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Part 2 of 2
By Jamie Boughen
Oh dear, disclaimers. Okay, MCA owns Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny and Eponin. (Oh yes, they own Argo too.) I'm not making any money out of writing about them but I can still dream. MCA doesn't own the Amazon Nation. We do. As for the rest of the characters and the story itself, I guess I'll take the blame.
Yes, there are scenes of two women making very consensual love together, in very excruciating detail on at least two occasions. If for some mad reason, you are offended by such scenes, find it illegal in your country or state or are simply under the age of consent, then do delete now because neither I nor the wonderful people who work so hard to put this web site together will take any responsibility if the law (or worse, your mother) gets upset when they find you have this story on your hard-drive.
Many thanks, as always to my hard working team of test reader and editor. I promise to always try to remember the rules of grammar you have worked so hard to thump into this particular writers head. I also have a special thank you for Debbie (of confessionals-R-Us fame) for giving me the idea that became the ending of this story. The idea was wicked, the ending more so.
Comments are always welcomed. Flames are always deleted. J. july 97
Jadaxious was barely a third of the way down the steep path when she knew she was in trouble. The persistent niggling ache in her ankle she had been feeling since she had first started out had ballooned into a clamouring pain, throbbing its way up her leg with every step. She figured the bones, hardly healed from the original break, had probably broken again. It hurt almost as much as when she had broken it battling with the raiders. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she continued her headlong dash down the path.
Chanting under her breath in cadence with her steps, she repeated over and over again, "There is no pain, there is no pain." After a while she noticed there really wasn’t any pain, just a slow burning she found a lot easier to deal with. Picking up her pace a little, she ran flat out towards the village.
Just as she hit the bottom of the path, she spotted a familiar shape standing in the bushes to one side. Xena’s horse. Forcing herself to stop for just a moment, she quickly looked over the animal, seeing it appeared all right for the time being. There was no sign of Xena anyway, but she really didn’t have time to stop and do a proper search. If she could, she might be able to come back later and have another look around. Digging her toes into the soft ground, she took off once again for the village, no longer feeling her rapidly swelling ankle.
As she ran between the first huts on the edge of the village, Jadax realised she must have set some kind of a record getting back down the mountain. It was the fastest trip she could ever remember making in the few seasons she had been there. She headed straight for the palace, waving at the guard at the cave’s opening as she passed, hardly slowing her pace as she went. The guard on the door of the Queen’s chambers must have been warned of Jadaxious’s mission and flung the door open as soon as the running woman came into view. The scout managed to slide to a halt a bare three steps inside the room. "I found them," she gasped. "All the missing warriors, I found them."
Eponin grabbed the tiny warrior before she fell and guided her into a chair. Ephiny herself poured water into a mug and handed it to her. "Get your breath before telling us what happened."
Jadaxious nodded, gulping at the water to cool her parched throat. Her breathing had barely begun to settle when she explained her trip to the mountain top and finding the women, including Gabrielle but not Xena, in a cavern further down. "I can show you the way, if you like. I know where the entrance is."
Eponin was crouched down next to Jadax, carefully looking over the tiny warrior for any signs of distress after her mammoth effort getting back to the palace so quickly. "You’re not going anywhere tonight, Jadax. That ankle is so swollen, I’m surprised your boot hasn’t exploded," she said.
"She’s right, Jadaxious," Ephiny added. "Eponin, get a rescue party organised and wake one of the healers. Tell them to get themselves over here. Someone needs to look at that ankle, now." She put one hand on Jadax’s shoulder to stop her from trying to raise herself from the chair. "Jadax, did you take a fall up there or something?" the Queen asked softly as Eponin left the room to see to Ephiny’s orders.
The concern and worry was so loud in her voice that Jadax was glad to be able to tell the truth. "No, My Queen. I broke it a moon and a half ago fighting raiders on the Western border. The splints were taken off this morning," the scout explained, shyly. She couldn’t stop the heat burning across her face or the tingling feeling in her shoulder, which was rapidly finding its way to other places, where the other woman’s hand rested.
"This morning!" Ephiny gasped. "And you willingly took a two candlemark run to the mountain pass and back. That’s it! You’re not taking one more step anywhere tonight." Ephiny was more angry with herself for not knowing what this particular warrior had been up to lately. She was also feeling a little embarrassed that she could have somehow overlooked such a beautiful woman in her own village.
"I’m all right, really, My Queen," Jadaxious replied quickly, trying to jump to her feet at the same time. The run down the mountain and back to the village finally caught up with her, and as her body weight settled on the swollen ankle, it gave out, forcing a pain-filled cry from her lips. She staggered forward a little and would have fallen if Ephiny’s arms had not caught her.
Swinging the tiny body into her strong arms, Ephiny carried the scout through the room and into her own bed chambers. "You’re sleeping here tonight, and I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer." Even though the Amazon Queen was giving orders and being concerned about one of her warriors, she couldn’t help the speeding of her heart rate or the flush that spread across her face from just holding the tiny, gutsy woman.
Jadax, in the meantime, had been struck completely speechless from being carried by this marvellous woman and the thought of actually sleeping in her bed, regardless of the fact Ephiny wasn’t actually in it.
The warrior carefully lay Jadax on top of the bed covers, turning at the sound of someone entering. "Oh, good. Sorry to wake you so late at night, Healer, but I really want you to see to Jadaxious’s ankle before she has a chance to do any more damage to it tonight," she said to the sleepy-eyed woman near the door. Ephiny smiled down at the small woman and stepped aside to let the healer work, though she never left the room and kept the scout in her line of sight the entire time.
The tired woman lay back and let the healer get on with it, knowing just getting that boot off alone was going to really hurt this time. It did, far worse than when she had first broken it. Eventually, it was over, and Jadaxious was smiling happily because she hadn’t broken the bones again. She had just pushed the ankle further than she should have so soon after having the splints taken off. She barely heard the admonitions from the healer about resting the ankle, aware only of Ephiny’s continuing presence in the room. Every time she looked up from the healer, the Queen would be watching. For some reason Jadax couldn’t explain, Ephiny had the strangest smile on her face, and the injured woman felt it was meant all for her.
Eponin returned to get directions to where the cavern entrance was exactly and was surprised to find Jadaxious now lying on Ephiny’s bed, with the Queen herself carefully stripping the scout’s sweaty and dusty clothing from her. Judging from the completely stunned expression of the small woman’s face, Eponin was even more amazed when she was capable of giving very clear instructions to the entrance and the fact she had come across Xena’s horse at the bottom of the fast path down from the mountain. Shaking her head as she left, Eponin wondered what the gods were doing. Jadax spends moons in the village and Ephiny doesn’t even see her, and within the course of a few candlemarks, Ephiny’s heart has been captured by a tiny, little forest scout who can run like the very wind.
Jadaxious woke for the second time that morning to bright sunshine streaming in through the open shutters. She had woken earlier in the day, just before dawn, feeling as though she had spent the entire night training with the biggest warriors in the village. Every muscle seemed to ache, and she could feel several places where she had stressed them a little too far. Nothing that an hour in the hot springs won’t cure, she thought to herself. It was only then that she noticed there was someone else in the bed with her. Without moving her head, she looked over to see Ephiny lying next to her, the Queen’s own hand wrapped protectively around Jadax’s wrist. Once over the surprise and shock, the small woman couldn’t help feeling equally protective of the tired looking woman next to her. Sometime during the early morning hours, someone, probably Eponin, must have convinced Ephiny to get some rest. Jadax had let herself doze off again watching Ephiny’s face contentedly.
Now that she was awake a second time, she saw immediately that Ephiny was no longer in the bed with her. Through the partially open door, Jadax could hear the sound of several voices talking quietly. She recognised Ephiny’s straight away, quickly followed by Gabrielle’s. The rescue party must have found a way to unblock the entrance to the small cavern and get everyone out. The woman felt something relax inside herself. She hadn’t realised how tense she had become hoping that everyone would be safe.
Though she assumed she wouldn’t be allowed to do a great deal, Jadax still wanted to get up and move around, if only to take some of the kinks out of her body. She was just sitting up as Gabrielle’s head poked around the corner of the door.
"Sorry, didn’t mean to disturb you," the bard apologised quickly.
"You didn’t disturb me. I was already awake," Jadaxious replied. "Do you think they’ll let me up now?" she asked in a very quiet voice. She hated the idea of spending any more time in a bed, even if it was the bed of the Amazon Queen. She’d had quite enough of being stuck flat on her back when she had first broken her ankle.
Gabrielle glanced back over her shoulder and then disappeared from the doorway. Ephiny stepped around the door, closing it behind her. "Hi, sleepy one. How you feeling after last night’s little jog around the mountain?" she asked, seeing that Jadax was not only awake but surprisingly alert as well for someone who had pushed their body so far the night before.
Blushing a little, she answered, "Fine, My Queen. Just a bit stiff."
Ephiny sat down on the side of the bed and gently took Jadax’s hand in her own. Looking deeply into the other woman’s eyes, she said, "I think there are some things we need to talk about, but there just isn’t time right now. I will say this to you, though. From now on, you are never to call me Queen or Majesty or anything else like that. You call me, Ephiny. Plain and simple, Ephiny."
Jadax didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or tremble with fear. The confusion of emotions cascading across her face and through her eyes must have communicated something to Ephiny, who hadn’t taken her eyes off the other woman.
"And in case I haven’t made myself perfectly clear to you," Ephiny said. She slowly leaned forward and kissed the stunned woman sitting in her bed. It took a moment for Jadax to catch up with the sudden change in proceedings but within heartbeats she was returning the kiss. It deepened and grew more passionate as each sought out the tongue of the other, wanting to taste and feel every texture of the other woman’s mouth. Things might have gone a great deal further if someone hadn’t chosen that exact moment to knock on the closed door.
