DISCLAIMER: The characters Xena: Warrior Princess and Gabrielle are owned in their entirety by MCA Pictures. I have borrowed them here in an attempt to write something vaguely amusing and time consuming for the hard core fanatics at Saddlehorn (I'm giving you more time to run, Lucy! You owe me!) This is an original story and all elements, other than the main characters, belong to me. (C'mon, MCA, even you can't claim rights to the gods!) This story is for adults, over the age of 18 (Or whatever the age of consent is in your town.) If you live in a state that prohibits this kind of thing, for Athena's sake, MOVE!
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story is another of the 'First Time' variety. In regards to this particular epic, Life From Death never happened. To give credit where credit is due, thanx to all the authors on S.H. You guys are inspirational, even if you do drive up my water bill. Thanks also to COMX111 for listening to my story ideas and saying 'WOW!' at the appropriate times.
One last note, for those of you that read The Labrys, you will recognize a certain character here. While the name, attributes and personality are the same, the character has, in fact, been re-invented for this story. I am writing this here so that you all aren't scratching your head in confusion trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with me! No flat-abbed Warrior Bards, cynical ex-warlord princesses, or possessed Xena dolls were harmed during the creation of this story. However, an entire bag of double dipped, dark chocolate covered macadamia nuts was tragically consumed during a particularly long writing session.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Heart of a Warlord
By Patricia L. Givens
There are only four questions of importance in life.
What is sacred, of what is the spirit made, what
is worth living for, and what is worth dying for.
The answer to all of them is the same
-Juan de Marco
Chapter One: Kindred Spirits
It was wonderful! Gabrielle walked around the bazaar with a huge smile on her face. She hadn't seen this many merchants since they had left Athens. The town of Meztlan hadn't looked very big when they reached it's gates just two hours ago. It was only after they had entered that she and Xena had realized it's actual size.
Metzlan was built against the side of a mountain, or so it had appeared. But instead of coming to an abrupt stop at the mountain's base, a huge cavern had been dug into the mountain itself. The cavern housed the Main Bazaar, a conglomeration of nicknaks and trinkets amongst sword and arms dealers, food booths, mercantile and sundry shops, along with many taverns ,inns and resident housing. Soldiers were prevalent everywhere she looked, keeping the peace and keeping everybody moving. Even she had been ushered along when she had stopped for too long in one place. Gabrielle didn't mind though, there was just as much to stare at a few booths down.
The colors were the best part. Having almost no sunlight in the darker areas of the cavern, merchants had strung brightly colored fabric in front of numerous torches, creating the warm glow of a rainbow where there would have only been shadows.
"Paradise!" Gabrielle reached into her pouch to check her funds. Pursing her lips, she thought about the warning Xena had thrown back over her shoulder before going off on her own to find a smithy for Argo.
"Whatever you buy, you carry!" Xena had called, her smile flashing briefly in the waning sunlight. "Don't expect me to make room in the saddlebags!"
'But Xena didn't see this place!' Gabrielle rationalized to herself. 'Besides, there has to be something she needs here, too."
With a grin, she headed into the bazaar, lost in her sudden quest to find the perfect gift for her friend. The first booth she came to had several tables covered with every kind of dagger a warrior could want. She picked up a few of them, aware of the merchants watchful eye, and set each one down with a small shake of her head. Xena liked to pick her own weapons.
Gabrielle moved on to the next section of shops, stopping briefly to buy several vials of herbs from a pretty young girl. Tucking them into her pouch, she noticed an Alchemist's symbol hanging outside of a large, black tent. She normally avoided such places, especially if Xena was around. "But Xena isn't around." She smiled to herself. With a firm nod of her head, she slipped inside.
The interior of the tent was as dark as the exterior, lit only by three small torches. It seemed as though the shadows actually weighed her down as moved quietly from table to table. At the last table, she found an exquisite crystal, shot through with silver, hanging from a delicate silver chain. She picked it up carefully, surprised at it's weight, and gazed at it in admiration.
"Like it, don't you?"
Gabrielle started violently, her hand flying to her throat. She hadn't heard anybody enter. Looking around quickly, she saw a dark figure emerge from the shadows. It was a woman, with eyes the color of honeyed wheat, her skin as dark as the shadows around her. She was beautiful. When she smiled, Gabrielle found herself smiling too. "I'm sorry," She stammered. "I didn't know anyone was in here."
"No," The woman stepped closer and placed a cool, dry palm on the bard's arm. "It is I who should apologize. I saw you were transfixed by the Lath. I shouldn't have spoken until you were done."
"The Lath?" Gabrielle looked down at the necklace dangling from her fingers.
"I am Emony." She pulled the chain gently from Gabrielle's hand, raising it in the air so that the torch light could catch it. The bard gasped when the crystal illuminated from within, the embedded silver throwing the light back out, each vein of mineral glowing a different color. "And this is a Lath."
"It's beautiful." Gabrielle breathed.
Emony laughed. "You don't negotiate very well, do you, Gabrielle? Your delight is too apparent on your face."
"Well I-," She looked up quickly, her smile fading. "How did you know my name?"
"I know many things." The woman moved around her in a circle.
"I...I think I should be going."
Emony grabbed her lightly, pulling her back. "Don't be frightened, Gabrielle. I won't hurt you." Her eyes widened as she studied the Bard's face, then she doubled over in laughter. "I am not a God, dear little one."
"You can hear my thought's!" She accused. "What are you?"
"Just a woman. A very talented woman."
Gabrielle swallowed and looked back to her hand, curiosity getting the better of her. "What is a Lath?"
"A jewel." She gazed at the necklace lovingly. "A gem, a stone. Something pretty, shot through with the bone of the earth, copper, silver, gold. And charmed."
"Charmed?" Gabrielle felt her stomach drop.
"Yes, a light charm. Each varied," Emony grinned. "Each pure."
"What's the charm on this one?"
"It allows the wearer to see the truth."
"Kind of like...a lie detector?"
"No, child." Her laughter was soft. "It allows the wearer to see the truth within."
Gabrielle shook her head. For some reason, it felt foggy. "That's all?" She frowned. "What kind of truth is there in a stone?"
"It depends on the person wearing it."
