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"Good morning, sleepy head, did I wear out you again last night?" Xena asked playfully.
"Never!" Gabrielle stood and went over to give Xena a big hug.
"What's that for?" Xena asked as she returned the hug then found the bard's hungry lips.
As the kiss ended, Gabrielle said, "Does it have to be for anything? I just thank the Gods I love the most beautiful warrior in all of the known world, even though a fortress wall had to fall on her before she realised I was in love with her."
"Well, you were kind of hard to figure out too, you know, " Xena mimicked the bard in a girlish voice, "He's sooooo cute, Xena!"
"Oh yeah? figure this out, O Warrior Princess," Gabrielle responded as she dragged Xena down onto the bedroll for another lovemaking encounter.
"There she is," the woman indicated with a nod at the target in her line of sight. A strawberry blonde had just entered the noisy tavern. Apparently alone, the young woman searched for a table in the busy room and found one in the far corner. The two strangers watched her every move contemplating a timely interruption.
The woman wore a black cloak that discreetly covered her long dark curly hair. She didn't bother to inform the man as to the identity of the bard's protector and travelling companion. If she had, the man would never have agreed to her little scheme. She only told him she wanted to make the blonde's other half jealous and she let him assume it was a man. She knew Thaddeus' ego would force Xena into some kind of confrontation, which is why she chose him. She also didn't bother to tell him that the warrior could probably kill him within a blink of an eye. Hell, even she could take Thaddeus in a fair fight. Sure, she was putting his life in danger but Thaddeus owed her a favour and she supposed she could intervene if things really got out of hand. She hoped Xena wouldn't make that necessary or else her efforts would be totally fruitless.
"So, little lady, how about I buy you a drink," Thaddeus sat down uninvited at Gabrielle's table.
"No, thank you, I'm waiting for my friend," she said politely, gripping her staff a little more tightly. Why couldn't these nimrods leave her alone for once, she wondered to herself, a little more than annoyed at his insistence. The man looked like he hadn't seen a fresh tub or stream in months. His breath reeked of stale mead and his clothes and armour were well worn and tattered. He probably was a useful thug in certain armies, Gabrielle conceded.
"Aw come on, little lady, why would any self-respecting man leave a pretty little girl like you all by herself? He doesn't seem to want to take care of you very well, now does he? Come on now, how about just one drink?" he leered. His hand gripped her shoulder.
"My friend is not a----" Gabrielle started but the sight of Xena over the man's shoulder stopped her in mid-sentence. Xena's hand closed over the thug's grungy paw bending the fingers back and nearly breaking them.
"The young woman said she doesn't want you to buy her a drink," Xena snarled in a low voice as she gripped the man's hand in a steel vice being careful not to break the appendages entirely.
At a strength and speed Xena would not have thought possible, the tattered man whirled around and drew a dagger hidden in his leathers. He stabbed at Xena's arm making an elongated slice along her left bicep drawing blood that freely flowed out of the fresh cut. In a flash, Xena kicked at Thaddeus' wrist sending the dagger clattering to the floor. She glanced down at the cut as her rage threatened to overtake her senses. Thaddeus stumbled backwards and for the first time looked up at the warrior woman who he knew must be the travelling companion of his intended target. His face froze in fear as it dawned on him who she was.
"Xena!" he gasped.
"Xena!" Gabrielle exclaimed at the same exact moment, her eyes wide at the sight of blood that flowed out of Xena's arm.
Thaddeus knew he'd have no choice but to fight the warrior woman, even though he knew it would mean his certain death. He couldn't very well back down in front of so many witnesses and besides, he knew he could hold his own against any warrior. As well, he knew Xena was no ordinary warrior. Despite his fear, Thaddeus drew his sword challenging Xena to draw hers. The warrior woman grimaced, her sword already drawn in self defence. They both circled each other as they appraised one another for strengths and weaknesses. He thought he found an opening and lunged toward it, but Xena was ready for him and kicked his sword out of his hand. Instantly, she flipped him over and lodged her blade under his chin as her foot stomped on his chest. The blood from Xena's wound dripped onto his tattered leather.
"You keep your slimy hands off of my friend!" she sneered. "And when a woman says she doesn't want you to buy her a drink, don't buy her that drink, you got that?!"
Thaddeus, just grateful to the Gods that the only blood dripping was Xena's and that he was still alive, nodded his head vigorously in agreement.
"Now get out of my sight," Xena let him up from the floor and watched as he parted the mob and ran out the door of the tavern. The patrons who had formed a ring around the combatants roared with laughter.
Gabrielle raced over to Xena, examined her arm and saw the copious flow of liquid that soaked her leather greave.
"Gabrielle, are you okay?" Xena ignored the cut and reached to touch the bard's hair, still thinking about the stupid man that tried to touch her Gabrielle. It never failed to make her blood boil when a stranger attempted to touch the bard in an unwelcome manner.
"I'm fine. You, however, are a bloody mess, Xena. Somebody get me a towel!" Gabrielle yelled as she tried to stop the flow of blood with her hands. She urged Xena to sit at the table. Xena looked up at her, once again enamoured with the bard's concern for her well-being. Xena knew she'd be all right, she'd had worse wounds than this before and survived. She wasn't concerned but the love she saw in Gabrielle's green eyes made her more weak than the loss of blood from her wound.
