DISCLAIMER/NOTES: See Part One.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Heart of a Warlord
By Patricia L. Givens
Chapter 11 - Heart Of A Warlord
"YA!" Xena pushed Argo as hard as she dared, her heart hammering into her throat with every beat of the mare's hooves. She was close, another ten minutes at most, but... She tasted the bitterness of panic on her tongue. But what? What was happening?
"Hurry!" Emony's voice echoed weakly in her ears. "Before it's too late!"
"No...NO!" The warrior pressed harder against Argo's flanks and heard the mare grunt beneath her. A moment later, she stumbled, throwing Xena forward over the saddle. She landed hard, her ankle buckling slightly under her weight, but she didn't let it slow her. With a quick glance back to assure herself that Argo was still standing, Xena took off running.
Ignoring the pain, she ran full out, her breath trailing behind her in cold, morning air. As the Dancing Stag loomed up before her, Xena remembered that Titan always barred the door through the last few hours of the night. Squaring her shoulders, she turned slightly and slammed into it's center as hard as she could.
The door flew open as though it were made of kindling, pieces of it sailing across the common room to land on the bar.
"GABRIELLE?" Xena took the stairs three at a time, one hand cradling the arm that hung uselessly from her right shoulder. "GABRIELLE!!" She slammed against the door to their room as well, wincing in pain as the cross beam shattered.
For a moment, she just stood in the doorway, her eyes resting on the very still form of her lover. "Gabrielle?" She swallowed hard and moved towards the bed.
The bard did not respond. Her eyes were closed, her hands clasped loosely across her chest.
Her chest... it wasn't moving...
"No." Xena grabbed Gabrielle by the shoulders. "No."
"The stone....get it away..."
"The stone?" Letting her go, Xena clawed at the blankets covering her lover. Pulling them aside, she grabbed at the Lath and yanked it free.
"Get it away from her!" Emony's voice was stronger this time and Xena did as she was told, throwing the stone across the room and onto a pile of blankets.
"Gabrielle?" She touched the bard's face gently. "Come on..." She felt the panic returning and tried to shove it down. "Please..."
"Gabrielle... Aren't you tired of doing this?" Xena laughed weakly, her throat closing. "You don't want me to hit you again, do you?"
"Your anger can not help her this time, Warrior... Try your heart..."
Leaning in close, Xena kissed her gently, then whispered in her ear, "You can't go... You have half of my soul...." Closing her eyes, she touched her forehead to the bard's chest. "I love you, Gabrielle."
There was only silence.
"No..." The warrior's shoulders began to shake.
"Please don't hit me again."
Xena looked up quickly, her eyes taking in the color returning to her lover's cheeks. "Gabrielle?" She swallowed. "Thank the gods..." She wrapped her good arm around the bard and pulled her close, drowning in the scent of her, never wanting to let her go.
"Say it again."
Xena smiled. "I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you." She kissed Gabrielle gently. "Is that enough?"
"Never." The bard pressed her lips to Xena's neck. Tasting the salt of her lover's skin, she pulled away, noticing the pained look on her face for the first time. "What did you do to yourself?"
Xena pushed away from the embrace and moved to the edge of the bed. "The arm is nothing, I can fix that now." Without preamble, she threw herself against the wall, grinning tightly as her should slipped back into place.
"Oh.." Gabrielle looked away. "I hate it when you do that." She watched as Xena limped back to the bed. "What about your leg?"
"That will have to wait." She put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "I have to tell you something."
Xena chose her words carefully. "We're going to catch her, Gabrielle. I swear it to you..."
"I know.." Gabrielle stopped short. "You found out where she's going didn't you?" Panic slipped into her voice as she grabbed for her clothes. "Where?"
"Where Xena?" The look on the warrior's face told her the answer. "No." She whispered.
"We'll catch her, Gabrielle. We have help."
"Help?" The bards voice rose with her panic.
Gabrielle stopped. "You have to be kidding? He must be trying to set us up..."
"I know, I thought the same thing at first.... But I believe we can trust him."
"Because he doesn't like the new Zo any more than we do." Xena tied her hair back as she spoke. "And because he's telling the truth."
"How do you know that?"
"I just know, Gabrielle." Xena looked into her eyes. "Do you trust me?"
"Of course." She swallowed, trying to control the panic that she felt. "but..."
The warrior shook her head. "There's no time for doubt, Gabrielle. Zo is heading for the Kirys river. If we leave now, we can catch her there, before she even gets close to your family."
"And then what?" The bard finished tying on her skirt and ran her fingers through her hair. "She has an army, Xena. How do we stop an army?"
Xena strode to the other side of the room and grabbed up the bag she had carried in the night before. Tossing it to her, the warrior smiled. "We improvise. Finish getting ready, I'll meet you downstairs."
Gabrielle opened the bag and pulled out a pair of boots, her size. They were made of soft, black leather, and lined thick on the inside with new sheep's down. "Where'd you get these?"
Xena only smiled and slipped out the door.
The bard laced her new boots quickly, then stood, wiggling her toes inside of them. They were perfect. Grabbing the lath, she tucked it into her bag and headed downstairs.
She found Xena talking to a tired looking Titan. When she was done speaking, the giant nodded and clasped her wrist before heading out in a rush.
"Where's he going?"
Xena smiled tightly. "To do what he can. Come on." She hurried the bard out to the stables where Rylan was waiting with a large black mare, already saddled and very jumpy.
"Where's Argo?" Gabrielle looked around, worried.
