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For complete disclaimers see Precursors part 1.
If you haven't read The Peloponnesian War Book I: Precursors and Book II: Poteidaia Under Siege, you're in the wrong place.
EXTRA SPECIAL DISCLAIMER:
This is a long, four-book monster and as such stands to be an intense roller coaster. It's a serious and sometimes disturbing story. Our heroes will undergo difficult tests, the action and psychology of which may prove difficult to read to some. There will be violence aimed at one or both of our heroes and sexual abuse. If you normally choose to avoid such subject matter, please do not read this story. I don't want to upset people, just walk that fine line to make the long read worthwhile.
"Hand me that bag, will ya?" Xena stretched out her hand toward Gabrielle as the bard reached behind her and picked up a heavy sack.
"What's in here?" asked the bard, swinging it over to Xena.
With that the bard's eyes went wide. "For us? I could have sworn you promised..."
"It would just be the two of us. It is. But our mothers wanted to give us something special for our last day here." Xena lifted the straps over the saddlehorn, settling the bag in place. "I tried to tell them it was more than we'd need."
"I can guess: my mother said to take it anyway. That it was more than we needed but that we could indulge ourselves one last time..." Gabrielle laughed easily though her heart wasn't entirely with her in that thought.
"No, actually it was my mother." Xena vaulted up on Argo and pulled Gabrielle up behind her. Clucking her tongue, she coaxed the war horse down the main street and over the bridge out east of Amphipolis. They took their time, rarely breaking into a canter, enjoying the feel of the steed under them. Gabrielle soaked up the heat of the day, the kind of warmth that's gentle and deep, seeping in to your bones only as far as you wish it, drawing remembrances of youthful summers past. She sighed and pressed herself into Xena's back.
"Hey there, you sleeping?" Xena chuckled.
"No, no. Just thinking about it." Gabrielle's cheek found the nook in Xena's armor where it was actually comfortable. "How 'bout you?"
"I'm not even dozing. I was thinking more in terms of cooling off in that pool over there."
Gabrielle jerked her head up. "Wow. This must be the place, huh?" Xena had promised her a relaxing day in one of her favorite spots. She hadn't told her any more.
Xena brought Argo up near the pool under the shade from a ring of old gnarled trees. Gabrielle jumped down and skipped over to the water. An almost perfectly round pond dotted with rocks ideal for basking fed a small creek that gurgled away under the trees. Slants of sunlight sparkled on the surface of the water inviting some impromptu toe dipping once the bard got her boots off.
Xena strode up behind her carrying a blanket and the picnic sack. "That didn't take long." She watched as Gabrielle bent down and cupped her hand near the surface, then stepped aside easily as the bard did her best to get Xena wet.
Of course Gabrielle knew better than to turn around to see if she'd hit her mark. Missing was a given. She did wonder about retaliation, figuring it would be coming sooner or later. She didn't consider that the next thing that would happen, though, would be Xena gently nudging a grape passed her lips. The bard took it willingly, letting her lips linger for the barest of moments on the fingers proffering the gift. "Mmm, thanks."
Xena planned her move for later. She didn't want Gabrielle to get her clothes wet, so the tossing into the water part would have to wait. "There's more where that came from," murmured Xena at Gabrielle's ear.
Gabrielle followed her back to the blanket, neatly spread in the shade, rocks at each corner holding it down in case a wind came up. Plopping down by the sack, Gabrielle dug in with her hand. "What else is in here?" She pulled out flat bread, cheese, small sweet cakes -- taking a quick peek at Xena to see her crack the faintest of smiles -- a wine flask, and more of those delectable grapes. "A feast!"
Xena snatched a clump of grapes and lowered her long body down by the bard. She fed herself by tossing the grapes up into the air and catching them with her tongue, rolling each one around between her teeth before drawing it into her mouth. Picking the last one from the knot of stems, she threw the grape as high as she dared, leaned forward to capture it with her tongue and kept leaning until she found Gabrielle's mouth, surprising her by surrendering the grape to the bard.
Gabrielle eagerly devoured it, hungry eyes glued to Xena's, while she snaked her fingers into the pile of sweets, and tucked one into her palm. "Nice grape," she managed to say with a straight face. Then she took possession of those warm lips taunting her and let herself get lost for awhile. Detouring to taste Xena's neck, Gabrielle slipped the cake onto her tongue and returned the favor to an amazed and delighted warrior.
"Hmmm, what else can I teach you?" chided Xena lightly.
"I'm sure you'll think of something," replied the daring Gabrielle poking Xena once in the ribs and then digging in to tickle her. "Oops," she said quietly, pinned by the ferocious blue stones. Knowing it was hopeless, she scampered to her feet and took off, pleased that she remembered to run away from the pond rather than tempting that fate. Four steps later, she hooked her hand around a tree trunk and swung into a feint to the left, planning to dig in and throw her inertia to the right. But a stronger hand clamped down on hers and she discovered Xena held her fast against the truck.
"Going somewhere, my bard?" asked Xena in a deliciously wicked tone. Still holding Gabrielle hard to the tree with one hand, she smothered her with kisses, probing deeply with her tongue while loosening her top with her free hand. Her captured prey helped by divesting herself of her skirt. In three heartbeats, Xena had a naked aroused bard backed up against a tree.
"I've decided on your punishment," whispered Xena as she nibbled on Gabrielle's ear. She could feel the bard shiver as she spoke, her breath tickling Gabrielle's soft skin.
"Wha... what?" Gabrielle moaned. This torture was exquisite. Craving more contact, she reached for the leathers separating her from what she desired to feel against her. Xena would have none of that though, and pulled her hand away, holding Gabrielle's arms around the trunk.
"This is one of those times when my height is a definite advantage." Xena smiled crookedly and licked the bard's nose before kneeling down. Her arms were long enough to keep Gabrielle's hands at bay and still permit her to reach her ultimate goal. But not just yet.
Trailing a line of kisses from the bard's breasts, down a hip to a thigh -- crossing over and moving up to the other hip and zigzagging across Gabrielle's stomach, Xena began to mete out her punishment. She lowered her mouth to the very sensitive juncture at the pelvis and nibbled. "Gods, Xena..." Gabrielle squirmed, trying to open her legs but Xena squeezed them shut with her knees.
She nibbled on the other side then lazily drew circles with her tongue around Gabrielle's belly button. Xena knew how much she ached herself, the only consolation was that she knew Gabrielle's need was even greater than hers. She could do this a little while longer.
Again, she inflicted her torment down Gabrielle's thighs, dipping her tongue between them while still clamping them together with legs. "Xena," Gabrielle panted. "Please..." The warrior dragged her tongue up from between Gabrielle's knees to her triangle of hair, catching every painful tremble rolling helplessly from her victim. Finally Xena let her legs go but kept Gabrielle's arms pinned around the tree. Gabrielle immediately spread her feet in an unspoken plea and Xena complied by kissing her folds lightly. Thrusting her hips for more contact only resulted in Xena leaning away, teasing her with the barest of contact.
But as always happened, Xena couldn't stand any longer herself. She was long past worrying about how much the bard could take, she merely drove her tongue between the folds and took a long, languorous lick. Gabrielle groaned and her knees trembled at the small window of relief. The long tongue repeated it's pattern, this time even more slowly, pressing against the pulsing flesh and stopping briefly at the apex of its path.
"Xena, I can't..." Xena looked up and relented from her original plan. The trunk was too thick for Gabrielle to reach around it and grab her wrists behind her for support. All that was holding her up was Xena's grip but that was taking its toll on the little bard. Can't have that, thought Xena. She dipped first one shoulder and then the other under the bard's knees, taking her weight and also providing much better access. Then she returned to the task at hand, lapping and sucking, probing and rubbing until the bard's hips pounded against the tree and she screamed out in pure pleasure.
Xena released her hands and caught the bard, carried her to the blanket, and held her while she reacquainted herself with reality. Finally, when Gabrielle's breathing had settled she remarked, "You realize that your brand of punishment will only make me commit the crime again."
Xena nuzzled her nose against the bard's neck, "Oh, I'm counting on it." Xena kissed her quickly then bolted up, stripped down and grinned. "I'm going for a swim."
Gabrielle tried to get her legs to work, not expecting to have to make herself move so soon after having been... ravished like that. Oh yes, she thought, that was a ravish. A passionate, tender, lustful ravish. I'll have to make it up to her. By the time she got to the water, Xena had dunked and pulled herself out to perch on one of the basking rocks. It was a glorious sight, her body glistening with beaded water. Gabrielle knew just what to do.
Diving in and stretching out just under the surface, Gabrielle kicked with her powerful legs and propelled herself toward the rock. Xena waited for her, ready to intercept anything the bard tossed her way, but the bard swam right past her to the next rock. Shaking her head and exhaling through the water cascading down her face, Gabrielle propped herself up on her elbows, half out of the water, facing Xena. They both grinned.
"Thanks, Xena" the bard said, her chin resting on a forearm.
"For today," replied the bard.
Ah yes, thought Xena. Months of living Hades and one nice day. I get thanked for it. "I thought we deserved it."
