Copyright: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, etc. are owned by MCA/Universal. I only borrowed them for a little while. No infringement was intended. The rest of the story is mine and I hold the copyright to it. Do not use any part of this story without my written permission. I may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sex: This story contains scenes of two women making love. If this offends you, please dont read my story. There are plenty of other wonderful stories out there.
Violence: There are graphic scenes of violence within this story.
For Lunacy and Verda - You two are the best.
Sysiphus smiled as he watched Charon's boat ferry across the river Styx as it had done so many times before, bringing people into the underworld for Hades to judge and send to either the Elyssian Fields or Tartarus. The king had long ago found a secret tunnel that led to the edge of the river. He of course had been sentenced to the fiery realm because of his attempt to kill Hades' sister Celesta, not to mention his attempt overthrow the God of War. Soon his wife Queen Karis would be arriving, no doubt judged by Hades to go to the Elyssian Fields. Karis, who betrayed him to Xena, who helped to release Celesta from his trap and cause his own death. She would go where he could not. "We'll see about that." he grumbled angrily. The key to entering the underworld was getting across the river Styx and the only way to do that was by paying the one dinar fee to Charon and riding across on his boat. The solution was so simple that Sysiphus couldn't believe he hadn't thought of it before. Charon only allowed passengers to enter the Underworld, not leave it, but if someone else controlled his ferry . The former King of Corinth and master magician studied the gnarled up ferryman carefully. He was the key to everything.
"All aboard, have your dinars ready." Charon said in a bored tone. He took the dinars and put them in his pouch. He never could spend them, there was no place in the Underworld in which dinars were of any use. Still, he couldn't allow people to just cross the River Styx without paying something. He had long ago secured a pouch that seemingly held only four dinars, yet whenever those dinars were removed, four more appeared. One day in boredom Charon had sat on the riverbank and tried to see how many dinars actually were in his pouch. When the pile grew higher than he was tall, the grotesque looking ferryman gave up. Suffice it to say that he had more dinars than he could ever hope to spend. He sighed and took another dinar from the newly departed. Day in, day out, shuttling souls across for Hades, at least it was steady work. Charon was exactly what one would expect in one of Hades' henchmen. His face was a pale white in stark contrast to the black of his lips and around his colorless eyes. Long dark nappy hair hung down from his head. Gnarled fingers gripped the pole that helped him push the boat from one side to the other. His back was hunched slightly, giving him a bent over appearance. The sight of him alone was enough to scare most good people into waiting several days before stepping on the boat and making the journey to meet Hades. Charon had a bit of a mean streak in him and often would deliberately scare small children just to see their reaction, much to his master's dismay. The God of the Underworld had lost track of how many times he had spoken to Charon about his attitude toward his customers. One woman stepped on the boat and tried to nonchalantly slip in with the crowd. "Wait a moment there, where's your dinar?"
"I I'm afraid we're very poor, my family couldn't afford to send a dinar with me." she said apologetically, hoping to appeal to his non-existent good side.
"No dinar, no ride. Go on now, haunt your family until they give you a dinar. I have paying customers to attend to." he said brusquely.
"B-but what if they can never spare a dinar for me?" she said, almost sobbing.
"Then I guess you never get to cross the river, now do you?" he sneered. "Now get off my boat." he chuckled evilly as the now sobbing woman disembarked and a paying customer stepped on. "Ah, that's a good man. Take a seat." he pushed against his pole and sent the boat into motion across the murky depths of the river Styx.
Charon watched the last customer step off his boat and reached for his pole to make a return trip when he saw Sysiphus step onto his vessel. "No passengers." he barked.
"Ah, Charon, my good man. How are you today?" the tall king said as he approached the much smaller ferryman.
"Well, if you really care to know, my corns are aching and my hemorrhoids are acting up again. Do you think Hades would give me a vacation, even one lousy sick day? No, of course not. 'Just keep the boat moving' he says. Bah, let him do this day in and day out and see how much he likes it."
"If you'd like a break I'm sure one can be arranged." the grey haired king said solicitously. "I'd be happy to take over for you for a day or so until you're feeling better."
"No thanks, Hades would have my head if I left this boat. Besides, what are you doing this far out of Tartarus? Planning on stealing Ares sword again?"
"Oh no, I'd never dare do that again. I have a much better goal now." he opened his hand and flung a powder into Charon's face, blinding the ferryman. "Like this."
Sysiphus pushed the boat upstream, away from the crowds of people waiting to cross over. He settled on a small inlet and dragged the blinded ferryman behind him. He came upon a wall that appeared to be smoother than the rest and felt along it until he found the long hidden switch. As expected, the wall opened to reveal a portal to the Overworld of the mortals. "Out you go." he said, shoving the screaming ferryman through the portal. In a flash Sysiphus closed the wall and sealed it with magic to keep it closed, thus preventing Charon from re-entering. "Now Hades, let's see just how powerful you really are." the king said menacingly as he climbed back into the boat and returned to the edge of Tartarus. He had a lot of work to do before the God of the Underworld discovered what had happened.
Xena felt the hoofbeats long before she heard them and was up with weapons drawn, nudging the bard awake from her space on the opposite side of the fire. "What?" Gabrielle said, annoyed that her peaceful dream had been interrupted by her friend.
"We've got company coming. I thought you might want to be awake." the warrior replied, her eyes searching for the first sign of the approaching rider. The bard was on her feet immediately, staff in hand.
"Sounds like a lot of them."
"Two horses, one chariot." Xena said casually.
"Figures you'd know that. Can you tell what color they are too, oh woman of great hearing?" the bard teased.
"How did oh." Gabrielle got her answer when she saw the horses break through the brush and come to a stop. Argo whinnied and frantically pulled on her reins, trying to break free from the branch where Xena had tethered her.
"You can put your staff down, Gabrielle. It won't do you any good." the warrior said, sheathing her sword. "Hello Hades, what brings you up here to bother us today?"
The god removed his helmet and smiled at the mortals. "Ah Xena, how I've missed you." he stepped off the chariot and walked over to their campfire, settling himself on a log. Xena motioned for Gabrielle to sit next to her on the ground on the opposite side.
"What do you need?" the warrior asked, not at all happy that her sleep was interrupted by the handsome God of the Underworld. "Don't tell me Celesta has been kidnapped again."
"No, it's not something that simple." he sighed, running his hand through his dirty blond hair. The two mortals exchanged worried glances, if he was calling the abduction of his sister trivial than this was really a large problem. "It seems that Sysiphus has kicked Charon out of the Underworld. Don't ask me how he did it, but I've looked everywhere and can't find him."
"Who's running the ferry?" Gabrielle asked.
"That's the problem. Sysiphus has not only taken control of the boat, but he's figured out a way to get people out of Tartarus. He's transporting them back across the river Styx."
"Oh no. You mean he's letting them back out here?" she gave Xena a worried glance.
"Worse than that, little storyteller. He's only letting certain ones out. He won't transport the dead over for me to judge and he's letting out those that have met their death at Xena's hands."
"But once they step back here, don't they become mortal again? Can't your sister touch them and send them back?" Xena asked.
"No. Celesta can only touch them once unless there's a new reason. In other words, they'd have to be killed again for her to take them. Do you have any idea how many men we're talking about, not to mention the occasional woman?" he shook his head in disbelief. "Even if they all were killed again, without Charon to ferry them across the river, they'd just find their way back out here."
"You're a god, you can't find him?" the bard asked, trying hard not to think about all the men that would love to get revenge on her best friend for sending them to Tartarus.
"I have no power up here. I can't find him and the other gods aren't much help either. He's a twisted little version of a man with the most sarcastic mouth I've ever heard. I don't understand why he'd be so hard to find."
"He sure would stand out in a crowd. What makes you think we can help?" Xena asked, although she already knew the answer.
"I'm sure the first thing those people will do once they're free is seek you out for revenge. I need you to kill them again and send them back down but you also have to find Charon."
"So hundreds of angry men are going to be after me and you want me to look for some stupid little ferryman?"
"Don't forget the women too, Xena." Gabrielle reminded her, drawing an annoyed glare from the warrior.
"You're the only one I can turn to." Hades explained. "I know that you'll come into contact with the released residents of Tartarus, but you're also the only one who could possibly find Charon for me. I'm afraid that once he has a taste of the Overworld again that he won't want to come back and that he may even go into hiding. You need to find him and fast. The dead souls are piling up on the side of the river and it won't be much longer before I have to ask Celesta to stop touching them until there's more room. As it is she's only visiting those who are certain to be sentenced to Tartarus. I figure there's no harm in letting the good citizens live a while longer, but that can only go on for so long as well. Xena, I really need your help in this." he pleaded. "Don't forget that I judged Marcus twice and your judgment is still to come."
"Don't hold my afterlife over me, Hades." the warrior warned. "I'll help you, you don't need to threaten me."
"I'm sorry, Xena. I don't mean to be like this, but you have to understand just how important it is that we find Charon and soon. I know you're putting yourself in danger but there really is no other choice." he stood. "I appreciate what you're going to do, Xena, and I haven't forgotten how you helped Celesta. I will remember all of this when it comes time for your own judgment." he climbed aboard his chariot and the black horses took off at a breakneck pace through the brush, leaving behind only dust in their wake.
"This isn't good, is it?" Gabrielle said as she gripped her staff a little tighter.
"Only if you consider having a few hundred of your worst enemies being let loose upon you good." Xena quipped. At that moment a horrid thought came to her. She turned and put her hand on the bard's shoulder. "Gabrielle, I think you should go visit the Amazons or your family for a while, at least until this is over." she held up her hand to quiet the protest she knew was coming. "Some of these people don't know who you are but some do. They know you're with me and that makes you a target for them. I can't take the chance that one of them will try to exact revenge on me through you."
"You can't take the chance? Xena, we've been through this before. I chose to follow you and I still choose to do so. I know the risks." she said firmly.
"Do you? Gabrielle, there's no telling how many of them have been let out or how many will find me at once. I'm good but if there are too many of them, you being there isn't going to make a difference except that it'll guarantee your own death. I don't need that on my conscience."
"Oh and leaving you to face them all alone is supposed to make me feel good?" her green eyes flashed with barely controlled anger. "Xena, we're friends. We stick by each other. That's what friends do."
"Gabrielle, it's just too dangerous, don't you understand that?" faces flashed through Xena's mind of those she had killed and she held genuine fear for her friend's safety. Any number of them wouldn't hesitate to cut the bard down if they knew how important she was to the warrior. Xena knew deep inside that she'd never survive if anything happened to Gabrielle, especially if it was because of her.
"I can't just walk away, Xena. Don't you understand that?" she countered. "If you don't let me come with you then I'll just follow you like I did before. You can't stop me. Please Xena, it's just too important." she pleaded, putting all her emotions into her words.
Xena walked away and sat down on the log, her gaze centered on the ground. Gabrielle remained where she was, understanding the warrior's need to have a moment to work things out for herself. Xena picked up a stick and mindlessly drew random patterns in the soft dirt. This was bad, very bad indeed. It wasn't just a case of the dregs of society being released from Tartarus, it was the dregs that had personal vendettas against her. How could she protect innocent lives, and herself for that matter, while worrying about Gabrielle's safety? She had no doubt that the bard meant what she said about following her. The young woman was nothing if not tenacious about being with her. She continued to absently dig into the dirt with the stick as every worst possible scenario played out in her mind. And to top it off, she had to find that weasel of a ferryman or they would just come back after her again and again, not to mention dealing with Sysiphus. Xena tossed the stick in the fire, frustrated with the hopelessness of the situation. She needed time to think, time to plan, time which wasn't available. The crack of a twig nearby brought her head up and she realized that time had just run out.
Xena jumped to her feet and drew her sword, silently pleased that the bard had apparently heard the same sound and was in a defensive stance, staff at the ready. "Well well, Xena, it seems we meet yet again." Toxeus sneered. "Perhaps this time it will be you who gets sent to Tartarus."
"Don't count on it, dead man." the warrior growled, her eyes narrowing.
"A little overconfident, aren't we, Xena?" her head jerked to the left to see Dagnine break through the brush. "You don't have a village of Centaurs at your back to protect you this time."
"Big words for a little man." she retorted, her right hand reaching for her chakram as she mentally calculated the angles needed to take both men out at once. Just as she wrapped her fingers around the edge of the metal disc, eight more well armed men appeared behind Toxeus and a dozen behind Dagnine.
Gabrielle moved closer to the warrior. "This isn't good, is it?" she whispered.
"Nope. Not good at all."
"Run." leaving their belongings scattered about the campsite, the two women took off, Gabrielle running past Argo to reach the road while Xena jerked the horse's reins free of the branch and leapt into the saddle. As she approached the bard, she held her arm out, scooping the smaller woman up behind her. "Hiyah!" Argo took off as if the four horsemen of doom were at her back, leaving behind only a trail of dust for the men to try and follow.
"You can run, but you can't hide, Xena!" Toxeus yelled to the rapidly retreating form. "We're nothing but a small fraction of the souls looking for your blood! Soon all of Greece will be filled with us and we'll only have one thing on our minds...your death!" he broke into a sinister laugh that was echoed by his comrades.
It was almost two candlemarks before Xena felt safe enough to stop and let Argo take a short rest. She dismounted and helped the bard down before leading the horse to the small stream to take a small drink. The warrior turned to see Gabrielle standing there, gingerly rubbing her sore rear. "Problem?" she quirked.
"Oh no, Xena. I love bouncing up and down on the edge of Argo's saddle for a couple of candlemarks without a break." she said sarcastically.
"You know there are women who do like to bounce up and down on a saddle." she let the corner of her lip turn up in a grin. Gabrielle looked at her and raised one eyebrow in her best imitation of the warrior's trademark look.
"Well, it's true."
"I'm sure it is but I'm also sure that they weren't being chased by a bunch of undead killers bent on revenge." she said as she pulled the waterskin off the saddlehorn and took a long swallow.
"No, their motivations are quite different." the warrior quipped, drawing a chuckle from the bard.
"You know, sometimes you are just plain wicked." Gabrielle said with a smile as she handed the waterskin to her friend.
"I know, it's part of my charm." she looked around carefully, not wanting to be surprised again. "I think we can take a break here for a little while. Those men are on foot and Argo does need a rest."
"She's not the only one." the bard said, reaching back to rub her rear again. Xena chuckled and wrapped her arm around the smaller woman's shoulders in a friendly hug.
"I think I saw some berries over there. You go collect them while I walk Argo to cool her down after that hard ride. We'll rest here for a little bit but then we have to get going. The sooner we find Charon the sooner we'll be able to put everything back to order in the Underworld."
"I guess that means I get to come along, huh?" she asked, her green eyes twinkling as she looked up at her tall friend.
"Like there was ever a choice for me, my little shadow." outwardly the warrior smiled but inwardly she was filled with a gnawing fear that she was making the wrong decision.
Charon stumbled aimlessly through the winding hills and valleys until he came upon a small village near the shore. As he drew closer he saw a group of men huddled near the side of a building, placing bets on the roll of the dice. The smell of stale, unwashed bodies and overabundance of ale permeated his senses. "Ah, my kind of place." he said happily, fingering the dinars in his pouch. He wormed his way into the group and played for a while before deciding that dice games were too slow for his taste and he went off in search of more interesting action. It wasn't long before he found the tavern. "The largest mug of port you have." he said to the barkeep, pulling two dinars out of his pouch and laying them on the counter. "And keep it coming. I have a feeling I'll be here for a while." he said as he spied a group of card players huddled around a corner table. "Definitely my kind of place."
Charon ambled over to the table and sat down at the empty chair. "Deal me in, boys."
"You have money?" the dealer asked, his tone indicating that he didn't believe the pasty white man had a dinar to his name.
"No, I figured I'd use carrots to bet with." the ferryman said sarcastically. "Of course I have money." he turned to look at the man on his right. "Next thing you know he'll be asking me if I know how to play cards. I wasn't born yesterday. In fact, I just celebrated my six hundred fifty-first birthday recently." the men exchanged glances, certain that they were dealing with a nutcase. "What? You don't believe me?"
"Doesn't matter what we believe." the man across the table said. "Put your dinars on the table and you can stay, otherwise go away."
"Well, aren't we the sociable bunch?" Charon tossed a coin on the wooden surface. "Deal em, boys, I feel lucky today."
The cool dark night made Xena even more uneasy than before. With untold numbers of people after her blood, the warrior knew that sleep was out of the question. It took a great deal of effort just to convince Gabrielle to try and rest. There was no fire to keep them warm, the danger of it being spotted was too great. Instead Xena pulled her blanket alongside the bard's and curled up against her until the younger woman was completely asleep. Only then did she move away and position herself against the trunk of a large tree, Gabrielle in her sights. Xena let her right hand rest against her chakram, taking comfort in the feel of the cool metal against her fingertips. Her ears were attuned to the sounds of the night life in the surrounding forest. She knew without question just how many squirrels, rabbits, and other assorted creatures were roaming about. She left nothing to chance. If it was just her own safety she was worried about, Xena would have curled up and gone to sleep a long time ago, trusting her inner senses to warn her of any danger. This time was different. She couldn't take the chance of someone keeping her too busy to protect Gabrielle. The bard slept far too soundly to notice if the camp was overrun with the undead until it was too late. No, she would lie awake and maintain her vigil over her sleeping friend.
Friend what an inadequate word to describe what Gabrielle meant to her. Xena wished she possessed the bard's flair for finding just the right words to express how she felt. At one time the young woman was little more than an annoyance, a stranger. Now Xena couldn't imagine life without her. It pained her deeply to see Gabrielle marry Perdicus, to be filled with grief after his death, to suffer endless nightmares where she relived his murder over and over. Those nights all Xena could do was hold the trembling bard and stroke her hair while the tears fell. How she wished at those times that she knew the right words to say to ease her friend's pain, but those words never came. No, she was a fighter, not a comforter. That was Gabrielle's job. She was the one who knew just the right things to say to make everything seem better. So many times Xena felt herself slipping back into the darkness only to have the strength of the bard's words and feelings pull her back. Many times the warrior wondered why Gabrielle chose to stay with her. At first Xena thought it was for the excitement, for a way out of the boring life of Poteidaia. But why now? Now the bard was older, more self-assured, a woman and not a child. Xena looked at the sleeping form again. Yes, definitely a woman. A woman who willingly put herself in danger to be with a former warlord. "What do you see in me?" she asked the softly snoring bard. "What do you see that I don't? I look and see a murderer who can never atone for all the pain and suffering I've caused. How can you see something different?"
Gabrielle rolled over and flopped her arm over the empty blanket next to her, sighing in sleepy disappointment. A moment later Xena heard the almost inaudible whimper followed by the bard curling up into a ball. The warrior recognized it for what it was, another one of Gabrielle's nightmares. She immediately was at the bard's side, wrapping her arms around the smaller woman and whispering nonsense words into her ear. Xena waited for the sounds she usually heard from Gabrielle when she was reliving Perdicus' death, words like 'No Callisto' and 'Perdicus, look out!', but those words never came. It wasn't long before the warrior realized that this wasn't the bard's usual night terror. This nightmare was new and with a few short words she realized just what was scaring Gabrielle so much. 'Xena, look out! Nooooo!'
"Gabrielle Gabrielle, I'm here. Shh, it's okay shh." she began a rocking motion that coupled with her comforting tones seemed to calm the bard down. Xena felt the younger woman's body relax against her and released a deep breath, thinking the worst was over. Usually once she got Gabrielle calmed down that was it for the night. It wouldn't be the case this time. Within a few moments the bard was moaning and thrashing about again, repeating Xena's name over and over in such a pained tone that it tore at the warrior's heart. Unable to figure out any other way to help ease her friend's torment, Xena forcibly rolled Gabrielle over and pulled her tight against her body. "I'm right here, Gabrielle I'm right here I'm not hurt shh it's okay " she kissed the bard's forehead while running her hand up and down the younger woman's back. With the most heart-wrenching cry that Xena had ever heard, Gabrielle scared herself awake. She forcibly pushed herself away from the strong arms and forced herself into a sitting position. "Gabrielle it's all right. It was just a bad dream. Everything's fine." disoriented and frightened, Gabrielle needed to verify that her nightmare wasn't real, that Xena wasn't dead. She reached out and put her hand on the warrior's neck, trying to reconcile the smooth, unbroken skin with the horrid vision in her mind. Unsure of what to do or say, Xena laid perfectly still and let the frightened woman verify for herself that the sword wounds in her mind's eye weren't real. Gabrielle's hand traveled lower, slipping just beneath the edge of the leathers until it rested just above Xena's heart. Her fingers laid flat, feeling the steady heartbeat beneath them. It took several such heartbeats before reality finally overrode the vivid nightmare.
"Oh Xena " she sobbed, throwing her arms around the warrior and burying her head against the crook of the older woman's neck. "It was so real it was just so real " her words became muffled and she gave up all thought of speech, letting her tears roll down to soak Xena's skin.
"Okay now I've got you." she wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and held her tight, letting her fingers stroke the golden hair. "I'm all right I'm not hurt .it's okay." she resumed the earlier rocking motion while continuing to provide the much needed comfort. Gabrielle continued to cry until the sobs gave way to hiccups and sniffles. Still she refused to let go, afraid that what she felt wasn't real and unwilling to take the chance. Xena continued to softly coo and reassure the bard until she felt the breathing slow and deepen. Only when she was certain that Gabrielle was once again asleep did she roll their bodies until the bard was laying on her back. Propped up on one elbow, the warrior used her thumb to wipe away the tears that remained on Gabrielle's cheeks. Xena thought about moving back to her position against the tree but found herself unable to leave the bard's side. She shifted slightly to get more comfortable and soon fell asleep. Sometime during the night, Gabrielle rolled over and draped her arm and leg over the warrior, unconsciously needing the physical comfort. In response, the sleeping warrior's arms found their way around the younger woman's body, intertwining them in a way they both needed but never dared ask for.
"Wimps, you're all a bunch a wimps." Charon said as he scooped his dinars up and tossed them in his pouch. "Why, the sun isn't even up yet and look at you all, yawning away. Who'd have thought my first day out of the Underworld and I can't even find an all night card game." he banged on the table. "Barkeep! More port."
"I'm closed." the man behind the counter said. "Take your business up to the Blue Bull if you want. They're open all the time."
"Fine. I'm sure it's much more exciting than this place. Why, even the old ladies would be bored here." the ferryman grumbled as he made his way out. "Ooh, maybe they'll have dancing girls. I haven't seen dancing girls since..." the door closed, saving the bartender from listening to him any longer.
Charon was halfway up the street when strong hands grabbed him and pulled him roughly into an alley. "Your money or your life, old man." the owner of the meaty hands said menacingly.
"Your money or your life, your money or your life. What's the matter, can't come up with a more original line?" he reached in his pouch and pulled out four dinars. "Here, that's all I have." the thief took the money and shoved the ferryman against the wall. "Hey, easy with the threads, this robe is pure silk, you know."
"Pure silk, huh?"
"Don't even think about it. You have no idea who I am, do you? I'm Charon, ferryman of the River Styx." he said proudly.
"Yeah and I'm Hercules." the thief sneered.
"Everyone's a comedian. Look, unless you want to get on Hades' bad side I suggest you let me go. He doesn't take too kindly to people roughing up his help."
"Maybe I should send you to meet him right now." the large man threatened.
"Oh yeah, sure, cut my vacation short why don't you? I tell you, some people just don't want to let others have a good time. Let me go and I'll give you free passage once your time comes."
"I think I'll settle for the robe." before Charon knew what was happening, the robe was torn off his body, revealing his pure white skin. The mortal looked on in horror at the six hundred summer old stab wound that first sent the ferryman to Hades. "Uh...uh...you really are dead." the thief stammered. "No one could live with that kind of wound."
"Really? Are you sure?" Charon slipped his fingers into the gaping hole and chuckled at both the ticklish sensation and the green pallor that came over the thief. As the large man fainted and fell to the ground, the ferryman picked up his robe and meandered out of the alley, laughing to himself. "Uh...you really are dead." he mocked. "What is it with mortals? Try to tell them something simple like 'I'm dead' and they just don't believe it. Soon they'll be saying that the world isn't flat either."
Xena and Gabrielle had been on the road less than a candlemark when they ran into trouble. Standing in the road before them was a behemoth of a man. "Xena, that's..."
"Virgilius...the walking wall. I killed him while I was in Callisto's body." she pulled Argo to a stop and waited for Gabrielle to dismount before stepping down herself.
"Well Xena, I see you got your body back. Shame it won't look so good much longer." he said, swinging his mace menacingly. He leered at the bard. "What'cha say, little girl, maybe once Xena's out of the way you and me can have a little fun, huh?" he stroked his brown beard thoughtfully as he sized up the small woman. "Yeah, I bet you'd be real fun." he brought his attention back to the leather-clad warrior at the sound of her sword being drawn.
"You gonna talk or fight, Virgilius?" she snarled, stepping forward and twirling her sword in her left hand. With his attention focused on her sword, he never noticed her right hand reaching for her chakram until it was too late. With deadly accuracy, Xena released her round weapon, sending it across the distance in less than a blink of an eye. Virgilius could only look down at the brass and steel disc imbedded in his neck. He looked at the warrior in surprise before falling helplessly to the ground.
"One down." Xena said unemotionally as she pulled her chakram out of his neck and wiped it on his shirt. She mounted up and held her arm out to pull Gabrielle up behind her. "We'd better keep moving."
"They're just going to keep coming, aren't they? The men you've killed, I mean." the bard said as she settled in behind the taller woman.
"I'm afraid so, Gabrielle, at least until we can find Charon and defeat Sysiphus." she urged Argo ahead.
"Xena...can I ask you something?" the concerned tone made the warrior turn in her seat and look at the bard. "How...how many men have you killed? Roughly?"
It was one of the things that Xena tried hard not to think about. Now forced to face her past, she found it even harder. "I don't know, Gabrielle. There were so many battles, so many towns that I razed to the ground. I didn't know their names, most I can't even remember their faces. There are those that I don't know if I killed or just wounded." she turned back in the saddle to face forward, unable to meet her friend's innocent gaze. "Gabrielle, if this is too hard on you then perhaps we should head for the Amazons. You'll be safe there until this is all over."
"The...the innocents won't be after you, right? Only the ones sentenced to Tartarus?" she asked hopefully, unsure if she could deal with seeing the helpless people that had fallen to the former Destroyer of Nations.
"Only the ones sentenced to Tartarus." she reassured the bard.
"Then I can handle it." she said firmly, tightening her hold around the leather covered waist.
"The first thing is to find Charon." Xena said, hoping to change the unpleasant subject. "At the moment I haven't a clue where to begin..." she held her hand up in silent warning. Directly in front of them were a good dozen men, none of whom looked familiar to the warrior but there was no mistaking the look of hatred in their eyes. "I have a feeling it's going to be a long day." she said as she removed the chakram from her belt. Gabrielle shifted so she could see what was going on ahead and silently agreed.
By the time the battle was over, Xena was covered in blood and grime. The coppery smell filled her nostrils and flared feelings she had long thought dormant. As she wiped the remnants of the skirmish from her sword, she felt the old anger surface. This particular group had been members of Cortese's army when Amphipolis was sacked, there was no mistaking his crest on their shirts. She had taken joy in killing them the first time and found her feelings not much different now. She used her boot to roll over several of the dead men but didn't find the one she had been looking for. She double-checked the group. No, the man that killed Lyceus wasn't among them. Now he would have been someone she wouldn't have minded running through with her sword again. She pressed the tip of her sword against the chest of one of the dead men and pressed as she thought about the man that murdered her brother. Without realizing it, a feral grin formed on her face and the sword impaled the corpse. Yes, it would feel so good to kill him again, to exact revenge for her brother once more. She pressed harder, sending the sword through the corpse's back and into the blood soaked earth beneath him. Her mind reeled with images of so long ago, of Lyceus and her standing up to protect their homeland, of her first kill, his first kill, of the smile on his face just before the sword was run through his body. Anger filled Xena, filled her as much as it had on that fateful day and all she could see was death. Her sword twisted within the dead man's chest.
"Xena." a gentle touch on her shoulder brought the warrior out of her musings and back to reality. "It's over. They're all dead."
"It's not over, Gabrielle, this is just the beginning." she said solemnly, her features betraying nothing of her emotions. She pulled her sword free and returned it to her scabbard, not bothering to remove the blood from the blade. The bard noted the odd action but said nothing.
As the day wore on, Gabrielle became more disconcerted about Xena. Hardly any words passed between them and the two additional fights they had gotten in only served to make the bard more concerned. Xena's movements were calculated, vicious, her goal only to kill and kill quickly. While she understood the purpose behind the warrior's actions, she was still worried about the change in her friend. While riding Xena sat up straight, the hand that usually rested over the bard's was now planted firmly on her chakram. There was an emptiness to the warrior's blue eyes, a coldness that Gabrielle had only seen once before...when they were fighting the Horde. It was only when the bard made the connection between that and Xena's current actions did she understand what was going on. "Xena, stop."
