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|DISCLAIMER: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, etc. are ©copyright MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. I don't own them, I just play with them for a while and, like the good girl I am, I put them back when I'm done...okay, they get a little worn, but hey...I play hard! Absolutely no Copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fiction. It's intended as flattery toward the creators and actors of the characters. All other characters that appear are ©copyright Devlin@xenafan.com This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way (unless, of course, Lucy, Renee, Rob, et al want to make my dream come true and hire me, hah!). Copies may be made for private use only and I'd appreciate if you included all copyright notices and this disclaimer.|
"Do you know that monster even growls when you're asleep?" Xena told the bard.
The two lovers lay wrapped in the soft large towels the warrior had talked Hecuba out of. Xena jumped up to open the food hamper as soon as she heard Gabrielle's stomach growl, chastising her lover for not eating dinner.
"I was just too nervous to eat...I know that sounds weird, but it does happen." She said. "Wow, where in the world did you get all this food?"
"And who did you talk into making these for you?" Gabrielle asked, holding open the cloth that held the round pastries, with the red fruit center that her warrior loved so much.
"I helped your mother." Xena said, never meeting the bard's gaze.
"You, helped make them?" the bards asked suspiciously.
"Well, I bought all the ingredients...that should count as helping." Xena said, grabbing one of the pastries and popping it in her mouth. "And, she makes them almost as good as you. Not quite, but almost." She finished, which earned her a kiss from her bard.
After the two women had eaten their fill and Xena had added a few more logs to the fire, they removed their towels, lying naked in one another's arms, letting the warmth of the fire keep the cool evening at bay.
"This is wonderful, Xe...all of it. Thank you so much, love." Gabrielle whispered.
"You're welcome, but this is only part of your surprise." The warrior said in a sultry voice dripping with desire.
Xena pulled Gabrielle to her, pressing her breasts into the smooth, muscled flesh of the bard's back. She could feel her nipples slide against her lover's skin, the small areas of flesh tightening in arousal. Grasping the young woman's hips, the warrior ground her mound into the bard's firm backside, eliciting a moan from deep in her lover's throat.
"Didn't I tell you I would pay you back?" The warrior whispered, slightly breathless, into the bard's ear, remembering the way her bard had taken her earlier.
Xena pulled the young woman to her even tighter and began to explore the front of the bard's body with strong, possessive hands.
"Is this what you want, my Queen...to be taken by your warrior?"
"Oh, Gods...yes!" Gabrielle exclaimed
"Tell me, my Queen...how would you like to be taken? Hard and fast...will you come for me with my hand pumping inside you?"
Xena pushed her hand into the honey colored curls and swirled her fingers into her lover's wetness, as Gabrielle groaned and thrust her hips back into the warrior.
"Or, would you like it slow and torturous, my tongue just teasing you until you beg me for release?" Xena thrust her hips back at the young woman, her own wetness causing a slick friction between her center and the bard's cheeks.
"Ohhh," Gabrielle groaned helplessly.
"Speechless?" The warrior asked. "Well, then let me tell you what I'm going to do to you, my Queen. I'm going to take you over and over until I've had my fill... as I like and how I please," she forcefully pulled the bard's body harder into hers, "Then I'll take you until you scream my name again and again."
"By the Gods," Gabrielle's whole body shivered in delight as the warrior continued to paint a visual image of what the coming night would bring. As Xena began to carry out her promises, the young Queen's last coherent thought was that the 'getting even' part of their relationship was fast becoming a winner.
"I'll never forget this place," Gabrielle said, looking back at the campsite she and the warrior were leaving in the distance as they rode atop the golden mare.
"We'll have to stop by and visit every time we come through here," Xena smiled, feeling the warm embrace of Gabrielle's arms around her waist.
"Thank you, Xe...for everything," she added, raising an eyebrow suggestively.
"I think I should be the one that's thanking you...besides, I'm not the one who's walking funny this morning." She finished a smug smile of satisfaction on her face.
"Yes, but every bit of soreness was absolutely worth it!" she replied passionately, kissing the warrior's neck.
Xena closed her eyes momentarily reliving the evening's passions. In her most erotic fantasies she never even dreamed Gabrielle would be this kind of lover; so responsive and so willing to try any new type of sensual pleasure. There wasn't a fantasy that Xena had locked in her mind that her bard wasn't willing to make a reality, and not just to please her warrior. Xena though that perhaps the most exciting thing about this beautiful lover of hers was the fact that, deep down, the young Queen's sexual fantasies and appetites, rivaled those of the Warrior Princess.
They rode for a little more than a candlemark before arriving back at Gabrielle's parent's home. Lila was standing outside the barn, tears streaking her face, tightly hugging some small bags and Gabrielle's scroll case to her body.
Both women quickly dismounted and ran to the terrified young girl.
"I got all of your stuff before he could get to it," she sobbed.
"He who...father?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes," she replied shakily. "Gabrielle, he wanted to burn your scrolls!"
"That's right, I was gonna burn them," Herodotus sneered, coming from the barn.
"I didn't think our leaving the inn early last night would cause problems, father," Gabrielle said calmly.
"It did more than cause problems...it caused talk! Every drunk in the tavern last night had something to say about you and that, that...harlot there!"
Gabrielle's eyes turned to green fire and she moved toward her father. Xena grabbed the young woman by the shoulders to prevent her from moving any closer. Later that evening the warrior would be able to see bruises on the bard's shoulders where her fingers had gripped so tightly to the young woman simply to prevent her from flinging herself at the man.
"It's not worth it, Brie," Xena whispered in her ear. Once she heard the soothing tones of her lover's voice, Gabrielle's temper began to cool.
"We'll leave right away," she said to the retreating figure of her father.
Xena began packing their belongings onto Argo, at the same time removing the items she borrowed from Hecuba the previous day. Gabrielle hugged Lila and spoke in quiet, hushed tones to calm the frightened girl.
"Lila, I don't want you to be frightened. As usual, father's mad at me, not you. But, if you ever need to leave here...if you're ever too scared to stay you can always go to the Amazons, they'll protect you. All you have to do is get to the border of Amazon land and ask for Eponin, remember you met her? Ephiny is the Regent, who rules while I'm away. If anything ever happens..." Gabrielle didn't want to frighten her sister with what she thought might happen, but what if their father turned on Lila the way her had with her? The young girl needed a way to find her sister.
"...If anything ever happens, find Ephiny or Eponin and they'll know how to find us, allright?" Gabrielle finished.
Lila nodded her head, not really sure what the circumstance might be where she would have to run away and find the Amazons, but she knew she wasn't nearly as brave as her sister, and would be scared to death to run away from home.
Just then Hecuba came through the door to the cottage, carrying a bundle wrapped in cloth.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle...you know how he is," the older woman said sadly, not mentioning Herodotus' name.
"It's allright mother. I never meant to embarrass you--"
"No, don't ever think that way," her mother tenderly touched her daughter's cheek. "You've done nothing to hang your head in shame over. The men your father talked about were two drunks that Delos had to throw out of the tavern last night." Hecuba reached down and grasped the young woman's shoulders, "Everyone who heard your story last night is so proud of you...proud of what you've become...especially me."
"Why has he always hated me?" Gabrielle finally spoke the words aloud that had plagued her for seasons.
"It's not you, child...it's who he sees when he looks at you. Forgive me, Gabrielle, but I can't tell you more than that...I would if I could."
"I don't understand why you're being so cryptic, mother, will there ever be a time when you can tell me what you're talking about?" Gabrielle asked
"Yes...I'll figure out a way." The older woman said gently, kissing her daughter's forehead.
Gabrielle acquiesced to her mother's wishes, albeit a little unwillingly.
"Take care of your warrior, you'll never find another one like her." Hecuba said as Xena came to stand behind the bard.
"And, Xena...take care of this little one. She'll get on your last nerve, that's to be sure..." Xena chuckled and Gabrielle began to blush at the statement.
"...It'll be good practice for you when you have children of your own."
Gabrielle would have loved to capture the look on Xena's face. The warrior's eyes went wide and she got a look that was a cross between panic and amusement on her face.
Hecuba's remarks lightened the mood as she tearfully watched her daughter and her companion mount Argo and ride away.
"If you do nothing else...protect her," Hecuba mumbled aloud as she walked toward the cottage.
"Ready to stop for the night?" Xena asked the young woman walking alongside her.
She had worried at first when Gabrielle had said she wanted to walk. Her young lover's uncharacteristic silence always tended to worry the warrior, but this time she knew Gabrielle was trying to process all that had happened this morning, along with her mother's cryptic message. So, she rode the mare at a gentle pace and Gabrielle strode alongside at her own natural pace.
Gabrielle knew she troubled Xena when she was quiet, but her warrior did seem to be taking it in stride today. The dark warrior appeared a little worried, so occasionally the bard reached over to lay a hand on the warrior's knee, or to smile up at her, just to let her know she appreciated the space she was being given. When Xena asked if she was ready to call it a day, her feet told her, 'for Gaia's sakes, yes!' It had been more than a few moons since they had traveled like this and the bard thought her body just needed a little time to get into shape again. Her back ached and she wished she were back at the warm spring fed lake in Potidaea.
"I'm more than ready."
Xena noticed Gabrielle stretch and massage her lower back, realizing with that action what the new scent to Gabrielle was. She smiled because the bard probably didn't know it herself yet. Aside from everything that happened this morning, that too probably attributed to the bard's unusual quiet.
Xena dismounted and led them up into the forest. She felt the cool dampness of a stream nearby and followed her instincts until they were at the inlet portion of a wide stream, the water pooling into a small pond surrounded by rocks and forest.
Gabrielle went to relieve herself and found blood on her inner thighs.
"Great! Just what I need...guess that explains the cramps and a backache."
By the time the bard got back Xena had already collected firewood and had very nearly completed setting up camp. From the corner of her eye the warrior watched as Gabrielle rummaged through her bag for a cloth and the small leather belt the bard wore in place of her undergarment this time of the moon.
"I need a bath," the bard said, not inviting the warrior to join her. Xena didn't take it personally and smiled affectionately at her lover. She felt a certain compassion for the young woman whose cycle was much worse than the warrior had ever experienced.
"I'll go hunt up some dinner...take your time, love" Xena said gently.
Gabrielle lay on her stomach on top of a large flat rock, enjoying the feel of the late afternoon sun on her back. She wore only the thin leather belt and the protective cloth, her clothes and staff lying on the rocks next to her.
Her mother's word kept rolling through her mind. It's not you, child...it's who he sees when he looks at you.
Who else could he see but me? Just then a small feeling wormed its way into her brain. Was it real, or had she simply imagined this memory?
"I swear, Hecuba, I'm going to break his neck someday!"
"Delos, keep your voice down, the girls are taking a nap."
"He has two daughters and he, by Gods, better start acting like it! He's treating little Gabrielle like I wouldn't treat my dog."
"I know, brother...I don't know what more he wants ...I'm with him aren't I?"
