Black Lily

In the Hall of the Mountain Queen (Part 03)

Chapter 12

Dione spoke with confidence. “Now that you have come back, Daedalus, I have no fear for our little kingdom. You have the keys to all the defense mechanisms and you can supervise our defense.”

Daedalus nodded. “I can do that.” He sighed sadly. “I have traveled the world looking for a student who can comprehend my machines, but I haven’t found one. If I had, defense would be much easier – but there’s no use in wanting what we can’t have.”

“We’ll do what we can,” Xena began, but then she stopped. “I’ll be needed to confront Ioxus,” she continued, casting her eyes at Dione, who nodded, “can Gabrielle help you?”

“No – she has another task.” Dione said. “There is another one who is not here who is involved in this struggle. Hylas must know. He must be ready to face his father.”

Gabrielle nodded. “I can do that.”

Daedalus nodded again. “Then I’ll do what I can. Let me outline the defenses for you, Xena, so you can plan your strategy.”

They spoke late into the night, forming a plan to separate Ioxus from his army.

As they were taking their leave, Xena spoke to the Queen once more. “I have to deal with Ioxus, Dione. You can’t take that from me.”

The Mountain Queen smiled pleasantly. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

 

**********

Preparations were complete, scouts had returned. Gabrielle found herself settling back into “war mode,” as she privately referred to it. Practice with the staff was one thing, but this was something completely different. War was the most popular topic in the scrolls of the bards, but it was by no means fun.

“At least this time we’re not underarmed, understrength and running out of food….” She commented pleasantly to Xena, as they made their way along a passage. The warrior grunted distractedly, but did spare the bard a small smile.

Xena grabbed Gabrielle’s hand as she stopped at a fork in the passage. Picking up the bard’s hand, Xena brushed it with her lips, squeezed it and turned away.

“You be careful.” The bard commanded. The warrior nodded, her mind elsewhere. She stopped, looked down at the green eyes watching her and smiled.

“Whatever else happens to us, Gabrielle, you know I love you.”

“And I love you. But don’t think for a moment that that means you can just go and die doing something heroic.”

“I’ll do my best.” The warrior said sardonically. She leaned down to kiss the bard, who enthusiastically returned the kiss.

They parted, Gabrielle heading for the infirmary, while Xena went to the main hall to marshal the troops. As she walked away, Gabrielle thought over all the armed conflicts she and Xena had been through. *None so bad as the time we fought the Horde,* she thought. It had been close, but she had almost lost Xena that time. *And it was Ares who would’ve won, even if he wasn’t physically present.* The thought brought chills to her spine, even after so much time had passed.

Her steps had brought her the healers’ demesnes. She found Hylas dressed and waiting her arrival. He looked pale, thin and haunted, but his eyes had no sign of madness in them. Gabrielle held out her hand and Hylas stepped forward to take it.

“I’m sorry it has to be like this, Hylas…” Gabrielle began, but the young man shook his head.

“It had to come sometime, Gabrielle. I’m not ready to face him, I’ll never be ready, but it still has to be done.”

The bard gazed at him with sad eyes, but she nodded. “I’m to take you to Dione. She will be watching this from a safe place. Xena tells me that you don’t have to face your father, you say you do. I’ll leave it up to you – where do you want to go?”

“Where will my father be led?”

“To the canyon mouth.”

“Take me there.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Dione won’t like it, but then again she’s probably already seen it happening.”

As the two walked, Gabrielle told Hylas of the defenses, cunningly wrought by Daedalus, that protected the Mountain kingdom.

“The first is an avalanche, set off by hand, that will cut your father’s vanguard from his main army. In fact, Daedalus has probably already activated this. According to him, it’s not a fail-safe, but the pass cannot be cleared easily, even by trained sappers.”

For a moment Hylas looked as if he had forgotten his worries. “I wonder how he can control the amount of blockage in the pass? Too much, and we wouldn’t be able to clear the pass either. Too little, and we find ourselves confronting a bigger force than we expected.”

“When we come out of the other side of this, you can ask Daedalus.” Gabrielle encouraged. Hylas nodded. “The second defense is water.”

Hylas grew excited. “A controlled flash flood! I’ve always wanted to try and work out the mechanism for that…” Gabrielle let the youth talk about the problems that would occur with water storage and other logistics.

“You really find this stuff fascinating, don’t you?” Gabrielle asked, when the stream of words had slowed. Hylas smiled shyly, then frowned.

“Yes. It’s the cause of all this. It’s all my fault…”

“No, it is not. Now listen, Hylas. I’ve seen alot of trouble, my own and other people’s. Sometimes things just happen, and there’s no one to blame. Sometimes,” the bard cleared her throat, “bad things happen to people who don’t deserve them.” Her voice caught a little. Hylas looked down at her questioningly.

“How bad…I mean, if you don’t want to tell me, I’ll understand.”

Hylas looked so young, Gabrielle thought, but he probably wasn’t more than a few years younger than she was.

“I lost a child recently.” She said, somewhat shortly. Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, then shut it again and shook her head. She looked away. How could she tell this boy what had happened, what was happening? Hylas watched her face, then turned to look down the passageway.

“I’m sorry. This must be even worse then, in a way, for you.”

Gabrielle turned back to see clear golden eyes filled with moisture. She smiled tightly and patted Hylas’ cheek. “Yes it is.”

They stood for a moment, then continued down the passageway.

“So we had earth and water, I guess the next defense is fire?” Hylas spoke after a moment.

Gabrielle nodded, impressed. “Exactly. I didn’t understand the mechanism of this defense, but it’s pretty close to the canyon mouth.”

