STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Xena, Gabrielle, et al are property of Renaissance Pictures, MCA, Universal and whoever else has the legal documentation to back up their claim. No infringement is intended. They are borrowed only.
CONTENT DISCLAIMER: This story contains scenes of love between two consenting adult women, with graphic sexual content. Also, seeing as one of the women is a sword-wielding ex-warlord and the other is a staff-wielding Amazon Queen, it is safe to say there will be violence in this story, although not violence against each other. (Didn't we have enough of that at the beginning of Bitter Suite?)
Also, this particular Xenaverse does not acknowledge the third or fourth season, meaning there was never any rift, any lies, any Hope, and--although not in this story--Callisto and Solon are still alive.
This is the first piece of published fanfiction I ever wrote and I wrote it around 1997. Please take that into consideration with any criticism you might wish to share with me.
OTHER NOTES: Please feel free to e-mail me constructive criticism, comments, etc. at firstname.lastname@example.org
THANKS: To Stacey: Thank the gods I have an editor like you who asks the right questions, probes the right weak spots, encourages the right plot turns, and generally makes me feel like the luckiest Bard around to have found someone like you who not only understands my Muse and her sadistic ways, but who knows how to get the most out of what I write… Do you realize that two seconds either way that night in the Palace chat room would have meant we would never have met? I just love those Fates!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Something More Than This
Chomp, crunch, crunch…
Xena pulled dark, oval leaves from a clutch of pungent smelling plants with purple buds and slipped them into a tiny sack. She abandoned thought to the heat of the mid-morning sun and the gentle crunching sounds Argo made as she checked the growth of some wild grasses. Gone was the anger and the envy and the burdensome shame that had prompted her to make an apology of four quiet rabbits sometime before the sun rose. All of it was gone, replaced by a numbing nothingness that crowded out all thoughts other than those necessary to her task.
The warrior finished harvesting the last ripe leaves from that particular clutch of plants and moved deeper into the forest, knowing she would find a cluster of seven-pointed stars with cream-colored edging not too far. She could smell the tang of the herb from where she crouched. She finally spotted them and began harvesting neat handfuls of the olive-colored leaves, slipping them into a fresh sack.
It was the sack that found the first crack in the ice around the warrior's thoughts.
As she finished with the star-shaped leaves and moved on to another nearby herb, deftly plucking the spidery white and purple blooms from taller stems, she fingered yet another one of the tiny, silken sacks, stopped what she was doing…
…and thought of Gabrielle.
Gabrielle, who had made the little pouches, sitting up night after night for half a moon, neglecting her scrolls and her sleep on a wild experiment to please a foul-tempered Xena. Gabrielle, who had spent hard-earned dinars on sheer fabric usually reserved for the finery of wealthy women, sure of its practical use in her project. Gabrielle, whose grin outshone Apollo's Chariot that day when Xena quietly admitted the idea, while unorthodox, was nothing short of brilliant.
There were fifteen of them, each precisely cut and sewn with tiny, even stitches. Each with a slip-cord closure and a length of sturdy line to secure them to Argo's tack. And although Argo looked like a reject from some freakish festival parade when wearing them, there was no denying that the sheer pouches cut their herb-drying time to next to nothing.
No more wasting dinars on pre-dried herbs in the market when it was just as easy and cheaper to walk two leagues into the forest and pick your own. And no more wasting a day or two in the sun just to have a stock of healing herbs ready. Now drying was portable and it was just like the bard to think of an unusual solution to a problem that Xena hadn't even realized existed.
The pensive warrior held the sack to her cheek, indulging in the softness of the silky fabric. A gentle heat began inside her that melted all that forbidding ice and she unbalanced her weight and dropped solidly to the ground. She was suddenly aware that she hadn't really slept in what seemed like days and that the last meal she'd eaten had been a quickly-consumed bowl of stew that Taren had brought at mid-day the day before. She rested her head in her hands, letting her long hair curtain her face and eyes from the sun.
She won't leave me. She can't, came the unbidden, silent plea.
Then an explosive snort.
Yeah, right. And what's going to stop her this time? My sparkling conversation?
But Gabrielle had always come back and that one thought became a very thin lifeline on which to hang her hopes. After returning to Poteidaia that one brief time, even after marrying Perdicus, the bard had always come back to Xena. Maybe, just maybe, their friendship was more binding than she dared hope.
True, she was no witty conversationalist. And Xena knew she had not much else to offer Gabrielle in the way of security or stability or even consistency. But she also knew she was the best at what she did do, little though it was. And if that wasn't quite enough to convince the bard, there was always the excitement of life on the road.
A hesitant grin tugged at Xena's lips and she lifted her head.
She's a bard, she thought. There are no stories in Galasia except one little tale of a boy's desperate run and some villagers hiding out in trees and even that one doesn't have an entirely happy ending. A bard would be bored in Galasia.
That last thought brought a quickly stifled chuckle and suddenly things didn't seem so grim to the warrior. Suddenly it was very easy to chalk up the entire incident to a misunderstanding and her own worry-clouded judgment. Gabrielle had had a nightmare and the innkeeper was just being kind and helpful.
Xena flexed her powerful thigh muscles and stood straight up, happily looping sack cords onto Argo's tack so the gentle breezes of the day could begin the drying process. Her pity for her maligned horse quickly gave way to a newly hatching idea. To make it up to the bard and to get her outdoors where fresh air and sunlight would no doubt do wonders for her health, perhaps an afternoon picnic was in order.
Argo was the only living creature who heard the jaunty-if-brief tune that Xena nearly choked on when she realized she was humming…and the mare was quickly sworn to secrecy.
The morning eroded into noontime and Gabrielle and I still sat talking.
Long ago finished with questions about Lidio and his heroic acts of bravery (that no doubt would be poetically exaggerated by this bard's flair for the dramatic), we had moved on to stories about her and Xena's travels together. I couldn't get enough, listening with rapt attention as this gentle woman with sunset hair and vibrant eyes described in painstaking detail something I only just realized I wanted more than anything in the whole world: her life. Or more accurately, the life she and Xena shared.
