The Journey Home
by Tonya Muir
(See part one for pertinent disclaimers)
Xena, as usual, woke just before dawn. She considered getting up for a moment until the bard moved in her sleep and sighed contentedly, her slender fingers clutching at the linen shirt beneath her cheek. Deciding to stay put rather than crawl out from under her companion and wake her, Xena settled for watching the graying dawn through the sliver of window she could see from her position on the bed. It sounded as if the rain had stopped already, she mused, which would make her ride today much more pleasant.
She turned her thoughts easily to the young woman in her arms. Maybe not good timing, she realized. She'd rather Gabrielle be secure in herself and in their relationship on its own before taking it another level. She wanted the young woman to come to terms with her guilt and grief. But she wasn't interested in putting the bard off and she certainly wasn't even sure she could put it off now that she knew her feelings for the young woman were reciprocated. One step at a time. If they'd made it through the events in recent history, she was pretty sure they could survive quite a bit.
Xena studied what she could see of the smaller woman's profile, noticing her blonde eyelashes long and shadowed on sloping cheek bones. Full red lips slightly parted in sleep, exposing neat white teeth. And unruly red blonde bangs that tangled sleepily with slender, well shaped eyebrows. The warrior smiled, smoothing the bangs back with long bronzed fingers, noticing how starkly different she was from this woman laying warmly on her. All the way from size, to coloring, to hair, to temperament.
She knew, with unerring certainty and despite her promises, that if Gabrielle were to disappear tomorrow, she would be hard pressed to quench the darkness that would rise in her again. The young bard was her light, that part of her soul with a conscience and compassion. Xena felt a chill run through her at the thought of losing that brightness and held Gabrielle more tightly against her.
It was fully light outside when Gabrielle finally moved into the world of wakefulness, turning her head from one side to the other and exposing the imprinted shirt wrinkles on one cheek. She blinked silently into the room, clutched at Xena's shirt, inhaling deeply the scent of the warrior beneath her.
"Hey you," Xena said softly, smoothing bronzed hands down her companion's shoulders and back, watching her yawn and blink into the daylight around her. She liked to think that the room illuminated slightly with each exposure of those emerald eyes and the thought made her smile gently.
Gabrielle blinked again and rolled her head to rest her chin on the top of one fist. She smiled weakly but her sleepy eyes still sparkled with sunlight and love for her partner. Was it always there, Xena wondered absently, and I just now noticed? "Gods am I tired."
Xena nodded, not surprised given yesterday's travels, late night reading, and their activity in the wee hours of the morning. "You should go back to sleep then," she said practically reaching a hand up tentatively to smooth fingertips against Gabrielle's cheek.
"You're pretty comfortable for muscles and bones," Gabrielle smiled with a slight twinkle in her eyes as she became more awake, uncurling the fist she rested on to reach fingers out and touch the warrior's chin.
"Thanks," Xena gave her a small smirk and an arched eyebrow. Then moved the hand she'd been resting on Gabrielle's back to accompany the other in smoothing fair hair and caressing the pale face. Her eyes softened. "I like this, Gabrielle. It feels good."
"Yeah," the bard agreed getting lost in the depth of the blue eyes before her, realizing that she'd never seen anything quite so blue in her entire life. They'd always touched each other with greater intimacy than most friends, but this was even more intimate, more meaningful. She felt the warmth inside of her ripple from her heart to her extremities.
"I've never loved anyone more than I love you," Xena whispered, sapphire eyes intent and full of emotion, the words hung breathlessly between them. For a moment, the old fear gripped at her and Xena wanted, more than anything, to suck those words back in. Love is a weakness, she'd told her warriors countless times. Don't allow that weakness, a vulnerability, something to be used against you. But I didn't allow it, she reasoned practically to herself, I kind of fell into it. I didn't see it there before it swallowed me whole and I had no defenses against it. Not with Gabrielle at the helm.
Gabrielle was silent for a very long time, her eyes beginning to moisten as she read the depth of emotion both in the eyes and on the angular features of the woman she was still using as a pillow. "Wow," she said at last. "How do you do that?"
"Do what?" the warrior asked, unable to hide the slight choke in her voice. She cleared her throat and, feeling a warm flush begin, smiled slightly.
"Turn me to jelly with just one look and a few words," Gabrielle explained, leaning forward to study her companion more closely, seeing the flecks in her blue eyes and the dark lashes that cradled those irises elegantly. And realized just how beautiful this woman was ... which had probably proven to be quite an advantage in her warlord days.
Xena smiled fully now, easily reading the admiration from the bard's expression. "When you don't speak much, you have to make it count," she allowed with a shrug of one linen clad shoulder.
"I guess. You've always done that to me. Made me warm inside with a touch or a smile. I thought ... I thought it was wrong to want those things from you."
"Never wrong, Gabrielle," Xena shook her head gently, reaching up again to cradle the face before her.
"I wasn't raised thinking women could ... I mean ... women are supposed to find a good husband and have children. And the Amazons are an aberration."
Xena laughed, the push of air into her lungs bouncing the bard slightly. "Well, they are an aberration anyway, regardless of their personal relationships."
Gabrielle smiled as well. "I mean, I know that they ... you know. And get married ... and even have children ... somehow," the grin grew impish as she shrugged her shoulders which was an awkward movement with her weight resting on elbows. "I guess I didn't really consider them when I thought about what my parents taught me about roles and families."
"Women aren't supposed to be bards or warriors, either, Gabrielle," Xena replied reasonably, not realizing she touched on a particular sensitive spot with her companion. "If we're going to be backwards, we may as well go all the way."
"Do you think we're backwards?" Gabrielle asked carefully, dropping her eyes to watch her own finger as it traced simple designs on the other woman's collarbone.
"Not at all," the warrior backtracked quickly, not intending those words to seem insensitive. "I think that when you fall in love with someone it should be because of their hearts, souls, characters. Not for the package it all comes in." She wouldn't tell the young woman before her that she'd reached that conclusion through the back door. She'd realized that sex could be pleasurable from either sex and erotic pleasure was all she'd wanted out of a relationship then. So loving a woman didn't seem odd at all to her once she discovered there could be more to a relationship than sex.
"So you would love me still if I were a big, fat, hairy man?" Gabrielle teased, a grin on her face as she raised her eyes again to meet the warrior's gentle blue gaze.