Gabrielle used the towel the serving woman brought her as a tourniquet to slow down the bleeding. Eventually, the serving woman brought them some mead and two plates of food.
During all the commotion of the evening, neither the bard nor the warrior woman noticed the cloaked figure leave the tavern and disappear in the same direction the tattered and disarmed man had fled.
Gabrielle rested her head against Xena's chest enjoying the gentle thump of her beating heart. She was careful not to bump or otherwise disturb Xena's wounded arm that was now properly cleaned and carefully bandaged. They finally retired to their room where they could enjoy the comfort of each other's exclusive company. Both women were anxious to get away from the evening's noisy distractions. After questioning a few patrons, Xena discovered that the tattered man entered the tavern with a companion dressed in an identity concealing cloak. The person was nowhere in sight when the altercation ended.
"You know, Xena, for a minute there I thought you were going to kill that guy when he cut you."
"Yeah, there was a time when he would have been dead in a second."
"Just for touching my shoulder?" Gabrielle propped her weight up on her elbow.
"I don't like anyone to touch you except me," Xena caressed the bard's cheek. "It drives me cr...."
Gabrielle put a finger up to Xena's lips silencing her words.
"Shh..." Gabrielle moved the warrior's callused hand to her neck and let Xena caress the smooth skin there. "Xena, you're the only person I ever want to touch me here," Gabrielle's breath shortened as she observed desire glaze over Xena's blue eyes.
"And you're the only one I've ever wanted to touch me here," she moved Xena's strong hand to her soft breast. The warrior gasped slightly as she kept her eyes locked with Gabrielle's as she gently massaged the bard's soft flesh. The younger woman's breath quickened as Xena's erotic touch never failed to stir her loins.
Gabrielle devoured Xena's mouth as she climbed atop the prone warrior woman. "Touch me, Xena," she whispered.
Gabrielle awoke to the sounds of birds chirping outside the inn's window. Xena was already up and she surmised the warrior was off to the stables checking on Argo. Once again, Xena had exhausted the bard the night before in their extensive lovemaking and she marvelled at the depth of the warrior's stamina. Ever since they'd first made love, she could never get enough of the young bard even though Gabrielle had to practically hit her with another pitchfork to get her to notice. Of course, marrying Perdicus did nothing but confuse her feelings for Xena as well as send the warrior running off in the opposite direction. She now knew that even if Perdicus had not been killed by Callisto, she would not have remained with him for very long. She would not have been able to live without her Warrior Princess. Her heart had always belonged to Xena ever since the first time they met and it was confirmed the first time they ever made love. Her mind drifted off to that memory of not!
so long ago.
They had entered another tavern in another village and were sitting at a small table enjoying their evening meal, their plates still hot from the steaming food. A big and burly man strolled over to their table. He strutted in the distinctive bravado of a fearless warrior.
"So the Warrior Princess is too good nowadays to say hello to her old cohorts, eh? Should we now start addressing her as Her Majesty the Warrior Queen?" he taunted Xena with derision emphasising the title, 'Queen'". Gabrielle watched as Xena's body stiffened as she steeled herself against yet another inevitable confrontation. Xena looked up from her food and instead of a clever retort of warning, her face broke out into a huge smile. She leapt up from the table and the big burly man engulfed her in his enormous arms picking Xena up off the floor and spinning her around a few times.
"Brasius!" she exclaimed.
"Xena!" he roared.
Gabrielle was shocked by the rare outburst of emotion from Xena. Her mouth hung open as she was introduced to the man who joined them for their evening meal. He insisted on paying for everything and ordered a round of ale for all and to Gabrielle the meal went downhill from there.
She tried to concentrate on eating her food as Xena and Brasius reminisced about old times but she found herself getting more and more jealous. Throughout their conversation, Brasius touched Xena's arm to emphasise a point and Xena did nothing to inhibit his gestures. On occasion Xena reciprocated, which made Gabrielle even more envious and ill at ease. Pretty soon she was drinking more ale and eating less food, a highly unusual occurrence for the bard but Xena didn't seem to notice. She was too caught up in her jovial discussion with Brasius. To top it off, the man had squeezed his massive body at the already small table and crowded the space so that Xena was forced to sit closer to Gabrielle than usual. Xena's strong thigh pressed securely next to Gabrielle's and the soft and supple muscle distracted her from all else.
Gabrielle sat and stewed. Xena hadn't seemed to notice that the usually talkative bard wasn't talking. She was furious that Xena was ignoring her and having such a good time with this man. It was obvious that they had been lovers when he was in her army and that was something Gabrielle didn't want to think about. Xena making love to this monstrosity of a man. How could she compete? For the past few weeks, she thought of nothing but caressing Xena and having the lovely warrior kiss her in return. Her loins tingled again at the thought and Xena's thigh against her did nothing but enhance the sensations. Gabrielle had to get out of there. She stood up to leave.
"Excuse me, Xena, I think I'll turn in for the night," she nodded to Brasius.
"Already? Gabrielle, you haven't even finished your food," Xena pointed to the half-eaten serving. "Are you feeling all right?"
"I'm fine," Gabrielle spat out the words not at all attempting to hide her hostility. She turned to go. Xena got up from the table and grabbed her arm. She lowered her voice.
"I'm sorry, it just that I haven't seen Brasius in ages and he was one of my best friends back then. You can see how friendly he is."
