When The Bough Breaks
By Pink Rabbit Productions
|Disclaimer: The following story
contains sexual acts between consenting adults. If you are
offended by these acts, not yourself of age, or if this is
illegal where you are, please leave now. This story is not meant
to infringe on copyrights held by MCA or Renaissance Pictures .
On alternate Wednesdays, it hangs out in seedy bars, and
attempts to pick up parrots. I have definitely been watching way
too much Monty Python. If you've gotten the impression I don't
take these disclaimers too seriously, you're probably right.
Remember, you will be tested on this chapter. Author's note:
This started as a silly little sex piece and suddenly plot snuck
in. Wonder how that happened? :-)
A warm wind blew across the calm surface of the small pond, the sun
gleaming on tiny waves and bare skin. Xena dove gracefully from one of
the high rocks that surrounded the deep, clear pool, spiking her dive
with barely a splash. She swam underwater, for several strokes, before
surfacing, washing dark hair out of her eyes with an automatic flip of
her head. She glanced back toward the shore where Gabrielle was still
undressing. "Well, are you coming in, or aren't you?!"
The bard nodded, and tossed the last of her clothes aside. Her dive
was considerably less graceful, and the resulting splash sent large
ripples outward from her entry point.
Xena watched the performance with a hint of a smile. Sometimes, it
occurred to her just how lucky she was that Gabrielle had opted to
follow her that first day. The little bard had cajoled, chattered, and
won her way into her heart. Her stomach muscles clenched as she
remembered that moment in Mitoa when she thought she'd lost Gabrielle.
She'd gone half-mad with grief. If anything happened to her lover, she
wasn't sure she wanted to go on. She shook herself abruptly, chasing
away the demons with conscious effort. Gabrielle was alive and well, and
a year later, the scars were nearly gone. Xena flexed her muscles, and
felt the faint pull of her own recently acquired scars. Her own death
hadn't been permanent, but it had been close. She shook her head. They
were both alive. There was time to experiment with these new feelings.
Wanting to chase away the grim turn of thought, Xena dove deep,
grateful for the feel of the cool water against her skin, washing away
the sweat and dirt of the road. She came up near Gabrielle, head back,
mouth open, sun glinting off her dark hair.
Gabrielle watched her with wide eyes, wondering if Xena had any idea
just how beautiful she was. She was like some gorgeous, dangerous
animal, all beauty and grace. Xena opened her eyes, head swinging around
until her gaze met Gabrielle's. Electricity arced between them with
shattering force. The bard jumped when Xena suddenly laughed, slapping
the water with her hand to send a spray of water over her young friend's
A war broke out in full force as the two splashed each other like
Gabrielle ducked under and came up laughing as she spattered Xena
directly in the face.
The warrior princess retaliated with a volley of return splashes that
quickly swamped the younger woman, prompting her to disappear
Xena twisted around, hunting for her friend, and suspecting a trick.
She felt a brief rush of water against her legs, but couldn't spin
around in time. Gabrielle's hands landed on her shoulders and she
pushed. Xena grabbed a lungful of air on the way down, then purposely
went even deeper than Gabrielle intended, twisting around as her feet
touched bottom. She kicked off a heartbeat later, and came up the length
of Gabrielle's body, catching her around the waist as she swam upward.
She hauled her lover up, lifting her halfway out of the pond as her head
broke the surface.
"Xena," Gabrielle yelped, bracing her hands on Xena's
shoulders to steady herself.
Treading water with powerful legs, Xena managed to keep her young
lover well out of the water. "You surrender?" she demanded
with a grin.
"Never," Gabrielle shrieked through a laugh, playing along
with the game.
Xena's lips back in a grin. "Good." She opened her mouth
over Gabrielle's ribcage, deliberately sinking back under water. Her
lips ranged over warm wet skin for a long moment before she kicked off,
again angling toward shore. She drew in a deep breath as she surfaced,
then went back to concentrating on Gabrielle's flat stomach, keeping
them both afloat with steady kicks.
"What are you doing?" the object of her attention gasped.
Xena's eyebrow lifted, but she didn't look up. "If you don't
know the answer to that, I need to try harder," she chuckled. She
spread her hands over the curve of Gabrielle's back, then spiked her
feet to drop back underwater. This time, her mouth ranged lower, tongue
brushing over her lower stomach and darting into the indentation of her
navel, before the need for air drove her up again. She came up a few
feet closer to shore, treading water with powerful kicks. She tilted her
chin up, lips drawing into a sensual smile. "Ready to give up,
"Do I look stupid?" Gabrielle murmured dazedly.
Xena chuckled low in her throat. "I'll take that as a no."
"You do that," the bard sighed as they slid lower into the
water. This time, Xena tugged her head under as well, ranging her mouth
up her torso, wrapping her lips around a sharp nipple, before moving
higher. Their lips met in a leisurely kiss that continued until they
surfaced again. This time, close enough to the shore that Xena could
stand with her head above the surface. Curving her hands along the
underside of Gabrielle's ribcage, she hefted the young woman higher
against her body, while the bard braced her hands on Xena's shoulders
taking some of her own weight. The position gave her lover more freedom
to explore her breasts, tasting, teasing, leaving nothing untouched.
Still carrying the bard, Xena continued closer to the smooth rocks
that edged the pond, gradually taking more and more of her weight. She
let her lover's smaller body slide down hers, murmuring, "Wrap your
legs around my hips," she exhaled. She felt the soft shudders as
silky soft hair and flesh slid down her belly, teasing sensitive nerve
endings with the promise of more. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the
back of Xena's neck, grinning down at her from her higher position.
"Y'know, I think I kinda like being on top," she joked.
Xena's eyes narrowed faintly, and one brow lifted.
Gabrielle dismissed it as her usual "Xena look" and just
They stayed there, staring at each other for a long moment, losing
themselves in emotions of the moment, and the promise of what was to
come. Gabrielle could almost feel her pulse falling into sync with
Xena's as erotic play turned to very real sensual energy. Near painful
heat centered between her thighs. Gabrielle played very gently with the
wet hair streaming down Xena's back. "Don't you...uh...think,
maybe, we should...uh..." she nodded toward the shore only a few
Xena's pale eyes burned with blue fires of lust, but she didn't move.
"Soon," she promised.
Their breathing was in rhythm now. Cool water lapped up over warm
flesh, making Gabrielle that much more aware of the contrasting
temperatures. Work roughened hands slid down over her hips, drawing
lines of fire, before tightening their grip. She lifted her lover
slightly away from her body, allowing cold water to wash between them
and over flesh made warm by intimate contact.
Gabrielle gasped sharply, her head falling back as sensations
fluttered through her. She lost track of everything but the hot flood of
pleasure through her veins, until Xena carefully untangled her legs, and
set her back on her feet. Shaky with passion, she would have stumbled
and fallen if not for the supportive hold on her arms. She blinked,
realizing Xena had move to within a few feet of the shore. Water lapped
around her thighs, occasionally splashing her heated center. "Xena,"
she panted half mad with the need for more.
"Have I won yet?" the warrior princess drawled, the need to
conquer glittering in her bright gaze as it held Gabrielle's softer one.
"If I say yes, do we do something other than just stand
Xena nodded slowly.
"You win." she capitulated cheerfully. "So, what
exactly do you get...for winning, I mean?" she asked on a
suggestive note that sent a ripple down Xena's spine.
Xena reached out, trailing a single finger down the bridge of
Gabrielle's nose, the over her lips.
Gabrielle wrapped her lips around her lover's finger, grazing sharp
teeth against her skin before Xena moved on. She shuddered as that light
touch brushed impossibly lightly down the center of her body.
"You," Xena breathed. Her finger reached the center of
Gabrielle's heat and slipped inside, teasing and exploring, even as she
leaned close, claiming Gabrielle's lips with commanding fervor.
Gabrielle arched into Xena, losing herself in the rich feelings. She was
shuddering by the time Xena lifted her leg, wrapping it around her hip.
The warrior princess carried the delicate figure of her lover to the
edge of the water, lifting her out with controlled strength to lay her
on the sun warmed rocks. "You're the only prize I want
anymore," she exhaled as she knelt over her, one knee resting on
the rock between the spread of Gabrielle's thighs. She trailed light
fingers down the bard's torso, outlining her breasts with languorous
strokes, before moving on, following the indentations of her stomach
muscles. Her fingers slid into the dusting of silky reddish/blonde hair
at the junction of her thighs. Xena's eyes slid lower, following the
same path her fingers had traveled, touching on each and every diamond
bright drop of water.
