Reversal Of Destiny
Tree limbs hung low, burdened by hard pelting rain that was so cold it was almost sleet. Even if night hadn’t begun to fall, it would have been dark as thick clouds blocked the sun from the sky. Whipping fiercely, the wind carried loose leaves and sticks into the air for a wild dance. Nearby, the thunderous sound of hooves and clash of arms had been audible even over the downpour.
A lone figure with a cane pushed through the rough weather. Moving gracefully with a practiced gait, the traveler barely used the cane for more than something to test the road. A bag hung over one shoulder, large and bulky but not seeming to slow the pace. Reaching the top of a hill, the figure paused to take in the sight of the battlefield. Stopping every so often to check the throat of a fallen soldier who didn’t look obviously dead, the traveler moved through the horrendous carnage. There were no survivors until arriving at the center of the battle.
A particularly savage burst of wind knocked the hood down to reveal a woman. Dark hair was pulled back into a severe braid and pale blue eyes regarded the fallen warrior with sympathy. Taking inventory, Xena saw a broken leg and possibly a dislocated shoulder without even touching the woman on the ground. The soldier was small, golden hair cropped short, plastered to her head from the rain, breathing ragged and her skin tinted with a deathly pallor.
“I need to get you someplace warm,” Xena murmured. Moving quickly, Xena immobilized the leg and arm and checked for other, not so obvious, wounds. Discovering a large bump on the back of the unprotected crown, Xena bandaged the head as well. Sighing in anticipation of pain to come, she tucked the cane into the slot specifically made for it then slung the bag over her shoulders.
Once everything was secure, Xena put her arms under the woman and slowly got to her feet, cradling the fragile warrior to her chest. Moving slowly so as not to lose her footing and topple them both, Xena walked back towards the road. Her small home was set in an isolated grove within a forest and normally about an hour from the sight of the battle. Burdened as she was with the warrior, the trip home took almost two hours towards the end of which, her leg started throbbing.
After several awkward attempts, Xena managed to open the door and walked inside to the bedroom in the back. She carefully placed the warrior on the bed. From there she returned to close the door then build up the fire, warming the chilled home. She shed her drenched cloak and gathered extra splints before returning to the warrior.
Placing the wooden splints on the floor beside the bed, Xena began to take off the warrior’s armor and wet clothes. Hooks and buckles were undone but Xena had to slice through the leather straps so as not to move the injured arm. Unconcerned with the garments below the armor, Xena cut through the fabric. Pale skin was revealed as Xena worked patiently, as were strong muscles and many scars.
Her hand lingered briefly over a black tattoo of a double-headed snake on the woman’s right breast. It was the mark of Gabrielle of Potedeia and Xena whistled softly upon seeing it. So this was someone high in the army. That partly explained the note she’d received about the warrior’s condition. Once the warrior was nude, Xena carefully dried her, goosebumps rising along the warrior’s flesh in response to the cool room.
Moving towards the leg, Xena unraveled the bandages and temporary splints. Gritting her teeth, Xena placed one hand at the top of the broken leg and the other just below the break. She pulled hard, feeling the bone crack into place then quickly tied the sturdier splints into place. Xena found that the blow to the woman’s head was so severe that not even twisting the shoulder back into its socket woke her.
With the arm taken care of, Xena removed the head bandage, pressing her fingers all over the skull, testing for broken bone fragments. The area around the bump was solid, if swollen, and she breathed a sigh of relief. After washing the cut and bump, Xena rubbed salve into the area then re-bandaged the wound. Once everything was treated, she pulled blankets over the woman to keep her warm.
The healer sat back to watch and wait; the night would tell whether the warrior would live or not. As Xena watched the woman, she was taken in by her delicate beauty and vulnerability. Something about the warrior called to Xena though she couldn’t explain what it could possibly be. They were obviously opposites; Xena made her way through the world by healing and this woman made her way by killing. Unable to shake the feeling that this warrior was important, Xena watched her closely.
It was half way through the night when the fever took hold. Xena sat on a chair by the bed mending some clothes when the teeth began to chatter. At first she warmed blankets by the fire and piled them on the woman. Then she forced healing tea down the woman’s throat. Lastly, when the woman shook violently with cold tremors, Xena stripped and climbed into bed with the warrior.
Snaking an arm under the warrior, Xena pulled her close to share body-heat, carefully avoiding the hurt limbs. She gently stroked the soft blond hair and spoke in soothing tones, urging the warrior back to health and life. Their bodies fit perfectly together, Xena’s long limbs wrapping easily around the warrior’s smaller frame. Breathing in the woman’s scent, Xena again felt that this warrior needed to live. It suddenly became a personal battle against Hades for Xena to heal this woman. A little over an hour later the tremors finally slowed then stopped altogether.
Holding the weight of the woman to her, Xena drifted to sleep.
“Who are you and where am I?” the question was hissed.
The warrior’s vice-like fingers pressed into Xena’s throat, waking her to the painful greeting and hard, hazel eyes tinted with panic and fury. “My name is Xena. You were injured in the battle. I carried you here to heal you.”
The grip was released and Xena rolled off the bed, hand rubbing her sore throat. Missing her footing, Xena’s leg went out from under her and she fell to the floor with a cry of pain. Rubbing the troubled leg, she gripped a nearby chair and pulled herself up to face her attacker.
“You developed a fever last night and the only thing that warmed you was my body heat,” she continued matter-of-factly. The eyes of her patient fascinated her, the brilliant green speckled with brown transfixing her to the spot. Now that the warrior was conscious, something dangerously attractive reached out to Xena on a level she had never felt. Shaking the thoughts away, she reigned herself back to the problem at hand. “You need to stay immobile for several weeks to allow yourself to heal.”
“Never happen. Once people find out I’m not dead, they’ll track me down to kill me,” the woman said flatly.
“Who are you?” Xena asked quietly.
“Gabrielle of Potedeia,” the woman replied. Those predatory eyes watched, waiting for a reaction.
Xena was startled at the revelation but now things made sense. The fact that this was the infamous Gabrielle herself hadn’t actually occurred to Xena. “I see. Well, Gabrielle of Potedeia, it doesn’t matter who you are because you could easily fall back into fever if you go out in that weather. I wouldn’t worry about trackers because the rain will have washed away all signs that I was ever at the battle, never mind that I brought you home. They will probably assume your body was taken by scavengers or even decimated in the battle. Worse things have happened to bodies after a battle, I know.”
There was plenty of suspicion in those hard eyes and Gabrielle demanded, “Why are you helping me?”
“That’s what I do,” Xena answered simply. “I heal those in need, no matter who they are.”
The suspicion did not abate. When she spoke again, Gabrielle’s tone was derisive. “So you’re going to take care of me, feed me, heal me for however long it takes? Right.”
Xena was not insulted by the tone, almost smiling instead as she recognized something in the warlord. This woman was exactly how she had been after her brother’s death and her maiming. Filled with bitterness and fury, Gabrielle was lashing out at whoever was closest. Since Xena was the only one around, she had better get used to such outbursts.
It was just as well that the warrior was so severely injured. The longer she had to stay, the more likely it would be that Xena could heal her soul as well as her body. The personal battle with Hades for this woman’s body had suddenly been supplanted by Xena’s need to soothe the troubled eyes that so fascinated her. The pain and suffering in this woman’s past was eating her alive. If Xena didn’t help her, no one would and that would be the very worst kind of crime.
“Didn’t you hear me?” Gabrielle demanded when Xena remained silent.
“I heard you. I chose not to reply. Would you like some breakfast or would that make you nauseous?” Xena asked. She hid a smile as Gabrielle turned three shades of gray at the mention of food. So much for the impervious warlord. “Just some water then. You need to keep your fluids up.”
When Gabrielle woke the second time, it was to the soft singing of a woman. A rich, true alto imbued with emotion filled the very air with vibrancy. Her head throbbed, her leg and shoulder stabbed with fiery pain, even breathing was an effort, and yet the music was soothing. Keeping her eyes closed, Gabrielle listened intently to the wordless tune and the healer moving around the house. Through the years, her senses had been sharpened to a fine edge and she could hear far better than most people could see. She used every sense when fighting, really she used every sense to live. It had saved her life more than once.
Unwanted flashes of the battle intruded upon the peaceful interlude. Her men being trampled and slashed to pieces by an upstart no one had ever heard of. A tall, graceful woman with long blond hair and striking features who was fighting, so she said, for the good of everyone. The only serious opponent Gabrielle had encountered in the last six years during her rise in power. Everything Gabrielle had worked for had been washed away in that final battle.
The duel between the blond woman and Gabrielle had been vicious and fantastical. If anyone had been watching, Gabrielle doubted that they could have followed the paths of their swords, the blades were moving so fast. Though the woman had had the reach of her, Gabrielle was slightly faster and definitely had more muscle. Then a horse had slammed into her from behind and walked on her, breaking her leg and somehow pulling her arm from its socket. A hoof had struck her in the head and all had become darkness.
She wondered why the woman had left her alive. Perhaps she didn’t think she had? That couldn’t be right, all she would’ve had to do was to feel Gabrielle’s throat to find the blood pulsing there, however weakly. Then she could’ve killed Gabrielle and been rid of her forever. The thought crossed her mind that perhaps the woman was being merciful and she snorted, dismissing it instantly.
The singing stopped at her snort and she heard the healer walk over to the bed. Uncertain why, Gabrielle was reluctant to open her eyes and see those compassionate blue orbs that brought out her worst impulses. She silently berated herself for caring what this woman might think and opened her eyes. There they were, staring at her from an impossible height set in incredible beauty. Gabrielle couldn’t remember the last time she’d been close to such breathtaking beauty. She wondered at the halting gait but didn’t ask.
“How are you feeling?”
Gabrielle shrugged. “Like I was trampled by a horse.”
“Is that what happened?”
“You don’t think I got this in one on one combat, do you?” Gabrielle spat. Her words did nothing to ruffle the healer, which irritated her beyond measure. “I want water.”
Her churlish demand only brought an amused smile to the healer’s face. “I’ll bring you some.”
Gabrielle watched her walk away, left leg dragging slightly behind the other, not quite supporting the healer’s full weight. She walked as though it was an old injury, automatically compensating for it, almost ignoring it altogether. Yet Gabrielle knew that it hurt because she’d seen the woman fall earlier. She realized then that the woman had carried her from the battlefield here to the house. A newfound respect for this woman raised itself no matter how hard she tried to suppress it.
She took the water from the healer with her free hand and sipped from the mug. There was an aftertaste to it and she pinned a suspicious glare on the healer. “You’re drugging me!”
“I added a healing potion to the water. It will help the headache that I can see you have,” the healer replied. “Of course if it makes you sleep, so much the better.”
The dry muttered comment wrung a reluctant grin from Gabrielle, which she banished immediately. Not before the healer saw it though.
“Sweet Aphrodite, she can smile!”
Gabrielle gave the woman her fiercest scowl but it didn’t seem to phase her one bit. She downed the rest of the water and thrust the mug back to the healer. It was taken without further comment and the healer walked back to the counter. The herbs did indeed make her sleepy and Gabrielle did not resist the call back to sleep. Maybe then the throbbing pain would stop, or at least fade a little.
It was dark and silent when Gabrielle woke next to a full bladder. She tried to move and her leg attacked her furiously with pain. Frustrated but realizing that she needed help, Gabrielle called out, “Healer! Healer are you here?”
There was a yawn and a sleepy, “Coming,” from the other room.
The woman walked toward her with a candle, draped only in a thin robe. Her hair fell about her shoulders in a dark mass, as beautiful as the rest of her. In the robe, Gabrielle realized just how impressive the healer was physically, even with the limp. Strength radiated from long limbs as she drew near. If this woman meant her harm, it would be easy enough to accomplish with Gabrielle in her current state.
Gabrielle swallowed the sudden feeling of vulnerability and fear that sprung like a wolf to tear her apart. In the confusion of emotions, she almost forgot why she had called the healer over. Then her bladder reminded her. “I have to pee.”
The healer nodded and reached below the bed. She helped raise Gabrielle over the pot and, though excruciatingly embarrassed, Gabrielle released herself. It had probably been over a day since she had last gone, maybe two days. When her eyes met those of the healer, Gabrielle saw only acceptance and that confused her even more.
“Why doesn’t this disgust you?” Gabrielle blurted out after the pot’s contents had been disposed of.
The healer sat on the edge of the bed and hesitated as though weighing her words. After a short silence, she finally said, “I suppose it’s because I know how you feel, Gabrielle. I’ve been where you are right now. In pain and confused, angry with the world. Weakness is nothing to be ashamed of; everyone goes through it at some point in their life.”
When the healer reached down to cup her face, Gabrielle flinched away and looked over at the wall. She heard the sigh and then the bed moved as the healer walked away. Looking over at the silhouette now faint in the darkness, Gabrielle wished for the gentle presence to return. Cursing her weakness, Gabrielle resolutely closed her eyes and prayed for sleep but it was a long time coming.
A week passed and Gabrielle continued to curse herself and her weakness. She snapped at the healer’s every word and even jabbed at her a few times with her fist. She was demanding and churlish, insulting and sneering. For whatever reason, the healer did not rise to her attacks. There was no defense given, no recrimination evident, no scorn or spite in her careful administration to wounds and necessities. No matter what Gabrielle did, the healer bore it with quiet compassion until the eighth day of her confinement.
There was a knock at the door and Gabrielle panicked, turning white with fear. The blond woman had found her and was coming to execute her after all. For all her courage, being in such a helpless position, unable to defend herself, burdened Gabrielle with dread. When the healer opened the door and a little girl walked inside carrying a package, Gabrielle was flooded with relief then fury at herself for being so scared.
“What does the brat want?” Gabrielle lashed out with a sneer.
The healer looked at her for a long, silent moment then said something quietly to the girl who handed her the package and left. As the healer approached her, Gabrielle again felt the immense power held in check by this woman and silently cringed at what might happen next.
“I will not have you insulting my friends and helpers,” the healer warned. Her blue eyes flashed, hard as glass, sending chills down Gabrielle’s back. “If there is another outburst like the one I just witnessed, I will send you to the local temple and they can care for you.”
The dressing down made Gabrielle feel like a child who had insulted her favorite aunt. The words came, unbidden and sincere. “I’m sorry, Xena.”
The healer searched her face, blue eyes wide and intent. “Very well. Now. Do you feel up to sitting at the table for dinner tonight?”
Relieved there would be no more on the subject, Gabrielle nodded. For the sake of ease, both Gabrielle’s and the healer’s, Gabrielle was dressed in one of the healer’s short robes. It made it simpler to check and change bandages though it also meant the house was kept heated much warmer than normal to be certain Gabrielle didn’t catch a chill. When Xena picked her up, Gabrielle wrapped her good arm around strong shoulders and felt damp heat through the light gray shirt.
“You don’t have to keep it so hot in here just for me,” Gabrielle said once they arranged her leg on a chair.
“I don’t want you to get another fever,” was the response as Xena moved about the kitchen bringing dinner to the table.
“I’m passed that point by now, aren’t I?” Gabrielle asked uncertainly.
Pausing as she placed a bowl of soup in front of Gabrielle, Xena looked thoughtful. “Maybe you are. I just don’t want you to suffer a relapse.”
The concern in Xena’s eyes made Gabrielle uncomfortable which immediately made her defensive. She had faced and defeated innumerable warlords, all of whom were more powerful and stronger than the woman before her. What was it about this woman that got under her skin? It wasn’t just her beauty, though Gabrielle supposed it could be a factor. Gabrielle had been presented with spoils of war that were equal in looks to the healer. None of the men and women had Xena’s…Gabrielle didn’t know what it was and shook the train of thought out of her mind.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine,” Gabrielle said stiffly.
Xena gave her a smile. “I’m sure you think so. For now I think it best to keep the house on the warm side.”
They ate in silence until Gabrielle asked, “What did you do before I came to take up all your time?” The question came out harsh, even to Gabrielle’s ears, though she had only meant to make conversation. Again she cursed the strange effect the healer had upon her.
“I go about the countryside to see who needs medical attention. There are always women in childbirth, children falling out of trees that need to have legs and arms set, men injured in hunting or in an accident. Sometimes there is a sickness that no one has seen before and they send for me to try and cure it.”
“What do you get in return?” Gabrielle asked. The woman gave her a blank look and she said, “You do all of that healing without charging? How do you live?”
Grinning, Xena said, “If you’re talking about physical needs then I’m more than well off, Gabrielle, you needn’t worry about that. The village a few miles away keeps me in food and helps if something needs fixing around the house. Traveling merchants always stop by to offer me a sampling of their wares. I can spend all my time helping others and not worry about those details of life.”
“Most people think those details are the most important things in the world,” Gabrielle pointed out, eating another spoonful of the stew.
“I don’t agree. In my experience, most people just want to find love, maybe have a family, just be happy. Some people, in their confusion, think that gathering worldly goods and money or power will make them happy.”
Gabrielle scowled, anger rising to the surface. “You’re talking about me.”
Xena shrugged. “You can put your own interpretation on what I said. You will anyhow.”
“What do you know about my life? You don’t know anything,” Gabrielle said bitterly. She shoved away the bowl and stared into space for a long moment before continuing. “Slavers came to my village when I was just eighteen. They took most of the women, myself and my sister among them. We were…ill used by the slavers then sold to a warlord. My sister was beaten to death before my eyes just to amuse the warlord. Nothing I could do or say would make them stop.
“I watched and waited for an opportunity to escape. One night I snuck a knife off the eating table, killed my guard and ran for all I was worth. I vowed that night that no one else would ever hold me helpless again. Ever. I learned to fight, lived to fight. It was only a year before I raised a small band of men and took on that warlord. I personally killed him but not before slicing off his manhood.
“From there I just kept gathering men. They flocked to me and I took on warlord after warlord until few were left in the region. So I took control of the villages and towns as well. There were some who resisted at first but they were swept aside without much trouble. I hadn’t thought of conquest at first but seemed to accomplish it with ease, well, relative ease. It wasn’t long before it occurred to me that all of Greece was within my grasp. There was nothing that could stop me if I truly wanted it.
“And I did. I wanted it badly. It was something that focused me, brought me towards a goal. Not long ago, someone started freeing my villages. It was the first serious resistance I had encountered since I started. Every squadron I sent after this liberator failed to return and these were my best men. So I decided to bring my army here to take on this mysterious warlord. Only I didn’t find a warlord, at least not one like I’d ever encountered. She met with me first, trying to come to an agreement. We exchanged words, withdrew and the battle was joined.
“She decimated my men. I don’t know where her men learned to fight but we were helpless against that army. I have never seen anything like it. I engaged her in a duel determined that if I couldn’t defeat her army, I would at least kill her. I almost had her, too, except that damned horse struck me from behind. I still don’t know why I’m alive.”
Gabrielle was afraid to meet Xena’s eyes, afraid of the incrimination and damnation she would find there. When at last she did look into those sapphire eyes, Gabrielle found herself surrounded by compassionate understanding. Confusion dug into her soul and she wondered why she didn’t horrify this woman.
Xena walked around the table and knelt beside Gabrielle, taking the small hands in her own. “Gabrielle, I know why you went into that kind of life. My village was attacked by a warlord many years ago. My brother and I were determined to defend our village and rallied our friends and family. There was no contest, of course, we didn’t know what we were doing. My brother was killed and the warlord hamstrung me as an example of those who defied him. If I had been physically able, who knows what I would have done to seek vengeance against him. Perhaps I would have followed the exact path as you, becoming that which had destroyed my life.
“I spent many months in guilt, bitterness and rage at what had happened. My mother despaired that I would ever come back. You know what did it? A small child fell down the stairs when there was no one around to help her. I could hear her crying and finally just couldn’t bear her pain. I went to her, picked her up and held her, crying with her for the first time since my brother had died. After that, I left my village to become a healer. I studied for a few years in Corinth then moved around Greece on my own. I settled here after too many years of wandering. It’s a simple life but it’s mine and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Gabrielle stared down into Xena’s eyes and felt tears welling in her but refused to let them fall. Somewhere deep within, anger built that anyone could do something so terrible to such a vibrant woman. Dark thoughts whispered inside that she had done worse to others who’d had just as much to lose as Xena. Clearing her throat, Gabrielle said, “What if that warlord were here now? What would you do if he were tied up and helpless before you?”
“I would release him and tell him that I forgave him long ago. Gabrielle, you can’t move on with your life until you’ve faced and forgiven the demons of your past. And asked for forgiveness from those whom you have wronged,” Xena answered.
Gabrielle looked away from those knowing eyes, unable to bear their silent compassion a moment longer. “I’m tired,” she said abruptly. “I want to go to sleep.”
Xena nodded and picked her up without another word as though sensing Gabrielle were emotionally on thin ice. Her hands were tender and soft as she brought the blankets over Gabrielle’s small form. She briefly touched the side of Gabrielle’s face and said, “Sleep well.”
Gabrielle pressed her cheek into the gentle caress, suddenly needing to be wrapped in those strong, protective arms but unable to ask. Xena smiled then walked away. Holding the blankets tight, Gabrielle closed her eyes and fell into a fitful sleep.
Unsleeping in the spare cot in the next room, Xena stared into the darkness. She heard every sigh and restless toss Gabrielle made, her senses reaching out in the dark for the small woman. The unusual heat of her normally cool home wasn’t the only thing that brought a fine layer of sweat to her long body. In regular circumstances, Xena’s body was on the warm side; now, with Gabrielle’s incredible body so close, Xena’s skin was stoked to fiery temperatures.
Xena knew it was wrong for her to want Gabrielle so badly. The warrior was injured in mind and body, needing comfort and rest, soothing treatment and gentle care-taking. Yet images of their bodies twined together in passion, rough and athletic filled her mind, heating her already over-heated body. Xena’s hands moved restlessly over her own body until she firmly tucked them behind her head. One thing she didn’t need was to start something she couldn’t finish and pleasuring herself was never a quiet affair.
Her senses were so finely tuned to Gabrielle that she heard the first muffled sob before it was fully finished. Xena hesitated, uncertain whether her comfort would be welcome or refused. When the cries took on an anguished tone, Xena bolted out of bed, ignoring the wrenching pain in her leg, and rushed across the scant space between the women.
When she reached the bed, Xena found Gabrielle still asleep with tears flowing copiously down her tortured face. The name Lilla was repeated over and over in a broken voice and Xena knew this was the beloved sister Gabrielle had spoken of at dinner. Hesitation gone, Xena climbed into the bed and pulled Gabrielle into her arms, holding the shaking woman close and murmuring softly.
“I couldn’t save her,” Gabrielle said, awake at last and clinging to Xena’s waist, laying her face on Xena’s thigh.
“You were just a girl,” Xena comforted, rubbing Gabrielle’s back. “There was nothing you could do. They held you powerless, could easily have killed you as well and never thought twice about it. You survived.”
“I shouldn’t have! Lilla should have lived, not me!”
The grief-stricken cry was almost more than Xena could bear and tears fell from her own eyes. Doubling over Gabrielle’s back, she held Gabrielle tightly during the sobs, willing forgiveness and sympathy to the lost woman. They were a long time like that. Xena’s legs fell asleep from being too long in one position but she didn’t care. Gabrielle at last cried herself to sleep, still clutching Xena’s waist.
Dawn came and went before Gabrielle stirred from her exhausted sleep. Xena felt her go still at first, tensing as she recalled the night. It felt to Xena like an interminable time before Gabrielle relaxed and yawned. She rolled over, off of Xena and onto her back, looking up into Xena’s eyes. Her green eyes were bloodshot from so much crying and her hair was all over the place but to Xena, there was a tentative peace in the back of those eyes.
“Good morning,” Gabrielle greeted shyly. Her smile was sincere as she took Xena’s hand.
“Good morning yourself,” Xena replied, echoing the smile. She hesitantly traced the lines over Gabrielle’s eyes with her free hand and the slight tension relaxed its final hold.
Those two quiet, heartfelt words went straight to Xena’s heart and she felt as though she would melt looking into those depthless, green eyes. “You are most welcome. Feeling up for some breakfast?”
Gabrielle nodded and Xena tried to move only to discover there was no feeling in her legs. She grinned ruefully at Gabrielle and said, “Maybe in a bit, after I get some feeling back in my legs.”
“Better still, let me help,” Gabrielle offered.
Xena looked at her for a moment then shrugged. “All right.”
Gabrielle started at the feet, slowly rubbing her fingers in opposing circles under the arch, over the heel and up to the ankle. Xena grimaced as pins-and-needles attacked her feet then quickly traveled up her legs. Gabrielle pulled Xena’s legs over her own and firmly, smoothly pressed her palms over and around Xena’s calves, following the track of the stinging. It wasn’t long before Xena was having trouble ignoring the other, more pleasant sensations that Gabrielle’s hands elicited.
As Gabrielle’s hands traveled up Xena’s legs, she moved closer, carefully jostling her own injured leg closer with her. Soon their thighs touched, and Gabrielle’s hands rested at the top of Xena’s thigh where they stilled. Xena held her breath, aching for those skilled hands to continue their journey but unable to say anything. Gabrielle looked up at her, green eyes smoldering with passion, her tongue flickered out to wet dry lips and Xena wanted to trace its path with her own tongue. She leaned closer to do just that.
Someone knocked heavily at the door, startling them both. After catching her breath, Xena chuckled weakly. “I can definitely feel my legs now, thank you Gabrielle.”
She swung her legs off Gabrielle and walked to the door, tying her robe shut tightly and running a hand through her hair. Her heart pounded in her chest and her loins tingled with frustrated desire but by the time she reached the door and opened it, her face betrayed none of the internal strife.
“Can I help you?” Xena asked finding a young man at the door.
“Please, it’s my wife! She’s in labor with our first child and I don’t know what to do!” he exclaimed.
“When did the pains start?” Xena asked, moving into healer mode as the emergency began.
“Last night. She said she was fine but she’s in a lot of pain,” he explained.
Xena smiled reassuringly. “That’s part of the birth, you shouldn’t worry. How far apart are the pains?”
“I-I don’t know. Six or seven minutes?”
“We have some time then. How far away are you?”
“Several miles but I have a horse,” he offered.
“That’s good. Why don’t you wait here while I get dressed,” Xena said.
He nodded and she beckoned him inside. She saw Gabrielle up and leaning against the bedroom door frame, looking out with curiosity.
“It’s fine. A woman in labor is all. You get some more rest, it will probably be several hours before I return,” Xena explained walking past her into the bedroom. She undid her robe and it slid onto the floor while she moved to the chest of drawers to pull out her clothes. She dressed quickly then ran a brush through her hair and braided it tightly.
Turning around, she found Gabrielle standing in the door, arms crossed and staring like a stone cold warrior at the man in the kitchen. Xena grinned to herself and went out to reassure the man. That look from Gabrielle was probably making him nervous. He was moving anxiously from one foot to another but Xena saw it was more from worry about his wife than Gabrielle. She turned to Gabrielle and rested a hand on her shoulder. “Take it easy while I’m gone. There is bread and cheese in the cupboard and the pitcher of water is fresh from last night. Keep that leg elevated and I’ll be back as soon as possible.”
Gabrielle nodded and briefly lay her hand over Xena’s. “You be careful.”
Xena smiled and picked up her cane then turned away reluctantly to follow the expectant father.
The tent was dark, lit only by a few large candles here and there. One side of the tent was obviously made for sleeping with pillows and cushions strewn all about. The other side held a table covered with maps and a desk filled with correspondence. At the desk sat a woman scratching out a letter. The faint light glowed against golden hair that tumbled lightly down her back. She was pretty with wide brown eyes and delicate features.
“Good evening, Xena,” she greeted, turning from her desk.
Xena smiled warmly and held out a hand, which the woman took and pressed a kiss into. “It’s good to see you Callisto. How have you been?”
