Disclaimer: I do not own Xena Warrior Princess, or any of the characters used in my stories. Anyway, as I’ve said before, I think of Xena and Gabrielle as my friends---and you can’t own your friends.

Violence: Yes, there is some in this piece. However it isn’t any more than you would see in the series----if we could still see the series!

Maintext: Absolutely! Xena and Gabrielle love each other. Get over it! If a relationship involving two women who love each other more than life itself offends you, then don’t read my stories.

About Me: For those who don’t know by now, no I am not gay. I just happen to be a 50 year old woman who believes everyone on this small planet called Earth deserves the right to be happy. Life is short. If you’ve been lucky enough to find your Soulmate, whoever that happens to be, then I’m happy for you!

Spoilers: At this point none really---unless you’ve been living in a cave and never saw the show. Of course then you probably wouldn’t be here reading Xena fan-fiction.

I would like to suggest that you go back and read my other stories first (not just because I’m darn proud of them). They’ve become a series, and you’ll understand better why Xena and Gabrielle are acting like they are in this story if you start with the first one.

Thank You: To Mary D at Ausxip for allowing me to be a member of the Bard’s Corner—you have made my dreams come true. And to all of you out there who are reading my stories and writing to me---a special thanks!

Comments are always welcome: RoseXena@aol.com

 

 

 

 

Wanderlust

By Rose Corsaro

August, 2002

 

Xena sat on the top porch step of her home, drinking her morning mug of tea. Wearing her brown leather dress and boots, she looked comfortable---but she was not. Forces were pulling at her. Forces that were unseen and unheard. She knew what it was, and had been doing everything in her power to fight it---but every day it got stronger. She was losing, and it was tearing her apart inside.

She sipped her tea, deep blue eyes looking over the mug at the dirt road that led to Amphipolis and beyond. It had been ten phases of the full moon since she and Gabrielle had married in the garden behind the house. The happiest ten months of her life. How could this be happening, then?

She opened her left hand palm up, and looked at the long scar that ran diagonally from index finger to wrist. It was almost identical to the one on Gabrielle’s left hand. It was the mark of their bonding of blood and souls.

Their married life together was more than Xena could have ever hoped for. Gabrielle was her Soulmate, as she had always been, but the feelings went deeper now. She was helpful, attentive, loving beyond imagination, strong, compassionate…….Xena could go on and on finding words to describe her small blonde Warrior-Bard. They shared everything. Well, almost everything. How could she ever tell Gabrielle what she was feeling? It would break her heart.

"Hey", said a familiar voice, and Xena looked up to see Gabrielle standing beside her. Gods, she was beautiful! She was wearing a dark green halter top and brown shorts. Her silver belt and bracelets glinted in the sunlight. Her arms and legs were tanned and muscled. Her hair blonde, her smile warm, her green eyes so full of love. "How could I ever hurt her?" Xena thought, feeling so much guilt inside.

"Hello, my love," Xena said smiling. The past months had allowed her to lower her defenses completely, to the point where she could utter terms of endearment and not feel foolish. There was nothing she couldn’t say to Gabrielle, except......

Gabrielle sat beside her on the step and they exchanged a quick kiss. "You need a haircut," she said, gathering Xena’s long black hair in her hand and letting it flow out through her fingers.

Xena managed a laugh. "Oh, no! Last time I let you trim my hair, I ended up with a bleeding neck."

"Okay, so the knife slipped---a little." Gabrielle ran her hand through her short blonde hair. "At least I didn’t wack it off like you did to me with your chakram."

"At least you kept your head," Xena chided. "I’d like to keep my neck, if you don’t mind."

Gabrielle smiled and let the subject drop. She loved these moments she shared with Xena. She knew eventually she would come up to her and say something like "Gabrielle, my hair needs trimming. Will you do it for me?" as if it was her idea all along.

She sighed and looked at the woman beside her. Xena raised the mug to her lips. Gabrielle took in her large strong hands, muscular arms, beautiful blue eyes, the cleavage showing above her leather dress that hid…….Gabrielle knew she had to stop. Even after all these months they had been married, she could still get swept away with uncontrollable passion just by looking at Xena. She could tell this wasn’t a good time. Xena had again gone off into her mind, and was staring blankly into the distance.

"Xena," she asked quietly, "What’s wrong?"

Xena blinked herself back, and said "Wrong? Nothing’s wrong." She rose to her feet, flinging what was left in the mug into the bushes in front of the house.

Gabrielle was right up on her feet, blocking Xena’s path into the house. "You’ve been this way now for weeks, Xena." Her arms rose from her sides. "Is it me? Have I done something wrong?"

Xena looked down into a pair of sad, confused, green eyes. "You? Oh, Gabrielle, how could you ever think that?"

"You go off somewhere, Xena. I see it in your eyes."

Xena drew her into her arms and held her close, pressing her cheek against Gabrielle’s neck. "It isn’t you," she said with a sigh. "It’s me."

But just as she was about to finally find the courage to talk about what she had kept inside for so long, she felt Gabrielle’s body tense, and she said, "Xena, someone’s coming."

They separated, and Xena looked out and down the road. In the distance was a horse and rider. They were traveling rather fast. Dirt from the horse’s hooves was flying into the air. "Get my sword," Xena ordered, and without question Gabrielle hurried into the house. Xena sat the mug on the porch railing and kept her eyes at all times on the approaching figure. As Gabrielle handed her the sword, the horse and rider came to a halt about 25 feet away.

The man on horseback was perhaps in his 30s, bearded, with long blonde hair that cascaded over his shoulders. He was wearing a heavy brown tunic and trousers. Around his shoulders was a tan and white fox fur cape held in place at his neck by a round gold broach.

"A little overdressed isn’t he?" muttered Gabrielle.

Xena gave her a quick glance and noticed she had slid her sais into her boots, and clipped her chakram to her belt. "Look whose talking," Xena said out of the corner of her mouth. "We’re not fighting the Persian army, Gabrielle!"

"Never hurts to be prepared," she replied.

Xena stepped down off the porch, placed her sword in front of her, and rested both hands on top of the handle. "Who are you, and what do you want?" she asked firmly.

"I’m looking for Xena, the Warrior Princess," the man answered. His voice and clothing told Xena a lot about him. He was from the north---probably from Norse territory. He was a long way from home.

"You found her," Xena said, not changing the steely tone in her voice.

The man frowned. "You don’t look like a Warrior Princess."

Gabrielle marched up to stand beside Xena. "Yea, well, looks can be deceiving," she said, trying to match the tone of her Soulmate’s voice.

Xena thought she detected a small smile pull at the stranger’s mouth. "May I dismount?" he asked, not moving his hands from the pommel of his saddle. Xena nodded, and only then did he swing down from his black horse. Gabrielle caught sight of a long silver handled dagger strapped to his side beneath the fur cape. She tensed her body and rested her right hand on her hip above the chakram.

Xena stabbed her sword into the ground and walked unarmed toward him. The stranger pulled a leather glove from his right hand and extended his arm. "I am Carron, Emissary to my King."

Xena grasped his hand, slightly surprised at his strength. He was also at least four inches taller than Xena who, at six foot, felt suddenly short. "Well Carron, I am Xena." She motioned behind her. "And this is Gabrielle. Now, what brings you here to see me?"

Carron reached slowly inside his cloak, so not to provoke the small blonde who looked like she would use any sudden move to launch an attack. He pulled out a rolled parchment tied with a leather cord. "I was told to deliver this to you, Xena."

Xena untied the leather, unrolled the parchment and began reading. Gabrielle’s curiosity got the better of her, and she moved up to Xena’s side. Strangely, Xena quickly re-rolled it before she could even catch a glimpse.

"Is there a reply?" Carron asked.

Xena pursed her lips together in a moment of deep thought. Finally she nodded. "Tell him yes."

Gabrielle was totally confused. What was this all about? Why was Xena being so secretive? Carron mounted his horse and Gabrielle said, "Wait a minute---you just got here! You’re leaving already?"

Carron replaced his glove and gathered up the reigns of his spirited stallion. "I must return as quickly as I can. Thank you, Xena." And as Xena gave him a nod, he spun the horse around and galloped back down the road.

Gabrielle looked at the disappearing horse and rider and then at Xena, who had pulled her sword out of the ground and was walking toward the house. "Oh, no you don’t!" Gabrielle said under her breath, and she ran after Xena and grabbed her arm. "Stop!" Xena did, but she kept her eyes forward. "What’s going on, Xena? What’s in that scroll? What did you say yes to just now?" Gabrielle was beginning to think the unthinkable. "Xena----I’m not going to like this, am I?"

Xena looked down at her and managed a halfhearted smile. "Come on. We need to talk." And Gabrielle followed her into the house.

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

 

They sat facing each other in the leather chairs in front of the fireplace. Gabrielle unrolled the parchment and frowned at the strange symbols. "Xena, you know I can’t read the Norse language." She shook the paper. "Tell me!"

Xena took back the scroll, but she didn’t need to read it again. "Gabrielle, this is a message from Erik, King of the Norselands."

"Erik? Erik the Red?" They had never met, but his travels and great deeds and bravery were known throughout all the lands.

Xena was not sure how to tell Gabrielle this part. "It seems Odin is punishing Erik’s people because the Rheingold is missing. Since I’ve had dealings with Odin and the Rheingold before, Erik’s asked for my help."

Gabrielle’s world came crashing down around her. She stood up, put her hand to her forehead and then to her mouth. She turned away, then turned back to look at Xena. "And you said yes to this?"

"I had to," Xena replied.

"You said yes!" she repeated. "I can’t believe this! Xena---you’re retired!"

Xena stood quickly. "Now wait a minute, Gabrielle," she said with a hint of irritation in her voice. "I’ve settled down, but I never retired. You know that!"

Realization suddenly hit Gabrielle as if Xena had struck her across the face. "That’s it, isn’t it? That’s the look I saw in your eyes. You’re leaving, aren’t you?"

"Gabrielle….."

"What did I do, Xena?" she pleaded. "Haven’t I made you happy?"

Xena had to make her understand. She reached for Gabrielle, but the Bard stepped back. "Gabrielle, you’ve made me happier than I ever dreamed was possible. You married me. You made this house a home….."

"Then WHY?" she said, green eyes welling up with tears.

"I’ve tried so hard to fight this, Gabrielle. I need to feel---I need to feel I’ve got a purpose in the world."

"You do…."

"No. Not staying here month after month like this. I need to…"

"You want to leave. You want to wander the world again." Gabrielle said as if it was the worst thing she could ever imagine. In truth, it was.

Xena couldn’t look into her eyes. She let her gaze drop to the floor. "It’s my way of life, Gabrielle. I’m a Warrior. I can’t stop these feelings. I’ve been trying so hard. It’s who I am." The strong, stoic woman who had never been good with words had just bared her soul to her Warrior-Bard.

Gabrielle was angry and upset, but Xena had sounded so anguished and looked so confused that she controlled the tone of her voice. "So you wanted to go for a long time now. And now this man, Carron, comes with a message and finally you’ve got a reason to leave. To the Northlands, yet! Gods, Xena!"

Xena raised her bowed head. Her eyes were filled with tears. "I have to," she whispered hoarsely. "I’m so sorry. I don’t want to hurt you."

All of Gabrielle’s anger vanished as she watched the tears begin to run down Xena’s face. Opening her arms she whispered, "Come here," and Xena entered her embrace, burying her face in Gabrielle’s hair. "I was wrong to try to tie you down, Xena. I’ve been so happy, I was blind to what you needed."

Xena held on to her tightly. "I’m so sorry I couldn’t tell you. I was afraid, Gabrielle. I’ve been trying so hard to fight this. Please tell me you forgive me."

The reversal of roles had become an acceptable part of their life together. Xena was no longer ashamed of allowing her weaknesses to surface, and she accepted Gabrielle as her Warrior---her strength. Gabrielle saw this as the greatest honor Xena could bestow. She knew at another time she would be the one crying and seeking comfort in Xena’s strong arms. This was the true joining of their souls.

Gabrielle stroked her black hair lovingly. "Xena, there is nothing to forgive. I just wish you could have told me sooner. You didn’t need to go through this pain alone."

