There are depictions of violence in the following story (why bother with this disclaimer? This is Xena...there is bound to be a little hurting dished out)<Post-edit disclaimer>>>Now that I've finished this story, I suppose it does get a little gory towards the end, so be warned.
Thank you for taking the time to read the stuff above, and hopefully, the stuff below.
Author's Note:I had to get this out of my system. TPTB have driven me to an angst that requires much, much venting and watching of second-season shows (not that I have that many on tape, but who can say that they've watched "The Quest" too many times?) This is a sequel to The Way of Love.
This is dedicated to all those bards out there who opened my eyes to the possibilities.
Comments can be sent firstname.lastname@example.org
The Way of the Wolf
Xena hastily covered the bard's mouth with her hand, immediately pulling it away when she realized that Gabrielle had started licking her palm. A brief look of annoyance crossed her features as she put a finger to her own lips. Pulling the bard into a dark alcove, she explained in hushed tones. "Remember I told you that I was supposed to meet a friend at the tavern this evening?"
The bard nodded, successfully fighting the battle not to open her mouth and speak.
"Well, it seems that friend has been thrown into the dungeon here, and we need to make sure that she's all right."
Gabrielle nodded once again, mentally slapping the green-eyed monster back into its cage. She allowed to be led once again down the dank, foreboding halls, deeper into the crumbling castle. She gripped her staff, anxious with the knowledge that she wouldn't be much help in such a confined space. Tentatively she reached out with her free hand to grip the back of Xena's leathers. Feeble light thrown by torches intermittently set into rusted sconces along the walls made navigation difficult.
Xena felt the bard's presence behind her and allowed Gabrielle to use her as a guide. Only the warrior's keen senses guided them through the passages without any confrontations with the castle's guards, or any otherwise inanimate decor. The odor of wet mold and human excrements led her into the deepest bowels of the castle.
Gabrielle was brought up short by Xena's unyielding armor. Rubbing her nose, she silently berated herself for not paying more attention. Standing on her toes, she looked over the warrior's shoulder to scan the room that they had reached.
Dark shadows dominated the room, absorbing any hope that the prisoners might have. Then Gabrielle realized with a visible shiver, there were no live prisoners that she could see. Several skeletons hung from manacles rusted with age, moisture, and blood, while one skull poked through a set of stocks. Decayed wood crawling with insects and vermin made the hairs on the bard's neck stand so stiff that it felt as if they were being pulled out by the roots. She shivered again.
Xena cocked her head for a moment and then pulled the bard further into the room to hide behind a pile of bones that had been pushed into one of the corners. She felt Gabrielle squeeze into the space that her arms provided in an effort to distance herself from the human remains. Xena held her chuckle as the guards she had earlier heard made themselves known with rude jokes and loud guffaws.
Shaking her head at her friend's keen hearing, Gabrielle concentrated on the four men that entered the room. With a bard's eye she noticed that they were the typical sadistic brutes that most likely worked for the typical psychotic despot. They were slovenly, their hair greasy and their uniforms unkempt. She watched as they four suddenly quieted. She was curious when they seemed to approach the far wall with trepidation. She smothered a gasp with a quick hand when one of the guards cautiously reached out with a beefy hand and removed a cloak from a figure that was hanging from the wall. There was a live person in here after all, she thought. She felt Xena tense behind her.
The warrior had seen the small figure gangling from the short length of chains. She was hanging from her arms, her toes missing the floor by a good four inches. When the guards slowly approached the figure, the warrior couldn't help her mental smirk. The young woman chained to the wall was no bigger than a child. In fact, Xena knew of quite a few children that outsized her old friend.
When the figure was revealed by the brutish guard, Xena bit down on her lip to stifle any sound, for her hands, unlike the bard's, were occupied, hovering over hidden weapons. The figure was filthy, hanging with her face to the wall. The dim light barely reflected the dark, wet mass of gouges that covered her naked back. The warrior's anger escalated when she heard the pitiful moan that escaped as the prisoner's head fell back, and long, matted hair came into contact with the mangled skin.
One guard, brazened by the prisoner's obvious weak misery approached cockily, thoughts of carnal pleasure blinding him to the prisoner's sudden movements. Only Xena's quick eyes saw the prisoner flip herself, running up the wall and rotating her body on the manacles. On the down movement the prisoner doubled up her legs and plowed the guard into the wall. In the same movement, the small woman yanked the manacles out of the rotting wall and fell back, flipped, and landed on her feet.
The remaining guards watched as their captain crumbled to a heap. Fear rolled off their bodies as a stench when the prisoner lifted her head. Even Xena shivered when she saw the feral smile of death that poured from the beaten and bruised face.
With a growl, the young woman wrapped her hands around the chains that she had freed from the dungeon wall and began a dance of death, the blur of the chains she twisted and swung around her body only evidenced by the whistle of the air and the thuds and groans as she made contact with human flesh and bone.
When all four guards were incapacitated, the young woman lifted her head. "I can smell you," she growled once again, her voice raspy, her throat dry from lack of water. "Show yourself."
With a motion, Xena told Gabrielle to stay put and stood to her intimidating full height. The young woman, still poised to do battle, cocked her head to see the warrior with her good eye. Xena hoped that the woman hadn't gotten her brains scrambled during her imprisonment. She really didn't feel like fighting her.
The warrior heard the relief, the chagrin, the joy in the other woman's greeting. "Wolf," she returned, grasping Gabrielle's hand and pulling her to her feet.
Wolf glanced at the two women who had been hiding behind the pile of bones and grinned. She cocked her head again and screwed up her face. "We'd better get going. The whipmaster is on his way," she explained as she knelt over the body of the captain and liberated the key to her manacles. With known, efficient movements, she unlocked and removed the chains that had been her constant companions for the past two days. "Come on."
Xena led Gabrielle as she followed the small woman through the castle. Instead of going back the way that they had come, she led them to the south end of the keep. Pulling on a torch sconce Wolf revealed a hidden passage and stood guard as Xena pushed Gabrielle through. Taking the torch from its holder, she stepped into the gaping abyss and pushed the door behind her.
"The healer told me about this. We have to be quiet," she whispered. "This passage runs behind the soldiers' quarters." When she saw that the two agreed, she continued to lead them, occasionally kicking a rat or two out of the way. When the group came upon a dead end, Wolf showed Xena the covered portal above their heads.
Xena saw the intricate mechanism that would release the hidden door, but couldn't reach it. As she was considering her sword, she felt a body move between her legs. She stifled her surprise when she was lifted off the packed-dirt floor. A glance confirmed that she was sitting on Wolf's shoulders as Gabrielle held the torch. The short woman's boost gave the warrior the additional height that she needed. A few seconds later, Xena poked her head out of the portal to scan for people. They were alone in a copse of woods outside of the city proper. After hauling herself out, she reached down and pulled Gabrielle out to freedom. As she was physically checking the bard for any injuries, she was startled by the sudden appearance of Wolf as the small woman jumped out of the hole in the ground.
"Where are you staying," Wolf asked, scanning the area around them, her senses straining for the slightest indications of trouble.
"We hadn't made any decisions about where we were going to stay before we found out about you," Xena answered, her dry tone earning a smile from the other woman. "But we left Argo at the stables."
At Wolf's inquisitive brow, Gabrielle clarified, "Her horse."
The young woman nodded. "Well, go get your horse," she ordered. "There is a cave about a league west of here. It has fresh spring water and dry wood for a fire, so come right back. We've got some catching up to do," she said with a twinkle in her eye.
Gabrielle watched, astounded, as the dark warrior did as Wolf asked without question. She didn't mind being left behind this time. It gave her a chance to study the mysterious woman from Xena's past.
