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Insert usual disclaimers here.....MCA owns Xena, Gabrielle and Argo. They might lay claim to Ares and Aphrodite too but I don’t think that pair will let them have exclusive rights somehow. The story however is completely mine and if you plagiarise it, I’ll set Zeus on you.
Okay, there are two women making consensual love in this story, so if you are underage, it is illegal in your country or state or you simply find such material offensive....Delete now.
Remember fan fic writers thrive on your praise. Gifts of chocolate and offers of massages are also gratefully accepted. (At least by me anyway.)
Thanks to Dani-Bear for reading this as it came hot of the presses each night and pointing out all kinds of good stuff I was overlooking. Thanks also to DAT for doing the rather tedious job of proofing. Treat your proofers well, fellow Bards. They can often make all the difference in where that comma ends up.
"Hurry up, Gabrielle. You’re dawdling again!" Xena shouted over her shoulder. She turned and faced back down the path, not even waiting to see if the Bard had quickened her pace.
Gabrielle mumbled under her breath. "Dawdling indeed! I’d like to see how fast she could walk if she didn’t have that horse to carry her everywhere." Thinking about it, she realised that the tall warrior would probably still be telling her to hurry along. Those long legs of hers could eat up a lot of ground. "Oh well, it won’t be long before we camp for the night anyway." She could already see Xena looking carefully along one side of the path, trying to find a place suitable for them.
Xena abruptly turned from the path and started down a slight incline towards the river. She had finally spotted the place she had been looking for. The river ran very deeply here with a gentle sandy bottom. There were several tall trees to camp under and a field of sweet grass for Argo. Having been here once before, she knew there was plenty of game in the nearby forest, so dinner would not be a problem. Even if she couldn’t get something from the surrounding woodland, she also knew of several spots along the river bank where large fish rested.
Xena watched Gabrielle come stomping down the incline as she stripped the saddle and other gear from Argo’s back. "Guess I have been a bit rough on her today. We had such a late start that I was kind of hoping to make up the time," Xena thought. " I keep forgetting she will never move as quickly as I can. She simply isn’t warrior-trained like I was."
Gabrielle flopped down next to the old firepit and shrugged the bag from her shoulder. Her feet felt like they were going to explode if she didn’t get her boots off soon. To be honest with herself, she felt like her temper was going to explode too. She watched as Xena quickly set up camp around her. Not that it took much, really. It was only a matter of minutes before there was a cheerful fire blazing and their bedrolls had been laid out. Gabrielle closed her eyes and concentrated on relaxing the tight muscles in her legs. She thought Xena had walked off into the trees to catch something for dinner. No matter how she tried, Gabrielle just couldn’t seem to bring herself to kill anything covered in fur or feathers.
When Xena’s strong hands began to unlace her boots, she suddenly realised that the woman had not simply walked off as usual. Her eyes popped open. "Umm, what are you doing, Xena?"
"Can’t I remove the boots of my own lover without getting interrogated?" She smiled down at the smaller woman. "You did well today to keep up, even though I was growling like a bear most of the way. You’d better get your feet out of those boots though or they’re going to be too swollen to get back on again tomorrow." Xena gently pulled the other boot from Gabrielle’s foot and bent to carefully pick her up. She carried the Bard down to the river's edge and set her on a large rock. "Soak your feet, Gabrielle. It will help with the swelling."
The young Bard was a little stunned. Xena had been snarling at her all day to hurry up, and now she was the gentle lover again. It never ceased to amaze her how Xena’s personality could flip back and forth like that. Gabrielle forgot about being angry as the cool water soothed her tired and aching feet. She watched as Xena, wearing only her leathers, waded into the river and walked along the bank. Dipping one hand into the water without causing so much as a ripple, she began to slowly stalk along the edge. Gabrielle had seen her do this a hundred times, and it always left her a little slack-jawed with wonder. Within moments, Xena had tickled her way up the body of a large fish and was flipping it out of the water, fingers sunk firmly into its gills. Gabrielle shook her head. She was still trying to master the trick herself. Xena soon had a second fish flopping around on the bank of the river. More than enough for dinner tonight.
Once the ache had left her feet and she had a meal in her stomach, Gabrielle was willing to forgive Xena for snapping at her all day. She had taken the time to fill in her journal and then watched contentedly as Xena cleaned and sharpened her sword and chakram. It was something the warrior did every night, unless she was in too much pain from some injury or another. Even then, she would ask that the younger woman to least clean her weapons. Xena liked to sleep with the sword tucked just under the edge of her bedroll at night, a little habit which had saved their lives on more than one occasion.
Gabrielle wandered sleepily over to the two bedrolls, both placed closely together so the women could sleep tucked up against each other through the night. She drew her blankets around her, knowing Xena would not come to bed for some time yet. The warrior still suffered from the nightmares that had plagued her for years, though they had settled somewhat, and she even had nights where she slept straight through without waking once. The Bard was mentally counting up the weeks they had been lovers -- it wasn’t long, perhaps a few moons -- when she felt Xena’s strong hands slowly caress her back.
"Tired, Love?" The tall warrior asked.
Gabrielle could hear the desire in her voice. It never failed to send a delicious thrill through her body. "Not for you, Warrior-Darling," she replied and turned over into the loving arms of her Warrior Princess. Unless she was hurt or injured, Gabrielle was never too tired to make love with Xena.
Blinking into dawn’s light, Gabrielle looked around her. This was the second time this morning Xena had woken her. The first time the Bard had simply groaned from under her covers but dozed off again. It was the same routine they followed every morning, though Xena was not threatening bodily damage just yet. To be true, the tall women was being quite gentle about waking Gabrielle. They had made love for hours the night before, and the young Bard had no idea when they had finally gotten to sleep. Xena strolled past the half-awake young woman with more firewood tucked under one arm. As she passed, she flicked the covers from Gabrielle’s body.
The blonde looked down at her naked body and up at the expression of raw lust she could see on Xena’s face. "Oh no! We started late yesterday because we spent half the morning making love, and then you growled at me all day. I don’t want a repeat performance of that, thank you very much. I’m getting up," she said. In less than a minute she was dressed and seated in front of the fire, taking her first sip of the hot tea Xena had made for her.
Xena was pleased to see her lover up but was a little disappointed there wasn’t going to be a repeat performance of the love-making, at least. It was all still rather new to Gabrielle, even after the four or five moons they had actually been lovers. Xena was taking great delight as the younger woman discovered both the joys of her own body and the wonders of Xena’s. So it had taken Xena a couple of years to admit to her feelings about the young Bard. It was all the sweeter when she finally did. The tall warrior smiled at the memory. Gabrielle had lost all patience waiting for the Warrior Princess to act on the desire the young woman could see clearly in Xena’s eyes, and it had started out as a mock rape one night. Not that it took Xena long to relax and enjoy herself. The struggle she had initially put up was very token indeed. Both women knew Xena was more than capable of tossing Gabrielle across the clearing if it had not been what the tall warrior had wanted herself. Somewhere in the haze of sensations and feelings, Xena had spoken true of what was in her heart. Though many things had changed between them that night, many others had not.
