Way too long disclaimer - blame Lunacy:
Standard Legal Stuff: Xena and Xena: Warrior Princess are registered trademarks of MCA. The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the sole property of MCA. This story is not meant as an infringement of any copyright, and is not written with the intent of sale or profit. The rest of the story is copyright 1998 by Bracer, and may not be duplicated without credit to its author. If you hate it, blame me, yadda yadda yadda.
Violence: As better authors than I have pointed out, it's what Xena does. Yes, it gets graphic at times. If you're really squeamish, maybe you should read something else.
Sex: Oh yes. This is a story about two women in love (even if it takes them a while to figure it out), and I surprised myself by making that kind of explicit too. If you're under 18, come back when you're older. If this offends you, come back when you've grown up. And as always, if it's illegal to read this where you live, please move, whether you finally end up reading this or not. I should probably mention there's some het-sex in there as well, although rest assured none of it involves our beloved couple.
Sexual Violence\Abuse: At one point, this is talked about. In this case there are no graphic descriptions at all, but one of the characters didn't have a very pleasant time growing up, and for various reasons it was necessary for her to tell her story. I hope I worked it out in the end, but if you're sensitive, you might not want to read this. Sorry.
Xenaverse Timeline: This is set just after the second season, pre-The Furies. Yeah, I've been working on this thing a while - almost a year.
Length: You know, sometimes you start out to write a nice little short story and you wind up with a full-on novel. I apologize to anyone who had to go to the expense of a new ream of paper to print this. I guess I go on sometimes.
Further information can be found in "Author's Notes." Avoid bending, exposure to magnetic fields, or immersion in benzene. Comments and constructive criticism can be sent to email@example.com.
Oh yeah, the story:
Prolog The darkly armored warrior carefully examined the rough surface of the road, letting his vision widen its focus, reading the tracks. The route east of Troy was fairly well traveled and it wasn't easy picking out the ones he was looking for, but he was very good at it, and the years had taught him patience.
Ah, there they are, he thought, smugly satisfied, finding the right sign. One traveler leading a horse, the other lighter, smaller, walking with a staff. Just touches in the dust really. Good enough if you knew how to look. Stand back, take everything in. The details were just part of the larger picture. Feel it through. Never fails. His quarry would tell how they traveled by the marks they left. The Earth knows they've been here. Listen to her story.
Leading his own horse rather than riding so he could keep the tracks in sight, he continued following. They stopped to eat here, then had a bit of trouble there - six other people, farmers most likely, being threatened by someone armed, but he was ? drunk, didn't pose any real threat. They talked. It was tense, but everyone went their way without a fight.
The warrior shifted in his armor, then backtracked and continued on, one step at a time. Patiently. The same way he had for over a week.
Towards mid-morning, he reached a point where the tracks led off the road and headed into the forest, moving south. Good, he smiled inwardly. That'll make their trail easier to spot. Have to be getting close now. A day, maybe less.
He gave a wicked grin. I'm going to surprise you, Xena, Warrior Princess. Hades take me if I don't.
Chapter one Gabrielle lay on her back, eyes closed, feeling the warmth of the sun on her body. It was, for once, a lazy day, something she'd had little of in better than two years of traveling with Xena. Yet there were the occasional times when her companion would deem it fit to take a day off - even if the stoic warrior never quite admitted that's what it was. It was always a surprise, and always in some beautiful, secluded spot.
Like this one. They had arrived at a sparsely wooded glen which sloped down to a lazy, clear brook. It was genuinely lovely, but the best part, the part that nearly made Gabrielle gasp in delight when she saw it, was the close carpet of tiny, lavender and blue wildflowers which covered the ground. "Xena!" the bard had gushed, almost beside herself with the storybook charm of the place. "Well, how about that," Xena had smiled slightly. "Got lucky I guess ? Hey!" the warrior had grunted, startled when her young companion suddenly hugged her.
"It's wonderful," the bard said warmly. "You're wonderful."
Xena suppressed a smile but was inwardly pleased at her companion's joy. She owed this young woman so much. Just my sanity, and my life, she thought, maybe my soul. The warrior inside who had spent a lifetime trying not to care now found herself trying to find little things that would make the bard happy. She knew she had been cold in the last couple of months, hadn't been as open as Gabrielle had gotten used to, and there were good reasons for that. Still, some part of her just hoped that bringing the young bard here would help make up for it.
"C'mon," Xena had said, allowing the contact to linger, if only briefly, before gently pushing the bard away. "Let's set up camp. I've got some leather and tack work to do, so you just, I dunno, go do something somewhere," she teased, rewarded with a warm smile in return.
A short while later, while Xena had slipped into a shift and sat back against a tree to oil and repair her leathers and armor, Gabrielle had found a patch of sunshine and taken out her scrolls. Yet the bard found it difficult to concentrate in the warm mid-afternoon glow, surrounded by the delicate scent of flowers, and quickly gave up. Now she lay back amongst the sweet blossoms, not sleeping exactly, but letting her mind drift. She stretched lazily, thinking of Perdicus. There was still a lingering sadness there, and she guessed it would never go away, but the sheer devastation she'd felt after Callisto killed him had faded with time. Xena had helped more than the bard would ever let the woman know. The often silent warrior could offer few words of comfort, but when tears had come at sudden, unexpected moments, she never failed wrap Gabrielle in her strong arms, holding her until they passed.
And as Gabrielle had put her sorrow behind her, she'd come to realize her grief had been as much out of guilt at having put him in harm's way as out of loss. Perdicus had been a good man. She had loved him and they might have been happy together, yet in hindsight, she'd let what was little more than a crush and her compassion for his pain and failing sway her - it was not the smartest thing she'd ever done, and it had gotten him killed.
Certainly her grief at his death had been nothing compared to what she'd felt when Xena ? died. This memory was still painful enough to give her nightmares, and she pushed it away quickly.
