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I would like to thank all the members of the academy for voting me. No, wrong speech. I would like to thank Ren Pic, RT, SR, JS, LL, ROC and all the other initials in NZ for letting me use Xena and Gabrielle in this story. I hope I have not abused them too badly but I will repair or replace them at my expense if any damage was done.
This story is about two lovers coming to terms with the past, present and future and has some same sex sexual content. Those offended by such things should leave immediatly and not come back.
To the God of Spelling I offer my humblest apologies. The God of Grammer can bite me. (Thanks to my friend Gin for that line.)
I encourage reader response. Give me a chance to convince you this story is a lot better than you thought it was. I can be very convincing. I can be reached at Aleckk1@hotmail.com Come on. You know you want to say something. Go ahead. I can take it.
So, without further ado, on with the show.
|The Fortress||The City||The Journey||Meg's||The Lion's Wall|
BY JIM KUNTZ
Gabrielle was putting the finishing touches on her letter to Ephiny when there was a rap at the door. "I've got it." She said, motioning Xena to stay on the bed where she was sitting crosslegged sharpening her chakram with a whetstone. The bard opened the door and gave a startled gasp of dismay. Before she could catch her breath she was knocked sideways by Xena as the Warrior Princess jammed her body into the doorway in front of the bard, the chakram drawn back ready to strike.
Filus took a step back, wide eyed at the vision of death in front of him. Xena let out a relieved breath and lowered her weapon.
"Filus," She smiled. "I'm glad to..."
Before she could finish a very irritated bard shoved her out of the door and back into the room.
"Filus, get in here right now!" The Queen of the Amazons barked.
The young warrior hesitated, not sure what to make of all this commotion caused by a simple knock at the door. His hesitation ended when Gabrielle grabbed the front of his tunic and pulled him into the room and all the way across to a window where the last rays of the setting sun shone.
"How did this happen Filus?" Gabrielle asked while closely examining in the fading light the Guardsman's blue, swollen right cheek. Filus was suprised how much the Queen's obviously genuine concern touched him. The left side of his face turned up in a grin and he looked at Xena.
"Well, the Warrior Princess..."
At the sound of Xena's involvement Gabrielle shot her a look that would have melted a diamond. Filus saw the expression and stopped talking, unsure what was happening. Xena met the flaming green eyes with the cold blue of her own. She cocked her head to one side and shrugged.
"I told you I was jealous."
Gabrielle's face became a black thundercloud. She took a step toward Xena.
"Tell me you're kidding." She said tightly.
Before she could take another step Filus' hand caught her arm. "Uh, uh," he stammered, afraid lightening was about to strike the room. "The Lion and I had a staff competition." The half grin came back to his face. "It was incredible." In a few moments he reviewed the entire incident for Gabrielle, including a keen tactical analysis of his mistake. Then he opened his mouth wide and pulled back his bruised cheek with one finger. Xena walked over, peeked inside and laughed. Gabrielle went "Ugh! You didn't have to show me that."
Filus closed his mouth and grinned. "I have the tooth in a special place in my room. It'll make a great souvenir."
The bard shook her head. "Of course, a great souvenir."
Filus and Xena looked at each other and laughed.
Filus had come as Theacles choice to carry Gabrielle's dispatches to the Amazon. Choice might be the wrong word. Filus had all but begged for the assignment and the proud father had finally relented. The bard gave the young warrior her scrolls for Ephiny and then a scroll with instructions on how to identify himself at the first Amazon outpost so that he would be admitted rather than used for target practice.
"Okay Filus," Gabrielle said as she escorted him to the door. "Pick up copies of the invitation and trade treaties at the Royal Scribes chamber, they should be ready by now."
"Yes your Majesty." He answered.
"And Filus," The bard put her hands on the Guardsman's shoulders and reached up and kissed his unbruised cheek. "Be careful."
Filus grinned. "I will. Thank you for letting me serve you Queen Gabrielle. I won't let you down."
Xena walked up behind the bard and offered her arm. Filus took it respectfully and shook it gravely. Xena looked him in the eyes.
"Tell your father something for me."She said.
"Tell him that grandchildren are sometimes girls and that they love to hear of their fathers too."
Filus blushed. "Excuse me?"
Xena smiled. "Just tell him. He'll understand. Take care of yourself young man."
Filus turned and took a few steps down the hall then turned suddenly back. He came to attention and bowed formally.
"Be assured my children will know all about the great Lion of Amphipolis. I will never forget her. May Athena always watch over you both."
Filus spun on his heel and disappeared down the corridor. Gabrielle slipped her hand into Xena's and squeezed. The Warrior Princess watched with impassive warrior eyes till Filus was gone and then she forced the pain down. Down into the dark place with all the other pain.
After Gabrielle closed the door she looked at Xena. "Did you have to hit him so hard?" she asked.
"Yes." Xena said simply.
The bard gave a sharp snort of disgust. "You and your one word answers. I want to understand Xena. Why did you have to hit him so hard?"
"Okay Gabrielle." Xena answered. "I did it because he earned it. Filus is a warrior. He gave me his best shot and I gave him mine. Anything less would have been disrespectful and dishonored us both. He understands that as well as I."
Gabrielle sighed. "Warriors and their code."
"Exactly." Xena smiled.
The bard went over to the writing desk to work on her journal. Xena plopped down on the bed and started to sharpen her chakram again. After a few candle marks of quiet she looked over at the bard.
The bard turned her chair so she could see Xena. "Yes."
Xena swallowed. "Did you really believe I would hurt Filus because I was jealous?"
Gabrielle's eyes dropped to the floor and her body sagged. There was a long unhappy silence until the bard finally looked up.
"I apologize Xena."
"I don't want an apology Gabrielle. I want you to answer my question."
The bard sighed and got up and joined Xena on the bed. She laced her fingers into Xena's and laid the Warrior Princess' hand on her lap.
"I don't know what I thought." Gabrielle began. "We've only been lovers five months now. I know how protective of me you are. I assumed you understood I was flirting with Filus just for the fun of getting a rise out of you but..." the bard turned her head away from Xena.
"But when you saw the bruise on Filus face and heard my name your first thought was that I was so possessive I would hurt anyone you showed an interest in." Xena said in a hoarse whisper.
The Warrior Princess put her other hand over Gabrielle's and struggled for a moment to control her emotions. After a few deep breaths she swallowed the lump out of her throat and turned to the bard.
"If I had owned you five years ago Gabrielle, and that's how I treated my partners then, as property, I would have punished you for flirting with Filus. Maybe even killed you if I was already getting tired of you. And I would have killed Filus just as an example that no one trifled with my property. I didn't know what love was Gabrielle. All I could understand was desire and possession. The satisfying of my will."
Xena pulled the bard's hand up and kissed it tenderly.
"Then I met a person who loves' as naturally as she breathes. Who was a cool stream of water to a person dying of thirst. Gabrielle, everything I know about real love I've learned from you these last four years. And the most important thing you've taught me about love is that you put someone elses happiness above your own. If you found someone who could make you happier than me I would get out of the way my love, because all I want in this world is to see you happy."
Xena could feel Gabrielle's hand shaking in hers and hear her sniffling. She found it distressing that she was causing the bard such emotion. She put her hand up and massaged Gabrielle's neck.
"You know," Xena said quietly, "from that look you were giving me I thought you were going to come over and kick my butt."
Gabrielle turned suddenly to Xena and smiled through wet cheeks and watery eyes.
"The thought crossed my mind." She said.
Xena smiled."You really aren't afraid of me are you?"
Gabrielle looked seriously into Xena's eyes. "No Warlord, I'm not afraid of you. I never have been."
Xena's face clouded with the sudden memory. "Not even when I tried to... to..."
"Kill me?" Gabrielle said. "No, not even then. All I could think of was how I could escape that rope and find a way to kill you. And it seems to me I did a pretty good job of it."
Xena snorted. "Yes, when I went over that cliff I thought you had finished me."
Xena pulled the bard into a tight hug.
"Please don't ever be afraid of me," She whispered into Gabrielle's ear. "It would break my heart if I thought you were afraid."
The bard kissed Xena's neck. "Don't worry , I'll never be afraid."
Xena let go and grinned. "Maybe I should be afraid of you." She said trying to lighten the mood.
Gabrielle stood up.
"No Xena," She replied, looking down at the Warrior Princess, "there's only one person on this earth you will ever be afraid of."
Xena looked up with questioning eyes. Gabrielle let her hand caress a tan cheek.
"Yourself, my love."
The bard returned to the writing desk.
