Black Lily

Mystery and The Mask (Part 01)

DISCLAIMER: The characters of Gabrielle, Xena and Argo are the sole property of Universal/MCA and are used here with their tacit permission, as long as no one makes any money. Characters from the Greek myths are the property of all of humanity and should be respected as such. Any other characters are my copyright, so if you like them, ask nicely and I may let you use them.

This story is about two women in a relationship that does, at times, include sexual activity. You may want to take that into account, before you read it. You have been warned, so if you break any laws by doing so, its not my responsibility. There is also violence in this story. Xena is a fighter, with a big sharp sword – she can’t always use fish to stop an army.

This story takes place shortly after “One Against An Army,” which is not significant, it just places the timeline of the thing.

DEDICATION: This story is dedicated to several people. First to Patricia Ennis, without whom I’d still think fanfic was silly. (I’m shooting for a Silver Lath here. :-) ) Also to Missy Good who writes damn fine fanfic novels, and to all the other fanfic writers who write for other people, not just themselves. Also, to Pattie, and you know why.

If you enjoy this story, feel free to let me know at yuricon@gmail.com. If you don’t, I can’t really help you, can I?

 

 

The Mystery and the Mask

Chapter 1

 

Gabrielle stretched luxuriously and filled her lungs with air. Her companion, looking down on her from astride Argo, smirked.

“It’s a perfect day today.” Gabrielle said, as she filled her lungs again.

“Gabrielle…” Xena tried to interject, but the younger woman continued briskly.

“Sun is out, the air is fresh…”

“Gabrielle…” Xena tried again, but the bard ignored her.

“The birds are singing, the smell of spring is in the air…”

“Gabrielle!” Xena insisted. The bard looked up at the warrior questioningly, as if hearing her for the first time.

Smiling, Xena asked, “Perfect day? What about the burnt out village?”

Gabrielle shrugged, “We found a place for them to go, right? And you showed them where to hunt.”

“And the thieves that attacked us?”

Again the shrug. “We took care of them – and sent the reward to the people of the village.”

“And,” Xena continued, her smile broadening, “what about the family with the plague?”

Gabrielle’s smile widened, as well. ” What about them? You knew where to get medicine, and made sure they’d get it.” She caught her companion’s eyes. “Admit it, Xena, this was a perfect day.”

Laughing, Xena nodded. “OK, Gabrielle, you win. Today was as good as they get.” She smiled down at the bard, but her mercurial moods shifted quickly and she looked the bard over with quick, accurate assessment. “This is a hard life, ” she began, but Gabrielle interrupted.

“If this is another ‘You should go back’ speech…” she warned the warrior. “Is this even a question anymore? After what we’ve been through?” her voice rose, a little harsh.

“No, no!” Xena reassured, “I was just proposing a little rest. Even doughty warriors such as yourself must want a few days off.” She smiled again, to take the sting out of her words. Gabrielle still looked wary, but relaxed, confident, ready for whatever Xena should suggest. “Didn’t you tell me you had an idea for a vacation?”

Gabrielle stood erect and grinned sheepishly. “I didn’t think you had heard me. I thought you were sleeping. I don’t know *what* I was thinking…” she shrugged, amazed again at the endless awareness of her companion.I can’t imagine what I was thinking. She probably reads minds, too. And she smiled suddenly at this thought.

Xena, eyes sparkling with mischief said, “Yes, I do that too. I do have many skills,” and laughed as the bard stopped short, and stood like a rabbit caught in torch light. The bard relaxed, but only slightly.

Xena regarded her with anxious eyes, thinking she may have pushed the younger woman too far. No young girl anymore, the warrior thought. She’s become a beautiful woman, one that could save the world, if the world wished to be saved. Xena thought back on the last year, the trouble they’d been through, the death of their children, Gabrielle dying in her arms… even now, her throat closed, tears sprang to her eyes and she had to shut them against the harsh glare of the sun. She felt the touch of her companion’s hand, gently laid on her leg. Her eyes opened to meet the green eyes of the bard, sad, wise and open. No words passed between them, none were necessary.

Gabrielle’s soft voice broke their silence. “I think a vacation would be a great idea. We don’t have anywhere we have to be, particularly, do we?”

Xena shook her head, clearing her throat against all the emotion that threatened to choke her, images of a dying Gabrielle still fresh in her mind. “No, uhm, no. I told King Gregor we’d come by for the harvest festival, but that’s months away.”

Gabrielle looked thoughtfully at her companion, and Xena was surprised to see how much that gaze encompassed. She’s learned alot, hasn’t she? I can’t hide anything from her anymore, can I? Not that I’d want to. And the warrior smiled, watching the twinkle return into the green eyes that regarded her.

“No, you can’t hide anything anymore.” Gabrielle laughed and wheeled away from the warrior, catching the surprised expression on Xena’s face in her peripheral vision. The expression quickly turned into that oh-so-famous smirk, as the warrior nudged her horse into a walk that quickly caught up with the bard’s brisk step.

“I guess you have many skills too.” Xena smirked down at the smaller figure, who was silently laughing. Gabrielle threw back her head and brushed the red-gold hair from her face. Xena watched the motion and regarded the younger woman with appreciative eyes. I still don’t believe this. Every day I wake up and I still don’t believe that this is not a dream. This woman loves me…and I love her. She shook her head against the cobwebs in her brain. “So, tell me, O Skilled One, what were your plans for this vacation?”

