The next morning, Gabrielle awakened at dawn, planning to worship at the temple of Artemis. The patron Goddess of Amazons had become a source of comfort for her after Hope was born; Xena had preferred Artemis to the other Gods because she only came when she was called. The Goddess of the hunt didnt meddle in human affairs. Gabrielle, however, was about to ask her to do just that.
Gabrielle ate breakfast with Illyria and baby Xena; the choice of name made tears rise to Gabrielles eyes, but she was grateful that a part of the warrior lived on. Declining the offer of company, Gabrielle left a little later. This was a trip she would have to make alone.
Kneeling before the altar, Gabrielle made a silent plea for help. A minute or two passed, and with very little fanfare, Artemis appeared and waved away the incredulous priestesses with an imperious gesture. She had been waiting silently for someone to ask for her help since the moment this debacle began.
"Chosen," she said softly, "I know why you are here." Artemis gazed at the little bard and unlikely Amazon with fondness. "Aphrodite is right. Things are not as they seem."
Gabrielle brazenly stared at the beautiful Goddess with the courage that profound grief would bring. "Why?" Gabrielle cried. "Why Xena? I thought I was supposed to die instead."
Artemis shook her head emphatically. Her silver eyes hardened perceptibly. "This whole prophecy has been a lie orchestrated by Ares to scare the two of you. He was hoping to get rid of you and make Xena return to him, true. He thought that by making Xena paranoid, shed be more likely to make a mistake. Which she did."
The Goddess of the hunt began pacing. "That other blathering centaur poop about the end of mankind--well, that was his overactive imagination and Aphrodites hysterics. She should have known better, but she really did mean well. The other Gods would protect the mortals from anything Ares could do." She paused. "Aphrodite was being sort of blackmailed by our brother, and he made her force Xena to acknowledge her feelings for you. That was the extent of her involvement."
Studying the bard, she added, "He wanted you to die for a couple of reasons. One, so he could get Xena back, of course. That was what Aphrodite was trying to say when she told Xena it could be fatal for mankind. Xena as a grieving, vengeful warlord could easily destroy the world. Two, if you had died, all Xenas stories would disappear, erasing any trace of the good Xena from history. Make him look like less of a failure. That was ego."
"What went wrong?" Pieces were rapidly falling into place for Gabrielle, and an overall picture was forming. The mind that was able to pull stories from thin air was also very analytical.
"I dont know, Gabrielle." Artemis could tell the bard was thinking furiously. She would figure it out on her own, the Goddess was quite sure.
"Ares orchestrated Illyrias abduction, didnt he? To lure Xena and I to Ephadon. The stone was a fake, just a prop. Borias was brought to Greece to try to lure Xena over. I get sent off with Illyria and mysteriously die on the way back. No Gabrielle, and Xena becomes Ares chosen again." Ares had manipulated Xena into thinking that it was all some uncontrollable "curse" set in motion, when in reality, he was just hoping for random events to do his dirty work for him.
"Very good," Artemis said approvingly. "The stone is real, though, and it does need to be returned so that Autolycus can get on with his life. It belongs to the King of Cyprus, but his treasury is so large, he doesnt even know its gone. The arrest charges were issued by a minion of Ares." Her lovely face creased in a frown. "I just dont understand what Ares accomplished by Xenas death."
Gabrielle rose. "Im going to find out." She brushed off the knees of her breeches. "The answer lies with Borias." She smiled at the Goddess, content enough. It wouldnt bring Xena back, but at least she could bring the murderer to justice. It was something. "Thank you, Artemis."
"My pleasure." Truly it was. She hated the way that Ares played with the mortals, and this time, she could help one of her very favorites. "If you need me, just call. I cant directly influence things, but I can give you advice. Heed my warning never listen to Ares, Gabrielle. Hell never tell you the complete truth."
Gabrielle deliberated that for a moment, hearing the ring of truth in Artemis words. Ares wants me to go west. I think Ill go east, instead.
Ares had underestimated Gabrielle again.
"Unghhh." Owww. My head is killing me.
"Drink this, it will help." The voice was unfamiliar, but heavily accented.
She reached up her hands to take the cup, but found she couldnt move them. The rattle of chains rang loudly in the stillness. She couldnt see, either. Taking a sip of the liquid, which she found to be nothing more than water, she discovered her voice. "Have I been blinded?"
"No. Your eyes are bandaged."
"Oh." Isnt that lovely. She cleared her throat. "Where am I? How long have I been out?"
"You dont need to know that yet."
The person stood up and moved away. She could hear a door being opened and then closed, a bolt shot from the outside. Her exceptional hearing also picked up a conversation between the man who had just left and Borias.
Deceitful son-of-bitch. You should have known that after all these years, he was not to be trusted. Stupid of me to let my guard down.
"Did you tell her anything about her friend?"
"No, lord. Just as you commanded."
"Good. I want to be the one to tell her the good news."
Uh-oh. When people say that, its not "good news". I gotta get outta here. Gabrielle needs me. She tested her bonds carefully, not wanting to make any suspicious noises. Sniffing the air, she realized she was probably being held in a dungeon of some kind; the scent of rot and sour water was unmistakable.
The door was unlocked and reopened, then shut again. Borias. Always smells like horse leather. "Some kind of hospitality you have here," she commented drolly.
A deep chuckle sounded from above her head. "As I said, I have changed." A gentle hand undid the bandages around her head. The light, what little there was, tore into her field of vision as the last of the cloth fell away. "The drugs we used made your eyes very sensitive. A small kindness to keep from making it too uncomfortable." He helped her sit up, situating her with her back against the clammy wall.
Oh, gee. Thanks. Xena concentrated on focusing her eyes on the far wall. The pain was excruciating.
"Since its cold down here, I thought Id give you something to keep you warm tonight." He draped a blanket over her lap and sat a small plate beside her.
Shifting uncomfortably on the small straw mattress, Xena smelled a familiar scent rising from her blanket. Lilacs. Forcing her eyes to focus, she picked out the details of the cloth and stiffened in alarm.
It was Gabrielles jacket. The rather hideous one that the little girl gave her.
Tentatively, Xena lifted it and held it closer so that she could see it better. A soft sob tore through her. It was soaked through with blood. No one could have bled so much and lived. Gabrielle. She closed her eyes as the grief flowed though her.
Borias laughed. "Xena, youre too soft. Shes dead. So what? She made you weak."
She could feel his breath on her cheek he was so close to her face. Xena ignored him, reigning in the rage that burned deep within, saving it for a more useful time. She thought of Gabrielles calm green eyes instead.
"You should have heard her scream, Xena. So pitiful, calling for you." Borias continued, not realizing just how near Xena was to the edge. He froze as Xena opened her eyes, transfixed by the awesome fury held in the icy blue depths. Realizing too late that he was kneeling too close, he sought to back away.
Xena didnt have much slack in the chains that held her, but Borias was close enough for her to loop her leg shackles over his head. She crossed her legs, effectively closing the metal noose around his neck. She squeezed.
"Give me the key or die." She watched coldly as Borias turned a delicate shade of purple.
"Ares wont let me die " he gasped.
Figures. "Dont count on that."
Borias was close to losing conciousness when he finally fumbled the key out of his pocket and gave it to Xena. Bending her hands awkwardly, she unlocked the manacles from around her wrists, then unchained her legs, freeing Borias at the same time.
Borias crawled to the end of the cell, dragging deep breaths into his famished lungs. She shoved him to his back and leaned over him, her red-rimmed eyes fierce.
"Tell me what happened to Gabrielle," she snarled softly. Borias was, not for the first time, terrified of Xena. He knew better than anyone else what she was capable of accomplishing. He had a secret weapon, though, that Xena didnt know about.
"Do your worst, Xena. You cant kill me," he muttered.
"Okay." She jabbed her fingers viciously into the right side of his neck, rendering his left side immobile. "How about I turn you into a blathering baby for the rest of your miserable life? It wont kill you, but itll sure make me feel better."
Borias could feel blood coming from his nose and the feeling completely leave one side of his body. This is not possible. Ares said that I had my life back.
"On the contrary, it is very possible. I gave you life again, not immortality. And Im quite sure I never promised to defend you. Youre a warlord, moron. Defend yourself." Ares knelt next to Xena. He shook his head, disgusted. "Borias, you did not do things according to my instructions. That was the deal." His voice hardened, and Borias realized that Ares knew his secret. All bets were off. He touched Borias forehead with one finger, and the light in the mans eyes began to dim. "Killing the girl in such a horrible manner was not part of the deal."
If he was going to die, he didnt want the woman he still loved to think that he had killed her best friend. Borias tried to shake his head, staring at Xena. I didnt kill her, Xena, I swear! I couldnt do it. It was pigs blood! The pain was excruciating, much worse than anything hed ever felt before. The price for the betrayal of a God.
Xena read the denial in his eyes. He didnt kill Gabrielle, then. She glanced at Ares, and blocked her mind off from him. Shed gotten good at letting him know only what she wanted him to know over the years. In such a hurry to get rid of Borias that makes you the prime suspect. How can I get the truth from him?
A plan formed. "Stop it."
Ares raised an arrogant eyebrow. "Why?"
"You dont have to kill him to win me back."
"Ah." He took his touch off of Borias and stood, offering a hand to Xena. Xena released the pressure point and allowed Ares to help her rise. She locked eyes with Borias and saw his almost imperceptible nod. I understand, Xena. I wanted to have you and our son with me again, and was willing to do anything to get what I wanted. I was wrong. Now I will have to die again, agonizingly, my dignity stripped away. If you ever cared for me, dont let that happen. Please.
A bit of the Borias she remembered shone through for a moment, quickly masked behind a cool indifference. You understand, after all. You betrayed the God of war somehow. Ares would have killed you in a more horrifying way than I could have ever dreamed. Better this way quick and painless.
Borias looked up at Xena, saw her eyes darken slightly in compassion. She had seen the truth in his face. I am proud to descend to Tartarus if you are wielding the sword. What a magnificent woman you have become. His very last thoughts were of the son he had never known. He was the best of both of us.
She reached behind Ares and unsheathed his sword, then separated Borias head from the rest of him with one solid blow. Consider it a last favor, because I have a feeling that you never wanted to hurt anyone. She twirled the sword, for once not seduced by the power it radiated. Besides, you gave me something convincing to show Ares. Hell never figure out that I killed you out of kindness. Mercys beyond him.
Gently, she cleaned off the blade on the body of Borias and handed the sword back to its owner.
Ares eyes were wide with appreciation and molten with passion. Needless death excited him so. He reached forward to embrace Xena, but Xena shoved him away.
She picked up the discarded coat that had once been Gabrielles and leveled a look at the God of War. "You heard me. No." She sauntered up to him, some of the angry defiance of the old Xena shining through. Her eyes were furious and hard. "I am your chosen." While it serves my purposes, she added to herself. "I am not for your pleasure. Do not invade my personal space, or I will impale you upon your own sword and leave you there for all eternity." The old Xena would have slept with him. This Xena happens to be smarter than that.
Ares raised both hands in surrender. "Okay, okay. Hands off. Good to have you back." A self-satisfied look on his face, he declared, "My army is at your disposal."
She snorted derisively. "Whose army?"
Oh, Xena. Welcome home. "Your army, beloved." Ares couldnt believe things had gone so smoothly. Sure, hed invested a lot of work into his little scheme, but he never dreamed that she would turn so quickly. With Gabrielle pointed in the other direction, he would have months before hed have to worry about her. Hed dispose of the annoying little blonde later. As long as Xena thought she was dead, their alliance would remain; he would spend all of his time wooing her. Seducing her, as well. Ares need a woman at his side whom better than Xena? Especially after that mess with Hope. He winced.
With idle power, Ares raised his hand and transported her into a luxurious chamber at the top of the castle, a steaming bath and copious food at her disposal. It was decadently tacky and full of weaponry, true to Ares own style. The furnishing and linen were black and red, making Xena feel queasy. It looked like blood and death, and shed had enough of that to last her a lifetime. "Could you do something about this room? Maybe something a little more peaceful?" As an afterthought, she added, "In silk."
Ares was eager to please, if it made his chosen happy. "Oh. Sorry. Not everyones taste mirrors mine, and because of your recent loss the colors are probably rather offensive. Lets see, how about " he looked at Xena appraisingly, finally meeting her eyes, "blue?"
He waved his hand, and the black and red were replaced by cream and pale blue. The weapons were gone, replaced by tapestries. He touched her chin, and watched as her face hardened. "Like your eyes." He dropped his fingers from her face and took a step back. "I forgot about your desire to have all the best things in life. I wont forget again. You wont lack for anything." He produced an egg-sized diamond out of thin air and tossed it at her, smirking as she caught it with lightning fast reflexes. "When youre clean and well fed, well talk about our plans." He disappeared with a dramatic silver flash.
Pig. If I have to pretend to like him, I have to act like the old materialistic Xena. At least I got him to get rid of the nasty decorating scheme. With indifference, Xena tossed the diamond onto the bed. A million of those to have you back, my love.
She walked over to the window and looked out over the countryside. The Great Wall snaked through the land below, parting the desolate plains with its stalwart beauty. Chin. How long did they keep me out? She rested her hands on the window ledge and looked down. Below her, men readied for war, even though no war had been agreed upon yet. From this far up they looked like ants.
When Xena felt the crawling sensation leave her skin, signaling Ares departure, she allowed the tears she had been holding back to fall. Xena held the blood-soaked jacket close, still able to smell the lilac oil Gabrielle had bought at Ephadon. Now, it was all she had left. All of her personal effects were gone.
