DISCLAIMER: Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of StudiosUSA and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices. Please do not use any portion of this story, in whole or in part, without the permission of the author.
Special Thanks: go to Ciegra, for making the covers before I had even written the story. If I could, I would blow up the one below to poster size, and hang it on my wall -- that's how much I love it! The covers were my inspiration; just looking at them made me smile. And to: Deb7 for watching my back. And to: IQ for catching all of my jokes, no matter how little.
And, of course, to my sidekick, who really knows how to HEEEELLLP MEEE!
Category: X&G - Classic - Alternative
Warnings: Subtext is Maintext; Xena and Gabrielle are soulmates, though they are a little confused about things at the moment. That 5th season, ya know. Be warned, there are also mild descriptions of male/female encounters, one of which is with a main character. Hell hath no fury like a 50 Ft Bard scorned.
Written June-July, 2000 - deep in the Xena Withdrawal Syndrom season (summer reruns). This story occurs some time after the events of Season Five and, therefore, does take into account events that occurred in that season. You may find, however, that it reads more like an episode from Season Two. I did this on purpose. I miss the 'Golden Age of Xena.'
Consider this a companion piece to What Are Little Girls Made Of? After all, if I can shrink Xena, then I ought to be able to do something with the bard .
OF THE 50 FT BARD
"Your mother wears gladiator boots!" the drunken farmer cursed as he gave his pick a mighty swing. The deadly sharp tip cracked against rock hard earth.
The pick thudded into the soil, but barely made a dent. The farmer's land was as dry as bone, though he and his wife had just sat in their home through three days of rain.
"This must be the god's burial ground." He wiped his lips after taking another sip from the almost empty bottle of homebrew and squinted at the heavens. There were still a few dark clouds in the sky, remnants of the rain from the days before.
He turned to the gray statue that sat silently, watching him. The strange figure had occupied this small spot on his land as long as he could remember. God or mortal, he did not know, but the effigy was a part of his inheritance and belonged to the land as much as every tree or shrub. The lines of exotic detail in the sculpture had long since faded, but the sardonic grin was easily visible, mocking his efforts even as he swung his pick again.
"Amazon tits!" A spray of dirt hit him in the eyes and he dropped the tool angrily to wipe them clean. The figure's scornful grin seemed to widen. Such folly to work this earth, which was as gray and pitted as the statue's own skin.
"I might as well try to farm in marble," the farmer slurred to a sky empty of Gods. "I don't know why I even try. My father tried, and my father before him. We all tried. This land is cursed. It's cursed! Nothing grows here. Nothing has ever grown here! Why did I stay? Why did I ever stay? I should have left with my sister!"
He covered his face with his hands and groaned, picturing his beloved father whispering to him as a boy.
"One day this land will be fertile and fruitful." His father squeezing his shoulder and pointing out from the porch of their crumbling home to the barren fields. "Crops will blossom across our land as far as the eye can see. I've heard the whispers of the gods, boy, and they tell me don't give up. Never give up. Keep the land and work it, until your hands are raw. When your body aches as though it is one step from the grave and your fingers bleed from the tools you wield, the earth will suck up the drops of your blood and then all your wishes will come true. Never give up, boy. I've heard the whispers. Never give up."
"I GIVE UP!" His angry voiced echoed across the pasture of gray dirt. He thought of his poor wife and the years of squalor. "I give up," his voice cracked with admittance of his failure and he took another long drink.
"It's not my fault." He threw away the empty jug and curled his raw palms into fists. "This land is cursed."
That had to be the reason. The land was cursed -- not blessed, but cursed. For as long as he had lived, nothing grew here. His father gave up his blood and soul to lifeless land. The statue knew the truth. Hadn't it sat there for three generations, watching as his family tried in vain to work this land? The farmer scowled at the contemptuous smirk that seemed to spread across the face of the quietly watching idol.
"YOU cursed this land." The realization of it suddenly hit the farmer in the gut. "All along, it's been you."
He looked at his feet and noticed for the very first time how the barren dryness seemed to emanate from the base of the statue as though it was sucking the very life up from the soil. The cracking sickness spread from the effigy outward, throughout the entire expanse of land, stretching to the horizon beyond.
"You BASTARD," the farmer yelled, "all this time -- you're not blessing this land, your SUCKING IT DRY!"
He hoisted up his pick, lifting it high over his head.
"SUCKING THE LAND DRY!"
Shakey arms barely registered the pain of the effort as he swung.
"SUCKING MY LIFE DRY!"
The pick smashed into the side of a grinning face, cracking the cheek and splitting the ear.
He lifted the pick high again, his muscles trembling in drunken anger.
"MY FATHER DIED WORKING THIS LAND!"
He swung and the pick took another chuck out of the stone. Gripping the wood of the handle so tight that his fingers began to bleed, he lifted the tool again, his eyes round with rage.
"BUT I WON'T LET YOU KILL ME!
The force behind the overhead swing was so powerful, it threw him off balance, feeding the full weight of his body into the angry blow. The point of the pick hit dead center into the top of the head of the statue. With a resounding crack, the aged stone split, and then shattered into countless pieces. The statue seemed to crumble into itself as it collapsed to the earth in a mound of chunky dust.
He dropped the pick to the earth. Blood dripped from his finger tips adding to what was already sliding from the handle of the pick and soaking the dirt. The farmer breathed heavily as he stared at the pile of pitted rumble.
The ancient idol was history.
An abrupt coldness clenched at his heart. The wind stilled to nothing. The fields around him were suddenly silent. Grasshoppers ceased their call. The birds halted their song. He listened in terror, half expecting the angel of death to tap at his shoulder.
"It's a hard life."
The farmer jumped at the sound of the deep voice.
He twirled and faced a man -- a man who had appeared as though out of nowhere.
"Did I frighten you?" the man asked.
The farmer stared incredulously at the person before him, not registering the question.
"My apologies," a deep, slightly accented voice came out of a smiling mouth. The mouth belonged to a very thin, yet handsome face, dark of skin, with eyes the color of ink.
The farmer found his voice. "Who are you?"
"This life is a hard one." The man lifted his hand eloquently to indicate the fields. "The life of a farmer, I mean. Haven't you ever wished you had chosen another?"
"Who are you?"
"A man." The man smiled. "And who are you?"
The farmer squinted suspiciously. "A farmer," he answered.
"So I can see. A farmer who destroys statues?"
"It was a cursed statue," the farmer explained in his defense. "It had been cursing my land for years."
"If it was certainly cursed," the dark man agreed, "then you were right to destroy it. Now tell me, what would a farmer wish for, if there was a wish to be had? Certainly there is another life you would desire, one that would not take the blood from your hands and feed it to barren earth." He pointed to the farmer's raw palms and the drying blood painting the handle of the pick that was lying in the dirt.
The farmer looked at his damaged hands and shrugged. "I come from a long line of farmers. This land is my home. There's no other life for me."
"You love tending this soil this much?"
"I love farming," he replied to the strange, yet compelling foreigner, forgetting for a moment the question of how the man arrived in the middle of his field in the first place, "I only wish "
The dark visitor's eyes sparkled and he leaned forward expectantly, "What is your wish?"
The farmer regarded the strange man sadly. This was his family's land; he loved it despite its barrenness. "I only wish this land was fertile. If crops would grow easily here, I would be the happiest man alive." He sighed wistfully and looked at the dry, cracked soil at his feet. He might as well wish that he could fly.
The stranger moaned and his eyes rolled back in his head in delight.
The ecstatic sound drew the farmer's attention. Was it his drunken imagination or did the stranger's face appear to fill out, his skin growing darker and healthier before his eyes?
"As you wish," the stranger said throatily, and then turned on his heels and walked away.
"Mikos, where have you been?" the farmer's wife asked angrily as he walked in the door. "Dinner is ready, it's getting cold."
