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By M. Pappas and J. Covington
email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
This is the third story in a trilogy. "Ares' Game" and "Escapade" precede it.
WARNING: This story does contain mature themes including a sexually explicit romantic involvement between two adult women. If this offends you or you are not an adult, please do not read any further. If this doesn't and you are, and you've always wanted to see the God of War get his but kicked, then you're reading the right story.
The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo are owned by MCA/Universal and no copyright infringement is intended.
The road to Legosa was proving to be longer than they expected. Of course, it didn't help that every hour or so, Gabrielle stopped to look at something, or to get a rock out of her boot and so forth. Xena was actually patient for once. She was pondering her predicament. Sometimes her companion only saw things in black and white. Gabrielle had suggested they needed to return to the Amazons for a joining ceremony. After all, they were in love and finally had admitted it. When Xena questioned the decision and it's quickness, Gabrielle had expressed her inability to see a problem. Not to mention a promise that she would deny them an eventual physical relationship without the ceremony. To quote the stubborn bard, "I was a virgin before I married and I don't see why this would be any different."
Watching Gabrielle stop for what seemed like the hundreth time, Xena could no longer bite her tongue. "Are you deliberately trying to slow us down?"
"Who, me? Why would I do that? Is there really that big a rush to get to Legosa, I mean, hey, the festival doesn't end until day after tomorrow." Gabrielle sat on a large rock and pulled her boot back on her foot. "I'm sure you'll be there in time to see Mytameus."
"At this rate, I'll be lucky to see my next sunrise!" Xena was just about to lose the rest of her patience. There was no doubt in her mind that she loved this woman very much, but sometimes the bard could be so irritating. Pulling herself up on Argo's back she held out a hand to her friend who obviously had her own agenda. "Come on, ride with me. Maybe we'll actually get somewhere."
"Um, I'd really rather not," Gabrielle stalled. "I promise I won't slow us down anymore."
Xena glared at her. "Up. Now."
The much smaller woman took Xena's outstretched arm and allowed her to easily pull her up in front of her on the horse's back. "Whatever happened to 'please'? Hey, this is new. I usually get to sit in back. Am I driving?"
"Not exactly. Unless driving me crazy counts," Xena added, urging Argo into a trot.
Gabrielle held on to whatever she could grab. "As I understand it, when you get to this point in a relationship, isn't that supposed to be a good thing?"
"I didn't mean in a good way, Gabrielle. When it's a good thing, you'll know it." The warrior couldn't help but smile at her friend's deliberate attempt at being obtuse. Holding Argo's reins in one hand, she suddenly realized that this might not have been such a good idea. Caught by the wind, her traveling companion's sweet smelling hair flowed into Xena. The scent was an unusual combination of soap and herbs the bard had used when she had washed the silken tresses the night before. If she wasn't careful, this could turn into an erotic experience. Contrary to how it might look by appearance alone, the warrior was not into torture. Especially her own.
Thinking back to a few months ago, when their ambiguous relationship was by no means any less complex, it was a little easier to bear the emotional need she felt towards the young woman sitting in front of her. The independent warrior woman had become more dependent than she had ever planned. Gabrielle had slowly reached through her defenses, charming her with her natural enthusiasm, devotion, kind spirit and especially her humor. Time had passed too quickly in the last two years.
"Sometimes its so hard to tell with you." The slender girl had been hoping to have more time alone with Xena. Now it looked like they might make it to Legosa before dark. Guess that means no cozy fireside camping. No one else knew but inns always made Xena feel a little uncomfortable. She much preferred the outdoors. Feeling the warrior's breath behind her ear she mused about how funny it was that sleeping on the ground was never this appealing before. Xena was much more likely to say or do something out of character if they were alone under the stars.
Gabrielle replayed all the moments in the last few months that had shown her that she felt differently about Xena than she had ever thought. At first, she denied feeling anything stronger than she always had in their incomparable friendship. The bond they shared was more than that of traveling companions. The depth of their commitment to each others well being and happiness was remarkable. Soul mates. That was the best description. While certainly not alike in any fashion, especially personality, they both shared the most important thing of all. Love for each other. Xena was mostly intractable while Gabrielle was the emotional caretaker of the pair. Watching the scenery fly by she painfully recalled the crystal clear moment when she realized the depth of her love for her friend. The moment Xena died. She had never realized anyone could hurt so much. Not even when her husband was killed at the hands of Callisto had the young bard felt such a loss. No, there was no going back for Gabrielle.
Xena leaned forward to speak to her friend, worried since she had become so quiet. That was a danger sign, since Gabrielle was happiest when she was talking. "Are you all right," she inquired.
Suddenly aware of the warrior at her back, Gabrielle replied, "Um...yes. I'm fine." She tried to force a laugh. "Just trying to keep my mind off the ground." Xena said nothing and the bard returned to her own thoughts.
Leaning back against the warrior's breastplate she made sure to keep their contact as close as possible. Not just because she enjoyed being close to the affection resisting warrior, but also because she didn't enjoy the height at which she watched the ground pass by. Hmm. I need a distraction...
Xena placed her free hand on the girl's stomach and whispered in her ear, "Relax, I won't let you fall off."
Prophetic words as she had ever heard. I said I need a distraction, not be trapped in an inescapable fantasy on horseback for the next two hours! Maybe that's why she likes riding so much... "I know that. I trust you," she promised. Then recalling something from that morning she added just under her breath, "Which is more than I can say for you."
"Are you still thinking about what Ademenia said?" Xena quizzed.
Gabrielle turned her head to look at Xena. "You know, that hearing thing is really unnatural." Twisting back around she occupied herself with playing with her new bracelet Xena had given her. She had misunderstood the meaning of the gift. Apparently I really am as naïve as I had feared.
As time and adventures had passed, the young woman had begun to find a new confidence in herself. She had become much more proficient with her quarter staff, with some occasional tutelage from Xena. Practicing with the staff constantly, she also earned a trimmer physique which pleased her no small amount. Xena had been a little more careful to include her in the planning of their whereabouts and escapades. The warrior had felt a growing respect and admiration from the younger woman even before their relationship had begun to take on a new meaning and depth. A few more minutes passed. Maybe she forgot about it.
"Well, are you?"
Gods! "Look, Xena... I know you have reasons that you don't trust anyone. It's just part of you. I accept that. I don't have to like it though."
"You know I trust you more than anyone I've ever known. It's the best I can do." Xena wished they would get off this subject. "Can we just let it drop?"
"Sure." An idea came to the bard's mind. Taking her hand and reaching back to Xena's thigh, she said, "How 'bout you answer my question from this morning." *That ought to make her squirm. She's trapped now. *
Xena tensed. Not now. I haven't had time to prepare for this. "What question is that?" was all she could come up with.
"Oh, I think you know. Now is as good a time as any to talk about it." Rephrasing the question in her head, she wondered how Xena would respond. "Experienced as you undoubtedly are in that department, I would really like to know, have you ever made love to a woman?"
Sometimes, Xena was taken aback by the inquisitive young woman's directness. That was her Gabrielle all right. Thinking over her answer, Xena tried to find a way to simply avoid answering all together. Gabrielle seemed awfully interested in questioning her about this particular situation, which could only mean that what ever her answer was, it was going to mean trouble.
"Did I mention the tavern in Legosa?" Xena asked.
"What? Oh... no I don't think so," Gabrielle answered.
They have great food and the best ale around. It's an unusual place. They have a bard perform every night. Salmoneus told me he bought an interest in the place. We'll need to stop there so you can check out the competition."
Gabrielle listened to Xena, wondering what she was thinking. For some reason the warrior had avoided her question...again. Maybe I don't want to know the answer. "Hmm. That sounds good. I could use some entertainment myself."
They were both quiet the rest of the way, each lost in their own thoughts.
What am I supposed to tell her? Why does she want to know...
What is she avoiding telling me? I wish I knew...
I hate sensitive chats...
I'll have to plan a sensitive chat later...
I'm thirsty, did someone move that damn town?!
I'm hungry, are we there yet?!
Finally they arrived in Legosa. The sun was just setting when Xena found a stable for Argo. "Let's see if we can find that tavern."
"Thank the Gods! How can you have such beautiful legs riding a horse all day?" Gabrielle groused. Xena curtsied playfully and the bard laughed. "What's the name of this tavern anyway?"
Xena scanned the street for the tavern. "That's kind of a strange thing. You see, years ago, before it was built, the owner found the property he wanted to use. A perfect location, sure. Except for one problem. There was this huge boulder right in the middle of where he needed to build. He tried moving it, breaking it apart, everything, but it wouldn't budge. So he built around it and uses the thing as a stage for the bards. He named the place the Hard Rock Tavern. Strange, huh?"
Gabrielle cocked her head to one side. "Sounds like something Salmoneus would be involved with all right."
It didn't take long to find the unusual tavern. A lot of people were milling about in front of it. It looked like the busiest place in town. Salmoneus greeted them when they reached the door.
"Ladies! Welcome to the Hard Rock Tavern," the slick businessman exclaimed. "I didn't know you were going to be in town or I would have saved you a table," he said turning to grab someone trying to enter the tavern behind his back. "We're full buddy," he said turning the man away.
Xena gave him that look that meant, Oh, and who is your next of kin?
Salmoneus quickly backtracked. "But hey, anything for the warrior princess and her friend."
The last town thought I was the greatest thing since sliced eel, but here I barely get mentioned, Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
Squeezing inside, they were escorted to a table by a young woman who looked like she would rather be trimming her nails. They sat beside each other, against the wall allowing them a great view of the boulder sitting at the center of the room.
They ordered food and ale. The crowd was noisy but not too rambunctious for which Xena was grateful. Fighting one's way out of a room got a little tiring over a period of time. Just as the food arrived, a bard climbed to his spot on the big rock.
He began his story and people actually quieted down to listen. Gabrielle reached over to Xena's hand on the table and gave it a squeeze, then returned to her food. "What was that for," Xena asked.
Gabrielle just gave her a little smile that wrinkled her nose. The bard's story was good but Xena knew he couldn't compare to the bard sitting beside her. Especially at this particular moment as her storyteller was pressing a thigh against hers as she reached under the table to lay her hand on the inquisitive warrior's leg.
"Behave," Xena commanded.
The woman gave her a sassy toss of her head as she replied, "Make me." Xena ignored that remark.
Always enjoying a good bit of verbal sparring, after all, a great bard is only as good as his or her ability with words, Gabrielle had just discovered a new game. Looking sideways at her attractive companion, she decided to be careful how far she pushed the warrior with her suggestive remarks but vowing to get a rise out of the woman whenever possible. After all, if she were lucky, eventually she might just get a glimpse of that passionate soul Xena hid so well.
The bard completed his tale and the crowd began talking again. From a few tables away, Gabrielle spotted a drunken man weaving his way towards them. Oh, wonderful. I'll bet I can guess which of us is the lucky girl tonight.
Stumbling the last step, the man leaned heavily on their table as he lowered his face to make eye contact with Gabrielle. It was like watching a cobra bob his head from side to side. Beginning to feel a little sea sick she said out of the side of her mouth, "When is it your turn again?"
Xena sat calmly, eating her food and ignoring the man. Let her handle it for now. She gets upset if I jump in too soon. The man opened his mouth and the bard was forced back by the ale soaked words that fell out. "Hey, little girl, how 'bout we go somewhere and ... uh... and, oh yeah... talk," he gurgled.
"Um, gee, that's awfully sweet of you to pick me out of everyone in this room but my 'sister' here would probably tell mother and then I'd never get out of the house again." Gabrielle poked Xena in the ribs for backup.
"Huh? Oh, yeah...right. Mother wouldn't be too happy with you." Xena gave her a look that said, that's really weak.
"Aw, we won't let her know, darlin'. Sister's, huh. You don't look like sisters," he belched.
Waving a hand in front of herself to clear the pungent odor, Gabrielle replied seriously, "We had different parents."
The repulsive man nodded as if this now made perfect sense. "So, c'mon sweetheart. Take a walk with .. >hickup< .. Cephanteus. I can't wait to get my hands on those-"
In the blink of an eye, Xena's long leg shot out underneath the table in the exact spot the man was standing. By the loud, "Oomph!" and the expression on his face as his eyes rolled back, Gabrielle knew exactly where that booted foot had landed.
Staggering backwards he looked at Xena helplessly. With a feigned look of surprise she said, "Oops. Sorry about that. Leg cramp, you know."
As the man dragged himself away, Gabrielle put her head in her hands. "You know, I'm now leading by a three to one margin over you. Why me? I don't want to be popular!"
Xena shrugged. "If I were them, I'd choose you too."
Snapping her head around, the bard commented, "Oh, really. How come from you that's a lot more exciting?"
Leaning her head towards the young woman she added, "You tell me. And I wouldn't take no for an answer."
Raising her eyebrows, Gabrielle leaned closer, "Aren't we confident."
"No. I just get what I want."
"Hmm. So what you're saying is that if it was me that you wanted, I'd have no say in the matter? That sounds more like a promise than a threat."
Xena leaned back. "Oh, you'd have a plenty to say, I'm sure. But before long what you would be saying and doing might not be what you expect."
"Really! I'd like to hear more about this hypothetical situation... " Gabrielle began but Xena smiled and shook her head. "Finish your food, Gabrielle."
Xena thought about the new direction of Gabrielle's comments. Her actions since last night and this morning seem to have been dominated by her curiosity about where their relationship was heading. Her friend seemed to be in a hurry to arrive there as well. It came as a surprise to the warrior when after giving her the bracelet that morning, Gabrielle assumed that Xena intended for them to return to the Amazons for the joining ritual. Of course, when her Gabrielle made up her mind about something... It was proving to be irresistible for the usually reluctant Xena to rise to the bait the bard threw her direction.
As was reported the food was excellent and the ale even better. Spotting Salmoneus approaching, Xena said, "Oh great. Here comes the sales pitch."
Hands clasped together in front of him, Salmoneus rushed over. "Xena! How was everything? You know, we have the best cook in three provinces. Cost us a bundle too. So, have you given any more thought into contributing anything to the establishment for prosperity?"
"I can't think of a thing that would be worthy, Salmoneus."
"No? There must be lots of things that would represent the image of Xena, Warrior Princess. Hmm, I don't know maybe an old sword....a leather outfit....or...um... say, a Chakram?
"No, Salmoneus. You're not getting my Chakram."
"But it's so unique to you. It'd be perfect for the display, with full credit given to you for the donation, of course."
"How about my breast dagger?" Salmoneus glanced at her generous bosom and nodded excitedly. "With your eyes skewered on it," she added quickly.
Gabrielle choked on a spoon full of stew. "Thank you! Thank you very much for that image right now," she groused.
"Hey, I understand the word no," Salmoneus admitted. "So think about it, okay?" Turning, he rushed off to find someone else to put the squeeze on.
"Sorry," Xena offered her friend.
Gabrielle dropped her spoon in her bowl. "That's okay, after that I think I'm through now anyway." She pushed the bowl away and leaned back. "He's right about the cook. Is this skirt getting a little tight?"
"You want me to check for you?" Xena teased.
Remembering her own words at the tavern in Thymic and how they embarrassed Xena, she was quick to answer. "No! I mean, not now, okay." She wanted to push her but not at that moment. "Maybe later, though," she promised. "What's gotten into you, anyway? It's kinda unlike you to be this playful with people around."
Xena looked down at her plate and considered this question. "Just in a good mood I suppose." Finishing their meal, Xena asked, "How about we make camp outside town tonight? I doubt we'll find a room with all the people here for the festival. We can probably leave Argo at the stable. There's a place not far from here, I think."
"Sure. Whatever," Gabrielle agreed, glad to have a full stomach once again.
"Food makes you very agreeable," Xena noted. "Or is it fear of Salmoneus approaching you to ask you to donate your staff?"
Arching her own eyebrow for once, the bard offered, "Xena, I don't think he wants the weapon of a sidekick. We just don't measure up."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," Xena said. Leaning over to whisper into Gabrielle's ear she added, "I like your measurements just fine."
Oh, yes! Swatting her playfully, "Save it princess. I've heard it all before. Of course, I haven't heard it from anyone quite as seductive as you, but...."
Xena suddenly had a pained look upon her face. Could that be what she thinks is happening?
"Oh, no you don't. I know what you're thinking and it just isn't true," Gabrielle linked her arm with the warrior's. "I can make my own decisions. You haven't seduced me into anything... of course, a girl has hopes...." She hugged her friend.
"Let's go," was Xena's answer.
They retrieved what supplies they would need and walked to the area Xena had mentioned. Hidden by trees, but not too far from town, a stream wove it's way downhill and they found a grassy area just beyond the water to camp. Jumping onto a large rock, Gabrielle began act like the bard from the tavern earlier, keeping her hands firmly to her sides. "You know, he wasn't bad. He needed more emotion, though. Maybe he was nervous. I'll bet his girlfriend was in the audience."
"Hmm. Do I make you nervous?" Xena walked over and lifted her arms for Gabrielle. She knew her friend really didn't need her help to get back down, but she enjoyed the feeling of being needed. Gabrielle slid down into Xena's arms until she touched the ground.