Pulling away reluctantly, Ephiny snarled at the still sealed door. "What? Can’t a woman have a little privacy?" Turning to Jadax she whispered, "Now I know precisely what Gabrielle and Xena meant about royalty never getting a minute to themselves." She started to smile. "Get yourself up and dressed, Jadax. Breakfast was a little late being served this morning, and if you want to beat Gabrielle to any of it, I think now might be a good time to move."
The scout was just swinging her legs over the edge of the bed when Ephiny handed her something. Jadax was still looking at it as the Queen opened the door to the sound of Gabrielle’s giggles. The something she had been handed was an ankle brace made of thin, stiff rawhide, and it could be worn tucked into her boot. The tiny woman smiled to herself. Looks like the Queen is out to take care of me already, she couldn’t help thinking. Oh well, two can play at that.
The small party of women stood at the turn-off of the fast path down the mountain, looking for any obvious signs of where Xena may have gone after leaving her mare. Argo had been brought in by one of the warriors the night before and was now comfortably stabled in her usual stall. Above the protests of Eponin, Ephiny had insisted on going this time, getting her way by citing Queen’s privilege. Deonisia and Evdokia made up the two guards for the Queen as well as both being very competent forest warriors. Eponin decided that if the Queen was going to be galloping through the undergrowth then she had better be there as well to protect her, and Gabrielle simply would not be left behind under any circumstances. The bard may not be as fast or as sure-footed through the treetops as the other warriors, but with everyone else there she would have more than enough help if it was needed.
"How did Jadaxious take being left at the village, Ephiny?" Gabrielle asked as they watched the other three warriors fan out along the edge of the path looking for any prints or signs.
"Complained rather loudly, as I had expected, but I think she was secretly happy to be able to just sit around in the hot springs for a while and ease those aches of hers," Ephiny replied, completely unable to keep the blush from her face. Jadax might be the tiniest warrior Ephiny had seen in her life, but she was also the most beautiful woman she had ever laid her eyes on. The sight of the scout’s naked body as it slid under the water of the hot spring had caused Ephiny to wish she had been sliding in there too. First they had to find Xena, though, and that was more important.
Evdokia trotted over to the two chatting women. "I think we found where Xena crossed over into the forest," she said quickly. "But the undergrowth is something else. Looks like we might have to take to the trees to make any headway."
Gabrielle paled a little at the thought of travelling via the branches, but she was with four other Amazon warriors, and Xena had taken some time to teach her how to do it safely. She just didn’t like having to look down.
Carefully forcing their way through the thorny bush, the women saw there would be no way to travel except through the branches above them. In less than a minute they were all safely standing on various branches and seeing for themselves the same faint track through the brambles that Xena had seen as well. Deonisia and Evdokia decided to trade off on the point and Eponin would bring up the rear. That left Ephiny and Gabrielle in the middle, the best place for them to be in case of an attack. Moving off slowly, taking the bard’s unsureness into account, the party began to follow the trace through the undergrowth.
It was a candlemark or so after nooning when a faint scent on the breeze told Evdokia, on point, that things ahead might be a bit unpleasant. She didn’t realise how unpleasant they were going to be. The five women stood in the branches right on the edge of the clearing when the men had been camped. From where they were standing, all they could see were bodies strewn over the ground but very little else. All five jumped from the trees and Evdokia and Deonisia began to walk through the camp examining bodies as they went. They had looked at just a few when Deonisia turned back towards Gabrielle and the others.
Putting her hands on the bard’s shoulders and turning her away from the campsite, she said quietly, "Don’t look, Gabrielle. It’s...it’s..."
Gabrielle suddenly panicked, thinking they had found Xena’s lifeless body among the others. Wrenching herself away for the warrior next to her, she ran back into the camp and saw for herself why Deonisia had tried to spare her.
The men had not been killed quickly and cleanly, the way Gabrielle had grown used to seeing with Xena. She was even hardened a little towards those kinds of deaths, having seen it so often. Those kind of deaths still saddened her, though they no longer sickened. No, these men had been butchered, mutilated as though some steel-fanged monster had rampaged through the camp annihilating every living thing in its path, continuing to slash and destroy long after the victim was dead. These were not deaths of self-defence or protection. Instead they were the deaths of pure wanton destruction, done for pleasure and the pain it would cause others. They were the deaths of uncontrolled anger, rage and hate.
Gabrielle turned in a slow circle, holding the contents of her stomach in place by sheer force of will. This wasn’t Xena’s way, the bard kept telling herself. Xena always killed cleanly and with honour, not with such brutal disregard for human life, never savaging the corpse after death. Then she spotted something that brought her to her knees, unable to stop herself from being sick. Ephiny had knelt beside the weeping bard, trying to comfort her, thinking that Xena would never be able to do the things she was seeing around her, when she also spotted the same thing Gabrielle had seen. The last few fingerlengths of Xena’s chakram were sticking out of the chest of one brutalised corpse, its arms and legs ferociously hacked off, its head missing.
Ephiny crouched slack-jawed in shock next to the still vomiting bard. All this groundless, unjustifiable, insane devastation really was Xena’s doing.
"How is she?" Ephiny asked as Eponin walked tiredly back into the Queen’s chambers. Jadax had sat quietly with Ephiny as she’d slowly tried to describe the scene at the campsite, trying to purge the brutal images from her own mind. Ephiny knew no amount of talking would ever erase what she had seen, but sharing it with Jadax did ease some of the burden she felt in her heart.
"Asleep now. The healer managed to get the draft into her. Took both of us to do it, but she drank it eventually. She should sleep until morning without any problems but I’ll stay with her just in case," Eponin answered. The dark circles under her eyes were being echoed by everyone who had seen the way those men had been killed. "Healer will stay with her until I get back again." She sank gratefully into a chair.
The little party had taken the faster river trail back to the village, Gabrielle in a state of near catatonic shock from what she had witnessed. It hadn’t even been the deaths so much that were the problem. More, it was the fact that her own lover had somehow broken all boundaries of sane behaviour and committed such acts. Gabrielle couldn’t believe she had missed the warning signs, if there had been any there to start with. It had only been once they were safely back inside the rock walls of the palace that Gabrielle had broken down completely. There had been little any of them could have done, so they call in the healer to drug the bard to sleep. It was the best kind of healing they could offer at that point.
"We need to find her, you know. If she did that to those men, who knows what she is capable of doing to any of us. I shudder to think what might happen if she stumbles onto one of the border parties," Ephiny said quietly. Pulling herself a little straighter, she sighed deeply. "For all we know she may not even be on Amazon land anymore. But that doesn’t take away our responsibility for her, or for Gabrielle." Glancing at the table, Ephiny looked sadly at the chakram one of the guards had managed to pull from the chest of the dismembered man. It had been washed and cleaned before they had handed it to the Queen for safe-keeping.
Ephiny felt a small, slight hand gently touch her arm. Looking over at Jadax, it was clear the little scout had something on her mind. "What is it?" she asked, not sure if she really wanted to hear the answer.
"Xena’s somewhere in the Western border region, isn’t she?" the scout asked.
"As far as we know, right now." Eponin answered, as Ephiny seemed to be struggling with something.
Looking squarely at the Amazon Queen, Jadax said, "No one knows that section of the border the way I do. I can find her, if anyone can."
Tears filled Ephiny eyes. "No, I can’t let you go after her. It’s obvious, even to me, that Xena is insane with rage and hate. She could kill you. And I have waited too long to lose you now," she whispered.
Eponin could hear the agony in the Queen’s voice. She sat quietly, letting the little scout make her own decisions and fight this particular battle. Lover or not, Ephiny could not let her own personal feelings interfere with her duties as Queen. If she did, she should step down now.
"You know I am the best one for this, Ephiny. I’m the fastest runner we have here, and no one can move through the trees the way I do. I can track Xena and she would never know I was there. Once she settles in one place, I can get back here in time for a full party of warriors to fetch her. I promise, I won’t put myself in danger," Jadax said firmly. Gazing deeply into the eyes of the one woman who meant more to her than life itself, she continued, "I’ve waited a long time too. I’m not about to give this up, not even to Hades."
Ephiny smiled so sadly, it almost broke Eponin’s heart to watch. "And even if I said ‘no’, you’d still go anyway, wouldn’t you?" she whispered.
"Yes," Jadax replied. "I feel I owe something to Gabrielle, and finding Xena might go a small way towards repaying that debt."
The Queen didn’t understand what Jadax meant about owing the bard a debt, but she knew she had no other options, not if she wanted to protect her people. "Then go, but please, in the morning. Let’s have just one night together, Jadax," Ephiny said, drawing the smaller woman tenderly into her arms.
Eponin rose to her feet and silently left the room. She wasn’t needed there any more tonight, and she wanted to keep an eye on the bard anyway. She doubted Ephiny and Jadaxious had even noticed her leaving, which is just how it should have been.
Jadax crouched in the branches of the tree near the campsite. Even though she had heard Ephiny describe it the night before, it still didn’t quite prepare her for the reality of the scene below. The scout was used to the smell of bodies left rotting in the sun, the sound of flies buzzing around. But she wasn’t prepared for the sheer level of destruction Xena had wrought upon the men of the camp. She doubted there was a single body down there that had escaped Xena’s mad rage and hatred. Whether she liked it or not, she had to force herself into the camp to try to pick up on Xena’s trail, if there was one to be found, that is.
Two candlemarks later, Jadax sat by the side of the river, letting the sound of its flowing over pebbles and rocks sooth her mind, using the water to wash the taste of bile from her mouth. She had carefully stalked through the campsite trying to believe that one woman could do so much damage and had been left shaking her head, unable to completely comprehend it. It had sickened her to the point of nausea and beyond. But she had found what she was looking for. On the boulders behind her were several bloody footprints, left by Xena as she had jumped through the rocks. Sitting there, Jadax let the heat of the stone beneath her warm through to the cold places inside her soul the camp had left her with.