Gabrielle paddled over to Xena's rock. "I've been dragging you into all sorts of rotten places lately. I'm sorry." She glanced down and thought about how to phrase it right, "I'd like to be able to tell you that you didn't have to come with us, to go to Mytilene to try to find Ephiny... but..."
"Don't worry. I can't let you go alone as much as you can't go without me." There. That was easy. And it was quite true.
"Thanks," and she pressed her toes against the submerged rock and bounced up to kiss Xena.
"Hey, you're cold!" complained Xena, making a show of wiping the water off her chest.
Gabrielle laughed, "Just wet." She took a deep breath dove back under the water, swimming around the rock to initiate her revenge. Of course that would be revenge Gabrielle style: sweet. Once in position, she launched herself out of the water between Xena's legs, landing like a marine mammal in exactly the spot she'd aimed for, tucked her arms under Xena's thighs, buried her head, and set to work.
Xena smiled at the sky, raised her knees, and let her senses focus completely on Gabrielle's tongue. Its cool roughness contrasted her smooth wet folds, pulling against her, tightening nearby muscles until they were ready to explode. She felt once shy fingers, now familiar icons of a strength she was only beginning to understand, enter her and retreat. Enter and retreat. Slowly but deeply, pushing against her in the precise combination of agony and ecstasy that would make her body erupt.
The immensity of the pressure building within her still surprised her every time. The feral enjoyment had been there her whole life, but the emancipation of her heart, the complete and total willingness -- no, it was a need -- to open it completely still thrilled her beyond anything she had ever imagined possible. That little bard had given her life's most precious gift. And she kept giving it until Xena pulled forward, grabbed Gabrielle's head and held it against her while she reached her release.
She lay back heavily, the rock seemingly warmer than before, while Gabrielle kissed her gently, waiting for the pulsing to calm, then crawled up beside her. Xena pulled her on top of her body and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle, tasting her own love for the bard in a palpable sense as she kissed her deeply.
"I love you," murmured Xena.
"I kinda had that figured out." Gabrielle passed a finger
down Xena's cheek watching for and seeing the tiny shudder it elicited.
And the day passed away from them while they swam and dozed and ate and
just enjoyed being with each other.
On their way back into town, Xena indulged herself one last time, taking Argo up to a full gallop and jumping her over an old fence, bard in tow. Gabrielle hung on for dear life and tried not to admit to herself that she loved it. The brief moment of suspension when they seemed to be flying was utterly exhilarating but for the fact that the landing was due to follow shortly.
Soon they were at the stable, too soon for Xena, and as she hopped down for what would be the last time in a quite awhile. She left her arm draped around Argo and spoke softly to her beast, "Be good in Eion. I'll be back as soon as I can but I really don't want to have to take you on a ship again. I think you understand. That last ride was nasty enough."
Gabrielle stayed a few paces away giving Xena a moment with her horse, seeing a quick kiss, suppressing a grin. After the two shared in the process of brushing down Argo, they sauntered to the tavern for a promised dinner appointment, leaving the easy silence between them, each ruminating over their day.
"Well it's about time!" Solari squeezed Gabrielle and insisted on a hug from Xena as well. Eponin followed suit, putting up with a scowl from Xena before the warrior opened her arms. "Where have you been all day?"
Xena smiled, "Out."
The Amazons knew better than to pursue it, besides Cyrene made it clear that Xena and Gabrielle were to be left undisturbed and they'd get back in their own sweet time, and that they'd all be traveling together for days, so Solari and Eponin should just be patient and wait.
Dinner was an odd mix of peoples and families, amusement and trepidation. Gabrielle sat back amazed at how easily her family interacted with Solari and Eponin. Even Lila got over her initial hero worship to join in the conversation, telling a few tales on a certain young queen. When the last of the sweet cakes had been eaten, Xena winning out over Eponin for the rights to finish them off, Herodotus turned to more serious matters.
"You'll leave tomorrow morning and... then what?" he asked, not knowing which one of the women to address.
Solari answered him, "To Eion and the harbor there. We've a boat waiting for us. Procne and Procris should have met up with a couple of our friends and taken care of the arrangements." Xena tossed a glance at Solari but it wasn't returned. "Then we go on to Mytilene." Solari stopped talking because she'd reached the end of their firm plans.
Xena added casually, "Then we'll see what we can see."
Hecuba did her best not to seem nervous. The thought of her daughter going on a rescue mission in the middle of a war... well, it wasn't something she wanted to be thinking about. Yet, it was all she could think about day or night, waking or asleep. "I hope you'll be able to come back here when you're... finished," Hecuba said hesitantly, rubbing her hands together under the table.
"I hope so, too, Mother." Gabrielle rested a hand on her mother's shoulder. "Eion isn't half a day from here, so even if we can't stay, we'll try to drop in."
Herodotus cleared his throat. "Let's figure out how long we should wait before we get worried. Mytilene is two days by ship?"
"Closer to three I think," said Eponin, sipping a mug of fine ale.
Herodotus laughed and turned to his daughter, "You're going to spend three days on a boat... willingly?"
Gabrielle blushed. "Seasick," she said in explanation to Solari and Eponin. "It's pretty bad, but Xena can fix it."
"I should hope so," her father said, chuckling. "When you were little, we'd all go out fishing in the mornings." He laughed a little more and looked at the two visiting Amazons, "Finally got so bad she was scaring off the fish, I'd have to leave her home. That didn't make her any happier." He winked at Gabrielle. "So, three days there, three days back, and some unknown amount of time to finish your business on Lesbos. I guess I shouldn't worry for a week, then." He spoke lightheartedly, but everyone knew he was quite serious.
"Give us a few days, at least," said Xena softly, as much to Cyrene and Toris as Gabrielle's family. She knew they'd all be worried. "If you'll excuse us, we should turn in so we can get an early start tomorrow."
No one made their good-byes that night, that was a job for the morning. Xena draped an arm around the bard as they walked back to the house and kept it there until they were safely back in their room. While the warrior divested herself of armor bits, Gabrielle sat on the bed, off in some other world.
"You okay?" Xena asked, pulling off a boot.
A serious face turned toward her. "What if we can't find Ephiny? What if...?"
"Hey, don't talk that way. We'll find Ephiny, don't worry." Xena dumped her other boot on the floor and joined her partner on the bed.
"No, I mean really. If we don't find Ephiny, if something happened to her, that will change... everything." Gabrielle spoke softly but earnestly.
Ah, now I understand, thought Xena. "It won't change what's important, Gabrielle." Really, it won't.
Gabrielle stared out into the darkened room. "You can say that now, Xena. But if it comes down to it and I have to stay with the Amazons..."
"I'll choose to be with you." Matter of fact, plain, simple.
Gabrielle smiled shyly, "I couldn't ask that of you. Your life is out here, not in a village. I'd never be able to watch you just... sit still for me."
"I didn't say I'd just sit there," laughed Xena. "But I wouldn't abandon you." She caressed the strawberry blonde hair. "Besides, there is no 'out here' without you." She tapped her chest, "Only 'in here'."
Gabrielle crawled into her nest and nuzzled her cheek on the warrior's chest, relaxing into the familiar arms. "Thanks," she whispered. "I guess I don't feel very..." her voice drifted off.
"Very what?" asked Xena, not shying away from her concern for the bard. The last few months had been an ordeal for anyone to endure and she knew it had been particularly hard for Gabrielle.
"I don't know. It's hard to explain. Just not very much myself. Not very sure about things."
Xena tightened her hold, "Gabrielle, you've been stalked by Athena, arrested in Athens, nearly drowned, hit with one of Zeus' lightning bolts, you've had to put up with me..."
"Hey," Gabrielle countered sternly. "You don't belong on that list."
"I was suggesting some of the reasons why you feel out of sorts," Xena said sincerely, wondering how the bard could possibly not consider Xena's own tenuous hold on self respect anything but a drain.
Gabrielle pulled back and looked seriously at Xena. To drive home her point, she poked her ribs with every word, "You don't belong on that list." A tiny hint of a smile splayed on her lips, "Got that?"
The smile was returned. "Got it." But Xena knew it wasn't true. Her moods and insecurities had put a strain on their relationship and it didn't look like they'd be able to do damage control any time soon. "Let's just try to get a good night's sleep in a real bed."
"Good plan," Gabrielle said approvingly and she got up, crossed the room to a table, picked up and shook out two shifts. Tossing the larger on over her head to Xena, she shrugged out of her clothes and pulled the soft linen over her head. Xena was still unhooking various bits of armor when the bard turned around. "Here, let me help." And Xena gave her one of those wonderful smiles that was half 'I thought you'd never ask,' and half 'what took you so long.' In no time, they were curled up together, visiting the Plains of Morpheus side by side.
Solari and Eponin waited, mounted and ready, while Xena and Gabrielle bid farewell to their families. It was a clear morning with the promise of a pleasantly warm day accompanied by enough breeze to make the ride comfortable. There were three horses between the four of them, the two that Eponin and Solari rode from the Amazon Village and Argo. Xena and Gabrielle would share Argo their short journey to Eion.
"Take care of yourself." Cyrene clasped Xena in a strong hug, happy to have it returned with force.
"I will, Mother. And I want you to take care of everyone here for me." Xena let go, sliding her hands up and resting them on her mother's shoulders. "And make sure you let them help you."