"Uh... sometimes," the bard replied. Looking up into dangerously blue eyes, she considered what her response would have been to Xena's answer to her question as they traveled earlier. Had she ever made love to a woman? On one hand, if Xena had said yes, she might have felt a little relieved. The bard was certain Xena tried very hard to protect her from the realities of things she considered to be unsuitable for the Potedeian girl. What she didn't realize was that Gabrielle was no longer just the young girl from a small farming village. She had grown into a beautiful, strong willed woman who was not afraid of life's realities. Gabrielle faced those realities on a daily basis with Xena. Certain that the warrior operated on her own double standard, the bard tried carefully to get her to see her in a different light occasionally.
Thinking about what her own reaction would be if Xena admitted to having had a physical relationship with a woman, the perceptive young woman knew that she would be helpless in thinking about when and with whom this had taken place. Her own intense curiosity would get the better of her and she would badger the reticent woman warrior for details which most likely, she was unwilling to share. Perhaps she should forget about really wanting to know the answer.
"What are you thinking?" Xena asked, raising that eyebrow again.
Rarely did the expressive bard have a problem showing affection for those she cared about. Gabrielle reached up and traced the line of Xena's brow. "Is this just a habit or do you intentionally do it to get my attention?"
"If that's all it takes to get your 'attention' I should be careful not to fall out of the habit," Xena purred. For some reason, after obvious attempts by her friend to capture her undivided 'attention', Xena wondered what Gabrielle's reaction would be if that attention suddenly took control. A dangerous prospect, but one that seemed irresistible none the less. Recalling Gabrielle's excited attitude that morning about their feelings for each other, Xena couldn't help but smile. Such enthusiasm from one so young. Each woman enjoyed the playfulness they had become somewhat comfortable with the past few months. Last night, however, they had let that deliberate teasing of their emotions play into a kiss that defined much larger boundaries to those emotions. Those emotions which were usually held just below the surface had poured into that kiss.
Gabrielle was beginning to feel a little breathless. This was how she envisioned their relationship. Teasing at times, but always with an undercurrent of passion. She saw that passion mirrored in those gorgeous eyes staring down at her. This woman was magnificent. Dark flowing hair framing a face as moving as that of Helen of Troy. Tall and graceful, she wielded a power that could fell any man with a look or touch. And what she could do to a woman... Gabrielle could only imagine. How long they stood there, she wasn't sure. Just when the bard thought Xena's head was going to lower to hers, the warrior broke eye contact and moved away.
*What is it with her? Do I have to scream, here I am! *
Sitting down on a nearby rock, Xena pulled her sword out of it's sheath and leaned it against her perch. Taking her pack, she retrieved her sharpening stone. Picking up her sword again, she began to work on the blade, taking out the nicks from the last confrontation that she had almost forgotten about.
Okay, fine. I can pretend I don't care, too. "Tell me again why it's so important that you see Mytameus before the festival is over," Gabrielle requested.
"Because after the festival, he'll go back home to Ralia. This is the only time he will be so close to our path. I promised we would meet him in Legosa before the festival is over," Xena reminded Gabrielle. "I have to deliver his father's sword to him. It's the only thing he has left of his father's."
Must be a guy thing. Gabrielle rolled their blankets out and noted, "Sometimes you do the sweetest things."
Xena stopped her blade sharpening. "Come here," she said quietly. Gabrielle stood up and walked over to the sitting woman keeping her curious eyes on those blue orbs following her progress. "What is it?" she asked. Reaching out to catch the surprised woman by the arm the warrior woman tugged her into straddling her upper thigh. "I can think of something much sweeter to do right now." Before the bard could respond she pulled her into a deep kiss. Fire suddenly exploded behind Gabrielle's eyes. Surprise mingled with intense satisfaction. Bringing long arms around the suddenly pliant body of her companion, Xena held the lithe body of her sweet bard against her breastplate. There was no tentative feeling like the last time. Xena lightly traced the lips of her love with her tongue, then as those lips opened she took her exploration further. Bringing her hands to Xena's broad shoulders, Gabrielle held on for life. Now this was the passion she knew they would share equally. Gabrielle wasn't sure she would survive those lips torturing her, but she wasn't going to go down without a fight. As Xena sought to break the contact, in order to catch her breath, Gabrielle made a disappointed sound and allowed only a few seconds before seeking that white hot passion again. Why in Zeus' name haven't we been doing this before, they both thought. For several minutes they kissed and caressed each other, not wanting to stop. The world had faded away to nothing as they concentrated on each other. There won't be any interruptions this time, Gabrielle thought.
The feel of the woman's firm thigh beneath her was intoxicating. Winding her fingers through warrior's dark mass of hair, Gabrielle thought she couldn't live without this woman's touch. Suddenly another sensation thrust itself into her mind as Xena's hand firmly covered her breast. Hearing a throaty sound, Gabrielle suddenly realized it was her own voice begging for more. No interruptions... Breaking away suddenly, breathing hard and fast, she put her hands against Xena's chest. "Wait a minute!"
Xena froze. "What is it?" she barely managed.
"Stop. I have to stop," Gabrielle was having a difficult time forming words.
Xena growled, "Why?" She started to pull her back but Gabrielle resisted. She knew she could overcome that resistance but something told her Gabrielle meant it and she would rather die than hurt her friend. "Gabrielle?" she panted. "Did I do something you didn't want..." her voice trailed off as the bard shook her head.
"You did everything I could want," Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut.
Xena was confused. "Then what happened?"
Feeling as if a storm had just taken place in her heart, Gabrielle did the one thing that surprised them both. She began to cry. "Are you hurt?" Xena was shocked. "Tell me what's wrong."
Striving to get her emotions under control, the bard took a deep breath. Then wobbling a bit as she tried to stand, she said, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that. I guess I didn't realize how hard it would be to stop myself."
"I don't understand," Xena breathed the words.
Gabrielle wiped the tears off her face with the back of her hand. "I guess not."
"Why don't you explain it to me. I would never intentionally hurt you, Gabrielle."
New tears formed and Gabrielle turned away to hide her face. I must look like a hydra by now, she thought. I can't believe I'm crying.
"Now what?" Xena almost yelled.
"Hey, you don't have to take that tone. I'm trying here, okay."
Xena was instantly contrite, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. I've upset you. I'll leave for a while and let you-"
Gabrielle spun around and caught her arm. "Don't you dare leave me now!"
Choosing not to say anything, Xena decided that she should allow Gabrielle a chance to gather her thoughts and control.
A few minutes later a composed Gabrielle began to explain. "I am so sorry for doing that, Xena. I just never expected it to be so hard to control. I mean I was ready to... well, I was ready to make love to you. Completely."
A confused looked passed over Xena's face. *And your point is...? * Not daring to voice her thoughts at this point she kept quiet. She wouldn't make that mistake again.
"I know you're going to think this is silly but I think we need to talk again about what kind of commitment we want to make to each other. It's more than apparent that I'm ready to...um, give physical expression to my desire to be with you. Do you feel the same way?"
"If you mean do I want to make love to you, I think that's pretty clear. I was ready to just a few minutes ago. I still am. If you must know, I'm about to die from the wanting of it." Xena was not about to let this fact go unnoticed. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. I didn't mean to push you. I thought you were feeling the same as I was."
Gabrielle held her hands out in a helpless gesture. "But I was! You didn't force this, Xena. I wanted it too."
"Then I guess I still don't understand. Why did you stop?"
Taking a deep breath, the young woman struggled to make her understand. "It's not that I don't want you, Xena. Believe me, I don't think I've ever wanted anything more in my entire life. It's just that... I think what I need... oh, how do I say this?"
"I can't seem to get past the commitment thing."
"What commitment are you talking about? What do you call the two years we've spent together?" Unable to stand on shaky legs any longer, she dropped back down to the rock seat. "I think the question here is not what commitment I'm willing to make, but what it is you're ready for." Trying to explain their relationship was at best difficult. Okay, slow down. "Gabrielle, think about it. This is very new for us. Maybe you need to give yourself more time to see how you feel about ...this. Don't rush into something you're not prepared for. Especially if you're talking about what I think you are."
Gabrielle walked over and knelt before her passionate warrior. Reaching out to touch her knee, Xena stopped her. "Don't. Please... just don't right now."
Gabrielle always felt the need to touch Xena, but she understood. The young woman sat back on her ankles. "Xena, I don't want more time to think about it. There's never going to be enough time. You've said so yourself. I don't want to waste any of it. I plan to share my life with you for as long as we have each other."
"Have you really considered the consequences? There will be many who won't be able to accept our relationship. Possibly even your own family. Hate and fear are so strong, you've seen that. Ares is still watching, biding his time. You'd be giving up a lot more than you realize... a permanent home, children..."
Gabrielle thought about this. "I do love children. But Xena, a child could never replace you in my heart. Let's face it, I already belong to you. My heart, my body, it's yours anyway."
"You want the ritual, don't you," Xena stated simply. Gabrielle nodded her head, feeling it safe now to lean forward to rest her crossed arms on the long leg in front of her.
Looking up at the woman she knew was her destiny, she acknowledged her desire. "Yes. It's very important to me. I guess I didn't really realize how much, until now. Somewhere inside me is that little girl from Poteidaia. The one I try to hide from you so that you don't forget that I've become the woman now that I wasn't when I followed you two years ago."
Gabrielle placed her cheek on the knee under her and admitted Xena had a point about people not understanding their feelings. "I don't know how Lila would feel. I guess I'm not really interested in finding out right now. I do believe she would want me to be happy, regardless of who I chose to be happy with. Even so, I want my other family, my Amazon sisters, to give me to you. And to show everyone who's important to us how we feel." Sighing, Gabrielle added, "but if that isn't what you want, Xena... I'll still give myself to you. I love you and I won't deny you that again. If it's within my power, I'll never leave you."
Xena stood and helped Gabrielle to her feet. "I suggest we get some rest." Gabrielle's heart fell. "It looks like we'll have an early day tomorrow. The journey to the Amazons is long. That is, if you still want to be joined in the eyes of the Amazon Nation."
Looking like she was going to cry again Gabrielle reached out to her love. "Oh Xena. I know you think I'm old fashioned..."
"Maybe, but you are who you are and I lo... well, I wouldn't want you any other way." Xena picked up her blanket and spread it out on the other side of the fire. Laying down, she closed her eyes. "Go to sleep, Gabrielle," she whispered.
* * * *
The journey to the Amazon territory took four days. It should have taken five. Now that they had made a decision as to their immediate future, the two women did not want to waste a minute in making that journey.
Still a bit worried about Xena having to break her promise she asked, "Do you think Mytameus will understand us not showing up?" Gabrielle began pulling part of her blonde hair behind her face, the red highlights picked up by the sun. Then she tied it back with a thin leather strap. In the mid-day's heat, the air was full of sounds. Insects buzzing, birds flying overhead. Gabrielle recalled her last journey 'home' to the Amazons. She had been passing through, taking Xena's body home to Amphipolis. Ephiny had appeared with a guard of Amazons and convinced her to let them give Xena a proper Amazon funeral. And to remain to rule as Queen. Thank the Gods for Autolycus, or Xena would have never gotten her body back!
"I hope so," was all Xena would say.
At the same time they both realized that the surrounding forest was quiet. Stopping suddenly, Gabrielle leaned her staff against herself and raised her arms above her head, clasping her hands together in the Amazon greeting. Xena had already done the same. A few seconds later, seven women lowered themselves gracefully on ropes from the limbs of the trees overhead, surrounding the two travelers.
They each wore elaborate masks but Gabrielle did not recognize the one mask that would stand out amongst the others. The one she herself had worn briefly. Of course, the Queen of the Amazons would not have greeted them on this unexpected visit.
One woman approached them, pulling her mask back on her head. "Queen Gabrielle," she greeted, then turning to the warrior at the bard's side, "and Xena. Welcome home."
How nice that sounds. Gabrielle smiled and replied, "Thank you. We wish to speak to Ephiny."
"Of course. Word has already been sent ahead that the Queen and the Warrior Princess have arrived. We are honored at your return."
Two Amazons from the group, including Aleia, the woman who had greeted them, escorted them to the village. Before they arrived, the drums began to beat a rhythm. The true Queen had arrived! There was much activity as the women walked into the center of the village. The drums stopped. Ephiny came out of her hut, and Gabrielle ran to hug her. "Ephiny! It's so good to see you." The women embraced a moment. Then pulling back, Ephiny looked concerned. "Is everything all right, Gabrielle? I was surprised to hear of your return so soon. Not that it isn't welcome. Believe me, it is more than a pleasure to see you. And Xena, of course," she smiled at the ever present warrior companion.
"Ephiny," Xena nodded. The temporary Amazon Queen often wondered how Gabrielle and the warrior had ended up together. The battle hardened warrior and the gentle bard were so different from each other. Their close friendship was envied by many, however. Xena was well respected by the Amazon nation and was the only woman she knew of who without actual rite by Amazon law was treated as a true Amazon. Many an amazon warrior had sought to catch her eye, but Xena had shown no interest, possibly preferring the company of men.
"You must be tired after your journey." Ephiny motioned to a woman nearby. "The Queen's quarters will be readied for Gabrielle." Turning back to her sister Amazon, Ephiny said, "Tell me, Gabrielle. What brings you to us?"
Gabrielle looked at a blank faced Xena and said, "Uh, we need to talk about that, Ephiny. But first, tell me what has been happening here." Taking Ephiny's arm she started walking through the village. Xena, not in the mood to trail after the two like a puppy, decided it was time to take a break from the attention. "I'm going to check on Argo," she called after them, then turned to make her escape.
Gabrielle and Ephiny laughed together. "She's not much for chit chat, is she?" Ephiny noted.
"Uh, no. She is a woman of few words all right." But she sure has the action thing down. Gabrielle was a little nervous. This had seemed so simple in her mind before. We will just go tell Ephiny we want to take the rite of joining and that would be it. Taking note of her surroundings she tried to forget the reason they were there for the moment. "I love what you've done with the village."
Ephiny smiled. How like her friend to say something like that. "After Valasca destroyed much of it, we had to rebuild. Things have finally settled down again. Rifts were repaired both in the village and in our people's nation."
"I'm so glad it worked out, Ephiny. You make a perfect Queen," Gabrielle told her proudly.
"Ah, but remember, that is only while you are not here. By Amazon law, you are the rightful Queen." Ephiny stopped when they had returned to where they had started. Gabrielle shuffled a bit. "You seem nervous. Is there anything wrong?"
"Oh, no. Nothing like that. I'm very glad to be here." Gabrielle promised.
"Perhaps after a little rest, we can talk more," Ephiny allowed her evasion. "Your quarters are ready. Anything you need will brought to you of course."
Gabrielle stood at the opening to the Queen's hut and considered this. "Actually, what I think I need right now is Xena."
Ephiny's eyebrows rose. "Excuse me?"
"I mean, I need to see her," Gabrielle quickly corrected. "Do you think you could get her back here?"
Grimacing slightly, Ephiny promised, "We will try. If she resists the invitation do you want us to try and force her to return?"
Gabrielle finally understood. "Oh no! I didn't mean that. I don't want anyone to get hurt." Then considering the situation, she smiled wickedly. "Although, it would be interesting to see her face when she is commanded to return to me."
"I will send someone immediately, of course," Ephiny motioned to a guard.
Gabrielle stopped her. "Umm, maybe we shouldn't make that a command, okay? Just tell her I really need to talk to her."
"As you wish, Gabrielle."
Entering her hut, Gabrielle suddenly felt the exhaustion of their journey. Maybe a little nap is what I need.
* * * *
Ephiny found the warrior princess at the stables. "Xena," she called out as she approached the solitary figure. Even though Xena was not known to be of Amazon blood, she was the epitome of an Amazon warrior. She also personified the perfect woman as far as Amazons were concerned. She was physically strong and imposing, with an unbelievable strength of spirit. With a beautiful face and body, she was envied by many. The final common factor she shared with the Amazons was a very dry sense of humor.
"Yes?" Xena finished Argo's grooming and turned to face the part-time Amazon Queen.
The amazon woman was shorter and a little more stout than Xena, with light color hair that fell in wild ringlets down her back. "Gabrielle is asking for you."
"Oh? Are you sure she didn't send you to command my presence?" Xena's smile was lopsided.
Ephiny looked down to hide the truth in her eyes. "Of course not. She told me to tell you she wanted to talk to you."
Xena put the brush away and turned to face the woman who meant so much to Gabrielle. "I'm sorry, Ephiny. It's just that sometimes when Gabrielle gets a sense of power, she can't resist exploiting it."
Shifting her weight, Ephiny replied, "Well, she did think about it briefly."
Xena laughed. "I'm sure."
"Xena, I need to ask you something. Now, I don't mean to pry, but is there some problem you two are having? Gabrielle is acting so strange and she won't tell me what is wrong."
For some reason, Xena found this extremely funny. "Is that right? Mmm, I'm not surprised," she turned to hide a smile. "Ever since her decision, she's been acting different."
Ephiny was becoming more concerned. She hated to see her friend unhappy. "What decision?"