Unlike the day before, the two women were on the road again barely a candlemark past dawn.
Xena looked back over her shoulder for probably the hundredth time that day. Gabrielle was off somewhere in her head, automatically skipping a bit every dozen or so paces to keep up with Argo. The dark-haired woman was finding it a little annoying that Gabrielle was paying no attention to her surroundings. Instead, Gabrielle was probably thinking up some new tale to tell. No matter how she tried, this habit of the young Bard’s was really getting on her nerves more and more. Xena had grown to depend, a little, on Gabrielle watching their backs. But Gabrielle couldn’t do that if she was wandering the lands of her own imagination. It meant that Xena was left to watch both their back and their front, listening and anticipating any dangers they may come across.
"Gabrielle?" She said. Nothing. The woman had probably not even heard. "Gabrielle?" She tried speaking a bit more loudly.
"Ummmm." Gabrielle replied. She still had that far away look on her face like she was only half there.
Xena lost her temper. "Will you please pay attention to what is going on around you, that is if you want to continuing living. Some thug could have cut your legs out from under you and you’d’ve never noticed," she snapped. Xena angrily turned in her saddle and stared down the path once more.
Gabrielle stood with her mouth hanging open. Sure, she was thinking of something else, but she was paying attention. Well, she thought she was, anyway. True, Xena had been forced to call her name a second time, but if it had been really important, the tall warrior would have shouted at her like she always did. Gabrielle’s own temper started a slow burn. Damn the woman!! And the young Bard followed behind again, no longer enjoying the sunshine or the smell of the forest around her.
By the end of the day, neither woman had spoken another word to the other. Gabrielle was sick to death of being treated like some kind of a liability when she knew she could hold her own with her staff. And Xena’s pride would simply not allow her to apologise. The dark-haired woman ignored the guilty ache she could feel in her chest.
The moment they reached the campsite where they were staying for the night, Gabrielle had grabbed a sack from the saddlebags and gone into the surrounding forest to pick berries. She had seen several bushes, heavy with fruit, along the path on the way here. She had tossed her staff and bag on the ground next to an old firepit already there. Without a backwards glance, she disappeared into the woods near the campsite.
Xena had seen the grab for the sack and the stomping walk into the forest, but it wasn’t until she knelt to start the fire that she noticed the young Bard’s staff lying on the ground. Her temper flared up another notch. How many times had she told the woman never to go anywhere without some kind of weapon on her? She knew Gabrielle didn’t carry a knife, not one suitable for fighting with, anyway, and the only weapon she was truly skilled with was the staff. Unless you counted her mouth, that is. But words would be useless against someone’s sword!
Savagely picking berries, Gabrielle tried to cool her own temper. At first, she was pulling at the bushes so viciously that the berries were getting squashed. She stopped to lick the juices from her fingers. Controlling herself, she began to pick more carefully. By the time her small sack was full, she felt almost herself again. "Xena just worries too much," she said aloud to the bushes. "So, I’m not a warrior. Does she see how hard I try? I mean, I can defend myself now. Actually, I’m pretty good with that staff even if I do say so myself." The young woman giggled to herself. "I think I could even knock Xena to the ground, if I really tried." It might have been stretching the truth a little but Gabrielle *was* very good with her chosen weapon. Finally feeling as though she had found some peace, she started the short walk back to the camp.
Xena was crouched before the fire, her back to the Bard as she returned from her berry picking. Feeling calmer than she had all day, Gabrielle was ready to make up. The warrior heard her footfall and jumped to her feet. From the look on her face she was anything but ready to make up. "I found some great berries to have with dinner." Gabrielle said. The expression of other woman’s face did not change. "Are you all right, Xena?"
"How many times have I told you to take your staff with you whenever I am not around?" the tall warrior snarled. Her teeth were clenched so tightly, Gabrielle could hear them grinding from several paces away.
"I was barely a hundred paces from here." Gabrielle was starting to lose her own temper again. Why did Xena always have to be so unreasonable?
"A hundred paces in which you could have gotten yourself killed because I couldn’t get to you in time," Xena replied. Why couldn’t Gabrielle see sense?
The rest of the argument degenerated from there, ending with both women sitting on opposite sides of the fire in sullen silence. Neither woman spoke another word for the rest of the night, sleeping apart, backs turned away. Both women quietly cried themselves to sleep.
Sitting on a branch in the trees was Ares. He had witnessed the entire disagreement with great delight. More than anything, he wanted Xena back. Aside from being a beauty that set his blood tingling, she was one damned fine warlord, until that godling Hercules had gotten to her. Watching the two women as they slept, he came up with an idea that so pleased him he fell from the branch laughing at his own cleverness.
Gabrielle woke the next morning still feeling out of sorts with herself...and Xena. Looking around her, she could see dawn was still some time off, but there was a little light showing on the horizon. Sighing quietly to herself, she sat and watched Xena sleeping for a few moments by the light of the dying fire. Thinking back to the night before, she remembered the cruel and hurtful things they had said to each other. And she had thought loving Xena and being loved in return would be so wonderful.
Her feelings were all mixed up, and, not thinking particularly clearly, she quickly rolled up her bedroll, picked up her staff and left the campsite. She knew which road they were following and Xena would catch up sooner or later. Right now, Gabrielle felt the need for some time alone to try to make some sense of what was happening to her, and she didn’t think she could do that with Xena around.
A little over two candlemarks later, Xena herself finally woke. She had lain awake for some time the night before and was still tired now. Keeping her eyes closed for a moment, she listened to the noises around her. Something didn’t feel quite right. It was as though something that should be there wasn’t. The warrior quickly opened her eyes and saw that Gabrielle was not beside her, nor was she on the other side of the fire as she had been the night before. Jumping to her feet, she paced over the ground where the Bard had been and saw her footprints leading out of the camp. A few minutes later, Xena was mounted and carefully following those tracks up onto the road and in the general direction they had been travelling for the past several days. She didn’t know how much of a head start the younger woman had, but it shouldn’t be too long before she caught up. As Xena moved along the path, she didn’t know whether to be angry or upset at Gabrielle’s actions. For the moment, anger seemed to be winning.
Gabrielle stomped along the path, growing more and more angry with every step. Xena was still treating her like she was nothing more than a simple village girl. She may not be warrior-trained, but she could take care of herself. There were days when she really hated being around the self-sufficient warrior. Even though she was an Amazon Princess, she really saw herself as nothing more than a Bard. True, she had received some training from her Amazon sisters in the use of her staff, but she still did not see herself as a genuine warrior. Well, maybe she saw a little of the warrior in herself but not nearly enough to satisfy the woman she loved.
More than anything she wanted Xena’s respect, and she felt she could only have that if Xena could see the warrior in her too, something that was not happening no matter how Gabrielle tried sometimes.
She was sure that somewhere behind her Xena would have woken to the empty camp. Gabrielle knew that a part of her should be concerned about the tall warrior’s reaction, but she was too angry to care. She was sick of being treated as though she didn’t know what she was doing. It wasn’t like Xena ever asked for her opinion or concerned herself with what Gabrielle may have wanted to do. It had always been like this, but as Gabrielle had grown and matured as an independent and capable young woman, she had found the other woman’s entire attitude increasingly difficult to tolerate.