Xena had a strength and wisdom Gabrielle knew she could never touch. The warrior's heart was so strong she wouldn't even let her own dark past break her, a past that caused a hurt so deep it made Gabrielle's own heart ache whenever Xena let it slip, which lately had been often.
Xena had been distant since their encounter with the Horde a few months ago, even unreadable at times. Yet the warrior had seemed calmer in these last weeks, more approachable. The bard hoped today was a sign she was ready to close that distance again. I can be patient for you Xena. I always have, and I always will. I'll be here when you're ready.
For now though, her young body resting on the warm, soft ground, the bard turned her thoughts back to Perdicus. Even if she hadn't loved him as deeply as she once thought, they had shared a single night together. He had been her first, and so far her only, and that would always be a part of her, impossible to forget. She sighed. Especially at times like this. The sheer sensuality of lying in this wonderful glen - the warmth of the sun, the subtle perfume of the flowers, the gentle whispering of the brook - was growing on her. She remembered his touch on her body, the feel of his skin against hers, the smell of his sweat. If she let her thoughts float, she could still almost feel him against her. Moving gently. Moving together. Moving faster?
Oooh, careful Gabrielle, she cautioned herself. Don't get too carried away. This was how it always began. Unconsciously, one hand grazed over the bare skin of her belly.
Perdicus had been very sweet, very attentive, but even after they had made love a second time it still felt like something was missing. There had been a kind of heat, tenderness, but so little ? passion. That was it: Passion.
Sometimes, when she hovered on the edge of sleep in her bedroll, the young bard would think of her wedding night, and her imaginative mind would soon drift to thoughts of what other things they might have done, then to what other ? lovers might do. Too often lately, she would fall asleep hot, dreaming of warm skin being pressed to hers, of bodies entwined in the dark.
Her hand was now caressing the taught muscles of her abs in earnest, and her nipples had grown hard under the green fabric of her top, although as lost as she was in her indistinct fantasies, she was barely aware of these things.
Many times she'd been tempted by such thoughts to entice some villager into her bed, but had never done it. Then, several months ago she'd come to understand why.
She had another memory, one which she only called on in the dark of the night when she could no longer resist letting her fingers slip lower, touching the very center of herself, the image of being in a gray but strangely beautiful limbo, of blue eyes meeting hers, of lips, impossibly soft and strong, covering her own.
Lost in a sea of flowers and warmth, she let the name silently drift past her open lips into the afternoon breeze. Xena?
Xena watched the young woman laying down only ten feet away, had been watching her for some time. Gabrielle looked so lovely, her pale form surrounded by the soft blooms around her, that as soon as her eyes had closed Xena had stopped her leather work and simply gazed. Gabrielle was like music on a rainy day, finding places in the ex-warlord's withered soul that had no joy left and filling them with hope the storm might pass. Even as shaken and unsure as the warrior had been in the last few months, Gabrielle was always there, her anchor in the light.
Xena sighed, turning back to her leatherwork. The warrior had little use for gods, had insulted enough of them in her day to think they would abandon her, if not be completely hostile. Like most of the human race. Yet something had blessed her with this precious gift, a path to redemption, an innocent to guide her out of Tartarus, a?
Uh, hang on ? What's this? The warrior was broken out of her reverie as she realized the bard was slowly, sensuously writhing on the flowered carpet of the glen.
Xena's eyebrow arched slowly, then she stifled a chuckle as she rolled her eyes and smiled. Well, so much for poetry. Dumb warrior, she thought, reminded that as wondrous as her companion was, the bard was, in some ways at least, still very much a young woman.
Hmm, this is interesting. Hormones running a little high lately, eh bard? She started to chuckle again, then was stopped by the sight. Through sheer will she tore her gaze away, looking up at the branches above. She swallowed.
Maybe coming here wasn't such a good idea, she thought. I really should get her around people more. She needs company. She should find herself a nice ? well, someone nice, who can make her feel good, let her explore the gifts nature gives every woman. Because I can't do that. I know that now.
Xena made herself still. Gabrielle, she pleaded silently. You're so sure, and so strong. By the gods you're amazing, but except for that night with Perdicus you're missing something important. Your passion is growing, and you're not doing anything about it except let it drive you crazy - don't think I don't know how often you've been pleasuring yourself after you think I'm asleep. Sex can be wonderful Gabrielle, but like everything in life you have to decide how much it means to you. I didn't have that choice but you do. Don't make the same mistakes I did.
Xena knew she could just slip away. Gabrielle would never even notice her leaving. It would have been easy for the ex-warlord even if her young companion wasn't so distracted. She looked at Gabrielle, seeing again the flush in her skin, heard her delicate breathing?
Careful Xena. The warrior took a few deliberate breaths. Maybe it's time for a talk. She sighed, knowing that words seldom came easy to her. Just have to wing it.
Xena cleared her throat. "I can leave you alone if you'd like."
Gabrielle's eyes flew open as she felt her whole body blush, her head snapping around to face the warrior. She glanced up at those strong blue eyes, took in the cocked eyebrow, then sat up quickly, hugging her knees, her embarrassment so obvious she wanted to die. "Gods! I just ? um ? I mean, I was just?"
"It's all right Gabrielle," Xena chuckled nonchalantly, turning back to her leathers. "You're not the first woman who ever had a fantasy. You certainly won't be the last."
Gabrielle took a deliberate deep breath, then settled over onto her stomach and began self-consciously adjusting her clothes. Still feeling her blush, she did her best to counter what the warrior had said, not even sure why she felt compelled to do so. She took another breath, then began to explain, "I was just thinking about Perdicus?"
"Aw damn," Xena said quickly, wishing she hadn't teased the young bard. I'm really not good at this mothering thing. " I should've kept quiet. I didn't think."
"No, please don't be sorry," Gabrielle said, just as quickly. Although she was still embarrassed, the older woman's matter-of-fact attitude and ease about it was calming her. Besides, the Warrior Princess wasn't exactly known for her willingness to talk. Sex and relationships were subjects that almost never came up, even though the young bard was as curious about these as she was everything else. Especially lately. So, she drew up her courage and pressed on. "I just ? I think about when we were together sometimes. He was the first ? I mean, the first I ever made love with."