Hylas didn’t speak, lost in thought.

“But you said three defenses. What about air?” The youth asked, trying to find the pattern.

“Like I said, I don’t quite understand it. Daedalus said three defenses.” The bard paused. “I wonder…”

 

Chapter 13

 

Dione kissed Alcaeus lightly on the cheek. “You take care, my friend. Protect Xena’s back and do not let harm come to her. I would not like to face the wrath of the Queen of the Amazons.” She laughed lightly.

Her general bowed and returned her dazzling smile, his scar rippling along his cheek. “I will. But I don’t think that Gabrielle will let any harm come to Xena, nor would you. I know you too well, my Queen, not to assume you have something up your sleeve. But it’s not my job to worry about things like that. So I’ll take your leave, if you will.”

Dione nodded, including Hippasus, Danaus and Hermione in her gesture. She had no doubt that her generals were among the finest in Greece. She had no worries for her people. In fact she was worried only about two of all the pawns on this chessboard. And she smiled again at the thought of two pieces that thought they were pawns, but were actually Queens.

Queen Dione, addressed her staff, asking that they be ready to defend the Hall, if it should come to that, and she was assured that they would do so with great competence. She took her leave, hesitating before the doors to her chambers.

*Would it be right for me to dream this?* She asked of the part of her teacher that resided within herself.

*Is it better to dream a beginning or an ending?* came the answer.

Dione gathered her cloak and passed her chamber by, heading towards the arroyo where a storm was already brewing.

 

**********

Gabrielle was not altogether suprised to see Dione heading their way, but Hylas clearly was.

“Your Majesty, I have to…that is, please don’t make me…”

Dione held up a hand to forestall his protest. “No. You must do what you must do. I gave you a choice, and alternative, that was all. Now I will join you.” She turned to Gabrielle. “Ioxus has only a few men left with him. The others have been pinned by the avalanche and the flood. Daedalus is waiting only for Xena’s order and he will release the last of the defenses, isolating Ioxus.”

The bard nodded solemnly. Hylas looked pale, but resolute.

The three walked on, the Queen leading the way. After a few moments, Gabrielle could tell the air was shifting, the passage had a drafty feel. They turned a bend and came out into a crescent shaped canyon head. Xena stood alone in the middle of the field, watching as she was approached by a small band of horsemen. Gabrielle looked quickly at Hylas. He shook as he stood, but his legs held firm and he did not fall. The bard moved away from him as her attention was captivated by what she saw.

In a crevice in the canyon, at the top of a carved stairway, stood the old inventor Daedalus, his arm poised above a complex set of controls. He watched fixedly, as Xena stood, watching the approaching warriors. She lifted her sword arm and nonchalantly swung the weapon in a circle, loosening her wrist. As she began to lift her arm, a twang of a bowstring was heard. Xena’s arm was now stretched above her head and she sounded her warcry – but it was cutoff mid sound by a strangled yell.

Daedalus stumbled from his perch, clasping his chest. He teetered on the stairs and stumbled again, moving away from his controls. Xena glanced up at the old man, then again at the horsemen, now within clear sight. She lifted her sword again and her battle cry rang out, vibrating against the canyon walls. She bent her knees and leapt into the air, coming down much closer to the approaching group.

Hylas yelled out as Gabrielle broke away from him and Dione, running towards the warrior. She was intercepted and joined by several figures on foot, all in armor.

“What are you doing here?” The bard gasped as Alcaeus joined her chase towards the fight.

“The Queen told me to watch Xena’s back. That’s what I’m doing.”

“We have to separate Ioxus out – can you do that?”

“Leave that to us!” Hermione yelled as she passed the others in a long-legged run.

By the time Gabrielle caught up with the rest, the fight was on. Hippasus was taking on two axemen, Danaus and Alcaeus were each fighting a warrior on horseback. Xena was working slowly but surely towards Ioxus, who stood apart from the battle, his eyes hard. The warlord kept scanning the canyon for signs of an attack.

***********

Hylas tore his eyes away from the small group of warriors and looked back to find the old man. He was lying supine on the stairs, blood clearly dripping down the canyon wall. The youth looked at the warriors once more, then made his decision. Without a sound he began to run at full speed towards Daedalus, moving so quickly and quietly that no one should’ve been able to notice him. But two pairs of eyes were locked on him.

Dione nodded, satisfied. The boy had made his choice. There was no other outcome now.

One other pair of eyes was not satisfied, however. A rage exploded in Ioxus the warlord. This rage had been building for over two decades. He saw his son run for the crevice in the wall and he could see and hear nothing else. No battle raged around him, no Warrior Princess defied him. He saw his only remaining son running. Running away from him once again, and he screamed, enraged.

“Hylas! Death take you!” Ioxus spurred his horse into action and thundered towards the lone figure that had now reached the canyon wall and was taking the stairs two at a time.

Cursing, Xena grabbed one of Ioxus’s men by the arm and dragged him off his horse. Mounting the steed at a run, Xena chased after the warlord.

***********

Hylas found Daedalus sprawled, but still conscious. The old eyes looked up.

“There is no time…listen to me…”

Hylas interrupted. “I know. I understand, it’s the air currents.” Daedalus, eyes wide, nodded. He waved the youth on up to the controls.

“Do it, then. I can wait.”

Hylas jumped to the controls and scanned them he pulled two levers and spun a wheel. He turned to look at the battle below him, but could make out only figures surrounded by dust.

*Do it!* A voice sounded in his mind. He looked around. Daedalus lay, eyes closed, not moving. *Do it now – I will take care of the rest!* Hylas turned towards Dione. She was standing alone under the cliff overhang, looking directly at him.

