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MCA/Universal are damn lucky they own the characters of Xena and Gabrielle, I just borrowed them. This story was written for those insatiable Xena fans who just can't get enough Warrior Princess in their daily allowance. This is a not-for-profit general fiction tale concerning two women who love each other, agape, and one woman who hates. For violence, NC17.
Pamela A. Lord, November 1998.
Feedback to HeronW@AOL.com
A Matter Of Faith
by Pamela A. Lord
Xena's eyes snapped open. A smoky torch fitfully illuminated the dungeon. She was lying on a hard-packed dirt floor, a metal collar tight about her throat. From collar to wall, ten feet of heavy chain anchored her securely. The last link was imbedded, not in wood or stone, but in a metal plate the width of her body and half again her height. She stood, barefoot in her thigh-length sleeping shift. A second torch sputtered unevenly, showing a familiar figure bound spread-eagle between two posts.
"Gabrielle!" The chain uncoiled and stopped Xena six feet from her unconscious friend. Gabrielle's back was to the raven-haired warrior; the bard was hanging limp from her bindings but seemingly unharmed. She, too, was bootless and had on the same cream-colored short shift she had worn to bed.
"What... Xena?" The strawberry blonde moaned as her head rolled, "Ahhh..." her neck made an audible crack. Shackles clinked on her ankles as Gabrielle stood upright with a groan.
"Try rolling your shoulders, it'll help get the stiffness out." A grim expression covered Xena's face. She knew firsthand about waking up with your wrists hanging from manacles.
"Where are we?" The smaller woman looked over her shoulder to her tall companion. "Ow... What in Tartarus? I've got this big red spider bite on my arm."
"Uh huh." A cursory glance revealing a similar mark on Xena's upper arm confirmed the warrior's suspicions. "That's from a dart, Gabrielle. We were drugged out for a couple of hours. With something short and sweet, if the bad taste in my mouth is any indication. As to where... Remember those ruins we passed earlier this afternoon? Well, now we're there." She curled her lip in self-disgust; she hadn't even sensed the darts, let alone detected anyone near their clearing. The chain was bright and still had an oily film on the links; it was new, as were the shackles holding Gabrielle. Someone had planned this very carefully, and she and Gabrielle were caught fast.
"Who would do this, Xena?" The bard turned her slender wrists gingerly; they were already getting chafed. She yanked on the binding a little, hoping against hope that her small hand could slide through. The implacable cuff stopped at the base of her thumb.
"Now that's a rather long list," Xena replied dryly." Being a warlord for so many years didn't exactly endear me to a lot of people. I'm sure in many cities there's still a price on my head."
"Do you think Callisto is behind this?" Gabrielle shuddered at the thought.
"No, Callisto's more straight forward. She'd take one or the other of us, not both. Offhand, I can think of quite a few warlords who'd want me alive, for a while at least. But this just doesn't feel right for that." The tall warrior's imagination, while not tending towards myths and fables, was all too fertile when it came to revenge scenarios. She shivered involuntarily; you shouldn't be here, Gabrielle, she thought. They shouldn't have brought you too. The fact that she was here worried Xena to no end. Not Gabrielle, please. By all the Gods, please spare my beloved bard.
"I have faith in you, Xena. You'll get us out of this, and I'll have another story to add to my scrolls." The younger woman's optimism failed to bring more than a half-smile to Xena's lips. She renewed her inspection of their prison. Thick walls veined with thin mortar about grey stone slabs bespoke a long-dead master craftsman's work. There was no weakness there. Other than the torch brackets, which were out of reach, and the link that held her chain, the barren confines were inhospitable hosts. The dusty earth smell almost, but not quite covered another faintly rancid scent, like a sick animal was here. Their captor was listening, watching, invisible.
"Well, well. The mighty Warrior Princess is awake at last. And her little friend too. Very good." A taunting, seductive, feminine voice came from the Stygian gloom.
"Let the girl go, she's done nothing to you. I'm the one you want." Xena narrowed her blue eyes, but she couldn't penetrate the blackness. She surreptitiously tugged again at the chain; even Hercules would have trouble breaking these thick links, she thought.
"No, no...I need both of you for this little reenactment. The Warrior Princess and her Amazon bard. I've made quite a study of you two over the years. Xena, you have quite a gift with weapons: swords, spears, knives, whips, chakrams."
"I have many skills," Xena's lip curled in distrust. "What of it?"
"Tell me Gabrielle, has Xena ever hurt you, deliberately?"
"No, I mean yes--" The younger woman was a bit confused. "Twice, when Xena was under the influence of Ares, she's struck out at me. But she has also saved my life more times than I can count. Whatever else she's done, it was to prevent a greater harm."
