort, she managed to stop the tears and bring her trembling body under control. Then, in a little while, feeling somewhat calmer, she wiped her face with her arm and continued cleansing her lover's wounds.
When she had finished, she made a cold compress of the leather bag and laid it on Gabrielle's swollen eye. The hair needed washing, but that could wait until the next day. The cold-water bath had probably chilled the bard enough already. It was time to get a fire going.
* * *
It didn't take long for Xena to gather wood, lay a fire, and start it using a brand she lighted in the cottage embers. Now she must wake Gabrielle up, but would the bard still be hysterical? Would she allow herself to be touched? Xena considered for a few moments. Maybe if she were already holding Gabrielle when she woke up, she would stay calmer. Crouching beside her friend, Xena slipped her arms under her and lifted her onto her lap. Then she eased herself back so that she could lean against the rock. She held Gabrielle across her thighs, the golden head cradled on her shoulder. Then, gently, she released the pressure points. After a moment or two, Gabrielle stirred and opened her eyes.
"Xena?" She looked up at the warrior, confused, and then around the clearing.
"I brought you over here to sit in the sun, where it's warmer," Xena said, "and I've cleaned you up a little bit. Do you remember what happened?"
Gabrielle's eyes moved quickly to the smoking ruins and back again, her body becoming tense and her breath coming faster. Fear replaced the confusion in her eyes. "I remember," she said finally, "but how did I get--"
"I used the modified pinch on you, so you've been out for a little while. I'm sorry, but you were struggling so hard, and I couldn't think what else to do."
Gabrielle looked at Xena for a moment, then looked away. She didn't speak, but she seemed to relax a little in the warrior's arms.
"Gabrielle, I know this will be hard for you, but can you tell me what happened? Can you talk about it at all?"
There were several moments of silence, but finally the bard began, in a voice so low and hesitant that Xena almost missed the first few words.
"I was writing," Gabrielle said, "by the creek over there, in the sun." She gestured vaguely in the direction of the meadow. "I didn't hear him. I guess I was too involved in what I was writing. I heard Argo whinny and I turned around and he grabbed me." She shivered slightly. "I didn't even have time to pick up my staff."
Xena stroked Gabrielle's hair softly, but said nothing.
"I started screaming. I screamed your name, but he just laughed at me and said that you were far away and couldn't hear me. He said he had watched you go a long ways off into the hills."
Xena closed her eyes for a moment and drew a shaky breath.
"I fought him, Xena, I really did!" Gabrielle was looking at her now. "I kicked him and bit him and fought him every way I could!"
"I know, Sweetheart. I've seen the marks of that fight all over your body."
"He was just too strong," Gabrielle mumured. "And he had a dagger. He kept saying he'd kill me."
Xena pulled the bard a little closer and kissed the top of her head.
"He dragged me into the cottage and threw me down on the bed. All I could think about was that it was right where you and I--last night--"
"I know," whispered Xena.
Gabrielle hesitated a moment and then went on. "I tried talking to him, reasoning with him, but he just laughed at me and said he was going to get his revenge." She took a deep breath and let it out again. "He cut my clothes off of me. That's how I got--" She glanced down at the breast wound.
"And then he--" She stopped and swallowed hard, crying now, her body trembling.
"You don't have to tell me," Xena said gently. "I've seen what he did to you." She waited for the trembling to stop. It took a long time. Finally she said, "Tell me what happened afterwards. How did the fire get started?"
"Afterwards--" Gabrielle began and then paused, as if she had trouble remembering this part. "I think I must have fainted or something. I just remember opening my eyes and seeing him standing by the table. He was bending over--I don't know what he was looking at, but I saw the frying pan on the hearth there, near the bed. I grabbed it and jumped up and I hit him, just as he straightened up. I hit him in the head--really hard."
"You knocked him out."
"Good for youl! What did you do then?"
