sequel to The Storyteller (this story is unfinished)
FINAL DRAFT: 12/14/99; MIDNIGHT
Disclaimers: Uber SAME SEX angst and LOVING AHEAD.
BIG OLD WHOPPING THANK YOUS TO MY BETA READERS! Once again you folks have done a miracle.
In the third year of the Conqueror’s reign, it was believed that nothing could overcome the evil that was Xena.
She ruled so harshly, so crushingly, that her heart was thought to be made of the very stones that fortified her castle. The warrior’s battle cunning was legendary in its complete and devastating viciousness.
She was a woman given to the fire of war and vengeance. The people knew the ruthless Empress to be inhuman. It was rumored that she drank the blood of her enemies for strength and ate their hearts for recreation, and everyone believed this.
She was the chosen of the God of War. This also, everyone believed.
The rumor was that the God and the Conqueror shared more than an interest in battles. Some said she was his daughter, and this explained her incredible strength and agility of body. Some said she was his lover, and this explained the constancy of her successes. Some said she was both, and hence she had an incomparable and deadly charm.
But, whatever the case, all knew that Ares rejoiced in her. More than one battlefield streamed crimson during her rule.
It could be said that she was fair, only because all who failed her justice eventually shared the same fate; death.
No one escaped her angry whim. No sin was too small for her to render a bitter and deadly punishment. Crosses littered the grounds outside her city walls in fields that were meant for the farmer’s labor. The scourging post was stained with the rust of blood.
She was more fearsome in her carnage than any wild creature of the wood. She played with her victims, more cruel than a cat with a mouse. Torture was a game to her, one that she always won. The cries of the tormented soothed her in her baths.
Despite the inherent dangers of living under her rule, not all the governing lords were her enemies. Xena was careful, after winning her lands, to keep the best and most malleable talent. She used whatever means necessary, but she was a cunning, wary creature. Xena was not hesitant to destroy those she thought to be hidden snakes that might bite back.
Therefore, all feared her. They feared her power and her allure. They feared her wrath. Her servants were especially aware of the inherent danger of their livelihood. The peasants outside her keep suffered, perhaps even starved, for they were kept poor by the army that Xena led, but it was worse for the people who attended to Xena’s whims.
The paid staff of her entourage were little better off. Her people earned the wages of their keep and slowly, ever so slowly, made their way to freedom from her service. If they lived.
Cooks disappeared from the kitchens if she was dissatisfied. Strange meats that no one would touch to their lips could be found in the cold-rooms on those days. Musicians lost their ears and tongues at her humor. Jugglers lost their hands if they couldn’t keep up with her. She was a strange perfectionist, capable, it seemed, of doing almost anything.
Tax collectors, who seemed to be more like creatures of Tartarus than of humanity, made sure that all paid their portion to support the battles that were fought to maintain the new Empire. If a little more fell into their own pockets all the better. If Xena found out, however, woe unto even those broad-shouldered ruffians. If there was anything she loathed more than a sniveling commoner, it was any sort of perceived disobedience.
She expected the people to revolt. After all, they had been conquered and she didn’t expect their love. But those under her command suffered worse than the commoners if her word was defied or if Xena found her golden coffers a little emptier for the greed of some man. Betrayal did not suit the Warrior Queen. Flaying was well within her repertoire of punishments, and the violators of her, “trust,” paid in their flesh for that which was lost.
She was a hard mistress. Xena demanded demonstrations of fealty from those who claimed to be loyal to her. It was not unknown for brother to slay brother at her soft-spoken command. She held gladiatorial combats, disguised as entertainment, to make sure that only those who were most proficient at killing became her guards. Those who knew the more subtle arts became her assassins. She was famed for her prowess. She had an enjoyment of contests, which she would sometimes join. She was strong and quick and deadly. She used any weapon handy with uncanny skill. Despite her fearsome ways, the common soldiery adored her. Those who won their place in her army both craved and feared the prize of her favor, even if their education came at a cost.
And the slaves? If they had their lives, they were grateful and lived for her pleasure. If they were fortunate, and if she was very pleased, they might gain their freedom. If not…death was a kindness.
Then something changed.
On one hundred and fifty-first day of the fourth year of the reign of Xena, Conqueror of All the Known World, a new law was declared.
