(The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of MCA/Universal, I have borrowed them without intent of profit, et cetera, et cetera... So let’s get on with it.)

Memphus

By: Sonia C. Barrera
s_barrera@hotmail.com

CHAPTER 1

The small fire crackled and spat, sparks falling back onto it in a glowing rain. The raven-haired warrior rocked forward to lay on another log before sitting back on her booted heels and appraising her work.

"Uhm...that’s nice," her companion murmured, the bard basking in the fire’s warmth. "I still can’t build them like you can, Xena, you just have that touch..."

"I’ll bet she does." The silken voice drifted in from the surrounding forest, it’s owner invisible just outside the yellow glow of the campsite.

Instantly, the warrior had claimed her weapon and moved so that her powerful body became a shield for her slender companion. She motioned her down with a quick gesture. "Show yourself," she growled, her voice commanding, the glinting sword brandished dangerously.

"Xena, I’m hurt you don’t recognize my voice...you used to not be able to get enough of it." The sultry tenor dripped with amusement.

"Memphus."

The intruder acknowledged her name with a throaty laugh. "Good. I’d hoped I wasn’t that easy to forget."

The bard had claimed her staff and moved to the warrior’s side. She saw a flush on Xena’s face even though her voice had betrayed no emotion. They both watched a figure materialize from the shadows, the long and muscled body of a woman moving cautiously toward them on silent feet. She wore dark, close-fitting leather pants, and light from the fire played across the whorls of armor that covered her leather-clad breasts and bare stomach. It danced in the rich brown skin of her arms and face and large, mahogany eyes. Wild hair of matching color was pulled back, loosely bound at the nape of a graceful neck with a leather thong, and stray curls fell carelessly around her face. Her hands were empty, but the thick, patterned hilt of a sword jutted from its sheath on her back. The bard caught herself gaping not only at the woman’s feline beauty but at the movements and stance that seemed to reflect Xena’s. Her mouth shut with a snap, but neither of the warriors seemed to notice; their eyes were locked.

"I thought you were dead, Memphus. Did you slip from Hades’ grip, too?" Xena questioned evenly, but the sinews and muscles of her neck and shoulders rippled with tension as she held her sword at the ready.

The stranger laughed low, yet an old sadness sulked in the intelligent eyes. "Oh, Xena...can you blame me for playing dead to save my life? Or yours? You would’ve kept looking till you found me. At least my way, we both walked away alive."

"And what’s different now?" An edge had slipped into the warrior’s tone.

The intruder stopped in her approach, her own body going rigid in alarm; for an unspoken moment, the crackle of the fire filled the night again. "Maybe nothing...or maybe everything. I guess I’m gambling on the latter. I’ve been hearing a lot of stories about you, Xena, about how you’ve changed. I’m betting on their truth."

"Then you’ve changed, too," the warrior sneered. "The Memphus I knew wouldn’t have been so foolish to gamble her life on stories."

"One of our lives," the stranger corrected, her hands slowly rising to allow a quicker reach for her sword.

The two warriors eyed each other in a charged silence that was broken by the awkward clearing of a throat. "Well...it’s pretty obvious that you two know each other. Hi, I’m Gabrielle," the bard said, edging forward and extending a hand. "Some of those stories you heard may’ve been mine."

The stranger seemed to see her for the first time, summing up the young, copper-haired woman with a penetrating gaze. She reached one hand out, but Xena pulled her companion back roughly before they could clasp forearms in greeting.

The stranger laughed full out now, the rich, throaty tones disarming. "Oh, Xena...still possessive, I see. And I can also see why." Her gaze fell upon the young woman again approvingly. "You’re the bard, then…Gabrielle."

Gabrielle felt her face go hot under the stranger’s smile, and she was suddenly breathless and flustered as she nodded.

"What do you want here, Memphus?" the warrior demanded brusquely, commanding both women’s attention.

"Now is that any way to talk to an old...friend, Xena?" the stranger returned with a smirk.

"You’ll have to excuse Xena..." Gabrielle apologized with a chastising glance at the warrior, "...she’s not really one for hospitality."

"That’s a shame," the stranger replied. "She used to be." The warrior only met her gaze coolly.

The bard looked from one warrior to the other. "Well, then...Xena and I were just going to sit and have a light meal. Why don’t you join us?" Without waiting for a response, she turned and began unpacking their provisions, setting out the items neatly by the fire. She glanced back over her shoulder to see the warriors unmoved, statuesque. "Uh...Memphus? Do you have some things back in the forest? Why don’t you go get them? You’ll share our fire tonight...and you and Xena can catch up," she added.

A striking smile shone from the stranger, and she shrugged. "I’d love to, thank you, Gabrielle. I’ll return shortly." She spun and moved back the way she’d come.

The warrior watched and listened until she couldn’t detect the visitor anymore, then bent to the bard, her eyes still on the surrounding darkness, her sword still clasped firmly in hand. "What are you doing?" she whispered angrily, pulling the bard to her.

"Xena!" the bard protested, fumbling the cheese. She turned to glare at the warrior. "You know this person, right?"

"Yeah."

"And she doesn’t seem to be threatening, right?"

The warrior looked away and answered reluctantly. "She doesn’t seem to be. At the moment."

"Well, where I come from, Xena, if an ‘old friend’ shows up at mealtime, you offer them some food," she argued sarcastically. "Anyway, it sounds like you two have some catching up to do."

The warrior snorted in frustration, then stood and resumed her scanning of the dark forest. "Look," she finally spoke, frowning into the night, "Memphus is from a time in my past that I’d rather stayed in the past. We didn’t...part on very good terms."

"What do you mean?" the bard began, but was interrupted by the stranger stepping into the firelight from a different angle. Both women balked, surprised by the silent arrival, and were greeted by a cunning smile. Then the stranger moved to hitch her dark mare by the warrior’s horse, once again disappearing into the shadows.

Gabrielle looked up to see the fire’s light playing across the warrior’s clenched jaw and narrowed sapphire eyes. "She’s good, isn’t she?" the bard whispered, and was answered with a curt nod.

"She should be. I taught her."

 

 

CHAPTER 2

The two women sat by the fire as they normally did. This time, however, they waited in silence for the stranger to join them. Sounds of the horse being unsaddled and brushed down came through the muted darkness beyond their campfire, and they heard soft murmuring from the stranger to her mount.

Just like Xena, the bard thought. She studied the warrior’s face, but it was impassive. That told her that the warrior felt the need to conceal herself. These days, that only happened when she sensed a threat or when she was trying not to betray strong emotions. The bard didn’t know whether the situation involved one or both, but she noticed that the warrior had not sheathed her sword, instead laying it within easy reach.

"Sorry to keep you waiting." The stranger set her saddle and its blankets by the fire to air out, and the rich smell of her animal mingled with the ever-present scent of the warrior’s horse nicely. She squatted by the fire, warming her hands, and eyed the spread of bread and cheese. "You know, I have some wine that would go nicely with this." She lunged for a saddle bag, the smooth leather of her pants rippling light and dark across muscled buttocks and thighs. An amused smile tugged at her lips as she turned and caught both women following her movements. She proffered a wine bladder. "Here’s to an interesting evening," she toasted. "I hope it’s not too rude if I get things started?" She took a long pull from it, then brushed her hand across full, wet lips, catching a stray burgundy droplet that clung there.

Gabrielle reached out tentatively to take the wine that their guest offered and their fingers brushed, surprising her with a spreading warmth. "Here, here," she mumbled before tilting the wine bladder up to the stars and letting its warm liquid slide down her throat. She held it out to Xena who eyed it suspiciously for a moment before taking it, eyes locked with the stranger, and swallowing only a small sip.

Gabrielle broke off chunks of the bread loaf for each of them, while with her dagger, Xena sliced off bits of the hard cheese. The stranger studied the women’s actions, the tasks silently divided and performed with a familiar coordination. She accepted the meal with subdued thanks. The trio ate in an awkward silence for several moments, the bard looking between the two mute warriors in contained agitation. Before she could no longer contain the urge to speak, the stranger broke in. "So, how long’ve you been traveling together?"

Seeing that her companion continued chewing implacably, Gabrielle answered. "It’s a little over two years now, ever since Xena saved me and my village, Poteidaia."

The stranger nodded, tearing small bits of bread and bringing them to her lips. "Uhm...heard about that: slave trade. Warlords...they can be a nasty lot, can’t they?" she said, her eyes unfocused and staring into the fire. "They have this habit of taking what they want, regardless of whether what they want wants them."

The bard saw Xena’s jaw stop and clench for just a moment before starting up again; the warrior kept her eyes averted.