“Better. Much better, thank you. And yourself?” Callisto asked.
“About the same. Things have been…interesting of late,” Xena answered. She sat in a chair at the table and acknowledged Callisto’s knowing grin. “I got your message last week.”
“Thought you might like a challenge,” Callisto offered, sitting next to her. “How’s the little bitch doing?”
“Now, now, be nice,” Xena chided.
“Listen, after she wiped out half my army, I don’t think I need to be nice to her,” Callisto spat.
“Then why didn’t you kill her?” Xena asked, honestly curious.
Callisto scowled. “I don’t know. I was all set to do just that after the horse knocked her out. You can’t know how every nerve is on fire from battle, how your senses just overtake you and everything becomes a bit of a blur. She was lying there on the ground and I brought my sword up to finish her off but something stopped me. Damned if I know what.” She sighed explosively and continued, “After everything she’s done, the villages and armies she’s destroyed, I shouldn’t have had any trouble killing her. It was completely justified. But I couldn’t do it.”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” Xena said quietly, covering Callisto’s hand with her own. “She’s a soul worth saving, believe me.”
Still scowling, Callisto answered, “I’ll take your word for it. Hey, won’t she wonder where you are?”
“You are observant, aren’t you?” Xena teased.
Callisto stuck out her tongue. “Very funny.”
“I just had to deliver a baby, told her it could be hours before I returned. The father was kind enough to drop me off here once the baby was delivered. A fine daughter to start their family with,” Xena said.
Callisto shrugged. “If you say so. Listen, she’s a dangerous woman, Xena. I want you to be very careful around her even if she is injured. She can kill you with one hand, I’ve seen her do it.”
“I’m fine, Callisto, don’t worry about me. She won’t hurt me,” Xena assured her. Suddenly uncomfortable under that sharp brown gaze, Xena stood and said, “I should be getting back.”
Callisto’s quiet command stopped Xena in her tracks. Giving a small sigh, Xena turned back to face her young friend. “Yes?”
“Have you fallen in love with that monster?” Callisto asked soberly.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Xena scoffed.
“Good. I know that you like to reform people, and that you are very good at it but don’t get your hopes pinned on this one. I’ve felt her evil in person and her darkness will overwhelm you,” Callisto warned.
Xena walked back to Callisto and touched her face. “You take care of your business and I’ll take care of mine. Don’t worry about me.”
A hesitant smile came over Callisto and she said, “I do worry, Xena. I love you.”
Xena smiled. “I love you, too, Callisto. I’ll see you again as soon as I can.”
Gabrielle would have been pacing if her leg allowed her that option. As it was, she sat at the table waiting for Xena to return, unpleasant thoughts running around her mind. Maybe Xena had been lured out with a false story and was being kidnapped for some reason. Perhaps she and the man had been attacked by bandits and Xena needed her help. Worse yet, someone from the remains of her army had waylaid the healer and killed her.
The day passed slowly as Gabrielle moved from one room to another, alone with her thoughts for the first time since before the battle. She hadn’t realized just how soothing Xena’s presence was until it was gone. The house seemed empty and forlorn without her humming presence to keep it animated. Though Xena moved deliberately and softly, there was never any possibility of overlooking the vibrant woman.
She thought about how Xena had helped her the night before, holding her as she cried. Gabrielle hadn’t cried a single tear since Lilla had died. She hadn’t allowed herself that luxury while learning to fight and gathering an army. Then she’d shoved all thoughts of why she was doing that very thing out of her mind. The fact that she had turned into the very thing that had murdered her sister had been buried deep under layers of guilt and bitterness.
Until the explosion of the night before when she had relived every horrible moment of the night Lilla was murdered. Then suddenly Xena was there to offer comfort, to protect her from the darkness of her memories. Even while still asleep, Gabrielle had felt the strength surrounding her and latched onto it with desperate need. She smiled faintly, remembering how Xena’s legs had gone numb from being too long in one position.
Her smile drifted into a lazy grin of pleasure as she remembered the feel of those muscled legs under her hands, massaging Xena’s limbs back to life. So soft and silky yet like iron underneath, even the injured leg. If only that damned farmer hadn’t stormed in at that moment! Gabrielle was positive that Xena had been about to kiss her, felt her loins itch and heat at the imagined thrill that would have brought.
Shaking off those thoughts, uncertain if perhaps her wishings weren’t playing tricks on her and Xena hadn’t been about to kiss her, Gabrielle looked towards the window and saw it was getting dark. Worry again rose high and she hobbled to the door. Though mostly free of pain, Gabrielle lacked strength and had to lean on the table and then the wall as she moved. She opened the door and looked out, but there were too many trees in the way for her to see any distance.
Scowling, Gabrielle stayed there another few minutes then shut the door and returned to her bed to rest. A short while later, the door opened and her eyes flashed to it to find Xena’s large frame filling the door. A relieved smile crossed her face and she sat up.
“The least you could have done was start supper,” Xena joked resting her cane against the wall as Gabrielle stood from the bed.
“Nah, you’re a much better cook than I am,” Gabrielle waved aside the teasing, returning the smile. She hobbled over to the table and sat down while Xena walked to the pitcher of water on the counter and poured herself some water. “What took so long?”
Xena gave her a pointed look and asked, “When was the last time you delivered a baby?”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Never.”
“That’s what I thought. Babies take as long as they take and this one did not want to come out!”
Gabrielle thought she saw something in Xena’s face, a sense of discomfort perhaps but dismissed it as imagination. “So what is for dinner?”
“Leftover soup?” Xena offered. “I don’t think I’ve got enough time to make anything good.”
“I’m not in any hurry,” Gabrielle said. Xena looked at her and their eyes held together a long, silent moment. Gabrielle shivered as a slow smile came over Xena’s face.
“Well, if you feel that way about it…” Xena left the sentence hanging and began rummaging through the cabinets.
Gabrielle watched her move around the kitchen, humming softly as she did so, and felt contentment steal over her. She couldn’t remember the last time when she’d simply been with someone who enjoyed her company. Her captains had feared her, been in awe of her or wanted her. Xena didn’t seem to want anything from her; she just wanted to be with her. It was a new and somewhat frightening experience for Gabrielle.
The candlelight caught a blue-black halo in Xena’s hair and when her sapphire eyes turned towards Gabrielle, they glowed with an inner light that stole her breath away. “You are so beautiful.” The words escaped in a sigh without her truly realizing it.
Xena stilled for a moment, pausing to look at her admirer. It was hard to believe this was the same woman who’d tried to strangle her that first morning. Golden hair glowed in the candlelight and her green eyes shone like emeralds in a delicate, sculptured face. “So are you.”
Gabrielle looked away and shook her head. “No I’m not. I have scars all over my body, my hair is a disaster and I’m short.”
Xena smiled gently and walked over to Gabrielle. She knelt before the other woman and placed her hands on Gabrielle’s knees. “Well there’s nothing to be done about your height, love, I’m sorry. But you’re so little and delicate that I’m sometimes afraid I’m going to crush you by accident if I’m not extra careful. Your hair suits you, curling about your ears the way it does, golden-red like honey in candlelight. Scars heal in time, they will fade, but they are part of you as well and so beautiful in their own way.”
Gabrielle touched the side of Xena’s face and wished she could feel that way about herself. The only thing that came when she thought about herself was disgust and anger. “I can’t think that way. I-I want to but…”
“Hush love, it will come in time,” Xena reassured her softly, pressing a finger to soft lips to stop harsh words. She brought Gabrielle’s hands to her lips and kissed them. Then she stood and said, “Dinner is almost ready. Knowing you, I’m surprised that stomach of yours isn’t growling already since I assume you didn’t eat while I was gone.”
As if on cue, it did growl rather loudly and they broke into laughter.
The next few weeks passed in a quiet, healing way for Gabrielle as the days took on a routine that she enjoyed. When she woke, Xena was always already awake and preparing breakfast. Once breakfast was over, Xena would check her bandages and then help Gabrielle to exercise her arm to rebuild strength. The bump on her head was gone by the second week and her leg was healing quickly. They would eat lunch and then Xena would leave to make her rounds to the nearby villages.
It always amazed Gabrielle just how quickly Xena could move for someone with her injury. While Xena was gone, which sometimes could be for several hours, Gabrielle would practice walking and testing her leg while continuing with the arm exercises. Then she would read, something she’d forgotten that she enjoyed doing. It had surprised her to find out that Xena was not avid reader though there were many scrolls tossed in a chest in the bedroom. She’d mentioned it to Xena who had shrugged and said some traveling bard always paid her with scrolls. Dust-collectors were what she’d called them, Gabrielle remembered with a grin.
When darkness began to fall, Gabrielle would set aside the scrolls and start peeling vegetables and making dinner. She was surprised to find out that she enjoyed cooking and, once passed her fear of it, that she was rather good. As the weeks progressed, it turned out that she was actually better at cooking than Xena, experimenting with spices and combinations that Xena would never think of.
Gabrielle tried not to think about what would happen once her leg was completely healed. That time was closer than she wanted to admit to herself or Xena. The heavy splints and bandages had been replaced with thinner splints and fewer bandages. She could get around a lot better, with barely a limp as long as she was careful where she placed her footing. The quiet way of living had brought her a peace that she knew wouldn’t last a second if she left this grove.
If she left. A thought that crossed her mind more and more frequently. Outside this life would be bitterness and rage towards the woman she used to be. Gabrielle had never tried to be anonymous in her attacks. She’d always ridden at the fore, high on her black charger and resplendent in gold and white battle-leathers. The fact that she couldn’t go back to being what she was frightened her. How would she deal with other people? She knew now that she couldn’t kill without thinking ever again. She hadn’t really been doing that before, but rather been suppressing their faces from her memory.
“That sort of thinking will get you nowhere,” a silky, masculine voice commented.
Gabrielle didn’t have to turn to know who that voice belonged to. “What do you want, Ares?”
“I’m just checking on my favorite warrior is all,” Ares said, walking into view. Darkly handsome with tanned skin and a perfect body, being a God of course, Ares embodied everything a man should be. Physically at least.
“Where were you when that horse slammed into me and that woman left me to die?” Gabrielle demanded angrily.
“She didn’t leave you to die,” Ares said moving to stand behind her. His hands rested on her shoulders a moment then slid down to her elbows, holding her in place.
Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed and she tried to turn and face him. He held her there for a second then released her and stepped back. Glaring, Gabrielle demanded, “What do you mean?”
“Who do you think sent for Xena?” he said softly, dark eyes watching her avidly.
Time froze for Gabrielle, her heart crystallizing with betrayal. “No, I don’t believe you.”
His mouth lifted, but it could hardly be called a smile. “You don’t think she really goes around just helping the sick and destitute do you? Come on Gabrielle, use your head. She lives awfully well for someone with no apparent means, doesn’t she? And how many villages are there in this area anyhow? Surely she doesn’t need to see someone every single day. No, she goes off to meet with that blond woman, Callisto. You know, the one that almost killed you and destroyed your entire army. I have to say, you’re getting sloppy in your old age. Two years ago, the woman would never have been able to touch your army. What happened to the fire I used to know?”
Fury rose inside, fury tainted with betrayal and she screamed, lunging at Ares with all her rage. Leaping through the air, she caught him square in the chest and sent him staggering back to the wall. Following up with a series of punches, he was just a hair too quick for her each time and her knuckles slammed into the walls, bruising instantly with the force of those punches. Then he vanished in a swirl of blue stars and she was left alone with her madness.
As he’d intented.
Xena grew concerned when she saw the house lit only with one candle in the front window. Usually Gabrielle would be moving about making dinner by this time and the house would be bathed in light. Xena’s mouth tingled in anticipation at the spicy dishes Gabrielle somehow concocted from the ordinary ingredients found in Xena’s kitchen. Opening the door, she was grabbed and thrown across the room to slam into the wall. Her head spun when it connected with the wall and something crashed into her back. She crumpled to the floor, filled with pain.
Someone turned her over and Xena was truly frightened by the madness she saw in Gabrielle’s eyes. They glinted in the dark, catching the faint light coming in from the window. A kitchen knife pressed into her throat as Gabrielle moved to sit on her, knee pressing painfully into her chest. “Are you comfortable Xena? Liar! Bitch! How could you betray me like this!?”
“What are you talking about?” Xena gasped in pain and confusion.
“You’re in league with Callisto! You’re setting me up just for the pleasure of knocking me down. It isn’t enough for her that she’s destroyed my army, she has to destroy me as well, isn’t that it? And you’re helping her!” Gabrielle’s accusation ended with an anguished cry and she backhanded Xena across the face.
Xena’s head rocked with the force of the blow and fire engulfed the side of her face. How had Gabrielle found out about Callisto? What had brought this woman all the way back to the beginning? “Gabrielle, please listen to me. Please? Callisto is a friend of mine, yes, but that’s all. She told me where to find you on the battlefield. She has had nothing to do with the rest of it, I swear!”
A hint of uncertainty crept into Gabrielle’s eyes and Xena pressed her advantage. “Gabrielle, I only want to see that you are healed, body and soul. I only want for you to be happy, please believe me. I care for you so much.”
The knife clattered to the floor as sobs racked Gabrielle’s body. She rolled onto the floor and curled into a ball. Xena took a second to catch her breath then sat up with a groan of pain. Her back felt as though it were going to be bruised for weeks to come and her face didn’t feel much better. Right now those things didn’t concern her so much as the woman crying her heart out on the floor.
Moving cautiously to Gabrielle, not certain how she would react, Xena touched her shoulder. If anything, it only seemed to make her cry harder. Xena pulled Gabrielle into her arms and Gabrielle’s arms went around her back, holding on tight.
“I-I’m so sorry,” Gabrielle managed to get out. “Ares said…”
“I should have known he was involved,” Xena interrupted. She rubbed Gabrielle’s back soothingly. “You should know that he only likes to cause trouble. Callisto won’t serve him so she’s on his hit list. Probably thought the best way to get her would be to get you to kill me.”
“I couldn’t do it. I’m so ashamed that I hurt you, Xena, I’m so sorry,” Gabrielle said, words muffled against Xena’s throat.
“Hush now love, it’s all right. I’m fine. Tough as nails, that’s me,” Xena assured her. Her back jabbed her with pain for the lie but she ignored it. “I’m more worried about you, little one.”
That only served to get Gabrielle crying again and Xena cursed her tongue. Thinking silence might be the best policy for now, she held Gabrielle and rocked slowly until the tears stopped again. When silence ruled the darkened house, Xena became aware of the heat of the woman she held. Cursing her rampant desires, Xena tried to ignore the sensations of Gabrielle in her arms. Then Gabrielle’s lips pressed gently to her throat and Xena was lost.
Groaning, Xena said, “Gabrielle, please don’t. You need-you need…”
“I need you,” Gabrielle said pulling back far enough to look into Xena’s eyes. “I think-I think I love you Xena. I know that I want you. I know that I need your kindness and compassion and your singing and your smile. I need all of you.”
There was no mistaking the look of honest love in Gabrielle’s eyes. It was something Xena had seen in Callisto’s eyes but had been unable to return the feelings Callisto had for her. Gabrielle was another matter altogether. Sighing, Xena traced the outline of Gabrielle’s face with her fingers. “I need you too, Gabrielle. I need your laughter, your intelligence, your funny stories and great cooking. You complete me in ways I didn’t even know were lacking.”
The touch of lips to lips was soft at first, a tentative exploration for both. Gabrielle moved so that she sat across Xena’s thighs and faced her, hooking her ankles together behind Xena. She slowly unbuttoned Xena’s tunic and pulled it off. She marveled at the breathtaking beauty of strong shoulders leading into firm breasts then down into a slender chest and waist. Her hands traveled over the soft expanse, gently tracing patterns over the skin. Nipples hardened instantly and Xena moaned.
It was important to Gabrielle that she make up for the awful pain she had caused Xena. She wanted to please her, make her forget and forgive the mistake of Gabrielle believing Ares over Xena and its terrible consequences. She kissed Xena’s throat then gently pushed Xena down on the floor. “Trust me?”
Xena looked up into those green eyes, dark shadows in the faint light from a solitary candle. “I trust you.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment, her face looking as though in blessed pain. Then she lay full on top of Xena and took a breast into her mouth, suckling at the nipple, licking it lightly with her tongue. Xena moaned as a fire seared through her loins. Her hands reached under Gabrielle’s shirt to feel bare skin. She caressed Gabrielle’s breasts with her hands while Gabrielle caressed hers with her tongue.
Gabrielle moved to the other breast then sat up and pulled off her shirt. She lay her hands on Xena’s ribs then cupped the breasts and watched as they spilled out of her small hands. “So beautiful,” she murmured then bent to capture Xena’s lips again.
Tongue played with tongue, lips locked together in passion and need. Hearts beat faster, breathing became shallow. Hands moved with urgency as pants were removed. Gabrielle retained control of herself, wanting to make certain Xena had her full pleasure. She moved down Xena’s torso with her lips and hands, trailing a path to the dark patch of hair between her legs. She hesitantly placed her hand there and was surprised to find it already wet. Smiling to herself, Gabrielle lay flat on the floor and placed her mouth at the inviting junction.
Xena thought she would go insane when Gabrielle’s lips locked onto her. A skillful tongue circled and dove in and out, driving sensation through Xena’s entire body. Her hips arched off the floor and she didn’t know which way was up. She tried to grasp something to steady herself but the closest thing was Gabrielle’s head between her legs. “Please, Gabrielle-I can’t take this…” her voice drifted off into a moan. Electricity shot through her when Gabrielle’s fingers joined her mouth and she cried out in pleasure. “Gabrielle!”
Gabrielle held firmly to Xena’s hips with her right arm but used her left fingers to stimulate the clit, alternating with her tongue. Xena’s hips snapped off the floor, jumping to stay connected with Gabrielle’s mouth. It took a surprising amount of time but when the orgasm came, Xena screamed wordlessly then collapsed. Gabrielle placed a gentle kiss on Xena’s sex then moved up to lay beside her. She snaked her arm under Xena and pulled the larger woman to rest on her, enjoying the feel of her lover covering her.
It wasn’t long before sleepy eyes looked into Gabrielle’s eyes and Xena smiled at her. “That was incredible,” she murmured, sliding half off Gabrielle and onto the floor.
“We’ve only just begun,” Gabrielle promised.
Xena’s eyebrow quirked. “Oh?”
“Yes. Come, let’s get into a more comfortable setting,” Gabrielle said.
“I’m perfectly comfortable right here,” Xena said, her hand moving to cover Gabrielle’s breast.
Gabrielle swallowed hard and said, “No, it’s still your turn. I have something to help with your back and your face.”
Xena sighed, her tone martyred, and allowed Gabrielle to pull her to her feet.
“Now go and lie down on that bed,” Gabrielle ordered.
“Yes, ma’am,” Xena agreed meekly.
Gabrielle grinned and blew her a kiss then moved to the cupboard. She found the lavender scented oil that someone had given Xena and brought it into the bedroom. She stopped short, however, at the sight that greeted her. Several candles had been lit in that short span of time and Xena was sprawled on her back, legs parted and hands resting on her breasts. Licking her lips, Gabrielle said, “Flip over, I’m going to rub you down.”
“I didn’t realized that I smelled,” Xena quipped.
“You smell divinely, this is just to relieve some of that pain I know you’re feeling,” Gabrielle said, a flash of guilt stabbing at her.
Xena saw the look and held out her hand wordlessly. Gabrielle took it and brushed it with her lips.
“I don’t consider that it was even you who did that, love. Ares is a bastard to play with you the way he did and he was controlling you even though you didn’t realize it,” Xena said seriously.
“I don’t deserve you,” Gabrielle whispered.
A brilliant smile and Xena said, “Yes you do. Now go on with whatever it is you are going to do.”
Gabrielle was amazed at the trust Xena showed when she turned over and lay defenseless to Gabrielle. She knelt on the bed and moved forward to straddle Xena’s back, careful not to rest on the bruised skin she saw. Placing some of the oil on her hands, she rubbed them together then carefully massaged her fingers into the sides and back of Xena’s neck. Her hands traveled down the sleek lines of the neck to the shoulders. They moved gently there for a while before Gabrielle put more oil onto her hands and continued. There were bruises on the shoulder blades and she barely pressed her fingers over them.
From there, Gabrielle went to the back of the ribs and splayed her hands out against the muscled skin, enjoying the sight for a moment. Then she kneaded the muscles, moving smoothly up and down the back. She could feel that Xena was completely relaxed and grinned as she moved lower; that wouldn’t last long she hoped. As her hands pulled and pushed the buttock muscles, Gabrielle could feel a slight tensing and her grin broadened.
Behaving herself, Gabrielle skipped the sensitive part and moved right to the thighs. She thought she heard a soft sigh of disappointment and continued moving down. Once more the thighs were under her command and she reveled in the touch of their skin together. From the thighs to the calves then to the feet. Unexpectedly, Xena began to quiver when Gabrielle touched the soles of her feet. Looking up at Xena in disbelief, she exclaimed, “You’re ticklish?”
Xena gazed back over her shoulder to Gabrielle, helpless to stop the laughter. “Not usually. Only if I’m really relaxed.”
“Well, I’ll take care of that, don’t you worry,” Gabrielle promised with a wicked grin. “Turn over again.”
Xena turned over and gave a long, sensuous stretch that sent Gabrielle’s pulse beating faster. Gabrielle swallowed and said, “You’re just making this more difficult on yourself.”
“Oh? I think I can take what you dish out to me,” Xena replied.
“We’ll see about that,” Gabrielle muttered. She poured more oil on her hands then began to massage Xena’s legs again, this time rubbing up and down the front. She stopped at the knees and kissed them, chastising herself for not exploring the softness of the backs of Xena’s knees on the way down. After a short while, she continued, relishing every soft moan and whimper her touch brought out. She placed a chaste kiss on the dark hair between Xena’s legs and Xena’s moan grew louder.
Her hands slid over and around the abdomen and hips, skimming the juncture of legs lightly each time. Xena’s body undulated restlessly until Gabrielle attacked her breasts once more. Xena rose up unexpectedly to capture her mouth. Their tongues tangled and twisted together, mouths locked in a wet embrace as hands intertwined and bodies moved closer. Gabrielle lost herself in that kiss, feeding hungrily on the soft mouth and tongue offered so readily to her.
Breaking contact when breathing became an issue, Gabrielle carefully pushed Xena back against the pillows. “Wait for it, healer, wait just a little longer and I’ll try to give you paradise.”
“I’m already there,” was the sultry reply.
If Gabrielle hadn’t already been hot and dripping, that comment would have brought her to the edge. Keeping their hands together, Gabrielle raised them above Xena’s head and fastened her mouth onto a breast, sucking hard and urgently. Xena buckled and cried out as the electric current between them intensified. Gabrielle positioned herself between Xena’s legs, which wrapped around Gabrielle’s waist and sealed their bodies together.
Grinding her hips against Xena’s, Gabrielle changed to the other breast and kept their hands laced tightly together. Unable not to return to the open, moaning mouth, Gabrielle sucked at Xena’s lips, taking her cries into herself and exchanging them for her own. “Come, healer, come with me!” she gasped, their bodies jerking together, feeling the orgasm approaching with blinding speed.
Their screams echoed in unison and Gabrielle collapsed on top of Xena, breathing heavily. Her loins gasped for more but she remained where she was, head nuzzled into Xena’s neck, breasts laying in the opposite hollows of Xena’s. When she had regained enough strength to raise herself onto her hands and look into Xena’s eyes, she was concerned to see tears falling. “What’s wrong?” she whispered.
Xena smiled through the tears and pulled her hands free of Gabrielle’s long enough to wrap her arms around the warrior’s back and pull her back down onto her. “Nothing. I’ve never felt this, Gabrielle, I’ve never felt anything remotely like this in my life.”
Stunned, Gabrielle asked, “Never?”
Xena kissed the top of her head. “Never. Sleep now, little one, it’s my turn when we wake up.”
Gabrielle chuckled at the possessive tone of her lover and snuggled as close as she could before letting sleep overtake her. The last thought she had before succumbing to the welcoming darkness was, “If this is a dream, please don’t let me wake.”
Dawn was a little over an hour away when Xena woke with Gabrielle in her arms. She could hardly believe all that had happened during the night. Her back was a little sore and her face ached a bit but the massage had definitely helped. Heat flooded her body as she remembered every intimate detail. The candles burned low but she could still see Gabrielle’s trusting face as it lay in the crook of her shoulder.
Gabrielle murmured a sleepy protest when Xena slid out from under her, trying not to disturb her lover. Looking at the lightly bandaged leg, she knew it wouldn’t be long until Gabrielle was back to normal and her heart pained at the thought of the warrior’s departure. It was more than she could hope for that Gabrielle stay with her. It wasn’t what Gabrielle needed, Xena knew that. Gabrielle had to get out and face the world, face the demons that so haunted her nightmares.
When Xena got her hands on Ares, she would skin him alive just for the pleasure of hearing him scream. How dare he put Gabrielle through all that just for his own perverted schemes. She pulled on a robe, picked up her cane and left the house, taking care the door made no noise when it shut. Xena turned east outside and headed towards the sacred grove behind her house.
It was a simple, cleared area with a stone altar set in the center, flowers growing all around the altar. Normally she prayed to Artemis or Hermes for help in medical questions or help but this time she wasn’t calling out for their help. She was calling Ares to hold him accountable for what he’d done.
“Ares! Ares you better show up here and now before I do something you’ll regret!” Xena called out angrily.
There was a long silence and her fury grew. “I mean it! Get your godly ass here now!”
A flash of blue light illuminated the grove and the darkly handsome god appeared. His smirk sickened and infuriated her beyond measure.
“Have a good night, Xena?” he taunted.
Xena pitched her cane so that it pierced through his stomach.
He grunted with the impact then scowled. “I hate it when you do that!”
“Then don’t give me cause to do it you bastard! What in all Hades did you think you were doing to Gabrielle last night?” Xena demanded, watching as he struggled to pull out the cane. It afforded her some slight satisfaction.
“Just checking in on my warrior is all,” Ares said, yanking out the cane at last and tossing it back to her. He didn’t know what Xena put on the damned thing but it always stung like Hades when he had to pull it out. “She doesn’t belong to you, you know. She’s served me well for a number of years.”
“Gabrielle belongs to no one save herself. I won’t have you manipulating her!” Xena exclaimed.
“Xena, my love, my undying and eternal flame of goodness,” Ares said seductively, moving closer and capturing her hand in his own. “The pleasure she gave you last night is nothing compared to what you would find in my bed. I am a God after all.”
Xena flinched back from his touch and pulled out her hand from his. “I’m warning you to stay away from her. I mean it, Ares.”
Before she could escape, he pulled her into his arms and ravaged her mouth with his own, overwhelming her senses with his need for her. She brought her knee up hard and he gasped in surprise more than pain.
Pulling away Ares spat, “Fine! You want the annoying blonde, you can have her! I’ve already got her successor picked out!”
He vanished in another flash of swirling blue points of light and Xena wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She had never understood Ares’ obsession with her, ever since her aborted attempt to fight off the warlord. He had appeared to her a few months after her humiliating defeat, promising to take away the pain and restore her to full physical prowess. He’d also vowed to make her the head of an army that could not only defend Amphipoulos but also the surrounding area. Even in her bitter haze and pain, Xena had known better than to accept the offer. Her mother had always warned her against Ares and though she wasn’t sure why, Xena had her suspicions.
“She doesn’t belong to you either, you do know that, don’t you Xena?” a soft voice asked.
Xena knew Artemis’ voice immediately. Xena’s shoulder’s slumped in anticipated pain and she nodded. Her voice breaking, she assured the Goddess, “I know. I love her, Artemis, I truly do. I want only what is best for her and I know that is to let her free.”
