Part 3 (ch 9-12 the conclusion)
Nothing can feel better than this, her mind sang, as golden hair floated gently on top of steaming bath water. Gabrielle had her whole body submerged in the tub, letting all the tension from the day�s bad turn of events drift away. Xena had graciously prepared the water for her before heading down to get their dinner.
Even after they�d returned to the village, the bard had found herself disturbed by the image of the sick boy�s face, jostling with the horse�s gate. Sometimes, like now, she wished that a thick skin would develop over her heart, allowing her to let go of these strong emotions. She knew Xena had the same feelings, but she had such great control over them. They never overcame her.
That great strength was what had originally attracted her to the warrior. Even the first time their eyes had met, it had been there, towering over any other feelings that might have been battling for prominence. Only much later had she learned how deep all Xena�s emotions could be. And that realization only enhanced the legend of her strength.
A floorboard creek alerted her to the warrior�s presence. Out of the corner of her eye, Gabrielle could see Xena carrying a silver tray across the room and beyond her line of sight. She was enjoying the mysterious way her companion had been acting since their work for the day had ended. There was a certain electricity in the air between them that she was trying desperately not to over-analyze.
Fabric swished somewhere in the background and she guessed Xena was changing into her night shift. The warrior usually turned in after a good evening meal and a full-fledged attack on her sword. Gabrielle knew that if she remained in the lusciously warm bath much longer, a nice, cozy bed would be the only place she could possibly go as well.
She looked up when a warm hand rested on her shoulder. Xena stood there quietly smiling at her, almost shyly, a dry sponge in her hand. "You gonna take a bath when I�m done," the bard questioned.
"I�I thought I might help you finish," she replied unevenly.
It took a minute to completely register, but when it did, Gabrielle felt her awareness return with a rapid vengeance. Every part of her body suddenly tingled excitedly. "Sure." She didn�t trust herself to say anymore.
Wood scraped on wood behind her, then Xena was sitting to her rear, dipping the sponge into the water close to her exposed shoulder. Not since their first few times of bathing together had she been so aware of her nakedness, yet there was something starkly different about this.
Feeling the warm sponge touch her neck, Gabrielle wished she could see Xena�s face. Knowing her partner, though, that was probably the whole point of her positioning.
Fingers ran through the hair at her neck, eliciting a shiver up her spine. Her shoulders shook instinctively to break the chill. It was mostly the sponge on her skin, though she could occasionally feel the warrior�s fingers brush briefly along her back. Heat suddenly seemed to be circulating throughout her body in a way she�d never felt before.
"Xena?" Her head tilted back, eyes closed.
The sponge ran across her shoulder and along her collarbone toward her throat. "Yes," the warrior whispered in her ear.
Gabrielle swallowed hard and threw her arm back in the direction of the voice, her hand curling in silky hair. "You�re killing me," she groaned.
A moment later her mouth was covered in a sensual kiss, one of the warrior�s hands still trailing the sponge below her throat, the other caressing her face. The viciousness she constantly witnessed in Xena�s outward persona was no where to be found, replaced by a softness so profound her heart ached.
When the sponge left her chest, she wanted to protest. The thought vanished shortly, though, as Xena�s hand took its place, exploring the untouched skin above her breasts in agonizing slowness. As the hand slowly descended upon previously forbidden flesh, Gabrielle concentrated hard on not completely losing herself in the moment. She had a suspicion she�d want to remember every exquisite instant of this for a long time.
Gabrielle realized she�d hardly been breathing when the warrior moved to lavish her neck, trailing soft nibbles from ear to shoulder. Her hand remained cupping a soft breast, bobbing in and out of the bath water with every heave of the bard�s chest.
The warrior was breathing heavy when she paused at Gabrielle�s ear to speak. "How about we eat dinner?" she asked.
"What," the bard croaked.
"I think we should eat before the food is too cold." Xena slowly moved both hands to her partner�s head to arrange the damp, golden hair.
Gabrielle shook her head to clear it, unsure of how Xena had come to that conclusion at this precise, very inopportune moment. "How can you think of food at a time like this?"
Xena laughed heartily and kissed her on the temple. "I thought you could always think about food."
"So did I, but I guess we learn something new everyday," she replied, rising from the water. She almost wanted to be angry at the suspension of their activities, but the gentle good humor in the night only made her smile. She had no doubt the evening would continue in this direction. Besides, the water was getting cold.
"I�ve got something special for you," the warrior declared proudly. "Let�s eat on the balcony."
A soft breeze stirred her sleeping shift when she stepped outside, the night air warm and inviting. Xena leaned on the railing, staring out into the dark. Two chairs surrounded the small table where the tray sat. No candles burned there, but the moon rested high in the sky, shining brightly down upon the earth, providing ample light to see.
Gabrielle smiled, taking in the moment, before stepping forward and stopping beside her companion. "What smells so good?" she asked sincerely.
"Let�s sit down and find out." Stepping the short distance to the table, the warrior pulled out a chair and motioned the bard to sit down. When she was settled, Xena pulled the cover from the tray, displaying the treasures beneath.
Sucking in an appreciative breath, Gabrielle immediately began licking her lips in anticipation of the feast. "My gods, Xena. This looks delicious." Spread before her was a colorful array of steamed vegetables, fruits, pastas, and meats. And no fish, anywhere.
"Go ahead, eat up," Xena chuckled at her.
It didn�t take long for the bard to fill up on the delicacies and the warrior ate pretty well herself. Simple conversation and bantering permeated the meal, like any other dinner they�d ever had.
Done with her food, Xena tilted her chair back and looked at the stars. "Henri got that deer this morning. He�s a good hunter."
Her mouth full, the bard nodded. "It�s great. Reminds me of that last feast we had with the Amazons."
Xena winced at the mention of that party. "Don�t go there."
"Oh come on," Gabrielle laughed. "It wasn�t that bad. Besides, the only reason you don�t like to talk about it is because you got drunk and danced like a wild woman." And boy did she remember that fondly.
"I said don�t go there. And I wasn�t drunk and my dancing wasn�t wild," she mock bristled at the accusations.
Shaking her head, the bard leaned back in her chair. "Two people had to go to the infirmary. I call that wild," she rationalized. She thought in the dim moonlight, she could see the slightest hint of red on the warrior�s cheeks. "And you were drunk."
Xena sat up straight and spoke indignantly. "Why do you think I was drunk? No one died, did they?"
