~ Bringing Down the Barriers ~
by Janine Hilltop
Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, Ares and Joxer are not mine. They belong to other people I just want to play with them. All others are mine, hands off.
: The main characters are women in love and sexual situations occur in this story so if consensual same sex activity bothers you or is illegal, go some where else.
: It's a Xena story; the usual bad guys get hurt.
In my Xenaverse, there is no India, no Eli, and no Ides of March for the ladies, no Eve, no Twilight of the Gods and especially no trip to Japa. Ephiny is still Regent and Joxer is still Joxer, sorry just couldn't change that.
: As always first to my family for allowing me my hobby and then to my favorite Sweetdish beta reader, Nat, you're the best. Thanks. Special thanks to Janelle who lent me her mangled name just for this little tale. Very special thanks to LL who helped me to "do something scary."
Gabrielle stands looking over the battlefield littered with debris. The scene is horrifyingly familiar. Another warlord had wreaked havoc on a small village for not paying the tribute or protection money. The villagers had gallantly come out to meet the army, but were soon crushed. This is what Xena and Gabrielle had ridden into. Joxer had sent them a message asking for help and was walking up the hill to meet the girls. Xena came up the backside of the hill from tying off Argo and stands with Gabrielle waiting for Joxer. Gabrielle turns to the warrior for Xena's warm and comforting embraces, not sure what response she'll get. Lately it was a quick hug and Xena would let go.
"I'll never get used to the loss of so many lives." Gabrielle whispers. Xena tightens her arms around her best friend and lover, feeling some wall come down.
"As much destruction as my armies and I caused; you'd think that it wouldn't bother me anymore either." Xena says as a shadow of pain crosses her noble features.
"I know how the past tortures you and I know how to help you forget at least for a moment." Gabrielle says as she leans back staring into Xena's eyes. Xena wants to melt into what Gabrielle seems to be offering; she just doesn't trust her feelings right now. They are lost in the moment and reluctantly separate as Joxer joins them.
"Hey you two, what's up?" Joxer innocently asks.
"Your timing is superb as usual." Gabrielle says with a smirk. Xena glances away so Joxer won't see the blush spreading. Joxer looks at the two women not noticing a thing, waiting for an answer.
"Where's the army?" Xena asks Joxer all business again after she gets control of her emotions.
"They left with a herd of cattle yesterday." Joxer says as he points towards the creek. There is a clearly defined line of torn up trail crossing the creek and heading north.
"Good, an easy trail." Xena remarks as she shades her eyes from the glaring sun.
"Yeah, even I could tell which direction they went." Joxer says leaning over Xena's shoulder. Xena and Gabrielle look at each other and shrug.
"Like I said, an easy trail. Joxer why don't you scout ahead and find their camp? We'll catch up to you after we check out the battlefield." Xena suggests.
"Really? I knew you'd finally recognize my superior tracking skills! I'm on it. When I find it, I'll send a signal." Joxer gushes as he checks his sword.
"You do that." Gabrielle says, shifting her feet trying to ease the growing heat in her loins. Joxer runs off before realizing it is the wrong way. Gabrielle is relieved that Xena hasn't pulled away yet, savoring the few moments of closeness. She knows that it will end soon, too soon as Xena pulls away and heads for Argo.
"Why don't you just whistle to call Argo and stay with me?" Gabrielle calls down after Xena.
"Because we wouldn't get anything done!" Xena calls over her shoulder.
"Would that be such a bad thing?" Gabrielle asks herself, watching the long black shimmering hair sway to the easy stride of Xena's muscular legs carrying her down the hill.
Gabrielle often thought back to the first time she saw Xena, fighting off a group of Draco's men that had captured some Gabrielle's village women, Gabrielle and her sister included. Xena was able to defeat the thugs even without her weapons that she had buried while trying to forget her violent and bloody past. Gabrielle was enthralled from that point and knew that Xena had something that Gabrielle needed. Gabrielle did not know it then, but she had found her soulmate and Gabrielle's life would never be the same.
Xena had upon her conscious the weight of hundreds, no probably thousands of souls that she had sent to Tarturus. Xena took it upon herself to right some of the wrongs that her army had caused. She knew it would not be an easy task, just the opposite and knew it would take a lifetime to right some of the wrongs of the past. Xena knew it might one day cost her her life, but if that happened she thought, so be it. It would be a small price to pay for all the damage that she had caused. It just so happened that the fates decreed that in saving a group of women bound for the slavers boats, Xena found her soulmate and everything changed.
Xena walks down the hill, sorely missing Gabrielle already. Knowing that soon Gabrielle would have her arms around her waist made Xena's breath catch, the hurt caused by recent events just wouldn't ease up. She catches Argo and head back to the hilltop to collect Gabrielle. Still desperately missing the loving connection recently ripped apart, Xena extends a hand down to Gabrielle and pulls her up. Gabrielle settles in behind Xena and wraps her arms around Xena's wonderfully strong body. Xena tries to ignore the almost silent sigh as Gabrielle settles in behind Xena.
The cattle tracks lead off to the north and the girls follow the trail. Soon they catch up with Joxer. He is watching some smoke columns rising in the distance.
"Looks like they hit another village," Gabrielle comments.
"Yeah, I passed a lot of refugees about an hour ago, headed east." Joxer says.
"Did you ask them who the warlord is?" Xena shot at Joxer.
"Of course I did!" Joxer blusters, "They were just trying to get away too fast for me to catch them!"
"Let's go east and try to find them." Gabrielle suggests.
"I think I want to find out what is left of the village first, see if anyone needs help." Xena says as she heels Argo into a trot.
"I'll catch up later!" Joxer shouts from behind as Xena and Gabrielle head into the village.
The village is deserted; houses burned to the ground, chickens pecking in the dust for bits of grain spilled from bags ripped open and scattered. The well has been poisoned, the crops in the field trampled. Gabrielle tightens her grip as she looks around and sees nothing alive.
"Hey can I get a breath any time soon?" Xena whispers to Gabrielle, holding Gabrielle's hand to ease the tension in the air.
"Sorry, this is terrible. It's worse than the last village!" Gabrielle asks in an anguished voice, loosening her grip but not letting go of Xena's hand. "Who has done this?"
"I don't know but I'll bet those arrows will be a clue," Xena says, moving Argo closer to a door still standing full of arrows.
"I don't recognize the colors," Xena says, pulling out several of the arrows. "Wait a minute?"
A flash of fire appears across the street and a man appears, tall dark, well muscled, and dressed in black leather with a very lethal sword hanging from his belt.
"Ares. I thought I smelled your stench here!" Xena snarls. Gabrielle tightens her grip possessively. Ares notices this and grimaces.
"Still dragging that irritating little blonde around I see." Ares says as he saunters over. Xena jumps down from Argo and heads Ares off.
"Who I am dragging around is none of your business, Ares. We are through!" Xena shoots back in Ares' face. With a finger in his chest, Xena backs Ares into a house that is still smoldering. Ares notices where he is headed and jumps away from Xena.
"What warlord did you put up to this slaughter and was it the same one that hit the village to the south?" Xena demands.
"Oh it was one of my worshipers, but it wasn't much of a slaughter. The villagers all cleared out when they heard it was your army headed their way." Ares says gloating.
"What, my army? I don't have an army and you know that. What are you trying to do here?" Xena demands.
"Just a little fun. Like what is coming down the road now." Ares says, pointing back up the road.
Xena turns around and sees one of her ex-lieutenants heading towards them with more men than she can handle. Xena vaults up onto Argo and grabs the reins from Gabrielle.
"This isn't the end of this, Ares." Xena snarls as she heels Argo into a gallop, Gabrielle grabs onto Xena for dear life.
"Yes it is, for now!" Ares shouts and starts laughing as Xena and Gabrielle escape into the woods.
Xena pulls Argo up to a stop to listen for signs of pursuit. Neither Xena nor Gabrielle hear anything.
"They probably didn't leave the village." Gabrielle says hopefully.
"Ares has plans for them that's for sure." Xena mumbles as she heads Argo to the sound of running water. They find a river with a small waterfall and decide to camp for the night.
Xena takes Argo to a stand of trees for the night and Gabrielle sets up the campsite. With a small fire going, Gabrielle sets out food for dinner. Xena brings a couple of fish back and the couple enjoys a quiet dinner together. Xena spends some time sharpening her sword and Gabrielle wanders over and starts to rub Xena's shoulders.
"MMMMmmm," Xena murmurs "that feels good."
"It should, it's the same technique you use on me." Gabrielle whispers in Xena's ear gently pressing on her back. Xena can feel the soft pressure of Gabrielle's breasts and leans her face back. Gabrielle takes Xena's face between her hands and caresses the worry lines, smoothing the frown that so often crosses Xena's brow.
"You'll end up with wrinkles if you keep frowning all the time." Gabrielle says, spreading her fingers over Xena's face, massaging gently.
'Not with you around.' Xena thinks, wanting to take Gabrielle's hands from her face and remembering a day in the not too distant past. Gabrielle would start the foreplay with an innocent massage and ending both women exhausted and sated. She longs for the release that Gabrielle would give her. It might be a while though?coming out of the daydream as Gabrielle moves away.
"Xena are you ok?" Gabrielle asks Xena moving to the other side of the fire.
"Yeah, just thinking. I miss that, your touch." Xena says almost to herself, glancing up as Gabrielle slips the night shirt over her head. Xena can see the scar that was caused by a Persian arrow on Gabrielle's shoulder. Xena almost lost the bard then, with the poison coursing though her lover's veins and Xena having to make a decision between slowing down the approaching army or riding on to the next town to get the antidote Gabrielle needed. Xena relived the horror of losing Gabrielle again and had promised Gabrielle then that the two of them would be together forever, even in death. She had promised this to her soulmate to help ease the anxiety Xena felt every time she could see Gabrielle withdraw from her. Xena still saw the dark shadows from time to time when Gabrielle was tired or upset with her. The trust was still being rebuilt after Hope and the death of Solan.
Gabrielle looked back across the fire at Xena, "It's still too early, I hope you can understand? I still don't know how I feel or if I can trust myself again," she said as she rolled up in her sleeping furs.
"Well, I know part of the fault is mine, so let me take it," Xena keeps to herself as she watches Gabrielle roll away and listens for the soft sobs she knows are soon to start.
The morning sun shining through the leaves wakes Xena. She reaches for Gabrielle and feels the emptiness next to her. Glancing around the fire, she sees Gabrielle has already been up. Lately Gabrielle wasn't sleeping and would be up long before Xena, if she was sleeping at all.
'She's probably in the river.' thinks Xena sitting up and rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She hears Gabrielle splashing in the river and smiles. Stirring the coals, Xena gets the fire going for some tea. By the time Gabrielle is back from her bath there is hot tea and leftovers for breakfast.
Xena gets up to head to the river. She dives into the water without a splash and swims around a bit. As she climbs out Ares appears.
"You sure know how to ruin a good morning." Xena says with disdain as she slowly dries off and dresses. Ares just stares, leering at the naked beautiful womanly figure in front of him.
"Your eyes are going to pop out if you don't blink soon." Xena warns Ares who jerks and blinks.
"You are still the most beautiful thing around." Ares says with his deep rumbling bass voice, starting towards Xena.
"Stay right where you are, I can still kick your butt naked." Xena warns, pulling her leather armor on.