"I didn’t want to hurt you," she repeated. "I didn’t want to lose you."

Gabrielle took Xena’s face in her hands and their eyes met. "Xena," she said, wiping away the tears on her cheeks with her thumbs, "You could never lose me. Remember---even in death we’ll be together."

Xena leaned forward and gently kissed her lips. "I give you my word it won’t be for long. This should only take a few months."

"Well then, I guess we’d better start packing."

Xena abruptly pushed her out at arms length. "We?"

"You don’t think I’m going to let you go off wandering alone, do you?"

"But this is your home…."

"No," Gabrielle interrupted. She held out her scared left palm. "This is my home. You are my home. I go where you go, Xena. It’s always been that way. It always will be."

Xena lay her scared left hand on top of Gabrielle’s, and they both closed their fingers tightly, just as they had on their wedding day. "I love you, Gabrielle. I never, ever dreamed in my life that I would ever find what I have with you. I didn’t know such love could exist."

Gabrielle smiled, and pulled Xena’s head down into a passionate kiss. There was a time when she would wait for Xena to make the advances. Of course there was also a time when she was a na´ve young girl from Poteidaia. It was Xena who had shown her the beauty and wonder of real love, just as she had shown Xena there was no shame in letting her defenses down to another human being.

She allowed her hands to slide down Xena’s strong body, and she felt her quickly beating heart beneath the breast she pressed against through the leather dress.

Xena released a soft moan and broke away from the kiss to gently kiss and nip at Gabrielle’s neck. She loved this woman with every fiber of her being. No one had ever made her feel this way.

"Xena," Gabrielle gasped, as she felt the flames of desire igniting in her body, "Do you think Erik can wait just a little bit longer?"

Xena smiled, her blue eyes sparkling once again. "I’m sure he can---but I can’t." In one swift move she gathered Gabrielle up into her arms.

"I love you," Gabrielle whispered into Xena’s ear as she was carried into the bedroom.

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

 

"Xena!" Gabrielle yelled as the wind driven snow stung her eyes like needles. "We’ve got to find some shelter before we freeze to death!" Using one nearly frostbitten hand, she pulled the wool scarf back up over her mouth and nose. They had been traveling north for over a month. None of that time had been as bad as this. This was insanity.

Gabrielle had hated to leave their home in Amphipolis. Arrangements had been made for the house to be protected by the village while they were gone. Gabrielle had traded the cow and chickens for a horse of her own. While she loved riding on Argo with Xena, she knew the trip ahead demanded she have her own horse. Argo would never be able to carry them both for that long, and she certainly was not going to walk. Her horse was a peaceful gray mare with a strong back and a gentle gate. Gabrielle had named her "Storm" because her color reminded her of the gray clouds in the sky just before a rain.

She had to admit that several days into their journey, she was quite used to being on the road again. She had sworn she never missed it---and discovered she had. The nights sleeping on the ground under the twinkling stars. Cooking something Xena had caught over an open fire. The smells of the forests. The rolling gate of being on horseback. The excitement of making love out in the open under those beautiful stars.

And then there was Xena. She seemed so much different---so happy. Not that she wasn’t happy at home, but this was the old Xena. Riding tall on Argo in her full leathers and armor. Catching fish with her bare hands in the streams. Always alert and ready to take action at the crack of a branch, the cry of a bird, or strangers on the roads.

One morning Gabrielle awoke and watched Xena as she stood on a large boulder down a hill by a lake. She was practicing her sword skills, fighting against an invisible enemy. She finally lay the sword down, and launched into a series of leg kicks, arm thrusts, and spins. She let out her familiar warrior yell as she leaped into the air, somersaulted forward, and dove headfirst into the lake.

Gabrielle had been overcome by such a feeling of guilt in trying to tame such a wild spirit. Wasn’t this, afterall, the woman she first fell in love with? It wasn’t the one wearing a robe and politely sipping tea at the kitchen table. This was the real Xena. Her Xena.

There were a few towns and villages along the way. Gabrielle could still make a tidy sum of dinars telling her heroic stories at a tavern or inn. Some nights they had a real room and a bed, and there was an occasional hot bath. The meals were sometimes good, and the name of "Xena" was always enough for someone to buy them an ale or a skin of wine.

As they traveled further north, the villages grew scarce, the air got colder, and the mountains steeper. They had both been to the Northlands before, and Gabrielle remembered it as not a very pleasant time in their lives. Xena and Beowulf battling the monster, Grendel, and Odin for the return of the ring forged from the Rheingold years before when Xena had been a Valkyrie and stolen the gold. Gabrielle laying in protective sleep for a year surrounded by Brunhilda’s wall of flames that only her true love could penetrate. Ah, but there had been that kiss when Xena awakened her from her sleep.

They hadn’t been counting on this sudden snowstorm. Gabrielle was wearing a tan and white wool coat, and Xena had on a black fox fur full length cape. They had saved the heavy clothing from their previous journey to the north, not really knowing they would ever be wearing them again. It had been snowing most of the day. The horses were moving slowly in the deep snow, and the cold was getting to all of them.

Xena had been trying to find shelter---trying to stay close to the cliffs to shield them from the snow and wind. Argo was having trouble stepping through the snow that was at least two feet deep. Xena had heard Gabrielle, and she knew she was right. They had to get out of this before nightfall. The trails were invisible and if they began going in circles, they could easily die from exposure.

Through the blinding snow, Xena caught sight of what looked like a strange dark patch of rock up ahead. She turned to make sure that Gabrielle was still following close behind, and nudged Argo to press on toward the rocks.

Her instincts were still sharp. It was a cave. The opening was thankfully large enough to get them all inside. Xena dismounted and struggled through the snow, leading Argo into the cave. Gabrielle followed with Storm. It wasn’t the deepest cave they had ever been in, but there was enough room to get back away from the entrance. There was also an outcrop of rock they could fit behind as an added shield.

Xena surveyed the surroundings in the dwindling light of day as Gabrielle blew her breath into her hands. "Xena, I’m so cold," she said, her voice shaking. Xena saw there were plenty of leaves and branches in the caves to get a fire going. There were also animal bones scattered about. She hoped whoever’s home they had invaded wouldn’t be coming back tonight.

A few strikes of the flint, and Xena had the fire burning nicely. The two horses stood together at the side of the cave keeping each other warm. Argo had liked the younger Storm from the start, and seemed to want to protect her. Storm nuzzled Argo’s neck gently.

Gabrielle had sunk to her knees, holding her hands out to the flame. "Oh Gods, that feels good!"

Xena crouched beside Gabrielle. "Sure does," she said, rubbing her hands together.

Gabrielle looked at the woman she loved bundled in that fur cape, her face and hair wet from melting snow, her cheeks wind burned, and she said "You know what Xena? We’re crazy!"

Xena fought back a smile. "Gabrielle, where could you ever have this much fun!"

Gabrielle glared at her, and then started to laugh. Xena loved her laugh. It was honest and infectious, and she, too, began to laugh. They were exhausted, hungry, and wet---but they were warm and safe and together. That was all that mattered.

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

 

It took another full day to get through the mountain pass. Travel had been so slow. The snow thankfully had stopped overnight, and the sun was shining. Xena allowed Argo to go slow through the snow and seek the best path for her footing. They always worked as a team. Argo knew where Xena wanted her to go. Xena let Argo make her own decisions how to get them there.

It had been a good feeling to finally see more open land around them. The snow gradually decreased until it was only a few inches deep on the ground. The air was definitely a bit warmer. They stopped on a hill and surveyed the valley facing them ahead. Xena removed her wooden spyglass from the saddlebag and placed the narrow end to one eye.

"See anything?" asked Gabrielle sitting beside her on Storm.

Xena moved her head from left to right. "Trees."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Other than trees?"

"A road going over the hills. Water off in the distance. And oh, yes," she said calmly. "A village."

"A village!" Gabrielle yelled, and yanked the spyglass out of Xena’s hand. Yes, it was a village, standing out strangely in a patch of brown. All Gabrielle could think was a village usually meant food, a bed, and just maybe a much needed bath. "Let’s go," she said firmly, handing the spyglass back to Xena.

Xena smiled. Gabrielle had become quite good at giving orders. Before their ill-fated journey to Japan, Gabrielle would have asked Xena if they could go---should go, and gush openly about what they might find there. But in the saddle beside her now was a Warrior. A woman who sat straight and proud. Whose emerald green eyes could turn dark with determination. Thankfully, Xena noted, she could drop those defenses and become the "old" Gabrielle when they were sharing an intimate moment. But she was an equal partner now, and Xena knew they would gladly go to their deaths protecting each other.

Gabrielle suddenly pointed back to the mountains. "Look."

Xena turned and saw a bonfire blazing on the mountain top. "Yea, I know. They’ve been following us all day. They’re letting the village know we’re coming."

As they rode slowly along the dirt path lightly covered in snow, Gabrielle said "Something’s wrong."

Xena was about to comment on Gabrielle’s uncanny ability to understate the obvious as her eyes took in the scene ahead of them---but she kept quiet. The fields and trees were scorched and barren. Many huts and wood homes lay as piles of rubble. Some had been burned. Others looked like they had just collapsed or exploded. There were women and children on their hands and knees in the fields digging in the earth with pieces of wood, spades, even bare hands. Some people were in the process of trying to patch their homes back together. Some people looked like they were just resigned to living in the rubble. Men walked about---some looked dazed. Everyone looked as if they hadn’t eaten in quite awhile. Their ragged clothes hung on their bodies. Xena saw there were no animals---not even a dog.

"I don’t like this," she said quietly. "Stay close, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle nudged Storm up to Argo’s side. As they rode, they began to draw a crowd. Men, some carrying swords, knives, and maces, began to follow them. Argo snorted her disapproval and Xena patted her neck. "Easy, Girl," There was a wood building up ahead that seemed larger than the others that were still standing. Part of the roof was laying half on and half off as if the wind had torn it free. Xena decided that was where they would stop. Maybe someone would tell them what had happened here.

The hair on the back of Gabrielle’s neck was standing up. Usually not a good sign. She could pick up a few mumbled words from their followers. "Food," and "Horses" were two of them. Xena had the heavy fur cape draped around her shoulders. They couldn’t see her sword and scabbard across her back, or the chakram at her side.

She brought Argo to a stop, and the group of men which had grown to about thirty formed a tight circle around them. "You guys want to get out of our way?" she asked in a firm tone of voice.

"You got food?" one man hissed.

Xena shook her head. "Sorry. We’re fresh out."

"Take the horses!" someone shouted, and the mob closed in.

In the blink of an eye, Xena and Gabrielle were in motion. Gabrielle had drawn both sias in time to block a sword blow to her leg. Xena, with one push and her warrior yell, somersaulted backwards off Argo and landed behind the men, her sword drawn. A group of six rushed at her. Xena kicked one away with a boot to his chest, and swung her sword to block the ball of a small mace headed for her head.

Suddenly a strong male voice was heard to shout "ENOUGH!" All the men seemed to freeze in motion. Gabrielle had gotten to the ground and quickly moved to Xena’s side, turning in a circle. She held her sais high just in case the attack would continue. All other eyes went to the doorway of the wood house. A man with a long beard and wearing only slightly better rags than the rest of them pointed toward Xena. "Don’t you know who she is? That is Xena. She is one of Odin’s Valkyrie." All of the men looked at Xena. Almost as one, they dropped to one knee on the ground.

"Gee, Xena," Gabrielle whispered, "I knew you had an effect on men, but this is ridiculous."

The elderly man in the doorway approached slowly, his arms held out to show he was unarmed. "Great Xena, please. We beseech you---don’t bring anymore destruction to our people."

Xena shouldered her sword. This was a Norse village and apparently they still remembered her reputation as a Valkyrie. "Get up---everyone," she ordered. "I’m not going to hurt any of you." The men immediately rose to their feet and stood silently as if awaiting their next orders. "Not like the army I used to command" she thought. She looked at the old man and said "I want to talk to you---alone."

"You heard the Great One---go!" His voice, despite his obvious age was very strong. The group immediately scattered.

Gabrielle handed Xena her cape and whispered, "Put this on Great One, before you catch a cold." There was obvious sarcasm in her voice.

