DISCLAIMER: Xena Warrior Princess is the property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By Della Street
The warrior appeared at her bed without warning, tearing the sheet off the sleeping form, eyes devouring the young woman's exposed body. Gabrielle slowly brought her hands up beside her shoulders, surrendering, and then the Warrior Princess was making love to her. Conquering her. Hands and mouth everywhere, overwhelming her.
She exclaimed, and sizzling blue eyes gazed down at her, watchful. At any sign of fear or discomfort, the warrior would transform into a soft, gentle lover.
Gabrielle didn't want that at the moment. She gripped muscular shoulders and smiled encouragingly, and then the assault on her senses began again, building, climbing, until she cried out, endless sensation coursing through her.
"Gabrielle!" Xena's hand was clutching her shoulder now, shaking her . . .
She sat up and forced her eyes open. "What . . .?"
Four brown-haired, brown-eyed children, virtually identical except for the three years separating the oldest from his youngest brother, gawked at her. "Hey, Gabrielle, you were having a nightmare."
"Yeah. What was it about?" Four sets of bright eyes waited for a scary tale from the storyteller.
"Umm . . ., let me think."
"You were calling out for Xena. Was she rescuing you?"
"Xena. Well, yes, she, uh, had the situation in hand."
"What happened? Tell us."
Gabrielle searched her memory bank for a Xena story she hadn't told the little . . . tykes over the past three days. Maybe the one about -- nah, that'd probably give them nightmares of their own. She shouldn't. Even if they had interrupted a nice dream. A wonderful, sensuous dream . . .
She looked at their eager faces again, a slow grin spreading across her face.
Wayward strands of strawberry blonde hair fell across her eyes. "Idmgdts," she mumbled to herself. She plucked a nail out of her mouth, placing it carefully, and tapped at it with a hammer. "Ouch!"
"Gabrielle? You all right?"
"No problem. I'm on the last one." She pounded the nail in, then leaned back on her haunches, blowing stray bangs off her forehead.
Tyral scooted across the roof and crouched beside her. "Wow, not bad."
"I told you I have many skills."
"Well, you've certainly earned your keep the past few days. And it was really nice of you to stay with the kids last night. Hope they weren't a bother."
"Oh, no, I hardly noticed them."
Gabrielle rose, carefully maintaining her balance, and peered over the edge of the roof. Arms at her sides, she raised an eyebrow at the figure shouting up at her from below.
"Excuse me? Are you addressing me?"
"Yeah, you. I'm looking for a bard."
"I've been out on the road alone. I want a story."
"I usually get paid for telling stories."
"I'm a little strapped. I don't have any money."
The bard shrugged. "Sorry."
"What about a trade?"
Gabrielle cocked her head. "Maybe. I'll come down and see if you have anything I need." She handed the hammer to Tyral and made her way down the temporary ladder. As her feet touched the earth, she noticed that her customer had not moved, and stood waiting for Gabrielle to walk over. "Well. Some nerve!" she said, crossing the grounds.
"OK. What could you trade for a story?"
She shook her head. "I don't have a horse."
"Nope. Don't use 'em."
"Well, then, how about sexual favors?"
Gabrielle ran her eyes down the imposing form. "I don't know," she said.
"What I have in mind is a long . . . slow . . . drawn out . . . story. I would require comparable payment."
Her listener swallowed. "I've been on the road a long time. I really need a story."
Gabrielle stepped closer. "And I really need to tell you one. Right now."
She turned and walked quickly into the inn, Xena close behind her.
"Warrior Princess!" The women turned at the sound of a deep voice.
Xena paused, one foot on the stair behind Gabrielle. "Do I know you?"
The caller, half a head taller than Xena with unkempt black hair and beard, shifted his stance. "No, but I'll have a word with you."
"Later. Right now I want a bard."
"A bard, huh?" He looked Gabrielle over. "Why doesn't she tell us both a story?"
Xena's expression cooled. "I'm paying for a private performance. Come on," she said, touching Gabrielle's shoulder lightly.
"I have a message for you. From King Romir."
Xena stopped mid-stride and turned toward him, her eyes narrowing as she saw him hold up a small object. She headed back down the stairs, Gabrielle trailing behind her.
"My name is Milus," he said, dragging out a chair for her at a nearby table; Xena ignored it and pulled out her own. He chuckled and sat down, tossing the ring into the center of the table. Xena picked it up and and examined the crest closely; it was definitely Romir's.
She drew a chair out beside her. "What's the message?"
Milus directed an irritated look at Gabrielle as the younger woman sat next to Xena. "We have business to discuss," he said. "Send the girl on her way."
"What's the message?" Xena repeated. She glanced up to see the man's gaze still on Gabrielle, and slammed her hand down on the table. "I'm not going to ask you again."
"Romir says you owe him. Says you'll understand."