Even in the dark of the forest, Gabrielle could tell that Wolf knew her way around these parts. She moved silently, like a shade, lifting her face into the wind to taste the scents it carried. It didn't take long for the two of them to reach the cave whose entrance was hidden from view by an ancient gnarled tree. After a quick glance around the interior of the cave, Wolf turned to Gabrielle.
"It's safe. Follow me," she ordered.
Not wanting to question the woman, the bard complied. Even though Xena seemed to trust her, Gabrielle still felt apprehensive, the memories of the ease at which Wolf had put down the four guards, causing her to involuntarily shudder. She stood out of the way as the small woman gathered wood.
With an efficiency born of practice, Wolf soon had a fire burning, lighting the interior of the cave. "I need to clean up. There's a spring in the back cave, would you like to join me?"
Gabrielle looked over her shoulder at the entrance to the cave, wishing that Xena would hurry, cursing herself for not following her to fetch Argo. She really didn't want to be alone with someone who was so obviously dangerous. It wasn't that she couldn't defend herself, she thought, as she grasped her staff tighter, but the woman before her seemed more animal than human. "Uh...."
"I don't bite," Wolf grinned, baring her teeth. "Come on. I could use the company. The rats in that shit hole couldn't hold up their end of the conversation, and I really need to hear another voice besides my own."
Gabrielle mutely nodded her head and followed the other woman. It was with no small amount of surprise that she realized that Wolf was shorter by a few finger-widths than she was, and that was saying a lot. The bard was constantly being teased about her stature, especially when she was next to Xena. But when the smaller woman began disrobing, the bard lost all thought of words.
While Wolf was short, she made up for it in bulky muscle. The woman's arms were banded with solid cords of strength, her stomach ridged in hard planes. Gabrielle stifled a quiver of fear as her vision drifted down and she thought of the damage that her thighs alone could do. She was startled out of her reverie by a splash and the droplets of water that landed on her bare knees. She cautiously approached the spring and held her breath, waiting for the other woman to emerge from the inky depths of the water.
When Wolf appeared, most of the dungeon's grime had been washed from her face. "Hand me that soap jar, will you," she asked, pointing to the rock next to which the bard was standing. "Thanks," she said when Gabrielle complied. "Sit down. Relax," she ordered with a hint of mirth edging her voice. "You don' t think that Xena would leave you with me if she thought that I would hurt you, now do you?"
Gabrielle considered the logic once again. "No. She wouldn't do that."
"Ah...she speaks," Wolf grinned. "Here, I thought that you might share Xena's conversation skills."
The bard laughed at the easygoing nature. "Conversation is not one of Xena's skills," she replied, more comfortable with the strange woman. "Here, let me help you with that," she offered when she saw the difficulty that Wolf was having with her chaotic braid.
The other woman moved to the edge of the spring and offered her back, continuing to wash the front of her body as the bard worked at untangling the mass of hair that desperately cried out for a washing. Wolf felt the pat on her head as a signal that the locks had been freed and submerged once again, letting the matted strands soak up the water like a dehydrated sea sponge. When she surfaced once more, she sensed the bard waiting for something. Looking over her shoulder she saw the soap flakes cupped in her hands. "Thank you," she said, grateful for the bard's offer to wash her hair.
Wolf felt Xena return, but didn't belie that fact but to say, "Took you long enough, warrior. Perhaps you're getting lazy in your ways."
Xena smirked at Wolf and then smiled lovingly at Gabrielle. "Has she been talking your ears off?"
A negative answer from both women started a rumbling laughter. "Gabrielle, I would like you to meet Wolf. She used to be a healer in one of my armies before....," she trailed, letting the understood meaning hang. "Wolf, this is my friend, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle took the offered hand in greeting and continued to work soap into Wolf's long tresses. "Xena's never mentioned you before. How did you come to be in her army?"
Wolf grunted as she scrubbed at a stubborn stain of filth on her forearm. "Well, for one thing, Xena probably hasn't gotten any better at mentioning things unless they are absolutely necessary. And as to how I ended up in her army, well, let's just say that I have a habit of stumbling into trouble."
"Not unlike someone else I know," Xena added, taking a seat beside Gabrielle. "I was scouting for a place to shelter my army one winter, and as I was inspecting some caves near Corinth, this one here," she said, indicating the woman in the water, "came bursting into the cavern like the hounds of Hades were on her tail. Turned out to be an enraged father with a pitchfork, raving something about the corruption of his daughter," she explained, laughing at the scene her memory provided. "She was so tiny compared to the man, I couldn't but help her with him."
"No, I didn't kill him, Gabrielle. Wolf wouldn't let me. She offered her allegiance to me and my army, so I apprenticed her to my healer."
"How did you get the name Wolf," the bard asked the woman before her.
"Xena gave it to me. It was easier to pronounce than the name that my mother gave me."
"I don't understand..."
Xena held up a hand in objection. "It's not that I couldn't pronounce that Celtic atrocity, it's just that I didn't want to waste the effort in doing so. You got 'Wolf' because you could smell a rabbit shitting downwind, not to mention the fact that you wailed horribly when the full moon showed itself."
Wolf gave the warrior a look of false indignation. "What you call wailing, I call singing," she retorted with a haughty shake of her head.
Gabrielle was fascinated by the image that her active imagination painted for her. "How long did you travel with Xena?"
Wolf's eyes went blank in thought. "Almost two summers. I had been left behind when she left to ransom that Roman. She had asked me to care for one of her lieutenants who had been injured in battle. I didn't see her for a while after that, and well, when I did, let's just say that I avoided her like she was a rabid harpy."
Gabrielle nodded in understanding. Caesar. He had been the catalyst that had changed Xena from a minor warlord to a bloodthirsty destroyer of nations. She looked over at Xena and nudged her with a shoulder when she saw the distanced look in the warrior's eyes.
Xena looked at the bard and silently thanked her with a lopsided grin. "You're going to turn into a fish if you stay in there any longer," she admonished. "And somehow, I don't think that the name 'Fish' will earn you as many fearful looks as your current one."
"Ah...but what if the fish were a shark," the other woman countered before she submerged once more for a final rinsing.
"Got me there," Xena admitted as she handed Wolf a drying cloth, taking in the surprising details that were revealed as the smaller woman ascended from her bath.
"You've changed," Xena explained, gently grasping a muscled arm. "Last I saw you, you were as thin as Gabrielle's staff."
Wolf grinned in evil delight. "Bet I could kick your sorry ass, now, warrior."
"Wanna find out, little girl?"
Gabrielle stepped back to allow the two room in case they did decide to take up arms against one another.
"Relax, Gabrielle, we're just kidding around," Wolf entreated. "If I smell correctly, Xena got us some dinner."
Xena drew the bard into her embrace and led her back to the other room. "What is it," she asked the grinning woman.
Wolf flared her nostrils as she lifted her head. "Two rabbits."
Wolf looked as if she were concentrating on a riddle of the Sphinx. "One brown and one gray," she answered.
Gabrielle looked in surprise from Wolf to Xena. "Can she really tell what color they are by the smell?"
Xena shook her head. "No she's just guessing on the color. They were both brown," she said, answering her own question.
Gabrielle grinned. "Well, I don't care what color they are, as long as I get to eat."
"I second that idea. I'm starved," Wolf joined.
"Great," Xena said, her monotone announcing some dry wit, "I forgot about your appetite. Now I'll have two bottomless pits to feed."
Gabrielle glanced over at Wolf who was grinning from ear to ear. She hid her snicker behind her free hand. She was surprised at how easily she had gotten over her fear of the dangerous woman. She rationalized that if Xena was comfortable around her, then she must be all right.
