Sacred Ground by Della Street

PART I

Gabrielle looked around. A rather sleepy little village, but . . . "There's something different about this place," she said.

"It used to be more isolated. They haven't seen much of the outside world."

"Have you been here before?"

"My men scouted it once."

Gabrielle glanced at her companion. She shouldn't ask, but curiosity pricked at her. "Did you, uh,--"

"No."

The toe of a petite boot scraped back and forth in the dirt, and Xena smiled slightly, imagining the superhuman effort it was taking for Gabrielle to hold back her next question. "They said it wasn't worth taking."

"Why not? They didn't have much?"

"Just slave material, not much else. We weren't picking up slaves on that trip."

Gabrielle paused, not really sure how to respond to a statement like that. "They've really built the place up nicely," she said, examining the structures lining the narrow road that cut through town.

A young woman carrying cloth crossed in front of them. "Excuse me," Gabrielle said. "Is there an inn here?"

"No, but Seriades has opened his house to the public, with a few rooms upstairs. He might be able to accommodate you." She pointed toward a large building a dozen yards down the road.

* * * * * *

Gabrielle dug into a hearty meal prepared by Seriades' wife, Cyllene. She looked up as Xena sat next to her at the table. "I don't know how they make any money at these prices," Gabrielle said, stuffing another pepper into her mouth.

"Well, not from renting rooms. They only have three." Xena smiled at the sight of her friend happily chewing.

"Wcds," Gabrielle began, then took a sip of water and swallowed. "We could sleep outdoors. It's been plenty warm."

"I feel like a real bed tonight."

Gabrielle smiled, about to ask if Xena had any particular use in mind, but saw that her friend was staring toward the entrance. She turned to see what had caught Xena's attention.

An elderly man with a plump coin purse was patting Seriades' hand. Gabrielle started to ask what was so interesting about that, but Xena never did anything without a reason. She looked again, and this time noticed a rough looking character a few tables away who was stealing occasional glances at the pair.

The old man ambled slowly out the entrance, followed a minute later by the dark-haired figure. Xena laid her hand on Gabrielle's. "I'll be right back." Gabrielle watched her walk to the door and disappear outside, then turned her attention back to the meal.

"Where'd Xena go?" Arian, the proprietor's teenaged daughter, plopped down at the bard's table. She and Gabrielle had spoken earlier while Xena arranged a room for them; a bit of a chatterbox, Gabrielle concluded, but sweet.

"She went outside for a minute."

Arian gazed at her subject with unabashed curiosity. "So how'd you end up in Versi?"

"Just passing through. We're on the go a lot." Gabrielle quickly changed the subject before Arian could ask why. It was nice to spend time with someone who hadn't heard Xena's reputation and wasn't afraid of her. "How about you? Are you from here?"

"Yes, we were led here when I was just a baby."

"Led by whom?"

"The gods."

Gabrielle looked up from the slice of lamb she had just speared with her fork. "Excuse me?"

"Versi is sacred ground."

She considered the girl's statement for a moment. "What exactly does that mean?"

* * * * *

Xena rounded a corner and saw what she had expected: A dark-haired cur bent over the unconscious form of the old man, snatching the coin purse from unresisting fingers.

"I don't think that belongs to you," she said evenly.

He swung around toward her, a hooked dagger visible in his other hand, and Xena pulled her sword. With an exaggerated frown, the thief held up his much smaller weapon and looked pointedly at the sword. "Well, I guess you've got the advantage on me."

An obvious play on her sense of pride, Xena realized. Obvious but effective. She plunged her sword into the ground and crouched before him, arms out, hands inviting him to come get her. His eyes lit up, and he lunged at her. Xena easily dodged the thrust and spun around, kicking him in the backside. Another swing followed, then another, and now he was furious.

He made a final jab and Xena caught his arm, intending to break it, but suddenly the thief brought his knee into her stomach, knocking the wind out of her. Instinctively, she grasped his wrist and lifted it, the dagger sinking deep into his stomach. His mouth fell open, and he slid to the ground.

A moment later, Gabrielle sprinted up to her. Still a little out of breath, the bard stared down at the body in horror.

"What?" Xena asked. Her companion had certainly seen a lot worse than this.