The stranger continued. "So...you narrowly missed being sold into the slave trade only to be claimed by Xena. Looks like she’s treating you well, though." A smile danced in the deep brown eyes even as they lingered over the bard.

Gabrielle choked down the bread that had caught in her throat, and the stranger passed her the wine with cool amusement. "No, it’s not like that," she managed to squeeze out. "No...I had to convince Xena to let me travel with her. And you have no idea how long that took. She can be so stubborn when she has her mind made up..."

"Yes, I know," came the smooth interjection.

"Well...I’m sure you do -- so how is it that you two know each other again?" Gabrielle asked eagerly.

The stranger smiled. "Then I take it she hasn’t mentioned me. What, doesn’t she ever reminisce about her glory days?" Xena met her smirk with a smoldering silence, and Memphus refocused her attention on the bard. "She always could be tight-lipped. Well, I was one of the warrior princess’ warriors -- her most devout killing machine."

Xena stood suddenly, and the hiss of metal pierced the night as she sheathed her sword. "If I’m going to be discussed as if I’m not present, then I might as well not be. I’m going to relieve myself and check on the perimeter," she said rigidly, before stalking off.

Both women watched her go, Gabrielle with a concerned frown. The stranger turned back to the fire, the amused look she’d maintained since her arrival slipping away, adding age to her face.

The bard’s gaze flitted around the campsite awkwardly. "I’m sorry...I don’t know what to say."

The stranger turned to her, the deep eyes regarding her with a disarming intimacy. "I know you don’t. That’s okay." Suddenly, she appeared very weary, staring back into the fire. "I seem to have made a mistake in coming here, Gabrielle. I thought this was what I needed...I was afraid it might be like this, but I hoped it wouldn’t be." She laughed humorlessly. "It wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been, though, I guess -- she didn’t try to kill me." She met the bard’s searching eyes again. "Listen...I know we don’t know each other, but I can tell you have a good heart. I don’t know if you’re the reason Xena’s changed, but I suspect you have something to do with it. It’s obvious that you two...work well together." She mustered a small smile. "Anyway...please tell her I’m sorry for intruding...and that I wish her happiness. And peace." Throwing the blankets over her shoulder and hefting the saddle as she rose, she added, "And Gabrielle...I appreciate the hospitality. I regret not getting a chance to know you better."

"Then stay..." the bard found herself answering, submerged in the deep pools of warm brown.

The stranger smiled wistfully. "No, Gabrielle...no good would come of it." She strode away. The bard heard her soft greetings to her horse and heard the animal being saddled; the stranger worked quickly even in the dark. The horse’s hooves plodded lightly, fading, and the night went silent once again. The bard sat alone by the fire, molding a piece of bread in her hands absently and waiting for the warrior to return.

 

 

CHAPTER 3

Memphus led her horse along the darkened trail, a faint silver ribbon in the moonlight; her long fingers wove themselves in and out of its mane as she walked alongside it. The horse’s hooves marked a light but steady pace.

"Leaving so soon?" The cold voice came from off the trail where she knew the warrior had been stalking her.

Memphus didn’t hesitate, pointedly refusing to reach for her weapon. "I’m sorry, Xena, this was obviously a mistake. I wish I could take it back."

"Which part?" The voice was behind her, closer.

"Tonight, of course," Memphus answered dismissively. "You have to understand by now why I did what I did -- it was the only thing I could do." She felt callused fingers tighten suddenly around her throat and a strong arm wrap around her stomach, pulling her back against the armor and into the blanket of the warrior’s scent and body heat. The horse whinnied in alarm and side-stepped, but she kept her own body under tight reign, battling the instinct to break free.

The warrior breathed heavily, a roar in her ear. "Memphus...I have changed...but old habits are hard to break, aren’t they?" Her fingers tightened, twisting the woman’s graceful neck. She buried her lips there, savoring the rich, salty flesh.

Her kiss loosed a low, guttural moan from her captive. "Xena..." she gasped, struggling to turn, searching for the warrior’s lips.

The warrior met them hungrily, clutching Memphus to her. Their bodies came together violently, their hands grasping and exploring, the familiar frenzied passion loosed from every muscle’s memory. They brought each other down, mad wrestlers, their weaponry and armor becoming imprinted in the others’ flesh.

The warrior straddled Memphus, pinning her arms; she worked her hands beneath the armor hastily, her fingers catching and tearing on metal edges. She kneaded the firm breasts, nearly identical to her own underneath their own thick leather, and long fingers massaged the woman’s neck with a force that would leave marks, but Memphus did not fight, only writhed beneath her. The warrior reached back between the woman’s legs greedily, forcing her body to give way, to arch beneath her, to moan. The low, throaty sounds crazed her, and she plucked at the pants’ drawstring to give her fingers room to move into the woman, hot and slick. She moved them hard, the woman gasping with each thrust of her hand. The sapphire eyes fixed on the full lips, open and glistening like swollen flower petals, panting. She watched the woman move, moved by her hand, and she breathed deep the musky smell of her. As the woman neared the brink, she paused, a smile playing across her face as the woman gasped, her eyes flying open, anger rising at the stop, but imploring. Cruelly, the warrior waited through several counts of the woman’s furious heart, feeling it beating between her straddling thighs, to resume the vigorous rhythm. Then the woman was coming hard, her rigid body giving way to wild bucking under the warrior’s unrelenting fingers, a low, sultry moan rising from deep within her body, the guttural crescendo fracturing the night’s stillness.

And then Memphus was fighting, struggling to reach the warrior’s hand, to pull it back, but it would not stop, and her body betrayed her, yielding impossibly once again, building and building until she was crying out for the second time, the waves of climax breaking throughout her, her body racked with tremors. The warrior slowed, then finally stopped, withdrawing her oiled fingers gradually as the woman’s body clenched and she gasped one last time.

Memphus’ chest heaved. She opened her eyes slowly to see the warrior still atop her, staring down at her, expressionless. Realization bled her smile, and she yelled, a sound of fury this time, and struggled to free her arms, but the warrior only stared at her coldly, refusing to be thrown. "Get off!" With a crazed growl, she kicked her legs up, locking them around the warrior’s neck and pulling her backward violently.

Xena followed the momentum, prying the powerful thighs apart and rolling free before her neck could be broken. But Memphus was upon her, pinning her now, a knife to her throat. Glinting in the moonlight, tears of rage streamed down her face, and the scrape of hysteria was in her scream, "You don’t own me anymore!" the knife beginning its path across Xena’s corded neck.

There was a sharp crack, and the dark eyes rolled back in their sockets, Memphus collapsing lifelessly on the warrior. Behind her, the bard stood illuminated by the moon, in her hands her staff, her eyes wide.

 

 

CHAPTER 4

Xena clutched at her throat, her hand coming away only lightly dotted with blood. She stared up at the bard blankly for a moment, but then her attention was with the unconscious woman: rolling her off gently to kneel by her, lifting her eyelids, feeling for her pulse, carefully probing the base of her skull where the blow had been struck and feeling the damp of blood and thick knot. She cringed. "You could’ve killed her..."

"Xena," came the small, hollow voice behind her, but the warrior did not respond. She was quickly undoing the thong that held the woman’s hair and turning her over, using it to fasten her wrists behind her. She undid the woman’s boots, tying the thick laces together in another makeshift binding.

"Xena..."

The warrior was patting the woman down, extracting each weapon and tossing it into a pile out of arm’s reach when the staff caught her hand. The blow was painful but not meant to injure. Still, she did not turn, instead remained on her knees massaging her hand.

The bard spoke slowly, her voice laced with disgust. "You..."

"No!" the warrior broke in forcefully. "She could’ve stopped me anytime."

The bard was shaking her head adamantly, the staff trembling in her hands, the back of the warrior’s skull in its sights now. "No, I saw..."

Like lightning, the warrior’s arm whipped around and the strong hand had taken hold of the staff, yanking the bard down to bring them face to face. "You don’t understand what’s happened here -- stop trying," she growled. Xena pushed, sending the smaller woman backpedaling wildly before sliding back on her rump.

"Then why?! Tell me why!" Gabrielle screamed, scrambling and diving at the warrior, catching her in the chest, forcing her backward. She was crying, hot tears splashing across Xena’s face as she yelled down at her, "How could you, Xena?! How could you?!" The warrior clutched her in a vice-like embrace, holding the struggling bard tight until Gabrielle relented, sobbing, "Please, make me understand," into the warrior’s chest.

"It’s not what you think..." Xena began, but the bard regained herself and struggled out of the embrace, the warrior letting her escape her arms weakly.

"Don’t lie to me! I saw!" Gabrielle accused.