"After that, I don't know, I just went kind of crazy or something. All I could think about was how he had ruined everything and made it all dirty and horrible. We had such a beautiful love nest and he came along and turned it into a hate nest. I couldn't stand thinking about it, so I lit the candle in the fireplace and set the straw on fire!" There was a wild light in her eyes, and her voice shook with emotion. "I had to do it, don't you see, Xena? I had to burn it after what he did! You can see that, can't you?"
The warrior stared into the frantic green eyes. "Yes, Darling, I see," she said softly and smoothed the hair back from Gabrielle's face. "Everything's going to be all right now. You're safe and everything's going to be fine."
After a moment, Gabrielle sighed and laid her head against Xena's shoulder. The two were silent for several minutes. Xena's mind was filled with the images that her lover's story had created. They were not images she wanted to see, but she knew she had to.
"Xena, take me away from here, please," Gabrielle said at last. "I hate this place."
"We'll go first thing tomorrow, I promise," said Xena.
"Not tomorrow. I want to go now."
"I don't see how we can, Gabrielle. It will take several hours to get to town, and you're not in any condition to travel. You've lost quite a bit of blood, and I don't think you'd find it pleasant to sit on a horse right now. Besides which, you don't have any clothes."
"That doesn't matter. I can wear anything--a blanket, a nightshift--I don't care."
"We don't have a blanket or a nightshift," Xena said quietly. "All our things were in the cottage, remember? They're gone. All burned up."
Gabrielle stared at her. "I did that, didn't I?" she said slowly. "I burned up all our stuff." Her gaze shifted to the cottage ruins. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. I didn't even think about--"
"I know. It's all right; we'll be fine. I'm just glad you burned up Garron while you were at it." She managed a weak grin, but Gabrielle only sighed.
"What are we going to do, Xena?"
"Well, you know how I always say I like to be creative? I figure this is my big chance!"
"Be serious, Xena. I don't feel like making jokes."
"All right. I thought we could stay right here tonight--right where we're sitting. I think I can rig up a little brush shelter or something, and we'll have the fire to keep us warm. And each other, of course."
"But I don't want to stay here. Isn't there a cave someplace we could go to?"
The warrior considered for a moment. "I don't remember any caves around here," she said, "and I didn't see any while I was out today. It's just not the right part of the country for caves. We'll be fine here, Gabrielle. And once the cottage fire cools off some, I want to try to retrieve some things that might have survived. Then in the morning, we'll get to town somehow and we'll stay at an inn, where we can eat good food and sleep on a real bed and you can rest and get well."
"How will we pay for it?"
"I don't know, but I'll figure something out."
Gabrielle was silent. Xena suspected she was not happy with the plan, but perhaps she would accept it without further protest. Xena wasn't so happy with it herself, but it was the best she had been able to come up with, given the circumstances.
"How are you feeling?" she asked.
"How do you think I feel?" Gabrielle snapped. "I've been beaten up and raped. How would you feel?"
"I'm sorry. That was a stupid question. What I wanted to know, I guess, was how much pain you're feeling from that wound."
"It hurts," Gabrielle said flatly, "but it's bearable."
"Okay. I'll make you some tea as soon as I can get the pot out of the ruins. I couldn't stitch the wound up, since I don't have a needle and thread, so you'll have to be careful with it. Do you think you'll be all right here by the fire while I go do some things?"
Gabrielle nodded and winced as she moved stiffly off of Xena's lap and eased herself down in the grass near the fire.
The warrior watched her for a moment. "Do you want to lie down?" she asked. "Do you think you could sleep?"
"Will you be warm enough? You can wear my clothes, if you want."
"No, I'll be fine."
Xena got up, feeling somewhat stiff herself, and laid a few more sticks on the fire. She looked at Gabrielle, but the bard was staring at the flames and her mind seemed to be a hundred leagues away. The warrior sighed, picked up her sword and chakram, and headed for the meadow. There was a stand of young saplings growing near the creek. She studied these for a few minutes and selected three which were slender and straight, two of them forked. A single cast of the chakram felled all three, and her sword made quick work of the leafy tops. Picking up the three poles, she started back along the creek toward the clearing.