Where once, all suffered a similar fate for their crimes, now the punishment was to be made to fit both the crime and the individual. From then on, it was possible for a happy few to survive the justice of her courts. At those times, the divine punishment became one of obligation and servitude, rather than instant death. Guards of the prisoners were commanded to treat them with…if not respect, at least better than in times past, or else they would suffer Xena’s wrath. The proclamation was sent from city to city and region to region.
Welcome as this proclamation was, strange rumors accompanied it. Rumors of a mysterious woman who had suddenly appeared within the Conqueror’s court. She was known as Gabrielle of Poteidaia, of peasant stock, and as a very vocal inciter to rebellion.
She had been captured by Xena’s men in Corinth and jailed for her efforts. The judgment by Xena was swift, as all her judgments were. By the Conqueror’s command, after the troublemaker was hung upon a previously used cross, a sturdy hammer blow crushed Gabrielle’s legs. Then she was taken to the fields, to become one of many sufferers. She should have died in agony.
Amazingly, she did not.
Of the peasants, most preferred to believe Gabrielle was sent by the Gods to tame the beast. Some thought she had been sent back by Hades because the Fields were overflowing with the dead, but there were too many others who’d succumbed to Celeste’s, the Goddess of death, gentle hand. Others, who believed in the Gods less, said that someone must have come for her, bribing her freedom from the field’s guards, and that she was crazy to have gone into the viper’s nest. There were whispers of a deadly game of words that she played with the Empress night after night. There was a guarantee of death if she failed. Surely Gabrielle would die soon. No one, besides the Conqueror, was that skilled.
Still, she was one of them, brought into the heart of Xena’s court, and the people knew that somehow, since her descent from the cross, there had been a miraculous easing of the burden that had pressed upon the citizenry. When the people saw her sitting in the tavernas and listening to the tellers, most treated her with the respect of wonder. Her survival was a puzzle that only the Fates could unravel.
For firstcomers, it was always a surprise to see her. She was more beautiful in person than they expected. Her hair was the color of flickering fire. Her skin was fair, and her lips formed sweetly. She was spirited and gifted with words that carried a wisewoman’s weight. No one doubted that the flame of her heart was still there, but her ways had changed. She was quieter in the telling. She roused people to a different kind of subversion — one that didn’t require them to take up arms against the Conqueror, but rather to find better ways of living.
As one who had nearly lost her life, she emphasized the beautiful things in it. She told them simple and clever stories, inspiring barkeeps to honesty and craftsmen to pride. She was listened to. She was discreet. Despite the fact that she was suspected to be Xena’s lover, the people trusted her and, if they could manage their way past her vigilant guard, would say things to her in hopes the information would reach the Empress’ ears in one form or another. She was THE storyteller. They listened when the Conqueror sent word through her . . .and believed.
There were those in the court who hated Gabrielle’s presence. They speculated and hoped that she was just another of Xena’s games, and that soon the Conqueror would lose interest, but in the meantime, things changed quickly and too much. Those dissatisfied ones became short-sighted, blaming every lost battle upon the bard. Privileges they’d come to expect, rewards in human flesh that they claimed for themselves, seemed to slip from their grasp. It made for disgruntlement among the rougher crowd and the higher ranks alike. They prayed the storyteller would make a mistake one day, failing in her quest, and like other servants before her would be killed in a most gruesome way.
But woe to those who said such in the presence of the Empress.
Quiet plots were begun in the hidden places of the court. Xena was losing her edge, they said. . .but, not where the Conqueror could hear them.
Those who made the mistake of publicly trying to persuade Xena to lose her bard for the sake of her empire found themselves burdened with insultingly menial duties. They never realized that they owed their lives to the smaller woman they so despised. It was her words that gentled the Conqueror’s wrath. Then again, those who were so open were not the ones Xena let herself worry about.
The caveat was that they were warned only once. The next insult toward Gabrielle promised death.
She’d already carried out such an oath, continuing to follow in her path of swift and irrevocable justice. The chakram had made such a fine cut along the neck that at first, no one realized that anything had happened.
Then the head fell off, making an even finer bloody example for her courtiers.
It was proof that, despite those whispers, Xena had not lost her edge. Or her keen hearing.
The lords might say what they would, but few of the servants in the castle complained. They would have been fools if they had, and if they were smart, like Vidalis, they put every effort into helping the woman keep Xena’s pleasure. Through her presence, the woman named Gabrielle, who kept a sunny disposition despite her desperate and obvious pain, had made life just a little easier.
