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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 donít think that pair will let them have exclusive rights somehow. The story however is completely mine and if you plagiarise it, Iíll 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.
Xena sat next to the small fire she had built for them, wondering what to do now. She had stripped Gabrielle of as much armour as she could without untying her and was amazed at the number of weapons the younger woman had secreted on her person. Gabrielle had several knives, both throwing and fighting types, two wickedly sharp spikes, a strangling wire from under one of her shoulder guards and four darts Xena had found inside her gauntlets, each one tipped with some kind of poison. The tall warrior had put these away very carefully, making sure there would be no way to accidentally stab herself with one later on.
The tall warrior did have to smile a little, though. Gabrielle had not shut up for a second. Admittedly, the constant cursing was not quite what she was used to hearing from her usually gentle lover. But even as a warlord, some things just could never be changed.
Staring into the flames, Xena wondered what she was supposed to be doing. Aphroditeís instructions to this point had been very clear but from here on the Goddess had been frustratingly vague. She had simply said, "You will have to do the hardest thing you can imagine to help your lover find her way back." The tall woman tried to think what that might be but didnít have a single idea. She snorted to herself. It was typical of a goddess to be less than precise about something. Xena was still surprised with the clarity of Aphroditeís directions, which helped the dark-haired woman find first the camp and then the cave.
Needing something to do, Xena decided to explore the cavern they were going to be living in for who knew how long. Glancing over to check that Gabrielle was still well secured, the tall warrior slowly climbed to her feet and began to explore the subtly lit room. The floor was mostly soft sand, a little something the woman had been grateful for during the fight earlier, but there was a low rock ledge at the other end of the room. On the far side, a miniature waterfall that supplied water to the cavern ran down into a wide depression in the stone. Xena looked into it and could see it was quite deep, deep enough for bathing. Dipping her hand into the water she was surprised to find the water quite warm. Testing the waterfall, she found it was cool. Perhaps there was something under the stone warming the water in the depression. It didnít matter to her either way. They had cool, fresh water to drink and warm water for bathing. Against the back wall and near the ledge was a small hole, perhaps a hand and a half high and two wide. For the life of her, Xena couldnít figure out what it could be for but it didnít appear to be particularly dangerous right now, so she chose not to worry about it. She did make a mental note to keep an eye on it, though, just in case something nasty should come slithering through. A full circuit of the cavern and the passage leading in showed there to be nothing else to note. Xena had the feeling she was going to get very bored very quickly in here.
Wandering, a little distracted, back to the fireside, she realised the only thing to really do in the cavern was talk to Gabrielle. She didnít mind talking to the Bard, sometimes, though the younger woman was far more practised at holding up a conversation. But in this situation, there was nothing else to do. Perhaps this is what the goddess meant about doing the hardest things she could imagine. Xena was more used to her own silence than talking to someone, even Gabrielle, for any length of time.
Wiping a bead of sweat from her face, the tall woman realised just how warm the cavern really was. It didnít look like Aphrodite was going to let anything bother the two women while they were locked up, so Xena thought she might be more comfortable in a plain shift instead of her armour and heavy leathers. The soft sand underfoot would probably be a lot easier on her feet than wearing her boots as well. Thinking about it, she assumed Gabrielle might also be more comfortable stripped of the bulk of her gear. She knew she would be taking a chance but looking over to the other woman, she could see she was sweating in the warmth, and that made her decision.
It had taken her only a matter of minutes to divest herself of the armour and leather clothing, but it had taken a great deal longer to remove Gabrielleís. The Bard had struggled and fought every moment, and Xena was sweating even more heavily once she had finally stripped all the leather from the other woman. Leaving her sitting once again by the side of the small fire, wearing a cotton shift Xena had been carrying in one of her saddlebags, the warrior thought a dip in the warm water would be just the thing she needed to remove the sticky feeling covering her.
Immodest as always, Xena quickly pulled her own shift from over her head and eased into the clear water in the deep depression. She could feel it was a great deal warmer near her feet, so her guess about something under the rock heating the water above was probably right. Letting herself relax in the heat, she felt tight muscles unlocking along her spine and across her broad shoulders. She soon felt utterly limp and allowed her head to drop back onto the stone behind her. The warrior hadnít realised just how tense she had become trying to get herself and Gabrielle this far. It was only then she felt a pair of eyes watching her from across the room. Looking to Gabrielle, still seated at the fire, she saw something in the younger womanís eyes, something familiar before the sea green ice froze over it again. Her lover was in there somewhere; Xena just had to find the way of letting her out.
The days were passing far too slowly for Xena. She lay back on her bedroll and stared at the ceiling for what felt like the hundredth time since she woke. With the softly glowing fungus on the walls eliminating any difference between day and night, both women had let themselves fall into a routine which closely followed their bodiesí natural rhythms. Xena looked over at Gabrielle. After making the green-eyed woman promise to behave, on her very honour, the warrior had untied the Bardís ankles. However, her wrists were still bound together in front of her body instead of behind as they had been before. At least Gabrielle understood the concept of honour and had kept her word.
The Bard had run out of curses sometime on the second day in the cavern, or perhaps she had finally seen they were having no effect of the other woman. Regardless, she had ultimately stopped swearing every time Xena came near her. The tall woman had even gotten a few civil sentences out of her, which surprised Xena considering how nastily Gabrielle had been cursing her out before. Xena had been wracking her brain since then to try to figure a way of reaching the Bard, and her lover, who she knew had to be inside the warlord somewhere. The tall warrior may not have been the most wordy of people, but she did know how to play mind games very well indeed, and that was the part of the Bard she needed to reach right now. Then she had a stroke of sheer genius.
"Gabrielle?" the woman said quietly.
"What?" the Bard snapped back.
"How did you get to be a warlord?" Xena asked, hoping the warlord personality Ares had overlaid on the Bard didnít go too deeply. She needed to get the other woman thinking again.
If Xena hadnít been so serious about what she was doing, she would have laughed out loud at the stunned look on Gabrielleís face. The Bard had opened her mouth to snarl something and simply stopped dead in her tracks as though she had no answer to the question. Xena could almost hear her trying to think her away around some kind of an answer. Xena reached forward slowly and very gently put one finger under the Bardís chin to close her mouth.
"Swallow," the broad-shouldered woman said softly.
Gabrielle did, and her mouth stayed closed, but the confusion hadnít left her eyes for a second.
For one moment, Xena wanted to cheer. The brief contact between her finger and the Bardís chin was the first Gabrielle had allowed without either trying to shrug it off or starting another string of curses. Still watching the Bard, a tiny thought fought its way to the surface of Xenaís mind. How many times had she shaken off Gabrielleís touch in the beginning, and when had it changed? Needing to think about this a little more, the warrior decided to leave Gabrielle to her own confusion for a while longer.
"Donít worry about it, Gabrielle. I was just curious. Why donít you rest of a while. I really need to have a bit of soak anyway. The heat in here really is making me sweat," Xena said, trying to sound like she had just been making conversation.
Gabrielle didnít even notice when Xena left the tiny fire and wandered slowly over to the depression they were using as a bathing pool. The only thing she was aware of was the screaming of her own mind.
Gabrielle sat, confused and quickly growing frightened. No matter how she tried, she couldnít remember how she came to be the warlord of her army. When that other woman had asked how she had the leadership, Gabrielle had intended to abuse the taller woman again, but even as she drew breath to do so, something clicked inside her as she realised she *didnít* have any memories of being a warlord before the other night. Her first clear memory was of being in her tent, holding her sword and wondering why she was just standing there. She had a village to raid and she had simply been standing in the middle of her tent like a statue. Anything before that moment was completely blank.
What had she been doing during all these years? And why hadnít it dawned on her sooner?
Forcing herself to stop thinking about it, she tried to focus her mind on something else. The first thought to enter her head was the same one she had been having since seeing the other woman standing beside her sleeping platform. She didnít recognise this woman. She knew she didnít. Yet...and yet. Somehow, her body recognised the tall, beautiful warrior who had captured her. Every time the stranger bathed, which was often in this heat, Gabrielle found she was unable to keep her eyes from following every movement of the womanís body. She was watching as the warrior slept. She was even watching as the other woman prowled about the cavern trying to work off an excess of nervous energy. Aside from when she bathed, Gabrielle found the most exciting time to watch was when the other woman practised with her sword or chakram. The play of muscles under her tanned skin, the deadly dance of sword and motion and the look of complete concentration of the womanís face all combined to give Gabrielle a thrill like none she had ever felt before. Why did her body recognise someone she was certain she didnít know herself?