Mikos did not answer, but walked to the kitchen table and grabbed a water pitcher to rinse the blood and dirt from his hands.
"Drunk in the fields again, I suppose," Uliss continued, ignoring the fact that her husband did not answer. "If there was a market for dust, we'd be rich." She plopped a ladle full of stew into a bowl. "I don't know why I waste my time cooking." She threw the bowl on the table and wiped her hands on her apron. "Good thing I make and sell brooms from the dried up weeds or we'd starve." She watched as her husband lowered his tired body into the chair, frowning when he didn't reach to lift his spoon to eat. "Whatssa matter? Don't like my stew?"
Her husband didn't answer, but just stared at the bowl.
She waited, hands on hips, foot tapping for a sign of life from the man sitting at her table, but he simply sat there, as lifeless as the land he owned.
"Don't eat then, drink yourself to death. Save me the trouble of killing ya," she stated bluntly. Uliss turned away and went to work scraping food from a dirty pot.
"I knocked down that statue today," Mikos said softly.
Uliss stopped scraping. "What was that?"
"I said I knocked down that old statue in the field."
Uliss dropped the pot. "You what?"
"Swung at it good and hard with my pick. Cracked it into a pile of rocks, right down into the dirt."
"Whadya go an' do a thing like that for?"
"It was parching the soil. Sucking the life right out of it. That's why we could never grow anything."
Uliss regarded her husband for a moment, scowling. "Have you lost your drunken mind?"
"I finally realized what's been wrong here after all these years. That statue was cursing our land!" Mikos said as he turned his eyes to his wife for the first time.
Uliss stared at her man in disbelief. "So, instead of working the land, you spent the day drinking ale and smashing an old statue?"
"I just broke the curse, was all." Mikos smiled, feeling it all the way to his toes, for the first time in years. He took a big, satisfying spoonful of stew and shoveled it into his mouth. "The curse is busted, Uliss," he announced through his food. "We're gonna grow us some grapes lots of 'em, too, from the looks of it."
"From the looks of it?" Uliss said, looking at her husband as though he had just grown another eye in the middle of his head.
Mikos inhaled another spoonful of food and pointed over his shoulder with his thumb to the window. "Go take a look for yourself, Uliss. You'll see what I mean."
Uliss turned her head to look at the window, then back to her husband with a look of uncertainty on her face. Wiping her hands on her apron, she grunted skeptically and then stepped to the window for a peek outside.
After a few moments, Uliss's silence confirmed for Mikos that his wife was seeing what he had seen. Mikos smiled again and convinced himself he deserved a bottle of Ouzo right after dinner in celebration. He swallowed his stew and burped.
"What did I tell you? Can I plow or can I plow?"
Uliss brought her hands up to her face in alarm. "Sweet Hestia," she prayed, though she knew that Hestia, along with all the other gods, were gone from this earth.
From the table in the kitchen, Mikos laughed. "Believe me now?"
"Sweet Hestia," Uliss repeated, backing away from the window and the sight before her.
It wasn't long after his older sister left that Mikos had taken to the bottle. Uliss had been given to him in marriage shortly after. For as long as she had lived with Mikos, their fields had been dry and empty. Now, after all this time, she found herself staring in disbelief out of the window at farmland shimmering in the sunlight, green with the leaves of grape vines wondering if she wasn't drunk herself. The creeping plants covered the land, turning parched dirt into pasture, covering what was once dry dust with lush foliage.
"In the mood for some stuffed grape leaves?" Mikos laughed at his own joke and downed his first glass of Ouzo in one gulp.
"By the gods, Mikos, what did you do?"
"Forget about the gods, Uliss, they're dead. My father always said these fields would be fertile one day."
"Fertile, Mikos?" Uliss backed away from the window in fear. "Fertile? This ain't natural. I swear, I can see them growing right before my eyes! How can this be?"
"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, my darling wife." Mikos poured himself another shot and drank it down. "Ahhhh. We're finally gonna get what we've been wishing for, eh Uliss?"
Mikos smacked his lips happily and looked at his wife, but Uliss was still staring out of the window in dread and horror.
Gabrielle shifted the reins into her left hand and gently maneuvered her horse so she could walk closer to Xena.
"Are you going to say anything?" she asked, giving her partner a pointed look.
Xena sighed in exasperation and tugged at Argo's reins, adjusting the mare's position so she wouldn't nudge the bay. "What do you want me to say?"
"Yes will do for a start."
At Xena's continued silence, Gabrielle looked away, the disappointment obvious on her face. "Then it's no."
"It's not yes and it's not no, Gabrielle," Xena stated impatiently.
The sadness in her partner's demeanor forced Xena's gaze away. She studied the passing scenery for a few moments, hiding the ache already filling her heart. When she finally spoke, her voice was soft. "I can't make a decision like this on the spot. I have to think about it."
"I know." The bard's small voice couldn't hide her disappointment.
Gabrielle waved away the apology. "That's okay. It's a big decision."
"Yes, it is."
Gabrielle nodded her head quietly in agreement, but had only just begun to argue her point. "Eve is happily married and settled now."
"I know that."
"The gods are dead."
"I know that, too. I killed them, remember?"
"I want you to come with me."
Xena smiled sadly. "I'm glad you do."
"Does that mean you will?" Gabrielle stopped walking, much to her horse's surprise, and turned to face her partner hopefully.
The warrior let her steps slow to a stop, so Argo stopped too. "No, it doesn't, Gabrielle, I'm sorry. I have to think about this for awhile. What you're asking for is a big change in our lives and I don't know if that kind of change is right."
Xena held up her hand, "I know it's the right thing for you, but I'm not sure it's the right thing for me."
"It's not right for me, if it's not right for you."
"It is right for you. You know that and I know that." Before Gabrielle could respond, Xena continued, "You wouldn't have even mentioned it if you hadn't been seriously thinking about it, probably for a long time, too. Am I right?" At Gabrielle's silence, Xena sighed. "Gabrielle, why haven't you said anything before this?"
"Because I knew what you would say."
"How could you possibly know how I would respond?"
Gabrielle grunted, "Like you would really come with me to Athens and settle down so I could write plays."
"Hey, it could happen."
"And the moon could turn blue."
The corners of Xena's mouth lifted into a grin. "If anyone could turn the moon, you could, Gabrielle."
"I'd fly up there and paint it blue myself, if that's what it would take to make you see that this could be a good thing for both of us," Gabrielle replied, returning the smile, though sadly.
"It is a good thing. It's a good thing for you, Gabrielle but, not for me." Xena reached out to touched a soft cheek.
Gabrielle turned away and gave her horse a gentle pull. The bay snorted, speaking on
her mistress's behalf.
Xena watched as the bard walked slowly away. "I always knew this day would come," she called out after her friend, giving a relunctant Argo a tug and pacing herself to catch up. "That's why I didn't want to "
The unfinished comment stopped Gabrielle dead in her tracks and the bay flicked his tail, annoyed at the sudden stop. "Didn't want to what?" the bard asked quickly.
Gabrielle's direct and intense stare made the warrior curse herself for speaking aloud.
"Didn't want to what?" Gabrielle asked again, demanding that the unfinished sentence be completed.
For once Xena faltered in her confidence.
"What was that, Xena? I don't think I heard you?"
Xena pressed her lips together and played with the reins in her hands. The uncomfortable silence only made her angry at herself for speaking her thought aloud. Damn.
"That's why I didn't want us to make promises I knew we couldn't keep," she blurted out, tugged on Argo's reins and hurriedly walked away. The mare trudged after her.
"And what promise was that?" the bard asked as her friend stomped by.
"I don't know," the warrior answered without turning around, "whatever promises two people make when they, you know "
"When two people do what, Xena?" At Xena's continued silence, Gabrielle raised her eyebrows, "Oh, I see." She gave her horse's reins a hard pull, suddenly realizing that Xena's long strides were taking her too far away. The bay's ears flattened, but he followed his mistress.