The flash of memory ended as abruptly as it had begun and Gabrielle thought she must have fallen asleep. A dream...that's all it was. She realized it must be getting late and Xena would get worried about her so, she quickly dressed and walked the short distance back to their campsite, the odd memory tugging at her psyche.
Upon entering the clearing Gabrielle found Xena throwing small chunks of rabbit into a cooking pot along with a few wild vegetables, a small fire had already been started and water boiled in a kettle they used to make tea.
"I guess I was gone for a while...I'm sorry, Xe."
"Don't worry," the warrior smiled, "I checked on you a couple of times and you seemed like you were kind of out of it, so I started without you." She finished with a charming smile that so completely disarmed the young bard; she found her sour mood dissipating.
Okay, why is she being so extraordinarily nice? Gabrielle wondered to herself.
"Okay, Brie...you're on. I put it all in a pot just like you showed me...now do what you do, that I never seem to be able to do, that actually makes it edible." The warrior said wryly.
Gabrielle laughed and started to sprinkle an assortment of herbs into the stew, setting it on some rocks over the fire. The aroma that rose from the pot was testament to the warrior's words. Standing and turning back to her lover, Gabrielle was offered a steaming mug of tea that smelled of mint and raspberries.
"How did you know?" She asked, the telltale sign being the tea her lover always made for her during bad cycles.
"I know you," Xena replied pulling the young woman over to the bedroll she had made up. Argo's saddle had been placed against a fallen log, a couple of extra blankets placed over it as a cushion. She had draped their bedroll over that so Gabrielle would have a cushion to lean her back against.
Xena settled the young woman onto the bedroll, allowing the bard to sip her tea. The warrior rose and quickly crossed to the fire, pouring hot water from the kettle into an empty water skin. Checking to make sure it didn't feel too hot; she brought the object over to the bedroll, and let the bard curl around its warmth. She began rubbing the young woman's back in small circular motions letting the bard lean against her as she did.
"That does feel good...and this tastes good, thank you, Xe." She finished indicating the warm mug of tea.
"There's something in there to help your back and the cramps." The warrior replied.
"But, it'll make me sleepy, won't it?" Gabrielle asked.
"That's right," Xena said as she tucked a blanket around the already drowsy form of her lover. "You take a little nap and by the time the stew is ready, you'll feel much better. Do you want me to lay down with you for a bit?"
Gabrielle nodded sleepily as she felt the comforting warmth of her warrior wrap around her, the palm of her hand now lightly massaging the bard's sore abdomen.
Xena secretly loved the feel of the bard in her arms this way, and she couldn't help but smile at the 'little girl' look on her lover's face. Gabrielle sometimes tried to suffer in silence with the physical pain, and Xena could never bring herself to admit to the young woman that she felt useful and needed in this capacity. It was hard for the warrior to describe the feeling in words, even to herself. She had so little to offer the woman she loved, in physical terms. She did have abilities, however, and if those skills offered Gabrielle's life any small comfort at all, that's what the warrior's heart took pleasure in. When Xena felt ill or out of sorts she wanted to dig a hole and escape from humanity. Gabrielle had learned not to get too close on these occasions because the warrior would snap at the first sign of comforting. Gabrielle, however was a cuddler.
Xena leaned against the saddle and relaxed at the pleasant feel of Gabrielle's back against her chest. She buried her face in the bard's hair and breathed deeply. Her senses were supernatural compared to most mortals. Whether it was something honed, as were her warrior skills or a gift from the Gods at birth, Xena used them to their fullest extent. She felt something stir in her heart as she breathed in the distinct scent of her lover, along with the sweet, metallic smell of blood that would linger for the next few days. The bard fell asleep quickly in Xena's comforting embrace, the warrior gently rocking and whispering soft sounds of love and comfort.
"Hi, sleepyhead...hungry?" Xena asked when she saw Gabrielle stretch and yawn.
"Uh huh," the bard nodded. "That smells good," she continued as Xena set a small wooden bowl in front of the woman and Gabrielle laid a loving touch on the warrior's forearm. "I feel a lot better, thanks."
The warrior smiled her reply. "Your mother even provided dessert," she said, unwrapping the small cloth covered bundle that Hecuba had made up for them. Inside was a loaf of nutbread and the small round pastries the warrior had become so fond of.
The mention of her mother put a slight frown on the bard's face, and she remembered the dream she had earlier. Quietly finishing their meal, Xena then cleaned up the dishes and returned to add more logs to the fire and sat down on the bedroll, next to Gabrielle.
"Dinar for your thoughts?" The warrior bantered.
"I've been thinking about what my mother told me today," the bard looked away from Xena's gaze and began absently playing with a piece of her hair.
"I thought that might be it."
"Xe, what do you think she meant?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena had steeled herself for this question. She wouldn't lie to her partner, but she dreaded the emotional turmoil this could put her bard through if Xena's hunch were in fact true. She also knew that Gabrielle was a smart woman and had learned to read people quite well.
"Why don't you tell me what you think about all this first." The warrior replied.
"I don't think Herodotus is my father." The bard stated flatly.
Xena was momentarily stunned at the bard's admission. She had thought Gabrielle would skirt the issue or mull it around before coming to this conclusion. It was obvious the bard had been thinking about this. Xena had to admit, however, this was the same conclusion she had come to.
"I think it might explain a few things," she said hesitantly, settling her hand on Gabrielle's knee, simply to give comfort from the contact.
"Like why I look nothing like him or Lila...these feelings of always being different...why he hates me so..." the bard trailed off.
"Or," Xena drawled the word out, placing a gentle finger under her bard's chin, tilting her face until their eyes met. "We both could be letting our minds and emotions get the better of us here. We could be blowing this way out of proportion. Herodotus could be your father, and just mad as Hades that he lost his oldest child to, who he thinks, is a murderous Warlord. Brie, we've both seen natural fathers treat their children worse than this. I just want you to be open to all the possibilities for his behavior."
"What about what mother said...it's about who he sees when he looks at me. Who does he see...my real father?"
"Okay, I'll play Hades advocate here. Maybe she meant he sees me...he probably thinks I have you under my spell and you're a slave to me and my Warlord desires. That would make any father see red."
"There's just one flaw to that theory, Xe. My father has treated me this way all my life." Warm tears began to roll down the bards cheeks and splash silently into her lap.
"Oh, Brie," the warrior gently embraced the weeping bard. "Why haven't you ever told me any of this?"
"I guess I was just too ashamed...I didn't want to admit it even to myself, but now all the pieces seem to fit too well for it to not be the truth."
"I can understand the way you feel, love. But there's no reason to be ashamed in front of me...remember, my father tried to kill me when I was a child."
The two women sat that way until a breaking log in the fire hissed, and sent sparks flying into the darkness of the night sky.
"I had the oddest dream when I was by the pond this afternoon, Xe." Gabrielle again started the conversation. "I don't know if it's something I made up or it was real. I was maybe five or six seasons old and I remembered my mother and uncle Delos arguing."
Gabrielle told Xena all about the dream, that the bard was fast becoming convinced was a memory, and again the silence stole over the two.
"I don't think it's coincidence, Xe...I don't think he's my father...and you think that too, don't you?"
"Yes, love...I do." The warrior said softly, enfolding her lover in strong arms, cursing her inability to take this pain away from her bard.
Then, holding Gabrielle in her embrace she felt a possessive twinge strike her and she wanted this woman in her arms to know that she would always be there, not just for now, but for always. She wanted the bard to know that she wanted no other...would never, could never...be with another; that a piece of the bard's heart and soul had been planted within the warrior. It was then that the warrior began to think of a way. How do you show the woman you love all these feelings you have in your heart? You marry her.
"I sure can tell you feel better today," the warrior called down from her steed.
"I feel great," Gabrielle replied keeping up the swift pace the warrior let her companion set. "What did you put in that tea anyway?"
"Trade secret, my love. I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you," she commented, lowering her voice an octave. "Take it easy, though, Brie...I don't want to have to carry you into Amphipolis."
"Okay, I'll try not to push it. Of course, I figure we'll get to the inn oh, about dinnertime...well, and the way your mom cooks..." she let the thought trail.
Xena let out a loud laugh as she dismounted and grabbed Argo's reins to walk beside the bard.
"If you ever again accuse me of thinking solely with a certain part of my anatomy," she raised her eyebrows suggestively," "I'll remind you of this," the warrior finished jabbing her finger lightly at her lover's bare midriff.
Both women laughed, the warrior watching Gabrielle's face for any signs of sadness or depression. Much to her happiness, the bard seemed to actually be taking the previous evening's revelations in stride. The young woman had finally admitted, before sleep overtook them both last night, that she almost felt better knowing that it wasn't anything she had done that caused Herodotus to treat her the way he had for so many years.
"Gabrielle?" The older woman smiled at the young bard, and quickly encompassed her in a warm hug. "Where's Xena?"
"Hi, Cyrene. Your daughter is stabling Argo...she'll be in shortly." Gabrielle smiled back at her lover's mother. Cyrene was one of the few family members, between she and Xena that the bard expected to take their news well. Gabrielle also truly loved this woman who reminded her so much of her warrior. It was easy to see where Xena's hard work ethic, honor and integrity came from.
Cyrene kissed the young woman on the cheek and gave her a hug usually reserved for her daughter, but Gabrielle had become like a daughter to her and she loved this young woman who had so completely stolen her own daughters heart. If only Xena could see what others see she would know how much this young woman loves her.
There was something different in the bard's eye, or maybe it was the way she carried herself, but Cyrene knew that something had changed. It was as if Gabrielle looked older, without actually aging. More mature. That was when the innkeeper noticed the pendant around the bard's neck. The shape of each heart looked exactly like the armor of Xena's breastplate, and on closer inspection, the two hearts joined to form and X.
"She finally told you," Cyrene exclaimed, holding the pendant in her own fingers.
Gabrielle's smile, coupled with the light that sparkled in her eyes was all the answer the innkeeper needed.
A few heartbeats later, when Xena finally came through the entrance, her mother practically knocked her over with a fierce hug. The warrior, who had always been a little uncomfortable with public displays of affection in the past, thoroughly surprised her mother by returning her affections.
Xena looked at her bard over her mother's shoulder with a questioning glance. Gabrielle returned the gaze, shrugging her shoulders and raising her hands in the air as if to say, I didn't say a word and I have no idea why she's acting that way!
"Well...it's good to see you too, mom," the warrior said hesitantly, with a half smile.
"You finally did it...you finally told her you love her!" Cyrene said, not breaking the embrace.
The remaining patrons at the bar started to look around and see what all the innkeeper's happiness was about. It was about now that Xena noticed people gawking at the large warrior and then looking the young bard over. The more her mother gushed, the redder the warrior's cheeks got.
"I'm right...you did tell her?" Cyrene continued to say for all to hear.
"Yes, mom...I told her," Xena said lowering her voice and disentangling herself from the older woman. "Can we not tell the whole tavern?"
"Then why are you turning all red? Don't tell me she turned you down?" Cyrene asked innocently.