Gabrielle allowed the moment of light arousal to flood through her body. As she relaxed into it, the thoughts about her past came thundering back into her mind. Her questions keep tearing around inside her head until she thought she would go mad from the whirlpool it was creating in her thinking. She couldnít shake the confusion. Then she remembered something the stranger had said to her. "Youíre not who you think you are." Did this other woman know who she really was, if not the warlord of a great army? Gabrielle clung desperately to that thought as she allowed herself to lie down on the bedroll. If the other woman knew who she was, perhaps she could be persuaded to tell of what she knew. Right now, that was the only clear thought she had, and she used it to keep herself from screaming in fear.
Xena leaned back against the stone wall, allowing her body to be buoyed by the warm water surrounding her. She had watched from the corner of her eye as Gabrielleís face openly showed the emotions she was feeling. She had to duck her head to hide the smile on her own face as the Bardís features settled into the familiar, and very much missed, expressions of arousal. Glancing up again, she saw Gabrielle had lain down again and appeared to be sleeping. It was obvious to Xena the younger woman was not asleep but for the moment, the warrior was content to let her be. Hopefully, the time spent thinking alone might do some good later on.
As it was, Xena had some thinking of her own to do. She found herself remembering the very earliest days she and Gabrielle had spent together, when the slightest touch from the younger woman had Xena all but throwing the Bardís hand from her. Over time, Xena had gradually accepted the reassuring caress of the other woman, but when had she stopped even having to think about it? When had she started wanting those touches? When had she wanted more than just the affection of friends and started thinking there might be more, if she wanted it?
Xena knew exactly when. She didnít have to think about it, really. It was the day she thought she had lost Gabrielle forever to the Elysian Fields. Even now, in the warm waters of the bathing pool, she shuddered at the remembrance. Gabrielleís face, so pale, spots of blood here and there. Xena unable to accept the loss of her dearest friend, the other half of her heart. Forcing air into the other womanís still lungs. The priests trying to pull her away from the body, telling her to let Gabrielle pass over. Thumping the Bardís chest over and over. Calling passionately...desperately for Gabrielle to come back. So unprepared for the loss and what it was doing to her. Xena hadnít realised, until that very moment, just how deeply she cared and how much she needed to have the Bardís gentle love and acceptance in her life. That deep, gasping, incredibly *welcomed* breath as Gabrielle returned from wherever she had been. And the tears. Tears of joy at the other womanís return, tears of sorrow for what she had nearly lost.
The depth of feeling Xena had for the other woman had so terrified her in the beginning that it was going to take quite some time before the warrior could admit her love for the Bard. She didnít want the younger woman becoming a target for some enemy she had made in her past, but when Gabrielle had taken the decision out of Xenaís hands, she gave in to her own emotions and told the truth about the feelings in her heart. In a way, the warrior had been quite selfish about holding her emotions so tightly closed to the other woman, yet Gabrielle had somehow known what Xena felt and then had acted on that knowledge. Xena felt herself grinning. Back then, she may not have seen the warrior in the Bard but it was certainly there. Over-running her physical defences had shown Gabrielle the way through to her emotional ones, and they had crumbled before the Bardís determined onslaught. Yes, the warrior had been there all the time. Now Xena just had to get rid of the warlord Ares had left her with.
From behind closed eyes, Xena heard the sound of sand squeaking as Gabrielle walked towards the bathing pool. Opening her eyes, she saw the Bard walking, well, striding really, across the soft sand. Xena was still having trouble reconciling the two images, one of her own lover and the other of someone who looked for all the world like her lover but moved exactly like a trained warrior. Xena still couldnít get used to it. She noticed Gabrielle was carefully carrying her chakram between her still bound hands. Xena appeared completely relaxed but she braced one foot under her, just in case.
"Dinner will be arriving shortly, Warrior. I thought you might need this," The Bard said almost casually.
Sitting down next to the reclining woman, Gabrielle handed the chakram over. Though she was trying to put on a brave face, Xena could still see the bewilderment haunting the eyes of the woman. She accepted her weapon, trying to keep the look of surprise from her face. Perhaps Gabrielle was finally starting to see some reason.
From their first day in the cavern, Aphrodite had seen to their need for food in a variety of ways. One of those was the arrival every day of two rabbits, or some other live eatable, through the hole at the bottom of the wall near the bathing pool. Whatever found its way in would then simply sit waiting for Xena to throw her chakram, effectively slitting its throat. Xena thought it was rather clever of the goddess, actually, not that she would ever say it out loud.
Still looking every inch the warlord, Xena thought it might be time to show Gabrielle she was trusting her. "Hold out your wrists, Gabrielle," she said simply.
The Bard hesitated for a moment but in the time they had been in the cavern, except for the fight theyíd had on that first day, Xena had never once shown the slightest sign of cruelty towards her. Quite the opposite, in fact. She held out her bound wrists, managing to keep the shake out of her hands by tensing her muscles.
Working the razor-sharp chakram blade between the other womanís wrists, Xena carefully sliced through the thongs she had used to bind Gabrielle. She made sure not to touch the Bardís skin in the least, in case the woman thought she was about to have her wrists slashed for some reason.
Gabrielle was still massaging her wrists, a little sore from the chafing of the thongs, when dinner hopped into the cavern. Xenaís hand flicked out, chakram spinning, and two fat rabbits became a meal. The Bard walked over to pick up the small bodies and prepare them for dinner that night. She suddenly stopped walking as it dawned on her that she hadnít been thinking, she had simply done it...like it was something she had done a thousand times before; it felt that familiar to her. She didnít see the look of glowing and happy surprise on Xenaís face behind her.
Poking around her saddlebags looking for a clean shift, Xena came across one of Gabrielleís scrolls tucked beneath several other items at the bottom. Pulling it out, she was hit with an idea. "After dinner, Iíll try this out," she mumbled to herself and carefully put the scroll under the edge of her bedroll. She quickly glanced over to the other woman, but she was still washing the blood from butchering the rabbits out of her own shift and not paying any attention to what Xena was doing.
Gabrielle returned from the passage, where Xena had dug a small pit for their refuse, both from their meals and themselves, after clearing up from dinner that night. The tall warrior had smiled to herself at the time when she realised that the goddess was being forced to deal with some of the more mundane habits of mortals, such as what went in sooner or later had to come back out again. Aphrodite seemed to be handling it, because the pit was as spotless today as it had been when Xena first dug it. She didnít know what Gabrielle thought of it but chose not to say anything about the goddessís involvement in her capture and imprisonment.
The Bard sat down heavily on her own bedroll on the other side of the fire from Xena. She had seemed very far away all night, ever since the warrior had asked her about her beginnings as a warlord. Xena didnít know if she liked the silence more or the near constant cursing she had put up with during the first two days. Either way, Gabrielleís silence now didnít appear to be all that healthy, so Xena was glad she had found the scroll in her saddlebags. Now for a little acting to get Gabrielle to do what she wanted.
Reaching under the edge of her bedroll, Xena pulled the scroll from its hiding place. "Gabrielle, could you read this for me?" she asked, ingenuously. "I found it in my saddlebag and I donít know what it says."
Gabrielleís eyes widened a little. "You canít read?" she replied, shocked almost speechless that anyone, even this warrior, couldnít read.
"There was no priest in my village to teach me, and by the time there was, I no longer had the time to learn." Xena held her hands up in a kind of hopeless gesture. The blue-eyed woman could read perfectly well, as well as Gabrielle, but she needed the woman to read something she had written herself. If nothing else, it might spark a few memories of Gabrielle the Bard and not Gabrielle the warlord.
"Okay, Iíll read it for you," Gabrielle answered, looking at Xena. But everything she could see from the other womanís body language said the warrior was telling the truth about not being able to read. Besides, Gabrielle was just as bored as the other woman anyway, and something to read would be a break from the usual routine of sitting and staring at the fire until she was tired enough to go to sleep. Taking the scroll from Xenaís hand, she quickly unrolled it and scanned the first few lines. The writing seemed familiar somehow. "It looks like some kind of a tale. Still want me to read it?" she asked the tall woman sitting on the other side of the fire.
"Why not? Doesnít look like either of us are going anywhere," Xena said quietly. She had seen the look in Gabrielleís eyes. The warrior was sure the Bard recognised her own neat handwriting but that the knowledge was having trouble sinking in for some reason.
The Bard began to read the scroll using, Xena noticed, her best Bardís voice, as she would have called it. The warrior closed her eyes and simply let the familiar feeling of her lover telling her a tale flow over her. She didnít realise just how much she was missing her gentle Gabrielle until now. Towards the end of the reading, Xena opened her eyes again, only to see that Gabrielle had closed hers and was actually reciting the tale straight from memory, as she usually would. She didnít really want to draw attention to this but she had to convince the Bard that she really wasnít a warlord at all. The tale ended, yet Gabrielle was still to open her eyes.
"Who wrote this, Warrior?" She asked, a quaver strong in her voice.
Though she doubted the other woman would believe, Xena directed her to the end of the scroll. "Most bards sign the end of their stories. See who signed that one."
The Bard cum warlord glanced at the end of the scroll and then had a second, much longer look at the name inscribed there. "It says Gabrielle of Poteidaia. Who is she? This is good."