"We have to keep moving, Gabrielle. We'll stop later."
"No. Stop now." she said urgently, reaching forward with her hands to grab the reins. Xena scowled at the bard's attempt to take control and felt her anger rise. She pulled Argo to a stop and dismounted, practically jerking the younger woman down with her.
"What is the problem?" Xena asked, her tone clearly conveying her annoyance.
"This is." the bard replied, holding out her hands to indicate the two of them. "Xena, listen to how you're talking to me. Have I done something to make you so upset?"
"I'm not upset, Gabrielle. Don't you understand that we have untold numbers of people chasing us? We don't have time for heart to heart chats right now."
"I'm not asking for a heart to heart talk, Xena. I'm asking you to see what's going on. You're acting like the Xena you used to be, not the Xena I know and love. What were you thinking about when you were standing over that dead man?"
"I was thinking about how to keep us alive, Gabrielle. That's what I do. You tell stories and I keep us from getting killed. That's how it works. If you can't understand that-"
"I understand that you weren't here. Xena, you're facing people you've killed before. When you faced those men, you weren't standing in the middle of the road protecting us, you were back in Amphipolis. I saw it in your eyes." she took a step closer and put her hand on the warrior's forearm. "Xena " she spoke softly, trying to diffuse the tension she felt in the muscles under her fingers. "I know these men were part of your past but you need to remember that you're here, in the present. You're not the person you once were. You've battled the demons and found the goodness in your soul. If you don't keep yourself focused on that you'll slip back to what you once were."
"No." she put her finger to Xena's lips to silence her. "You've worked too hard to let this take you back. You need to fight the darkness. I'm here to help and I will do everything I can to remind you of how much you've changed. I'm not the enemy and I'm not one of your lieutenants, don't shut me out."
Xena looked down at her, dumbfounded. "Is that what I'm doing?" she asked guiltily.
"That's exactly what you're doing." Gabrielle said. "I think that all this looking around for people bent on attacking you is starting to get to us." the warrior nodded in agreement. "So let's make a deal here. Weve lost our bedrolls and the rest of our gear so I suggest that a night's stay in a nice warm inn is in order."
"Oh you do, huh?" Xena let the corner of her lip turn up in amusement.
"Yes I do." the bard replied. "Just think how nice a hot bath and clean sheets would feel."
"Do we have enough for port with dinner?"
"For you?" Gabrielle grinned. "I'm sure we can spare enough for a few mugs of port." Xena allowed herself to be tugged by the now happy bard. "Come on, Gradius is just a few leagues down the road. I'm sure we'll find a nice place to stay there."
"Ah, this is the life." Charon said as he drained his mug of port. The dancing girls had caused his long dead heart to pound wildly in his chest and he had taken great delight in sampling every type of ale and port in the tavern's vast inventory. Now feeling quite giddy and warm, the ferryman couldn't think of one reason to return to the Underworld. "Hades can find someone else to shuttle the souls across the Styx. I quit." he said proudly, turning his empty mug upside down to try and pull one last drop out. "Barkeep! Where's my refill? This isn't the Ritz, you know there aren't that many people to wait on." a young woman brought a tray over with a fresh mug of port for the odd looking and quite mouthy man. "Thanks for bringing it before I aged again." he said, taking a long swallow. As the woman turned to leave, Charon reached out and grabbed a handful of soft butt, causing the serving girl to yelp and almost drop her tray. "Nice package, toots." he cackled. "You know, I've got a few dinars and you do smell better than the last girl I knew, of course she had been dead for a few days." he puckered his black lips. "Gimme a taste and maybe I'll buy the dessert." this time the serving girl threw her tray up in the air and ran away screaming. "Ah, too young anyway, the excitement of being with me would've been too much." he took another swallow of his port. "Bring on the dancing girls!" he yelled, pounding on the table.
"Psst, hey old man." the sleazy looking man at the next table whispered as he leaned closer to the ferryman. "Looking for some action?"
"Well, you're not exactly my type, but after all this time, who am I to complain?" Charon replied, puckering up his dark lips again.
"No, not that you pervert." the sleazy man said. "I mean are you interested in some real action? You know, dice, cards, cock fights, that kind of thing. I know a place nearby where you could gamble the night away so long as your dinars hold out."
"Are there scantily clad women there?" the ferryman asked, rubbing his hands together joyfully.
"More than you can count."
"Well now " Charon upended his mug and drained the contents. "What are we waiting for?"
Gabrielle let out a contented sigh as she sank into the steaming tub of water. "Oh I just can't believe how good this feels."
"Yeah, well don't think that you're gonna sit in there all night and hog the hot water. I stink from head to foot." Xena said as she handed the soaking woman a mug of port.
"Oh, I don't plan on spending all night in here, just a couple of candlemarks." she teased. Without warning the warrior's hands were on her shoulders and Gabrielle found herself pushed underwater.
"Your hair needed washing." Xena said casually as the bard came up sputtering for air. She took the soap and knelt down at the head of the tub. "Lean back, I'll get it."
"Are you gonna dunk me again?" Gabrielle asked, giving her friend a glare.
"Maybe." the warrior grinned. "It depends."
"On whether I feel like dunking you again or not. You have to admit it was pretty funny." she began lathering the bard's hair. "You know " she was glad Gabrielle's back was to her, it made it easier to find the words. " this was a good idea. I'm sorry about earlier. I guess I just got too wrapped up in what was going on."
"Xena, I know it's hard to face them all the men you've killed, I mean, but you can't just shut down and pretend that it doesn't bother you." she turned to face the warrior. "I'm here if you need to talk about it." she dunked her head underwater and rinsed her hair. Xena stood and helped the bard out of the tub before handing her a towel. She picked up another one and began drying Gabrielle's hair.
"I know you are, Gabrielle." she stopped her brisk rubbing and rested her hands on the bard's shoulders. "You know I'm here for you too."
"I know." she replied, running the towel down her arm. Xena's hands remained on her shoulders and the bard knew there was more to it than just a casual statement of being there for each other. "What is it, Xena?" she asked cautiously.
"Do you want to talk about last night?" she used her hands to guide Gabrielle around to face her. "You were more terrified than I've ever seen you before."
Gabrielle backed up out of reach and picked her shift off the bed. "I can't talk about it, Xena. Take your bath before the water gets cold." she turned her back to the warrior and donned the thin material, hoping Xena would leave it at that. After a moment of silence she heard the sound of the warrior climbing into the tub. Gabrielle waited a few moments before returning to the side of the tub and reaching for the soap. "You washed my hair, I'll wash yours."
Between the roaring blaze in the fireplace and the candles littered around the room, there was plenty of light for them to see by. As Gabrielle lathered up Xena's dark tresses, the normally white foam turned pink from the blood that had been splattered during the battles of the day. Although the bard's mind knew where the blood had come from, she couldn't shake the image from her nightmare and found her hands trembling uncontrollably. "Oh gods " she whispered, her voice shaky. In a flash Xena was turned around, taking the younger woman's hands in hers.
"Gabrielle Gabrielle, what's wrong?"
"I you oh Xena " the tears came forth, scalding her face. The warrior pulled her close, wrapping her arms around the younger woman and holding her close. The soap started to move down Xena's forehead and she reached up to wipe it back. When she pulled her hand down again, she saw the pinkish tinge and realized what had scared the bard.
"It's okay just hang on a moment." maintaining a grip on one of Gabrielle's wrists, Xena leaned back and rinsed her hair. She rose to her full height and stepped out of the tub, never releasing her contact with the bard. "Come here." it was all the invitation Gabrielle needed. Xena did her best to dry herself with one hand while keeping the other wrapped around the trembling form pressed so tightly against her. She ended up settling for just getting her hair slightly dry and tossed the towel on a nearby chair. She led Gabrielle to the bed and sat her down. Xena thought about grabbing her shift but decided that tending to the still trembling and now freely crying woman was more important. She crawled onto the bed and leaned up against the headboard before pulling Gabrielle onto her lap. "Tell me." she urged softly.
"Oh Xena it's just so awful." she said between sobs. "I keep I just keep seeing you and there's nothing I can do ." she squeezed tighter, threatening to choke the warrior with the strength of her grasp. "I'm so scared."
"You're scared that I'm going to be killed, aren't you?" Xena asked, receiving her answer with a shaky nod and renewed tears streaming down the bard's face and onto her bare chest. "Why is this time so much different from any other scrape we've been in?"
"I don't know." Gabrielle sniffed. "I just can't shake the scene from my mind you lying on the ground all the blood " her fingers absently traced the line of Xena's collarbone where her nightmare told her there would be a sword wound. Without realizing it, the bard pressed her lips against the pulse point at the base of Xena's neck, feeling the strong steady beat beneath them.
"We'll get through this, Gabrielle. I swear." she shifted down to rest her head on a pillow, keeping the bard close but moving her head until it rested on one broad shoulder. She kissed the top of Gabrielle's golden hair. "It's going to be all right. I've defeated them before all of them. I'll do it again." Xena reassured her.
"Can you promise me something?" Gabrielle asked, taking comfort in the gentle stroking of her hair by the warrior's strong hand.
"Promise me that you'll be careful? That you won't take on more than you can handle or take any unnecessary chances? Please?"
Xena hugged her tightly. "I promise, Gabrielle." she said, although as the words left her mouth she wasn't sure she could keep it, but feeling the bard relax against her, the warrior vowed that she would try.
"Ha! Full tavern. Beat that." Charon said, laying his cards on the table. The other men threw their cards down in disgust while the ferryman scooped up the pile of dinars. Charon decided that Axes and Hammers was beginning to bore him so he walked over to another table. A large wheel marked off with red and black numbered spaces spun rapidly, causing a thin strip of wood to clack against the pegs that protruded from it. "Place your bets" the barker said. A flurry of activity followed as several gamblers placed their dinars on the different numbers. Charon put his dinars down, not paying any particular attention to which number he chose. The barker spun the wheel. "Damn." the ferryman said when it stopped. He placed more dinars down and lost again. After a dozen straight losses he had enough and went in search of another game of chance. Before he could get to another table, however, a large crashing sound drew his attention to the door. A dozen guards burst in. "By order of the King you are all under arrest!" the captain said. Mass pandemonium broke out as the patrons tried to escape. Armed with clubs, the guards quickly took control and within moments Charon found himself being escorted along with two dozen other people to the city jail.
"Nice place. Who does your decorating?" the ferryman quipped as he was led into the musty cell.
"Get in there and shut up, you freaky looking thing." the guard snapped, shoving him with a club. While the burly jailer wouldn't admit it, he was quite frightened of the pasty white man with the black lips.
"Freaky looking? Oh, and I'm sure you'd look better after six hundred summers, huh? We don't exactly get a lot of sunshine in the Underworld, you know." Charon said as the cell door slammed behind him. He turned around to see that he was in a large cell with about a dozen of the men that had also been arrested for gambling. "Anyone have a deck of cards?"
Sysiphus had just finished dropping off three more souls to head for the Overworld when he saw the soaked form of Celano approach. "Didn't I just send you out two candlemarks ago?"
"You didn't tell me the portal led to the Alconian Lake." the little weasel of a man grumbled. "I can't swim."
"Of all the...it's no wonder Xena killed you. You're too stupid to live." the former king said angrily.
"Look, just send me back and I'll find her. I owe her for interfering with my plans to help Krykus destroy the Amazons and Centaurs. I'll teach her not to mess with me."
"I can't send you back. Once you crossed through the portal you became mortal again. Now you're just another dead soul awaiting transport to be judged by Hades. Until you're sentenced to Tartarus again and come back through the tunnel there's nothing I can do." Sysiphus clutched his walking stick tightly. This was not going as well as he had planned. So far none of the souls he released back to the Overworld had been able to kill his nemesis. If they didn't find her and kill her before she found Charon...he pounded his walking stick hard against the bottom of the boat, causing a spark of fire to appear from its hollow tip. "Go over there with the rest of the souls waiting to go back across." he dropped his walking stick down and angrily grabbed the pole to push the boat across the river. "I've got to find someone who's strong enough to defeat that infernal warrior princess."
Gabrielle woke to see Xena already dressed and looking out the window. "Hey, sleepyhead." the warrior said without looking.
"Morning." she replied groggily as she sat up and wiped the sleep out of her eyes. "How long have you been up?"
"About two candlemarks. You want a cup of tea?"
"No, I want to go back to sleep." she yawned, flopping back down onto the bed. Xena walked over and pulled her back into a sitting position.
"Oh no you don't. We've got too much to do today. Besides..." her tone became more serious. "...I've already seen at least three men wandering around town this morning."
"You mean the undead?" Gabrielle asked, now fully awake.
"Well, they're not really undead, they're mortal now, just like us. The only difference is that they were once dead and sentenced to Tartarus." she handed the bard her boots. "Get dressed. I'm sure there's more out there."
"Do you have any idea where we should start looking for Charon?" Gabrielle asked as she pulled on her boot and began tying the laces. Xena sighed.
"No, not a clue. I don't know anything about his life before he went to the Underworld or anything that might give us an idea about where he would have gone."
"I heard a story once about him. The legends say that he was one of the first people to come before Hades for judgment. He was neither evil enough for Tartarus nor good enough for the Elyssian Fields. In the end Hades made him one of his workers and gave him control of the ferry over the River Styx."
"Well, that makes sense." Xena said. "Unfortunately it still doesn't help us figure out where he is." she picked up the saddlebags and flung them over her shoulder. "You ready?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle replied as she adjusted her top. "So what's first, returning those men to the Underworld or looking for Charon?" at that moment the bard's stomach decided to make itself known.
"I think the first thing is to feed you before that monster in your belly protests again." the warrior said with a smirk.
They had just settled down to eat when the doors to the inn flung open with enough force to rattle the hinges. "Xena! I know you're here." Dagnine said angrily, club in hand. "I'm here to take you to Tartarus, you bitch!"
"I'll be back in a moment." the warrior said before getting up and walking calmly to the bar. "Strongest drink you have, make it a double." she turned her attention to the fuming warlord standing in the doorway. "Dagnine." she said sweetly. "Now why don't you come and have a drink with me. I'm sure we can work something out."
"There's nothing to work out." he said, slamming his club on an empty table as he stalked toward the bar. Xena picked up the tankard of liquor and took a sip.
"Hoo gods!" she exclaimed as she grabbed her throat. She looked at the barkeep. "You actually serve this to people?"
"Only those with a strong constitution." the bartender replied before ducking under the bar. Xena blinked twice, took a deep breath, then poured as much of the strong brew as she could into her mouth. Just as Dagnine reached her, the warrior grabbed the torch off the wall and held it in front of her face. The warlord looked at the half empty tankard, her bulging cheeks, and the brightly glowing flame.
"You wouldn't." he said uncertainly as he took a step back. He swore he saw her smile and nod her head before she released a spray of the flammable liquid. Dagnine turned to run away but wasn't quick enough to avoid the fireball. Xena threw the rest of the contents of the tankard at him, the liquid soaking his clothes and immediately spreading the fire all over his body. With a quick thrust of her blade, the warrior put him out of his misery. Two men came over and within heartbeats put the fire out. "I think the trash pile is a good place for him." Xena said before rejoining her companion at their table.
"You know, Xena, if you keep killing all the men that are interested in you, you'll never find a mate." Gabrielle joked as the warrior picked up her cup of tea to rinse the taste of the gods awful drink out of her mouth.
"Hey, I showed him a hot time." Xena protested in jest. "Besides, he wasn't my type."
"No? Let's see, he was a warlord, mean, ruthless, breathing..."
"Ha ha, very funny." the warrior said as she reached over and took a pastry off of the bard's plate.
"Serves you right for picking on me." she popped the small treat in her mouth and grinned. "Tasty." she reached for another one but pulled her hand back before Gabrielle's fork could connect with it.
"Keep your eyes and hands on your own plate or Sysiphus won't have to worry about sending a warlord after you." she warned, doing her best to look menacing. There was a momentary pause before both women burst out laughing. Gabrielle broke the remaining pastry in half and split it with Xena. The pair managed to finish their meal without further interruptions.
Charon stepped out of the jail and grinned. The king had given the gamblers a choice of paying thirty dinars as a fine or spending half a moon at hard labor. It only took a few moments of pulling coins out of his pouch for Charon to pay not only his fine, but the fine of another man who promised that in exchange for his release he would show the ferryman another secret location where games of chance and dancing girls could be found. As he walked along the crowded street he bumped into a small boy. "Watch it, mister." the youngster said before looking up. His eyes grew wide and his mouth opened in shock at the frightening figure before him. Charon grinned wickedly.
"Ahh! Mommy!!" the little boy wailed, turning around and running back the way he came, silently promising whatever gods were listening that he would never wander around alone again. The ferryman laughed so hard his body shook. "Kids, they're so easy." he walked along a short distance before he felt a firm tap on his shoulder. He turned to face a large and rather angry looking woman, the little boy peeking out from behind her skirt.
"What's the idea of scaring my little boy half to death?" she demanded, not at all caring that the man in front of her looked like he was the walking dead. "Why, I have half a mind to knock some sense into you."
"Half a mind and twice the ass." Charon replied. "What'd ya do, eat a whole cow for breakfast?"
"Why you..." she raised her pouch above her head in a threatening manner. "You apologize right now!"
"Okay, I'm sorry you're larger than a hut. Is that better?"
"I'll have you know that I happen to retain water." she said defensively.
"Yeah and Medusa is only a little bit ugly."
"What? Just who do you think you are?" she demanded, wagging her finger.
"I'm the person who'll be more than happy to transport you across the River Styx when your time comes."
"You're an evil little man, you know that? My husband says that I'm all the woman he needs."
"Then he must need a lot."
The jailer could only laugh when he turned the key and opened the cell door. "That'll teach you to insult the mayor's wife." he said, shutting the door behind the ferryman.
"Well at least I'm safe here. What does she carry in that pouch of hers, lead weights?" Charon said, still rubbing his bruised temple.
"Actually she likes to bake. Most likely she had a rolling pin or two in there." the guard chuckled.
"Great, I make one innocent little remark, she decides to play 'beat the dough' on my head, and I'm the one who ends up in jail." the ferryman shook his head. "Mortals, I just don't understand them."
"Over there with the rest of them." Sysiphus said as the charred remains of Dagnine approached. "I don't understand how one woman...ONE WOMAN can give you so much trouble."
"Hey, if I remember correctly you couldn't beat her either." the burnt warlord said.
"Bah...there has to be someone who can defeat her." the former king replied as he pushed off and guided the boat to the other side of the river.
Once on the other side Sysiphus looked at the large crowd of mercenaries, warlords, and other riff raff that had scores to settle with Xena. "Isn't there one man among you who can defeat the Warrior Princess?"
"The problem is that you're sending a man to do a woman's job." a feminine voice from the back yelled. The crowd parted to reveal a brown haired woman who stood as tall or taller than most of the men and looked like she could easily beat any of them in hand to hand combat. Sysiphus motioned for her to come forward.
"What is your name, my dear?" he said solicitously.
"I am Abrama. I made the mistake of underestimating Xena once, I'll not do it again." she said firmly.
"And what makes you think you'll succeed where so many others have failed?" One of the men asked. The brown haired woman reached out and grabbed his hand, twisting his arm up behind his back.
"Because I know her. I know how she thinks, feels, acts." she pressed harder, delighting in the squeals of pain coming from the man. "She destroyed my village seven summers ago when I was home recuperating from a battle. I took down thirty of her men before she killed me." she shoved the whimpering man away from her. "If it wasn't for Xena I would have been the one they called the Destroyer of Nations. She cut me down in my prime. I had plans, big plans. But her army came through and I was killed before I could rejoin my own army. Send me back and I guarantee you that the next person you see entering the Underworld will be her."
It was late the next day when Xena and Gabrielle entered Laconia. "See if you can find us a room. I'll go take care of Argo."
"Okay." the bard replied. She took two steps toward the nearest inn, then stopped. "Uh Xena?"
"What?" the warrior turned and saw the small group approaching them. She dropped the reins and drew her sword. "I don't think they're going to ask us to dance." she said grimly.
"They're people you've killed before, aren't they?" Gabrielle asked, although the look on their faces was enough to have told her that much.
"Uh huh. Get ready."
The battle was fiercer than Xena had expected. Although she didn't know their names, she knew they had belonged to an army she had destroyed long ago during her reign of terror. Unable to go for the quick kills, the warrior was forced to parry and exchange blows, slowly wearing each man down. Gabrielle held her own against the two men that decided to go after her but was unable to land anything solid. All she could do was keep them occupied until Xena was able to step in and take over. The last one to go down proved to be the toughest, matching the warrior at every turn. Xena faked a move to the right but the man had been expecting it, moving to his right and catching her with a broad sweep of his sword. The tip of the blade found a spot on Xena's left side that wasn't protected by her armor. It sliced through the leather until it found the soft skin underneath. The wound wasn't deep, but it was enough to force the warrior to go on the defensive, blocking blows rather than exchanging them.
Gabrielle had been standing back out of the way when she saw the tide of the battle change. Fear for Xena's safety forced her to take action. Stepping forward, she slipped both hands down to one end of her staff and swung as hard as she could. Her blow landed on his shoulder but apparently causing no damage. The man turned his head to see who dared interfere with his victory over the warrior princess. It was all the opening Xena needed. Her booted foot smashed against his groin. It was enough to startle him into lowering his guard. With one well aimed thrust of her sword, he finally went down.
Xena got to her feet and looked around for any more attackers. Seeing none, she let her hand slip to her side to check on her injury. As soon as her fingers touched the sticky wetness she knew that stitches were in order. Gabrielle approached and did her best to stifle a gasp at the sight of blood covering the warrior's fingers and running down her side. In as calm a voice as she could muster, she said "Let's get you inside and take a look at that."
"It isn't as bad as it looks, Gabrielle." she said reassuringly. "It just needs a couple of stitches."
"Uh sure." she said unconvincingly. "Let's just get inside, okay?" the bard knew she was in danger of losing the tenuous control she had on her emotions and desperately needed to be somewhere private. Xena heard the shakiness in Gabrielle's voice and squeezed her hand.
"I'm okay, Gabrielle it's not a deep wound." the bard nodded but said nothing, afraid that she would in fact lose the battle to keep her feelings in check. Xena handed a bystander a dinar and asked them to take Argo to the stable before the two women walked in silence to the inn.
Once inside the privacy of their room, Xena allowed the bard to help her off with the armor and leathers. "It needs stitches." Gabrielle said softly as she pulled the cloth away from the gash.
"I can get it if it's too much for you." the warrior offered.
"No I'll do it." she said resolutely, reaching for the needle and thread. It took longer than it should have and the stitches weren't quite as neat and straight as Gabrielle would normally have done, but it was better than she hoped considering how badly her hands were shaking. She carefully cleaned the area and covered it with a bandage. "All done."
"Thanks." Xena went to sit up but was met with the bard's hands pressing forcefully on her shoulders.
"No. Stay there. Whatever you want, I'll get."
"Gabrielle, it's not that bad, really." she said, but gave up her attempt to sit up. She relaxed visibly and felt the bard's hands leave her shoulders.
"It's bad enough that you're not moving. What do you want?"
"Well, a clean shift, my sword, and the whetstone would be good."
Gabrielle pulled the stone from its compartment in the saddlebag and brought it and the sword over to the bed before looking for the shift. Xena watched as every piece of clothing was removed from the saddlebags. "There's no clean ones. I guess it's been a while since we did laundry."
"That's all right, just bring me the cleanest of the dirty ones."
"No way, they're all too dirty to wear." the bard said firmly. She looked at the fireplace, the curtain rods, and the chair backs, mentally figuring out how many places she could hang clothes to dry. "I'll be right back." she said, grabbing her pouch and heading out the door before the warrior could protest. She returned a few moments later with two buckets of water. Xena had wisely covered herself with the blanket when she heard the door open and was glad she did. Two young men followed Gabrielle in, both carrying buckets. They left just as two more carried in a small tub. The bard helped the four men carry in more buckets until there was more than enough.
Gabrielle kept herself busy washing every piece of clothing that they weren't wearing, hanging them to dry in various areas throughout the room. Doing the laundry was supposed to keep her mind off Xena's being hurt, but it didn't. Only the steady scraping sound of the whetstone against the warrior's sword kept the bard from constantly looking over to check on her. Gabrielle couldn't remember ever being so scared for Xena's safety. The nightmares were just so vivid, so frighteningly real. It didn't help that she had to wash the blood off the warrior's leathers before repairing them. When they went to sleep that night, Gabrielle was wrapped so tightly around Xena that the warrior was certain that their bodies would melt together. Every time the older woman shifted during the night, the bard instinctively tightened her hold, sighing contentedly when she felt the warrior's body relax again.
"Fifty dinars?" Charon asked incredulously.
"You want to go for seventy-five?" the judge, who also happened to be the mayor, asked. The ferryman shook his head and quickly pulled out the required money, four coins at a time. "Next time you might want to watch your mouth around the ladies of this city."
"No sense of humor, none, I tell ya." he shook his head in disbelief. "Maybe next time you can give me a softer mattress. That one I had last night was full of lumps. For fifty dinars I could have the honeymoon suite at the best inn in Athens. Service these days sheesh."
"I can help you with that." Xena said as she watched the bard fill the buckets with water from the tub, then empty them out the open window.
"I've got it. You relax." she poured another bucket out the window. "After I finish this I'll run downstairs and order us up some breakfast."
"Gabrielle, I'm not an invalid. We can go downstairs and eat, you know."
"I know, but with all the people out to get you, don't you think it's a good idea if you kept a low profile? At least until you find Charon?" she reasoned. "Besides, you don't like crowds and it sounds busy down there. Wouldn't a nice relaxing meal up here sound better?" when she saw the blue eyes roll and heard the sigh, Gabrielle knew she had won. "Good, then it's settled." she scooped up another bucketful of water and headed for the window, smiling to herself over her victory.
Hoping to avoid any more reasons to be thrown in jail, Charon decided to walk through the alleyways and avoid the main street. It would only take a few moments for him to reach the Blue Bull. Hopefully there'd be dancing girls at this early candlemark, or at least a good card game, he thought to himself. Suddenly he found himself drenched with tepid water. "What the..." he looked up to see an open window. Before he could move another bucketful was tossed out the window, catching him right in the face. "Oh come on now." he sputtered. "I didn't need a shower that badly. At least you could have let me take my clothes off first."
The soaked ferryman entered the inn and took a seat near the fireplace. "Port." he said to the serving girl, who from past experience kept a respectable distance from the odd looking man. "And a towel." he yelled to the retreating figure. He looked around the room and spotted a young woman coming down the stairs. "Oh la la." his eyes lecherously followed the green eyed woman to the bar where she ordered two breakfasts. Her green half-top left little to the imagination, not that Charon needed any encouragement. He smoothed out his soaked hair and wandered over to the bar. "How much, little lady?"
"Excuse me?" Gabrielle replied, only giving him a passing glance. The smell of fresh baked pastries had her attention focused on the door to the kitchen instead of on the man standing next to her, much to the ferryman's dismay. This little beauty was too good to pass up.
"How much for a candlemark, sweetie?" he said as he reached over and planted his hand firmly on the bard's rear. Gabrielle's hand immediately connected with Charon's face while her other hand removed his hand from her body. "Ooh, a feisty one. How's about a kiss, hmm?" he put his gnarled hands on either side of her face and pressed his black lips against hers. After she got over the initial shock, Gabrielle's knee found its mark and the ferryman bent over in pain. "Ow ow ow...jeez, you could have just said no." he moaned. "Was it something I said?" he yelled as the bard stormed up the stairs, breakfast completely forgotten.
Xena knew something was wrong by the way Gabrielle stomped up the hall, not to mention the look on her face when she threw open the door. "What's wrong?"
"What's wrong? What's wrong?" the bard ranted, pacing back and forth. "Xena, men are pigs. You know that? Real pigs." she wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. "Uggh..." she poured some wine from the skin on a cloth and wiped her mouth again.
"What happened?" the warrior reached out and put her hands on the bard's shoulders to stop the relentless pacing. "Gabrielle, did someone bother you?"
"Bother me? Oh, he bothered me all right. Do you know what he did? He...he grabbed me!" Xena reached for her chakram. "And that's not the worst of it." the bard continued. "That creepy little man kissed me!" she was in full fury and her hands moved about with each word. Xena fastened her scabbard and reached for her sword. Gabrielle reached out and grabbed the warrior's arm. "Where are you going?"
"Show me who he is. I'll teach him to lay a hand on you." the warrior said, her mind thinking of the different ways she would punish the slug who dared try to take advantage of her friend.
"Uh, no Xena, that's okay." she said hesitantly. "I mean, it's over now and there's no harm done. You don't need to go downstairs."