It seemed so wonderful, so exciting, so different compared to the plodding drudgery of my days. While I woke before dawn to hunt the meals that would feed the dullards that patronized my inn, Xena woke before dawn to hunt a meal for two that would carry them into an uncharted day, rich with potential and the promise of adventure. While I spent time maneuvering between my brother's wicked moods and the mid-day meal crowd, Xena and Gabrielle traveled from town to town, fighting tyrants or bandits or injustice in whatever form it took, protecting villagers like me from harm and evil. While I cleaned and mopped late into the evening, Xena and Gabrielle shared an evening meal and a story or two in the quiet forest, caring for weapons or wounds and each other, joined in a cause they both believed in and that both would fight and die for.
That was what I wanted. For me and for them. To be able to live like that, free and with courage and honor. In one clarifying moment, I understood that what I felt for them both-yes, Xena too-wasn't a crush after all. It was love.
No, not that kind. Although it was hard not to fall in love with each of them just a little.
No, it was the kind of love where you recognize goodness and righteousness and you want to protect that and give yourself to the service of it. I laughed inside, realizing all my years spent in the service of dreary, ordinary people had prepared me for this one moment, this amazing clarity of purpose. They had a cause to fight for and they called it the Greater Good. Now I had a cause to fight for and it was them.
"Taren?" I had drifted into my thoughts so deeply I was not sure how long the bard had been silent. Gabrielle's sleepy voice hastily brought me back to my surroundings. "Are you okay?" A wide yawn punctuated her question.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. Got lost in your story for a bit."
She chuckled. "I'm glad I haven't lost my touch. I feel all out of practice." Another yawn followed by drooping eyes. I got up to fetch the poultice, fully intending to get her re-bandaged before she fell into Morpheus' arms again. Gabrielle saw me with the new bandages and sat up a little to loosen the old ones.
"You need to rest more before I'll let you practice on my customers, M'Lady. You couldn't have slept very well with that nightmare last night. Do you have them often?"
Storm clouds settled in her sea-green eyes before she turned her gaze away.
"Yes," came the quiet answer. Her sudden sadness made me put the poultice aside for a moment. I wanted to wipe that stain from her eyes before I did anything else.
I don't know why I chose the question I asked. I only know I wanted to cheer the bard and I thought changing the subject to something happier would do just that. It was the wrong question. Definitely the wrong one.
"How long have you been in love with her?"
Startled green eyes darted to mine. Then she squeezed them shut and turned her head toward the wall with a little cry of pain, tears spilling down her cheeks. Shock, like a lightning bolt, shook through me.
They haven't-my gods, they aren't lovers! I thought…I thought…
It was obvious that whatever I had thought, it was wrong. Oh, Gabrielle was in love with Xena all right. So in love that it was tearing her up inside and stupid me asked her a stupid question that was as painful as rubbing salt into her wounds.
So intent on apologizing to this sweet woman whom I had hurt, I didn't notice-once again-the door to the room open.
"Oh, Gabrielle!" I whispered, laying my hand against her cheek to comfort her, emotion filling my voice. A sharp intake of breath from the threshold caused the bard and I both to look up, startled.
In a moment so horrid, so completely wrong, time had no recourse but to stand silently by and watch. I saw instantly the picture the bard and I made, me standing over the beautiful red-head with my hand gentle against her face, the bard without her top and bandages…
I also saw in that same instant the deep wound the picture made on Xena's soul, her cobalt eyes registering shock, jealousy, hatred, and grief all in one flicker of time.
The warrior's eyes became ice so brittle I was frozen to the spot by her gaze alone. The air in the room seemed to have disappeared completely and all around me was a cold so piercing my bones hurt. Finally, the warrior turned on her heel, stalking down the hall.
I ran after her.
Gabrielle bolted out of the bed, ignoring the sickening spin of the room as best she could. She grabbed for a shift to pull over her body, her heart pounding furiously.
Xena thinks I-that we were-oh gods, NO!!
She lurched for the door and her stomach lurched with her as another wave of dizziness washed over her, crowding her vision with little dancing lights. She clenched her jaw against the nausea and forced herself to move, aware that these symptoms most likely meant her fever was getting worse again. She didn't care. She had to get to Xena, to explain, to-
The bard came to a crashing halt, catching herself on the doorframe as a sudden question zipped through her brain.
Wait a minute… Why would she care?
She had no time to ponder that question. Shouting erupted in the room below her…shouting that was definitely not Xena's, which was more disconcerting than it was comforting. Forgetting about her vertigo, Gabrielle ran down the hallway, not even feeling the roughness of the boards under her feet. She made it about two steps down the flight of stairs before the scene unfolding below her froze her like stone.
Taren was shouting and waving balled fists at the warrior, which was surprising enough to the bard because she had never, ever seen someone-other than Xena, of course-so angry. But more surprising to Gabrielle was the look of utter shock on Xena's face and the fact that she was actually backing away from the enraged and sobbing woman, a thin trickle of blood dripping down her chin.
The most surprising thing, however, turned out to be what the innkeeper was screaming at the top of her lungs. When Gabrielle's fuzzy mind finally caught up to what was being said, her breath all but stopped in her chest.
I caught up to the warrior at the bottom of the stairs. She was heading for the door and I knew I had to stop her, had to explain, had to set things right again. If she went through that door, I absolutely knew the world would crumble.
I didn't know how I would stop her if she kept on walking. It simply wasn't an option in my mind. I didn't care that Annis was watching this whole scene with one hand raised over the plate she had been wiping, the dirty rag frozen in mid-air. I didn't care that in three more minutes the mid-day tavern customers would start coming in, treated to the show of their lives. All I did care about was making the warrior believe she hadn't seen what she thought she'd seen.