"Oh but what fun. That's the kind of foreplay that I really can get into." Ares says stepping closer to Xena. Xena spins into a roundhouse kick catching Ares in the chest. Ares tries to block the kick and stumbles backwards, she follows closely with a punch, Ares sweeps the punch aside but she slips inside his defense and shoves him into the river.
"That is so not fair!" Ares sputters, coming up for air.
"I told you not to come any closer." Xena shouts over her shoulder heading back to camp.
Gabrielle looks up and smiles at Xena approaching. Xena picks up her metal breastplate, settling the shoulder straps. Gabrielle steps up to her to help buckle the sides.
"That took a while, I was going to come looking for you." Gabrielle says wrapping her arms around Xena, pulling her close.
"What's wrong? Can't live without me?" Xena whispers intently, kissing Gabrielle and enjoying the closeness that is easy and spontaneous this morning.
With a startled laugh and a hesitant voice, Gabrielle replies, "You know, I can't." Xena smiles and brushes a lock of hair behind Gabrielle's ear.
"Well, it's a good thing you didn't come down to the river, Ares showed up." Xena says sitting down with Gabrielle. Xena takes a cup of tea and munches on some bread and cheese. "He's up to something. I just don't know what and haven't seen enough to figure that out."
Gabrielle had started to slide her hand up Xena's thigh not thinking. She was thinking about what Xena looked like swimming but stops short when she hears that.
"He sure knows how to ruin a good morning." Gabrielle grumbles.
"That's exactly what I told him." Xena says laughing. "Let's break camp and head into town." Feeling good about the morning and Gabrielle's unconscious closeness, Xena smiles as she heads over to Argo. Xena feels another thread connect between the two, and tries not to think of how few the thin gossamer links still are.
Xena and Gabrielle walk into the next town. Leaving Gabrielle at the tavern to talk to the locals, Xena heads to the blacksmith to look for information on weapons.
"I think my horse's shoe is loose. Can you take a look?" Xena asks the smith, looking around for any helpers. She sees a barrel in the corner full of swords and in the corner a pile of metal rods the right size for more swords. In the back there is a pile of something else, she can't tell, it might be shields covered with a blanket.
"Sure, tie her up over there. I'll be with you in a few minutes." The smith grunts.
"I'm looking for a new dagger; do you know where I might be able to check some out?" Xena asks as she wanders around.
"The ones that I make are special ordered. I don't have time for another order. The last order I took was way too big and I had to hire a couple of young boys to help out. You might want to try the other smithy at the edge of town." The smith says between swings.
"Who placed such a big order? Surely you could do with the business?" Xena remarks looking around.
"I don't ask. I just make the order. The money was right." The smith says with a side glance after looking at Argo's shoes. "The shoes are fine. What did you say your name was?"
"I didn't. Thanks for looking." Xena says taking Argo and heading back to the tavern.
Xena walks in to find Gabrielle backed into a corner. Her heart jumps seeing Gabrielle in danger, even though Xena knows Gabrielle could handle the situation since Gabrielle was getting pretty good with her staff. Xena saunters over to Gabrielle, leaving a hand on her shoulder as she slides behind the bard. Gabrielle reaches up and squeezes Xena's hand saying she was okay. Xena turns around and looks the tough guys over.
"Is there a problem, gentlemen?" Xena asks with the undertone of 'Don't mess with my Gabrielle'.
"This irritating little blonde was asking too many questions. Just like you. Now get out or we'll throw you out!" the lead tough guy threatens, cracking his knuckles.
"You really don't want to do that," Xena warns "you might get hurt." She can sense Gabrielle setting her feet; hears her breath quicken and knowing she was shifting her grip on her staff for a swing.
"Who's going to stop us? You and that little girlie behind you?" the tough guy laughs.
Xena steps on the end of a bench causing it to tip up and catch the tough guy in the face. He falls back clutching his bleeding face.
"Get them!" he shouts. Xena jumps backwards up onto the table giving Gabrielle a clear range of motion. Xena kicks one tough guy in the face making him fly into another. Gabrielle swings her staff up from the ground and catches another tough guy in the crotch. He falls back tripping another. Xena throws a pitcher knocking the next one out cold and Gabrielle smacks the last one standing in the back of the head, sending him into oblivion.
"Anyone else have any objections to my friend and me asking questions?" Xena asks, brushing her hands off. When everyone else left turns back to their drinks Xena and Gabrielle step over the thugs and leave the tavern. As the two women leave town, Gabrielle thinks back to the fight. Gabrielle could still feel the connection they had established during the fight; it had seemed so warm and natural.
'Maybe there was a chance that Xena would forgive me.' Gabrielle muses, hoping for more.
"Hey snap out of it." Xena says to Gabrielle, pulling her back on the trail.
"Sorry, just daydreaming." Gabrielle says with a blush.
"Well I'm not quite sure but I am sure that I can think of something." Gabrielle says stepping in front of Xena, causing her to stop short and bump into Gabrielle. Xena looks into Gabrielle's eyes and thinks she sees some of the love that was there months ago.
"I guess we can camp soon. It will be dark quick enough." Xena replies slightly confused by the emotional waves Gabrielle is throwing off. Tearing her eyes away as Argo tugs on the reins, Xena tugs back and they start to walk again. Gabrielle slides her arm around Xena's waist as Xena lays her arm over Gabrielle's shoulders.
Soon they come to a small creek crossing the trail and they head upstream along the path to find a clearing along the way. In no time Xena has a couple of trout gutted and spitted for the fire. Gabby is making her dumplings that are Xena's favorite. The meal passes in quiet companionship. As the fire dies down the two lay out the blankets on opposite sides of the fire and watch the stars appear.
"You know, it's warmer on this side of the fire," Xena says leaning up on one elbow and looking over at Gabrielle. Gabrielle looks at Xena with relief at the invitation and gathers up her bedroll and moves closer next to Xena. With a sigh she lays down and starts to roll away from the warrior. Xena slips an arm under Gabrielle's shoulder and pulls her into a gentle embrace and settles Gabrielle on her shoulder.
'I will admit I was searching for something to fill the void in my life.' Xena thinks to herself as Gabrielle accepts the shoulder and settles down, 'I was so lucky you came along when you did.'
"I thank the fates for the day that you came along." Gabby mumbles, drifting off to sleep. Xena feels a tear fall on her shoulder from Gabrielle, maybe both of them would finally get some much needed sleep.
The morning dawns cool and bright. Xena slowly slides her arm out from under Gabrielle, trying not to wake her. The memory of the night before brings a smile to Xena's face as she slides out from the blankets to get dressed. It was too cool for a swim, the weather must be changing Xena thinks to herself. If it rained too much, the trail would be lost. She stirs the coals and starts to heat some water for tea. Gabrielle groans and stretches, sitting up.
"What happened to the warm weather?" Gabrielle gasps as the cool morning air hits her. She grabs the blankets and wraps herself up.
"I think we are in for some wet weather. It smells wet." Xena says, looking up at the sky.
"Great, I just love tramping around in the rain." Gabrielle grumbles. Xena looks at her with a smile, feeling the old familiarity of a non-morning Gabrielle.
"Some times I think you are like that on purpose." Xena says looking away.
"Like what?" Gabrielle asks from under the blankets.
"Oh, just grumpy enough that I have to come over there and do something about it." Xena says with a laugh, enjoying the teasing banter and watching Gabrielle trying to dress under the blankets.
"Not right now, I'll freeze!" Gabrielle says sticking her head out. "Where is my jacket?"
"It's not that cold, come have some hot tea. You'll feel better and warm up a bit." Xena says holding out a mug.
"I know a better way to warm up." Gabrielle teases, moving to sit next to Xena. Xena looks at the bard raising an eyebrow at the blush rising on Gabrielle's face. Xena clears her throat.
"Where do you want to go this morning?" Gabrielle sniffs the tea. "Umm, mint and lots of honey, just the way I like it. You remembered."
"We'll head north and try to find the trail." Xena says taking the mug from Gabrielle, not sure if Gabrielle knows she said that out loud. They finish packing up the camp and head up the trail.
"Looks like the herd is getting smaller. Either they are loosing the animals or selling them off." Xena says studying the tracks.
"They had a big party," Joxer says, bursting from the bushes.
"And how do you know that?" Gabrielle asks, "Like you were close enough to see them?"
"I was, I even thought about signing up to get inside the camp." Joxer says, pulling on his sword.
"What would you do, be the cook?" Xena asks. "You could make your famous soup and delay the whole group. You know that is not such a bad idea. Go back and join up as the cook, make your soup and we'll come in and finish them off."
"What, let you have all the fun? I want in on the action." Joxer says, bouncing from foot to foot.
"Let's just find the camp ok?" Xena says. "Where is it?"
Joxer leads the way to the camp, a couple of hills over. Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer watch the camp through the rest of the day, counting soldiers and scouts.
"Ok, here's the plan. Joxer you go over and get ready to scare the cattle into a stampede. Gabrielle you head over to the corral and let down the back fence line, I will go in and confront the leader. I may be able to bluff Kantak into a fight." Xena says pointing to the others as she explains the plan.
"Didn't you tell me Kantak was the worst fighter when he was in your army? How did he get control of the army?" Gabrielle asks.
"He was also the stupidest, that's why Ares was able to start this rampage." Xena says with a sneer.
Xena heads down to the camp while Gabrielle and Joxer split up. As she passes the sentries a shout goes up. Out of the biggest tent in the center of camp a huge ugly hairy man steps out. Xena loosens her chakram as she saunters up to him.
"Kantak, what have you gotten yourself into now?" Xena growls.
"Wouldn't you like to know? Ares said you might be dropping by, messing up the plan." Kantak says, motioning the sentries to surround Xena.
"When was the last time I beat you senseless? Oh wait, you have no sense so I couldn't have beat you senseless but I would be only too happy to try to beat some sense into you now," Xena says listening for Gabrielle's whistle.
"Always the joker. You weren't cracking any jokes the last time I saw you. In fact you were the one getting some sense beaten out of her. Want to try the Gauntlet again?" Kantak asks, pointing behind Xena at the men lining up with clubs and whips in their hands.
Suddenly a piercing whistle sounds from behind the tents on the other side of the camp. The sounds of cattle being surprised and dust start to fill the air.
"Don't let them stampede!" Kantak shouts pushing past Xena who shoves him onto the ground. Quickly Xena jabs at his throat, putting the pinch on him.
"Where were you taking the cattle?" Xena asks, watching a drop of blood drip from his nose.
Kantak gasps and gropes at his throat, trying to breathe. "If I tell you, Ares will take my head."
"Makes no difference to me," Xena says, standing up and turning away.
"Xena, take the pinch off!" Gabrielle pleads, running up to Xena. Xena looks at Gabrielle and shrugs. She leans over and gabs at Kantak's throat, releasing the blood flow.
"She always was a softie, I don't know what you see in her," Ares says as he appears in a flash of blue flame.
"At least she has a conscious, which is more than I can say for you." Xena moves in front of Gabrielle, shielding her from Ares' leer.
Kantak tries to crawl away, hoping that he won't be missed. Ares throws a fire ball just in front of him, causing him to flinch and stop moving.
"I'm not done with you, maggot." Ares says to him. "What our friend here was trying to tell you was that he was headed to the coast to find the trader's ship. I have a special order for Grecian beef to fill."
"Well good luck trying to round them up, the herd has been scattered by now." Xena says, pulling her sword out.