The warrior shut her eyes against the bard for a moment before turning and letting them slide over the peaceful features of the unconscious woman. She reached out and drew the back of her hand down the woman’s cheek. Her jaw clenched. "I didn’t mean to hurt her." She looked up at the bard, and her eyes were imploring. "I swear it to you, Gabrielle."

The bard shook her head, distrust in her eyes as she looked from the warrior to the bound woman. "What are you going to do with her?" she asked flatly.

Xena squatted, rolling the limp body over a wide shoulder and standing. She could not meet the bard’s eyes. "I don’t know," she answered.

As the warrior began along the path back toward the campsite, the bard collected the piled daggers and sword and followed in a daze. The horse brought up the rear of the sullen procession, plodding along behind her receding master.

 

 

CHAPTER 5

"Why don’t you get some sleep."

Gabrielle turned from where she’d been staring into the fire, and her eyes were hard. "Every time I close my eyes I see you on top of her." She shook her head slowly. "I can’t stand the sight of you...Why don’t you leave."

The warrior recoiled from the bard’s words, but stood and composed herself. "She should be out for a while," she mumbled and strode into the darkness.

The bard expelled a tight breath and looked up to the stars. A chill ran through her. She reached for a log and leaned forward to set it on the dying fire and saw sharp brown eyes staring back at her.

"It was a good blow, bard...a little harder and you would’ve killed me," came the sultry voice, weakened and strained now.

"I...I’m sorry," Gabrielle stuttered. "I couldn’t let you kill her."

"I know, but I will. Cut me loose."

The words sliced through the bard, and a deep chill followed. She shook her head. "I can’t." She studied her hands, searched the fire, but when her eyes slipped back onto the prone woman’s face, she saw that the eyes had not moved. They bore into her. "I don’t know what to do...I saw what she did to you," Gabrielle said weakly, and saw the almost imperceptible flinch. "She said it’s a misunderstanding. She’s changed..." she added quietly, her tone uncertain.

"She hasn’t changed," came the answering hiss, and the bard felt her spirit wilt. "I believed the stories, too...but, they were your stories."

The bard gave a faint, reluctant nod in acknowledgment.

"Well, I believed them, Gabrielle. But you left out parts, didn’t you? You left out the sides of Xena that scared the gods out of you...the times you’ve looked into her eyes and seen a demon looking back." The bound woman gave a hard laugh and continued through clenched teeth "I wanted to believe your stories! I was like you once -- I thought I saw deep into her to a great, hidden love. But do you know what I found out, sweet, innocent, delusioned Gabrielle? I found out that I was only looking down a dark, dark, well, and the love I saw there was just my own mirrored back at me! You don’t want to dive in, little one -- that water is far down and full of serpents. Now cut me loose."

Gabrielle was shaking uncontrollably, but the stranger’s eyes would not release her.

"Cut me loose, and I’ll take you with me, Gabrielle. You need to get out while you can."

"I can leave anytime," the bard answered defiantly, but her eyes fluttered and fell.

Memphus shook her head, wincing at the movement and shutting her eyes tight for a moment; the mane of brown curls parted, revealing the matted patch of drying blood. "I thought I could, too, Gabrielle, but she hasn’t changed -- she’ll never release what she thinks she owns."

Gabrielle shook her head in denial. "No...she doesn’t own me..."

"Doesn’t she? You, her personal guardian, protecting her from her just deserts?" Memphus challenged. "I was the same, and I tried to get away once. Now look at me." Gabrielle turned away. "Look at me!" the bound woman demanded. "Why do you think I’m tied up? What do you think your dear Xena’s going to do with me? Apologize and let me go?" Memphus held the bard’s gaze intently. "She’s going to kill me, Gabrielle," she whispered. "It’s only a matter of time...what else can she do? She knows I’ll kill her after what she did. And, you’ve seen her kill a thousand times, haven’t you? You know she’ll do it -- without a second thought. And you’ll be partly responsible."

The bard’s eyes were searching, confused. She thought for several moments before speaking again, her throat dry and tight. "If I let you go, will you promise to leave her alone?" she asked quietly, not daring to speak the betrayal at full voice.

Memphus nodded. "I promise, Gabrielle -- if you come with me, she’ll be left alone."

The bard shook her head with uncertainty. "I..."

"Gabrielle." The woman’s voice was firm. "I won’t make it far without you. Ironic...they were your stories that made me think I could come back, and now it’s your staff that’s made sure I can’t leave." Her tone went deadly. "But if I stay, Gabrielle, she’ll kill me. And if she doesn’t, I’ll kill her." She gave a bitter laugh. "I thought I still loved her, but she just cured me of that."

The bard wore a glazed look. "She’ll come after me...she’ll think you forced me..."

"Xena can read -- leave her a message. Tell her you need time to think. Tell her not to follow." She snorted at the bard’s hesitation, but when she continued, her tone was conciliatory. "Look, Gabrielle, if you decide to come back to her, I won’t stand in your way...I’ll even help you, I promise. But I need your help now. And I bet you could use some time to think, couldn’t you?"

The bard nodded blankly, the sultry voice continuing to lull and encourage as she slowly reached for her scrolls and quill.

 

 

CHAPTER 6

The warrior reentered the campsite to find it empty. She whirled, her eyes searing the surrounding darkness but seeing nothing. She turned back to the camp, searching the shadowed ground. She felt a spreading emptiness, finding no signs of a struggle. She set down the leaves bearing the pungent poultice and reached for the small scroll that sat on her bedroll. Wiping her hands on her skirt, she unrolled it with trembling fingers:

Xena,

Memphus isn’t going to avenge herself. She promised me, but in exchange, I had to help her get away. She was too hurt to do it alone.

I don’t know how to reconcile myself to what you did...I need time to think. I have never seen you act so despicably. I thought I knew what you were capable of, but apparently, I was wrong. And I don’t know where to go from here.

So, please don’t follow us. Me. I’ll be okay -- I feel that I can trust Memphus. And I will be back...if only to collect my things. Maybe then you’ll be able to make me understand all that you claim I don’t.

Gabrielle

The warrior’s hands trembled uncontrollably, and she sank to her knees, roaring the bard’s name up to the velvet sky.

On horseback in the distance, the bard’s hold around Memphus tightened, both women stiffening at the cry the wind carried to them. "Okay, Gabrielle, the time for stealth is gone -- now we ride," the injured rider called over her shoulder with jaw clenched against the pain and vertigo that threatened to overwhelm her. She nudged the hands linked around her middle. "Let go. Take the reigns and hold onto the saddle horn -- Medea knows where we’re going, she just needs to feel someone holding the reigns. Do it!" she commanded at the bard’s hesitation. As the bard followed her orders, the warrior dug her heels into her horse’s sides and the animal shot forward.

Gabrielle gasped at the sudden surge of speed, tightening her grip on the saddle horn. She managed to ask, "What are you going to do?" before she felt the injured warrior moan and go limp with the first jarring stride, her head lolling back on the bard’s shoulder where even before she had been leaning it for support. "Oh," Gabrielle murmured, clenching her teeth and pressing her knees in tight.

 

 

CHAPTER 7

Memphus came to with a start and a soft moan in the bard’s arms, reaching up to wipe the reviving spray of cold river water from her face. Their eyes held for a moment, strangers bound together under strange circumstances, until Memphus lifted herself with a noticeable strain. "For the love of Athena...my whole body aches," she muttered.

The bard grimaced. "Uhm...I had a little trouble getting you off the horse."

The warrior let out her throaty laugh, but quickly bit it back, wincing. "Well, under the circumstances, I guess you can be forgiven." She brought a long, muscled leg up to rest on a large rock at the water’s edge, undoing the lace on her worn boot. Her boots off, she strained to unhitch her breastplate, grimacing at the angle the movement forced in her neck.

The bard hurried to her, pushing the strong hands away and undoing the armor with practiced fingers, laying the breastplate by the boots with care. "It’s a little late and cold to go for a swim," Gabrielle scolded shyly as she worked. "You’ll just get stiffer."

The brown eyes clouded. "I want to wash her off me."

The bard nodded and helped her pull the leather halter off. In the weak moonlight, she caught the pale white of scars that ran at angles across the finely-muscled back, a harsh incongruity. She reached out her fingers to trace them before catching herself and pulling her hand back.

The warrior saw the question forming in Gabrielle’s eyes. "Does Xena still carry her whip?" she asked flatly. She didn’t wait for the stunned bard to answer, but moved to the river’s edge with feline grace, lowering herself into the black water.

The bard sat, her back to the river, and waited for Memphus to finish bathing. Her thoughts raced, landing randomly upon one thing then another like a wheel of chance. She fixed on a practical matter and spoke it. "Xena will follow us. As a rule, she doesn’t take orders from me -- suggestions, rarely. And the ride seemed like forever, but I don’t think we came very far...I don’t know what she’ll do when she gets here." The light splashing behind her stopped.