Gabrielle tried to raise her eyebrows and failed miserably, so she simply shrugged. "I know you were drunk because you kept coming onto me all night, whispering sweet nothings in my ear." She triumphantly crossed her arms over her chest.
The warrior mumbled for a bit, looking away, her face now a most definite shade of bright red. "I was just being friendly," she tried to get out seriously, but laughed before she was done.
The bard joined her. "Gotcha." She waved her hand in dismissal. "Don�t worry about it. I loved it," she admitted. Blue eyes peered at her shyly through dark lashes. Gabrielle didn�t ever remember seeing Xena quite so reserved.
"One more drink that night and I probably would have kissed you." The warrior tilted her face back to the stars, dark hair cascading behind her. "I wanted to so badly," she rasped.
Gabrielle felt a small shift in the tone of the conversation and moved over to her friend, wanting to make sure the night didn�t turn somber. She knelt on one knee beside her chair. "Why didn�t you," she whispered, close to her ear.
"Because I thought it was wrong," she said softly, looking down at the bard�s hand now on her knee. "Because I was scared." Blue eyes glanced up to green, a half-smile forming on her lips. "Because I was stupid." Wide shoulders shrugged self-depreciatingly.
Gabrielle returned the smile, absorbing the emotion between them. "Do you still think it�s wrong?"
Laughing, the warrior shook her head negatively and touched the bard�s cheek. "I�ve never done anything more right in my entire life," she pledged.
That was a great answer, the bard thought for a person of few words, Xena knew how to use them. Gabrielle couldn�t think of anything to say to top the warrior�s statement, so she merely leaned forward and gently kissed her.
Xena turned, pulling the bard into her lap, enfolding her in long, eager arms. The younger woman was aware only of the timid touches to her skin and the love that surrounded her. So different than her fantasies of this moment, yet more satisfying than she�d imagined. She felt treasured.
"We should go in," Xena whispered while kissing her neck.
Gabrielle wondered about the statement for a moment before realizing that they were indeed still on the balcony. "You�re probably right," she responded logically.
In one smooth motion, the warrior stood with her burden cradled in her arms and stepped into the room. Only the moon illuminated the short trip to the bed, all candles that had burned earlier having gutted themselves. The dark woman had no difficulties in navigating through the dim chamber.
Instead of being placed on the bed, Gabrielle found herself on her feet, standing in front of Xena, who looked upon her adoringly. She felt a little self-conscious and more than a little turned on. When it was clear the warrior would be content to stand there silently forever, the bard filled the air with her voice. "What?"
Xena chuckled and shook her head, before finding the top button on Gabrielle�s sleep shirt. "Just checking," she answered, slowly unfastening the garment.
"Xena," the bard growled. She never got tired of their relationship�s playfulness. It had saved them many times when the world colluded to drive them apart. At times it was all they had in common. It seemed perfectly natural that the trait transfer into this new facet of their life together.
As the shirt fell from her shoulders, Gabrielle realized that she should probably try participating rather than standing there and staring at her companion. She set upon a faster unclothing of the warrior, abruptly becoming motionless when they both stood before the bed naked, to themselves and the world.
The warrior was the first to move, closing the distance between them, cupping the bard�s face in her hands. "You�re beautiful," she whispered reverently.
Then their mouths were delicately dancing again, hands running over smooth skin at all points. Gabrielle wasn�t sure when they moved to the bed, but she was extremely aware of the change when Xena leaned down upon her, soft flesh touching all over her body. The shock was explosive, sending every nerve into a tingling frenzy. She�d never felt anything more sensual.
Her body was more alive and more wanted than it had ever been before. She was so close to what she wanted it was scary. And what she wanted was for there to be no barriers between her and the love of her life. Gabrielle wanted only love to exist in her life and she wanted to share that with Xena.
And for a time, love was all there was. Her life consisted only of Xena touching her and bringing her extreme pleasure. And then she did the same for her lover. No one else walked the face of the earth, as far as she knew. She liked it that way.
She loved it that way, actually, and she fell asleep exhausted, nestled deeply in Xena�s arms, her gold hair mussed and an incredulous smile on her face.
Bright rays of light wakened her a while later, the door to the balcony still open. A moist morning breeze washed through the room along with the song of a happily singing bird. Gabrielle could relate completely. This was a new and glorious day and she felt more than normally full of hope. The stress of anticipation was finally gone and she knew without a doubt, Xena was hers.
Trying to get her eyes open, Gabrielle yawned fully. The light she could feel burning against her skin was far too strong for her to face. She turned further on her side to escape it, snuggling closer to the warrior�s body.
Her eyes snapped open and she darted up onto her elbow. Sure enough, there Xena was, still peacefully asleep, the cover pulled over her stomach. Green eyes took in the open door, gauging that it was a candlemark past sunrise or so. The warrior always got up before this. Always.
Except for today, she amended, touching the still cheek before her. She could feel the tears well and couldn�t stop them. She didn�t even want to. This feeling was too amazing to bother with that.
"Why are you crying?" the warrior asked softly.
The bard blinked the majority of the tears away and focused on concerned, sleepy blue eyes. "You�re here," she rasped.
The sad smile told Gabrielle that Xena knew what she meant. "Of course I�m here."
"I�ve been waiting for this day." Pulling a larger hand up to her face, the bard kissed it lightly.
"So have I." Xena brought her closer to her chest and Gabrielle laid her head there, basking in the tender embrace. "I�ll always be here, Gabrielle. I love you," she whispered.
Gabrielle felt her world shift into place, an almost audible click in her heart. Though she�d heard the declaration in other contexts, she�d never heard those words quite so strongly, so deeply, so utterly earth shattering. Now they sounded like the sweetest music she�d ever had the opportunity to hear. Beyond content, she burrowed into the strong arms holding her so sweetly, knowing that today, she could face anything.
Lying on the bed flat on her back, sweat trailed down Gabrielle�s face into her damp hair. Xena scooted next to her, wiping her face with a damp cloth. They hadn�t been up for long, but the younger woman looked fairly exhausted at the moment.
When green eyes finally fluttered open, small hands reached up and cupped the warrior�s cheeks. "Xena," she whispered. "You�re incredible." She pulled the dark head down for a soft kiss.
The warrior pulled back and regarded her. Cheeks aglow with exertion, Gabrielle looked stunning. "I guess that means you, um, kinda like this," she stammered uncertainly.
