Convert this page to Pilot DOC Format
MOUNTAIN QUEST by Eva Allen
DISCLAIMER: The characters Xena and Gabrielle, along with others who have appeared in the TV series XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, are the sole property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. Their use in this story does not constitute the author's intent to make a profit or otherwise infringe on the existing copyright. The interpretation of the characters in this story is purely the author's own. Copyright for this fanfiction held by Eva Allen, March 1998.
"Well, there's the town," said Xena as she reined Argo to a halt at the top of the ridge.
Gabrielle, who had been riding with her head against the warrior's back--asleep, as Xena suspected--sat up to take a look. "It's pretty big," she commented.
"Yeah," Xena said. "We can get supplies here and since it's still early in the afternoon, we'll have time to travel another league or two before we make camp."
"Uh-huh," said the bard thoughtfully. Then she ran her fingers lightly down Xena's arm. "Or if we got a room at the inn, we'd have time to take a bath and make love before supper."
Xena twisted around in the saddle to look at her. "Take a bath!" she exclaimed. "We just took a bath two days ago!"
"Yes, but that was in a cold lake. I'm talking about a real bath, in a tub with warm water. And maybe," she added, sliding her hands up under Xena's hair to gently massage her lover's back and neck, "I can arrange for someone to wash your back for you."
"Hmm. You're beginning to tempt me. But I don't know if we can afford a room and supplies, too." Xena reached into her bodice for her coin purse and quickly surveyed its contents. "I've got seven dinars. How much have you got?"
Gabrielle was already counting the coins in her own purse. "Fifteen," she announced. "That ought to be enough."
Xena grinned and replaced her purse as she urged Argo forward. "So you think I need a bath, do you?"
"Yeah," said Gabrielle, wrapping her arms tightly around the warrior and laying her head against her shoulder. "You're so stinky I can hardly stand to be around you."
"Right. I can see that. But how'd you end up with so many dinars?"
"Yeah, but you haven't told any for a couple of weeks."
"No, but I've been saving my money."
"Sure. You let me buy all the food. That's how you manage to save so much." Xena reached back and squeezed Gabrielle's thigh, hard.
"Ouch!" the bard cried, prying Xena's hand loose. "Better be careful or you won't get your back washed!"
Xena laughed and patted the younger woman's leg. "Ooh, that was a wicked threat! I think I'll reform immediately!" she said.
"You will if you know what's good for you. But anyway," Gabrielle continued, "I was saving my money for something nice for both of us, like a night at an inn, for instance. It's not like I was going to spend that money all on myself."
"I know. I just like to give you a hard time."
She heard Gabrielle laugh and felt the bard's warm weight against her back as Argo carried them down the hillside and into the town. The thought of their planned activities brought such a big smile to her face that she soon realized she was attracting stares from people in the street. Oh well, she didn't care. Let them think whatever they wanted.
At the inn, the two women dismounted. "You go in and see about getting us a room," Xena said. "I'll start unloading our gear."
In a short time, Gabrielle returned. "It's upstairs, second door on the right," she said. "And there's a bathtub we can use."
"Okay, you carry this stuff in and I'll take Argo to the stable."
When she joined Gabrielle in the room a few minutes later, she was greeted with a big hug and kiss.
"What do you think?" the bard asked, gesturing to the room.
"How much was it?" Xena asked, surveying their surroundings. It was bigger than some places they'd stayed. The bed was actually wide enough for two people to sleep comfortably, and there was also a washstand and a small table with two benches. A soft breeze came in through the window overlooking the street.
"Not bad. Where's the tub?"
"It's downstairs, but the innkeeper said we could bring it up here. We can get hot water from a big pot over the kitchen fire, and cold water from the well in back."
Xena raised an eyebrow and sat down on the bed to wait for the proposal she knew was coming.
"I'll make you a deal," said Gabrielle. "If you carry the tub up, and half the water, I'll carry the other half, let you have the first bath, and I'll wash your back. How about it?"
"I don't know," the warrior mused. "That tub is bound to be heavy. I'm not sure there's enough reward here for my efforts. Is that your best offer?"
"Okay, I'll wash your front as well as your back."
"It's sounding better."
"And your hair."
"All right, it's a deal."
* * *
A short time later, Xena stood in the room stripping off her armor, boots, and leathers, and tying up her hair. Gabrielle was still downstairs refilling the kitchen pot with water from the well. After testing the bathwater cautiously with one foot, Xena stepped into the tub and sat down. The water was somewhat hotter than she liked it, but this way there was a better chance it would still be warm for Gabrielle later on. The wooden tub, which had seemed so big when Xena was lugging it up the stairs, now seemed small for her lanky body. But by sitting with her knees bent, she was able to slide down far enough to lean her head back against the edge of the tub. The heat of the water made her skin tingle and turn rosy. She closed her eyes. Getting this room had been a good idea, she decided. If she had been travelling alone, she never would have thought of it. Gabrielle was good for her in that way--in a lot of ways, in fact. Who would have ever dreamed that young girl who followed her to Amphipolis would become such a vital part of her life?
The door opened and then closed again, and Gabrielle crossed the room to the tub.
"Ah! My personal bath attendant has arrived," Xena murmured.
"Yes, here I am. Where's the soap?" asked Gabrielle.
Xena opened her eyes long enough to glance around. "Oh. Well, I might have forgotten to get it out of the saddlebag," she said.
"And the towels?"
With a small sigh, Gabrielle turned and went to the their pile of gear, where Xena heard her rummaging around for a few moments. Returning, the bard knelt at Xena's head and dipped her hands into the water and lathered them. "Sit up, Sweetheart, so I can get to your back," she said, and the warrior complied.
Gabrielle's hands felt warm and soothing as they slid across her skin, and the warrior breathed out a long, slow breath. Then, gently, the bard's fingers began to massage her neck and shoulders.
"Xena," Gabrielle said, after a moment. "Are you worried about something? Your muscles feel really tight."
Xena opened her eyes. "No, I'm not worried," she responded automatically. "What's there to worry about?"
"I don't know. That's what I'm asking you. You're obviously tense about something. I can feel it in your neck and shoulders. Come on, Xena, you can tell me. You know I don't like it when you keep secrets from me."
"I'm sorry. I'm not trying to keep secrets. The truth is, I don't know what I'm worried about. I just keep having this feeling that something bad is going to happen, but I don't know what or when."
Gabrielle was silent for a moment, then asked, "How long have you felt this way?"
"A couple of days now."
There was silence again, as the bard's hands continued working to release the tight muscles.
"Well, let's look at it this way," Gabrielle said then. "If something was going to happen today, it probably would have already happened, while we were travelling. Now we're safe here at the inn, so why don't you try to relax for awhile? You can start worrying again tomorrow."
"Sounds like a good plan to me," Xena said with a grin. Then she closed her eyes again and gave herself up to the pleasure of Gabrielle's touch.
It didn't take long for the bard's fingers to smooth away the tension.
"Feeling better now?" Gabrielle asked after a couple of minutes.
"Yeah. Kind of like a bowl of mush," Xena said. "You know, you could probably make a lot of money selling your secret to my enemies."
"Mmm, what a good idea," Gabrielle murmured as she kissed Xena's ear. Then, soaping her hands again, she slid them down over the warrior's chest and breasts, stopping to let her fingers circle the dark areolas and gently tease the nipples.
Xena drew in a sharp breath and felt her nipples harden. She leaned back against her lover and looked up through the golden hair that softly brushed her face. "What did you say we were going to do after this?" she asked.
"Make love," whispered Gabrielle, as one hand slipped below the water and found the place of pleasure between the warrior's legs.
Xena let her knees fall open as sweet sensations flowed through her body. "Oh yeah," she said. "Now I remember."
Gabrielle's hands lingered only a few moments, though, before moving on to lather Xena's legs.
"Hey!" said the warrior, sitting up so suddenly that she sloshed water out of the tub. "I think there are some places there that could use a little more attention!"
"Oh, they'll get plenty of attention later on," Gabrielle said with a grin. "Right now I'm trying to get you washed and out of this tub before the water gets cold."
"Well, it's good to have priorities, I guess."
"I'm glad you can see it that way. Now bend over so I can do your hair." She unfastened the dark tresses and Xena shook them out, letting them fall forward over the water. Gabrielle used one of their mugs to pour water over the warrior's head, then quickly lathered and rinsed the hair.
"Okay, you're done," she said. "The towel is on the floor right here by the tub. I'm going to start getting undressed."
Xena squeezed the water out of her hair, then fumbled for the linen towel and twisted it around her head. Her turn in the tub was over, but she was loath to leave the soothing warmth of the water.
Gabrielle, naked now, came back across the room and stood by the tub expectantly, her hands on her hips.
"You forgot to do my feet," said Xena, thrusting one long leg out of the water and practically kicking Gabrielle in the face.
"Well, so I did!" The bard caught Xena's ankle in one hand and ran the fingernails of her other hand lightly along the underside of her foot.
Xena arched an eyebrow at her and watched calmly until Gabrielle gave up in frustration.
"You're just not ticklish at all, are you?"
"Nope, and that fact used to disappoint the heck out of my brothers, too. In fact, Lyceus was the only one of us who was ticklish. I'm afraid Toris and I tortured that poor boy unmercifully at times." She smiled a bittersweet smile.
"Well, Lila and I were both ticklish, so we were pretty evenly matched," said Gabrielle. Then she kissed Xena's big toe and released her foot. "Now get out of there--it's my turn."
Reluctantly, Xena stood up and stepped, dripping, out of the tub. Unwinding the towel from her head, she began drying herself as she moved slowly toward the bed. She glanced back to see Gabrielle step into the bathwater and sit down. "Is it warm enough?" Xena asked.
"Uh-huh. That's what I thought, too, just before I was forced to get out."
Gabrielle laughed, and Xena bent to run the now-wet towel over her legs. "We need to get another towel or two," she said. "These things are just not big enough to dry your hair and your whole body, too."
"Yeah, I know. Maybe we can buy some tomorrow when we're getting supplies."
Xena moved to the window and hung her towel over the sill, then sat down on the edge of the bed and watched her lover splash water on her arms and chest. "It's too bad you didn't arrange for a bath attendant, like I did," she commented.
