The oracle's temple was just as I remembered it: a massive stone monument nestled in a placid valley. Eager to seek out answers, I led the way down the flight of steps that cut to the heart of the monolith. The faintest whiff of incense swirled up to greet us and I heard the wild beat of a drum from somewhere behind thick walls.
"Okay," said Xena, as she trailed behind me, "so this oracle told me where to find the sword that would free Prometheus, but what exactly was this trial I went through to learn that secret?"
"Well..." My foot faltered for a moment, betraying my apprehension. "I don't really know."
Xena grabbed my arm, jerking me back around to face her. "What do you mean, you don't know? I thought this was one of your most popular stories?"
"It is. But you wouldn't tell me what happened here, so I've always had to make up the details myself."
"How bad can it be?" I asked. My arm was starting to ache in her grip. "You came out of the temple without a scratch on you."
"It's never that easy," she said grimly. "There's always a price." She gave me a hard shove down the last few steps, and I stumbled into a chamber lit with torches.
The oracle was waiting for us.
I had expected a wizened crone with haunted eyes, but she was a vibrant woman with a lush and supple body draped in ribbons of a sheer orange cloth. Her attendants, one dressed in dark blue and the other in green, stood on either side. When the oracle looked at me I saw knowing laughter barely masked behind her sultry ochre-colored lids. Her one glance seemed to promise me the answer to every question I had ever uttered and some I hadn't yet thought to ask.
With a sensuous swaying of her hips, the oracle circled around us both as if inviting us to dance, then stopped in front of Xena. "You've been here before..." a sly smile formed on her lips, "...or maybe not." Then, holding out her palm, she said, "What will you give?"
Xena frowned. "Explain."
"What will you give to recover what you've lost?"
With a sigh, Xena said, "Twenty dinars. It's all I've got."
"Not good enough. I don't accept dinars."
"What *do* you accept?"
"A nail, a lock of hair...a finger."
With a grimace of distaste, Xena said, "You're right, we won't be doing any business today." She beckoned to me. "Let's go, Gabrielle."
"No." I stepped forward to confront the oracle myself. "Tell me how to recover Xena's memories."
"And what will *you* give for her answer?"
"Anything I have. Everything I have."
The oracle smirked and said, "We shall see."
"I thought you could drive a hard bargain," muttered Xena under her breath.
"This isn't exactly the time or place to haggle," I shot back. She was obviously puzzled by my action, and I saw the shadow of a darker emotion -- suspicion -- pass across her face.
At a signal from the oracle, her attendants stepped aside to reveal a hideous statue that had lurked behind them. A huge serpent's head, larger than a man's body and studded with teeth the size of my hand, jutted out of the wall. The oracle hauled on a lever and the jaws parted, revealing a ribbed gullet that stretched back into shadows.
Next, the oracle lit a candle and the flickering light revealed a long chain running down the spine of the serpent's body; it ended at a clay tablet. The oracle placed the candle on a table, with the flame licking at a taut rope. "You don't have much time," she said, and I knew without asking that when the rope had burned through, the jaws would close.
I had to crawl into the mouth of the serpent to grab hold of the chain. Pushing down my panic, I took a deep breath and pulled. Nothing happened. I pulled harder and felt a faint quiver. Summoning all my strength, I heaved yet again and managed to set the tablet in motion. Focused intently on my task, I dragged the slab forward one torturous inch at a time.
My nose warned me when the rope began to char, and out of the corner of my eye I could see Xena pacing restlessly. "Gabrielle..." She took a step toward me, but a priestess blocked her path. "Let it go, Gabrielle."
"Not yet," I gasped, and strained harder. "It's...still...too...far."
The acrid smoke of burning rope grew stronger. One last heave and I released the chain. My fingers brushed against the clay surface and....
Hands grabbed my waist and I was yanked backwards seconds before the stone jaw came crashing down. The tablet, still lodged in the statue's mouth, shattered into a cloud of dust.
"I almost had it!" I cried angrily, twisting out of Xena's grasp.
"You almost died!"
"It doesn't matter." The oracle smiled smugly at us both. "There was nothing written on the tablet."
Xena started to lunge forward, but I pulled her back. She snarled, "What kind of a trick--"
"Not a trick," said the oracle, "a test. You passed the same test once and were willing to risk a hand to save Mankind. Your young friend was willing to give up her life to recover your past."
"It was a bad bargain," said the warlord coldly.
"That's not for me to say." Then, with a playful curling finger the oracle beckoned me to follow her to a small chamber where we could not be overheard. Reaching into the folds of her robe, she presented me with a small stoppered bottle.
"Here's what you must do," the oracle said, "and where you must go."
I listened intently to her instructions and nodded grimly at her warnings.
I set a northwesterly direction for our journey after we left the temple, and Xena did not argue or even demand an explanation.
"Don't you want to know where we're going?" I asked.
"You paid for the prophecy, not me." She gave a light tug to Argo's reins and fell into step beside me. Then, to my surprise, she said, "Tell me one of your stories."
