"Keltore!" Tennus called after him but he knew it was no use. He would not see him again. "Crazy bastard." He muttered to himself. He turned to look at the other three men, stunned looks on their faces, waiting like lap dogs, having long since forgotten how to think for themselves. "Let's get out of here. I want to put as much distance between us and that village." And with that one phrase it was unanimously agreed upon that Tennus would be their new leader. He headed down the roadway and the others followed numbly.
"Xena..." Gabrielle spoke dreamily. "That's wonderful...oh yes...by the gods..."
"Uh huh.." Xena replied, speaking softly into the bard's ear.
"Yes, Xena, that's it, oh ya...right there...that's the spot...uh huh.." Gabrielle coached as she leaned back into the warrior, steam rising past her face from the hot bath. The firelight danced across her glistening skin.
Xena massaged the knot in Gabrielle's shoulder, feeling the tight muscle finally relent and succumb to her touch. "Well if you hadn't snuck up behind me like that maybe you wouldn't have had to swing you staff so hard!"
"Hmmm?" Gabrielle muttered from somewhere far away, her eyes half closed soaking in the strong hands of the warrior on her back.
"In fact, " Xena continued. "As I see it, you should be massaging *my* back...after all, I was the one that nearly tore my shoulder out of it's socket trying to hold back on my swing."
"Hmm.?...sure Xena...that's it, more to the right...oooh, you've got it ..yah, that's it....." Gabrielle sighed, her voice quieter now as she fought Morpheus to stay awake and enjoy this pleasure. Gabrielle could no longer hold up her head and it rolled back resting on Xena's shoulder. She was losing the battle but it no longer seemed to matter.
"Actually my shoulder hurts like Hades and I wouldn't mind if you..."Xena's voice trailed off as she felt the bard's body go limp on her. "Gabrielle?" Xena spoke into her ear. She shook her shoulders ever so slightly. "Gabrielle?"
"Great." She spoke to herself. She stopped massaging Gabrielle's shoulders and sank further into the tub taking the bard with her. She scolded herself silently for making the fatal error of giving the bard a massage first. She was new at this exchange but she should have known better. She sighed as she wrapped her arms tightly around Gabrielle and pondered what she was going to do now that she was wide awake and sexually charged. She gazed down at her sleeping companion and a warmth filled her heart. She was so innocent when she slept. The fire shimmered across the bard's hair and Xena lifted her hand to play with the long wet strands. By the gods she was perfect. Her hand absentmindedly slid down to cup Gabrielle's breast and Xena smiled as she saw the nipple harden even as she slept. Gabrielle moaned softly and nestled her head further into the crook of Xena's neck. A warm charge shot through Xena's groin and she tightened her grip on the bard. Stop it Xena, she scolded herself. You keep this up and you're going to hurt yourself. She moved her hand away from Gabrielle's breast reluctantly and wrapped it round the bard's waist where she hoped it would be safe.
She tore her eyes away from the bard as it was now too torturous to continue and turned her head towards the window. She lay there in the tub holding the woman of her dreams and gazed up at the moon that peered down at her from a distant sky.
"You think he'll be alright Tennus?" Stanton spoke aloud breaking the silence that had descended upon the band of men ever since they had parted company with Keltore.
"He'll live." Tennus replied, only half paying attention. He was more concerned with his sudden ascent into leadership. He had led a small group of boys in his village as a child but that had been only in play. He had never had to truly plan, to truly lead. He grappled with the apprehension that came with this new responsibility. They walked along the road, flanked on either side by thick forest. The moonlight illuminated their path allowing them passage with little effort.
They walked a few steps further. "Boy, she was incredible, wasn't she Tennus? Eh? " Stanton prodded him.
"Will you shut up! "Tennus growled, "I can't hear myself think! How am I supposed to...." His voice stopped suddenly as his ears heard the unmistakable crack of a branch at the edge of the clearing coming from, he was pretty sure, just up ahead and to his right. He grabbed Stanton's arm. His eyes darting in the direction where the sound had come from. "Did anyone hear that?" He asked the group.
Everyone stopped. "Hear what?" Stanton asked. Nobody breathed for a moment and they all stood frozen on the path listening for any sign of noise. Only the usual night sounds greeted the straining of their ears.
Tennus relaxed a bit and sighed. He was spooked, that's all. He had to get a grip. He turned to see all eyes on him waiting for direction. A small fear spread from the pit of his stomach. "Nothing, I guess. Let's move."
They walked a few more paces with just a slight apprehension in their step. Tennus's thoughts went deep into his insecurities once again, and his shoulders tightened in response. He almost missed the second sound which came from up ahead and to his right again. He stopped dead in his tracks, the hair raising instinctually on his back and arms.
The other men stopped in unison. They had also heard the unmistakable sound of a branch cracking and all eyes turned in it's direction. "Now did everyone hear that?" Tennus asked looked back at the men. They all nodded and drew their swords. Tennus drew his sword as well and took a deep breath. Something was tracking them and it was somewhere at the forest's edge. He realized that with this new leadership came certain unpleasant responsibilities...like going first.
He hesitated. "Ketlore?" He called tentatively. "That you Keltore?" No response. He took a large gulp and realized that his mouth was suddenly very dry. This was crazy, he thought to himself. It was just a damn branch cracking. But his heart had begun to pound loudly in his chest and he felt the unmistakable feel of eyes upon him.
He strained to see shapes at the border of the trees but there was only darkness there. He gathered his wits and headed into the blackness of the forest and the direction of the sound. Nobody followed.
"Listen Keltore...." He continued. "We can work this out...look I don't even want the job....Hades you can have it..." He spoke as his eyes darted from side to side in search of the fallen leader. He stopped again and listened. He thought he could hear the faint sounds of breathing. He turned to ask the others if they could hear this as well but was surprised to see no man behind him. Those bastards! Those cowardly stinking...but his train of thought was cut short by the sound of rustling leaves. His mind quickly calculated the direction of the sound and a terrifying fear squeezed around his heart as he slowing looked up. The last thought that flew through his terrorized mind as the beast swung down from the tree and tore his head from his shoulders was not of his imminent death, no, it was the sudden realization of just how overrated leadership truly was.
"Did you hear that???" Stanton asked the other two men. He held his sword in front of him, his arms shaking. He looked back to see the whites of the two men's eyes, wild now with fear and panic. They nodded dumbly.
Stanton swallowed hard and headed into the forest in the direction that Tennus had went. He turned around to see the others still standing there. "Move it!" He commanded. The two found their legs and followed.
He walked a few paces into the woods letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. "Keltore? Tennus? Anyone?" He called out nervously. Nothing. He continued a few more steps but almost lost his balance as he tripped over an object on the forest floor. He caught himself and cursed. He looked down straining to see what had tripped him up. His eyes widened as he stared into the glassy eyes of the head that had once belonged to Tennus. He screamed loudly and the others jumped. Stanton continued to scream as he raced past the shocked men and headed back towards the road. They followed in a blind panic.
The three were running hard back towards the direction of the village. Stanton was still screaming and the others joined in. Stanton kept looking behind him as he ran, stumbling madly along the path. The others felt his terror as their own and the herd of quarry raced on, hearts in their throats, swords swinging wildly through the air.
Stanton could hear leaves moving and branches cracking to his left as he ran. He surged on as a new wave of terror gripped his heart. Whatever had killed Tennus was coming for them, and it matched their pace with ease. The others could hear this as well and ran harder and faster than they had ever imagined they could.
Keltore sat numbly on the forest floor. He was contemplating his future and his recent past. Just when exactly had everything gone wrong on what had started out to be a fine day. He had never felt so alone. He turned his pain over in his mind and added it to his hatred for the warrior woman. She had ruined everything, oh she was going to pay, she was....his thoughts were interrupted by distant screams and Keltore knew instinctually they had come from his men. He jumped up, drew his sword and headed in the direction of their cries.
There was a terrible weight on her chest. She could not get up, though she tried desperately to do so. She could hear it's breathing and she opened her eyes to see it crouched over her. The beast had eyes of fire. It's teeth were long and razor sharp and it grinned madly at her as it lowered itself onto her fallen form and tore out her throat.
Xena awoke with a start, water splashing in her face as her hands flayed and groped the side of the tub.
She looked around wildly, her warrior instincts on full alert. Her chest rose and fell in quick gasps as she gazed down at the sleeping bard and absentmindedly raised her hand to her neck to make sure it was still there. She had been dreaming but it had seemed so real.
She felt the same electricity in the air she had sensed earlier. "Gabrielle!" She shook the bard. "Wake up!"
"What?" Gabrielle mumbled. Xena was shaking her hard. "Hey!" She growled. "I'm awake!"
Xena slipped out of the tub leaving a stunned bard looking at her with fearful eyes.
"What is it Xena?" Gabrielle asked now fully awake.
Xena ran to the window, dripping wet and naked. She froze and cocked her head.
Gabrielle swallowed and watched the warrior with growing concern. Gabrielle stood up in the tub, shivering, the water's warmth long since dissipated.
Xena heard the faint, yet unmistakable sound of screaming and her body tensed. She raced over to her leather tunic, pulling it on.
"Xena!" Gabrielle cried. "What's wrong? What are you doing.?" She watched the warrior collect her sword and chakrum. Her eyes widened. "Where are you going!!??"
There was no time to grab her armor. She raced to the door and turned back to look at her startled lover, still standing, scared and dripping wet. "Out. Stay here! DON'T MOVE!" She commanded trying to hide the fear that was building inside her. She shut the door and raced down the passage, hair soaking wet, wild eyed, her bare feet leaving a trail of water in her wake. She heard Gabrielle call her name one last time but barely heard her, and she paid even less attention to the few startled patrons remaining, mouths hanging open, as they watched the woman warrior streak past them and out into the night.
The three men raced on madly but it was a race they would not win and this knowledge was beginning to become all too clear to Stanton. His breath came in rasps as his lungs worked feverishly in a maddening attempt to deliver the oxygen needed to spur him on. It was futile. But still he ran, the others close behind. He heard the first scream of pain come from behind him. He heard the thump of one of his companions as he fell to the ground and he heard the sickening tearing of what could have only been human flesh. The beast howled, piercing the night air and Stanton picked up speed. He could not look back for he knew the sight alone, of what could have only come from Tartarus itself ,would strike him dead.
Xena raced down the road in the direction of the screams cursing herself for not having established the location of the stable where Argo was. She ran swiftly as she new time was not on her side. She was oblivious to the stones and debris that cut at her bare feet. A chill ran down her spine as she heard the howl of the beast resonate down the path and she quickened her step, a dread creeping over her like one she had never known.
Stanton's eyes were bulging out of their sockets now as he ran, sweat soaked and panting hard. He heard his other companion scream and then the sound of his body thumping to the ground. More tearing noises filled the night air and he moved in a blind panic, his brain now connected with his ancestors of many moons ago, long since forgotten, when they had been the hunted, but there had been different beasts then.
