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A Soul Full
Part 1 of 2
By Jamie Boughen - Warrior-Bard
Disclaimers: (Dreary though they be.)
MCA owns Xena and Gabrielle. I own everyone else. I think I had better take responsibility for the story as well.
There is implied sexual behaviour between two consenting women in this story. It is so implied that I am sure you can overlook it even if you don't believe in the subtext of Xena: Warrior Princess. If you can't overlook it then delete now. If these kind of stories are illegal or you are underage, it might be an idea to delete now, just in case.
Many thanks to MaryD for reading parts of this story in its raw form and for encouraging me to continue writing. Thanks also to the gang around the Campfire. When the block was at its worst, you still managed to keep me laughing. Oh, and the grammar lessons came in handy too. J. April 97.
Xena looked down. In her hand was a bloodied sword. Her own sword, covered in the scarlet life force of the hundreds she had killed. She could see the blood over her hands and arms. The warrior dropped the blade on the ground in front of her in horror. The earth beneath her feet was soaked with the blood of innocent villagers, squelching under her boots. One by one they marched passed her, showing her their wounds, asking why, demanding she answer their question. Xena kept shaking her head. She had no answers to the abomination in front of her eyes. She could not answer to the why, only the how. She tried to scrub the blood from her hands and arms, seeing even more blood under it. It dripped grotesquely from her hands, her arms, her clothes, her face. She was covered in the blood of some many and there was no way to remove any of it.
Gabrielle woke to feel Xena thrashing feebly next to her, mumbling in her sleep, the words making no sense. Sweat was pouring from her body but there were no tears or sobs, only the look of horror on her face. The young Bard had been around the tall woman long enough to know all the signs of her nightmares. She gently wrapped her arms about Xena and began to talk softly in her ear. Waking the woman abruptly was almost as frightening to the warrior as the nightmare itself could be. It wasn't particularly safe for Gabrielle either as Xena sometimes lashed out without realising who was waking her.
"Come on, Xena. Wake up. It's Gabrielle. You're safe now. It's just me and Argo. Wake up. Everything is all right." She whispered over and over in the warrior's ear.
The taller woman had grown solidly rigid in her arms, not breathing, not moving. Gabrielle started talking faster. Sometimes she couldn't call Xena out of the nightmare before the screaming started.
"It's fine, Xena. Come on. It's alright. Wake up. Wake up. Just open your eyes and you'll see everything is okay."
Xena suddenly inhaled noisily, dragging air into her oxygen starved body. She was either awake or about to scream. Gabrielle waited....then relaxed. The scream never came. The tall woman rolled closer into the Bard's comforting arms and began to tremble, her teeth chattering as though cold, regardless of the warmth of the night around them. The young woman held her tightly and waited for Xena to feel the safety she needed so badly after a nightmare. The tall warrior's violent shaking was almost enough to rattle Gabrielle's bones clean off their foundations.
The Bard hummed quietly under her breath, letting the dark-haired woman feel her presence through touch and sound. She rubbed the other woman's back gently, easing some of the muscle knots from Xena's spine. After nearly a candlemark, the warrior woman slowly loosened her tight hold on the young Bard. The shaking had eased long before and Xena finally felt safe enough to look up into the eyes of the woman she loved. When she first woke, she always felt so...so...blood-stained that she couldn't bring herself to even open her eyes for fear the younger woman would see the darkness in her soul and be frightened away. Yet she desperately needed the comfort and love the Bard gave so freely. Xena had lost count of the number of times she had woken from those terrifying nightmares to find the young woman's arms around her, her voice humming softly in her ear.
"Can you tell me about it?" Gabrielle asked gently. She kissed the top of the other woman's head as it nestled against her breast.
"No, it was the same old thing. Nothing special." Xena replied. She never did tell the Bard what she saw in her nightmares. It was bad enough that Gabrielle even knew about them. But it was hard to hide something like that when the other woman slept a bare inch away from her every night. Though Gabrielle had known of them long before they had become lovers. "Go back to sleep. I'm alright now." She said.
Gabrielle knew she wasn't going to get any more out of her warrior lover now, so tucked herself against the tall woman and closed her eyes. She was soon asleep again though Xena lay awake for the rest of the night, afraid she would have another of her horrifying dreams should she close her own eyes.
"Gabrielle, wake up. It's morning. Time to get going again." Xena said to the unresponsive woman tucked up tightly under the blankets. She smiled to herself. Gabrielle was not one to rise early, almost as though she wanted to stay in the land of her dreams for as long as possible. The warrior wished she could sometimes sleep that hard. Those days were long gone for her now. She gave the younger woman another shake and heard the groan that let her know she had finally woken her. "Come on. Morning. Time to get up. Stop the dawdling now."
Gabrielle grumbled something under the blankets that Xena chose not to hear. Knowing the Bard was finally awake, Xena went back to the firepit to attend to breakfast. The other woman would be up soon and not in the mood to be around anyone, for a little while at least. Xena had learned to simply ignore her completely until the younger woman threw her arms about Xena's neck in a good morning hug. Then they could talk about whatever needed to be discussed. Turning the fish, she listened as Gabrielle slowly climbed to her feet and wandered out of the camp for a few moments to relieve herself. Xena couldn't help smiling. For that quarter of a candlemark or so every morning, Gabrielle was as grumpy and as taciturn as any warrior Xena had ever seen. It didn't matter if they were on the open road or staying in a tavern or inn somewhere. It was always the same. And Xena had adjusted to it.
