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Games Within Games

by Chakram-1

 

Part One

It was late in the evening when the innkeeper shuffled hurriedly to the door. The last of the stragglers had left hours earlier and, having completed his labours for the day was looking forward to succumbing to the oblivion of sleep. In these dangerous times it seemed his only opportunity to escape from the worries of everyday life, if only for a while. This night, however, he had barely lain down on the straw before being roused by an insistent thumping on the stout timbers that marked the entrance to his premises.

'Coming, coming' he muttered to himself. Who in Hades could it possibly be at this hour? Didn't they realise that the inn was closed? The surprise he felt at being roused was nothing compared to that which beset him upon opening the door. Two travellers, wearing way-worn cloaks, stood framed in the doorway. Leaves and other debris blew in through the opening, driven by the gust that had risen late in the afternoon. The taller of the pair brushed her hair away from her face and gave him a crooked, ironic smile. 'Sorry, we didn't realise you were closed.' Even with the cloak, the innkeeper could make out the vague hint of armour and the glint of torchlight off scabbard. He had no intention of antagonising this warrior.

'Come in, come in. Petrocles is my name, I s'pose you'll be wanting lodging for the night?' 'And stabling for my horse,' the tall one added. Petrocles ushered them in, setting a new torch ablaze as they shed their cloaks. Now that he could see them clearly, Petrocles marvelled at the two seemingly mismatched companions. The one who had spoken: sleek, powerful, confident, and carrying a broadsword of which he had no doubt she was familiar in its use. Raven haired, intimidating in her beauty and majesty. Her companion, he thought to himself, though beautiful had a softer, gentler face and he felt an immediate affinity with her. Either way, he mused, it's too late to reconsider now and anyway, the few extra dinars they would bring him surely wouldn't go astray.

'The fires are out and all I can offer you is bread and dried meats, and maybe some fruit,' he offered, 'will you be wanting two rooms?' 'One room and we'll take whatever you've got, after you show me where the stables are,' said the warrior. 'Of course, of course, just around behind here miss. You make yourselves comfortable while I fetch some supper. There's basins for washing in your room, at the top of the stairs.' 'You're very kind, thankyou,' the shorter one replied, adding a warm smile to underscore her good meaning. Petrocles beamed at her momentarily before busying himself with the preparation of victuals for these unexpected guests. 'Strange people these foreigners', he thought to himself. He'd pretended not to notice the peculiar glance the warrior gave her companion when she insisted they share a room.

It was not long later into the evening when the travellers finished their meal. After several weeks in the wilderness the simple fare had seemed like a banquet and the wine did much to ease away the lingering weariness of their long journey. Petrocles, for one, was feeling more at ease. It was obvious that his guests were far more relaxed - particularly the warrior, who was his primary concern. 'Our thanks, inkeeper. How much do we owe you?' spoke she. 'Morning's fine, miss. It's late for such matters and you have an honest face.' 'Have it your way. Come on, Gabrielle.' Gabrielle grabbed their packs as the warrior hoisted the saddle onto her shoulder. Petrocles lingered long enough to watch after them in curiosity as they climbed the stairs before extinguishing the torches and retiring.

It had been a long day of hard riding and the companions found themselves overwhelmed with weariness. So much so that they contented themselves with few words and tender kisses before surrendering to Morpheus, Gabrielle lulled to sleep by the steady rise and fall of Xena's breathing as she rested her head on her friend's chest.

It was mid-morning when Gabrielle opened her eyes, roused by the rays of light streaming through the small window. She yawned and reached around for her companion, to find that she was not there. 'Xena?' she called softly, with no response. Being well familiar with her partner's preference to rise early she gave it no second thought, but couldn't help feeling a little disappointed. She had rested well and now her desire was upon her. She's probably tending to Argo, she thought to herself, then chuckled - surely she wasn't jealous of a horse? She was wide awake now and decided she would find her friend, hopefully to join her for breakfast if she hadn't already partaken.

'...and that's why we've been closing our doors earlier these nights, begging your pardon. We can't be too careful in these parts since...good morning, miss. I hope you've found everything to your satisfaction?' the innkeeper turned his attention to Gabrielle. 'Yes, thank you,' she replied, 'though I feel I could eat a horse.' She grinned, reminding herself of the attention she may have received earlier had Argo not required tending - Xena would undoubtedly have given her a good brushdown this morning, long overdue. 'Right you are,' Petrocles replied, rising, 'please sit down here while I find you something to amend that.'

'What are you smiling at?' Xena asked her friend, grinning, finding the girl's amusement infectious. 'Oh, nothing. Now this is what I've missed,' Gabrielle replied, avoiding the subject and beaming at Xena as she took a seat next to the warrior. In their many weeks in the wild she had become unaccustomed to being waited on and was enjoying the experience - something of a novelty of late. Xena eyed her young companion speculatively. 'Don't you enjoy my cooking, Gabrielle?' she asked, cocking an eyebrow and adopting a hurt tone. 'It's not that, Xena, it's....well...even you must be a bit tired of hunting,' Gabrielle offered weakly, then giggled, perceiving her friend had been jesting with her. 'Gabrielle,' Xena said, leaning forward and resting her elbows on the low table, 'Do you remember the bandits that attacked us three days ago?' 'Of course,' her friend replied, 'Though after what you did I don't think we'll be seeing them again.' 'Well, they weren't bandits - they were part of an army that's moving through this province, probably a scouting party. Petrocles said they've been pillaging some of the outlying homesteads and doesn't think it'll be long before they turn their attention this way.' 'What's an army doing here? There's no city for many days travel,' Gabrielle asked. 'They're a warrior tribe from the mountains to the north. Apparently they raid the borders occasionally but they've never been this far afield.' 'Surely a town of this size has a local militia, and isn't the King doing something about it?' Gabrielle questioned. 'By all accounts the King has no knowledge of the invasion. As for the locals, Petrocles said the garrison were little better than bandits themselves and would only look for ways to turn this to their profit.' 'Xena, I know that look - you haven't forgotten that we're expected in Achaea by the end of the month?' 'I'm not planning anything, Gabrielle, but Argo needs a rest so we'll be here at least another day.' Gabrielle didn't press the point, but she knew Xena well enough not to accept her last remark at face value.

Part Two

Gabrielle was not surprised to see the inn so full at such an early hour of the afternoon. If the rumours were true, that there was indeed a barbarian force descending upon the town, it was natural that the locals seek solace in a jug of wine - those that hadn't already fled. It would have been an uneventful afternoon if not for the loud and boorish group closest to the bar. Their uniforms marked them as members of the local guard and it seemed obvious to Gabrielle how they had earned their reputation for thuggery. Xena had left over an hour earlier on a private errand and Gabrielle was trying to remain inconspicuous - strangers are generally regarded as easy prey for the petty ruffians of these remote towns. She had wanted to take the opportunity to explore the shops and bazaars but Xena insisted she remain where she might be easily found, should the necessity arise. It was inevitable, therefore, that one of her beauty should attract attention in a place such as this.

'What have we here? Hogar! What think you of my new friend?' As he spoke his acrid breath, smelling of wine and burnt meat, caused Gabrielle to wrinkle her nose in disgust. 'Ho! She's a pretty one, Argus,' his comrade replied. Gods, Gabrielle thought, here was a familiar scene; one she didn't normally have to tolerate when Xena was in the vicinity. She had been amusing herself watching the capers of a local peasant and hadn't seen the soldier swagger across to her table, else she might have headed for the door. It was too late for that now, the guardsman taking the chair alongside her as his fellows staggered over.