Meanwhile, those scholars, mathematicians, and philosophers who had survived the first of the Conqueror’s reign prospered after Gabrielle’s arrival. Despite their fear of the flail, for the bard they happily drove themselves to discover new things to fascinate the Conqueror or to provide her new “toys.” It was easier now that they knew they might survive a failure or two. There was a palpable rise in production once Gabrielle was able to convince the Empress of the value and difference of unwasted, willing service.
Accountants also began to earn the Empress’ favor. Her sharp eye caught any error, but accurate books were handsomely rewarded. Other servitors began to thrive in her presence. Capable serving maids became treasured and were given opportunities to enhance their experience.
Even during the worst part of her scourging past, the Empress, it turned out, had been oddly compassionate to those who were truly slow of wit, never using them as clowns for others’ entertainment. She had not considered it sporting.
Their lot improved also. If they were capable of holding a tray and not spilling, they were rewarded with a shimmering smile and kind word that made them stand straighter and try even harder. The Empress did not abide unwarranted cruelty to those slower ones who served in her court.
During the change, the servants found that even the lowest stablehand had a chance at success. This did not mean that dealing with Xena became easy. She could turn cruel instantly, and her eyes remained dangerous to politicians who sought to manipulate her. Still, despite her harsh ways, she was mostly fair, sometimes even generous, in her compensation. But it was common knowledge that it was far too easy to lose one’s soul to her.
In time, the change in policy reached the ears of the Empress’ most loyal and humble servant, Lao Ma, Regent of the Kingdom of Chin.
In days to come, stories would be told of the powerful and immortal Lao Ma. “It was she,” the wisemen, after much study, would say, “who wrote the Book of the Way.” She hared credit for the inspiration with her learned, elderly husband. It was a known fact that they were equals in all things. For this reason it was believed that Lao Tsu and Lao Ma walked together in the heavens. Before her own ascension to the heavens, however, Lao Ma was simply a woman of authority; one of the Conqueror’s favored.
The honored one was comely, wise, and intelligent. Her hair was long and shimmery dark, her almond skin was perfect, and her eyes revealed a beautiful soul. She was capable of a great many admirable things. Her manners were impeccable. She knew her lineage and was a credit to her ancestors. She was educated and skilled.
It was believed that the objects of the world bent to her will, but she was a woman of great serenity and used her power with meekness. The monks admired her for her understanding of the Way. Despite her peaceful demeanor, however, it was known that she was a dangerous foe. Few dared to try to take the rule from her, for she was master of her art.
Now Lao Ma, unlike others who claimed to be in Xena’s service, was given some latitude in the governance of her people. The freedom to rule as she pleased was a rare gift from Xena, an acknowledgement of times past. It could be stated that up to the time of change, Chin was the only land that thought of Xena as a Great Empress. That was what Lao Ma wished, despite her current disappointment in the Conqueror’s ways. Xena was, after all, her Warrior Princess. The thriving people were lavish with their tribute, which pleased the Conqueror well. Therefore, the Empress of the Known World had seen no reason to change her favors toward one who was an old, dear…friend.
She didn’t run.
Even though she felt the hate of the creature pulsing at her and the long tentacles slithering near her ankles, she didn’t flee.
It had always been Xena’s nature to stand strong. She clutched the sword with a firmer grip and let her lips curl upward in an evil taunting smile. Then with one crook of the finger she summoned the sinister creature to battle.
They fought hard.
The vicious beast’s moans set the hairs on her neck and arms to standing. The warrior felt fear dribble sweat down her spine. Her feet wanted to freeze to the ground, but she forced herself to leap and jump, slicing a path for herself. Gore dripped from her blade, landing on the ground with salty hisses.
She barely avoided the creature’s gnashing teeth by ducking and jerking away from its chilling grasp. They struggled until her muscles screamed with the agony of moving and every little twitch was toil. She felt like surrendering right then. Xena resisted the compulsion to throw herself off the cliff into a bleak darkness. Still, she despaired that her efforts were in vain. She was on the brink of darkness’ precipice. She groaned with the feebleness she felt. Resistance to the black path melted from her and she succumbed.
Then, as if on the whisper of the wind itself, brisk and comforting, she heard her name being called.
The warrior shuddered to a new awareness of her surroundings. Everything brightened, clarified. Her heightened senses returned as she recognized the voice.
The beast felt her distraction and fought for her attention.
