DISCLAIMER/NOTES: See Part One.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Heart of a Warlord
By Patricia L. Givens
Chapter 7- Zo
"Ugh." Zo laid her palm against her forehead as she walked, trying to still the throbbing ache behind her eyes.
"Good Morning, Sir!"
She turned, ready to snap at whoever it was that thought it necessary to yell so early in the morning, then stopped herself short. "You're new, aren't you?"
The young man bobbed his head eagerly. "Yes, Sir!"
"Well, let me give you some advice," She grabbed him by the front of his shirt and pulled him very close. "When my eyes look like this," She widened them so he could see the red tracing across them. "NOTHING is good. Take the warning. Other's in this outfit might not be so nice."
She released him abruptly, watching as he stumbled backwards and then walked quickly in the other direction, his light colored hair looking too damn cheerful in the brightness of the new morning sun. "Kids..." She grumbled and continued on, slowing when she reached the opening of her own tent.
Zo reached out her hand, and then pulled it back. Reached out again, and pulled back. With a sigh, she leaned in close to the opening in the canvas. "Gabrielle," She said quietly. "Listen, I..." She heard a twig snap and looked behind her to find a small group of men watching her intently. She raised one eyebrow. "Do you mind?"
The men started and scattered in all four directions.
Zo turned back to the tent. "Listen, Gabrielle. I won't pretend to understand...what you're going through. It's been years..." She blushed slightly and ran her fingers through disheveled hair "Well, it's been a long time since I was in the same position. I'm willing to be patient. I mean, I don't know what you meant about the writing on your heart, but I think we could work it out." She plucked at the tent flap with her fingers, shocked that she felt what she was saying beating in her chest. "Gabrielle...if you give it a chance, I think I may surprise you. Can you do that?" She frowned at the silence that met her words. "Gabrielle?" Still nothing. "Gabrielle?" She grabbed the tent flap and pulled it back, stepping into the shadows within.
"What in Tartarus was that?" Draxen stood up quickly, knocking his head into the low crossbeams of the makeshift tent. Scowling in pain, he sat down heavily, and shook his wife's arm. "Derry. Derry...did you hear that?"
The woman nodded. "Sounded like Zo-" Her words were cut of by a large crash. "So did that." With a shrug, she rolled over and pulled up the blankets.
"Zo?" Draxen grabbed his breeches and pulled them on. "That sounded like a wounded bear."
"It's Zo." His wife mumbled.
He finished pulling on his shirt and rushed towards the opening in the tent. "Stay here, I don't know if it's safe.." Draxen glanced back and saw his wife, her head buried in pillows, back rising and falling as she snored softly. He snorted. "Don't worry, I'll be careful." Shaking his head, he ran towards his commanders tent.
Draxen skidded to a halt when he reached it, his mouth falling open at the sight before him. Zo's tent, the largest in the encampment, was all but destroyed. Two of the supports had been knocked out (hence the crashing sound) causing the left half of the tent to sag against the ground. Large holes had been ripped through it's fabric by various objects thrown from the inside. To his left was Zo's favorite sword, to his right was her washbasin, cracked into four different pieces from the force of the impact. He was staring at it in confusion when another yell of rage came from inside. A moment later, a mace tore threw the tent and flew straight towards his head.
Draxen yelped and slammed his body against the ground, feeling one point of the weapon slice across his shoulder. When he placed his hand against the wound, it came away red. "Damn it." He hissed between clenched teeth. "That's enough."
Steeling himself, he flipped up and charged the tent, spreading out his arms to knock into the raging figure inside. They both hit the ground hard, Draxen on top, Zo tucked beneath him. Her head connected solidly with the floor and she went limp.
With rising panic, Draxen knelt over her to check for a pulse, only to have slim, strong fingers wrap around his throat. The woman beneath him bucked, hard, and before he knew what was happening, he was flipped onto his back with two strong knees pressing into his chest. The hands around his throat began to squeeze harder as he looked up into crazed, hazel eyes. "ZO! Please!" His face began to get red as he fought against her. "Please!" His voice was barely a whisper, the words bitten out from between clenched teeth. His vision started to go black around the edges as his heart hammered wildly in his chest. Just before he blacked out, he felt the tension lessen, felt the grip against his artery loosen, then disappear completely. When he could see again, he was looking up into Zo's concerned gaze.
"Draxen?" She whispered. "Are you okay?" She lifted one of his eyelids, frowning when she saw the red lines that indicated just how close she had come to killing him. "You know better than that, Drax. You know how I am, why did you come in here?"
Her second gasped for air, his head resting against the ground. "I...I didn't want you to hurt yourself."
"Hurt myself?" Zo snorted.
"Or anyone else."
The warlord nodded slowly, easing herself off of his chest to sit beside him on the floor. She stared around at her ruined belongings before dropping her head into her hands.
"Zo," Draxen knelt beside her, rubbing his neck. "What the hell happened?"
"She's gone." Her voice was very low, almost sad and Draxen's eyes widened in surprise.
"Who? That girl? What was her name, uhm...Larabelle?"
"GABRIELLE!" Zo snapped at him, her fists clenched.
"Ah." The warrior sat back on his haunches, his eyes contemplating the figure before him. Never. He had never seen her act this way over a GIRL. "What happened?" He searched for his words carefully, knowing Zo had never wanted friend in the past. "Did you fight?"
"Did you try to " He gestured with his hand. "Against her will?"
"NO!" Zo's face reddened slightly, surprising him again.
"Then why would she leave?"
Her forehead furrowed in confusion as she looked around. "You're right." Rising gracefully, she began to dig in the remnants of her quarters. Her breathe sharpened when she found what she was looking for: A pair of soft kid boots and an Amazon staff. Going to the back of her tent, she lift the fabric up off of the ground, sliding it in her hands until she found the opening. "Damn."
Draxen watched as his commander slipped through an opening in the canvas, gave her a moment, and then followed. He caught up with her halfway across the slight incline that lined the back of her quarters. She was staring at the dirt, still soft from the morning dew. After a few moments, she looked up, death glittering in her bright hazel eyes. "What?" He swallowed.