"I don't have time for foreplay today, maybe tomorrow," Ares says, winking at Xena. He pulls Kantak up by the back of his collar and vanishes.
"Wow! That was close!" Joxer exclaims as he runs up to the girls. "I was nearly run over by that herd."
"You were supposed to chase the cattle away from you, not make them follow you," Xena says, glancing around the camp. "I'm going to look in Kantak's tent, watch for any of the raiders coming back."
Xena and Gabrielle duck inside the tent. On the table are maps and a ransom note addressed to the headmaster of a school.
"Xena listen to this: Put 10,000 dinars in the bucket at the well by the next dark moon or a student will loose a hand each day I have to wait." Gabrielle reads from one of the scrolls lying on the table. "What school, there isn't a school anywhere near here."
"According to this map, there is a school at the coast, a sailing school called Crystal Cove. Ares said they were headed to the coast. Gabrielle, I need you to write a note to the headmaster. Tell him to lock the school gates and keep everyone inside," Xena rolls up the map and steps out into the sunshine. "Joxer, I need you to take a note to the headmaster of the school at Crystal Cove."
"Really? That's where I learned how to sail! My Sail Master always said I would end up back where I started." Joxer said, taking the note from Gabrielle.
"Now what was that supposed to mean?" Gabrielle asks as Joxer runs off.
"I don't know, but let's get Argo and see if we can scatter the cattle some more." Xena says, shaking her head as Joxer trips over some roots.
"I'm ok! I'm ok!" Joxer shouts, jumping to his feet, adjusting his armor.
Xena and Gabrielle turn and head back out of the camp.
With the map in hand, Xena glances up and down the coastline.
"These reference points are pretty vague; see how the map has all these little coves? The school is in one of them, but doesn't mention any land marks. Maybe we need to take a boat out and find it from the water side," Xena says almost to herself.
"What? Did you say take a boat out? You know me and the ocean, if we do that I'll be eating octopus for days." Gabrielle says, spinning around to look at Xena.
"Don't worry, it wouldn't be but for a few hours, that won't kill you," laughs Xena. Gabrielle stares in shock at Xena, the thought of octopus and other non-savory items crossing her thoughts.
They walk down to the coastline arguing which way to head. Joxer appears on an out cropping near the water.
"Hey Xena, you found the entrance! Wow, I didn't even know about the back entrance until I left the school. Funny how my Sail Master never told me about it," Joxer mumbles to himself as the warrior and bard join him.
"Back entrance? We were just debating whether we had to use a boat to get to the school," Gabrielle says with great relief.
"Well that is the traditional way to arrive at the school, by sail boat. But I smoothed the way for you, considering how women are bad luck on boats," Joxer says, puffing out his chest. Xena and Gabrielle shoot questions at Joxer.
"Well, what did the headmaster say? Is he here? Is everyone safe inside? Will he see us?"
"Uh, the assistant Head Master didn't believe you. No he isn't here, no because there is a sailing expedition overdue back at school. No he won't see you." Joxer shoots back at both of them.
"Where was the expedition headed?" Xena asks turning around to scan the ridgeline.
"He wouldn't tell me, he thought it was a trap," Joxer says with a shrug.
"This is how you smoothed the way? No information, no trust and not even willing to hear me out?" Xena exclaims, taking a step towards Joxer.
"Hey it's the 'women on a ship are bad luck' thing." Joxer says raising his hands. "Now if you wanted to make an impression, you would approach the school from the water side and sail a boat into the harbor."
Xena looks down at Gabrielle who is turning a shade of sea green. "Do you think you're up to it?"
"Where you go, I go," Gabrielle declares, clutching her stomach.
"Ok, where can we find a sail boat Joxer?" Xena asks.
They head off along the coastline, Joxer leading the way to the local village. Xena studies the map, trying to make notes about landmarks. Gabrielle laughs and pulls the map away to write down what Xena says.
"I don't know how you do it, walking and writing at the same time," Xena grumbles.
"Well it is a finely tuned skill, you have to have excellent hand eye coordination tested by battle," Joxer tosses back over his shoulder at Xena.
"I didn't mean you Joxer, I was talking to Gabrielle."
"Oh yeah, right. I'm sure Gabby would agree with you. Right, Gabby?" Joxer asks while pushing his way into her line of sight.
"Riiight," Gabby says unsurely, "What were we talking about?"
Joxer starts to show a few fighting moves as he is walking backwards and trips over some roots.
"Ouch, I think I hurt something," Joxer yelps trying to roll over and just ends up tangling himself up more.
Xena and Gabby step over Joxer and continue up the trail.
"Stop goofing around, we still have a ways to go tonight," Xena says over looking back over her shoulder.
The three make it to the village by night fall. Joxer heads to the nearest inn talking about how he knew the owners.
"Maybe they won't hold it against us," Gabrielle mutters softly.
They enter the main room to find half the tables full with diners. Heading to the back of the room, Xena signals to the waitress.
"What'll it be?" She asks, wiping a table down.
"Three dinners with three ales," Gabrielle replies settling her bags on the floor under the table and leaning her staff against the wall.
"Is that all for you or are you going to share?" Xena asks as the waitress nods and heads back into the kitchen.
"Well, I thought you could have a few scraps when I'm done," Gabrielle jokes as she sits down on the bench. Xena is opening her mouth to reply when the waitress sets the dinners down.
"Is that an Amazon fighting staff?" the waitress asks, staring with wide eyes at the designs.
"Yes it is, do you see many Amazons travel through here?" Gabrielle asks with a side look at Xena who nods and sits back to watch the waitress and the room which has gotten very quiet.
"No, not anymore. The local tribe moved further inland last year. There was some bad blood after some girls left the village to join up with the tribe and the parents accused the Amazons of kidnapping the girls," the girl says with a nervous glance at the bar. There are several men at the bar, quietly watching the exchange.
"Do you think that was true?" Gabrielle asks, motioning to the girl to sit down.
"I, I, I, can't talk right now," she says under her breath while leaning over the table to adjust the food. "Will you be needing rooms for the night?"
Gabrielle looks at Xena with a questioning look.
"Yes, thanks," Xena nods her answer.
"I'll get them set up for you," the girl replies and heads out to prepare the rooms. The men at the bar turn away and the noise resumes slowly.
"Now what was that all about? Amazons don't kidnap and very seldom take in new members," Gabrielle wonders aloud tearing into her stew.
"I have a feeling she would tell us if she could, maybe later. For now I'm hungry," Xena says snatching the second bowl of stew from Gabrielle. Gabrielle sighs and starts to pick up the bread crumbs from the table.
The room has a bed along one wall, barely large enough for the bard that was stretched out writing in her scrolls. Xena is in the tub, even smaller than the bed.
"I didn't know inns used horse troughs for bathtubs," Xena grouses, sponging off.
"The last time I used a horse trough, Lila pushed me into it." Gabrielle says, with a twinkle in her eye. "I had chased her all around the sheep pen and she ended up backing me up until I tripped. We got in so much trouble for that."
"Well, the girls should be up with more warm water in a quarter candlemark and then it's your turn." Xena sighs, trying to stretch out her legs and not getting much more than her ankles and bottom wet.
"Good, it'll be great to get the dust off me," Gabrielle mutters, twirling her quill distracted.
"What are you thinking about now?" Xena asks the blonde bard.
"That serving girl knows something about the Amazons and I think it has a lot to do with the kids. I want to talk to her before she gets too scared. And that means you can't be doing your 'intimidating warrior mode'."
Xena looks up at Gabrielle with a "Who me?" look as she uncoils out of the tub and reaches for the linen towel near the tub.
Gabrielle continues to write on her scroll not paying attention to her partner. Xena wraps the linen around herself as there is a knock on the door. Gabrielle looks up as Xena slides her short dagger out of the boot sheath and pads over to the door. As Xena opens the door and slides aside, Gabrielle has her staff pointed at the head of the knocker.
"Ahhhh!" the serving girl shrieks spilling water as Gabrielle quickly pulls the staff back and offers to help with the buckets.
"Uh, sorry about that, I was expecting those men from the bar," Gabrielle explains shutting the door after pulling the buckets and girl into the room.
"AHHHHHHH!" she shrieks even louder seeing Xena behind the door with her dagger twirling around her knuckles.
"Stop that Xena, you're scaring her." Gabrielle scolds her partner, as she dips some of the cold water out and tossing it out the window.
"Hey! Watch where you're tossing out the window," yells the stable hand struggling with a skittish horse.
"Whoops, sorry about that," Gabrielle shouts out the window and heads back to the tub which has been filled. Xena has lain back on the bed, and is cleaning her finger nails with her boot dagger. The serving girl tries to grab the buckets and slide out the door, all the while keeping an eye on the dark brooding presence in the corner.
"I have a few questions for you if you have time," Gabrielle says to the girl, sliding her sleep shift over her head and stepping into the tub. "Hey, this is a lot bigger than you make it look Xena."
"Well I could say something like?" Xena starts off as Gabrielle gives her a pretty good imitation of "the Look".
"I hope you aren't going to make a short joke. Because if you were, just remember, I know where you're sleeping."
"Promises, promises," Xena murmurs looking at the woman in the bath tub.
"Now where were we? Oh yeah, what can you tell me about the closest Amazon tribe?"
"We don't see them anymore, they left about two seasons ago," the girl mutters keeping Xena in the corner of her eye.
"You seem to know what a fighting staff looks like, but couldn't talk down there," Gabrielle says sponging off the lavender soap that Xena was fond of.
Xena quickly looses interest in the questioning, watching her soulmate bathe. It wasn't too long ago when the tension and pain between the two women was so thick that being in the same room was painful?painful in that all Xena wanted to do was turn away and forget everything. The trust and love that came so easily at first now had to be worked at. Xena knew she was still in love with Gabrielle, but wasn't sure if Gabrielle would be able to lose the guilt and let down some of the barriers that had never been there before. Xena didn't know if she herself would ever be able to let Gabrielle in as much as before Chin. What she did know was she wanted to but wanting and doing were two different things.
Gabrielle finishes her bath and lets the girl out after they empty the tub out the window. She has felt Xena's gaze on her the whole time, welcoming it and still wondering if she deserves Xena's love. The troubles with Ming Tien and then Hope and Solan had Gabrielle constantly questioning her motives and she had a hard time believing Xena didn't question her motives also. She knew she would never be the blindly na´ve little girl that left her village to follow Xena but Gabrielle did hope to recover some of the trust and love so easily found. She knew her soulmate was hurting also, she just didn't know how to get there. Gabrielle turned around and gazed back at Xena. Xena's face was shaded but her eyes almost glowed with the reflection from the fire. How much more could they hurt each other? How much more hurt could either of them stand before it was all over? Did she dare open her heart again and risk more lies and betrayals? Xena stood up and Gabrielle tensed up and turned away. She felt Xena approach and could feel the heat from Xena's body behind her.
"Please, don't turn away," Xena pleads.
Gabrielle had never heard that tone of voice before. She turns around and slowly looks up into Xena's eyes.
"I can't go on this way. I have to know that we still have a chance," Xena murmurs softly, brushing fingertips along Gabrielle's cheek. Gabrielle leans into the caress, loosing herself in the love and tenderness of the touch.
"I love you so much, I don't know how you can love me or forgive me," Gabrielle sobs as Xena draws her into her chest.
"You are the one thing that I do know how to forgive and I know that I will always love you," Xena says holding the sobbing bard, caressing her back. Gabrielle leans back and realizes that Xena is crying also.