The three women ate in companionable silence the fare that Gabrielle served. The bard accepted compliments from both Wolf and Xena with blushes that both women found charming. Wolf had allowed the towel to fall during the meal, and drape around her hips. After she had given the bard a run for her dinars in the 'how much food can you inhale' contest, she leaned back on her hands, savoring the stuffed pleasantness that came with good food, wine, and company.
"Those are pretty," Gabrielle began when after she drained the last of the wine from its skin. "What are they?"
Wolf looked down at the colorful paintings that covered part of her torso that had gained the bard's attention. She couldn't help teasing, though. "They're breasts, Gabrielle, and I'm sure yours are just as pretty."
Wolf grinned when Xena choked on a piece of rabbit she had been slowly chewing. Gabrielle blushed as she slapped the warrior on the back. "I meant your tattoos," she explained, trying to will away the heat that had suffused her face.
"Oh...," Wolf began, unable to hide her enjoyment of her own joke. "Well," she began, scooting between Xena's long legs so that the warrior and bard could see more clearly, "this is a tiger," she said as she traced the image that curved around her left breast, "and this is a dragon," she explained, exposing the body art, as well as her right breast.
Gabrielle gulped at the woman's boldness. "Uh, huh. OK," Gabrielle said, trying to back away from the power that radiated off of the other woman.
Xena caught her close once more with a long arm. "It's all right, Gabrielle. Wolf was always just a little exhibitionist."
Wolf snarled as she moved back to her own bedroll. "Yeah, right. Coming from a woman who drops her leathers for any excuse, I'm not sure if I'm being complimented or insulted."
Gabrielle relaxed with the playful banter. "I've seen those designs before...," she said, thinking aloud, "in China."
Wolf missed the tensing of two bodies as she reached behind her to snag another wineskin. "Yeah, how'd you know? Have you been to China?"
Gabrielle nodded, trying to forget that particular adventure. "What were you doing there," she asked, wrapping a supportive arm around the warrior at her side.
Wolf snorted in derision. "Well, after Xena left with the Roman, I was sort of...kidnapped," she explained, trailing off to the end of her statement.
Xena had wondered what had happened to the little healer. When she had returned, no one had been able to locate her. "By whom?"
The small woman couldn't hide her wistful smile. "A ship had docked the same morning that you had left, and the mistress of the ship had asked her servant to find some entertainment for her evening. And well, trouble is one thing that I can't sense all the time.... Any way, I ended up on the ship. The mistress was the daughter of a powerful shogun. She kept me with her, and I ended up in China."
Gabrielle closed her eyes to put Wolf's words to a picture. It wasn't nearly complete, but it was better than Xena's attempts to tell of events from her past. Understanding lit the bard's face. "You fell in love with her," she blurted, covering her mouth before she could recapture the words.
Wolf tilted her head back to look at the ceiling of the cave. She closed her eyes as she let the painful memories wash over her. "Yes," she sighed. "Madly in love." She leveled her gaze at the bard. "When we arrived at her father's compound, we were equals in our hearts, rather than master and slave. Her father noticed right away." Wolf smiled and closed her eyes once more. "She was so spoiled. Her father could not refuse her anything, nor could I."
"Is that where you...," Xena trailed off, waving a hand at the muscle that the small woman had not had the last time they had seen each other.
Wolf nodded her head, a vivid moment of violence darkening her brow. "I was...raped...by some of Master Lin's soldiers. Lin Chi asked him to train me to protect myself. Even though it was forbidden, he did as she asked. My body responded to the training by developing muscle and stamina. We were all surprised." Wolf took a moment from her storytelling to drink from the wineskin in her lap. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she passed it to Xena and continued. "I was trained by Master Lin for eight years in private. He taught me the ways of combat, with and without weapons. When the soldiers saw that I was able to defend myself, they left me alone."
"What happened," Gabrielle softly questioned. If Wolf had been happy in China, why had she returned? Why had she left Lin Chi?
Wolf lowered her head and scrubbed at her face with both hands, avoiding the more tender areas. When she looked up to answer, her right hand still worried at a thin scar that ran alongside her jaw. "Master Lin's neighbor, a rival shogun, heard rumors of my martial education. He joined two other warlords in an effort to gain power over the region and declared war on my master's house for breaking the traditional law. I fought at the side of my master and Lin Chi, but we were overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Since I was not of their land, Master Lin saw no reason why I should give my life for his offense. I argued for his honor, but he wouldn't hear any of my words. I had been fighting over Lin Chi's body. I knew she was dying and that Master Lin was the only thing keeping me there. He released me, so I ran." Wolf hazarded a glance at Xena. "Guess I'm a coward, huh?"
Xena considered her words carefully. "You fought until your commander told you to fight no longer. If he hadn't told you to leave, who would have honored his memory by respecting his life? There was no dishonor."
Wolf exhaled the breath she had been holding. Her former commander's opinion meant a lot to her.
Gabrielle watched the play between the two women. "I don't understand, Wolf. How did your master break the law?"
The other woman smiled sadly. "At first I didn't understand, either. But as Lin Chi lay dying, I asked her. She explained to me that it was forbidden to teach westerners the mysterious secrets of their religion, their methods of defense and combat. She had asked her father to break a sacred law, and as he always did, he obliged her. And for my safety, they both died that day." Wolf accepted the wineskin that Xena handed her and took a long drink, relishing the easy way her body responded to the alcohol as it coursed through her blood. "I ran away as fast as I could and stowed away on a merchant vessel. I managed to stay hidden until the ship reached Persia, and then I began to make my way back to Corinth. I ran across Xena's army not long after I crossed the mountains. I had seen the fear in people's eyes when they dared to speak of her, so kept myself hidden, hoping that I would be able to miss one spot of trouble. I was lucky," Wolf said, laughing at how Xena had passed unaware below a tree in which she had been hiding. "When night came, I worked my way around her camp and ran as fast as I could. Somehow, I knew that if she caught me, I would dishonor her as I had Master Lin."
Gabrielle looked at Xena for an explanation. "If I had caught her and discovered her fighting skills, I would have made her fight and kill for me. But like you, Wolf doesn't...like to kill." Xena remembered the bard's blood innocence that had been lost because of her foolish mistakes. Her private torture was evident to the woman at her side.
Gabrielle, so gifted at reading people, and certainly the woman she had shared her life with the past three years, blindly reached out to comfort the warrior. Squeezing a shapely thigh, she captured Xena's blue eyes. Gabrielle fought not to fall into them, but instead, conveyed a message of love, forgiveness, and support through her own green ones.
Xena let the love of Gabrielle wash over her like the soothing waters of a hot mineral bath, a returning the gesture. She turned to Wolf, once again in control of her feelings. "What made you change your mind about me?"
Wolf grinned lazily, the wine quickly taking its toll on the small woman. "I tend to spend a lot of time in taverns. I guess I heard one too many tale about your good deeds. I heard that you were in the area, and I thought that I would see if it were true."
"And if it wasn't," the warrior questioned.
"I would have kicked your ass and ran as far as I could before you woke up," Wolf answered, her eyes and brain slowing to the rhythm of sleep.
"How did you end up in that dungeon?"
"Tavern fight," she answered around a yawn. "The lord didn't take kindly to my incapacitating half of his guard."
Xena smiled at her reply. Just like Wolf, she thought. Always getting into trouble. Stifling a yawn of her own, the warrior shifted her weight and pulled the bard on top of her as she started to drift off to sleep. "I love you, Gabrielle."
The bard snuggled into her favorite body pillow, minus the breastplates. "Love you, too, Xena," she murmured.
The next morning, Gabrielle was awakened by shouts that echoed through the outer cavern. Rubbing her eyes she followed their source to the back cave where she found Wolf and Xena wrestling in the spring. "Good morning," she called in a bellowing voice.
The two women looked at the intruder and fell into a fit of giggles. "I'm sorry, love, we didn't mean to wake you. Come...join us."
