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Copyright Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and any other name you recognize belong to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. Everything else belongs to me.
General Disclaimers: Nothing too graphic here. A little violence and sensual longing here, but what do you expect with an ex-warlord and the Queen of the Amazons? This is the second story in a five-story arc called "Chiaroscuro" (providing, of course, I don't get booed off the stage before then). This story picks up shortly after my last one "Tales of Darkness and Light." As they are all linked together like some insidious Byzantine maze, you should probably read them in order. That said... here goes:
All questions, comments, and other things are always welcome. You can reach me at:: email@example.com
There is a darkness inside us, and also a light. And sometimes both are wicked; and sometimes, both are love... Pain is not the same as suffering. We can have our sorrows and use them well, not just gyrate desperately to get rid of them. We can reach in and give and take. Reach in, or out, and be taken.
Part II: The Queen and the Soldier
"It was really great of you to offer to take this reply to King Merron," Gabrielle remarked, looking up at the tall woman who rode placidly alongside her.
"Well, I couldn't exactly refuse the Queen of the Amazons, now could I?" Xena bantered easily.
"I know," she grinned back, "However, I also know you hate politics. And even if we are just delivering a message there will be--"
"Receptions and dinners," Xena finished for her. "True. But Ephiny looked like she had her hands full at the village. They really took a beating in that last storm." Besides, my little Queen, you're going to have to learn to handle all these affairs of state. One day you might want to actually lead your nation. The thought left a cold spot deep inside the warrior. She and Gabrielle had been traveling together for over two summers. The idea of returning to her existence without the bard was something she preferred not to think about. Especially on such a beautiful afternoon. "Besides," she said, realizing that Gabrielle was waiting for her continue, "The journey up the coast is a pretty easy one. And take a look at this view." She gestured broadly, her right arm encompassing the magnificent sight of the sea and sandy beaches below them. They were headed down a gentle incline, having traveled the path along the top of the cliffs for several days. Now they were headed towards the shore and the city of Pellos.
Gabrielle blinked up at Xena in surprise. Taking a journey just for the view was not usually her style. In fact, whenever the bard tried to rhapsodize about the joys of a particular sunset or a field of flowers, the warrior generally smirked in silence or attempted to draw her attention to some mundane practicality. Xena scanned the skyline only to determine the weather, and when she knelt by a flower it was to check for the plant's healing properties. She seems awfully relaxed. Gabrielle considered. More relaxed than I've seen her in a long time. Her eyes narrowed as she thought to question her friend about it. Nah... why ruin a good thing? She grinned at the older woman. "You're absolutely right, Xena. This is a beautiful sight." Xena nodded in agreement, eyes on the shoreline below them, not noticing that Gabrielle's eyes were still on her. Gods, she has no idea of the effect she has on people, the bard thought. She's seen her body solely as a tool for so long that she forgets that others don't. Biting back a sigh at the increasingly familiar, but unproductive train of thought, she quickly shook her head, trying to knock the unruly impulses out of her skull.
"You okay?" the warrior asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine."
"Are you sure?" she persisted.
"Of course I'm sure, Xena. What could be wrong on a day like this?"
What indeed? Xena mused. "There's no way we'll reach Pellos before nightfall, and I know a great cove just a few candlemarks away. We can set up camp early, maybe find something special for dinner?" She watched her companion's eyes light up at the thought. "Maybe some mussels or something?" She asked, her eyebrow arched.
Gabrielle grinned in delight. "Sounds like a great idea to me."
"Great enough for you to ride with me? We'll make the cove a lot sooner if you do." She offered a hand to the bard who only paused a moment before grasping it and allowing Xena to pull her gracefully onto Argo's back. Beats trying to mount this beast on my own. Argo snorted as if she could read the bard's thoughts, and Gabrielle suppressed a giggle. Xena thought her horse capable of a great many things, but she hesitated to see if the warrior believed the animal could read human minds.
Xena held to her promise and a short time later led them into a wooded spot nestled near the last rise of the cliffs. Gabrielle could see the tide line fell well short of the mossy area where they would make their camp, while the cliffs to the left and the trees behind them would offer shelter from the chilly air that blew in from the sea. She smiled in appreciation. "Oh Xena. You were right. This is spectacular."
"I'm glad you like it," the warrior replied, pleased that she had been right in her choice. Pellos was, in fact, a great deal closer than she had led Gabrielle to believe. They could have made it if they had both ridden Argo; but, even though she had volunteered for this task, she wanted to put off the pomp and circumstance as long as possible. And it's been so long since I've been near the sea. We've been spending way too much time in smelly villages and taverns with unwashed men. The clean air will do us both some good.
The pair set up quickly and efficiently, falling into patterns long established by summers of traveling together. Xena found herself smiling at the routine and humming softly as they worked. The usually taciturn warrior's good humor didn't go unnoticed by the bard, who was delighted by this light-hearted mood. It's good to see that smile again. I was beginning to worry. I know she hasn't been sleeping much this past moon. Maybe the sound of the waves will help. Gabrielle was well aware of just how much Xena loved the sea. She thought about the times when they had traveled the coast-- walking along the beaches where Xena would show her different shells, watching the dark warrior race Argo through the shallows a joyous expression on her face. And boy does she know how to sail, the bard thought, remembering the sight of Xena striding along the deck of the Lost Mariner's ship.
An easy atmosphere settled over the small camp as the two women shared a dinner of mussels and sea urchins that Xena had gathered, flavored with herbs that Gabrielle found not far from their campsite. The warrior and the bard sat comfortably with their backs against a convenient log, facing the sea. The sun was just beginning its last descent into the ocean, streaking the sky with lashes of fire. The breeze off the water was crisp, making the heat from the fire at their backs welcome. Xena took a deep breath, releasing it slowly, feeling stress and tension seep away from her body.
Gabrielle looked at her companion, inwardly smiling at the relaxation visibly washing over her. "You really miss the sea sometimes, don't you?" She quietly held her breath waiting for the warrior's response. The past was something Xena preferred to avoid until directly confronted-- usually in the form of some old enemy standing in front of them swearing vengeance. Half-expecting a brush-off, Gabrielle was startled when the warrior turned thoughtful eyes to her.
"I miss the openness of the sea and the feeling of nothing closing in on me, of a limitless horizon. The salt spray in my face when our sail caught a strong wind. That was before--" she started to say before Caesar, before Ares, before Mi'lila, but she stopped herself, finishing instead, "Things turned really bad." She returned her gaze to the waves rolling before her, and the other woman knew the subject was closed.
They sat together, warrior and bard, locked in their own thoughts until the fire burned low. Silently, Gabrielle rose and banked it so it would smolder throughout the night. Then she slipped into her bedroll, her eyes on Xena's back, knowing that her friend would most likely remain there throughout the long night.
The next morning Gabrielle noted that the good humor of the previous evening remained with the tall warrior even though she knew that Xena had hardly slept at all. She had woken several times during the night to find her companion still sitting, contemplating the sea. And once she opened her eyes to see the warrior soundlessly, elegantly performing sword drills by the water's edge. Still, none of this seemed to bother Xena, and she had nudged Gabrielle awake that morning far more gently than she normally did.
Xena set a leisurely pace along the trail, walking alongside the smaller woman. Gabrielle relished the closeness, usually having to content herself with watching the warrior's tall back. Today she enjoyed discreetly studying the play of expressions over Xena's face as the bard told an outlandish story, befitting the whimsical mood that the two women shared.
"I'm telling you, Xena. Someday people will travel in giant flying birds--"
"Be serious, Gabrielle," the warrior scoffed. "Why in the gods' names would someone want to ride a flying beast? I've ridden a harpy- remember?" She shook her head. "And believe me, it's not something I ever want to do again. It's not something anyone in their right mind would want to do." She turned a mock-thoughtful glance at to the woman beside her. "You, on the other hand, I can see you wanting to do something like that."
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed at the gentle teasing. "No no no no. Not like a harpy. More like... Pegasus. Think about how much you love riding Argo. Now imagine being able to sail through the air with her."