"Oh Xena I'm so sorry about what has happened. Solan ?"
"Shh, I'm the one who started all this by leaving you alone with Krafstar and ignoring your needs in my need for vengeance against Caesar."
"If I had only..."
"Stop it Gabrielle! We can't keep blaming ourselves for what happened. That's what divided us in the first place."
Gabrielle looks up at Xena and sees the truth of the situation looking back. She leans into Xena and listens to the heart beat that is her lifeline.
'How could I be so stupid to risk all this for my guilt?' Gabrielle asks herself wrapping her arms around her warrior. They stand together for a while then Xena draws them back over to the bed.
"Here, get some sleep my little bard. We have a lot to do tomorrow," Xena says pulling Gabrielle down onto her shoulder.
"You know, it's been months since I slept as well as last night." Gabrielle sighs as she settles on Xena's shoulder.
"Oh don't I know it," Xena replies with a smile. "We have a lifetime and more to work things, out, let's just take one day at a time for now."
"You got it partner." Gabrielle says kissing Xena's cheek. Xena slowly falls asleep listening to Gabrielle's breathing deepen and feels another wall come down.
Gabrielle is dreaming, she is lying next to Xena with her head on Xena's shoulder. She doesn't know where they are, maybe the Elysian Fields for all she knows, she can smell the sandalwood leather scent of Xena. She would know that smell anywhere, but why did it feel so real? The last she remembered was they were still estranged the horrible hurts and deceits between them. Gabrielle opens her eyes and sees that she is actually where she is dreaming. She moves to pull away until an arm wraps around her and pulls her back. Electric blue eyes bore into her, daring her to pull away again.
"Uh, sorry. I didn't mean to fall asleep on you," Gabrielle mumbles, not daring to believe last night looking down and away from the soul searching gaze.
"I'm not," Xena says, reaching to move a strand of hair from Gabrielle's face. "I meant what I said last night, we have a lifetime to work things out and I'm not letting you get away from me again. Whatever I have to do to help us get back to where we were I will do. Believe that. Gabrielle, you have the key to my salvation and I'm not going to let some two bit blowhard melodramatic god take you away. I love you."
Gabrielle is stunned; Xena was not one for long winded speeches.
"I?I don't know what to say Xe, I just want the hurt to go away," Gabrielle says finally looking back at her warrior.
"I do, say I love you too," Xena says with a smile, pulling the bard down for a kiss. Xena knew just how rattled and confused Gabrielle was, she never shortened Xena's name unless under extreme stress.
"I love you too Xena," Gabrielle manages to get out after she comes up for air. The passion flared so strongly that Gabrielle could feel the flush through their connection.
"I want so much to be where we were, I'm still feeling dirty and broken and so angry that I may not ever want you to touch me again," Gabrielle sobs as she feels Xena's arms wrap around her and draw them together.
"We have all the time in the world my little bard. I will wait as long as you need, you need to know that," Xena murmurs to her partner, stroking the soft blonde head.
Some time later, after Gabrielle is feeling more human, the two women head down to the tavern's main room. They look around for the serving girl only to find the tavern owner sweeping up.
"We'll be leaving this morning after breakfast. Do you have any porridge?" Gabrielle asks the man.
"Only thing available this early is some bread and it ain't too fresh," the man grumpily mutters over his shoulder.
Xena looks at Gabrielle with a raised eyebrow and shakes her head.
"Uh, never mind. We'll be leaving sooner. Gabrielle, why don't you get our stuff packed up and I'll go get Argo." Xena says starting to head out the door.
"Gabrielle? The Bard of Poteadia?" the man perks up when he hears the name. "I didn't know it was you, I thought you would be taller."
"Is that a short joke?" Gabrielle asks glancing back at Xena who is trying to hide a smirk.
"Yes it's that "Gabrielle" and that would make me Xena," she says to the man who quickly stops because he was heading over to stop Gabrielle.
"Do you think you could stay another night, on the house of course and in a bigger room, in exchange for a few stories?" the man greedily rubs his hands together.
"I don't think I'm much in the mood for story telling," Gabrielle says uncomfortably.
"Throw in a bigger room for tonight, two meals and a real bath and you have yourself a deal," Xena states. Gabrielle looks at Xena with a stunned look. Xena never dickered for anything, just paid the price asked. And she never volunteered Gabrielle for story telling. What was she thinking?
"You got a deal, the room at the end of the hall is open and just right," the man says spitting on his palm and slapping hands with Xena.
"I'll just go move things over then. And a nice hearty breakfast with nut bread would be nice to see in the room." Xena steers Gabrielle back to the room.
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle demands of Xena when they have settled in the new much larger room with a much larger bed. Xena looks around satisfied before turning to Gabrielle. Before Xena can say anything, a knock on the door is followed up by the serving girl entering with a tray full of food, bowls of porridge, nuts, cream, nut bread, fruit, cheese and a flagon of cider.
"Thanks. Can we get the bathtub later?" Xena asks as she checks out the food. The serving girl nods her head and leaves the room.
"Again, what do you think you are doing? You never volunteer me for story telling and you never dicker for anything. Who are you and where is Xena?" Gabrielle asks the warrior putting a hand on Xena's forehead.
"I don't have a fever and you could do with some more rest. A night telling stories could help you feel better about yourself. And besides, I want to ask around about the Amazons. The serving girl didn't say much last night other than the usual stories."
Gabrielle leans her head on Xena's chest, listening to the heart beat she knew was beating with her own. With a sigh she knew Xena was right, about the rest that is. She didn't know about the story telling. Maybe she would tell one about the Amazons to straighten out the rumors.
"I know something that would help me feel better about myself," Gabrielle says leaning back and looking up at Xena. She dared to let some of the desire and passion course through her body, warming up to Xena's touch.
"Gabrielle?" Xena says caressing her cheek.
"Don't say anything, Xe, just hold me please?." Gabrielle says enveloping herself in her soulmate's embrace. The warrior picks up the bard and lays her down on the bed.
"I think it's time for a long nap," Xena says rubbing circles on Gabrielle's back.
"We just got up, I'm not tired," Gabrielle mumbles as the caresses slowly ease the tension and Gabrielle drifts off to sleep feeling warmth sorely missed these last few months. Gabrielle missed the closeness of their love and she found the nightmares wouldn't stay away unless Xena was holding her. She learned that in the beginning of their travels together.
"Yeah, right. You're not tired, you're exhausted." Xena replies to her partner, watching her breathing become deep and regular. The stress lines on Gabrielle's face starts to ease out as Xena spreads the massage across Gabrielle's back and down her arm.
Xena spends the next few hours dozing, waking with each utterance Gabrielle made in reaction to her nightmares. Gabrielle alternated between begging for Hope's life to pleading Xena not to send her away. Xena's heart broke to hear the torment that threatened her partner's sanity. By the time the serving girl knocked on the door with the bathtub and water, Xena feels totally wrung out.
"Just wanted to set up the tub and put the extra water by the fire to warm, miss," the serving girl whispers to the warrior after Xena opens the door a crack. Xena steps away from the door to let the girl in and took the buckets quietly. Gabrielle is still sleeping soundly as Xena relaxes in the tub that has mysteriously tripled in size.
"Probably was the horse trough," Xena grumbles to herself as she scatters her favorite secret bath salts into the hot water with a sigh. She was used to cold streams and the ocean, but nothing beat a hot spring or hot tub of water for pure pleasure. Xena feels the night's lack of sleep catching up to her as she slowly feels the tension leave her body.
"Ummm, is that a hot bath I see?" Gabrielle mumbles sleepily, stretching out on the bed.
"No, it's my cold horse trough, and I won't share," Xena teases, pretending to shiver.
"I can smell the bath salts from here," Gabrielle says rolling over to watch Xena in the tub. "I always wondered why you smelled like sandalwood and leather until I found your secret in Argo's saddle bags one day."
"Ahh, don't tell anyone my secret, I like them to think it's really Argo." Xena chuckles.
"Not if you let me wash your back," Gabrielle says walking over to the tub with the loufah she pulled from their pack.
"Now there's a bribe I can't possibly pass up. Come over here you saucy wench." Xena growls at the woman walking behind her. Xena rolls over and leans her arms and chin over the edge of the tub as Gabrielle rubs the loufah over her back.
"Ya know, you were right again, I do feel better. Thank you." Gabrielle says softly. "I knew I wasn't sleeping, but just didn't realize how all this emotional turmoil was affecting my thoughts. I want to talk to you, but don't know where to start. I want to love you and have you love me, but am scared of how you will react. Gods, I'm scared of how I'll react. I feel so broken and ?"
Xena rolls over and takes Gabrielle's face in her hands. She looks into Gabrielle's eyes, not letting let Gabrielle drop her gaze.
"I will always be here for you, I will always love you, I will always listen to you," Xena promises yet again to her soulmate. "We will get through this together."
"I'm beginning to believe you," Gabrielle whispers, seeing the depth of Xena's love in her eyes. "Just keep reminding me ok?"
"Any time," Xena says with her half smile. She gently kisses Gabrielle, lingering in the touch of lips and feeling the emotional surge connect. She softly pulls away feeling how fragile Gabrielle still felt. "Now how about a hot bath before a little story telling?"
They switch places after Xena warms the water up. Gabrielle relaxes as Xena returns the favor of the loufa scrub.
"Ya know, I would like to hear the story of how a young village girl woke the Mighty Titans and tried to do good in the world, or maybe the one where a young village girl tried to shield a stranger from enemy arrows and ended up the Queen of the Amazons." Xena suggests.
"How about the one where a mighty warrior princess saved a young village girl from the slavers and ended up with a tag along that caused more trouble than she bargained for?" Gabrielle giggles.
"Tag along? Never. I wouldn't have been able to forget you even if I had left Poteadia that day with out you." Xena said remembering the day she fought off Draco's men. "It would have taken the cliff I was headed to for me forget you."
"Cliff? You were going to jump off a cliff? Why ever for, Hercules had helped you turn around and you had decided to leave the destruction behind." Gabrielle asks sharply, splashing water as she sits up.
"Well I had thought about going home, but they didn't want me, you saw and heard the village's reaction to that," Xena says as she held the linen towel out for Gabrielle to wrap up in. "I figured the only other place that wanted me was Tarturus."
"Oh Xe, yes I did see that and there was no way that I could let you do that without me."
Gabrielle says as she reaches up to stroke Xena's face. Xena leans into the touch and takes Gabrielle's hand and kisses the palm. The women embrace and hold each other until there is a knock on the door.
"Bard Gabrielle?" It was the tavern keeper. "Will you be coming out soon? The dinner meal is on and the stage is set."
Xena goes to the door to talk to the tavern keeper while Gabrielle turns away and pulls out fresh clothes from the saddle bags. Xena turns back to her bard, watching the apprehensions show by the lack of clothes picked out.
"Here let me pick something out," Xena offers going to her pack. She pulls a garment out, a silk tunic in the color of light sea foam.
"This will go great with your eyes," Xena says, holding the garment up for Gabrielle's approval.
"Where did you get this? It's beautiful!" Gabrielle exclaims slipping the garment over her head. It hangs to her knees and feels wonderful.
"I saw it in Chin before?" Xena say digging in another saddle bag for a belt. "I saw it and thought about leaving you on that dock and missed you terribly. Here, use this belt."