Biting her lip, Xena knew now was the time to push at Gabrielleís memories of herself before Ares had laid the warlord over her personality. "Iíll tell you in a minute, but first I want you to think, I mean really think, about what you used to do before you were a warlord."
Gabrielle gave Xena the oddest look but obediently closed her eyes and began to search for any memory from before she remembered the tent and the raid. She was genuinely trying. Even Xena had to admit, to find her own memory empty of anything beyond the past few days would have shaken her to the core. Only Gabrielleís native courage was keeping her from screaming right off the edge of sanity itself. Xena had to admire her for that much.
It took several minutes but finally the blonde woman spoke, slowly, as though she was having trouble bringing the thought to the surface. "I remember the name of a place, Thessaly. Why should I remember this place?" Gabrielle asked, opening her eyes and looking at the blue eyes focused on her from across the fire.
Feeling very small, Xena pushed the question back at the other woman. "Think about it. Did something happen there that you might remember?" It was not exactly the recollection she might have wanted to bring up in the other woman, but that day did have a profound effect, so Xena guessed it would have made a strong impression on Gabrielleís memory.
Now the blondeís eyes were focused on Xenaís as she searched and prodded her own mind looking for the connection between her and this place. Suddenly the connection was made. "I DIED there and YOU called me back!" Gabrielle gasped in shock. The young woman started crying. It was all getting to be a bit too much, even for a warlord. "Who are you? And who am I?"
Xena was across the fire in an instant and had Gabrielle wrapped in her strong arms as the other woman hit some kind of emotional wall. Hating herself for what she had to say now, considering Gabrielle was in shock. "YOU are Gabrielle of Poteidaia. Youíre a bard. When you read that scroll before, you were reciting straight from memory and not reading it at all. You never were a warlord. Itís just something that Ares made you believe," she said desperately, trying to get the weeping woman in her arms to understand.
Gabrielle was shaking her head, not believing, and crying all the harder. This was not exactly how Xena had envisioned this particular conversation going, somehow.
Xena opened her eyes to the soft lighting of the fungus on the walls. It took a moment to place herself but she quickly realised she was on the other side of the small fire, which seemed to need no fuel to keep burning. Remembering why she was on that side of the fire, she also realised the comforting weight of the Bard was no longer tucked against her side as it had been the night before.
Gabrielle had wept for quite some considerable time after being told she was not really the warlord she thought herself to be. Eventually, the young woman had cried herself to sleep. No wanting to let her go, Xena had held her gently, even after the Bard had dozed off. Tucking her against her side as though nothing had changed between them, Xena had lain back herself and slowly let sleep overtake her.
Now that she was awake again, she wondered where the Bard had gotten to. Sitting up, she was startled to see the younger woman in the center of the room, sword in hand, practising in much the same way Xena herself did each day. It was incredibly beautiful...and deadly to watch. In a way, Xena had forgotten just how truly graceful Gabrielle could be, regardless of the weapon she held in her hand. Even without the warlord, the warrior had been there all the time, if only she had allowed herself to see it before. It slowly dawned on the tall woman the only reason she hadnít seen it was because she didnít want to see. She wanted to be the warrior of the pair, and now she was being forced to see that she had to permit Gabrielle to grow and be whatever she wanted to be. It was something of a startling revelation for her, one she knew, over time, would change the way things were between herself and the Bard she loved.
She waited until Gabrielle had finished her current series of movements before speaking. "You could have removed my head while I slept."
"Why bother. You would have known the blade was coming long before I got anywhere near you. Besides, I donít think itís very honourable to kill someone who was so nice to me last night." Gabrielle replied, a grin on her face. She was sweating freely and looking more at home with the blade in her hand than she had ever looked with her quill.
Xena had to agree with her there. It was damned hard for anyone to sneak up on her; that body sense she had would scream a warning long before she was actually awake. But it was wonderful to hear the sense of humour returning to the other womanís voice again. "So, Gabrielle, what do you think of being a Bard?" The woman asked. Might as well get it over with early today.
"How can I really be a Bard when I can handle myself as well as you?" Gabrielle replied, as she strode back to the small fire and sat down next to Xena. The warrior noticed immediately just how close Gabrielle sat, even if the other woman didnít. Another hopeful sign.
She didnít get too long to enjoy the sensation though. The way Gabrielle had posed her question, it was obvious that she didnít believe a word about being a Bard in reality. The young woman saw herself as nothing more than a warrior simply based on the evidence of the sword still held in her hand. Xena realised the blonde was making the same mistake as she had once made, judging what a person was by the weapon, or lack of one, in her hand.
Xena was left scratching her head a little over this. Aphrodite had forced her to see the warrior in the Bard, but how did she get Gabrielle to see the Bard within herself? Perhaps by proving it to the other woman in the only way Xena truly understood. By picking up the blade and sparring with Gabrielle. It wouldnít take long for the blonde to see who was the superior with the sword and realise she couldnít be a true warlord. In Xenaís mind it all seemed to make quite logical sense, yet something inside her said there was a flaw in her thinking. The dark-haired woman shrugged her shoulders unconsciously. Flaw or no flaw, it would give the two women something to do, if nothing else.
Reaching across to the neat pile where she had stacked her own armour and weapons, Xena spoke quietly to the other woman. "Why donít you spar with me for a bit? I need to work some of the kinks out after sleeping on this soft sand all night." It was taking a chance but Xena also wanted to show Gabrielle she trusted her not to get carried away and actually hurt the tall warrior.
Both women walked out into the center of the room, taking up a stance in front of the other. They began to gently spar back and forth, slowly working up the speed and strength of their thrusts and lunges. Xena managed to keep the look of surprise from her face but Gabrielleís expression of shock was quite clear. It was like fighting with a mirror. Every lunge Xena made, Gabrielle knew exactly how to parry the blow. Every thrust the Bard made, Xena knew precisely how to counter it. Each knew, to the width of a hair, what the other was about to do and could see a way of dealing with it, just as the other would have done. The motion of sword and body back and forth became a beautiful but potentially fatal dance of death, one where a slip from either woman would mean a serious injury at the very least. Yet they seemed to know where the other would be every instant and were ready to make the next move in their complicated ballet. It was more than just fighting with a mirror, it was like fighting with themselves.
The power and the passion flowed between the two as they accepted and reflected the energy of the dance. Both found it a little frustrating and at the same time totally exhilarating to match their skills against an absolutely equal opponent. It was a heady mix.
Gabrielle gave in to her pleasure first and began to first smile then grin, and then start laughing out loud. Xena, as caught up in the flow as the Bard, was not far behind her and soon both women were bent over roaring with laughter and unable to stop. Every time one looked at the other, a fresh bout of uncontrollable laughter took over.
It took a determined effort on the part of the warrior but Xena managed to get herself back under control before Gabrielle. She stared at the ground between her feet, forcing the smile from her lips and breathing deeply to keep the laughter from bubbling up again. Eventually, she was back to herself, though she knew it would not take much for the laughter to start all over again. She watched as Gabrielle went through the same mental discipline to finally restrain herself. Well, so much for that idea, she thought. The young woman was no closer to seeing the Bard in herself and was probably even more convinced than before that she really was a warrior and had never been a Bard at all.
"Well, I need a bath after all that." Xena stated, trying to stay centred and not let the smile show anywhere other than in her eyes. If it got to her lips, she would simply lose it again.
Looking around her, Gabrielle said. "I agree completely. Remember, I started working out before you woke this morning. I feel like I am drowning in my own clothes." She delicately pinched the sweat-soaked shift away from the skin between her breasts.
Xena tried not to look at the shadow of the other womanís breasts showing through the thin cotton shift, but it had been so long since she and Gabrielle had made love, she simply couldnít help herself. The other woman noted exactly where Xenaís eyes were looking and actually blushed. To hide her own reaction and the feeling of pleasure she had at being seen as desirable by the tall woman, the blonde quickly strode over to the bathing pool, stripped the soaking wet shift from her body and climbed into the warm water. She hoped she could explain away the redness of her face by the warmth of the water.
Following along behind a little more slowly, Xena tried to regain control of her own passions. The last thing she needed to do right now was add the complication of her own emotions to the situation.
Something had woken Xena from a sound sleep. It wasnít a shout of danger from her body sense, so it had to be something else. She lay for a moment, simply listening to the sounds around her. The tiny fire crackled a little and Xena could hear the trickling of the water near the bathing pool but other than that, there was nothing to be heard, not even the light snores from Gabrielle. Then it dawned on her, she couldnít hear the sleeping sounds of the other woman at all. Quickly opening her eyes, she glanced over and could see Gabrielle was still lying on her own bedroll. But even looking at her from behind, Xena could see the woman was far from asleep. The tight foetal curl of her body and the slow, barely restrained heave of her shoulders told the dark-haired woman the Bard was crying again. It had been the sound of her muffled sobs that had woken her from sleep.