"A little too friendly, I'd say," Gabrielle shot back. Why did Xena have to stand so close to her? Her resolve to go upstairs began to melt as she gazed into a luscious sea of crystal blue eyes. The warmth of Xena's hand intensified her need. Go upstairs, Gabrielle warned herself, or else you'll take Xena right there on the table.
"What do you mean?" Xena was clearly puzzled.
"Nothing, I'm going up to the room. Come up when you're finished," Gabrielle left Xena standing at the table baffled and confused.
As she climbed the stairs to their room, Gabrielle wondered, why does she do that to me? Sometimes Gabrielle thought Xena knew exactly the effect she had on the bard but was just taunting her with her own desire. She didn't know how much longer she could hold out. She was convinced the time had come when she would have to confess her love to Xena or not. She knew she couldn't withstand the torment anymore or else she would have to leave Xena. On the other hand, she knew that a life without Xena was no life at all. So she thought of the numerous and varied scenarios of how she would reveal her heart but she was afraid Xena would think she was just being childish and over-emotional. Why does this have to be so hard? she railed at the Gods.
The past few weeks had been sheer agony for the bard ever since she saw Xena kiss that woman who turned out to be a man. She was shocked because it seemed to Gabrielle that her own fantasises and daydreams had been played out right before her very eyes. She wanted Xena to do exactly that to her. How could Ms Artifyce and Xena know what was in her heart? It scared her and she tried not to think of it, but instead, it was all she ever thought about. She could no longer bathe in streams or lounge in tubs with Xena. She always made some lame excuse to either hurry or do it separately. It took all of her considerable concentration not to openly lust after the statuesque warrior.
When Gabrielle reached the room, she quickly changed into her sleeping tunic and lay on her side with her back turned from the door. As usual, the room was small and so was the bed. After a while, she heard Xena enter. As Xena quietly undressed, the bard pretended to be asleep. She knew without looking every piece of armour and clothing being discarded just from the sounds the warrior made. Only the Goddesses knew how many countless times she had assisted Xena in dismantling her armour. Even now as she thought of it she saw Xena's magnificent body before her and moaned aloud at the vision in her mind.
"Gabrielle? Are you all right?" Xena's concern was evident in her voice. She was on the bed quickly, her hand gently caressed Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Leave me alone, Xena." Gabrielle didn't know how much more she could take. The delicate touch from Xena's hand nearly made her confess her pent up frustrations. Xena, just get away from me, she silently pleaded.
"Come on, Gabrielle, what's wrong? Please tell me."
"Nothing!" the bard insisted. Xena finally removed her searing imprint from the bard's tingling shoulder. She leaned back on the bed to blow out the bedside candle and Gabrielle knew she would eventually have to give Xena some sort of explanation and she dreaded it. Oh, why couldn't she just tell Xena how she felt? she chided herself. Obviously, Xena wasn't a stranger to the pleasures of other women and the bard suspected that Xena had her share of women lovers in her adventurous past. But what was so hard for Gabrielle? She herself had engaged in erotic kissing games with other girls in her youth, usually at Gabrielle's instigation, but seducing the Warrior Princess? That was something completely different and well beyond her childish fantasies.
"Goodnight, Gabrielle," Xena whispered quietly and got comfortable in the bed. Gabrielle was annoyed. She couldn't believe it, Xena was just going to let her go to sleep upset like this? she wondered. She had to do something, say something to let Xena know. What needs to fall on her? A fortress wall? Oh well, it was now or never, Gabrielle sighed to herself.
"Xena, you don't get it, do you?" she asked quietly.
Xena leaned up on her elbow. "Gabrielle, why were you so upset downstairs?" Xena nudged Gabrielle's shoulder urging the bard to face her.
"Xena, I.....," Gabrielle stopped in mid-sentence as she saw the glowing desire in Xena's eyes. Their eyes locked into a passionate gaze that they each had known since the first time they met. Gabrielle took Xena's hand from her shoulder and pressed it against her lips lingering at each fingertip for emphasis. Her tongue escaped its prison as she let it travel a tantalisingly slow dance along the back of the warrior's hand. She left a wet path along Xena's muscular forearm before she heard a sharp intake of breath escape Xena's lips.
"Gabrielle," Xena whispered. She withdrew her hand and moved closer to Gabrielle's lips examining the younger woman's full mouth. The bard's lungs constricted as she realised the fantasy of making love to the dream woman of her life was about to come true. She reached up to touch Xena's hair, encouraging her to get closer.
"Xena," she sighed just before the warrior covered the bard's lips with her own. The kiss was tentative at first as Xena gently explored the smaller woman's warm mouth. Gabrielle moaned into Xena's throat as she pulled her close. Xena moved her statuesque form over the bard's smaller body all the while exploring Gabrielle's mouth with ferocious abandon. Her supple thigh parted the bard's smaller legs as she discovered a flood of liquid fire. She broke away from the passionate kiss.
"Gabrielle, I didn't realise....," Xena moaned as she licked the side of Gabrielle's neck.