"What does he want?"
"His kingdom is under seige."
The messenger nodded. "They're lined up along the walls."
Xena smiled slightly. "Of course."
"Who's Turman?" Gabrielle's bright voice, sorely missed in three days on the road, was a welcome distraction.
Xena looked into inquisitive green eyes and laid a hand over Gabrielle's. "I'll tell you later," she said warmly, squeezing her fingers. Milus watched the two women, observing their interaction.
"Romir's in hiding outside the walls," he continued.
"How'd he get out?"
The stranger held his arms out. "I was there offering my services when Turman showed up. Romir took me up on the offer."
"How convenient for you," Xena said evenly.
"Don't think it, woman," he growled. "I take only one job at a time."
Tension built as the two warriors regarded each other. Finally, Xena nodded, satisfied. "What did you do with him?"
"I took him out over the wall and stashed him somewhere safe. Turman's missing a couple of men now."
"Where is he?"
Milus shook his head. "Nooo, I think I'll earn my pay on this one."
"I'm not interested in your money," Xena said. "I only want to repay my obligation to Romir. Tell me where he is; you can have the money."
"The Warrior Princess isn't interested in my money." He chuckled. "Well, I think I'll just keep that bit of information to myself anyhow."
Xena's reply was cut short by a dry cough, her throat parched from the dusty road.
"You need a drink," Gabrielle said. "I'll get you one."
The bard caressed Xena's hand and headed for the counter, followed closely by the newcomer's brown eyes. "Nice legs," he said roughly. "She spread 'em for anyone but you?"
Xena was up in a flash, twisting his arm behind him, shoving his face into the table. "You keep your filthy mouth off her," she snarled.
"You can't kill me, Xena. You need me to take you to Romir."
"Maybe not," she snapped, "but I can hurt you. And you keep this in mind: I pay my debts, but she's a lot more important to me than my honor. You touch her and you're dead."
From the corner of her eye, she glimpsed Gabrielle returning and released him, adding another shove for good measure. He leaned back, massaging his sore shoulder.
"Here you go." Gabrielle placed a cup of port on the table and sat down again, a questioning expression on her face.
"All right," Xena said. "I'll help him."
Gabrielle laid a hand over her lover's. "Why does it have to be you? Doesn't this Romir have an army?"
Milus snorted, and Xena shot an irritated look at him. "Not really," she replied. "He has assassins on the payroll in surrounding kingdoms, which is why most of his neighbors don't bother him. It's also why they won't help him." She addressed the bearded man again. "We're a good week away. How are they set?"
"They've food and water for another month. Romir's more worried that Turman will get tired of waiting and take the castle. The queen is still within the walls, and you know what Turman does to women . . ." He looked pointedly at her companion.
Gabrielle didn't know if he was trying to intimidate her, but he'd picked the wrong bard if he was. She stared back at him.
"When do you plan to leave?" Xena's question broke the silence.
"As soon as the boy gets here."
Xena raised an eyebrow.
Milus grunted. "Romir's son. He's been with the queen's parents across the river. Romir wants him brought back."
Gabrielle didn't want to interrupt again, but she couldn't resist. "Why would he do that, when they're under seige?"
"In case Romir is killed," Xena answered. "He wants someone for immediate succession, to prevent confusion in the midst of a battle." She turned back to Milus. "When's he arriving?"
"Should be this afternoon."
"In that case, I have time to get cleaned up." She took Gabrielle's arm and urged the smaller woman up with her.
"Why don't you leave the kid with me?" he yelled after them. "She can tell me a story."
Xena ignored the gibe and followed Gabrielle upstairs.
Gabrielle ran her hand down to Xena's chest, feeling the same sweat that covered her own body. She brought her hand around to Xena's back, digging her fingers into pliant flesh as Xena thrust against her, bodies moving together on the bed. Suddenly Xena stiffened, exhaling sharply, and Gabrielle tightened her grip, her hips rocking in beat with her lover's.
Xena gradually relaxed, her throat pressing lightly against the bard's mouth.
Gabrielle brought her legs down and wrapped them around the taller woman's, sliding her hands across Xena's smooth back and shoulders.
Finally Xena spoke. "That was a great story," she said, her breath still ragged.
"I'm glad you liked it." Gabrielle kissed the pulsing throat. "Especially since you paid in advance."
Xena nibbled on an enticing ear. "Let's see . . . it was half up front, half afterward, wasn't it?"
Gabrielle stirred. "Mmm. That's right. And if you pay promptly, I might throw in another story." She moved dark hair out of Xena's eyes. "It has the same ending, though."
"That's all right," Xena whispered, her lips drawing closer to Gabrielle's. "I like happy endings." Gabrielle's hands came up behind her neck, and the bard moaned as her fingers gripped silky black hair, her tongue searching out Xena's.