Gabrielle was instantly bouncy. She looked up, smiling like a child with candy.

“Well, I was thinking,” she said, ” We travel around anyway. I like that part – meeting new people, seeing new places.” she looked up at Xena, watching for a reaction, “But we don’t get to sightsee much.”

“What?” the warrior looked puzzled. “Sightsee? You mean, like standing on line to see the “Wonders of Athens”?”

“Well, yes.” Gabrielle hurried on, “I mean, I’m not saying we should join a tour or anything, but wouldn’t you like to see things in the towns we go to, instead of just saving them and moving on?”

Xena was thoughtful. “I never really thought about it. When I was a warlord, well, towns and villages were just…prey.” She swallowed hard, not looking at Gabrielle. “If they were big towns, with nice places to visit, it just meant they were wealthier and mostly better protected. Now, we’re usually so busy cleaning up after one warlord or God or another that I’ve never really had time to notice where we were.”

“Then it’s settled.” Gabrielle stated confidently. “We both need a vacation. We’ll keep traveling and when we get to a town or nice spot, we’ll stop and take a look at the sights.” Gabrielle stopped walking. Seeing Xena preparing to resist, she took a firm tone. “Xena, I need this and *you* need this.” She lifted her hand to still any protests. “I know you don’t care about the beauty of nature, or the arts people create for themselves.” Her voiced dropped again, “You’ve taught me alot. About confidence, about taking care of myself and others. Let me teach you about beauty.” She reached her hand out for Xena’s. The warrior took the hand in hers and held it tight.

“You’ve already done that, Gabrielle. You’ve taught me more about beauty than anyone else could have in a lifetime.” Xena smiled into her companion’s eyes. “For you, I will become a tourist and look at the sights.” Seeing Gabrielle about to exclaim, she held up one hand. “On one condition – no temples.”

Gabrielle laughed. “Okay, I accept the condition. We see enough of the Gods, I don’t think we need to provoke them.” She reclaimed her hand and walked on, as Argo again began to walk at a leisurely pace.

Gabrielle took a deep breath. “It’s a perfect day, isn’t it?” she asked innocently.

A laugh from behind her then, “Yes, Gabrielle. I suppose it is.”

 

Chapter 2

 

The pair stood on a low hill, just outside the demesnes of the town. They watched the pattern of wagons, riders and pedestrians entering and leaving, laden and empty, grouped and alone, for a long time.

“Tell me what you see.” Gabrielle looked at the taller woman. Her silence had been so complete, so *thick* that the bard knew she was thinking, planning.

“Hmm?” Xena distractedly turned her eyes away from the walls.

“You’re casing the town, aren’t you?” Gabrielle asked calmly. Seeing Xena start, she went on smoothly, her voice even, soothing. “Tell me what you see.”

“Gabrielle…” Xena began, then stopped, at a loss for words.

“Is it that hard? I mean, to talk about it? You don’t have to, it’s just that I want to understand you, know how you think.” Gabrielle touched the warrior’s arm lightly, a soft presence that filled the dark woman next to her. Xena shook her head.

“No, it’s not that. There will be no more lies, no more half truths between us.” She turned to the bard and let her eyes fill with the image of her companion. “I just don’t even know I’m doing it. But you’re right – I am “casing” the town. Judging the preparations against assault, provisions, weaponry, that kind of thing.” Once again, she fell into a reverie. Gabrielle waited, then the warrior spoke.

“Do you see that river?” Xena pointed. Gabrielle nodded. “Do you see how it enters the walls, across the corner of the town there? Well, there has to be a breach in that wall to let the water in.”

“So there’s a way in, under the wall?” Gabrielle asked, caught up in the analysis.

Xena gave a curt nod, all warlord. “But the entrance will be guarded. It probably runs straight into the magistrate’s home here. But,” she put up a hand to stall her friend, “if it enters the town, it also has to leave. Most places built with a fresh water source have two uses for it.” She waited for Gabrielle to think about it.

“A sewer!” The bard exclaimed. The river would carry all the town’s waste outside the walls.” Xena smiled a hard smile.

“Exactly. They won’t guard that side too well.” Gabrielle grunted in agreement.

“So, if you were planning an attack…” The bard led the taller woman on.

“Then I’d send a force in through the breach at the sewer’s exit.” Xena nodded again. “Let’s go to the gate, we can continue this closer to the town.” She hesitated. “If this isn’t making you uncomfortable.” Xena threw the bard a sidelong glance. Gabrielle, she thought, looked positively glowing with interest. Strange. As a warlord, this exercise was a matter of life or death. I’ve never thought of this as being…interesting. Xena gave an internal shrug.

As they made their way down the hillside, Gabrielle continued to question her partner, about sending in a reconnaissance force, about collecting information for strategic planning. Amused now, Xena cocked an eyebrow.

“Why do you want to know all this?” she asked, with a smile.

The bard shrugged, “It’s part of you. I want to know about you.” She held on to the arm that was not holding Argo’s lead. “And I think it will make me a better storyteller. No bard ever has enough details to work with.” Gabrielle’s smile was radiant in the early light. “*And,* it gets you talking.” She laughed. “Do you realize how *much* you’ve been doing the talking? It’s a nice change.” She had to bite her lip not to giggle at the surprised look on her lover’s face.