Keltore had heard the unnatural cry of the beast but he forged on. Then he saw Stanton running towards him, wide eyed with panic. He stopped to motion him with a wave of his hand and went to call his name but the words never came. He saw movement from behind Stanton and his eyes widened.
Stanton saw Keltore standing on the roadway, his heart lifted slightly but it was short lived. He felt the pull of the beast and strong claws dug deep into his back. It landed down upon him and his world went black.
Keltore was frozen on the path. He saw the beast descent upon Stanton, it's claws tearing at him wildly. It was in a rage. It turned towards the moon and howled a beastly howl that weakened Keltore's legs and he involuntarily kneeled on the roadway, succumbing to shock and horror. His sword dropped from his hand making a clash upon the dirt road.
The beast looked up when it heard the sound. It's red eyes narrowed and it's snout crinkled into a snarl revealing it's deadly row of flesh tearing fangs. It dropped it's quarry and headed towards the kneeling figure.
Keltore saw the beast make his way towards him, traveling swiftly and with a deadly purpose. He could not move his limbs. He watched it near him, hearing the quiet sounds of it's pads on the dirt of the road. There was a deafening absence of night sounds he noted with odd detachment. His mind strained to free itself from the prison of this body that had long since left the clearing. The beast approached, it's hot breath upon his neck and still he did not move. His eyes looked into the madness contained within the beast's own eyes and still he did not move.
It studied him for a brief second as if to ponder this odd sign of submission. Saliva from it's lips dripped upon the man's neck. It smelled the blood that pumped through his veins and bit into the flesh to drink from the hot liquid in the only way it knew how to appease it's bloodlust.
"AYYYYIIIIII" Xena's war cry pierced the night air and broke the deadly silence. She leapt into the air somersaulting and landed ten feet from where the beast fed.
It reared it's head in surprise and before it could leap forward an object of unknown origin came flying at it through the darkness of the sky. A brief look of wonder came over it followed immediately by a howl of pain as the object made solid contact with it's raised forepaw. It smelled it's own blood and hesitated, it's eyes staring at the new quarry that stood proudly in the road. Waves of pain swept through the beast. It howled in rage once more it's powerful jaws reaching towards the moon, and leapt into the darkness of the forest and away from the object of it's agony.
Keltore watched in awe, pain pulsed from his neck. He saw the beast disappear into the forest and reunited with his body. He leapt to his feet and headed into the forest as well, in the opposite direction, wild with panic and searing pain, clutching his neck as the blood poured down across his hands.
"Wait!!!" Xena called to him. She ran to the edge of the road where the man had disappeared. The moon held no illumination in the denseness of the forest and she knew it would be futile to follow. She turned back to where the beast had fled and gave up on any thoughts of catching it. She walked back into the moonlight, her chest rising and falling rapidly as she fought to catch her breath. She bent down and picked up her chakrum studying the blood that spilled across it. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the first of the bodies lit by the moon and a sickening feeling tightened around her heart. She walked towards it and slowly began to retrace the trail of destruction.
"Do you ttthink it'll get herrrr?" Solston asked, slurring noticeably. He had never been much of a drinker under normal circumstances but this was far from that. He had decided quite early on in the evening that he would not leave this building until the sun rose high in the sky. Of this he was sure.
Nuktimos did not hear him. He was standing behind the bar and cleaning goblets mindlessly, his thoughts racing feverishly in fear of what might be transpiring as they sat in the warmth of the inn. He had wiped the goblet in his hands ten times now. He put it down and picked it up beginning the ritual all over again.
"I'd say she's bit it." Another patron spoke from further down the bar. "I mean what can a lone woman do against a demon sent from Hades himself!"
"Five dinars says she returns." A small voice piped up from a table behind them.
"Ten dinars says she doesn't." Someone challenged. More drunken patrons joined in and the bets were on.
They had gathered round a table placing their respective dinars on it. The inn was once again loud and boisterous with this new found game.
The inn door flew open and everyone froze, all eyes turned towards it. The warrior woman entered, her disheveled hair still wet, clung to the side of her head and they noticed with a sickening fascination that she appeared to be covered from head to toe with blood and dirt. She did not acknowledge anyone but stared straight ahead and walked towards the passageway that led to the rooms. She paused at the doorway and spoke. "Don't forget to collect your winnings." And left the room.
Jaws dropped in unison and then as if on cue everyone hung their heads and walked away from the table, the dinars left untouched as a symbol of their collective shame.
Gabrielle paced back and forth in front of the fire once again, now fully dressed. She was beside herself with worry. She picked up her staff and headed for the door. She stopped and put it down again. She had promised. She began her maddening pace once again.
The door to the room opened and Xena walked in. Gabrielle turned to look at her, a gasp escaping her lips. "Oh Xena.." She whispered, her hands instinctually covering her mouth.
Xena closed the door and leaned back against it, she tilted her head back and closed her eyes in hopes that this would wash away the horrific visions still fresh in her mind.
Gabrielle was upon her, frantically searching for any signs of wounds as there was so much blood. "Are you hurt Xena?" She asked. Xena shook her head as she struggled to hold back tears, her eyes still firmly shut. Gabrielle brushed back a lone tear that had escaped and gently guided Xena over to the chair by the fire and sat her down.
Xena sat in stony silence. Her ice blue eyes, now open, stared not at the fire in front of her but instead at a series of visions that replayed in her head of the discovery and subsequent burial of the bodies. She let the bard wash the blood and dirt from her skin.
Gabrielle spoke soothing words to her warrior as she worked. She undressed her and led her to the bed. She removed her own clothes and lay beside the warrior that was now shivering from the cold and most likely shock. Gabrielle was not sure which was the stronger. She held Xena tightly, wrapping her body around her shaking form. Xena's eyes remained open and an occasional tear would escape it's prison and each time the bard was there to kiss it with her lips.
Finally, after some time, Xena stopped shaking and her eyes closed. Gabrielle waited until she could feel Xena's breathing become even and was certain that she was asleep. Only then did she let herself relax and allow for her own release. But it was a long time before Morpheus took her that night.
She was alone in the sheep pen and paralyzed with fear. Her breath came in heaving gasps as she whirled around wildly. It was there but she couldn't see it. Then she heard it come for her from behind and she turned in it's direction. She readied herself in a battle stance. It burst through the enclosure and lunged for her throat. She swung her staff high in the air making contact with it's powerful jaws. It howled in pain and rolled to the ground. She raised her staff and came down hard upon it's head. the crack of bone resonating in the night air. She raised her staff high again and came down hard once more. She was in a frenzy as she swung again and again, the crack of the staff echoing loudly. But the beast would not die, it rose from the dirt and lunged for her. "Xeeennnaaaa!!!!!!"
Gabrielle woke screaming. Her eyes wide with panic as she sat up in the bed. She was gasping, tears pooling in her eyes. She heard the banging of her staff and looked down at her hands. But she was in bed and her staff was nowhere near her. She realized it had only been a dream and she turned to the window to see the bright sunshine streaming in, the sun now high in the sky. The loud banging of what could only be hammers echoed through the room. The sound was coming from outside. She sighed deeply and closed her eyes, as her breath began to calm.
A knock came from the door. She froze on the bed.
"Hello"?" A voice called. "Is everything alright in there?"
It took Gabrielle a few seconds to place the voice, it was Lucinda. "I'm fine....I'm...."Her voice trailed off. She was not fine. "Just a second." She called to her. She got up and went to the door and was about to open it when she realized she had nothing on. She went back, grabbed her top and skirt slipping them on as she headed for the door noting that this sleeping in the nude thing would take some getting used to.
She opened the door to see Lucinda standing there, hair disheveled, eyes sunken and visibly distraught. "By the gods Lucinda! Are you alright?"
Lucinda looked at Gabrielle, hair disheveled, her top laced unevenly and her skirt on backwards and wondered the same thing about her. "You look like Hades." She finally said.
"So do you." Gabrielle retorted.
The two women paused at the threshold for a brief second eyeing one another and burst into laughter. "Come on in." Gabrielle finally said.
Lucinda followed Gabrielle in and they both sat on the bed facing each other, still smiling. "I heard you scream. It woke me up and I came running. I thought that the harpies had got you it scared me so bad."
"I was having a terrible nightmare." Gabrielle explained. "The beast thing was after me. I hit it with my staff but it just... wouldn't...die..." Her voice got quiet with the sudden realization that she had been trying to kill something, albeit only in her dreams.
"I too was having nightmares!" Lucinda replied with some agitation. "I don't remember them exactly. I think I was running....running through a forest. I'm not sure... It's this demon. It has us all on edge. I feel like I haven't slept a wink."
Gabrielle looked down at the bed as a quiet dread had spread over her. Could she kill if it came down to that? What if Xena had been lying there...her brooding stopped short as she noticed the first red droplets spill on to the sheets. She followed the trail that stopped at Lucinda's arm and her eyes widened. "Lucinda!" She cried. "You're bleeding!!"
Lucinda looked down at her arm and her eyes widened as well. Only then did she feel the pain.
"What happened?" Gabrielle asked as she inspected the wound. It was not too bad but it appeared to be at least a few hours old.
"I don't know....." Lucinda stammered. She was looking away from her arm, as sickly green pallor on her face. She couldn't look, the sight of blood always made her weak. "Maybe I hit it on something when I was sleeping....is it bad?" She gulped.
"No, not really...it looks like something sharp though..." Gabrielle pondered this. "Sit here, I'll have to stitch this up."
"Stitches!!' Lucinda cried with mild panic. Her vision blurred. She closed her eyes and steadied herself on the bed.
"Oh don't worry." Gabrielle said as she got up and rummaged through her travel bags. "I have lots of experience. Xena's taught me well." She came back with the necessary supplies and sat back down on the bed.
"Will it hurt?" Lucinda asked with some apprehension.
"Only a bit." Gabrielle replied. She saw the visible distress on Lucinda's face and went to great pains to ensure she was as gentle as possible as she began to clean the wound.
Lucinda stared out at the window, she couldn't bear to watch. "Xena's very special to you." She stated.
Gabrielle sighed, "Yes she is. She's...." A wave of emotion came over her at the memory of last night. "..very special." She finished.
" I can only hope that I meet someone that special someday..." Lucinda said quietly and turned her head to look into Gabrielle's eyes.
Gabrielle looked at Lucinda. No words had been exchanged but she saw understanding and acceptance in her deep green eyes. She smiled. "You will Lucinda. I believe everyone has a soul mate out there. You will find yours...someday."
Lucinda smiled back at her. "That would be a great day." Somewhere deep inside she knew this would never be.