Golden brown eyes found sparkling grey ones from across the canyon. Hylas could see several figures breaking off from the fight. One was on horseback, pursuing another, gaining on it. He nodded and made the final adjustments. Hylas pushed the button in the middle of the panel.

***********

Gabrielle could feel the heat behind her as she “retreated.” *That’s what generals call running for your life.* she thought wryly. She had a nasty cut on one arm, and a few new bruises, but she was relatively unscarred, due to the diligence and bravery of Danaus, who had taken a powerful stab meant for her. He limped along beside her now, leaning heavily into her and Hermione’s shoulders. The big Amazon was practically carrying her lover, but no sign of fear was in her face.

Hippasus had a good cut from one of the axemen, but they had fared far worse. Alcaeus looked tired, but had stayed unmarked, except for the blood that covered his armor – none of it his.

Gabrielle swallowed in a dry throat, thinking about the voice that had sounded in her head. She had been fighting a man unhorsed by Danaus. She had parried his blow, breaking his arm, when she heard, as clearly as if the speaker had been next to her, “Run! Break off and run now!” Startled, the bard had lowered her guard. The soldier before her had thrown a dagger, but Danaus, pushing Gabrielle out of the way, had taken the dagger in his thigh. Alcaeus yelled for them to rally and retreat immediately. Gabrielle heard, once again the command to run, sounding inside her head. She had helped Hermione lift the wounded Danaus and they had run as fast as they could, following Alcaeus and Hippasus.

Alcaeus held his arm out, stopping Gabrielle where she stood. The bard looked up and tried to focus on what she saw. A wall of flame blocked their path. She could see fairly clearly through it, but the heat blasted her already dry throat. There was no way they were passing through. The bard turned around to see that their path was blocked by another wall of flame. Gabrielle sank to the ground in exhaustion. They couldn’t get out, but neither could Ioxus’s men. They may not be safe, but they weren’t in imminent danger, either. Hermione lowered Danaus to the ground and the small group sat, watching through the flames as Xena raced towards Ioxus.

 

Chapter 14

Xena’s mount approached the canyon walls with tremendous speed, but Ioxus was almost upon them. The warrior urged the horse to go faster and she closed with the warlord just under the stairway carved into the stone. With a war cry, she leapt upon Ioxus’s back, dragging him from his steed.

The two warlords faced each other, Xena between Ioxus and the stairway. His face was ashen, his eyes bright with madness.

“Don’t stand between me and my son!” He cried. “You’ve already taken everything from me, don’t take my son….” He lunged at Xena, who parried and spun. Ioxus made for the stairway, but Xena grabbed at his ankles and pulled him back down.

“I’m not standing between you and anything. You gave up your rights to him a long time ago.”

Swords clashed and Ioxus tripped Xena, who neatly sidestepped and punched the warlord.

“You did this! You took away my wife and now this.” Ioxus’s words came thickly.

Xena clamped her mouth shut and parried the hail of blows.

“Why did you have to take my son too?” Ioxus’s voice was taught.

“Ioxus, I can’t apologize enough for what I did. I took something that I had no right to. You have a right to hate me. But Hylas is a human, he’s an adult and he’s made his own choices.”

Ioxus’s eyes rose and they glinted with something unpleasant. He paused, then roared in anger, charging the Warrior Princess. She blocked him, spun around and threw him into the rock wall. He turned and caught her with an edge of his sword. With hard eyes Xena fought the warlord, until he backed away, breathing hard.

“Why don’t you just kill me? You killed my wife and now you’ve stolen my son.” Ioxus lowered his sword. He fell to his knees, spreading his hands. “Just kill me.”

Xena lowered her weapon, shaking her head. Ioxus bowed his head, then in a sudden rush, picked up his sword and hurled it at Hylas, who had been moving down the stairs slowly, watching the fight between Xena and his father.

Just as the sword would have impaled the young man, the chakram slammed into it, throwing the weapon against the stone wall, where it bounced and fell to earth.

Xena grabbed the chakram out of the air as it returned to her and approaching Ioxus held her sword high. The warlord bent his head, waiting for the deathblow.

Xena looked at Hylas, who sat stunned on the stairs and brought her sword down – hilt first into the warlord’s head. Ioxus wavered, then crashed to the ground, unconscious.

There was no noise that could be heard over the rush of flames, then that, suddenly, was gone. A profound silence settled over the canyon.

Gabrielle looked out over the canyon and could see her lover standing, head bowed, over the body of the warlord. Hylas sat, still only half aware, above her. At the top of the stairs Daedalus stood. He had his left arm pressed tightly to his side and he leaned heavily on one of the levers.

“It’s over.” Hippasus said quietly. Gabrielle tore her eyes away from Xena and looked at the large warrior sadly.

“No, now it begins.” she said.

**********

The healers had treated friend and foe. Gabrielle’s wound was bound and she wryly commented that she and the Warrior Princess had matching wounds. Xena said nothing, but continued to watch the healer clean and bind the scrapes and scratches on her body.

Hylas approached them, still shaky. He looked awful, and Gabrielle had to turn away from the pain in his eyes.

“You saved me again. Thank you.” He said to the silent warrior. Xena didn’t look up, but she nodded, her lips tightened.

“You heard?” She said shortly. She glanced up from her arm to the youth in front of her.

Hylas nodded. “I…I…don’t know what to make of it all. You saved me, you didn’t kill my father.” He exhaled. “You killed my mother,” He finished quietly. “I don’t think there’s anything to say right now. I want to forgive you, but I don’t know how. Maybe later…” He paused.

