DISCLAIMER: Xena Warrior Princess is the property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By Della Street
Gabrielle lay on the blanket with her eyes closed. The sun bathed her warmly as she listened to giggling and splashing from the group swimming in the nearby lake. The high tones of her cousin Marra's laughter reached her ears, and she smiled.
She had been here for five days, and felt mentally and physically refreshed. Her wounds, the worst of which she had carefully concealed from her relatives, were healing nicely.
Sleeping in, her aunt's cooking, her cousins' playfulness, it had all been very rejuvenating.
Gabrielle would still have been enjoying herself, as much as she could without Xena, if it weren't for two things. Xena had advised her not to mention their friendship until they knew if there were any potential 'problems,' as she called it, in the area.
In her present condition, Gabrielle conceded that she would make a more tempting target for revenge than usual. But since there was little else Gabrielle thought of or wanted to talk about, it had been difficult.
The second factor weighing on her was concern. Xena was supposed to be here two days ago. Once before, Xena had been late in coming for her, but Gabrielle hadn't known why until months later when she noticed the nearly invisible scar on Xena's side.
Her lips, which had been conducting a thorough expedition across Xena's body, pressed against it. "What's this one from?" She was surprised to hear Xena hesitate.
Gabrielle looked at her. "You couldn't catch it?"
"There were too many."
"Was it in a battle?"
"No." Xena turned Gabrielle onto her back and moved on top of her. "Let's not talk about it. There are other things I'd rather do right now."
Xena kissed her, but in the back of Gabrielle's mind a suspicion was forming. She pulled her mouth away and pressed her hands against Xena's chest. "When did it happen?"
"A while back. Come on, Gabrielle." She nuzzled her neck. "I've been thinking about this all day."
Gabrielle was now certain that Xena was keeping something from her. She sat up, causing Xena to roll off her onto the ground.
"When did it happen?" she demanded.
There was a brief silence, then, "When I went to scout the Meletis river."
Gabrielle's eyes widened. "When I was waiting in that bar?"
"You were shot by an arrow and you never said anything?"
"I was fine. It didn't matter."
"It didn't matter?"
"It was a long time ago, Gabrielle. We really didn't know each other very well then."
Gabrielle paused. That was true. She remembered being surprised that Xena had even apologized to her when she finally found her. Things were different now.
After a moment, Xena broke the silence. "Does this mean I don't get any tonight?"
Gabrielle struggled to maintain her composure, but finally grinned. "Has anything ever meant that?" She started to lean down for a kiss, then stopped. "You won't hold anything back?"
Xena chuckled suggestively. "I never do."
"I know what you mean. I won't. Now come here . . ."
Gabrielle felt her face getting warmer as her memories became more vivid.
"Girls! Come out and get dressed!"
Gabrielle looked over at the matron who had come running from the village, now standing with her hands on her knees, gasping for air. She was in no shape to be running that far, Gabrielle thought.
"What's wrong?" The young women cleared the lake and dressed hurriedly while the messenger caught her breath. Finally she was able to speak.
"Xena's here. The Warrior Princess." Expressions of fear circulated through the group. Gabrielle closed her eyes, relieved.
"Stay out of sight. Don't do anything that might make her angry. Or her men."
"I think we'll be all right," Gabrielle said dryly, then the last words sank in. "Her men?"
"She's with her army."
Gabrielle shook her head slowly. "I don't think--"
"She rode in with two of them. They're here to get feed for their horses."
A thought struck her. "What does she look like?"
"Tall, with black hair."
Gabrielle nodded to herself. It wasn't -- anyone else.
"Look, there's nothing to worry about. Xena's changed. She doesn't--" She searched for words. "--do that sort of thing any more."
"I don't know what you've heard, Gabrielle, but a griffen doesn't change its feathers."
"She's not like that any more. I know."
"You're naive, child," the woman said gently.
