Gabrielle stirred and saw Xena sheathing her sword.
"Wait for me here," Xena said. "If you have to go
outside, keep out of sight."
"Why don't I do some scouting in the village?" Gabrielle
suggested. "They won't be looking for me."
"Yes, they will."
"They don't know me from Hera."
"Yes, they do." Xena's face was turned away from her.
"Treman's scouts know you."
Gabrielle looked at her in confusion.
"They saw us together last night." Xena met her gaze.
"I was sitting with them."
Gabrielle's eyes widened, and Xena turned away again with a scowl.
She hadn't seen it coming. She had let her guard down, kissing Gabrielle
in front of them, showing off. If she hadn't, Gabrielle could blend in
safely with the crowd. "I'm sorry. I should have been more
"I guess you can't trust anyone these
days," Gabrielle said lightly. She didn't like the look on Xena's
face. "Hey - before you go, I need to ask you something." She
rose and walked over to her.
"What is it?"
She ran her fingers down Xena's forearm and
smiled suggestively. "Did you have a good time last night?"
As she hoped, Xena's focus shifted from
reproaching herself to answering her lover's playful question. Xena
lowered her eyes, pretending to concentrate. "Hmm . . . last night
. . . ." She shook her head, unable to remember.
"Well, if that's all the impact it had, I
won't bother you again."
Xena grinned and encircled Gabrielle in her
arms. "Oh, I think you'll bother me all right. You bother me every
time I look at you." She ran her hands across the brown cloth.
Gabrielle smiled and raised her face for a
* * * * *
Xena climbed the dozen rungs into the loft, frowning as she peered
over the edge; Gabrielle wasn't there. She sat and leaned against the
haystack, then jumped to her feet as it suddenly began to move. She
watched, an eyebrow raised, as a hay-covered figure emerged from inside
"Did I come at a bad time?"
"You know, a little warning would be nice here," Gabrielle
said. "Maybe something like 'It's me, Gabrielle.' Then I wouldn't
have to crawl inside that thing for no reason." The blonde woman
swept hay from her clothing.
"You missed some." Xena's hand brushed against her
Gabrielle looked up at her, shaking her head affectionately.
"How do you keep your mind on two things at once all the
Xena caressed her hip. "Some things don't require concentration.
They just come naturally."
"Did you talk to Seriades?"
"Yeah." Xena sat down again and retrieved something from a
small satchel. "I brought you some--"
"Yes!" Gabrielle snatched the bread and plopped down next
to her, sinking her teeth into it enthusiastically. "Mmm.
Xena watched her for a moment, then said flatly, "They'll
"Oh," Gabrielle said casually, trying to hide her
Xena thought about teaching her young friend a lesson about
practicalities. Gabrielle had conceived the plan; maybe she should
suggest that Gabrielle figure out how to implement it. She glanced at
her protege again, and smiled. Here she was, forced into hiding,
surrounded by a hostile army, yet taking such pleasure from eating a
piece of bread. The lesson could wait.
"I have a plan," she said.
"I knew you would!" Gabrielle slid her arms around Xena's
Xena looked into animated green eyes. The plan could wait a while
* * *
Gabrielle was broiling in her borrowed outfit: Long-sleeved blouse
wrapped into a thick, floor-length skirt, accessorized with a knotted
kerchief covering her head. She twisted an arm uncomfortably around her
"What's the matter?" Arian sat on a stump, watching every
move the beautiful blonde woman made.
"Nothing. Just hay. I've got scratches on my back and--."
Gabrielle cut short the complaint. "They itch."
"The hay scratched you through your clothing?"
"Ah." Gabrielle laughed self-consciously. "Yeah. Just
my luck, I guess." She smiled to herself. Actually, she felt lucky
that she'd only ended up with one splinter. She leaned in and stirred
the contents of the large kettle simmering over the fire.
"You probably don't need to stir that quite so often."
"I have to make sure none of the, um," she looked
meaningfully at Arian, "spice settles. That would give it too much
flavor, if you know what I mean."
Droplets of sweat ran down her forehead. She mopped her brow, then
tossed the drenched rag over her shoulder. "Arian, could you get me
a fresh rag? Actually, two rags," she amended. "Wet one of
them down." She stirred the pot again and leaned down to inhale the
deceptive aroma. It smelled delicious.