The bard laughed. "If I would have known what I was missing, I would have pried you out of your shell a long time ago."
A dark eyebrow rose and Xena chuckled, stroking the bard�s cooling face. "Oh you would have, huh." She couldn�t resist the urge to lean down and kiss her partner, so she did, passionately. A few moments later, they were both breathless again. "You should have."
"Yeah, I guess so," the bard panted.
"I�I�m glad you�re okay with this though. I know it�s kinda new for you," she struggled. Even though every indication was to the opposite, the warrior couldn�t keep herself from worrying about the effect this physical relationship would have.
Gabrielle leaned up so that they were at eye level. "Loving you isn�t new to me, Xena. I�ve been doing it since the day I first saw you."
She did the best she could to ignore the hitch in her breathing and the skip of her heart, but nothing could have stopped the rush of blood to her cheeks. The control Gabrielle had over her was scary, and wonderful, somehow at the same time. She�d never known anything more powerful.
Looking away shyly, Xena thought it was high time to change the subject. Any more emotional talk like this and she thought she might cry. "I�d better get up and go start helping the guys build or they�re gonna think we skipped town on �em."
Apparently deciding not to subject Xena to anymore heart bearing, Gabrielle patted her arm and agreed. "Yeah, they�ve got to be wondering where you are." As the warrior got out of the bed and began her morning routine, the bard leaned against the headboard, covers pulled over her chest. "What are we gonna do about Claudinius," she inquired.
The dark woman stopped, mid-stride, in the middle of the room, a thoughtful look on her face. "I thought that tonight I�d visit his camp again and leave him a few surprises. Before we can think about disbanding his army, we�ve got to weaken it."
"Okay, that makes sense. So we ride tonight?" she asked uncertainly.
Xena really wanted to say no, that this was something she needed to do alone, but those imploring eyes seemed to be looking right through her and she knew she didn�t want to be away from the woman for even one night. "We ride tonight," she affirmed.
The brightness of the bard�s smile made her often cold heart clench. "Great. Right now you�d better get to work, though."
Crossing to the bed, the warrior indulged herself in one last, gentle kiss. "You get some more sleep and then come see me, okay," she requested.
The bard nodded before snuggling down into the warm bed and closing her eyes. Xena watched her for a little while longer as she dressed, memorizing her angelic features again, for the thousandth time.
The image followed her outside the inn as she joined the villagers already gathered and working gamely on the rebuilding effort. A few minutes of instruction from the warrior organized them enough to actually start gaining some headway and Xena fully immersed herself in the task, allowing her thoughts to drift from the carpentry, to the last night�s delights, and then back again.
Some of the wreckage had already been cleared away, so she instructed one group to begin framing there, while another small crew removed some of the other burned out husks. The beaming sun and hard work had them all sweating and breathing heavy soon after the day began.
When Gabrielle stumbled into the courtyard accompanied by a barrage of scruffy looking raiders, Xena was shocked. Somehow, she�d not heard a single out of place horse�s whinny or slammed door. The men had slipped past her, or behind her, or from somewhere right before her eyes. With a viciousness that felt like a knife in the chest, she realized that her mind had been a million miles away.
The small army halted its progress in the middle of the square once it had the warrior�s full attention. A large, bearded man held Gabrielle in a rough embrace, a knife to her throat. Rebecca was in the same situation beside her. Between them stood the raider leader, his pale blonde hair fluffing in the breeze.
Xena recognized him immediately. Like the first time she�d seen him with Caesar, his handsome countenance and proud bearing made him stand out among the other men. Even after all these years, he was the same stunning, robust criminal she�d abandoned. Age may have even enhanced his rough good looks.
The cold blue eyes rested on the man only briefly, however, as the warrior was much more interested in the minor struggle Gabrielle was putting up beside him. Seeing her companion held securely with a knife to her throat was alarming, but after all the times she�d seen it before, Xena was less than panicked.
As their eyes met, the bard ceased her struggle, shrugging her shoulders at the warrior. She sheepishly mouthed "I�m sorry."
If the situation hadn�t been so dangerous, Xena would have laughed. As it was, she gave a brief nod of understanding and turned her eyes to Claudinius, who seemed about to make some sort of royal declaration, his chest puffed to the max.
"Xena, you old dog. Been a bit, eh?" He bravely kept his ground when the warrior took a step toward him. "One more move and they both get it." He held a hand up to stop her and pointed to the bard with the other. "You know that even if you get me, they�ll both die," he arrogantly proclaimed.
Nostrils flaring, Xena couldn�t argue with that. The situation was too sticky for her to bust in with feet flying, not to mention that the only weapon she had was the hammer she�d been banging nails with only moments ago. "What the hell do you want," she hissed.
Claudinius laughed. "Same old Xena. You always were the one for sweet talk, weren�t ya?" His eyelids fluttered as billows of unwavering intimidation flowed from her. "A little birdie told me you had a man o� mine and weren�t takin� too kindly to my operation. Frankly Xena, I�m insulted. You taught me everything I know. I was hopin� you�d be impressed," he smiled cockily.
He thought he was holding all the cards, apparently, though Xena knew that she could kill him and several of his men in less than a heart beat. The only thing stopping her was the fact that Rebecca would most likely be the first casualty of the attack. Gabrielle she didn�t have to worry about, but her special friend, who was standing stone still, watching the scene unfold with tearful eyes, wouldn�t have a chance. "I never taught you this," she sneered.
"You were ne�er smart enough to come up with this one, I�ll grant you, but you inspired me in a thousand ways." He motioned proudly to the rubble around them.
The warrior snorted. "Only you could consider this smart. You kill all the village�s inhabitants and then raid it, making sure it�s never there to loot again. A smart warlord would use force to make the village submit and pledge allegiance. Then you can raid it as often as you like." Blue eyes rolled at him.
Claudinius bristled and took a wild step toward her. "You don�t know what you�re talking about, bitch. I keep on the move so I don�t care what�s left in a town after I leave. I lose less men this way," he looked to his faithful soldiers, most of whom were nodding their heads in agreement. "After I survived the illness, I decided I deserve to use it to my advantage."
A final piece of the puzzle snapped into place. She�d been having trouble comprehending how a person, even one as greedy and heartless as Claudinius, had started operating in this gruesome manner. "These people would have given you whatever you wanted not to have suffered this," she reasoned.