"Xena!" Gabrielle exclaimed as the hot inferno between Xena's legs smeared her skin. Xena's mouth again smothered the bard and Gabrielle arched her body against the warrior not quite knowing how she would begin to quell her need. All she knew was she had to have all of Xena's skin rubbing her own. As she reached up to tug at Xena's tunic, the warrior ripped the front of Gabrielle's tunic, exposing her heaving breasts, and stripped it off the bard entirely. The warrior's mouth dove into the valley between Gabrielle's breasts and licked voraciously at the luscious mounds of flesh. Xena finally reached a taut nipple and sucked firmly on the tiny bud. Gabrielle's body ached desperately for Xena's touch.
The warrior continued to ravish Gabrielle's sensitive nipple as the bard tangled her hands through Xena's dark hair. The older woman moved her attentions to the other breast as Gabrielle writhed beneath her. The bard thought she would surely go insane if Xena did not let her satiate her need right then. She squeezed Xena's muscular thigh between her legs and slid her wet centre in a steady rhythm.
"Xena," she panted, "please take me."
Xena lifted her head to gaze into Gabrielle's eyes. The bard had dreamed so often of that look of complete and utter lust on Xena's face, that when she saw it for the first time in reality, she knew she must surely be dreaming.
"Gabrielle," Xena whispered as she smothered the bard's mouth once again with her own. With a gentle but determined frenzy the warrior blazed a pathway down the bard's taut abdomen and headed for the wet centre in frantic need of attention.
The warrior paused to inhale the sweet aroma between Gabrielle legs that she had caused and moaned into the liquid opening. Her tongue lapped at the nectar as she licked and explored the hot cave with uninhibited enthusiasm.
"Xena!" Gabrielle heaved as her pelvis involuntarily hovered above the bed. She moved her hips to the steady beat of Xena's tongue. The bard inhaled a deep breath as she felt Xena's mouth lick at the core of her being knowing that she would soon be going over the edge of ecstasy. She screamed as she gripped the warrior's hair tightly as her orgasm washed over her in a tidal wave of passion.
Xena entered the small room of the inn and hurried Gabrielle to gather up their things. Despite the bard's objections, Xena didn't see any viable reason to stay another night in the village. Her arm was sore and a little stiff but she had suffered far worse debilitating wounds. In fact, she wanted to get as far away from this village as possible. The altercation of the previous night seemed a bit too staged. What struck her as odd was the man's genuine surprise that Xena was to be his opponent. She had a bad feeling that the cloaked figure had wanted to goad Xena into killing that poor fool. Fortuitously for the tattered warrior, Xena stopped herself from doing just that.
"Xena, do you have any idea who the guy in the hood was?" Gabrielle asked, interrupting Xena's train of thought. The bard rode behind Xena as she clutched at the warrior's waist. They rode at a steady trot as the warrior was in a hurry to put some distance between themselves and the mysterious cloaked figure.
"No, but I think our mystery person knew he would be up against me. He didn't, though."
"Yeah, he was kind of shocked when he knew he'd have to fight you, Xena."
"I got a bad feeling about th---," Xena's words were cut off as she reached in front of her to stop the arrow from penetrating her healthy arm. She looked up and spotted movement in the trees in the same direction from which the arrow had come. She leaped off Argo and shouted instructions at Gabrielle to stay with the big horse.
Xena heard thumping of feet through the brush as she chased after the would-be assassin. After several long strides she saw a figure dressed in a black cloak and she surmised it was the same person from the inn. She finally caught up to her prey and catapulted overhead and knocked them to the ground. She grasped the prone body by the neck of the cloak.
"You killed my sister!" the woman yelled at Xena.
Xena could not see a face as a mask completely obscured her identity. Only her eyes and mouth were revealed.
"A woman!" Xena gasped.
"She said she loved you, Xena!"
"What did you want with me at the tavern?" Xena queried, realising that this woman knew something about her but for the moment her identity escaped her.
"Are you going to kill Gabrielle like you killed my sister?"
"What?" Xena reached out to yank the mask off the woman's head.
Quickly, the woman looked over Xena's shoulder and pretended to observe someone approaching.
"Don't do it! Gabrielle!" she yelled. Xena turned her head slightly and in that moment the woman smashed the side of Xena's head and cast the warrior off her. She escaped through the trees and after a futile chase by Xena, the woman disappeared without a trace.
"Who was it?" Gabrielle queried, her face etched with concern as Xena emerged from the trees.
"I don't know, but it was a woman and she says I killed her sister." Xena decided to leave out the added information that the sister had probably been a former lover. She was only going to reveal that if absolutely necessary and it was of no use to make Gabrielle jealous over some long forgotten lover.
"A woman?" Gabrielle paused. "You killed her sister?"
"Maybe. She wouldn't tell me who she was and she wore a mask."
"A mask? Xena, I don't like this."
"Neither do I, but I have a feeling we'll be seeing her again. Soon." Xena wondered how the woman who had been so easy to catch at first had the same ability to simply vanish into thin air. She was certain they would see the mystery woman again but for now, their only option was to wait.
Two days had passed after their encounter with the masked woman. Xena searched her memory for who the sister could have been. There had been so many lovers and after a while her memories faded to nothingness and the ones that remained tortured her soul. She wanted to forget those ones altogether.
Xena wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder as she played with her red tresses. They had just finished making splendid love on the bedroll and gazed up into the star filled night.
"That was incredible," Xena sighed. "I love the way you make me feel, Gabrielle. Sometimes it feels like the first time, as if we'd never made love before."
"Really?" Gabrielle giggled. "So what was it like the first time for the Warrior Princess?"