Gabrielle swallowed hard, instinctively arching her hips into the
feather light caresses between her thighs.
Xena pressed a hand flat over her stomach, gently stilling her.
"Not yet," she whispered. "Lie perfectly still, and just
feel." With one hand braced near Gabrielle's hip, Xena leaned
forward, kissing away the wetness that dripped from her skin. Her mouth
slipped lower, exploring with the sharp point of her tongue until she
tasted a new kind of wetness.
This time, Gabrielle couldn't restrain the need to press against the
intimate caress. Xena pulled away, staring down at her with hungry
intensity. "I told you not move," she whispered.
Gabrielle's head came up her eyes wide with disbelief. "You have
got to be kidding." She whimpered.
Xena sat back on her heels, and shook her head. She drew a line down
the center of Gabrielle's body, lifting her touch away every time there
was the faintest glimmer of a tremor. "Not a muscle," she
chastised. "Consider it part of your training."
Xena chuckled softly, and returned her place between Gabrielle's
thighs, massaging them with strong hands. She leaned forward to explore
her lover's intimate flesh.
Gabrielle jumped, and let out a soft cry, hands lifting to dig
spasmodically into thick, dark hair.
Xena caught Gabrielle's wrists, pinning them to the ground on either
side of her hips. "Lie still," she chided again, the warm
vibrations of her voice making Gabrielle shudder with need. It took all
of her self-control not to arch into her lover's wandering mouth, not to
seek closer contact with the soft roughness of her tongue. She wrapped
her fingers around Xena's wrists, holding onto her as the pleasure
swelled steadily higher. It became almost too much, too good, and she
whimpered low in her throat, begging for completion. This time, Xena
didn't pull away, or chide her to be still. She deepened the hungry
caresses, lips and tongue moving voraciously, until Gabrielle's back was
arched, her muscles bowstring taut, teeth chattering with the need for
orgasm. She let out a soft cry of disappointment as Xena broke off the
caresses, moving up over her body, lifting her wrists over her head as
Xena stared down at her flushed, bright-eyed features with possessive
hunger. "I love seeing you like this," she admitted huskily.
She transferred Gabrielle's wrists to one hand, then ran her free hand
down the younger woman's face, outlining her full lips with a light
touch. "Excited." Her mouth followed the same path as her
hand, and she kissed her very lightly, as she slipped her hand over a
bare shoulder, then down the smooth skin of her arm.
"Please," Gabrielle begged, the brief respite from intense
stimulation increasing, rather than cooling her needs.
Xena rolled a distended nipple between her thumb and forefinger, then
ducked her head to nip the puckered flesh. "Swollen." She
dropped her hand to its comfortable berth between slender thighs.
Gabrielle bucked her hips against the pleasantly invasive touch.
"I think you just like to listen to me beg," she groaned low
in her throat.
Xena chuckled softly, strumming her fingers even faster. "You
could have a point," she admitted and came down on full warm lips,
kissing her with desperate fascination. Gabrielle wrapped her legs
around Xena's thigh, trapping her hand as she rocked against the
much-needed source of pleasure. Suddenly, her orgasm washed over her
with blinding force. Lost in the tidal wave of sensation, Gabrielle
couldn't have come up with something as simple as her own name, if her
life depended on it. Xena released her wrists, and Gabrielle wrapped her
arms tightly around the larger woman's torso, breaking the kiss to bury
her face in the strong curve of her throat. She barely felt the gentle
hand that curved to the back of her head, or the light kisses Xena
pressed to her temple.
"By the Gods," Gabrielle groaned as she floated back to
earth. She pressed a kiss over a sensitive chord in Xena's neck,
breathing in the faintly musky scent of her skin. Still breathing hard,
she tilted her back to peer up at her lover. "But you
didn't..." she trailed off.
Xena kissed her on the tip of the nose. "I wanted this time to
be for you," she murmured.
Xena shrugged. "Does there need to be a reason?" She kissed
the tiny bard again, a grin snaking across her lips as she broke away
again. "I like watching you, feeling you..." She slid the hand
at Gabrielle's sex up over her belly before finally cupping her breast.
"You feel so good."
Gabrielle sighed. "You have no idea," she exhaled dazedly.
Xena chuckled softly. "I think I can guess," she drawled
It was the bard's turn to chuckle. Fingers playing idly with Xena's
still damp hair, she dropped her other hand to her lover's hip, urging
her higher, until her breasts were centered over Gabrielle's waiting
mouth. She laved a swollen nipple with her tongue, then dragged sharp
teeth lightly over the puckered flesh. "You feel pretty good,
"You got that right," Xena sighed.
"Maybe we can make you feel great," Gabrielle suggested and
buried her face in the warm valley between her breasts before working
her way slowly downward, following the centerline of her torso. Xena
straightened her arm, bracing herself higher to give her lover more room
as she tasted and teased her way lower. Gabrielle's tongue followed the
faint ridges that delineated her ribcage, then she scooted a little
lower to outline tight banded stomach muscles in feathery kisses. Taut
muscles rippled and flexed with every loving caress. Gabrielle abruptly
pushed Xena over onto her back, moving over her, to kiss her way even
"You're getting a knack for this," she gasped.
"I've been working on it," Gabrielle murmured, and turned
her head to press a kiss against Xena's silky inner thigh, then returned
to soft, damp flesh, while she ran her hands over her lover's torso,
stroking and caressing.
The warrior princess groaned as if in pain, and her head fell back,
eyes sliding closed as she lost herself in rich sensation.
Desperate to please her lover, Gabrielle ranged over well learned
erogenous zones, until Xena let out a soft cry, every muscle in her body
spring steel taut. She, who had never begged for anything in her life,
abruptly uttered the single word, "Please."
It was an odd moment of triumph for the smaller woman. Xena
commanded, demanded, and occasionally manipulated. She never asked. It
was a sign of the trust that lay between them that she allowed herself
that much vulnerability. She felt the harsh spasms as the warrior
princess went over the brink.
Xena let out a low, keening cry, hips bucking in sync with the
pulsations that ran riot through her veins. She came back to herself
long minutes later, her muscles weak and trembling. Gabrielle kissed her
inner thigh lightly. "That was amazing," she sighed.
Gabrielle laughed softly. "We aim to please."
"Good aim," Xena panted. She folded an arm over her eyes,
breathing deeply in the aftermath.
"I think I got this round," Gabrielle teased.
"Oh, shut up," Xena groaned but she lifted her arm,
wrapping it around Gabrielle as the bard stretched up alongside her.
Xena leaned forward into her lover's midsection, resting her cheek
against Gabrielle's flat belly, while she wrapped her arms around her
hips. Her eyes touched on the narrow scar that marred the younger
woman's ribs. In the throes of passion, she hadn't thought about it, but
now she laid her lips over the remains of the injury, her heart pounding
painfully with the memory of how close she had come to losing her. She'd
forget about it for months at a time, then something would happen and
she'd remember those awful moments. She could lose herself in mindless
sex, but somehow, it always came back to this when it was over. The sick
fear that she'd wind up alone would burn in her heart, until she could
force it down again.
Sensing the direction her lover's thought were taking, Gabrielle slid
through her grasp to kneel in front of her, her forehead just touching
Xena's. "I'm not going anywhere, you know."
Xena brushed a hand along her cheek, then smoothed gentle fingers
back into her hair. "Don't make promises you can't necessarily
keep," she exhaled darkly.
Gabrielle silently absorbed the quiet comment, before finally
whispering. "I don't intend dying for a long time, but...if it were
to happen..." She touched Xena's cheek, catching the edge of a tear
on her finger. "In time, we'd be together again."
"Gabrielle, when it's your time, you'll be in the Elysian
Fields...I..." she paused, shaking her head, and not giving voice
to her dark fears that she could never atone for what she'd been. Her
wrists almost seemed to ache from the feel of the hemp ropes binding her
to the cross.
As if sensing the turn of her thoughts, the bard laid a finger over
her lover's lips, drawing her attention. "I'll be with you,"
she whispered. "Wherever that is."
They shared a slow, loving kiss, until Xena broke away, a
surprisingly soft smile curving her lips. "Enough of that,"
she said, intentionally dismissing the brief bout of depression. She
rose gracefully, and reached down to draw Gabrielle to her feet. "I
don't know about you, but I could use another swim to get over the
effects of the last one."
Her young lover laughed softly, allowing the change of subject. She'd
learned to push the warrior only so far when it came to emotional
matters. Push too far, and it was likely to harden the wall Xena kept
around her emotions. With care, she could sneak around the barriers, and
see into Xena's heart. Any serious thoughts disappeared only seconds
later, as her lover slung her up into her arms. Laughing, Gabrielle made
only a feeble attempt to escape when she walked back into the water. She
realized what her lover intended when good humor glinted in her pale
"Don't!" she shrieked, clinging to Xena's neck as she moved
deeper into the water.