 


 

They reached the gates and stood off to the side of the road, once again watching the traffic. Xena pointed with her chin,

“D’ya see the battlements? Count how long in between seeing a guard at each crenelation. Check out the condition of the gate hinges – see how they are rough, weathered? You can see small details that haven’t been fixed in both wall and gate. I bet they haven’t closed this gate in years. And all the small problems would take no time to fix, but most likely they’ve no money to fix them. If the governor feels safe, so do the merchants. They want taxes to go down – who cares if the guard tower needs new masonry?” Her eyebrow shot up again. ” A fat town, well worth the taking. They wouldn’t know what hit them.” Her voice had lowered towards the end. Looking sheepish, she eyed her companion, who was standing, one hand on hip, one on her Amazon staff, looking rather archly at the warrior. Gabrielle laughed at Xena’s expression.

“You can’t help it, can you?” She watched as the warrior relaxed a bit. “Don’t worry – I’m learning alot.” Gabrielle waved towards the gate. “Xena, did you ever scout for yourself or did you send people ahead?”

“Both, actually,” the ex-warlord stated plainly, “I couldn’t always trust my men, and warriors don’t always have good self-control in a soft town. Most importantly, women are nearly invisible, provided they don’t try to push the envelope.” She gestured to the both of them, taking in their garb and weapons. “Maybe I’ll show you one day.”

“Disguise being…”

“One of my many skills, yes.” Xena finished with a smile. “Let’s head in, and be prepared to play along if anything strange happens.” Gabrielle nodded and turned toward the open gate.

Xena walked right up to a small group of guards stationed at the near side of the gatehouse. She extended a hand and grabbed the arm of a grizzled soldier, whose face split into a nearly toothless grin at the sight of her.

“Petros, you old goat!” She exclaimed and slapped the soldier on the shoulder.

“I can’t believe my eyes! Is it really you?” Petros’s grin widened, but his eyes were reserved.

“Yes, Petros, old friend. It’s me.” Xena said quietly. She quickly turned to the other guards. “Are you going to introduce me?”

“Uh,” the old soldier took Xena’s arm, looking at her closely and drawing her slightly away from the others,” Is it true, what I’ve heard, what they’re saying about you?”

Xena’s eyebrow rose. “If they’re saying I’ve reformed, then yes. I’ve given up being a warlord.” The veteran relaxed his shoulders and breathed. Quietly he said, “I would have tried to stop you, if it wasn’t true.”

Xena clasped his arm with hers. “Then there’s one more reason to be glad it is.”

Petros squeezed her sword arm and led her back. “Boys, this here’s a friend of mine, she taught me damn near everything I know.” Xena’s eyebrow rose another notch.

“Petros, you know that’s not true. You were one of my first recruits, and one of the best. I wouldn’t have been around long if it weren’t for you.” She waved behind the old man’s back, gesturing for Gabrielle to come closer. The younger guards were shifting uncomfortably, not sure what to make of this formidable, but youn,g woman who was supposed have *taught* one of the oldest guards in their ranks.

Finally one of the younger ones couldn’t stand the pressure. “Who are you,” with emphasis on the word “you,” “to have taught our Petros? You could be his daughter!” He blurted. Petros laughed so hard he had to clear his throat and spit to the side.

“Boys, you’re looking at the baddest warlord of them all. This here is Xena, the Destroyer of Nations, the Warrior Princess.” He watched their reactions with amusement. The same one who had spoken out before broke through the small crowd and looked Xena up and down impudently.

He couldn’t be more than 18 winters or so, maybe younger, Xena thought. Her lips pursed, she watched this performance with a cold humor twinkling in her eyes.

“She looks pretty tame to me.” The young guard finally spat. Then his eyes reached hers and froze. He stopped breathing for a moment, caught full in the glare of the steely gaze that had brought men and gods to their knees. Then Xena released him with a laugh, a friendly laugh. The guards all released breaths they hadn’t realized they were holding. Petros was leaning on his spear and laughing fit to send him choking again. Gabrielle leaned insouciantly on her staff, smiling with pleasure. It’s amazing…I wasn’t even worried. I can tell when she’s joking, just by watching her posture, or her back muscles, the bard thought.

“I am pretty tame these days.” Xena admitted ruefully. “And this is the tamer.” She waved a lazy hand towards the younger woman standing slightly behind and to one side. Petros looked, blinked and looked again. Gabrielle introduced herself, but the old warrior didn’t respond.

“I said, ‘My name is Gabrielle. It’s a pleasure to meet you.’” The bard laughed. Petros blinked again and stammered.

“My apologies, young lady. Gabrielle did you say? The Bard of Potedaia? It’s you that’s spreading the word of Xena’ good works, aye?” At Gabrielle’s nod, Petros continued. “I’m sorry for gawking like a peach-fuzzed lad, but when Xena said her “tamer’ I was looking for a God, or a Hercules, no offense intended.” He looked at Xena’s face and the look that shot from Warrior Princess to Bard and made up his mind. Looking into Gabrielle’s face he said plainly, “But I see what I see and you’ve obviously rule this one with a hand of iron.” He waved towards Xena. This time his smile filled his whole face. “I’m glad for the whole of creation that you do.”