"Gabrielle, he needs to be taught some manners." she said angrily.
"But what if there's some of those undead people down there?"
"I've told you they're not exactly undead..."
"I know, I know, but that's the easiest way I can think of to identify them. What if they're down there?"
"If they're down there then I'll take care of them." she gently gripped the bard's upper arms. "Gabrielle, I can't hide. You know that. Now, come show me who this idiot is."
Charon was just finishing his drink when they came down the stairs, Xena practically dragging the reluctant bard behind her. "Where is he?"
"Uh..." Gabrielle looked around the room as if searching for him. "I don't see him. He must have left." she deliberately avoided looking at the creep sitting at the table and positioned herself between him and Xena. "Come on, let's go back upstairs." she reached for the warrior's wrist to guide her back before someone recognized her.
"Oh, so that's why you weren't interested." the ferryman said. "You already had a customer. Too bad, toots. You know, three's company too." he licked his black lips suggestively. "I'll pay extra."
That was all it took for the bard to lose her temper. He deserved whatever he got, she decided. "That's him. That's the one. Get him, Xena." she released her grip on the older woman's wrist and crossed her arms in front of her, fully expecting the warrior to pummel the strange looking man senseless. Xena looked at the man and smiled. One part of the problem solved, she thought to herself.
"We've been looking for you." she said as she pulled out a chair and sat down at his table, much to the bard's astonishment.
"Xena, what a surprise." the ferryman said with a smile. "I have to admit I thought I'd see you much sooner than this. I guess working for the side of good must agree with you. You certainly send less customers to Hades now. Can't say I mind that a bit. Why, during your battle with the Centaurs I had to work four days straight with no breaks and let me tell you, he may be a nice god to work for but Hades doesn't pay overtime. That's what I get for not having a union."
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked furiously. "Xena, he...he kissed me. Aren't you gonna beat him up? Put the pinch on him? Anything?" she looked at her friend in disbelief.
"Relax Gabrielle. This is Charon."
"Excitable little lady, isn't she?" the ferryman asked.
"Where have you been? Don't you know Hades is looking for you?" Xena pulled out a chair and motioned for the bard to join them.
"You're just going to sit there? You're not going to do anything? Xena, perhaps you didn't understand me. That freak kissed me. He...he grabbed my butt!" the outraged woman said.
"Why does everyone want to call me a freak? I'm a nice guy." he said defensively.
"You're a creepy little pervert is what you are." the bard corrected.
"Oh, I'm so wounded." Charon said sarcastically. "Don't forget that I'm the one who has to transport that cute little butt of yours across the Styx eventually." he grinned. "You really should be nice to me."
"Xena...." she said in a warning tone.
"All right you two. Gabrielle...sit. Charon, apologize." the warrior said in a tone reminiscent of a mother scolding her children. The highly miffed bard slumped into the chair, alternating her glare from the ferryman to her friend and back again.
"How was I supposed to know she wasn't for hire? After all, look at the way she's dressed. I've seen more clothes on the street walkers in Athens." he said as he looked around for the serving girl. "Hey toots! How's about a little service here, huh?" he pulled a cigar out of his pocket and lit it off the table candle, the pungent smoke going directly at Gabrielle. "So what were you looking for me for?"
"You know exactly why, Charon. You have to go back to the Underworld."
"Where you belong." the bard added, waving the smoke out of her face. "And put that stinking thing somewhere."
"Oh, and I'm sure you'd just love to tell me where to put it too, huh?" he said sarcastically. "This happens to be a ten dinar cigar. Finest tobacco in all of Greece."
Gabrielle went to tell him exactly where she thought he should stick it when a strong hand clamped around her mouth. "Now Charon," Xena began. "Perhaps you could just move it so the smoke isn't going directly in her face?" she felt the bard's mouth open and felt teeth touching her fingers. "Don't even think about it, Gabrielle." she whispered into the smaller woman's ear. Immediately the teeth withdrew but the daggers coming from the bard's eyes continued. Xena ignored the angry glare and turned her attention back to the ferryman. "Charon, you need to return. Without you there's no one to transport the souls across the river for Hades to judge."
"Let him find another ferryman. I'm on vacation." he said. The serving girl arrived with three mugs of port. Xena released her grip on the bard's mouth and handed her one of the mugs. Gabrielle took the offered drink but continued to scowl at her companions.
"You're not on vacation. We know Sysiphus somehow got you out of the Underworld. We have to get you back, and soon." the warrior said.
"No, I'm not going. I quit. I like it here better. There's no dancing girls in the Underworld, you know."
"You don't have a choice." Xena said firmly. "Now tell us how Sysiphus managed to get you out of there so we can help you get back."
"Ah, it's no use." he sighed. "I tried to get back but he's done something to the portal."
"What about the Alconian Lake?" the bard asked. "Xena, you got through once, maybe we can send him back that way."
"Uh, nope, won't work. Sorry." he said. "That path will only work for mortals."
"But you're here in the Overworld. Didn't you turn back into a mortal when you crossed through the portal?"
"Ah, there's the rub, my dear half-naked girl." he smirked. "When Hades decided to make me his ferryman, he also made me immortal. Of course time has taken it's toll on my rugged good looks, but hey, I can still make heads turn."
"More like stomachs." the bard said, causing Xena to almost choke on the port she had been drinking.
"Ha ha, very funny. How could I have possibly mistaken you for a floozy? Obviously you're a stand up comic."
"I happen to be a bard." Gabrielle said defensively. "Not to mention an Amazon."
"An Amazon? Ah, no wonder you tried to make me a eunuch. Xena, I remember you being rather cozy with Marcus. When'd you jump over the fence?"
"You're treading on dangerous ground there, Charon." the warrior said, casting him a warning glare. "The important thing right now is getting you back to the Underworld."
"I told you I'm not going back and you can't make me." he finished his drink and stood up. "Now if you two will excuse me, the dancing girls are starting at the Blue Bull in a few moments."
"Oh, I think you'll miss the dancing girls today, Charon. I have other plans for you." faster than the ferryman could move, Xena had his arm up behind his back. "Let's go."
"Ow ow, hey! Easy on the merchandise, sweetie if you wanted it rough all you had to do was ask." he let out a yelp as the warrior increased the pressure on his arm another notch and guided him to the stairs.
Once inside their room, the warrior released her grip on the ferryman's arm. "You know, immortals do feel pain and I'm not into pain." he grinned. "Unless you are, my dear." he added lecherously. Xena rolled her eyes.
"The only interest I have in you is trying to get you back to the Underworld, Charon." she sat down on a chair while the bard flopped onto the bed. "Is there any other portal you can think of that you can pass through?"
"Nope, there's only three portals one is for mortals, that's the Alconian Lake one, the one I went through for immortals, which Sysiphus did something to so I can't get back, and the one the gods use to visit Hades."
"What about that one? Can't you use it?" Gabrielle asked, hoping for a way to get rid of the ferryman as quickly as possible.
"Do I look like a god, sweetie?" the ferryman replied. "The only way back for me is through that one portal." he walked over to the table and helped himself to some port. "And since that way isn't working, I'm guess I'm stuck up here." he said, feigning disappointment. "So, now that that's settled, if you'll excuse me there's some girls at the Blue Bull I need to go see." he headed for the door only to find the warrior quickly moving to block his way.
"Not so fast, Charon. You're going back. One way or another you're going back." she turned him around, marched him over to one of the chairs, and made him sit down. "I have to go take a look at that portal and see if I can break whatever spell Sysiphus has put on it. You two stay here."
"Xena, you can't go. What if you run into-"
"Gabrielle, I have to. You try and keep him out of trouble." she turned to face the ferryman. "And you don't even think about making another inappropriate comment to her."
"Oh, like I'd give her another opportunity to make me a eunuch. I'll behave."
"I doubt that." the bard said wryly, reaching out to place one hand on her staff.
"Have fun." the warrior said as she reached for the door handle.
"Xena, wait." she left the bed and went to her friend's side. "Please be careful." she made no attempt to hide her concern.
"I will. I should be back by tonight." she reached down and gave the bard's hand a gentle squeeze. "Try to get along with him."
"That's like trying to get along with a hydra."
"Naw, hydras are easier." the warrior grinned. She opened the door and was surprised to feel the bard's arms wrap around her neck, pulling her down to place a kiss on her cheek.
"Be careful." Gabrielle said as she released her hold and took a step back. She watched Xena until she disappeared from sight before closing the door. Neither woman noticed the brown haired woman watching the exchange from the other end of the hall.
"I'm going downstairs to get the breakfast that I missed because of you." the bard said. "Stay here."
"And what makes you think I don't want something to eat too?"
"You're immortal. Immortals don't get hungry."
"Just because we don't get hungry doesn't mean that we don't like to eat anyway. Why, in my time I used to be quite the chef." he said. "I specialized in pastries and cakes."
The mention of tasty treats caught the bard's attention. "You're a real chef?"
"No, I'm a pretend one." he said sarcastically. "Do you want something edible or do you want whatever slop they try to serve downstairs?"
"I'm afraid that we don't have a choice. I don't have the ingredients to make anything." she looked at the remains of their belongings. "I don't even have any pots or pans anymore. We lost them all when we ran from some of those undead thugs."
"And this is a problem? Just buy new ones." he said as if it was the obvious answer.
"Sorry, dinars don't grow on trees. We barely have enough to pay for this room."
"Well then you're in luck. Dinars happen to be something I have an unlimited supply of." he grinned. "I'll buy whatever you need. Despite the fact you tried to make me a soprano."
Against her better judgment, Gabrielle agreed and they headed to the marketplace. The area was little more than a street with booths set up on both sides. The bard tried to head to the booth that had the cooking supplies but the ferryman was like a little child, insisting on looking at each and every shop and everything they had to offer. They stopped at one booth full of bolts of cloth and clothes. Charon held up a top that was even more revealing than the green one the bard wore. "Now what would it cost me to see you in this?" he said.
"Your manhood." Gabrielle replied, causing the ferryman to drop the garment immediately and head for the next booth. The bard smiled to herself and followed.
Despite the fact that money wasn't an object to the immortal, Gabrielle insisted on haggling down every merchant until they got prices that she felt were fair. They passed a shop selling herbs and Charon insisted on stopping. He spoke quietly and conspiratorially to the owner, who disappeared into the back and returned with a leather pouch filled with dried green leaves and a smaller pouch containing a crushed red powder. The ferryman dropped several coins into the man's hand and left, smiling to himself. "You ready?" the bard asked.
"Oh yes. I'm all set now." he grinned.
"What's in the pouches?"
"Oh, this? Just some herbs that I like to add to my cooking. It makes everything taste better. Trust me, you'll like it." he said. "Can we check out that shop over there?" he asked, pointing to one booth adorned with leather whips and straps. One look from the bard was enough to stop him from pursuing that idea. At that moment her stomach grumbled its complaint about her not feeding it yet.
"Oh, there's a charming sound. Must go over well on dates." that comment earned him another glare. "Oh, sorry, I suppose you don't get to go on too many dates, what with the way you like to disable every man you see."
"Funny, I don't see a man here." she said sweetly.
"Ouch, that hurt not." he replied. They continued to look about the market, unaware that they were being followed.
Xena followed Charon's directions and soon found the portal. She pounded her hand on the stone in frustration. Whatever method Sysiphus used to seal it was done on the inside and there was no way she could disable it from the outside. She thought briefly about going to the Alconian Lake and entering the Underworld but quickly nixed that idea. It was bad enough that there were untold numbers of former residents of Tartarus looking for her in the Overworld. She knew exactly how many were waiting down there for her should she dare enter the realm. One or two or even a half dozen at a time she could handle. There was no way she could handle all of the people she had just sent back down there. Xena growled in disappointment at the predicament. She was caught between the Scylla and Charibdes. The dead souls couldn't be sent back to the other side of the Styx without Charon to guide the boat and she couldn't break whatever seal was on the portal to get him back as long as the souls were waiting there.
Xena turned to head back to Laconia. As she passed one rise she found herself surrounded by several men. "Well, it looks like we have you now, don't we, Xena?" Toxeus said evilly.
"Looks can be deceiving." the warrior said evenly, drawing her sword.
"There's two dozen of us and only one of you. Just what kind of fool are you?"
"My own special variety." Xena said with a feral grin, her right hand reaching for her chakram. "You gonna talk or fight, Toxeus? Oh, I forgot, you can't fight. That's why I was able to kill you so easily before." she taunted.
"Get her!" the warlord yelled.
By mid afternoon, the room was filled with the smells of fresh baked goods. True to his word, Charon was an excellent baker and made several trays of treats, from brownies to pastries to even nutbread. Of course when the bard wasn't looking he added his special ingredients. The first thing she dived into was the nutbread, which was reduced to crumbs in a matter of moments. "Gods, I can't believe how good it tastes. You really are a good cook." she exclaimed as she shoved a large brownie in her mouth. Charon smiled and sat back, nibbling on a much smaller piece.
"It gets even better the more you eat. Shall I make another loaf of nutbread?"
"It'll be my pleasure." he said as he began to mix the ingredients in a bowl. "Or at least I hope it'll be." he added, grinning wickedly as he added more herbs. Gabrielle didn't hear his last comment, she was too busy shoving different pastries and cakes in her mouth and washing them down with the port he had purchased, not knowing that he had added some of the red powder to it.
After two loaves of nutbread, a tray of brownies, and a dozen assorted pastries had been sacrificed to the bard's belly, Charon was certain that it was time to make his move. Just as he leaned toward her, Gabrielle jumped up with an excited smile on her face. "Let's go for a walk. I feel like wandering around town."
"You don't want to stay here with me?" he asked disappointedly, certain that the aphrodisiac would have kicked in by now.
"Oh Charon, you silly man." she said, giving him a playful shove. "Come with me and see what life has to offer." somehow the idea of staying locked up in the room when she felt so good was just not appealing. Without waiting for an answer, Gabrielle grabbed his white hand and dragged him out the door, stopping only long enough to dump the rest of the second tray of brownies into her satchel. "I just can't get over how good everything tastes." she said, shoving one more brownie into her mouth.
"Ah, the great outdoors." Gabrielle said, taking in a deep breath and looking around slowly. "Oh, Charon, look isn't that pretty?" she pointed at an average looking tree. "Oh, the green is just so vivid."
"Oh yes, the colors are just so much more vivid than they were yesterday." he grumbled, wondering what had gone wrong with his plan. Certainly she had eaten more than enough of his laced treats. She was even showing signs of being affected by them, but there was not even a hint of her being aroused. 'I'll have to give her more of the aphrodisiac.' he thought to himself as he patted the smaller pouch resting on his hip.
"Oh look, isn't that adorable? A little blue bull." she giggled at the sign over the tavern. The sounds of activity filtered out into the street and gave the ferryman an idea.
"Gabrielle, why don't we go inside? I'm sure they have more pretty things in there."
"Oh, I don't know " she said thoughtfully, putting her finger on her chin and tapping it. "Didn't Xena say something about not going anywhere?" try as she might, she just couldn't remember what the warrior had told her only a few candlemarks earlier.
"She said she didn't want us to leave this town, not that we couldn't wander around." he said, hoping that the scantily clad woman would believe him. His fingers were already itching to play one of the dice games or at least a few hands of Axes and Hammers.
"Oh I'm not sure that would be a good idea." she said cautiously before her attention turned back to the leaves on the tree. "Isn't this just so pretty?"
"Gabrielle in the Blue Bull they have much prettier things they have a wheel that goes round and round and it has pretty colors." he said temptingly.
"Ooh, really?" she replied, her eyes lighting up even though the lids were half shut.
"Oh yes and they have food and drinks and-"
"Food?" she interrupted, forgetting about the treats in her satchel. "Food sounds good. I'm really rather hungry at the moment."
"Well then let's go." he said, slipping his arm around her shoulders and guiding her toward the Blue Bull.
Xena made the mistake of stopping at the Alconian Lake to wash up after the bloody battle. Within moments she found herself in yet another battle as more former residents of Tartarus emerged from the murky depths. Fortunately for her, they were unarmed and most swam in the opposite direction to avoid her until they could find weapons. Of course there were two dozen idiots that decided they could defeat her with their bare hands. It caused only a slight delay in Xena's schedule.
The warrior returned to an empty room. "Looks like they had a party in here." she said as she surveyed the wreckage on the table. Several empty platters were scattered about, crumbs were everywhere, and two empty bottles of port were lying on the floor. What bothered Xena the most was the fact that Gabrielle's staff was still there, leaning against the wall. She grabbed the weapon and left in search of her best friend and the ferryman.
Gabrielle had indeed found the spinning wheel quite fascinating. Charon wandered about the room, playing every game he could while the bard sat in one spot and watched the red and black colored wheel go round and round. Several men offered to buy her a drink, which she happily accepted, but then ignored them in favor of watching the wheel spin.
Charon was disappointed in having missed the dancing girls but took solace in the fact that he was able to gamble as much as he wanted and could freely stare at the bard's ample bosom without her threatening him. He bought a mug of port and added some red powder to it before putting it in front of the oblivious woman. "Here, I bought you a drink, Gabrielle."
"Oh, hey thanks." she said happily, draining the liquor in several long swallows. As she set the mug down her eyes fell upon a game table with multi-colored dice. "Ooh, pretty. Can we go over there?" she asked with the enthusiasm of a child.
"Oh sure, why not? I spend all these dinars to try and get you in the mood and all you want is to watch the pretty colors." he threw his hands up in defeat and led her over to the dice table. As she sat down on the stool, Charon managed to get his hand between the padded surface and her rear. 'Well at least I get to cop a little feel.' he said to himself as he stood next to her.
They watched a dozen or more rounds, the bard completely mesmerized by the dice and how they were marked differently on each side while Charon continued to grope her rear until he felt a firm hand slam down on his shoulder. "Hi Xena." he said without looking.
"First, move your hand from her ass." the warrior said firmly. "Second, what are you doing here? You were supposed to stay in the room."
"Oh, well, that you see, we just decided to-"
"I don't want to hear it." she said, cutting him off. She tapped Gabrielle on the shoulder. What she got in return was a swatting motion from the otherwise occupied bard. She tapped her again, harder this time.
"Go away, I'm busy watching this. I think I've got it figured out." Gabrielle said without turning around to see who was trying to get her attention.
"Excuse me." Xena said, gripping the bard's earlobe between her fingers and pulling the young woman off her stool.
"Ow ow ow what gives? Oh, hi Xena." she said as she tried to focus on the tall woman glowering at her.
"Hi Gabrielle." she replied, trying not to smirk at her friend's obvious condition, assuming she was just intoxicated. "Didn't I tell you to stay in the room?"
"Oh yeah!" she exclaimed, snapping her fingers. "That's what it was. I was trying to remember what you said. That's it. Yup, you're right." she nodded, then a confused look came over her face. "What'd you say again?"
"Let's go." she grabbed the bard by the arm and led her toward the exit, stopping just short of the door. "Charon."
"I'm coming, I'm coming." he muttered. "Always a killjoy, aren't you?" he began to follow them but found himself stopping at a table to place a quick bet.
Xena had just stepped outside, bard in tow, when she realized that the ferryman wasn't right behind her. She marched the bard over to a bench. "Sit and don't move." she commanded before turning around to collect her other charge. Before she could reach the door a dozen members of the king's guard rushed past her to enter the building. She stood there with arms crossed and watched as the guards began removing the gamblers and head them off to jail. When she saw Charon appear, she stepped forward. "Can't stay out of trouble, can you?"
"Oh it's okay, Xena." he replied. "They have a bed all set for me. I'll see you in the morning." he turned his attention back to the guard. "So what's for dinner tonight?"
The warrior shook her head and went to retrieve the bard only to find her no longer sitting on the bench. Half a candlemark later she found her admiring the multitude of brightly colored beads at one of the merchant's booths. It took more cajoling than Xena had patience for to convince the bard to return to the inn with her. "Gabrielle, are you hungry? Hmm? If you come back to the inn with me, I'll get you something to eat. Wouldn't that sound good right now?"
"Oh but this is just so pretty." she said, sinking her hand into the box of beads and scooping several out to fall between her fingers like a waterfall.
"Look, if I buy you some of these beads will you come back to the inn with me?" the warrior tried, knowing in her mind that the next step would be to throw the smaller woman over her shoulder and carry her back.
"Okay." Gabrielle said happily, picking out several different colored beads. Xena paid for the trinkets and tied the pouch to her belt. The bard reached for her prize but the warrior pulled back out of reach. "Hey, you said you bought them for me." she whined.
"I did, but you don't get them until we get back to the inn."
The trip back to their room took far longer than it should have because the bard decided to stop several times to look at something she found interesting, even if it was the shape of the bark of a tree. Xena had to resort to holding the pouch of beads in front of Gabrielle's face to convince her to follow, much like one would hold a carrot in front of a mule.
Once inside the room Gabrielle headed for the table, hoping that some of the tasty treats that Charon had made were still there. Of course she had eaten all of them earlier. "Oh!" she exclaimed, rummaging through her satchel until she was able to pull out several brownies. "I forgot all about these." she said and proceeded to polish them all off without offering the warrior a single bite.
Xena removed her armor and slumped into a chair to remove her boots, slightly miffed that the bard didn't even offer her one of what apparently were delicious brownies. Gabrielle found a bottle of port sitting near the fireplace and helped herself to half of it before the warrior snatched it out of her hands. "I think you've had enough, my friend."
"Oh but my mouth is so dry." the bard complained, trying valiantly to reach the bottle held just out of her reach.
"Meanie." she pouted, stomping off to a corner and sitting down.
"Gabrielle ." she sighed, not at all looking forward to dealing with a drunk and upset bard. She set the bottle down on the table and stared at the empty plates. "Just what exactly did you eat today?"
"Not much. Just a few things that Charon made. He's a good cook, you know."
"That Charon made? Did you watch him make these things?"
"Well, I didn't pay that much attention to them, but they sure tasted good." she smiled, her annoyance at the warrior apparently forgotten. Xena picked up the bottle and sniffed.
"He laced the port with something." she sniffed again. "Some kind of an aphrodisiac I think."
"Aphrothingy? Is that why I feel like this?"
"Aphrodisiac, Gabrielle." she knelt down next to her. "And just how exactly do you feel?"
"Um " the bard poked herself in several places. "I feel like I always feel." she said before breaking into a giggling fit.
"Wonderful." Xena drawled. "Gabrielle Ga-bri-elle how do you feel inside?"
"Um warm and relaxed I feel kinda good, actually. You know, those brownies were really good."
"Do you have any more of them?"
"Nope, ate em all up." she giggled and slapped her hands together. "All gone."
Xena reached for the satchel and had to jerk it out of the bard's hands. At the bottom of the bag, in addition to a multitude of crumbs, she found half a brownie. Her keen sense of smell picked up the faint scent. "Cannabis. Gabrielle, how many of these did you have?"
"Um I don't know how many trays are there?"
"You mean all the food that was here was made by Charon?" she stood and crossed to the table. "I don't believe this." she sighed. "Just how much of this stuff did you have to eat?"
"Uh well actually I was kinda hungry and you know immortals don't really need food "
"Are you saying that you ate everything that was on these plates?" Xena shook her head in disbelief. "What about the empty port bottles? Did you drink all of that too?"
"I was thirsty." the bard protested, not at all understanding what her tall friend was getting so upset about. "I'm an adult I can drink whatever I want."
"Gabrielle, you're stoned, drunk, and under the influence of a powerful aphrodisiac. I can't believe you didn't realize that something was wrong."
"Something's wrong?" she looked around to find whatever it was that the warrior thought could possibly be amiss. "Where? I don't see anything-"
"Relax, Gabrielle." Xena scratched her head and tried to figure out what to do next. When she looked down at the bard again, she noticed that the young woman was studying her fingers intently, as if seeing them for the first time.
"Xena? Did you ever notice that we have ten fingers and ten toes?" she wiggled her feet within the confines of her boots.
"Yeah, but why is that? I mean, do we really need ten of each? It's so strange. We have two ears, two eyes, but ten fingers and toes." she continued to wiggle her fingers in contemplation.
"That's just the way we're made, Gabrielle." she sat down next to the bard.
"You know what else?" she giggled as if getting ready to tell a great secret.
"What?" she sighed.
"We've got two breasts too." she cupped her mounds and laughed. "Yup, two of them, I checked."
"Good for you, Gabrielle. What do you say we just head to bed now, hmm? I think you could use a rest right now." she reached for the bard's boot and began to undo the laces, trying hard not to look at her best friend touching herself in a way that she could only dream about. There had been more than one time when circumstances presented the opportunity for Xena to pursue the idea of deepening their relationship beyond simply being friends but each time her own fears held her back.
"It just seems so so unfair. Why do we need two of them? Why do ours get big but men's don't? Why do we bleed each moon and they don't? I don't think it's fair." her hands continued to fondle her generous swells of flesh. "Hey, look at that."
"What?" she reached for the other boot.
"They're getting hard." Gabrielle whispered in amazement.
"Well, they'll do that if you play with them long enough." she pulled the bard's other boot off and went to reach for her hands, deciding instead to grab her wrists when she saw what Gabrielle's fingers were doing.
"Hmm that feels nice." she sighed. "Hey!" she protested when Xena pulled her to her feet, moving her exploring fingers in the process.
"It's bedtime, Gabrielle." she said firmly.
"You wanna help me get undressed?" the bard said seductively, her fingers twirling the laces of her top. Xena swallowed hard and reminded herself that Gabrielle really didn't mean what she said, that the aphrodisiac was doing the talking. She had to remind herself of that more than once before she could find her voice to answer the amorous bard's question.
"I don't think you need any help." she said, silently congratulating herself for not answering it the way she truly wanted to.
"Do you need help?" Gabrielle said, pressing herself up against the warrior and reaching behind for the laces that held the leathers in place.
"I don't need any help either." Xena replied, reaching behind herself and removing the bard's wandering hands.
"Are you sure? Sometimes you like to have my help." she reached back again only to have her hands stopped by the warrior's much stronger ones.
"Gabrielle " she said in a warning tone.
"Party pooper." the bard pouted, stomping off to the bed and flopping down. Xena sighed and watched as the young woman shrugged out of her small green top, her nipples fully erect. "Look at that, Xena look how much they're poking."
"I see, Gabrielle, now finish getting undressed and get to bed." she said as she turned her attention to a spot on the floor.
"But I'm already in bed." she giggled.
"I'm not in the mood for this tonight." the warrior said, pulling the bard to a standing position and reaching between their bodies to undo the belt that held Gabrielle's skirt in place.
"I thought you didn't want to help me get undressed?"
"I don't want to wait all night for you to do it either." Xena replied, letting the belt drop to the floor and unwrapping the leather skirt. She thought about helping the bard out of her breeches but decided against it. She didn't need the added temptation. "Now go to sleep." she said, giving the young woman a gentle shove back onto the bed.
"But I'm not tired. I feel good." her hands traveled back to her breasts. "Real good."
"Glad you're enjoying yourself, go to sleep."
"Aren't you coming to bed with me?" Gabrielle asked, scooting over and patting the empty space next to her.
"I'll be along in a little while." Xena replied. 'After you're asleep.' she thought to herself.
"If you're not going to sleep than I'm not going to sleep." she said defiantly. The warrior sighed and went to their saddlebags to look for their shifts. Finding them, she tossed one to Gabrielle and set hers over the edge of the chair. Within moments she was out of her leathers and into the soft cotton of her shift. She turned around and frowned to see the bard was still sitting there, the shift lying next to her. "I'm hot." the bard said in explanation.
"No kidding." Xena said wryly. She climbed into bed and turned her back to the younger woman. Instantly she felt Gabrielle press up against her, the hard nipples poking into her back.
"Xena " she whispered as her arm snaked around the older woman's waist. "Haven't you ever wondered what it would be like?" her fingers twirled in small circles on the warrior's stomach.
"Gabrielle I don't think now is a good time to discuss this. Go to sleep." she reached down to stop the bard's roving hand.
"Why not?" she pulled her hand out from under Xena's larger one and her fingers resumed their exploration, this time moving upward until they were dangerously close to the bottom of the warrior's right breast.
"Gabrielle " she said in a warning tone, grabbing the bard's hand and putting it on her hip, figuring that it was safe. She was wrong. Within a heartbeat, Gabrielle began rubbing up and down the curve of the older woman's hip.
"That's it." Xena said, exasperated and tortured far more than she thought she ever deserved. "Roll over." the bard reluctantly complied. The warrior slid her arm around Gabrielle's waist and pulled her close. "Now go to sleep." she whispered into the younger woman's ear.
