DISCLAIMER: Xena Warrior Princess is the property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By Della Street
Gabrielle looked around. A rather sleepy little village, but . . . "There's something different about this place," she said.
"It used to be more isolated. They haven't seen much of the outside world."
"Have you been here before?"
"My men scouted it once."
Gabrielle glanced at her companion. She shouldn't ask, but curiosity pricked at her. "Did you, uh,--"
The toe of a petite boot scraped back and forth in the dirt, and Xena smiled slightly, imagining the superhuman effort it was taking for Gabrielle to hold back her next question. "They said it wasn't worth taking."
"Why not? They didn't have much?"
"Just slave material, not much else. We weren't picking up slaves on that trip."
Gabrielle paused, not really sure how to respond to a statement like that. "They've really built the place up nicely," she said, examining the structures lining the narrow road that cut through town.
A young woman carrying cloth crossed in front of them. "Excuse me," Gabrielle said. "Is there an inn here?"
"No, but Seriades has opened his house to the public, with a few rooms upstairs. He might be able to accommodate you." She pointed toward a large building a dozen yards down the road.
Gabrielle dug into a hearty meal prepared by Seriades' wife, Cyllene. She looked up as Xena sat next to her at the table. "I don't know how they make any money at these prices," Gabrielle said, stuffing another pepper into her mouth.
"Well, not from renting rooms. They only have three." Xena smiled at the sight of her friend happily chewing.
"Wcds," Gabrielle began, then took a sip of water and swallowed. "We could sleep outdoors. It's been plenty warm."
"I feel like a real bed tonight."
Gabrielle smiled, about to ask if Xena had any particular use in mind, but saw that her friend was staring toward the entrance. She turned to see what had caught Xena's attention.
An elderly man with a plump coin purse was patting Seriades' hand. Gabrielle started to ask what was so interesting about that, but Xena never did anything without a reason. She looked again, and this time noticed a rough looking character a few tables away who was stealing occasional glances at the pair.
The old man ambled slowly out the entrance, followed a minute later by the dark-haired figure. Xena laid her hand on Gabrielle's. "I'll be right back." Gabrielle watched her walk to the door and disappear outside, then turned her attention back to the meal.
"Where'd Xena go?" Arian, the proprietor's teenaged daughter, plopped down at the bard's table. She and Gabrielle had spoken earlier while Xena arranged a room for them; a bit of a chatterbox, Gabrielle concluded, but sweet.
"She went outside for a minute."
Arian gazed at her subject with unabashed curiosity. "So how'd you end up in Versi?"
"Just passing through. We're on the go a lot." Gabrielle quickly changed the subject before Arian could ask why. It was nice to spend time with someone who hadn't heard Xena's reputation and wasn't afraid of her. "How about you? Are you from here?"
"Yes, we were led here when I was just a baby."
"Led by whom?"
Gabrielle looked up from the slice of lamb she had just speared with her fork. "Excuse me?"
"Versi is sacred ground."
She considered the girl's statement for a moment. "What exactly does that mean?"
Xena rounded a corner and saw what she had expected: A dark-haired cur bent over the unconscious form of the old man, snatching the coin purse from unresisting fingers.
"I don't think that belongs to you," she said evenly.
He swung around toward her, a hooked dagger visible in his other hand, and Xena pulled her sword. With an exaggerated frown, the thief held up his much smaller weapon and looked pointedly at the sword. "Well, I guess you've got the advantage on me."
An obvious play on her sense of pride, Xena realized. Obvious but effective. She plunged her sword into the ground and crouched before him, arms out, hands inviting him to come get her. His eyes lit up, and he lunged at her. Xena easily dodged the thrust and spun around, kicking him in the backside. Another swing followed, then another, and now he was furious.
He made a final jab and Xena caught his arm, intending to break it, but suddenly the thief brought his knee into her stomach, knocking the wind out of her. Instinctively, she grasped his wrist and lifted it, the dagger sinking deep into his stomach. His mouth fell open, and he slid to the ground.
A moment later, Gabrielle sprinted up to her. Still a little out of breath, the bard stared down at the body in horror.
"What?" Xena asked. Her companion had certainly seen a lot worse than this.
A young villager rounded the corner and stopped in his tracks. His shocked gaze rotated from Gabrielle to Xena to the dead highwayman, and then he retreated hastily, calling out to unseen others, and soon a small crowd had gathered. An aged man in a white, full-length robe emerged and spoke to Xena. "You killed him?"
She started to reply, but Gabrielle cut her off. "It was an accident." Xena looked at her, slightly irritated. She didn't need anyone to make excuses for her.
"He was trying to kill her. She tried to avoid the knife, and he tripped and fell on it. It was an accident." Gabrielle pointed. "See? She even threw her sword down."
"Is that what happened?"
Xena glanced at her friend, who had an almost desperate look on her face. For some reason, this was important to Gabrielle.
"Yeah," she said.
Nodding, the robed man accepted her word. "He is not of our village, but we thank you for helping him," he said. At his gesture, two townsmen helped the old man to his feet.
Two others picked up her attacker's body and carried it away, and the crowd dispersed.
Xena stepped over to her self-appointed spokesperson. "What was that all about?"
"The Versians don't believe in killing."
"So?" She pulled her sword from the ground and brushed dirt from the end.
"No, I mean they really don't believe in it," Gabrielle said. "If someone is intentionally killed, they believe they have to purify the grounds with a sacrifice."
Xena stared at her in dismay. "A sacrifice?"
"Yeah. A ceremonial purification."
"But they didn't kill him."
"It doesn't matter," Gabrielle explained. "The whole village is sacred ground. Any intentional killing soils it. When that happens, it has to be cleansed."
Xena rolled her eyes. "Great." She sheathed her sword.
"Well, I guess you have to respect their views," Gabrielle said.
"No, I don't."
"You respect mine." A thought occurred to her. "Don't you?"
"Of course I do. But even though you don't kill, you don't keep other people from protecting themselves."
"They feel differently." Gabrielle's pulse had finally returned to normal, and she launched into an earnest discourse. "You know, there've been three killings in the past couple of months here. Two outsiders and one of their own. So three sacrifices. Four of them dead, Xena."
The warrior shrugged. "That's what you get."
Gabrielle ignored the interruption. "Arian says they didn't have any problems until a few years ago, then all of a sudden a lot of outsiders started coming through. They don't know how to deal with it."
"Well, they'd better figure it out soon."
Gabrielle frowned. "These are good people, Xena."
"I don't have anything against them," Xena said. "But I'm not going to let either of us get hurt because of their beliefs." She looked down at the young woman. "And they are going to have to learn, Gabrielle. It's just going to get worse for them."
The green eyes that looked up at her were troubled. Xena's stance softened, and she took Gabrielle into a gentle embrace.
"They've opened a road to Avilla a few miles from here," Xena said. "You're going to be getting more traffic."
Seriades nodded soberly. "I wondered."
"Looks like it's good for business," she offered.
"I don't do this for a business," Seriades replied. "I opened this house as a meeting place for my brothers and sisters, and to provide hospitality for occasional travelers. All these strangers . . . ." He looked up to see three more new faces cross the threshold and shook his head.