Xena smiled at the image. "I don't think you'd like that very much, Gabrielle. You get nauseous when we jump Argo over a low fence. And you already complain that she's too high off the ground for you. Think about how hard it would be to mount her if--"
"All right already! Just take all the fun out of it." The bard bumped Xena with her hip. "Why do you always have to be so practical about everything?" she grumbled, kicking a rock ahead of her with a boot and missing the thoughtful expression that descended over Xena's face.
The dark warrior chuckled softly. "You're right. I do tend to think of everything as 'will this help or hurt?' Kind of a bad thing to do if I'm traveling with a bard. Kills your creative instinct, huh?
Oh gods, she thought I was being serious! Gabrielle noted with alarm, listening to Xena's quiet words. What is it with her? Talking about her past last night-- ok, ok, not exactly 'talking' but it was at least three sentences. That WAS talking for Xena. The good mood that still hasn't ended. And now she's talking about my 'creative instinct!' Where in Tartarus did she pick that expression up? All this flew through Gabrielle's thoughts in the time it took Xena to lock blue eyes on her. The warrior gave a small shrug of her shoulders. "Sorry. I need to work on that, I guess." Gabrielle's eyes widened at this last statement. Xena, 'working' on things?! Ok, ok-- there's a god involved somewhere. Don't tell me, don't tell me. Bliss has gotten hold of Daddy's arrows again. No, no-- Ares is trying to trick me-- No, no-- he wouldn't make Xena nice. This sounds like Aphrodite. But what would Aphrodite want with Xena and me? That sent the young woman's thoughts skidding to an abrupt halt. She cocked her head, totally forgetting that the warrior beside her was watching. Then she shook her head. Nah, couldn't be.
"Gabrielle-- Gabrielle-- are you all right?"
Ok-- let's try the direct approach. "Actually, Xena. I was going to ask you the same thing."
The warrior grinned. "Whatever do you mean?"
"Well..." she drew the word out, stretching her hands forward, her gestures unconsciously mimicking her voice, "You have seemed... different these last few days. Almost... cheerful."
"And that's a bad thing?" she frowned.
"No no no--" the bard assured her. "But, Xena, let's face it. You just don't do cheerful."
Struggling to keep the grin off her face, she asked sternly, "And what do I do, Gabrielle?"
"You know." Hunching her shoulders together, gesturing broadly with her arms. "The Warrior Princess Thing. Stoic. Brooding. Determined." She glanced up at her friend, whose eyes had begun to take on a mischievous twinkle. Twinkle? She's twinkling?
"Stoic? Brooding? Determined?" Xena echoed.
"You do brooding very well," the bard added.
"Thank you." An arched brow. "I think."
"Anyway," Gabrielle shrugged. "I was just wondering about the change in moods. I mean, is it just the salt air, or what?" She grinned. "You're not normally worried about my-- what did you call it?-- creative instinct. I know you think some of my stories are pretty silly."
Xena stopped on the trail and gently tugged at the bard's arm. Gabrielle ducked her head down, studying the long fingers on her arm, watching them travel closer and closer until they were softly holding her chin, bringing her eyes level with the warrior's steady blue ones. "Is that what you believe, Gabrielle? That I think your stories are silly? That I don't pay attention?" She shook her head, and when her gaze returned to her friend, her expression was sad. "I always listen, Gabrielle. Always. I know it may not seem like it sometimes." She dropped her hand from the bard's chin and shrugged, words never being something she was comfortable with.
Gabrielle stared at her, her mind desperately trying to process what her friend had just said. She opened her mouth to speak, but before any words could form, Xena spoke again.
"Your stories are important, Gabrielle. They give people hope and comfort in darkness, guidance when they're lost, and laughter when they're sad. And you're so good at it. You have... a gift... a wonderful, precious gift. Don't ever think that it doesn't matter to me."
Slack-jawed, Gabrielle continued to stare at the woman in front of her who purported to be the Warrior Princess.
"Close your mouth, bard, or a bee will fly down your throat and sting you. Where would your storytelling skills be then?" Xena gently teased her friend, not exactly sure why and how things had gotten so serious so fast.
The redhead managed the beginnings of a smile that rapidly and uncontrollably spread from the corners of her mouth to the tips of her eyes. "Ok-- where is Xena and what have you done with her?"
The warrior gave a lopsided smirk, glad that things were getting back on more familiar territory.
"Is somebody else inhabiting your body again?"
This got a full grin from the warrior. "Well, at least you know it's not Callisto this time."
"Thank the gods." They shared a moment of laughter. "I mean it, Xena. What's up? Not that I'm complaining. I much preferred your method of waking me up this morning compared to the usual."
"You mean you don't like cold spring water dumped in your face?" She innocently asked.
There's that twinkle again. And I can't believe she thinks I don't notice her changing the subject. Ok Xena. You win this round. I'll let it go for now. But don't think that we're finished. Something's up with you. You know it. I know it. And you know I know it. And I know... wait-a-minute. I'm getting my 'knows' confused. Oh well. A mental shrug, accompanied by a small physical one that the bard didn't know she gave, signaled the end of the conversation to Xena, who breathed a small sigh of relief, resuming her own musings as they continued down the road in companionable silence.
They stopped in a small cave that was just a candlemark away from the city gates so that Gabrielle could change into her Amazon garb. Xena had insisted that she don the red leather that marked her as the Queen, despite the bard's protests. "Look, Gabrielle, you are representing the Amazon nation. Do you think that Ephiny would arrive to deliver a state message in her traveling leathers?" Quite frankly I'm surprised I talked her out of the Royal Escort that she wanted to send in spite of the storm damage and the need for repairs to the village. She chuckled as she remembered Ephiny's expression when the regent realized that Xena was to be the Queen's only escort. Oooh... Gabrielle's going to love this one, she grinned to herself as she pulled out a set of leathers, different from her usual black ones, and began methodically stripping off her body armor.
"Uh... Xena? What are you doing?" Gabrielle twisted around trying to adjust the unfamiliar garment that she hadn't worn since she'd become Queen. She frowned as she watched Xena's preparations.
"Ephiny insisted that you have a Royal Escort."
"And you brought them in your saddlebag? What else have you got in there?"
A snort of laughter was her response.
"Seriously, Xena. What are you doing?"
Xena sighed. The first lessons of state protocol had begun. She had learned these rules long ago, if only to know how to flaunt them. "Gabrielle, we're not traveling to Pellos as just Gabrielle and Xena. They are expecting the Amazon Queen. And that, my friend, is you. And Amazon Queens don't just go mucking about the countryside, particularly with ex-warlords."
"Which would be you."
That got a smile from the warrior. "Precisely."
"So who are you supposed to be? Miss Amphipolis?"
"Hardly. I'm your escort, guard, and general aide-de-camp. Ephiny couldn't spare the people, but she didn't want you walking in there alone, figuratively speaking. Besides, half of Greece thinks I am an Amazon because they think any female warrior has to be Amazon. Eph didn't seem to think that this little 'deception' would keep Artemis up nights. You know?"
The two women changed clothes swiftly, Gabrielle into the red leather of the Queen, and Xena into the low slung leather skirt and royal blue top that marked the Royal Guard in Amazonia. "Good thing Pellos is a peaceful kingdom," Xena remarked, turning around to face her companion. "I can't exactly wear my armor in this get up."
"Whoa--" Both women said in unison as they looked at each for the first time, clothed in the unfamiliar garments.
"That--" Xena gestured to the leather on Gabrielle-- "Suits you."
"I was going to say the same thing about you."
"You look very regal, My Queen," she replied playfully.
"Really." A pause. "Even if you do have your gauntlets on backwards." Before the bard could launch a tirade, Xena hastened over to her. "Here let me help you."
"That's a switch."
"It's what I'm here for, My Queen."
"Can I have you executed for insubordination?" Gabrielle asked as her new aide-de-camp fixed her gauntlets and made several other minor and not-so-minor adjustments.
"Why, My Queen?"
"Because you're the only person I know that can make 'My Queen' sound like an insult." She complained, but her eyes were dancing.
Xena smirked in reply. She turned the Queen around to face her. "Here, let me look at you." She tugged at the shoulders of the top, settling it firmly. She nodded at the vision before her and was unable to hide a smile. "You look great."