Everything was quiet and peaceful for a few moments and Xena thought that perhaps she had managed to get the bard to fall asleep. But soon she felt Gabrielle's hand moving against her own breasts. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing." the bard replied, her hands suddenly stilling. Xena felt the silent chuckle and groaned in frustration before rolling over so they were back to back. She thought about moving to the floor but worried that the incredibly amorous bard would slip out of the room in search of someone to satisfy her need. It wasn't long before she felt Gabrielle roll onto her back and soon heard the soft sighs that accompanied the self-pleasuring. Xena tried to concentrate on what needed to be done the next day, on how she should spend time brushing Argo, on any number of things in her attempt to ignore what was going on next to her. The sighs gave way to soft moans and Xena buried her head under her pillow. 'I'm only human.' she thought to herself, hoping that her friend would hurry up and finish so she could get to sleep and not have to think about it any longer. But no matter what the warrior tried, her keen hearing heard every sound, her body felt every motion of the bard's rocking hips. As if that wasn't bad enough, her body was reacting to the activity going on behind her back as well. Xena gritted her teeth and squeezed the pillow tighter around her head, wondering if she suffocated herself if it would ease the intense desire she had to roll over and turn Gabrielle from her best friend into something far more intimate. "Oh gods oh oh gods" the bard cried out as her body stiffened and her fingers moved with blinding speed against herself. She finally slumped back against the bed and let out a long sigh. 'Thank the gods.' Xena thought to herself as she stuffed the pillow back under her head and tried to settle down to sleep while ignoring the aching between her own legs.
A few moments later the blue eyes popped open as a soft hand moved up her thigh. Xena groaned to herself. It was most definitely going to be a long night.
"You know, there's inflation and then there's swindling your customers." Charon said as he dropped dinar after dinar into the magistrate's outstretched hand. "Sixty dinars for gambling." he muttered.
"It goes up with each new offense, stranger. Next time it'll be a hundred dinars." the magistrate said, wondering if the strange looking man could afford that as well. It seemed like no matter what price they affixed to his fine, the stark white man with black lips pulled out enough dinars to pay. "I assume we'll see you tonight?"
"The way my luck is going, count on it." the ferryman replied. "Why, next thing you know it'll be a crime to cross the street."
"Only if you do it." Xena said as she stepped around the corner.
"Oh man, you again?" he whined. "Look, I've told you there's nothing you can do to get me back so why don't you just be a good little girl and go play with your sword or something?"
The magistrate took one look at the raven haired woman sporting armor and weapons and quickly pulled out his book filled with wanted posters. He flipped the pages until he found someone who appeared similar but when he lifted his head to get a better look, he found himself alone.
They entered the room to find a scowling Gabrielle waiting for them. "Charon, if you weren't immortal, I'd I'd well I would do something really rotten to you." she growled, shaking her fist for emphasis. Her head pounded and her memories of the previous night were fuzzy at best, but she remembered enough to know that he had spiked her food and drink. She had found herself half naked in bed when she woke up and prayed that the things she thought had happened were just hallucinations.
"Relax, Gabrielle. He's sorry, aren't you?" Xena said, pinching the skin on the back of the ferryman's neck. "Say you're sorry."
"Oww, why are you always trying to hurt me? Yes, I'm sorry." he muttered something unintelligible to the bard and received another pinch from Xena. The warrior leaned in close and whispered in his ear. "Charon, you'd be even more sorry if it 'did' work." she released her grip and motioned for him to sit down in one of the empty chairs.
Xena explained what had happened when she found the portal. While she was talking, Gabrielle found herself staring at her friend and trying to piece together the previous night's events. The dark circles under the warrior's eyes were testament to the lack of sleep, but Xena had said nothing when they woke up except to say that she had been under the influence of two different drugs thanks to the ferryman. Yet the bard noticed that Xena had taken a chair to sit in instead of joining her on the bed, giving rise to her fears that her memories of trying to fondle her friend had been real, that the drugs had caused her to act on long hidden desires. " so we're at a dead end. Gabrielle, any suggestions?"
"Huh, what?" she said, startled out of her revelry. Xena flashed her an annoyed glance.
"I asked if you had any suggestions. Haven't you been listening?"
"Oh yeah the portal. No, sorry, I have no idea." she said lamely.
"We have to figure out something. I passed a healing temple on the way back into town. They're overflowing with people that most likely should be dead but aren't. Obviously Celesta is still holding out on taking the good souls, but it won't be long before she'll have to avoid the wicked ones as well for lack of space." the warrior said. At that moment the bard's stomach announced itself as being ready for breakfast. "I guess the first order of business would be breakfast."
"Sounds good to me." Gabrielle agreed.
"I could whip something up." Charon offered, receiving warning glares from the two women. "Geez, no trust."
"I think we'll take our chances with the inn's food." Xena said.
Breakfast would have been a quiet, uneventful affair had not a scruffy looking man entered the place. With his short blond spiked hair and darker but equally short beard, Xena recognized him immediately. "Thersites." she growled, dropping her fork on the table. Gabrielle looked up and saw the Sumarian assassin as well, her hand reaching immediately for her staff. Had she had such a weapon when they first met, the bard was certain she would have beaten him senseless for climbing over her body while they hung precariously on a broken bridge. As it was, all she could do at the time was weakly pound on his body with her fist and hurl insults at him. "I'll handle this." Xena said as she began to rise.
"Let me help." the bard replied, visions of her staff connecting with his head a few dozen times filling her mind.
"No. Stay here and keep an eye on Charon. We don't want him running off."
The bard shot a look that told Xena exactly what she thought of that idea but she reluctantly sat back down. The warrior rose to her full height and turned her attention to Thersites. The other patrons looked from the well armed woman at one end of the room to the blond man at the other and decided that being between them wasn't a good idea. Thersites laughed as the throngs of people quickly left. "Xena, I still owe you for keeping me from getting the Sumarian treasure and now I intend to collect." without warning, a knife flew from a hidden spring attached to his wrist. The warrior twisted, caught the projectile, and whipped it back at him.
"You may find the price to be a little high." she said as she watched him duck the knife, the motion allowing her time to draw her sword.
"Ah, but I think it will be you who pays the price this time, Xena." he taunted, pulling his sword. "When I'm through with you perhaps I'll go after that little brat." the warrior let out her battle cry and somersaulted over the tables between them, landing her boots hard against his chest and bouncing back away from him.
While the two battled, Gabrielle and Charon failed to notice the brown haired woman slipping up behind them. Abrama took careful aim and slammed the hilt of her sword against the back of Gabrielle's head before repeating the motion a heartbeat later on the ferryman. By the time Xena was able to look in their direction and discover them missing, the female warlord had already loaded them onto a chariot and was racing out of town. The distraction cost Xena as Thersites sword found its mark, slicing a shallow cut across her left arm just above her gauntlet. "Ah, first blood." he said joyfully, raising it again for another blow. Xena pivoted, dropped to one knee, and brought her sword back, sinking it deep into his chest. Without waiting to see if he was really dead, she somersaulted to the far end of the inn. Her heart pounded painfully in her chest when she saw Gabrielle's staff lying on the floor. Xena raced out the back door and looked around but there was no sign of the bard, Charon, or whoever might have taken them. She heard a shuffling noise behind her and rolled out of the way just in time to avoid Thersites' last attempt to make her join him in the Underworld. As he fell to the ground, Xena rolled him over. "Did you see who took them?"
"Go to Hades, Xena. I'm not telling you nothing." he gasped as his mouth filled with blood.
Xena let his dead body slump to the ground and stood. "Celesta! Show yourself!" she yelled. A moment later she saw the beautiful form of Hades' sister.
"What is it that you wish of me, Xena?" the dark haired goddess asked pleasantly.
"Who took them?" the warrior asked urgently.
"I'm afraid I cannot help you."
"Celesta, if I don't find Charon and get him back to the Underworld you know what will happen. Please!" she made no attempt to hide her concern.
"I believe the fear you have is for your mortal friend and I wish there was a way I could help you but alas, I have no knowledge of this matter. I know all those you have sent to Hades but I'm afraid it would take too long for me to recite them." the goddess of Death said, her tone never condescending or judgmental. Xena sighed in agreement. There was no way she could figure out who took them by going through all the people she'd killed. She lowered her head and noticed the chariot tracks. Without another word to Death, the warrior turned and followed the twin lines.
Stopping to collect Argo, Xena continued her chase of the chariot tracks. Less than a league out of town, however, the trail stopped. She saw the chariot sitting on the side of the road, empty. There were horse tracks leading away but since it was the main road leading in and out of town, the tracks quickly became lost in the multitude of other hoof prints on the road. She came upon a fork in the road with fresh marks in both directions. Knowing that one road had to lead her to her quarry but unsure of which one, Xena stood there, indecisive for a few moments, before sighing and following the trail on the left.
Gabrielle awoke to find herself in the back of a wagon, her hands tied securely behind her back. Charon was sitting across from her in the same position. "Friend of yours?" he asked.
"Never saw her before. Any idea who she is?" the bard whispered.
"I can't remember the names of every person who rides my boat, but I remember her. She was one pissed off woman, as I recall." he stroked his chin. "Kept trying to tell me that it wasn't her time, as if I had anything to do with it. I'm just a ferryman, you know."
"Shut up back there!" Abrama growled from her seat in the front of the wagon.
"Must be her time of the moon." Charon whispered.
It was a good four candlemarks longer before they entered the burnt out remains of a town. Darkness had fallen long ago, only the full moon casting any light on them. Abrama stopped the wagon outside the only building that seemed to have survived whatever force had destroyed the town and roughly dragged Charon out of the wagon. "Hey, easy on the merchandise."
"Smart mouth for a dead man." the warlord sneered. They disappeared into the building, Abrama returning a short time later to collect the bard. "Let's go, Gabrielle." she said, grabbing the bard by the hair.
Once inside, Gabrielle realized that they were in what must have once been the local jail. They passed the cell that now held Charon and entered the next one. She saw the manacles on the wall and tried to remain calm. When Abrama released the ropes that held her wrists together, Gabrielle saw her chance. A quick elbow to the midsection knocked the wind out of the warlord. The bard raced for the door only to be stopped by the biting sting of a whip wrapping around her neck. "Oh no you don't, Gabrielle. I have plans for you big plans." Abrama jerked the whip back and quickly wrapped her arm around the smaller woman's throat. Gabrielle's arms flailed helplessly in the air as darkness came over her. "This is called a sleeper hold. Before I'm done with you, you'll know all sorts of different holds. You think Xena knows something about pressure points? Wait until you see what I've learned." the warlord said before throwing the unconscious woman on the floor.
Gabrielle awoke to find herself chained to the wall. Her arms stretched out to either side of her, the restraints digging uncomfortably into her wrists. Her legs slightly more than shoulder length apart, the ankles manacled. "Ah, good to see you're finally awake. Now I can have my fun." the brown haired warlord said as she rose from her chair at the opposite end of the cell.
"Who are you?" the bard asked. "How do you know who I am?"
"Oh, tsk tsk, one question at a time, little one. I am Abrama, the worst terror the world had ever known before that bitch Xena cut me down. As for the other, well, I know all about you, Gabrielle of Poteidaia. You see, I've been in Tartarus for over seven summers thanks to that murdering scum you hang around with, so I've made it a point to find out all I could about her and about whoever she was with. She sends lots of souls to Tartarus, you know. I just have to mention her name and suddenly I have them falling all over themselves to supply me with information." she pulled a knife from her boot and pressed it against the bard's cheek. "Imagine my surprise when just a few summers ago I hear that she's turning on her own, fighting for justice of all things." she snorted derisively. "Then I hear that she's got a companion, a little brat with a big mouth and an even bigger heart. Well of course I wanted to hear all about that." she drew the blade down the side of Gabrielle's cheek, smiling at the thin trickle of blood. "Oh yes, Gabrielle, I heard many stories about you. In fact, some of the best ones came from someone near and dear to your heart. Tell me, does the name Callisto ring a bell with you?" the green eyes grew wide and Abrama laughed evilly. "Ah yes, she told me all about you, little bard wanna be. Tell me something " she leaned in close. "Was Perdicus any good? Hmm, did you enjoy your one and only romp between the sheets with him?"
Gabrielle jerked hard against her restraints as she tried to lunge at the warlord. "Oh yes, Callisto warned me you were a bit touchy about that particular subject." she dug some dirt out from under her fingernails with her knife. "I guess it mustn't have been all that good, huh?"
"When Xena finds you-"
"Oh, when Xena finds me she'll wish she hadn't. I've been waiting far too long for my chance at her and I'm not going to screw it up like Callisto did. You know what that blond psycho's problem was? She was obsessed with Xena in every possible way. She had opportunity after opportunity to kill her and she just let them slip through her fingers. Not me, I never had a decent chance at her. I was injured and trying to recover when her band of murdering thieves raided my town and killed everyone. But now I have my chance at revenge and I'm not going to be as stupid as Callisto. Tell me something, Gabrielle did you think that blond whacko was dangerous?"
"Well, compared to me, Callisto is just a little pussycat. She always went for the quick death. Not me, I like pain. Do you like pain, Gabrielle?" she brought the knife back to the bard's still bleeding cheek. "Hmm?" she pressed harder than before and dragged it down until she reached the jaw. The bard's teeth clenched tight to keep the scream inside. She didn't want to let her adversary have the pleasure of hearing her suffer. "Ooh, that's a nasty cut you have there. Better get that stitched up before you bleed to death." Abrama chuckled at her own joke. "So tell me, Gabrielle, are you and Xena doing it? Hmm, do you keep her warm at night? I bet it must be exciting, huh? Getting it on with a lying, murdering bitch like her. Tell me, does she make you scream?"
"We're not lovers." the bard said angrily.
"Oh, well then I guess she won't care if I do this." as she said the last word, Abrama brought her knee up hard between the bard's legs. While not as effective as it would be on a man, it was still more than enough to bring tears to Gabrielle's eyes and to cause her to release a whimper as the pain shot through her center. "Oh, did that hurt?" she repeated the painful move, this time with even more force. The bard was in agony and the feeling of helplessness only made it worse. She turned her head and locked eyes with the ferryman in the next cell.
"Hey, hey Abrama." Charon said. "If I can draw your attention away from your human punching bag for a moment, I might have something of interest to you."
"What could you, a lackey for Hades, possibly have that would be of interest to me?" the warlord said as she stepped toward the bars that separated the two cells. Charon thought quickly. He had managed to get her away from Gabrielle, now if he could just keep her away.
"I can tell you where you can find more wealth than you can possibly imagine. I can help you find an endless supply of dinars, make you the richest woman in all of Greece. After all, you certainly are the wickedest."
"What makes you think that I care at all about dinars, or wealth? Perhaps I just want to cut this little bitch here into lots of little pieces for Xena to find, then when the murdering scum is grieving over the loss of her little worshipper, I'll just sweep in and slice her throat." the warlord said.
"Then what? I mean, once you kill Xena, you'll need those dinars. If you let us go, I'll show you where to find them." faster than he could react, her arm shot out and grabbed him by the throat.
"If I could figure out a way to kill you, I would. Right now, shut up and leave me alone." she hissed, shoving the ferryman with enough force to send him crashing against the stone wall and into unconsciousness. She turned to look at Gabrielle again. "Now, as for you " the warlord rolled up her sleeve as she approached the helpless bard.
Morning still showed no signs of either Gabrielle or Charon. Xena reluctantly accepted that she had followed the wrong trail. There was no way to cut across, either. She had to turn back until she reached the fork and then go in the other direction. "Come on, Argo we need to keep going. I promise you an extra helping of oats when this is through." she urged the tired horse onward, hoping that the golden mare had enough hidden energy to help her get to Gabrielle, and soon.
Charon regained consciousness to the sound of Gabrielle screaming in pain. As he focused he saw the reason for the young woman's cries. "Oh, did that hurt? I bet Callisto never thought to break your fingers one by one. Tsk tsk, she just had no imagination." Abrama said as she gripped the bard's pinkie finger. "No, she didn't believe in torturing people for the fun of it, she wanted to see you suffer only when Xena was there to watch. Personally I find this much more interesting." with a malevolent sneer, she snapped the finger sideways until she heard the popping sound accompanied by the bard's screech of agony. "Ah, that's the idea I like to hear my victims scream."
"Why don't you pick on someone your own size, like a rhino?" the ferryman said as he rushed to the bars that separated them.
"The only reason I don't kill you is because I haven't figured out a way yet, you creepy thing." Abrama snarled.
"You just wait until I return to the Underworld. I'll be more than happy to shuttle you across the river."
"Big words, little man." she stepped away from the bard and drew her sword, plunging it deep into the ferryman's chest.
"Oh, that tickles." he said as he backed away from the weapon. "I like being a pin cushion." he stepped up to the bars again. "Wanna try that again? This time aim a little more to the left."
"Arggh!" she growled. "You're just trying to distract me." without looking, she brought her booted foot up and slammed it into the bard's lower chest. Gabrielle's face was the picture of agony as she felt several ribs crack and gasped for air. "One more word out of you and I'll just run her through with my sword, do you want that?" the brown haired warlord pointed her sword menacingly at Gabrielle. "What do you think, little bard wanna be? You want me to just end this? Hmm? Come on, I want to hear you beg for your rotten useless little life." she rested her sword against the bard's thigh. "You know I have no qualms about killing you before Xena arrives. It makes no difference to me." she dragged the blade upward, slicing a fair gash up the length of Gabrielle's thigh.
"Please " she begged as she tried to control her painful ragged breaths. "Please no more."
"Did you beg Callisto for your life? Did you beg her for the life of that useless impotent husband of yours?" she brought her knee up between the bard's legs again, striking with vicious force. "See, you know what the problem is, Gabrielle?" she spoke in a calm voice, as if it was perfectly normal to beat a person senseless and then try to carry on a conversation with them. "I don't need any reason to torture you. I don't think it even matters that you're a friend of that murdering bitch any more. I like torture. I like being mean and heartless. I enjoy hearing my victims scream like little children for their lives." she leaned close, pressing her fist against the bruised and cracked ribs. "But enough of this for now. I'll be nice and let you rest for a while. Perhaps we can have another session later, hmm?" she brought her right hand back and punched Gabrielle hard across the face. "You know there's something I forgot to tell you." she swung her left fist, striking the bard against the right cheek. "I'm ambidextrous." she stepped back to admire her handiwork. "Ah yes, looking good. Well, if you'll excuse me, I think dinner is in order now. Nothing like a good torture session to work up the old taste buds." she cackled to herself as she left the cell. Once the door shut, Gabrielle's head fell forward, her tears streaming down her battered face and striking the dusty floor. Charon tried to reach her but the bars blocked his way. He wanted to say something, anything to make the young woman feel better but there were no words that would help. The ferryman knew that nothing would help save Xena arriving to rescue her. He hoped that Gabrielle could withstand the abuse that long. He knew that even though he was immortal, he didn't want to be around if the leather clad warrior arrived to find her friend dead.
Xena reached the fork and considered taking the right turn when she looked up and saw the town straight ahead. She dismounted and stoked Argo's nose. "You're not going to able to help any more. You've done well, now it's time for you to rest." she walked the golden mare into town and left her in the hands of the capable stable boy, taking the largest and fastest horse she could, using her palomino as collateral until she returned it. After giving the boy several dinars and instructions for her horse's care, Xena mounted up and headed back on the road.
She had been on the road for about three candlemarks when she came upon a lone man walking. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled as she moved closer and recognized him. "Linos." she said evenly, her hand lowering to her chakram while her eyes watched for him to reach for his sword. He made no move toward his weapon, rather raising his hands in surrender.
"I have no quarrel with you, Xena." he said, maintaining eye contact.
"I'm supposed to believe that?" she scoffed. "I killed you four summers ago. You were released from Tartarus to kill me, you certainly don't expect me to turn my back on you."
"Do what you want, Xena. I'm not going to raise my sword to you. You don't know what it was like for me, all that time in the fiery realm of Tartarus. I had a lot of time to think. I thought about what my life was like, what it could have been, all those people I murdered senselessly. If I had it to do all over again, I'd do it differently. Now I have that chance. Sysiphus released me. Now I'm mortal and have another chance." he slowly raised his hand, making sure not to appear threatening, and ran his fingers through his blond hair. "I know Hades will send me back to Tartarus when I return but until then I have this chance to do the right thing. If you want to send me back now, do it." he lowered his hand and held his arms out. "All I want to do is try to make up for even a fraction of the things that I've done wrong in my life."
Xena moved her hand back to the reins. "You were many things when you were in my army, but a liar wasn't one of them." she noted that he visibly relaxed. "Tell me something, have you seen anyone come by with two people in tow? I'm looking for Charon and a small blond."
"Charon's pretty hard to miss, but I haven't seen anyone since I've been on this road." Linos said apologetically. "Have you run into Abrama yet?"
"No, you haven't run into her then. You'd know if you had. If you do, stay away from her. She's insane, worse than Callisto." he shuddered at the memory of the mayhem the two women caused while both were residents of Tartarus. "Sysiphus released her several days ago. She swore she'd get you."
"I don't remember her. Do you know anything about her?" she asked, hoping for any clue that might help.
"I was in the crowd of people hoping to be transported back across the river by Sysiphus. He asked if there was anyone among us who was certain they could destroy you and she spoke up. She said you destroyed her village a long time ago that she took thirty of your men down before you killed her. Something about being home recuperating from an injury and not being up to form."
"The village, did she say the name of it?" she asked anxiously.
"No, I'm sorry." he replied, lowering his head. "I just know that she said it was seven summers ago. Perhaps that'll help?"
Xena racked her brain trying to remember the specifics of her life of terror so long ago. There were just so many villages, so many people who fell to her blade. She thought hard. Certainly someone who took out thirty of her men should have been memorable. "Linos, have you passed through any villages recently?"
"Well, nothing worth mentioning, just a burnt out husk of one about four candlemarks or so up the road. Nothing there, though looks like it was burned to the ground long ago."
"Burned?" that triggered a memory. A village in flames, people running around. She vaguely remembered one battle where a woman was trying to defend her home and was pretty lethal with a sword. It took her chakram to bring the woman down. Could that have been it? "Linos, is it straight up the road?"
"Yeah, just keep going and you can't miss it. You know Charon had better return to his boat pretty soon. The dead souls are so packed that I heard that Hades was going to tell Celesta to stop sending them down."
"He can't get back." Xena explained. "Sysiphus has blocked the portal from the inside with some kind of magic. I can't get to it."
"No you can't. There's about a hundred souls waiting for you to arrive. They'd never let you get near it. Why can't you send him through the Alconian Lake?"
"He's immortal they have a special portal further up the riverbank. Until that portal is opened I can't get him back." she gathered the reins. "I have to go find my friend and Charon. I wish you luck in your quest, Linos. Perhaps Hades will take notice of your change when it comes time for you to return." she urged her horse forward.
"Wait!" he yelled, running up behind her. "It's important that Charon get back. Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Not unless you can find him. I'm going to go check out that village."
"Let me go with you. If it is Abrama, you'll need all the help you can get."
Xena thought for a moment. "Linos, I'd appreciate the help but time is not something I have on my side right now. I need to get there as fast as possible. If you were to ride it would only slow this horse down. I can't afford the delay. Good luck." she urged the horse forward. Linos looked at the woman he once served, remembered the stories he had heard about her in Tartarus. How she had changed, no longer slaughtering innocents, how she fought for the side of good now. This is what he wanted to do. Without any indecision, he began to follow her on foot.
Xena pushed the horse as hard as she could, slowing only when she felt the stallion's breathing become labored. By her calculations, the village could only be about three candlemarks or so down the road. She dismounted and walked as fast as she could while trying to let the horse cool down. Once she was confident that the horse would be fine, she tied the reins to a low hanging branch and began to run toward the village, trying hard to remember whatever she could about this mysterious woman. What did Linos say about her? That she was worse than Callisto ever dared to be? Xena found it hard to believe that anyone was more deranged than her nemesis, but of course it was possible. Despite Callisto's obsession with her, the blond warlord wouldn't have hurt Gabrielle until she arrived. That was a pattern that Xena had counted on more than once. This Abrama woman was an unknown quantity. What if she chose to exact her revenge on the bard before she arrived? The thought was enough for Xena to find new energy reserves and pick up her pace.
"Oh come now, Gabrielle, I thought you were made of stronger material than this." the brown haired lunatic said as she grabbed the bard's hair and lifted her head. "No wonder Callisto never bothered to try and beat you before Xena arrived, she probably knew you were too much of a pansy to survive." she let the semi-conscious woman's head drop. "Why, I've only just begun to have my fun with you." that got a low moan from the bard. "What do you think, Charon? You think she could survive another one of my sessions?"
"I don't think Hercules could survive your sessions." the ferryman replied, careful to temper his comments to avoid angering the warlord. One earlier comment by him had earned Gabrielle a slap so hard that the bard's head bounced off the stone wall.
"Well, perhaps we'll just have to pay him a visit next, hmm? Right after I get done killing Xena and her little slut." she left the room and returned a few moments later sporting a glove, razor sharp talons covering the tips. "It seems that Gabrielle no longer responds to my punches. Perhaps a sharper pain is in order." she placed the tips of the glove on the top of the bard's left shoulder and slowly dragged it downward until she reached the elbow, delighting at the fresh flow of crimson that ran down Gabrielle's arm and the renewed scream that was torn from her lungs. "Ah, nice to see you awake, little one. I suppose you're destined for the Elyssian Fields, hmm? You seem too nice to be a murdering scum like your friend Xena is. I suppose you wish you were there right now, hmm?"
The warrior was almost to the edge of the town when she heard the sound of an approaching horse. She hid in the brush until she recognized Linos aboard the stallion she had borrowed from the town. "What are you doing here?" she demanded as she stepped into view.
"I thought you might want some help. I found the horse tied to a tree and figured you had gone ahead on foot. He was rested enough by the time I got to him so I used him to make up for lost time."
"Good thinking." Xena admitted. "Tie him to a tree. We can't take the chance on anyone hearing us arrive." she kept her eyes focused on the burnt out remains of the village, knowing without question that Linos was doing as instructed.
"What's the plan?" he asked when he finished his task and moved to her side.
"There's fresh horse tracks leading in, but none leading out. You were right about this being the right place." she looked around as they moved closer. "See that building there? The one with the bars on the windows? It has to be the jail. It's made of stone, that's why it wasn't destroyed." she tried hard to remember but couldn't pick this village out of the scores that she had razed to the ground during her reign of terror. "If this woman is holding them, that'd be the most logical place." she looked around but couldn't see any way to approach the jail without being seen. Dusk was settling over the land, giving the warrior an idea. "It'll be dark within a half-candlemark. If we see any torches being lit inside then we'll know that's where they are. The darkness will give us cover as well." Linos agreed and the two headed for the safety of the brush to await nightfall.
It wasn't as dark as Xena would have liked but when she heard Gabrielle's strangled cries she couldn't hold back any longer. As quietly as they could, the warrior and Linos scrambled across the open area until they reached the old stone structure. The front door was closed and Xena had no doubt that if they tried to open it that the old rusty hinges would alert their quarry to their presence long before they could reach her. Linos looked up at the thatch roof and pointed. The warrior shook her head...there was too great a risk that the old straw and wooden cover would collapse under their weight. A quick check of the perimeter showed that every window was barred. "I've got it." Linos whispered, setting his sword down on the ground next to the warrior.
"No, wait." she hissed as he took off across the field. A few moments later she saw him coming back toward the jail, the stallion in tow.
"Hello! Is anybody here?" he shouted. Xena crept along the side of the building until she was within his sight but not visible should someone come through the front door. "Hello! My horse has thrown a shoe. Is anyone here?"
"What is that?" Abrama said, momentarily stopping her attack on the bard. She looked out the window and saw an apparently defenseless man leading a horse. "Oh for the love of Zeus." she cursed before picking up her sword and leaving the cell.
Xena heard the creak of the door opening and crouched into position, every muscle ready to spring into action at the sight of her adversary. Linos was only a few paces away now. "Hello there. My horse has thrown a shoe, I'm afraid I'm not from around here. Could you direct me to a smithy?"
"Go back the way you came. No one here can help you." the brown haired woman said, holding her sword menacingly. Linos let his hand drop to his side, the fingertips reaching under his belt for the hidden knife.
"Oh, I think you have exactly what I'm looking for." he replied, pulling the knife free and firing it at the warlord. At that same instant Xena vaulted out of her hiding place, throwing his sword to him in the process. Abrama used her weapon to deflect the flying knife and ducked back inside, slamming the bar down to lock the door.
The instant she saw the door close, Xena knew she had no chance to enter that way. She took a few steps away from the building, then turned around and ran toward it. With a mighty battle cry, the warrior somersaulted up in the air, coming down feet first onto the roof. As expected, the worn thatch and wood cover gave way under her weight.