One of the newcomers glanced casually over at the counter as they started for a table, and stopped mid-pace when he spotted Xena.
"Jonarus." She walked up to him and they clasped arms. "Good to see you. Aren't you supposed to be home farming?"
He shrugged. "Didn't work out." It didn't look as though he wanted to discuss it. His two colleagues came up behind him and stared curiously at the tall, dark-haired woman.
"Herades, Maris, my partners, this is Xena."
"The Warrior Princess?"
"The one and only," Jon confirmed with an undertone of pride. "I served in Xena's army for nearly three years."
Jonarus was the first warrior Xena had known to give up the life, leaving her one day to work his father's farm with a woman he had met on the road. Xena had thought him weak at the time, but now she wondered what had happened. Maybe he'd want to talk about it later. "So what are you doing these days, Jon?"
He hesitated slightly. "Oh, this and that. How about you?"
She smiled. "The same."
"So I hear. You don't live here now, do you?"
"No, just resting for a couple of days."
"Resting, huh? Come sit with us for a while." The four of them made themselves comfortable at a table near the corner.
When Gabrielle wandered downstairs an hour later, the house was in full swing. The tables were all occupied, and the keeper's outnumbered daughter scurried among them, taking orders and delivering food and drink. Gabrielle approached the counter and leaned in toward Seriades, who stood behind the counter pouring from a pitcher.
"Have you seen Xena?" she asked.
"She's over there."
Gabrielle followed the direction of his finger and saw her friend seated at a table with three -- well, 'gentlemen' wasn't the right word, she decided. They seemed to be having a good time.
Gabrielle contemplated them for a while. This was a side of Xena she never got to see except when Xena was with other warriors. Boisterous and rowdy. As Gabrielle watched, she found herself wishing that Xena would act like that around her just once. Xena sometimes teased her and joked with her, but not like this. Gabrielle wondered if she provided everything Xena needed to be happy .
Her reverie was shattered along with a mug that fell from Arian's tray. Quick reactions kept most of the stray liquid from splattering her, and she reached for a towel lying on the counter to wipe up wine and pottery shards. "Thanks," the girl said hurriedly before scuttling off again.
Gabrielle dabbed at a wet spot on her boot, then straightened and turned to Seriades. "Do you need some help? It's pretty busy in here."
The innkeeper nodded. "We'd be grateful. Will you take those tables?"
"You want me to get their orders?"
"For food. For drink we offer only the wine we make ourselves and water. Bring me the orders, and deliver them to the tables."
Gabrielle shrugged. "OK." She was always willing to try something new.
"This village seems pretty slow," Jon observed, watching as Herades launched a small knife at the wall.
"Depends on what you're looking for," Xena replied lazily.
Another knife joined the first. "I'm looking for some of that," Maris said. All four of them turned their heads to look at a young woman standing beside a table in the center of the room.
"She's taken," Xena said flatly. She pitched her knife between the other two. "Umm, more wine, I think," she said with exaggerated indecision.
"A gracious winner as always, Xena," Jon said affectionately. Xena grinned, and Jon caught Arian's attention, yelling out an order for four more drinks.
Muttering to himself, Herades trudged over to the wall to retrieve the knives. "Again," he said.
Jon shook his head. "There comes a time to cut your losses, Herades," he advised.
"I haven't seen her with anyone."
Xena turned her head at the interjection from Maris and followed his line of sight. "She's taken," she repeated, more firmly this time.
"It never hurts to ask."
"It might." She turned her attention back to her drinking companions at the table.
Maris' eyes followed the slim figure as she moved to another table. A minute later he stood purposefully, and was surprised to see Xena do the same. "Maris, let me save you some trouble," she said. "Gabrielle!"
The object of Maris' attention excused herself from some customers and walked over to their table. Xena leaned down and kissed her, resting her hand on the shapely waist.
Gabrielle laughed. "Is that all you wanted?"
"No, but the rest'll have to wait til later."
Gabrielle laughed again. "We'll see. Depends on the size of the tip," she said saucily, tossing her head as she turned and headed back to another table.
Jon chuckled. "Making fast time with the locals, Xena?"
"She's with me."
He swung his head toward his former commander and started to say something, then changed his mind. "You're full of surprises," he said finally.
She shrugged. "Can you blame me?" Eight eyes returned to Gabrielle, who was now bending over to place drinks on the other table. Jon shook his head.
"Again!" Xena's examination of Gabrielle's form was disturbed by Herades' insistence on another throw, and the warrior reluctantly transferred her attention to the knife placed before her on the table. She gestured toward the wall, generously inviting Herades to throw first. His blade landed just inside the dark circle of the fist-sized knothole. Xena briefly considered letting him win, then remembered that she could still be studying Gabrielle if the fool hadn't demanded another throw. She picked up her knife and projected it squarely into the center of the knot.
She signaled, and had the pleasure of watching her lover stroll over to them again. "This isn't my table, you know," Gabrielle teased.
"Would you mind bringing me some more wine?"
A blonde eyebrow went up. Xena leaned closer to the bard and said quietly, "I haven't had that much." She laid her hand on Gabrielle's thigh. "I won't be getting sleepy." Gabrielle smiled and went off to retrieve the order, Xena's eyes following her progress across the floor.
Two hours later, the helper was released from her volunteer duties and sat in a chair next to the counter, absorbed in her own thoughts. She nodded to herself, then felt Xena behind her, warm breath in her ear.
"Let's go to bed."
"So early? It's still pretty noisy down here."
Gabrielle smiled, but they had business to discuss. "Xena, I want to talk to you."
"We can talk upstairs. Come on."
Gabrielle considered her options. She wanted to talk to Xena about the Versians. She also wanted to go to bed with Xena. Maybe she could do both.
Xena followed her closely up the stairs, her hands groping various parts of the bard's anatomy which were proving too tempting, and as they reached the landing, Gabrielle felt strong arms circle her waist. She turned around in the amorous embrace. "Somebody'll see us."
"Lucky them." Xena lifted the light form and swung her forward, Gabrielle's legs twining around her waist. They kissed passionately, leaning against the wall, Xena's stomach pressing between her legs.
"You're in a good mood," Gabrielle said, slightly out of breath.
"You're going to find out."
Xena carted her prize to their room and reached a hand out to turn the doorknob. They crossed the threshold, and a black leather boot kicked backward to close the door. She carried Gabrielle to the bed and knelt, lowering herself into her lover's softness.
This was the best time, Gabrielle thought, while she could still concentrate. She wrapped her legs around Xena and asked quietly, "Xena, do you think they'd move?"
Xena's mouth nipped at the delicate skin of Gabrielle's neck. "Hmmm?"
"Do you think they'd move?"
"The Versians." Determined lips met hers, and the women kissed deeply, Gabrielle's hands massaging rich, dark hair. She untangled her tongue from Xena's and kissed the tanned throat above her. "They could move to a safer place." She ran her tongue lightly up Xena's neck.
"Mmm. Yeah." Xena's lips began searching inside Gabrielle's tunic for whatever they could reach, foiled by unyielding cloth. Xena growled, and her hands came up to the front of the shirt.