A light touch on her shoulder and Xena’s spirits lifted in spite of herself. “She has great things in store for her, Xena, as do you. Keep your mind open to possibilities and things will work themselves out.”
“How?” Xena asked, turning to face an empty grove. Shaking her head at the arrivals and departures of the gods, Xena headed back to the house. She still had that promise to keep for Gabrielle. It was indeed her turn to give pleasure to the other woman.
Before returning to the bed, Xena replenished the candles, brightening the room so she could see Gabrielle clearly in their flickering light. Gabrielle had rolled into a ball, holding a pillow tightly. Xena’s heart ached at the pained expression Gabrielle wore even in sleep. Determined to banish it at least for a short period of time, Xena sat on the bed beside her and brushed golden bangs off a delicate forehead.
Almost immediately, the worried frown smoothed and Xena placed a gentle kiss on Gabrielle’s forehead. Gabrielle murmured in her sleep and rolled onto her back, affording Xena a view of her spectacular body. Xena wanted to worship at Gabrielle’s body forever but knew that wasn’t possible. She would have to take what she could then let the warrior choose her own path.
Taking advantage of the deep sleep Gabrielle seemed to be enjoying, Xena slowly moved Gabrielle’s legs apart, settling on her knees between the legs. Gabrielle was right, there were a lot of scars on her small body. Some even looked like old…whip marks? Biting down on her volatile temper, Xena concentrated instead on making Gabrielle feel as much pleasure as possible.
The golden thatch beckoned to her and Xena licked her lips in anticipation. A series of soft kisses just above the mound and on the inner thighs. Her fingers moved lightly over the softest of skin then slipped between moist folds. Even coming out of sleep, Gabrielle knew her touch, moaning and starting to drip. While her fingers played over and around the sensitive clit, her mouth suckled at the inner thigh, leaving a blooded kiss there, marking Gabrielle as hers if only temporarily.
Her mouth moved to take over for her fingers and Gabrielle cried out in need. “Xena!”
Now it wasn’t so much giving Gabrielle pleasure as wanting the wet sex, the musky juices coming from her lover. Her mouth encircled as much as it could, her tongue licking up, down, up, down in a hard rhythm. She felt Gabrielle’s hands clutch her head, pressing her deeper and reached up with her own to grasp those small, firm breasts. Gabrielle’s hips bucked and Xena drove her tongue even faster to match Gabrielle’s tempo.
There were three long spurts from Gabrielle and Xena faintly heard her scream. She couldn’t get enough, though, and continued to press her lips and tongue into the wet flesh. The hardened kernel that brought out Gabrielle’s orgasm taunted Xena, drove her on until Gabrielle was once more screaming, hands laced through Xena’s hair, her seed spilling into an eager mouth.
After her hips stilled, Gabrielle pulled up on Xena’s hair, bringing Xena up to face her. Xena licked her lips and smiled at the stunned expression on Gabrielle’s face. “Good morning.”
Gabrielle’s hands released Xena’s hair only to clasp around her shoulders and drag their mouths together. Gabrielle’s legs locked around Xena’s waist and Xena found herself supporting both their weights on her arms and knees. She lowered herself onto Gabrielle and they just kissed. She sucked on Gabrielle’s lower lip for a long time then worshipped the upper lip. It wasn’t long before both hips were moving together again, hair to hair as they both approached orgasm.
“It’s your turn, warrior, come, come with me!” Xena urged between ragged kisses.
“Xe-na!” Gabrielle shouted, legs locking rigidly around Xena, arms falling numbly to her sides and she dropped the short space to the bed.
Xena collapsed on top of Gabrielle, semi-conscious from the orgasm, and stayed there, resting her lips against Gabrielle’s breasts. After a long silence, Xena raised herself to find that Gabrielle had fallen asleep. Smiling, Xena scooted to the side, keeping her arms around Gabrielle as sleep claimed her as well.
A pounding at the door woke both women. Gabrielle rolled off the bed and grabbed the nearest robe, Xena not far behind.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Xena said. She grabbed her cane and continued, “Stay here, just in case.”
Gabrielle stayed in the bedroom but took out the sword she’d found buried in one of Xena’s many trunks a couple of weeks before. It was old but well made and without rust. She’d started practicing with it after sharpening the blade back to fighting capacity. Though half again as large as Gabrielle, she could now wield it with strength. Gabrielle moved silently to the doorframe and listened.
“What did she do to you!” an angry, female voice.
“Nothing, Callisto, I’m fine,” Xena answered, placating tone.
Callisto! The blond woman who had defeated her. Gabrielle listened more closely.
“Right,” sarcastic rebuff. “She would never hurt you, isn’t that what you said?”
“She won’t. This is something else altogether,” Xena said. “What are you doing here?”
“I got a report that something was going on here and came to check on you,” Callisto said, obviously trying another tack. Her voice had softened, become lulling. “I was worried about you. You know how much I care about you.”
This was something Gabrielle didn’t know about. With their lovemaking fresh in her mind, Gabrielle didn’t feel at all threatened by Callisto. She waited curiously for Xena’s response.
“Callisto, we need to talk but not here. Let me get dressed and I’ll be right back,” Xena said.
‘Nice save,’ Gabrielle thought with a grin. She heard the door shut and peeked out to see the woman was not inside the house. Her eyes met Xena’s and she smiled to show everything was all right.
“I’m sorry, I have to tell her about us, though. I’ve tried in the past to tell her I didn’t feel the same way for her but…”
“It’s all right, Xena. I understand her being hopelessly in love with you. I am, after all,” Gabrielle joked. Then she stilled, realizing what she’d just said and met Xena’s eyes. Those sapphires were lit up with the radiance of the sun and Gabrielle knew this was right.
“Really?” the question was tentative.
Gabrielle dropped the sword on the bed and met Xena halfway. “Really.”
Xena bent down and brushed her lips tenderly across Gabrielle’s. “Hold that thought. I’ll be back as quickly as possible.”
“I’ll hold you to it.”
Xena pulled on tunic and breeches, gave Gabrielle another quick kiss then practically skipped out of the room. Gabrielle grinned then got dressed more slowly, contemplating what kind of life they might have together. She strapped on the sword subconsciously as she walked to the kitchen window. Xena and Callisto were right out front, which gave Gabrielle a good, clear look at Callisto. Not that she could ever forget that beauty but now she could take in the details.
As Xena spoke, Callisto’s face grew darker and darker with suppressed fury. Having seen her in battle, Gabrielle had the sudden urge to step outside for Xena’s protection. After only a second’s hesitation, she did just that. Callisto’s eyes snapped to her and green locked with brown as Gabrielle stared right back. Pure hatred shone from those eyes, almost a physical assault but Gabrielle stood calm and firm under the onslaught.
The moment Callisto shoved Xena aside, Gabrielle stepped forward, pulling the sword free as she went. Their blades met with a loud crash, sparks flying in all directions. Thrust, block, thrust, parry; the deadly dance was woven with lethal intent as the women moved back and forth in the small clearing. As Gabrielle remembered, Callisto had lightening reflexes and now the added benefit of actively desiring her death. Whatever had stopped her before was clearly no longer an issue.
Gabrielle drew first blood, hammering through Callisto’s defense and into her upper shoulder. Callisto screamed in pain and bloodlust then redoubled her attack. Usually this brought down the level of focus in Gabrielle’s opponent but now it only seemed to help. Everywhere Gabrielle turned, that tremendous blade was there, wielded by a screaming lunatic. Callisto broke through her defense, a foot slamming into Gabrielle’s weak leg.
Gabrielle fell to her knee with a cry but automatically brought up her sword to block the follow through. Using her new position to her advantage, Gabrielle ignored the pain in her leg and launched herself up, tackling Callisto. They both crashed to the ground several feet away and rolled for control. Pain fired along Gabrielle’s side as Callisto abandoned her sword in favor of her fists.
Callisto wrestled herself above Gabrielle and her hands locked around Gabrielle’s throat. Gabrielle kicked up, bucking like a wild horse but nothing would dislodge the other woman. Her vision became tainted with silver flecks as her breathing was slowly cut off. She heard a faint thud and Callisto fell forward onto her.
Gabrielle shoved the woman off, gasping in long breaths. Xena was holding her cane like a club as she stood over the two women. Dropping to her knees, Xena exclaimed, “Are you all right?”
Gabrielle nodded, rubbing her throat with a wince. “I’ll be fine. I see she took the news well.”
“I told you to stay inside, didn’t I?” Xena countered with a shake of her head. “I’ll be right back. I’m going to get some rope to tie her up.”
“What are we going to do with her?” Gabrielle asked once Xena had returned. She took one piece of rope and securely tied the ankles together while Xena did the hands then tied the two ropes together tightly.
Xena sighed then offered her hand to help Gabrielle up. “Leave her, I suppose. She’ll have told her captain where she was going so he’ll show up eventually or send someone after her.”
Gabrielle looked up at Xena and said, “She’s going to come after us you know. Probably with her whole army.”
Xena shook her head. “No, she won’t.”
“How can you be so sure?” Gabrielle pressed.
“I know her. Once she’s cooled off, Callisto will be fine. If she hadn’t seen you at that moment, she probably would’ve been fine now,” Xena said.
Gabrielle remembered the look of rage on Callisto’s face and severely doubted Xena’s prediction but kept silent. “So now what?”
“Well, if you want to I thought, and this is only a suggestion, but what if we traveled together for awhile?” Xena asked in a rush.
Gabrielle froze, that possibility something she’d forced to the back of her mind. That meant she would have to go back into the world and face…everyone. Realizing she’d been silent too long, Gabrielle’s eyes flashed to Xena and found the other woman now staring at the ground.
“I’m sorry, that was a stupid idea,” Xena apologized.
Gabrielle caught her arm as Xena turned to leave. “No! I mean, it’s a great idea if you want to. I’m just…I’m scared. Of myself and everyone else out there who hates me with more reason than Callisto. I’m scared of getting you hurt, too. This could make you a target.”
Xena smiled and bent down to kiss Gabrielle. “If I die at your side, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Sounds silly I know, but it’s true.”
Gabrielle looked up into those beautiful eyes and returned the smile. “Me, too,” she whispered.
They stood looking into each other’s eyes for a timeless moment then Xena asked, “Where on earth did you find that sword?”
The spell broken, Gabrielle grinned. “At the bottom of one of your many chests. Don’t you even know what you own?”
“Right. And when was the last time you owned a house? Things just appear in my house and I’ve got no idea where they come from.”
“That’s because you’re oblivious to how people pay you. I shudder to think of you in a marketplace.”
Bickering lightly, the two lovers returned to the house to prepare for their upcoming journey.
‘Somehow, I didn’t think she would snore,’ Gabrielle thought with a grin. It was early, dawn hadn’t quite shown itself yet and she lay on her side, watching her lover sleep. Dark hair splayed out on the blanket they used as a pillow. In sleep, Xena’s face was completely relaxed, the most beautiful thing Gabrielle ever remembered seeing. ‘Just a little snore, barely more than a louder breath with a catch in it. It’s just too cute.’
The black cotton shirt Xena wore was half up, revealing a firmly muscled abdomen and chest in the fading moonlight. Her long arms were flung out, one above her head so as not to disturb Gabrielle even in sleep, and the other to the side. Her mouth was open, her eyes moving restlessly beneath their lids. Gabrielle had a sudden need to see those impelling blue eyes but stifled it. Xena rarely slept in and Gabrielle was determined that after the last couple of days, her healer needed rest.
Gabrielle watched as Xena slept for the first time in almost three days. Their first meeting, so a couple of months before, had been tumultuous to say the least. Injured in battle after having conquered much of the surrounding countryside, Gabrielle had been rescued from a certain death and healed by Xena both body and soul. Things had come to a head when the God of War had paid Gabrielle a visit, inciting her to violence against Xena.
It hadn’t gone as Ares anticipated; Gabrielle knew that even without confirmation from the God. Instead of killing Xena, as Ares had obviously hoped, Gabrielle had ended up in Xena’s arms. Their attraction, no, their need for each other, was acknowledged and paid homage. Gabrielle had allowed her first and only love for someone other than family to come to the surface and found it the most rewarding thing in the world.
“You think too loudly, warrior,” Xena murmured sleepily, blue eyes opening to meet and hold green ones.
“Damn. I hoped that you might actually sleep in today,” Gabrielle exclaimed softly. She felt that protective surge again and brushed her fingers lightly over Xena’s forehead.
Smiling lazily and stretching so that her shirt crept up to the swell of firm breasts, Xena said, “Sleep wasn’t what I had in mind.”
Gabrielle’s heart beat faster at the sultry voice and she swallowed against a suddenly dry throat. Just that tone was enough to set her blood on fire. “Oh?”
Xena got that look that demanded a kiss and Gabrielle acquiesced gracefully, lowering herself to drink in the soft mouth of her healer. Their tongues played, soft and swirling, mouths pressing tightly together. Gabrielle scooted closer, hand moving automatically to cup and squeeze a tender breast. An immediate groan from Xena quickened the heat between Gabrielle’s legs and she closed the distance between them, sliding on top of Xena, not releasing contact of their mouths for a second.
It was longer than usual before Gabrielle’s ears demanded her attention and she moved her hand away from Xena’s hard nipple to grasp the dagger under the blanket. She heard one person to the left, two to the right and another above them. Breaking contact with Xena’s mouth, she whispered in Xena’s ears, “We have company.”
Xena sighed in aggravation and frustration. This was the third time they’d been interrupted this week and her body was really getting pissed off. Not to mention the rest of her. Their unions were so intense that her soul ached in remembered bliss, needing to feel it again. Her hand joined Gabrielle’s under the blanket and she took hold of the heavy cane that doubled as a painful club against intruders. Gabrielle rolled off her, grabbing her sword in one fluid motion. Xena got to her feet more slowly, her maimed leg impeding her somewhat after being in one position all night.
“We know you’re there so you might as well show yourself,” Gabrielle demanded, dagger in one hand and sword in the other. The giant battle-sword she’d found at Xena’s house was almost half-again as big as she but her arms were more than strong enough to take the weight and wield it with deadly precision.
Out of the trees came the four men from their various directions. Xena had moved to stand at her back. Gabrielle could easily dispatch all four men to save the healer the pain she knew would come from her leg but the support warmed her soul. The men were obviously farmers, holding handmade weapons such as pitchforks and scythes that could be just as fatal as sword or ax if used properly.
“Gabrielle of Potedeia,” the man in front of her declared.
“Yes? Is there something I can help you with?” Gabrielle confirmed with a bored tone.
“You don’t have your army to protect you now. There is no way we will allow you to harm our village!” the man exclaimed angrily.
Gabrielle barely sighed. Even though it had been almost three months since Callisto had destroyed her army and she’d not harmed a single soul in the meantime, Gabrielle knew there would be long consequences to her former campaign of battle and oppression. “I’m not here to take your village. We’re just traveling through minding our own business. You’re the ones here with hostile intent,” Gabrielle informed him.
He gave her a suspicious glare. “What are you saying?”
“She is saying that you are safe,” Xena assured him, moving from her position to face the man. “She means no harm to you or your village.”
The man took in her appearance for a long silent moment then lowered the scythe with a nod of respect and a signal to the others. Gabrielle was amazed that yet again, with just a few words from her healer, a potentially dangerous situation had been diffused. Dangerous for the men if Gabrielle went into fight mode that was; there was no way they could hurt her. There was something compelling about Xena that made everyone trust her right away. It had broken through Gabrielle’s darkness to reach the light trying to claw its way out.
“You’re Xena, the healer,” the man stated.
Gabrielle wasn’t surprised that he knew the tall, dark beauty. Her reputation for healing was, apparently, quite extensive. Gabrielle had been somewhat miffed upon discovering that she’d never heard of Xena until under her care. That had meant her informants and spies weren’t as adept as she’d thought. Thrusting that thought from her mind, those days firmly behind her, Gabrielle watched the interchange between Xena and the man with interest.
“We could use your help, Xena. There were marauders and several of our people have been injured. Badly,” the man said.
“Of course,” Xena answered the question immediately. The fact that the last three days had been spent watching over a very sick child with little to no sleep faded from her mind. As it did whenever someone needed help. “We’ll gather our things and go with you.”
Gabrielle couldn’t help the scowl flashing onto her face but repressed it as soon as it surfaced. Not, unfortunately, before Xena had caught it though. Xena’s gentle smile warmed her heart as she said, “Maybe tomorrow, love.”
Nodding, Gabrielle sheathed both sword and dagger then began to break camp, keeping the position of the men in mind as she went about her tasks. As Xena rolled their sleeping gear and stowed away their food, Gabrielle went to prepare her lover’s horse. The only thing that Gabrielle had insisted upon to save Xena the pain of constant walking on her maimed leg. It was a beautiful and intelligent Palomino with a white mane and tail and knowing brown eyes.
She swore that the mare was constantly laughing at her but had no way to prove it. Almost every time Gabrielle pulled on the harness, the horse sneezed on her. Or tried to at least. Gabrielle had gotten adept at avoiding the gross spray, hearing the preceding sounds a split second before the explosion. There were also the accidental foot squashings and forceful head-butts to Gabrielle’s shoulder or head whenever Xena wasn’t looking.
They shared an uneasy truce with Xena being the focus to the relationship.
This morning there was no horseplay as though Argo sensed the need for seriousness. Gabrielle pulled the cinch tight then hit Argo’s side to dispel some of the air she knew was there. After a few poundings, the cinch was tightened another two notches and Gabrielle tested the saddle for safety. After the first fiasco of Xena’s attempt at riding, Gabrielle did everything she could to make things easier on her lover.
Gabrielle gave Xena a leg-up onto Argo then shouldered their pack. Considering that Xena had given up a household of goods and a measure of comfort, if not luxury, Gabrielle knew they traveled light. Xena covered her hand lightly with her own as it rested on Xena’s leg and their eyes locked for a long moment.
A cautious throat clearing broke the moment and Gabrielle flashed the man a scowl. He blanched and instinctively brought up the scythe.
“Where’s your village?” Xena interposed smoothly, nudging Argo between the potential combatants. She knew how protective Gabrielle was of their time together but starting a fight wasn’t the best way to undo her lover’s reputation of violence.
“About a mile east,” the man answered in obvious relief.
That’s when Xena realized she hadn’t even asked his name. “What’s your name?”
Taken by surprise, the man smiled and answered, “Calas.”
“Well, Calas, let’s be off then,” Xena suggested, kneeing Argo forward.
The trip to the village didn’t take long, only about a half-hour with the men and Gabrielle keeping a smart pace. Xena tried to keep Argo at a slow walk but found the men moved anxiously ahead and looked back at her. After the third inquiring glance from Calas, Xena shrugged and heeled Argo into a faster pace. The many riding lessons Gabrielle had given her were finally paying off.
Her backside ached upon remembering the first time she’d tried to ride. One minute Argo had been sitting quietly under her and the next Xena flew through the air to land flat on her back. Gabrielle had been furious with the horse but after pleading, the warrior had backed off. Xena had gone to the palomino, taken hold of the bridle, looked seriously into those beautiful brown eyes and had a long talk with Argo.
After that there had been no further attempt to dislodge Xena from her precarious position in the saddle. That wasn’t to say that she didn’t notice the sneezing fits Argo had whenever Gabrielle tried to put on the bridle. That was something else she and Argo would have a chat about shortly.
The forest rapidly disappeared and soon they were traveling through fields. The sun was up and bright when they reached the village. It was like many other villages with perhaps a dozen thatched homes, a large barn that probably housed a smithy and a mill across from the barn. Fields of green grains were growing on all sides of the village. There didn’t seem anything obviously wrong with the village as they rode up to it except that no children ran around playing and the grown-ups were also nowhere to be seen.
Calas stopped in front of the barn, opening the doors and Xena’s heart ached to see several makeshift beds with injured forms resting on them. She threw her leg over the saddle and found Gabrielle there, ready to catch her as always. A private smile for her lover and Xena slid down into strong arms and paused a moment to savor their tender strength.
“This could take a few days,” Xena warned.
Gabrielle nodded agreement, her face emotionless, which disturbed Xena. She hoped Gabrielle wasn’t retreating behind her warrior’s mask because she didn’t want to be here. Xena knew that healing others wasn’t an interesting occupation for Gabrielle, that she was only there because of Xena. A brief caress to Gabrielle’s face and Xena turned to follow Calas inside the barn.
“He’s the worst,” Calas announced, pausing beside the third bed in.
Xena saw the bandages around the older man’s head and torso. This was indeed going to take a few days. Before she could ask for it, Gabrielle appeared with her healer’s bag and held it out for her. Xena took the bag with a murmured thanks and knelt beside the wounded man to determine the extent of the injuries.
Gabrielle watched as Xena professionally accessed the man’s condition and announced that she could save him. Privately, Gabrielle believed the man wasn’t going to make it but she would never publicly question Xena’s judgement. Wondering what to do with herself, Gabrielle began to leave.
“Gabrielle, where are you going?” Xena asked curtly.
Gabrielle stopped in surprise at the tone and question and turned back. “I was going to take care of Argo. Why?”
“I need your help here,” Xena answered. “If you could check out the other people and let me know the worst of the injuries that would help me a lot.”
Not expecting that request, or the impatient tone behind it, Gabrielle nodded and said, “All right.”
Moving awkwardly to the first person, Gabrielle saw he had a broken arm that was poorly set and a gash on the same shoulder. Not life threatening, but painful nonetheless. The next was a bit worse off with a sword cut across the chest; the bandages seeped with blood though no new blood seemed to be escaping. The rest were minor injuries: twisted limbs, bumps on the head and assorted cuts from daggers or swords. She returned to Xena with her catalogue of injuries and waited to be noticed.
And waited some more. After almost ten minutes of Xena ignoring her presence, Gabrielle cleared her throat. Blue eyes snapped to hers and Gabrielle swallowed at their intensity, wishing she could crawl into the ground for having disturbed Xena. There was something about Xena when she healed that flashed with power. A very different sort of power than Gabrielle had wielded with her army.
“None of the other men are severely injured though all seem to be in varying degrees of pain,” Gabrielle reported smartly.
“Make willow bark tea for all of them. Set any broken bones that you can manage alone and clean their wounds. This one is going to need all my attention,” Xena ordered then turned back to the man.
Clearly dismissed, anger rose to the surface. Why was Xena treating her like this? What had she done to deserve it? Gabrielle sorted through the action of the last few days and found none of them offensive, at least not to her. Fuming silently, Gabrielle asked Calas, “Can you have someone heat water enough for tea for these men?”
Calas nodded. “I’ll have my wife start it.”
Gabrielle watched him leave sourly and turned her attention to the first man. He looked at her fearfully and she scowled in annoyance. This caused him to faint and she growled in aggravation. This was not going to be a fun day.
‘I was right,’ Gabrielle thought tiredly as dusk fell several hours later. She rubbed her eyes then realized that she now probably had blood streaked across her face and groaned. ‘It wasn’t a fun day.’
She had been alone with the injured men save for Calas who helped in setting bones. Xena had stayed with the gut-shot man almost the entire day. Calas had told Gabrielle that the man had been the village elder and was trying to negotiate with the marauders when they’d gut shot him with a cross-bolt. Every so often, Gabrielle had looked over at Xena’s tense figure and felt her heart twinge. Of course she had done something wrong. Xena wouldn’t be mad at her for no reason; not someone with her compassion and need to help others.
Though she wracked her brain, Gabrielle couldn’t come up with the incident or words that might have upset Xena. Whatever it had been, though, Gabrielle was determined to make it up to Xena when they went to bed. So after the last wound had been tended to, only a short half hour ago, Gabrielle had cornered Calas and asked if there were a room they could use for the night. He’d seemed surprised at the question, immediately answering that of course he would be honored to house Xena the healer. Gabrielle had given him a wry smile, understanding the distinction.
So now she sat on a chair in the room set aside for Xena and Gabrielle in Calas’ house. The room was clean and neat though sparse of furnishings. Gabrielle knew Xena would be awhile longer with the older man though Calas had reported to her that Xena now said he was out of danger. His voice had held a touch of awe and Gabrielle had grinned in amusement.
Coming to a decision, Gabrielle stood from the chair and went to unpack their things. She knew that Xena wouldn’t want to leave until all the injured men were safely on the road to recovery. Gabrielle wasn’t certain that Xena would come to bed that night, sometimes she slept with her patients, needing to be close at hand in case of emergency. In case she did, however, Gabrielle wanted the room to be ready for her. Xena was very particular about having her things settled and in place when actually staying somewhere more than overnight.
Even before everything was put away, Gabrielle’s stomach rumbled with denied hunger and she felt a bit faint. The only time she could successfully ignore her appetite was in battle when adrenaline pumped through her veins, feeding her in place of food. Moving slowly out of the bedroom into the kitchen, Gabrielle came face to face with Calas’ wife.
“You look done in,” the woman commented. “Sit and I’ll fix you something to eat.”
Not having much strength to refuse the reluctant kindness, Gabrielle sat at the kitchen table. Within minutes bread and cheese lay on plates before her and she tore into the bread. Shortly thereafter a bowl of stew was set before her and she started in on that. The water to wash it down was clean and cold. She ate almost fast enough to make herself sick and stopped abruptly to sit back from the table.
Seeing the woman standing by the stove, a small child clinging to her skirts, Gabrielle had the grace to be embarrassed. “Thank you for the food. It was very good.”
“You’re welcome,” the woman answered. “You don’t look like a warlord.”
Restraining a sarcastic comment with great will, Gabrielle instead replied, “Thank you.”
“What will you do now that your army is gone?”
“You don’t pull any punches, do you?” Gabrielle countered tiredly.
“Not when the safety of my family is an issue,” the woman said firmly.
“Your family is safe from me. I’m just trying to…I’m tired,” Gabrielle said abruptly, standing from the table.
She left the house altogether and headed for the barn, needing to see Xena. Gabrielle knew that no one except Xena understood what she was trying to do. Sometimes she didn’t even understand it herself. The thought that maybe she could do some good, atone for her crimes of plundering the countryside and its people seemed absurd as she strode across the dirt.
The people she passed threw fearful looks that she refused to acknowledge. How could she help them when they were so obviously afraid of her? What could she say to assure them that she had truly changed? Probably nothing. The need to see Xena heightened and her pace quickened. She burst through the door and Xena’s head snapped around to look at her. The cold look was more than Gabrielle could stand and she backed out of the barn, turning to blindly run away.
What had she done? Now the one person she loved cared nothing for her because of something Gabrielle couldn’t even remember.
Xena called after Gabrielle, heart in her throat at the pale, terrified look Gabrielle had given her. The warrior’s demons had hold of her again. Xena knew it without knowing how she knew. Even though they had only been traveling together for a little over a month, Xena could always tell when Gabrielle grew insecure in herself and their love. She didn’t know what triggered it, maybe something different each time. The only remedy that countered the demons was to physically remind the warrior of their bond.
Except that she couldn’t leave the wounded man. He was out of danger but anything could tip him towards the call of death. Torn between her love for Gabrielle and duty as a healer, Xena stayed where she was for an indecisive moment. Then she stayed where she was through decision. She couldn’t leave the man until she knew he was truly safe. Somehow Xena would have to make it up to Gabrielle that this time, she couldn’t be there for the warrior.
Xena moved blearily towards Calas’ house where a bed waited for her. The morning was only a few short hours away and she was exhausted. The man was now sleeping easily having awoken for a few short minutes. Once that had happened, Xena had checked on the other patients only to find them completely taken care of. Gabrielle had set, stitched, cleaned and bandaged each and every one of them. Xena remembered her shortness to Gabrielle with guilt. Sometimes she got so caught up in the healing process that she lost sight of everything else.