"I would love you if you were Argo, my bard. There would just be certain things I'd be unwilling to do." Xena was also smiling.
"Oh yeah? Like what?" She leaned forward with a challenging smirk in her eyes and Xena cupped the back of her head to hold her steady for a long, deep kiss.
"Like that," she whispered when they parted, both already feeling their bodies respond to each other.
"Ah," was all Gabrielle could manage.
Xena smiled. "You sleep some more. I'm going to check on Argo and then go find Gregor to see if we can work out his problem."
Gabrielle rolled off of her companion, giving the other woman the freedom to stand. "That's right, I didn't ask you. What's going on?"
"Apparently there's an army forming in a valley a few leagues from here. They're interested in this land and the fields here, I s'pose. Gregor has a pretty strong and loyal following, keeps to himself, so it's not likely to be a problem. But it has increased the raiding parties, as we already witnessed, while they try to get enough men to mount an attack."
"But he's not worried yet ... there's no sign of preparation here," Gabrielle observed, watching Xena wash up and change into leathers, enjoying the supple muscles sliding beneath tanned skin. She knew the power encased casually in that body and it made her mouth dry as she thought about knowing that power more intimately. The warrior shrugged into her armor, fastening it with easy familiarity before responding to Gabrielle's statement.
"Not yet. But ... since I'm here. And since you'll be busy reading scrolls all day," she grinned, "or sleeping. Argo and I are going to do a little exploring."
Gabrielle nodded, then looked to Xena thoughtfully. "Is it overbearing of me to ask you to be careful?"
Xena chuckled dryly and crossed back to the bed to kiss Gabrielle lightly on the cheek then smooth it away with a thumb. "Since when has that stopped you, my bard?"
It was late in the morning before Gabrielle left the room they'd shared and found her way downstairs and through the kitchen. She charmed her way into some fresh bread and fruit and took her food into the scroll room for some more reading.
She didn't emerge until close to dinnertime when she decided to go stretch her legs in the courtyard for a bit. She checked the stable to reassure herself that Argo and Xena hadn't returned. Then the young woman headed out of the courtyard for a leisurely walk in the nearby marketplace, promising herself to be back for the evening meal. A chance to think about these latest changes in her life ... and how she felt about them.
Xena let the mare open up once they'd cantered across the valley and trotted up a steep incline to a plateau that dropped into the next valley. Argo's ground eating strides made quick work of the plateau, too quick, and Xena smirked as she turned her mount back the way they'd come for another brisk gallop.
Argo enjoyed the game as well, her entire body concentrating on the woman on her back and the minute clues that came from knees, feet, and hands. She dodged invisible enemies, rounded non-existent corners, and leaped over phantom logs for no other reason than she was instructed to do so. And it was fun, in a horse-kind-of-way. Also in a Xena-kind-of-way.
Argo was like no other horse she had ever owned or ridden and she relished these moments where the two of them could use finely honed battle skills for pure enjoyment. Stopping to rear and strike out at faceless foes, turning on the forehand to lash out with a rear hoof. A quick spin on the haunches to change directions while barely breaking stride. And, finally, when both were sweating and beast was panting, Xena pulled her horse to a slow trot for several moments and then to a walk. She leaned over and rubbed the mare's neck hard from poll to withers, just under her light colored mane, unmindful of the lather that had settled there.
"Good girl, Argo. Still have it, huh?" Xena smiled as she reached up to flick one golden ear.
The palomino snorted and stomped a leg as she shook her head. "Flies or annoyed?" Argo didn't answer and Xena didn't see any flies.
She guided the mare back towards the direction they'd been headed before deciding to play a bit. Down a small path and slightly South Xena found a small creek and allowed the mare to drink a little, reaching around to her chest to make sure she wasn't too heated.
Then they were back on the path, towards the next valley where Gregor thought this growing army may be residing. And if they took this trek relatively slowly, both would be rested by the time they got there. She looked upwards through the canopy of trees, feeling the dappled sun play across her face as she did. It was about midday. She wouldn't make it home by dark at this rate. But she didn't mind so much for herself as much as she didn't want Gabrielle to be worried.
Ah. Gabrielle. And that started an entire new thread of thoughts as they picked their way over rocky ground and exposed roots.
Xena's first indication she was getting nearer was the change of the land. Here the ground had been trodden without concern and items left about without care. No one here was interested in either concealing themselves or preserving the area for future visitors. Either did she once in her life, unless she was trying not to be followed or located. When it didn't matter, her focus was on the money and power, not the land. She imagined this army was driven the same.
But what an odd place to have an army. They were leagues from anyone but Gregor and the land wasn't fertile enough to be of too much use. She'd find out.
Xena nudged Argo up the bank of a small ravine and then across the ridge of a slightly larger hill before dismounting and leaving the mare with a pat on the shoulder and a quietly muttered "stay here." Then she traveled on foot along a barely visible deer path until she heard the noises of a large and active camp.
Peeking through the underbrush while laying flat on her belly she realized this was no ordinary warlord's camp. Everyone was dressed expensively and the weapons she could see were exquisite in design and ability. Many sparred in various areas and she noticed that the expensive weaponry did not make up for their lack of skill.
Scanning the camp slowly, Xena spotted a small shrine erected in the middle of all the tents. Oh. Great. Religious zealots. But she wondered for whom. And why here? The mountains? Maybe.
She watched them for quite awhile, listening intently for any spoken plans or hints of attacks and heard nothing of merit. Just various challenges to each other and bawdy jokes. And as the sun traveled the sky and her body grew numb from the stillness, she decided it was time to go back.
Xena led Argo across the dark courtyard towards the stables to untack the mare and put her away for the night. The stable boy was presumably done for the day, which was fine by her because she enjoyed doing Argo's chores by herself. There was minimal activity around the grounds: various guards, some workers.
Argo whickered softly as they entered the barn which struck Xena as odd. Argo wasn't a very vocal horse normally except to Xena and Gabrielle and she'd not had the time in her brief stay to get acquainted with the other inhabitants. But when Xena opened the box stall at the end where Argo had been staying, she saw why. Two green eyes blinked up at her.
"Hey," Gabrielle said softly, seated on top of some fresh straw, her back against a wall and a scroll in her hands.