The moment became awkward suddenly and Gabrielle shook her head to break the spell and began to stitch Lucinda's arm. "I'm not known for my fine sewing but don't worry, it's really not bad at all." She laughed.
Lucinda laughed with her. Gabrielle's good nature was infectious and soon they were chattering away. Gabrielle finished repairing Lucinda's arm and suddenly realized how hungry she was. She also silently wondered what Xena was doing, or rather how she was doing. "What have you got to eat Lucinda?" Gabrielle asked as they headed for the door.
"We're an inn Gabrielle. We have everything. " She saw the bard's eyes light up but she stopped her at the door. "Uh Gabrielle..."
"What?" The bard asked.
"Fix your skirt." She said.
Gabrielle looked down at her clothes and her cheeks went red. "Right." She replied. "Hmm."
They headed out to feast.
"I want that heavy piece over here." Xena instructed as she pointing to the bottom of a wooden structure that they were busily assembling by the roadside where only last night, four men had perished.
Two men, visibly struggling, carried the long piece of oak over. Another two men began to bang it into place with heavy mallets. The small group of town men worked steadily under Xena's instruction, sweat glistening on their backs in the noon day sun.
Xena surveyed the work. It was well on it's way. The structure was ten feet square framed by one foot thick oak trunks . There were heavy wooden bars, six inches thick that ran vertically and horizontally around the enclosure. The ends of the bars that ran through the bottom frame were sharpened to a point to allow deep penetration into the soil. By the time it would be complete the cage would probably weigh close to a ton. Xena quietly pondered if this would be enough to hold it.
Solston sad brooding on a cut log a few feet away. He was drinking from a wineskin and already well on his way to oblivion. He looked over at Xena, "You're a fool worse than I, if you're thinking of trying to trap that demon. You'll only get yourself killed!"
"It's just a wolf. " Xena replied flatly. She did not turn to look at Solston. Like no wolf she'd ever seen, mind you, but she didn't want to raise the panic level of these villagers anymore than it already was.
"A wolf!" Solston burst into a gale of hysterical laughter. He nearly fell of the log and steadied himself. "A wolf from Hades himself!" He took another drink.
"Calm down Solston." Xena replied absentmindedly. She had seen it's shape in the moonlight and had judged it to be enormous. And the trail of destruction..well it would have to be powerful and rabid no doubt.....but it was still, nonetheless, a wolf. Her thoughts were interrupted by a sound of approaching footsteps. She cocked her ear and then smiled. It was Gabrielle.
"Xena!" Gabrielle came up behind her. She wanted to hug her warrior tightly right there in the clearing but knew this was not possible. She sighed and instead placed her hand gently on Xena's back. She felt the warrior melt to her touch and smiled inwardly.
Xena turned to see the bard had brought both her warm heart and food for her.
"You should have woke me...." Gabrielle whispered to her. She looked around at the men working on what appeared to be an enormous cage.
"I thought I'd let the mallets do it for me....it's much easier than trying to wake you myself." Xena grinned down at her.
"Well I missed you...."Gabrielle's voice trailed off. They had only shared the same bed for a week now but she had become used to having her there. She couldn't imagine sleeping without her ever again. There was an emptiness now when the warrior was not beside her. She grappled with these new feelings. She looked up into Xena's eyes and saw the pain of last night hidden deep behind them. "How are you?" She asked.
"I'm fine." Xena reassured her. But she had still not been able to wipe the images from her head. And she was sure she was not hungry. "Thanks for the food....I'll eat it later."
Gabrielle nodded in understanding. "So what's the plan?" She asked.
Xena explained. "We'll hang the cage from this tree here and attach the rope to this one over here." Xena pointed to two large trees bordering the side of the road. "Lure it to this spot here with some bait and then cut the rope. It's pattern is to return to the same area as it's last kill so that should take care of getting it here. And hopefully if the gods are on our side, contain it."
Gabrielle listened to Xena explain the plan. It seemed simple enough but she was already feeling sorry for the poor lamb that would be the unfortunate bait. "It's a shame we have to let it kill another sheep." She sighed.
"Oh we won't have to." Xena replied.
"What will you use for bait then?' Gabrielle asked.
"Me." Xena stated.
Lucinda entered the bar carrying a fresh cask of wine. Her father was holding something bound in cloth and he jumped when she entered. He hurriedly placed it back under the counter and smiled at her.
"Morning father." Lucinda said. "Are you alright?" She asked. He looked distraught. He must be not sleeping much as well.
"Morning my child." He said quietly.
"What are they doing down at the roadway?" She asked as she placed the cask on the counter.
"Building a cage to catch the beast." He said quietly.
"Isn't Xena amazing father!" Lucinda said. "If she can catch this thing then we can get our lives back. No more of this terrible fear, these horrible dreams...."
"No!" He cried.
Lucinda was taken back by his tone. "Father, if anyone can catch this thing, Xena can. You saw her take on those men last night...it was amazing."
"She has no business here. This isn't her problem. She should leave before something bad happens." He warned.
"Father." Lucinda said. "She's offered to..." Her voice trailed off. He was right of course. She was risking herself for a bunch of villagers that were too cowardly to solve their own problems. But she knew none of them were equipped or skilled enough to do it, or brave enough for that matter. She didn't want to think about it. Part of her felt bad for putting the warrior woman at risk but another part, that outweighed the other, wanted her to kill this thing and end this black cloud that had covered this village ever since the first signs of the beast. "I've got to clean up out back. I'll be there if you need me." She slipped out of the room not wanting to think too much about anything anymore.
Nuktimos watched his daughter leave. He bent down to retrieve the object wrapped in a fine silk cloth, dusty from many years of rest. He carefully placed it on the counter. He lifted back the folds of silk to reveal a beautifully crafted silver dagger. A red heart-shaped sapphire decorated the handle that ended at an s curved blade, still sharp, though it was many generations old and long since touched by human hands. He sighed as he ran his fingers along the sharpness of the blade's edge. He shook his head and slowly folded back the silk covering. He bent down and placed it under the bar in it's secret hiding place and away from his tear soaked eyes.
"What!" Gabrielle cried. "You're not serious Xena!" She was frantic. "I won't let you go....there must be another way..." She was shaking her head, wide eyed with panic.
Xena grabbed the bard by the arms. "Calm down Gabrielle. There *is* no other way. It's tasted human flesh now and that will be the quarry it seeks tonight. Don't worry. I don't plan to sacrifice myself."
"Don't PLAN to!!!" Gabrielle cried. "Of course you don't PLAN to!!! But....Xena....NO! Oh I don't like this at all..." Gabrielle was beside herself.
"Did you say HUMAN?" Solston butted in from his seat on the log. All the men stopped working and stared over at Xena.
"Yes." She replied. "It took those band of thugs last night out here in the clearing. And another was injured." She frowned at her last words. She had tried to track the path of the injured man earlier this morning but she hadn't been able to find him. Perhaps he had headed for Arcadia, which wasn't far from here. She hoped this was the case.
Horror spread across the faces of the men and their eyes darted from side to side looking for evidence on the roadway. There were dark stained patches along the dirt road that they had paid no attention to earlier. They were suddenly very uncomfortable in their surroundings....very uncomfortable indeed. There was an intense moment of silence that was finally broken by the sound of approaching wagons heading towards them.
Xena looked down the road to see who was coming. She turned to the men. "Let's get to work. I need this finished before sundown." There was no argument from the men. They quickly began their work again at twice the speed of a moment ago. They only thought of finishing this damn thing and getting as far away as possible from it.
"Let me cut the rope then!" Gabrielle said.
"That's not part of the plan." Xena stated. "Not even close Gabrielle. So don't even think about it. And I will tie you up if I have to." She warned.
"You wouldn't dare." Gabrielle growled.
"Do your really want to find out?" Xena warned, cocking her eyebrow in a mischievous way.
"Look. "Gabrielle started, pointing her finger up at the warrior. "You're not going to..." Their quarrel was interrupted by the arrival of the wagons.
"Your quarry must be something to behold." The old woman said as she gazed at the cage from her seat upon the wagon. Hers was the first of three wagons that held travellers, all having stopped now.
"You don't know the half of it. " Xena replied walking over to the woman and using this as a convenient escape from Gabrielle's wrath. "The names Xena."
"I am Maleva." The old woman spoke. "We are on our way to Lycosura for the Autumn Festival of The Moon. We were hoping to purchase some supplies in Karyaes before we continued on. We have much more road to cover before sunset." She said looking intently at the warrior woman.
"Travelling at night in these parts does seem to be a bit of a drawback." Xena said slowly eyeing the woman that was staring at her. She didn't like the intensity of her gaze. She, in turn, sized up the old woman. She wore the clothes of a peasant but there was an amulet that hung from her neck, it was the sign of the pentalpha. She had only seen it once before, on the neck of a mystic in a village many years ago. "Do you always come to the festival of the moon then?" Xena prodded.
"I come from a long line of mystics, if that's what you wish to know. " The woman replied noting the tiny look of surprise escape the warrior's features. "My family has attended this Moon Festival for many generations. It is an annual Mecca for my people."
"I see." Xena replied eyeing her warily. She never had felt comfortable around anyone that might actually be able to get inside her head.
"But I fear we are too late. We ran into marauders on our travels and we lost a day repairing our wagons. The festival is already under way."
"Well I'm sure you will get there for some of it anyway." Gabrielle piped up from behind Xena. "I mean these things always start out slowly and the best part is always the end, isn't it?"
Xena sighed inwardly. If Gabrielle got going they'd be trapped here all day. "My companion, Gabrielle." She introduced her.
Maleva nodded. "It is a pleasure." She said.
Gabrielle smiled at the woman but her thoughts were still back on Xena's words. Companion? Hmm, she thought. Companion. That could work. But it still didn't quite cut it. It was far braver than 'best friend', however. But then she 'was' her best friend....hmmm. Why did this have to be so complicated?
Xena looked over at the bard and couldn't believe her luck, she wasn't talking. "Well we don't want to hold you up any further. You really should.." Her voice trailed of as she heard a voice come from near the back of the wagon line. She knew she recognized it but couldn't quite place the voice.
"Only the finest of course." The man said as he displayed his wares to one of the men that had been working on the cage. He was holding a goblet in one hand and a dinner plate in the other. They shone brightly in the noon day sun.
Xena turned to look, squinting, and then her eyes narrowed. "Salmoneus." She whispered with mild irritation, under her breath.
"Excuse me a moment." Xena walked down to where Salmoneus was busily pushing his goods. He sure got around, she thought to herself, and what was he selling now, she sighed.
"Salmoneus." Xena stated, looking at the medium built, slightly stout, gray haired traveling salesman. His beard was brown despite that fact that his hair was gray, something that had always irritated Xena. Or maybe it was his beady eyes, or his beaked nose, or a combination of them all. Still, she sighed, he was a friend.
"Xena!" Salmoneus cried. "You're alive! I'd heard you were dead!"