After a few minutes, Xena drew back. "What are you doing?" Gabrielle protested, her hands tugging on Xena's neck.
"What about it?"
"Someone's at the door, Gabrielle."
"Oh. Who cares?" She pulled Xena down into another deep kiss.
A hard kick sent the door flying inward, and Milus stood on the threshold. Xena leapt out of bed, furious, unsheathing her sword from the scabbard hanging on the bedpost. She swung it around at the intruder, wrapping an unused coverlet around herself with her free hand. "Milus, I ought to take your head off."
"Too bad you can't. Listen, woman, I get paid by the job. I'm not sitting down there all day while you get your piece. The boy's here; it's time to go."
Xena stalked slowly up to him. "I told you to keep that mouth of yours off my friend," she said quietly. "The next insult will be the last thing you say." Her eyes bore into him, unwavering, until the standoff was interrupted by a voice from the bed.
"Excuse me. I'd like to get dressed, if we're leaving."
Milus' expression changed from challenge to disdain. "We're not taking that girl."
"Your job is to take me to Romir. She goes where I go." Xena's voice was low. "Now get out."
Another moment passed, and Milus turned and sauntered out of the room.
Xena crossed the room and slammed the door behind him. "One of us isn't going to make it through the next five days," she said.
"Um, could someone give me a hand?"
Xena rolled her eyes and marched back to the ledge, reaching an arm down to the scrawny form. She yanked the youth up a little too hard and he flew through the air, landing on his back a few feet from the edge. Gabrielle helped him to his feet, frowning disapprovingly at her friend.
"Oops. Sorry," Xena said unconvincingly. She stepped closer to the older man. "Are we stuck with him?"
Milus shrugged. "Romir's orders."
"I'm sure Romir wouldn't want his son endangered unnecessarily," she persisted. "He'd be safer if he followed behind with someone else." The whiner had cost them half a day or more with his constant appeals for rest, or food, or his dizzy spells whenever they climbed to heights exceeding Argo's shoulders.
"I've no love for the brat myself, but I've got to earn my pay. We'll have to drag him along unless he breaks a leg or something."
The warriors looked at each other. After a moment, Milus shook his head.
"Nah, better not." They grinned.
Gabrielle approached them, smiling, and Xena whisked an arm around her waist, planting a quick kiss on her lips. "Ready?" Gabrielle nodded, watching Xena head for the path.
Suddenly she felt a light swat on her rear. "Ready?" Milus winked at her, then walked over to take his charge's arm. Gabrielle stared after him.
"I'm telling you, Xena, Garyn never came within a league of that battle."
Milus leaned back, his face tinted red from their evening spirits. "He sent his manservant in on that big spotted horse of his. I had him at the end of my sword, and I told him to meet his fate like a man" -- he held a hand out to Xena -- "like a soldier, and take the mask off. The loyal bugger wasn't going to say anything; he was just going to let me kill him thinking it was his master."
Xena took another bite of fowl. "What'd you do with him?"
"Are you kidding? I hired him!"
He slapped Xena on the shoulder, and she grinned, her mood also lightened by the dinner ale. "I faced Garyn once," she said. "Idiot left his right flank exposed." She took another swig. "We came around behind him. The coward dressed in pawn's clothing and tried to escape."
Milus slapped his thigh. "I heard about that. By damn, that was you?"
Gabrielle alternated her gaze between the two. "What?" she finally asked.
Xena turned to her. "What?"
"What did you do?"
"Nothing. I captured him."
"Captured? She--" Milus caught Xena's look and went silent. He leaned closer to the Warrior Princess, chuckling. "Don't want the kid knowing all your secrets?"
Xena glanced up. From the look on her face, it was a safe bet that Gabrielle had overheard Milus' remark. She sighed to herself. As events in her past went, this one was fairly mild, but she had hoped Gabrielle could enjoy the evening without having the less savory parts of her history thrown in the young woman's face.
"I had him tied to a horse without his clothes," she said, leaning toward the fire to turn the spit. She hoped her friend would leave it at that.
She paused. "We taught him a lesson first." Gabrielle lowered her gaze.
She knew better than to ask for elaboration on that one. "Then we -- I -- sent him down the road. He ended up in a village he'd taken a month before. Most of the men had been killed, but the women got hold of him." She plucked a piece of meat off the spit.
"Oh." Gabrielle sensed that wasn't the end of the story, but Xena didn't seem to want to talk about it.
"Bastard had it coming," Milus proclaimed, raising the cup to his lips again.
Gabrielle rose and walked over to Xena, laying her hand on the warrior's shoulder. Xena brought the hand to her lips, lightly kissing the palm, then pressed her cheek against it.
Xena strolled over to her blanket, already spread out at the edge of camp next to the one covering her companion, who was lying on her side.
