Author's note: This was originally written and posted elsewhere a year ago, well before the events in The Return of Callisto, The Quest, etc. It has been rewritten somewhat to account for some of the changes, but I undoubtedly missed something, however, since Callisto can't seem to stay dead, I don't feel too bad. Imagine this is just the uniblonder's latest earthly appearance. As for Ephiny's appearance, that too doesn't quite jibe with more recent events (so shoot me, I honestly didn't think we'd see her again and I have tried to bring her more in line with the televised reality since this story first saw the light of day). On the other hand, it's still my favorite of the more serious things I've written.

Disclaimer: the following is not meant to infringe on any copyrights held by MCA Universal, or Renaissance Pictures. It contains sexual activities between consenting adults, so if you're too young to read such things, offended by them, or they're illegal in your neck of the woods, please leave now. For the rest of us, let the games begin.


By Pink Rabbit Productions

Callisto hated her latest prison. It was dark and dank and the guards constantly stared at her with a suggestive brand of lust that made even her skin crawl. Not that she was above using that sort of tool, but so far all her efforts had come to naught. As many times as she'd serviced the guards, she was still locked away in this foul place.

And it was all Xena's fault.

The warrior had destroyed her village and her family, burning it to the ground and creating her in the process. If Xena hadn't come along, she would never have become a brigand, never wound up in this place. It didn't occur to her that, whatever Xena had done, it had been her choice to become a thief and murderer.

No, as far as she was concerned, it was all Xena's fault.

She passed the time in that boring hole, plotting elaborate forms of revenge. She wouldn't kill Xena, at least not immediately. Instead, she'd make the warrior princess watch while she let every man in her army rape Gabrielle, and when they were done, she'd slit the little tramp's throat, and drain her blood on Xena. She'd burn her village, decapitate her mother, she'd even slaughter the witch's horse. Then, when everything Xena had ever cared for was carrion, she'd finish it, laughing while she gutted the warrior princess herself.

Revenge would be so very sweet.

"There really isn't any justice, is there?" the voice was warm, male, and sympathetic.

Callisto's eyes lifted to the dark haired man standing in the entrance to her cell, and she sighed softly. Ares. The God of War had favored her before, then forsaken her when she didn't follow his precise commands. A sneer twisted her lips. To her way of looking at things, he was useless. More interested in sex than revenge, and oh, so easy to manipulate. "What do you want?" she jeered.

Ares' eyes narrowed faintly. He didn't like her tone. Callisto never seemed to respect the fact that he could reduce her to dust with no more than a blink. It would be simple enough to return her to Hades dark realm. She could burn in Tartarus at his merest thought, and yet, still she defied him. Perversely enough, as mad as she was, and as frustrated as she made him, he almost liked her. Whatever else, she was true to her convictions.

"I said, 'what do you want?'" Callisto repeated the question, speaking slowly this time, as though she was talking to a half-wit.

Ares twitched free of his brief musings. "I have a small task for you," he responded smoothly.

Callisto let out a sharp bark of laughter. "Go to Tartarus," she hissed a moment later, the brief humor slipping away like quicksilver.

Ares had expected her to say as much, but he needed her, and he'd prepared his arguments well. He rapped the bars of her cell with his knuckles. "You shouldn't be here, you know... None of this would have happened if it weren't for Xena. She created you, after all, then she helped lock you up, time and time again,"

Callisto's eyes burned with maniacal intensity, and she was drawn to the argument, despite herself. As much as she hated the God, she needed someone...anyone to listen, and aid her in her mad quest to destroy the warrior princess. "Yes, her fault," she exhaled, her eyes sliding away from the God to another place and time. Once again, she saw the burning remains of Cirra, heard her mother's screams. Xena would pay.

"You do still want to punish her, don't you?" Somehow, the question sounded more like a tantalizing offer than a search for information.

Callisto's head snapped up, and she focused with effort. "Yes ," she snapped, the single word, and imbued it with a fortune in pure hatred.

He reached down, drawing her to her feet, then paced around behind her. A smooth hand touched her lank and dirty hair. "You're a beautiful woman," he whispered near her ear. "You shouldn't be trapped in this hole, forced to suffer the attentions of the guards just to get your daily bread. That's Xena's fault too."

"Yes," Callisto agreed dreamily, then snapped out of her momentary reverie. "I don't trust you," she growled suspiciously. She'd already spent enough time in Tartarus because of the God of War's failed plots. It completely slipped her mind that it was her own defiance that had allowed Xena to win their confrontation.

A smile touched his narrow lips. "You don't have much choice," he reminded her.

Suspicion still flickered in the blonde's dark eyes, but her manner suddenly became flirtatious. "A friend would get me out of here."

"Easier done than said," he dark suitor said agreeably.

Callisto's breath caught as she was transported to a gold gilded room, adorned in silk damask wall hangings. She spun to stare at the man who had brought her there. "Now, what is it you want?" she exhaled.

He reached out a hand, brushing his fingers lightly down her now clean hair. "A small that I think you'll enjoy..."

"Does it involve Xena? Will it help me kill her, and everything she loves?"

He tucked a finger under her chin. "Even better. I'll help you make sure she kills everything she loves. With my help, you'll destroy her from within."

"Then I'll kill her?" Callisto cackled.

Ares smiled smoothly. "You'll destroy everything that she's become."

Lost in her own hate, Callisto never noticed that he hadn't really confirmed her bloodlust.


A cool west wind blew Xena's hair away from her face, cooling any turmoil tumbling through her thoughts. Thoughts of the woman she had once been were a rare event, but she'd been thinking of that past life all day. Her eyes slipped closed, grateful that woman was dead and gone. Some days it was a struggle to keep her away, but she truly had changed. She was a different person now. Her eyes opened again to study a callused hand, noting the strength and old scars. For the briefest moment, she had a vision of her own fingers sliding over pale skin. No. Her hand fisted tightly. She had to banish those thoughts. Gabrielle deserved better.