"What does she think I am anyway!? Some child she has to take care of all the time!?" Gabrielle mumbled to herself. To be true, she was stretching it, but she really was tired of being looked after. If she was left safely in one more village she thought she would scream. Just once, she would like to be hip deep in the fighting, instead of standing to the side, worrying if Xena was going to be hurt *this* time. Not that she could see herself actually killing anyone; she simply wanted to be able to stand by Xena’s side, instead of in the bushes!
It appeared as though her wish was going to come true. Stomping along the track, paying no attention whatsoever to her surroundings, she found herself right in the middle of a small party of raiders without even realising it until she walked smack into the chest of one of the men.
"Oh, dear." She said.
The raider looked down at the pretty Bard and grinned. It was not a nice smile.
"How do I always manage to do this to myself?" The Bard muttered. "Ummmm, hi everyone." Gabrielle was trying to slowly backtrack the way she had come but felt the body of another raider behind her. "Nice day for a walk, isn’t it?" She said. "Anyone know how far it is to the next village?"
The raiders were not all that interested in her questions. In fact, not one of the men spoke a word to her. Gabrielle could feel their eyes raking up and down her body, undressing her. It was about the most unpleasant sensation she’d ever experienced. A quick glance around her soon let her know there was no ducking through a gap and escaping. She was completely surrounded. Oh, well. If it was a fight they wanted, she wasn’t about to back down.
Her staff was in her left hand. She swung it across the front of her body and slapped the bottom part into her right. Pirouetting on one foot, she spun in a tight circle, managing to hit several of the men in the face or chin. It didn’t do a lot of damage; only one of the men actually went down, but it gave her some space to swing her weapon. Using every trick she had ever been taught, including several from Xena, she began to fight as though her life depended on it, which it did.
Two men were down and three more were hurt badly enough to have backed off, but there were still five men around her and a couple more standing off to the side simply watching. Gabrielle was starting to feel the strain in her arms from swinging her staff and trying to keep as many of the men as possible in her line of sight. The look on her face was grim, but inside her heart was hammering with fear. More than anything, she wished she had never left the camp that morning. At least with Xena here, she would have had more than a fighting chance of finishing this.
One of the men came rushing at her again, hoping to get past her guard. His sword never reached her.
A figure in a black cloak and cowling came spinning out of the trees above her, landing lightly in the narrow space between the raiders and her. He -- well, the struggling Bard assumed it was a he -- began to swing his blade. Gabrielle found him protecting her back, or she was protecting his. Things were moving too fast for her to think which. It couldn’t have been more than a minute before most of the raiders lay dead at their feet, the rest running for their very lives down the road.
Gasping for breath and using her staff to help hold up her tired body, Gabrielle said. "Oh, thank you, whoever you are. I don’t know how much longer I could have fought them on my own."
"No need to thank me. I was merely trying to help." His voice said smoothly.
Gabrielle’s head came up. The voice sounded just a little too familiar for her liking. Now where had she heard it before? Somewhere around Xena, she was sure.
The man pulled the cowling from his face. Ares! If the Bard could have found the strength in her legs, she would have started backing up again. This was one god she did NOT like being around. More often than not, it meant trouble for Xena, though to be honest, Ares had never done anything to her. Part of her was willing to trust him because he was a god, yet the other part was not. Still, Xena wasn’t here, so maybe he wasn’t out to cause the tall warrior trouble. Perhaps it might be best to hear him out then. He had helped save her life, after all.
"Oh, so suspicious of me, Little Bard. I only want to help you, really," he said. He held out one hand to her. Gabrielle ignored it completely, preferring to hold on to her staff. "If you must," Ares said, flicking his fingers at her in annoyance.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"Like I said, I came to help." He replied. The God of War had not planned the raiders, but, not willing to pass up the opportunity, he had stepped in and now was ready to set into action the idea he’d had the night before as he’d watched the two women fight by the side of their fire. "You could have dealt with those raiders by yourself...if you had been a properly trained warrior, you know. I mean, you did very well for someone with so little training, but think what you could have done if you had all the warrior skills."
For a moment, Gabrielle did stop to think about it. Xena would certainly respect her a lot more if she was her fighting equal and not the half-trained Bard she was now. How many times had she found herself in exactly this situation and Xena had been forced to come to her rescue! And she was *so* tired of being left on the sidelines. The anger she felt towards the woman she loved once again came bubbling to the surface. If Gabrielle had all the warrior skills, just like Xena, then there would be no more fights between them because the Bard would be able to take care of herself without the tall woman tying herself in knots anymore. But this was Ares she was talking to, and she was still suspicious. No god offered anything without a price. That much she had learned in her travels with her lover.
"What are you offering? And what is the price?" she asked.
"All the skills of a warrior is what I am offering. And I am not asking for anything in return, other than that you use the skills I give you," Ares replied. Actually, he knew he was breaking the rules, because his price was Xena, but to tell that to the young Bard would mean her saying "no." And he didn’t want her turning him down. Zeus he would deal with later, if the god ever found out, that is. And he was kind of telling the truth about the price he wanted. He just wasn’t mentioning *how* he wanted those skills used.
"I just have to use the skills you give me? That’s all?" Gabrielle was slowly coming around to the idea. She was still wary, but if there were two of them fighting together, maybe Xena would stop treating her like she needed protection all the time. Maybe Xena would finally see the warrior in the Bard and really respect her. The anger Gabrielle had been feeling all morning was clouding her judgement a little as well, so the idea was gaining more ground as the Bard examined it from all sides.
"That’s all. Just use them." Ares answered.
Gabrielle thought for a moment more. The god wasn’t asking much, really. And she truly wanted to be seen as her lover’s equal, at least in Xena’s eyes, anyway. "Okay. But I just have to use them. No more," she said.
"No more," Ares replied. This was perfect. She had agreed to accept the gift without knowing the full price. He couldn't help wondering why these mortals were so easy to fool sometimes. After all, the gods had given them free will. "Just close your eyes, Bard. This won’t take a minute."
Gabrielle closed her eyes. She had one last doubt but pushed it away ruthlessly. If this meant she would be able to have Xena’s complete respect, she was willing. She just had to use the skills Ares was gifting her with, after all. Nothing more.
Gabrielle opened her eyes again. She was standing in her tent, her sword in hand, armour fitting snugly about her strong, young body. Now what was she doing just standing there? Oh yes. She had a village to raid tonight. Shaking her head for a moment, she slid her blade into the sheath on her back and marched out to lead her army into battle. From a dark corner of the tent, Ares smirked to himself. Why have just one warlord when he could possibly have two? After all, Gabrielle was almost as passionate and fiery as Xena. But first the young woman had to hear the battle cry of blood-lust in her heart. Ares bit his lip to stop himself from laughing out loud. This was going to drive Xena crazy.