"By the way." She said offhandedly. "We should go to bed early tonight. We have to be at the dedication at dawn tomorrow."
Xena gave Gabrielle a very unhappy look.
"Gabrielle," She whined. "couldn't you have found some..."
The bard held up a hand for silence.
"It was a personal invitation from the King." She said. "What could I do?"
Xena blew out a disgusted burst of air and pulled off her boots. She got a cloth from the washbasin table and started cleaning off the day's dirt from her armour and leathers. It had been a big day and Gabrielle was at the writing desk a long time recording her thoughts. Xena worked diligently getting herself and her equipment ready for the next days ceremony. Finally the bard yawned and stretched. She went over to the bed where the Warrior Princess was polishing the handle of her sword and put her arms around Xena's neck.
"You know," She whispered in Xena's ear. "I was only kidding about the dedication. I told Tyros no. We can leave anytime you want in the morning."
Xena growled, seized the bard's shoulders and threw her onto the bed.
"You are the most infuriating person." Xena hissed. "Sometimes I just can't stand you."
"I know, I know." Gabrielle giggled. "But you hang around anyway. Why is that do you suppose?"
Xena grinned. "Because you have some evil spell on me that's why." And then she launched herself on top of Gabrielle and a wrestling match began that quickly turned into a take no prisoners pillow fight, accompanied by gales of laughter.
The full orange circle of the sun had just cleared the horizon when Xena slid her sword into the scabbard on her back with an elegant 'sheeenk'.
"Ready to go Gabrielle?" She asked.
Xena looked over to see the bard hurridly making the bed.
"By the gods Gabrielle." She said, exasperation on her face. "They have people who do that for a living."
"I know, I know." The bard answered, ignoring the Warrior Princess' look. "But why should the whole world know we're a couple of slobs."
Xena shook her head and sighed in resigned disgust. Gabrielle finished the bed and then reached under it and straightened holding a finely carved white ash fighting staff. Xena arched her eyebrows. The bard threw it over to her and smiled.
"After our meeting the King let me pick one out from his personal armoury."
Xena backed into the center of the room and executed perfectly a long, elaborate practice drill. She ended by bringing the staff down to the floor with a thump and then immediatly throwing it back to the bard.
"Nice balance." She said approvingly.
Gabrielle walked to the middle of the room and repeated Xena's drill exactly, then added a difficult behind the back spin before bringing the staff down with a thump.
"That's what I thought." She said.
Xena narrowed her eyes and the end of her mouth twitched up.
"I thought I was the competitive one?" She said.
Gabrielle grinned. "You are."
Most of Xora was crowded into the central plaza in front of the Temple of Athena. Xena and Gabrielle could hear the high pitched chants of the Priestesses although they were too far away to distinguish the words. They made their way along the inside of the great wall of the city, Xena leading Argo, trying to avoid the crowds as much as possible and leave the city unnoticed. Once a woman washing clothes beside a vegetable stand recognized them and came up and gave them each a wordless hug and smile of thanks. Gabrielle patted the womans arm and smiled back graciously. Xena looked uncomfortable and embarrassed. When the main gate came in view the Warrior Princess sighed audibly in relief. Gabrielle smiled to herself. She knew Xena liked citys better behind her than in front of her. They both started walking faster and were within a few dozen yards of the open gate when suddenly, as if by some hidden signal, the door to the gate guards barracks flew open and the warriors came pouring out and formed two lines at right angles to the gate. A corridor of honor the two friends would have to pass through to leave the city. A small group of women and children, wives and offspring of the guards, appeared from behind the city wall on either side of the gate and crowded into the opening laughing and clapping.
Xena froze and her eyes darted around as if she were searching for the quickest escape route from a three headed hydra. Gabrielle burst out into her most radiant smile and grabbed Xena's elbow.
"If you run I'll hunt you down like a dog, you understand me." The bard said through her smile and she dug her fingernails into the Warrior Princess' flesh.
The sudden shooting pain up her arm brought a grimace to Xena's face that she turned into a grin.
"Shorty, you couldn't catch me with a head start and a map." Xena answered through gritted teeth.
Gabrielle started forward and with a yank brought Xena along with her. Argo brought up the rear. They passed between the lines of soldiers and as they approached the small crowd at the gate the sargeant at arms stepped out in front of them. On either side of him was a child. On the left a little blonde girl of four or five resplendant in her best green dress with a garland of dandilions around her head and a bouquet of flowers almost as big as she in her arms. On the right was a husky, barrel chested lad of six or seven with curly black hair exactly like his father. He clutched something wrapped in a white linen cloth to his chest.
The friends stopped in front of the warrior and he tapped the girl on the head. 'Go on' he motioned with his hand. She looked shyly at the bard and took a few steps forward. Gabrielle sank down onto both knees and stretched her arms out with the most enchanted smile on her face. The girl hesitated a moment and rocked back and forth, her face a mask of concentration. Suddenly she smiled.
"Thank you Queen Gabby, Gabby...". She turned around. "Mommy, what do I say?"
A slightly red faced woman took a step forward and bent down.
"Thank you Queen Gabrielle from the people of Xora." She whispered.
"Yes, yes, you don't have to keep telling me." The girl said, stamping her foot with exasperation. She turned again to the bard and smiled. "Thank you Queen Gabby el from the people of Xorna."
Gabrielle laughed and pulled the child to her. She took the flowers and gave her a long, warm hug.
"Thank you sweetheart. Thank you very, very much."
The bard stood and gently pushed the girl toward her mother. She held the flowers over her head and swept her eyes all around, trying to make eye contact with as many people as she could.
"The Amazon people and their Queen thank all of you for your kindness and consideration. You will never be forgotten."
There was a warm burst of applause and many smiling, nodding heads. When it died down the sargeant tapped his son on the shoulder and motioned him forward. The boy proudly stepped up to Xena and held out his linen wrapped gift.
"My dad... my father respectfully presents this gift as a rememberence of a day long ago when two warriors shared a field and as a token of...of...of esteem for a friend who has done the people of Xora a great service."
The lad grinned happily that he had remembered everything. Xena smiled, gave him a wink and took the gift. The boy scampered back to his fathers side and was rewarded with a rumple of his hair from a proud papa. The Warrior Princess slowly unwrapped the present and found it to be the head piece to a standard. A brass circle with the number three ornatly molded all around it and the letter P in the middle. Xena studied the object for a moment then looked at the sargeant.
"The Third Phalanx of Phillipi." She said so low it was almost a whisper. "You were at Naretha?"
The warrior nodded his head once.
"Eight years ago. Your greatest victory. We had you outnumbered two to one but that all night flanking march, brilliant. Ten thousand men dead before noon. Fortunatly for me I was on the other flank."
Xena's eyes glazed, as if she had withdrawn to some other world and left her body behind.
"We made a fighting retreat till sundown." The sargeant continued, loud enough for the people around him to hear. "As soon as it was dark and you pulled your army back we scattered like frightened rabbits. I cut this head piece off our Phalanx standard and hid it under my armour. It was kind of pathetic really. But I thought maybe I could save some little bit of our pride and honor if I could keep you from capturing it."
There was a tense silence. Gabrielle's face was becoming red and hot with anger. Was this man trying to embarrass Xena. Her grip on her staff got tighter. Xena became aware of the quiet and her gaze shifted to the sargeant.
"You fought bravely." She said weakly.
The soldier laughed. But it was not a harsh or bitter laugh.
"Yes, but you fought bravely and smart. You truly are a wonder. The greatest warrior in Greece. The Lion of Amphipolis. And when you lived only for yourself you were a menace to everyone. But times change, and people change. I've followed your life Warrior Princess, as any soldier worth his salt has. You've done the most difficult thing anyone can do. You've put yourself back into the womb and been born again. It may be a conceit of mine but I believe that the warrior profession, when it's followed by people of honor, defends life. That's what I hope I do here in my little corner of the world. I defend this gate and these people from the thugs and bullies and warlords who would rape and pillage this city if they could. There are many warriors of honor Great Lion. I give you this momento not to remind you of death and destruction, but to remind you of pride and honor and that there are warriors all around who would stand beside the Lion if she needed them. Who have come to trust her word and her honor."
Gabrielle's eyes glistened and she looked at Xena filled with hope. But the expression she saw dashed hope again. Xena's jaw was so tight it seemed a wonder to the bard that she was not breaking off teeth. Finally the Warrior Princess walked over to the sargeant. She held out the head piece.
"This belong's to the brave man who defended it with his life." Xena said quietly. "And to the brave friends that he lost. Not to me."
