Stepping noiselessly over to Gabrielle, Xena reached into her pouch for the rawhide thongs and the gag she had placed there earlier. However much she hated the idea of tying her lover, she had to try to get her out of the camp as quietly as possible. As she stretched her hand out towards the Bard, the younger womans eyes suddenly snapped open. The sea green of her pupils were colder than the thick river ice of winter. There was also a moment of confusion as Gabrielle did not recognise the beautiful stranger leaning over her. In moments, the Bard was standing on the platform, her sword in her hand and an icy smile on her face. Xena realised as soon as she drew her own blade, the guards outside would hear the noise and come running in to see what the problem was. The tall warrior would get just one chance to knock Gabrielle into unconsciousness.
Xena instantly twisted, bent over and snapped her body up into a fast handstand on the edge of the platform, the armed Bards eyes automatically following her movements. Knowing Gabrielle would not be watching the top part of her body for a split second, Xena used that moment to lash her feet forward and caught Gabrielle cleanly in the forehead. She felt herself bouncing back and turning, landed lightly on her feet again. The Bards sword had slid from her grasp as Gabrielle slowly crumpled onto the platform beneath her. Reminding herself this was not *her* Gabrielle, Xena pushed away the sinking feeling in her stomach of having to hurt her own lover. She knew the other woman would understand, eventually.
Moving rapidly, she bound Gabrielle at wrist and ankle, gagging her so she couldnt call out an alert should she regain consciousness before they were well away from the camp. Habit more than thought had Xena putting the sword back into the sheath still strapped to the Bards back. Grunting a little from the effort, she lifted the other woman across her shoulders and started back out the slit in the tent she had cut to originally get in. Taking one moment to look back, she saw the chained and naked woman was still sleeping. Xena prayed, as she rarely did, the chained woman would not be too badly hurt once the guards saw their warlord had been taken. However much she may have wanted to release the frightened woman, Aphrodite had made her instructions clear, and if Xena wanted her lover back, she had no choice but to follow them to the letter.
Xena managed to get halfway through the camp before she was spotted by one of the patrolling guards. Shouting an alarm as he ran towards the tall warrior, he was also dragging his sword from the sheath at his side, ready to defend his warlord to the death. With the blonde Bard over her shoulders, Xena was not exactly in a position to draw her own weapons so was forced to improvise.
Hooking a stand of pikes with one foot, she flicked them into the face of the oncoming man and, while he was dodging them, dashed between two tents. Instead of continuing to run, she simply side-stepped into the doorway of the structure and watched, amused, as the guards ran by. Xena stepped back the way she had come and moved as quickly as she could, with Gabrielles added weight on her shoulders, in the opposite direction. Assuming she had hidden herself somewhere there, most of the guards were looking for her on the other side of the camp, but she still had to get through the line of guards at the perimeter on this side. Xena chose the most sensible option she could see available at that point. A sharp whistle pierced the air and the sound of thundering hoofbeats came up the low hill towards her. Argo galloped through the line of fires and guards, scattering them in her wake, coming to a snorting halt by Xenas side. Quickly tossing the Bards bound and still unconscious body across the saddle as easily as a sack of grain, the tall woman mounted. Leaning over the mares long neck, Xena galloped back out of the camp and into the darkness of the night.
She knew the army of men behind her would mount a search for their warlord, and she needed to get herself and her stolen charge as far from the camp as possible before someone starting thinking clearly enough to organise the men. Xena could hear the shouts of the soldiers as she reached the bottom of the hill and disappeared into the gloomy forest surrounding the camp site.
Argo was starting to complain a little about the pace Xena was keeping, especially over the rocky ground. Having already been through two days and nearly two full nights without a proper break, the mare was feeling every ounce of muscle, bone and armour she carried on her strong back. Xena had stopped for a few minutes a candlemark or so after her headlong flight from the camp but had quickly remounted and set a fast pace through the few remaining hours of the night.
"Just a little further, Argo. Aphrodite said that cave was around here somewhere," Xena said quietly to her beloved warhorse. She was scanning the base of the walls ahead of them looking for the place the Goddess had told her would be there.
They had entered a canyon system some time before, and though neither the tall warrior nor the warhorse who carried her particularly liked the closed-in feeling the high walls gave them, they had kept moving doggedly through the darkness. Xena had taken the time earlier to seat a now conscious and very angry Gabrielle safely in the saddle, her hands tied to the saddle horn in front of her. The Bards feet had been tied to the stirrup irons and a second thong passed under the mare, tying the womans ankles securely. The second amulet the dark-haired woman carried had also been secretly tucked between a double layer of stitching in the hem of Gabrielles leather skirt. Unless the Bard was deliberately looking for it, she would never know it was there.