Her gaze flicked up, noting the descending darkness with a hint of a frown. The thought of her companion reminded her that she should have been back from her bath by now. Even she didn't usually take this long. For reasons she couldn't quite name, Xena was suddenly on edge.

The sound of footsteps in the forest, too loud to be anyone but her companion, brought her head around. "Gabrielle, I...." She frowned, trailing off as she spotted the delicately made silhouette coming toward her. She tensed, uncertain what was wrong. The brief pause cost her dearly.

It gave Callisto the brief edge she needed. The brigand leapt from the cover of the forest, drawing the sword sheathed across her back.

Xena ducked the wild swing of Callisto's blade, scrambling backward to gain time and get her own weapon out of its scabbard. She danced out of the way of another swing, but couldn't get her feet firmly planted in time. She stumbled backward, struggling for balance as the madwoman continued to press her attack.

"I knew you'd think it was your little friend if I moved clumsily enough," Callisto taunted, slashing away with her sword.

Startled by the power behind the other woman's arm, Xena was forced to focus her entire attention on her own survival. She was just plotting a way to take her enemy down when something swept her feet out from under her. She didn't have time to wonder what had hit her as Callisto snapped a kick hard into her face. Momentarily blinded, she threw up her weapon, blocking the next blow by sound and instinct, then did a fast kip back up to her feet. She was just regaining her equilibrium when something wet and sticky spattered across her face.

She only had a moment to wonder what it was before brutal strains of agony washed through her, infecting every cell of her body. In the background Callisto's demented laughter echoed unheard by her victim. Xena's knees buckled, and she hit the soft, damp earth, sobbing as her life burned through her with every painful beat of her heart. She saw it all again; every battle, every killing, every act that had made her the warrior princess.

Fire ran through her veins, burning with every bitter emotion that had ever darkened her heart. Teeth chattering violently, she somehow got her head up, vision unfocused as she spotted Callisto, laughing only a few feet away. "Ares," she breathed as she saw the dark figure standing behind the blond warrior She swallowed hard, fighting the hate and rage threatening to overwhelm her. She licked her lips, tasting the bitter and dark bite of blood.

Ares' blood.

Callisto had infected her with Ares' blood.

"Damn you," Xena gasped, fighting to regain her feet. Lost in the tide of her own life, she couldn't do it. She slipped to the ground again, trembling as though frozen with cold. A hand dug into her hair and hauled her head up. Her vision was so blurry that she could barely make out Ares' arrogant smile.

"You're mine, Xena and you always will be."

"Never," she hissed, but she was already fighting a losing battle against the hate.

"Let me kill her now." Callisto inserted herself into Xena's line of vision.

A hint of a smirk crossed the god's handsome features. "Not yet," he said and waved her back. "We have things to do first." He smiled at Xena, his next words low and meant for her ears only. "And so do you, my princess." He stepped away and disappeared with Callisto, as though they'd never been there.

Xena coiled in on herself, knowing the bitter emotions welling in her chest weren't real. They were nothing more than Ares' latest plot. Anyone infected with Ares' blood had to face the darkest part of their soul, and her history had more darkness than light.

The god couldn't do the job himself. A single drop of his blood in the eyes could cause madness, even for himself.

So he'd gotten Callisto to do his dirty work.

She was, after all, mad already.

Xena never knew how long she lay there, caught in a tidal wave of her most savage self. It could have been minutes, hours or days.

"Xena," Gabrielle's melodious voice floated through the clearing, bringing the warrior princess' head up. "Sorry I took so long, but I stopped to check on Argo. She found a field of clover and is eating to her heart's content."

Xena exhaled, a faint smirk twisting her lips as she thought of her young companion. She sat up with feline grace, blinking against the darkness. Once again, she belonged to Ares. "Hello Gabrielle." Raw sensuality threaded through her low voice.

There was a brief pause, as though Gabrielle didn't quite know what to make of her friend's tone. "Are you all right?"

Xena chuckled softly. "Of course." She rose easily to her feet, movement graceful as she drew nearer to her young friend.

Gabrielle squinted against the darkness, then abruptly pulled up short as she spotted the dark blood spattered across her friend's face. "My God, Xena," she exclaimed as she hurried over. "What happened?" She reached out and would have touched the dark splotches, but Xena caught her wrist, peeling her hand back.

"It's nothing," she whispered.

"But, that looks like blood," Gabrielle said quickly. "Where are you hurt? Did you fall."

"No," Xena murmured. She grabbed the small cloth flung over Gabrielle's shoulder, using it to wipe the blood before hurling it away over her shoulder. "I just...sort of...found myself again." Xena stared down at her young friend. The blood lust called to her to slit the girl's throat, but the rising moon glowed on Gabrielle's red gold hair and pale skin, reminding the warrior princess just how beautiful the younger woman was. Another kind of lust gleamed in her eyes. It had been too long since she'd conquered anyone -- man or woman -- between the sheets. She fingered a stray of Gabrielle's damp silk hair. "Found you too," she added. Somewhere, a part of her screamed out, fighting what was coming.

Gabrielle flinched at the odd note in her friend's voice. "I...are you all right?"

"Oh, I'm better than all right," Xena drawled. She slipped her hand into Gabrielle's hair, curving her fingers to the back of the younger woman's head. "And soon, I'll be even better."

"Xena," Gabrielle questioned uneasily. "What are you doing?"

"The fact that you don't know the answer means I've been very remiss in your education."

"Xena, you're scaring me," Gabrielle stammered.

Straight, white teeth gleamed in the darkness as the warrior princess grinned. "Good." She hauled the smaller woman against her chest, mouth finding Gabrielle's lips with heated intensity. She drove her tongue deep into the girl's mouth, taking everything she wanted.

Caught by surprise, Gabrielle was momentarily paralyzed. Abruptly, she jerked her head back and tried to twist free.

She never had a chance.