"Uh, sure." I chose an epic tale which was had always been one of Xena's favorites; evidently her tastes hadn't changed too much because the warlord appeared to like it too. Since she showed no sign of boredom or impatience, I launched into another story, and then another, and so we passed the rest of that day with her listening to me talk. By the time we made camp that night, at the base of the mountain the oracle had named, I could almost believe Xena and I had returned to our familiar traveling days. She even gathered an armful of wood and stoked the fire, a chore she had left for me ever since losing her memory.
Then, as we readied for bed, she stripped to her shift. Dark hair cascaded down her back and her skin glowed golden in the firelight. With the grace of a leopard, Xena moved in front of me, and said, "You almost died back there at the temple. Why?"
I shrugged. "I told you -- there's an incredible treasure to be found."
"You're very greedy for one so young," she said with a mocking smile.
"Yeah, well, it means a lot to you, too," I said uneasily, "and we're friends, after all."
When I didn't answer, she reached out to stroke my cheek. Her hand curled under my chin and tilted my face up for a brief meeting of lips.
Xena frowned, evidently puzzled by the confusion she could read on my face. "Have my kisses changed that much?"
I felt a flush of warmth cross my cheeks. "I...I...wouldn't know." I needed more air because all of sudden it was difficult to draw breath, but when I tried to take a step backwards, she snaked an arm across my back and held me in place.
She shook her head in disbelief. "Don't tell me we've never even kissed before?"
"Of course n--" I broke off, flustered by the memory of the one time Xena had kissed me, on the day of my wedding to Perdicus. "At least, not like...not...."
"Not like this," she said in a husky voice as she bent down over me once again.
Much later, I whispered back, "No, not like that."
Oh, I had dreamed of being kissed by her, but not even my dreams had prepared me for the hunger raised by the real touch of her lips and tongue. With a shake of my head, I reminded myself that these desires were being used against me by a warlord who could not be trusted. I broke away from the circle of Xena's arms, and this time she did not try to stop me. Instead, she just gave a curious quirk of one eyebrow, and said, "You want this."
"No," I said, but even I could hear the lie in my voice.
With a sly smile, she reached up and slipped her linen shift off of one shoulder, baring a full breast. "You want this," she said once more, and I couldn't trust myself to reply, couldn't even tear my eyes away from the billowing curve of flesh. Her fingers sought out mine. With a grasp so light it seemed ridiculous to fight against it, she guided my hand until it hovered just above the bare breast.
"Go on," she urged in a throaty voice. "Touch me."
I could have resisted my own desire to be touched, but the desire to touch her was beyond temptation. Dry-mouthed, breathless, I brushed my fingertips against the dark aureole of her nipple.
"Oh, yes," she whispered, her eyes closing in a languid motion. She shrugged her shoulders, and the loose shift fell to the ground, baring her entire body. "Do that again."
With increasing boldness, I stroked and caressed her incredibly soft breasts. Xena arched her back, pushing herself against the palms of my hands, and moaned. It was an intoxicating sound, and I longed to draw more such reactions from her. "Xena...I don't know what to do."
"Don't you?" She reached out, threaded her fingers into my hair, and pulled my head down until my lips touched puckered skin. "Start here."
My first kisses were tentative, gentle, until she murmured, "Harder." That one word unleashed my hunger to lick and suckle with abandon, to fill my mouth with the taste of her skin.
When she began to loosen the ties of my clothing, I admitted defeat. I let the warlord disrobe me, even pull off my boots. Whatever this self-indulgence might cost me later, I would just have to pay the price. There were limits to my self-control, and I was well past them now.
"So we've never made love before," murmured Xena as she drew me down onto the blanket by the fire, then stretched out beside me. "But you like what we're doing, don't you?"
I gasped a soft, "Yes," as our bodies nestled against each other, bare skin brushing against bare skin.
"You'll like this, too...."
She bent her head down to my breasts. The warm kiss of her lips was followed by the rasp of her tongue across my nipples. Then a gentle nip of her teeth released a flood of heat that coursed through my limbs, and I groaned a formless plea for something more, something I couldn't even define.
"So eager," she said with a throaty chuckle as her fingers traced lazy patterns across my back. "You'd be even more eager if you knew what I was going to do next."
Xena whispered words into my ear that made me shiver with anticipation. Those shivers deepened when her hands trailed slowly downward to fulfill her promise.
"So why is regaining my memory so important to you?"
"What?" The question caught me by surprise, jolting me with an awareness of danger. My mind groped for clarity, but it was so hard to focus on anything but the hands caressing my inner thighs. "I t-told you...the treasure...."
But she only laughed at my stuttered answer. "I don't believe you," she said as her fingers ruffled across soft hair, then dipped lower, approaching the one place where they were most desired. "You're not interested in wealth, certainly not enough to die for it. No, you were willing to die for *me*." Her voice was husky, melodic, tantalizing. "I can see it in your eyes every time I touch you here...and here..." closer, circling ever closer, "...and here."