"Oh, I think I can manage just fine without one." Gabrielle said. She lathered her hands and began running them over her breasts, lifting and circling them, then languidly teasing the nipples into hard knots.
Xena felt her breath coming faster and found that she could not take her eyes off the bard. She tried to sit still, but the desire to have her own hands do what Gabrielle's were doing soon proved too strong. Rising, she crossed to the tub and knelt beside it. Then, bending down, she covered her lover's soft mouth with her own, feeling the lips part to allow her tongue in. She dipped one hand into the bathwater and began to caress Gabrielle's breasts. "Maybe I can help you out a little," she murmured, breaking the kiss only long enough to speak.
The bard moaned softly and let her hands drop into the water. "It's nice of you to make yourself useful," she said when the kiss ended.
"The pleasure is all mine," Xena whispered before nibbling on an earlobe.
"Not all of it," Gabrielle returned and then grinned. "Just don't forget that I'm taking a bath here. The love-making part comes later."
"Oh, yeah. I almost forgot."
Xena scooped water over Gabrielle's breasts to rinse them and then slid her hand down between the bard's legs. She was rewarded with a shiver of pleasure from her lover. "I'm not sure why I bothered to dry off," she said. "You're just getting me all wet again."
"Oh, did I splash you?"
"Not that kind of wet, silly."
Gabrielle smiled and reached up with dripping arms to pull Xena close for another kiss.
"Who's forgetting about the bath now?" Xena laughed.
"Okay, just wash my back and my hair and I'm done. Then we can get on to the good stuff!"
A few minutes later, Gabrielle stood up in the tub, her hair wrapped in a towel. Xena pulled a blanket from their pile of gear and enfolded her lover in it. Then picking her up, she carried her to the bed and laid her down.
"Now we'll have to sleep under wet covers," said Gabrielle.
"Who cares?" responded Xena as she eased her own body onto the bed. She opened the blanket and kissed her way down to the soft breasts. The bard's skin was warm and moist, almost steamy from the bath. Xena pushed the blanket all the way off, wanting to feel her own flesh next to her lover's. Then, taking a nipple in her mouth, she began to suck it gently, feeling Gabrielle's fingers now in her tangled hair.
"That feels so good, Xena," whispered the bard. "I don't think I can wait very long. I want you to touch me so bad I can hardly stand it!"
"Mmm, is that so?" Xena said. She shifted her body to one side and slid her hand down over Gabrielle's stomach to caress the mound of curly hair. Then, as her fingers entered the hot, wet place beyond that, she felt her lover squirm and heard her breathing speed up. "I think you may be in even worse shape than I am," Xena said.
Gabrielle raised her head to look at the warrior. "If you'll get yourself into a position where I can reach you, we can do this together," she said.
"Okay," murmured Xena, "I think that can be arranged." A moment later she cried out as she felt Gabrielle's fingers enter her. She responded by sliding her own into her lover's pleasure place, gently massaging the spots she knew would elicit a moan. It wasn't long in coming.
"Xena, I love you so much!"
"I love you, too," Xena gasped, as she felt her orgasm beginning. She didn't think she could hold it back--it was too strong. "I'm almost there," she exclaimed. "How about you?"
"Yes! Yes! I'm--"
Xena pressed her own writhing body against Gabrielle's, burying her face in the blonde hair to stifle her moans. When it was over, they clung to each other, sweaty and happy, waiting for their breathing to slow down.
"That was incredible," said Gabrielle. "And incredibly fast."
"Yeah, it must have been something in the bathwater," Xena said with a grin. Then she propped herself up on one elbow and gazed down at her lover's face. She wanted to speak, wanted somehow to convey to Gabrielle all the emotion that filled her heart in this moment, but her throat felt tight and no words would come. Gently, she pushed a damp lock of golden hair away from Gabrielle's eyes and then softly kissed her forehead, eyelids, cheek, and mouth.
"Gabrielle," she whispered, "I've never loved anyone this much. I swear it."
"I know. I've never loved anyone like this before, either."
Xena kissed Gabrielle on the mouth again and then moved down her throat and across her collarbones. "You know," she said, after a few moments, "I'm getting kind of hungry."
"Want to get dressed for supper?"
"No. Not yet. That's not the kind of hungry I mean."
"Oh, well, maybe there's something around here that will satisfy you."
"Yes, I think I can find something," she murmured as she moved further down her lover's body. It didn't take long to bring Gabrielle to another climax, and afterwards they lay holding each other again.
"Roll over," Gabrielle said a few minutes later. "I promised you some extra attention after your bath, remember?"
"How could I forget?"
But she had just gotten started on the warrior's breasts when there was a knock on the door. The women froze and stared at each other. Xena reached for the edge of the blanket, hoping she could pull it over them if someone opened the door.
"Hey! You finished with that tub yet?" a man shouted from the passageway. "I got a guy down here who wants to use it!"
"It's the innkeeper," Gabrielle muttered, then called, "Yeah, we're finished. We'll bring it down in a few minutes."
"All right, but don't take too long!"
They listened in silence to the retreating footsteps, then Xena sighed. "Well, maybe we'd better continue this another time. Just remember who was doing what to whom."
"We can go ahead and finish now, if you want to."
"No, I don't think I could concentrate--I'd be worrying about getting that damned tub back downstairs!"
"Okay, then. I owe you one." Gabrielle climbed out of bed and started looking for her clothes.
"Don't worry. I won't forget."
* * *
"Xena, look! There's a bard in there, telling stories!"
They stood at the entrance to the downstairs tavern room. Xena peered through the smoky torchlight to where Gabrielle was pointing. On the far side of the room a young man sat perched on a tall stool, speaking to those seated at nearby tables. Even at this distance, it was easy to see from his hand gestures that he was in the midst of spinning a tale.
"Can we sit over there close, so we can listen?" Gabrielle asked.
"I wouldn't dream of sitting anywhere else," Xena said with a smile. She followed her companion across the room and they found a table near the bard. He was a young man, with curly, reddish hair and a close-cropped beard. His eyes, a deep blue-green in color, glowed with intensity as he spoke. The two women listened, fascinated, to a tale of the struggle between the gods and the titans. The innkeeper brought them food and wine, but Xena paid little attention to what they were eating, so engaged was she by the story.
"He's really good, isn't he?" Gabrielle whispered excitedly when the story came to an end.
Xena nodded. "He talks about the gods as if he knew them all personally," she said. "It's amazing."
Another story followed, this one about Hades and the abduction of Persephone. Xena glanced around and saw that the crowd of listeners was growing, people nodding and smiling as they heard the familiar tales told in a slightly new way.
"Let's ask him to join us when he takes a break," Gabrielle said as they applauded the second story. "I'd really like to meet him and talk to him about storytelling."
"I think he'll be over," Xena said. "Have you noticed how he keeps looking at you?"
"He looks at everybody, Xena. That's how he relates to his audience."
"I know, but he looks at you more often than at anybody else. He must think you're a big fan."
"Well, I am. He's really good. I wish I could tell stories that well."
"You can, Gabrielle," returned Xena fiercely. "You're every bit as good as he is. Your style is just different, is all."
Gabrielle looked doubtful and started to speak, but stopped when she realized that the next story was starting. This one told of Athena and her half-brother Perseus, and how they killed Medusa. When he finished his telling, the young man announced that he would continue after a short rest. A few people went forward to compliment him and offer coins, which he graciously accepted. Then, true to Xena's prediction, he moved toward their table.
"I want to give him a dinar," said Gabrielle, as she fished out her coin purse. When he stopped beside her chair, she held out the coin, smiling happily. "You're a wonderful storyteller!" she exclaimed.
"Thank you," he said, smiling back, "but keep your dinar. It's reward enough for me to have such an ardent listener in my audience."
"At least let us buy you some wine," Xena said, and signalled to the innkeeper.
"All right," he said with a grin. "That sounds like an offer I can't pass up. My name is Euphemios," he added and held out his hand to Gabrielle.
"I'm Gabrielle, and this is my friend, Xena."
"Pleased to meet you," he said, pulling out a chair.
"We're really enjoying your stories," Xena said as she shook hands. "You talk almost as if you have a personal acquaintance with the gods."
He laughed. "Well, I've run into one or two of them, anyway. The rest is mostly my imagination."
"We've run into a few of them ourselves," said Gabrielle eagerly. "Poseidon and Bacchus and Aphrodite and Hades-- Oh, and Ares, of course. He's been a real pain in the butt sometimes!"
"Well, that's Ares for you," said Euphemios lightly. "But I have to say I kind of admire him, in a way."
Xena arched an eyebrow at him. "Oh? In what way?" she asked.
"I don't know. He just has--"
He broke off as the innkeeper arrived. When the wine had been poured and paid for with Gabrielle's dinar, Euphemios took a big gulp and smiled. "Thanks!" he said. "I was getting thirsty up there."
"Storytelling is hard work," commented Xena. "Gabrielle is a bard, too."
"Are you really?" he said, turning to the younger woman. "I'd love to hear you tell some tales. I so rarely get to hear another bard. What kind of stories do you tell?"
"Oh, mostly stories about Xena, and about our adventures together."
"About Xena?" Euphemios said curiously, turning to look at the taller woman.
"You haven't heard of her?" Gabrielle asked in surprise. "She's known as the Warrior Princess. She's done some amazing things."
"Well, I'm new to this region, so I guess I've missed out," said Euphemios with a smile. "Even more reason for you to tell some of your stories."
"Where do you come from?" asked Xena, hoping to change the topic of conversation.
"Ah, the land beyond the Aegean Sea. I've never been there, but I hear it's lovely."
"There's actually someplace you haven't been?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena grinned and chugged the last of her wine. "Yes, believe it or not, there is," she said.
"Well, now I'm really intrigued," said Euphemios. "Let's hear some of these stories about the great Warrior Princess!"
"You're sure you don't mind?" said Gabrielle. "I mean, people came here to listen to you, not to me."
"I don't mind at all. I'll even introduce you. Folks just want to be entertained, and if you're any good at all, they'll listen."