"Hey, yourself," a smile spread across Xena's face at seeing the bard and she felt much like an awestruck, lovesick teenager. Any concerns she'd had over the camp seemed to vanish with one look at the gentle face peering up at her. She led Argo the rest of the way in, turning her and tossing the reins to the ground. Gabrielle captured them and played with them idly as Xena stripped the mare of her saddle and breast collar.
"Did you learn anything?"
"I saw 'em. But I didn't learn anything except they have nice weapons and no skill."
"What do you think they're doing?"
Xena shrugged, not willing to bring up the religious angle yet, and unhooked the mare's cheek strap to pull the bridle over Argo's ears, trying not to hit her teeth with the bit. But it never worked that way because the mare always managed to move her head and hit the bit on the way out. "Doesn't that hurt, Argo?" Xena admonished softly. The mare just lowered her neck to whuffle the bard's hair. "Don't eat her, we need to keep her around."
Gabrielle chuckled as she tried to duck away but Argo was insistent until the young woman managed to grab a handful of hay from the manger next to her and offer it up. Argo munched it happily. Gabrielle continued to offer her handfuls.
"She can find the hay herself," Xena's smirk was accompanied by two raised eyebrows as she curried the mare's gleaming coat and then smoothed the hairs with a large soft brush. "You're spoiling her."
"I like to spoil her," was Gabrielle's whispered response as she continued her task, concentrating on the flexing cheek muscles and nimble lips of the large golden mare.
Comfortable silence for several long moments. "Have you eaten, Gabrielle?"
A sharp look from ice blue eyes.
"I was waiting for you," the bard raised her hands defensively but there was merriment in her emerald eyes from their easy banter.
"You could have waited in the house. And eaten," said with a mock glare.
"I know. I wanted to wait here. To see you as soon as you came in," the bard explained shyly.
Xena smiled though it was hidden by Argo's flank.
"How was your reading?"
"Wonderful. I'm learning a lot. His collection is amazing."
"He's a man who loves literature, has collected a lot along the way. He uses the library for locals as well. Educates kids, farmers. They go there to read."
"I met some today," Gabrielle nodded her approval. "He's teaching the children to read and write."
"Maybe you can tell the kids a story," Xena suggested softly, her back to the bard as she cleaned Argo's feet. Had she pushed her luck? Gabrielle didn't respond well to pressure and this was a very sensitive point.
She was answered by a very long silence before the soft voice came. "I don't ... I'm not ready ...," she shrugged, pulled absently at the straw below her. "There are no stories to tell. Anymore."
Xena remained quiet, allowing the bard to go on if she chose. But there were no other words coming from across the stall. "Maybe you can copy some of your scrolls and leave them here for Gregor?" she spoke slowly, finishing up with Argo's feet and putting away all the tack just outside the open stall door.
"I don't have anything to copy," Gabrielle responded as she studied her fingers with far too much interest. "I dumped my scrolls months ago, after Solan," the last part was whispered.
And seating herself next to her friend, Xena tipped her hand. "I have them."
Gabrielle lost interest in her hands suddenly and looked up to study the blue depths next to her. "I sold them to a merchant for the parchment they were on. He was going to destroy them and reuse the parchment."
"I bought them back. I haven't touched them since, they're with our things upstairs," the warrior responded casually, searching the emerald eyes before her for any rancor.
Gabrielle glanced away briefly from the inquiring eyes before looking back, still finding the warrior's gaze unwaveringly intent. "That was just two days after Solan's funeral pyre," were the only words she could find in the internal search she'd launched. She was actually impressed she could force any words past the lump in her throat.
"I know," the warrior's turn to move her eyes away and study the golden mare for a long moment before looking back. She remembered very well the anger and bitterness coursing through her as she watched her son burn bright in the starless night. Remembered the coldness she'd emanated to her diminutive partner even as the fire raged hot inside of her. She knew those memories now showed themselves to the exploring gaze in front of her.
"Why did you care about me then?" Because I didn't care about me then. I hated myself for causing you so much pain and betraying the trust you'd given me. It was so much work to get that trust and I threw it away. I wanted to die alongside my daughter and rid you of my presence. But, in the end, I was selfish and wanted to be with you more than I desired death. Maybe some day she would be able to say those words out loud to the warrior.
Xena laughed very lightly, rubbing her face with her hands. "I never stopped loving you, Gabrielle, never," the warrior said softly, the words not coming easily as she spent so much time behind carefully erected walls. "I was angry and hurt. But you were ... are ... my world. I saw you falling apart and I couldn't ... I wasn't in a place to do anything about it. I wasn't ready. But I couldn't let you give up all your hard work ... give up part of you."
"Even then you felt that way?" Gabrielle tentatively reached out and rested a small warm hand on the warrior's knee, continually amazed at the dark woman's capacity for compassion and forgiveness.
"I've always felt that way. You know that. How many times have I told you what an important part of me you are?" Xena queried with a tilted head and a gentle smile, covering the pale hand with her own large dark one. "I know I'm not ... good at that. But I've told you."
"You have. A lot." A lot more than I should expect from someone as recalcitrant as you, my friend. "I guess it just hasn't sunk in why a woman like you, who could be with anyone, would want to spend her time with a village girl like me."
Xena formed a fist with her hand and knocked gently on the bard's temple. "Hello? Where have you been the last three years?" she teased, rewarding her partner with a full fledged smile. "I could have sworn that was you sharing my campfires and travels."
Gabrielle laughed and pushed the warrior away. "Not very confident, I guess."
"Well here's a question then, my bard. Why would a wonderful, peace loving, young woman such as yourself follow around this has-been warrior with very burdened shoulders?" The sapphire glints of ice grew somber again, pupils narrowing slightly, allowing growing irises to reveal the dark flecks Gabrielle had seen earlier.
"Hmmm," Gabrielle looked up from where her hand had been tracing the muscles of Xena's thigh. "Because it feels right. Because you're the most courageous, honorable, loyal person I have ever met in my life. And somewhere along the line I fell in love with you."
"Precisely. I'm just glad you stuck around long enough for us to get over the bad parts," Xena confided to her companion, not fully voicing the fear of those long months that she'd wake up alone one morning. That the bard had given up on the pain and the fear and simply walked away. She would never know that staying had been part of Gabrielle's self imposed punishment for her betrayal, her own penance was to help the warrior as much as possible while enduring the nightmares and the shame.
They were both silent for a long time, watching each other's eyes with fondness, reading more in that nonverbal transaction than they could have said if they'd spoken all night.