"Argo's fine, but she stumbled this morning and she won't be able to give us the speed we need. This horse will have to do."
"Don't worry," Rylan tucked the reins into Xena's palm. "Morda is faster than any horse I've ever seen. She'll get you there... if she doesn't bite you first."
Xena turned and stared into the mare's eyes. A long moment passed, then another. Finally, the horse nickered and looked away.
"Oh, she won't be biting anyone." The warrior smiled. "We have an understanding." She swung herself up into the saddle with ease, then grabbed Gabrielle's hand to help her up. "I'll bring her back to you in one piece." Xena smiled at the barkeep reassuringly, then dug her heels into the mare's flanks, urging her into an all out gallop.
Zo glanced at the men behind her as she rode, feeling their stares burning into her back. It was a sensation she wasn't used to, and one she didn't like. She had never had to worry about the men behind her before, she had always trusted them implicitly...until now.
Now, there were murderer's behind her, murderer's, thieves, and the God's only knew what else. These were men she would have fought against once, now they followed her. As much as that type of warrior could follow anyone. Zo had never liked their kind, and she could tell her own warriors didn't like them much either. She had already broken up three fights and buried one good man.
"What am I doing?" Zo whispered to herself.
"I'm sorry, Sir?" Her second looked at her. "I didn't hear you."
"You weren't meant to!" She snapped. "Know one thing clearly, boy. YOU ARE NOT DRAXEN. We are not friends. You serve me. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Sir." The young man stumbled over himself trying to move away. "I only thought to tell you that the river is just ahead."
Zo nodded, the steel returning to her eyes once again. "Good. I want men sent to fish. I want everyone fed and ready to move before the sun is overhead. Understood?"
She watched him go, his sword nearly too long for his legs, and shook her head. She missed Draxen.
Zo squashed that thought quickly as rage filled her heart. He had betrayed her, he had run away like a coward with his tail between his legs. She did NOT miss him... and if he should ever cross her path again, she WOULD kill him.
With rage safely burning in her chest, Zo squared her shoulders and headed for the river.
Gabrielle watched silently as the landscape sped by them, her arms wrapped tightly around Xena's waist. "Are we going to make it?" She whispered.
Xena started to answer, then went completely still. Her eyes scanned the woods in front of her before she turned Morda off the path and into the trees, bringing her to a stop.
"Why are we stopp-" Gabrielle was silenced by a finger pressed gently to her lips.
Soundlessly, Xena slid to the ground and motioned for the bard to stay where she was.
Gabrielle watched as the warrior slipped from tree to tree, finally losing sight of her behind a thick stand of bushes. She waited for five minutes, then ten. Finally, fifteen minutes later, she urged Morda in the direction her lover had gone. "Xena?" She called softly.
"Well what have we here?"
Gabrielle turned in the saddle, her heart dropping when she saw the men standing behind her.
They were huge, and one of them was very familiar.
"You were at the gate." He smiled, showing an ugly, black toothed grin. "This time, it goes my way " With an evil laugh, he advanced on her, grabbing for her legs.
Gabrielle kicked out hard, her foot meeting solidly with her assailant's nose. There was a loud crack, a gush of blood, and the man went to his knees before falling face forward into the dirt. "Hmm." Gabrielle smiled as she reached above her to a low hanging branch. Grabbing it, she slid from the mare's back, letting her weight snap the branch off in her hands. It wasn't her staff, but it would do.
She turned to face the second warrior, her heart pounding loudly in her ears as she watched him draw his sword.
"Playtime's over." He growled, charging her.
The bard waited until the last possible moment before throwing her body to the side. As she landed on her backside, she swung the branch out as hard as she could, feeling it almost rip free of her grasp when it connected with his legs. The warrior flew forward, his legs buckling beneath him. He slid, face down, for nearly ten feet before his head met a tree trunk with bone jarring force.
Gabrielle sat where she was, breathing hard, willing both of them to stay where they were. The second one obeyed. The first did not. She watched with horror as the man staggered to his feet, blood covering most of his face. "You die now." He sneered.
The bard jumped to her feet and ran in the direction Xena had disappeared. Even at her fastest, she could hear him gaining behind her. She could almost feel his breath on her neck and his hand at her back as she rounded the stand of bushes only to be lifted off her feet by a hand from above. She looked down and watched him pass beneath her, unable to stop himself from tumbling down the steep embankment the bushes had hidden from view.
The next instant, she was safe in a tree, looking up into Xena's beautiful blue eyes. The warrior smiled at her. "You did good."
Gabrielle froze. Everything was so familiar Closing her eyes, she let her hand wander across Xena's cheek. She couldn't speak, she couldn't breath, all she could do was let the memory wash over her. A moment later, she felt Xena's arms around her, felt hungry lips on her throat and the wetness they left behind as they traveled up to meet her own. The kiss was deep and very sweet, but shorter than she wanted, and she heard herself whimper quietly as the warrior pulled away.
"No " She put a hand up to stop Xena from speaking. "Don't say my name. Not right now."
Xena was confused for a moment, until she recognized the look on her lover's face. The half closed eyes and slightly parted lips made her turn away and smile. "We have to go."
"I know." The bard took a deep breath. "Let's go."
With a nod, Xena lowered Gabrielle from the tree before jumping down behind her. Sliding two fingers into her mouth, she whistled.
Morda didn't respond.
"Let me try " Gabrielle let out a very weak whistle and laughed in delight when the mare came galloping towards her. She smiled up into Xena's dirty look. "Hey, at least ONE of them has to like me."