"Huh uh." Gabrielle met the hands with her own. "I'm not sewing this up again." She sat up, leaning Xena backward, and immediately felt hands at the back of her tunic, while her own hands worked on removing inconvenient armor. Mouth close to Xena's ear, she whispered, "Will you talk to Seriades?"
"About what?" Xena's hands pulled the loose cloth down and grasped Gabrielle's breasts.
Gabrielle lay back on the bed. She was losing her focus. "About . . . about moving them somewhere safer."
"Mmm." Xena took a breast into her mouth.
Gabrielle arched her back, and unconsciously pressed one hand against the back of Xena's head, urging the warrior to take more of her into her mouth. "Oh, gods." She had one more chance. "You'll talk to him?"
"Hmm? Yeah." Xena resumed her attentions to Gabrielle's breasts, her tongue and lips working their magic. Her hands reached down and maneuvered Gabrielle's skirt and underwear off, then roughly seized her hips. "You were driving me crazy downstairs," she breathed. "I wanted to have you right there, on the table." Gabrielle stirred excitedly.
Xena positioned the smaller woman on the bed and moved her thighs apart. Gabrielle exclaimed softly as three fingers entered her.
Concerned blue eyes looked down at her. "Did I hurt you?"
Xena closed her eyes and slowly thrust into her. "I love you," she groaned, stimulated by the sweet friction. Xena's mouth closed on hers, her tongue insistent, its thrusts as unrelenting as those between her legs. Gabrielle moaned and wrapped her arms around Xena, reveling in her lover's intensity.
Teeth sank lightly into the bard's shoulder. "I love the way you feel," Xena rasped, recapturing the mouth beneath hers. Xena was being unusually talkative tonight, Gabrielle noticed, her own excitement mounting with every word.
As she thrust in and out of her lover, Xena felt overwhelmed with a specific desire and gave in to it, slowly withdrawing her fingers. Gabrielle gripped her shoulders. "No," she cried out, suddenly empty, her hips continuing to move as if Xena were still inside her.
"Just for a second," Xena whispered. She brought her hand to Gabrielle's breast and brushed her knuckles across it. The hand returned to its loving task, her fingers sliding easily into their warm refuge. Xena lowered her head to Gabrielle's breast and rubbed her face against it, savoring the moisture, tasting it with her tongue.
Gabrielle felt like she was in a dream. She watched Xena lick the wetness on her breast, and envisioned Xena's fingers thrusting into her. She could not imagine ever feeling greater love.
Xena pressed down gently with her palm, listening as Gabrielle's breathing became increasingly ragged, loving the music of her loud moans. Finally Gabrielle cried out and her hips rose off the bed. Xena exulted at the feeling of Gabrielle's arms constricting around her back, just as satiny warmth was against her fingers.
With a contented smile, Gabrielle lay back, waiting for her heartbeat to return to something approaching normal. She gazed up into Xena's eyes. "It just keeps getting better," she said incredulously, and Xena smiled. It was true.
Gabrielle drew Xena's mouth down to hers and they kissed for long, lingering minutes, until gentle hands pressed against the warrior's shoulders. Xena raised herself, and Gabrielle slid out from beneath her. She pulled off Xena's clothing, kissing each area of skin as it appeared, then knelt across Xena's back and traced her fingertips down well-defined shoulders.
Gabrielle pressed her breasts against Xena's back, biting the shoulders and neck under her hands. She kissed a light trail down to the fine, soft hair at Xena's lower back, then grasped curved hips in her hands and pressed her teeth lightly against the tantalizing flesh. Xena grunted, her shoulders rising from the bed.
A small hand slid between Xena's muscular thighs. Xena shifted her body, spreading her thighs further apart, and Gabrielle slipped her fingers inside. The bard eagerly worked her mouth across Xena's back, kissing and biting recklessly, sliding her fingers in and out with growing passion. "One of these days I'm going to have you on a table," she said lustfully. A low chuckle came from Xena's throat, swallowed by a groan as Gabrielle's teeth nipped her shoulder.
Xena obeyed, and Gabrielle lowered her head between Xena's thighs, gripping them with her fingers. Strands of golden hair fell forward onto dark curly hair as Gabrielle poured all of her knowledge and love into pleasing her lover. Xena spread her arms out to her side, clawing at the bed, feeling herself getting close .
Gabrielle lifted her face and kissed the inside of Xena's thigh. Xena raised her head from the bed and stared at her in disbelief. "What are you--"
"Just for a second," Gabrielle whispered.
Xena started to respond, but was silenced as Gabrielle's mouth returned to its task, soft tongue cascading over her, her excitement building .
The blonde head raised again and kissed the inside of Xena's other thigh.
"Gabrielle." It was a warning.
Xena fell silent again as Gabrielle's tongue resumed its exquisite stroking. She moaned quietly, thighs flexing, body shifting restlessly on the bed. Gabrielle knew better than to tease her again now. She brought Xena to the edge, and her breath caught when she felt the momentary stillness, watching the passion break in her lover's face as Xena's hands clutched at her hair.
Xena sighed and lay back on the bed, struggling to replenish her depleted oxygen supply. Planting one more kiss on the source of such pleasure for both of them, Gabrielle raised herself and settled in next to her lover. She nestled her head against Xena's neck, and sighed at the feel of light touches of fingertips on her shoulder.
Several minutes of peaceful repose passed, and then Gabrielle spoke. "Are you sleepy?"
"Hmm." Gabrielle tilted her head and kissed Xena's ear. "Are you still in a good mood?"
Wandering lips trailed down Xena's neck. "So am I." Gabrielle ran her hand down Xena's chest, then moved on top of her. "A really good mood."
Xena met the mischievous gaze. "Really. Well, maybe we'd better do something about that."
"That's what I was thinking."
She felt Xena's hand on her shoulder and blinked, foggy with sleep. Again? Didn't the woman ever need sleep? She smiled and reached her arms up to Xena's neck.
"Gabrielle, get dressed. Hurry."
The bard's eyes opened wide at the urgent tone of the instruction. Xena wasn't waking her for an early morning romp. She sat up to see the warrior fully attired, sword and chakram in place, and jumped out of bed to hurry into her own clothing.
Xena walked over to the side of the window and peered out cautiously. The village was quietly, but unquestionably, being invaded.
Gabrielle tiptoed over and stood next to her, peeking out at the line of horsemen and foot soldiers trailing into town. "What's happening?"
"A warlord named Treman. He's got about fifty men, and horses for almost half of them. They were camped a couple of miles east of here." The warrior's eyes remained on the street below. "They started coming in about an hour ago."
Gabrielle realized with dismay that Xena had left their bed, dressed, gone to scout the invading enemy and returned, all while she slept unaware. No wonder Xena treated her like a child sometimes when it came to her safety. "What should we do?" she whispered, putting her self-chastisement behind her for another day.
"I'll go get Argo," Xena replied. "Be ready to jump down. We'll head out the north road." She started to climb out the window.
"Wait." Gabrielle clapped her hand on Xena's arm. "We're leaving?"
"This isn't our problem."
Gabrielle's grip tightened. "This isn't our problem? Since when did that stop us?"