Xena nodded. “Me too.” And Gabrielle stood beside her friend as introductions were made. When the young guard who had questioned her was introduced as “Marcus,” only Gabrielle might have noticed the paleness under Xena’s tan. The warrior clasped arms warmly with the young guard and jested with all of them happily.

As the women took their leave of the guardpost, having agreed to be fed dinner by the 3rd guard division, the “Iron Eagles,” that night, Gabrielle looked askance at her companion.

“Let me guess,” she hazarded, “you were testing them for something, weren’t you?” Xena nodded, a bit distracted. Time passed and the warrior remained silent. Gabrielle waited, knowing the answer would come in time.

“That young Marcus, it…he…really shook me. Marcus…”

“Does he remind you of…him?”

“No. No, it’s not that. He reminds me of me, actually. He’s got something…something that I once had. A fire, a flame of independence that drove me.”

“And you’ve lost it?” Gabrielle inquired gently.

“No, it’s been changed.” she looked at Gabrielle and put her hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. “Like a raging forest fire to a forge’s flame. It’s been tempered, like a fine blade, altered and been made stronger, but more controlled.”

Gabrielle laid her hand over Xena’s and laughed. “Talkative, and now poetic. I’ll be out of business soon.” The warrior blushed slightly, then cleared her throat.

“And yes, I was testing them. For group cohesion, for leadership and to feel their hands.” Again the eyebrow rose, this time in intellectual challenge.

Gabrielle thought. “To feel their grips, see how calloused the hands were. To see how hard they’ve been training.” She finally stated. Xena beamed at her pupil.

“You know, Gabrielle, you would have made a fine warlord. you’ve got an analytical mind and a good eye for detail.” She ducked as Gabrielle lightly swung her staff in mock horror. “Okay, okay,” the warrior raised her hands in surrender. “No offense intended.” she laughed.

Gabrielle smiled. “None taken.” she paused. “Really? You think so?” she smiled at the thought. “Gabrielle, Warrior Princess.” Chuckling at the joke, Xena put her arm around the bard’s shoulder. The two women proceeded up the main street to look for lodging for Argo and a meal and bed for themselves.

 

Chapter 3

 

Once they had seen to Argo’s room and board, they stowed their gear in a room at the “Two Swans” – the unofficial home of the off-duty “Iron Eagles.” The Swans’ owner, a short, burly man named Tryon, had recommended a few sights at Gabrielle’s prompting.

Xena, hanging back asked plaintively, “Do we have to do this now? We just got here and…” she shrugged.

Gabrielle grabbed the warrior’s hand and pulled towards the door. “Come on, I had my lesson today, now you can have yours.”

The next few hours was taken up with visiting the magistrate’s palace to “see the fine architecture and carvings.” Gabrielle didn’t try to stop Xena from analyzing the palace’s defenses and was amazed to find that much of what appeared to be useless decoration, actually added to the building’s defense.

When they returned to The Swans for the evening meal, Gabrielle had already decided on the next days “sight.” To Xena’s amusement and horror, the bard had discovered the existence of a large library in town.

“Think of all the scrolls!” she exclaimed, gesticulating wildly.

Teasing, Xena asked, ” Don’t you produce enough of those yourself?” Gabrielle rounded on her to answer, but when she caught sight of the warrior’s face just stopped and giggled.

“I guess I do at that. But the stories – and then I could try to tell some, maybe even here at The Swans. And we can use the money.” She looked up at her partner.

Xena smiled down at her. “I’d do anything to hear you tell a story – even go to a musty old library.”

 


 

The ale and cider at The Swans turned out to be better than the food, but the bread was fresh and the food was hot. Petros and Marcus came in early on and led the introductions. During and after the meal, the conversation was good-natured ribbing, typical soldiering banter, with many a “Sorry, Miss,” directed at Gabrielle after particularly juicy stories. After a while she couldn’t take it.

“Will you all PLEASE stop apologizing?” She slammed her mug down hard.

Silence fell for a moment, while the soldiers all tried to think of a way to apologize for apologizing, without apologizing. The bard laughed to see the consternation on their faces. She also thought it was interesting that no one ever apologized to Xena. Guess they figure she can take it, the bard thought. Well, I’ll show ’em that I can, too. She stood up and cleared her throat. Xena settled back against the wall, to watch the audience and performer from behind lidded eyes.

“Being as I am a Bard, and as I am your guest, I thought the least I could do is tell you all a story.” Universal acclaim in the form of a roar sounded throughout the Swans’ main room. “And I think I have just the tale for you.” She proceeded to tell one of the most vulgar stories she knew, involving two centaurs, a nymph and an enchanted broom. Before long the soldiers were laughing hard enough to send tears down their cheeks. At the end of the tale, she took her bows to a standing ovation, calls for drinks to be served to her and hard claps to her shoulders and back. From that point on, no more apologies were made.

“Well,” Xena commented dryly as the bard returned to the table, “you’re one of the guys now.” Gabrielle nodded as she gulped air. A particularly enthusiastic back slap had nearly knocked her breathless. “I had no idea…” the warrior continued, smiling.

“What,” gasped Gabrielle, in between sips of cider,” did you think I did as a bard? I don’t just tell heroic epics, you know.” She grinned. “Honestly, I wasn’t sure I had it in me, either. ” She looked away from Xena’s admiring gaze, to see Marcus shyly approaching. He stood without fidgeting, but he radiated embarrassed discomfort.