Xena slapped her hard enough to rattle her teeth, then grabbed her by the wrists, using her whip to bind the young woman's hands together. She shoved Gabrielle back against a tree, forcing her wrists high, pressing them against the rough bark. Driven through the rope and deep into the tree behind, her breast dagger pinned the bard effectively.

"I've waited too long for this," Xena breathed as she stared down at the young woman, and slid her hands down her graceful curves, searching out the easy rises and hollows of warm flesh.

Gabrielle didn't understand what she heard in her friend's voice, but she could sense the resurging darkness. "Please, don't do this."

Xena caught Gabrielle's chin between her thumb and forefinger. "You are very beautiful," she murmured thoughtfully. "But you need to learn manners." She slapped Gabrielle again, snapping her head sideways with the force of the blow. She leaned in close to Gabrielle's ear, her warm breath ruffling the wispy hair at the younger woman's temple. "Don't ever resist me again."

"This isn't you," Gabrielle choked.

"Oh, it's me. The real me," Xena disagreed, shaping her hands to Gabrielle's narrow waist. She fumbled with the girl's top, freeing her breasts as she reclaimed her lips. There was nothing tender about the way she handled her friend. It was all raw, rough-edged sexuality. Her tongue explored the depths of her captive's mouth while her hands slid over newly bared flesh.

Despite her fear, Gabrielle was shocked to feel the hard burn of arousal. It was like nothing she'd ever experienced. Certainly Perdicus's fumbling efforts at lovemaking and her own self-pleasuring had never prepared her for this kind of sensual assault. It was a twisted version of her own fantasies, but instead of love there was an edge of violence to the act that horrified her.

Caught in the need to conquer, Xena pushed a hand under her skirt, cupping intimate flesh through the flimsy barrier of her underclothes. Gabrielle gasped sharply, struggling wildly, but Xena gave her no quarter.

"That's right," Xena praised, then ducked her head to taste the smooth curve of her breasts. "You'll make a good little slave."

"No, please," Gabrielle begged, tormented by Xena's touch and her own body. Tears slipped out over smoothly rounded cheeks. She'd had fantasies about Xena, even suspected they were both moving toward acting on them. In her dreams she'd pictured touching the dark haired amazon's beautiful body, touching her and loving her, but she didn't want it to happen like this, fraught with anger and violence.

Some part of the girl's terror must have cracked through the wall of anger formed by Ares' blood, because Xena abruptly jerked back, staring down into Gabrielle's pale features. That better part of herself fought for control. "You have to get away," she gasped as though struggling for air.

Gabrielle pulled at the whip and knife binding her to the tree, struggling, without success to regain her freedom. "I can't," she panted.

Xena's eyes slid over Gabrielle from head to toe. "You are so beautiful," she exhaled, lips pulling back to bare perfect white teeth. "And I want you so much." Suddenly, she stumbled back another step, groaning, "No." She threw up a hand, as if to ward off an attack. Her teeth chattered with the intensity of the internal struggle going on. "You have to get away," she repeated.

Gabrielle struggled even more wildly, but couldn't get loose.

Argo entered edge of the small clearing, whickering softly. Her dark eyes swung back and forth between the two humans, sensing the tumult of emotions and the change in her mistress.

Xena's hand brushed the chakram hanging from her hip. She closed her fingers around the smooth metal surface.

Gabrielle saw the circlet come free into Xena's hand, saw the warrior's hand pull back into a throwing position, and froze. Xena's eyes were tormented, but her hand was steady. "No, oh, no," Gabrielle breathed almost inaudibly, her eyes locked on the thing like a deer just before the arrow struck.

Xena hurled the chakram.

Gabrielle let out a sharp shriek, twisting her face away from the sight of her impending doom. She heard the solid thunk as the chakram tore through soft leather and bit deep into wood. It took her a heartbeat to realize weapon hadn't struck her. It had torn through the leather whip imprisoning her against the tree. She yanked her hands down, jerking them free of the last of the leather bindings. She would have stumbled toward her friend, but Xena waved her back.

"I can't fight it, much longer," the warrior princess gasped. "Take the chakram...and Argo...and go."


"Go!!" Xena screamed, tumbling to her knees.

Gabrielle tore the chakram from the thick bark and whistled. Argo appeared torn, staring back and forth between her mistress and Gabrielle. She barely tolerated the bard most of the time, but her mistress was behaving strangely.

Xena let out a howl of raw rage as she lost control of the fury and it washed over her, unchecked.

"Argo!" the bard shouted and raced for the horse.

"NO!" Xena roared. Her lost sword lay within reach. She wrapped her hands around the hilt, hurling it with terrifying accuracy.

Gabrielle dove forward, nearly avoiding the weapon entirely. She felt a sharp burn as it sliced along her left bicep before thudding into a nearby tree. She glanced back, picking out the impression of her friend leaping for her feet. The threat added wings to Gabrielle's feet. She caught hold of the pommel of Argo's saddle and swung up. For once the big horse didn't argue with her. She caught the reins and tightened her knees, whistling once as she urged the mount forward.

"DAMN YOU!!" Xena howled, hurtling toward the horse and bard.

Gabrielle felt the animal lunge as Xena hit her leg, fingers clawing into soft flesh as she tried to bring her down. Panicked, Gabrielle somehow managed to kick her off and maintain a seat on Argo. She could still hear Xena screaming at her as she galloped away.

Never a very good rider, Gabrielle was doing well to hang on to the desperately fleeing horse. Confused by the change in her mistress, Argo gave way to panic, running until her flanks were lathered and her breath came in labored gasps. Realizing the animal might well run herself to death, Gabrielle put every muscle to the task and managed to pull her head up, pulling the heavily muscled warhorse to a stop.

Shaking hard, she stared around herself, needing time to think. After a moment, she abruptly realized she was still clutching Xena's chakram along with the reins. Her grip was so tight that the sharp edge of the circlet had cut deeply into her hand. Concentrating to make her hand relax, she slowly opened her fingers and looped the chakram over the saddlehorn. "By the gods, Argo," she whispered, leaning over to press her cheek against the horse's sweaty neck. "What are we going to do?"