"Oh, she's good all right," said Xena with a wink at her lover. "But if you two will excuse me, I think I'll head upstairs to bed. I didn't get a nap today while we were riding, like someone I know did, and I'm a little tired."
Gabrielle turned to Euphemios. "Xena's just saying that, about being tired," she confided. "The truth is that she hates to listen to stories about herself."
"Well, if you wouldn't make me sound like some kind of demi-god or something, it would help," Xena said, laughing. "But I also know you two bards want to talk shop, and I'd just be in the way." Then she reached under the table and put her hand on Gabrielle's knee. "Stay as long as you like," she said. "Just remember to behave yourself."
"I will," said Gabrielle, smiling and squeezing the warrior's hand. "And I'll try not to stay too late. Good night, Xena."
"Good night," Xena said, rising. "It's been a pleasure meeting you," she added, with a nod to Euphemios. Then she turned and strode across the room.
* * *
Upstairs, in the light of the flickering candle, Xena took off her weapons, boots, and armor, but left her leathers on. She climbed into bed and lay there watching the shadows moving among the rafters. The candle could be left burning, she decided, although she knew Gabrielle might not come to bed before it burned down. She hadn't lied about being tired, but Gabrielle was also right--she didn't like listening to stories of her own exploits. This had worked out pretty well, though: now her lover would have a good time telling tales and chatting with a fellow bard while Xena got a little extra rest. Smiling, she closed her eyes, and in a short time fell asleep.
When she woke, the room was dark and the other half of the bed was still empty. From the tavern below came the faint sound of voices, but most of the crowd had apparently left. How long had she slept? Xena sat up and swung her legs off the bed. Reaching in the dark, her hand found the burned-out candle in a cold puddle of tallow. She got up and moved to the window, leaning out to study the position of the stars. It was past midnight, anyway. In fact, by her estimate, a good three hours had passed since she came up to the room.
Returning to the bed, Xena located her boots by touch and sat down to put them on. A cold knot of worry was tightening in her stomach, but she took a deep breath and tried to relax. Gabrielle had most likely gotten so involved in telling stories and talking to Euphemios that she had lost all track of time. That sort of thing had happened before. It was very likely that Xena would find her sitting downstairs, deep in discussion of some storytelling technique, surprised that her lover had come looking for her.
Standing up, she strapped on her armor and sword, then crossed the room and stepped out into the hallway. Downstairs, at the tavern door, she had to wait a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the torchlight. There were very few people left in the room, and one or two of those lay passed out on the floor. She didn't see Gabrielle at first, but then noticed the bard sitting alone at their table, her head on her arms. Quickly crossing the room, Xena sat down beside her.
"Gabrielle," she said, shaking her friend gently by the shoulder.
The bard raised her head and turned toward the warrior, although she seemed to have trouble focussing her eyes. "Xena?" she mumbled.
"Yeah, it's me. Did you forget to come to bed?"
"Uh-huh. I guess so."
She spoke slowly, slurring her words, and Xena frowned, looking at the wine goblets on the table. "How much wine did you drink after I left?" she asked.
"I dunno. One or two cups. Euphemios bought me some. He's really a nice guy, ya know?" Her head drooped down, but Xena reached out and put a hand under her chin.
"Look at me, Gabrielle," she said, picking up a candle and holding it so that the light fell on her lover's face.
"Hey, don't do that!" cried the bard. She pulled away from Xena's hand, squeezing her eyes shut, but not before the warrior got a good look at the pupils of the green eyes, now blackly dilated.
"I'm sorry, Love," Xena said as she quickly set the candle down. Then, reaching for Gabrielle's cup, she sniffed at its contents, and thrust a finger down inside it to taste the few drops of liquid that remained in the bottom.
"I think you've been drugged, Gabrielle," she said in amazement, but there was no answer. The blonde head was down on the table again.
Xena took hold of her companion's shoulders and made her sit up, then leaned close to her. "Where is Euphemios?" she asked.
Gabrielle cast her gaze around vaguely. "He's gone," she said after a moment.
"Yes, I know he's gone, but did he say where he was going?"
"He said . . . he was . . ." Her voice trailed off.
"He said he was what?" Xena prompted.
"Going . . . to bed," Gabrielle finished.
"Was there anyone else here, Gabrielle? Did anyone else sit down and have a drink with you?"
"No . . . I don't think so," she said slowly, "but it's hard . . . to remember."
"Please try to remember," Xena said. "It's important."
The bard was silent for a time, wrinkling her brow as if deep in thought. Finally, she looked at the warrior and said, "Xena?"
"What is it, Sweetheart?"
"Do you know that I love you?"
"Yes, I know," Xena said softly. "And I love you, too."
"Good," Gabrielle murmured and nodded. "I wanna go to sleep now," she said, letting her eyes fall shut as her body went slowly limp. Xena caught her as she slumped forward and held her with one arm while she picked up the wine goblet and sniffed its contents again. There were many herbs and drugs she was familiar with, but much to her frustration, she could not identify this one. And not knowing what drug her friend had taken, she had no idea what effects to expect.
With a heavy sigh, she hoisted Gabrielle into her arms and started across the room, stopping when she reached the bar. The innkeeper glanced up from the bucket of dirty water in which he was rinsing wine goblets. "Looks like your friend had a little too much to drink," he said.
"It looks that way, doesn't it?" Xena said evenly, then went on. "That bard who was here, Euphemios. What do you know about him?"
"Not much. Never saw him before tonight. Just came in and asked if he could tell stories and I said sure. People love a good storyteller. They'll stay longer and buy more drinks if they're being entertained. Your friend there told some good stories, too. They were about some warrior woman--I forget the name, but--"
"Is Euphemios staying here at the inn?" Xena broke in.
"No, not here."
"Did you see him leave? Have any idea where he went?"
"Nah, I was pretty busy. Can't be watching everybody, you know. Seems like he was here and then he was gone--almost like he vanished or something."
"How long ago was that, when you noticed he was gone?"
"I don't know. Maybe an hour. Why are you asking all these questions?"
"It's important. Just one more thing. Did you see anybody else talking to my friend here and Euphemios?"
"Well, sure. Several people went over and talked to them, gave them some money for the stories, I guess. Like I say, I can't be watching what everybody's doing. I'd never get any work done if I did." He sloshed the last goblet around in the water, then picked up the bucket and turned to carry it out the back door.
"Thanks for your help," Xena said quickly. "If that bard shows up here again, will you come get me? Second room on the right. I really need to talk to him."
The innkeeper grunted something that might have been an affirmative and hurried away. Xena glanced down at her unconscious lover and took a deep breath, trying to calm the fear that gnawed with sharp teeth at her insides. Then she turned and headed for the door.
Upstairs in the room, she laid Gabrielle on the bed and sat down beside her. Her mind was racing, trying to find some kind of motive for what had happened in the tavern. Why would anyone want to drug Gabrielle? Especially a fellow bard. Had he done it so he could rob her? Xena quickly turned to feel inside her friend's bodice. The small leather purse was there and she pulled it out, emptied the contents into her hand, and counted the coins by touch in the dark. There were eleven dinars. She calculated for a moment. Gabrielle had started with fifteen dinars that afternoon, then paid five for the room, plus another three for their dinner and wine. That meant she must have earned four dinars telling stories--not a bad amount at all, considering she wasn't the only bard present. It also meant that she hadn't been robbed. Anyone who went to all the trouble to drug his victim would have just taken the whole purse, anyway.
Xena sighed, pulled out her own coin purse and laid the two of them together on the floor, along with her weapons and armor. Then she undressed Gabrielle and tucked a blanket over her. Checking the bard's pulse, she found it fast, but regular. She walked to the window and stood for a time, considering whether there would be any point in going out to roam the streets in search of Euphemios. In the end, she decided against it. She didn't even know for certain that he was the one who had drugged Gabrielle, and she still couldn't think of a motive. Was he jealous of her skill in storytelling? That might make some sense if he had heard her tell tales before and had come prepared with a drug to put into her drink. But he claimed he had never heard her before tonight. Did he just carry drugs around with him all the time? This seemed like a strange thing for someone to do. Could it be that the potion was really meant for someone else and Gabrielle drank it by mistake?
Xena shook her head, unable to solve the riddle. Turning toward the bed, she listened to Gabrielle's breathing, a little labored, but steady. Finally, she moved back across the room and took off her leathers. Slipping into bed under the blanket, she pulled the sleeping bard into her arms, then lay staring into the darkness. After a time, she fell into a fitful doze from which she woke at intervals to check Gabrielle's pulse and breathing. Then, lying awake, she let her mind wrestle with questions to which there seemed to be no answers until sleep once again brought a short respite.
* * *
The sun was just peeking into the room when Xena heard her lover moan softly and felt her stir in her arms.
"Gabrielle?" she said, gently brushing the bard's hair back from her face.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked around for a moment, then suddenly stiffened and pulled loose from Xena's embrace. She raised herself on the bed, staring down at the warrior in fear and confusion, then scrambled out from under the covers and began backing away.
"Who are you?" she asked. "What is this place?"
Puzzled, Xena turned on her side and propped herself on one elbow to watch the bard. "It's me, Xena," she said quietly. "We got a room at an inn last night. Don't you remember?"
Gabrielle surveyed the room nervously, without appearing to recognize anything. Then, glancing down, she gasped softly and hugged her arms across her chest. "Where are my clothes?" she asked.
Xena tossed off the covers and moved to the end of the bed. Leaning down, she picked up Gabrielle's bodice and skirt from the floor and held them out. "Right here," she said.
The bard advanced just far enough to snatch the clothing from Xena's hand and then retreated again. Standing in the center of the room, she turned the garments over and over in her hands as if she had never seen them before and had no idea how to apply them to her body.
Xena stared at her. Was this some kind of elaborate joke Gabrielle was playing on her? Or had the drug really affected her in this bizarre way? She watched closely, waiting for the bard to crack a smile or to give herself away somehow, but the more Xena saw, the more convinced she became that Gabrielle's confusion was real. "The green part goes on top," she said finally, "over your breasts. It laces in front. The brown part is a skirt. It fastens around your waist. Do you want me to help you?"