"What do you mean?" Xena grabbed up the reins and jumped into the saddle, helping the bard up behind her. "I distinctly remember a certain ass that liked you just fine."
"Awww.! Thanks!" Gabrielle snickered " I like you too."
Xena raised one eyebrow. "You'll pay for that one, you know."
The bard slid her hands over Xena's hips, letting them rest possessively on her lover's stomach. "I'm counting on it."
The warrior shook her head and became serious. "This was the outer guard. That means we're close. No talking from here on in and when I say stay put "
Gabrielle threw her hands up. "I stay put. Got it."
"Yeah right." Xena rolled her eyes and headed them towards the river.
Draxen crept along the river's edge silently, watching as his former warriors speared dozens of fish and tossed them onto the bank. He craned his neck as far as he could and finally caught a glimpse of the person he was looking for.'
"Zo " He watched as she walked away from her army, her face blank but her eyes a thousand miles away. He watched indecision play across her features, followed by the heavy sigh and the squaring of her shoulders that he had come to recognize as signs of an internal struggle.
Draxen grimaced and looked up at the sky. Xena would be here very soon. This was his last chance
"To do what?" He asked himself. What exactly were his options? That was Zo out there. Maybe a different Zo, but it was still his commander and the best friend he had ever known. He had hated watching what she had become. Hated seeing the real Zo buried so deep beneath the rage and hate that had clouded her senses. Was it too late? Would she be this Zo forever? And was it worth his life to find out?
Draxen turned his attention back to her, watching as she knelt at the rivers edge to pick up a large trout caught in the shallows. She looked at it for a few moments before tossing it back, this time further out.
Yeah Yeah it was worth it.
Drawing his sword, he retreated into the shadows.
Xena shifted slightly on her perch, her eyes scanning from one end of Zo's army to the other. She did a count in her head and frowned when she was done. This wasn't going to be easy. Swinging down from the tree, she landed beside Gabrielle with a quiet thud, her sword drawn before she even hit the ground.
"How many?' Gabrielle asked and then cringed slightly at the dark look in her lovers eyes.
"Too many." Xena untethered Morda and set her loose to graze away form Zo's army. "Gabrielle at this point, the only way to kill the snake, may be to cut off it's head."
The bard shook her head. "Xena, you promised."
The warrior studied her quietly and then nodded. "Then I guess it's plan 'B'."
"What's plan 'B'?"
"I'll tell you when I think of something." Xena grinned recklessly. "Now, no matter what you see or hear "
" I stay here." Gabrielle finished for her.
"It's best, it could get very ugly out there."
"I know, I know." The bard through up her hands. "I'll stay right here."
Xena gave her a long look that finally changed into a sweet smile. She kissed Gabrielle gently on the lips, then turned and started to make her way down the steep embankment.
The bard watched her go, a wistful look on her face. She waited until the warrior was out of sight, then followed after her.
Xena moved silently along the outer edges of Zo's army, sizing up the situation and keeping a running tally of the men who might cause her trouble. She made two complete passes, just to be sure she wasn't missing anything or anyone, then made her way back to the edge of the river, using a large rock to shield her from view. It would have to be a direct approach. She would have to seek out Zo and goad her into a fight before her men could get involved. And the only way to do that, was to walk right up to her.
Squaring her shoulders, Xena tested her grip on her sword, then stepped out from behind the rock.
The hazel-green eyes that met her own reflected the shock she felt.
For a moment, she and Zo only stared at each other and Xena could see the indecision that the Amazon was fighting against. But the moment passed quickly.
Zo screamed in rage and drew her sword, sending it crashing against the rock where Xena's head had been just a moment before. The force of her blow shook her arm to the bone, giving the warrior time to get around behind her.
But there was no where left to go. Zo's army had spread themselves out in a solid line across the top of the embankment, every warrior waiting to see who would be victorious.
Reluctantly, Xena backed out into the river, stopping when she felt cool water touching the tops of her knees.
Zo Advanced on her slowly, a cold smile fixed on her lips. "Finally "
The Amazon turned towards the other bank, her face filling with rage when she saw Draxen wading towards them. "Traitor." She spat.
"I'm no traitor, Zo." Draxen held his sword out in front of him. His eyes followed Zo's Second as he broke away from the rest of the army and descended the embankment, his dragon encrusted helm flashing in the sunlight "I am loyal to the warrior I used to know and to the woman I used to trust. I don't know you And I don't want to."
Zo swallowed. "Draxen "
Before she could finish, her second attacked. He wasn't well versed with a sword, but he was good enough. Whatever his technique lacked, he made up for in eagerness and he very quickly had Draxen on the defensive.
"Is this what you want, Zo?" Xena asked quietly. "To see all your friends dead?"
"YOU ARE NOT MY FRIEND!!!" Zo lunged again, slashing out viciously with her blade. Xena parried each thrust, easily at first, and then with increasing difficulty. "What's the matter Xena?" Zo, grinned darkly. "I've improved, haven't I?"
Enough was enough. Xena began to press the advantage of her height, using her upper body strength the beat her opponent's blade back. She nearly had Zo on shore when she heard Gabrielle scream behind her. Turning her head slightly, she followed the bard's line of sight to Draxen, who was trying to regain his balance on the slippery rocks below the water's surface.
Zo saw where her attention had gone and followed it watching as her second slashed out with his sword, catching the unbalanced Draxen at just the right moment. His blade cut through the thin leather armor that protected Draxen's chest, drawing blood from the flesh beneath.
