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Foreign Influences
by Oversoul

Standard disclaimers and warnings apply for alt. fanfic
Contains violence

Chapter Three

Raven and Xena found where the spring emptied into the sea near their camp. They entered the stream and slogged through the soggy grass and shallow water until they came to the grotto area. They crawled up the bank near the waterfall and found their way to the shore of the grotto where the soap and cloth for washing sat in bowls on the ground. Raven helped Xena remove her wet boots and then both women quietly plunged into the cold water wearing the rest of their bloody apparel.
Gabrielle was telling Katrina about Troy when the white owl alighted on the rock beside the campfire. Gabrielle was facing the owl as it transformed into the familiar figure.

"What are you doing here?" and then, "Oh, no!"

"It's okay, she's not hurt." Athena took a moment to acknowledge Katrina with a radiant smile. She knelt beside Gabrielle and took the startled bard into her arms.

"Where is she?" Gabrielle was still panicked. 'Not hurt' could also mean 'still alive' somewhere. The bard struggled slightly against the Goddess's embrace.

"In the pool with Raven. Come."

The Goddess drew back from the bard, her hand touching Gabrielle's injured left foot.

"You'll need torches," she said to Katrina. With some reluctance, Katrina looked from Gabrielle to this unusual woman.

Gabrielle nodded to her and Katrina hurried to light two torches in the fire.

"My little bard, with the honey tongue and the red-gold hair," she smiled. "I know you've made your choice."

"There was never any choice. My heart was always hers."

"I know," the goddess stood up and held out her hand. "You can walk now, Gabrielle. A small gift from another admirer of yours. I was just the barer of the gift."

"Who?" the bard queried as she was pulled to her feet.

Athena laughed and shook her head. "I love you, but you ask too many questions sometimes."

Katrina offered them a lighted torch. Athena took it from her, and holding onto the bard's hand, lead her up the hill and down the embankment to the entry point.

"Xena?" Gabrielle cried out as she strained to see across the pool in the weak torchlight.

"I'm here, Gabrielle."

Xena's voice sounded hollow and lifeless.

"Let me help..."

"I don't want you to see me right now!" Xena shouted. Her voice, weakened from exhaustion, strangled the words and she sounded pitiful instead of what she intended.

Gabrielle growled and stamped her foot in frustration.  "DON'T make me come out there, Xena. The two of you... get over here RIGHT NOW!"

After a brief pause, they could hear Xena and Raven swimming towards them. The women were walking in the shallow water by the time the torch light touched them.

"Are either of you hurt?"

"No," Xena answered as she came closer, "but Raven hasn't spoken a word since the fight ended."

The two women came onto the shore. Water drained from their clothing, creating bloody puddles on the stones. Gabrielle had seen Xena bloody before, so this was no surprise, but the blood that wasn't seeping from her armor was still caked into her ears, around her eyes and along her hairline.

"Were you just going to swim in cold water until you turned to ice trying to hide from me?"

"I washed my hair..."

"Take your armor off and kneel down," the bard instructed gently. "You'll both feel better once the blood is off."

Gabrielle knew that Xena always felt self-conscious about being seen by her in this state after a battle, but they had come along way since the beginning. A cleaning ritual had developed between them that Gabrielle had initiated some time ago when Xena had been wounded in combat and was unable to clean the blood from herself. As much as she wanted to comfort Xena during these times, she knew that Xena wouldn't open up to her until she had been cleansed.

Both Raven and Xena did as they were instructed. Gabrielle filled the bowl with water and knelt down beside the naked, shivering warrior. She lathered the cloth and began to clean the caked on blood out of the crevices of the warriors ears, along her nose and the creases of her neck and forehead. Blood was even caked under her breasts and in her navel. Gabrielle worked as fast as she could, her scrubbing creating a pink foam wherever she worked. Xena's flesh was so icy to the touch it alarmed
Gabrielle to know that the warrior was this cold but sat patiently, as always, for her to finish.

Xena felt hollow inside. She was so cold she shivered uncontrollably, but her mind was still numb with disbelief. From where she sat, she watched Raven being cleaned by Katrina as if it were all a dream. She could feel Gabrielle touching her and she felt uncomfortable to have her touch the blood of the dead men... those particular dead men. She could barely hear Gabrielle whispering to her that it would soon be over and they could go to the fire. Exhaustion, both mental and physical, coupled with the cold, started to put Xena to sleep. Her head began to sag towards her chest.

"Go wash your hair again and rinse off." Gabrielle instructed as softly as possible.

While Xena was in the water, Gabrielle took Athena's torch and ran back to camp. She knew she didn't have a lot of time, but she grabbed several blankets, Xena's tunic and Raven's robe. Before she ran off again, she threw two logs onto the fire.

Xena was coming out of the water just as Raven was going in. Gabrielle dumped everything on the ground and handed the torch back to Athena. Her heart broke as she watched the warrior come to her. She could see the weariness on Xena's face and how she carried herself. She knew there would be nightmares over this one.

"Will they be coming after us?" the bard asked as she worked quickly to dry Xena's shivering body.

"They might not find the bodies 'til first light. It gives us some time."

Gabrielle helped Xena slip the tunic on, her hands giving the warrior re-assuring caresses as she helped her dress. The worried bard wrapped a blanket around Xena's shoulders and another she draped from the warriors head, creating a hood for her.

With the business end of it all done, she finally put her arms around Xena, like a mother comforting a child after a nightmare. Gabrielle's one thought was to get the warrior to the warmth of the fire as soon as she could.

Athena handed the torch to Gabrielle.

"You two go back to the fire. I will stay here with your friends and come back with them. Don't worry about Xena's gear... I will bring it with me."

"All right," Gabrielle said as she began to lead Xena away. "And thank you for the 'gift'."
Raven was talking by the time she returned with Katrina and Athena. Never underestimate the power of a goddess, Gabrielle thought. But Raven hadn't just found her voice... she had found her rage and fury. She paced the campsite, the tension driving her to expend more energy that she couldn't afford to waste.

"Do you ever tell your stories in all their gruesome detail, Gabrielle? Or, do you just tell of the glory of the righteous victors?"