"Well as you can see, I'm not. " She smiled. "Now are you Salmoneus today, or are you going by a different guise these days.
Salmoneus laughed nervously as he watched his quarry, the village man, eye him warily and then hand back the goblet and turn away. "Xena! You've just ruined a perfectly good sale. A man's got to make a living!"
"Yes I suppose he does. " She grinned. "How have you been? Tired of the beauty contest fame and fortune?"
"Too dangerous." Salmoneus replied. "I'm back to dinnerware. It's safer. I was hitching a ride to the festival. People are always suckers for purchases when they're in the festive mood. Don't you think?" He looked at Xena. " Well, of course, yourself, mind you, you're the exception, a simple woman. Wait, I mean of simple pleasures..wait, that's not what I meant.." He chattered nervously.
"Never mind Salmoneus. I don't want to hear what you're up to. It's better that way, don't you think?" She smiled down at him.
Salmoneus nodded, spotted Gabrielle, his escape route, and headed over. "Gabrielle!" He called and hurried over to where she stood.
Xena shook her head smiling and headed back to the mystic woman to hurry her departure. She didn't want to delay them any further.
"Well you'd best be on your way." Xena said to Maleva.
"That cage won't hold it." Maleva stated.
"Excuse me?" Xena said.
"You'll need more than that to stop a lycanthropus." She stated.
"A what?" Xena asked.
"A man wolf." The old woman said looking into Xena's eyes with concern.
"Surely you don't believe such a thing?" Xena said, with some trepidation.
"It has already begun. I can see it in your eyes. I see what you have seen. The blood of innocence has been sacrificed and now the innocent must atone for this evil." She said.
Xena was not sure she did not believe this on some level as well. It certainly was no regular wolf. She now questioned her motives for building a cage. If it was a rabid wolf, why not just kill it then. Why did she have the urge to trap it. Was there doubt in her own mind that this was so?
"You will need silver to kill lycanthropos. Your weapons will harm it but it will take a weapon made of silver to slay it. That is as it has always been told." She stated.
"Slay it! But you just mentioned innocence. Are you saying that this thing is an innocent?" Xena asked.
"The man, while a wolf, knows not of his deeds." She explained. "It is a curse."
"Curse or no curse, I can't kill something, someone, that does not know themselves....that would be murder." Xena replied.
"As it was murder at the temple of Lycaeus many moons ago." She said. "The cycle must end here, or it will forever plague our lands." The woman looked past Xena, her eyes somewhere long ago in her ancestry. She turned to look at Xena once again. She removed the amulet from around her neck and handed it to Xena. "Take this, it will protect you."
She turned back to the wagon to prepare to leave. "May the gods be with you my child."
Xena stood there, amulet in hand, absentmindedly running her fingers across it, contemplating the woman's words. She hoped it was merely superstition talking but deep inside her words rang true and a feeling of dread covered over her heart.
"What was that all about?" Gabrielle came up to Xena.
"Nothing." Xena replied. "Here." Xena said as she placed the amulet around Gabrielle's neck.
"What's this?" Gabrielle asked eyeing the five starred pattern enclosed in a circle. She did not recognize the sign.
"It's a pentalpha." Xena replied.
"A what?" Gabrielle asked.
"Consider it a honeymoon present." Xena said as she smiled down at her.
"Well it's....it's...thank you." Gabrielle replied, silently wishing that she'd been there to help Xena pick it out. Gods, she had to work on her tastes. But still, she had given her a necklace. She would cherish it always. How romantic. She sighed and gazed dreamily at Xena.
Salmoneus rode by on the last wagon. "I'll see you two back in town. I have some dinnerware to sell."
Xena and the others went back to work on the cage.
"Twenty dinars and that's my final price." Salmoneus spoke to Nuktimos as he held up the silver goblet to the light. "I'm practically giving it away....it's actually costing me dinars...but for you friend..."
"I'm sorry." Nuktimos replied for the third time now. "I really have no use for such fine wares in an inn such as this."
"Ahhh, but you've got to think ahead man. Expansion. Attracting the 'right' clientele." Salmoneus spoke excitedly to the inn keeper. He was well into his spiel. "Why for instance look at these chairs, I mean, sure they're alright...but just think if you covered them with leather, and maybe padding. And these walls, well there's definitely opportunity there....Some fabric on the tables, candlelight shimmering off your incredible silverware...well the possibilities are endless!"
"He said he wasn't interested." Xena spoke from the inn door. She entered followed by Gabrielle.
"Xena!" Salmoneus cried. He hurried over to her. "You're ruining a perfectly good deal here." He whispered under his breath while still smiling at his newest quarry.
"How much for the lot?" Xena asked him.
"I mean a man has to...." Salmoneus suddenly comprehended the words. "*YOU want to buy the dinner set?!" He asked in shock.
Gabrielle was also looking at Xena with more than slight shock. Xena never ceased to amaze her, but silverware? Well this was a first.
"And what if I do?" Xena glared down at him.
"Well it's just..that...I...you're...I..." He stumbled over his words. Xena always made him nervous but now he was questioning her sanity. But a salesman was a salesman and he quickly recovered. "But of course....I'll give you a special deal..."
"Just put it on my tab." Xena replied and headed over to the box of goods.
"Put it on your tab?" Salmoneus cried. "What tab?"
"Is there a problem?" Xena glared at him again.
"Problem? No Xena....no problem...of course..I'll just eat out of the garbage tonight...I'm sure there are a few scraps...." Salmoneus replied.
Xena rolled her eyes. "You won't starve Salmoneus. Dinner's on me." She turned to Gabrielle. "Come on. I'll need help with this stuff."
"Well thank you....I think...." Salmoneus replied as he watched the women take the box and head outside. He turned to Nuktimos once again. "Have I talked to you about franchises yet?"
Xena and Gabrielle sat and watched as the local blacksmith placed the silver dinnerware in the melting pot.
"So do you want to explain to me, Xena, what exactly it is you're doing?" Gabrielle asked frustrated at this defilement of perfectly good cookware.
"Melting the silver down to liquid form Gabrielle." Xena stated.
Gabrielle sighed. "I can see that Xena, WHY are you melting it?"
"I'm going to dip my sword and chakrum in it." Xena replied.
"Well that makes perfect sense then." The bard got up and began to pace. She stopped in front of Xena and glared at her. "And this is because?????"
"I'm trying out a new look." Xena replied, glancing at her innocently.
"Right, and I'm in love with Salmoneus." Gabrielle snapped back. "The truth Xena."
Xena finally relented. "It's just a precaution, in case what Maleva said was true. Only silver can kill a man wolf and , well..." By the gods that sounded absurd, especially to herself.
"A man wolf? You mean like the legend of Lycaeus? You don't really think.....that..." Gabrielle's voice faded. She swallowed hard. "I'll be back in a minute." She stated and left the building.
Xena watched Gabrielle leave in mild surprise. She went over to the blacksmith, her sword in hand. "Is it ready?"
Xena was admiring her sword with it's new shiny look when Gabrielle returned, staff in hand, and walked over to the pot. She started to dip her staff into the silver mixture.
"What do you think you're doing?" Xena came up from behind.
"What does it look like I'm doing?" Gabrielle asked innocently. She knew how Xena hated when she answered her question with a question. Xena rarely won when it came to a war of words.
"Gabrielle." Xena growled. "Get that staff out of there."
"I'm just redecorating the top of it. A new look, you know." She said casually.
Xena grabbed the staff and pulled it out of the pot. "You won't be needing a *new* look."
Gabrielle grabbed the staff out of Xena's hand and stood right up against her chest in the form of a challenge. She smiled up at her. "I think a new look is exactly what I want!"
"You...just..." Xena stopped fighting. She looked down at Gabrielle's eyes and saw desire burning there. She felt her loins tighten. "Listen..."She started, but she was quickly losing her concentration. She felt Gabrielle breasts brush against her leather in a subtle exchange. "You're..." Her voice trailed off.
"I'm what Xena?" Gabrielle asked innocently as she placed her hand nonchalantly on Xena's hip. She grinned mischievously as she felt the warrior flinch. "You were saying...?"
The blacksmith watched with fascination at this exchange. He had been dipping the chakrum in the pot and came precariously close to burning his hand. He pulled it back just in time.
"Food." Xena said. It was all she could think of as a fresh wave of desire past over her again from the bard's touch.
"Food?" Gabrielle questioned her. She moved her hand further up Xena's waist. It was an innocent exchange to the passerby but it was a wicked game of torture the bard was playing.
"Hungry." Xena said awkwardly. "We should...eat.." She turned to the blacksmith. "We're just going to..." She pointed to the inn. "I'll be back....ya..." She grabbed the bard by the arm and pulled her towards the door. She turned at the last moment to the wide eyed blacksmith. "Make sure you double dip the sword." And with that she was gone.
He nodded, wiped his brow and contemplated closing up shop early and going home to his wife.
Xena burst into the inn with Gabrielle in tow. Salmoneus got up from his stool at the bar. He went to walk over to her but she walked right past him.
"Xena!" Salmoneus called to her with a wave of his hand.
She stopped at the entrance to the passageway that led to the rooms. She turned to him with an impatient look. "What!" She barked.
"I have to talk to you about something..."His voice trailed away. Xena was making him nervous once again.
"Not *now* Salmoneus." Xena growled.
"But if I could just beg for a moment of your time...oh great warrior." Salmoneus pleaded. He was wringing his hands with mild anxiety. Xena eyes shot invisible daggers at his quivering form. "I...uh...of course....later..but of course...." He backed away bowing and banged into the bar stool.
He watched Xena pull Gabrielle by the arm down the passage, a small yelp escaping the bard's lips and silently wondered what exactly was transpiring. He contemplated for a moment the implications, and then chuckled to himself, laughing off such ridiculous ideas. What was he thinking anyway. He shook his head and sat back down on the stool. "I'll have another port....oh, and you can put that on Xena's tab."
Xena pulled the bard into the room and slammed the door behind them. She then pushed Gabrielle up against the door, holding her arms captive, glaring down at her. "Are you trying to kill me?" She growled.
"Maybe." Gabrielle replied grinning up at the flustered warrior.
Xena leaned into Gabrielle and placed her thigh between the bard's legs.
Gabrielle shuddered at her touch and her grin slipped off her face. "Of course I wasn't really...trying..."
Xena bent down and kissed Gabrielle's neck.
"Trying..to...I..." Gabrielle closed her eyes and soaked in the sensation of Xena's lips on her body. A warmth shot through her and she began to shake ever so slightly. What was she saying? She was suddenly finding it hard to think. She tried to free her arms to pull Xena closer but she had her pinned to the door and was not releasing her grip. "...what was I saying again?..." She asked aloud.