"Gods, child. Hecuba is a wonder in the kitchen, I'd be a fool not to give her free reign. And Herodotus... well it's nice to have a whole family about." Cyrene smiled then let it slip away.
Xena regarded her mother carefully, "Watch over Lila. She's still a bit young but she has a good heart. She may take some extra attention."
Cyrene promised softly, "I will."
"Toris?" Xena looked to him, holding herself at arms length.
"Be careful Xena," he said stepping in for a hug. "I'll miss you."
She nodded, acknowledging his admission, unable to give him hers. Tugging on her steed's reins, she walked over to Gabrielle.
"I will, I promise, I told you, really..." Gabrielle was explaining. "Xena, tell them I'll be careful, please," she said with more than a hint of exasperation.
"I'll see to it," quipped Xena.
Herodotus smiled, Hecuba did not. "I don't know. Just the idea of my daughter... well first there's all that stuff at home, then you're an Amazon Queen, now you're taking off on some highfalutin mission to Mytilene..." Hecuba stopped blubbering and threw her arms around Gabrielle, squeezing with all her might. "You come back in one piece!"
"I will," mumbled Gabrielle from somewhere under those arms.
Lila came last. The sisters gave each other a long look, a smile, and a short ferocious hug. Xena had one foot in the stirrup, just about to hoist herself up, when she felt someone at her shoulder. She lifted her foot out and put it back down on the ground, turning to face the person near her.
"Please take care of my sister," Lila said in a soft voice, "and please let her take care of you."
That surprised Xena and she bent over wrapping Lila in her arms without thinking. "I will," said the big warrior in a voice that cracked. "I will." She saw a little... something in Lila's eyes. Oh no, she mused, Lila... though I guess it's better than hating me.
With a last round of good-byes called from the horse, they set off to Eion, planning to arrive before noon. Gabrielle, riding behind the warrior, could feel the tension increase in the muscles down Xena's back the closer they got to Eion. Figuring it was just in anticipation of the unknown, in other words -- the usual, she didn't question her even though Eponin and Solari were riding far enough ahead so the two of them could talk without being overheard. Then before she knew it, she could smell the salt in the air and they were riding into town, being directed to the stables, and walking away with all their gear in the general direction of the docks.
"Procris said they'd dock the ship near the lumber yards, we ought to head that way," Solari called over her shoulder as she passed through the thick crowds. Fish markets perfumed their journey, muscled men with heavy sacks of this morning's catch thronged the streets.
Gabrielle could see a strain in Xena's gait, she circled her fingers just above the warrior's elbow and got her attention, "You okay?"
"Hmmm," came the neutral response. Xena kept her gaze straight ahead. No sense in mentioning it if it isn't necessary, thought Xena. Besides, Gabrielle has met with more of my past than I'd care to think about and she's always handled it well. Even Solon, though that took a while, but in the days and weeks after we left the Centaur Village she got me to talk about him, about his father, about everything, and I did feel like she thought I did the right thing. Sometimes she manages to get me to think I did the right thing, too.
"Eponin! Over here." A frantic Procne was jumping up and down onboard a small sailing ship, built for speed rather than comfort. It's massive mast overshadowed the rest of the deck where Procne, Procris and two other women were standing.
Eponin and Solari ran ahead and Gabrielle was about to take off after them when she lost Xena. She turned back to see the warrior standing there, right in the middle of a busy street, no sign of any emotion on her face. "Xena!" Gabrielle stepped back toward her. "What's wrong? Are you okay?"
Xena shook off whatever was bothering her, "Fine, Gabrielle." She walked purposefully toward the ship and jumped on board, Gabrielle scrambling up beside her.
"My Queen, I'm glad to see you've arrived. Hello Xena." Procris beckoned over her shoulder. "I have two friends I'd like you to meet. Creusa and..."
"Orithyia," Xena finished for her.
Orithyia, a tall sleek warrior, slithered up to Xena. They stared at each other for a suspended moment before either of them spoke. "It's been a long time, Xena," said Orithyia and Gabrielle nearly jumped out of her skin because it sounded very much like the opening line of a seduction.
But when Xena flashed her brilliant smile and Orithyia practically jumped into Xena's arms, Gabrielle could hear the blood rushing in her ears. Thanks for telling me, thought Gabrielle. I could have at least had a chance to prepare for... this. Maybe. She can let go now. Please.
Procris cleared her throat. "And this is our Queen, Gabrielle."
Orithyia stepped out of Xena's embrace with a tiny stumble. "Queen Gabrielle, I'm pleased to meet you."
Gabrielle smiled thinly although she really was trying to be gracious.
Orithyia latched onto Xena's arm, "Come on, I'll show you to your quarters, then we'll get underway. I want to catch the evening wind."
The bard watched Orithyia lead Xena away. Xena didn't turn around to
see if Gabrielle was following, perhaps it was because she figured she would
Creusa chatted amiably with Gabrielle, telling her that she and Orithyia owned the boat, making their living in all sorts of ways, everything from fishing to escorting passengers from all walks of life. Whenever Amazons had need of the vessel, they always complied, for though she and Orithyia were no longer officially a part of any particular Amazon tribe, they had good relations with everyone. The two of them strolled around the deck, Gabrielle only half-interested in Creusa's monologue but keeping up enough to look engaged and ask a few questions about this or that.
Descending below deck, they came first to the galley, "Everyone has to help, even you my Queen. We don't have a crew for this trip other than our esteemed passengers."
"Sure, I understand. But I really don't know much about sailing," explained Gabrielle, hoping she wouldn't be pressed into duties she couldn't fulfill.
"Oh, there's plenty to do besides topside watch. Perhaps you could help out here, in cooking chores?" Creusa smiled with a tilt of her head, she knew what she was asking. Requesting a Queen to cook and clean, but Eponin and Solari's message stated there was to be no crew, that everyone in the rescue party would help out. There wouldn't be any sense in endangering more people than was necessary.
"Of course I can help. I'd be happy to." Gabrielle was relieved to know she could pull her weight on this voyage. This royalty coddling business really wasn't for her, after all.
"Thank you, my Queen."
"Creusa, please call me Gabrielle. When I'm up to my elbows in dishwater, I hardly think you can call me Queen with a straight face."
"Then, thank you, Gabrielle." Creusa gave her a quick once-around the galley reciting instructions about keeping cabinets locked, leaving nothing loose on the counters, allow 'slosh room' in all the pots. "I've been doused with hot soup or tea more times than I can count. You just have to remember to fill up a pot half way at most. That way if we hit a swell, there's room for the water to slosh inside the pot." Telling her how to be careful with fresh water, though they had plenty for a three-day trip, showing her where the spices and grains were kept.
Just as they were finishing, Xena strode into the galley. "Did they put you to work already?" She grinned at Gabrielle.
"No, she just gave me the standard introduction to cooking at sea." Gabrielle tried to read Xena's expression. Where had she been, what had she been doing? Impassive and stolid, as usual.
"Orithyia sent me to find you, we're shoving off."
"Oh, then that's my cue. Gotta help." Creusa slipped past them and swiftly climbed the steps to the deck.
Xena and Gabrielle just stared at each other for a moment, neither knowing what to say. Xena didn't want to take the time to explain who Orithyia was, Gabrielle didn't know if she should ask. "Should we help?" asked Gabrielle softly.
"Maybe we should make ourselves available," Xena turned and shut her eyes. Did I just say that? Is that what came out of me?
Softly, from behind her now, "Yeah, I guess so." She felt Gabrielle walk by her, the air brushing past the fine hairs on her arm, prickling them against her skin.
No matter how many times she'd experienced it, sailing out of a harbor was still invigorating. It was also tricky, even though they put some distance between them and the docks by oar before raising the sails. Xena enjoyed pulling the long wooden oars through the water, occasionally gleaming over at Orithyia sitting opposite her, each straining in silent competition. Procne and Procris sat at the second pair of oars, rowing as hard as they could as well.
Gabrielle could feel the electricity between Xena and Orithyia, so she elected to stay in the bow, as far from them as she could be. This is about Ephiny, she reminded herself. I'll do whatever I need to do to ensure we find her and get her home safely. Whatever it takes.
Duty called and she was whisked away to the galley with Eponin and Procris to prepare the evening meal. It was then that Gabrielle finally noticed just how small the galley was, for the three of them kept bumping into each other as they worked. The eight on board would just be able to squeeze in to eat together at the wooden table.
With pots simmering, Gabrielle took a break to look about. She'd only been in the galley below deck, she hadn't even taken the time to find her quarters, not sure of what she would find if she'd gone looking while they were still moored in the harbor. Now she walked down a very narrow hall, she could run her palms along the walls with elbows bent, and took a peek in each room. There were four crew quarters, all very small with little more than a palette and a table in each of them. She located hers, their saddle bags, her staff and scrolls neatly stacked in one corner. Close quarters for the entire journey.
Feeling a bit queasy, Gabrielle found those magical pressure points and stalled the build-up of nausea. What a choice. Go up on deck in the fresh air to be bombarded by Xena and Orithyia or stay below and feel every little swell of the water. She threw herself down on their palette and allowed herself a few minutes of feeling terrible.