"Please, Gabrielle, you knew all this when you left camp," the warrior chided. She emerged from the river, water streaming off her body, lustrous in the moonlight. "No matter -- Xena won’t find us. Not tonight."

"But she’s an excellent tracker," the bard protested, distracted by the nude woman’s proximity as she bent to claim her things.

Numbed by the cold river, the warrior shook her head with more freedom now, beads of water flying from the loosened curls and searing themselves into the bard’s skin. The elegant body bent to her. "Gabrielle, not even Diana would be able to find us in the dark. Xena will have to wait for daylight to come after us." The sculpted features broke in benign amusement at the skepticism evident in the bard’s furrowed forehead. "Okay...do you remember those little brooks that Medea went through? Well, they run fast. Her prints will be long gone by morning. Xena’ll have to guess at whether we rode up through the brook or down. And even if she guesses right both times, we’ll be gone when she gets here." She put a hand to the bard’s face at the remaining doubts. "Gabrielle...I’ve had to stay out of Xena’s way before. Trust me. Nobody will find me if I don’t want them to." She rose to her full height, towering over the bard, and reached down a strong, brown hand. "Now come on. There’s a little cave back this way. It’s dry, and we can warm up."

 

 

 

CHAPTER 8

For the second time that night, the bard sat beside a fire with a warrior. But it was a new fire, smaller, and a different warrior. She watched Memphus unrolling a leather pouch and removing powders that she mixed into a paste in a small cup with her spittle. The bard found the warrior’s deliberate movements soothing. She crossed to her and coaxed the cup from her hands. The warrior acquiesced reluctantly; she bowed her head at the bard’s direction, lifting her spiraling hair while the bard smoothed the paste on the split scalp.

"It’s funny..." the bard said softly as she worked, "I see Xena in so much that you do..."

"That’s no wonder...she made me, after all." Memphus strained to see why the bard had gone rigid behind her. "What is it?"

"Nothing...you’re just not the first person who’s said that." Gabrielle resumed applying the salve.

"Who else?"

"Callisto," the bard replied, her voice edged with distaste.

"Ah..." the woman acknowledged, letting her hair fall as Gabrielle tapped her shoulder, handing the cup back to her. "Yes, I’ve heard those stories. Xena does have a way of shaping people in her own image, doesn’t she? Me, Callisto...you. Or have you resisted the forge?"

The bard lowered herself by the fire, taking moments to consider her reply. "In some ways, I haven’t -- I’ve learned to fight. But I’ve been traveling with Xena for quite a while now. I imagine that anyone I spend time with for that long is bound to have an effect on me." She saw Memphus cock an eyebrow and shrug in concession as she put away her things. "But Xena and I disagree over a lot still. She may not understand my ways, but she lets me follow them. She tries not to interfere and just let me be my own person."

The warrior turned her complete attention to the bard now, the look of perpetual amusement firmly back in place. "I see...so Xena lets you keep the staff." She laughed. "Well, maybe she has learned a few lessons along the way: better to keep them nonlethal."

The bard frowned. "What does that mean?"

"Nothing..." Memphus smiled, shaking her curls out again and holding them closer to the fire to dry. "I’m just teasing you, Gabrielle. But I am curious as to why Xena taught you staff technique and not sword. It is her preferred weapon."

"No, I learned the staff from the Amazons, not Xena, though we spar to keep me in practice. I chose it because it’s a defensive weapon, and I don’t believe in killing. That’s one of the areas where Xena and I really differ, but she seems to agree it’s the right thing for me, so I only fight to defend myself."

"But you also fight to defend others, Gabrielle," the warrior reminded.

"Well, yes...when I have to."

Memphus ran long fingers through her shiny, brown curls, teasing the tangles out. She continued casually. "Are you familiar with the defense of striking first to secure the advantage? You would do that, too, if that was your best defense -- striking first?"

"Well, yes...I guess so. What are you getting at?" The bard shifted, uncomfortable.

The brown eyes flickered in the firelight. "I just want to know more about how someone who travels with a killer by trade manages to not kill. Is it just that Xena takes care of everyone before they get to you? She kills them for you?"

"No, I help her fight when we need to. I just don’t strike to kill."

"But she does."

"Sometimes, if she feels she has to, I guess. Xena mainly fights defensively, too, these days," the bard answered, a crease deepening across her forehead.

"‘Mainly’...Well, that is what the stories say, don’t they?" She cast a pointed look at the bard. "But I’ve been wondering...if Xena fights defensively these days, then why doesn’t she carry a staff, too, or some other less lethal weapon. Why does she still carry her sword, Gabrielle? Doesn’t that bother you?" Her questioning came in an off-hand manner, but the bard’s agitation was increasing, unsure where the conversation was leading.

"I...I hadn’t really thought about that...I..."

The warrior continued, her voice silken and even. "I just don’t understand how someone who professes one philosophy can share her life with its antithesis."

"No, that’s not all there is to her!" the bard spoke forcefully. "Xena can be kind and gentle. I’ve seen her give everything she had to someone who she felt needed it more. I’ve seen her defend the weakest people without any desire for repayment, even when we’ve needed the money. And she’s saved me, time and time again -- risked her own life."

"I see..." the warrior answered contemplatively. "...and what happens at night?" Her eyes and voice were intense now, searing.

"What? What do you mean, ‘at night’? We camp..." the bard stuttered at the abrupt change of direction.

The warrior crossed to her, lowering herself eye to eye with the seated bard, strong forearms on her knees, deep eyes blazing intently from beneath thick curls, a smile playing at full, dark lips. "It’s a simple question, Gabrielle," she said, the balmy tones of her voice brushing over the bard. "At night...when the day’s battles are fading into memory and you’re huddled by the warmth of a fire...and the only thing you can hear is the call of your body... What do you do?"

A heavy silence.

"Do you do this?" those lips whispered as they moved closer until they touched hers, lightly, lingering in tenuous contact. "Or this?" they spoke against her, and Gabrielle felt them part and draw her lower lip in, gently, deliciously, before releasing it. The sound of rushing blood filled her ears, and she opened her eyes slowly after the lips didn’t return, falling into mahogany eyes, hypnotic.

The bard shook her head for clarity. She felt her face hot, and she was breathless. "Memphus, I don’t understand...one second you’re making me defend my feelings about killing, and then..."

"And then?" the woman prompted, her lips hovering close to the bard’s.

"And then you’re kissing me..." Gabrielle closed her eyes against the warm flush that accompanied the memory. "This is all just very sudden...I don’t know what to think about any of it." Her words were tumbling out now. "One minute Xena and I are sitting down for supper, and then she..." She shook her head, unable to finish. "And now I’m here, and I’m having these feelings..." she dropped her head in her hands.

The warrior reached out to touch the hair that reflected the fire’s light with its own. She laid her hand tenderly on the bard’s head, her voice soothing. "I know, Gabrielle, I know." At the soft sounds of the bard’s tears, she moved behind her, enveloping the slender woman in strong arms and letting her lean against her. "Shhh," she whispered, rocking gently, and the bard’s tears came harder, her body spasming with sobs.

"I can’t understand what she did, Memphus," she cried. "And look at me," she finally choked out with an ironic laugh, "crying, when you’re the one who’s gone through so much." She turned to the warrior and reached for the knot on the woman’s skull, "And what I did to you..."

The warrior exhaled passionately at the bard’s touch and nudged her arm, laying a warm, lingering kiss on the tender inside wrist. The deep eyes opened slowly and found the bard’s. "You are beautiful..." the warrior breathed, and drew her finger down Gabrielle’s cheek and across her lips, catching a tear that balanced there.

"Memphus..." the bard spoke through bated breath, "I feel drawn to you...very drawn to you...but..."

"But what?" the warrior breathed, her voice gone even deeper.

"But I’ve never...been with a woman," Gabrielle finished weakly, enthralled, watching the warrior raising the trembling teardrop up to lush lips to lay it onto the tip of her tongue.

"I find you intoxicating..." Memphus whispered, letting her lips brush past the wisps of hair to place an airy kiss on the bard’s forehead, "and I won’t be a fool like Xena to not tell you so...to not show you..." She stood, lifting the bard to her feet and pressing her lips to hers with a patient sensuality that enveloped Gabrielle with the warmth of an ocean current. Through the timelessness of that kiss, Gabrielle’s mind traveled back to one other kiss, though it had lasted so briefly, and she recognized it now and felt Xena’s lips again.

"Gabrielle," the woman murmured, "...this doesn’t have to be about..."