Please stop, please, please stop…I will do anything if you will just stop, just listen for a moment…please, please, please, Xena, STOP!
Like magic, the warrior froze with her hand on the door. Slowly, torturously she turned to face me and I swallowed hard, my mouth very, very dry. The look in her eyes told me I was dangerously near to breathing my last.
I screamed in my head, frustrated with my own mewling stupidity. Gods, Taren, spit it out! She will kill you where you stand!
My hesitation was a mistake. Xena saw the fear, saw my weakness. An evil grin slid onto her face and she took three long strides toward me, stopping only inches from my face. She bared her teeth in a feral display of her power and leaned in even closer.
"You want her, don't you?" she hissed. "Well, you can have her! She is nothing to me. Nothing but a common WHORE!"
It was the absolute wrong thing to say.
I felt all the hesitation and nervousness and desperation inside me coalesce into an unfathomable rage and then I felt it ignite. I felt the unexpected power surge through me. I felt my palm-held flat-rise from my side as if commanded by someone other than me and then I felt the lip-splitting slap I delivered with it quake right through me like a thunderbolt from Tartarus.
"HOW DARE YOU SPEAK OF HER THAT WAY!!"
I screamed my venom at Xena, backing her towards the bar.
"THINK OF ME WHAT YOU WILL! SCREAM AT ME, TEAR MY HAIR OUT, GOUGE OUT MY EYES, FLAY ME ALIVE IF YOU WANT, BUT NEVER, EVER SPEAK OF HER LIKE THAT AGAIN!"
I knew I was going to die, I knew it. And I didn't care. Not one bit. I just kept coming at the warrior, my balled fists pounding the air as I continued to scream.
"IT WAS NOT WHAT IT SEEMED! I NEVER TOUCHED HER! I WAS CHANGING HER BANDAGES AND SHE BEGAN TO CRY! SHE DID NOTHING, DO YOU HEAR ME?! NOTHING!!"
Tears streamed down my face. I couldn't stop them. I didn't even try.
"It was nothing!" I sobbed. "She did nothing! Don't you think I know what's going on here? Don't you think I see it in every moment, in every breath you take? Do you think I would harm that? Spoil that?"
I looked up into Xena's shocked sky-blue eyes, both of us unaware that Gabrielle was now behind me on the stairs, the confused and frightened bard unable to stay away in spite of herself.
With the last of my strength and knowing my short life was over, I spat, "Even though every minute that passes without you telling her is wasted and rotten in my eyes, don't you think I know you are so in love with her you would give anything, ANYTHING, if only that moment had been what you thought it was and if only it had been you instead of me?!"
The room was utterly silent except for the gulping breaths I took to calm myself. My words hung in the room like a bloody flag and Xena could do nothing but stare at me. Until, that is, she noticed the ghost of a woman behind me.
Gabrielle must have moved, maybe to put her fingers over her trembling lips. I don't know. Xena's eyes sprang from mine to the movement, filling with the one thing I never expected to see glimmering in sky-blue…fear. With a small cry of anguish, the warrior took a step back from me, then turned and fled from the inn. The bard and I both cried out in unison.
I would have run after her again if Gabrielle hadn't chosen that moment to collapse.
Xena drove Argo hard through the forest, drawing comfort from the pounding power and speed, releasing the turmoil in her heart into the rushing wind. The sting of Taren's words hurt worse than any slap and matched the stinging of her eyes. The tight ache in her throat frightened her more than she expected. If only it would release her, let her breathe! She closed her eyes for only an instant, greeted immediately by the look of shock in Gabrielle's wide green eyes…
It was too much! Her eyes snapped open, fleeing again from that sight. With a roar, she urged Argo into a dead run, not caring about the branches striping her arms as she crashed through them or the sudden blur of her vision. She just wanted to get away-far, far away from the void that followed swift on her heels no matter how fast she fled or where she went.
It was Argo who finally stopped, almost throwing Xena to the forest floor. The warrior scanned the landscape but found no threat, no reason for the abrupt halt to her run. She was almost annoyed until she recognized the little meadow and the tree in the northern corner.
Xena slid from the saddle and absently patted Argo's side. She walked the few paces to the tree and examined it. The tree was unremarkable but strong and thick with foliage. It afforded a perfect view of the path leading to the village, allowing for the scrutiny of travelers, and it was an efficient hunting blind as well. As a warrior, Xena applauded the choice. It was worthy of any Amazon.
But it was also a personal place, soaked through with the hopes and dreams of one apprentice innkeeper who had managed with one sentence to expose a part of Xena's soul. That was bad enough to the warrior, but that Gabrielle had heard it! The image of Gabrielle's look of shock stabbed through her heart like a hot knife.
"She knows now." Her voice was emotionless but sure. Argo nickered in seeming agreement. Xena made a move to remount the patient mare but lost her momentum and ended up simply leaning against the animal, her empty eyes mirroring the hollow that had been carved out of her chest.
She hid her eyes against Argo's hot flanks, feeling the tight ache swell inside her again. The tears she would never reveal to anyone mixed with the horse's sweat and the blood of her own split lip and stained Argo's golden coat.
"I never wanted her to find out this way, Argo. I never wanted her to find out at all!" She turned her eyes to the mare, as if checking to see that the animal was paying attention. "What do I do now? What do I do if she leaves me?" Silence was her only answer.
A sudden decisiveness settled itself inside the warrior and she took a deep breath.
"I am in love with Gabrielle, Argo," she whispered. She let the words hang amid the dappled sunlight and soft forest sounds and found the horse's giant brown eyes pinned to her with interest. "You heard me. That girl was right. I am in love with Gabrielle. And I would give anything if only it had been me in that room…touching her…loving her…"
She wandered back to the tree, remembering having the bard in her arms as they rode into this village, remembering the sweet ache of her frustrated desire.
She leaned against the tree half-wishing they had never come through this meadow, had never met Taren, had never started down this path.