"Looks like you and Milus are getting along better," Gabrielle said over her shoulder.
"Yeah, he's not that bad." She unhooked her scabbard and chakram and laid them on the ground nearby.
"I guess not."
Xena reclined on her blanket and stretched leisurely, considering whether to take off her boots. Gabrielle turned over and looked up at the dark-haired woman.
"So, what do you owe Romir for?"
"A long time ago, I ran into some trouble with Turman's army. We took them down, but my lieutenant was captured by some of the survivors. I went back for him."
"That was nice."
Xena didn't respond. She saw no need to tell Gabrielle that her motivation had been purely professional. The lieutenant knew of her plans for neighboring kingdoms, and would have cost her months of preparation if his tongue were loosened. She had gone back to rescue him, or, if that couldn't be accomplished, to kill him.
"I freed him, but my horse stumbled on a rock and threw me." She smiled at Gabrielle's surprised look. "It was before I got Argo. Anyway, I didn't know the area, and I stepped onto an abandoned well. The boards were rotted, and I fell in."
Gabrielle unconsciously winced at the event long since over.
"My leg was broken. I was in a tough spot," Xena said, an eyebrow raised, as if she were realizing the danger for the first time. "Turman's men would probably have captured me, but suddenly I saw a rope dangling over my head."
"Romir was rescuing you?"
"Not quite." A corner of her mouth went up. "He was too smart for that. He kept the rope out of my reach. He shouted down that he knew who I was, and if I wanted out I would owe him."
"I yelled back a few things at him" -- Gabrielle suppressed a giggle, imagining -- "but I didn't have much choice. So I gave my word. He pulled me out and helped me back on the horse." Xena shrugged. "I owed him, and he said he would collect. It's been so many years, I hadn't even thought about it until this. But I pay my debts."
"I know." Gabrielle smiled. "He sounds like an interesting guy. I'm almost looking forward to meeting him."
"With any luck you won't," the warrior said firmly. "I don't trust him, and I don't want him anywhere near you."
Gabrielle rolled over again, making herself comfortable under her blanket.
"Well, I guess I won't cry myself to sleep."
Xena looked down at her lover. The cover did very little to conceal the woman's shapely curves. After a few minutes of contemplation, Xena slid beneath Gabrielle's blanket, and kissed some exposed skin on the bard's neck.
"Want to go for a walk?" she whispered.
"You mean . . .?"
"No. They'll hear us."
"Well, they'll hear us for sure if I have you right here."
"No! You're just going to have to wait." She moved Xena's hand off her thigh. "Stop it. He's probably watching us."
"I think he's out, Gabrielle."
"He might not be."
"My, aren't we the shy one tonight? Is this the same woman who had me take her against a pillar in the middle of the harvest fete?"
Gabrielle's cheeks burned. After a moment, she said, "That-- Everyone was busy. No one was looking at us."
Xena smiled. She wasn't so sure, but she didn't want to discourage such fun little displays of spontaneity by telling Gabrielle that. She had made a mental note at the time that peach wine seemed to agree with her darling.
An unpleasant suspicion unexpectedly formed in her head, and she frowned.
"Gabrielle, is there anything about Milus that I need to know?"
Gabrielle could feel her lover's pulse rising, along with her ire, at the thought that the soldier might have bothered her. She laced her fingers with Xena's. "No, not really. I just don't understand him. He can be, you know, kind of crude -- in a harmless sort of way," she added hastily, to keep Xena in her bedroll and away from Milus' throat. "But then sometimes he's a nice guy."
Xena's arm relaxed around Gabrielle's waist as she listened to her friend.
"Before we left the village, a guy out in front of the inn . . . sort of . . . asked me an inappropriate question." She felt the warrior's muscles tense again.
"I don't remember exactly what it was," she fibbed, "but I decided to go back inside and wait for you. Then, from the doorway, I saw Milus. He punched the guy, and told him not to use that kind of language to a . . ." The words trailed off.
"To a what?"
"Well, to me."
"To a what, Gabrielle?"
"To a, well, to a lovely young thing, or something dumb like that."
Xena smiled at her lover's modesty. She nestled her face against Gabrielle's neck and said, "He's right." She eased her hand up to a firm breast, smiling when Gabrielle jumped.
"Xena, I said . . ." The bard's voice faded, and her body stirred slightly as Xena slipped her hand under the green material of the younger woman's tunic. "I said . . ."
Gabrielle arched into the caress for a minute, then suddenly grasped Xena's hand, pulling it away. She tugged the cloth back over her breast and sat up. "OK, let's go."
Xena's eyes widened. "Really?"
"What's the matter? Have you changed your mind?"
She shook her head. "No, I just thought you--"
Gabrielle met her gaze, and untied the first lace on her top.