Gabrielle started to reply, but felt something prod her in the back. She turned and saw a light colored horse standing directly behind her. "Argo," she cooed, patting the horse's neck. "You'll see that I'm right," she said to the others, and climbed up into the saddle. Argo turned and trotted toward the village.
"Gabrielle! What are you doing?" She ignored the calls after her and let Argo take her to her mistress.
Terrel sat across from the army general, trying to conceal his apprehension. "Nine dinars," Berylus said, the offer sounding more like a demand. Terrel nodded acceptance.
A feminine voice spoke out from the doorway. "Twelve."
"Hush, Gabrielle!" Horus called out to his niece from across the barn.
The mayor glanced nervously at Berylus, then at the silent figure who had leaned against the wall throughout the negotiations.
"She's new here. She doesn't mean anything," Terrel said anxiously. He exclaimed involuntarily when he saw the figure straighten and begin walking slowly toward the center of the barn.
"Uh, please . . ," he stammered.
"You'd pay twelve dinars in Potedaia," Gabrielle said to the commander now standing a few feet in front of her.
"Everything's overvalued in Potedaia."
Gabrielle laughed. "You'd pay twelve in Chyrrus," she amended.
"We'd pay eight in Athens."
"You're not in Athens."
"We could be."
"Your horses would eat the difference before you got there."
Gabrielle felt her uncle's cautionary hand on her shoulder, and gently removed it by taking a step forward.
"Nine is a fair price."
"Ten." A hand went up. "That's all you're getting."
Gabrielle stood, arms at her side, the silence deafening to the elders standing tense in the barn. "OK." She cocked her head.
An eyebrow went up. "Is there something else you wanted to say?"
"Yeah." Six men held their breath. Gabrielle reached out and gripped the hole in the front of Xena's leather, pulling the taller woman toward her slightly. "Where have you been?"
Xena pressed Gabrielle to her in a friendly hug. A dozen eyes widened and then stared at the young woman in the notorious warrior's embrace.
"Sorry. Got caught up in Proatia. I'll tell you about it."
She released Gabrielle and turned to her general. "Berylus, this is Gabrielle, my lieutenant." Gabrielle grinned at her.
Berylus blinked, then recovered from his momentary surprise.
He walked over and clasped Gabrielle's arm. "You've known the honor of serving under our great leader."
"Yes. I'm eager to be under her again," Gabrielle said.
Xena kept her face carefully expressionless. "Berylus, take care of the feed. I'll be back in camp in a little while." She took Gabrielle's arm and they walked out of the barn.
"What's going on?"
"A friend of mine is in trouble. I agreed to help him out."
"With an army? Where'd you get it?"
"The king of Proatia. His son was to marry Iona of Achrylla. The two kingdoms have been at war for almost a hundred years. This marriage would have put an end to it."
Gabrielle stared, fascinated. "What happened?"
"Iona was kidnapped on her way to Proatia. The leader of Berren's army was escorting her. He was killed in the ambush."
Xena looked down into her lover's curious eyes and was struck by how much she'd missed her. She wanted to take Gabrielle in her arms and just hold her.
"Nothing." Xena turned her gaze straight ahead and continued her explanation. "It looks like a common ransom, but I think there's more to it. Proatia and Achrylla have a mutual enemy who's been picking off territory from both kingdoms while they fight each other. This smells more like something intended to keep the union from happening."
Gabrielle's brow furrowed. "If that's true, then . . ."
Xena nodded. "They'll kill her. I'm going to try to get her back."
"You think she's still alive?"
"It's a large ransom, so I think they'll plan to keep her alive to collect it, then kill her. Probably on the way back, so it looks like highwaymen."
"Where are you going?"
"Valleya. The third kingdom I told you about. They volunteered to serve as neutral ground for the exchange."
Xena frowned. "Yeah. Pretty obvious, but no one can prove they're involved. That's why I don't think they'll try to kill her until we pass beyond their border."
"So this army . . ."
"May be needed to storm the castle if she's in danger, and to protect her once we have her."