It lunged and she threw her sword arm up with the blade still firm in her grasp, instinctively protecting her face.
It was a lucky move.
The obsidian creature impaled itself upon her sword with a shriek. Its weighty mass caused her knees to buckle. She shook with the effort to support herself. The blood that spilled from the slithery beast burned the skin of her hands and arms and splattered her body as she thrust it away.
The nightmare thing fell with a mighty groan, grunting out its pain as it landed at her feet. The creature lashed once more at her, trying for a final grab. Its maw opened wide as if to devour her whole.
The warrior didn’t feel nimble enough to even step out of the way, but she felt comforting hands behind her, pulling.
There was a light behind her. She let herself be pulled, but looked backwards to watch, grimly, as the dark thing shook itself apart. The baleful creature wailed in anger at its death, until it was nothing but dust. She was gratified to see it go, deeply and intensely relieved.
The warrior turned towards the light, smiling and ready to embrace the one who called to her and saved her. Gabrielle shone like the perfect sun and opened her arms. Xena stepped forward, still proud, but shaky.
Then, with an arcing wail, she cramped over as slippery tentacles of darkness abruptly erupted from her sides spattering her blood on her savior’s feet.
Before Gabrielle could react, Xena gasped as her skin turned black and supple like a lizard’s. Her hands folded in surprise against her chest. It felt jagged and bloody, as if a rip were forming. She pressed against it, pushing, trying to stop the bloody wound from growing, but the tentacles pulled her hands away.
She forgot about the bard as she felt herself lifted.
Something hard, thick and bony grew from her tailbone and penetrated the ground below her. Her hands were folded back and away, as if she were on the cross again. Then two tentacles pointedly drove themselves into her palms, making her cry out bitterly even as she fought to free herself. The head of the monster, larger and smaller than she remembered, chewed its way out from the wound over her heart.
Alti’s mocking smoky black-painted face turned so she could see it and laughed with glee. “Monster, Remember who made you,” she said. Her long snakelike tongue seared against Xena’s cheek, though the warrior turned her face.
That only let Alti have the last word. She whispered, “You are mine, Destroyer of Nations.”
Xena sat up abruptly, gasping as if she were in pain. Her body was cold in its sweat. Gabrielle was still clinging to her.
The bard’s hands covered the warrior’s shoulders, as if she’d been trying to shake the Empress awake. At first, still reeling from the dream’s harshness, Xena thought her bard’s green eyes were filled with the usual weariness from the sickness that had overtaken her on their voyage. But, Gabrielle had been recovering now that she’d been on the boat for awhile.
The brief thought almost broke through the dark mood that permeated the Empress’ heart to make Xena smile. The pressure points helped, but it made the young woman undiscriminating in her appetites. The Conqueror kept close watch to make sure the storyteller ate what was nourishing, rather than not. And, as for the other desires her bard held, Xena had no problem with matching them.
The current concern in her gaze drowned out any indication of the young woman’s recent incapacity and reflected the deep worry that filled the storyteller’s soul.
“I couldn’t wake you. I tried.”
Xena could feel the bruises where the bard’s fingers had pressed, evidence of the bard’s desperation. Slowly, deliberately, the Destroyer of Nations turned away from Gabrielle, whom she had crippled. Her blue eyes grayed, desolate. She tried to pull away, but her lover held to her with a fierce determination. The Empress felt the tears that wouldn’t flow stop her throat.
“It was that dream again, wasn’t it?” the bard queried gently.
Gabrielle held the bulk of her curiosity back, knowing Xena wouldn’t tell her the contents of the vision. There was a discomfort in Xena’s gaze that forbade the questions that the bard would have asked. Gabrielle’s knowledge of the dream was held only in her cognizance of the way the Warrior Queen contorted upon the silks during those awful candlemarks. It was the same, every time. It had been, since the time they’d first loved.
At first, Gabrielle blamed herself, believing that she was the cause.
Xena had made the mistake of telling her that she’d never had the dreams until *after* they’d met.
Gabrielle thought perhaps it was the guilt in Xena’s soul and wished that the Conqueror would say something, anything, to let her know the cause. She could have helped then. But the Warrior Queen tightened her lips against the words that might have healed her. There was something that she did not wish to reveal. She did not yet trust the bard loved her enough.
So, the storyteller attempted to leave, thinking it would be for the better. The Conqueror was adamant, however, that no matter what the content of the dream, the bard was her salvation and Xena ordered her to stay.