Xena wanted to make the world suffer for her loss, but the vision of Gabrielle that hung in the back of her mind wouldnt let her. The last promise she had ever made to her bard kept her rage firmly in check. It was something Ares would never understand; the love between Xena and Gabrielle transcended death. He couldnt make that bond any less than it wasand it was eternal. She thought of all the times Gabrielle had saved her from herself it was amazing that she could still do it despite the gulf that lay between them.
What happened to you? If Borias didnt kill you, then who did? And how did he get the coat? I know it all has something to do with Ares. As long as Ares thinks I hold Borias responsible for your death, Im safe. I made a promise, love; I will not let you down. She sighed sadly as she undressed; the pitiful rags she had been wearing were tossed straight into the fire.
Did I ever tell you how beautiful your eyes are? You always thought I was so strong, but just a look from you made my knees weak. Your smile was like sunshine on my black soul. You believed in me when no one else did, stayed with me through my rages, my self-pity, my tears. Your faith never wavered, and in the end, I couldnt protect you. She dragged her fingers through her tangled hair, the pain eating at her. I wish I knew what they had done with your body. I would have put it to rest next to Lyceus; I know you would have never wanted to go home. What do I tell your parents when I get back to Greece?
Her thoughts turned to the man she had killed earlier. She thought of the way he had been all those years ago and felt remorse. Poor Borias. Ares brought him back from Tartarus only to corrupt him. To use him to get to me. I destroyed both of his lives. That made her feel even worse. Ares took away the one thing that kept Borias from becoming me his compassion for others. I never had that when I was a warlord. Had he been stronger, Borias could have turned into what I used to be. The thought chilled her, and she refused to think about that.
She bathed in silence, allowing herself to cry, forcefully ridding herself of any thought of revenge and concentrating on finding out the truth. If Lao Ma had begun the healing of her soul, Gabrielle had finished it. She would not sully either memory by becoming the beast she had been. She thought of Gabrielle, sitting atop Storm, red-gold hair blowing in the wind, face rosy with the cold. Oh, Gabrielle. I didnt even get to kiss you I waited too long to say what was in my heart. Im so sorry.
Drying off, she found a thin silk robe on the bed, and discovered her leathers and weapons lying neatly on a nearby chair. Xena shrugged into the robe, realizing with her usual pragmatism that before she could leave, she would need to sleep and heal. Her eyes still stung fitfully. She sat at the veritable banquet Ares had laid and ate as much as she could, though she was too grief stricken to be truly hungry.
Curling up on the soft bed, she held the jacket to her chest and descended into a restless, exhausted sleep.
She dreamed only of Gabrielle.
Gabrielle awoke with a start, the dream so real she could swear she had been there.
Gathering her furs around her, she shivered in the cool pre-dawn. The farther east she traveled, the warmer it had gotten; the morning hours were still chilly and slightly damp. The fire she had built had died down and she knelt to stoke it, pushing her hair back out of her face. It was getting long; she needed to have it cut. That had been Xenas task, and it hurt too much to ask anyone else. Xena had been gone for a little over two months, but the wound her death had left was still raw. Gabrielle sometimes wondered if it would ever heal.
The further she traveled, the more sure she was that she was headed in the right direction. She knew Artemis was protecting her, and was definitely helping her aim her arrows when she hunted; Gabrielle couldnt hit the broad side of a temple with a bow and arrow, much to the Amazon Nations despair.
Gabrielle sat back on her sleeping roll and thought about the dream shed just had. It began with Xena holding that colorful coat that the little girl had given her. It was covered with dried blood. The vision of a huge wall stretching out over a brown plain. A courtyard full of soldiers. Xena sleeping in a huge, ornate bed, her body curled around the coat.
She realized that she hadnt even gone through her traveling bag since before before they had parted. She recalled having it on the road back to Ephadon; shed let Illyria wear it for most of the trip back. She knew that shed had it with on the way back to Borias camp. Is there any chance the coat could be missing?
She started water for tea and searched through her bag, every item bringing back memories. Shed left her scrolls with Cyrene, the desire to write having left her for now. Shed thought that maybe Cyrene would take pleasure in reading of her daughters exploits. Thanks to Xenas mother, the desire for revenge had left her; it was replaced with a driving desire to know the truth and to bring Borias to justice.
She found the small carved sheep Xena had given her for solstice, and a lock of Xenas hair knotted by a ribbon that Gabrielle had taken the first time Xena died. She stroked the token thoughtfully, realizing that she had even loved Xena before then. How much time did I waste?
Her hand closed around the bloody blue ribbons that Xena had been wearing in her hair when she died. Joxer had given her those before shed left Amphipolis. Hed tried to follow her, but this time, shed successfully eluded him. She knew he meant well, but she needed to do this on her own. She reverently wrapped one of the ribbons onto the end of her staff -- a constant reminder of the warrior who helped her hone that skill. A reminder of the love she had lost so needlessly, and of her own guilt.
Gabrielle made it to the bottom of the bag and the coat was gone. Shed had it in Amphipolis, and remembered shoving it into her pack. It had disappeared. Or had it?
The haunting vision of Xena holding it made her wonder. Hope flared deep within.
Is it possible?
High above her, Artemis smiled. The hardest part was over.
Something of vengeance I had tasted for the first time; as aromatic wine it seemed, on swallowing, warm and racy: its after-flavour, metallic and corroding, gave me a sensation as if I had been poisoned.
Charlotte Brontë (181655), English novelist. Jane Eyre, ch. 4 (1847).
Xena woke at dawn, the soft morning light filtering through the window and casting its shining fingers across the bed. Awareness came slowly, with it, the memories of the day before. It seems like a lifetime ago. She lay on her back for a few moments, missing Gabrielle; her fingers still clutched the bedraggled coat to her chest. Her heart ached. Will every moment of every day be like this?
At some point during the night, she had drawn the blanket up around her; the thin silk had tangled around her legs. Xena pulled herself free carefully, feeling her muscles scream in protest. Rising stiffly, she made her way over to the table, now laden with pastries. From the feel of her body this morning, she must have been a difficult prisoner.
Xenas hatred of Ares was fueled to a fever pitch in the light of day; the numbness and sorrow had been replaced with a seething fury. He always thought Gabrielle was my weakness. She was my strength. She thought of Solon, and of Hope, and of all the pain that Ares ambition had cost all of them. Bastard.
Her skin prickled unpleasantly. A venomous smile came to her face when she looked down at her bruised knuckles. I wonder how many I killed when the drugs wore off?
"Six, and you maimed 4 more." Ares read that evil thought quite easily, but only because she had projected it to him. Xena had known that he was around somewhere; she could feel his presence like a slimy film on her skin. Show time.
Ares pulled a chair out in an uncommon gesture of courtesy. Xena decided not to refuse the invitation, no matter how much better it felt to stand. She snagged an apple-filled pastry and munched on it, staring at the War God thoughtfully. As she tasted the sweetness of the food, she thought wistfully, Gabrielle would like this. Ares sat across from her, waiting for her to speak. All right. Lets make this good.
"I want a thousand men for now. Four hundred calvary, four hundred foot soldiers, and two hundred archers. All the horses must be armored, as well as the infantry and horse soldiers. Archers need to have light mail. The best weapons, of course."
"Of course," Ares readily agreed. "But why not more men? You could take over all of Greece with my legions."
Xena rose and began to pace restlessly. "You have a solid foot hold in Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and so on, am I right?"
"You have nothing here." Xena was gambling that his ego would be more powerful than his suspicions. She was also gambling a great deal on her own powers of persuasion.
Ares' eyebrow quirked. "Hmmm. What are you proposing?" He liked the idea of having influence in the east. His territory would be more widespread than anyone else on Olympus.
She returned his question with one of her own. "What do you know about Mahsu Khan?"
He stroked his beard in contemplation. "His name is a curse throughout the East. Ruthless, violent, cruel, oppressive all in all, not a bad guy. Except ."
Xena raised a questioning eyebrow. "Except that he belongs to another war god, you mean?"
"Yeah. Some minor guy who thinks he can play with the big boys." His mouth curled in a gentle, fond smile. "Youre going to teach him otherwise, my sweet?"
"Ive heard he has a massive treasury and hes calling himself the Destroyer of Nations." God, I hate that name. She suppressed a shiver.
Ares put a reassuring hand on her arm, mistaking the shudder for an expression of anger. "Theres no one that could fill that title like you did. Still, I could give you more men. Hes got over seven thousand just in this area."
Xena shook her head. "A thousand of the best is better than seven thousand morons in armor. Trust me."
Xena sat back down, pacified for the moment, and selected another pastry. "Ill need a few days to rest up and gather intelligence. I want all of Borias belongings, including the stone."
Ares snorted. "You can have it, just dont touch it. Foist it off on Khan, if you want."
"No," Xena said idly. "I think I may have a buyer for it."
"Fine." Mortals, even exceptional ones like Xena, all gloried in wealth. It made them weak. "If you want to retrieve it yourself, the room is next door. Ill be gone for a few days, rounding up your resources."
He touched her cheek for a moment, expecting her to pull away. Instead she gazed up at him mildly. "You know, Gabrielle did strengthen something in you. I dont know what it is, but youve become an exceptional warrior because of it. I cant complain." He removed his hand, then disappeared with a flash.
Xena sat at the table and let the bitter tears fall down her cheeks. She knew where that strength had come from.
She gave me her love.
Gabrielle kept traveling steadily east. From Athens, she had boarded a trading vessel bound for Izmir to cross the Aegean Sea; as much as she hated sailing, even she had to admit it was a smooth voyage.
So far, the east had been full of desert wastelands. She hadnt any idea what to expect from this strange land; Gabrielle stayed close to the temperate seas and rivers, avoiding the worst of the unforgiving heat. This morning, a little over four months since she had left Amphipolis, she found herself in Baku, a small port city on the Caspian Sea.
As she led Argo through the bustling crowd near the docks, she felt the queasy feeling that accompanied all of her sea-bound adventures start. She was so tired. The last time she had been to Chin, Ares had poofed her there in an effort to undermine the relationship between her and Xena. Gabrielle hadnt really comprehended how far away Chin was until she got to Baku earlier in the day.
One of the few people in the market that spoke Greek informed her that Chin lay across waterless deserts that took months to cross. The last city that was in the Fertile Crescent was Samarkand, and then it was nothing but sand for thousands of miles.
Chin, he said, would take her a full year to find. If she didnt die in the desert on her pretty horse.
How can I stop? If I dont do this, I might as well die right here. Gabrielle stroked Argo as she contemplated her next move. Argo would never make it across the desert, and I dont have enough money for a voyage all the way to Chin. With a sigh, she led Argo between two tall buildings, hoping to find an inn. Maybe a nights sleep in a soft bed will help.
Gabrielle never saw the five men coming for her, but Xenas horse did. Argo whinnied loudly and reared, knocking two of the men backward. Gabrielle grabbed her staff from Argos saddle and struck a defensive position. She brought the weapon down hard on the head of the man directly in front of her; he fell, but made the mistake of getting back to his feet. She heard the bones in his neck crack as she brought the heavy staff up under his chin, snapping his head back in a fatal blow.
Argo had trampled two others beneath her hooves when theyd tried to drag her away from Gabrielle. If they were alive, they wouldnt be for long. Good girl, Argo.
The other two men circled Gabrielle nervously, looking for an opportunity to get past her defenses. One darted in and sliced her leg open with his dagger; she ignored the flaring pain and concentrated on her attackers.
Gabrielle kept her back against the wall and her staff moving, feeling for the first time the battle lust Xena must have experienced. She felt a small smile form on her lips, and it wasnt a nice smile.
Xena had taught her the offensive moves in a vain attempt to get her to fight head on. She had preferred being defensive because fewer people got hurt. That Gabrielle had died with Xena.
She remembered, in a fleeting instant, practicing those moves against Xena, smiling and laughing with Xena. The pain the memories brought gave her the courage to attack.
Gabrielle focused and went after the two men, knocking their feet from beneath them. One had hit his head on the wall and was slower to get to his feet than the other. The one that managed to rise came after her in a fury, teeth bared. She brought her staff against his windpipe and crushed it with a single blow, sending him to the ground. The other bandit, seeing the fate of his companions, took off swiftly as soon as he was able to stand.
Gabrielle lowered her staff, breathing hard. The man she had hit in the throat struggled to breathe, blood coming from his nose and mouth. He was strangling slowly and painfully.
Kneeling beside him, she saw for the first time that he was barely old enough to have a beard. "You should have never come after me, friend."
Remorse and grief sat heavy in her gut; she took his head in her lap, said a small prayer, and wrenched it quickly to the side. With a shaking hand, she closed his staring eyes, and laid his head back down in the dirt.
Gabrielle stood unsteadily, pain shooting down her leg, tears coursing down her face. She knew that she was going to pass out in this strange city, and that the four men that she and Argo had killed probably had more friends than just the one that had survived. This is it? I just killed with out hesitation for the first time in my life. Im to die in this foreign place, all alone?
She sat back down, resting her head against the wall. The sand beneath her, shaded from the hot sun by the wall, was cool on her sweating body. Argo moved to stand over her protectively, nuzzling her hair in encouragement. Gabrielle emitted a huge sigh.
Tentatively, she examined her leg and saw that it was cut through to the bone. Ow. No wonder it hurts. She tore off a piece of her skirt and knotted it above the wound.
She wiped her tears away impatiently. Artemis, I wanted to do this on my own, but I cant. Help me.
Unconsciousness, when it came, was a blessing.