Xena slipped the cape over her shoulders and muttered, "Jealous?" before turning back to the old man. "Who are you?" she asked.

He bowed slightly. "I am Ennor, leader of this clan---or what is left of it."

Gabrielle motioned with her arm. "What happened here?"

"The Great One surely knows…."

"Look," interrupted Xena. "My name is Xena and this is Gabrielle. We’ve traveled from very far away, and we want you to tell us what happened."

The old man nodded. "It is Odin’s wrath. There is a rumor that the Rheingold is missing, and he has vowed to destroy us all unless it is returned. His fireballs rained from the sky. They destroyed our homes and our crops. There is no game in the forests."

Gabrielle looked out over the fields at the women and children. "What are they doing?

"Gathering seeds and roots," Ennor explained. "My people are starving. Please Great….Xena. Will you help us?"

"I need to find Erik. Do you know him?"

Ennor’s mouth pulled into a smile. "Erik is our King." But then the smile faded. "You wish to harm him?"

Xena reached into an inside pocket of the cloak and pulled out the rolled parchment tied with leather. "This message is from Erik. He sent for me."

Ennor unrolled the scroll and squinted at it. "I cannot read, but,,," His finger touched a letter at the bottom. "This is Erik’s mark. That I know." He carefully re-rolled the parchment and tied the cord. "His home near here was destroyed by Odin. He is now further north, by the sea."

Xena looked up at the sky. "Can we get there before dark?"

Ennor nodded. "But you are welcome to stay here in my home tonight."

"Thank you, but we need to find Erik as soon as possible." Xena and Gabrielle mounted their horses. "I wish we had some food to give you, Ennor, but we have nothing left."

"Just help us, Xena."

Xena nodded and nudged Argo’s flank with her boots. Argo was happy to get her moving orders and took off at a fast trot. Gabrielle caught up to her on Storm and said, "Some reputation you still have around here, Oh Great One."

Xena gave her a dirty look. "You’re asking for it, Gabrielle!"

Gabrielle flashed one of her most desirable smiles. "Oh, I hope so," she purred.

"Come on, Warrior-Bard," Xena said wrapping Argo’s reins around her wrist. "Let’s see how fast we can get to Erik." With a loud warrior yell, she pushed her knees into Argo and they bolted into a full gallop.

Gabrielle watched them for a moment. Xena was in her glory. There was no doubt about that. She had seen it during their short-lived battle with the village men. Her eyes had been gleaming; her body moving like a dancer. And wasn’t this the Xena she had fallen in love with in the first place? Gabrielle smiled, and said aloud, "Where you go, I go." Ordering Storm into a gallop, she raced after her Warrior Princess.

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

 

Night had fallen as they followed the trail further north through the forest. Xena could hear the roar of the sea and smell salt in the air. They entered a clearing, and saw a large beautiful house up ahead. It was made of tree trunks. The bark had been removed and the wood had a nice reddish/tan color. Through a window they could see it was brightly lit inside. There was a wide porch with thick plank steps. Several oil lamps were burning on the steps. A figure was standing on the ground in front of the steps. They recognized his as Carron, the King’s Emissary.

Carron and Xena grasped each others gauntlets in greeting. "Xena. We saw the fires and knew you were coming. Good to see you. And you, Gabrielle." Gabrielle smiled as she got down from her saddle. She could tell he was a good person. He was probably trusted completely by the King. Carron whistled and a soldier appeared out of the darkness. "Your horses will be well cared for. Come." They removed their packs and followed Carron up the steps as the soldier led Argo and Storm into the darkness.

Carron opened the door and motioned for them to enter. Xena and Gabrielle were stunned at what they saw. The log house was truly beautiful. There were two stone fireplaces blazing in the main room---one on each side. Animal furs were scattered as rugs over the wood floors. The furniture was made of logs. It was massive, covered in furs and looked very comfortable.

A door opened to their left, and a man entered the room. He was thin and very tall, dressed in tan leather pants and a leather tunic. His short, well kept beard was reddish in color, as was his long hair tied in a ponytail with a leather cord. His eyes were blue. They were kind of like Xena’s eyes, Gabrielle noted. He seemed to be about Xena’s age, too.

Carron gave a short bow and said, "Your Majesty, this is Xena---the Warrior Princess. And this is her Lifemate, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle was stunned. How did Carron know? Were they that obvious? And then she remembered her scared palm she shared with Xena. "Better than rings" she thought, smiling.

The tall man before them extended his hand to Xena. "Your reputation is well known, Xena," he said. His voice was very deep and firm, but there was a kindness in it.

Xena was surprised by the tremendous strength of his handshake. "Well, I hope you won’t hold that against me," she said with a smile.

"I’m pleased that you came."

"We got here as quickly as we could, your Majesty." Xena said respectfully.

He frowned. "My name is Erik. Please." He shook Gabrielle’s hand. "There are no formalities in my home." He smiled down at the blonde bard. Gabrielle liked him immediately. She sensed he was a lot like Xena: a proud exterior and warm inside.

Xena also felt this was a special man. The stories had told of a kind ruler who fought to keep peace among the clans and protect his people from invaders. A man who stood shoulder to shoulder with his soldiers on the battlefield, unafraid to die for his people. She suspected the stories were true.

Xena opened her mouth to speak, but Erik raised his hand. "I know you have many questions, but the hour is late and you have traveled far. Carron will show you to your room. There is time for talk tomorrow."

They picked up their packs and followed Carron across the room and down what seemed like a very long hallway. There were several closed doors, but it was the one at the end of the hall that Carron opened. "Erik wanted you both to be comfortable. If you need anything, I will be sleeping in the main room."

"In such a big house, why don’t you have a room, Carron? Asked Gabrielle.

"I do," he said with a smile. "But I often sleep better if I know those in this house are safe."

"Who else is here? Xena asked.

"The King has a wife and young son. They are down the opposite hall. Do not worry, Xena, no harm will come to you here." And with that, Carron bowed and walked away.

"I like him," said Gabrielle.

Xena nodded in agreement. "Yea, so do I." They entered their room and a very uncharacteristic gasp escaped Xena’s lips. She heard Gabrielle’s pack drop to the floor, and realized her talkative Warrior-Bard was actually speechless.

The room was bathed in the warm glow of a stone fireplace at the far wall in front of them. To their right was a table lit by candlelight. On it were plates of cheeses, breads, and a recently cooked chicken. Several wineskins hung from the two chairs. In front of the fireplace was a large tub of steaming water. A neat pile of towels and soap lay next to the tub. To their left was the most beautiful sight Gabrielle had seen in months. It was a very large bed with big plump pillows and covered in fur blankets.

"This has to be a dream," Xena muttered out loud.

"Well, if it is, don’t wake me up!" Gabrielle began to laugh. "At least not until I eat and have a bath!" Xena laughed, too. This was just what they needed right now. The world outside was in chaos, but Erik was right---it could wait till tomorrow.

Gabrielle didn’t know what to do first: bathe or eat. When her stomach let out a loud growl, the decision was made. It had been so long since they had eaten a real meal. Xena felt slightly guilty as they ate, remembering Ennor and his clan digging up bits of grain and roots. When this was settled, she vowed silently that she would make sure they had food to eat.

Gabrielle was still eating when Xena finally pushed herself away from the table. She was always amazed at Gabrielle’s ability to eat enough for two people and still stay thin. She stood up, took one of the full wineskins from the back of the chair, and dropped it beside the tub. Gabrielle watched her silently as she carefully removed her armor and leathers and lay them on a table beside the bed. She felt her body shudder as she watched Xena walking around the room naked in the glow of the fireplace. There was no such thing as modesty between the two of them. Gabrielle had once been very shy, but Xena had always been proud of her body. "Gods---she’s so beautiful!" Gabrielle thought, and fought to swallow the piece of bread that had caught in her throat.

"You alright?" Xena asked.

Gabrielle took a very large drink of wine to stop coughing (and because she really needed it at that moment). "Oh, I’m just fine."

Xena tested the water with her hand and found it to be perfect. She climbed into the tub and slowly sank into the water. She heaved a heavy sigh. She would never admit it to Gabrielle, but her body ached all over. After so many months of "retirement", this journey had been grueling. The hot water soothed her very soul. She reached over the edge of the tub for the wineskin, took a long drink, and rested her head against the back of the tub.

It wasn’t long before she felt Gabrielle’s hands on her shoulders. "Don’t fall asleep," Gabrielle whispered, kneading the tight muscles in Xena’s neck and shoulders. For her size, Gabrielle’s hands were strong, and she knew just the right places to touch.

Xena’s eyes were closed, but she replied, "I’m not asleep. I’m at peace." Gabrielle continued massaging Xena’s neck until she felt the knots unwind and her body relax. Xena had wondered why she had suddenly stopped, and she opened her eyes to see Gabrielle standing naked beside the tub. In the glow of the fireplace, her body looked so perfect. "Gods, you’re beautiful!" she whispered aloud and reached her hand up to Gabrielle.

Gabrielle grasped her hand and settled into the tub at the opposite end facing Xena. "Oh, this is wonderful," she gasped.

Xena had thought she was tired, but the sight of Gabrielle sitting across from her, and Gabrielle’s legs laying over her own was igniting those flames of desire in her. No one else in the world could make her feel this way. "Gabrielle, I was thinking," she started to say.

Gabrielle deliberately kicked her lightly in the stomach. "Don’t think!" she ordered.

Xena tried to act angry. "There you go being bossy again! You---Warrior….Bard….Lifemate (she put emphasis on that last one)…need to be taught a lesson."

Gabrielle felt two strong hands grab her legs below the knees. "Xena! You wouldn’t…."

"Oh, wouldn’t I!" And she pulled Gabrielle forward, submerging her in the water.

Gabrielle pushed herself up, spitting water and glaring with fire in her green eyes. "Okay Xena, now you’re gonna get it!"

And Xena smiled at this woman who meant more to her than life itself and whispered, "Oh, I sincerely hope so, my love."

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

 

Xena slowly opened her eyes as her mind and body drifted back from the land of Morpheus. She was aware of the weight of Gabrielle’s body laying on top of her, and she folded her arms around her. An enormous bed like this, and Gabrielle still wanted to use her as a pillow.

"Good morning," Gabrielle whispered close to her ear, and Xena focused her eyes on the smiling face and adoring green eyes. She smiled and ran a hand gently up Gabrielle’s back to her neck. She pulled her head closer and gently kissed her lips. Gabrielle’s response was immediate: her tongue tracing lightly over Xena’s lips. Her lips parted and their tongues met in a loving dance before finally retreating.

"Good morning to you, too," Xena said huskily. She fought her inner voices for control. At times like this, all defenses were gone. She felt like a puddle of pure emotion at the beck and call of Gabrielle’s desires. But they had a job to do. They couldn’t take more time to have a repeat of last night. Anyway if they did, Xena wouldn’t be in any shape to even get out of bed. She smiled. Last night had been so beautiful.

Gabrielle rolled onto her back and sank into the soft feather mattress. Brushing her hand over the fur blanket she said, "Do you think we can have a bed like this someday, Xena?"

Xena had to admit she had slept soundly all night, and her body felt relaxed and renewed. It wasn’t all Gabrielle’s doing. "Well, I think the furs would be a bit much for Amphipolis, but the mattress is a definite possibility." She saw the happiness spread on Gabrielle’s face. How she loved to make her happy. "Come on," she said patting her soft thigh, "We’ve got to get this job done so we can go home."

Gabrielle loved her use of the word "home". Even off on this adventure and in her glory being the Warrior Princess, Xena had not forgotten there was a home waiting for them far away in Amphipolis. And she hurried out of bed to catch up to Xena, who was already getting dressed.

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

 

"Does anyone know who stole the Rheingold?" asked Xena, sipping tea at the large table in the main room with Erik and Gabrielle.

"Only that he was a large man. Dark. Not one of us," Erik replied.

"Then why is Odin punishing your people?" asked Gabrielle.

"He…." Erik paused as his wife cleared the dishes from the table. Her name was Jenetta. She was tall, heavy set, and her blonde hair was separated into two long pigtails. Xena could tell they were very much in love with each other. "He won’t believe we don’t know who this man is. Odin is trying to force it out of us, but he can destroy us all and still get no answer. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for my people---but I’m helpless."