Abrama ran down the hallway. As she stepped in front of Gabrielle's cell, she lost her footing on a pile of dinars scattered about. She fought to maintain her sword as the momentum sent her sailing past the cell door. "Oh, watch out for those dinars on the floor." Charon said gleefully as he watched the warlord slip. The delay was all Xena needed to reach her. She had heard the ferryman's comment and flipped over the pile of coins, landing only a few paces away from the warlord. The warrior made the mistake of taking a quick glance to the right. The sight of Gabrielle, beaten to a pulp and chained to the wall was almost too much for her to bear. She turned her attention back to her enemy.
"You're a dead woman." the warrior snarled, drawing her sword.
"Oh no, Xena. You obviously have mistaken me for someone who actually fears you." Abrama replied. Realizing that being between Xena and a wall was not a good place to be, the brown haired warlord launched herself into the air, flipping over the warrior's head to land on the other side. She lashed out with her sword only to have it blocked by the enraged warrior.
"Your acrobatics aren't going to save you." Xena said, jumping back to avoid a forward thrust.
"And your attempt at being a hero isn't going to save your little friend." the warlord retorted. "Look at her, Xena. Do you really think she'll survive another candlemark? Unlike you who likes to go for the quick kill, I take pride in my work." she taunted as they exchanged blows. "I find torture to be a most enjoyable hobby." she took another step back and ducked a vicious swing from Xena's sword. "Just ask Gabrielle, I'm sure she'll agree. Oh, I'm sorry, she's not really up for idle conversation right now. In fact, I believe that in a few candlemarks all she'll be up to is a one way ticket to Hades." Abrama let out a self-satisfied laugh as she saw the look of concern and fear flash over Xena's face before being replaced with pure anger and rage. "Oh, didn't like the sound of that, hmm? I would have thought you'd enjoy hearing that your little girl toy will be joining you. Oh, that's right, she's heading for one place and you're heading somewhere else, aren't you?"
Unable to get the door to budge, Linos sheathed his sword and began climbing the side of the building until he reached the roof. It took only a moment to find the spot where Xena had kicked her way through. Dropping down, it took him only a heartbeat to hear the sounds of swords clashing off in the distance and head in that direction. He rounded the corner and saw the two women fighting. Seeing his opportunity, Linos drew his sword, preparing to drive it through the warlord's back. Abrama heard the sound of the weapon being drawn and as he lunged forward, she dropped to the ground and brought her sword up, sending the blade deep into the blond man's chest.
Before she could pull her blade free, Xena was upon her. The blue eyes burning with rage, the warrior grabbed the front of the warlord's tunic, pulled her up, and slammed her against the stone wall. Xena drove her knee into Abrama's midsection, forcing the warlord to drop her guard long enough for the tips of the warrior's fingers to find the pressure points on either side of her neck. Letting the brown haired lunatic drop to the ground, she searched for the keys to unlock the cells. She had just opened the door to Gabrielle's cell and thrown the keys to Charon when she heard Linos call out. "Xena, no, don't let her die."
Thinking he was referring to Gabrielle, the warrior replied "I won't." and moved toward her friend.
"He means Abrama." Charon said as he turned the key to unlock his cell. Xena looked at the two men with disbelief.
"What? After what she's done?" she asked incredulously.
"Xena..." Linos wheezed. Reluctantly the warrior went to his side. "She can't die yet." he began coughing, the blood trickling out of his mouth. Xena held his head up and tilted it to the side so he could breathe. "I'll...I'll get the portal open."
"If she dies before he can get the portal open, she'll warn Sysiphus." Charon said, his normal sarcasm absent in light of the seriousness of the situation. Xena nodded and gently set Linos down before going to the warlord's side. Abrama's eyes were rolled up in their sockets, death imminent. The raven haired warrior released the pinch and in the blink of an eye slammed her fist hard against the side of the warlord's head, knocking the woman into unconsciousness. She heard the ragged gasp behind her and knew without looking that Linos was gone. "May Hades have mercy on your soul." she said softly.
"What can I do?" Charon said as he approached her side.
"Lock that bitch up." Xena replied, rising to her feet. She took a deep breath and steeled herself before entering Gabrielle's cell.
In all her time as a warlord, Xena had never inflicted, never even seen such abuse of another person. She stood an arm's length away and slowly looked up and down her friend's battered body. The golden hair was marred by dried blood, her face swollen and bruised, her lips and cheeks in need of stitches. The fingers of her left hand were broken and both arms required stitches. The right shoulder was dislocated and the warrior could only imagine the pain her gentle friend was in since it was clear that most of the bard's weight was being supported by her tortured arms. Uncharacteristically, Xena's lower lip quivered as she continued her visual examination. It seemed like there wasn't a spot on Gabrielle's body that wasn't cut or bruised. "By the gods...." the warrior whispered as she wiped a tear from her eye.
Charon silently handed Xena the ring of keys. Kneeling down, she went to put the key into the lock and found she had to scrape layers of dried blood out of the keyhole. When she freed the ankle from the restraint, the shift in weight caused such a tortured groan from the young woman that Xena let out a small cry of her own and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's leg to help support her. "Charon." the warrior said softly, dropping the keys to the floor. The ferryman picked them up, knelt down next to the other ankle, and waited for Xena to get a better hold on the bard before unlocking the manacle. With one strong hand on either side of Gabrielle's hips, the warrior nodded for him to release the wrist restraints. "It's going to be all right, Gabrielle. I'm here." she said softly in response to another groan from the bard.
Gabrielle slumped forward once the last restraint was released. "Her ribs!" Charon warned, but it was too late. In her attempt to assist, Xena's shoulder pressed against the cracked bones, causing another gut-wrenching groan. She set the bard down on the ground as quickly as she could but the tortured sounds still tore at the warrior's heart.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I'm so sorry. I'm trying not to hurt you." she murmured, dismayed that the movement had caused the dried blood to crack and several of the wounds to reopen. Xena's jaw clenched as she realized that her saddlebags were still with Argo and thus she had no medical supplies with which to help stem the renewed flow of blood or ease the suffering. She needed cloth and she needed it fast. "Charon, give me your robe."
Xena used her breast dagger to slice the silk robe into strips and bandages, taking the briefest moment to recall she had gotten it from the bard so long ago. "Just hang in there, Gabrielle, just stay with me and hang on." she said as she began the laborious task of wrapping the most serious injuries. "No " the bard whispered, unaware of who was touching her.
"Gabrielle, it's me, it's Xena." she said, leaning down to speak softly into the young woman's ear. "It's all right now, I'm here."
"Please please stop." came the weakened response. Fresh tears leaked out of the swollen lids and were quickly matched with equal ones from the normally stoic warrior. Charon kept a respectable distance from them and watched on in silence. He never would have believed that the woman who once sent so many people to his boat was now the same one who apologized every time she had to move part of Gabrielle's body, who let her tears fall unashamed, who was working so hard to save one life.
When there was nothing more she could do at the moment for Gabrielle, Xena sat back and allowed herself a brief time to let her tears silently fall. Charon had gone to prepare the wagon to carry the bard back to Laconia. When he returned and announced that the wagon was waiting outside the door, Xena was faced with the problem of how to move the battered woman without aggravating her injuries or more importantly to the warrior, causing any more pain than absolutely necessary. The warrior's eyes settled on the woman who caused so much pain to the one person who meant more to her than anyone else ever had. The blue eyes burned with fury. Rising to her feet, Xena jerked the ring of keys away from Charon and stormed over to the cell holding the warlord. She set her weapons on the floor outside and entered the cell. With an anger she hadn't felt since her warlord days, Xena slapped the warlord awake. "You can't kill her!" Charon warned.
"No, I can't kill her yet." the warrior agreed. "But there's nothing that says I can't make her suffer the way she made Gabrielle suffer." she grabbed Abrama's wrist and quickly twisted the brown haired woman's arm up behind her back. "Is there?" she continued to apply pressure.
"Go to Hades, Xena. You'll never make me beg the way I made her." the warlord hissed through clenched teeth.
"I don't care about making you beg." the warrior replied, slamming her knee into Abrama's back. "Only about breaking you into pieces, lots of little pieces." Xena twisted the captured wrist until she heard a satisfying crunch. "Do you know how many bones a person can have broken and still live?" she brought her foot forward and swept the warlord's legs out from under her, slamming Abrama's face into the stone floor. "Neither do I. Let's find out, shall we?" she jerked the brown haired woman up and threw her across the room. "I'll give you a sporting chance. That's a far sight more than you gave Gabrielle." every word dripped with anger. Xena ignored Charon's continued warnings as her fist connected with Abrama's face again and again. The warlord tried to fight back but Xena's rage and fury added strength to her blows, speed to her movements. "You see this blood on my hands?" the warrior screamed. "This is Gabrielle's blood, blood from wounds that YOU caused!"
Only when Abrama was too groggy to raise her hands in defense did Xena finally relent, letting the warlord fall limply to the ground. She left the cell and locked the door, taking a moment to let her rage dissipate before returning to Gabrielle's side. "Let's get you out of here." she said softly, reaching up to brush a stray lock of hair off the bard's face.
"What about her? She's not exactly able to get up and do a jig." Charon said, pointing to the stunned warlord.
"Leave her there. She won't die anytime soon." Xena replied before gently cradling the bard in her arms and carrying her out of the room.
If the ride back to Laconia was traumatic for Gabrielle, it was even more so for the warrior. Charon tried to avoid the ruts and bumps in the road but there was only so much he could do. Every time the injured woman was jostled and cried out in pain, Xena felt as though a knife was being stabbed into her own heart with each cry from the bard and she apologized profusely even though there was nothing she could do to prevent it. Untold numbers of times the warrior chastised herself for not thinking to grab the saddlebags with the medical supplies from Argo when she switched horses, for taking the wrong turn in the road, for not being able to prevent the kidnapping, for the multitude of things that hindsight told her she could have done differently. She was glad it was dark so she couldn't see all the marks and injuries that covered the bard. Not that it made much difference, those that she did see in the cell were burned into her memory, adding to her personal Tartarus of guilt. By the time Charon pulled the wagon to a stop in front of the inn, most of Gabrielle's wounds had reopened despite Xena's best efforts, although thanks to the tightly wrapped pieces of silk, the renewed bleeding was minimal.
Using a saddle blanket as a makeshift gurney, they carried the bard in and got her settled on the bed. Charon covered his stark white body with Xena's cloak and went to the stable to collect the saddlebags containing the medical supplies while the warrior built a fire in the fireplace and lit candles throughout the room to give her the light she would need to work by. "Xena?"
"Right here, Gabrielle." she replied, moving to the bedside.
"I'm thirsty." she croaked.
"Okay, hang on and I'll get you some water." she got up and quickly filled a small cup. Holding the bard's head as best she could without touching any injured areas, Xena held the cup and let the injured woman take several small sips before pulling it away. "That's enough for now. You can have more in a little while, okay?"
"Thanks." she tried to focus on her blue-eyed friend but the swelling made it hard. She ended up seeing a blurry vision of the warrior but at least she knew she was finally safe. Charon returned with the saddlebags and several worn but clean sheets draped over his arm.
"How many do you have?" Xena asked.
"Cut two into long strips and the others into squares for bandages. Then I need a couple of deep bowls, several buckets of water, two small flat boards to use as a splint for her hand, and a bottle of the strongest stuff they have at the bar."
"A please and thank you wouldn't hurt. I'm not some scullery maid, you know. Sheesh, show a little compassion and right away they think you're at their beck and call." he set the sheets down and went to get the other items Xena needed.
"He...he tried to help." Gabrielle said.
"I know. Despite being a horse's ass at times." she took a deep breath and her face became serious. "It's time for me to patch you up. I'm afraid this part's going to hurt a bit. Other than your hand, and shoulder, is there any other place that you think might be dislocated or broken?"
"Everywhere." the bard said, only half-joking. She inhaled deeply and winced at the pain. "My ribs." she croaked. Xena visibly winced at the memory of accidentally pressing against them.
"You're going to be all right, Gabrielle. It's just going to take some time." Xena said, although she wasn't sure if she was saying it more for the bard or for herself. Using a square of cloth and the remaining water, she carefully wiped away the mess surrounding the cut on the back of Gabrielle's head. "I'll start at the top and work my way down. You tell me if it begins to be too much for you, okay? I'll try and use pressure points whenever I can."
"I don't think I can hurt worse than I do now." she replied. Xena said nothing but knew that the bard would be in considerably more pain in just a short while.
Charon returned with the bowls, boards, and a bottle of strong wine followed by the innkeeper carrying two buckets of water. One look at the battered woman lying on the bed and the innkeeper knew that more buckets would be necessary. "I'll send someone up with more water. Is there anything else you need?" he asked. Xena shook her head. He nodded and shut the door as he left.
"Well, if you'll excuse me, I tend to get squeamish at the sight of cute girls covered in blood." Charon said, drawing a look from the warrior. "I'll be down at the jail if you need me."
"Why there? I'm sure you can get a room here."
"They have my room all made up for me. Nice one too. Great view of the alley. Mattress is a little lumpy though. Oh well, I guess I can't expect much from a little town like this. Besides, I have an ongoing card game going with the night guard."
Xena watched him leave, confident that he wouldn't try and disappear on them. While she probably could have used the extra pair of hands, she knew she wasn't in the mood to listen to his comments. She took the needle and thread from the saddlebag. "You ready?" she received a shaky nod in reply. Setting the suturing materials aside for a moment, she leaned over until her lips were next to the bard's ear. "I'll be as gentle as I can." she said softly.
"I know you will." Gabrielle replied. "It's okay. I know it's going to hurt."
"I wish I could put you out while I do this but I'm worried about that bump on your head." she said apologetically. "Looks like she got you pretty good."
"Mmm." the bard agreed. "I...I don't even know how many times. I just remember her doing it over and over and-"
"Shh...it's okay now." Xena interrupted. "She can't hurt you anymore."
The warrior decided to start by stitching up the multitude of cuts and gashes that littered the bard's body. One by one, she removed the wrappings, cleaned the area as best she could, and sewed it up with small, neat stitches. Gabrielle kept a brave face but was unable to keep the tears from streaming or to stifle small gasps whenever the needle passed through sensitive flesh. She lost count of the number of times Xena apologized for hurting her or how many times she reassured the warrior that it was okay. It took the better part of four candlemarks before all the wounds were finally sewn up, but to the emotionally drained women it seemed more like forty.
Xena washed her hands and tossed the towel into the rising pile of crimson stained cloths. The easy part was over. The next step was to put everything back where it belonged, starting with the dislocated right shoulder. "I'm sorry, there really isn't a good pressure point that I can use for your shoulder. This is going to hurt." she said, although she knew Gabrielle was well aware of that fact. Bracing her right hand on the bard's collarbone and her left hand on the upper arm, Xena used her powerful strength to pop the shoulder back into place. Gabrielle let out a shriek at the pain and needed almost a quarter candlemark of comfort from the older woman before she finally relaxed again.
Xena took a deep breath. She knew the next part would be hard. "Gabrielle, I have to set your fingers or they won't heal right, do you understand?" immediately the bard pulled her tortured left hand back, fresh tears forming in her eyes. Xena sat on the edge of the bed and pulled Gabrielle's hand onto her lap.
"No." she whispered, shaking her head.
"Gabrielle, I have to. I'll cut off the feeling while I'm setting them."
"No please." she begged, pulling her hand back again. She knew it would hurt worse once the warrior released the pressure point.
"I'm sorry, I have to put them straight. You know that. Please, Gabrielle don't make this any harder than it already is." she pleaded, reaching out and grabbing the bard's left wrist.
"Please, Xena, don't." she cried, trying to break the grip. The anguish in her voice was almost enough to make the warrior lose control of her own emotions. This has to be done, she reminded herself. She quickly jabbed at a spot just above the bard's elbow, effectively cutting off all feeling to the injured hand.
"It'll all be over in just a few moments." she said as she pulled the bard's hand onto her lap. Using her forearm to hold Gabrielle's arm in place, she reached for the crooked pinkie, quickly snapping the broken finger into proper alignment. "There, didn't feel a thing, did you?"
"No." she replied, but the sound of her bones being moved about caused her stomach to do flips. In rapid succession, Xena moved the broken fingers back into their normal positions. She loosely wrapped some cloth around them to use as a cushion before sandwiching it between the boards of wood and wrapping the whole thing up with more cloth. "That's it, Gabrielle, it's all over now." she said, relinquishing her hold on the injured hand. She went to release the pressure point but the bard pulled her arm back out of reach. "Come on now, you know I have to." the warrior said, reaching for the arm again. Gabrielle shook her head and covered her eyes with her forearm.
"No, please...I can't take it." she cried. Xena pivoted off the bed and knelt down next to her. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I don't want to add to your pain but I can't leave that pressure point on any longer." she said while stroking the bard's hair. "Look, I know it's going to hurt. If there was something I could do to make the pain go away, I would. When I'm done I promise you I'll give you a brew that'll help make it feel better, okay?" she leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on Gabrielle's forehead. "Come on now, let's get this over with."
Xena waited several heartbeats before the bard reluctantly lowered her arm. The instant the pinch was released, Gabrielle screamed out from the sudden rush of pain, then groaned from the renewed pain in her cracked ribs. She thought she had no more tears to give yet they kept coming, rolling down her cheek and soaking into the pillow. Xena continued to gently stroke her hair and murmur words of comfort, ignoring the tears that spilled out of her own eyes.
Xena made tea brewed from several pain-relieving herbs and gave the bard far more than she normally would have even though she knew that it would barely touch the intense pain. She let Gabrielle rest for about a half-candlemark before moving on to the next step in the damage repair process, the bard's cracked ribs. Rather than forcing her to move that injured shoulder, Xena used her breast dagger to cut away the green half-top. As gently as she could, the warrior felt along the ribcage, verifying for herself that none were broken. "You're gonna have to sit up for me to wrap them." she reached behind Gabrielle's back to help her up.
"Ow ow ow, put me down, put me down!" the bard yelped before she was even halfway into a sitting position. At first Xena thought Gabrielle was complaining about the pain in her ribs until the warrior saw the bard's hands move down to the apex of her legs.
"What's wrong?" she asked as she tried to move the younger woman's hands out of the way.
"I...I can't sit up...it hurts too much." Gabrielle replied through gritted teeth. Xena's jaw clenched as her fingers worked at removing the leather belt and her mind filled with the worst possible thoughts. She felt the gentle touch of fingertips on her hand and forced herself to look up.
"It's not that." Gabrielle said, noting the look of relief that washed over the warrior's face. "She kneed me...hard."
"Oooh." Xena winced visibly in sympathy while unwrapping the leather skirt to reveal the bard's short breeches beneath. A few quick flicks of the breast dagger and they were out of the way, revealing the soft golden curls covering bruised skin. She got up and walked over to the remaining buckets of clean water, running her fingers through all of them until she found the one that was coldest. She soaked a cloth and returned to the bedside. "You're probably not going to like this but it will help ease the swelling and bruising." she held the cloth up so the bard could see it.
"You're right, I'm not going to like it." Gabrielle agreed, bracing herself. She jumped when the cloth first touched her skin then gave a slight whimper when Xena packed it around the bruised area. The large amount of pain killers that she had been given were kicking in and much to the warrior's surprise, Gabrielle let out a soft laugh.
"Sorry, I was just thinking." she replied, a silly grin on her face. Xena sat back and arched an eyebrow, waiting for the bard to let her in on the joke.
"Well?" the warrior asked expectantly when it became obvious that Gabrielle wasn't going to tell her the reason behind the goofy grin.
"Well, it's kinda depressing, actually." she said. "I mean, it's been so long since anyone's been near there and now it's getting all this attention." she blushed slightly.
"I'm sure it's not quite the kind of attention you'd want it to get." Xena quirked. 'Or the kind of attention I'd like to give it.' she thought to herself.
"No, not quite." Gabrielle replied, her thoughts unknowingly running in a similar vein to the warrior's. She shifted slightly and groaned at the ache in her ribs.
"Let's get that taken care of." Xena said, secretly grateful for the change of focus.
Wrapping the ribs without being able to sit the bard up proved to be a long, drawn out affair. Xena had to use one hand to hold Gabrielle up high enough off the bed to get behind her back, leaving only one hand free to do the actual wrapping. The sun was beginning to rise by the time she finished. "I'll be right back." Xena said before going around the room, blowing out the candles and dousing the torches. By the time she returned to the bedside she found the bard sound asleep. Xena's first impulse was to wake her, concerned about the pounding that Gabrielle's head had taken, but when she looked at the peaceful expression on the bard's battered face she found that she just couldn't bring herself to do so. She covered the sleeping woman with the blanket and pulled a chair next to the bed to sit on. Xena spent long moments just watching the rise and fall of the bard's chest, listening to the even breathing of sleep, thinking about how lucky she was to have found Gabrielle before she suffered more damage at the hands of that maniac. "I love you." she whispered, leaning down and placing a soft kiss on the bard's forehead. She pulled back slightly then placed kisses on both closed eyelids before leaning back and settling into the chair for the long watch.
"Hey Linos, didn't take long for that bitch to get you, huh?" Toxeus said as he clapped the blond man on the back. "Got me a couple of days ago. So did you at least get a lick in? Thersites over there says he got her in the side but we all know what a bullshit artist he is."
"You watch your mouth, Toxeus." the assassin growled while some of the other men chuckled at the insult.
"Yeah, what are you going to do about it? It's not like you can kill me or anything."
"No but I can make your life in Tartarus far worse than you ever had it. All it takes is a little word in Hades' ear and your ass will be sitting in a firepit for eternity." the blond assassin said as he moved closer. Linos backed up out of the way of the two men. Blows were soon exchanged and the two fighting men were surrounded by the other souls cheering them on. Linos continued to back up toward the rock wall, trying to blend into the shadows. All he had to do was get past one large stone pillar and he would be able to slip away. He almost reached it and was beginning to think he was going to get away when he felt a strong hand slap down on his shoulder. "Linos you old dog. So come tell us how Xena got you." he turned to see the charred remains of Dagnine staring at him.
"Uh sure." he replied, knowing there was no way out of it. The burnt warlord chuckled and led Linos back to a small crowd of men staying clear of the fight. "Hey guys, look who I found." within moments the newest arrival to the Underworld found himself relaying a believable tale about how the warrior princess managed to outsmart him and send him back. Linos knew that he'd have to bide his time and try to slip away later. 'Hang in there, Xena.' he thought to himself. 'One way or another I'll find a way to get that portal open.'
Xena looked out the window, noting grimly the presence of yet another undead looking for her. That made seven she had seen within the last candlemark. Obviously word had gotten around the Underworld that she was in Laconia and all the escapees were arriving in search of her. "I have to get her out of here. It's not safe." the warrior said quietly.
"Well, it doesn't look like she's going anywhere soon." Charon replied. "Why don't you just leave her here and head for another town? After all, it's your sweet ass they're looking for."
"I can't leave her behind." Xena growled. "And it's not just me they're after. I'm the grand prize but there isn't one of them that wouldn't take delight in killing her just to hurt me." she looked over at the sleeping woman. "There's no room for discussion about this. No matter what, she has to be kept safe." she turned away from the window and sat down on the chair next to the bed, taking a moment to make sure the blanket was tucked securely around Gabrielle.
There was a knock at the door. Xena motioned the ferryman away and drew her sword as she rose to her feet. She cautiously opened it to find a nervous innkeeper standing there. "What?"
"I..." he looked down at the floor and wrung his hands together. "I understand that your friend is hurt but you can't stay here any longer." he took a step back in fear even though Xena had already returned her weapon to its sheath. "Men keep asking if you're here. Of course I tell them no but...look Miss, I run a small inn. I don't need any more trouble. These men look like they'd just as soon kill me as to look at me. I've got a wife and kids...please, you must understand."
Charon stepped up and wedged his way between them. "You run a business, such as it is, what with having no dancing girls and all." he began, pulling out dinars from his pouch and dropping them in the innkeeper's hand. "Perhaps we can work something out?" he continued to put coins in the portly man's hand.
"I...I can't...oh my, that's quite a bit of money." his face showed his indecisiveness.
"Wouldn't that put quite a bit of food on the table? Certainly would keep your rather large family happy, wouldn't it?" the ferryman said, giving the innkeeper more dinars. Soon the portly man had to use both hands to hold all the coins.
"Uh...but those men..." he looked down at the pile of money. "Um...all right, but just for one more day. You'll all have to leave by morning." he dumped the coins into the pocket in the front of his stained apron and took a step back. "And no amount of money will change that." he said before quickly retreating down the hall, uncertain of who he feared more, the steady stream of dangerous looking men or the woman they were looking for.
Xena slammed the door shut, her face clearly showing her anger. "You just wasted your money, Charon. What difference is one more day going to make? If he even bothers to keep his word." she went to the table and poured herself a mug of port, draining it with several long swallows before slamming the empty container back down.
"Now look, my leather covered wonder woman, you needed some time, I bought you some time. What are you so upset about? Britches too tight?" he took a step back from the angry glare she shot at him. "Why don't you just go down and take care of those men and I'll stay here with sleeping beauty?"
"I can't do that, Charon. I have to take care of Gabrielle first. I need to get her to a safe place where she can recover before I can even think about dealing with the rejects from Tartarus." a low groan from the bed interrupted the warrior's ranting. Immediately she was at the bard's side. "I'm here, Gabrielle." she said softly, her voice devoid of anything other than concern for her injured companion. She knelt down next to the bed and without thought began stroking the golden hair in a comforting motion.
"Everything hurts." the bard croaked.
"I'll brew up a tea for the pain, okay?" she stood up to get the herbs but was stopped by the small voice calling to her.
"Right here, what?" she said softly.
"I have to go to the pot." Gabrielle replied, the unbruised areas of her face blushing slightly.
"Oh." the warrior's face took on a decidedly uncomfortable look as she tried to figure out a solution to this newest problem. "Okay, just um...just hold it for a moment. I'll figure something out."
"Uh, make it quick, will you?"
The first thing she had to do was get rid of the ferryman. She knew better than to trust that he wouldn't turn around and try to sneak a peek. "Charon, you have to leave. Stay out of trouble and don't let anyone see you. Those men from Tartarus will surely recognize you."
"Not to worry, my dear, I have it all figured out." he replied, pulling the hood of the cloak up over his head, effectively hiding his face. "Now if you ladies will excuse me, I believe the Blue Bull is about to open."
Once the ferryman was gone, Xena looked around at the scattered containers in the room, finally settling for a wide bowl that wasn't quite as deep as the width of her hand. "This should do." she said, picking up the bowl and heading for the bed. "Gabrielle, I'm going to have to lift you up and put this under you."
"Oh gods, this is going to be embarrassing." the bard groaned as Xena pulled the blanket out of the way.
"It's okay, Gabrielle. It's only me." she said reassuringly. "Besides, I need to change your bandages anyway."
"It's still going to be embarrassing."
Xena slipped one hand under the bard's rear and lifted her up slightly, using the other hand to push the bowl underneath. When Gabrielle was finished, the warrior reversed the procedure and cleaned the bard up. "There, all done." she said as she took the bowl away and washed her own hands in the basin. She put a pot of water over the fire to heat up for tea and collected the bandages she needed before returning to Gabrielle's side.
"Xena?" she waited for the blue eyes to lock with hers before continuing. "I wanted to thank-"
"Shh." the warrior replied, putting her finger over the bard's lips to silence her. "You'd do the same thing for me and you know it." for a moment they simply stared at each other as Xena felt the softness under her finger and Gabrielle felt the tender touch on her lips. "Um...well..." the warrior said as she broke the contact and picked up a damp cloth. "Let's take a look and see how you're doing." she reached down and removed the bandages covering the gash on Gabrielle's thigh, trying hard not to think about the all too brief contact she had with the bard's lips or how much she wished it was her own lips touching them instead of just her finger.
Charon paid the stable boy to hitch up the wagon, then headed toward the north end of town. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted several men that he had previously transported on his boat. He pulled the hood lower on his head, making certain that he looked no different than anyone else leading a wagon through town. He pulled to a stop in front of a small house on the outskirts of Laconia. Two small children were playing in the yard while a young mother was busy hanging up laundry. In the distance the ferryman could see the father tending the fields. Charon stepped down from the wagon and waved the mother over. It took quite a few moments for him to convince her not to faint at the sight of his stark white face and black lips and that he wasn't there to commit murder, mayhem, or any other sinister acts. It also took pulling several dinars out of his pouch to get her to believe that he was serious in his offer and for her to go get her husband from the field.
"You want to buy my house?" the father, Matheos, said.
"Not buy it, just rent it for about three moons. I'll pay you handsomely for it." the ferryman replied as he continued to pull dinars out of his pouch and set them on the table. They were sitting in the kitchen of the modest home, the adults seated at the table, the children standing next to it, wide-eyed at both the amount of coins and at the strange looking man who owned the coins. "I'll give you more than enough money to go away. Just think of it as a vacation."
"A vacation?" the wife repeated.