Xena sat atop her new war-horse, a black stallion named Night, and surveyed her troops as they trained in the shadow of the Great Wall. Three months into training and they were the best they would ever be, it seemed. Shed never led better.
Mahsu Khan had been made aware of her terms. Surrender all, or die. From the lack of response, she guessed dying was his choice. Stupid.
Ares would never know the real motivation for the war she was about to rage. Mahsu was a renowned torturer, delighting in the suffering of his captives, especially women and children. He had killed more people in a couple of years than she had in ten. If he were not eliminated, many more would suffer. Unfortunately, Ares influence would spread as well, but at this point, it was the lesser of two evils. Once her plan was completed, Ares would lose the East forever.
The money in Mahsus treasury would go back to the people he had taken it from. She had no need for it. What she wanted, money could never buy.
Ares sat beside her on a similar horse. It pleased him at times to act human, although he swore he disdained the mortals. He had a pleased expression on his face as he watched Xenas troops go through their paces. With a negligent hand on his sword, his source of power, he turned to gaze at Xena with admiring eyes.
Xena, for the most part, ignored him. He was always around, like an overeager puppy, and that was making it difficult to hold her temper. She would be glad when she could end this charade.
Several people in Mahsus army had been found nearby, dangling from rough crosses. Xena wasnt responsible for that, but Ares was content to think that she was. After the vision of Gabrielles death, I could never do that to anyone.
In the time that had passed since waking up in Chinsix, almost seven months ago nowXena had pondered the vision that Alti had shown her. Alti could have been wrong, but Xena doubted that. She had taken profound delight in the fact that Xena would suffer at her friends death. That meant Gabrielle could still be alive.
Every instinct she had told her that Gabrielle was out there, somewhere. The thought of holding Gabrielle made her feel giddy, and a smile flitted across her face. Xena shook her head, trying to push the thoughts away. First things first get Ares to leave me alone or US alone.
Whatever had happened, Xena knew Ares was responsible for it all. The whole scenario reeked of one of Ares schemes. By removing what he viewed as the one obstacleGabriellehed hoped to get her back. Autolycus and Borias were the bait. Take her far away, put her into a situation that she equated with the old days and boom, instant warlord.
Shed figured out it had taken only two months for them to get to Chin, which meant Ares had to have helped Borias get there. Gabrielle was supposed to have been killed by Borias men, but he couldnt go through with it, and Ares found out about it after they had been moved to Chin. Fearing Borias was turning, Ares needed him eliminated before he could tell Xena. So Gabrielle was out there somewhere, unless Ares had figured out another way to have her removed.
It was that thought that made her step up her timetable. Shed figured out the scheme, and shed also figured out how to get Ares to leave her alone after it was all said and done. Xena had found a trusted friend in Korla, a Greek acquaintance on his way home, and hed agreed to transport the stone back to the town of Ephadon, then take word to her mother in Amphipolis. Marupis was one of the few people in this area who would not betray her.
She turned Night back towards camp, and was dismayed that Ares was still intent on following her. She dismounted and strode into her yurt, then rounded on the god of war with a vengeance.
"Enough!" She shoved the god into a chair. "Do you want me to be your chosen, or not?"
"Yes!" He shot back. He was confused by her anger, but he could recognize a challenge in her voice.
Xena lowered her face until her nose touched Ares. "Then leave me alone."
"Because you are driving me crazy, always near me. I want your word. Swear on the sword that you will leave me alone. If you dont, Im going back to Greece." She backed off and crossed her arms.
At those words, the god of war felt like panicking. Ares rose to his feet in a fluid movement. He lay his sword on the table and placed his hand on the flat of the blade. "I swear, Xena, I will leave you alone." With a smirk, he returned the sword to the scabbard. "Happy?"
Xena gave him a genuine smile. "Incredibly. Now go. If I need you, Ill let you know." Ares poofed out of the room, but not before giving her a sketchy salute and a puzzled look.
Xena stood there for a moment in disbelief. She began to chuckle. That was too easy. I cant believe he actually agreed to leave me alone. Does he even know what he just did? She began to laugh so hard tears flowed down her cheeks; she collapsed on her bed to keep from falling.
The guards outside Xenas yurt looked at each other in consternation as the mighty warlord, legendary for her ruthlessness, indulged in a fit of uncontrollable mirth. A few minutes later, she stuck her head out the door and informed them, "Well attack in two days tonight, I want a celebration organized for everyone in this camp. See that it gets done."
"Yes, lord." Delighted, they sprinted off to tell their comrades.
Gabrielle woke in a small hut with the unearthly beauty of the goddess Artemis watching over her.
Rising up on her elbows, she gave Artemis a befuddled look. "Hi."
Artemis smiled warmly. "How are you feeling?"
Gabrielle made a mental inventory of all moving body parts. She felt her leg, and the healed scar there. "Pretty good, I think. Where am I?"
"Chin. Its quite pretty here, you know." The goddess sighed. "Ive never been outside Greece much until now."
Chin. Thank the gods. Gabrielle sat up slowly. It was amazing how mortal Artemis seemed at times. "From what I remember of Chin, it is lovely," she agreed amicably. "How long have I been out?" Seems like Ive been saying that a lot in the past year.
Artemis gave her a slightly askance look. "Well, um, three months or so ."
Gabrielle leveled a look at the lovely goddess. "Three months?"
"Yeah because of the last trip to Chin, when you betrayed Xena, the fates would only let me move you if you paid a small penalty, so three months." She held up her hands defensively, "Hey, it was either that or Argo had to go, and I knew youd never forgive me for that."
Gabrielle smiled a little wryly. "Yeah, that was the best of the two. I feel a lot better, at least. And it would have taken me almost another year to get here." She spied food on the nearby table and rose to inspect it, the delicious smells making her stomach rumble. She had a slight limp, but it was something that time could eliminate. "Whose hut is this?"
"Yours, at least for now. Theres a young widow who comes to take care of Argo and to keep an eye on you. She doesnt know Im a goddess. Theyve never heard of me here." The goddess gazed at her feet reflectively. "Its kind of nice."
Gabrielle stopped in mid-chew, looking at the goddess speculatively. "You dont care much for power, do you?"
"No." Artemis shrugged. "Id rather hunt. Have real friends instead of worshipers." She walked over to the table that the bard was seated at and sat next to her. "I think it would be lovely to be human."
Gabrielle reflected on that for a moment. "I guess, but sometimes it just hurts too much to be mortal. You cant control your feelings, or the way things happen around you. It can be frustrating. I guess you are what you are, and theres nothing you can ever do to change that." Gabrielle thought of the men shed killed in the alley, and found that she really didnt feel so bad. Sometimes, you realize that the things you hate the most are really a part of you.
Artemis sighed. "Youre right. I should feel proud to be an Olympian. Honestly, though, the actions of my brothers and sisters make me feel ashamed. They use mortals like pieces on a game board, moving them around however it suits them, with no care for the damage they do." She absently picked up an apple, giving it a wistful look, and then sat it back down. "Ares and Hera do that kind of thing more than the others. Look at Xena and Hercules." She shook her head. "I suppose because of my connections with the Amazons, I feel for mortals more than most."
Gabrielle reached over and patted the goddess hand. "Xena said you were the only one of the gods she had any respect for. Thats high praise for her, you know?" She popped the last of a pastry into her mouth and rose. "Besides, I like you. As a friend, not as a worshipper." She gave Artemis a reassuring smile, and walked out of the hut to take care of some much neglected business.
Gabrielle winced. Gods, I need a bath. Spying a small oasis nearby, she hurried in that direction.
Artemis remained sitting, a thoughtful look on her face. I wish I could help you more, Gabrielle, but the rest is up to you.
Xena prepared for war like most women prepared for lovemaking. The ritual was the same as it had been for many years; it was a secret she kept even from Gabrielle.
After her soldiers had their celebration, they had marched a half a day north to a place she knew well. She had chosen Lao Mas palace, abandoned since Ming Tiens death, as her headquarters. It was a bold statement on her partshe wasnt hiding from her enemy. It was dusty and drafty, but it was familiar. She knew all the entrances and exits.
There were few people who knew the story of Xena and Ming Tien; it seemed that those that did have knowledge of the tale had joined Mahsus army. The rumors had come back with her spies. Many remembered Xenas reputation as a bloodthirsty renegade, though, and the news of her return to Chin spread like wildfire. Most thought she had come to finish what she had started all those years ago: the complete takeover of Chin and its neighbors. Xena the Conqueror had come home.
Xena had tried to disprove the theory that she had come only to take. She gave food to the villages instead of plundering them. She and her army helped build houses and plant fields as they passed through. Xena had told Ares, when hed suspiciously asked, that it was important to gain the trust of the people to defeat a tyrant. "I made the mistake once, Ares, I wont do it again. Dont question." From that point on, he didnt ask about her motives again. Unfortunately, the people were slow to trust; the worst memories died hard.
As her attendants prepared her ritual bath, Xena contemplated the view from the window. This had been Lao Mas favorite place; fed by a natural hot spring, the bath overlooked a natural waterfall. One could sit in the elevated bathing pool and watch the water flow into the garden below.
She traced the carvings on the windows sill idly. Gabrielle would have liked it here. I would have liked to show it to her.
The garden was sadly overgrown now, its healing plants and lovely orchids choked out by encroaching weeds. It was still a place of beauty; Lao Mas peaceful retreat, it seemed, had given way to Xenas chaotic splendor. Different type of beauty, same source, Xena reflected with a smile.
She sent away her retainers with a flick of her hand and sank up to her neck in the hot, fragrant water. Lilacs, like Gabrielle always wore. Xenas significant power had enabled her to send people back west to quietly search for her beloved; Gabrielle had disappeared from the face of the known world, it seemed. Xenas gut instinct told her that Gabrielle was out there, probably looking for her as well. Almost a year since I lost you. Once this is over with, Im going to find you if it takes forever.
She had the vow from Ares that would secure her freedom; now she had this one last task to complete. Revenge on Ares would be sweet, and he had no idea what was coming. The thought brought a smile to her face.
Xena took time with her bath, then ordered a massage. When she had been a warlord before, it was her custom to always prepare in this manner. Relaxed muscles didnt tense or cramp during battle; she was looser and quicker to respond to attack. Besides, it was a more pleasant way to prepare than poring over battle plans, although that would have to happen at some point tonight. Her generals needed to be briefed as well.
The girl who was giving her the massage was obviously enamored of her; her touch was a little less indifferent than it should have been as it glided over her oiled skin. She was lovely, Xena conceded; in a vague way, she resembled the sweet bard from Potedia she missed so much. Alea had blond red hair and pretty blue eyes, a slight girlish body that looked every bit of the thirteen that she was. Too young for me and too young for the slavers that were trying to sell her in the city. Joxer would adore her. The thought formed and for some inexplicable reason, stuck with her. Eyeing Alea, Xena thought, well see.
Then her eyes opened wide as Aleas hand snuck around to touch her breast. Mmmm. That feels good, but Im taken. She gently removed the questing hand and gave Alea the infamous raised eyebrow. "I have someone, Alea. But thanks."
The girl turned bright red and murmured an apology. Xena shook her head. "Dont apologize. You never know unless you try. If circumstances were different, Id take you up on your offer, but theres a little redhead whos got my heart."
"Lucky her." Alea mumbled, resuming her ministrations on Xenas lower legs, a safe distance from other alluring body parts.
"Nah. Lucky me." Xena smiled and let herself drift into a doze. I miss you, Gabrielle.
"I miss you, Xena," Gabrielle whispered into the cold night sky. She thought of the day a year ago, one week before solstice, when she lost Xena. Or thought she lost Xena. The further into Chin she traveled, the less certain of the truth she became.
The dreams had become more and more frequent and vivid the closer she got to the heart of Chin. In a few of them, Xena had been riding at the head of an army; that made her think that maybe they were images from the stories of Xenas past. Xena would never go back to being a warlord. Would she?
It didnt matter. If Xena was out there with Borias, Gabrielle would find her. The most terrifying thoughtbesides her being dead, and Gabrielle was almost positive Xena was dead--was that maybe Xena had been seduced back by Borias and didnt want to be found. Either way, she had to know the truth.
Artemis watched Gabrielle from the shelter, deeply affected by the pain in the bards eyes. She knew what the bard was denyingthat her hope had grown that Xena was still alive.
As of a half candlemark previous, Artemis was mortal; that would be her price to pay for meddling in the affairs of humans. She hadnt argued too strenuously, actually kind of wanting to be human for a while, but making the point that Ares was doing more meddling than anyone. Zeus had given her a strange look and burst out laughing; he told her that Ares was about to be punished in ways he never imagined. Artemis wondered if she had been spending too much time on terra firma with Gabrielle. There was obviously some hot gossip going around.
Now she had human feelings, human senses, and it was like having a missing limb to be without her powers. She was a favorite child of Zeus, so her penance was only to last a month. Thatll teach me to watch what I ask for, I guess.
Of all the places she could have gone, she chose to stay with Gabrielle. She was the first to treat me like I was a friend.
Gabrielle turned to walk back to the makeshift shelter and saw Artemis sitting next to the fire. She cocked her head, reminded of what had happened when Aphrodite and Ares lost their power. They lost their "sparkle" and now, so had Artemis.
She sat silently next to the woman and offered her a bit of rabbit she had caught and killed. Artemis mouth quirked. "That obvious, huh?"
Gabrielle nodded sympathetically and launched into the story of Ares and Aphrodites adventure into the mortal world. Artemis found herself laughing until she cried, a wonderful feeling for someone who had never known what it would be like to be carefree. After she recovered, Gabrielle instructed her on hygiene and basic maintenance for a human form.