“Dione says I can stay here. She’s got my father in a healing sleep – she tells me he will never be well. She offered me a chance to start over and promised me she’d take care of him until…until…” He began to shake and a healer came over to lead him away to a pallet.

Looking over his shoulder he gazed at the Xena. She met his eyes. Hylas turned and walked away.

Gabrielle placed a hand on the warrior’s shoulder. “You did the right thing, Xena.” Blue eyes locked with hers and Xena covered the bard’s hand with one of her own.

“Thank you.”

 

Chapter 15

Days passed and wounds, physical ones at least, were mending. Gabrielle and Xena visited Daedalus in his room. The old man was moving about freely, with only the occasional grunt to bring attention to his bound chest.

“The Healers say I’m fine, but I don’t feel it.” He laughed, when they inquired about his health. “I’m glad you two came, actually. Dione asked me to find you and bring you to her.”

The three entered the Hall, where golden autumn light twinkled through the noise of music and the warm glow of stone. Dione sat on her throne, while three chairs, deep and soft, sat before her. She seated her guests and served them with refreshments.

“Our time together is coming to an end, I fear. I wanted to share one more moment – all four of us.”

“What will become of Ioxus?” Gabrielle asked, after they had eaten and drunk.

“I will keep him here.” Dione stated plainly.

“But Hylas said he won’t ever be healed…?” The bard questioned.

Dione sighed. “We can’t heal Ioxus, no. But there is an option. It is both blessing and punishment…I can wipe away his memory. The man who is left will have a new life, a new home. He will not remember his family or his deeds.”

Gabrielle jumped. “I almost did that.” She spoke out loud before she realized what she had said.

Dione nodded. “Yes.”

Xena shifted uncomfortably. “It seems like an easy way out, somehow. I can’t consider doing it. I am what life has made me. It’s my job now to try and heal what I hurt and fix what I broke.”

“Think about it, Xena. No home, no family, no memories. A person without memory floats, rootless, like a leaf as it falls. No,” Dione contradicted, “It’s not an easy way at all.”

The warrior considered. “And Hylas? Will he stay too?”

“No. He feels that it would be too painful to be near his father.”

“I seem to be the only one doing well out of all this,” Daedalus commented drily. “Hylas will be coming with me.”

“Then you’ve finally found your apprentice?” Gabrielle perked up.

The inventor nodded. “Yes. I am a father in need of a son and he is a son in need of a father. It works out well.”

Xena smiled at the old man. In his eyes was a hope she had never before seen. When she had first met the old man, he had been a walking shadow, full of grief. Now he looked years younger, his eyes bright with promise and life. He met her gaze and returned the smile. Deep within herself, Xena began to feel a small kernel of hope spring up. She gazed at Gabrielle and meeting those green eyes, began to feel the hope grow. Maybe, somehow, one day this would all work out right. Just as long as she had Gabrielle, things would work out.

Dione watched her guests with satisfaction. “I hope you Xena, and Gabrielle, will stay for a day or two more. I have a gift for you before you leave.”

The warrior glanced quickly at Gabrielle, and seeing the nod, turned back to the Queen. “We would like that very much.”

**********

Gabrielle preceded Xena through the passageway. She walked beneath the overhanging stone that served as the entrance to Dione’s kingdom and wondered again at the genius that had built this place. She could hear the soft footfalls of the warrior behind her. The bard slowed down to let Xena step up to her side.

In the open space before the entrance Hylas and Dione stood with Daedalus. The inventor was already mounted on a small mule, while Hylas held another’s reins. The three looked over as Xena and Gabrielle joined them. Hylas was still pale, but he looked stronger that Gabrielle had ever seen him. His eyes were still sad, though and his neck rigid with tension.

“You’re looking much better than when we saw you the first time, Hylas.” The bard commented lightly. He smiled, clasping her arm.

“I have alot to thank you for, Gabrielle.”

The bard shook her head. “Not me – Xena.” Hylas looked at the warrior reluctantly. Slowly she held out an arm, hesitant, as if she was sure it would not be accepted. There was a long pause, the youth took her hand in his own. He looked up into blue eyes that had cowed Gods, and he was sure he saw a small thaw in their ice.

“Thank you, Xena. Be well and may you find what you are looking for.” Hylas said firmly.

“You too, Hylas.” The warrior let go and stepped over to Daedalus. “And you too, old friend. Don’t make me come and save you.”

The inventor laughed. “I promise. I’m just taking young Hylas here to see some truly amazing construction I visited in Britannia, then maybe out East to see some massive Temples carved from stone….”

Dione laughed. “His itinerary would take several lifetimes, I think.” She leaned over to embrace Hylas, then did the same for Daedalus, placing a kiss on each cheek.

“You both always have a home here. Please don’t forget that.” They promised her that they would return, then reluctantly they turned their mounts towards the canyon path that led the way away from Dione’s kingdom. The three women stood for a while, watching the figures grow smaller. At last the two men turned a corner and disappeared.

Dione turned to her two guests and held out a hand to each.

“And now I have something I want to show you.” She led the way back into the mountain.

 

Chapter 16

Warrior and bard strode easily behind Dione, as she led them through quiet passages.

Xena looked around her, then turned her companion. “We’re descending. We must be even lower than the bath level now.”

Gabrielle’s eyes rose. “Imagine, all those tons of stone above our heads. It makes me feel secure and crushed all at once.” Her hand moved to grasp one of Xena’s hands. Clasping hands, the two women continued to follow the Queen.

Dione slowed as they came to the end of a long corridor. She pushed open a bronze door, which swung silently. The three women entered a low ceilinged room. Several serving women stood immediately and bowed. Dione waved them over and they approached, holding out robes.