Garielle could see pain, confusion and disappointment in the man's eyes as he reluctantly reached out and took the head piece from Xena. The bard found it difficult to hide her own disappointment. Xena looked at the confused, questioning faces around her and suddenly reached down and picked up the boy standing by the sargeant. She hugged him so tight it almost squeezed the air out of him and she could feel his heart beating against her chest.
"I ask you to accept this from me if you will." Xena said loud enough for all to hear. "I pledge on the life of the Lion that this boy, and all the boys and girls and people like him, will always have a defender in me. That every day I will try to live up to the standard of honor that I have found here." Xena looked at the sargeant and extended her arm. He took it. "That I will merit the friendship of good people."
"And that I will merit hers." He said in return.
When the friends had cleared the last village outside Xora and the bard could see no one on the road with them she stopped and looked at Xena. Xena walked on a few paces trying to ignore her but finally she stopped and turned around. Green eyes met blue and Xena could see the color rising in Gabrielle's cheeks.
"The sargeant deserved better than that." Gabrielle's voice crackled with controlled anger.
Xena said nothing but the bard could see her neck muscles stand out as the Warrior Princess ground her teeth from tension.
"That good man was offering you his forgiveness,Xena. He wanted to put the past to rest for both of..."
"I don't want to discuss it." Xena snapped, her eyes flashing.
"I don't care Xena. I want to discuss it. We are going to discuss it."
Gabrielle's face got redder and Xena could feel the heat of it on her skin. The Warrior Princess gave a pull on Argo's lead rein and the big warhorse walked up beside her.
Xena sprang into the saddle with a powerful leap. "I said no."
Gabrielle tried to grab Argo's bridle but Xena yanked her head away and dug her heels in the palimino's flanks. The warhorse shot forward in a cloud of dust.
"Xena stop running!" Gabrielle screamed after her and she pounded the end of her staff on the road several times in frustration.
After half a league at a hard gallop Xena pulled Argo up to a walk. She leaned forward and scratched the warhorse in that special spot behind the ears.
"Don't worry girl. Gabrielle won't stay mad at us very long. She has some temper, but she can never hold it. It seems to drain out of her like water through a grate."Xena leaned back. "No, anger and hate just can't find a home in her. Love has taken up all the space."
Xena turned in the saddle to check on the small dot in the distance. So far away she could barely distinguish that it was a person. The Warrior Princess took in a deep breath and let it slowly out.
"No one has ever been this close to me Argo. It's like her heart is inside my chest, beating next to mine."
Xena rubbed the dust of the road out of her eyes and suddenly felt very weary.
"It's stupid, but I feel so fragile with that little woman. Like I'm a delicate pottery that would shatter into a thousand pieces if she dropped me. Is real love supposed to feel like that?"
Xena looked down at Argo.
"You know old friend, I'm having a serious discussion here. I could use some serious advice."
Argo stopped and Xena suddenly heard water splashing down beneath her. The Warrior Princess let out a long laugh.
"Your right Argo. Things do look clearer after some relief." Xena hopped down and visited the bushes in the grove of pines next to the road.
It was past noon when Gabrielle came over a rise and spotted Xena standing in a stream at the bottom of a shallow valley. The road ran down the ridge to the creek then turned parallel to it and followed it till both were out of sight on the horizon. Argo was unsaddled and contentedly grazing in an open meadow next to the stream.When the bard reached the bank Xena turned and smiled that smile that could light up a dark room by itself. She reached into the water and pulled up a rope with half a dozen fat bass attached.
"Best fishing I've seen in a while. They are really running. Camp is set up. If you'll get the fire started we'll have a good lunch."
Gabrielle tried to find the anger she had felt and bring it out but it was no use. It was gone and she knew it. Who had time to spend on anger when there was a good bass lunch to savor and Xena's company to enjoy.
After lunch the two friends laid out their blankets and spent the afternoon relaxing and digesting. They lazily discussed what road they should take to Delphi to visit Meg. They had been on their way to Meg's when the Priest came to them with the Xoran adventure. Xena and Gabrielle were becoming concerned about Joxer. When they broke up late the previous fall Joxer had said he was going to spend the winter with Meg and would find them in the spring. With that strange Joxer homing instinct they had never doubted he would. But now it was early summer and no Joxer. As annoying as he could be at times he was still family. If he was in trouble they wanted to know about it. After a nice nap cleared their minds it was decided to take the long way by the sea. It would add three days to the trip but Xena loved the sights and smells of the ocean and Gabrielle liked the idea of her black eyes disappearing before they reached Meg's. She did not want to show up looking like she had just lost a bar fight.
It was late afternoon when they started out again. Xena did not like making an overnight camp without finding a place off the road where they had cover and could not be seen. They made camp in a nice stand of maples near the fork in the road that divided the short route from the long.
The next day was glorious. The weather was cooler, the sky clear and a beautiful azure. The road to the ocean was lightly traveled, in places only two cart ruts through a gently sloped meadow of wild flowers, which meant there were no clouds of dust to foul the eyes and nose. They ate a light lunch sitting on a log watching herds of sheep being moved across distant hills like clouds floating across a green sky. They bedded down on fresh clean hay in a well kept stable in the last small village before the sea. In the morning Xena chopped a chord of wood and Gabrielle hauled water for the elderly owners of the stable who rewarded them with a huge breakfast of mutton stew, bread, grapes, dates and all the goats milk they could drink.
As they traveled the smell of the sea began to rise in their nostrils. The land had a definite slope downwards that made the walking easy and pleasant. They played word games as they went, something Gabrielle usually won at, much to Xena's secret frustration. She firmly believed that nothing good came of losing. However she was too much of a competitor not to keep trying. Losing was bad, quiting was worse. By lunch they could hear the distant crashing of waves against a rocky shore. Gabrielle could see the pleasure on Xena's face. Just the sound was relaxing for her.After a light lunch of jerky and dates, Gabrielle produced from a saddlebag a big suculent orange she had purchased from a farmer that morning while Xena was busy stacking wood. Oranges were Xena's favorite. The Warrior Princess grinned from ear to ear when the bard threw it to her and she attacked it with enthusiasm. When Xena had finished carefully sucking the juice off each finger the bard passed close by where she was sitting. She reached out and grabbed her hand and pulled Gabrielle down into her lap.
"Thank you." Xena whispered and she lightly rubbed her nose on Gabrielle's.
"Your welcome." The bard responded and she let her tongue caress Xena's lips and enjoy the orange taste and the orange smell on Xena's breath.
The Warrior Princess smiled. "Your the nicest raccoon lady I know."
The bard's nose crinkled. She put her cheek against Xena's and caressed her hair.
"You know Warlord." She whispered. "People all the time come up to me and say, 'that Warrior Princess, she sure seems like a rather humorless person' but you know what I say Xena, I say 'your absolutely right'."
Xena answered the only way she could. She tickled Gabrielle till she cried 'uncle'.
Gabrielle was watching a flock of seagulls glide down into a meadow close to the road to search for insects when Xena cleared her throat.The bard's ears perked up. Xena only cleared her throat that way when she had something serious she wanted to discuss.
"You know, we haven't talked yet about how you got those black eyes." Xena said.
Gabrielle looked at the Warrior Princess and noted the set jaw and serious cast of her face. A little flame of irritation popped up in the back of the bard's mind. She could feel another Warlord lecture coming and something in her said 'not today Xena, not today'.
"No we haven't." Gabrielle answered. "What do you want to know?"
"Just tell me what you remember."
The bard took a deep breath and focused her mind on Valkor's fortress and the hallway leading to his treasury.
"Well, I remember I was doing pretty well with those two guards. I just kept telling them every dirty story I could think of. But I remember being a little worried too because it seemed like you were taking a long time, longer than I expected anyway, and I was starting to wonder if I was going to have to strip and let them have a quickie after all." Gabrielle looked at Xena and smiled but the Lion did not return it. In fact her already stern face seemed to get darker.
"Anyway, "The bard continued. "Suddenly three warriors came around the corner and started down the hallway toward us. The relief I suppose. They all seemed suprised to see me but not particularly alarmed. My first thought was that I could handle it. You know me. The bigger the audience the better I get. But as they got closer the one on the right started staring at me more and more intently. I didn't recognize him but I knew something bad was about to happen so I backed up against the door and got a good grip on my staff. They were about half way down the hall when that guy stopped and pulled his sword. 'That's Gabrielle. Xena's here somewhere' he yelled and the fight was on. I snapped my staff on that one guard and caught him on the side of the head before he even knew what happened. He dropped like a sack of potatoes. Then the rest of us went at it. I think I did pretty well actually." Gabrielle smiled at the memory. "I gave them all they could handle. But they kept pressing me back till I was pinned against the door and couldn't use my staff effectivly and then I saw that fist coming. It's funny. It came at me like it was in slow motion. I knew I had to get out of the way but I just couldn't. Anyway the next thing I clearly remember is throwing up on the landing. I didn't think a person could throw up that much, did you?"