"Mmmm. Sounds complicated." Artemis delicately bit into the roasted rabbit, fascinated by the texture and taste of the flesh. Gabrielle handed her a pouch full of water, and watched the woman carefully swallow.
"Youre doing a lot better than Ares and Aphrodite did. They mostly whined."
"I can see that." Artemis grinned. "They always whine. This is my punishment, but I think Daddy also did it because there was a part of me that wanted to see what its like."
They went to the nearby oasis and washed, Artemis utterly delighted by the feel of cold water on her naked body. Gabrielle brushed and braided Artemis hair, and gave her some of her own clothes to wear. What was knee length on Gabrielle became thigh high on the taller woman; they finally found a longer garment to cover Artemis shapely legs.
Later, as they say by the fire, Gabrielle asked, "Would you tell me what it was like, growing up as a goddess?"
Artemis stared into the flames. "I was born the day before my twin, Apollo, on the island of Ortygia. Apollo and I have the dubious role of being the twins of contradiction. I protect women in labor, but sometimes, if the fates decree it, I have to kill them." She grimaced uncomfortably. "Apollos the god of healing, but he gives the world disease, also. Thats our job."
She sighed and laid back on her bedroll. Being tired was a new sensation. "When I was three, I asked Daddy to grant me eternal chastity. Maybe I was too young to decide that; in any case, he gave me my wish. The nymphs that I have when Im in Greece all have to virgins. I dont want any of my girls getting pregnant, so thats the rule. Occasionally, it gets broken and I have to send one away."
"Dont you ever want to you know?" Gabrielle blushed a little.
Artemis smiled. "Yes, once. But that was a long time ago." And you dont want to know who it was, either. "Sometimes being a goddess is wonderful. In Ephesus, they worship me more as a fertility goddess, but they built what has got to be the largest temple ever in my name." She grinned. "I think I like that better than the Spartan festival when they whip those poor boys after encouraging them to steal cheese. I dont get it."
Gabrielle laughed. "Fertility goddess, huh? I think I like the name they gave you in Greece better: Potnia Theron."
"Mistress of wild animals? Does have a ring to it, doesnt it?" Artemis giggled as she rolled onto her stomach. She propped her chin in her hands and gazed at Gabrielle seriously. "You think shes alive, dont you?"
Gabrielle laid the shirt shed been mending in her lap. She sighed. "I dont know, Artemis. I keep having these dreams, and they seem so real. I know that we burned a body that night, but now Im wondering whose it was."
"Well, if shes out here, well find her. If shes not, then Borias has still got Tartarus to pay."
"Yeah," Gabrielle said. "At least well know." She looked at Artemis unhappily. "If shes alive, I bet she doesnt even miss me."
Artemis snorted. "Yeah, right. Shes just been in love with you for about an eternity."
Gabrielle looked at her uncertainly. "What?"
"She didnt tell you? Shes loved you for years. She was just too afraid to say anything." With a mighty yawn, Artemis turned onto her back and proceeded to fall into a deep sleep before Gabrielle could even think of what to say.
Lost in thought, Gabrielle lay down on her bedroll, turning her face toward the fire. The dreams would come again, she was sure. Sometimes she thought that the visions of Xena she received every night were the only thing that kept her sane. Sometimes, she imagined she would go insane seeing her and not being able to talk to her and touch her.
They were getting close, maybe a day or so ride from the imperial palace of Lao Ma and Lao Tzu. Gabrielle had noticed rooms in the dreams that reminded her of those at the palace, what little she had seen of it the last time she had been there. The view from the windows also supported that fact. It was a slim chance, but the only one she had. Closing her eyes, she prayed for some sort of sign that she was headed in the right direction.
Xena mounted Night, glorying in the feel of the early morning mist on her fevered skin. I can feel myself slipping into battle mode, she thought, amused. The time for revenge is near. The horse shifted beneath her, feeling her rising excitement. He was a good mount, but she desperately missed Argo. She refused to ponder whether or not Argo was still alive.
She had risen before dawn and bathed again, without attendants, without perfumes and salts. Muscles relaxed by the hot bath, she had warmed up carefully so that she wouldnt hurt herself. Xena had performed her sword drills for a full hour, then done her acrobatic maneuvers, having a feeling that she would need them. Before venturing out, she had gone to the small temple in the back of the fortress to set her plan into motion. Thus prepared, she rode through the camp outside the fortress walls, giving each of her soldiers a glimpse of the woman who led them.
Ares had kept to his promise to leave her alone unless he was called, but now she felt her hackles rise in anticipation of his presence.
"You wont disappoint me, will you, Xena? Youre outnumbered."
"Ares," she drawled. "Youll get whats coming to you."
"Good," the disembodied voice murmured in her ear, and she could picture Ares grinning. Then, the invasive feeling was gone.
Xena smirked in satisfaction. Oh, youll get exactly what you deserve.
As the camp packed up and battle lines were formed, Xena noticed there was a crowd forming around a small area off to one side. Curious, she rose up in her saddle to see what the excitement was about before ordering her men back to their duties.
A shrill scream of a horse galvanized her into action, having caught a glimpse of the riderless animal. Xena dismounted and trotted over to the group. "Move."
When they hesitated, Xena yelled, "Move, or youll never make it to the battlefield!" The men parted quickly and quietly.
Her heart in her throat, Xena approached the thin, half dead animal, her hand extended in a gesture of peace. The horse shuddered, almost seeming to sob in relief, and laid her head against Xenas hand. The battle would have to wait, at least for a few minutes.
Xena face contorted, tears flowing freely. "Oh, Storm " She wrapped her arms around the horse, who had somehow traveled four thousand miles over land to find her. Storm had made the journey alone. Gabrielle? I know shes alive isnt she? Xena had been troubled by the fact no one could find her bard, but she had always felt deeply that Gabrielle had to be alive. Until now.
The faith that had kept Xena from going over that dangerous edge crumbled suddenly and without warning. The fury overcame her in a merciless wave, grieving would come later. Fortunately, her anger was directed in the right direction. Mahsu.
To be infuriated at Ares would prove fruitless. She couldnt defeat him in battleat least not permanentlybut she could beat him at his own game of manipulation. His fall would come. Borias was dead. Mahsu was an inhuman torturer of babies and women, and she could gut him like a fishat the moment, she would take great joy in killing someone. He was a fitting target for her vengeance.
Deep down inside, she knew nothing could make this ache in her heart go away. Revenge would never make Gabrielle come back. This one thing she could do for the others who had suffered at Mahsus hands.
She led Storm to the stables, and asked the boy who looked after the horses to take special care of her. When Ulric gave her a puzzled look, Xena laid her hand on his shoulder. She liked the child, another victim of slavers she would probably end up carting back to Greece with her.
"She followed me all the way from Greece, Ulric," she informed the boy quietly. It was with a sense of awe and reverence that the stablehand began to gently clean the horses wounds. Storm stood silent, her head bowed in exhaustion. Xena rubbed the horses velvety nose. She noted some of the wounds were sword slashes. It was a miracle they hadnt festered. "You were a brave girl, Storm. I wish you could tell me what you went through to get to me." I wish I knew what happened to your master. "See that shes well fed, softer stuff first, and given lots of water. Ill be back after the battle to see to her myself."
The child nodded solemnly, honored to be taking care of such a magnificent creature, the Conquerors own horse.
Xena stalked back to her tent and with sharp, angry movements, put on her armor. As she lifted up her breastplate, she saw a small, folded slip of parchment flutter to the floor. Hesitantly, she picked it up, and looked in her breastplate to see where it had come from.
There was a small hollow space in the side that she had never noticed. Armourers sometimes left those in certain places so that if the wearer were hit, it would dent just enough to absorb the blow. She hadnt worn her full armor since before Ephadon, but remembered Gabrielle cleaning it before they left to join Borias camp. She hadnt thought much of it then, but apparently Gabrielle had wanted to leave her a note in a place Xena would never think to look. That was odd .
Xena stared at the parchment for a long moment, then held it her nose. Her eyes closed as the pain rolled through her anew. Lilacs. Always the damn lilacs. Reverently, she unfolded the note and began to read, savoring each word.
I always write you letters, you know, I just never give any of them to you. I never knew how you would react, because I know youre not into the sensitive chat thing. My bag is full of little scraps of paper just like this one, all addressed to you.
I have a bad feeling about this whole business with Borias. I know you have one, too, because you're staring across the fire with that absorbed look on your face. I have decided that I need to tell you some of what Im feeling right now, because soon, it may be too late, and Ill never get the chance.
Xena paused for a minute to wipe away the tears that clouded her vision.
I know youre uncertain of your feeling for me. I can accept that. I have loved you for so long, I can wait until youre ready.
Yes, Warrior Princess, I love you. I love the way you look, the way you move, the way you talk, the way you snore when you lie on your back. I love all of you (except for maybe your cooking).
Xena couldnt suppress a grin.
You are everything to me, and I think Im going to lose you to Borias. Some ties, like sharing a child, are impossible to break. We dont have a bond like that. My daughter killed your son, and that is something I dont think either of us can get over. It doesnt change how I feel for you, or what I think you feel for me, but it gives Borias the chance to come between us.
If you find this, you will be preparing to do battle. I hope you still stand on the right side of things.
So, my love, if we are apart when you read this note, know that I adore you still. I always will love you. If we are together, I hope this is old news to you, and you can come and give me a great big hug.
Xena refolded the note carefully and tucked it into her leathers, just above her heart. She washed the tears off her face with a damp cloth, attached her breastplate, and bounced a little to settle her armor.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Gabrielle, Im still on the right side of things. I promise that no matter what it may look like, Im trying to do the right thing.
Then, she did something that she never had done in her entire life. She got down on her knees. "Aphrodite, I know Im not one to do this, but if shes out there, let her know I love her? Please?" Xena turned pleading blue eyes up to the sky, hoping that as irreverent as she was, Aphrodite would still hear her and help.
Rising to her feet, she grabbed her chakram and sword. She never saw the ethereal figure materialize behind her as she left her tent.
Aphrodite wiped sympathetic tears from her cheeks as she watched Xena go off to war. She whispered, with a small smile, "Xena, you just told her yourself."
Gabrielle shot straight up on her bedroll, violently pulled out of sleep by the vividness of her dream.
The armor. She had forgotten all about that note. And the final plea to Aphrodite? If Im out there? She thinks I might be dead? All the pieces arranged themselves with painful clarity, and with it came the joyful knowledge that Xena was still alive. And she still loves me.
She bawled like a baby for a few minutes, knowing suddenly that Xena was nearby, and she would finally get to see her after a full year of not knowing. Xena was alive, she was alive, and they had both thought the other dead.
Artemis was beside her. "It was all Ares, you know."
Gabrielle regarded Artemis warily. "Did you know she was alive?"
Artemis shook her head. She gave Gabrielle a hurt look. "Of course not. I would have told you."
Gabrielle accepted that with a nod. "He tried to send me in the wrong direction, to give him time to win her back over." She remembered the illness that Aphrodite had pulled her out of. "He tried to kill me, didnt he?"
"Yeah," Artemis agreed; having located a piece of bread in one of the pouches, her mouth was quite full and her response was muffled. "Aphrodite used the strength of your love for Xena to pull you out of it."
Gabrielle rose and stretched, suddenly eager to get going. "Remind me to make an offering to her when we get back to Greece. I owe her one."
"A simple thank you would suffice." Aphrodite said, poofing into existence behind Artemis. Gabrielle raised an eyebrow, looking eerily like Xena, and grinned.
"Thank you, Aphrodite."
"Youre welcome." She walked over to her sister and prodded her with a delicately slippered foot. "Come on, Artie. Daddy wants to see you. I think hes changed his mind."
Artemis rose and brushed the crumbs out of her lap. "I dont care. Im not ready to be immortal again."
Aphrodite put her hands on her hips. "Artie, youre about to walk into a battlefield in which Xena is out numbered seven to one." Seeing Artemis expression, Aphrodite clapped her hand over her mouth. "Oops."
"Excuse me?!" Artemis and Aphrodite exchanged looks. "Would one of you like to explain this?" Gabrielle gave them both a nasty look and waited.
"Uh well theres going to be a war fought ." Artemis began.
" .And, um, Xenas only got a thousand men to the others seven thousand or so " Aphrodite finished, uncomfortably.
"And when was I to be informed of this, Artemis? I thought you were my friend!" Gabrielle, whose emotions were already into a tailspin, turned and ran to Argo. Ares wont take you, Xena. Im coming.
Gabrielle, I am I just I didnt know it was Xena!" Artemis threw her hands up, close to tears. She watched Gabrielle saddle Argo and secure her bags to the horse.
After Gabrielle galloped away, Aphrodite patted her sister on the arm. "The only way you can protect her now is to regain your powers."
Artemis gazed after Gabrielles retreating form sadly. Turning to her sister resignedly, she said, "Take me to Daddy."
"If you have any reservations now, voice them. The time for hesitation is not when you get on the battlefield." She yelled, a magnificent sight on her regally prancing mount.
"Were outnumbered, Conqueror!" A number of the men called. There was a murmur of agreement throughout the lines.
Xena gave them a reassuring grin. "No, were not. By the time Khan lines his men up, the reinforcements will be here."
She saw the questions in their eyes. "We have an ally. Mahsu is a murderer of children and women, and his actions have not gone unnoticed. There is another who seeks his death. He will die, and those men that will not surrender will die with him. I would never lead my troops into a hopeless situation. You are all good soldiers, good men." Xena looked at the hundreds of warriors in front of her. "We will be successful."