When the ordering didn’t work, the Macedonian pleaded, but only once and without tears. Her stoic demeanor, however, could not hide the desperation in her voice.
Despite the sturdiness her painful lameness had taught her, Gabrielle’s heart softened at the look upon Xena’s face, and she remained.
“It was,” the Conqueror had owned as she clung tightly to the bard and blinked back the near tears, “just a bad dream. That’s all. It will pass.”
But it hadn’t.
Now the frightful dream sneaked up on them, disturbing their nights so randomly that it made it all the more upsetting.
If, perchance, it happened night after night, they might have become used to it. However, there were days and nights of peace. Then, against all reason, there was a night like this one, where the potency of the vision seemed worse than ever.
Xena didn’t need to say anything in answer to Gabrielle’s question. Her body shuddered the response.
The spacious cabin suddenly seemed much too cramped, even with Gabrielle’s comforting presence.
Carefully, the Empress removed herself from Gabrielle’s grasp and reached for a filmy robe. “I need some air,” Xena said roughly. The sound of her voice grated in her own ears. The Conqueror’s face was as stone, but the expression softened when she looked at her beloved Gabrielle.
She kissed the bard, barely pressing her dry lips to the honeyblonde’s. Then to reassure the storyteller Xena said, “I’ll be back later. Get some sleep.” She took the bard’s silence as an agreement and escaped into the cool of the night.
Despite the quiet of the cabin, the soothing sounds of the waves, and the hypnotic rhythm of the night’s rowing drums, the storyteller was unable to return to her earlier slumber. Her mind was filled with questions that nagged at the soul. Gabrielle’s head was filled with worries for her lover and herself and her body ached with painful tensions.
Upset of any kind seemed to make her legs feel worse at any time, but this night felt especially bad. The shattering of her limbs had left her more than familiar with needling pangs that came with changes in the climate. But the timing of her pains could seem so random sometimes. On this night, the ache of her emotions and her legs made it impossible for her to sleep.
Gabrielle would not deign to take a drug, in case Xena returned. It was her hope, perhaps, that if she bided her time, the warrior would be able to finally trust her enough. The storyteller knew that she needed to know what was torturing the Conqueror’s soul.
The young woman could imagine what it was, had imagined with fearsome dreams of her own. She had heard many stories of her lover, had seen with her own eyes the cruelty the woman could inflict, had felt it. Absently she rubbed a hand against her shins, breathing deep to quell the hurt. Gabrielle knew that it had taken a long time to win the woman’s love, though that had been an *unexpected* result of her effort. She also knew that she shouldn’t rush Xena.
She just wanted to know, to reassure, to be able, somehow to take the the warrior’s pain away. If only for a little bit.
Being around Xena eased her own burden, most times. She wished to return the favor. Her heart told her Xena, deep in her dark depth, was worth it. She had always been worth it.
Xena just didn’t know it.
After a few moments, Gabrielle determined that she might as well put the time to use. The strawberry blonde wrested herself from under the warm comfort of the covers, and reached for her long staff.
She stood up with determination, allowing herself a small shuddering groan since Xena was not present. Even though she no longer had to worry about their deadly bargain, Gabrielle still opted to show strength for Xena. It helped.
If she acted strong, she often felt strong. Besides, if Xena had known of the bard’s pain, she wouldn’t have left. And while Gabrielle might have preferred the conqueror to stay, it wasn’t because she was hurting. She wanted Xena to stay because it was her wish to, not because of fear or obligation.
Such reasons could be tiresome. Xena was very solicitous of Gabrielle, ever watchful that the bard shouldn’t try too hard or wear herself out.
Sometimes the Conqueror would even get a little overbearing about it, forbidding her to do this or that. It seemed as if she’d forgotten that the bard had led a life of independence long before she’d known the Warrior Queen. Even after Gabrielle’s legs had been shattered and reset, it had been her own efforts that carried her into Xena’s castle. But Gabrielle accepted that these attentions were acts of love on the Empress’ part and strove not to let herself feel suffocated by them.
If it got too bad, the strawberry blonde vowed to herself, she would just tell Xena. Surely the warrior would understand. Xena was quite the independent herself.
Gabrielle waited a breath or two to get her full balance, then stoically made her way to the small walnut desk on the other side of the cabin. She unshuttered the lamp. Its yellow bright flame grew higher along the wick.