But the bard, her eyes still closed, put her fingers to the full lips, barring the warrior’s words. "Don’t talk," she whispered, and buried her unhardened hands in the long, thick curls, pulling the woman toward her.

 

 

CHAPTER 9

The fire had gone out, but the intimate cave remained warm. The women, limbs entangled, disengaged themselves to cool off. They lay side by side, wrapped in a slowly-fading blanket of pleasure. The warrior reached for the water skin and the bard touched her strong back, her fingers running along the thick scar tissue there. Her voice was soft. "Now tell me how you know Xena."

Memphus drew from the water skin then brought it to the bard’s lips, using the taut body like the stars to orient herself in the dark. "Aren’t you the one that’s supposed to tell the stories?"

The bard chuckled. "Even I need a break. But, please," she asked, her head on the warrior’s shoulder as they reclined again, "I’d like to know this story." She felt Memphus’ resigned shrug.

"If you insist." And the warrior began her history, a dry, grudging recitation. "I was very young when my village was raided, only a few years a woman. All the men were killed, the women were taken for slaves. The usual story."

"But Xena said she never took slaves," Gabrielle interrupted.

The warrior’s laugh was cold, and her voice held a raw edge. "She didn’t, not exactly. No, this wasn’t Xena. It was a petty bunch of marauders. They, in turn, had the bad luck of camping in Xena’s path. They were decimated by her army. Quick, but gruesome. I remember how the soldiers made way for their leader like a bloody sea parting..."

Her voice, laden with memory, took on a thicker quality as she spoke on. "It was Xena riding up to us, in her black leather and armor and cape...that long, streaming, black hair... She was breathtaking, but terrifying, unreal. I’ll never forget that. When she got close enough, we saw her eyes, like sapphires blazing down at us, full of the most fearsome pride..." She laughed gently. "I would’ve lost control of my bladder, if I hadn’t been so smitten."

But the brief levity fled her voice. "But that’s when things really started... Xena decided that we were going to travel with the army, providing necessary services, ‘or else.’ We all had a pretty good idea of what or else meant after seeing what her army’d done to those men, so we did it." She shrugged again. "So, we weren’t exactly slaves, but we weren’t exactly free to go, either. And mostly the services involved cooking, tending the wounded...mostly. Xena kept her army at a pretty steady pace, fortunately, so there wasn’t often time for anything else...

"Then one night, after a big victory, a couple of the men approached me and my mother. Things got…pretty nasty. They murdered her. So, I got hold of one of their knives and I killed them. Nothing pretty, just wild stabbing out of rage and fear. Luck. I was hauled before Xena, and her sentence was that I should join her ranks as a soldier -- I guess she liked my ingenuity. I was thrown into training with some of the young recruits and learned quickly. We all had to in Xena’s army. But I liked it. I liked the power of being able to defend myself -- of learning how to kill well..." The warrior drew a deep breath. "So for several months, I fought for her, killing people I didn’t know a damned thing about. It was my job. I got very good at it."

"Go on," the bard urged at the warrior’s silence.

Memphus shifted uncomfortably, but nodded and continued. "One day, we came upon a small village. The orders were to move in at twilight, establish ourselves, terrify them into allegiance, have them feed us, restock, and move on. Simple enough -- we had the routine down to a science. But somehow the village had gotten wind of us, and they were prepared. They’d even hired mercenaries to help. A lot of our men had been indulging, thinking this was going to be easy, so we weren’t ready for that kind of resistance. We’d gotten used to these villages just laying down for us. So, when we marched on the village, they fought back, and our men started dropping left and right. Suddenly we were losing to this bunch of farmers. The men broke ranks...it was complete chaos.

"That’s when the fires started. The farmers dropped their weapons, ran for the flaming huts. Apparently, the women and children were still inside, they hadn’t been taken to safety...I guess the farmers had also been too confident. So the tide turned. We had the advantage and we pressed it, furious at the farmers’ gall, cutting them down while they were trying to put out the fires and get their families out. The men were screaming, the women and children were screaming, everything was on fire...it was like I’ve always imagined Tartarus to be.

"In all of that, I got cut off by some of the mercenaries. They were amused by me, a woman with a sword, and they kept coming. I was tiring. And then out of the night, she was there...I almost tried to run her through, she appeared by me so suddenly. She was smiling that awful battle smile, and she looked me dead in the eyes and said, ‘None of them gets away.’ So we fought side by side." Her voice dropped off with the memory. "It was perfection..." the warrior breathed. "We were good together, complemented each other. We were unstoppable... And none of them did get away."

Gabrielle could feel the rigidness of the warrior’s body gone tense reliving the battle. "It must’ve been awful..." she whispered, imagining the two women, their faces fierce, their hoarse yells amid the dying screams of men falling beneath their swords, the screams from the women and children in the huts, the sweet stink of burning flesh... A chill gripped her. "What was the name of the village?" she asked.

"Cirra."

The doomed village’s name resounded throughout the cave, and the bard’s heart began to pound. "You were there with Xena?! That’s where Callisto lost her family, that’s why she’s after Xena!"

"I know. And yes, I was."

"Gods, Xena’s tortured herself over Cirra for years! She never knew how the fires started, but she blames herself. She has nightmares all the time... Do you know how they started? The fires?"

"Nightmares?" Memphus laughed coldly, shaking her head, "You mean ‘memories.’ Xena started the fires, Gabrielle. She looked like a demon riding through that village, all in black with only her face lit up by the torch she was carrying. She never stopped, just touched the torch to the roofs and rode on. It’d been so dry that they just burst into flames. Then the men took up her lead and set fire to the rest of the village."

"But Xena said she didn’t know how they started..." the bard spoke, confused. "She cried when she was telling me..."

"Gabrielle, Xena’s a master of her body, even her tears. Maybe she wishes she hadn’t done it. Maybe she’d rather believe that she didn’t. But the fact of the matter is she did, and that’s what saved her men. Me. That was her responsibility." Memphus noted the morose air that had taken the bard.

"She could’ve called a retreat..."

Frustrated, the warrior shook her head. "That’s never been Xena’s style, and you can’t tell me that it is now, either. Those farmers knew what they were risking by opposing her. If they didn’t, they should have. They chose to fight. And they left their weakness exposed and set themselves up for what happened.

"Maybe you don’t like that, and maybe there were other ways that it could’ve been handled. But that’s Xena’s way: efficient, merciless. If you haven’t learned that by now, it’s time you saw her clearly."

Several moments passed in silence; the warrior expelled an agitated sigh. Finally the bard spoke: "Go on." She steeled herself against any more unexpected truths.

Hidden by the dark, the warrior rolled her eyes, but complied. "After Cirra, I began getting called to spar with Xena. I learned from her, imitated her. She started teaching me strategy and politics. She promoted me -- I had 50 men below me. We began planning together, and we were winning. And I started sharing her tent."

"I see. So you enjoyed working as a warlord’s henchman," the bard said, her voice oddly tense.

Memphus shook her head and cupped the bard’s face in her hands. "Gabrielle, I’m not going to try to tell you I haven’t done horrible things. I have. I’ve even enjoyed some of them." She nodded as she saw the bard wince. "But you traveled with Xena -- you know what a warrior’s life is like, so let’s not pretend. You said you wanted to hear this story, and here it is. I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you. I wasn’t always like that...like this. I was softer than you are, Gabrielle, once, long ago. I had to have been... But riding and fighting with the army -- for Xena -- I did that for so long that I can’t remember any other kind of life. Her tent, her maps, her ambitions...those were the boundaries of my world. Whatever she wanted, I wanted, and I was more than happy to take it for her. She’d lay in my arms and tell me about the future she saw, her dreams. I didn’t care what they were, I just wanted to help her make them true. But I’ll be honest: it didn’t hurt that I saw myself right there at her side, enjoying them, too."

Gabrielle was moved by the warrior’s passion. She stroked her face, urging her to continue.

The warrior lay back down, and the bard felt her body coil once again. "One day Xena met with Zarmeth, a warlord she wanted as an ally to take a string of villages. I caught his eye and Xena noticed. She offered me to him, to help negotiations along, and I went. I let the sweaty pig put himself inside me for her," she spat, and continued, bitterness and sarcasm in her voice. "When I got back to camp after that little bit of protocol, she apologized profusely, said it was just politics, that she would’ve done it herself if he’d have wanted her. She had a warm bath drawn for me and washed my body of him. She even cried," Memphus laughed bitterly. "She said that the thought of me with someone else had hurt her so much that she would never do that again. That, in fact, she wanted to skin the bastard... I didn’t even have the chance to yell at her."

"But?" the bard prompted.