The blow was more than Draxen's precarious balance could handle. He fell, landing on his back in two feet of water, the impact knocking the sword from his hand.
Zo's second screamed in triumph, spinning the sword in his hand until the blade was pointed down. With a feral grin, he raised it over his head, joining both his hands over the hilt for a fierce downward blow.
Xena had no choice. Drawing her chakram, she flung it towards him. It caught him above the right elbow as he went to complete his strike. The metal cut deep into his arm and his sword fell from his right hand as his left clutched the wound and tried to close it, but the blood loss was too great. With a cry of pain, he went down and stayed down.
Xena watched as the young warrior fell, the water covering him completely. She glanced at Zo for a second, And then away. Draxen was still down, Gabrielle was too far away, and the rest of Zo's army She snorted. The rest of Zo's army was useless.
Xena turned and stared into Zo's eyes, daring her to do something.
The Amazon took one step towards them and stopped. Squaring her shoulders, she raised her sword, her attention fixed on the warrior before her.
"He'll die." Xena said flatly. Enraged by Zo's answering shrug, she turned her back on the Amazon and ran to Draxen's side. "Are you all right?"
Draxen smiled up at her. His pain showed clearly on his face, but he nodded nonetheless. Xena checked him quickly and decided he would live. Moving away, she knelt and felt along the rocks that lined the bottom of the river. When her hand found the edge of a helm, she knocked it away and wrapped her fingers in a shock of fine hair. Pulling up hard, she dragged Zo's second from the river. His waterlogged clothing and armor made it more difficult than she expected for his slight frame, but it didn't stop her from picking him up bodily and tossing him over her shoulder.
Carrying him to the riverbank, she laid him out carefully, glancing at his face for the first time.
"Sylas??" Her heart dropped as she looked at the boy's still face. Reaching out, she placed her palm against his cheek and slapped gently. There was no response. "No." She whispered to herself. Untying her hair, she used the leather thong to wrap it around Sylas' upper arm before peeling his fingers away to look at the wound.
The cut was deep, deeper than she could repair. At it's center, she could see white bone and severed tendons. Silently cursing Ares, she yelled for Gabrielle. "I need a fire. Now!"
The bard did not hesitate. She broke the makeshift staff she carried into several pieces and gathered up a few handfuls of dried river grass. She passed by Zo without even a glance, feeling the Amazon's stare at her back as she rushed to Xena's side.
Xena gave the bard a tight smile as she came close, motioning her further away from the water. "I need a torch." She threw her the small flask of oil she kept in her belt. She heard Gabrielle striking her flint and smiled softly as she tended the boy's wound. She had it partially sewed shut when she heard a loud ripping sound. Glancing up, she saw Gabrielle tear a piece of her skirt away, dousing it in the oil before wrapping it around one end of a stick.
Sylas moaned softly and Xena began to work faster. By the time Gabrielle handed her the torch, the wound was closed but still seeping blood. "Hold down his head." She nodded at Gabrielle. The bard did as she was told, using all her strength while Xena placed the torch against the boy's arm. The smell of cauterized skin filled the air as Sylas jumped, screaming in pain. By the time she was done, the boy was fully awake and whimpering softly. She motioned Gabrielle away before grabbing his face in her hands.
"Is this what you wanted, boy?" Anger flashed in her eyes. "Is this the adventure you sought after??" She ignored his tears and continued. "You'll keep your arm, but you'll never swing a sword with it again. Go home, Sylas. If your lucky, you'll still be able to use a plow." She lowered his head gently, watching as he cried, her mouth an angry line. "Is this what you wanted, Zo? Dead friends and crippled children?"
The Amazon stopped short. She hadn't realized that Xena had heard her wading silently towards them. When the Warrior Princess stood and faced her, she brought her sword up pointing it at her throat.
"Go ahead then." She tossed her own sword onto the riverbank and stepped forward until the point of Zo's blade was under her chin. "Kill me."
"No!" Gabrielle rushed forward but Xena held her hand out, warding her away. The bard was panicked, but obeyed.
"Go on, Zo." Xena leaned forward until the blade dug into her skin. "I'm waiting."
The Amazon faltered, the look of rage leaving her eyes as she studied the woman before her.
"What are you waiting for?" A strong voice called from the army behind them. "Kill her!"
Zo turned towards the voice, but the sun was in her eyes and she could not see who was speaking.
"Kill her or I will!" The voice continued. "THAT is the Warrior Princess!" he shouted. "The man that kills her will have the reputation to last a lifetime. And I want it."
"NO!" Zo screamed back. "She's mine. No man may take her."
A low grumbling filled the ranks behind them when the man continued on. As the sun shifted behind a cloud, she saw several of the warriors she had picked up at The Raven's Claw start down the bank towards them. Her own men would have none of it. They attacked the warriors who challenged their leader and a dozen battles began along the ridge behind them. Zo screamed at them to stop, but the blood lust of the new and the anger of the old was too great to subdue. Before she could do anything, her army tore itself apart.
Zo watched, her sword dropping to her side.
"They'll lose." Xena said quietly. "They'll lose because their honor will keep them from striking down their own men, while your new recruits have no problem with that." She stepped in front of the Amazon. "Together, we can stop that from happening."
"The two of us?" Zo looked at her skeptically.
"The three of us." Draxen stood up behind them, his sword grasped firmly in his hand.