"Oh, gods!" Instinct set the driving rhythm of my hips as they rose and fell, seeking a pleasure almost beyond bearing. My hands clenched on Xena's shoulders, groping for an anchor against the storm that raged through me.
"You're in love with me, aren't you?"
"Yes!" I didn't know whether I cried out an answer to her question or simply cried out at the velvet soft touch gliding over the sweetest spot on my body. It didn't matter anymore. Nothing mattered except for the exquisite shudders rippling up from between my legs. There seemed to be no end to the waves that rocked me, gathering more and more strength until they consumed me. And when the sensations finally ebbed away, I was left dazed in the wake of their fiery passage.
The warlord gathered my trembling body into her arms, pulling me close. She nuzzled against the nape of my neck, her warm breath tickling sensitive skin. "What's happened to me over the last few years, Gabrielle?" she asked in a whispering voice. Her hands were wandering again, blazing a new trail of sensation across my skin, promising me another ascent to ecstasy. "Isn't it time you told me the truth?"
"Please, Xena, don't kill him!"
I saw a spark of relief light up the man's eyes. Backed up against a tree, with the point of a sword pressed against his jugular, he still dared hope he would survive this day. Whether he deserved to live was not for me to judge. Despite his large, muscular build, his unshaven face was gaunt and etched with lines of hunger; perhaps desperation had driven him to prey on travelers.
"Is this one of the changes you were talking about?" Xena asked, more curious than indignant. "Letting scum like this live?"
I didn't see her twitch a muscle, but a spot of blood welled up under the sword point and began to trickle down the man's neck. If he hadn't been so terrified of making the slightest movement, I think he would have burst into tears.
"He's not dangerous, just pathetic." Not to mention stupid and inept. He handled his sword like a farmer wielding a pitchfork, yet he had attacked the two of us without a second thought. I might have looked like an easy target as I rooted on the forest floor in search of the plants I needed, but there was no way he could have missed seeing that Xena was a warrior. I guess he thought he was more than a match for a woman; I was trying my best to give him a chance to learn from his mistake. "Just let him go. You won't be sorry."
"I'm not sorry now." But she lifted the sword from the man's throat anyway, and growled, "Get out of here before I change my mind." As she watched the thug flee through the forest, she heaved a sigh of frustration. "I don't see the point."
"Fewer nightmares, for starters," I muttered.
She whirled around, a look of thunderous rage on her face. Then, without warning, she swung her sword in a wide, killing arc.
Diving to the ground, I heard the whistle of the blade as it passed over my head. Wide-eyed, frozen in place, I stared up at her.
"Don't ever..." Her jaw clenched down, cutting off her words. Her eyes blazed and her chest heaved as if from a long run. Finally, when her breathing had slowed, she spoke to me in a low voice still threaded with menace. "You know entirely too much about me."
Not daring to speak, I waited to see if that knowledge warranted a death sentence.
"Finish what you were doing," she said flatly. "I'll meet you back at camp."
Sheathing her sword, she turned and stalked away.
The leaves I had gathered wilted quickly on the warm, flat stones that circled the firepit, but they would not be fully dry and brittle until tomorrow morning. I had already scouted out the wide fissure in the south face of the mountain and confirmed it was the entrance I sought. So now there was nothing left to be done for the rest of the day except wait.
Restless, I rooted in my pack until I found the carefully wrapped bundle I had carried away from the temple. After unwinding layers of cloth, I lifted the oracle's bottle up to the light. The glass was tinted a pale blue that reminded me of the rare color of Xena's eyes when she was calm and at peace. The bottle's rounded base nestled perfectly in the hollow of my hand, and the slender neck rested on my thumb like the head of a sleeping dove.
I fingered the glass stopper that was chained to the rim and marveled that this small bottle would soon hold Xena's lost memories. If all went according to plan, by tomorrow night I would be sitting around this campfire with my friend, laughing and telling stories, and the warrior princess would have returned to her place in the past. It was a familiar and comforting scene to imagine, but would it really be like that? I missed Xena dreadfully and wanted her back at any cost, but after last night....
What would we be to each other when Xena returned? For that matter, what had we been to each other before now?
She loved me, of that I was certain, and there were times I had glimpsed some fire in her love that echoed my own longings. So when Perdicus had asked me to marry him, I said no, and waited for Xena to step forward, to give me some sign that eventually we would begin to explore new territory. But she had remained silent; my hopes faded...and Perdicus offered me his love a second time.
Poor Perdicus, so sweet, so tender. My wedding night had ended with a rolling murmur of pleasure that I had thought would be enough to quench my craving for Xena's touch. But if I'd known then what true desire felt like, if I'd known how fiercely my passion for her could burn, I don't think I could have settled for the gentle gift he offered me.
My bittersweet reflections were interrupted by the warlord's return from bathing in a nearby stream. A blanket was draped carelessly about her shoulders, but it did little to hide her glistening body. She was no less stunning in broad daylight than she had been by the light of our fire last night, and even half-naked she strode through the campsite with all the arrogance and self-confidence of a warrior sheathed in armor.
"Do you have everything you need now?" she asked, with a curious glance at the bottle in my hand.