She couldn’t wait to curl up around her warrior and hold the other woman tight. As soon as she could put her arms around the smaller woman, engulfing her with her entire body, lying on top of Gabrielle as the warrior so enjoyed, Xena knew everything would be all right. They would sleep and in the morning, regardless of close-listening neighbors, Xena fully intended to make Gabrielle scream with passion. Her body tingled as she imagined what she would do to the other woman.
Not wanting to wake anyone, Xena crept carefully through the dark house to the room off the side of the kitchen where Calas had told her they would be staying. She closed the door softly behind her and walked to the bed, knocking her shin on the frame and biting down on a swear so as not to wake Gabrielle. Stretching, Xena stripped so as to be as close to her warrior as possible and climbed into the bed. As soon as she did, however, she knew that the bed was empty and panic filled her.
Gabrielle was gone.
Gabrielle ran through the field of grain, Xena’s look cutting into her memory and tearing at her soul. The field ended quickly and she was back in the forest, dodging tree branches and jumping over the large roots instinctively. She ran until there was no more strength in her legs but that took a long time. The moon had passed at least a quarter of her journey before Gabrielle collapsed onto the ground, sobbing her heart into the dirt.
When her eyes burned and her breath coming in gasps, Gabrielle rolled onto her back and stared up at the sky feeling hollow. This was what happened, of course, when you exposed yourself to another person. The world disintegrated when they betrayed you. Gabrielle had been betrayed so many times in her life that she’d have thought it wouldn’t hurt anymore.
No, Xena was different from the others. Gabrielle had always kept a part of herself from all of her previous lovers. When they grew tired of her need and belittled her for it, those she had even let see such things of course, Gabrielle had felt pain but nothing like what she was experiencing now. With Xena, she had given her entire soul and heart; there had been nothing held back.
The stars winked at her coldly, echoing the clarity of Xena’s eyes. The breeze was soft, brushing across her body as Xena’s breath had done so often. Gabrielle sighed and let sleep overtake her at last, dreaming of the healer who no longer wanted her.
When Gabrielle woke the next morning, she was surrounded by a group of men with swords drawn. Most were obviously mercenaries with bad hair and teeth and worse hygiene issues that demanded attention from Gabrielle’s nose. Yawning, she sat up and asked, “What?”
“Who are you and why are you here?” one of them demanded. He was better dressed and cleaner than the others but not by much.
Just what Gabrielle needed to quell her inside turmoil; a fight to release the pent-up energy. She stood and drawled, “Why I’m just a bit lost is all. Would you be kind enough to point me in the direction of the village that you plundered the other day?”
“How’d you know that was us?” the man demanded, moving closer.
Grinning ferally, Gabrielle answered, “You just told me!”
Screaming out her battle cry, Gabrielle attacked, leaping through the air to connect her feet with the heads of two of the men directly in front of her. Spinning around, her fists slammed into the throat of the next man who lunged for her and he fell with a gurgle. Pulling her sword out in the next second, she blocked a thrust that would’ve skewed her in the stomach then swept the blade out of her opponent’s hand. She followed through with a kick to the chest which slammed the man against a tree, knocking him out.
The last two attacked her simultaneously. The clang of metal against metal could be heard clearly through the quiet forest. Gabrielle’s sword moved so fast that the men barely had time to defend against her. One of them threw his sword at her, which she slapped to the ground with her own, and ran off. The last one flung his sword away and dropped to his knees on the ground, holding up his hands in surrender.
Her sword stopped inches from his throat, the fire in her blood demanded it plunge into the final destination. Through his neck and out the back, then perhaps severing the head altogether. This was one of the men who dared to attack her! He had actually tried to kill her. The fact that he couldn’t have really hurt her didn’t matter, her blood and pride were demanding retribution. It finally reached her that the man was pleading with her not to kill him. Maintaining control by the narrowest of margins, she ground out, “Get up!”
He stood, terror obvious in his eyes.
“Tell all your little playmates that Gabrielle of Potedeia has changed sides. I’m here to protect the people from scum like you and me. Got it?”
The man nodded frantically and ran away through the woods. Gabrielle collapsed slowly against a tree, looking at the bodies she’d mowed out of her way in the fight. They were all unconscious but that wouldn’t last long, she knew. One was already groaning and trying to fight awake. What to do with them now?
Xena didn’t sleep at all the rest of the night. She’d lit one of the lamps after discovering Gabrielle’s absence and sat in the bed alone, frantic that she might have driven away the warrior with her selfish behavior. Xena had known that Gabrielle needed her and still turned the woman away. She should’ve gone after Gabrielle, made Gabrielle realize how much Xena loved her. When dawn came with no sign of the warrior, Xena got out of the bed wearily to prepare for an endless day.
She knew now, forcefully in fact, that life without Gabrielle was barely worth living. That warm, compact body clinging to her in the night was all that mattered. It was she that Xena needed to heal; it was those brilliant emerald eyes that Xena needed to see without pain. The demons which struggled to regain control of Gabrielle were strong and many.
‘She shouldn’t have to fight alone,’ Xena thought viciously to herself.
She walked out of the bedroom and through the silent kitchen to the outside. The early morning was still and held a chill that Xena hadn’t noticed before. Probably because Gabrielle always made sure that she was dressed so as not to feel any inclement weather. The thought traveled sourly through Xena’s mind, leaving a bad aftertaste. She leaned against the house, uncertain what to do. While passable at tracking, Gabrielle was an expert at not being found. Though with the way she’d run out of the barn, Xena doubted Gabrielle had been in any condition to worry about covering her tracks.
Which brought on another internal and scathing lecture filled with guilt on the evils of selfishness and being blind to her lover’s needs. As the village came to life around her, Xena noticed a livelier bounce to the villagers’ steps. Of course, now that their people were healed, their lives would continue without much more trouble. Children came out after their parents and began to play again. Work started up again in the fields, Calas giving her a wave as he passed by her on his way.
An hour or so later, there was a tremendous commotion down the road and Xena’s jaw dropped in shock upon seeing the cause. Gabrielle was leading a pack of men roped together, hands bound and legs hobbled, into the village. Dried blood caked her forehead and Xena’s felt faint at the thought that Gabrielle had taken on these men alone. She’d probably almost been killed!
Gabrielle stopped in front of Xena, her face emotionless, and said, “These are some of the men who attacked the village. I thought they should be brought to trial for what they did?”
Xena searched the warrior’s face for a hint of any emotion and felt tears well up when nothing answered her in the green eyes. She nodded and managed to get out, “That’s a great idea. I’m sure Calas can bring them to the nearest magistrate or jail them here until one can be found.”
Gabrielle yanked on the rope and the men stumbled after her as she moved towards the mill.
Xena watched her go, heart breaking as she thought that she had lost Gabrielle. Not literally, no, because Gabrielle was still fighting for the cause of good or she wouldn’t have brought the men back for trial. But what had been between them seemed shattered, perhaps irrevocably so. Xena vowed to try and mend the wounds she had dealt Gabrielle with her careless words and selfishness.
The morning passed and then the afternoon and just before dusk, things finally settled back to normal. Once the villagers realized what Gabrielle had done, and that she truly was trying to help them, they were ecstatic. Gabrielle was constantly surrounded by people wishing her well, thanking her and bringing her food and gifts. Xena watched her astonished and happy expressions with satisfaction knowing that this would only help Gabrielle in the future. Word would spread quickly that Gabrielle was no longer trying to dominate those around her.
Of course once that happened, the warlords she had named ally and enemy would also be after her. They would seek her death to gain fame from her downfall. Xena’s stomach tightened in worry as she thought about a hundred different scenarios all ending in Gabrielle’s death with Xena unable to save her.
Xena hid out in the barn, nominally attending to the injured men but really avoiding Gabrielle as long as possible. Now that Gabrielle was here and unhurt, Xena didn’t know how to face her. All this was her fault and Xena wasn’t sure how to go forward. She’d never been in a relationship before and this was new to her.
It was obvious that she needed to apologize and make sure it didn’t happen again in the future. The question was would Gabrielle allow her to make up for it? Would Gabrielle trust her again after what she’d done? Argo’s presence was comforting as she leaned against the mare. “What do I do now, girl? I don’t know how to reach her, to tell her I am so sorry I caused her pain. She probably never wants to see me again and I love her so much!”
Xena froze at the tremulous question, her heart aching at the fearful tone, then raised her head from Argo’s side. Taking a breath, Xena turned and found Gabrielle standing only a couple of short feet away. Green eyes were filled with tears and full lips trembled. Xena moved a step toward her, hand reaching out, and in a ragged voice gasped, “Gabrielle…”
That’s as far as she got before Gabrielle crossed the distance and launched herself onto Xena, the force knocking them into the wall. Lips locked, need and fear driving tongue into and around tongue. Hands under Gabrielle’s firm bottom, Xena lifted and Gabrielle immediately wrapped her legs around Xena. Moans echoed, sucked into and out of each mouth to be transferred to the other.
Turning and pressing Gabrielle’s back against the wall, Xena supported her warrior’s weight on her hips, grinding into the other woman. Her hands grasped at full breasts while their mouths stayed pressed together. Gabrielle’s hands wound into her hair, holding so tightly that twinges of pain cracked along Xena’s scalp but she didn’t care. Xena could feel the heat and dampness through Gabrielle’s pants and wanted more.
A loud neigh interrupted them, bringing both women back to their surroundings with a jolt. Xena dragged her mouth away from Gabrielle’s and breathed heavily, her sex quivering with need and her tongue aching to bring Gabrielle over the edge. Swallowing, Xena saw Gabrielle follow the path her tongue took to wet her lips and groaned. “We should go somewhere. Now.”
Gabrielle nodded but made no move to go, instead tightening her legs around Xena and burying her face into the hollow of Xena’s neck. Another moan escaped Xena upon feeling those hot lips against her throat, sucking and biting a love mark into existence, branding Xena as Gabrielle’s. Unable to help herself, Xena’s head rolled back, exposing more flesh for Gabrielle. A light caress of tongue along the base of her throat sent shivers throughout Xena’s body. She knew they had to find somewhere fast or Xena would take Gabrielle here and now and be damned of anyone who might find them.
Holding Gabrielle firmly to her, Xena walked to the back of the barn and the second exit, ignoring the pain in her leg. She nudged open the loose door and stumbled into the darkness outside, legs moving automatically as she searched for someplace remotely private. Fortunately, the woods began only a short distance from the back of the barn, this part of the village used for the barn and mill. Within minutes Xena found a copse that would suit perfectly with soft grass and undergrowth to hide them.
Slowly Xena dropped to her knees then cradled Gabrielle to the ground. In the moonlight, Gabrielle was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen; pale skin and golden hair glowing in the white rays. Green eyes looked up at her and she whispered, “I’m so sorry, Gabrielle. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I-I’ve never had someone love me even close to the way you do and I forget sometimes that I have to share my life with you. I’ve been alone for so long that being with someone…it’s an adjustment and one I have to keep in mind. You are so special, so incredible that I don’t want to lose you. Please say you’ll forgive me? That you still love me?”
Tears welled up in Gabrielle’s eyes to slide unchecked down her cheeks. “I thought I had done something, said something to drive you away. Then when you looked at me last night…I thought you’d stopped loving me.”
Xena cried softly at the confession. “I’m sorry, Gabrielle, I’m sorry. Please forgive me for hurting you like that. Please forgive me!”
“Ssh,” Gabrielle comforted, reaching up to pull Xena down on top of her.
Xena lay on Gabrielle a long time, her arms burrowed under Gabrielle’s head with Gabrielle’s arms around her back. Her head rested on Gabrielle’s shoulder, tears stopping only after a long time. Breath grew quiet, hearts beating in unison as they lay locked in each other’s arms. Before falling asleep, Xena rolled off Gabrielle to pull the smaller woman to her side. Gabrielle rested in the hollow of her shoulder and Xena laced her fingers together to keep Gabrielle in her arms while they slept.
Gabrielle couldn’t believe that Xena still loved her. Feeling safe and supremely happy in the healer’s arms, Gabrielle looked up at the slowly brightening sky. She knew that things were all right between them but also realized they had to get to know each other better so something like this never happened again. So much had happened since they’d met that Gabrielle forgot how short a time it really was.
Listening to the catch in Xena’s breath, Gabrielle again smiled at the thought that her lover snored, however lightly. She always seemed so in control and on top of everything that this little vulnerability made her seem so much more human. Gabrielle made a half-hearted wish that things could be just as they were in this moment but knew that life went on and there would probably be more misunderstandings. She would just have to make sure they talked instead of running away.
“You’re thinking too loudly again, warrior,” Xena greeted sleepily.
Gabrielle looked into those stunning blue eyes, filled with sleep and contentment and her heart sighed in happiness. “I’ll try to think more quietly.”
Xena smiled back at her and answered, “Don’t ever change for me, Gabrielle, I love you exactly as you are now.”
Gabrielle swallowed, the enormity of what Xena had just said washing over her, overwhelming her. “How can you? Love me, I mean? There’s so much about me that you don’t know. Things I’m ashamed to tell you. Things that might-should drive you away but I know you have to know.”
Xena tightened her arms around Gabrielle and said, “You are my other half, Gabrielle. It doesn’t matter to me what you’ve done in the past. There are times in my own life that I’m not proud of and would rather you not know about. No one is perfect and anyone claiming to be so…well…they’re probably trying to sell something. I know that you are trying to make up for your actions and yesterday was a good start.”
“It isn’t enough,” Gabrielle whispered, burying her face in the hollow of Xena’s throat.
“It’s a start,” Xena repeated, rubbing Gabrielle’s back soothingly.
Staring at the smooth flesh only inches away, Gabrielle couldn’t resist pressing a kiss to the soft curve of Xena’s throat. She licked the red mark that she’d made the night before, tracing the blotchy circle with her tongue. Xena’s moan set her blood on fire and Gabrielle rolled Xena onto her back, straddling the healer’s body at the waist. She moved her hands under the black shirt and pulled it off, Xena rising slightly to aid her.
Her hands cupped firm breasts, thumbs dragging lightly across nipples and she watched them harden immediately. Bending over, Gabrielle suckled first one breast then the other, delighting in Xena’s restless movements and sounds of need. Moving up, Gabrielle captured Xena’s lips with her own and found she’d suddenly lost control as they sucked and bit at each other’s mouth.
Xena’s arms seized Gabrielle and flung her over to roll her beneath thinking that sometimes size really was an advantage. Not that Xena had any doubts about Gabrielle truly being pinned against her will. If she stayed where she was, it was because Gabrielle allowed it. That was something Xena was determined to break through: Gabrielle’s control. Though Xena knew Gabrielle experienced orgasms, there was always an element of control that Xena couldn’t seem to knock down.
Today, this morning, that was going to change.
Starting with her breasts, Xena began kissing and sucking them, alternating hard and soft over the nipples and around the silky underside. Xena spent long minutes there worshipping Gabrielle’s breasts with her mouth and her hands. Gabrielle’s hands wound into Xena’s hair and she moaned. Xena moved back up and seized Gabrielle’s lips with her own. She pressed hard against Gabrielle’s mouth, opening up the warrior’s mouth as far as it could go, biting and sucking at her lips and tongue.
While their mouths were locked together, Xena’s hand traveled down and slipped inside Gabrielle’s pants. Her long fingers nudged open Gabrielle’s sex and found the nub that would bring Gabrielle pleasure. Xena’s own sex throbbed with need but she ignored it, concentrating on her lover instead. She lightly moved her fingers up and down and around Gabrielle’s sex until the smaller woman was gasping against her mouth. Xena withdrew her hand and took Gabrielle’s disappointed moan into herself.
She pulled back and moved down to pull off Gabrielle’s clothes and her own pants. Gabrielle watched her through eyes humid with need, moving when necessary but letting Xena do as she wanted. Xena looked at the glistening thatch of dark gold hair between Gabrielle’s legs and caressed it, murmuring, “So wet and hot and we’ve only just begun.”
It was words that Xena had discovered brought the most pleasure to Gabrielle. When she begged Gabrielle to come with her, she invariably did, though some times took more coaxing than others. Xena saw the shiver run through Gabrielle’s body with satisfaction. Returning her hands to Gabrielle, Xena played them over muscles, smoothing and pulling in a rough massage. “You are so perfect, Gabrielle. Each muscle defined, skin like satin over steel. I love touching you like this, love touching you in any way.”
Xena’s hand lingered at the junction between legs again, pressing but not invading. She ran her hands over and around it and the baby-soft skin on Gabrielle’s inner thighs. Gabrielle was twitching and shaking now, and Xena knew it was time to press the advantage. She covered Gabrielle, sealing their mouths together while her fingers thrust into Gabrielle. Gabrielle cried out at the double attack, throwing her arms around Xena’s neck and clinging to her, thrusting her hips against Xena’s knowing hand.
“Not just yet warrior,” Xena promised between kisses, slowing her hand.
“Xena, please,” Gabrielle whimpered.
“Please what, warrior?” Xena prompted.
“I need you.”
“Need me to do what?”
“Need you. Need you to take me, fill me, make me come!”
“That’s right, warrior, only I can do it right,” Xena exclaimed possessively, thrusting her fingers in again. Her hand surrounded by the hot wet of Gabrielle was a form of torture as Xena’s body trembled in its own need. Ruthless, Xena rubbed and thrust into Gabrielle.
Gabrielle gasped, eyes wide and unseeing, blood coming to her face. “Only you.”
Xena took Gabrielle’s mouth again, sucking at it and pushed hard with her hand, driving Gabrielle further and faster. Gabrielle’s hips snapped against her and her moans were constant and breathless into Xena’s mouth. When Gabrielle screamed, Xena took it all into her, relishing the way Gabrielle’s eyes rolled back and her voice became hoarse while the lower part of her body jerked and released a flood onto Xena’s hand.
It took several minutes for Gabrielle to completely return to herself and Xena simply lay beside her, holding her close and entwining their legs together. Every so often, Gabrielle’s legs would shake and Xena held her tighter.
“I love you,” Gabrielle whispered, green eyes holding onto blue desperately.
“I love you,” Xena whispered back, kissing Gabrielle’s lips gently.
Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed playfully as she said, “It’s your turn, healer.”
Xena laughed, a pure sound that spoke of supreme happiness. Whenever one of them didn’t find release, no matter the reason, that was the phrase the other used to let it be known that it wouldn’t be long coming. No pun intended. It stemmed from their first night together when Gabrielle had been determined to show her love to Xena and then Xena had reversed their positions, literally.
Laying back into the grass, Xena reached her hand up to brush golden red bangs out of Gabrielle’s forehead. “Have your wicked way with me, warrior, my body is yours.”
“You better believe it, healer,” Gabrielle growled, lowering her head to gently kiss the soft lips beneath her. Before she could do anything, however, they both heard someone running towards them. Xena half sobbed, half laughed in frustration and Gabrielle sighed explosively. Resting a hand on Xena’s breast, she held the other woman to the ground. “Don’t move.”
Xena held up her hands in mock surrender and stayed to the ground. She watched as Gabrielle unsheathed her sword and stood to face where the runner would emerge, as naked and glorious as an Amazon. Within seconds, Calas showed himself, stopping short at Gabrielle’s raised sword and naked body. His glance confirmed Xena laying on the ground, also naked, and he paled.
“I-I’m sorry, Gabrielle, Xena, but the bandits have returned. The rest of them that is. They’re threatening to kill everyone unless you show yourself!” Calas exclaimed, eyes averted from both forms.
“Ares balls!” Gabrielle swore. She grabbed her clothes and began pulling them on, Xena doing the same. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Xena looked at her. “To help you, where else?”
“Xena, you can’t…I mean…you’ll be hurt. I can’t have you near the fight or I’ll be too worried about you to concentrate on doing what needs to be done,” Gabrielle said. There wasn’t, unfortunately, time enough to be tactful.
Ice blue eyes narrowed at her angrily and Gabrielle swallowed, suddenly remembering just how physically powerful her lover was. Her leg might be maimed but the rest of her six-foot plus frame was incredibly strong. Especially her arms, which could wield a mean club when necessary. Gabrielle immediately walked over to her and gathered her hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that as an insult but I know that’s how it came out. I know you’re strong, Xena. You hold me down often enough, believe me I know. But have you ever been in battle? Can you fight and kill if need be? I don’t want to put you in a position where you would have to take a life instead of save it.”
Mouth twisting into a reluctant grimace, Xena silently acknowledged the point. “But I have to be there Gabrielle. How can we be equal partners if you feel that I can’t take care of myself? Or help you when you’re outnumbered? That day is going to come and I want you to know that you can depend on me in a fight no matter what the odds.”
Gabrielle looked up into those earnest eyes and couldn’t say no. “All right. Just…promise me that you’ll be careful.”
Xena’s smile was breathtaking. “Always.”
Looking at her suspiciously, Gabrielle couldn’t find anything technically wrong with the answer but gave a disbelieving, “Uh-huh,” anyhow. They followed Calas back to the village as quickly as Xena could manage but stopped at the outskirts.
“Calas, you go ahead and tell them that I’m on my way. I need to scout this out and see what’s going on,” Gabrielle ordered.
He nodded and walked around the outside of the village border towards the main square. Gabrielle and Xena moved to the opposite side of the barn, peering out from its edge.
“Do you know them?” Xena asked. feeling Gabrielle tense upon seeing the soldiers walking around the square. The villagers were huddled in one group at the other end of the dirt track that served as a road, guarded by five men with swords. One man, a large man with long black hair and dark skin stood at the fore, obviously waiting for Calas’ return.
“Draco,” Gabrielle whispered. “It had to be Draco.”
“Who’s Draco?” Xena asked. She frowned as a blush crept over the back of Gabrielle’s neck and repeated, voice tainted with suspicion, “Who is Draco?”
Gabrielle sighed and turned to face Xena. “It was a long time ago, Xena. Way before we met and a big mistake.”
“You were lovers!?” Xena exclaimed. She didn’t know whether to be horrified, jealous or both.
“For a very brief period,” Gabrielle confirmed. “He’s psycho, even more than I was so I cut him loose. I never thought he’d actually survive to make warlord status.”
Xena’s mouth worked open and closed a few times like a fish before clamping shut. “I guess you were wrong.”
Gabrielle’s lips twitched bitterly. “As usual. In any case, I think I know how we can get out of this with minimal bloodshed.”
Taking a deep breath, Xena walked into the center of the village, making her limp even more pronounced than it was and headed towards Draco. His eyes locked onto her and she felt a shiver of fear at the madness in those dark eyes.
“Well, well, well. If it isn’t the great healer Xena,” Draco sneered as she stopped in front of him. “I heard you were traveling with Gabrielle but just couldn’t believe the rumors. Damn but her taste has gone downhill since me.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Xena said flatly. Gabrielle was right; he was arrogant enough to only have a handful of men. Basically the five guarding the villagers and six more scattered along the road keeping a lookout. “Thanks to you, she’s gone.”
“Gone? What do you mean gone?” Draco roared. “Gabrielle! Gabrielle show yourself now!”
“You can stop bellowing. She took one look at you and bolted,” Xena told him angrily.
His gaze locked onto her again as he weighed the truth of her words. Xena gazed back at him, daring him to call her a liar. Striding over to her, Draco took her arm and pulled her roughly against him, drawing his dagger and holding it to her throat. “I’ve got your precious healer, Gabrielle, if you don’t want her throat slit, I suggest you show yourself to me now!”
The blade pressed sharp against Xena’s throat and she didn’t even dare to swallow against it. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all.
“I’m over here, Draco,” Gabrielle’s voice called out suggestively.
Xena looked over and her jaw would’ve dropped had the dagger not prevented it. Gabrielle was strutting over to them, tunic half-undone and hips swaying. Somehow the sword belted at her hip served only to accentuate her walk. Xena repressed the possessive growl that threatened to escape and remained limp against Draco. Unfortunately, he didn’t remain limp against her as he watched Gabrielle’s approach.
“Why hello there, lover-boy,” Gabrielle purred. She could tell from the look in Xena’s eyes that she was definitely going to have to make this one up to her later. Make it up to her a lot. “What’s all this fuss about?”
“One of my men told me that you’d captured a band of my soldiers and was going to hand them over for trial,” Draco said, eyeing her up and down. “I came to see for myself and sure enough, they were there locked up.”
Gabrielle suddenly felt as though she needed a bath and steeled herself. “What? I’ve never heard of such a thing. Draco, think about it? Why would I be doing something like that? I’d be the first person on trial now, wouldn’t I? You’re men just surprised me out of a deep sleep. You know how grumpy I can be first thing in the morning.”
He thought about it for a long moment, then nodded. “I guess so.”
“That’s right. Why don’t we get something to drink and talk? Maybe something more? It’s been a long time, after all,” Gabrielle said suggestively. She ignored the look Xena was giving her but wanted to find a hole to crawl in. Gods of Olympus she was going to pay for this little charade later when Xena got her hands on her.
Coming to a decision, Draco thrust Xena to the ground and grinned. “There’s the Gabrielle of Potedeia I know.”
Within a second, Gabrielle’s sword was out and at his throat. “Stay right there, Draco. You’re lucky I don’t carve you into little pieces.”
“You thought wrong,” Gabrielle exclaimed. “Tell your men to throw down their swords or you’re dead.”
Draco’s eyes flickered from her to his men then scowled. “Toss down your swords.”
She heard the clatter of steel falling onto the floor and said, “Xena? You all right?”
“Fine Gabrielle,” Xena answered.
“Get their swords. Calas, help her tie them up,” Gabrielle ordered, keeping her eyes on Draco. He’d never given up this easily before. She heard a gasp from Xena and a thunk of wood against flesh. Gabrielle turned to see what had happened and realized it was a mistake even as she did it.
Draco took the advantage to draw his sword and slam Gabrielle’s away from him. She jumped back and looked to see that Xena was fine and a soldier was unconscious on the ground near her. He must’ve tried something but she’d put him down, forcefully. Draco’s sword flashed by her, reminding her of her own predicament.
It wasn’t like the fight with Callisto who was truly her match. Draco was much bigger but also much slower. He moved as though through water, relying on his physical prowess to win. Their blades met time and again, clanging heavily and drawing sparks. Gabrielle found that four other men besides Draco surrounded her but weren’t attacking. They must have been waiting for a signal from Draco.
When she knocked Draco’s sword to the ground and kicking him unconscious, they realized it was too late but rushed her anyhow. Leaping up, Gabrielle flipped over the men in front, spun around and clobbered both with her sword pommel. A flying roundhouse kick knocked the third into a nearby wall. The last ended up spitted on Gabrielle’s sword after a brief sword fight.
Gabrielle turned around and her jaw dropped in amazement. Crouching defensively and breathing hard in a ring of now unconscious men, cane in fist, was Xena. Shaking her head, Gabrielle walked over to her and asked, “How? What…how did you do that?”
Xena slowly straightened then gave her a wicked grin. “I have many skills.”
Gabrielle shivered at the slow promise in those words and couldn’t attach her mouth to her brain to reply.
“Gabrielle! Xena! We can’t thank you enough!” Calas exclaimed, joining them, family in tow.
Returning to normal with a snap, Gabrielle managed to tear her eyes from Xena’s and answered, “You’re welcome, Calas.”
Gabrielle was astounded when he held out his arm to her, eyes open with honest friendship. Tears pricked at her eyes and Gabrielle took it after only a second’s pause. ‘So this is what it’s like to be accepted,’ she thought with a happy smile as the congratulating villagers surrounded her.
Her gaze found Xena who was looking at her from a short distance away. For a brief moment, an image interposed itself over Xena. It was Xena but dressed in warrior garb, brown leather and chain mail. The sword that Gabrielle carried was on Xena’s back. She looked hard and distanced with pain and rage lying beneath the surface. Gabrielle’s heart beat fast with fear and she blinked her eyes rapidly against more tears, tears of compassion and love. ‘Is that how she sees me?’ Gabrielle wondered silently as the vision disappeared.