"You were answering my question..." Xena replied in between kisses. She ran her tongue along Gabrielle's neckline until she reached her ear, where she began to suck it ever so gently.
Gabrielle sucked in her breath and a gasp escaped her lips. She was feeling an intense pull in her groin with each pull from Xena's lips on her earlobe. She tried to concentrate. "I....right.....what was the question?..."
Xena grinned and sucked harder on her ear, her tongue circling the most sensitive part. She was really beginning to enjoy herself. She felt Gabrielle sink down but her thigh held her there.
"Ohhhh....Xena..." Gabrielle gasped. "You're torturing me....." She said, her breath rising and falling in her chest, "Don't stop..." She added. She leaned her head back against the wooden door and let the sensations of the warrior's lips on her take over. She squeezed her legs together hard against Xena's thigh. Another pleasurable pang shot up her body. "That's....nice...that's...yep...that's...oh yah..." She mumbled.
Xena was on fire. With each touch of her lips on her lovers skin her sexual tension heightened. She was determined not to lose control this time. She released one of Gabrielle's arms and began to untie the laces of Gabrielle's top. She felt the bard gasp and weaken from her touch. Gabrielle's freed hand sank into her hair gripping it tightly. She finished untying the laces and the top opened up releasing Gabrielle's full breasts, her nipples swollen with desire. She gently massaged Gabrielle's breast and teasingly played with her hardened nipple. She then lowered herself slightly and took Gabrielle's other breast in her mouth. She felt the bard begin to shake and she felt the bard's hand on her head gently urging her to suck harder on her nipple. This sent a fresh wave through Xena's loins and she fought hard not to sink to the floor and take the bard with her. She loved the sensation of Gabrielle's fingers in her hair and she released the bard's other arm in the hopes that she would bury it into her raven locks. She was rewarded immediately as Gabrielle moved her freed hand and ran her fingers through her hair gripping it hard. It made her head tingle from her touch and she shivered, a small gasp escaping from her lips.
"Xena...." Gabrielle gasped. She couldn't stand it any longer. She needed to feel Xena's lips on her own. She pulled Xena's head away from her breast and bent down, kissing her passionately. She drank in the taste of her lover and let her tongue explore Xena's mouth. Xena groaned and returned her kiss with a deep one of her own, tongues entwined, intensifying the heat building between them.
Xena pulled away from the kiss and teasingly bit at Gabrielle's bottom lip. She had discovered that this little act drove the bard wild. She was not disappointed. Gabrielle moaned softly with each nip from her teeth. Gabrielle returned the favor and gently pulled on Xena's lip. Xena melted.
Gabrielle felt Xena's knees go weak and this further excited her. She ran her fingers hard through Xena's hair pulling her in for a deep penetrating kiss. She couldn't get enough of her. Her desire grew stronger each time they made love. She was silently wondering when this would peak because she wasn't sure she could handle much more of this intensity. Yet, she craved it more than anything. She was trying hard not to devour Xena where she stood. She gripped Xena's hair and pulled her away from her mouth taking a much needed breath. She looked into Xena's eyes, now dark with a building need. "I love you so much it hurts Xena." Gabrielle said, her lips brushing against the warriors.
"I love you too." Xena whispered and covered the bard's lips with her own once again. She lowered her arm and wrapped it around Gabrielle's waist to support her and removed her thigh reluctantly. She slipped her hand between Gabrielle's legs and shuttered when she felt the wetness that was for her only. She steadied herself and tried to remain calm but the heat in her loins was clouding her thoughts and she was wondering how long she could hold on before her own need became too great. She slowly ran her fingers across Gabrielle's swollen center. Gabrielle began to moan softly and Xena tried hard to concentrate.
"Oh gods Xena, aahhhh...."Gabrielle gasped quietly as she pulled away from her kiss to draw a breath. "That's incredible....don't stop..." She bit her bottom lip to keep herself from crying out loud in fear the whole inn would hear her. She nuzzled her head into Xena's shoulder letting all her weight fall into the warrior's arms. Her chest rose and fell more rapidly with each stroke of the warrior's hand on her. Her legs were shaking and an intense heat was building at her center. She waited for a much needed release to come. She bit deeply into Xena's shoulder to stifle a cry.
Xena worked her hands faster sensing the need in the bard nearing it's peak. She felt Gabrielle's teeth sink into her shoulder and a small gasp escaped her own lips as a wave of pleasurable pain shot through her. She held her tightly.
Gabrielle felt the edge and stepped over. An intense wave of heat and pleasure spread from her center reaching up through to her head, and down her legs. She gripped Xena tightly as she shook uncontrollably. The warrior was there to hold her as wave after wave of orgasm racked her shivering form. "Gods Xena...gods...I can't.." She moaned, afraid she would pass out from the sensations pulsing through her.
"Shhh.." Xena whispered into her ear, understanding her lover's plea. She gently pulled her hand away and slipped it around Gabrielle's neck holding her tightly. Her loins throbbed, almost painfully, from eliciting such a response from the bard. She gently began to stroke her hair letting the bard melt into her and completely let go.
Gabrielle's breathing finally began to even and she shifted uncomfortably against the warrior. "Xena..." She whispered.
"Hmmm?" Xena replied through a haze.
"You're breastplate......it's gotta go...." Gabrielle stated.
"Oh...." Xena said. "Sorry...." She pulled away slightly and gazed at the patterned indents on Gabrielle.
"Come on...." Gabrielle said looking up into the warrior's dark eyes. "Let's get these clothes off you."
Xena let the bard lead her to the bed and sit her down. She leaned back and soaked in the gentle touch of her lover as she began to remove her breastplate. She gazed at Gabrielle as she delicately worked the clasps open. By the gods she looked incredible, Xena thought, and another wave of desire spread through her.
Gabrielle removed the warrior's armor and knelt down to unlace her boots. She felt her lover tremble slightly under her touch. She looked up into the warrior's eyes and saw an intense need building. Part of her wanted to perform this ritual slowly but she knew that this would be too torturous for the warrior to bear. She gently removed each boot, pausing to kiss each thigh, and then reached up to remove Xena's leathers. She guided the tunic off of Xena and began to remove her shift, the final obstacle between Gabrielle's hands and Xena's nakedness. The warrior had closed her eyes now and Gabrielle leaned over and kissed her lips gently. A surge of pleasure shot through her as she felt Xena quiver beneath her lips. By the gods, Gabrielle talked to herself, concentrate....the shift....remove the shift..... A low moan from the warrior brought her back to the task at hand.
"Gabrielle...." Xena whispered through clenched teeth. "You're....driving...me...crazy.."
"Ok Xena...ok...we're almost there..." Gabrielle spoke to her as she removed her shift and revealed Xena's incredible nakedness. Her breasts were swollen and her chest rose and fell in gasps. Small trickles of sweat ran down the sides of her face, her hair clinging to it which excited the bard most of all. Gods she loved Xena with wet hair. Gabrielle quickly tore off her own clothes and pushed the warrior down onto the bed and sank on top of her. She began to kiss the warrior all over her face as she ran her hands down her muscular arms reaching her palms and covering them with her own, their fingers intertwining. Xena had closed her eyes and the bard desperately wanted to see them. She stopped kissing her for a brief moment until the warrior opened them. Her blue eyes were sparkling with passion and Gabrielle felt herself tremble as she gazed into them. "You have beautiful eyes." She whispered to her.
A wave of emotion swept across Xena's heart as she saw the love Gabrielle held for her in her passionate stare. She reached up and kissed her, coaxing the bard back down to her hungry lips. She felt dizzy from the deep feelings that the bard envoked and the intense physical need she brought out in her. She lay back and let Gabrielle continue to drive her need even higher.
Gabrielle saw the warrior close her eyes and knew she couldn't wait much longer though Gabrielle longed to go slowly, and savor each moment. She stole one last kiss on her lips and Xena moaned softly making Gabrielle nearly lose herself again in the softness of her skin.
Xena gripped the sheets, white knuckled and gasping, as the bard slowly worked her way down her body, each touch of her lips on her skin intensifying her need. She was trying so very hard to enjoy this sweet exchange that was also painfully exquisite. Gabrielle gathered her nipple in her mouth and sucked it hard. Xena's back arched lifting her off the bed. She felt the bard's hands gently push her down and continue to work her tongue along her breasts. She placed her hands on Gabrielle's head, gripping her hair, and guided her down to where her need was becoming overwhelming.
Gabrielle understood the warrior would wait no more and as one last torturous act, she slowly ran the tip of her tongue down Xena's taught abs, tasting the salt of Xena's sweat soaked body, now mixed with her own. She breathed in the scent of her lover and buried her mouth deep into Xena, she tasted of sweet honey.
Xena tightened as she felt Gabrielle's lips on her. She almost lost control immediately but refused to be denied the incredible feeling of her lover's tongue inside her. She fought the urge for release as waves of pleasure shot through her loins with each flicker of Gabrielle's tongue. She was sweat soaked from desire, her body glistening in the sunlight that streamed through their window. She closed her eyes tightly and began to moan loudly, no longer able to remain quiet under the bard's touch.
With each guttural moan that escaped the warrior's lips Gabrielle's own loins began to ache more insistently. She fought hard to focus on pleasing her lover. She circled Xena's swollen center, slowly, sucking on it gently at first, and then stronger as the warrior's moaning increased.
Xena couldn't hold on any longer, she felt a deep orgasm building inside her and gripped the bard tightly, her hips moved in time with each soft stroke of Gabrielle's tongue.
Gabrielle felt Xena let go and sucked harder in a last sweet exchange before sending her over. Her hands gripped Xena's thighs as she held on for the ride.
"Ahhhhhh...." A cry escaped the warrior's lips as the orgasm spread like fire through her body, her hips bucked uncontrollably but the bard held her tight. Wave after wave of electric shocks pulsed through her and she moaned louder no longer caring who or what might hear her now. She couldn't have even if she'd tried. The intensity of pleasure was so great it was almost unbearable but she willed herself to soak in all of the sensations, not wanting to be denied. Finally the pulsing subsided and she allowed herself to sink into the sweat soaked sheets, weakened, and spent.
Gabrielle climbed up Xena's body and lay on top of her, feeling the warrior's heart still beating strongly in her chest. She propped herself up on one elbow and gazed down at Xena, her eyes still closed. She bent down and kissed the warrior's eyelids softly eliciting another moan from her lips. She took full advantage of the warrior's weakness and played with her raven hair, twirling it gently between her fingers. Gods, she was beautiful. She couldn't stop herself from wanting to kiss her. And she definitely enjoyed this new found freedom to play with her hair. She placed her lips gently on Xena's, parting them, as another quiet moan escaped her spent lover. She kissed her deeply letting the warrior taste herself on Gabrielle's lips. She felt Xena respond to her once again. She smiled and wrapped herself tightly around Xena, squeezing her thighs against the warrior's leg, sending another wave of pleasure through her groin. "Gods...Xena....I need you to...."