"No! Stay away from me!" Gabrielle warned. She shook out the skirt and wrapped it awkwardly around herself. Then she thrust her hands through the armholes of the bodice and began fumbling with the laces.
Xena frowned and shook her head. She reached for her own clothes and stood up to put them on. Looking up again, she saw Gabrielle's eyes fixed on her.
"Why were we in bed together like that? Naked?" she asked.
"Well, because we're-- Because we're lovers, Gabrielle," stammered Xena. "We often sleep together naked--especially in warm weather." This was crazy. Could she really be explaining these things as if her lover know nothing? "Gabrielle--" she began.
"Why do you keep calling me that?"
"Calling you what? Gabrielle?"
The bard nodded.
"Because it's your name," she said, bewildered. "Don't you even remember your own name?"
Gabrielle was silent, staring first at Xena and then looking frantically around the room. "I don't remember anything," she said finally. "I don't have any idea who I am or what I'm doing here with you."
Xena drew a long, shaky breath. "Do you remember last night, downstairs in the tavern?" she asked. "You were talking to a bard named Euphemios. Do you remember that?"
The warrior rose and moved toward Gabrielle, but stopped when she saw the fear in the younger woman's eyes. "Someone put some kind of drug in your wine, Gabrielle," she said softly. "I think that's why you can't remember anything."
"Yes. Hopefully, it will wear off in a few hours and everything will come back to you." She took another step toward her companion. "Don't be afraid of me, Gabrielle. I love you. I would never do anything to harm you."
"Why are you dressed like that?" Gabrielle asked abruptly.
Xena glanced down at her leathers. "I always wear this," she said. "I'm a warrior."
"A warrior!" Gabrielle exclaimed.
"Yes," said Xena, surprised to hear the note of excitement in her friend's voice.
"Am I a warrior, too?" Gabrielle asked eagerly.
"No, you're a bard. You tell stories."
"Tell stories? I don't know any stories."
"Sure you do. You know hundreds of wonderful stories. You've just forgotten them, is all. As soon as the drug wears off, you'll remember them."
"I don't want to tell stories. I'd rather be a warrior, like you."
Xena opened her mouth to respond, but just then there was a knock on the door. She hesitated, then went to open it.
The innkeeper stood outside in the passageway. "That bard fellow showed up downstairs," he said gruffly. "This is the first chance I've had to come tell you. He's just leaving, so you'd better hurry if you want to see him."
"Yes, I do want to see him. Thank you," Xena said, but the man had already turned and was hurrying away.
She closed the door and looked at Gabrielle for a minute, considering. Then grabbing up her armor, she quickly began putting it on. "Gabrielle," she said, "I need to go talk to this man. I think he's the one who put the drug in your drink. It won't take very long." She picked up her sword and chakram, then looked at the bard again. "I want you to stay right here in this room until I get back. Don't go anywhere. For any reason."
Gabrielle shrugged and sat down on the bed. "Where would I go?" she asked. "I don't know anyone or anyplace besides here."
"Right. Well, I'll be back as soon as I can." Crossing to the window and looking out, Xena caught sight of Euphemios striding quickly away from the inn. She climbed onto the window sill, crouched there for a brief instant, and then leaped. Landing lightly in the street, she set off at a run in pursuit of the red-haired bard.
When he turned into a narrow alleyway, she followed. "Euphemios!" she called, when she had almost caught up with him, and he turned to face her.
"Xena!" he said pleasantly. "How nice to see you again!"
She didn't slow her pace until she was upon him, then grabbing his tunic front in both hands, she backed him roughly into the wall.
"What did you do to Gabrielle?" she growled. "You drugged her. Why?"
To her surprise, he began to laugh. "Oh, you noticed, did you?" he said.
"How could I not notice? She passed out last night and this morning she didn't even remember her own name!" Xena slammed him against the wall again, harder this time. "What possible reason could you have for doing such a thing?" she demanded. "And to Gabrielle, of all people! What has she ever done to hurt you?"
Euphemios laughed again, seemingly unperturbed by the warrior's onslaught. "You misunderstand, Xena," he said. "Gabrielle's not the target here. You are."
"Of course. I've finally found the perfect way to get to you. I want you back, Xena, and this time there's no way you can refuse."
She stared at him for a moment, then abruptly loosed her hold on his tunic and took a step back. "Ares," she said in disgust. "I should have known."
He laughed once more and as she watched, morphed into his familiar, muscular shape.
"I make a pretty good bard, don't you think? Admit it, Xena, I had you and that irritating little friend of yours totally fooled."
"What kind of game are you playing?" Xena asked coldly. "What is it you want?"
"Very simple. Come be my warrior queen, and Gabrielle gets her memories back."
"Forget it, Ares. I'm not coming back. I can teach Gabrielle what she needs to know, fill in the gaps in her life, and we can make new memories together."
"Yes, I was afraid you might look at it that way, so I also threw in a little personality change, just for fun," he said with a grin.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, let's just say I've re-created Gabrielle a bit more in my image."
Xena stared at him without answering.
"I can pretty much predict you're not going to like the new Gabrielle," Ares went on. "No, she won't fit in very well with the do-good Xena. It won't be long before you'll be begging me to change her back, and I will. I'll do it in an instant--just as soon as you agree to lead my army in the glorious battle for world peace." His expression hardened then and he reached out to clamp a hand on her arm. "I don't want any tricks this time, Xena," he said. "The minute you try to trick me, Gabrielle dies, and I'll make sure she ends up in Tartarus. Hades owes me a favor and I won't hesitate to collect."
Xena felt a chill run through her, but she tried to keep her expression impassive. Jerking her arm out of Ares' grip, she gave him an icy smile. "I won't come back," she repeated. "I refuse to sell my soul to you again."
"I think you'll change your mind," he said mildly. "You just need a little time to see the wisdom of my proposal. When you're ready, all you have to do is call my name. I'll be there." And with a last sardonic smile, he vanished.
Xena turned and headed back toward the inn with heavy footsteps and a heavier heart. She felt as if she were beating her brain against a rock wall as she tried to think what to do. Surely there was some other answer, some other way to free Gabrielle from Ares' spell. She just had to find it, that was all.
* * *
"What are you doing?" she asked, as she opened the door to the room. Gabrielle was on her hands and knees, plowing through their pile of gear.
"I'm looking for my sword," she replied without turning.
"You don't have a sword, Gabrielle."
"I don't?" the younger woman said, casting a surprised glance over her shoulder at the warrior. "Why not? You have a sword. I should have one, too."
"You learned a long time ago that picking up a sword makes you a target. People feel threatened and they attack." Xena went over and crouched down beside Gabrielle. Picking up the bard's staff, she said, "This is your weapon--the staff. You're very good with it."
Gabrielle looked at it with disgust. "How could I ever kill anybody with a thing like that?" she asked.
"That's just the point. You don't kill. It's against your code of honor."
"But you kill people, don't you?"
"Sometimes. But these days I usually try not to."
"How many people have you killed?"
Xena sighed. "Far too many," she said and stood up. She still held the staff, and now, almost reverently, she ran her fingers over the smooth wood.
"Did you find that guy?" Gabrielle asked.
"Oh. Yeah, I did."
"Is he the one that drugged me?"
"Uh-huh." Xena walked over to the bed and sat down. "Turns out he wasn't a bard at all," she said, looking at Gabrielle. "He was Ares."
"Ares? Who's that?"
"The god of war."
"Really?" Gabrielle said excitedly. "You were talking to the god of war himself? Do you know him?"
"You could say that."
"Well, what did he want? Why did he put that drug in my wine?"
"He wants me to come back to him."
"Come back to him? What are you talking about?" Gabrielle left her seat on the floor and went over to sit on the bed a short distance from the warrior.
"I used to be a warlord," Xena said slowly, not looking at her companion. "My army plundered villages and fought a great many battles. We killed hundreds of innocent people. Thousands. Most of them we killed wantonly and without mercy. And it was all done in the service of Ares."
"That sounds exciting! What a wonderful life that must have been!"
Xena turned then and fixed Gabrielle in a smoldering gaze. "There was nothing wonderful about it," she said darkly. "I'm deeply ashamed of what I did and I've spent the last few years trying to atone for it by doing good deeds and helping people."
"But why? Why did you change?"
"Because I eventually came to see the evil of my ways, and a friend helped me realize that I could lead a different kind of life."
Gabrielle was silent for a moment. "What happens if you go back to Ares?" she asked.
"If I go back, he will restore your memories and change your personality back to the way it was before."
"Isn't that what we want?"
"Yes, but don't you see?" she said urgently, laying a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "If I become an evil warlord again in order to get you back, I'll still lose you in the end, because the peaceful, caring Gabrielle you really are could never love an evil warlord."
Gabrielle frowned, trying to understand this complexity.
"There's got to be some other answer," Xena said, rising and pacing the room with deliberate steps. "We need help and I think I know who might be able to give it to us."
"His name is Elkton. He's an old man, very wise, a Mystic Priest. He helped me once before when you were captured by the priests of Morpheus. Do you remember?"
"No. Who's Morpheus? And what did he want with me?"
"He's the god of dreams. He wanted you for his bride," Xena said. "It's a long story. I can tell it to you while we're on the road. If we leave as soon as we get some breakfast and travel all day today and tomorrow, I think we can get to Elkton's house in the Mystic Mountains by tomorrow evening."
"How do we travel?"
"I have a horse--a mare named Argo. Sometimes we ride her and sometimes we walk."
"Don't I have a horse?"
"No. You don't even like horses that much."
Gabrielle sighed. "No sword, no horse. I don't understand what good it does me to travel around with a warrior."
"Well, it gives you a lot of material for stories, for one thing," Xena said, grinning, as she began to gather up their belongings. "And there have been numerous occasions when I was very thankful you were with me."
Gabrielle didn't answer. She picked up the staff and turned it over curiously. "I don't know how to use this," she said.
"I'll teach you," Xena said. "I think it will all come back to you very quickly."