The gloom was suddenly broken as a young boy burst into the room and ran into Erik’s arms. He was about eight years old, blonde like his Mother, and wearing leathers that matched his Father’s outfit. He had his Father’s smile and deep blue eyes. "Good morning, Father," he said cheerfully.

Erik kissed his forehead. "Remember, my son, we have guests. This is my son, Leif. Leif, this is Xena and Gabrielle."

The boy walked over to Xena and carefully touched her gauntlet. "Are you really a warrior?" he asked with wide-eyed wonder.

She smiled and nodded. "Yes, I am."

He then moved to Gabrielle and cocked his head slightly to one side. "You look like a Viking." He said, gazing at her blonde hair and well muscled arms. She was wearing her red halter top and shorts, and the silver jewelry on her arms gleamed. She knew silver was highly prized by the Norse people as a symbol of power.

Gabrielle laughed. "Thank you for the compliment," and she shook the young boy’s hand. Suddenly she felt her body jerk, and visions flooded her mind. Her eyes grew glassy, and Leif looked frightened as she gripped his hand.

Erik started to rise, but Xena intervened. "She won’t hurt him. Leif---don’t be afraid." Xena had seen Gabrielle do this only a few times in all the years they had been together, but she knew what was happening. Gabrielle was having a vision.

Gabrielle’s eyes cleared, and she blinked and smiled, releasing her grip on the boy’s hand. "Leif, I need to tell you something. Will you listen carefully?" The boy nodded. "Good. You need to learn everything you can from your Father. One day, you’re going to be a great King. You’re going to lead your people on a long journey across the waters to the edge of the world. You’re going to discover new lands that no one has ever seen before. You will be known forever in the Sagas as Leif Erikson."

The young boy quietly asked, "Are you a goddess?"

Gabrielle laughed, back to her old self again. "No, I’m just a bard. But sometimes, I see things."

"I like what you see for me." And he put his arms around her neck and kissed her cheek.

"Alright now," said Erik, "Go on. I need some time to talk to our guests."

Gabrielle felt the need to apologize once Leif had gone. "Erik, I’m sorry…"

He raised his hand to stop her. "Gabrielle, I pray that you visions are true. Gabrielle felt herself blush at his sincerity.

Xena folded her arms, getting back to the business at hand. "Well, I think the best thing I can do is go see Odin. Maybe I can convince him to stop torturing your people if I agree to find the Rheingold."

"I was hoping that you would say that, Xena." They both stood, and Erik clasped her arm on her gauntlet. "May the gods protect you."

Xena clasped his arm in return, and walked toward the front door. She was suddenly aware that Gabrielle was right behind her. "Where do you think you’re going?"

Gabrielle stood her ground. "With you, of course."

"Oh no! Gabrielle, this is too dangerous….."

"I’m not letting you go alone."

Xena walked out onto the front porch. Once Gabrielle was outside, she shut the door so they continue this conversation in private. "You remember the last time we were here. Look, Gabrielle, Odin is not exactly crazy about me. And I don’t think he’s too fond of you either."

"It wasn’t my fault I was asleep for a year with the Ring in my hand."

"There’s more to it than that, and you know it. His dislike of me goes back a long time. Because you love me, that makes you a target again."

Gabrielle propped one hand on her hip. "Xena, I died and went to the Elysian Fields to get you back. I’m not a little girl anymore. I can take care of myself."

Xena looked at her Warrior Bard. Yes, sometimes she forgot that Gabrielle could take care of herself. When she had died on Mt. Fuji, all of her skills had passed into Gabrielle. And while Gabrielle rarely put them to use, Xena knew she was her equal.

"Come on, then," Xena grumbled, going down the steps and walking toward the beach.

"Shouldn’t we get our coats?" Gabrielle yelled after her.

"Learn to use some of that toughness, Warrior-Bard!" Xena yelled back. Gabrielle frowned, shrugged, and bounded down the steps after Xena.

As they walked over the crest of the hill and onto the beach, Gabrielle was awed by the beautiful white sand, the blue of the sea, and the rolling waves rushing up to the shore. She had seen many seas in her travels. This one was always the most beautiful.

Xena stopped and looked up into the sky filled with large white clouds. "Alright, Odin," she yelled against the roar of the surf, "I know you’ve been watching all this. We need to talk. Now!"

A few moments passed, and suddenly a figure emerged from inside the clouds, riding a black horse. Another rider-less horse trailed behind. On the first horse was a woman dresses in white and gold armor, her blonde hair shining like the sun. They came to a gentle landing on the sand, and slowly the woman rode to where they stood. Xena smiled up at the imposing figure sitting proudly on the horse.

"Grinhilda. Good to see you again. Have they changed outfits in Valhalla?"

The woman on horseback smiled in return. "It’s been a long time, Xena." She glanced at the Bard and nodded in acknowledgement. "And Gabrielle. As to my clothing, I am Queen now." She saw Xena’s look of surprise. "After you returned me to my former self and convinced Odin to take me back, I brought the Valkyrie back to the old ways of good. Odin finally came to realize he could not forsake love, and we wed."

"I’m happy for you," Xena said sincerely. All the years that Grinhilda had lived as the monster, Grendel. If Xena had not seduced Odin, Grinhilda would not have been relieved of her command of the Valkyrie. If Xena had nor forged the ring from the Rheingold, Grinhilda would not have put it on and changed into that creature. The creature that Xena had trapped in an abandoned mine above a bog for many years. It was Xena who returned her to human form, but Xena still carried guilt for what she had done to her in the first place.

"Xena, will you change to meet Odin?" she asked.

"I’m not a Valkyrie anymore, Grinhilda. You know that."

"Odin gives his permission. I thought you might like to transform again." The tall Queen smiled. "For old time’s sake."

Xena returned the smile. She knew that this was Grinhilda’s way of showing that there were no ill feelings about the past. "I’d be honored," she said.

Gabrielle had been with Xena when Grinhilda was Grendel. It was still hard to believe that after battling her as the creature, they still seemed to be friends. Xena didn’t use words like "honored" too often to anybody.

With a wave of Grinhilda’s hand, she was no longer Xena, Warrior Princess. She was Xena, Valkyrie to Odin, King of the Norse Gods. On her head was a steel blue helmet with wings at the sides. The headpiece came down in a point to the bridge of her nose. Her chest was covered by a steel blue breastplate that formed a triangle down to her navel. Long epilates of the same color branched out from her shoulders. A metallic silver dress covered her body to her well above her knees. A large round silver medallion hung on a chain around her neck.

Gabrielle drank in the sight before her and said, "Wow! I forgot how good you look in that."

Xena looked down at herself. "Well, a girl likes a change once in awhile," she said casually. Gabrielle could tell from the look on her face that Xena was enjoying herself immensely. She walked toward the black stallion adorned with silver and held out her hand to Gabrielle. "Come on, Gabrielle."

"Wait!" ordered Grinhilda. "Odin has agreed to see only you, Xena."

"I’m coming with Xena," Gabrielle said stubbornly.

Xena had to admire her Warrior-Bard. The "old" Gabrielle wouldn’t have just told off the Queen of the Norse Gods. But she decided to quickly smooth out any ruffled feathers. She held up her scared left palm and motioned to Gabrielle to do the same. "Grinhilda---we travel together now closer than before."

Grinhilda gave them a very understanding look. "Very well, then."

As they continued toward the stallion, Gabrielle whispered," You were right, Xena." She flexed her left hand. "Carries a lot more weight in the world than a pair of matching rings."

Inwardly, Xena smiled at the comment. She climbed up onto the saddle, and pulled Gabrielle up behind her as if she was weightless. "Hold on," she commanded, "Tight!"

Gabrielle didn’t need to be told that! She wrapped her arms around Xena’s waist, and leaned her body tightly against her back. Grinhilda gave her warcry, and dug her heels into her horse’s flank. She and the horse galloped up toward the clouds. Xena let loose her famous warrior yell and did the same. Suddenly they were galloping at full speed. The black stallion’s hooves left the ground, and they were riding up into the sky. Gabrielle told herself not to look down---but she did, and saw the land and water growing smaller below them. Xena’s body shielded her from the wind. She had experienced this once before, on their last adventure to the Northlands, but she had forgotten how exhilarating it was.

Xena was having an adrenalin rush. All the memories of how it had felt to be one of the elite Valkyrie flooded back into her mind. The raw power she had possessed.

"Hang on!" she yelled back to Gabrielle, and with a loud yell she dug her spurs into the black stallion and turned him to ride the sky out over the sea. They dove and she brought him up again and back to follow Grinhilda.

Gabrielle felt the strength in Xena’s body. She knew how much she was enjoying herself. She just hoped that Xena wasn’t getting too wrapped up in reliving the past. Xena was the most sensitive, gentle woman she had ever known. But she was also well aware of her dark side. That had been the main part of Xena’s existence many years before Gabrielle had come into her life. It was still there, hiding in a corner of Xena’s soul. It surfaced sometimes, if rarely anymore. She knew that Xena would never hurt her, but it still frightened her a bit. Somehow, Gabrielle had the power to bring her back to the woman she loved, but it was like going into a cage with a very dangerous panther.

High up in the clouds, they saw the jagged, brooding peaks of Valhalla. They rode toward an enormous silver gate. The two panels opened magically as they approached, and Grinhilda and Xena, with Gabrielle clutching her tightly from behind, flew inside.

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

 

Xena walked into Odin’s room tall and proud. At her request, she had been transformed back into her familiar Warrior Princess outfit. Gabrielle had thanked the gods silently for reminding Xena who she really was. Gabrielle stayed a few steps behind Xena feeling small and insecure in spite of herself. Warrior-Bard? No, here she felt like that young girl from Poteidaia again. She had been to the Hall of Odin before with Xena, but there was something about being in the presence of such a powerful, dangerous god.

Odin rose from his throne. His face was craggy, his dark blonde hair falling well below his shoulders. His eyes were dark and brooding. He wore a uniform of silver chain mail. "He hasn’t changed," Xena thought. But then, afterall, he was a god.

"Xena," he said in his voice that expressed power and assuredness. "I’ve been expecting you. And Gabrielle---welcome again to Valhalla."

"Let’s get down to business, Odin," Xena said, bracing her hands on her hips. "I want this torment of your people to stop."

His blue eyes smoldered. "And I want the Rheingold returned! And until I get it back, there will be no peace."

"Killing your people is not going to get it back. I don’t believe they had anything to do with this."

"Someone did!" he hissed.

Xena remained calm. "What could the Rhine Maidens tell you?"

Odin began to pace the floor. "Only that they were surprised and overpowered by a man of great strength."

"A mortal?"

"Yes."

Xena folded her arms. "Could they describe him?"

Odin filled three silver goblets with wine. Xena could tell that he was calming down. They had once been lovers, and she knew him well. "Come. Sit." It was not said as an order. Xena walked to the table and sat across from Odin without hesitation. Gabrielle moved more cautiously. Odin looked at her at first with glaring eyes, and then with a hint of a smile on his lips. "Gabrielle, do not fear me. You are Xena’s Chosen. You know I will do you no harm."

Gabrielle forced out a nervous smile and sat next to Xena. She accepted the wine goblet from Odin, and took a long gulp. This was so out of her league. She was sitting again in Valhalla with the King of the Norse Gods, and her Soulmate, who also happened to have once been one of the elite Valkyrie. Even after all she had been through in her life, this ranked up there among the most unusual.

Odin took a long drink from his goblet. "In answer to your question, Xena, yes. They described him well."

"I’m listening," she said, sipping at her wine.

"He was tall. Strong. Dark. Black hair down below his shoulders. Braided hair. Heavy brows. A moustache that curved around under his chin. A triangle of hair here," He pointed to the indentation between lower lip and chin. "His clothing was strange. He wore a round gold earring," He pointed to his right ear. "His voice like someone from the eastern lands of Chin."

Gabrielle saw that as he was describing this figure, Xena’s grip on the goblet grew tighter and tighter. She could swear Xena’s face had grown pale. Xena finally uttered one word, "Borias." Gabrielle felt her skin grow cold.