"She's was taken. By force. Dragged through here." She grabbed a piece of light tan fabric from a nearby thorn bush. When she spoke again, her voice was low and dangerous. "Get the men."
"NOW!" Her rage carried loudly over the still morning air.
Without another word, he hurried back to camp.
Gabrielle stretched hard, small sounds escaping her throat as her hands dug into the hay above her head. She pulled them out quickly, realizing that her whole body was starting to itch, but then, she felt too good to care. She reached to her right, seeking the warmth she had been cradled in for the last two hours, but found only hay, rich with her lovers scent. "Xena?" She mumbled, sitting up.
The bard's eyes followed to sound of her voice to find her standing beside Argo, tending to the mare's hoof. "So much for the warm afterglow." Gabrielle smiled. "You'd rather go play with your horse."
Xena turned to face her, a smile tugging at the edges of her mouth. "Argo was not my first choice. I didn't think you would ever wake up." She lowered the mare's leg gently and walked slowly towards her, the look in her eyes sending a lovely flush up into Gabrielle's cheeks.
Xena lowered herself into the hay beside Gabrielle and caught her with one arm around her back, pulling her close. The metal of the warrior's breastplate was cold against the bard's bare skin, but when she shivered, it was for a different reason altogether. While Xena's lips trailed along her shoulder to capture the sensitive spot beneath her right ear, Gabrielle traced the patterns of the brass across her back. She wondered if any other woman had ever felt this way, had ever been pressed against her lover's armor, shivering in the still-cool air. She wondered how many women Xena had conquered in her life. She found that she didn't care about the men, but the women
"Xena?" She tried to phrase the question in her mind, tried to find just the right words so that Xena wouldn't turn away or stop what she was doing to her neck.
She could hear the smile on Xena's lips, the passion in her voice and decided to let it wait. "Never mind " she breathed, wrapping her arms around the warrior's neck.
Xena smiled against the bottom of Gabrielle's chin and began to lower the bard gently into the hay.
Xena was on her feet in an instant and strapping on her sword.
"He's probably just mad that we're taking so long." The bard looked around for her clothes.
"No, Gabrielle." Xena tested the edge of her blade before sheathing it again. "That was fear." She moved to the door, leaning in close to listen. A moment later, she slid the bolt and swung the door wide, allowing the panicked farmer to enter at a run. In one smooth, fluid movement, Xena slammed the door, bolted it, and grabbed the man by the back of his shirt. "Whoa slow down. What's wrong?"
The man was bent over at the waist, trying hard to catch his breath. "M My " He panted.
"Here." Xena threw the man their wine skin. "Take a drink and calm down."
The man did as he was told. When she saw that he could breathe again, Xena placed her arm gently on his shoulder. "Now tell me what's wrong."
"My oldest boy just came in, riding like the blazes from the far back fields." He looked at Gabrielle for a moment, noticing her disheveled appearance, but apparently thought better of saying anything. He turned his eyes back to Xena. "There's an army headed this way. He says it's a big one and my son's not one for exaggeration."
The warrior felt her back stiffen. She turned to Gabrielle. "Get dressed."
The bard finished lacing her shirt quickly. "What are we going to do?"
"Do?" The man's voice rose in anger. "You're going to get off my land. That's what you're going to do." He shook his head. "Whatever's following ya, it isn't any of my concern. Now, I let you use my barn as a courtesy. Do me a courtesy and leave before they destroy this place."
Xena nodded and began to re-saddle Argo. The farmer watched her, fear written plainly across his face. When she tried to nod at him reassuringly, he turned his back and went to speak with Gabrielle.
"That's her, isn't it?" He whispered. "Xena the Warrior Princess."
"Is it true? That she's changed? That she isn't a warlord anymore?"
Gabrielle nodded again. "Yes, it is. Now she fights for people like you. Sometimes they act like you,
"Gabrielle." Xena's voice was steady. "Let's go."
The bard nodded, leaning towards the farmer to whisper, "If you needed her, she'd help you. Even after you asked her to leave. That's how much she's changed."
"I'm sorry." The farmer said quietly. "But I'm not part of this fight. I don't need help. I certainly don't need trouble."
"Nobody needs trouble. It just seems to happen." Gabrielle grabbed her bag and took her place by Xena's side.
"Thanks for the use of your barn." The warrior nodded to him. She had just reached for the bolt when she heard someone moving quietly outside.
"Xena " Zo's voice was soft through the heavy wood of the door. "I know you're in there. I've come for Gabrielle. She doesn't belong with you. Not anymore. Let her go."
"Let me go?" Gabrielle looked at Xena. "What does she mean?"
"She thinks I've kidnapped you." Xena smiled softly. "Figures."
The bard sighed. "Maybe I should say something."
"No, Gabrielle." Xena placed her hand on the bolt. "She won't believe it unless she sees you for herself. Get back." She waited until they were both against the back wall before speaking. "Zo?" The Amazon didn't answer, but Xena knew she was there. "Gabrielle wants to tell you something. I'm going to open the door. If you truly care for her, you'll hear her out."
"YOU?" Zo's voice was outraged. "You would tell ME what I should do? IF I truly care for her?"
"Yes, Zo, if you truly care for her." Xena slid the bolt and backed up, her right hand clasped lightly around the hilt of her sword.
The door swung open slowly, and she could see the Amazon's silhouette against the bright daylight outside. Her sword was drawn, clasped in her left hand her fighting hand, the one she only used when she was out for blood. Xena knew Zo's fighting style, she had taught her most of it. But she also knew that the Amazon had a good amount of natural talent, especially with her left hand. "Zo " She brought her own sword up in a defensive posture. "I don't want to fight with you."
The Amazon laughed. "Are you afraid, Xena? Hmmm .I've never seen that in you before. It's very becoming."
"I'm not afraid of you, Zo. I just don't want to hurt you."