Her sentence was interrupted by a knock on the door. Their bodies tensed in unison. Xena's eye's flew open. She was looking into the equally wide eyes of Gabrielle.
"Hey?!" A voice called from behind the door. "Is everything alright in there?"
Xena's eyes narrowed. "Salmoneus." She growled quietly through clenched teeth.
"We're fine Salmoneus!" Gabrielle shouted looking at Xena for inspiration. "We were....just..."
"I thought I heard Xena scream. She okay?" Salmoneus asked.
"Oh..that...oh...she's...well..." Gabrielle looked down at the fallen warrior. "She's not feeling well. She...must have been something she ate...."
Xena's eyes narrowed further as she looked up at the bard.
"I've got it under control....I'm taking care of her..." Gabrielle smiled down at Xena who was not looking pleased at all. She playfully twirled Xena's hair, now enjoying herself at Xena's expense. "She's quite a mess really, she's...Oww!" Gabrielle's voice died as Xena lifted her arm and pinched the bard's thigh.
"Oh well, er...tell her the blacksmith dropped off her weapons...he had to go home for some reason.....and..." Salmoneus spoke nervously.
"Thanks, Salmoneus, I will. "Gabrielle called back carefully, the warrior still threatening to exert more force should she embellish any further.
"And tell her I must talk to her....it's important...I..." Salmoneus stammered.
"I will Salmoneus. Thanks. " Gabrielle called to him, a wide grin spreading across her face. "After I sponge her down...." Gabrielle bit her lip hard, stifling a cry as the warrior pinched her harder this time.
There was a pause. "Oh...well...I'll just be...I'll be at the bar then..."Salmoneus said. "I'll just go over..." His voice trailed off as he suddenly felt very awkward.
"Later Salmoneus!" Xena finally barked a warning.
"Right! Oh great buxom, I mean...er ...breasted...ah noble one..." Salmoneus backed away from the door.
Gabrielle burst into laughter as she heard him stumble from behind the door and bang into the wall.
"Well he would have figured it out sooner or later anyway..." She gasped as she tried to control herself. The warrior did not look amused.
"Well?" She growled up at Gabrielle.
"What?" Gabrielle asked.
"Where's my sponge bath then?" The warrior asked.
"Sponge bath? Oh right!" Gabrielle replied, a grin spreading over her once again. "Coming right up!" She sprang from the bed to get the necessary supplies. This was going to be a long afternoon, she thought, smiling to herself as she headed back to minister to her fallen warrior.
"So explain to me again why Xena was building that cage for your village?" Salmoneus asked Nuktimos who stood behind the bar nervously wiping goblets, yet again.
"She is trying to catch something that she shouldn't be trying to capture." He said. He leaned towards Salmoneus. "She's a good friend of yours...no?"
"Xena, why we're as close as you can get without...you know...she's like blood. We go way back. " He exaggerated. After all, what was a little embellishment amongst strangers. In fact, embellishment was one of his greatest gifts.
"Well you have to talk her out of this craziness. It's too dangerous. She might get killed." Nuktimos cried.
"Well, I'm sure she'll...wait...did you say *killed*???" Salmoneus swallowed hard and took a nervous sip from his drink. "What exactly is she trapping?" He was beginning to wish he had stayed on the wagons and gone on to the festival, goods, or no goods.
"Can't say." Nuktimos replied. "But it's not her problem to solve. We just have to sit tight a few more nights while the moon is still waxing and we'll be safe."
"Moon....safe??....full...wax.." Salmoneus spoke nervously.
"I don't want anyone getting hurt!" Nuktimos cried. "You must convince her to leave before the sun sets!"
"The sun sets! Why?" Salmoneus was rubbing his beard, a worry spreading over him.
"Because if it finds you, it'll tear your throat out and suck the life force..." Nuktimos's scare tactics where cut abruptly.
"Father!" Lucinda cried as she entered from the kitchen. "You're scaring our guest! Stop it!" She was carrying a tray of food. She placed it on the bar and turned to the rotund and visibly nervous man. "We haven't been introduced. My name's Lucinda. And you are?" She asked extended her hand.
Salmoneus mouth was hanging open drinking in the sight of this beautiful young auburn haired woman whom had just entered with a mouth watering tray of food. He suddenly realized she had been asking a question. "Oh. Sorry. I'm Salmoneus. A friend of Xena's." He said.
Her face lit up further at the mention of the warrior's name. "Well any friend of Xena's is a friend of ours." She looked over at her father who was looking awkward and shameful. "Isn't that right father?" She prodded with her eyes.
"Yes, of course, I never said he ..." His voice died and he reached down and grabbed another goblet beginning the polishing ritual once again.
"You'll have to excuse my father. "Lucinda spoke to Salmoneus. "We're all a little on edge with the beast out there. He's usually much more cheerful. Right father?" She asked.
"Hmm. Yes. " Nuktimos replied avoiding her eyes, instead paying a specially close attention to a stain on the goblet that would not go away. He rubbed it more fiercely.
She shook her head. She was beginning to worry about her father. She had never seen him so distant and distraught. She was not sure how much more of this horror he could bear. Part of her wanted the warrior woman to catch this beast and end this madness. The other part was deeply worried that Xena might get hurt and that was too much to ask of anyone, even it meant saving their village. She sat down beside Salmoneus. She needed a break, her nerves were on edge. "So what brings you to our village? You have very poor timing!" She laughed, hoping to lighten the mood of Xena's friend.
"I was headed to..." Salmoneus was trying to concentrate but the food tray had him enraptured. There were tiny little round shaped wafer thin biscuits with various delicacies placed on them . They were displayed eloquently in a circular design, a selection of sliced fruit as the centerpiece. He licked his lips as he realized he hadn't eaten since breakfast, and the odds of Xena buying him dinner were slowly rising against him.
She followed the Salmoneus's gaze. "Help yourself. "She motioned to the tray.
"Oh I couldn't...thank you!" Salmoneus grabbed one of the wafer concoctions and popped it in his mouth. "Hmmmm! Delicious!" What are they?" He asked.
"I don't have a name for them. I happened on it by accident one day. I was preparing a batch of mix for buns and I messed up the ingredients, and I hate to waste, you know. So I experimented and out came these. I cut them into circle shapes, their prettier that way. They're really quite good. The guests loved them so I just kept making them. I put various toppings on them." She explained as she watched Salmoneus continue to sample the creations, picking up speed with each bite.
"Excellent!" Salmoneus said through bites. "Listen. " He swallowed, wiping his beard. "I think we have something here."
"We what?" Lucinda asked.
"Yes!" Salmoneus said as he put his arm around her shoulder. "With the right marketing....of course we'll need the right packaging to attract the eye. Red is always a kicker. Distribution might be a problem....but we can solve that..we'll need a name for them, of course." He was babbling now well on his way to a far away marketing trance. "Something upscale....we can charge more then...let me see.." His brain raced through the possibilities. "Baron's biscuits...no ...wait...Aristocrat's Eats, no, too overdone...wait Ritzy bites...no, ritz's biscuits...wait that won't do..ritz..hmmm Now that sounds good. And we'll need a slogan of course, no good product campaign should be without. Let me see, Ritzing up your feast. No. Wait...Inritz your party. No...putting on the spread...wait..."
Lucinda watched Salmoneus blabber on. It was making her dizzy trying to follow his train of thoughts but she sat politely and decided she would wait it out. She didn't want to hurt his feelings...and he was a friend of Xena's after all. She sighed inwardly as she realized she would have to prepare a fresh tray, the contents of this one was quickly vanishing before her very eyes. She nodded and smiled.
The cool touch of the ground contrasted with the warmth of the sun on his face, it was both calming and comforting, but there was a throbbing quiet ache clouding his thoughts. The sound of running water echoed in his ears. He breathed in the scent of fresh leaves mixed with the sharp irony smell of dried blood. He strained to open his eyes, but his lids were too heavy, the effort too great. Beads of sweat formed on his brow, a fever running deep within him. He was on fire. He heard the distant call of a bird and wished he could fly. He tried hard to remember what had happened to him, why he could not move from this fetal position, and how he had gotten here. He licked his cracked lips as another wave of thirst passed through his body. He longed to drink from the stream but it was a lifetime away from his huddled form. He concentrated hard. He rose from his fetal position, walked to the stream, it's ripples shimmering in the afternoon sun. It looked delicious. Tears of joy mixed with the sweat on his face and he bent down to drink from it's cool deep bed. He looked at his reflection in the water, and saw a demon there. He screamed, stumbling backwards, and ran blindly through the forest, branches tearing at his skin. He fell. Keltore's body shook, his eyes rolled in his head. Through his clouded mind he realized with only mild relief that he was still lying in his fetal pose, still unable to rise though his mind yearned to. He licked his dried, cracked lips once again. He listened to the sound of the running water and dreamed of tasting it's sweet cold brew.
"Well I really don't think...." Lucinda's voice trailed. "How many dinars did you say we could charge?"
"That's the beauty of it. The more you charge, the more impressive it appears, the more in demand it becomes. And of course you only distribute a small few, that way you have pent up demand and soon they'll sell their first born to have it. It's a wonderful process." Salmoneus explained excitedly. No one had listened to him for this long before.
"First born, oh that would not be very nice...I couldn't..." Lucinda stammered.
"Figuratively speaking only my dear. We could have discount days for the less fortunate...." Salmoneus said. "Have a told you about the word unique? No? Also known as custom, this is where the real dinars can be made." Salmoneus's eyes glistened with visions of great fortunes. If only these common people weren't so darn practical he'd be a rich man already.
Lucinda sat there nodding and smiling but her concentration on the man's words were slipping. Her eyes kept wandering to the weapons on the table behind them. She recognized them to be the warrior's but they appeared different than when she's seen them before. They shimmered brightly on the table almost like treasured jewels....could that be silver? She puzzled over this.
"So what do you think?" Salmoneus asked Lucinda.
"Hmmm?" Lucinda snapped back to the conversation. "Oh, sure, sounds great. What did you say I had to sign again?"
"Details, details....let me take care of the details...you just worry about writing down that recipe..." Salmoneus said. "That's what agents are for....of course there will be a small fee...tiny, miniscule....a man's got to eat you know...you won't even notice really..before taxes of course..."
She hoped he would not talk much longer she really needed to make up another tray. Then Lucinda slipped away again, her eyes gazing at the weapons, beautiful and yet so deadly in expert hands.