Glancing about, she noticed several long three-sided boxes that had been placed at various points between the rocks and in the water. Curious, she examined them a little closer. Each box had a series of steps inside where gravel and dirt from the river was collecting. Brushing her fingers through some of the rubble on one of the lower steps, she caught the flash of something bright and yellowish at the bottom. Digging it out with her fingers, she saw it was a tiny gold nugget. There were several more on the bottom of the step.
Now she understood why the men had taken the chance to camp inside the borders of Amazon land. They had been hunting for gold. Greed can make men do some of the silliest things, like taking on the Amazon Nation, she thought. If a border patrol party or guard had spotted them, several dozen warriors would have arrived and either forced them back to their own side of the border or simply killed them outright. However, the Amazons would have been a lot more merciful about it and made sure the deaths were clean.
They probably hadn’t been spotted, partially because Jadaxious herself had been laid up in the village with a broken ankle and this particular area was one of her patrol zones. But where were they coming in? If they had tried a direct approach over the border, one of the other scouts would have seen them for sure. There had been at least two dozen men in the camp. Hard to hide that many crossing over into the hunting grounds. Glancing back over her shoulder, Jadax thought about the river itself. It flowed along the bottom of the ravine; and then it hit her. The men were coming in through the ravine, but to do that with any long-term success they had to get rid of some if not all the guards on the pass, something they came very close to doing. But why not just kill them outright, she wondered. There were still pieces missing in the puzzle, but Jadaxious was glad to have found this much. When she got back to the village, she would make a point of telling Ephiny about it. For now, she had another mission, and that was to find Xena.
Gabrielle woke in the dim room, still feeling foggy from the draft the healer and Eponin had forced her to drink the night before. She saw the shutters had been closed against the bright morning sunlight but figured it to be around mid-morning. The faint creaking of a chair drew her attention to someone sitting at the foot of the bed, her feet up on another chair, half-sleep. For a moment, Gabrielle thought it was Xena watching over her as she had done so many times in the past. Looking closer, she soon saw it was not Xena at all, and the slow tears started to flow again. Whoever it was sitting there must have seen the slight movement Gabrielle had made as she woke. She quickly rose and came to rest again beside the weeping bard.
"How you feeling, Gabrielle?" Eponin asked quietly, hoping the woman would simply doze off again.
"Pretty muddle-headed but all right, I suppose," Gabrielle answered, after thinking the question through slowly. "Where’s Xena?" she asked. Some of the horror of the day before had faded for the bard, mainly because they had taken her from the camp as soon as she could stand again so she hadn’t seen quite as much as the others in the party. The faith she had in Xena’s love was tearing at Eponin’s heart, but there was nothing she or anyone else could do until they knew were Xena had taken herself.
"We don’t know yet," the other woman replied honestly. There wasn’t any way of hiding Xena’s absence, and it wouldn’t do the bard any good if they tried.
Gabrielle started struggling to sit up, and Eponin quickly pushed her back against the pillows. "Please, Eponin. I have to go and find her. She’s out there somewhere and she’s all alone. I have to find her. Please, let me up. Please," the bard begged, more tears following the first.
"Lie still, Gabrielle," Eponin said. "Half the village is out looking for her right now." This was almost a lie. Most of the village had been warned to keep their eyes open for anything that might have given Xena’s presence away, but all had been told to stay well away from her because she wasn’t safe to be near. The only person who was really searching at all was Jadaxious, and that was ripping Ephiny to shreds with worry.
"But they don’t know her like I do. How would they even know where to start looking?" Gabrielle demanded. She was starting to get angry now, and it was burning away the last of the muzziness from the sleeping draft.
"Gabrielle, we have our best forest scout out on the Western border looking for her. There just isn’t anyone better than Jadaxious," Eponin explain, trying to calm the bard.
"But she’s angry, Eponin. Too angry for Jadax to get anywhere near her. Xena might kill her if she is spotted," Gabrielle replied. Far from being calmed, she was growing more distraught.
"And you think she wouldn’t kill you too?" the other woman questioned. There, that should stop her in her tracks, Eponin thought.
Gabrielle thought about it for a full minute before answering. "No, Eponin. I don’t think she would kill me, no matter how angry she is." The bard’s faith and trust in the tall warrior rang true in her voice. As far as the bard knew, Xena would never deliberately do anything to hurt her, no matter how angry she was.
"Gabrielle, Xena’s not just angry. She has fallen over the edge into insanity," a voice from the doorway said sadly.
Both Gabrielle and Eponin turned towards the voice to see a worried looking Ephiny standing there. "Think about it, Gabrielle. Have you ever seen her mutilate a corpse, dismember it?" she asked. Ephiny knew she was being cruel but she had to get Gabrielle to see sense, and going after Xena at that moment in time wasn’t sensible. "Xena would kill you as brutally and as viciously as she killed those men in the clearing. She is completely insane. What she did were not the actions of a sane woman, and your love for her wouldn’t be any kind of protection for you in her current state of mind. What drove her over the edge is anyone’s guess, but I am hoping that she either finds her own way back or that we can help her do it. But right now, she is the most dangerous thing in the Amazon Nation. And Gabrielle, I know you don’t want to hear this, but I have to tell you. If it comes down to it, we will kill her, if only to protect everyone else."
Gabrielle shook her head, trying not to believe the words Ephiny had spoken, but there was no way around the truth. Turning slightly towards Eponin, the bard simply allowed herself to cry out her pain and anguish, Eponin’s arms wrapped securely about her shaking and grieving body.
Ephiny walked slowly back to her own rooms, her own tears of sorrow and grief coursing openly down her face. She hated herself for having to put the gentle bard through that, but she wanted Gabrielle to be prepared, as much as one could be for the loss of a soul-mate, if they were forced to kill Xena.
Jadax watched silently from her treetop hideaway. It had taken her the best part of two days to find where Xena had holed up for the moment. All along the way, the tall warrior had left clear signs of her passing. It was obvious the anger and rage were still flowing through Xena as strongly as before. The sword never left her hand and she was constantly slashing at trees and saplings as she moved from place to place. The trail had been a meandering affair along the Western border. But for some reason, as soon as the warrior had reached the border itself, she turned back into Amazon land again. Following the trail Xena had left behind, Jadaxious could see she had done this several times over the past two days. It was like there was something holding her to the hunting grounds, though the scout couldn’t see what it was. Though she couldn’t be sure, it seemed as though the anger and rage alternated between being directed at everything around the warrior and then being directed at herself. The scout was having trouble understanding why this swing kept going on but for now, she was happy to know she hadn’t been spotted. Xena appeared to be too tied up with the emotions warring within her to notice much of what was happening in the forest overhead.
Glancing down, Jadaxious could see Xena was still sitting on the ground, stabbing her sword repeatedly into the earth between her splayed legs, muttering incoherently. Perhaps she was starting to tire, the scout thought. From following the trail, it didn’t appear as though Xena had slept or eaten at all over the past couple of days since she left the campsite and the scene of destruction there. In every way, Xena looked the very picture of ugly, angry madness. She was filthy and covered with blood from head to toe, her leathers scratched and scuffed, the armour showing the first signs of rust, her hair tangled and filled with twigs and leaf litter. Xena was constantly snarling to herself and everything around her. On the few occasions Jadaxious had seen a glimpse of her face, the rage and hatred was so obvious that it had chilled the little woman’s soul. If the scout had met someone like this in the dark of the forest, she would have bolted for her life.
A sudden movement caught her eye as Xena rose ungracefully to her feet and started walking off again. Tracking the warrior’s path with her eyes, Jadaxious waited a few heartbeats before moving herself. The last thing she wanted to do at the moment was give herself away.
The scout followed behind Xena for several candlemarks and though the path she was taking was almost as meandering as before, it was soon clear exactly where Xena was headed. For some unknown reason, the tall warrior was heading, more or less, straight for the village proper. Sticking to her trail for another two candlemarks, Jadax was sure Xena was going to make a try for the village. Whatever was there must be pulling at her like a magnet. Then the woman in the treetops realised what, or who, was at the village that could have such a strong attraction to the dark-haired woman below. Gabrielle.
Xena may not have known where Gabrielle had been taken after her kidnap, but something in her soul pulled her to the village like a moth to a flame. Jadax stayed far enough back not to be seen or heard. She was well aware of Xena’s uncanny hearing and knew she had to be as silent as possible if she wanted to get herself back to Ephiny alive.
Making a wide but fast circle around the woman below, Jadax got ahead of her. Staying in the trees as much as she could, she made the quickest trip back to the village she could possibly manage.
It was well after dark by the time Jadaxious arrived back at the village. As she approached the Queen’s quarters, the guard on the door quickly redirected her to Gabrielle’s rooms. Ephiny and Eponin had been keeping a constant vigil over the bard from the moment she had opened her eyes from her drugged sleep. Poking her head quietly around the door, Jadax saw the bard was still awake on the bed but staring despondently at the ceiling overhead. Ephiny and Eponin sat together at the table talking softly, glancing over at Gabrielle from time to time. The endless, anxious waiting was having an un-nerving effect on all the women of the village, but it showed most strongly with Gabrielle and Ephiny.
"Hi, Ephiny. Evening Eponin," Jadaxious said as she entered the room, heading straight for the open arms of the Amazon Queen.
"Jadax, you’re all right," Ephiny answered, the relief of seeing the small scout making her a little shaky. She had been certain she was sending Jadax to her death when the woman had argued she was the only one who could find and follow Xena safely.
Nestling into the loving arms of Ephiny, Jadax continued, "All safe and home in one piece. Xena is headed this way, Ephiny. Should be here around dawn tomorrow if she keeps wandering the way she has been for the past few days."
Gabrielle had climbed slowly off the bed and now stood near the other three women, a questioning look on her face. "How is she, Jadax?" she asked, hesitant.