"Hmmm, my first time?" Xena squeezed her arm more tightly around the bard.
Xena grinned, "Well, I seduced some poor bumbling farm boy, he....."
"No, Xena, I mean your first time with another girl," Gabrielle explained.
Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's head, "Ohhh, that first time," she acknowledged and drifted off into a long forgotten memory. A shadow crossed her face as she recalled the girl's death as well. All because Xena let greed for power and greatness cloud her judgement. The girl had tried to warn her, but Xena did not listen. Instead she got the girl killed. She had never felt the same way about another woman until she met Gabrielle. Sure, there were several women she used as playthings or ploys for power but none had captured her heart since her first love many winters ago. Until Gabrielle.
Gabrielle propped herself up on her elbow, gazing at the warrior hoping Xena would indulge her curiosity. She noticed the grey shadow that crossed Xena's face and wondered if she should continue probing. However, her curiosity got the better of her. She had to know who Xena's first love had been.
"How old were you?" Gabrielle asked softly, sensing that this was yet another dark secret from Xena's past that she wanted to keep locked inside.
"Seventeen," was Xena's cryptic reply.
"Did you seduce her?"
"No, I was just as dense about her as I was about you. I mean I knew how I felt about you but I had no idea what you were thinking." Xena laughed as she cleverly steered the conversation away from the girl of her youthful past.
"By the Gods, how did you ever get anybody to sleep with you?"
"I got a little farm girl from Poteideia to seduce me, didn't I?" Xena retorted.
'Well, you're not the first girl I seduced, although you were my first warrior," Gabrielle teased.
"You are lucky I let you follow me around," Xena rolled Gabrielle over onto her back and nuzzled the side of her neck. "And you're lucky I don't need much sleep. Where were we, anyway?" Xena closed her mouth over Gabrielle's.
The woman spied the two figures walking along the trail. She had purposely scouted the terrain ahead of them so she could present Xena with one last test. She knew if Xena had truly transformed her heart, what she had planned would be the ultimate challenge. She unconsciously clutched at the pendent hanging from her neck and prayed to the Gods that the sacred item would be blessed by her deeds.
Xena and Gabrielle found themselves on the road once again by mid-morning. The surrounding trees were rife with singing birds and other animal life. Xena followed a few paces behind Gabrielle and kept a watchful eye out for any sign of danger. She instinctively felt a movement before she actually heard anything. Xena cocked her head and listened intently. She pulled up the reins on Argo, "Gabr-----". She never finished calling her name.
A body leaped out of the overhead tree and knocked Xena out of Argo's saddle. She rolled over on the ground and quickly got to her feet simultaneously drawing her sword out from its sheath. The armed woman used two swifts kicks to knock Xena's sword out of her hand. Instantly, she somersaulted over her cloaked opponent intending to disarm the woman from behind. However, the woman had anticipated the move and elbowed Xena's stomach knocking her backward to the ground. Xena rolled over her head taking the woman with her. The warrior banged the woman's wrist against the ground releasing her hold on her sword. Xena withdrew her breast dagger pointing it at the prone body's throat. The hood fell back to reveal a familiar face. This time she wore no mask.
"M'Lilla?!" she exclaimed, a mixture of confusion and joy lit up her face.
"I knew you couldn't kill me, Xena," the woman flatly stated. She extended her hand and Xena helped her to her feet.
"What? Why are you.....?"
"I'm sorry, Xena, I'm not M'Lilla, my name is M'Ledah. I'm her sister."
"Her sister? You speak our language." Xena could not believe the striking resemblance of the two sisters but she had not seen M'Lilla in over ten years. Xena imagined this would be what the young girl would now look like as a mature woman. She looked over at Gabrielle, who clearly stood waiting for an explanation as to who this cloaked woman was.
"Yes, I'm her sister but I have learned a lot in ten years." M'Ledah held Xena's hands in her own as she faced the Warrior Princess. Soft chestnut eyes met crystal blue. "I came looking for you, Xena. I need your help."
"Why did you attack her, why didn't you just ask?" Gabrielle cut in, her defences still at the ready.
M'Ledah turned to face Gabrielle and acknowledged her for the first time. She spoke directly at Gabrielle disarming her with considerable graceful charm.
"I needed to know if she's truly changed. If Xena agreed to help me but still behaved like the Warrior Princess of old, I would always wonder where her heart lie. But her little demonstration showed me that she truly has found her way out of the darkness. It was a test."
"I could have easily killed you twice, you know," Xena reminded her.
"Not quite, but I guess if I let my guard down, you could have." she paused. "But you didn't. We need to stop somewhere and talk. I have something to show you."
The three women sat around a warm campfire, the flames reflected off their faces in rich orange hues. Darkness had settled around them like a heavy woollen blanket. Xena and Gabrielle prepared the camp by rote, both deep in thought as they contemplated the significance of the strange visitor to their campfire.
Xena had long forgotten that she knew almost nothing about M'Lilla when she found the stowaway girl on her ship over ten winters ago. Two full moons passed and still she knew nothing of the mysterious girl's background, not even her name. After a while, it became of no consequence. All she knew was that she had unique and extraordinary fighting skills and was an eager teacher instructing an equally eager student. For many full moons after the girl's death, Xena wondered where she had come from and why she had saved Xena's life and then sacrificed her own. Somehow she knew it was meant to be and it felt like the first of destiny's little mysteries. As if the three faces of Fate played a hand in their meeting. As time passed, the warrior glossed over the story of the enigmatic girl from Gaul and accepted it for what it was. An unanswered question.