Xena’s progress along the road had been momentarily halted by a wave of dizziness and a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. She swayed in the saddle, wondering what was wrong. It passed in seconds, leaving her weak and sweating in its wake. Slowly climbing from Argo’s back, she half-collapsed under a tree by the side of the road, her mount looking on curiously. She sat for several minutes, not thinking, just letting the weakness pass in its own time.
It took longer than she had first thought it would but finally feeling better, she looked around again. Argo seemed fine. There was no sign of anything having happened to the warhorse. So the tall woman quickly assumed it had been only herself who had been affected. Standing, she took the waterbag from its hook on the horse’s saddle and poured several handfuls of water over her face.
Searching out Gabrielle’s footprints on the ground, she remounted. Surely the Bard could not be too much further ahead of her. Anger was starting to give way to worry. Something deep in her heart told her things with Gabrielle were not right. There had been some kind of a change, she just didn’t know what it was yet.
The tall warrior sighed to herself. Sitting straight-backed in the saddle, she was still following Gabrielle’s footprints along the road. She could see the slight scuff mark at the heel where the Bard had slammed each boot into the ground. Xena knew, just from the prints alone, that her Bard lover was still angry. She was having trouble understanding why Gabrielle was so angry to begin with. Yes, she had been annoyed with the younger woman for leaving camp without her staff the night before, and yes, she had said a lot of things she didn’t mean ... but so had the young Bard. The dark-haired woman was a little concerned about Gabrielle leaving the campsite before she was up, but the younger woman had done that in the past whenever she felt the need to think or to be alone. Usually within a candlemark or so, Xena would have caught up with her again as she sat waiting under a tree somewhere along the road. It was now mid-morning, and there was still no sign of the woman anywhere. Xena tried not to get too upset, though. The young woman’s prints were still clear on the road, so she must be somewhere ahead.
Topping a low hill, still following those tracks, Xena spotted the dead bodies lying on the road a little distance ahead of her. Thumping her heels into Argo’s ribs, she set the horse to a gallop. For one brief moment, she was horrified at the thought of one of those bodies being that of her lover and soulmate.
Even from some yards away, Xena’s searching eye could see that Gabrielle’s body was not among the others on the ground. Reining Argo to a halt, she jumped from the saddle to have a closer look around. She could see that Gabrielle had been part of this fight but that her footprints didn’t seem to carry any farther than the immediate circle she had been fighting in.
The warrior examined several of the bodies and saw the bruises left by Gabrielle’s staff, but who had used the sword? Every single body had been run through by someone with a blade. Looking at the footprints on the ground once more, she tried to make some sense of what she was seeing. Someone had appeared out of nowhere -- probably from the trees, she assumed, because she could see the deep toe prints from their landing -- and helped Gabrielle defend herself. She could see the young woman’s prints standing back to back with someone else’s. But there was no sign of where she may have gone after the fight was over. Even the other person's prints had just disappeared as though they had vanished from sight. She stood over the last set of clear prints she could see. Yes, someone had stood here, then they were gone. She looked over her head. Surely they hadn’t simply jumped into the branches.
Xena looked around her. Other than the dead bodies and the prints on the ground, there was no sign of Gabrielle or of the stranger who had helped her. This was getting to be stranger and stranger.
"Greetings, Warrior Princess," a calm female voice said from behind the dark-haired woman.
Xena spun quickly, reaching for her sword at the same time. Her hand barely touched the hilt when her entire arm and shoulder was locked by some force. She couldn’t draw her weapon! Then she felt her feet glue themselves to the ground beneath her.
"I wouldn’t suggest reaching for your chakram either, or I will lock that arm too," the woman standing in front of Xena said kindly, as if freezing a body in place could be thought of as a kind act. "I mean you no harm, Warrior. Will you stand and listen to me?" she asked.
Xena nodded. It was not like she was getting a choice in the matter. She felt her muscles unlock again, and she rubbed her arm a little ruefully. She noticed that her feet were still glued to the ground, though. She looked down at them.
"I just want to make sure you will hear me out," the woman said. "I’m afraid you might get a little annoyed when I tell you what I have to say and may go off before you have had a chance to think things through. You always have been more of a fighter than a deep thinker." The woman’s smile lit her eyes, and Xena couldn’t help but smile back.
Xena took a moment to have a good look at the woman standing in front of her. She was tall, well-rounded, curvaceous and very beautiful, with eyes so dark and liquid the warrior felt like she wanted to just fall into them and drown. Her skin was almost translucent, as though she had some light source within her. If her feet had not been stuck where they were, Xena was sure she would have been unable to stop herself from approaching closer. It dawned on her exactly who this amazingly beautiful woman was. Aphrodite. The Goddess of Love. The greatest goddess of all. Only Zeus himself was more powerful, and even he listened closely when Aphrodite spoke.
Regardless of who she was, none of the gods or goddesses inspired much awe in Xena. They all meant trouble to her.
"So you have stuck me to one spot. Now, what is it that you feel you must tell me?" Xena said.
"Proud one, aren’t you?" the Goddess said. "That pride has just gotten you into trouble again."
"How?" Xena was confused. There was a tiny niggling place in her heart that knew the goddess was talking about Gabrielle in some way, but she didn’t want to admit it to herself or the woman standing before her. It had to be about the young Bard; otherwise why would a goddess suddenly appear and stick her to the ground?
"Oh dear. You are good at hiding yourself. Well, I guess I will have to make this plain enough, even for you," Aphrodite said a shade testily. "Ares has claimed Gabrielle as his own."
The warrior’s eyes opened wide in surprise. "But he can’t. She’s not even a properly trained warrior."
"He has and she is, now." Aphrodite explained. "She accepted his gift without knowing the full price."
"What gift? What price?" Xena was starting to get a little frantic. She was trying to pull her feet from whatever force Aphrodite had placed on them to hold her still. More than anything right now, she wanted to get moving again, to find Gabrielle and to stop whatever plans the god had laid out already.
Aphrodite stepped closer. Her voice gentle, she asked, "Tell me about your lover, Xena. What is she like?"
The tall warrior was starting to lose her temper. She didn’t have time for any of this. She pulled harder with her legs, trying to move her feet. "Look, just let me go, will you? I have to get after Gabrielle." She said.
"Tell me about your lover," the Goddess demanded. It wasn’t just a question now, it was a command.
Xena gave up the fight for the moment. Aphrodite wasn’t going to release her until she was satisfied anyway. "Oh, all right. If you must know, she is sweet and innocent and loving. That enough for you?" she said.
"No, go on," the Goddess replied.
"Ummm, she tells good stories and...and..." Xena was a little stumped. She had travelled with this woman for the past few years but was having trouble describing the things she liked about her.
Aphrodite laughed. It wasn’t an unkind laugh, more the sound of someone dealing with a particularly silly child with whom you just couldn’t lose patience, simply because they didn’t know any better. "Perhaps I should ask a question you might find easier to answer," the Goddess said. "Do you love her?"
This was an easy one for Xena. "Yes," she replied. If she had been asked this a few moons back, she would not have been able to answer at all. Or closer to the truth, she simply would not have answered. Even admitting her love for the young woman had been hard, but it was getting easier.