The scout peered into the face of the bard, seeing her pale skin and red-rimmed eyes from crying, her anguish, pain and sorrow etched into every line and plane of her face. Yet somewhere under all the pain Gabrielle was feeling ran a powerful, courageous and determined streak wider than any river Jadax had ever seen. Gabrielle wanted the truth, and the scout saw she was strong enough to take it, unvarnished as it was. "Not good, Gabrielle. However badly she might look on the outside, judging from what I have seen, she is even worse on the inside. Watching her, I could see she was still at the bottom of whatever mental canyon she has fallen into. I’m not sure Xena can ever find her way out of it again," Jadax replied sadly.
Gabrielle dropped her head for a moment to cry yet a few more tears for the woman she loved. The others gave her that moment of privacy before starting to speak again.
"Eponin. Start evacuating the nursing mothers, girls and old women from the village. Send them up to the caves. I’ll assign my own guard to them. Then get every able-bodied warrior we have assembled so we can organise a defence along the edge of the village," Ephiny said efficiently. Even with all the warriors, mounting a defence against someone like Xena, now powered with that much madness and rage, was going to be difficult. The tall woman could easily wipe out every warrior there was and still manage to destroy the village.
"No. Please. Wait," the bard said quietly.
"What is it, Gabrielle?" Ephiny asked, her mind centred on the tactics she could use against Xena.
"Let me be the one to do it," the blonde replied, her voice breaking.
"Do what?" she asked, now confused.
Eponin moved to stand beside Gabrielle and supported the distraught bard with one arm. "Let her be the one to kill Xena. That is what you are planning to do, isn’t it?" the warrior questioned.
Ephiny rocked back on her heels a little. It was exactly what she had been planning, unconsciously, because she just couldn’t see a way of containing the mad woman without a lot of people getting hurt in the process.
Gabrielle’s tear-filled eyes rose to meet with Ephiny’s. "Please, I can’t explain it, really. But if anyone is going to kill her," the bard’s breath caught in her throat for a moment. Reaching deeply into the strong core of her soul, she continued, "then it has to be me. I’d rather it be my own hand that ends her suffering, instead of the Amazon warriors taking her out in a battle to the death. Doesn’t she deserve that much mercy from us?"
"But she’ll kill you before you could raise a blade to her," Ephiny said, awe-struck at the strength of this woman. If someone had told her she would have to kill Jadax, she knew she could never find the will to do it.
"Then I die at her hand," Gabrielle said firmly, her decision made. "You’ll make sure her death is quick and clean, Ephiny. Please. She has always fought with honour over the past two summers. Let her death be just as honourable."
Jadax had carefully watched the exchange of words from the embrace of Ephiny’s arms. She could see that if Gabrielle did succeed in killing Xena, the bard herself would probably be very close behind. "Give her a bow," the scout said, suddenly.
"What?" Eponin said, startled.
"I said, give her a bow. Gabrielle will have a better chance of success with a bow than any other weapon we have, and that includes her own staff," Jadaxious explained.
"Can you use one?" Eponin asked seriously.
"A little. Some of the warriors thought I might like to learn the skill and were teaching me. I just never thought I would be using it this way," Gabrielle replied, trying hard to smile, to encourage the other women, but unable to get her face to cooperate with her. More than anything, she simply wanted to run and keep on running until she somehow left all this behind her.
Quickly rearranging plans in her head, Ephiny started to organise a defence.
As the first milky light of dawn began to chase the night shadows away, everything was in readiness for Xena’s arrival at the village. Warriors were hidden, silent in the trees, to help funnel the nearly mindless, angry woman into the compound. New bird calls had been rapidly organised when they realised Xena knew every other call the Amazons made and could easily track someone down from the sound alone. The plan was not to let that happen. The hidden warriors were to be used as a last line of defence, if it became necessary. They would be charging in from behind, hopefully using the surprise of a rear attack to their advantage, slim though it might be.
Gabrielle stood on the far side of the compound, Ephiny’s own bow in her hand, a single arrow notched to the string. Everyone knew the bard would only get one chance to kill Xena before the warrior would be on top of her. There simply wouldn’t be time to notch and pull another arrow. The early dawn breeze flapped the bard’s skirt against her thighs slightly. She was dressed in full Amazonian ceremonial garb. Gabrielle was determined, if Xena managed to get to her first and kill her, to have Hades to see that the blonde-haired woman had died both for her people and for her love of the Warrior Princess.
Tucked into the soft leather gauntlet on her left forearm was a wickedly sharp spike. Jadax herself had given it to the bard in one of the few moments of complete privacy Gabrielle had managed to find during the night. Nothing had been said; the scout had simply handed her the weapon, nodded and left the room again. Gabrielle had smiled sadly when she looked at the spike in her hands. Somehow the tiny warrior had known if Gabrielle succeed in her mission today, she would not have been able to live with herself any longer.
Standing in the growing light, Gabrielle whispered a prayer to Artemis. "Please, let the arrow fly true, Artemis. I can’t stand to think of her suffering anymore. I know I am giving up my blood innocence, but she is the other half of my soul. Please, let it be quick so she doesn’t feel anything." Adjusting her grip on the bow slightly, Gabrielle waited for Xena to arrive.
Every warrior hidden in the compound, including Ephiny, Eponin, Jadax and Gabrielle, heard Xena roaring down the path some minutes before they caught sight of her. They could hear the sound of her sword as she slashed indiscriminately at trees and bushes beside the track, her voice screaming curses and abuse loudly. Gabrielle drew a deep and shaky breath before lifting the bow, and prepared herself to kill the woman she loved, the other half of her soul.
Xena stalked into the compound, moving with a mad feline grace. Her eyes darted around looking for someone to kill, to destroy and mutilate as she had done with the men in the clearing. The first ray of dawn’s light shone through a gap in the huts and lit up someone from behind, her blonde hair becoming a golden halo around their head. Xena moved several steps to one side so she could see who the person was, the golden-haired figure tracking her with something. The courage and determination of the woman was obvious even to Xena’s insane mind.
Xena stood with her sword raised, ready to kill anyone, but something about the determined little woman struck a chord deep in Xena’s soul. She was familiar in a way that went beyond the rage-filled madness echoing incessantly through her mind. Xena was confused, and for the first time in days, she felt a sweet pain in her chest, as though she had lost something important to her but she didn’t know what it was. The rage and hate warred with the confusion and pain, agitating her even more. The only way she knew of stopping it all was the same way as she had stopped it before. She had to kill. Screaming like a caged and wounded animal, Xena raised her sword over her head and began to charge towards the woman in front of her.
Gabrielle watched Xena along the shaft of the arrow, the string tight against her chin. She tracked her carefully as the warrior moved several steps to one side. Remembering to breathe and not tense up, Gabrielle hoped, desperately that the sight of her would be enough to snap the angry woman out of whatever madness she had driven herself into. At the first sound of Xena’s mindless animal cry, the bard knew there was no hope. "Please, Artemis." She whispered and then released the string, unable to watch the flight of the arrow speeding towards Xena’s chest.
It was as though time had slowed for the bard. Even though she wasn’t looking, she could hear every sound as clearly as if it was right next to her, sounds that were going to be burned into her memory forever. The whirr of the arrow through the air, the sound of the arrowhead as it snicked over the armour in the centre of Xena’s chest, a sharp snap and Xena’s strangled cry as the arrow embedded itself into her heart, followed by the sound of her lifeless body falling backwards and hitting the ground heavily. It had been as quick and clean as Gabrielle had prayed it to be. Opening her eyes, she saw her truest love lying dead on the earth of the compound, and the bard’s world suddenly shattered around her. The horror of what she had just done slammed against her heart and soul, and her mind and body did the only thing they could to save her sanity. Gabrielle fainted.
Ephiny and Jadax were at her side within heartbeats. Yelling for one of the other warriors, Ephiny ordered Gabrielle’s unconscious body to be taken back to her rooms. "Go with her, Jadax. We’re going to have to watch her for a while now," Ephiny said quickly.
Jadax nodded silently, overwhelmed with the sadness of Xena’s death and the pure admiration of Gabrielle’s courage and emotional strength.
Ephiny walked over to Eponin, who was on her knees beside the dead warrior. "I wish there had been another way, Eponin," the Queen said, unashamed of the tears flowing down her cheeks. She doubted they would be the last for her, or anyone else that day.
"Don’t count your dinars before you leave the gaming table, Ephiny," the kneeling warrior chortled conspiratorially.
The Amazon Queen looked down and couldn’t believe that Eponin was actually smiling. Thinking that maybe the warrior had lost her own senses with grief, she asked carefully, "What are you talking about?"
Eponin gently took the arrow shaft between thumb and forefinger and without any effort at all pulled it back through the hole in Xena’s leathers. The head of the arrow was missing, but even Ephiny could see something had snapped it off cleanly. She dropped to her knees, not believing what Eponin was trying to say with her actions. The Queen rapidly sought out the pulse at Xena’s throat and was shocked to feel a heartbeat, strong and true, beating under her fingers. "What...what happened?" she asked, confused completely. She had seen the arrow enter Xena’s chest, the warrior had toppled over as though dead, but there was the heartbeat and Ephiny couldn’t deny the slow rise and fall of Xena’s breasts.
Eponin was gently pulling at the front of Xena’s leather bodice. There was some blood; obviously the arrowhead had done a little damage, and she could see the bruise already starting to purple where the arrow-shaft had slammed into Xena’s breast bone and threw her backwards with the force of the blow. Eponin’s fingers closed around a warm, metal object tucked between Xena’s breasts. Pulling it out, she showed it to Ephiny, kneeling wide-eyed on the other side of the unconscious warrior.
"A iron eye-bolt? What’s she doing with one of those in there?" Ephiny gasped. "By the gods, what else has she got stuffed into that bodice of hers?"
Carefully feeling around, Eponin quickly found the breast dagger and handed it over to Ephiny. "Think you might like to look after that for a while," she said, smiling broadly. "Now what do we do with her?" she asked, almost not thinking as she examined where the arrowhead had pierced the skin on the side of Xena’s breast. The gash was quite small and would probably only need a couple of stitches to hold it closed.