Xena shot to her feet. "Nothing." She took Gabrielle's hand and helped her up. They walked quietly into the woods, Xena's expert eye searching for a flat rock or small clearing. She was certain she'd find something.
Gabrielle's voice occasionally filtered back to the two warriors, along with high-toned giggles from the young man at her side. Xena smiled. It sounded like her bard was managing to keep the prince entertained with an assortment of tales.
Good. Maybe it would cut down on his complaining for a while. She rolled her eyes at the sound of her own name again.
"How'd you end up with a mite like that?"
Xena shifted her attention to the man walking beside her. "Meaning?"
"No insult. Just that she's not what I'd expect the Warrior Princess to be hooked up with."
"I'm not the Warrior Princess. I'm Xena. And she's exactly what I want to be 'hooked up with'."
"She a working girl?"
"She's a bard."
He laughed. "Geez, I thought you were kidding about that. A bard . . ."
Xena sent a meaningful look in his direction, suggesting that any derogatory comments about bards would be inadvisable in the present company.
"You pick her up on the road?"
"We met in her home village. Potedaia."
"A farm girl?" He chuckled. "A farm girl and the Warrior Princess. That must have gone over like a stone griffin with her people."
Xena did not reply. Some things were private.
"Must be a tough life for the kid on the road."
Again she remained silent.
"She pretty good in the sack?"
Xena halted abruptly and grabbed Milus' collar with both hands. He laughed. "Hey, just seeing if you're still awake."
"Xena?" Gabrielle's concerned voice reached her. She willed her heart rate to calm and released him, raising a hand to her companion.
"We're fine," she yelled, angry gaze still on the other warrior. "Don't push it," she warned.
He studied the tall woman as she strode confidently up the path, slowing her pace when she came up beside the girl. The Warrior Princess definitely had a hot button. A pretty little blonde one.
Gabrielle was beginning to wonder if Xena was coming back. Milus had returned from his reconnaisance nearly an hour ago, and the sun was low on the horizon. She retrieved some carrots from her saddlebag for the prince, reminding herself to go pull the dawdling youth out of the creek by force if he wasn't back by the time Xena got here.
A slight noise caught her attention and suddenly Milus was standing beside her, his hand patting her backside. She stepped away from him quickly and sat down on a log, exasperated. "You know," she said, "I've been groped by a lot of guys, and I don't think your heart is really in it. Why do you keep doing it?"
"Why don't you tell Xena?" he countered.
"Because she wants to repay her debt to this Romir guy, and if she kills you she won't be able to." Gabrielle pushed a lock of hair back from her face. "OK. I've answered your question, now you answer mine."
"Well, that was an eloquent response. So, do you fondle every woman you meet -- except Xena, of course -- or am I just one of the lucky few?"
Milus looked around for anything else to do besides subject himself to this snippet's interrogation. Finally, he gave up, and sat next to her on the log. "I knew a little blonde thing like you once," he said. "A whore."
Gabrielle tried to read his expression. Maybe he was just trying to irritate her, but there seemed to be more to this . . .
"Where did you know her from?"
"Telipolis. She lives there. Plies her trade there," he said sarcastically.
"Maybe she doesn't have any other options," Gabrielle said, annoyed at his tone.
"I gave her another option."
"To do what?"
"Be my wife."
She gaped at him. "Your wife? You're married?"
"Was. She left me."
"Did she get tired of your busy hands?" Gabrielle inquired archly, feeling sorry for this woman she didn't even know.
Milus' head jerked around. "No! I never--" Then, in a quieter voice, "I was on the road, didn't really have time for that."
Gabrielle stared at him for a long moment, her eyes wide. "You love her," she said. She shook her head slowly, starting to piece it together. "You don't want to be with other women."
Something inside him snapped. "You'll know otherwise," he uttered, grabbing Gabrielle's head and forcing her mouth to his. Gabrielle steadied herself with one hand on the log, shoving desperately against him with the other. Finally, she was able to pull her mouth away.
"Milus, don't take your pain out on me," she gasped.
It ended as suddenly as it had begun. The soldier released her and stood, turning away. Gabrielle clambered to her feet, breathing hard from the struggle, and hurried over to retrieve her staff. "You won't need that," he muttered.
"What's that for?" Xena stepped into the clearing, eying the weapon in the Amazon's hands.
"I thought I heard something in the woods," Gabrielle said, her eyes on Milus' stiff back. "Xena, we need more firewood. Go get some."
The Warrior Princess blinked, then turned and went to do as she had been told.
When her lover was out of sight, Gabrielle spoke quietly. "Milus, I'm not going to tell Xena what happened, because I don't think you meant to hurt me. But you can't keep on like this." She walked up to him, touching his sleeve.
"When's the last time you spoke to her?"
"She'd be too busy now. She's gone back to her living. She's with plenty."
He wrenched his arm away from Gabrielle's fingers and stalked into the trees.