"Maybe I will copy a couple of them, then," Gabrielle said at last, finally dropping her gaze from the intense blueness next to her.
Xena was careful not to beam too much or make too big a deal of her decision. "How about some food? I'm starving." And she stood up, dragging the bard with her and giving Argo a final pat.
They walked together back to the main house, hands loosely linked and a scroll tucked under Gabrielle's arm.
Though she could see the light of the moon from her position on the bed, Xena couldn't see the silvery moon itself to judge what time it was. She felt like it was still awhile till dawn.
Gabrielle was nestled solidly into the warrior's side, one arm under Xena's shirt and resting on her bare stomach, her leg tossed casually across Xena's hips. The warrior ran her fingers very gently through the young woman's hair, separating each hair with tender fingers to fan it across the bard's shoulders and her own stomach. She recalled the events earlier in the evening, when they'd first lay together in bed.
Gentle touches, deep kissing, a lot of cuddling. But nothing more. And even though her body ached with her need for the bard, Xena was absolutely content to put her body on hold, forever if necessary. Moments like this, spent silently in each other's arms, surrounded with their love for each other, were what warmed the warrior's soul. She'd spent a lifetime with walls around her heart, making it cold, but had never let her body go unsated.
She wondered why she'd waited so long to let someone inside. But then she realized that no one but Gabrielle could have gotten in.
She felt the bard stir, the hand on her stomach moving restlessly for a moment, the thigh twitching.
"Shhh," Xena soothed. "You're safe. Sleep, my bard." And amazingly the words seemed to work and Gabrielle snuggled tighter and fell back into a deep sleep.
Gabrielle woke with a start and glanced quickly around the room. The bed and room were both empty of her companion. She lay back down with disappointment before getting out of bed and going to the window to look at the morning sun. It wasn't much after dawn: the sun was still a gentle orange and low in the sky. She glanced instinctively to the stables where she could see Argo standing silently in her paddock. Well, she couldn't be far then.
So the bard washed her face and dressed in a linen tunic which she belted snugly at her waist. Just as she was pulling on her sandals, Xena opened the door.
"Good morning," Gabrielle smiled up at her, locked eyes with her in a powerful moment of traded emotions, then went back to lacing the leather thongs.
"'Morning yourself. No sandals today, Gabrielle. Put on your boots. And leggings." Xena sat next to her on the bed.
"What are you up to?" Gabrielle tried her best to imitate her companion's one-raised-eyebrow look but knew she failed when the warrior smirked and raised her own eyebrow. Show off.
"Yeah. Right. Will I like it?" but it didn't really matter because she was already pulling on leggings and sitting to put on her boots.
Xena shrugged. "Maybe not. But it's important."
"Grip with your thighs, relax your lower back," Xena called as she turned in a slow circle, Argo turning the same circle but larger with the bard bouncing hopelessly in the saddle.
"Gabrielle," Xena's voice was light but held a hint of warning. "Listen to me."
"I am listening. But it doesn't work," Gabrielle growled to her companion, casting a baleful look that direction and then muttering something incomprehensible under her breath.
Suddenly Argo lunged forward and stopped, tossing Gabrielle onto the mare's neck where she gripped desperately for the mane. Then the horse reared, forcing her rider to clutch at anything she could reach, including ears. "Xena?!"
"ARGO!" Xena shouted in her most menacing voice. "Knock it off!"
Argo settled immediately back to all four feet and stood stock still as her owner stomped up to her side. She pulled on Gabrielle's leg to put her back in the saddle. "Listen to me, mare," Xena glowered. "You may not hurt her. Do you hear me?"
One golden ear twitched her direction.
"What happened?" Gabrielle sought out her partner's blue eyes, her own revealing her fear.
The warrior patted the knee which was now back at shoulder level. "Well, I think you gripped with your calves instead. And even though Argo knows you're a beginner," this directed to the silent mare, "she decided to respond to it so she jumped. Then, because she can and she's apparently feeling too good this morning, she also decided to rear."
"Maybe I should get down," Gabrielle determined, already leaning forward to dismount. But the warrior's hands stopped her. "Why now? I've never been able to ride her right."
"Because," Xena said patiently, "this lesson has been long in coming and we've neglected it. Now we have the time and the place to practice. You need to be able to ride Argo in case of an emergency."
"I've ridden her before in an emergency and it worked fine," remembering the poisoned dart of their first summer together.
"But I would feel better if I knew the two of you would be all right should something happen."
A grumpy look was her only response from the bard.
"Think of it this way," Xena grinned. "You and Argo are my best friends. And now we're having a little party so my best friends can become friends."
Gabrielle smiled back despite herself. "Argo and I like each other just fine ... if I'm on the ground or you're at the reins."
"We're expanding," Xena stepped away from the mare and bard, giving each a pat. "Start again. Use calf pressure to encourage her forward. That's right."
Gabrielle sighed as the mare resumed trotting.
In the afternoon, while Gabrielle was busy in the library, Xena laid out her scrolls with some additional parchments and quills on the bed. Then she went to the stables to fetch Argo and do some more exploring.
Gabrielle discovered what the warrior had left for her some time later. She opened the chamber door to see the scrolls and parchments laid out neatly on the bed and she started to cry. She lay down next to them and opened the first scroll, fingering the delicate parchment and tracing the familiar neat handwriting while occasionally using the back of her hand to wipe at wet cheeks.
Then, after several minutes of composing herself, Gabrielle set to work on copying her favorite stories. If Xena thought highly enough of her work to buy these scrolls and save them, then the least the bard could do is duplicate them as her companion had suggested.
Intending to get back before dark this time, Xena headed directly North of the castle grounds straight into the mountains, not following the Western route she'd used the day before. The trail was treacherous and rocky, and dangerously narrow in some places, but brought horse and rider neatly out onto the North ridge where she could overlook another valley region.
She was still trying to determine what held enough value in this region to support a growing army of that magnitude. And spotted nothing of significance in the valley below her.
So she nudged Argo into a fast canter along the ridge trail towards the East so she could check out the ravine which connected from the valley to her North, through the ridge she rode, to the smaller valley on the left. But they were now almost half a day's ride from where the army had settled which suggested to her they were well out of range for finding anything of significance.