Gabrielle was enjoying this display immensely. Never had she ever been witness to the Warrior Princess as flustered or embarrassed as she was this minute. The bard nearly burst out laughing at her lover's predicament. No one can humiliate a child quite as well as a mother and even though she was a fearsome warrior, Xena was still a little girl to Cyrene.
"No, she didn't turn me down." Xena replied.
"By the Gods, Xena, don't tell me you haven't consummated the relationship yet?" Her mother asked, astounded.
Gabrielle had just about lost it with that remark and the fact that Xena's face was completely red now. The young woman was one heartbeat away from laughing out loud at her lover's dilemma, when the dark-haired warrior noticed her bard.
Xena was very uncomfortable right about now. It wasn't bad enough her mother was telling the whole bar about her new found relationship with Gabrielle, and she really didn't want to talk about her sex life with her own mother, but when Xena looked over and saw her bard grinning from ear to ear at her plight, she knew it was time to retaliate.
"Gab-ri-elle..." the warrior drawled.
The bard knew that look in her lover's eye and clamped a hand over her mouth to keep from bursting out laughing
"Gabrielle, so help me Goddess, if you laugh...if you so much as have a smile on your face underneath that hand, I'm going to pick you up and throw you in the horse trough!"
The bard was fighting a losing battle and she knew it, but was holding on valiantly, when a man from the bar called out, "what's consummated?"
Gabrielle nearly fell over she burst out laughing so hard.
"Okay, that's it." Xena said as she quickly grabbed the young woman and threw her over her shoulder, heading for the door.
"Xena!" Gabrielle shouted.
A large framed man walked through the entrance to the inn just as Xena got to the door. His dark hair and blue eyes were unmistakable and he smiled broadly at his sister and the small bundle that fought her grasp.
"Xena...if you've been fishing, you forgot to throw this one back...she's not nearly big enough to keep!"
"Toris!" Gabrielle yelled.
Xena's brother just continued to laugh heartily at the young bard's dilemma.
"Xena," Gabrielle pleaded. "Please, let me down."
"Are you sufficiently embarrassed yet?"
The warrior brought the woman over her shoulder and caught her in an embrace before her feet touched the ground.
"Good...then we're even," she finished, kissing the tip of her lover's nose and smiling down at her.
Gabrielle slapped the warrior's arm playfully and did the same to Toris who was still watching the couple with a little bit of envy.
"All right children..." Cyrene said as the three guiltily smiled at her. The older woman couldn't keep up the stern pretense, however, and smiled back.
"I know you two must be hungry...I'll have some food out here in no time," she said as her voice trailed off into the kitchen.
Xena and Gabrielle were later in getting to the inn than they had hoped and dreams of a hot meal left their heads as the last few patrons were having some drinks at the bar. The two women smiled in delight, however, when Cyrene brought out plates of steaming food and mugs of ale.
I already have Mellie making up your room, Xena...Toris, take the girls bags up for them, dear." Cyrene said as the women dove into their food.
"We can get those, Toris...don't worry." Xena said to her brother.
"No problem, I was headed to bed myself, I'll take them on the way up." He gave all three women a hug and carried the bags up the steps to the back of the inn.
Xena sat sprawled across the bench with her legs up and a mug of port in her hand. She watched through heavy lidded eyes as her lover and her mother caught up on the kind of inconsequential talk the warrior was no good at. A delicious warmth spread within her body and she knew it was partly due to the fact that this was home. There was a certain comfort factor to being in the inn where she and Lyceus, and Toris had grown up and played. She felt her reflexes begin to relax a little.
"So, when do I get to go to a wedding?" Cyrene asked in her no nonsense way.
Xena's eyes popped open and she immediately looked over at Gabrielle to gauge her bard's reaction to the question. The young woman blushed slightly, but never said a word. Gabrielle yawned deeply and stood from the table with a sweet smile on her face.
"I'm...um, I'm going to bed. I hope you two don't mind, but I'm really exhausted." She said, the truth in her words evident by the fatigued look of her features.
The young woman hugged Cyrene and wished her a good night and squeezed her warrior's shoulder as she passed. Xena moved to take the young woman's hand in her own and gently brushed her lips across the back of the bard's fingers.
"I'll be up shortly, love," Xena said as her bard smiled and reached down to kiss the warrior's temple. The warrior's eyes closed and a look of pleasure crossed her features at the bard's gentle touch.
Cyrene was astonished when she saw her daughter's reaction to Gabrielle's touch. She was surprised that Xena not only allowed the young woman to touch her in front of the older woman, but even more taken back by the absolute look of gratification on the warrior's face.
Once Gabrielle was gone, Cyrene looked with worry at her daughter. "I take it I said the wrong thing?"
"I haven't asked Gabrielle to marry me yet, mother," Xena said without looking up.
"Sweet Artemis, young woman, what are you waiting for? Women like that girl upstairs only come around once in a lifetime, Xena. If I were you--"
Xena held up a hand to stop her mother's tirade. "I said yet, mom." She smiled. "Actually, I just decided I would ask her last night, but it's a little more complicated than you might think. Gabrielle is Queen of the Amazon Nation; I can't just throw her over my shoulder and carry her off. I have to petition the tribe for permission to marry their Queen and then I have to make an official petition to Gabrielle. The whole thing has to be witnessed by a round of Amazon's. And then there's the fact that Gabrielle might not even want to marry me." She said this last, not wanting to even think of such a possibility, but it had to be considered. Gabrielle may love her, but did she really want to commit her life to a warrior?
"Then there's been a lot of stuff going on in Gabrielle's life lately and I'm not exactly sure she wants to make a decision like this right now." Xena quietly explained everything they had gone through in Potidaea, including the suspicions about Herodotus.
"What an amazing girl," Cyrene started, "I'm proud to have her as an addition to our family," the older woman placed a loving hand over the large, callused one of her only daughter.
"So, how many Amazon's is a round?" Cyrene asked her daughter with a smile.
"Forty," the warrior answered. "I've got a plan, though. I'll need your help. Tomorrow I'll write a message to Ephiny explaining everything. It should only take a week at most to get them here. If you can find someone in the village to deliver the letter for me, we'll be in business." She beamed.
"I don't know who is luckier...You or Gabrielle." Cyrene answered.
"Welcome to my world," Gabrielle smiled sarcastically at Cyrene as Xena brusquely moved through the kitchen, past the two women, and out the door. The warrior had barely grunted a few words at Gabrielle and was gone.
"She just gets that way sometimes," the bard said trying to reassure the older woman, wondering a little herself at her lover's humor that had been steadily getting worse over the last few days.
The older woman threw a handful of flour on the wooden board she was about to knead some dough on. Gabrielle stood next to her, doing the same. The bard enjoyed the time she was spending at the inn with Xena's family. They were accepting and loving of their daughter's lover, and Gabrielle wished she felt as comfortable around her own mother as the woman who now stood next to her.
They had been in Amphipolis for ten days, Xena and Gabrielle both taking pleasure from helping Cyrene at the inn. Xena had borrowed a shirt and pants from her brother and pitched in to help her sibling finish off the addition of more rooms to the inn. Gabrielle was completely within her element and assisted Cyrene in the kitchen during the day, moving into the tavern to tell stories in the evening.
Cyrene's business always picked up when Gabrielle was in town. She was an exceptional bard and even folks that didn't usually frequent the tavern, would stop by to hear some of her tales. Each night the patron's left her dinars in appreciation, and each night she tried to give them to Cyrene. When the innkeeper refused, the bard knew exactly what she would use the extra money for. She searched the village until she found a silversmith and put her money down for her gift.
"How in the world do you put up with that, Gabrielle?" Cyrene asked, bringing the bard into the present once again.
Gabrielle smiled one of her usual 'take it in stride' smiles and responded. "Some days are better than others. Oh, she's hardly like this at all anymore; you should have seen her when we first started traveling together. Back then if I could get her to share a complete a sentence in one day, I'd be happy."
Gabrielle blew a wisp of hair from her forehead, wiping across it with her forearm. A small smudge of flour found it's way to her cheek as she stretched muscles that had begun to ache from candlemarks of kneading dough. She explored her own soul and felt herself smile at the journey her heart had taken on it's way to the unconditional love she now felt for her warrior.
A knock on the kitchen door put a temporary halt to their conversation. Cyrene wiped her hands and pulled open the wooden door expecting some type of deliveryman. Instead a young boy from the silversmiths shop stood with a small package.
"Good morning ma'am, Calas asked me to bring this 'round to the young lady," he said, indicating Gabrielle and holding out the package.
"Oh, wonderful," Gabrielle exclaimed, grinning. "Cyrene, would you take it for me, my hands are a mess."
The older woman took the small package and gave the youngster a sweet cake, sending the excited boy on his way. "What is it?" Cyrene asked.
"A present for Xe...open it will you, so I can see it?" The bard said rinsing the sticky dough from her fingers in a bucket of clean water.
Gabrielle stood next to Cyrene drying her hands as the older woman opened the leather wrapping.
"Oh, Gabrielle...it's beautiful!" Cyrene admitted.
The pendant had been a design that the bard had toyed with in trying to envision something as unique and special as the one Xena had presented her with. It had to indicate that it was literally a piece of Gabrielle, but also be symbolic of the sharing of their lives. She had finally found an artisan who was willing to work with her and the final product was more than she could have ever hoped for.
The pendant was silver, on a heavier chain than the one Gabrielle wore. The bard's initial was in the center, the letter G was fashioned in a script that mimicked the scrollwork of Xena's armor. On top of the initial lay a quill, but not the typical writing quill Gabrielle used everyday. This quill almost looked the same; a feather tapering to a point, but instead of a point to hold ink, there was a sword's hilt; a feather that was a sword. To the bard, it spoke of warrior and bard as one.
"Cyrene, would you hold on to it for me? If Xena even thinks I'm trying to hide something from her she'll be like a kid on Solstice Eve. Patience isn't exactly one of her many skills, you know."
The warrior's mother laughed, understanding that, in some ways, adulthood had changed her daughter very little. She put the carefully wrapped package in the pouch at her waist and patted it.
"It will be safe from prying eyes here." She said.
Xena's bad mood was coming out in the worst way possible. She had sent off a message to Ephiny the day after they had arrived in Amphipolis telling of her wish to bond with Gabrielle and requesting the Regent's help. Three days later a rider arrived at the inn with a message for Xena from the Amazon Nation. Xena recognized Ephiny's seal and opened the scroll to a short, but encouraging message.
So the old tree that stands alone in the forest has finally fallen?
I've been waiting years for them to cry 'timber' over you!
It may take me a little more than a week to get things prepared on this end.
I'll be coming along...wouldn't miss the look on Gabrielle's face for the world!
It had been almost 7 days since she received the message from Ephiny and still no sign of the Amazons. The more time that went by the more nervous Xena got, until she was beginning to take it out on everyone around her, including Gabrielle. This is great. By the time they get here and I can ask her to marry me, I'll be lucky if she's even speaking to me!