Gabrille grinned uncertainly at Xena but the blue eyes just burned hotter.
"By the gods Gabrielle, haven't I taught you anything after all this time!" Xena spit out, her anger barely under control. "What were you thinking?!"
Gabrielle felt her own anger rising. "I thought I was doing my job. Protecting your back."
"Protecting my back!" Xena's voice was near a roar. "By taking on five heavily armed warriors in a narrow hallway with no room to manuever and nowhere to retreat! That wasn't protecting my back, that was suici..."
The flame in the back of the bard's brain exploded to the front as a full fledged roaring bonfire. She stepped in front of Xena and interrupted her with a finger poked hard into her chest.
"And just what did you expect me to do," Gabrielle said, her voice rising with each word. "jump out of the way and scream 'she's in there boys, get her'. What do you think I am. A coward! Do you think I wouldn't fight a hundred warriors in that hallway or on the bottom of the ocean or the top of Mount Olympus or anywhere else to protect you." The color in Gabrielle's cheeks went from dull red to crimson and she poked Xena again in the chest."We need to get some things straight here Warlord. You seem to think only my life is important. That when things get really dangerous I'm supposed to duck, run, hide, disappear, and leave you to face death alone. Well that's not how partners operate Xena!!" Gabrielle was almost screaming. "I'm not a tag along, or an irritating little blonde or your kid sister. I'm your partner or I'm nothing. Your life is as important to me as mine is to you and if we can't face the danger together then we have no business being together."Her voice cracked a little but she forced herself on, refusing to let the anger escape. "I expect you to fight for my life whatever the odds.If you don't expect the same from me then our partnership is over. I'll head for the Amazon villages alone and you can come visit me when you have the time and we'll reminisce about the old days like a couple of little old ladies. Make up your mind Warlord, I've listened to my last lecture on how to run and hide!"
Xena's eyes were blue flame as she stared into Gabrielle's unflinching emeralds. Her long index finger was a knife as it stabbed into the bard's chest.
"You listen to me littlegirl." The pitch of the Lion's voice was so low it almost rumbled, like thunder. "I'm going to tell you something."
Xena's mouth closed and her jaw began to work but no words came out. The charged silence grew longer and longer.
"I'm listening. What?" Gabrielle said at last to break the tension.
"I don't know." Xena said finally. "I can't think of anything to say."
Gabrielle took a relieved breath as she watched the fire receding from the Lion's eyes. Then suddenly it was back.
"But I don't want to see that smug look you get Gabrielle." Xena snapped. "I hate that smug look."
Gabrielle could not help herself. She smiled. "Okay Xena, just today, just for you, no smug look."
The Warrior Princess stepped suddenly around Gabrielle and stalked off down the road, Argo trailing behind on a lead rein. The bard turned and scrambled to catch up. For a full league they walked along in silence, Xena staring straight ahead taking her longest strides while Gabrielle almost trotted to keep up. Finally the bard's hand accidently touched Xena's and immediatly the Warrior Princess siezed it and brought it to her lips and held it there a long time. Then she pressed the small delicate fingers an even longer time to her cheek. When Xena at last brought her hand down Gabrielle brought the Lion's hand to her lips and then pressed it against her cheek. And then in silence they walked on, hand in hand, till they made camp on a bluff overlooking the sea and sat together to watch a magnificient orange and blue and green sunset as Apollo disappeared with the sun beneath the watery horizon.
In the morning Xena slipped out of camp at first light and climbed down the bluff to the narrow rocky beach below. The sun was well above the horizon when Gabrielle finally forced her eyes open and grumpily greeted the new day.
"Why does morning always have to be so bright?" She mumbled.
She sat up and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. A cool ocean breeze came scampering up the bluff and blew around the bard's bare shoulders. She shivered and pulled her blanket up around her. She looked around for Xena hoping for a little sharing of body heat but she was nowhere to be seen.
"Well, I hope you catch a rabbit for breakfast. I don't feel like fish today." She muttered.
She got up with a groan and carefully picked her way with bare feet over the rocks and sticks and brambles outside of camp to a stand of scrubby pines for her morning ritual. When she returned she put on her clothes and pulled on her boots and began collecting wood for a morning fire. When she came close to the edge of the bluff for a couple of promising branches she looked out over and there far down the beach was Xena, down on one knee, picking at something on the rocky shore.
"Xena!" Gabrielle shouted.
The Warrior Princess looked up and waved. Even from this great distance the bard could see the tiny flash of Xena's white teeth in a broad smile. She waved back. Xena stood up and placed something in a pocket on the front of her leather skirt. She started to walk back down the beach and Gabrielle turned away to continue collecting wood but something caused her to turn back. She put down her load and deposited herself on a convenient rock and concentrated on the figure below.
'Xena's never looked more beautiful' Gabrielle thought. Barefoot, without armour or sword. Only her chakram tied at her waist. Her hair flying wild around her head and shoulders in the breeze. As she walked through the calf high surf she sometimes kicked up a spray with her long tan legs. The bard had never seen her look so relaxed and unselfconscious. And from the height and distance Gabrielle realized she had never viewed the Warrior Princess quite this way before. She looked small and vulnerable. For the first time the Great Lion did not look like a lion at all. She looked like a happy, carefree girl playing on a beach on a perfect summers day, without the weight of the past or present or future pressing down on her shoulders. Gabrielle watched Xena's every movement till she reached the bottom of the bluff and began to climb and she imprinted the image deeply in her memory for it connected with an impression that had been forming for a long time in her thoughts. Then she picked up her wood and busied herself starting a fire.
When Xena reached the top and saw the fire she gave the bard an embarrassed grimace.
"I'm sorry," She said. "I got so focused on what I was doing I forgot to catch anything for breakfast."
"That's all right. I wasn't hungry." She lied. "We've got some dates and apples in the saddlebags." She went over to get them. "What were you so focused on.?"
"Well," Xena hesitated and looked a long time at the bard, obviously giving something a great deal of consideration. "I guess I really couldn't hide it from you."
She put her hand in the pocket on the front of her skirt and pulled out a handfull of multicolored seashells of all sizes and designs.
"Ooohh." The bard cooed and she stepped quickly over to examine them.
"I'm going to make you a necklace." Xena said simply. "I want you to have something nice from me next time you dress up as Queen of the Amazons."
The bard looked up and smiled a very excited and flattered smile.
"I didn't know you knew how to make a shell necklace."
Xena smiled back. "I'm a woman..."
"Of many skills, yes I know." Gabrielle interrupted.
Xena shrugged. "Well, I am."
The bard put a hand behind Xena's neck and pulled her head down.
"Well, let's try out this skill shall we." She whispered, and she shared a very long, very passionate kiss with her love.
After breakfast they packed camp and started out. The road, no more than a trail really, followed along the top of the bluff for several leagues, affording a magnificent view of the ocean that both friends greatly appreciated. Then it traversed a steep ridge till it was down to sea level and ran along half a league back from the sea across undulating land covered in scrub brush and green meadows. Finally just after noon they came to a small river emptying into the sea with tall stands of maple and oak growing out of each bank.
"This will be a good spot for lunch." Xena announced. "There will be some good game birds in those trees."
"Sounds like a plan to me."
True to her word Xena soon returned with two fine hens and Gabrielle quickly had them stripped and spitted. It was a full lunch that more than made up for breakfast. In fact they both felt so full they decided to camp for the night and enjoy the afternoon. Xena got out a small needle punch and located the perfect rock and started working on Gabrielle's necklace. The bard found a log by the river and worked on writing down a story she had been rehearsing in her head while listening to the steady gurgle of the river as it passed over a outcropping of rocks.
As the sun set they shared a light dinner of fruit and watched as a thunderstorm formed far out on the ocean, just at the rim of vision. In the deeping darkness they could clearly see the jagged white lines of lightning and the clouds illuminate and dim like giant fireflies over the sea.
"Do you think it's headed this way?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena sniffed the breeze and checked the wind direction on her face.
"No. I think it's moving with the shore. It will stay out to sea."
Gabrille noticed Xena flexing her neck. Working on the necklace had given her one of those painful cricks she was prone to after abusing her body in so many battles.
"Here, I'll get it out." The bard sat down on the log Xena was leaning against. Slowly she massaged the Warrior Princess' neck as Xena sighed in relief and pleasure.