She stopped when she saw Gabrielle's staff and writing quill lying in the grass. She bent down to get them and then noticed a piece of parchment caught under a bush nearby. Laying down her weapons and poles, she went over and picked it up. Gabrielle's close-written script met her gaze, telling yet another exuberant tale of the exploits of the Warrior Princess. Xena's eyes fell on a section of writing near the bottom of the page.
"Hold on, Gabrielle!" called Xena, as she tied a rope around
"I can't hold on!" screamed the bard. Her strength was gone and she
knew she would soon lose her precarious grip on the rope bridge where
the two new-made gods, Velasca and Callisto, were throwing lightning
bolts at each other. Her life would end in the lava pit below, but it would
be worth it if these two evil beings perished with her. "Hurry!" she
cried to Xena. "Just do it! Cut the rope!"
"Hold on!" commanded the brave Warrior Princess.
Just then, Callisto and Velasca lunged at each other and began
grappling hand-to-hand, causing the bridge to jerk wildly.
"Xena, I can't hold on!" cried the bard.
"Gabrielle, don't take your eyes off me!" And with these words,
Xena slashed the rope handrail, sending the two deities plummeting
toward the boiling lava below. Then, with a great leap, she launched
herself into space, just as her friend finally lost her hold and plunged
toward certain death. Their hands met
The writing broke off at that point, and Xena let the hand holding the parchment fall to her side. Her knees felt weak and there was a terrible ache in her heart. She leaned against a tree and closed her eyes. So many times she had saved Gabrielle. Why had she failed so miserably today?
It was several minutes before she could gather the strength to move again. Glancing over at Gabrielle, she saw that the bard was sitting just as before, staring at the fire. Xena looked down at the parchment in her hand. At least this scroll had survived. Several others had been left in Poteidaia for safekeeping with Gabrielle's family, but the rest . . . well, they had been in one of the saddlebags in the cottage.
Xena picked up the weapons and poles and walked back to Gabrielle. "Hey, look!" she called. "I found your staff!"
The bard raised her eyes briefly. "Good," she said, but her voice sounded listless.
Xena laid the poles down and placed the weapons beside the rock. Then squatting down next to Gabrielle, she held the parchment where the writer could see it. "And look what else I found," she said.
Gabrielle stared at the writing for a few moments, her eyes narrowing and her face becoming hard. Suddenly, she snatched the page from Xena's hand, ripped it in two, and threw it into the fire. Then she grabbed the quill and threw that in, too.
Xena watched as flames quickly curled around the parchment. "Why did you do that?" she asked in a low voice.
"Because I never want to write again."
"You don't know that, Gabrielle. You're hurting now, but you'll feel better after a while. One day you'll feel like writing again."
The bard turned to look at Xena, fury in her eyes. "What would I write about," she asked sarcastically, "the brave Warrior Princess who goes fishing while her lover is being raped?"
Xena caught her breath sharply, as if she had been slugged. She stared at Gabrielle and opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Biting her lip, she turned her face away, then stumbled to her feet and walked blindly toward the cottage. Standing at the edge of the ruins, she stared at them without really seeing anything. She had to be patient, she told herself. Gabrielle's pain was raw and deep; she was just lashing out the way a wounded animal would. Healing would come, but it would take time. Meanwhile, she, Xena, had to be strong. And of course, she could be strong--she was a warrior, after all. But why was it so hard right now? And why did it hurt so much?
The best thing was to keep busy. There was so much to do, so much to think about to keep her mind off the pain. She shook her head to clear it and forced herself to pay attention to the sight before her. She needed to get the cooking pot, first of all. There it was, sitting on the hearth. It would be easy enough to snag it and pull it out with her whip, but-- Her eyes went to the charred remains of the saddle. Yes, there was the whip, now reduced to blackened fragments of leather, still lying in a neat coil.