The smile vanished. "Hurt me? Take care of yourself, Warrior Princess." Zo stepped forward, her sword arm arcing over her head in a vicious blow aimed at Xena's shoulder. It never hit it's mark.
Xena grunted as the Amazon's sword slammed into hers, her arm shaking under the force of the blow. She saw Zo's arm tremble as well and reached out to grab the hilt of her sword.
Both women swung their heads towards Gabrielle, even as their hands still fought over the weapons.
"Stop it, Zo." Gabrielle stepped between them and pushed them apart. "This is between you and me. Xena didn't do anything."
"Didn't do anything?" Zo's voice registered her astonishment. "Gabrielle, she took you by force. You can't tell me that's not true."
"Well," The bard gave her a quirky half smile. "It's not *exactly* true."
"Not exactly true " The Amazon's tone became sarcastic. "Then what exactly IS the tru " She stopped mid-sentence and glanced around the barn, her nostrils flaring. When she realized that the musky scent was coming from the woman before her, understanding slammed home and her face darkened. "Tell me it was by force." She whispered. "Please."
Gabrielle looked at the ground as she shook her head. "I'm sorry Zo."
The warlord was silent, staring at the ground. When she finally raised her eyes, Xena recognized the fury flashing in them. She took one step forward only to stop when Zo raised her sword.
"No further Amazon Queen." The words were spit from between gritted teeth. Expressionless, she slid the weapon across her palm, cupping it to catch the blood that pooled within. She gazed down into it for a moment, before flinging it towards Xena, catching her in the face. "That's thrice you have taken what I have loved, warrior. From now until the day I die, I will call you enemy."
"Zo please." Gabrielle ran towards her, ignoring the panicked hand that tried to hold her back.
The warlord looked at her coldly. "You are dead to me, Gabrielle. More so than even Terreis. And you," She pointed at Xena. "You WILL meet me in battle. Two days from now, at the first light of dawn, you will meet me." She slid her sword into it's scabbard. "Or I will destroy every village that falls in my path until you do."
Gabrielle watched her go, then turned to Xena. "She didn't tell you where."
"I know." Xena put her sword away. "Finding her is part of the game. It always was."
"This isn't a game, Xena."
"I know that, Gabrielle." She tried to hold on to her patience. Wordlessly, she nodded to the farmer and swung up into the saddle, pulling the bard up behind her.
The rode in silence for almost an hour before Xena felt the bard shift behind her. "Xena?" She said softly.
"Can you beat her?"
Xena didn't answer.
"Xena?" Gabrielle leaned to the side, trying to see the warrior's face. "I asked-"
"I heard you." She pulled Argo to a stop. "I was better then, Gabrielle. But it's been a long time, and she was good to begin with. I'd say yes, but nothing is certain."
Gabrielle nodded. "Promise me something?"
"Don't hurt her."
Xena turned her head. "Don't hurt her? Gabrielle, I don't know if-"
"You said anything."
The warrior studied her lover's face, taking in the concern that was evident in her eyes. "You care for her."
"She would have been a good friend. She led me to understand Of course I care for her."
Xena nodded. "I won't hurt her."
Gabrielle sighed in relief. "So what's our plan?"
"First," Xena urged Argo into a fast walk. "We get some rest."
"But we only have two days."
"I have an idea where we can get the information we need. A night's rest won't set us back as much as we need it. There's an Inn in Treton where we can get four walls and a door. I know I'd feel better if we had them around us tonight."
The bard nodded and fell silent, laying her cheek against the softness of Xena's shoulder. She wondered for the hundredth time if this was all her fault.
She didn't think the answer would make her feel much better.
Chapter 8: Not Yet
"Zo." Draxen looked over at his warlord, taking in the darkness of her eyes. When she didn't answer, he pulled on the reins, moving his mount in her direction. They had been riding hard for the past four hours with nothing from Zo except barked commands when they needed to change direction. The men were tired, irritable and hungry. They wanted to know where they were going and while they would never question the Amazon herself, they had absolutely no problem with harassing him every chance they got. "Zo!" He reached out his hand to grab her arm only to pull it back, wincing in pain, as a resounding crack filled the air. He hadn't even seen her raise her hand.
"Don't touch me, Draxen." Her voice was low and angrier than he had ever heard it. This woman was not the warlord he knew. "Not now."
"Fine." He snarled, his patience breaking. "But stop, for Hades sake, before the men rebel."
Zo looked behind her, taking in the tired and angry faces of the men behind her. She took a deep breath as she realized what she was doing. Xena had to pay, but that wouldn't happen if her army turned against her. "Fall out. Make camp." She waved the men away. "Get your rest there won't be any tomorrow." She turned to find her second studying her. "I told you, Draxen. This isn't a good time."
"What are you doing, Zo?" He tried one last time to reason with her. "I know your angry, but Xena isn't someone you want to go up against. I know I don't want to go up against her."
"So," Zo sneered. "You've gone coward?" She saw the warrior's face harden and smiled. "Now that's the Draxen I know. You just follow my orders and we'll all get out of this alive."
"Fine. But I think it would make the men feel better if you told them where we're going." He turned his face away. He didn't want to look into her eyes anymore. The stranger looking back was not someone he wanted to know.
Zo snorted. "The one place where it won't matter if Xena wants to fight me or not, she won't have a choice. The one place where she has to follow." Here eyes took on a faraway look. "You're a smart man, I'm sure you can figure it out. Now tend to the men." She spun her horse and headed off alone.
Draxen watched her ride away, his mind working over everything she had said. He thought back to the things his warlord had told him in the past few days, about Xena, about Gabrielle, and even about herself. His mouth settled into a grim frown when he realized just where they were going.
It was early evening when Xena and Gabrielle finally rode into Treton, the first small town just north of The Raven's Claw. The warrior's eyes searched every corner of the street for trouble, but found only farmers and merchants who cast no more than curious glances their way. Satisfied that no one was watching them, Xena headed Argo towards the inn.
"The Dancing Stag." Gabrielle read the sign swinging over the door as Xena slid out of the saddle. "Sounds interesting." She started to dismount.