"Good morning, Gabrielle," Wolf joined as she pushed her long hair away from her face. "Did you have a good sleep?"
Gabrielle quickly disrobed and lowered herself into the water. It wasn't cold nor hot, but rather a comfortable medium. "Yes, I did, at least until someone disturbed me."
"She started it!"
The bard looked back and forth between the two women who were accusing each other. "Yeah, whatever," she said, hiding an evil grin as she brought her hands forward to catch them both full in the faces with water.
"That's it, bard," Xena said with a mock scowl. "Your ass is mine, now."
Gabrielle did her best to evade the pursuing warrior. "In case you haven' t realized, woman, it's been yours for the past year," she quipped between shrieks of laughter.
Wolf merely shook her head and hauled herself out of the pool. She wrapped her body in a drying linen and lay on her side on the worn rocks, watching as the two lovers played, a wistful smile shaping her lips.
When the noise level abated to the occasional snicker and giggle, Wolf rose to leave so that the two women could have a private moment. "I'm going to start on breakfast. You two take your time," she said, motioning with her hand for them to stay and enjoy themselves.
When she left, Gabrielle turned to Xena and cleared her throat. "So, uh...Xena...were you and Wolf...you know...."
The warrior shook her head. "No, Gabrielle. Geez, with your reasoning...I should have thousands of ex-lovers all over the Peloponnese."
Gabrielle grinned sheepishly. "Well, maybe not thousands...."
"No, maybe a few hundred," Xena joked, "but only one that matters anything to me now," she claimed in a husky voice that sent shivers through the bard's body, "and forever." Xena ducked her head to take possession of her lover's lips, thrilling at the answering passion that greeted her advances.
When the couple entered the outer cavern some time later, they found Wolf patiently turning fish on a spit over the fire. The bard's grumbling stomach announced its pleasure at the mouth-watering smell.
"Ooh...a woman of my exact sentiments," Wolf joked. "Tea's done," she said, indicating the steaming pot that was nestled in the glowing embers on the edge of the pit. "Better get it before its strong enough to bite back."
The warrior and bard took her advice and poured themselves each a mug, settling on their bedroll, a glow of abated loving surrounding them.
"I bet the two of you are the cleanest travelers in all of Greece," the small woman claimed, snorting at her own humor. "You spent enough time in there. Oh...by the way, Xena, I took care of Argo for you. Nice horse. Not as nice as Beast, but nevertheless, a fine animal."
Xena looked away from Gabrielle who had been holding her eyes while Wolf had her ears. "Since when did you ride?"
"Just started to one day," Wolf answered, shrugging her shoulders. "I helped some little town with a group of raiders, and their blacksmith gave me Beast. It just seemed natural to ride her."
Xena studied her friend, trying to see into her thoughts. "Are you remembering? Do you think you learned when you were little?"
Gabrielle looked up at Xena, then over at Wolf. "Remembering?"
Wolf shrugged again. "My mother told me that she found me wandering around when I was around twelve summers, but I acted as if I were a baby. I didn't know who I was, and I could barely take care of myself. They assumed that I was also a Celt like them by the scrap of blanket that I was dragging around, so she and her husband took me and raised me as their own. I've never been able to remember my life before that."
Gabrielle silently contemplated the other woman's words. To have lost part of your life, to have no knowledge of your parents or people was profoundly sad. She might not see her family often, but at least she knew her heritage. She felt her mood darken at the idea of a lost life. Wolf's call for food brought her back.
"I guess not knowing could be good in a way," Wolf rationalized. "What if my real parents weren't exactly upstanding people?"
Xena suppressed a shiver that threatened her body. She couldn't understand her body's reaction to Wolf's innocent words. The woman's ambiguous past had never bothered her before, so why would it now, she thought. She accepted the plate that Gabrielle handed her and absently picked at her fish, not noticing that all three of them were lost in their own private thoughts.
The silence was broken by Gabrielle, who really couldn't let her thoughts be private for too long. "Why don't you join us for a while, Wolf. That's if you don't have anywhere else to go," she offered.
Wolf looked to Xena who shrugged her shoulders and then nodded. "Sure, why not? I'd like to get reacquainted with this old warlord. Maybe I'll figure out why you've hung around her for so long."
Xena scowled at the small woman and laughed, unable to maintain the stern look in the face of Wolf's cross-eyed stare. "Ex-warlord, little Wolf. Remember that."
Wolf shook her head to straighten her eyes. "I will be most happy to do that, O great Commander."
Once a direction was decided upon and the camp cleared and packed, the trio made their way cautiously in the opposite direction of the castle and its town, careful to keep their eyes and ears open for trouble. When the open road found them, they settled down into the play of friendly banter.
Gabrielle spared a glance to the horse on her left. Only a hand taller than Argo, it's coat was the black of the darkest night, its bearing that of a royal carriage horse. Although, Gabrielle swore that if she looked hard enough, she could see a wicked glint in its eyes. "I don't need to ask why you named her 'Beast,'" she said, shading her eyes as she glanced up at Wolf.
The other woman patted the neck of the horse she rode. "Actually, I named her that because when I first got her, she had this really bad habit of throwing me. Wasn't until I just jumped on her back that I realized that she didn't like tack." Wolf shrugged at the simple solution to her problem. "So I ride bareback. She's happy, I'm happy, and my backside has fewer bruises."
Xena listened to the explanation and spared her old friend a glance. The woman, who had always seemed so small to her, was an impressive sight atop the black steed, even though less than twenty-four candlemarks earlier she had been chained to a dungeon wall, her body beaten and filthy beyond familiar recognition. But now, she sat proud on the sleek animal, her back straight. Her dark leather trousers molded and emphasized her powerful thighs which flexed as she guided the horse by touch alone, her free hands gesturing as she retold for Gabrielle the events that led up to her meeting the Warrior Princess. Her soft brown hair was tied back with a piece of leather, and she wore a shirt of black silk that caught the breeze and billowed. Xena realized how much the woman had changed from the skinny little girl from so long ago.
Xena paused a half second after Wolf did. She motioned for the bard to stand back as she and Wolf drew their horses away from each other, taking up position on either side of the road. When a group of five men stumbled down the road a moment later, she pulled a frightening mask of ice over her features. She waited to see if they would pass or if they were stupid enough to challenge them. When their leader stepped forward and laughed in anticipation, she knew that there had to be at least one intelligent band of ruffians somewhere in Greece, but that this wasn't the one. "I suggest you let us pass," she advised. "I really don't want my friends to hurt anyone."
When she saw that the men's attention was diverted to the other women (Xena assumed it was the bard's bare midriff that caught their focus...it always caught hers, she thought wryly) she circled around behind them. She watched with pride how Gabrielle maintained her composure, as well as her defensive stance, her staff at the ready for battle. Wolf, she saw, was simply smiling a smile that turned as feral as her namesake's in the blink of an eye. The growl that emanated from deep within the small woman's chest even raised the hair on her own neck. When Wolf raised herself into a crouch on the back of Beast, who was doing her best to intimidate in her own right, the men had a sudden moment of lucid thought. They mumbled their apologies and quickly made their way past the two women, being careful to avoid the sweet looking one with the stick.
Once they were out of earshot, Wolf let loose with the laughter she had been holding. "Oh...that was fun," she exclaimed, wiping the tears from her eyes. "This is certainly going to be an adventure." She reigned Beast around and joined Gabrielle and Xena, who were both mounted on Argo. She smiled warmly when she saw the love that passed between them. "I bet it's never dull around the two of you." She didn't give them a chance to answer as she rode ahead a few paces.
"I don't understand, Xena. They just ran. And they weren't even looking at you."
The warrior laughed. "You obviously didn't see Wolf, then. Even I was hoping they would run. She can be one mean-looking bitch."