"But she lied. He asked for a second round of talks and a second night with me, and she agreed without a second thought. I protested. She had her whip out before I knew it."

"And she did this?" Gabrielle grimaced as she imagined Memphus’ back splitting under the tongue of Xena’s whip.

"No." The cold laugh returned. "No...Xena’s very, very good with a whip, Gabrielle. She won’t leave marks if she doesn’t want to, and she didn’t want to. She was just disciplining me in front of the other men. As soon as she was done with her little display, she sent me off with him. So, on the way to the bastard’s tent, I slit his throat."

The bard shivered at the cold account of the murder. The warrior pulled her closer, mistaking her tremor for a chill, and continued.

"It became very apparent to me that I had just been another possession to Xena all along...another conquest. I thought that... Well, it doesn’t matter what I thought. The point is I was slightly upset. I wasn’t the same little foot soldier she trained, after all. No, Xena taught me strength of body and mind, and I’ll always be indebted to her for that, but I learned more from her than she wanted me to -- I learned strength of will.

"But, I knew better than to force a confrontation with her. I was still in love with her -- I couldn’t trust myself to behave rationally around her. So, I left. I didn’t expect her to follow me, but really, I should’ve known. After all, what master allows their chattel to escape? She tracked me personally and caught me, of course -- I’d been ill-prepared. She brought me back to camp, put me in chains. I was taken to her tent that night, and that’s when she did this..." Her fingers ran along the dead, twisting skin familiarly. "No audience...purely for her own amusement. And to serve as a reminder, she said, of who my master really was. She said ‘commander,’ but I knew what she meant -- it was so clearly in her eyes, that gleam... All the power, all the freedom that she let me believe was mine was an illusion. It was gone the moment I tried to claim it. She never intended to share any of it with me..." The warrior fell silent.

"How could you still love her after all that?" the bard questioned, and incredulity gave her voice an edge.

"You do," the warrior retorted coldly, but shrugged an apology. "Love is the cruelest mistress of all, Gabrielle. Remember that."

"No," the bard protested, "for me, love is a beautiful thing, the most important thing. The love we feel for our family and our friends -- it makes all of life worthwhile..."

"Gabrielle, love is a sickness," Memphus interrupted. "It catches you when you’re weak, and it feeds on that weakness. And just when you think that you’ve escaped it, it finds you and chains you again... Don’t entertain love, Gabrielle, don’t let it grow. It cripples you worse than any other ailment."

The bard was still shaking her head emphatically. "No...I can’t agree with you. And it makes me sad to think you really believe that."

The deep, slow laugh answered her. "You’ll learn, Gabrielle. You picked an excellent teacher in Xena."

The bard had grown unsettled by Memphus’ proclamation, and uncomfortable with the ensuing silence, groped for a change of subject. "You know, I’ve been wondering about something... How is it, after having Xena for a teacher, and as alike as you are, you’re so much more open than she is? I mean, I’ve learned more about your life in one night than I learned about Xena’s in my first year with her."

"Maybe because I know how to indulge myself, how to take pleasure where I find it. I don’t prize denying myself as Xena seems to do now. Plus, I guess I just have a better sense of humor," the warrior quipped dryly, rolling on top of the bard, her warm body pressing in. She planted a kiss on Gabrielle’s lips, smiling down at her. Then she kissed her again more firmly, and the bard melted beneath her, the previous conversation dissipating in her memory.

"Mmm..." the warrior purred. "I would so love to see this through, my beautiful bard, but it’s going to be light soon, and we need to get moving if we’re going to stay one step ahead of the warrior princess." She pushed herself up, and the rippling muscles of her arms fixed Gabrielle’s attention.

"Uhm...so, how’s the head?" the bard mumbled.

"As good as new, thanks." The warrior turned away before smiling to herself, amused.

Gabrielle rose to her knees and started gathering her clothes and dressing. "You know...I didn’t sleep a wink, but I don’t feel the least bit tired," she puzzled.

The warrior pounced on her, nipping a firm breast, and a full smile pierced the dim light of the cave. "I tend to have that effect on wandering bards." She ducked Gabrielle’s playful swipe and stood to finish dressing.

"Hey, but you didn’t finish the story," the bard said as she pulled her halter on. "Xena didn’t just let you go."

Memphus had begun to saddle her horse as she spoke. "No, not exactly. She ordered me in one night to pleasure her, under threat of my life of course, and she just got sloppy. It happens. I knocked her unconscious, undid my manacles, and got out of there. As is apparent, I couldn’t kill her." She paused in her actions to reflect on the memory with a disgusted shake of her head. "I had a sword in my hand, but I just couldn’t do it..." She cinched the saddle strap. "Anyway, I knew that nothing short of death would stop her from reclaiming me -- she is tenacious. And since I couldn’t kill her, well, that only left one other choice: killing me. So I went to a cliff I knew as a child, Almeth Head. I let her track me. She was right on me when I dove off into the ocean. I think I shouted out something about rather being dead than being with her. Pretty melodramatic stuff, but I had to get her to buy into the act. It was quite brilliant, I have to say. She camped on the shore that night. I’d climbed back up the cliff’s face and watched her for as long as I dared. If I tried, I could pretend for a second that her pacing up and down the beach was done out of concern for me and grief... But, of course, she was just waiting for my body to wash up. She couldn’t have expected me to survive -- as far as I know, that dive has been survived only twice, and both times by me -- but she is thorough. Finally she left, convinced, I guess that my body had either gotten trapped in a whirlpool amid the rocks or dragged out to sea. Luckily, I hadn’t ever bragged to her about the successes of my cliff diving phase," she laughed. "So, anyway, that’s the story, more or less. I know Xena because I killed for her. Soldier, lover, slave -- no difference to her... I think it was quite a surprise to her that I broke free, quite a blow to her ego..." Memphus smiled darkly, and turned to the bard. "But that’s another lesson I learned from Xena. That life is about masters and slaves -- and the balance between the two. The key is striking the right balance and learning to accept it."

Gabrielle wrinkled her nose. "I don’t follow..."

"Okay: Xena, for instance, is a master. She controls, it’s what she does. But she’s a slave to that need to control. And she’d be happier if she didn’t try to fight it."

Gabrielle was shaking her head in disagreement as she listened. "But, Xena wasn’t happy doing what she was doing, Memphus, that’s why she changed. "

"Oh, Gabrielle, wake up. Xena’s doing the exact same thing she’s always done, just in different ways. I hear it in the stories -- your stories. She hasn’t given up her position as master. And she never will."

"If that’s true, then that would make me the slave..." the bard spoke disapprovingly.

"Not necessarily, Gabrielle, but that’s the role you choose. Everyone chooses their role, some by just refusing to exercise their will."

"I don’t think I like this philosophy..."

"No, I wouldn’t expect you to."

The bard was growing annoyed. "Well wouldn’t your little formula make you a slave, too, Memphus? I guess your ‘key’ didn’t work if you came back to Xena."

The warrior turned from packing the saddle bags to lean in toward the bard, but her manner was nonthreatening and calm. "Make no mistake about it, Gabrielle, I’m no longer a slave to anyone or anything, including that impossible search for happiness that I can see you’re on. No...I’m content -- happiness is a foolish venture. I’m not denying that I made a mistake in coming back, that I was...seduced by the thought that there was more to life than being alive and healthy and comfortable with my own company. But it’s not a mistake I’ll make again. Anyway, bard, finding the key isn’t the answer, it’s just another question -- you’re still left to find the door it unlocks." She smiled and brushed the back of her hand down Gabrielle’s cheek before turning back to her work.

The bard frowned, a profound loneliness tightening her chest.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 10

The warrior with skin the color of warn earth was astride her horse, poised and comfortable in the handsome saddle. One strong arm was held out for the slender woman gazing up at her skeptically. "Okay, give me your hand, Gabrielle." Subtle tones of tenderness softened the voice.

"You know, I might just walk today," the bard said with a nod and false eagerness, stepping away from the horse. "Which way?"

Suspicious eyes narrowed at her. "Gabrielle, what’s going on?"

"Oh...it’s just that I’m not used to riding so much, and I thought it might be nice to stretch my legs, and..."

"Gabrielle, don’t lie to me. One day you might learn how to lie to a lover, but you’re still transparent." The warrior dismounted and put a hand to the bard’s cheek to steady her shifting gaze. She seemed to be weighing her words. "Admit it -- you’ve had fun with me the last few days."

The bard nodded, her eyes unable to hide the guilt she felt for the admission. "Yes. I have."

The warrior mirrored the nod. "And so have I." She inhaled deeply, and briefly, her mind seemed to be in a different place. When she refocused on the waiting bard, she seemed more somber. "You’ve had fun, but you miss Xena," she prompted.