"...If she would like it?" Emony finished for her. "You're friend, you care for her..." It was a statement, not a question. She studied the bard closely. "Perhaps you should wear it."
"What does that mean?"
But Emony only smiled, her face closed. Her eyes settled on the bard's with frightening intensity. "One dinar."
"One dinar?" Gabrielle asked, incredulous. "That's all?"
"As I have said, you are not a good negotiator." She slipped the necklace into a pouch and held it out. "One dinar, for you, right now. Take it and go...or just go."
Gabrielle wondered at the coolness that had crept into her tone, but decided not to ask. She dug out a coin and laid it in the woman's palm, taking the pouch from her fingertips.
It wasn't until she had turned to go that Emony spoke again. "Remember, Gabrielle, truth has a price. Not measured in gold, but in the blood of the heart."
The next moment, she was outside, the noise of the vendors and their patrons loud in her ears. She looked back at the tent and saw Emony shrink away, receding into the darkness within. A man passing by saw where her gaze was directed and stood in front of her.
"Don't think about going in there, miss." He shook his head seriously. "That woman is insane. And an odd bird at that. Never comes out, we never see anyone go in, yet she's still fed and fresh." He made a sign to ward off evil spirits. "Aye, a witch, that one. No need for a nice girl like you to be going in there. Come with me, I have a booth set up, lotta nice thing's a girl could want."
Gabrielle nodded absently, following him to his booth, which was tucked into the very back corner of the cavern. She smiled when she noticed that he had been telling the truth, he did have delightful things on display. Long, shimmering silk skirts, soft leather sandals, headdresses and light coats, the type one would see in a castle courtyard. She took her time with each one, wondering what this would look like on her, what that would look like on Xena. In the end, she shrugged. None of it was made for a woman traveler. She came to the last table and saw a pair of combs. They were made of wood, well buffed and polished, with gold and silver inlaid to form the Amazon symbol for freedom They were obviously made by a talented craftswoman, one with a good eye for symmetry and grace. Gabrielle picked up each one and slid them into her hair, pinning the red-gold tresses back out of her eyes. They felt wonderful, she only wished she had a mirror.
"They look good on ya, missy." The man said from behind her.
"They are very nice." Gabrielle pulled them from her hair and held them in her palm. "Where did you get them?"
"Some Centaur was selling them down in Amazon territory. He mumbled some nonsense about his wife having made them. But we both know how the Amazons feel about Centaurs." He winked.
"I know that they have found peace." Gabrielle said stiffly. "How much do you want for them?"
The man scratched his head. "Five Dinars."
"What?" She frowned. "You should have been a brigand. That's robbery."
"Well," He moved a little closer and the bard realized just how grubby the man was. "If you don't have enough, I'm sure we could work something out."
"Uhm, no thank you." She backed up slightly, suddenly very uncomfortable in his presence. "Why don't we just forget it." She started to put the combs down, but he grabbed her roughly, causing her to drop them to the floor.
"I saw that." He grinned darkly. "You tried to steal them! Do you know what they do to thieves in Meztlan?" He ran one dirty finger across his own throat. "Now be quiet, or I'll call the guards."
He bent to bring his lips to hers and she struck out with her knee, catching him the upper thigh. Not a direct hit, but close enough to make him scowl in pain. Pulling back his hand, he struck her across the face.
Gabrielle stumbled slightly, and braced herself against a table. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw him advancing on her. Before she could react, a figure jumped across his booth, and two long, shapely legs drove themselves into his chest. She closed her eyes in relief as the familiar sounds of Xena pummeling someone senseless reached her ears. With the sound of a hard punch and a low moan, it was over.
"Thank you." She smiled up into a face she didn't recognize. A puzzled look crossed her face. "Who are you?"
The warrior laughed at her confusion and Gabrielle found herself drawn to her smile. She was tall, nearly as tall as Xena, with sandy hair hanging in curls down past her chin. Her facial features were delicate and looked slightly out of place with her well muscled body, but she was beautiful nonetheless. There was something about her nose that made her think of Ephiny, but her eyes were like nothing she had ever seen before. At first, they appeared hazel, but the flickering torch light brought out deep green and gold colors that took the bard's breath away. She was embarrassed when those eyes twinkled in amusement. "You're welcome."
Gabrielle watched as she adjusted her armor over her lean frame. The armor itself was nondescript, well oiled black leather covered in mail, adorned only by two brass dragons, their bodies curled snugly over each of her "Uhm," Gabrielle blinked to clear her thoughts.
"Are you all right?" The warrior's amusement turned to concern at Gabrielle's tone. "Did he hurt you?" She turned the bard to the side, looking for any undetected wounds. Finding none, she retrieved Gabrielle's pouch from where it had fallen and began to hand it back. A she did so, it fell open.
"What in Hades " Her voice trailed off as she pulled out the Amazon neckpiece Gabrielle had inherited from Terreis. A dark expression replaced her smile. "Where did you get this? What merchant?"
"No merchant. It's mine."
"Don't lie, girl. This is the neck dress of an Amazon princess. I hardly think you hold that title."
Gabrielle scowled, her hand shooting out to snatch the necklace back. "For your information, I happen to BE an Amazon princess." She quieted. "Maybe not by birth, but by Right of Caste " Her jaw went slack in amazement when the warrior's face fell, a single tear escaping to slide down her cheek. "Are you okay?"
The warrior nodded. "Terreis." She whispered. "Oh, Goddess. I'm so sorry." She looked back to Gabrielle. "I am sorry for the offense, Princess. I pay you homage." She bowed at the waist, pulling her bodice down to reveal a necklace of her own.
"You You're an Amazon!"
"I was once. I still honor their ways when I can." Her eyes twinkled again as she took Gabrielle's hand and raised it to her lips. "Paying my respects to a Princess as lovely as you, well, that's MY pleasure."
Gabrielle blushed. "How did you know Terreis?" She regretted the words immediately as she watched the warrior's face change.
"I haven't time now." She glanced behind her, to a group of bored looking soldiers. "My men get restless easily, as do most men." She smiled. "I'll be at The Raven's Claw tomorrow should you want to find me. I can say I'd be pleased if you did." She bowed one final time and, with a wink, disappeared into the crowd.
Gabrielle watched her go, then, realizing how much time had passed, ran for the fruit stand where she was supposed to meet Xena.