"How strong is Gabrielle, Xena? How much can she take?" asked the voice from the shadows.
"What are you talking about?" Xena demanded.
"Gabrielle, do you trust Xena?" the voice purred.
"Yes. I trust her with my life, my heart and my soul. Always." Gabrielle's sweet voice was steady, her head held high as she faced the darkness.
"Oh, I know that look in your eyes. I-- I was like you. Even in chains your attitude speaks of an unwavering belief in your Warrior Princess. When a single word of praise is a caress, and an entire sentence, an embrace. Your eyes adore in silence, and you receive the slightest touch as a blessing."
"Yes." Gabrielle's voice was no more than a whisper.
"Such faith is touching. Isn't it, Xena? I had that faith once... Once." A sound of spitting. "Do you remember the floggings you ordered, as the Destroyer of Nations? The joy you took in administering them personally? The mathematical precision of each stroke for the maximum amount of agony delivered with minimum effort. Oh, you were an absolute artist, Xena. You were a genius at recognizing exactly how much suffering one body could take and still maintain a tenuous hold onto life. You sculpted gracefully, in blood and torment, then left your work to die, or live, barely."
"Lazia--" Xena finally identified the voice from her past. A young, auburn-haired woman, wild and reckless and cruel. "You deliberately disobeyed my orders, you knew--"
"--I knew nothing!" Lazia growled as she moved under the light.
Gabrielle gasped, her green eyes wide as the misshapen figure dragged itself into her sight. Coarse red hair thrust out in an unruly mass from under the grey hood as it was thrown back. Furious black eyes glared out from the remnants of a face: deep discolored welts were scored diagonally across sunken cheeks; narrow lips were curled in a perpetual sneer by the distorted flesh. More of the ragged robe was dropped. The bard trembled as she saw how the scar tissue had contorted as it healed, leaving lumps and ridges in a haphazard pattern over Lazia's shoulders and chest.
"You killed those children directly against my orders." Xena's anger was barely contained. "You plucked them up by their heels and smashed their heads against the walls. You threw their bodies in the air and caught them on your spears. You used a five-year-old girl for archery practice."
"Look closely, Gabrielle," Lazia ignored her former commander as she limped nearer, revealing a leg twisted nearly around on itself, the other was bent inward at an awkward angle. "Xena's little exhibition cut through the tendons. It took me three years to finally be able to walk again." She patted her hunched shoulder nonchalantly. "You could see the bones of my back, once the blood was washed away."
"I'm so sorry," Gabrielle was filled with pity for this wreckage of a woman despite her horrible crimes.
"I followed the orders of my beautiful general. I thought to impress her with how well I did my job. I loved her more than anything, even though I was just another foot soldier beneath her notice. I lived for her approval. With every breath, with every heartbeat I worshipped her, my magnificent storm-eyed Goddess of War.
"I saw how she took different men to her tent at night. They'd leave in the morning with a holy look on their faces. They never bragged about bedding the Warrior Princess. It was like an Elysian mystery, never to be spoken of. The fire in their eyes burned as they charged recklessly into battle. But there was something missing as well. They fought harder and died faster trying to prove they were worthy of a second night in her arms.
"I vowed to be deserving before I shared her bed. To be the best of all and have her love forever as a reward. Oh, she took women into her tent as well, hostages from villages she owned. She rarely had one of the camp whores unless the woman was especially well-favored. As unwilling as the captives were to be ravished by the Defiler of Women, they were even more reluctant to leave Xena's bed. Cries of passion as they were driven over the edge came from her tent quite regularly." Lazia watched Gabrielle's reaction with amusement. "Does that surprise you?"
"I don't--" For one rare moment, Gabrielle was at a loss for words.
"I even got her battle standard tattooed over my heart." Lazia turned to show the blonde the large, dark blue-black insignia, warped as it was over the rippled flesh: two crossed swords, intricately detailed, points upraised. "I had a friend make a drawing of Xena's twin blades, an exact copy for me. That crumpled piece of parchment, my last twenty dinars and a flask of Phoenician wine was what I paid for her seal on my soul."
"You were obsessed," Xena said, shaking her head, "and now you're insane."
"I took that last village with my body and spirit," Lazia spoke intimately to Gabrielle, ignoring Xena, "dedicating every sword thrust to her name, to her lips, her eyes. Every fallen body was a sacrifice. Every drop of blood was sacramental wine. Every battlefield was an altar to my goddess, Xena, the Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations." Lazia shrugged in an ungainly motion. "And she did this, to me."
"What does any of this have to do with Gabrielle?" Xena asked suspiciously.