A young villager rounded the corner and stopped in his tracks. His shocked gaze rotated from Gabrielle to Xena to the dead highwayman, and then he retreated hastily, calling out to unseen others, and soon a small crowd had gathered. An aged man in a white, full-length robe emerged and spoke to Xena. "You killed him?"

She started to reply, but Gabrielle cut her off. "It was an accident." Xena looked at her, slightly irritated. She didn't need anyone to make excuses for her.

"He was--"

"He was trying to kill her. She tried to avoid the knife, and he tripped and fell on it. It was an accident." Gabrielle pointed. "See? She even threw her sword down."

"Is that what happened?"

Xena glanced at her friend, who had an almost desperate look on her face. For some reason, this was important to Gabrielle.

"Yeah," she said.

Nodding, the robed man accepted her word. "He is not of our village, but we thank you for helping him," he said. At his gesture, two townsmen helped the old man to his feet.

"No problem."

Two others picked up her attacker's body and carried it away, and the crowd dispersed.

Xena stepped over to her self-appointed spokesperson. "What was that all about?"

"The Versians don't believe in killing."

"So?" She pulled her sword from the ground and brushed dirt from the end.

"No, I mean they really don't believe in it," Gabrielle said. "If someone is intentionally killed, they believe they have to purify the grounds with a sacrifice."

Xena stared at her in dismay. "A sacrifice?"

"Yeah. A ceremonial purification."

"But they didn't kill him."

"It doesn't matter," Gabrielle explained. "The whole village is sacred ground. Any intentional killing soils it. When that happens, it has to be cleansed."

Xena rolled her eyes. "Great." She sheathed her sword.

"Well, I guess you have to respect their views," Gabrielle said.

"No, I don't."

"You respect mine." A thought occurred to her. "Don't you?"

"Of course I do. But even though you don't kill, you don't keep other people from protecting themselves."

"They feel differently." Gabrielle's pulse had finally returned to normal, and she launched into an earnest discourse. "You know, there've been three killings in the past couple of months here. Two outsiders and one of their own. So three sacrifices. Four of them dead, Xena."

The warrior shrugged. "That's what you get."

Gabrielle ignored the interruption. "Arian says they didn't have any problems until a few years ago, then all of a sudden a lot of outsiders started coming through. They don't know how to deal with it."

"Well, they'd better figure it out soon."

Gabrielle frowned. "These are good people, Xena."

"I don't have anything against them," Xena said. "But I'm not going to let either of us get hurt because of their beliefs." She looked down at the young woman. "And they are going to have to learn, Gabrielle. It's just going to get worse for them."

The green eyes that looked up at her were troubled. Xena's stance softened, and she took Gabrielle into a gentle embrace.

* * * * *

"They've opened a road to Avilla a few miles from here," Xena said. "You're going to be getting more traffic."

Seriades nodded soberly. "I wondered."

"Looks like it's good for business," she offered.

"I don't do this for a business," Seriades replied. "I opened this house as a meeting place for my brothers and sisters, and to provide hospitality for occasional travelers. All these strangers . . . ." He looked up to see three more new faces cross the threshold and shook his head.

One of the newcomers glanced casually over at the counter as they started for a table, and stopped mid-pace when he spotted Xena.

"Jonarus." She walked up to him and they clasped arms. "Good to see you. Aren't you supposed to be home farming?"

He shrugged. "Didn't work out." It didn't look as though he wanted to discuss it. His two colleagues came up behind him and stared curiously at the tall, dark-haired woman.

"Herades, Maris, my partners, this is Xena."

"The Warrior Princess?"

"The one and only," Jon confirmed with an undertone of pride. "I served in Xena's army for nearly three years."

Jonarus was the first warrior Xena had known to give up the life, leaving her one day to work his father's farm with a woman he had met on the road. Xena had thought him weak at the time, but now she wondered what had happened. Maybe he'd want to talk about it later. "So what are you doing these days, Jon?"

He hesitated slightly. "Oh, this and that. How about you?"

She smiled. "The same."

"So I hear. You don't live here now, do you?"

"No, just resting for a couple of days."