"Enough to die for her?" Aphrodite asked.
Another easy one. "Yes," the warrior answered.
"Do you respect her?" the Goddess questioned.
Xena was forced to stop and think for a brief moment. "Well, yes, I guess so." The tall woman’s understanding of respect was warrior-based, and Gabrielle didn’t exactly fit into that category, at least not in Xena’s mind.
"Even though she is not a warrior like you?" The questions were getting tougher to answer.
"Sure," the tall woman said. She was starting to wonder where all these questions were leading and why Aphrodite simply didn’t release her so she could get on with it.
"Do you see any of the warrior in Gabrielle?" the woman asked.
"She’s a Bard. She can swing that staff of hers all right, but she isn’t any kind of a warrior." This was true to Xena. She simply did not see anything but the Bard in Gabrielle.
"Even though she is an Amazon Princess?" Aphrodite pressed the question.
"By Right of Caste. She wasn’t born an Amazon, after all." Xena replied.
"Regardless, she is an Amazon Princess, don’t you agree?" The woman was confusing Xena again with the way her questions were going.
"Well, I guess so. But what does that have to do with all this?" Xena was rapidly running out of what little patience she did possess.
The Goddess sighed. Xena was being particularly thick about the entire situation. "As an Amazon, even one by Right of Caste, Ares can claim her as one of his own, if she agrees." Aphrodite gave the warrior a hard look. "She agreed because more than anything Gabrielle wants to be your partner, your equal."
"But she is!" Xena said loudly.
"Is she really?" The Goddess asked sadly.
In front of Xena a swirling mass of light appeared. As it cleared and settled into a shimmering mirror, the tall warrior could see images of the young Bard as she moved through a hundred situations with Xena. Xena saw images of Gabrielle being left in towns and villages, images of her being tucked away safe in the bushes by the dark-haired woman, images of her being sent running as the other women fought the enemy. Each time, Xena could see the look on the blonde’s face as she watched the warrior fight or leave her behind again. The longing was so strong it brought a tear to the tall woman’s eye.
The images cleared to be replaced by another series -- images of Gabrielle practising with her staff; images of her questioning her Amazon sisters about tactics, strategy and the best ways to deal with a battle; and images of Gabrielle working out with Xena herself and usually ending up on her backside as the warrior knocked her to the ground, again. Time after time, Gabrielle would wearily climb back to her feet and try once more to learn the lessons Xena was teaching. There were a series of images of Gabrielle as she fought, swinging her staff in its deadly arc, knocking someone to the ground. The sight of the Bard doing her graceful dance of destruction, the staff a blur in her knowing hands, was enough to convince the warrior looking on that her lover did know how to defend herself, if only Xena had ever thought to look. Gabrielle was a warrior but in a different way than anything Xena had previously understood.
Xena dropped her head and looked at the ground, ashamed that she had refused to see what was right in front of her.
"What did Ares offer her?" Xena asked quietly.
"The skills of a fully trained warrior such as yourself," the Goddess replied.
"But why did she accept?" This confused her more than anything else she had heard in the past few minutes. Surely Gabrielle knew by now that Ares was never to be trusted.
"Because she was angry, angry enough not to be thinking clearly, and because she wants more than anything to be your equal, in your eyes, at least," Aphrodite said.
The tall woman sighed. She knew part of that anger came from the fight they’d had the night before. The rest was Xena’s own attitude towards the younger woman. Xena had wanted to always be the defender, the protector of her love. Xena wanted to be the strong one, the one making the decisions, and most of the time she was. But now and then, Gabrielle wanted to have that role, and every time she tried, Xena had stood in her way. No wonder she was angry. The fact she’d held her temper for as long as she had said a great deal about the love Gabrielle felt for her warrior lover.
"I see you understand now, Xena," the beautiful Goddess said gently. "You’re not going to like hearing what Ares has done now that Gabrielle has accepted the gift he offered."
Xena was resigned to hearing almost anything at this point. "What?"
"He’s made her a warlord, in much the same mold as you once were." For the next several minutes, Aphrodite tried not to hear the string of violent curses that flowed from the warrior standing in front of her.
Eventually, the eruption of words stopped, but the fury was still openly showing on Xena’s face, her blue eyes snapping viciously. Somehow the tall warrior was going to make sure Ares paid for this. If he had hurt so much as a single eyelash on Gabrielle, Xena knew she would take him apart, god or no god.
Gabrielle stormed back into her tent, hurling her helmet and her sheathed sword at one wall as she passed. The raid had been a complete success, as always, but for some reason the Fates had conspired against her so that not once did she get the chance to slide her blade through the screaming flesh of a single villager. Every time she swung her sword, something happened to get in her way. Her victim would trip and fall at the very last moment. Or they would turn away, causing her to miss her blow. Or one of her own foot soldiers would make the strike first. By the end of the raid, she was so frustrated that she would have happily killed one of the people they had taken as saleable items at the slave markets...if they hadn’t been worth so much to her as potential wealth. Gabrielle was snarling at anyone who came near her, so her men had prudently stayed as far from her as possible.
She paced back and forth inside her tent, wondering why she had not been permitted to feel the jerk of a dying body at the end of her sword. Thinking about it, the woman couldn’t remember what it felt like to begin with. Had she been through this on every raid? Shaking her head, she decided there were better things to think about than whether she had ever killed someone. Surely she must have to now be in command of her own army. Thinking about the men, briefly, she realised it was going to be some weeks before they could mount another large raid. The villagers had fought back, and Gabrielle had lost about a third of her men to the villagers’ unskilled but very effective tactics. Those pit traps had been surprisingly deadly indeed. She knew it would only be a matter of weeks before the numbers built up again anyway. Men were clamouring to join her army, even though they had to serve under a woman. They didn’t seem to care, so long as the raiding was good and the plunder was distributed reasonably fairly.
Flinging aside the flap of her tent, she bellowed at the surprised guard outside, demanding food and port be brought to her quarters. Later, she thought, she might even go down to the slave cages and see if there was anything there that attracted her attention. A successful raid always got her juices flowing. There had been one woman, with long, dark hair and light blue eyes, that had caught her notice as she had been dragged past. That one might be good for a few hours entertainment. But first she needed to work out some of this frustration, or any woman she had hauled up to her tent would be in serious danger of being killed. Taking her sword, Gabrielle headed down to the fires where her men celebrated their victory. A practice bout or two would take the edge off her anger.
Xena stood balanced in a fork near the top of a towering tree, carefully watching the activity of the war camp below. It had been incredibly well laid out and set up on the top of a low hill so the guards could see any potential intruders from quite some distance away. Blazing fires burned every few dozen paces around the perimeter, lighting the area for several yards beyond the edge of the camp. Two guards stood at each fire, one to watch and one to run back into the camp with the alert if they should see anything out of the ordinary. More guards patrolled around the tents in random patterns, making it even more difficult for an intruder to gain access.