Xena wraps a multicolored leather belt around Gabrielle. She leaves her hands on Gabrielle's waist, gazing at her partner. Gabrielle returns the gaze without the fear she has been feeling every time lately when looking at Xena. They stand there letting their emotions even out, feeling their subconscious need for contact.
"Let's go down and wow the crowd," Xena says, caressing Gabrielle's cheek.
"I think I'm ready, yeah let's go," Gabrielle takes Xena's hand, kissing the palm and heading to the door, not letting go of Xena's hand. Xena smiles and pulls the door shut on the way to the front room.
"Did you see the reaction of the women when I told the tale of Ephiny and Phantes?" Gabrielle asks as they headed back to their room at the end of the night. It had been a good night, the crowd started out rowdy and loud until Gabrielle started talking. She hadn't been very loud at first, she never was. They all had to stop talking and listen, a technique Gabrielle caught onto early in her story telling days. The quieter you started the quicker the audience paid attention and the bigger the ending could be.
"I was watching the men at the bar more. They really resented a Centaur being the hero of the story. I think there was one in particular that I want to follow tomorrow. He had an extremely sour look when you mentioned Amazons." Xena says poking the fire and laying another log down. She turns around and watches Gabrielle move around the room, getting their sleep shifts out, and turning down the covers. Though the firelight and candles gave a soft warm glow to her, Xena sees some of her usual color coming back and was pleased. She was worried about the pale look Gabrielle had lately. Maybe a few nights in the town telling stories while Xena followed that man around would help even more.
"What do you say we hang out here a few days, we have time before the next dark moon?" Xena suggests going to the wash basin and splashing water on her face.
"We can't let the kids be held that long," Gabrielle objects turning around, "What if Kantak is not feeding them?"
"I'm not too sure they have the kids yet. Nobody seemed very upset and I saw kids running around the town earlier and remember Ares said he had an order for Grecian beef to fill. That would be the boys from the school, but why is there such anger towards the Amazons? The Amazons don't take children especially men," Xena mused pulling her shift on. Gabrielle was already in the bed; Xena slides in next to her partner. They lay next to each other, Xena up on an elbow looking down. Gabrielle takes Xena's hand and places it on her hip. She slides the other hand behind Xena's neck and pulls her down to a kiss. Xena leans into the kiss feeling the passion and emotion take over her judgment. She finally pulls back breathing ragged and heart racing. Gabrielle looks at her with questioning eyes.
"Are you sure you're ready for this?" Xena whispers, looking into Gabrielle's soul.
"I want to try, I want to feel normal and whole, I want you," Gabrielle whispers back pulling Xena back into her arms. They kiss as Gabrielle lifts Xena's shift over her head. She has to feel the skin; she needs to feel the smoothness covering the powerful body underneath. As she traces her hand up Xena's side she can feel the strength of Xena's love and allows herself to sink into the emotional tide carrying her along, washing the hurt and horrible memories of the past away.
Xena takes a deep breath and looks down at her bard, "I love you, my bard" she murmurs watching the pain anger and shame start to fade from her lover's eyes.
Gabrielle releases herself to the world of Xena's love and feels barriers shattered.
The morning sun wakes Xena, shining on the wall over the bed. She realizes it's much later than usual for her and remembers with a smile the night's entertainment. She glances down at the blonde head cushioned against her chest. Slowly Xena slides her arm out from under Gabrielle, not wanting to wake the bard. She stands up and heads over to the fire, poking the logs and putting a pot on to heat water. She splashes water from the pitcher into the basin and washes her face. Pulling a tunic over her head, Xena heads down the hall to find some breakfast.
Gabrielle wakes up and feels the cold in the bed next to her. Still groggy from the night of heavy sleep she panics and bolts upright. Frantically she searches the room for her partner. Not seeing the heating water on the fire, the weapons in the corner or letting the saddlebags unpacked in the corner register as Xena still around, Gabrielle lunges at the door and jerks it open.
Xena is standing with a tray of full food at the threshold. She had heard the frantic footsteps headed for the door and expected Gabrielle to dash out and had braced herself. The small bard rushes headlong into the hallway and bounces off the solid body. Xena reaches out a hand and helps Gabrielle stay on her feet.
"Whoa there, you'll hurt yourself doing something like that," Xena chuckles pulling the woozy woman upright and into her embrace. Gabrielle groans and shakes her head trying to clear the stars. Steering Gabrielle back into the room, Xena shuts the door with her foot and puts the tray on the table.
"Remind me not to test your abs again at least with my head, ok?" Gabrielle says falling back onto the bed, rubbing her forehead. "What do you have under that tunic, body armor?" She mutters trying to see through the cherubs floating above her head. "I think I hurt something, my face feels flat."
"Let me see," Xena says taking the bard's face, "Yeah, I think I need to pay attention to this nose, it looks a little smushed." Xena gently tips Gabrielle's face up and starts to kiss her nose. Gabrielle giggles and pushes the warrior away.
"Since when did you get so soft oh Warrior Creampuff?" Gabrielle says still holding Xena's hand drawing her back over to the food.
"Let me think about that one, how about three summers ago in a little field outside a little sheep town." Xena says with her hands on her hips watching the woman start to attack the tray. Xena shakes her head and tries to grab some bread and cheese without loosing a limb. In short order the tray is cleaned up and both women dressed.
"I want to head out to find the Amazons. There wasn't any good information to be had from the locals." Xena suggests as the two pack up their bags to leave.
"I agree," Gabrielle says shouldering her bag and picking up her staff. "This tribe shouldn't know us so we will have to go easy at first." She says looking up at the tall warrior watching for her reaction.
Xena stands with her back to Gabrielle, feeling the surge of hate and anger that had clouded her judgment after the deaths of their children rise again. The terrible need for what she thought she had needed; the vengeance that drove her to hate Gabrielle, Hope and the world. She could forgive herself for hating Hope, was she ready to forgive herself for hating her partner. So lost in her thoughts, she didn't feel or hear Gabrielle approach. When she felt the arms slide around her waist, Xena let out the breath she had been holding in.
'Breathe, breathe, you can breathe now,' Xena thought to herself. She gently takes the hands from her waist and turns around. Gabrielle reaches up and wipes the tears that had started; the tears that Xena didn't know were there.
"My love, we have to get past this, if we continue with this blame and self hate we will not heal. I blame myself, you blame yourself and we both blame each other. How are we going to ever get over this with all this blame if we don't find a way to forgiveness?" Gabrielle softly asks Xena. "I can forgive you, you can forgive me, but can we forgive ourselves? That seems to be the crux of the matter right now."
Xena can only look at her soulmate. Every question and fear has come to light; every weakness that Xena has ever felt hits her like a mace to her gut. She can't breathe, her heart beat roars in her ears blocking out all sound. All Xena can do is keep looking into the emerald green eyes of her soulmate. She feels as if she is drowning and the only thing that will save her is Gabrielle.
"I'm sorry seems to be the hardest thing to say," Gabrielle whispers, drawing Xena closer not daring to break eye contact. She feels the turmoil in Xena's soul and her heart aches for her warrior.
"My little queen, when did you get to be so wise?" is all Xena can manage before she dissolves into Gabrielle's arms. They cling to each other with a desperate strength, re-forging the bond that would transcend all time. Xena pulls back and strokes the back of her fingers along Gabrielle's cheek, sliding her hand around Gabrielle's neck and drawing her into a kiss that starts as tentatively as their first kiss. In a way, Xena feels more nervous than that time, would she be able to give herself completely again? The response from Gabrielle, of her melting into the kiss and the surge of passion Xena feels that threatens to overtake her senses is all she needs to know. As the last barrier falls, Xena knows where she will be forever.
The two women head out of town, Xena is leading Argo walking with Gabrielle and talking. The day is warm, the clouds sparse. Soon Gabrielle stops to pull the water bag down from Argo's saddle for a drink. She hands the water bag to Xena who takes it absently looking into the distance.
"Ya know, you might want to put on some of your Amazon regalia. We don't know what reception we will get from this tribe." Xena says starting to pull things out of Gabrielle's saddlebag.
"I don't think I'll need to pull rank right away," Gabrielle replies looking up at her warrior. She feels the waves of anxiety rolling off her warrior; she can see the clenching of Xena's jaw. "But I'll wear the necklace and you can braid some of the feathers into my hair, how about that?" Gabrielle hands off the feathers and unwrapped the necklace.
Xena smiles and reaches up to start the intricate weave that would show the appropriate rank of Queen. Gabrielle wasn't THE Queen since each tribe had their own royalty. A unified Amazon nation was a dream of Gabrielle, she felt that the more scattered the tribes became the more vulnerable they all were to extinction. She and Ephiny had discussed this outcome for the future; the main problem would be the choosing of the Queen.
After Xena feels that Gabrielle is suitably dressed, they continue towards the tree line. Soon the familiar territorial markings are showing in the trees. Gabrielle puts a hand on Xena's arm and they stop. She raises her hands over her head while Xena pulls her sword and plunges it into the ground. Four Amazon warriors with crossbows drop from the trees and surround them. For a few tense minutes the six women stare at each other. Finally one of the Amazon warriors pulls off her mask. She is tall, almost a head taller that Xena, they both notice the strength in the broad shoulders.
"You know the peace sign and wear Queen's markings, yet I don't recognize you." The unmasked one said with a challenge in her voice.
"I am Gabrielle, this is Xena." Gabrielle says motioning to herself and the warrior behind her. She can feel the waves of anger rolling off Xena. She knows this is the point of no return.
"Queen Gabrielle? From the eastern tribes? Xena the Warrior Princess?" Gabrielle and Xena can hear the murmurs from the other three warriors. The first Amazon raises her hand and silence fell.
"I will take your weapons Warrior. You need to answer for your crimes against the Amazon nation." declares the lead Amazon. Gabrielle tenses and turns around to meet Xena's gaze.
"It's ok, Gabrielle. I'll take care of this and we will get on with the search for the children, with or without the Amazons." Xena says putting a hand on Gabrielle's arm. The masked Amazons surge forward and try to stand between Gabrielle and Xena.
"STOP! What do you think you're doing?" demands Gabrielle from the lead Amazon, swinging around to keep Xena behind her. She has to look up, way up to meet the big Amazon's eyes. "Who are you to question me and my champion?"
"Forgive me Queen Gabrielle, my name is Tressa and we need to take this to our Queen. This way please," she stands aside and indicates the trail with a sweep of her hand. Gabrielle looks back at Xena who shrugs her shoulders and reaches to pick up her sword. One of the masked Amazons places a hand on the hilt and makes to pull the sword out. Xena growls and the woman backs up. Xena pulls the sword out, slides it into the sheath and hangs it on Argo's saddle horn. Along with this goes the breast dagger, a couple of boot daggers and the whip, to Gabrielle she hands the chakram. Gabrielle accepts the chakram reluctantly but knows it will be close at hand if needed. The group turns and heads to the village.
A candle mark later, the group enters the main square. The village looks familiar, the usual huts of thatch and bark walls. One thing Gabrielle notices about the huts is all are several feet off the ground. She looks at Xena who shrugs a shoulder at her.
"Queen Allaya will see you in her hut Queen Gabrielle. Xena will need to wait here." Tressa says motioning to the largest and most ornate hut.
"I have to take care of Argo, you go along." Xena says to Gabrielle rubbing her back. The escort notices the contact and raises an eyebrow.