She was standing on the roadway, her drawn sword shone brightly under the moonlight. The cage swayed slightly in the wind, a small creaking noise the only indication of it's whereabouts. They circled her. She jumped from side to side trying to determine the direction of the approaching beasts. She was trembling with fear. A terrible dread had spread over her in the last few moments and she new instinctively she was going to die. She raged against this fear, but it gripped her fiercely. She cocked her ear and strained to follow the predators' pacing. It was impossible as they worked in unison in a deadly dance of unspoken communication. She was losing this battle quickly now, the sounds circling closer and closer, her eyes darted back and forth wildly, yet she could see nothing there. She screamed a battle cry and swung her sword in a circle demanding they show themselves and end it. They came at her then, from both in front and behind. She lunged forward with her sword but it was no longer there. She looked down in surprise to see she was holding a silver goblet in her hands, black blood pouring from it's mouth covering her hands and spilling onto the dirt road. She was frozen in fascination at this odd turn of events. She didn't bother to look up as they descended on her. She felt the first sharp pain rack her body as the first clawed hand tore into her back. Only then did she begin to scream.
"Noooooooo!!!!!" Xena cried and shot up into a sitting position on the bed, she was dripping wet as a cold sweat covered her naked form.
Xena!" Gabrielle shot up as well from the scream. She clutched the warrior who was staring at the window. "What is it?" She looked over, her heart pounding in her chest.
"Hades!" Xena cried and shot out of the bed, grabbing her clothes that had been scattered on the floor, a reminder of their afternoon together. "It's way past dark already!" She began to dress in a hurried fashion.
"Xena!" Gabrielle shouted at her. "You scared me half to death....slow down...."
"No time Gabrielle!" Xena said, pulling on her leather tunic.
Gabrielle got out of the bed and grabbed Xena by the arms. "Don't do this Xena." she pleaded. "You're shutting me out again."
Xena stopped and sighed looking down at the bard. "It was just a bad dream. I'm fine." She explained. "I don't have much time. I've got to get out there. We should have never...." Her voice trailed off.
"Never what?" Gabrielle asked beginning to feel the first fingers of anger slipping over her.
Xena saw the hurt in her eyes and pulled her close. "That's not what I meant...."
Gabrielle sunk into her lover's embrace and the anger melted away. "Well at least let me get dressed then." Gabrielle sighed. "Wouldn't want to meet up with a demon without clothes on.
"Don't start with this Gabrielle...not now..." Xena warned as she pulled away and looked down into the bard's beautiful green eyes.
"What?" Gabrielle asked innocently.
Xena rolled her eyes and spoke. "I will tie you up if I have to."
"You wouldn't dare." Gabrielle growled.
"I'd love to actually, but I would prefer if I could stick around to enjoy it myself." She joked trying to lighten the mood that was quickly darkening. She suddenly got very serious. "You know you can't come with me tonight. It's too dangerous and I can't take the chance of you...." She stopped before she said anymore.
"Getting us both killed." Gabrielle finished. She knew deep down, as did Xena, that she would be no match for something as unpredictable as this beast was. "I'll wait for you to return." Gabrielle said quietly. She turned away from the warrior's eyes. Her pain was too great, tears welling in her eyes. A terrible fear gripped her heart at the thought of Xena going out there into an unknown battle against an unpredictable beast.
Xena pulled her close, squeezing her hard. "I love you Gabrielle." Xena whispered. She bend down and kissed the tears from Gabrielle's face and then kissed her deeply on the lips. She felt the bard melt into her and didn't want the kiss to end. Reluctantly she pulled away, and gently stroked Gabrielle's hair. "I've got to get going now. I'll be thinking of you."
"I love you." Gabrielle whispered, as she watched the warrior slip out the door. She stood there, staring at the closed door, for a very long time. She had a bad feeling about this. A very bad feeling.
"Xena!" Salmoneus cried. He was sitting at a table sampling the third tray that Lucinda had graciously supplied him. He was working his way steadily, and with ease.
The inn had now filled with the patrons that had decided that gathering together at the inn was more comforting than staying alone in their homes contemplating the horror that lurked outside their doors. They all stopped what they were doing and turned to watch the warrior woman head over to the table where the irritating stranger sat.
"Salmoneus." Xena stated as she picked up the weapons from the table.
"You're feeling better?" Salmoneus asked. He was gazing at what appeared to be a bite mark on her shoulder.
"What?...Oh yes." She replied as she turned to leave.
Salmoneus rose from the table when he realized the warrior was heading out the door. "Wait!" He called after her. She didn't listen. She opened the door and left. He raced over and paused at the closed door. He gulped nervously and opened it, stepping out into the cool night air. Xena was already heading down the road. "Xena!" He called to her, waving his hands madly in the air.
She stopped and turned around. "Salmoneus. Get back in the inn!!"
"I have to talk to you!" He cried running to her.
"I don't have time for this now." She growled.
"It's about the dinnerware." He panted, trying to catch his breath.
"You want to talk about silverware *now*!!!" She cried. "I said I'd pay you and I will!"
"Well you never gave me a chance...." He panted. "And then you got...sick..." He paused at these words, and then continued. "Well when the blacksmith dropped them off...I....was..." His voice trailed as he feared finishing.
"And!" She growled impatiently, leaning down into his quivering form.
"What *exactly* were you planning when you melted down the dinnerware?" He questioned nervously, wringing his hands.
She paused, not wanting to have to repeat this, especially to Salmoneus. "Apparently, only silver can kill a man wolf, demon wolf, whatever, and there is a slight chance, slight chance, mind you...." By the gods this sounded ridiculous, especially coming from her own mouth. "...that this is what might be out there...and I didn't want to take any...." She was watching the colour drain from Salmoneus's face. "Are you alright?" She asked, suddenly concerned.
"I see....well...actually....whew...hmmm." Salmoneus stammered. "It's just that, well you know it's fine dinnerware, beautiful really, delicate, and it's just that I didn't think you'd be planning..and...well..." He couldn't say.
Her eyes narrowed. "What about the silverware Salmoneus?"
He licked his lips nervously, "Well...it's not exactly one hundred percent pure you see..."
Her eyes widened. "What are you saying?" She growled.
"Well, it's got some mixture..." His voice trailed to a whisper.
"What!" She cried. "You sold me cheap silverware!!!"
"Now wait a minute...cheap is a relative term..." He explained.
"Alright." She sighed. "What's the mix, 50/50?"
"Yeesh. Not exactly." He replied.
"Not exactly! What then, 30/70?, ....20/80?...10..." She watched as Salmoneus sank further away from her. Her eyes got very wide. "Is there any silver in this stuff or what!!!!???" She cried.
"Well, it may have been sprayed in passing, lightly....very lightly...." He was fearing for his very life now.
"Sprayed....in..passing....." Xena spoke aloud to herself. Oh, things were going bad very quickly tonight, very quickly indeed. "You...." She said through clenched teeth.
"Now wait a minute..." Salmoneus fell to his knees. "You haven't even paid me yet....wait....please don't kill me...oh valiant, fair, just, noble, queenship..."
His begging of his life was cut short as a piercing howl shot through the night air. They both looked at each other.
"I've got to go." She said.
He grabbed her arm. "Xena, I never knew you'd buy...use.....I'm so sorry....I..."
"Apologize later Salmoneus." She said as she turned to go. "I've got no time left. You can do one thing for me though."
"Anything...anything...oh please....your gracious..." He stammered.
"Make sure Gabrielle does not leave the inn." She stated and left.
"Consider it done." He said as he watched her head out into the night. "May the gods be with you." He whispered and scurried back into the warmth and safety of the inn.
She stood on the roadway, the moon now high in the night sky. She held her sword out in front of her in a ready position. There was a small breeze that played gently with her raven hair. She heard the quiet swinging of the rope that held the cage suspended above her. She tried hard not to think about how eerily close this was to the gut wrenching dream she had awoke screaming from not an hour ago. She shook off this growing fear and concentrated on listening for any unusual sounds that would warn her of it's approach. She stared at her sword silently cursing Salmoneus. If she got out of this alive she would personally make sure... She shook her head to stop such thoughts of impending doom and forced herself to remain focused on the task at hand. Focus Xena, focus, she coached herself. Usually the prospect of a confrontation excited her, brought out her warrior spirit. But she was spooked. Her dream had been so real and she had not been able to shake it from her mind's eye. Hades. She spat inwardly. She was losing it again. Warrior Princess Mystic. Warrior Princess Dreamseeker. Warrior Princess....She heard a sound come from across the clearing. She froze and listened. Nothing. She waited. Nothing. She was about to right it off as nothing more than a passing forest animal but then she heard it again. It was the unmistakable sound of a twig snapping, quietly, from the weight of something big.
The sound of running water echoed in his ears. He opened his eyes and could finally see. At last his dreams were realized and he got up and crawled to the water's edge. He bent down to drink from it's cool depths and gazed at his reflection. He saw a demon, and the demon was he. He grinned madly as he drank from it's delicious brew.
It watched her from the dark cover of the forest trees. It tasted her in the breeze that gently swept across it's snout. It smelled the blood that pumped ever faster in her veins. It's tongue slid between long sharp teeth as it anticipated the taste of the red hot liquid on it's lips. It watched it's prey circle slowly, ever slowly as she strained to taste of it, just as it tasted of her. The bloodlust sent shivers through it's crouched form, coiled tightly on powerful hind legs. It's ears could hear the breathing of it's quarry and the beating of it's heart. It's vision heightened further as it now gazed through her skin to the red liquid that ran beneath it's translucent covering. It's need became overwhelming and it readied itself to spring forth and end this maddening hunger that was consuming it's very being.
Xena sensed it's presence and knew instinctually that it was about to attack. It took her only a few seconds to hone in on it's exact location and just a few seconds more to hear the faint beating of it's heart. Her almost supernatural battle instincts were exquisitely sharp as was her sword and she readied it, though she hoped she would not need it. So far things couldn't have been more ideal. The beast, she judged, would be coming towards her from across the roadway and she had only to step back and cut the rope for the cage to descend and trap her quarry. It was almost too easy. And this is what made her worry, as deep in her gut she had a real bad feeling about this. She heard the unmistakable quickening of it's heart and tensed in anticipation of it's predatory advance. She smiled inwardly at this as she was sure that it was not expecting the hunted to be the hunter tonight. In fact, she was staking her life on it.
He sniffed the night air, his snout raised towards the moonlight, his lips pulled back, revealing a deadly row of razor sharp teeth. It tasted of human prey. It tasted of a woman. It tasted of her. He quietly slipped through the forest following the scent, hot blooded rage now pulsing in his veins. He quickened his pace as the scent of her grew closer.
Xena's eyes widened only slightly as she watched it spring forth from the trees. It was huge and it was deadly fast. She was in awe of it's quickness that contradicted the immense limbs that housed razor sharp claws. It was almost upon her before she could make her move, she was only mildly surprised. She stepped back and raised her sword to cut the rope. Her eyes widened then, as she felt claws tear into her back.