Climbing silently to her feet, Xena moved around the fire and crouched down at the other womanís side. She knew Gabrielle was aware of her presence. The blonde had a body sense for danger as strong as her own, so she knew she was not going to startle the Bard by being there. Gently laying one hand on the other womanís shoulder, Xena was astonished when Gabrielle rolled suddenly and all but crawled into her arms. Gathering the weeping woman to her, Xena soon had Gabrielle comfortably settled on her lap, strong arms surrounding the Bard, giving whatever protection and solace Gabrielle felt she needed.
The younger woman sat, one hand holding tightly to Xenaís shoulder, her face cradled by the warriorís breasts. "I donít know how much more of this I can stand, Xena. I donít know who I am anymore," she said, a fresh burst of tears flowing down her face.
Xena tried to calm her frantically beating heart. For the first time since the warrior had kidnapped her from the war camp, Gabrielle had called her by name. She felt as though someone had swept the clouds from the sky on a dreary, overcast day and allowed the warmth of the sun to penetrate her chilled body.
Gabrielle looked up to the face of the woman who held her so tenderly. "You tell me I am a Bard and yet I feel like a warrior, a warlord. Which am I?" The confusion was so evident in her voice and face that it touched Xenaís heart and soul.
Xena never could explain, not then or later, what prompted her to say the words that she did. "Youíre my lover and thatís enough for me, Gabrielle."
Dropping her head, she gently kissed the slightly puffy lips of the weeping woman. She was not surprised in the least when Gabrielle responded with her own hunger. It was a long, slow, powerfully intense kiss that left both women gasping a little when they finally broke apart. Xena suddenly realised what she had just done, and it frightened her greatly. She tried to open her arms to release the other woman.
Gabrielle held tightly to Xenaís upper arms, forcing her to hold still. "I am your lover, arenít I? Please, tell me the truth. I may not remember who you are, but my body does. From the first moment I saw you standing in my tent, I knew there was something about you, something so familiar it was like the sound of my own heart beating. Somehow, I canít explain but I knew." Gabrielle almost babbled.
For a moment, Xena closed her eyes. The last thing she needed to do right now was confused the situation further. Admitting Gabrielle was her lover was going to make things hard enough without complicating it with her own emotions. She was so tempted to lie to Gabrielle outright and deny any kind of a relationship that she was actually shaking. Yet in the short time they had been lovers, Xena had never once lied to *her* Gabrielle. Perhaps she may not have told all of what was in her heart, but she had never told a bare-faced lie. Opening her eyes again, Xena nodded her head. "Yes, you are my lover...and my love. The Gabrielle I know, the one inside I am trying to help you see, is the very center of my existence." It was probably the clearest statement of her love Xena had ever made and it came without cost. Now the Bard knew there was a relationship between them, would it make things harder or easier to deal with?
"Am I your Gabrielle?" The blonde asked in a small voice, fearful of the answer she might hear.
The tall woman didnít hesitate for a moment. "Yes, you are my Gabrielle." Xena answered simply. "If it comes down to it, I *will* accept the warrior and warlord you have become, but," blue eyes focused on sea green, "I would like to have my Bard back if at all possible. I miss her." A single tear found its way down Xenaís cheek. Her acceptance was sincere, as was the statement of her love, but Xena truly longed for her gentle Bard too.
Gabrielle lightly wiped the tear from Xenaís face and unexpectedly licked the little drop of salty moisture from her finger with the tip of her tongue. "I may not know who you are, but something in my soul does, and I am willing to trust my heart," the blonde said softly, as her lips reached up and started kissing all the most sensitive places on Xenaís neck. Even without consciously remembering, the younger woman knew all the places to touch, kiss and nibble without having to think about it in the least. She simply allowed her feelings to flow and to take her mind along with them.
Xena slowly dropped back against the bedroll, pulling the smaller woman with her until Gabrielle was stretched out over the top of Xenaís longer body. Deep kisses awoke the passions of both women as they explored and tasted the other, their tongues savouring and luxuriating in the warm wetness of the other womanís mouth. The tall warrior tried to pull Gabrielleís shift from her body, only to get it tangled somewhere around the smaller womanís arms.
The blonde laughed aloud and let herself roll from Xena for a moment. "Does this always happen?" Gabrielle giggled, as she lifted the thin garment over her head and tossed it to the ground beside them.
Left speechless for a second by the sight of Gabrielleís beautifully naked body before her, Xena shook her head to bring herself back to something approaching coherent before answering. "Sometimes." She replied. "Though it depends on how impatient we wer..are at the time." Xena caught herself just as she made the slip.
The blonde had noticed the slip of the tongue but smiled to show she did understand and was not upset by it at all. In so many ways it would be like making love with the woman she remembered, and in others she would be a stranger, so the Bard understood what Xena might be feeling at the moment. Gabrielle was feeling a lot of the same things herself. Her hands, mouth and body seemed to know exactly what to do and what they wanted, yet the blonde thought she had never made love with this woman before.
"Here. Letís get this off you so we donít get you tangled up later." The Bard said, trying to sound very matter of fact about undressing the taller woman. Gabrielle had watched this body so many times as Xena bathed, but now it was hers as an offering of love and she couldnít wait to be able to gaze upon the tanned skin or the way the muscles moved subtly under it. Gabrielle knelt before Xena and watched in a kind of stunned haze as the other woman lifted her own shift over her head and tossed it to land on top of Gabrielleís. The gentle sway of Xenaís breasts and the tensing and relaxation of her abdominal muscles all but snatched the blondeís breath from her. When the other woman held out her hands to Gabrielle, she almost fell into Xenaís arms like she had been led by a Sirenís song to the rocks.
Xena lay back, delighted at the feeling of her loverís hands moving knowingly over her body again. Somehow, her Bard cum warrior knew all the places where Xena was most sensitive, all the places she loved to be touched. Underneath her thigh, the small of her back, just under her breast, the inside of her elbow, the back of her neck. Gabrielleís hands seemed to find every spot and drew a little moan of utter pleasure from the tall woman. In that part of her mind still able to take in such knowledge, she did notice Gabrielle had sword calluses on her hands, something that had not been there before.
Lying on their sides, breast to breast, Gabrielleís toes gently stroking Xenaís legs from knee to ankle, the Bard thought she was going to die of absolute happiness. Everything about the tall woman was so familiar yet so different, so unknown. One strong hand slowly fondled her breast, and Gabrielle had to stop herself from biting down on Xenaís shoulder with the bolt of pure erotic electricity it sent shuddering through her body. When those same long fingers gently grasped the apex of her breast, she did bite down to stop the whimpering moan from bursting out of her throat.
Xenaís low, lush voice whispered into the other womanís ear. "Please, Gabrielle. I want to hear you. I want to hear what I can do for you. Let me know the sound of the woman...and the warrior youíve grown to be."
Not trusting herself to speak, Gabrielle nodded against the other womanís shoulder. She was already trembling with the sensations one hand on her breast was drawing from her. Opening her eyes for a moment, she could see the deep mark on Xenaís shoulder where her teeth had bitten down. There would probably be a bruise there later, but the tall woman hadnít seemed to notice the pain of the bite.
Xena had felt the bite, but it had sent a jagged bolt of lightning through her entire body, inflaming her desire further. She didnít know what she wanted first, to love Gabrielle or to have Gabrielle love her instead. Unable to control herself any longer, the tall warrior began to slowly make love to the woman of her heart, pouring every ounce of her love and passion into each touch and stroke of Gabrielleís body. The smaller woman was shuddering, gasping and moaning under the warriorís hands and mouth, tears of joy and overwhelming sensual pleasure flooding down the Bardís face.
Her hands gripped at Xenaís shoulders, pushing her towards the overheated center of her being. Gabrielleís arousal had gone from a gentle burning to a thundering, pounding, demanding need. Mindless and speechless with her own staggering craving, all she could do was push the other woman towards that hot, wet place clamouring for release. Gabrielle felt as though she hung motionless over the chasm of her own sanity and only Xenaís sure and knowing touch could ever bring her back again.
Xena smiled to herself. Gabrielle always went like this. It was as though she could only stand so much before her body took over completely and sought some kind of release. Sometimes the warrior would tease her and make her wait a while longer, but this time she let the Bard set the pace she needed. Sliding down the other womanís body, Xena nestled between Gabrielleís legs. She dug her toes into the sand at the bottom of the bedroll as Gabrielleís legs seemed to find their own way over her broad shoulders, ankles locking behind her neck. Xena adored this loving trap the Bard created. The blonde would not let her go again until she had been overwhelmed with sensations and could take no more.