The warrior princess only grinned. The ground beneath her feet
dropped sharply as they moved father from shore, until the water was
lapping around her hips. She suddenly stopped, her grin broadening a
Gabrielle looked out across the water, then back at her lover.
If possible, Xena's grin broadened even farther. "Yes I
would," she disagreed cheerfully, then tossed her slight burden.
Shrieking, Gabrielle flew several feet before splashing into the
chilly water. She came up sputtering, her wet dark hair, draining water
down her face. "Cute," she sputtered, and pushed the sodden
strands out of her eyes. "Very cute. You know this means war, don't
Xena only folded her arms across her chest, and chuckled. "You
do need to work on your hand to hand combat skills," she teased.
Gabrielle leapt at her friend with a mocking growl, and they fell
into a bout of wrestling, dunking and splashing, that lasted until they
were both winded.
On the highest of the cliffs above the two lovers, an agile figure
muted greens and browns sat back to watch the games with a dark, anger
tinged expression. Barely muted rage flared to life as the two slipped
from the water and fell into each other's arms again with soft words and
laughter that carried surprisingly well across the water.
He'd already been there some time, watching, when he heard the
laughingly shrieked name.
A gloved hand fisted tightly.
So, she'd come, no doubt, her army close behind.
He shook his head, dark eyes glittering.
They'd be ready this time. This time the warrior princess would be
the one who suffered. He edged back toward the edge of the forest, where
his horse was tethered.
Gabrielle leaned her head on Xena's shoulder, fingers tracing idle
patterns on her flat belly, only to jerk upright, as the warrior
princess abruptly stiffened and snapped to her feet. She grabbed for her
sword, yanking it from its scabbard as her eyes searched the surrounding
"What is it?" Gabrielle questioned and reached for her
staff. Experience had taught her to expect the worst whenever Xena got
"I heard a horse," the warrior murmured.
Xena shook her head. "I know what Argo sounds like," she
hissed. Suddenly, she tensed, pointing toward the opposite side of the
pond where a dark forest hillside butted into high granite cliffs.
Squinting, Gabrielle could just make out a figure riding away between
the trees. "Well, unless I'm mistaken, we just gave someone a
really cheap thrill," she said dryly.
Xena shook her head, her expression still edgy. "I'm not so
sure," she muttered. She yanked on her leather bodice and boots,
then picked up her sword again, noting that Gabrielle had used the brief
moment to dress as well. "Stay here," she bit out without
pause, as she started down the trail that led around the tiny lake.
"No way am I staying behind," Gabrielle disagreed, grabbing
her staff and trotting after the warrior princess.
Xena flashed an irritated look over her shoulder. "I wish you'd
learn to listen," she grumbled.
"I do listen," Gabrielle argued. "I just don't
necessarily do what you tell me."
That earned her another flashing glare. "You can say that
Long minutes later, they clambered up the last of the cliffs. Xena
reached back, steadying Gabrielle as she climbed to her feet. "Over
there," she murmured as her eyes swept across the rocky
outcropping. She broke away, well aware that Gabrielle followed close
behind, and moved to one corner of the granite outcropping, kneeling
down next to a scattering of disturbed leaves. Several had been ground
into the rock, and tiny stones had been dislodged from the larger rocks.
She rose easily, pacing back toward the edge of the trees. She noted the
broken plants where a horse had been ground tied, and the hay-strewn
droppings that surrounded the area. "He was here for quite
Gabrielle flushed with embarrassment. "Well, I hate to put it
this way," she muttered, her skin turning an even deeper shade of
red. "But I think that's kind of predictable...all things
considered." She fumbled with her staff, unable to meet her lover's
piercing gaze as she mumbled. "I mean, if he'd wanted to attack, it
wouldn't have been that...difficult...when we were..." She trailed
Xena frowned, unable to argue with her lover's logic, but somehow
uneasy with the explanation, all the same. "Probably," she
admitted at last.
Gabrielle waited a beat, then reached out a tentative hand, curving
it to Xena's larger palm. "Let's go. There's no one here
The warrior princess stared into the depths of the verdant forest,
hunting for any signs of movement that might belie her companion's
Her ears pricked, searching the winds for the jangle of a spur, or
the soft blowing of a horse's breath.
So why was she so damn uneasy?
Was it nothing more than a lifetime's paranoia that made her skin
crawl? Or was something or someone waiting for her out there? She truly
didn't know. She lost track of how long she stood there, but finally,
she allowed Gabrielle to tug her away.
Workers toiled atop the walls of the city of Ajanus, repairing the
damage wrought by years of neglect and abuse. The last warlord who'd
used the place had faced plenty of attacks, but had never bothered to
repair the damages. He'd just impressed a few more peasants from the
village, and used them as human barricades.
The technique had worked for a time, but at some point, the peasants
learned to disappear when a battle was imminent, and he'd been forced to
face an attacking army on his own. He hadn't fared well, particularly
since the families of the dead peasants had made up much of the attack
force. They hadn't been happy with his previous means of defense...not
happy at all. They'd left his head rotting on a pike over the walls for
days as a sign of just how unhappy.
The new warlord of the keep was less inclined to waste lives, and
more inclined to shore up crumbling rock. She strode through the
courtyard, angular frame scarcely visibly under a dark billowing cape.
Her gaze touched on the continuing repairs, then swept along to take in
a returning hunting party. They had two deer slung over a packhorse.
Good, that would feed the workers and soldiers for another night or two.
Rhiannon was quite practical in her intention to feed the local
peasants. With their bellies full, they were that much more loyal, and
that much less inclined to sharpen the headsman's axe. She had no
intention of dying in a pool of blood the way her predecessor had, his
eyes bulged with disbelief, a peasant's pitchfork protruding from his
belly. Her gaze swept along the castle walls. She never wanted her head
on a pike, spat at by all those she'd harmed in life.
Her gaze swept on, touching on small party of soldiers ready to ride
out. They were hunting a killer who'd murdered several women in the
area. She prayed her men found the bastard soon. He threatened to undo
the unity they'd created.
Despite the fact that she'd rescued them, and fed them, the peasants
looked away as she strode past, fear showing in their eyes. If it
bothered the warlord, she didn't show it. Rhiannon had been of royal
blood, before she'd fallen in with brigands. She'd learned early to
ignore the stares and whispers of those she considered her inferiors.
Despite herself, she reached up, absently fingering the pitted scar that
marred her right cheek, barely brushing the rough cloth tied around her
head to hide her ruined eye socket. Evil eye--the peasants called it,
and their eyes never met her dark gaze, lest they be cursed by the gods.
Even her own men sometimes seemed leery of the injury.
That didn't stop any of them from following her. She'd led them to
some degree of wealth and peace, put food in their bellies and a roof
over their heads. She kept moving with long, confident strides. Her head
swung up a moment later when a guard's voice rang across the courtyard.
She ran to the walls, bounding up the stairs. The loss of her eye
made depth perception difficult, but she had no problem identifying the
lanky figure, on a sorrel gelding, headed their way at a full gallop.
"Open the gates!"
Her brother Dayne, stormed into the courtyard, pulling back on the
reins so hard that his horse, Ares, reared, front hooves pawing the air.
The animal was blowing hard, his chest and flanks lathered with sweat.
Rhiannon dropped from the walls to the courtyard, and caught the
reins, forcing the animal's head down, as she dragged his front hooves
back to earth. "What's happened?" she demanded of her younger
"Xena," the boy panted as he swung down. "I saw her at
Rhiannon flinched as though struck. She shook her head in denial.
"Are you sure? How close were you?"
"It was her all right," Dayne insisted, flicking dark
tangles of hair out of his eyes as he continued. "She was with
another women, and I heard her call Xena's name...more than once."
It took all of Rhiannon's willpower to stay calm. "What about
her army. Did you see them?"
The boy shook his head. "I didn't see them. I don't think
they're in the valley yet. She was alone. We can finally kill her."
Rhiannon pivoted away from him, absently tracing the scar with one
hand, outlining the well-known cuts in the flesh. "It's not that
simple," she exhaled.
"Not that simple," the boy repeated and grabbed her arm,
bringing her back around. "She's the reason Paracelsus managed to
destroy Theros. If she hadn't stolen our supplies, and weakened the
"I know what she did," Rhiannon said very softly, her mind
already racing ahead.
"She made you a slave!" the boy screamed.