The warrior was scowling when she caught sight of her, a scowl that slid into an easy smile at the familiar blonde head running her way.
"Xena!" Gabrielle called. "I'm sorry I'm late."
The warrior's smile vanished, as did her admonishments, when she saw the bard's face. "Gabrielle?" She took the young woman's chin between her forefinger and thumb, turning her head to see the steadily darkening bruise on her cheek. "What happened?"
Gabrielle smiled at the warrior's soft tone. "Nothing. I'm fine."
"This is not 'fine', Gabrielle." She held her chin a few moments longer. "Who did this to you?"
Gabrielle watched as warm blue eyes turned to pieces of ice and felt her heart catch in her chest. "It's okay really. He already got what was coming to him."
"Gabrielle, did he ." Her voice trailed off. She sighed in relief when the bard shook her head.
"What did you do to him?"
"Well, I kneed him, but I missed and he hit me. But then, this warrior jumped out of the crowd and beat the stuffing out of him. She was unbelievable "
"She?" Xena's eyebrow rose. "Unbelievable?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Well, she wasn't better than you, though." She squeezed the warrior's arm. "No one is better than you."
"MmmHmmm. What was her name?"
"I..." She blushed. "I don't know."
Xena shook her head in amusement. "Come on. Let's go find an inn."
Four hours later, Xena watched as Gabrielle slept peacefully, the sheets from her bed tucked firmly beneath her. It hadn't taken long to get the whole story from her. By the end of dinner she knew all about the combs, the merchant and the nameless, 'unbelievable' warrior. AND her invitation. Xena frowned. She didn't like it. She didn't know why, but she didn't like it.
She stalked the room quickly, checking each entrance to make sure it was secure, then slipped out. It only took her five minutes to reach the bazaar, her long legs carrying her with a purpose that dared anyone to try and stop her.
As it turned out, she needn't have worried. The shops were all open, the crowd still immense. She strode to the far back, heading straight for the merchant that had attacked Gabrielle. He was easy to find, bruised as he was. Without preamble, she grabbed him by the collar and pushed her face in front of his.
"Wh-what?" He stuttered, his eyes full of fear.
"I was told you could help me." Her voice was low and venomous. "I'm looking for a pair of combs with an Amazon design. I was told you had them."
"I used to," he rushed. "But a little blonde harlot stole them earlier today."
Xena's grip tightened as she lifted him off the ground. "Gabrielle stole nothing from you. And If I hear that you've been saying she did "
"Wait! Th then it must have been that other woman. The tall one, the one that hit me! She must have stolen them. I don't know warrior! I swear, I don't have them!"
Xena shook her head in contempt and let him drop to the floor. "You're not worth my time. But if I EVER hear of you trying again what you tried with my friend " She slammed her fist onto a table, breaking it at the legs. "Understand?"
The merchant nodded quickly and scrambled to get out of her way.
Xena left as quickly as she had come. When she reached the Inn, she hesitated before heading upstairs. Changing direction, she entered the common room and ordered a port. Looking around, she spotted a man watching her from the corner. With a smile and a nod, she invited him to join her.
Gabrielle stretched and opened her eyes. It was still dark. She rolled over on her side and reached out to find Xena, who usually slept beside her when they stayed at an Inn. Her hand slid over cool, empty sheets and she sat up in confusion. Looking around, she spotted Argo's saddlebags and relaxed. "I wish she'd tell me when she's going to go roaming."
She reached for the waterskin Xena had left by the bed and took a long drink. When she set it back down, her fingers grazed over her bag and she pulled it to her. Rummaging through it, she found the pouch that Emony had sold her and slid the contents into her palm.
Perhaps you should wear it.
The Alchemist's words repeated in her mind as she stared down at the stone on the end of it's chain. There was no light for it to reflect and it looked rather harmless, just a faintly pink crystal, murky at the center.
With a smile, she slipped the chain over her head and laid back against the bed, closing her eyes slowly.
She was asleep almost instantly.
Xena stared at the man across from her. He was very young, no more than twenty, and he had a nice smile, but his eagerness to talk was beginning to wear thin. She had invited him over to see what information she could glean from his wide open manner, only to learn rather quickly that he had little knowledge of any use to her. She had thought about excusing herself several times already, but found herself drawn to him somehow.
He had said his name was Sylas, and he was exactly what he appeared to be, a young, dumb farmhand heading off to seek adventure from the world. She would have laughed at him, had it not been for his eyes. They were a delicate, pale blue and made to stand out that much more clearly by the wild mop of red-gold hair at his brow. His smile was genuine, and very easily given, the innocence in his face familiar, yet still hard to bear.
"The road's a hard place, Sylas." Xena muttered absently, after he had rattled off a dozen excited questions. "And once you're on it, you usually find yourself wishing you were home."
"Do you?" He looked somewhat crestfallen.
Xena felt a familiar pain in her chest and swallowed. "Yes." She said quietly. "Most days."
"Then why don't you go home?"
"Because sometimes it's better to miss a place, then try to settle and discover that you don't belong." She looked up at him and sighed, knowing her words would not be taken as she had meant them. "Sylas, why don't you get me another port?" She shook her head sadly at the eagerness on his face. She watched him walk up to the bar, his back straight, shoulders squared, so proud to be sitting with the Warrior Princess
Xena grinned as she realized what she was doing. It had been a long time since she had lain with a man, a fact made very obvious by what she was contemplating. Normally, she wouldn't have looked at him twice. It wouldn't have mattered who or what he was, he was too young and she would have passed him by without so much as a thought.
She watched him from across the room, wondering if that was exactly true. There was something about him, something about his eyes, his smile something she found very appealing. Beneath his youth and adventure lust, there was something familiar
Sylas turned to smile at her and she suddenly knew what was so appealing about him. Her jaw dropped as she recognized his eyes, his mouth, his hair his smile. "Gabrielle..?" Xena returned his grin halfheartedly and then looked away, her mind struggling with this new revelation. Others followed closely behind it. Like the fact that she hadn't noticed a man in longer than she cared to remember and the fact that her favorite place was by Gabrielle's side, whether on the road, the battlefield or in a bed. With a small groan, she remembered that it had been her idea to come to an inn tonight, Gabrielle had been fine with sleeping under the stars. Xena shook her head and downed what was left of her port. When Sylas returned with a fresh drink, she grabbed it and downed that one as well.