"We get her into a bed, strap her down securely and make sure Gabrielle knows the instant she wakes up that Xena is still alive. Guess we’ll just have to make it up as we go along after that," Ephiny replied, now grinning as broadly as the warrior across from her.
Xena woke to the sound of her own head pounding in tandem with her heart. Even lying as still as she was, she could feel the lump on the back where she had hit her head. Slowly opening her eyes, she squinted against even the dim light coming from the tightly shuttered windows. Both these aches were minor, however, compared to the pain between her breasts, over her heart. Must have been quite some fall I took yesterday, she thought. I’m surprised I’m still alive. Xena’s last clear memory, at that point, was of pulling herself over the edge of ravine to look for Gabrielle. She assumed she must have somehow missed her grip or her footing and tumbled backwards into the ravine below. Xena was thankful she had been found before she had died of exposure. Then again, it might have been Gabrielle who had found her in the first place.
Thinking of her lover, Xena tried to sit up, wanting to either talk to the bard or have someone let Gabrielle know she was conscious again. It was only at that moment that the warrior realised she had been tightly strapped to the bed beneath her. Relaxing back again, she tried to think why anyone would want to strap her to a mattress. The only thing she could think of was that maybe she had been having convulsions while she was unconscious. Sometimes that happened with head injuries. She couldn’t remember slipping or falling, and this served to confirmed her suspicions about rattling her brains in some way.
Forcing her eyes properly open against the light, ignoring the pain, she glanced over and saw Gabrielle lying on a bed next to her which had been pushed up hard against the bed where she was strapped. The bard had one hand under Xena’s covers, and the warrior could feel the other woman’s fingers gently inter-laced with her own as she closed her grip slightly. Xena couldn’t understand why the bard was wearing ceremonial dress, but she really didn’t have any idea how long she had been unconscious. It could have been days for all she knew.
Xena honestly didn’t want to wake the other woman. She looked so pale and tired lying there, but she was feeling a little stiff under the strapping and she wanted to be able to at least sit up again. Whispering softly, so if Gabrielle was sound asleep she wouldn’t hear, Xena said, "Gabrielle? You awake at all?" She watched as Gabrielle’s eyelids fluttered open revealing two red-rimmed, sea-green eyes looking back at her.
"Hi there." Xena said. "Must have been some celebration I missed last night." Xena couldn’t help smiling at the surprised look on Gabrielle’s face. Gotcha, she thought. Partying while I was tied to a bed and not in any condition to do my ‘I’m the Warrior Princess and I don’t party’ imitation. There should be an entire moon’s worth of teasing in this.
The bard moved a little closer, never letting her hand slip from Xena’s. "Ummm, how you feeling this morning?" she asked, after a quick glance at the light seeping in from around the edge of the shutters to see what time of day it was.
"Oh, no worse than I expected to feel after falling into the ravine. Pretty silly thing for me to do, you know. How about you undo these straps? I don’t think I’ll be having any more convulsions now," Xena replied lightly.
"I can’t, Xena. The healer told me I wasn’t to undo the strapping for any reason at all," Gabrielle said, dropping her eyes to the bed.
"Come on, Gabrielle. I know my own body. I’ve got a few sore spots, like the back of my head, but I’m fine. Honestly," Xena said, exasperated.
"How about we just talk for a while? The healer will be back soon and she can untie you then," Gabrielle offered instead, hoping Xena would simply go along with it for now.
"Well, okay," the warrior replied, drawing out the last word suspiciously. "Just what has been going on here while I was out to it, anyway?"
Gabrielle wondered if what she was doing was the right thing, but Xena seemed more herself than the descriptions Jadax had given her, and was certainly more the warrior and lover she knew than the mad woman she had been presented with the day before. "What do you remember about the ravine, Xena?" the bard questioned carefully.
To Xena, it almost appeared as though Gabrielle was afraid of her for some reason, but the warrior couldn’t figure out why. Perhaps going along with the bard’s questions might give me a better idea, she mused to herself. "The ravine. Let me think for a moment." Xena replied. As she thought, more memories came rising to the surface of her mind, though there were some large gaps in what she could remember. "I came out of the ravine looking for you, but all I could see was your staff," she started. Thinking again, Xena continued, "I went down a path back to the forest, probably because I thought you might be down there for some reason. I can’t remember why I thought that, though." Xena tried to put the series of seemingly unrelated images together in some sensible fashion inside her mind but there were a lot of empty spaces where she had no idea what she had been doing. "Obviously, I didn’t fall back into the ravine," Xena commented as she tried to make sense of the things.
"Ummm, then I was in the forest following some trail. I was in the trees because the undergrowth was so thick," Xena said.
"Uh huh. Headed out towards the western border region," Gabrielle supplied.
"Yea! I remember that. I found a camp full of men. I don’t know what they were doing there but I can recall thinking how angry I was," the warrior said, tightening her forehead in an effort to bring as many details back to her mind as possible.
"Can you remember how angry you were, Xena?" Gabrielle asked slowly. She knew she had to be taking a chance simply by pushing to see if the warrior could remember, but this was something the bard desperately needed to know.
"I’d never been so angry," Xena admitted a little shamefully.
Gabrielle breathed out slowly. It hadn’t been the mere sight of the men camped on Amazon lands that had pushed her over the edge. "What happened after that?" she asked dreading to hear the answer.
The warrior was trying hard to remember. She needed to fill the gaps in her own memory as much as Gabrielle needed to hear the answers to her questions. "I don’t know. I just have a bunch of images that aren’t making a lot of sense to me."
"Tell me about them," the bard said gently, moving a little closer to Xena.
"I...I think there was a fight, a pretty bloody one. I’m not sure what happened. All I can recall is..." In her mind’s eye, Xena could see glimpses of bodies lying all around her, but they had been mutilated and savaged in a way that didn’t make sense to her. There was blood all over her, but she couldn’t remember how it had gotten there. Somehow, she didn’t think she needed to tell Gabrielle about those things. "Then I am in the forest. I don’t know where or when. I’m alone, I think."
Gabrielle silently thanked whatever god may have been listening that Xena’s memories of the camp were so mercifully few. The bard knew Xena would have to be told sooner or later, but for now she was unaware of what she had done to the poor men at the campsite.
Now she was getting very nervous. She had deliberately fired an arrow at her own soul-mate, fully intending it to be her death. She still was far from forgiving herself and doubted she ever really would. How much would Xena recall of those events? If she did remember, would Xena be able to forgive her? "What’s the next thing you remember after that?" Gabrielle queried.
"Artemis," Xena said simply.
"You remember seeing Artemis?" Gabrielle was starting to think that maybe Xena’s mind hadn’t quite come back to itself.
"I can recall this so clearly. I was standing in the village compound, filled with so much anger and hate at myself and everything around me. I loathed myself. Everything I had done as a warlord was so evil, so shameful and no matter how long or how hard I fought for good, I could never make up for all of that," Xena said, her voice dropping to a whisper. "And there stood Artemis, a golden halo around her head, dressed as an Amazon Princess, her bow pointed straight at my heart. She had come to punish me for all the evil I had done as a warlord, and more than anything, I wanted to die. I’d given up the battle for my own soul and was simply letting the rage take control again. Artemis was there to put a stop to me and any further damage I could do to anyone. She had the saddest expression in her eyes just as she loosed the arrow that pierced my heart. I felt it hit me and the pain was all over. I was dead. I don’t understand why I am alive now unless, she has given me another chance to make good all those wrongs." Xena closed her eyes and let the slow tears fall as they would.
Gabrielle crawled over to the other bed and awkwardly wrapped herself around Xena’s still tied body, trying to hold her as closely as she could. "Xena? Xena, listen to me. It wasn’t Artemis that shot that arrow at you. It was me. I tried to kill you because you were insane with rage and hate and there was no stopping you. I had to do it. I fired that arrow. How can you ever forgive me?" Gabrielle wailed plaintively. Dropping her head to Xena’s chest, she burst into tears.
Gabrielle’s words slowly seeped into Xena’s conscious mind, eventually making sense. Gabrielle did that for me? I was insane? Raging and angry? And she stood up against me? I could have killed her without knowing it, she thought. Xena looked down and saw the bard lying against her breast, weeping as though her world had just ended. The warrior desperately needed to put her arms around the crying woman, to let her know it was all right, that she wasn’t angry, but she was still strapped down. Tensing her powerful muscles against the straps, she quickly flexed them, snapping several across her chest and shoulders. It was enough to free her arms so she could tenderly wrap them around Gabrielle.
The bard felt the muscles tensing under her and heard the snapping of the straps. For a moment she was mortally terrified that Xena’s madness had returned and she was about to be killed. Her unreasoning fear held the bard in place, and Xena’s arms gently wrapped over her. She breathed out, relaxing. Everything was going to be all right now, she thought.
Eponin rubbed ruefully at the back of her neck as she walked with Ephiny up the hall towards Gabrielle’s rooms. "The priestess was pretty clear about it. If Xena wasn’t, how did she put it, ‘gently mad,’ then there was no way they could have her in the temple. I guess I can see her point, though. I really wouldn’t like to have a mad, sword-swinging, chakram-tossing warrior loose in the temple either," she explained.
"Then I guess it is up to us to ‘soothe the savage beast’ before we can hand her over to the temple and the care of the priestess. Thank all the gods, Artemis sees the insane as being touched by the gods in some way. At least it gives us one option for what to do with Xena. First we have to calm her down, though, and I have no idea how we are going to do that, if yesterday morning was anything to go on," Ephiny replied. She was in just as much a quandary about what to do with the insane warrior as Eponin. Putting her into the care of the temple was about all they could really do for now. But she could see the priestess’ view on it as well.
"How do you think Gabrielle will take it?" Eponin asked.