A grin lit up the bard's face. "Thank you." She looked at her friend. "You don't look so bad yourself." She poked Xena gently on her bare midriff. "Look at you. What's this, the Warrior Princess showing a little skin?"
"I didn't design the outfit. It's what the Amazons run around in. Not me."
"Too bad," Gabrielle remarked, noting the smooth lines of muscle across Xena's torso. "It looks good. It will certainly make people sit up and notice."
"People aren't supposed to notice me here. Their attention is going to be focused on you, Gabrielle. Everything you do and say. You'll make Eph and the Amazons proud."
"You think so?"
"I know so. Come on. The sooner we get there..."
"The sooner we can leave," Gabrielle finished for her, reading the warrior's thoughts.
As they reached the gates of Pellos, Xena wished Gabrielle could have been talked into a horse. But the bard had adamantly refused, saying she didn't want to ride when she could walk. And of course, Xena couldn't let the Amazon Queen just walk into the city. So here she was walking alongside Argo who was eyeing her reproachfully at this strange turn of events. "I know, I know," she muttered to the horse. "This does seem a little backwards." The golden mare snorted in agreement. "But I appreciate your help."
Gabrielle looked down at her friend talking companionably to the horse. "You know, Xena. I believe you talk to Argo more than you talk to me."
"Better conversation," she replied dryly.
"Look, Lieutenant Warrior Princess--" Gabrielle's reply was cut off by the blare of royal horns as they arrived at the castle.
Lucky me, Xena thought to herself. I bet that one would have hurt. She grinned.
The Captain of the Guards greeted them with two men Xena assumed were council advisors. They had that officious air that she associated with men who spent their lives "consulting" rather than acting. "Your majesty--" one of what Xena instantly called 'The Bookends' in her mind began. "Welcome to Pellos. King Merron sends you his warmest regards."
"Then why isn't he here?" Gabrielle asked crisply, ignoring Xena's arched brow. I do know a little about this Queen business, my warrior friend.
"Um... he was detained in chambers. There is a small matter that he needs to take care of. I assure you, he has nothing but the highest regards for the Amazons." The other Bookend replied. "Um-- Your Majesty, um--" He looked at a loss for what to call Xena.
"You can just call her Lt. WP," Gabrielle supplied for her.
Xena did her best to control a small bark of laughter that threatened to burst forth. The Bookends didn't catch the brief exchange between the Queen and her new soldier, but it was not lost on the Captain of the Guards whose eyes reflected the merriment Xena suppressed.
"Um... yes. Well, Your Majesty, please allow us to show you to your chambers. The page here will see to your horse."
Xena's eyes narrowed as a youth stepped smartly forward. She turned to Gabrielle and helped the Queen dismount then turned to the lad, glancing at him sharply. She ran a quick mental debate on whether or not to insist on taking the horse herself as she usually did, but she bowed to protocol. Without comment she surrendered the reins to the page, marking him with her eyes in case of trouble later.
"Your Majesty, allow me." Bookend Number One offered his arm to Gabrielle. She hesitated, catching Xena with her eyes in a silent question. "Captain Ridley will see to your aide," he said in the same tone he had used when commenting on the arrangements for the horse.
Now it was Gabrielle's turn to narrow her eyes. She wasn't about to let them dismiss the Warrior Princess so easily. Drawing herself up to look every inch the Queen, "My lieutenant is a most valuable member of my Nation. Where I go, she goes. Do you understand me?"
The Bookends exchanged worried glances. While the Queen was expected to have a personal advisor, there was something... feral about the tall woman with the Queen that made them both visibly uneasy. The wolfish grin that had appeared on Xena's face wasn't helping the situation. Xena, of course, instantly recognized their discomfort and enjoyed it. But... enough is enough. I suppose I should let these boys off the hook. Merron has a good reputation. And this Captain Ridley seems sharp enough. Perhaps a tour of the grounds and barracks is a good idea. Show me what his real strength is. A wicked look danced across her features. I could call it intelligence gathering. "My Queen," she addressed Gabrielle, all traces of humorous intonation she had used earlier gone, "With your leave I'd like to have a word with the Captain here about security arrangements. I could brief you in chambers immediately afterwards."
With her best royal nod, Gabrielle agreed. She turned to the Bookends, "I assume my lieutenant will be quartered beside my chambers," her tone suggested that if this wasn't the case previously, then it was now. Then she smiled and shrugged. "You can't be too careful these days."
"Of course, of course, Your Majesty," the Bookends answered, heads bobbing in unison.
Captain Ridley had watched this whole exchange with an impassive face, but now the hint of a grin was tugging at the corners of his mouth. He waited until the advisors had led the Queen away before speaking. "That was very impressive. But tell me, how did the Warrior Princess become an aide-de-camp to the Amazon Queen?" A full smile broke over his face, and soft brown eyes danced in laughter.
Xena quirked an eyebrow at him. "Gabrielle is my best friend. And the whole Warrior Princess thing tends to make people nervous, so we decided to keep a lid on it."
"I thought you liked making people nervous. You seemed to enjoy intimidating Servius and Trello."
I would've enjoyed backhanding them even more. She cocked her head at the Captain. "I don't want anything to overshadow the Queen's visit. So for the duration of our stay here, I'm just a common soldier."
"You're hardly common, Xena. And don't you think word will get out?"
For some reason she decided to trust this man. He had kind eyes and, although physically big, his demeanor was gentle. She narrowed her eyes as she tried to pin down her reaction to him. Then she nodded imperceptibly to herself. Hercules. That's who he reminded her of. She smiled at him disarmingly. "Work with me here, Ridley. You're the Captain of the Guard. You set the tone for your men."
Ridley ducked his head in agreement. "Very well then, Xena. Let me show you around so you can 'brief' your queen." Just through the castle gates, they veered away from the castle proper and down a gentle slope towards the stables and barracks. The castle grounds, Xena knew, were enormous. She wanted to get an idea of how many men Merron kept in his army. How organized they were and what their attitudes in general were to Amazons. The message that she and Gabrielle carried was a reply to Merron's offer of a trade and mutual defense pact. Although normally the Amazons didn't like mixing too much with other city-states, the Nation was growing once again and in need of more land. They didn't want to have to go to war for it. Trade agreements were a start. Any information she could gather from her stroll with Ridley would help Gabrielle determine just how receptive Merron would be to further dealings. It was possible that he saw the Amazons as a threat and just wanted to buy them off to keep the peace. As she breathed in the familiar scents of the approaching camp, she grinned and wondered how Gabrielle was faring on her first state visit.
Gabrielle allowed herself to be led away by the Bookends, still seething over their treatment of Xena. But she heard the warrior's voice in her head, soothing the anger. Never let them know what you're thinking, Gabrielle. People betray themselves with their faces. Remember, when in doubt: smile. Following her friend's good advice, she took a deep breath and turned to the Bookend on the left. "I'm sorry, I don't think I caught your name."
The taller Bookend bowed slightly. Quite a feat considering they were walking up a rather steep flight of stairs. "A thousand pardons, Your Majesty. I am Servius."
"And I am Trello," the smaller man chimed.
And they both gave her a walking bow in unison.
Wow, Gabrielle thought, do they practice that or what?
They took a circuitous path through the castle, with a running commentary by Servius about this tapestry or that chalice. Gabrielle filed away as many tidbits as possible, knowing that setting a good scene was vital in telling any story. But eventually even her memory cells were stuffed to overflowing with minutiae about the rooms they walked through. Just when she thought she was going to have to take her staff to the chattering advisor, the Bookends stopped briskly in front of a door. Gods, is this how Xena feels when I won't shut up? I'll have to remember this.
"These are your chambers, Your Majesty."
"Oh, thank you." Saved.
"Perhaps you would like to freshen up and relax. You must be tired from your journey."
"Yes, of course. Thank you," she repeated. Then nodding, she dismissed them. They bowed again and left the Amazon Queen, who breathed a sigh of relief.