Dione turned to Xena and Gabrielle. “First we have the ritual oblation to observe. I’m sure you don’t mind soaking once more in our hot mineral baths, do you?”

Gabrielle was practically out of her clothes and into the robe by the time Dione had finished her question. Xena just smiled.

After they had bathed, the serving women brought them to low tables, where they were massaged and oiled. When everything had been cleaned up, Dione gathered her robe about her, thanked the servants and they took their leave. Dione, Gabrielle and Xena were now alone. Dione motioned for them to follow her once more.

They entered a second chamber. It was warm and close and lit with many candles. There were several amphorae lined up along a low altar, each with a label. Each amphora had a ladle and cup before it. Gabrielle walked over to them and read the labels.

“Healing, forgiveness, forgetfulness…” she paused, then resumed, “memory, truth, strength.” The bard turned to Dione, “Can you actually grant these things?”

Dione shook her head. “This is the shrine of Mnemosyne in my kingdom. I serve Memory, not the other way around. I can only offer sleep.” She kneeled before the altar, lit candles and incense, spoke for a moment in a low voice. When she stood the Queen gestured to the jars.

“This is the gift I can give you both. You may drink from one of these jars, whichever you choose. We will then lay down to sleep. Whatever you dream, when we wake, you may choose to remember or forget, whichever you wish.”

Xena looked hesitant, “I don’t think I want to drink from your jars.” Gabrielle laid a hand on her arm in support.

“I almost did once, ” The bard said, “but I chose not to. I’m with Xena on this.”

“You may drink for yourselves or each other or not at all. Xena, Gabrielle, this is a gift, not a test, not a command.” Dione said softly, without emotion.

Gabrielle hesitated, then stepped forward. “My mother told me I should never reject a gift. It leaves the giver bitter and the receiver unsatisfied.”

Xena squared her shoulders and faced Dione. “You know how I feel about the Gods, Dione.”

The Queen nodded. “And you know how they feel about you.” She smiled crookedly. “Let’s consider today a truce, shall we?” Her voice lowered and she took Xena’s hand in her own. “Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to let some of the past go.” Xena watched as Gabrielle poured clear liquid into a cup and drank.

The warrior nodded. “Okay.” She swallowed hard then stepped up to the altar. Taking a ladle, Xena poured herself a cup of the liquid and tossed it back, as if it were cheap spirits. She grimaced and Gabrielle laughed.

Dione led them towards a couch. “Lay yourselves down – sleep will come quickly.” She walked over to the altar, drank from one of the amphorae and laid herself on her own couch. Xena was already breathing deeply. Gabrielle found her eyes closing even as she lay back on the cushions….

 

Gabby tightened her arms around Alex’s waist as the motorcycle roared to life. The wind hit her face and Gabby had to huddle against the leather-clad back, to gain protection from its blast. Not that she minded, actually, just that she didn’t want to seem…what? Forward? She laughed coldly at her own folly. She had tracked this woman down at a biker bar and she didn’t want to seem forward? Ugh.

Alex felt the girl tighten her grip. Inside the black helmet she pulled her lips back from her teeth as she gave the engine gas. If this kid wanted a ride, that’s what she’d get. From soup to nuts. She smiled ferally, feeling the wind hit her body like a wall, leaning into the pull of the momentum. Her mind sped far ahead of the bike, however. She knew that what she was about to do was wrong. Why? This kid…Gabby, she conceded to herself, wasn’t bad. Why hurt her? She wanted a ride, a little excitement. *I warned her,* Alex thought. *She’s got to be taught…* but something in her chest hurt when she thought of Gabby, alone in the morning, a little wiser and a little sadder.

The wind settled into a dull roar, mixing with the noise of the engine. Gabby lifted her head to look around. Lights sped by in a variety of colors, the more distant lights moving more slowly. They were heading upwards into the foothills above the town. Gabby could feel the tension in the body that lay beneath the leather jacket and she sighed sadly, wondering about this woman she didn’t know at all.

Alex was clenching her teeth, fighting with herself. Gabby had laid her head against Alex’s back and it took everything Alex had not to relax into the feeling. The last thing in the world she needed was a kid tagging along. She worked alone…alone. The word “alone” rang in the biker’s head like a bell.

The road became rougher and Gabby had to cling to Alex with every bump and dip. She would have sworn the biker was trying to pitch her off the bike. Fewer lights were visible now, more stars appeared. This road was not lit at all, and approaching headlights spaced out, fewer and further between. Gabby wondered where she was being taken, but wouldn’t have been heard over the engine, so she kept her mouth shut.

The road added turns to the bumps. Gabby relaxed as she realized that Alex’s body communicated her intentions. When Alex’s weight shifted, so did Gabby’s. The biker was shocked to feel that this “dumb” kid was reading her so clearly, so she gunned the engine, edging the speed up on the tight corners, pushing the edges of her skill. Gabby closed her eyes and allowed the biker to move her. The motion took on an unreal quality, like being on a tossing ship. She breathed deeply, allowing the bike to move underneath her, while keeping her center still.

Finding herself unable to rile her young shadow, Alex eased up. Now that Gabby had relaxed, Alex was able to feel her body shifting, her face, breasts and groin warm on her own back. Alex’s breath came a little quicker as she felt hands brush her own ribs on every bump. At a large pothole, Gabby’s hands momentarily disconnected then landed high on Alex’s chest. As they slid down, Alex gasped, feeling them run over her nipples, hard under the silk and leather she wore.