Gabrielle heads off to the Queen's hut and Xena heads off to the stables with Tressa in tow. She stables Argo, takes off the tack, and brushes her horse down. She checks the hay and water level in the trough. Satisfied, she grabs her saddle bags and turns around. Tressa is standing in the doorway watching.
"Something wrong?" Xena growls at the big Amazon.
"We have heard stories of an angry warlord who has tried to reform. A warlord that wiped out the ruling class a decade ago. A warlord that has been traveling with an Amazon queen. A warlord that had a child destroyed by an evil force. And a warlord that has tried to kill her traveling companion." Tressa replies as she walks into the stables. Which each sentence she continues her walk around Xena. Xena keeps her eyes forward, listening to the Amazon stalk her.
"You forgot to mention an ex-warlord that is the champion of an Amazon Queen," Xena growls. "Is there anything else? I need to see Gabrielle." With that Xena stalks out of the stable and heads over to the Queen's hut.
Gabrielle enters the Queen's hut. The sweet smell of mint and leather swept through her senses. The woman that stands up to greet Gabrielle is smaller than her and at least 20 years older. Long silver hair cascades down her back, held back with an ornate shell clasp. Gabrielle can see the kindness in the woman's gaze, and yet she felt the queen knew more troubles that she. She takes both of Gabrielle's hands and kisses her on both cheeks.
"Welcome Gabrielle, I am Allaya. Please forgive my second in command; she needs more instruction in the intricacies of diplomacy." The smaller queen chuckles and Gabrielle can't help but smile back.
"I think it's all that warriors know. For mine, it's action first then the talking." Gabrielle
laughs as the two women sit down. She can tell Allaya will listen and quickly addresses the problem of why they are there.
"And so we need to find the school before the next dark moon," Gabrielle has finished the story. The other queen didn't ask any questions, letting Gabrielle talk herself out.
"Of course we will help find the children. I had heard there was a warlord trying to start a slave trade near, we need to stop him." Allaya says standing and taking Gabrielle's hand. They head to the door discussing how to get to the school. As they get to the door there is a commotion out in the square. The sound of raised voices, angry voices cause Gabrielle to bolt outside.
"What is the meaning of this?" demands Queen Allaya. Gabrielle is surprised to see a crowd clustered around Xena, with the big tall Amazon Tressa behind her.
"This is the murdering warlord that wiped out the ruling class a decade ago," Tressa yells pointing to Xena. "I was there, my mother was one of the queens killed there." She pushes her way forward to the two queens. "I demand justice, Amazon justice! I demand the Royal Challenge!" Tressa screams.
"Tressa, you don't know what you're saying. This is the champion of Queen Gabrielle, if you challenge her, you are challenging the Queen." Queen Allaya says coming down the stairs to confront the warrior.
"I don't care, I have the right." Tressa continues, rage and hurt showing in her eyes.
"I accept the challenge," Xena says over the crowd's noise.
"Xena, no!" Gabrielle says rushing down to her side. "You don't have to do this. You've already been absolved of those actions."
"I knew she looked familiar, she was in the children's troop. I'm sorry Gabrielle; I have to answer this challenge. Trust me, no one will get hurt, bad that is." Xena says to Gabrielle brushing the backs of her fingers against the bard's cheek.
"I love you," Gabrielle whispers. "Be careful Xe." She leans into the hand and closes her eyes.
"I love you too. I will," Xena promises cupping Gabrielle's cheek and pulling her in for a gentle kiss.
Tressa has led a contingent of warriors loyal to her to the practice grounds. The practice grounds had a small wall around a deep pit with seating arranged for viewing. The two combatants enter the pit and circle each other.
"As challenged Xena, you have the choice of weapons." Allaya says to the warriors. Xena has been watching the other woman, sizing up her movements and looking for possible weakness. As far as she can see there is nothing visible. Then it hits her, the woman is left handed.
"Fists," Xena drawls watching for the big Amazon's reaction. A huge smile creases her face and she clenches her fists. 'Ah now I have you, you big dumb warrior,' Xena thinks. Gabrielle gasps, the big warrior has fifty pounds on Xena and a foot of reach she figures. But Xena would be quicker and able to slip under her reach if she could dodge the blows and stay away from the down swings.
Tressa advances towards Xena swinging her arms to loosen her shoulders. Xena notices a hitch in the left arm as she swings it around.
'I'll bet that one still hurts, it'll hurt more when I'm done with it.' Now that Xena has a target she moves in for real. Xena slides to the right away from Tressa who follows her. Soon Tressa figures out Xena is trying to get her dizzy and cuts Xena off by lunging in front and swinging a huge round house left at Xena's head. Sensing the shifting body posture Xena stops dead in her tracks, ducks and launches a left uppercut trying to catch Tressa in the ribs. The outburst of air from the hit to the ribs was explosive. Tressa grunts and backs up, holding an arm to her side.
'Huh, I guessed right for once,' Xena thinks with satisfaction. She really didn't want to prolong the fight and she certainly didn't want to hurt the young warrior. Tressa bounces on her toes trying to get back into the fight, but Xena sees the fight is just not there anymore.
'Ok, round two,' Xena thinks sizing the next move. Before she can do more than blink, Tressa charges her trying to take her down with brute body weight. Xena lets her get within arms reach, grabs Tressa's out stretched right arm by the wrist and turns into Tressa's body. Xena ducks under the arm folds the wrist backwards, twists the elbow upwards and slides Tressa's hand up to her shoulder blades. Tressa ends up on her tiptoes from the pressure Xena is exerting on the shoulder joint.
"Do you yield warrior?? DO YOU YIELD??" Xena asks with a bit more lift to the wrist folded over on itself. "I don't want to hurt you, we need your help."
Gabrielle watches as Tressa drops to one knee and bows her head.
"I yield to Queen Gabrielle," Tressa responds, facing the two queens and making it clear whom she was yielding to. Xena lets go of the wrist and steps back. Tressa remains on one knee until Allaya approaches her.
"That was not the smartest thing you've done today. I understand your anger; you should have come to me first my child. You'll need to see the healer for your ribs again I'll wager," Allaya says to the warrior, helping her up.
Turning to the rest of the tribe Allaya addresses everyone. "We have to help get the children being held hostage out before the next dark moon. Queen Gabrielle and Xena have asked for our help and I have granted it. Tressa, you know the coves and tides best, we will need to enter from the shoreline. Please choose 12 warriors and get ready for the assault."
Gabrielle heads down to Xena as the crowd disperses. "Wow, that was quick. I was a little worried seeing the size of Tressa. It's seldom that you have someone bigger to fight. I'm glad you were able to disarm the situation quickly," Gabrielle says with a smile to her warrior.
"Disarm? Is that a joke? Very funny, Red. I didn't want to get hurt anymore than you wanted me to get hurt. She has some bad ribs; I just took advantage of it." Xena explains sliding an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders.
"Red? Where did that come from?" Gabrielle stops and slides out from under her arm.
"You have red highlights in your hair at just the right angle, and it's breathtaking." Xena says reaching out for Gabrielle again giving her a crooked half smile. Gabrielle smiles back and tucks under her arm.
'Red, I like it.' Gabrielle thinks. 'If I can call her Xe, I guess Red is fair game.'
Allaya approaches the two and they all head back to the Queen's hut to prepare for the assault on the school.
The small boats the Amazons used for river travel weren't suited for the ocean assault without some modifications. The women quickly modified the boats each with an outrigger to stabilize the crafts. They didn't want to use the sail boats, seeing sails approaching the shoreline might give them away. The tide would be going in which would help unless the waves pick up. Xena takes one boat with 6 warriors and Gabrielle takes the other with 6 more. Tressa was in Gabrielle's boat as a special request from Allaya to guide the boats ashore.
"The rocks are bad enough, but there are rip tides that will send your boat offshore quicker than you can paddle. Tressa knows what that looks like and will be able to guide the party in safely," Allaya explains to the warrior and Gabrielle.
"I don't like being in separate boats," Xena says to Gabrielle taking her hand and looking at her with concern.
"I'll be ok, I've got the expert with me. I'm the one who should be worrying about you," Gabrielle says back with a smile.
"Xena's boat will have Elese who is as good as Tressa with the wind, waves and tides," Allaya says motioning over a smallish woman with curly short brown hair and a ready smile.
"Aye, I had Tressa in the last wind racer race, she cheated and cut my air off," Elese says offering an arm to Xena.
"Cut off your air?" Gabrielle asks.
"She means Tressa sailed in behind of Elese's boat and caught the wind in her sails leaving Elese dead for a moment. By the time Elese was able to catch enough draft again, Tressa was around the marker and headed for home," Allaya explains. "A sneaky but legal maneuver."
Elese grimaces and the two boats set out. By the time they reach the point and it was time to turn inland, the wave action picked up considerably. All the women are drenched and only the paddling keeps them warm. Tressa has to stay to the front of the outrigger to watch for the rocks. Quickly the waves separate the two teams and they loose sight of each other.
"Tressa, we have to wait!" Gabrielle shouts over the waves.
"We can't, the waves are too much. Our only chance now is to head in as quickly as possible. Everyone, row!! Dig in, we're past the rocks!!" Tressa shouts back motioning to the women with paddles. Gabrielle franticly looks around for the other party. All she can see is the 15 foot waves threatening to swamp their boat. For the next forever it seems they battle the waves. Finally their outrigger slides onto the sandy beach. There was no sign of the other party or outrigger. Suddenly the other outrigger comes crashing out of the waves and rolls ashore. Women are thrown out of the boat and scattered on the beach. Quickly the ashore party gather up the wounded and attend to their injuries.
"Elese, what happened?" Tressa asks as she wraps a sprained wrist on her friend.
"Hades be damned maverick wave caught us broadside, there was nothing to do but put ballast out on the outrigger and hold on. If Xena hadn't made that leap, we wouldn't have made it. Thank you, Xena. That was incredible," Elese says looking at the warrior who was being helped up the beach by Gabrielle.
Xena tried to shrug a shoulder but just hissed in a breath. Gabrielle curses and pulls Xena down to sit. Checking her lover over, she sees the cause of the pain. "Xena, you have a couple of cracked ribs!!" Gabrielle exclaims looking at the spreading bruise after she had managed to pull Xena's leathers off her side.
"I thought so, I landed kind of funny. I tried to judge the wave motion, it went up, I went down," Xena explains.
"Maverick waves can't be judged Xena, you were lucky you found a spot to land," Elese says with admiration.
"Yeah well, we have a job to do. Mutual admiration society over for now," Xena grumps as Gabrielle finished wrapping up the sore ribs. Xena pulls the leathers back up with Gabrielle's help and gathers the rest of the party.
After resting for a candlemark and waiting for the sun to go down, the two groups set off to attack the castle. The women gather a short distance from the stronghold waiting for Tressa and Xena to scout out the front gate and a back way in.
"Elese, why do the villagers hate your tribe so much? When we were at the tavern, we got the distinct impression things were not very friendly," Gabrielle asks trying to distract herself from worrying about Xena.
"Well I think it goes back to an incident several decades ago. There was a huge storm that went through the area. Our village had learned to put the huts up on higher footing because we're close enough to the river to be flooded out. The town wasn't so lucky. Many townsfolk lost their lives and homes. We helped out with the rebuilding as much as possible and some of the girls that had lost their families came to stay with us. One of those girls had been betrothed but wasn't able to live in the town anymore. The fiancÚ didn't take the news very well and has had a grudge since then. Now he's the Village leader and continues to hate our Queen." Elese explains.