The room was truly fit for a king-- or a queen in this case. The bed was the focal point of the room, and quite simply the biggest one Gabrielle had ever laid eyes on. Yards and yards of crimson silk draped from the four corners of the bedposts, forming a canopy over the half dozen pillows artfully strewn across the expanse of the mattress. The blankets were cream colored, as were the sheets. A quick touch confirmed that they, too, were silk. "Ooh. I could get used to this," she said aloud. The room also had a large fireplace with a comfortable arrangement of a couch and two overstuffed chairs, functioning as a sitting and reception area. A correspondence desk situated by the window completed the room's furniture. She seated herself at the desk and was greeted by the beautiful vista of the sea in the distance. Closer up, she could see the army's drilling and formation fields and the barracks that housed the men. Although the area was filled with people going about their daily routines, Gabrielle spotted an unmistakably familiar figure. A lazy grin spread over her face as she recognized Xena strolling among the soldiers, apparently listening intently to the Captain of the Guard. She appraised the warrior's Amazon garb once more. That look really does suit her. She has no idea.
Xena was impressed. The camp was well laid out, disciplined, and orderly. She noticed a number of men alertly on guard, backs to the bustle of the camp. A small core was drilling on the practice fields, simple maneuvers she recognized as a basic training drill. She nodded at the men. "New troops?"
Ridley grinned at her. "They look that green?"
"I recognized the drill. The Helios Ladder, isn't it?" Then she added with a smirk, "And they look that green."
He watched the men for a moment, wincing when one particularly clumsy young man smacked himself into he head. "That hurt." Then he grinned, remembering his early training. "I remember doing that a couple of times myself."
Xena merely snickered. She had memories of her own clumsy forays into sword fighting, but they weren't happy ones. They were charged with the screams of her fellow villagers, the sight of men dying at her feet, and most of all-- her own overwhelming rage against the force that would destroy her life, her world. Death and killing came first. Practice and drills came later, when she had to turn thieves and murderers into an army capable of inflicting the same kind of damage she had suffered. Closing that part of her mind down, she turned to Ridley and asked, "How many training core do you have?"
"At any one time, three divisions advancing through the program." Seeing her arched brow, he continued. "We have a basic program that every man goes through. It's designed to give necessary combat skills as well as determine what each soldier's strengths and weaknesses are. And even if he's cut out to be in the army."
"No need, Xena. This is one of the best fighting units of any city-state in Greece. These men volunteered."
She saw the spark of pride that lit Ridley's eyes. These were his men, his expression said clearly. And, she had to admit, it looked like he had reason to be proud. But any army looked good in the camp, with crisp uniforms and plenty of food. How they performed in the field. That was the true test. One which Xena had undergone more times than she could remember. She looked around, nodding in agreement. "You run a clean camp." Hmmm... not as good as the Amazons, though. Wonder how he feels about them?
"Thank you," he replied, accepting the compliment one soldier to another.
"Just about as clean as any I've seen, including the Amazons." Forgive me Eponin, it's for a good cause. "They have a neat trick of laying their sites out in interlocking circles. It makes it harder to ambush the outlying sites."
"Really." A pause. "The Amazons are good fighters." No inflection. "I certainly wouldn't want to get on their bad side."
So you respect the Amazons, but don't particularly care for them. I think we can work with that. She turned to Ridley, "I appreciate the tour, but I think I'd like to go check on Her Highness. Make sure she's gotten settled all right."
"Of course. I'll take you to her chambers."
The path that Xena and Ridley took to the queen's door was much more direct and devoid of any idle chatter about the decor. Ridley left her with a small salute, and she entered the room looking around for Gabrielle.
"Took you long enough," came the voice from behind a half-closed door. Xena followed the voice through the bedroom proper into a small bathing area and grinned at the sight that greeted her there. Gabrielle was submerged to her chin in a steaming bath. The rich scent of oils filled the warrior's nostrils, and she took in the luxury with an appreciative glance.
"Seems like they're treating you well enough."
"Aren't they, though? A girl could get used to this."
"Being a Queen isn't all Royal Baths, Gabrielle."
"Tell me about it. I think I'm already familiar with the downsides." The Bard Queen growled, referring to their exploits against Valesca, the would-be ruler of the Amazons and now-deposed Goddess of Chaos.
"That's true. You do deserve some of the perks."
"My point exactly. And one of the perks, my dear Lt. Warrior Princess, is having a royal backwasher."
Xena looked around the room, a who? Me? expression on her face.
"Yes you, the tall dark one with the great tan." She flicked an imperious hand at her friend. "Come here."
Keeping a smile carefully from her face and eyes, Xena approached the tub. "And what would you have me do, Mi Lady?"
"Scrub," she commanded.
Taking the sponge in hand, Xena did as she was bade, letting the grin loose over her face now that Gabrielle's back was to her. It wouldn't do for the Queen to know she enjoyed the play as much as her younger friend did. She knew that half of Gabrielle's fun was derived from making the Warrior Princess do things she didn't want to do.
Sighing contentedly as Xena ran the sponge full of warm water down her back, an evil thought occurred to the Queen. Nah... I shouldn't. But really... what harm could it do? Might be interesting to see her reaction. "Speaking of that tan, Xena..."
"Yes..." the soldier-cum-backwasher drew out the word.
"You don't exactly have any tan lines. You know? I'd expect your stomach to be a little well... less bronze than it is."
Xena arched a brow at the Queen's line of thought. If it were any other woman, she'd swear she was being flirted with. But this wasn't any other woman. This was Gabrielle. And Gabrielle didn't flirt. At least not with her.
"Well?" she prodded.
"Well what?" Xena realized that Gabrielle was waiting for an answer.
"How do you do it?"
"Many skills. Yes, I know Xena. Everybody knows. But all over sunning? Through leather?"
"I'm not always wearing leather, Gabrielle." Yup, any other woman, this would definitely classify as flirting. Why am I even thinking about this? Gods, it's been a long time. This last thought triggered another. How long, exactly, has it been? A full cycle of the Seasons at least. Maybe more. Since she had started traveling with Gabrielle a quick toss in the stables with someone she had just met had seemed less and less appealing when compared to the conversation and warmth that waited for her with the bard. So eventually, it had stopped even being a concern. So if it's such a NON concern, then why am I thinking about it now? She had stopped washing Gabrielle's back and was instead, tracing delicate patterns on the Queen's shoulders and arms with her fingertips, completely lost in her thoughts.
Ignorant of her friend's thoughts and entangled in her own, Gabrielle was enjoying the unexpected tenderness from the normally physically reticent warrior and was not about to say a word to disrupt the moment.
A name that had been in Xena's thoughts all too often these days drifted across them again. Corin. It was not the first time her mind had been lost to images of the Amazon warrior. They had encountered the woman not three-quarter moons ago. She had helped them in a skirmish, and Xena had felt an instant connection. It wasn't that they were both warriors, two sides of the same coin: dark and light. No, according to Corin, they were connected by something much stronger. And Xena believed the other warrior. She felt it in the heat that traveled between them in even the most casual of contacts. Like Xena herself, Corin had trained with Ares, and that was where the Amazon warrior had said she had first seen Xena.
Stunned by the Amazon's words, Xena had wondered when Ares could have shown her the young warlord.
"During the siege of Macarda," Corin had replied. "A siege most would have said was certain suicide. But you triumphed, Xena. Ares had big plans for us, you see. After I completed the final step of my training, he was going to bring us together." Xena searched the depths of those fierce green eyes, as Corin studied her darker counterpart. "You said you never wanted me as an adversary. Can you imagine what would have happened if you and I had fought on the same side during your warlord days?"
The two women had stared at each other as images flashed through Xena's mind: blood, carnage, burning cities, and then, lastly, a searing vision of their bodies intertwined.
"Oh yes, Xena. All that. And much more." Corin had growled.
Her encounter with the Amazon warrior had not left Xena unmarked. Corin's story, about her descent into darkness and her path to redemption resonated with the other warrior. Now she carried the tale in her mind like a talisman, and it had brought her an odd sort of peace. Remembering how Corin had freed herself from Ares' grasp and her ability to accept the darkness as a part, but not all, of who she was, shed a ray of hope that often made the warrior's bleak road towards atonement a little easier. And allowed her to respond with a little more playfulness to the light that Gabrielle brought into her life.