The heady mix of heat, desire and Gabrielle wafted up to the warrior. Xena lowered her head and let the deliciously sweet honey-musk of her lover fill her mouth and senses for the first time in what seemed far too long. Like someone rediscovering a forgotten paradise, the warrior slowly explored the depths and warm crevices that made up the woman she so adored. She lovingly ran her tongue over every inch of excited flesh, gently nuzzling deeper. The moment her lips and tongue made contact with Gabrielleís center, she felt the Bardís hands clamp onto the back of her head, fingers clutching her long dark hair. The other womanís hips had already found their rhythm and Xena caught it from her, keeping time and never breaking contact for a moment. Gabrielle probably would have killed her if Xena had broken away for any reason short of an all-out attack on the cave itself.
Gabrielle no longer cared what she was, bard or warrior, warlord or woman. All she knew is she didnít want Xena to stop. The feel of the other womanís tongue curling through her most intimate flesh was pushing her senses beyond themselves. She no longer heard herself oh, oh, oh-ing at every stroke of Xenaís lips and tongue. She no longer saw anything but the multi-colored light exploding behind her tightly closed eyelids with each labouring gasp of air she dragged into her lungs. She no longer knew where her own body ended and her loverís began. It was though Xena was reaching out and somehow touching Gabrielleís very essence with her love. The link of passion flowing between them was sending the Bard higher and higher until she was sure she would be dashed against the stone ceiling over her head, yet Xenaís passion and love kept her safe.
Utterly lost to her own senses and sanity, Gabrielle felt some kind of a minute, intense, powerful twitch right at the center of her being as the dark-haired womanís tongue washed over it. The exploding waves flowing out from that point completely devastated the Bard. For that fraction of a second, nothing and everything existed to the overwhelmed woman. She never heard herself cry Xenaís name before disappearing into a teeth-clenching groan of absolute pleasure. Gabrielle knew nothing more until she felt the taller woman ease down against her side and gently hold the sweating and gasping woman. Rolling into the security of those strong, enclosing arms, Gabrielle let herself weep of her joy and love. She may not know who she was, but she knew this wonderful woman loved her completely, regardless of who she was.
Gradually the younger woman calmed and leaning back a little so she could see Xenaís face, asked almost reverently. "By the gods on Mount Olympus ... is it always like that?"
Xena smiled and blushed at the same time, trying not to look too proud of herself. "More or less. Youíll remember eventually," she said, gently tapping the end of Gabrielleís nose.
"Or relearn." Gabrielle laughed in reply. She couldnít recall ever feeling so good before, but with memories that only covered a week or so, that wasnít saying a lot. Locked away somewhere inside her mind were the memories of all the other times, and more than anything she wanted them now, especially if they were as wonderful as what she had just experienced.
A wicked expression flashed across the Bardís eyes, one Xena didnít see. If the warrior could make Gabrielle feel like such a goddess, then maybe the Bard should return the favour. Her body certainly knew how to love this magnificent woman, Gabrielle just had to give it the freedom to do so.
Nibbling lightly along Xenaís collar bone, she simply let her hands go wherever they pleased. And where they went certainly pleased the tall warrior. A long, breathy groan came from deep within Xenaís chest as Gabrielleís hands found a series of sensitive places along the other womanís side. Gabrielle let her lips drop off the inner end of Xenaís collar bone and straight down to her breast. Concentrating her mouth and tongue on the warriorís breasts, Gabrielle let her hand very slowly drift from the other womanís side, across her hips to the nest of dark hair that was her goal. Xena was already so aroused that Gabrielle really didnít want to take a lot of time pushing her excitement any higher. She didnít remember that this is exactly how Xena liked it when she had loved the Bard first, but the blondeís body remembered and did what it knew was right for the other woman.
Xena rolled onto her back, her legs falling open of their own accord, inviting the Bardís hands to explore and find all the hyper-reactive pleasure points within. Gabrielle nestled herself against the warriorís side, one leg over Xenaís upper thigh, her hand gently sweeping through the dark hair at the apex of her legs. She could feel one of Xenaís hands on her shoulder, the other firmly gripping the upper arm of the hand already moving lower. Then Gabrielleís fingers encountered the most incredible wetness flowing from some deep spring inside Xena. The Bard couldnít quite believe the feeling shooting up her arm. She wanted to simply drown in all that wetness and never have to take her hands away. Her body remembered this so well, and the blonde felt her hips moving against the other womanís thigh, exciting herself all over again. It was only a matter of moments before Xenaís thigh under the Bard was as slick as the smaller womanís fingers, moving through the soft and heated flesh of her lover.
The warm slickness on her thigh and the gentle back and forth rubbing of her lover was almost as exciting to Xena as the knowing fingers exploring her pulsing flesh. The sweet smell of Gabrielleís hair and the gentle nuzzling of her mouth on her breasts were all pushing the warrior out on that edge where all control vanished. She could have no more stopped the moans of pleasure coming from her than she could have stopped her own heart from thundering in her ears. When the Bard's fingers finally brushed against her erect center, she threw her other leg over Gabrielleís back to hold her hand there. Xena could feel Gabrielleís hips moving in unison with her own and both women were letting deep groans echo from the stone walls around them.
The Bardís fingers kept up their pressure and slow massage, revelling in what she was doing to the warrior beneath her. The more excited the tall woman became, the higher it pushed Gabrielleís own arousal until she was once again teetering on the edge of her sanity.
Xena felt the tightening of Gabrielleís muscles as she approached the peak of her excitement, and the pace of her own hips quickened. The overwhelming flood of sensations the Bard was causing at her center never stopped for a moment. The Bardís hand suddenly moved as she placed her thumb on Xenaís center and slid two fingers deep inside the well-spring of Xenaís wetness. The warrior felt her stomach drop away as a crashing wave wiped her mind from conscious existence, her own body taking over completely, any semblance of control she might have had gone.
The sound of Xenaís sudden inhale and the feel of her head being thrown back were the only warning Gabrielle received to the thrashing release of the warrior beneath her hands. The frenzied rocking of the other womanís hips pushed Gabrielle over the edge too, and their combined cries of pleasure filled the small cavern, bouncing in echoes around them.
Xena woke some time later, Gabrielle still against her side, her fingers still inside. She couldnít help smiling. They had both fallen asleep within moments of the other, and from the look of it, neither had moved in who knows how long. Stretching a little to take a few of the kinks from her spine, Xena reached down and regretfully withdrew Gabrielleís fingers from that most pleasant of places. Drawing the sleeping Bardís hand towards her face, she gently kissed each digit before sweeping her tongue across the palm. That woke Gabrielle with a bit of a start.
"Hi there, Sleepyhead." Xena said quietly as she released the Bardís hand.
"Oh," Gabrielle replied, a little confused. She frowned for a moment and then smiled widely as she hugged the taller woman strongly. "I thought it was all a dream, but it *is* real, after all."
Xena chuckled to herself. "Some dream, then, if we both had it." Her hand started to rub idle circles on the back of the other womanís shoulder.
The younger woman sat up so she could see into Xenaís eyes. "I want to make love all over again, but first I want to be clean. Really clean! I have sand in places I didnít know I had places!"
Keeping the surprise for her face, Xena realised the sudden sexual assertiveness was just another aspect of the warrior in Gabrielle coming through, and oddly, she liked it. "Do I get a say in the matter?" she asked, smiling at the other woman. The tall warrior thought a bath might be a good idea, but she wanted to tease the other woman a little. She could feel the sand gritting under her body, and it was starting to make her itch.
Gabrielleís answer was not quite what the warrior had expected. The blonde reached down with one hand and gently tickled Xenaís sensitive center, an almost predatory grin on her face. Whether Xena liked it or not, Gabrielle was claiming ownership of more than just Xenaís heart. She was claiming the other womanís body as well. Xena found herself liking this too.
Shuddering under the delicate touch, Xena had to grit her teeth for a moment before she could reply. "Looks like I donít."
"Nope. I have a whole head to fill with memories, and I want some good ones," Gabrielle laughed as she climbed to her feet, completely unselfconscious of her nudity before Xena. Reaching down to help the other woman to her feet, the Bard giggled back. "I know a place where there is lots of warm water for bathing. Race you!!" she said as the Bard dashed across the room to the pool.
Xena simply shook her head, finding her own mood quickly matching the playfulness of her lover.
Xena lay awake, a smile on her face. Gabrielle was tucked up against her side as usual, still sound asleep. All the women had been doing of the past few days was waking, making love, falling asleep and then waking to do it all over again. Aside from the most necessary of chores like caring for Argo (whose grain bag seemed always full, and where the hay came from Xena still couldnít guess), neither woman had been paying all that much attention to what was going on around them. They were safe for the moment, and the living part of their dinner arrived each day through the small hole at the base of the wall. The tall warrior had lost track of the days while they were in this erotic cycle of waking and sleeping, but she was sure Gabrielle had some very good memories to fill the gaps left from the old. She knew she certainly had some great ones herself.