A roar came up from the men, surrounding Xena in a warm blanket of confidence. She spun to watch the distant hill for the first sign of the opposing army.
Suddenly, Ares stood beside her, grabbing the reins as she sought to turn her horse around.
"What are you doing?" He ground out, fury in his voice. "This was to be my victory! The God of War doesnt take allies!"
Xena looked over Ares head and saw Mahsus army take the field a mile away. She grinned evilly. "Indra!!!!" she screamed at the top of her lungs. You had better show up like you promised, war god.
The Earth seemed to shake with the thunder of a million hoofbeats. Mounted on a great white elephant, the Hindi god of war approached, followed by ten thousand of his best men. When he came to Xena, he regarded her with respect, bowing his head a little. Then he turned cold eyes upon Ares.
"That puny god you referred to earlier? That would be Indra, the Lord of Heaven. He and I have reached an agreement." She shifted in her saddle and looked down at Ares with a satisfied smile. "Indra comes from south of here, from a land called India, but he would like dominion here as well. Mahsu was his first attempt, but since he was chosen, he has abused his power horribly." She paused to let her final words hit home. "I am going to win this battle for Indra. In exchange, he is going to send me home."
Ares snarled, "You cant, you gave yourself to me as chosen! Your promise to a god is sacred!" He was shaking with fury, almost incoherent with rage.
Xena smile became a laugh. "You negated that when you swore on your sword that you would leave me alone! Your word is sacred, and if you break it, you have to be punished. As I recall, youve broken your promise twice already. Youve appeared to me without permission." She took a deep breath; shed been anticipating this for months. "I call on Zeus to punish you for breaking your word!"
"No!" His face contorted in fury, and he lunged at Xena, drawing his sword.
Unexpectedly, he snapped back as if he were on an invisible string. Ares began to fade. He brightened for a moment as he struggled against his fathers pull, but in the end, he lost the fight. As he disappeared, he howled, "Ill get you for this, Xena!"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Id like to see you try." She turned her attention to the smirking Indra.
"That was good. I hope I never get on your bad side." Indras warm smile was genuine. "Indeed, he has lost much by losing you."
She accepted the complement without comment, only a small inclination of her head. "I will win your battle for you today, but I will not be your chosen. Are we in agreement?"
"Yes, and I will send you home when you are ready. All you need do is ask." Indra had no question in his mind that she would succeed. As he disappeared, leaving ten thousand of his men in her command, he added, "I will enjoy watching you."
Xena turned and looked out at the sea of men, then glanced at Mahsus army. She grinned ferally. For you, my love. Revenge is sweet, but it always comes with a price. What will mine be?
"Attack!" Xena screamed and rode toward her destiny.
The fate of love is that it always seems too little or too much.
Amelia Barr (18311919), Anglo-American novelist. The Belle of Bolling Green, ch. 5 (1904).
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.
Bible: New Testament. 1 John 4:18.
Gabrielle heard the battle before she saw the warriors. Lao Mas palace loomed to the left, and Gabrielle knew that Xena would be within retreating distance of the huge fortress.
She pushed Argo a little harder; the tall amber-colored grass beat against her bare calves and left red welts in their wake. Her hair was coming out of her braid and stuck against her sweating face. The afternoon heat was stifling.
Clearing the last rise, she looked down upon a living nightmare. Fascinated despite herself, she stared at the writhing mass of soldiers clashing in the shadow of the great wall. The softly rolling hills of Chin writhed as if they were alive.
"I was trying to keep you out of the battle," Artemis said quietly, appearing beside her chosen on a magnificent bay stallion. "I had no idea it was Xena until Dite showed up."
Gabrielle glanced over at the goddess. "I know," she said, as a way of apologizing, and patted Artemis hand. "Whats going on down there?"
Artemis gave a little smirk. "I dont know the whole story, but I know that Ares is being punished by the Furies for committing a breach of oath. Xena apparently has something to do with that, because he was screaming her name all over Olympus." She paused for a moment, scanning the battlefield. "Aphrodites cat is out of the bag, anyway. She had a son by a mortal man, and Ares was holding it over her head. She finally told Daddy, and he wasnt as mad as she thought hed be. So since Daddy knows now, shes been trying to help you two out some."
Thank the gods. Shes not fighting for Ares. And Aphrodite? "The dreams," Gabrielle supplied, her eyes frantically searching the milling crowd for a familiar form. She was too far away to see faces, but she could tell if someone was Xena by the way that she sat her horse. Frustrated by her inability to find her warrior, she began to ride forward.
Artemis leaned forward and grabbed the reins. "Wait."
"What?" Gabrielle growled, her eyes still riveted on the scene unfolding below her.
"You need to be a little more prepared for battle if youre going to go down there." The goddess waggled her fingers and Gabrielle was wearing fine chain mail from head to toe, including a cowl that covered her hair. Her boots were sturdier and reinforced with metal.
Argo had gained armor as well, and shifted nervously at the sudden addition of weight. Gabrielle gave the horse a comforting pat on the neck. Both Gabrielle and Artemis wore the flamboyant X that was Xenas insignia, and Argos saddle blanket was marked as well.
"Here," Artemis said, handing Gabrielle a pair of chobos. The top section was ringed with tiny metal blades; these were made to lacerate as well as bludgeon.
Gabrielle looked at Artemis, wide eyed. "I dont know how to use chobos, Artemis." She turned the elaborately carved weapons in her hands, admiring them. They were beautiful.
Artemis laughed. "You do now." At the warrior-bards startled look, she supplied, "Youll be able to use those better from on top of Argo. I cant have my chosen unarmed, so you now have the skill."
Gabrielle smiled at her fondly. "Thank you." Spontaneously, she hugged the goddess.
Artemis was startled, but embraced her in return. "Im coming with you. I owe Xena a favor, anyway."
"All right." Whatever favor stood between the goddess of the hunt and the warrior princess was no business of hers. Gabrielle looked down on the battlefield, then at her new weapons. Her soft mouth set itself into a grim, determined line. She bent down and whispered into Argos ear, "Xenas down there, girl. Help me find her."
The horse nickered and then snorted, nodding her head enthusiastically. Gabrielle tightened her knees and released her hold on Argos reins, leaving her hands free to fight. She and Argo had worked on those skills all the months that they had traveled together; Gabrielle had realized the necessity of being able to have use of her hands at a moments notice. As rocky as the relationship had been between horse and bard, they had found a bit of common ground in the warrior princess. But then, Xena did that to people.
Gabrielle cleared her mind of all thought as they galloped toward the battlefield. No distractions. Dont think, just do. She felt the fear dissipate in the face of anticipation. She wanted to be a part of this fight because it was Xenas fight. Sometimes we embrace the thing were most afraid of, and it makes us stronger. She was no longer afraid of becoming what she was destined to be.
They galloped into the midst of the huge battle. A man wielding a curved sword immediately attacked Gabrielle. She struck out to the side with one chobo, catching him on the side of his face, and then rapped him smartly on the top of his head with the other. She tried not to look at the faces of the men she brought down.
Argo was doing quite a bit of damage on her own, striking out with flailing hooves at anyone who made an aggressive move toward her or her rider. Gabrielle kept her seat easily, and proceeded to eliminate four more men in rapid succession. Artemis was cutting a swath through the enemy with her shining silver sword, constantly at Gabrielles side. Slowly, but surely, they made a path towards the front of the battle.
The enemy lines were breaking up; many were waving their hands and throwing down their weapons in surrender. The numbers of dead were mind-boggling. Gabrielles stomach contracted in terror as she looked at all the fallen. Xena where are you? The thought that Xena could be among the fallen had never occurred to her until now.
Then, Artemis grabbed her arm and pointed. "There."
Standing on the next rise was Xena. She was mounted on an inky black horse, covered with gore. Despite the sweltering heat, the warrior princess was dressed in black leather and full armor; she never gave the appearance of being uncomfortable although Gabrielle knew she had to be close to suffocating in the heat.
Gabrielle watched her dismount and move to stand in front of a cowering man, sword drawn.
What are you doing? The man was unarmed, defenseless. Please dont forget all the good youve done. She turned to Artemis, about to urge her to intervene.
Artemis gave her a knowing look. Gabrielle returned her gaze steadily, and saw within it something else.
Artemis was telling her to trust Xena. Gabrielle settled herself on Argo and waited for Xena to speak.
Xena rode at the head of her army, indulging in death with bloodthirsty abandon. She took down more men than she could count with precise swipes of her sword. After a few hours, the fighting began to thin. Bloodlust sang in her veins as she saw her enemy fall back and then finally disband altogether.
She saw Mahsu Khan attempting to flee the battlefield. His soldiers were cut down and the warlord was herded back towards Xena. When his troops saw his attempt to flee, they dropped their heads in shame; those that had been still fighting threw down their swords and raised their hands in submission.
Of Mahsus army of seven thousand, two hundred remained alive. Xenas force of ten thousand had lost only one thousand men, including all but one of her generals.
Xena dismounted Night and limped towards the defeated warlord. She had numerous cuts and bruises, including one particularly bad place on her thigh that would require stitches. She knew that she looked like some otherworldly creature, drenched in the blood of her opponents, and she used that to its full advantage as she hovered over the cowering Mahsu. His weak chin trembled and tears filled his eyes.
She raised her voice so all could hear her. "You have failed Indra, Destroyer of Cities." He fell to his knees, head bowed in defeat. "You have led your troops into a massacre when you had the option to surrender." She raised her sword and pressed against Mahsus throat.
She could smell the urine where he had messed himself in his fear. She felt ill and a little unsteady as the rush of the battle wound down. Im getting too old for all this poop.
"Worst of all, Mahsu, you slaughtered thousands of women and children, torturing them until they died. Do you deny these charges, warlord?"
Artemis, who had been translating the Eastern dialect, saw Gabrielles eyes widen at the last sentence. There was no need to translate the warlords response; a sad shake of his head was universally understood.
"At the request of the great Indra, I have been asked to give you over to the fathers, sons, and brothers of the women and children you have murdered. The last town you razed is over that hill. My soldiers will see you there and watch until you are dead." She climbed onto her horse and watched as the cowardly Mahsu was lead away.
Xena sat atop the rise for a while, watching the bonfires be built to immolate the dead. Disease would be a horrible thing to spread in the wake of the tragedy inflicted by the army of Mahsu. She took no joy in the aftermath.
A cool breeze came from off the plain, drying the sweat the clung so relentlessly to her aching body. Her head was beginning to hurt, and she moved her neck in a circle, satisfied with the loud pop the bones produced. Xena removed her gloves and slid her thick overcoat off, stuffing them both into Nights saddlebags; her undercoat, although thinner, was still too confining. Xena left it on, knowing that once the sun set, she would need it. I just need to be alone for a while. Think about those that were killed on both sides and calm down a little before going back to the palace.
The revenge that she had gotten on Ares and on Mahsu had left nothing but bitter yearning for something that could never be again. By the Gods, I just want some peace. I need to be able to grieve for Solon and for Gabrielle. I want to go home. She raised her face up to the sky and sung the funeral song for her comrades and enemies, the settling sun making her an eerie silhouette.
Gabrielle, still on top of Argo, watched Xena silently from a distance of a few hundred yards. Artemis had disappeared a while ago, promising to return later, leaving Gabrielle to approach Xena alone. As the sound of Xenas voice filled the twilight, Gabrielle began to cry silently, overwhelmed. By the gods, Ive missed you.
Argo began to try to move towards Xenas voice, and in a split second decision, Gabrielle dismounted and gave Argo a gentle pat on the rump to get her going. The horse galloped up the gentle rise to her master.
Gabrielle absently rubbed her bad leg, which was throbbing painfully, then looked down at her hand when an unfamiliar stickiness caught her attention. Blood covered her hand. Great. I have more important things to worry about right now. She focused her attention on Xena, making a conscious effort to block out the pain.
Xena finished the mourning song and bowed her head, missing her life from a year ago with an almost painful yearning. Hearing a horse galloping toward her, she whirled, instantly on alert, and then froze at the sound of a familiar whinny. Argo?
Slowly, Xena slid off her horse, her eyes searching in the gloom for the familiar golden shape of Argo. She barely allowed herself to believe what she had heard, wondering if the stress of battle had finally driven her over the edge completely.
There it is can it be? The horse hesitated, still too far away for Xena to see well. She cursed the impending gloom, and the fatigue that had left her sharp senses dulled.
"Argo?" Xena questioned, her voice trembling a little. She put out her hand tentatively, and the horse immediately came forward to nuzzle it. A sob tore from the chest of the warrior princess as she embraced her beloved horse. Argo rested her equine head against Xenas shoulder and sighed, the tremor shaking her whole body.
A few feet away, Gabrielle stopped and waited, unwilling to break Argo and Xena apart. She drank in the sight of the woman gratefully clinging to her horse; even though she was covered with blood, she was still the most beautiful thing Gabrielle had ever seen.
Argo backed away a little, and turned to look at someone behind her. Reluctantly, Xena raised her head to see what Argo was so intent on.
In the dying sun, the figure looked painted with fire, dazzling oranges and reds glittering in the half-light. Xena realized the effect was caused by brightly shining chainmail, and squinted, trying to see who it was that approached her. It was obvious the person meant no harm, and if they had brought her beloved horse back, she thought she might even give them a kiss.
With a highly visible limp, Gabrielle moved toward Xena, focused on nothing but the beautiful face in front of her. Not seeing any recognition in Xenas expression, Gabrielle realized that she was just as covered in blood and grime as Xena was, and was wearing full mail cowl as well. She reached up and pushed the cowl back, exposing her face and hair fully.