The dark-haired woman listened in private delight as Gabrielle thumped and stomped her away around the campsite, dressing in clean clothes, putting on her boots, packing her bag and rolling up the bedroll they had both slept in. In a way, it reminded the taller woman that her lover was a human being, after all. It was like she worked all her grumps out in one hit every morning and then could be her usual cheerful and loving self for the rest of the day. Oh, Gabrielle had a temper that was a near-match of her own and she certainly had her bad moods but most of the time, she was a gentle and caring soul and it was just one of the things Xena adored about her. She finally heard the young Bard walking up behind her and felt her arms creeping around her neck in a hug of greeting. Gabrielle was ready to face the new day.
"Morning, Gabrielle." Xena said. "Fish for breakfast today."
"Morning to you too, Lover." Gabrielle replied, already breaking off a small piece of the hot fillet. Blowing on it, and her fingers, she popped it into her mouth. A look of pleasure crossed her face.
"You look like the cat that ate the cream." The warrior said to her. She loved to watch the other woman eat. Something she would never tell her. Just like she would never admit to enjoying the sound of her voice as they travelled along the road either.
"Can I help it if I like to eat?" The Bard retorted. She was reaching for the fresh flatbread she had baked with dinner the night before and more of the delicious fish.
"Where you put it all sometimes is beyond me though. There isn't a spare ounce of fat on you anywhere." Xena observed, giving her lover a very close look. And liking what she saw a great deal. Part of her wished they could stay a little longer to make love but she wanted to get out on the road again and make up some time. There had been several days of rain and it had kept them stuck in a small village a day's ride behind them.
They had ridden in the wet weather for three days but once all their gear had soaked though, along with them as well, Gabrielle had convinced her to stay in the village. Being out in the rain had never been Xena's favourite past-time anyway, so she didn't take much convincing. Now Xena was pushing the pace a little to make up the days they had spent in the village tavern. She was just grateful the weather had finally cleared enough to make travelling a less uncomfortable proposition. The road was still muddy and their campsites a little damp but the rain was holding off and for that much the warrior was thankful.
"Damn all this mud." Gabrielle mumbled loudly. She was carefully scraping yet another load of thick black mud from under the soles of her boots with a small stick. She was having to stop every so often to do this or she found herself carrying half the road on her feet. It was hard enough walking in all the slime without adding to the weight of her own boots as well.
"Well, I did ask if you wanted to ride but you turned me down." Xena called back to the younger woman.
Looking up at the Warrior Princess seated straight-backed in her saddle, Gabrielle answered. "You'd do anything to get me up there. You know that horse doesn't like me."
"Oh, Gabrielle. Argo does like....." Xena stopped in mid-sentence. Closing her eyes for a moment and turning her head slightly from side to side, she breathed deeply of the forest scents around them.
"What is it, Xena? Do you smell something?" The Bard asked. She could see the look of tension on the tall warrior's face and wondered what she had noticed. Gabrielle carefully sniffed the wind as it blew into her own face. There didn't seem to be anything unusual about it. Just the normal odours she would have expected in the woods. The blonde woman breathed a little deeper. She caught a faint scent she didn't quite recognise. Perhaps they were too far away for her to pin-point what it was but it was obvious that Xena knew.
"Get up here, Gabrielle. I don't have time to argue with you about it." The warrior ordered as she threw out her hand to help the young Bard mount behind her. Argo already sensing the tension of her rider and owner.
Realising Xena was serious about it, and fighting with her would mean being left by the side of the road, Gabrielle quickly climbed up behind the taller woman and held tightly to her armoured waist as the horse was pushed into a gallop under her. With the wind now blowing directly into her face, Gabrielle could smell what had alerted Xena that there was trouble ahead. The strong smell of burning thatch.
Within half a mile, Gabrielle could see the remains of the burning village ahead of them, catching glimpses of it over Xena's shoulder as she bounced awkwardly behind the other woman. They were well into the village before the warrior brought Argo to a sliding halt.
A thick pall of smoke hung over the entire area, flames still casually licking at the few pieces of unburnt wood they could find. Bodies lay everywhere. The very few buildings which still stood were comparatively undamaged, once Gabrielle saw that nearly every other structure in the small hamlet had been razed to the ground. Those still standing had doors and windows kicked in and sections of the walls had been torn from their fittings. If anyone still lived, at least there were a few roofs to put over their heads. In the moments it had taken the Bard to see this much, Xena had thrown herself bodily from the saddle and was quickly assessing if there were any left worth even trying to save from the bodies on the ground. She moved from one to the next, feeling for a pulse here, turning another over there. Each time she would shake her head and move on again. The Bard found the uncanny silence almost overwhelming and quickly decided to look for survivors too. Anything was better than sitting there listening to all that un-noise.
Gabrielle managed to climb down clumsily from Argo and began her own search for any survivors of the massacre, which is what this must have been for there to be so many dead. Walking into one of the few buildings standing, she quickly back-pedalled after one quick glance. She clutched a pole to support herself and rapidly brought up the breakfast she had eaten not long before. Xena was by her side in an instant.
"Hey! You all right?" She asked, the concern for her lover loud in her voice.