Xena let out a long sigh. "Like I said, I was rude. I should have left you alone." She found a rough spot on the leather, spread a little oil on it and began smoothing it down.
Without really thinking, Gabrielle had to ask. "Who did you lose your virginity to?"
The warrior cocked an eye at her. "I don't think you want to know."
Sometimes, you just have to pry, Gabrielle thought, curiosity getting the better of her. "Oh, come on ? tell me. Some cute Amphipolitan kid must have been pretty surprised! Let me guess - Petracles?"
Xena rolled her eyes and snorted. "I wish!"
Or at least that's what she wanted to have happened. Instead, she gripped her leathers tightly. "I wish," she nearly growled. She stared downward.
Now it was Gabrielle's turn to be sorry. "It's OK Xena," she soothed, shifting around to face the warrior directly, moving closer. She realized this must be a sore spot, and her first instinct, as it always was with her troubled companion, was to try and work it through. "It's OK to talk about it, if you want ? if it would help?" I know you won't, but it's always worth a try.
Xena pulled herself back together. Maybe it was as good a way as any to get this particular talk started. At least I can tell her what not to do. Where to begin?
Xena made herself speak. "Fact is, growing up in Amphipolis there wasn't anybody who interested me." She shrugged. "The thing was I could beat anyone at anything if I worked at it long enough. That was my secret - even if I wasn't good at something right away, I'd just practice until I was."
Xena thought for a moment, then continued. "One thing I never had trouble with was boys. I learned early that all I had to do was stand a certain way, look at them a certain way. Boys would do what I wanted, and I couldn't ever respect them because of that. Not that I wasn't curious, I just wasn't attracted to anyone - not until Petracles anyway, and with him, well?"
Xena paused, searching for words. "Our relationship was more a competition than anything else. We'd flirt, draw back, make promises ? break them. We'd get each other excited and then back off. We got close a few times, but the truth is we never did sleep together, not once." She sighed. "Looking back I know I was at least as manipulative as he was, and when I got him to propose it was ? I thought of it as a victory. Of course, he thought it was the other way around." She gave a dry snort, then grew serious again. "Then Cortese came, and the wars. He ? left not long after. Soon Amphipolis and everything else were just memories." She laid her leathers out on her lap.
Gabrielle just sat and listened. It was rare that the warrior would relate anything about her past, but when she did, the bard knew well enough to not interrupt. Xena would work through it in her own way, or she wouldn't. Gabrielle simply hoped it would help somehow.
"His name was Bulutus," Xena said quietly. She was amazed she could remember it. "After I started an army I found I could still use the way men were attracted to me, and I used it like I did everything else. I did what I needed to. He was good looking I guess, and a good fighter. Flirting with him it was even sort of fun. Then one day, in front of everyone, he called my bluff, and I wasn't about to back down." She gave a wry chuckle. "By then I even thought I wanted it. The truth was I'd simply let my own lust stew for too long. It ? clouded my judgement."
Gabrielle fit this into what she already knew. Gods, she would've been about the same age I was when I left Poteidaia. The thought struck her again just how different the two of them really were. "So what happened?"
The warrior shrugged. "I don't remember it much," she said flatly, hoping the bard wouldn't press for details. "We were both pretty drunk - guess that's why it happened in the first place. He wasn't ? too impressed though. That I do remember."
Gabrielle could never decide if she should treasure these moments or hate them, because she knew the warrior never felt comfortable revealing herself. As curious as Gabrielle was about Xena's past, the bard knew she was one of the few people Xena ever talked to about it, and she honestly tried to never abuse the privilege. This was especially true since so much of Xena's past was obviously painful, and however much the young woman thought it would help Xena work through it, she never liked watching her companion in pain, new or remembered. "So how'd it go with the two of you?" she asked, gently.
Xena went back to polishing. "A day later while raiding a village, I slit his throat," she said simply. The warrior couldn't help but look up at the young woman's pale green eyes. They were wide open in disbelief.
Xena shrugged again, realizing she did so automatically, hating it. "I'd planned on it, even before. Whatever his looks, he was no leader and I needed his half of the army. So I took it." She stared at the leather in her hands. "When I'm honest with myself, I know that's why I let him bed me - he wouldn't be alive long to tell stories."
Gabrielle said, quietly, "You're not like that Xena, not anymore." She shifted closer. "And you know I believe you never really were. It's in the past now. Let it go."
But is that really true Gabrielle? Is it? Without you around, I could forget that so easily. Sometimes, I forget it anyway. The ex-warlord smiled grimly and tried to make herself brighten. She'd started by wanting to help Gabrielle. Now Gabrielle was trying to help her. Xena found she didn't even mind it much - however painful it was sometimes, it never failed to touch her heart. Keep going.
"Yeah, well," Xena went back to polishing, "after that I knew I had a lot to learn. I learned it."
"How?" Gabrielle asked automatically.
Xena looked the bard straight in the eye. "I practiced. A lot."
"Oh," Gabrielle said, the words sinking in. Then she had a thought. "With who?" The bard rested her head on her hand eagerly, thinking this story might be getting good after all.
It wasn't to be. "Everyone." The warrior shrugged again. "Anyone."
For once, Gabrielle was speechless.
"Well," the warrior laughed dryly, "at least it was a nice way to relax after morning drills."
"So you ? liked it?"
"Well, not much at first," Xena admitted. "For a while I thought of it as just that: Practice. But I had my pick of who I commanded," she paused, "and the captives we took, and before long, yes. I liked it. I was ? pretty high-strung. I took what pleasure I wanted and didn't think much beyond what would happen day to day."
"Didn't you worry about, um, getting pregnant?"