They left town about an hour later, riding double on Argo, having first bought a few supplies and eaten a quick breakfast of bread and cheese. Xena had combined Gabrielle's money with her own in a single coin purse which was now tucked safely into her leather bodice. There was no telling what Gabrielle would spend her money on at this point, the warrior reasoned, so it was better for her not to know she even had any.
"I think you should have given me a lesson with the staff before we left town," the bard said.
"We didn't have time," Xena responded. "I'll give you a lesson tonight."
"But how am I going to defend myself?"
"Don't worry. I can protect you. And we may not run into any trouble anyway."
"You don't know that," Gabrielle said sulkily.
"No, I don't," Xena agreed. "But we can always hope for the best. Do you want me to tell you some things? About yourself? About your family? About our adventures?"
Gabrielle pondered briefly, then asked, "Have I ever met Ares?"
"Yes, but you haven't really had extensive dealings with him."
"Does he like me, do you think?"
"Well, no, I wouldn't say he does. He calls you an irritating blonde."
Gabrielle was silent for a moment. "Maybe he just hasn't seen me fight. Maybe he doesn't realize what a good warrior I could be, if I had the proper training."
"Maybe not," Xena said. "But I don't want to talk about Ares or about making you into a warrior. Why don't I tell you the story about Morpheus and Elkton and the dreamscape passage?"
"Okay," Gabrielle said in a resigned tone of voice, and Xena launched into the tale. At first, there was little reaction from the younger woman, but when Xena began to talk about how the priests of Morpheus tried to trick Gabrielle into using a sword to shed blood in her own defense, she got very excited.
"You mean I had a sword in my hand and I didn't use it?" she exclaimed. "That was really stupid! There's nothing wrong with killing people in self-defense. I don't see what the problem was."
"The problem was that if you had lost your blood innocence during that test, you would have been sacrificed as Morpheus' bride."
"Why would he want a dead bride?"
"I don't know exactly. I just know that's what they were going to do. Maybe Elkton can explain it to you."
"Well, if somebody was coming at me right now, trying to kill me, and I had a sword in my hand, I sure as Hades would use it to kill them first--that's all I can say!"
Xena sighed. "Don't you want to hear the end of the story?" she said. "You were really very brave and clever to get through it all without shedding any blood."
"No, I don't like that story. Tell me one about you. One where you fought a big battle and killed lots of people."
Xena didn't respond immediately. Ares had been right--she wasn't liking this new version of Gabrielle very much, but surely, with patience and love, she could somehow get through to the "real" Gabrielle. She would have to be careful, though, to keep her warlike companion from appealing to her own darker instincts.
"Don't you have any curiosity about yourself, Gabrielle?" she asked finally. "About your family or where you come from?"
"Not much, I guess."
"Let me tell you the story of how we met," Xena said. "That includes a battle or two of sorts, and then you'll at least know the name of your hometown."
Gabrielle did not offer any opposition, so Xena began the tale of how the warlord Draco and his men had rounded up the villagers of Poteidaia, intending to take all the young women for slaves. She painted the warlord in the darkest colors possible and stressed the fact that Gabrielle would have ended up being sold into slavery by him if Xena hadn't intervened.
"I wouldn't have stayed a slave," Gabrielle said stoutly. "I would have found a way to escape!"
"Maybe you would have," Xena allowed. "Or maybe you would have been captured again and beaten so hard that it broke your spirit. Anyway, the point is that Draco left many victims in his wake--some dead, others homeless, most of them scarred for life in some way. And that's how I used to be. I was a lot like Draco."
She went on then to tell how she went back home to Amphipolis and tried to organize a defense against Draco. "But those people refused to be my victims again. They had learned their lesson, and I hadn't learned mine. They rejected me. Even my own mother rejected me. They were going to stone me right in my mother's tavern."
"But you stopped them, didn't you?"
"No, I didn't. You did. You saved me."
"I did? How?" Gabrielle asked sarcastically. "Did I take my little staff and bop them on the head?"
Xena smiled. "No, you didn't even have a staff in those days," she said. "You used your very best weapon--words. You simply talked them out of killing me."
"Talked them out of it! That's crazy! You didn't need me to save you. You could have easily killed those villagers and escaped."
"Yes, I suppose I could have, but I really think I would have let them kill me. I just couldn't see any good reason to go on living at that moment. But then you gave me one."
"What reason was that?"
"You believed in me and were willing to be my friend. You helped me see that there really was some good I could be doing . . . and that I wasn't alone." She paused, her throat tightening with emotion, then quickly went on. "But don't you want to hear about my fight with Draco? It was pretty exciting, really."
"Yeah, tell me about it."
"We fought on a scaffold, with staffs," she began, and then went on to describe the rest of the battle in some detail, ending with her pinning Draco to the ground.
"Then you killed him, right?" Gabrielle asked eagerly.
"No, I didn't kill him. He promised to get his army out of the valley and leave Amphipolis alone. That's all I really wanted."
"But I thought you said he was an evil warlord. If you let him go, he must have gone out and hurt more people."
"Yes, I'm sure he did," Xena said slowly. "But what you have to remember, Gabrielle, is that people sometimes change. I did and I've seen it happen to others, too. It even happened to Draco. But he couldn't have changed if I had killed him that day in Amphipolis."
"Draco changed? He goes around doing good stuff now, like you?"
"Well, I haven't heard much about him lately, but the last time I saw him, he had made up his mind to lead a different kind of life."
"What made him change?"
"He fell in love."
"Fell in love! With you?"
"No," Xena said with a smile. "With you."
"Are you kidding?" Gabrielle exclaimed. "Draco, the mighty warlord, fell in love with me? That's really exciting!"
"I'm afraid you didn't think so at the time," Xena said. "You were totally disgusted by him and his evil ways. That's why he eventually decided to change--so he could impress you."
"And was I impressed?"
"I think you were a bit skeptical about the sincerity of his efforts to reform. And besides, at a certain point, you realized you were in love with me."
While Gabrielle was pondering this information, Xena glanced up at the sun, and then guided Argo off the road and into a grove of oaks. "It's about midday," she said, "so why don't we take a break and have a little lunch?"
Without a word, Gabrielle dismounted, and Xena did the same. They sat under the trees and ate some of the bread, cheese, and figs they had bought in town, passing the waterskin back and forth, not talking much. Xena was growing somewhat tired of her unaccustomed role as storyteller and was glad to give it up for a while. Gabrielle seemed preoccupied with her own thoughts, and the warrior was unwilling to find out what those thoughts were, since she guessed they must involve the glories of war and wholesale slaughter. Studying her companion, though, she noted--as she had so many times before--how lovely the bard's hair looked as the dappled sunlight played across it. The body was definitely Gabrielle's, she mused, but everything else about this young woman was so unfamiliar . . . so unexpected. Xena's mind was in almost constant turmoil, trying to reconcile the physical form of her lover with the total stranger who now seemed to inhabit it.
* * *
"This travelling stuff is pretty boring," Gabrielle said as they mounted up a short time later.
"Yes, it can be that way," Xena agreed. She urged Argo into a brisk walk, glancing again at the position of the sun.
"I wish something would happen." Gabrielle continued. "I wish we could have a big battle and fight some evil people and send them all to Tartarus!"
"Hmm. Well, you never know what will come up."
Gabrielle yawned and then sighed deeply. "Do we have to do this all afternoon and all day tomorrow, too?"
"Yep. I'm afraid so. It's the only way I know of to get anyplace."
"Is this all we ever do? Just go places?"
Xena didn't answer. She was staring down the road at four men coming toward them on horseback. The fourth man was leading three extra horses, she saw, and one of those horses was wearing an empty saddle.
Gabrielle leaned around her to peer at the approaching men. "Who are they?" she asked. "Are they bad guys?"
"I'd say that's a good guess. They probably stole those three horses. It looks like your wish for a little excitement just might come true."
"Really? Well, it's about time! Where's my staff?"
Xena pulled Argo to a halt and twisted around in the saddle. "Gabrielle," she said, "I want you to get off and go wait in that stand of brush there. You can watch, but stay out of sight."
"What are you talking about? I'm going to help you fight!"
"No, you're not. You don't know how and you'll just end up getting hurt. I haven't got time to argue with you. Just get down. Now."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest, but Xena fixed her with a no-nonsense look that apparently made her change her mind. Reluctantly, she slid off the horse.
"Next time you can help fight," Xena said, "after you've learned to use the staff." She leaned down and put a hand on the younger woman's shoulder. "But for right now I want you to stay out of the way. It won't take me long to deal with these guys. Now go!" She gave Gabrielle a small shove, and the bard turned and headed slowly for the bushes.
Straightening up, Xena touched her heels to Argo's flanks. The mare moved forward, a bit warily, coming to a stop facing the lead rider of the approaching group. The man grinned at Xena, and as he did, the dark scar across his chin gave her the strange impression that he was grinning twice.
"Hello, Boys," she said. "Been out stealing some horses this morning?"
"Yeah, we sure have!" said the leader, his double grin widening. "And now we're going to take your horse, too, along with any money or jewelry you might have. Just hand everything over nicely, and there won't be any trouble," he added.
"Oh, there'll be trouble, all right," Xena said, flashing her own grin. "You bastards are going to be sorry you ever thought about taking my horse!" And with that, she kicked her feet out of the stirrups and hopped up into a crouch position on the saddle. Then, letting loose an exultant war cry, she flipped over Argo's head, striking her opponent solidly in the shoulders with both feet. He crashed to the ground, the wind knocked out of him, and she landed on her feet, just beyond him.
Almost immediately, a second horseman charged her, swinging his sword. Xena quickly ducked and then grabbed his wrist, flipping him head over heels out of the saddle. She looked up just in time to see a third man maneuvering his horse near Argo, reaching out for the mare's reins. Putting two fingers in her mouth, Xena whistled, then laughed as her well-trained horse nipped the would-be thief soundly on the arm. Screeching in pain, he wheeled his own mount and galloped off, followed closely by the fourth man and his string of stolen horses.
Xena turned then to regard her first two attackers, who had by now regained their feet. With swords drawn, they charged her simultaneously. A swift kick from the warrior sent one man's weapon flying out of his hand, and a second kick doubled the other man over. Grabbing both of them by the scruff of their necks, Xena slammed their heads together, and they sprawled, stunned, in the road.