Gabrielle nodded, only to lean forward and empty her stomach again. Her head was spinning and she started to sway dizzily. The tall warrior quickly grabbed her before she fell and set her down on the partially broken step, gently pushing the Bard's head between her knees. The young woman was more than happy to stay there and try to wipe from her memory the sight she had seen in that small room. A woman, heavily pregnant, had been raped, the clotted blood covering her inner thighs, the torn skirt hiked up around her hips. Whoever had been here was not just content to rape the woman though. After taking their 'fun', they had killed her...and the unborn child she carried by cutting it from her abdomen. The look of intense pain and horror on the woman's dead face was more than enough to tell Gabrielle it had been done while the woman still lived, briefly.
The Bard heard Xena walk the few steps to look into the open doorway. She was soon back at the younger woman side again. "There are some things no one should ever have to see." She snarled, not angry at Gabrielle but whoever the monsters had been that destroyed the village. "Do you think you're going to be all right now. I could really use your help here." Xena asked quietly. She had to give the young woman something to do to help her forget what she had just seen.
Gabrielle raised her head slowly and nodded. "Whatever you need, Lover. You've got it." She answered gamely. More than anything right now, she needed to be busy or she would simply replay that image over and over in her mind. Letting Xena help her to her feet, the two women began to comb the rest of the village looking for survivors.
It was a pitifully tiny group of people they gathered in one of the small buildings on the very edge of the village. It had a whole roof and Xena had patched the open space where the window once had been as best she could. Thankfully, the nights were still warm or they might have been in real trouble. Not a single man between early teen and old age was left. Any man who could have possibly put up any resistance had been killed outright. Of the women, only the very old, the very young or the...to put it politely, less than comely remained. The rest were either dead or had been taken as slaves. With the little food they could find, most of it having been burnt, destroyed, fouled or simply taken, Gabrielle had made a rough but filling stew to feed everyone.
Xena came up behind the young Bard, wiping blood from her hands with a damp cloth. "I don't know if she will make it but I have done the best I know how to do. It is up to her now." She said.
Gabrielle looked back at the old woman Xena had been working on. She had picked up a discarded sword trying to protect her young grand-daughter and one of the raiders had sliced through her stomach with his blade. Xena had discovered her barely alive behind one of the burnt-out buildings, where she had crawled to die. Of the grand-daughter, nothing could be found. The warrior assumed she had been one of those taken.
The Bard could see the look on Xena face. "You going to be okay, Lover?" The shadows under Xena's eyes were dark and there was a grim set about her mouth, shoulders tight with her own rage at what she had seen that day.
"Yes." The warrior snarled back. "Don't you think I have ever seen this before?" She angrily turned to leave.
Gabrielle simply grabbed the taller woman by the arm and dragged her, surprised, from the room. The suddenness of the move making the warrior easier to handle for the moment. Once outside, the Bard spoke savagely. "Don't you ever DARE speak to me like that again!" She managed to get passed her clenched teeth. "I am supposed to be your lover, your partner and I know, better than anyone, that you have seen this before." Tears were threatening to fall from Gabrielle's flashing and angry green eyes but she held them back until she felt she had said her piece. "I know what this must be doing to you. For the love of the gods, you used to CAUSE this kind of suffering. Don't you think I am aware of how you must be feeling right now. Don't shut me out, Xena. I love you too much to be shut out. I can't stand it." Shuddering with her own barely suppressed anger, the Bard gave way to her tears.
Xena stood, astonished by the outburst from her usually patient lover. She knew the younger woman was right. The tall warrior had been trying to shut her out. Trying to stop the Bard from seeing the pain, anguish and self-hatred she felt eating away inside. She once used to cause this kind of carnage when she was the warlord but the change in herself brought the other side of such raids out in sharp relief. The death and destruction rort on innocent people. Her heart ached every time she saw this and she simply didn't want another to ease her pain. She wanted to punish herself with it to try to make some kind of amends for her own past behaviour. Gently drawing the weeping woman into her arms, she held her tightly trying to express her love without using the words she knew she didn't have anyway.
Gradually, Gabrielle calmed as the anger died away in her as quickly as it had risen. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I didn't mean to shut you out. But I used to do this to people. I don't deserve to feel better. Not after what I have done in the past." Xena said gently to the woman, her most precious lover, held in her strong arms.
"Don't you think you do enough already, without having to beat yourself up with your pain too?" The Bard whispered against the warrior's armoured chest. "I understand that you used to do this but you don't any more. You changed."
"I can't change how I feel, Gabrielle." The taller woman said as she kissed the top of the Bard's strawberry blonde hair.
"Then at least let me in. I may not be able to offer much to ease the pain but I do love you a very great deal, you know." Gabrielle replied.
Knowing there was no fighting the stubborn Bard because she had wormed her way into the warrior's heart and soul, Xena dropped her head against that of her lover and for a few quiet moments, allowed a few of her own tears of pain and sorrow to fall. It wasn't much, there were so many tears in her soul but she was allowing another to see inside, just a little.
Xena had woken feeling more tired than usual. Her night had been restless, getting up several times to tend the wounded old woman but despite her best efforts, the woman had died in the early hours of the morning. The warrior had thought it best to bury the body as soon as possible and had dug the woman's grave by the light of a single candle. For some time afterwards, she had sat by the graveside remembering the times *she* had swept through a village, destroying everything in her path, unaware of the after-effects of her raids. Being honest with herself, she hadn't cared then. She had just wanted to feel the darkness consuming her. Nothing more. In a way, she was still punishing herself with her own feelings of self-loathing that she could have once been as bad as the vile creatures who had destroyed this peaceful village. The choices she had made back then still affected the choices she made now. Once again, she renewed her vow to somehow make good all the harm she had done in her past.