Xena snorted again, then became more serious. She needs to know this. "There are ways to avoid that, Gabrielle." She smiled at her young companion. "The right herbs before or after usually do the trick. And, with all the drilling and exercise I do, I don't cycle too regularly either." She paused again. Now that I think of it, that would almost explain Solan?
She brought herself back to the discussion at hand. "Anyway, forget the warnings your mother gave you. As long as you're careful you don't have to worry about it. Not that much anyway."
"That's ? interesting." Gabrielle thought a minute. "Was it, um, fun? Having all those lovers?"
Xena pondered the question. She had to balance what she felt then with what she knew now. "At the time, yes," she said slowly, "but it didn't mean much. I liked having sex, a lot, but I never ? felt anything about anyone I slept with. Not most of them anyway, and when I did, more often than not ? well, it led to trouble."
The warrior sighed, shook her head slightly. "Besides which, men have a habit of wanting to be in control. They kind of expect you to just surrender at some point. Many of them only think about their own pleasure." She chuckled to herself. "You can guess I'd have a problem with that."
Gabrielle thought about this for a moment. "I can see that. Perdicus tried to be um, giving, I guess, but he did sort of tell me what to do. Of course, I didn't know very much either. I figured he was just trying to be, well, helpful."
"He probably was." Xena poured more oil on the rag she was using. Gods, this is more talking than I usually do in a whole week. Hope she appreciates this ? some day. "Look, Gabrielle, don't let what happened to me ? My experience is very different from yours. I taught myself to use sex like a weapon, just part of my arsenal. I enjoyed it like I would a well-fought battle, and you don't meet many nice people in a warlord's line of work." She smiled. "Gabrielle, some men can be very nice. Sex is a wonderful thing if you find the right person. It isn't something to be afraid of, or ashamed of enjoying, and love is the most wonderful thing of all. It took me ? too long to realize that."
Xena took a deep breath. She knew what she had to say next, but it took all her effort to say it. She was surprised when her voice sounded wise and factual, but she couldn't look at Gabrielle as she spoke. "But you know, you should find that out for yourself. You deserve a lover. You should stop letting me drag you all over the known world, take some time to just ? love someone. Learn about the joy your body can bring you, on your own terms, while you're young and things are simpler. You shouldn't just let your passion burn inside you Gabrielle - it can break out and make you do things for the wrong reasons. Like mine did."
They were both quiet for a moment. Gabrielle looked down, realizing she'd come very close to blurting out, "But I do love someone!" Yet hearing about Xena's experiences made her painfully aware again she herself was only a once-removed virgin. She wouldn't embarrass her warrior that way.
But she had to change the subject somehow, get Xena away from once again gently suggesting she leave for her own sake - something, she noted sadly, that hadn't happened in a long time. Then she thought of another question she was dying to ask. This was one of the most intimate conversations the two of them had ever shared, and she figured it was now or never. Better make this good?
Gabrielle looked up, summoning her storytelling skills to sound only casually curious. "So what about sleeping with women?"
Uh oh. The warrior raised an eyebrow. "And what would you know about it?"
"Um, not much," Gabrielle replied as nonchalantly as possible. "That's why I'm asking you. I mean, in Poteidaia I knew Gretchen and Sara. They made boots, told wonderful stories by the fire at the inn every night, and were so much in love. I am a bard, so I've read most of Sappho's work - she's only the greatest poet and lyricist of our time you know. I'm also Queen of the Amazons, remember. I know what men are like - well, one man anyway - so I wonder about women ? sometimes." She settled with her head on her hand, waiting. OK, that sounded plausible. It's even the truth ? mostly.
Xena raised her eyebrow another notch, then chuckled. "Fair enough."
"So," Gabrielle said impatiently. "What about women?"
Xena sobered quickly. This was a minefield she'd been quietly hoping to skirt around. But she had started this, so she made herself calm, went back to polishing. "Sure, I've had women too. Not as ? often as men."
The bard was suddenly excited. Xena was no longer working through painful memories - she was simply embarrassed. The stoic warrior hid it well, but by now Gabrielle knew when she'd hit a nerve. It didn't happen often, and she pressed her advantage. "And? What's it like?"
The older woman saw how Gabrielle had pinned her. She knew she should be annoyed, but this was skimming too close to home, and she couldn't afford to let it show. She made herself calm down even further, forced herself to think. Stay calm, Xena. Just give her the facts. "They're different from men?"
Gabrielle shifted impatiently and cut her off. "Well I can guess that much! How are they different?"
Knowing a challenge when she heard one, Xena deliberately fixed her eyes on Gabrielle's. "All right, if you want to know?"
Then suddenly, Xena stopped. She looked away, closed her eyes and raised her head.
Gabrielle instantly knew the expression. Though irritated at the interruption, she dropped the conversation without a thought. "Where?" she whispered.
"Thirty paces out. Just one. Moving quiet." The warrior paused, eyes still closed. A slow smile crept across Xena's face as her eyebrow rose. "Hmm ? you're not bad?"
In an instant the warrior was on her feet, chakram in one hand, lightly tossing Gabrielle her staff with the other. The bard shifted to her knees and caught it easily.
"But I'm better," Xena said to no one in particular, eyes flashing. "Stay here. Keep quiet," she whispered to Gabrielle, then disappeared into the surrounding brush without disturbing so much as a leaf.
Gabrielle stood, holding her staff at the ready, listening to the quiet forest around her. Xena hadn't seemed too concerned so neither was she, but her curiosity was killing her. She calmed herself, trying to use her ears the way Xena had taught her.
Nothing. Not a sound. For a long moment, there was only the slightest rustling of the afternoon breeze.
Then Gabrielle heard the unmistakable whine of the chakram and a loud, surprised shout came from where it rebounded off a tree. A split instant later, the lethal spinning ring came flying out of the brushline at waist height, a darkly armored figure tumbling sideways down the slope to stay under it.
"CHEE-YAAH!" Xena leapt back into the clearing, spinning and twisting just as the chakram ricocheted off another tree within the glen. She caught it easily in mid-air, landing lightly on her feet between Gabrielle and the stranger, the ring raised high, ready for another toss at the man as he came out of his own tumble into an upright, defensive stance.