"Now get out of here," she ordered, "and don't mess with my horse again!"
Staggering to their feet, the two ruffians slunk back to their horses, mounted, and rode off in pursuit of their companions.
Xena dusted off her hands and whistled for Argo to come. "Gabrielle!" she called, then saw that the bard was already running towards her.
"You let them get away!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "Why didn't you kill them?"
"I didn't see any need to do that," Xena said calmly, as she swung up into the saddle.
"But they were going to take our horse and our money and there's no telling what else they might have done to us!"
"Yeah, but I convinced them to change their minds," Xena said, then added, "Come on, get up here," and reached a hand down to Gabrielle.
"But they're bad," the bard continued from her seat behind the warrior. "They go around stealing from people and hurting them."
"So why didn't you kill them?"
"I try not to kill people anymore unless I really think it's necessary."
"How do you know when it's necessary?"
"That's the hard part," Xena said. "What you believe--or at least what you used to believe--is that it should never be 'necessary' to kill anyone, that it's always better to bring criminals to justice. I've tried to learn to live by that code, too, although there have been a few times--" She stopped and glanced back at her companion. "The thing is, Gabrielle, when you kill someone, it's as if you are setting yourself up as judge and executioner, all rolled into one. You're saying, in effect, that this person is capable only of wicked deeds and can never be redeemed. That's a big responsibility to take, and I'd rather not take it, if I don't have to. Can you understand what I'm saying?"
"You're saying that you still kill people sometimes, because sometimes it's necessary."
Xena sighed. "Yes, there's a dark part of me that will never get it right, I guess. But you've taught me so much about peace and love, Gabrielle," she added, reaching back to lay a hand on her lover's thigh. "That's why it's so hard for me to hear you talking like this, sounding so warlike and cruel. It's just not you, can't you see that?"
"No, I can't," Gabrielle said flatly. "But what I can see is why Ares would want you back. Xena, you're magnificent when you're fighting! So strong and smart--and you looked like you were really having a great time!"
"Yeah, well, I guess I'll always enjoy a good fight," Xena said with a crooked grin.
"I wish I could see you lead an army! Wow! What a sight that would be!"
"You did see me lead an army--against the Horde. And you didn't like it much at all."
"That was the other Gabrielle. Now things would be different. Now I'd be on the front lines, fighting with the rest of your troops!"
Xena closed her eyes as a shudder ran through her. "No, Gabrielle," she said softly. "I would never let you fight in my army. Never."
"Why not? Don't you think I'd be good enough?"
"I don't want to talk about this anymore. It's giving me the creeps."
Gabrielle fell silent and for a time there was only the sound of Argo's steady hoofbeats on the dirt road, punctuated by the occasional cries of birds from nearby trees.
"Would you tell me another story?" the bard asked finally.
"It depends on what you want to hear."
"Would you tell me a story about Ares?"
"A story about Ares, huh? Well, let's see. I could tell you about the time when he killed three men and framed me for the murders and I almost got executed."
"Or how about the time he convinced the Furies to curse me with madness and I almost ended up killing my own mother? That's a pretty good story! You'd probably like that one!" she said, throwing a quick look back at Gabrielle. "Oh, or here's the best one of all! I could tell you about the time Ares disguised himself as a bard and drugged my best friend--the woman I love with all my heart--and made her into this stranger, this--this monster, who can only talk about the goodness of war and murder and--" She stopped, her voice choking and tears stinging her eyes. Pulling Argo to a halt, she sat for a moment, staring straight ahead and drawing long, shaky breaths in an effort to regain control over her emotions.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," she said at last, then turned to look at her companion. The bard stared back at her in bewilderment.
"Are you angry at me?" Gabrielle asked in a small voice. "Do you hate me?"
"No, I'm not angry at you," Xena said, "and I could never hate you. You can't help what's happened. But I've sure got a big bone to pick with Ares!"
Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief. "Maybe I don't want to hear a story right now," she said.
"Good, because I don't think I'm in much of a mood to tell one." Xena smiled grimly and turned to face forward again. She started to pick up the reins, but then stopped, her senses suddenly alert.
"Shh! Do you hear something?"
"No," Gabrielle said after a moment.
"I do. It sounds like someone moaning." She kicked Argo into a canter and felt Gabrielle's grip around her waist tighten sharply. As they rounded the next bend, she caught sight of a farm cart standing, horseless, beside the road. On the ground nearby, a man was lying, his face covered with dirt and blood.
Xena leaped quickly from the saddle and pulled her pouch of medical supplies out of the saddlebag. "Gabrielle," she said, as she helped the bard dismount, "in the other saddlebag, there are some rags I can use for bandages. Get those and bring them to me. And bring the waterskin, too."
She hurried to the man's side and knelt to examine the gash in his forehead. There were also some nasty bruises, she noted. "What happened?" she asked gently.
"I was coming back from market," he said, gasping a little. "I had some grain and the money I got from selling wool."
As he paused for breath, Gabrielle arrived. Xena glanced back, took the waterskin from her, and held it to the man's lips. He drank gratefully.
"Did you bring the rags?" Xena asked.
"Yeah. Here they are," Gabrielle said, dropping them in the dirt beside the warrior.
Xena sighed, exasperated, and picked up one of the rags. Shaking the dirt off, she poured some water on it and began cleaning the wound. "You were coming back from market," she said, "and then what happened?"
"I met some men--four of them--on horseback. They said they wanted my horse and my money. I tried to fight them, but they were too strong for me. They took all my money. I had forty-two dinars, and that was all I had to buy supplies for my family this winter! And my horse. They took my horse, too! I'll never be able to afford another one!"
"These men who attacked you," Xena said, holding the cloth over his wound to stop the bleeding, "did their leader have a scar across his chin?"
"Yes," the man exclaimed, "how did you know?"
"We ran into them a little ways back down the road," she said grimly, "but I was able to fight them off."
"I told you you should have killed them!" exclaimed Gabrielle. "Now you see that I was right!"
"Killing them wouldn't have helped this man," said Xena. "He had already been attacked. But if I had known which horse was yours," she added, smiling at him, "I could have gotten it back for you." She lifted the compress and noted that the bleeding had stopped. "This wound is going to need some stitches," she said. "Are you hurt anyplace else?"
"My ribs. I think they're broken," he said, putting his hands on his right side. "They kicked me here. It hurts to breathe."
"Have you coughed up any blood?" Xena asked, as she slid her hands under his tunic and began gently probing his side.
"Good. That means the ribs haven't punctured your lungs." Then, continuing her examination, she said, "I'd say two are broken, maybe three. I'll bind them for you and give you something for the pain."
She was just straightening up when she felt her sword being pulled from its scabbard. Turning quickly, she saw Gabrielle raise the weapon and aim it down at the wounded man. "What are you doing?" she cried, and leaped up to grab the bard's wrists, blocking the downward thrust. "Give me that!" she said, snatching the sword from Gabrielle's hands.
"I thought you'd want to put him out of his misery," said the bard.
Xena clamped a hand on her friend's shoulder and backed her away from the man. "What are you talking about?" she asked in a low voice. "This man's not even that badly hurt."
"He's weak. He couldn't even fight those thieves off. What good is he to anybody?"
"He's a farmer, Gabrielle. He's not a warrior. He doesn't know how to fight. He raises food for his family and his sheep produce wool for people who don't farm--people like us. That's what good he is!" She paused to take a deep breath and released her grip on Gabrielle's shoulder. "We're in a position to help him, and that's what we're going to do. Am I making myself clear?"
Gabrielle nodded and dropped her gaze to the ground.
"Now," continued Xena more gently, "you can help most right now by getting one of our blankets for me, so I can keep him warm. Please," she added as an afterthought.
The bard turned and walked slowly over to where Argo was grazing beside the road. With a heavy sigh, Xena sheathed her sword and went back to her patient.
"I'm sorry about that," she said as she knelt again at his side. Reaching for her leather pouch, she pulled out the needle and thread.
"She's not very friendly," the man muttered and cast a fearful glance in Gabrielle's direction.
"Actually, she's usually very kind," Xena said. "She's just not herself today," she added, with a grim smile. "But don't worry. I won't let her hurt you." How absurd this was, she thought as she threaded the needle, to have to protect someone from Gabrielle. "What's your name?" she asked the man as she bent over him to begin stitching the wound.
"Loukanos," he said and then yelped as he felt the needle pierce his skin.
"I'm sorry about the pain," Xena said, "but I need you to hold as still as you can. This shouldn't take very long."
The man nodded. "I guess I'm lucky you came along," he said, "but I don't know how I'm ever going to get home."
"Where is your village from here?" the warrior asked. Then, hearing Gabrielle behind her, she glanced up and said, "Just spread the blanket over him."
"It's not too far," said Loukanos, keeping a close eye on Gabrielle. "Just a little farther down the road to the turnoff, and another hour's travel after that."
Xena nodded and watched as Gabrielle moved awkwardly to cover Loukanos. "We'll get you home," she said. "It's not very far out of our way."
"Xena," exclaimed Gabrielle, "I thought we were in a hurry! Now you want to take time to--"
"Not that much of a hurry," Xena said firmly. "Loukanos needs our help."
"But what about my cart?" Loukanos said. "We can't leave it here!"
Xena looked at the cart for a moment before tying off another stitch. "Well, I think I just might be able to convince my horse to pull that cart," Xena said. "She's not used to that kind of thing, but if we ask her nicely--" She grinned and bit off the thread. "There! That's all done! Now, let's see about those ribs. I'm going to need some cloth to bind them with. I can either use one of your pants legs or the bottom part of your tunic. Which would you prefer?"
Loukanos frowned and then said, "My tunic, I guess."
"Okay, the tunic it is." Xena pulled out her breast dagger and prepared to cut the cloth. "Gabrielle," she said, "why don't you take our other blankets and see if you can make a bed for Loukanos in the cart."
The bard sighed and got reluctantly to her feet. Moving to the cart, she peered in. "Where am I supposed to make a bed with all this grain in here?" she asked.
"How much grain is there?" Xena said.