Gabrielle was letting Raven rage, hoping she would wear herself out soon. She understood that Raven wasn't angry at her... she was just angry. 'Go ahead, Raven, let it all out', she thought.

At least Xena had stopped shivering and had warmed up enough as they sat at the fire to remove the hood. Gabrielle combed out Xena's hair and continued the soothing strokes with her hands even after she had finished. The bard had wrapped her body around Xena's from behind adding her body heat to the quiet warrior. She didn't know what was wrong exactly, but it had been enough to stun Xena's senses. The way Xena had a hold on Gabrielle's leg was enough to tell her that more than just a fight took place.

Several minutes had passed while Raven raged but Gabrielle still didn't know what had affected either woman so strongly. She was about to ask when Xena finally found her voice.

"What did you do with the girl?"

Athena looked up from the task she had given herself of cleaning Xena's armor while she waited for both women to come out of their private thoughts. A pained expression crossed her eyes and she smiled sadly. She also noticed that Gabrielle was frowning.

"She walks with her mother and sister in the Elysian fields," she said softly.

"Were *they* victims, too?" Raven huffed. The Goddess' silence was her answer.

"These men belong to Ares. They are from the far northeast, and they are gathering strength to become a powerful war machine. I'm afraid that they are going to try for Athens."
"Never mind Athens... what about the women in their camps? These men are raping them to death right now!"

Gabrielle put the pieces together, her eyes widening in horror and she felt Xena flinch, her hand on Gabrielle's leg tightening hard for an instant, hanging on.

"They say madness is a gift, Raven..." she let her voice trail away meaningfully.

"I want to see that bastard," Xena said sullenly, her eyes brightening with anger.

"Tethian?" Gabrielle asked.

"No, Ares."

"Xena? What do you have in mind?"

"I want to know what he's got planned with Tethian. Ares says he's never lied to me... let's see if he won't lie now."

Athena looked up again from what she was doing with Xena's armor. In all the times and all the guises she had taken with Xena and Gabrielle, the direct approach was not often one of her most accomplished. But she enjoyed being with the two of them, and helping them, and she loved the bard so very much. They gave her adventure from her boredom and chores. And now, in all seriousness, she needed them with her to fight her brother, Ares.

"I have yet to confront him, myself, Xena," Athena added. "I must find out what he intends to do about Athens. He can't be in his right mind if he thinks I will allow him to take my city. I fought Poseidon... I'll fight Ares."

Xena looked at the goddess with a new admiration. Athena was talking about the confrontation in the first person. She wasn't trying to trick anyone into fighting this battle for her by guise or guile.

"What did you find out from the prisoner? Their numbers?" Xena was becoming more relaxed the more Gabrielle touched her and she felt less uncomfortable thinking about the deathcamp as long as the reality of the bard's body against hers brought her a sense of security.

Athena looked back to what she had been doing with the armor. "He... expired... before we could talk."

"I didn't hit him that hard," Xena protested in alarm.

"No, but I did," the goddess shrugged with just a little evil in her expression. "He awoke while I was with the girl and he attacked me. It was a fair fight."

"Fair? What would those men ever know of 'fair'? They have no honor." Raven was sputtering at no one in particular as she clenched her fist and smashed it into the palm of her hand. The girl just wanted to hit something*.

"But, why would Ares want Athens? Is he taking issue with you for something?" Xena watched Raven pacing and Athena followed her gaze.

"Ares has no issue with me that I know of other than the usual. I'm afraid this is just Ares being Ares and it has nothing to do with me, but most of all, it has nothing to do with you, Xena."

Raven still paced around in her fury. Xena watched her with calm resignation and knew instinctively that Raven was going to lose it. The warrior knew the signs... knew them well. Xena even noted that Katrina was moving closer to Xena and Gabrielle to get out of the way.

"I can't just sit here!" Raven exploded. She raged up to those beautiful stars that Gabrielle made note of so much earlierin the evening. Argo snorted and jerked against her tether attached to the tree as she swung her rump around to eyeball the source of the anguished scream.

Gabrielle buried her face into the back of Xena's neck, her eyes closed and her arms tightening around the warrior. She didn't see Raven pick up her shorter sword and begin to swing it at imaginary enemies, but she could hear the deadly whoosh.

"There's nothing I can do!" Raven's voice broke with frustrated anger as she began to swing the sword in deadly and meaningful arcs around her body, venting hard against that which she was helpless to change. Her body followed the unruly path of the sword until it became one with the sword and the wild slashing became a dance of sword mingled with body.

Xena turned slightly and kissed the bard's head. "Look, Gabrielle," she whispered calmly.

Gabrielle looked up at Athena at first thinking that Xena was referring to her, but Athena's gaze was still fixed in awe at the sword dancing woman. The bard turned her attentions to Raven and became riveted at the dance of rage. She could see the sword swing in figure eights around her body and Raven would follow the arc of the sword with her legs. First the sword, then the legs, over and over, sometimes shoulder high, sometimes lower. Gabrielle had seen a performer at a festival do this sort of thing once before, but not this well.

With her strength quickly leaving her body, Raven switched to a series of standard sword exercises until she fell to one knee, panting heavily. Both her hands dangled on the ground as she slumped slightly forward until she spun slightly and fell on her rump, her breath still labored by the renewed ache in her arms.

"What is to happen *now*, Kami?" Raven addressed Athena.

Xena raised an eyebrow.

"Firstly, you have to move your camp, and daylight is not far away so I suggest you do it now." Athena spoke to them all, but her eyes bore into Raven near the end.

"And what will you do while we move?" Raven asked haughtily.

She seem to delight in provoking the Goddess with her mocking
tone and flippant attitude.

The death stare Raven was receiving from Athena alarmed Gabrielle and Xena could feel the bard tighten up.

"I will talk with Ares."

"I'm going with you," Xena injected quickly.

"No. You can't" Athena sighed, her anger still very evident.

"And why not?"

The Goddess threw her hands in the air, "Because this is between Ares and me, not Ares and you. This is about god against god, Xena."

"If this were just god against god, Athena, then why are women dying at the hands of these men?" Gabrielle asked pointedly.