Riding behind the Bard, one arm wrapped gently around her waist, Xena tried to imagine it was her Gabrielle seated in front of her, but the stiff, unbending body made it all too clear to the tall warrior the Bard was going to resist even the friendliest of advances. Xena found herself biting her lip to stop herself from saying any number of things she would have told her own love. Giving this version of Gabrielle any emotional ammunition would be a grave error on the part of the dark-haired woman. Xena found herself reassessing her own ideas about the Gabrielle she had known for so long and had fallen so deeply in love with. If she had only allowed herself to see the warrior in Gabrielle, she wouldnt be in this predicament. Right now she could see all too clearly the warrior in the Bard, and it was a sight that both saddened and horrified her. The last thing she had ever wanted was for Gabrielle to know, up close and firsthand, what Xena herself had gone through and the aftermath of emotions and nightmares it had left in her life.
Rounding a slight bend in the canyon, Xena breathed a sigh of relief. Just ahead was the cave entrance she had been told about. The woman could just make out the cave lip in the first milky light of dawn. Xena dismounted from behind Gabrielle to lead Argo carefully through the wide entrance.
The sound of the mares hooves echoed though the cavern ahead, but other than the sound of trickling water, there didnt appear to be any other life in the cave at all. In front of them, she could see a faint glow and was surprised when they entered a large, high-domed room, lit from all sides by a glowing substance on the walls and ceiling. Rubbing her hand over the stone closest to her, she found it was actually some kind of fungus that made its own cold light.
Stopping the mare, Xena carefully backtracked to check the entrance and the canyon they had just ridden along. The last thing she needed right now was a horde of soldiers from Gabrielles army to come roaring up the cave passage, trapping her in the softly lit room at its end. She suddenly found herself stopped by a wall of stone.
Xena shook her head. They had only walked a few dozen paces or so and she hadnt seen any turns on the way in, so where had the wall come from? Shrugging her shoulders, she assumed this was more of Aphrodites handiwork and decided she really didnt want to know any more than that. So long as they were both safe and couldnt be found for a little while, Xena was willing, grudgingly, to put up with the Goddess interference for the time being.
Walking slowly back to the large room, Xena carefully checked the walls on both sides for any hidden passages or cracks in the rock large enough for Gabrielle to attempt escaping through. She found nothing at all, not even a hairline split. Moving along the passage, she could feel the soft brush of a breeze blowing against her face and body. There was one less thing for her to worry about; there seemed to be a decent airflow coming from somewhere, so any fire she might light would not smoke them out, and there would be plenty of fresh air to breathe. Something also told her that Aphrodite would be seeing to their more mundane needs like food and water as well.
Lost in her reverie about gods and goddesses, the tall woman wandered the last few steps back into the room. Her body sense suddenly screamed at her, and she leapt back a few paces. A knife whizzed through the place where she would have been standing, bouncing off the rock near her with a spark. She heard the cursing coming from further inside the room. Damn it! Gabrielle had somehow managed to get herself loose from the bindings Xena had used.
Carefully peeping around the edge of the stone wall, she saw Gabrielle standing in the middle of the room with her own sword in one hand and another throwing knife grasped in the fingers of the other. Xena had thought to remove the blade from the sheath on Gabrielles back, but still thinking of her lover as the sweet, charitable girl she had always known, the taller woman had not remembered to check the Bard for any other weapons. It was a mistake that might cost the warrior dearly now. For the moment, though, she had to forget that the blonde-haired woman was her treasured love and treat the whole situation as though she was fighting another warlord. More than anything, she didnt want to seriously injure the Bard, something she would have to keep hidden from the other woman or Xena might find herself on the business end of that sword.
"Put the sword down, Gabrielle. There isnt any way out of here," Xena called around the edge of the wall. As the last words left her mouth, the warrior dived across the room, angled away from the angry Bard standing at its center. Gabrielle did exactly what Xena wanted. She flung the throwing knife at the place where the other woman *had* been and not at the place where she landed.
"Who in Hades are you? And why did you bring me here?" Gabrielle demanded savagely, the hard edge in her voice cutting deeply into Xenas mind.
It took a moment for the knowledge to sink in that Gabrielle didnt even recognise the other woman. Temporarily locking down on the emotions she felt for the young Bard, Xena tried to act as though Gabrielle truly was just another warlord. "I brought you here because you are not who you think you are," Xena replied. The warrior ignored the question of who she was for the moment. There might be time to answer it later, if she could subdue Gabrielle again, that is.