"Resting, huh? Come sit with us for a while." The four of them made themselves comfortable at a table near the corner.

* * * * *

When Gabrielle wandered downstairs an hour later, the house was in full swing. The tables were all occupied, and the keeper's outnumbered daughter scurried among them, taking orders and delivering food and drink. Gabrielle approached the counter and leaned in toward Seriades, who stood behind the counter pouring from a pitcher.

"Have you seen Xena?" she asked.

"She's over there."

Gabrielle followed the direction of his finger and saw her friend seated at a table with three -- well, 'gentlemen' wasn't the right word, she decided. They seemed to be having a good time.

Gabrielle contemplated them for a while. This was a side of Xena she never got to see except when Xena was with other warriors. Boisterous and rowdy. As Gabrielle watched, she found herself wishing that Xena would act like that around her just once. Xena sometimes teased her and joked with her, but not like this. Gabrielle wondered if she provided everything Xena needed to be happy�.

Her reverie was shattered along with a mug that fell from Arian's tray. Quick reactions kept most of the stray liquid from splattering her, and she reached for a towel lying on the counter to wipe up wine and pottery shards. "Thanks," the girl said hurriedly before scuttling off again.

Gabrielle dabbed at a wet spot on her boot, then straightened and turned to Seriades. "Do you need some help? It's pretty busy in here."

The innkeeper nodded. "We'd be grateful. Will you take those tables?"

"You want me to get their orders?"

"For food. For drink we offer only the wine we make ourselves and water. Bring me the orders, and deliver them to the tables."

Gabrielle shrugged. "OK." She was always willing to try something new.

* * * * *

"This village seems pretty slow," Jon observed, watching as Herades launched a small knife at the wall.

"Depends on what you're looking for," Xena replied lazily.

Another knife joined the first. "I'm looking for some of that," Maris said. All four of them turned their heads to look at a young woman standing beside a table in the center of the room.

"She's taken," Xena said flatly. She pitched her knife between the other two. "Umm, more wine, I think," she said with exaggerated indecision.

"A gracious winner as always, Xena," Jon said affectionately. Xena grinned, and Jon caught Arian's attention, yelling out an order for four more drinks.

Muttering to himself, Herades trudged over to the wall to retrieve the knives. "Again," he said.

Jon shook his head. "There comes a time to cut your losses, Herades," he advised.

"I haven't seen her with anyone."

Xena turned her head at the interjection from Maris and followed his line of sight. "She's taken," she repeated, more firmly this time.

"It never hurts to ask."

"It might." She turned her attention back to her drinking companions at the table.

Maris' eyes followed the slim figure as she moved to another table. A minute later he stood purposefully, and was surprised to see Xena do the same. "Maris, let me save you some trouble," she said. "Gabrielle!"

The object of Maris' attention excused herself from some customers and walked over to their table. Xena leaned down and kissed her, resting her hand on the shapely waist.

Gabrielle laughed. "Is that all you wanted?"

"No, but the rest'll have to wait til later."

Gabrielle laughed again. "We'll see. Depends on the size of the tip," she said saucily, tossing her head as she turned and headed back to another table.

Jon chuckled. "Making fast time with the locals, Xena?"

"She's with me."

He swung his head toward his former commander and started to say something, then changed his mind. "You're full of surprises," he said finally.

She shrugged. "Can you blame me?" Eight eyes returned to Gabrielle, who was now bending over to place drinks on the other table. Jon shook his head.

"Again!" Xena's examination of Gabrielle's form was disturbed by Herades' insistence on another throw, and the warrior reluctantly transferred her attention to the knife placed before her on the table. She gestured toward the wall, generously inviting Herades to throw first. His blade landed just inside the dark circle of the fist-sized knothole. Xena briefly considered letting him win, then remembered that she could still be studying Gabrielle if the fool hadn't demanded another throw. She picked up her knife and projected it squarely into the center of the knot.

She signaled, and had the pleasure of watching her lover stroll over to them again. "This isn't my table, you know," Gabrielle teased.

"Would you mind bringing me some more wine?"

A blonde eyebrow went up. Xena leaned closer to the bard and said quietly, "I haven't had that much." She laid her hand on Gabrielle's thigh. "I won't be getting sleepy." Gabrielle smiled and went off to retrieve the order, Xena's eyes following her progress across the floor.