"Yeah, a vacation, you know...no work, relaxing, having people waiting on you for a change." he looked at the woman, hands rough from a lifetime of work. "Well, I guess you wouldn't know about that. Imagine being able to spend time with Studley here and have someone else watch your brats-I mean your kids."
"Well, where would we go?" Matheos asked.
"You can go wherever you want. Just pack yourself and your family into your cart and head out. Go to Athens, visit a resort, take in a show or two, have the time of your lives." the pile of coins became too large and spilled over to the floor only to be quickly chased down by the children. "Ah, look at the little tikes. You'd think they never saw a dinar before. How touching." he said sarcastically. "So do we have a deal?"
"Mister, for that much money you can keep the house." the father said.
"Oh, there's just one more little detail I forgot to mention." Charon said. "You have to be gone by sundown. So hurry up and collect your clothes, pack your cart, and get going here. No time to waste. Chop chop." he grinned as the mother and children scurried to collect the items they'd need for their trip. "Oh, one more thing."
"Anything, name it." Matheos said eagerly, noting with extreme pleasure that the strange man sitting across from him continued to toss dinars onto the table.
"Not a word to anyone, not a soul can know that you're leaving town. If someone asks you, you're just taking a short trip to visit a sick aunt, got it?"
"Got it." the father replied.
"Good. Now, hows about being at least somewhat sociable and offering an old soul like me a drink?" Charon made a gasping sound with his throat. Matheos quickly jumped up to fetch his only bottle of port for his new found benefactor.
Linos looked at the portal carefully, studying the wires and traps that were set to keep it closed. He studied it for over a candlemark before realizing that he had to get back before someone discovered him missing. He took one last look at the puzzle, mentally committing it to memory, before slipping back into the crowd of souls. He found a small area against a rock to sit and lean against and began going over the problem in his mind, hoping against hope to figure out a way to disable Sysiphus' trap without trigging the counter traps that were set. There was no doubt in Linos' mind that the former King was a master magician and he now understood how Sysiphus was able to trap Death and steal the mantle of Ares. But there was one thing that the man who kicked Charon out of the Underworld hadn't counted on, that was someone on the inside who had nothing but time to figure out the secret of the portal traps. He knew that eventually he would figure out how to disable the locks that held the portal closed, but as he watched three more warlords being released into the Overworld, Linos hoped it would be sooner rather than later.
Upon returning to town, Charon stopped at the marketplace, spending the next four candlemarks making assorted purchases. By the time he finished his shopping, the back of the wagon was filled with meats, herbs, several bolts of cloth, and other assorted sundries. He had been careful to keep his face hidden, not wanting to draw any attention to himself, and to keep his mouth shut for fear of being tossed into the jail before he finished his task. However, when he saw one of the former residents of Tartarus shoplifting knives from the weapons merchant, the ferryman couldn't resist the opportunity. Making sure they were within full sight of both the constable and the merchant, Charon deliberately bumped into the warlord, causing the stolen weapons to fall out onto the ground. The merchant drew his sword and screamed to the constable about a thief. Before the warlord could even think about escaping, he found himself caught between two swords and unable to do anything more than put his hands up in defeat. Charon chuckled to himself all the way back to his wagon. 'Got one for ya, Xena.' he thought to himself.
She looked down at the peacefully sleeping bard for the thousandth time, telling herself that it was only concern that kept her chained to the bedside. Remembering the sensation of her finger touching the softness of Gabrielle's lips earlier, Xena tentatively reached over and allowed her fingertip to trace the outline of the bard's mouth. "So soft." she murmured, running her finger across them again and again. Without realizing it, Xena leaned closer, eyes half-closed, her mouth only a hand's distance away from those enticing lips. Gabrielle shifted slightly, bringing the warrior back to reality. She jerked away, mentally chastising herself for what she almost did. Rising and crossing over to the basin, Xena splashed the cool water on her face, hoping to regain control over her raging emotions. She had come so close to kissing Gabrielle, so very close. She splashed her face again, knowing full well that even an icy river wouldn't do any good when it came to the fire burning inside of her. When Charon arrived a few moments later, Xena found herself grateful for the distraction. At least with the annoying ferryman around she wouldn't lose control like she had come so close to doing before.
"Did you have fun at the Blue Bull?" she asked as she closed the door.
"I never made it there. I had some other things to take care of. By the way, you'll be pleased to know that at least one of your former kills won't be bothering you." he went on to explain what he had done in the marketplace, pleased to see a nod of approval from the warrior. He looked over at the sleeping bard. "She still naked under that sheet?" he asked, his gaze quickly turning into a leer.
"You know, Amazons aren't the only ones capable of turning you into a eunuch." Xena said casually. "And I've warned you before about thinking about Gabrielle like that." she said with a growl. Charon swallowed and took a step back.
"Heh heh, just kidding, you know. I would never think of taking advantage of an unconscious woman like that."
"Sure." Xena replied, not believing a word of it. "What were you doing at the market anyway?" she decided that a change of subject was in order.
"Oh that. Not much really, just buying all the things you'll need to take care of that naked little woman." the ferryman said. "Oh, I also got you a safe place to stay just outside of town." he added as if it was an afterthought.
"Oh, did I forget to mention that? I found a house just outside of town. Kinda secluded, easy to see who's coming, very private." he said casually. Xena stood there for a moment, uncertain of what to say. "Well? Are you gonna stand there like a fashion model or are you going to get going? After all, those guys aren't going to wait forever before they storm this place looking for you."
It was pitch black when they slipped out of the back door of the inn. Charon had made two previous trips down to carry their belongings and to move the wagon into the alleyway while Xena wrapped Gabrielle up in the blankets. Knowing there was no way to avoid aggravating the injured ribs and not wanting to take a chance on the bard screaming out in pain and alerting anyone to their presence, Xena gave her a heavy dose of sleeping herb to knock her out. Gathering the now unconscious woman in her arms, she carefully and quietly made their escape.
Xena chose to ride in the back with Gabrielle, both hiding under a large canvas cover. Her hopes of making it to the hiding place without being detected were foiled when she felt Charon pull the wagon to a stop. "Hey old man, kinda late to be out for a ride, ain't it?"
"Oh, I didn't know there was a law about riding late at night." the ferryman replied. Realizing that from beneath the covers Xena couldn't see how many there were or what they were carrying, he added "So what do the four of you want and what's with all the swords?" immediately the warrior's hand lowered to her chakram.
"We don't mean you any harm, old man. We're looking for someone...someone who owes us big time and we intend to collect. We'll just check the back of your wagon out and if we don't find her then you can be on your way."
"There's nothing back there but some bales of hay and feed."
"Well, we'll be the judges of that." the tallest one said, drawing his sword, readying it to poke through the canvas. With blinding speed, the cover flew off the back of the wagon, covering the tall man before a well placed boot sent his head crashing down to have a lengthy visit with the ground. Before the other three men could draw their weapons, Xena was standing before them, chakram in hand.
"You should have taken his word for it." she hissed, sending her chakram flying. She caught the spinning disc on the return path and looked down at the three dark silhouettes lying on the ground. She drew her sword, preparing to send them back to the Underworld. A feral smile formed on her face as she strode over to stand above the closest one. The pale moonlight revealed little about the man, save that he was once part of Cortese's army. Whether she killed him during the attack on Amphipolis or summers later when rescuing her only remaining brother, Xena didn't know. It didn't matter, she decided. Either way he would be dead again in a moment. She raised her sword up, the sharp tip pointing at the unconscious man's chest.
" I know these men were part of your past but you need to remember that you're here, in the present. You're not the person you once were. You've battled the demons and found the goodness in your soul. If you don't keep yourself focused on that you'll slip back to what you once were..." Gabrielle's words echoed in Xena's mind. Blue eyes looked downward again, this time unable to blaze with the anger that had been present just a moment ago. After a heartbeat of hesitation, the warrior sheathed her sword and headed for the back of the wagon. She jerked the canvas off of the tall man and crawled up next to the bard. Once the canvas was back over both of them, Charon sent the horses into motion.
Xena turned from the blazing fire and looked around the room. It was obviously the parent's room, the bed against the wall was more than large enough for two to sleep comfortably. From a quick inspection of the house, the warrior knew that the children's room was on the other side of the wall. No doubt the mother slept on the inside, listening for sounds of her offspring even in sleep. Looking down at the sleeping bard, Xena realized that she did that very act herself every night, waking up the moment she heard any odd sound from Gabrielle's sleeping lips. Some nights she woke to the sounds of the bard laughing at some happy dream, but more often Xena wakened to the sound of the young woman crying out at yet another loss. Once it had been Talus, then Perdicus, now it was the warrior's name that came out in strangled cries during the night.
Xena placed her weapons next to the bed and changed into her shift. The events of the last few days coupled with not only the lack of sleep but the sight of an incredibly comfortable looking bed drained the last of the warrior's reserves. Trusting that Gabrielle would sleep until morning, Xena crawled in next to her, hoping to quickly fall into Morpheus' arms. Instead she found herself propped up on one elbow, staring down at the bard's face. Control, discipline, and restraint were all forces that the warrior dealt with every day but she could no more stop her mouth from lowering down to kiss the sleeping woman any more than she could stop breathing. Xena had to fight the urge to moan at the sweet contact of her lips against the softness of Gabrielle's mouth. It felt right, so very right. She caught herself only when her tongue threatened to slip past her lips to taste the bard. Xena rolled onto her back and sighed. When sleep finally claimed the warrior, it was with a small smile on her face.
Linos was getting restless, as were the rest of the souls piled up along the riverbank. He now had no chance to work on the portal. There were just too many people milling about. Two more men arrived to join the overcrowded group. "Did Xena get you too?" Toxeus asked. The two men looked at each other, deciding at the same time to lie instead of telling the truth that they had killed each other in a jealous fight over a woman that no doubt could have cared less about them.
"Yeah, she surprised us." the taller of the two men said.
"Where were you? I don't remember seeing either of you near Laconia. That was the last place she was seen." Thersites said.
"Naw, she got us just outside of Sawpolis." the shorter one lied. Thersites looked at them for a moment before slapping the taller one on the back.
"Well, at least you put up a fight, eh? Did you connect with her at all?"
"Oh yeah, for a while there I thought I might have had her." the tall one said, falling into the tale.
"She must be looking for that brat of hers. That blond little bitch." Toxeus joined in.
"Yeah, she said something about her." the short man offered, hoping to add credence to their story. Soon the conversation dragged down to a standstill and they were left with the problem the same as it was before. More people arriving but nowhere to put them all and nothing for them to do. At least in Tartarus they had something to do, even if it was pushing a rock uphill or dancing on hot coals. Most were lucky enough to just hang around the fiery realm, reliving old times and missing their families. When Sysiphus came to them with his plan to kill Xena, they jumped at the chance for revenge. Now many wondered if they hadn't made a huge mistake. Certainly Hades wouldn't be happy when it came time to judge them again, no doubt they would be sentenced far harsher than they originally were. And for what? For a few candlemarks of mortality again? The wondering became quiet conversations between small groups. Linos watched the goings on with great interest and soon found himself moving through the crowd, encouraging the self questioning and making observations about how it wouldn't be too much longer before there wouldn't be enough room on the riverbank to hold them all yet Sysiphus was continuing to release souls to the Overworld. The blond man thought that there might just be a way to get that portal open after all.
The barest grey of morning found the warrior dreaming away, a slight smile on her lips. Her dream was not a new one, nor was it one she could share with Gabrielle. Oh but how she wanted to turn the familiar dream into reality. Xena often fantasized about taking the bard and making love to her until the young woman was dizzy. She dreamed of hearing Gabrielle cry out her name at the height of passion, to see the small body tremble at her touch, to feel those soft bardic breasts under her hands. The sleeping warrior smiled even more at that thought. She could almost feel the warm softness, the gentle pressure of an erect nipple against her palm. It seemed so real, so tangible, it was almost as if
Xena remained still as her eyes opened. One horrified look confirmed what her senses were telling her, that her fantasies of night had spilled over into the reality of the day. Her left hand was planted firmly on Gabrielle's right breast, the darkened nipple hidden beneath her palm. 'This is not good.' she thought to herself. Of course there had been times when the process of flipping and flopping during the night had caused one of them to end up with their hand or arm against the other's breast, but this was different. This wasn't a case of accidental movements during the night, this was her body acting on her desires. She stared at the sight for a moment, burning into her memory the feeling before slowly removing her hand from atop Gabrielle's breast and pulling it up behind her head. She closed her eyes as she felt the warmth of her hand against her head and remembered where that hand had been just a few heartbeats before.
After a moment Xena turned her head and looked over at the sleeping bard. The absence of her warm hand had caused Gabrielle's nipple to harden against the cool morning air. It was a sight that the warrior found mesmerizing. Several heartbeats passed before Xena realized that she was staring and looked away, angry at herself. She tried to remind her warrior libido that despite the bard's advances of a few nights ago, Gabrielle just wasn't interested in her that way. That was a mistake. Thinking of the previous time they had shared a bed together only served to cause Xena's heart to beat a little quicker. The feel of Gabrielle's hand below her breast, the feel of the bed rocking in rhythm with the bard's hips, the sounds of pleasure being uttered
"Anyone up yet?" Charon said loudly while pounding on the door with his foot while his hands balanced an overloaded tray of food and hot tea. The warrior carefully slipped off the bed and covered the naked bard's body with the blanket before opening the door to glare at the ferryman.
"What the Tartarus do you want so early in the morning?" she growled, not at all happy with having almost been caught letting her desires show.
"Well, and a good morning to you too, Miss bright and cheerful." he replied, brushing past her and setting the tray down on the table. Xena strode across the room and sat down in the chair next to the bed. "So is she still naked under that sheet?"
In one fluid motion Xena reached down, grabbed her chakram, and sent it flying, not bothering to turn around to see how deeply it sank into the ferryman's chest. "I warned you not to think about her like that." she said. She waited a moment before rising and helping Charon pull the weapon out of his chest. It took quite a bit of tugging to free it but less than a heartbeat for the wound to close back up as if nothing had happened.
"Sorry, forgot that was your department." he said, taking a quick step back from the withering glare of the warrior. "So, what's the plan now? I mean, you can't just leave that crazy woman locked up in that cell while you play nursemaid."
"Why not?" Xena replied casually as she returned to her seat. "Let her starve to death, I don't care."
"You'll care if she gets back down to the Underworld before your friend can get that portal open. If he can get it open."
"I'm sure if Linos hasn't gotten it opened by now that he's not going to. He was probably discovered by Sysiphus." she rubbed her eyes, trying to sort through the rash of problems she had to face, the most important one being the care and protection of Gabrielle. "If you want to go check on that bitch, go ahead. I'm not stopping you." she gently tucked the corner of the blanket under the bard's shoulder. "If I see her again, I'll kill her without a thought."
Abrama opened one eye and looked around. She didn't have to check to know that the cell door was locked, the keys nowhere in sight. She rolled over, groaning at the pain. If only she had paid more attention, not been so quick to fight Xena. Now it was all over. The leather-clad bitch had won again. Abrama struggled to her knees, loosening her belt. The blond man that she killed was helping Xena. The brown haired warlord struggled to remember what he had said before he died. "I'll get the portal open." Her bruised and swollen eye widened. That's it, he was going to open the passageway so Charon could return. There was no way she was going to let that happen any more than she was going to just sit here and wait for Xena to return and exact more revenge on her.
"I'll go check on our psycho friend." Charon said. "Then I'll stop at the Blue Bull for a while."
"No need for that." both heads turned to the look at the unexpected guest. Hades set his helmet down on the table and looked at his ferryman. "Charon, you're looking well. I trust you've had no problems with the Overworld?"
"Oh no, not unless you count being thrown in jail every night, beaten up by a deranged lunatic and being used as target practice for a certain warrior princess a problem." he said. Hades looked over to Xena for an explanation but received only a shrug in reply.
"Is the portal open?" she asked, her attention still focused on the bard.
"No, not yet. However, things are looking good. I believe that Sysiphus didn't really plan things out as well as he thought he did. There's a great deal of grumbling going on amongst the souls. They're getting restless and the constant influx of people isn't helping. Even Abrama's entrance and announcement that Linos was a traitor didn't phase them."
"Abrama's entrance? Hades, I didn't beat her that hard. She was alive when I left her in that cell." Xena protested.
"No, but you did a good job from what I saw. Actually she hung herself from the bars of the cell. Guess she couldn't take the thought of failing again." Hades leaned against the wall. "How's she doing?"
"She'll live." the warrior replied, absently smoothing out the covers over the bard. "She took quite a beating."
"I'll be fine." the bard mumbled, slowly opening her eyes. She looked up at Xena, seeing concern and something unfamiliar in the blue eyes for the briefest moment before the warrior rose and crossed the room, mumbling something about getting some water.
"Glad to hear that, Gabrielle." Hades said, wisely not commenting on the rapidly beating heart that his godly ears heard pounding within Xena's chest. "Well, the point is that there are just too many souls waiting down there right now. I've asked Celesta to stop until we get that portal open." he noted that when Xena returned to the young woman's side with a glass of water, her heart was beating at a more normal level. He also observed a complete lack of emotion on the face of the woman who had sent so many people to him over the years.
Xena held the glass and helped Gabrielle drain half the contents before asking how she felt. "I feel like a dozen Centaurs ran over me but other than that I'm fine." the bard said, forcing a smile to her lips. Xena returned an equally believable smile in understanding.
"It's going to take a while. Don't worry, though I'll get you fixed up in no time." without taking her eyes off Gabrielle, the warrior addressed Hades. "So no one else will die until that portal opens and we can't do anything to get that portal open except wait and see if there's a revolt in the Underworld?" her tone made it clear what she thought of *that* situation.
"Yup, that's pretty much about it." Hades said as he picked up his helmet. "Anyone you deal a death blow to will remain alive until the portal is opened and Charon can make room for them on the banks."
"Well, drop me a scroll when you get that portal opened, boss." the ferryman said. "I'll make sure to wrap up my vacation and get back as soon as possible."
"Your what?" the God of the Underworld shook his head. "Never mind, I don't want to know. Stay with Xena. The instant the portal is opened I'll return for you."
"How close to I have to stay to her?" Charon asked wickedly. Hades took a quick step back when he saw the chakram appear in the warrior's hand.
"I'm not baby-sitting him." Xena said flatly. "Get Hercules to do it or something. I have more important things to do." she set the chakram down and turned her attention back to checking Gabrielle's wounds.
"Uh, sorry, can't do that. Keep an eye on him. I'll be back as soon as the portal is open." Hades said quickly before disappearing in a cloud of dust. Charon looked down at the floor, wondering if he really could slip all the way to the door without her noticing. He got as far as placing his stark white fingers on the latch. "Don't even think about it."
"Who, me? Heh, I wasn't going anywhere, Xena. I um I was going to put some water on to boil. Yeah, that's it, put water on to boil. Be back in a minute." he grabbed an empty bucket and quickly left the room, knowing full well that if tried to head for the front door that the warrior would no doubt beat him to it. "Great, trapped in a house with two incredibly sexy women who have absolutely no interest in me except as target practice for their weapons."
"You don't have to be so gruff with him all the time, you know." Gabrielle said.
"This from the woman who told me to put the pinch on him?" Xena replied, unwrapping a bandage from the bard's arm. "Well, while he's gone let's take a look at everything."
"Uh, in a moment, I have to use the pot first." she said, turning slightly pink. While Xena went to look for the bowl, Gabrielle laid back and thought about how nice it had been to wake up in the middle of the night and find her tall companion curled up against her.
After taking care of the bard's essential need, Xena began the long process of changing bandages. Gabrielle was showing no signs of fever or anything else that would indicate an infection but the warrior insisted on checking every wound carefully, from the ones that were held together with stitches to the tiniest scratch. Xena did her best to be gentle and the bard did her best not to cry out when the warrior's fingers touched a particularly painful area like her ribs. "Sorry."
"It's okay, Xena. I know you're not trying to hurt me." Gabrielle reassured, biting her lower lip to keep the groans of pain inside.
"But it still hurts. Do you want me to make you some more tea?" she asked as she finished wrapping the bard's ribs. She pushed another pillow behind Gabrielle's back to prop her up before sitting down again.
"I don't want to go back to sleep, but something for the pain would be good, okay?" Gabrielle asked while using her right hand to pull the sheet up over her breasts. The warrior rose and crossed the room to retrieve the pouches of herbs.
"Are you sure you don't want to rest more? You have been through a lot, you know." Xena said, holding up the pouch containing the sleeping mixture.
"No." the bard replied, shaking her head slightly. "If it gets to be too much, then I'll go back to sleep for a while, but not right now." she patted the empty space next to her on the bed. "Right now I'd like to talk."
Xena swung the metal arm that held a small pot of water over the fire and returned to the chair next to the bed. "Talk about what?" she asked while sitting down. Gabrielle hid her disappointment at not being able to feel the warrior against her and allowed her hand to fall to her lap.
"I want to know what happened with Abrama." she noted that Xena's expression changed, becoming stony and expressionless. "Hades said you beat her up."
"Oh yeah, I beat her all right. Not nearly as much as she deserved." her tone relayed the anger she still felt at the warlord that hurt Gabrielle so much. "When I saw what she did to you, I wanted to kill her." the warrior quietly admitted.
"Xena, I'll live. You know as well as I do that within a moon I'll be almost completely healed." she smiled, trying to draw the warrior out of the dark mood. "Just think, you don't have to worry about me running off and getting into trouble for a while."
"Mmm, or making me buy a bag of beads just to get you to follow me." she quirked her lip at the bard's confused expression. "You don't remember that, do you?" she leaned back and pulled the saddlebag closer, rummaging around until she found the pouch of brightly colored pieces of wood. "You wouldn't come back to the inn until I agreed to buy these for you."
Gabrielle loosened the tie on the bag and poured the contents of the pouch into her lap. "I made you buy these?" she whispered.
"Insisted. I was worried that you'd throw a temper tantrum if I didn't." Xena struggled to keep the amusement off her face at her friend's expression.
"Uh " visions of the merchant seeing the exchange flashed through Gabrielle's mind. "Just how much did you pay for these?"
"It doesn't matter." the warrior said, knowing full well that she had significantly overpaid for the gaudy beads. "I got you to follow me like a puppy back to the room, that's all that counts."
"How much?" the bard repeated firmly.
"Two dinars." she muttered.
"Two dinars? You paid two dinars for this little pile?" Gabrielle asked incredulously. "Boy, he saw you coming, huh? Xena, you had to know they weren't worth it."
"I did." the warrior admitted. "But I would have hocked my saddle if that's what it would have cost me to get you back to the room." she looked down at the floor, visibly uncomfortable with the admission. "You know something, Gabrielle it was kinda funny."
"I-It was?" she stammered, bracing herself for whatever embarrassing incident Xena was about to tell her.
"Well yeah." the warrior grinned, looking up into green depths. "First of all, I couldn't figure out how you could see anything at all. Your eyes were nothing more than little slits. I could have used thread to blindfold you."
"Oh gods." Gabrielle groaned, letting her head fall back onto her pillow. "Please tell me that was the worst of what I did."
"Did you enjoy your conversation with the tree?" Xena hopped over the bard's body and flopped down on the bed, her actions causing no jarring to the still-healing woman. The warrior propped herself up on her left elbow to look down at the pink face. "You also found it fascinating that you had ten fingers and toes but only two " she stopped, remembering the entire conversation. " uh, ears."
"Ears, huh?" Gabrielle looked down at her broken hand. "I do remember a little bit of what happened, Xena. Ears weren't the only things that I noticed I had two of." she blushed even more.
"No it wasn't." Xena admitted. She reached out and wrapped her hand around the bard's smaller one. "It's okay, Gabrielle. You were drugged, you weren't responsible for your actions."
"Did I well, did I say or do anything that um well that might have been wrong?" she couldn't bring herself to look at the dark haired woman next to her.
"How much do you remember?" Xena asked softly. Before Gabrielle could answer, Charon pounded on the door. "We'll talk about this later." the warrior said before crawling over the bard and heading for the door. Although grateful for the interruption, it also served to make Gabrielle more nervous. Unbeknownst to the bard, Xena was feeling the same things.
"Well it's about time you opened the door." the ferryman said as he stepped in with two buckets of hot water. "I'm immortal, not a god. I can't walk through walls and doors, you know."
"I guess single women should count their blessings for that, huh?" Xena quipped.
"Hardy har har, very funny." he replied sarcastically. "So what's on the agenda for today? The dancing girls start at the Blue Bull in less than half a candlemark."
"Don't even think about it, Charon." the warrior said. "We can't take a chance on someone seeing you."
"What? Oh no, I'm not sitting here stuck in this little shack until the portal is opened. I'm not spending my last few days of freedom trapped here. I'm going to the Blue Bull and that's final." he said firmly. Xena crossed the room and towered over the immortal.
"You're not leaving my sight and I'm not about to leave here. Got it?" she snarled, giving her best intimidation look. "If you need to gamble so much, play cards with Gabrielle."
"Yeah, I'd love to play a game to help pass the day." the bard chirped in. "Come on, Charon. You know you only end up being arrested every time you go there."
"You know that's another thing about this town that I don't understand. They have a tavern with a gambling room and every day they raid the place. That doesn't make sense."
"It doesn't?" Xena sat in a chair and placed her booted foot on the table. "Tell me, if you were in control of a city that needed money, wouldn't having a rigged gambling establishment make sense? The city probably gets a cut of the winnings and then the added bonus of the fines for whoever they catch in the raid. The locals probably know what time the raid happens and leave before the guards arrive."
"But it's no fun playing with Gabrielle. All I could do is win money." he whined.
"At least you don't end up being thrown in jail." she said, grabbing her cloak. "I'm going to go get Argo from the stables. Charon, be nice to her or you'll see just how dangerous my chakram really is." the ferryman gulped and nodded furiously.
"Be careful." the bard said.
"Always." Xena replied while fastening the scabbard to her back. "I'll be counting on seeing a pile of dinars when I get back." she shut the door without waiting for a reply.
Xena blew out the last candle and carefully climbed into bed. "You didn't have to spend the whole evening with Argo, you know. I can only take so much of Charon. He's like Joxer in a way." Gabrielle said.
"Sorry." the warrior replied, moving as close to the wall as she dared without looking like she was trying to be against it. "Argo took good care of me when I was looking for you and pushed herself as hard as possible. I just figured that she deserved some quality time too."
"You know I don't begrudge the time you spend with Argo." she started. "But I would have liked to have seen more of you than just when you came in to change my bandages."
"I'll make up for it tomorrow." Xena replied with a pretend yawn. "Good night."
There was silence for several moments before Gabrielle spoke. "Xena? Do you want to tell me what happened that night?" there was no sound or movement from her bed partner and the bard thought that perhaps Xena had indeed fallen asleep until the warrior rolled onto her back.
"Tell me what you remember." she asked softly.
"Um " Gabrielle was grateful for the darkness that surrounded them. "Well I remember the being rather interested in my " she felt the heat rising in her cheeks. "breasts."
"You were very interested in them." Xena said, grinning at the embarrassed groan from the bard. "It's not the end of the world, Gabrielle it happened."
"That's because it didn't happen to you." the bard replied, slapping Xena's forearm in the dark. "Do I dare ask what else I did?"
"Uh not too much really. You were pretty drunk." the warrior said dismissively, hoping that Gabrielle would drop the matter.
"That bad, huh?" she said softly. "I remember just little glimpses."
"You have to remember that you were drugged." Xena said encouragingly. "It made you act that way."
"In other words I was hornier than a toad, huh?" Gabrielle joked. She felt rather than heard the warrior's silent chuckle.
"You were quite er, um aroused."
"Oh gods." the bard groaned, moving her hands up to her face. She groaned again but this time it was from the pain of moving that still healing shoulder. Xena was next to her instantly, easing the wounded arm back down and rubbing the sore area gently.
"Easy now. It wasn't that bad. You didn't bounce off the walls looking for a guy or anything." she continued making feather light circles on the bard's shoulder. "There's nothing to worry about."
"I did it, didn't I? I in the bed " Gabrielle blushed furiously. " and you were oh gods."
"It's okay relax." Xena said gently, allowing her fingers to stroke the length of the bard's collarbone. "It happened there's nothing you can do to change it. Just chalk it up to being one of those embarrassing moments in life." she anxiously wanted the conversation to end. "I think that's enough talk for tonight. Get some sleep." she leaned over and gave Gabrielle a friendly peck on the forehead before rolling over and scooting closer to the wall.
"Was that it? Did I do anything else?" she asked softly.
"Not really." Xena replied, her voice muffled by the pillow her face was resting on. "You giggled and mumbled a bit, but that's about it. Good night."
"Good night." the bard said, staring up at nothing in the darkness. She remembered, albeit fuzzily, more than one time when she had propositioned the warrior during her drugged haze. She wondered now why Xena was deliberately avoiding mentioning it. She also wondered about the warrior's reasons behind the gentle rubbing of her shoulder and collarbone. It wasn't the touch of working out a cramp or an ache, what she received was too gentle for that. Gabrielle's mind puzzled over the confusing actions until sleep finally claimed her.