Just then her ears picked up a sound like the whisper of a boot in the dirt. The warrior smiled broadly and folded her arms across her chest.
"It's about damn time you got here!"
"Do you know how much I hate that you can do that?" Ephiny's voice hissed.
The two women clutched one another's forearms in a gesture of friendship.
"I slipped into town by myself," the regent whispered, "I've brought forty-five of the Amazon Nation's best...few extra so no one will scream about protocol. They're camped in the next valley...so what's you're plan Warrior Princess?"
"Plan?" Xena asked. "Actually, my plan was just to get you here...I thought you might...you know, have a little input once you got here." She finished with a shy sort of grin.
"Just so happens, I do," the Regent smiled and proceeded to share her idea with the warrior.
Cyrene was just showing Gabrielle how to put a glaze on the sweet cakes she had made when Xena walked into the room.
"Hi," the warrior said nervously, beginning to lose a bit of her resolve.
"Hi," both women said in unison, not able to look of from their task.
Xena walked over to her mother, standing next to Gabrielle, and quickly kissed the older woman on the top of the head.
Cyrene looked at her daughter and then at Gabrielle who had finished the glaze and glanced up at the warrior.
"That means 'I'm sorry mother, and I won't be such a grump anymore'," Gabrielle explained Xena's kiss to Cyrene.
Xena's eyes darted around the room searching for some means of escape, her ears beginning to turn red under her mother's scrutiny.
"Yea...what she said," the warrior sheepishly admitted. "Uh, mom...I wonder if you could...I want to..." Xena looked at her mother, trying to convey with her eyes, her need to be alone with Gabrielle.
"Oh..."Cyrene said. "I suddenly remember a pressing engagement." She finished with a smile and was immediately out the kitchen door.
"Hey, are you baking bread or just bathing in flour?" The warrior teased, noticing the flour on the bard's cheek.
Gabrielle smiled and stood on her toes to gently brush her lips against the tall warrior's.
Xena tenderly cupped the beautiful woman's face, wiping off the smudge of flour. "Brie, I'm sorry I've been such a bear the last few days. I'd like to make it up to you if you'll let me."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow suggestively, quickly thinking of all the ways she'd like her warrior to make it up to her.
"Well, there is that," the warrior said in a sultry voice, "but, I was thinking more along the lines of a picnic...just the two of us? I'd like to bring you up to the lake...the one with the waterfall I told you about."
Gabrielle's eyes lit up. "Why, warrior...are you asking me out on a date?" Gabrielle teased.
Xena took Gabrielle's hand and brought her fingers up to the warrior's lips, feeling traces of the sweet honey glaze on the bard's fingers. The warrior brought the bard's index finger to her lips, the tip of her tongue reaching out to slightly graze the sticky digit. Her warm mouth enveloped the tip of the finger and as she swirled her tongue lightly, she began a slow sucking motion that the bard instantly felt between her legs. Xena closed her eyes, breathing deeply, as her mouth suddenly filled with the taste of her bard and sweet honey.
"Yes," the warrior whispered her answer, reluctantly releasing the hold her tongue had on the bard's finger.
"Huh?" Gabrielle asked, momentarily confused her face flush with sudden desire.
"The answer to your question...it's yes," Xena repeated.
"Oh, Gods," Gabrielle said breathlessly, "what was the question?"
"It's breathtaking, Xe...did you and Lyceus really jump into the water from there?" The bard pointed, indicating the high waterfall that slid over rocks and flora to spill into the lake below.
"Yep. I was in a lot better shape back then, though."
"Oh, really? You mean..." Gabrielle drawled as Xena gently pulled her down from Argo, the bard's body pressing against the warrior's, "...This body was actually better at one time?"
The corners of the warrior's mouth curled upward, her eyes narrowing slightly. "With age comes experience, and with experience...more skills." She said running her tongue against the length of the bard's ear.
Gabrielle shivered at the warm moistness. "If you acquire any more skills, it just may kill me."
Both women chuckled as they reluctantly pulled apart.
"It's starting to get a little chilly, why don't you grab some firewood and I'll setup our dinner...and anything else we may need," she finished with an inviting smile.
Gabrielle walked off a short distance into the trees and Xena turned back to the mare and began unloading the packages they had packed into the saddlebags. The warrior knew her bard was hungry and would probably want to eat right away, but Xena was still trying to get her stomach to quit doing flip-flops.
The picnic, which was a way to be alone with her bard it's true, was also a ruse to get her out of the village. The Amazons would enter Amphipolis and be quartered in the north end of town. When Xena was prepared to begin the ceremony, Gabrielle's presence would be requested, saying a petitioner requested an audience with the Queen of the Amazons. That's when the warrior figured she would probably throw up all over someone's boots. Not that she didn't want to bond with Gabrielle. She knew she loved the bard deeply and would never find another who could ever take the young woman's place in her heart. It's just that this was just about everything in this world that made Xena sick at her stomach; crowds, speaking in front of crowds, and above all, baring her soul to a crowd.
The warrior shook herself from her worrying and once again began emptying their treasures from the saddlebags. She heard a rustling noise behind her.
"That was fast," she smiled, not yet turning toward her bard.
The bard didn't say a word.
"Brie?" Xena said, turning toward her lover.
Xena's blood ran cold at the sight in front of her. A tall warrior, the angular features of her face framed by her short blonde hair held a hand over Gabrielle's mouth, the bard's eyes wide in fear. In her other hand the warrior pressed the tip of a stiletto type dagger just inside the bard's ear. The stranger, as well as Xena, knew the bard might live with a sliced throat, if her warrior could get to her in time, but the young Queen would never live once the dagger plunged into her ear, scrambling her brains.
Xena's finger twitched slightly against the metal of her chakram, her eyes darting around her to see armed men among the trees. Pulling herself up to her full height, her eyes transformed to pale blue, her voice as cutting and cold as ice when she spoke.
"Let her go or I'll cut your vicious heart out, you pathetic little bitch!"
Gabrielle felt the woman behind her flinch slightly at the warrior's tone, the bard's own body shivering at the timber of her warrior's voice.
"Why, Xena...aren't you even going to introduce me to your little friend here? Or is she a lover...wife...slave?" She spat out the last word, jerking the small woman in her arms as she did so, tightening her grip on the dagger.
"Remove your weapons and your armor, Xena" the blonde commanded.
Xena continued to stare down the woman, not moving to divest herself of her weapons.
"Do it!" the blonde screamed. "Do you think I'm fucking around?" The blonde quickly slid her hand from Gabrielle's mouth to the bard's throat, wrapping her large hand around her neck; she slowly started to squeeze the life from the young woman.
Xena loosened her chakram, then undid the straps that held her scabbard to her back, throwing both weapons on the ground at the blonde's feet.
"Xena, no," Gabrielle whispered hoarsely as the woman behind her tightened her grip on the bard's throat to silence her.
"Let Gabrielle go, Kirren...this is between me and you." Xena said, dispassionately, trying to keep her voice steady and devoid of emotion. She knew she couldn't let Kirren leave this grove with Gabrielle or the chances were good her bard would never live to see her lover again.
"Let her go...you don't want to fight me...it's a fight you can't win." Xena stated.
The blonde chuckled, a deep evil laugh as Gabrielle began to scream.
"Xena, behind you!"
The warrior was so intent on watching Gabrielle; she lost track of the men behind her. Just as Gabrielle screamed Xena turned her head only to feel the heavy strike of a mallet across her temple. The warrior's knees hit the ground and she turned her head back toward her lover.
"Gab--ri--elle," Xena groaned as she fell forward, her unconscious body hitting the dirt with a loud thud.
Gabrielle screamed out her lover's name and struggled in her captor's grasp, not caring for her own safety.
The tall woman Xena had called Kirren suddenly jerked Gabrielle by her hair, moving around to face the bard. Her long fingers pulled the young woman's head back, exposing her neck, pressing the point of the dagger just under the bard's chin until Gabrielle felt a warm drop of fluid roll down the skin of her neck. Realizing it was her own blood; the bard ceased her struggle and listened to the taller woman.
"I'd like to have you around a little longer, Gabrielle, to torture your precious warrior, but don't test my patience. I'll kill you if I have to, and trust me, little one...I don't kill women quickly. I make it very, very slow...and very, very painful. So unless you want me to gut you from this furry little patch," she grabbed the bard's crotch, " to your scrawny neck, I'd quit trying to get on my bad side!"
"Tie her hands and put on a blindfold." Kirren pushed the bard back into the waiting arms of a soldier who began to carry out the blonde warrior's order.
Walking over to the still form of the Warrior Princess, Kirren rolled the warrior over with the toe of her boot, squatting down on the balls of her feet she grinned.
"Oh, how the mighty have fallen, eh, Xena?" the warrior whispered. "Guess we'll be able to have that showdown after all. See, I have the one thing that will guarantee you'll show up, don't I?" Kirren looked back at the bard as she was being hoisted into the saddle of a waiting horse and laughed.
"Let's go...tie her hands and feet." The warrior indicated Xena's unconscious form as she mounted behind the blindfolded bard. "Let's not make it too easy for her."
Darkness was beginning to descend over Amphipolis and Ephiny paced nervously around the inn.
"Something's wrong. Xena told me she would be back before nightfall." The Regent said to Eponin. "Ep, take a few riders and wander out to that lake...make sure everything's okay."
"And, if they're just otherwise engaged?" The warrior shot back.
"Then try not to let Xena throw you over the waterfall." The Regent said with a wry smile.
Eponin pulled up and caught the reins of the golden mare. Argo's saddle was still on and her saddlebags hung askew on the mare's rump.
"Easy girl," the warrior said in a soothing tone as she looked around to get her bearings. Spurring her own mount on, she quickly made her way straight for the area of forest surrounding the waterfall. Just as the Amazon riders broke through the copse of trees, they saw Xena's unconscious body.
Feeling for a pulse, Eponin was relieved when she felt the even pounding in the warrior neck. Dried blood along the side of the warrior's face made her injury look worse than it was.
"You two search the area for any signs of the Queen," Eponin nodded toward her two companions, but she already knew it was hopeless. If Xena had been bound and knocked unconscious, there was little chance Gabrielle would still be around.
"Tarazon," Eponin indicated the fourth rider of their party. "Get back to the Regent and tell her to get up here quick...there's been trouble."
For the next candlemark Eponin cleaned Xena's wound and tried to gently revive the dark-haired warrior. Xena's eyes slowly started to flutter and open, the blue eyes narrowing in an attempt to push down the pain in her head and focus.
"Gabrielle!" Xena cried out, suddenly remembering the events that had led up to this moment.
The warrior and Eponin both scrambled to their feet at the approaching sound of thundering hooves. Ephiny jumped from her horse before the animal had even come to a stop.
"Xena, are you allright?" she asked noticing the blood that still oozed from an angry looking gash at the warrior's temple, the skin starting to discolor. "What happened to Gabrielle?"
Before Xena had a chance to answer the two Amazons that Eponin had sent in search of any signs of their Queen returned.