Two hours later, the helper was released from her volunteer duties and sat in a chair next to the counter, absorbed in her own thoughts. She nodded to herself, then felt Xena behind her, warm breath in her ear.

"Let's go to bed."

"So early? It's still pretty noisy down here."

"I know."

Gabrielle smiled, but they had business to discuss. "Xena, I want to talk to you."

"We can talk upstairs. Come on."

Gabrielle considered her options. She wanted to talk to Xena about the Versians. She also wanted to go to bed with Xena. Maybe she could do both.

Xena followed her closely up the stairs, her hands groping various parts of the bard's anatomy which were proving too tempting, and as they reached the landing, Gabrielle felt strong arms circle her waist. She turned around in the amorous embrace. "Somebody'll see us."

"Lucky them." Xena lifted the light form and swung her forward, Gabrielle's legs twining around her waist. They kissed passionately, leaning against the wall, Xena's stomach pressing between her legs.

"You're in a good mood," Gabrielle said, slightly out of breath.

"You're going to find out."

Xena carted her prize to their room and reached a hand out to turn the doorknob. They crossed the threshold, and a black leather boot kicked backward to close the door. She carried Gabrielle to the bed and knelt, lowering herself into her lover's softness.

This was the best time, Gabrielle thought, while she could still concentrate. She wrapped her legs around Xena and asked quietly, "Xena, do you think they'd move?"

Xena's mouth nipped at the delicate skin of Gabrielle's neck. "Hmmm?"

"Do you think they'd move?"

"Who?"

"The Versians." Determined lips met hers, and the women kissed deeply, Gabrielle's hands massaging rich, dark hair. She untangled her tongue from Xena's and kissed the tanned throat above her. "They could move to a safer place." She ran her tongue lightly up Xena's neck.

"Mmm. Yeah." Xena's lips began searching inside Gabrielle's tunic for whatever they could reach, foiled by unyielding cloth. Xena growled, and her hands came up to the front of the shirt.

"Huh uh." Gabrielle met the hands with her own. "I'm not sewing this up again." She sat up, leaning Xena backward, and immediately felt hands at the back of her tunic, while her own hands worked on removing inconvenient armor. Mouth close to Xena's ear, she whispered, "Will you talk to Seriades?"

"About what?" Xena's hands pulled the loose cloth down and grasped Gabrielle's breasts.

Gabrielle lay back on the bed. She was losing her focus. "About . . . about moving them somewhere safer."

"Mmm." Xena took a breast into her mouth.

Gabrielle arched her back, and unconsciously pressed one hand against the back of Xena's head, urging the warrior to take more of her into her mouth. "Oh, gods." She had one more chance. "You'll talk to him?"

"Hmm? Yeah." Xena resumed her attentions to Gabrielle's breasts, her tongue and lips working their magic. Her hands reached down and maneuvered Gabrielle's skirt and underwear off, then roughly seized her hips. "You were driving me crazy downstairs," she breathed. "I wanted to have you right there, on the table." Gabrielle stirred excitedly.

Xena positioned the smaller woman on the bed and moved her thighs apart. Gabrielle exclaimed softly as three fingers entered her.

Concerned blue eyes looked down at her. "Did I hurt you?"

"I'm fine."

Xena closed her eyes and slowly thrust into her. "I love you," she groaned, stimulated by the sweet friction. Xena's mouth closed on hers, her tongue insistent, its thrusts as unrelenting as those between her legs. Gabrielle moaned and wrapped her arms around Xena, reveling in her lover's intensity.

Teeth sank lightly into the bard's shoulder. "I love the way you feel," Xena rasped, recapturing the mouth beneath hers. Xena was being unusually talkative tonight, Gabrielle noticed, her own excitement mounting with every word.

As she thrust in and out of her lover, Xena felt overwhelmed with a specific desire and gave in to it, slowly withdrawing her fingers. Gabrielle gripped her shoulders. "No," she cried out, suddenly empty, her hips continuing to move as if Xena were still inside her.