"Are you ready?" Linos asked, receiving several nods in reply. He turned his attention to Toxeus. "Your group has to get Sysiphus off that boat. We'll concentrate on the portal."
"What about the others they're going to try and stop us."
"I don't think so." the blond man replied. "Think about it. All you've heard lately is how bored they are and how they can't believe that Sysiphus is letting more people out of Tartarus. I think if we start something, they'll stay out of the way."
"You'd better be right." Toxeus replied. "I'm not one for doing good. If I get blackballed in Tartarus because of this, I'm going to make your eternal life far worse than Hades ever dreamed of making it." Linos gulped and saw the statement reflected in the eyes of the others that had agreed to listen to him.
"Well I guess it's now or never. The boat's approaching." he did his best to keep his voice level. "Let's do it."
"I can't believe this." Charon grumbled, setting his cards down on the blanket. "And just where did you learn to play cards?"
"A friend of mine taught me, Autolycus. He's a master thief." Gabrielle replied, collecting the cards and handing them back to the ferryman to shuffle. "It's not that hard a game to play. I mean, it's just Axes, Hammers, Clubs, and Maces. Pretty simple if you ask me. I don't know why they don't teach it to us as kids."
"Because it's not a simple game, my dear." he said while dealing out the cards. "Axes and Hammers takes skill, cunning, the ability to bluff. Those aren't skills that kids have."
"Oh really, have you ever seen a kid trying to hide something they did wrong from an adult? They can be very creative." she tossed two cards down and waited for the ferryman to hand her two more. "Besides, you know it's the innocent looking ones that you have to watch out for. Full Tavern." she grinned and set the cards down. Charon scowled and tossed his down.
"I can't believe this. My first vacation in six hundred summers and I end up spending the last ten days trapped in a room with you, losing my pension playing Axes and Hammers." he groused. They played a few more hands, all of which he lost, when a wicked smirk crossed his black lips. "Gabrielle, would you like me to make some more brownies? I mean, you've been trapped in that bed for ten days now, eating nothing but that nutritious stuff that Xena insists on feeding you."
"Oh no, I'm not eating anything you bake. I know better." she said, blushing slightly at the memory. "I'm not in the mood to study the leaves on the trees again."
"I don't have any more of that stuff." he said. "I was just thinking of a tasty treat, that's all. I'll even make nutbread. You were complaining last time that I didn't make enough of it."
"Well the nutbread did taste good."
"Oh, of course it did. You loved it. Said it was better than your mom's." he urged.
"I'm sure I didn't say that." Gabrielle replied. "But the nutbread was good."
"Exactly. That's why you should let me make some more."
"Make some more what?" Xena's voice boomed from the doorway, startling the sneaky ferryman.
"Oh, um nutbread. Gabrielle and I were just talking about me making a loaf of nutbread." he said, wondering if it sounded as lame to the warrior as it did to him.
"You're not going anywhere near the food, Charon. I don't trust you." Xena said, moving to the fireplace and setting a bucket of water on to heat up.
"You're too cynical. Never trust anyone, do you?" the ferryman shot back.
"Charon " she turned and looked at him, eyebrow slightly raised. "So far you've propositioned, fondled, and drugged my best friend and you expect me to trust you?"
"Fondled me?" Gabrielle looked from Xena to Charon.
"Oh yes when I found you two in the Blue Bull, Mr. Trustworthy over here was enjoying feeling how soft your ass was." the warrior said casually. "Well, I think I'll go check on the horses then come back and take a look at you, Gabrielle. I think some of those stitches can come out. Have fun, Charon."
"Uh heh." he looked at the angry bard, doing his best to give her a boyish smile. "More cards?"
"You are very lucky my left hand is broken, Charon." she threatened. "If I could wield my staff, you'd-"
"I know, I'd be a soprano." he sighed. "You know that's quite a mean streak you have there, Xena." he said, turning his attention for a moment away from the angry green eyes to capture the warrior's amused blue ones. "I guess it's true what they say about sexual frustration, eh?" now it was his turn to gloat with a point scored as Xena's face registered shock, then anger at the inability to come up with a good retort. She lowered her hand down to rest pointedly on her chakram.
"Now Xena, let's rethink that, shall we?" Hades appeared between the warrior and the ferryman. "I see you're making friends as well as ever, Charon."
"Well, you know, I have that way with people. I don't know why but they just fall in love with my sparkling personality and witty conversation." Charon said, receiving derisive snorts from the two women. Xena leaned against the wall, mentally calculating the angles in the room and the possible flight of her chakram. The ferryman didn't know what she was thinking about, but he knew it couldn't be good. "Uh, Hades, you're here for a reason, right? Like the portal's open?" he asked hopefully.
"The portal is open." the handsome god declared proudly, as if it was his doing. "Xena, Gabrielle, I appreciate all the things you've done to help keep Charon safe. Now if you'll excuse us-"
"Just wait a heartbeat here." the ferryman said, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "I'm not going back."
"What?" three shocked voices said at once.
"I quit, I'm not going back, I no longer work for you, how many more ways do you need me to say it?" he said defiantly. Hades looked from him to Xena, hoping she'd be able to reason with Charon.
"You're the god, you handle it." the warrior said.
"Uh Charon, if there's a problem, why don't we go back to the Underworld and talk about it, okay?"
"Now look. I'm a god. You have to listen to me. You're going back and you're going back right now!" Hades said sternly, running his fingers through his dirty blond hair in frustration.
"I'm not going back until certain conditions are met. Think of it as renegotiating my contract." he pulled a scroll out of his robe pocket and held it out to the god. "I've made a list of reasonable demands that have to be met."
"Reasonable demands?" Hades repeated, taking the scroll and reading it. "You want WHAT? Breaks every candlemark? Every holiday off? Down feathered seats for the boat?"
"Don't forget about the dancing girls and stage." the ferryman added. "I figure that little nook near the main portal would be a good place for them. You can put a stage there large enough for oh, three or four of them, I think."
"I am not giving you your own set of dancing girls." Hades said firmly. "The other things we can talk about once we get back."
"Once I get back I'll be working at least a moon straight ferrying people back over the river. Nope, I'm not moving from this spot until you agree to my demands." Charon said, sounding every bit like a spoiled child.
Hades looked at Xena, silently begging her for help. To his surprise, the bard spoke up. "Can I see the list please?" she asked. The god handed it to her, careful not to touch the mortal in any way. Celesta wasn't the only one with a deadly touch. Gabrielle read the entire list before speaking. "Charon, you want a break every candlemark. I think every other candlemark is fair, don't you?"
"If I thought every other candlemark was fair I would have said that. I want a break every candlemark."
"Every other candlemark and you get the down seat cushions as well as a padded backrest." she offered.
"What about the dancing girls?" he countered. "I want my dancing girls or it's no deal."
"All right, all right." Hades said, hating negotiations as much as the warrior. "I'll give you a stage and one performance per day of dancing girls. Now can we go?"
"Three shows per day." Charon pushed.
"Now look here! I-"
"Two shows." Gabrielle interrupted, completely afraid of the red tone the god's face had taken. "It's a fair deal. You think so, don't you, Xena?" she asked, hoping the warrior would help.
"Well, if I have to put up with that weasel one more day I may just start seeing how many pieces an immortal really can be cut up into." she smiled insincerely at the ferryman.
"Uh two shows sounds good to me." Charon said weakly.
"Well, I suppose I can find some dancers that wouldn't mind putting on a couple of shows each day." Hades said in defeat. "Can we go now?"
"Absolutely." the ferryman said happily, hopping to his feet to stand next to the god. "Well ladies, it's been a slice. A slice of what, I'm not sure, but it's been a slice. Hopefully I won't see either of you anytime soon."
"Thank you." Gabrielle said to the backhanded blessing. "You know, behind that lecherous act you put on, you really are a nice man."
"Yeah well don't let that get around, will ya? I have a reputation to maintain." Charon replied. He looked at Xena. "Take care of her. I want to win my dinars back but I'm not in any hurry, okay?"
"It's been an experience, Charon." the warrior replied. "Hades, before you go " she started.
"You want to know about Linos, don't you?" the god guessed. "Not to worry. He won't be returning to Tartarus." he smiled at the look of relief on Xena's face.
"Thank you." she said sincerely. There was the briefest flash of light and then the residents of the Underworld were gone, leaving the women alone.
part 5 (conclusion)
Xena pulled out her breast dagger and sat down next to the bed. "I guess it's time to remove some of these stitches." she pulled the bard's left arm onto her lap, careful of the still mending broken hand.
"What did Charon mean?" Gabrielle asked casually, surprised when she felt the warrior's grip tighten.
"Uh, nothing you know how he is." Xena replied, forcing herself to ease up on the bard's arm. "Let's get these taken care of." she shifted the chair closer to the head of the bed and began removing a small row of stitches from Gabrielle's forearm.
"Xena? You know, I haven't really had a chance to thank you for saving me again." she grinned, drawing an equal expression from the warrior.
"That's because you always need saving." Xena teased. "Sometimes I think you let yourself get captured just to watch me rescue you."
"Well, it is nice to see you come storming into a place full of the scum of the earth just to save me. It shows you care." Gabrielle teased back.
"You don't have to get beaten to a pulp to get my attention. There are easier ways to get me to prove that I love you." the words were out of Xena's mouth before she realized it. There was no way she could pull them back and hide them away where they were safe. Suddenly the stitches required all of her attention and she looked down, hoping fervently that Gabrielle would drop the conversation. The bard stared at the thatch roof for a moment, considering the multitude of possible replies.
"You know, it's amazing how strong you are yet your touch is so soft." the bard whispered, staring at the warrior's hands with a look akin to awe.
"Uh-huh." Xena mumbled, trying hard to concentrate on removing the stitches and not on how soft Gabrielle was to touch. Most of the bruising was gone, leaving the warrior's eyes to enjoy long expanses of creamy flesh marred only by the occasional row of stitches. Xena was secretly enjoying the guilty pleasure of being able to look and touch any place she wanted on the bard's body without having to make an excuse. Well, almost anyplace, she thought to herself as her eyes fell upon the generous swell of breast. Moving her hand up to remove the series of stitches that covered part of Gabrielle's bicep, Xena found the back of her hand leaning against that generous swell, the warm softness beckoning to her like a Siren's song.
Gabrielle was quite aware of Xena's hand, feeling the knuckles moving against her skin with each stitch being removed. Green eyes looked down in horror as her left nipple hardened involuntarily. 'Oh gods.' she thought, certain that she didn't want Xena to see the effect her touch was having. Gabrielle did her best to casually pull the sheet up to cover herself only to find it stopped at the point where the back of the warrior's hand was pressed against her breast. The movement caught Xena's attention and she looked up to the bard quizzically, fully aware of the hardened flesh so very close to her fingers. "Cold." Gabrielle said, feeling the heat rising in her cheeks. She swore felt Xena's hand caress her skin ever so slightly before reaching down to pull the sheet up.
"Do you want me to throw more wood on the fire?" the warrior said, her eyes concentrating on a small area on the bard's shoulder. She hoped not. She certainly was feeling quite warm at the moment.
"No, I'm sure it was just a cool draft or something I'll be fine." Gabrielle replied. Xena nodded, more than a little curious about what would happen when she went to remove the stitches on the bard's thigh. She didn't believe for a moment that the cold was responsible.
"Last one " the warrior said, tugging lightly on the last stitch in Gabrielle's cheekbone. The setting sun had caused Xena to use candles and lean in very close to see what she was doing. She was leaning on the bed, using her right elbow to brace herself while her left hand did all the work. Xena was more than aware of the soft breath tickling her throat, wreaking havoc with her senses. She wondered if Gabrielle could hear her rapidly pounding heart. This was too close, there was no way she could keep her body from betraying her for much longer.
Gabrielle inhaled the scent of leather and warrior, fighting the urge to reach up and touch the strong body. Xena had tied her hair back before removing the stitches, unknowingly denying the bard the pleasure of feeling those dark tresses caressing her face. Instead, Gabrielle had to content herself with the occasional ragged breaths that escaped the warrior's lips. Lips that were so close, so very close. 'It would be so easy to just lean up and kiss her.' she thought to herself. 'So easy '
The thread pulled free at that instant, bringing the bard back to her senses. Xena stood up quickly, putting some physical distance between their bodies. "Um that's enough for now." she said, returning the dagger to its usual storage place. "I need to take care of the horses and get something started for dinner." she grabbed her chakram and sword, attaching them while striding toward the door. "I'll be back in a little while. Just sit back and relax."
By the time Gabrielle found her voice, Xena had just shut the door. "You know, Xena, I'm not an invalid." she said to the empty room. With the exception of going to the pot, which Xena would move next to the bed each time to minimize the distance she had to be on her feet, Gabrielle never got to leave the bed. With a groan and a whole lot of protesting from sore muscles, the bard sat up and swung her feet over the side of the bed. The movement caused the sheet to fall away. "Oh, I don't think I can get away with this." she chuckled, looking around for something to cover her body. "Ah, this will work." she said upon sighting the warrior's shift lying on the bed. "Who'd have thought that the big bad Warrior Princess would be such a mother hen?" it took far more time, not to mention pain, than she expected, but Gabrielle managed to worm her way into the older woman's shift. She found herself inhaling the same scent she had enjoyed just a short time before. Gabrielle pulled the cloth up to her nose and breathed deeply. "Yup, this will work just fine." she smiled and looked around the room. "Well, Xena, I really don't want to eat whatever you plan on burning for dinner tonight."
Xena stepped outside, taking long deep gulps of air to calm herself down. That had been way too close. "Horses." she reminded herself. She tried to keep her mind focused on what she had to do once she reached the barn, but found herself continually rubbing the spot on her neck where Gabrielle's breath had caressed.
Once inside she managed to keep her mind busy with cleaning out the stalls and brushing the horses down, giving extra attention to Argo. But the moment she finished washing her hands and headed for the door to return to the house, her body remembered that Gabrielle was waiting there. Xena felt her heart flutter with the thought while another part of her body awakened and began pulsing with desire. It was a need to strong to deny any longer. She climbed up into the loft, grateful to see bales of hay tossed about. Tossing a saddle blanket on one of the bales, she sat down and leaned her back against another bale of the soft hay. A few quick movements had her short breeches off her body. Knees up, legs spread, Xena lowered her hands between her legs. "Oh gods, so wet." she sighed, amazed at the abundance of moisture that coated her inner thighs. She let the vision of Gabrielle fill her mind while her right hand separated her lips and her left fingers slipped between them. The occasional snort of a horse didn't reach Xena's ears, they were filled with the memory of the bard's sighs and moans just a few nights ago. With movements that were torturously slow, the warrior's callused fingers stroked their length across her sensitive clit. Oh how she needed this release, this relief from the constant torture of being able to touch Gabrielle but not in the way she wanted most to. Long practiced, her fingers knew exactly what their mistress needed and how she needed it. The long strokes gave way to tight rapid circles, driving her higher to the point of no return. "Gabrielle " she sighed, imagining the bard writhing under her touch. She changed the speed and tempo of her self-pleasuring actions, not wanting the bliss to end too soon. Using her first and third finger to hold the hood back, Xena allowed just the tip of her middle finger to lightly graze over the sensitive clit. "Gab-ri-elle ." she groaned, her breathing quickening. She resumed the circling motions, this time with more pressure, feeling the flood of desire pouring out of her. Her hips began bucking against her fingers, demanding the long denied release. Again the memory of the bard's self-pleasuring filled her mind. Xena replayed the scene in her mind, imagining that Gabrielle had touched herself in the same ways that she was right now. As the fantasy bard climaxed, so did the warrior. Her back arched, her fingers moving of their own volition as a deep guttural groan escaped her mouth.
After several moments Xena opened her eyes to the disappointment of the loft instead of the warm comfort of the bard in her fantasy. She pulled her breeches on, trying hard not to think of the loneliness she felt. It was a feeling that she found familiar, but harder to live with each passing day. To be so close to Gabrielle yet needing to be closer still, to show the woman who had become more important to her than anyone else just how much she loved her. "Just wishful thinking, Xena." she chastised herself before sliding down the ladder and returning to the house.
The first thing that Xena's senses picked up when she opened the door was the aromatic smell of meat cooking. She entered the kitchen to find Gabrielle standing by the stove. "What are you doing out of bed? I told you I would take care of dinner."
"I know, that's why I'm out of bed." the bard replied, turning and handing the taller woman a hot cup of tea. "My hand is broken, not my leg. There's no reason I can't move around and help out." she retrieved a mug for herself and sat down at the table opposite the warrior. The oversized shift hung down in the front, revealing a vast amount of the bard's attributes. Xena immediately focused her attention on the contents of her mug lest the bard see the hunger in her eyes.
"You're recovering from being kidnapped and beaten to a pulp. There's no reason for you to have do too much right now." she leveled a look at Gabrielle.
"You know, Xena, when I was hurt as a child, my mother wasn't nearly as protective as you are." she reached out with her right hand and placed it over the warrior's larger one resting on the table. "I'm not fragile. I'm not going to break just because I get up and make dinner or have to cross the room to reach the pot."
"I know you're not frag-"
"Then why do you insist on treating me like I am?" Gabrielle exclaimed. "Don't get me wrong, I truly appreciate that you took such good care of me but I'm feeling better now." she regretted her words the instant she saw the hurt look on Xena's face. "Hey..." she softened her tone and moved until she was sitting on the same bench as the warrior. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded. I know you're just trying to take care of me and I love you for that, I really do. But just how long did you honestly think you could keep me in bed? Especially if it meant that you were going to do the cooking?" she smiled brightly when she saw Xena's lip quirk up at their long-standing joke. "Look, I'll make a deal with you, I promise not to act like I'm in top form and you promise not to treat me like I'm at death's door, okay?"
"You weren't all that far from it, Gabrielle." the warrior said seriously, her eyes downward, focusing on nothing. "If I hadn't gotten there when I did and stopped that bleeding ." she left the sentence unfinished, choosing instead to gulp down the remainder of her tea and to shake the image of her beloved bard chained up in that cell from her mind.
"Xena Xena look at me." she rested her right hand on the warrior's larger left one and dipped her head, forcing blue eyes to meet green. "You *did* get there in time and you *did* save me." she had hoped that her words would help erase the pained expression from the warrior's face, but they didn't. "Xena you couldn't have gotten there any faster than you did."
"You're wrong, Gabrielle. I should have gotten there sooner. I lost the trail and came upon a fork in the road. I ended up taking the wrong one and had to double back." her voice was full of the previously unrevealed guilt. "Don't you see? I failed you. If I had gone to the right at the fork instead of the left-" she was silenced by the bard's fingers pressed against her lips.
"You didn't fail me." Gabrielle said firmly, her heart breaking at the forlorn look in the beautiful blue eyes that she loved. She wanted to do something, anything to ease Xena's pain, so she did the only thing she could think of. She leaned forward and replaced her fingers with her lips, giving Xena a gentle kiss. "I love you, you could never fail me." she whispered before pulling back.
Gabrielle had expected Xena to mumble something about having to go take care of Argo or sharpen her sword or any of the multitude of excuses the warrior used to avoid having to deal with her emotions. What the bard didn't expect was to feel Xena's arms wrap around and pull her against the leather covered chest. Although the grip wasn't so tight that it was painful to the still healing ribs, it was tight enough that Gabrielle knew something was wrong. The strong jaw rested against the top of her reddish-gold hair and a large hand began rubbing up and down her back in a comforting motion. She shifted just enough to put her splinted hand in a comfortable position before allowing Xena to pull her close again.
"It's going to be all right." the warrior crooned while continuing to gently stroke the bard's back. "You're going to be fine." she turned her head and allowed her cheek to slowly rub against the golden hair. Gabrielle realized that this was Xena's warrior way of getting comfort while denying that any comfort was needed and she pulled herself as close as her now aching ribs would allow. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to enjoy the feeling of her face pressed up against Xena's skin and leathers. The scent was much stronger than on the shift and Gabrielle inhaled deeply, letting it out as a soft sigh of contentment. The warrior had stopped speaking but never ceased her restless hand from running up and down the bard's back. Right there, at that moment, Xena was certain she was in her own Elyssian Fields. Her lungs filled with the fragrance of Gabrielle's hair, her lips tingled with the all too brief kiss, and her arms were wrapped around the one calm port in her stormy life. The comfort Xena had been seeking came to her now and she gratefully allowed it in.
Only the smell of burning meat broke the magical spell that they were in. "Oh gods!" Gabrielle yelped, peeling her cheek off the leather and rising to her feet. She reached the stove and glared at the two blackened pieces of meat. Xena looked at what was not going to be dinner anymore and couldn't suppress a chuckle. "And just what is so funny? One of those was yours, you know." the irritated bard asked.
"Well, I guess you'll never complain about my cooking again, will you?" she grinned in a most annoying fashion, completely amused by the situation.
"Xena, my one experience with burning dinner is but a grain of sand compared to your desert of charred meals." Gabrielle replied, showing off her bardic skill. The grin on the warrior's face disappeared, replaced with the look of someone trying hard to come back with a sharp comment but just can't come up with one. Her mouth opened and closed a few times before she finally gave up and smiled.
"That's a good one, Gabrielle. Yup a reeeal good one. Just for that, you can curl up with a good scroll tonight." she said while rummaging through the foodstuffs to find something else for dinner.
"Well at least a scroll won't steal three quarters of the bed." the bard replied, taking the pack of dried beans from the warrior and pouring them into the pot.
"Steal three oh yeah, this from the blanket hog. I have to sleep close to you because that's the only way I can get any of the covers." Xena protested while reaching for some potatoes.
"Here's the knife. Remember, it's a potato, it's harmless. You don't have to stab it to death before you cut it up." they both laughed when Xena held the knife as if to do exactly that. "I knew underneath that do-gooder warrior skin was a bloodthirsty warlord just waiting to come out and commit untold acts of mayhem."
"Don't forget debauchery." Xena added, wiggling her eyebrows.
"How could I possibly forget that?" she responded, giving the warrior a playful poke in the ribs, knowing full well that Xena wouldn't dare retaliate. "I'm surprised you've lasted this long. What's it been? Ten twenty moons?"
"Hey " she said, feigning hurt. "It hasn't been *that* long. Just because I don't tell you when I get it doesn't mean I don't get it occasionally."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle replied, not believing a word of it. She was fairly confidant that Xena's last relation was with Marcus and that was close to twenty moons ago. "I'm amazed you've lasted this long." she pulled the lid off the pot and waited for Xena to put the pile of potato cubes in.
"I'm sure there's a lot of things about me that'll surprise you." the warrior said casually. She poured the potatoes into the simmering stew and turned away from Gabrielle, supposedly to wipe her hands on the towel. 'I'm surprised I've lasted this long too.' she thought to herself.
"Naw " the bard said, shaking her head. "I think I know you pretty well I'm sure there's nothing you could tell me that would surprise me."
Xena's hands clenched the towel as she bit her lip to keep the reply from bursting forth. She took a deep breath and thought carefully before releasing her death grip on the towel and turning to face Gabrielle. The bard's attention was on the stew. "We'll see about that." Xena said, placing a quick kiss on the top of the smaller woman's head. "I've got to bring some more wood in for tonight. Try not to burn dinner twice, okay?" she ducked out of the kitchen just as a stray potato cube found itself flying through the air at her.
"Gabrielle, it's mine. Give it back."
"Gabrielle...." her tone was low and playfully menacing. "That's the only shift I have."
"Too bad." she grinned. "I'm wearing it right now and you can't have it back."
"And just what am I supposed to sleep in? My leathers?"
"Sleep in the nude. You're not getting it back." she pulled the blanket up under her chin. She was enjoying the feeling of wearing the warrior's shift and had no interest in returning it. "Come on, Xena, you know it's more comfortable than my clothes and after all, my ribs are still healing. You wouldn't want me to try and struggle into one of my shifts, would you?"
"Well, you'd fit into it a lot easier than I would." she tugged lightly on the blanket.
"No. The only way you're getting it back is to tear it off my body." the words conjured up a most pleasant vision in the bard's mind and she secretly wished that Xena would do just that. The words created a similar vision in the warrior's mind and she felt a familiar heat begin. She knew there was no way she could touch the bard at that point without revealing her true feelings.
"Hmmpf." she grunted. "Fine. I'll let you win...this time." a few quick tugs and the leathers were off, leaving Xena with just her short breeches. The light from the fireplace glowed off her full breasts, giving the bard a most enjoyable view. She crawled over Gabrielle's blanketed form and flopped down on the bed next to her. "Now are you going to share the blanket?"
"I don't know." she tilted her head as if seriously contemplating the question. "After all, who knows when that bloodthirsty warlord in you might pop out."
"I'm too tired to commit mayhem tonight."
"What about debauchery?"
"Oh, I'm never too tired for that." Xena replied with a lecherous grin. In the back of her mind she wondered if Gabrielle realized that she was playing with fire.
"Figures." the bard laughed, giving up her hold on the edge of the blanket. Xena scooted under the wool cover and rolled onto her back, making certain that there was a hand's width of space between their bodies. All was quiet for several moments while both women sorted through their thoughts. Xena was just about to roll over when she felt Gabrielle move, pressing their bodies together. "Good night." she whispered before giving the warrior a gentle kiss on the corner of her mouth. She scooted down slightly and laid her head against the startled warrior's upper chest, sighing against the warmth of Xena's bare skin. She was blissfully ignorant of the slight ache in her ribs from the movement. It was worth it to be so close. Unsure of what to do, the warrior decided that inaction was the best course and lowered her arm to wrap around the snuggling bard's back. There were a few minor adjustments made as arms and legs found more comfortable niches to rest in. Once the shifting was done, Xena was certain she wouldn't be able to relax enough to sleep. Gabrielle's head was now pressed against her bare breast, the soft breaths cascading over the warrior's nipple in a most maddening fashion. Xena laid there and waited until she felt the breaths become deep and steady, indicating that the bard was sound asleep. With slow, careful movements, she tilted Gabrielle's head to a less torturous position. For the next candlemark Xena laid awake, simply enjoying the soft comfort of holding her bard before sleep finally claimed her.
"Make sure you get all the soap out." Gabrielle said. She was reclining in the small tub, enjoying the gentle hair washing from Xena, who was kneeling on the floor next to her. Even though it had been over a moon since the incident with Abrama, the bard's left hand had still not healed completely. Although normally she would complain or be upset, it did make for a great excuse to have Xena help her wash.
"Don't I always get all the soap out?" the warrior replied, reaching her fingers into the water and giving the bard a small splash. "And don't think that I don't know that you're perfectly capable of doing this yourself."
"I could." she admitted. "But it wouldn't be anywhere near as enjoyable as being pampered like this." Gabrielle turned to give the warrior a huge grin. "Besides, I think you like doing this."
"You just wait until that hand is better. You'll be washing my hair for the next six moons." Xena replied, ignoring the bard's comment. Truth be told, she loved the feeling of her fingers sinking into the golden hair, of rubbing her fingertips along the bard's scalp, of just plain touching Gabrielle in any way she could. Only when she was certain that every strand was perfectly clean did the warrior finally relent and begin rinsing Gabrielle's hair. The bard had been busy washing herself and Xena made certain to position herself in such a way as to enjoy the show. She was glad that she was kneeling just behind Gabrielle's line of sight because she knew there was no way to hide the hunger in her eyes when the bard began rubbing the soapy cloth over her breasts. Xena sat there, completely mesmerized by the sight of the wet pink nipples. The water dripping off, the suds clinging, the cool evening air causing them to harden invitingly all beckoned to the warrior. So enchanted by the sight, she never noticed when Gabrielle stopped washing herself and looked at her.
The bard remained shock still as she watched Xena staring at her breasts. The normally guarded features were open, revealing a desire that Gabrielle had only dreamed of seeing on the warrior's face. Her brain tried to absorb the information and what it meant. "Xena." she whispered. The dark head jerked up, guilt and fear fighting for dominance in the crystal blue eyes. Gabrielle quickly put on a concerned face. "Where'd you go? I was talking to you and you just stared off into space." she shook her head and resumed her washing. "So anyway I was talking about how Lila and I were trying to get some honey from this hive Xena don't you remember any of this?" she knew damn well that the warrior didn't because she was making it up as she went along.
"Uh yeah you, Lila, beehive sorry." she gave a quick smile and stood up. "I'd better check on Argo before we turn in."
"Oh, okay. I'll just soak until you get back." Gabrielle replied.
"You do that. I'll be back in a little while." Xena said, already heading for the door.