'Look, guys, I'm here with someone, and they're not going to like you sitting here,' Gabrielle warned them, glancing sideways to where her staff stood propped beside the wall. Where in Hades could Xena be, she thought. 'Ha! A spirited one. But this is our town, wench, and you'd best learn to be friendly towards u-ugh!' he was cut off as a strong hand, reaching from behind, grasped the shoulder of his hauberk and dragged him over backwards and onto the floor. His companions barely had time to react before finding themselves at the lethal end of a drawn sword. 'I suggest you boys take your trouble someplace else,' Xena warned them coolly, angling her eyebrow as she did so. For a moment it appeared as if they might do just that, but for the work the wine had performed on their senses combined with foolish pride. You guys have had it now, thought Gabrielle, Xena's giving them 'the look'.

The small-time thugs, accustomed to bullying simple peasants, quickly found to their dismay that they were completely outmatched. It was fortunate for them, on this occasion, that they were poor warriors. Had they been skilled, Xena wouldn't have been content with merely subduing them. Using her blade only to deflect their clumsy blows, she dealt powerful and accurate kicks - her intention being to injure but not maim. The brawl lasted scarcely two minutes before the soldiers decided they'd taken enough of a beating. Those that could walk helped their comrades to the door. 'I told you!' Gabrielle called cheerfully after them. The bard had remained calm throughout the skirmish, having witnessed similar scenes countless times before. She had taken her staff in hand, but it was clear that Xena required no assistance. Gabrielle could never understand why the likes of these would ever want to cross swords with a fighter of Xena's obvious prowess, though she had to admit she took a private pleasure in watching the warrior princess defend what was hers. Indeed, Gabrielle knew that battle fueled Xena's warrior-lusts and suspected they would do their own battle in the sheets this night - a thought she did not disapprove of.

'Sorry about the mess,' said Xena to Petrocles, smiling sweetly. 'I see you're adept at making new friends, though even the Furies can't deny they've had it coming,' Petrocles replied as he kneeled to collect the few shards of broken pottery. 'To be sure, you can handle yourself better than any I've seen, but they're cruel men with cruel allies so keep an eye out.' 'What's done is done,' said Xena matter-of-factly, righting a chair and sitting. 'Anyway, my business here is finished and we'll soon be far away.' She poured herself wine from the jug Petrocles had brought to their table and sat back casually, tilting the stool so she could lean against the wall. The townsfolk, who had made room for the brawl, perceived that the excitement had ended and went back to talking amongst themselves. Seldom of late had they cause for mirth and seeing the town bullies humiliated lightened somewhat the burden of worry that weighed heavily on their minds.

The afternoon drew on into evening with no further incident, save for the occasional drunkard crashing to the timbers. 'Thanks,' smiled Gabrielle gratefully to the innkeeper, looking up from her scroll where she had been busily scribing another of Xena's many exploits. Petrocles had brought them more refreshments which Xena wasted no time in partaking of, greedily slicing off a large portion of roasted pork. 'Writer are you, miss?' he said to Gabrielle, noting her work. 'I prefer bard,' she replied. 'Ah! Surely you will give us a tale?' he turned and addressed the other patrons, 'What say you all?' Though she was loathe to leave the side of her companion, Petrocles and the other locals finally managed to convince her to share one of her many stories.

Taking a place centrally in the common-room, so all could hear, she told the story of a mighty warrior, unparalleled in the arts of war but possessed of a heart capable of great kindness; and the girl who grew to love him more than life itself. Though Gabrielle was addressing the locals she was fiercely aware of the intensity of Xena's gaze. The warrior made no effort to hide the passion in her stare, perceiving the simile that Gabrielle was drawing with their own relationship but crafting it with sweet words that made all her senses reel, inflaming her desire. Just as Xena excited Gabrielle with her passion and prowess, equally she was enamoured of Gabrielle for her purity and skill at her art.

Gabrielle finished her tale, pleased to have brought some small pleasure to those holding little hope for the future, and resumed her position at the table with Xena. Gazing into the piercing blue eyes with her green, Gabrielle was able to read her mind clearly, more so because Xena's thoughts reflected her own. Indeed, Gabrielle was a more than a little surprised at this display of affection from Xena, who normally wore only her warrior princess guise in public. Xena's love for her was clearly evident in her eyes and it made the bard's heart glow with pleasure. It was without a word that they rose in unison and made their way towards the stairs that led to the guestrooms, sparing not a thought for all that was around them, being lost in a world that only they inhabited.

Closing the door behind her, Xena turned and met Gabrielle in the middle of their small room. She raised her hand and caressed Gabrielle's cheek with her palm, then moved it further around to stroke her soft hair. Whilst doing this, she bent her head forward and kissed Gabrielle's forehead, then her nose and finally brushed her lips against hers. As their passion grew, their kisses became more animated. Xena could feel Gabrielle's tongue delicately exploring her mouth, just as her small hands moved down to grasp Xena's buttocks, pulling her closer. Not breaking their kiss, Xena busied herself with the laces and loops that fastened Gabrielle's tunic, sliding it off her shoulders to reveal her firm breasts, which she massaged gently. It was Gabrielle who broke away from their embrace and, taking Xena's hand, led her willingly to the low bunk.

Kneeling, Gabrielle unbuckled Xena's armour, letting it fall to the floor before removing the remnants of her own clothes. Taking control, she held Xena's shoulders and guided her onto the bed; this was truly the time when Gabrielle was able to conquer Xena's indomitable will and spirit. Xena, for her part, marveled at the supple body that straddled hers - beautifully toned from many adventures yet wonderfully soft to the touch. Gabrielle leant forward, letting her hair fall around Xena's face as she locked her lips to hers. She then, with her tongue, began to slowly traverse her way down Xena's neck, further down still until she was kissing her naked breasts, all the while maintaining a steady rhythm with the gyration of her hips. Xena's head was thrown back; her breathing was becoming more shallow as she grasped Gabrielle's hips firmly, encouraging her to continue her movements; she was already being driven over the edge.

Xena slid out from underneath her friend, then guided her onto her back. Wasting no time, she took Gabrielle's breast in her mouth, gently nibbling at her sensitive nipple. She then began to gradually trace her tongue down over her firm stomach, feeling Gabrielle's muscles tense in anticipation. She teased her briefly with kisses on the inside of her thighs before burying her face in the musky wetness of her mound. Gabrielle released a low moan, grinding herself into Xena's face as she caressed her hair. As Xena's movements became more insistent, Gabrielle felt herself rapidly approaching orgasm. Sensing this, Xena exerted all her skills, sending Gabrielle over the brink and beyond. Sliding up beside her lover, Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle in a tender embrace and they kissed softly. No words needed to be said; they were both fully aware of their feelings for each other and, nestling close, they drifted off to sleep.