The last word seemed to galvanize the woman into motion. She grabbed
her brother by the shirtfront slamming him backwards into his sweaty and
stumbling horse. "I know that! Better than anyone!" she
snarled with feral intensity. "But I also know how she can fight!
And I won't throw away lives needlessly, if it can be avoided!"
The boy was as tall as his sister, but lacking the raw strength her
life as a warrior had imbued on her. Nonetheless, he found the strength
to push her back, his expression sullen. "She deserves to
"Maybe," Rhiannon admitted. "But the men she'll kill
don't." She worked a hand through her long, dark hair, pushing it
away from her face. She noted the crowd that had gathered and was
watching, waiting to hear her decision. They weren't ready to face
Xena's army yet, not by a long shot. They'd be cut down like the
peasants and former slaves they were. "Purgamon," she called
suddenly, waving her lieutenant forward.
He was an impressive man, tall, handsome in a rough hewn way. Gray
flecked the hair at his temples and beard and his eyes showed the weight
of a hard life. He stepped forward with easy grace. "Yes,
"I want you to take ten of your best men out to Granite
Lake...Bring Xena here.... try to avoid using force, but do what you
"Then we'll snap the trap shut on her," Dayne gloated as he
realized his elder sister's intention. "And remove her head from
Rhiannon's eyes shifted back to her brother. "And do what's
necessary." She corrected grimly.
"Kill the bitch!" he shrieked. "Better yet, throw her
to the men. Let every one of them have his piece, then slice out her
"NO!" Rhiannon bellowed, and grabbed his shirtfront again,
rage glittering in her good eye. "MY men DON'T rape,
and they don't kill, unless they have to...not even Xena!" She
hurled the boy back, sending him stumbling across the stone tiles of the
Purgamon watched with thoughtful eyes as she fought to control her
raging temper. Finally, she turned a haunted gaze on the furious, and
sullen boy, shaking her head as if to deny the hot emotions flowing
between them. "I won't become an animal again...not even to kill
her," she swore.
"Then you're a fool," Dayne snarled and strode away.
Rhiannon started after him, but Purgamon touched a hand to her
shoulder with the quiet advice. "You're both too angry right
now." A few peasants and soldiers were watching the scene with
curious eyes, but they quickly went back to their work, when he turned a
warning gaze outward.
"He's angry all the time," she whispered, her eyes
stricken. "I can't break through it."
Purgamon nodded slowly. "He's dangerous...you know that, don't
you?" He said carefully, uncertain how to broach the worry at the
back of his mind.
"What those soldiers did to him before I bought him
back..." she whispered almost inaudibly.
"Is no excuse for what he may be becoming."
She looked up at him, a frown drawing her brows together. She
suddenly recognized the meaning, behind the words. "No," she
whispered, sounding ill. "He couldn't..."
"Are you sure of that?" He pressed.
Rhiannon nodded, denial evident in every stiff line of her body.
"Very sure," she growled, her voice cold and distant.
"You should be leaving now...but before you go," she added.
"Order picket riders to check the boundaries. I want to know where
Xena's army is."
"Of course," Purgamon whispered, his own voice chill. He
strode off, boots kicking up dust as he called his best men together and
Rhiannon watched him go, her expression worried. The keep unfinished,
a killer in their midst, and now Xena. What more could go wrong?
Xena watched the reds and golds of the dying sun spread across the
sky in dramatic streaks, with a hint of a smile. She tightened her hold
on the slender figure pressed against her side. Gabrielle's head was
pillowed on her shoulder, her red/gold hair spread across her arm. The
tension that had come when she realized they were being watched had
drained off, leaving her pleasantly mellow. She slipped a hand under
Gabrielle's top, spreading her hand against her back.
Smiling, Gabrielle brushed her knuckles down the leather front of
Noting the advancing darkness, Xena sighed softly, loathe to
surrender the comfort of the position. The boulder at her back was
pleasantly warm, but she knew things would be getting chilly as soon as
the sun fell out of sight behind the mountains. "I should build a
fire," she murmured and started to ease her arm out from behind
The bard lifted an eyebrow. "I thought you already did that
pretty well," she teased.
Xena sighed with mock disgust. "I meant the kind where you rub
two sticks together," she deadpanned.
"Well, we didn't try that, but..."
"Shhh," Xena hissed abruptly as her ears picked up the
sound of hoofbeats.
"Horses," Xena hissed and snapped to her feet, grabbing for
her sword. They were in a fairly hidden alcove, but if someone was
looking for them, they wouldn't be hard to find. "Stay here,"
she ordered Gabrielle, and started forward, peering around the edge of
the rocks. A dozen men on horseback entered the clearing below the
rocks, their mounts moving in easy syncopation. Their leader held up a
hand, calling the troop to a halt. Xena's eyes narrowed, studying the
soldiers with a professional eye. Their armor was limited, but they were
all clean, their horses well cared for. She noted that they rode
together in automatic formation, and obeyed their leader without
question. They were undoubtedly either soldiers for some minor local
potentate, or in service to some relatively unknown warlord more
interested in self protection than expanding borders.
"What do we do?" Gabrielle whispered as she pulled up
behind her friend.
Xena glanced back with a frown. "I told you to stay back,"
"I needed to know what was going on, didn't I?"
Xena snorted something under her breath, then turned back, watching
as the soldiers began to water their mounts. Their leader's eyes swept
upward, and Xena stiffened the instant she realized they'd been seen.
"Hola!" the guard captain called out, and strode forward.
Waving at Gabrielle to stay where she was, Xena stepped forward, her
sword sheathed, but in hand. "Hello."
"I'm Purgamon, captain of the guard at Ajanus," he
introduced himself with a nod of the head.
"Xena," the warrior introduced herself without further
fanfare, noting that the remainder of the guard flashed an occasional
glance her way, but mostly ignored her.
Purgamon's eyes narrowed as he searched for the best way to bring the
warrior princess without violence. He'd glimpsed the girl behind her,
and a plan quickly formed. "May I come up. I'd like to ask you a
question, or two, if you don't mind."
Xena considered the question for a long moment, before finally
nodding. She watched the tall soldier climb the short distance with wary
caution, careful to keep Gabrielle well behind her. She was in a
defensible position, but she didn't want to fight, if she didn't have
to. She was relieved to note he kept his hand well away from his sword
as he scrambled up to join her. She felt his curious gaze as he noted
her lack boots and armor, but didn't react.
"My men and I are on patrol."
Xena nodded silently, encouraging him to continue.
"There've been several killings in the area in the last...all
young women...all..." His eyes touched on the diminutive figure
behind Xena as he debated his choice of words. "Brutalized,"
he decided at last.
Gabrielle's eyes rounded at the implication, while Xena's darkened
with disgust. She'd seen worse things in her time, but it still sickened
her to see someone abused that way.
He gestured across the lake. "Two of the killings happened in
this area. I was wondering if you've seen anything unusual."
Gabrielle sharp gasp of air drew his attention, and he looked at Xena,
obviously hunting for clarification.
"We saw someone on the rocks up there," Xena informed him
with a nod toward the opposite side of the lake. "He was watching
"Did you get a look at him?"
She shook her head. "By the time I caught a glimpse, he was
Purgamon cursed softly and smoothed a hand over his short-cropped
hair. "No one's been able to spot any more of the bastard than
that," he growled.
Xena saw the genuine frustration in his eyes. He was a man trying to
stop something ugly, and she felt a wave of sympathy. "He was
riding a sorrel," she murmured, remembering the glimpse she'd
caught of the horse." It wasn't much, but it was all she could
Purgamon's eyes darkened. She'd glimpsed Dayne. He couldn't help but
wonder if the boy was the killer, scouting new victims, until he'd
realized who the dark haired woman was. He was silent for a brief
moment, lost in his own thoughts. Finally, he looked up. "Under the
circumstances, we've been allowing the villagers, and any travelers who
care to, to stay within the walls of the keep at night. You and your
companion are welcome to ride back with us."
Xena started to refuse. She was quite capable of protecting their
camp. Then she remembered how the man on the hillside had managed to
stay there for some time without being seen. Once before she'd seem a
madman whose pleasure was killing in the dead of night. He'd had almost
preternatural skill at moving without being seen and near inhuman
strength. It had taken an entire village to take him down. For herself,
she didn't worry, but there was Gabrielle. She glanced back at the young
woman, then back at the patiently waiting soldier. Finally, she nodded.
"Thank you. I'd appreciate that."
"We'll be a few more minutes. If you don't have horses, you and
your friend can each ride behind one of my men."