"Regent?" One of the warriors held out Gabrielle's staff. "We found the tracks of riders...perhaps twenty. They're making their way into the northern hills."
Xena grabbed the stave from the warrior's hands as if to connect with the bard herself from the contact with the wood. Looped around the top of the staff was a thin strip of leather that was tied around a large white feather. The plume had been dipped in blood. Every Amazon in the group recognized this symbolic gesture of revenge.
Xena's thought processes were beginning to shut down on her. She couldn't get her mind to focus on anything but the terrified look in Gabrielle's eyes before the warrior was rendered unconscious. Even now, as the only woman she loved...ever would love, had been torn from her; a deep-seated anger filled her body. Darkness within her begged for release, her barely contained rage flowing through her veins along with her blood.
The warrior turned away from the eyes of the Amazons, her limbs shaking as she struggled to keep her tenuous grip on reality. Suddenly not caring whose eyes watched her, she slowly sunk to her knees and let out a tortured howl.
The warrior's scream came from deep within her chest and it echoed throughout the hills. The lonely cry of anguish sent chills up the spines of the warriors who surrounded her, the creatures of the forest fearfully hastening towards safe hiding places. The sound echoed throughout the forest and against the mountains until there was only silence again.
Gabrielle felt the horse she was on draw to a halt just as the last echoes of her lover's anguished cry dissipated into the air.
"Well...looks like Xena's awake." Kirren laughed. "She must have gotten the little present we left for her," she said to no one in particular, knowing the meaning of the blood-covered feather wouldn't be lost on Xena.
"I need to relieve myself," Gabrielle asked the warrior behind her.
"Hold it in!" Kirren sneered.
"Please..." Gabrielle pleaded.
With an exasperated sigh the warrior slid off her mount and roughly pulled the bard down to the ground.
"Let's get some rules taken care of right now, shall we, your highness? I have no intention of killing you, Gabrielle but I will if I have to...do you believe me?"
"Yes," the bard answered.
"The blindfold stays on no matter what. If you take it off, then you force me to kill you. If you try to escape...I'll kill you, if you annoy me in any way possible...I'll kill you. Now, is there any part of that you don't understand?"
"No," Gabrielle replied. You're trying to tell me you're a nut case...I get it.
Kirren began to drag the bard off the path and practically threw her to the ground. The tall woman released one of the bard's hands and stood back.
"Are you going to just stand there and watch me?" Gabrielle asked, her modesty overcoming her better judgment at questioning the woman. Even though she was unable to see, she felt the tall woman staring at her.
"If you have to go bad enough, you'll go!" she hissed.
The bard did what she had to do and stood up. Before she knew it she was once again being hoisted into the saddle in front of her captor.
Gabrielle wasn't about to give in to this woman. Kirren may hold all the cards, but the bard knew Xena wouldn't stop until she found her. The young bard had a stubborn streak and a hot temper once provoked, but she pushed all these emotions down and buried them. She needed to play this smart. No need to give Kirren a reason to hurt her in any way. Gabrielle thought about it and realized what the tall woman said was probably true. If she was going to so much trouble by blindfolding the bard, she must intend to release her at some point.
Gabrielle also took the threats to her life seriously. This Kirren, whoever she is...oh, let me guess...another one of Xena's old army buddies, is most definitely not working with a full deck. She says she won't kill me, but that look in her eyes...I think if I gave her half a reason she would.
The bard could feel the pace the horse were being driven at and knew they must be leagues away from Amphipolis by now. She could feel the jerk and pull of the horse as the animal began to navigate over hilly terrain and she started to worry about Xena trailing the fast moving party. All the while, the young Queen fingered the beaded bracelet on her wrist. When they left the Amazon village Ephiny had called it a friendship bracelet, as she tied the leather together at the young woman's wrist.
Gabrielle slowly worked at the ends of the bracelet until she had it untied. Pulling at the beads that made up the piece of jewelry, she carefully flicked one of the wooden beads off the end of the leather twine, never knowing where it landed. The bard began to count and when she thought a quarter of a candlemark had gone by she pulled another bead off the string. All she could do was hope it would be enough for Xena to follow.
Kirren smiled smugly to herself. Xena hadn't been nearly as much of a challenge as she thought she would be. I have to keep an eye on this one, though. She's smarter than Ares thinks, this little one. Why would an Amazon Queen be traveling with the Warrior Princess? The tall warrior felt the Amazon's body fall against her as the horse began a steep ascent. She felt the smaller woman's warmth between her legs and against her chest, smirking at the realization of why the former Destroyer of Nations had the young woman around. The blonde haired warrior chuckled to herself as the young Queen tried to pull her body away from hers by grabbing onto the saddlehorn. I know I promised I wouldn't touch her now, but maybe after I defeat Xena and become Ares Chosen, I'll take this little one for myself.
Kirren laughed aloud at the prospect. A laugh that sent chills running across Gabrielle's skin.
The sound of agony and grief washed over the Amazons as they stood there, listening to the last of the echoes from Xena's tortured cry. Eponin made a move to comfort her friend, but Ephiny's grasp held her back. The Regent shook her head back and forth, waiting to see what the Warrior Princess would do with the anger that was obviously building within her.
Xena's breathing became labored as she fought for control of her own will. She gripped hard and tried to push back the darkness that threatened to overtake her soul. A staggering sense of emptiness filled the warrior. Her world had just fallen apart and the pain that filled her soul was beyond anything she had ever felt before.
Xena's knuckles turned white as they continued to tightly grip the wood of her lover's staff...Gabrielle's staff.
Suddenly Xena found herself tenderly stroking the staff, no longer holding onto the cherished wood with a frantic grip, she caressed it's smoothness almost idly with her thumb, The feel of her bard replenishing her senses; hope beginning to fill the emptiness. As if her darkness and anger were visible entities, Xena breathed deep and the emotions were inhaled, buried heavily with her past once more.
Jumping to her feet the warrior turned sapphire eyes, now filled with clarity, toward the Regent.
"She's got Gabrielle, but this means she's still alive," the warrior said, pulling the bloody feather from Gabrielle's staff. "We've got to find Gabrielle before that witch changes her mind, though!" Xena finished as she started toward Argo.
"Xena, wait a minute," Ephiny said grabbing the dark warrior's arm. "We need some kind of a plan. Who took Gabrielle, and why?"
Xena shrugged away from the Regent's grasp, checking Argo's reins and saddle before jumping into the saddle.
"We don't have time...I'll tell you on the way." Xena looked down pleadingly at Ephiny.
The Regent was more than a competent warrior, but the fear she saw in Xena's eyes was enough to convince her that immediate action was necessary if they were to save the Queen. Making her decision, she barked out a few short commands.
"Kesta and Tanti...you two ride up front with Xena and I, and take us to where the tracks start. Amazons, mount!"
Forty Amazon warriors were an impressive site on horseback and they galloped along, quickly becoming infected with Xena's sense of urgency. The Warrior Princess sent a quick prayer to Artemis that they would be enough.
"Looks like they've split up into 3 groups," Kesta reported to the Regent. The young woman had a small build for an Amazon, but she knew how to use the sword strapped to her waist, and her tracking abilities were equaled only by the Warrior Princess. "There's really no way of telling which group has the Queen or even if they're all headed for the same destination."
"What do you make of this?" Eponin rolled a small round object between her index finger and thumb.
Ephiny wrapped a steel grip around the warrior's wrist and pulled Eponin's hand under the light of the torch. Xena knelt beside the two women as the Regent took possession of the small bead and held it up closer to the firelight.
"It's a bead. From a necklace maybe?" Eponin said as they examined the small, carved bead, tinted blue with dye. "Was Gabrielle wearing--"
The Amazon warrior was stopped abruptly by Xena's shaking head. "She only had her pendant on." Xena's voice said with a catch. The dark warrior stared intently at the round object trying to remember what Gabrielle had been wearing when they left the inn that day. Shaking her head in defeat, she lowered her eyes to the ground and watched as the light from the flame flickered across Ephiny's ankle.
Ephiny followed Xena's eyes and stopped to rest on the ankle bracelet she wore. Ripping off the beaded anklet, the Regent held it up for Xena to compare with the solo bead.
"I gave one to Gabrielle as a friendship bracelet..." Ephiny's voice trailed off, cursing her own stupidity for not realizing it sooner.
"It means Gabrielle came this way," Eponin said excitedly.
"It means more than that," Xena said, "It means she's alive...that's my girl!" For the first time since Gabrielle's capture, the warrior's eyes held a true glimmer of hope.
Ephiny quickly passed the bead around to show everyone what they were looking for and more torches were lit. It was about a week till the new moon and the darkness that fell once the sun had gone down made tracking nearly impossible. They had to walk, bringing up their mounts at a distance for fear they would trample some bit of evidence. They had searched for another candlemark, but in vain. They would have to backtrack and follow one of the other sets of tracks to search for more of Gabrielle's signs.
"Xena," the Regent quietly pulled Xena aside. "We have to stop for the night."
"No! We keep going." Xena began to pull away, but Ephiny held to her arm.
"Xena, I understand how you feel, but this is getting us nowhere. I'm afraid in the dark we'll miss some sign that Gabrielle is trying to leave. Besides, these hills are getting steeper, I don't want anyone going over the edge of a cliff in the dark."
Xena fought hard within herself as she listened to the Regent.
"Xena, we're Amazons and we have a hard time picking our way through these hills. If we need to stop for the night then I'm sure they have to also."
Xena couldn't refute Ephiny's logic and reluctantly agreed to make camp.
They ran a cold camp so as not to alert Gabrielle's captors of their whereabouts. It was a quiet group as they all thought about the joyous reason they had come to Amphipolis, and how it had all turned out so horribly wrong. The Amazons sat in small groups, talking in quiet voices or cleaning their weapons. Ephiny noticed that Xena stayed slightly apart from the rest. The warrior sat on the ground a little ways off, just within the shadow of a tree, sharpening her sword.
As Ephiny approached she could her the sound of Xena's whetstone sliding across the metal of her blade.
"You should eat something," the Regent said, offering the warrior a thick piece of jerky.
Xena shook her head, never stopping the rhythm her hands set as they sharpened the sword.
Ephiny didn't want Xena spiraling into a depression and she saw the frightening display the dark-haired warrior put on when they found the Queen's staff, so the Regent played her trump card.
"Gabrielle wouldn't want you acting this way," She said.
Xena stopped the motion of her hands without looking up. Finally she lifted her head and shook the dark locks from her eyes. A bittersweet smile appeared on her face.
"You're right...she wouldn't." The warrior replied, holding her hand out to accept the piece of dried meat.
Ephiny breathed a sigh of relief and sat down next her friend.
"You told me Kirren was in your army...was she a soldier?" Ephiny asked.
"She was an assassin," Xena replied as she chewed. "I used her for what I needed her for...she was good at her job. Even then I didn't like the look in her eyes. She didn't just kill people for money or even for sport...she killed simply for the pleasure of it. The things she did..." Xena's voice trailed off as her eyes took on the faraway look of a revisited memory.