The lamp, she thought with appreciation, was a very clever invention. Much safer than the torches. It was much less likely to burn down a whole city or the Queen’s ship.
Gabrielle cautiously closed the lamp’s glass covering. She was well aware that its relative safety did not mean she shouldn’t be careful. She was careful about many things in Xena’s company. Even the good stuff. She smiled to herself at the side benefits of knowing Xena, then settled into writing.
Gabrielle noted in her journal that the actual journey to Chin was not taking as long as she expected. Though Xena had plans to make the journey shorter. Her people were working on a long canal to cut a passage between Asia and Africa. That was an accomplishment that would be completed many years off. At this time, however, they would sail the Black Sea and dock at a port nearer Chin. Then their travels would take place overland.
Gabrielle hoped to see many new things on their journey. Already her scrolls were filling with notations and details about her experience upon the ship. She found that travel excited her. It filled something deep within.
Were it not for the ship’s drifting and surging motions that kept the bard seasick, Gabrielle might have enjoyed it more. She hoped Xena was right; that those nauseous feelings were simply the result of her newness to ship born travel.
Gabrielle noted that the sea was very much, to Xena’s joy, a wild, wondrous, untamable thing. It was, perhaps, the only place that Xena had no wish to conquer. The isles might be hers, but she ceded the sea to Poseidon.
Gabrielle found that she desperately wanted to share Xena’s joy and yearned for “sea legs.” She hoped that those limbs were much better than the pair that she walked on now.
Despite her motion sickness, Gabrielle couldn’t truly fault the ride. Xena’s clever refinements to Roman invention had made for a swift and sturdy ship. It combined the sailor’s and the oarsman’s skill into something that practically flew across the sea.
The small ship was opulent and comfortable on the inside. Outside there was nothing to distinguish it from others of its type. This was a precautionary measure taken by Xena. Though the ship flew the bright maroon and gold standard, the sea’s salt had dulled the colors to something less vivid and attracting to marauders.
There were a few of those pirates claiming the sea. They hid on far off isles and the islanders whispered of unconquered lands. So it was wise to be wary in this world, even though Xena’s navies were the strongest known. If Xena was cautious of the pirates, they were even more so. Her ships’ prows had an image of the Conqueror butting dangerously forward. Another ship would suffer from the contact, should it risk battle.
Gabrielle thought that was much like her lover.
The intelligent blonde winced as she shifted in her chair, but she mostly ignored the pain. There had been worse times than this. Gabrielle’s legs had, on occasion, thrummed with the pounding of the drums when high adventure overtook them.
There had been three instances when the drums had pounded battle’s beat, pushing the oarsmen to their limits. Such moments stirred the blood with both fear and anticipation. With Xena on board, they never retreated.
With a sigh, Gabrielle dipped her pen in ink and painted another word on the parchment, letting her thoughts take her far away for the moment. She was writing a small tale about about a mix up. In her mind’s eye she saw Xena with sisters who looked incredibly like…Xena. She laughed to herself as she penned a bawdy named Meg to josh her lover with. Gabrielle loved to hear Xena laugh; it was so rare, and she knew, if she played this right…
Her pen skittered out of her hand, she was startled so badly by the first shout. Her palm smeared the ink on the page, erasing the name of the fool she was crafting for the story. She let the pen go, turning in her chair to listen more carefully. She heard muffled shouts of, “Pirates HO!”
Then she shivered as a vision overtook her.
Xena was looking to the heavens when the pirate warning was given. Her mind had been, oddly, not upon the nightmare which had awakened her, but rather upon the stars that shimmered so clearly in the sky. The bard read shapes and stories into those stars overhead and they’d spent many an evening shipboard entertaining themselves with discussions about this or that pattern. The stars reminded her of Gabrielle, the way her eyes glistened, her imagination, the gift of her love. The thought warmed the warrior in the chill night air and almost, almost made her forget the reason why she was out there. Alone.
Xena had been this close to returning to her bard’s side. She’d felt suddenly amorous, needfully so. She wanted to erase the night’s worries with the fire of their loving.
It was annoyance which led to the first bark of command from her lips. Then, when she recognized the shape of the pirate’s ship, it was a conqueror’s glee that led to the rest. She shouted orders to come about and prepare for attack. Xena’s eyes narrowed evilly. This time, there would be no escape. She made her way quickly down the steps to her cabin, confident that the master-helmsman wouldn’t shirk his duty. She knew she had enough time to change into her armor and planned on taking advantage of it.