"You're Xena's friend." Gabrielle spun around, eyes
fearful. "So Xena must still be around somewhere."
She looked guardedly at the man standing before her. She vaguely
remembered seeing him with Xena the other night.
"My name's Jon. I won't give you away. But be careful of the
other men I was with. They'll recognize you." He glanced over her
shoulder. "Maris is headed this way. You'd better--" He
paused, then pulled Gabrielle roughly to him and kissed her, keeping her
face turned away from his colleague.
A deep laugh boomed from behind her. "Time enough for that
later, Jon. Treman wants to see you."
Jonarus affected an exaggerated scowl and started to walk away, then
stopped to pat Gabrielle's rear possessively. "I'll be back to
finish this," he said, leaning in to enhance his survey of her
backside. "Tell Xena I didn't betray her," he added quietly,
then joined his comrade as they headed for the common.
"Who was that?" Arian stood a few feet away, wide-eyed, two
rags hanging limply from her fingers.
"Thanks, Arian. I can handle it from here," Gabrielle said,
taking the rags from the girl's hands. "Go back to your parents'
"But I want to help!"
"No, Arian. Go back to the house." The girl did not move.
"All right, you want to help? Go tell Xena we're on schedule, and
see if she needs anything." Xena would send the girl home with no
guff. Gabrielle watched Arian scoot off, and bent to stir the pot again.
"Xena?" The girl whispered toward the loft.
The dark-haired woman leapt agilely to the ground beside her.
"What are you doing here?"
"Gabrielle sent me to tell you everything's on schedule. And to
see if you needed anything."
In other words, to get the girl out of her hair. Xena suppressed a
"And I think maybe she was worried about one of the
The warrior's eyes narrowed. "Why? What did he do?"
The girl lowered her head shyly. "He kissed her. And . . .
," she blushed, ". . . you know, touched her . . . ."
Xena's lip curled, then she caught herself and took a deep breath.
"Do you know which one it was?" she asked tonelessly.
"I don't know any of them by name," Adrian replied.
"They all look the same to me."
Another deep breath helped Xena remain calm. "OK. Thanks for the
information. Now go home and wait until you hear from us."
She waited a few minutes, then sneaked outside and made her way to
the outdoor kitchen on the edge of town. Crouching low on the roof of a
thatch house, she could see the unmistakable shape of her friend
standing next to the large kettle, blotting her forehead with a rag. The
temperature that close to the fire must be unbearable, Xena thought.
She hated to see Gabrielle toiling under these conditions, but they
didn't really have a choice. These simple villagers couldn't be counted
on to carry off such a bold deception, and Gabrielle was an outsider. If
she were caught, Treman might not take revenge on the whole village.
Xena made herself comfortable, or as close to it as she could get,
and watched over her lover until the sun began to set.
The soldiers lined up for their dinner, receiving first a helping of
potatoes from Cyllene. Next to the older woman, Gabrielle ladelled out
generous helpings of soup to each man.
Xena tensed as she spotted Jon in line, the other two scouts half a
dozen men behind him. Gabrielle was periodically scanning the line, and
Xena hoped she recognized them. The plan depended on the bard seeing
them before they saw her.
Chakram in hand, Xena watched through narrowed eyes as Jon approached
the servers. She raised partway up - No! Gabrielle didn't see
Xena gripped the chakram tightly. She would tear through every man in
that camp to get to Gabrielle if Jonarus raised the alarm. She cocked
her head, wary, as the man accepted his ration and strolled over to join
a group already started on their dinner.
She glanced back toward Gabrielle and was relieved to see the young
woman standing beside the large kettle, her back turned toward the
soldiers as she carefully stirred it. The line slowed as Cyllene dished
out both potatoes and the soup, but finally Maris and Herades were
through. A few moments later, Gabrielle returned to her serving duties.
So far so good. By Xena's count, all the men had gone through the
line except Treman. His dinner would be brought to his tent. All they
had to do now was wait.
* * *
Gabrielle slipped into the barn and climbed the rungs. She pulled
herself onto the floor and grinned at Xena, who sat near the hay pile.
"It worked great. They all ate the soup," she said excitedly.
"I've been up at Seriades', and he's getting them ready."