Gabrielle had found her sitting by the old woman's grave and convinced her to come back to bed, at least for a little while. Somehow, in the warm and loving arms of the Bard, Xena had fallen asleep again.
Dawn found her back on her feet once more. The warrior decided to let the younger woman sleep for a while longer. It had been a tough day on the Bard. There were just too many things that Xena could not have hidden from her. The pregnant woman in the first building being only the start of it. By day's end, the woman had looked more haunted than Xena could ever remember seeing and the warrior had doubted Gabrielle would have slept at all. But somehow she had and Xena was not going to wake her lover until she truly had need of her.
Xena sat on the steps outside watching as the few survivors of the raid picked through the remains of their homes before packing up their pitiful possessions. Talking with the two elders left alive the night before, it had been decided that everyone would move on to the next town along the way. Many had relatives there and most would find a home. Xena had offered to protect them as they made the move, just in case the raiders were still close by. An offer the village elders had gratefully accepted.
The tall warrior smiled privately to herself. She could hear Gabrielle stomping and thumping her way into wakefulness behind her. No matter how bad the situation, regardless of what the young woman had been put through the day before, some things just never changed. Xena sat quietly waiting until the Bard was completely awake and ready to face the day. The dark-haired woman desperately needed that morning hug today. She needed to know someone could love her, regardless of her past or how she felt about herself. She didn't understand how Gabrielle could do it but she had faith that the younger woman did. That love and acceptance had become an anchor and a life-line in Xena's existence.
The journey to the nearest town had taken several days. Days were Xena withdrew into herself so none could see the rage burning in her heart. But Gabrielle saw it. The Bard could see the sparkling ice in Xena's intense blue eyes and knew what had frozen the tenderness out of them. In her own way, Gabrielle was angry too and the carnage of the raid was only part of it. They had only been lovers for less than half a year but the Bard had travelled with the warrior for a great deal longer. She had worked so hard to break down the walls between them so Xena would accept what was in the younger woman's heart...and what was in her own as well. Gabrielle was not going to lose any of that simply because this one raid had reminded the warrior of how she used to be.
Xena stood looking out the window of the room. She was still dressed in her leathers and armour, her weapons still strapped to her body. Gabrielle was down to her cotton shift and was pulling that over her head in preparation for bed. They had arrived in the town around late afternoon, a rag-tag bunch indeed. Several of the children had been mounted on the back of Xena's horse, simply unable to walk any further. The rest of the villagers either walked or limped along behind them. It had been a rough time for everyone to get to the town, constantly in fear of the raiders returning to finish the job they had started. But it had been a quiet trip. The two travellers had quickly handed their charges over to the town's council explaining the raid and their part in the rescue. Once those details had been taken care of, Gabrielle saw to it that they had a room for the night. She knew that Xena would be heading straight back to the ruined village the next morning to pick up the trail of the raiders. Their tracks may be well be over a week old but there was no way to hide a group of that size for long, especially from a determined tracker like Xena.
At least the tall warrior seemed to have unfrozen a little, now that the people she was caring for were no longer right under her nose, reminding her of what she used to be like. Tending to their needs, both physical and emotional had forced her into shutting Gabrielle out again. The Bard hated it but there was little she could do until she got Xena alone. And the young woman knew just when to do it to. When the other woman felt at her most warm and loving. That is if she could convince the tall warrior to be loving at all.
"Come to bed, Lover." Gabrielle said to the warrior standing at the window.
"Hmmm, yea. Shortly. Why don't you lie down and get some rest. It's been a long day for you." Xena replied, not really noticing the naked woman sitting on the pallet next to her.
The Bard frowned. Xena was being stubborn but the younger woman was more so. "Not until you are here with me and I have my arms wrapped around you." She said. "I know full well, the instant I close my eyes, you'll be out that window and heading back to the village. Listen up, Warrior Princess. You are not going anywhere without me." Gabrielle crossed her arms and put the most obstinate expression on her face she could possibly manage.
The tall warrior looked over to the bed and saw the expression on Gabrielle's face. It quickly dawned on her that she had been shutting the Bard out again and the young woman had had quite enough of it. Xena chuckled throatily. "Oh, you would have to be a stubborn little pest, wouldn't you." The warrior took the few steps and sat on the side of the bed, looking at Gabrielle. "I just want to keep you safe."
"And what happens every time you try to do that?" The blonde asked.
"You follow me." Xena replied, trying to look angry about it and failing completely.
"So, I would follow you this time too." Gabrielle said. "You are not getting away from me. Not now or ever. Don't you understand?? I love you. I want to be with you, even if that means being in danger. I'd rather be in danger with you than safe without you. Can't you see that?"
"Yea. I guess I can." Xena answered. She had a lop-sided grin on her face and the twinkle had returned to her eyes a little. "By the gods, I hate fighting with a Bard. You always seem to win."
"Pick the winning side and you might occasionally too." The Bard giggled. "Now get that blasted armour off and put your incredibly beautiful body in bed with me. I wanna show you just how much I love you."
"Hmmmm, I think I have some showing to do too. I've been a little...preoccupied the past few days." Xena said.
"Preoccupied!! You always were the mistress of understatement." Gabrielle grabbed the warrior's shoulders and pushed her backwards onto the bed, her lips already busy with any naked flesh she could find, which was actually quite a bit.
Before Xena's own passion took control, she managed to get one last statement passed her rapidly over-occupied mouth. "Thank you for being patient with me. Gabrielle."