"I don�t care." He stepped over to Gabrielle, running a finger down her arm. "And now that I�ve been here, I don�t think you�re trouble at all. I�ll give you one warning." Rusty brown eyes glared at her. "Stay out of my business," he spat.
"I think you underestimate me," she threatened. She really didn�t think about her reputation much, but this guy was taking her hype way too lightly.
The man laughed heartily, roughly pulling the bard�s hand into his. "You�re washed up Xena. I didn�t think it was possible, but the stories I�ve heard about ya are all true. Back in the day, when you were good, I would have already been dead by now."
His statement was completely true, at least about him being dead. Not so many years ago he would have been, which seemed extremely ironic, since she�d never before had so much to lose. "I�m taking pity on you. Let those ladies go and I won�t spit you on my sword," she cautioned him, her voice as cold as steel.
Licking his lips nervously, Claudinius considered the statement for only a moment. "You don�t scare me, so don�t bother. I�m taking these hags with me for insurance. If you follow me, they die." Gabrielle gave him a dangerous look, her brow furrowed.
Yeah right, she internally chortled. "I can�t do�"
"Xena," the bard interrupted. She pulled forward quickly, surprising her captor, but not enough to get away. She again mouthed to Xena, out of the warlord�s sight. "I have a plan," she formed.
The warrior groaned inwardly, seeing that wishing look on Gabrielle�s face. She really had been trying to include the bard in their mission planning, but this was asking a little much. "Gabrielle," she said, pleading in a way only her partner would understand.
The raider dragged her back toward the congregation of soldiers, her feet lifted off the ground, dangling above his boots. "I don�t want anyone to be hurt," she gasped as his arms tightened around her. Green eyes shot to Rebecca, still petrified within her captor�s grip.
The last thing she wanted was to allow the little woman to be hurt, but most of her heart was screaming that she could not let Claudinius take Gabrielle. The bard had no idea what could happen in an army camp.
Hmmm�, the warrior thought about that idea. Actually, she knows exactly what goes on in a camp. I�ve forced her into enough of them. Maybe she does know what she�s doing. Xena sighed, making eye contact with the bard. A slight lift of her chin was her answer, which brought about an out of place smile from Gabrielle.
"Listen to the hag, Xena. Let us go and no one get�s hurt," Claudinius interjected after watching them warily for a moment.
Blue eyes remained locked on green. "I�ll let you go, but have no illusion that I�ll leave you alone." Gabrielle slightly tilted her head in acknowledgement.
Looking from one woman to the other, an aggravated, confused expression on his handsome face, Claudinius waved to his entourage. "If I see your face again, these two die and so do you." Several men surrounded him and the captives. "Don�t bother with this, Xena. We�ve left each other alone this long, let�s not spoil things now," he offered.
With them all looking at her, the warrior couldn�t give another verbal message to the bard, so she hoped that her eyes conveyed all she wanted to say. Be careful, watch your back, call my name and I�m there�I love you, all ran through her head.
Their stare didn�t break until the last leathered man closed around the group. In a slow, noisy shuffle, the band migrated toward the edge of town. Shaking her head, the warrior wondered again how they�d gotten past her, then began planning how she was going to bring great pain to them all.
The look in Xena�s eyes replayed over and over in her head as the sound of heavy boots repeatedly rumbled by the tent. The warning, the trepidation, the love, all those emotions were clear to her, as well as an overwhelming trust she wasn�t sure she deserved. After all this time, Xena should realize that I never know exactly what I�m doing, the bard thought.
A thunderous clang of metal rang from somewhere outside, causing Rebecca to squeeze her hand tighter as she jumped. Gabrielle winced, then tried to smile reassuringly to the woman. She wasn�t sure Rebecca completely understood what was going on, but the simple woman certainly comprehended that they were in trouble. Afraid to speak above a small whisper, she�d hardly said a word since being stuffed into the covered wagon and whisked away to the camp.
"It�s okay," the bard urged. Frightened brown eyes stared at her with much the same look they�d had when the raiders first appeared. Rebecca had been unfortunate enough to be standing beside her when the door to the kitchen had burst open and the rough men seized her. Now she was an innocent bystander in the latest mess the bard had gotten herself into.
When she�d told Xena she had a plan, she wasn�t exactly telling the whole truth. The truth was that she was thinking extremely hard to come up with a plan, one that would get her out of being a captive alive and keep as many people as possible from the end of Xena�s sword. In her heart, she knew, even before being taken, that this situation was due to end in massive bloodshed.
The smell of the camp filled her nostrils still, even after candlemarks of waiting in the dark tent. The guards had tossed them in after arriving, not even bothering to tie them up. Not that Rebecca would do anything, but they must have suspected that she was at least capable of an escape attempt. The soldier left at the door seemed hardly adequate protection from that.
Gabrielle was becoming quite worried about Rebecca, who sat staring blankly at the tent flap, hardly acknowledging her existence. Several attempts to start conversation had failed miserably, leaving the bard wondering how long the woman could go on like this.
The tent door fabric sliced loudly through the silent air, drawing both of their nervous attentions. Arness stood before them, a grim look on his time chiseled face. The bard wasn�t completely surprised to see him, but she�d somehow hoped he was not involved in all this. Yet again, though, Xena was right.
"Are you both alright?" he asked sincerely, looking them over.
With surprising swiftness, Rebecca bolted from the bench into his arms, sending him stumbling back a step. "Awness, Awness," she chanted quietly.
He stood there quietly for a few moments, gently stroking her hair and back. "Everything�s okay, honey," he assured her.
"Why are you doing this?" Gabrielle stood, taking a step toward him, hoping to exert any influence she might have over the man.
Pulling away from the small woman wrapped around him, the sheriff looked everywhere but into the bard�s piercing green eyes. "I didn�t have a choice, Gabrielle. He told me I could help or everyone could die."
Gabrielle thought about that for a moment before dismissing it as invalid. "What you mean is that you were saving your own skin. You know, Arness, there are some things important enough to die for. This was one of them," she chastised him.
His head dropped in defeat and his shoulders sagged. He looked as if a mild wind could blow him over. "I know. It was a mistake, but it�s too late now," he said, his eyes cloudy with tears.
She put a hand on his arm, drawing his misty eyes up to hers. "It�s never too late. There�s still a lot that can be saved." She cast a glance to where Rebecca stood, barely a pace from him.