"Gabrielle has decided that we can no longer go on like we have. She asked to return to her Amazon sisters." *Well, sort of. *
"Oh no!" Ephiny actually hugged the warrior, upset at the circumstances. "I'm so sorry, Xena. There has to be something we can do to help. Surely there was just an argument or something that caused this. You are both always welcome here but I hate to see your friendship end. Xena, Gabrielle loves you very much, I am sure of it."
Finding it very difficult to keep a straight face, the warrior consoled the Amazon. "Thank you, Ephiny. But you know how stubborn she can be. I will stand by her decision. All I ask is that you take good care of her." *I know I will. *
"She is my friend and our Queen. She will be defended and cherished always." Ephiny finally couldn't bear to go on and left the warrior standing with the strangest look on her face.
Heading back to the Queen's hut, Xena considered Ephiny's words. She knew that the Amazons would always take care of Gabrielle if anything happened to herself. They had welcomed her when she had died before. Of course, Valaska was the acting Queen then and had tried to get Gabrielle to relinquish her crown....
Gabrielle was sound asleep when she entered the hut which was guarded by two Amazons. "Huh, that figures." Walking around the table to where the pillow covered bedding lay, she looked down at the incredibly beautiful woman she was about to give her life to. "Do you have any idea how much power you really have?" she whispered. Kneeling next to the pallet she leaned over the sleeping woman, pausing to breathe in the sweet scent of her. Quietly she whispered in Gabrielle's ear, "Can I keep you?"
Gabrielle stirred. "Hmmm? Wha's 'sat? Oh....Xena." Stretching she reached out to her warrior woman. Glad to accommodate her, Xena pulled herself down to cover the inviting body, careful to keep her full weight from pushing her deeper into the pillows. "Hi, you," Gabrielle greeted her. Reality felt much better than the dream.
"Hi, you too," Xena replied.
"I was just dreaming about you," Gabrielle said on a sigh. "Hey, do you think you could take that armor off? Kinda spoils the mood, if you get my drift. Not to mention the marks it leaves."
Xena kissed her briefly. "I can't say I'm opposed to leaving a mark on you, at least figuratively. But you're right. It does get in the way of important things," she eyed Gabrielle's breasts.
"Here, let me help," the sleepy woman offered. Carefully she unfastened the armor and Xena lifted the breastplate and epaulets off, setting them aside. Removing her bracers as well, she then returned to cover the smiling girl beneath her. Xena inquired, "Is that better?"
Gabrielle stroked her love's face tenderly. "I could tell you but I think I would rather show you." With a gentle push from the smaller woman, Xena allowed herself to be rolled onto her back as Gabrielle switched their positions. Now the younger woman lay across the length of the leather clad warrior. Gabrielle's sienna and gold hair hung down, framing both their faces as she leaned over Xena. "Do you know how much I love you?" she asked. Without waiting for a response she bent to place her lips at the point where shoulder met neck caressing Xena's skin with her mouth. Xena suddenly felt weak as the sensation of what that exploring mouth was doing to her nerve endings gave her what she longed for. A liquid heat was building somewhere else as she stroked her lover's back. How could such a simple thing affect her so much? Gabrielle's husky voice interrupted her thoughts. "Don't think I don't know what you try to get away with, Xena. You're always trying so hard to protect me from every danger, including yourself, that you can't see that I don't always want protecting. Especially from you." Lifting herself higher over the relaxed warrior she added, "I hope I'm not as innocent as you seem to think I am. "
Finally, the roaming lips reached her face and slowly covered every inch of it.
Her expressive eyebrow received special attention before the lovely mouth claimed hers in a slow dance of passion. The taste of her drove Xena over the edge. "Gabrielle," she breathed as those lips lifted ever so briefly. "Yes, my love?" was her answer. "I think I'll die without you," Xena stated honestly.
Gabrielle's smile was as bright as the sun, "Well, we wouldn't want that." Taking Xena's hand in hers, she brought it to her breast, covering it with her own. "Trust me, warrior mine. You'll never be without me," she promised. Xena's heart burst. This was what her heart longed for. Pulling the young woman back down to her she put both arms around her and just held her tightly. She only hoped that promise could be kept. A voice outside the heavily draped door captured their attention.
"You've got to be kidding!" Gabrielle rasped. Xena shuddered and her head fell back as she waited for Gabrielle to lift herself into a sitting position. "What is it?" the Amazon Queen practically yelled at the intruder.
"Gabrielle?" came Ephiny's voice. "I must speak with you." It's worse than I thought. They must be fighting even now.
"Now? Can't it wait, Ephiny," Gabrielle looked back at Xena's flushed face.
"No, Gabrielle. Please, may I enter?" Ephiny begged.
Xena rolled her eyes but stood up and walked away from the bed. Gabrielle's eyes locked with hers and she mouthed, I'm sorry. "Come in."
Ephiny pulled back the covering and entered. "I'm sorry to disturb you, Gabrielle but I must speak to you both." She looked at Gabrielle then at Xena, noting the high color in her cheeks. Something was wrong. "Please listen to me, as your friend. Both of you."
Xena caught Gabrielle's confused look and with a guilty grin she shrugged her shoulders.
"Whatever problem you're having, it's not worth splitting up over it. You mean too much to each other. How can we help to mend this rift?"
Gabrielle pinned Xena with her gaze. "What are you talking about, Ephiny?"
"Xena told me about your decision not to continue on together the way you were. And that you wanted to return here." Looking at Xena she finally noticed the warrior was not wearing her armor. In fact, she looked like she had just been...
"Um, did I interrupt something?" she faltered.
"You bet you did. But that's not the important thing right now. Xena, how could you?" she asked trying to sound stern, watching the woman who took her breath away. Even now as she looked at her, she could only think how magnificent she was.
Xena walked over to Gabrielle and bent down, kissing the lips of the upturned face. She lingered a moment knowing the Amazon woman was spellbound at the display. "Hey, I didn't lie." Gabrielle lifted her hand to Xena's face stroking her cheek. Those eyes took her back to a few moments ago.
"Oh, Ephiny. Sorry," Gabrielle tried to sound contrite.
"Would you like me to leave so you can, uh... continue," Ephiny smiled.
Gabrielle walked over and took her Amazon sister's arm. Pulling her over to sit down on the edge of the bed, she said, "Actually, we need to talk."
Xena took a seat in the corner of the hut. The talking thing was not her department. "Ephiny, I guess it's pretty obvious now that Xena and I have come to realize how much we love each other." Ephiny nodded. "So, we would like to officially petition the Amazon Council to receive the rite of joining in the eyes of the Amazon Nation."
The face of her friend exploded in a smile. "Gabrielle, that's wonderful. Of course, we will send word right away to gather the Council." Ephiny hugged her friend. "This is so incredible. The entire Nation will celebrate this joining. I am so happy for you, Gabrielle."
"Thank you, Ephiny," the young Queen was pleased to have finally gotten the secret out.
Moving over to where Xena sat Ephiny took Xena's hands and pulled her up for a hug as well. What is it with all this mushy stuff, Xena thought. "You are one brave woman," Ephiny whispered to her. Xena whispered back so Gabrielle wouldn't hear, "Don't tell her about my part yet. She doesn't know the ritual."
Ephiny pulled back and saw the warning in Xena's eyes. "I would have doubts if it were anyone else," she finished quietly. Then nodding her agreement, she turned back to her Queen. "I must send word at once to the other tribes. It will take a little time to gather the Council as well."
"We appreciate everything you've done for us," Gabrielle spoke. "I'm sorry for the short notice, but you know how it is when you're in love."
"Well then, I'll leave you to finish what I interrupted," Ephiny smiled as she turned and left the hut.
What a good idea, the Amazon Queen thought. Gabrielle lay back down on the bed, trying to look enticing. Of course she looked a bit comical with the overacting. "What do you think, shall we continue?"
Xena shook her head. "What happened to your Poteidaian principles? I thought you had to have the ceremony first," Xena reminded the amorous young woman.
"What, now you have a perfect memory as well as hearing?" Gabrielle complained.
"I have many-" Xena tried to remind her but Gabrielle took up her line.
"Skills. Yes, I know. Why don't you bring those skills right back over here. Can't I have a change of mind?" Gabrielle patted the spot beside her.
"Change of mind or heart? Gabrielle, your the one who said waiting was important to you. You've set the rules and expect me to play by them. We've let it go almost too far already," Xena walked over to Gabrielle, reached for her hand and not too gently hauled her up against her. Whoa, girl. This is getting a little too exciting, Gabrielle thought. "I'm not going to let you blame me for letting our desires over rule your resolve. I'm not the only one enjoying these moments. I also can't help wanting to show you what your stubborn rules are forcing us to miss." Maneuvering the smaller woman so that her back faced the wall, Xena took her hands and placed them under Gabrielle's firm bottom lifting her higher against her as she pressed her back into the wall. I was wrong, this is way better than I could believe, the bard told herself. "Xena, what....um... what... are...oh!...you... doing?" she panted. With Gabrielle's thighs spread to accommodate the warrior's body, Xena took possession of the breathless woman's mouth.
Using the wall to pin the bard, she used both hands to stroke the body of her passionate companion. Xena teased the sensitive flesh of one breast and was rewarded with a shudder that she felt beneath her lips. Gabrielle tightened her legs around the muscled warrior, trying desperately to blend into her. A hand at the juncture of those legs rubbed deliciously against a particularly sensitive spot. Firmly pressing the young woman's hips against the wall Xena dropped her own weight slightly then rubbed her taut abdomen against the heat building at the bard's sensitive center. Feeling light headed, the smaller woman broke their lips apart and buried her head in the shoulder of her exquisite torturer. The bard had imagined that Xena would be a most passionate lover, but never realized she would be able to drive her to absolute madness. Seeking and demanding one last long, slow kiss, the warrior stepped back, letting Gabrielle slide down the wall until she could stand. At least she tried to stand but her legs were unsure and she sought the support of the wall at her back. I think that just answered my earlier question. And how! I'd say her experience with women can't be lacking.
"There won't be any interruptions next time. When I touch you again, we'll be more than lovers." With those words, Xena turned, picking up her armor and with a firm resolve, strode out the door.
* * * *
That night around the meeting fire in the center of the village, Ephiny announced to the tribe that their Queen and the warrior princess were to seek the ritual of joining. The village erupted in joyous cheers for the favored couple and many congratulated them privately after the evening meal was finished. Messengers had already been sent to gather the council to begin the approval proceedings just after they had told Ephiny of their request. An official celebration could not be planned until the approval of the council was given and so Ephiny planned a private celebration for her friends the following evening.
As the moon rose high in the sky, the Amazons prayed to Artemis to bless their Queen and her love. Gabrielle was tired but enjoyed all the attention she was getting. Xena, however merely endured it. Another tall woman stopped to speak with them, giving them her good wishes. Turning to Xena, the woman added, "I am confident you will succeed. But I do not envy you your task." Xena managed to steer her aside to speak privately before she said any thing more in front of Gabrielle. It was not the first such comment that night. When she returned to sit by the bard, the young woman looked at her curiously. "What was that about?"
"Hmm? Oh, she must know you well enough to know what a hard life I'm gonna have. She was just being sympathetic." Taking a deep drink of wine Xena hoped her answer would suffice.
"Really? Well if one more beautiful Amazon takes you by the arm to talk privately with you I may have to get involved," Gabrielle promised.
"Oh? A little jealous, are we?" Xena laughed. "As if you have anything to worry about."
Gabrielle was a little jealous. And miffed that Xena was keeping her promise by avoiding touching her as much as possible. "I did happen to overhear at least one offer of entertainment before the ritual. I won't forget her face either."
"I don't think I noticed her face," Xena said with a straight face.
Gabrielle swatted her. "Arrgg. You'd better watch it, girl. I could probably have you staked out over an ant hill or something. I am the Queen, you know," she said in her haughtiest voice.
"Yeah. No one will let me forget it."
For a moment, Gabrielle wondered if it did bother Xena. Somehow that just didn't fit. Xena usually didn't care what anyone else thought anyway. No, that must not be the problem. Something was going on with her though, she just couldn't put her finger on it. Maybe it really was just frustration. She could sympathize with that. Gabrielle didn't think she was going to be able to sleep after what happened that afternoon in her hut. The image of Xena lifting her against the wall floated through her mind and she almost choked on a piece of chicken.
"You okay?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle wouldn't give her the satisfaction of knowing what she had been thinking. "Fine. So, where will you be staying tonight?"
"I'm not sure. Maybe an anthill," Xena shot back.
Laughing, the bard commented, "Maybe. If Miss 'I didn't notice her face' comes back around."
Xena sat backed and laughed heartily. Gabrielle was a little surprised. It was a sound she hadn't heard often enough in their time together. Maybe she could do something about that from now on. She really enjoyed the light hearted repartee. Xena had a sharp wit that she admired. For a warrior, she was very well educated. She claimed it was from her travels and a desire to learn all she could.
"Seriously, where can I find you if I need you?" the happy young woman asked.
Taking her hand and placing it over Gabrielle's heart Xena said in a low tone, "Right here."
Ephiny returned to sit with them just then, overhearing their last words. "You know, you two put the rest of us to shame." She sat down with a twinkle in her eye. "I should have know right away why you were here when you arrived."
Xena turned to greet another well wisher as Gabrielle answered Ephiny. "Does it show that much?"
"Not always. Xena is most careful with her emotions but even she gives away her heart when she looks at you."
The young bard smiled and looked sideways at Xena, who was talking to someone else. "I've been working very hard on that, Ephiny. Let me tell you, the conquering of that warrior's heart has not been easy!"
Gabrielle's friend smiled warmly. "I imagine not." Remembering her interruption from earlier she added, "I do imagine she's a magnificent lover though."
"Actually, Ephiny, we've never... uh, completely ..." she shrugged.
Ephiny was surprised. "You mean you've never made love?"
"Hey! Not so loud, please. That's private information, if you know what I mean." Gabrielle looked back at Xena, hoping she hadn't heard that but knowing how very good that skill was. Xena did not act like she was paying attention and so she turned back to Ephiny.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I just assumed..."
Gabrielle nodded her understanding. "I can see where you would get that idea what with our request and what happened this afternoon. I guess you could say that it's my fault we haven't... uh... you know. I wanted the ceremony first."
Ephiny smiled. "I see. And she, " Ephiny nodded towards Xena, "respected those wishes. That says a lot for the warrior. Well, that should be taken care of soon."
"Hey, why is everyone being so sympathetic to old blue eyes anyway? Am I that bad?" Gabrielle tilted her head as she looked at Ephiny, waiting for her answer.
When Ephiny didn't laugh, Gabrielle wondered if there was something going on she didn't know about. "Uh, that was a joke."
"I know," Ephiny said, unsmiling. "I think they are just concerned. The approval process is not always easy."
Xena turned her head, staring pointedly at the other Amazon Queen. Don't say anymore her eyes warned.
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked. "Doesn't it just consist of some fasting and isolation for a day or so?"
"That is the normal process, yes. Don't worry, Gabrielle, I'm sure everything will be just fine. There is no reason why the council would turn down the request. In fact considering the amount of Amazons arriving already, I'd say this is going to be quite a ceremony."
Ephiny looked at Xena. Good enough? The warrior nodded slightly.
"I hate to break this up, but I think I'm ready to call it a night," the warrior admitted.
"Ephiny, do you think you could find a place for Xena to stay tonight?" the bard asked innocently.
Looking more than a bit surprised, Ephiny found herself voicing the question in her mind. "Xena's not staying with you?" Realizing her faux pas, she quickly amended, "I mean, of course. That will not be a problem."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
Xena smiled wickedly.
* * * *
When Gabrielle came out of her hut the next morning, she could not believe the amount of women that filled the village. It looked like the population had doubled overnight. As she passed by, looking for the person in her dreams, she received salutes and greetings. After a tour of the entire village and still no Xena, she stopped to get her staff, deciding to try the stables. As she came around the hill she saw that striking figure on Argo's back riding into view. Waving to get her attention, she ran to meet her.
Xena saw Gabrielle run towards her and slowed Argo to a walk. Their ride had been intense and Xena was glistening from the exertion as well.
Gabrielle closed the distance quickly. She was in better shape now than she had ever been. Constant travel, training with her staff and slimmer food portions had made her trim and firm. She was proud of her body now, and knew Xena had been pleased at her transformation. Now the food thing could be a little better....
"Hi! Have a good ride?" she asked Xena as she dismounted.
"Umm Hmm. Argo needed to stretch her legs. It may be awhile before she gets back on the road." Xena patted the beloved horse's neck. Argo was as important to her as food or her weapons.
"So, how was your night?" Gabrielle had to ask. She hoped it was as miserable as hers.
Xena couldn't help but smile at the tone in her friend's voice. "It was very....entertaining."
That did it. Gabrielle pulled herself up to her full height, which of course did little too impress the woman towering over her. "Don't mess with me, warrior princess. I can have those ants ready anytime."
Just then a group of women walked by. One of the Amazon's detached herself from the group and walked up to Xena, laying her hand on Xena's arm. "Thanks for the training last night," she cooed. Standing behind the statuesque woman, Gabrielle saw red. She swung her staff, but it never connected with her target as Xena stopped it's travel with one hand behind the Amazon woman's back. "No problem," she told the woman who continued on her way, never noticing what had taken place.