"Wherever Xena goes, Gabrielle goes too. Mad, angry or dead. She made that quite plain yesterday. I still can’t believe she had a spike in her gauntlet. I’m just grateful you found it before she had gotten a chance to use it on herself. Smart idea pushing the two beds together too," the Queen answered.
The two warriors drew level with the door to Gabrielle’s rooms, taking a moment to speak to the guard on duty. "Anything?" Ephiny asked quietly. She didn’t want to wake either woman if they were still sleeping. It was probably the best place for both of them right now.
"Not since about a candlemark after dawn, My Queen. Princess Gabrielle was crying pretty hard, but I didn’t think it was right to disturb her," the guard replied. "Been quiet ever since though." She had wanted to go in to offer what comfort she could to the Princess—she was an awfully gutsy woman, after all—but the healer had been plain with her instructions. No one but the Queen, Eponin, Jadaxious or herself was to go in there unless it sounded like there was real trouble.
"It’s almost nooning, Ephiny. Perhaps we should arrange for some food to be brought over. They do need to eat," Eponin said.
The Amazon Queen nodded and gave the orders to the guard. "Make sure there is nothing but finger food and tepid drinks on the trays. I don’t want anything hot or sharp, not even a spoon, brought anywhere near either of them for the time being."
"Well, let’s get this over with," Eponin said.
Pushing the door open slowly, Eponin entered first with Ephiny right behind her. They both spotted Xena’s arms wrapped tightly around Gabrielle’s body, lying atop her long length, as though she was trying to squeeze the life-force out of the bard with her powerful arms alone. Neither woman could believe Xena had managed to break the straps holding her to the bed.
"Hera’s tits," Eponin swore, as she whipped the knife from the sheath at her waist. Ephiny wasn’t a heartbeat behind her.
Xena’s head popped up and she smiled at the two startled women stalking towards her. "Oh good. Would one of you mind getting the rest of this strapping off me? My legs are starting to cramp."
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder, a smile just as broad on her face. "Why didn’t you say something earlier, Xena? I would have done it for you," the bard giggled.
"What, and let you out of my arms again? No thanks. You can stay right where you are for now," Xena replied to the bard. "Eponin, if you’re going to stand around with a knife in your hand. The straps. Please."
Eponin found herself just shaking her head in disbelief. It certainly sounded like Xena. Getting the nod from Ephiny, she quickly cut through the rest of the straps and pulled the remains away from the bed.
Not letting the bard slip from her arms, Xena stretched luxuriously, feeling the pops all the way down her spine. "If you’re going to tie me down to something, make it a board next time. These soft beds are murder on my back," Xena grinned at the two women. She could see they hadn’t quite caught up with the rapid changes of late.
Gabrielle looked over at the two women. Her eyes were still swollen and a little red from all the crying she had done while Xena was away, but the old sparkle had returned, along with her cheeky sense of humour. "Oh dear, Xena," she said, seriously, "I do believe we have caught the Queen rather flat-footed. Not to mention her primary warrior, Eponin." Gabrielle couldn’t help herself as she dissolved into a fit of giggles.
To Ephiny and Eponin, seeing Gabrielle helpless with giggles wasn’t the least bit unusual. What was unusual and all more the more startling because neither had ever seen it before was the sight of Xena, the normally stoic, taciturn Warrior Princess, giggling right along with the bard. The two woman just looked at each other and shrugged.
Xena kissed Gabrielle quickly on the cheek, causing her to giggle even more. "Get a grip, bard, before they think we’ve both gone mad," she said, barely controlling her own laughter.
"But, Xena look at them. It is like someone unexpectedly swatted them on the behind and put a dent in their Amazon dignity," the bard chortled back happily and slid off Xena’s body, now laughing weakly.
A soft, timid knock at the door drew Eponin’s attention. "That’s probably the meal you asked to be sent over, Ephiny," she said.
Xena looked up at the mention of food. "Hungry, Gabrielle?" she asked, already knowing what the chuckling woman would say.
"Great. Time to feed you up. It’s been like lying on an earthshake for the past candlemark with your stomach rumbling underneath me. You’re getting too skinny," Gabrielle replied, feeling up and down Xena’s ribs. It was little more than an excuse to tickle her, and it wasn’t a moment before it had degenerated into an enthusiastic tickling match between the two of them.
"Get those trays in here, Eponin. I’ll see if I can get the ‘children’ under control again," Ephiny laughed, stepping towards the bed. It was wonderful to see Xena and Gabrielle in such a good mood, especially after all the tension of the past few days. If this was how the pair relieved their stress after what had happened, the Amazon Queen would have liked to have seen what they did after a major battle. Thinking about it, she was reasonably sure she knew and there was no way she wanted to be around for that. She had her own little stress reliever sound asleep in her bed up in her chambers.
Xena sat propped up in bed, the bard tucked tightly against her side, grimacing as she drank the last swallow of her herb tea. "I know you’re just being careful, Ephiny, but if you’re going to serve all my drinks lukewarm, how about we just stick to water for the time being. Some port might be nice, though," she said wickedly.
The raven-haired warrior had realised as soon as the trays were brought in that Ephiny and Eponin were still unsure of her recovery. Everything on them could be eaten with her fingers, and the drinks were barely warmed through, at best. To be honest with herself, she was none too sure of her return to sanity either, but that was something she was yet to face. The warrior had something else on her mind at the moment.
"Gabrielle told me about the glowing fungus dust she found on Deonisia’s clothing and about Jadax’s discovery of those gold filtering boxes in the river. You also know about the eye-bolt," Xena’s eyebrow quirked for a moment. That bolt saved my life, she thought. "Anyway, I think I might know who is responsible for kidnapping the warriors and why they did it."
She now had the complete attention of every women in the room. Eponin leaned forward on her chair, curious to hear Xena’s answer to the mystery of the missing warriors.
"Greed is the why for what happened." Xena said. "Everyone around here knows the rivers and streams of the hunting grounds are thick with gold dust and gold nuggets, especially around the western border with all its rocky valleys and ravines. But the Amazon Nation really doesn’t have a lot of use for the stuff. You make or grow just about everything you need and trade for the few things you can’t produce yourselves. Someone saw the profit, though, and hatched an idea about how to get more of the stuff. I don’t know how much further they would have gone with the kidnappings. That cavern was getting pretty cramped from what Gabrielle told me this morning. All this tells me, however, that it had to be someone on the inside."
"How do you come up with that?" Ephiny asked.
"First of all, it had to be someone who knew about the gold in the rivers around the hunting grounds. They also had to know about the cavern up near the guard posts on the mountain. That isn’t exactly something a person would know about unless they had seen it for themselves. Knowing the ravine met up with the river further down is something that only someone who knows their way around the hunting grounds would be aware of. It’s not like the Amazon Nation is handing out maps of the area now, is it?" Xena said.
"She’s right about that much, Ephiny," Eponin said. "The only reason we were able to find it at all was because Jadax gave us such precise directions to locate the entrance. Most of us didn’t even know the cavern was there to start with."
"There was also the fact that only this inside person would know Jadax was not able to patrol parts of the western border, especially that clearing, because she was here with a broken ankle. Being so short of guards, there wasn’t anyone available to take up the slack either. They had to be someone who had access to the mountain pass lookout for some time as well, because that eye-bolt would have taken a while to get into the rock face itself. There’s probably another one on the other side but I didn’t get a chance to have a look myself." Xena let a small half-smile cross her face. "And lastly, they had to have known that Gabrielle and I were going to be up there that day, which someone on the outside wouldn’t have known about at all," the warrior explained carefully.
"So who does this add up to?" Ephiny asked, angry that anyone would have deliberately put her people in danger.
"There’s one last fact that might tell you who this unknown, inside person is," Xena said, wickedly. "Every warrior who was captured, including Gabrielle, told an almost identical story of a large black gloved hand and the feeling of an even larger body behind them. Though Deonisia actually saw the size of that person when they climbed up the last body length of the ravine wall. Glowing black cloak or not, you can’t hide a body that size with just clothing. It also had to be someone pretty big to have lifted that slab over the cavern entrance on their own too, as well as carrying unconscious warriors up to it. Your average Amazon is no small woman, after all." Xena said. "Now who am I describing?" She waited for the pieces to fall into place in Ephiny’s and Eponin’s mind.
"Kaliope!" both women gasped together.
"I do believe you have an arrest to organise, Ephiny," Xena replied, settling back on the pillows behind her and hugging Gabrielle a little closer. The past few days had taken a lot out of her, and she was glad for a chance to simply rest for a while. Explaining who had captured and hidden those warriors had been exhausting, because she had to make the others believe she was sane again, even though she wasn’t completely sure of it herself yet.
Xena cautiously opened one eye. The rosy glow of the afternoon sunset reflected off the huts outside lit the room pleasantly. She wriggled her head back into the pillow a little, glad the pounding inside had finally stopped. The lump at the back was going to be tender for some days yet. She had forgotten just how hard the ground of the compound could be after seasons of Amazon feet thundering across it. Xena relaxed, knowing she didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything. Most importantly, she didn’t have to be anyone right now, because she was so unsure of her own emotional state; being anything but in bed with Gabrielle was about all she could really cope with for the moment. Feeling the bard’s eyes on her, Xena glanced down to see the other woman tucked up against her side, still wearing her ceremonial outfit, but looking decidedly better for a few candlemarks of sleep.
Gabrielle reached up to gently kiss Xena’s chin before speaking. "How you feeling?" she asked.
"Fine, now. Chest still hurts a bit from that arrow, but give me a heartbeat and I will be back on my feet," Xena replied lightly.
"That’s not what I’m asking and you know it, warrior," the bard said seriously.
"I know, Gabrielle. To tell you the truth, I am not sure what I am feeling anymore. I have just spent the past few days walking about insanely. I can remember some things, but I still have so many gaps. I’m not sure if I will ever be able to fill all the empty places in my memory. And I certainly can’t explain why I saw Artemis standing in the compound and not you," the warrior answered after thinking for a moment.