The sight of the graying hair and beard caused both women to relax and cry out, almost simultaneously, "Meleager!"
Seeing he was no longer in immediate danger, the aging warrior fell back into his usual, confident slouch. He gave a chastened grin, hooking his thumbs into the front of his belt. "Uh, hi ladies. How are ? things?"
"Meleager," Xena rolled her eyes, "what are you doing sneaking up on us like that? You should know better."
"Yeah well, that," he bounced on his feet, putting some swagger into his voice, drummed his fingers at his waist. "I just figured, you know, warrior to warrior?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "You're lucky I didn't take your head off." She shook her head, but smiled as she sat back down against the tree.
"Aw Hades!" Meleager rubbed his chin, embarrassed. "All right, I guess that was kinda stupid. But I just ? Aw Hades!" he repeated.
Gabrielle smiled as she walked over and gave the bearded warrior a hug. "Well, it's good to see you."
Meleager returned the embrace. "Good to see you too, kid."
Gabrielle pulled away slightly and looked up at her childhood hero. "You look good," she said, then looked closer. "Actually, you look better than good." It was true. The aging warrior was trimmer than when she'd seen him last, and she could feel his muscles were tighter. There was also a strange twinkle in his eye.
He smiled. "Quit drinkin.'"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "You? Quit drinking?" She noticed Meleager still had Gabrielle in his arms, and it bothered her that it bothered her.
"Xena!" The bard shot her a look. The warrior rolled her eyes, then went back to working on her armor. "C'mon Meleager," Gabrielle said, "ignore the Warrior Cynic." She took him by the hand and led him to a sunny spot. "I think it's wonderful you've decided turn your life around."
"Oh yeah," Meleager grunted as he sat down next to her. "It's all turned around all right."
The bard furrowed her brows. "What's wrong?"
He looked at his hands. "Well, like I said, I quit drinking, about six months ago. After you, you know, saved my life and all, it just seemed to be a good idea. It was ? great. I started working out again, my skills started coming back. Pretty soon I was taking little jobs here and there." He noticed Gabrielle looking at him, then waved his hand dismissively. "Got back into the whole, you know, 'helping people out' thing."
A snort from Xena earned her another sharp glance from Gabrielle. "And?" Xena prompted, her smile managing to be sweet and insulting at the same time.
"Yeah, well," Meleager continued. "About a month ago I came across some slavers kidnapping this group of women, so ah, of course I rescued them." The dry swagger was back in his voice, but he seemed to be picking his words carefully. "Turns out they were all, um, priestesses and acolytes, and naturally they were all extremely ? grateful, so I thought it would be a good idea for me to stick around and, you know, protect them in their travels."
"What god do they follow?" Gabrielle asked, her bardic curiosity aroused.
"A um, Sumerian Earth goddess?"
Xena looked up at this. "Wait a minute," she broke in, ice-blue eyes twinkling. "This is too perfect. Let me guess: Inanna?"
Meleager shot her a look of surprise. "Uh ? oh. Hades ? yeah." Meleager admitted. He tried to shrug it off, but he looked like a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
Xena folded her arms over her chest and fixed Meleager with a leering grin that slowly gave way to a serious fit of chuckles. Gabrielle looked from one warrior to the other, puzzled and stunned - even if it was Meleager's expense, Xena almost never laughed out loud like this.
The bard desperately searched her memory for the familiar name. Inanna? Sumerian Earth goddess ... Oh yeah! Ancient cult. Surprised it still exists actually ? come on, think Gabrielle! OK, her followers had a festival once a year to celebrate the spring and the fertility of the Earth, and they?
Then it came to her. "Meleager?" She crossed her arms and gave him a chastening look. "Oh, Meleager!"
Xena shook her head, still giggling. "The great Meleager the Mighty is traveling with a cult of Sacred Whores."
"Hey!" Meleager responded with perfect seriousness, standing indignantly. "It's not like that! They do a lot of good work - fine work! It's important putting people in touch with the Goddess!"
Xena stared at him, lips tightly shut. She nodded soberly.
Meleager turned to Gabrielle. "I mean, you'd be surprised how ? spiritual I am these days."
Then Gabrielle lost it, shaking so hard with laughter she almost tumbled down the slope. At that, Xena gave up trying to hold it in, masking her own laughter by grabbing a linen towel and heading towards the brook.
Meleager just looked back and forth helplessly at two women, finally throwing up his hands. "Heathens!"
Xena had returned, a short string of fish in hand. Gabrielle was tending the fire, prompting Meleager to finish the story of how he'd won the battle of Cydonia. "Well, " he said, his usual boastfulness nowhere to be found, "we really owed everything to the Cretan militia. If they hadn't held off the Turks, gave us time to regroup, we'd have all been dead. Everyone in Greece still owes them a lot. Too many of them died giving us time to get away."
"I know. I've heard the story. They were selfless and brave," Gabrielle said softly. "But you carried the day."
"Yeah, but that was a couple of days later?"
Xena sat across from them and began cleaning the fish. In spite of the way she constantly teased Meleager, she liked him. He had his weaknesses - his drinking, the ease with which he would lie to get out of trouble - but she too had heard the stories of Meleager the Mighty while growing up. He was a strong warrior, had done a lot of good in his day. He may have fallen into his cups as the years went by, but lots of older, battle-weary soldiers needed solace. Some found it in drink, some took lovers who were much too young for them - careful Xena. She pushed that thought away.
At least he'd never given in to the darkness the way she had. There was something to admire in that, something Xena knew all too well. What was more, he even seemed to have dealt with his weaknesses since they'd met last.
Watching him with Gabrielle, Xena was struck by a thought: The bard had done this for him. Gabrielle had told her about the time he'd helped save Poteidaia. To hear the bard tell it, it was all Meleager's doing, yet knowing what she knew of the man and reading between the lines, then remembering how Gabrielle had literally traded her life for his when they'd met last, it was clear the young woman had urged another burned-out warrior towards redemption.