"Hey, I heard that!"
Xena chuckled softly turning her head to look into the bard's face which was pressed against her shoulder. "I forgot, she can hear almost as good as I can," the warrior whispered.
"Better," Wolf answered from thirty paces ahead.
Xena raised her head to the sky and shook her head.
"The two of you would have been a formidable team, huh?"
The warrior pictured the scene in her head. Wolf intimidating and strong-arming towns for tribute and her army destroying those who didn't comply. "We still do, with you, of course. Only now, we're on the other team," she answered.
"The good guys," Gabrielle clarified, lowering her hand to squeeze Xena's thigh.
Nodding at the bard's words, wishing they were wholly true for her part, she sighed. "If you say so, Gabrielle."
"I do," she countered, confident in the change that her lover had gone through in the past three years. "Even after...well," she paused, "we still strive to do the right thing, to do what is best for the greater good. It is your...no, it is OUR destiny to change the world...for the better."
Xena accepted the bard's explanation and allowed herself to sink into the warm love that bonded them, knowing that they were safe with Wolf riding the lead point.
When Gabrielle's stomach sounded for a meal break, Wolf pulled up short. "There should be a nice spot to rest through there," she said, pointing to a goat trail that led down into the trees.
Xena nodded, then gasped in surprise when Wolf whipped out a dagger and speared a rabbit that was sprinting through the light brush cover. She laughed at Wolf's shrug as the other woman gracefully slid off her mount.
"Lunch," she explained, holding the animal by its ears. "Why don't you set up camp while I clean it," she offered when she saw the stricken look on the bard's face.
The warrior acknowledged Wolf's words and guided Argo into the clearing. Helping the bard down and dismounting herself, she took a couple of saddlebags from Argo and patted the horse's rump. "Go eat, Argo."
She turned and watched in admiration as the bard quickly set about clearing a spot in the packed dirt that shored the watering hole and began to gather broken branches for a fire. By the time that Wolf returned with the skinned animal, she had already had a fire going and had a pot of water heating on a rock for their tea.
Wolf handed the bard her contribution to their lunch and then laid back on her elbows, watching the clouds drift by on the gentle breeze. Breathing deeply, she absorbed the scents that assailed her senses. The soap that the bard and warrior had used in their bath that morning, their mixed scents of leather, brass, wool, and bodies, the cloying scent of the late season's flowers, the various animal dung hidden by the tall fragrant grasses, the smells of the horses; all sent her on a dizzying ride of the knowledge of what was around her. Slowly, she exhaled, and allowed her breathing to return to normal. She had often been told that her abilities were unnatural. She could see where there was no light, she could hear where there was no sound, and she could smell a woodsman at two leagues. She gave them no thought, briefly thanking her mother's gods for their gifts, and then moving on. Surviving a harsh reality was more important than any angst she might have regarding her own body and its deadly skills.
She knew that she could have killed those men today without a second thought. They were a threat to her pack (she mentally grinned and then shrugged at the thought), and she did not take such threats lightly.
The lunch, as well as the rest of the day was uneventful. Wolf and Gabrielle traded their respective tales of the warrior with whom they had kept company. Xena stayed out of the conversation by riding lead point the rest of the day. When Apollo's light began to fade from the sky, Xena raised her hand to halt.
"We'd better find a place to camp for the night," she said as she led them deep into the forest, far enough off the road so that their fire would go unobserved.
Within minutes of finding a suitable spot, Wolf and Gabrielle had set up camp and were in the process of rubbing down the horses when Xena returned with two small pheasants for dinner.
"Hope you like bird."
"I could eat Argo, now, I'm so hungry," the bard answered. At the offended horse's derisive snort, she giggled. "Sorry, girl. I didn't mean that, really."
Xena shook her head at their antics and bent to steal a kiss from her lover. She was brought up short by Wolf's hands making a chopping motion of silence. She watched as the woman lifted her head, cocking it from side to side, and then sniffing the air once or twice before inhaling deeply.
"Two men, travelers," she advised. "Stay here."
Xena and Gabrielle watched as she silently dissolved into the dark forest. A moment later, after the sounds of two bodies hitting the forest earth were heard, Wolf reappeared, dragging them behind her.
Xena resheathed her sword and approached the unconscious couple. "Gabrielle, come here."
The bard relaxed at the playful tone in her lover's voice and moved to join her. She was unable to contain her laughter when she identified the unfortunate individuals. "Well, I'll be...."
"I'm never going to let him live this one down," Xena added.
Wolf studied the couple that were standing and let her eyes take in details about the two that weren't. "What, you know these guys?"
Xena grinned. "Yeah, you could say that." She knelt and lightly slapped the cheek of the larger man. "Wake up, sleepy head. Wakey, wakey."
The big man groaned and reached a hand to his head. "What ran over me?"
"Herc, I'd like you to meet my friend Wolf," Xena answered with a twinkle in her eye.
Hercules glance around. "A wolf? Where? Iolaus...wake up, there's wolves." He reached over and roughly shook the smaller man. "Come on, Iolaus."
The little man groaned loud enough to scare the tortured souls in Tartarus. "Did anyone get the name of that cart driver?"
Hercules pulled himself to his feet as his head cleared. "Xena, where are the wolves," he asked, his eyes darting around the campsite, only to be confused by the bard who was rolling on the bedrolls in her mirth. "What...what's going on?"
Xena had to feel some compassion for the man. It could have been her, she reasoned. "You asked what ran you over...I told you it was my friend. Her name is Wolf."
"Huh?" Hercules took note of the small, muscular woman who was standing askance, her fingers tapping an irritated rhythm against her hips. "You? You knocked us out? What god is your sire?"
Patting the demi-god on the back, Xena consoled him. "If you made less noise, maybe you would have heard her coming," she explained, knowing that Wolf was as silent as the wind, if her earlier exit was any indication. "Come on, you two. Sit down and join us for dinner."
Before everyone could be settled, Wolf stepped into the circle of firelight once more, tossing another dressed pheasant at the bard's feet.
"How do you do that," Gabrielle asked, astonished at the speed and stealth that the other woman had displayed with her hunt.
Wolf shrugged (an affection that all warriors are known to suffer from) and joined the group to introduced herself to Iolaus who was just coming to his senses.
After dinner was enjoyed by all and the men were invited to stay, two sets of even breathing from either side of the campfire assaulted Wolf's ears. She was disturbed by the fact that she had been able to render unconscious the son of Zeus. Her thoughts and the nagging headache that they produced urged her to seek out the solitary embrace of the forest.
It would have been solitary, she thought wryly to herself, if she hadn't had her heightened senses to alert her to the presence of every living thing. If she concentrated hard enough, she could even hear the trees breathing and flighty movements of the wood sprites that kept them company. Her mental and physical ramblings were brought up short by a foreign presence that caused her hair to stand on end. Keening her eyes, she spotted a figure thirty paces ahead in the blackness. What had once been a comfortable haven for her became an ominous shroud, as the living things around her absorbed the evil presence and fled from it.
"Who are you?"
The entity turned, it's features hidden beneath the cowl of its cloak. Burning red eyes, demonic in their regard, consumed her confidence. "I am that which brought you to this life, little one. I have waited a long time, but you have learned enough to join me."
Wolf cocked her head and studied the figure, trying not to lose herself in those eyes. She knew instinctively that if she did, her soul would be forfeited. "I don't understand."
The being laugh with hollow evil, a hot whisper in the forest air. "Your mother was an innocent, yet strong in body and spirit. She was good for her purpose. She couldn't have given me a finer daughter. You have wandered and learned all you can from these humans, you have gained their confidence and trust. You will destroy them in the blink of an eye without their knowledge. And you will come and join me and yours."
A feeling of trepidation stole over Wolf as if Celesta herself had touched her heart. "Join you in what?"