"Xena, you know this man?" Odin asked, his eyes narrowing dangerously.

Xena nodded, but her mind was racing. There was no way this was possible. "But he’s not a mortal. He’s----he’s been dead a long time. I saw him die."

"The Rhine Maidens would not lie to me! This is a human, and he must die for this treachery!" Odin’s fist banged on the table, and a boom of thunder echoed through Valhalla.

Xena stood up and leaned her palms on the table. "I’ll get the Rheingold back, Odin, but only if you stop punishing your people. This is not their fault."

"Why should I trust you? You, yourself, once stole the Rheingold."

"And I came to my senses and returned it. Odin----I give you my word. It will be returned again."

Odin rose and rounded the table toward Xena. She stood her ground. Gabrielle quickly stood up and moved closer to Xena, as if she could do anything to protect her against this god. He looked deeply into Xena’s eyes. "Loyalty and treachery are part of our history. I have hated you----and loved you."

Xena did not break eye contact. "Life wasn’t always perfect for me with you either, Odin."

He raised his hand and touched her cheek with surprising gentleness, then he quickly turned away and paced the floor in deep thought. When he stopped, he looked at Xena and nodded. "My punishment will end, as of now."

Xena nodded. "Good. We’ll go now, Odin."

"Do you wish to once again be a Valkyrie on earth?" he asked.

Xena realized that he was offering her a great honor. They had been through a lot since she had stopped him from ending his life so many years ago. This gesture showed her that much of the evil she had done to him had truly been forgiven. She knew the power she could have would be incredible. It was tempting. But she glanced at Gabrielle, and quickly remembered who she really was.

"No thanks. Not that it hasn’t been fun reliving the past. But I do quite well as a mortal on earth, Odin. I like who I am." Xena saw Gabrielle smile, and she knew she had done the right thing.

Odin saw this exchange, and smiled. Looking at Gabrielle, he said, "You are strong, Little One. I know the feelings you have for this woman. You will always protect her well. But on this journey, you will need something to protect you."

"I have Xena," she said proudly.

"A time will come when you will have to do something that even Xena cannot protect you from." Odin reached into a pocket of his chain mail and produced a small silver amulet on a strong chain. "Take this, Gabrielle."

She looked at it skeptically in her hand. It was in the shape of a triangle, and there were small pictures on it. "What does it say, Xena?"

Xena could read the Rune stones, but she caught a slight headshake from Odin. She did not like keeping things from Gabrielle, but this time Odin was right. The future was going to prove dangerous, and Gabrielle didn’t need to know about this now. She feigned ignorance. "I never learned the Runes, Gabrielle."

"Little One, trust me," said Odin, and he took the amulet back from her hands and slipped the chain over her head. Gabrielle looked down at the silver charm. It was pretty.

Xena grabbed her arm gently. "Come on, Little One. We’ve got a job to do." And they quickly left the Hall of Odin together.

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

 

They stood on the beach and watched the riderless black stallion disappear up into the clouds. "Let’s go, Little One," Xena said to her Soulmate.

Gabrielle bristled. "I swear if you call me that again Xena, I’m gonna punch you out!"

Xena was already walking towards a wooded area, but called back "You and what army?"

Gabrielle managed a chuckle at one of her rare jokes, and ran to catch up to her. "Xena, what are we going to do? How could it be Borias? He’s dead…..isn’t he?"

"Last time I saw him." As she walked, Xena recalled that night so long ago. She was lying on the ground having only recently given birth to their son, Solon. Their army had split into factions loyal to each of them. Borias had gone mad and attacked. He wanted total control. He also wanted his son. And Xena’s soldiers had stopped him. He died only feet from where she lay, holding Solon in her arms. In her Dark Life, she had loved Borias deeply. She had stolen him away from his wife and son. They had roamed the lands unstoppable in their evil. And she had watched him die.

"Xena---where are you?" asked Gabrielle quietly.

She blinked herself back to the present. "I’m alright, Gabrielle. Just…..thinking." There were so many parts of her life that she had never discussed with Gabrielle. Not in detail. There were things she had done that were too horrible for words. When they reached the woods, away from Erik’s house, Xena stopped. "Let’s see if we can get some help."

"Help? Here?" Gabrielle was totally confused.

Xena suddenly yelled out, "Ares----we need you!"

Now Gabrielle understood, but she said "Xena, he can’t come here. Don’t you remember? He can’t go where people don’t believe in him."

"Well, we believe in him! Ares," she hollered again, "Get down here now!"

In the blink of an eye, the God of War appeared not twenty feet from them. "Gods, Xena---what is your problem! I could hear you all the way on Mt. Olympus!" Ares did not look pleased.

"We need your help," she said, bracing her hands on her hips.

"Am I supposed to be surprised?," he said sauntering toward them. As usual, he looked quite imposing in his black and silver leathers, but neither woman was afraid of him. As odd as it had become, he was their friend. "I wondered where you two had gone. What in Tartarus are you doing in the Northlands?"

"Ares," Gabrielle asked, "How’s Amphipolis?" Xena knew this had been a long journey. They were both secretly missing their homeland.

He waved his hand. "Everything’s fine. The house is safe. You’ve got a loyal following there."

"And you, Ares? Can we count on you?"

"Xena, you know by now I’ll do what I can for either of you."

Xena smiled at the sincerity in his voice. She knew he meant it. He had proven many times over by now that he could be trusted. Motioning to some boulders nearby she said, "Let’s sit. We’ve got a story to tell you." Ares nodded and followed them toward the rocks.

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

 

Ares listened intently to all they had been through. For a god from Greece, he had found it quite interesting. When they had finished, he scratched his black chin beard and finally spoke. "So you want me to find out how Borias got here, and where he is now."

Xena nodded. "I have to find him."

"You know, I might not be able to help you once you do. My powers on earth are weak here."

"I know," she said smiling. "Not enough believers."

Ares pointed his finger at her. "Hey lady, you’re lucky I could get here at all!"

Gabrielle raised her hands. "Can you two squabble another time? Ares, will you try to help us?"

The God of War smiled at the blonde Warrior-Bard. "Gabrielle, you know I can’t refuse you two."

Xena stood up. "Good. We’ll wait for you at Erik’s house. Ares---don’t pop in while we’re with him."

Ares raised an eyebrow. "Ashamed to be seen with me?"

"He’s a Norse King, Ares. He’s having enough trouble with his gods. A God of War from a strange land isn’t what he needs to see right now."

"Agreed. I’ll return when I know something. Shouldn’t take too long." And as quickly as he had appeared, he was gone.

"Must be nice to travel like that," Gabrielle muttered aloud, feeling the soreness in her body from all the months on the road. "Well Xena, now what?"

"We talk to Erik, and see if he can put up with us awhile longer." She held out her hand to Gabrielle, who grasped it tightly and allowed Xena to pull her to her feet. As they walked back to the log house still holding hands, Xena felt the unusual need for some small talk. "So tell me, Gabrielle---did you enjoy the ride to Valhalla and back as much as before?"

Gabrielle laughed. "Xena, you have no idea!"

Xena gave her hand a squeeze. "Oh, yes I do, Gabrielle. Yes, I do."

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

 

A firm hand on her arm brought Xena awake and to action in a flash. She bolted upright, pushing Gabrielle roughly to the other side of the bed for her protection. Gabrielle was immediately awake. She could usually sleep like a bear in hibernation, but when Xena acted like this, she knew there was danger.

Ares was smiling approvingly at the naked woman glaring at him holding up her breast dagger. "Xena, I really don’t want to see this." He motioned his hand at both of them.

Gabrielle shyly pulled the fur blanket up to her neck. Xena had never felt shy in her life. "Ares!" she said, laying the dagger on the floor beside the bed.

The God of War watched as she leaned over. He couldn’t take this. Picking up her sleep shift, he held it out to her. "Xena, could you put this on---please."

Xena finally smiled, draping the shift over her shoulders so that it covered her breasts. "Ares, you have changed!"

"Hey, not that I don’t like the view, but for now I need to keep my mind on business."

"Well, what did you find out?"

He sat on the edge of the bed beside her. "Good news and bad news."

"The bad first."

"Borias is alive."

Xena was stunned. "How?"

"Apparently when Gabrielle brought you back to life, it caused a rip in the Afterlife."

"But he wasn’t in the Elysian Fields."

"No, he was in Tartarus. But you two had a bond once. He was able to take advantage of that and slip out before the rip closed."

Gabrielle was just as amazed as Xena. "So I brought Borias back, too?"

Xena lay her hand on Gabrielle’s leg. "It’s not your fault. Anymore bad news?"

Ares nodded. "He has the Rheingold. He’s gathered an army---small right now. From what I could tell, he’s planning on using the Rheingold to continue his old ways."

"Except he’ll be unstoppable!" Xena had visions of Borias on horseback: invincible, commanding an army of men and creatures the world had never seen. She shuddered uncontrollably.

"Ready for the good news? He hasn’t figured out how to use it yet."

Xena sighed. "If he forges a ring out of it, and he’s forsaken love…."

"We’ve got to prevent that," Gabrielle said firmly.

"Where is he, Ares?"

"About ten days ride east. Camping in the mountains."

"He’s going home." Home meant the land of the Mongols. The land of Chin.

"Doesn’t seem to be in any real hurry." Ares said.

Xena turned to look at Gabrielle. "You don’t have to come. I’ve asked too much of you already."

"Hey, so it takes a little longer to get home." Gabrielle shrugged. "Anyway, not every girl gets a trip about the world for an anniversary present."

Xena closed her eyes and groaned. Had they been on the road that long? How could she ever forget something so important. "Well," said Ares, rising to his feet, "If you don’t need me anymore…"

Xena reached out her hand. "Come here, Ares." He leaned over and she kissed his cheek. "Thank you."

Ares grinned. "You two---in bed---naked! Ah, where the mind could go."

"Your mind can go anywhere it wants," she chided. "Just get your body out of here."

"Happy anniversary," he said with a wink---and he was gone.

Xena turned her attention to Gabrielle. "I’m so sorry, my Love."

Gabrielle shook her head. "It’s alright, Xena. You’ve had more important things on your mind."

"Nothing is more important than you are to me." Her voice cracked, and a tear ran down her cheek. "I’m failing you, Gabrielle. We should be home, in our own bed…"

Gabrielle sat up and threw her arms around Xena. "Don’t ever think you’re failing me. There hasn’t been one day in this last year that I’ve ever regretted marrying you. There has never been one day that I ever regretted leaving Poteidaia to follow you around the world."

Xena held her close. "And you’re still doing it." Gabrielle moved away just enough to pull off the sleep shift Xena had draped over her shoulders. She let her hand graze lightly over Xena’s firm breast before she lay down on her back. Xena bit her lip against the exquisite feeling that coursed through her body. "I’ll make this up to you, Gabrielle."

"Well, you could start right now." Whispered the blonde woman lying naked beside her.

"Tell me what you want," said Xena, her voice deep with growing desire.

"I want you with every breath that I take," Gabrielle answered, opening her arms wide.

"Gods, I love you," Xena whispered, lowering herself into the warm and loving arms of her Soulmate.

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

 

The journey east was long and difficult. More forests, more mountains, more snow, more wanting to just give up and go home. But they knew they couldn’t do that. Fifteen days, and they still had not been able to catch up to Borias. They learned from people along the way that he had been seen, so they knew they were going in the right direction. He just always seemed to be a few days ahead of them.

Argo and Storm could not be pushed any faster. The terrain was sometimes steep and rocky. Xena was not about to endanger her trusted companion. Argo knew her own limits. When she was tired, Xena let her rest. When she needed affection, Xena was there with hugs and gentle words. Sometimes there was a special treat of something sweet to eat. She would defend her mistress with her life---and Xena knew it.

On the seventeenth day of their trek, they were making their way slowly through yet another expanse of woods when Xena stopped Argo. She raised her hand, and Gabrielle knew to stay quiet as she stopped Storm beside her.

"Tell me what you hear," Xena said quietly.

Gabrielle knew this was one of Xena’s tests to keep her skills sharp. Gabrielle could still hear Xena’s words from Higuchi in her mind: "Don’t just listen to the sounds----listen to what lies behind the sounds." Gabrielle moved her head around slowly. "Voices. Laughter---male. Horses. Not too far. Something cooking---I can smell it."