Returning to the devastated village had taken half the time for the two women, no longer slowed by walking wounded and children. Though the smoke had cleared, the smell of death hung over the place like a heavy cloud. Gabrielle was having to force her mind away from the images of carnage and wanton destruction she had seen here and concentrate on what Xena needed her to do. While Xena was circling the village trying to pick up the old tracks on the ground, the young Bard was wandering the area forcing herself not to see the damaged buildings and the many graves both she and the warrior had dug. Passing by one of the collapsed buildings, Gabrielle kicked at some of the debris and uncovered yet another body. One they must have missed before. Rather than call to Xena for help in burying this one too, she began to drag in from under the broken planks and piled straw intending to bury it herself.
It was only after she had managed to get it all the way into the open, did she realise it was not another villager but one of the few raiders killed that day. She took a moment to scrub her hands on her skirt, feeling tainted somehow from the mere touch.
"Xena!" She called into the trees around her. "XENA!"
The tall warrior's running footsteps came crashing through the trees nearby, her sword draw. She had thought from the Bard's cry there was some kind of trouble but seeing the woman standing safely near a body, she relaxed and jogged over to her.
"What's up?" She asked. Surely the younger woman had not called out to her simply because she had found another body?
"I think I found one of the raiders." Gabrielle stated simply, still shuddering a little from the contact. "You were saying on the way here that you would liked to have known exactly which army did all the damage."
"By the gods." Xena replied and quickly dropped to one knee to examine the clothing on the body. Whoever he had been, he appeared to be the usual scruffy sort that joined such raiding armies. The sort she was more than familiar with from her own days as a warlord.
Though badly bloated from the internal gases, Xena could see he had not been a particularly good looking man while alive, a long, healed scar running from temple to chin down one side of his now blackened face. His clothes were the standard dress of someone who took their living as a raider. Nothing special about him at all. But it was his lacks that told her more about him than what he actually had on him. His armour had been cobbled together from several different suits and none seemed to fit all that well. His clothes were not made of a good quality material and seemed extremely worn in places. Boots with wooden heels worn almost to the leather underneath and his belt had actually been tied around his waist instead of buckled. The knife still in its sheath on his hip was unevenly sharpened, cutting deeply into the metal in places. Perhaps he had only just recently joined the raiders, which was doubtful because he had the look of someone who had been doing this as a living for quite some time. Maybe the army had fallen on bad times? Again, this was unlikely, the raid on the village had simply been too successful for an army under a bad leader. The third option that came to Xena's mind that perhaps this was a new army, one not too long together. They may not have had the time yet to gather enough plunder from their raids for everyone to have gained from the loot. This seemed the most feasible of the options.
In a way, the last option pleased Xena more than the others. If they had not been long formed, they would be easier to break up. Xena still wanted to punish those who had done the worst of the killing but there was no real way of knowing who those might have been. She had to satisfy herself with simply breaking up the army and making it impossible for them to continue their trail of destruction. Checking carefully one last time, the tall woman could see the dead man carried no insignia of any kind stating who he worked for. This was something of a disadvantage to her. If she knew which warlord was leading them, it would make planning tactics a great deal simpler. She may not be a warlord herself anymore but she did keep track of who was out there and what they were doing.
Glancing at Gabrielle as she climbed to her feet again, Xena noticed the haunted look had returned to the young woman's face once more. She briefly hugged the Bard to in her strong arms. "You going to be all right, Gabrielle?" She asked.
Nestling into the comfort the taller woman was offering. "Yea, I think so. It's just this place. It could easily have been my village instead of this one." Gabrielle shuddered at the thought.
Xena gently kissed the top of the Bard's head. "Once it was my village. I want to see that it never happens again, to any village." She replied seriously. "If you get Argo, I think I may have found the tracks I was looking for."
As she watched the younger woman walk back to the golden-coated mare, she quietly prayed that none of the children of this village ever thought that being a warlord was the right way to protect their homeland...as she had once done. In part, making that choice was what lead her to eventually choosing the most evil path of all. The path of death. The way of evil might have been the easier but this life she now led was the more rewarding, when she allowed herself to feel it, that is. She still couldn't answer the why of her own mind, or those of the villagers she saw in her nightmares but she could answer the how. But it still wasn't enough, at least not for her.
Sitting by the campfire that night, Gabrielle watched as Xena carefully cleaned and sharpened her weapons. In her own way, this was how the taller woman mediated or thought through some problem. The Bard would generally leave her lover alone during this time simply because it appeared to relax the warrior. As she put the stone and cloth away, Gabrielle came to sit next to her. Xena had been quiet all day, not withdrawn, just quiet. Wheedling information out of the dark-haired woman, especially anything to do with her heart or soul was difficult sometimes but the blonde was persistent and usually managed to get a few answers, even if they were not the ones she was originally after.
"Whatcha thinking about, Lover?" She asked quietly. She snuggled closer and put her head on Xena's broad shoulder.
"Oh, nothing much." She replied after a pause.
"Still the world's worst liar, I see." Gabrielle chuckled quietly.
"Still the world's biggest pest, I see." Xena retorted.
Gabrielle put her hand on the well-muscled thigh of the woman she loved most in this world and quite possibly the next as well. "No, seriously. What are you thinking about? It seems to have been on your mind all day."
"Just thinking about how I got here. Thinking about us. That kind of thing. Sometimes I wonder what I did to deserve your love." Xena finally replied after staring into the fire for a few moments.