"Can you ever forgive me for that, Xena?" Gabrielle asked, tears starting to fill her eyes again.
"Nothing to forgive. You did what you thought was right, just like you’ve always done," Xena said. Hugging the other woman closely, the warrior continued. "You’ve always lived to your own code, Gabrielle, and even though I don’t understand it sometimes or have thought you were wrong about something, I’m not going to get angry with you just because you wanted to help me. Even if, at the time, it did mean trying to kill me. So, there’s nothing for me to forgive. You followed your heart and soul, just as you’ve been doing since the very first day we met."
Gabrielle dropped her head against Xena breast again and closed her eyes. The tall warrior may not think there was anything to forgive, but Gabrielle still had a long way to go before she could forgive herself for what she had done.
Eponin and Xena sat side by side on the stone wall near the hot springs watching Ephiny, Gabrielle and Jadaxious sporting in the warm water together. At the entrance of the springs stood two of the Queen’s guards. Whenever Xena glanced over to them, they seemed to be staring at her as though they were expecting her to leap up in a mad fit of rage and anger.
Sighing to herself, Xena said to the warrior sitting beside her, "Do you think they will ever relax around me again?"
"Who?" Eponin asked.
"The guards, and probably most of the village as well," Xena replied.
"Eventually. It’s not every day you come tearing into the village looking for all the world like a harpy with a bad haircut. If you relax, they will too. It won’t take long," Eponin offered. She knew it wasn’t much comfort, but given time the village would settle down again. Xena was too well respected as a warrior for something as simple as a little insanity to cause any real long term harm. "How goes it with Gabrielle?" she asked.
"Better, I think. I doubt she will ever be quite the same after what she did though," Xena said, sadly
"She was willing to give up everything for you. Her blood innocence. Her life, even. She’s a strong woman, Xena. Give her some time. I think she will forgive herself. Just knowing you are alive and still in love with her is probably the best thing that could have happened. Love can heal many wounds, after all. Even ones as deep as that," Eponin replied.
"And how goes it with you?" Eponin asked gently.
Xena looked into her lap. It was the one question she had been avoiding, with herself and everyone else. "l...I’m not sure," she said. "I still feel like me but..." Xena started to say. She hadn’t wanted to look too deeply into her own emotions, afraid for the first time in her life of what she might find there. The anger and rage she had lived with for so long were still there but in some way she was yet to understand, they seemed a little calmer, as though she had found some peace in her soul. Perhaps, I could talk to Eponin. Gabrielle is always saying I should talk more, she thought. And she is another warrior. There are some things only another warrior can understand.
Eponin sat quietly, letting Xena find her own way of expressing herself without feeling pressured into doing it. Talking about her emotions and other ‘mushy’ stuff was one of the very few skills the tall warrior did not have. Sometimes Xena is so busy being a warrior she forgets how to be a woman, Eponin thought.
"Gabrielle told you about my seeing Artemis instead of her that morning?" Xena asked, unsure of where to begin. Talking about her feelings had never been a particularly strong point with her, and this drop into insanity had made it a lot harder than before. She felt so unsure of any emotion she had right now that she was afraid to feel anything for fear it would take her back into that chasm again.
"Mmmmm, over breakfast the other morning. Interesting vision to see. Any ideas why you saw Artemis?" the warrior queried, gently drawing out the tall woman beside her.
Xena thought for a moment. "None. I just know she was there to punish me for all the evil I had done as a warlord. And she did punish me. I felt that arrow and I honestly thought I was dead. Waking up again would have been quite a surprise, if I hadn’t started out thinking I’d simply fallen from the ravine wall," she said. "It really only came to me later when Gabrielle started asking me what I remembered."
"You know, sometimes, when children do the wrong thing and they know they have, they expect to be punished. Hope for it even. It’s a way of establishing the boundaries of their lives," Eponin said.
"Come on, Eponin. We’re not talking about stealing apples from the neighbour’s orchard here. I spent ten summers of my life killing and raiding. I was so twisted up inside with hate that I am still surprised Hercules was able to see any good in me at all. The only thing I had felt the entire time I was a warlord was a kind of cold rage," Xena scoffed.
"Principal’s the same, though. Once you had decided to get off the path that you were on, you turned all that rage and hate against yourself. Fighting to make amends wasn’t enough. There was something inside you that really wanted to be punished for what you had done. And simply spanking you wasn’t going to be an option," Eponin smiled at Xena. "Some part of your soul thought by turning all that anger and rage on yourself, it would be a way of punishing you for your past."
"But it wasn’t enough, was it?" Xena half asked, half stated to herself. The first faint glimmerings of what Eponin was trying to say were slowly making a little sense to the dark-haired woman.
Eponin laughed lightly. "It was the worst thing you could have done," she replied. "Look, Xena. I have only known you since we made peace with the centaurs, but every time you came to visit us, you were so over-controlled with your emotions, I’m amazed you hadn’t oozed open like an over-ripe fig long ago. The pressure you must have been putting yourself under behind that wall of self-control would have to have been tremendous. And like a dam trying to hold back too much water, you cracked right open. Pressure’s off now and part of your soul thinks you have been properly punished for being a warlord."
"But it was Gabrielle who fired the arrow, not Artemis. I know that now," Xena said, confused.
"I won’t say I can speak for the priestess. But Xena, even though your head says it was Gabrielle, your soul says it was Artemis. You punished yourself. At least, that is how I see it anyway," Eponin replied. Looking the taller woman in the eye, she continued, "Regardless of who fired that arrow, you feel as though you were punished for all you did before. You’ve drawn your own boundary. I doubt you’ll ever step over it again. I wouldn’t worry about your sanity anymore. Talk to Gabrielle, Xena. She is one powerful woman and an amazingly courageous warrior. Somewhere along the way she has picked up a lot of wisdom too. Might be worth listening to some of it."
"She’s not the only wise woman I know, Eponin," Xena said gently, as she jumped down from the stone wall. "Thanks. You’ve given me a lot to think about."
Eponin watched the taller warrior as she headed away from the hot spring. It might take some time, but eventually Xena will make sense of all this, she thought to herself. What doesn’t destroy her will only make her stronger. Though I do wonder sometimes how that gentle, little bard got to be so strong. Shaking her head a little, Eponin went to drag the water nymphs out of the hot spring before they all turned into prunes.
Gabrielle stood watching the dancers as they moved and gyrated to the pounding beat of the Amazon drums, the sound filling the compound and carrying into the surrounding hills. Ephiny had postponed the festival for several days to allow everyone to recover, most of all herself and Xena, from the events of the days before. It also gave the women of the village a chance to relax around the tall, dark-haired woman again and see for themselves that Xena was not about to return to her former state of insanity.
Thinking of Xena, she wondered if the warrior would ever be completely herself again. Though she had been more or less her usual self around the bard, there were some serious changes. First of all was the talking. Xena was making stumbling attempts at talking with the blonde about her emotions and feelings, but it was hard on the warrior, who was more used to locking everything behind an iron wall of self-control. Gabrielle was being patient, but it was exhausting sometimes as the other woman slowly let the bard into her feelings. In some ways, it was even more drawn out and difficult than that first summer they had spent together, but at least Xena was trying without the bard having to do all the work of getting her to open up.
Gabrielle wrapped her arms about herself, though the breeze flowing gently through the compound was warm and scented with the flowers of the forest. There was the second change in Xena to deal with as well. Since waking up that first morning after nearly being killed, Xena had been finding ways to avoid making love with the bard. Oh, she was her usual ‘I am the Warrior Princess’ during the day and affectionate in bed at night but she had made no moves to make love and would plead tiredness if Gabrielle tried to approach her. It was getting quite frustrating. Xena had always been a passionate lover, but now it was like she was afraid of something, more than she had ever been before. Gabrielle had tried to talk to Eponin about it, but all the other woman would say was to give the tall warrior time.
In a way, the bard needed to physically reaffirm the love between them to help herself feel Xena had truly forgiven her for trying to kill her. This was one occasion when mere words were just not enough for the blonde-haired woman. The warrior kept saying there was nothing to forgive, but Gabrielle had to forgive herself. Making love again would be a step in that direction, though the blonde couldn’t put it in quite such clear terms as that.
As though thinking about the warrior caused her to magically appear, Gabrielle felt Xena’s strong arms circle her waist and her body press up against the bard’s back. The spicy smell of cinnamon, hyacinth and leather filled her nostrils. Xena’s scent. Gabrielle glanced sideways and could just see the Amazon style skirt and soft wraparound shirt Xena was wearing. Her leathers were still being repaired by the village leather-worker, though the woman had all but thrown her hands up in despair at ever bringing Xena’s leathers back to a presentable appearance. The days spent wandering the forest had left them scuffed, scraped and torn, not to mention the arrow hole in the bodice itself. Xena had complained about wearing the Amazon clothing, seeing she wasn’t really one herself, until Gabrielle had given her the option of walking around naked. That had soon stopped the complaints when Xena realised the bard was being quite serious.
"Finished talking with Ephiny?" Gabrielle asked, over the sound of the beating drums.
"Uh huh. We’ll be moving on in a day or two. I think we have been here long enough," Xena replied, chuckling wickedly as she spoke.
"Why the laughter, Xena? Not that I don’t enjoy hearing it," Gabrielle said. It was true, too. She did enjoy hearing the warrior laugh. Ever since her return, she seemed a little freer and more able to laugh. Not a lot but more than before.
"Because I don’t think Ephiny heard a word I said, to be honest. Seems she was a little distracted by something, or should I say, someone," the warrior answered, pointing to two women dancing together around the fire in the centre of the compound. As they watched, the two figures soon moved away from everyone else and were slowly working their way towards the stable.
Gabrielle started to giggle herself. "Jadax really likes that hayloft, you know," she said. "Nice and private, from what I have heard lately."
"And what have you been hearing?" Xena asked.