Xena grinned. "Gabrielle, you could smell food a mile away."

"I’m being serious!"

"I know. Good job."

"Good teacher."

Xena smiled at that one. "Let’s leave the horses here." They tethered Argo and Storm to tree branches surrounded by lots of good grass to eat. They made their way slowly and stealthfully through the woods, eventually crawling on their stomachs to peer over the crest of a small hill. Luckily the weather had warmed up enough so that neither of them was wearing a coat. They were both good at being able to move without being heard.

Not far below was an encampment. There were four tents, soldiers dressed in many different types of outfits milling around. Horses tied to a rope between two trees. "Looks like about 30," Xena whispered.

"You think it’s Borias’ camp?"

"I’d bet on it."

"You know, Xena," Gabrielle whispered, "Now might be a really good time to tell me what the plan is. Unless we’re just going to walk in and ask if we can stay for supper."

Xena kept her eyes on the camp. "That’s just what I’m going to do. You are staying here."

"Oh no I’m not!"

Xena glared at her. "This time it’s an order, Gabrielle," she said sharply. "I need you here in case I run into trouble. You can’t help if you’re in the middle of it with me."

She knew Xena was right. "Just be careful."

"I’ll do my best." Xena leaned over and gave Gabrielle a quick kiss before rising to her feet and walking in plain view over the rise.

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

 

Swords and knives were drawn as Xena walked into the camp. The men watched her curiously, but made no effort to attack. "Either they think I’m the bravest woman they’ve ever seen, or the dumbest!" she thought.

As she approached the tents, one burly and very dirty soldier stepped in front of her. "What do you want here?" he growled.

Xena stood her ground and said in a firm voice, "I came to see Borias."

"Borias will see no one!"

Xena folded her arms. "Oh, he’ll see me. Call him."

The dirty soldier began to slowly raise the mace he was holding in his right hand. But before he could take a swing at this brazen trespasser, one of the tent flaps opened, and Borias stepped out into the light. "Stop!" he yelled.

Xena felt her heart jump in her chest. Not out of any love---this was fear. She was supposed to be unafraid of any man, woman, or beast. But standing before her was one of the greatest warlords Xena had ever known. He had trained her, loved her, and almost killed her. He had been dead and out of her life for so many years. Now here he was again, and he looked the same as the last night Xena had seen him alive.

He motioned to the soldier. "Leave us!" As the man scurried away, Borias folded his arms across his chest and looked her over carefully. "Xena," he said with his thick accent, "Forgive me if I do not say I am glad to see you."

"Well, considering my soldiers killed you, I can’t say I blame you, Borias," she replied, being careful not to show any fear to this man.

"What do you want?" he demanded.

"I came for the Rheingold."

The Warlord from the land of Chin laughed, and walked toward her. "Xena---has time damaged your mind? You expect me to just give it to you? I spent a lifetime in what you call Tartarus hearing stories about the Rheingold. And the day I escaped, I knew it would be mine."

"You don’t know how dangerous it is."

His eye narrowed. "But I know you do. And you will tell me the secrets---before I kill you." Xena made a move for her sword, but Borias laughed. "Draw your sword and you will be dead before you can touch me. You have no loyal warriors here."

She lowered her arm slowly. "If I’m dead, you won’t learn how to use the Rheingold."

"Perhaps it will take me longer, but I will still learn. You are not indispensable to me, Xena." He glared at her with cold black eyes. "You mean nothing to me!" Suddenly, his gaze moved past Xena. "Ah, we have more guests."

Xena spun around, and felt her world begin to crumble. Two soldiers were escorting Gabrielle down the hill. Another was carrying her sais and chakram. Her hands were tied behind her back. She wasn’t struggling, but the look on her face was one of anger.

As she was led up to Borias, she gave Xena a look that said "I’m sorry.", and then returned a cold green eyed gaze to the once dead Warlord. Borias took a good long look at Gabrielle, then exploded in rage. He screamed and backhanded her across the face. Caught off guard, Gabrielle went flying to the ground, blood running from her nose and lip.

Xena screamed her name and ran to her side. "You!" Borias shouted pointing to Gabrielle. "You are the bitch who killed my son!"

Xena was untying Gabrielle’s wrists. "This is not Hope, Borias," she shouted.

"She gave birth to that demon! My son is dead because of her!"

Gabrielle had finally reached the breaking point. Over 6 months of traveling, and now laying on the ground hurt, and having to relive the most painful part of her past was just too much. She began to cry. Xena pulled a cloth from inside her breastplate, and wiped the blood from her face gently. She wanted to take her in her arms and comfort her, but to show that kind of weakness right now would bring death to them both. She had to stay strong for both of them now.

"Borias, that was long ago," she shouted, looking up at him. "Gabrielle killed her daughter. We made our peace many years ago."

He waved his hand. "What is this----thing----to you?" Xena turned over Gabrielle’s scared left hand and placed her own beside it. Borias frowned. "You have me killed the night my son is born….."

"You were going to take Solon from me---in case you’ve forgotten," she spat, helping Gabrielle to her feet.

"You reject me," he pounded his chest, "And you marry this?" The tone in his voice was one of total disgust.

Gabrielle had stopped crying, but she was truly afraid. Xena had her arm around her shoulders, and felt her body shaking. "Borias, let her go. It’s me you want. She can’t hurt you." Xena doubted if her Warrior-Bard was in any shape right now to hurt anyone. She had Xena’s skills inside of her, but that blow across the face had reduced her to the young sensitive girl she had first met in Poteidaia.

As if he was a cat tormenting a mouse he’d caught, Borias raised his arm as if to strike again, and Gabrielle clung tightly to Xena, burying her face against her breastplate.

Xena would do almost anything at this point to get her to safety. "Borias, I’m asking you---please. Don’t hurt her."

He folded his arms and an evil smile appeared on his lips. "This could be more fun than I thought, Xena." He thought a moment. "So, you want me to spare her life?" Xena nodded. "Will you fight for her?"

"Anyone you choose," she said.

"Ah, but that would be too easy." He knew that except for himself, there wasn’t a soldier in camp who she couldn’t take down with her bare hands. "When I was in that place you call Tartarus, I met up with a friend of yours."

Xena managed a smile. "I don’t have too many friends there, Borias."

"His name was Darphus."

Xena felt her blood run cold. She knew the name and the man very well. When she struck out on her own after Borias was killed, she forged one of the greatest, most feared armies the world had ever seen. Darphus was her second in command. He had been ruthless, cold, power hungry---just like Xena. But he was even darker than she. He murdered women and children with abandon, defying Xena’s orders. When challenged on it, he fought back.

"Well," she said, trying to keep her voice calm. "I’m sure you two had a lot to talk about."

Borias smiled. It was meant to be one of those "all knowing" smiles. "Yes, Xena. He told me about the Gauntlet."

Xena kept her head high and her eyes calm. "Yes, I remember it well."

"I’m sure you do. Here is my offer. If you want the life of this girl spared, you will walk the Gauntlet. Win, and I set her free. Lose, and I will personally slit her throat as you watch."

Xena knew there was no other chance right now to get Gabrielle out of there. "Give me your word that you’ll let her go, and I agree."

"You have my word as a Warrior, Xena."

"Then, I agree." As her act of surrender, she unclipped her chakram and let it fall to the ground. She unhooked her sword scabbard, and that too clattered to the ground. Seeing the smile on Borias’ face made what she was doing that much harder. But she had sworn long ago that there was nothing she would not do to keep Gabrielle safe. And now she was being tested on that pledge.

Borias gathered up her chakram and sword and called to his men. "Put them in that tent. Feed them. I want guards around the tent at all times." And he turned and walked up the embankment to his own tent.

Xena kept a tight grip on Gabrielle’s arm as they were escorted to the tent. They went inside, and she eased Gabrielle down on a blanket. Her lip was swollen badly, but it didn’t feel like her nose was broken. Xena rinsed the cloth in a bucket of water and washed the blood off her face. Gabrielle looked into Xena’s eyes. The color was returning to her skin, and her eyes didn’t look as vacant as before. "Some Warrior I turned out to be," she said weakly.

Xena smiled into the face that she loved so much. "You just met your match, Gabrielle. Happens to all us Warrior Princesses." She sat down and pulled Gabrielle onto her lap. "You’re gonna be alright." She said, gently pressing Gabrielle’s head against her chest.

Gabrielle shook her head. "Xena, you can’t walk the Gauntlet for me." She remembered the story Xena had told her. It was one of the few that she talked about having to do with her "dark days". She and her army had raided a village, destroying everything. But she had saved a baby, refusing to allow it to be killed. Her soldiers viewed it as a weakness, and sided with Darphus against her. She was relieved of command. In order to leave with her life, she had to walk the Gauntlet. She walked through a double line of her own men who beat her severely, but she made it to the end alive.

"Gabrielle," Xena said quietly, "I did it before."

"You almost died!"

"But I made it."

"You were a young girl then, Xena."

"Gabrielle, you know you can’t stop me, so save your energy."

Gabrielle sighed. "This is all my fault."

"Stop it," Xena said, stroking her hair lovingly. "We’re both gonna make it out of here."

Gabrielle jumped nervously as the tent flap opened, and a young man in a soldiers tunic and trousers entered. He was carrying two wood bowls of stew, and a wineskin. He sat them next to the two woman. To their surprise, he spoke. "You are Xena----the Warrior Princess?"

She nodded. "I am." The man was thin and blonde. He looked like a Norseman. "Probably joined up with Borias to see the world." She thought.

He slowly reached out and let his fingers touch her armband. "I have heard of you." And he turned and departed.

Xena picked up the wineskin and said, "I think we might have just met our first allie." At least she hoped so. She wouldn’t admit it to Gabrielle, but right now their futures looked pretty bleak.

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

 

Xena and Gabrielle were taken out of their tent at dawn. Two guards pushed them along roughly. They had managed to get a little sleep, more out of exhaustion, but even that had not been a peaceful sleep.

Xena had been stripped of everything except her linen shift. Even when she had walked the Gauntlet before, she had been allowed to wear her leather dress. This time she was totally vulnerable. Ahead of her stood two lines of soldiers, dressed in many different types of outfits. Between them, a dirt line had been etched into the ground. There were twenty on each side. The way they were spaced, she’d have to walk about 30 feet. "Longer than before." She thought.

Borias stood at the end of the lines of his men. He was smiling. "You know the rules, Xena. Make it across this line," and he dragged his boot across the ground, "and the girl lives."

Gabrielle grabbed Xena’s arm tightly. She had recovered from the shock of the previous day, but she was so afraid for Xena. "I love you," she said, her voice quivering.

Xena looked into the green eyes of her Soulmate. "I will always love you, Gabrielle." A soldier pulled her away from Xena. Gabrielle knew that no matter what, she couldn’t interfere. Not only would it endanger Xena’s life even more, but it would be a disgrace for the warrior. No, she had to let Xena do this alone.

Xena walked to the starting line. She took several deep breaths, and tried to focus her mind on not feeling the pain. And she took the first step across the line.

For the second time in her life, the Warrior Princess walked the Gauntlet. Fists and feet flew toward her. Wooden clubs came out of nowhere. A punch to the face filled her mouth with blood. A club caught her in the small of her back. Her arms and legs were beaten. She fought back as best she could as she walked, but she would not cry out. She would not scream at the pain. She would not show weakness. A foot connected with her chest below her right breast. She heard a crack, and felt the searing pain of a broken rib. A club pounded the back of her neck, and dropped her to her knees.

She wanted to scream. She forced her mind to repeat over and over "I am Xena---Warrior Princess!" She struggled to her feet and took a swing at one of the men, connecting with his jaw. Her legs were kicked out from under her. It would be so easy just to lay there and let them finish her off. But, there was Gabrielle. She couldn’t let Gabrielle die. She had to keep moving. She had to keep moving!

She pushed herself to her knees, and crawled. A boot caught the side of her head, dangerously close to her eye, and the force threw her onto her back. The blows continued on her stomach and her breasts. She somehow managed to get back over on her stomach. The pain was unbearable.