Gabrielle shuffled her feet quickly pulling her horse along, until she was able to catch up. "Since when did sex become a promise to you?"
"Sex? Who's talking about sex?"
"Isn't that what you were just talking about?"
"No," Xena lied and halted her strides causing Argo to butt her nose against cold armor at the sudden stop. The mare stomped her hoof in annoyance. "I thought we were talking about you going to Athens?"
"You changed the subject. And I wasn't talking about me going to Athens, I was talking about 'we' going to Athens."
Xena raised her eyebrow. "Interesting grammar for one who wants to write plays."
Gabrielle raised her finger in warning. "Xena, you're changing the subject again."
"I'm not." When Gabrielle opened her mouth to argue, Xena smiled. "I'm not, really, I'm not. I know we have to talk about this Gabrielle. Just just give me some time to think a little here. I just need some time to think, okay?"
Gabrielle gave her friend a small smile and a nod.
Xena responded with a smile of her own. "Thank you," she said sincerely.
"Anytime," the bard replied.
"Anytime?" Xena said, waggling her eyebrows.
"Hey! You're changing the subject again!"
"I wasn't. You just have a one track mind." Xena bit the inside of her mouth to stop from laughing as she pulled on Argo's reins and walked away.
"I have a one track mind?" Gabrielle asked incredulously. "You think I have a one track mind?" She followed quickly after her partner. "Look who's talking. Hey, you're the one that brought it up. You know, if you would just look at things from another point of view every once and awhile, you might see things in a different light."
"And who's point of view should I be looking from, if not my own?"
Xena's sometimes strange, yet always practical, logic never failed to make Gabrielle laugh. "Well, you could try looking at things from my point of view, for a change."
"Your point of view?" Xena quipped, the clever one-liner poised to leave her lips.
"Let's dispense with the height jokes, if you don't mind."
They walked along the path, the change in tone from sensitive chat to friendly banter lightening the load from Xena's shoulders for a moment. Argo glanced at the bay, the brown horse bobbed his head in agreement.
Xena chuckled wickedly, "Me? Make a height joke? Never," and ignored the exaggerated eye roll thrown her way, "but if I did think like you thought all the time, we'd be in those fields right now, doing the wild thing."
"WHAT!" The bard's indignant yell caused a few birds to take flight, and both horses' ears to twitch and flatten. "Do you think I have sex with you on my brain all the time?"
"You said it, not me." This time, Xena couldn't hide her laughter.
"You are a real piece of work, Xena," the bard mumbled as she chuckled. Then her expression turned sassy. "All right then, if that's what you think. Let's get to it."
"What?" Now it was Xena's turn to be surprised.
"Come on, let's go. I want some sex and I want it now."
"Yeah, right." Xena laughed and gave Gabrielle's shoulder a friendly pat, "Sure, whatever you want, Gabrielle."
"I'm serious. Let's go."
"I mean it, come on. I want you, Xena. It's been a long time. Let's get it on."
Xena's hearty laugh turned weak and unsure at the expression on her friend's face. Her strides slowed uncertainly.
Gabrielle took a step closer to her partner. "I can't make any promises, though "
Xena's brow lifted at the comment, "Gabrielle," she warned, her voice drawing the name out slowly, "careful what you ask for "
"I just might get it?" Gabrielle answered saucily, taking up the dare. "That would be a pleasant change."
A pleasant change? The warrior recognized a challenge when she heard one. Never one to back down from a dare, Xena dropped the reins in her hand and stepped up to tower over the bard. "You name the time, I'll name the place." Argo took the opportunity to meander over to the side of the road in search of some sweet grass.
"No time like the present," Gabrielle answered, lifting her chin and raising an eyebrow of her own. She dropped her own reins and a moment later, the bay joined the mare.
"All right then, get in the field."
"Pick a field, any field. They're all around us."
"That field?" Gabrielle pointed.
Xena nodded. "That one's as good as any."
Both Argo and the bay snorted in agreement that the field their mistresses were referring to looked like it tasted pretty good to them, too.
Gabrielle considered the very lush pasture, overflowing with an abundance of crops, "Looks good to me. Find the spot, then."
"Oh, I don't have to find the spot, Gabrielle, I know EXACTLY where it is."
Gabrielle gulped. Xena was impossibly close. "Come on, then," Gabrielle countered, coughing to hide the crack in her voice, "put your dinars where your mouth is."
"I know where I want my mouth," Xena answered, the body part in question suddenly aching with anticipation, "and its not anywhere near my dinars." Promises be damned, she was going to kiss the breath right out of the bard, take her up in her arms and just carry her right out into that field.
"No promises," Xena whispered as she bent to claim her prize.
"I've always known that, Xena," Gabrielle answered sincerely and closed her eyes.
But the kiss never came. The bard reopened her eyes in annoyance, certain that Xena had changed her mind once again.
The warrior was staring over her head, into the field beyond, with a strange expression on her face.
"What the hell?" Xena mumbled. She straightened up and walked around her partner, the distraction taking all of her attention.
"Xena," Gabrielle's voice revealed only a fraction of her annoyance, "Xena " She turned, an exasperated expression on her face. "Xena, I'm over here." She shuffled after her partner in anger. "Hey, what could possibly be more interesting over there than what we were about to do over here?"
Xena waved her quiet. "What do you suppose that is?" She motioned with her head out into the farmland.
The harvest was certainly plentiful out here, the bard mused as she squinted into the sunshine. She searched the field for what Xena was referring to, her annoyance replaced by curiosity. The harvest was beyond bountiful. In fact, it was out and out, out of control. Grapevines were entwined into clumps as tall as trees. There were other plants as well, fruits and vegetables, growing just as abundantly. They spiraled up and around one another, as though fighting a war for space in the soil.
It was a farmer's worse nightmare.
Gabrielle's eyes widened at the unending expanse of tangled harvest, watching as the plants wiggled and coiled, fighting for their place in the sun.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked in alarm, "Are those plants moving?" And then her eyes rested on the object in question.
There was a house in the middle of the field, or rather what used to be a home. A farmer's home - completely covered and overwhelmed by the growth of his own crops.
"By the gods, Xena!" Gabrielle grabbed her partner's arm. "Do you think there's anyone in there?"
She felt Xena stiffen at the suggestion.
"Stay here." The warrior drew her sword.
"Oh no, you don't." Gabrielle grabbed her arm at the elbow and pulled her back. Despite Xena's glare, she tightened her grip. "You're not going out there."
"Let go, Gabrielle."
"Xena," Gabrielle watched as a vine suddenly crawled its way along the dirt, "don't go into that field."
The same vine had captured Xena's attention for the moment. "Look at the way it won't cross over into the road, Gabrielle." Xena pointed down with her sword. "See that?"
"Good." Gabrielle nodded quickly. "Then we'll just stay right here in the road."
"What if there's a family in there?"
The bard lifted her attention away from the crawling vine and stared at the overgrown mound of foliage in the middle of the field that was once a house. It looked more like a sculpture in leaves than a dwelling, but the thought of a family trapped inside made her loosen her grip on the warrior's arm.
"Be careful," she whispered and let go completely.
Xena took a deep breath and stepped over the invisible boundary between road and field.
A plant coiled away from her footstep. Its retreat gave her confidence. She took another step, and then another, and then more until she was several feet from the road and far out of Gabrielle's reach.
The bard held her breath, her eyes wandering to the field and the farmer's home. It looked impossibly distant and resembled less and less a home as the mountain of plants slowly engulfed it. Her gaze wandered back to Xena and she gasped in alarm.
The warrior was fighting a losing battle against vines that were crawling up her legs and twisting around her body. Slashing left and right with her sword, she was attempting to cut herself free, but for every vine that fell another entwined itself tighter around her body.
"XENA!" Gabrielle screamed. She ran into the field without thinking and starting ripping plants from the ground at their roots.