I set the oracle's gift to one side, then reluctantly said, "Yes."
She laughed at my obvious apprehension. "Relax. I'm not interested in the details, just as long as you know what to do. A good warlord knows when to delegate and when to take matters into her own hands."
Casting aside the cloth she had wrapped around herself, Xena knelt down before me. "And speaking of hands...." She rested the tips of her fingers on my knees and smiled suggestively.
"Why?" I asked curiously. "You've already gotten what you wanted from me."
She shrugged. "It's not as if I didn't enjoy myself too."
"I don't think you did, actually." Pressing the palm of one hand lightly against her chest, I said, "All the time you made love to me I could feel your heart beating slow and steady. You weren't the least bit aroused."
My observation was met with a frown. "You noticed that, did you?"
"Yes, because I wanted to...please...you. And I didn't succeed."
"I was preoccupied," admitted Xena wryly. "Interrogations require a clear mind."
"I see." I lifted my hand to brush back a damp lock of hair from her forehead. This woman didn't recoil from intimacy, I realized, perhaps because these gestures meant nothing to her. Yet the Xena I knew often stiffened under the very same touches....
With a smirk, the warlord said, "Besides, you wouldn't be interested in what *really* pleases me."
"And what would that be?"
She leaned closer to whisper an explanation in my ear, then pulled back to study my face. She seemed almost disappointed by my lack of reaction. If she had been trying to shock me, she hadn't succeeded.
"I may be inexperienced," I said evenly, "but I'm not ignorant. I've heard of that before." Although, I had to admit, none of the erotic poetry I had read included such concrete and vivid detail as her description. "And if that's what you like, I'll do it." I almost laughed out loud at the startled expression that crossed her face. It was the first time I had seen the warlord caught off balance. "So that wasn't a serious request?"
She grinned sheepishly. "No, not really."
My heart skipped a beat at this glimpse of a gentle, teasing Xena. If only I could hold on to her for just a little while longer.... Leaning forward, I whispered my own seductive words in her ear. "You may have been joking, but *I* wasn't."
I heard the soft catch in her breath, so before she could make any excuses, I pushed her shoulders back all the way to the ground. As her long legs stretched out on either side of my body, I realized that what I had just promised was even newer to me than what we had done the night before. I wasn't entirely sure I could bring her pleasure this time either, but there was only one way to find out. So I laid a trail of kisses from between her breasts down across her stomach, then lower still.
"Most people find me intimidating." Her voice was already hoarse with anticipation. "But that doesn't appear to be a problem for you."
"I'm impulsive by nature."
"Lucky for me," she murmured.
I laughed, and the warm touch of my breath parted the way for me.
Pausing for a moment, I inhaled the musky fragrance of Xena's arousal, then lowered myself into a realm that overwhelmed me with unfamiliar sensations. I found textures smoother than the finest silk, and an unexpected sweetness. I found pleasure, enough for the both of us. There could be no lies here, no clever mimicking of passion. Her body cried out its need with clenching muscles and ripening folds of flesh, and as desire took liquid form, her practiced and sensual moans gave way to raw, guttural sounds. Xena's driving pulse beat against my lips, against my tongue. I slowed my pace -- reluctant to end this feast of the senses too soon -- and ignored her awkward, urgent pleas for release. My own body trembled in sympathy, but with ruthless selfishness I held us both in check as long as possible. Finally, when I felt my control begin to shatter, I set her free with one last hungry kiss.
Her cry ripped through me, shaking me with more force than hands, severing the cords that bound me to thought, lifting me so high I touched the flaming skirt of Apollo. This was my true deflowering, the scorching destruction of my innocence. Now I understood why words like 'passion' and 'desire' were invocations of such power that even the gods were moved by them. And I wondered if I could ever speak of love again without shuddering at the memory of this moment.
I was content to lie still, recovering my breath, until I heard a softly uttered, "Gabrielle...."
I raised my head from the soft cushion of Xena's thighs. She was propped up on her elbows, studying me with an expression of somber speculation. In an instant I knew I had given myself away and revealed a depth to my love that unsettled her. I wondered, uneasily, what she would do with this knowledge.
With some self-consciousness, I sat up and began to tug my rumpled clothing back into place.
"What if this scheme doesn't work?" she asked me as she also sat up. She seemed more composed in her nakedness than I did clothed, and although her face was still flushed, her voice was cool and uninflected. "What if we can't restore my memory?"
I shook my head. "We will. The oracle said--"
"But if we can't?" she insisted. "What are you going to do?"
"I'll stay with you," I said quietly.
"As the bard to my army? Or as my whore?"
I flinched, but remained silent.
"Go back to Poteidaia, Gabrielle. That's where--"
"Stop it!" I shouted. "That's not an option. I tried to do that once before. I thought I could get over what I was feeling by going back home, but it just made things worse. Even after my marriage, I still loved you, still wanted..." I broke off. My need was too raw to be spoken of out loud.
"So if your Xena doesn't come back, you'll settle for a murderous warlord?"