After several minutes, during which Gabrielle looked over at Xena to assure herself that her healer truly was there and not the fierce warrior woman, Gabrielle finally managed to disentangle herself from the villagers. Walking over to where Xena was tying up Draco, Gabrielle stopped in back of her. She felt Xena freeze, stiffen at her approach and wondered how she knew that Xena was a little afraid of her at that moment.
“Xena,” she whispered, placing a hand on the healer’s shoulder. After a brief moment, Xena melted into the hand, relaxing and resting her cheek against it. “What’s wrong?”
Xena stood, leaning heavily on her cane, and faced her. “I haven’t fought anyone in a very long time. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it. How naturally it comes to me. It scares me, Gabrielle. Then, when I saw you with the villagers, I had the strangest vision of you. It was you and not you, perhaps a you that might have been in different circumstances.
“You were young, innocent and had stayed that way because of me. I had protected you from the horror of losing your sister and family and your innocence to those slavers. If only I had accepted Ares’ offer then you wouldn’t have had to suffer. If only…”
Gabrielle covered Xena’s lips with her hand. “There is no going back, Xena. Things happened that neither of us could have prevented. I also had a vision of you. You were a warrior, hard and unreachable but desperately needing someone to break through to you. Only there was no one there to reach out to. Because I wasn’t there, I think. Because I must have been safe at home with my family. Xena, I would never change my life if that is what would happen to you. Never, do you understand?”
It was then that they both realized they were trying to reverse the guilt each felt for not saving the other from harm. Harm from a life of what might have been and harm from a life of what was. Hands reached out and they held each other silently for a long time.
“I love you, Xena,” Gabrielle said softly into Xena’s ear.
“I love you, Gabrielle,” Xena echoed, holding her tightly.
“I hate to interrupt such a touching scene, but what are you planning to do with me?” Draco’s voice demanded.
Gabrielle gave him a kick to the chin without even looking, knocking him out again, and continuing to hold Xena.
“That wasn’t very nice of you,” Xena scolded with a chuckle, pulling back reluctantly.
Gabrielle grinned. “Didn’t say it was. What are we going to do with him, anyhow?”
Shrugging, Xena answered, “Put him in the mill with the others until a magistrate shows up? Safer than bringing the whole band of soldiers elsewhere, right?”
Nodding, Gabrielle agreed, “Much safer. I’m sure Calas can have someone ride to get a magistrate, complete with guards, to come here as soon as possible.”
“Sooner even,” Calas offered, approaching them hesitantly. “I’ve already sent one of the boys on horseback to Athens which is the closest city.”
“Good man,” Gabrielle congratulated. Not releasing Xena’s hand, she said, “So, I hope you don’t mind if we bow out now?”
“We were hoping to have a feast in your honor!” He protested. “Both of your honors.”
“Thanks, Calas, but I’m a bit wary about being around magistrates just yet,” Gabrielle answered. “Just in case.”
“Ah, yes, of course,” Calas said, understanding what she meant at once. “You can be sure that we will tell him what you’ve done for us. Thoroughly.”
“Thank you,” Gabrielle said sincerely.
They clasped hands then Xena said her good-byes. The two women went to the barn where Gabrielle began getting Argo ready and Xena checked on the injured men one last time. They were ready to leave within the hour and Gabrielle helped Xena up into the saddle.
“You settled in?” Gabrielle teased.
“Wench. I haven’t been thrown since that first day,” Xena retorted, nudging Argo into a slow walk. Just to tweak Gabrielle’s nose a little, she observed dryly, “I notice that you’ve got a new shirt on.”
Gabrielle’s face darkened remembering how she hadn’t ducked fast enough this time to avoid Argo’s sneeze. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Just make sure you wash before coming to bed tonight. Last time you didn’t move fast enough you missed part of your hair. Gross, just gross.”
“Oh really? Well if you would talk to the damned animal, I wouldn’t have to worry about it now, would I?”
Xena’s laugh echoed off the trees as they left the village.
Pain. Sharp and constant and unyielding. It enfolds you, covering first your body then your soul. It reaches inside your deepest corner until you can’t remember what it was like to live without the pain. It becomes an ally of sorts, something to depend on and draw strength from. You can count on the pain to always be there. Unless someone comes into your life and chips away at the pain until it recedes; until there is a small part of you reaching out to the light to be free of pain.
Which makes the pain even harsher when that someone is gone.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and stared at the dark sky above. The stars were hidden from view by clouds that had been gathering the last couple of days. The remaining coals from her cooking fire glowed an angry red, the only light in the area. A cool wind brushed her face, mocking the heat from her overactive body.
Sighing, Gabrielle closed her eyes and turned onto her side restlessly. It had been a long day and tomorrow promised to be even longer. Of course she had only herself to blame for the current situation, which didn’t improve her soured mood any. She had left Xena the day before, determined to bring some peace and security to the healer by removing herself.
A wannabe warlord had caught up with them three days before, accompanied by a troop of men and the encounter had almost succeeded in killing Xena. She’d been wounded, a sword slicing across her side. It had been deep enough for the healer to lose too much blood too quickly. Gabrielle had decimated the last of the men, her killing frenzy spurred on by the sight of her wounded lover lying in the muddy grass.
Gabrielle had cleaned and stitched up Xena’s wound then bandaged it with a healing poultice. Xena’s beautiful face had been screwed up against the pain as Gabrielle wound the cloth tightly around her midriff, brilliant sapphire eyes closed. Then the healer had fainted altogether, leaving Gabrielle alone with her fear. Gabrielle had made a travois, gingerly carried her unconscious lover to it and then led the strong palomino mare, Argo, slowly to the nearest village.
Once Xena was resting comfortably in a tavern, free of charge for the famous healer of course, Gabrielle had sat in the main room thinking. All afternoon her thoughts chased each other around like mad dogs, pointing to the same conclusion. She had to leave Xena before the simple act of being with Gabrielle killed her. That was something Gabrielle could not allow. Too many people needed the healer’s gentle kindness and light. Decision made, the warrior had gone upstairs and poked her head into the room to find Xena sleeping.
Not daring to touch the finely chiseled face drawn with pain even in sleep, Gabrielle simply drank in the sight. Black hair splayed out over a white pillow, prominent cheekbones accentuating the hollows in her cheeks and full red lips half open as a light snore trickled out of the healer. The noise had brought Gabrielle a momentary smile.
“I love you, Xena. I always will,” Gabrielle whispered before turning to leave.
So now Gabrielle lay on the ground, alone and miserable and aching to be held in those strong arms. Needing the quiet laughter of blue eyes to bring her soul much needed refuge from the pain that battled her for dominance. The ghosts of her past were haunting fiercely without the healer around to help keep them at bay.
“Don’t be such a loser.”
Gabrielle stiffened at Ares’ insult and glanced over to find the darkly handsome man leaning against a large rock. “What do you want?”
“Well, I just thought that since you finally got rid of that weight around your neck, you’d be looking for company,” Ares said walking closer. He knelt beside her and trailed a hand down her bare arm. “Maybe we could pick up where we left off?”
Green eyes narrowing, Gabrielle said, “We have nothing to pick up.”
“Sure we do,” Ares countered, a wicked smile in evidence. “You taking control of Greece for starters.”
“What about your new best friend?” Gabrielle asked, staring the God of War in the eye.
“Ah, well, turns out that Callisto is a little more unstable than even I thought. And while insane rage is always good for a laugh, it gets tedious after a while,” Ares explained with a shrug. “Besides, you’re my true heir and you know it. You’re a brilliant strategist, your men would and have died for you, and you lead without even trying. Don’t you want all that back, Gabrielle? Become the Warrior Queen I’ve always told you that you could become.”
It would be so easy to return to that. The soft, seductive tones of Ares painted the picture oh-so-well. She could let loose the rage that hovered so close below her surface. She could go back to doing what she did best: leading and taking control of men. The pain could be released, she could feel its comfort again, urging her on, revel in it.
For answer, her fist connected with the side of Ares’ head and sent him sprawling.
Shaking his head, Ares stood and spat, “Fine! But don’t say I didn’t give you the choice!”
That was all the warning she needed. Gabrielle grabbed her sword, jumping to her feet, and pulled it out of her sheath as she moved. Sure enough, men began streaming out of the trees and undergrowth. Her sword arced and flashed, meeting thick muscle and artery until both she and the ground were covered with blood. In the end, however, there were simply too many of them for her.
When darkness finally claimed Gabrielle, almost forty men lay dead and dying on the ground.
“I’m sorry, Lady Healer but she has not returned,” the man informed her.
Xena was furious, blue eyes hard as ice and flashing such ire that the innkeeper paled and quickly left. More at herself than Gabrielle though there was that, too. Of course Gabrielle would take her wounding this way. She would take the course best designed to protect Xena, which in Gabrielle’s mind was to leave. She’d seen the man’s sword coming at her but had allowed herself to be distracted by Gabrielle’s battle cry, something the smaller woman only used when trying to gather herself for a sustained battle.
In that split second of distraction, the sword had sliced through her flesh. Xena had dispatched the man with a blow to the head with her heavy cane but blacked out soon thereafter. She didn’t remember anything more until waking in the tavern. Gabrielle had, she’d been told, left shortly after bringing her here.
Now five days later, Xena knew she was still too weak to go after the warrior. She cursed her distraction and her weakness, both of which had separated the lovers. Lying on the bed under heavy covers to keep out the cold and stave off another fever which she could ill afford, Xena was forced to do nothing except look at the ceiling and wait for her body to heal. It was unfortunate that her body still succumbed easily to fever and chills since the last tangling with Ares and Callisto.
There was a hesitant knock at the door and she barked, “What?”
The door cracked open and a young man peered in. He was tall and gangly with scattered dark hair and a hesitant manner.
“Yes?” Xena asked impatiently.
“Um, hi there, sorry to disturb you but, you’re Xena, right?” the young man asked, stepping a little further into the room.
Clenching her teeth in a prayer for patience, Xena forced a smile and answered, “Yes. Can I help you?”
“Well actually, I think I can help you. Well, not help really since you can’t do anything about it, but you’d probably want to know. I mean if I were you I’d want to know but maybe…”
“What’s your name?” Xena interrupted. Somehow she knew that if given enough leeway the young man would prattle on forever. She gestured to the chair by the bed.
“Oh. Sorry. Name’s Joxer,” he answered holding out a hand.
Xena clasped arms with him and asked, “So Joxer, what brings you here? And to the point if you please?”
“Sure. I was traveling on the road to Corinth on my way to meet one of my brothers. He’s putting on a show and I wanted to help. I’m between jobs right now. Anyhow, I was sleeping and the sound of fighting woke me. I crept through the trees and bushes to see what armies would be fighting when I discovered it was a lone woman fighting at least seventy men. I couldn’t believe my eyes! She was incredible, beautiful, deadly. Not someone I’d want to run into in a dark alley, that’s for sure. Well she took down more than half but there were simply too many of them and they overwhelmed her.
“I thought to myself, “Self, here is someone that doesn’t deserve whatever it is that’s gonna come to them.” So I watched as she was tied up and dragged down the road. She was unconscious for most of it, which is good because the beating probably would’ve been really painful. Um, anyhow, I followed them for two days before they stopped in the castle of Salmonius.
“I used my juggling skills to get inside. I’m really good so I passed myself off as a fool looking for work, which, actually, wasn’t too far off the mark. So I nosed around a little and found out that it was Gabrielle of Potedeia that had been captured. Now most of the stories I’d heard about her involved a lot of pain and death or worse. But lately there’s been tales that she changed sides. Well the fact that Ares sent so many after her confirmed it in my mind. And I’d heard you two were traveling together so as soon as I could, I grabbed a horse and rode to find you.
“So that’s why I’m here. To tell you Gabrielle’s been captured and is being held prisoner by Salmonius,” Joxer finished.
The first part of the tale had sent shivers of fear for Gabrielle through Xena. Her eyes closed in pain as she thought of the beating Gabrielle had received. The second part confused her. What would Salmonius want with Gabrielle? Especially using soldiers of Ares? A powerful and greedy merchant, Salmoius was known for taking whatever path brought him the most money. Good or bad didn’t matter as long as there were dinars involved and a great many of them.
Clearing her thoughts away, Xena asked, “Do you know why Salmonius has taken Gabrielle?”
“Well, yeah. He’s planning to auction her off to the highest bidder,” Joxer answered as though the answer were obvious. “Ceremony’s set for a week from now.”
The first sentence galvanized Xena out of bed. She threw aside the covers and slowly stood, forgetting that she was dressed only in a small sleeping shift. Seeing Joxer’s eyes widen, Xena glared at him and said, “Go downstairs. I’ll be down shortly.”
“Don’t you think you should rest a couple more…”
“Downstairs now,” Xena ordered, voice harder than iron
“Sure. Anything you say Xena,” Joxer answered before quickly leaving the room.
As she began to dress, Xena felt her side muscles protesting the motion but ignored them. The flashes of pain were also ignored, minor things compared to slave auction of Gabrielle to the highest bidder. She knew that being sold would drive Gabrielle mad with rage, bringing her all the way back to when she’d been a helpless slave forced to watch her sister murdered for sport.
What the Hades was Salmonius thinking? Did he honestly think he could sell Gabrielle without being killed in the process? Many dark thoughts roamed through her mind at that question; most centering on chains and restraints. All those thoughts caused her to hurry and within a few minutes, her black tunic and breeches were on and her boots laced. Bending over gave her a dizzy spell and she had to lean against the bed until it passed. Breathing slow and even brought the world back into order and though she knew it was folly to go out in her condition, she had no choice. Gabrielle was severely hurt from the sound of it and needed her help.
Taking her cane and pack, Xena left the room and walked carefully downstairs. She saw Joxer waiting downstairs by the door, eying one of the serving maids and shook her head before going over to bar where the tavern keeper stood talking to someone.
Astonished at seeing her upright, the tavern keeper exclaimed, “Lady Healer! Surely you aren’t well enough to leave!”
“I have to go. Have someone saddle my horse,” Xena commanded. The less she had to do the better, and lifting that heavy saddle would not be good for her. Of course fighting her way to rescue Gabrielle wasn’t going to be pleasant either.
Swallowing at her tone, the man nodded and immediately left.
“Um, Xena? What do you want me to do?” Joxer asked, joining her hesitantly.
Managing a civil smile, Xena answered, “Look, Joxer, you seem like a nice man and I really appreciate your information. A lot. This is a dangerous situation and no offense, but you don’t seem the fighting type. You should continue on to your brother’s home in Corinth.”
Jaw firming with determination, Joxer said quietly, “I may not be a warrior but I can certainly help. And it looks like you can use all the help you can get. These aren’t just decorative, you know.”
Xena’s frown turned to a satisfied nod when Joxer let fly two daggers, each to land safely across the room quivering in an ale barrel. Her opinion of him going up half a notch, Xena reluctantly agreed, “All right, you can come. Only on the condition that you do exactly what I say, when I say it. Got it?”
His nod was pathetically eager and Xena restrained her eyes from rolling, but barely. The innkeeper returned then and Xena asked, “What do I owe you?”
Raising his hands in protest, the man exclaimed, “You saved the life of my cousin, Lady Healer. No charge for you here, ever!”
Shrugging, then wincing slightly at the stitch in her side from the action, Xena said, “Thank you. You’ve been very kind.”
“Any time at all, Lady Healer, any time.”
Xena left, followed by Joxer, and found Argo tied to the post out front. She took a couple of minutes to say hello, rubbing Argo’s muzzle and scratching the inside of her ears. The horse greeted her a little too enthusiastically, shoving against her side and Xena gasped in pain.
“You okay?” Joxer asked with concern.
Holding her side, Xena nodded. “Fine. Get your horse and let’s go.”
By evening Xena fully regretted her decision to bring Joxer. Yes another pair of hands even mildly skilled, would be helpful, maybe even turn the tide. However. If he didn’t shut up soon, Xena was going to strangle him. She couldn’t even figure out what he was rambling on and on and on about but it was driving her insane. When she couldn’t take it any more, Xena snapped, “Joxer!”
Flashing those puppy-dog eyes to her with a hurt look, he stopped talking. Xena ground her teeth and continued, “Tell me about Salmonius’ castle. Give me accurate descriptions of its condition and how many guards, things like that.”
Even though the information was useful and she discovered that Joxer had a surprising eye for detail, Xena knew it was going to be a long night.
Gabrielle’s head was killing her. Every time she woke, someone came in and slammed something hard into her skull. She lay in dirty straw which itched at her exposed skin but she didn’t dare scratch for fear of another blow to the head. Gabrielle was already positive that she had a severe concussion. She was in a dungeon, that much was clear. Gabrielle could smell rot and heard rats skittering about in the darkness. Water dripped somewhere outside a small, high placed window.
Sharp pain echoed through her ribs and chest and she knew a few had been broken during the beating. Then there was the stabbing pain in her ankle when she tried to move it. Not to mention the nausea and ringing in her ears. Gabrielle was one massive bruise with an olive on top.
A metal door clanged and Gabrielle cracked an eyelid to try and avoid the next blow even though she knew in her current condition she’d never be able to defend herself. To her surprise, a well-dressed man in rich robes stood in the door. He was in his late forties with balding, curly silver hair and a round form that had seen firmer days. There was a serious air about him and his blue eyes looked at her with an odd expression.
“Ah good, you’re awake. No, don’t worry, I don’t want any permanent damage so there will be no more beatings. Unless you provoke them, of course,” the man assured her.
“Who,” her voice rasped out and she cleared it then tried again. “Who are you?”
“Names are so meaningless these days, don’t you agree? Except for yours, of course. The fact that I have captured Gabrielle of Potedeia will bring great prosperity on my house.”
“What do you want with me?” Gabrielle asked curiously. “Why haven’t you killed me already?”
“So many questions. I can understand how you would want some answers but for now I suggest a bath, someone to treat your injuries, food and rest. How does that sound?” he asked pleasantly.
Suspicious and blunt, Gabrielle answered, “Cleaning me up for the execution?”
“Hardly my dear, hardly!” he answered, a laugh in his voice if not his eyes.
As he left, Gabrielle suddenly found the word with which she was struggling to describe him: mercenary. Several guards appeared in his place, two coming over and dragging her upright with hands under her arms. They brought her out of the dungeon and up several flights of stairs. Gabrielle’s head swam with the motion and twice they had to stop so she could throw up. They passed several serving people and all eyed her with furtive pity.
Gabrielle began to wonder what man was holding her captive that his servants feared so for a prisoner. Unless they knew who she was and what was going to happen to her, of course. She was in deep horse shit if their looks were anything to go by.
They deposited her in a bed after several long minutes of walking or, in her case, hobbling through the castle. Gabrielle was too tired and ill to notice her surroundings at first. When the world stopped spinning, Gabrielle saw that her chamber was spacious and richly decorated. The bed she lay on had fine quilts and gold encrusted mirrors glittered from the walls along with tapestries and pieces of art. When her head began to pound more, Gabrielle closed her eyes and drifted into darkness.
Jolting pain through her ankle brought a scream from Gabrielle before she could help herself. Of course the fact that she’d been asleep when someone started twisting it back into place had lowered her defenses. Breathing hard, tears slipping from her closed eyes, she felt splints put into place and all she could think was, “Xena’s going to kill me for breaking the ankle on the same leg she fixed in the first place.”
“Are you still awake?” a hesitant voice.
Gabrielle nodded and found that to be a tactical error. Having no choice but to ignore the pain elsewhere in her body, Gabrielle turned over the side of the bed and threw up again. Groaning, Gabrielle clutched her head and began crying. All she wanted was Xena there to hold her and make everything better.
A soft hand touched her shoulder, resting there a long minute. When Gabrielle did nothing, the hand gently rubbed her back in soothing, circular motions. Slowly the nausea subsided though the ringing in her ears and other assorted pains remained. Finally, after several silent minutes, Gabrielle murmured, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” whispered back. “I’m sorry but there is more for me to tend to and it’s going to be painful.”
Taking as deep a breath as her ribs would allow, Gabrielle rolled carefully onto her back. Opening her eyes, she found a young girl sitting on the edge of the bed. She was blonde with soft gray eyes and pleasant features. Her gentle smile made her beautiful, though, and Gabrielle responded to it with a small smile of her own. “What’s your name?”
“Cassandra,” she answered. “You’re Gabrielle of Potedeia.”
“You don’t seem like a warlord to me,” Cassandra said hesitantly.
“I’m not anymore.”
“Because of the healer.” The girl’s voice held wistful romanticism.
Surprised, Gabrielle asked, “Is that the tale going around?”
“Yes. That she found you and healed your heart and soul and now you fight for good and just causes. That you are soul mates none can pull asunder. Is it true?”
Bemused by the question, Gabrielle answered, “She is my soul mate, yes.”
Sighing, Cassandra said, “That gives me hope that maybe some day I will find my other half as well.”
“I’m sure you will, Cassandra,” Gabrielle answered honestly. That this open and caring girl would remain alone seemed far-fetched to her.
“I should finish my work,” Cassandra said hesitantly.
“Yes. You’re going to do the ribs first?”
Obviously surprised, Cassandra nodded. “How did you know?”
“Well, if they aren’t set to rights, I’ll probably puncture something important,” Gabrielle answered with a ghost of a grin.
Cassandra nodded and cut off the remains of Gabrielle’s green tunic. Her battle leathers had disappeared somewhere and she definitely didn’t have any armor for the girl to remove. Gabrielle thought of other things while Cassandra poked and prodded and finally bandaged her midriff. She thought of Xena’s warm blue eyes, her strong arms, her silky hair. The way Xena arched her back when Gabrielle sucked on her breasts. How the taller woman liked to cuddle after making love.
By the time Cassandra was finished, Gabrielle could’ve sworn she felt a tingle in her loins through all the pain just thinking of her lover. But it had succeeded in banishing the pain if only for a short while.
“I need to look at your head, clean the wounds there,” Cassandra said, interrupting her thoughts.
Knowing this wasn’t going to be pleasant, Gabrielle leaned on Cassandra’s slight form to sit up. The girl knelt behind her, supporting her. Gabrielle leaned back, using Cassandra as a pillow while the girl looked at her head injury. After an eternity of pain and near-blackouts, Gabrielle’s head was clean and bandaged. She lay back on the bed, fighting nausea and dizziness, holding tightly to Cassandra’s hand and crying for Xena.
Gabrielle stared at the ceiling, counting the number of black circles in the immediate vicinity of her bed. She had reached three hundred forty-four before losing track and having to start over. The nausea had disappeared along with the ringing but she still had a headache. Her ankle no longer throbbed with pain, having receded to a dull ache. Her ribs were only minor twinges unless she moved too quickly.
All in all, she was almost well enough to try to escape. Or she would be if her head didn’t start pounding every time she tried to stand. She was fine lying down or sitting but moving around was another story. Gabrielle knew she’d been hit one too many times in the head and was now worried about permanent damage. She’d asked Cassandra for something to write with and on but so far nothing had been forthcoming.
Chafing at the forced inactivity, her mind of course turned to Xena. Gabrielle worried that maybe Xena hadn’t made it. Perhaps she’d developed another fever, as she’d been wont to do since that terrible one a few months ago. She also worried that Xena had half-healed at her typical, fast rate and was even now looking for her before she had fully healed. It didn’t help that Xena had access to her considerable medical knowledge to heal herself while Gabrielle was forced to rely on Cassandra.
Not that Cassandra hadn’t done wonders but she couldn’t hold a candle to Xena. Well, no one could, really. Gabrielle was positive that Xena would have been able to get her head back to normal by now. She would put some miraculous poultice together and within days Gabrielle would be up and fighting again. Well, once her ankle and ribs healed of course.
Groaning, Gabrielle tried to distract herself by working on the poem she had started while staring at Xena from across their campfire. No matter what she tried, Gabrielle would get only so far and then be stumped. Though she wanted to blame her lack of training, Gabrielle was certain it was simply that she wasn’t gifted enough to create something as beautiful as a poem. She couldn’t capture Xena’s essence. As though anything, let alone fleeting words, could do that?
She snorted in amusement at the thought then began again.
Primal beauty formed in perfection
Hardened planes and angles merging with softness
The purity of the finest sapphires cannot compare
To your eyes
Hardened grace moving in unified purpose
Compassion and ruthlessness edge against each other
Gifts from the Gods cannot compare
To your healing touch
Gabrielle wanted to slap herself for being stuck so early on in the poem but feared hurting herself even more than her lack of talent required.
“I should stick to the sword,” she muttered.
The door opened just after her comment and Cassandra entered. Her usually smiling face was downcast as she approached the bed.
“What’s wrong?” Gabrielle asked.
“The first of the bidders have arrived. I can’t believe my uncle is really going through with this! To sell another living person is…is…well it’s monstrous!” Cassandra spat. She began to pace.
“Cassandra, please stop moving, you’re making me dizzy,” Gabrielle requested after a couple of minutes.
“I’m sorry!” Cassandra exclaimed, immediately stopping.
Smiling, Gabrielle assured her, “Don’t worry about me. I’ve designed my own fate. If this is how the Gods see fit to dispose of me then so be it.”
Frowning, Cassandra said, “I don’t understand you.”
“Cassandra, come here,” Gabrielle said, patting the mattress beside her.
Stubbornness etched in every movement, Cassandra sat on the bed and faced Gabrielle. “What?”
“I’ve done many terrible things in my life. Things I wouldn’t want you to even hear about let alone experience. The fact that I was beaten to within an inch of my life and am about to be sold, probably to my death, angers me. The fact that I’m too injured to fix it angers me even more. The only thing I can think of is that I’ve been placed in this situation for a reason. I won’t know that reason until I’m in Tartarus where I belong,” Gabrielle whispered. She looked out the window and sighed. “The only thing I wish is for Xena to know that I love her and didn’t mean to hurt her. Since I’ll never see her again, I doubt I’ll have that chance.”
“I’ll tell her,” Cassandra volunteered. “After…after it’s over I won’t stop until I find her and give her your message.”
Gabrielle took Cassandra’s hand and said, “Thank you. You don’t know how much that means to me.”
After a silent moment, Cassandra stood and said, “I have to go. My uncle is expecting me to entertain these people.”
“Then you’d better go,” Gabrielle agreed.
In the empty room, Gabrielle didn’t dare close her eyes. She’d seen too many visions of Xena to ever want to sleep again. Too many visions standing before her, unable to be touched. Gabrielle was unsurprised to find she had no tears left.
“How can he be so cruel?” Cassandra whispered furiously. She slammed her fist into the wall then shook it out.
“Careful, Cassandra, those are traitorous words even if you are his niece,” her friend warned, looking around quickly to be sure they were alone.
“I don’t care! This is wrong! We have to find a way to stop it before she’s hurt even worse. I doubt she’ll survive another beating. I can’t imagine how she survived seven blows to the head! Seven! It’s inhuman!” Cassandra hissed.
“Cassandra, look who we’re talking about here!” he urged. “This is a woman who had half of Greece under her control. Her rise to power wasn’t exactly a walk in the acropolis you know. She’s killed and maimed and done worse, I’m sure.”
“She’s changed, you have to believe me! You didn’t hold her while she cried in pain for her lover. She’s a new person, not that warlord at all anymore.”
Smiling at Cassandra’s passionate espousal of the rogue warlord, the young man raised a hand to her cheek and said, “You are the sweetest person I know, Cassandra. I don’t want you getting hurt over this woman. Please keep your opinions to yourself and me. Don’t let your uncle know how you feel or he’ll probably auction you off as well.”
Cassandra sighed but had no choice but to agree. “Very well. You’re a good friend.”
“I am, aren’t I?” he said with a grin.
“Cheeky. Go on back to work. I need to check on Gabrielle,” Cassandra said, shoving him away.