Who am I kidding? We started down this path a long time ago. Long before this meadow.
"I'm afraid, Argo."
It was a difficult admission for the Warrior Princess. Legions of the best warriors arrayed against her in bloody warfare could not raise an iota of trepidation within her. The awesome force of nature had never once given her pause, not in a tempest's fury or even in the wake of a volcano's wrath. Not even the gods themselves found a single flicker of hesitation in her when she faced them. And yet this one glorious woman had the power to make her tremble with just a smile…and that terrified her.
A sudden truth bolted through her brain.
"My fear is the key."
Those simple words opened that leaden door in her heart locked and forgotten long ago.
Intrigued, she pushed the door open a little, going over every argument she had ever had about not giving in to her feelings for Gabrielle. All the "She's Not Interested" lectures, all the "She Deserves More Than Me" noble speeches, all the "I Don't Deserve Her" fatalistic declarations, and all the "I Will Bring Her Only Danger and Pain" ridiculous pessimism. And she realized it was all a load of pig dung. Every last word of it.
It wasn't about protecting Gabrielle from some horrible fate or from throwing away her life. It wasn't about Gabrielle at all. It was about Xena, ex-warlord and former Destroyer of Nations, sometimes now called the Warrior Princess. It was about pain and hurting and trust and self-protection.
It was about control…and losing it.
The door to that newly opened place blew off its hinges. And staring back at Xena from the other side were her own eyes.
"Please just go away."
The bard's words were soft but laced with venom. They were the first words she had said since waking to find me standing over her. She turned her eyes to the wall and would not even look at me. I felt tears spring to my eyes, but I fought them back. I had done enough crying…and enough damage. I deserved her ire.
"Just let me bandage your wounds," I answered quietly. When she made no move to comply, I pleaded with her. She sighed and allowed my ministrations, never once allowing me the comfort of her gaze.
"Now just go," she said bitterly when I finished. I nodded and turned, stopping at the door.
"I didn't mean to hurt her, Gabrielle. I want you to know that." I closed the door before my mouth could betray anyone again.
Annis met me at the foot of the stairs with a cup of spiced tea.
"I closed the inn, Taren. I told everyone you were sick. Sit down by the fire and I'll make you something to eat." She led me to a chair near the hearth and gently pushed me into it. I barely noticed the warmth of the orange blaze. In the periphery of my vision, I saw Annis studying me with unreadable eyes. She made no move towards the kitchen at all-only stood there for an interminable moment, watching. The question she finally asked took me by complete surprise.
"Are you in love with her?"
I closed my eyes and took a sip of tea, letting the hot liquid torture the lump in my throat.
Please don't go there, Annis. I am so tired and I ache and I don't know how long I can keep from crying and I don't want to hurt you today, too. Please don't go there.
"No," I whispered.
She didn't move. I could feel the tension crackling around her. She wanted to tell me something…something I didn't want to hear.
"I followed you last night."
"What?!" I wasn't expecting that. Not at all.
"To make sure you were okay! I thought that warrior woman had yelled at you or hurt you or something. The way you ran out of here, well I…just had to know that you were okay."
Traitorous tears slipped down my cheeks. It was worse than I ever imagined. She cared, really cared. I hadn't felt that since I was small, before the wasting illness stole my mother from me. Even now I had only a few precious memories of my gentle mother. Her smile that greeted me when I returned from Morpheus' realm, the way she would sing to me when I'd fallen and scraped my knee, the special porridge she made with honey and milk and spices, just for me. She cared about the little things…like Annis.
Annis followed me. She worried about me. And that thought was like boiling oil on all the raw places inside me.
I felt the tenuous hold I had on my emotions slip dangerously. I was angry, which surprised the one small part of my brain still clinging to what was me inside the storm now raging in my head. I was livid!
How dare she care?! Who does she think she is?! She's just a silly, stupid kid! I'll show her how stupid she is for caring about me!!
"Don't love me, Annis." My voice was quiet but sharp, like a dagger slipping out of its sheath for the first time.
The girl's pale eyes grew round with the horror of her feelings revealed. I ignored the look, used to it by now.
I looked directly into Annis' eyes. "I said, don't love me. I'm not worthy of it. It doesn't make me happy. I can only ruin you as I have them! You would do better to kill me!"
I let the bitterness poisoning me seep into my eyes. My lip curled into a sneer I knew was a weak imitation of Xena's terrorizing snarl, but it was effective nonetheless.
Annis shook her head vigorously. "No," she whispered fiercely, tears filling her eyes and spilling down her cheeks. "Nooo!"
The darkness inside me rejoiced at the sight. I let my anger and my self-loathing take control. What did I care? Why shouldn't she hurt like I did? It would save her in the end. It would prepare her for the empty life in store for her, no matter what the Fates dangled in front of her, just out of reach.
I stalked into the kitchen and returned with one of my butchering knives. I slapped it roughly into the frightened girl's hand and imprisoned it there with my own strong grip.
"Save yourself the agony, little girl! Slit my throat before I cut your heart out too!!"
"Stop it, Taren!! Let me go! Let me GO!"
She wrenched her hand away from mine, leaving me holding the cold blade-end of the knife. Once free, she froze, suddenly not knowing what to do. I could see the emotions warring inside her, half of her wanting to flee and half of her wanting to run into my arms. I never saw which half won the battle. The thunderous sound of many, many horses startled us both. When screams broke out in the street and the shouts of angry men mingled with the clang of steel against steel, I turned to the tavern door, the pit of my stomach heavy with dread.
I knew that sound. It was the same sound that had haunted my nightmares since I was eight summers old.
The crash of the wooden panel as it succumbed to the vicious kick of a raider made Annis jump, but not me. On instinct alone I flipped the knife I held with a sharp jerk of my wrist. The blade tumbled end over end, finally splitting the raider's skull with a strange sound like a melon cracking against a rock. He pitched over in the doorway, temporarily blocking the entrance. More shouting, closer than before, responded to the sudden death of the raider.