"Look, Treman and I have a history. If he sees us, he'll order both of us killed. Or he'll want you brought in as a souvenir. Either way, I'm not going to let it happen," Xena said. "Think how many sacrifices it'll take to fix that."
An irritated look came across her face as Gabrielle continued to stare at her. "Gabrielle, these people made their own decisions; they have to live with the consequences. Now let's go."
"You're not serious."
"They don't want our help."
"They need it."
"I don't want to argue about this, Gabrielle." Xena turned her gaze back to the scene outside their window. "It's out of our hands now."
"You said you'd talk to Seriades."
"You said you'd talk to him about moving them somewhere safer."
Xena searched her memory, until a vague recollection finally flickered into her brain. "Gabrielle, that was--I wasn't exactly concentrating at the time."
"Are you saying you didn't mean it?"
"Something like that would require a lot of planning even under the best of circumstances," Xena said. "A lot of time. We don't have either."
"Come on, Gabrielle. You're not going to hold me to something I said while we were making love."
"You said you loved me."
Zeus. Xena stood motionless for a moment, then turned and met Gabrielle's piercing gaze. She leaned down and kissed her tenderly. "Of course I meant it. All of it."
Xena crept downstairs and rapped lightly on Seriades' door. After a moment, Cyllene opened the door, and the warrior stepped quietly inside. "Is he awake?" Cyllene shook her head.
Leather boots strode determinedly toward the far wall, then a single boot kicked the bedpost abruptly. Seriades bolted awake, startled. "Seriades, you've got a problem," Xena said without preamble. "There's an army of fifty men out there. They're here to take the village and everyone in it."
"Take the village?"
"Capture. Exploit. Use you all as slaves. Get the picture?"
The innkeeper shook his head, stunned, unable to register what she was saying. Xena's patience, already thin, wore through, and she grabbed him by the collar. "Listen to me. You're all going to be kept as slaves until you're not useful any more, then you're going to be killed."
He met her eyes, and she released him. "What can we do?" he said uncertainly.
"You can fight."
"We won't kill." He looked meaningfully at her. "And we won't allow anyone else to kill for us." He thought some more. "Perhaps we can bargain with them."
"You can't, because they'll already have everything you own. You have nothing to bargain with."
Seriades straightened, and spoke with quiet conviction. "We'll talk with them and try to work something out peaceably. There will be no killing, even if our freedom is taken from us. It is a small price to pay for our beliefs."
Xena glowered at him, growing more irritated with every word. These people deserved whatever came to them. They lived by their principles; they could die by them. "Suit yourself," she declared, and turned to leave.
"Xena." Gabrielle's clear voice came from the doorway.
"Forget it, Gabrielle. They're on their own."
Gabrielle crossed the room and put her hand on Xena's arm, holding her in place. "Wait." She turned to Seriades. "You could leave the village. Find a new place to live." She included Cyllene in her gaze. "No one would have to be hurt."
"Treman's not going to let them leave now," Xena said. "They'll make perfect slaves, and he knows it. That makes them valuable."
"We won't ask him."
Xena pulled Gabrielle away from the others and spoke quietly in her ear. "What do you want me to do, go around and kill Treman's men while you stand there and claim they're accidents? Don't you think people will start wondering why they all trip and fall on my sword?"
Gabrielle ignored the sarcasm. "There has to be a way. I know you can think of something." Green eyes gazed up into hers. "Can't you?"
Xena weighed the question. This meant a lot to Gabrielle, but she had little interest in babysitting a group of people who didn't even want her help. "No, I can't."
The open face registered surprise, and Xena again felt annoyed at the pressure she was getting from her friend. "Get used to it, Gabrielle. There are a lot of things I can't do."
"You've stopped a war. You've defeated Ares. Why won't you consider this?"
Xena closed her eyes, struggling to conceal her irritation, and turned impatiently to the concerned man now sitting on the side of the bed. "Seriades, would your people consider leaving here?"
"I don't know." He looked up at her. "Where would we go?"
Gabrielle's head jerked around sharply at her lover's tone and Xena winced, regretting the words. "Talk to your people about it. We'll come back tonight." She started for the door, then turned back. "Seriades," she said gently, "be careful. These men won't care about hurting you. Try to buy some time. Tell them you'll recommend surrender, but it'll take time to talk to everyone." Seriades appeared to be listening, but she wasn't sure how much of her advice he would heed.
She reached for Gabrielle's arm, but the younger woman turned and walked out of the room ahead of her, the two proceeding in silence to their room. Xena shut the door and stepped to the window to check the progress of Treman's takeover. "Let's get packed up. They'll be looking for us."
Thinking she hadn't been heard, she turned toward Gabrielle, but the other woman was efficiently packing their belongings. Xena watched for a moment, then walked over and picked up an apple that had fallen to the floor. Gabrielle efficiently plucked it out of her hand and stuffed it into a saddlebag.
The silence was beginning to get to Xena. They needed to be quiet, but this was unnatural. She started to speak, then changed her mind. The Warrior Princess was afraid her friend would not answer, she realized, feeling a bit ridiculous. But until that happened, she could assume that Gabrielle just had nothing to say, as unlikely as that seemed.
Gabrielle bent over and retrieved the blanket that had tumbled to the floor during their lovemaking only a few hours ago. She tossed it on the bed, seemingly unaffected by the images it conjured up in Xena's mind. The warrior ran her tongue across her lips, tasting Gabrielle's essence still on them.
It didn't take long to pack up their few possessions, and soon Gabrielle walked over with their saddle bags, stopping beyond arm's reach, Xena noted.
"Let's go." Xena took the two larger bags. "We'll wait outside of town." She turned back to her companion. "Or we could look for a place here. It's riskier, but we might able to do something if there's trouble."
Gabrielle shrugged. "Your decision."
Great. Indifference. This was worse than silence. Xena started to reply, but again was held back by some undefinable emotion. "Fine. Let's go."
She climbed out the window and leapt noiselessly into the shadows below. Gabrielle followed, jumping down into Xena's arms.
Xena propped her head against the hay pile, wishing that Gabrielle would come lie with her. Closing her eyes, she listened to the sounds of their saddle bags being stowed out of sight. Boots scraped quietly across the floor, and then she felt the familiar body beside her, blonde head nestled against her shoulder. Xena smiled and drew her closer.
"Gabrielle, is something wrong?
"I've been trying to figure out why you're so angry about this."
"I'm not angry."
Gabrielle looked up at her.
"Well, I might have been a bit irritated."
"At the whole situation," Xena equivocated.
"I just don't have a lot of patience with people who won't stand up for themselves."
"I think they stand up for themselves. They just don't do it the way we're used to."
Xena did not reply.
"So, what are you going to do about Treman?"
"I've got a few ideas."
"Do you think he'll negotiate with them?"
"No. The only question is whether they're willing to leave here." She met the younger woman's gaze. "And if they're not, Gabrielle, that's it."
Gabrielle nodded. They lay quietly in the silence and drifted off to sleep.
Gabrielle stirred and saw Xena sheathing her sword.
"Wait for me here," Xena said. "If you have to go outside, keep out of sight."
"Why don't I do some scouting in the village?" Gabrielle suggested. "They won't be looking for me."