"Don't worry," Xena assured him. "I have a
horse." She watched for a moment, as he started to climb back down,
Gabrielle turned a startled expression her way. "I...uh...didn't
think you'd agree."
Xena shrugged as she moved to tug on her boots and armor. "Put
things together while I get Argo," she ordered, noting that
Gabrielle had used the brief moment to pull on her own boots and grab
The girl caught her hand before she could turn away. "You're
doing this because of me, aren't you?" she whispered perceptively.
Xena shrugged. "We'll be safer at the keep." She nodded
toward Purgamon and his soldiers. "He seems like a good man. I
trust him...and I don't trust whoever that was watching us this
Gabrielle swallowed hard, a flicker of fear showing in her eyes
before she covered it.
"Now, go on and finish getting ready. I want to ride out with
Gabrielle watched her disappear around the side of the boulder and
heard a sharp whistle, before she moved to pack their things.
Within a very few minutes, Gabrielle passed Xena the small pack that
contained their things, watching as she tied it to Argo's saddle. The
soldiers were ready to leave, but they waited while Xena mounted, then
helped her companion up behind her.
Purgamon trotted his own animal over. "Ready to leave?" he
Since the trail was wide enough for two horses, the soldiers were
riding in pairs. The captain had ridden in alone at the head, which left
the space next to him open, so Xena found herself in the position of
riding there, or at the back, where the dust and dirt would be at their
thickest. She chose the front of the small troop, keeping easy pace with
Purgamon looked over, meeting Xena's eyes, before letting eyes wander
back to the woman behind her. "I'm afraid I didn't get your
name," he murmured over the sound of pounding hooves.
The bard's mouth turned up in a friendly smile.
"Somehow, you don't seem like the...warrior...type..." he
She shook her head. "I'm a bard...well...in training
anyway." She felt Xena stiffen, and sensed that her friend was none
too anxious for her to continue the conversation.
Purgamon seemed to sense the vibrations as well, because his gaze
swung back to Xena. "Xena..." He repeated her name.
"You're the one they call the warrior princess, aren't you?"
he questioned, curious whether or not she'd answer honestly.
"Once..." Xena admitted. "A lifetime ago...some people
called me that."
"I'd expect to find you riding with an army...not a bard."
Xena shrugged one muscular shoulder. "Not anymore," she
"Does that mean you don't have one anymore, or just that you
don't ride with them?" he pressed, trying to understand her
Xena looked over at the tall captain, and saw the worry in his eyes.
She couldn't really blame him. In his shoes, she'd have been equally
uneasy letting a famous warlord into her castle. "Look, I realize
what has you worried. Let me put your mind at ease. I don't have an
army, and I'm not out to take your master's keep. I just want a safe
place for my friend and I to spend the night."
"Fair enough," the soldier allowed, but an odd expression
remained in his dark eyes.
They rode the rest of the way in silence, and didn't reach Ajanus
until some time after nightfall.
Xena noted the ongoing repairs and fires that dotted the inner
courtyard. Purgamon hadn't lied about one thing, most of the villagers
did appear to be spending their nights within the safety of the keep.
She watched as he trotted his mount over to one of the gate guards, and
picked out a few words of their conversation.
"...went out...another killing..."
She would have known instantly what had happened, even if she hadn't
overheard the words, by the way Purgamon's shoulders sagged at the news.
His soldiers disappeared, stabling their horses before bivouacking for
the night. Uncertain what she should do, Xena reached back and helped
Gabrielle down before dropping to the ground. She waited until the
captain of the guard returned, his expression grim.
He made no mention of the bad news he'd gotten, just swung down from
his horse. His dark eyes touched on Xena and Gabrielle, taking in their
features under the dim glow of torchlight. "The villagers always
stay together at night...and any single men who spend the night are
bivouacked with the soldiers."
Xena realized suddenly that she and Gabrielle presented something of
a logistical problem.
"If you like, there are spare quarters within the castle proper.
We can put you up there," he offered.
Which meant that he wanted them somewhere safe, but also somewhere he
could keep an eye on them. "Thank you," she agreed. "That
would be appreciated."
Purgamon retrieved a torch, and led the two women into the crumbling
castle after ordering one of his men to see to Argo's care. "I'm
afraid it's not in the best of condition," he apologized. "We
felt it was more important to get the outer walls repaired first."
Xena nodded. "You haven't been here long, have you?"
He shrugged. "A warlord named Childus had set up residence here.
He was killing off the local peasantry. They didn't like the idea too
much, so they threw in with us, and we cleaned him out...then
"You're mercenaries?" Xena questioned.
"Some of us were," Purgamon admitted. "But not
anymore...now..." he shrugged. "It's good land. It only needs
a gentle touch." He led them up a narrow flight of stair that ran
along one wall, then down a corridor. "Here," he said quietly
as he pushed a heavy wooden door wide.
By the look of it, the chamber had once been incredibly fine. The
wall frescoes were chipped and stained, but the pastoral scenes were
skillfully done. Little furniture remained--though Xena suspected it had
once been well appointed--but there was a large bed, and a huge
"I'm afraid this is the only spare room with a bed,"
Purgamon explained. "If you want separate rooms, one of you will
have to sleep on the floor."
Xena shook her head. "This is fine." She didn't add that
she had no intention of being separated from Gabrielle in this place,
though she suspected he knew it.
"More than fine," Gabrielle agreed cheerfully as she paced
around the other two. "I haven't slept in a real bed in ages."
Purgamon allowed himself a hint of a smile at the young woman's good
humor. "There's a communal eating area on the first floor. If
you're' hungry, feel free."
Xena's brows drew together in a surprised frown. "You're feeding
the villagers?" she questioned, surprised by the idea.
"A man with food in his belly makes for a loyal citizen."
He stared at the two women for a long moment, and seemed about to say
something, only change his mind. "I should go see to my men,"
he exhaled at last, and started to back out of the room.
"Thanks for your help," Xena offered.
Purgamon nodded and disappeared, pulling the door shut in his wake.
Gabrielle tossed their things into one corner of the room, then
dropped onto the bed, leaning back on her hands with a particularly
satisfied grin. "I like him," she admitted.
Xena nodded. "So, do I...which is what bothers me..." she
"I don't understand," Gabrielle said in confusion.
Xena brushed her bangs back from her eyes. "Unless, I'm mistaken
that man was lying about something...something that was bothering him
Gabrielle bounded up off the bed to slip her arms around Xena's waist
from behind. She kissed her shoulder, just below the edge of an armored
epaulet. "Are you sure? I didn't pick up anything like that."
"Oh, I'm sure," Xena exhaled grimly. She lifted her arm,
reaching back to tug Gabrielle around in front of her. "Which is
why I want you to stay close, and be careful as long as we're
Gabrielle leaned against the taller woman, resting her chin in the
valley between her breasts as she stared up at her. "Close?"
She repeated. "I like that idea." She waggled her brows
suggestively, then laid a kiss over her lover's sternum. "Do you
know we've never made love in a bed?"
Xena cupped the bard's face in her hands, and dropped a kiss on her
forehead. "And we're not going to tonight."
Gabrielle made a soft sound of disappointment. "Let me guess.
You're going to sit up and guard the door all night."
"That's right," Xena agreed.
"Do you have a reason, or is it just...a feeling?"
"Point one," Xena began. "There is a
killer on the loose. Just because we're in a castle, doesn't make it
safe. Point two....I have a bad feeling about this. Did you notice that
Purgamon didn't tell us who's in charge around here? It was almost as if
he didn't want us to know." The last was said more to herself than
"Okay," Gabrielle sighed, sounding disappointed. "No
lovemaking... I suppose it would also be against the rules for us to go
get something to eat?"
Xena considered the question for a moment before finally nodding.
"I think that'd be all right. Besides, I'd like to get a look
around." She set Gabrielle back and pushed her towards her things.
"Bring your staff," she advised. "And you might want to
wear your cloak. It's going to get cold tonight." In the end, she
took her own advice, slinging a heavy dark cape on over her armor.
Wrapped in a warm, wool cloak, Gabrielle followed her friend from the
room, eyes searching the gloomy interior barely illuminated by Xena's
torch. They went back downstairs the way they'd come, then wandered the
lower level, until the smell of food drew Gabrielle. She found the huge
back room that had obviously been set aside, as a cooking and eating
area, with unerring accuracy. Long, rough hewn tables and benches
dominated the room, barely illuminated by the torches on the walls.