"Dinner's ready!" Eponin had come looking for Gabrielle.
"Did I fall asleep?" Gabrielle asked rolling over to bump into Eponin's knees.
"I'd say so, Miss Sleepyhead."
Gabrielle buried her face in her hands and groaned. "I was supposed to be helping."
"Worry not, Procris prefers to work alone in the kitchen. Eventually she even kicked me out. Come on, let's get up!"
Gabrielle let herself be pulled up easily by Eponin. "I forget you're strong, too," she said groggily, steadying herself. "Ugh." And she dug fingers into the pressure points again.
"Are you feeling all right, Gabrielle?" Concern evident on Eponin's face. "You really do get seasick?"
"Oh yeah, do I ever. But these pressure points Xena showed me usually do the trick." Gabrielle smiled gamely, wondering why they weren't working as well as they had in the past.
Eponin swung an arm around her, "Food will help, too." And she guided her out to the galley where everyone else was already digging in. "Seems someone fell asleep!" said Eponin, announcing their entrance. With such close quarters, whoever arrived first had to slide onto the far bench. Xena was in the back sandwiched between Orithyia and Solari, while Gabrielle was left with sitting near the door next to Eponin.
Gabrielle kept to herself through the meal, picking at her food, noticing all too well that it wasn't settling in her stomach. Five times during dinner, she lowered her hands below the table and jabbed at the pressure points. Each time the relief was less evident and shorter lived. Oh gods, I'm going to die on this trip. Three days. She tried to keep her game face on, laughing with everyone at fish tales Orithyia told. Orithyia. Who was this woman? Why was she pressed up against Xena. Well, okay, everyone is squeezed in tight here, but I could swear she's leaning... And why is Xena letting her? There's breathing room between her and Solari... Gods, I feel terrible.
Since she and Eponin were on the end, they got clean up duty. Creusa excused herself to go up on deck but everyone else lounged around the table, a bit more room to spread, and imbibed in more of the fine wine Orithyia announced they had two barrels of onboard. As soon as dishes were clean, dried, and put away, Gabrielle snuck out, hearing the raucous laughter of slightly drunk women wafting from the galley all the way down to her quarters.
Lying on the palette, Gabrielle fought wave after wave of nausea, willing herself to sleep, falling into a half-awake daze until a swell tumbled around again both outside the ship and inside her stomach. Her wrists ached from the bruises she'd given herself, poking them time and time again to ease queasiness.
Sometime later in the dim light of one lone candle, she found the wash basin and vomited. Feeling a little better, she crawled back to the palette and fell into a fitful sleep.
Xena stood by Orithyia on deck, in the bow, the wind against their faces, stars blinking overhead. It was a fine night on the Aegean. This sense of freedom she loved, that she couldn't get anywhere else -- no land to stop her step, just the power of nature behind the sails pushing them along -- was accompanied by a nagging guilt with every breath. She knew what she'd been doing. Testing Gabrielle. She says she trusts me, but apparently she doesn't. She says she trusts our relationship. See Gabrielle, it's true. There is nothing to trust. I only have to cast a glance sideways, and you don't trust me. I don't trust myself.
Orithyia stretched and yawned. "Well, my friend, it's time to turn in. I have the early watch." She watched Xena's profile in the moonlight, the waves glowing behind her. This is an extraordinary woman, she thought. If only...
"Night," Xena called. She stayed put, not wanting to face Gabrielle just yet, convincing herself that everything would be all right, that in fact, Gabrielle was a strong one, she didn't need Xena, she could survive on her own. Xena dropped her head onto her chest. But for one small detail, she let herself say. I so desperately need her.
Enough already. Xena headed back to their cabin, planing to slip in quietly beside a sleeping Gabrielle and fall asleep. Between the normal groanings of a wooden ship straining against the water and wind, she heard her. Bounding down the hall, pulling the door to the cabin open... "Gabrielle!"
Gabrielle was on the floor, curled up by the wash basin, holding her stomach, moaning despite herself. Xena dropped to her knees and picked up Gabrielle, feeling the dry heaves as she took her to the palette. "It's okay, it's okay. You're going to be fine." Gabrielle lay limply across her lap, too weak to speak. "Here," whispered Xena taking a wrist in her hand, then seeing the bruises over the pressure points, checked the other wrist -- same thing. "Oh, I'm so sorry. You should have told me it was this bad."
Gabrielle drew in a breath, "Weren't... here."
Damn! "Sorry, I was talking to... I should have... I'm sorry, Gabrielle." She hugged the bard, feeling the spasms clenching the stomach under her hand. "I'm sorry." She found the water skin, snagged it with her toes and lifted it to her hand. Uncorking it she said, "Drink some water."
Gabrielle moaned, "No."
"Please, it'll help."
"I'll... throw up."
"Just a sip. Please." She's miserable, and where was I? Reminiscing with Orithyia, testing Gabrielle. Testing her! How could I be so stupid?
Xena propped up Gabrielle's head and put the skin to her lips. Obediently, the bard swallowed once, then twice, but shook off any more. The moment the liquid hit her stomach, it came back up, and Xena held her head over the basin, trying to soothe her.
Cuddling a whimpering bard, Xena knew what she had to do. "Gabrielle, you need the water. It's the only thing that will settle your stomach now." Gingerly she reached for her left wrist. "I know you can't keep it down, so I'm going to do this just once." She positioned her fingers. "I know it will hurt but you've got to drink something."
"Okay," the bard whispered, resigned to Xena's logic and hoping it would work.
She stifled a yell when Xena's fingers pushed into the bruise. Xena jabbed a lot harder than Gabrielle did and it hurt like Hades. Before she could think much about it, Xena had the water skin at her lips again and she swallowed several times, feeling it dribbling down her throat. She collapsed against Xena miserably, wondering how she could possibly want to stay alive long enough to get to Mytilene.
Xena held Gabrielle until she fell asleep, culpability resting squarely on her shoulders. Numb to the core, she gently placed Gabrielle on the palette and cleaned up the room, rinsing the wash basin, re-filling the water skin. Seeing that Gabrielle was still asleep, she went to the galley and heated water for willow bark tea, the next time she woke Xena would get Gabrielle to drink some. If the pressure points weren't going to work, she had to try other measures to keep the seasickness at bay. Xena left the tea to steep and went out on deck.
Creusa was at the wheel. "What are you doing up so late?"
"Gabrielle's sick. I hope you don't mind if I skip my watch. I need to be with her."
"No problem." Genuinely concerned, Creusa asked, "Is Gabrielle okay?"
"She's miserable. Gets seasick. Usually we can keep it under control, but it's bad for some reason." What reason? Xena asked herself. The seas are calm.
"Take care of our Queen, Xena." Creusa smiled broadly and put her face to the wind.
Xena returned to the galley and grabbed the tea. Gabrielle shouldn't be sick now... She's handled worse seas than this, much worse. Gods... Xena leaned up against the wall in the hall. It's me and my hammerheaded games. I should have told her the whole story, should have convinced her there was nothing to worry about, but no, I had to be the lumbering idiot that I am.
Xena set the tea on the table, propped between the wash basin and water skin. Then she placed a small plate over it to keep it from spilling. Though Gabrielle slept, the lines in her face were drawn tight, restlessness had her shifting almost constantly. Xena lay down beside her, not yet touching her, and watched. She felt her heart constrict, berated herself a few more times, then reached out with one hand and softly caressed the bard's cheek. Gabrielle moaned and rolled over towards Xena, when she made contact with the warrior, her hand instinctively wrapped around Xena's waist and she pulled herself in close in a tenacious, almost barbaric, needy grip.
Damn you, Xena said to herself one last time before encasing the
bard in her arms and lowering her head down to sleep. Damn you.
Xena awakened to light streaming in through a small round portal and a bone-crunching headache. Rubbing her temple with a knuckle did nothing to soothe it, this would be a headache to live with, waiting for it to run its course, some small retribution for her actions of the night before.
With each rise and fall of Gabrielle's chest, the easy breathing of someone deeply asleep, Xena's own breath came and went. Hers was a forced regulation, trying to get back in synch with her bard -- with herself -- and she knew something in her fought against it, it was no longer a natural occurrence. In a very real sense that frightened her, that feeling of a long-sought and hard-won identity slipping away, watching it flow out to nothingness without any recourse to stop it, like water disappearing into a long stretch of sand. And she had no idea why it was happening.
The body entwined with hers stirred, Xena rubbed Gabrielle's back lightly until she relaxed back into a doze.
It had been a long time since she'd been this close to anyone. No, Xena told herself carefully, nothing has ever been like this. No one has ever meant this much to you. So why do I do this to her? Is it some old need for power? Do I forever have to be at the head of an army, even if it's just an army of two? Gods, I'm a failure. Everything that's happened since... well, since Hercules... hasn't done a thing to heal my soul. I just live the life of redemption, going through the motions, hoping it will look like I'm a changed person. But I know better. When I look at myself I can see that I haven't changed. And now, now I'm doing something more heinous than anything I've ever done before. The victim of my misguided behavior is Gabrielle. I am hurting the one person I love above any other.