"You're not two different people, Xena. Who you are...who you will be...all of that is part of you right now. In time--"
"No!" Her strong hands took hold of my face and forced me to look at her. "Don't kid yourself." The grim line of her mouth twisted into a grimace. "And don't hang around waiting for me to change again. History won't repeat itself on that score."
"Maybe not,"I said reluctantly. "But it doesn't matter, because the oracle's plan *will* work."
Then I reached for her, pulling her body to mine, my lips searching for hers. For whatever reasons of her own, she let me make love to her again.
Slowly, very slowly, I reached for the pouch tied to my belt. Yet, even that measured motion was enough to raise another ominous hiss from the Guardians. There were three of them, three serpentine bodies slung low to the ground and creeping their way toward me on stumpy legs. Even in the dim light of the narrow cavern their iridescent scales glittered like newly polished jewels, and their scimitar-like claws chimed like bells on the flagstone floor.
My hand closed around the soft leather bag and the Guardians hissed louder. Despite their steady advance, I held my ground. A quick pull at the leather ties opened the neck of the pouch and released the pungent smell of burnt leaves into the air. All the plants I had gathered yesterday had been reduced to this small pile of ashes.
"Come on," I urged the monsters. "Come a little closer."
I hefted the weight of the pouch in my palm and tried to judge how much of the powder I could afford to throw at each Guardian without running short. The movement of my arm set off another round of hissing, another creeping advance, and the tinkling sound of gnashing crystalline teeth. I was surprised by the fragrance of their breath: crushed rose-petals and a hint of mint. These were very decorative monsters, although no less deadly for all their beauty.
"I think that's far enough," I said, and flung the first handful of ashes at the nearest Guardian. There was no time to watch its effect. The remaining two creatures immediately lunged toward me, and I scrambled to dodge their gaping mouths without moving too far away. I couldn't afford to miss. I threw out a second cloud of ashes, then a third...and watched as the trio of Guardians swayed in place, then sank to their bellies. Their faceted eyes grew dull with sleep, then closed.
I breathed a sigh of relief. The pouch in my hand was empty; the ashes were completely scattered. There had been just enough--
A soft sneeze exploded behind me.
Four Guardians? Horrified at my miscalculation, I whirled around to face the monster unarmed....
"I got tired of waiting," said the warlord gruffly. Her right hand was curled around her chakram; her left gripped my staff. She glanced over the sleeping Guardians and smiled ruefully. "Nice work."
She tossed me the staff, then clipped her chakram back onto her belt. "Now what?"
"Just follow me," I said and led her to the fountain tucked in the far end of the cavern. The delicate sound of falling water was music to my ears. I had followed the oracle's directions faithfully, and every step of our journey had matched her description, which meant we were only minutes away from completing our quest.
A stone spout had been set into the back wall of the cavern, and water from some subterranean stream trickled out of the spout and was collected in a semi-circular pool below. The containing wall was unadorned and constructed of the same ancient brickwork as the Well of Sighs. Setting aside my staff, I pulled out the oracle's bottle and dipped it in the pool. It filled in an instant, and I carefully wiped away the excess water beading on the outside of the glass.
"So I drink this and get my memory back?" said Xena with obvious skepticism. "Just like that?"
"Uh, not quite," I admitted. "According to the oracle, the water has to be mixed with a few drops of your blood."
"I might have known," she said with disgust. She pulled out her breast dagger and held the point up to the tip of one finger. Taking a deep breath, she winced in anticipation of the cut, then froze.
"I hate this," muttered Xena. She stared fixedly at the sacrificial finger.
"Xena, you've got scars from a dozen battle wounds, but you can't nick your own finger?"
She scowled fiercely, but still didn't pierce her skin. "That's different. When I'm in the middle of a fight I don't feel a thing. This is so...premeditated."
She snorted. "Yeah, well, that's easy for you to say. Why don't we use *your* blood instead?"
"Not a good idea,"I said. "You'll wind up with memories I haven't even--" I broke off, alarmed by my inadvertent revelation of the oracle's stern warning.
"Let's get this over with." Xena jabbed the knifepoint home and grunted at the sight of spurting blood. "There, that should do the job. Hurry up before I bleed to death."
With a relieved laugh, I said, "Call me an optimist, but I think you'll live." Stepping closer, I lifted the bottle to catch the drops of blood dancing on the end of her finger...
...and the warlord's other hand clamped onto my wrist with a crushing grip. Crying out at the sudden pain, I watched in horror as my numbed fingers loosened. With lightning fast reflexes, Xena pushed me aside and caught the falling bottle. Only a few drops of liquid spilled out before she pushed the stopper back into place.
She grinned at the untainted water in her hand. "Memories not yet gathered, eh? Just think, Gabrielle, this little bottle holds three years of the future...for someone."
"That someone is you," I said.
She flicked her tongue over the cut on her finger, then chuckled. "Did you really think I would follow through with this plan? What kind of a fool do you take me for? I suspected this water was worth far too much to waste on reclaiming my memories. Now I know I can charge a king's ransom in gold for the knowledge it brings. And gold will buy me an army."