"The FOUR of us." Gabrielle stepped forward.
Zo looked at them and smiled darkly, the anger returning to her eyes.
" 'I offer myself in anything you would ask of me ' "
She spun to look at Gabrielle.
"That is what you pledged, isn't it?" Gabrielle touched her face gently. "There has to be Amazon honor in there somewhere."
Zo closed her eyes as the bard caressed her cheek. "All right." She whispered.
Gabrielle smiled. "I knew it."
"But " She grinned at Gabrielle's cautious look. Reaching into a long pack at her side, she pulled out the bard's disassembled staff. "You might need this."
Gabrielle's smile touched her heart as she watched the bard snap it together. "I'm ready."
Xena's war cry filled the air as the four attacked, each of them joining with members of Zo's regular army to help even the battle. The men from the Raven's Claw fell quickly, most of them running when they realized they couldn't win. The rest were picked off one by one, until only two were left standing.
Draxen sat down heavily as we watched Xena and Zo go after the last two. He hadn't lost a lot of blood, but he could definitely feel his wound. He beckoned for Gabrielle, who was tending the wounded of Zo's army and she rushed to his side.
"Are you all right?" She parted the leather covering his chest to reveal a shallow, but lengthy, cut. As she applied a poultice, the warrior sighed. "What's wrong?"
"I think I'm getting to old for this." He glanced over to watch Xena fight, knowing instinctively that she was playing with the warrior before her. She met every one of his blows with her blade and a smile, forcing him to get angry, trying to make him lose control. She got what she wanted. The man charged towards her and she quickly stepped out of the way, watching as he sailed over the embankment and into the water below. "You think she'll ever feel the same way?"
"Xena?" Gabrielle glanced at her lover, a slow smile parting her lips. "I doubt it. She loves it too much." She looked to her left and saw Zo strike her enemy across the arm, drawing blood and taking away his enthusiasm for the fight. Turning tail, he bolted for the woods. "What about her?"
"Zo?" Draxen flexed his arms, testing the pain he would feel later in the day and for a while to come. "She loves a good fight." He looked at Gabrielle thoughtfully. "I think she's just tired of not knowing what to fight for."
They both looked up to see Zo charging at Xena, her sword drawn and ready. Before Draxen could react, she struck. Her blade pierced through armor and flesh, sending the warrior who had been sneaking up on Xena over the embankment with the force of her blow.
Xena watched him fall then turned to face the Amazon. Her smile said more than Zo could bear so she turned and walked away.
"Zo!" Gabrielle dropped the clothe she was using to clean Draxen's wound and ran after her, grabbing her by the arm. "Wait!"
The Amazon stopped a few feet from her horse, not bothering to look back. "Let me go, Gabrielle."
Zo turned to face the smaller woman, half wanting to laugh and half wanting to gather her up and never let her go. With gentle fingers, she pried the bard's hand free and smiled softly. "Goodbye, Gabrielle."
Xena and Draxen came up behind them, stopping a respectful distance away.
"But where will you go?"
Zo looked away. "I don't know." She looked at the bloody sword in her hand for a moment before tossing it away. "There's no place for me now."
"Yes there is." Gabrielle smiled. "Go home."
The warlord looked down at Gabrielle. "I have no home."
"Yes, you do. You'll always have a home, just as I do, among the Amazons."
"Gabrielle " Zo shook her head. "I am an outcast there. I was exiled "
"And I am an Amazon Princess. I lift your exile." She stopped for a moment, then turned to face Xena. "I CAN do that, right?"
The warrior tried not to laugh. "Yes, Gabrielle. You can do that."
The bard smiled and faced Zo again. "I, Gabrielle, Princess of The Amazons, lift your exile and bid you go home."
Zo's jaw fell slightly. Her heart racing, she swallowed. "But..."
"Zo," Gabrielle touched her cheek. "I've seen you, I know you. The way you are with your men, what you did for Xena the way you treated me . Those are not the ways of a warlord." She kissed her softly. "You don't have the heart of a warlord, Zo. You have the heart of an Amazon. Go home."
Zo studied her for a long moment, fighting off the tears that were threatening her eyes. Finally, she knelt before Gabrielle and took her hand between her own. "Thank you, my Princess. I know that could never be enough, but I don't know what else to say. I'm going home." With a huge grin, she jumped on her horse, stopping for a moment to look down at her friend. "Draxen I.."
He held up his hand. "All is well with us, as it always will be. I'll take care of the men, Zo. Go find your destiny."
Zo nodded and Gabrielle started to wave goodbye. "Wait!" Her eyes widened slightly. Reaching into her bag, she drew out the Lath and held it up for Zo to take.
The warrior looked at it. "What's this?"
"Part of your destiny."
Zo looped the chain around her neck and tucked the crystal between her breasts. "I'll never forget you, Gabrielle."
"Nor I you." The bard smiled. "And you'll see us again. Your people are my people, remember?"
Zo smiled and rode away, throwing off pieces of her armor as she went.
Gabrielle felt a single tear roll down her cheek. "Goodbye, Emony."
Xena came up behind her and pulled her close. "It was the right thing to do." She turned Gabrielle around so that she could look into her eyes. "It was the only thing to do. The only way to help them both."
The bard nodded. "I know. But I'm going to miss her." She brushed her tears away.
The warrior turned and smiled at Titan, clasping his meaty arm with her palm.
"How'd I do?" He smiled.
"You were perfect." Xena laughed. "Very convincing."