"Good." Xena watched her lover cross over to where her
clothes were stashed and strip off her borrowed clothing. "No
"Nope. It all went smoothly, just like you planned."
"Nothing to report, huh?"
Gabrielle looked at her quizzically. "No."
Xena pursed her lips. So Gabrielle wasn't going to tell her she'd
been bothered by one of the soldiers.
"Oh, I almost forgot. One of the men you were with -- Jon -- saw
me. He said to tell you he didn't betray you." Gabrielle dipped a
rag into a large water jug and bathed her face and torso with it.
"Man, it was hot out there." She ran the rag up her legs, then
Xena frowned. "I don't believe it."
"Hm? Oh, I do," Gabrielle said. "He warned me about
the others in line. I wasn't sure I'd recognize them. Good thing too; he
said they'd know me."
"Yeah. One of them in particular."
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows, waiting for clarification.
"Maris. He studied you pretty extensively that evening."
"Because I'm with you?"
"No, because he wanted to--" Xena held back the crudity.
"Because he liked you."
"Oh." Gabrielle wrinkled her nose at the distasteful
thought. "I can't imagine liking any of that bunch."
Which reminded her. "Who kissed you today, Gabrielle?"
"Kissed me?" Gabrielle rolled her eyes. Arian. She shook
her head. "No one. Well, I mean it was your friend Jon. He was just
keeping me from getting spotted; he wasn't trying anything." She
finished tying her tunic, and glanced over at the silent figure.
Gabrielle preferred to keep minor incidents like that from Xena as much
as possible. When Xena heard of -- or worse, saw -- someone putting a
hand on her, she could not always be reasoned with.
The bard drew her underwear on and started to reach for her own
shorter, infinitely more practical skirt. She looked over again at Xena,
who was still seated, and stopped short at the sight of blue eyes
burning into her. Heart pounding, Gabrielle obeyed the unspoken command
and slipped her underwear off, standing still while Xena's gaze lowered.
Xena locked eyes with her again, impelling Gabrielle forward until
the younger woman stood directly before her. Xena grasped her hips as
she bent to the golden triangle between Gabrielle's legs. Gabrielle
closed her eyes.
A short while later, a faint noise from below disturbed them. "Xena?"
It was Arian's muted whisper. Gabrielle hurried over to retrieve her
underwear, at the same time tossing the wet rag to Xena, who ran it
across her mouth. They heard light steps on the rungs, and then Arian's
head popped over the ledge.
"Are you all right? I thought I heard something."
"We're fine," Xena said. "What are you doing
"You wanted to know when the men were all asleep."
"Have you told your father?"
"Yes. Everyone's ready."
Damn. Xena frowned at Gabrielle, who shrugged. It couldn't be helped.
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing," Xena replied, a little tersely. "I'm
coming. You know where to meet us, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle nodded, and Xena followed the village girl down the ladder.
If they were lucky, they'd have a full day's head start before Treman
and his men regained consciousness. It was also possible that Treman
might not follow them, but Xena wasn't counting on it. At least she'd
have more flexibility in dealing with their pursuers once they left
* * *
The pleasant early morning coolness had dissipated with the
appearance of the sun, which now bore down on them from overhead. At the
moment, however, Gabrielle's mind was not on the heat. Not on that
heat, anyway. She glanced up again at the slender boot, that muscular
thigh, imagining it wrapped around her . . . .
"Aah!" The bard's foot caught on a rock, and she stumbled
into the villager in front of her, knocking him to the ground.
"Sorry." She helped the man to his feet, but when she
straightened she saw that Xena was no longer riding beside her.
Gabrielle frowned, wanting to continue her study, then realized that she
had an equally tantalizing view from behind.
"Oops, sorry." She helped Tarras up again. "Clumsy
"Gabrielle!" Xena beckoned to her, and she ran to the front
of the line.
"Get up behind me. We need to check the road ahead." The
warrior helped Gabrielle into the saddle, then leaned down to speak with
Seriades. "Have everyone rest for a while. They may not get another
chance until we make camp. We'll be back."
As they rode forward, Xena checked carefully for signs of other
recent travellers, then suddenly brought Argo to a halt and jumped down.
Gabrielle lowered herself to the ground, clinging to the saddle, and ran
to see what Xena was looking for.