"Stay there." Xena called over her shoulder. "I'll help you in a minute."
"Hmph." The bard grunted in frustration. "I am perfectly able to get down off of Argo myself." With a stubborn set of her shoulders, she slid to the ground.
Xena turned just in time to see Gabrielle land in mud up to her ankles. The bard's mouth fell open as it slipped between her toes.
The warrior tried not to laugh as she tied Argo to the rail.
"You could have said something!" She threw a disgusted look at her lover before dragging herself out of the mud.
"I believe I tried." The warrior grinned. "Still, jumping off a horse without boots on is not the smartest thing to do."
"I forgot I left them-" Her eyes widened. "My staff!"
Xena hung her head slightly, she'd been waiting for this. "I forgot to grab it. I'm sorry." She watched as Gabrielle's face fell. "We'll get it back your boots too."
"I don't care about the boots but my staff." She sighed. "Ephiny gave that to me. What's she going to say when she hears I lost it?"
"I said I'd get it back and I will." She placed her hand on the bard's arm and squeezed gently.
Gabrielle nodded. "Well, at least your mother still has the staff-head. I guess I could fit it to another-"
"Gabrielle," Xena pulled her closer. "You won't have to do that. I promise."
Gabrielle studied her lover's face and knew in her heart that the warrior would do whatever it took to get her staff back. Something in that scared her. "It's just a piece of wood. If we can get it back, great. If not-"
Xena just shook her head and smiled. "Come on, let's go get a room."
"What if they don't have any available?"
"Oh, they will." Xena smiled again.
"I hate it when you get cryptic on me."
The warrior only laughed and led her lover into the inn, taking great pains to remind her to wipe her muddy feet before entering. The glare she earned with that remark kept her chuckling for a while.
Inside, The Dancing Stag was very clean and very warm, it's patrons respectful and quiet. Due, no doubt, to the very large man seated beside a very large mace down at the end of the bar. He was an impressive looking specimen. Thick of chest, strong of arm, with a vacuous look about him. Everything one could hope for in a bouncer.
Xena raised her hand and clasped his arm in passing. "Hello, Titan."
"Xena!" The goliath stood and tightened his grip on her arm. "I didn't expect see you again, quite so soon."
"Well, it seems we have need of a room."
"We?" He looked behind her to take in Gabrielle with an appreciative smile. "Is that the one?" He smiled at Xena's warning look. "She wasn't lying about the 'fresh, young' part was she?"
The warrior gave him a dark look. "Just tell me where she is."
Gabrielle turned towards the melodious voice to take in a vision in white, standing behind the bar. When she saw a smile light up Xena's face, she felt her stomach turn with jealousy.
"Rylan." The warrior took the barmaids hand. "Bet you weren't expecting me." She grinned good naturedly when Rylan peered over her shoulder at the bard behind her. "Kyla has a very big mouth!"
"Naw," The barmaid laughed at Xena's incredulous look. "Well, maybe a little. But then, some things are quite obvious as well."
The warrior shook her head. "In any case, we need a room. We were hoping-"
"Of course." Rylan waved her statements away. "Anything for you."
Xena smiled and turned to her lover, her eyes taking in Gabrielle's steadily darkening face. "I'll tell you about it later." She whispered.
"Yes," The bard's tone was very firm, making the warrior's eyes widen. "Yes, you will."
"Titan," Rylan nodded to her warrior. "Show our guests to the best room in the house, draw them a fresh bath and get them a tray from the kitchen. Leave the mace, I can watch the room while your gone."
Xena grinned as she followed the big man, pulling the bard along behind her. She wondered how Rylan had ever been captured by slavers. That girl had a tough streak in her, Xena could tell. It was something she used to look for when she was recruiting.
She was pleasantly surprised by the room they were given. It was definitely not the dark, dank room with the roughly hewn bed that she was used to receiving. This room was rather large, about half the size of that tavern downstairs, a corner room with windows on two sides. There was a large fireplace to her left, with a table that held all manner of soaps and scented sands, for the bath presumably. The bathtub itself was an incredible sight. It was square, made of stones held tightly together by thickly smeared mortar. The inside was lined with smooth, sanded wood, soft to the touch. Xena shook her head when she realized that it was big enough for two. "Kyla does have a big mouth."
"That's the second time you've said that." Gabrielle left Titan to build up the fire and came to stand beside her lover. "Who is Kyla?"
Once again, the warrior only smiled. "Later." She squeezed the bard's arm. "I need to go scout, make sure no one is sneaking up on us. Stay here? Please?"
Gabrielle nodded, knowing not to argue this time. "All right."
Xena smiled, relieved. "Titan will bring you what you need."
"He isn't a real titan is he?"
"No. His mother just had a long labor and a really good sense of humor." The bard smiled, sending an ache through Xena's heart. "I'll be back."
Gabrielle watched her go before turning her attention to the man stoking up the now raging fire. "Thank you."
Titan nodded. "You're very welcome. Are you hungry?"
The bard listened to her stomach rumble and shook her head. "I'll wait for her to get back. Can you ready the bath and bring the food at the same time?"
The big man nodded. "What time would that be?"
Gabrielle shrugged, "I'm not sure. I wanted to get a little sleep. I'll come get you, okay?"
He nodded again and quietly left the room.
Once he was gone, the bard let out a long sigh and headed for the bed. Stretching out, she thought about where her lover had gone. She knew Xena, she knew her very well. Gabrielle believed that she had gone scouting, but she also knew that, if the warrior did meet up with Zo's band while she was out, she would try to end the threat then and there.
It was a very disquieting feeling to not know when your lover would return, or if she would return at all. She had never worried this much in the past, but then, she had never met anyone like Zo before either.
And it was all her fault. All of it. She covered her eyes with her arm and felt warm tears against her skin. If only she could have reasoned with the Amazon. If only she had known her own heart. If only she had known Xena's. If only
**"If only "**
Gabrielle's eyes flew open as the voice carried across her mind, seeming to come from everywhere at once. "Who's there?" The room was dark, darker than she remembered. Sliding to her feet, she turned in circles as the room disappeared around her, leaving her to the darkness.