Obviously this was not quite the answer the Bard was seeking because a string of abuse flowed from her lips, as rich and descriptive of Xenas anatomical functions and place in the scheme of things as any warlord or bard could hope to be. "Draw your sword, bitch. I intend cutting you into very tiny pieces and feeding you to the harpies in Tartarus," Gabrielle said as she started slowly moving towards the other woman.
Xena absolutely had no desire to draw her blade. She had seen Gabrielle sparring and knew it would be far too risky to attempt any kind of a battle with the younger woman. Not that she didnt think she could take her, far from it. She was more concerned with injuring the angry woman. Carefully watching the ice-cold green eyes, she circled around Gabrielle slowly. The tall warrior was still having trouble reconciling this savage and violent image of her lover and the memories of the gentle Bard she had travelled with for so long. In every way Xena could see and understand, *this* Gabrielle was every inch the warrior.
Gabrielle quickly lost all patience with the game of look and move. She leapt towards Xena, her blade swinging in a deadly arc in front of her. The tall warrior could hear the edge singing through the air as it came towards her. Diving under the sword, Xena managed to move past Gabrielle, lashing a quick thump into her side with one foot as she did so. She had barely jumped back to her feet when the Bard was coming at her again, Xenas strike having had no discernible effect.
The Bard was swinging the blade lower this time. Xena jumped straight up and connected a heel with the side of Gabrielles jaw in a spinning turn, watching as her head snapped sideways, the kick rocking the smaller woman down to the toes. The force of the blow may have shaken the Bard, but it did little to stop her. Xena could see the other womans temper was reaching an explosive point, so the blue-eyed warrior kept pushing, hoping that in the extremes of anger Gabrielle would make some kind of a crucial mistake.
Somehow, the Bard kept her temper from erupting completely. Xena was amazed by the other womans self-control. This was a woman who couldnt kill a rabbit so she could eat, yet Gabrielle was very serious about killing Xena at that very moment. Once again, the blonde struck at the warrior in front of her. For the next several minutes, Gabrielle swung, thrust and lunged, while Xena jumped, leapt and rolled her way out of trouble. Both women were sweating and gasping for breath but neither had made a truly telling strike on the other. Xenas respect for Gabrielles fighting abilities grew with every passing moment. She was starting to think that she may have to draw her own weapon to bring this to an end when she realised that there might be one area Gabrielle was not quite so skilled. Wrestling. Xenas own greater body weight would give her the advantage here.
Waiting until the Bard had made a swing but was yet to pull her arm back, Xena dived straight for her and grabbed her in a wrestling hold. Using one hand, she dug into the tendons at Gabrielles wrist, forcing her to drop her sword safely to the ground. Having finally disarmed the other woman, Xena threw herself backwards, letting her greater weight drag Gabrielle with her.
It was over in less than a minute. Gabrielle was lying face down on the ground, and Xena was holding both the Bards arms behind her back, rapidly retying the thongs still dangling from the other womans wrists. The tall warrior tried very hard to not hear a word of the strong language Gabrielle was using at that very moment. She was just happy to have gotten the Bard back under control. Everything else could follow from there, she hoped.
Xena sat next to the small fire she had built for them, wondering what to do now. She had stripped Gabrielle of as much armour as she could without untying her and was amazed at the number of weapons the younger woman had secreted on her person. Gabrielle had several knives, both throwing and fighting types, two wickedly sharp spikes, a strangling wire from under one of her shoulder guards and four darts Xena had found inside her gauntlets, each one tipped with some kind of poison. The tall warrior had put these away very carefully, making sure there would be no way to accidentally stab herself with one later on.
The tall warrior did have to smile a little, though. Gabrielle had not shut up for a second. Admittedly, the constant cursing was not quite what she was used to hearing from her usually gentle lover. But even as a warlord, some things just could never be changed.
Staring into the flames, Xena wondered what she was supposed to be doing. Aphrodites instructions to this point had been very clear but from here on the Goddess had been frustratingly vague. She had simply said, "You will have to do the hardest thing you can imagine to help your lover find her way back." The tall woman tried to think what that might be but didnt have a single idea. She snorted to herself. It was typical of a goddess to be less than precise about something. Xena was still surprised with the clarity of Aphrodites directions, which helped the dark-haired woman find first the camp and then the cave.