Gabrielle watched Xena glance at M'Ledah several times as they performed the nightly ritual of preparing the camp. As she re-arranged the firewood to balance the cooking pan on, she couldn't help but feel a pang of jealousy. M'Ledah was serenely beautiful, her long dark curly hair framed a tanned face enhanced by soft brown eyes. They sparkled from the glowing flames and admiration reflected off them as her gaze followed Xena's every movement. Gabrielle could not decide whether she was more jealous of the fact that this woman knew something about Xena's past that Xena herself had hidden from her or worse, Xena might still be in love with the woman's sister. She knew that M'Lilla was dead but maybe Xena still longed for her and would settle for M'Ledah in her place.
"So who was M'Lilla," Gabrielle started once they were all seated around the campfire and ate cooked rabbit.
Xena looked up from her food, first at Gabrielle, then nodded to M'Ledah.
"M'Lilla was my sister. She died ten winters ago. When we were very young, we lived in the Land of the Pharaohs. I don't remember it but this is what I was told. Our people were brought to Gaul against our will to be slaves. I do remember being a slave. We were beaten regularly and M'Lilla fought back. I don't know why or how she escaped death as insolent as she was for a child but I guess they admired her fighting spirit and just like a good horse with a strong spirit, they thought they could tame her. They were wrong. When we were old enough to learn, M'Lilla found a man to secretly teach us defensive fighting skills. Nicklio. He was a healer and a very wise soul. She never told me how she found him as it was dangerous to know such things, but he had a soft spot for her and taught us to be not only strong physically but emotionally and spiritually as well. We were young girls, M'Lilla was just eleven, I was twelve.
"We prepared for our escape for years and finally one day, we left without a trace. We found others that Nicklio had helped and joined their tribe. They were called the Dead Lynx. We---"
"The Dead Lynx?!" Gabrielle gasped. "I thought they were just a myth!" her mind filled with wonderment that this seemingly gentle woman had been a member of the legendary tribe. Actually, it went a long way in explaining her enigmatic behaviour up to this point.
Xena began to hush Gabrielle so M'Ledah could finish but the dark woman paused in her story.
"No, the Dead Lynx are very much, um, alive. They saved our lives back then and they have saved many more over the years. They are a secretive tribe that helps escaped slaves start over and begin new lives far and away from their captors. We were in training for our transition and we knew it would soon be time to move on.
"Anyway, in our secret tribal life, we kept our whereabouts in the hills a closely guarded secret and each would have defended the other to the death. We meditated and practised our skills and trained for hours and days without end. Our purpose, you see, was to find inner peace not revenge or murder.
"One day, M'Lilla and I were hunting for food and were taken by surprise by a band of thugs. We fought them off as best we could but they soon had us surrounded and their leader had a sword at M'Lilla's throat. Off in the distance, we heard a woman's battle cry and hooves of many soldiers. It sounded like she rode with Ares himself. The cowards were frightened and began to take off but not before their leader kicked M'Lilla in the stomach. Nevertheless, he left her alive and we took to the hills headlong into the path of the Fates. Despite her injury and obvious pain, M'Lilla stayed behind and observed from the trees so she could see who this woman warrior was who evoked such fear in these cowardly thugs. The cowards had no chance against the warrior woman because not only was she an equal match, she was far superior in many ways."
"The Warrior Princess," Gabrielle interjected.
"No," Xena stated, a half smile played at the corner of her mouth. "Not then I wasn't."
"Yes, it was Xena, but it was not the Warrior Princess. She was just an extraordinary warlord then who had defended her village, Amphipolis, against Cortese. She conquered village after village in the surrounding hills defeating anyone that dared stand in her way. At the time, we did not know who she was, but M'Lilla was immensely impressed by her confident demeanour. A true warrior. Then her army took to the seas and pirated many ships and confiscated ill-gotten booty. That's when M'Lilla followed her."
It was Xena's turn to interject. She had but one word, "Why?"
M'Ledah reached inside her cloak and retrieved two folded and battered pieces of parchment.
"These two letters she sent to me when she met you. I've cherished them as if they were gold because they were M'Lilla's last words. I'm sure she would have wanted you to know."
"Why didn't you try to contact me earlier, why did you wait ten years?" Confusion and puzzlement creased Xena's features.
"Because I could not change your destiny. Only you could do that." M'Ledah simply stated.
Xena opened her mouth to refute her words but M'Ledah raised her hand.
"Please, let me read them," she didn't wait for an agreement from Xena.
"This is the first letter," M'Ledah began.
You may not fully understand why I must follow her, I only know that it is my destiny. Unknowingly, she saved my life and it is now in her hands. Our mentor has trained us well and I know I can defend myself against any attackers on the road but I must find her. I heard that she has a great ship and I will hide myself onboard and hope that I can find a way to repay her. Nevertheless, she must never know my mission or else it will all be for naught. Since I am indebted to her, my life is in her hands."
M'Ledah carefully re-folded the parchment and opened the second.