They walked along in silence for a moment, absorbing each other's closeness.
Gabrielle turned her head to study her friend. "So what's it like?" she asked casually.
"What's what like?"
"Leading an army again."
"It's--" Xena faltered, surprised that she couldn't describe it. She glanced at Gabrielle, then looked away.
"You like it."
Xena did not reply.
Gabrielle kept up with the slow pace, staring at the ground, assimilating the information she had received from Xena's silence.
"I like some of it," Xena said finally. From Xena's reticence, Gabrielle knew that she liked most of it.
Xena stopped walking and turned to the younger woman. "It's no substitute for being with you. When this is over I'll be glad to return to our life together."
Gabrielle met her eyes, smiling, then lightly touched Xena's arm. "Will we have any time?"
Xena shook her head regretfully.
"Can't we go for a ride?" She trailed her fingers down Xena's forearm. "I've really missed you."
"Mmm, I wish we could." Xena ran her gaze down Gabrielle's body and let her imagination take over for a moment. Finally she sighed. "I've got more planning to do with Berylus in camp."
Gabrielle stepped closer to her. "What about after that?"
"After . . . ?" Comprehension fell across Xena's face.
"You're not coming with me, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle looked at her in surprise. "I'm not?"
Xena held out her hands. It should have been obvious.
"Fine." And angry.
"Gabrielle, you've just been injured in a war zone. This isn't somewhere you want to go again."
"It is if you're there."
"No. You're not ready. I need to check your wounds. And you're bound to be out of condition. When I get back, we'll see if you're ready to travel again." She held up a hand to silence the impending protest. "The answer is no." She took the smaller woman's arm, leading them back toward their starting point, glad she couldn't see Gabrielle's face.
As they neared the barn, a young girl shyly approached. "Um, Xena?" She curtsied. "My father wishes to know if you would care for something to eat."
Presumably the girl's father was one of the elders she had met in the barn. "Sure, that'd be nice. And Gabrielle?"
"I'd like Gabrielle to eat with us."
"Well, of course." The girl looked confused. "Gabrielle is staying with us. She's our cousin."
"Oh." She turned to her companion. "Thanks for telling me," she said quietly.
Gabrielle shrugged. "I'm not capable of making decisions on my own."
Xena stared out ahead of her, exasperated. Gabrielle's smart mouth was one of her most attractive features, and one of the most aggravating. They continued toward the house, following the girl inside.
Three young children gawked at the warrior woman sitting at their kitchen table. With her sat Gabrielle's aunt and uncle and her two oldest cousins, trying not to stare quite as much. Xena was acutely aware that the only one not staring at her was Gabrielle. The bard had not said a word during dinner; she rose and carried her plate to the refuse barrel.
"That was very good," Xena said, pushing back her chair.
"I've got to head out now. Thanks." She turned toward her lover.
The blonde woman scraped another plate.
"Gabrielle, come help me get Argo ready."
"You don't need me for that."
Of course she didn't. That wasn't what she was asking for, and Gabrielle knew it. "How about just walking with me then?" She wasn't going to beg in front of these people.
"I'm sorry. I'm afraid I might get hurt."
Xena laid her hand on a stiff shoulder. "Gabrielle, this isn't the time or place."
"This is exactly the time. And the place."
Xena grimaced. She wasn't accustomed to airing personal matters in front of strangers. "Let's go outside and discuss it."
Gabrielle pivoted to face her. "You mean we'll discuss it, or you'll discuss it? Will you even consider my wishes?" She saw her answer in Xena's eyes and turned away again. "Fine. Have a good time."
Xena recognized the body language, and knew that Gabrielle's mind was made up. "I'll be back in a few days. We'll talk about it then." Receiving no response, she turned to her hosts, who had watched the exchange with interest. She thanked them again and stepped across the threshold.
A moment passed, then her aunt spoke softly. "You and Xena had a disagreement?" Gabrielle laughed at the older woman's delicate statement of the obvious.