Her strategy worked. Every vine pulled from the dirt went slack around Xena's limbs. Eventually, the warrior was able to pull free and together, she and Gabrielle backed out of the field and into the road.
Cursing, Xena pulled some foliage from her chest plate and threw it angrily to the ground. When the last of the creeping plants were tossed, Xena sheathed her sword and mounted Argo.
"Come on," she said, tugging on her mare's reins, "let's find out what the hell is going on around here."
Gabrielle flipped a few leaves from her fingers in disgust and ran to her own horse, mounting with practiced ease.
She clicked once and kicked, taking off quickly after her partner, who was already galloping at full speed and a good distance down the thankfully clear road.
Lifting her shoulders, Thyra straightened her posture on the stool, hoping it would draw attention to her two best features. The girl's face fell when the overweight, yet nonetheless eligible, customer picked up two mugs of ale from the bar, turned and walked away without so much as a glance.
The only attention her two best features had earned her was a splash of ale right down the middle of her bodice.
She flicked the liquid out of her cleavage. "Umphf! Clumsy oaf." The mumble ignored, she slumped back in her seat, brightening only when another eligible bachelor passed close by.
Thyra did everything but offer herself up on a silver platter; the result was the same. Another chance at a romantic encounter for the evening picked up his drinks and walked right on by, gallantly placing the beverages in front of a beautiful blond in the seat right next to her instead.
"Bah! No accounting for taste." Dejected, she leaned on the countertop and sighed. The new bodice she had purchased was not having the desired effect at all. Picking at its ruffles, she adjusted the revealing top to be even more revealing.
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," a deep voice spoke seductively in her ear. She turned in surprise to find a dark, handsome gentleman sitting in the seat that had previously been occupied by the blond.
"Excuse me?" Thyra asked, twisting to see if the incredibly attractive man was talking to some beautiful woman behind her.
"Why draw attention there," the dark man said, motioning to her bodice, "when the beauty is here?" The back of his fingers tips drifted lightly down her cheek, barely brushing the tips of his nails across a mole.
Thyra blushed at the contact. "You must be blind, then."
"I assure you, I can see very well."
"Then you've had too much too drink."
"Not a drop all night, though I am very thirsty." His eyes, black as coal, bored into hers, the corners barely creasing with a seductive smile.
He moved a bit closer to whisper in her ear. "Is there somewhere we can go, you and I?"
Her eyes drifted away from his midnight orbs to rest on the large bulge between his legs. Oh my. Thyra gulped again. "How 'bout the alley?"
The stranger frowned. "Surely, we deserve better than an alleyway?"
"I don't have the dinars for a room."
The dark man stood, rubbing his manhood along her leg in the process. "Pleasure has no price."
Swayed by the incredible hardness that just touched her thigh, Thyra jumped up from the stool and grabbed the passing innkeeper by the front of his shirt. "Room now!"
Thyra pushed open the door to the room and rushed in anxiously. She couldn't believe her luck -- the gorgeous man wasn't blind and hadn't been drinking. In fact, he was actually following her into the room at a leisurely pace.
It was bare and ugly and the bed sagged, but right now it was the most beautiful bed that Thyra had ever seen. Not that she'd seen the inside of many tavern rooms of this sort. Most often, she sat on a barstool and watched while other women got to see the inside of the hourly rentals.
Tonight, though, was her lucky night. This time, she was the one on the inside and the man gliding up to her right now was -- Thyra glanced down at the bulge once more -- beautiful beyond belief.
"Is this okay?" Her voice squeaked.
The dark eyes, which she could not seem to look away from, creased when he smiled. "It's perfect." He walked up and ran a silky smooth palm along her neck.
The hand drifted down to the top of the bodice. Thyra thought she would faint. She closed her eyes, almost swooning, until she felt the hand change direction and grip her shoulder.
Suddenly, she found herself facing the mirror. The dark man was standing behind her, ever smiling, as he caressed the bare tops of her arms.
Catching her own reflection, she flinched and looked away.
"Don't you like what you see?" he asked, the question turning into a nibble at her ear.
"Doesn't matter what I like. Just so long as you like it."
He squeezed her shoulders. "Of course, it matters. Tell me what you see, when you look in the mirror?"
At the gentle urging of his hands, Thyra looked again. "I see an ugly woman," she answered curtly and looked away.
"You don't see beauty?" His hands flowed down from her shoulders and began to unlace the front of her bodice, causing her eyes to drift back to the mirror.
She watched, mesmerized, as gentle fingers untied the laces and pulled the bodice apart.
"No," she gasped in answer as strong hands reached into her top and cupped the undersides of her breasts.
Gently, he lifted her breasts out of the confines of the bodice and caressed them, watching her all the while in the reflection of the mirror. "There is nothing in the mirror you see that pleases you?"
Eyes that had closed in pleasure reopened to stare into the glass. Oh yes, she saw something that pleased her all right. It was the sight of his thumbs stretching out to rub across her sensitive nipples.
She groaned at the contact, feeling an ache in a part of her body that she had never felt before.
"Tell me what you want," his lips tickled the question in her ear.
It sent a shiver right down to her toes. "I want you," she rasped in reply.
He squeezed her nipples, hard, and she jumped in surprise, opening her eyes in alarm.
He was staring at her, into the glass, black eyes cold and intense despite the seductive smile. "If you don't like what you see in the mirror, then tell me what you might wish to see."
She stared at her own reflection and at his. Here was as beautiful a man as she had ever seen. How could he understand what it might be like to stare into the mirror every day and see the ugliest woman in the village? He couldn't possibly know what it was like to go home every night alone. What did he think she wanted to see when she looked in the mirror?
"I want to see what you see," she replied, the truth of the answer almost ruining the mood.
"You wish to look like a man?" The strange man moved closer to her, smiling, filling as much of the mirror with his own visage as hers. The heat of his body against her own made her sweat, even through the clothes she was wearing.
She laughed slightly, "No, I wish I was as beautiful as you were. I wish I was drop-dead gorgeous, that's what I wish."
He growled in absolute, unrestrained pleasure, pulling her away from the mirror. She was face down in the mattress and, before she knew what was happening, he was inside of her, grinding into her, the pain so exquisite that she cried out in joy.
The last thing she remembered was the sound of her own voice, howling, as she climaxed.
She woke up in the alley.
Hadn't she rented a room?
Thyra lifted herself out of the dirt and adjusted her skirt, wincing a little in pain. Gods, he had gotten her good. She smiled at the memory and then looked about in confusion.
Were was the dark man?
And hadn't they gotten a room?
She staggered out of the alley and turned the corner toward the tavern.
A young man was just exiting and whistled in appreciation as he stepped aside to let her pass.
Thyra ignored him. She was used to being made fun of and just continued on her way, not noticing when the young man dropped to the dirt moments after whistling at her.
He was dead before he even hit the ground.
She pushed passed the fat customer who had so pointedly ignored her earlier. His eyes roamed over her body in rabid admiration and then he grabbed at his own neck, choking for air until his face turned blue and he fell under a table.
Thyra slumped into her usual stool and pounded on the bar. She needed a drink and she needed it now -- her head was killing her, not to mention her crotch. Boy, he had gotten her but good.
The innkeeper stomped over, angry at the impatient pounding. She went to order a drink, but stopped mid-sentence when she noticed the bartender's eyes traveling across her features hungrily.
"Very funny, Hesiod."
Hesiod fell face first onto the bar.
"Oh my gods!" Thyra screamed and backed away in alarm.
"You rang, lady?" a handsome, bearded man sitting to her left asked in an off-handed manner, then gave a double-take to the incredible beauty who had just screamed the phrase.
Thyra shrieked as he, too, dropped forward, face first, on top of Hesiod. She yelped again when the man to her right did exactly the same thing.
Her hands flew to her face.