Draxen and Gabrielle looked at each other, then broke into laughter. "You were on the ridge." Draxen accused. "You were the one yelling!"
The big man smiled. "Glad to help."
"You planned that whole thing." Gabrielle punched Xena lightly on the arm. "You let me worry!"
"Well," Xena shrugged. "It had to be convincing."
"You're going to pay for that, Xena."
"Why don't we just call it even?"
Gabrielle smiled, a wicked gleam coming into her eyes that took the warrior's breath away. "Not a chance."
Xena fought off the urge to pick her up and carry her off, but just barely. Turning back, she found Titan and Draxen talking quietly. "What are you two up to?"
Draxen smiled. "Just thanking your friend here. Something I would like to do over an ale at his inn."
Titan nodded. "I have to get back anyway. Draxen says he's bringing the men through there and Rylan likes to know those things in advance." He flushed. "She's not a lot of fun when she's angry."
Xena laughed. "I don't imagine she is." She turned to Draxen and offered her arm, which he took with a smile. "How are your men?"
"All well cared for, thanks to Gabrielle. They'll all make it to The Dancing Stag. We'll put up there for a night or two, before moving on."
Xena nodded, shifting her weight from foot to foot, favoring the one she had damaged.
"You, however, look like you need could use some attention."
"I agree." She grinned, sliding her arm around Gabrielle. "You go on ahead, we'll follow after I make sure Sylas gets home. Can I get two of your men to go with him?"
Draxen nodded, "I'll assign Hemos and Thelan to you. They're both good men. They can catch up to us later." He clasped Xena's hand one last time then headed out, enlisting Titan's aid in getting his men together.
"Well," Xena nudged Gabrielle gently. "Whistle for that nag of yours."
"Nag?" Gabrielle tried to raise one eyebrow and ended up laughing.
Xena hugged her for a moment, then led her back towards that river.
Epilogue (Because I REFUSE to have a Chapter 12!!)
Xena pulled Morda to a stop outside of the Dancing Stag, her ears registering the quiet. She slid to the ground and drew her sword. Holding a finger up to her lips, she motioned Gabrielle down from the horse and away from the front of the tavern. Once Gabrielle was out of harms way, she moved closer to the door.
Hearing nothing from inside, Xena took a step back and kicked her foot out, planting it firmly in the middle of the door. It slammed inward, crashing against the side wall and sending splinters across the bar. Stepping inside, she raised her sword, ready for anything.
Anything except what greeted her.
Titan looked up from his spot by the bar, a sarcastic grin on his face as Rylan nudged his club aside to set an ale in front of him. Around the bar, patrons turned to stare at her, shaken from their quiet drinking and conversations.
"You know," Titan stood and came towards her. "There are quieter ways to enter a building. Less expensive ways too. I just fixed that door!"
Xena flushed and sheathed her sword. "I . It was so quiet, I thought something had happened."
Titan smiled. "Something did. Draxen decided to move his men on."
Xena blinked, half sorry to hear it. She was more comfortable with the army further away, but she had wanted to see Draxen again. To thank him. "I thought he was staying a while." She sighed.
"He thought it would be better if he got his men away from here." Titan placed a hand on her shoulder. "He said you'd understand."
"I do." Xena glanced back over her shoulder and smiled to see Gabrielle standing in the wreckage of the door.
"But," Titan grinned. "He left a gift for you. It's up in your room."
The warrior nodded and grasped the big man's arm. "Thank you again, Titan. Today wouldn't have worked without you." She sent a private smile to Gabrielle, causing her to blush to the roots of her hair. "Without all of us."
"Yeah, yeah." He flushed. "Take it upstairs."
Xena laughed and pulled the bard along behind her. When they reached their door, Gabrielle jumped in front of it.
"Now, don't kick this one." She grinned.
Xena raised on eyebrow, sending shivers down Gabrielle's spine. "Get inside." She growled.
Gabrielle raised the latch and pushed the door in, her eyes going wide at the sight that greeted her. "By the Gods "
"What?" Xena limped inside and looked around. There were gifts everywhere. So many that Rylan had brought in more tables to hold them. Chocolate and strawberries covered one table alone, another held several different kinds of wine, yet another incense and rubbing oils. Candles had been lit around the stone bath, the fireplace was ringed in pillows and sheepskin blankets and an entire feast had been laid out before them.
"What the " Xena stepped further into the room, closing the door behind them. Dropping her packs, she saw a small scroll leaning up against a bottle of port. Cracking the seal, she unrolled it and read:
Xena and Gabrielle
It took some doing, but I managed to persuade Rylan I was good for all of this until I made my way back through this area again. And yes, I am good for it Zo was a wise leader, and the men and I will retire with enough wealth to keep us comfortable for a quite a while. I wanted to be there when you returned, to say thank you again, and a proper goodbye, but it seemed best to get the men home to their families before any of them got the crazy idea to put me in Zo's place. That's not what I want. I know that much for sure. Now I just have to figure out what I DO want. Right now, home sounds good. Home and my wife and some peaceful times. If you're ever nearby, either of you, know that you are welcome. And know also, that if you need me, anytime, anywhere, you can send for me. I will be there.
"I'm glad you were right .about him."
Xena glanced at Gabrielle and smiled. "So am I." She tucked the scroll into her pouch and started pulling off her armor.