As she worked Gabrielle thought back to that vision of beauty she had witnessed in the morning and she longed to hold and be held. To feel Xena's heart pressed against her own and feel it race in response to her touch. She bent down and ran her tongue up and down Xena's neck. She exhaled a long stream of air into the Warrior Princess' ear and ran her hands up her ribcage and then let them slowly move over her breasts, feeling the full firmness of them through the leather. Xena reached back and put her hand behind the bard's head and pulled her down till she could kiss her cheek and then she pulled it a little farther and ran her tongue around in Gabrielle's alabaster ear.
"Xena stop." The bard giggled.
"Oh, my love making is funny is it." Xena said in mock anger. With an expert tug she flipped the bard over her shoulder and let her land gently in her lap. Then with the speed of an Olympic wrestler she reversed their positions. Gabrielle opened her arms and welcomed the pleasant pressure of Xena's weight as she lowered herself carefully down on top of her.
"You feel so good." She whispered as she wrapped her arms around the Lion.
Xena put her hands on top of Gabrielle's head and they kissed long and deeply. The bard felt the burning animal desire rise in her. The desire only Xena aroused. The desire to touch her and hold her closer even than sex allowed. To crawl inside her body and caress her very soul. Suddenly with a grunt she rolled Xena off and rolled herself on top.
"Be gentle Gabrielle, I bruise easily." Xena said with a smile.
The bard growled and playfully nipped Xena's nose. "Surrender Warlord. There's no escape." She whispered.
"I surrender. I know when I'm beaten." The Warrior Princess answered.
Gabrielle kissed Xena very slowly and very long and poured all the love and passion and desire in her body into Xena until she was breathless with the effort. She pulled back to catch her breath and she moved her head up just enough to stare into the blue windows to Xena's soul. Xena returned the gaze for just a moment and then Gabrielle saw a shadow, a flicker, pass through them and the eyelids suddenly came down like curtains being drawn to keep out the eyes of intruding strangers. The sight of it, feel of it, jolted the bard like an electric shock. Her body involuntarily jerked. She started to rise up but Xena's strong arms pulled her back down. The Lion kissed her with an almost furious passion and squeezed her so tight she could hardly breath. The bard understood what she was being told. That Xena would do anything for her tonight. Please her in any way that she wanted. Gabrielle tried to find her desire again. To let what she had seen pass. She moved down Xena's neck and chest with her kisses. When she came to the breasts Xena let the straps of her leathers fall off her shoulders so Gabrielle could pull down the bra and take a red suculent nipple in her mouth. She nipped it and sucked it and felt it expand in excitement. But the more it grew the more the bard's passion waned. A feeling of despair flooded over her. She laid her head on Xena's chest and her body deflated like the air being forced out of an empty wineskin. Finally she rolled off Xena and pulled her knees up and laid her head on them. The Lion sat up and looked at her with pleading, sorrowful eyes.
"Please come back Gabrielle." Xena said softly, stroking the bard's redblonde hair.
The bard turned her head away from Xena and sighed and then suddenly scrambled to her feet and went over and started laying out their bed rolls. Xena sat in silence, watching. Her mind screamed at her to say something, do something but her body refused to move. She felt paralyzed with grief and shame. She wanted so desperately to speak to this woman that she loved. To communicate the terrible turmoil she felt in her soul and to stop the pain she was causing Gabrielle.
The bard threw some wood on the dying campfire and stared forlornly into the flames, then lay down on her blanket, her back to Xena. The Warrior Princess pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. She felt as though she were being crushed. As if the weight of her life was crushing her. She struggled to breath and she wanted to scream. Scream to Gabrielle for help. But she could never do that. The Lion would die before she cried out. But she knew what she had to do. She had to stop Gabrielle's pain, no matter the cost. Xena's iron will asserted itself and she slowly got up, pulled the straps of her bra up and went over and sat on the blanket next to the bard.
"Can I talk to you?" Xena asked hesitantly.
"I, uh," Xena blew out her air and tried to steady herself. "I know we haven't made love as often as you would like. Just six times in five months."
Xena looked into the bard's emerald eyes and reached out and touched her arm.
"Yes, I remember each precious moment." The Lion said softly. "I know you need, deserve, more from me than that Gabrielle. But over these four years you've broken down all my defenses. You've swam every moat,climbed every wall. I can't," Xena took a sudden gasp of air and let it out. "I can't protect myself from you any more. When we're making love and you look in my eyes I feel... transparent and it frightens me."
Xena looked away and gazed a long time toward the ocean, seeing but not seeing the flashes of the far off storm. The bard put out her hand and covered Xena's.
"Gabrielle," The lion said softly. "I've done things human beings shouldn't do. Gone places they shouldn't go. Felt emotions that..." Xena dropped her head. "I can't hide anymore, and if I saw you turn away, felt you pull back, I'd know I had lost you and that's... that's more than I can..." Xena's voice trailed off into the darkness.
The bard watched Xena with unwavering, concentrated eyes. Searching eyes. Suddenly she sat up an scooted next to the Lion, shoulder to shoulder and laced her fingers with Xena's and pulled her hand into her lap.
"Xena," she began, "I think you believe what you're saying but... it's not true."
Xena's head came up and the bard felt her hand jerk back but Gabrielle refused to release it.
"What still stands between us isn't your fear that I'll see your dark side. It's the same thing that keeps you from accepting the sargeant's offer of forgiveness, that stops you from truly reconciling with your brother Torris, that started you on ten years of wasteful death and misery, that killed Lyceus."
Xena yanked her hand out of Gabrielle's and stood up, her eyes blue flame. But the bard was up as well and met her eyes without wavering.
"Pride Xena, that overbearing pride."
"Gabrielle you don't know what you're talking about." Xena said heatedly.
"Oh, but I do Warlord." Gabrielle answered evenly. "I've spent four years going from Amphipolis to Chin to Britannia and back learning all about the Lion. I probably know more about you than you remember yourself. People love to talk about you Xena and I love to listen."
"So you're nothing but a spy then." Xena's voice betrayed real anger. "A spy sneaking around behind my back."
"Call it what you will Xena. But did you really think I would live for four years with a stranger, patiently waiting for you to give me some little bits and pieces of yourself whenever you felt like it. I can't believe you have that low an opinion of me. I know you don't."
"Gabrielle this discusion is over. I just wanted to..."
"To tell me the lie you've been telling youself," Gabrielle interrupted. "because you love me and hate to see me hurt. But the lies are over Xena. Tonight we tell the truth about what's really going on inside the heart of the freak of nature from Amphipolis."
Xena reacted like she had been punched in the stomach and the bard noticed her fists reflexivly curl up ready to fight.
"Yes," Gabrielle continued. "I know all about the little blue eyed girl whose mother killed her father and who ran the streets and alleys half wild with her two brothers. How everyone called her the freak of nature because she was always bigger and stronger than any girl should be and never showed the slightest interest in learning how to behave the way a proper girl should. How by ten she could beat up boys twice her size and by fourteen she had handed out enough busted teeth and smashed noses that no one dared call her the freak of nature any longer. How by sixteen there wasn't any three men in the village you couldn't whip. And by seventeen you and Torris ran that village didn't you Xena? The village elders didn't make a decision without your approval. How did it feel Warlord, the seventeen year old daughter of a disgraced tavern keeper running her village?"
Xena did not answer but only glared at Gabrielle, the blue flames in her eyes growing hotter.
"Then Cortese came," the bard began again, "his raiders racing through the village in the middle of the night, smashing, killing. The villagers half naked screaming, begging, panic everywhere. Everyone grabbing children and old people and running for the safety of the forest. You'd never seen anything like it and you ran too, didn't you Xena. Barefoot, with nothing on but a shift, you ran for the woods without a fight like everyone else."
"Gabrielle you're going too far!"
"But once you were safe, once the initial shock of it all had worn off what did you feel Xena? Relieved to be alive? Or shame and humiliation? You'd been chased from your own village by a bunch of renegades and thieves. Without a fight. That pride you felt in yourself for coming to dominate the people who had once shunned and tormented you had been stolen in an instant. And you were going to get it back whatever the price weren't you. So you rose up with that martial presence that only you possess and you convinced those untrained, pitifully armed farmers that they had to retake the village or perish. Of course some of the old men came to you and Torris and told you that if you just waited a week Cortese would finish his looting and leave of his own accord. That a blood bath was unneccesary. But you wouldn't hear of it would you Xena. All you could think of was that Cortese was going to pay. And what did Torris think Warlord?"