Part Three

'Remember us?' sneered the soldier, fingering the hilts of his sword, 'Prepare to greet your ancestors.' 'No, but I see I left you something to remember me by,' replied Xena, referring to the bruise that had nearly closed his left eye, 'Gods, I've seen better-looking harpies.' There were seven of them, forming a circle around the two travellers, all armed with swords. They were grinning to themselves, confident of an easy kill; but Xena was a veteran of many battles to the death. Swiftly and without warning she lashed out at the nearest soldier with a kick that sent him sprawling to the ground whilst releasing her broadsword from its scabbard. Gabrielle was already in motion, having anticipated Xena's sudden action, and felled another with a skillful feign then thrust from her staff. Xena ducked quickly under a slashing stroke then parried another, bringing her foot up into the crotch of the second attacker. As he went down she dealt him a blow with her knee, breaking his nose. Gabrielle leapt backwards evading the sweeping arc of a soldier's sword and, in a fluid motion, brought her staff up solidly into the jaw of her assailant. He fell with a satisfying thud, clutching at his throat. Xena had already known that these brigands were not well skilled and was rapidly losing patience. Giving her warrior's cry she leapt backwards, somersaulting over the heads of her attackers just as they thought to skewer her. Landing behind them she leapt up again, kicking with both feet and sending two of them sprawling at Gabrielle's feet where they were quickly subdued. The last unscathed attacker, realising that he had no chance against these warriors, took to his heels. His fallen comrades, even were they able to continue the brawl, chose to stay down - they had no desire to sail Charon's grim barge to Tartarus that day.

'Well done, Gabrielle,' spoke Xena, sheathing her blade. She was pleased with her friend's progress in the art of battle and her willingness to learn. 'And I was in such a good mood, too,' Gabrielle complained. Indeed, they had spent a good part of the morning in the marketplace, purchasing supplies for their journey and browsing the many stalls - a pastime Gabrielle loved. Even Xena appeared to enjoy herself, allowing herself for the most part to be led around by the bard; even visiting a baker to indulge their sweet-tooths. 'C'mon, let's get Argo,' Xena replied, 'I want to put some miles behind us while the light holds.' Returning to the stable, they bade farewell to the innkeeper. 'Good luck, and thankyou,' Petrocles said, clasping arms with Xena, 'Hermes grant you speed.' 'We'll do our best,' she replied, 'Farewell.' Gabrielle passed him a few extra dinars, made from the previous night's performance; she had wonderful memories of her few night's stay at the inn and hummed to herself as Xena busied herself with Argo's harness.

'How many days did you say it was to Achaea?' Gabrielle asked, surveying the clear skies, 'And what were you and Petrocles talking about?' 'We're not going to Achaea,' Xena replied, 'Not yet, anyway. I agreed to ride to the capital and alert the King to the invaders; sorry, Gabrielle, I wanted to tell you earlier.' 'Hey, we're a team aren't we? I wish you'd ask me before making decisions for both of us.' Gabrielle said, a frown marring her beautiful features. Xena looked at the ground, unable to meet her friend's eyes, knowing she'd erred in this thing. 'Xena, It's not that I don't want to help but surely there are others they can send?' 'I gave my word, Gabrielle,' the warrior replied in a small voice, glancing upwards again, 'Besides, it's not far out of our way, though we'll be passing through enemy territory. Look - we'll do this then head straight for Achaea, I promise.' Xena gently touched Gabrielle's chin and lifted her face so she could look into her eyes. 'We won't be late for the festival, okay?' she reassured her, 'I know how important it is to you.' Xena kissed the tip of her finger and placed it on the bard's lips. Gabrielle gave her a smile; she knew that her warrior had made her mind up about this and would never ask her to break her word. Anyway, Xena was right - Zeus knows they had a far better chance than any of the locals were there fighting to be done on this errand.

It was a fine Autumn morning and the leaves crackled under Argo's hooves as they galloped along the forest path. The howling wind that had gusted up the night before had fallen to a gentle breeze, offsetting somewhat the growing heat cast by Helios as he rode his fiery chariot to the sky's apex. The countryside in this province was beautiful and Gabrielle regretted the urgency of their task; had there been no need for such haste she would gladly have lingered to enjoy the panorama. She made a mental note to convince Xena, after their stay in Achaea, to return by this route. It would take some convincing, she smiled to herself as she tightened her grip on the warrior, knowing full-well that Xena was far more interested in weapons, battles and horses than flowers and green hills. It had been some hours since they left the town and were making excellent time. 'Whoa, Argo,' called Xena, pulling on the reins and slowing the horse to a gentle trot. Gabrielle sat up, looking over Xena's shoulder for the cause of their sudden slow of pace. 'There,' said Xena, indicating with her outstretched arm. Gabrielle strained her eyes momentarily; yes, she could see it now: a thin column of smoke, barely visible, about a league down the path. 'We'll go on on foot,' said Xena, helping Gabrielle down before dismounting herself. They proceeded swiftly yet stealthily, Xena having handed the reins of Argo to Gabrielle and walking a number of yards ahead. Gabrielle knew that Xena sensed something was amiss and was prepared for whatever may transpire; Xena's heightened senses, forged from long experience, were rarely mistaken.

When they were much closer to the source of the smoke, they left the path and made their way quietly through the forest. From the treeline they spied a clearing, where the remnants of a homestead still burned. Even from their position they could make out the ruts and grooves cut in the grass by many wagons, passing close by the destruction before winding across the fields to the south.

The companions moved closer to investigate. 'This happened within the hour,' said Xena, stroking Argo's flanks, 'Be careful, Gabrielle, there might still be raiders in the area.' They found no bodies among the ruins, but it appeared that the attackers had taken all supplies and other items of use before setting the structure ablaze. 'The farmers must have burnt with the homestead, if they weren't taken prisoner,' Xena surmised, 'They're heading towards the town but must be moving slowly with so many wagons - heavily laden judging by the tracks.' 'Xena, why would someone do this?' Gabrielle asked, her brow furrowed with sadness. In her travels with the warrior princess she had seen much of the misery of the world but would never become accustomed to it. Xena, well aware of this, gave her a sympathetic smile. 'I don't know, Gabrielle. I've dealt with some of the mountain tribes before and it's not like them to raid so far from their villages. We'll follow their trail; it won't take us long to catch up with them and maybe we'll find out why they're here.'

They moved back into the shelter of the forest and prepared a light lunch from supplies in their packs. There was no point following the trail immediately; to reconnoiter the raider's camp they needed the cover of darkness which was yet several hours away. Whilst Gabrielle busied herself with the campfire Xena had unsheathed her sword and was sharpening it with a flat stone, a thoughtful expression on her face that was not lost on her friend. 'A dinar for your thoughts,' Gabrielle offered. 'Gab...Gabrielle, it's nothing, really,' Xena replied. 'Xena - come on, look at me,' Gabrielle persisted, putting down the utensils and kneeling in front of her friend. Xena knew that her companion would press her until she said all that was on her mind, so she relented. 'It's just that I...I know how much effort you've put into your scrolls for the contest. I'm worried we may be late if we get involved in this business. Maybe you should leave for Achaea now and I'll meet you there when I'm finished.' 'Xena,' Gabrielle replied, 'Sure, I'd be disappointed, but what's important to me...everything that matters, is sitting in front of me right now. I'm proud of you for helping those people, okay? The festival's not for another week, anyway, and I'll be damned if you're not coming with me, got it?' Xena threw her friend a grateful look - gods, how she loved this girl; her only fear was ever hurting or disappointing her. 'Come on,' Gabrielle continued, 'Have some of this before it gets cold, then get some rest; it's going to be a long day.' 'Yes ma'am,' Xena countered, bowing her head in mock obeisance and smirking, revelling in Gabrielle's attention.