"I don't think you really wanted to do that," Xena offered. "It might look bad if the Queen attacked one of her people for speaking to me."
Gabrielle jerked her staff out of Xena's hand. "If you don't stop deliberately trying to make me mad, I'm going to attack someone all right. Who's the bimbo?"
"She asked for some embroidery lessons. I taught her what I knew but she was all thumbs."
"Oh, funny," Gabrielle mimicked, "I'm surprised you noticed her thumbs."
Surprising the young woman completely, Xena put her arm around Gabrielle's waist and pulled her close. Looking up into those incredible eyes Gabrielle stuttered, "Xe..Xena! What are you doing? There's people everywhere."
"Get used to it," the warrior replied and sought her lips. Rising on her toes, Gabrielle kissed her back, dropping her staff and putting her arms around the tall woman's neck. Several woman walked by and a few giggled but none were inclined to comment or interrupt.
Releasing the bard several minutes later, Xena started walking Argo the rest of the way to the stables. "Are we going to stand out here all day and argue? Argo needs to be brushed."
"Wow. If that's how you plan on arguing I could definitely get used to that. I guess I'm just nervous. I've never had to speak to the whole council before. What if they think I'm an idiot?"
"Say hi to the ants for me," Xena deadpanned.
* * * *
By late afternoon, so many had arrived from the other Amazon villages, Gabrielle thought the entire Amazon Nation was going to war. Ephiny said they weren't going to war, just the most important joining since before the first war with the Centaurs.
Pacing inside her hut, Gabrielle wouldn't stand still as two women tried to prepare her for the council. "How could they make it here in one day? That's impossible, isn't it?" she asked weakly.
One of the women answered the Queen. "From what I heard, most of the leaders were at the closest village anyway. There had been another ceremony last week and they had remained for the celebration."
"How fortunate. Now I don't even have time to be unprepared!" Gabrielle whined.
Ephiny announced herself outside the door. "Gabrielle, aren't you ready yet? Xena and the council are waiting."
Gabrielle pointed out, "Oh, sure. Xena's always ready. She doesn't have to go through this." Picking up her royal mask, she announced, "Okay, this is as ready as I'll never , uh, I mean ever be." Exiting the hut, Ephiny and her two personal guards walked her to the village circle where the council and her warrior awaited her arrival.
Walking as regally as she could, Gabrielle reached Xena's side and stopped. Facing the twelve women who made up the Council of the Amazon Nation, she silently thanked the Gods that Xena was at her side.
Stepping forward, the woman in the center announced, "I am Arysia, leader of the High Council of the Amazon Nation. Queen Gabrielle, what is your petition?"
Taking a deep breath, the proud Amazon stated, "As Queen, I respectfully request approval to seek the ritual of Amazon joining by the High Council and the Amazon Nation."
Arysia spoke again. "Who is your choice, Queen Gabrielle?"
Looking up at the woman beside her, she announced, "My choice is Xena, Honorary Amazon and the Warrior Princess." Eat your heart out 'Miss I didn't notice her face'.
Stepping back, Arysia and the other eleven women conferred briefly. Gabrielle noticed immediately that one woman in particular had a lot to say, waving her hands emphatically. Xena looked over at her calmly. Gabrielle sought Ephiny's eyes for explanation. Ephiny's shrug indicated she did not understand either.
When they were finished, Arysia began speaking again. "Gabrielle, rightful Queen, there is some question as to the right of Xena to undergo the ritual. While she is honored to be considered as Amazon, she has no specific rights bestowed upon her by Amazon law. Not even you as Queen are able to do that alone."
Gabrielle was crestfallen. What now? I will give up my rights as queen and Amazon and leave if it means that Xena can't be accepted as my chosen one.
The leader continued. "A challenge has been issued by Berea. By Amazon law, combat must take place immediately between Xena and her challenger. Xena, do you accept Berea's right of challenge?"
"I accept the challenge," Xena stated as if repeating the weather report. Gabrielle took hold of her arm. "I didn't know," the bard told her.
"I know you didn't, Gabrielle. Don't worry."
The woman named Berea stepped forward to face Xena. Arysia spoke to them both. "If Berea defeats you, Xena, you will have no rights as Amazon and will be unsuitable to join with our Queen. If Xena defeats you, Berea, your place on the council is forfeit and Xena will receive her lawful rights to be recognized as an Amazon. Berea has the right to choose weapons."
Berea spoke, "I choose no weapons." She eyed the warrior princess without fear. To challenge Xena she must be very competent and confident.
A ring of Amazons was formed around the two competitors. Drums began a beat as the two women began their battle. Carefully circling each other, the first attack was made by Berea. Easily, Xena shifted her weight and the Amazon flew past her. Turning, the woman approached the warrior more slowly. Berea was slightly taller than Xena but not as stout. Adjusting to Xena's anticipated move, she shot out a kick to Xena's midsection, connecting and sending her a step back. Xena countered quickly with a spin and kick to Berea's head causing her to stagger backwards. The two met again, this time with fists moving at such a fast speed, Gabrielle had difficulty following their movement. The woman's reflexes were better than even Xena had expected.
Xena was a blur of motion as she suddenly gave her war cry and jumped into a rolling tuck over Berea's head, landing behind her with a kick to the back of her knees. The woman fell to one knee but was up immediately. Her fist shot out and connected with the approaching warrior's chin. Blood oozed from the cut as Xena captured the woman's arm and twisted it painfully. The woman cried out briefly as she was then flipped through the air like a rag doll. Landing solidly, she took longer to rise. Xena wiped the blood from her chin with her hand. Then with a feral smile, the one so many saw for the last time in battle, she motioned for Berea to attack her again. Watching from several feet away, Gabrielle knew Xena was having fun. She toyed with the other warrior, striking her with the flat of her hand on several passes.
Berea was incensed by the warrior's audacity and charged her. Xena spun around as the woman reached her and with both hands swung as hard as she could across Berea's back, knocking her face down on the ground. Then quickly she kneeled on one knee and grabbed Berea's hair pulling her head up painfully. Striking the woman in the neck with two fingers she cut off the blood flow to Berea's brain. "You have thirty seconds to yield or you will die," Xena informed her. Rising, she waited for the words necessary to end the challenge. They weren't long in coming. Berea, semi-paralyzed, struggled with the words but finally yielded to Xena. Xena then released the pressure point with a similar blow to the neck. The drums stopped beating.
The Amazons' vocal approval of Xena's victory was deafening. Gabrielle rushed over to Xena, putting one arm around her waist in a hug, using the other to wipe at the cut on her chin with a cloth Ephiny had handed to her. "Let her get a little close there, didn't you?" Gabrielle scolded her. Xena raised that favorite eyebrow and replied, "Hey, you fight her next time!" With eyes wide, the bard declined, "Uh... that's okay. You did fine."
The Council and the two petitioners took their places again. The Amazons quieted. Arysia spoke loudly. "Let it be known that Xena, the Warrior Princess is granted all rights and privileges as an Amazon by the High Council and Queen Gabrielle. Handing Gabrielle an Amazon warrior's mask, Arysia bowed to the Queen. Turning, Gabrielle raised the mask above her head for all to see, then presented the mask to Xena. Placing the mask on her head and face, Xena faced the Amazon Nation. Cheers were given and the drums beat a wild rhythm. When they quieted, the mask was removed and the proceedings continued.
"Now, Queen Gabrielle, the approval of the High Council is given and the rules for the ancient ritual shall be set forth."
Finally, Gabrielle thought.
"As Queen of the Amazons, you must first pass a test of strength and skill. A warrior has been chosen to face you in combat. As Queen, if it is your choice, you may delay the combat for one hour. You may choose a weapon and seek council with a sister Amazon of your choice, except for your Chosen One."
Gabrielle looked at Xena with worry in her eyes. She hadn't expected this! Xena gave her a look that she interpreted as 'you can do it. Take no prisoners'.
"Queen Gabrielle, do wish to delay or begin now?" Arysia asked.
"Um, I.... I wish to delay," Gabrielle managed to get out. Yikes! What am I gonna do now? Stay calm. She took a deep breath. Calm is good...
"The ritual will continue in one hour," the Council leader relayed and then turned to rejoin the others.
Ephiny reached Gabrielle's side. "Gabrielle," she whispered. "I know the woman they have chosen. Let me be your council. I know I can help you defeat her!"
Gabrielle wondered if it would be too obvious if she fell on her knees and begged Ephiny for help. She looked at Xena briefly who could only look back with intensely blue eyes that gave her the courage to face this unexpected turn of circumstances. The Queen turned to Ephiny saying desperately, "Yes, please!"
"Come on, we have planning to do," the champion Amazon warrior dragged Gabrielle back to the Queen's hut. Xena remained behind to wait impatiently.
As she waited for them to return, Xena thought about all the things Gabrielle did not know about the special ritual of joining for the Queen. She had deliberately made sure she was not told by anyone so that the young woman would not have the opportunity to change her mind. To change her mind after the request had been made would be considered a weakness and an ensuing challenge would cause a possible rift in the tribe. Not to mention the failure of the Queen to take a Chosen One for herself. Xena was not worried about Gabrielle's part in the ritual. She had every confidence in her abilities especially when tested under strenuous circumstances. This was the only difficult test for the Queen. Now, her Chosen One would be another matter....
The hour passed quickly and Queen Gabrielle returned, staff in hand, with her council. Looking a little more confident, the bard gave a smile to Xena as she faced the High Council. The woman chosen to fight her came forth and the ring was formed once again for battle. Gabrielle looked at her foe. What did they do, draw lots for the largest among them?
Xena stood next to Ephiny. "What do you think?" Xena asked her. "Did you show her some moves to help her defeat Philantia?"
Ephiny looked up at the warrior and smiled. "No. We didn't discuss the test at all."
Xena was shocked. "What?" She almost yelled. "You didn't help her?" Xena grabbed Ephiny's arm and hauled her close to her face. "If she gets hurt, Ephiny, you'll need more than all these Amazons to hide from me," Xena quietly promised.
Looking at the tall woman confidently, the woman with curly golden hair imparted their battle plan. "She needs no training, Xena. The only thing Gabrielle needed was strength of will. She spoke only of you and how much you mean to her. Nothing will stand between you and her desire to be joined with you. She told me of the story 'Ares' Game', she called it. It will take more than Philantia to defeat her this day, I promise you."
Releasing the smaller, younger woman, Xena looked surprised. "She said that?"
Ephiny tossed her head back proudly, "I am honored to be Gabrielle's friend and sister Amazon. Sometimes I wonder if you really know how deeply she cares for you. I know what her personal code prevents her from doing. Killing. It doesn't prevent her from loving you as you must have thought for so long. You find it hard to trust love, don't you?"
At a loss, Xena didn't answer. The test began.
Gabrielle concentrated on her opponent as she held her staff in a defensive position. As the woman attacked, the bard swung her staff to block the blow of the Amazon's own staff. Quickly, the woman struck at Gabrielle's legs, but the wood was blocked by the smaller woman. Efficiently she swung the staff back around with a strength belying her size. The Amazon was unused to fighting an opponent the bard's size and was overconfident. Gabrielle's staff struck her below the ear and she faltered. Trying to prepare to swing again, the Queen was too slow in reacting. Her feet were knocked out from under her by a kick from her opponent.
Xena tensed and Ephiny grabbed her arm to keep her from moving. It would mean disgrace to interfere.
Rolling quickly as a staff struck the spot she had just moved from, Gabrielle regained her feet and put distance between the weapons. She caught a brief view of Ephiny holding back Xena and she used the image to bolster her resolve. She doesn't think I can do it! Spacing her hands on the staff, she prepared for another volley of thrusts and parries from the much taller woman. After a few close calls and a moment of imbalance, she tucked one end of her quarter staff under her arm and balanced with the other. Remember your training, she thought.
The Amazon twirled her staff as she approached again. Show off! When the weapon suddenly slashed in an arc at her head she quickly ducked below it and with all the strength she had she swung the long staff and struck the woman's knee so hard you could hear the kneecap break. With a scream of pain the woman fell on her back and Gabrielle seized the moment to thrust her staff to the Amazon warrior's face. "Yield!" she commanded. The woman had a moment of indecision but her pain made the choice for her. She yielded.
Gabrielle was suddenly surrounded by women. Congratulating their Queen on her victory. Telling her opponent she hoped she would be all right, she broke away walking up to Xena with her head held high. Stopping just in front of her she said, "The bigger they are, the harder they fall."
Xena smiled. "Don't I know it." Then she whispered, "I fell."
The sun was now setting on the village. Torches were lit and the crowd of women assembled again to hear the final conditions to end the ritual. Arysia smiled at Gabrielle, clearly pleased with her victory. She, too, had been doubtful of her success.
"Queen Gabrielle, you have passed the test of combat. There are only two things that remain for you to accomplish. First you must fast from this moment until sunset tomorrow. The following sunset to sunrise, you must seek guidance from Artemis and solitude from you sister Amazons to consider your decision to join with your Chosen One."
"I understand," Gabrielle replied, pleased that it would be over soon.
"Xena." The crowd grew solemn as the instructions were given to the warrior. "You are the Chosen One of our Queen. The rules for you are very clear. Your part in the ritual will not be easy. Few Queens have chosen the ritual after they become Queen and for good reason."
Gabrielle knew something was wrong. The joy of the moment from earlier was gone, replaced by worry.
"For two days, in a defined area of Amazon territory, you must survive being hunted by twenty of our best warriors." Gabrielle gasped and reached for Xena's arm. "You are to have no food and no weapons. You are not to leave the defined area at any time. The boundry will be guarded. If you leave it you will either be killed or exiled from the Amazon Nation."
Gabrielle clasped her love's hand wishing this were not true.
"The warriors must wear a sash at all times that has a symbol placed upon it. You may defend yourself in any way you wish as long as you use no conventional weapons, including those of the Amazons who hunt you. If you are able to defeat a warrior in hand combat or by stealth, and take the symbol from their sash, they must return here to the village. If by the end of the two days you have survived without being captured or killed, you have passed the test. If you manage to disqualify all of the warriors within the two days you pass the test. If you are not killed, but captured, your life will be forfeit when you are returned. Do you understand?"
Xena held Gabrielle's trembling hand tightly. "I understand."
A council woman took Xena aside and explained the boundaries to her. As the woman spoke to her, Xena removed her weapons and handed them to Ephiny.
Gabrielle took the opportunity to ask Arysia what she was afraid of knowing. "Has this been done before?"
Arysia answered honestly. "It has been attempted. No one has ever succeeded."
Her instructions complete, Xena turned back to Arysia.
"You will be given a lead of one hour. It begins now." Arysia bowed to the Amazon Warrior Princess. The drums began a slow rhythm.
Gabrielle turned to Xena, emotion welling up in her eyes. "Go. There isn't much time."
With her hand under her love's chin she quietly said, "There's always time for you." Smiling she turned and began to run, calling over her shoulder "I will come back." Xena disappeared from sight.
Gabrielle could no longer stand. Ephiny took her arm, but Gabrielle shook it off. Struggling to her hut she collapsed when she got inside.
Following, Ephiny entered without permission. "Gabrielle-," she began. "No!" the distraught young woman stopped her. "How could you not tell me?" she demanded.
"Xena would not allow it. She knew you would not ask her to risk her life."
"She wouldn't allow it?" Gabrielle gasped. "I thought you were my friend? A friend doesn't keep a secret like that. It was my choice to make. You're just like her, you don't give me the credit to know my own mind or heart."
Ephiny bowed her head. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I never meant to hurt you."
"She'd better be all right or I may just kill her myself. What is it with you warrior types? Oh, forget it. Please, just leave. I can't think right now."
"As you wish." Ephiny left the Queen, wondering if their friendship would ever be the same.
* * * *
"What do you want? You never come here unless you need something. No other god comes here unless they need a favor." Hades sat down behind the table in his fortress deep in the underworld. After the overthrow of Cronus on Olympus, Hades and his two brothers had drawn lots to divide the world under their rule. Poseidon drew the oceans and all contained within. Zeus controlled the world and ruled as the King of gods. Hades drew the worst lot.
The goddess before him was in no mood to put up with his brooding. "I think you will be more than a little bit interested in my being here," Artemis informed the god of the underworld. "Ares is up to his childish games again. I overheard him planning a visit to the Amazons. Now he is treading on my territory. I am the patron goddess of the Amazons."
Hades sighed his disinterest. "So why could I possibly care about your problem?"
The goddess smiled. "Because it is becoming our problem. Ares plans to kill the Queen of my Amazons without warning. He has gone too far. I'm not going to let that brat overstep himself and step on my toes."
"So what do you want me to do about it? My nephew and I aren't exactly on friendly terms anyway," the god stood and fingered his helmet of invisibility. The helmet gave Hades his power over others in this realm or any other. He rarely left the confines of the underworld, however. He felt more than just exiled from sitting on Mount Olympus.
"Yes, but you have the endearing habit of spoiling his plans just when he thinks he is rewarding himself with what he desires most.... Xena." The goddess watched as Hades eyes narrowed.
The god sat judgment on all who died. The damned who are imprisoned in Tartarus and the redeemed who live on in the Elyssian Fields. The warrior princess' judgment was of special interest not only to him but to all the gods she has constantly defied. "Once again, Artemis, what do you expect of me?"