"Just for a second," Xena whispered. She brought her hand to Gabrielle's breast and brushed her knuckles across it. The hand returned to its loving task, her fingers sliding easily into their warm refuge. Xena lowered her head to Gabrielle's breast and rubbed her face against it, savoring the moisture, tasting it with her tongue.

Gabrielle felt like she was in a dream. She watched Xena lick the wetness on her breast, and envisioned Xena's fingers thrusting into her. She could not imagine ever feeling greater love.

Xena pressed down gently with her palm, listening as Gabrielle's breathing became increasingly ragged, loving the music of her loud moans. Finally Gabrielle cried out and her hips rose off the bed. Xena exulted at the feeling of Gabrielle's arms constricting around her back, just as satiny warmth was against her fingers.

With a contented smile, Gabrielle lay back, waiting for her heartbeat to return to something approaching normal. She gazed up into Xena's eyes. "It just keeps getting better," she said incredulously, and Xena smiled. It was true.

Gabrielle drew Xena's mouth down to hers and they kissed for long, lingering minutes, until gentle hands pressed against the warrior's shoulders. Xena raised herself, and Gabrielle slid out from beneath her. She pulled off Xena's clothing, kissing each area of skin as it appeared, then knelt across Xena's back and traced her fingertips down well-defined shoulders.

Gabrielle pressed her breasts against Xena's back, biting the shoulders and neck under her hands. She kissed a light trail down to the fine, soft hair at Xena's lower back, then grasped curved hips in her hands and pressed her teeth lightly against the tantalizing flesh. Xena grunted, her shoulders rising from the bed.

A small hand slid between Xena's muscular thighs. Xena shifted her body, spreading her thighs further apart, and Gabrielle slipped her fingers inside. The bard eagerly worked her mouth across Xena's back, kissing and biting recklessly, sliding her fingers in and out with growing passion. "One of these days I'm going to have you on a table," she said lustfully. A low chuckle came from Xena's throat, swallowed by a groan as Gabrielle's teeth nipped her shoulder.

"Turn over."

Xena obeyed, and Gabrielle lowered her head between Xena's thighs, gripping them with her fingers. Strands of golden hair fell forward onto dark curly hair as Gabrielle poured all of her knowledge and love into pleasing her lover. Xena spread her arms out to her side, clawing at the bed, feeling herself getting close �.

Gabrielle lifted her face and kissed the inside of Xena's thigh. Xena raised her head from the bed and stared at her in disbelief. "What are you--"

"Just for a second," Gabrielle whispered.

Xena started to respond, but was silenced as Gabrielle's mouth returned to its task, soft tongue cascading over her, her excitement building �.

The blonde head raised again and kissed the inside of Xena's other thigh.

"Gabrielle." It was a warning.

"Mmm?"

Xena fell silent again as Gabrielle's tongue resumed its exquisite stroking. She moaned quietly, thighs flexing, body shifting restlessly on the bed. Gabrielle knew better than to tease her again now. She brought Xena to the edge, and her breath caught when she felt the momentary stillness, watching the passion break in her lover's face as Xena's hands clutched at her hair.

Xena sighed and lay back on the bed, struggling to replenish her depleted oxygen supply. Planting one more kiss on the source of such pleasure for both of them, Gabrielle raised herself and settled in next to her lover. She nestled her head against Xena's neck, and sighed at the feel of light touches of fingertips on her shoulder.

Several minutes of peaceful repose passed, and then Gabrielle spoke. "Are you sleepy?"

"Not really."

"Hmm." Gabrielle tilted her head and kissed Xena's ear. "Are you still in a good mood?"

"Mm hmm."

Wandering lips trailed down Xena's neck. "So am I." Gabrielle ran her hand down Xena's chest, then moved on top of her. "A really good mood."

Xena met the mischievous gaze. "Really. Well, maybe we'd better do something about that."

"That's what I was thinking."

* * * * *

"Gabrielle."

She felt Xena's hand on her shoulder and blinked, foggy with sleep. Again? Didn't the woman ever need sleep? She smiled and reached her arms up to Xena's neck.

"Gabrielle, get dressed. Hurry."