She was right. The ravine was harshly jagged with sandstone colored rocks jutting out along the side and bottom. A gentle trickle of water marked the larger passage of a river during the snow melt period. But there was nothing but wildlife and green mountain passes for her to see.
Eventually, she turned Argo back the way they had come and negotiated the trail back down the mountain side with intense concentration as the setting sun blazed orange across the foothills. The rolling landscape of trees turned blue in the shadows where it had already been touched and abandoned by fading sunlight. And she hoped Gabrielle was having dinner and not waiting in the barn again.
Xena had been wrong on both counts. She found Gabrielle neither in the barn nor at the dining table which was, as before, packed solid with people. She said her greetings to Gregor before checking out the library and then, finally, going to their shared room.
Gabrielle lay sprawled on the bed, half buried in scrolls, sound asleep. Xena smiled at her companion fondly as she sorted the stacks of scrolls and moved them to the table in the middle of the room. Then she pried a quill from the bard's sleeping fingers and set it atop the scrolls.
"Xena?" Gabrielle stirred at last when Xena rubbed her thumb across the evidence of dried tears on the young bard's cheeks.
"Hi," Xena said softly, her husky voice sending tingles through the other woman's body. And was somewhat surprised when Gabrielle pushed herself up and took a stronghold of Xena's neck in a fierce embrace. "You okay?" Xena asked quietly, returning the hug and rubbing the bard's back through her linen tunic.
"Great," she took a deep cleansing breath, loosened her hold a little but didn't let go. "Thank you. For my scrolls. I thought I didn't want them. But I do."
Xena nodded and settled herself onto the bed, pulling Gabrielle into her lap and kissing the temple right next to her mouth. "It was my pleasure, my bard. I'm glad I saw you sell them."
They relaxed like that, warmed in each other's embrace, for quite awhile before Xena felt gentle lips exploring her earlobe then traveling down to where her neck and shoulder met.
"Can you take off your armor?" Gabrielle whispered. "It's poking me."
"Only if you get off my lap," Xena countered dryly, returning the gentle exploration of lips on skin.
"No," the bard laughed, the puff of air from the sound tickling against the hair at Xena's temple. "That's part of the challenge."
"Hmmm," Xena hummed, the vibration of the sound on Gabrielle's collarbone sending chills through the smaller woman. Xena felt the tremble. "I like a challenge," she whispered.
Small hands wound their way around to unclip the armor at shoulders and back and Xena obligingly shrugged out of it when it was loose. Then she removed her arm braces as Gabrielle turned around, back to Xena's chest, to bend down and undo shin guards.
"Stand up," Xena instructed, pushing the bard slightly until she stood on her own, next to the bed, then she stripped herself of the rest of the armor and her leather to be replaced with a soft linen shirt.
She grabbed the bard and pulled her back. "Where were we?"
Gabrielle laughed softly, lost in the desire and emotions coursing through her body. She moaned as Xena's ministrations continued: warm lips on sensitive skin.
"C'mere," the warrior growled, pulling them both farther onto the bed until her back was against the wall, and turning Gabrielle so the bard's back was against her breasts. Then she continued her assault by kissing Gabrielle's neck and shoulders, pushing the shirt down slightly so she could bend over and kiss the small woman on the upper chest. Then, slowly and delicately, Xena slid a hand up the front of Gabrielle's tunic and brushed fingertips across the bard's right breast.
She jumped slightly but it was wrought more of surprise than fear or a need to escape so Xena continued. Both hands under the shirt now, fondling and teasing, tugging at hardened nipples. Her lips traveled easily from the younger woman's earlobe, across the plane of a cheek, to the corner of Gabrielle's mouth.
The bard was restless, breathing labored and panting, her body arching into Xena's warm palms, craving the warrior's touch like she'd never craved anything before. Until a hand slipped lower, to rest on her pubic hair, and the bard's cravings became even stronger. She raised her hips off the bed to welcome that touch.
Xena's strong fingers combed the light hair there with startling tenderness before one finger snaked lower and rubbed along the length of Gabrielle's lips. Her hips came off the bed again and Gabrielle looped her arms around the thighs of Xena's bent legs on either side to try and keep herself grounded. Still kissing, one hand still on a breast, other hand stroking her most sensitive spot, and the bard was quickly coming unraveled.
Gabrielle raised her arms over her head, then over Xena's, to hold the other woman in an awkward embrace as her hips became more active, reaching for the hand that now alternated between a firm finger on the woman's center and rubbing of the area just over her pubic bone with the palm. Small sounds escaped the bard, somewhere between whimpers and pleas.
"Can I Gabrielle?" Xena asked for permission, knowing this was a big step for both of them.
"Please," Gabrielle panted softly, arching her head back to meet Xena's eyes and the warrior saw in those green depths an unfathomable amount of love and trust. Fearlessly displayed for her partner to see.
And it was all Xena needed. She moved her free hand from the breast to hold Gabrielle snugly across the abdomen and slipped the other hand farther down, entering Gabrielle with one long finger and rubbing her clitoris with a thumb.
Gabrielle bucked off the bed, answering Xena's thrusts with ones of her own. Her voice came gargled and unbidden from her throat. Then two fingers inside of her, spreading the moisture they found there with a gentle in-out motion until Gabrielle was becoming frantic: fast pants, restless head, thrusting hips.
And she gave the bard her release, increasing the friction of her thumb and the pressure of her fingers until Gabrielle pushed hips in the air against her hand and held there, turning her head to press it into the warrior's neck. A deep guttural sound escaped from her throat and then the hips relaxed, spasming a few more fleeting times before coming to rest with Xena's fingers withdrawn and gentle hand covering her entirely from pubic bone to opening.
Many moments of long silence followed as Xena placed gentle kisses on flushed skin and rubbed the bard's belly with the flat of her hand. Gabrielle was taking big gulping breaths of air as she tried to still her trembling body.
Finally, "gods, if I'd known it was like that," Gabrielle muttered into the arm she'd thrown across her face.
Xena chuckled softly, the movement felt by the bard more than heard, then she scooted down the bed and turned Gabrielle to her so she lay on her back with Gabrielle on top of her.
The bard spread her legs over one of Xena's thighs as she settled and the warrior felt the wetness of the other woman's release on her skin. Her hips twitched slightly in innate response.
"Sorry," Xena whispered, holding Gabrielle closely, trying to calm herself.
"No ... let me do something for you," but her voice was unsure.