"What's wrong with me?" she cried out in alarm, her eyes seeking the mirror she knew was hanging just behind the bar.
Thyra looked in the mirror and, for a brief moment caught the reflection of the most beautiful woman she had ever seen -- right before she collapsed, her body adding to the already growing pile of corpses that were littering the tavern.
Xena galloped through the village kicking up a dusty cloud of urgency. She pulled on Argo's reigns to slow the horse down when they reached the trough at the town's center. Gabrielle rode up right behind her.
"Looks quiet enough," the bard commented as she glanced around.
"Too quiet," Xena said, sliding off of her mare. "Let's check out the tavern. See if we can find someone who knows something about that farm."
Gabrielle jumped from her saddle and tied her bay to a post. "Right," she said and rushed to keep up with her partner.
The warrior burst through the door, expecting the worst. What she got was a tavern full of people, happily drinking and eating the afternoon away. The din quieted at her entrance, but the distraction was only momentary; the sounds of conversation and clanking tableware quickly resumed.
Gabrielle rushed in, almost running right into her partner. They both stood in the doorway and stared. Everything appeared perfectly normal.
"Close the door!" someone yelled.
"In or out," the innkeeper added from behind the bar. Though it was late in the afternoon, the light was harsh compared to the cool dimness of the tavern inside.
The warrior and bard walked in, letting the swinging doors close behind them.
"Looks normal enough," Gabrielle whispered behind her partner.
Xena didn't answer, but strode purposefully toward a few empty seats at the end of the bar.
"Can I get you something?" the barkeep asked as he wiped a glass with a towel.
The warrior slid onto an empty stool and smiled. "How's your food?"
"Good enough," the man answered.
"Lots of vegetables?"
The man raised his bushy eyebrows. "You a vegetarian?" he asked, eyeing the long sword slung across her back.
"No, just like my vegetables."
"There are some vegetables in the stew."
"Get them from that farm down the road, I suppose."
The tavern keeper turned back to the work he was doing, bored with the conversation. "You mean, Mikos's place? Nah, he hasn't been able to produce a crop there in years."
"Looks like he's doing well now. The place was crawling with plants."
"Really? Hmmm, guess his luck's changed. Good for him. Maybe now he'll stop drinking."
"Drinker, is he? Does he come in here much, then?" Xena asked, hoping perhaps the farmer was here.
"Hardly see him. He tends to go to Serrai for his liquor. Thinks the ale is better, no accounting for taste."
"Town just west of his farm, about 7 leagues from here if you take the road. Closer, if you cut through his farm. Borders the far end of his field. All he has to do is cross the road." He put the dried glass on a shelf and then crossed his arms. "So, you gonna be wantin' that stew?"
"No, thanks. Not in the mood for vegetables."
Xena stood up from the chair and walked away, ignoring the annoyed glare of the barkeep at her back. Gabrielle followed quietly behind, having learned a long time ago to save her questions for the appropriate moment. The warrior found an empty table in the far corner of the room and sat.
"I thought you hated vegetables?" Gabrielle joked, sliding into the chair beside her.
"I hate it when they wrap themselves around me." Xena looked at her friend. "What do you think?"
"I think we should go to Serrai and see if the farmer is there."
"Seven leagues," Xena thought, tapping her fingers on the table top. "It'll be dark in a few hours. I'm not about to cut through those fields, and I don't want us anywhere near them in the dark."
Xena sat back in her chair, her mind made up. There was nothing they could do for whoever was in that house now. "We'll stay the night and head out first thing in the morning."
"Do you think this town is safe, Xena? What if those plants continue to grow and start creeping down the road?"
"Then we'll be here to help these people, right?"
Gabrielle shivered at the thought of vines creeping along main street, filling the town with a crop of killer tomatoes. "Right," she mumbled, only partially convinced.
"Feel like some stew?" the warrior asked, relaxing into her seat.
"Just so long as it's beef stew."
"Why? Lose your appetite for vegetables?"
"How'd you guess?"
"Thought as much."
The couple grinned at one another.
"That's what I like about you, Xena," Gabrielle said, resisting the urge to hold her partner's hand, "you're always thinking."
"One of us has got to do it," Xena quipped and leaned away to avoid the predictable slap.
At a table, unnoticed, just out of eyesight, a dark figured straightened at the sound of Xena's name. He turned in his seat to study the woman who had spoken it.
Short, golden hair, shining even in the dimness of the dull tavern light. She gave her companion's shoulder a playful slap and then blushed, when the same companion leaned over to whisper something in her ear. And the one she had called Xena, dark and strong -- emanating a power seldom seen in a woman. The recognition of a spirit kindred to darkness tickled at his senses, making him smile.
It was definitely she -- the one who had destroyed his chosen vassal all those years ago. How fortuitous that she should be here now, the dark one.
That meant her companion had to be the beauty who had distracted his servent so. He remembered the name and rolled it around in his mind: Gabrielle - that was the name of the woman who his vassal had coveted.
Here they sat, the two of them, delivered into his very lap by the hands of fate. He couldn't have wished for more himself. The lone figure chuckled at the irony of it.
Now, he could have his revenge upon them for ruining the sweet one he had originally chosen so many years earlier. He was going to enjoy turning their most hidden desires against them. And it would be easy, for they were plain for all the world to see.
He watched them quietly as they flirted with one another and made his plans.
"So, I guess camping is out of the question?" Gabrielle commented, giving her partner a pointed look. There was no way she was about to camp out in the open tonight with those creepy crawly grapevines slinking about.
Xena snorted in agreement. "Room, then? How's the dinar situation?"
Gabrielle checked the purse tied at her waist. "I guess it's the stable for us or, I could do my bard thing?"
Xena thought for a moment, then shook her head. "No, I'd rather talk."
Gabrielle almost dropped her spoon. "You would rather talk?"
"Yeah. Why ya looked so surprised? I know how to talk."
"I know that, Xena. I'm just surprised you want to talk."
"Nice to know I can still surprise ya." Xena smiled, then shoveled a spoonful of stew into her mouth and chewed.
"That's one thing I never have to worry about."
Gabrielle grinned at her partner. "Getting bored."
The warrior swallowed. "Good. I was beginning to worry that the reason you wanted
to go to Athens was because you were bored."
"Small chance of that, Xena," Gabrielle said, stirring her stew before taking a bite, "Life with you is never boring. Dangerous, yes. Life-threatening? Almost always. But boring? That word doesn't exist where you're concerned."
Xena's expression grew serious. "Yes, but are you happy?"
"That depends on how you define happy," Gabrielle put her spoon down. "How do you define happy, Xena?"
"I don't know," Xena responded, "I'd have to think about it."
"How 'bout thinking it's time to leave the road? Settle down? I'm a writer, not a warrior."
Xena pointed her spoon at the bard. "You are a warrior, Gabrielle."
"Now, I'm a warrior. But I was a writer first. I want to get back to that again."
"And you can write better in Athens than you can write on the road, with me?"
"I could write the best if I were in Athens with you."
Gabrielle looked away and began to play with her food. "Because I can sell my plays there. Have them produced."
Xena's eyes narrowed. Gabrielle only played with her food when she was hiding something. "You did that once before. I thought you didn't enjoy the experience?"
"I didn't enjoy being scammed. This isn't a scam."
"What isn't a scam?" Xena said, feeling she was finally getting close to whatever it was her partner had been avoiding.
"I've gotten an offer "
Ah ha. Xena looked sharply at her. "An offer? You got an offer? For what? From who?"
"From whom," Gabrielle corrected, but remained quiet, purposely ignoring the annoyed expression thrown her way by her companion. "From Homer," she finally admitted.
Both of the warrior's eyebrows lifted. "Homer? Academy of Bards Homer? He wrote you an offer?"
"And you're just telling me this now?"
Gabrielle averted her eyes and nodded again.
Xena pushed her chair away from the table, exasperation written all over her face. "Gabrielle, Homer must be an old man by now."