"Your Queen?" Gabrielle wonders, and starts to ask more but Xena and Tressa came trotting up. Gabrielle smiles with relief as Xena stops next to her.
"Worried?" Xena asks under her breath as Tressa greets the rest of the warriors.
"Oh you know me, when you're out of my sight for more that 10 minutes I get worried," Gabrielle whispers back at her. Xena winks down at the bard and starts explaining what they had found.
"There are about 30 men in the stronghold and only one way in that we could see. I think we should still try scaling the back wall with Gabrielle's group while Elese and I take care of a diversion at the front gate. It shouldn't be hard to draw out the troops especially with us all on foot," Xena explains to the group, drawing a sketch of the grounds in the dirt. "Elese with that sprained wrist, you won't be able to climb a rope," Xena says stopping the small warrior in her tracks. Elese grumbles but nods her head.
"Tressa, you know where we saw that small storage building on the backside? I think that would be a great place to use as some cover. The ground has a natural up slope which should help with the climb," Xena explains pointing to a spot of the sketch. Tressa nods her head and studies the diagram. "Wait until you hear my signal, we want all the attention on the front gate."
Everyone discusses their positions and the two groups split up. Xena stations the Amazons at the front gate and at 50 yard intervals. Her plan to draw out the troops and keep them going was going to take some running bait. The real trick was to keep the troops interested and the Amazons safe. Meanwhile Tressa, Gabrielle and their group had to gain access over the back wall and some how find the hostages before Xena ran out of bait.
Xena appears at the front gate and starts taunting the troops. Insults about the heritage of the captain of the guard drew the thick headed man out. Xena decided to have some fun and trade sword blows with the thug. She knew a good show would keep the men's attention and maybe bring the whole group to the front of the stronghold, giving Gabrielle's group the opening to get into the castle. When she judged most of the troops were watching, Xena takes out her chakram and lets it fly. The troops on top of the wall duck down when the weapon heads their way. With a couple of ricochets, the chakram darts towards the back of the courtyard. All the men on the wall laugh and jeer at Xena for missing them. Xena decides to end the little display and swings at the man's head. The thug tries to parry the blow, but his sword snaps in two and Xena's sword impacts his head with a wet thunk. Grimacing Xena pulls her sword loose and flicks the gore from the blade.
"Is this all you have?" Xena insolently snarls. "I had so many expectations from Ares' disciples. Kantak, maybe you want to come out here and try me?"
Soon enough Kantak shows up and tries to stare Xena down. Xena just laughs, sheaths her sword and heads back into the forest. With a roar Kantak leaps from the battlements and starts after Xena. The chase was on.
Listening for Xena's signal, Gabrielle and her group huddle silently beneath the wall. Soon the familiar whine of the incoming chakram caught Gabrielle's attention. She stands up and snatches the weapon from the air.
"That's our signal, let's go," Gabrielle says attaching the weapon to her belt. 'This belongs to you Xena, so you better be okay when I find you.' she thought to herself getting ready to climb the wall. She notices no one had moved. "What?" she asks.
"You caught the chakram . . . I thought only Xena could handle that," Tressa says with wonderment and new respect in her voice. She hadn't thought much of Gabrielle's claim of Queen, not seeing much in the way of leadership, but there was something different about the bard when Xena wasn't around. An air of defiance and strength that was starting to show. Gabrielle just shrugged and turned to the wall. She wasn't interested in proving herself to the others, just getting the hostages free and finding Xena. Three ropes are readied and tossed up the wall. Three Amazons ready themselves to climb until Gabrielle takes hold of the closest rope. "I'll go first and check to make sure the way is clear."
"I can't let you do that, Allaya would have my head!" Tressa exclaims grabbing onto Gabrielle's arm.
"You don't have any say in the matter, I won't send someone into danger if I'm not willing to go first," Gabrielle states to the Amazon, shrugging off the hand and staring her down.
Muttering, Tressa steps back, allowing Gabrielle up the ropes. 'Must be something in the Queen's handbook, always wanting to be the first in line for the glory.' she thinks to herself, watching as Gabrielle pulls even with the top of the wall and glances around.
Gabrielle quickly scrambles over the top and gives the rope a tug. Tressa quickly climbs up herself and lands next to Gabrielle. There were not any troops in sight, the gate hung open waiting for their return.
"Krysta, head down to the gate and try to secure it closed, if we can keep them out that's all the more time we have," Gabrielle says to one of the Amazons close to her. Krysta nods and trots off towards the gate. "Let's find the main hall and start looking for the hostages."
Xena trots off into the forest listening for the sounds of Kantak and pursuit. She smiles to herself, baring her teeth with a feral snarl. Running Kantak and his men into the ground is going to be fun. The Amazons with her were looking forward to harassing the troops and Xena anticipated a lively chase. Sure enough, she hears the pounding of horses behind her and picks up the pace. As she gets to the first Amazon she swings up into the trees and grins at her.
"Ready for a little hide and seek?" Xena jokes. Elese laughs and launches herself off the branch. With a triple flip, Elese lands lightly and give a battle cry. The troops slide their horses to a stop, looking around for the source of the cry. The last one spies the Amazon and charges off the trail with a half dozen men following. Elese takes off running through the pines, heading towards the briars she knew she would be able to loose the horses in. She leaps fallen trees and ducks under low hanging branches. Curses behind her announce at least a couple of troops falling from their mounts. She laughs and darts off to the left following a game trail barely visible to her. She knows the horses would follow the path of least resistance and that path was coming to an end quickly. A huge wall of briars appears ahead of her without any seeming break. Grinning, she turns around and waits for the men to appear. Soon the sound of bushes being forced through gives way to the soldiers. The leader spies her and digs his heels into the lathered horse, three others quickly following. Elese waits until the men are nearly on her before she leaps up into the foliage and branches above her. The horses have had enough of the chase and stop abruptly, throwing the men over their heads into the briars. A very high pitched scream echoes through the forest as another few soldiers are taken out of the game. Elese watches to make sure the horses are going to be okay and then heads back to the chase.
Gabrielle leads her group of Amazons across the courtyard towards the main building. Off to the side she can see the stables.
"I need you to check out the stables to see of there is a cart or wagon to carry the hostages in and the horses to pull it," she motions to the last Amazon in line. She nods and trots over to the building.
"I'm not comfortable with you splitting up the group, we are just weakening ourselves," Tressa complains to Gabrielle. "What if we meet up with some of the bad guys?"
Gabrielle spins around and holds out her hand to stop the group. "I don't have time for you questioning all my orders. I thought that had been settled back at your village. But if you still have a problem with me when we are done, I will be happy to deal with that. Until then your Queen has given me her support and through that your support. Do you have a problem with that?"
Tressa looks at Gabrielle, shock showing on her face. She has never had anyone confront her in that manner. Taking Tressa's silence as consent, Gabrielle turns around and starts towards the main hall again with the rest of the Amazons. Tressa watches them, anger and shame chasing across her face. How could this little scrap of a woman take control so easily and yet seem so unassuming. With a look of disbelief settling on her face, she slowly follows after the group.
Xena and her group of Amazons have managed to lead the troops all over the country side, loosing over three quarters of their strength. As the women gather at the edge of a ravine, Kantak and the remainder of his troops stumble out of the tree line across the ravine from them. The Amazons watch warily as the men gather in a cluster, gesturing wildly. The men start to drift off with Kantak yelling louder at each man that leaves. Soon only the warlord is left. Xena doesn't have the heart to taunt the ex-warlord, she knew Ares would take care of the incompetent man. She turns the Amazons around and starts off back towards the castle. Kantak sees the motion and goes berserk. Screaming at the top of his voice with rage, he starts running after the women. Xena sends the women on and turns back to watch to see what the man will do. Kantak is so enraged he doesn't notice the edge of the ravine until too late. He tries to stop, throwing himself on the ground grabbing at bushes and roots trying to stop his momentum. Everything keeps breaking and he slowly slides over the edge screaming in terror this time. Xena wishes she hadn't sent the Amazons away; she could sure use some rope right about now. Suddenly from behind her three arrows with rope attached dart across the ravine. With thuds the arrowheads bury themselves into tree trunks. The Amazons play out the lines letting the slack drape across the man's hands. Desperately Kantak grabs at the ropes as he slides down the side of the cliff. In his haste he knocks all the ropes out of his reach. With a loud crack, the last root he is holding onto breaks and he falls into the rushing river below screaming. The women cluster at the edge of the ravine watching for some sign of the body. When nothing shows for long minutes, Xena sighs and turns away.
"Well thanks for trying; I would have rather been able to turn him over to the local magistrate for his crimes. I certainly didn't plan this," she says to the Amazons gathered around her. They all murmur agreement and sadly shake their heads. With a wave of her hand, Xena heads back to the castle.
CHAPTER THIRTEEN ***hot monkey sex alert**
Gabrielle and her Amazons have gained access to the main hall. There is no one visible, but there are sounds coming from some where inside the castle.
"Let's split in two groups and fan out. Call out if you find the hostages," Gabrielle decides, pointing to two of the women to follow her.
"You're splitting us up again, I don't like it," Tressa grumbles again, feeling a tension building. She is finding she doesn't like the way the other women are following Gabrielle's orders and is getting jealous.
Gabrielle rounds on Tressa in the center of the hall. "I can see you need some convincing. Evidently Xena's beating of you did nothing to convince you to listen. You want me to prove myself to you? Okay, let's do this right now." Gabrielle strides over to the side of the hall where some staffs are leaning in a rack. She chooses two and walks back over to Tressa. Gabrielle tosses one of the staffs at the woman, and starts to attack not waiting for the woman to get set. Tressa is thrown off totally by the aggressive action from the little bard. She finds herself backing up quickly trying to defend herself from the quick strikes darting at every part of her body. Soon enough she finds herself backing all the way across the hall and banging up against the far wall. Tressa can't find an opening in the whirling staff coming at her from all angles. She knows she is out classed and desperately tries to fend off the blows. Gabrielle's vision has tunneled down to the woman crouching in front of her. She starts to let the emotions of the moment take over, a red haze clouding her judgment. All the rage she has felt the last several months starts to bleed into her actions. The betrayals, the guilt and the hurt come back full force for a shocking moment. Gabrielle can think of nothing, in fact Gabrielle has stopped thinking. She has slipped past rational thought; the only thing that matters to her now is action.
Tressa is barely able to keep the blows from landing, several have scored hits, she is getting winded and the stinging in her hands from the force of the blows makes holding the staff difficult. The watching Amazons start to exchange looks, wondering if they should step in. With a sweeping upper cut, Gabrielle jerks Tressa's staff from her hands and sends it across the hall. Tressa goes down to one knee with her hands up in defeat. Gabrielle pivots around, leveling her staff intending to end the fight with a strike to the head of her opponent.
"Nooo," shouts Janee stepping in front of the blow. "Don't do it, Queen Gabrielle, you've beaten her. We need her to help with the hostages!" Janee catches the staff with a loud grunt and pushes back against Gabrielle.
Gabrielle blinks her eyes, trying to clear the haze that is clouding her vision. Slowly the rest of the room comes back into focus as her tunnel vision opens up. She looks at Janee standing in front of the kneeling Tressa who still has her hands up and sees the fear in her eyes. She turns around and the other two Amazons step back with respect and a bit of fear in their gaze also. Dropping the staff, Gabrielle looks down at her hands which start to shake from the adrenaline still coursing through her body. 'What just happened? How did I loose control that quickly?' Gabrielle can only stand still looking at her shaking hands, waiting for the battle rage to subside. Janee turns around and helps Tressa stand none too gently.