"Yes, they will."
"They don't know me from Hera."
"Yes, they do." Xena's face was turned away from her. "Treman's scouts know you."
Gabrielle looked at her in confusion.
"They saw us together last night." Xena met her gaze. "I was sitting with them."
Gabrielle's eyes widened, and Xena turned away again with a scowl. She hadn't seen it coming. She had let her guard down, kissing Gabrielle in front of them, showing off. If she hadn't, Gabrielle could blend in safely with the crowd. "I'm sorry. I should have been more careful."
"I guess you can't trust anyone these days," Gabrielle said lightly. She didn't like the look on Xena's face. "Hey - before you go, I need to ask you something." She rose and walked over to her.
"What is it?"
She ran her fingers down Xena's forearm and smiled suggestively. "Did you have a good time last night?"
As she hoped, Xena's focus shifted from reproaching herself to answering her lover's playful question. Xena lowered her eyes, pretending to concentrate. "Hmm . . . last night . . . ." She shook her head, unable to remember.
"Well, if that's all the impact it had, I won't bother you again."
Xena grinned and encircled Gabrielle in her arms. "Oh, I think you'll bother me all right. You bother me every time I look at you." She ran her hands across the brown cloth.
Gabrielle smiled and raised her face for a kiss.
Xena climbed the dozen rungs into the loft, frowning as she peered over the edge; Gabrielle wasn't there. She sat and leaned against the haystack, then jumped to her feet as it suddenly began to move. She watched, an eyebrow raised, as a hay-covered figure emerged from inside the pile.
"Did I come at a bad time?"
"You know, a little warning would be nice here," Gabrielle said. "Maybe something like 'It's me, Gabrielle.' Then I wouldn't have to crawl inside that thing for no reason." The blonde woman swept hay from her clothing.
"You missed some." Xena's hand brushed against her backside.
Gabrielle looked up at her, shaking her head affectionately. "How do you keep your mind on two things at once all the time?"
Xena caressed her hip. "Some things don't require concentration. They just come naturally."
"Did you talk to Seriades?"
"Yeah." Xena sat down again and retrieved something from a small satchel. "I brought you some--"
"Yes!" Gabrielle snatched the bread and plopped down next to her, sinking her teeth into it enthusiastically. "Mmm. Thanks."
Xena watched her for a moment, then said flatly, "They'll leave."
"Oh," Gabrielle said casually, trying to hide her excitement.
Xena thought about teaching her young friend a lesson about practicalities. Gabrielle had conceived the plan; maybe she should suggest that Gabrielle figure out how to implement it. She glanced at her protege again, and smiled. Here she was, forced into hiding, surrounded by a hostile army, yet taking such pleasure from eating a piece of bread. The lesson could wait.
"I have a plan," she said.
"I knew you would!" Gabrielle slid her arms around Xena's neck.
Xena looked into animated green eyes. The plan could wait a while longer too.
Gabrielle was broiling in her borrowed outfit: Long-sleeved blouse wrapped into a thick, floor-length skirt, accessorized with a knotted kerchief covering her head. She twisted an arm uncomfortably around her back.
"What's the matter?" Arian sat on a stump, watching every move the beautiful blonde woman made.
"Nothing. Just hay. I've got scratches on my back and--." Gabrielle cut short the complaint. "They itch."
"The hay scratched you through your clothing?"
"Ah." Gabrielle laughed self-consciously. "Yeah. Just my luck, I guess." She smiled to herself. Actually, she felt lucky that she'd only ended up with one splinter. She leaned in and stirred the contents of the large kettle simmering over the fire.
"You probably don't need to stir that quite so often."
"I have to make sure none of the, um," she looked meaningfully at Arian, "spice settles. That would give it too much flavor, if you know what I mean."
Droplets of sweat ran down her forehead. She mopped her brow, then tossed the drenched rag over her shoulder. "Arian, could you get me a fresh rag? Actually, two rags," she amended. "Wet one of them down." She stirred the pot again and leaned down to inhale the deceptive aroma. It smelled delicious.
"You're Xena's friend." Gabrielle spun around, eyes fearful. "So Xena must still be around somewhere."
She looked guardedly at the man standing before her. She vaguely remembered seeing him with Xena the other night.
"My name's Jon. I won't give you away. But be careful of the other men I was with. They'll recognize you." He glanced over her shoulder. "Maris is headed this way. You'd better--" He paused, then pulled Gabrielle roughly to him and kissed her, keeping her face turned away from his colleague.
A deep laugh boomed from behind her. "Time enough for that later, Jon. Treman wants to see you."
Jonarus affected an exaggerated scowl and started to walk away, then stopped to pat Gabrielle's rear possessively. "I'll be back to finish this," he said, leaning in to enhance his survey of her backside. "Tell Xena I didn't betray her," he added quietly, then joined his comrade as they headed for the common.
"Who was that?" Arian stood a few feet away, wide-eyed, two rags hanging limply from her fingers.
"Thanks, Arian. I can handle it from here," Gabrielle said, taking the rags from the girl's hands. "Go back to your parents' house."
"But I want to help!"
"No, Arian. Go back to the house." The girl did not move. "All right, you want to help? Go tell Xena we're on schedule, and see if she needs anything." Xena would send the girl home with no guff. Gabrielle watched Arian scoot off, and bent to stir the pot again.
"Xena?" The girl whispered toward the loft.
The dark-haired woman leapt agilely to the ground beside her. "What are you doing here?"
"Gabrielle sent me to tell you everything's on schedule. And to see if you needed anything."
In other words, to get the girl out of her hair. Xena suppressed a smile.
"And I think maybe she was worried about one of the soldiers."
The warrior's eyes narrowed. "Why? What did he do?"
The girl lowered her head shyly. "He kissed her. And . . . ," she blushed, ". . . you know, touched her . . . ."
Xena's lip curled, then she caught herself and took a deep breath. "Do you know which one it was?" she asked tonelessly.
"I don't know any of them by name," Adrian replied. "They all look the same to me."
Another deep breath helped Xena remain calm. "OK. Thanks for the information. Now go home and wait until you hear from us."
She waited a few minutes, then sneaked outside and made her way to the outdoor kitchen on the edge of town. Crouching low on the roof of a thatch house, she could see the unmistakable shape of her friend standing next to the large kettle, blotting her forehead with a rag. The temperature that close to the fire must be unbearable, Xena thought.
She hated to see Gabrielle toiling under these conditions, but they didn't really have a choice. These simple villagers couldn't be counted on to carry off such a bold deception, and Gabrielle was an outsider. If she were caught, Treman might not take revenge on the whole village.
Xena made herself comfortable, or as close to it as she could get, and watched over her lover until the sun began to set.
The soldiers lined up for their dinner, receiving first a helping of potatoes from Cyllene. Next to the older woman, Gabrielle ladelled out generous helpings of soup to each man.
Xena tensed as she spotted Jon in line, the other two scouts half a dozen men behind him. Gabrielle was periodically scanning the line, and Xena hoped she recognized them. The plan depended on the bard seeing them before they saw her.
Chakram in hand, Xena watched through narrowed eyes as Jon approached the servers. She raised partway up - No! Gabrielle didn't see him.