Part Four

They had left Argo further back in the forest with their packs, though not so far that she couldn't hasten at call, and proceeded on foot for the last few hundred yards. Xena had dispatched the lone sentinel that they had encountered - though the barbarians were proceeding in warlike state they obviously had little understanding of simple security, the lack of which had brought a premature end to many ill-planned campaigns.

The raider's encampment was formed of a number of large wains, arranged in a circle around a mighty bonfire. Within this circle were gathered many people. The chieftain was easily marked, for he sat on a throne of carved oak with many pelts and was surrounded by his lieutenants. The rest of the throng was a mixture of warriors as well as many women and children. Xena was not surprised at this, as she knew that the mountain tribes were fiercely family oriented and migrated as an entire community, both in peace and in war. There was a great clamour of music and voices as the barbarians appeared to be enjoying the spoils of conquest, notably several barrels of wine that they had undoubtedly plundered from the homesteads and villages in the region. Xena allowed herself a grim smile - it seemed the barbarians would make her task easier than she imagined, they had only to wait.

Interlude 1

Xena stroked her hand through Gabrielle's hair. She had been watching the bard for over an hour now; lying by her side and facing her, listening to her soft, steady breathing, deriving simple pleasure from this. She ran a delicate finger from her forehead, down along her nose then gently traced the lines of her lips; the sweet memory of their first, tentative kiss had been etched into her mind forever and recalling it caused her to smile. Gods, it seemed like only yesterday: she had wanted the bard for so long; when she initially felt her longing begin to stir she dismissed it as some sort of curious attraction but, as time passed, instead of waning her feelings became steadily stronger till not even she could deny them: she was desperately in love with Gabrielle. The bard had somehow managed to pierce the steel wall that Xena had built and had stolen her heart forever; but never had Xena revelled so greatly in defeat. She had faced warlords, mighty creatures of myth and even the gods themselves on the field of battle without fear yet she had been terrified of her love for the bard, perceiving that it would drive a wedge between them that could never be mended, if she didn't first go mad. Yet something had happened that she never dreamed of, or even dared to hope: Gabrielle had loved her, as truly and deeply as Xena loved Gabrielle, and from that moment they had vowed never to part; pledging their love before the gods themselves. She would lie here for eternity by Gabrielle's side if she could, and would give her own life if it meant saving that of her friend.

Ow, she thought, Gabrielle having shifted in her sleep and elbowing her again. She chuckled softly, thinking how she could probably lay siege to the encampment and her little bard would happily doze through the event. She leaned forward and placed a delicate, lingering kiss on Gabrielle's cheek, gently brushing her friend's hair away from her face as she turned again to survey the raider's camp.

Even though she was asleep, Gabrielle was aware somehow that her warrior was watching over her and, knowing this, breathed deeply and slept sounder, a faint smile tugging at her lips.

'Gabrielle, wake up,' Xena whispered, shaking the bard gently. It was in the very early hours of the morning, the mists were drifting among the trees and the bonfire was now but a great mound of glowing coals. 'I want you to stay here till I get back.' 'Wait here? Why? Where are you going?' her friend questioned, a look of concern clouding her tired eyes. 'I want to have a word with their chieftain,' Xena responded then, seeing the trouble written in her friend's eyes, added 'Don't worry, Gabrielle, I don't plan on staying long, be alert, though...just in case,' and brushed her lips to hers. With that, she was gone.

Xena traversed the ground to the encampment stealthily, on hand and knee for the most part. They had seen no more sentries posted; indeed, in their stupor, the barbarians had neglected to even concern themselves with the whereabouts of the guard they had encountered earlier. She made certain to avoid areas where the glow from the remnants of the fire reached, rather hugging the shadows of the wagons. Xena knew where her objective lay: the mightiest wain into which she had marked the chieftain enter earlier, unsteadily. Gabrielle, watching from the shelter of the trees, held her breath as Xena carefully lifted aside the hides and slipped within.

'Make one sound and you'll be greeting your barbarian gods in person,' Xena whispered, holding her knife to the man's throat. The chieftain's wide eyes and closed mouth indicated his understanding of his predicament. The females that lay by him were obviously catatonic and Xena paid them little heed. 'Do as I ask and I may let you live,' Xena menaced. In truth, she had no real desire to kill the chieftain; not like this, anyway. Had she faced him on the battlefield she would have no hesitation. 'I want you to tell me why you're here.'

'Thank Artemis,' whispered Gabrielle when Xena rejoined her. In truth, she had only been gone for scarcely thirty minutes but it had seemed like hours to the bard, worried as she was. 'I'm fine, Gabrielle,' whispered Xena, 'Let's get Argo and I'll tell you about it.'

They made camp several leagues from that of the barbarians. Sitting cross-legged beside the fire, Xena filled Gabrielle in on everything that had transpired. 'So what you're telling me is that they're not the only army attacking?' Gabrielle questioned. 'Yeah, at least that's what the chieftain said,' replied Xena, chewing on some bread, 'There's someone of rank in the capital, he didn't know who...but anyway, whoever it is has been hiring them as mercenaries. They're hoping to draw off strength from the capital to open the way for invasion from the east.' 'How do we always end up in the middle of these things?' Gabrielle asked incredulously.' 'The gods are smiling on us, as usual,' Xena replied with an ironic laugh, 'Now get some sleep, Gabrielle, we'll be on the road again before sun-up.' 'What about the barbarians?' her friend asked. 'Unless he's as stupid as he is ugly we shouldn't expect any more trouble from the chieftain,' Xena replied with an evil grin, Gabrielle's mind conjuring up all sorts of horrible fates that Xena must have threatened him with, 'There's something big going on, Gabrielle, though only the gods know where it will lead us.'

Part Five

Interlude 2

Gabrielle was tired and hungry, not to mention her heels feeling as if they were on fire. The warrior's will had carried her this far, across the wide lands from the outer provinces to the city. She would follow her companion anywhere, even to the depths of Tartarus; there was nothing she wouldn't do for Xena, regardless of the fact they were lovers, she was the one person Gabrielle felt she could trust with her life.

Gabrielle smiled to herself, recalling those heady days that began not so long ago. She'd finally come to terms with her feelings; this was no hero-worship or immature crush, she had well and truly fallen for the warrior - hard. At the same time she also came to the realisation that Xena reciprocated her feelings - it suddenly made sense; all those times Xena stared at her a bit too intensely, or touched her far more often than was necessary, or went all funny when boys were about; why hadn't she solved the puzzle earlier? She just wished Xena would stop treating her like some sort of virgin princess and see her for what she really was - a young woman with real needs and real desires, who for the first time in her life knew exactly what she wanted…and what she wanted was Xena. For the first time in their relationship Gabrielle adopted the aggressor's role, actively pursuing and ultimately seducing the warrior; seeing the other half of herself and chasing it with the determination of a hound on the scent, knowing that neither of them could be complete without the other. Gods, it took some work but she was finally able to get her warrior to release her fears and embrace this new and wonderful turn in their relationship.

Yep, you've been a handful, Xena, but worth every second. You know you're never going to get rid of me, and I know that brings you as much joy as it does me. Gabrielle smiled again to herself, a warm feeling spreading from her heart as she continued her reverie.

'Hey, are you with me?' Was Xena saying something to her? 'Gab? Earth to...'