Gabrielle was pacing. Salmoneus was feeling dizzy. Everybody was watching the young blond woman go from one end of the room, shake her head, and walk back again. Nobody was talking anymore. The tension building from this mad walk to nowhere had the room focused to a fine point. They all moved their heads in unison. Back and forth, back and forth. When the bard would pause to shake her head, the crowd would sip from their mugs, and then the ritual would begin again. Only Nuktimos was not watching. He was polishing goblets, once again, he rubbed fiercely at a stain that would not go away. It just would *not* go away.
The bard stopped.
The room froze.
"Xena's in trouble." She said. She grabbed her staff and headed for the door. "I've got to go to her."
Salmoneus grabbed her from behind. She swung her staff hard around and made solid connection with his gaping jaw. He went down in a heap.
"Salmoneus!" She cried. She bent down to see how bad she'd hurt him. "Oh gods...I'm sorry..." She stammered.
"Owww!" Salmoneus groaned as he sat up rubbing his chin.
"Never EVER sneak up on me like that again!" She cried.
"No problem there." He said and stood back on his feet. "That's quite a mean swing you've got there."
"I'm going and don't try to stop me." She warned. She turned towards the door but Nuktimos was blocking it. "Out of my way!" She screamed.
"I'm afraid I can't let you do that." He said sadly.
She turned to see that the patrons at the bar had circled her. Her eyes widened in surprise, and then they narrowed.
She began taking the men down one by one.
She swung round with her sword instinctually. She felt it sink into the beast and it howled in pain. A powerful limb came round making hard contact with the side of her head and her world wavered in blackness. Her body was thrown against the tree and she hit it hard, a fresh wave of pain shooting through her skull. Her thoughts were scrambled but her instincts remained sharp. She blindly swung her sword around again making contact with the trunk of the tree and the rope that held the cage. She slid to the forest floor and looked up at the beast, her vision blurred. She was seeing double. She saw multiple red burning eyes lung for her.
The cage swooshed down and landed on the beasts. They howled in rage and turned on each other in a mad display of fury.
Xena could not see. She heard the beast thrashing wildly in the trap and she began to crawl away. She felt warm blood fall down across her eyes and fire danced across her back. She crawled blindly on all fours. She didn't know where she was, or what she was doing. She knew only that she must keep moving away from the sounds of rage that echoed through her head.
They had her surrounded. She was heaving hard from the sheer exertion of the fight. She had downed ten men but there were ten more to go. She eyed them warily, as they did her. She contemplated her next move with deadly calm. She went to swing round but her focus was lost as she heard the first sounds of what could have only been a quiet banging on the inn door. She froze and listened.
The men still standing froze and listened, all eyes turned towards the wooden door. There was a pause. The sound came again. And then nothing.
Gabrielle went to the door.
No one stopped her. They were too frozen in fear, as each man pictured the beast in their own mind's eye, visions that were drawn from long ago childhood nightmares of faceless demons.
Gabrielle clasped the handle of the door. A fear gripped her heart, not because she was afraid that the beast would spring forth, but because she knew that it was Xena. She opened the door and the warrior fell into her arms.
A red haze clouded her vision as she strained to make sense of nameless shapes and murmured whispers that swirled around her. She shivered with each wave of pain that spread itself across her form, fiery and piercing. She felt the warmth of someone's touch on her face and she knew that she was home.
"There's blood everywhere!" Solston screamed. He was gaping down at the warrior woman on the floor in a pool of blood, her companion kneeling down beside her, cradling her head.
"Is she dead?!!!" Another asked peering down.
"Shut up!" Nuktimos cried, pushing the patron aside wildly as he raced to get to the women.
"Get me some cloth!" Gabrielle cried. She looked up at the paralyzed circle of people that stared down at them. "NOW!" She screamed. Nuktimos ran to get the some. She was shaking with fear and worry but she remained focused as Xena had taught her, anything less could be fatal. She assessed the damage. She had a gash on the side of her head and so far that's all she could see. She lifted her up slightly and checked her back. Her eyes widened as she gazed at deep gashes that had torn through her leather, ragged, and without question the mark of the claws of something huge. She gently lay her back down.
Salmoneus hovered over them, wild eyed with worry. Nuktimos came back and handed him some cloth. Salmoneus kneeled down on the other side of Xena and handed it to Gabrielle. "Oh this is all my fault..." He said shaking his head.
"It's nobody's fault, Salmoneus, now stay focused and help me." Gabrielle pleaded. She was desperately trying to stay true to these words herself.
"I see a bite on her neck!" Nuktimos cried. He pointed downward. "There!"
No," Salmoneus replied. "That was there when she left."
"Oh." Nuktimos replied. There was a quiet pause from the group as they all worked this puzzle around their brains.
Gabrielle carefully wrapped the cloth tightly around Xena's chest while Salmoneus held another cloth to her head. Once she was satisfied she had the blood flow under control she instructed the others to help her move the warrior. They carried her to the room and lay her on the bed.
A small crowd stood restlessly at the door of the room unable to help yet unsure of where to go or what to do. They watched as Gabrielle and Salmoneus sat on either side of the injured woman. Nuktimos came in carrying fresh bandages and a basin of water and abruptly closed the door in the faces of the onlookers. They stood staring at the closed wooden door for a few seconds more, then slowly began to file one by one back to the bar, heading back to their mugs and the numbing comfort they found in them.
Salmoneus helped Gabrielle begin to clean and prepare Xena's wounds. They carefully removed her clothing and covered her with blankets where they could to try and stop the onset of shock. He watched in fascination as Gabrielle worked quickly and with great skill. She stitched the head wound with expert hands, yet ever so gentle in their touch. He could see she was beside herself with worry but she let none of this emotion impede her from the task at hand. They rolled the warrior over and Salmoneus heard a small gasp escape Gabrielle's lips, but then she immediately began to repair the damage that the large claws had left as a harsh reminder of the deadly encounter.
The warrior stirred then and began to moan softly as Gabrielle began to stitch the first of the four gash marks and she struggled to escape the source of her agony.
Gabrielle instructed Salmoneus to hold down her arms and she leaned in further and spoke soothing words to the warrior. She kissed her gently on the cheek and Salmoneus felt suddenly very awkward as if he was intruding on what should have been a private moment.
Nuktimos returned with a fresh basin of water and placed it on the bed stand. He then stepped back and stood there unsure of what to do with himself. The guilt and fear was consuming him. He silently cursed the night the warrior woman had entered their town. He never wanted for anything like this to happen. He prayed silently that she would recover, but a deeper part of him, one he would not recognize as his, wanted her to die and end this quest to slay the beast that was his own.
Gabrielle finished stitching the last of the gashes and sat back surveying her work. The tears had been so jagged but she hoped that her sewing would leave as little scarring as possible. Her heart went out to her love as she traced the outline of whip marks, that had only just began to heal from their last misadventures at Helcus's castle. She felt Xena shudder under her touch and her chest tightened. She had been steadily working on Xena's wounds but now she had done all she could and felt the emotion she had held at bay flood over her. She felt the first hot tears well in her eyes and watched as the first one escaped and fell towards her lover's back. She gently covered her with a blanket.
Salmoneus got up and nodded to Nuktimos. They both left the room quietly, but they needn't have bothered. Gabrielle's thoughts were only of Xena now and she never even heard them leave.
She stroked Xena's hair as tears spilled down her cheeks. "Some honeymoon this had turned out to be." She chuckled between sobs. "Oh Xena," She whispered to her, "We have got to take a real vacation. No villages to save, no warlords to fight, a real vacation." She dreamed of a place without pain and hatred but she couldn't think of a place on this earth where this could be. She placed her hand on Xena's cheek and it felt cold to the touch. She had lost so much blood. She got up to get the necessary herbs from their pack and once again made busy with her hands.
She was lying, face down, in a very soft place. She couldn't open her eyes but she knew she was safe. She listened to the sound of her beating heart as it drove the throbbing of her head and the pulsing ache across her back. She was cold, ice fire consuming her, and she suffered from a terrible thirst. She tried to open her mouth to speak, to beg for water but she couldn't. Then she felt a warm hand on her cheek and she knew her prayers were answered. She let gentle hands lift her head slightly, and placed a cup between her lips and she tasted it. She struggled to open her eyes to see who was there. She felt a soft kiss on her shivering skin and her question was answered. She tried to smile but a wave of dizziness swept over her and her world faded to dim colours and finally black.
The first ray of light hit the clearing. The sound of Nuktimo's footsteps on the dirt road echoed quietly against the forest trees mixing with the sounds of birds now busily beginning their morning rituals. He crested the small incline of the roadway and saw his first glimpse of the cage. He gazed at the large hole that was torn in the side of the fortress and his heart lifted slightly. His joy was short lived. He spotted a figure lying in the dirt and quickened his step.
She was laying across a great altar. She gazed up at raging black clouds that swept across the sky. No rain had come but the wind was whipping madly across her tiny form, and the clouds threatened to spill forth and empty their rage upon her. She was wild with fear and panic. She strained against the ties that bound her hands and legs, splayed out to the four corners of the stone slab. She heard footsteps approach her. She was afraid, so very afraid of what was to come. The figure approached. It was her father. Her fear was replaced by relief so great. He smiled down at her. She returned his gentle gaze, but then her face froze in horror and realization. She watched him raise the silver dagger high above his head.
"NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!" Lucinda's scream pierced the crisp morning air. She wildly struggled against strong arms that gripped her tightly and then she opened her eyes to see her father kneeling there. She had the urge to scream again but she saw a pain and sadness so great in his eyes that it died on her lips.
She was leaning against a wooden wall, seated on a bed of hay, because she could not stand. She couldn't see this as she could not open her eyes, but she pictured it in her head as she breathed in the scent of it. She was in great pain. She heard the pacing of the beast in the cage. It was ever increasing. She following it's frenzied path with her ears, back and forth, back and forth. And then she heard something different. She turned to her companion who was standing beside her and strained to open her eyes to warn her. She couldn't. Then gentle hands touched her face and she felt them open her eyes for her. A blinding light shot through her skull and she instinctively recoiled in a vain attempt to escape it.
Gabrielle leaned in closer to look at Xena's pupils. She sighed with some relief. They were not as unresponsive as last night. She felt Xena flinch under her touch and quickly closed her eyes again.
She heard the pacing increase ever faster, a wild rage building in it's maddening steps. She strained to hear what was just outside her edge of sound perception. But she could hear nothing. But there it was again, ever so quiet. It was breathing with the control of a silent predator.
Gabrielle sat on the edge of the bed and looked down at Xena. She gazed at the fresh bandages she had recently changed on her back. She sighed. She didn't want to do this but she had little choice. She began to shake the warrior's shoulders to rouse her once again. Gabrielle paused for a brief second as she thought she'd heard a faint scream in the distance. She was so very tired. She listened and heard nothing and turned reluctantly to disturb the gentle sleep of her warrior.