"No, Xena!" I swept up my staff and dashed to block her way out of the cavern. Facing her I declared, "What you're planning is wrong. And someday you would hate yourself for becoming a warlord again. So you can't leave here before you drink from that bottle."
"Who's going to stop me?" she asked with a raised brow. "You?"
Despite my dry throat, I managed to say, "Yes."
"Don't make me kill you, Gabrielle," she said with an exasperated sigh. "I've grown rather fond of you."
My hands clenched reflexively on my staff. With effort, I relaxed my grip and brought my mind into focus. I would need every ounce of strength and all my concentration to last even a few rounds against her. "I'm not letting you out of here."
"How annoying." Her eyes glittered like polished stones as she drew her sword out of its scabbard. Since the blade was long and heavy, she usually wielded the weapon with two hands for maximum control. But even fighting one-handed, with the bottle locked in her left fist, she could make short work of this battle.
Her first few swings were slow and easily blocked, a deliberate ploy to dull my reaction time by forcing me to adjust to a leisurely pace. I broke into a cold sweat as I waited for the inevitable escalation to real combat.
When it finally came, her attack was so swift and furious that my teeth rattled from the collision of staff and blade. Yet Xena was still toying with me because she could easily have side-stepped my defense and delivered a fatal blow. Instead, she had aimed for the center of the staff, hitting it with the flat side of her blade rather than the cutting edge. But just in case I was tempted to underestimate the deadly nature of our game, she nicked my upper arm as we disengaged.
Her next tactic was a dancing pattern of thrusts and feints that led me to trip over my own feet, sending me sprawling to the ground. The slap of her blade to my backside added a further indignity to my fall, and derisive laughter rang in my ears as I scrambled back to a fighting stance.
Over and over again I was cut and bruised, tripped and thrown, but I still struggled to deflect each of Xena's sword blows.
"Aren't you tired of this yet?" she asked as once again her blade glanced off the polished Amazon wood.
I shook my head, too winded to waste breath talking.
"Well, I am." Stepping back out of the staff's reach, she cocked her left hand, then tossed the bottle high up into the air. "Oops," she said softly.
"No!!" Dropping my weapon, I launched myself upward. My outstretched hands caught the fragile vessel and wrapped around it, safely absorbing the shock of my body dropping back to the ground. But the leap had left me exposed to attack. Too late, I saw Xena's boot lashing out and felt a blow to my midsection that lifted me off my feet and slammed me against the cavern wall. I was so stunned by the impact that I couldn't breathe. Helpless, paralyzed, I slid down to the ground in a crumpled heap.
Too dazed to move, I could only stare as Xena strolled toward me, sword swinging back and forth in a deadly arc.
I had always wanted to face death with courage, but I couldn't help myself. I shut my eyes when I heard the high whistle of the sword's approach.
It should have been the last sound I heard, but time stretched onward and I was still alive, still gasping for breath. I opened my eyes. The point of a gleaming blade hovered just inches in front of my nose. It was mesmerizing, like the head of a viper poised just before striking. I forced myself to look up, along the full length of the sword, to the face of the warrior who wielded it.
The edges of Xena's mouth were curving upward, but there was no comfort in her amusement. It was the cold, calculating smile of a predator playing with its prey. Her blue eyes were chips of flint, devoid of compassion.
Then, as if on a whim, she whisked the blade up over her head and drove it into the sheath strapped to her back. She squatted down, a contemptuous sneer on her face. "Nice catch, Gabrielle." She plucked the bottle from my weakened grasp, then leaned forward and kissed me lightly on the lips. "Thanks."
I tried to shake off my stupor as she rose to her feet and walked away. All I could manage was a whispered, "Xena...don't...."
With an incredulous laugh, she turned back and said, "You never give up, do you?"
"Not me...you." I drew a shuddering gasp. "You've never given up...never been...afraid of the truth...never been a coward."
"Coward?" Her lips curled into a snarl. "Watch your mouth, Bard, or I'll gut you after all."
"I don't believe you...You don't want to kill me." I managed to push myself up to a sitting position. I couldn't possibly stand on my feet yet, but at least my voice was stronger. "And you don't want to be a warlord anymore."
She stiffened in place.
"It wasn't just Hercules who convinced you to reform," I said with gathering confidence. "You already had doubts about who you were and what you were doing. You were on the verge of facing the truth about yourself. Well, that's what you hold in your hand right now -- the truth. And if you were brave enough to deal with it before, you can do it again. Drink the potion, Xena."
Her fingers tightened around the glass, as if to crush it. "I'm a warrior, Gabrielle. If I swallow this poison that warrior dies and a stranger will take my place."
"It's not poison," I said. "It's your salvation."
She fell silent, but her grip on the bottle did not loosen. When she finally spoke, her voice was low and mocking. "And why are you so eager to embrace my truth, Gabrielle? Will truth keep you warm at night? Will truth runs its fingers over your skin and through your hair?"
"What do you mean?" I asked, as apprehension shivered up my spine.