Xena gripped the chakram tightly. She would tear through every man in that camp to get to Gabrielle if Jonarus raised the alarm. She cocked her head, wary, as the man accepted his ration and strolled over to join a group already started on their dinner.
She glanced back toward Gabrielle and was relieved to see the young woman standing beside the large kettle, her back turned toward the soldiers as she carefully stirred it. The line slowed as Cyllene dished out both potatoes and the soup, but finally Maris and Herades were through. A few moments later, Gabrielle returned to her serving duties.
So far so good. By Xena's count, all the men had gone through the line except Treman. His dinner would be brought to his tent. All they had to do now was wait.
Gabrielle slipped into the barn and climbed the rungs. She pulled herself onto the floor and grinned at Xena, who sat near the hay pile. "It worked great. They all ate the soup," she said excitedly. "I've been up at Seriades', and he's getting them ready."
"Good." Xena watched her lover cross over to where her clothes were stashed and strip off her borrowed clothing. "No problems then?"
"Nope. It all went smoothly, just like you planned."
"Nothing to report, huh?"
Gabrielle looked at her quizzically. "No."
Xena pursed her lips. So Gabrielle wasn't going to tell her she'd been bothered by one of the soldiers.
"Oh, I almost forgot. One of the men you were with -- Jon -- saw me. He said to tell you he didn't betray you." Gabrielle dipped a rag into a large water jug and bathed her face and torso with it. "Man, it was hot out there." She ran the rag up her legs, then between them.
Xena frowned. "I don't believe it."
"Hm? Oh, I do," Gabrielle said. "He warned me about the others in line. I wasn't sure I'd recognize them. Good thing too; he said they'd know me."
"Yeah. One of them in particular."
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows, waiting for clarification.
"Maris. He studied you pretty extensively that evening."
"Because I'm with you?"
"No, because he wanted to--" Xena held back the crudity. "Because he liked you."
"Oh." Gabrielle wrinkled her nose at the distasteful thought. "I can't imagine liking any of that bunch."
Which reminded her. "Who kissed you today, Gabrielle?"
"Kissed me?" Gabrielle rolled her eyes. Arian. She shook her head. "No one. Well, I mean it was your friend Jon. He was just keeping me from getting spotted; he wasn't trying anything." She finished tying her tunic, and glanced over at the silent figure. Gabrielle preferred to keep minor incidents like that from Xena as much as possible. When Xena heard of -- or worse, saw -- someone putting a hand on her, she could not always be reasoned with.
The bard drew her underwear on and started to reach for her own shorter, infinitely more practical skirt. She looked over again at Xena, who was still seated, and stopped short at the sight of blue eyes burning into her. Heart pounding, Gabrielle obeyed the unspoken command and slipped her underwear off, standing still while Xena's gaze lowered.
Xena locked eyes with her again, impelling Gabrielle forward until the younger woman stood directly before her. Xena grasped her hips as she bent to the golden triangle between Gabrielle's legs. Gabrielle closed her eyes.
A short while later, a faint noise from below disturbed them. "Xena?" It was Arian's muted whisper. Gabrielle hurried over to retrieve her underwear, at the same time tossing the wet rag to Xena, who ran it across her mouth. They heard light steps on the rungs, and then Arian's head popped over the ledge.
"Are you all right? I thought I heard something."
"We're fine," Xena said. "What are you doing here?"
"You wanted to know when the men were all asleep."
"Have you told your father?"
"Yes. Everyone's ready."
Damn. Xena frowned at Gabrielle, who shrugged. It couldn't be helped.
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing," Xena replied, a little tersely. "I'm coming. You know where to meet us, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle nodded, and Xena followed the village girl down the ladder. If they were lucky, they'd have a full day's head start before Treman and his men regained consciousness. It was also possible that Treman might not follow them, but Xena wasn't counting on it. At least she'd have more flexibility in dealing with their pursuers once they left sacred ground.
The pleasant early morning coolness had dissipated with the appearance of the sun, which now bore down on them from overhead. At the moment, however, Gabrielle's mind was not on the heat. Not on that heat, anyway. She glanced up again at the slender boot, that muscular thigh, imagining it wrapped around her . . . .
"Aah!" The bard's foot caught on a rock, and she stumbled into the villager in front of her, knocking him to the ground. "Sorry." She helped the man to his feet, but when she straightened she saw that Xena was no longer riding beside her. Gabrielle frowned, wanting to continue her study, then realized that she had an equally tantalizing view from behind.
"Oops, sorry." She helped Tarras up again. "Clumsy today."
"Gabrielle!" Xena beckoned to her, and she ran to the front of the line.
"Get up behind me. We need to check the road ahead." The warrior helped Gabrielle into the saddle, then leaned down to speak with Seriades. "Have everyone rest for a while. They may not get another chance until we make camp. We'll be back."
As they rode forward, Xena checked carefully for signs of other recent travellers, then suddenly brought Argo to a halt and jumped down. Gabrielle lowered herself to the ground, clinging to the saddle, and ran to see what Xena was looking for.
She followed Xena's tracks, which stopped--
Whoosh! She felt herself pulled behind a broad tree, and a strong arm wrapped itself tightly around her stomach, drawing her backward. Her captor spoke. "You've got to watch where you're going, Gabrielle."
"I was following you."
"I mean back there. You're not paying attention."
Gabrielle colored. "Well, I'm sort of paying attention . . ."
"Yeah, I know what you're paying attention to."
The arm around her stomach pressed Gabrielle's back and hips into pliant leather, while the other hand slid onto her thigh. Gabrielle gasped.
"Uh huh. I thought so."
Insistent hands reached under Gabrielle's skirt and pulled down her underwear, then the arm resumed its hold around her waist.
"Out here? In the open?" Gabrielle asked, her protest half-hearted.
"We've got to get your mind back to business."
A hand urged Gabrielle's legs apart, then slid between them. Gabrielle leaned back against her lover, moaning.
"Mmm. You definitely haven't been paying attention." Gentle fingers probed the wetness between her legs and she leaned her head against a broad shoulder, her excitement heightened at the thought of her bare hips pressing against Xena's leather. She felt Xena shift her body, but her focus was on the persistent stroking of skilled fingers, bringing her closer . . . .
Gabrielle jerked forward, her body held in place by the strong arm around her waist. She cried out as she shuddered, wonderfully trapped between the arm and soft leather. Eyes closed, she leaned back, an extended groan accompanying her release.
She started to straighten. "Wait." The hand, fingers still wet, clasped Gabrielle's thigh, and the bard's eyes widened in excitement as she realized that Xena was pressing against her. "Unnh . . . ." Xena surged into her, tightening her embrace, and Gabrielle took in the sound of her lover's soft groan.
After a moment, Xena's grip relaxed. Gabrielle leaned against her a while longer, then turned around, a look of surprised pleasure on her face.
"Wow . . . . through your leather?" She started to reach between Xena's legs, but Xena caught the curious hand. A sly grin formed on Gabrielle's face. "I guess I wasn't the only one not paying attention."
Xena pursed her lips, smiling. "Give me a break."
"Come on." Xena jerked her head toward Argo. "Let's get back."