"Ahh " He looked at her in confusion. "Maybe I should get you another one?"
Xena nodded curtly and he wandered off, less confidence in his stride. She laughed softly at his lack of enthusiasm. She had no intentions of sleeping with him now and he must have sensed it. Xena thought briefly of finding another man, of driving these new, and very strange, thoughts from her mind by making love until she couldn't think.
Somehow, she knew that wouldn't work and resigned herself to another hour of conversation and a night of sleeping on the floor.
Gabrielle was running.
She didn't know why, or even where, but the dark taste of fear burned hot in the back of her throat, pushing her legs when all she wanted to do was collapse. In truth, she couldn't even see more than five feet in front of her, that was as far as the radius of light around her extended. The rest was murky darkness, filled with deeper shadows that seemed to move and shift restlessly.
But something worse was chasing her. Something dark and hateful, something she couldn't fight, something she couldn't defeat, not with a staff, not with her words. And it terrified her more than anything she had ever known.
Instinctively, she knew that it was gaining ground, it's twisted legs carrying it fast along the path behind her. Gabrielle looked around in panic. Nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, the light went wherever she did She felt a sob break free from her lungs as a hot breath coursed along her back.
The next instant, a hand flew down from above her, grabbing her by the front of her shirt, hauling her up into the darkness while the light continued on without her. Beneath her, she sensed a shape, so vast as to be unimaginable, pass by with a snarl of rage that shriveled her heart in her chest.
Gabrielle gasped for air, grabbing the arm the still held her beneath the rise of her breasts. She clung to it for her life, breathing "Thank you.", over and over again to a person she couldn't see.
Blackness enveloped both of them now, but she could feel the pounding of her saviors heart, could feel a softer breath against her neck. She started when gentle lips brushed against her throat, licking lightly at the point where her skin pulsed with the strength of the blood beneath it.
"Gabrielle " She heard her name whispered softly, the voice low, but feminine, and her own heart sped up in shock. A woman held her! A woman kissed her skin, biting gently, just hard enough to make her shiver.
And oh, how she shivered, shaking like a willow leaf against the armor her captor wore. She felt a breastplate against her back as the woman pulled her closer, running soft lips lower across Gabrielle's skin as one hand pulled her shirt away from her shoulders.
"Oh..." She breathed, her head falling back as the woman's other arm loosened it's grip about her stomach, sliding upwards to curve around the swell of her breast. Warm kisses were placed against her cheek and she turned her face to meet softly parting lips, parting her own to allow the tasting of her mouth.
Gabrielle felt a sweet tightening of the muscles in her thighs, felt a warm wetness on the fabric that brushed against her labia. With a shudder, she arched back, offering herself to the woman behind her. She held her breath when a strong hand wandered down her stomach, sliding beneath the fabric of her skirt to comb through soft, curly hair.
A moment before that hand claimed her, a light began to glow around her body. The woman holding her released her quickly, backing away from the steady glow. "Wait," Gabrielle pleaded. "Don't !"
But she was gone.
With a small cry, Gabrielle sat up and looked around the room in panic. "The inn." She whispered. "I'm at the Inn with Xena Xena!" No one answered her call.
She realized that she was panting and tried to calm her heart. It was then that she noticed a warmth against her skin. Looking down, she saw a soft glow emanating from beneath her shirt and reached her fingers in slowly, closing them around the Lath.
Gabrielle pulled the gem away from her and opened her palm, her eyes going wide at the light it contained. When Emony had showed it to her, it had only reflected what it had received. This .this was a burning all it's own. She turned it in her fingers, eyes captured by the colors that flashed across her face. "You were the light." She whispered.
Perhaps you should wear it.
She heard Emony's voice as though the woman were in the room and pulled the Lath from around her neck with more than a little unease.
Sighing, she slid out of bed and tucked the necklace back into it's pouch, burying it at the bottom of her bag before she walked out the door. She hurried down the stairs and went straight to the tavern, unconcerned with the amused glances people gave her uncombed hair and bare feet.
When she spotted Xena sitting with a handsome young man, Gabrielle felt herself get angry. She moved stiffly through the crowded tables to bend down and look into Xena's eyes. "What are you doing?"
The warrior's confusion was apparent. "I'm having a drink. This is Sylas."
"Hello." She said coldly, barely acknowledging him at all. "Did you plan on coming up anytime tonight?"
"Gabrielle, what's wrong?"
Xena's voice held very real concern and the bard felt herself melt. "I I had a dream." She whispered. "I woke up, and and I was confused and you weren't there and "
"Okay." The warrior smiled gently. "I'm coming up right now. We can talk." She turned to Sylas. "Thank you for the company and the conversation." She fought the urge to ruffle his hair. "Do me a favor and go home, okay? Before they bring your body back to bury you there."
His confused gaze followed them as they left the tavern.
Chapter Two: The Raven's Claw
Xena slid the bolt into place, locking the rest of the world out, then turned to study Gabrielle, who was staring absently down at her pouch. She couldn't remember her ever being this upset over a dream. In fact, the young woman had never mentioned any of her dreams at all. "Are you all right?"
Gabrielle looked at her, her gaze locked on Xena's breastplate. "I'm fine." She finally shook her head. "I just I needed you and you weren't here. Who was that guy anyway?"
Xena noticed the way the bard's nose wrinkled at the mention of 'that guy'. "Just some farmhand. He was looking for an army to join'"
Gabrielle snorted. "I bet that's not all he was looking for."
"I thought he might have some information about your savior. But he didn't know anything."
Gabrielle glanced up quickly, caught by Xena's choice of words. Savior. She remembered the twin dragons curled across the Amazon's chest. They certainly qualified as a breastplate. "I'm I'm sorry." She looked at the floor. "Maybe I'm just tired."
"Why don't you get some sleep?" Xena pulled out a bedroll and laid it out near the fire.
"What are you doing?"
"I thought I'd sleep by the fire," She had no intention of getting in bed with Gabrielle. "Besides, sleeping in a bed makes you soft."
"Really?" She smiled and Xena stared at the way it lit up her face. "I think you're safe. Besides, I could really use someone next to me please?"