Several large, cast iron pots hung over bright coals, their gently
simmering contents tended by an old woman who went from pot to pot, her
shoulders hunched with age. She looked up, bright, bird eyes locking on
"Awfully late for eating," she complained as they drew
Gabrielle turned on her brightest smile, while Xena continued to look
"Sorry," the bard apologized instantly. "We only just
got here." She leaned over a pot, breathing in deeply.
"Venison stew isn't it?" she murmured, noting the old woman's
disapproving nod out of the corner of her eye. "I just love venison
stew and this smells like it's worthy of the gods."
"Well," the old woman hesitated. "It is a pretty good
"I'm sure it's just wonderful," Gabrielle babbled in her
struggle to get on the woman's good side. "My mother used to have
the most wonderful recipe for venison stew...and this smells just like
it. She always used fennel root and it was just the right touch."
"I use fennel root too," the old woman admitted, slowly
being charmed by Gabrielle's insistent good humor.
Gabrielle, who'd noted the remains of the plant on a cutting board,
nodded as though the statement was a shock. "Then I'm sure it will
be just wonderful. That is, if we could have some."
Xena let out a soft, long suffering sigh.
"Of course, of course. Just have a seat. I'll bring you a bowl.
There isn't any bread left, but the stew was just made tonight."
She bustled off to dip them servings in wood bowls, while the two found
seats away from the fire.
"See," Gabrielle began as she leaned close to her friend.
"You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar."
Xena's nose wrinkled at the smells floating through the room.
"Actually, I think you can probably catch the most flies with that
stew," she observed dryly.
"Be nice," the bard chided as the old woman drew near
She set bowls in front of each woman, then folded her arms, waiting
expectantly while Gabrielle lifted the wooden spoon standing in the
thick stew. "It's wonderful," she praised lavishly after
taking a bite. In reality, it was somewhat flavorless, but probably
better than anything the local villagers had eaten in a long time. Her
village had generally been fairly prosperous, but there had been bad
years, when hunger was a constant companion. The people she'd seen
gathered around their fires outside had the look of a population unused
to regular meals.
Xena took a tentative bite of hers, apparently satisfied that it
wasn't going to poison her...at least not instantly.
"Soo..." Gabrielle continued the conversation
intentionally. She'd learned early that one of the best places to get
gossip (and, after all, a bard survives on the quality of the gossip she
hears--heroic tales are all well and good, but people like to hear about
the seamier side as well) was from the old ladies who populated the
keeps and tiny towns they passed through. They seemed to have some
secret network that let them in on all the nasty little secrets a town
had to hide. "I hear the master of this castle cuts a pretty
The old woman's chin bobbed in agreement. "Yah, what with that
missing eye and all."
Xena allowed herself a hint of a smile as she realized that Gabrielle
had heard her comment about Purgamon not wanting her to know who was in
charge. The bard could be pretty sneaky when she was of a mind.
"Missing eye...really? Why I heard he's hideously scarred
The old woman's eyes brightened. "Yah," she agreed.
"But it's not a he...it's a she...her right side all cut up like an
animal got to it. From one side, it's as though she was formed by the
god's themselves. From the other, a demon from the pits of Charon...And
it's her right side what's destroyed..."
Gabrielle blinked, not quite understanding the reference.
"They think she has the evil eye," Xena offered.
"Yah," the old woman agreed.
"I'm surprised the villagers have agreed to work for her,"
Xena said thoughtfully.
Their informer sat down, leaning arthritic elbows on the table,
obviously grateful to have someone willing to listen to her. "I'm
Magda, by the way," she introduced herself.
"I'm Gabrielle...and this is Xena."
"Pleased to meetcha," Magda said quickly, then leaned in
close, her voice dropping conspiratorially low. "When she and that
army of hers came, we hoped they were demons. Prayers to the gods hadn't
helped, so we thought maybe the evil ones would. Childus and his bunch
were still stealing our young men, and throwing them in front of
Platarch's army to slow down his attempts to take the keep. We offered
them our loyalty if they'd drive the two warlords out...." she
grinned, something bloodthirsty showing in her eyes as she continued her
tale. "And they did...led into battle by her. She usually wears a
rag over the missing eye, but that day, she went without...it was
hideous to see. Shield on one hand, sword in the other, she rode through
Childus' men like they were children...cutting them down with that huge
curved sword of hers..."
"Curved sword?" Xena repeated, suddenly all tension. She
leaned in close. "Does it look like this?" she demanded
hoarsely, drawing a scimitar like shape on the table top with her
Magda nodded. "Yah, and yay long," she said, marking an
overlong blade with her hands.
Xena swallowed hard. "Her name?" she demanded.
The old woman suddenly realized there was something very wrong and
started to pull away.
"Xena, what is it?" Gabrielle questioned, in an attempt to
blunt the hot emotions suddenly coursing through her friend.
Xena ignored her, instead yanking the woman back. "Her
name?" she growled in a voice that brooked no argument.
Xena shoved Magda back, grabbing Gabrielle's hand and rising so fast,
she knocked the bench over. "Come on, we're getting out of
here," she snarled and dragged Gabrielle toward the front entrance,
ready to forget what few belonging remained in the room overhead to get
free of this place quickly.
Involved in what she was doing, she never noticed the dark eyes that
watched them from the shadows.
"Xena, wait," Gabrielle called out as she was
unceremoniously hauled along. "What's going on? Who's this Rhiannon?"
Xena pushed Gabrielle ahead of her into the chilly night.
"Later," she snarled. "Right now, we're leaving...."
"Xena...wait..." Gabrielle tried again, this time fighting
to pull them both to a halt.
"I'm surprised he didn't put a guard on us," the warrior
princess muttered to herself as she started across the courtyard to
where she thought the stables must be.
"No!" Gabrielle snapped and finally yanked her hand free.
Xena spun to face her. "Gabrielle, we have to leave now...while
The bard shook her head. "Not until you tell me what's going
on," She hissed.
Abruptly realizing they were being watched by several of the
villagers camped in the courtyard, Xena grabbed her lover, dragging her
into the shadows as she answered ambiguously. "She's someone I used
"A lover?" Gabrielle demanded, startled by the jealousy
suddenly flaring in her heart.
Xena waved the idea off. "No," she dismissed. "She
wasn't much more than a child the last time I saw her...I thought she
was dead..." she shook her head, swallowing hard as she muttered,
"She must have survived the battle somehow."
"I don't understand, Xena...who is she...and why are you so
afraid of her?"
Xena slowed, catching her breath, and forcing down her own emotions
to answer. "She was the daughter of King Timolous of Theros. I'd
just taken a beating against Paracelsus when I ran across his lands,
intending to take them. The king's keep was well fortified though, and
Timolous had heard I was coming, so he prepared his supplies, ready to
wait us out...I could have done a lot of damage, but my men were already
injured...and I wasn't ready for a long siege...so we made a deal. I'd
leave his lands untouched...and in return, his wife would see to my men.
She was a healer, the finest I've ever seen...and with her touch, my
army was soon on its feet..." She trailed off, unable to continue
"And you didn't keep your word?" Gabrielle whispered in a
"Oh, I kept it," Xena denied, her voice rich with shame.
"But I knew Paracelsus was only a week's ride behind me...so I made
sure the castle's stores were depleted, the fortifications weakened,
then I rode out...sat on a hillside above the keep, and watched it
Gabrielle swallowed hard. She knew about Xena's past, but sometimes
she found it hard difficult to resolve the woman she knew and loved,
with the one who had ridden over her enemies with such callous
Xena swallowed hard, struggling against tears. "I wanted the
Queen...wanted her skills in service to my army. When it was all over, I
rode in, and offered to buy her...Unfortunately, neither she, nor the
king's three elder daughters survived the attack. Only his youngest
Xena nodded. "She was only about twelve, but she already had her
mother's skills...I paid thirty dinars...and they brought her to me in
chains....terrified�alone...." Xena shook her head. "I felt
I was doing her a favor," she whispered raggedly. "She lived
in my tent, saw to the men's wounds, and tended to me...but no one was
allowed to touch her..."
"Xena," Gabrielle prompted gently when her lover trailed
off into silence.
"She had a face that could have driven the god's mad with envy.
I intended to have her when she was old enough...and I don't share
what's mine...But, I wanted her to be more than a healer...I wanted a
warrior as well. I gave her that sword, and
I taught her to use it...then I dragged her into battle." Xena's
eyes became distant, staring into the past, rather than the present.
"The first time she killed a man, she was nearly killed, because
she couldn't stop throwing up..."
"That's why you don't want me to learn how to use a sword, isn't
Xena nodded. "It changed her...she became harder with every
passing battle, until suddenly, she we were in the middle of a battle,
and she froze. I tried to get to her, but she disappeared into the
crowd. By the time I got to where I'd seen her, she was gone. I thought
she was killed."