Now she found herself responding to the Amazon Bard with more than just friendly banter. And she suspected the reason for that lay in her meeting with Corin too. Since then, she had been besieged with the images of what Ares had planned for the two warriors. She knew that together they would have made an unstoppable pair, both on and off the battlefield. Those were the images that haunted her dreams these nights and kept her from sleep when Gabrielle thought it was her old demons. She wasn't ready to discuss it with young bard, and she didn't know that she ever would be. This was the conversation she had avoided earlier that day on the road. The lure of the visions frightened her and, at the same time, awakened her sensibilities in ways long dormant. Even now, through the bare touch of her fingertips, she could feel the curve of the muscles in the Queen's arms and the smooth skin stretched over them, damp and supple from the warm water. She could smell the subtle fragrance of the bath oils mixing with Gabrielle's own crisp scent. She smells like the sunlight...
Abruptly returning to the present, she realized that the conversation had stopped. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. What were you saying?"
"You were saying that you don't always wear leather, Xena."
Is it just me, or has Gabrielle's voice dropped an octave? "Ah.. well.." Hades it's warm in here. A quick rap on the chamber's outer door saved her.
"Let me get that." Xena jumped up to answer the door, her hands dripping with water. Making sure the portal to the bathing area was closed, she flung open the door in relief. "Yes, what is it?"
Bookend number one, Servius, bowed neatly before her. "King Merron would like to request Her Majesty's presence at dinner this evening."
"Her Majesty accepts."
"Very good. Dinner will be served in two candlemarks."
A splashing sound drew both their eyes to the bathing area's door.
"She's enjoying her bath."
Eyeing the soldier's still-wet hands, Servius nodded. "It would appear so."
Years of being the Warrior Princess kept her from blushing at the man's expression, but just barely. Between Gabrielle's bath, the ambiguous banter, and the advisor's misunderstanding, her senses were on overload. Conquering her impulse to just slam the door in the little man's face, she gave him a seductive smile instead. "Well, she is the Queen." Oh well, it's not like this is the first time somebody's jumped to that conclusion.
"Of course. Until dinner then." He bowed and departed, leaving Xena to her turmoil.
At dinner, Xena kept quiet. Gabrielle wanted to write it off as her usual stoic warrior routine, but the conversation that had taken place during her bath kept tugging at her. She wasn't exactly sure what had possessed her to tease Xena like that. I mean it's not like teasing and Xena go together, you know? At least not that way. Xena's sexuality-- not to mention her own-- was not exactly a frequent topic of conversation between the pair. She hadn't even been able to ask what to expect on her wedding night. Though Hades knows I wanted to. And was dying to ask the warrior about some of the stories she'd heard about her-- just to see if some of that stuff was physically possible-- but she knew there was a snowball's chance in Tartarus that she'd ever work up the courage for that particular chat.
Her thoughts raced as she tried to maintain a coherent dialogue with Merron. The king was cordial enough and younger than she expected. Handsome, too, in kind of a courtly way. She could tell that he wasn't a warrior king. This man had been bred to hold court. She watched Xena silently appraise him, find the man wanting, and dismiss him from further contemplation. All in a single glance. The dark woman didn't appear to be in a mood to be trifled with. I guess I really upset her, the Queen thought regretfully.
Xena had declined a seat at the table, preferring instead to stand behind and just to the left of the Queen's chair. It wasn't that Xena wasn't hungry, it just looked better if the Queen had an attendant. This one-woman army/ council/ attendant thing has got to go. Royal Backwasher... hrrmphf. Then arching an internal eyebrow. Well... it wasn't that bad. Then another thought, this one causing a silent, wicked chuckle. Now that would be an interesting duty. She gave herself a mental shake. That's it. I'm taking a long, COLD bath immediately after dinner. I don't care what court functions I'm supposed to perform. Watching Gabrielle talk animatedly with the King and members of his court, effortlessly charming the whole table, Xena couldn't help but smile. She's got the public relations aspect of the job down pat. Of course, eating and talking are two of her favorite activities.
Although the dinner seemed interminable to Xena, it was over soon enough, thanks to Gabrielle. The shadows in her friend's eyes worried the Queen more than they usually did, because for the past few days they had been gone from the clear blue irises. Now they were back, it seemed, with a vengeance. She gracefully extricated the pair from the rest of the evening's festivities by pleading travel weariness. Xena, well aware of how far Gabrielle was used to traveling in a day, watched her make their excuses with an arched brow but said nothing. Thankful for the reprieve, she guided the Queen gently through the maze-like castle.
The chatter that usually nipped at her heels as she walked with the bard was strangely absent this evening. Maybe she really is tired, Xena mused. Opening the door to the queen's chambers and, taking a quick look around to make sure nothing was amiss, she nodded her approval at the way the bedcovers had been folded down and the Amazon's sleeping shirt laid out on the pillow. "Very nice."
"Another perk, I guess."
"Take advantage of it, My Queen. Who knows when you'll get this chance again?" Sleeping under the stars was a matter of course for the pair. And honestly, that was the way the warrior preferred it. She didn't like confinement of any kind, whether it be a shack or a palace. Both had four walls and a roof that kept her from the land and the sky.
"Oh believe me, I am." The gentle banter told Gabrielle that a little of the other woman's good humor had returned. But something still seems off. Not off, exactly- but different. It's like her skin can barely contain her. She scared Servius and Trello half out of their wits tonight and all she did was stand there. And that Captain- what's his name- Ridley? He couldn't keep his eyes off her. A pause in her thoughts, then they resumed. Oh who am I kidding? When CAN'T people keep their eyes off her? A frown marked itself in the crease between her eyes. But she doesn't ever seem to notice it. I mean subtlety is NOT one of the Amazons' strong points. Half the camp followed her every move the last time we were there, and the other half watched from a distance. And Xena never even arched an eyebrow. A question occurred to her. I wonder whose idea it was to make Xena wear the leathers? Now that's something I can see Ephiny engineering. I bet she even made her model the outfit. Gabrielle couldn't suppress the laughter that bubbled up at this last thought.
The sound of the Queen's mirth caught Xena, who had been surreptitiously eyeing the bathing chamber, by surprise. She turned around to see Gabrielle staring unseeing at the bed in front of her, her laughter increasing. Why do I think I don't want to know what this is about? I suppose I should ask anyway. "Uh... Gabrielle? What's so funny?
It took Gabrielle a few seconds to catch her breath and refocus on the tall woman standing in front of her. When she did, the sight of Xena's sleek form in the Amazon garb coupled with her recent musings sent a blush spreading rapidly across her face and down her neck. She could feel the warmth suffusing her skin and knew it had to be visible to the warrior's keen eyes. Great, how am I going to get out of this one? Gee Xena, I was just imagining you stripped naked in front of...
Xena, who had taken one look at the beautiful flush on Gabrielle's features and decided she definitely didn't want to know what was going on in the bard's head, saved her. "I think it's about time I found a bed and bath of my own. I'll be right next door if you need anything. Okay?" Xena exited before Gabrielle could say anything, unsure of what had sent them both spiraling into this unfamiliar territory.
The two women spent sleepless nights, but for different reasons. Xena was trying to ward off the seductive visions of Corin and the power they would have wielded together. Whenever she did start to drift off, her sleep-sight was immediately filled with the blond warrior... images more clear than any dream she had ever had. But this night added a new torture. Tonight Gabrielle haunted her dreamscape as well, in a way she never had before. She could taste the woman, hear her, smell her. The two women danced just out of her grasp. Reaching out in her dreams for Corin, for Gabrielle-- she just didn't know anymore-- she closed her arms on empty air, jerking awake in the darkness. It didn't help any that they had quartered her in what she swore was a broom closet. There was barely room for a pallet, forget about anything else. taking a deep breath to steady her racing pulse, she propped her back against the wall, drawing out her whetstone to spend the remaining hours before dawn sharpening her daggers.
As the first fingers of light were reaching into her window, she was startled by a soft knock on her door. Expecting an officious aid, she jerked the door open, scowl firmly in place, and found herself confronted by a wide-awake Gabrielle. "You're up early," she said, noting the odd look on the bard's face. She could tell the Queen had slept, but not rested.
"Yeah, I thought I'd see why you were so keen on this 'up at dawn' thing," she grinned. "Besides, I wanted to get some sparring in before I had to spend the day 'meeting' with Merron."