"Think, Gabrielle. This noble Xena you want back never even kissed you, did she?" She lifted the bottle above her head. "What truth is in here that kept her from wrapping her arms around you and pulling you to her breast? If I drink this water, I'll remember why I've never made love to you..."
Her words cut through me like a knife.
"...and I may choose never to make love to you again."
The knife twisted inside me.
"Is that what you want, Gabrielle?" the voice demanded, "a return to simple friendship without the touch of my hand on--"
"No!" I cried out. "No...this isn't about me..." Those words had been Xena's, uttered on the brink of death, a reminder of the greater good. Taking a deep breath, I repeated, "Drink the potion, Xena."
She flinched, and the muscles of her long body tensed as if for battle. "You can't force me to do this."
"No, I can't." I made no move to wipe away the tears coursing down my cheeks. "You have to trust me that it's the right thing to do. That it's what *you* would want to do."
Her face twisted with a pain that mirrored my own. Her fist clenched, and I heard the sharp crack of breaking glass. Lifting her face up, she caught the rain of blood-stained liquid on her tongue. Then, when the last drop had fallen, she lowered her arm and dusted the shards of glass from her bleeding palm.
"Who would have imagined I'd be defeated..." she faltered, began to sway on her feet, "...by a bard."
"Xena!" I scrambled to my feet in time to catch her when she pitched forward. The weight of her body filled my arms and forced me down to my knees. I could feel spasms racking her limbs, then her head fell back in the crook of my arm. Blue eyes fluttered shut.
"Xena? Xena?" I called out to her over and over again as I clutched her body, pleading with her to return to consciousness.
From behind me I heard the low hiss of a Guardian rousing from its sleep.....
I reined Argo to a halt, calming her nervous stamping with a reassuring pat and a murmured endearment. The clearing looked just like Gabrielle had described it, if a little bleaker this overcast autumn morning than it would have been several weeks before.
"Thank the gods," said Gabrielle as she scanned the dusty ground for tracks. "Nobody else seems to have been through here since we left."
Jumping down from Argo's back, I knelt by the side of the well. My hands sifted through the crumbled pieces of a rotting well cover.
"So, do you remember any of this?" asked Gabrielle softly.
I held my breath, stilled my mind, and waited....
"No," I said at last, and rose to my feet. "The last thing I remember clearly was the two of us entering this valley. After that..." After that, a wrenching sense of disorientation as I fought my way to consciousness and found myself wrapped in Gabrielle's arms. There had been a look of such incredible grief and despair on her face that my first thought was to comfort her...but there hadn't been time for that luxury.
"Let's get to work," Gabrielle said, breaking into my reverie with uncharacteristic briskness. "I don't want to stay here any longer than we have to."
We set about our task without further discussion. Pulling out the tools and boards that had been lashed to Argo's saddle, I began to hammer together a new well cover while Gabrielle chipped away at the worn inscription on the ancient stonework.
As we worked in companionable silence, I reflected on our return journey to this hidden valley and my own increasingly unsettled reactions to my companion. Perhaps it was my "absence" that had made me see Gabrielle in a new light upon recovering my memory...or perhaps the events of my forgotten week had changed her. Either way, the differences were subtle, difficult to describe. She seemed to walk with a hint of new grace, as if the lingering traces of adolescent clumsiness had finally dropped away from her body. Her delight in the world was as strong as always -- it sparkled in her blue-green eyes -- yet she talked about it less. In ways too varied to categorize, her manner was a shade more controlled and self-assured than when we had first entered this valley. Somehow, over the course of a handful of days, Gabrielle had flowered into full maturity. Before, she had been pretty; now, to my consternation, she verged on being beautiful. And yet she herself seemed unaware of the changes, or was reluctant to act upon them.
In the tavern where we had stopped the night before, the tavernkeeper's son had shyly approached our supper table and engaged Gabrielle in conversation. I had made a conscious effort to repress my scowl, sternly reminding myself that I had no right to resent his presence. In fact, I grudgingly recognized that he was an appealing young man -- if you liked that type -- which Gabrielle certainly had up until then. But that evening she had been polite, even kind, yet resolutely unresponsive to his mild flirtations. And afterwards....
"Are you sure you wouldn't like to go?" I said.
"Go where?" asked Gabrielle with a look of puzzlement, as she thrust her spoon into a bowl of apricot pudding.
"To the festival dance. The dance you were just invited to by that young man." The one who had looked like a lovesick puppy by the time he had excused himself from our table.
"Oh, that." Gabrielle shrugged. "I didn't think you liked festival dances."
"*I* don't, but he didn't ask *me*. So why don't you go have a good time. You've earned it after what I put you through this week."
"Would you stop looking so grim," she scolded. "I've told you over and over again that you didn't hurt me."
"Right." My eyes automatically skimmed over the healing cuts and fading bruises on her arms.
Heaving an exaggerated sigh of exasperation, she said, "Look, I challenged a warlord to a fight, which was pretty reckless, even for me. But I've gotten just as bruised from some of our practice sessions."