"He's not that old. And it was an offer to produce a play, Xena, not an offer of marriage."
"I should hope not." Xena bit her lip to keep herself from saying anything further. "Why didn't you tell me this before?" she finally blurted out.
"I had to think about it myself, you know. It was a big decision for me, too."
"So you've made up your mind, I gather?"
"No, I want to know what you think about it first."
A dozen snide remarks drifted through Xena's mind, but she pushed them aside. They
would only make the situation worse. After all, she hadn't exactly been forthright with
her emotions in quite some time. All these years, she had kept her distance, believing
that there was a better life out there, somewhere, waiting for her partner. Her secret
fear was that one day it was going to walk up, tap Gabrielle on her shoulder, and then she
would be taken away -- just as Perdicus had done. Well, a letter wasn't exactly a tap, but
here it was, just the same.
"Gabrielle, if you're worried about me "
"Don't even say it!" Gabrielle held up her hand, almost shouting. "That is NOT what I want to hear."
"Then what do you want me to say?"
Gabrielle reached across the table and gently laid her palm on Xena's hand. "I want you to say that you'll give it a try."
Xena stared at the hand on top of her own. A small hand, but strong and sure. Delicate, unlike her own, which was long and big, clumsy even in comparison. She wanted to turn her hand over and hold the smaller one in her own, but that would give Gabrielle the hope for something that she had never promised, and never could.
Gabrielle studied Xena's face as the warrior stared at their hands. She watched emotions drift across the stern features on a face once so unreadable, now as transparent to Gabrielle as her own soul. She gave the still hand a gentle squeeze. "You could just give it a try, you know. No promises. We could go there and see what happens. If it doesn't work out, then we'll leave."
"What if it works out for you and not for me?"
"Then, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it." Gabrielle lifted her hand away from the familiar warmth. "I want you with me."
Xena smiled, disguising the doubt that was filling her heart. "And what Gabrielle wants, Gabrielle gets?"
"Something like that," the bard smiled sadly, knowing the statement was far from true.
"Anything else you want, as long as we're on the subject?" Xena asked, quietly taking a deep breath and thinking the only thing she wanted right now was to change the topic.
Gabrielle leaned back in her chair, letting a golden eyebrow rise. "Yes, now that you mention it."
Xena mimicked her partner. "And that would be ?"
Anything Gabrielle might have wanted to say would have to wait when an unearthly howl and then a blood curdling scream from the street outside brought the noisy tavern to stiff silence.
Before the bard could even react, the chair next to her was empty.
Xena burst through the swinging doors of the tavern, half-expecting to see a wave of plants overtaking the village. She ran out into the center of street, sword drawn, prepared to start hacking, but the street was clear and the buildings free of vine. Her eyes quickly scanned the area for the source of scream and found it just at the corner of the next building.
A small crowd had surrounded an elderly and clearly hysterical woman.
"There, there, Oretha, you just calm down," a villager said as he patted the old woman's back affectionately.
Xena slipped her sword into the sheath on her back and strode over to the group. Pushing a few villagers aside, she entered the center of the circle to see if she could help.
"What's going on?" the warrior asked. Xena's authoritative voice drew everyone's attention.
"Oretha's had a bit of a scare. She's just a little confused, is all," the man replied.
"I'm not confused!" Oretha wailed, "It's true! It was Brutus, I tell ya!"
Xena placed a gentle hand on the old woman's trembling shoulder. "Did this Brutus
"He ran away," Oretha cried, "It was just a wish. I only meant it as a wish, but that strange man made it come true. I swear it."
At Xena's confused expression, the man next to her pulled her to the side. "It's nothing, warrior, really. She's just old and confused. Thanks for offering your help, though."
"Who is Brutus?"
"Brutus?" the man chuckled, "that's her pet dog. Says her dog turned into a handsome man right before her eyes, gave a howl and then ran for the hills."
Xena's brow lifted thoughtfully. She had heard the howl clearly enough and here was the woman, crying hysterically. "Well, something has sure upset her. Where's the dog?"
"Good question," the villager commented, looking around for the canine, "Maybe it did run away."
"Or ran after the man who frightened her." Xena turned to the old woman. "What did he looked like, Oretha? This man, did you see him?"
Oretha's hands left her face, her eyes suddenly shining and clear of tears. "He was beautiful," she whispered in wonder as a large smile drew across her features, "just as I knew he always would be. My beautiful dog became a beautiful man. My man. My wish come true."
Xena and the villager looked at one another, disbelief raising both of their eyebrows.
"See what I mean? Confused," the man said under his breath.
Xena smiled and chuckled softly in agreement. Poor old woman, she thought as she shook her head, imagine being so lonely you wished your dog was human.
The villager leaned closer to whisper in Xena's ear. "Besides, poor Brutus wouldn't have made much of a man, anyway."
"Why? Was it an ugly mutt?"
The man slapped Xena once on the back, laughing heartily at the expression on her face, then turned and walked away.
"What's going on?" Gabrielle asked, smiling at Xena's unexpected laughter. The bard had just managed to push her way through the crowd to stand at her partner's side.
Xena acknowledged her friend's arrival with a squeeze to the shoulder. "Nothing," she answered as she watched a few of the villagers lead the old lady down the street. Then that nagging intuition that never failed to warn the warrior of danger began to tickle at the corners of her senses.
"I think," she finished thoughtfully, watching as the villagers shuffled the old woman away. She could see the remnants of the wistful smile still lingering on the aging features.
"I don't think that's very funny," Gabrielle stated as they walked back into the tavern. Xena had explained the disturbance and the villager's humorous joke, but the sensitive bard did not find it funny at all. "I don't find an old woman's loneliness particularly amusing, Xena."
They walked back to their table and sat. Xena leaned back in her chair and placed a boot comfortably on the table's wooden surface. "It wasn't the old woman I was laughing at."
Gabrielle pulled the bowl of stew back to her and picked up her spoon. "What were you laughing at then?"
"You're taking things too seriously today, Gabrielle. You're a bard. Think of the irony of it. "At her companion's blank expression, Xena huffed. "You know the old saying careful what you wish for?" she prompted hopefully.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes as she chewed. "Oh, I get it," she replied sarcastically through a mouthful of food. "Funny."
"I thought it was," Xena said and then smirked, her mind suddenly drifting in a very lewd direction. Silently, she wondered just how big the irony might be if Argo was a stallion and had been turned into a man.
Hung like a horse, she thought to herself.
Snickering at her own joke, Xena's gaze drifted through the crowded tavern, her attention suddenly captured by a man staring at her from across the room.
Their eyes locked and Xena was captivated by the man's seductive smile, as though he had read her mind and appreciated the vulgar notion.
"Speaking of hung, now there's a fine specimen," Xena muttered low and soft, staring at the stranger even as he stared at her. He was handsome and dark and Xena took a deep breath, imagining she could smell the sweet scent of danger all the way from where she sat. She watched keenly, as his hand drifted from the tabletop to his lap, the gesture a rude promise that perhaps her unspoken comment was true.
The corner of her mouth twitched in appreciation.
"Xena? Hello? Xena?" Gabrielle asked in annoyance.
"What?" The spell broken, Xena turned her head to look at her partner.
"What are you staring at?" Gabrielle asked and then looked across the room suspiciously.
"Nothing," Xena replied. She took her foot off the table and put it down on the floor, grabbing at her own bowl of stew to pick at the remains.
"Right. Nothing," Gabrielle squinted skeptically into the crowd and then back at her partner. "You haven't been listening to a word I've said."
"Yes, I have."
"What did I say then?"
"You said you said," Xena filled her mouth with a spoonful of cold stew and mumbled something incoherent.
Gabrielle placed her own utensil carefully on the table, suddenly not hungry. "I said, I think I'll go see if we can get a room for the night."
"I thought we didn't have the dinars?"