"No, love. I'm fine. Just my body reacting," she pulled Gabrielle's face up and kissed her soundly on the lips, cupping her cheeks with both hands. "You relax."
"I feel like a bowl of fruit jelly," the bard grinned sheepishly, ducking her eyes away from those of her partner. But Xena shook her head slightly until the green eyes came back up.
"Don't you be embarrassed, Gabrielle," Xena said gently and saw tears begin to gather in the thoughtful eyes above hers.
"I've never felt so warm ... on the inside ... in my entire life."
Xena smiled to her companion, kissed her again before settling the bard's head on her shoulder. "I'm glad." And she learned on that evening that it could be as fulfilling to give pleasure as receive it. Neither slept for a long time but just lost themselves in the touch and sensations of the other.
Another Argo lesson early the next morning found Gabrielle feeling a little more confident as she learned to feel the mare beneath her and not just occupy the saddle on the horse's back. Gregor stood by Xena and they discussed the gathering army as Xena kept an eye on horse and rider.
Luckily, Argo was on her best behavior and Xena laughed softly as the mare even took a quick sidestep to recover her rider when Gabrielle over compensated and started to slip.
"Good girl, Argo," Xena called out and the mare snorted, tossing her head up and down once.
"Hey," Gabrielle responded with a sarcastic edge to her voice, turning glittering eyes to her companion.
Xena tossed her friend one of her best smirk-and-raised-eyebrows looks. "Good girl, Gabrielle."
The bard smiled. "Thank you, Xena," and turned her attention back to the task at hand with a smug satisfied look on her face.
Xena just shook her head and resumed her conversation with the man at her side.
"So I thought today I'd ride to the Southwest, into the region just short of the tree line. I'm suspicious this mess may have some religious foundation."
"What?" Gabrielle brought Argo to a sudden stop, tugging a little too hard on the bit which the mare resented and stomped her feet uneasily in response. "Religious?"
Xena looked up to meet those eyes and saw in them the fear, guilt, and sadness at the memories of a religious battle. She tried to show her support in her own eyes, knowing the bard was searching them. "Yeah," she said out loud. Not this time, Gabrielle. No mistakes. I promise you that.
The bard must have seen the silent intent in Xena's eyes because she urged Argo forward again and resumed her lesson.
"I'll ride with you, today," Gregor offered. "There's nothing planned here for this afternoon and I'd like to get a look at what's going on myself."
"Sounds great," then, louder, "How about some breakfast, bard?"
Gabrielle pulled Argo up much more smoothly this time and flashed a toothy grin towards her companion. "Good idea, warrior."
Effortlessly, Xena vaulted onto the mare behind Gabrielle, wrapping her arms around the young woman and giving her a gentle squeeze. "Move 'em out."
Gabrielle nudged the mare forward as Gregor fell into step beside them. The bard took a certain amount of pride in holding the reins for the first time while they both rode.
Argo welcomed the company, flirting hopelessly with Gregor's big dun gelding by tossing her head and snaking her neck out to nuzzle him from time to time. "Shameless," Xena poked the mare in the side of her withers and Gregor laughed.
"She knows what she wants."
"Too bad he can't give it to her," Xena said absently as she continued to examine the well-traveled road they occupied.
The large man laughed again, slapping an affectionate hand onto his mount's shoulder. "Dexus wasn't a good stallion. Didn't handle himself well."
"Rank?" Xena asked, using the term for when a stallion was too hard to handle and became dangerous.
"Mmmm," Gregor agreed, then something caught his eyes. "Up there."
Xena followed his pointing finger and saw a crumpled body ahead of them just off the path.
"Looks like trouble," the warrior muttered in her no-nonsense voice as she urged Argo to the still form and turned fully around to peer into the surrounding forest. She listened intently for several long moments and realized that this man wasn't breathing anymore and that whoever had done this was long gone. There were no unnatural sounds coming out of the trees or underbrush. "Stay mounted," a terse order to Gregor who had learned long ago that listening to Xena was a good idea, even when she wasn't commanding the most powerful army in all of Greece.
The warrior examined the body carefully, turning the man over to check out his wounds and cause of death. She was grateful that Gabrielle wasn't here to witness this. As strong as her bard was, scenes like this one always made her uneasy.
"Slit throat," she offered to her still mounted companion.
"I don't think so," Xena straightened and looked around at their surroundings again. "I think he's one of their own. See all the tracks and the scuffle? Like he made them mad so they killed him and took off with all of his stuff."
"So we're not dealing with the most stable people," Gregor shook his head in wonderment.
"There's a real surprise," the warrior dragged the body off into the underbrush before mounting again and then continuing in the direction they'd been previously headed. Both riders noted they were now following the tracks of the horses who'd left the scene.
Gabrielle spent much of the day in the library, alternating between reading from Gregor's collection and copying her own works so they could also join the assortment of volumes. Occasionally, she chatted with the patrons, learning this room attracted many different sorts: merchants, peasants, farmers.
She marveled at how many of Gregor's people could read and write. The bard listened eagerly to young children read stories from the multitude of scrolls or recite their own. It was quite an eye opening experience for Gabrielle and she remotely wished she'd grown up here instead of Potadeia. She wouldn't have been ridiculed here. Her skills would have been fine tuned much earlier in life without having to worry about sticking out in a crowd of land workers and laborers.
But she was here now, she mused. Xena had given her the freedom to become what she wanted to be. Had given her something even her own family had been unable or unwilling to give: herself.
Gabrielle left the library sometime after midday to grab some food from the kitchen and walk into the courtyard. Then she left through the gates to repeat her now daily walk through the marketplace and into the nearby woods. Where she could reflect on the feelings this place aroused in her, concerning both herself and her abandoned work as well as the newfound relationship with her partner.
Xena chose a different path this day, climbing up past the encampment she'd seen two days earlier to look down on the gathering of tents and the area around them.
It was this vantage point that allowed the two riders to see a well hidden temple tucked into a hill on the Northwest side of the encampment. The ivy covered stone walls of the temple would have disguised it quite effectively from prying eyes on the same level.
"Now we have the temple," Xena said under her breath. "But whom are they worshipping?"
Gregor shook his head, not having an answer for the mounted warrior beside him. "We could go find out," he suggested mildly.