'Gabrielle!' called the girl, making her way towards them through the crowd. The marketplace was bustling; many colourful stalls lined the perimeter of the great square, large numbers of people milled this way and that, livestock was being herded through the crowd and the air was filled with the clamour of music and many voices. 'Hestia!' called Gabrielle, recognising her friend and going forth to greet her, 'What are you doing here?' 'I'm on my way to Achaea for the festival,' Hestia replied excitedly, 'Surely that's where you're bound?' 'We are, after we take care of...a few things,' Gabrielle responded, 'Have you met Xena? Xena, this is Hestia. I studied with her a few years ago. She's going to the festival too.' 'Hello,' Hestia spoke to Xena, who inclined her head in acknowledgment, eyes rolling ever so slightly. Turning her attention back to Gabrielle, Hestia continued 'Oh, Gabrielle, I heard that Homer himself will be judging the competition! Isn't it exciting? I hear he's very handsome, too. Do you think maybe he'll talk to me? Oh, look, my cart's leaving. I've got to go, see you at the festival!' Gabrielle barely had time to say farewell before her friend was off into the crowd again. 'That's the first time I've seen a bigger chatterbox than you, my bard,' Xena grinned at Gabrielle, winking as she did so. Gabrielle smiled cheekily before replying, 'I assure you it won't happen again.' 'Hera's ghost, that's what I'm afraid of!' It had been two day's of hard riding since they'd left the raider's camp and the companions were looking forward to completing their errand so they could relax for a while and enjoy the festival. Xena was determined to make sure Gabrielle was there on time and had pushed them hard these last few days.

'Gabrielle, there's no need for us both to go to the palace. Why don't you find us a place to stay; that inn at the end of the square looks good,' Xena suggested, gesturing, 'I'll join you there soon.' 'Okay,' her friend replied, smiling, 'Don't be long, though, it wouldn't hurt for you to relax once in a while.' 'Just be sure to have lunch waiting for me, my love; that is, if you don't intend to sleep the afternoon away - you do enough relaxing for the both of us,' Xena smirked, inducing a chuckle from her friend. Gabrielle was weary from traveling, not to mention the long walk through the city, and was grateful for the chance to rest her tired feet. She led Argo, with their packs, to the inn her companion had indicated as Xena made her way on foot to the wide road that ran towards the palace, an imposing structure of white marble atop a lofty hill. Many pennants adorned its towers and parapets, set in motion by the gentle breeze blowing from the south.

'Well, if the King doesn't care that he's being invaded then that's no concern of mine...' Xena said off-handedly, turning as if to leave. 'Hold!' Claudius said suddenly - she had certainly gained his attention now. The Royal Advisor hadn't been interested when the soldier informed him that a warrior was in the palace and craved an audience; now he was all ears. 'Invaded you say? How do you know this? Who are you, anyway?' 'My name is Xena, and I've just ridden from your western province where the armies are pillaging the farms and villages, I've seen them myself.' 'You have my thanks, warrior...' said Claudius, '...for bringing me this news, I'll see it gets my full attention. Stay in the city a while, I wish to see you...rewarded. Now, I beg your leave, I have much to do.' With that, he bowed his head slightly, a gesture Xena returned before turning and making her way to the door. He took it very well, she thought, for someone whose kingdom is being overrun by savage hordes; and was it her imagination or did he give her a peculiar, knowing smile as he bowed? Maybe she was getting too suspicious in her old age, she jested to herself, but her instincts had rarely let her down in the past. As Xena mused on these thoughts she heard Claudius calling for the Captain of the Guard. Glancing about, she saw that no-one was looking in her direction so she darted swiftly to the side, concealing herself behind one of the many mighty columns that supported the great hall. She was curious to hear what he had to say to the Captain, doubtless something concerning their own brief conversation, and made her way stealthily nigh unto to their position.

Leaning close and speaking softly, so Xena could barely hear, Claudius spoke 'You marked the girl? Excellent...find out where she's staying and kill her and any companions. Take all the men you need and do it tonight, but try to do it quietly...no-one must know of our plans until it's too late for them to act. She may know nothing of our plot but we mustn't take the risk at this critical moment.' 'As you command, my lord,' responded the Captain. 'Remember, Captain,' said Claudius, 'When I am ruler I shall reward those loyal to me. No word of this is to be spoken to anyone, do you understand?' 'I understand, lord.' The Captain saluted, striking his chest with his forearm, and departed amid a clanking of mail. Xena waited till Claudius had also returned to his chambers before leaving the concealment of the column and making her way from the building. She intentionally followed an indirect route back to the inn, hoping to confuse any who may be following.

When Xena entered the room she immediately noticed the sweet aroma, carried by the steam from the bath that Gabrielle had drawn. She was laying back enjoying the warm water and fragrant oils, her eyes barely open as she invited Xena to join her. 'How did it go at the palace?' she asked lazily as Xena, having stripped herself, carefully eased her way into the water. 'I'll tell you about it later,' Xena responded. She knew it was yet several hours till nightfall and didn't want to ruin the mood that Gabrielle had set; it had been awhile since they allowed themselves the luxury of a hot bath together. Looking about, she saw that Gabrielle had also purchased a carafe of wine and some sweetbreads, which were laying close at hand.

'Mmmm,' groaned Xena, sipping her wine and relaxing as Gabrielle began massaging her tired feet. 'Do you like this?' Gabrielle asked, smiling and working her way slowly past Xena's feet and onto her calves, then her thighs. 'Hmmm...yeah,' was Xena's sleepy response. 'What's that?' Gabrielle teased, 'Do you want me to stop?' 'Don't you dare,' Xena murmured, extending her leg and delicately caressing Gabrielle with her toes. 'Come here,' Gabrielle said playfully, 'And I'll do your back.' Xena turned, spilling some water, and leaned back into her friend who immediately began to massage her neck and shoulders. Gods, this is heaven, Xena thought as she felt the weariness of their journey being lifted from her. Gabrielle gradually worked her hands lower, caressing Xena's waist then moving around to eventually cup her breasts. Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed Xena's neck. 'Hmmm...' Xena purred. 'Do you want me to keep going?' Gabrielle whispered into her ear as she gently nibbled on it. 'Uh huh...' Xena responded, using her hands to caress Gabrielle's thighs.

Gabrielle moved her torso slightly sideways, allowing Xena to lie back further. As she cradled her friend's head with one hand her other one roamed lower, eventually coming to rest on the soft patch of fur between Xena's legs. Here she delicately rubbed, gradually working her fingers inside her. Xena's breathing was becoming rapid and she placed a hand behind Gabrielle's head, forcing her lips down onto hers. Their tongues dueled fiercely before Xena gasped and threw her head back in the throes of a powerful orgasm.

Xena, eager to return the favour, turned over so that she was kneeling in the bath, facing Gabrielle. She leaned forward and kissed her passionately, 'Get up here,' she whispered hoarsely and patted the side of the bath. Gabrielle raised herself so that she was sitting on the edge of the tub and Xena crawled between her thighs, wrapping her arms about her as she did so. Gabrielle draped a leg over Xena's back for support as her friend gently nibbled at her soft curls. Under Xena's ministrations Gabrielle soon felt the approach of imminent orgasm. Her back arched and she moaned loudly. Leaning forward again she placed her hand on Xena's head and caressed her hair, then her shoulders, as her friend brought her down gently from her nirvana. Easing herself back into the warm water, she took Xena's face in her hands and kissed her deeply, in that kiss trying to convey all the feelings she had for her warrior princess and Xena, perceiving this, kissed her back with equal passion.