"She ran," Gabrielle murmured with an odd sense of insight.
"She's the one who taught you so much about medicine, isn't
Xena nodded, then suddenly snapped back to the present. "Do you
see why we have to leave? I don't want to fight her...I'm not sure I
could to save my own life..." Xena cupped Gabrielle's face in one
hand. "But, if it came down to a threat to your life, I might have
Suddenly understanding her friend far better, Gabrielle nodded in
agreement. "Let's go."
Xena linked hands with her young lover and turned toward the stable,
only to pull up short as she realized their conversation hadn't gone
unnoticed. A tall silhouette stood only a few feet away. For the
briefest moment, she thought it was Purgamon, but the frame was too
narrow, and she was fairly certain the captain of the guard wouldn't
have been caught skulking around. "Who's there?" she demanded
as she eased Gabrielle behind her.
"Don't you know me, Xena?" a man's voice whispered.
She shook her head. "No."
The shadow let out a soft chuckle, the sound sepulchral in the thick
darkness. "You took everything from me, and now you can't even
remember me," Dayne snarled as he stepped from the shadows.
Xena's eyes fell on the hawk-faced young man with no recognition.
"Unfortunately, I've hurt a lot of people in my life," she
whispered, her voice thick with shame.
"Don't I know it," the boy sneered. "My sister may not
have the courage to kill you, but I do..." He drew the weapon
sheathed on his left hip.
Xena straightened, pushing Gabrielle away, in case the boy lunged.
"I don't want to fight you," she said without touching her
"Then I'll just kill you," he snarled, advancing a step at
Xena watched the floating tip of the sword. Either the boy had never
had any lessons with the weapon, or his teacher had been a poor one
indeed, because he didn't know to hold the blade steady as he advanced.
"Make sure you make a clean hit," she told him almost
conversationally. "Because if you don't, I'm likely to lose my
temper... then I'll rip your throat out." She pointed at her own
throat, still holding the boy's dark eyes. "This is the best place,
if you want to kill with one blow...the heart's good too, but you don't
look like you have the strength to push the blade all the way
home," she taunted.
With an inarticulate roar of rage, the boy lunged.
Xena neatly sidestepped the blade, catching her would-be attacker by
one wrist and the scruff of the neck when he stumbled past her. With the
speed of a striking snake, she stripped the sword from his hands, and
flung it away, before slamming him into the wall of the keep.
"Never fight unless you know you can win, boy," she snarled
furiously. "And never raise a sword to me again, unless you're
ready to die."
Dayne struggled wildly, but his strength was no match for the warrior
"Xena," Gabrielle spoke gently, hoping to calm the
situation before it got any more heated. She knew Xena wouldn't mean to
hurt the boy, but she also knew how her friend's temper could explode.
"Let him go," Purgamon instructed with quiet authority.
Drawn by the sounds of combat, he'd come, ready to make a drunken
soldier calm down, only to find Dayne trying to face down Xena. The boy
was a mad fool who'd get them all killed if he wasn't careful. When Xena
didn't immediately comply, he retrieved the Dayne's sword and stood
ready to face her down.
Xena shoved the boy away, sparing him hardly a glance as he fought
for his balance. Purgamon caught him by the scruff, and shoved set him
on his feet.
The boy whirled, flinging his arms wide, his courage sufficiently
bolstered by the arrival of the soldier. "Kill her now..." he
urged, his eyes glittering with mad lights. "Kill her for
everything she's done...kill her for every time, you look at my sister
as a woman...until she turns her head, and you see she's a monster
"Shut up," the soldier snarled, and grabbed the boy by the
Dayne leaned in close to the older man, his voice conspiratorial.
"Kill her because you know you'll never be able to bear the idea of
making love to that."
Purgamon hurled his tormentor away, but the boy only hit the stone
tiles laughing. "Kill her," he urged.
Danger danced in the air around the big man. "Perhaps, I should
kill you instead," he hissed, rolling the sword in his hand in a
series of intricate loops and whirls. "You're the monster."
"No," Xena said sharply, her hand landing on his shoulder
with reassuring weight. "It would be no better than murder."
"No!" Dayne screamed. "I won't be saved by
Whatever response either warrior might have made was cut short by a
call from the walls. "RIDERS COMING!!"
Cursing under his breath, Purgamon stormed forward, hauling Dayne to
his feet by the scruff of the neck, and dragging him along as he stomped
toward the main gates. The boy abruptly broke from his hold and
disappeared into the night, but he made no move to fetch him back. There
were more important matters at hand.
Despite her better instincts, Xena found herself following him, her
long strides keeping easy pace.
Jogging to keep up, Gabrielle took up the rear. The young woman
pulled up short, as the gates swung wide for a rider.
The heavens seemed to conspire to make note of the moment as
lightning spread behind the clouds overhead, momentarily lighting the
countryside as bright as day. Gabrielle's breath caught as she saw the
rider coming through the gates.
So this was Rhiannon.
Dark hair flung back like a cape, a twisted strip of cloth covered
the ruined half of her face, she clutched a delicate figure in one arm,
and held the reins with the other hand, controlling her wildly running
mount with a strong grip.
The lightning winked out, and Gabrielle was momentarily blind, but
she could hear the clatter of hooves on stone, followed by a woman's
"SOLDIERS...NOW! I NEED HELP!"
When she could see again, Gabrielle realized that the woman was
lowering the figure draped across her saddle into waiting arms.
"Get her into the keep!" Rhiannon panted, struggling for
breath after her wild ride. She felt Purgamon's hand on her shoulder,
and heard the question.
"We found her a ways from the dead girl. They must have been
together. I'd have waited for a wagon, but wolves were drawn by the
smell of blood." She flipped her hair off her brow, and tossed the
reins to a waiting servant. "The others are behind me. They took up
the rear to keep the wolves off my back." She jogged toward the
keep, following the men carrying the unconscious girl. "If we can
keep her alive, we may find out who our killer is."
The men carried their burden into the eating area at the rear of the
keep, laying her out on the smoothest of the tables.
"Bring the torches closer, then go get more. I need light!"
Rhiannon shouted, already rolling up her sleeves and probing the sharp
slashing wounds that littered the young woman's body. "Magda, I
"I already got 'em," the old woman cut her off as she
brought forward a box of various healer's implements.
Rhiannon flashed the old woman a hint of a smile. "Thanks...also
water and rags." She turned back to her patient, brushing blood
spattered blonde hair back from her face. "Come on, you just hold
on," she whispered intently.
At the edge of the room, Xena watched the scene with a faintly lost
expression, as if she couldn't quite resolve the child she remembered
with the woman she was watching now. She knew she should grab
Gabrielle's hand, and leave in the confusion, but she couldn't quite
make herself do it.
Gabrielle slipped through the crowd, eyes locked on the scene before
her. Coming up on the warlord's left, all she could see was the cut
glass perfection of her profile, and it struck her that this woman was
only a few years older than she was. Her eyes swept down, taking in the
way fine boned hands soothed and repaired at the same time. She
recognized the quick competent motions. She'd seen Xena use them enough
times and wondered where she'd learned. Now, as she watched this woman
coax life back into her charge, she knew.
The woman on the table let out a sudden cry, surging upward as she
returned to consciousness. Rhiannon instantly tried to press her back to
the table before she could hurt herself, and a soldier stepped in to
help. The girl only screamed and struggled that much harder.
"Get a woman to hold her down! Dammit!" Rhiannon shouted,
and pushed the confused man back. "She's thinks she's under attack
again. Someone get these men out of here!"
Gabrielle let out a startled yelp as a meaty hand grabbed her
shoulder and she was thrust forward.
"Tell her a story, bard," Purgamon ordered.
Gabrielle pressed her hands down on the frightened woman's shoulders,
holding her down, even as she began to speak, her voice low and
soothing. "You're going to be fine. Do you hear me?"
At the back of the room, Xena experienced a sick burst of terror, as
she saw Gabrielle pushed forward. Lost in her own thoughts, she hadn't
even noticed when her friend left her side.
Rhiannon's hands continued to work with gentle insistence, but she
looked up, gaze meeting Gabrielle's, giving the younger woman her first
real glimpse at the scar that marred the right side of her face before
disappearing under the rags. It didn't seem that awful to her, but then
she had no fear of evil eyes.
"Purgamon said you're a bard?" the warlord said quietly,
her hands never slowing.
Gabrielle nodded, then realized the woman had looked down again, and
didn't see the gesture. "I..yes..."