The bard's eyes opened wide at the urgent tone of the instruction. Xena wasn't waking her for an early morning romp. She sat up to see the warrior fully attired, sword and chakram in place, and jumped out of bed to hurry into her own clothing.

Xena walked over to the side of the window and peered out cautiously. The village was quietly, but unquestionably, being invaded.

Gabrielle tiptoed over and stood next to her, peeking out at the line of horsemen and foot soldiers trailing into town. "What's happening?"

"A warlord named Treman. He's got about fifty men, and horses for almost half of them. They were camped a couple of miles east of here." The warrior's eyes remained on the street below. "They started coming in about an hour ago."

Gabrielle realized with dismay that Xena had left their bed, dressed, gone to scout the invading enemy and returned, all while she slept unaware. No wonder Xena treated her like a child sometimes when it came to her safety. "What should we do?" she whispered, putting her self-chastisement behind her for another day.

"I'll go get Argo," Xena replied. "Be ready to jump down. We'll head out the north road." She started to climb out the window.

"Wait." Gabrielle clapped her hand on Xena's arm. "We're leaving?"

"This isn't our problem."

Gabrielle's grip tightened. "This isn't our problem? Since when did that stop us?"

"Look, Treman and I have a history. If he sees us, he'll order both of us killed. Or he'll want you brought in as a souvenir. Either way, I'm not going to let it happen," Xena said. "Think how many sacrifices it'll take to fix that."

An irritated look came across her face as Gabrielle continued to stare at her. "Gabrielle, these people made their own decisions; they have to live with the consequences. Now let's go."

"You're not serious."

"They don't want our help."

"They need it."

"I don't want to argue about this, Gabrielle." Xena turned her gaze back to the scene outside their window. "It's out of our hands now."

"You said you'd talk to Seriades."

"What?"

"You said you'd talk to him about moving them somewhere safer."

Xena searched her memory, until a vague recollection finally flickered into her brain. "Gabrielle, that was--I wasn't exactly concentrating at the time."

"Are you saying you didn't mean it?"

"Something like that would require a lot of planning even under the best of circumstances," Xena said. "A lot of time. We don't have either."

Silence.

"Come on, Gabrielle. You're not going to hold me to something I said while we were making love."

"You said you loved me."

Zeus. Xena stood motionless for a moment, then turned and met Gabrielle's piercing gaze. She leaned down and kissed her tenderly. "Of course I meant it. All of it."

* * * * *

Xena crept downstairs and rapped lightly on Seriades' door. After a moment, Cyllene opened the door, and the warrior stepped quietly inside. "Is he awake?" Cyllene shook her head.

Leather boots strode determinedly toward the far wall, then a single boot kicked the bedpost abruptly. Seriades bolted awake, startled. "Seriades, you've got a problem," Xena said without preamble. "There's an army of fifty men out there. They're here to take the village and everyone in it."

"Take the village?"

"Capture. Exploit. Use you all as slaves. Get the picture?"

The innkeeper shook his head, stunned, unable to register what she was saying. Xena's patience, already thin, wore through, and she grabbed him by the collar. "Listen to me. You're all going to be kept as slaves until you're not useful any more, then you're going to be killed."

He met her eyes, and she released him. "What can we do?" he said uncertainly.

"You can fight."

"We won't kill." He looked meaningfully at her. "And we won't allow anyone else to kill for us." He thought some more. "Perhaps we can bargain with them."

"You can't, because they'll already have everything you own. You have nothing to bargain with."

Seriades straightened, and spoke with quiet conviction. "We'll talk with them and try to work something out peaceably. There will be no killing, even if our freedom is taken from us. It is a small price to pay for our beliefs."

Xena glowered at him, growing more irritated with every word. These people deserved whatever came to them. They lived by their principles; they could die by them. "Suit yourself," she declared, and turned to leave.

"Xena." Gabrielle's clear voice came from the doorway.

"Forget it, Gabrielle. They're on their own."

Gabrielle crossed the room and put her hand on Xena's arm, holding her in place. "Wait." She turned to Seriades. "You could leave the village. Find a new place to live." She included Cyllene in her gaze. "No one would have to be hurt."

"Treman's not going to let them leave now," Xena said. "They'll make perfect slaves, and he knows it. That makes them valuable."