He nodded, then looked toward a voice outside the tent. "I�ve got to go. I just wanted to tell you to play along tonight. As long as you do, you won�t get hurt." Taking a step forward, he drew Gabrielle into a tight hug, pressing his lips insistently against hers.
Knowing she needed to do so, the bard responded briefly, hoping to appease him. She was relieved when he abruptly broke the contact and dashed out the tent door, not looking back.
She looked over at Rebecca, who was smiling for the first time in a long while. "What?"
The woman giggled. "Awness likes you." She moved closer and gave the bard a friendly shove on her shoulder.
"You get that idea, huh?" Gabrielle laughed as well, happy to see her friend emerging from the frightened state she�d been living in.
"Yep. He looks all dweamy when he looks at you. Just like Xena." Rebecca resumed her seat on the bench behind them, apparently content to wait for the night�s next development.
Gabrielle blushed at the comment, wondering if it was true. She expected that she appeared dreamy when she looked upon the warrior, but couldn�t imagine the same from Xena. Dreamy was not one of her more normal modes of operation.
The bard sighed and sat down beside Rebecca, content herself to wait. There really wasn�t anything else to be done unless she planned on escaping, and that wouldn�t solve anything. The best action to take would be to figure out exactly what type of people they were dealing with and hopefully find some way of ending the situation without an abundance of violence.
Of course, none of that information would help if Xena busted in the camp to get her back, which she realized was a very real possibility. She was in some degree of danger being here, no matter what Arness said. And her being in danger wasn�t something Xena did well. That little look in her steel blue eyes, though, before they left, spoke of a trust that said she was at least willing to give this plan a try. Now the trick was to come up with one.
The jingle-jangle of armor drew her attention to the tent flap, which promptly flew open, admitting a tall, thin soldier who looked as if he�s stepped from a cornfield. His brown hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail, his neck red from the sun. One hand held the flap open, while the other, covered in leather, pointed to them. "The General desires you," he said forcefully.
Gabrielle didn�t like the sound of that, but she pushed down the sudden fear in her gut and exited the tent. Rebecca followed on her heels as they were led through the camp. The place wasn�t especially clean or especially dirty. Her eyes passing over as much of it as possible, the camp didn�t seem remarkable at all.
The soldier stopped them beside a group of men circled around a fire, their hands occupied with mugs and food. Their ribald comments and raucous laughter filled the air, along with the acrid stench of alcohol. She thought for a moment she could see it pouring from their skin. Arness seemed to be the only one not well on his way to passing out.
When he saw them, the red head hopped up from the ground like a shot, stepping over eagerly and taking the bard�s arm. "Come sit by me, ladies."
Claudinius threw them a passing glare, but took little interest in the new arrivals. Gabrielle liked it that way. The lack of attention gave her more of a chance to feel out what kind of people they were dealing with. Not to mention that she wanted as little as possible to do with the man from such a dark day in Xena�s past.
Looking at the group through wisps of smoke, she noticed their dress, much like that of the raiders she�d already seen. Nothing about the band seemed too shabby, nor too professional. All in all, the whole operation seemed pretty mediocre. In the least, it was nothing Xena couldn�t handle.
"Arness, are you planning on keeping both of these beauties to yourself tonight?" a deep, rich voice asked from across the fire. Gabrielle looked in that direction, catching Claudinius as he sneered, his eyes raking greedily up and down her body.
The act made her stomach turn. It wasn�t the first time she�d been the subject of such attention, but experience certainly didn�t make it any easier. His eyes made no mistake that if she were caught alone with him, he would try his best to have her.
The only thing standing between her and that reality was Arness, who was seating himself within the circle, motioning for them to join him. Grudgingly, she squeezed in between him and Rebecca, doing her best to ignore his arm around her shoulders.
"Tonight they�re mine, remember. I�m claiming my reward for helping you," Arness responded once they were settled.
Claudinius nodded in agreement, a lecherous smile on his face. "And a reward you shall get. Tonight. Tomorrow they are mine. Especially this beautiful blond wench." He continued to visually devour her.
Clenching her teeth, Gabrielle scooted toward Arness, away from the raider�s hungry brown eyes. The treacherous sheriff wasn�t her favorite person right now, but he was much more preferable than the alternative. She wished she had her staff.
Talk around the flickering fire soon turned away from the new arrivals, focusing more on war than on romance, though the raiders� ideas of romance slipped in on occasion. Gabrielle took the time to search the darkness beyond the ring of firelight, knowing her warrior was out there in the shadows. Watching. Protecting. Though she could never tell the warrior for fear of the consequences, it made her feel invincible.
As men slowly filed away from the gathering, the bard discreetly poked Arness in the ribs. He looked at her crossly, not understanding the motions she was making with her head. Finally, he looked back at the tents she was pointing to and understood her command. Like a trained dog, he stood from the fire and quietly escorted them away. The remaining men were too engrossed in gory conversation or too drunk to even notice.
Arness accompanied them into the tent where they�d been held earlier in the day. Gabrielle looked at the singular cot in the back and wondered how this was going to work out. After placing a candle on the small table in the center of the area, their tall captor sat down tiredly on the bed.
Gabrielle watched him for a moment, judging the slump of his shoulders to be genuine. "Why are you doing this?" she asked again softly. "I know this isn�t you, Arness."
He looked up, his eyes gold in the candlelight. "It was the only way." His head dropped dejectedly down again.
The biggest part of her wanted to feel sorry for him, to forgive him, but she took reign over that emotion and exerted what she knew was right. "You�ve got to help me stop him." She stepped closer to the cot and its sullen occupant. "What he�s doing is wrong. You know that. We have to keep him from hurting more innocent people," she pleaded.
He shook his head. "It�s not that simple, Gabrielle. He�s powerful and has plenty of men to back him up. Some of them have no where else to go."
A small hand touched his arm. "Is that what you think? That you have no where else to go?"
Watery green eyes looked at her, then away. He stood up from the cot and began moving toward the door.
"You�re a good man, Arness. Too noble to participate in the atrocities this man is committing." Her words stopped him at the exit. "I believe in you," she vowed. And even in the situation they were in and his recent betrayal, she did believe.
He stood there silently for a time, then turned back to her. His eyes were sad and confused. "I don�t know why you would, Gabrielle. No one else does. Not even me," he admitted.
She wondered what had happened to this man to make him doubt himself so much. "That�s not true," she said, sure of herself.