"Why, my dear daughter, we will consume this world." The demon lifted its hand in an invitation. "It is your destiny to rule at my side."
The woman took a faltering step towards the cloaked figure, his seduction tearing at the fabric of her soul. She battled herself within her mind, bringing forth all the images that she knew to give her peace and serenity - being held in Lin Chi's arms after their lovemaking, the sound of a child's laughter on Solstice morning, the lustful cries of her baby brother when her adopted mother had brought him into the world, the loving play between her two companions. When she felt the calm descend and shelter her soul against the compelling words of the demon, she stepped back. "I will not go with you," she rasped.
"You have no say, daughter. You will destroy," the demon said forcefully as he took a step forward.
Wolf felt a cry for help strangle in her throat as the being reached out to touch her. Unconscious bliss enveloped her. Her last thought was for Lin Chi.
The next morning Wolf was awakened by a gentle hand. She blinked at the sun that was filtering through the forest canopy overhead, and then at the familiar face that loomed over hers.
"I appreciate your habit of giving us privacy, Wolf. But really, with Herc and Iolaus in camp there was no need. And you didn't have to go so far. We've been looking for you for the past two candlemarks."
Wolf unconsciously felt along her body for any signs of physical harm. With the exception of the wounds she had received in the dungeon, there were no new ones. "Sorry, Xena. I had trouble falling asleep last night, and I thought that maybe a walk might clear my head. Guess I wandered further than I thought."
The warrior accepted her friend's explanation and gave her a hand to her feet. "Come on, Gabrielle's probably finished with breakfast, and if we don't get back soon, there probably won't be any left."
"That's all right...I...I'm not feeling very hungry right now," Wolf explained, rubbing the stiffness from her neck.
Concern etched the warrior's features. She reached out a hand and felt the small woman's brow for signs of a fever. "Are you all right?"
Wolf swatted her hand away. "Of course I'm fine. Just not hungry," she snapped.
Xena was put off by the bitchy morning routine. "Yeah, whatever. Come on."
Wolf followed the warrior, verbose apologies explaining her behavior running through her mind. Instinctively she knew that Xena wouldn't like the idea of an evil specter traipsing through the woods so close to their campsite. She forced her body and mind to forget the encounter, vowing that she would examine it later when she had time for her own thoughts. "I'm sorry, Xena," she said, reaching out her hand in a contrite gesture.
The warrior turned around and saw the hurt in the small woman's eyes. Something must have happened last night, she thought. Perhaps all the talk about her past in China had brought on dark thoughts and nightmares for her friend. The warrior herself knew how easy it was to fall into a dark abyss of one's own personal tortures. "It's all right, Wolf. Come on. Gabrielle's waiting," she explained as she draped her arm over the smaller woman's shoulders, accepting the offered apology.
Half a candlemark later, the couple strode into the camp sight. "Hey Gabrielle," Xena announced, "look who I found." She looked over at the two men who were enjoying their breakfast, her brow raising in question.
Iolaus cleaned the grease from his fingers and glanced at Hercules. "We...uh...figured that if anyone could find her...uh...you could, Xena. So, me and the big guy just thought we'd get breakfast while it was hot," he explained.
Gabrielle pulled Wolf into a warm embrace. "Where did you go last night? Are you all right? Are you hungry? Here, let me make a plate for you."
Wolf stopped the manic bard with a stilling hand on her wrist. "I'm fine. I went for a walk. And thanks, but no thanks on the breakfast. I'm not really hungry right now."
"Are you all right?"
Wolf endured another fever searching endeavor from the bard and glared at Xena. "What is it with you two? A person disappears for the night and you assume the worst about them. What have you guys been doing the past three years?" Her comment was met with laughter from her four companions. For the rest of the day, Wolf allowed herself to be drawn into their circle of warm friendship and gaiety, but refrained from active participation.
By mid-day the group found themselves following the coastline. Wolf watched as the waves met the shore, listening to the two groups of heroes catch each other up on their respective adventures.
She marveled at the number of people the four had touched with their efforts to maintain a world of goodness and peace. That thought alone made Wolf question her own role in the big picture of life. In the wake of last night's events, where did she stand in the whole scheme of things? Would she be remembered as a hero, or a bringer of death and destruction, or she thought with some amusement, would she not be remembered at all. She pushed aside the nagging discomfort of mediocrity. That had never been her style.
That evening, after another delicious meal had been consumed, Wolf sensed the shift in mood when Iolaus began relating the duo's last adventure with the goddess Callisto. Wolf had heard of the blond warlord, but she hadn't realized the role that Xena had played in her making. She watched Xena and Gabrielle with trepidation as the man related the tale. She saw how fear leapt into the bard's eyes at the mention of the warlord and the help that she had received from Ares and the unknown evil. Wolf let a shiver pass through her body at that mention. She smiled when she saw how Xena comforted her lover, gently squeezing her hand in a sign of support, even though the warrior was visibly upset at the tale (and Iolaus had skipped the part about Xena the Conqueror crucifying Gabrielle the Agitator).
"Hercules, do you think that she'll be back," the warrior asked, an edge to her voice the only sign of her distress.
"I don't know," the demi-god replied shaking his head to clear the hair out of his eyes. "I found a way out, I don't see any reason why she won't, and she's a goddess to boot."
"And this other evil Iolaus mentioned, do you have any idea...?"
Another negative shake of his head. "Whether its because if this evil's involvement or not, an Olympian is dead. Callisto killed Strife, and she was working with it. I'm worried about the rest of them." He understood the warrior's answering smirk. "I know you don't give much care for the gods, Xena, but if this evil can kill them, imagine what it will do to mortals."
Xena scrubbed her hand over her scalp which had begun to tingle with all the thought of impending doom. She was brought out of her thoughts by a shudder that ran through Gabrielle's body. "Are you all right," she whispered into her lover's ear.
The bard looked into the face of the warrior, her fear evident in the tense lines of her features. "Xena, do you think that maybe it's...you know...?"
Xena knew that Gabrielle could only be talking about one of two figures that had dealt them more agonies in the past year than they had faced together in all their time together. Even the Callisto/Velaska episode paled in comparison to what Dahok and Hope had put them through. "I don't know, Gabrielle. It seems to fit what we know about them, though."
"Do you two know something?"
Xena's gaze bore deep into the eyes of the demi-god. She glanced at Gabrielle and tightened the arm around her waist, ready to give her soul to protect her. At her lover's faint nod, the warrior faced the two men and as was her manner, succinctly related the events, from Khrafstar and Dahok in Britannia to Solan's murder at Hope's hands in the Centaur village, that had driven the women apart into their own personal tortures.
The news that Gabrielle had given birth of a demon drew compassion from the two men, who offered their support to the bard who had begun to silently cry as she buried her head in Xena's neck. It was obvious that they had worked out their problems, but the fact that things were still unresolved with the evil god left them fearful and anxious.
Hercules shook his head. "It has to be the same evil. If Hope was working with Callisto during the treaty talks, then she must have also been the one who sent me into that void, and Callisto back into the past to kill my mother." The hero accepted Iolaus' comforting hand. "Thanks again for helping me back then, buddy."
"Couldn't have done it without ya, big guy."
Xena continued to rock the bard in her arms, whispering soft words of love into her ear. "I think we should all stop trying to think about this for tonight and try to get some sleep."
All nodded silently as they settled on their respective bedrolls. Wolf listened as the two men first fell asleep and then the bard whose hiccups faded to a gentle snore. She wasn't surprised when Xena addressed her.
"You were awful quiet today, Wolf. Are you sure that things are all right with you?"
The woman was sure that her sigh could be heard over the crackling pops of the fire. "Yeah, I'm fine, Xena. Just thinking, that's all."