Xena rested her head back on the palette, shutting her eyes against an unnatural reaction and losing that battle as well. A few tears leaked out no matter how hard she closed her eyes against them. She felt a light touch wipe them away.
"Xena?" Gabrielle called quietly.
The big warrior sighed, made two swipes across her cheeks with the back of her hand, and opened her eyes.
Gabrielle stared at her with disheveled hair, bags under her eyes, a paleness clinging to her skin. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," replied Xena hoarsely. "How do you feel?"
Gabrielle smiled, "Horrible. But I think that's better than it was." She lowered her head down to Xena's chest. "Thanks for helping last night. I really needed that."
Do you know how much that stings? "Sorry I didn't get back earlier."
"Oh, that's okay. I didn't have much sense of time." Gabrielle stemmed a small wave of nausea. "Hey, aren't you supposed to be on watch or something now?"
"Creusa's covering for me," Xena explained.
That got a big smile out of Gabrielle, "Thanks."
Xena returned the smile, "I've got my work cut out for me today keeping you feeling well." She looked at Gabrielle's wrists in the morning sun, "I'll get some salve for these bruises, it'll help, but we can't rely on the old method to keep you feeling okay." Xena wiggled her eyebrow, "We'll have to try other measures."
"Yeah? Like what?" almost afraid to believe there could be relief from the nausea.
"Eat a little bit often, drink plenty of water, and I think the key will be to stay up on deck," Xena recited in a clinical manner.
"I can't say the eating part sounds very good, but I would like to get out of this cabin," Gabrielle rolled over and sat up. "Ugh, maybe that wasn't such a good idea."
Xena rubbed Gabrielle's neck, moving her hands over her shoulders and pressing her thumbs into her upper back. "Take it slow. We have all day."
"Better, thanks," said Gabrielle, content to spend the entire voyage just like that.
"Let me get dressed, and we'll go topside." Xena donned her leathers, leaving off all her armor and kept an eye on the bard. "Ready?" she asked, slinging a water skin over her shoulder. The cold, undrunk tea would be replaced by a fresh hot mug later.
Xena helped Gabrielle to her feet, steadying her as she wobbled on weak knees. "I can't even hold myself up," wheezed the frustrated bard.
"You'll feel better in no time." Xena held her securely around the waist and bent down to pick up a blanket. "Out you go," she said as they bumped and squeezed their way down the much too narrow hall, Gabrielle finally laughing so hard she really did forget how terrible she felt.
The change in surroundings distracted her and the breeze felt so refreshing. Being out of the cabin gave her a sense of freedom and, in an odd sort of way, control over her own body, "You're right, again. This is much better."
Shouting down to her from the wheel, Creusa called, "Good morning! Feeling better?"
"Yeah, finally. And thanks for," Gabrielle chucked her thumb over her shoulder, "letting me have this one."
Creusa said, "You're welcome!" and she was happy to be able to do something nice for the Amazon Queen.
As the pair teetered past her up to the bow, Xena mouthed a big thank you, getting a wide grin from Creusa in return. "Down you go," she directed Gabrielle, sitting with her, her own back against the forward cabin wall, positioning Gabrielle between her legs so she could rest against her. She tucked the blanket around them and then offered the water skin to the bard. "First course, my dear."
Gabrielle drank deeply, so relieved to be feeling better she was willing to do anything Xena asked. She plopped heavily against Xena, sighing softly as she felt those arms encase her. "Wow, thanks. This is great."
They sat in silence for some time, accompanied by the magical sounds of the ocean, the bow cutting swiftly through the salty water, sending a fine spray to cake their faces.
"So did you two decide to move up here?" Eponin chided them and plunked down beside them. "Creusa said you were sick, Gabrielle. Xena's infamous cure for seasickness didn't work?" Eponin read Gabrielle's face, not pleased with what she could see.
"I guess I built up a resistance to it or something," replied Gabrielle, turning slightly between Xena's thighs to face Eponin. "But her new medicine seems to be doing the job."
"You mean the laze around all day prescription?" And although Eponin chuckled aloud she harbored an old fear of teasing Xena. She'd seen Gabrielle do it so many times, even Ephiny had on occasion, but still, she knew she was taking a risk, trotting into territory in which she had no secure rights.
"Seems like a good plan to me," Xena drawled her answer. "Care to join us?"
"I'd love to, but what's the price?" asked Eponin giving Xena every opportunity to tell her scram.
"Breakfast for our queen?" Xena suggested, and Eponin, weapons master and right-hand warrior to Ephiny, heard it as such, not as a demand.
"I'd love to." Eponin asked the bard, "What sounds good, Gabrielle?"
"Nothing, of course." Gabrielle grabbed her stomach in mock protest.
"Something bland, perhaps some bread would be a good thing to start with," Xena said. "And could you steep some tea?"
"Sure, I'll be back in a flash." Eponin scurried away.
"You just love bossing people around, don't you," pestered Gabrielle. Xena didn't answer her, the flippant remark having hit too close to home. "I was kidding, you know," Gabrielle added sensing the direction of the warrior's mood.
"Yeah, I know." Xena kept out of Gabrielle's line of sight. She'd have to turn around completely to see Xena's face, to read her body and not just her voice.
"Xena, are you okay? I mean... after this morning and all..."
"Yes, I'm fine. Just preoccupied... worried about you."
Xena's explanation did little to assuage Gabrielle's concern, but she wasn't up for a battle of wills with that fierce warrior. If Xena wasn't ready to talk about it, Gabrielle wasn't going to fight over it. At least not yet. They still had until sometime the next day to reach Mytilene, plenty of time to steal some privacy when she was feeling better and force Xena to open up.
Eponin returned with Solari, Procris, and Procne in tow and the six of them shared a quiet breakfast at sea. A certain tension hung in the air, not the more private strain between Xena and Gabrielle, but one of undecided plans, the probability of dubious persons passing them unreliable information, and concern about Ephiny's well being. The problem stemmed from the fact that little planning could take place with what they knew of the situation. Until they got to Mytilene, spied around, visited with Sappho, they had no idea as to how to proceed. It was frustrating for all of them to be going into this blind.
Fresh air, food and drink soon put Gabrielle right to sleep, reclining against Xena. The normally restless warrior didn't seem to mind, the pleasantness of sitting on deck holding Gabrielle in her arms more than made up for the fact that she was forced to remain immobile for most of the morning. Xena thought back to the conversation they'd had in Amphipolis only a few nights ago though it seemed another world away. If their mission to find Ephiny fails and Gabrielle is forced to return to the Amazon Village, would she be able to settle there with her? Of course something in her very much wanted to do that, in fact it had been an old course of inner dialogue for Xena, assuming the role of consort to the Queen, living life much more easily, the deadly challenges of her current life replaced by the practical challenges of running the Amazon Nation. Gabrielle, skilled in negotiations, would be perfectly balanced by Xena's sword. It would be a reign of power and peace, one to live on in the stories of eternity.
But she knew what it would mean giving up, just how much she would lose to do such a thing, and she wasn't certain at all that she was ready to or even capable of doing it. Gabrielle knows this, thought Xena. She understands me better than I do myself sometimes. Being out here gives me my identity. If a call to arms came, would I really be able to say no, to stay with Gabrielle if a village needed me, if an old friend asked for my help, could I look them in the eye and say 'I don't do that anymore?' It's not likely, and it would put even more pressure on our relationship. More strain on myself, she admitted ruefully. I can't even stay sane in my own world, the one Gabrielle so willingly shares with me, how can I cope with living in a foreign world?
Doubt plagued her mind the rest of the morning until Gabrielle stirred when the sun was overhead. "Good afternoon," Xena greeted her. "How's the stomach?"
The bard stretched, "Not bad. Yes, I think things are okay for now."
Xena smirked at the double entendre. Things are okay for now... "Let's try some lunch, then. How does that sound?"
"Lunch," asked the bard incredulously. "How long did I sleep?" She glanced at the position of the sun. "Oh, Xena, I'm sorry. You've been sitting here the whole time? You must be going crazy!"
Leave it to Gabrielle to always be worrying about me... "Nah, I'm fine. But let's get up and walk around for awhile. I think you should avoid going back in the cabin unless you need to, you feel so much better out here." She helped up Gabrielle, who seemed more steady on her feet. The bard smiled and stretched again and smiled wider then pulled Xena down into a kiss.
"That's for being so wonderful," said Gabrielle. "Are you sure the cabin is out?" she asked suggestively.
"For the time being, yes," Xena said hiding her guilt. I don't deserve you Gabrielle. You give yourself freely and wholly to me every time we make love. I can't return that now. "I don't want to risk it," was all she said, providing an easy meaning to Gabrielle and a hidden one to herself.
They strolled back around to the wheel where Orithyia stood as captain of the ship. "Skipped your watch this morning, I hear," said Orithyia in a good-natured way.
Xena flinched slightly, "Other duties to attend to."
"I have some myself. Care to take over for me?" She stepped to the side of the wheel, one hand resting on it lightly.
Xena glanced at Gabrielle who gave her a short nod in return. "Sure, we'll take your spot."
Orithyia slid her hand from the wheel slowly, making sure Xena's were firmly in place, and then softly passing her fingertips over Xena's bare skin. Gabrielle could feel the electricity again, see Xena's pulse pounding in response. As Orithyia passed Gabrielle, she smiled but said nothing to her.