Part Six

It was without sound that the door opened and the men entered the dark room. They had already drawn their swords, which shone dimly in the moonlight that came through the solitary window. Their leader paused, surveying the area, before indicating the two figures nestled in the blankets on the low bunk. As one they raised their weapons then, at a silent signal, they let fall, hacking and stabbing with their blades. 'It's done,' the leader spoke then, slowly, drew back the covers with his sword - stiffening suddenly in surprise, an audible gasp escaping his lips. There were only two piles of lacerated pillows beneath the blankets where the companions should have been.

'Ay-yi-yi-yi-yeee!' came Xena's warrior-cry, splitting the silence as she, sword in hand, sent their leader sprawling with a solid punch to the jaw. The others were momentarily stunned by Xena's shout, allowing Gabrielle to quickly swing her staff in a vicious arc, catching another assassin squarely in the stomach. He obliged her by doubling over with a pained groan. Xena evaded the thrust of a broadsword and, grasping the arm of her assailant, dragged him towards her and into her upraised knee. As he went down she struck him on the back of the head with the pommel of her blade. The fourth assassin, seeing Xena occupied, lunged at her. She skillfully parried his sword and dealt him a stunning blow to the face with her elbow, following it up with a swift punch that sent him reeling to the floor.

'Ooh, that's gotta hurt,' Gabrielle wrinkled her nose and chuckled, laying her staff aside and shouldering their packs. 'Not as much as I'm going to hurt our friend, the Royal Advisor,' replied Xena, smiling ironically, 'Come on, Gabrielle, I think it's time we paid him another visit…Gabri-ELLE!' In a movement so swift the eyes could barely follow it, Xena released her chakrum. It sliced through the air true to her target: the assassin about to plunge his broadsword into Gabrielle. The chakrum struck him hard in the head, sending him crashing to the floor, before glancing off the wall and returning to Xena's grasp. Gabrielle stood transfixed, realising how close she'd come to making her final journey to the Elysian Fields. 'Oh, Gabrielle,' said Xena, going to her and taking her in her arms, 'Gods, I nearly lost you that time.' Looking into her eyes, Gabrielle almost thought see could see tears.

'What a touching scene, it seems almost a shame to have to kill you both,' the cold voice spoke. Xena, turning swiftly, recognised Claudius standing in the doorway - though tonight he was not dressed in his robes of office, opting rather for leather armour. Already soldiers, swords drawn, were filing past him into the room. 'But sadly I've never been much of a romantic,' he continued, sneering as his eyes narrowed into cruel slits.

'I know exactly who you are, Xena, and I'm pleased to see your reputation does you justice,' Claudius spoke, surveying the unmoving bodies of the would-be assassins, 'You obviously overheard my little chat with the Captain here - pity, he proved very useful - but all you've achieved is to delay the inevitable, I'm afraid.' 'You're the one hiring the mercenaries,' Xena replied with a cold stare, 'Don't you care that your people are being killed?' 'If I were you I'd be more concerned with my own predicament,' Claudius responded, 'But don't worry, Xena, the legions loyal to the King are being mustered as we speak and go west on the morrow, leaving the city perilously open to attack from the armies that mass on our eastern border - armies that are loyal to me. Now you indeed know too much and leave me with little option…'

Xena's eyes darted quickly about; her mind raced, formulating a plan of attack - or of escape. She cursed herself, knowing that she could have sent Gabrielle to safety hours ago; but no, the bard would have been observed and they stood a far greater chance facing these odds together. At least here Xena could protect her…or die in the attempt; yes, she had always known, if it came to that, she would gladly sacrifice herself for her bard. But she wasn't ready to die yet, it was too soon...they hadn't had enough time together…she needed more…

'Kill them,' said Claudius.

Part Seven

It was a perfect morning. The mists that had risen before dawn were all but gone, leaving only a light dew as testimony to their earlier presence; the sun's broad rays filtering down through the branches, the earth basking in it's unsullied light. The trees were shedding bright blossoms that danced through the air, wafted by a gentle breeze, so that the entire glade was swirl of colour and sweet perfume. Through this the companions strolled, hand in hand, fingers intertwined. Gabrielle's eyes were shining merrily, laughter on her lips and warmth in her touch. Seized by a spontaneous desire, Xena paused and pulled the bard to her, kissing her deeply, Gabrielle melting into her as she did so. For a while they embraced, neither of them wanting the moment to end as they felt their hearts beating in unison. The warrior couldn't remember feeling as happy as she did at this moment; maybe happy wasn't the right word - it certainly wasn't strong enough for the plethora of emotions that welled deep within her soul and threatened to overwhelm her - and she welcomed each and every one.

After a short while they came to a deep pool that was fed by a waterfall. The spray from the cascade caught the sun's rays and threw them back in scintillating shades. The waters were as crystal, reflecting perfectly the azure skies above. Xena knelt, reaching down to break the surface delicately with her hand, to feel the cool liquid upon her fingers - rings of light emanating from the point of contact and spreading out in ever-expanding circles far across the pond.

But there was something wrong - instead of casting shimmering reflections, now a vast pool of black spread in dark meres from her fingertips, permeating the waters with their corruption; turning light into dark, life into death. A shadow seemed to descend upon the earth as the breeze rapidly began to escalate into a wild gale that drove stormclouds before it as a charioteer drives his team. Xena's hair was flung about her face; she heard Gabrielle scream her name and, turning swiftly about, saw that her friend was encompassed by a vile plague of darkness - some hideous spawn of the maelstrom that had erupted from it's venomous heart. She watched, helplessly, as Gabrielle was swept up and carried off.

The stormclouds raged now about them, thrown into chaos by the shrieking gale and threatening to engulf them in their ominous twilight. She strained with every fibre of her being, defying the unseen force before her and desperately stretching out her hand; but Gabrielle was being drawn swiftly and steadily away from her. She screamed in fury and anguish. The thunderheads encircling the once-bright glade were crowned with lightning that smote the earth, rending great pits and sending up spiralling clouds of smoke and steam to mingle with the tumult of the skies. 'Gabrielle!' she cried but the bard was already far away, fading from her vision. All she could see now was the deep, enveloping darkness that sought to draw her to it's bitter womb and consume her utterly.

'Don't leave me...'

Slowly the warrior opened her eyes. Although the light was only dim, it seemed to her as a bright beacon that seared her mind with pain as she squinted into the gloom. It was only after some minutes that she was able to open them completely, though the pounding in her temples showed no sign of abating. Cautiously, moving only her eyes, she surveyed her surroundings.

She was in a small cell; strong bars of iron and locks of steel separated her from the freedom beyond. The walls themselves were of dark stone and the floor was covered in filthy straw, strewn in random piles. A damp cold pervaded throughout and she shivered in the chill air. Seeing that there was no-one about she shifted slightly, feeling the straw prickling her legs uncomfortably. Immediately she paused, teeth clenching, as many aches assailed her body - brought to sudden life by her movements.

Though her weapons had been taken, she had not been stripped of her armour. She had no idea how long she'd lain unconscious - whether it be hours or possibly even days. Even as all these thoughts came to her, there was one that was foremost in her mind: Gabrielle. She cast her mind back, struggling through the painful haze that clouded her vision, to her last waking memories.