Gabby could feel herself getting warmer. She couldn’t help noticing the feel of Alex’s body, hard and firm between her legs. And she felt when the biker caught her breath. And she could feel the biker’s excitement under her hands, as she fumbled for a new grip. Now that she no longer feared being thrown off the bike, she was able to feel the thrumming engine underneath her, the strong legs in front of her own, the slim waist. Gabby sighed, leaning into the back before her.

Alex almost closed her eyes. She fought to stay alert, feeling Gabby mold her breasts against her own back. She could feel the energy this young woman was generating and she couldn’t stop herself from responding. Not that she wanted to. This is what they always meant when they said they wanted “a ride.” Again, Alex smiled, a little less coldly, remembering other nights, other bodies pressed against her own. She shifted slightly in her seat, pushing herself closer to Gabby’s groin. She smiled again as she felt the young woman push herself forward.

Gabby sat, letting the feelings wash over her like water. She was feeling giddy – maybe it was too much air, or beer, or relief from the tension she felt while fighting off Smoky. *Or maybe,* she admitted, *this is what I wanted all along.* Her hands were cold, from the wind, from her own nervousness and it was getting difficult to keep a tight grip on the slick leather jacket. It was obvious to Gabby that Alex knew perfectly well what she was thinking, what she desired. Clearly this mysterious woman had had experience in more than just riding a motorcycle. Gabby decided that since she had been nothing but foolish since she met Alex, one more stupid mistake wouldn’t kill her.

Taking a breath, Gabby found the belt that circumvented Alex’s waist, holding her jacket tight. She quickly unbuckled it, thanking the maker of big buckles. She slipped her cold hands underneath the leather and encountered the smooth softness of silk. She could feel hard muscles under the material and ribs, but she couldn’t bring her hand around to the front, the jacket was still too close to Alex’s body.

Alex, feeling Gabby pulling at the belt began to slow the bike. She allowed the younger woman to slip her hands underneath the jacket, and didn’t move as those hands felt around. When the hands stilled, Alex slowed again, and pulled the bike into a straighter path along the road. She reached up and unfastened the snaps at her collar, then unzipped the jacket. The warm night air was cooled by their motion through it, but it was not yet cold, even on this hill. Nonetheless, Alex could feel her skin ripple with goose bumps.

Gabby flattened her hands against the taut stomach as the leather jacket was loosened. When it came open she smiled, an old, knowing smile. Slowly, she let her hands retrace the path they had taken when she had lost her grip. When her hands reached Alex’s breasts, she held her breath and let them slide once again across the silk surface. The biker shuddered as two hands played across her breasts, already hard with anticipation and cold air.

Alex slowed the bike and pulled over into a quiet copse off the road. There was no sound, except that of the night animals and birds. Not a car could be seen, and lights from the nearest towns seemed distant and unreal. Gabby didn’t move, but Alex did, pulling her hands away, dismounting and taking her helmet off in one smooth motion. The biker walked a few steps away, forcing Gabby to follow her.

“Alex…” Gabby’s voice was harsh and dry. The tall biker turned and faced the younger woman. With an angry rush she grabbed Gabby and pulled her close. Her kiss was forceful, intrusive and unavoidable. Gabby tried to pull her head away, but Alex gripped her hair and held Gabby where she stood, crushing her lips. Eventually Alex let Gabby go with a slight push. Gabby turned away, her eyes filling with tears. For a moment she had thought that Alex had softened, but she saw now that she had been wrong.

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” Alex’s voice was mocking. Gabby walked away from the road edge, towards the treeline. She turned and saw Alex standing at the road’s edge, looking out into the darkness, a dark silhoutte in the night.

Drawing a shuddering breath, Gabby said, “I’m sorry. You were right, I shouldn’t have come.”

“No.”

Gabby began to get annoyed. “I said you were right, what more do you want?”

“I mean, no, you were right. I mean, you weren’t wrong.” Alex stood where she was, helmet in one hand, still looking out. “I mean, I’m sorry, I don’t want to hurt you.”

Gabby walked back, tracing her steps, until she stood behind the biker. “What do you mean? You have every right to be annoyed. You told me to go away…and I didn’t.” The hurt began to fade as her curiosity got the better of her.

“I didn’t tell you that to protect you. I said it to protect myself.” Alex spoke tersely.

“What?” Gabby was completely confused.

“Gabby, you’re a good person and you’re…” pause, “you are very beautiful. And I think I could get used to being around you.” Alex lowered her head. “But I can’t do that. I’m a loner. I do things that could get you hurt. So you…so *I* have to stay away from you.”

As Alex spoke, Gabby drew closer, inexorably. At the last words, she laid a hand on Alex’s arm. She couldn’t see the woman’s face, but she could feel her tension, her sadness, her isolation.

“What kind of things?” Gabby finally broke the silence. “Why do you do them?”

Alex turned towards the younger woman and gaped. “What?”

“Why do you do dangerous things? Why is everyone in a bar full of thugs afraid of you?” Gabby had to know, she felt that she had to understand.

Alex stood for a moment, then grabbed Gabby by the hand. “Come with me,” She said harshly.

 

Chapter 17

 

She walked towards the cliff, leading Gabby off the edge. Before she could even resist, Gabby felt her feet meet a path that lead downwards at an angle. Alex walked ahead of her, down and to the right. Gabby stumbled, but stayed on her feet. When Alex stopped it was before a dark hole in the mountain’s side.

“A cave?” Gabby couldn’t stop herself from stating the obvious.