Xena looked into her eyes and knew there was no way she could refuse. Nodding, she began to unbuckle her armor. "Must have been some dream. What happened?"
Gabrielle moved her hands away, unfastening the straps with small, quick fingers. "I was being chased. I couldn't see what was chasing me, but whatever it was, it was horrible." She took off Xena's boots. "It felt like I don't know like death was running at my heels."
Gabrielle flushed. "I woke up."
Xena nodded slowly. For a moment, she looked as though she wanted to say something, but let it pass instead. She washed up quickly in the water basin, then slipped into bed wearing only her shift. Gabrielle followed her, tucking herself snugly against the warrior's body before pulling her arm across her stomach.
"Better?" Xena asked, her arms tight around the bard, willing herself not to think about anything.
"Yes. Thank you." Her voice trailed off as she slid into sleep.
Xena continued to hold her tightly, until her breathing evened out. Then she loosened her grip and moved a little further away.
If she had wondered why she had been fascinated by a man who looked like her friend, holding Gabrielle like this had given her the answer. Somewhere, between the friendship and the arguments, she had developed feelings for the bard. And holding her felt a little too good. She rose on one elbow and looked down at Gabrielle's sleeping face, finding it as beautiful in repose as it was when she was awake.
Xena shook her head in anger. "What in Hades am I thinking?" She whispered. Gabrielle was her friend, she wouldn't betray that. She wouldn't try to create something that just wasn't there.
She'd rather lose Gabrielle, than hurt her that way.
Xena was up well before dawn, her sword polished and her armor in place. She watched Gabrielle sleep, an unexplainable aching in her heart, and repeated what she had told herself just the night before. Gabrielle was young, she had her whole life in front of her. A life that should be filled with her own happy memories, not the dark ones she seemed so willing to share. Even knowing that, it had been a test of her resolve to leave that warm bed, especially after the bard had whimpered in disappointed, trying to throw her arm across the warrior, even in her sleep.
But then, Gabrielle had always craved physical closeness, touching her arm when they were speaking, holding her hand when she was upset. It was a wonder the girl was still a virgin.
Xena felt her heart turn to lead. The idea of a man touching She shook her head. She could only hope that the man who finally won Gabrielle's heart would be good and kind. That he would take care of her the way she deserved to be, that he would love her the way she deserved to be loved.
She finally woke her about an hour after sunrise, steeling her heart against the lazy smile she got in return. "Hey, wake up sleepyhead. Time to get going."
"Going?" Gabrielle rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. "Where are we going?"
"You said you had a date remember?" She frowned at her own choice of words. "The Raven's Claw is about half a day's walk from here. If you hurry up we can get breakfast along the way."
Gabrielle brightened at the mention of food. She stood up, wrapping her arms around Xena in the process. "Thank you."
Her head shot up quickly, connecting solidly with the bottom of Xena's chin. "Ow " She rubbed the sore spot. "What did you say?"
"I said you're welcome." Xena rubbed her jaw.
"Oh." Gabrielle turned away, her face red with embarrassment. She pulled on her traveling clothes and laced her boots quickly, not wanting the warrior to have to wait for her. When she was almost done, Xena grabbed the saddlebags and headed for the door.
"I'll go get Argo from the stables. Meet me downstairs in ten minutes?"
Gabrielle nodded absently, waiting until she was gone to pull the Lath out of her bag. She dangled it from her fingers, staring up at the stone with resignation. "You're going to haunt me, aren't you? All right you win." She fastened it around her neck, hiding the stone beneath her shirt. "Show me."
Taking a deep breath, she headed downstairs.
Gabrielle looked up a series of white, alabaster steps, following the line of them until they split in two directions, each heading a different way up the mountain in front of her.
"Lot of mountains in my life these days." She whispered to herself. "And I always seem to be at the bottom of them."
"Of course you are "
The bard jumped slightly, turning in a circle to find the woman she knew would be behind her. "Emony? What are you doing here?"
"You called for me, Gabrielle. You challenged the Lath to show you. I am part of the Lath, as it is part of me." The woman's dark skin seemed to shimmer in the torch light. She reached out with one perfect hand to touch the stone around Gabrielle's neck. "This stone it is a creature of my making. It holds a piece of me within it's substance."
"Uh huh.." The bard looked at her as though she were crazy. "Okay, then why don't you tell me why I'm here? First I'm being chased. Now, I am expected to climb a mountain."
"You didn't mention what came in between."
"Oh, you know about that?' She turned towards the stairs, a redness creeping into her cheeks. "I didn't understand that either. Tell me what I'm supposed to do please."
Emony looked at her, eyes full of tenderness. "I cannot, little one. You must choose."
"Choose what?" She heard frustration in her own voice.
The Alchemist laughed. "Are you always this thick, Gabrielle?"
A spark of anger jumped from her eyes as she stood a little straighter. "Only when I get dragged into dreams that aren't mine!"
"Oh, but Gabrielle this is your dream." She started to fade away. "Listen for your name."
"My name?" She shouted into the empty air. "What about my name?"
The bard jumped upright, nearly sliding off of Argo in the process. If it hadn't been for Xena placing a hand against her thigh, she would have made a very rapid descent, indeed.
"Are you all right?" The warrior looked very concerned. "What is going on with you?"
"I'm fine." She looked around, here eyes taking in the trees and grass of the nearby forest. Not an alabaster stair in sight. "Was I asleep?"
"I hope so." Xena finally smiled. "Otherwise you are getting very odd."
Gabrielle grinned. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. Thank you for keeping my backside where it belonged."
The warrior glanced at her hand, realizing she had never moved it off Gabrielle's leg. She pulled it away quickly and rubbed it against her neck. It was very warm, and carried the scent of Gabrielle's skin along with it. She nodded and turned Argo back along the trail.
"So, what is The Raven's Claw anyway?"
Xena sighed. "A place I never thought I would see again. It's a tavern, Gabrielle, where warrior's go to drink."
She blinked at the sound of her name, but she had missed actually hearing it. She desperately wanted to ask her to say it again, but that would only have worried her friend more. "A tavern?" She decided to concentrate on the subject at hand. "In what city?"
"No city." She laughed. "No city would have it. Too loud, too uncontrollable." Xena quieted. "Too deadly."