There were a few hushed moments while Athena closed her eyes and paused for a very long time. "If you come with me, Warrior Princess, you come as my Captain."

Xena looked to Raven, and then to Katrina, and then back to Athena. "Gabrielle?"

The bard remained silent. Xena turned around to face her and instead of seeing fear or apprehension the warrior saw an expression on Gabrielle's face that she hadn't really ever seen before.

"Xena, you have to. The bigger Ares makes this army, the more women are going to suffer and die as prisoners," Gabrielle's voice quaked slightly as she tried to remain brave. "This growing army will take Athens, and then what? Amphipolis and Poteidaia as they conquer the peninsula? I won't let that happen even if I die trying. My sister..." the bard's voice faltered.

Xena hugged Gabrielle hard and kissed her face a dozen times over. There were no words.
"You need sleep," Gabrielle said to Xena as they trudged westward.

Xena could only glance at Gabrielle and shake her head. The bard was carrying whatever Argo couldn't of the heavy gear and she struggled along under the load with determination. She used her staff to lean on... weariness making her legs feel that much heavier to lift.

"You're the one who's carrying the heavy stuff, including my wet armor."

"I'm not complaining, so don't go worrying about it."

Xena couldn't remember feeling this tired since her warlord days. Even adrenaline wasn't enough to keep the exhaustion of a forced march in check. Her mind wasn't on Tethian and his army, or Ares, and even when she sometimes looked at Gabrielle, she could only see the mad grimace of the girl. That face was still fresh upon her mind, and every thought came back to it.

The first telltale signs of dawn were appearing and birdsong began to dominate the sounds of the forest. They were surrounded by the cacophony of song when the white owl flew down from the western sky and alighted on a branch. It patiently waited for the travelers to pass underneath the branch and head in the direction it was leading.

Raven and Katrina rode on Argo to lessen the number of tracks they would be leaving. The ground was damp and mossy, and they were hoping that it would repair itself before Tethian's men began to look for them. Raven was sleeping in Katrina's arms, her head resting back on her shoulder. Xena glanced back at them as she led Argo and felt a little envious of Raven.

It was nearly full dawn when they came to a small clearing of fallen trees. Several large trunks lay crisscrossed, their absence in the canopy allowing extra light to filter down onto the emerald grasses and moss. A small spring gurgled up slowly where the roots of one of the tree had been anchored into the ground at one time.

"It's not the driest place, but I can't see anything better for miles," Athena explained as she walked into the clearing from the forest. "I can watch over you here."

"There's standing dead wood we can use for a fire," Xena said impatiently as she staked out a private nook amongst the fallen trees for her and Gabrielle to sleep in.

"I'll be back after you have slept and then we see Ares tonight... together."

"If he doesn't show up here first," Gabrielle said wryly as she finally dropped the heavy bag to the ground.

Athena paused in her departure. "If he does, no one speaks for me. Are we clear? Xena?"

Xena nodded reluctantly before Athena walked back into the forest.

Raven and Katrina were down from Argo. Katrina began to sift through the saddle bags for blankets and food while Raven trudged off with her sword to the nearest stand of pine trees. Raven hacked at the smaller branches, cutting boughs for bedding until she could lift her arms no longer.

"I think we can do without a fire until later," Gabrielle yawned as she checked out their little nook for any creatures she didn't want to share her sleeping space with. Despite her dead tired state, Xena smiled at the bard's critter search.

Gabrielle helped Katrina cut more pine branches and the two of them carried the collection to the two sleeping quarters. Raven threw a blanket over the pile Katrina laid out for the two of them and dropped down heavily.

Xena finished up with Argo and approached Raven just as she was doing her nose dive into her bed. Raven watched Xena come closer and when the warrior crouched down near to her, Raven met her eye to eye.

"I have things to tell you, Xena, but have mercy and wait until we sleep."

"Will I feel betrayed when I hear these things?" Xena asked simply. She watched Raven's expression for any sign of a ruse.

"No, my friend... no."

Xena blinked, trying to keep her eyes in focus. She nodded to Raven and stood up. "Sleep well, then." She felt satisfied as she returned to the nook where Gabrielle stood waiting for her. Gabrielle had laid the damp armor over a branch she had balanced between two tree trunks and the boots held the ends of the branch steady. Xena noted the effort made by the bard and smiled her thank you.

"Sleep, Xena." Gabrielle held out her hand to the warrior and waited for a moment until she took it. Slowly, she dropped to her knees on their bed and brought Xena down with her. The warrior remained on her knees still holding the bard's hand, her head bowed slightly so that her gaze was upon their entwined fingers.

"What is it?" Gabrielle asked. She brushed back loose strands of hair from Xena's face and then slid her fingers around to the back of the silent warrior's neck. Gabrielle pulled Xena to her gently until she could kiss her lips. Xena almost pulled away but Gabrielle held her in place. She reached around Xena's waist and pulled her with her as she tumbled backwards to the ground.

"Talk to me," Gabrielle whispered to her. "What happened?"

Xena's sigh covered years of remembering. She let herself be kissed and caressed because it soothed her for the moment, but her memories circled her soul like carrion eaters.

"The girl that died was mad, and she was being raped when we came upon the first camp. I judged these men in Tethian's army to be inhuman, but were they any different than MY army? What went on without my knowledge?"

"What you didn't know..."

"...wasn't my fault? It was every bit my fault just by the Warrior Princess existing," Xena countered bitterly. "I wonder how much I did know but chose to not know."

Gabrielle let her fingers drift lazily along Xena's arm that was draped across her abdomen. "It's done, Xena. You can't change it. And even so, those men in your army had a choice."

The warrior buried her face into the bard's neck, and in finding comfort there, she kissed along Gabrielle's neck to her ear. "I don't know if I cared what their choices were."

Gabrielle shivered as Xena's breath danced along her neck. At first she was gentle, but then an urgency began to take over her actions.

"I think if you knew, you would have reacted the same way you reacted tonight," the bard sighed. As tired as she was, she couldn't help but respond to Xena.