Gabrielle's eyes followed Orithyia as she descended the stairs to the galley wondering once again about her relationship -- both past and present -- with Xena. As she held the question on the tip of her tongue, she turned back to see the stoic and impassive Xena had returned. She knew better than to try to break through that mask. She also knew she was in no mood to deal with Xena in a funk. "I'm going back up to the bow. Do you mind?" she asked innocently,
"Suit yourself," Xena answered without meeting her eyes.
Procris and Procne brought her dinner much later and as the sun set
into the horizon line, Gabrielle fell asleep against the hard deck, clutching
the blanket to her cold body.
She could tell the hour was late, but a thick layer of clouds covered the stars and the moon so she couldn't judge how close to dawn or midnight it might be. The wind was up, the seas choppier, and she was glad not to be trapped below in the cabin. Still it was disconcerting to be on deck in such darkness, unable to see even where the boat ended and the seas began.
Gabrielle groped around behind her with her hands, the forward cabin wall was still there, she knew where she was. If she kept her back up against the wall, surely she would not be at risk of falling in, left to float in the blackness of the seas as the boat continued on its journey. At least that's what she kept telling herself over and over as they pitched and rolled in the waves. Someone was on watch, someone would know she was there, and if the seas got any higher surely they would come for her, bring her back to stand at the wheel with them.
But where was Xena? Gabrielle hadn't seen her since she took the watch from Orithyia. Too many unanswered questions. And why had Xena been crying yesterday morning? Was she sorry to be with me, wondered the bard. Was she regretting her decision to travel with her to Mytilene, to have spent those months in Poteidaia? Would she rather be with someone else? Was that where she was now?
Xena drained the tall mug, her ninth, and dragged her head up to look over at Orithyia. They sat across from each other in the galley, at the end of their competition. Xena had won, of course. She could still lift her head, focus on the woman across from her. We've done this before, remembered Xena, and recalled a long night years past when a young newly exiled Amazon had pleaded with Xena, asking to join her army and had provided a warm and exciting diversion before they both succumbed to a drunken slumber. She recalled awakening in the morning with her body pressed close to Orithyia's, the odor of passion clinging to the air under her stale breath. It was the first of many such nights. She was one of many such lovers who came and went with the seasons or the battles or the spoils of victory. But Orithyia had been different. She was still different.
How to explain to Gabrielle that Orithyia had once stolen a piece of her heart? True it was a crude and desiccated piece, diseased by the need for power and the lust for passion, not at all similar to true love. Orithyia had challenged the judgment of an Amazon Council, swayed not a few by her words, slew many with her sword, and lived to tell of it. The tribe Orithyia left behind soon disintegrated, victims of their own greed and misguided intentions, however it did not lessen the crime Orithyia had committed, and it would forever endear her to Xena. A woman who stood up for what was right and left her home out of a deep-seeded conviction.
Two Amazons, both dedicated to following their hearts, neither choosing to live their lives among their sisters. Gabrielle and Orithyia alike in that way and yet so remarkably different. Orithyia is much more like me, thought Xena. She has a past that creeps in and occasionally smothers her rational mind, one that has saved her hide on many occasions, one that has given her the strength to run Athenian blockades through Eion, to deliver politically hot passengers to negotiation tables, to snub the protection of Artemis, patron goddess of the Amazons.
Why is she so compelling now? Is it because she represents what is easy for me? To regress? Or do I still carry so much darkness that I cannot help but to test Gabrielle with Orithyia playing the part of a pawn?
She rested her head on the table, felt it swaying side to side, instructed her stomach to stop lurching with it. It's not just the wine, she realized. The seas were more rough now and Gabrielle was up on deck alone, as she had been since midday. The remotest possibility of Gabrielle being endangered from an outside source set Xena in motion. She crossed the floorboards to the cupboards and filled her mug with water, forcing her mind back into focus as she swallowed it quickly. With one brief glance back at a loudly snoring Orithyia, she started to make her way on deck and out into more darkness.
Her path was blocked suddenly at the base of the stairs. The god of war had come to pay her another visit.
"Hello, Xena. You're full of surprises today."
"Ares," she sighed in exasperation. "Now what?"
"Well, I was just checking up on you. You're heading into enemy territory again and I wanted to find out why. Of course I know you're going after some Amazon."
"Not just some Amazon -- Ephiny," Xena corrected him.
Ares chose to ignore her words, instead staring over Xena's shoulder at the drunken Orithyia. "I see you've picked up another old friend. Been bedding her again? Athena gets rid of the brat for you and you just couldn't wait a respectable amount of time, could you, Xena?"
Xena slapped him. "I'm not sleeping with her," she growled.
Ares rubbed his cheek, "Could have fooled me. I see the fire in your eyes, the desire is there. You cannot deny that."
"Unlike you, I have control over my desires, Ares."
Ares laughed, "I knew you couldn't deny it. You did tell me that she could make you scream louder than anyone ever had, that she could touch places in the beast that no one else could."
Xena did her best to control her rage. The liquor made it more difficult, but she knew it would be much too dangerous to upset Ares to the point of unleashing his own anger. Out at sea, he could put everyone's life at risk. "We all feel what we must, but it is what we choose to do with those feelings that makes us who we are." She finished by staring him straight in the eye, showing him that she still had the strength he both feared and admired.
Ares blinked. "More surprises. So the brat lived, eh? She's a tough one if she can take one of Zeus' thunderbolts, even if it was thrown by an incompetent Athena." Ares crossed his arms in front of his chest and said thoughtfully, "You could never muster that look if you were mourning her loss."
Xena considered that for a moment. "I suppose you right. And right now, I need to go to her. So if you'll excuse me..." she brushed by him.
Ares got in once last barb, "I can't help noticing that you spent the evening with Orithyia and not Gabrielle. Anything to that, Xena?"
"Go away," she said, barely holding back the pleading from her request.
"This just gets more interesting, Xena. I can't imagine how dull my life would be without you." He vanished.
She put a hand on the railing, taking a breath before ascending the stairs. So now he knows Gabrielle is alive. This is not welcome news. And he knows more, damn him. And I know him well enough that if he got the chance to use that information against me, he would.
Xena passed the wheel house where Creusa stood watch without acknowledging her and made her way to the bow, slightly inebriated steps slowing her movement. She could make out the still form of Gabrielle, huddled under a blanket, rolling slightly with each crested wave. Stupid, Xena told herself. One big swell and she could have rolled overboard in her sleep.
Rather than sliding Gabrielle up enough to slip in behind her, to hold her as she had earlier in the day, Xena lay out alongside her and wrapped an arm around her waist. The bard half awakened for a moment, rolled on her side away from Xena, then dropped back asleep, not moving in to cuddle as she normally would.
Of all the words passed between them, of all the insults she'd hurled at herself, of everything Ares had said, nothing hurt like that. Gabrielle, in her semi-consciousness when she had always been loving and forgiving no matter the circumstances, had just turned away from her. Xena knew now that what Gabrielle spoke of and what she truly felt were two different things.
For the first time in as long as she could remember, she drifted off to sleep afraid of what the morning would bring.
But the morning brought its own plate of diversions. Athenian ships were prowling the waters off Lesbos. As the Amazon ship made its way south then east along the island's coast toward Mytilene, the women all stood ready to defend themselves. Concern about being boarded led to a heated discussion between Orithyia and Eponin. At first, Orithyia refused to take the ship into the harbor, worried that it would cost them all their lives. Eponin reminded her that she was weapons master to Ephiny, Regent of the most powerful tribe of Amazons, and that they had a certain warrior princess on board who could hold her own against half a regiment if necessary.
Orithyia relented but barked a barrage of tactical orders which, to Gabrielle, seemed only to prove the strength of her position onboard ship. She was the captain and everyone else would do as she said. So they rearranged their quarters, stashed food and weapons all about the boat, emptied the cargo holds of everything including old crates which they cast overboard.
With the harbor coming into view, Xena spoke privately with Gabrielle for the first time that day. "I would like you to do me a favor," she said.
"Every time you start that way, Xena, I know I'm not going to like what you're going to say." Still Gabrielle stood calmly waiting to hear Xena wishes.
"There are Athenians crawling all over this place. Unless something has changed, I'd be willing to bet they still think you belong in Athens in a courtroom first and then in a jail." Xena didn't bother to placate the bard, she spoke right to the point. "I want you to go below while we sail in. If someone recognizes you, we'll be stopped and boarded and we can't risk that."
Gabrielle's stomach protested. "Okay, Xena." The logic was impeccable, Gabrielle would go below for everyone's safety, not just her own.
Xena watched Gabrielle's head disappear below deck, relieved that she could wield a sword if it came to it without constant concern for the bard's safety during a fight. But the lack of fight the bard put up unsettled any allayment gained. Gabrielle always protested if only to show Xena her self determination. This time the bard acquiesced without so much as a peep.
Xena positioned herself at the head of the stairs. If Athenian soldiers boarded them, no one would make it past her, no one would get to Gabrielle below deck. And I won't go down, either, thought Xena sadly.