Wolf shrugged under her fur. "Thinking that maybe I should have bought some of that life insuring stuff from that salesman Salmonella."
Xena grinned, happy that her friend had been able to break up just a tiny bit of the dark mood that had consumed her. "His name is Salmoneus."
"Whatever," Wolf yawned, stretching her short frame, satisfied only when she heard the multitude of popping sounds her bones made. "Good night, Xena."
When Wolf was sure that the warrior had drifted into a deep sleep (at least what she thought of as deep for one whose senses were constantly alert), she silently made her way away from the camp and down to the shore where she sat in the white sand and contemplated the events from the night before.
After hearing the stories that had been traded over the campfire, she wasn't so sure about the coincidence in her meeting the demon in the forest. He had called her daughter. Could she have been born of a woman from the demon like Gabrielle's daughter? Did that make her inherently evil also? The demon had said that she had learned what she needed to destroy the world. Did that mean her physical abilities?
Wolf tried to ease her aching mind and began to sing under her breath when she saw the full moon begin its ascent over the ocean's horizon. It was a sad song of love's longing, of the time in China when things had been so much happier with Lin Chi.
She felt the presence before she saw it. But instead of the evil of the night before, she received no feeling whatsoever, just a simple presence. When the being materialized, she was surprised by its appearance. The god, for she was sure that's what the woman before her was, was beautiful. She was dressed in the earth's colors, a bow slung low on her back. Her brown eyes were quick, and her nature observant. "Artemis," she whispered, recognition coming from one of the stories the bard had told.
"Yes, little one."
"Why are you here? Have I done something to offend you?" Wolf thought back to all of her recent hunts, trying to discern a reason why the goddess had shown herself.
"No, little one, you honor me with your hunt. You are merciful in your kill and grateful for that which you take," the goddess consoled the woman. "I am here because you seem to be an important piece in the battle for the realms of the gods and the mortals. I wanted to know what you plan on doing," the goddess explained as she sat beside Wolf, crossing her legs and watching the moon as it rose with the passing of time.
"What he...Dahok...said is true, then. I am his daughter. I am evil."
The goddess shook her head. "You have never shown yourself to be evil, little one. You take life only when necessary, and even then, you feel compassion for those you send to Hades."
"You are your mother's daughter. And the people who raised you. All of them instilled good in you."
Wolf shook her head, not understanding the logic. "But Hope was Gabrielle's daughter, and she's one of the purest souls I've met."
Artemis smiled wistfully. "My Chosen was once pure as the snow on Mount Nestos, but that evil took that from her. And then her daughter took away her soul until Xena claimed it again. She has been through so much. Even the Fates had heavy hearts when they wove their tapestry this past cycle. But Hope was more her father's daughter. Without Gabrielle's influence, the child was lost to the darkness. After that evil killed your mother, you were found by the Celts and raised away from his influence."
Wolf raised her fist and let the sand she had been holding slowly sift out to rejoin the millions of other grains. Each one so insignificant, yet so massive in their numbers. "You seem to think that I have a choice in this matter."
The goddess sighed. "First Dahok tried to destroy Gabrielle and Xena, then he tried to wipe away Hercules' existence all together. They are all obviously a threat to his plans. However, you, little one," the goddess pointed to Wolf, "are the key. Your father is strong, stronger than Zeus himself. But you are of his blood. You are the one that must face the evil and destroy it."
Wolf suddenly knew what Atlas felt when he had shouldered the weight of the world. "But...."
The goddess silenced the woman with a wave of her hand. "You MUST decide, Wolf, if you will allow yourself to be seduced and join your father in his quest to destroy all that you have come to know and love, or if you will stand against him. There are four people back there whose destinies are to save the world. What of yours?"
The small woman let her head fall into her hands. This is just too much, she thought, as tears formed in her eyes. She felt the comforting hand of the goddess soothe her tensing muscles as she cried.
"Listen, Wolf. Listen, learn, and decide."
When Wolf lifted her head, Artemis was gone. She curled into a fetal position and fell asleep on the beach, her dreams riddled with scenes of mankind in agony and the gods of Olympus dying at the hands of a hired blond psycho-goddess.
Once again, Wolf was awakened by a gentle hand. She knew without opening her eyes that Xena had found her. "Don't say anything, warrior. I came to sing with the moon and fell asleep."
Xena laughed quietly. "Well, I'm glad that you left camp so as not to wake us with your wailing."
Wolf shaded her eyes as she opened them, their brown depths shone of the love that she had for the warrior, as well as her lover and her friends. My friends, she thought. "Don't think that I'll be as considerate tonight, Xena."
"Yeah, yeah. Threats will get you no where with me, little Wolf. Come on, now, you've got Gabrielle in a state with your nightly disappearances."
"I'm sorry, Xena, I didn't mean to...."
The warrior interrupted the apology. "Don't...you did nothing wrong. You just have a bad habit of falling asleep in the oddest of places. Although I'm sure it was beautiful with the full moon last night."
"It was," Wolf answered, confirming the warrior's words. She let her mind recall her conversation with Artemis. How could she even consider her father's invitation? She was no cold-blooded murderer. She would die before she aided him in the destruction of that which she had once had - love, life, a family. Her father had stolen Gabrielle and Xena's son, and had nearly stolen their lives. But Wolf silently vowed to Artemis that she wouldn't allow her father to destroy their love and their destinies. She shook her head, firm in her resolve to stand against her father. She squared her shoulders with determination and linked her arm with the warrior's. "Come on, friend. I'm starving. And if I'm not mistaken," she said as she tested the scents on the air, "I smell rabbit stew."
Xena chuckled, glad that her friend's appetite had returned. Spending last night on the beach had obviously done wonders for her.
When they arrived back at the camp, Wolf consumed two bowls of stew, disappeared into the forest, and then returned with another rabbit. "I'm still hungry," she explained to the laughter that greeted her. She ignored their mirth at her expense as she speared the carcass on a spit and suspended it over the low fire. While she had been hunting, she had made up her mind that she would disclose all of the information that she had pieced together about her father, her sister, and the threat that they posed.
The five of them sat in silence after the meal, each lost in their own thoughts. But when the men stood as if to say their farewells, Wolf hastily got to her feet. "Wait...," she called out, unsure of the words that she would use. She glanced down at Gabrielle when the bard took her hand in a gentle grasp.
"What's wrong, Wolf?"
The small woman looked over at Xena and tried to glean a hint of the warrior's mood from her eyes. "Xena, about the past couple of nights...there's something that I haven't told you."
The warrior nodded her head in understanding. She had assumed as much. Her friend had been quiet and withdrawn yesterday, as if she had been fighting an internal battle. Xena looked to the two men who reclaimed their seats, and then to the woman standing to her right. "Sit down, tell us, Wolf."
Wolf did as she was told, unwilling to relinquish the bard's hand that was like a lifeline, conducting support and love. Inhaling deeply and praying to Artemis that they would understand, she began. "I've been listening to the tales of your experiences with this evil, the one that you," she said, pointing to Gabrielle and squeezing her hand, "call Dahok." She felt the bard's shiver mirroring her own, as well as Xena moving behind the two of them and wrapping an arm around her lover and clasping their joined hands with her own. "The night before last, I...I went for a walk. I couldn't sleep," she explained. "I sensed him in the forest," she whispered, her head falling to hide the fear that the memory left in her. "We had some words...," she sighed with a shudder, raising her head to stare blankly at the canopy over their camp. She lowered her head once again and in halting words continued, her gaze unwilling to look at any of them. "He called me daughter."
The gasp that went through the group was loud as crashing thunder in the silence. Wolf waited for their denouncements, their challenges. She felt the gentle hand under her chin that eased her head level. The green eyes that searched out hers were full of tears and compassion. And understanding. Gabrielle empathized with the struggle that she had been fighting. The group allowed the two women a moment to shed their tears.