"I believe in you," a small voice said from the shadows.
They both looked over to Rebecca, who stood between them, slumped down on a weapons chest, tear streaks marking her plump cheeks. Gabrielle walked to her and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
"My life would have been so much easier if I�d have never fell in love." Arness stared at them a moment, seemingly trying to solve a problem in his mind, then shook his head violently and fled the tent. Whatever had born his insecurities was close to the surface. Gabrielle wished she knew what to do to help him.
The bard took a deep breath and turned her attention to the shaken woman beside her. Rebecca was slowly recovering her emotional balance, wiping a few errant tears from her face. Soft brown eyes longingly stared at the tent flap and Gabrielle momentarily thought she saw deep understanding there.
"He�s sad," Rebecca quietly observed.
His previous expression was suddenly clear in the bard�s mind and she realized that her simple companion was directly on point. Before he�d left the tent, the look in Arness� eyes had been one of supreme sorrow. "He�s confused right now, Rebecca, but I�m sure he�ll do the right thing." She put a strong arm around the trembling woman. "He�s a good man," she assured her.
"Awness is a good man. My good man," she whispered reverently.
Gabrielle smiled. Whether Arness knew it or not, he was a lucky man, with someone so precious to love him. "He�ll come around."
"Gabrielle." A sultry voice sounded from the darkness behind them.
The bard whipped around, positioning her hands in front of her for protection, fists clenched, only to realize that she knew the voice quite well and was in no need of a defense. "Xena," she mouthed as the warrior�s strong form emerged.
Xena paused a few spaces before them, hands on hips. "I leave you alone for a candlemark and look what happens," she admonished, but with a grin that made her true feelings clear.
Launching herself across the short distance that separated them, Gabrielle wrapped herself around her partner in a tight hug. "You shouldn�t be here," she said without relinquishing her grip.
"Nice to see you too," the warrior laughed.
Gabrielle pulled back, staying in the circle of her arms, and gave her a look. "You know what I mean. It�s dangerous."
A dark brow rose exaggeratedly, accompanied by a knowing smirk. "I think I can handle myself. It�s you I�m concerned about."
The bard smiled saucily. "Oh, I think you handle me just fine," she responded. Xena smiled broadly, then bent her head down for a passionate kiss. A giggle from behind broke them apart, producing nice blushes on both their cheeks.
"Hi Rebecca," Xena greeted her as if nothing had happened.
"Hi Xena," she answered, her smile innocent. "You gonna save us?"
Looking over to the bard, who shook her head negatively, the warrior rolled her eyes and responded. "Not exactly. I�m checking to make sure you�re all okay. Gabrielle has a plan to fix this whole problem. Right Gabrielle," she prompted.
The bard swallowed and backed away from the warrior. "I�I�m working on that right now." She hoped that Xena would drop it, but deep down she knew how silly it was to entertain that thought. After a few moments of the warrior just looking at her, she decided to go on, knowing that Xena had the fortitude to stand there like that all night. "I�I was thinking that I could talk to some of the soldiers and convince them to leave," she said in a rush.
That got both eyebrows raised and a deep breath Gabrielle knew meant nothing but trouble. "That�s your plan?" The warrior took a menacing step forward. "And I know you thought of that just now." Another step and they were toe to toe. "You let me risk your life and you had no plan to execute once you got here?"
The fact that her voice was calm meant nothing and Gabrielle found herself with no way to gauge how mad her friend actually was. Knowing how Xena hated half-truths and lies, she decided on the brutal truth, hoping it wouldn�t take too long for the warrior to forgive her. "Um, yeah. That about covers it," she admitted nervously.
Xena took another deep breath and released it slowly. Her expression was hard, but not angry as she spoke. "At least you�re consistent." With a little shake of her head, she seemed to let it go and move on. "If that�s what you want to do, I�m behind you, but only until tomorrow afternoon. I�m not sure how much persuading you can do between now and then."
Relieved, the bard smiled. "You doubt my abilities, huh? I�m crushed." She pushed the warrior on the chest softly before turning serious. "I know it�s not much time, but I want to try something before this turns into a war," she confided.
"I know. Claudinius is going to come calling for you, though, and I don�t want you to be here when he does. I�ll sneak both of you out before supper. Be ready," she directed the statement at Rebecca and the woman nodded.
Even though the stocky woman was challenged, Gabrielle was sure she could appreciate the situation they were in and keep this secret. The only trouble was going to be making sure she didn�t slip up and reveal the plan to Arness, whom could do no wrong in her gentle eyes.
The shuffle of boots in the distance told them someone was coming toward the tent. "You�ll be close?" Gabrielle asked hopefully, suddenly unsure of her decision to stay in the dangerous camp unaccompanied by her protector.
"Always," Xena whispered, swooping in for a soft kiss before dashing through the slit she�d made in the tent�s rear.
Gabrielle took her eyes from the exit as quickly as possible while she waited for their visitor, not wanting to give away her partner�s appearance. Only a few heartbeats after Xena left, Arness bustled into the room, his confidence restored and his expression untroubled.
His clear green eyes surveyed the women before he spoke. "I think it�s time we all got some sleep," he announced.
"Okay, I get the bed," Rebecca responded enthusiastically, running toward the furniture in question as if she might be beaten to the chase.
The other two occupants simply stared at her, a slight smile on both their faces. Looking at the man, Gabrielle felt as if he�d made some sort of decision. He looked at peace, at least for a little while. "I guess we�ll take the floor."
"Yeah," he said absently, taking his eyes from the woman now snuggled into the cot. "There�s extra blankets under the bed."
Gabrielle laid out the blankets carefully as Arness did the same a few feet away. Something had changed, though she couldn�t put her finger on it. It may have been her, but there was a difference in Arness as well. Somehow, things were going to work out.
As she settled herself, she imagined the warrior�s arms around her and the softness of her breathing. The plan was still very unsure, but knowing Xena believed in her made the dark a little less scary and the danger a little less looming.
Who knew how she did it, but Gabrielle somehow convinced Claudinius to let her tell the raiders stories. Standing upon the same hill they�d spied from before, Xena watched her friend captivate the camp. The petite woman stood upon a weapons crate, her hands flashing from side to side, half the population raptly gathered around her.