The animal whickered softly, as if to answer the question. Gabrielle sniffled against the hot burn of tears clogging her throat. She had never thought Xena could hurt her, but now she wasn't so certain. Something had happened and she didn't know how to fight it.

She needed help. "Concentrate...focus," she panted over and over. Suddenly, she sat bolt upright. "Mitoa...Marmax," She was only three or four days ride from the small city-state. Since they'd made peace with Thessily. She should be able to make the journey with relative ease. The Mitoan general would help if he could. She glanced down at her bleeding arm. And she needed help if she was going to help Xena without getting killed in the process.


Gabrielle found the correct road and rode all night, clinging to Argo when she might have fallen off from sheer exhaustion. The next three days passed by in a blur. Once or twice, men moving along the narrow trail looked at her with hunger, but none were willing to brave Argo's slashing hooves for a chance at the bard, and she escaped unharmed. Finally, she pulled Argo to a halt in front of the walled keep that protected the Mitoan border.

A guard snapped a pike in front of her with the harsh demand. "What business have you, in Mitoa?"

Gabrielle blinked, focusing on the speaker with considerable effort. "I must meet with General Marmax."

A smirk twisted the guard's sharp features. " Somehow, I don't think King Marmax'd appreciate being bothered to meet with a scrap like you."

"Please," Gabrielle begged, fighting just to stay upright in the saddle. She grabbed the chakram off the saddlehorn and held it out. "If someone will just show this to him and tell him that Gabrielle needs to speak to him, I know he'll see me."

The guard took the weapon out of her hand and peered at it for a long moment, a frown marring his features. He looked at the circlet, then back up at the woman on the horse. He'd heard tales of such a weapon in the hands of a female warrior in the war against Thessily, but this child hardly looked the part. Still, if it was her, Marmax would have his head if he turned her away. "Wait here," he ordered and stepped back, waving to another guard. "Keep an eye on her," he told the man as he hurried back toward the keep.

Gabrielle lost all track of time as they waited. She leaned into Argo's strong neck, taking comfort from the horse's warm strength.


Her name brought her head up and she shook her head, blinking to refocus as she made out Marmax's broad shouldered form coming toward her. It took her a moment to recognize the slender blond keeping pace with him. "Ephiny?" she exhaled, grateful to see the Amazon, particularly at such an awful time. She must have decided to stay while she decided whether or not to go back to the Amazons. A hint of a smile touched her mouth at the thought of seeing her godson, then her eyes rolled back in her head.

Marmax reached Argo just as Gabrielle toppled sideways. He caught her easily.

"Is she hurt?" Ephiny demanded as she drew close.

The former general brushed the girl's hair away from her face. "I don't know." He readjusted her in his arms. "Let's get her inside, an d get a better look." He glanced at the guard. "See to her horse. I want her in the royal stables, well fed and groomed...understood?"

"Yes, sir."


Gabrielle came awake with a start, gasping for air as though coming up from too long underwater. A comforting hand landed on her forehead.

"Easy, Gabrielle. You're safe here."

She swallowed hard, wetting her dry lips. "Ephiny," her eyes slid past the amazon to the man behind her. "Marmax,"

"You're safe in Mitoa. What happened? Where's Xena?"

Gabrielle sat up, wincing as she used her injured arm. Someone had bandaged it while she lay unconscious, but it still hurt. "I don't know," she admitted. "The last time I saw her, she was about four days ride, south of here."

Ephiny gently brushed stray bangs away from Gabrielle's gentle features. "What happened? Who hurt you?" she repeated Marmax's question and added one of her own.

Gabrielle blinked and suddenly found herself fighting tears. "It was Xena," she husked. "When I got back from my bath, she was different...somehow...she tried"

"What?" Ephiny pressed.

Gabrielle caught her lower lip between her teeth and shook her head. She swallowed hard, fighting for control. "She had blood on her face...I thought she'd hurt herself, but she said she hadn't," she wrapped her arms tightly around her midsection, rocking gently as she tried to get the story out. Her eyes lifted to meet Ephiny's. "It was like she'd become someone else...She...she...tied me...with her whip...and...." Gabrielle shook her head, unable to continue. She didn't see the looks traded between the newly crowned king and former Amazon.

"Marmax, why don't you leave me alone with Gabrielle for a few minutes," Ephiny whispered at last.

The former general nodded slowly. "I'll be just outside, if you need me." He slipped out, tugging the door closed in his wake.

Gabrielle's eyes lifted and she stared at the door for a moment, before looking back to Ephiny. "I didn't expect to find you here."

Ephiny shrugged, linking hands with the bard. "Xenon is still to young for the road and I'm not sure an Amazon camp is the best place for a baby Centaur anyway," she murmured, something of her own worries momentarily showing in her expression. "Since they've no great trust for each other, both the Mitoans and the Thessileans agreed to have me mediate their peace agreements." She shrugged. "Now, why are you here?"

"Marmax is a good man," Gabrielle sniffed.

"I know," Ephiny exhaled before changing the subject. "What happened?"

Gabrielle just shook her head. "It wasn't her," she choked at last. "I don't know what happened, but it wasn't her. She wouldn't...." she trailed off.

"Wouldn't what?" Ephiny pressed.

Gabrielle didn't respond.

Ephiny brushed a hand over the younger woman's lank and dirty hair, her touch gentle. She suspected she knew exactly what was wrong and the idea horrified her. "She hurt you, didn't she?"

Gabrielle nodded slowly. "She said I'd make a good slave," she whispered with remembered horror.

Ephiny flinched from the words, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly before she spoke. "Gabrielle," she began carefully. "I'm going to ask you a question and I need you to answer honestly, no matter how hard it is."

The bard nodded very slowly.

"Did Xena rape you?"