"Is that what you brought from market?" Xena asked Loukanos.
"Well, see, you didn't lose everything," she said cheerfully. "You've still got your grain and your cart and--most important of all--your life. Those men wouldn't have had any qualms about killing you."
"But they took my money!" Loukanos wailed. "Forty-two dinars! And my horse!"
"Yes," said Xena, "but I'm sure your family will be glad to have you home again alive--even without your horse and your money. Now I'm going to help you sit up, so I can wrap your ribs," she added when he didn't answer.
It took longer to hitch Argo to the cart than Xena expected. The horse thieves had slashed the harness and the warrior had to cobble it back together as best she could using scraps of rope and leather. She helped Gabrielle rearrange the bags of grain to create a cramped space for Loukanos to lie in, then gave him some willow bark to chew on to ease the pain caused by the jolting cart. Even then, he moaned and groaned most of the way, meanwhile keeping a wary eye on Gabrielle, who rode perched on the grain bags in the back of the cart. Xena sat up front on the narrow seat, driving slowly as she tried to find a few smooth places in the hopelessly rutted track. The trip seemed to take forever.
When they reached the village at last, Xena was more than happy to turn Loukanos over to the care of his wife and children. Taking the wife aside, Xena emptied out the contents of her coin purse into the woman's hand. "It's not much," she said, "but maybe it will help."
"No, you've done so much for Loukanos already," the other woman replied. "I couldn't possibly take it."
"Yes, please," Xena said. "Take it for the children. It's going to be a long winter. Three sacks of grain won't be enough."
"May the gods bless you," the woman whispered, and Xena turned away quickly, pretending not to notice the other's tears of gratitude.
* * *
"I can't believe you wasted so much time and effort on that pathetic man," Gabrielle said as they rode away from the village a little while later. "Did you hear him? He did nothing but groan and complain. He didn't even say thank you."
"He was frightened and he was in pain," Xena said quietly. "People aren't always at their most gracious under those circumstances. And anyway, his wife thanked me. She was very glad we brought him home."
"Well, if that's what doing good deeds is like, I guess I fail to see the charm in it."
"Doing good has its rewards, but they're not always obvious."
"I just think that what the world needs is more brave and noble warriors like you, Xena--not useless cowards like Loukanos."
"That's not you talking, Gabrielle," Xena said wearily, "it's Ares." She glanced at the sun, now more than halfway down the western sky. "We lost more time than I expected doing our good deed, but I think if we start early tomorrow and really push ourselves, we can still make it to Elkton's house by nightfall."
"Why are you in such a hurry to get there?"
"I'm in a hurry to break Ares' spell and get you back to being the Gabrielle I know and love."
"All you have to do is go back to Ares," Gabrielle said casually. "Wouldn't that be a lot easier than chasing all over the countryside like this? What makes you think this Elkton guy can help, anyway? I thought he was a priest for Morpheus. Why would he know anything about how to break a spell cast by Ares?"
Xena was silent for a few moments. "I don't know why I think that," she admitted, "but I do. I just have this really strong feeling that Elkton can help, and that's why we're going to see him."
"These feelings you have, are they always right?"
"Not always, but a lot of times they are. I had a feeling for two days that something bad was going to happen, and then I allowed you to talk me into letting down my guard, and that's when Ares drugged you."
"So it's my fault, is that what you're saying?"
"No, that's not what I'm saying. It was my own fault for not listening to my intuition."
Gabrielle was quiet for a minute, then said, "When are we going to camp?"
"Soon. I want to get back to the main road first, if we can."
"You have to give me a lesson with the staff, remember?"
"Yes, I remember."
Gabrielle gave a contented sigh and leaned her head against Xena's back. The gesture was so familiar, and yet the person doing it seemed like such a stranger. That was part of the reason Xena felt so desperate to find a way to break Ares' spell. Gabrielle was right, though. There was no logical reason why Elkton could be expected to know how to do it. Still, she had to go talk to him, at least. Even if he couldn't help, he might know of someone who could.
But what if this really was a wild goose chase and there was no way to save Gabrielle except by returning to Ares? Xena hadn't yet allowed herself to consider this question, but maybe it was time she did. One thing was clear: Gabrielle couldn't be allowed to go on like this, with this Ares-given personality. She would only end up killing people and thus assigning herself to Tartarus. The image of Gabrielle holding a sword aimed at the helpless Loukanos was still fresh in Xena's mind, and it sent cold chills down her spine every time she thought of it. She must save Gabrielle's soul somehow, she knew, but how? Going back to Ares would mean losing her own soul. Was she willing to make that sacrifice?
She drew in a long, slow breath, becoming aware again of Gabrielle's warm weight against her back. Yes, if that was the only way, she would do it--even if it meant eternal separation from the woman she loved. But surely there was another answer. Surely there was some way to outsmart Ares again. And then, suddenly, it came to her, as clear as a sunlit reflection in a quiet pool. She could go back to ride at the head of Ares' army . . . and then let herself be killed in battle. It would be simple enough to do, but it would have to happen quickly, before she'd had a chance to cancel out the good things she'd accomplished in the last few years. At least this way she might still have a chance--however slim--to make it into the Elysian Fields. Gabrielle, meanwhile, could live out her life in peace and love, and someday the two of them might be together again.
Xena closed her eyes for a moment and let out a long breath. It wasn't a happy decision, but having made it, she felt a strange sense of peace come over her. She still hoped with all her might that there was a better solution, but if there wasn't, she now knew how she could save Gabrielle, and that was all that mattered.
Behind her, the bard yawned and sat up. "It's getting late, Xena," she said. "If we don't stop soon, it'll be too dark for me to learn to use the staff."
"You're right," Xena said. "We need to start looking for a place to camp."
"How about over there in those trees?"
"No, we need to find a stream or a spring or something. Our waterskin is almost empty." Then leaning forward slightly, she called, "Argo!"
The mare raised her head and swiveled her ears back in Xena's direction.
"Find water, girl! We need you to find us some water!"
"She can do that?" Gabrielle asked in amazement.
"Yeah. It's a new trick we've been working on. Animals can smell water from a long distance away, so I thought why not put that ability to use?"
Argo continued to walk calmly along the rutted track, but now her nostrils flared as she sampled the breeze and her whole body seemed to be on the alert. They hadn't gone very far before she turned off to the right, pushing through the undergrowth to follow a narrow game trail. Xena and Gabrielle were forced to duck as they passed under low branches, but soon they entered a clearing and Argo stopped beside a rocky outcropping. Dropping her head, she snorted softly and then began to suck up water from a small pool.
"Good girl!" exclaimed Xena, petting Argo's neck enthusiastically before she hopped down. Kneeling beside the pool of water, she cleared some leaves and sticks away. "There's a little spring here in the rocks," she told Gabrielle. "We never would have found it without Argo!"
Gabrielle slid down and pulled out her staff. "Okay, time for my lesson now!" she said.
"No, sorry. We have some other things to do first. Now, would you rather unpack our gear and set up camp or gather wood?"
Gabrielle stared at her blankly. "I don't know how to do either one," she said, then twirled the staff experimentally.
"Be careful with that!" Xena said, taking it away from her. "You almost hit Argo." Then she studied the bard for a moment. "Are you saying that you don't remember how to set up camp or gather wood?"
"Yeah, that's what I'm saying. I lost my memories, remember?"
Xena sighed. "I suppose this also means you don't remember how to cook."
"Yep, I guess that's what it means."
"Well, you're going to be sorry about that, anyway, because my cooking is pretty awful."
"I don't care. Teach me to use the staff."
"Not yet. First I need you to gather wood. Just walk around and pick up any dead sticks you find and bring them back here. Don't bring any rotten wood, though. It doesn't burn well. I'll unpack our gear and start thinking about what to make for supper."
Gabrielle turned and walked off among the trees. In a short time, she was back with four sticks. "I found some!" she said brightly. "Is this the right kind of wood?"
"Yeah, those are perfect," Xena said, laughing, "but we need a lot more than that. We need at least thirty or forty sticks that size, and some bigger ones, too, if you can find them."
"You're kidding! Where will I ever find that many sticks?"
"Ah, that's the challenge of wood gathering! Now hurry! We can't have a lesson with the staff until there's a nice fire burning and I've put supper on to cook."
Gabrielle made a face, then dropped her sticks and headed off again. Xena meanwhile got out some dried fish, bread, and vegetables, filled the cooking pot with water, and cleared a place for the fire. "I wish Gabrielle were here to do the cooking," she muttered, then stopped and shook her head when she realized what she had just said. Gabrielle was indeed there, she reminded herself--in body, if not in spirit. But it was her friend's loving spirit that she missed most.
As soon as the fire was blazing brightly, Xena threw the fish and vegetables into the pot of water and set it in the coals, uttering a small prayer that the mixture would turn into something edible.
"Okay," she said to Gabrielle, "let's start learning to use that staff."
She demonstrated a few basic moves, then watched as the younger woman practiced them. There was some awkwardness at first, but after that, Gabrielle caught on quickly, and Xena suspected that it was a case of the body remembering what the mind had forgotten. She was just showing how the staff could be used to sweep the feet out from under an opponent, when Gabrielle stopped suddenly and said, "What's that smell?"
"Oh, shit!" exclaimed Xena, as she turned and rushed back to the fire. Snatching the pot out of the flames, she examined its contents and found a charred, smelly mess.
"Well, I hope you weren't very hungry," she called to Gabrielle, who had gone back to practicing with the staff. "I seem to have ruined our dinner."
"That's okay," Gabrielle responded. "I'll have more time to practice if I don't have to eat."
"But you do have to eat," Xena said. "I'll make sure you eat something. Let me see what else we've got."
* * *
They had a simple supper of bread and cheese, along with some nuts and dried apples. Afterwards, Gabrielle continued to work with the staff while Xena sat by the fire, using a sharp stone to scrape out the cooking pot. It had been foolish of her to waste that much food, she knew--especially after giving away their last dinar earlier in the day. And Gabrielle would not be at all happy when she found out what had happened to her pot. The "real" Gabrielle--not this other, warlike one. How long would it be before Xena got her back? And what if she never did? What if she never held the bard in her arms or made love to her again? Xena sighed and tried to put these dark thoughts out of her head. They only made her heart ache.