“Um, Miss, uh, Gabrielle. I just wanted to let you know that I thought the story was wonderful.” Gabrielle quickly swallowed her mouthful and put the cup down, without visibly choking.

“Thanks Marcus. It’s just Gabrielle, by the way. Wonderful, huh? I’ve never heard it called that before.” She grinned evily at him. He didn’t back away or blush, but just stood as if waiting to be given orders. Xena nudged the bard gently, shrugging her shoulders almost imperceptibly. Gabrielle saw the ex-warlord mouth the word “crush.” and leer at the bard. Gabrielle mouthed the words “no, you” and looked back at the young man and changed her smirk to a friendly smile.

“Won’t you join us, Marcus? We don’t bite, I promise.” She stepped back, over the kick Xena aimed for her shin. The guard sat down and looked from one to the other, still waiting. Xena pushed off the wall and leaned forward, catching the soldier’s eye.

“What can we do for you Marcus?” Xena asked plainly. The boy looked quickly from Gabrielle to Xena, as if weighing the two faces.

He finally turned to Xena and looked her square in her eyes. He held himself stiffly, as if to guard against flinching and said, “I’m sorry, for before, for my behavior. I didn’t believe you. That you were really who you were. If there’s anything I can do to make it up…” He let the sentence trail off.

Xena nodded. “Consider it forgiven. There’s a lot of people who would have done worse than you did.” She extended an arm. “And any friend of Petros is a friend of mine. Deal?” He nodded and brightened, taking her hand. “As a matter of fact there is something you can do. Tell us about the town. You were born here, am I right?” He nodded again. “Then tell us what you know. Who lives here, who does what, where to go for what kind of goods. You know, the gossip.” Marcus looked a little surprised at this, but grinned shyly.

“And any good stories from around here.” Gabrielle added eagerly.

“Oh, well, for stories, you have to go to the Library. Have you been there yet?” Marcus enquired. When the women shook their heads, he continued gravely, “But there’s a price to get in, I’ve heard. And the Guardian, well, I’ve heard she’s weird.”

Gabrielle cocked her head. “Weird? In what way? Dangerous? What kind of price?”

Marcus shook his head. “I don’t know, I’ve never been there. All I’ve heard is rumours, y’know?” He looked around. “The guys say the Library is guarded by a monster, six feet tall, with fangs.”

Gabrielle laughed, “Oh, is that all? We’ve dealt with that kind before.” She turned to catch the amused glint in her partner’s eyes.

Marcus was still grave. “I can tell you this – don’t go out to the ruined temple. You’ll hear about it, it’s just outside the city. There’s a real monster there, one that has killed heroes before. Every once in a while someone shows up who says he’s going to kill the monster. He never returns. And girls that get lost in that direction never come back either. That’s how we know the monster eats virgins.” His eyes were somber. “I had an older cousin when I was little that disappeared in that area. We found the basket she was carrying, but we never found her.”

Xena thanked the young man for the warning. Her eyes lifted to see one of the guard captains approaching. He looked a little unsteady, and alot unfriendly. Petros had introduced him as Lycurgus. Xena thought that the name was apt, this man had some of the wolf in him. His eyes were small, dark and canine.

“So, Marcus. polluting yourself with vermin already? I knew you were a loser.” He clapped an unpleasant beefy hand on the boy’s back, shoving him roughly into the table. A few of the guards who had been stationed with Marcus at the gatehouse rose and made their way to the table. As they approached, Xena silently waved them off. Petros intercepted and kept them back away from the unpleasantness that would soon erupt.

“What do y’have to say for yourself, warlord? D’ya think you can just waltz in here, buy a few of my men off with drinks and play your little war games? I know who you are, y’see. You’ve got a bad reputation and I think you need a lesson.” He leaned closer and closer into Xena as he spoke, pushing Marcus down onto the wooden slab. The boy edged out from underneath the large hand.

“I’m not your man, Lycurgus. You know that. Most of us aren’t. Why don’t you go back to “your men.” They’re all in the dungeon – where they belong.” Marcus spat angrily. The rough hand swung around to backhand the boy, but a smooth arm intercepted and held the captain’s hand. He struggled, but the hand was turned, and slowly, inexorably, twisted. Xena rose as she turned the hand back on itself and the wolfish man was forced to his knees. She held the hand firmly as she stepped over the trestle and stood before Lycurgus. He was sober enough to not attempt to move, saving his sword arm from permanent wreckage.

“I may need a lesson, Lycurgus, but the boy doesn’t. Apologize to him.” When the burly soldier hesitated, she tweaked the wrist a little further away from his elbow, nearly dislocating the joint.

“I’m, I’m s-s-sorry, Marcus. Didn’t mean to hurt ya.” Lycurgus mumbled.

“That’s better. Now, this is between you and me, got it?” She let go of the captain’s arm and let him rise. “If you want your pound of flesh, now’s your chance.” The landlord bustled into the room, followed by the two servers, who had undoubtedly given the alarm.

“I don’t want trouble, ma’am…” Tryon began, but Xena cut him off.

“There won’t be any. Will there?” She asked Lycurgus. Sulkily he stood, rubbing his arm. He looked at her with anger, then annoyance and finally disgust.

“Nah. There’ll be no trouble. Not tonight, not ever.” He turned smartly and left the inn.