"I would have killed them." Xena had her eyes squeezed tightly shut as she lost herself in the bard's body. Her lips kissed down Gabrielle's chest while her hand pushed the top up until the bard's breasts were exposed. Her mouth covered a nipple and she lost herself in the sensations it caused in her. With her hand free, she slid it down between Gabrielle's thighs, finding her way through the under garments until she held Gabrielle in the palm of her hand. The sheer power of the sensations released a frenzy deep inside and she began to react to it by trying to
consume every part of the bard.

"Xena, look at me," Gabrielle said softly at first. She waited for a heartbeat, but Xena didn't seem to have heard her. She watched the warrior's face, the eyes shut tightly to hold out the world.

"Xena, please look at me," she pleaded, again, but Xena's only focus was on what she was doing. Gabrielle held the warrior's head in her hands and tried to get her attention, but Xena's response was to move the hand to the bard's side and pin it there to stop her interfering.

Finally, Gabrielle stopped her protests and sighed. "Is this the battlelust you talked about?" she asked flatly.

The tone in the bard's voice caught Xena's attention, and it was a direct hit to the brain. Xena caught her breath and looked into Gabrielle's eyes. Shock hit her hard when she saw the distance in the bard's green eyes. She let go of Gabrielle's hand and began to back away from her, afraid of herself and what she had done.

Gabrielle quickly gripped Xena by the wrist, holding her in place. But Xena struggled against being held as tears blinded her and she yanked her arm away and broke the bard's grip. Gabrielle's nails scraped Xena's wrist and she knew the scratches would be bloody.

"Oh, Xena, I'm sorry!" she cried out as she tried to reclaim Xena's wrist to look at the damage.

"YOU'RE sorry???"

Xena turned and sat with her back to the bard. Gabrielle sat up beside the warrior. Xena hid her tears, shaking her head and looking in the direction of the deep woods as Gabrielle tenderly inspected her wrist.

"Just welts... no permanent damage," she commented as she turned Xena's wrist over and raised it to her lips. She felt Xena flinch slightly and then the fight went out of her. Gabrielle pulled her close until Xena's head slumped over onto her shoulder.

"I never meant for that to ever happen, Gabrielle," the warrior sighed. She closed her eyes and snuggled her head into the bard's shoulder. A tear slipped from her cheek and fell onto Gabrielle's chest.

Gabrielle watched the single tear slid down her skin until it met the bunched up material of her top, staining it a darker green. With one hand she began to loosen the lacing so that she could adjust the top back into place.

"I... didn't mind *why*, Xena... I just wanted you to *look* at ME and I wanted you to know it was ME you were touching... you know?"

Xena sat up slowly and turned the bard's face to meet her gaze. Her hand held Gabrielle's cheek, the soft skin feeling warm against her fingertips.

"You were all I could think of all the way back to camp. I needed to see your face and remember making love with you just to get past what I had seen in the camp. You were the strength that kept me going."

A warm smile began in the bard's eyes. "I love you, Xena. There isn't anything I wouldn't do for you or any place I would refuse to go with you. When Athena came into our camp, and for a moment, I thought you were hurt... or dead... all I could think was 'how can I go on without her?'."

Xena laughed slightly. "So, this really does work both ways, doesn't it?"

"I thought I already told you that yesterday? I'm sure I did." Gabrielle grinned broadly and then leaned into Xena, her mouth pulling those soft, sucking kisses from Xena's lips that made the warrior feel senseless, Gabrielle got to her knees and pressed her body against the warrior's.

Xena buried her face against the loosened material of the bard's top and pushed it aside with her cheek. She felt Gabrielle undoing the laces until the top came apart and she could kiss the warmth between the bard's breasts. Gabrielle leaned back slightly and watched the warrior's mouth circle her nipple and then gently kiss and suck it. She felt the nipple grow hard against Xena's tongue, felt the pulling sensation all the way to her legs. She slipped one arm around Xena's neck and stroked her face with her fingertips.

"Here," Gabrielle whispered as she guided the warrior's mouth to her other breast, holding her back just a little until Xena's lips were just barely out of reach but her tongue wasn't. Xena flicked her tongue out and touched the nipple ever so slightly. Her arms were around the bard's waist and she could feel Gabrielle flinch with each flick of her tongue. The trembling bard closed her eyes and let her head fall back as she finally pressed herself against the warrior's anxious lips.

Xena devoured Gabrielle, the bard guiding her head with her hands. Soft whimpers escaped from them both. She knew where the bard was most sensitive, but Gabrielle controlled her and guided her lips where she wanted them to go. When she tried kissing down to her abdomen, Gabrielle pulled her back up. She pulled away from Xena, and with a moan still forming deep in her throat, she assaulted the warrior's senses again with those kisses.

"Take this off." Gabrielle impatiently began tugging on the tunic Xena was wearing. She sat back on her legs as Xena got to her knees and began to pull the tunic up over her head. When she was naked, she tossed the tunic to the side and looked quizzically at Gabrielle. The bard simply admired the warrior... her eyes heavy with desire. But when Xena reached for her to remove her skirt, she gently sat forward and pushed the
warrior back.

"Not this time, warrior-mine," Gabrielle said huskily as she continued to come forward, walking on her knees until Xena had no choice but to go back until she was sitting with her legs stretched out in front of her. Gabrielle straddled Xena's legs and took her face in her hands.

"Look at me," Gabrielle whispered deep in her throat.

"I am."

Xena looked up into the eyes that held her heart captive.   All that she could hear was the pounding of her own heartbeat as she connected with the green eyes of her lover.

"Where are you?"

Xena continued to be captivated by the intensity in Gabrielle's eyes. The question seemed strange for a moment, but the deeper she looked into Gabrielle's eyes, the more she knew exactly what the question meant.

"With you. I'm with you... I'm making love with you."

"Good answer," Gabrielle lightly kissed Xena's cheeks, along her jaw, and lips. "Please... remember that I love you back... and I just need to know that *you* know it's me you're making love with ...especially if it comes from battlelust." Gabrielle blushed slightly from her admission and tried to cover it up by kissing Xena's neck.

Xena pulled back slightly from the kisses, arched an eyebrow and let a smile play at her lips. "You didn't mind?"