When she had cleaned out the pot as best she could, she set it aside, took off her weapons and armor, and then sat cross-legged on the blankets, watching Gabrielle. "You're getting pretty good with that thing," she called. "I had a feeling it would all come back to you."
"Show me some more moves."
"No. Not tonight. Come to bed now. We need to get an early start in the morning." She patted a spot on the blanket beside her, and Gabrielle came over and sat down, laying the staff reluctantly on the ground nearby.
"After I learn to use the staff, will you teach me to use a sword?" she asked.
"No," Xena said firmly. "I don't want you using a sword."
"Because I don't want you going around killing people. It goes against everything you believe in."
"That was the other Gabrielle. I believe in different things."
"I know," Xena said, leaning her chin on her hand and staring moodily into the fire. "That's the problem."
There was silence for several minutes, and Xena's mind began to wander along dark paths once again. She was abruptly recalled from her reverie, though, when she felt Gabrielle's hand on her breast. Starting slightly, she took hold of the bard's wrist and then looked at her companion. "What are you doing?" she asked.
"I thought you'd want to make love. That's what lovers do, isn't it? I don't remember how, exactly, but you can show me."
Xena stared at her for a moment, then gently removed Gabrielle's hand from her breast and held it between her own hands. "I just don't feel like making love tonight," she said softly. "I'm too tired."
"Don't you find me attractive?"
"Yes, of course I do, Gabrielle. I think you're very beautiful."
"Then why don't you want to make love to me?"
"I told you. I'm tired."
"No, you're not," Gabrielle said, pulling her hand away and hugging her knees to her chest. "You just don't love me anymore--that's what it is."
"You're wrong, Gabrielle. I love you very much. I always will."
"No. You loved me the way I was before. You don't love me now."
"Gabrielle--" Xena said, and then stopped, trying to think how to answer. Finally, she said, "I guess you're right, in a way. There are some things I don't like much about you right now. I don't like what Ares has done to you--how he's twisted your personality into something so aggressive . . . something so different from what it was before. I don't like some of the things I've heard you say today and some of the things you've done. But that doesn't mean I don't love you, because I do. You can love a person very deeply and still dislike some of the things that person says and does." She paused and waited for a response, but there was none. Gabrielle still hugged her knees and stared at the ground in front of her. Xena put a hand under the bard's chin and turned her face toward her. "Can you understand what I'm saying?" she asked.
"Yeah, I guess so," Gabrielle said sullenly, then turned to look at the ground again.
"The thing is," Xena said after another brief silence. "Right now you seem like such a different person to me that if I made love to you, it would be like making love to a stranger. And I don't want to do that."
"Okay," Gabrielle mumbled.
Xena regarded her for a few moments longer, then said, "Let's get to sleep, shall we? You lie here, on the side by the fire, and I'll be right here next to you."
"Should I take my clothes off?"
"Only if you want to. I think I'm going to leave mine on tonight."
After a moment's hesitation, the younger woman climbed under the covers without undressing, and Xena stretched out beside her. "Goodnight, Gabrielle," she said softly.
The warrior lay for a short time, staring up at the stars that winked between the tree branches, but soon her eyelids grew heavy and, closing them, she gave herself up to sleep.
* * *
She began to dream almost at once. It was a dream so clear and vivid, in fact, that she thought she must still be awake. Gabrielle was coming towards her, arms wide open and a smile full of love on her face. Xena ran to embrace her, holding her lover close with all the fierceness of her passion. But suddenly, she stiffened and pulled back, looking searchingly into the bard's green eyes. "How do I know this is really you?" she asked. "It could just be some trick Ares is playing on me."
Gabrielle smiled softly. "You'll know it's me because of what I'm going to tell you," she said, then glanced around. "But I'll have to be quick, because I may not have much time."
"What do you mean?"
"Ares doesn't know I'm here with you, and when he finds out-- Well, there's no telling what he'll do."
"Has he hurt you, Gabrielle?"
"No. He's been pretty well behaved, actually. He just keeps talking about how things are going to be when you come back to him, and it's really scaring me."
"Gabrielle--" Xena began, hesitated a moment, and then went on. "I hope there's another way, but if there's not--"
"No! Xena, don't you even think about giving in to that monster! It's totally out of the question, do you understand me?"
"I'm trying to find another way to break the spell. We're going to see Elkton. I think maybe he can help. But if not, I'll have to do something. I can't just let you--"
Gabrielle put her fingers over Xena's lips. "Listen to me. You're not going back to Ares. If there's no other way, then I want you to promise me something."
Gabrielle was silent for a moment, then took a deep breath and plunged ahead. "I want you to promise that you'll kill me."
"Kill you?" Xena said in amazement. "I could never do that!"
"Yes, you could, and I want you to do it. I don't want to murder a bunch of people. I want to go to the Elysian Fields. I want us to be together someday."
"Wait a minute," Xena said. "Let me get this straight. You are asking me to commit murder--because that's what it would be, premeditated murder--and not only that, you're asking me to murder the person I love most in the whole world, to have her blood on my hands when I appear before Hades, and you think I'll still end up in the Elysian Fields?"
"Yes, I do, because I think Hades will understand that your killing me is a selfless act--kind of like a sacrifice--not really murder. It will be like when you stabbed Marcus. Do you think Hades blamed you for that?"
"No, I guess not, but that was different. Marcus was going to die again anyway."
"It's not different. It's the same thing!" Frowning in frustration, Gabrielle cast an anxious glance behind her. "I don't have time to argue about this, Xena," she went on. "I just need you to promise me. Please! I have to know I can count on you! I can't have any peace of mind until I know that!"
Xena stared at her and tried to speak, but no words would come. She needed time to think. Was Gabrielle's plan better than the plan she herself had come up with earlier that afternoon? It was true that if she killed Gabrielle, she would assure the bard a place in the Elysian Fields. But after she did it, she would have to live out her own life alone and with the knowledge that she had killed her best friend.
"Promise me, Xena!" Gabrielle pleaded. "If you love me, promise me you'll do this one last thing for me. Please!"
"All right, I promise," Xena softly. "But only if there is no other way."
"Yes! Thank you!" Gabrielle whispered, and threw her arms around the warrior in a tight hug. "I love you so much!" she added.
"I love you, too. And I miss you. This person Ares turned you into-- It's like being with a total stranger! She looks like you, but she's so different!"
"I know, but be patient, Xena," Gabrielle said, gently touching the warrior's face. "She may seem like someone else, but in some strange way, she's still me. She's the way I could have been if my life had been different."
Xena nodded, and pulled her lover close again. "I'm going to find a way to get you back," she said. "I swear it."
"If there's any way at all, I know you'll find it. Just try to keep me from killing anybody in the meantime," Gabrielle said with a weak grin.
"I'll try," Xena said, and then her mouth found Gabrielle's. She closed her eyes and let herself savor the sweet warmth of her lover's lips and tongue. If only this moment could last forever, she thought. But suddenly, she felt Gabrielle being pulled roughly away. "No!" Xena cried out. "Gabrielle!" She opened her eyes to see Ares, his face dark with anger, holding the bard with both arms twisted behind her.
"Well, well, well," he muttered. "I can see I'm going to have to keep a closer watch on this one. She's a bit more clever than I gave her credit for." Then, half turning, he snapped his fingers behind him and a cage appeared, with bars of shining metal.
"No! Ares, don't!" cried Gabrielle. "I'll behave myself!"
But her captor only laughed as he pushed her into the enclosure. Then, slamming the door shut with a resounding clash, he locked it and pocketed the key.
"Xena, help me!" pleaded Gabrielle, clutching the bars and looking desperately at the warrior.
But Xena could only stare back helplessly, knowing that she had neither sword nor chakram with her--no way of fighting Ares in this strange dreamscape.
"You know what you have to do, Xena," Ares said, turning to her with a cold smile.
"I'm not coming back," Xena said. "Not now. Not ever. I'll find some other way to defeat you."
"Go ahead. Look all you want," the war god said, moving close and fixing her in his smoldering gaze. "But I can assure you that you won't find another way. I'll just keep your little friend all locked up safe here until you decide you want her back." He grinned, but it was the kind of grin that left an icy chill inside her.
She took a step back. "I love you, Gabrielle," she called, looking past Ares. "I'll get you out of there somehow. Just give me a little time."
"I love you, too! Don't forget your promise!"
"I won't forget!"
"Xena! Xena!" Gabrielle was calling her name and shaking her, and when the warrior opened her eyes, she saw her lover bending over her, silhouetted against the soft glow of the campfire.
"What's wrong with you?" Gabrielle asked. "You were thrashing around and talking in your sleep, but I couldn't understand you."
"I was having a dream," Xena said softly. "It was a dream about you."
"Was it a nightmare?"
"Well, it kind of ended up that way, but the first part was nice. I dreamed that we were kissing, and then Ares came and locked you up in a cage." She reached up and touched the bard's cheek. Then she put an arm around her and tried to pull her closer.
Gabrielle stiffened. "What do you want?" she asked.
"I just want to hold you. Do you think you would like that?"
"I don't know."
"Well, let's try it and see. Just lie down here with your head on my chest."
The younger woman hesitantly followed instructions.
"Now relax," Xena said, as she wrapped an arm around her companion and gently stroked her hair. "How does that feel?"
Xena smiled. "Do you think you can go back to sleep?" she asked.
"Good. Because that's what I plan to do, too."
She didn't follow her plan immediately, however. Instead, she lay staring into the dark, thinking about her dream. Had she really promised to kill Gabrielle? Yes, she had given her word, but she had said she would do it only if there was no other way to break Ares' spell. Couldn't her own plan to get killed in battle count as that "other way"? She needed more time to think through the options. But right now there was still the hope that Elkton could provide some less drastic solution to the problem. She had to believe that her intuition was right. With any luck, by this time tomorrow night, she would know if it was.
Closing her eyes, Xena listened for several minutes to the sound of her lover's soft sleep-breathing. Then, with a small sigh, she drifted out on her own quiet sea of oblivion.