I found her! I found the warrior woman they call Xena of Amphipolis. Sadly, I must say her life is in great danger and I must repay my debt by saving her. I hid on her ship and was discovered soon after. Despite my half-hearted attempt to escape, Xena was impressed enough with my defensive skills to allow me to live. I refrained from explaining anything when I could have, not even telling her my name for that would have detracted from my mission. I owed her everything so I offered my pendent to her and she accepted.
A soldier prisoner, who called himself Julius Caesar of Rome, filled her mind with power and greatness. To me, she was already great, she did not need him but her judgement was clouded by her lust for power and I could not deter her from that quest. They spent a few intimate nights together and then he took to the high seas promising an eventful return.
We spent three glorious full moons together and I taught her much of the training and fighting techniques we learned from our mentor and his friends. Then the Roman soldier came back and again I tried to warn her of his evil heart but she refused to listen. He betrayed her and conquered her army. I hid again on the great ship and heard Xena protect me from his malevolence. I knew in that moment that the time had come for me to repay my indebtedness as it was not yet her time to die. They took the prisoners to the beach to be crucified as I sit here and plot her rescue. M'Ledah, I may not come back from this mission but know this, I love her. I have given her my pendent.
With all my love, M'Lilla"
Gabrielle glanced over at Xena and was about to ask a question when she saw a single tear streak her face. She put her arm around the warrior to comfort her and felt her body stiffened initially but then relax into her embrace. It suddenly occurred to Gabrielle that the girl must have died either at the hands of Xena's army or some other disastrous consequence that weighed heavily on Xena's soul.
Gabrielle snored lightly, her even breathing a testament to her deep sleeping pattern. Xena held the bard and listened to the nocturnal sounds of the forest unable to succumb to Morpheus' spell. She let her mind drift off to the time of her youthful past when she had surrendered herself completely to the runaway slave girl, M'Lilla.
Xena allowed the girl to comb the tangles out of her long dark hair. She had just finished bathing in the cabin's basin as she prepared for her night-time visitor. The girl had insisted on catering to her with fancy deliberation as she towelled her dry and soothed her skin with exotic oils.
Her impending visitor was to be an imprisoned soldier who showed much promise. The foreigner had high aspirations for greatness and could be an invaluable ally in her quest for power over her dominion. Any man was susceptible to Xena's predatory charms. Most of them couldn't think past the next village but this one was different, Xena thought. He had a vision.
Xena reached for M'Lilla's pendent on the bedside table. When she snatched it off the girl's neck earlier that day, the girl had been completely at her mercy and Xena held her life in the balance. She let her live but she kept the pendant as a trophy. She held it up and it swayed back and forth.
"What's this supposed to mean?" she knew the girl didn't know her language and couldn't understand but Xena wasn't really seeking an answer, it was a rhetorical question. To Xena, it didn't matter what it was, she wanted to keep it as evidence of her conquest. The girl pointed to the pendent, put her hand to her chest, indicated where it had been and then put her hand to Xena's chest and nodded her head. Xena nodded in return, then placed the pendent back on the table.
The girl massaged Xena's muscular shoulders and the warrior lurched at the feathery touch. Her muscles were stiff and taut unaccustomed to any physical contact. No one had been this intimate with her in many months and her body tingled as it relearned the long forgotten sensations. As M'Lilla continued to gently knead her shoulders and neck, her body surrendered to the delicate ministrations. A soft trace of a kiss fluttered across Xena's shoulder before she recognised what it was. Unexpectedly, the nerve endings in her body came alive as erotic currents coursed through her veins. To her surprise, her loins quivered with longing. She ignored it. Control of her lustful primal impulses was one of her greatest assets.
Sex to Xena had been no more than one of two things - sheer physical release or another deadly weapon to be used against an opponent. Occasionally, one of her soldiers was chosen to bestow their leader with a good performance but if they bragged about it afterward or conversely, failed miserably, they were disposed of in a humiliating fashion. It didn't take long for the elite few to learn the dire consequences of an inept offering or a loose tongue. Mostly what she sought was a performance befitting a Warrior Princess.
However, this girl was different. Xena actually began to feel calm and lulled herself into a fantasy dreamland where she was a queen and this girl was her maidservant far away from warring and pillaging and the defence of her homeland. She was beginning to tire of the constant fighting. It was becoming a total bore which was why the soldier's offer was tempting. However, she had been warned that the girl was a runaway slave and thus potentially dangerous. Xena didn't feel any danger in a harmless massage. Unless....
Suddenly, she stood up as a flash of panic seized her. She looked furtively around her quarters, making sure nothing was amiss. The girl vigorously shook her head, silently pleading with Xena not to be afraid. She held up her hands in total surrender. Cautiously, Xena sat back down on the bed and allowed the girl to continue her massage. She had never had a woman care for her in such a loving manner except by her mother as a child. The girl sat beside her on the bed and dug her strong fingertips into the bow of Xena's collarbone. She allowed M'Lilla to continue her compelling gestures curious as to where they would lead.
The girl gently encouraged Xena to lay back on the bed. Her fingertips wandered magically over Xena's prone torso. She succumbed to the velvety touch and relaxed into the tranquil envelope. She tried to reach up to touch the dark girl's back to draw her closer but was stopped abruptly by M'Lilla, who placed a firm hand between Xena's bare breasts pushing her back on the bed.
Xena was unused to allowing her lovers, only men up to this point, to control their lovemaking. She always felt a strong desire to direct the action as she teased them beyond any normal sense. Then she took what pleasure she could and left them craving in her wake. With this girl, however, it was the warrior's turn to hunger for more.