The bard smiled wickedly, "well, umm, it was different.. it just bothered me that you weren't letting me be part of it."

"You knew it would happen someday, didn't you?" Xena smiled with astonishment. She tried pulling Gabrielle to her, but the bard pulled back.

"You've always excited me, Xena... from the first time I saw you I felt that excitement."

"Gabrielle..." Xena teased the bard.

The bard blushed and grinned, her eyes darting to and fro under the scrutiny of Xena's teasing look. It took a few moments for her to feel comfortable, but when she did, the heat between them drew her in again. She got to her knees again, her hands encircling Xena's face.

"We're both dead tired, and I'm staving, and we might all be dead before the next sunrise... and all I can think about is you..." Gabrielle kissed Xena softly at first, her tongue tasting and exploring. She could feel Xena's hands unlacing her skirt, loosening it. And when she felt the warrior's hands slide from her hips to her abdomen, the palms caressing from under her breasts down to her belly, the power of the touch consumed her. Gabrielle surrendered herself to the desire that drove her instead of weakening her.

Gabrielle kissed Xena harder, taking her with her into her rise of desire. She felt Xena following her willingly, responding helplessly to her. She shrugged off her top and let it slide to the blanket before she reclaimed Xena's flesh with her lips.

The warrior felt lost to Gabrielle's aggression, and it was no use trying to fight it. She was too tired to put up a struggle and she closed her eyes and let her head fall back, feeling Gabrielle's mouth at her neck. She heard soft moans and came back long enough to realize it was she that was moaning. All Xena could do was to put her arms around the bard and hold on.

Gabrielle cradled Xena's head and leaned forward until the warrior fell back onto the blanket. A wafting of pine scent rose up around them as Gabrielle pushed Xena into the blanket that covered the branches, her hands stroking strongly and quickly along the warrior's shoulder, her chest and then resting on her breasts. With her palms she pushed down firmly, massaging Xena's soft breasts and watching the rise it got from her. She gazed down at the exhausted warrior and saw the half-lidded blue eyes inviting her to do whatever she desired.

    "Do it, Gabrielle." Xena's voice was barely a whisper. "Do what you always wanted."

    The bard hesitated for just a breath and then leaned over the warrior. She felt her breasts glide across Xena's as she slid her body full length with the warrior's.

    "I waited all my life for you..." Gabrielle groaned against Xena's neck. She bit into the flesh and held it firmly between her teeth, sucking on it for a moment and feeling the warmth of the warrior with her tongue. Xena rolled her head to the side and struggled for her own breath. The bard closed her eyes and drew in a deep, satisfied breath before she could release her hold. Along Xena's shoulder and down her arm she bit and suckled, leaving small indents from her teeth.

    "Gabrielle?" Xena whispered softly, her hand coming up to rest against the back of the bard's head. The heat coming from Gabrielle's body laying on top of her enveloped her. She lost her awareness of where they were and the memory of the night just past. She only knew of the passion of Gabrielle.

    With trembling hands the bard caressed Xena's chest and down her arm until she covered the hand that rested on the back of her head. She turned her head and captured Xena's wrist in her mouth, sucking in and kissing the hard muscles all the way down to the crook of her arm. She heard Xena whisper her name and she returned to the lips that called to her, stunning the warrior's senses once again.

    " you," she cried softly, "love you."

    Gabrielle slid her body down until her face rested against the swell of the warrior's breast. She nestled her cheek into the soft flesh, feeling the erect nipple pressing and rolling against her face. Her hand came up to cup the other breast that was just inches from her lips. Again the warrior called her name and she rose up, her back arching, taking the bard with her. Gabrielle grasped and kissed the soft swell she held in her hand and then, opening her mouth wide, sucking, consuming hungrily and trying to stay with Xena as she moaned and writhed beneath her.

    Xena called her name over and over, and with it, Gabrielle felt her own desire and power overflow. She slid her hand down between their bodies until she felt the heat coming from just below the dark curls. Her fingers parted the folds and found the hard knot buried in the slickness. Xena threw her head back, her mouth open as she struggled for every breath. Gabrielle watched her face and saw the surrender in the warrior. She smiled slightly as she continued to stroke with her fingers and watch
Xena's face. For so long she wanted to bring Xena to this... the melting away of the warrior's cool reserve, hearing her call her name and wanting... no... needing to be taken by her.

    The bard licked and kissed her way down Xena's abdomen until she was kneeling between her opened thighs, her fingers continuing to stroke the ever hardening knot. Her eyes never stopped watching her lover's every move. She changed the movement of her fingers and watched the results that it brought out of the warrior. Xena raised her knees and pushed up with her feet, raising her hips up to Gabrielle.

    Not yet, you're enjoying this too much to end it now, the bard mused. Gabrielle kissed Xena's knee and nibbled her way down the inside of her thigh. Her teeth clamped around the muscled flesh of the thigh and she suckled until she felt Xena's hands on her head trying to guide her. Gabrielle released her hold and quickly moved her questing mouth to the opposite thigh, her open mouth sucking the flesh into her mouth as she moved up and down the inside of Xena's leg. Her hair trailed along the flexing muscles and created a mixture of near pain and tickling as Gabrielle slowed her pace and placed soft, wet kisses down to where Xena was trying to guide her. And when Xena relaxed a little thinking that Gabrielle was going to give her release, the bard slipped her fingers lower and entered the warrior. Xena's hips shot up and she crossed her arms over her face to muffle her cries. Gabrielle moved her fingers deep into the warrior, feeling up into Xena's inner velvety folds as the warrior bit down on her forearm to keep from crying out, but it was no use. She couldn't get enough air and she dropped her arms beside her head and looked down into Gabrielle's eyes.

    Gabrielle slid her fingers in and out of the warrior, slowly at first and then with more force. She was fascinated by the effect she was causing in her beloved warrior and she couldn't help but continue the sweet torment. Xena's legs shook with the strain of rising up to meet Gabrielle's thrusts. The bard met Xena's gaze until she saw the beginning of pain in the pale blue eyes, and then she crouched lower and brought her mouth down onto the warrior.