With effort, I kept my voice level when I replied, "I could have killed you."
"Yes, you could have," she said gently, "but you didn't. You *chose* not to. And you even let me talk you into drinking the potion." There was a hint of laughter in her voice when she added, "Which proves that even a warlord is no match for a bard."
"Thank the gods for that," I said with an answering smile, then returned to the topic Gabrielle was so adroitly avoiding. "If I remember correctly, just last month you were dying for an invitation to a dance."
Another shrug from my young companion. "Last month I was...curious."
"And this month?"
"This month I'm...not," she said casually.
Too casually, I decided uneasily.
With a radiant smile born of sudden inspiration, she said, "Let's go for a walk through town instead."
Gabrielle licked the last dollop of pudding off her spoon with a leisurely curl of her tongue, a gesture that was altogether too distracting for comfort's sake, and I spent the rest of the evening resolutely averting my gaze from the one sight that pleased me most: her face.
As if we were attuned to each other's motions, Gabrielle cleared the last incision of moss and grime from the rim of the well just as I drove home the last iron peg on the new cover.
"What does it say?" I asked curiously, as I studied the freshly cut letters. The language was not one I recognized.
Gabrielle's fingers traced over the phrase as she read aloud, "Ye who would lose your sorrows, drink from this well." Leaning over the edge, she peered into the darkness below. "Considering the dire consequences, that's not much of a warning for thirsty travelers. Leave it to the ancients to perfect the art of understatement."
"All the more reason for us to be here," I said, hefting the new cover up to the lip of the stonework. I positioned the wooden disk over the opening, then hammered the cover down in place until it was fitted so tightly that only an axe blow could remove it. "There, that's the best I can do." However, as I gathered up our tools I noticed that she was still staring at the newly capped well. "What's wrong?"
"It won't last forever."
"Nothing ever does," I said with a shrug.
"No, I guess not."
Hearing an unexpected note of sorrow in her voice, I reached out, touching her shoulder, and felt the sudden knotting of muscles beneath my hand. This tension was also new. Pulling my hand away, I said, "Gabrielle, you *have* told me everything that happened...haven't you?"
She turned to face me, and the pause before she spoke foreshadowed her answer.
"No," she said. "I haven't."
A tendril of dread curled around my throat, threatening to choke me. "Why not?"
She drew a deep breath, as if gathering her courage. "Because I knew it would change things between us."
"It already has."
"Yes, I guess so," she said thoughtfully. "I thought perhaps, since you didn't remember...but I guess there's no going back...because *I* remember."
"Tell me what happened." I steeled myself for a new revelation of violence, and a new burden of guilt. I was completely unprepared for what I heard instead.
"You kissed me."
"I what?" I struggled to make sense of this matter-of-fact statement, searching Gabrielle's face for some clue to her emotions. I read an expression of guarded amusement...plus a hint of something deeper that would not show itself.
She continued. "You wanted information from me, and you seemed to think that kissing was an effective interrogation technique."
With a strangled laugh, I said, "It can be...under the right circumstances."
Gabrielle looked me straight in the eye. "Well, it certainly worked with me."
My world turned upside down.
Fighting to regain my equilibrium, I tried to match her bantering tone. "One kiss and you talked?"
"Oh, I'm made of sterner stuff than that." Her gaze did not waver. "It took more than one."
A sudden flush of heat set my cheeks on fire. Resolutely ignoring my body's betrayal, I said, "Just what kind of information was I after?"
"I'm not sure I want to answer that question."
I almost missed my cue, but when I did catch her meaning, I still hesitated. My life had been tarnished enough by self-indulgence, and I had vowed to shield Gabrielle from that part of myself, but the rising impatience in her green eyes weakened my resolve. How much harm could there be in this one small intimacy? Even so, I only allowed myself a fleeting brush of lips. "Are you ready to talk now?"
"No," she said with an obstinate frown. "I'm afraid you've seriously underestimated my resistance."
*More than one kiss.... *
Giving in to temptation, I grasped Gabrielle ever so lightly by her slender waist, drew her closer, then bent down again. This time our kiss was thorough and searching...and lasted far longer than I had intended. Above all else, I had always feared that Gabrielle's hero worship made her too vulnerable to my demands, and that if I ever approached her, she would submit to desires that weren't of her own making. But there was no way I could mistake her knowing response for naive submission; it was her lips, her tongue, that were leading this dance.
When we finally pulled apart, she lightly pressed her fingers against the base of my neck. "I can feel your heart beating..." she smiled as if to herself, "...very fast."
Then, stepping out of the loosening circle of my arms, she said, "We'd better get back on the road. The sooner we get out of this valley, the sooner we can make camp and continue this interrogation."
"Continue..." I stared at her as I absorbed the implications of her statement. Swallowing hard, I asked, "Gabrielle, just how far did I...did we...." Words failed me.
With a teasing glint in her eye, she said, "You can be very persuasive, but I can be very stubborn. It made for an interesting combination."
And by nightfall I learned just how well Gabrielle herself had mastered the art of understatement.
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