Needing something to do, Xena decided to explore the cavern they were going to be living in for who knew how long. Glancing over to check that Gabrielle was still well secured, the tall warrior slowly climbed to her feet and began to explore the subtly lit room. The floor was mostly soft sand, a little something the woman had been grateful for during the fight earlier, but there was a low rock ledge at the other end of the room. On the far side, a miniature waterfall that supplied water to the cavern ran down into a wide depression in the stone. Xena looked into it and could see it was quite deep, deep enough for bathing. Dipping her hand into the water she was surprised to find the water quite warm. Testing the waterfall, she found it was cool. Perhaps there was something under the stone warming the water in the depression. It didnt matter to her either way. They had cool, fresh water to drink and warm water for bathing. Against the back wall and near the ledge was a small hole, perhaps a hand and a half high and two wide. For the life of her, Xena couldnt figure out what it could be for but it didnt appear to be particularly dangerous right now, so she chose not to worry about it. She did make a mental note to keep an eye on it, though, just in case something nasty should come slithering through. A full circuit of the cavern and the passage leading in showed there to be nothing else to note. Xena had the feeling she was going to get very bored very quickly in here.
Wandering, a little distracted, back to the fireside, she realised the only thing to really do in the cavern was talk to Gabrielle. She didnt mind talking to the Bard, sometimes, though the younger woman was far more practised at holding up a conversation. But in this situation, there was nothing else to do. Perhaps this is what the goddess meant about doing the hardest things she could imagine. Xena was more used to her own silence than talking to someone, even Gabrielle, for any length of time.
Wiping a bead of sweat from her face, the tall woman realised just how warm the cavern really was. It didnt look like Aphrodite was going to let anything bother the two women while they were locked up, so Xena thought she might be more comfortable in a plain shift instead of her armour and heavy leathers. The soft sand underfoot would probably be a lot easier on her feet than wearing her boots as well. Thinking about it, she assumed Gabrielle might also be more comfortable stripped of the bulk of her gear. She knew she would be taking a chance but looking over to the other woman, she could see she was sweating in the warmth, and that made her decision.
It had taken her only a matter of minutes to divest herself of the armour and leather clothing, but it had taken a great deal longer to remove Gabrielles. The Bard had struggled and fought every moment, and Xena was sweating even more heavily once she had finally stripped all the leather from the other woman. Leaving her sitting once again by the side of the small fire, wearing a cotton shift Xena had been carrying in one of her saddlebags, the warrior thought a dip in the warm water would be just the thing she needed to remove the sticky feeling covering her.
Immodest as always, Xena quickly pulled her own shift from over her head and eased into the clear water in the deep depression. She could feel it was a great deal warmer near her feet, so her guess about something under the rock heating the water above was probably right. Letting herself relax in the heat, she felt tight muscles unlocking along her spine and across her broad shoulders. She soon felt utterly limp and allowed her head to drop back onto the stone behind her. The warrior hadnt realised just how tense she had become trying to get herself and Gabrielle this far. It was only then she felt a pair of eyes watching her from across the room. Looking to Gabrielle, still seated at the fire, she saw something in the younger womans eyes, something familiar before the sea green ice froze over it again. Her lover was in there somewhere; Xena just had to find the way of letting her out.
The days were passing far too slowly for Xena. She lay back on her bedroll and stared at the ceiling for what felt like the hundredth time since she woke. With the softly glowing fungus on the walls eliminating any difference between day and night, both women had let themselves fall into a routine which closely followed their bodies natural rhythms. Xena looked over at Gabrielle. After making the green-eyed woman promise to behave, on her very honour, the warrior had untied the Bards ankles. However, her wrists were still bound together in front of her body instead of behind as they had been before. At least Gabrielle understood the concept of honour and had kept her word.
The Bard had run out of curses sometime on the second day in the cavern, or perhaps she had finally seen they were having no effect of the other woman. Regardless, she had ultimately stopped swearing every time Xena came near her. The tall woman had even gotten a few civil sentences out of her, which surprised Xena considering how nastily Gabrielle had been cursing her out before. Xena had been wracking her brain since then to try to figure a way of reaching the Bard, and her lover, who she knew had to be inside the warlord somewhere. The tall warrior may not have been the most wordy of people, but she did know how to play mind games very well indeed, and that was the part of the Bard she needed to reach right now. Then she had a stroke of sheer genius.
"Gabrielle?" the woman said quietly.
"What?" the Bard snapped back.
"How did you get to be a warlord?" Xena asked, hoping the warlord personality Ares had overlaid on the Bard didnt go too deeply. She needed to get the other woman thinking again.
If Xena hadnt been so serious about what she was doing, she would have laughed out loud at the stunned look on Gabrielles face. The Bard had opened her mouth to snarl something and simply stopped dead in her tracks as though she had no answer to the question. Xena could almost hear her trying to think her away around some kind of an answer. Xena reached forward slowly and very gently put one finger under the Bards chin to close her mouth.