Gabrielle paled, and her jaw worked soundlessly for a long moment. "I don't...I don' could she,"

Ephiny caught the younger woman's chin in her hand. "If she forced you to do something, that was rape...and it wasn't your fault."

"But, I'd thought about...touching her...I wanted to,"

"Gabrielle, what you wanted was love, not force."

"But two women can't--"

Ephiny laid a finger across her lips, silencing her. "Among the Amazons, love between women is far more common and accepted than with a man...I've seen the way you look at Xena...the way she looks at you. You're in love with her, aren't you?"

Gabrielle didn't know how to answer. "She's so amazing...I just want to be with her."

Ephiny would have bet her own life that Xena was equally in love with her young companion. Which only made all of this that much harder to understand. "She forced you...."

"I think she started to," Gabrielle admitted in a dead voice. "But...she pulled away...she threw the chakram and freed my wrists...I don 't understand. Why would she do it?"

"You said she had blood on her face when you got back?"

Gabrielle nodded.

"Did it touch you, anywhere?"

A slow shake of the head.

"She tied you up and attacked you, but then let you go?"

Gabrielle nodded. "We hadn't had a fight or anything. It was like she was fighting herself."

Ephiny's gaze became distant. "Maybe she was," she murmured.

Gabrielle frowned. "I don't understand."

Ephiny pulled free of her silent musings. "Xena's had a few run-ins with Ares, hasn't she?"

Another nod.

"That's got to be it," Ephiny swore and jerked away from the bed, pacing to let off tension.


Ephiny spun on her heel. "Ares' blood," she whispered intently. "It must have been Ares' blood. He used it to infect her with her own bloodlust."

Gabrielle's confused expression said it all.

Ephiny hastened to explain. "There's a legend that Ares' blood makes you face your own dark side. It...infects...with the desire for power, or blood...brings out the worst part of the soul."

"And you think that's what happened to Xena?"

Ephiny nodded quickly and went back to pacing. "She still had enough control to protect you,"

Gabrielle nodded. "She told me to get away from her."

"It was good advice. The gods only know how long she could hold the madness at bay. With her past, it must be overwhelming." She moved to the door and called Marmax back, explaining quickly.

"We need to get soldiers on the border and warn Thessily," Marmax murmured.

Gabrielle pushed off the bed. "You don't understand, we need to find a way to help her."

Marmax and Ephiny traded meaningful looks.

"She'll be raising an army," the former Amazon explained. "If we don't move to guard our borders, she could ride right over us."

"We should be trying to find a way to help her, not planning to attack her," Gabrielle broke in.

"We're not planning to attack her," Marmax explained gently. "Just to protect ourselves if she attacks us."

"You have to understand, Gabrielle," Ephiny added. "If Xena truly has been infected by Ares' blood, she's very dangerous. We have to be ready to deal with that."

Gabrielle could only nod, her throat tight with unshed tears. Finally, she managed to whisper raggedly, "If she does show up," her eyes rose to meet Ephiny's with open determination. "I'm going to try and save her."

Both Ephiny and Marmax nodded in understanding.

"Is there anything you know that can help me?"

Marmax shook his head, while Ephiny shrugged.

"They say that Aphrodite's tears can wash away the blood, but I don't know if it's true."

"I'll find a way," Gabrielle swore.

Marmax patted her head lightly. "Get some sleep now. You're exhausted."

Ephiny curved her fingers around the younger woman's palm. "I'll sit with you until you're asleep, if you like," she offered.

Gabrielle shook her head. "I'll be okay," she lied none too believably.

"Are you sure?"

Gabrielle nodded jerkily, waiting until the two had left her alone before she dissolved into ragged sobs.


Gabrielle allowed Marmax and Ephiny to talk her into resting for nearly two weeks before the need to do something became too strong for her to stay any longer. She used the time to learn all she could about Ares from the temple priests and improving her skills with a staff by sparring with Ephiny.

Ephiny leaned against the stable door as she watched Gabrielle pack her supplies onto Argo's broad back. There was a new seriousness to the young woman as well as a sense of purpose to her movements. Ephiny frowned worriedly. If she had her way, Gabrielle wouldn't be leaving. She was far too inexperienced for what she intended. She and Marmax had both tried to talk her out of leaving, but she was determined not to heed their advice.

"I know you don't approve," Gabrielle murmured knowingly. Her eyes swung up, meeting Ephiny's. "But I have to do this. Your own temple priests say the Oracle at Apollonia may know a way to help Xena."

"I just wish you'd stay here until we know more,"

"Every day I stay here is one more day that Ares' blood has a chance to further corrupt Xena." She took her staff from Ephiny, automatically weighing it and settling the balance point in her hand. She wore a loose shirt and breaches under a heavy cape. From a distance she might pass for a young boy, if a watcher didn't look too closely. That was fine with her. The last thing she wanted was any additional notice on the road.

"Don't get into any fights, if you don't have to," Ephiny advised grimly. She'd been working out with Gabrielle and knew the girl's skills. She was solid enough to deal with most of the scum that traveled the highways and might be inclined to bother a woman alone, but the gods only knew what would happen if she came up against someone really skilled.

"I know." Gabrielle looked up, a wry smile twisting her lips. "Xena me taught to run if I could and talk my way out of the situation if I couldn't."

"You remember that," Ephiny reinforced the lesson.

Gabrielle turned away from Argo, finally ready to leave. The two women shared a hard hug that was just breaking up as Marmax entered.

The Mitoan King smiled gently as his eyes alighted on the two women.

"It's time," Gabrielle said very softly, her voice threatening to crack with emotion.

Marmax nodded, then enfolded her in a hard bear hug. "You be careful," he told her, his voice ragged. In an odd way, he almost thought of her like a daughter.

"I will be," she assured him, then pivoted and climbed up on Argo. It was odd, but the mare had accepted her since their late night flight from Xena. She caught the reins, knees tightening on the horse's flanks as she settled herself into the saddle. "Don't worry. I'll be all right."

Moments later, she and Argo were on their way at an easy lope.