Suddenly a barrage of questions started in from the children, who had been forced to hold their tongue for too long.
"Is Xena your friend?"
"How did you meet her?"
"Does she kill people?"
Gabrielle didn't feel like answering them right now. She wiped her hands and went outside.
A curious crowd had gathered as Xena checked Argo's saddle.
Speaking briefly with Terrel, she mounted the horse in a single smooth motion. As she tugged on the reins, Xena caught sight of Gabrielle standing outside her uncle's house. She hesitated, then turned Argo and clicked her into a trot.
She pulled back on the reins and twisted quickly in the saddle, working to keep the delight from her face as she saw Gabrielle jogging toward her. All she wanted was a touch of Gabrielle's hand to take with her. She couldn't have anything more in front of this crowd anyway.
Gabrielle huffed up to her. "I'm still mad at you." Xena nodded her understanding. She reached out a hand, which Gabrielle clasped. She was surprised to feel Gabrielle pull down on it.
"We're not alone, Gabrielle."
"I don't care."
Xena leaned down and kissed her. She felt a hand press softly against her neck, then caress her face as the kiss ended.
"We'll work it out, Gabrielle. I promise." Gabrielle nodded, and Xena started for camp, feeling a weight lifted from her shoulders. Gabrielle watched until Xena disappeared from sight, then turned and drifted back to the house.
"Gabrielle . . ."
She stirred, then looked around with sleepy eyes. Moonlight filtered into the room, illuminating the sleeping form of her cousin a few yards away. Nothing seemed amiss. She closed her eyes again and rolled over, extending an arm out on her pillow, imagining it to be Xena's chest.
"Gabrielle . . ."
She bolted upright and listened intently, distracted by the pounding of her heart. She wasn't imagining things. Was she? The sound had come from the main room next door. She threw back the sheet and walked cautiously across the floor.
She moved the curtain aside as she entered the room, lit by two candles kept burning at night. From the corner of her eye she detected a shape. She turned and stood still.
"Hello, little friend."
The pounding of her heart was now almost painful. She forced herself to breathe deeply, willing her fear under control. After a moment she was able to speak. "What do you want?"
He laughed. "Oh, you know the answer to that question."
"She's not here."
"I know. I came to see you."
The pounding intensified again. "Why?" she asked, hoping to seem nonchalant, or irritated, or anything other than terrified.
Her mind began to churn. To her relief, she found that thinking kept her fear in check. "Meaning what?"
He raised an eyebrow. "You recover quickly," he said, almost admiringly. "Meaning that I won, and you lost."
"What are you talking about?"
"I've got her."
She had to keep thinking, or she would be paralyzed. She desperately wanted to know what he was saying, but she wasn't going to ask again. "I'm not interested in playing games with you. I'm going back to bed." With a willpower she didn't know she possessed, she turned and headed for the bedroom.
"I've got Xena. She's almost there."
She whirled around. "I don't believe you."
He smiled. Gabrielle had seen that smile before, in Lotia.
On anyone else it would be attractive, even captivating. But Gabrielle had no feelings for him other than contempt, for what he had done to her friend, and what he still sought to do. The smile angered her, and she kept silent.
He walked toward Gabrielle until he stood only a few feet away. "At the head of a great army again. The armies of two kingdoms under her command."
"Ah, Xena didn't mention that, did she? No, I can see why she wouldn't. And she left you here so you couldn't see what she was doing."
"That's not true."
"Why do you think she left you?"
"Because--" She cut short her reply.
"Because you were wounded?" He smiled at her again. "Oh, I know what she told you. But you didn't agree, did you? Did it occur to you to think what the real reason might be?"
She stared at him, stunned. He had listened to their conversation before Xena left.
"Of course I did. You don't think I'd see Xena take command of a great army and just let her be, do you? I've been with her since she left Proatia. I knew she'd get that fever back, especially with her pesky little friend gone."