"Swallow," the broad-shouldered woman said softly.
Gabrielle did, and her mouth stayed closed, but the confusion hadnt left her eyes for a second.
For one moment, Xena wanted to cheer. The brief contact between her finger and the Bards chin was the first Gabrielle had allowed without either trying to shrug it off or starting another string of curses. Still watching the Bard, a tiny thought fought its way to the surface of Xenas mind. How many times had she shaken off Gabrielles touch in the beginning, and when had it changed? Needing to think about this a little more, the warrior decided to leave Gabrielle to her own confusion for a while longer.
"Dont worry about it, Gabrielle. I was just curious. Why dont you rest of a while. I really need to have a bit of soak anyway. The heat in here really is making me sweat," Xena said, trying to sound like she had just been making conversation.
Gabrielle didnt even notice when Xena left the tiny fire and wandered slowly over to the depression they were using as a bathing pool. The only thing she was aware of was the screaming of her own mind.
Gabrielle sat, confused and quickly growing frightened. No matter how she tried, she couldnt remember how she came to be the warlord of her army. When that other woman had asked how she had the leadership, Gabrielle had intended to abuse the taller woman again, but even as she drew breath to do so, something clicked inside her as she realised she *didnt* have any memories of being a warlord before the other night. Her first clear memory was of being in her tent, holding her sword and wondering why she was just standing there. She had a village to raid and she had simply been standing in the middle of her tent like a statue. Anything before that moment was completely blank.
What had she been doing during all these years? And why hadnt it dawned on her sooner?
Forcing herself to stop thinking about it, she tried to focus her mind on something else. The first thought to enter her head was the same one she had been having since seeing the other woman standing beside her sleeping platform. She didnt recognise this woman. She knew she didnt. Yet and yet. Somehow, her body recognised the tall, beautiful warrior who had captured her. Every time the stranger bathed, which was often in this heat, Gabrielle found she was unable to keep her eyes from following every movement of the womans body. She was watching as the warrior slept. She was even watching as the other woman prowled about the cavern trying to work off an excess of nervous energy. Aside from when she bathed, Gabrielle found the most exciting time to watch was when the other woman practised with her sword or chakram. The play of muscles under her tanned skin, the deadly dance of sword and motion and the look of complete concentration of the womans face all combined to give Gabrielle a thrill like none she had ever felt before. Why did her body recognise someone she was certain she didnt know herself?
Gabrielle allowed the moment of light arousal to flood through her body. As she relaxed into it, the thoughts about her past came thundering back into her mind. Her questions keep tearing around inside her head until she thought she would go mad from the whirlpool it was creating in her thinking. She couldnt shake the confusion. Then she remembered something the stranger had said to her. "Youre not who you think you are." Did this other woman know who she really was, if not the warlord of a great army? Gabrielle clung desperately to that thought as she allowed herself to lie down on the bedroll. If the other woman knew who she was, perhaps she could be persuaded to tell of what she knew. Right now, that was the only clear thought she had, and she used it to keep herself from screaming in fear.
Xena leaned back against the stone wall, allowing her body to be buoyed by the warm water surrounding her. She had watched from the corner of her eye as Gabrielles face openly showed the emotions she was feeling. She had to duck her head to hide the smile on her own face as the Bards features settled into the familiar, and very much missed, expressions of arousal. Glancing up again, she saw Gabrielle had lain down again and appeared to be sleeping. It was obvious to Xena the younger woman was not asleep but for the moment, the warrior was content to let her be. Hopefully, the time spent thinking alone might do some good later on.
As it was, Xena had some thinking of her own to do. She found herself remembering the very earliest days she and Gabrielle had spent together, when the slightest touch from the younger woman had Xena all but throwing the Bards hand from her. Over time, Xena had gradually accepted the reassuring caress of the other woman, but when had she stopped even having to think about it? When had she started wanting those touches? When had she wanted more than just the affection of friends and started thinking there might be more, if she wanted it?
Xena knew exactly when. She didnt have to think about it, really. It was the day she thought she had lost Gabrielle forever to the Elysian Fields. Even now, in the warm waters of the bathing pool, she shuddered at the remembrance. Gabrielles face, so pale, spots of blood here and there. Xena unable to accept the loss of her dearest friend, the other half of her heart. Forcing air into the other womans still lungs. The priests trying to pull her away from the body, telling her to let Gabrielle pass over. Thumping the Bards chest over and over. Calling passionately desperately for Gabrielle to come back. So unprepared for the loss and what it was doing to her. Xena hadnt realised, until that very moment, just how deeply she cared and how much she needed to have the Bards gentle love and acceptance in her life. That deep, gasping, incredibly *welcomed* breath as Gabrielle returned from wherever she had been. And the tears. Tears of joy at the other womans return, tears of sorrow for what she had nearly lost.