"I once said she didn't belong in a war zone. Now, I'm letting her go alone into one." Marmax shook his head, sighing heavily.

"She'll be all right," Ephiny said with more confidence than she was feeling. "She's smart...and determined."


Marmax received word of Xena within a week of Gabrielle's departure. The warrior princess was raising an army of mercenaries. Already they had taken a village a week's hard ride away. The news gave Marmax some hope that they'd have time to prepare. Gabrielle had left the warrior princess three days ride south. The village was even farther to the south. With luck, Xena and her army would be headed away from Mitoa for a little while longer.


On the road, Gabrielle heard the rumors and saw the fleeing refugees. Already her friend was on the warpath again. The news only increased her resolve to do something to save her.


Gabrielle stared at the Oracle, vision blurring as the woman's words sank in. "Aphrodite does not cry."

The softly spoken words caved her world in around her. There was no cure for Ares' blood.

The oracle spoke as though she had read the young woman's thoughts. "You seek the road home for the warrior princess."

"Yes," Gabrielle agreed quickly. "My friend Xena...she's been infected by Ares' blood. It's made her a warlord again."

The oracle nodded slowly. "It has returned her to the darkness of her past...."

" must know a way to undo it," Gabrielle begged.

"Blood has changed her, only blood can release her."

"Are you saying she has to die?" the bard demanded, terror glittering in her eyes.

The oracle's gaze became distant. "That will only release her into the afterlife. If she dies now, she dies tainted and will never reach the Elysian fields." The woman's dark eyes landed on Gabrielle again. "Your blood will release her soul from Ares' grip. Freed, she may one day redeem herself."

Gabrielle fell back a half step, shock draining the color from her face. "You mean I have to die," she exhaled.

"There are many kinds of death...I'm sorry...We have no more answers," the oracle said almost gently. When Gabrielle didn't move, she added. "There are others who seek guidance."

Finally, the bard nodded jerkily and pulled back. She had to get out of the close, smoky confines of the oracle's cave. Stumbling badly, she reached the cool evening air, gulping in deep breaths to clear her head. Her blood was the price of sanity for Xena. Her eyes rolled skyward. She couldn't tell anyone. Marmax and Ephiny would never let her near Xena if they knew the truth.

She stared down at her shaking hands, concentrating to steady them.

The decision wasn't even a hard one. If it took her life, she'd give it willingly. She couldn't see Xena sentenced to the lower depths of Tartarus without trying to do something. She loved her too much to let that happen. She found Argo and pulled herself up into the saddle, spurring the animal forward as she turned toward Mitoa.


"She's testing our borders," Marmax said grimly as he stared out at the expanse of green land surrounding his keep. In the distance, campfires could be seen dotting the hillsides. Xena's army had arrived two days before, making camp on the overlooking hills. The small skirmishes at the border guard posts had begun soon after. Now, night was coming and the attacks would begin again.

Ephiny leaned forward on her hands, staring out across the hillsides. "She'll attack in full force soon," she murmured worriedly. "Has there been any word from the messenger you sent to speak to Tyldus?"

Marmax shook his head, his expression bleak. "He may not have gotten through," he sighed sadly. His spies had produced enough intelligence to make him believe his army had precious little chance of success against Xena's forces. He had a few soldiers and professional mercenaries under his command, but most of them were peasants fighting for their land. Xena's soldiers would ride right over them.

Marmax turned to face Ephiny, his expression serious. During her time in his kingdom, he'd come to care for the stiff-willed Amazon and her son and perhaps had even begun to entertain thoughts of a more serious relationship. He didn't want them anywhere near when Xena arrived. "I've arranged for two mercenaries to take you and Xenon to Sparta. You'll be safe there. Not even Xena would dare take on the Spartan army."

Ephiny didn't take her eyes from the surrounding countryside, as she shook her head in refusal. "I won't go."

"Dammit, Ephiny, don't fight me on this."

"It's no fight," she swore. "I won't go. I've seen war before, and you'll need all the help you can get,"

"One person, more or less won't make the difference," he murmured, his tone defeated.

"Will you send every mother and child in your kingdom to safety?" she demanded quietly.

Marmax shook his head. "I wish I could." He reached out, catching a strand of curling hair between thumb and forefinger. For once, she allowed the gesture. "I know you've seen war, but you have Xenon to think about now. Spartans respect the Centaurs. He'll be accepted there...and you'll both be protected."

"I won't leave you."

"You have to," he cut her off in a hard voice that softened as he continued. "My army may not be able to stand up against Xena's.... If we fall..." he trailed off. They both knew what would happen if Xena took Mitoa. As an old friend of the warrior princess, Ephiny would undoubtedly be seen as a traitor, and she and her son would be put to death. "I want you as far from here as possible," he finished at last.

Any response, Ephiny might have made, was cut off by a horn blaring on the mountainside.

"What the," Marmax breathed as his head whipped around.

"Her army's moving," Ephiny whispered.

"No...Someone's coming through the blockade," Marmax anticipated.

Ephiny spotted the horse and rider, galloping full out, only moments later.

A half dozen black armored soldiers were in hot pursuit, but the pale cream horse cut sharply each time one tried to cut it off.

"He'll never make it," Ephiny predicted.

Marmax didn't bother to take the time to agree, just hurried over the edge of the keep wall and called down to the guard, "Signal the archers in the lookout towers to give the rider support."

The man nodded and passed the word on. Within moments guards on the signal towers were using lamps to alert the guardians on the border towers of their leader's orders.


Terrified beyond measure, Gabrielle could only cling to Argo and pray that the horse knew what she was doing. Soldiers were closing on all sides, and her only hope for survival lay with Argo's instincts and speed. If they could get past Xena's army and into the Mitoan keep, she could figure out what to do next.

She hadn't intended to make such a mad dash, but she'd tripped over the army by accident, and it had rapidly become the only chance for survival.