"I begged him to support me," Xena spat out the words like hot bits of metal. "but he said he wasn't going to die to redeem my pride. He already resented me because I had surpassed him in every way as a fighter and I was taking over leadership of the family and the village. Me, his younger sister. He just turned and walked away."
"And so you attacked, with Lyceus, your worshipful younger brother who followed you around like a puppy and was certain you could do no wrong, at your side. Did you really believe you could win Xena or were you just going to kill as many as you could before they finished you?"
"Does it matter?" Xen said tonelessly.
"No. But you did win didn't you. Even the people who hate you in Amphipolis get a look of awe on their face when they talk of that day. You were everywhere, a wild predatory animal. How many did you kill, twelve, fifteen. It turned into a route, Cortese and his men flying down the road in a panic. But one of them turned an loosed a last arrow."
"Just on reflex I tried to catch it, but I missed." Xena's body was rigid with anguish. "Lyceus was right beside me like always. It went clear through his body, close to the heart. He died in my arms. I was covered with blood and sweat. He looked at me and said he was sorry he was dying. Sorry that he wouldn't live to see the great things the Lion would accomplish. He was only fifteen."
"And so you had a new name. And what was the body count Warlord. I can tell you if you don't remember?"
"Forty one, Gabrielle!!" Xena shouted, her face reddening with rage."I counted them myself. Forty one.!!"
"Forty one dead out of what, one hundred thirty, forty. One third of the men in the village gone in an hour. When the people truly understood the price they had paid they began to hate you didn't they. But you didn't care. You'd had a profound revelation that day. Almost a religious experience. You suddenly understood what you were capable of. The true depths of the gifts you had been given."
"Yes, Gabrielle yes!" Xena shouted. "I knew that I was the Lion. Is that what you want to hear. I am the Lion!!! The whole world trembles when I roar. I could change the balance of power on Olympus itself if I willed it!!"
"By the Gods Xena. No wonder Ares flutters around you like a moth around a flame. Your pride and arrogance is the only one in the world that can match his. He must get the most painful erection in Greece every time he gets within a hundred leagues of you."
"Yes and I satisfy it!! Do you understand Gabrielle?! I satisfy it!! He never left my bed without looking like a whipped puppy and I had another bit of information, guidance, divine intervention that made me more powerful. When I walked away from my army I was ten years from conquering the known world. From Chin to Britannia. I would have marched on Rome and crucified Caesar in the center of his own Coloseum. I would have sat in his private box and watched."
"And I would have built Temples to Ares everywhere I went and with the power and influence that would have given him among the other Gods Ares would have marched on Olympus and displaced Zeus as King of the Gods. It's not arrogance when you can do it Gabrielle and I could still do it!"
"Then why don't you Xena?!" The bard shouted. "What's stopping you?!"
Xena felt her anger getting out of control. The rage that had dominated her for so long was boiling to the surface. She turned away from the bard and walked to get her saddle.
"This discussion is over Gabrielle!!" She roared. "Over.!"
The bard saw where Xena was headed. She bent over and picked up a handful of rocks and started toward Argo whose looming shape could be seen at the edge of the firelight.
"Get out of here Argo!" Gabrielle shouted. "Get out of here!"
Xena picked up her saddle and turned toward the bard. "What are you doing!"
"Go Argo!" The bard threw a rock that hit Argo on the shoulder. The big warhorse started and neighed in suprise. "Go I said!" Gabrielle threw another rock that hit the horse on the flank and Argo, unused to such treatment, bolted and disappeared into the darkness.
Xena dropped the saddle and took a few steps after the retreating animal.
"Argo come back!" She shouted. "Argo!"
The Lion turned on the bard. The hot blue eyes of passion were gone, replaced by the ice cold gaze of focused fury, the eyes of the predator. Xena took a step toward Gabrielle.
"Don't you ever do that again." Xena said slowly, her voice a low rumbling growl.
"You're not running tonight Warlord." Gabrielle answered, advancing, her eyes locked on Xena's. "You're staying till I say we're done."
"No one gives me orders, God or man, no one!!!" As she said it Xena yanked her chakram from her hip and brought her arm up to make a backhanded slash across Gabrielle's throat, as she had done dozens of times to other victims of her rage.
The bard stopped a few feet away, within easy reach, but her eyes were unflinching as they stared into the Lions. Xena froze, overwhelmed by so many out of control emotions she thought her heart might burst.
Gabrielle cocked her head to one side to expose her jugular.
"Do you want my life Xena!" She shouted. "I give it to you. It's yours. Take it!!"
The Lion remained frozen, like a statue. The bard reached out and grabbed Xena's wrist. "Take it!!!" She screamed and she pulled so hard on the Warrior Princess' arm that the razor sharp chakram came within an inch of her throat before Xena could stop it. Genuine terror flashed across the Lion's face. Her other hand shot out and smashed into Gabrielle's chest while she wrenched her wrist violently out of the bard's grasp.
"Gabrielle don't!!" She roared.
The bard stumbled backward several steps and fell. Xena stared at her, stunned. Then suddenly with an incredible burst of energy she flung the chakram and it buried nearly out of sight in the trunk of an oak twenty feet away. Gabrielle scrambled to her feet. She approached the Warrior Princess again.
"What will you do Xena? You can't run, you can't kill. Is the Lion finally at bay? Has she run out of places to hide from me?"
Xena turned her back to Gabrielle.
"Why are you doing this?"
The Lion's voice was low and harsh but the bard heard the pain underneath. It stabbed her like a dagger in the heart. But she knew she had started them down a road they must travel to the end if their life together was to survive. She grabbed Xena's arm and stepped around to face the Lion.
"Don't turn your back on me." Gabrielle snapped. "We're not finished. When Caesar crucified you and M'lila died you didn't react like a betrayed lover. You didn't lay down and die of a broken heart or seek him out for personal revenge. It wasn't your heart that was injured was it?"
Xena only glared at the bard.
"Was it?!" Gabrielle's voice was almost as low and growling as Xena's.
"Of course not!!" The Warrior Princess hissed through clenched teeth. "I didn't give a damn about Caesar except for what he could do for me. He played me Gabrielle. He played me for a fool and humiliated me. No one does that to the Lion!!"
"So," Gabrielle said. "the Lion decided never to be vulnerable to the sheep again. From that day on the predator would prey on the flock and never again be part of it. The sheep existed only to feed her hunger for power and glory. Their lives were meaningless. But after ten years you walked away from it Warlord. Why? Tell me why?"
Xena tried to walk away from Gabrielle but the bard followed step for step like a terrier dogging a stag, nipping at her ankles.
"It's because you couldn't take it any more isn't it? You couldn't take the death and the pain and the aching loneliness any longer." Gabrielle grabbed Xena's arm and stopped her. "But Xena, a lion never feels sympathy for the sheep. Never feels a moments regret for any of its kills. It's incapable of such a thing. Only a sheep can do that. Only the human being Xena, the girl from Amphipolis, could become so sick of the death and destruction she was inflicting on innocent people that she had to stop, no matter the price. She's not a lion after all. Only a woman with the powers of a lion."
Xena yanked her arm out of Gabrielle's hand and walked over to the log by the fire and sat down, her back to the bard. She put her elbows on her knees and her face in her hands. She looked so tired, so very, very tired. Tired beyond words to express. Gabrielle went over and knelt behind Xena and wrapped her arms around her waist and laid her cheek on her bare shoulder.
"I have broken down all your defenses beloved." The bard said in a voice barely above a whisper. "All but that mask of pride. It's not your dark side you're afraid I'll see if I peek behind it, but your weak, vulnerable humanity. Your afraid I love the Lion. The strong, fearless, invincible warrior who can bear any burden, accomplish any mission, protect me from any danger. That if you let me see the weary, grief striken girl that feels so guilty about the wasted years of her life, about the son she bore but never raised, who is so desperate to love and be loved, that if I see her I'll be disappointed, repelled."
Gabrielle sighed deeply and then squeezed Xena tight and pressed her lips against the lions skin. Finally she loosened her grip and laid her cheek again on Xena's shoulder.
"I don't love the lion Xena. I never have. I respect her, am amazed by her, sometimes I even envy her, but I've never loved that part of you. Let me tell you who I love. I love the woman who will stand in a cold stream an extra candlemark just to find my favorite fish. Who when she feels me shiver on a cold night will, without a word, roll over and snuggle and rub my arms and legs till I'm warm and comfortable." The bard chuckled. "The woman who is the most competitive person on earth but still lets me win all the pillow fights. The woman who..." Gabrielle hesitated to try to swallow the lump that suddenly came to her throat. "who believes in me so much that she would do anything to help me grow into a Queen. You can't imagine what it means to me beloved. To have someone like you believe I'm more than just a country girl from Potadia. All the angry lectures from my father to stop reading and thinking and dreaming about a bigger world and to accept my place in life. All the laughing behind my back by the other girls about strange Gabrielle who was always studying maps and scrolls and talking about things nobody else in a small village in the middle of nowhere talked about."