The thought both thrilled and frightened her. Gabrielle had so much goodness in her heart, was always ready to help nurture that goodness in others. Did Gabrielle only stay with her because this ex-warlord needed more help than most? Was she taking advantage of her young friend by keeping her near? Were there others, even more deserving, whom the bard would happily try to heal?
Xena sighed. Thoughts like these were short of madness, but they had some merit. She knew Gabrielle loved her and would bristle at these sort of suggestions - when she was being honest, the warrior knew Gabrielle was probably in love with her, which used to be a heartening thought, but lately had been just one more source of self-recrimination. Still, whatever might be going on between them, life on the road wasn't fair to her young friend. We really should be around people more, she mused again. Gabrielle needs them, and they need her. She's done more for me than I deserve. If only she weren't so wonderful?
"Xena!" the bard exclaimed, crossing the camp. "You're too quiet sometimes, you know? I didn't even see you there. Here," she said affectionately, "I'll do these." She knelt down and awkwardly picked up the remaining two whole fish, giggling as the slippery perch eluded her grasp, making Xena break into a warm smile. Then their eyes met for a moment. They locked.
Meleager noticed the long gaze and suddenly felt distinctly uncomfortable. Not knowing what else to do, he did what he always did when he felt that way. "Ahhh," he teased loudly, "you know, it does my old heart good to have women cooking for me for a change. Hey! Now, stop it!" he yelped, suddenly pelted by a twin volley of expertly thrown fish and innards. "Hades! Come on, I was kidding!"
* * *
They finished the meal just as darkness was falling, and with an eager invitation from Gabrielle, Meleager had retrieved his horse, a magnificent, black Arabian stallion, and joined the camp. Xena tried not to let her irritation show. She had, after all, just decided that her young friend needed company besides herself.
"Gods Meleager," the bard gasped. "Where'd you find that horse? He's ? huge. What's his, um, name?" Gabrielle had never been comfortable around horses - it had taken her the better part of a year to get used to Argo, and even riding double with Xena had been a hurdle for a time.
Meleager chuckled. "Gift from an old friend. Name's Melampus."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I'd have named him 'Colossus' or something."
The aging warrior laughed as he set his saddle on the ground. "Yeah well, guess I called him that because he always seems to understand what I'm saying." He patted the horse's flank. "Doncha' Mel?" The stallion whinnied softly and nodded its head. "There, see? He loves me." That got a loud snort. Meleager rolled his eyes and shrugged. "Well, he puts up with me anyway. About the best I can hope for these days."
"So," Xena asked as they settled around the fire, "are you finally going to tell us why you're here?"
"Oh that, well," he began sheepishly. "Aw damn. I know I'm the last person who should be asking this, because I owe you both so much already. But, well, I need your help."
"What's the trouble?" Gabrielle asked. Just like that. Xena almost smiled. Gabrielle would never refuse a friend in need.
"Well, like I said, I've been traveling with Lilith and her followers for about a month now," he began.
"Who?" Gabrielle asked, puzzled.
"Lilith. She's the um, High Priestess." He looked at her for a moment. "Why? You know her?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "No, but I'm pretty sure the original High Priestess of Inanna was called Lilith. Is that a traditional title or something?"
"Not that I know of," Meleager frowned.
"Oh well," Gabrielle shrugged. "Guess it doesn't matter. Go on."
Meleager looked like he was about to say something, then shook his head. "Anyway, they're headed for upper Macedonia. There's a place there they want to settle down and make a temple. I've been trying to keep them out of trouble, but they keep, um ? well, basically everywhere we go they keep on, um?"
"Offering services?" Xena suggested.
"Religious services," Meleager insisted. "You know, they have some very ? touching ceremonies."
"Oh, touching. Good choice of words I'm sure," Xena countered, trying to keep from laughing again.
"Xena!" Gabrielle hissed.
"Oh all right!" Meleager gave up. "They can't stop preaching about the power of Inanna, and among other things," he said righteously, "that means inviting everyone to, well ? commune with the Goddess. Through them."
Xena raised her eyebrow even higher than it already was. He turned to Gabrielle for help, noting how the bard at least seemed genuinely interested. "They still even consider themselves virgins, you know, since their ah, supplicants are actually doing ? it ? with the Goddess and not them. They celebrate the pleasure it brings, both for those who come to worship and for themselves."
He looked down, a little embarrassed. "I don't know how to explain it exactly, but it's more than just great sex. I mean, I have had plenty of that after all," he added with his usual bluster, then turned serious again. "But with Lilith, it really does give you this ? feeling of being connected to, well ? everything." He shot a look back at the Warrior Princess. "And it is quite touching!"
Xena sighed. "All right, I can see how guarding a group of sexually eager women could be a problem."
"No kidding," Meleager groaned. "Every slaver and his brother is coming out of the woodwork. I've done OK, but I've also been lucky. Slavers are usually small bands, not well organized, but they're starting to group together. Actually, I think they're kind of pissed off at me. I can't do it alone anymore."
"So why not hire some mercenaries?" Gabrielle asked. "Certainly you must have friends from the old days?" She stopped as both warriors looked at her like she was stupid. "What?" she said, annoyed.
"Because mercenaries aren't exactly known for respecting women, Gabrielle," Xena said simply, her tactical mind settling over this unique situation. "They'd get distracted and couldn't do their job. Not unless you could hire a lot of them," she grinned, "work them in shifts. But that brings its own problems. Unless you could trust every single one of them - not likely - there'd be at least one who'd sell you out." She turned towards Meleager. "Actually, I'm wondering how you've managed it alone."
"Well, you know," Meleager responded, a little boastfully, "I've got that 'warrior code' thing and all?" Xena shot him a look. "OK," he admitted. "I'm not as young as I used to be?"