Xena frowned as she saw the rider break from the trees, a half dozen of her troops in hot pursuit. At first, her only response was irritation that something had interrupted her planning session for taking Mitoa.

Then she recognized the horse.

The hood on the rider's cape blew back, revealing pale red hair that reflected the last light of the dying sun.

"Gabrielle," the warrior princess exhaled.

"General?" Her lieutenant, a thin-faced mercenary who went by the name of Pollix questioned. He'd gotten the position by virtue of his skill with a sword coupled with the fact that he'd bragged that he bathed twice a year, whether he needed it or not. Among the mercenaries and brigands who made up her army, that qualified as clean.

"Call your dogs off that rider," she bit out and broke into a run, heading for the black charger she'd been using since Argo's defection. "The first man who hurts that girl loses his head."


Gabrielle narrowly ducked a wild sword swing from a man who cut in on her left side. She caught sight of him out of the corner of her eye as he pulled his arm back to swing again. Again, he missed, but this time she felt his blade brush her shoulder.

A horn blared twice.

The mercenary visibly debated taking another swing, but the horn blared again before he could take his shot. Cursing, he pulled back on the reins, hauling his mount to a frothy halt and allowing his prey to escape.

Gabrielle glanced back, hunting for some sign why he'd broken off his attack.

She got it.

The dark- haired woman on a black warhorse coming toward her at a full run was all the answer she needed. "Xena," she breathed and spurred Argo even harder. The horse seemed to sense their danger because she somehow found more speed.

"I'll have you," Xena's conquering yell broke across the grasslands as she bore down on Gabrielle.

The bard glanced back, then up at the castle walls.

She'd never make it.

Xena realized it too because she grinned triumphantly.

She wasn't ready for the arrows that suddenly streaked from the guard towers, biting deep into the charger's throat and flanks. The animal screamed, rearing back in terror. Xena fought for control, but more arrows tore into her mount's flesh, toppling it to the loamy dirt.

The warrior princess leapt free just in time to avoid being caught under the horse's falling body. She rolled with the force of her momentum and found her feet again in a blink. The amber flecked remains of the dying sun glinted off her sword as she dragged it from the scabbard on her back, rolling it in her hand before she plunged it downward into the dying animal's throat, putting it out of its misery. That done, she didn't spare the animal another thought, just broke into a hard run, trying to bring her one-time friend back under control.

Gabrielle couldn't have stopped Argo if she had wanted. The animal was running panicked. Not even Xena could keep up with the animal's long strides. Slashing hooves kicked up dirt and grass with every stride.

She heard the order, "Open the gates." And was aware of passing through the walls of the keep, but she didn't really have a chance to see much until Argo abruptly pulled up short to avoid running into another wall.

Gabrielle tumbled from the saddle, falling to her knees in an ungainly sprawl.

"Gabrielle," Marmax exclaimed as he hurried down the stairs to where she was kneeling next to the exhausted horse.

She pushed her hair back, drawing in huge gasps of air as she fought to calm herself. A sudden thought occurred to her, and she pushed to her feet, grabbing Marmax's arm in panic. "Your've got to stop them from shooting anymore. They might hit her."

The newly crowned king of Mitoa stared at her for a long moment. He knew Xena was out there, ready to ride over him, and he should take any chance available to kill her, but faced with the determination in the young woman's eyes he just couldn't do it. "Tell the archers to hold their fire!" he called up to his captain of the guard.

Ephiny had reached them by then. She curved a supportive hand to Gabrielle's forearm. "Are you all right?"

The bard nodded. "She didn't hurt me," she dismissed the mad dash, not wanting to look too closely at the expression she'd glimpsed in her friend's eyes.

Marmax had no such reservations. "Not for want of trying," he pointed out grimly.

Gabrielle shook her head. "She wouldn't have hurt me," she insisted with absolute faith, unable to believe that her dearest friend could harm her...even in the face of what she'd learned from the oracle.

Marmax started to argue, but Ephiny waved him silent, mouthing "Not now." He nodded, backing off.

"Did you learn how to rid her of Ares' blood?" the Amazon asked gently.

A slightly watery smile touched Gabrielle's mouth. "I learned what I needed to know," she responded without explanation.

"I need to speak to my troops," Marmax said softly, tactfully leaving the bard to Ephiny's care.

Ephiny slid an arm across Gabrielle's narrow shoulders, waving for a soldier to see to Argo as she led her away. "Come on, let's get you something to eat."


A little over an hour later, Ephiny sat across a table from Gabrielle, watching her wolf down a hot meal. The Amazon folded her forearms together on the tabletop, her gaze suspicious as she demanded. "What did you learn?"

Gabrielle shrugged, her manner cagey. "I'm the only one who can undo this curse," she said softly.

Ephiny would have bet that was the case from the young woman's behavior. "How?" she asked simply.

Another shrug. "It's not that hard," she tried to brush the subject off without getting specific.

Ephiny's gaze narrowed shrewdly. "Then why won't you answer my question?"

Whatever response Gabrielle might have made was cut off by the sudden arrival of a messenger.

"My Lady," the young man panted, automatically ducking his head. "The king wanted me to tell you that the warrior princess has demanded a meeting with him."

Gabrielle rose sharply, her food forgotten. Ephiny laid a hand over hers, silencing her before she could speak.

"Has he agreed?" she demanded, her voice low.

The messenger nodded. "She's agreed to meet inside the keep...alone...." He nodded toward Gabrielle. "But she demands the presence of the bard."

Ephiny bit back on an angry comment when she saw the resolve in her friend's eyes. Gabrielle had grown up somewhere along the way and none of them were going to stop her from doing what she believed was right. She'd save Xena--or die trying. Ephiny was terrified that the latter option was the more likely one. "When?" she asked at last.

"She's on her way now."

"I'm going," Gabrielle said flatly.

Ephiny sighed softly, and briefly considered arguing, but discarded it in view of the determined set of the younger woman's chin. She pushed up from the table. "Let's go."