She followed Xena's tracks, which stopped--
Whoosh! She felt herself pulled behind a broad tree, and a strong arm
wrapped itself tightly around her stomach, drawing her backward. Her
captor spoke. "You've got to watch where you're going,
"I was following you."
"I mean back there. You're not paying attention."
Gabrielle colored. "Well, I'm sort of paying attention . .
"Yeah, I know what you're paying attention to."
The arm around her stomach pressed Gabrielle's back and hips into
pliant leather, while the other hand slid onto her thigh. Gabrielle
"Uh huh. I thought so."
Insistent hands reached under Gabrielle's skirt and pulled down her
underwear, then the arm resumed its hold around her waist.
"Out here? In the open?" Gabrielle asked, her protest
"We've got to get your mind back to business."
A hand urged Gabrielle's legs apart, then slid between them.
Gabrielle leaned back against her lover, moaning.
"Mmm. You definitely haven't been paying attention." Gentle
fingers probed the wetness between her legs and she leaned her head
against a broad shoulder, her excitement heightened at the thought of
her bare hips pressing against Xena's leather. She felt Xena shift her
body, but her focus was on the persistent stroking of skilled fingers,
bringing her closer . . . .
Gabrielle jerked forward, her body held in place by the strong arm
around her waist. She cried out as she shuddered, wonderfully trapped
between the arm and soft leather. Eyes closed, she leaned back, an
extended groan accompanying her release.
She started to straighten. "Wait." The hand, fingers still
wet, clasped Gabrielle's thigh, and the bard's eyes widened in
excitement as she realized that Xena was pressing against her. "Unnh
. . . ." Xena surged into her, tightening her embrace, and
Gabrielle took in the sound of her lover's soft groan.
After a moment, Xena's grip relaxed. Gabrielle leaned against her a
while longer, then turned around, a look of surprised pleasure on her
"Wow . . . . through your leather?" She started to reach
between Xena's legs, but Xena caught the curious hand. A sly grin formed
on Gabrielle's face. "I guess I wasn't the only one not paying
Xena pursed her lips, smiling. "Give me a break."
"Come on." Xena jerked her head toward Argo. "Let's
Gabrielle straightened her clothing and followed Xena back to the
* * *
A few hours of daylight remained when Xena dismounted and turned to
Seriades. "The path splits from the road over that second
hill," she said, pointing into the distance ahead of them. "It
gets a little complicated after that, but Gabrielle will lead you."
Gabrielle's eyes widened. She started to speak, but Xena took her arm
and quickly walked her past the line of villagers.
"I'll lead them?" Gabrielle asked. "I don't
even know where we are right now. And where are you going?"
"You can do it. I'll tell you where to go." Gabrielle began
to shake her head. "I'm counting on you, Gabrielle."
The bard closed her eyes, resigned. "Where are you going?"
"I'm going to head back and see if Treman's coming after
"And if he is?"
Xena looked at her, and Gabrielle sighed. "Great. You'll be
fighting off fifty of Treman's men, and I'll be getting these people
totally lost until we all die of thirst."
"See, I knew you'd get into it." Gabrielle did not smile.
"Come on, Gabrielle. We don't have much time."
Half an hour later, Xena prepared to mount up. She positioned Argo
between them and their travelling companions, and took Gabrielle into
her arms. "I'll be back," she said.
Gabrielle put her arms around Xena's neck and the taller woman leaned
down for a goodbye kiss, which became a little more passionate than
either had intended.
"Xena--" Seriades stepped into view and stopped short, his
The kiss ended, but Xena did not release Gabrielle from her embrace.
"Uh . . . ." The villager clearly had forgotten what he was
going to say.
Xena turned her attention back to Gabrielle, giving her a final peck
on the lips. "Be careful," she said.
She climbed into the saddle and took the reins.
* * *
Gabrielle watched the warrior gallop off into the distance, then
turned to Seriades, giving him an opportunity to say something if he
wanted to. Finally, he spoke. "Uh . . . I think everyone's OK to
start again, if you want."
"Good. Let's get going." She started toward the others,
then stopped. If anyone saw the look on his face . . . . "Seriades,
do you have a problem with anything?"
He shook his head, but the stunned expression remained.