Once outside, she leaned against the house and let her head fall back. "Damn." she cursed. "You almost caught me this time." she said to the night sky. Her brow furrowed. "Or did you?" she tried hard to remember anything about the story Gabrielle said she was telling her. Just when she was ready to accept that she had been so engrossed in watching the bard's breasts that she didn't hear her speaking, Xena remembered one important fact that Gabrielle had told her a long time ago Lila was allergic to bees. "You did catch me." she whispered.
Gabrielle watched the door close and grinned knowingly. 'Now I understand why you didn't tell me about coming on to you that night.' she giggled at the thought of how hard it must have been for Xena to restrain herself. 'I'll make it up to you tonight, I promise.'
When Xena returned to the room almost a full candlemark later, she found Gabrielle already in bed, the covers pulled up to her chin. "I thought you had fallen asleep out there."
"No, sorry, just giving Argo some extra attention." she replied while stripping off her leathers. "Did you have any trouble getting out of the tub by yourself?"
"Not really." she lied, ignoring the throbbing in her left hand. "I left some water over the fire in case you wanted to wash up."
"Oh thanks, that's a good...wait a moment, what do you mean not really?" blue eyes looked suspiciously at the bard.
"Gabrielle..." the tone gave clear warning to come forth with what happened or else.
"I slipped getting out." she pulled her hand out from under the blanket. "I wasn't thinking and reached out to stop myself from falling." instantly Xena was by her side, unwrapping the bandages and removing the splint to check for any new damage.
"You should have waited for me." she admonished gently while carefully feeling the bones in the bard's hand. "Does it hurt?"
"A little." she admitted. "But not like I broke it again or anything." her gaze settled on the warrior's naked form, a most appetizing sight.
"Hmm...good." Xena murmured. Her methodical examination confirmed that nothing had been moved around and there wasn't any swelling, another good sign. "You'll be fine. Your hand's almost healed. I think in another quarter moon or so we'll be able to leave the splint off completely, although it'll probably be a couple moons before you'll be able to use your staff."
"Thanks." Gabrielle said once the hand was rebandaged and splinted. She reached out with her right hand and rested it on Xena's forearm. "You know..." she leaned up on her elbow, bringing her face close to the warrior's. "You've been so good to me this last moon, taking care of every little thing, well...I just wanted to thank you."
"You don't have to thank me, Gabrielle. You would have done the same thing for me if the situation was reversed." she stepped back and crossed the room to retrieve the bucket of water from the fireplace. The bard laid back and enjoyed the view of Xena's muscled thighs and shapely rear. 'Definitely tonight.' she thought to herself, the heat between her legs building with every innocent movement of the warrior's naked form. The look in Xena's eyes earlier had confirmed to Gabrielle that she wasn't the only one holding back feelings.
Xena made quick work of her bath and dried off. She looked around for her shift, frowning when she saw it draped across the back of one of the chairs, a puddle of water forming on the floor. "What happened?"
"Oh, that. I told you I slipped when I was getting out, right? Well, I had your shift in my hand at the time and it fell in the tub." she said, hoping that the warrior would buy her lame story. Truth be told, the sneaky bard had deliberately dropped the cotton garment into the tub so it couldn't be worn to bed.
Xena nodded and threw another log on the fire. She knew damn well that her shift was laying on the bed when she left earlier. There was no way the bard could have accidentally soaked it so why ? The blue eyes closed and a smile formed on her face when she finally understood what was going on. With a joyous feeling in her long battered heart, Xena extinguished the candles before heading for the bed. She went to climb over Gabrielle only to find that the bard had moved to the inside of the bed instead of the outside where she usually was. Xena pulled back the blanket and slipped under it, rolling over so that she was facing away from Gabrielle. Although the warrior was brave in many ways, she was still too scared of having misinterpreted the signs to make the first move. She heard and felt the bard moving closer and made silent thanks to whatever god had seen fit to allow her to have this much happiness. Gabrielle's right arm snaked over her waist and Xena felt the bard's body pressing up against her back. Her blue eyes widened at the feel of naked skin against hers and she bit her lower lip to keep from groaning. "Xena?" came the soft voice so very close to her ear.
"You know I remember something else about that night." she whispered as her fingers began to make small, lazy circles on the warrior's firm belly. "I remember asking you if you ever thought about what it would be like. I asked you that, didn't I?" she pressed closer, letting the soft curls press against the small of Xena's back.
"You did." the warrior admitted, all of her attention focused on the small hand traveling back and forth across her midriff and the implication of that action.
"And you said that it wasn't a good time to discuss it."
"You were drugged at the time." her words came out a bit raspy as the bard's hand began to travel upward.
"I'm not now." Gabrielle replied, removing her hand from Xena's waist and brushing the long tresses of hair off the warrior's shoulder. "So answer the question."
Xena rolled over and placed the palm of her hand against the bard's cheek. "Have I ever thought about what it would be like to make love to you?" she let her thumb brush back and forth. "Oh yes." she whispered. "You have no idea how much I've thought about it." She reached between them and lifted the bard's left arm until it was resting on the pillow above her head. "I love you."
"Well, let's stop thinking and start doing." Gabrielle replied, sinking her fingers into the ebony hair.
"Sounds good to me." she murmured, lowering her lips to barely brush against the softness of the bard's. One whimpered and the other moaned, but neither knew which sound they were responsible for.
Xena pressed herself closer, wrapping her arms around the smaller form and sighing at the feel of skin touching skin. "Oh yeah...so nice." they kissed again and when she pulled back to look in the bard's green eyes she found herself frustrated by the dimness of the night. Gabrielle mewed a complaint when she felt the warrior slip out of the embrace. "Wait...I want to see you." Xena said, leaning in for another kiss before quickly lighting several candles. When she returned to the bed, the bard held the blanket open in silent invitation. The warrior stood there for a moment, drinking in the sight revealed to her. The candlelight flickered and bounced off the pale skin, the erect nipples causing small shadows against the bard's breasts.
"Please..." Gabrielle whispered, letting the blanket fall as she reached out her hand to grasp the taller woman's. Xena lowered herself onto the bard, sighing when she felt the hardened nipples pressing against the underside of her own breasts. Bracing herself with her elbows, she slid her hands under Gabrielle's shoulders and sought out the softness of the bard's mouth with her own. Soft, gentle, languid kisses went on and on until Xena let her tongue slip out to caress Gabrielle's lips. Instantly she felt the younger woman tense up. Concerned, she lifted her head and looked at the bard questioningly. "I..." Gabrielle began, obviously nervous. "I don't like that." she turned her head and looked away, certain that she'd ruined everything. Xena shifted until she could support herself with her right elbow and used her left hand to gently turn the bard to face her.
"Hey..." she said softly, letting the deep love she had show in her face. "I won't do anything you don't feel comfortable with. Are you..." she tried to find the right words to express her fear. "Are you having second thoughts?"
"No. Oh, Xena, no." she replied quickly, shaking her head. She leaned up and kissed the warrior, trying to reassure her. "I want this, I really do." they both smiled at the vehemence in the bard's statement. "But when Per-" she stopped herself, unsure if Xena would be upset with her mentioning her late husband. "Never mind." she tried to move in to kiss the warrior again but Xena pulled back.
"But Perdicus what?" she urged gently, pushing down her own fears about what happened on Gabrielle's wedding night, a night that Xena tried desperately to pretend never happened. "It's okay, tell me."
Looking up at the shadowed face of the woman she loved more than anything else, Gabrielle found the courage to continue, albeit a bit nervously. "Well, when he did that, you know, with the tongue..." even in the dim candlelight Xena could see the bard blushing slightly. "It was all sloppy and everything." she smiled at Xena's attempt to suppress a grin. "I didn't like the way it felt." she had expected the warrior to be upset by her declaration, thinking that she was comparing the two, and was very relieved to see a knowing smile cross the bronzed face.
"Gabrielle " she drew her thumb across the beautiful bardic lips. "It doesn't have to be like that. I want this to be as enjoyable and special to you as it is to me. We won't do anything that you don't want to do. But I'll tell you this," Xena flashed a smug grin. "I've never gotten a complaint about my kissing."
"I'm not complaining so far." the bard replied with a shy smile. "I like the way you kiss."
"Good." she used her fingertips to trace the outline of Gabrielle's mouth. "Let's see if we can keep it that way."
Xena lowered her mouth and gently kissed her bard. She deliberately held back, wanting Gabrielle to set the pace. Soon she felt the increased pressure of the younger woman's mouth upon hers as well as a small hand pressing on her shoulder. She laid back and allowed Gabrielle to take control.
Looking down at the blue eyes and seeing the love they held for her sent a shiver through the bard. "Are you cold?" Xena asked, her hands already groping for the blanket to cover her lover with. Gabrielle rested her hand on the bronzed cheek and smiled.
"Oh no, Xena. I'm not cold at all." she whispered just before placing a series of small kisses from one corner of the warrior's mouth to the other. "In fact I'm feeling rather warm at the moment." she said between kisses. Keeping her left hand safely out of the way, she shifted more of herself on top of Xena, enjoying the contented moan that escaped the warrior's lips.
Placing her hands on the small hips, Xena gently urged more of her lover's body on top of her, satisfied only when she bore the full weight of the bard. "So nice." she murmured, pulling Gabrielle's bottom lip between hers and running the tip of her tongue across it. She was rewarded with a soft moan. Xena felt the bard's tongue brush across her lips and immediately parted them in silent encouragement. Gabrielle spent long moments exploring the warrior's lips, losing herself in their softness, but eventually needed more. Her tongue swept across Xena's teeth then probed even further. Both moaned when the bard's questing muscle came into contact with the warrior's. Xena let her hands travel up and down Gabrielle's back while their tongues danced together in her mouth. Eyes closed, both floated in the sensation of the intimate contact. The kiss started as a tiny ember and grew in intensity until it was a raging fire, robbing both women of any awareness of their surroundings. Xena's hands roamed downward until they cupped the bard's shapely rear. Long fingers splayed out to gently squeeze the firm cheeks while simultaneously pressing Gabrielle against her. Only when the need for air overrode their passion did they reluctantly separate. The bard shifted down slightly and rested her head on the powerful shoulder, resting her right hand on Xena's upper chest. She smiled as she felt the same rapid pounding beneath her fingers as she felt in her own heart. "Gods "
"You can say that again." the warrior husked, bringing her hands up to gently caress Gabrielle's back again. They stayed like that for several moments as they struggled to get their breathing to return to normal.
"I didn't know kissing could be like that." Gabrielle whispered, placing a soft kiss on Xena's collarbone. "When can we do it again?" the long body beneath her shook with silent laughter and she felt the warrior's strong arms squeeze her. The bard didn't have the energy to try and reclaim Xena's mouth so she resumed her kissing of the skin she could reach. She worked her way across the collarbone until she reached the warrior's throat. When she heard the half whimper/half sigh and felt the long fingers sink into her hair, Gabrielle realized that she had found a pleasurable spot and began sucking, her tongue stroking the skin captured between the parted lips. Xena pressed down with her hand, encouraging the bard's actions while her body arched into the blissful sensation.
Gabrielle took her time, branding the warrior in a way no one had ever been allowed to do before. The raven haired woman alternated between moaning and gasping as the bard's lips moved up the length of her neck. When Gabrielle finally reached her mouth, she wrapped her arms around the small back and, making sure the injured hand was out of the way, rolled them over so that she was on top. Xena was on her hands and knees, straddling the excited bard. Gabrielle swallowed when she saw the look of loving desire in the blue eyes. Then her gaze lowered, watching the candlelight flicker on the full lips, the way shadows danced across the graceful neck, and lower still until it settled on the scar above the warrior's right breast. Gabrielle thought about how many times she had wanted to kiss the thin white line left by a dagger long ago and couldn't. The realization that she finally could caused her pulse to flutter as it began beating at a pace almost as furious as when they kissed. Wrapping her right arm around the stronger woman's back, Gabrielle gently urged the warrior to lower herself so she could claim her prize.
"So nice." Xena murmured, letting her eyes close as she felt the bard's lips and tongue on her skin again. She felt Gabrielle's hand begin traveling around to the front, moving closer and closer to "Oh gods!" she exclaimed when fingers callused from staff use grasped her breast. "Yes, Gabrielle touch me." she growled, arching into the glorious touch. The bard mouth moved down and Xena moved up until warm lips closed around an erect nipple. "Yessss " she hissed as she locked her elbows and let her head drop to enjoy the sight of Gabrielle making love to her breasts.
Eyes closed, the bard lost herself in the exquisite feeling. She ran her tongue over the pebbly flesh before narrowing her focus. Capturing the hard nipple between her lips, Gabrielle flicked it, causing Xena to inhale sharply. Encouraged, she began licking in earnest while her forefinger and thumb kept pace on the other breast, pumping the erect flesh in rhythm to her oral ministrations. Her 'Mmm's drowned out the sound of the warrior's sighs and moans. Xena spread her knees, lowering her center against Gabrielle's muscled abdomen. Both women groaned at the contact. The warrior pressed herself against the now soaked flesh, crying out at the feeling of the warm skin against her. The bard sucked harder in response to the searing wetness bathing her. "Oh gods, Gabrielle yeah, that's it " Xena gasped, dimly wondering if she'd climax just from the feel of the bard's mouth on her. "Harder ahh, yesss." she cried, feeling a surge in the fluids pumping out of her.
Kissing her way over the soft flesh, Gabrielle took the other nipple in, treating it to the same lavishing of love and passion. Her ears filled with the enjoyable sounds of Xena's cries and pleas for more. She realized that she'd never seen the warrior in the throes of desire and she found the sight to be more beautiful than she ever imagined. Unable to use her right hand to reach the other breast, Gabrielle traced a path down Xena's skin until she was able to cup firm warrior flesh. which she felt needed to be squeezed and fondled.
Xena quickly realized that she'd never last long if the bard's hands got any closer to her overheated center. She reluctantly pulled her breast out of Gabrielle's mouth. Looking down at the mouth that had brought her so much pleasure, Xena lowered herself to her elbows and possessed the bard's lips with her own. When her tongue requested entry, Gabrielle immediately complied, letting the warrior in to explore. Xena felt the hardness of the bard's teeth and ran the tip along them before diving in. As their tongues danced together, the warrior shifted to lay on her side, her leg draped over one powerful thigh. With her right hand now free from having to support her, Xena placed it on Gabrielle's belly. She traced her finger through the area slick with her passion then moved up, squeezing the underside of the bard's breasts while her mouth continued to wreak havoc with the younger woman's senses. Gabrielle's breathing became more labored as long fingers reached up to caress her nipple and her hips rocked of their own accord. Xena reacted straddling the bard and pushing her knee to part the younger woman's legs. "Oh god!" Gabrielle cried when she felt the warrior's strong thigh press against her soaked curls. She spread her legs wider, opening herself for her lover.
"You're sooo wet." Xena breathed into the bard's ear before taking the lobe into her mouth and suckling it. Gabrielle could only groan a weak reply and press herself harder against the raven haired woman's thigh. She was keenly aware of every place where she was being touched by her warrior; the teeth and tongue on her earlobe, the fingers that teased her nipple, the damp hair that pressed against her hip. All served to fan the flames of the bard's passion, but Xena's muscle pressing against her center was what was truly driving her insane with desire.
"P-l-e-a-s-e " Gabrielle groaned, pressing against the warrior's shoulder with her hand. Xena sucked her way down the jawbone until she reached her lover's chin then dipped down to capture the arched throat. "Gods yes." the bard sighed, sinking her fingers into the raven hair. She cried out when Xena's hand moved to her other breast and squeezed firmly.
Hearing, watching, and feeling Gabrielle react to her touch was having a pronounced effect on the warrior. Her slim control shattered by the bard's cries, Xena slid down, sending her hand between their bodies to press against the soaked mound while her mouth claimed a willing breast. She sucked and licked hungrily, certain that she'd never get her fill of Gabrielle's body. Xena nibbled the aching peak while one finger slipped between the folds to find itself drenched with hot wetness. "Gods, Gabrielle ." She groaned against the bard's breast, feeling a surge of warmth between her own legs. "You have no idea how long I've wanted to touch you like this." she wiggled her finger to emphasize her point. The quivering woman reacted immediately, bucking against the happy digit and letting out a sensual moan that reverberated through both of them. It threw more oil on their already out of control fire. Xena responded by attacking the nipple with renewed vigor and allowing her finger to gently stroke the swollen clit. Gabrielle's moans were now constant except for the occasional 'oh gods'. Her hips jerked against the long finger, begging for more and her warrior complied, stroking with more purpose while her mouth alternated between breasts. As much as she was enjoying touching the bard's sex, Xena wanted no needed to taste the sweetness that was pulsing against her finger. She slid down, letting her tongue taste the thin layer of sweat that covered the muscled abs. As she moved even lower, the warrior came upon another flavor, one which she was well aquatinted with. She sucked and licked the remainder of her wetness from the Gabrielle's skin before gently nipping the rest of the way down to the soft golden curls.
The bard's heart pounded wildly in her chest when she watched the warrior lower herself between her legs. "Yes." she whispered. Xena smiled at the way the word sounded like a plea. She placed a kiss on one outer fold, then the other before letting her tongue slip between them, bathing in the taste of Gabrielle's passion. A small hand clamped down on her head as hips pushed closer to her mouth. The bard's vocabulary was limited to 'yes', 'please', 'oh gods', various versions of her lover's name, and 'don't stop', all of which were repeated over and over between moans while Xena's soft firm muscle discovered all her secrets.
She greedily drank up all that Gabrielle had to offer, trying very hard not to miss a drop of the sweet nectar. Wrapping her arms around the writhing form's hips, Xena hungrily licked and sucked the bard's clit, her ears treated to the sound of her lover's voice calling her name in increasing volume as Gabrielle rose closer and closer to crashing over into indescribable ecstasy. The warrior was relentless in her oral ministrations, bringing her bard close then easing off, prolonging and intensifying the feelings. Gabrielle's heels dug into Xena's back while she ground her sex against the warrior's mouth. "Oh gods, Xena PLEASE!!" she screamed, her hand blindly clawing at the ebony head. Xena trapped the desperate clit between her teeth and brushed her tongue back and forth across it with firm strokes. Bardic thighs trembled and Gabrielle was unable to keep her eyes open when the tremors started. Holding her breath, Xena sucked the pulsing clit into her mouth and flicked it hard with her tongue. The bard arched off the bed, her weight completely supported by the back of her head and her thighs wrapped around the warrior's shoulders. Eyes squeezed tight, jaw clenched, body taut as a bowstring, Gabrielle felt the first wave crash over her. "Xe-Xena oh gods Xena, Xena!" she repeated again and again, crying out her lover's name to the night, telling all that might hear the name of the woman that held the key to her heart, the other half of her soul.
Xena felt the release and changed her strokes, drawing out Gabrielle's orgasm as long as she could. When the bard collapsed back onto the bed, she gave the swollen folds a gentle kiss before scampering up to pull the still quivering woman into her arms. The candles had burned down, casting only a dim light over the lovers, but there was no mistaking the look on Gabrielle's face. It was a look that Xena could only previously imagine and looking at the afterglow on her lover's face, she decided that her imagination was sorely lacking. "So beautiful." the warrior murmured, planting several small kisses on the bard's face. She was surprised to taste the saltiness of a tear against her lips. Pulling back, she saw that indeed her bard was crying.
"I'm sorry." Gabrielle sniffed. "I don't know why I'm crying."
"I do." Xena whispered, fully in awe of the power her lovemaking had on the beautiful bard. She lowered her mouth for a loving kiss. The bard tasted herself on her warrior's lips and her body trembled with the memory of them sending her higher than Mount Olympus. Xena lovingly kissed away every salty drop while Gabrielle struggled to return her breathing to normal.
"I love you." the bard whispered several moments later. She was gently wrapped in the strong arms, her head nestled against the crook of Xena's neck. Her splinted hand was resting on the muscled stomach. The warrior kissed the top of the golden hair.
"I love you too." she brought one long hand up to gently stoke the soft cheek. "You okay?" she queried softly.
"Yeah." Gabrielle nodded, placing a soft kiss on the warrior's neck. "That was " she tried to think of a way to describe the incredible feeling. " exquisitely intense." she sighed.
"Oh it was, was it?" Xena chuckled. "Guess that means you liked it, huh?" she was answered with a series of gentle kisses on her neck as the bard wormed her way back on top of the older woman.
"No." Gabrielle mumbled as her mouth fondled the soft skin. "I love it." she shifted down, letting her legs fall to either side of the warrior's muscled waist and exhaling a contented sigh when she felt her damp curls brush against the bronzed skin. "Now I want to show you how much."
Helpless to the softness of her lover's mouth, Xena laid her head back and let the backs of her hands rest against her forehead, giving Gabrielle the freedom to explore at her own pace. Bardic lips and tongue slid across the scarred flesh, dropping lower to gently suckle the inside of the full breast. Xena sighed and brought her hands down to sink into the golden hair. "So nice " she growled when those wonderful lips moved up the heaving slope and captured the puckered flesh. Gabrielle's own passion coupled with her deep desire to bring pleasure to the warrior was expressed with every touch of her mouth. Her tongue rasped over the hardening skin, pulling it into her mouth and sucking. Lips and teeth nipped and nibbled while her soft firm muscle continued to turn on every nerve ending in Xena's body. Feeling the pressure of the strong hands against the back of her head, Gabrielle began sucking in earnest, treating her lover's breasts to the same ministrations she had given them earlier.
Xena's body reacted quickly, flooding the insides of her thighs with renewed passion. Removing her left hand from the bard's oh so soft hair, she reached down and lifted Gabrielle's right leg until she could rest it between her legs. "Please " she gasped when she felt the muscled thigh press against her overheated sex, jerking her hips upward to increase the pressure. She wanted it to last, to take her time and enjoy the experience of having her beloved make love to her, but her body was screaming for contact.
Gabrielle relished the sharp cry of pleasure she heard from Xena when she bit down on the swollen nipple while grinding her thigh against the drenched area between the warrior's legs. The feeling on the hot liquid against her skin caused the bard to moan around the tender flesh in her mouth. "Xeeennnaaa "
Gabrielle's sensuous tones and wandering hand drove the raven haired pile of quivering desire wild. Slim bardic hips slid off her belly and settled against her waist, pulling the wonderful thigh away from her center. Before Xena could vocalize her protest a small hand pressed against her slippery womanhood. "Oh gods, yes!" she cried, gripping Gabrielle's wrist and arching up. "Please touch me there oh-"
Xena gave up the fight for speech when four fingertips stroked the length of her sex. She quickly began rocking against the gentle touch, expressing her need with each desperate motion of her hips. One rather excited jerk brought the tips against her soaked tunnel. There was no way Xena could deny herself the pleasure. Using her longer fingers to guide Gabrielle's, she arched up and groaned when she felt two fingers embed themselves in up to the first knuckle. She let go of the smaller hand and let the bard take control.
Gabrielle gasped at the warm wetness surrounding her fingers. She slowly moved in and out, sliding in deeper each time as the sweet cream coated her fingers. Lifting her head from the warrior's breast, the bard shifted down and watched as she moved in and out of Xena. The visual image intensified the feeling of having her fingers gripped by the warm wet inner muscles. She began kissing the soft skin above the wiry dark curls while increasing the speed and depth of her thrusts. Xena began moaning then a soft exhalation of pleasure that fed the bard's confidence. Shifting her hand, Gabrielle rubbed her thumb across the hard button while continuing to stroke her lover's inner walls. "Xeeennnaaa " she sighed when each plunge caused the boiling fluid to pump out onto her palm and wrist. Her mouth slipped down to suck the soaked hairs of the warrior's triangle. "Oh yessssss ." she whispered, moving her lips lower to draw more of the ambrosia.
Xena knew she was close and tried valiantly to hold out against the ministrations of Gabrielle's hand, wanting the glorious feeling to last as long as possible. But when she felt the bard's mouth against her nether lips, the warm breath caress her soaked flesh, the soft tongue snake out and dip in to taste her, all was lost. Gabrielle held on as the inner muscles clamped down, holding her fingers captive, and a strong hand pressed against the back of her head, keeping her lips and tongue against the throbbing clit. "OH GODS Oh OH, OH GODS OH ..GABRIELLE!!!" Xena arched up, taking the bard with her as waves higher than any Poseidon could create washed over her. Gabrielle couldn't believe the amount of fluid pumping out onto her hand. She greedily tried to lick it all up while slowly pulling her fingers out of their warm cocoon, stopping her oral efforts only when she felt Xena's hand move from her head to her back, stroking it gently. Rubbing her sticky hand along the length of the warrior's thigh, Gabrielle gently kissed the outer folds over and over, putting her deep love and devotion in each touch of her lips against the tender flesh before moving up to nestle against the broad shoulder.
"Gabrielle ." the name was said with such love, such devotion, nothing could ever sound sweeter to the bard's ears.
"I'm right here, Xena." she murmured, gently kissing the shoulder she was resting on.
"You know how you described it before? Exquisitely intense?"
"Yeahhhh." she sighed, drawing a silent chuckle from Gabrielle. The movement jarred the splinted hand, causing the bard to jerk slightly. "Okay, I think it's time to switch sides. I don't want to be responsible for rolling over and hurting it during the night." Xena said, helping Gabrielle slide over her body to reach the outside of the bed. They shifted around until both were comfortable, bodies as close together as possible. Xena reached out and pulled the blanket over their naked forms. Curled up in each others arms and feeling more contended than either had ever felt before in their lives, both fell into a peaceful slumber.
"I guess there are advantages to riding Argo." the bard sighed. She was sitting in the front, facing Xena, thighs draped over the taller woman's while strong arms behind her back helped keep her balanced. "That's right, keep a good hold on me so I don't fall off." she hissed when she felt the hot tongue dance across her bared breast.
"Don't worry, I won't let you fall." Xena replied, pushing the green top up off the other breast before giving that one the same thorough oral examination. "And yeah " she whispered, bringing her hand up to cup a willing breast while looking at the smoldering green eyes. "there's lots of advantages to riding. Let me show you."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and let her body concentrate on the sensations caused by the warrior's hands and mouth. Long fingers stroked her inner thigh. "Gods, Xena you sure do oh, have a way of hmm, expressing yourself." she arched her back as the warrior's lips and tongue continued to explore. Suddenly the lips that were pleasuring her so much were gone, her top roughly pulled back into place. Green eyes opened in confusion before twisting in her seat and seeing the reason why Xena stopped.
"Well if it isn't my two favorite mortals. So Xena, showing off some of your many skills?"
"Charon, what are you doing back up here?" she asked, annoyed that her special moment with the bard had been interrupted. Gabrielle was busy trying to adjust her top and skirt while slipping her thighs off the warrior's.
"Oh, slight mechanical problem. Some Amazon went berserk and stabbed a hole in the bottom of my boat with her sword. It's in dry dock for a little while so I figured I'd pop up here and see some of the sights. After all, I've got at least three candlemarks until the next dancing show."
"And just what did you do to cause her to run her sword through the boat?" the bard asked after being helped down from the tall steed by her powerful lover.
"I didn't do anything!" the ferryman protested. "All I did was give her hand when she was getting in the boat."
"Was the hand on her ass?" Xena asked, rolling her eyes at the lecherous grin that spread across his face.
"Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time." satisfied that the leather clad woman wouldn't use him for chakram practice he approached them. "So I hear you two have been busy these last couple moons. Every so often I see another reject from the hot house returning."
"Any idea how many more are still left up here?"
"No, Xena. But let's think about it. How many have you killed? Can't count that high, eh?" he took a step back at the withering glare. "Well, everyone below lost count of how many got out and I gave up after two hundred something coming back. Not that you were responsible for all of them returning." he said to her surprised look. "Seems that these guys don't know enough to keep their bodies off the ends of swords." he scooted closer to Gabrielle. "Hey sweetcakes, how about a dance for old times sake, huh?" his black tongue quickly flicked over his equally black lips.
"I never danced for you." the bard replied, tapping her fingers on the folded up pieces of her staff sticking out of the saddlebag.
"Ah, but tell the truth, Gabrielle, you want to." he said, taking a healthy step back and bumping into an immovable object.
"There you are." Hades said, clapping his hand down hard on the ferryman's shoulder. "Good news. The boat's fixed. Now all you have to do is apologize to the Amazon and then everything will be fine." he turned his godly eyes upon the two women. "Xena, Gabrielle, I'm glad to see that " he looked from one to the other. " everything worked out for the best."
With a move that surprised everyone, including herself, Xena reached her arm around her lover's waist and pulled her close. "Yes, everything worked out " she turned her attention totally to the young woman in her arms, "for the best." blue eyes twinkled at green. Once again the world fell away. Xena found herself lost in the depth of the love she saw in Gabrielle's eyes and knew that her own were reflecting an equal love back.
"Is she gonna kiss her or just stand there like an idiot?" the ferryman asked after a moment.
"I don't think it matters." Hades replied, nodding in silent approval at the raven haired woman. "I think Xena's happy just breathing the same air with Gabrielle."
Hades was right.
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