I knew they would find me. But they didn't have to find Annis.
I grabbed the girl's arms and violently shoved her towards the back door, all my anger replaced now by fear and urgency. She was only a girl, just now filled with the possibility of who she could be. She didn't deserve to die in this little dingy inn with me, a warrior wannabe with dreams above her station.
"Run! Annis, run! As far as you can! Through the forest!"
"I said RUN!! To the tree! GO!! NOW!!" I knew she would be safe there. The tree would protect her as it had protected Pirro and me when we were children. When men like the ones now ripping my tavern door off its hinges had thundered into our village one sleepy afternoon to find us warned and hidden and protected.
I shoved her again as I heard the sound of metal shearing out of wood. Frustrated men spat irritated curses at my back. One massive warrior with the look of a half-starved, all-mad dog finally cleared the awkward breach.
With a yelp Annis bolted out the back door and tore into the welcoming forest. She disappeared almost immediately, her escape covered by thick summer greenery. I was relieved. I had other problems to deal with.
Darting around the first pair of meaty hands that reached for me, I raced into the kitchen and lunged for whatever weapon I could get my hands on. Two more knives found new homes in the flesh and bone of ugly men bristling in studded leather, dropping them before they could use their freshly drawn swords. Before I could flip the third knife, I noticed a pair of men heading for the stairs up to the rooms.
Don't even think it!!
With a lazy snap of my wrist, I sent the third knife singing through the common room and it sank handle-deep into the back of one of the men attempting to ascend the stairs.
I had only one thought on my mind: protect Gabrielle.
I grabbed the broom from the corner and dodged angry warriors as they made blundering attempts to stop me, either underestimating my speed or my skill. I hefted the solid wood in my hands like a fighting staff and blocked the way to the stairs, my feral smile begging the other man to try and pass. More raiders bunched up behind him, drawing weapons, eager to rid themselves of me, this little godsbedamned pest of a woman who had already killed four of them. Right there I made a vow to kill them all or die trying.
"Taren, put it down." The soft voice behind me made me turn and look while the men I held off snickered. Gabrielle stood on the stairs, imprisoned securely by a knife at her throat and the grinning, scar-mottled, toothless giant of a man who held it there. I dropped the broom instantly, as if it was made of snakes.
"Don't hurt her," I said. I would have begged if they'd asked me too. I would have done anything they'd asked me too.
"Oh, I have no intention of hurting her…" The voice behind me spoke with a studied calm, although I could hear the faint excitement he tried very seriously to hide. He had the sound of a raptor after a woodmouse, all confidence and sinuous power. "Yet," he amended. I could hear the vicious smile slide onto his face.
I turned and found myself staring at a massive man. His long, straw-colored hair flowed over his shoulders in stark contrast to the black leather and silver armor he wore. Blades of every shape and size were attached to his body in some fashion or another. There were even two small ones inside ingenious little sheaths built into his gauntlets. One moon white eye glared at me. Where the other eye should have been there was only a long, jagged scar.
Gabrielle regarded the man with distaste.
"Phorcys," she said, her voice clear and sure.
"How's the shoulder, little one?" he asked conversationally.
She shifted under her captor's hands and the knife tightened against her throat, drawing a thin trickle of blood that enraged me. I clenched and unclenched my fists at my sides, trying not to endanger the bard more by launching into a suicidal, all-out attack on these unwashed pigs who would dare to harm one such as she. I could still hear the sounds of a weak battle in the street and knew that our village had lost. There would be no rescue for us today, especially without Xena.
I cursed the Fates for their stinking timing. One flicker of a candleflame in either direction and the warrior would never have seen that compromising moment. She would be here now and these men…wouldn't.
"Ah-ah-ah!" said Phorcys, waggling his finger at the bard. He tugged on a glove and flexed his fist, the leather giving a satisfying creak. "No tricks, little one. This time she'll have to come to me. And I won't be as generous as before. She'll have to earn her death." He looked up at Gabrielle with the cold eye of the predator. "And that might take two moons…or more." His grin was as thin and cold as the air atop Olympus.
Annis ran. And kept running. Every sound, every crash of a fleeing creature startled by her flight through the forest made her run faster. Her heart screamed and her lungs were on fire, but her feet were like the wind. She couldn't remember where the tree was anymore. She was too terrified to care.
She ran for what seemed like forever, the cheerful, sunny landscape going by in a blur. Branches reached for her hair and clothing and roots and other forest debris sought to trip her, but she kept going, blind to every obstacle. She felt as if Cerebrus himself were on her heels.
Suddenly she was lifted off her feet, her strangled cry smothered by a strong hand. All she could do was pitch and kick in the iron-like embrace. She landed two solid blows before her captor shook her like a rag doll.
"Calm down, Annis. It's me."
Xena gripped the terrified tavern girl as tightly as she dared. She didn't want to harm her but she also didn't want to be kicked again. She would be sporting several healthy bruises before the end of the day.
Annis fell still in Xena's grip but the tension did not leave her. This woman, after all, was the Destroyer of Nations. If she was anything like the stories Annis had heard since she was a little girl, like the frightening dark menace that had confronted Taren back in the inn, she wasn't sure her life was in any less danger here than it had been back with the raiders.
When Xena felt reasonably sure the girl had stopped kicking and fighting and that she wouldn't run away, she set her gently on the forest floor and turned her round. The girl's chest heaved with the effort of getting back her breath and she was as pale as new fallen snow. Xena felt a trickle of alarm skitter down her spine.
"What happened?" she asked, lowering herself to meet Annis' wild-eyed gaze.
"Raiders," gasped the girl, her hand fluttering to her burning throat. "They broke…the door down! Taren…killed one but there were…too many!" Annis felt like her lungs would burst and she gulped in great lungfuls of tangy summer air. Her bones felt like they would melt from exhaustion while her muscles complained bitterly of the unusual exertion.