Xena moved through the trees like a shadow, her eyes and ears alert for any sign of an approaching army, but the only sounds that reached her were the night owls in the trees and her own heart beating in her chest.
Satisfied there was no one waiting to ambush her or Gabrielle, she slowed to a walk, finally coming to a stop beside a small, clear brook. Finding a smooth, flat rock, she flipped it atop her knuckles as she sank down beside the creek. The night was clear, the stars very bright, and the moon shined down strongly, it's reflection caught in the placid waters closer to the edge.
For the first time, she allowed her mind to wander back to the events of that morning. How she had kidnapped Gabrielle, unbelieving of her own reasons for doing it. How the bard had made her tell the truth. How the girl had loved her.
Xena smiled. No, not a girl. She hadn't been a girl for quite a while, and after this morning, could never be again. She was a wonderful, sweet, young woman. One that had stolen an old warrior's heart, more than anyone else ever had.
She stared up at the gorgeous night sky and tried to remember if she had told her how she felt. She couldn't remember. That wasn't a good sign.
Xena glanced down at the stone in her hand and felt one tear slide down her cheek. This was Gabrielle. Gabrielle was the rock. She was the river that would run wild across the land, without the stone to hold it. She ran her fingers across it gently, then skipped it across the water, her heart turning over as it sank into it's depths.
Xena watched the ripples disappear as she placed two fingers on each side of her temples, trying to quell the fierce headache that had started behind her eyes. "Philosophy." She grunted, making a promise to herself to leave that kind of stuff to Gabrielle.
"You just skipped your lover." Xena whispered, her shoulders shaking with laughter. A few moments later, her headache was gone and so was she, back the way she had come.
Gabrielle walked slowly, her eyes searching for any sign of light. In the end, the light found her, growing around her until she could see quite clearly. There was green grass beneath her feet, a blue sky above her. In the distance, she saw a camp, a hundred tents and beyond them, a hundred more. When she was close enough to see people moving between them, she had estimated over 400 tents, all of them tightly grouped, a large, imposing structure at their center. She stopped behind the last row of tall, summer wheat, hiding in its shadow as armed men passed her by.
"Okay." Gabrielle looked to the left, and then the right, trying to figure out where she was. She didn't recognize the land. Her head snapped up when a woman stepped out of the commanders tent, her red-gold hair shining in the sun. "Great." She frown. "There I am again." Gabrielle craned her head when another figure appeared, her jaw dropping when she recognized that blonde, lithe form. "Zo "
"Draxen! Get the men ready for drill. The scouts saw her less than a day back. I won't be caught by surprise this time."
Zo's second bobbed his head before moving away, leaving his warlord to wrap her arms around her lover. "Gabrielle."
Her double did not answer.
"Come on, Gabrielle." The Amazon kissed her neck. "She killed three of my men, including the husband of your best friend. She has to pay for that."
Gabrielle watched in shock as her twin nodded slowly and felt her heart shrivel in her chest. She was agreeing with Zo, about killing somebody. And she knew who that somebody was.
"I promise, she won't suffer."
Her twin nodded again, and began to pick fresh herbs from the patch at her feet.
"Gabrielle." The Amazon's voice became deeper as she wrapped her arms around the girls waist, placing her lips against the neck offered to her. Gabrielle could almost feel Zo's lips, feel her hands against the skin on the back of her arms. She swallowed, hard. The reaction was there, mirrored in her twins face. Only, her twin held something more as well. Love. She could see it, and it broke her heart.
Zo pulled her close in a last, fierce hug before leaving to join her men. Her twin remained, emotions warring in her eyes until she dropped to one knee and turned her face up to the sky. "Please " She whispered into the wind, then turned and walked away.
Gabrielle followed her as long as she could, then turned her attention to Zo. The Amazon stood before her army, hundreds of men, all fighting beneath her banner. Zo gave orders that were clear and abrupt, her tone carried an air of authority that Gabrielle hadn't heard before. Her smile was gone, and so was the easy way she used to have about her, the caring compassion she had showed for her men. Now, there was only a Warlord where a woman had been before. She was even curt with Draxen, as she ordered him to watch over the training.
And Gabrielle knew what they were training for. They were training for Xena. To kill her if they could.
With a small frown, she turned away, heading back into the field of wheat where she had found the light. "All right, Emony. Tell me What is this that you've shown me?"
"Nothing of consequence."
Gabrielle opened her eyes to find Emony beside her, both of them sitting on the edge of the bed.. "Nothing of consequence?? Zo was going to kill Xena. And I did nothing."
The alchemist nodded. "True, yet still, it is nothing of consequence. It is merely a faint trace of what might have been. I thought that you should see it."
"Because you've been blaming yourself for destiny." She touched the bard's cheek gently. "I wanted to show you what would have happened, had your choice been wrong."
"But, she was so strong. She had more men, more power. And I was with her-"
"Love is a catalyst in all of life, Gabrielle." Emony cut her off. "Sometimes, not a good one." She took the bard's hand. "You, for example. Once you convinced yourself you did love her, you would have died by her side. That is the working of your soul."
"And Xena," Emony continued as though she hadn't spoken. "Do you really think she would have ever stopped trying to get you back? You, the one person to ever truly reach her heart?"
"She said that?" Gabrielle looked at her suspiciously.
"No, child." She smiled. "Your warrior would sooner break her own arm that speak words such as those. But it is what's in her heart." Her voice gentled. "And Zo She would do anything to keep you." Her eyes became distant. "The only way to keep safe that which other's want, is to destroy those that might take it.
"And the only way to destroy someone that strong, is to become someone just like her." Gabrielle finished for her.
Emony nodded. "Your love would have given her strength. The strength to rule the world, through fear, and through violence. Right now, that's all she knows."
"Right now?" Gabrielle grabbed her arm.