The warrior opened the door only to find the bard fallen upon the floor. Gabrielle’s hand was flattened upon the seat of her chair as she worked to right herself. She gave Xena a sheepish look. “Wasn’t quite ready for that swerve.”
Xena hastened and crouched besides her lover. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed the dark drip of ink from the desk to drawer. Her lips twitched upward a small bit, but worry was more predominant. Her expression of concern, as she lifted her lover to an upright position, was not lost on the bard. “I’m fine. I’m fine.”
“I thought you were going to…”
The bard’s voice was gentle, but firm, “..go back to sleep?” She shrugged, and sat back on the chair. “I couldn’t.”
Xena nodded. She kept hold of Gabrielle’s shoulder, giving it a soft squeeze. “I understand.” The kiss she gave the bard was hasty, but meant well. “I have to get back up there,” she said, as she pulled away.
This time it was the bard who nodded, “Pirates. I heard the call. You need to be up there.” She looked solemnly at the warlord turned Empress. “You need to be wary.”
Xena smiled a cold smile that froze Gabrielle’s bones. “Don’t worry about it.”
Then the Warrior Queen stripped from her robe and sought her armor. Gabrielle grabbed her staff and stood. “Let me help.”
Xena flashed her a look. “I’ve got it. You sit there.”
The bard winced at the conqueror’s tone, “My hands are still good.”
Xena paused, her shoulders going rigid. The bard inhaled sharply, regretting her words. The warrior completed settling her skirt. She hefted her breast plate up, and turned to face the bard. “That they are.”
If she was surprised at the agility of Gabrielle’s ministrations, she didn’t let on. The bard explained anyway. “Vidalis.”
That had elicited a soft chuckle from Xena. “Should have known.”
They smiled together at that moment. Then, feeling an urgency, the warrior wrapped her hand behind Gabrielle’s head and brought her into a fiery kiss. The bard held to the straps of her dress, for balance. They were both breathless when they finally broke apart.
Gabrielle held on a few seconds longer, not letting the warrior leave. “It’s dangerous,” She reiterated. A vision of an angry dark skinned woman with a knife smeared with blood flashed in her mind. “The pirate’s leader, she is your enemy.”
Xena blinked, “How would you…”
Gabrielle’s gaze had gone distant. Xena could feel it. The bard was seeing something inside and away from where they stood. Gabrielle’s voice seemed hollow, “She should have been your friend. Or a friend of a friend.”
Suddenly angry, for no particular reason that she could point out and perhaps a little frightened, Xena found herself peeling Gabrielle’s fingers away. She gripped the bard’s hands tightly in her own. “Watch yourself bard,” she purred hotly.
Gabrielle didn’t hear the burn behind the voice, but the grasp on her hands woke her. “I’ll be careful,” she avowed, misinterpreting the warrior’s words. She gripped the warrior’s powerful hands with her own, her gaze suddenly outward seeing and filled with love. “And you.”
Those eyes did something to Xena’s heart. Regretful, but careful not to show it, she returned the promise as she kissed the bard’s fingertips. Their lips touched once more, soft and pledging. Then they parted.
Xena tossed the words, “Stay here,” down the steps as she hastened away and closed the door behind her. But, Gabrielle hadn’t finished.
The conqueror was on time to see the two ships converge. She had a feeling of complete satisfaction at the crunching noise the ships made as hers rammed the pirate’s. It had been, she was sure, a fatal blow to the enemy’s ship.
Then, with a shout of, “Kill them all,” Xena’s people swarmed the pirate’s ship. The Empress of the Known World gave a secret chuckle and joined the fray.
Xena felt glorious during the battle. After a time she found herself back upon her own deck, sliding in the blood of the fellows who dared to board it. She laughed at the man in front of her as he made a flimsy effort to impale her on his sword. As he passed with a missing step, she grabbed his hair and pulled his head roughly back. Then she drew her chackram across his neck as if it were a lover’s caress. As he choked on his own blood, she threw the man down and away from her.
She ulated with triumphant glee as another brigand launched himself at her, shouting in rage. “Die Bitch!”
Xena rolled past him and ducked. “If you feel that bad, join him,” Xena snapped. If she was going to be called a bitch, the Conqueror, who was as untamed as ever in battle, thought she ought to earn the name. She smiled wickedly at the man and tempted him towards her. She smirked.