"Eph, I was a soulless, sadistic monster in those days and this girl made me afraid. I put up with her because I needed her, but pretty soon I knew I needed to get her out of my camp. I thought about just killing her...you don't have to watch your back so much when you end partnerships that way. She must have caught wind of what I was feeling because one day she up and challenges me in front of my men...I had no choice but to take her down."
"I take it she lived through the match," Ephiny referred to their present predicament.
"It wasn't much of a match at all," Xena replied. "This was a girl who was a paid assassin. She knew a thousand ways to come up behind you and kill you without a sound, but she was a pretty pathetic warrior. I disarmed her half a dozen times, but she kept coming back for more. I resorted to slicing some pretty big cuts into her hands just so she couldn't pick up her sword any longer. When she finally gave up she told me she'd come back some day...someday when she was a better fighter than me, and she told me she would defeat me and take everything I had. Looks like she did." Xena finished with a grimace filled with bitter irony.
"Why didn't you kill her?" Ephiny asked.
"I just couldn't do it." The warrior looked straight at the Regent. "She was only fourteen, Eph." Xena said.
"Sweet Artemis," the Regent responded, shaking her head sadly.
"So, my past come back to bite Gabrielle again. When I kill, someone like Callisto tracks her down. When I don't kill...I guess you get the picture. When will I stop doing this to her?" Xena said as her eyes began to mist over.
"We'd all put in for a new past if we could, Xena...you weren't the best person in the known world, but Gods know, you weren't the worst either. I think we both know that Gabrielle has always been aware of the possible consequences of loving a former Warlord."
"I'm afraid, Eph," the warrior finally admitted in a soft voice. "Afraid of what I might become if something happens to Gabrielle. I can feel it starting already. Don't let me...don't let me break my promise to Gabrielle."
Ephiny looked questioningly at the warrior. Xena lowered her eyes and spoke in a low whisper.
"I promised her if anything ever happened to her that I wouldn't become a monster. What if I can't control it...what do I do then?" Xena asked as, once again, she turned her blue eyes, brimming with tears, toward the Regent.
"Promise me you won't let me break my promise. I'd rather feel your blade in my heart than to ever hurt Gabrielle. Promise me, Eph."
"I promise," the Regent softly said.
Long moments of silence passed until Ephiny heard the sound of the warrior's sharpening stone running across the metal of her sword. Neither woman spoke again, but Xena felt a strange comfort in having the Amazon seated beside her. If she didn't look up, she could almost imagine it was Gabrielle.
"I don't believe this! That irritating little brat has turned her into a pathetic mess! She should be tearing up the countryside by now, instead she's sitting there whining about her past...how broken does that record sound."
The God of War slumped into a chair and stroked his jaw thoughtfully. His plan had been simple, or so he thought. Kidnap the bard and watch Xena freak. Much to his disgust Ares had watched the two women become lovers and knew he had to make a move before Xena got any further away from him than she already had. He figured if Xena knew the psycho that had Gabrielle was probably going to torture and kill the brat, she'd lose it and Ares would be right there to pick up the pieces and offer his chosen an army to exact her revenge with.
"She's just sitting there!" he bellowed. "What is it about that irritating blonde?" he mused.
"I've still got time." He smiled to himself. "It's a long way to the castle. You will be mine, Xena."
Gabrielle was sore all over from the wild ride she had endured on horseback, not to mention the way she was pushed and dragged whenever she was led somewhere. She felt a rope being tied to the bindings on her wrist and she was pulled down to the ground and onto a blanket.
Kirren fed a length of rope in between the Amazon's wrists and tied the other end to her belt. She used as few words as possible to explain to the young woman that she better lie down and not dare touch her.
"I...um...what if I..." Gabrielle stammered.
"What?" Kirren hissed.
"Well, I...I tend to move around a lot and I usually end up using whoever I'm sleeping with as a pillow..."
"Then you'd better stay awake because if I feel you touch me, I'll cut your hand off!" Kirren spat.
"Look, I'm not trying to piss you off here. I'm trying to be honest so I don't get myself killed." Gabrielle said with a shaking voice. She was tired and knew she wouldn't be able to stay awake for the rest of the night.
Kirren moved off the bedroll, reaching down and with a grunt lifting the bard to her feet, pushing the young woman to the ground until her back was pressed up against a tree. Gabrielle felt the length of rope go around the tree and attach again to her wrists.
"Now, shut up." The woman said, flopping down to her bedroll once more.
"Don't I even get a blan--" Gabrielle's answer was cut short by the blanket that hit her in the face. Carefully maneuvering her bonds, she was able to cover herself with the threadbare blanket.
Some time had gone by and Gabrielle could still not make herself fall asleep. She knew she would need her strength, but all she could think of was how much her heart ached for her warrior. For the first time since the ordeal began, Gabrielle allowed herself to give in to the tears that had threatened all evening. She prayed to any Gods that would listen to watch over her warrior and protect her.
The young queen sat cross-legged and tucked her feet up under her, beginning a simple meditation, one that had always relaxed her in the past. Xena taught her that the goal was to clear your mind of all thoughts, but as the bard drifted closer to that elusive, peaceful state, all her thoughts...all that she was, turned to the woman who held her heart...
The whisper came to her as light as the gentlest of caresses.
"Gabrielle?" The warrior's mind questioned.
"Xena...I don't think I can make this last very long, I'm not even sure how I'm doing it in the first place." The bard's faint voice came to her as a dream and Xena closed her eyes tightly. The corners of her mouth curled upward as she was rewarded with the vision she hoped for.
Gabrielle stood before her, wisps of honey-colored hair being lifted by an unseen breeze, the sun reflecting its brilliance in her emerald eyes. This was the image that always filled the warrior's mind when she thought of her bard. Xena's favorite part of the vision was the way her own image was always reflected back to her from within the emerald green depths.
"Gabrielle..." Xena advanced.
"No, Xena! If you touch me I know I won't be able to hold on to this."
"Gabrielle, where are you? Has she hurt you?" Muscles clenched in the warrior's jaw at the thought of her bard being subjected to Kirren's cruelty. A brutality meant for the warrior.
"Xena...it feels as if we've traveled forever...she's pushing the horses very fast. I can't see anything...she has me blindfolded, but I know we're going up some pretty steep hills." The bard's lips trembled as she fought her emotions for control.
"Gabrielle..." Xena's strong voice brought her back to the moment. "I'll find you...there is nowhere Kirren can hide you from me," she hissed, her long fingers wrapping themselves into fists at her side.
"But...she's taking me so far, Xena... She finally lost the control she had been fighting for and lowered her head, silent tears caressing her cheeks. She slowly lifted her eyes to have tear filled emerald green meet sapphire blue.
The same tears glistened in Xena's eyes. "Gabrielle..."
The vision of Gabrielle started to shimmer and Xena closed her eyes tighter, hot tears slipping from the closed lids, willing the bard back to her. "Don't give up, Gabrielle, I never will...I'll find you!"
Gabrielle choked back a sob, "Xena...it feels like we'll never be together again..."
Xena quickly closed the distance between the two of them and wrapped the bard in her arms. She held to her fiercely as the young woman's sobs shook her small frame. Xena pressed her lips to the golden locks and breathed in the scent of Gabrielle, the smell of sandalwood and summer rain. The warrior slipped her hand under Gabrielle's chin and tilted her face upwards till their eyes were locked. Xena placed the palm of her hand over the pendant.
"Brie, I'm always with you...right here."
Pressing her lips gently to the soft, full ones of her lover, Xena then moved to lean her cheek against the bard's forehead, stroking her lover's soft hair with her fingers.
"Don't give in to the despair, love, that's what she wants."
All too soon the embrace was broken as Gabrielle looked up into Xena face. As always, the taller woman's beauty stunned her and she felt her grasp on the dream state she entered, fading. She took a step back to take in the beautiful warrior and slowly reached her hand out to her. Her voice was filled with defeat, "I love you, Xe, but I'm afraid you won't be able to find me...she's taken me so far..."
"Gabrielle," Xena said tenderly as she reached out her hand to the younger woman. Their fingertips brushed together and multicolored sparks shimmered in the air, Gabrielle's image fading before her eyes, "I love you too, Brie...remember, there's no place that far, my love..."
Gabrielle began the morning with a sense of renewed hope. Her dreamscape encounter with her lover had filled her with a sense of peace once again. They rode at the same pace as the previous day until the bard guessed it was late afternoon. The horses were brought to a halt and the young woman unceremoniously dumped to the ground. Gabrielle was getting good at tucking and rolling as soon as she hit the ground. As soon as the horse beneath her would come to a stop and she felt the tall rider behind her dismount, she would brace herself for a fall.
Slowly chewing the stale bread that was placed in her hands, she could feel quite a bit of activity around her as it sounded like riders had just made their way into the camp.
"It's about time you got here," Kirren bellowed. "Now you can take care of the brat!"
Gabrielle was surprised as she was quickly hoisted to her feet and thrust into a very solid body. Her hands, which had braced her body for an impact, felt the hard leather and metal of armor. A leather gloved hand reached out and almost gently lifted her chin. Although Gabrielle still wore her blindfold, the warrior wearing the armor must have been taller than Xena, as the bard felt her neck craned upward.
"What is your name?" The armor clad figure asked.
"G--Gabrielle," she replied. The young Queen had been surprised to hear the gentle voice of a woman come from the figure looming above her.
"My name is Devlin. I'm sorry we must meet under these circumstances."
"Not half as sorry as I am," Gabrielle blurted out before thinking.
Devlin chuckled at the small blonde's statement. So young and innocent, but her features belied a pride and a nobility that Devlin had seen in Amazon women before.
"Sit over here." The warrior carefully helped the bard to the ground. "Have you eaten?"
"I had a piece of bread in my hand, but I lost it during our introduction." The bard said.
Again the warrior chuckled and placed a cloth bundle in the smaller woman's lap, carefully opening the edges, Devlin took Gabrielle's smaller hand and placed it on the food inside.
"Cheese...meat...olives," she said as she let Gabrielle's fingers touch each of the offerings in her lap. "Are you thirsty?" The warrior asked.
When Gabrielle nodded, she felt a waterskin placed at her feet.
"Eat and get some rest, we'll be travelling through the night from here on in. If you need anything or if anyone bothers you, call my name."
"Devlin," Gabrielle said.
"Yes?" The warrior questioned.
"Just testing," The bard said, feeling her hunger return with a vengeance at the first bite of food.
"I didn't want anyone else to hear me because frankly I was afraid they'd think I was nuts!" Xena spoke in a hushed tone to the Regent as they rode their horses up the steep, hilly terrain.
They had risen before dawn, The Warrior Princess could have sworn Apollo's chariot began it's daily journey through the sky quite a bit earlier than any other morning, but that could have just been her own wishing. As the first rays of light made there way to the forest floor, the Amazon warriors started to comb the ground for signs of riders or Gabrielle's elusive beads.