“Did I just miss something?” Gabrielle asked. She was sure the beefy captain was going to try and trick Xena now, or ambush her later – two tactics that had been often tried, but had never worked before. But for him to give up…?

Petros raised his voice over the mutters of the other guards. “You probably did, young lady.” To Xena he said, “That was the finest bit of discipline I’ve ever seen. You have changed. The old Xena, now..” he tapered off. Turning back to the bard, “What you saw was one professional to another. A green soldier would want to get revenge, but Lycurgus, he’s been doin’ this a long time. He knows the value of a strategic retreat.” At this the rest of his companions laughed and Petros smiled his gap-toothed grin.

“You saw his face? He was thinking, ‘I’ll trick her into thinking I’m leaving and hit her,’ but then he thought about how fast she had reacted. Then he thought, ‘I’ll leave and get her later,’ but then he thought about how she turned his own attack back on himself. By then he was disgusted with himself and the whole scene. He knew he’d get no support from us, and he could feel how strong Xena is, so he gave in.”

“He saved face and his ass.” One of the other guards quipped. This got a good laugh. Gabrielle was still thoughtful.

“What did you mean,” this to Marcus, “that all his men are in the dungeon?”

The young man looked at his compatriots and waited for Petros to come over and sit down. The grizzled veteran gestured for more ale to be served and began a tale.

“A little while back, some of our men,” with emphasis on the “our,” “noticed the quality of the food was gettin’ worse. And the fletching on the arrows wasn’t true. Stuff like that. To make a long story short, it was a big bunch of Lycurgus’s men that were involved. No one ever suggested that he had anything to do with it, and I don’t think he had.” Petros took a gulp of the fresh ale. “He’s a meathead, but an honest one.” A quick grin.

“No, what happened was a few of the merchants had made deals with the men under Lycurgus’s command, and they were skimming money off the supplies both ways. When Lycurgus heard he was right livid. He dragged his own men out of their beds and force-marched them around in full gear until most of them had passed out on the ground from exhaustion. He led the investigation himself, and took each one of the perpetrators to the dungeon himself. So he’s got half a command, and a big problem.” He paused for another sip.

Xena pursed her lips, “Something to prove?” Petros nodded.

“But he’s not stupid, y’know. He wasn’t just picking a fight tonight.” He turned to the younger soldier. “Lad, go fetch me some of that herb I like. I’ve got an urge t’ smoke.” He clapped the boy on the shoulder in thanks. Leaning closer to the two women, he spoke quietly. “I didn’t want him to hear this – he still longs for a good fight. Doesn’t know what a mess war is. I’m assuming you know all about the past?” He looked at Gabrielle meaningfully. She returned his gaze evenly, giving a slight nod. Xena’s eyes narrowed, but she said nothing.

“Lycurgus lost his family in one of our raids, see.” Xena’s eyes never wavered from the old man’s. “I was there, I remember it, too. One of the last.” The soldier’s eyes dropped before the blue and green clear, open gazes before him.

“His family?” Xena asked quietly.

Petros nodded.” His parents, and a brother. His wife was taken as a slave. There was never word of his children.” Xena’s eyes still bore into his own, burning a hole into his head. She darkened, thinking of the men under her command, those that had betrayed her and defied her orders not to harm the innocent.

“And now?” Gabrielle inquired, “Is he still alone?”

“No, no, he’s married again, with three children. All beautiful and healthy, taking after their mother as they do. Ah, my thanks, Marcus, m’boy.” he took the pouch from the young man happily and busied himself for a few moments with the rituals of lighting and smoking.

They spoke of inconsequentials for a few more hours, filling the time with local gossip and information. Eventually, the soldiers repaired to their barracks and the two women headed gratefully upstairs to bed.

 

Chapter 4

 

“What a day!” Gabrielle exclaimed as she removed her travel-worn clothing. They had warmed water on the fire for a quick bath and she was more than ready to put on a loose linen shirt and get to bed.

As the folds of material slid down her arms, she felt the sensation of two firm hands sliding under the linen and cupping themselves along her ribs. Long fingers met across her flat stomach and strong arms pulled her backwards. She relaxed into the warmth of her lover’s body against her back. Sighing, the bard stood for a few moments and then turned within the arms that held her. She looked at the blue eyes, the chiseled features and the dark hair, all shadowed from the candlelight. Then her eyes fell of the warrior’s full lips, and she lifted her head, pulling the taller woman down to meet her. Their kiss was long and slow. When they finally broke free of one another, Gabrielle was able to see that Xena had already changed into a linen shirt of her own. She laughed to see the formidable warrior looking so different, so…soft. The bard let her hands trail through the older woman’s hair.

“It has been a long day.” Xena arched an eyebrow, “So if you want to get some rest…” The remainder of the sentence was muffled by the application of another kiss. Once again they separated briefly and Gabrielle sighed, laying her cheek on the warrior’s chest.

“I know we’re alone together most of the time. But on days like today, I feel as if I haven’t seen you.” she sighed again and squezeed Xena’s hard body tightly. Looking up at her lover she saw a dark flush creep over Xena’s face. Lust or anger? The bard asked herself, but she could see that the telltale signs of the latter were missing. When she’s criticizing herself, or thinking about the past, she always has that far off look. Lust then.And she giggled, making Xena start.