"I have many skills," the bard replied sternly and she rose. Giving Xena a last, questionable once-over, she walked away. Halfway to the bar, she slyly glanced back. The warrior was still chewing on the cold stew, an unreadable expression on her face as she continued to stare across the room.
Gabrielle's eyes followed Xena's until her gaze rested upon the object of the warrior's attention.
"Shit," Gabrielle cursed under her breath when she spotted the dark, handsome man staring at her friend.
She turned away. It was suddenly very important that she find the innkeeper and get them both to a room.
"I don't think I can take this anymore," the bard said to herself sadly as she walked away.
"We're heading out to Serrai at first light, right?" Gabrielle asked as she lifted the sleeping shift over her head.
It was too cold to sleep naked and, if she wasn't going to be sharing a bed with her partner, then there was no need to sleep naked anyway. No chance of that happening, Gabrielle thought as she glanced at Xena. The room she bargained for had two very small double beds, the price negotiable only because most normal sized warlords would never have fit comfortably on either cot.
One ex-warlord's feet were already dangling over the end of the bed, as it was.
"Right, at first light," Xena's answer was soft and distracted.
Gabrielle shifted the sleeping garment into place and turned to face her companion. Xena was staring at the ceiling, arms crossed under her head and didn't even seem to notice that she didn't fit in the bed. At least she could be thankful that Xena had followed her to the room, instead of staying in the bar as she was sometimes prone to do whenever something or someone attracted her attention.
Gabrielle sighed as she sat on the bed. Xena's mind was obviously somewhere else, and the bard had no trouble figuring out exactly where that might be.
She blew out the candle and settled her head into the pillow. "Good night, Xena," she said softly.
It took a few seconds, but eventually her partner's quiet voice drifted through the darkness.
"Good night, Gabrielle."
She couldn't sleep. Xena shifted uncomfortably in the small bed, wincing when rusty springs creaked loudly in the quiet darkness. Lifting her head, she looked at the cot on the other side of the room. The slow rise and fall of the lump under the covers confirmed that Gabrielle was sound asleep.
Xena groaned and let her head drop back to the pillow. Where was Gabrielle when she needed her? Gods, her body ached with an unearthly desire. She tossed and turned as visions of the dark stranger staring at her, smiling, invaded her thoughts like a fever dream.
She ached for his touch almost as much as she yearned for Gabrielle's. The bittersweet memory of their infrequent encounters made her ache even more, but she had no one but herself to blame for that, didn't she? Xena closed her eyes, sighing, once again going through the mental exercise of listing all the reasons why it had to be this way.
Without thinking she stands up from the bed and, as quietly as possible, tiptoes across the room. She opens the door and pauses briefly, watching to be sure Gabrielle has not been disturbed.
The only sound is the soft gurgle of the bard snoring.
All she wants is a quick, cool drink from the bar and then she will be back before Gabrielle even knows she is gone. Yeah, that is all she needs.
Who cares if the bar is closed? Or that she is dressed in only a thin sleeping shift?
Quietly, she slips through the door and closes it behind her.
She walks down the stairs, enters the dark tavern. Bathed in shadow, he is leaning on the bar, is waiting for her, as she suspected all along he would be. She smiles craftily and saunters over, lifting her breasts, knowing the affect that the shadows will have on her body, clad only in the translucent shift.
His black eyes bore into her own, tunneling her vision down to a single goal: her
body against his. In a moment, she is standing before him staring deeply into his eyes,
breasts barely touching the silk of his shirt. It makes her nipples grow taut in
anticipation. Her chest rises and falls in full deep breaths, his scent filling her
nostrils, his heat burning her skin right through the layers of clothing.
His smile is wicked and mirrors her own and then, without warning, large hands reach for her shoulders and run down the length of her arms, the coarseness of his palms electric against her overly stimulated skin. She gasps, feeling them grab her roughly by the buttocks as he pulls her body into his.
Xena's primal scream echoed in the quiet of the small. She shot up from the bed, bangs plastered against her head, and breath coming in short, hard gasps.
"Xena!" The scream had awoken Gabrielle from a dead sleep. She scrambled out of her covers and rushed over in alarm. "Xena! What is it? Xena!"
The warrior's eyes were blank and confused as she fought for breath. Gabrielle pulled the covers away to find her shift was soaked through to the skin with sweat.
"Xena, calm down. It's all right. It's just a dream. Just a dream," Gabrielle repeated gently, jumping into the bed behind her partner and wrapping her arms around her in a comforting embrace. For years, the bard had quieted the warrior after nightmares, but never had one awoken them both like this. She tightened her arms and rocked her gently.
"Gabrielle?" Xena rasped out the question as her breathing calmed.
"I'm right here, Xena," Gabrielle replied softly, giving her a kiss on the side of the head and a strong hug. "Right here."
Xena stood up quickly from the bed, removing herself from her partner's arms.
"Gods, what a dream that was," she said as she swiped the sweat from her
forehead. Where did that come from, she wondered? She had to pull herself away from
Gabrielle -- if she could smell the erotic nightmare of her encounter with the dark
stranger filling the air with her arousal, then Gabrielle certainly would.
"You scared the living daylights out of me," Gabrielle said laughing, letting her arms drop down to the bed. "Nightmare, huh? Are you all right?"
"Yeah, nightmare," Xena confirmed, though not very convincingly.
Gabrielle eyed her skeptically. "Are you sure you're all right?"
Xena lifted her bangs from her forehead with one hand and fanned her face with another. "Wow," she breathed heavily, "I think I better wash my face." Avoiding all eye contact with her partner, Xena quickly strode over to the table and began to splash her face with cold water from a bowl.
"More like you need a dunk in a cold lake," Gabrielle muttered as she watched her friend wash, the very familiar scent of Xena filling her heart with dread.
He entered the tavern again, grinning at the patrons who were there bright and early for their morning sustenance. He was hungry, too. And why not? For he had developed quite the appetite despite his little midnight snack.
Chuckling to himself at the delicious memory of last night, he scanned the room. An unspoken desire, though not as completely corruptible and satisfying as an outspoken wish, is nonetheless very enjoyable. The dark woman's wayward thought made for a delicious treat. He would have to remember to do that again the next time an appropriate errant thought drifted his way. At any rate, he was sure their surreal encounter was going to give the one they called the Warrior Princess something to think about for the rest of the day.
All was going as planned. He had no doubt that when he finally tricked the warrior into articulating her need, it would be a dark and dirty wish indeed. Too bad it would destroy her -- he could enjoy suckling on those dark, hidden dreams for years to come, he was sure. But no, her dark desires were just as tasty a dish, and he planned to take them from her rough and hard, just as he had taken her last night. Only when the time came, there would be no awaking from the nightmare.
Thoughts of the dark woman need made him naturally consider the golden one. Her hidden desires were not so iniquitous. Like his previous vassal, her goodness shone like a beacon in the night. But that light, bright though it may be, had one small, dark imperfection marring its purity, and that darkness was called Xena.
Oh yes, together they would make a most delicious meal.
For now, though, he needed a few morning treats. His black eyes scanned the room until they rested on a man sitting at a table alone. He was drinking strong ale despite the early hour.
Breakfast is served, he thought gleefully and glided through the room.
"Bitch!" the villager cursed, and downed his ale. "Pathetic whore." He burped and stared angrily into his empty mug, accusing it for being empty.
"They are all whores, are they not?" a stranger commented as he walked by the table.
The villager looked up to the source of the deep voice and smiled. "You can say that again, friend."
"Good for chattel and not much else."
The villager's smile widened, his tongue sticking out through the holes of a few missing teeth. "Ain't that the truth." He motioned with his goblet to the chair beside him. "Care for a seat?"
"Don't mind if I do." The stranger sat and smiled in thanks.
The villager motioned to the barkeep for another. "Drink?" he asked his new companion.
"Why yes, how kind of you," the stranger replied.