Xena straightened, her eyes darkening with deadly purpose. She whistled sharply, answered by a distant nicker and the advancing sounds of a horse through thickets. She mounted Argo before she even stopped in the clearing, gathering the reins in one hand and rooting around in the saddlebag with the other.
"Here," she said simply, handing the girl a waterskin and a small cloth-wrapped packet. "Taren's tree is through there." She pointed to a copse of trees rustling with a gentle breeze, beckoning to Annis with long, spindly arms. "Stay there. Someone will come for you. I promise."
"Wait!" cried the girl, grabbing desperately onto Argo's girth strap, stopping the warrior from taking off. "Where are you going?" She knew there were too many raiders for this one woman to take on, no matter how terrifying she was. If she went back there she would be captured-or worse-leaving Annis in the middle of the forest, all alone.
"To handle this." Xena was quickly becoming annoyed and fought to keep the signs of that from seeping into her words. The girl was just frightened and didn't want to be left alone. Xena knew she would feel the same in the girl's place but she just didn't have the time to comfort her. Gabrielle was in trouble and that was simply all that mattered to the warrior at the moment. The need to find the bard sang through her blood. Its baleful, primal call demanded an answer.
"I made you a promise. I will send someone…soon." On the last word, Xena urged Argo into a dead run back to the village. It was by luck alone that Annis' fingers had released the leather strap in time.
I struggled with the rough hemp binding my wrists as the raider charged with hauling me upstairs slung me over his shoulder like a sack of beans. The prickly stuff was tied too tight and it bit into my skin as I tried desperately to loosen it. A sudden slipperiness and a fresh metallic tang alerted me that I was bleeding but I didn't care. At least it distracted me from the gagging odor of stale ale, horse sweat, and the other disturbing smells that always followed these walking pieces of goatdung.
Just as I began to make some headway with the rope, the world pitched violently and I hit the floor with a sickening thwack. I lay there trying to remember how to breathe while the pig-faced moron who'd thrown me snickered at his little prank. I ignored him, focusing instead on my breathing and the clean rough boards beneath my face. A sharp yelp and another sickening thwack behind me made me twist and roll up onto my knees.
"Gabrielle-" My words died in my throat as I saw the toothless giant standing above the bard, pulling his booted foot back to deliver a vicious kick, his vacant look of utter hatred nauseating to me. His only goal, I realized, was to inflict pain…a lot of it. She had done nothing to him. Nothing at all.
And he would do nothing to her either, I decided, anger rising in me like hot bile. Not while I was alive. I barely managed to throw myself over Gabrielle before the kick connected.
Gods! The agony! Like an icy dagger plunged into my side, followed by a wildfire of hot, sharp needles! I panted furiously, hoping with my whole heart that I hadn't cried out. I couldn't remember if I had. My world was consumed by a throbbing, pounding core of pain that made thoughts and memories flee.
My sacrifice only served to anger the giant more. He decided a willing victim was better than nothing and kicked me again, harder. An explosion of nausea and the blinding redness that obscured my vision were the only hints I had that I still lived. He would have kicked me again but the pig-faced moron stepped between the giant and me, hissing something about "damaging the bait." A brief argument ensued about the fact that I "didn't count" and that if I wanted to be kicked as much as it seemed I did, he was more than happy to oblige. Of course, his actual words were far less succinct and apparently even less convincing. The pig-faced moron dragged the bastard giant out of the room, promising him rum and food and female entertainment. That got the bastard's reluctant attention. The sounds of their boots clunked out of the room and down the hall.
After I was sure they were gone, I rolled off of Gabrielle and onto my other side, nearly screaming with the searing pain the movement caused. I closed my eyes, aware of a tingling in my head that said I might lose consciousness if I wasn't careful. And I intended to be more careful in the future, providing I survived this. That Gabrielle hadn't experienced those kicks was the one thing that kept me from hopelessness.
"Taren?! Gods! Taren, are you all right?"
I felt movement behind me as the bard struggled to turn herself towards me, hindered by her bindings. She finally managed to raise herself above me and she gasped.
"You're white as ice! Oh gods!" She earnestly began to scoot her way around me, finally managing to get herself facing me. She reached for the hemp around my wrists, her nimble fingers making child's play of the quickly-tied knots. I couldn't help her. I just lay there, limply, staring off into nothing. Everything hurt too badly.
"Oh Taren! Why? Why did you do that?" Her green eyes glittered as she gently moved a lock of hair from my eyes. "I was so awful to you before and you still…" She didn't finish the thought. A quiet sob swallowed her words.
"Because he was right," I whispered.
Gabrielle shook her head. "What?"
"I did it because he was right," I whispered hoarsely. "I don't count."
The bard tightened her lips and leaned forward, gripping my shoulder with firm but gentle fingers. "You listen to me, Taren. You DO count! I say so!"
The gentle motion of her insistent shaking set my ribs on fire again and I clenched my teeth and squeezed my eyes shut.
"No, I don't," I managed when she finally stopped shaking me, realizing she was causing me pain. "Not as much as you."
The bard sat back a little, an uncomfortable distance clouding her eyes.
"Relax," I said, smiling though the effort soon turned into a wince. "I'm not in love with you."
"Are you sure?" Her question was quiet and held the tiniest bit of suspicion.
"Even if I was, would it make a difference? I know your heart belongs to someone else." Gabrielle lowered her eyes, a faint blush creeping up her neck, and I reached out, covering one of her hands with my own. I waited until she looked up before I continued. "But I'm not in love with you. I'm sure."
Relief flooded her eyes, followed instantly by sharp reproach.
"Then why would you say something like that? That I count more than you do? It's not true, Taren. It's just not true."
I sighed and tried to push myself off the floor. Gabrielle reached out to help me, concern darkening her face.