Feeling the smaller woman stirring against her side, Xena looked down to watch the other woman as she woke. She loved seeing the slight bleariness of the Bard as she opened her eyes and then realised where she was and who she was with.
"Awake again, I see. Enjoy the nap?" The dark-haired woman asked, already feeling yet another surge of arousal flowing through her body. Would she ever get enough of Gabrielleís familiar but different self?
The Bard took a moment to kiss the breast she was nestled against. "Mmmmm, nice." She mumbled. Suddenly sitting up, she looked around the subtly lit room, the fungus on the walls creating a light gentler than the sun but stronger than the fullest moon. "Xena? Does it seem a little cooler in here today?" The blonde asked, still looking around her.
"Now that you mention it. It does feel cooler. The breeze is blowing into the cavern and not out of it." The tall warrior was sitting up herself now, testing the breeze against her bare skin.
"Maybe the entrance is open again?" Gabrielle was climbing to her feet and shuffling through their gear trying to find her shift. Over the past few days, both women had given up wearing them simply because as fast as they put them on, the other was taking it off them. It just didnít seem worth wearing them if that was going to happen all the time. Finding Xenaís first, she tossed it over to the taller woman. Yanking her own over her head, the Bard also reached for both their swords. They may have been safe while the entrance was blocked, but neither woman knew who might be outside at the moment. And there was still Gabrielleís army to consider as well.
Moving up the passage together, Xena signalled Gabrielle to take the other wall, and they slowly walked towards the entrance, blades held in front of them ready for anything. A cool morning breeze was blowing from the opening of the cave, and the bright sunlight had both women blinking a little with its brightness after days spent in the lower illumination of the cave.
Poking their heads carefully around the lip of the cave, nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary, the canyon as empty in both directions as when Xena had first ridden through it. Both women glanced at each other and smiled.
"Looks like we are finally going to get out of here." Gabrielle said. The blonde was enjoying the thought of finally being on their way. However much she adored spending days and days simply making love with the tall woman, she was itching to get back to her life. She still hadnít figured out, though, what kind of life it would be now. All she knew for sure was she wanted to stay with Xena. If that meant leaving her army behind, hard though it would be, she would do it.
Xena was even more unsure of what to expect now. Within the confines of the cave, it had been easy to forget that her Bard was also a warrior, or at least Gabrielle thought she was anyway. Being back outside again, that warrior would be there every minute, just as it was for her. It was going to take some getting used to, but she had promised to accept and love the warrior as much as she once had the Bard alone.
Blue eyes flicked through the trees ahead watching for any kind of potential trouble. Though they were still some distance from the site where the army was camped, Xena was fully expecting scouting parties or guards to be patrolling the forest around the encampment. Neither she nor Gabrielle had really discussed what they were going to do now, but it seemed sensible, in a way, to go back to the war camp. Xena was worried that the Bard would simply take up with them again and continue on her raiding ways. If that turned out to be the case, she would be forced to try to stop her. It was not a thought she really wanted to dwell on, but she did have to be prepared for it. The Bard may have confessed her love in the closed-in safety of the cave, but out here all bets might be off. Xena knew the call of blood-lust and how addictive it could be. Had Gabrielle heard the call too? It was the one question she had most feared asking so had simply left it alone. Now, maybe, she should have asked?
Gabrielle rode easily behind the taller woman, thinking deeply. Somewhere up ahead was her army. The blonde had already realised she didnít want to go back to her old ways, whatever those may have been. She still thought of herself as a warlord of some years standing, yet the dark-haired woman in front of her insisted the smaller woman had been a Bard all that time. She wasnít quite sure which to believe. Not that it mattered, really. There was an army somewhere that answered to her. Talking with Xena over the past few days had made it all too clear she would not stand for Gabrielleís continuing to raid villages and would do whatever was needed to stop her, even if that meant killing her. The Bard cum warlord was torn. The closer they got to the camp site, the more she wanted her army, but she also wanted Xena. However, there was one thing in her favour she knew nothing about. Gabrielle had never heard the battle call of blood-lust.
As they came through the last of the trees, both women could see the army was camped there no more. All that was left was the refuse pit Xena had crawled past to get into the camp, a few tent stakes, empty firepits filled with cold ashes, flattened grass and a few bodies, bloated from days of lying in the sun. Gabrielle had leapt from Argoís back before they were even halfway up the low hill. She was stamping around the camp site, swearing viciously and kicking at anything in her path. Xena was stunned at the angry reaction from the other woman. Of all the things the tall warrior had ever seen over the years, this would have had to have been the ugliest sight of all. Gabrielle may love her truly in the depths of her heart, but on the outside she as completely and absolutely the warlord.
Neither woman was to ever know that within days of Gabrielleís kidnapping, the campís power structure had broken down entirely. There had been several fights among the more ambitious of the men seeking to the take the top position for themselves, while others had simply disappeared into the darkness of night. Eventually, the camp had split up into much smaller parties, each going its separate way. It was as though Gabrielle had never lead the group at all.
Xena watched stunned as the blonde circled around her, fists clenched, her body rigid with barely restrained temper. Then the impact of Gabrielleís words sank past the shock and registered in her mind. The smaller woman was already planning on gathering another army and going after the cowards and traitors who had once been here. Something snapped inside the tall, dark-haired warrior, and with her own blue eyes flashing with anger, she snapped the chain on the amulet around her neck and tossed it to one side.
She strode over to the other woman and grabbing her shoulder, held her still for a moment as she dug the other amulet from its hiding place in the hem of Gabrielleís leathers. With both amulets away from them, the War God would soon find them. Ares did this to Gabrielle, and now he was going to have to face Xena.
It was only a matter of minutes before the God of War made a rather dramatic arrival at the camp site. The echoes of the thunder had barely died in the distance when he approached Xena, hardly glancing at the furious Gabrielle standing nearby.
"I knew you had to come out of hiding sooner or later, Xena," Ares grinned at the very angry warrior in front of him. "Donít you like the little warlord I gave you as a present? I thought she would just about your speed. Look how passionate she is now. How fiery. Definite improvement over that soppy Bard you were so taken with, donít you agree?" He smirked.
"No. I donít agree," Xena replied simply, hardly trusting herself to remain civil. "Release her and change her back to the way she used to be." The taller woman was having trouble keeping the snarl out of her voice.
Ares circled around behind Xena, quietly chuckling to himself the entire time. "Itís going to cost, you know that," he said as he came back into view.
Xena already knew what his price would be but her perverse sense of humour decided to let him say it anyway. "And what is that price?"
"Why, my dear warrior, you, of course," the God was almost giggling with pleasure. He finally had Xena in a position where she couldnít say no to him. Her heart was so attached to that dreary little bard that she would do anything to have her back again, even if it did mean returning to him and her warlord ways. Ares took a deep breath. This was certainly a moment to savour.
The tall warrior looked the God of War up and down, a wicked glint in her eyes. "Fight you for her," she said calmly.
Aresís head snapped back in surprise, not quite believing what he had just heard. "Have you taken leave of your tiny little senses, woman? YOU fight ME??" The God started smiling to himself as he thought about what he had just been presented with. "Oh, this is too precious. Okay, here are my terms."
Xena folded her arms and nodded for him to continue.
"If you win, I change her back to that dull little Bard and leave you both alone." He glanced at the tall woman to see if she agreed to this.
The woman nodded again.
"If I win, not only do you return to me, as a warlord" -- the God hesitated for a moment -- "I get to keep Gabrielle too." Ares couldnít keep the smugness out of his voice. Why have just one warlord when he can have two? He couldnít stop himself thinking of all the fun he would have pitting them against each other with opposing armies.
"Hey! Now just wait a minute there!" the Bard bellowed from behind the God. "Whatís this about keeping me? You never had me to start with."
Ares turned and looked down at the shorter woman striding rapidly in his direction. "You would be tiresome, wouldnít you. If you must know, *I* made you a warlord because *you* wanted to be Xenaís equal, okay? Youíre already mine and I like to keep my toys."
The look of utter distain on his face so angered the blonde, she tore her sword from the sheath on her back and came rushing towards the god. She was nobodyís toy and least of all this pompous godís. Ares never even bothered to draw his own weapon. Waiting until she was within arms reach, he simply backhanded her savagely, hurling her across the clearing. Gabrielle landed very heavily, skidding a little on the turf. She tried to raise her head but sank back into the darkness of unconsciousness.
Xena bit back on the shout in her throat, snatched her own sword from its sheath and prepared to take on the god. She had been hoping to find a way of outsmarting Ares, but the Bardís sudden and angry appearance had taken that chance from her. Now she had to fight if she wanted to save Gabrielle from the life of a warlord. Returning to her own warlord ways didnít concern her half as much as seeing her lover pushed into the same horrors Xena had already experienced once before. She leapt to the attack, Ares already waiting for her.