Xena couldn't resist. "Having trouble, um?" She waved her hand. "Keeping up?" she offered.
"Of course not!" he shot back. The swagger returned to his voice. "It just means I have a certain perspective about these things."
Xena rolled her eyes. Meleager growled, then sighed. "Look, can we stop this? I'll try to be honest if you'll just, I dunno, quit being so damn smug!"
Xena relented. "All right Meleager," she said, sighing. She really was being unfair. Men were so easy to tease this way. He was a good man at heart, and really didn't deserve it. "You're among friends here. I accept your truce."
"Thanks," he said simply. "Fact is, I mean, Lilith ? I've never met anyone like her. If?" He looked away for a moment. "Never mind. The important thing is that I have to get her followers to wherever they're going in Macedonia, and I couldn't think of anyone else who could help."
"Because we're women," Gabrielle said, almost a question.
"Yeah," Meleager gave a pained expression, "but I should've known that wouldn't matter much. They, um, took to the Amazons as well as anyone else?"
"Uh, Meleager - the Amazons?" Xena prompted.
"Well, that's the only place I could think of to take them, where they'd be safe and, you know, stay out of trouble," he replied.
"Meleager," Gabrielle was both exasperated and curious. "How'd you do that?"
"Well, the Amazons kind of owe me," he said simply. He really seemed to be telling the truth, without his usual hedging and embellishments. "I helped them out a couple of times, years back, and they're not the sort who forget. I really hated calling that particular favor in, but what else was I gonna do?"
Gabrielle realized there had to be a big story behind this. It was extremely rare the Amazons allowed themselves to fall into anyone's debt, much less a man. Still, she let it drop for now.
Meleager continued. "I brought Lilith and the rest there, figured it was the best place to leave them while I found you two." He gave a long, groaning sigh. "But, of course, women need the Goddess as much as men. More, from?" He stopped. "From what I can tell. Should have expected that I guess ? well anyway, at least they're safe for now."
He looked at Xena. "I know you have at least some influence with the Amazons. I have permission to travel on the territories, but it's going to take more than the three of us to get Lilith to Macedonia safely. I need some Amazon warriors to come with us, and I'm out of favors. Their Queen seems to be away somewhere, but I think between you and me and Lilith we can convince the acting regent, Ephiny, to help us out."
Gabrielle spoke up. "I don't think you'll have any problem with the Amazons Meleager," she said, pausing for dramatic effect. "I'm their Queen."
Meleager's head spun around, his eyes stared wide. "Say that again?"
"I'm the Queen of the Amazons," she said, unsuccessfully hiding the pride she felt.
Meleager rubbed his temples as if in pain, then sighed. "You know, I shouldn't even believe that. So why doesn't it surprise me?"
Gabrielle just smiled. "You're forgetting who I travel with. Anything can happen around Xena."
Oh no bard, Xena thought. It's the other way. Anything can happen around you.
Meleager woke to the sound of a strangled cry. He immediately rose, quick and quiet, instinctively alert, boot dagger pulled from under the bedroll and angled back along his forearm. He scanned the area, looking for trouble from the direction of the scream. There, in the pale moonlight, he made out Gabrielle kneeling over where Xena lay. He was concerned that Xena might have been harmed somehow, but that feeling was tempered by Gabrielle keeping still. Puzzled, he silently crept a little closer.
After a noiseless step or two, he froze in place. He could just make out the bard softly humming what he recognized as a love ballad in between soothing words. Although Gabrielle had her back to him, he could tell she was gently stroking Xena's hair and face, and could sense the woman warrior's tense body gradually relax.
A short time later, when Xena seemed to be resting quietly again, Gabrielle leaned forward. Meleager couldn't tell from where he stood, but was almost certain the bard was gently kissing the warrior. Silently, he timed his footsteps to match Gabrielle's movements as she backed away from the now peacefully sleeping woman.
He managed to be seated on his bedroll as Gabrielle reached hers, although he had no chance to pretend to be asleep before the young woman turned to look at him.
"Nightmare?" he said simply.
"Yeah," Gabrielle whispered wearily, a little embarrassed. "They almost went away for a while, but after we fought the Horde?" Her voice trailed off.
Meleager nodded. "It's OK kid," he said softly. "I get 'em too. Used to be pretty bad."
He looked down for a moment. Gods Gabrielle - the Horde? What keeps you from getting nightmares? Then, suddenly, he thought he knew the answer.
When he looked back up, Gabrielle was staring straight ahead, hugging her knees. The young woman's concern was something you could almost feel in the air. Meleager reached out a callused hand and touched the edge of her bedroll. "She's lucky, you know, to have you. Me ? I just started drinking myself to sleep every night. Next thing I knew I'd lost a few years."
There was a moment of silence. Then Gabrielle said quietly, "Listen, Meleager, don't say anything about this to Xena in the morning. It's not the sort of thing she wants people to know. She probably won't remember it anyway. I'd just as soon she didn't."
"No problem kid. I understand," he smiled warmly. "Are you gonna be OK?"
She nodded. "Yeah. I'll stay up a bit longer, make sure she's really all right. You go back to sleep though. No sense in all of us being zombies tomorrow."
"OK. Will do," he replied, smiling at her again as he lay down. "You know," he said softly, "she really is a very lucky woman, Gabrielle. And you're ? you're a very special one."
The bard rested her forehead on her knees, then turned towards him with a smile. "Thanks Meleager."
The aging warrior closed his eyes as he settled back. No. Thank you kid. Thank you for Xena and me both.
Gabrielle was startled awake the next morning by the sound of clashing steel. She lifted her head in bleary alarm, then heard the voices and realized it was Xena and Meleager sparring. "Great," she snorted, then rolled back over. They'd be at it for hours.
Sure enough, Gabrielle had time to finish her nap, stoke the fire, and get breakfast going before the two of them took a break and returned to the camp. Meleager threw himself down with a loud groan. He looked completely exhausted. Xena hardly seemed winded, but Gabrielle knew the warrior would never let it show even if she were about to collapse. Wait a minute ? Ha! There it was, the slight, telltale rush of breath as Xena sat down. The bard smiled. His skills really must be coming back.