"Good idea. Let me grab my sword. They should have a practice staff I can borrow in the weapons hut." She turned to pick up her sword, strapping it across her back in a smooth, easy movement.
"Xena," Gabrielle's voice was eerily quiet, and it made the hairs on Xena's neck stand on end.
"Why didn't you tell me they put you in a supply closet?"
Relief flooded through the warrior's body. Thank the gods she didn't pick up last night's conversation where it left off. For a minute there...
"Why?" The word was repeated firmly, softly.
Xena looked closely at the Queen and saw that Gabrielle was genuinely upset. Shrugging her shoulders, she glanced around the tight confines of her quarters. "You know I don't care where I sleep." Then stopped abruptly at the unintended double meaning of the words, she corrected herself, "I mean, appearances don't really matter much to me."
"Xena, you were the one who said, in this case, appearances DO matter. I'm the Amazon Queen, and they put my aide in a closet. A closet!! That doesn't show very much respect for my nation, or me now does it? I mean, they initiate a mutual defense treaty; we travel all this way; and then they treat you like this?!?"
Sensing the fury building inside the Queen, Xena pulled her into the tiny room in question and shut the door. "Gabrielle, I'm not an Amazon," she tried to placate her friend.
"THEY don't know that. And besides, I indicated that you were an important person, not just to me, but to the entire Nation. And running around dressed as an Amazon was YOUR idea. Remember? The point is, your birth doesn't matter here. My word does. They have to understand that."
Okay, maybe I don't need to be giving any lessons in protocol. She's doing pretty well on her own. "I see your point."
Gabrielle tried to start pacing- her favorite habit when agitated- but the narrow confines of the room quickly prohibited that. She couldn't take two steps without running into the pallet or the wall. The Queen emitted a frustrated sound of rage, her back to Xena. When she turned back around, her face was a mixture of sorrow and regret that confused the dark warrior. Gabrielle sighed deeply, shaking her head. "You know, that's not even why I'm really mad." Two steps brought her back directly in front of her friend, and she reached out tentatively to stroke the square jawline. Xena startled softly at the touch but didn't move away. "I'm furious with them because I know how much you hate being cooped up at all, let alone in a space this tiny. It must have been unbearable. Why didn't you come to my room last night? We could have put have the Amazon Nation in there and still had more than enough room."
Xena tried to turn her words into a joke, anything to deflect the sadness on her friend's face. "And how do you think that would have looked? The Queen sharing her room with a common soldier?" The words came out more seriously than she had intended, and the laughter died in her throat.
"Xena," Gabrielle place both hands on the taller woman's shoulders and looked her fiercely in the eyes. "I don't care what people say about us."
Silence hung between the two women until Xena remembered to breathe. Managing both a small chuckle and a smile, she replied. "You're contradicting yourself, My Queen."
The bard shook her head. "I'm not talking about the Queen and the soldier right now. I'm talking about us. Do you think I don't hear the whispers in the taverns? Or know what they're talking about?" She paused a beat, considering her next words and wondering what effect they would have on Xena. "Do you know how many times I ENCOURAGE them to think that, just so we can have a night without some drunken man trying to join us? And believe me, I don't consider the illusion to be a hardship." Now it was Gabrielle's turn to chuckle at her friend's dumbstruck expression. "Don't even get me started about the Amazons," she added, almost as an afterthought.
"Amazons?" The warrior's voice came out strangled and raspy.
Gabrielle laughed this time and showed a genuine smile. "Oh, my friend, you have quite a reputation."
"Reputation?" A dramatically arched eyebrow did nothing to dislodge the shocked look on the taller woman's face.
Gabrielle's stomach chose this moment to providentially interrupt the pair with a loud rumble. "I think my stomach is trying to tell us something. Breakfast first. Then we'll see about this room arrangement." She tugged at Xena's arm, but the woman didn't move. "Come on. I'm starving," she tried again, dislodging the warrior from her position and leading them through the castle. Now that she had had a moment to consider the path this talk was leading them down, Gabrielle decided that she didn't really want Xena to know about some of her campfire conversations with the Amazons that had focused on the more... aesthetic... qualities of the Warrior Princess.
Because Merron and his court were less than early risers, the cooks in the Royal kitchen were only beginning to go about their morning duties and were just a little startled by the appearance of the Amazon queen and her aide. Xena solved their dilemma by leading Gabrielle swiftly out a back door and down to the soldiers' mess, which was bustling with activity. They snagged two heaping plates and mugs of milk and settled themselves against a large tree, facing the main camp. The ground was still damp with dew, and Xena grinned at the softness of the grass and the morning sounds around her. A gentle breeze periodically caressed the loose tendrils of her hair, bringing with it the faint scent of the sea.
"This is more like it, huh?" The Queen smiled at her friend.
"I can think of worse places to be right now," Xena agreed. Yeah, like the inside of that damned room. Gods, Xena, she knows you well. You were about to crawl out of your skin in that place. But somehow, I think it was better than seeking solace in your friend's bedchamber. Shaking her head at the images that graphic idea brought on, she chastised herself, get a grip, warrior. No doubt about it, the dreams were creeping into her daily life with Gabrielle, and that was a bad thing. Even now, she could feel the roiling energy under her skin, the blood racing from her heart and winding throughout her body. In her peripheral vision she could see Gabrielle finish her breakfast and turn away from her, handing her plate to a fresh-faced youth who offered to return it to the kitchen. Covertly, Xena studied the play of the muscles in her friend's back, the supple leanness of her stomach, the strength in her legs. "Gabrielle."
The bard felt, rather than heard, the low growl that was her name on Xena's lips. The liquid sound rippled through her, and she turned her face away from the sun to a different kind of heat. "Yes, Xena?"
A long moment of silence drifted across the two women, where the kinds of things that don't have words began to pass from blue eyes to green.
"Didn't you want to spar before your meeting?"
It wasn't the question Gabrielle was expecting, although if asked, she couldn't have said exactly what she was expecting to hear from Xena. Perhaps it was just the sound of her name once more, rolling off the warrior's tongue. She blinked her eyes closed, opening them again to see the carefully controlled blank mask she had come to know so well. "Right. Let's go."
Xena quickly found a stave with a height and weight suitable for her long form. She and Gabrielle found a practice field on the top of a small crest, overlooking the ocean, the sound of the surf beneath them. They warmed up and then saluted each other before taking their positions. Gabrielle loved the small ceremony they made of their practice sessions, her storyteller's heart enchanted by these tiny details. She took the first offensive, spinning her staff fluidly as an extension of herself. She tried a basic combination that Xena easily parried, then shifted into a more complicated set of maneuvers. Xena grinned in admiration as she blocked first an overhead pass, then ducked as a backhand thrust nearly took her head off.
The tall warrior then took the offensive smoothly away from Gabrielle, escalating the speed of the encounter. Much to her surprise, the smaller woman reacted swiftly. Usually Xena's first offensive ended in a few strokes with Gabrielle knocked gently to the ground. But this time she felt a new strength in her friend, and it delighted the warrior. Both women responded to the rising fire in their blood and began an intimate dance with their staves. The momentum of the match flowed from one woman to the other as they traded advantages easily, with the practice of old partners. Reluctant to break the communion they shared, but aware of the Queen's other engagements, Xena rapidly advanced on Gabrielle, forcing the smaller woman back on the defensive. A series of powerful blows knocked the stave from the redhead's grasp, but instead of conceding defeat, Gabrielle dropped into a spinning back kick, effectively separating the taller woman's feet from the ground. The warrior found herself flat on her back, the Amazon Queen kneeling over her, holding Xena's own stave at her throat. A menacing throaty laugh rumbled over her, "Do you yield, Xena?"
The conquered warrior managed only a nod and three soft words, "Yes, My Queen."
The rest of the day passed in an adrenaline haze for Xena. Ridley, deciding to take full advantage of having the Warrior Princess on his drilling fields, conned her into showing him some training routines. The morning bout with Gabrielle had kicked over the last barriers separating Xena from her feral instincts-- all her senses were pulsing in hyper-awareness of her body and her surroundings-- and the power coursed through her faster and faster with each new sparring match. By the time the sun finally began its evening descent into the ocean, Xena was facing the simultaneous attacks of six of the king's Honor Guard, the best fighters in Pellos, and sending them all tumbling to the ground with ease.