Claudius' men had thought to assassinate them as they slept but, forewarned, they were able to avoid death; the hunters had indeed become the hunted. Even as they were preparing to depart the inn, Claudius himself had come, bringing many soldiers. She remembered the icy chill of his voice and the cold malice in his eyes when he ordered they be killed. She felt the bard's fear, and cursed herself again for allowing them to be caught in the trap. But Claudius had reckoned poorly of her prowess and the savage desperation with which she fought, caring not for her own life but only that of her companion. The close confinement of their room was to her advantage, only a handful of foes being able to attack at one time, and she cut a deadly swathe through their ranks; but ever their numbers were renewed, and even the Warrior Princess' strength began to wane eventually. In a last effort she held them at bay, buying precious seconds - enough time for Gabrielle at least to escape through the small window and into the night. She would never forget the look of agony on the bard's face, knowing that this could very well be the last time she saw her friend in the realm of the living. Indeed, Gabrielle had wanted to stay but Xena had screamed at her to go, and it was only with great reluctance that she did so. It was shortly afterwards that her enemies, through sheer weight of numbers, finally subdued her and she foundered under a veritable hill of foes.

Xena wondered why she hadn't been killed - no doubt she was being kept alive for some dark purpose though what that could be she couldn't guess. She prayed to all the Gods of Olympus that her precious bard had escaped to safety; hoping against hope and clinging to this with the desperation of a drowning man.

Gabrielle landed with a thud, jarring her hip as she twisted and fell to the stones. She lay for a moment, slightly stunned, before climbing painfully to her knees. She was sweating, though it was cold, and as she ran a hand across her forehead she saw that they were cut and bloodied from the rough tiles above. Her eyes stung from the tears that streaked her face and she felt ashamed at having fled, albeit at Xena's insistence. The sounds of swordplay rang clear in the night, punctuated by cries of anguish and the shouting of many voices. Looking about, she found her staff laying nearby where she had thrown it ahead of herself during her escape. 'C'mon, Xena...' she whispered, glancing towards the high window as if expecting the warrior to appear through it at any second.

With an eery suddenness, the clamour ceased. Gabrielle held her breath, dreading what this foreboded. Maybe Xena's defeated them, she thought. Maybe she's looking for me right now. The bard was roused from her reverie by the harsh sounds of mail clanking nigh at hand. Swiftly, Gabrielle darted into the deep shadows by the wall of an adjoining building and lay hid as several soldiers burst from the inn and into the street. 'Spread out,' she heard an officer call, gesturing with his naked blade, 'She can't have gone far.' At his command the men fanned out individually, searching this way and that as they did so; the bard sunk back deeper into the shadows. Behind them, Gabrielle could now see Claudius and a dozen more soldiers exiting the building. A number of them were half carrying, half dragging, the still form of the warrior. Gabrielle felt an ache, almost unbearable, welling from her heart; she bit down hard on her lip, drawing blood, and fought with the urge to rush forth madly to avenge her lover - or die in the attempt.

Part Eight

"What do I have to do to get something to eat around here?"

Xena stood in her cell, grasping the bars of the small window and craning her neck, seeing if she could spy anyone beyond. The aches that had wracked her body earlier had abated somewhat, now more of a dull ache that she pushed into the back of her mind with the same grim determination that she met every challenge.

"Hey!" she called again, "Are you trying to starve me to death?" Truth to tell, the warrior wasn't especially hungry - what she wanted was to see who her captors were and, more importantly, gain some information. Her heart ached again as she thought about her little bard...gods, what was she doing, was she even alive? Xena set her jaw, clenching her teeth...right now she needed all of her control; if she was going to find Gabrielle she'd have to get out of here first.

"Shut up in there!" called the rough voice. A man appeared from around a corner, preceded by the enormous belly that sagged over his belt. He wiped his greasy hands upon his trousers before loosening the whip that hung at his side. Xena crinkled her nose in disgust; Gods, she had thought her prison smelled bad...her jailor could certainly benefit from a long-overdue bath. His breath reeked of stale beer and garlic. Judging also from the state of his ill-fitting jerkin it appeared that it had enjoyed more of his past supper than he had.

"Keep it down," he continued, striking the bars with the leather thong. "So the warrior princess is hungry, is she? Well let's she what we can find in the kitchen for you." He coughed up something vile and spat it to the stones. "Enjoy your feast, your majesty," he sneered, giving a mocking bow. His laughter caught suddenly in his throat when he saw her cold stare, her lip curling as she regarded him with unmasked contempt, and he withdrew muttering to himself, running his hand over the unkempt stubble on his face as he did so.

Xena squatted back down on the straw, her mind turning over as she tried to formulate a plan of escape. Certainly the only way out of the cell was through the heavy door...they obviously didn't intend to kill her just yet; maybe when she was to be fed, or questioned, she could sieze the opportunity; she shook her head, clearing it of the myriad of thoughts that threatened to overwhelm her senses...right now she just needed some more rest, to conserve her strength. The warrior shivered, and though the dank air was heavy with chill beads of sweat were forming on her forehead. She closed her eyes, stifling a yawn and leaning back against the cold wall as she felt sleep already beginning to overtake her; her blonde-haired bard dancing through her mind as she felt darkness descend...

Interlude 3

"Would you like some more? There's still some left."

"No...thankyou, you finish it."

The warrior looked on in silent amusement as Gabrielle happily busied herself with her third helping of stew. Where does she put it all, Xena thought to herself with a good-natured grin as she removed her sword from it's scabbard, going through her evening ritual with the whetstone. Argo wandered about a number of yards from the camp, the palomino snorting and grazing upon the lush grass as day faded lazily into dusk.

It had been a good day, indeed it had been almost relaxing by their standards. For the past few weeks they had been making their way back again south and were passing through a remote province of Thessaly; they had encountered no-one for days, the only other signs of life being the small woodland creatures that Xena would snare for their supper. Although the companions were eager for a taste of civilisation - the lure of warm baths and soft sheets - they had chosen not to make haste, rather being content with a more-or-less ambling progress.

It was hot for this time of year, even this far north of the high citadels of Athens, and the day had grown hazier as it wore on. They had made camp early, being taken with the picturesque glade; there was ample shelter from the heat under numerous shade-trees as well as an abundance of ready wood for the cooking fire. From amongst the rocks sprang a brook, gathered from recent rains upon the outlying hills, that wound a bubbling path beneath the ferns and here they washed and refilled their flasks. The warrior, being handy with flint and tinder, had quickly got a fire going whilst her companion readied the meal for cooking. The aromatic scent of the smoke did much to relax the pair as they busied themselves with these simple tasks. They spoke little, communicating rather with passing glances and caresses.

"You know," spoke the bard, her mouth full, "You don't eat much for a warlord...even an ex-warlord." Xena didn't respond, content with delighting herself at watching the one she loved engrossed in her work. And short work she made of it indeed.

"And you talk even less..."

Gabrielle drank deeply from the skin before seating herself on the bedroll beside her companion, dusting off her hands as she did so. She was obviously feeling better pleased, humming to herself as she passed the flask to her friend. She had something of a mischievous, even flirtatious, expression on her face that was not lost on the warrior. "So...what're we gonna do now?"