“Sometimes I want to be alone.” Alex said. She pulled out a lighter and bent down. Gabby followed her into the cave. A few steps in and it widened out, an they were both able to stand. Alex led her to the right again, underneath the mountain itself. There, just out of sight of the cave mouth was a fire pit. Alex stooped and lit the tinder that lined the bottom of the pit. In a few moments a small fire crackled firmly. Alex sat on the blanket she spread and motioned Gabby to follow her.

They sat for a long time and Gabby thought her question had been forgotten. Then Alex stirred and she began to speak.

“There was a time in my life that was not particularly good, Gabby. I ended up smuggling in some drugs, because I needed money. It was pretty easy, actually and I began to do it fairly regularly. I didn’t do the drugs, of course. I just wanted the money. One of the trips went bad. I got involved in a fight and ended up beating someone pretty badly. My reputation soared and so did my profits. I kept this up for several years, until I was pretty much a small drug lord, of sorts. There’s alot of guns and drugs and other illegal stuff among bikers – it’s a pretty steady business. I made my money and walked away, never thinking about it. I can’t tell you what exactly happened, but one day I began questioning what I was doing. I had no home, no friends. I hadn’t seen my family in years. All I had was my bike and my money. And fear. I had plenty of that – the fear I felt, wondering when I might be killed or busted. And the fear others felt for me. I did have some associates and lieutenants, and they feared me too.

“Anyway, one day I had to shoot someone. It wasn’t the first person I had hurt, but this kid was just that. Maybe he was 14, 15 years old. And I had to shoot him. I couldn’t do it. My second in command blew a gasket when I let the kid go, ranting about the costs of shutting down the operation and starting up somewhere else…I knew, at that moment, I was a dead woman. My second had too much power – I didn’t have enough. He had me beaten and thrown out. And all I had, then, was my bike.

“At first I had to run. Most of the people who had worked for me figured I’d roll over on them and it took me a while to convince them I wouldn’t. Some of them were pushed out by the people coming in behind them, some by me. It took a long time and I had to do some pretty harsh things. By this time it was self-defense, but the cops don’t care about that.”

Gabby felt a chill crawl up her spine and she shivered. Alex looked at her and shrugged out of her leather jacket. She draped it over Gabby’s shoulders, crossed her booted feet and poked at the fire.

Gabby pulled the jacket closer. She could smell leather, and Alex. “What did you do?” She asked.

“I tried to make up lost time. I saw friends, helped some people I had hurt, or tried to…”

“And in your spare time you rescue store clerks from kidnapping attempts?”

Alex gave Gabby a small smile. “It was just good timing. I had heard about the girl who disappeared, so I was around.”

“And where wil you go?” Gabby’s voice was small.

Alex stared at the fire. “I don’t know. Around. I travel. That’s what I do.”

Gabby looked at the dark-haired woman before her. She pulled herself closer, for the warmth, she told herself. Without knowing why, one hand reached out and touched one high cheekbone, tracing the line down to the jaw. And without knowing why, Alex closed her eyes and leaned into it.

Gabby let the jacket slip, reaching out to touch Alex, her face, her neck. The biker let her, letting her head fall backwards. Gabby slid over, pulling herself in to the embrace of strong arms. Alex looked down at Gabby, her blue eyes soft.

“I can’t stay here.” Alex began, but Gabby quieted her with a kiss. Alex let herself be swept away by the emotion and passion within her. All her rage was gone, all her self-doubt. All she felt was desire. And something else, something she couldn’t define. It had a measure of respect, for Gabby’s tenacity, her strength, her kindness. But there was something else. She’d figure it out later.

Gabby returned Alex’s passion with a fire that surprised herself. She had dated, she had even slept with a few men, but she had never felt this overwhelming sensation of need, of passion, before. She returned her hands to the exploring that had been interrupted on the bike. Once again, she brushed the soft silk with her fingertips. Gabby’s lips pressed the area at the base of Alex’s neck firmly, until a moan escaped from between soft red lips.

Alex grabbed Gabby firmly and kissed her hard. She kissed Gabby until neither of them could breathe. Their tongues touched corners of lips, tongue, teeth. They were breathing hard now, driven by the most basic of all needs.

Alex ran her hands underneath Gabby’s baggy T-shirt, seeking out flesh. She drew the shirt over Gabby’s head, sucking on the younger woman’s breasts through shirt, then bra, then nothing. Gabby couldn’t stop moaning. It felt as if this woman had 8 hands, each made of flame. Her tongue and teeth ran across Gabby’s nipples and Gabby had all she could to just breath. She pulled Alex’s dark head into her, clinching her, as Alex continued to suck on her.

Gabby kept running her hand through Alex’s dark tresses. They felt softer than the silk she wore. Alex was removing her own clothes without taking her hands off of Gabby. Gabby found herself kissing Alex, moving down the lean, lovely body and then found herself facing the junction of the biker’s legs, dark, mysterious, captivating. Before she could do more than stare, Alex lowered herself, working at the jeans Gabby wore. She assisted the biker to remove the garment. When she shimmied out of her pants, all Gabby wanted to do was rub her body along Alex’s. The feeling of skin against skin was almost more than the young woman could bear. Until the feeling of hands, then lips between her legs made Gabby cry out.

Alex was insatiable, kissing, biting, licking in every corner, every crevice. Gabby was so wet she felt as if something vital would surely melt right out of her. Again, she ran her hands through Alex’s hair, as the biker made her come. Gabby called out Alex’s name, and Alex began to moan as she sucked and licked at Gabby, wanting more, coaxing more out of her.