Not that she hadn’t earned it before.
Xena rolled her shoulder and neck away from his upthrust down cutting blade. Then the warrior catapulted herself behind him. Her sword came up under him, slicing the man up from his groin, breaking parts of his spine and slicing through his ribcage before finally cutting him brutally through the heart. Xena grinned with satisfaction at the final blooded gurgle of pain.
“Now you can call me bitch.”
The wretch’s death was over all too soon. Fortunately for her, however, there were plenty of others to take his place. The sword came out of the man’s body with a slurp and she gave out a yell. It was time to see who else wanted to suffer.
As she lifted her gaze, she caught sight of honey-gold and swore.
What was it with Gabrielle and following orders? The bard *KNEW* she wasn’t supposed to come up from the cabin during battle, not unless she’d been summoned by Xena.
The warrior lifted her blade, without turning, catching the other sharp sword behind her before it could land on her head. In that moment her thoughts quickly ran through a list of possible reasons why Gabrielle would risk her life, and Xena’s wrath. She rejected them all.
The ship wasn’t on fire. Xena hadn’t sent for her. There were, or rather had been – the warrior thought as she took the pirate’s arm off, then gave the death blow – no one near the cabin’s entrance. Xena growled. It was a mixture of impatience and admiration. The woman seemed incapable of obeying one simple commmand.
The thought wasn’t exactly true, Xena knew, for Gabrielle could be very circumspect – when she wanted to be. Otherwise she would have been dead by now. Memories of their past conversations flitted quickly through her mind and her frustration was mostly affectionate. Oh, she picked the most awkward times to test Xena’s will.
Then a panic sparked the warrior queen’s soul. There was a pirate right behind Gabrielle! With a howl that mixed worry and anger into potency, the warrior leapt and spiraled in the air towards the enemy who threatened her young lover. She landed with a sturdy thump upon the wooden deck, prepared to do heavy and vicious damage.
Then Gabrielle struck.
STATEMENT This is the last entry from the author.
A friend and I got to talking about writing last night, and she reminded me of a few simple things. First, that the characters come to you when you’re ready for them. Second, that if you drift from where the characters want to go, you get blocked.
That made such sense to me, that I thought it would be a good idea to share this with you. So: If you haven’t seen an update in awhile, just figured I drifted. In the meantime, maybe this statement will help:
This is a story in process. It is not currently complete. However, if you are unable to wait for the length of time it takes for me to make updates or repairs, please be assured that this story in process does have a happy ending and that MOST of the situations played out in the story have resolutions. If there are situations which don’t have a resolution, it doesn’t mean that the story will be sequelized, but is rather an indication of my belief that the characters have a “life,” of their own. I am the vessel the story comes through, but the characters’ lives continue on happily, whether I finish writing or not.
That, I suppose, is my author’s blessing to them, so if, by any chance I’ve missed the creative wave with them or can’t get back to the story for whatever reason, the characters, the people involved in those other worlds that I only sometimes tap into, can move on freely. And so can you, if you just can’t wait any longer (and I mean that in the kindest way, not as any sort of “beat it kid, you’re bothering me.” I mean it in the sense of: I understand the need to move on.) So: I repeat, the characters in this story find and keep true love and live happily ever after, no matter what.
I make that assertion because of my own foibles. I don’t deal well with tiger/princess endings, for whatever reason. I also figure, sometimes there is a part of us that stops breathing while we wait to “finish,” something.
Please be advised that I tend to pick up a canvas and dabble here, dabble there, until it is done. So it is with all of my stories. However, I’m about to change tactics, again. Now I’m taking the sketchbook perspective. If a story is incomplete and you reach this bit – Just figure I’m sketching it out and, as in the sketch, you can see the outline that shows how the text will be finished. That’s what this statement is. An indication of direction.
The truth is, I can’t guarantee any of these stories will be finished. One never knows what the days will hold. I can only tell you that I believe in happy endings. And, for all the crap we go through to get there, true love. So that’s what happens in these worlds.
BETA DRAFT: 05/07/00 – Outline added
OUTLINE: Gabrielle turns out to be more than adequate with a staff; Xena watches fascinated, until she sees a danger that Gabrielle doesn’t. It is Nebula, the pirate queen. A battle ensues. Nebula “loses.” Gabrielle begs for her life. The pirate queen is captured.