"Do you remember the first time you ever kissed me?" The younger woman asked curiously. Gabrielle didn't think she would ever forget that moment, when their lips had first met in love and not just in friendship.
"Yes." The warrior said. "But I had to do it with another person's body! I don't think I would have had the courage otherwise."
"So, why then?" Gabrielle was genuinely interested. The two women had travelled together for years before Xena had finally expressed her true feelings to the younger woman. And it hadn't been all that long after Xena's "death" and return from the other side.
"They say the dead can hear the thoughts of living and I heard you when you said you loved me. I knew it meant more than just as a friend too. Part of me wasn't completely sure I would get my body back and I wanted to know what it was like to kiss you, just once. I didn't think I would get the chance again, you see." Xena tried not to look too embarrassed. Expressing what was in her heart had never been one of her strongest points. Words were Gabrielle's area. The tall woman saw herself as the warrior, a woman of action.
"Is that what made you decide to return?" The Bard asked, thinking about the time Xena had called Gabrielle back from Hades with that same powerful love.
"It was what strengthened me to return. I was given a choice and I chose to come back here and finish what I had set out to do. But your love gave me the strength to do it. I nearly slipped away there once. It was so hard to stay in touch with this plain but I so wanted to come home...to you." Xena answered.
It was about the longest speech Xena had ever made about those painfilled days and Gabrielle was nearly in tears at the thought of ever losing her wonderful warrior lover again. She knew she could survive and she could go on but it had been so hard during those days. She had not really wanted to let go and found it hard to believe that Xena had actually left her. Even deciding to accept being the Amazon Queen had not filled the gap Xena's death had left in her heart. The young woman harboured no resentment now but then, well...she had wanted so much to hate the warrior for leaving, just up and leaving like that. Not even giving the young woman the chance to tell her how she felt, to thank her for all the lessons she had learnt from the warrior, to be able to tell her how much she loved her Warrior Princess. But somehow, Xena had heard and she had come back. Perhaps the dead did hear the thoughts of the living.
"But I made a promise to you then, didn't I." The taller woman said.
"Yes. You said, you will always be here." Gabrielle turned into the arms of her lover and let herself cry in sheer happiness that Xena had returned. She reached up to kiss the taller woman. A kiss that rapidly filled with passion. A kiss that Xena returned with an equal passion of her own.
Later, as the sweat of their love-making dried and their breathing returned to normal, Gabrielle asked another question. "Why are you thinking about how you got to be the way your are?"
"I need to understand why." Xena replied. Looking away for a moment, she mumbled almost under her breath. "If I understand why then maybe the nightmares will stop."
"But I thought you understood why you became a warlord? You said you were trying to protect your village." Gabrielle said.
"I understand becoming a warlord, well...partly anyway but I still don't understand why I chose the path of death and evil that I did. Maybe, I was betrayed just once too often. Maybe, I lost one too many people I thought of as friends. I don't know. But I did choose to take the path. I was determined to send as many to Hades as I could. It was the only thing that drove me. After making that choice, I wasn't protecting my village anymore. I was simply killing for the love of death." Xena paused for a moment. "And then I changed. I don't understand that much either." The tall warrior explained.
Quietly delighting in her lover's expansive mood, Gabrielle tried to keep her talking. "Maybe under all the evil was a pure heart?" The Bard suggested.
"No, Gabrielle. That pure heart was ripped from me the day Cortese's army destroyed my village. The only pure heart I know of, is yours." She said, stroking Gabrielle gently under the chin. "I don't know what it was that made me change but Hercules forced me to see it, whatever it was."
"Well, it must be there, if he could see it. He is the son of Zeus, after all." Gabrielle reasoned quietly.
Xena hugged the younger woman closer to her. "Seems I have been asking myself why for so long now that I may never have the answer until I make that final journey across the river. Maybe that is part of the price I have to pay for my atonement."
Both women lay together silently for a time, thinking their own thoughts. With one last gentle kiss, they faded into sleep.
Xena knelt in the leaf litter on the forest floor. Gabrielle stood nearby holding Argo's reins lightly in one hand. Though she may not have liked riding the mare, she had made friends with it over the years, well...sort of. Around them the woods were quiet, filled only with the sounds the Bard was used to hearing. Still, she could see the tension evident in the way her lover held her shoulders and the look of grim determination on her face. Xena seemed to be reading the earth as easily as Gabrielle would have read one of her scrolls. The chopped up ground was easy enough to see, even for the Bard but the warrior seemed to be getting so much more out of the tracks in front of her. The tall woman returned to her feet in that wonderfully fluid motion Gabrielle loved so much. Dusting her hands off, she approached the younger woman.
"It's still the same army." She said. "I don't think they have been together very long though. No sign of war wagons and the horses they have are certainly not the best. Probably not much more than nags, to be honest. Most likely don't even have a farrier with them."
"How can you tell?" Gabrielle asked. She hadn't seen anything like that in the tracks and the young Bard had been looking at them for almost as long as the warrior.
"Look here." Xena explained, pointing to some of the tracks nearest them. "See where the heels dig in so much further than the toes." The tall woman's hands traced out the areas she was talking about. "Means the hooves are overgrown. This one doesn't even have shoes. If it did, it would be lame by now. From the shortness of the stride, I'd say this animal is not far off it anyway."