"You mean to say Gabrielle actually talked to you...answered you?" Ephiny asked in amazement.
"I can't give you any proof, Eph, only that it wasn't a dream, it was as real as you are to me now. She said they were still heading up into the hills and that she hadn't been hurt yet. The best news was that Kirren had her blindfolded."
The Regent caught on quickly. "Why would you blindfold someone you're going to kill later?"
"Right!" Xena replied, excitedly. "It only makes sense to blindfold someone if you're going to let them go so they can't return to your hideout."
"Our big problem right now is that they have a heck of a lead on us and they know where they're going, we don't. We might be able to catch a break if Gabrielle can leave some more signs." The warrior finished.
As if on cue, Kesta came barreling down the slope farther to their right. As she neared Xena and the Regent, she held her hand aloft, showing off her prize.
"We're on the wrong path...I found one of the beads!" The Amazon shouted.
The warriors pulled up and cursed the delay, but thanked Artemis for their good fortune. Finally finding the path Gabrielle had obviously taken, they began finding beads spaced out every quarter of a league or so. They came to a flat open area nestled in the hills; the trampled space told the warriors that this was where Gabrielle's captors had spent the night. Continuing their ascent up the mountain slope, the group found two more of the bard's beads.
The pace Xena and the Amazons had been keeping was relentless. As they began to close in the captors, Xena began to worry more about Gabrielle. The warrior knew that if they came bursting through the underbrush on horseback, the first thing Kirren would do is slit Gabrielle's throat...she would have nothing to lose by not doing it. Please Artemis...she's your chosen. Keep Gabrielle safe.
"Do you need anything else?" Devlin's warm voice asked the young Queen.
"Um...a trip to the bushes would be nice." Gabrielle said, not knowing why she was suddenly becoming embarrassed at this point.
Devlin guided the woman by her elbow, careful to lead her around the fallen trees. After they had walked a sufficient distance from the camp, the warrior reached over to untie both her wrists.
Gabrielle delighted in the freedom and rotated and massaged the joints to get the blood flowing again. The warrior made no move to remove the blindfold and Gabrielle assumed that rule was still in effect. She was surprised however when the warrior led her into the forest instead of dumping her at the side of the road as Kirren had done.
"I'm going to turn around so you can have a little privacy, Gabrielle. I know it's not much and I apologize, but I need to make you aware of two things. If I let you escape, I forfeit my life to Kirren..."
"And, the other thing?" Gabrielle asked, surprised by the warrior's apparent honesty.
She could feel the tall warrior leaning in toward her. Grasping the bard's hands in her own strong grasp Devlin pulled the bard against her till the young woman could feel the warrior's breath on her ear.
"I have extremely good hearing...don't do anything foolish." Devlin returned.
Gabrielle's skin broke out in goose bumps at the tone of the warrior's voice. It was very nearly a whisper, but still strong and commanding. She's not a nut case like Kirren, but I bet she'd still cut me down where I stand.
Gabrielle nodded her understanding and felt the warrior turn away, hearing Devlin's footsteps stop a short distance away. She wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth, but she wondered about the woman who was as gentle with her as her own warrior, but obviously worked for a cruel, sadistic woman.
When Gabrielle was led back to their camp she could hear the snoring sound of men asleep. They had ridden hard and were now taking a short nap before traveling through the night. Gabrielle was exhausted herself and quickly fell asleep on the blanket Devlin had provided.
Feeling as though she had just closed her eyes, the bard woke to a thunderous grinding sound. It felt as if the ground were shaking beneath her as she wondered if they were in the middle of an earthquake.
"Devlin?" she called out.
"I'm right here, Gabrielle. It's nothing to be frightened of, don't worry." The warrior answered.
"What is that noise?" The bard asked.
"Gabrielle, it would probably be best if you didn't ask any questions from here on. Come on," the warrior said as she guided the bard to her feet and helped her mount a horse that seemed much further off the ground than Kirren's mount was.
The party moved out and Gabrielle felt a cool dampness on her skin. The ground they traveled across seemed flatter than the hilly slopes they'd been riding up and down. The bard had actually begun to grow accustomed to not having her site. She seemed to hear so much more now. The beat of the horses hooves sounded like it was being echoed around them, and the faraway drip of water seemed to tell the bard they were in some sort of cave. Gabrielle could even hear the creak of leather coming from the warrior's armor, behind her.
She had slept so little in the last couple days; her mind started to grow fuzzy. She began to worry that she had no other way to leave a trail for Xena to follow since she had used up all the beads on the bracelet. As her thoughts carried her toward the comfortable feeling of her warrior's strong arms around her, she drifted off to sleep.
"I don't understand it," Ephiny said for perhaps the third time.
The Regent indicated the trampled area where the captors had obviously made camp, along with the numerous horse tracks that littered the area. They were fast losing the light of the day, but it looked like all signs of the party simply vanished. Scouts had circled the area again and again, but were unable to pick up any additional tracks. It was if the group had flown away entirely.
"It has to be intervention from a God, then." Eponin said. "But, Gabrielle is Artemis' chosen...what God would be foolish enough to go against her?"
Xena's skin crawled with the knowledge.
"There's only one God I know who would be that arrogant. Ares..." The warrior drawled out.
A spark of light grabbed the Amazons attention and in another instant they were looking at the God of War himself.
"Ah, Xena...I knew you'd call for me sooner or later." Ares said as he stared appreciatively at the warrior.
"I wasn't calling you at all, Ares. What have you done with Gabrielle?" Xena asked.
"Me?" The God asked innocently, "I haven't touched her." He finished smugly.
"Then it's one of your little followers. You put Kirren up to this, didn't you...Why?"
"Xena...aren't you forgetting, my dear. Kirren is one of your little followers, not mine."
A flicker of pain crossed Xena's face as she thought about the implications of the statement.
"Where are they going, Ares?" Xena asked in a steady, even voice.
"Hmmm, let's see...I really don't know, but I suppose I could make a few inquiries on the irritating little blonde's behalf. It'll cost you, though, Xena." He whispered over her shoulder.
Ephiny watched as the God of War came up behind Xena, stroking her arm tenderly. The Regent also saw the warrior's muscles jump at the God's touch. Ares dropped his voice until it was a low, seductive whisper.
"You know what I want in return, Xena. I want you by my side once again. I'll give you an army of your own and you can demand exactly the kind of revenge you want against Kirren. You know you want to. After all, she's got your beloved Gabrielle, doesn't she?"
Again the pain visibly washed across the warrior's features.
"Give it up, Ares...it's never going to happen." Xena said firmly.
"Oh, really? Even if I could deliver little Gabrielle into your arms this very minute...now, wouldn't that be worth it? Wouldn't you join me for the sake of the woman you say you love" Ares purred the words into Xena's ear.
The warrior's brow furrowed together at the battle going inside her brain. Wouldn't she do anything to save Gabrielle's life, even die for her?
"Dying is easy, warrior...would you live for her?"
Hecuba's admonition came back to her.
"I think, if there was no other way...if it would save Gabrielle's life...or if it would keep her from harm..." a sharp stab of pain clutched at Xena's heart as she said the words. "Yes...I think if it would keep her safe...I would leave her."
The words passed through the warrior's head and she felt the pain again as it clutched at her heart. Did she love Gabrielle enough to do this for her...give up to Ares?
"Love is an emotion, Xena, and it can fool you ...Love can be used against you, to trick you into giving up everything you hold dear. You will only end up hurting yourself, the one you love, and even others around you,"
Xena looked up into Ephiny's eyes. The Regent stood there waiting to hear Xena's answer to the God of War; her hand involuntarily went to the hilt of the sword at her waist. Ephiny held her breath, silently praying she would not have to carry out the promise she had made to the warrior the night before.
Xena smiled the same bittersweet smile that Ephiny has seen on the woman's face last night. It was easy to tell the dark-haired warrior thought of only one thing.
"No deal, Ares," Xena said the words as she looked into the Regent's eyes.
"What?!" Ares bellowed. "Do you know what you're refusing?"
"Yes, Ares, I do. If I say no to you there's every chance that Gabrielle may die, but if I join you it will kill her just as surely as any blade would, maybe not all at once, but a little bit every day, until the inevitable happens."
Ares face began to turn red in his anger as he leaned close to the Warrior Princes, but spoke loud enough to be heard by the rest of the Amazons.
"Just remember this, Xena...if you say no to me, she'll still die a little at a time, I can guarantee you that. I'll let that psycho bitch torture your precious Gabrielle, one drop of blood at a time until you won't even recognize the body that's left!"
Tears streaked the warrior's face as Ares left a burst of smoke and flame in his wake as he transported himself away. Sinking slowly to one knee, Xena shook her head.
"Eph...what have I done?"
"Something Gabrielle would be proud of," The Regent answered.
Gabrielle felt her body jerk forward as she woke and Devlin's protective hand reached out to steady her. Suddenly the ground beneath the horse's hooves changed from the solid sound of the ground to the click that their shoes made on brick. The bard soon found herself being helped down from the huge mount and being led through a number of stairwells and hallways. The sounds around her were reminiscent of the castles she had been in, but she knew of no fortresses up in the northern hills.
"She's your problem while she's here," the bard heard Kirren say. "Make sure she doesn't get into trouble...or you know who pays the price, don't you, Devlin?"
"Yes, mistress," Devlin's stiff voice answered.
Kirren turned to the warrior. "How is it Devlin that that you're the only one around here that can make 'yes, mistress' always sound like fuck you?" Kirren asked.
"I don't know, mistress," the warrior answered, a hint of amusement in the tone of her voice.
"You'll have to head back out immediately...that damned warrior tracked us faster than I thought." Kirren's voice went on, ignoring the warrior's comment.
She always manages to sound like she's pissed off at somebody, Gabrielle thought to herself.
Devlin silently led Gabrielle along more halls, carefully guiding her through a door that the warrior shut behind them. Devlin began to untie the bard's wrists, tossing the rope away.
"Close your eyes and only open them a little at a time until they become used to the light." Devlin instructed.
Gabrielle felt the blindfold being lifted off her eyes and did as she was instructed.
"Wow, that feels better, thanks," she said to the warrior's back.
Devlin turned toward the bard and Gabrielle couldn't help staring. The warrior was slightly taller than Xena with broad shoulders and muscular arms. She wore a sword strapped to her back and leather and brass covered her chest, abdomen, back, and shoulders. A chain mail cape was attached to her shoulder protectors, thick bracers covered both forearms, and she wore one leather glove, presumably on her sword hand. She wore a white shirt under her armor and brown brushed leather pants, that tucked into knee high boots.
The warrior ran her fingers through her sun bleached locks a little self consciously under Gabrielle's frank gaze. It wasn't the warrior's close-cropped hair that Gabrielle stared at, but her eyes. The color of blue cornflowers, of her own lover's eyes, stared back at the bard.
A pounding on the door interrupted the two women.
"Enter," the warrior said cautiously.
A young woman of perhaps fifteen summers entered the room.