The depth of feeling Xena had for the other woman had so terrified her in the beginning that it was going to take quite some time before the warrior could admit her love for the Bard. She didnt want the younger woman becoming a target for some enemy she had made in her past, but when Gabrielle had taken the decision out of Xenas hands, she gave in to her own emotions and told the truth about the feelings in her heart. In a way, the warrior had been quite selfish about holding her emotions so tightly closed to the other woman, yet Gabrielle had somehow known what Xena felt and then had acted on that knowledge. Xena felt herself grinning. Back then, she may not have seen the warrior in the Bard but it was certainly there. Over-running her physical defences had shown Gabrielle the way through to her emotional ones, and they had crumbled before the Bards determined onslaught. Yes, the warrior had been there all the time. Now Xena just had to get rid of the warlord Ares had left her with.
From behind closed eyes, Xena heard the sound of sand squeaking as Gabrielle walked towards the bathing pool. Opening her eyes, she saw the Bard walking, well, striding really, across the soft sand. Xena was still having trouble reconciling the two images, one of her own lover and the other of someone who looked for all the world like her lover but moved exactly like a trained warrior. Xena still couldnt get used to it. She noticed Gabrielle was carefully carrying her chakram between her still bound hands. Xena appeared completely relaxed but she braced one foot under her, just in case.
"Dinner will be arriving shortly, Warrior. I thought you might need this," The Bard said almost casually.
Sitting down next to the reclining woman, Gabrielle handed the chakram over. Though she was trying to put on a brave face, Xena could still see the bewilderment haunting the eyes of the woman. She accepted her weapon, trying to keep the look of surprise from her face. Perhaps Gabrielle was finally starting to see some reason.
From their first day in the cavern, Aphrodite had seen to their need for food in a variety of ways. One of those was the arrival every day of two rabbits, or some other live eatable, through the hole at the bottom of the wall near the bathing pool. Whatever found its way in would then simply sit waiting for Xena to throw her chakram, effectively slitting its throat. Xena thought it was rather clever of the goddess, actually, not that she would ever say it out loud.
Still looking every inch the warlord, Xena thought it might be time to show Gabrielle she was trusting her. "Hold out your wrists, Gabrielle," she said simply.
The Bard hesitated for a moment but in the time they had been in the cavern, except for the fight theyd had on that first day, Xena had never once shown the slightest sign of cruelty towards her. Quite the opposite, in fact. She held out her bound wrists, managing to keep the shake out of her hands by tensing her muscles.
Working the razor-sharp chakram blade between the other womans wrists, Xena carefully sliced through the thongs she had used to bind Gabrielle. She made sure not to touch the Bards skin in the least, in case the woman thought she was about to have her wrists slashed for some reason.
Gabrielle was still massaging her wrists, a little sore from the chafing of the thongs, when dinner hopped into the cavern. Xenas hand flicked out, chakram spinning, and two fat rabbits became a meal. The Bard walked over to pick up the small bodies and prepare them for dinner that night. She suddenly stopped walking as it dawned on her that she hadnt been thinking, she had simply done it like it was something she had done a thousand times before; it felt that familiar to her. She didnt see the look of glowing and happy surprise on Xenas face behind her.
Poking around her saddlebags looking for a clean shift, Xena came across one of Gabrielles scrolls tucked beneath several other items at the bottom. Pulling it out, she was hit with an idea. "After dinner, Ill try this out," she mumbled to herself and carefully put the scroll under the edge of her bedroll. She quickly glanced over to the other woman, but she was still washing the blood from butchering the rabbits out of her own shift and not paying any attention to what Xena was doing.
Gabrielle returned from the passage, where Xena had dug a small pit for their refuse, both from their meals and themselves, after clearing up from dinner that night. The tall warrior had smiled to herself at the time when she realised that the goddess was being forced to deal with some of the more mundane habits of mortals, such as what went in sooner or later had to come back out again. Aphrodite seemed to be handling it, because the pit was as spotless today as it had been when Xena first dug it. She didnt know what Gabrielle thought of it but chose not to say anything about the goddesss involvement in her capture and imprisonment.
The Bard sat down heavily on her own bedroll on the other side of the fire from Xena. She had seemed very far away all night, ever since the warrior had asked her about her beginnings as a warlord. Xena didnt know if she liked the silence more or the near constant cursing she had put up with during the first two days. Either way, Gabrielles silence now didnt appear to be all that healthy, so Xena was glad she had found the scroll in her saddlebags. Now for a little acting to get Gabrielle to do what she wanted.