Xena hid her rage well. In all the time that she had known Wolf, the young woman had never shown any hint of the evil that her alleged sire epitomized. But then again, Wolf hadn't known of her parentage. What would her old friend do with the truth now?
After the two women regained their composure, Wolf extracted herself from the bard's embrace and wiped a shaking hand across her face. "He said that it was my destiny to join him."
Xena's jerky movements to stand were stilled by a touch from the bard. Gabrielle's steady gaze entreated her to listen to Wolf's tale quietly. Once the warrior complied to the silent request, the bard turned her attention to Wolf. "Join him...?"
"He said that it was my destiny to join him and destroy your...OUR world. I almost went to him, Gabrielle," she said, shuddering at the memory of the evil that rolled off her father in a scorching heat. "But then I remembered Lin Chi, and the two of you," she said, her eyes taking in the warrior who still held the bard in the shelter of her arm. "He was so seductive, his words so compelling."
Xena squeezed her hand over her lover's and friend's. She understood that much of Wolf's dilemma. Ares' influence over her had only been tempered and minimized by Gabrielle's love. "Go on," she encouraged.
"When I tried to get away, he reached out for me. I don't remembered what happened after that, except the next morning, you were standing over me."
Xena nodded her head. "And last night?"
Wolf took another deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Last night, I went down to the beach to think about...him, and to sing," she began with a wry grin. "Artemis visited me," she blurted, glancing from one listener to another, trying to gauge their reactions. "She told me that I had to make a choice between my father's seduction and the truth of my heart." She reached up with her free hand to rub away the tenseness that had developed in her neck. "She told me that I was the key in this battle, but that all of us," she said, indicating with an encompassing wave of her hand, "were necessary to defeat...the evil."
Hercules broke the brief silence that followed Wolf's speech. "It makes sense. Da...the evil tried to destroy you two," he said, pointing to Xena and Gabrielle, and then he tried to destroy me. But when will this battle take place, and where?"
"Don't forget about Callisto and Ares," Iolaus reminded.
"Oh, I don't think that we have to worry about Ares now," Xena said waving her hand as if to ward off a pesky fly. "After what happened to Strife...he doesn't have the balls to go up against something like this."
The demi-god nodded his agreement. "My brother won't fight unless he's sure that he's got a good chance at winning. Being vulnerable doesn't suit him well."
A moment of contemplative silence was broken by Wolf. "We can't stay here. He will find us no matter where we go, and this isn't the wisest of places to face him. We might as well try to even the odds by finding a defensible position. And that," she stressed, pointing to Xena, "is your expertise."
The warrior nodded her agreement. "Well, then, let's get moving. I think I might know of a place, but we'll have to keep up a good pace to get there by evening."
Half a candlemark later, the group was on the road, following the coast once again. After stopping briefly to absently eat a lunch of fish and sea eel, the five steadily made their way to a vast plateau that overlooked the sea. Its slopes were gentle and fairly easy to climb, yet the hill was defendable from two sides, while sheer cliffs comprised the other two that fell into the churning waves below. The plateau was populated by a scattering of trees and scrubby brush.
Wolf and Xena rode off separately to survey the perimeter, gathering firewood and hunting dinner, making their way around to join each other. Hercules and Iolaus stayed behind to help Gabrielle make camp and to protect the bard that had already lost so much to the evil demon in Britannia.
Gabrielle thanked Artemis when she saw the two women riding across the plain below, soon to rejoin the group without incident. She quickly prepared the rabbit and three fowls that had been sacrificed, her movements automatic as her active mind whizzed through the maze of words and events that had both been spoken and unspoken in the passed couple of days, and how they related to the two groups' separate encounters with Dahok and...her daughter.
Hope...Gabrielle silently mourned the loss of her hope and the son that she shared with Xena. Inhaling deeply, she vowed that Solan's death would be avenged. She might not be able to deal the killing blow, but she would be more than justified in helping the others defeat Dahok and bringing an end to his merciless tyranny over their lives.
If Artemis had visited Wolf, then the gods on Olympus must support them. And even though they seemed to interfere when things were going good, only to make them difficult (especially the God of War, the bard thought wryly), she had never known them to make much of an effort to help a fighting cause. Their support did not, in reality, mean divine assistance.
When the bard stood, wiping the residue of raw meat from her hands, she was startled to find herself in her lover's embrace. The warrior turned her so that their eyes could communicate their shared love. The bard was surprised and blushed when Xena quickly dipped her head for a quick kiss. Gabrielle glanced over at Hercules and Iolaus, who were conveniently busy, watching the waves break below them. The flush on the blond man's neck said volumes...that he had seen the warrior share a private moment with her.
The warrior laughed under her breath. "Don't worry about them, Gabrielle. A person would have to be pretty dense to miss what I feel for you."
The bard let the words warm her to her core. She snuggled further into the strong arms that had been a comfort through the long nights that harbored nightmares of evils past and present. If felt good to not hide her feelings for Xena. "What about Joxer? He hasn't figured it out."
"Sure he did, love. Remember the hickey?" When the bard only looked at her quizzically, she mentally smacked herself. "Oh yeah...the two of you couldn't remember, the day was only repeating for me."
"Oh...yeah. That was a nice, simple adventure."
Xena kissed her once again, longer than before, but not too long as to be rude, considering the company in their camp. "Well, I'm sure even he will figure it out. I'm not exactly hiding how I feel about you any more."
The bard's eyes lit with mischievous intent. "It's not like you are ravishing me on the open road, either, Xena. Maybe that's what we need to do for Joxer."
"We would be banned from travelling the open roads, woman."
Gabrielle stood on her toes so that her next words were private for the warrior's ears only. "That wouldn't reign in the passions of my Warrior Princess. You would still be ravishing me."
Blood rushed throughout the warrior's body, igniting a wet fire of ache between her legs. She went to mold her lover's body to her own, but was stopped by another's touch.
"Down, girl. This isn't the place, and it isn't quite safe to go wandering into the woods just yet."
Xena tried to burn Wolf on the spot with one look, but the smaller woman only grinned. "Hey, look at it this way...I'm just as...uncomfortable...as you. Watching the two of you cavort about isn't easy on the hormones."
Xena grinned evilly and pulled Wolf into her and Gabrielle's embrace, shocking both women by laying a wet, sloppy kiss on her open lips. An embarrassed flush and wide eyes shook the warrior's laughter loose from the bottom of her being.
"That was soooo...gross, Xena," Wolf sputtered when the warrior released her. She pulled her forearm across her lips to dry them. "Those poor guys over there are probably about ready to burst," she said, nodding to Herc and Iolaus. Wolf studied them with a tilted gaze as they shifted from foot to foot and tried to inconspicuously adjust their trousers. "You should chain her up," the small woman advised the bard who was still in her lover's embrace.
The warrior growled. "There's an excellent idea if I ever heard one," she mumbled as she claimed an earlobe, sucking it between her teeth.
"Uh...Xena...uh...please," Gabrielle whispered, trying to not lose herself in the sensations that her warrior's ministrations were causing. "Dinner's going to burn if I don't watch it."
The warrior reluctantly released the bard, but not before she promised her life for the bard's life and sanity. "I swear by all the gods, Gabrielle, I won't let that bastard hurt you again. I won't leave you alone this time."
"Just come back to me, Xena, in one, beautiful, breathing piece."
"Will do, wife."
The bard's face broke out into a brilliant smile at the rarely used affection. They hadn't had a ceremony yet, but for the two of them, their experiences wed them together tighter than any blessing.
Xena allowed herself to memorize the bard's reaction to her words and moved to join the three figures staring out over the ocean.
Continued...Part 2 (conclusion)