There had been a time in Xenaís life when battling with the god would have thrilled her completely. He was the only being she knew who was her superior with the sword. But years of fighting had sharpened and honed her skills until she was very close to being the godís equal, and she needed every ounce of that now if she wanted to defeat him. Being someoneís equal and coming close were two different things, however, and it was only a matter of moments before the tall warrior realised the god was treating the entire fight just a little less than completely seriously.
Both swords were flashing in the sunlight as the back and forth exchange of blows continued around the hill top. Xena found herself suddenly backpedaling as Ares decided to stop playing with her and get the bout over as quickly as possible. Unexpectedly on the defensive, Xena was still moving back, step by step, as the god rained blows on her from almost any direction he wished. It was taking all her knowledge and skill to keep him from scoring a truly telling strike and disabling her. As it was, there was blood dripping from the many smaller cuts and scrapes Ares had already inflicted.
Ares stepped in, muscling passed her guard, totally unconcerned with being wounded. He was a god and he knew he couldnít be injured by something as insignificant as a mortal, not even a mortal like Xena. Catching the hilt of Xenaís sword with his own, he flicked his wrist and disarmed her. The tall warrior watched desperately as her weapon flew from her hands. Xena lashed out quickly with one foot, catching the god solidly between the legs. The look on his face was almost enough to make the woman laugh, if the situation werenít quite so serious. Several rapid backflips moved her out of the pale and sweating godís immediate range. She may not have been able to kill or even truly harm Ares, but she could make him stop and think for a moment.
Pulling himself upright again, Ares swung his blade in deadly figure eights in front of his body. There was little the tall warrior could do except retreat away from the weapon as she looked for a chance to strike out with a closed hand or booted foot.
"Come on, Xena. You know I have won. I want you back with me again. We were such an unbeatable team in the old days. Iíll even throw in your little bard if you want. Thatís all you want, isnít it? That tiresome bard you have given your heart to. What can she offer that I canít?" the God said as he came closer to the tall warrior. He really didnít want to kill her, but if he had to, well, he had to. There was still the bard lying unconscious behind him somewhere. Heíd soon have Gabrielle forgetting all about the blue-eyed woman. "I can give you power, an army that is unbeatable, everything. What does she offer you?" he asked.
Xena looked the god in the eye and said one word. "Love." Everything the Bard was to her, everything she had come to be was poured into that one word, and it irritated Ares to think Xena refused love him as she once had done.
"Pity about that. It could have been fun," Ares snarled at Xena as he jumped towards her, knocking her to the ground. Holding the point of his sword against her throat, he looked down at her. "Last chance, Xena."
"Just kill me, Ares and get it over with. Iím not coming back to you...ever," the downed warrior said calmly.
Gabrielle could hear a kindly voice calling to her in the comforting darkness surrounding her. Something in the voice made her want to know who it was and why it was calling her name. Fighting a little to get past the murkiness, she struggled towards the light. Opening her eyelids, she looked into the gently laughing eyes of the most beautiful woman she had ever seen before. Gabrielle felt as though she simply wanted to fall in to the other womanís pupils and drown. A soft hand tapped at the side of her face to make her re-focus her attention.
"Gabrielle, Gabrielle? You must listen. There isnít much time," the beautiful woman said, her voice like a stream bubbling quietly over a pebble bed.
"Huh? Time? Whatís happening?" Gabrielle was still a little confused. The last thing she remembered was somebody making her angry and then a feeling of being struck by lightning.
The soft hand brushed over the Bardís forehead and the buzzing sound left her ears, the pain at the back of her neck evaporating. Blinking a little at the light in her eyes, and feeling much better, she sat up.
"Do you love Xena, my little warrior? Enough to die for her?" The voice, insistent, asked.
The blonde didnít have to think. Her soul knew who she loved even if her conscious memories of the tall warrior were only a little over a week old. "Yes," Gabrielle replied simply.
"Enough to die in her stead?" the beautiful woman queried. It was a slightly different question Aphrodite was asking but the answer was very important.
Though her heart quailed at the thought of leaving this earth, of leaving Xena, the blonde didnít hesitate. "Yes. I would die in her place, if I had to. Whatís going on?"
Aphrodite moved aside slightly, and Gabrielle watched, horrified as Ares knocked Xena to the ground, his sword at her throat. Struggling to rise to her feet, she felt the goddess press her sword into her hand.
"For one hundred beats of your heart, Gabrielle, you can hurt a god. After that..." Aphrodite shrugged her shoulders. "Xena may be dead. Only because your heart is pure, because you have never taken the life of another, can I do this for you."
Gabrielle didnít have to be told anything more. She sprinted towards the fallen warrior and the god standing over her. Not slowing as she came near, she flicked Aresís blade from his grasp as she ran past the pair. Digging her feet into the ground, she spun to face the enraged god. She glanced at his hand, dripping blood where her sword had caught his fingers. The look of surprise on his face was quickly overshadowed by his anger. Ares couldnít think how the Bard had managed to actually hurt him, but she was going to pay for it. Spitting the words at her, he drew his uninjured hand back to strike. "Interfering little fool. Hades is going to love you."
Throwing his hand towards the smaller woman standing in front of him, a solid blue-red blast of lightning came shooting from his fingertips, hitting Gabrielle squarely in the center of her chest. Her hair stood out like a red-blonde halo around her head, her teeth clenched, her muscles locked. Xena kicked out with one foot, connecting with the hand pointed at her lover but it was too late. The damage had been done. The lightning disappeared, the rumbles of its calling already fading in the distance. Gabrielle slumped to the ground in a lifeless heap.
Xena was shocked beyond speech, beyond thought. Stumbling and crawling towards Gabrielle, she gathered her lifeless body into her arms, weeping in complete and abject despair. The bolt had burned through the smaller womanís armour and leather, leaving a huge, bloody hole in the middle of her chest. Not even Xena could deny what was right in front of her eyes. The Bard looked so peaceful lying in Xenaís arms, as though she would wake at any moment, a smile on her face as she saw who was over her. Xena leaned over and placed a last gentle kiss on the lifeless lips of her lover, still warm and soft. Her mind was a blank. Her heart and soul were cold and empty. She couldnít lose her Bard now, not when they had come so far together, not when she still had so much to learn from the gentle woman. Behind her, she could hear the laughter of Ares filling the clearing at the top of the hill. Listening to that laughter, she felt something. A cold rage ignited and burned through her, filling every space where her love for Gabrielle used to be.
Laying the dead woman gently back on the ground, Xena picked up Gabrielleís sword and climbed slowly to her feet. She had absolutely nothing to lose now. The one thing she held most dear had been taken from her and she was going to make sure Ares paid for that.
Xena turned towards the laughing god. Ares saw someone who reminded him, in every way, of a leather and armour clad icicle. Her face was hard, her blue eyes were ice cold. She was a woman with nothing more to lose, and Ares could see it clearly. Even for a god, the sight chilled him, and he stopped laughing.
The desolate warrior took one step, two, Aphrodite suddenly appearing beside her. The Goddess placed one gentle hand on Xenaís shoulder stopping her. "What are you seeking, warrior?" she asked, quietly.
"My revenge. That animal has just killed Gabrielle, and I want revenge, even if it means my going to Tartarus myself. I will have it, and you canít stop me." Xena spat at the goddess, tears streaming down her face. "Now get out of my way."
The goddessís hand never moved from Xenaís shoulder. "Once I said to get your lover back you would have to do the hardest thing you have ever had to do." Aphrodite looked at the warrior kindly. "This is it, Xena. The hardest thing for you to do will be to put that revenge aside and leave this place. I canít even guarantee Gabrielleís return. That will be up to Hades and Zeus, but you must put aside your revenge and leave. Now."
Staring at the goddess in disbelief, Xena didnít know what to do with herself. Aphrodite couldnít even say if Gabrielle would return or not. When the goddess had told her about getting her Bard back before, she had sounded so sure. Now she wasnít. Xena was grinding her teeth. Why do the gods have to play with mortals like this? She couldnít even trust the Goddess of Love not to lie. More than anything, Xena wanted to wipe the smug expression from Aresís face and make him feel some of the pain she was going through.
Snarling viciously at Ares and Aphrodite, Xena hurled the sword to the ground. "Any gods come near me and I will have more than just revenge on my mind." She snapped and stalked stiff-legged towards Argo. Mounting quickly, she dug her heels into the mareís ribs and galloped from the hill deep into the forest below.
"Hey, thanks for getting me off the hook there, Aphrodite." Ares said smoothly.
Looking the God of War squarely in the eye, she answered very quietly but with a voice loaded with venom. "Youíre not off any hooks, Ares. Zeus is on his way."
Ares blanched visibly. Now there was going to be all Hades to pay. Even he knew not to annoy Zeus, and when he heard the whole story, the great god was going to be more than just annoyed. Glancing at the dead body of Gabrielle lying some distance from him, he wondered if Xena was really worth it.