"Does the fact that Xena and I are lovers bother you?" she
He looked up at her, his eyes even wider, and shook his head again.
"Because you're looking at me now like I'm some kind of
That did it. Seriades was a good man. Gabrielle knew he would be
bothered more by the thought that he had hurt someone than by anything
he had seen. "I'm sorry," he said, reaching a hand out to her,
the spell broken.
"It's OK. Come on. We've got another couple of hours before
dark." They made their way to the front of the line.
* * *
Xena let Argo choose her speed; in spite of the heat, the horse was
enjoying a fast pace. They slowed at the site where the road from town
formed a trident, splitting into three narrower roads, and she jumped
down to scan the area, planning her course of action.
Suddenly Xena froze, sensing . . . something. She pulled her sword.
"Come out now and I might let you live."
"Hey, just me." Jon stepped out from behind a rock
outcropping. Xena kept her sword pointed at him.
"I'm not your enemy, Xena."
"You scouted that village for Treman."
"Yes, I did. I learned from the best, you know." He took in
the warrior's expressionless face. "When I found out you were
there, I tried to talk Treman into holding off, but Herades and Maris
told him about you and your friend, and he wouldn't wait. He was pretty
disappointed when he thought you'd left," he continued. "He
almost accused me of warning you, but they told him I was with them the
whole time. He decided it was just bad timing."
"What are you doing here now?" Xena asked.
"I saw your friend," he said. "I didn't think you'd
expose her to danger unless it was important, so I figured there must be
something wrong with the food. I didn't eat mine."
"That doesn't tell me what you're doing here."
"I'm here to help you."
"Call it loyalty."
"Call it lying."
"I'm not, Xena. Whatever else you may have done as a commander,
you were always fair with me."
She stared at him for a long moment. "What happened when you
went home to run your father's farm with . . . .?"
"Assila? She left me after six months. Said she couldn't compete
with you; said I was in love with you."
Jon laughed. "I said 'So? So are 90 percent of her men.' She
didn't see the humor in it."
Xena didn't really think Jon found it humorous either, but she didn't
have time to analyze this new information. She sheathed her sword.
"Is Treman going to follow us?"
"Yeah. Of course, as you know, someone let all the horses go.
One of them came back, by the way." He gestured at the mount behind
him. "Treman figures you're behind it, so he's sending men on foot.
As soon as the dizziness wears off, of course. He figures his men can
make time on a hundred villagers even with a head start; in the
meantime, he sent his healthiest scout to find you." He held his
arms out. "And here I am."
"How many men is he sending?"
"Twenty. Shouldn't be a problem between the two of us."
"The two of us?" Xena repeated. "You're going to take
on Treman? You know what he'll do to you if he finds out." She knew
what she would have done to him if he had ever betrayed her.
"I'm dead anyway, Xena."
She looked at him.
"For once I get to fight the good fight."
* * *
Gabrielle wound her way through the crowded campsite, checking on her
wards, trying to keep her mind from wondering where Xena was, what she
was doing . . . .
"Hey, let's keep that fire down," she said.
She continued her inspection, attempting to convey a confidence she
didn't really feel, until she reached her own bedroll. She settled under
the blanket and stared out into the night, wondering where Xena was, and
what she was doing . . . .
* * *
Xena stripped flesh from bone with her teeth, thinking to herself
that the hare would have tasted better if Gabrielle had cooked it. She
laid the bone on a rag, careful not to leave any evidence of their
dinner; later they would cover the signs of their small campfire. She
took a sip of water and stretched her legs, then pulled her breast
dagger out and began to clean her nails.
She sensed Jon looking at her, but she had long since learned how to
ignore the uninvited stares of men.
"This takes me back, Xena."
She smiled slightly.
"I used to look at you when you sat next to the campfire. You're
"Jon . . . ." She met his eyes. "I'm committed."
He stared at her for a moment, then lowered his gaze. "That
"I can't figure it out, Xena. You always went for a different
"Were you keeping track of my love life?"
He laughed. "No, but it wasn't exactly a secret, Xena. And it
wasn't young girls."
"She's not a girl. You've seen her." She glanced up from
her task. "In fact, you've done more than that, haven't you?"
He held out his hands. "Whoa, Xena, that was just to protect
her. Maris was coming." He tried to read her expression. "She
told you about that, huh?"