Gabrielle looked at the tracks carefully and though she could see what Xena was explaining, she would never have known it herself. She had seen Argo's tracks for years but the tall warrior always made sure the mare's feet were well cared for. "So, how much further ahead are they?" She asked. They had been travelling for some days now, always following the tracks of the army who had destroyed the village. They had been smart enough to cut straight through the forest and had stayed off the roads as much as possible. They weren't smart enough to have left the village alone however, and that was a big mistake with Xena around.
"Another two days, I think. Probably headed for some kind of base." The dark-haired woman said. She pointed to another set of tracks on the ground. "They still have the women with them too. They are neck-roped behind individual horses from the looks of it." Seeing the quizzical look on Gabrielle face, she stepped into the tracks to demonstrate how she knew. "See? Step, step, step...Jerk and then a deeper step as they thump their foot into the ground to stay upright."
Gabrielle watched as Xena moved over the tracks and then looked at the marks in the ground itself. She could see it clearly now. The Bard carefully filed away the information for some future reference. Though the warrior didn't always explain things quite this clearly, Xena was taking more time to teach her things, especially now the young woman truly felt she was an Amazon. The leather-clad woman didn't think it was right Gabrielle knew so little about the warrior skills and still call herself an Amazon. However, Xena was justifiably proud of Gabrielle's hard won skill with the staff. "And what about this mark here?" The Bard asked, pointing to the ground. She knew what it was but wanted Xena to confirm it.
"What does it look like to you?" Xena replied.
"Like someone fell and was dragged for a while." The Bard answered, hoping she was both right in reading the tracks and wrong about what happened.
"You're getting good at this, you know." The warrior said, nodding in agreement of Gabrielle's assessment of the drag mark.
Gabrielle blushed. "I had a good teacher." She replied.
Xena had mounted again and was looking ahead. "Well, lets get moving. We still have two days before we catch up with them."
Following behind the mounted woman, Gabrielle wondered what they were going to do once they did catch up with the raiders.
The women had managed to do the two day journey in a day and half simply by putting Gabrielle behind Xena on the mare. The Bard had hated it but she did have a better seat than she'd had in the past. It was still too high for the young woman and she was terrified of falling. The warrior woman had kept one hand tightly holding Gabrielle's to help reassure her.
Both of them had heard the buzzing of the camp long before they came anywhere near it, though Xena had heard it first. That uncanny hearing of hers telling her far more about it than the sound told Gabrielle.
"About three hundred odd from the sound of it." She said, tilting her head to listen closer.
Gabrielle didn't even bother asking how she knew. The young Bard had seen her do this far too many times. By the gods...The warrior could even hear individual fish swimming! Knowing how many men were in a camp just from the sound was one of her lesser skills.
Leaving Argo tied to the trees in a small corpse, both women carefully moved forward until they had a clear view of the camp. Xena had signalled the younger woman to stay about ten feet behind her just in case the warrior was spotted. It was only when Xena thought it safe did she motion Gabrielle to move quietly to her side.
Side by side, the two women scanned the encampment carefully taking in as much detail as possible. To Xena's eyes, it looked a lot like any other raider camp she had seen in the past. It was soon obvious to her though that they had not been together long. The guards she could see in the perimeter didn't seem particularly disciplined, leaving gaps in the way they had spread themselves out. Other men were lounged around campfires talking or drinking wine. There didn't appear to be anyone practising with their weapons, though every man she could see was armed in some way. Tents were scattered about the area but in no formation she understood, making it hard to defend them if it became necessary. The privies had been built too close to the camp and refuse lay everywhere. Disease must have been a real problem here. Only two of the tents had guards outside. One near the center of the camp, the other closer to the edge. Xena assumed that one held the women or the plunder from their last raid, the other was most likely the tent of the warlord himself. Having seen enough, she tapped Gabrielle on the shoulder and they both slid back into the covering bushes to move away.
Once well back from the camp and in the corpse of trees where they had tied Argo, Xena and Gabrielle squatted down to scratch out some kind of a plan in the dirt with the point of Xena's knife. Or more accurately, Xena was thinking out loud while the Bard listened.
"From the looks of that camp, the warlord is either a smart, young one or a dumb, old one. My guess is it's the former." The tall woman said.
"How do you know that?" Gabrielle asked.
"Badly laid out and no discipline among the soldiers. Even a dumb warlord knows how to beat men into submission. Though he wouldn't stay the leader for long doing that." Xena replied. "Should make it a little easier to get the women out and maybe break them up."
Gabrielle couched in the bushes near the camp, her staff on the ground beside her. The two women had crept carefully towards the camp once the sun had set, entering through the gaps left by the undisciplined guards. The younger woman was just on the other side of the perimeter waiting to fulfil her part in the rescue as Xena had flattened herself against the ground and moved into the camp itself. In the covering darkness she couldn't even make out Xena's shape as she slid through the tall grasses headed for the tent where they had assumed the women were being held. The warrior was going to release the women and send them back through the grass to Gabrielle. The Bard's job was simple. Get them away from here.
Xena wanted to go after the warlord once she had released the women and no matter how Gabrielle had argued, the other woman would not budge. Once Xena was in that kind of a mood, there was little the younger woman could do. The Bard gave up trying to see anything in the darkness and started to use her ears instead. She could just make out the sound of Xena's armour as it scraped quietly over the dry grass. She could hear as the tall warrior would move a few feet and then stop, only to move again at some unpredictable interval. The blonde smiled to herself. If she hadn't known what she was listening for, she wouldn't have even been aware there was a tall, angry warrior in the grass headed for the tent. Gabrielle knew what she was listening for because it was yet another lesson she had learned from Xena.