It was two days before the auction was to take place. Though healing, Gabrielle was still bedridden and in pain much of the time. Though the ringing in her ears and nausea was gone, the dizziness and headache persisted.
“Excuse me, Cassandra?”
Cassandra whirled at the voice, heart jumping into her throat. She hadn’t heard or seen anyone while talking and her friend’s cautioning words resounded in her ears. A tall woman emerged from the shadows, leaning on a cane. Dressed in a black cloak that matched her hair, the woman stood at least three hand-spans higher than Cassandra. Her crystal blue eyes were filled with need and worry.
“Can I help you?” Cassandra asked upon seeing those eyes. It was as though the woman’s soul filled her eyes.
“I was told that you are taking care of Gabrielle?” the woman asked.
“Xena,” Cassandra breathed in recognition. Now the eyes made sense. The woman raised a finger to her lips and Cassandra mentally cursed herself for letting the name slip out. “Yes, of course. I can bring you to her.”
“Not now, too many people. Tonight? At the moon’s zenith? I’ll meet you here.”
Cassandra nodded and the woman faded back into the shadows. The fluttering in the pit of her stomach deepened as she thought about her part in reuniting the two lovers. Then her thoughts transferred to the incredible love that bound them for Xena to risk her life for her love.
“I should be so lucky,” she murmured before heading towards the kitchens.
Xena waited impatiently for the girl to arrive. She’d left Joxer entertaining the staff to be sure none of them would be wandering the halls. Once he’d stopped his incessant prattling, Xena had found him to be a sincerely nice man. He even had occasionally brilliant flashes of humor that made her laugh. Of course that didn’t mean that she wanted a steady diet of him and rather hoped that Gabrielle would scare him away once they escaped.
The girl came into view and Xena paused for a long moment to be sure she hadn’t been followed then stepped forward. “Over here.”
Startled by Xena’s silent appearance, the girl placed a hand to her chest. “This way.”
Xena followed her into the main part of the castle. It was richly decorated but Xena paid no attention to her surroundings except to note the various escape routes on the way. They passed no one on the journey through the halls and up several flights of stairs. The girl stopped at a door.
“I’ll be back shortly,” the girl said.
Nodding, Xena opened the door and, stomach twisting nervously, walked into the darkened room. A few candles were lit and cast shadows on the wall but Xena only had eyes for the form in the bed. Stepping closer, Xena’s breath caught at the ugly bruise that darkened the side of her lover’s face. Tears hovered as she saw the extent of the damage even several days later.
“Gabrielle?” she whispered, pausing in front of the bed. She reached out but her hand stopped, hovering just off Gabrielle’s face.
The green eyes opened, dull and hopeless as they stared at her. “No more illusions,” Gabrielle murmured brokenly, pressing her face into the pillow as though to banish the sight of Xena standing before her.
“No more illusions,” Xena agreed quietly, her heart in her eyes. She sat on the bed and placed her hands gently on Gabrielle’s shoulders. Gabrielle stiffened under her touch then the warrior’s face turned to look at her, eyes wide with shock and disbelief. Xena answered the unspoken question, “I’m really here, Gabrielle.”
Moving recklessly, Gabrielle threw herself into Xena’s arms, wrapping her own around Xena’s neck. Xena held tight to the smaller woman, placing small, tender kisses on her throat. Both gasped simultaneously as their grips tightened and rubbed against wounds. Xena drew back then smiled tentatively, brushing the bangs off Gabrielle’s face. “I wish you hadn’t left, Gabrielle.”
“I thought you would be safer without me,” Gabrielle said. “You are safer without me. You were almost killed because of me. I’m so sorry I hurt you!”
“Gabrielle, I was almost killed because I stupidly let myself get distracted. Whether you are with me or not, someone is going to try and prey on a lone traveler. Did you think of that? Did you think that I might be safer with you to watch my back than alone with no one to care for me?” Xena leaned forward and pressed her lips to the softly swollen lips of her lover. They parted under her gentle assault with a welcoming moan. Gabrielle leaned back as Xena carefully pushed her down into the mattress, hands roaming lightly over Gabrielle’s body.
Before things could go any further, a commotion sounded outside the door. Cassandra’s voice and someone else’s arguing and getting closer. Cursing, Xena stood, looking for a place to hide. Realizing there was nowhere to go, Xena dropped to the floor and rolled under the bed.
“Uncle Salmonius you really shouldn’t disturb her, she still needs rest!” Cassandra’s voice exclaimed.
“I’m sure you’ve already woken her with your loud voice, niece,” Salmonius ground out. “If the lady wants to inspect the merchandise then she can, especially since she has the right amount of dinars to facilitate things.”
“Fine. But she’s still not well enough to get out of bed,” Cassandra said stubbornly.
The door opened and Xena saw three sets of feet come to stand by the bed. She recognized the third set immediately: Callisto’s knee-high black studded boots and tensed. Now that Callisto had entered the picture, this would change things, Xena was positive.
“She looks healthy enough to me,” Callisto commented.
“Hello Callisto,” Gabrielle greeted, voice calm if weak. “Good to see you again.”
“And you, little Gabrielle. I see you’ve been put in your place finally. I’m so glad I caught wind of this little event. We’re going to have so much fun,” Callisto said, clapping her hands. “Where’s Xena?”
“Hiding under the bed, waiting for you to leave, where else would she be?”
Xena rolled her eyes in exasperation. It was just like Gabrielle to tempt the fates by saying that!
“Now Gabrielle, it’s no use being a sore loser. So when did you break up? What happened? Give me all the gossip!”
Xena saw Callisto come to the edge of the bed to sit down and held her breath.
“I grew tired of it. Always wanting to do the right thing,” Gabrielle answered.
“Not enough excitement for a woman like you, right? I told her that, well, something along those lines anyhow. You’re a conniving bitch who likes to make war and destroy everything in your path. At least, I think that’s what I said.”
“Well, you got the conniving bitch part right at least.” Gabrielle’s voice could have cut through diamonds it was so cold.
“Ooh, I think I struck a nerve. Gabrielle, dear, tell me just one more thing and I’ll let you sleep the rest of the night in peace. How does it feel to have your heart ripped out and trampled by the woman who’s supposed to love you the most? She’s a fickle bitch, isn’t she?”
Xena didn’t see what happened but the mattress dipped and there was the sound of fist meeting flesh and a struggle. It took all she could do not to leap out and tear Callisto’s face off. Cassandra started shrieking and Salmonius joined in and finally the two women were separated, Callisto dragged away by Salmonius.
The door slammed shut behind all three and after a long minute, Xena rolled out of the bed and jumped to her feet. Gabrielle was leaning back against the pillows sporting a newly split lip that trickled blood down to her chin. Shaking her head ruefully, Xena sat on the bed and used her finger to wipe away the blood. “You, my love, are not very good at taking insults.”
“Not from her,” Gabrielle muttered, wincing at Xena’s ministrations.
Xena brought her finger to her lips then licked the blood slowly off the tip. Gabrielle’s eyes were riveted to her. Moving forward, Xena gently licked the blood off the corner of Gabrielle’s mouth then deepened the contact into a kiss. Need thrilled through her to gather in her loins as their tongues played and twirled around each other.
There was a hesitant knock on the door and Xena growled in frustration, hearing the same protest rumble in Gabrielle’s chest. Although positive that Cassandra would be the only one to knock before entering, Xena nonetheless ducked around the other side of the bed.
“Come in,” Gabrielle called out.
“That was stupid of you to provoke her like that!” Cassandra exclaimed, firmly closing and bolting the door behind her. “Where’s Xena?”
Xena stood then walked around the bed.
“My uncle has decided that if Gabrielle is strong enough to put up that much of a fight then she needs guards. They’re on their way now,” Cassandra reported.
“Damn!” Gabrielle exclaimed.
“No help for it, love,” Xena said taking Gabrielle’s hand and pressing it to her mouth. She kissed the knuckles and continued, “We’ll figure this out. Don’t worry.”
“Who’s we?” Gabrielle asked.
“No one you know. I should go,” Xena said, standing rooted to the spot as Gabrielle’s hand pressed to her cheek.
“Yes, you should,” Cassandra agreed, interrupting the tableau.
Xena bent down and kissed Gabrielle’s forehead. “I love you. Be patient.”
Gabrielle gave a faint smile and nodded, raising a hand in salute and countered, “I love you. Be careful!”
Xena left the room, looking down both ends of the hall before returning the way she came. Now the real planning began in earnest.
Xena peered around the corner and saw the two guards standing outside Gabrielle’s door looking bored. It was late, well past midnight, and both yawned on a steady basis. It wouldn’t take much to subdue either of them. It was the night before the auction and so far this had been the only opportunity to get Gabrielle out. During the day she hadn’t even been able to gain entrance back into the castle. Nor had she been able to find Cassandra again, the girl being monopolized by her uncle’s “guests” every time Xena had tried to get to her.
Fingering her cane unconsciously, Xena leaned over and prepared for her diversion. She ambled into their sight, movements slow and awkward as she leaned heavily on her cane. The men came to attention upon seeing her and one of them turned to her. “What are you doing here? This area is off limits.”
Xena got within striking distance and said, “I’m lost, can you tell me where the maidservants quarters are?”
“I’ll say you’re lost,” the second teased.
As he turned to point down the hall, Xena slammed her cane over his head. He fell to the floor and she twisted back, catching the other guard in the face with her elbow, knocking him out cold. Stepping over their bodies, Xena opened the door and said, “C’mon Gabrielle, time to go!”
“I don’t think so, Xena,” Callisto answered.
Xena’s heart stopped upon seeing Gabrielle bound and gagged on the bed with a dagger to her throat; held there, of course, by Callisto. The woman’s angelic beauty was marred by the mad grin on her face as she looked back at Xena. “Hello Callisto.”
“Hello, Xena. Come and join our little party why don’t you?” Callisto offered.
Xena moved closer, mind racing as various plans presented themselves only to be discarded by the obvious danger to Gabrielle.
“I can see that you’re anxious to be reunited but I’m afraid that it just isn’t going to happen,” Callisto continued. “I knew that you would come for her. These lover’s spats blow over so quickly, don’t they? Not that we ever had any of course.”
“Callisto, we were never lovers,” Xena pointed out gently.
Brown eyes filled with confusion. “But we were, Xena, in the truest sense of the word. I cherished and protected and loved you all those years.”
How could Xena argue with logic like that? Xena buried the anger she felt at the woman who kept hounding them and tried to stay calm. “Callisto, I cared a great deal for you. You were like the daughter I was never going to have. You were very dear to me. But I didn’t love you the way you wanted me to, I can’t and I’m so sorry for that.”
Furious, Callisto rose from the bed and strode towards her. “How can you say that? You don’t know what would’ve happened if she hadn’t come along!”
“Yes, Callisto, I do know,” Xena tried to let her feelings come out in her words and eyes as she looked Callisto straight on. “But I don’t know what to say to convince you of that,” Xena finished. She was so tired of this game Callisto was playing. She could still feel the torture inflicted upon her by this woman vividly, all the pain and fear, even if they’d been locked into Morpheus’ realm at the time.
It was only because Xena watched Callisto so very closely that she was able to bring up her cane in defense when the massive sword Callisto carried swung at her out of the blue. Her cane was cut in half but it deflected the blow enough for Xena to jump out of harm’s way. Callisto came at her, sword slicing through the air to miss Xena each time by mere inches. Xena retreated until she saw the wall coming at her out of the corner of her eyes.
“No where to go, Xena,” Callisto exclaimed in that insane, singsong voice.
Her eyes were lit with an inner madness that sent shivers up and down Xena’s back. There was a loud thump that distracted Callisto for a split second. Xena tackled Callisto, sending them both to the floor. Pain seared through her side but Xena ignored it. They wrestled for long minutes and Callisto’s fist slammed into her wound, the blonde exclaiming in satisfaction when Xena cried out in pain. Finally Xena managed to get on top.
Xena’s hands closed around Callisto’s throat and she squeezed. Her vision blackened at the edges she was so focused on the slender neck between her strong hands. Flashes of the time she was at Callisto’s non-existent mercy ran through her mind. Wrath blossomed within, the embers she had so carefully banked bursting into a conflagration, urging her to destroy that which had so hurt her. That which would hunt her and her lover until it succeeded in their deaths.
A banging noise penetrated her hearing and Xena looked up to see Gabrielle’s wild-eyed face as her feet kicked into the bed-frame to make noise. Xena looked down and saw the last breath fade from Callisto’s mouth and her eyes close as Hades came for her. Releasing the throat, Xena waited. After an agonizing moment, Callisto drew in a ragged breath but remained unconscious.
Xena crawled off Callisto and went to Gabrielle. She pulled off the gag first then silently began on the ropes. When Gabrielle was free, Xena bent over holding herself and shaking with reaction at what she’d almost done. Gabrielle’s arms pulled Xena close, holding her head to Gabrielle’s chest.
“I almost murdered her,” Xena whispered.
“But you didn’t,” Gabrielle said firmly.
“I could have, Gabrielle, I was so close,” Xena said, looking up, needing to see those emerald green eyes. She now knew a small piece of the guilt and shame Gabrielle felt for the lives she had taken.
“She hurt you, Xena. She’s been hunting us for almost a year now. It’s natural that your anger would take over. You didn’t let it control you though, you stopped,” Gabrielle comforted. Her heart ached at the bleak pain in Xena’s voice and Gabrielle wished she knew what to say to make things better. But she knew that Xena had her own dark side and in this instance, it had almost taken over.
“I had no control, Gabrielle. You stopped me. If you hadn’t made that noise, I’d never have stopped in time,” Xena denied. She buried her face in the hollow of Gabrielle’s shoulder, breathing in the sweet soft scent of her lover. “I almost murdered her. I would have, I know I would have. I’ve only felt that kind of rage twice before. When my brother was killed and when I was maimed. I fear that rage so much, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle sighed and kissed Xena’s cheek, holding her tight. It was then she felt the warm stickiness on her hands and gasped. “Xena! You’re bleeding!”
Pulling back, Gabrielle saw that the side of Xena’s shirt was soaked with blood. So the pallor came from more than the shock and reaction. “Here, let me get your shirt off.”
Xena grinned weakly. “We don’t have time for that, Gabrielle.”
“Tease,” Gabrielle scolded gently, pulling off the shirt. Xena’s entire midsection was wound tightly with bandages but blood was seeping through. She carefully unrolled the bandages and immediately saw all the stitches had come undone. Gabrielle pressed Xena’s shirt to her side and ordered, “Hold this here. I’m going to tie up Callisto then we’ll fix that and get out of here.”
Xena held the shirt in place while Gabrielle took the ropes that had been the warrior’s own bonds and securely tied Callisto then gagged her. She felt reality start to blur as her blood slowly leaked out and she closed her eyes. Gabrielle opened and closed several drawers before Xena heard her exclaim in triumph. Then the bed dipped and Xena opened her eyes to find Gabrielle sitting again beside her, needle and thread in hand.
“I have to sew it shut,” Gabrielle said unnecessarily.
Gritting her teeth, Xena pulled away the bloody shirt and waited. A new fire pricked along her eyes as the needle went in and out of her flesh. She gasped in pain and Gabrielle paused. “No, keep going before I lose it.”
Gabrielle continued with her work and after a few more agonizing minutes, finished. Xena breathed through the pain, clenching her fists as Gabrielle searched for new bandages.
Coming back with only a new shirt, Gabrielle said, “We’ll have to use the old ones.”
Xena nodded and Gabrielle wound the cold and sticky linen back around Xena’s torso. “Remind me to take a bath as soon as possible,” Xena joked weakly as she pulled on the shirt.
Gabrielle grabbed the crutches Cassandra had found for her and gave one to Xena to use in place of her cane then started laughing.
“What is so funny?” Xena demanded, completely mystified.
“This is quite a rescue,” Gabrielle finally gasped out, green eyes twinkling with honest humor.
“Brat,” Xena scolded, a reluctant smile coming to her own face.
“C’mon love, let’s get out of here,” Gabrielle said, using her free hand to caress Xena’s face.
Peering out the door, Gabrielle saw both guards still out cold and gave Xena an admiring glance. “Nice job.”
“Thanks,” Xena answered wryly.
They hobbled down the hall, each grimacing with pain as they went. Xena led the way to the servant’s stairwell and they descended without mishap. Reaching the end of the stairs, Xena peered out of the door and saw this hall also deserted. They made it out of the castle without meeting up with anyone.
Gabrielle’s ankle was seriously starting to throb as they crossed the courtyard. Her head was almost keeping time to the beat her ankle was providing but she said nothing to Xena. They had to get out or it wouldn’t matter what hurt. It was as they reached a little used exit that the hue and cry was raised and men began running into the courtyard.
Xena swore, giving her crutch to Gabrielle and ignoring the pain in her old injury. They went as close to running as they could and met up with Joxer and three horses in the woods outside the castle walls.
“Who’s this?” Gabrielle asked curiously, taking the reins.
“Hi, I’m Joxer. I’m helping with the rescue,” Joxer answered. “I saw your capture then went to tell Xena about it and convinced her I could help.”
Gabrielle lifted an eyebrow at Xena who shrugged and grinned back at her. There was a loud explosion and the two women flinched, looking back at the castle. Men shouted and cursed into the night air, calling for water.
“That’s the armory,” Joxer explained, his grin getting bigger. “One thing my mother never could cure me of was playing with fire. Told you I’d be helpful.”
Xena chuckled and shook her head in amusement. “You did indeed, Joxer. Let’s get out of here before they figure out it’s a diversion.”
All three mounted and kicked the horses into action away from the castle. They tore through the trees, reaching the road in a short time. It was over two hours later of hard riding before Gabrielle called a halt. “I think we’re okay now.”
Xena was concerned at the pinched look of Gabrielle’s face in the moonlight. “Are you all right?”
Smiling wanly, Gabrielle replied, “Nothing a week of sleep won’t cure. What about you?”
“About the same,” Xena agreed. Her hand stretched across to touch Gabrielle’s and she gazed into the darkly glittering eyes for a long moment. Their silent communication was interrupted by an awkward cough from Joxer and Xena looked over to him.
“Well, I think you two are fine from here. I’m glad I could help,” Joxer said. “If you’re ever in Corinth, look me up, okay? I’ve gotta get going, my brother’s going to kill me for being this late as it is.”
“Thank you Joxer,” Xena answered. “We will.”
After he left, Gabrielle said, “I have no idea where we are but I hear water close by. Why don’t we set up camp?”
“Sounds good to me,” Xena said, nudging Argo in the direction of the water.
They somehow managed to light a fire a few feet from the edges of the small pond, both needing the warmth. Xena took out her medical bag and brought it to their sleeping roll then sat beside Gabrielle. “Okay. I’m going to check you over from head to feet before we go to sleep because I don’t know when we’re going to wake up again.”
Gabrielle smiled weakly at the joke then stripped with Xena’s help. Grimacing as her lover poked and prodded, Gabrielle held her silence until Xena had finished cleaning and re-wrapping all her wounds. “Your turn.”
Xena opened her mouth to protest but Gabrielle glared at her and she subsided. This time Gabrielle helped Xena strip and they took off the bloody bandages. She was satisfied that the stitches held during their hard ride and then carefully cleaned the area of dried blood. Taking the last bunch of bandages, Gabrielle bound Xena’s torso and said wryly, “We should just have someone make us a constant supply of bandages or something.”
Taking Gabrielle’s hand, Xena said, “That brings me to the reason all this happened in the first place. We didn’t really have time to talk about you leaving me.”
Gabrielle looked away, unable to think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound stupid. Finally she said, “I just want to be sure that you’re safe, Xena. You are my world, my soul. If anything ever…happened to you I wouldn’t be able to go on.”
A soft sigh escaped Xena and she moved closer, taking Gabrielle into her arms. “Gabrielle, we’ve had this discussion so many times. When are you going to believe me when I say that a life without you isn’t worth living? You don’t have to protect me, no, you can’t protect me from every stray blade that comes my way. It doesn’t matter whether we are together or apart, we are both targets; you of your past and me of mine. If something ever did happen to me, if I were to die, I would want you to go on and continue fighting for the greater good. I love you, Gabrielle, so much that my heart and soul overflow with it.”
Gabrielle buried her face in Xena’s shoulder and nodded raggedly. “I know,” she whispered. “I can’t help myself sometimes, though. I keep thinking how much better your life would be if we’d never have met.”
“I was only living half a life, Gabrielle. I’d been waiting for you without truly knowing what it was I waited for,” Xena said. Her hand reached under Gabrielle’s chin and lifted it up so their eyes met. Her head descended and their lips touched, gently at first then with greater passion. When Gabrielle’s arms tightened around her, pain seared through her side and she gasped, breaking contact without truly meaning to.
Ruefully, Gabrielle pulled back and said, “I think we’re going to have to hold that thought for a while.”
They lay down taking several minutes to find comfortable positions where they could remain touching. At last Xena rested on her back with Gabrielle directly beside her and their hands linked. Yawning, Xena asked, “Gabrielle?”
“Remind me not to visit Corinth in the next few months. A little bit of Joxer goes a very, very long way.”
Gabrielle echoed the yawn with one of her own and said, “Don’t visit Corinth in the next few months.”
“I thought so.”
The stars winked down at the two lovers as Morpheus lay his claim on both.
“Gods above, Xena, where did you learn how to do that?” Gabrielle gasped, her breathing ever so slowly returning to normal.
“I would say that I never kiss and tell except you know me better than that by now,” Xena answered with a grin. “It’s actually something I’ve been wanting to try, thought it up that night when you spilled your drink. It just took my fancy, the way the red stained through your shirt and made it almost see-through.”
Swallowing heavily at growing desire, (a redundant thought when it came to Xena, Gabrielle thought wryly) Gabrielle squirmed onto her stomach then cuddled against her lover, arm lying across Xena’s chest. She looked into the crystal blue eyes warm with love and satisfaction. ‘Smug satisfaction come to think of it,’ she thought with a silent laugh. Well, Xena deserved some satisfaction after that feat! “Xena, I need sleep.”
“It’s early yet,” Xena protested, pressing wet lips to Gabrielle’s cheek then traveling to the soft lips.
Gabrielle moaned against Xena’s demanding mouth, more from a desperate need to sleep than desire, though that was shooting through her as well. “Xena, please, I haven’t had a complete night’s sleep for the last week! Not to mention you’ve been extremely athletic of late, too. What is with you, anyhow? Not that I’m complaining but it’s exhausting!”
Rising up on her elbow, Xena frowned and answered, “I’m not sure. I’ve never been this…”
“Amorous?” Gabrielle supplied with a yawn. She grabbed wayward blankets and pulled them up. It was fall and sleeping nude without blankets, even in a tavern, was not recommended. Fortunately, her reputation had secured them a very clean room and bed and there were no bed bugs to worry about.
“Your vocabulary is improving very quickly,” Xena teased with a chaste kiss as a reward. She pulled Gabrielle into her arms and their legs twined together. “That’s it exactly.”
“Thanks,” Gabrielle said dryly. Her daily writing exercises and nightly reading had quickly become a running joke that the healer loved to tease her about. Turning the tables, as was expected, she continued, “Pretty soon you’ll be able do that flip without falling on your…”
“Watch it Warrior or you’ll be sleeping on the floor,” Xena warned sternly.
“Extremely lovely and well muscled posterior,” Gabrielle finished with a chuckle. Resting her head on Xena’s breast, Gabrielle repeated her question. “So why are you so amorous these days?”
Xena sighed and shook her head. “I don’t know. And I’m not going to question my feelings, I’m just going to go with them.”
“Lucky me,” Gabrielle murmured only half facetious. Feeling warm and secure in her lover’s arms, she closed her eyes and drifted into sleep.
“You look a little worse for wear.”
Not even opening her eyes at the comment, Gabrielle ordered, “Go away.”
“Is that any way to treat your old friend Autolycus?”
“I’m not in the mood,” Gabrielle warned, cracking an eyelid. The handsome thief leaned on the table, dark eyes warm with humor, his ready smile apparent. He’d been the only man to ever attract her attention in a favorable way during her conquest phase. She’d caught him trying to steal her sword as she’d slept. He’d started talking fast and hadn’t yet stopped.
“That’s not what I heard,” Autolycus observed with a grin.
Quick as a flash from Zeus’ thunderbolt, Gabrielle’s hand lashed out, knocking Autolycus’ hands out from under him. He pitched forward face first into a bowl of rice mash. Coming up with a sputter, Autolycus wiped his face and Gabrielle smirked for the first time in a long while. “So, Autolycus, what brings you to these parts?”
“If you’re through having fun at my expense, I think I’ll go and clean up,” Autolycus answered haughtily.
“Sit,” Gabrielle commanded.
No one argued with that tone of voice, not even the fabled King of Thieves, so Autolycus sat. He took the not very clean cloth off the table and wiped his face clean. “Fine but I’m not buying you a refill of that gruel.”
“Fair enough,” Gabrielle answered mildly. “What brings you to these parts, Autolycus?”
“It’s that healer you’re traveling with these days,” Autolycus answered, lowering his voice.
The one sentence was enough to bring Gabrielle all the way out of her sleep-deprived fog. “Spill it.”
“I may have inadvertently left something in her things. Something that drives women to…ahem…lengthy plays of passion,” Autolycus said delicately.
Emerald eyes narrowing, Gabrielle just stared at him.
“Yes, well, it’s like this. I was traveling through Athens last week, same time as you, and I was just paying my respects to Aphrodite when the loveliest little heart shaped pin fell into my possession. I, of course, immediately went to return it to the proper authorities when things became heated and the guards somehow thought I was stealing it. I saw your healer, recognized her from the stories going around these days, and dropped it in her satchel while she was arguing with a vendor.”
“Xena doesn’t argue with vendors,” Gabrielle corrected.
“Not very well at least. She was ripped off on the shirt you’re now wearing,” Autolycus said professionally.
“Mhmm,” Gabrielle grunted. “Anything else I should know about?”
“Not really. Just that if the pin isn’t returned, the woman who wears eventually goes mad with passion. I didn’t know it was cursed when I…when it came into my possession,” Autolycus exclaimed hastily at Gabrielle’s motion towards his throat. Closing his eyes, he cringed back and waited. When nothing happened, he peeked open one eye and was startled to find Gabrielle leaning back with a grin. ‘That healer really has changed her,’ he thought in wonder.
“What does the pin look like?” Gabrielle asked, contemplating the possibilities.
“It’s gold, encrusted with jewels and sparkles like you wouldn’t believe,” Autolycus described. He still wasn’t sure that he’d get out of this unscathed.
“Fine. I’ll make sure it’s returned.”
Quirking an eyebrow, Gabrielle asked, “You were expecting something more?”
“No, of course not!” Autolycus replied. “Unless, of course, you might see fit to release it into my custody and I…can…no I can see that would be a bad idea.”
“Right. I’ll see you later Gabrielle,” Autolycus said, clearing his throat. He beat a hasty retreat before Gabrielle changed her mind about his throat and her hands.
“Who was that?” Xena asked as a dark haired man left Gabrielle’s table.
“Just an old friend,” Gabrielle answered. “How are you feeling this morning?”
“Fine. Better than fine actually,” Xena said, sidling up against Gabrielle’s side. Her hand drifted down Gabrielle’s arms, raising gooseflesh as it went. She nuzzled Gabrielle’s throat with her mouth and whispered, “I’d really like to go back upstairs.”
Closing her eyes and praying for strength, Gabrielle said, “Xena, you are under a spell right now.”
Surprised, Gabrielle asked, “You do?”
Gazing into her eyes, Xena answered, “It’s a spell called Gabrielle and I hope it’s never broken.”
Groaning at the sentiment and the thing Xena’s tongue was doing to her ear, Gabrielle said, “No, Xena, I mean a real spell. One of Aphrodite’s belongings was slipped into your gear and it’s making you act this way.”