    The now familiar taste of the warrior rocked her senses, and she became lost in the slick folds that slid against her lips. She felt hands at her head and wrist, making demands. Xena pulled Gabrielle's hand away from inside her and then opened herself for her lover.

    "Please... Gabrielle..." Xena pleaded, her voice as anguished as her blue eyes. Gabrielle had never seen the warrior this vulnerable, ever, and her heart realized Xena's need of her. She stretched herself out on the blanket between Xena's legs. Gabrielle nestled her face between the open folds, her tongue swirling the bud around in the slickness. She knew what Xena expected, and how she expected it, but that was yesterday.
One look into the warrior's face told Gabrielle that Xena was way past the usual, and she had taken her there. Gabrielle smiled inwardly as she covered the aching bud with her mouth and began to suck on it intensely right from the start.

    Xena's body went rigid and stayed that way for several moments until she had to draw breath. She wanted to grind but fought against it, and then mercifully she felt the rise of her orgasm under the bard's hard sucking mouth. Her legs dropped down to the blanket along side the bard's body and stretched hard until her toes pointed and her back arched. Higher and higher the rise of her orgasm took her and she couldn't hold back the anguished scream that won its way out into the early morning of the forest. Somewhere in the distance a squirrel answered her back, scolding her for breaking the peace of the morning.

    Xena dug her toes gently into the bard's side. Gabrielle knew this was Xena's way of saying 'enough' but she couldn't help squeezing out that last little bit of orgasm from the heaving warrior. Xena groaned weakly and tried the toe thing one last time. At last Gabrielle released her and it didn't surprise Xena that the bard was laughing. And the squirrel had come closer and chattered angrily again which only sent Gabrielle into wild giggles as she rolled to her side and used Xena's thigh as a pillow.

    "Gabrielle, please..."

    The tone of Xena's voice quieted the hysterical bard. She rolled onto her stomach again and rested her chin in the dark curls as she waited for Xena to recover. Gabrielle reached a hand to Xena's and comforted the embarrassed warrior.

    Gabrielle sat up and crawled up beside Xena. She looked into the warrior's embarrassed face and smiled. "Xena, I think it was very... very... sweet that I made you scream."

    Xena rolled onto her side facing Gabrielle. Her eyes were closing and she was fighting to stay awake.

    Gabrielle wiped the sweat from Xena's forehead and kissed her softly. She pulled Xena against her, cradling her and kissing her shoulder. The warrior brought a heavy arm up and softly traced the bard's cheek with a single finger. She was unable to move anything else.

    "Sleep, Xena," Gabrielle whispered.



    She pulled off her skirt and then drew a blanket over the both of them. She lifted Xena's arm over top of her and snuggled into the warrior's body. The peaceful sleeping face of her heart's desire melted her entirely and she could feel tears welling up in her. It seemed so long ago that she had seen this tough, dangerous warrior in her village, and the day she left to follow her, she knew in her heart that she wanted her. All those times she fought to keep herself from touching the aloof and hardened exterior of this woman to get to the passion inside was worth it now. The love was always there, and the desire, but the trust was learned and earned.
    "I know you can't hear me... but thank you for trusting me," she whispered through her tears. "Thank you for letting me in all the way. I told you it worked both ways."

    Xena shifted her legs in her sleep and nudged Gabrielle's pubic bone. The bard caught her breath a little as she felt the throbbing of her own flesh, and she realized that her body was still responding to the warrior. She moved her hand from Xena's hip to her own wet flesh and delved into herself with her fingers. Moments later she found a release that would have to do for now, but she had a feeling that Xena would more than make up for it later. Gabrielle's last thoughts before she joined Xena in slumber were of forever afternoons laying in tall grass with her warrior.

    Argo began her snorting in the late afternoon. She protested her boredom and hunger to her owner who hadn't stirred for most of the day now. Her ears swiveled as she looked around to assess if her snorting and stomping had gotten her anywhere. Instead it was Katrina who staggered from her bed and untethered the impatient horse. Once she was free, she headed for the small spring and some leisurely feeding on the grasses and mosses of the clearing.

    Katrina sprinted across the cool mossy ground back to her warm bed. Raven was laying on her stomach with her arms bent up and her hands beside her head. Katrina thought about it a moment and sprinted to where the saddlebags were draped over a tree. She rummaged around until she found the earthen pot that held a pungent ointment and returned to Raven. 'This is going to hurt today' she thought, but she knew it had to be done.

    "Mmm, what?" Raven asked groggily as Katrina awoke her with kisses to her bare shoulders and arms. Katrina waved the clay pot in front of Raven's one open eye. "Now?"

    Katrina removed the cork stopper from the clay pot and dipped two fingers inside to scoop out the brownish-green ointment. She put the pot down and then rubbed the smelly mess into the palms and fingers of her hands.

    "I hate the smell of that stuff. Can't you make something just as good that doesn't smell like rotten cabbage?"

    Katrina placed an understanding but apologetic kiss upon Raven's temple and then moved herself so that she was kneeling at Raven's head. She ran her slick hands down Raven's upper arms and across her shoulders massaging in the ripe smelly mess. She worked at Ravens larger muscles with her thumbs until the knots were released and the medication was well rubbed into the skin.

    Raven lifted her head and gazed up at her lover. "I think we should talk, Katrina... before we meet the Goddess."

    Katrina brushed her long black hair off her face with the back of her hand. She sat down and facing Raven who now had her upper body propped up on her elbows.

    "Xena is well skilled... she's incredible... and yet I think you and I can make a real difference in this campaign against Tethian's army." Raven spoke in hushed tones as her eyes searched the surrounding area for any sign of the white owl.

    Katrina nodded her agreement and lean in close as Raven continued to speak in whispers.

    Argo passed by the nook where Xena and Gabrielle slept. She sensed this prone position from her owner as being abnormal and her trained response was to stand protectively over her fallen rider. Unfortunately, she had just taken in her fill from the ground spring and water was still sprinkling from her lips when she tried cramming her body into the private nook to stand guard.

    Gabrielle took the first of the drippings from the trained warhorse. The cold water splashed down onto her face and shoulders until Argo had positioned herself protectively over the sleeping warrior.