Though she was too far away to actually hear, the bard�s voice echoed in her mind, clear and beautiful. The melody of her stories always seemed to flow through her, soothing her soul. Looking at Gabrielle from a distance now, Xena realized that she�d never actually told her companion that. She�d complimented on the quality of the stories plenty of times, but she�d never actually told the bard how deeply she was touched by her portrayal of their lives.
I really need to do that, Xena thought, wishing she could extract the bard from the camp immediately and tell her. Gabrielle probably wouldn�t buy that as an excuse, though.
Soon enough the bard wouldn�t have a choice in the matter. The raiders had eaten the mid-day meal as she began her tale, so it wouldn�t be long before it was time to take her anyway. The warrior was determined not to let the moon rise with her partner still held captive.
Down in the camp, Gabrielle reached behind her head as if drawing a sword. That could only mean one thing and seeing the bard slash and jump all over the crate, Xena smiled, wondering what story was being spun against her. She had no doubt it involved a group of people following their conscience and overcoming an evil leader.
The sun beat down over head, skirting through the branches above her, as Xena watched, absorbed in her partner�s movements around the stage. Only the gentle breeze flowing over her saved the day from being miserable. She imagined that the bard wasn�t getting much relief from the heat, surrounded as she was in the center of the camp.
The warrior�s attention moved to the far side of the group where the men suddenly parted, making a wide path to the makeshift stage. Her gut clinched as she recognized Claudinius, steadily making his way toward Gabrielle.
Continuing her story without a pause, the bard�s eyes seemed to settle on the new arrival only for a moment, then moved back to the men she was entertaining. The warlord reclined on the crate�s edge, his eyes surveying the surrounding tents.
Xena�s mind raced with all the possibilities of what was about to happen. This had not been part of the plan. Still kneeling within the tree line, her hand twitched on the chakram at her belt. It would only take one move by the raider to send her flying into the camp.
She could see that Claudinius had changed from the less than stellar soldier she had known before. As he watched the bard and the on looking soldiers, his shoulders were straight and his head tilted regally. He had a confidence now that made him dangerous enough to cause her grief. Judging by the shape of his operation, the man hadn�t come full circle, but he had come a long way from coward.
The crowd before Gabrielle cheered and she stepped back, putting her weight on her heals and her hands behind her back. Having seen her partner take the exact same stance countless times before, Xena knew the story was over. Normally at this time, listeners would crowd the stage to fill her cup with coins. That wasn�t very likely to happen in this situation.
Crystal blue eyes narrowed when the cagey leader leaped onto the stage, drawing more hoots and hollers from the watching raiders, a dull roar to the warrior�s ears. Xena didn�t like the smile on his thin lips as he absorbed the attention, his hands out to his sides encouragingly. Gabrielle retained her stance, eyeing him warily.
After she could no longer hear the crowd, Claudinius openly surveyed the bard, then spoke a few words to his men that brought another short round of shouts. When he began circling the bard, Xena knew that the situation was deteriorating quickly, a theory enforced by Gabrielle�s body language as she began uncharacteristically fidgeting under his lascivious gaze.
No longer able to leave the bard unprotected, the warrior slipped from the tree line onto the grassy slope. Her biggest asset at the moment was the soldier�s preoccupation with the spectacle taking place in the middle of the camp and the probable after lunch naps that lazy men tended to indulge in. The way things were turning out, a surprise attack was her best and only option.
Coming to the edge of the encampment, the sound of raucous cheers greeted her. The noise enraged the warrior, but she also knew it meant that Gabrielle and Claudinius were still on the stage, which was a good thing. Maneuvering through the tents at an ever-quickening pace, Xena relished the feel of blood rushing within her veins. When she reached them, she was going to need all the energy she could get.
She drew her sword as she neared the last tent before the clearing, freezing behind it to evaluate the situation better. Men still cheered, their brazen, crude comments tumbling through the air. Claudinius spoke as their remarks died down. "I bet they call you red, don�t they, wench," he taunted.
Gabrielle didn�t reply and Xena instinctively knew that the bard was almost to the point of boiling. She was good at talking, but even better at talking back. Silence at this point could only mean that she was trying to save her own neck by withholding comment.
"Well, Arness ain�t talking and I think I should find out if you�re red all over," he threatened to another chorus of catcalls.
That was more than enough for Xena, whether the man was actually removing Gabrielle from the stage or not. The reasons for subjecting the bard to this danger were long evaporated. If she hadn�t already swayed them, she�d just lost any hope of doing so.
The warrior emerged behind the stage with a confident stride, not balking as a few of the surrounding men recognized her and called the alert. With an easy flip, she landed between the bard and her tormentor, sword ready to strike.
Claudinius staggered back a step, momentarily shaken. It didn�t take him long to regain his composure, though, as his demeanor told Xena that he thought himself invincible among his army. "I wondered what it would take to draw you out, Xena."
"I was tired of hearing you boast of acts you�re incapable of," she shot back. Her eyes pinning him where he stood, she took a step away, reassured when she felt small hands on her waist.
"You found me quite capable once." Finally, he drew his sword. "Dismissing me was the worst mistake you ever made and I intend to see that you pay for it," he spat out bitterly.
Several soldiers drew their own swords and began surging toward the crate. Xena looked at the crowd to judge the threat, seeing as many apathetic men as angry ones. At the side of the group stood Arness, his gaze pensive. With a subtle motion she directed Gabrielle to move nearer him.
She looked at the rioting men again before focusing on Claudinius, who had shifted to a defensive stance, his hand tightly clasping his weapon. "Are you going to depend on these dogs to protect you," she baited him.
His eyes narrowed at her, then he turned to the raiders. "Leave her to me. I�m going to enjoy this."
In the next moment he was striking down hard upon her blade, drawing all her energy into the fight. A tiny smile touched her lips as she completed the first parry and countered with a forceful strike of her own, demanding he block a blow to his side. His confidence almost visibly shattered when he felt her unwieldy strength, his face pale with fear, his muscled arms quivering with the strain of her blow.
She allowed him several more strikes before putting serious effort in the attack. He�d improved some over the years, but his skill was no match for hers. The longer the fight went, the more his eyes revealed that he knew defeat was imminent.
In a desperate move, Claudinius made an erratic lunge at the warrior, his blade heading powerfully toward her torso, but she was ready. Honed instincts allowed her to dodge the strike, barely, with a quick step to the side. As his head moved by her, Xena brought an elbow down hard, sending him sprawling across the crate. He landed with a loud thunk, face down and groaning.