Gabrielle sat down again and gazed into the fire. Poor guy, she thought. So crazy in love he can't think about other women, going nuts thinking about his wife with other men.
They lay under a single blanket, Xena's steady breath fluttering on the back of her neck.
"Do you ever think about other women? You know . . ." A thought occurred to her. "Or men?"
Xena stirred, an arm sliding across Gabrielle's stomach. "I can barely handle the one I've got," she mumbled.
Gabrielle frowned. "I'm serious. I want to know, Xena. I mean, I don't care if you do. Well, if that's all you do, I mean if you don't do anything about it. I mean, I don't want to be possessive, but I'd rather you didn't -- you'd tell me if you were with other women, wouldn't you?"
Xena sat up, trying to make sense of what she'd just heard. "What do you mean, Gabrielle?"
"No, I want to know what you're talking about."
Gabrielle could feel blue eyes burning into her. She wished she hadn't said anything now.
"Are you asking if I've ever cheated on you?"
"No. I don't want to talk any more. I'm tired."
"The answer is no." Xena lay back down, her arm resuming its hold on the slim waist. "And I've never wanted to."
Gabrielle ran the words through her mind.
"Do you want to be with someone else, Gabrielle?"
She rolled over quickly to face her lover, appalled. "No! Never."
Xena smiled. "That's how I feel. Now go to sleep," she said gruffly, "or you'll wish you were with someone else." She uncoiled onto her back and gently hauled Gabrielle up next to her. Smiling, Gabrielle lay her head on Xena's shoulder, slumber overtaking her easily.
"Let it be, girl."
Gabrielle heard the warning in his voice, but hearing and heeding were two different things. She couldn't leave this alone.
She glanced over her shoulder nervously and saw Xena following behind, just beyond earshot. The Warrior Princess stared blankly out ahead of her, glassy eyed, cursing whatever twist of fate had left her paired up with Romir's idiot son for the morning's travel.
Xena swung her head around to level her gaze at the boy, and Gabrielle bit her lip. She didn't have much time; the prince's life was in danger.
"Please, Milus. Tell me. You'll feel better if you talk about it."
"Don't you ever shut your yap? How does Xena stand you?" Milus glanced down at her, an amused glint in his eye. "But I guess sometimes she likes your noise."
"Don't try to change the subject," Gabrielle said firmly, staring at the ground to hide the color in her cheeks. "You were about to tell me about your wife."
"Ye gods, girl!" he roared. "All right, already!" He took another few steps, then said, "She left me because she wanted to travel with me."
"And nothing. She couldn't, and that was it."
"Why couldn't she?"
"Use your head, girl. She was my wife."
Gabrielle halted, turning to him. "Excuse me?"
"The road was no place for a woman."
"What?" Gabrielle stared at him, her mouth open. "That's IT?" she exclaimed, nearly shouting. "Your wife left you because she wanted to spend more time with you, and you wouldn't let her?" She kicked angrily at the ground with her boot, scattering dirt into the air. "I thought--" She grabbed a handful of her hair. "Aargh!"
Xena was there, then, placing herself between Gabrielle and the man who had made the potentially fatal mistake of upsetting her lover. Gabrielle tugged Xena's arm out of her line of sight. "Milus, you're an idiot," she declared, stomping off down the path.
"What was that about?" Xena asked.
"The kid thinks she can solve all the world's problems."
Well, that was true, but it didn't answer her question. The Warrior Princess stepped closer to make sure she had Milus' full attention. "What did you say to upset her?"
"I told her that my business is my business. You'd feel the same."
"It doesn't matter what you or I feel," Xena explained with what she considered remarkable restraint, "it's what she feels. So you're nice to her, or you're dead. Get my point?"
"Yeah, I got it, and I gotta say, Xena, that girl has you--" The icy blue eyes grew even colder, and Milus reconsidered finishing his observation. "Aah, Hades. I just want to earn my money and get out of here, Xena. I've got no fight with you. Or with her." He started down the road again.
The two warriors conferred at the edge of camp, voices too low for Gabrielle's straining ears to catch more than an occasional phrase. "Too many," Milus said, Xena nodding agreement, and adding her voice to his. ". . . on the perimeter . . . take him out . . ."
Milus glanced briefly at Gabrielle, dipping his voice a degree lower. ". . . women . . .," she made out, watching them curiously. Xena had told her -- vaguely -- about Turman's reward system, the sport he made out of brutalizing female captives. She shivered again, even the toned down version related by Xena enough to turn her stomach. Why was Milus reminding Xena of that now?
The Warrior Princess could certainly take care of herself.
Blue eyes turned to regard her. Gabrielle smiled, but Xena was lost in thought. She seemed to hesitate, then turned back to Milus and nodded. A moment later, she walked over to Gabrielle and steered her away from Romir's son.