"You have a, shall we say, special interest in the warrior princess. Hmm? Well, in case you don't know it her little friend happens to be the Queen of my Amazons! There is more than one god who will refuse to admit to being frightened by Xena. She is too clever and is owed too many favors to make them comfortable. There are few who would be opposed to Ares claiming victory over her. But despite her disdain for the gods, she is the protector to my Amazon Queen. Their hearts are joined as one and if one dies, so will the other. It is just a matter of time."
Hades nervously walked around the table to take his seat again. "What kind of plan do you have?"
* * * *
Gabrielle struggled through the first day of Xena's test. It wasn't because she was not allowed to eat, although even if the opportunity had been available she could not have managed it. Thinking about her friend and soul mate being hunted by the skilled Amazons was too unsettling for her stomach and her heart.
The first of the hunting party arrived early that morning, without her ritual symbol. She was in good shape so the Queen could only assume that stealth had achieved the task. Gabrielle was relieved for a short while. No other word arrived for several hours.
Ephiny stayed out of Gabrielle's line of sight on the few occasions the girl stepped out of her hut to watch the road into the village for a sign of her warrior. Hoping against all that she would not see Xena or it would mean the warrior's death. By afternoon, seven more huntress' arrived. Some were without the ritual sash completely. Two were injured and had to be taken to the village healer. That left twelve more striving to capture or kill the warrior princess.
At sunset, no more had returned. Food was brought to the Queen after her day of fasting ended. The young woman ate sparingly, not interested in food. Then her guard arrived to escort her to the temple of Artemis to begin her praying and solitude.
Ephiny appeared just as she was to leave. "My Queen," Ephiny bowed solemnly. "I have some word that I think you will want to know. One of the warriors brought back this afternoon gave me this and claims that Xena is injured." Holding out one of the distinctive bracers Xena always wore on her arm, Ephiny handed it to the visibly upset Gabrielle. Continuing, her friend revealed, "she may have a broken arm. It will make it difficult to use the trees for escape and hiding."
Gabrielle took the personal item in her hands, holding it close to her. "Why are you telling me this?" the Queen questioned. Ephiny had avoided her all day, knowing how upset the girl was with her betrayal of trust.
"Because I will never keep anything from you again. You have the right to know." The Amazon turned and walked into the shadows. The guards urged the Queen to begin her journey to the temple. Stumbling several times from physical and mental exhaustion Gabrielle was relieved when the group finally made it to the temple some distance to the south of the village.
Entering the temple alone, the young woman walked to the altar and kneeled. She carefully untied her bracelet and lay the beautifully designed strand of gold and silver on the smooth slab of stone before her. All who pray before the gods must present a token for their approval. It was her offering.
"Artemis," her voice croaked. "Patron goddess of the Amazons. Please accept this gift and my prayers." Gabrielle lay her head against the stone and a single tear escaped. Artemis stood, unseen a few feet away. Listening. Watching. After a while, the disheveled girl lifted her head and whispered, "Please protect Xena. I know she is strong, but even she can fail. If Xena is to die, then I don't think I could go on. You have the power to help us. I know there are few gods who Xena respects, but she has no quarrel with you. I have heard her pray to whomever would listen to her on my behalf. She must believe there's good somewhere to offer those prayers, which is so difficult for her." Artemis walked around the dais and considered the words of the leader of her chosen followers. Gabrielle was a special favorite of the goddess. She would lead her Amazons into continuing prosperity and peace. "Hear her prayers and mine."
Artemis was touched by the young woman's devotion and love. Xena was fortunate indeed. If Artemis had her way, Hades would be taking care of that fiend Ares very soon. The goddess left the temple and her Amazon Queen to check on those plans.
* * * *
Xena stealthily watched the two Amazons that searched the area below her hiding place. She had been lucky that her arm was not broken by the last woman's sword. Having had to block the flat of the blade with her bracer, the buckles had snapped with the force of the blow. Her arm stung for quite some time. There was no time to recover the accouterment and she only hoped she could find it again later to repair it.
The Amazons were good but she was better. Keeping ahead of them, however, had proved a challenge. This would not have been as difficult if the boundaries had not been so confining. The test was designed to give every advantage to the hunting party. Xena knew the strategies of the Amazons. The small area allowed them to separate into groups and patrol in patterns, thus keeping her on the move without rest. The intention being to exhaust the ritual participant and thereby taking her captive or killing her easily. Xena was not the usual participant. Being hunted by your own people who are sworn to carry out their duty for a test was an irony Xena did not appreciate. Many customs were barbarous as far as the warrior was concerned. Honor was one thing, killing a person just for a test was no longer acceptable to the woman who sought atonement for her deeds as a warlord.
One of the Amazons ventured further away an Xena took the opportunity to take the remaining woman by surprise. Jumping from her perch she landed behind the now alert warrior. Kicking her feet out from under her, Xena dropped the woman and applied her pressure point technique to keep her from crying out. Removing the symbol from the stunned and struggling woman's sash without a word she picked up the huntress' bow and threw it as far as she could before releasing the blood flow. Before the woman could react or cry out, she was gone.
Eleven more to go.
The goddess of the hunt watched silently. She did not understand what her favored Queen was worried about. After all, this was Xena.
* * * *
By the time night fell again, the Queen of the Amazons was so exhausted she had to be carried from the temple of Artemis. Ephiny sat with her when she was returned to her quarters.
Her friend vowed that if anything happened to Xena, she and her son would devote themselves to taking care of the bard. It was the only thing she could do for Gabrielle and Xena.
The Queen slept fitfully through the night. Waking several times in a daze, Ephiny soothed her friend and promised that all would be well in the morning. She hoped she could keep that promise.
When the sun rose a guard quietly announced herself and Ephiny went outside to speak with her. Returning she woke Gabrielle with a gentle shake. The bard's eyes opened, finally focusing on Ephiny. "What....what is it? Oh no, is it Xena?"
"No! No, Gabrielle." Ephiny took the young woman's hands in hers. "I wanted you to know that while you slept all but one of the group returned. It is almost over."
Gabrielle hugged her. "Was anyone hurt badly?" she asked, concerned.
"No. Xena has been very careful to minimize anyone's injuries. They have been minor since yesterday. Apparently she tired of toying with them after midnight. The latest six returned at the same time."
Gabrielle smiled. That was her warrior! She was ready for this to be over. Xena, I'll never put you through anything like this again, she promised.
* * * *
Two hours later while she and Ephiny waited, an Amazon warrior walked through the trees. She worn no sash. Behind her was the figure she had been waiting for seemingly all her life. She carried the metal ritual symbols of twenty warriors in her hands. The warrior princess smiled that brilliant smile when she saw her friend, her companion, her love rush to her side.
"Xena!" was all that passed the lips of the bard as she ran to embrace the warrior woman. Just as she reached her, Gabrielle felt light headed and as she reached out for Xena, she collapsed into her arms.
"Gabrielle?!" Dropping the symbols she picked up the small woman in her arms. She looked to Ephiny who had followed. "What is wrong? Is she ill?"
"No, Xena. I don't know why.... " Ephiny struggled for an explanation. "She was still exhausted from the ritual and her fear for you."
Carrying Gabrielle back to her hut, Xena placed the limp woman on the bed. "Get some water and a small amount of food," she commanded a guard. Without hesitation the guard left to do as she was asked.
Stroking her face and neck, Xena softly called to her friend. "Gabrielle? I'm here now, everything is fine."
Worry creased the brow of the mighty woman warrior. The water and food were brought quickly. Ephiny entered and asked what she could do for Gabrielle. Xena asked to be alone with her.
Dipping a cloth in the water, she lightly applied the water to Gabrielle's face and neck. She began humming as she stroked the bard's face with the cloth. Gabrielle's eyes finally fluttered open at the pleasant sound. "Xena," she whispered. "There you are."
Xena smiled back. "Here I am."
"What happened? How did I get back here?" The exhausted woman tried to sit up but her caretaker refused to let her.
"I carried you. I think this was a little too much for you without enough food. I admit, I'm starving right now, as well. I should have had you carry me!" Xena put aside the cloth and reached for some water to give her friend. "As soon as you've had a little food, and I've had a bath we'll need to go before the Council."
Gabrielle sat up when Xena turned to get the food tray. "Xena, I need to hold you right now.... please?"
Drawing the young woman to her, Xena held Gabrielle quietly as they both considered the trials of the past few days. "They don't make this very easy, do they?" the bard asked, wiping away a stray tear.
"No. It was never supposed to be easy."
Pulling away, Gabrielle swatted at Xena a little harder than she had planned.
"Ouch! What was that for?" Xena frowned. She rubbed her upper arm where the fiery girl had slapped her. Xena swore that even the red highlights in the her friend's strawberry blonde hair were on fire.
"Why didn't you tell me about the ritual? You wouldn't even let Ephiny tell me! Aarrgg.... Sometimes, you can be so secretive. I had a right to know. When are you going to start treating me like an adult? Just because you're the big tough scary one doesn't make you the.... Hrrummp-"
The nonstop tirade was ended with the lips of the woman she loved. Several slow minutes later, Xena commented, "You still talk to much."
Gabrielle hugged her. "I feel better now."
"You feel pretty good to me, too," Xena offered as she rubbed the bard's back. "You eat some more. How about I go take that bath," she said, watching as Gabrielle started to comment. "Alone. We'll never make it to the ceremony that way."
* * * *
For the last time of the ritual, they stood before the High Council. A beaming Arysia called them forward. "You have each successfully completed the ancient ritual of joining. This is the last opportunity you have to halt the ceremony. If you are still of one mind, turn and face your sister Amazons and begin the preparations for the joining ceremony."
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other and slowly turned to face the Amazon Nation before them. Music began and the cheers that followed were joyous. Two woman approached the pair and requested that they follow them for the preparations. Going separate ways, they were left to their own thoughts.
The rest of the day was spent being pampered, bathed, perfumed and dressed. It flew by for them both. Gabrielle dressed in Queen's ceremonial outfit, soft fawn colored leather and cloth adorned with decorative swirls and trim. Her hair was braided and pulled back with a few braided tendrils down one side of her face. Xena dressed similarly with the adornments of an Amazon warrior. Her hair was left loose by her request, flowing wildly as she preferred. She looked as if she had been born into the Amazon world.
"Are you nervous?" Ephiny asked Gabrielle. Stopping her obvious pacing the bard turned to her friend and said, "Nervous? Me? What makes you say that?" She began to wring her hands.
"Oh, I don't know. Could it be because you won't stop pacing and I've heard about every Xena story you know condensed into the last two hours?" Ephiny laughed. "There were quite a few things in there that I'd really rather not know about your warrior."
Gabrielle grimaced. "Oops...sorry about that. Don't tell Xena. Just forget what I told you, okay." Pacing once again, she asked, "When are they going to be ready? I can't stand waiting around."
A woman announced herself just as those words were spoken. "It is time."
"Finally! Let's go."
Ephiny went ahead to take her place.
The two women were escorted to the village center. Xena saw Gabrielle and thought again how beautiful the bard was. The clothes she wore revealed quite a bit of that firm body. *This is going to be more enjoyable that I had thought. *
Seeing Xena in the Amazon leather and cloth took her breath away. Unlike the darkness of her usual dress, the lightness of the outfit brought out the starkness of her hair and eyes. A blue feather was braided into a thin strand of that midnight hair hanging low across her well displayed cleavage. These clothes left much more exposed skin than Xena was used to but she looked as comfortable as if she wore them everyday.
Ephiny stood waiting for them. Being Queen by Gabrielle's order when she was absent, the woman presided over the ceremony. When the crowd of women quieted around them, the ceremony began. "Queen Gabrielle," Ephiny spoke. "Xena. You have chosen to bind your lives together." Taking a long, soft leather strip, Ephiny held it before them. "We shall witness this now." The two women held out their arm, closest to each other. Ephiny wrapped the leather around their wrists as she spoke. "As women, you are equals. As lovers you have committed yourself to each other and no other. As Amazons, you... "
The words and ceremony were interrupted as screams were heard from all around them. Fire flashed over head. Women began running in every direction to avoid the arrows falling everywhere. Quickly, Xena unwrapped their arms and yelled at Gabrielle to take cover. Ephiny grabbed the young woman's arm and said, "This way!" They ran to the Queen's hut to gather their armaments. The Queen's guard followed trying to protect them.
Xena zig zagged across the open area, avoiding arrows and people as she returned to get her weapons. Half the village was on fire when she came out of the hut. What is going on? Who would attack us now? The Amazons were finally organizing a defense and beginning to try to fight the fires. The unseen enemy was just beyond the village causing havoc with those trying to deflect their arrows. Several women lay wounded or dead and she had no time to stop to help them. Come out in the open you cowards!
The smoke was thick now and Xena ran to the edge of the village and scanned the area just beyond it. Suddenly a figure appeared through the smoke. Dressed in black leather and wearing a wild grin, the bearded face laughed a greeting. "Hello, my warrior princess. Oh, excuse me. I mean my Amazon warrior princess."
"At your service, my dear. Forget about me already? Tsk, tsk, Xena. You didn't invite me to the ceremony. Is that any way to treat an old lover? Bye the way, I like your old outfit better."
Xena yelled at the god of war, "Stop this Ares! Killing these women will not earn you the power you want."
Ares walked towards Xena, speaking as he came closer. "I already have the power I want. In fact, in just a few minutes, I'll have you as well."
The cryptic statement confused Xena for a moment. Suddenly it dawned on her. "Gabrielle..." she whispered then turn and ran back into the village.
"It's too late, Xena!" Ares called after her, laughing, "What I've begun you have no power to stop this time!"
She knew that the others would give their lives to protect the Queen but Xena also knew that Ares would kill everyone to get to her love. He would want Xena to watch her die. To take the heart that was joined with hers and make her suffer for it.
She ran through the village looking for Gabrielle. The smoke and confusion made it difficult. Suddenly, looking up she saw Ephiny and Gabrielle helping some others put out a fire. Momentarily relieved, a child's scream was then heard coming out of the hut nearby. It was on fire as well. Gabrielle turned and without a thought to her own safety ran inside the burning hut. Xena's legs exploded into a run. Ephiny turned as well and tried to get close to the burning structure but the flames held her at bay. Xena ran past her and ignored the sparks falling around her. Inside, the smoke was thick and she doubled over, trying to stay below it. "Gabrielle!" There was no answer but she heard the child crying and a low voice tell her that it was okay. "Gabrielle, where are you?"
A wall of flames separated the hut as the ceiling fell in the center. The smoke rose out the opening and Xena could see the two figures just beyond the flames. They were surrounded by fire! Gabrielle was holding a little girl about four years old. Gabrielle looked around frantically, not finding a way out. Suddenly she saw Xena beyond the flames. "Xena! I'll throw her to you. Save the child. It's too late for me." Before Xena could react, Gabrielle tossed the child through the flames into her arms. Xena quickly doused the flames that had caught on the girls clothes as she had passed through the fire. Ephiny finally made it inside and took the girl from Xena. Looking across the chasm of fire their eyes locked. It looked impossible for even Xena to reach her. "Ephiny, you have my right of caste. I love you, Xena. Let me go now."
Just as Xena was about to run through the flames, a figure appeared beside Gabrielle. It was Hades. "Trust me, Xena. She's with me now. I'll take good care of her." Then they disappeared.
"Gabrielle," Xena screamed and Ephiny grabbed her arm to keep her from running into the flames. It took everything she had to drag Xena back outside the burning hut.
"She's gone," she repeated several times to Ephiny. In a daze she watched the structure fall down and flame even higher. "I've lost her," she mumbled.
The attack had stopped and the women were doing their best to put out the fires and attend to the wounded and dead. Xena refused to move from the spot she collapsed on.
The new Queen had much to do. There would be time for grieving later. She ordered an Amazon guard to stand watch over Xena, putting a blanket around the unseeing woman's shoulders. "I'll be back. I must help the others."
Xena sat unmoving until Ephiny returned. "Help me get her to the... to my hut," the new Queen requested the guard. Once inside the still standing building, the smaller woman made Xena lie down on the bed and covered her with the blanket. She knew of the deep love the warrior had for Gabrielle and she was concerned that it might be the downfall of the woman. Sitting beside her she held Xena's hand. She was shivering like a leaf in the wind. Looking into Xena's darkening eyes she saw the despair that gripped the warrior's heart. Seeing the warrior like this frightened her. It may already be too late for her. "I'm so sorry, Xena. She did what she thought she must. She saved the girl's life."
Xena turned her head and tried to focus on Ephiny's face. "She's gone. I couldn't get to her.... he didn't even let me try. He just took her."
"I know. I saw." Turning to the still present guard she said, "Bring some wine."
Taking her hand back she told Xena, "Just rest now. I have to find out who attacked us and send a patrol to track them."
"It's no use, Ephiny. It was Ares."
Ephiny was shocked. "Ares? Why?"
"Because he's determined to get me back by his side. He knows I love Gabrielle above all else. He killed her so I would go back to him. I saw him at the edge of the village just after the attack. He said I would be his shortly. Ares will destroy everything I love to get me back. Including this village."