"Deadly?" Gabrielle's face slackened in understanding. "What happened?"
The warrior kept walking, her thoughts unspoken. "Later." She whispered, handing the bard a stick of dried meat.
Gabrielle accepted the food in silence, wondering who was more haunted at that moment, her or the warrior beside her.
Xena pulled Argo to an abrupt stop. A large compound had appeared in front of them, sporting ten foot high walls that hid the interior.
"Let me guess." Gabrielle joked. "We're here."
"Yes." Xena resumed their pace, shifting her sword to make it more visible. She walked stiffly, her back very straight, until she stood in front of the gate, with a guard trying to stare her down.
"What do you want, woman?" He sneered. "Get away from here."
"Open the gate." She said evenly. "Or suffer and then open the gate."
The guard laughed. "Who do you think you are?"
"I think I'm Xena." She smiled, reaching for her chakram.
The guard's face contorted, his fear causing him to back up quickly, his head connecting solidly with the gate behind him.
Gabrielle laughed, she couldn't help it.
The guard regained his composure and advanced on the bard, pointing his sword up at her. "You think it's funny-"
Xena stepped between him and his easier target. "Let me make something perfectly clear," Her tone was soft, almost a lover's voice. "Anything happens to her, and I get VERY angry." Her finger caressed the edge of the chakram, then traced the patterns that adorned it's side, getting the guard's attention.
Gabrielle's eyes followed Xena's fingers too, but she reacted in a much different way. The guard merely swallowed and called for the gate to be opened, while Gabrielle had to fight to control her breathing. Her gaze never left Xena's hand as it rubbed against the steel beneath it. When her finger traveled over one of the blue gems, the bard gasped softly and looked away, avoiding the warrior's questioning look. She couldn't have explained her reaction if she wanted to.
They entered the walls in silence, Xena looking at Gabrielle from time to time, trying to decipher what had just happened. In the end, she decided it was just wishful thinking, the younger woman wasn't even looking at her. Her eyes were taking in the compound, which was really a series of smaller huts, thrown together quickly, and linked by the surrounding wall. The only building with a look of permanence was down at the very end.
"That's the Raven's Claw." Xena pointed. "Why don't you go ahead? I think I made my point to the guards. You'll be all right." She turned away, frowning. "I have to go stable Argo."
"Are you sure? I can wait.."
"No. Go ahead. I'll be along soon." She turned and walked away.
Gabrielle watched her go, wondering what she had done to upset her, then shrugged sadly and headed for tavern.
She recognized the place the minute she walked in the door. It was just like any other tavern she had been in, except, maybe a little worse. There were armed men everywhere, and she received interested looks from most of them before spotting a head of light, curly hair on the other side of the room. Gabrielle walked up with a smile. "Hello."
The Amazon stood quickly, surprise plain on her face. "Hello." She smiled back. "I didn't think you would really come."
"Well, I couldn't resist the chance to learn more about the woman that saved my virtue. It's going to make a great story."
"A story? You're a bard?"
"Yes, yes I am. I even won admittance to the Athens Academy for Performing Bard's, but I didn't go."
"Apparently." She held out her hand and Gabrielle grabbed it firmly, her own hand wrapping around the other woman's forearm. "You know the ways of a warrior. How very unexpected."
"Well, I travel with a warrior."
"Do you. Ah." Her face fell a little but her voice remained light. "Well, then, my name is Zo. I am very pleased to see you again."
"Gabrielle." She introduced herself. "What does Zo stand for?"
"My first name." Her eyes sparkled at Gabrielle's laugh. "It's just Zo. Please come have a seat." She waved her hand at the bartender, who brought a fresh round of drinks.
"So," Gabrielle sipped her wine. "How did you know Terreis?"
"She was my Princess and I, her promised one."
Zo grinned. "Her lover, Gabrielle. We were meant to be betrothed."
The bard's heart skipped a beat. Two women, betrothed. "What happened?"
"A thousand things," She whispered. "I failed her and she had no choice but to turn her back on me. It broke my heart to see it, just as it broke her heart to do it. I destroyed half of the encampment before they captured me and put me into exile."
"So you've lost her twice then."
Zo looked up at her. "You are a bard." She squeezed Gabrielle's hand. "So tell me, how did you come to be in Metzlan? In the booth of such an unsavory merchant?"
"I came with my friend. We were traveling through this region when her horse threw a shoe. We only stopped to find a smithy, but then I saw the bazaar and those wonderful combs "
"These?" She held up her hand and Gabrielle saw the combs, her fingers wrapped around them.
"Yes!" She accepted them with a smile.
"They're yours." Zo offered. "I thought he owed you at least that much."
Gabrielle slid them into her hair, turning her head from side to side so that the Amazon could see them. "What do you think?"
"Very becoming." Zo's voice was low, and there was something in it that Gabrielle recognize, something familiar. They stared at each other for a few moments, until the Amazon broke the silence. "So, my Princess, a meal was part of my invitation. What would you like to eat?"
"You don't have to call me that, Zo. Gabrielle is fine."
"The title suits you well. You have the grace and beauty of an Amazon princess, if not the size. Maybe you were not born into it, but the Gods seem to have corrected their mistake."
Gabrielle's jaw dropped. The warrior's voice was sincere, her eyes smiling. "Thank you." She whispered.
"Oh, very much my pleasure Princess." Zo took her hand again and continued to hold it. Gabrielle studied her face as the Amazon called for their dinner.
Xena sat outside the tavern, drawing idly in the dirt with the tip of her boot. She didn't remember how long she had waited, only that she had stabled Argo, got into three fights, and now the cold was working it's way directly to her bones. She gritted her teeth against it and looked back at the door. Inside, there would be a fire, a few cups of port, maybe a leg of lamb and Gabrielle. She looked up at the moon and smiled sadly.
She waited another quarter of an hour, before throwing open the door to sample the warmth inside. Her eyes swept across the room carefully, coming to rest on Gabrielle's smiling face. She forced herself to walk slowly as she went to join them.
When Xena was less than five feet away, she heard the woman sitting with Gabrielle ask, "So tell me about this friend of yours "
"She can do that for herself." The bard smiled, waving a hand for her to join them.