    "Xena!" Gabrielle shot out from under the covers, stark naked, and backed hard into the fallen tree. She knew where her staff had been set at the ready and she now held it in a defensive position in Argo's general direction. Her eyes were wild and her hair was in mad disarray as she tried to catch her breath and get her bearings on the situation. She had, she hoped, set her face in a threatening grimace.

    Xena accepted the loving shower from Argo as she reached up a hand and touched the horse's nose affectionately. She looked to where Gabrielle had 'escaped' to and had to look twice to make sure she was seeing what she was seeing.

    "Gabrielle... you're gonna scare my horse."

    Gabrielle looked down at herself for a moment and then let the staff drop slightly. Her heart was still pounding hard in her chest, adding to her daze.

    "Right... we don't want to scare Argo... do we..."

    "That's okay, girl, she just doesn't understand showers... she's more of a bath person." Xena sat up and pushed Argo's head toward the exit of the nook and Argo took her cue and moved on.

    Xena looked at Gabrielle again and chuckled. "Gabrielle, put the staff away... now you're scaring ME."

    "Right... think I'll make a trip to the bushes," she said absently. She still held the staff in front of her as she began to follow the horse.


    "What?!" the bard responded with a little impatience. She really had to go but she turned around anyways to see what Xena wanted this time. One of their blankets hit her in the face and came to rest draped over her staff.


    "Are you okay?"

    "Fine. Just fine." The bard dropped the staff and wrapped the blanket around herself. "We're being pursued by an army, and I get spooked from a dead sleep. Guess who I was expecting?"

    "All right, I'm sorry I laughed," Xena said seriously enough.

    Gabrielle looked at her for a moment, not believing a word.

    "Humph!" she snorted. She spun around and continued her trip to the bushes.

    Xena wrapped a blanket around herself and headed for the bushes as well. Gabrielle was *not* a morning person... and now this. Xena couldn't help but chuckle again as she recalled Gabrielle's disheveled hair and the wild look on her face. She was howling by the time she made it into the privacy of the forest.

    Xena returned to the nook carrying apologetic offerings of food. It wasn't much to look at... just some dried meat and fruit, but besides the remainder of the cold stew, this was all the quick food they had left.

    Gabrielle was sitting cross-legged on the bed. She had her arms above her shoulders as she worked at getting the knots out from her hair with the wooden comb.

    "Why don't you let me help," the warrior offered. She held the food out as trade for the comb. Gabrielle handed her the comb and took the food without looking at Xena and began to silently eat.

    The warrior sighed and knelt behind Gabrielle. "Still angry?"

    "No," Gabrielle sighed, "I've just been a *little* tense lately, you know?"

    Xena began to comb out the tangles using her fingers first.

    "I've noticed," she smiled to herself.

    "I mean, we don't even know what we're up against yet, and this waiting is driving me crazy."

    "I thought that was just *you*." Xena laughed and pulled     Gabrielle's hair off her shoulder, She kissed the bard from her neck to her arm.

    "And this morning... I don't know where *that* came from."

    "I do," Xena teased as she continued to cover the bard's shoulder and neck with kisses.

    "Well, you sounded a little tense yourself, you know."

    Xena straightened up and continued to comb out the bard's hair. She prayed that Gabrielle wouldn't make anything more of it.

    "I mean, when you..."

    "Gabrielle!!! It's embarrassing enough doing it without you reminding me!" Xena hid her face in her hands and groaned.

    It was the bard's turn to chuckle now. "Aren't you going to fix my hair? You helped contribute to the tangles, you know."

    "You're just *never* going to let me forget, are you?"

    "What do *you* think?"

    "I think I'd have a better chance at getting Ares off my back than you."

    "You got that right," Gabrielle said with a great deal of self satisfaction. "Now, if Argo hasn't inhaled all the water from that little spring, I'd like to wash up and wash my clothes."

    Despite Raven's skills at breaking bones, the diminutive warrior did not posses the body weight to break a fair sized branch by jumping on it. Xena didn't think she really wanted the branch broken anyways, but just wanted something to do while she talked. The three of them watched Raven jump on the branch that was angled against a log and go bouncing back up into the air.

    "Did someone else prepare the wood for the fires you built to start the day?" Xena asked wryly.

    "Yes... but I can do this if I can just hit it at the right point." Raven tried again and succeeded this time. She smiled to herself at her little victory.

    "So what does Kami mean?" Xena asked finally.

    "In my country it means 'spirit-god'."

    "And in India?"

    Raven threw the piece of the log she had broken off onto the fire. They had moved their branches and blankets to the main clearing as they awaited the night to come.

    "We know each other... Athena and I... from long ago."

    Gabrielle sat up straight. She had been sitting cross-legged slightly back of Xena's right side. Up until now, she had only been casually interested in the conversation.

    "How do you know her?" Gabrielle asked suspiciously.

    "Gods are gods, Gabrielle. They exist in many forms and in many places. Hasn't any other foreigner told you about *their* gods?"

    The bard felt a little uncomfortable. "I just understood their gods to be myth or legend. Athena is a real breathing person."

    Raven kneeled down in front of Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, whether it's in the Far East, or India, or that country to the west where Greece is establishing settlements... they are all the same gods... the same Kami... the same entity. They just represent themselves a little differently in each place."

    "Why?" the bard asked. Her eyes had lost their suspicion and widened in wonderment.

    "Different cultures have different needs as they grow. But Athena's essence is found widely where *I've* been. She is who I prayed to yesterday on the beach. And Ares... he's doing his work in all the places I've been, as well."

    "Why was she angry at you?"

    "I'm not sure," Raven shrugged, "understanding gods and why they do what they do *isn't* something I do well. I have a resentment because I feel as though I'm being played with and controlled... by everyone... all my life."

    "Not everyone. Maybe by my brother but never by *me*."

    It was Athena. She appeared from out of the forest dressed in full battle gear and she radiated her magnificence. The Goddess strode to Raven who rose to meet her.

    "I've always been there whenever you needed *me*, little warrior. For your sister... your revenge... strength from love..."

    Raven averted her eyes. "Why were you there at all?"