She picked up two waterskins, handing one to Meleager, who was closer. As he took it gratefully, the bard noticed he sported an ugly-looking bruise along the right side of his jaw. "By Artemis Meleager! Are you OK?"
"Yeah," he grimaced as she touched it lightly.
"Xena?" Gabrielle began.
"He nicked me," the warrior shrugged.
"I said I was sorry," Meleager grunted.
Gabrielle crossed to Xena and gave her the second waterskin. "Let me see," the bard said quietly.
"Gabrielle, it's nothing. Hardly a scratch." When the bard didn't move, Xena rolled her eyes and extended her right arm. It took a second to find, but a small cut showed just above where her wrist bracer ended. For once the warrior wasn't exaggerating. It really was hardly a scratch.
"You clobbered him for that?" the younger woman asked in a voice full of reproach. She seemed both angry and puzzled.
Xena looked away. Her gut instinct was to just shrug and say nothing. Instead, she found herself being honest, hating the thought of Gabrielle being angry with her for any reason. "He surprised me," she admitted finally. "I did it without thinking."
"It's all right Gabrielle," Meleager insisted from the other side of the fire. "It happens. Really it was my fault. I kinda got wrapped up in what we were doing and got careless." He looked at his hands. "I haven't had a workout like that in a long time. It feels ? good to be active again, to have my body just do things the way it used to?" Then, barely a whisper, "Almost like it used to."
He shook his head, then his swagger came back. "Surprised you, huh, Warrior Princess?" He raised his own eyebrow. "Well, fancy that."
"The only surprise was that you asked me to spar the first place. Want to go again?" Xena challenged.
Meleager smiled, rubbing his jaw. "Well, maybe tomorrow. I'm uh, not as young as I used to be."
The bard looked from one to the other, then finally gave an exasperated shrug. "Warriors!" she huffed. "Come on. Let's eat. We've got work to do if you two are finished fooling around."
A short while later they broke camp and headed down the road to Amazon territory, the two warriors simply leading their mounts and walking on either side of Gabrielle. For her part, the bard couldn't stop asking questions about Inanna's followers - and, Xena noted uncomfortably, Gabrielle seemed especially interested in talking about how they invited the Amazons to worship.
However, it was almost worth it to watch Meleager the Mighty struggle to explain it to his supposedly innocent young friend. "Well," Meleager swallowed. "You see, one of their core beliefs is the idea that, um, women should enjoy the, ah ? physical ? pleasures ? as much as men do."
"Well," Gabrielle said loudly, deliberately turning towards him, "that sounds familiar." She didn't have to look to know Xena was glaring at her, and from the expression on Meleager's face as he glanced over her shoulder, it must have been a doozy. Gabrielle smiled sweetly. "So?"
"Uh, yeah," he said slowly. "Well, anyway, they also believe that everyone should have a chance to reach the Goddess, and I mean everyone. I've never seen them turn anyone away. Rich or poor, young or old - well, I mean, not too young anyway - they're all welcome to the Goddess. Actually, they believe every woman is already in touch with Inanna, the priestesses just have a special bond, since they've dedicated their um, bodies to her and all. Mostly it's men who need help, and women can get especially ? uh, close, through them. And I swear," he said, his voice drifting off, "when you see the way their worshippers look afterwards, you believe it."
"Makes quite a show I'll bet," Xena interrupted dryly.
"It's not like I watch, Xena," he said, without a hint of defensiveness. "I wouldn't presume." That earned him a surprised arched eyebrow. "Look, I keep telling you it's a beautiful thing, and you keep making jokes. You'll see for yourself in a day or so. Let's drop it 'til then."
With this he turned and wordlessly kept walking, leaving two slightly stunned women staring at his back. Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a long look. Finally Xena shook her head. "I guess he was serious about becoming spiritual."
"I guess so," Gabrielle replied.
Stophacles looked out through the front flaps of his tent. The camp was larger than he could ever remember it being, and it was likely to get larger still. Why can't things just be simple anymore? he asked himself, then spat on the ground in disgust.
"Still angry?" Klytus asked.
"Damn right! Those bitches are costing me money, Klytus."
"Forget about the cost. Think of the reward."
"To Tartarus with that!" Stophacles spat again. "If I wanted to spend money to make money I'd have been a merchant! Slavers don't buy things, they take them! Life should be simple, and this is getting complicated, all over a bunch of worthless whores."
"A bunch of exceptionally well-trained whores," Klytus corrected, reclining back on his pallet and guzzling another mug of ale. "Which hardly makes them worthless. Just keep thinking about that quarter million dinars."
"Yeah," Stophacles said with irritation, taking his own seat and pouring himself another mug. "A quarter million, before expenses, and split how many ways now? Is it three or four? I'm losing track."
"Five," Klytus replied. "You, me, the two mercenary captains, and that smith, Brack."
Stophacles groaned, "Right, Brack. I still think we shouldn't have cut him in for an equal share."
"Had us by the short hairs pal." Klytus reached for the pitcher. "We're out of front money and he's the only one who could get us that many cages and sets of chains in time. Besides, your share will still be more than you'd make in five summers. Maybe we can retire somewhere quiet and just stiff the smith."
"Yeah," Stophacles grunted, thinking that wasn't a bad idea. "But this still smells of a bad deal. If Xerxes is giving us a quarter million, how much do you think he'll make out of it?"
"Trying to think as little as possible," Klytus replied, hefting his mug. "Those whores will likely have an Amazon escort. We need all the help we can get."
"Well if they don't I'm gonna look mighty stupid. Damn Meleager to Tartarus!" Stophacles spat again. "I don't know how he managed it, but I swear I'll see him roasting over a slow fire before this is over!"
"Let that thought keep you warm partner," Klytus yawned. "Let it keep you warm."