"Xena, you're going to give her a whipping," Lazia announced, smiling at the blonde's quick intake of breath. "I've got nothing personal against you, Gabrielle, except that you are loved by her," she added casually.
"Never," Xena snarled defiantly. "I'd rather die than hurt Gabrielle."
"That's not an option for you, Xena. This time you are going to hurt the one you love, instead of the one who loved you. So before you put on that famous pinch and cut off your own blood flow," Lazia's midnight eyes narrowed, "which the collar might make difficult, though not impossible, remember: she's still bound, helpless. And I've had plenty of time to practice what you taught me about pain."
A dagger snaked out in Lazia's left hand, cutting once and again through the two shoulder straps of Gabrielle's shift. The material fell to the bard's hips exposing her from the waist up.
"Don't you touch her!" Xena grunted with the sheer effort of will as she tried vainly to break the chain. Her tawny skin beaded with perspiration, her powerful muscles taut and useless against the links gripped tight in her fists. A trapped look came to her cerulean blue eyes.
"Mmmm, very nice." Lazia smiled as the shapely bard's shoulders instinctively twitched as she tried to cover herself from Lazia's scrutiny. "You always did appreciate firm flesh, Xena. Actually, you will administer one hundred lashes. Refuse and I'll start by flaying the skin from her body. Would you rather have scars on her back, or see these lovely breasts reduced to ragged flaps of flesh and blood?"
"You want to hurt me, Lazia. You want me to feel your pain, not Gabrielle. Take your revenge on me. Let Gabrielle go. Please." Xena held out her empty arms, trying desperately to convince the disfigured woman.
"After all these years, I still can't harm the body I loved," Lazia admitted. "But her love..." She pressed her right hand to Gabrielle's heart. "No matter how you offer your heart, or if she asks for it, either way, she'll give it back to you in pieces," she said to Gabrielle confidentially. "Even when she owns it, 'Xena' marks the spot." Lazia sliced into Gabrielle's left breast with her dagger, ignoring the girl's screams as she added another slash across the first.
"No--please--" Xena implored, frantic and powerless. "You want me to beg, I'm begging Lazia. I am solely responsible for what happened to you." The warrior's long legs folded as she dropped to her knees. "Please."
The crippled woman shook her head and shambled back into the shadows. A supple, eight-foot black leather bullwhip landed by Xena's side.
"Lazia," Gabrielle panted over the pain, "Xena is not the same person you knew, she has changed. You must see that. Hurting me won't stop your pain." She tried to build on the fragile link the scarred woman had initiated. "You don't have to do this. What she did--"
"She did three hundred and sixty-five times." Lazia turned to the warrior, "You're getting a bargain, Xena. I'm asking for less than a third of that." Her tone was deadly cold, "Get up."
The raven-haired woman slowly stood, whip in hand. Her head jerked as a small piece of metal whistled in front of her. A shuriken throwing star was embedded in the top of the left post that held Gabrielle.
"I know you, Xena. You're thinking, can I reach Lazia with the whip? Can I wrap it around her neck and break it? You can't. You'll try and you'll fail. Then Gabrielle will feel my tender mercies. And I'll make sure you see and hear everything. She'll be little more than a twitching piece of raw meat, I doubt you'll even recognize her. First, I think I'll start with her lovely green eyes...what to do, hmmm. Well she has two. I'll gouge out one and burn out the other. Next I'll--"
"Do it, Xena. Please." The small voice came from Gabrielle. She looked down then away quickly, the sight of so much blood, her blood, was almost too much on top of Lazia's malicious musings. "It's going to be all right, Xena. I love you. I trust you."
"Oh, how touching. Count each beat, Xena, so as not to overdo it. I know from personal experience how easily you can get carried away. And should I judge any stroke to be... inadequate, dear Gabrielle will receive two on the front. Have I made myself clear?"
"Gabrielle--" Xena's heart was a lump of ice in her breast.
"Do it, please--" Gabrielle tensed as laughter rang out of the hollow darkness.
"Yes, Xena. Listen to your little Amazon bard. Do it."
Xena stopped breathing. She looked hard at the pale, unbroken expanse of Gabrielle's back then back to the dark whip. No more black and white, just shades of grey. Not life and death, just lesser degrees of pain.
"One." Lash. "Two." Lash. "Three." Lash. Xena's arm rose and fell. She stopped thinking, stopped feeling, stopped being.
Gabrielle flinched at each hellish caress of leather, gasping at each cruel touch.
"Thirteen... fourteen..." It was almost easy. The warrior's muscles didn't forget the familiar rhythm, even if they hadn't done this task in years. "Twenty-four... twenty-five..."
Gabrielle's breath rasped from her throat, her nails dug red crescents into her palms under the unforgiving scourge. She bit back the sounds that threatened to tear from her throat.