Reaching under the edge of her bedroll, Xena pulled the scroll from its hiding place. "Gabrielle, could you read this for me?" she asked, ingenuously. "I found it in my saddlebag and I dont know what it says."
Gabrielles eyes widened a little. "You cant read?" she replied, shocked almost speechless that anyone, even this warrior, couldnt read.
"There was no priest in my village to teach me, and by the time there was, I no longer had the time to learn." Xena held her hands up in a kind of hopeless gesture. The blue-eyed woman could read perfectly well, as well as Gabrielle, but she needed the woman to read something she had written herself. If nothing else, it might spark a few memories of Gabrielle the Bard and not Gabrielle the warlord.
"Okay, Ill read it for you," Gabrielle answered, looking at Xena. But everything she could see from the other womans body language said the warrior was telling the truth about not being able to read. Besides, Gabrielle was just as bored as the other woman anyway, and something to read would be a break from the usual routine of sitting and staring at the fire until she was tired enough to go to sleep. Taking the scroll from Xenas hand, she quickly unrolled it and scanned the first few lines. The writing seemed familiar somehow. "It looks like some kind of a tale. Still want me to read it?" she asked the tall woman sitting on the other side of the fire.
"Why not? Doesnt look like either of us are going anywhere," Xena said quietly. She had seen the look in Gabrielles eyes. The warrior was sure the Bard recognised her own neat handwriting but that the knowledge was having trouble sinking in for some reason.
The Bard began to read the scroll using, Xena noticed, her best Bards voice, as she would have called it. The warrior closed her eyes and simply let the familiar feeling of her lover telling her a tale flow over her. She didnt realise just how much she was missing her gentle Gabrielle until now. Towards the end of the reading, Xena opened her eyes again, only to see that Gabrielle had closed hers and was actually reciting the tale straight from memory, as she usually would. She didnt really want to draw attention to this but she had to convince the Bard that she really wasnt a warlord at all. The tale ended, yet Gabrielle was still to open her eyes.
"Who wrote this, Warrior?" She asked, a quaver strong in her voice.
Though she doubted the other woman would believe, Xena directed her to the end of the scroll. "Most bards sign the end of their stories. See who signed that one."
The Bard cum warlord glanced at the end of the scroll and then had a second, much longer look at the name inscribed there. "It says Gabrielle of Poteidaia. Who is she? This is good."
Biting her lip, Xena knew now was the time to push at Gabrielles memories of herself before Ares had laid the warlord over her personality. "Ill tell you in a minute, but first I want you to think, I mean really think, about what you used to do before you were a warlord."
Gabrielle gave Xena the oddest look but obediently closed her eyes and began to search for any memory from before she remembered the tent and the raid. She was genuinely trying. Even Xena had to admit, to find her own memory empty of anything beyond the past few days would have shaken her to the core. Only Gabrielles native courage was keeping her from screaming right off the edge of sanity itself. Xena had to admire her for that much.
It took several minutes but finally the blonde woman spoke, slowly, as though she was having trouble bringing the thought to the surface. "I remember the name of a place, Thessaly. Why should I remember this place?" Gabrielle asked, opening her eyes and looking at the blue eyes focused on her from across the fire.
Feeling very small, Xena pushed the question back at the other woman. "Think about it. Did something happen there that you might remember?" It was not exactly the recollection she might have wanted to bring up in the other woman, but that day did have a profound effect, so Xena guessed it would have made a strong impression on Gabrielles memory.
Now the blondes eyes were focused on Xenas as she searched and prodded her own mind looking for the connection between her and this place. Suddenly the connection was made. "I DIED there and YOU called me back!" Gabrielle gasped in shock. The young woman started crying. It was all getting to be a bit too much, even for a warlord. "Who are you? And who am I?"
Xena was across the fire in an instant and had Gabrielle wrapped in her strong arms as the other woman hit some kind of emotional wall. Hating herself for what she had to say now, considering Gabrielle was in shock. "YOU are Gabrielle of Poteidaia. Youre a bard. When you read that scroll before, you were reciting straight from memory and not reading it at all. You never were a warlord. Its just something that Ares made you believe," she said desperately, trying to get the weeping woman in her arms to understand.
Gabrielle was shaking her head, not believing, and crying all the harder. This was not exactly how Xena had envisioned this particular conversation going, somehow.
Xena opened her eyes to the soft lighting of the fungus on the walls. It took a moment to place herself but she quickly realised she was on the other side of the small fire, which seemed to need no fuel to keep burning. Remembering why she was on that side of the fire, she also realised the comforting weight of the Bard was no longer tucked against her side as it had been the night before.