"As a matter of fact, she didn't. I heard about it from someone
"That's all it was. I swear."
Cool blue eyes met his. "Good." She smiled, but somehow the
Warrior Princess could seem even more threatening when she was smiling.
This was a Xena he recognized. "I don't like it when anyone touches
her." She turned her gaze back to the dagger, holding it up toward
the firelight. The campfire crackled in the silence.
* * *
They were on the move again at first light. For once, Gabrielle had
been happy to get up early. Without the warmth of Xena's body next to
her, her own body had convinced itself she was cold. Another blanket did
not provide what she needed, and she finally just lay there, waiting for
the sun to rise.
The terrain was getting rougher. As she picked her way gingerly
through overgrown foliage and increasingly massive boulders, she took
Xena's word for it that this would lead them to a new Versi, and tried
to put aside her growing fear that she had missed a turnoff somewhere.
Seriades came up beside her. "Uh, Gabrielle . . . ." He
hesitated. "Are you sure this is . . . ?"
Gabrielle laughed, doing her best to sound confident. "Hey, you
wanted isolation, you got it." She hoped.
* * *
Xena stood and examined their handiwork. They had managed to
obliterate tracks for a good distance on all three prongs of the trident
in the road. It should confuse their pursuers for a moment: If they went
down one of the other two prongs, they would only have to be followed
and discouraged from turning back; if they chose the correct one, she'd
have to delay them another way.
Jon galloped up to her. "They're coming. Over that hill."
She nodded, staring at his back as he dismounted and led his horse
into the woods. She wanted to trust him, but she wasn't taking any
Jon turned back and started to speak, but the Warrior Princess wasn't
there. He paused and looked around, then finally stepped into the forest
and concealed himself among the trees.
* * *
Gabrielle was becoming more and more worried that she'd taken a wrong
turn. Xena had said it was rough terrain, but this was ridiculous. She
pulled another branch away from her head and released it.
She pivoted to see Seriades removing the wayward branch from his
face. "Sorry." At that moment she met his eyes, and saw her
own doubts reflected there. Gabrielle knew he wasn't the only one; she
had been hearing mild grumblings from farther down the line since before
She didn't know what to do. Xena should never have left her in charge
of this. What was she thinking? When Xena got back, she'd tell her just
what she thought about doing something so stupid. But in the meantime .
. . .
Gabrielle took a deep breath, put on the cheeriest face she could
muster, and turned to her exhausted followers. "Come on. It's up
ahead," she lied.
* * *
There were eighteen -- no, nineteen -- of them. Xena eyed them
silently from her perch, tensing as the soldiers approached the trident.
The group leaders mumbled together, shading their eyes, peering down the
roads for signs of travel on any of them. Xena felt a slight sense of
relief--if Jon had warned them, they would have been expecting it, and
would know which road to take.
The men formed into three groups, half a dozen starting down each
road. Xena frowned. The plan had worked; it wouldn't be much of a
After a few minutes, she started to climb down from the tree, then
paused to listen. She nodded; Jon was proceeding after his group. He
would circle around and come riding back toward them as Treman's scout,
convincing them they were on the right road. He was burning this bridge
Xena followed the first band until she was certain their shouts could
not carry to the others, then announced her presence. "Hi, fellas."
Six pairs of eyes widened at the sight of the Warrior Princess
standing right behind them. With a startling "yiyiyiyi," she
somersaulted over their heads to land in the road ahead of them.
"I'm sorry, but this road is temporarily closed," she said
The men spread out, muttering among themselves. "Don't kill her.
Treman wants her alive."
"Hmm. Does that mean Treman is still annoyed with me?" Xena
said. "You know, last time he sent men to bring me in alive, I had
to kill them all. Fourteen, as I recall." She cast her gaze over
the six of them. "You don't really want to do this. I'll let you
turn back right now."
Six men charged her at once with their swords raised. She kicked at
the hand closest to her, exposing a vulnerable stomach to her sword. The
next man's head snapped back as her elbow crushed his throat, and she
pulled his body into the path of another blade, skewering her assailant
as he tried to disengage his weapon from the dead weight. Two more
swordsmen swung at her and she jumped back, quickly leaning in to carve
deep slashes across their midriffs. Finally, she spun around and impaled
her remaining attacker as he raised his sword above her head.