But Xena shook her head. "Not now. Let's get back to the castle." She didn't tell him that her reason was Gabrielle. She wanted to tell the bard what was going on, get her opinion, let her decide if she wanted to come along on this adventure. Because if anything happened to the warrior today, she wouldn't have said a proper good bye.
That night in complete darkness, with Gabrielle wrapped in her arms, Xena recounted what they'd seen during the day.
"You didn't go to the temple?" Gabrielle inquired softly, her hand under her partner's sleep shirt tracing gentle patterns on her stomach. Xena traced those same patterns on the smaller woman's back.
"No," Xena's voice was warm if low and husky. Gabrielle shifted her weight so she could see the warrior's eyes. Even in the darkness, they shone like chips of ice.
Xena was quiet for a very long time, moving her hand from Gabrielle's back to caress her cheek with long sensitive fingers. She thought of all the things to say and all the ways to say them. Every one of them would have been accepted easily by the bard. From the religious theme which was obviously a difficult for the two of them to 'I wanted you there beside me.' But, instead, all she said was "I love you, Gabrielle."
And it took her partner's breath away for a long moment. Then, softly, "I understand." Gabrielle saw the flash of neat white teeth as the warrior smiled.
It should have surprised Xena that all of those things she could have said, maybe should have said, were relayed in four simple words. But it didn't. Their understanding of each other was absolutely unprecedented and each new revelation of the nuances of their relationship was amazing but hardly shocking. So she simply leaned forward and placed a tender kiss on the other woman's lips.
Which was answered with a bit more gusto than she expected. Gabrielle gently scraped her teeth against the warrior's lips, smiling as she did so, nibbling top and bottom lip in turn. "I love you, too. And thank you for thinking of me."
"Every moment of every day," Xena murmured softly. "C'mere," and she pulled her companion against her in a crushing hug.
"Ugh," Gabrielle grunted.
"'Night," the bard snuggled closer when Xena relaxed her grip and settled her head in its place on the front of Xena's shoulder.
They left the next day just after the mid day meal, Xena and Gabrielle riding Argo while the three warriors Gregor had sent along ambled easily behind them on their own mounts.
"Should I be worried?" Gabrielle asked, sitting up straighter so that her voice would travel more easily over the taller woman's shoulder.
The shoulder in question shrugged. "Don't think so. They're a bunch of amateurs. I just want to do a quick look around. With any luck we won't even meet any of them."
"Yeah, right," Gabrielle snorted. "Since when has anything we do been quick and simple?"
She felt the warrior's responding chuckle. "There is that," Xena drawled, squinting her eyes slightly as she regarded the bright sun of the afternoon.
"So once you figure out which god they're worshipping, how do you settle the problem?"
"Well. Usually there's a driving force behind all this like a self appointed priest or some other zealot. So I just reason with that person."
"Reason with him?" Gabrielle smirked and knew, without being able to see, that Xena was doing the same.
"You know me and my bargaining skills, bard. How could he resist?"
They remained silent for several long moments just listening to hoofbeats hit the packed road before Gabrielle sat up straight again and said, in barely a whisper, "I can't resist you."
This reminded the warrior that they were now on their first outing since they'd taken their relationship another step. But it didn't feel different because they'd always had these same feelings, just hadn't acted on them. So she reached back with one hand and grabbed the bard's green top. And tugged hard enough to pull the smaller woman over her thigh and into the saddle in front of her.
"Xena!" the bard protested loudly, causing Argo to flip her ears back and listen more carefully.
"Hardly fair you should be able to do all the hugging around here," Xena teased gently, leaning into Gabrielle's ear, knowing full well the effect of warm breath on that sensitive skin. Then she wrapped one secure arm around the smaller woman's abdomen and refused to let the looks she knew were coming from the warriors behind them bother her.
Gabrielle settled back easily into the other woman's chest, enjoying the warm sense of security she got from her partner. She held the arm on her abdomen with both of hers.
They silently passed where the body had lain the day before and followed the hard packed road further West as it wound into the slowly steepening foothills. At one point Xena's sensitive ears picked out the sound of hoofbeats headed their direction and she steered Argo off the road where the other riders followed. They stood silently in the protection of thick foliage along the road while a group of fifteen or twenty mounted men cantered heedlessly down the mountainside.
"Fools," Xena leaned forward to whisper softly into the bard's ear. "They aren't even paying attention to their surroundings." Then, when it was clear and the thundering hoofbeats faded into the distance behind them, Xena led the small party back onto the road.
Just before dusk they tackled the most difficult part of the journey by climbing a treacherous trail up and around the encampment. All the riders leaned forward on their mounts, allowing the horses to have more weight over their shoulders for this difficult climb. Gabrielle's stomach was pressed solidly into the horn of the saddle but she suffered in silence as she really couldn't move with Xena leaning on her back. So she concentrated on everything around her: the sounds of the horses' feet on the rocky trail and their heavy uneven breaths, the smell of green leaves and sweating animals, the warmth of the horse below her and the woman above her.
Just as she thought the pain would be unbearable if it lasted a moment longer, and just when she knew she would have a nice bruise, Argo came out on top of the ridge and Xena sat upright, giving Gabrielle the freedom to do the same.
"We'll go around to a clearing over here, deeper into the woods," she called to her followers as they also emerged on the ridge. "We'll camp there for the night. A short distance to see the encampment but it'll be protected."
In Xena's world silence meant agreement so she forged ahead as she'd previously planned.
By the cover of darkness they all traveled to the edge of the ridge, leaving the horses tethered at the small campsite. They lay on their bellies underneath prickly underbrush and peered down into the large encampment.
"There's a lot of them," Gabrielle whispered, her lips pressed closely into Xena's hair, just touching the other woman's ear.
Xena nodded and switched positions so her lips were now against her partner's ear. "Maybe a hundred. There's the temple."
Gabrielle followed the pointing finger and scanned in that direction. She could see it only because of the torches mounted on the outer walls. She nodded, moved again for her turn at whispering, "Doesn't look so bad." But when she backed away she was grinning, the moonlight reflecting off of even white teeth. She knew looks were deceiving and had made the comment lightly.
Xena smiled and sneaked in a gentle kiss on her partner's lips. Then licked the tip of her nose sloppily. Gabrielle growled, the warrior smirked and raised her eyebrows. "C'mon. They look settled for awhile."