Xena turned and walked back to the campsite. Gabrielle did not look up or show that she was even aware of her approach. Selecting one of the forked poles, Xena carried it back to the cottage. She knocked the pot on its side, stuck the end of the pole inside, and lifted the pot out, dropping it in the grass where it could cool. The frying pan was more difficult to get ahold of, but by prodding and shoving it with the pole, she finally got it out, too.
It was hot work. Xena paused to wipe the sweat off her face and found herself staring at Garron's body. "You got better than you deserved, you bastard," she muttered. "If it had been up to me, I would have made sure you were awake so you could experience every minute of being burned alive. Either that, or I would have torn you limb from limb with my bare hands!"
How had he done it, she wondered. How had he managed to follow them without giving a single sign that would have let her know he was doing it? She had seriously underestimated him--that was clear. And how had he known that attacking Gabrielle was the most effective revenge he could have taken on her? He must have seen them together, must have known they were lovers. Had he been watching through the window last night when they-- The thought sickened her, and she put it quickly out of her mind.
What else could she salvage here? That was the question. They had the pot to make tea in, but nothing to drink it from. Maybe the clay mugs had survived. She began poking in the ashes near what was left of the table. The fact that Garron's body was there did not make the job easier. Finally, she found a few fragments of one mug, then the second mug intact. She fished it out of the ruins with the pole and examined it. Totally blackened and badly cracked, it was still the only thing they had to drink out of, so it would have to do.
Had she saved everything worth saving? Scanning the cottage debris again, her eyes fell on the saddlebags. She poked at them and realized that one was actually lying on top of the other one. It was an easy matter to hook the strap between them and lift them out into the grass. She knelt beside them, and was met with the sharp smell of burnt cloth and leather. The bags were too hot to touch, so she went in search of a couple of sticks. The top bag was badly charred, with the flap burned away and most of the front panel missing. Using the sticks, Xena pulled out fragments of cloth which she knew had once been their towels and nightshifts. Next she found Argo's brush, the bristles gone and only a portion of the blackened handle remaining. A flask of oil she used to keep her leather boots and clothing supple had broken open, its contents sacrified to the flames. Gabrielle's extra bottle of ink had met the same fate. The metal dinner plates had survived, though, along with the forks and Xena's sharpening stone. All were heavily blackened, but they would be usable. She thought briefly of the wooden bowls they had eaten from last night. They would be just a memory now, she mused.
The second bag, protected by the first, had fared somewhat better. Its leather was severely singed in places, but for the most part, it remained intact. Xena pried it open anxiously. On top was a lightweight cloak, burned in several places, but with some good-sized areas of fabric unharmed. It could no longer be worn, she knew, but they could certainly find a use for spare pieces of cloth. Tossing aside the sticks, Xena began to use her hands to dig in the saddlebag, not really caring anymore if she got burned. Under the cloak, she found a small leather bag, soot-covered, but otherwise in good shape. Excitedly, she untied the drawstring and emptied out a spool of thread with a needle stuck in it. "Thank the gods," she said softly. Now she would be able to stitch Gabrielle's wound.
She reached into the saddlebag again, cursing as she hit a particularly hot spot, and pulled out a comb. Carved from bone, with roses for adornment, it had been a wedding gift from Perdicus to Gabrielle. One end was burned away and there were some scorch marks, but otherwise, the comb was fine. Xena laid it in the pile of rescued articles and peered into the bag again. Gabrielle's scrolls were all that remained. The outer layers of many of them had been burned in places, but a few of them appeared completely untouched by the fire. Xena unrolled one of the damaged scrolls and studied it for a moment. It seemed to her that it would be fairly easy to reconstruct the missing parts based on what remained. Looking over at the campsite, she saw that Gabrielle was sitting with her chin in her hands, staring at the ground. There was no sense giving her the scrolls right now--she would probably just burn them, as she had the other one. Xena re-rolled the parchment and placed it with the others. Then she picked up the cloak and tore a section of unburned cloth from it, wrapped the scrolls in it, and tied the bundle with another strip of the cloak's fabric.