Gabrielle’s eyes dropped. She answered with a meek nod.

"Yes, of course you do..." the warrior murmured absently. "But, you’ll be through with me soon enough, my sweet bard." She framed the bard’s face with her long, brown hands, quelling any questions, and admired the tender beauty of young womanhood. Gabrielle’s smaller hand rose to one of hers, pressing it to her cheek. The warrior laid a soft kiss on the smooth forehead, but her eyes flashed open, and she scanned the forest quickly, guiding the bard gently in rotation so she could search other directions.

With a sudden move, she pushed Gabrielle behind her, back into the horse. Her voice went cold and ominous. "Xena...What took you so long?" She drew her sword with a long, mean hiss.

The raven-haired warrior stepped from the forest and approached slowly, her gaze shifting between the two women. "Gabrielle?" she questioned, her voice thinned with uncertainty.

"Xena!" the bard answered, stepping out from behind her guard. The habitual smile broke through, but quickly faded, and her gaze dropped. She remained silent, troubled.

Xena stiffened at the sight, growing visibly remote. She shrugged the pack she carried off her shoulder and tossed it lightly at the bard’s feet. "Your things."

Gabrielle stared down at the pack, tears brimming. She looked at Xena, but the ice blue eyes were unblinking, betraying no emotion.

"Now this is just heartbreaking." The sultry voice slid into the thick silence between the two women, drawing their attention. Memphus regarded them both with a cold smile. "And to think, Xena, just a few days ago, your game of playing house was going so well." The sword twirled dizzyingly in her hand.

Xena exhaled wearily. "For whatever it’s worth, Memphus, what happened was a mistake. My mistake. And I’m sorry," she apologized tersely. "I’m going now." She turned to reenter the forest, but the throaty laugh stopped her.

"‘You’re sorry’...No, Xena, your apology is worth absolutely nothing to me."

"Well, you can take it or leave it...I don’t have anything else to give you, Memphus," Xena retorted. She turned to the forest once again but froze as she heard the flutter of footsteps behind her. Memphus had launched herself, unfurling her long body from its mid-air somersault to land before Xena in a crouch, sword brandished in front of her. Xena straightened, deliberately letting her arms drop to her sides.

With a sneer, Memphus raised the tip of her sword slowly till she was looking down her cocked forearm and the cold, gray blade to the throbbing of Xena’s pulse in the soft spot of her throat between her clavicles. "No, Xena," she breathed, "it’s not that easy. This battle isn’t yours to give up, and neither Gabrielle nor I are yours to release. Now draw your sword."

Xena set her jaw defiantly and looked away.

"Draw your sword!" Memphus demanded, but Xena failed to respond. Memphus curled the sword in, striking swiftly, the back of her hand snapping Xena’s head sideways and starting an angry, red rivulet flowing from a split lip.

The piercing blue eyes flew to Xena’s assailant, going cold and narrow. Her tongue snaked up to claim the blood. But her only retaliation was to fold her powerful arms across her chest.

"Damn you, Xena, draw your sword!" Memphus hissed through clenched teeth. A tremor of rage swept through her as Xena held her position, and with a savage cry she lunged, slamming her elbow into Xena’s throat.

Xena choked and stumbled backward, but when her footing solidified her sword was still sheathed, and she only stood with one hand massaging her larynx. The bard had gasped at the blow, moving to her aid, but with a quick, anxious, shake of her head Xena warned off her approach.

Memphus watched the subtle interaction closely, her eyes tracking the bard as she eased away on Xena’s silent command. A charged calmness had enveloped her. She turned back to Xena. "You’re afraid for her." Minute changes in Xena’s posture signaled her alarm, and Memphus nodded to herself slightly. "Of course you are... I remember one of your favorite lessons well, Xena..." She began moving toward Gabrielle with a feline languidity as she spoke, her eyes locked with Xena’s. "...find their weakness."

Xena’s body coiled as she followed Memphus’ movements, understanding her intentions. "You care about her, Memphus -- you would’ve killed her a long time ago if you didn’t. You learned that from me, too," she said.

A slow smile curled the full lips, and Memphus’ eyes hardened. "I never learned anything about caring from you." She brought the flat of the sword’s cold blade to her lips and laid a gentle kiss there. "This was the only thing you taught me how to love, Xena." Her eyes turned toward Gabrielle, and the bard suddenly became acutely aware of the emptiness in her hands; her eyes darted to her staff propped against the tree where it rested. She began to back away nervously as Memphus approached.

Xena moved urgently, closing the distance to Gabrielle in a rapid series of tight backflips, dropping to a battle stance in front of her. She reached back for her sword, but Gabrielle stopped her, her eyes fixed on Memphus, searching the brown pools. "No, Xena...she won’t hurt me. She’s just baiting you."

"Gabrielle..." Xena protested, but the bard pushed away her restraining arms and walked to Memphus resolutely.

"You promised me you wouldn’t fight her," she spoke up to the warrior, and the two women’s gazes held intimately.

The warrior shook her head. "No, Gabrielle, I only promised to leave her alone. But she came to me."

"No, Memphus, she came to me, to bring my things. She didn’t come to hurt you. She can’t hurt you anymore...let this go."

"Her existence hurts me!" Memphus spat, but the bard laid a warm hand on her cheek to quiet her. "Oh, Gabrielle..." the warrior whispered, looking down at the bard’s tender gaze sadly, "you don’t know what you’re doing..."

"Please let this go," Gabrielle implored.

Delicately, Memphus took the hand from her cheek and pressed it to her lips, her eyes closing lightly. They opened to see the bard’s hazel-green eyes widening in surprise as Memphus twisted Gabrielle’s arm behind her, forcing her down to her knees with a pained cry. The hilt of her sword swung down heavily but the blow was deflected from impact with the bard’s skull by Xena’s chakram, the raven-haired warrior close upon it, her forearm slamming into Memphus’ chest, driving her backwards.

Memphus tucked into a roll and rose from it smoothly to find Xena standing over Gabrielle protectively, though still unarmed. She laughed. "Oh, come on, Xena, she’s not as delicate as she would have us believe. You know," she lowered her voice to a false whisper, "I even suspect that while she was between my legs, she was pretending she was tasting you."

Xena turned to Gabrielle instinctively and saw her jaw clench, but Gabrielle said nothing, her head bowed and flushed bright red. Xena looked away awkwardly.

"Oh, don’t be embarrassed, Gabrielle," Memphus spoke, but her eyes were fixed on Xena’s. "Really, Xena and I used to do this all the time, didn’t she tell you? Xena would have me break girls in for her, pretty little things like you...endure their pathetic fumblings, teach them the basics -- make them a worthy lay for the warrior princess. It was part of my job."

"Stop it," Xena growled, seeing Gabrielle’s small hand fly to her mouth.

Memphus continued. "Why do you think Xena’s never slept with you before, Gabrielle? Her tastes have always been too refined -- what would she want with a farm girl like you? No wonder she couldn’t control herself around me after being stuck with you for two years..."

A small sound escaped the bard’s lips, and Xena watched the teardrops that began as pools in the hazel-green eyes, then washed down the bard’s cheeks silently. With an enraged cry, she drew her sword and charged.

A cold fury set Memphus’ face as she tracked the oncoming warrior. "That’s better," she whispered, stepping forward calmly to engage Xena, deflecting the slashing blade easily and whirling to land a kick to Xena’s ribs. Xena winced but answered with a backhand to Memphus’ face that was narrowly blocked. Memphus took the impact on her sword hand and danced away, switching the sword to her left hand as she flexed her bruised right wrist. She smiled fiercely as she twirled the sword deftly and parried a blow from Xena.

"No!" Gabrielle cried, but the deafening clashing of swords and the grunts and yells from the warriors drowned out her plea.

As Xena parried another of Memphus’ powerful slashes, Memphus landed a hard fist to Xena’s eye, splitting the skin underneath the black eyebrow. The warrior swung back, her knuckles opening a wound over Memphus’ taut cheekbone.

"Stop it!" the bard screamed, helpless in the midst of the warriors’ rage. "Xena!...Memphus!" For an instant, the swords locked, the warriors staring fiercely at each other, their ragged breathing loud. The bard jumped in, putting a hand on each hilt. "Stop it!" she ordered, using all her strength to push them apart. The warriors backed away cautiously with their eyes still locked, and the bard positioned herself intractably between them, swiveling with the circling warriors. She could not hold their attention, each glaring around her at the other.

"Why are you fighting?!" she yelled at them. "You’re even now, aren’t you?! In whatever twisted relationship you had, this would be even -- Xena uses Memphus, Memphus gets back at her by using Gabrielle! You’re even!" she spat out, bitterly. "Now put your swords away!"