Xena realized that the crowd�s roar that had previously been around her, though ignored, was now a thick silence. The soldiers stared wide-eyed at their fallen, groveling leader.
Claudinius turned over after a moment, backing away from Xena with a deadly sneer. A small trickle of blood ran down his face, already beat red from exertion. A shaking hand slowly raised from the ground, stopping with a finger pointing at her. "Get that bitch," he commanded.
Xena shook her head as the men burst again into yells, advancing on the crate. This isn�t going to be easy, she internally groaned. Quickly checking the bard�s position, she noted that Gabrielle was now behind Arness in the crowd, vigorously talking to the man. Knowing Gabrielle, she might have at least one more ally.
Deciding that the small stage was her most advantageous battleground, the warrior held her position, striking well placed kicks and punches as the soldiers attempted to mount the crate. By the time a man actually stood upon the platform, she�d already rendered ten unconscious.
Facing off against a raider, her peripheral vision revealed a ruckus in the field of men she�d been too busy to notice before. She briefly saw Gabrielle�s golden head in the sea of bodies, a tent pole twirling around her. Xena smiled. The bard was good, but to be causing such an uproar, she had to have some help out there.
Attending to the man before her, the warrior waited for his advance. She wanted to roll her eyes when he simply charged her, leaving himself open for a sidestep and blow to the head. Though she knew it was best to dispatch of attackers as soon as possible in a situation such as this, a little bit of a challenge would be a nice change.
When no one immediately assailed her, she got her first good look at the massive fight going on in front of the stage. Gabrielle did indeed have help, in the form of at least a third of the raiders, proficiently being led by Arness. The army was caving in on itself before her eyes, men falling left and right.
Seeing Claudinius slinking through the battling men, Xena began to move in his direction, only to stop when Arness engaged the man. The taller sheriff matched his powerful strokes, driving him back to the stage in a flurry. She could see his green eyes blaze as he struck, a rage brimming in him that she never suspected possible. She had no doubt victory was imminent.
The warlord had retreated almost to the weapons crate when he made his mistake, striking a vulnerable Arness with his fist as the sheriff missed a sword stroke. The punch glanced off the big man�s cheek doing little substantive damage, but leaving its wielder completely exposed. A turn of stalwart arms embedded the blade in Claudinius� stomach, sending a strangled cry from his lips. Both hands clutching his open cavity, he crumpled to the ground in defeat.
Xena jumped into the fray, suspiciously close to a frenzied, staff swinging bard. Back to back they fought off the diminishing adversarial force. For every one that fell, two retreated from the field upon realizing their leader had fallen. In a short time, no one loyal to Claudinius remained standing in the clearing.
As soon as the last man fell, Xena turned to check on her partner. "You okay?"
Gabrielle smiled crookedly at her, chest heaving. "Perfect." She put a hand to her chin, rubbing it exaggeratedly. "Am I imagining things or did my plan just work?" she asked happily.
The warrior laughed. "As hard as it is to believe, I think it did," she replied, cheerfully absorbing the playful punch that followed.
Arness made his way to them through the fallen bodies, halting in front of Xena, his eyes courageously meeting hers. "I�m sorry, Xena. If I had acted honorably we could have avoided this," he confessed.
Knowing how difficult it was for a person to admit his errors, Xena nodded and accepted the apology. "What matters is that you�re trying to correct that mistake now."
"I wish I would have had the courage to do this sooner, though. A lot of good people could have been saved." He looked at the fallen men, then at the horizon. "At least Claudinius won�t be plaguing any more villages."
Gabrielle placed a gentle hand on his blood splattered arm. "There�s honor in that, Arness. No one else will suffer needlessly for his greed."
His tear filled eyes turned to her. "I�ve endured the plague twice now Gabrielle. The first time I lost my baby boy and my wife lost her mind. After Rebecca and I moved here, we lost our friends. I don�t know how I�ll live with myself knowing I helped someone bring that death upon people I cared for." He brought large hands up to cover his face.
The bard looked at Xena, who could only gaze on speechless. This was definitely not her area of expertise. Gabrielle continued to speak soothingly to the shaken man. "It would have happened without your help. Take heart that other villages will be spared because of what you�ve done here today."
He didn�t seem very moved by the speech, but his tear streaked face reemerged. He searched the area intently until his eyes landed on a form across the clearing. Silently, he walked away from the duo, carefully stepping over the bodies in his path. When he reached her, Rebecca held out her arms to him, enfolding his tall frame in a soothing embrace while he sobbed.
Xena took her eyes from the scene, feeling an intruder, to see the bard�s own face wet with emotion. "He�ll be alright," she assured.
"I think so too. He�s almost as lucky as I am." Gabrielle closed the distance between them, throwing her arms around the warrior. "Can we leave this place?" she asked, head resting on Xena�s chest.
Stroking golden hair, the warrior knew that the question had multiple facets. Right now, though, they needed to concentrate on getting away from the field of death where they were standing. "Yeah, it�s definitely time to go," she answered.
The ride back to the village was quiet. Xena used the time to wind down from the excitement of the raging fight, which always took her a while. Gabrielle simply clung to her as they bounced along on Argo. The warrior knew that she needed time as well, to reconcile herself with the loss of life and carnage she�d been witness to.
Entering the village, Xena was pleased with what she saw. Even though they�d only been gone a couple of days, the townspeople had been busy on the reconstruction. Since most of them were fully on their feet, everyone had obviously been able to pitch in. Almost every building was in some level of repair.
"Looks like our work is done here, huh," she commented as they rode through at an easy pace.
Gabrielle looked around approvingly. "Yeah, I don�t think they need us anymore." Her voice was almost sad.
The warrior squeezed the hand at her waist. "I�ll bet someone down the road does."
"I�ll bet you�re right. Let�s go to the inn and get our bags. Then we can set out. On one condition, though," she offered.
Xena rolled her eyes, trying to imagine what she was setting herself up for. "And what would that be," she responded.
"You promise not to catch fish for dinner for at least a moon," she laughed.
Shaking her head, the warrior smiled. "If I do that you�ll get tired of rabbit stew."
"I�ll take my chances," she answered as Argo stopped in front of the inn. Gabrielle hoped down from the horse and began walking to the door. Xena followed, just as eager to get back on the road and seek out their next adventure. And truth be told, she wouldn�t miss the fish at all.