The expanse of Mytilene Harbor impressed Xena. It had grown since she'd visited last, new shipyards providing a grand backdrop for the spectacle of ships moored along the docks. The Athenians reaped many of their war ships from these builders, relieving the town from having to pay a monetary tribute to the treasury. But unfortunately, it also meant that the harbor was crawling with Athenian soldiers and with unscrupulous men who knew that precious favors delivered to certain up and coming officers would be repaid with a handsome reward. It was a foolish decision to allow Gabrielle to come to Mytilene.
Three small ships flanked them, at first they were but shadows, however, as they neared the dock, the ships moved in closer and there was no denying that an Athenian escort had been sent to watch over them. Solari and Creusa nimbly jumped onto the wooden planks, trailing ropes behind them to secure the ship to the dock. Once the intricate knot patterns were completed, soldiers poured from a nearby building, blocking their path, and the three ships drew alongside cutting off any hope of escape.
No words were tossed about in the uneasy silence until a well-decorated soldier sauntered toward them. "You'll come with us while we look through your papers." He held out a hand in a demanding gesture. "Your papers."
Orithyia spoke for them. "We're here to visit with some of our kin. We have no need of papers for such a voyage."
"No papers? Come with us." He turned his back on them in a show of self assuredness, his belief that these women were so thoroughly outnumbered they had no choice but to surrender to his will. Not hearing their footsteps obediently following him, he twisted around. "Do you require a stronger welcome?" The soldiers unsheathed their swords as one, a remarkably well-trained unit.
Xena stepped forward. "We will come with you if you guarantee us safe passage. And we must collect our belongings from below," thinking, of course, only of Gabrielle. She couldn't leave her to be discovered by the swarm of soldiers sure to search every nook of the ship.
"You'll have no need of your... belongings," he said slyly. "If you speak the truth you may return for them when we're through. If you do not speak the truth, you may return for them... if you survive your years in prison."
Soldiers from the Athenian ships spilled onto the deck behind them, pressuring the women to move toward the dock. Xena tried one last time, "We have a passenger below who is ill. May I go get her? She will be unable to walk on her own." I hope you're listening to this, Gabrielle, and ready to play your part.
The soldier in charge thought for a moment. "My men will see that she gets to a healer. She will be cared for while we consider your case."
Solari stepped in, "Sir, this woman," gesturing to Xena, "has been entrusted with the passenger's safety. We cannot allow the sick woman to be left on her own. She has come to visit with her kin on what will, no doubt, be her last trip." Solari bowed her head deeply in respect.
Good thinking, Solari! "I'm sure you can understand our position, as you share a like responsibility for the lives of your men," Xena gestured widely with her arms, indicating to the soldier in charge that his breadth of responsibility was much greater than hers, but also that she took her job just as seriously as he did.
"Very well," he muttered, and with a small hand signal directed three of his men to follow Xena below.
She took the stairs slowly in case Gabrielle needed time to retreat from hearing range into their quarters. She desperately hoped Gabrielle was aware of what was going on.
When the first Athenian soldier landed on the lower deck, he pulled Xena aside and walked in front of her checking the galley, pulling open all the doors. Xena let him, aware that he was just performing his duties. As they made their way down the hall and reached their cabin door, Xena sent another silent wish to Gabrielle to be prepared.
The soldier yanked opened the door, Xena could hear a soft moaning from within. She rushed in and knelt by Gabrielle. "Are you feeling any better? We must go with these guards before taking you to your family." Xena lay her hand on top of Gabrielle's and gave it a squeeze.
In the perfect imitation of a sickly stupor, Gabrielle mumbled, "Guards? Are we back at the palace?"
Xena answered her evenly, "No, we're in Mytilene. We have to get off the boat now."
"Boat?" Gabrielle asked.
The soldiers behind them relaxed, convinced this woman was out of her mind, surely on her deathbed. One of them urged, "Hurry it up. Just get her and let's go."
"As you wish." Xena gently reached under Gabrielle and picked her up, noting she did indeed look pale. Who'd have ever thought your tendency to get seasick would work on your behalf? She cradled the bard in her arms and nodded to the guards. One led the way while the other two followed them out.
Xena insisted on carrying Gabrielle to the soldier's headquarters. All eight of the women were taken to a holding room and told to wait. Xena lay Gabrielle down on a bench and stood by her, "It isn't necessary to guard us now," she said to a soldier stationed just inside the door. He did not reply, preferring to stare straight ahead until some altercation demanded his attention.
Gabrielle moaned softly, Xena saw another opening. "Could you at least bring the sick woman some water?" The guard's eyes traveled over Gabrielle's body slowly. He turned on his heels and left them alone. "Gabrielle, thank you!" Xena whispered, bending to kiss her on the cheek.
The bard smiled. "I really was a bit nauseous, it wasn't too hard."
"You were great," said Eponin, patting her head.
"We don't know how much time we have, so stay in place everyone." Orithyia reassumed her role as captain. "We'd better get our story straight."
Xena spoke quickly, "We're from Celetrum, a small kingdom in the northeast not involved in the war. We're taking Gabrielle... Oh, we'd better come up with a new name."
"Lila," suggested the bard.
"Okay, we're taking Lila to see her nieces who've been studying with Sappho. Keep it simple. Nothing fancy."
"And I'm a Queen," said Gabrielle. "That's why I need such a large entourage."
"Fine, your majesty." Xena said, smoothing the hair away from laughing green eyes.
The door opened again. The soldier they'd sent for water had been replaced by six burly guards. "This way," one of them said gruffly.
Xena again picked up Gabrielle. She followed Orithyia out and the others fell in behind her.
The soldier who met them at the dock stood to the right of an officer seated behind a large table overburdened with parchments and scrolls. The officer did not introduce himself and began asking questions before they were all in the room. "Who are you?"
Orithyia told him their conjured story.
"Where are your papers?" he demanded as if he hadn't listened at all.
"We have no papers. We are merely bringing this Queen Lila to see her nieces one last time. It is her dying wish." The frustration showed through Orithyia's words.
"You look like more damn Amazons." The officer signed his name to a parchment, shoved it toward a guard and instructed, "Take them away."
More damn Amazons? wondered Xena. Perhaps that means he's run into Ephiny. Maybe there's something we can learn from him.
They filed out the way they came and were led down a long corridor. Xena's innate sense of danger flared up just before they were stopped and relieved of their weapons. With no recourse, for she held the bard and had no hands free to fight, Xena gave in to the inevitability that things were not going as planned.
"Hey, what do you think you're doing?" Orithyia balked at losing her weapons, refusing to go down without a fight.
"Calm down," Creusa said to her, speaking for the first time since their introduction to the local Athenian infantry. "We'll think of something."
The guards laughed. "We can think of something for you," one
said grabbing his crotch. "I'm sure we can work out a deal in exchange
for a reduced sentence."
They were all herded into a single large cell. That was to their advantage, mused Xena, except for the other prisoners in here. Well, it might be an early release for them, too. And she'd seen the closet where their weapons were stored. Once they'd gotten out of the cell they could recoup their lost possessions quickly. Getting out of the cell was another matter, though.
Xena set Gabrielle down on her feet and began a thorough exploration of the room. Two benches, a chamber pot, one thin window near the ceiling, another thin slit in the door usually kept covered. A few of the other prisoners followed her actions carefully, some with interest, some with the distanced look of broken men gazing upon anything that moved.
No one could see in the cell and she couldn't see an easy way out. "We'll have to get out the same way we came in," Xena announced. "We'll need to learn their routine, listen for the number of guards, and take our chances."
"You can't be serious," whined Orithyia . "We don't even know how to get out of the building much less have any idea how many guards we'll run into."
Eponin had heard enough. "I'll do as Xena says." She turned to her friend, "You saw the weapons locker?"
Xena smiled, "Yes, getting our things back should be easy."
One of the prisoners shuffled nearer. "There's no getting out!" He sniffled on a torn shirt sleeve, yellowed by frequent use. "Only one who was in here ever left but they dragged her out. I hear she's locked up some place even tighter than this one."
The hairs on Xena's neck tingled. "Who was she?" she asked the man quickly, stepping closer to him but avoiding his foul breath.
He looked up at her, then cowered behind a half-cocked arm, "One of you." He peeked over his arm. "Yup, one of you." With his other hand he opened his trousers, held himself and urinated.
Standing back but still boring into his eyes, she waited until he'd tucked himself in. "Her hair. Do you remember it?" The women gathered closer, anxious to hear his answer but all keeping some distance, just in case.
"Not like yours," he replied. His eyes played across the hair of all the women there and stopped at Gabrielle's. "That's closest. But it was funny."
Gabrielle asked, "Curly?"
"Curly..." Again, he wiped his nose on his sleeve then stared at it and ran his fingers through the viscous remnants. The man coughed then collapsed.
"Don't touch him!" cried Xena as Gabrielle bent near him. She pulled her back and offered no further explanation.
"Can we trust his word?" asked Solari, verbalizing the question on everyone's mind. They gathered together in a far corner.
Procne shrugged, "No reason not to, but he could have been talking about someone other than Ephiny."
Orithyia criticized her sharply, "You never know who's listening. No names."
"She didn't mean anything by it," Procris offered in defense of her sister.