Gabrielle straightened her clothing and followed Xena back to the road.
A few hours of daylight remained when Xena dismounted and turned to Seriades. "The path splits from the road over that second hill," she said, pointing into the distance ahead of them. "It gets a little complicated after that, but Gabrielle will lead you."
Gabrielle's eyes widened. She started to speak, but Xena took her arm and quickly walked her past the line of villagers.
"I'll lead them?" Gabrielle asked. "I don't even know where we are right now. And where are you going?"
"You can do it. I'll tell you where to go." Gabrielle began to shake her head. "I'm counting on you, Gabrielle."
The bard closed her eyes, resigned. "Where are you going?"
"I'm going to head back and see if Treman's coming after us."
"And if he is?"
Xena looked at her, and Gabrielle sighed. "Great. You'll be fighting off fifty of Treman's men, and I'll be getting these people totally lost until we all die of thirst."
"See, I knew you'd get into it." Gabrielle did not smile. "Come on, Gabrielle. We don't have much time."
Half an hour later, Xena prepared to mount up. She positioned Argo between them and their travelling companions, and took Gabrielle into her arms. "I'll be back," she said.
Gabrielle put her arms around Xena's neck and the taller woman leaned down for a goodbye kiss, which became a little more passionate than either had intended.
"Xena--" Seriades stepped into view and stopped short, his eyes wide.
The kiss ended, but Xena did not release Gabrielle from her embrace. "What?"
"Uh . . . ." The villager clearly had forgotten what he was going to say.
Xena turned her attention back to Gabrielle, giving her a final peck on the lips. "Be careful," she said.
She climbed into the saddle and took the reins.
Gabrielle watched the warrior gallop off into the distance, then turned to Seriades, giving him an opportunity to say something if he wanted to. Finally, he spoke. "Uh . . . I think everyone's OK to start again, if you want."
"Good. Let's get going." She started toward the others, then stopped. If anyone saw the look on his face . . . . "Seriades, do you have a problem with anything?"
He shook his head, but the stunned expression remained.
"Does the fact that Xena and I are lovers bother you?" she asked.
He looked up at her, his eyes even wider, and shook his head again.
"Because you're looking at me now like I'm some kind of hydra."
That did it. Seriades was a good man. Gabrielle knew he would be bothered more by the thought that he had hurt someone than by anything he had seen. "I'm sorry," he said, reaching a hand out to her, the spell broken.
"It's OK. Come on. We've got another couple of hours before dark." They made their way to the front of the line.
Xena let Argo choose her speed; in spite of the heat, the horse was enjoying a fast pace. They slowed at the site where the road from town formed a trident, splitting into three narrower roads, and she jumped down to scan the area, planning her course of action.
Suddenly Xena froze, sensing . . . something. She pulled her sword. "Come out now and I might let you live."
"Hey, just me." Jon stepped out from behind a rock outcropping. Xena kept her sword pointed at him.
"I'm not your enemy, Xena."
"You scouted that village for Treman."
"Yes, I did. I learned from the best, you know." He took in the warrior's expressionless face. "When I found out you were there, I tried to talk Treman into holding off, but Herades and Maris told him about you and your friend, and he wouldn't wait. He was pretty disappointed when he thought you'd left," he continued. "He almost accused me of warning you, but they told him I was with them the whole time. He decided it was just bad timing."
"What are you doing here now?" Xena asked.
"I saw your friend," he said. "I didn't think you'd expose her to danger unless it was important, so I figured there must be something wrong with the food. I didn't eat mine."
"That doesn't tell me what you're doing here."
"I'm here to help you."
"Call it loyalty."
"Call it lying."
"I'm not, Xena. Whatever else you may have done as a commander, you were always fair with me."
She stared at him for a long moment. "What happened when you went home to run your father's farm with . . . .?"
"Assila? She left me after six months. Said she couldn't compete with you; said I was in love with you."
Jon laughed. "I said 'So? So are 90 percent of her men.' She didn't see the humor in it."
Xena didn't really think Jon found it humorous either, but she didn't have time to analyze this new information. She sheathed her sword. "Is Treman going to follow us?"
"Yeah. Of course, as you know, someone let all the horses go. One of them came back, by the way." He gestured at the mount behind him. "Treman figures you're behind it, so he's sending men on foot. As soon as the dizziness wears off, of course. He figures his men can make time on a hundred villagers even with a head start; in the meantime, he sent his healthiest scout to find you." He held his arms out. "And here I am."
"How many men is he sending?"
"Twenty. Shouldn't be a problem between the two of us."
"The two of us?" Xena repeated. "You're going to take on Treman? You know what he'll do to you if he finds out." She knew what she would have done to him if he had ever betrayed her.
"I'm dead anyway, Xena."
She looked at him.
"For once I get to fight the good fight."
Gabrielle wound her way through the crowded campsite, checking on her wards, trying to keep her mind from wondering where Xena was, what she was doing . . . .
"Hey, let's keep that fire down," she said.
She continued her inspection, attempting to convey a confidence she didn't really feel, until she reached her own bedroll. She settled under the blanket and stared out into the night, wondering where Xena was, and what she was doing . . . .
Xena stripped flesh from bone with her teeth, thinking to herself that the hare would have tasted better if Gabrielle had cooked it. She laid the bone on a rag, careful not to leave any evidence of their dinner; later they would cover the signs of their small campfire. She took a sip of water and stretched her legs, then pulled her breast dagger out and began to clean her nails.
She sensed Jon looking at her, but she had long since learned how to ignore the uninvited stares of men.
"This takes me back, Xena."
She smiled slightly.
"I used to look at you when you sat next to the campfire. You're beautiful."
"Jon . . . ." She met his eyes. "I'm committed."
He stared at her for a moment, then lowered his gaze. "That blonde girl?"
"I can't figure it out, Xena. You always went for a different type."
"Were you keeping track of my love life?"
He laughed. "No, but it wasn't exactly a secret, Xena. And it wasn't young girls."
"She's not a girl. You've seen her." She glanced up from her task. "In fact, you've done more than that, haven't you?"
He held out his hands. "Whoa, Xena, that was just to protect her. Maris was coming." He tried to read her expression. "She told you about that, huh?"
"As a matter of fact, she didn't. I heard about it from someone else."
"That's all it was. I swear."
Cool blue eyes met his. "Good." She smiled, but somehow the Warrior Princess could seem even more threatening when she was smiling. This was a Xena he recognized. "I don't like it when anyone touches her." She turned her gaze back to the dagger, holding it up toward the firelight. The campfire crackled in the silence.
They were on the move again at first light. For once, Gabrielle had been happy to get up early. Without the warmth of Xena's body next to her, her own body had convinced itself she was cold. Another blanket did not provide what she needed, and she finally just lay there, waiting for the sun to rise.
The terrain was getting rougher. As she picked her way gingerly through overgrown foliage and increasingly massive boulders, she took Xena's word for it that this would lead them to a new Versi, and tried to put aside her growing fear that she had missed a turnoff somewhere.
Seriades came up beside her. "Uh, Gabrielle . . . ." He hesitated. "Are you sure this is . . . ?"