"Are you sure you should move? I could get a pillow or-"
"I'm fine, Gabrielle," I said in as normal a voice as I could manage. It wasn't very convincing so I decided to distract her. "How's your fever?"
"Ummm…seems fine now. Must be all the excitement."
"Is that what you call it?" I smirked as I untied the bindings around my ankles then set to work on the bard's restraints.
"You haven't answered my question," said Gabrielle quietly.
I rubbed my eyes with dirty hands. I was exhausted and facing this woman's questions had about as much appeal to me as spending the evening 'entertaining' the men downstairs. But I dismissed my hesitation with a bored wave of my hand and realized with some relief that I couldn't even raise the energy to care anymore. If she wanted to know, I would tell her.
"The bard wants a story then? All right." I took a deep breath and began, my brows knitted in thought and my gaze far away. "A long time ago there was a little girl who liked to play Soldiers and Slaves with her older brother in the forest. They had a special tree there, a tree that had once been a true fortress when raiders had threatened their home. Now the tree was a fortress only in their games, always strong, always protecting them. Until the little boy grew too old to play childish games and the little girl was the only one who climbed into the sturdy branches, whispering to the tree as if it could understand her…"
"The tree in the meadow," whispered Gabrielle. "I was right. You watched us from that tree." She sat up a little straighter as if the discovery proved something about herself. I nodded.
"Later, when the little girl's mother died from the wasting sickness, that tree became the girl's only friend. She told it all her dreams and all her fears. She learned its secrets and shared her own. And when the world went dark around her, it became a shelter, embracing her and hiding her from the pain."
"And oh, what stories that tree knew! Stories about kings and thieves and princesses and heroes! Stories about riches and paupers, about love and battle, about adventure and freedom! The girl feasted on these stories until they became a fervent dream, the dream that someday, somehow something would break the spell that trapped her in her little farm town and she would be free to find her place in the world."
I looked directly into Gabrielle's wide, silent eyes.
"I knew it was you. You and Xena. Don't you see? When you rode into that meadow you broke that spell. That's why you matter more! Not because you are worth more in dinars or nobility when stacked against one such as me. You are worth more because you opened a door inside me that will not shut again easily. You are worth more because you gave me the best gift in the world; you gave me my first sweet taste of dreams coming true. And maybe the pitiful dreams of a lonely innkeeper's sister are worth little to the world, but they are everything to me! I would take any kick, any blow to keep this feeling and to thank you for being the cause of it!"
We were silent for a long time. I stared at the bard, hoping for some shred of understanding, some inkling of comprehension of the importance of the story and of her role in it. When she did not respond, I slowly lowered my eyes.
"I guess you don't understand," I whispered. "I guess that was too much to ask." The pain of my ribs, which I had forgotten in the passion of my tale, came back in angry waves, making it hard to breathe. I felt a hand on my arm and the tightness in my chest just…left, as if in a breeze.
"You're wrong, Taren. I do understand," said Gabrielle with a gentle smile. "More than you know."
I looked at her with hope in my eyes, afraid to speak lest I break the new spell that was casting its magic over the old one, reweaving the tattered threads of my life yet again. I thought it slightly strange that the bard would chuckle just then.
"Maybe you should hear the story of a lonely little girl from Poteidaia who wanted to be a bard so badly that she risked her home and life and world just to honor that very same gift. And hers was given to her by a dirty, tired, moody warrior who just happened to walk into the right clearing at precisely the right moment…"
I grinned and settled in for this tale. Somehow I knew it had a happy ending, which has always been my favorite kind.
Gabrielle took a moment to examine their makeshift cell. She guessed, from the path the raider had taken at the top of the stairs, that this was one of the tiny rooms on the other side of the hall from her and Xena's room. It had no windows, which meant it was definitely on the interior of the inn, a fact neatly supported by the faint sounds of men laughing and shouting coming through the floorboards. They were in a room over the main tavern, she decided, if not directly above it. She frowned. That was not good.
She coughed and listened to the accompanying reactionary movement outside the door, straining to hear the tiny scrapes of boots across boards, the faint creak of leather, the sigh of an ancient chair under too much weight. Only one guard. She grinned a little. That was good. It meant that Phorcys obviously thought little of the two of them as far as fighting ability was concerned. Which therefore meant he had underestimated their minds as well. And that was even better.
The bard looked over to Taren, who was dozing lightly on the bed, her eyes surrendering to sleep a little more than a candlemark ago against her mouth's yawned protests. Gabrielle had been worried that the girl's injuries were worse than she was letting on, but Taren had quietly admitted that she'd spent the night sitting underneath her tree and hadn't gotten much sleep. Gabrielle only wondered for a moment why Taren would have done that. The answer immediately marched across her brain with all the finesse of two-day-old recruits. Xena.
A pang of sadness engulfed the bard before she could stop it. She rode the swell of it, letting the loss and the ache rise and finally fall again. And when the sadness retreated, anger came in its place.
Damn you, Xena! Why didn't you just-
Her mind ached, remembering all the lonely nights that she had spent dreaming of the warrior's sure and gentle touch. Dreaming of her gemstone-and-firelight eyes filling with love and desire. Of her heated breath on her body. Even now, those thoughts awakened a deep and powerful longing within her. And even now, she could remember the hopelessness she'd suffered, knowing that the warrior did not share her desires.
But all that had changed with one incredible sentence. Xena was in love with her. She'd seen it in the warrior's eyes after Taren's accusations. They'd been completely open and filled with emotion, something the bard could not ever remember seeing. Suddenly barriers that the bard took for granted had fallen. And Xena had run.
Why didn't you just tell me?!
She dropped her head onto her knees and let the tears come.
All those wasted nights! All those nights I cried myself to sleep! I loved you! I needed you! And you kept that from me! You hid it away like some prize, like some damned bauble too rich for my unworthy-
Gabrielle's head suddenly snapped up, seeing those palest blue eyes in her mind once again, seeing for the first time the true reason her warrior had run. It wasn't Xena's chagrin at having fallen for some little farm girl… She caught her breath in surprise.