The Amazon turned and Xena felt her legs stop moving. The moment seemed to hang forever as she stared down into that face.
Gabrielle stood and came to her side. "This is my friend, Xena. Xena, this is-"
"Hello Zo." Xena said quietly. "It's been a long time."
"Yes, Warrior Princess," Gabrielle noticed the Amazon moving to the edge of her chair. "It has."
Without another word, Xena launched herself at the woman, knocking her to the floor.
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle tried to grab her from behind as Xena gripped the Amazon's shoulders and slammed them against the ground. "She saved my life!"
"Stay out of this, Gabrielle!"
The bard stood back, she had definitely heard her name that time. She waited a few moments, trying to find anything different within herself. But there was nothing....except a feeling of disappointment that she didn't understand.
She looked over Xena's shoulder to the woman pinned beneath her, confused at her lack of response to Zo calling her name as well. She saw that the Amazon's face was turning red and shrugged helplessly.
"Get...the staff!" Zo wheezed. "Knock her out!"
Gabrielle frowned, "I can't. I'm sorry!"
Zo stared at her for a few moments before nodding. With a huge effort, she flipped Xena back, landing a hard punch to her stomach. Xena stumbled slightly as the air left her lungs and the Amazon was on her in an instant. "Ah, Xena! I told you I would best you one day! Looks as though that day has come!" She wrapped her hands around the warrior's neck and pushed back with all her strength. Tables and chairs flew everywhere as soldiers slipped quickly out of the way, making bets as they went.
"Zo...Zo...Zo...Zo." Gabrielle heard the Amazon's men begin to chant under their breath. Grabbing the man closest to her, she whispered in his ear. Immediately, he began to chant as well. "Xe-na...Xe-na...Xe-na...Xe-na..."
Everyone in the bar joined in until they were all chanting for one woman or the other. Only Gabrielle remained silent.
Zo laughed as she kicked the warrior's legs out from under her, then launched herself upwards, pointing her foot out for a devastating blow against Xena's head. Gabrielle watched her come down as though she were moving in slow motion, a sick feeling starting at the bottom of her stomach.
At the very last moment, Xena slid to her left, causing the Amazon to land hard on her right leg. With one arm sweep, she knocked into Zo's knee, causing the already strained muscles to give out completely. She hit the floor hard and Xena knelt on her shoulders.
"You were saying?" She smiled.
Zo struggled for a few moments before giving up, exhaling her frustration loudly. "All right. You win. Get off."
"No." A huge grin covered the Warrior Princess's face. "Say it."
"Never!" The Amazon gritted her teeth.
"Just say it. It's the only way you're going to get me off of you."
Zo sighed, accepting that it was useless to fight her. "All right!" She turned her face away, mumbling under her breath.
"What was that?" Xena grinned.
"I said, 'Warrior Princess, you have bested me. I offer myself, in anything you would ask of me, in any truth you would have me tell.'" She bucked her hips beneath the warrior. "Now get off of me, damn it!"
Xena laughed and climbed to her feet, offering her arm to the Amazon. Zo grabbed it and allowed herself to be pulled upright.
"You've gained weight, Xena. You're a lot heavier than you used to be."
They stared at each other for a few moments, and then started to laugh. Zo held out her hand, and Xena clasped her arm, pulling her forward to squeeze her shoulder.
"Zo...How long has it been?"
"About four years. Much too long." She quieted somewhat. "Gabrielle told me about Terreis. Thank you both for trying to help her."
"Excuse me!" Gabrielle stepped between them. "Could someone please tell me what just happened here?"
"I'm sorry, Princess." Zo squeezed her arm affectionately and Xena's eyes narrowed. "I know your friend. Xena and I go way back. Don't we?"
Xena nodded. "Zo and I used to fight together...and with each other." She pushed the Amazon's head back good naturedly. "Of course, she was a lot tougher then."
"And you were a lot thinner." Zo rubbed her back as she laughed.
Gabrielle threw her arms up in frustration. "Could the two of you please let me in on the joke next time? I thought you were going to kill each other."
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle." Xena said softly, causing a shiver to run up the bard's spine.
"Well...okay then." She tried not to smile and failed. "So how did you two end up fighting together?"
The three of them took their seats, laughing, while astonished soldiers watched. One man took a few steps forward, but Xena stopped him with a raised eyebrow. "Yes?" She asked softly.
"Uh...nothing. Sorry." He turned tail and ran from the Inn.
Zo laughed. "Still got the Xena touch, I see." She looked at Gabrielle. "You're taste in companions has definitely improved."
"Seeing as how I used to travel with you, I'd agree as well."
The Amazon made a face at her. Then smiled. "So, I hear you've left the ways of the warlord behind."
"Yes. A...friend...showed me the light."
"A friend?" Zo snorted into her ale. "I'd say more than a friend. Everyone knows the love story of Xena and Hercules."
"The love story?" Gabrielle leaned forward. "I mean, I know you were close but...you never said you were in love with him."
"That's because I'm not." Xena gave the Amazon's a dark look. Still up to the same old tricks. "Hercules and I are friends, nothing more."
Gabrielle nodded, apparently satisfied, but Zo only grunted, "Uh huh." She grabbed up a hot biscuit as they were set on the table. "So tell me then, oh mighty Warrior Princess, what did knock the warlord out of you, if it wasn't love?"
Xena was silent, she didn't like the turn of the conversation. "It's a long story, Zo." She glanced at the bard and then frowned when she saw the Amazon watching her. "I've had a lot of help."
The bard turned to look at her, a smile on her lips. She reached under the table and closed her fingers around Xena's hand. The contact only lasted for 20 seconds or so, but the warrior felt it's affects much longer than that. "Anyway," Xena cleared her throat. "What have you been doing these last four years?"
"Traveling, working for one warlord or another. Hearing your legends every time I turned around. Being interrogated about what you were really like." She smiled. "No offense, but it got a little tiresome, so I decided to make my own name. And no one has asked me about you since."
Gabrielle felt the warrior beside her stiffen.
"What do you mean, 'make your own name'?" She grabbed a leg of some kind of bird and began to eat.
"I mean that I spent the last year rounding up your men, Xena. After you killed Darphus, they pretty much scattered to the four winds. It took me a year, but I found your best...and started my own army."