But Emony only shook her head. "Not yet, child. Not yet." Time seemed to stop as the witch raised her hand and touched the bard's cheek very gently.
Gabrielle's eyes widened as the distance in Emony's eyes seemed to lessen, as what was hidden became almost clear. There was pain and loss, suffering and and love? She felt the alchemist's emotions coursing through her body, felt her soul shifting in the rock, crying out for for someone for someone with a face a lot like
Emony pulled her hand away quickly and the bard's body shuddered violently, the thoughts and feelings ripped from her heart and mind.
"Wha " Her heart was pounding as she tried to catch her breath. "What was that?"
"Not yet." A single tear trailed down Emony's cheek. "I'm sorry." Her eyes became tender. "You just look so much like No. No, not yet."
With a small shake of her head, the alchemist faded and Gabrielle started out of her sleep.
Her eyes sought out each dark corner, even though all of her other senses told her she was alone.
Xena wasn't back. She didn't know how much that should worry her, but she did know that if she sat there and thought about it, she'd drive herself crazy. But what to do instead?
Gabrielle smiled. She'd been thinking of something all day Glancing down at herself, the smile faded as she took in her muddy breeches and crumpled poet's shirt.
"Hmmm." She grunted. "Nope." Tucking in her shirt, she headed downstairs.
Rylan was pouring ale and Titan was back in his place at the end of the bar, his club right beside him. He smiled at her as she came near, but Gabrielle only nodded and passed him by. "Rylan."
The barmaid turned soft brown eyes and a gentle smile in her direction. "Yes?"
Gabrielle smiled back. "I need your help."
Xena tied Argo outside of the inn and grabbed a medium sized pack from her back. Tossing the stable boy a dinar, she smiled. "Take care of her, would you?"
The boy nodded eagerly and begin to loosen her mare's tack. She nodded in satisfaction and slipped inside, her guard raised, but there was nothing to greet her except the cheery warmth of the fire and Rylan humming softly to herself. With a weary sigh, she sat down at the bar and smiled. "A port, Rylan?"
Xena looked at the men seated around the fire, each of them drinking a mug of ale, then looked backed to the barmaid. "Closed?" One eyebrow lifted as she tried to hold on to her patience. "A port, Rylan."
"She said the bar was closed." Titan walked up behind her and laid his huge hand on her shoulder very gently. "She means it. She's in a mood." He smiled. "Why don't you go on up and I'll get her to send a bottle up to your room."
Xena nodded slowly, here eyes never leaving the expressionless face of the young woman she had thought was her friend. "I hope you feel better, Rylan. Very soon."
The barmaid watched her go, then burst into laughter, slapping Titan on the back. "Who knew you were such a smooth talker."
The big man grinned and went back to his stool.
Xena paused outside of their room, running her fingers through thick, dirty hair. "Great." She whispered to herself. "I'm a mess." She had ridden hard to get back as quickly as possible. This meant crossing streams where they weren't meant to be crossed and dealing with the mud Argo had kicked up in her face. It hadn't bothered her at the time, she was used to the messy part of being a warrior. But now, standing outside her lover's door, she wished she had asked for a bath before heading up here. But then again, Rylan would have probably told her the pump was closed as well.
She cracked the door open slowly, her nose catching the thick scent of burning incense while her eyes registered the flickering of candles. Confused, she stepped inside and looked around, closing the door behind her. "You must have been busy, Gabrielle." She whispered to the empty room.
The lamps were out. In their place, the softer glow of dozens of candles threw shadows against the walls. The fire was burning merrily, it's wood crackling in the stillness of the room. Most of the candles surrounded the bed, some even placed on it's headboard. The table beside it was laden with food, grapes, olives, bread and cheese, and even a leg of lamb. Beside this sat a short squat bottle that made Xena grin from ear to ear. Her port. She reminded herself to thank Rylan in the morning.
The incense didn't even bother her, as it normally did. She breathed in deeply and tried to place the scent. It was like the wood, a little like the water and a lot like Gabrielle. She had just begun to call for her lover when she felt hands touch her waist from behind.
"That was pretty quiet." Xena smiled. "You've been practicing."
"Shhh." The bard's voice was just a whisper. "Be quiet." She used her hands to stop the warrior as she tried to turn around. "Stop." Her tone was gentle, but commanding and brought a weakness to Xena's knees that she wasn't used to feeling. "Just do what I tell you." She took the pack from the warrior's hand and threw it into the corner.
"Gabrielle " Xena's tone held a note of uneasiness, a feeling that fled from her quickly when her lover laughed quietly behind her. She would never forget the sound of that laugh, gentle, loving, almost a caress as it wrapped around her heart. "Oh my " The gentle laughter came again, and she started slightly as a soft cloth was tied across her eyes. "I don't know about this, Gabrielle."
"Do you trust me?"
Xena realized it wasn't really a question so much as a statement. One to remind her exactly who was asking. "Yes." She left no doubt in her voice for Gabrielle to hear.
"Then just be still." She could hear the smile in her lovers words and could see it in her minds eye. A soft, slightly puzzled smile. A smile of wonder. The same one she had seen before, right after they had made love.
Her warrior's body behaved quite well, obeying her directions to be still as small, silken hands slid down over her arms, pulling off her bracers, followed by her armbands. Quick fingers unchained her breastplate and she heard it thunk to the floor. When those gentle hands unlaced her leathers, Xena felt her heart begin to pound, and no amount of her vast training could make it behave again. "Gabrielle "
The bard didn't falter, but Xena heard her breath quicken, felt her hands move faster as they slid the leather down off her hips. A moment later, a strong arm slid around her waist and she was urged towards the bed. She sat lightly on it's edge, a moan escaping her lips as Gabrielle's hands traveled across the tops of her thighs, sliding inward, finally, to separate her knees. Her hands went instinctively to the bards head, her fingers curling into soft, strawberry hair, but Gabrielle only laughed. "No, no. Not yet."