    Athena smiled. "Because you called me. But... when you mortals no longer need us, you put us away like a soup kettle until you need soup again. You build temples to us in your enthusiasm and then let them go to ruin. We don't like being ignored."

    Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other. When *was* the last time they had been in a temple to Athena? or a Shrine, even?

    "The people of Athens have been loyal... and I *will not* let let them down." Athena eyed Raven up and down haughtily. "Your hurt feelings are less important than what's in store for Athens when that army starts to move down the coast."

    "I figured that," Raven shot back and Athena softened visibly.

    "I said they were 'less important', not that your feelings meant nothing at all, little warrior." The Goddess placed her hand on Raven's shoulder and squeezed it re-assuredly.

    For a moment they stood silently, Raven staring down at the ground, Athena waiting for her to meet her eyes. Before Raven looked up she placed her hand on top of Athena's. When at last she looked into the soft, determined eyes of the Goddess, she had a slight smile on her lips.

    "I re-pledge to you, Kami... this time I trust you. I am a free person, and you need me as much as I am in need of you."

    Athena smiled at Raven and pulled her close to kiss her forehead. "I'm glad, Raven. You've really grown in the last four years. I'm proud of you. And... you really smell... what is *that*?"

    Raven threw her head back and laughed heartily.

    "I was being polite and didn't say, Raven, but you smell like a midden pile," Xena added, her nose wrinkling with distaste.

    "Can you stand more over there," Gabrielle pointed to where Katrina sat. Katrina waved her hands, indicating that she didn't want Raven near her either.

    "It's an ointment for strained muscles. It's been on long enough and I think Katrina can do us all a favor and wash it off me so I can stop gagging, too."

    Athena stood near Gabrielle and Xena while Katrina got a wet cloth and some soap to remove the smell from Raven. As Katrina began to wash, Athena set herself to address her 'council'.

    "So, I trust you all slept well?" she began politely.

    "I slept fitfully except for this really noisy squirrel that woke me up," Raven said innocently as she looked straight at the Goddess.

    Katrina slapped Raven on the back of the head. Gabrielle fell over and muffled her guffaws against the blanket.

    Xena died.
    "There are approximately 1500 men under three separate leaders. They have calvary, archers and the regulars. The three leaders have their troop broken into 400/400/700. Tethian rules the 700, obviously. There appears to be more arriving by ship."

    Xena frowned, "and the women?"

    Athena sighed and dropped her eyes. "I saw 73. Only about 50
can make it out of there if we manage to get to them."

    "We have to get them all, even the sick and weak," Gabrielle asserted.

    "Athens can't afford the troops for an offense as well as defense, Gabrielle..."

    "I know... but I believe I have my own troops, Athena," Gabrielle stood up to make her point. Athena greatly admired the bard's determination and resourcefulness.

    "Would the Amazons join in this?"

    "Take me to them and I'll explain things." Gabrielle's eyes never faltered. "If these men aren't stopped now, the Amazons will eventually have to face them."

    "Then I will take you and you can hold council with them. I will check your status in three days. Xena and I will meet with Ares and then go to Athens. And you..." Athena turned her attention to Raven and Katrina, "you keep an eye in our absence. I will return for you soon. Your talents will serve us all well."

    Xena arose and looked from Athena to Gabrielle. "Excuse me, but could I have a word with you before you go, Princess Gabrielle?"

    There was a slight smile in Xena's eyes. Athena gave them leave and Xena lead the bard by the hand into the forest.

    "What is it, Xena?" Gabrielle asked as they got out of earshot.

    Xena answered by sweeping the bard up in her arms and kissing her face over and over.

    "You're my equal, Gabrielle," the warrior grinned.


    "Think about it, love... you fight well and can hold your own, and you have the Amazon Nation to call on."

    "Xena, it's not like *I'm* leading the army of Athens, like you."

    "Gabrielle... these are YOUR people. I've just been placed as head of someone else's troops."

    The bard pulled back, letting the warrior's words sink in. She *was* more than just Xena's backup in this instance. The thought that she was coming into her own overwhelmed her for a moment and she had to shake it off.

    "This is good, isn't it?"

    Xena smiled inwardly at Gabrielle's unassuming nature. "Be strong, Gabrielle. You are more than capable of doing well. I would rather that you be with me in Athens for now, but..." Gabrielle stopped Xena's word with her fingertips. It began to creep in upon her that they would not be together in just a few short moments from now. A hollow fear began to invade her as she faced the separation.

    Xena held the bard close, swaying and rocking her lovingly.

   "You said you would 'die trying' to fight this army... please don't die on me... out there where I can't touch you or say goodbye. By the gods, is this how it feels for you when I go into battle?"

    Gabrielle held the warrior tighter than she ever had before. This separation was not something she had planned on... ever. She pulled back from Xena, tears on her cheeks and sadness in her eyes.

    "Give me your breast dagger," she said.

    Xena withdrew her dagger and handed it to the bard. Gabrielle cut several long strands of her own hair and then she took the same from Xena.

    "Kneel down," she instructed. Xena dropped to her knees and the bard removed the leather strip that held a braid in place and unwound the hair. She began to plait it again, this time with her own hair intertwined in the dark locks. When she was finished, she pulled Xena to her feet and dropped down in front of her. Silently, the warrior complied, but her tears were never far below the surface.

    "This is so hard, Gabrielle," Xena whispered, her fingers feeling numb as she worked the hair. Gabrielle's arms encircled the warrior's legs and she hugged herself into the warm body she had come to know so well. She snuggled her cheek into the warmth, the tears staining the warrior's leather. Xena finished the plaiting and lifted Gabrielle to her feet.

    "This separation won't be forever, Xena. We'll be together soon, but you'll always be here," Gabrielle cried as she lifted Xena's hand and placed it over her heart. The warrior looked at her and tried to smile but only succeeded a few facial twitches before the tears broke free.

    "I love you, Gabrielle," Xena said through gritted teeth, "I just... love you."

    Xena took Gabrielle's hand and began to walk back to the fire but the bard stayed firmly in place and spun Xena around back to her. She hugged the warrior tightly again, reluctant to let go.

    "This isn't like when you go into battle, Xena. This is worse... much worse."