The bard watched her for a few moments before heading to the table covered in chocolate and strawberries. Her hand hovered over both, trying to decide. Finally, choosing a strawberry, she raised it to her lips, closing her eyes as her teeth closed on it and cool, sweet juice flowed over her tongue. "Mmmmm." Without opening her eyes, she picked up another, and another. She was reaching for a fourth when it was suddenly there, already at her lips. Opening her eyes, she smiled up at Xena. "Do you want to feed me?"
"Mmmm." Xena's eyebrow shot up. "If I can do it my way."
Gabrielle shivered. "What's your way?"
"Go lie down on the bed."
The bard smiled shyly and walked over to the bed, feeling Xena's eyes on her as she went. Climbing to the middle, she laid on her back, her torso propped up by her elbows behind her. She watched the warrior as she moved around the room, picking a few items from each table before joining her. Gabrielle glanced at her plate and smiled. Strawberries and dates surrounded a small pile of chocolate with a drizzle of thick cream crossing over the top. "Now what?"
"Shhh." Xena set the plate aside and pushed her back, her lips finding the sensitive spot beneath her right ear. "No talking. Not right now." She unlaced Gabrielle's top and slid her hands beneath it, her fingers finding both nipples swollen and hard. "I'll tell you when you can."
"You'll tell me when I can?" The bard's voice was almost indignant.
"Gabrielle " The warrior smiled. "I want you to tell me what feels better. This " She lowered her lips to cover one of the bard's nipples, biting it gently. "This " She slid one hand up Gabrielle's thigh, grazing the soft patch of hair between her legs. "This " She trailed one thumb over the bard's clit. "Or.." She pulled herself away. "A conversation?"
Gabrielle whimpered and laced her fingers through the hair at the back of Xena's neck, pulling her closer. "Shut up." She whispered before kissing her hard.
Xena smiled into the kiss and unbuckled the belt at Gabrielle's waist, throwing it to the floor where it was soon joined by the skirt. "Unlace me."
The bard's hands worked the back of her leathers eagerly, her lips never leaving the warrior's neck. When they were loose enough, she helped Xena shrug out of them, her hands going immediately to the swell of her breasts.
"No." Xena grabbed them and pushed them down against the bed. "None of that. This is my way, remember?"
Gabrielle nodded, closing her eyes, trying to control the sensations racking her body. She felt Xena lean away and when she looked up, the warrior held a strawberry between her teeth. Leaning forward, she bit down on it, letting the second half fall into the bard's mouth. The juice ran between their lips as she kissed her, running down the side of her throat.
With a low growl, Xena followed the red trail, licking the sweetness from her lovers neck as her hands caressed her hips. She reached for another strawberry, offering to the bard with her fingers. When Gabrielle had bitten off the end, she brought the rest up to her own neck, following the line of her throat to the valley between her breasts and finally across her nipples. Slipping what was left of it into her mouth, she smiled down at the hunger in her lover's eyes. Curving her fingers around the back of Gabrielle's neck, she pulled the bard forward, guiding her mouth to the trail of juice.
Gabrielle moaned softly, her tongue playing across Xena's breasts as the warrior's fingers dug into her back. She found every spot of the strawberry juice, even making up a few more spots than there really were. Finally, Xena pushed her back down again and reached for a small, clear bottle.
"What's that?" The bard leaned forward, sniffing as the warrior withdrew the cork. It smelled like hyacinth.
"Shhh." Xena grabbed her arm gently and pushed her over, ignoring the bard's look of surprise. "On your stomach."
Gabrielle blushed. "All right." She nodded and flipped over, resting her chin on her hands. "What now?"
For a moment, there was nothing. Then she felt Xena kneeling over her, one knee on either side of her hips. She felt the warrior put the bottle down, and heard her rub her hands together. Suddenly, there were fingers digging into her shoulders, fingers covered with a warm, slick fluid, fingers she could feel down to her bones. Slowly, they slid down along her spine, pausing to work the oil into her smooth buttocks before sliding back up to her shoulder blades. As they worked the tight muscles of her upper back, Xena lowered her weight until Gabrielle could feel every part of her warm, soft flesh pressing into her backside. "By the Gods " She whispered, her head tilting back.
Slowly, Xena bagan to rock, sliding across the firmness of her buttocks, the friction exquisite against her sensitive flesh. Her hands slipped around to cup Gabrielle's breasts, pulling her up away from the bed. The new positioning pressed the bard into the bed, causing a connection every time Xena pressed into her. With each stoke, her head tilted further back, her breath becoming more and more ragged. It wasn't long before she was grinding her own hips against the blankets, the feel of Xena riding her pushing her over the edge.
"Oh no. No, no, no, no." The warrior slid off, ignoring the small whimper from her lover. "Not so fast " Kneeling above her once again, she began to kiss her way down Gabrielle's spine, sliding her cheek across the wetness she had left behind. "Is this what you want?" She flipped the bard over and pressed her face against her lips, smiling when she felt the tip of her tongue. "Is it?"
"Then take it." Xena's smiled wickedly.
Gabrielle blinked. "Take what?"
"Take what you want."
The bard grinned and reached out a hand, only to have it batted away. She laughed. "What was that?"
"I told you to take it. I didn't say I would make it easy."
Gabrielle chewed on her lip, trying not to smile. "All right." She leaned in close to steal a kiss and the warrior turned her head away. "So what am I supposed to do?"
"You're a big girl," Xena glanced down at her breasts. "In fact, you seem to get bigger every day. Figure it out."
"Hmmm." She reached up slowly and took the warrior by the shoulders. She was able to turn her slightly, but could not make her go down off her knees. "You're stronger than me!"