M'Lilla caressed Xena's breasts kneading the pliant flesh in her small hands. Xena's chest arched up to meet the tender hands. She moaned softly using all of her considerable self-discipline not to take over and ravish the gentle girl's beautiful body. She reached her hand behind M'Lilla's back again pulling her closer wanting desperately to kiss her enticing full lips. M'Lilla pulled back and shook her head. She placed a hand on her chest and then made circling motions just inches above Xena's skin.
"I can't wait," Xena explained as she opened her legs and moved the girl's hand along her thigh indicated her need. M'Lilla smiled in acknowledgement, then shrugged. She pointed all her fingertips squarely between Xena's breasts. She firmly applied pressure which caused Xena's entire body to relax in a prone position once again. M'Lilla drew near the warrior's lips and covered them with her own. Xena tried to stretch her body towards M'Lilla but was surprised by her inability to do so. Her body was held down by an unforeseen force. M'Lilla's insistent exploration of her mouth helped Xena surrender to the mysterious girl from Gaul. The wetness between her legs needed relief soon but she had a feeling the girl was going to make her wait just a while longer.
Finally, M'Lilla pulled away from Xena's mouth and marked a wet trail to the warrior's taut nipples. She sucked and bit at the erect buds driving Xena deliriously mad with lust. Xena tried again to urge the girl on but was unable to control the muscles in her body. It was a strange incongruity as she could feel every single nerve ending alive with erotic pleasures but she could not direct those muscles in any way. Her helplessness spurred her on to greater heights of ecstasy.
M'Lilla's tongue wandered randomly along Xena's abdomen making tiny circling patterns that eventually led to her dark triangle. The hairs were slick with Xena's excitement and she didn't know how much longer she could wait to fulfil her longing. Suddenly, the girl's mouth and tongue explored her wet centre. Xena moaned aloud at the erotic sensations coursing through her body. Her muscles danced to a rhythm of their own as she tried to relax into the cushion of paradise. The girl's tongue flicked at the tiny bud that became the focus of Xena's delirium. Then just as she was about to reach the pinnacle of her orgasm, M'Lilla again pressed her fingertips squarely between Xena's breasts as she released the nerves that had held her in place. A roar of passion washed over her as her climax flooded every nerve cell throughout her body.
M'Lilla flicked her tongue back up Xena's body, savouring the salty glistening sweat that covered her. She reached for the pendant at the bedside table and tied the pendant around Xena's neck. Again M'Lilla put her hand to her chest then covered her hand over the pendant now securely fastened around Xena's neck. Xena smiled at the implication and hugged the girl tightly. Her hand got tangled in the girl's dark curly hair as she fervently kissed M'Lilla.
Xena remembered later how that night and for a few nights after she courted the foreign soldier. Then he left for the high seas promising to return. M'Lilla stayed with her and taught the warrior many new and unique fighting skills. After a while, the soldier came back and just before they saw his ship on the horizon, M'Lilla's song to Xena marked the beginning of the end for both women.
"So what does the pendent mean?" Xena asked M'Ledah as they sat near the fire that burned anew in the dawn of first light. The three women again gathered around the campfire as the sun peeked its way over the horizon.
"You are a very special person, Xena. According to my people, the pendent is handed down from woman to girl. Every female is designated a benefactor at the time of her first blood and in turn, when that girl is of age, she inherits the pendent."
"So who was M'Lilla's benefactor? Obviously, it couldn't have been me," Xena queried.
"That's what's so unusual here. M'Lilla wasn't supposed to give it you."
"It is usually given to the girl at the time of her first blood. Rarely is it given to someone other than the benefactor but she probably thought she wouldn't make it back to her people and she wanted to keep the spirit of the pendent alive." M'Ledah paused. "I must ask you a very personal question, Xena." She touched Xena's arm then looked at Gabrielle. Without a word, Xena questioned Gabrielle then nodded.
"Was it your first time with another woman?"
"Yes," the warrior simply stated. "But what does that have to do with it?"
"It fits. The first blood, the first time. M'Lilla must have loved you very much."
"Is that the pendent?" Xena pointed to the necklace dangling from M'Ledah's neck.
"Yes it is."
"I had assumed she was buried with it." Xena remembered that she left Nicklio's place before the man regained consciousness.
"No, Nicklio kept it for me, he knew how much it meant."
"Why do you need Xena's help, M'Ledah?" Gabrielle asked. "You have the necklace, why not just give it to the girl."
"The girl who will inherit the pendant is near the time of her first blood. It will be necessary for you to tell me about M'Lilla. All your knowledge of her life experience and.....," she paused, "her death, will be handed down to her. Usually, it's directly passed on but as you know, that couldn't happen this time. That's why I had to find you. I'll be heading over to Orthos soon, it's near Cirra."
"Cirra?" Xena said. She looked over at Gabrielle with a knowing glance.
"Yeah, it's near Orthos where the ceremony of first blood is to be held. What about Cirra?"
"Nothing, we once knew someone from there, that's all." Xena poked at the fire out of distraction. "So what do you want to know about M'Lilla?"
The next day, M'Ledah headed in the direction of Orthos for the ceremony of first blood while Xena and Gabrielle followed the road to Cirra.