"Thirty-six... thirty-seven..." Xena's voice was a monotone as she concentrated on the motion of the wrist snap at the end of the arm extension. "Forty-eight... forty-nine... fifty..."
Tears flowed down Gabrielle's cheeks as her breath hitched from the agony of her torn back. Halfway done, sweet Gaia, now they're crossing the first welts. A high-pitched keening began to force its way through her clenched teeth.
"Fifty-one... fifty-two... fifty-three..." The scarlet lines now went left to right, overlapping the first set, drawing a bloody lattice further down Gabrielle's shoulders. Xena blinked back tears as the whimpers grew louder. She knew Gabrielle was trying to repress her cries, to spare her beloved warrior, but she couldn't. "Sixty-six... sixty-seven... sixty-eight..."
Gabrielle held her eyes shut tight; she lived for the space of a breath between strikes. Focus, focus, she yelled to herself. She didn't realize her moans were getting louder. Please... by all the Gods; don't let Xena hear me. Her heartbeat burst out of time inside her, almost but not quite drowning out the snap as air split by leather and writhing flesh parted once again under the indomitable lash. The dungeon was filled with the hot coppery scent of blood.
"Seventy-nine... eighty... eighty-one..." Drops of burgundy speckled the stones in front of Xena; the front half of the whip was deeply stained, the leather saturated through and through.
Short, ragged screams came out of Gabrielle. The pain tore her voice, staggering, out of her lungs. Rivulets of scarlet wound down her back searing in raw fire, soaking through her shift. Ruby trickles slipped down her thighs. She trembled as her body began to go into shock.
"Ninety-eight." Lash. "Ninety-nine." Lash. "One hundred." Lash. Xena flung the bloody whip as far from her as she could. Her right hand was stained and dripped red, she stared, disbelieving.
"Oh... Xena...that was almost too good." Lazia's tone oozed satisfaction. "And what about you, Gabrielle, was it good for you, too? How do you feel about your precious Warrior Princess now?"
The blonde head lifted slowly, Gabrielle looked back over her shoulder. "I love you, Xena." She turned to the other side to darkness from whence the disabled woman's voice issued. "And I forgive you, Lazia."
"What? No! You're supposed to hate her! Hate me! Hate her-- look what she did to us!" Lazia's voice rose hysterically.
"No, I love her still." Gabrielle shook her head, denying Lazia, before her chin dropped.
Xena stood, immobile, hearing those priceless words from her beloved bard.
A key flew through the air, clinking and bouncing to a halt at Xena's feet. She scooped it up and unlocked the clasp of her collar. A couple of steps and she was at Gabrielle's side.
"Gabrielle--" Xena hurriedly unfastened the shackles at her ankles and wrists, calling her name frantically again and again. The only response was Gabrielle's legs giving way; unable or unwilling to bear the weight of her battered body. Xena sank gracefully to her knees holding the smaller woman.
Xena started as their packs, drinking botas, and bedrolls thudded to the floor. She pulled over a waterskin and uncorked it, carefully dribbling the cool liquid between Gabrielle's dry lips. The bard swallowed reflexively. Cerulean blue eyes met sea-green ones and held. To Xena, there was no better sight in all the world.
Gabrielle reached up with a shaking hand and touched the tears on Xena's cheeks.
"Well done, Warrior Princess." Lazia held up a torch and looked at the pair, she seemed defeated, almost sickened at the knowledge of the unbreakable bond that held the two together. "Cut one and the other bleeds. Kill one and the other will follow through all the torments of Tartarus," she muttered; each word was a bitter mouthful. "You both can go free." She dragged her contorted body to a planked door in the corner.
"No!" Xena roared. She turned and leaped, grabbing her psychotic admirer by the throat and slamming her high against the wall. Her blue eyes, the fiery centers of a terrible forge focused tightly onto Lazia's. "No more belief. No more faith. No more love." Xena began to slowly squeeze, feeling the woman's frantic pulse under her strong sword-callused fingers. Lazia twisted weakly, a muted gurgling issued from her lips.
"Xena--" a hoarse voice from Gabrielle made the dark-haired woman pause. "Let her go, please. Please."
Xena's eyes narrowed as she released her deadly grip. Lazia crumpled to the floor; the warrior returned to the side of her bard.
"If I ever see you again, Lazia, I will destroy you utterly." Xena's voice shook as she cradled Gabrielle.
The door hinges creaked, the summer night slipped in as the crippled woman left. Her uneven footsteps faded.
"She already is, Xena, she already is." Gabrielle's soft whisper was full of pain but it also held compassion.
The warrior bent, and with infinite gentleness, kissed the golden hair.
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