"What can we do? How can we fight a god? What will you do?"
Xena closed her eyes trying to hold back tears. The effort was useless. "I will never go to him. Especially now. I've lost what makes my life necessary. I will have you kill me first."
Ephiny drew in a breath sharply. "No, Xena. I won't."
"You, too, will do what is necessary to protect this village and your people. I don't doubt that."
The guard returned with the wine. She took Ephiny aside and spoke with her quietly. When she was finished, Ephiny handed Xena a mug. "Here, drink some of this and rest. I'll be back."
Outside the hut Ephiny ordered two women to stand guard. "Don't let anyone but myself inside and do not let Xena leave, do you understand?" The women nodded.
Inside, Xena sat the mug on the table and lay back on the pillows. "Gabrielle...,," she whispered. "I'm sorry, my love. I should have stayed with you. I should have known..." she wept openly now. Ares had succeeded - he had crushed her heart and destroyed her soul. There was nothing left now except the pain.
"What a pitiful sight this is," Ares commented from across the room. "She's history, Xena. Let her go. You belong with me now."
Xena did not even react. She ignored the god taunting her. This only made Ares angry. "This does not become you, Xena. You're a warrior! You don't cry for some girl. She died in a blaze of glory didn't she? I at least gave you that." Ares smirked, feeling generous.
Artemis appeared then, sitting beside the warrior woman. "Did she Ares? Are you telling me that you killed the Queen of my Amazons?"
"What are you doing here, Artemis? I have no quarrel with you. The girl was not Amazon." His eyes gleamed as he thought about Xena. His plan was foolproof. He had made none of the mistakes that he had before and he had made sure that he was rid of the bard that kept Xena from him.
Xena watched as Artemis rose and stood in front of the arrogant god of war. "She was as much an Amazon as any woman here. And she was their Queen! You didn't think you'd get away with it did you? Gabrielle is a favorite of mine. Xena did not watch Gabrielle die because she isn't dead you idiot."
Ares screamed, "What!" No...not again...
Xena sat upright, blinking rapidly. "What are you saying? I saw Hades take her!"
"Hades? Of course! I should have know." Ares' eyes flashed with anger and he pointed a finger at Artemis. "I won't forget this," he growled and disappeared.
Artemis turned to the now alert warrior. "Gabrielle did not die, Xena. Hades has her. I asked him to protect her until Ares could be dealt with."
Xena jumped up and stood in front of the goddess. "I want her back. Now."
"It isn't that easy, Xena. Ares still hasn't given up. Your love is safe in the underworld for now."
"Take me to her, Artemis." Xena paused, then kneeling before the goddess, said what she had said to few, god or not. "Please, I beg you."
If the other gods could see you now. "I don't think that is part of the plan." At Xena's desperate look she added, "But maybe it's time to change the plan a little."
* * * *
"Hades!" Xena yelled as she entered his throne room. Hades entered from another room off to her left.
"Xena...you're not supposed to be here. Artemis! What have you done?" The god of the underworld raised his fists in the air and there was anger in his eyes.
"Where is she, Hades? I want to see her now!" She took a menacing step forward and he retreated behind the large table, shaking his head.
"She's safe, Xena. I told you to trust me. I would let no harm come to your friend." He sat in his chair and studied Xena as he attempted to decide what to do next. What was Artemis trying to do to him? What was she up to? "Xena, you just have to trust me...it's the only way to stop Ares and save Gabrielle."
Approaching the table, Xena leaned her fists against the table top, staring pointedly at Hades. "And why should I trust you? Gods can't be trusted."
Hades met her gaze and challenged back, "Is it just gods you don't trust, Xena? I don't think so. You've never trusted anyone...not even yourself." For once it was Xena that looked away first.
A door opened and Gabrielle appeared. Seeing Xena, she cried out and rushed to the suddenly outstretched arms. "Xena! How did you get here?" She held on to her warrior like she never wanted to let her go. Xena had tears in her eyes as she held the bard. Hades watched silently and was touched by the emotion Xena obviously felt at her reunion with the young woman. Pulling back slightly to look in her eyes, Gabrielle added, "What a stupid question. You're Xena."
"Don't you ever tell me to let you go again, do you understand?" Xena warned her through the tears in her heartbreaking eyes.
"I never will, Xena. I promise."
Hades stood and spoke, "I'm not so bad, Xena. Is it so hard for you to believe that I'd actually just want to help you?" Xena caught a glimpse of his eyes as he said this. They were filled with compassion and for a fleeting moment she saw something else...was it love? Was he as infatuated with her as Ares was? Or was it with Gabrielle?
Xena's eyes narrowed and she released Gabrielle to protectively stand in front of her. "Why can't you just leave us alone - all of you? We didn't ask you to interfere in our lives."
"If I wouldn't have interfered, she'd be here for a different reason right now. Why is it so hard for you to trust me?" His voice was stern, demanding her full attention.
Xena's anger and frustration at the situation took it's toll and she literally snapped at Hades. "Do you know how many people died today because of this game that you play? How many more souls do you need, Hades?"
Sighing, Hades did not know how to answer her. "This is pointless. You'll never be able to see my point of view. There comes a point in everyone's life where they must rely on trust alone. This is your time to trust, Xena. Trust me."
Xena turned away. Gabrielle looked at Hades and saw hurt in his eyes. "Xena... I remember something." Xena looked down at her friend. "Ademenia... she told you that you would be forced to trust another. She said that trust would have to be complete and that it would change your life."
"...and only the one whom death calls friend holds the key... You! You're who she was talking about." Xena turned back to Hades and leaned back over the desk to look into his eyes.
Hades looked away and briefly laid his head in his hands as if he was at war with himself over his reply. "Artemis, this is your doing...and will be my undoing..." He muttered under his breath.
"Answer me now. What was she talking about? If you're not willing to tell me then why should I trust you? Trust has to be earned, Hades. What is the "key" that you hold that will change my life?" Xena demanded.
Hades finally looked up and met her angry glare. "Yes, Xena. You're right. Trust has to be earned. I am going to tell you the truth. I have never lied to you, I think you know that. Xena.....I am you father."
Gabrielle gasped as she watched Xena's face grow deathly pale and she recoiled from his words as if she had been struck. "No..... this is some kind of cruel trick..." But Gabrielle saw the fear in Xena's eyes.
"Xena," Hades began, "You know it is the truth." His voice was soft and his eyes were filled with sadness.
"No...mother wouldn't have...she would have told me..." Xena sat down wearily on a bench across from Hades. Gabrielle sat next to her and placed her arm around the other woman's waist in the hopes of offering her some comfort and support.
"Cyrene has no fault in this, Xena. The blame is entirely mine to bear. My heart has always belonged to Percephone and I have never strayed from that devotion before or since my affair with your mother. It was at a time in my existence when Ares had convinced Hera that I should not be allowed to sit with the other gods atop Mt. Olympus and Percephone was banned from staying with me here..."
Xena took note of the fact that Ares seemed to be a common thread in their lives.
Hades paused to rake his fingers through his hair and his eyes took on a far away look. "I had resigned myself to my fate until I saw Cyrene. She was so beautiful, Xena. I was so lonely and so was she... trying to raise your brother alone. His father had gone off again to fight in some battle or such. So I seduced her and spent three wonderful days and nights there until my guilt at having betrayed Percephone got the better of me. So I fled and erased any memory of our affair from Cyrene's mind."
Xena considered this possibility. It would explain why she was never told.
"Then I learned of you, from Artemis. She knew when you were born that you were mine. Fortunately for me though, Atrius, the man you thought was your father, had returned home shortly after our affair. It provided the explanation for your arrival but I knew. I knew from the first moment that I saw you that you were my daughter, Xena. My only child born of my love for your mother. I did love her and in a way I always will." He lifted his hands in a small gesture of supplication as his eyes pleaded with her for understanding. "I never intended for you to find out. I never wanted this to hurt you. I care about you too much for that."
It was then, as he finished, that Xena turned on him. "Because you care? Where were you all the times that I've suffered? Where were you when she suffered?" She turned and indicated Gabrielle. "You tell me, Hades, if you cared so much, where were you?" Xena's voice was cold and hard with that edge to it that Gabrielle had often heard when Xena's darkness shown through.
Hades slowly raised his head and squarely met Xena's hostile gaze. Gabrielle noticed that his eyes were filled with unshed tears. Great Zeus... she had the power to even make a God cry...
"I was always there, Xena... I was there when it counted. I watched you grow up into a beautiful woman. I held my breath and waited when you made your choice when Cortez's men attacked Amphipolis. No matter what path you would have chosen that day, you and your mother would have survived. It was the only time that you've been completely under my protection and no one could have touched you..."
"Under your protection... you protected mother and I but you couldn't protect Lyceus? You just stood there and watched as the person that I loved most died?!"
"It was his time. I had no direct connection with Lyceus and even I could have no influence over his destiny. I had to protect you and Cyrene. She is the mother of my only child and I protect her still. Lyceus chose his own path just as you did. I have never influenced your decisions. I've only offered you options and then helped when I could. No matter what choices you made, even... " A single tear escaped from the corner of Hades' eye. "Even when you went to Ares and broke my heart."
Xena turned her back on him. She couldn't let him know that it hurt her to see him cry. "Oh, that is so touching. A father's concern for the child he will not claim!" Her anger at his deceit ran too deep to hide.
Hades rose and approached Xena stopping just short of her. "You would never hurt the one you love," he indicated Gabrielle. "I will not hurt Percephone."
"You've never protected anyone else in my life, Hades, besides mother... why are you protecting Gabrielle?" Xena's eyes narrowed at the god of the underworld.
The god walked over to the sitting woman. "Do you remember when you died during the Thessilean war?" Gabrielle nodded. "You were judged and sent to the Elyssian Fields as it should be."
Gabrielle replied, "Yes, I remember. I saw everyone I had lost. But I came back." Then it dawned on her. "You sent me back..."
"Do you think that I want to condemn my only child to an eternity in Tartarus?" he asked. Turning back to Xena he said simply, "Remember when you came here to help me get my helmet back and to change Marcus' destiny? I told you then that every mortal can only be judged once. Gabrielle's fate has already been decided, now it is up to her to help you change yours. You are not completely mortal. You were judged once and sent to Tartarus... but you chose to return to change your destiny and to stay with the one that you love."
Xena's head turned sharply at the sound of Gabrielle's sudden intake of breath.
"Ademenia said I was your redemption," Gabrielle repeated. "I didn't understand what she meant."
Hades was about to continue when Artemis appeared. "It's time we left. Ares is on his way and I don't think you want them here when he shows up."
Turning to his daughter, Hades told her, "Go with Artemis, she will protect you both while I deal with Ares. I promise you this, Xena. I have always watched over you and I will not stop now. I hope someday you will understand why it had to be this way. You have become everything I could have wanted for you. I am proud of you." Turning to Artemis, "Go."
The three left Hades to his preparations for his confrontation with Ares.
* * * *
Hades was ready for the god of war when he arrived.
"Hades! We need to talk... well, uncle, have you enjoyed your little joke? I myself, am not amused. You see, I finally had her."
Speaking quietly, the god of the underworld inquired, "Oh? It didn't look like it to me. I believe she asked her friend to kill her first. I notice things like that, nephew."
"How dare you interfere with me!" Ares warned.
"Or what? You'll tell my brother? You sound like such a child, Ares. Someone spoiled your fun and now you want to run and tell Daddy! You're obsession with Xena is going to be your undoing."
"I don't think so, Hades. Xena is no concern of yours. So why do you keep interfering with my plans? What does she have on you, uncle?" Ares walked around the god, looking him over as he searched for a clue as to why his uncle had just interfered directly with his own plans. "You seem to be helping her a lot lately," Ares narrowed his eyes. There had to be something more to this...
"I admit that I owe her a few favors, Ares. I'm not the only god to say that. Without her help I would not have gotten my helmet back," Hades stated, holding the helmet of invisibility under his arm. "She even helped you get your godhood back and what did you do? You refused to give her body back to her. You were going to let her stay in Callisto's body forever. I think we settled that one pretty quickly." Hades almost smiled at the memory of that confrontation with his nephew.
Ares shook his head. "Whatever. Don't think that means anything now. I kept my promise, she got her body back. I never could get used to her in that body anyway."
Ares' remark was all that Hades could take. Grabbing him by the shirt front, Hades lifted the god of war up off of the floor until his feet dangled. For a fleeting instance, Hades was tempted to throw him into the opposite wall for all the pain that Ares had caused Xena.
"Ares, heed this warning," Hades threatened. "I'm not the only god watching over them. Stay out of their lives or myself and every other god that owes her will make sure you have a difficult time enjoying being mortal again! And don't think that I can't do it, Ares. You know better than that." At that, he released his hold and gave Ares a hard shove.
"You think you are so powerful, and maybe you are in this realm but I will do as I wish without interference from you again. This isn't over, uncle. Just postponed." With those words, Ares disappeared.
Hades looked grim faced. "Oh it's over all right, Ares. You'll never hurt my daughter again..."
* * * *
Artemis brought Xena and Gabrielle back to her temple outside the Amazon village. She walked to the altar and picked up the offering that lay on the stone. Walking over to Gabrielle she held it out to her. "I believe this belongs to you.
You are very fortunate, my dear. Not only do you have someone who loves you so much they would give their life for you," she paused and looked at Xena, "but you have the rest of your life to share that love." Then she was gone.
Gabrielle looked at Xena who was deep in thought. "Xena? Are you all right?"
"How many things did he set up? Don't you see? He may have even controlled our meeting!"
Looking a little confused the young woman said, "Hey, I have no problem with that. I'll even send him a thank you gift. I'm just glad we did meet."
Xena shook her head. There was so much to think about. How much of her life did he influence....? "Things are making more sense to me now. There were a lot of things I couldn't explain before."
"Like what?" Gabrielle asked.
"He re-judged Marcus when he died again and sent him to the Elyssian Fields because I asked him to. He told me how to get my body back, using the ambrosia. It also explains why I wasn't turned into a god when I ate it like Valasca. My ability to heal so quickly. Those many skills...."
"I kind of like him," Gabrielle stated.
"What? What are you talking about?"
"Well, out of all the gods to have as a father, I imagine he is a better choice than most. I mean, it's not like he sleeps around like the rest of them, you are his only child and he has always been honest with you. I think he loves you."
Nodding, Xena acknowledged the statement. "Maybe. This is all so overwhelming. Ademenia was right. All that I am is not what I always believed."
Walking over and taking the warrior's arm she asked what was in her heart. "Xena, does this change how you feel about us? I need to know."
Looking down into those soft blue-green eyes she answered honestly. "Nothing could change how I feel about you. But how do you feel about me now?"
As if this thought hadn't occurred to her before the young woman tilted her head and looked up Xena. "I knew your hearing was unnatural! Wow, you're part goddess. I'm better at this romance stuff than I thought."
Xena laughed briefly. "I can always depend on you to keep my head out of the clouds."
"Lets go back to the village and tell everyone we're okay," Gabrielle suggested. "They could probably use some help with the damage Ares caused."
"You're right. I guess you know we have to keep this secret to ourselves. I may not like the idea of what Hades did, but I'm stuck with it now."
Walking back to the village hand in hand, they were greeted by several women. "Xena! We've been looking for you... By the Gods! My Queen, we thought you were dead," one woman exclaimed.
"I sort of had an out of body experience, do you know what I mean? No? Uh, just tell Ephiny we're back, okay."
"Yes, my Queen." The women turned and ran back to the other side of the village exclaiming that their Queen and Xena had returned.
Ephiny came to meet them. "Gabrielle," she said, shock showing on her face. She hugged the woman tightly. "What happened? I saw Hades take you."
"It was Artemis. She had Hades take me to the underworld to keep me from being killed by Ares. Let me tell you, she's really ticked at Ares."
Ephiny blinked. "Artemis protected you from Ares? Gabrielle, are you saying that a goddess, the goddess of the Amazons, protected you from being killed by the god of war?"
"Um... yeah. Something like that. Listen, this kind of thing happens a lot around us. You get used to it. Can we move ahead now, we're pretty tired."
"Of course. We have been dealing with the damage to the village and the wounded since you've been.... uh, gone."
Concern showed on Gabrielle's face. "How many were killed, Ephiny? How many wounded?"
Walking with them back to the Queen's hut she informed them of the single death and the ten wounded.
The returning Queen insisted on seeing the wounded first. She spoke with each and told them that their bravery would be recognized by the Amazon Nation. Speaking words of comfort to the family of the dead she ordered their funeral pyre to be made immediately so that their soul may begin their journey. She prayed to Artemis to see them to Hades and the Ellysian Fields.
The next several days were spent rebuilding what could not wait, and tending to the wounded. Xena's special skills in medicine made a big difference in their recovery. She almost thanked Hades out loud for that particular skill.
The Queen's triumphant return was heralded by all. Her commands were precise and well thought out to ease the situation. Gabrielle was a natural leader. Her concern for all shown with every thing she did. She expected the women from the other villages to begin their journeys home after what had happened but they refused to leave until they witnessed the joining ceremony of their Queen. She promised them they would finish the ceremony as soon as things were mended in the village. At a gathering that evening she spoke with an open heart to her people. She apologized for endangering their lives. They refused to hear of it. Chanting her name and praising Artemis they began their lives again.