"Are you going to listen now? You seem to have a bad habit of letting your mouth put you in spots you can't handle lately," Janee says to Tressa looking at the spots where Gabrielle's staff hit. "Nothing you won't be able to live with, some good bruises though."
As the fight was going on, the group has doubled. Xena had gotten back to the castle with her group. Krysta saw them approaching and had let them in. The sound of the staffs cracking against each other draws everyone towards the main hall. At the entrance, the women cluster watching with amazement on their faces. Xena leans against the wall, waiting for the outcome. She knows how it will end up, what she doesn't know is how far away Gabrielle is. At the end of the fight when Janee stepped in Xena headed over to the little bard. Gently turning the bard around, Xena wraps her arms around her partner. Gabrielle leans into Xena, clutching the warrior tightly.
"Shush Red, I'm here. Take it easy, I'm not going any where," Xena murmurs to her partner, rubbing calming circles on her back. Gabrielle feels the comfort in the caresses but finds that she craves more contact that this. She draws back and looks into Xena's eyes. Xena looks at Gabrielle and crooks an eyebrow up. Heat, lust and desire blast at Xena through the gaze.
"Um, Janee, Tressa and Elese. I need you to split up the Amazons and start searching the castle for the hostages. Check the tower, dungeons and all the storage areas carefully," Xena instructs the waiting women, not taking her eyes off the woman in her arms, radiating such sexual tension it was causing Xena to loose focus.
The women all split up and head in different directions, glancing back at the two. Xena takes Gabrielle's hand and leads her to a side room. As soon as the door is shut, Gabrielle turns Xena around and pushes her up against the door. With a gaze that almost burns Xena's clothes off, Gabrielle practically climbs up the warrior's armor, wrapping her arms around Xena's neck and pulls the warrior's face down for a kiss with bruising force. Gabrielle devours Xena's swollen lips, demanding entrance with her tongue. Their tongues duel and Xena willingly lets Gabrielle control the pace and action. Passion flares in the bard, burning through her caresses as she slides her hands behind Xena's head. Emerald green eyes haze over with desire as she gazes up at the warrior, who returns the look, indigo blue darkening with equal passion. Pulling the bard to her, Xena slides a thigh between Gabrielle's legs and lifts to press against the building heat of the bard's center. Gabrielle moans with the pressure and rubs against the strong muscles of her warrior. Xena grasps Gabrielle's hips, dragging the bard along her tensed thigh and giving her the intense contact she needs. Gabrielle groans and starts to bite on Xena's neck and collarbone. Growling Xena slides fingers inside Gabrielle's waist band, reaching for the hotness and warmth she knows needs touching. Gabrielle moans louder feeling the long skillful fingers of her lover stoke the swollen and heated flesh.
"Please?.Xena?I?.NEED?YOU? NOW!" Gabrielle grunts thrusting her hips toward the fingers stroking her sex. Xena thrusts two fingers into Gabrielle's heat, feeling the contractions building quickly. Grunting Gabrielle thrusts her hips harder on Xena's leg. Xena slips another finger into Gabrielle's folds as she feels her lover start to climax. With a shout and final thrust, Gabrielle bites down on Xena's pulse point and shudders. Xena holds her bard tightly as they get their breathing under control, slowly cooling down. Stroking her hair, Xena murmurs in Gabrielle's ears, telling her of the love and completeness she feels with the bard. Xena drawing her hand out of Gabrielle's center causes her to climax again; Gabrielle convulsively grasps Xena to her with the intense suddenness of her pleasure. The long arms of the warrior continue to hold the bard to her, allowing them both to come back to the present.
"I don't know what came over me, I just couldn't take that woman questioning me anymore and then I think I lost focus during the fight and closed down. I almost didn't stop; I wasn't going to, I didn't want to. Janee stopped me; I'm going to have to apologize to Tressa." Gabrielle says leaning back from Xena with a look of anguish.
"No you don't have to apologize, in fact you won't. If you did you would loose all the respect you just gained by beating Tressa. That needed to be done; they didn't see you as a Queen. All you had was the title. Now they know you don't need me to fight for you. And anytime you feel the need to beat up on someone, make sure that I'm around. With that kind of reaction, you'd kill an ordinary woman," Xena says gently tracing her fingertips along the flushed lips of her lover.
"But I could have killed her; I was swinging to take her head off!" Gabrielle says looking away from the deep blue eyes showing her the love and understanding she needs to calm down.
"Shush love, I don't think you understand what happened. You have established yourself as a very capable fighter and leader. That narrowing of focus is needed in that kind of fight, a fight that could turn out with one of you dying," Xena says holding Gabrielle's face between her hands. Xena leans in to kiss Gabrielle, causing a deep moan of desire to erupt from the bard. Reluctantly they draw apart, easing ragged breathing.
"Wow?.Xe?that was??intense," Gabrielle manages to whisper against her lover's neck, sending shivers down her body.
"Yeah Red, I'm glad I wasn't able to be here for the whole match. I don't think I would have been able to wait as long as you did. Why do you think I take a bath after fighting? I really don't enjoy cold streams all that much. I would have found myself doing something I couldn't ever forgive myself for, possibly hurting you." Xena whispers to the woman in her arms, stroking her hair and calming her hormones. She was used to the reaction after a good fight, the feeling of winning, conquest, being the best at the time.
"Promise me that you won't leave next time, I need you just as much as you need me," Gabrielle whispers against hot swollen lips. Xena nods her head as she dips her face to taste her lover again.
"We need to find the hostages and get out of here," Xena manages to get out the next time they break apart for a breath. Gabrielle kisses her way down Xena's neck, leaving a fiery trail.
"Yeah ok, we need to get going before Kantak comes back," Gabrielle murmurs kissing her way down the luscious cleavage before her.
"He won't be coming back, he fell into the river and we couldn't find the body downstream," Xena moans as Gabrielle moves her hands down the sides of her leathers, heating the material from without.
"Well, we have all the time in the world then," Gabrielle states sliding her fingers between Xena's leathers and reaching for the heat and wetness she can smell. Xena chuckles and pulls Gabrielle's hands away from their goal. Gabrielle growls and tries to pull away.
"Later my love, I promise," Xena says kissing the bard's knuckles and smiling down at her. Gabrielle takes Xena's hand that was the source of her recent pleasure and slowly sucks the three fingers into her mouth. Glancing up at her lover, she watches the indigo blue darken even more with the desire and need as Xena growls deep in her throat at her. "Oh Gods, stop Gabrielle." Xena can feel her legs grow weak; she locks her knees and leans back on the wall.
"Ok, later then," Gabrielle purrs as she licks her tongue across Xena's palm and turns away. With a mischievous look she opens the door and heads out into the main hall straightening her clothes. Xena takes a huge breath, not realizing she was holding a it while Gabrielle was sucking on her fingers. 'Damn her, she is worse than before.' Xena thinks to herself. With a final gulp of fresh air, she heads out to help find the hostages.
Heading outside to the courtyard, the lovers look around for the Amazons. Echoing from somewhere on the grounds there is a very badly out of tune chorus of "Joxer the Mighty". Gabrielle turns around to look at Xena with a look of horror and sees Xena with her fingers in her ears. Shaking their heads at each other they try to pin down the source.
"Over here," shouts Elese. She is next to the wall of the compound watching some ropes that have been thrown down a well.
"I'll go check on a wagon, we will need that for the hostages," Gabrielle says, edging away towards the stables.
"Chicken," Xena laughs at her. Gabrielle takes the opportunity to dash off, not waiting to see if Xena will make her stay. She really hates that song, especially after she heard how many times she had Joxer sing it while under the love spell of Baby Bliss. Chuckling Xena walks towards the well. The echoes get louder, now more voices have joined in. Xena looks down the well and sees not a well but a huge cavern.
"So this is the other entrance. I knew there had to be another way in, I had no idea these caverns were so big," Xena says to Elese.
"The cliffs around here are all like this, full of hidden entrances. Most are only accessible during certain tides. I sent some of the warriors ahead to scout the entrance; we may get lucky with boats left behind." Elese says pointing out the high water marks. "It looks like this is a low tide entrance because of the dry beach."
Xena grunts, not really wanting to test her ribs on the rough surf they came in through. From behind she can hear Gabrielle calling her. She turns around and finds the bard with two wagons hitched up.
"Wow, you got that taken care of fast," Xena says to the little blonde.
"Well I could agree with you and just let you think it was just little old me, but I would feel really guilty. I had one of the women check out the stable before we went into the main hall. She had it all set up," Gabrielle explains with a smirk on her face.
Xena laughs and slings an arm around the bard's shoulder taking her back to the well as Gabrielle wraps an arm around Xena's waist and leans into her. When they get back to the well, the singing stops.
"Halloooo up there!! Anyone going to get us out of here any time soon?" Joxer calls up to the top of the cavern. "I think the Amazons went and left us here."
"Hold on, Joxer, we have to figure out how to haul all of you out," Xena shouts back.
"Xena!! I knew you'd find me, see kids I told you she would find us," Joxer says turning around to the hostages. "See all warrior buddies look out for each other and since I help Xena and Gabrielle all the ? OUCH!!!"
"Whoops watch out below, rope coming down," Gabrielle manages to get out from between clenched teeth.
"Be nice," Xena mutters to her partner. The three women start the wagons moving to get the children hauled out of the cavern. Soon enough, or maybe too soon for Gabrielle's comfort, everyone is out including the Amazon scouts.
Tressa is one of the last warriors out of the cavern, dark purple and blue bruises starting to show their full color. She drops to one knee in front of Gabrielle and places a clenched fist to her chest. "Queen Gabrielle, the tide is coming in, we'll have to walk back to the village and there aren't any boats."
Gabrielle gazes down at the warrior and tilts her head to the right. "Thank you Tressa. Would you get the children settled in the wagons and arrange for two warriors per wagon? They need to be escorted back to the village. The children will have to stay there until the Head Master returns."
Tressa rises and leaves to follow Gabrielle's requests.
"That's the first time I've ever seen Tressa do something without arguing," Elese says with wonder in her voice.
"A little tough love goes a long way," Xena says to the Amazon and slings an arm around Gabrielle. The bard looks up at her warrior to see if she is joking and decides she isn't.
"Elese, is there a hot spring around your village? That workout I had with Tressa tweaked my leg. I could use a long hot bath," Gabrielle asks as the rest of the Amazons gather near the stables.
"Of course, we have several different sites. Some are definitely more private, I'm sure we could find something suitable for a visiting Queen and her Consort." Elese says with a wink.
With that comment Xena springs up into a saddle and offers a hand down. Gabrielle is pulled up behind the Warrior and settles against her back with a sigh. Holding tight to the hands wrapped around her waist, Xena heels the horse into a canter and the Amazons form up behind them.
"Oh Xena I forgot. This is yours," Gabrielle hangs the Chakram on Xena's waist hook.
"Thanks, I knew you would take good care of it. Like I know you'll take good care of my heart," Xena says to her bard over her shoulder.
"Just you wait until we get to the hot spring, I'll show you how I can take good care of you," Gabrielle says with a growls and starts to nibble on the back of Xena's neck.
"Gabrielllllle," Xena says as she kicks the horse into a gallop.