The bard stayed silent as she followed her companion out of the bushes, crawling uncomfortably on elbows and belly. She heard the sounds of the men following them as well. When they were upright and walking back towards the camp, Gabrielle finally spoke. "So what are you going to do?"
"Going to sneak down to the temple once most of them go to sleep."
"Can I go?"
"Can I stop you?" A raised eyebrow was specifically aimed in the bard's direction.
Gabrielle nodded smugly. That was the biggest battle she'd had with the warrior: not getting left behind and out of trouble every time the taller woman took off to do something.
They made a quick meal of dried meat and fruits. Then later they shared some good natured warrior ribbing as well as battle stories before they all settled down in bed rolls to wait until the middle of the night.
Warrior and bard lay side by side on the opposite side of the fire from their companions, feeling the awkwardness of having company while sleeping out under the stars. Then Gabrielle felt the gentle touch of long fingers on her forearm as they traveled down to wrap around her smaller hand under the cover of a sleeping fur. She turned her head to look at Xena and the warrior winked. Gabrielle smiled and closed her eyes, gripping the familiar hand.
Gentle hands on her shoulders awoke her from a fitful sleep. "Wake up, Gabrielle."
"Sorry," she murmured. "Nightmares again."
"It's time to get up anyway. The others are getting ready."
The night seemed to close in around them as the small group walked down a narrow rocky trail to come up behind the temple. Gabrielle was in the middle of the group, between two of the warriors while Xena took the lead. She heard a scuffle up ahead once they'd reached flat land again and in her hurry to see what was going on, she ran right into the man in front of her who reached a hand back to steady her.
There were more sounds of struggle, then silence, then the line moved forward again. Gabrielle saw the reason for the scuffle moments later as a man lay obviously unconscious on the side of the trail. Xena had gone easy on him, he wasn't bleeding.
Gabrielle was relieved when they reached the temple doors because now she could move up and lay a hand on Xena's back, needing the contact to assure herself they were both okay. Xena leaned back very slightly into that familiar touch before tugging the heavy doors open and making her way inside, reaching back to capture the bard's hand in her own.
The simple stone room was slightly lit through the use of free standing torches placed sporadically throughout the room. They revealed a flat stone table in the middle of the room and a throne against the far wall. Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hand before releasing it and making her way further into the light.
There were blood stains on the stone table from past sacrifices but there was nothing obvious to indicate to whom the sacrifices had been made. Xena stood by the throne, examining its intricate stone carvings when she felt something in the pit of her stomach and a tugging at her heart. She spun around to see Gabrielle watching her with haunted green eyes, palms laying flat on the sacrificial stone, her cheeks were wet from her tears but they escaped soundlessly. And when she raised her hands from the stone, they were covered in the still wet blood.
The flashes of memory almost forced the warrior to her knees, she recalled the licking flames as they drew her bard to her death and the evil laughs of Dahak. The loss of Gabrielle's blood innocence. But she shook them off and covered the distance between them with startling speed, catching the bard as her knees buckled under her, wrapping her in strong arms.
"Shhh, shh," Xena crooned as she sat with Gabrielle, pulling her into a fierce hug. "Love, it's okay. It's not the same this time. It's not the same. No Dahak, no Meridian. Just you and me and those dumb warriors who need to pick their chins up off the floor," this said loud enough for the three of them to hear. They discreetly turned away.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle whispered into her partner's neck, reaching a hand between them to wipe at her tears. "I know it's not ... it's just so ... familiar."
"Don't apologize," Xena pushed the bard away slightly so she could cradle her face and wipe at the tears with her thumbs. "I understand. Gods, do I understand." She leaned forward and kissed a damp cheek, her sapphire depths telling the smaller woman that she did indeed understand. "Let's get out of here. There's nothing here that can help us figure this mess out."
She pulled Gabrielle to her feet and wrapped an arm securely around her shoulders as they made their way out and back up to the camp without resistance. The warriors settled back into their bedrolls silently, giving Xena and the bard the room and privacy they needed.
Xena laid down, tugged Gabrielle with her so she lay half on and half off the warrior, arms wrapped fiercely around the other woman's neck. Xena pulled up their sleeping furs and covered both of them then engulfed her partner in a hug again.
"I'm okay, Xena," Gabrielle murmured. "I really am. It was just overwhelming."
"I know you are," Xena placed a gentle kiss on top of the bard's head. "Just sleep."
The bard raised herself on an elbow to meet the pale eyes she knew so well. And she read in them a fear and anguish that had nothing to do with what she felt inside herself. "Oh, Xena," she whispered, scooting up and wrapping her arms around the warrior's head, cradling it with incredible tenderness. "I'm sorry. I was so caught up in what I was feeling that I didn't think about what you might be feeling. That was insensitive." She felt wetness on Xena's cheeks.
"I just ... I wasn't there for you last time ... and so much happened I should have been able to control," the voice was soft and broken as she reached up to hold the shoulders of her partner.
"You've never disappointed me, love," Gabrielle whispered.
"That's a lie, Gabrielle, and you know it."
"We both made mistakes. I know that you would do anything to change what happened. So would I. We're here now, though." The bard's words were gentle and musical, somehow weaving their way through the warrior's darkness and warming her soul. "You would never let me down now."
Xena scoffed softly from her cocoon of arms, "That's a lot of pressure."
"I have a lot of faith in you. Enough for both of us."
Xena nodded slightly, believing in the bard's faith above all else. Her kind and good nature, her ability to read the positive in any person or situation. But the tears were still running down the warrior's cheeks and she still felt overwhelmed by the impending sobs.
"Let it go," Gabrielle kissed the other woman's temple. "I've got you. Those big dumb warriors will think it's me."
Xena marveled at the bard's ability to read her so easily. But she wasn't amazed at her selflessness, that she was the one doing the comforting, because she had seen it evidenced time and time again how giving the bard was. So she gave herself up to the arms around her and let the tears fall, quieting her sobs as much as she could. Until, finally spent, she rolled over and pinned the bard beneath her. She met those curious green eyes with her earnest blue ones.
"You are the best thing that has ever happened to me."
Gabrielle smiled. "You, too." She pulled Xena to her for a gentle kiss then pressed her hand against the back of the warrior's head until she relented and rested her head on Gabrielle's shoulder. The young blonde felt an arm across her bare midriff as she let her fingers trace lazily over Xena's back and shoulder. "Good night, my love."
"'Night," was the sleepy response.
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