From behind the bard, Xena growled. "You didn’t have to involve her, Memphus. It wasn’t fair to her."

"Fair?!" Memphus gave a hard laugh. "You haven’t fought a fair fight in your life, Xena! Where do you think I learned it?" She reached out and sank her fingers into the fiery blond hair, pulling the grimacing bard to her. She whispered quickly into her ear, "I’m sorry, Gabrielle," before turning and pushing the bard against the tree behind her where she collapsed. She quickly turned back to the warrior who’s eyes were on the bard, wide with alarm. Her eyes moved in the direction of the unconscious bard and back to the warrior casually. "Kudos, Xena -- what a tasty morsel she is...and I mean that in the most literal sense," she purred. "Now, let’s get this over with, shall we?"

Rage simmering behind her eyes, Xena struck first again, intent on getting past the warrior and to the bard. Her thick sword caught the sunlight as it hissed through the air, but Memphus parried and kicked, her boot connecting with Xena’s midsection, propelling her backward. Xena regained her footing and rushed. Memphus’ sword deflected Xena’s downward, and she took the opening to slam her forearm into Xena’s neck. Xena stumbled backward, rebuffed again, her hand up to her neck, her eyes narrowed.

Her opponent smiled ruthlessly, eyes glinting dangerously. "Same old moves, Xena, tsk, tsk."

A guttural cry broke from the warrior’s throat, and she was airborne, launching herself at the gloating warrior in a tight flip, but her kick only glanced off the collarbone instead of crushing the larynx as Memphus dodged her. As Xena touched ground, she felt the sick impact of a boot at the small of her back. Her knees gave way and she crumpled to the trampled ground. She pushed herself over but her legs didn’t follow, and she nearly blacked out from pain. Memphus approached indulgently, flipping Xena onto her back with a light kick. Xena cried out, the pain threatening to overwhelm her.

Memphus straddled her, pinning her arms. "Well, this is fitting, isn’t it?’ her voice was low and smooth. "Ooh...I like how it feels up here..." She rocked, gently, and the pinned warrior moaned in pain. "Maybe I’ll just pretend that you like it, too," she said, and rocked again, but Xena bit back the groan that pressed at her lips.

Memphus’ face suddenly lost its edge and her breathing became strained. "My body betrays me when we’re touching, Xena...I like this too much..." she murmured, touching a finger to Xena’s lips softly. Her eyes grew glassy. "I gave you my love willingly -- why did you have to try to take it?" she asked, and her voice broke. Then she blinked and her demeanor hardened. Her fingers trailed down to Xena’s chest, her fingers disappearing between the cleavage. She extracted the dagger, still warm from its housing there. "Let’s get this over with then," she said, and brought the edge up to Xena’s throat once again.

"You can’t do it," Xena challenged, feeling the dagger at her skin.

The warrior laughed bitterly. "Save your breath."

"I know you love me. Killing me isn’t going to rid you of that," Xena taunted brazenly.

"No, Xena, you’re wrong. Killing you is precisely what will rid me of that."

"Go ahead then, but you still lose, Memphus. I saw how you looked at Gabrielle -- you do care about her."

Memphus leaned in, her scowl inches from the warrior’s tense face. "What do you want me to say, Xena? That sweet Gabrielle’s gentle philosophies have convinced me that I shouldn’t kill you? After all, I’m only furious with myself for having let you use me again, right?" She sneered. "No, Xena. Your sweet Gabrielle has just given me more reason to kill you -- you’re not going to do to her what you’ve done to everyone else you’ve ever loved."

"She’s not going to thank you for this, Memphus," the warrior shot back. "Gabrielle doesn’t care if a killing’s just or not. You kill me, and she’ll leave you, just like she left me. And she’ll never forgive you."

"I’m fully aware that she may never thank me for this favor, Xena, but that can’t be helped. I’m not Callisto, hurting innocents to persecute you -- I’m within my rights. You started this, I’m just finishing it."

The warrior broke in. "You think this is a just killing? You’re wrong, Memphus, the gods won’t see it that way. What I did was a mistake, but they understand the heat of passion -- it rules humans and gods alike."

"When have I ever given a damn about what gods or humans have thought, Xena?!" The cords bulged on the warrior’s neck as she yelled. "Do you think I could’ve possibly done all those things for you if I did?! Enough! I’m tired of talking to you and looking at you and thinking about you!"

The raven-haired warrior gritted her teeth as she felt the dagger dig into her, then stop. "Do it!" Memphus screamed, her head tilted back to the sun, the mahogany curls catching its light. But the blade did not move, and a long moment passed, Xena waiting to feel its final bite.

Memphus swung her leg off and collapsed at Xena’s side. "I really hate you," she hissed. The two warriors lay in silence and exhaustion for long moments Memphus grudgingly turned and looked into the sapphire eyes, asking flatly, "Can you move your legs?"

Xena grimaced with the effort, but only managed to lift one leg a small way from the ground. She shook her head.

The warrior beside her sighed, and the loosened brown mane danced about her face as she shook her head, too. "Oh, the gods help me..." she muttered. "Okay, turn over," she said harshly, pushing the warrior over with a moan. "Is it down here?" she asked, digging her fingers into the muscles around Xena’s spine, and was answered by a piercing yell. She grabbed a fistful of raven hair and gave it a restrained shake. "Don’t be a baby! Here...bite on this." She laid the dagger between Xena’s lips, and Xena tasted her own blood on it, then clamped down fiercely as she felt hard fingers manipulating her spine and the surrounding muscles and nerves. Pain shot through her.

Xena spat out the dagger, groaning at the respite from the pain as Memphus laid back down, finished. "You’re going to be sore, but you know that already," Memphus said, and her voice softened. "I was a good study, wasn’t I?"

Xena tested her legs with a grimace and sat up; she seemed to have full movement. She looked down at her former student. "Yes...you were."

The brown eyes opened and met Xena’s. "Why couldn’t you just love me?"

The warrior’s head fell before meeting the questioning gaze, the gem-like eyes clouded. "I don’t know, Memphus... Maybe I..." She seemed to reconsider her words. "Gabrielle knows how to love like that. She can give you what you need."

Memphus rolled her eyes and exhaled in disgust. "Oh, Xena, don’t be such a fool! We both know Gabrielle loves you!" She sat up threateningly. "But I swear by Athena that if I ever hear you’ve abused that girl I will find you, and I’ll take her from you if I have to tear her away kicking and screaming, do you understand me?" She glowered fiercely at the warrior. "And that includes withholding your love. You keep that up, and she’s going to run off with the first pie-eyed farm boy that proposes. Do you understand?" She jabbed a hard finger into Xena’s chest.

Xena nodded humbly. "Yeah...it’s already happened once." She met the deep, brown eyes, and a smile began to creep across her face. It froze as the woman’s scowl deepened and Memphus leaned away.

"This doesn’t make things okay, Xena, don’t think that it does. It doesn’t make us friends." Her eyes burned into the warrior’s. "I despise the weakness I have for you. One day, I’ll master this insanity that keeps me from slitting your throat, and I’ll be back to finish the job. Remember that."

Memphus stood, dusting herself off and reclaiming her sword. She gazed at the stirring bard and strode over to her, kneeling and brushing back the hair strewn across the tender face. "Gabrielle?" she whispered. Glimpses of hazel-green showed through fluttering lashes. "Gabrielle, I’m going now. I’m sorry... I hope you’ll understand one day. I hope you’ll remember what we shared, once in a while...I will."

Xena watched in checked dismay as the elegant warrior pressed her lips to the bard’s lingeringly before rising and mounting her horse. She chirruped a command to the mare, and they moved away at a walk. She never looked back.

 

CHAPTER 11

The bard snapped a twig and tossed it into the fire. She watched it burn, absently. Behind her, the warrior watched, fingering her gauntlets nervously. "Gabrielle?"

"Yes, Xena."

"Would you...would you have kept going with Memphus if I hadn’t shown up?" came the halting question. The warrior’s breath caught as she braced herself for the response.

Moments passed before the bard answered, the crackling fire filling the night. "I don’t know." Gabrielle noticed the laden silence behind her and sighed. She stood, looking down at the warrior’s stricken gaze and reached out, lifting Xena’s chin. The sapphire eyes rose to hers with hesitation. "We have a lot to talk about, Xena. There’s a lot I still don’t understand, and it scares me. Scares the gods out of me... But we’ll talk, and take it slowly. Okay?"

The raven-haired warrior nodded humbly. As the bard sat, Xena rose to add more fuel to their fire for warmth during the long night that lay ahead.

 

1997 by Sonia C. Barrera (a.k.a., yesenia).


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