Xena stared her in the eyes, the meat forgotten. "You're leading an army?" She leaned forward. "For who?"
She threw down the food and drained her port. "You're a warlord." She shook her head. "I should have know. Some things never change."
"Oh...come on, Xena." Zo continued to eat, undaunted. "You and I were always a lot alike. We liked the same food, the same weapons, the same..." She glanced at Gabrielle and then grinned at Xena's glare. "Entertainment. You had to know that I wouldn't just disappear quietly." She held up a hand at the warrior's protests. "Now, I know you've become a 'good' girl, but there's nothing in your new rules that says two old friends can't get together and share a meal, is there?"
"As long as it ends with the meal." Xena's voice was low.
But Zo only laughed. "How's the food, Gabrielle?"
The bard looked up, "It's good." She mumbled, concerned about Xena's rapidly darkening face. "Thank you."
"No need to thank me." The Amazon took her hand. "I would like to ask for the pleasure of your company after you are done. A nice, PRIVATE, walk would do wonders for me...and you."
Gabrielle smiled, enjoying the attention she was receiving. "I'd like that."
Xena scowled. "I'd better go check on Argo." She stood and felt Gabrielle's hand on her hip.
"Argo? You just stabled her. She'll be fine."
The warrior looked down at her with clear, cold eyes. "I'll check on her nonetheless. We have a room here. Top floor, second door. I'll leave it unbolted." She turned to Zo and nodded. Wordlessly, she left the tavern.
Gabrielle cast a confused glance at Zo, who just smiled. "More wine, Gabrielle?"
The bard shook her head absently and asked for a cider, glancing over her shoulder a few times before settling back into the easy conversation they had shared earlier in the evening.
Xena walked quickly towards the stables, her breath leaving a mist-like trail behind her in the cold night air. "A warlord." She muttered to herself. "A warlord...and Gabrielle stayed with her!" She shook her head, oblivious to the soldiers that quickly sidestepped to get out of her way.
When she reached the livery, she waved away the stable boy and grabbed her saddle, throwing it across Argo's back with well-practiced ease. She cinched it tight and picked up her bridle, stopping to scratch the horse's nose before sliding it over her ears. "Well, Argo. Gabrielle seems to be busy with her new friend, what's say you and me go for a ride?"
The horse nickered, butting her head into Xena's back. "Don't you start." The warrior frowned. "She's an adult. She can take care of herself. Maybe it's time she did." As she swung into the saddle, she wondered briefly which one of them she was trying to convince.
Gabrielle glanced over at the woman beside her. Zo had been silent for quite a while and she was beginning to wonder if she had said something wrong. They had left the tavern and the compound to walk a short distance through the woods to a spot where a hot spring bubbled up from the ground. The Amazon had been quite animated while describing it, making her stillness now a little unsettling.
Gabrielle almost jumped out of her skin when Zo reached down and took her hand. She was quiet for a few moments, then she smiled. "What's this for?"
The Amazon grinned. "You look like someone who likes to be touched." She shied her eyes away. "I know I'm happy to oblige."
The bard thought about that, and about Zo being promised to Terreis. It didn't seem so strange anymore.
"Did Xena ever mention me?" Zo broke into her thoughts.
"No...not that I can recall. How did you meet her?"
The Amazon was silent for a few moments. "She's the reason I was exiled."
Gabrielle stopped dead. "What?"
Zo turned to look the bard in the eye. "Melosa sent me out to prove myself worthy of her sister. I was to find and kill a man that had raped and murdered an Amazon." She squeezed Gabrielle's hand a little tighter. "I chased him here, and attacked him in that very tavern." She started walking again. "Turns out he was one of Xena's men. And I was wrong, he hadn't done anything. She stopped me from killing him, knocked me around pretty good, while the real rapist attacked and killed two of my guard. She killed him Gabrielle. She killed the man I was sent for,...and so I failed, my friends and my Queen. She became a hero to the Amazons...and I lost Terreis."
Gabrielle looked at her sadly, "Zo....I'm sorry."
The Amazon shrugged. "It was a long time ago."
The bard smiled. She had seen Xena do this a hundred times, hide her feelings behind indifference.
"Anyway," Zo continued. "Xena came looking for me when she heard I'd been exiled. She accepted me into her army and trained me herself in the art of being a warlord." She smiled. "We fought all the time and I never even came close to beating her...until today."
"Sounds like she was important to you."
The Amazon stopped. "She was the most important thing in the world to me...until we parted four years ago. I hated her for a while after that."
"Why?" Gabrielle asked softly.
"Because she kicked me out of her army. She brought me back to this place, where we had first met, and left me here. Without an army...without a friend."
"I can understand why you would hate her." Gabrielle squeezed her arm. "But she must have had a reason."
"Oh, she did." Zo ran one hand through her hair. "I worshipped her. I swore my allegiance to her. I even called her my warrior princess, a name that spread like wildfire across any land she entered. I loved her and I think she loved me. But the first time I called her Princess to her face, something in her eyes changed. Something went cold. I think she finally understood what I had done."
"What did you do?" Gabrielle whispered.
"I won her heart, Gabrielle, and tried to give her one that belonged to someone else." She swallowed. "I didn't know it then, but I just traded one princess for another. I didn't know it, but she did." Zo looked away. "So she left me."
Gabrielle was speechless, but only for a moment. "Can't you see? What she did was as much for you as for her?"
"I know that now. Four years gives a person a lot of time to think. I was wrong, she was right. Wasn't an uncommon occurrence in those days." She smiled weakly. "I stopped blaming her quite a while ago. I was the one that failed, she just finished what I couldn't. And I never thanked her."
Gabrielle squeezed her hand, her breath catching when eyes made gray by the moonlight stared deep into hers. They were a breath apart, no more than that, and she found it very easy just to lean forward. She closed her eyes when she felt the Amazon's palm against her cheek, raising her hands to place them on broad, strong shoulders.
A moment before their lips actually touched, Gabrielle heard horse snort behind her. She turned, shocked to see Xena less than ten feet away, understanding what Zo had meant by seeing coldness in those clear blue eyes.
Xena stared at her, taking in her half closed eyes, the hand gently touching her face. With a curt nod, she turned Argo and rode off into the darkness.
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