Gabby laid back, trying regain her breath, her abdominal muscles still tense, the rest of her body on fire. Alex lay her head on Gabby’s stomach, her face turned away. Gabby half sit up and ran her hands along the broad shoulders, the fine back. She rolled herself and Alex over until the biker lay beneath her. When Gabby’s fingers first worked the folds of Alex’s center apart, Gabby thought she had died. “So soft…” she kept saying until her words became unintelligible. Alex yelped when Gabby’s lips just brushed along her clit. Then moaned when the lips were followed by a probing tongue. Gabby sucked on Alex until the biker, yelling, came powerfully. Gabby wouldn’t stop, revelling in the feel of the biker’s body until Alex pushed her away with a laugh.

They rested on the blanket, Gabby laying her head on Alex’s arm. Alex held Gabby’s head with one hand and they fell asleep, each with vivid dreams of two women in a far-off land.

 

Xena and Gabrielle woke. Gabby’s head lay on Xena’s arm, the warrior’s hand cradling her head. She jerked a bit, remembering a dream she had had of Joxer dying, of a funeral pyre and a night of pain.

Xena’s eyes were immediately open and casting about for familiar items. Gabrielle could see her checking…Gabrielle, weapons, horse…. The bard chuckled. Xena saw green eyes laughing and her face softened with a smile.

“I had the strangest dream, Xena.” Gabrielle began. “You were in it, but you were dressed oddly. Not that you didn’t look great, mind you, but it was weird. All in black leather, not your old leathers, strange clothing.” The bard felt at a loss for words, for concepts that had no place in her life. “You rode a loud black thing, it was like a machine, but made of metal intead of wood or hide.”

“Yes,” said the warrior, her eyes lost in thought. “And you were in an odd kind of cloth. And the place was loud, with odd buildings. But the people were the same…brigands, warlords and bards.” Xena’s eyes met Gabrielle’s. They stared for a moment, realizing they had had the same dream. Xena’s head whipped around to see Dione sitting lazily on her divan, drinking wine. She held out two cups for her guests.

“Take them. It’s honeyed wine, with some herbs. It helps clear your head.” The women took the cups and drank.

Xena put hers down. “What happened? How did we dream the same dream?”

“And was it real? Was that the future I, I mean, we saw?” Gabrielle added.

Dione shrugged. “A possible future. The dreams we are given are an enigmatic gift. It is up to us to make of it what we will.” The Queen rose. “Take your time here. Rest, enjoy yourselves, relax. Tomorrow you shall be leaving.” And with that she smiled, kissed them both and turned to leave. At the door Dione turned back to them. “Thank you for accepting my gift.” And she left.

Xena sipped more wine. She gazed at the beautiful bard next to her, thinking of the turmoil in Alex’s soul. It was the same turmoil in her own. Death and destruction had been both their lots, and both times a light had come to them, to save them, to give them life. And both times it had been Gabrielle.

Gabrielle was remembering the feeling of seeing Xena for the first time. A tall woman, without armor or weapons had saved her life. In her dream this same woman had saved her again. *And again,* she thought, thinking of Hebe’s words…* And again.*

 

Epilogue

 

Dione stood once again in the entranceway to her kingdom. Xena held Argo’s reins, while Gabrielle checked their bags and supplies.

The Queen reached out and embraced Xena. “I cannot tell you how good it has been to have you here.” She ended the embrace, but held one of Xena’s hands. “You may not know it, Xena, but you are a different person from the one who came the first time, carrying death on her shoulders.”

“Thank you Dione. For saying so and for having us.” Xena smiled brightly at the Queen.

“And Gabrielle. If ever, in need or desire I can assist the Queen of the Amazons, you have but to ask.” Dione and Gabrielle embraced, as well.

“Queen Dione, I have the great pleasure of returning the offer. If, in need or desire, the Amazons can help you, just write to the Regent Ephiny in my name, or contact me. And thank you for your hospitality.” Gabrielle also kept one hand in Dione’s.

“I have thought a great deal about my “gift” to you yesterday and it has been given to me to understand that a prophecy was made to you before you arrived here.” Dione continued, gazing into each woman’s eyes. “I do not know what the dream means, but I was to remind you of “two slugs on a rock.” Both women looked startled at the Queen’s words. She laughed gaily at their obvious confusion. “Hebe did tell me she spoke of this to you?”

Gabrielle nodded, but Xena asked, “How did you know?”

“Oh, it’s really very mundane, Xena. Hebe’s my sister!” And she laughed at the look she received from the two women. Then they began to laugh, as well.

“I have one other pice of news to offer you before you leave. Gelonus tells me that Danaus will walk, even run again. His wound was not grave. I thought you’d want to know.”

Gabrielle let out a breath in relief. “Thank the Gods. I was worried.”

Dione nodded. “Of course you were. Hipassus tells me he is learning the double axe now, as he has acquired them from somewhere…Hermione sends her regards, she is staying with Danaus now.”

“How is Alcaeus?” Gabrielle asked.

“Alcaeus is…” Dione began.

“Alcaeus.” Xena finished with a laugh. “It was always what we said. Even in my army.”

Dione let go of their hands and took a step back. “Of Ioxus’ men, all but three have joined us, the others may still be lost in the mountains, so be careful…”

Xena mounted Argo and Gabrielle gripped her staff. They began to move along the canyon, back to the mountain pass.

“We will – and thanks.” Xena waved and turned away.

Gabrielle turned to see Dione, standing with one arm upraised, as she had been when they first met. Gabrielle waved and turned away. She jogged to catch up to Xena then walked alongside Argo. At the turn of the path, they turned, waved once again, then moved around the corner.

They traveled for a moment, then Gabrielle said quietly. “Two slugs on a rock, huh?”

“Looks like it,” Xena said, smiling.

“Good.” Gabrielle said.

 

The End (?)