Xena rode through the forest, not seeing, not caring, not knowing anything. She had simply pointed Argo in a direction and given the mare her head. On through the day and far, far into the night she rode. The mare stopped of her own accord at some point during the night to eat and drink, but Xena never left the saddle. She had become an ice cold statue of pain and grief. If anyone had come upon her, their lives would have probably been forfeit. Xena would have snapped their necks with her bare hands.
Finally at dawn, she tumbled from the saddle out of simple exhaustion and overwhelming grief. Staying where she had fallen in the forest litter, Xena curled into a tight ball and cried the tears she had been holding in since the day before. The creatures of the surrounding woodlands stayed well away from the wailing, crying woman. She kept her face buried deeply in the soft ground, screaming her pain into the earth below. If she survived, the anger and rage would come later, but for now there was only pain and grief. Only the tearing at her heart existed as she tried to deal with losing the most important person in her life...and failed.
Candlemarks later, her eyes swollen and gritty, her muscles sore from clenching them and her throat raw from screaming, she finally dozed off. Argo moved closer to stand over and guard her tired and pain-wracked owner. The quiet of the surrounding forest somehow had a calming effect on the warrior, even in her sleep.
When she finally woke again, the tears started afresh. Everything around her reminded her of the gentle Bard she loved so dearly. Remembered mornings of waking together, the scent of the trees around her so like Gabrielleís perfume, the way the breeze brushed against her skin like a loverís touch, everything. Xena wanted to get away from this place. She was yet to realise, regardless of where she was, there would be reminders of the Bard, and she would have to learn to cope with them eventually. Not even bothering to brush the leaves from her leathers, she re-mounted and, as she had done before, pointed the mare in a direction and let her find her own way at her own pace. If she could have gotten her mind to think, the tall warrior would probably have taken her own life. Yet, there was still a small part of her soul, holding her to this plane...waiting.
It was well into the late afternoon when Argo stepped out onto the path that she and Gabrielle had been following before. Xena barely noticed, she was so sunk in her despair. She was a mess to look at. Her beautiful dark hair was tangled and filled with the leaves from the ground she had slept on earlier, her leathers were unbrushed and covered in grit and her face was tear-stained, dirt-streaked and unwashed. Her sword had been forgotten back at the hill top, and her chakram was showing the faintest coating of rust from resting in the forest floor as Xena had slept for a few hours.
Riding slowly down the road, Xena simply a passenger on Argo, she reached the point where she had taken so ill that first day. The same illness hit her again, hard, and in her weakened state, she toppled from the saddle. Xena gave up and just lay there, no longer caring about anything. In a way she hoped the illness would kill her or at least send her into unconsciousness. Without Gabrielle to love her, she felt too empty even to find the courage to fight her way back. Without Gabrielle to love in return, the warrior no longer wanted to be part of this world. The pain was simply too much to bear.
The sound of running feet reached her ears, and for the first time in her life, Xena hoped someone would slit her throat because she found she lacked the courage to do it herself.
A waiting soul doesnít lack courage. It is simply patient. It knows what the mind does not.
"Xena! Are you all right?" A familiar and so loved voice penetrated the depths of the warriorís despair. "By the gods, how did you get to be such a mess??"
The tall warrior didnít even open her eyes, sure that she was just dreaming the sound of Gabrielleís voice in her weak and desolate state.
A hand touched Xenaís shoulder, rolling her onto her back. Blue eyes snapped open in complete surprise. Two worried green eyes looked back at her. "Gabrielle?" Xena whispered in disbelief. "No, it canít be you. I saw Ares kill you myself."
Gabrielleís gentle hands began feeling the warriorís forehead for fever and checking for wounds. It was the only way she could explain Xenaís statement. As far as the Bard could tell, she was very much alive and had not seen the God of War for some months. Xena had to be delirious or something.
Xena was delirious all right...deliriously happy. Somehow, whatever had been done in the beginning had been reversed, and her Gabrielle had been returned to her, completely unharmed.
"Maybe we should go back to the campsite where I can have a proper look at you." Gabrielle said as she helped a surprisingly obedient Xena back to her feet, holding onto Argoís reins so the warrior could mount. The Bard doubted the tall woman could have walked any distance at all. How did she get to look so...so worn? And why were her eyes so swollen and red? Had Xena been crying? Over what? This whole day was starting to feel very, very odd.
Seated on a blanket by the side of the fire, Xena leaned back against a log, allowing the tightness in her muscles to slowly fade away. She was clean, and her hair had been washed and lovingly brushed until it shone in the firelight. Gabrielle had carefully checked for wounds or punctures but couldnít find anything other than a few fading bruises garnered from fights in the past weeks. Not understanding the warriorís very strange mood, Gabrielle had set about organising the camp, amazed that Xena didnít give a single piece of advice as she normally did.
Xena was astonished when Gabrielle had walked off to the forest around them and returned a short time later with two dead rabbits in her hand. She quickly realised the warrior part of the Bard, the part Xena had gotten to know in the cave, was still alive and well, to a certain extent, in the woman she loved so much. It was going to be interesting to learn just how much of that warrior still existed inside Gabrielle.
Finally permitting herself to settle, the blonde sat next to Xena, a little taken back when the warriorís arms immediately surrounded her in a bone crushing hug. The Bard was even more amazed when she heard Xena sobbing openly against her shoulder.
Finally the whimpering eased, though Gabrielle could still feel the warriorís tears dripping onto her shoulder through the material of her top. Perhaps she should try to find out what had been happening today. "Xena? What happened after I left camp this morning?" she asked gently.
Not lifting her head, Xena replied. "Please. Gabrielle. Tell me what you did instead." The tall warrior needed to know if the Bard had any memory of the past week or so and her time spent as a warlord under Ares.
The entreaty in the other womanís voice was so loud, it seemed to vibrate through the blonde. She couldnít have said no to Xena at that moment if her life depended on it. "I left camp before dawn because I needed some time to think this morning. I was so angry with you, and I wanted to try to sort myself out." Gabrielle tried not to sound too embarrassed. "I really shouldnít have been angry, I suppose. You just want to take care of me. I realise that now, but sometimes I think you treat me like I am still that simple village girl who followed you in the beginning." A faint edge of defiance had crept into her voice. Gabrielle felt a small smile grow on Xenaís face as it rested against her shoulder. "So, I just walked and walked and walked. I guess I finally snapped out of it around noon, or a bit later. It was then I realised you hadnít caught up with me like you always do and I started to backtrack. When I saw you lying on the road, my heart nearly stopped. I thought you had been hurt in a fight or something." Nudging the other woman a little so she could look into Xenaís eyes. "What happened to you?"
Gabrielle still couldnít get over how ravaged Xenaís face looked or how swollen and red her eyes were. How long had she been crying to look like this? And this strange mood of hers -- the blonde had never seen her in a mood like this before.
Instead of answering Gabrielleís question, Xena began to unlace the front of the Bardís green top. Thinking this was an odd time for the warrior to be wanting to make love, but always willing, the blonde helped her. Xena looked at the center of Gabrielleís chest, and right there in the middle was the fading yellow shadow of some deep bruise. "Where did you get this, Gabrielle?" Xena asked, her voice trembling a little.
The Bard laughed quietly. "You gave me this yourself, remember? A couple of weeks back. We were sparring, and you were trying to teach me some move. I was being a bit slow to catch on, and then you thumped me right in the middle of my chest with your foot. Knocked me flying, if I remember. Took ages for me to get my breath back." Gabrielle was laughing aloud now at the memory of herself sprawled out on the ground, trying to breathe as Xena had worried herself over hurting the younger woman.
"Gabrielle, Iím sorry I refused to see the warrior in you before," Xena said in a sudden change of direction. "You are a warrior, as good as me. Youíre just a different kind of warrior to the ones I have met before, but youíre every bit as good as I am. I promise Iíll never leave you out of a fight again. If you want to fight by my side, Iíd be honoured to have you there."
The blonde had no idea what had brought this on but she blushed a little under the praise, the respect so open in Xenaís voice. "Thank you. Really. Sometimes I wonder if you see it at all. And I would like to fight with you, though I would like to pick my fights. Some are just a little beyond me." The Bard grinned.
"Until today, I didnít see the warrior. I do now," Xena replied, glad the other woman had the wisdom to see her own limitations, something Xena was just learning about herself.
"Are you going to tell me what happened today?" Gabrielle asked again.
"Maybe later." The tall warrior said. The sight of Gabrielleís breasts bare in the firelight was igniting the desire in the woman, and she was finding it hard to ignore. Reaching over, she began to nibble gently on the Bardís ear. "Maybe later." Her hand came up to cup the other womanís breast, Gabrielleís moan of pleasure making Xena tingle all over. The warrior came as close as she ever wanted to losing this, and she didnít want to lose her Bard again.
And Xena never did explain the change in her attitude.