Picking up the still-hot frying pan, pot, and mug, Xena carried them quickly to the creek and dropped them in the water. She found a sharp stone and used it to scrape as much black off as she could, then she filled the pot with water and carried it to the campfire. From her stash of herbs, she got some willow bark and a couple of other types of leaves, added them to the water, and set the pot in the coals. Gabrielle continued to sit, silent and apparently uninterested in her friend's activities.
Xena walked back to the cottage then with her dagger and cut the two saddlebags apart. She tossed the burned one back into the ruins and filled the other with the rescued items, leaving out only the thread and needle. She returned to Gabrielle and sat down beside her. The bard glanced up briefly, then turned her gaze away.
"I found some things that survived the fire," Xena said, "some things in one of the saddlebags, including the needle and thread. I think I should stitch up your wound."
Gabrielle looked at her. "All right," she said.
"It's going to hurt some. Do you want me to use the pinch again?"
"No. I can take it."
"Are you sure?"
"I figure if I'm tough enough to kill a man, I'm tough enough to stand a few stitches."
Xena frowned. "The logic of that escapes me," she said. "Look, Gabrielle, you don't have to prove anything to me. I know how brave you are."
"Just do it, Xena."
"Okay, but if you change your mind, let me know." She pulled a length of thread from the spool, bit it off, and threaded the needle. "Why don't you lie down?" she said. "I think that will make it easier."
It took eleven stitches to close the wound. Xena tried to work quickly, but she wanted to do a neat job of it, so that the scar would not be too bad. Gabrielle turned her face away, but Xena could see that she was hurting her, and that knowledge made the task even more difficult.
By the time she finished, the tea was ready. She dipped out a mugful and blew on it to cool it. "Gabrielle, sit up and drink some of this. It will help with the pain."
The bard pushed herself up and Xena handed her the tea. "It's hot, so be careful," she said.
Gabrielle studied the contents of the mug. "It has black stuff in it," she said.
Xena leaned over and peered at the tea. "I guess I didn't get all the soot out of the mug," she said. "It won't hurt you, Gabrielle--just drink it."
The bard took a sip and then made a face. "It's so bitter," she complained.
"I know, Love, but please try to drink it. It will help you feel better."
Xena glanced at the sky and saw clouds moving in from the west. Soon their warm sunshine would be gone, and there might even be rain on the way. She got up and started work on the brush shelter. First, with her dagger, she dug holes and set up the two forked poles, then laid the third pole across them. After that, she cut thick, leafy branches for a roof, laying them across from the pole to the rock.
"Xena?" Gabrielle said when the shelter was almost done.
"Why are you building this? We've slept out in the open plenty of times without a shelter."
The warrior stopped to consider for a few moments. "Well, that's a good question, actually. It's just that when we slept out before, we had clothes and blankets, and now we don't. I thought the shelter might hold the fire's heat a little better, and our body heat."
"Will it keep us dry if it rains?"
"I doubt it. And if there's a big wind, the whole thing will probably blow away," Xena said with a grin that looked more like a grimace.
"Then why are you building it?"
Xena thought again and finally said, "I guess it makes me feel like I am somehow protecting you."
Gabrielle sighed and took another sip of tea.
Xena placed the last few branches on the shelter, feeling a bit foolish now. Then, brushing off her hands and trying to sound cheerful, she said, "How about some carp for supper?"
"I'm not hungry," Gabrielle said flatly.
"I know, but you need to try to eat something."
There was no response.
Xena went and pulled the two fish out of the water, then took her dagger and went off a little distance to clean them. There was no oil for frying, but she could simmer the fillets in water. And she had seen some watercress growing in the creek nearby. They could eat that with the fish. She thought about gathering more blackberries, but quickly decided against it. No use being reminded of what they had done last night. Besides, she wasn't very hungry, either, come to think of it.
* * *
Continued..Part 2 of 4
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