From her vantage point, Xena carefully ran her eyes around the entire edge of the camp looking for any weak spots. As soon as she saw it, the warrior knew that was the only way in. On the other side of the camp, where the kitchen crew had been throwing the refuse, there was a narrow corridor of darkness, as the guards had built their fires some distance back to avoid the smell of the rotting garbage. It was barely five feet wide, but Xena felt that with the rubbish pile on one side and the darkness on the other she might just be able to sneak through the perimeter line and into the camp.
Once Aphrodite had released her, Xena had ridden hard for the rest of the day and through most of the evening. It was only when Argo demanded a rest that she had stopped for the night. Waking just before dawn, she had ridden at a near gallop for most of that day as well until she was too close to the camp to risk being seen. Leaving her mare hidden and gratefully eating grain from a nosebag, the tall warrior had crept towards the encampment, finally climbing a tree to get the best view of its activity.
She had watched as the raiding party had returned some hours after dusk and locked up their captives in strong wooden cages. Though part of her wanted to release them and make sure they were returned to their village, she really only had eyes for the warlord of this well-organised army. This was who she had come to get. The tall woman knew if her mission was successful, the prisoners would be back where they belonged without any intervention on her part. If she failed, well...it wouldn’t matter then.
Xena almost gasped at the ease with which the Bard dismounted from the dark-coated stallion she had been riding. She had all but jumped from the saddle, displaying the same unthinking grace as the blue-eyed woman herself. Regardless of the armour and dark leathers now covering her lithe, young body, Xena knew it was Gabrielle walking towards an ornate tent in the center of the camp. The cascade of light red-blonde hair when she yanked the helmet savagely from her head only confirmed it for the warrior. She was left shocked at the changes she could see in her lover, even from that distance. The Bard moved like a warrior, the economy of motion, the striding walk, the appearance of complete and absolute confidence in her abilities to kill. Gabrielle was every inch the warlord, and it saddened the tall woman deeply.
Staying hidden in the tree, the warrior watched for some time longer, getting a feel for the camp and the movements of the guards. Just as she was about to climb down and start moving around to the other side, she saw the flap on Gabrielle’s tent suddenly thrown open and the Bard herself came striding out, almost quivering with an anger Xena could easily see from where she was perched in the branches. Deciding to keep her vigil for a few minutes more, she saw her lover march up to one of the fires where the men were obviously celebrating. Without realising it, she knew exactly what Gabrielle was going to do. For some reason she was angry and was looking to take it out on her own men, something that Xena had done on occasion when she had still been a warlord.
It was clear to Xena that the men were reluctant to take part in whatever Gabrielle was suggesting, but one, a little drunker than the others perhaps, slowly climbed to his feet and drew his sword. The Bard stepped back and flicked the sheath from her own blade, a battle grin showing on her face in the firelight. Xena watched, fascinated, as Gabrielle began to spin and twist the sword in an exact copy of the movements the tall warrior used herself. It was a terrifying thought to know her gentle Bard lover had become so completely the warlord.
The man might have been a little drunk but it hardly affected his own ability with the blade. He was good but Gabrielle was better...much better. The clash of steel against sharp steel could be heard even to the trees where Xena was hidden. She watched, amazed, as Gabrielle snapped her left foot out in a high kick and connected lightly with the jaw of the man she was sparring with. Xena breathed a sigh of relief. The Bard was not out to kill, she simply trying to work off some of her temper. The man came at the Bard again and was stunned as the woman jumped completely over him in a tight spinning leap. The woman’s foot shot out from behind him and thumped solidly into his kidneys. He dropped to his knees, his sword falling from his hand. Gabrielle stood back and let him climb back onto his feet at his own pace. Even Xena could see the Bard cum warlord was playing with him. The now wary man picked up his blade and once more stood before Gabrielle. She was beckoning him gleefully to try attacking again, but he was now cautious of what she could do. Circling her carefully, he was looking for some weak spot in her defence. He found none. The Bard quickly lost all patience with the slow turning of the man and leapt in with her own attack. With three lightning-fast blows with her blade, she had disarmed him. Xena watched as the sword spun away from him, reflecting the firelight until it finally thudded into the ground some distance back from the sparring pair.
Gabrielle was laughing aloud at the sheer pleasure of the fight, even though it was only a practice bout. She unexpectedly spun on one foot, the heel of the other flying up and connecting with the man’s temple. The man slid to the ground, unconscious. Looking around, she could see no one else wanted to spar with her, and, spitting on the ground near them in disgust at their cowardice, she strode off, looking a great deal more relaxed than when she had first stepped from her tent. Xena’s jaw was hanging open in shocked surprise.
Xena crouched in the dark forest, some distance back from the refuse pit. She could see, or, more accurately, smell why the guards nearby had built their fires well away from it. Not even the addition of lime was keeping the odour bearable. But the guards’ dislike of the refuse pile was giving her the few feet of space she needed to crawl into the camp. Looking behind her, she could just make out Argo’s honey-colored coat in the shadowy dimness. She had given the mare a ‘stay’ command but hoped that she could get back to Argo without having to whistle for her four footed assistance.
Watching the guards on both sides of the refuse pit, she gently fingered the small amulet Aphrodite had strung around her neck. It was a milky white moonstone with some kind of red center that seems to pulse with the tall woman’s own heartbeat. The Goddess had told Xena so long as she wore it, Ares would not be able to find her. Aphrodite had given her a second, similar amulet for Gabrielle, telling her she simply needed to tuck it into the Bard’s clothing somewhere, preferably without the Bard knowing. She still didn’t like wearing the amulet but could see the sense in staying hidden from Ares. He was going to be seriously annoyed once Xena snatched Gabrielle from the war camp. Gods were bad enough to deal with at the best of times. Angry gods could be extremely hazardous to one's health.
Checking the guards and their line of fires one last time, Xena laid herself out flat on her stomach and began the long, slow crawl past the refuse pit and along the narrow corridor of darkness next to it.
Xena did not take another easy breath until she was lying in the darkness right behind the ornate tent where she knew Gabrielle to be. The crawl and scurry through the camp had been one of the most difficult she had ever done. Every sense she possessed, including her body sense, was hyper-aware of each movement of the camp and the motions she was making herself. Guards had been patrolling in random patterns through the tents and several times she had avoided detection by rolling under a tent edge and hoping she hadn’t been spotted. The last ten feet or so had been done under the light of the dying campfires surrounding Gabrielle’s tent. Xena was thanking whatever god who might have been listening that most of the soldiers were a little drunk after the victory earlier in the night.
Lying quietly in the darkness, after allowing her own heartbeat to stop thundering quite so loudly in her ears, she listened against the wall of the tent. All she could hear was the gentle snore of her lover and the sleepy sobbing of a voice she didn’t recognise. Xena assumed the unknown voice must be that of the woman the warrior had seen being dragged up to Gabrielle’s tent some hours earlier. She had been surprised at the appearance of the woman. She was tall and slim, with long, dark hair flying in the breeze as the guard had hauled her up to the tent and tossed her inside. Pulling a knife from her boot, Xena carefully and quietly cut a long slit through the canvas. She doubted she would be coming out the same way, but she made it long enough to duck through if she did manage to kidnap the Bard without making too much noise. Wriggling through the slit, she found herself inside the tent.