It was fear.
It was the fear of losing the one thing that mattered, the one thing that had changed…no, recreated both of their lives. It was the fear of losing their friendship and with it, their reasons for living.
With a sigh, Gabrielle realized this same fear had kept her silent too. Who was she to talk? She certainly hadn't come forward with her feelings either, had she?
She chuckled ruefully. I'm glad we've had this little chat, Bard, she thought. Meanwhile, you are the prisoner of one really miffed ex-captain of Xena's and you might have some-oh, I don't know-more pressing worries right now!
She had to find a way out of this mess and without Xena's help because she wasn't sure when-she gulped on the next part-or if the warrior would return. A wave of despair nearly choked the air out of her lungs but she fought it back, swiping the quickly forming tears from her eyes to clear her vision.
I don't have time for these stupid dramatic tendencies, she chided herself. I am going to get us out of here and then I am going to spend the rest of my life if I have to hunting that tall, gorgeous, incredible keeper of my soul to the ends of the earth. And when I find her, she will be mine.
The determined, almost feral smile that slowly appeared on Gabrielle's face scampered away when the cell door banged open. Taren bolted upright in the bed, not quite awake and biting off a yelp and several curses as pain no doubt exploded through her torso. Gabrielle winced in empathy.
A trio of grinning men covered in leather and weapons stood in the doorway, led by the cruel, ugly man responsible for Taren's injuries.
"The boss wants you both downstairs right now," announced one of the underlings.
Gabrielle fought the terror now coursing through her by imagining the toothless giant reciting poetry, particularly some pieces she knew that contained a great many words beginning with 's'. The small grin the fantasy evoked and the accompanying gleeful sparkle in her eyes completely unnerved the somber guards.
The last glimmer of sunlight slid beneath the horizon, casting the village now under the raiders' control into a deep, moonless darkness. A silent figure emerged from the forest and took a long moment to watch the ebb and flow of movement around her. She let pale eyes flick from group to group, from man to man, coldly judging, stealthily calculating.
Deciding on her strategy, the silent shadow slid neatly behind two chatting guards as they traded boasts on the loot that they had taken in the earlier raid. She listened for a moment, grimly amused and completely unnoticed even though she was close enough to both of them to smell their fetid breath. Impatient to reach her goal and irritated by their boasts, she snaked her fingers up to their throats and savagely pressed identical pressure points, dropping the men in the middle of their jibes. In the next moment, their limp bodies disappeared.
The shadow repeated this maneuver several times until the raider population outside the inn had thinned substantially. With her speed and deadly skill, no alarm had been raised.
"Phorcys, you are a fool," she breathed, slinking nearer to the inn with every invisible sweep of a pair or threesome of raiders, some of them drunk, most of them stupid and inept. Her ex-captain certainly did not know how to lead or even season these boorish men and Xena wished, for the briefest of moments, that she could just ride in, take over this little group, and show them how it was done.
She'd known since she'd seen the first of the raiders that Phorcys had taken Galasia. It was hard to miss the black and silver sashes his men wore in honor of him. She snorted a little, remembering a much younger Phorcys and how he had worn a sash once too. Black and cobalt. To honor her.
Still into that, eh? Doesn't surprise me.
She hadn't asked him to wear the sash. In fact, as a warlord she'd preferred her men show no visible allegiance to her-no crest, no battle sigil, no colors riding the winds. She'd liked that moment of uncertainty when the enemy doubted whom they faced on the field. It had easily crumbled the mental defenses of some of her better opponents. So when Phorcys had taken to wearing the colors, she'd ordered him to stop.
She hadn't really understood why he wore them anyway. She'd never bedded him, never shown him any favor or attention, really. He was a competent if unimaginative captain who had a fondness for knives, for bitter rum, and for battle. She'd thought at the time that the whole sash thing was damned odd and needed to be squashed quickly before other soldiers began to do the same. Consequently, when he'd worn the colors into their next battle, against her specific orders not to do so, she'd had no choice.
After the victory, while her army celebrated, she'd stripped the sash off of Phorcys in full view of most of her forces, belittling him for his fondness for colors and other "pretty things." Then she'd stripped him of his rank, citing-among the complaints-his inability to follow orders. And for good measure, she'd had him whipped too, just to make sure the point had been made. It had. In ways she had never expected.
He'd sulked for moons but stayed with the army, continuing to fight for her as he had before. Except maybe, just maybe, her public humiliation of him had done more than just make her point. She'd always suspected-after the fact, of course-that it had also awakened his imagination.
One night, in a silent camp made restless by an approaching storm, a quiet figure had skulked through the sleeping soldiers, picking out a handful that would taste the bitter edge of his blade. Once their throats had been slit, he'd made his way to another tent and had crept inside.
The blade he'd lifted had been his favorite and he'd brushed his lips across the blade before driving it downward with all of his strength. It had been a well-aimed blow designed to impale the heart of his victim. It had failed.
Sometime on its descent, the blade had been snatched out of his hands by hands much quicker and much more powerful. And before he'd even had time to register the dangerous turn his plan had taken, the knife had ended up buried in his own eye.
He'd screamed and screamed while Xena had bent low over his writhing form, detailing in startlingly vivid images just how he was going to die. And when other soldiers had reported that among the others dead by his hand were two of her best captains, she'd told the quivering mass of flesh that he would suffer before he died-a moon of pain for each of them.
"You were always a lucky one, Phorcys," muttered the warrior as she shook the memories from her head. She had had one moon with him before her path had crossed that of the Son of Zeus, changing her life forever. In the chaos that had followed, no one noticed the quiet disappearance of one pathetic, tortured, one-eyed piece of flesh.
"I should have killed you with that blade."
A dark emotion boiled up from her belly as she thought of her bard, no doubt a prisoner of Phorcys' in his new headquarters.
"And if you harm her, you will wish I had."
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