“What was that for?” inquired the warrior.

“I was just thinking of what I’m planning for you tonight.” the bard replied innocently.

“Oh?” the taller woman stepped back, letting Gabrielle’s linen shirt drop over her body. I wonder if she has any idea how magnificent she is. She talks about my muscles, my strength, but she should see her own,Xena thought as she admired the bard’s flat stomach and smooth skin.

“When was the last time we slept in a real bed?” the bard asked.

“Oh, I don’t know, a few weeks maybe?”

“Well, ” the bard exclaimed as she leapt backwards onto the mattress, “I plan on enjoying all the pleasures this one has to show me.” she held her hand out for the warrior, who took and stood by the side of the bed.

“Such as?” Xena asked, smiling. Gabrielle ran her hands under Xena’s linen shift, feeling the hard muscles, the ribs, the soft underside of her breasts.

“No rocks in my back, or yours. No dirt or bugs no…” the sentence trailed off. Gabrielle’s face disappeared under the linen. Xena could feel the bard’s lips play over her stomach, up her ribcage and following the wandering hands, under her breast. A tongue lightly tickled her at the sides, then the top, then gently carressed her nipple. She moaned as she felt Gabrielle draw her in, the bard’s hands cupping her, as the mouth continued to pull and lick at the breast. Xena moved closer to Garielle, standing in between her legs. The younger woman made love to her breasts, one at a time, then both, with her hands and her mouth.

Xena moaned, “Gabrielle.” and the bard’s face appeared from under the linen shrouding her. Hearing her name spoken so softly by the strong warrior, Gabrielle felt a flood of desire fill her. Her hands never stopped kneading, stroking the warrior’s breasts, but the lips kissed a trail up the shirt, then downwards towards Xena’s legs. With a smile Gabrielle slid her hands down, kneading the firm back muscles, then the buttocks, and sliding her hands around to the front again, she slid one hand in between her lover’s legs. Feeling the soft mound beneath her fingers, and Xena’s legs parting slightly to allow her access, Gabrielle felt a moan ripped out of her own throat.

Xena put her hands lightly on Gabrielle’s shoulders and pushed the young woman back. Then she kneeled, keeping her place btween the bard’s legs. Kissing her way from one knee to the other, the warrior’s tongue traced a path up the bard’s inner thighs, pushing the nightshirt ahead of her. When she arrived at the junction of groin and leg, she brought her hair forward, over her face and lightly brushed her head back and forth across the bard’s mound. Gabrielle ran her hands into her lover’s hair and held on, as the sensations began to overwhelm her.

“Xena, oh, Xena…” was all she could say. After an eternity, (but not long enough for the bard) Xena’s hands spread the bard’s vulva in front of her, rubbing lightly from inner lips to outer. She ran her tongue across the shell pink skin, normally hidden behind the golden curls. Gabrielle gasped again and again, as the tongue repeated its orbit. One of Xena’s hands broke free from the bard’s grasp, drawing her nails along the younger woman’s stomach and ribs. She let her hand drift behind the bard and lifted the smaller body up, drawing Gabrielle towards her. Her tongue kept to its rhythym, while her hands cupped the small butt that was tightening with increasing tension.

Xena freed her second hand and drew it across the bard’s pelvis, tracing labia with her nails. When she reached the center of the bard, she played her fingers in the wetness, drawing the feeling out, to lubricate Gabrielle’s clit, now swollen and visible. Then drawing her hand down again, to bring more moisture out, and spread it to the bard’s other hole.

As the finger traced around the rim of her ass, Gabrielle shuddered with the sensation. She could feel the quick flicks of Xena’s tongue, slowly, ever so slowly speeding up, and she ground herself into her lover’s face, her body begging for more. The bard could not speak, but kept repeating, “Please…” over and over to Xena’s amusement.

Without stopping either tongue or fingers, Xena asked, “What Gabrielle? Tell me what you want.”

“You..” the bard whispered.

Xena laughed. “Not good enough. What do you want me to do?” she teased her lover, playing around the edges of her orifices, front and back, smiling as Gabrielle maoned with desire and impatience.

“Go in me.” the young woman gasped. A finger, then two, filled her, moving in and out, finding all her corners, all her crevices. The bard’s breathing became raspy, uneven, as the intensity of each thrust increased. Xena returned her lips to the pearl in the center of Gabrielle’s mound, sucking and licking in a counter-rhythym to her hand’s ministrations. Xena pulled her lover close with her free arm, driving into Gabrielle with thrusts that forced the bard to breath in a series of hard gasps, in between groans. With a small yell, and Xena’s name repeated over and over, the bard grabbed the older woman’s hair and drew herself in hard as she climaxed. When her body relaxed, and the sensation subsided, she left her hands in Xena’s hair, stroking and carressing.

Xena pulled herself away, looking at Gabrielle, with her head thrown back and her face flushed with effort and pleasure.

“You are magnificent.” the warrior purred. She laid her head against Gabrielle’s red-gold curls and felt her lover’s body surround her with warmth.

Eventually, Gabrielle drew herself up and sat, Xena’s head still in her lap, looking down on this dark woman, this enigma who was her lover.

“No,” she said firmly, “You are magnificent. My glow is just a reflection of yours. Without you I’d just be a slave or dead. Or if I had been lucky, a small-town girl, a nobody.” She stroked the warrior’s face, noticing the small drops of moisture that collected at the edge of the blue eyes.