Gabrielle and King Merron were among the crowd that caught this last display of Xena's expertise. The king just shook his head as one after the another of his best soldiers surrendered to the lone woman on the field, but he joined in the enthusiastic applause as the last soldier-- Ridley himself-- threw down his sword to Xena's triumphant laugh. Gabrielle noted Merron's response and smiled to herself. She had to admit, standing there in the leather and Royal Blue, not even winded by her battle with the men, Xena was the perfect embodiment of all the Amazon ideals. And she had just given an impeccable display of those ideals to the King of Pellos who, from the dazed expression on his face, was most appreciative of her efforts.
Surrounded by admiring soldiers, the object of all this adulation accepted and returned the handclasps and salutes thrown her way. Catching sight of Gabrielle standing on the rise with Merron, she left the circle of men and strode up the small hill, a satisfied grin on her face. "Your Majesty," she greeted Merron with a slight nod, the most respectful gesture she could bring herself to offer him. "My Queen," a small bow to Gabrielle, who fought to keep her mouth from dropping open in shock. The gesture was not lost on Merron either, whose eyes showed a great measure of respect for the soldier who stood before him.
"That was quite a performance, Lieutenant. I can see that the tales of the Amazons' fighting prowess were not exaggerated."
"Thank you, Majesty." Xena took a position beside and slightly behind Gabrielle, demonstrating a deferential allegiance to the Amazon Queen who could feel the power shimmering off Xena, could hear it in the low rushing tones of her friend's voice.
"I was just telling your Queen here that the agreement we came to will benefit both Pellos and the Amazon Nation. After seeing you engage my men, I have to say, I feel this even more strongly now. Brigands will certainly think twice about attacking trade caravans escorted by Amazon fighters. Even if the rest of the Amazons are only half as good as you."
"You're far too kind in your praise," Xena responded smoothly, her voice a low purr. "But I do agree with you about one thing. The Amazons are outstanding warriors and an honorable people. None more so than the Queen here."
Gabrielle bit back a small gasp of shock and felt a warm blush at Xena's statement. Words of praise were always sparing from the warrior and to hear them spoken now, in front of the king of a large city-state, sent a delicious jolt through the Queen. Often she thought Xena looked wryly on her status as Amazon Queen, more a bizarre weaving by a drunken Fate than anything else did. She wanted to turn and search Xena's eyes for the reason behind such a gesture, but she feared that she would only see the controlled precision of the Warrior Princess giving her another lesson in protocol.
While lost in her thoughts, Merron and Xena continued the conversation without her. She focused on Merron who was looking at her with an expectant air." Shall we?" he asked.
"Of course," she said easily, as if she had been mentally present all along. The king offered her his arm, which Gabrielle reluctantly accepted. For some reason she found herself wishing that it were Xena's arm her fingers rested on instead of the handsome king's.
The long stroll back to the castle served to take some of the edge off the wave of exhilaration Xena was riding, but Gabrielle could still see the gleam in the warrior's eyes and the slight bounce in her step. Xena had often said that in the middle of a battle she didn't "think." It was as if during the physical encounter conscious thought disappeared and sensory input took over. And afterwards, it always took her a little while to "come back" to herself. And now, Gabrielle observed, Xena still wasn't "back."
When they returned to their quarters to prepare for dinner, the two women discovered-- to Xena's shock and Gabrielle's smug grin-- that Xena's saddlebags had been moved into the queen's chamber. Both sides of the bed were neatly turned down this night, with Xena's sleep shirt carefully tucked next Gabrielle's. Next to the shirts were two exquisite robes, crimson and cream, resting side by side. Candles dotted the room, and a small fire knocked the chill off the breeze coming through the window. A scent wafted from the bathing room, and Xena followed it find a steaming tub waiting for them, rose petals scattered across the water's surface. The hairs on Xena's arm stood on end as she absorbed all the sensations flooding through her body.
Gabrielle was fast on Xena's heels as they entered the bathing room. Taking in their surroundings with a gulp, the bard glanced quickly at the warrior to gauge her response. Silence from the tall woman. Bad, this is bad... Gabrielle worried. She and Merron had had a little "chat" about her "lieutenant" over lunch where she had indicated how important Xena's comfort was to her. Merron had obviously interpreted her comments as something more than queenly interest. No this good, this is great, this works... Hadn't she just told Xena she didn't care how people perceived their relationship? Perfect example. She turned her head to find an intense gaze fixed on her. Xena's eyes were the pale blues of the hottest part of a flame, and right now they were searing into the other woman. Gabrielle shifted uncertainly, a wave heat radiating from the warrior and invading her body. Why do I suspect that this isn't about what people think anymore? "Xena..." she began.
At the sound of the bard's voice, she closed her eyes and swallowed convulsively. She sensed Gabrielle's hand moving towards her, and her eyes flew open. "Don't," she managed, backing away from the small woman.
"Xena..." Two steps closed the distance the warrior placed between them.
Fighting the impulses that surged through her, confused over their source, and terrified that she would hurt her friend, Xena did the only thing her tormented body could do. She ran.
Xena was gone before Gabrielle could even begin to react. She heard the wooden door flung back with a solid thunk and then silence. Left alone with the bath, the rose, and her roiling thoughts, she sat down on the bed, absently running her fingers over the silk of the robes. Okay... think, Gabrielle. Think. What are we doing? she asked herself rhetorically, because she knew, if she were being truthful with herself, things had been changing between them for a long time now. The only problem was, neither woman would acknowledge it. "That kiss..." she murmured aloud. "That damned kiss that she'd never talk about."
Another voice made itself known in her thoughts. The brutally honest one that forced her into admitting things she'd rather not. Oh come on, bard, it's not like you were exactly dying to discuss it.
"Well, what was I going to say?" She argued with her herself, "'Hey Xena, let's try that kiss thing without the mustache?'"
Anything would have been better than saying nothing, Gabrielle. The voice reproached her.
"How do you figure?"
This wouldn't have happened.
"What, exactly, happened here?" She demanded of the voice.
The devastating silence of the room answered her, and she flung herself backward on the bed. "Nothing happened. That's what."
Gab...ri...elle... the voice sing-songed, prodding her.
"I don't know! Okay? It's not like I have a lot of experience here. I don't even know if she's interested."
She kissed you.
"She ran from me."
Think about it. She'd been sparring all day, on display like some prize horse, leered at by all those men... In the middle of wherever she goes when she fights... She was functioning on pure instinct...
"And then she walked into all this."
What is 'all this,' Gabrielle?
"Silk, and steam, and roses, and..."
She wanted you.
Gabrielle tried to sit up on the bed, the memory of those searing blue eyes pinning her down. "She was afraid of how much she wanted me."
And you weren't afraid?
The voice was relentless. Love was not the question here. Gabrielle knew that her love for the warrior was a given, she recognized that fact long ago. Their bond had been tested and reaffirmed more times that she could count, and she couldn't imagine not being with Xena. She had seen Xena use her body for violence, for deceit, and yes for play. And the intensity that was as much a part of her as the black leathers she wore never lessened. As the walls that defined their relationship began eroding, Gabrielle had thought more and more about what it would be like to surrender to that intensity. And surrender was what she was convinced it would be. Her head and heart believed in Xena's tenderness, but her visceral impulse was to shy away from the raw power that was warrior's essence.
So what are you going to do, bard?
Sighing deeply, Gabrielle covered her eyes with both hands as if to ward off an unwanted vision, but it was the voice she wanted to silence. "I don't know. I just don't know."
Xena's lithe form was a blur moving past campsites too fast for the seated men to register anything but the breeze from her flight. She ran from the pounding in her head and in her heart. She ran to cool the heat pulsing between her legs. But most of all she ran to escape the sight and sound of the small woman in the queen's chambers. Only the rushing of the ocean's waves crashing over her legs stilled her path.
Dropping to her knees at the edge of the surf, she breathed deeply, quieting the racing of her heart. Damnit! Why this? Why now? Her encounter with Corin had ignited something she thought long extinguished. Now her emotions, her desires were being rubbed raw by the constant barrage of tactile sensations. She had lived like this for ten years during her time as a warlord, and she knew the only way to manage the overwhelming flood of sensation was, at some point, to give into it. In the past, by choosing when she let herself go, she kept it from happening at the wrong moment.