The inside of the shelter was a little more brightly lit from the fires outside filtering through the walls. Xena quickly looked around and was surprised at the furnishings she could see. The inside of the tent was plush and ornate; there were silk and satin, jewels glowing in the reflected light and thick, soft carpeting under her feet. This was definitely the tent of a *very* successful warlord. Xena found herself shuddering at the thought of what actually made a warlord that successful. She reminded herself Ares had set all this up and Gabrielle had never done a single thing to become this particular warrior.
Gliding on silent feet, Xena moved through a silken doorway and spotted Gabrielle lying on a raised sleeping platform, dressed in her armour and leathers, her unsheathed sword by her side. At the foot, naked and chained, was the woman Xena had seen earlier, curled up on a soft blanket and dozing lightly. The tall woman took a brief moment to glance over the woman and saw there were no marks, scratches or bruises on her, and aside from appearing a little frightened, she seemed okay. At least the essential gentleness of her Bard was still intact. For that small, hopeful sign, she was grateful.
Looking up at her lover, Xena was shocked at the hard, cold, almost inaccessible expression on the other woman’s face, even as the Bard slept. Had Xena herself, once looked this...this unreachable, back in her own dark warlord days? If she hadn’t known for a fact it was Gabrielle, she would have almost sworn it was someone else. But no. It was the Bard. There was the red-blonde hair Xena loved so much to brush. There were the soft lips which poured fire through her body when they made love. There were the gentle hands that coaxed the other woman to heights she had never experienced before with previous lovers. There were the strong, well-muscled legs from hours of walking together with Xena and Argo. It was Gabrielle, all right, just not the Gabrielle she loved and cherished. Xena was here to somehow find her lover again and bring her back from whatever Ares had done to her.
Stepping noiselessly over to Gabrielle, Xena reached into her pouch for the rawhide thongs and the gag she had placed there earlier. However much she hated the idea of tying her lover, she had to try to get her out of the camp as quietly as possible. As she stretched her hand out towards the Bard, the younger woman’s eyes suddenly snapped open. The sea green of her pupils were colder than the thick river ice of winter. There was also a moment of confusion as Gabrielle did not recognise the beautiful stranger leaning over her. In moments, the Bard was standing on the platform, her sword in her hand and an icy smile on her face. Xena realised as soon as she drew her own blade, the guards outside would hear the noise and come running in to see what the problem was. The tall warrior would get just one chance to knock Gabrielle into unconsciousness.
Xena instantly twisted, bent over and snapped her body up into a fast handstand on the edge of the platform, the armed Bard’s eyes automatically following her movements. Knowing Gabrielle would not be watching the top part of her body for a split second, Xena used that moment to lash her feet forward and caught Gabrielle cleanly in the forehead. She felt herself bouncing back and turning, landed lightly on her feet again. The Bard’s sword had slid from her grasp as Gabrielle slowly crumpled onto the platform beneath her. Reminding herself this was not *her* Gabrielle, Xena pushed away the sinking feeling in her stomach of having to hurt her own lover. She knew the other woman would understand, eventually.
Moving rapidly, she bound Gabrielle at wrist and ankle, gagging her so she couldn’t call out an alert should she regain consciousness before they were well away from the camp. Habit more than thought had Xena putting the sword back into the sheath still strapped to the Bard’s back. Grunting a little from the effort, she lifted the other woman across her shoulders and started back out the slit in the tent she had cut to originally get in. Taking one moment to look back, she saw the chained and naked woman was still sleeping. Xena prayed, as she rarely did, the chained woman would not be too badly hurt once the guards saw their warlord had been taken. However much she may have wanted to release the frightened woman, Aphrodite had made her instructions clear, and if Xena wanted her lover back, she had no choice but to follow them to the letter.
Xena managed to get halfway through the camp before she was spotted by one of the patrolling guards. Shouting an alarm as he ran towards the tall warrior, he was also dragging his sword from the sheath at his side, ready to defend his warlord to the death. With the blonde Bard over her shoulders, Xena was not exactly in a position to draw her own weapons so was forced to improvise.
Hooking a stand of pikes with one foot, she flicked them into the face of the oncoming man and, while he was dodging them, dashed between two tents. Instead of continuing to run, she simply side-stepped into the doorway of the structure and watched, amused, as the guards ran by. Xena stepped back the way she had come and moved as quickly as she could, with Gabrielle’s added weight on her shoulders, in the opposite direction. Assuming she had hidden herself somewhere there, most of the guards were looking for her on the other side of the camp, but she still had to get through the line of guards at the perimeter on this side. Xena chose the most sensible option she could see available at that point. A sharp whistle pierced the air and the sound of thundering hoofbeats came up the low hill towards her. Argo galloped through the line of fires and guards, scattering them in her wake, coming to a snorting halt by Xena’s side. Quickly tossing the Bard’s bound and still unconscious body across the saddle as easily as a sack of grain, the tall woman mounted. Leaning over the mare’s long neck, Xena galloped back out of the camp and into the darkness of the night.
She knew the army of men behind her would mount a search for their warlord, and she needed to get herself and her stolen charge as far from the camp as possible before someone starting thinking clearly enough to organise the men. Xena could hear the shouts of the soldiers as she reached the bottom of the hill and disappeared into the gloomy forest surrounding the camp site.
Argo was starting to complain a little about the pace Xena was keeping, especially over the rocky ground. Having already been through two days and nearly two full nights without a proper break, the mare was feeling every ounce of muscle, bone and armour she carried on her strong back. Xena had stopped for a few minutes a candlemark or so after her headlong flight from the camp but had quickly remounted and set a fast pace through the few remaining hours of the night.
"Just a little further, Argo. Aphrodite said that cave was around here somewhere," Xena said quietly to her beloved warhorse. She was scanning the base of the walls ahead of them looking for the place the Goddess had told her would be there.
They had entered a canyon system some time before, and though neither the tall warrior nor the warhorse who carried her particularly liked the closed-in feel the high walls gave them, they had kept moving doggedly through the darkness. Xena had taken the time earlier to seat a now conscious and very angry Gabrielle safely in the saddle, her hands tied to the saddle horn in front of her. The Bard’s feet had been tied to the stirrup irons and a second thong passed under the mare, tying the woman’s ankles securely. The second amulet the dark-haired woman carried had also been secretly tucked between a double layer of stitching in the hem of Gabrielle’s leather skirt. Unless the Bard was deliberately looking for it, she would never know it was there.
Riding behind the Bard, one arm wrapped gently around her waist, Xena tried to imagine it was her Gabrielle seated in front of her, but the stiff, unbending body made it all too clear to the tall warrior the Bard was going to resist even the friendliest of advances. Xena found herself biting her lip to stop herself from saying any number of things she would have told her own love. Giving this version of Gabrielle any emotional ammunition would be a grave error on the part of the dark-haired woman. Xena found herself reassessing her own ideas about the Gabrielle she had known for so long and had fallen so deeply in love with. If she had only allowed herself to see the warrior in Gabrielle, she wouldn’t be in this predicament. Right now she could see all too clearly the warrior in the Bard, and it was a sight that both saddened and horrified her. The last thing she had ever wanted was for Gabrielle to know, up close and firsthand, what Xena herself had gone through and the aftermath of emotions and nightmares it had left in her life.