"Mmmhmm." Xena picked up the bottle of port and took a long drink. "Would it help if I was drunk?"
"HA! You never GET drunk!"
"Then I guess it wouldn't help."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "You're going to make me work for this aren't you?"
"Anything worth having is worth working for."
The bard's voice softened. "And you are definitely worth having." Just for a moment, she saw a tender smile flash across Xena's face, and she knew that she had her. Lowering her voice to a deep rumble, she leaned in close. "Xena "
The warrior trembled slightly and Gabrielle smiled. "Xena " She whispered into her ear, feeling the slight shock of movement in the body so close to hers. Slowly, she closed her lips over Xena's earlobe, biting softly as she laughed under her breath at the warrior's response.
Xena had gone rigid at the first feel of the bard's mouth. Her eyes closed and she unconsciously turned her head to the left, allowing Gabrielle's questing lips to continue down the line of her throat, then back up along her jaw. When soft lips met her own, she groaned softly and parted her lips, tasting the sweetness of Gabrielle's tongue as it slid into her mouth.
The strength of the kiss had the desired affect, making the warrior weak in the knees. When the bard pressed her back, she did not fight against it. With a sultry smile, she let herself be lowered onto the bed.
Gabrielle grinned in triumph as she settled herself on top of Xena, a small whimper escaping her throat as their breasts pressed together.
"Yes " Xena swallowed hard when the bard's lips found the hollow of her throat, nipping softly against her pulse before sliding down to the valley between her breasts.
With little moans of pleasure, the bard began to kiss her way up the swell of Xena's breasts, her fingers finding one nipple as her mouth close on the other. The warrior's flesh grew hard immediately and she arched up into Gabrielle's mouth as the bard bit down, not hard enough to really hurt, but hard enough to notice. "MMmmmmmm."
Gabrielle smiled when the warrior's hips raised of the bed, moving up to meet her own and grind against them. She shifted her weight to slip one knee between Xena's thighs and nearly lost control when her skin met the warrior's flesh with the feel of warm, wet satin. "By the gods "
Xena began to move faster, pushing harder against the bard's leg as her tempo increased. Gabrielle stayed where she was for a few moments, enjoying the feel of the warrior against her, then began to slide downward. When she was low enough to dip her tongue into Xena's navel, she felt hands on top of her head. They pushed her down gently, the fingers twining through her hair more tightly the closer that she got. The bard stopped right above Xena's dark patch of hair, inhaling the scent of her lover deeply.
"You smell so good " She whispered, nuzzling her lips and nose through the soft, curly hair. Finding the hard bud of flesh she sought, her tongue reached out, the tip just barely caressing it as the warrior's body writhed above her.
"Gods, Yes!" Xena's voice was very low, almost the same timber as the roll of thunder on a stormy day, and her hands moved on the bards head as her hips began to move. "M More "
"MMmmmmm." Small sounds came from Gabrielle's throat as she opened her mouth wider, her lips and tongue moving faster against Xena's warm, slick flesh. The woman was intoxicating! She thought to herself, the taste and feel of her on her cheeks and chin. It would never be enough. She could stay right where she was for an eternity and it would never be enough.
With deliberate slowness, Gabrielle brought her hand up and slid two fingers inside the warrior, feeling her close tight around them
"Yes " Xena's head slammed back against her pillow, her arms going rigid as Gabrielle bent her fingers slightly, finding a smooth, slick spot that sent tremors down the warrior's spine. "Gabrielle ."
The bard shuddered, her name echoing in her own ears. How could I have missed it? She wanted to laugh and cry up to the sky. The way Xena said her name made her feel like she had reached the Elysian Fields, sending a warm spike into her heart and thudding through her chest. "Xena.."
The warrior went rigid, her hips thrust up, off the bed, her body trembling hard. And still Gabrielle did not stop. She continued to move inside her lover, continued to lover her with her mouth until the first wave passed, leaving the warrior spent and shaking and too weak to last much longer.
The second wave hit harder, sending Xena's hands slamming into the bed where her fingers dug into the sheets. Her body moved on its own, unable to stop itself from seeking out the same release she had just experienced and still very much craved.
When it hit, she almost fainted from the pleasure she felt, her entire body racked with an emotional response as well as a physical one. Her heart thudding painfully, she wrapped her fingers in Gabrielle's hair and gently pulled her away. "No more." She shook her head, smiling. "W wait "
The bard looked up and grinned, a glazed, far away look haunting her eyes. "I won." She whispered, smiling tenderly and Xena laughed in response.
"Yes you did." She pulled the bard up and wrapped her arms around her, holding her tight. "So did I."
Gabrielle nodded. "I think I liked that very much."
"I know." Xena brushed the hair out of her eyes and kissed her gently, her blood racing at the smell and taste of her. "I knew you would. I knew you'd be good at conquest."
"You did?" the bard smiled, delighted. "How did you know?" She turned on her side, allowing the warrior to curve around behind her and drape an arm over her side. She backed up as far as she could, wanting to be as close as possible.
Xena waited for her to stop moving, then snuggled in even closer. Closing her hand over a taut nipple and breast, she sighed, a huge smile claiming her lips. "I just knew." She kissed the bard's neck, reveling at the gooseflesh her lips left behind. "Zo isn't the only one with the heart of an Amazon."
Smiling, Gabrielle closed her eyes and faded off to sleep. Xena followed shortly after her, her heart wrapped securely in the embrace of her arms.
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