"Then tell a story," she repeated Purgamon's request with
"Once...there was a village named Amphipolous, and a girl child
born to a tavern owner there. She was destined to be a hero. She lost
her way, for a time, but then she found herself again, and fought for
all that was good and strong. Her name was--"
"Xena," Rhiannon's husky voice cut Gabrielle off, and, for
the briefest second, the bard thought she'd been finishing the sentence
for her, then she realized the warlord was staring toward the back of
the now empty room where a tall figure stood alone. Her gaze swept back
to Gabrielle, and the recognition of what she'd been saying suddenly
glittered there. "Xena?" she whispered again.
Gabrielle nodded. "Xena," she whispered, hoping her words
would convince the warlord. She launched into the tales she'd practiced
so many times, telling of Xena's near death at the hands of her own men,
her heroism, and the many people she'd helped. She told them as she had
never told them before, because instinct told her it might make the
difference between life and death for both of them.
Rhiannon never spoke, except to demand something from Magda or
Purgamon. At one point, Magda broke in to say she'd sent a runner to the
girl's farm to bring her family, but the interruptions never slowed
Gabrielle, or threw her timing.
It was well into the night before Rhiannon finished stitching her
young charge back together. She backed off, and began to systematically
wash the blood from her hands in a wooden bowl of water that Magda
brought. She stood staring down at the unconscious figure laid out on
the table for a long moment, before looking up, her lone eye finding her
lieutenant where he stood back some ways. Some indefinable communication
seemed to take place between the two of them, because she suddenly
straightened her spine. "I want a guard on the girl at all
"Don't worry, I can sit with her until her family gets
here," the old woman offered.
Xena had come up behind Gabrielle, and she curved her hands to the
bard's shoulders, drawing her back to make room for Magda. "We'll
be leaving now," she said very softly, the warning implicit in her
Rhiannon's brow lifted, but she didn't argue, just sank down onto a
bench, narrow shoulders hunched as though she'd been beaten. "I
really wouldn't recommend it," she sighed at last.
"Are you saying we're prisoners?" Xena whispered
Rhiannon let her head fall forward into her hands. "I don't know
what I'm saying," she admitted, wishing the world would just go
away. She looked up a heartbeat later, noting Gabrielle with a worried
expression. "But I do know that our madman's tastes run to your
young friend here," she informed Xena with a loose gesture toward
the bard. "The women we've found have all been small and
Gabrielle felt Xena's hand tighten on her shoulder, and the shift in
her breathing pattern.
The warrior princess looked to Purgamon, who nodded in confirmation.
"Why did you have me brought here?" Xena demanded of her
Rhiannon let out a sharp bark of near hysterical laughter before
catching herself. Massaging the scarred side of her face as though it
pained her, she answered with grim humor. "I reasoned that your
army might not attack if you were inside the castle walls..." She
gestured to their surroundings. "As you may have noticed, we aren't
really up to a prolonged confrontation."
"Then why didn't you have us locked up?"
Another sharp bark of laughter, then Rhiannon answered the question.
"My soldiers are mostly freed slaves. They can swing
a sword well enough to deal with lowlifes like Childus... but I know how
you can fight...also, strange as it may seem, I don't particularly want
to kill you. I just want you to move on without causing any more
Xena stared at the top of the younger woman's head, noting her
exhaustion, and wished she could offer some form of recompense for the
wrongs she'd done. Unfortunately, the biggest favor she could do
Rhiannon was to leave. "I don't have an army anymore," she
said quietly. "They really did come close to killing me."
"She's used what you taught her about medicine to save so many
people," Gabrielle added, hoping to dull the pain she could sense
in the young warlord.
Rhiannon's chin lifted. She didn't know whether she believed them or
not, but she didn't have the strength for further confrontation.
"Spend the rest of the night here. I won't try and stop you from
leaving in the morning."
Xena stood torn, uncertain whether to stay or go. Whatever response
she might have made was cut off by a dull scream of agony.
"No!" Dayne bellowed as he stumbled forward. He carried a
mug of something, and his face was visibly flushed with drink. It was
impossible to tell how long he'd been listening in the shadows, but the
rage in his eyes made it clear he'd heard enough of the conversation to
infuriate him. "You're just going to let her go?" he demanded
of his sister. "After everything she's done."
Rhiannon's chin lifted, and something dark and dangerous lived in her
expression, as her gaze touched on her younger brother.
"Quiet," she hissed, and her gaze touched momentarily on the
injured figure at the opposite end of the room.
"I don't care about any peasant slut," the boy shot back,
defying her in his fury.
For just a moment, Gabrielle had the strongest impression that she
was about to snarl at the boy, before the emotions disappeared behind a
wall of icy control. "I'm still in command here," she husked,
rising gracefully. She didn't have Xena's height or sheer presence, but
there was something imposing about her stance.
Dayne was beyond common sense. He took another swallow of alcohol,
glorying in the strength it gave him. "But I should be. I'm the
only son of Timolous of Theros. You're only his youngest daughter."
"And, if we were in Theros, you might rule...and then, the gods
help us all."
"I should rule here. It's what I deserve." he swore.
"You should be grateful I don't let you have what you
deserve," Rhiannon shot back, her voice thick with hate.
Purgamon stared at the two, not understanding the acid that flowed
between them. When he'd last seen Rhiannon, she'd been frustrated with
her brother, but this raw fury was new.
The siblings stood staring at each other for a long moment, before
something suddenly snapped.
With an inarticulate roar of rage, Dayne hurled the cup in his hand
aside, and lunged forward. Somehow, Purgamon got his arms around the boy
from behind, twisting him up into a full nelson.
Rhiannon was little saner than her brother at that moment, and would
have thrown herself into the fight, if Xena hadn't gotten one arm across
her throat. Using raw strength, she grasped Rhiannon's arm and twisted
it up behind her back. "Get 'em outside," she ordered Purgamon,
already, forcing Rhiannon's smaller figure toward the doors.
Moments later, she shoved the young woman into the cold night air,
releasing her to stumble away. Rhiannon whirled, breathing hard and
glaring, as she fought to control her own flaring temper. It made for a
horrifying contrast to the competent figure who had fought to save the
peasant woman's life.
Purgamon appeared a moment later, Dayne still bound up tightly in his
grip. Even the heavily muscled captain of the guard was pushed to the
limit to keep the boy contained.
Gabrielle followed no more than a pace behind, her staff clutched
tightly in one hand, as though she expected to have need of it.
Purgamon called to two of his men, and shoved Dayne toward them as
they drew near, ignoring the boy's obscenities to order, "Get him
out of here, and sobered up...and keep him out of my way."
It took considerable effort on the parts of the two guards, but they
managed to drag the boy away.
Rhiannon slipped to one knee as though drained of life, and buried
her face in her thigh. Her shoulders shook violently, as though she was
sobbing. Her cheeks were dry when she finally lifted her head.
"Go on back to your room," Purgamon told Xena, but his eyes
were only for the woman on her knee. "I'll see to her."
Her expression infinitely sad, the warrior princess slowly nodded,
backing away. She caught Gabrielle's hand, and started to turn.
Purgamon's voice brought her head back around.
"Please, don't leave," he husked. Strange as it seemed, he
trusted Xena. Something in her manner, coupled with her companion's
utter faith gave him hope that she might be able to help halt the
implosion taking place.
Indecision glittered briefly in Xena's eyes, and a muscle ticked in
her cheek, before she finally nodded. "Come on, Gabrielle,"
she said softly, and tugged her young companion back into the castle.
When they were gone, Purgamon turned back to his leader. She waved
hand toward the keep, before he could speak. "See to guards for the
girl...she may not be safe within this keep..." It was as close to
admitting the fear burning through her chest, as she could come.
He seemed on the verge of arguing, but finally gave way, and
disappeared back into the castle.
Rhiannon watched him go with grim intensity, before letting one hand
float down to her calf. She drew the dagger stuck in the top of the
boot. Blood had crusted in the intricately wrought designs on the hilt,
and it flaked off on her fingers as she handled the weapon. Dayne had
been terrified all the time after she found him again, and bought his
freedom from the soldiers, so she'd given the boy the blade, hoping it
would convince him he would never be a slave again. She rubbed her thumb
over the carved hilt, not wanting to believe her brother was capable of
such a crime.
Finally, she tucked the weapon back in her boot. Things were settled
for tonight. She could worry about it all tomorrow. As she passed into
the keep, she heard the distant sound of Purgamon's voice, and wondered
if he'd come to her. She hoped he would. Despite the strain between
them, she didn't want to be alone.
Onward to Part 2
to the Fanfic Summary Page
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