Xena felt a small splash of water drop on her skin and roll down her back.
"When you let me come with you Xena you saved my sanity. I'll always be grateful to you for that. But you did so much more. You've given me the most incredible gift. You made me love my life. I never want to die beloved. I want to live a thousand years and spend them all with you. And I want to give that gift back. I want you to heal Xena. I want you to find peace. I want you to love your life as much as I love mine."
Gabrielle squeezed Xena again as hard as she could and the Warrior Princess felt another tear roll down her back.
"I love you Xena, with all the power that I have to love anyone."
The Lion took the bards hand and pressed it to her lips and then to her cheek and Gabrielle felt wetness against her skin.
"I love you Gabrielle. You are my beginning and my end. My life is yours. Always."
Exhausted by the day the friends fell asleep in each others arms. Well past midnight Gabrielle rolled over and put her arm out for Xena but she was gone. The bard was instantly awake, head up, eyes searching.
"It's alright Gabrielle. I'm here. "Said a soft voice from the darkness.
The bard sat up and rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
"Are you O.K.?" Asked Gabrielle.
"Fine. The storm has passed."
The bard looked out over a calm ocean lit by a brilliant three quarter moon and more stars than can be counted.
"Would you mind talking?" Xena asked quietly. "If you're not too tired."
"Of course not."
Xena was sitting on the ground leaning against the log by the dead campfire. Gabrielle crawled over and sat on the Warrior Princess' extended legs facing her. Xena cupped both hands around the bards face and pulled her forward and gave her a long kiss.
"Mmmmm that was nice." Gabrielle whispered.
"Very." Xena whispered back. Then she let her hands move slowly down Gabrielle's neck and shoulders to her bare arms.
"I've been thinking about this for some time now." Xena spoke very deliberately. "I want to ask you something." The Lion gently squeezed the bards arms. "Gabrielle of Potadia, bard, Queen of the Amazon Nation. Would you do me the greatest honor of my life. Would you go through the Amazon Marriage Ritual with me? Would you be my life's partner, my mate?"
Gabrielle shivered in suprise and in the gloom her eyes locked on Xena's and together they remembered the day Ephiny told them of Amazon Marriage. A few days after the defeat of Krykus.
"Ephiny, come join us."
The blonde Amazon looked over and saw Gabrielle waving at her from the opposite end of the mess hut. She waved back, got her breakfast of oatmeal, hard bread and cup of goats milk from the cooks and sat down with Xena and the bard at one end of a long table. They chatted through the meal, finding out all the interesting things about each other as new friends do. Although in truth Ephiny and Gabrielle did most of the talking. Xena just sat quietly nibbling at her breakfast and listening. Ephiny noticed that the Warrior Princess had picked the one seat in the room that both faced the door and had her back against the wall. The Amazon wondered what it was like to have to live in such a state of constant wariness and distrust.
"Ephiny," Gabrielle said suddenly, pointing with a nod of her head at two women who were sitting down together with their food at another table. "those two Amazon have those beautiful tattoo patterns on their upper arm. I see others in the village with a tatoo on their arm, although not many. And each pattern seems to be different. What is that about?"
Ephiny turned and looked then turned back.
"That's Ty and Ruth. They've gone through the Marriage Ritual together. They're mates for life. Only Amazon who have gone through the Ritual wear a tattoo on their right arm like that. The pattern is the initiation symbol of their partner. If you claim your right of cast Gabrielle you'll have to go through the Amazon Initiation and when you've completed it one of the priestesses in the village temple will create a pattern for you and preserve it with your name and date of initiation in the temple records. If you ever find your true partner and go through the Ritual your pattern will be tattooed on your mates arm and hers on yours. Only initiated Amazon are permitted to go through our Marriage Ritual."
Ephiny stopped a moment to catch her breath and to chuckle to herself. She could see that Gabrielle was paying rapt attention while Xena seemed more interested in what was happening outside the door than in the topic of conversation.
"What is the Ritual?" Asked the bard.
"Well," Ephiny began. "When two Amazon announce in the village temple their intention to mate for life they are seperated and put in the Ritual huts at each end of the village. Then for seven days they are put through the most intense physical and mental pressure we can put on them without causing permanent injury. It is a time of severe trial when they must demonstrate not only to the village but to each other the true depth of their commitment. Either one can stop the Ritual any time simply by saying the word 'enough'. And there is no shame in saying 'enough'. In fact we're all rather relieved that a marriage that was not meant to be was stopped before it was too late."
"Do very many not make it?" Gabrielle asked with a serious expression.
"Oh, about half." Ephiny replied. "Marriage in our society is rare Gabrielle. Most of us are never lucky enough to find our true mate. This village has not had a successfully completed Marriage Ritual in almost two years."
The blonde Amazon smiled.
"Which is probably a good thing, because if the two Amazon survive their time of trial then they are brought together in the temple and waited on hand and foot for three days while they recover in each others arms. At the same time the village prepares for the biggest, most debauched party imaginable. At dawn on the fourth day the new couple emerge from the temple and are carried to a platform erected in the central square and the whole village watches while two priestesses tattoo their arms with each others symbol. And then let me tell you, the party begins. It usually ends two or three days later when the last Amazon passes out from too much wine, too much food and too much whatever."
Ephiny grinned wickedly at Gabrielle and enjoyed watching her blush. Xena looked like she wished she was at the party.
The Amazon finished her last few bites of breakfast and started to get up to leave when the dreamy look in Gabrielle's eyes caused her to suddenly reconsider and sit down.
"I think I should tell you everything about Amazon Marriage." Ephiny said, her eyes locked on Gabrielle, who was a little taken aback by the seriousness she saw there. "First, we believe each person has only one true mate in life, and when that mate dies no one begrudges the survivor finding comfort and companionship again in the arms of another, but someone who bears the mark of a true mate can never remarry."
"Second," Ephiny took a couple of deep breaths. The obvious importance of what she was about to say drew even Xena's attention. "Well, I'll just tell you what happened and then you'll understand how serious a matter this is to us. I've lived as an Amazon since I was brought here as an orphan at age three and it's only happened once in my experience."
Ephiny stopped and took another deep breath and focused herself.
"It happened eight years ago. The summer I was first appointed by Queen Melosa to the Royal Council of Advisors. A mated couple lived in this village. Tara, the village blacksmith and Anabeth, one of the best hunters in the Nation. Being a hunter she was, of course, gone for long periods in the deep forests hunting. That summer a young Amazon, only seventeen, came from another village to apprentice with Tara and learn smithing. Mensa was her name. You didn't have to see Mensa around Tara very long to see she was smitten. Those puppy eyes watching Tara's every move. Eating her evening meals with her instead of with girls her own age. It bacame such a scandal that several people urged me to go to the Queen and have Mensa sent back to her own village. I finally brought it up at a Council meeting but no one seemed very enthusiastic about humiliating Mensa and embarrassing Tara by sending Mensa home. And I didn't press the point because I was new and uncertain and didn't think it was my place to impose my opinion on older and wiser councilors."
Ephiny sighed so deep it sounded as if it had started from the very bottom of her soul.
"About a week after the Council meeting I saw three girls, one of them holding a line of still wriggling fish, come running across the central square to the Queen's hut. They talked to the guards a moment and then went in. I headed that way to see what was happening. Just as I reached the door Queen Melosa came out. 'Ephiny, good.' she said. 'Do you know where that fishing hole is, on the near bank of the river by the falls?' Unfortunatly I did. 'Take my two guards. Find Tara and Mensa and arrest them. Now!!' I could see the anger in the Queen's eyes, but also the horror."
Ephiny looked at Gabrielle and then Xena and they could see the deep distress she felt just talking about that day.
"The three of us headed down the trail to the fishing hole and about half way there we ran into Mensa and Tara going the other way. They both had bits of grass and leaves still in their hair and Mensa's face was flushed. For all I know that may have been her very first time. When they saw us they both froze. I walked up and told them they were under arrest by order of the Queen. Neither of them even asked what the charge was. Mensa just got a wild, frightened deer look in her eye and Tara dropped her head and refused to look at anyone. That blacksmith was one of the strongest Amazons I've ever known. I believe she could have killed all three of us if she had tried but she came along as docile as a lamb."