Oh and there was ample opportunity to indulge, wasn't there? Wars, sex, wine... always something around to satiate whatever whim I had. I wonder how many died because I was in a mood to destroy? How many were taken because I wanted pleasure?
The sight, the sound, the smell of the room she had fled hovered just under the surface of her skin. In her mind's eye, she could see Gabrielle reaching for her, and the warrior started fighting her battle all over again. Over and above the physical impulses that sought to give and take pleasure and release from the younger woman, there was a larger matter to consider. Although she loved Gabrielle more than she had ever loved anyone, she had never considered taking their relationship to a physical plane.
Xena, Xena, Xena. Remember... you kissed her. You started this all those moons ago, you big dumb warrior. And Corin... Corin just stirred up all those... things you thought you had under control.
"Yes, this was bound to happen, my sweet Warrior Princess," a voice that wasn't in her head answered.
Xena sprang up, sword immediately ready and turned to face her taunter. When she recognized the voice's source, her lips curled in an angry sneer. "Ares. What do you want?"
"Nice to see you too, Xena. Is that any way to greet an old friend?"
"We're not friends, Ares."
"You used to think so."
"I used to think a lot of things. Fortunately I've learned better."
"You miss me, Xena. Admit it. This little display proves that. You want this so badly you can taste it."
The warrior was silent, blue eyes blazing in rage.
"I must say, I was beginning to believe in this miraculous transformation. You traveling around the countryside with that irritating little blond, doing good, helping stupid villagers who couldn't think their way out of a rucksack."
"Good. That means you'll be leaving me alone now. Good-bye." She sheathed her sword and crossed her arms.
"Not so fast, Princess. I said 'beginning to.' Now I have my doubts."
"What are you talking about? I'll never come back to you. We've had this conversation a million times. Just go away, Ares. I'm busy." She turned to leave.
"DON'T TURN YOUR BACK TO ME, MORTAL!!!!" Ares roared, grabbing Xena by the arm and hurling her around to face him.
She felt the shoulder dislocate immediately. Fortunately, the God of War flung her to the ground in front of him, and the force of the landing neatly repositioned the shoulder. A grunt was her only reply.
"Now that I have your attention," his voice resumed its usual purr. "You've been having some interesting dreams lately, haven't you?"
She didn't answer.
"A certain Amazon warrior seems to have captured your fancy. I have to admit, next to you, Corin is my greatest disappointment. Of course, I should have known better than to mess with one of Athena's Own." He chuckled at the memory. "Boy was she mad. I thought she was going to destroy half of my realm before she was finished."
"I'm glad you took the time to share this walk down memory lane, but I really have better things to do." She managed to speak coolly, despite having all the breath knocked from her body moments earlier.
"Like go back and let that brat service you?" he mocked. "But honestly, do you really think she's up to that rather.. difficult... task?"
Xena lost whatever control she had been hanging onto. Her desperate search for release found a target as she leapt for Ares. She wouldn't stand for her relationship with Gabrielle-- the only decent thing in her life-- to be slurred by anyone, God or no. She sank long fingers into the flesh of his throat, relishing the shocked expression on the god's face. Her attack took him by such surprise that he fell to the ground. As she tightened her grip around his neck, he began enjoying the rage that coursed through her veins and to feed it with taunts. "Can you imagine getting satisfaction from her? I bet she's one of those 'let's just hold hands and cuddle' types. Do you think she'd let you slide your fingers inside her? Or your tongue?" Each taunt increased the pressure Xena brought to bear on him. It occurred to Ares briefly to be thankful he was a god, because otherwise his windpipe would have been crushed long ago. His voice cracking slightly, he continued. "Ooh... remember that time you took that slave girl during the Banquet of My Lords? Right there at the table. That was fantastic. I wonder if the bard would be up for that?"
"ENOUGH!!!" Xena screamed, releasing his throat and backhanding him. She flung herself off the God of War and lay back in the surf, willing the waves to wash her out to sea.
Ares picked himself up, and, dusting the sand off his leathers, looked down at his favorite mortal. Even though she wasn't one of his Own, he couldn't resist her. At one time, she felt the same about him. Time for the test. "Look at you," he mocked. "The mighty Warrior Princess," his voice dripped with sarcasm. "Do you think your life is really better now? Do you enjoy being powerless, hunted, afraid?" He effortlessly picked her up and threw her across the beach.
She landed with a sharp thud against a formation of rocks. There goes that shoulder again.
"Think about it, Xena. You love the bard." He waved her surprised expression away dismissively. "Oh yes, I know all about it. Yet you're afraid to show her what you are. And let me assure you, Princess, this is what you are. You keep pretending otherwise..." He shook his head and shrugged lightly "... the bard will suffer for it."
"Don't threaten her," Xena rose to her feet and moved towards him, intending to finish what she had started moments ago.
"Or what?" He stepped to meet her. His open palm slammed into the side of her head. Then again. And again. Keeping her from falling, Ares lifted her by the throat and gently squeezed.
I guess it's a good thing he's strangling me. I couldn't breathe through this broken nose anyway... she thought crazily, watching sharp pinpoints of light begin dancing in front of her eyes.
Abruptly her released her, and Xena fell to her knees gasping for air. Then for good measure, he carelessly picked her up and tossed her further up the beach. Ouch. That gave me a couple of broken ribs. She rocked back on her heels, blood streaming down her face and into her eyes, rendering her opponent a crimson monster. This is why they call him Red Ares. "Go ahead. Kill me and finish this. But don't threaten Gabrielle. You have no quarrel with her."
The God of War threw back his head and laughed. "Oh, Xena. That's what's so wonderful about this. I'm not the threat to the irritating blond. You are."
The warrior blinked more blood out of her eyes, regarding the vision before her woozily. She made it to her feet swaying slightly, uncomprehending.
Ares stared hard at her, half-afraid he had injured his favorite more seriously than he had intended. "Think about it. What happens when you attack Gabrielle the way you attacked me?"
She shook her head. "That will never happen."
The god looked thoughtful. "I was taunting you," he agreed. "Provoking you. Deliberately. Cruelly, even. Trying to get a response out of you."
Warily regarding him, Xena merely nodded.
"Well, my sweet, what do you think the bard was doing in that room?"
"No..." For the second time that night, Xena began backing away. "She didn't, she wasn't, she didn't know..."
"True enough. But what happens when you've bottled up all these urges for so long that you can't control them anymore? Your body demands release. What happens when you give up that fight, Xena, and take what she's offering. And believe me, she's offering. She may not realize it, but you do."
Still backing away. "No. I won't let that happen."
"You're fighting what you are, Xena. This lust, this fire-- call it whatever you want-- is a gift from me. You feel everything with all your senses. It gives you the edge in whatever you do."
She snorted in derision, spewing blood. "It's a curse."
"It can be." He paused, moving in for the kill. "If you fight it. When was the last time you slept soundly? Or indulged your senses? Or felt another's touch relieve the ache that you feel?"
Against her will, she shuddered in pleasure at the silkiness of his words.
"Let me show you another way, Xena."
Eyes that had drifted shut suddenly flew open. "NO!" she replied forcefully. "I'm not coming back to you, Ares. Ever."
He held out his hands to placate her. "I'm not asking you to come back. Just let me show you something. And if this life, this struggle, is truly what is in your heart, then so be it." He approached her as one would approach a wild animal, seeking to tame it. Only he wanted to feed that wildness, knowing that it would ultimately send her back to him. She watched him warily, but she didn't move away.
I can't do this. I'm so tired...
"That's right, Xena. You're exhausted..."
If I could just sleep for a little while...
"Shhh... it's okay....here, let me carry you..."
"Just need to rest," she mumbled.
"Lie down here. It's soft." Ares crooned. "Don't worry. No one will harm you, Xena. I'll protect you." He kept purring nonsense until she was fully unconscious.
The game was underway.
I know, I know. Frustrating way to end a story, heh? But the next one, "Innamorata," picks up where this one leaves off. Sort of. Kind of. Oh well, just read it and see.
Next story Innamorata