"Stop being stupid." barked Orithyia.
Xena stepped in, "Enough, Orithyia." The two met eye to eye in silence. It was an argument tinged with familiarity, a battle of wills between equals, the wordless kind of quarrel two lovers can have. The intensity startled Gabrielle.
They were interrupted by the sound of the wooden door being unbolted and pulled open. Two guards entered, swords drawn, followed by a third who spoke. "Any volunteers?" He looked around the room laughing until his gaze met Gabrielle, whom he sized up slowly. "I'll take that one." The armed guards stepped forward, a certain drudgery in their steps caused by routine.
Xena blocked their way. "I don't think so." She bared her teeth in a challenging smile.
The speaker showed his surprise. Evidently, few prisoners had the gumption to stand up to him. "Are you going to take her place?"
"That depends on what your plans are." Again the feral grin.
The man shuddered slightly, his wildest dreams answered.
"No, I'll go." Orithyia put herself in front of Xena.
"What?" Anger showing through, "You are not..."
"Yes I am, Xena. And you're going to let me." Orithyia whispered back to her. She turned her attention to the guards. "I want to. Come and get me boys, there's plenty to go around."
With the subtlest nod from the man in charge, the two guards grabbed Orithyia and took her from the cell. As the door closed, Xena pounded her fist against it once and dropped her head against the deep wood grains. She knew Gabrielle stood at her back waiting. She knew she didn't have the strength to deal with her questions. There was no place to hide.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
Xena pivoted around. They engaged in their own silent battle for a moment.
Gabrielle broke it. "Are you going to tell me what's going on?"
Xena dropped her eyes. "Not now," she said in a husky voice and brushed past her.
Watching Xena find a swatch of open space for pacing, one that distanced her from the rest of the Amazons, Gabrielle settled down on the floor, her back resting against a wall. Creusa came to sit by her. "Xena needs you right now," Creusa said.
"Could have fooled me," the bard retorted. She drew her knees up tight and let her chin down on them. "Can you answer some questions for me?"
"Perhaps." Creusa added, "Some answers need to come from... others."
Gabrielle surprised her with the first inquiry. "Are you and Orithyia lovers?"
"Sometimes. We meet each other's needs."
Gabrielle looked at her. "That's it? You meet her needs?"
"And she, mine." Creusa considered her next statement. "She has always held a part of herself back. A part she hoped to reunite with someone else."
Gabrielle chewed on that, very aware of the real meaning behind it. "I never thought that of Xena."
"They don't bring out the best in each other." Creusa saw the cringe, knew she'd said too much. She backed off, "Xena is trying to sort out some old... stuff. Hang in there."
Gabrielle dropped her head back against the wall. "There's more 'old stuff' than you know of." And thought about their conversations in Poteidaia. Issues of trust. Xena, you said I could help, you wanted me to help. But I can't do it if you push me away. And every time I try to pull you back, I see those walls come up. Those walls that encase the old Xena. I'm not a part of that life. And someone else is around who was... or is. She knows how to get in there. How can I fight that?
When the door opened again, Xena was there to catch Orithyia as she was tossed in. She examined her carefully noting a bruise on her temple and several on her upper arms and legs. The others gathered around.
"I'm fine," Orithyia said. "And I have the information we need. They change guards twice at night, the last shift has only four and most of the building is empty. I told them to come back for me later, that'll get the door open. Then we can make our break."
"Excellent!" said Eponin, already planning their next moves.
"Give her some space!" barked Xena, shooing everyone away. Gabrielle didn't even try to stay close by, she returned to her spot and watched Xena give Orithyia a more thorough examination, could tell that heated words were exchanged until they melted into smiles. Xena sat next to Orithyia, their bodies touching, and they talked until Orithyia fell asleep. Xena gently pulled the other woman's head down onto her shoulder, closing her own eyes.
Gabrielle knew she was the recipient of furtive glances. Everyone had figured out what was going on. At least they had the decency not to ask her about it. Eponin, Solari, Procne, and Procris took up the roll of protector to their queen. When a couple of other prisoners wandered their way, the four of them made certain the bard wasn't disturbed. Only Creusa seemed unchanged by everything, as if such an occurrence happened everyday. But Gabrielle knew that wasn't so. Creusa told her Orithyia was holding back in order to reunite with someone and that someone didn't come around everyday. In fact, that someone hadn't been around in over two years by the bard's reckoning. It's something we share, Creusa and I, thought the bard. And it is the longing to share with another that's gotten us into trouble. All of us.
As the appointed time neared, they readied themselves. Gabrielle inched closer to Xena, instinctively knowing that the four of her friends still couldn't ensure her safety like one warrior princess could. Xena turned on her and hissed, "Stick by Eponin. You're too much of a target by me."
"But..." Gabrielle stammered, "Who'll watch your back?"
"Orithyia will." When Gabrielle didn't budge Xena gave her a little push, "You don't even have your staff! Go on," shooing her away, "Git."
The door opened, Orithyia sauntered into view, a greedy man entered and knew no more. Xena and Orithyia slipped out, everyone else on their heels, Eponin taking special care to stay close by her charge no matter what the reason for it. Tactically, it was sound. Xena would make herself a target and Gabrielle should stay out of that path, but she heard Xena's words and they were imbued with a deeper meaning than just a combat maneuver.
Eponin kept the bard well away from the front line as Xena and Orithyia quickly took care of everyone in their way. The weapons locker easily broken into, now armed, they continued their quick journey out of the building not running into any more resistance. Taking off at a dead run, they wended their way down back alleys away from the harbor and deeper into Mytilene.
"In here," called Orithyia in a whispered yell. They followed her without question into a tavern's storeroom. "Shh. Wait here." She worked her way around a pile of boxes, Xena on her heels, and found a door.
It led to the kitchen where Orithyia was enthusiastically greeted by an Amazon cook. "Ori, gods! What are you doing here?" They smothered each other in a bear hug.
"Delia, I need your help. This is Xena," she said.
Delia seemed impressed. "Xena," she repeated with a sing-song in her voice.
"We're here looking for someone."
Xena interrupted her, "And we need to get a friend to a safe place while we look." Orithyia questioned her with her eyes. "She's wanted by the Athenians."
Delia understood, "They're all over Mytilene but there are plenty of safe places here."
Xena shook her head. "Safer."
"Then you'll have to get her out of town." Delia took a hot pot off the fire and stirred it, wiping her brow against the heat. "Who are you looking for and who do you need to hide?"
"Ephiny is missing. She came to Mytilene to bring some of the young ones away from the war..." Orithyia scratched her head, "I guess this wasn't a good place to come."
"Not now. No." Delia continued to stir the contents of the pot.
Deciding she didn't trust this Delia, Xena asked, "Do you know where Ephiny might be?"
"Sorry, I haven't heard anything about Ephiny." She set down the spoon and turned back to them. "Are you sure she got to Mytilene?"
She's lying. "We're not sure."
Orithyia added, "Though we did hear she was being held in prison somewhere around here."
One small flash in her eyes. Yes, Ephiny's here, she's held by the Athenians. This woman knows. I've got to get Gabrielle out of here now. Give this woman a moment and the Athenians will know someone else they want is here. "We'll just have to ask around. But first, as I said, I need to take someone to safety. Orithyia, make sure everyone here understands what needs to be done. And quietly." And please don't mention that this other person is Gabrielle.
Xena returned to the storeroom snitching a wine skin on the way. The others had dug into a round of cheese and welcomed the drink. "Orithyia knows someone who works here named Delia." She lowered her voice, "I don't trust her. Say's she hasn't heard anything about Ephiny but I think she's lying. Don't pass that on to Orithyia just yet."
"So now what?" asked Solari, very interested that Xena wanted information kept from Orithyia but deciding quickly to shove that tidbit away from her more immediate thoughts.
"I think the Athenians will know soon that someone they want is here. So I'm taking Gabrielle out of town. The rest of you stay here."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest and slammed it shut. She couldn't tell if this was welcome news or not. "Where?" she asked.
Xena smiled. It was a genuine smile. "You've always wanted to meet Sappho."
Xena's taking me to meet Sappho. I can worry about what happens after that later. "Okay."
Eponin stood and struck a stance that was almost a challenge. "I think I should go with her."
"Under normal circumstances, I'd say yes. But I need you here, Eponin. The whole point is to find Ephiny. Besides, Sappho's school has always been neutral ground. No one has ever attacked there."
"Yes and there's no one there to stop an attack, either," added Solari.
"Hey," said Gabrielle exasperated that they were fighting over her as if she wasn't even there. "I'll be fine. Call it a little vacation. You find Ephiny, that's the hard part."
Orithyia answered her having just come in, "I'll say. No one knows anything and I really thought we could get answers here if we could get them anywhere."
"Gabrielle and I will go now while it's still dark," Xena spoke as if giving orders. "Please don't mention Gabrielle's name to anyone. That goes for all of us. Clear?"
"Fine. I'll see that we do what we can in Mytilene," replied Orithyia, not taking orders from Xena, but giving her own.
The headache Gabrielle had been harboring for days flared up. I cannot
figure them out, she thought. Do they hate each other, or what?
continued in part 2