"You had something in mind?" replied Xena, pausing her actions momentarily and cocking an eyebrow at her friend, feigning ignorance. Certainly the warrior could think of a number of delicious ways by which to pass the time. Gabrielle gauged her thoughts easily, not speaking but crawling around so that she was kneeling at the warrior's feet. Reaching forward she traced a line with her fingernails along Xena's calf, pausing when she reached the knee.

Gabrielle took the warrior's gaze and held it, drinking in the sublimeness that were the twin pools of amethyst. Gods, how easy it would be to drown within those azure lakes; like . "I'm still hungry," she breathed, licking her lips.

Xena reclined back on her elbows, her sword laying now beside her unheeded, watching the bard's hands in fascination as they eased the weariness of their day's travel, leaving only a burning trail of desire in their wake. Gabrielle parted Xena's legs, nestling herself between them. Leaning down now she kissed the soft skin of the warrior's taut thigh, her hands gradually easing her companion's skirt further up her hips as she did so.

"How's this feel?" she smiled, running her tongue slowly up the inside of the warrior's inner thigh. The best Xena could do was growl in response, her hands playing absent-mindedly across her hardening nipples as she draped a leg over Gabrielle's back, drawing her tighter in against herself. Truly it was a wonderful sensation to love, and be loved; to be desired, to have another long to be with you. Equally delicious it was to have them crave your touch, to know that you alone can bring them fulfillment; just as only they could fill the deep well of your own heart, one that for time beyond measure had lain barren and empty. She gasped, then gave forth a deep groan that dripped with the sensuality that now coursed through every vein.

"I guess that means you like it?" the bard giggled, kissing her on the knee.

Azure eyes shone as her comrade smirked. "Do you never stop talking? I can think of far better uses for that tongue of yours."

"Oh...you mean like this?" Gabrielle replied amorously as she delicately nibbled at the soft curls adorning Xena's mound. She teased her for a few moments, barely making contact as the warrior lifted her hips towards her, desirous of the bard's touch.

Xena moaned deeply as the bard parted her damp folds with her fingers, giving her skilful tongue access to the pinkness within. She lapped passionately, longingly...feeling her own juices running down her leg as her arousal erupted like a flame amid dry kindling. She brought a hand up to loosen the fastenings to her bodice, allowing her firm breasts to hang free; pressing them against the warrior's thigh as her body eased slowly back and forth, the feel of soft skin against her sensitive nipples causing her to gasp.

Xena quickly divested herself of the rest of her garments, flinging them about the campsite before abandoning herself once more to the sensations her lover was exposing her to. As Gabrielle stroked her hands further up the warrior's lissome physique she felt them taken by her companion, their fingers intertwining as the bard continued to probe deeper with her tongue. It wasn't long before Xena's body began the familiar, involuntary shudders that spelt the oncoming of her orgasm. Gabrielle held her down as best she could, lavishing kisses about the warrior's sex until her throes subsided.

The bard slid herself on top of Xena's sweaty form to capture her lips with her own. Their kisses, at first tender, rapidly became more passionate; their feelings seemingly intoxicating them as their bodies writhed against each other. Any thoughts that the warrior was spent were quickly dispelled as Xena grasped her friend by the shoulders and, with a quick movement, pinned her beneath her strong body.

Pulling aside the folds of her friend's bodice Xena greedily took a firm nipple between her lips, roughly fondling the other breast between calloused fingers as the bard threw her head back, breathing heavily. She moved her face further down Gabrielle's lithe figure, aglow with sweat, tasting the silky skin as her tongue traversed it's way towards the center of her desire. It was with slow, deliberate movements that the warrior began her exploration of her lover's mound, using her tongue to delve deeply within, her hands pushing the bard's thighs further apart as she did so before sliding around to squeeze her buttocks.

"Gods, Xena..." she voiced hoarsely, hands tousling sable locks as she squirmed under the warrior's insistent lips. Xena slid a finger into her hole, entering it easily amid the juices that flowed now freely. She pushed it in and out, keeping time with the movements of her tongue as she rapidly brought her friend to the brink of her bliss.

"Oh...Gods, yes!" cried the bard passionately, her supple body trembling at Xena's touch. Her friend's moans only drove the warrior to increase her efforts, bringing forth all the skills she could muster to drive her lover to the pinnacle of ecstasy. She moved upwards, dragging charcoal tresses sensuously along Gabrielle's toned stomach, over her breasts until their lips pressed once more against each other's.

It was later that they lay side by side, gazing up at the crescent moon as it drifted amidst the gusting clouds. A prevailing breeze caressed their naked skin, bringing the promise of cooling rains on the morrow. The forest seemed alive about them, the campfire now but a mound of glowing embers that, when the wind gusted just so, sent up a spiral of incandescence that danced amid the evening air.

"What are you feeling?"

Xena sighed. "Why is it you always have to ask me that?", a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth, "You know how I feel, Gabrielle."

"I know...I'm sorry...but I like to hear it from your lips sometimes, too." She propped herself up on her elbow, a sure sign that she had no intention of allowing the warrior to avoid her question...Xena, noting this, sighed again audibly; she had always felt far more comfortable demonstrating her feelings in a decidedly more physical manner, content to leave sweet lyrics to the poets.

Although she deemed it to be only her imagination it seemed that a hush descended upon the dell, as if the world had stopped turning for that brief moment in time. Glancing up she saw that her friend was watching her intently, chewing on her lip, and Xena felt the confidence slowly drain from her...a sensation that was almost alien. "Gab...Gabrielle, how could I possibly..." she faltered. What in Hades is wrong with me? she thought to herself, Just tell her that you love her for Zeus' sake! She paused for several moments, taking a deep breath. "If only I had your gift for words..." the warrior spoke finally...softly, almost as if to herself, "I'd tell you that you're fairer than the stars on a clear midsummer's evening, more precious than all the gold and jewels in the world...and I love you, Gabrielle, with all of my heart..." She gave her friend's hand a shy squeeze as she spoke this last part.

"There...that wasn't so hard now, was it?" the bard answered, beaming and kissing her tenderly as she pressed her body against her companion's, nuzzling her sinuous neck, feeling the strong, soothing pulse beating steadily against her lips. "And I love you, my bold warrior...I always will."

It was dark when she awoke, the only light a flickering reflection through the window from a fire that burned beyond her confines. The air was rank and heavy, and tinged with the taste of smoke as it struggled to find the small fissures that were the only ventilation. A scrabbling sound caught her attention and, turning her head she saw movement beneath the straw. Several seconds later a rat scuttled from hiding and disappeared through the gap underneath the cell door. The feeling of helplessness pressed upon her as if she held the weight of the heavens upon her shoulders.

Cold are the winds that blow o'er
the lonely capes
that stand in mournful watch
on the shores of Euboea

Let not the cliffs be thy heart;
forlorn is he
who feels no forgiveness
or knows not the bright flame of love

Gabrielle had penned these staves many moons prior, in the early days during the budding of their friendship. The bard had gone to great pains to assure her companion that they were not written for her, preferring rather to scribe the warrior's frequent heroisms, yet the words had remained etched in Xena's memory; to be recalled at vulnerable moments when she felt darkness waging war once more upon her soul. No, she would not give in to despair though her heart ached in ways she could never have imagined. She raised a hand to wipe the perspiration from her brow...

...and the lone tear that ran down her cheek.