Adrenalin still pumping, Xena stood motionless for a moment. She
found herself wishing Gabrielle were here, her thoughts turning to the
bard's sensuous lips . . . supple curves . . . . She closed her eyes,
then opened them suddenly, focusing. There were more misguided men she
needed to warn off.
* * *
Gabrielle suspected the group would lose confidence in her if she
started crying. It was the only thing holding her back after a long day
of pain from rocks and branches and thorns, getting more and more lost,
no place even to set up camp. She was pressing on now only because it
was too late to turn back.
She should tell Seriades. He deserved to know. Lifting an imposing
tree branch out of her way, she turned around in the same instant.
"Seriades--" The man's eyes were wide. "I'm not going to
let go of it," she said defensively. Geez. You do something one
time . . . . Suddenly Gabrielle noticed others in the line gaping at
something behind her with the same glassy look. Uh oh. Gabrielle
tightened the grip on her staff and swung it around with both hands,
letting go of the branch.
Thwack! She spun around and saw Seriades picking himself up off the
ground. "Sorry," she said automatically, then grabbed the
front of his shirt. "It's there!"
"I know," he said. "I saw it." They made their
way past the tree and gazed down at a splendid, pristine green valley.
Narrow, but more than enough room for what they needed. "How did
Xena know about this?" he asked.
"I don't know. Probably looking for a place to hide out
once," Gabrielle replied absently, mesmerized by the beautiful
scenery. Seriades glanced sideways at her but said nothing, grateful
only that the gods had sent these women to them.
* * *
Stirring the fire again, Gabrielle glanced down into the valley. In
the dark she could make out a couple of small fires, their light dwarfed
by that of the Versians' candles. Hundreds of them, outlining the
grounds where a village would later stand.
"What are you doing up here?"
"Xena!" She was up and in Xena's arms instantly. "I
didn't think you'd come tonight. That path is hard enough in the
"Aah, it wasn't that bad." That wasn't entirely true, but
nothing could have kept her from Gabrielle when she was that close.
"I had to leave Argo back a ways, though. We'll need to check on
her in the morning."
Gabrielle nodded, her head resting on Xena's chest.
"So what are you doing up here?" Xena asked again.
"They're having a ceremony," Gabrielle said. "You
know, sacred ground and all that." She grimaced. "It seemed
kind of private."
"Good. We can have our own private ceremony up here."
Gabrielle drew back and smiled up at her, then took Xena's hand and
led her to the fire. "You hungry?"
She handed Xena a generous piece of meat from her spit and gazed
lovingly while she ate. Xena squared her shoulders, then a moment later
shifted them again. Gabrielle walked over behind her and began to
massage the tired muscles.
"Mmm. That feels good."
"So how'd it go?"
"Fine. Jon helped."
"Yeah. Treman will be furious with him."
Gabrielle thought for a moment. "Why'd he help us?"
"He feels some loyalty toward me," Xena replied, leaving it
vague. "But I think it's more than that. He liked helping these
"Maybe he would have liked to join them." Xena did not
reply, and a suspicion began to form in Gabrielle's mind. "Did he
say anything about that?" she asked.
Her hands stopped moving on Xena's shoulders. "You wouldn't tell
him where they were going," she said.
"I had to protect these people, Gabrielle."
"But if he--"
"It's what he wants today. Who knows what he'll want a year from
now? It's not that easy to give up the life. I couldn't take the
chance." Xena didn't want to talk about it any more. She closed her
eyes, shutting out the image of his face during their last exchange.
She felt Gabrielle's hands begin their gentle motions again.
"So, are you sore anywhere else?" the bard asked. "You
know, a couple of days on the road can cause a person's whole body to
stiffen up if the right precautions aren't taken."
"Oh?" Xena smiled. "And what are those?"
"A full body massage is the least that's required. And then,
depending on what you find, other measures may have to be taken."
"Hmm. Well, if you feel it's really necessary . . . ."
"I'm afraid it is," Gabrielle said. "I will be
teaching you a variety of these measures so that you may apply them to
others when required." She paused. "Well, not to others. To
"One is all I want."
Xena felt Gabrielle's arms slide around her and she leaned back
against her, content.
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