"Gabrielle, I need you to stay with the prince," Xena said.
Xena laid her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Please. It's important that you keep him out of harm's way."
"OK." Gabrielle nodded, working to conceal her disappointment.
Xena ran a finger along the side of her lover's cheek. "We'll be back." She gestured, and Milus circled wide to the right, disappearing into thick trees. Xena started for the other trail, but felt her arm pulled back, and looked down into worried green eyes. "We'll be all right," she whispered, bending down for a quick goodbye kiss.
Gabrielle gripped fine black hair and pressed their mouths together passionately. A long moment later, Xena drew back, her eyebrow raised. "I'll be back for more of that," she said, smiling.
By Xena's count, nearly 70 men ringed the castle's outer walls. She had yet to see their miserable excuse for a leader. Her memory was clear of the ragged scar on his jaw, as his probably was of the woman who put it there. This time, if she got hold of him, she'd finish the job. She crept closer to a figure faintly silhouetted against the wall.
"I know it's dark in here. It's a cave." Gabrielle was nearing the end of her rope. She listened to the boy's next complaint, and thanked the gods that Xena had taken her sword with her. "We can't light a fire," she explained painstakingly, "because if we do, everyone will see it and they'll know we're in here. They'll come in here and hack us into little pieces with their great, big swords, and they'll feed our entrails to their dogs."
She stood, massaging pounding temples with her fingertips. Why had Xena told her to stay with this yammering brat? This cave was far from the action; he'd be safe in here forever.
She brought her hands down abruptly. "Oh, no." She shook her head.
Xena wouldn't have made her stay behind in the middle of nowhere for her own safety. They'd had an animated discussion about that after the last incident, and she was pretty sure Xena didn't want to go through that again.
She brightened. Of course. Xena hadn't intended it as an order, but rather a suggestion, the final determination left to her own assessment of the situation.
She turned to her ward, who had finally stopped crying about his entrails. "You stay here and don't move. I'm going to go help."
Even with Milus's help, she couldn't take all of Turman's men. Debt or no debt, Xena had no intention of doing anything foolhardy. Her honor wasn't worth some pointless exercise that would likely leave Gabrielle widowed, or worse.
Her mind quickly ran through various options, finally settling on one that seemed to fit the circumstances. She smiled. The plan had the added bonus of being one that Gabrielle would approve of.
Xena checked her weapons and closed her eyes for a moment; she had a long night ahead of her.
Milus was supposed to head out to the perimeter, Gabrielle recalled, and Xena to the castle. She frowned; she didn't think she could track Xena in the dark expanse. No matter how many lessons Xena had given her, Gabrielle still couldn't detect the warrior's footprints when she didn't want them to be detected.
She pursed her lips, and then her face lit up. She could help Milus. He probably needed it more anyway. She tightened her hold on her staff and started out, the man's heavy tracks easy to follow in the moonlight.
The watchman never heard it coming. An irresistable force connected with the back of his head, and he slumped to the ground. Xena bent her knees to pull the dead weight across her shoulders, then decided to drag him instead. Her muscles had taken quite a beating already, lugging 16 unconscious hulks over to the growing heap by the southeast wall. Gabrielle would have her work cut out for her later, massaging out all of these knots. Xena picked up her pace a bit--the sooner she finished this, the sooner they could start on that.
Gabrielle nudged the still form with her staff. After a moment, she tentatively leaned over and touched it, drawing her hand back at the feel of something sticky. It appeared that Milus had been here.
She scanned the surrounding area, picking up the big man's trail again, and forged ahead. Another corpse, and then another, told her that she was still on the right track. She heard a muffled commotion ahead of her, and stepped cautiously toward its origin. Through the bare branchs of a tree she could see Milus, his hand clamped over a smaller man's mouth. "Hold still, and I won't kill you," Milus muttered. "Why do you bastards all want to fight?"
Gabrielle smiled. Milus was giving them a chance. After three bodies, she had begun to wonder. Suddenly her heart leapt--a second man, sword drawn, was behind the warrior, his approach masked by Milus' offers of leniency to his prisoner.
"Milus! Behind you!" Gabrielle plunged through the trees, smashing her staff into the swordsman's back as he lunged with his weapon. To her horror, the blade pierced Milus's side before his attacker fell to the dirt. The warrior's grip failed and the first soldier spun around, knife in hand. Gabrielle swung her staff, dislocating his kneecap, then landed a blow to his helmet that dropped him.
She leaned into her comrade, supporting him, pressing a hand against the wound to staunch the flow of blood. "Milus, what should I do with them? Will they warn Turman?" She searched his face. "Milus!"
The warrior looked up at her dully, shaking his head in a futile attempt to focus his thoughts.
"It's all right," Gabrielle said softly. "I've got you."
"Thanks, kid. I owe you," he rasped, dragging Gabrielle down with him as he passed out.