Xena was suddenly aware that she could see the finish line. It didn’t seem so far away now. She dug her fingers into the ground and pushed with her feet, inching closer and closer. The beating continued. Her vision was blurry. She couldn’t pass out now. A boot crashed down on her left hand, and she felt her ring finger snap. She pulled her body forward with the last bit of strength she could muster. Somewhere in her mind she heard Borias yell "Enough!", before she lapsed into unconsciousness, her body collapsing on the ground.

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

 

Xena felt as if she was slowly coming back from a very dark place. She tried to move. So many things hurt. She released a very long groan. She felt a cool hand on her forehead, and became increasingly more aware of Gabrielle’s voice calling her name. Very slowly, she forced her eyes to open. She forced out a weak, painful smile as she saw the beautiful green eyes of her Warrior-Bard. "I….I made it….huh?" she whispered hoarsly.

Tears were running down Gabrielle’s face, but she was smiling. "You made it," she said. Xena noticed the swelling on Gabrielle’s face was gone, but her lip was badly bruised.

"Not bad…..for an old Warrior Princess." Xena tried to smile, but her face hurt. "How….how long?" she asked.

Gabrielle gently wiped her face with a cool, wet cloth. "You’ve been unconscious for two days. Gods, Xena, I didn’t know if you were gonna make it. Borias let me stay to take care of you."

Xena raised her left arm slowly and saw the purple, black and yellow bruises, and the crude wood splint on her finger. "What’s….the damage?"

"You’ve got bruises everywhere. A black eye. That finger is broken. I set it. One of your ribs is broken. I could only feel one anyway. I got it back in place, I think. I wasn’t sure how to do it, but Traygar showed me."

"Traygar?"

"Remember the blonde soldier? He’s been nice to us, Xena. He brought salves and herbs." Xena motioned to her body. Gabrielle realized she wanted to hear the rest. "Oh. Some cuts. I only had to stitch one on the back of your neck. There was a lot of swelling. Your body is a mess---but you’re alive."

"Help me…..sit up."

Gabrielle piled up some pillows and, standing behind where Xena lay, she carefully slipped her hands under her armpits and pulled her to a half sitting position. Xena saw that she was naked, and had a white cloth tied tightly around her body beneath her breasts. She tossed back the wool blanket that covered her, and looked at her body. She realized that she was very lucky to be alive. She pulled the blanket over her. It wasn’t very pretty to look at. This walk of the Gauntlet had been much worse than the first.

The tent flap opened, and the young Norse soldier entered. He was carrying a bowl. "Gabrielle, I heard Xena speak." He set the bowl beside her. "It is soup. You must be hungry." He smiled. "I’m glad you are awake." He turned and left the tent.

Xena looked at Gabrielle. "I’m….guessing that was…Traygar?"

Gabrielle sat crosslegged on the floor beside her, and picked up the bowl of soup. "Yes. He wants to help us." She dipped the wooden spoon into the bowl, blew on the hot soup, and brought it to Xena’s lips. "Eat."

Xena accepted the soup. It tasted good. "Gabrielle, I can’t fight Borias today."

Gabrielle gave her another spoonful. "Borias wants you healthy before he tortures you about the Rheingold."

"Oh, that’s great." She said sarcastically.

"No, Xena, it is great. I’ve been thinking about a plan. But I need you to help me work it out in my mind."

Xena suddenly realized something. "Gabrielle….why am I letting you feed me?"

"Because you love me," she answered, smiling. "Now, do you want to hear my plan?"

Xena tried to smile through her swollen face. "Not now. I want you….to shut up…and give me some more of that soup." Gabrielle’s smile broadened, and she raised another spoonful to Xena’s grateful lips.

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

 

Two days passed, and Xena’s body had healed enough for her to walk. A lot of her strength had returned. Borias had seen she was well fed. He wanted her as healthy as possible. She still looked terrible. There was still a lot of pain, but she would not take the herbs from her medical bag. They would kill the pain, and dull her mind. She needed to keep her mind sharp. She still had to find a way to beat Borias and return the Rheingold.

Even though Xena had won the Gauntlet, Gabrielle refused to leave her side. Borias had told her she was free to go. She begged his permission to stay and take care of her. He had always enjoyed watching a woman beg, and he granted her request. All Gabrielle cared about was staying with Xena. How she got to do it didn’t matter anymore.

It was the afternoon of the third day when Borias had Xena brought to his tent. Her hands were bound behind her back, but she had been allowed to wear her leather dress. It actually helped to hold her broken rib in place.

In his hand he held a leather whip. Xena knew that he was an expert with that whip. She knew the damage he could do with his powerful arms. "Xena," he said quite calmly, "You will now tell me what I want to know."

She had survived the Gauntlet. She was actually not afraid of anything more he could do to her. "How do I know you even have the Rheingold, Borias?"

As if proud to show off his stolen prize, he pulled a leather pouch out from inside his shirt, and dumped the contents into his hand. It was a lump of gold the size of a small plum, and it gleamed like the sun. Xena remembered it well. It was the Rheingold.

"Now, tell me the secret. How do I gain its power?"

Xena shook her head. "No Borias."

He unrolled the whip. "Are you so willing to face more torture, Xena?"

She stared at him with steel blue eyes. "You said you’re going to kill me anyway. Why should I tell you anything?"

Borias approached her slowly, and pressed the leather of the ship against her cheek. "Because Xena, if you don’t tell me, I will make you watch as I kill that woman of yours before I kill you!"

Xena felt her insides go cold. "Borias, you gave me your word…."

"And you gave me a son and took him from me!" He leaned close to her ear. "It is only fitting that I take from you what you love," he whispered.

Xena kept her composure. "Borias, if I tell you the secret, you’ll have the power of a god. You can bring Solon back to life. If I tell you how to use the Rheingold, will you let Gabrielle live?"

Borias paced the tent, bouncing the lump of gold in his hand. He was silent for a few minutes. Then he looked over at Xena. "If I have my son in front of my eyes, it is a fair trade." He pointed the whip at her. "But you still die, Xena. You took my life, and I take yours." He laughed. "Another fair trade!"

She took a deep breath and winced from the pain in her chest. "How can I know you’ll keep your word this time, Borias?"

"Xena," He walked up to her and she saw the look on his face change. Standing in front of her was the old Borias----the one who looked at her with love at times in their long past. "We were a great team once, Xena. You were so----magnificent. There was no one that could stand in our way."

Xena actually smiled. "You taught me many things. One was not to trust anybody."

Borias laughed. "This is true. But I will promise you two things----for old time’s sake. One is that the girl will live. The other is that when I kill you, I will not make you suffer."

Xena nodded. "I agree to your terms, Borias."

"Good. Tell me, then." He held up the lump of gold. "What do I do with this?"

"Have the gold melted down and forge it into a ring. Don’t waste any of the gold. Once the ring is made, don’t let anyone put it on---not even you. There are words I have to tell you to say. If you put it on before you say them, you’ll die---or worse."

"And you expect me to believe that? Tell me the words now!" he demanded.

Xena looked around the tent. "And what if somebody hears about it before the ring is made? They could steal it, Borias, and you wouldn’t be able to bring Solon back."

"These words are important?"

Xena smiled. "You just don’t know how important they are."

He thought a moment, then walked to the flap of the tent and opened it. "Guards----take her back to her tent!" Borias looked at Xena. "I will send for you when the ring is made." And he smiled as the lump of gold in his hand as Xena was escorted out of his tent.

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

 

It seemed like only a short time later that Xena and Gabrielle were once again taken from the tent and down to the area where she had walked the Gauntlet. Xena saw red stains on the ground, and realized she was looking at where her own blood had been spilled. Xena’s wrists were again tied behind her back. Gabrielle’s hands were free. Apparently Borias felt he had nothing to fear from the little blonde. Gabrielle had put up no resistance when he had backhanded her across the face.

All of his soldiers were present, scattered around the area. They chatted with each other, and laughed. They were still really just a rag tag bunch of followers. "Not like our army, Borias," Xena thought.

Borias came out of his tent, and walked slowly down the embankment to where they stood. Gabrielle looked frightened, and moved far away from Xena until she was at least 30 feet behind and to the right of Borias. He stopped in front of Xena, and held up his hand, grinning broadly. Between his fingers he held the ring forged from the Rheingold. It was beautiful. More masculine than the one Xena had made many years before, but still beautiful.

"Now," he commanded, "You will tell me the words!"

Xena pulled at the rope binding her wrists behind her. "I need my arms free. Cut me loose, Borias." She saw the wary look in his eyes. "I’m in no shape to fight you."

He motioned to one of his men, who quickly stepped up and slit the rope with his knife. Xena rubbed the circulation back into her wrists.

"The words, Xena," he bellowed. "Now!"

Xena looked up toward the sky, raised her arms, and as loudly as she could, called, "Ares----Ares…."

Borias frowned. "What is this Ares?"

"Ares," Xena yelled, "We need you---NOW!"

In a flash of light, purely for effect, Ares was suddenly standing beside Xena. Borias was stunned. "Who are YOU?" he bellowed.

The man dressed in black and silver smiled. "I’m Ares, the God of War. And Buddy, you picked the wrong two women to have a war with!" With that, Ares raised his right arm toward three of the soldiers standing nearest to Xena. Sparks shot from his fingers, an explosion rocked the ground, dirt flew, and the three men were hurtled backwards.

Borias’ eyes were diverted just long enough for Xena to spring into action. Her leg came up fast, her foot striking his hand hard. The ring flew into the air toward Gabrielle who made a diving catch before it hit the ground.

From a nearby tent, Traygar yelled, "Xena!" and tossed her sword high in the air. Despite the pain, she leaped high, caught it, somersaulted, and landed on her feet safely clear of Borias. Traygar drew his own sword and began to battle the men around him.

Borias saw the ring in Gabrielle’s hand, and rushed toward her. "Put it on, Gabrielle!" Xena yelled as a soldier came at her with his sword. She was still weak, and the man managed to graze her arm with the blade before she ran her sword into his chest.

Gabrielle had only moments to decide what to do. It all hinged on trust: trust in the amulet she wore around her neck on a silver chain. She slipped the ring onto her index finger. It began to glow, and she felt tremendous strength and power fill her body. She then did what Xena had told her to do. Pointing her finger toward Borias, she thought of a fireball. From her hand, a fireball flew forward. It wasn’t a very good aim. Borias ducked, and the flames hit one of the tents causing it to burst into flames.

Borias lunged at Gabrielle. With one thought, she was suddenly invisible, and he hit the ground hard.

Ares continued his assault with explosions, and Xena and Traygar fought with their swords until the only enemy left standing was Borias. The men he had called his soldiers were either dead or had scattered into the forest.

"You bitch!" Borias bellowed, drawing his sword. Gabrielle had reappeared beside Ares, who instinctively raised his arm to offer protection to Xena.

Xena saw him out of the corner of her eye and yelled, "No! He’s mine!" And she raised her sword and approached Borias carefully.

"You could never beat me," Borias spat, swinging his sword.

Metal met metal as Xena blocked his attack and slapped the blade aside. "You’re forgetting something, Borias," she said, dodging as he thrust toward her. "I’m a lot older now." Instead of swinging down, she brought her sword up. The blade hit his sword, catching him off guard, and the sword flew out of his hand. "And a lot smarter, too."

Borias glared at her. "You won’t kill me, Xena," he said holding his arms out. "You couldn’t do it yourself before, and you can’t do it now."

Xena kept her sword raised. "Are you so sure, Borias?" The Warlord raised his hands and lunged for Xena’s throat. And in one swift motion, she plunged her sword through his heart. As Borias grabbed at the sword, looking coldly into her eyes with total amazement, Xena said "You lose!" She pulled her sword free as he fell to the ground, dead once more. She leaned over and wiped her bloody sword clean on his fur tunic.

Xena remembered she was not alone, and walked slowly and painfully over to her friends. She hugged Gabrielle, ignoring how much pain she felt inside. "You did good, Warrior-Bard."

Ares agreed. "Gabrielle, that really was a decent plan you cooked up with Xena. You’re getting pretty good---for an amateur."

Gabrielle held up her hand and wiggled her finger. "Hey, remember Ares----right now I’ve got the power to destroy you."