Pausing in her attack on Gabrielle’s cute little ear, Xena thought for a moment then shook her head decisively. “Nope. This is all me.”
“Have you seen a heart shaped pin, gold with lots of jewels on it?” Gabrielle asked, removing her ear from Xena’s possession by sliding away.
Obviously disappointed, Xena frowned and turned her head, bending it back to show said pin in her hair. “You mean this?”
“That would be it,” Gabrielle confirmed. She reached to undo it then stopped. Even touching it might ensnare her in its spell and then neither of them would be thinking rationally. Biting her lip, Gabrielle realized that she would have to leave it with Xena until they reached Aphrodite’s temple in Athens. Which was a two-day ride even moving at a hard pace on Argo. “We’re heading back to Athens.”
“We just left Athens,” Xena pouted, winding a short golden lock of hair around her finger. Her hand reached around and kneaded some of the tension from Gabrielle’s neck.
“I know but we have to return that pin,” Gabrielle said. She took Xena’s wandering hand and continued, “Once we return the pin, you can do whatever you want to me. Until then, you’ve got to keep your hands to yourself. Please?”
Lips pursed in a scowl, Xena was silent for a long moment then said, “Fine.”
“Is that a promise?”
“Yes, I promise to keep my hands to myself, Gabrielle.”
Staring at her lover suspiciously, Gabrielle had never won a promise from her so easily, she saw nothing to counter the seriously given promise. “Okay. Let’s go then, we’ve got a lot of riding to do.”
Something warm and wet slowly traveled across Gabrielle’s collarbone. Recognizing her lover’s touch even asleep, Gabrielle moaned and looked up into smoky blue eyes that fairly glowed in the moonlight. “Xena, you promised…”
“I haven’t touched you with my hands now, have I?” Xena pointed out.
“That’s not just what I meant and you know it!” Gabrielle exclaimed. Then she noticed that Xena was naked and licked her lips as her loins caught fire. Not only was she naked, there was a sheen to her breasts that Gabrielle knew wasn’t sweat. “What did you put on your breasts?” the last word came out as a squeak and she cleared her throat.
“Honey. Would you like some?” Xena breathed suggestively. She straddled Gabrielle then leaned forward, hands firmly behind her back, and lowered her breast to within licking distance of Gabrielle’s mouth.
Unable to help herself, Gabrielle opened her mouth to receive the bounty. Licking and sucking the sweetness off Xena’s breast set her blood on fire. She moved to the other hardened nipple, gently moving her tongue in long strokes over Xena’s soft skin. Xena moaned and Gabrielle was lost. She flipped Xena onto her back, tore off her pants and rubbed her sex into Xena’s.
Sealing their lips together, Gabrielle sucked in Xena’s tongue, opening both their mouths as wide as they would go. She desperately pushed and thrust against Xena, inner thighs slippery with their mingled release. Xena’s legs wrapped around Gabrielle and her hands went above her head, clasped together so as not to actually touch Gabrielle in any way.
“Harder, Gabrielle,” Xena moaned, eyes closed in ecstasy.
Grinding into Xena as hard and fast as she could, Gabrielle’s world exploded in a shower of silver lights as orgasm shook them both. Xena’s legs tightened a few seconds after Gabrielle collapsed on top of her. Gabrielle found herself captive to the larger woman’s strength as Xena began moving against her, hips thrusting up.
“More, please Gabrielle?”
Groaning with renewed need, Gabrielle raised up on one hand, clutching Xena to her with the other. With passion-induced strength, Gabrielle and Xena continued to move against each other until their shouts roused the birds from their nests in the surrounding trees. Three more times.
The temple was filled with beautiful things; jewels, golden statues, marble statues, flowers in full bloom. Gabrielle saw nothing as she leaned precariously against the wall. All she could do was stare vacantly into space while the priestess did whatever she could to break the spell binding Xena.
It had actually taken three days to reach Athens due to heavy rain on the second day. Each night had been exquisite torture for Gabrielle as Xena continued to drive her mad with pleasure. She’d kept her promise and never used her hands…not even when Gabrielle begged for them.
“You don’t look so hot, babe.”
Gabrielle recalled herself to the present and looked at a nearly nude woman with flowing blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes. She was tall and curvaceous and stood arrogantly a few paces away.
“Uh, hello? Anybody home?” the woman asked moving closer and waving a hand in front of Gabrielle’s face.
“I’m here, I just can’t move,” Gabrielle said flatly. “If I do, I’ll fall over.”
“Poor Gabrielle. I guess even too much of a good thing can be bad sometimes,” the woman commented.
“How do you…no, you know what? I don’t even care how you know my name,” Gabrielle said, eyes drifting closed. She was ashen from no sleep, little food and too much lovemaking.
“Well, I just wanted to let you know that the spell’s been released and Xena is sleeping it off,” the woman continued. “You should do the same.”
Gabrielle nodded but didn’t move. She really could not move a muscle. There was a sigh and then hands moved her into a prone position on something soft. Opening her eyes a crack, Gabrielle saw the blonde woman grinning at her. Connecting her brain to her tongue for something other than a caress, Gabrielle demanded, “What?”
“I also wanted to say thanks for the worship, babe. You and Xena are hot!”
Staring as the woman disappeared in a sparkle of golden stars, Gabrielle realized that she’d been talking to Aphrodite herself. She also realized she was far too tired to care and closed her eyes for good.
“We are just going to sleep, right?” Gabrielle asked warily. She stood a few feet from the edge of the bed where Xena lay invitingly in a demure shift under the covers. They’d returned from Aphrodite’s Temple earlier that afternoon and Gabrielle, refreshed from the catnap, had been starving. They’d had a long and early supper then retired upstairs to sleep for the night. At least that’s all Gabrielle was praying for.
Biting her lower lip to keep from smiling, Xena nodded and patted the empty space next to her on the bed. “Come here, Warrior, it’s time to rest.”
Sighing in relief, Gabrielle climbed into the bed and snuggled against Xena. She thanked whatever Gods, or Goddesses, who might be listening to be able to just lie with Xena and sleep. “Do me a favor?”
“Anything Gabrielle,” Xena answered immediately, holding Gabrielle close.
“The next time you want to kill me, please just use a sword or something? I don’t think I could go through that again.”
Xena chuckled and kissed Gabrielle’s cheek with a yawn. “Deal.”
Gabrielle looked at her lover with concern. As usual, Xena had been pushing herself too hard and it was starting to worry Gabrielle. Though sitting her horse, Argo, as though nothing was wrong, Xena’s eyes were unfocused as she gazed into the distance. The dark-haired woman had also been silent for most of the day, letting Gabrielle carry most, if not all, of the conversation. While no one could describe Xena as talkative, she had always responded to Gabrielle’s chatter with smiles and chuckles depending on the subject.
“Xena, are you all right?” Gabrielle asked hesitantly. When there was no response, Gabrielle walked closer to the horse and put her hand on Xena’s leg. “Xena?”
Starting in surprise, Xena’s leg kicked out. Gabrielle caught it easily, holding it fast in her strong hands. Meeting Xena’s blue eyes, Gabrielle repeated, “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, Gabrielle, just tired,” Xena answered irritably. She pulled her leg out of Gabrielle’s hands and replaced it into the stirrup. “Once we get to a town, we can have a good long rest and I’ll be back to normal.”
Which told Gabrielle that Xena didn’t feel well. Now really worried, Gabrielle nonetheless held her tongue. Xena wouldn’t ever admit to feeling poorly and if Gabrielle made a fuss over the healer, Xena would just retreat from her. It always frightened Gabrielle when Xena withdrew into her silent shell, the way she had been before they had met.
From all accounts that Gabrielle had gathered over the last six months of their travels together, Xena had always been a quiet but welcoming healer. She had kept to herself, visiting the various townships and villages close enough to benefit from her training. There was a reserve to Xena that hadn’t lent itself to fast friendship and the villagers had respected Xena too much to try and broach that wall of silence.
Gabrielle snorted silently, watching as Xena and Argo moved forward. If the villagers had truly cared for her, they might have seen how lonely that existence had been for Xena. Except for her family, and Callisto, Xena hadn’t truly had any friends. That name brought a darkening to Gabrielle’s thoughts as she remembered the blond warrior who’d nearly killed her. Discreet inquiries, without Xena around of course, had turned up that Callisto was indeed tracking them. For what purpose, Gabrielle could guess.
The last of the afternoon passed just as silently and when Xena finally dismounted from Argo, Gabrielle saw her nose was red and swollen. “Xena, if you’re sick we should keep going until we get to some real shelter.”
Xena shrugged off Gabrielle’s hand and stepped away. “I just need a good night’s sleep. It’s a case of the sniffles, that’s all.”
Hurt by the brush off, Gabrielle said, “All right. If you’re sure.”
“I’m sure,” Xena said firmly. Sighing, Xena took Gabrielle’s hands in her own and said, “I’m sorry I was short with you, love. I know you’re concerned but really, there’s nothing to worry about. Once we eat, we’ll just turn in and snuggle into dreamland, how’s that?”
Gabrielle smiled and squeezed Xena’s hands with her own then went to unsaddle Argo. Xena had finally talked some sense into the mare and Gabrielle no longer had to worry about being smeared with gunk from the horse sneezing on her. She had no idea how the horse had understood what Xena was saying but took it on faith since there hadn’t been any other episodes resulting in Gabrielle having to change clothes.
By the time Gabrielle had finished with Argo, Xena had a fire going and was sleeping close to it. Gabrielle smiled faintly and knelt beside the long form. She pulled the blanket over Xena’s shoulders and brushed hair from Xena’s forehead. Gabrielle bent over and kissed her cheek. “Rest my healer, in the morning we’ll find someplace better for you to get well.”
Not in the least bit tired, Gabrielle took out the parchment, quill and ink that she’d bought at the last market. Ever since her travels with Xena had started, Gabrielle had been rediscovering her love for the written word: both her own and others. She tried to write at least once a day, whether it was about what had happened during the day or describing her favorite subject: Xena.
When the moon had traveled halfway across her journey, Gabrielle yawned and finally put away her writing equipment. Rubbing her eyes free of the strain, Gabrielle grabbed her own blanket and settled down beside Xena. Gazing at her finely chiseled features in the moonlight and flickering firelight, Gabrielle wondered if there was anyone else as beautiful in the world. She seriously doubted it. Turning over, Gabrielle snuggled her back against Xena’s front and even in sleep, Xena’s arm went around Gabrielle to hold her tight.
A loud sneeze woke Gabrielle the next morning, as did the wet spray across the back of her neck. Restraining a groan at the early hour, the sun was barely up, Gabrielle turned over and found Xena holding her head. Immediately alert, Gabrielle put her hand on Xena’s shoulder. “Are you all right?”
Giving her a faint grin, Xena said, “You’ve been asking me that a lot lately, haven’t you? I’m sorry I was such a bitch to you yesterday.”
Gabrielle kissed her cheek. “Not a problem. You can make it up to me when you’re feeling better.”
“Thanks, love. Right now I’m so miserable I don’t even want to move,” Xena said. Her breath caught, hesitated, then another sneeze exploded.
“You poor woman. Is there anything I can do to help?” Gabrielle asked sympathetically.
“Unfortunately not,” Xena answered. She grabbed the handkerchief that she’d lain beside her the previous night and blew her nose. “It just has to run its course. Don’t worry, everyone gets the sniffles on occasion, even me, the mighty healer. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep going.”
“Xena, if you’re sick…”
“No, Gabrielle, don’t coddle me, please? I always feel like such a nuisance when I’m sick. It’s better if we just go and find the next town and stay there awhile,” Xena interrupted.
After a brief hesitation, Gabrielle nodded and stood up. “You rest and I’ll get breakfast ready.”
Xena held up a hand, looking suddenly green. “Not a good idea. Can we skip breakfast today?”
“Sure. I’ll just eat on the way,” Gabrielle agreed. “I’ll pack up and we’ll get started.”
The morning’s ride was punctuated by loud sneezes from Xena and head-held groaning. Gabrielle stayed close to Argo, ready to help Xena at a second’s notice if she got worse. The sky began to darken shortly before noon, clouds gathering quickly and the wind coming up fierce. Worried that getting wet would make Xena much worse, Gabrielle kept her eyes open for shelter from the coming storm but nothing appeared.
Gabrielle took out Xena’s rain-cloak and handed it up to the miserable woman silently. Xena took it with a slight smile and wrapped it around herself without a word of protest. Her face was pale and her nose chafed from the constant blowing and sneezing. Gabrielle’s heart went out to her. It was partway through the afternoon that the sky opened up and rain began to fall. It was a light rain, fortunately, and slid off the rain-gear Xena and Gabrielle wore. The time between sneezes grew longer and Gabrielle began to hope that the cold had run its course.
They came to a series of caves along the shores of a huge lake. Gabrielle hadn’t ever been to this part of Greece but Xena had heard stories about the beautiful countryside and had wanted to visit. Of course, not knowing how close they were to a town, or not, Gabrielle decided to take shelter in one of the caves rather than risk exposing Xena to more of the bad weather. She searched out a large one first, making sure that no dangerous animals made their lair inside. Upon finding it secure, Gabrielle returned outside and led Argo within.
Gabrielle helped Xena down and was shocked at how bad she looked. Her skin had taken on a pasty tone and her eyes were rimmed in red. Before she could say anything, Xena held up her hand to forestall her words.
“We had to find shelter,” Xena said simply, answered the unspoken demand.
Unable to find fault with the logic, Gabrielle scowled and said, “You. Stay. Here. I’m going to get a fire started. Then we’ll get you out of those wet clothes and cover you up good and warm.”
Xena saluted weakly and rested against Argo’s warmth.
Gabrielle made quick work of the chores and had the fire going within minutes. It helped that there was plenty of dry brush in the cave so that she didn’t have to go looking. As soon as the fire was roaring, she turned to Xena and helped the other woman undress, wrapping a blanket around the tall body and trying to rub some warmth into the cold limbs. Several sneezes later, Xena was dressed in her spare clothes and lying in front of the fire wrapped in all their blankets.
“You’re going to need to keep warm too,” she whispered weakly.
Gabrielle managed a reassuring smile. “I’m fine. I’ll just sleep with Argo.”
An even weaker chuckle; Xena knew how Gabrielle felt about the horse. “Just make sure you change if she gets the odd idea about sneezing on you.”
“I will.” Gabrielle watched as, within seconds, Xena’s eyes closed and she drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Gabrielle stripped, and pulled on her own spare set of clothes, which had also been snug and dry in the bottom of the saddlebag. She walked to the edge of the cave where she found that the rain was continued, even harder. Not knowing what else to do, Gabrielle returned to the fire and sat beside Xena, watching her carefully.
Her body felt as though it were encased in ice. Uncontrollable shivering possessed her, relieving her of the command of her own body. Her hand strayed against her stomach and she almost cried out at the painful, icy touch to her hot skin. Her bones and muscles ached and throbbed. Well and truly enthralled to a fever, then, was the thought that crossed her mind fuzzily. Opening her eyes, she saw that Gabrielle had fallen asleep sitting up, probably watching her, and smiled.
She brought her hands up to feel her throat and sighed in relief to find nothing swollen. Xena couldn’t tell from her own touch just how hot she really was, knowing that anything would feel hot to her cold hands. Her toes were frozen as well and she curled into a ball under the blankets, trying to get warmer. Her nose and mouth were dry for a change and she licked her lips, wanting something to drink but not wanting to move to get it.
Clearing her throat, she said, “Gabrielle?”
Green eyes immediately opened and locked onto her own. Worry etched itself in Gabrielle’s face as she said, “Yes? What’s wrong?”
“Could you get me some water?” Xena asked.
Scrambling to her feet, Gabrielle fetched the water skin and Xena struggled to raise herself onto her arm to drink.
“Wait,” Gabrielle said. She sat above Xena and gently pulled Xena onto her lap. “Let me help, Xena, please?”
Xena nodded and relaxed against Gabrielle’s strong legs. She let the smaller woman press the water skin to her lips and Xena drank gratefully. After pushing away the water skin, Xena asked, “Feel my forehead, how hot am I?”
Gabrielle’s hand rested lightly on her forehead and Xena jerked away from the cold touch with a gasp. “Well, either you’ve got cold hands or I’ve got a pretty bad fever,” Xena muttered, closing her eyes. She turned onto her side and rested her head on Gabrielle’s lap. “I’m tired. I’m just going to sleep for a little while longer.”
Darkness claimed her sooner than she thought and she tumbled down into the softness.
It was early the next morning, sometime before the sun rose, when Xena began dreaming into delirium. At first the coldness receded and she was grateful, sinking into a deeper sleep. Then the heat started to build within and sweat marked her body, clothes clinging to her with the dampness. She only vaguely felt Gabrielle holding her, like an echo that she couldn’t quite hear. Much more real and vivid to her was the colorful world in which she found herself.
Callisto’s command tent, a place she had visited often enough when the warrior was fighting against Gabrielle. Xena was lying on the soft pillows, held in an erotic embrace by the younger woman. Long blond hair teased along her sensitive body and a hot mouth pressed into her skin, tracing a path down her throat to her breasts, then further down to her navel. As tall as Xena, but slimmer and more delicate, Callisto’s brown eyes bore fiercely into her own blue ones.
“You are mine, Xena. That little whore Gabrielle will never truly love you as I do. She’s a murderer, Xena, a soulless murderer who has butchered hundreds in her quest for power. Can someone like that ever understand your needs the way I can? She’s only playing with you and when she gets bored, she’ll kill you and leave you.”
Xena shook her head, trying to think clearly. Between the heat inundating from within her body and Callisto’s mouth, it was very hard to think at all. A moan of pleasure escaped her before she could restrain it. There was something she should remember, half a thought that was trying to come forward but Callisto spoke again, banishing it.
“I’ve loved you since I was a girl, Xena. I helped you recover from your leg injury. I saved you from those bandits, do you remember? I’ve always been there for you. Aways. Do you think Gabrielle can claim as much? What’s happened to you since you left me, Xena? Always on the move, fighting against those who want the little bitch dead, never knowing when you will next find shelter. Never having a home. I can give you all that and more. Just love me, Xena and everything you want will be yours.”
Xena gasped as Callisto’s mouth latched onto her sex and her tongue slipped between the folds of her skin. This was wrong. Xena knew it was wrong. There was something holding her to this world of dreams because she knew it was a dream and yet could not wake up. After a few minutes of incredible sensation, Xena thrust Callisto away and rolled off the pillows. Standing on shaking legs, Xena gasped out, “I don’t love you, Callisto. Not the way you want me to. I love Gabrielle. She is my life and my home. You can’t give me what I already have.”
Eyes narrowing in fury, Callisto strode over to Xena and grabbed her by the neck. Her fingers dug into the tender flesh and began to crush. “Do you really think I will let you go without a fight, Xena? That bitch has cast a spell on you and I intend to break it! You’re mine and I will never let you go!”
Xena struggled against the vice-like grip but the hands were impossible to budge. She screamed for the one person who could help her. “Gabrielle! Gabrielle, help me!”
Gabrielle twitched awake at the first moan from Xena. At first she thought she was mistaken and stilled herself to listen. Then there was another moan, unmistakably the sound of arousal. ‘At least she can feel good in her dreams,’ Gabrielle thought with a smile. She turned onto her back and stared at the rocky ceiling for a moment then turned the rest of the way onto her side to face Xena.
Wet with sweat from the fever, Xena’s eyes moved restlessly behind their lids. Gabrielle lightly brushed hair from Xena’s face, staring at the face of her lover intently. It was rare that she got to watch Xena sleep, the healer was always the last to sleep and first awake no matter how hard Gabrielle tried. Her earlier worry rose even higher at the pale taint to Xena’s normally tanned skin.
Xena began to move restlessly and then to cough as though she couldn’t breath. Gabrielle heard her name in a panicked tone calling for her help and sat up in alarm, grabbing Xena by the shoulders. “Xena wake up! Wake up, it’s a dream!”
It seemed forever until the blue eyes opened and when they did, they stared unseeing passed Gabrielle. “Xena, can you hear me?”
“Callisto, let me go!” Xena’s voice was weak as her head moved back and forth.
Gabrielle knew then that Xena was gripped by delirium and the panic overwhelmed her. She’d never had to deal with this type of fever, had only heard about it from others. Those who survived its onslaught were never the same. “Xena, please, please answer me!”
Struggling feebly against Gabrielle, Xena tried to get away from her. “Let me go, Callisto, you’re hurting me!”
“You need to put her in the lake, the fever has overtaken her mind,” a new voice ordered from behind.
Gabrielle released Xena, jumped to her feet and grabbed her sword in the span of about five seconds, facing the intruder. It was a man, dressed in gray robes and holding a small bag similar to the one Xena carried. “Who’re you? What do you want?”
Kind brown eyes looked at her with sympathy. “My name is Semreh and I am a priest at the temple of Hermes. I was sent here to help Xena.”
Gabrielle regarded him suspiciously, not lowering her sword. “Why would Hermes want to help Xena?”
“She is important to him with her good works. She has always been a faithful servant to his cause of helping those in need. He needs her in this world, not in the Elysian fields. If we don’t drop the fever, she will die,” he answered quietly.
Gabrielle looked back at the twitching form behind her, torn between her ignorance and distrust of anyone wanting to help. Her love for Xena rose within, banishing her resistance to anything resembling help for the embattled healer. “That lake has got to be freezing. Doesn’t she need to stay warm?”
“The time for that is past,” he replied firmly, setting his bag down on the ground. “Her body is burning up from within and the only way to stop that is to submerse her in cold water, the colder the better.
Decision made, Gabrielle replaced her sword and walked back to Xena, about to pick he up.
“Undress her. The clothes will only be a hindrance,” Semreh ordered.
Gabrielle shot him a suspicious glare but saw he had that same, distanced look Xena got when intent on saving someone. That was what finally convinced her that he was for real and she gently pulled off Xena’s clothes. After wrapping her in a blanket, Gabrielle lifted Xena into her arms and left the cave, Semreh trailing after them.
Easily two stones’ weight heavier and much taller, Xena was heavy in Gabrielle’s arms. She hadn’t been fighting with broadswords and battle-axes for the last seven years not to have incredibly strong arms, however, and Gabrielle carried Xena without worry. The lake was a good distance away and took nearly ten minutes to reach. Stopping at the shore, Gabrielle asked, “Now what?”
“Just walk in there and keep her body submersed for as long as she’ll bear it, at least two to three minutes,” Semreh answered.
He helped pull the blanket from Xena and Gabrielle carefully toed off her own boots and socks before descending into the water. She gasped at the bitter cold that surrounded her but gritted her teeth and walked further. She halted at waist deep waters, slowly lowering Xena’s somnolent body into the icy grip of the lake.
The reaction was immediate and panicked. Xena shrieked in pain, breaking Gabrielle’s heart with the sound, and thrashed around so much that Gabrielle almost lost her grip. Holding tightly to the larger woman, Gabrielle dropped the rest of the way into the water, bringing them both below the surface for a brief moment.
“Gabrielle!” Xena’s scream was intense and filled with anguish when they broke back above the water. She was struggling fiercely to escape but was bound by arms of steel.
Sobbing with her seeming betrayal, Gabrielle continued to hold Xena in the water. Looking back at the impassive monk, she found him staring at her with compassion.
“Go under one more time,” Semreh called from the shore.
Bracing herself for the fight to come, Gabrielle dropped them again all the way beneath the waters. Her heart stopped in panic when Xena went still, collapsing against her, and Gabrielle shot to her feet, exploding out of the water. Xena coughed weakly, showing Gabrielle that she hadn’t accidentally killed her lover.
When she started moving back to land, Gabrielle found the waters dragging at her, clutching her numb legs with a strength she’d never before encountered. It took all her will to get them out of the water to stand beside the monk. He immediately draped the blanket around the both of them and helped support Gabrielle on the walk back to the cave. Without his help, Gabrielle doubted that she would’ve made it.
“Strip and then lay with her by the fire. Warm her with your body-heat,” Semreh ordered, starting to build up the fire.
“I th-thought we w-were trying to c-cool her off,” Gabrielle exclaimed angrily, placing Xena on the blankets by the fire. She had never felt so cold in her life and shook with it, teeth chattering to break up her words.
“We were but now her temperature is below normal and we need to bring it back to where it should be,” he explained patiently. “Not to mention that I don’t need you to get sick on me, either. I’m going to make medicine to help banish the rest of the illness.”
Scowling, Gabrielle stripped from her sopping clothes and curled up behind Xena, pulling two of the blankets over them. Pressing her chest to Xena’s back and twining her legs with Xena’s, Gabrielle snaked one hand under the healer’s neck to cushion their heads and the other around her waist to hold her tight. Weight dropped on them and Gabrielle looked in surprise at the monk who was dropping more blankets over them. “Th-thank you,” she said, still shivering.
He smiled kindly. “That’s what I’m here for. Rest now. I will keep watch over her.”
As though he commanded a spell, Gabrielle found the call from Morpheus to be more than she could fight against and drifted into sleep. She faintly heard him say, “Join in dreams, one to the other, banish the monster and unite together.”
“Did you like that, Xena? Would you like more?” Callisto asked, arching a lazy eyebrow.
Xena was bound, ropes wrapped tight around her entire body so that she couldn’t move. Callisto had spent an hour trying to drown her. When she had grown tired of the game, Callisto had her soldiers tie Xena with heavy ropes that cut into her skin. She was tired, sore and in pain from the many small cuts that Callisto had drawn into her before trying to drown her. “Why are you doing this, Callisto?” she asked wearily. She barely had the strength to speak.
“If I can’t have you, and it certainly seems as though you’re going to be stubborn on that point my dear, then she damn well isn’t going to have you,” Callisto answered brightly. She walked to Xena, then knelt beside the form on the floor. Her hand tenderly wiped the hair out of Xena’s face and she said, “Why do you love that monster, Xena? She’s like every other warlord that kills and rapes and brutalizes every village she comes across. You helped me when my parents were killed, murdered by one just like her. I’ve loved you ever since. Protected you so that you would never have to face anyone like her ever again.”
“Then why did you tell me where she was? You were the one to spare her life that first time,” Xena asked, honestly wondering what the answer to this.
Callisto slapped her, pouting. “I already told you that I don’t know. I think it was the Gods meddling or something but if I knew then what I know now, well let’s just say little Gabrielle would not be the thorn in my side that she is. Not only would she have died, but I would have made it slow and painful and end it with her begging for Hades to rescue her.”
Xena’s face stung from the casual slap but she held her tongue. How was she going to get out of this? Where was Gabrielle? Where were they that Gabrielle hadn’t found them by now?
“I know that look, Xe-na!” Callisto exclaimed with an insane laugh. “You’re wondering where the little bitch Gabrielle is, aren’t you? She’s never going to find us, Xena, never. We’re in dreamland. Ares has been kind enough to help me in my little quest to win you over. I don’t know why, but he seems to think you’d be a good team player.”
Despair fell over Xena at the announcement. So she’d been right at first, this was a dream. There was no escape from Callisto and her madness. For it was indeed madness that glittered at the back of those soft, doe eyes. Xena had always known that Callisto was a little unstable, that losing her family in such an awful way, and at such a young age, had caused the woman emotional harm. It had never occurred to Xena that Callisto had latched onto her as a replacement, though.
Not until Xena had tried to love someone else, that is and Callisto had reacted violently. Still Xena had dismissed it and gone blithely on her way with Gabrielle even though the warrior had obviously had second thoughts. If she ever got out of this, Xena was going to apologize to Gabrielle for doubting her.
“And what have we here?”
Callisto went rigid at Gabrielle’s easygoing question and Xena’s eyes sought out Gabrielle’s from across the tent but the warrior refused to look at her. Gabrielle stood in the door of the tent, dressed in her warrior’s armor and holding her giant sword easily.