Xena released her reluctantly, her hands burying themselves in the blankets beneath her, as her lover pulled off her boots. The only thing left was her shift and she raised her arms obediently when Gabrielle pulled it over her head. "What next?" She whispered with a smile that faded into something else as warm lips close on her nipple. "Oh "
"Didn't I say be quiet?" Gabrielle smiled. "Do what I say and I'll do anything you want..."
Xena swallowed and nodded, allowing herself to be led to the tub. With a long sigh, she lowered herself into the steaming water and laid her head against the wood inside. The water was scented, lilac and something else, something she couldn't quite put her finger on. Whatever it was, it was relaxing her, and she grinned as Gabrielle began to lather her hair. "So nice "
The bard smiled, amazed that Xena had let her go so far, yet here she was, going further. She worked her fingers through the warrior's hair over and over, making sure every inch of it was clean, then she began to massage her scalp, followed by her temples. She rinsed every bit of the soap from her head, being careful of her eyes. When she was done, she picked up a new bar of soap and lathered her hands until they were white. Starting at the warrior's neck, she slowly eased them down, first over her collarbone, then across her chest, her fingers closing firmly around each nipple, making Xena jump. Her hands slid lovingly over firm abs, and across a tight, flat stomach, before dipping into the cleft between her legs. The slickness her fingers found there was enough to make Gabrielle tremble. She couldn't stop herself from exploring for a moment, her fingertips lost in the softness of her lover. A few minutes later, she shook her head and continued down Xena's body, earning a groan from the woman beneath her spell. Gabrielle smiled. "Not yet."
"When?" Xena growled.
"Oh, you are the impatient one aren't you? Funny, you waited long enough for the first time." Gabrielle's grin was wicked. "You can wait a little longer now."
Xena laughed in frustration and let her bard finish washing her, loving the feel of her hands against the muscles of her calves.
"All right." Gabrielle pulled her hands away and stood. "Get up."
With a huge grin, Xena stood, the water streaming off of her in a dozen tiny waterfalls. She stepped out of the tub with Gabrielle's assistance and stood as her lover began to dry her skin with gentle strokes of a soft cloth.
"Now the fun part." The bard chuckled. "Stand VERY still."
Xena tensed her muscles and waited, a slight frown on her face until she felt Gabrielle's soft hands, warm with heated oil, begin to massage her body. Her eyes closed beneath the blindfold and she turned her face towards the ceiling, her body beginning to tremble.
"I said be still." Gabrielle laughed.
"I'm going to do this to you sometime," Xena's voice was barely a whisper, her breath ragged in her throat. "and see how still you can be!"
"Mmmhmm." Gabrielle swallowed and kept herself focused, knowing that if Xena touched her now, she would give in and that was not what she wanted to do. She wanted to stay in charge, she wanted to feel what a warrior felt, what Xena had felt, when she had made love to her. She also wanted to see her quiver see her shake. She wanted to feel those long fingers in her hair, pushing her down, moving her mouth "Oh " Gabrielle stopped, her concentration broken, her hands still moving in circular motions against the warrior's stomach.
"Gabrielle?" Xena reached up to remove the cloth from her eyes, but Gabrielle's hand beat her to it and held it where it was.
"Not yet." She tried to slow her wildly beating heart. "Let me finish."
"Gladly." She lowered her arm but held onto Gabrielle's fingers, lacing her own between them. As the bard's hand continued down, she squeezed them a little harder. "Hurry ." She whispered, letting her go.
Gabrielle's fingers slid over Xena's thighs, working the last of the oil into tan, firm skin. Closing her eyes, she leaned forward and kissed the warrior's stomach. The oil was pleasant against her lips and enhanced the scent of her lover's skin, blending to make a fragrance so intoxicating that the bard thought she could die right there without a single regret. "No." She smiled to herself. "Not yet."
Gabrielle took the warrior's arm very gently and led her to the bed. Leaving her there, she went to the window and threw it open, letting in the cool evening air. Looking down, the bard smiled and waved a hand to Titan, who was waiting below. He nodded and walked off.
A few moments later the sound of drums filtered through the window in a rhythmic beat that kept time with Gabrielle's heart. Swaying slightly, her eyes closed, the bard moved to the center of the room. "You can take that off." She whispered.
Xena reached up slowly, the anticipation so sweet that she almost regretted the end of the game. Almost.
The sight that greeted her took her breath away.
The muddy breeches and barely white shirt were both gone, replaced by folds of forest green silk cut low over Gabrielle's breasts and reaching to the ground. The waist was tight, laced up the back, showing every curve of muscle in the bard's strong abdomen. The sleeves reached down to slender wrists while her shoulders were left with nothing across them but the silk of her hair. "By the Gods." Xena whispered, her heart a powerful ache within her chest.
"Yes, Gabrielle?" The warrior trembled, unable to take her eyes from the woman standing before her.
Xena's body was moving before she had actually willed it, sliding her arms around Gabrielle and lifting her to the bed. Settling her body on top of her, her hands went to the back of the bard's head, pulling her close as she captured soft lips with her own. They were as warm as she remembered, but much, much bolder.
Gabrielle parted her lips eagerly, her tongue flickering against Xena's as she brought her hands down to curve around the firmness of the warrior's buttocks, pulling her lover's hips down against her own.
Her passion carrying her beyond her patience, Xena reached behind Gabrielle's back to the laces holding her dress together.
"Oh no." Gabrielle grabbed her hand and brought it to her lips. "Me first." She laughed. "Or else I'll never get my turn."
The warrior's eyes widened as Gabrielle pushed her onto her back and knelt over her, her skirt pulled up to her knees. Slowly, she lowered herself until she was sitting on Xena's abdomen, her skin bare beneath her dress and soft against the warrior's own.
Xena closed her eyes, her hands trembling as they reached up for Gabrielle's shoulders, only to be caught and forced back to her sides.
"Patience, woman." The bard laughed. "Open your eyes."
Xena did as she was told, swallowing hard when Gabrielle's hands went to the back of her dress and began to loosen the laces. "Let me help." She whispered.