"They were tried that night in seperate trials. Melosa herself presided as judge and I was one of the jurors. Tara sat at the defendents table with her head down the whole trial while each of the three girls, and there's no blame on them." Ephiny said fiercely. "they were doing exactly as their duty required, described coming up the trail from the fishing hole and hearing gasping noises and when they investigated they saw Tara and Mensa in a grassy clearing back from the trail, naked and obviously in the middle of sex. When they finished testifying the Queen asked Tara if she had anything to say in her defense. Tara just said, 'no, I'm guilty.'"
"Mensa didn't say anything at her trial. She just cried."
"Melosa pronounced them guilty under Amazon law and ordered the sentence carried out at noon the next day. I prayed all night to Artemis that Anabeth would not return from her hunting trip till after, but a few candlemarks before noon she rode into the village with several other hunters and half a dozen pack horses loaded down with deer and elk meat. She was immediatly surrounded by the Queens guards, disarmed, and escorted to the platform set up in front of the stake heaped with wood. The look on her face, gods, I have no words to describe it. No words."
"At noon the prisoners were brought out blindfolded so they could not see each other. They were tied back to back to the stake. Queen Melosa mounted the platform and read out the charge to the assembled village. Through their adulterous act they had violated the sacred ideals that every Amazon lives her life by. They had betrayed their honor and lost their courage. Melosa then went down and wrapped the black cord twice around Mensa's neck. Mensa just kept repeating over and over, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' till the Queen strangled her. She then went around to Tara. Just before she died Tara shouted out, 'Anabeth forgive me. It wasn't your fault!' Anabeth stood on the platform trembling from head to foot but she never shed a tear or said a word."
"When their bodies had been reduced to ash the Chief Priestess of the village ritually took two handfulls of the powder and flung it up in the air to let the wind scatter their remains to the four corners of the earth for they no longer had a home among the Amazon and are fated to ride the winds to nowhere forever. Anabeth was put on her horse and given a packhorse with her personal possesions and escorted to the edge of Amazon land while we all wailed the death song for her. A mated couple is one under Amazon law Gabrielle, and when Tara was executed for a capital offense Anabeth died too and it is an abomination among the Amazon for the dead to walk among the living. She had to leave or die."
"What became of her do you suppose?" The bard asked in a whisper.
Ephiny stared at the wall of the hut for a long time, silent. And for the first and last time Xena and Gabrielle saw a tear fall from the blonde stoics eye.
"Anabeth was a good person and a good friend." She said at last. "In my heart I hope she found a new life, peace, maybe even a little happiness. In my head I know she went deep into the forest to some secret place only she would know, released the horses and fell on her sword." Ephiny looked at Xena and Gabrielle. "It's what I would do."
The bard looked deep into Xena's eyes.
"Are you sure it's what you want?" She asked.
"You'll have to become an Amazon." Gabrielle said.
"I know." Xena smiled. "Do you think they'll have me?"
Gabrielle smiled back. "I have it on good authority from the Queen of the Amazon that they will." She said.
Then Gabrielle's face became thoughtful and serious. She took a very deep breath and let it slowly out. She put her hands behind Xena's neck and leaned forward till her forehead was touching the Lion's.
"Xena of Amphipolis," She whispered. "Warrior Princess, Great Lion, my best friend, yes I will go through the Amazon Marriage Ritual with you. It will be the greatest, proudest achievement of my life to carry your mark on my arm."
Xena smiled that special smile that only Gabrielle was allowed to see.
"I hope one day to be remembered by only one title." She said. "That I am Gabrielle's best friend."
Then they kissed, and the kiss sparked a blaze of passion that burned hot and bright until almost dawn when they were so exhausted that all they could do was lay in each others arms and laugh til they fell into a deep and contented sleep.
The road ran alongside the last river between the friends and Delphi. It had been weeks now since a good rain and the river was well down. A strip of exposed muddy riverbottom could be seen on each side of the flowing water. They were several leagues from the ford when Gabrielle stopped to examine closely two trees on opposite banks whose branches intertwined over the stream. Xena dismounted and stood beside the bard, suspecting the worst.
"What?" She asked suspiciously.
Gabrielle pointed. "See how those branches come together? I bet I can climb out there and across to the other tree and cross this river with ever touching the water."
The Lion shook her head. "Why Gabrielle? Why do you do this? Don't I make you happy?"
The bard ignored her. "I know I can do it. I'll bet you... I'll bet you that if I don't I'll clean your leathers and equipment tonight but if I do you have to wash my clothes and cook dinner."
"Gabrielle you'll just fall in the river and drown and I'll have to cook my own dinner anyway. How do I come out ahead in this deal. Let's just go."
"And I suppose you think you could do it?" The bard said.
Xena looked closely at the trees then shrugged.
"Of course. I am me after all."
The bard looked at the Lion and smiled. "My, my, my, aren't we full of ourselves today. Well I'm going to do it, so is it a bet or not."
"Don't forget to wash out my shift too. And it could use some mending. You pulled it off me so hard last time it got a little rip around the neck."
"Ha, ha, ha." Gabrielle said. Then she mumbled under her breath, "I'll give you a little rip."
Xena struggled to keep a straight face. She waved a hand toward the trees. "Well, let's get this over with. It's still early. I can get in a lot of travelling yet after you drown."
"I want rabbit tonight Xena, not fish, rabbit." Gabrielle replied and she started for the tree on her bank.
She climbed easily up and out over the river. She found a good thick branch from the other tree and after carefully testing her weight she got a good grip and pulled herself up on it. It swayed for a moment and Gabrielle was afraid she had picked the wrong one but then it steadied and she grinned down at Xena who just shrugged her shoulders like it was no big deal. 'Hate to lose don't you girl' Gabrielle smiled to herself. She started slowly edging her way down the branch til she found a place where she could pull herself up to a standing position. She relaxed and began quickly to walk down the branch, anxious to get to the ground so she could do some gloating. Suddenly a small twig she was holding for balance broke off and before she could catch herself she fell face first into the mud of the exposed riverbed.
"Gabrielle!" Xena shouted, getting ready to jump into the river. "Gabrielle!!"
The bard pulled her face out of the mud and waved an arm back at the Warrior Princess that she was alright. Then she rolled up to a sitting position. On the far bank Xena went over to Argo, buried her face in the big horses neck and started laughing so hard she thought she would break something. Gabrielle tried carefully to get some of the mud out of her eyes so she could see when she suddenly heard a loud "Ooowww!!"
The bard scrambled to her feet and desperately rubbed mud from her face. "Xena!"
Finally she had her eyes cleared enough to see and there was the Lion leaning with one hand on Argo and the other rubbing her foot.
"Argo stepped on my foot!" She complained.
Now it was the bards turn to laugh. "Thanks Argo. You're a good friend." She called.
Argo bobbed her head and nickered.
Xena put her foot down and pulled the paliminos head around by the bridle.
"Look you." She said in her ear. "I was planning to find you a big stud in the Amazon Nation this fall and see if we couldn't produce a little Argo in the spring and let you retire to motherhood, but I think that may just be on hold."
Xena let Argo pull her head away but then she pulled it back.
"I love her too, more than anything." Xena whispered. "But you're supposed to be my horse you know and some loyalty would be appreciated."
Then the Lion scratched Argo in that special place for a long time til the horses neck was arched with pleasure.
Gabrielle pulled her clothes off and threw them on the bank. Then she waded out into the river to clean off. Xena undressed and climbed out on the bards tree til she was almost directly above her and dropped down into the water.
"Don't forget my shift." The Lion said as she rubbed water out of her eyes.
"What are you talking about?" Gabrielle replied. "I won the bet."
"Xena, I won the bet." Gabrielle said very slowly like she was explaining something to a child. "I said I would cross the river without touching the water. I did."
"What are you talking about. You fell in the mud." Xena said heatedly.
"Yes but mud is dirt. Not water. I didn't touch the water."
"Gabrielle, you are so full of it. You should be a lawyer, not a bard."
"Nevertheless, I win."
The Lion let loose with a long stream of not so nice words and a loud argument began that suddenly erupted into a water fight that lasted til Xena finally surrendered. Gabrielle grabbed Xena's hand and lay down in the shallow water at the edge of the river pulling the Lion down with her. She began kissing Xena's neck and shoulder.
"I swear Gabrielle." Xena said, turning her head so the bard could have access to her tenderest spots. "Do you think of anything but sex any more?"
"Uh, no. Is that a problem?"
Xena smiled. "Nope."
END OF THE JOURNEY
COMING UP NEXT MEG'S
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