“You!” Callisto shrieked, rising to her feet furiously. “How did you get here!”
Gabrielle shrugged, a smirk tugging at her lips. “Doesn’t matter to me how I got here. But I am here, Callisto, and I think it’s time we finished what we started, don’t you?”
That insane giggle erupted from Callisto again and she nodded. “Oh yes, Gabrielle, we definitely need to finish this.”
Xena watched, heart in her throat, as the two warriors clashed, swords drawing sparks upon meeting. The battle was much more vicious than the one outside her home all those months ago. Or maybe it was just that Xena now saw Callisto in a clearer light and knew that nothing would be held back in her attempt to kill Gabrielle. Not that Gabrielle seemed to be holding anything back in her own cold fury.
Xena had never seen Gabrielle like this before. Every movement was precise and icy, moving in and out so fast that it was hard to follow. The long, deadly iron was an extension of Gabrielle and Xena swallowed apprehensively at the unrestrained power residing within the smaller woman. Now Xena could see Gabrielle of Potedeia in all her glory, as she must have looked on the battlefield. This was the woman who had conquered almost half of Greece before being defeated: first by Callisto and then by Xena’s love.
Back and forth they ranged over the too-small tent, knocking furniture out of the way as they went. Callisto drew the first blood, slicing her sword across Gabrielle’s thigh. Gabrielle grunted with the impact but otherwise seemed oblivious, continuing to press her attack. Thrust, parry, thrust, block, slam, slam, slam against the sword before her. Slowly but surely, Gabrielle wore down Callisto’s insane rage and sword-arm.
Xena watched helplessly as the two women fought. The ropes were tight and she was unable to move her hands to even attempt to undo the knots. Then it occurred to her that this was a dream, however real, and that she could probably do anything. Closing her eyes to concentrate, Xena willed the ropes to loosen and then fall off her altogether. It took too long, her ears keeping track of the battle raging violently around her.
Finally able to move, Xena opened her eyes and stood up just in time to see Gabrielle send Callisto’s sword flying across the room. Just as Gabrielle’s sword descended in a killing blow that would have severed Callisto’s head from her shoulders, Callisto disappeared. Gabrielle spun around with the force of her blow, coming to a ragged stop and leaning on her sword. Breathing heavily, Gabrielle’s eyes met Xena’s and the healer cringed within at their coldness, staying where she was.
For several eternal minutes, Gabrielle stared at her unseeing, green eyes frozen in hate and blood lust. Xena quivered at their intensity, wondering that she could ever have thought Gabrielle cold. This kind of passion was something that drove people to kill, bound them to darkness and power. Slowly recognition returned to Gabrielle’s eyes and Xena began to breathe again.
She didn’t breathe well, however, because the blood lust glowing in Gabrielle’s eyes quickened her pulse and wreaked havoc on her senses. Throwing the sword to the floor, Gabrielle strode across the distance and grabbed Xena’s neck, pulling their mouths forcefully together and thrusting her tongue between Xena’s lips.
Unprepared for the attack, Xena stiffened and tried to pull away. Gabrielle’s hands were like iron around her neck, however, and Xena couldn’t move. If the truth were told, she didn’t really want to move. This was a side to Gabrielle she’d only dreamed of encountering. Xena had heard rumors about Gabrielle’s virility with those she conquered; willing or unwilling to start with, they always surrendered, screaming their pleasure in the end.
Xena knew that their lovemaking to this point, while always athletic and filled with passion, was not what Gabrielle was used to. Invisible boundaries had descended that Gabrielle was obviously unwilling to cross. It was something that Xena had been a little fearful of as well and so had been grateful that Gabrielle was willing to keep it in check. But Xena knew that to love Gabrielle, she had to accept every part of her. Here in this dream world, Xena surrendered to Gabrielle of Potedeia’s forceful demands.
Gabrielle released her hold on Xena’s neck the second she felt the surrender and pulled back to gaze at the supplicant. Flush with need and submission, Xena stood before her naked and waiting. A heady sense of power filled Gabrielle such as she hadn’t felt in many months. That this incredibly strong and beautiful woman would submit to whatever Gabrielle wanted to do moved her.
“Don’t move,” Gabrielle whispered. She saw goose bumps raise along Xena’s flesh at the command and smelled the other woman’s arousal. “You are my spoil of war, my prize for defeating that bitch, your mistress. Do you understand? I am your mistress now.”
Held spellbound by Gabrielle’s eyes Xena nodded.
Gabrielle moved closer, trailing her fingernails lightly up Xena’s arms and whispered, “I’m going to fuck you until you beg for mercy and then I’m going to fuck you some more. If you come without my permission, you’re going to regret it. Do you understand?”
Still wordless, Xena nodded once more, barely able to control the trembling need that kept her rooted to the spot. Already she was wet, almost dripping, just from Gabrielle’s voice. She didn’t know what she would do when Gabrielle touched her.
“Good.” Gabrielle pressed her hands into the full, heavy breasts. They always spilled out over her small hands and she loved the weight of them. She pinched the nipples between thumb and forefinger then squeezed the breasts again. She shoved her leg between Xena’s, grasping the taller woman around the waist to be certain she didn’t fall from the unexpected move.
Holding her tight by the waist, Gabrielle’s hungry mouth descended on the hardened nipples. She sucked on them, in turns gentle and rough, going between each with equal devotion. Xena shuddered and Gabrielle stopped, looking up into those compelling blue eyes. “Do I have to remind you of what I just said?”
Xena shook her head, still wordless.
“Clasp your hands behind your back,” Gabrielle ordered. When Xena complied, Gabrielle couldn’t resist a sigh as the healer’s breasts were thrust forward. “Perfect,” she breathed, renewing her assault.
While her mouth attacked Xena’s breasts, Gabrielle’s hands traveled down from the firm waist to the juncture of legs. Her fingers twined into the coarse hair, massaging then slipping into the hot wetness the hair tried to hide. Xena gasped as Gabrielle’s fingers found and played with her sex. Her other hand slapped Xena on the ass causing a sharp intake of breath.
“Stay with me, healer. Don’t you dare find release until I say so,” Gabrielle commanded. The blue eyes she so adored were closed, the full lips wet and open as Xena struggled to breathe against all the different sensations.
“Gabrielle, please,” Xena moaned. Everything Gabrielle was doing was driving Xena crazy. Her hips reached after the strong hand within her, her breasts ached from being suckled and bit, her backside stung from the hard slap.
“No. Wait for it and I promise you, Xena, you will find the Elysian fields you so deserve,” Gabrielle vowed. Ignoring the groan of disappointment that followed her fingers’ withdrawal, Gabrielle said, “Open your eyes, healer. Look at me.”
Xena’s eyes fluttered open reluctantly and her groan changed into a whimper as she watched Gabrielle lick her essence from each finger. Her knees weakened at the wicked smile on the warrior’s face and she swallowed heavily.
Gabrielle shoved Xena down to land on the cushions. Slowly, Gabrielle unbuckled and unhooked her armor, knowing how much this aroused Xena. She wasn’t sure why, but Xena loved to watch her undress from the leather and metal. Rewarded by the hooded look, Gabrielle momentarily forgot to breathe. Taking a ragged breath, Gabrielle let the leathers fall to the floor in a heap then walked to stand over Xena. “Your mouth, healer, now.”
Xena didn’t wait to be told a second time, immediately sitting up and latching her mouth onto Gabrielle’s sex, devouring her prize. Her tongue invaded the soft folds and she breathed in the musky scent. Gabrielle’s hands dug into her shoulders for support and Xena reveled in the way she could bring the warrior to her knees with this simple act of love. When Gabrielle dragged her head away, Xena growled in protest.
“Ah-ah, healer. I’m the one in command here,” Gabrielle gasped, restraining herself, barely. Raising her foot to rest on Xena’s shoulder, she gently pushed Xena back into the cushions then dropped onto her knees, one leg to either side. Lowering herself forward onto Xena, Gabrielle captured the soft lips with her own.
Tongues circled and played, teasing and demanding by turns. Gabrielle breathed in Xena’s breath then returned it passionately. Her hips moved of their own volition against Xena’s core, grinding against the other woman’s hot center. Strong legs surrounded her thighs and Gabrielle thrust and jerked against Xena. Opening her eyes, Gabrielle saw Xena’s face a mix of pain and need and suddenly remembered the promise she’d extracted.
“Come with me,” she gasped, her own release eminent.
Which was exactly what Xena had been waiting for. Her sex throbbed under Gabrielle’s forceful assault, her legs slick with the need that had been dripping from her. The words triggered the explosion and was driven on by the shuddering orgasm of the woman above her. Screaming wordlessly, Xena collapsed a split second before Gabrielle’s shout of triumph.
Gabrielle fell heavily on top of Xena, breathing hard. When she caught her breath, Gabrielle murmured, “I love you, Xena.”
Xena’s arms surrounded her, holding her tightly. “I love you, Gabrielle. Sleep now.”
Unable not to comply, Gabrielle snuggled against her lover and let her eyes drift shut.
It seemed seconds later that Gabrielle’s eyes opened and she looked around in confusion at the darkness. Where was the tent? Then she remembered that it had been a dream, that Xena was sick and burning up with fever. Though the body in her arms seemed a normal temperature, Gabrielle scooted up to look at Xena’s face.
“You look tired, love,” Xena observed with a yawn.
Tears came unbidden and Gabrielle bit back a sob of relief.
Xena’s hand wiped away the tears that fell and her eyes were worried. “Are you all right, Gabrielle?”
“I am now!” Gabrielle exclaimed fervently. She pressed against Xena, full length, and buried her face in the hollow of the healer’s shoulder. “I was so worried about you. You were delirious and I didn’t know what to do!”
“Hush, Gabrielle, I’m okay now,” Xena assured her, holding the small woman tightly. When Gabrielle began shaking with her tears, Xena became alarmed and sat up, bringing the warrior with her.
“It’s been a long two days for her,” a new voice said.
Xena’s eyes snapped to the source. She was startled to find Hermes present. “What are you doing here?” she asked, rubbing Gabrielle’s shoulders.
“I was helping out a little. There’s too much for you to do to let Ares win, especially in this manner,” Hermes explained. “I didn’t actually do anything, just told her what to do. She loves you very much, you know.”
Xena nodded, relieved that Gabrielle was calming down somewhat. “Just what exactly happened?”
“Ares and Callisto have joined forces. It seems they both either want you to themselves or want you dead. When you became susceptible to the fever, Ares strengthened its hold and held you to Morpheus’ realm while Callisto tried to keep you there permanently. If they had succeeded, you would be a lifeless body, your soul trapped. In any case, this brave woman went after you. I can hardly believe she’s the same Gabrielle,” Hermes commented, obviously impressed.
“I’m not,” Gabrielle said, turning away from Xena’s shoulder for the first time. “I’m not at all the same woman. Xena has released my heart. And enslaved it at the same time. I will do anything to protect you, Xena, anything. I love you so much.”
Xena looked into those green eyes, stunned by the magnitude of the vow, knowing that Gabrielle meant every single word. Her heart soared at the declaration and yet she was disturbed by it, too. Inside, Xena knew that she had the same inexorable need and fiercely protective instinct to save Gabrielle from harm. The intensity of her feelings was incredible and frightening. “And I, you.”
“I think I’ll leave now,” the god commented, feeling suddenly superfluous.
Neither woman acknowledged his discreet vanishing, eyes locked onto each other. After a timeless moment, Xena pulled the blankets back up over their naked bodies and drew Gabrielle down. Holding her close, Xena said, “Sleep now, love. We’re both safe.”
Warm in the cocoon of blankets and Xena’s naturally hot embrace, Gabrielle tried to crawl into Xena then rested her head on the soft pillow of her breasts and closed her eyes. For now, they were safe and she would take the chance to rest with her soul mate while she could.
“What are you doing?” Gabrielle asked, trying to suppress a grin. She scratched absently, and unsuccessfully, at an irritating itch under her armor.
Xena looked at the warrior from her upside-down position and answered deliberately, “I’m just hanging around.”
Gabrielle groaned at the visual pun and this time was unable to keep the grin at bay. Not that she truly wanted to. Being around the healer brought out the lightness within and it was something she truly enjoyed. Though even for Xena, hanging upside-down from a tree was a bit odder than usual. “Is there a particular reason that you’re just…hanging around?”
“Nope. Just felt like it.”
“I see,” Gabrielle said, though plainly she didn’t. Sitting on the ground in front of Xena, Gabrielle continued, “Do you think you might forsake that perch to sit here with me?”
“I might be persuaded,” Xena answered slowly.
Gabrielle could tell from the darkening redness in her lover’s face that it wouldn’t be long before she’d have to get down anyhow, but she played along. “And what might that persuasion include?”
“Perhaps a small bit of time just to ourselves? Maybe a few days off the road and in a nice, quite place where the fish jump out of the water?”
“Fishing? Xena, come on, we’ve been through this!”
For a woman with a bad leg, Xena flipped down to the ground and landed with amazing surety. Kneeling in front of Gabrielle, she exclaimed, “Please Gabrielle? This would be just some time for us, away from all the bad and evil in the world that we always seek out. It couldn’t hurt to find a little peace, could it?”
Gabrielle looked at Xena’s earnest face, blue eyes sparkling with love and pleading and knew that she couldn’t deny her anything let alone a fishing trip. Though it wasn’t her favorite smell in the world, skinning fish for a few days certainly wouldn’t kill her.
“Gabrielle! It’s beautiful!” Xena exclaimed, dismounting from Argo as they exited the forest. Before them lay a large, mirror-clear pond with mountains for a backdrop and wildflowers blooming everywhere. Here and there she spied ripples in the water’s surface, a sure sign of fish.
“I thought you’d like it,” Gabrielle said, taking Xena’s carved cane from its place strapped on the saddlebag and handing it to Xena.
She watched as Xena walked to the edge of the sandy shore, barely using her cane. Certainly she wasn’t using it as heavily as she had previously. Gabrielle wasn’t positive, but she thought that ever since Xena had rescued Gabrielle from Callisto, the healer had relied less and less on it. Almost as though the healer had proven something to herself and didn’t need it as a crutch any longer. Gabrielle truly hoped it was something that simple and that the leg really was “normal”.
Blue eyes caught green ones and Gabrielle’s breath was taken away from the love reaching out to her from the sapphire depths. She crossed the distance between them to stand at the edge of the shore beside Xena. Pulling Xena into her arms, she teased gently, “I need to take you fishing more often.”
Looking down at Gabrielle, Xena grinned and pressed her lips sweetly to the smaller woman’s mouth. She drew it out in a lingering exchange of barely banked desire before pulling back with the purr, “You should see me after I’ve caught the fish.”
Eyebrow quirked, Gabrielle murmured, “Really? Well, get to it then.”
Xena gasped at the playful slap to her backside, then laughter bubbled up and out, a melodious sound filling the air. “You are going to pay for that, warrior of mine!”
Grinning and totally unrepentant, Gabrielle said, “Promises, promises. Go have fun. I’ll set up camp for you.”
Xena kissed Gabrielle’s cheek before scrambling away to change into the old clothes packed in case of planned messiness (such as cooking) or the joys of fishing. Rummaging through the saddlebag, she pulled out the breeches and loose shirt and changed quickly. Xena had to fold the pant-legs up to her knees but the shirt held no sleeves to worry about. After an accidental singing episode in the kitchen several weeks ago, Gabrielle had insisted that Xena’s cooking outfit be sleeveless.
The water was cool but not so cold as to be uncomfortable for an extended stay. Xena moved further into the depths to get a better variety for dinner. Many fish swam passed her fearlessly and her crystalline eyes followed their paths avidly. Other than her eyes, however, not a muscle moved as her hands hovered above the surface of the lapping waves. She waited patiently for the perfect fish to find its way into her trap.
Gabrielle finished brushing Argo down and set up a fire-pit before turning to watch her lover at her favorite hobby. She grinned, remembering Xena’s confession to loving fishing. It had been at night, a few weeks after the rescue. They were resting comfortably on their blankets and the fire crackled lazily, giving off a lazy heat that both soaked in. Xena had finally declared Gabrielle well enough for them to start traveling again.
“What are you thinking about?” Gabrielle had whispered, hand caressing the dark, silky head resting on her shoulder.
“Nothing,” Xena had replied.
“You were thinking about something,” Gabrielle countered, knowing the tone of Xena’s voice almost better than her own.
Xena had sighed then shifted so that she could bury her face in Gabrielle’s shirt. “Mmrph hrmmp fishmph.”
Gabrielle had frowned and said, “I could’ve sworn that you just said you wanted to go fishing.”
Pulling back, obviously embarrassed, Xena said clearly, “I did. I love to fish, Gabrielle. It’s the most exciting thing in the world! Standing in soothing waters, pitting your reflexes against the quickness of the fishes, measuring your patience against their daring to brush passed you. It’s a complete wonder!”
Gabrielle’s mouth had dropped open at the passion in Xena’s voice as she espoused the most boring thing in the entire world. Dumbfounded, she’d only been able to say, “You like to fish?”
Halted by the disbelief in Gabrielle’s voice Xena had replied, equally as astonished, “You don’t?”
“Um, no. Xena, it’s…” Gabrielle’s voice trailed off as the look in her lover’s eyes reached her, even in the stuttering firelight. Quickly rethinking what she’d been going to say, Gabrielle had finished, “It’s not something I’ve ever really tried before.”
“Really? Oh Gabrielle, you’ll love it! We have to go fishing sometime soon, before winter comes again. Although…I’ve heard that some people fish in the winter by cutting through the ice and sitting on a small stool with a pole and string. That could be very exciting!”
Horrified at the very thought, Gabrielle had quickly said, “But winter’s a long way off. Sometime soon we’ll have to go fishing.”
And until a couple of days ago, Gabrielle had been able to avoid fulfilling on her promise. During her varied career of war and aggression, Gabrielle had fought and defeated warlords, been injured countless times and even tortured on occasion. None of that compared to the horror she anticipated in spending days on end in one spot, waiting for a slimy fish to swim by for her to grab.
But now, as she watched Xena, Gabrielle shook her head in loving amazement. Her partner stood completely still, her head cocked to one side as though listening to the movements of the fish in the water. Inky black hair glinted in the sunshine, the tips of silkiness drifting in the water as an added temptation for the fish. Hands hovered motionless above the small waves, waiting with infinite patience for…well whatever Xena deemed an appropriate catch.
The ever-present love that constantly filled Gabrielle blossomed forth as she pulled off her armor and settled it off to the side. Removing her sword and daggers and placing them beside the growing pile of metal, Gabrielle’s gaze again centered on her lover. They had been through so much together: near-death, severe injury, emotional devastation and abandonment, love and passion so intense that Gabrielle had been positive she would die. Nothing in her life had prepared her for the persistent ache in her heart at the mere thought of Xena, let alone the sight of her.
Standing in the sun, Gabrielle didn’t feel the light or heat from the sun, everything was eclipsed from view save the vision of her lover.
It was then Xena moved, faster than lightening. Her hands plunged into the water and pulled out a huge, fat fish that flapped mightily trying to escape and return to the waters from which it came.
“Gabrielle! Catch!” Xena shouted triumphantly before throwing the fish at Gabrielle.
The fish hit Gabrielle square in the face, tail slapping at her as it tried to get away. Gabrielle’s hands grabbed and missed, grabbed and missed and grabbed, finally latching onto the slippery scales with something akin to a firm grip. But not before she’d gotten a mouthful of dirty water-weed and slime. Sputtering, Gabrielle threw the damned thing into the fire pit then speared it with her remaining dagger.
Wiping a hand across her face, Gabrielle spit several times to get rid of the gross taste left by the fish’s acrobatics.
A war-cry bellowed from Xena, startling Gabrielle so much that she spun towards her lover…and got another fish in the face. This one was slightly smaller but just as full of fight but she managed to keep her mouth shut before killing it and throwing it to join its brethren in the pit.
When she looked again, Gabrielle saw a broadly grinning Xena wading out of the pond, a huge fish trying to battle her for freedom. An insane look was in the blue eyes and Gabrielle suddenly found herself very thankful she wasn’t of the aquarian persuasion. Mouth gaping, she watched as Xena beat it into submission before tossing it into the pit with the others.
“We’re going to eat well tonight!” Xena exclaimed, eyes glowing. “Wasn’t that exciting? I told you that you’d love it!”
There was silence because Gabrielle was still too stunned by her lover’s bizarre behavior to think of a coherent response.
“Gabrielle? Are you okay? Gabrielle?” Xena snapped her fingers in front of her lover’s dazed eyes.
Gabrielle’s jaw clamped shut with a snap. “It was…I can’t think of anything to describe it,” she said honestly.
Xena planted a big, wet kiss on Gabrielle’s lips, pulling her into a rough embrace. When she released Gabrielle, Xena agreed, “I know. It’s just too incredible for words.”
Gabrielle covertly eyed Xena from across the campfire. The healer was laying on their bedrolls, staring sullenly up at the sky. It was their third night by the pond and Gabrielle was convinced that the healer had completely lost her mind.
The second day had started out as a nice, quiet one. The fish had, however, learned from their now eaten brothers to stay away from the enticing hair on the edge of the water. Xena had spent most of the day in the water waiting for the fish who wouldn’t come. By the end of the day, she was irritable and moody and Gabrielle kept her head buried safely in a scroll.
Today had been almost as bad. It wasn’t until late afternoon that the fish had again, cautiously approached Xena. She’d caught a number of them in quick succession and this time, Gabrielle had been prepared. Keeping herself occupied during the previous day had proven easy enough as she wove a small bag to catch the fish in. So when the fish began to fly, literally, Gabrielle had played a long game of, “Catch-the-fish-in-the-bag”.
She’d gutted and skinned and de-boned until her hands were raw and still Xena wouldn’t leave the water. It wasn’t until full dark that Gabrielle had been able to persuade her lover to exit the pond. Gabrielle didn’t even need to bring her hands near her face to smell the scaly scent left upon them.
“Maybe you should try another approach tomorrow? Maybe that…pole…thingy…that,” Gabrielle offered tentatively. Twin blue daggers speared her from across the fire and Gabrielle swallowed heavily. “Sorry.”
Gabrielle watched for a brief time as Xena whittled herself a pole the next morning. “Um, if it’s okay with you, I’m going to explore the area. I think I remember there being some hot springs around here somewhere.”
An uninterested grunt was her only acknowledgement and Gabrielle shook her head in amazed amusement. Xena was nothing, if not single-minded. Perhaps she could find something to take Xena’s mind off fishing.
Xena heard Gabrielle’s words but she was a woman with a mission and only grunted in response. The pole was a new idea to her. She looked around for something to tie to it and the only thing that came close was Argo’s tail which she dismissed. Argo would not be happy if she yanked out a tail-hair. Then she remembered a shirt of Gabrielle’s with an unraveling seam and grinned. Gabrielle would understand.
Settling herself on the bank of the pond, Xena cast the long, triple-folded-for-strength string and waited. While she was waiting, Xena closed her eyes and basked in the warmth of the late summer sun. Her mind roved over the last few months and her heart began to darken. After rescuing Gabrielle from Callisto, they had spent over a month in Xena’s old home to allow Gabrielle’s wounds to heal.
Fear clutched Xena as she remembered how close she’d come to losing Gabrielle to her injuries. The head injury had been the worst, naturally. Once they were safely away from Salmonius and Callisto, Xena had performed a thorough examination of Gabrielle and had found a place in the back of Gabrielle’s skull that actually moved under gentle pressure from her fingers. The bastards who had captured Gabrielle hadn’t taken any chances that the former warlord would be able to fight in any way, shape, or form. They had battered her into unconsciousness time and again until even the strong warrior had to succumb and her skull had given way.
Xena still counted every blessing that there hadn’t been permanent damage.
The ankle and ribs she had merely set into place. There was nothing further to be done for them except watch to be certain they healed properly. But the head injury. There had been headaches and dizziness, near blackouts and nausea for weeks after. Xena had never prayed so hard in her life even though she knew the Gods and Goddesses were turning a deaf ear. She couldn’t help herself.
If Ares had shown up with an offer, Xena shuddered to think what might have happened.
Eventually the wound had healed and the dizziness and nausea went away. Gabrielle had returned to her former health though she didn’t heal as quickly as Xena. Xena marveled at the sheer force of will that had brought Gabrielle back to her. She remembered one of the long, seemingly endless vigils in particular. It was at night, as always, and Xena was so exhausted that she might have welcomed help even from Joxer. Gabrielle turned restlessly and fevered in their bed while Xena sat tensely in the chair just beside the bed.
“You know that she might not recover.”
Xena didn’t turn at the entrance of the Goddess of Love, keeping her eyes on her lover.
“I want to help you two but the others have forbidden it. If it were just Ares, I would totally ignore him and heal her in an instant. You two are like a walking advertisement for me, after all. But Athena and even Zeus are backing him up this time and I can’t go against all three of them. I’m so sorry, Xena.”
A gentle hand lay on Xena’s shoulder and a healing warmth spread through her body. “But they didn’t say anything about helping you, Xena. It’s all I can do, I wish it were more.”
The hand had withdrawn and tears had slipped through the wall of Xena’s control. “She can’t die, Aphrodite, she can’t! I need her too much.”
“Oh sweetie, I know, I know!” Aphrodite embraced her and Xena buried her face in the Goddess’ shoulder, heavy, wracking sobs attacking her so that she had to cling to the Goddess for strength.
Xena couldn’t remember how long the Goddess had held her but it was then that she knew there was no way she could live without Gabrielle. She was weak, Xena knew that without a doubt, she was pathetic and weak but she knew that as sure as Apollo traveled through the sky, if Gabrielle were to die before her, Xena would find a sword and fall on it that very day.
Eyes opening with a start, Xena saw that more than half the day was gone and Gabrielle hadn’t returned. “What in Hades am I doing?” she wondered aloud.
Standing, she threw down the pole and searched out Gabrielle’s trail. It was easy enough to find, the warrior hadn’t been trying to hide her tracks, after all, and Xena followed them towards the mountains. It was in a clearing that she found the warrior laying amidst the tall grass and taking a nap. Smiling in relief, Xena moved closer and saw Gabrielle was well and truly asleep.
Cautious about startling her lover out of a deep sleep, remembering the few times she had done so and ended up accidentally with strong hands around her throat, Xena lay beside Gabrielle. She cuddled up to the smaller woman, wrapping her long legs over Gabrielle and resting her head against a soft breast.
The afternoon sun and monotonous buzzing of insects lulled her into sleep as well. It was a gentle caress of mouth sucking and kissing her throat that woke her and she smiled into wakefulness. Yawning, she asked, “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
Gabrielle was leaning on an elbow, looking down at her with a content expression. “To the fact that you came and found me.”
Reaching up, Xena caressed Gabrielle’s cheek with her hand, the sharply angled face leaning into her palm. “I’m sorry I’ve been so…preoccupied the last couple of days. I should have remembered this was supposed to be our time together.”
“At least you remembered,” Gabrielle assured her. Laying back down, she pulled Xena’s arms around her. “And look at it this way, we’ve got enough fish to provision us until Tartarus freezes over.”
The laughter that overtook them both at the statement was a deep, belly laugh and soon they were in hysteric fits, holding each other and shaking with merriment. When they finally calmed down enough to talk, Gabrielle said, “Whatever you need to do, Xena, I will always be with you. If that means fishing until you’re all fished out, then I’m just happy to be by your side while you do it.”
Xena wiped the wetness from her eyes and said, “I love you Gabrielle, but I also know that you hate fishing, not matter how sweetly you try to hide it from me. So don’t worry, I’ll limit my outings to day trips and fishing for food.”
The relief in the warrior’s voice was so apparent that it sent them both into more fits of laughter.