When the figure pulled her mail hood back and Xena saw the shock of golden red hair, hope and fear warred equally with one another. Gabrielle? Could it be? Oh, by the Gods, if this is a dream .
Gabrielle stopped a couple of feet from Xena, almost afraid to come any closer. Xena was staring at her intensely, a strange look on her face. Then she rubbed her eyes, and Gabrielle realized that Xena thought she was dreaming. That gave her the courage to come nearer, until she could almost reach out and touch the warrior with her hand.
Xena stared at the woman before her, taking in the familiar features and wondering if she was losing her mind altogether. She rubbed her face and looked up again, right into Gabrielles sea green eyes.
Xena gazed for long moments into those loving pools before reality smacked her in the face.
Xena opened her mouth to speak and nothing came out. Her mouth worked soundlessly as she fought to find the words to say. Finally, she just reached out to what she thought had to be a dream.
Tears streamed down her face as she gently touched Gabrielles cheek with her fingertips, finding the familiar contours through the blood and grime. Gabrielles tears fell on her hand and Xena stared at the crystalline drops, warm on her skin. Youre really here.
It was at that moment that Xenas control crumbled. Her face contorted and she covered her mouth with her hand to hold back the sob that threatened to tear itself from her lips.
Hesitantly, Gabrielle moved to push an errant strand of dark hair way from Xenas face, in an old gesture that they both remembered so well. She gave the warrior a tremulous smile. Truly at a loss for words, she whispered, "Hey, there ."
That voice. Oh, Gabrielle! Xena pulled the bard into her arms and buried her nose in the sweet-smelling hair. The scent of the lilacs she had damned for months filled her with irrepressible joy.
Gabrielle buried herself in Xenas embrace, giving herself over to the overwhelming presence that was Xena. She laid her forehead against the warriors neck, taking in the familiar smell of horse and leather that was Xenas scent. She wrapped her fists into the long leather of Xenas coat and pulled her closer, wishing that she could stay in her arms for eternity.
No words were adequate enough to describe what they felt. They stayed wrapped in each others arms for a long time.
Xena finally registered the freezing cold air that meant night had fallen over the plains and she looked down at the woman she held in her arms. Gabrielle looked up at her in wide-eyed wonder, eliciting a husky chuckle from the warrior. She cradled Gabrielles face in her hands and stroked her thumbs over her bards dirty, tear-streaked cheeks. "I think we need to get you cleaned up."
Gabrielle gave her a small smile, and glanced down at herself. "I was so excited to see you I forgot that I looked like ." She searched for the word to describe the bloody, dirty mess that she was at the moment.
" The most beautiful woman in the entire world?" Xena supplied her own description, grinning at the rosy blush just visible beneath the grime on Gabrielles cheeks. She took in the bards attire and the chobos that lay at her feet. "You fought." It was a statement, not a question.
"Yeah." Gabrielle slid off her mail shirt with a wince, immediately prompting Xena to help her. "Gods, that thing is hot."
"Hot?" Xena raised an eyebrow. "Gabrielle, even Im cold out here now that the sun has gone down."
"Oh." She swayed a little on her feet and put her hand on her throbbing thigh. She showed the bloody palm to Xena. "Maybe I should lie down."
"Zeus, Gabrielle! Why didnt you say something?"
Xena never got an answer, because Gabrielle chose to faint at that moment.
Lifting Gabrielle, Xena realized how truly thin she had become, and wondered how in the name of Zeus she had gotten all this way. A gentle hand on her shoulder answered that question. Artemis.
"Xena, let me take her. I can get her to the palace faster."
Xena gazed at her mistrustfully, afraid to let Gabrielle go right after shed found her again.
"Ive managed to get her all this way, and even relatively in one piece. I promise she wont leave here again unless she goes with you." Artemis gave Xena a gentle smile and held out her arms. Reluctantly, Xena released Gabrielle to the goddess. "Ill have her in the bathing room. See you there." Then she was gone, her precious burden with her.
Xena stood there for a long moment, wondering if it had all been just a dream after all. Then Argo impatiently butted her in the back, bringing a brilliant smile from the warrior princess. No, not a dream. Shes here.
Swinging up onto the familiar back of Argo, she led Night behind her back to the stable.
Gabrielle awakened while Artemis was bathing her in the hot spring. She focused groggily on the goddess, who was just as wet as she was.
"What? Ive taken quite a liking to these baths," Artemis said teasingly. At her confused, searching look, the goddess supplied, "Xena will be here shortly. You were unconscious, so I brought you on up myself."
"Oh." Gabrielle pulled away from Artemis supporting hands and sat up on her own. "Ow," she complained, her hand going down to the wound in her leg, just slightly lower than the one she had suffered previously.
"There was poison on the sword that cut you, but Apollo took care of that. Unfortunately, its going to hurt anyway."
"Remind me to thank Apollo," Xena drawled, limping toward the spring. "Is there enough room in there for me?"
"Yep." Artemis scooted over, leaving space between her and Gabrielle for Xena. Gabrielle felt unexpectedly shy and moved to cover herself.
"Actually, you know, I have to go check on something," Artemis said with a grin, recognizing that this was awkward enough without her there to witness it. She disappeared with a flash of golden light.
"Shes smarter than most." Xena took her clothes off carefully and slid into the hot water across from Gabrielle, who was keeping her eyes averted. Neither spoke as they washed the blood and grime out of their hair and off their bodies, but not once did Xenas eyes leave her beloved bard. Youre never leaving my sight again.
Seeking to find some way to dispel the awkwardness, Xena put the soap into Gabrielles hand and presented her back. Gabrielle bit her lip to control the tears that threatened and began to wash the supple skin, remembering the inn at Ephadon. That had been the last time they had bathed like this, over a year ago.
Closing her eyes, Xena was relieved when Gabrielles hand had touched her back. They had both been through so much, and there was a huge story that would need to be told before they could move on. This this is a start. At least she can still touch me like before.
Habit took over. Gabrielle took inventory of all the bruises and cuts that would need to be taken care of; places where the enemy had slipped through Xenas armor and gotten to the skin beneath.
She cleaned the ones on the warriors back carefully, unconsciously slipping into her role as Xenas nurse.
"I need to sew these up," Gabrielle said quietly, and Xena gave a silent nod in assent. Gabrielle found thread and a sharp bone needle resting on the edge of the bath.
Xena felt the bards hands work confidently on her wounds, cleaning all the ones that she could see and stitching the ones that needed to be closed. She moved Xena around to sit on the edge and cleaned the huge gash on her thigh, then closed it with small, neat stitches. When her hands were no longer occupied, she was forced to meet Xenas eyes.
Gabrielle was stunned by the naked love she saw in those glorious blue depths, the acceptance of her and whatever she had been through to get back to Xena. At a loss for words, Gabrielle hoped her love shone as brightly in her eyes. A small, radiant smile traveled across Xenas lips. She didnt speak, but turned Gabrielle around so that her back could be washed. A small gasp escaped the warrior.
"What is it, Xena?" Suddenly concerned that her thinner body horrified Xena, she moved away. Xena grabbed her arm.
"What happened to your back, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle had a vague memory of being smacked in the back by something hard while on the battlefield, but other than the initial bloom of pain it hadnt hurt since. "I dont know. What does it look like?"
"Like she got hit in the back with a mace." Artemis supplied the answer as she appeared, fully dressed, next to the spring. "A guy caught her from behind. I couldnt stop him quickly enough." The goddess paused and took a deep breath. "Im more worried about her leg wound. Thats the second time in six months that leg has been injured." She shot Gabrielle a look. Gabrielle gave her a none-too-friendly look back.
"But I guess shell explain all of that. I left food and clothes in the next room for both of you. Enjoy." She raised her hand and disappeared again.
"Tattletale," Gabrielle grumbled, drawing a snort from Xena. Tentatively she moved and felt pain arc down her legs. "I didnt even feel it before. You just had to say something, didnt you?"
"Hey, sorry. I was just worried."
Gabrielle gave Xena a loving look from over her shoulder. "I know." She cleared her throat nervously. "Would you mind stitching my leg up?"
Xena gave her a beaming smile. "I thought youd never ask." She paused, remembering Gabrielles shyness earlier. "Why dont we get out to do that that way you can relax your back. If you want, Ill turn around."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I just Ive lost a lot of weight, and I feel a little like a freak. Its not you or anything ."
Xena slid towards Gabrielle a little. They looked at one another for a long moment before Xena spoke. "I know this is strange, Gabrielle, its been so long. Were having a hard time saying anything because neither one of us know what to say, exactly." She touched Gabrielles damp cheek with a wet hand and stroked the soft skin.
"I think the only thing I can say is that I never, ever stopped loving you. Every waking moment was full of your voice, and the smell of lilacs drove me insane with longing." She gave Gabrielle a pitiful look. "You are the most beautiful woman in the world to me. By the gods, how I love you, and now that youre here, I dont even know what to do."
"Hey, Im the poet, remember?" Gabrielle smiled, Xenas confession pushing all of her doubts away.
She leaned closer to the warrior and wrapped her arms around Xenas neck, moving closer until they were almost nose to nose. Xenas eyes turned into molten blue fire as Gabrielle inched nearer, her breasts brushing ever so lightly against Xenas own. "I think I might know what to do ." Ever so gently, Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed Xenas slightly parted lips.
Xena was afraid if she moved, Gabrielle would bolt, so she stayed very still until Gabrielles lips touched hers. After that she was lost in the sweetness of Gabrielles kiss, the bards delicate tongue darting into her mouth and claiming that part of Xena as her very own. Ever so gently, Xena broke the kiss and rested her forehead against Gabrielles.
"Oh, Gabrielle, do you know how much I want you?" She traced the sweet line of Gabrielles kiss swollen lips with a shaking finger. "But I want it to be absolutely perfect. I want all of the stuff from the last year, and even the things that happened before that I want it out in the open so that we can put it behind us. Then I want to take you to this wonderful place I know and make love to you until you lose conciousness."
Gabrielles eyes, which had been heavy-lidded with desire, shot wide open. She laughed. "If you keep making statements like that, I wont be able to wait."
Xena chuckled, gently lifting Gabrielle in her arms and stepping out of the bath. Before settling her on a padded divan, she gave her another soul-searching kiss. "Ill be back in a second," she said before padding naked into the next room.
"Hey, do I always get a kiss when you leave the room?"
"Sure," Xena called back, returning dressed, with clothes for Gabrielle. She knelt and gave Gabrielle another kiss. "You get one when I come back, too."
"Mmmm." Xena dried Gabrielle off, trying hard to be detached, but lingering overmuch on the more appealing areas until Gabrielle grabbed her and threatened her with bodily harm.
"Look, if I have to be celibate, you need to not put your hand there." She gave the warrior an amused look. "You were right about having to do some talking first, but I cant form a coherent sentence when you have your hand there." She let out a breath in sudden chagrin when the offending hand was removed.
Xena fussed over Gabrielles leg wound as she stitched it, causing Gabrielle to give her a pained smile. She gently rested her hand on the warriors dark head, stroking her hair; Xena looked up at her and gave her an affectionate smile that made Gabrielle feel warm all over.
"There. How does that feel?"
Gabrielle stretched out her leg tentatively and nodded. She sat up and Xena helped her put on a quilted robe.
"Artemis has laid out quite a feast for us in the next room. You hungry?"
Gabrielle gave her a look and said, "What do you think?"
Xena looked at a loss. "I uh didnt know. You look thinner, and I didnt know if it was intentional or not." A small wince crossed Xenas face, knowing that her words hadnt come out right.
Gabrielle took her hand and gave it a gentle tug. As they walked toward the bedroom, she said, "It wasnt intentional. I sometimes didnt have enough money to eat, or I couldnt catch anything. Gods, Id love to have some of your moms nutbread." She smiled a little at the thought. Then felt horrified. "Zeus, Xena! Your mom thinks youre dead!"
"Huh? Oh, I guess not anymore. I sent that stupid stone that started all of this back to Ephadon, and had the messenger take a note to Mom. Autolycus should be cleared by now. Now, explain why my mom thinks Im dead?"
Gabrielle gave her a wide-eyed look, hardly able to believe she didnt know anything about what had happened. With a heavy sigh, she said, "Lets eat while I tell you. Its a long story."
Xena helped Gabrielle sit at the table and presented her with a loaf of nutbread before filling her own plate. Gabrielle gave her a delighted smile as she inhaled the bread, then reached for a plate and piled it full of ham and cheeses. Xena watched with amusement as Gabrielle began to inhale the meal before gently prodding Gabrielle to continue.
Gabrielle proceeded to tell Xena about coming back to the campsite and finding the body. Her eyes still welled with tears as she told of how Joxer cremated the corpse, and of how he had struggled to get her to Amphipolis.
In between bites, she finished the entire story, leaving a stunned and very overwhelmed Xena speechless. Her mouth worked for a moment, then she managed, "You went through all that trying to find me?"
Gabrielle leaned back carefully, conscious of her bruised back. She folded her hands over her stomach in a gesture of contentment. "Xena, at first all I wanted was to make Borias pay for what he had done to you. Your Mom actually talked me out of that, telling me you wouldnt want me to become the person you had spent your life trying not to be or something like that." She grinned at Xenas befuddled expression.
"Anyway, then I just wanted to bring Borias back for trial. I needed closure in some way." Xena nodded in understanding at that. "Then I began having these dreams about you. They felt so real, it was hard to ignore that maybe you were still alive." She reached forward and took Xenas hand. "After that, it became a matter of finding you again. I was so afraid that I was going to finally get to you and you wouldnt want me anymore."