"I wasn't gone," Gabrielle said, unable to think of anything else to say, but wanting to interrupt the stream of his voice. He was playing on her fears, she told herself. Trying to manipulate her. But what if . . . No. None of this was true.
He had seen her brief hesitation, and forged another opening.
"Why do you think she didn't want to lie with you, after all this time?"
Gabrielle was truly sickened now. Their private words, spied on and flung back at her. He paced around her, lightly fondling a strand of her hair. "It's good with her, isn't it?" She didn't answer. "Isn't it?" This time his voice had an edge to it. He yanked on her hair.
"Ow!" He pulled down harder, and she answered him. "Yes!"
He calmed himself. He couldn't let human-like emotion interfere with his goal. He put aside the stinging fact that Xena had chosen to give herself to this inconsequential human female, and spoke again in a soft tone. "And you think it's good for her." He raised a finger to his lips. "So why didn't she want to be with you?"
"She wanted to. She didn't have time."
"She had time to eat."
That was different, she told herself. They would have had to ride somewhere, find a place where they wouldn't be seen, take off their clothes, and of course, the lovemaking itself. On other occasions, though, they had satisfied inconvenient urges with hurried efforts, moving rather than removing clothing, dispensing with foreplay. But that wasn't very romantic. Maybe . . .
The girl was debating with herself now. He pressed his advantage, whispering in her ear hypnotically. "Xena the warrior wouldn't be interested in spending time with some little girl before a big battle. She'd rather be planning the victory." Planning. Xena couldn't stay because she had planning to do with Berylus.
He walked away from Gabrielle and stood near where she had first seen him. "You were a worthy adversary," he said. "Not in the usual sense, of course, but I'm glad I didn't have to kill you."
A floorboard creaked, and they turned to see the frightened visage of Marra gaping at them from the doorway. Her attention drawn to her cousin, Gabrielle didn't see the angry look cross their visitor's face. His instinct was to strike down the interfering girl, but he held back. He almost had a bigger prize in his hands.
"Go back to bed, Marra. I'm all right." The girl continued to stand there. "This is someone I know from Lotia. We're just talking." Gabrielle doubted very much if it looked as though they were 'just talking', but she wanted Marra out of there. The girl reluctantly retreated into the darkness.
He smiled at Gabrielle again. "Xena will be mine soon. If you still want to be with her, you could join us. That would present a number of interesting possibilities."
"No, it wouldn't."
"Suit yourself." He shrugged, and gradually faded.
Gabrielle sat on the floor with her head in her hands, her mind spinning. One moment she convinced herself that he was lying, but the next . . .
She tried to think objectively. Ares had manipulated Xena before; maybe he had some kind of ability to control thoughts.
That's why her mind was filled with doubt.
Xena liked leading an army again. Gabrielle had sensed it even before she admitted it. But Xena had wanted to make love, hadn't she? What if he was telling the truth? 'Almost there.'
The first sign of daylight was approaching when Gabrielle quietly entered the stable.
Xena glanced over at the young princess again. It went against her grain, leaving the ransom with those bloodsuckers, but she had promised to follow Berren's wishes. Understandably, the king cared less for worldly goods than he did for his future daughter-in-law. If it had been Gabrielle, she would feel the same. Xena smiled grimly. If someone took Gabrielle, she might pay a ransom, but she'd be back later . . .
"Whoooa!" Gabrielle tugged again on the reins. Great. Of all her uncle's horses, she had to pick the most hyperactive one.
He had looked harmless enough, lulling her with those big brown eyes, but once on the open road, his evil nature had emerged.
She was beginning to think this was a mistake. The horse leapt over a small branch, and she felt the pain in her side again.
"Slow down! I mean it this time!" she shouted, pulling hard on the reins. Perhaps sensing his mistress had reached the end of her rope, the horse slowed, settling on a more obedient pace.
"That's better. Thank you." For now.