"Oh, nothing much. Come on, let’s dance," Gabrielle said, pulling at the tall woman behind her.
"You know I don’t dance, Gabrielle. Go ahead. I’ll just watch from here," Xena answered, gently disengaging the bard’s fingers from her arm as she stepped back a little deeper into the flickering darkness created by the torches.
Gabrielle sighed to herself. She was sure, with all the other changes in Xena lately, she could have convinced the tall woman to join her in the dancing circle. A thought crossed her mind. Maybe she still could, if she played things right.
Picking up the beat as she stepped forward, Gabrielle allowed herself to relax into the music, the vibrations from the big leather-covered bass drum fluttering against her body. The first time she had danced with her Amazon sisters, the bard knew she had been less than completely graceful. However, two full summers of travelling with Xena, learning to fight, to use her staff, slowly strengthening her body had given her a confidence she had lacked before. Turning as though to display herself, which was exactly what she was doing, Gabrielle let the beat of the music start moving her body in a sensuous, inviting pattern, her eyes never leaving those of the warrior standing nearby.
The bard’s movements became more graceful, more enticing, drawing Xena’s eyes to various parts of Gabrielle’s body as she touched or gently caressed them. Slowly rubbing her hands over her flat stomach to reach up and cup her own breasts, Gabrielle could see the look of desire on Xena’s face, even in the semi-darkness where she was standing. She watched as Xena’s hips started picking up the beat of the drums around them, her shoulders swaying with the music. The bard knew the other woman could dance but she wanted the warrior to dance with her. She wanted Xena to dance for her, displaying her own magnificent body in the same way she was doing herself.
Xena hesitantly took a step forward as though fighting against the siren song of Gabrielle’s movements and desire. She slowly took another, her blue eyes locked with the bard’s sea-green. Her hands had lifted, moving in time with the sway of her shoulders. By the time Xena stood in front of the blonde woman, her entire body was writhing to the incessant beat of the drums and the burning passions she could feel working their way through her body.
A sensual dance of seduction and devotion began as each woman could feel the body heat of the other against their skin. Never quite touching, one would tease, the other taunt. Eyes locked, they circled together, each a moth to the others flame. Xena’s hands outlined Gabrielle’s heated body, always keeping her palms just a breath away from brushing the bard’s sweating skin, crouching as she followed the contours of the other woman’s strong, muscular thighs and calves. As she gracefully rose again, Gabrielle moved behind her, Xena feeling the bard’s hot breath against the sensitive skin of her back. The thudding vibrations of the drums matched their ever-increasing heart rates. Faces close, their lips a heartbeat away from a kiss, their breathing deepened until one was breathing for the other. Together they danced, their movements perfectly mirrored, close but teasing each other with their not-quite-touching dance of love and passion. Every action was unconsciously designed to drive the arousal of the other to fresh heights, to push them beyond the usual constraints the warrior and the bard may have placed on themselves. It had become a dance of powerful, raw, uncontrolled lust, tempered and softened by their love for the other. All that was needed was a single spark for it to burst into flames.
Unable to stop herself, Gabrielle reached up and gently brushed the backs of her fingers along the side of Xena’s flushed face, trailing her fingertips over the long line of the warrior’s neck until her hand rested on her shoulder. The delicate touch forced a soft moan from Xena, completely focused on the woman in front of her. Drawing the tall woman to her, the bard pressed soft lips against Xena’s, inhaling the scent of her breath and skin as she did so. Not breaking the kiss, Gabrielle firmly grasped the wraparound shirt Xena was wearing and pulled her away from the edge of the dancing circle. She kept backing up, leading the warrior with her lips, until she felt the hard roundness of a hut’s support post behind her back. Turning the warrior, Gabrielle leant her against the solid pole, neither caring that they were still in full view of the dancing circle and the rest of the Amazons. To each, there was only the other and the bright fire of the passion they had ignited together.
Xena’s arousal, already at a near fever pitch, climbed another notch as Gabrielle’s hands brushed slowly over her cloth covered skin. Standing, as the kiss deepened, Gabrielle’s tongue sweeping along the warrior’s lips and teeth, Xena felt herself growing afraid. Her passions were rapidly climbing past the point where she could control them any longer. She pushed against the bard’s chest a little, trying to get the other woman to slow down so Xena could bring herself back under some kind of command.
"What’s wrong, Xena?" Gabrielle asked, her lips never really leaving Xena’s.
"I’m afraid, Gabrielle. Afraid I’ll hurt you," Xena mumbled against the bard’s mouth. The bard’s gentle hand cupped the taller woman’s breast, slowly rubbing the shirt’s material over Xena’s sensitised flesh, drawing a breathy, almost reluctant groan from her.
Looking up into Xena’s sky blue eyes, Gabrielle could see the fear, and the love in them. "Xena, don’t be afraid. You can’t hurt me. Anything you want to do, I want to do as well. No matter how out of control you get, I want to experience it with you. Trust me, Xena. This is what I want," Gabrielle said. "You could never knowingly hurt me, ever."
With tears in her eyes and a brief sob caught in her throat, Xena willingly released the iron discipline she held over her emotions, knowing when it was over she would be able to bring herself back under control once more. The explosive sensual power of her passion ignited the warrior from within and she dropped her lips into a bruising kiss against the bard’s waiting mouth. For every ounce of her powerful love and desire she poured into that kiss, Gabrielle accepted and returned it with an equal power of her own.
Sensing Xena’s arousal was roaring through her in way the bard had never experienced before, Gabrielle let herself go completely, matching the taller woman, kiss for passionate kiss, caress for trembling caress. So focussed on the other, they didn’t hear the drums and music around them, didn’t see anything but the woman in their arms. As far as they were both aware, they were completely alone in their love and passion.
Gabrielle worked her hands through the folds of Xena’s wraparound shirt, pulling it open. The sight of the warrior’s breasts bared to the torchlight made the bard gasp a little. "A gift from the gods," she muttered indistinctly from between the soft globes as she lowered her face between them. The bard wrapped her arms around Xena’s muscular body, raking her short nails over the skin through the warrior’s shirt.
The vibration of Gabrielle’s voice on her skin cause Xena to close her eyes for a moment and her head to drop back against the pole behind her. One hand rose to guide the bard’s movement, the other rubbing along her back, finding all the sensitive places along Gabrielle’s spine. The bard’s mouth and tongue were greedily working their way over the soft flesh, Xena breathing in shuddering, rasping gasps over her head.
Xena pulled the bard reluctantly from the embrace of her breasts, holding her tightly against her body. "Gabrielle, I can’t wait anymore," she growled into the other woman’s ear. Grabbing the blonde’s hand, the warrior pushed it, almost roughly, to the open fold of her Amazon skirt, slipping Gabrielle’s fingers through to touch the hot skin of her thigh. Parting her legs, Xena invited Gabrielle into the warm, wet intimacy of her body.
Capturing Xena’s eyes with her own, Gabrielle quickly moved her fingers forward, feeling for the seat of the warrior’s passions, knowing she had found it just from the look on Xena’s face. A feral smile, something the bard had only ever seen on the other woman’s face in battle, pulled at the corners of her mouth, baring her teeth. Love and lust rode openly on Xena’s expression, waiting for the bard to overwhelm her passion, her desire, her very soul. The bard slowly, tormentingly explored every overheated crevice and fold, holding Xena in place with her eyes alone. Xena’s hands had slid behind her and she was now supporting herself by wrapping her strong fingers around the pole at her back. Her knees were trembling so hard she might have fallen if Gabrielle’s other arm wasn’t helping hold her up.
With a voice deeply roughened with her out of control passions, Xena’s words rumbled over the other woman. "Do it." She was no longer afraid of losing control, no longer afraid of harming Gabrielle. She now wanted to feel everything the bard could draw from her body and soul.
It was Gabrielle’s turn to wear a smile as her fingers connected with Xena’s centre and she watched the other woman give in completely to the demands of her own body. Tightening her hold around Xena’s waist, holding her close, Gabrielle listened to the ‘ngh, ngh, ngh’ sound the dark-haired woman made from deep in her chest at each thrust of her hips against the bard’s hand. Xena’s eyes were half-closed, totally immersed in the sensations the bard was drawing out with her fingers. She could feel the tension building in Xena’s muscles as she slowly tightened them, the warrior’s knees locked in an effort to support her shaking body. One hand suddenly let go off the pole behind her and wrapped itself around Gabrielle, pulling her into a bone-crushing embrace.
As the warrior hovered right on the edge of her release, her teeth bit lightly into the soft skin and muscle at Gabrielle’s neck just where it met with her shoulder. Xena’s arm tightened a fraction more around the bard and her mind and body suddenly burst its bonds of tension to become a comet across the sky, her teeth sinking into Gabrielle’s flesh. The bard felt Xena’s teeth breaking the skin, drawing blood, the pain becoming something other than pain, intensifying everything within herself until she felt her own body shaking uncontrollably in an unexpected climax.
Leaning weakly against each other, the two women gradually came back to themselves, their heartbeats slowing and their breathing matched in unison. Looking over Gabrielle’s shoulder, Xena realised no one had been paying the slightest attention to them as they had made love together against the wall of the hut. Glancing down, she noticed a little blood soaking the material of Gabrielle’s shirt. Gently drawing it aside, she saw the marks where her teeth had entered the skin. It wasn’t too deep, but there would be a faint scar when it healed.
Gabrielle saw what the warrior was looking at and said, "I’ll consider it as something of a badge of honour, Xena." The laughter and love shone bright in her eyes. Turning a little in Xena’s embrace, she watched the dancers for a few moments. "Still think the bed is too far away?" she asked.
"No. Lets get ourselves a little more comfortable, and private," Xena replied, already starting to move, a little shakily, in the direction of the Queen’s palace. "The Queen can have the hayloft. Give me a royal bed any day." Kissing the bard tenderly, they slipped away into the darkness as un-noticed as when they had made love.