Xena looked at the bard with loving eyes. "No way," she said simply.
Gabrielle gazed at Xena in wonder. Two simple words and everythings just fine. She studied Xena with the eye of an artist, admiring the sweep of her dark hair and the way the candle flame made her eyes dance. She ran her fingers over the soft skin of Xenas cheek, then said, "I am the luckiest woman in the entire world."
Xena gave her a cocky grin. "Nuh-uh. That would be me." She leaned forward and planted a chaste kiss on her beloveds forehead. "You need to lay down."
"Tell me what happened to you "Gabrielle murmured as Xena lifted her in strong arms and carried her to the bed. Xena laid her down gently and covered her to her neck before answering. Gabrielle promptly shoved the blankets down and patted the expanse of bed beside her. She didnt have to beckon twice.
"Not much to tell." She lay beside Gabrielle and pulled her into an embrace. When they were both comfortably situated, Xena told her story.
"So you got your revenge in the end. I wonder if Ares will really leave you alone now?" Gabrielle sighed wistfully against Xenas shoulder, picturing for just a moment a life without violence. On the heels of that thought came a thought of Xena not fighting, and Gabrielle knew that would never be.
"I dont know, Gabrielle. I dont think I could stop fighting forever, so I guess a part of me will always be a part of him." She looked down at the lovely woman cradled in her arms. "I would try to give it up for you if you wanted me to."
Gabrielle could tell that Xena was serious. Emphatically, she said, "No."
"No?" Xena raised an eyebrow.
"No." Gabrielle kissed the neck of the warrior, the only part that she could reach without moving too much. "I love you the way you are. And I learned that even though fighting still bothers me, I can do it. I can kill when necessary. Thats a part of me now, the way the fighting is a part of you. Now I understand the struggle you always go through trying to control it." She traced a circle on Xenas stomach. "I understand how it can be so intoxicating."
"Mmm." Xena nuzzled the top of Gabrielles head. "Its a hard thing to fight sometimes," she admitted. "You have to try to remember that somewhere, that scumbag has a mommy that might actually give a damn." She closed her eyes. "Its amazing, how much youve changed."
Gabrielle smiled sleepily. She didnt have to ask what Xena meant. "I realized a lot about myself while we were apart. I dont want to kill for the sake of killing, but I can kill if I have to. I guess I found my sense of self-preservation."
Xena chuckled, then more seriously, said, "Im glad you found me."
"Wanna go home tomorrow? Theres a war god that owes me a favor " Xena said teasingly.
Gabrielle grinned. "Anywheres good, as long as youre there, Warrior Princess. But, you know, Ive been gone so long, I think I might actually miss poor Joxer."
Xenas body shook with laughter. "I bet he misses you, too. Shame he doesnt have the naked dancing Gabbies to keep him company."
"Hush." Gabrielle sighed in contentment as Xena began to gently rub her back. "I want to sleep. Quit trying to give me nightmares."
"Mmm. Dont worry about Joxer. I think I might have found him a girlfriend." Xena paused, waiting for the smart remark that was sure to come. There was silence.
Xena glanced down at Gabrielle and saw that she had fallen asleep. With a fond smile, she brushed a kiss on the top of her bards head and pulled the blanket up around them both. Gabrielle shifted, draping a hand to rest against Xenas breast; this time, Xena didnt mind at all. There would be plenty of time for that later. More content than she had ever been in her entire life, she let her eyes drift shut.
As sleep claimed her as well, Xena whispered, "I love you."
Artemis and Aphrodite, who were watching the two as they settled down for the night, smiled at one another. Things could not have worked out better, and the worst was over.
They were wrong.
Absence lessens the minor passions and increases the great ones, as the wind douses a candle and kindles a fire.
François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld (161380), French writer, moralist. Sentences et Maximes Morales, no. 276 (1678).
Roused from a harrowing dream of battle and funeral pyres, Xena woke slowly to the first light of dawn. Snuggled in the crook of her arm lay Gabrielle, her golden head pillowed on Xenas bare breast. The bards magnificent hair covered them both, providing a modicum of modesty for Xena as the serving girls came in with breakfast.
They came and went quickly, averting their eyes respectfully. They would gossip later about the Conqueror and her beautiful concubine, the mysterious woman who had ridden to Chin upon a golden horse.
Xena studied Gabrielles face leisurely, reacquainting herself with the lovely features she had missed for so long. She hadnt changed much; a little thinner, maybe, and her hair was lighter from the harsh Eastern sun. There were a few more lines on her face than a year ago, but Xena knew that she had accumulated her share as well.
Gabrielle stirred, then awoke due to the throbbing of her lower back. "Unngh."
Xena planted a sweet kiss on the sleepy bards forehead. "Morning."
Gabrielle, half-asleep, glanced up only to be struck speechless by the intensity of Xenas gaze. She had almost believed yesterday was a dream. Now, couched in a bed with blue silk sheets with her arms around the woman of her dreams what could be said to describe that? She settled for saying, "Im never going to move again."
Xena gave her a lopsided grin. "Theres food on the table."
Okay, I can get up for that. "Im starving."
Xena gave Gabrielle a hand up, then watched in amusement as the bard pilfered through the food on the table. Admiring the way the robe clung to the woman, she almost entirely missed Gabrielles question. "Huh?"
Gabrielle grinned. She knew what Xena had been so intent on. "I said do you want a pastry?"
"Yep." Xena stretched ferally, wincing as the muscles shed bruised pulled with the effort. Gabrielle plopped down beside her warrior with a plate full of treats, extending her injured leg out beside her. Xena began inspecting the honey-covered pastries, intending on snagging one and going to do her sword drills.
With a stern look, Gabrielle held out a small apple. "Good stuff first." Xena accepted it meekly. She was slightly pacified when the bard began to eat grapes; Xena knew that Gabrielle really loved sweet pastry, and if she could abstain, so could the warrior princess. Soon the fruits were gone and they were both nibbling on baklava.
A heavy knock sounded at the door, and Xena narrowed her eyes. "What?" she growled.
"Lord, theres villagers here, and they are demanding to see you."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a look. "Tell them Ill be down in a minute." She popped the rest of the food into her mouth and rose.
Mumbling underneath her breath, Xena began dressing. When she felt the familiar hands fastening her armor, she spared a smile for the bard, noticing that she, too, was getting dressed. Xena was about to suggest that Gabrielle stay put and rest her leg when she saw the warning light come into her partners eyes. Instead, she help Gabrielle settle her mail shirt over her shoulders.
The armor was just for appearances. If the people wanted to start a fight, they needed to know that the warlord was prepared.
Gazing at Gabrielle, Xena was more than a little unsettled by the bards appearance. The beautiful woman was decked head to toe in sparkling mail armor, her pale hair shining against the metal. She was elegant in her armor, carrying herself with confidence that Xena swore shed never possessed before. With that thought came the realization that this woman was fully capable of taking care of herself. The notion was both highly exciting and terrifying at the same time.
Gabrielle saw the uncertainty flicker in the warriors azure eyes, and guessed at the cause. She chose to let it go for now. Lacing her fingers with Xenas, she said, "Lets go see whats going on."
"Wait." Xena walked to a small coffer and opened it, revealing a wealth of gems and gold. "Borias had it with his possessions, and I didnt know what to do with it. I saw this piece, though, and thought that it would look beautiful on you." She walked back over to Gabrielle and placed a golden circlet upon her head, complete with a tiny, star-shaped emerald diadem that dangled onto her forehead.
Gabrielle was not much for ornamentation, but as she looked into the polished bronze mirror Xena held, she fell in love with the simplicity of the gift. The emerald sparkled like a third eye on her forehead, and the gold lay nestled in the paler shade of her hair. "Wow," she breathed solemnly.
Gabrielle pulled Xena down and gave her a small kiss on the cheek, a little shy. Xena wasnt content with that, and moved to capture the bards lips with her own, pulling her close. When the kiss was over, they looked at each other with a mixture of love, longing, and resignation.
Xena laughed throatily, trying to staunch the yearning building inside of her. "I really need to not do that before were supposed to go somewhere."
Gabrielle smiled and nodded in agreement. An object lying on top of all the gems in the box caught her attention. Carefully, she lifted it so that she could show it to Xena. "Whats this?"
Xena shrugged. "Dont know. It looks like an Egyptian hair net." She fingered the tiny lapis and jet beads of the ornate object. "Zeus only knows where he got this thing."
Xena was silent, stemming her usual protests as Gabrielle shook it out and placed it on her head. Besides, from the look on the bards face, the net must have done wonders. Xena waggled her eyebrows teasingly.
Gabrielle felt a shot of pure heat at the exotic beauty of Xena when complemented with the headdress. Waterfalls of sparkling beads cascaded through the warriors inky hair and brushed lightly against her cheeks and the tops of her breasts. She brushed light fingers on Xenas cheek. "Youre so beautiful."
Xena was getting overheated. "So are you."
Gabrielle shook her head to clear it of the passion-induced fog. "We need to get out there."
"Mmm." Xena brushed another leisurely kiss over Gabrielles lips. "I guess."
With a sigh, she strode purposely to the door, leaving a befuddled Gabrielle to follow along behind.
Xena and Gabrielle stood together on what used to be Ming Tiens throne dais; the fifty or so villagers that were led into the hall thought they were two shining goddesses, one dark, the other light.
Nervously, the spokesman for the group stepped forward. "My lords," he began, "we have come to petition a favor from you."
Xena raised an eyebrow. Gabrielle looked around, wondering whom they were talking about, until she realized that she was being accorded the same status as Xena.
The small dark man elected as messenger wrung his hands in distress. "We would like to ask if I may ."
Xena raised an eyebrow, and the man began to shake.
Gabrielle sensed the mans fear and Xenas growing frustration. To prevent an explosion of temper from the warrior, she reached for Xenas hand.
Xena smiled a little, knowing Gabrielle was trying to school her to use patience. With a sigh, she said, "I wont hurt you."
The little man gave a smile of relief. "We would like you to be our empress."
Xena stared at disbelief at the small assemblage. Huh? There were nods among the men standing behind the messenger.
Emboldened, the man added, "Each of these men are the rulers of their respective villages. Because you have been so kind to our people, and so good for us, we would like you to stay."
Gabrielle watched Xena from the corner of her eye. She always said that power was seductive. Now that she has the chance to rule this huge empire, I cant imagine her turning it down. Im honestly not sure that I would.
Much to Gabrielles surprise, Xenas response was immediate. "As honored as I am by your offer, I cannot accept. I am returning to my home within the next few days, and I will not return for a long time." The murmurs of disappointment were loud, but Xena still heard Gabrielles sigh of relief.
"However," Xena continued, "I am leaving my advisor here to help reconstruct the villages that were burned to the ground. He will have the warlords treasury, and will pay for the damages." She motioned at a young man who stood proudly to her left. "I trust him to be honorable." She sketched a respectful bow to the assembled men, and Gabrielle copied her actions.
With that, Xena and Gabrielle exited the room, and descended a flight of stairs to reach an outside door. The cheers of the people could be heard out in the courtyard. Xena just shook her head in disbelief. She grabbed Gabrielles hand and started walking toward the stables.
Gabrielle smiled up at her partner, feeling mixed emotions. "I think you would have been a great empress, Xena."
Xena gave her a raised eyebrow for that comment, and stopped to face the bard.
Gabrielle continued. "You could have done it. You have experience with leading people, youre smart, youre beautiful, and mmmph?" She stopped by a large hand clapped over her mouth.
" And I have you. Thats all I want in this world. Nothing more." Xena stated precisely, staring into the wide green eyes of her bard. She gestured around her. "Do you think for one moment I would give up sleeping beneath the stars with you for this?"
Gabrielle looked at her guiltily. "Maybe," she whispered after Xena removed her hand.
"No." Xena ran a finger down Gabrielles cheek, tracing the path of a solitary tear. "Im never letting you go again."
"Oh." Gabrielle sucked in a breath, then let it go in a sigh. She gave her favorite warrior a tremulous smile. "Ill stop acting like a baby."
Xena laid a companionable arm around her shoulders and they began walking again. "Youre not being a baby, hon. This is new to me, too."
Gabrielle thought about that. "Yeah, youre right. Weve been through a lot." She paused. "Hey, did you just call me hon?"
Xena blushed a little. She retorted, "How about honeybuns instead?"
"Only if I can call you fuzzy butt."
I do not have a fuzzy butt, Gabrielle," Xena deadpanned, holding the door for the bard to pass through.
Their argument was interrupted by Gabrielles gasp of surprise. "Storm?"
The horse picked up Gabrielles scent and whinnied happily. Gabrielle ran to the mare and gave her a big hug. Peeking around the horse, Gabrielle asked, "Where ever did you find her?"
Xena gave her a strange look. "You mean you didnt send her here? We found her yesterday morning. She walked right into camp."
"Oh, by the Gods." She laid her forehead on Storms neck. "Xena, the last time I saw her, was when I found the body. When I came to, she was gone."
"Wow." Xena patted the horse gently. "She came a heck of a long wayI wonder what made her do that." The mares intelligent eyes gazed at Xena, and she could have sworn the horse winked at her. I just imagined that.
"Maybe she knew something that I didnt then. That you were alive, and I was missing the other half of my soul." Storm nuzzled Gabrielle affectionately as the bard stroked her back. "Youre wonderful. I dont know why you came all this way, but thank you." Storm nodded her head, then nudged the bag at Gabrielles waist.
Xena laughed. "You wouldnt happen to have an apple in there, would you?"