"We won't ask him."

Xena pulled Gabrielle away from the others and spoke quietly in her ear. "What do you want me to do, go around and kill Treman's men while you stand there and claim they're accidents? Don't you think people will start wondering why they all trip and fall on my sword?"

Gabrielle ignored the sarcasm. "There has to be a way. I know you can think of something." Green eyes gazed up into hers. "Can't you?"

Xena weighed the question. This meant a lot to Gabrielle, but she had little interest in babysitting a group of people who didn't even want her help. "No, I can't."

The open face registered surprise, and Xena again felt annoyed at the pressure she was getting from her friend. "Get used to it, Gabrielle. There are a lot of things I can't do."

"You've stopped a war. You've defeated Ares. Why won't you consider this?"

Xena closed her eyes, struggling to conceal her irritation, and turned impatiently to the concerned man now sitting on the side of the bed. "Seriades, would your people consider leaving here?"

"I don't know." He looked up at her. "Where would we go?"

"Ask Gabrielle."

Gabrielle's head jerked around sharply at her lover's tone and Xena winced, regretting the words. "Talk to your people about it. We'll come back tonight." She started for the door, then turned back. "Seriades," she said gently, "be careful. These men won't care about hurting you. Try to buy some time. Tell them you'll recommend surrender, but it'll take time to talk to everyone." Seriades appeared to be listening, but she wasn't sure how much of her advice he would heed.

She reached for Gabrielle's arm, but the younger woman turned and walked out of the room ahead of her, the two proceeding in silence to their room. Xena shut the door and stepped to the window to check the progress of Treman's takeover. "Let's get packed up. They'll be looking for us."

Thinking she hadn't been heard, she turned toward Gabrielle, but the other woman was efficiently packing their belongings. Xena watched for a moment, then walked over and picked up an apple that had fallen to the floor. Gabrielle efficiently plucked it out of her hand and stuffed it into a saddlebag.

The silence was beginning to get to Xena. They needed to be quiet, but this was unnatural. She started to speak, then changed her mind. The Warrior Princess was afraid her friend would not answer, she realized, feeling a bit ridiculous. But until that happened, she could assume that Gabrielle just had nothing to say, as unlikely as that seemed.

Gabrielle bent over and retrieved the blanket that had tumbled to the floor during their lovemaking only a few hours ago. She tossed it on the bed, seemingly unaffected by the images it conjured up in Xena's mind. The warrior ran her tongue across her lips, tasting Gabrielle's essence still on them.

It didn't take long to pack up their few possessions, and soon Gabrielle walked over with their saddle bags, stopping beyond arm's reach, Xena noted.

"Let's go." Xena took the two larger bags. "We'll wait outside of town." She turned back to her companion. "Or we could look for a place here. It's riskier, but we might able to do something if there's trouble."

Gabrielle shrugged. "Your decision."

Great. Indifference. This was worse than silence. Xena started to reply, but again was held back by some undefinable emotion. "Fine. Let's go."

She climbed out the window and leapt noiselessly into the shadows below. Gabrielle followed, jumping down into Xena's arms.

* * * * *

Xena propped her head against the hay pile, wishing that Gabrielle would come lie with her. Closing her eyes, she listened to the sounds of their saddle bags being stowed out of sight. Boots scraped quietly across the floor, and then she felt the familiar body beside her, blonde head nestled against her shoulder. Xena smiled and drew her closer.

"Gabrielle, is something wrong?

"I've been trying to figure out why you're so angry about this."

"I'm not angry."

Gabrielle looked up at her.

"Well, I might have been a bit irritated."

"At me?"

"At the whole situation," Xena equivocated.

"Why?"

"I just don't have a lot of patience with people who won't stand up for themselves."

"I think they stand up for themselves. They just don't do it the way we're used to."

Xena did not reply.

"So, what are you going to do about Treman?"

"I've got a few ideas."

"Do you think he'll negotiate with them?"

"No. The only question is whether they're willing to leave here." She met the younger woman's gaze. "And if they're not, Gabrielle, that's it."

Gabrielle nodded. They lay quietly in the silence and drifted off to sleep.

* * * * *

Continue to Part II (the conclusion)


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