Rounding a slight bend in the canyon, Xena breathed a sigh of relief. Just ahead was the cave entrance she had been told about. The woman could just make out the cave lip in the first milky light of dawn. Xena dismounted from behind Gabrielle to lead Argo carefully through the wide entrance.
The sound of the mare’s hooves echoed though the cavern ahead, but other than the sound of trickling water, there didn’t appear to be any other life in the cave at all. In front of them, she could see a faint glow and was surprised when they entered a large, high-domed room, lit from all sides by a glowing substance on the walls and ceiling. Rubbing her hand over the stone closest to her, she found it was actually some kind of fungus that made its own cold light.
Stopping the mare, Xena carefully backtracked to check the entrance and the canyon they had just ridden along. The last thing she needed right now was a horde of soldiers from Gabrielle’s army to come roaring up the cave passage, trapping her in the softly lit room at its end. She suddenly found herself stopped by a wall of stone.
Xena shook her head. They had only walked a few dozen paces or so and she hadn’t seen any turns on the way in, so where had the wall come from? Shrugging her shoulders, she assumed this was more of Aphrodite’s handiwork and decided she really didn’t want to know any more than that. So long as they were both safe and couldn’t be found for a little while, Xena was willing, grudgingly, to put up with the Goddess’ interference for the time being.
Walking slowly back to the large room, Xena carefully checked the walls on both sides for any hidden passages or cracks in the rock large enough for Gabrielle to attempt escaping through. She found nothing at all, not even a hairline split. Moving along the passage, she could feel the soft brush of a breeze blowing against her face and body. There was one less thing for her to worry about; there seemed to be a decent airflow coming from somewhere, so any fire she might light would not smoke them out, and there would be plenty of fresh air to breathe. Something also told her that Aphrodite would be seeing to their more mundane needs like food and water as well.
Lost in her reverie about gods and goddesses, the tall woman wandered the last few steps back into the room. Her body sense suddenly screamed at her, and she leapt back a few paces. A knife whizzed through the place where she would have been standing, bouncing off the rock near her with a spark. She heard the cursing coming from further inside the room. Damn it! Gabrielle had somehow managed to get herself loose from the bindings Xena had used.
Carefully peeping around the edge of the stone wall, she saw Gabrielle standing in the middle of the room with her own sword in one hand and another throwing knife grasped in the fingers of the other. Xena had thought to remove the blade from the sheath on Gabrielle’s back, but still thinking of her lover as the sweet, charitable girl she had always known, the taller woman had not remembered to check the Bard for any other weapons. It was a mistake that might cost the warrior dearly now. For the moment, though, she had to forget that the blonde-haired woman was her treasured love and treat the whole situation as though she was fighting another warlord. More than anything, she didn’t want to seriously injure the Bard, something she would have to keep hidden from the other woman or Xena might find herself on the business end of that sword.
"Put the sword down, Gabrielle. There isn’t any way out of here," Xena called around the edge of the wall. As the last words left her mouth, the warrior dived across the room, angled away from the angry Bard standing at its center. Gabrielle did exactly what Xena wanted. She flung the throwing knife at the place where the other woman *had* been and not at the place where she landed.
"Who in Hades are you? And why did you bring me here?" Gabrielle demanded savagely, the hard edge in her voice cutting deeply into Xena’s mind.
It took a moment for the knowledge to sink in that Gabrielle didn’t even recognise the other woman. Temporarily locking down on the emotions she felt for the young Bard, Xena tried to act as though Gabrielle truly was just another warlord. "I brought you here because you are not who you think you are," Xena replied. The warrior ignored the question of who she was for the moment. There might be time to answer it later, if she could subdue Gabrielle again, that is.
Obviously this was not quite the answer the Bard was seeking because a string of abuse flowed from her lips, as rich and descriptive of Xena’s anatomical functions and place in the scheme of things as any warlord...or bard could hope to be. "Draw your sword, bitch. I intend cutting you into very tiny pieces and feeding you to the harpies in Tartarus," Gabrielle said as she started slowly moving towards the other woman.
Xena absolutely had no desire to draw her blade. She had seen Gabrielle sparring and knew it would be far too risky to attempt any kind of a battle with the younger woman. Not that she didn’t think she could take her, far from it. She was more concerned with injuring the angry woman. Carefully watching the ice-cold green eyes, she circled around Gabrielle slowly. The tall warrior was still having trouble reconciling this savage and violent image of her lover and the memories of the gentle Bard she had travelled with for so long. In every way Xena could see and understand, *this* Gabrielle was every inch the warrior.
Gabrielle quickly lost all patience with the game of look and move. She leapt towards Xena, her blade swinging in a deadly arc in front of her. The tall warrior could hear the edge singing through the air as it came towards her. Diving under the sword, Xena managed to move past Gabrielle, lashing a quick thump into her side with one foot as she did so. She had barely jumped back to her feet when the Bard was coming at her again, Xena’s strike having had no discernible effect.
The Bard was swinging the blade lower this time. Xena jumped straight up and connected a heel with the side of Gabrielle’s jaw in a spinning turn, watching as her head snapped sideways, the kick rocking the smaller woman down to the toes. The force of the blow may have shaken the Bard, but it did little to stop her. Xena could see the other woman’s temper was reaching an explosive point, so the blue-eyed warrior kept pushing, hoping that in the extremes of anger Gabrielle would make some kind of a crucial mistake.
Somehow, the Bard kept her temper from erupting completely. Xena was amazed by the other woman’s self-control. This was a woman who couldn’t kill a rabbit so she could eat, yet Gabrielle was very serious about killing Xena at that very moment. Once again, the blonde struck at the warrior in front of her. For the next several minutes, Gabrielle swung, thrust and lunged, while Xena jumped, leapt and rolled her way out of trouble. Both women were sweating and gasping for breath but neither had made a truly telling strike on the other. Xena’s respect for Gabrielle’s fighting abilities grew with every passing moment. She was starting to think that she may have to draw her own weapon to bring this to an end when she realised that there might be one area Gabrielle was not quite so skilled. Wrestling. Xena’s own greater body weight would give her the advantage here.
Waiting until the Bard had made a swing but was yet to pull her arm back, Xena dived straight for her and grabbed her in a wrestling hold. Using one hand, she dug into the tendons at Gabrielle’s wrist, forcing her to drop her sword safely to the ground. Having finally disarmed the other woman, Xena threw herself backwards, letting her greater weight drag Gabrielle with her.
It was over in less than a minute. Gabrielle was lying face down on the ground, and Xena was holding both the Bard’s arms behind her back, rapidly retying the thongs still dangling from the other woman’s wrists. The tall warrior tried very hard to not hear a word of the strong language Gabrielle was using at that very moment. She was just happy to have gotten the Bard back under control. Everything else could follow from there, she hoped.
Continued Part 2