Gabrielle laughed, doing her best to sound confident. "Hey, you wanted isolation, you got it." She hoped.
Xena stood and examined their handiwork. They had managed to obliterate tracks for a good distance on all three prongs of the trident in the road. It should confuse their pursuers for a moment: If they went down one of the other two prongs, they would only have to be followed and discouraged from turning back; if they chose the correct one, she'd have to delay them another way.
Jon galloped up to her. "They're coming. Over that hill."
She nodded, staring at his back as he dismounted and led his horse into the woods. She wanted to trust him, but she wasn't taking any chances.
Jon turned back and started to speak, but the Warrior Princess wasn't there. He paused and looked around, then finally stepped into the forest and concealed himself among the trees.
Gabrielle was becoming more and more worried that she'd taken a wrong turn. Xena had said it was rough terrain, but this was ridiculous. She pulled another branch away from her head and released it.
She pivoted to see Seriades removing the wayward branch from his face. "Sorry." At that moment she met his eyes, and saw her own doubts reflected there. Gabrielle knew he wasn't the only one; she had been hearing mild grumblings from farther down the line since before mid-day.
She didn't know what to do. Xena should never have left her in charge of this. What was she thinking? When Xena got back, she'd tell her just what she thought about doing something so stupid. But in the meantime . . . .
Gabrielle took a deep breath, put on the cheeriest face she could muster, and turned to her exhausted followers. "Come on. It's up ahead," she lied.
There were eighteen -- no, nineteen -- of them. Xena eyed them silently from her perch, tensing as the soldiers approached the trident. The group leaders mumbled together, shading their eyes, peering down the roads for signs of travel on any of them. Xena felt a slight sense of relief--if Jon had warned them, they would have been expecting it, and would know which road to take.
The men formed into three groups, half a dozen starting down each road. Xena frowned. The plan had worked; it wouldn't be much of a challenge now.
After a few minutes, she started to climb down from the tree, then paused to listen. She nodded; Jon was proceeding after his group. He would circle around and come riding back toward them as Treman's scout, convincing them they were on the right road. He was burning this bridge for good.
Xena followed the first band until she was certain their shouts could not carry to the others, then announced her presence. "Hi, fellas."
Six pairs of eyes widened at the sight of the Warrior Princess standing right behind them. With a startling "yiyiyiyi," she somersaulted over their heads to land in the road ahead of them.
"I'm sorry, but this road is temporarily closed," she said smoothly.
The men spread out, muttering among themselves. "Don't kill her. Treman wants her alive."
"Hmm. Does that mean Treman is still annoyed with me?" Xena said. "You know, last time he sent men to bring me in alive, I had to kill them all. Fourteen, as I recall." She cast her gaze over the six of them. "You don't really want to do this. I'll let you turn back right now."
Six men charged her at once with their swords raised. She kicked at the hand closest to her, exposing a vulnerable stomach to her sword. The next man's head snapped back as her elbow crushed his throat, and she pulled his body into the path of another blade, skewering her assailant as he tried to disengage his weapon from the dead weight. Two more swordsmen swung at her and she jumped back, quickly leaning in to carve deep slashes across their midriffs. Finally, she spun around and impaled her remaining attacker as he raised his sword above her head.
Adrenalin still pumping, Xena stood motionless for a moment. She found herself wishing Gabrielle were here, her thoughts turning to the bard's sensuous lips . . . supple curves . . . . She closed her eyes, then opened them suddenly, focusing. There were more misguided men she needed to warn off.
Gabrielle suspected the group would lose confidence in her if she started crying. It was the only thing holding her back after a long day of pain from rocks and branches and thorns, getting more and more lost, no place even to set up camp. She was pressing on now only because it was too late to turn back.
She should tell Seriades. He deserved to know. Lifting an imposing tree branch out of her way, she turned around in the same instant. "Seriades--" The man's eyes were wide. "I'm not going to let go of it," she said defensively. Geez. You do something one time . . . . Suddenly Gabrielle noticed others in the line gaping at something behind her with the same glassy look. Uh oh. Gabrielle tightened the grip on her staff and swung it around with both hands, letting go of the branch.
Thwack! She spun around and saw Seriades picking himself up off the ground. "Sorry," she said automatically, then grabbed the front of his shirt. "It's there!"
"I know," he said. "I saw it." They made their way past the tree and gazed down at a splendid, pristine green valley. Narrow, but more than enough room for what they needed. "How did Xena know about this?" he asked.
"I don't know. Probably looking for a place to hide out once," Gabrielle replied absently, mesmerized by the beautiful scenery. Seriades glanced sideways at her but said nothing, grateful only that the gods had sent these women to them.
Stirring the fire again, Gabrielle glanced down into the valley. In the dark she could make out a couple of small fires, their light dwarfed by that of the Versians' candles. Hundreds of them, outlining the grounds where a village would later stand.
"What are you doing up here?"
"Xena!" She was up and in Xena's arms instantly. "I didn't think you'd come tonight. That path is hard enough in the daytime."
"Aah, it wasn't that bad." That wasn't entirely true, but nothing could have kept her from Gabrielle when she was that close. "I had to leave Argo back a ways, though. We'll need to check on her in the morning."
Gabrielle nodded, her head resting on Xena's chest.
"So what are you doing up here?" Xena asked again.
"They're having a ceremony," Gabrielle said. "You know, sacred ground and all that." She grimaced. "It seemed kind of private."
"Good. We can have our own private ceremony up here."
Gabrielle drew back and smiled up at her, then took Xena's hand and led her to the fire. "You hungry?"
She handed Xena a generous piece of meat from her spit and gazed lovingly while she ate. Xena squared her shoulders, then a moment later shifted them again. Gabrielle walked over behind her and began to massage the tired muscles.
"Mmm. That feels good."
"So how'd it go?"
"Fine. Jon helped."
"Yeah. Treman will be furious with him."
Gabrielle thought for a moment. "Why'd he help us?"
"He feels some loyalty toward me," Xena replied, leaving it vague. "But I think it's more than that. He liked helping these people."
"Maybe he would have liked to join them." Xena did not reply, and a suspicion began to form in Gabrielle's mind. "Did he say anything about that?" she asked.
Her hands stopped moving on Xena's shoulders. "You wouldn't tell him where they were going," she said.
"I had to protect these people, Gabrielle."
"But if he--"
"It's what he wants today. Who knows what he'll want a year from now? It's not that easy to give up the life. I couldn't take the chance." Xena didn't want to talk about it any more. She closed her eyes, shutting out the image of his face during their last exchange.
She felt Gabrielle's hands begin their gentle motions again. "So, are you sore anywhere else?" the bard asked. "You know, a couple of days on the road can cause a person's whole body to stiffen up if the right precautions aren't taken."
"Oh?" Xena smiled. "And what are those?"
"A full body massage is the least that's required. And then, depending on what you find, other measures may have to be taken."
"Hmm. Well, if you feel it's really necessary . . . ."
"I'm afraid it is," Gabrielle said. "I will be teaching you a variety of these measures so that you may apply them to others when required." She paused. "Well, not to others. To one other."
"One is all I want."
Xena felt Gabrielle's arms slide around her and she leaned back against her, content.
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