Gabrielle colored. "As a matter of fact ." She fished around until she found a dried apple in her pouch. Xena gave her a knife and she cut it in half, and gave a piece to both Argo and Storm. She looked at Xena with tears in her eyes. Xena wrapped an arm around her in silence.
Impatiently, Gabrielle brushed at her face. "This has been an eventful few days."
"Yeah." She leveled a sideways glance at the bard nestled in her arms. "I feel like Ive come home."
Gabrielle gave her a sweet smile. "Home is where ever you are."
Xena and Gabrielle packed their few possessions and readied the horses. Commands were issued to Xenas second, and bonuses were delivered to the men that had fought alongside their commander. Indras troops, not surprisingly, had disappeared into thin air as the battle had come to a close.
Xena went out to the stable yard to do her sword drills, and Gabrielle tagged along behind. She watched the warrior execute the moves with incredible grace, thinking that she had really missed this part of Xenas morning routine.
One minute Xena was ten feet away, the next she was standing in front of Gabrielle holding an arrow aimed straight for the bards heart.
Xena scanned her surroundings, but saw nothing out of place. She sniffed the tip of the arrow and caught the unmistakable scent of poison.
Gabrielle, who had just now realized that she was almost killed, gave Xena a worried look. "Who would try to kill me?"
"I dont know, Gabrielle." She threw the arrow down in disgust and resheathed her sword. "Its time we went home."
Gabrielle nodded mutely, receiving comfort in the weight of Xenas arm around her waist.
Gabrielle watched Xena from across the room, admiring the way her body moved as she confidently issued her last orders. The warrior was garbed in her ordinary leathers, the brass breastplates newly shined by Gabrielles loving hand. Now, however, Gabrielles thoughts willing traveled to obscene places and left a little leer on her face. The murder attempt from earlier was forgotten in the face of lust.
Xena came to the bards side and had to literally wave her hand in front of Gabrielles face to get her attention. "Deep thoughts?"
"Hardly," Gabrielle said with a blush. "More like you and me and a vat of honey."
Xena actually turned pink. "Oh."
Heh. Made her think. Gabrielle shifted to her other foot, redistributing her weight as she leaned against her staff. She was growing impatient. "So whens this Indra guy gonna zap us home?"
Xena surveyed the now empty room before her. "I think were about ready." She paused, and cleared her throat a little nervously. "Theres some people I would like to take along if thats okay with you."
Xena walked over to the door and spoke with guard. After a few minutes, a knock sounded. "Come in."
Gabrielle looked at the small boy, who couldnt have been more then ten and was petrified, and smiled reassuringly. The girl, however, was another matter. Her blue eyes shot daggers at Gabrielle, but then warmed considerably as they rested on Xena.
She gave Xena a sideways look and found her studiously studying the tops of her boots. Well. Whats going on here?
Since Xena didnt want to volunteer any information, Gabrielle introduced herself. Ulric, the little boy, warmed up to Gabrielle immediately, giving her a shy grin when she told him what a handsome man he would be.
She faced the sullen redhead. "And you are?"
Unwillingly, the girl shook Gabrielles hand. "Alea."
Sensing that the girl would not be responsive, she simply said, "Its a pleasure to meet you both." Moving back to Xenas side, she twined her fingers with Xenas and waited for her to speak.
Xena was still staring at her shoes, but she went ahead with what she had to say. "Gabrielle and I thought you might like to come to Greece with us."
Ulric jumped up and down in excitement, and Alea nodded cautiously, having noticed the way the conqueror used the womans name in conjunction with hers. "Go gather your things and meet us in the stable yard one candlemark from now."
They two took their leave. As soon as the door closed, Gabrielle turned to glare at Xena. "Well? Is there something you need to share with me?"
Xena looked at her feet, over Gabrielles head, anywhere but the bards eyes. "I she kinda oh, damn! She came on to me!"
"I told her that I was taken."
Gabrielle noticed the warriors uncomfortable flush, and thought there was something more to the story. "So whats the problem, Xena?"
Xena flinched. Gabrielle only called her by name when she was pissed. "I liked it. A little," the warrior princess murmured in a low voice, staring at her hands.
"Mmmm." Gabrielle was trying to figure out if it would be better to let Xena suffer or to tell her that it was okay. When Xena looked up at her, however, Gabrielle was startled to see tears shining in the beautiful blue eyes. All thoughts of petty revenge were destroyed in the face of those tears.
"Honey?" Gabrielle pulled her close and stroked her hair. "Its okay. You were lonely, and I wasnt here. Its all right."
Xena knelt and laid her head against Gabrielles stomach, letting the tears fall. As Gabrielles loving hands threaded through her hair, Xena said, "I felt like I had betrayed you. And I thought that I would lose you if I told you I enjoyed the way she touched me."
"Never," Gabrielle said quietly. "Do you think Im that shallow?"
Xena glanced up, stunned. "No, I I mean ."
"You meant that I would give up on you if I knew just how imperfect you really are?" Gabrielle felt Xena nod. "Do you think Im perfect?"
A pause. Xena stood up and moved to sit on the bed, wiping her eyes. Gabrielle sat carefully beside her, mindful of her sore leg. Finally, Xena looked at her. "I betrayed you before, and you never forgave me."
"When did you betray me?"
"In Britannia, Gabrielle. You trusted me to be there for you, and I let you down. I didnt understand about Hope. Maybe if you had raised her, some of your light would have come through in her. But I forced you to give her up." Xena twisted her hands in her lap. "I know that you have never forgiven me for that. I read the letter."
Gabrielle rubbed her eyes, saddened by the thought of her daughter. "Xena, I forgave you a long time ago. I have a harder time forgiving myself." She rubbed her leg as she remembered. "I lied to you then, I lied to you about Chin, I lied to you when Solon died and it cost you your son. I told you I hated you when I really only hated myself. How are we supposed to get through that?"
Xena looked at Gabrielle for a long moment, seeing her pain reflected in the eyes of the woman she loved. "I think you were right about love healing the greatest wounds. Do you remember saying that?"
Gabrielle thought for a minute, and nodded.
"We both screwed up and did things were not so proud of. We hurt each other in the worst ways. But in the end, we refused to even let death separate us again." She kissed Gabrielles hand lightly. "Weve forgiven each other, now we need to forgive ourselves."
"Its going to take time."
Xena smiled a little, running a shaking hand along Gabrielles cheek. "The best things do."
Gabrielle gave Xena a radiant grin. "I love you."
"I love you, too." Xena sighed. "What are we going to do about Alea?"
"Oh." Xena gave her a pitiful look. "Youre not going to help?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Uh-uh. Shell never believe it unless it comes from you."
Xena flopped back on the bed. "Great. Why me?"
Taking advantage of Xenas prone position, Gabrielle straddled her, and Xenas eyes closed as if in pain. By the Gods, shes trying to kill me. I cant take much more teasing. Then Gabrielles hand began to unfasten her breastplate, and her eyes shot wide open. "Gabrielle ."
"Hush. Im trying to work here." She succeeded in freeing the armor, and was working on the laces of Xenas leathers. She noticed that Xenas breathing has sped up and smirked in satisfaction.
" I thought I told you to hush, warrior." She finally succeeded in removing the leather top and was confronted with a transparent silk shift that molded perfectly to Xenas body. She sighed in contentment, and ran her hand from Xenas collarbone to her bellybutton, enjoying the feel of the warm skin beneath the clinging silk.
Xena wisely kept quiet, thinking that shed never speak again if Gabrielle would just keep touching her.
Gabrielle moved back a little, and before Xena could think to react, had removed the rest of her leathers, leaving her with nothing on but the shift and her boots. Xena looked down at herself, brow creased in consternation. "How ."
Then Gabrielle was on her again, and the question was lost in a ravenous kiss. Huh. So shes not teasing . She got her answer though, as Gabrielle said breathily in her ear, "I have many skills."
As the bards hand moved to cup her breast, Xena thought, Oh, yeah you sure do. She closed her eyes as a warm sensation spread throughout her body.
She opened her eyes a minute or so later to find a complete naked bard straddling her. Xena drank in the sight of Gabrielles beautiful breasts, finally able to admire them openly. She reached up and ever so gently ran a finger over one pert nipple, making it harden in response. Gabrielles head lulled back until Xena could feel her hair brushing her thighs.
"Enough," the warrior growled. I want more.
Xena lifted the bard up and rolled Gabrielle beneath her, careful of her injuries. Raising up on her elbows, Xena looked into Gabrielles beautiful green eyes, amazed at the hunger she saw within.
"Xena, make love to me, please," she whispered, and Xena knew that she could never refuse.
She began by giving Gabrielle deep, soft kisses, enjoying the small moans that came into her mouth as she teased the bard with her tongue. Balancing on one elbow, the other hand caressed Gabrielles breast, teasing the peak until it was rock hard. She gave it a gentle pinch, making Gabrielle gasp; her gasp became a moan as Xenas mouth replaced her fingers.
Xena parted Gabrielles thighs and slid between them, giving her access to both mounds. She could feel the evidence of Gabrielles desire on her stomach as the bard lifted her hips in response to Xenas caresses.
"Oh, please," Gabrielle cried as Xenas mouth went lower, hesitating at her bellybutton. She didnt know exactly what it was she wanted, but she knew Xena could give it to her. She tangled her hands in her lovers hair, encouraging her.
Xena responded willingly; spreading Gabrielle apart with her fingers, her tongue dove into the moist pink haven. Gabrielles hips exploded upward, and she cried out as Xena found the hardened nub that was the center of her desire. She gently entered her with her fingers and thrust as she teased the sensitive flesh with her mouth, feeling Gabrielles climax build until she came with a piercing shriek.
Xena pulled herself up to lay beside Gabrielle, wrapping her arms around the bard. Gabrielle was silent, and Xena was almost afraid that Gabrielle was regretting what had just happened.
When Gabrielles hand came to rest against her breast, Xenas doubts were assuaged. The bard lovingly stroked the flesh, her lovemaking as gentle as Xenas was aggressive. Xena found herself more aroused than she had ever been in her life as Gabrielle loved her breasts with hesitant, butterfly-light strokes of her hands and tongue. It was torture, and Xena found herself writhing beneath the attentive hands of her lover. She let Gabrielle explore her body, knowing that this was her lovers first time with a woman.
Gabrielle left no section of Xenas body untouched. She ran her hands all over, then followed her hands with her mouth. As she neared the ebony mound of Xenas sex, Xena cried, "Love me, Gabrielle. Youre driving me wild!"
Good, Gabrielle thought and bent to taste the sweetness of her love for the first time. Xena just about shot off the bed, and Gabrielle felt a little cocky. Hey I did that!
Xenas climax was swift and ruthless. She thought that she had died and gone to the Elysian fields until she felt Gabrielle snuggle into the crook of her arm. She sighed. "That was really worth waiting for."
"Mmm. Did I do okay?"
Xena lifted her head and gave Gabrielle a weird look. "Are you kidding?"
Gabrielle looked back at her innocently. Okay, shes not kidding.
Xena tried to search for the words. "That was the most incredible thing I have ever felt, Gabrielle and you want to know if you did okay?" Xena shook her head in amazement.
Gabrielle grinned happily. "Good. You were pretty incredible yourself." She nuzzled Xenas neck. "I love it when you call my name."
Xena digested that with a little grin. "I think our hour is up, sweetheart. If we want to get home, we need to get up."
Gabrielle got up with an indolent stretch. "Can we do that again really soon?"
I think Ive created a monster. Xena thought she could probably get to like this side of Gabrielle. "Try and stop me."
They gathered out in the courtyard with their horses and things around them. Xena called Indras name and he appeared promptly, this time without the elephant. His brown skin shone brightly in the sun.
"Xena," he said in a kind voice. "I do wish youd stay. You helped me immensely."
Thanks, my friend, but I have other things to do at home." She glanced at Gabrielle, who smiled lovingly.
Indra laughed. "I understand. But please, consider coming to India one day. It is a beautiful place."
Xena gave that a thought. "Maybe one day," she replied, thinking that she would like to spend some time at home instead. In the arms of the woman she loved.
Indra looked at Gabrielle, who gave a little bow, and then to Ulric and Alea, who were huddled together in awe. Then, he raised his hand. "Goodbye, Xena."
It was spring in Amphipolis. Time passed differently in the East and Gabrielle had forgotten what season it was in Greece.
Xena took a deep breath, remembering so many years spent running amongst these hills. Placid days until Cortese came and destroyed her life. Below her sprawled the little town of Amphipolis, sleepy in the late afternoon sun.
Gabrielle came behind Xena and wrapped her arms around the warriors waist. She ignored Aleas glare and savored the moment.
"You know, I dont think Mom got my note."
"It just occurred to me that my messenger wouldnt have gotten here before me." She sighed and rubbed Argos nose. "With the magic and all the zapping and what not."
Gabrielle sighed. Argo snorted. Xena cursed. Alea continued to glare and Ulric fiddled with Storms lead, ignoring the others completely.
With a resigned look, Xena said, "Lets go give Mom a heart attack."
This story will be continued in:
Darkening of the Light
Thanks for hanging around to see the finish of this epic. To those who have written, thanks for the support.
For those of you who are interested, I am working on a alternative romance novel. I am looking for two beta readers besides the most excellent Norma and her glorious partner Sue, who have been my right hands through the whole brainstorming process. They are my muses, and will hopefully continue to lend their collective genius to our little project.
Darkening of the Light, the next installment of this series, will begin shortly. Ideas, suggestions, and comments are all welcome and appreciated at email@example.com.
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