She lifted Xena’s face to her own and kissed her. The warrior pulled back.

“No, you’re wrong. Your light is your own. Dead you might have been, seeing as your stubborn as a mule, but never a nobody.” The ex-warlord drew the bard in for a playful nip on the lips and a kiss on the nose.

“My turn?” Gabrielle asked, as she tugged Xena’s nightshirt off the sleek body. “And keep your hands to yourself…” she warned, feeling those hands moving up her legs. The bard took Xena’s hand and laid her neatly out on the bed. As she climbed up into the warrior’s lap, she mumbled something, but Xena could not hear it. Gabrielle began to move lightly over the warrior’s mound, rubbing herself along Xena’s body. Immediately, Xena began to moan, and move her hips to catch as much friction as possible.

“Mmmm, wet…” Xena hissed, as Gabrielle increased the lengths of her strokes. The bard, held herself open and rubbed her wetness into her lover’s skin. When Xena was looking good and flushed, she lifted the warrior’s hands to her own breasts, holding them there for a moment. As Xena took over, rubbing and squeezing, the bard transfered her hands to the older woman’s breasts. For a long moment, they remianed joined, moaning and moving together. Dark head and red were thrown backwards in ecstasy.

Finally Xena gasped out, “Gabrielle, don’t let me…” The bard removed one hand and stuck it between her legs. She rubbed her own wetness onto Xena’s, mingling them as she played with the warrior’s clit.. Then her second hand came down and she entered her lover, hard and fast. Within seconds Xena was biting down on her lip, holding in a shout that would have brought the innkeeper for sure.

She exploded with a grunt and a sighed, “Oh Hades, Gabrielle…” lifting off the bed and collapsing with another sigh. Gabrielle remained where she was until the contractions had calmed and her own breathing was steady. Then she moved, laying down next to hwer lover and laying her head on Xena’s chest.

“I love to hear your heart beat after we make love.” she said simply. Xena’s arm curled around the small head, hair gleaming copper in the light. For a while they lay like that, then Gabrielle leaned up on an elbow to look at Xena.

” I’ve been wondering. You’re such a gentle lover – do you ever, you know, think about being…well, *meaner* to me? I mean, rough, when we make love?” she asked hesitantly.

“No.” the answer came quickly, vehemently. There was no elaboration. Gabrielle waited, but no explanation was forthcoming.

“Why?” she asked, without demanding. “I’m just curious.”

Xena lifted herself up on one arm to face the bard.

“There are three reasons, ” she began slowly. “The first is, well, it seems almost repetitive, but, Gabrielle, “she looked the bard in the face, “I did a lot of bad things as a warlord. Alot of things that…” the sentence trailed off. Xena’s eyes wandered.

“I did things to people that aren’t pretty. Some of them I did in the name of pleasure. Torture isn’t funny and it isn’t fun, but that’s what I did.” her eyes returned the clear gaze of the green eyes before her. “And I did enjoy it. That’s the problem.” She breathed deeply. “Two, I’m much stronger than you – much stronger than I was. If I did something to hurt you, even if we agreed about it, I’m not really sure how good my control would be…” Gabrielle put a hand on Xena’s arm. “…and I don’t want to find out the hard way.” Xena sat up and drew Gabrielle up as well. She held both the bard’s hands in her own.

“But the third reason, that’s the most important one.” she paused, thinking how to put this. “You remember when we met, how we met,” it was a statement, not a question. “I saw the slavers and I saw you. I mean, I had a vision of you, bound and chained, your spirit broken and your will gone. Every time you get captured, or kidnapped, when I see you bound, or gagged, or even hit – well, I go a little berserk. I see that vision, I…I lose my self-control, just a bit and want to kill everyone that would ever touch you, try to break you, misuse you. I want to kill them.

“It breaks my heart to see you tied up, or hurt in any way. We’ve gone through so much to stay together. We’ve gone through death and returned to life. I’m *not* going to be the one to tie you up or hurt you. I just couldn’t.” Xena’s head lifted from her chest to look at the bard. She saw twin trails of tears from Gabrielle’s eyes that mirrored the ones on her own face.

“Oh, Xena, I’m sorry…” the bard began, speaking past a dry throat. Xena’s hand reached out to stroke the bard’s face, while Gabrielle touched the warrior’s.

“I know, big, bad warrior I am, huh?” Xena joked through the tears. “A little thing like tying you up and I go all soft.” Gabrielle laughed. They were silent for a long time. The candles flickered, they heard wind blowing through the eaves.

Finally Xena took a shuddering deep breath. She pulled the bard close, and holding her, put her lips to the copper hair.

“However, ” she began softly, “That doesn’t mean *you* can’t experiment…” She waited for her words to sink in. Gabrielle stopped breathing, then looked up. There was, Xena thought an unusual and somewhat frighteningly excited look in her eyes.

“You mean…?” Gabrielle started, then leered. “Oh, so you trust me, do you?”

Xena pushed her away gently, smiling, “No! But I think I can take care of myself.”

Gabrielle stood up and retrieved their linen shirts, throwing one to Xena. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that, mighty Warrior Princess.” she quipped, but she let the subject drop, for now.

Sleep, when it was allowed to come, claimed them quickly and deeply.