"No." Gabrielle's tone was teasing. "I know your kind of help. And I'll be asleep five minutes after your done!" She smiled as the silk came free from her shoulders. Leaning forward, she kissed Xena with a passion that startled her. She caught the warrior's hands again when they tried to slip into the open folds of her dress and pushed them up over her head. "I said it's my turn."
Xena smiled and relaxed her muscles, her heart beating wildly when Gabrielle's lips moved down to her neck, her teeth biting gently at the sensitive skin beneath her right ear More than anything she wanted to crush the bard to her, to give in to her passion and take control of the situation. But the strength in Gabrielle's arms and the determination in her eyes told her how much this mattered to her, so she stayed right where she was.
Gabrielle's lips left Xena's neck and traveled across her collarbone before sliding down to caress the tops of her breasts. She released Xena's arms, bringing her hands down to steady herself as her mouth closed around the warrior's nipple.
Xena's back arched as Gabrielle's fingers found her other breast and began to squeeze gently. Wanting to feel her lover's skin against her, she reached down and closed her fingers on soft, green silk, pulling it quickly over the bard's head.
Gabrielle smiled against Xena chest as the warrior pushed up against her. Bringing up her knee, she slid it between the warrior's thighs, pushing them apart. She closed her eyes as she settled herself between them, the warm wetness against her belly almost more than she could bear.
"Yes " Xena moaned, her fingers raking across Gabrielle's smooth, pale back until they rested on her shoulders.
The bard kissed the valley between Xena's breasts before taking her other nipple between her lips, suckling it gently.
The warrior groaned. "Please "
"Please what?" Gabrielle's tone was teasing. "I'm new at this remember? You have to show me what you want."
The hands on her shoulders began to push her downward, and she smiled as she dipped her tongue into a perfect navel. "Here? Or lower?"
"You're teasing me." The warrior sounded breathless, almost weak, her words very soft.
"Yes. Yes I am." Gabrielle lifted her head from where her lips had just began to touch soft, curly down. "Would you like me to stop?"
"Don't you dare." The warrior growled and wrapped her fingers in strawberry hair.
"Your wish is my command." Sighing, she lowered her face to nuzzle the warrior's hair with her nose. The scent she found there made her weak. "By the Gods " With a hunger she had never felt before, she dipped her tongue into the soft pink flesh between her lover's legs.
It was nectar. That was all that she could think, all she could whisper as her tongue began to move faster against the soft nub of flesh her mouth had found. She heard Xena moan from above her, felt her fingers tighten in her hair. She slid one hand down the warrior's stomach and around her questing mouth.
"Yes.." Xena shuddered as Gabrielle's fingers slid inside her, her entire body already aching from her sweet lips. "Faster "
The bard moved her fingers faster, reaching further, curving them until she touched a high, smooth place that made her lover gasp.
Xena moved her hips against Gabrielle, caught in the rhythm of the drums, each beat another stroke of the bard's tongue, another thrust of her fingers. She let go of Gabrielle's hair, for fear that she would hurt her, placing her hands on her shoulders instead. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest, in her ears, she could feel her body reaching it's limit as she her vision darkened. "I love you." She whispered.
Gabrielle quickened her pace again, one arm wrapped around the warrior's thigh, trying to hold her in place. Lost in the taste and scent of her lover, her own hips moved against the bed, making her wet and driving her crazy. When Xena finally shuddered one last time, her back arching, a low moan escaping her lips, Gabrielle didn't want to stop. She wanted to go on loving her warrior forever. It was Xena who finally dragged her away.
"Gabrielle " Xena laughed softly. "Stop stop c'mere."
The bard laid her cheek against Xena's hair for a few moments, drinking in the sweetness of her scent, before climbing up the warrior's body to nestle in her arms. "Did you mean it?" She whispered, her voice very small.
Xena smiled. "Yes, I did. I love you, Gabrielle. I have for a long time. I just didn't know it." She laughed. "I'll have to thank Sylas if I run into him again."
"Sylas?" Gabrielle turned to look up into her eyes, but the warrior only grinned.
"I'll tell you about it sometime. But, for right now," She pulled the bard closer. "I believe you said you'd do anything I wanted."
Gabrielle smiled, "I did, didn't I?"
"Mmmhmmm." Xena pulled her in for a long, slow kiss before rolling over on top of her. "Now it's my turn."
Gabrielle stretched and opened her eyes . The room was dim, only a few candles left burning, the rest had burned themselves out. There was a pleasant weight across her stomach, a soft warmth against her side and she sighed in contentment, snuggling closer to the warrior sleeping next to her. In a few short hours they would be on the road, heading towards Zo and a war. It seemed a million miles from where she was right then, and she wanted to enjoy it while she could.
She reached up casually to scratch her nose and was caught by the smell of her fingers. Closing her eyes, she breathed in a scent as fresh and clean as the woods after a rain and as sweet as honey on her tongue. It was all she could do to keep from slipping them into her mouth.
"Is this the afterglow you were talking about?"
Gabrielle started, opening her eyes to find Xena looking down at her. She hadn't even felt her move! "Yes." She slid her hand behind the warrior's neck and pulled her down for a kiss. "It most certainly is."
"Well." Xena kissed her one last time. "Glow in your sleep. We both need our rest."
Gabrielle nodded, rolling over on her side so that Xena could curve around her back. As she did, the stone slipped on it's chain, sliding against her skin to rest against her left breast. The bard could feel it glowing warmly and pulled it away from her skin with two fingers, surprised Xena hadn't asked her about it yet.
"Have you ever heard of something called a Lath?" Gabrielle lay very still, gazing into the stone.
"Why 'Of course'?" She asked. "I never heard of it."
Xena sighed, realizing sleep was lost, for a few minutes anyway. "All warrior's know of the Laths, Gabrielle. Most have sought after them, at one time or another."
"Because they are five of the most powerful weapons in existence." She kissed the back of the bard's neck. "Now get some sleep."
Gabrielle's mouth fell open as Xena slid an arm around her stomach. She looked down at the stone in her hand and swallowed.
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