There were quiet moments with Xena, of course. They had both stayed in the Queen's hut. That night they lay close together, not wanting to speak of the deeds of Ares and how it had affected them. Xena had much to think about and was not prepared to talk about it yet. Gabrielle decided she needed that space to come to terms with the news of Hades being her father.
The next morning just before dawn, Gabrielle awoke and looked at the woman laying beside her. Xena's eyes were closed but something told her that she wasn't asleep. "What are you thinking," Gabrielle asked, stroking her love's arm.
The blue eyes remained closed. "How beautiful you are," Xena stated simply.
Gabrielle smiled. "That's nice to hear. I'll have to make it a law to hear that from you every day."
Xena laughed at that. "You dare to command me?"
"Yeah, sure. Why not? After all, I am your Queen," came the haughty reply. "Those ants are probably pretty hungry by now, don't you think?"
Xena opened her eyes and rolled towards Gabrielle, taking her in her arms and looking into her face. "Do you really want to feed me to the ants?"
"Definitely. But first I think I would like spend the rest of my life with you. Does that sound good?" Gabrielle kissed her soul mate softly. Then growing bold, she slipped a leg between the warrior's and pushed her onto her back. "You know, lately, I haven't been able to tell if you've even noticed me. Do you think we might be able to remedy that situation? Hmmm?"
Instead of the witty answer she expected she received silence. "Xena, what is it?" she asked quietly
Sitting up on the side of the bed Xena answered her. "I think it's time, Gabrielle. I'll be ready to leave soon. I want us to go on with our lives and deal with what we have to together. Like we always have."
"Okay. You already know that whatever you decide, I'm right there with you."
Standing, she stood before the warrior. "Do you still want to have the ceremony, Xena?" she asked quietly. "Do you still want me?" She hoped the warrior wouldn't notice how important her answer was to her. She would be willing to put it off or even cancel it if that was what Xena wanted but it would hurt her beyond words.
Xena stood and reached for the young woman who waited with held breath. "Of course I do. As soon as we can. For some reason the Amazons won't leave until it is finished."
"What? What did I say?" Xena was concerned. Gabrielle turned away to hide her face.
"Is that why, Xena? So everyone can go home?" Then she said brightly to hide her feelings, "That's okay. I understand. A lot has happened and it may not be what you really want anymore.... "
Xena blinked. Is that what she had said? "That isn't what I meant. You know how I feel about you. I want us to be joined. If it isn't what you want you'd better tell me now."
Gabrielle shook her head. "This is so stupid! How could we possibly have doubts about this after all that has happened?"
Sighing, Xena asked, "Do you have doubts, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle stepped towards the warrior with a purpose in her eyes. Xena took a step back. What was she doing? Bringing her hand up, the young woman reached out and pushed against Xena's chest until she fell back onto the bed. Standing over her with her hands on her hips, feet wide apart, Gabrielle spoke with determination. "Listen, you overgrown, stubborn, reticent, many skilled daughter of Hades, and listen good. I don't give a fig who you are or where you came from. All I know is that we love each other and there is going to be a ceremony tonight in front of all those women if it kills me.... uh, sort of. I didn't go through combat, no food and almost no talking for two days for you just for fun. So stop you're whining and get with the program!"
"Yes, ma'am," Xena replied with a grin. "I love it when you get tough."
* * * *
Just as she had promised the ceremony continued that evening. After tying their wrists together again, Ephiny spoke the unfinished words from before. When she finished the two faced each other and spoke what was in their hearts.
Gabrielle was first. "Xena, so much has happened in our lives. But it has brought us together and that's what's important. I couldn't live without you anymore." Turning to Ephiny she took what the smiling woman handed to her. Holding out her gift to Xena she said, "Here is my gift to you at our joining."
Taking the leather pouch from Gabrielle's hand she opened it and saw that inside were two things. A silver comb for her hair and a lock of strawberry blonde hair tied with a piece of ribbon. She smiled brilliantly. "I will never be without these," she promised.
Xena was next. "Gabrielle, you are the other part of my soul. I love the gentleness of your heart, the wisdom of your words and the laughter in your eyes. I am not always who you want me to be, I am only what you want me to be. Yours. I will protect you the rest of my life." Taking her gift from their friend, Xena held out her gift. Gabrielle took the light pouch and emptied it into her hand. A single item landed in her palm. The silver and gold object sparkled up at her. It was a ring, with the same design as Xena's chakram engraved into it. When had she gotten this? Taking the ring from Gabrielle's palm, Xena took the stunned woman's hand and slipped the ring onto her finger. Taking Gabrielle's chin in one hand, she pulled her face up for her kiss. Ephiny smiled, waiting for them to finish, then untied their hands and turned them both towards the waiting assembly of women. "Know that these two are joined in heart and spirit for the rest of their lives."
The celebration began. Music, dancing, food, wine. The feast was a blur for the two women. Xena watched everything around her but was only aware of who sat by her side. Gabrielle's laughter and delight with the celebration was worth the wait. The warrior had never seen her so happy. There was an inner glow that shone through her eyes as she shared that happiness with everyone around her. Once, when the young woman stood to accept a gift from a group of women who had traveled from a far away Amazon village, she reached down and took Xena's hand, pulling her to her feet. The Queen did not want to leave out her love in accepting the gift. Xena felt a little awkward but as always managed to look unruffled by the attention.
As the feast continued, Gabrielle would often turn to her warrior and offer a drink of wine. The personal gesture was not lost on Xena. Little things suddenly became very noticeable. As she talked, the Queen played with the ring on her finger, as if not wanting to forget it was there. She had already told Xena how perfect it was.
Ephiny sat close by, talking with Gabrielle most of the evening. When they would suddenly break into laughter, Xena would give them the 'look'. This only caused more laughter and finally Xena decided there had been enough wine for her bard. "I think you've had enough, Gabrielle." Xena took the woman's wine goblet and set it aside.
A wonderfully relaxed Gabrielle leaned into her warrior love and rested her head on her shoulder. "Wow, is it hot tonight or what?" Gabrielle fanned herself with a woven plate.
"Do you know what incredible eyes you have, Xena?" The younger woman gazed up at her as if she just exposed some tremendous secret.
"I think I may have heard that before, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle twisted around and lay across Xena's lap, looking up at her. "Say that again..."
The young woman sighed. "My name, silly. I love to hear you say my name."
"Oh, okay. Why don't you sit back up now."
"Say it first."
Xena carefully said what was asked of her. "Gabrielle."
With her eyes closed, the bard drank in the voice she loved. "That's perfect. Uh... Xena?"
"Would you help me up. For some reason I can't seem to get my body to respond to what I ask."
Xena laughed. "Too much wine, my love. I hope I won't have a similar problem getting a response from that body."
Opening both eyes wide, Gabrielle responded a little too loudly, "Gods, Xena. I don't think we'll have to worry about that. Remember the other day when you had me against the wall..."
Ephiny caught Xena's sudden look of embarrassment as she tried to quiet the bard.
"Gabrielle! That's enough."
Laughing so hard she was bent over in pain, Ephiny was helpless as she listened to Gabrielle continue.
"Oh, Xena. I couldn't believe what you were doing to me ... I thought I was going to melt right there when lifted me up and pressed against ..." Gabrielle's recollection was abruptly halted by a hand over her mouth.
Xena's voice was low in warning, "Gabrielle. I don't think everyone wants to hear about that."
Ephiny piped up, "Oh, no, Xena. We're finding it most interesting. Let her continue."
Swinging her head around she pinned the part time Queen with intense blue eyes. "Ephiny. I'm going to remember this."
Bravely, the younger woman managed to stare her back down as she held back the laughter that still threatened to explode in her throat. "I don't think we're going to be able to forget it either, Xena. Honestly, the image will probably leave several of us a little more than bothered for quite some time."
"Did I say something funny?" the bard inquired after prying Xena's hand away from her mouth.
Both women looked at her and broke out into laughter.
Much later as the assembly thinned in numbers, Gabrielle was feeling a little less light headed. Ephiny told them they wouldn't be missed if they 'retired' for the evening. She wished them happiness and sent them on their way.
Supporting the bard with one arm, Xena walked with her back to the Queen's hut. When they passed by the two guards and through the doorway, the sight that greeted them was a surprise. Candles were everywhere. There was more wine and food arranged on the table. Handmade gifts of all sorts were tucked into every corner. A hot bath awaited them in the draped area at the end of the room. Sweet smelling flower petals were tossed in strategic places about the room.
"How nice," Gabrielle commented, walking around the room. "Isn't it beautiful, Xena?"
Xena never took her eyes off Gabrielle. "Yes, it is."
Turning to face her, the young woman scolded her, "I'm talking about the room, Xena."
Feeling a little uncertain, Gabrielle asked, "Are you hungry?" Xena opened her mouth to reply, but Gabrielle quickly recovered from what she knew was coming. "I meant for food. Or maybe a bath?"
"I would love to have you in the bath."
Gabrielle's voice was a squeak. "What?" A ringing started in her ears and she felt a melting start somewhere low in her body.
Thinking back to the inn at Thymic when she was forced to watch Gabrielle bathe she knew what she really wanted. Reaching out to hold her by the arms, the woman with the beautiful dark flowing hair and ocean blue eyes repeated, "I said I would love to have you-"
"Uh... yes. That's okay, I heard you. I just wasn't sure I heard you correctly. My mistake," Gabrielle chattered nervously. "Why don't we take a ba... " her words went unfinished as Xena pulled her close and placed her hands firmly on her bottom.
"Hmmm?" She looked into those fathomless eyes and listened to the voice that could out sing the sirens and was lost.
"That's enough talking. Remember, talking is your department. Action is mine."
Xena's hand entwined in the red-gold hair of the bard, gently pulling her head back so she could kiss the upturned lips. Gabrielle was surprised when the kiss was brief and soft. She had expected something more... powerful.
Taking her hand, Xena led her over to the bath. Slowly, the warrior undressed the young woman, stopping occasionally to take her breath away with a caress. She quickly undressed herself and lifted Gabrielle into the large container of scented warm water. Stepping in after her, Xena sat down and tugged the bard down to sit between her legs with her back against her chest.
They had bathed together many times in the past but never like this. Suddenly, Gabrielle felt as if the whole world had stopped for them. There couldn't possibly be anything more important than what was happening in this one room. Taking a sponge from beside the tub, Xena held the beautiful hair away from the pale neck in front of her and began to wash Gabrielle's shoulders. Soaking up water with the sponge, she made gentle strokes down her arms. Anticipating the next application of the soft, wet stroking, Gabrielle leaned back into Xena. The breasts at her back were warm. Gabrielle had noticed that Xena was always warm to the touch. The sponge slowly caressed her as it moved across the soft curves of her own breasts and down to her abdomen. "Xena... I... umm... ," the stroking continued as Gabrielle attempted to communicate what she was feeling. Seeing that long arm wrapped around her in the bath was enough to incite a flood of images she hadn't considered. "When you said... oh!... that you wanted... umm... Xena, you're driving me crazy!" Gabrielle exclaimed as the sponge carefully ministered to the sensitive flesh standing at attention at her breast.
"No, I'm not. Not yet. I promise you'll notice when you reach that point."
"I think I understand now why you said you, uh, wanted me in the bath. What an incredible, Ohh.... experience," she gasped, her voice rising an octave as the sponge reached the spot that had been clamoring for attention since the bath began.
Grasping the sides of the tub, the young woman held on while Xena erased all thoughts of being uncertain. Xena kissed her neck as Gabrielle threw her head back, the rhythm of those strokes increasing. A strong warm hand cupped the underside of one breast as she struggled to maintain her mind's equilibrium. The sponge floated away as the ecstatic bard rolled her head from side to side, exulting in the pleasure the warrior was lavishing between her firm thighs. Those long fingers parting her were about to drive her insane. "You don't have to... we can wait... until... we get... dryyyyy, the bard panted. The warmth of her warrior invaded her body and her senses. "Oh Gods! Forget I... said that, okay. Just don't... stop," Gabrielle begged.
Teasing the sensitive center of the breast in her hand with her thumb, Xena smiled and assured the young woman that there was no chance of her stopping. As she approached a pinnacle of sensation, Gabrielle let go of the tub and held on to Xena's legs on either side of her. "Xena... I ... ," Gabrielle attempted to speak as the rush of her desire overtook her. "Just let go, Gabrielle," the older woman advised huskily.
Long minutes later, the young woman opened her tightly closed eyes as she became aware of her surroundings once again. Her limp body was being gently stroked by the graceful hands of the woman behind her. "Gods! Where did I just go?"
"Hmmm. A place reserved for very special bards who know when it's time to let go and fly," Xena's voice lowered.
Gabrielle grasped one of those exquisite hands and linked her fingers with Xena's. "Holy Zeus, I think I'm going to feel right at home in that place."
"I hope so. I'll try to see you visit often."
Looking down at their clasped hands, a stray thought occurred to Gabrielle. "Xena?"
"Where did you get my ring? I know you couldn't have had it made so quickly. It's so... perfect. The pattern matches your chakram so closely and I know there's not a smith or craftswoman here who could have made it."
"I knew you would ask eventually. You notice everything."
Taking her weight off the warrior behind her, the young woman sat upright and turned to look at her love. "So where...?"
"Hades. It turns out that my chakram wasn't made by who I thought but by Hephaestus, the god of the forge, specifically for me. Hades had arranged for me to have it so long ago. He brought the ring this afternoon saying that he had Hephaestus duplicate the design because he wanted me to have something to give you that would show those who knew what to look for that you belong to me and are protected by himself as well. He knows your gentle soul, Gabrielle, so instead of a weapon, he commissioned something he thought would suit you... and me."
Gabrielle cupped Xena's cheek with her hand. "I know that must have been hard for you. Accepting not only this gift but acknowledging that your father wants to be a part of your life when he can."
"I don't know if I'll ever get used to that. I made no promises to him. He said he understood."
Gabrielle maneuvered herself into a position so that she could kiss her self-reliant soul mate. "I think it was sweet of him. And you, for allowing him to do it."
"Why don't we get out now, hmmm?" Xena asked. "The bed is probably going to be a little more comfortable."
Gabrielle looked into Xena's eyes. "More comfortable? Yikes, what was this, uncomfortable? I don't think I'll ever think of a bath the same way..."
There was that voice again. The sound of her name in that special tone captured her attention. This woman could have anything she wanted as long as she kept saying her name that way. "Yes?"
"I seriously doubt that I'm going to be through loving you for most of the night and I don't think you would appreciate how your skin would look if left in the water the entire evening."
Gabrielle's lips formed an 'O' as her eyes widened. "Yes... I see what you mean. Uh, why don't we get out now then."
Standing as she pulled the girl up with her, Xena stepped out and held out a drying cloth for Gabrielle. Stepping out also, Gabrielle took the cloth from Xena. Wrapping it around herself, she picked up the matching one and held it out to Xena but as the older woman reached for it, she pulled it back. Raising her own eyebrow, Gabrielle had a sudden idea. "Wait. I want to do it for you."
Taking the cloth in both hands, she began to dry the dripping warrior. Starting at her shoulders, Gabrielle rubbed the cloth across the broad expanse of her back. Next, she dried the long graceful back and hips. Now this isn't bad work if you can get it. Xena stood still as she waited for the bard to finish. Does she have any idea what she is doing to me? Patience. I've got to show some patience. Walking around the tall woman, Gabrielle took a deep breath and began to dry the warrior's womanly torso. She paused a moment as she suddenly noticed the unmistakable reaction her ministrations were having on Xena.
Gabrielle continued to caress the firm breasts under the cloth, enjoying the power she held, and not just figuratively. "I knew your breasts were dangerous, Xena, I just never realized that I would be in danger by them." Forget patience! Xena suddenly grasped Gabrielle's hands and pulled the bard against her body. "I think that's dry enough. Come here," she said dangerously as she bent down to capture the lips of the surprised bard. The material fell away from them both as they stood skin to skin enjoying the feel of each other. Xena was a good eight inches taller than Gabrielle but at the moment neither minded the height difference.
This was the powerful kiss Gabrielle had expected before the bath. Xena's lips drank from hers greedily as she crushed the woman against her own body. Suddenly aware of how tightly she held the young woman, Xena relaxed her hold. "I'm sorry. That was too rough."
"Oh really? Maybe you'd better show me the difference again so that next time I can be sure and not stop you."
Xena smiled down at her lover. "I doubt you had enough air left to even breathe, much less tell me to stop."
Gabrielle reached around the warrior's waist and she looked up at her. "I doubt you're going to hear the word 'stop' tonight, or anytime soon."
Taking Xena's hand she led her over to the bed. Xena sat and watched as Gabrielle walked over to the table to prepare a tray of food and wine. "Are you hungry now?" Xena asked.
Looking over her shoulder, Gabrielle's reply was coy. "After that bath, you could say my appetite has been whetted."