"Good, Lara...this is Gabrielle." The young girl gave a tentative smile in Gabrielle's direction.
"She needs a hot bath and a good dinner. Can you take care of that for me?" The young girl nodded her head.
Devlin was busy throwing some things into a small leather bag as she talked.
"And, let Attius bring it all down here. I don't want you coming into this end of the castle without me here, allright?" Again the girl nodded her head and hurried out the door.
"Are these your quarters?" Gabrielle asked as she looked around at the comfortable surroundings.
"Yes, you should find it suitable for your stay, though."
Another knock and a soldier Gabrielle recognized from the group that had kidnapped her entered the room.
"The mistress wants you to bring the Amazon to the map room." He repeated Kirren's order.
"We're right behind you," Devlin answered.
Devlin and Gabrielle followed along behind the soldier and the warrior leaned over to whisper in the bard's ear.
"Remember, Gabrielle...Kirren isn't a woman to be fooled with. If you want to go on to live a long life, do what she says immediately and without question. Can you handle that?"
Gabrielle searched the blue eyes that held her own and silently nodded her head.
"Long time, no see...sit" Kirren commanded as soon as Gabrielle stepped into the room.
Kirren indicated a seat at a table where a parchment, ink, and a quill had been laid out. Gabrielle did as ordered and looked from Kirren to Devlin, watching the way the blue-eyed warrior's jaw clenched in anger when she thought Kirren wasn't watching her.
"You are going to write a little note to your Warrior Princess. As you can see I've already added the particulars about how she and I will meet on the battlefield, one fortnight from today. What's going to get her here is knowing the fact that you are alive and well. So do your little bard thing and write a brief message telling her you're safe."
Gabrielle made a move to pick up the quill and felt her wrist locked in Kirren's iron grip.
"Don't even think about sending any kind of a hidden message, your highness, or I'll know!" Kirren whispered.
Gabrielle felt like writing Dear Mother, Athens is nice, wish you were here, but the bard remembered Devlin's warning and didn't think Kirren would get the joke. She'd probably just plunge the quill into my heart. I bet Devlin would get it, though.
At that thought the bard looked up to find Devlin watching her with a face as impassive as ever, but her blue eyes smiled as if she could read the bard's thoughts. Kirren's voice made the bard jump.
"It doesn't have to be fucking Socrates, just tell her you're allright!"
Gabrielle tried to be as succinct as possible. She believed what Kirren told her about hidden messages, but she was a bard after all and could make a market list sound like high drama. The bard could only pray to Artemis that Xena had a good memory. She handed the parchment to Kirren and the tall woman read it over and over.
"Looks safe enough. Do you have a ring or a signet with you...something with your seal on?" Kirren questioned.
Gabrielle thought for a second and held her pendant up. Rolling the parchment up, Kirren tilted a candle until the warm wax dripped onto the scroll. Holding it out for the bard, Gabrielle pressed the hearts into the pliable wax.
"Signed and sealed," Kirren said as she handed it to Devlin, who took the note and carefully placed it inside the leather across her chest.
"Come, on, Gabrielle...I'll take you back downstairs." Devlin said, motioning for the bard to rise.
"Guard!" Kirren shouted. "Take her back," she motioned to the soldier who leered openly at Gabrielle, then to Devlin she continued. "I need to go over something with you."
The blue-eyed warrior frowned as Gabrielle was led away.
Devlin quickly made her way through the hidden passages of the castle, arriving at the open door to her quarters just in time to see one soldier holding Gabrielle's arms behind her back as the other prepared to rip her top from her body. His eye caught the large pendant and he moved to grab the prize. A searing pain came from the piece of jewelry and shot into his hand.
"It burned me," he howled in pain.
The other soldier roughly turned Gabrielle's body to face him and made a grab for the piece. He jerked back with the same reaction as soon as he touched the pendant, blisters popping up on the tips of his fingers.
"I think she's a witch," Devlin said casually walking into the room.
The three turned to look at the warrior, Gabrielle still slightly unnerved by the soldiers reactions to her pendant, and the soldiers moving behind Devlin as if for protection. The warrior turned toward the first soldier and looked at his fingers with concern.
"I've seen them shrivel up and fall over from this kind of magic." Devlin said. "Actually...I wouldn't be surprised if something else didn't shrivel up and drop off," she finished looking at the soldier's crotch.
A look like terror planted itself on both men's faces as they bolted for the door.
Devlin chuckled at the sight and asked Gabrielle if she was allright.
"You aren't a witch...are you?" she said with a slight grin.
"No! I can't understand...I mean I have no idea what happened. Xena gave me this necklace."
"Maybe she put a spell on it?" The warrior said thoughtfully.
Gabrielle smiled at the thought.
"Want to let me in on the joke?" Devlin said, bending down slightly to make eye contact with the bard.
"She put a spell on me allright, but not like you might be thinking." Gabrielle confessed with a blush.
Devlin watched the young woman and a feeling of envy stole over her. She envied this Xena, a warrior she had never met, and her ability to capture the heart of a woman such as Gabrielle.
"Well, I'm off to meet with this warrior of yours." Devlin lowered her voice to a whisper, "Do you have a message for her?"
A thousand words ran through the bard's mind, but as she reached the palm of her hand up to cover the pendant on her chest, she chose only four, "she holds my heart. Please, tell her that she holds my heart."
Another twinge of envy shot through the warrior as she nodded her head and pulled a key from a pouch at her waist. "Keep this main door locked, although I don't think any more of the soldiers will be bothering you," she said with a smile. "By the way, what does this warrior who holds your heart look like?"
"Tall, beautiful, piercing blue eyes," Gabrielle said, blushing slightly as she looked up into the blue gaze of Devlin's stare.
Moving to open the door at the sound of a knock, Devlin allowed a man into the room, two buckets of steaming water in his hands. Walking to the back of the room, the warrior pulled the curtains apart that separated the bathing area from the rest of the room. The older man seemed to possess an unseen strength as he easily dumped the contents of each bucket into a large wooden tub.
"Gabrielle, this is Attius...if you need anything at all, just ask him. He'll come down a few times a day to bring you food and check on you. Attius, my friend...this is just between us, eh? We wouldn't want the mistress to find out, would we?"
The warrior flashed a charming smile and Gabrielle wondered how many other workers in the castle defied Kirren's wishes for a glimpse of the blue-eyed warrior's smile.
"I'll be gone the better part of two days, Gabrielle. Please, your highness," Devlin added with a small grin, "try to stay out of trouble."
Gabrielle thought of her own blue-eyed warrior, and how often Xena had said those very words to her, the bard's heart ached to see her even as Devlin quietly closed the door.
The Amazon scouts had spent the last day and a half traveling for leagues in every direction. Xena even began retracing their route; second-guessing the beads they thought had been a sign from the young Queen. It was midday, and the Warrior Princess rode into the Amazon camp at the base of the huge cliff. At the bottom of the solid face of rock had been where they last saw the tracks made by Gabrielle's captors.
The rest of the group argued that since Ares was obviously a part of Gabrielle's abduction; he could have just transported the whole group to some, unknown to them, destination. Xena had to explain that wasn't the way the God of War operated. Even to get her back. Transporting individuals, yes, but she had never heard of whole groups of people at a time.
Two Amazons rode up just as Xena dismounted, fatigue showing in the way the warrior carried herself. She pulled Argo's saddle off and let the horse graze the area, the mare deserving a rest.
"Riders approaching, warrior," the scouts shouted in Xena's direction. "They carry a flag of truce."
Xena jumped up just as a blonde haired warrior, flanked by two of Kirren's soldiers, rode into their camp. Ephiny saw the look in Xena's eyes and she went to the warrior's side.
"Xena, let's at least hear them out." The Regent said.
Devlin would have known the Warrior Princess without Gabrielle's description. Xena stood a head taller than any of the Amazons around her, and she was indeed beautiful. If the stories about her were true, however, Devlin had to wonder what it was about the woman that was capable of holding on to a heart as pure as Gabrielle's.
"You are the Warrior Princess?" Devlin asked. She hadn't bothered with an answer before continuing, which was good considering Xena wasn't answering. "Here's my show of good faith," Devlin finished, tossing Gabrielle's sealed parchment toward the warrior.
Xena caught the parchment, never releasing the mounted rider's gaze. The warrior prided herself in being able to judge someone's heart simply by looking into their eyes. What Xena saw surprised her. She saw no malice or evil in the eyes the color of her own.
Finally looking down at the scroll in her hand, Xena tenderly drew a finger across the wax seal. Gabrielle's pendant had been used; it's indentation staring back up at the warrior. Breaking open the seal, Xena read the words from Kirren and a small note at the bottom in Gabrielle's own handwriting.
Devlin relaxed slightly as Xena read the note. The blond warrior barely turned her head as Xena handed the scroll to an Amazon standing next to her. Too quick for Devlin to stop her, Xena jumped up and jabbed her fingers into the warrior's neck. Devlin felt her muscles go weak, falling from her horse, as she struggled to pull air into her lungs.
"I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain...another thirty seconds and you'll be dead. Tell me why I shouldn't just kill you right here?"
Devlin squeezed her eyes shut and tried to focus. Kirren had told her about this particular ability of the warrior's, but nothing could have prepared her for the feel of imminent death such as this.
"If...I don't...come back...Gab...ri...elle...is dead." Devlin rasped.
Xena seemed torn, but once again jabbed at the warrior's neck and Devlin sucked in a huge mouthful of air. Wiping the blood from her nose the warrior sank the rest of the way to her knees, trying to compose herself.
"Why in a fortnight?" Ephiny asked Devlin.
"It should take you that long to get to the arranged meeting spot," Devlin said hoarsely.
"Then how is it Kirren will kill Gabrielle if you don't make it back?" Xena asked without looking at the kneeling warrior.
"I didn't say we were keeping Gabrielle at the meeting spot...only that Kirren wants to fight you there."
"Why there, then?" Ephiny questioned again.
This time Xena answered. "Because it's where I defeated her the first time."
Devlin nodded her head with a sad smile. Mounting her horse once again, Devlin looked back at the warrior. "Don't follow me...any deviation from the instructions will end in your Queen's death, and I think we both know, warrior, that it will not be a quick death."
Devlin turned her horse and ordered the soldiers to move out ahead of her. The two men rode ahead and Devlin very quickly leaned down from her saddle and spoke to Xena.
"I have a personal message from Gabrielle...she says that you hold her heart, Xena. Is there an answer?"
Devlin's eyes darted toward the two soldiers who rode on ahead of her; still Xena could see no sign of betrayal in the blond warrior's sparkling eyes. Something akin to jealousy quickly passed through Xena's mind as she thought of this warrior with eyes as blue as her own, delivering her message.
"Tell her if I hold her heart, then she belongs to me...and. I'll let no one take what is mine!" Xena growled the last part of the message.
"I have a feeling she already knows that, warrior, but I'll tell her just the same." Devlin smiled and turned her mount away, confident that she would not be followed.
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