Xena held her hand up. She gestured, and Berylus led the princess' horse back into the group, surrounded by protectors. He helped the small figure off her horse, briefly meeting his commander's gaze. Xena nodded.
A moment later, the shouts of advancing warriors filled the dale. Xena swung off her horse, sending Argo out of the path of footsoldiers' swords. She glanced around to make sure Berylus was fulfilling his duty, then refocused her attention when she saw him covertly heading for the forest with his charge.
Xena let out a shrill battle cry, and unsheathed her sword.
"Damn it!" The horse had veered off course at high speed again, leading her who knows where. "Stay on the road!" Gabrielle groaned in frustration as the horse began climbing a steep hill.
"Are you listening to me? I want you to stop!"
The horse stopped. Quickly. Gabrielle landed a few feet away, cringing at the pain in her backside. She glared at the animal, but reminded herself that this wasn't Argo. He wasn't used to that startling sound.
Gabrielle could hear the clashing of metal and shouts of men close by. She knew Xena could take care of herself, but her heart raced anyway. She walked up to the top of the ridge and knelt, peering over.
"Yikes!" The battle was raging right below her. Gabrielle's eyes widened. If the damn horse hadn't gone on one of his tangents, she would have stumbled right into it. She winced as a blade pierced an unfortunate soldier.
There were so many men, flowing from behind trees and rocks that had lain directly in her path. If she had come down the road, she would have discovered them lying in wait. They would have had to silence her . . .
She would have been killed.
She closed her eyes. Of course. She had almost done Ares' dirty work for him. She slapped the side of her forehead.
"Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!" There was nothing wrong with Xena; there never had been.
She crawled across the top of the ridge, looking for the familiar shape. Was that her? Gabrielle couldn't tell from that angle. She rose slowly.
The young man knelt, laying his sword in the dirt. Adrenalin surging, his challenger raised his own sword, but his arm was caught in midair. "He's surrendered," Xena said coldly. "You dishonor yourself by killing him, and I'll kill you."
The soldier stood for a moment, then kicked lightly at the prostrate man's chest. "Go on, get out of here," he growled. Xena nodded, gesturing toward another swordsman approaching behind him.
She watched approvingly as the soldier easily dispatched his attacker, turning her head an instant later to assess the remaining battle.
Something registered out of the corner of her eye. She looked up at the ridge, and froze. Gabrielle? She spun swiftly to run her sword through the man who had sought to creep up on her, then swung back around to the crest. There was no one there.
"Gabrielle!" Nothing. She gazed at the spot for a long moment, then ran to help her soldiers as the fight continued.
Xena rode into the village and headed for the house. She knocked loudly, stepping briskly past Marra when the girl opened the door. "Is Gabrielle here?"
"Xena!" Gabrielle stepped out from a side bedroom, and was swept up into a firm embrace. "Well, hi to you too! Did you get the princess back to her father?"
Xena shook her head. "I mean, yes. Well, to Berren, actually." She was clearly distracted.
Gabrielle took her hand and led her into her cousin's bedroom, closing the curtain behind them. She drew Xena's head down for a passionate greeting, then pressed her face against Xena's chest.
"I'm glad you're back. Can we head out now?"
"Gabrielle . . ." Xena stroked the honey-colored hair. "When I was on my way back . . . in the middle of the fight . . . I saw you."
Damn. She was afraid of that. How could she explain? 'I didn't trust you so I went to spy on you?' It was a mistake she wouldn't make again, but it would hurt Xena. She hugged Xena tighter, closing her eyes, postponing the inevitable.
"I've never had a vision like that before."
Gabrielle opened her eyes. A vision?
"So I knew it had to mean something." Xena brought Gabrielle's chin up with her finger. "I know now that I shouldn't have left you. You belong by my side, no matter what."
Gabrielle gazed up at her, speechless. She leaned into her lover again, buying time to decide her response. Of course she wouldn't lie to Xena . . . .
She felt Xena's arms circle her waist. Maybe she'd tell her tomorrow.
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