A slow smile transformed the warrior's face as she contemplated those words. Her eyes swept up the body of her lover. Gabrielle's skin was still fair everywhere her clothes had covered her body. The rest had a mild tan that contrasted nicely. Blue eyes traveled up those firm thighs to a nicely rounded derriere that she found quite engaging. For a fairly small woman, the bard was proportioned very well. A chill went through Xena's body as she watched Gabrielle turn with a small wooden tray laden with the goodies. She thoroughly enjoyed the sight of those firm breasts tipped with dark aureoles of pink coming closer to her. Xena could just imagine their taste as Gabrielle handed her the wine.
"I'm glad I brought the wine. You look thirsty..." the bard commented.
The smile spread as she replied. "You have no idea." Taking a drink of her wine, Xena thought of something she had wanted to ask. "The beautiful comb you gave me must have been hidden away for some time," she commented.
Sitting beside her, Gabrielle replied, "Well, yes. I got it a long time ago actually. I can't say it was made by a god, but I knew that someday the time would be right to give it to you."
"I don't care who made it, Gabrielle. I only care about who gave it to me. Thank you. It was a nice surprise."
Relaxing back on a pillow, the younger woman chewed thoughtfully on a piece of fruit. "I always knew there was something different about you. I just never expected the truth. Not that it matters," she added hastily at Xena's frown. "I just mean, I always knew you had some sort of destiny that would involve the gods. But since the gods are constantly playing with your life, that wasn't so hard to come up with."
"I suppose not. I think they're just ticked off that I don't care what they think." Xena watched the juice from the apricot spill over Gabrielle's lips and trail down her chin.
Unaware of the attention focused on her mouth, Gabrielle closed her eyes as she reminisced. "I remember when I followed you from Potedeia, I thought how incredible you were for taking care of those awful men bent on destroying our lives. I didn't want to admit how attracted to you I was. I just knew I had to follow you to see what you were about. I do admit that I was pretty impressed, and not just with your fighting skills, either!"
"Hmm. I guess I knew that, but just figured it was hero worship." Taking another bite, Gabrielle licked the juice around her lips. Xena's eyebrow was back at maximum attention.
"I suppose it was at first. I thought what an adventure it was going to be to get to know you... if I didn't die first, of course."
"I will thank the gods you didn't," Xena sobered a moment. "And of course Hades for returning you to me at Thessily."
Gabrielle smiled. "I wasn't ready to let you go anyway. You needed me to keep an eye on you. Protect your rear, as Joxer would say. And cook your dinner of course."
"Of course," Xena acknowledged. "Argo would have even been heartbroken without you around."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I'll bet. She's not so bad. We've been through a lot together too. I think she likes me more now."
"Lets change the subject. Argo isn't what's on my mind and I don't like talking about you're not being here. I don't plan on letting you get too far away anyhow." Reaching over she took the fruit from Gabrielle's hand and laid it back on the tray.
"Hey, I wasn't through!" Gabrielle swatted her hand and Xena bent down to kiss the juice away at the corner of her mouth. "Umm, strike that. I'm definitely through." Bringing her arms around her lover she pulled at Xena, trying to get closer.
"Hold on a minute. Let me get rid of this tray." Xena practically tossed the tray off the bed. Obligingly, Xena covered the exposed body of the young woman waiting impatiently. "That's much better, don't you think?"
"Think?" she laughed. "You want me to think right now?" The weight of the larger woman was a pleasant anchor to her emotions. Looking up into the fathomless depths of Xena's darkening eyes she surrendered what little control she had left.
"Gabrielle..." Xena's voice was edged with passion.
Closing her eyes, Gabrielle knew she would never tire of hearing her name said just that way from the woman she loved with all her heart. "Anything... " she huskily promised.
That was all the encouragement the warrior needed to take control. Instead of the kiss she expected, Gabrielle felt Xena slide lower over her body until her lips possessed the peak of one breast. She inhaled sharply, the tugging of her heart felt succinctly all the way to her toes. With one hip resting snugly at the juncture of Gabrielle's thighs and her leg separating them, Xena took her time torturing the quickly responding flesh under her lips. One hand bringing that flesh even closer to her mouth she heard the sounds of pleasure the bard could not hold back.
Gabrielle's hips would not lie still underneath the exquisite pain/pleasure. Flexing against Xena's hip above her she endured the torture of the mouth that set her on fire. Xena's long dark hair fell across Gabrielle's chest depriving her of the sight of what her lover was doing to her being. "Please... I can't stand anymore... I think I'm gonna... die... Oh! Xena," Gabrielle's disjointed words were punctuated with throaty groans that gave every indication that dying was a very good thing.
Lifting her head when she felt a leg across the back of hers, Xena watched as Gabrielle struggle to catch her breath. "Are you sure you still want anything?" she practically growled. Sliding lower, she kissed the bard's flat trembling stomach as her hands continued their tender assault on the breasts above her head.
When she could finally speak, Gabrielle's eyes were wide. "Did I say that? I must have meant 'everything', warrior mine." Grabbing her arm she pulled at Xena. "Come back up here a minute," she insisted.
Pulling herself back up and over the woman beneath her, she looked at the desire in those blue-green eyes staring back at her. Xena could feel the dampness of the bard and knew she was anticipated in another area very soon.
"Okay. I think it's more than a little obvious how I feel about you and what you're doing to me." Xena smiled. "Now, how do you feel about giving up a little of that control?" Gabrielle asked.
"What do you mean..." Xena started to ask when a hand in her hair insisted she wanted to roll over onto her back. She rolled. Their points of view now reversed Xena raised the inquisitive eyebrow.
"Lets see if I can't raise a little more than that eyebrow, hmmm?" Gabrielle began her pleasurable task of bringing Xena to the same condition she herself was in. She brought her lips a breath away from Xena's but held them there. Xena remained very still, letting the bard play with her. "Hmm, not tempted, huh." Xena smiled until a hand in a very sensitive spot made her draw in a quick breath. Surprised, she couldn't recover before her lips were captured by the confident young woman exploring her flesh so skillfully. Between kisses both light as butterfly wings and deeply searching, Gabrielle promised, "We'll see who is the victor on this battlefield. Now I have you right where I want you."
"I was about to... say the same... thing," Xena groaned. The one thing she did not expect was that Gabrielle was not at all hesitant about her loving. She knew exactly what she wanted and she made sure she got it. Those talented hands which she used so effectively when telling a story were being more than expressive at the moment. As she began to reach the point of mindlessness, Xena felt a nip at her ear. "It's your turn to let go," her lover whispered. And let go she did.
Gabrielle was pleased that she could get the stoic warrior to yell a different war cry this night. She briefly thought about the guards behind the heavily draped doorway but decided it didn't hurt her image any as Queen for them to hear the surrender in her warrior's voice.
As reality began to refocus, Xena felt the love of her life draped across her sated body and knew she would never be any happier than she was at this moment. The past was just that. Past. She could never escape it but now there was the future and her life with this incredible woman to make that journey bearable.
"What are you thinking?" her lover asked.
Xena looked into those eyes and all pretense of a defense was gone. She was no longer Xena, Warrior Princess, destroyer of nations, or Xena the reformed or even daughter of Hades, the god of the underworld. She was just a woman who was as vulnerable as any other. Tears began to well up and she did not fight them. "I love you, Gabrielle," she said simply.
Hearing the words directly from Xena for the first time, Gabrielle was visibly moved. Blinking, she held herself very still, the words still echoing in her mind.
Sensing the change in Gabrielle she asked, perplexed, "What?"
She stared at the woman she loved with all her heart. "You told me you loved me," the young woman repeated, amazement written on her face.
"Oh, no you don't! You can't just say that and then go back to your usual crisp answers." Gabrielle threw her arms around Xena. "Tell me again!"
"I don't want you to get bored hearing it."
"Bored! Are you nuts? That's the first time you've really said it to me. Tell you what, say it a few hundred more times, you know, just until you get it right, then I'll decide if that's good enough." She smiled at Xena as she wiped the rest of her tears away.
The change in the mood was what she needed. Xena said, "I suppose you could make it a law that I tell you, like I'm supposed to tell you how beautiful you are too, remember?"
"You do have a good memory for someone so old..." Gabrielle decided it might make Xena feel more comfortable with her difficult admission if she lightened the mood.
Blue eyes flashed. You want to play? "Thanks. Why do you think I seek solace in the arms of someone so young? I've killed everyone my own age."
Gabrielle laughed hard. "That really shouldn't be so funny, Xena. Besides, you're not really as old as that... are you?"
"You mean you don't know? How old do you think I am, anyway."
Thinking a moment she admitted, "I have no idea. I guess I never really thought about it. I suppose you're at least ten years older than I am."
"Ouch! Apparently, I need to start exercising more. How about I start right now..." she put her hands around Gabrielle's waist and hoisted her above her.
"Whoa! I know you're strong, Xena. You don't have to prove that to me." Gabrielle thought about how playful Xena could be and how often she surprised her.
Lowering her slowly until she lay across her again, Xena admitted, "Around you I'm not so strong. In fact, I feel very weak when I look at you."
"Hmmm. I never thought I would hear you say that."
Picking up one of Gabrielle's hands she brought it to her lips. Kissing her palm she gradually turned their bodies until she and the fascinated bard were on their sides. "What else do you want to hear, my love?" Xena asked.
"For once, I don't think we need to talk, Xena." Enjoying the way Xena's hands were stroking her back and hips she pressed closer to the woman. Bringing one leg over that of the warrior's she smiled as Xena buried her face in her neck. Rolling them over the rest of the way, Xena allowed those legs to curl around her hips as she pressed Gabrielle into the bedding.
After her own surrender earlier, Xena felt the desperate need to bury herself in more than Gabrielle's heart. Taking complete control back from the willing young woman, Xena touched her body with the caresses of an experienced lover, driving Gabrielle back to the edge of madness. Even as her lover begged for satisfaction she held back. "Xena... don't. Don't leave me empty."
"I won't. I promise."
Gabrielle's response was passionate as she tightened herself around the welcome invasion. Xena concentrated on the younger woman's pleasure as she felt the flood of that passion overtake them both.
Later, while trying to regain her breath, Gabrielle asked, "Aren't you glad I made us wait?"
"You're kidding, right?" Xena turned onto her back and felt the exhaustion begin to seep into her muscles. "You had me at Thymic while I watched you bathe."
"Oh, really. And I thought it was that girl, Kiala that had you bothered."
Xena laughed. "I know you think I'm strong, but really, Gabrielle. Two? Even I would have trouble handling that."
"You won't ever get the chance..." Gabrielle promised.
* * * *
For the first time since she could remember, Xena slept well past dawn. She awoke to butterfly kisses that opened her eyes. "Good morning, warrior mine. Did you enjoy your battle last night?"
Soaking up the brilliant smile of the passionate young woman, she admitted, "There's a lot to be said for hand to hand combat."
Gabrielle laughed softly and curled against Xena, laying her head on her shoulder. "Well, I feel positively captured."
"Hmm. I'm not sure who did the capturing."
Blue-green eyes opened suddenly. "You wouldn't want to treat me again to those lovely words, would you?"
Xena sighed in exaggeration. "I told you, you'll get bored hearing them."
"I have a very long attention span. Go ahead, dazzle me."
"Gabrielle, I say those words every time I look at you. You just aren't listening."
Taking Xena's hand in hers she promised, "I'm not a mind reader, Xena. I'm a bard. We need words."
"Why are you so afraid of saying it? I really want to understand..." Gabrielle offered.
Xena closed her eyes. "I suppose because whenever I've said it to anyone, I always lose them. I'm tired of losing people. I love you, Gabrielle. I never want to lose you."
Gabrielle kissed her softly. "I understand. Now, listen carefully. I'm not going anywhere. Got that?"
Smiling, Xena kissed her. "I don't know about you, but I'm going to have to leave, at least briefly."
"Okay." Gabrielle stretched luxuriously.
Rising, Xena dressed in her own clothes, leaving her armor off. "I'll be right back." She pulled back the door covering and disappeared. Gabrielle lay quietly, thinking of all the lovemaking they had both enjoyed. An announcement at the door broke her reverie. Making sure she was covered, she announced, "Come in."
Two women entered carrying water buckets. "May we prepare your bath, my Queen," one of the women asked. "That would be nice. Thank you," Gabrielle answered. The two busied themselves with the draining and filling of the water. Another voice called out for permission to enter.
"Come on in, Ephiny."
Her smiling friend entered carrying a tray. "I thought you two might be hungry," she began looking around for Xena.
"She's taking care of business," Gabrielle assured her. "The food sounds great," she added, trying to sit up without losing what little modesty she had left. "Bring that food over here and sit down."
Ephiny looked at Gabrielle as she sat down, noticing the glow she had acquired. Looking down briefly at the hastily discarded tray on the ground beside the bed she said, "You look like a well loved woman, Gabrielle."
"Uh Hmm. I think you could safely say that, Ephiny." Taking a large bite out of a split grapefruit she revealed, "I have never been so deliciously tired in my entire life."
Ephiny laughed with her. They quietly talked a while not even noticing when the two women left and Xena returned. They were laughing at something particularly funny when she spoke. "Am I interrupting?"
They looked up and stopped laughing looking guilty. "Uh, hi, Xena. We were just talking about..." Gabrielle poked Ephiny in the arm.
"Ow! Oh, uh... we were talking about the village."
"Yeah, that's right... the village," Gabrielle confirmed the lie.
Xena raised the infamous eyebrow. "What's so funny about the village?" she asked knowing full well what they had been talking about.
"You know, Gabrielle, I really need to be leaving now. I've got to get started on those ideas you had for the village," Ephiny hastily stood. Xena stood between the her and the door. Whoops. How am I going to get past her? Deciding that bold action was called for, she approached the waiting warrior and threw her arms around her in a hug. Xena was quite surprised but returned the hug briefly. Stepping back, Ephiny told her, "Thank you, Xena. For making my friend so happy." She practically ran out the door.
"What was that all about?" she sat on the bed.
"Oh, just girl talk. You know. Er, maybe you don't know. You're not exactly like most girls. Anyway, we were just talking about... things."
"Am I one of those things?" Xena put her on the spot.
Gabrielle uncovered herself and raised her arms invitingly. "Do you really need to know?"
Xena, knowing defeat was imminent at the sight of the naked bard, replied, "I guess not."
Much later they bathed again, with a lot of splashing and intimacies. Xena had discovered the night before that although somewhat shy at first, Gabrielle really didn't mind a bit of roughness occasionally. In fact, after the bath it was the bard who initiated a particularly intense round of pleasurable torture of Xena. The cry that split the air was heard by the entire village. Wisely, no one gave it much thought. They finally dressed and decided to leave the hut. Xena was getting claustrophobic surrounded by walls for so long.
They stayed for another day, talking with friends, helping with decisions about the village. Gabrielle was enjoying being Queen. The attention suited her and she was very good at carrying out her duties as Queen. On some level, she felt equal with Xena, more so here than anywhere else. When she mentioned this, Xena chided her for not knowing that she was always thought of as equal by her.
That night, as they lay spent from their lovemaking, Xena admitted that she felt Gabrielle was too good for her. Somewhat surprised, Gabrielle assured her that being 'good' was not what she had in mind, before seriously informing the warrior that she had better rethink those feelings. Gabrielle felt that Xena deserved a different life than she led in the past, and her own happiness. Knowing of the struggle the warrior lived with every day, trying to control the evil that was always hidden away as a reminder of the life she had led, she knew it would not be easy. She hoped that she was part of that happiness. Xena showed her exactly how happy the bard could make her. A very different cry was heard that night.
The next day, Xena was past ready to leave. Although they were both comfortable with their surroundings, especially being able to show more passionate affection around everyone, they couldn't stay much longer. It became difficult to for Xena to not show her impatience with staying in one place.
Searching for Ephiny, they talked about their plans to leave as soon as possible. Gabrielle would have preferred to stay awhile but she knew Xena was ready to leave. Finally, they found their friend and explained their situation. Ephiny said she understood. Making them promise to return soon, she said she would send a messenger immediately if they were needed. After gathering their things and collecting Argo, they left the village.
"I hope they don't think our leaving was too abrupt," Gabrielle noted.
Xena looked down at the woman walking beside her. "I think they understand that we just want to be by ourselves again."
A few hours later, Gabrielle looked up at her warrior on horseback and noted, "How come I still have to walk?"
Xena, tongue in cheek replied, "You've got to keep those young legs in shape if you plan to keep up with this old lady."
Gabrielle laughed. "Some things never change."
In the distance, a dark robed figure smiled as he watched his daughter continue on her difficult journey, with her love at her side. "My love travels with you, Xena."
We hope you enjoyed this, um, very long story. For some reason every time I said, "It's too long! Can't you fix it?" my editor and co-author, M. Pappas, said, "No it's not. I want it long." Okaay. Whatever. Actually, we're lucky to even get finished since I kept wanting to rewrite it every time I reread it. Being only my second story, I know I have a lot to learn about writing. If you have comments, please remember I'm very sensitive, >ouch<, but I would like to hear from you.
E-mail to: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes: M. Pappas, my fabulous partner at The Scroll Society, is working on a Mel and Janice story (how appropriate) and will keep "ya'll" updated on her progress. If I don't get booed off the Fan Fiction scene, I'm going to be working on the next chapter of this story. Something a little shorter, I think. With whips. Just kidding. Hmm, actually that gives me an idea.... :)
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