Gabrielle maneuvered out from under Milus's heavy body. "And I'm going to collect," she said. She stood for a moment, hands at her sides, then quickly began to look for something to bind the other men.
Xena rolled her eyes, forcing a hand inside another soldier's armor. She felt around, reaching into inside pockets. She was beginning to think she should just kill them all; much more of this and she'd be just in the mood to do it.
She grunted. At last--what she'd been hunting for. She drew out the parchment, and more rummaging rewarded her with a quill and small pouch of dry ink. She stirred a few drops from her waterskin into the ink, and brought quill to parchment.
"This castle is under my protection. Any soldier found outside the walls will be executed." She signed it, then read it over and shrugged. Gabrielle could probably have spiced it up, but they'd get the point. Especially when they found it crowning the pyramid of human flesh outside the wall. They wouldn't have to be geniuses to understand the threat--or her ability to carry it out.
She stood. One more job to do.
An hour later, she located the tent. More modest than she expected, but from its placement it had to be his. She circled around, listening for any sign of movement within. Finally, she sliced into the material and peered in at a solitary figure asleep on an assortment of pillows, a dark cover pulled up to his chest.
She advanced noiselessly toward the bed and dropped her knee onto the warlord's exposed arm, pinning his other down with her right hand. She pushed the point of her knife into his skin, watching him struggle against her hold, his eyes bulging with fear.
"Lie still or I'll cut your throat right now," she ordered. Gradually the warlord stopped squirming and looked up at her. "Do you remember me?" He nodded, a new look in his eyes replacing the fear. Hatred. He remembered.
"This kingdom is now under my protection. I've informed your men of that, and I think you're probably going to be shorthanded tomorrow." He stared at her. "But it won't matter to you anyway, Turman. I've decided to take you with me. To Pyros."
His eyes widened.
"Yes, I heard about your little contest with the women you captured there," she said icily. "I think it's as good a place as any for you to stand trial." She drew back her right hand to pull a rag from her belt, and saw her captive's eyes flicker. He expected Xena to move her other hand -- and the knife it held to his throat -- in order to fasten the gag, freeing him to make his move.
Xena's lips quirked. In a quick motion, she looped the cloth around his head and knotted it with the fingers of one hand. A handy skill, one that Gabrielle's new lace-up tunic gave her plenty of opportunities to hone. She reached down to Turman's arm and hauled him roughly to his feet, the knife pressing sharply against her prisoner's neck. "Come on. Let's go." Xena shoved him toward the entrance. After a few reluctant steps, she felt his body tense. "Don't be stupid, Turman," she warned. Suddenly he twisted in her grasp, grabbing a dagger lying near the tent flap. She brought her knee up into his ribs, and he swung the short blade. She ducked, and drove her knife into his throat.
Turman's hand reflexively came up to the cold metal as he dropped to his knees, pitching forward. Xena pulled her knife out and looked at the twitching corpse for a moment, casually reaching two fingers inside her gauntlet. She drew out the parchment and placed it on the warlord's chest, then plunged his own dagger through it.
The sun was beginning to make its appearance when Xena stepped into the clearing. She stopped short, her heart seizing at the sight of her young lover on her knees, her neck and torso covered with a thick, red film. "Gabrielle!" She raced across the grounds.
As she drew near, she could see that the woman was bent over Milus' prostrate form, securing a thick bandage across his waist. Gabrielle raised her head at the feel of Xena's hands on her shoulders, then returned her attention to her patient.
Xena scanned Gabrielle's body for wounds, then, satisfied her friend was undamaged, looked down at the injured man. "Knife?"
"Sword," Gabrielle answered for him. "It's not too bad, really. I think he'll be all right."
"Not as bad as it could have been," Milus rasped. "She--"
"Is telling you to quit talking and conserve your strength," the bard interrupted. She could sense that Xena's adrenalin levels were still high; now would not be the best time for her to learn that Gabrielle had disobeyed her . . . request . . . to stay in the cave. Later tonight -- after a warm meal and a massage -- would be better. Gabrielle glanced over and saw Xena's eyes warmly upon her.
She smiled, relieved that her lover had returned to her unharmed.
Xena sat next to her in front of the fire. "I think Milus is well enough to travel tomorrow. We can get him to a village, perhaps--"
"We're taking him to Telipolis," Gabrielle said. "There's someone there who can look after him until he's healed up. Then they're going to go on the road together." She looked meaningfully at the helpless man. "He's paying off a debt."
She rose. "And you" -- turning to Xena -- "can come with me to the stream for a bath." She untied the first lace on her tunic.
Xena's eyes widened, briefly meeting Milus's as Gabrielle led her by the hand to her welcome fate. The wounded man laughed. The two of them, warriors both, against a determined bard. They never stood a chance.
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