"Ouch, I’m scared!" he said, smiling at the small blonde he had become so fond of.

Gabrielle laughed, pulled the ring off her finger, and held it tightly in her hand. She didn’t want to take any chances that somehow she might hurt him by accident. Ares had been her friend ever since he helped her bring Xena back from the Elysian Fields.

Gabrielle looked back at the body of Borias. "Should we bury him, Xena?"

"No." she stated flatly, walking toward Traygar. Gabrielle did not argue the issue. She knew the hatred Xena felt for Borias. It went back far beyond this moment. He had nurtured the dark side within her. He had helped her to become a true force of evil. She would never completely lose that part of herself, but she would spend eternity trying to make up for all that she had done. Her soldiers had buried him the first time out of respect. There was no respect this time.

Xena shook Traygar’s hand warmly. "Thank you for helping us."

"I knew this was wrong, Xena. I had to help you."

Gabrielle asked, "What will you do now, Traygar?"

He smiled at the little blonde. "I’m going home to my people."

Ares looked at the two women in his life. "Isn’t that what you two should do now?"

Xena shook her head. "We’ve still got to get the Rheingold back where it belongs." She suddenly felt the stab of the broken rib, and grabbed her side in pain.

Gabrielle quickly put her arm around her for support. "Xena, you can’t ride in the shape you’re in."

Xena looked at Ares and smiled. He nodded, as if something unspoken had just passed between them. "See you two back in Amphipolis." And he was gone. No flash of light needed this time.

Traygar said his goodbyes and departed. Xena leaned on Gabrielle, and they walked toward Borias’ tent to retrieve her chakram and armor. As they walked, she said, "Gabrielle----how would you like to use the ring one last time?"

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

 

Odin sat in his throne and watched Xena approach. "You look terrible," he said frowning.

Xena limped toward him and managed a smile. Gabrielle kept pace beside her but offered no assistance. "Thanks," she said sarcastically. When they got to where the King of the Norse Gods was sitting, Xena said, "We’ve got something that belongs to the Rhine Maidens."

Gabrielle opened her clenched fist and looked at the ring of gold. It was so beautiful. She had never felt such strength and power before. With that ring on her finger, she was invincible. She had the power of a Goddess. There was nothing she couldn’t do. All she had to do was point to Argo and Storm and think "Send them to Erik’s house." And the horses vanished in a soft glow of golden light. With her arm around Xena, she said aloud "Valhalla", and they found themselves standing inside the gates.

But Gabrielle also thought that she probably could have the power to do terrible things. She could possibly destroy nations. She might cause plagues and suffering. She could kill anyone and anything---maybe even the Gods, themselves. She had only been joking with Ares. Maybe it was true.

No---this was way too much power for a Bard from Poteidaia. It was too much power for any mortal to possess. She started to give the ring to Odin, but then stopped. She remembered that Xena had not given it to him---she had returned it to the Rhine Maidens. She looked at Xena to see if it was alright, and the Warrior Princess nodded. She held out her hand and allowed Odin to take the ring from her. "Thank you, Gabrielle," he said gently.

Odin had been listening to her thoughts, and he realized that she was indeed an honorable mortal: not unlike the woman who stood at her side. He closed his hand around the ring, and a bright orange-yellow light emanated from his hand. When it faded, he opened his fist to reveal a large, uneven nugget of gold. The ring was no more.

"Odin," Xena said, "Will you please get that back to the Rhine Maidens! I don’t feel like chasing after it again."

"How do you know I won’t just keep it for myself, Xena?"

She smiled. "Because you won’t forsake love, Odin. You made Grinhilda your Queen. You’re not the same man I once knew. We’ve both changed, Odin."

The King of the Gods laughed, and the Hall shook from his unusual outburst of happiness. "You have done well. Both of you."

"Odin, I have a favor to ask. Your people are starving. Many of their homes were destroyed. Will you help them?"

He nodded. "Yes, Xena. I will restore their land and crops and the forests, and give them all they need to rebuild."

Xena nodded in appreciation. "Thank you."

"And Xena, I have something for you." Odin waved his hand, and a soft blue light appeared at Xena’s feet. It rose slowly, enveloping her body. She felt all the pain and aches and broken bones vanish. Gabrielle watched in awe as every cut, scrape, and bruise vanished. When the blue glow winked out in the black of her hair, Xena was once again strong and beautiful. A touch of panic seized her, and she looked at her left palm. She was relieved to see that the scar was still there. "That is one mark I would never remove," Odin said with a smile.

"Thank you."

Odin rose from his throne and walked up to Gabrielle. Looking down at the small blonde he asked, "And you, Little One? What may I give you?"

Gabrielle felt small and meek once again despite herself. "I….ah….there really isn’t anything I need." She looked over at Xena and smiled. "You see, I have the only real thing that matters to me." She swore she saw Xena blush. She suddenly remembered that she had something else to return to Odin. "Oh---I almost forgot to give this back to you," she said removing the chain containing the silver amulet from her neck.

Odin gently closed her fingers around the amulet. "This is yours to keep, Gabrielle. If you are ever in my lands again and you need anything, call my name. I will always help you."

Gabrielle smiled up at the Norse God. He was really a very nice man---er---god. "Thank you, Odin."

They bid their goodbyes, and Xena and Gabrielle walked out of the Hall. Waiting by the gates was the black stallion in the magnificent black and silver armor. As Xena walked toward him, she snapped her fingers, and her outfit magically transformed into that of a Valkyrie again. She never broke her stride. "For old times sake." She thought to herself.

Gabrielle had stopped in her tracks and said, "I’ll never get used to that, Xena!"

"Tell you what," Xena called back to her. "How about you and I take a ride out over the sea before we land?" And Gabrielle, who once had never been fond of horses or heights, ran gleefully to catch up to her.

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

 

Xena rolled onto her back and as the cloud of sleep lifted, she slowly opened her eyes. She stretched her entire body, as she usually did when she woke from a long restful sleep. She glanced to her right and saw that the other side of the bed was empty. That usually meant one thing---Gabrielle was cooking. She knew she had thought it a hundred times before, but it still made her smile: "The only thing that could get Gabrielle out of bed so early was food."

Xena pushed her back down into the thick feather mattress. How could Gabrielle want to leave this luxury. When they arrived home, they discovered the feather mattress and pillows waiting for them. It was a gift from Aphrodite and yes, it was all in pink. But Xena was starting to actually like that color. How did Aphrodite know? It seems the night Ares had come to them at Erik’s house, he hadn’t woke Xena right away. He was taken by how peaceful they looked in that feather bed. He knew his sister would love the idea of whipping it up for them.

Xena clasped her hands behind her head. Had they really been back less than a week? Had they really been away so long?

When they returned to Erik’s log home, Argo and Storm were waiting for them. They were saddled, and their packs and bedrolls were fastened. Erik had given them more than enough supplies to get home. It was his way of thanking them for restoring his Kingdom and his people.

Riding back through Ennor’s village, they were greeted by a scene of crop filled fields, green grass and forests, the sight and sounds of new homes being built. Children were laughing. People waved. The village had been reborn----as Odin had promised.

The journey back to Amphipolis had seemed shorter. Gabrielle had said it was because they knew they were going home. Home. Xena liked that word.

She heard pans and dishes clattering in the kitchen. "Gabrielle," she called out, and looked over at the doorway.

Gabrielle appeared, wearing a short light blue robe. Her smile was beautiful. "Good morning. I’ve got your breakfast on the table."

Xena shook her head and patted the empty side of the bed. "Come back to bed."

She frowned. "Xena, the food will get cold."

"I’m cold! Come on, Gabrielle." She pleaded, giving her a pouting look.

The blonde Warrior-Bard dropped the robe to the floor, and climbed naked over Xena’s blanketed form. "You’re incorrigible," she said, slipping under the blanket and snuggling up against Xena’s side.

Xena smiled and put her arm around her. "I just want to share this peaceful moment with you," she said, stroking Gabrielle’s tattooed back.

Gabrielle nestled her head in the hollow of Xena’s shoulder, draped her arm around her waist, and lay one leg over Xena’s. Xena’s skin was so soft and warm. There was nothng so special as the feel of skin against skin. "Xena, can I ask you something?"

Xena stroked her hair. "Anything. You know that."

"Well, we really didn’t talk about this on the way home, but….Xena, why did you want me to wear the ring? I mean, you knew what kind of power it had."

Xena nodded. "And that’s why it had to be you. When I wore the ring before, it caused nothing but evil and death and madness. It absorbs your heart and soul----and that was me."

"Not now, Xena."

"But the ring would have found that buried part of me. Now you," she said shaking Gabrielle gently, "Your heart is good. Like the Rhine Maidens are pure and innocent."

"Xena," Gabrielle said with a frown, "I am not innocent."

"Not in that way. You never killed for the thrill of it. You never wished for evil things to happen. Even though you hadn’t forsaken love, I knew the ring wouldn’t hurt you. The amulet Odin gave you protected you, and allowed you to use the power of the ring for good."

Gabrielle smiled. "It was fun being able to just make things happen."

"That power isn’t for us mortals, Gabrielle. But I am glad you had some fun on this adventure."

"Flying with you, and seeing Odin again. I’m not scared of him anymore."

Xena kissed her forehead. "I think he has a crush on you, Little One."

Gabrielle laughed. "Probably just the blonde hair. Grinhilda doesn’t have anything to be jealous about. He’s not my type."

Xena moved her head to look into Gabrielle’s eyes. "And what is your type, if I may ask?"

Xena was in one of her rare playful moods, and Gabrielle loved it. "Oh, black hair, blue eyes, long legs, sexy body."

"That was nice of Odin to fix my broken up body."

"How do you know I was talking about you?" Gabrielle asked. Xena gave her a dirty look, and they both broke into laughter. Gabrielle lay her hand on Xena’s stomach. "We did good, didn’t we?"

Xena smiled. "We did good. Especially you. I was very proud of you."

"Really?" she asked, looking up into Xena’s beautiful blue eyes.

"Really. I finally got to see my Warrior-Bard in action."

"Can I ask you something else?"

Xena rolled her eyes. "Just say it, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle raised herself up on one elbow. "You really didn’t need to walk the Gauntlet, did you? You could have called on Ares or Odin anytime. Why did you do it, Xena?"

The Warrior Princess sighed. "I needed to prove to myself that I was still strong enough….Brave enough."

"You could have been killed!"

Xena reached up and touched Gabrielle’s cheek with the back of her hand. "I needed to be the one who saved you, Gabrielle. Not anyone else. Me."

Gabrielle took hold of her hand and kissed it gently. "Xena, can we stay here for awhile before we go off wandering again?"

"You mean in bed?"

"Not in bed----though that does sound like a good idea. I mean here. Home."

"Who said we’re going off wandering again?"

Gabrielle smiled at the woman she loved more than anything on earth. "Xena, I know you. You’ll get that wanderlust again. Someone will need you, something will happen, or you’ll just get that far away look in your eyes."

Xena entwined her fingers with Gabrielle’s. "I can’t promise I won’t want to go off again. It’s in my blood, Gabrielle. It’s who I am. There’s some things I can’t change, no matter how hard I try."

Gabrielle squeezed her hand. "I know that, Xena. I understand now."

"I can promise that it’s out of my system for now. I’m happy to be home. But, Gabrielle…?"

"What?"

"If I do have to go off on another journey, I hope you’ll be at my side." Xena pulled Gabrielle’s hand to her lips and kissed it softly.

Gabrielle lay her hand on Xena’s cheek. "At your side is where I always want to be." And she leaned over and kissed her, not seeking passion, but expressing her profound love for her Soulmate.

Xena drew her into her arms, accepting the gift she’d been given of sharing her life with this small blonde Bard from Poteidaia. She returned the kiss. "I love you so much," she whispered, pulling Gabrielle to her favorite place----lying on top of Xena as if she was Gabrielle’s own personal human pillow. Xena enjoyed it as much as she did. They fit so perfectly together.

"I love you, too, Xena," said Gabrielle with a very contented sigh.

They lay together in silence, treasuring the warmth and peace and security of just being together. And they drifted off to sleep exactly where they belonged…..in each other’s arms.

 


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