Gabrielle had wept for quite some considerable time after being told she was not really the warlord she thought herself to be. Eventually, the young woman had cried herself to sleep. No wanting to let her go, Xena had held her gently, even after the Bard had dozed off. Tucking her against her side as though nothing had changed between them, Xena had lain back herself and slowly let sleep overtake her.
Now that she was awake again, she wondered where the Bard had gotten to. Sitting up, she was startled to see the younger woman in the center of the room, sword in hand, practising in much the same way Xena herself did each day. It was incredibly beautiful and deadly to watch. In a way, Xena had forgotten just how truly graceful Gabrielle could be, regardless of the weapon she held in her hand. Even without the warlord, the warrior had been there all the time, if only she had allowed herself to see it before. It slowly dawned on the tall woman the only reason she hadnt seen it was because she didnt want to see. She wanted to be the warrior of the pair, and now she was being forced to see that she had to permit Gabrielle to grow and be whatever she wanted to be. It was something of a startling revelation for her, one she knew, over time, would change the way things were between herself and the Bard she loved.
She waited until Gabrielle had finished her current series of movements before speaking. "You could have removed my head while I slept."
"Why bother. You would have known the blade was coming long before I got anywhere near you. Besides, I dont think its very honourable to kill someone who was so nice to me last night." Gabrielle replied, a grin on her face. She was sweating freely and looking more at home with the blade in her hand than she had ever looked with her quill.
Xena had to agree with her there. It was damned hard for anyone to sneak up on her; that body sense she had would scream a warning long before she was actually awake. But it was wonderful to hear the sense of humour returning to the other womans voice again. "So, Gabrielle, what do you think of being a Bard?" The woman asked. Might as well get it over with early today.
"How can I really be a Bard when I can handle myself as well as you?" Gabrielle replied, as she strode back to the small fire and sat down next to Xena. The warrior noticed immediately just how close Gabrielle sat, even if the other woman didnt. Another hopeful sign.
She didnt get too long to enjoy the sensation though. The way Gabrielle had posed her question, it was obvious that she didnt believe a word about being a Bard in reality. The young woman saw herself as nothing more than a warrior simply based on the evidence of the sword still held in her hand. Xena realised the blonde was making the same mistake as she had once made, judging what a person was by the weapon, or lack of one, in her hand.
Xena was left scratching her head a little over this. Aphrodite had forced her to see the warrior in the Bard, but how did she get Gabrielle to see the Bard within herself? Perhaps by proving it to the other woman in the only way Xena truly understood. By picking up the blade and sparring with Gabrielle. It wouldnt take long for the blonde to see who was the superior with the sword and realise she couldnt be a true warlord. In Xenas mind it all seemed to make quite logical sense, yet something inside her said there was a flaw in her thinking. The dark-haired woman shrugged her shoulders unconsciously. Flaw or no flaw, it would give the two women something to do, if nothing else.
Reaching across to the neat pile where she had stacked her own armour and weapons, Xena spoke quietly to the other woman. "Why dont you spar with me for a bit? I need to work some of the kinks out after sleeping on this soft sand all night." It was taking a chance but Xena also wanted to show Gabrielle she trusted her not to get carried away and actually hurt the tall warrior.
Both women walked out into the center of the room, taking up a stance in front of the other. They began to gently spar back and forth, slowly working up the speed and strength of their thrusts and lunges. Xena managed to keep the look of surprise from her face but Gabrielles expression of shock was quite clear. It was like fighting with a mirror. Every lunge Xena made, Gabrielle knew exactly how to parry the blow. Every thrust the Bard made, Xena knew precisely how to counter it. Each knew, to the width of a hair, what the other was about to do and could see a way of dealing with it, just as the other would have done. The motion of sword and body back and forth became a beautiful but potentially fatal dance of death, one where a slip from either woman would mean a serious injury at the very least. Yet they seemed to know where the other would be every instant and were ready to make the next move in their complicated ballet. It was more than just fighting with a mirror, it was like fighting with themselves.
The power and the passion flowed between the two as they accepted and reflected the energy of the dance. Both found it a little frustrating and at the same time totally exhilarating to match their skills against an absolutely equal opponent. It was a heady mix.
Gabrielle gave in to her pleasure first and began to first smile then grin, and then start laughing out loud. Xena, as caught up in the flow as the Bard, was not far behind her and soon both women were bent over roaring with laughter and unable to stop. Every time one looked at the other, a fresh bout of uncontrollable laughter took over.
Continued - Part 3 (Conclusion)
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