The Bard continued to listen carefully, turning her head from side to side, as she had been taught, to pin-point the exact direction of any sound she heard. She knew the women would be far from quiet and Gabrielle readied herself to jump into action at the first sign of trouble. Then her heart froze. She could hear the sound of footsteps, lots of footsteps...all coming from the other side of the camp. Whoever they were had to walk right by the back of the tent...passed the place she knew Xena was now lying in hiding. She clutched at her staff but didn't move. Xena's words still clear in her mind.
"No matter what happens, you have to get the women away from here. Forget about me, I can take care of myself but those women can't. It's up to you to get them to a safe place." The warrior had said earlier in the day.
"Whatever it takes, Lover. I'll do it." Gabrielle had answered.
The Bard listened in horror as a shout from one the men alerted the rest to Xena's presence in the grass. She heard the warrior's battle cry as she leapt to her feet and began to fight, the sound of her sword loud in the shrouding darkness, the occasional grunt or cry drifting towards the Bard as one of the men was killed or wounded. It didn't take long before the tall woman had been completely overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of men around her. Gabrielle heard the cheer as Xena slumped to the ground unconscious, downed by a blow to the head. The young woman bit her lip to stop her own tears from falling. The men quickly tied the warrior's hands behind her back and dragged her body deeper into the camp.
"Whatever it takes, Lover. I'm going to do it and it looks like I have more to do than before." The blonde-haired Bard whispered into the darkness.
Staying where she was, she waited patiently. There were two jobs to be done now and the first of those was to release the women and get them to safety. Gabrielle would have preferred finding Xena first but knew she had to help those who could not help themselves.
Gabrielle passed the long hours trying not to imagine the things that might be happening to Xena somewhere in the camp. These were men who thought nothing of raping and killing a pregnant woman, a warrior like Xena would have been a real treat for them. Several times she started from the bushes but stopped herself each time. Getting herself captured would not help Xena or the women from the village. She had bitten down on her lip so many times to stop her own tears that it was swollen and puffy, a spot of blood on her chin where she had broken the skin. Gabrielle had been watching the guards as they moved around the camp. They didn't seem to have any pattern to how they walked their posts nor at what interval. She had carefully counted in her head between sightings of the guards and even to her, it appeared they patrolled as and when they felt like it. That was going to make it more difficult for her to get in and out again but she was determined to get the village women to safety and then return for Xena. If Xena hadn't already released herself, that is.
The camp had finally settled into sleep, the soldiers leaving their fires and rolling themselves up in their blankets. Gabrielle estimated it to be about two candlemarks past midnight. Carefully stretching out muscles tight after staying still so long, she started to make the same trip through the dry grass that Xena had tried hours before. She had waited until she had seen the guard pass and desperately hoped he would not pass again for some time. The grass was more than long enough to hide her but tickled her bare stomach and legs. Moving with the same care as Xena had done but with a little more noise, Gabrielle approached the back of the tent and listened carefully against the canvas to hear if the women were really in there. In all the time Xena and Gabrielle had watched, neither had seen food or water entering the tent and were concerned that the women may have already been sold to the slavers.
She listened for long moments until she heard the stifled, sleepy sob of one of the women. Good. They were still in there but if they had not been feed or watered all day, possibly several days, they were going to be very weak and may not be able to walk properly, if at all. Taking her knife, she carefully cut a slit in the material and crawled though into the darkened tent.
In the blackness, she couldn't see where the women were so she felt around until her hand encountered a sleeping body. Still moving gently, she felt her way up until she could put one hand over the woman's mouth to stop her from making any noise when she woke her. The guards were still outside and though sleepy and inattentive, a noise would alert them to her own presence. Placing one hand tightly over the woman's mouth, she gave her a shake. Even though the Bard could not see the woman she had just woken in the near blackness, Gabrielle could feel the tension under her hand as the woman woke. Leaning down to the woman's ear she whispered as quietly as she could.
"I'm here to help. Don't be afraid. Please don't scream or all our gooses are cooked." She said.
The woman shook her head to let the young Bard know she would not scream if her mouth was released. Gratefully, she took her hand away.
"Who are....." The woman tried to say.
Gabrielle hushed her with a finger on her lips. "A friend. Can you walk?? I need to get all of you out of here and to a safe place."
The woman nodded but explained. "I can walk a little but some can barely move. They have not feed us in some days and all are weak to some extent."
The Bard sat back on her heels. She had been hoping to take them all out at once but from the look of it, she was going to be forced to do it one at a time so she could help them. "Start waking the others but try to stay as quiet as possible. There are guards outside and I would rather not have them knowing I am here."
The woman quickly nodded and moved to wake the woman lying next to her.
While the village women were being woken and the situation explained to them, Gabrielle popped her head back out of the slit she had cut. Looking for the patrolling guard, she thought about how to do this without getting caught. The only way was to take each one through the grass herself and leave them outside the camp area completely. She had spotted a tiny cave in an outcropping of rocks well back from the camp. They should be safe there if they stayed quiet.
"Okay ladies, here is what we are going to do." Gabrielle explained her plan to them and though many were scared, they were more frightened of the what the raiders may have organised for them. As it was, there had already been several rapes and none wanted to be around for more.
Taking the first woman by the hand, Gabrielle led her out of the slit in the tent and back through the grasses to safety.
Continued - Part2
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