"Name's Gaulus," the villager said and suddenly regretted the hasty offer. Probably should have waited for him to buy he thought as he eyed his new companion's clothes. Though foreign, they looked clean and expensive.
"Good morning to you, Gaulus, and thank you for the drink. I am Jan bin Jan Mareed, but you may call me Sayyid," the stranger responded, smiling as though at a hidden joke.
"Sayyid," Gaulus repeated to be sure of the pronunciation, "stranger in these parts, are you?"
"Yes," Sayyid nodded, "on my way to Amphipolis."
"Amphipolis, eh?" Gaulus grabbed the mug from the barkeep before he could even put it down . "Big town. Good tavern there. Ever been to it?"
"No, but I plan to."
"Good ale," Gaulus took a quick gulp from the fresh mug and smiled, raising his glass to his companion.
Sayyid lifted his own and toasted in reply.
Polite guy, Gaulus thought, and drank once more. "Slut," he mumbled, suddenly remembering why it was he was drinking in the first place.
"Trouble with your woman?" Sayyid asked, leaning forward.
"That bitch," Gaulus blurted out, "is over at Heliodoro the sculptor's. Claims she's just a model, but I know she's tuggin' on his toga right now."
Sayyid took a sip of ale, "Put a healthy man and a naked woman alone in a room together and there can be no doubt of that."
"Exactly!" Gaulus struck the table with his fist and spit on the floor. "Harlot!"
"Where I come from, a woman could be whipped for such behavior."
Gaulus regarded his companion thoughtfully. "I should whip her, shouldn't I?"
"It is law in my home. Prove a woman guilty of infidelity, and her man may whip her."
"Good law, "Gaulus took a thoughtful draught of ale and snarled. "If I could prove it, I would." His eyes squinted in pleasure at a sudden thought. "I wish I could be a fly on the wall in there right now, I'd find out what was going on, that's for sure."
Dark eyes flashed as Sayyid's upper lip curled, "As you wish," he said, stood and walked away.
For Gaulus, the room twirled as though he was passing out from too much drink. When his eyesight cleared, he was no longer in the tavern.
He glanced about nervously, his vision still blurred, split into a dozen images as if a mirror had cracked and he was looking at the room's reflection through its pieces.
Squinting to focus, he suddenly recognized his surroundings. He was in Helidoro's house -- he could see the bits of marbled body parts all around. But where exactly was he sitting? His point of view seemed oddly tilted somehow.
He looked down and saw the ceiling. He looked up and saw the floor. He looked at his feet and saw the white paint of a wall. Could he be sitting on the wall? He looked at his feet again, but he had no feet. Nor did it appear that he had any legs, for that matter. In their place, were long, spindly, hairy black sticks. A vibration just behind his head caused him to glance back, a feat he somehow managed to achieve without turning his neck. Odd as that was, odder still was the set of translucent wings he could clearly see attached to his shoulders, pulsating rapidly, just as he would have if he were a
"HELP ME!" He buzzed as he scuttled about on all six legs, scrambling across the wall in a panic.
"HELP ME! HELP ME! HEEEEELLLPPP MEEE!"
Gaulus's wife looked up in annoyance. "What is that awful buzzing?"
She was concentrating hard on staying still and any disturbance, small or otherwise, was unbearable. Looking around, she tried to locate the source of that annoying sound and stood to follow it. The loud buzz led her to the wall and she frowned at the unusual whiteheaded fly that was darting about on the surface. So, she bent down and picked up her shoe from the floor.
"What is it?" Heliodoro asked, stopping what he was doing to look up.
"Nothing," the wife replied as she scrapped her shoe on the edge of a garbage pail, "just a bug. It's gone now. I'm afraid it made a spot on your new white wall, though." She sat back down on her stool and resumed her stance while Helidoro sat, gave his own toga a tug, and continued to sculpt.
"It's a demon's work, I tell ya!" the bartender yelled.
Xena and Gabrielle were just dressed and descending from the rooms above into the tavern, when they heard the comment. They left the stairway and entered the room, heading for the small group of villagers whose attention was centered on the mantle over the fireplace.
"Or an angry god," another villager added.
Gabrielle gave her partner a concerned glance and together, they increased their pace.
"What's going on?" Xena demanded as she approached the group.
"The gods are having their revenge on us," a thin woman responded in a trembling voice. "Theophalia's been turned into a mantle piece." She pointed at shelf above the fireplace and screamed.
Both Xena and Gabrielle moved a little closer, pushing a few of the villagers aside for a better look.
Clearly, there was a woman's head, minus the body and shrunken to fit, centered on the shelf over the fireplace like a mantelpiece. Its eyes were staring ahead, wide in horror.
"By the gods," Gabrielle gasped, putting her hand over her mouth and turning away.
Xena stepped forward and inspected the macabre decoration, momentarily taken aback to find the mouth still moving. Gathering her nerve, she moved closer to see if she could hear what the human statuette was saying.
"I wish the pain was gone. I wish the pain was gone. I wish the pain was gone," it repeated over and over and over again.
The bartender and Xena stared at one another incredulously.
"She had arthritis," he said as if that could explain the situation.
They all stepped back and watched in horror as the head muttered on, slowly running out of life, until the eyes closed and the agonizing phrase finally ceased. Then human head transformed into eerily life-like gray marble bust.
The entire group stared at it for a few moments in silent disbelief.
"What is going on around here!" Xena's frustrated exclamation surprised even Gabrielle. "Plants growing out of control! Dogs turning to men, and now this!" The warrior pointed at the mantle in exasperation.
"We're cursed, I tell you!" the frightened woman cried, "the gods "
"The gods are dead and I'm the one that killed 'em," Xena announced in a voice just begging for someone to say something about it, "You can take it from me, this is not the work of the gods."
Ignoring the few terrified gasps of "godkiller" and "it's Xena", Gabrielle stepped around the villagers and got the angry warrior's attention.
"Xena, what are we going to do?"
"We're going to find out what's going on, that's what we're gonna do." She drew her sword and approached the fireplace. With a quick flip of the wrist, her sword sent the chilling statue crashing to the floor. "You clean that up."
She was pointing at the tavern owner. The bartender gulped at gruesome pile of eyes, nose, and mouth, but nodded compliance.
"You shut up!" she pointed her sword at the frightened woman just as she was about to open her mouth and declare they were cursed again.
"You," she said, softening her voice as she motioned to her partner, "come with me."
They walked off to a corner of the room while the villagers huddled around the bartender, watching in morbid fascination as he swept tiny pieces of a broken face into a dust pan.
"I want you to stay here while I go on to Serrai."
"Oh, no you don't. No way, Xena," the bard was shaking her head before the words had even left the warrior's mouth. "I'm going with you to Serrai."
"I need you here, Gabrielle."
"Why? So I can help sweep up?" They both looked at the barkeep, grimacing as he swept. "Uh uh, I'm with you."
"Gabrielle, listen to me. I need you to question every single person in this tavern while I'm gone. Someone has to have seen something. Find that old woman, too -- the one with the dog. There's got to be a common denominator to all these goings on between here and Serrai. Something is causing this to happen, and I'll take dinars for drachmas, it has nothing to do with the gods."
"And what will you be doing?"
"I'll be doing exactly the same thing in Serrai."
Gabrielle thought about it for a moment, cursing the always irrefutable logic of her partner's plans. "Do you think the same thing that's going on here is happening in Serrai?"
"I don't know. There may be nothing happening at all in Serrai, or it may have started there and spread to here. I only know one thing -- it started with that farm and that farm is dead center between these two towns. And there's something else, Gabrielle," Xena said, an additional note of worry adding to the already distressed voice.
"What is it?"
"The next town "
"What about the next town?"
End of Part 1
On to Part Two - Attack of the 50 Ft Bard
Part 1 Original Post Date: 7/9/00
Last Update: 7/26/00
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