Xena's eyes swept across the courtyard as she rode a bay charger through the gates of the Mitoan keep. Her once blue eyes glittered dark and dangerous with Ares' blood. She ignored the guards poised around the court, fully confident she could destroy them all if need be. They were little more than peasant sheep. Killing them to get her property back would be easy enough.

Her eyes slid up, noting the archers on the walls, their arrows nocked and pulled back, palms sweaty, eyes scared. Another few minutes of muscle strain and their aim wouldn't be worth a plugged dinar.

Marmax stepped out of the main building and folded his arms across his chest.

Xena smirked and flung her heavy, fur-trimmed cape back from her shoulders with arrogant hauteur. "Marmax," she murmured, lips pulling back in a faint sneer.

"Xena," he responded with the slightest duck of the head.

They were enemies, and they both knew it. When the time came, there would no quarter given on either side. It was too bad, in Xena's opinion. She would have preferred to take the keep without reducing it to rubble. If Marmax had been slightly more gullible, she could have made a deal, then slit his throat and taken it from within.

A frisson of awareness shivered down her spine. She straightened, twisting in her saddle, searching until she spotted the slender figure that stepped from the fortress.

Gabrielle flinched as she saw how dark Xena's eyes had become. More frightening though, was the cold sense of purpose in her expression. The young woman stood frozen, caught in the trap of Xena's commanding gaze like a fly in amber. So this was what she had been like when she rode across the land, conquering everything that lay before her.

The warrior princess allowed herself a faint triumphant smile. Like Argo, Gabrielle was hers, and Marmax would pay dearly for keeping her away from her proper place at Xena's side. If it hadn't been for the archers on the walls and the risk they would hit Gabrielle, she would have stolen the bard right then and there. But she had no intention of allowing any damage to come to what was hers. "Hello, Gabrielle," she drawled as the younger woman came nearer, drawn by the tie between them.

Ephiny started to intercede, but Gabrielle paced around her with quick steps.

"Xena," she choked.

Even with a god's blood running in her veins, Xena couldn't ignore the bond between them any more than Gabrielle could. She swung her leg over the horse's neck and dropped to the ground, careless of the way the soldiers around them tensed, ready for any kind of trouble. "You knew I'd come for you," she said too low for anyone but the bard to hear.

Gabrielle paled. "You mean you're here because of me?" she whispered, strain showing in her voice.

"Of course," Xena murmured. "One of my spies reported you'd come here." She reached out to finger pale, red-gold hair. "You're mine, Gabrielle, and I never give up what's mine." It was a statement of ownership, not love, but it was also an acknowledgment that something unbreakable lay between them.

Marmax intervened, breaking up the brief conversation. "I thought you were here to discuss our...situation." He gestured loosely toward the army camped beyond his walls.

Xena barely spared Marmax a glance. Her entire attention was focused on the young woman standing behind him. A faint smile touched her lips. "I am." She pointedly rested her hand on the sword hilt at her hip. "And the situation is, I want what's mine returned to me."

Marmax glanced back at Gabrielle and saw the near hypnotized way she was staring at the warrior princess. "I can't do that," he said grimly as he turned back to face her. "Gabrielle has my protection as long she wishes it."

A dangerous smile twisted Xena's lips, and her eyes gleamed with anger at his defiance. "I'll destroy your castle piece by piece if I have to."

"You won't find that as easy as you think," he shot back.

"Your army is made up of farmers and peasants. Taking them out won't even work my men into a hard lather."

Marmax tensed, knowing she was right but unwilling to give way. "You may be surprised by how hard peasants can fight when they're fighting for their homes. You, of all people, should know that."

Xena tensed, briefly remembering her own past. Fighting for her home had made her much of who she was. The memory flickered away as quickly as it had appeared, driven back by the need to conquer anything that stood in her way. She looked past Marmax to Gabrielle, seeking to control the younger woman through sheer force of will. "You know I'll do it, Gabrielle," she coaxed. "Do you really want all that blood shed over you?"

"Will you bypass Mitoa?" Gabrielle demanded hoarsely.

Xena's eyes narrowed ever so slightly, covering most of her irritation at her friend for resisting her rule. "Of course," she lied smoothly.

Ephiny stepped forward, interposing between the two. "For about ten minutes," she challenged.

A muscle twitched in Xena's cheek.

"By the gods, Xena, look at what you're about to do...what you're becoming. Gabrielle is your best friend...and you're ready to make a slave of her."

The woman warrior stiffened, her expression becoming even colder, if possible. The only hint that Ephiny's jibes had gotten through was the rapidly ticking muscle in her cheek. Her upper lip quivered in a threatened sneer. "You have until nightfall tomorrow, Gabrielle. After that, their blood is on your hands."

She spun back to her horse.

Marmax made a grab for her, but she twisted too quickly, blocking his hand aside before she snapped the heel of her palm into his upper chest to send him stumbling. She was in the saddle and wheeling her horse around by the time he regained his balance. He saw his men move as if to block her exit, but waved them off. He knew how Xena could fight when cornered. If they tried to stop her now, it would be a blood bath. The keep doors swung wide as she galloped through, then swung closed again in her wake.

Gabrielle stood staring after her friend with a stricken expression.

Marmax slid an arm across her shoulder. "Don't worry, we won't let her get you."

Gabrielle shook off his arm, stepping forward a pace. "Later," she exhaled at last. "We'll talk about it later." She worked a hand through her hair. "I'm dead tired. I need some sleep."

Marmax waved a servant over. "See the lady to the guest rooms." He moved to stand beside Ephiny, as he watched the young woman slip back into his fortress.

"She intends to go to her," Ephiny said aloud, pointing out the obvious,

"I know," Marmax sighed. "And the worst part is, I'm not sure we should try to stop her."

Ephiny looked up at him with a surprised expression. "It won't stop Xena from attacking."

"I know, but she's probably safer with Xena's army than she is here. For some reason, even as mad as she is now, I don't think Xena would harm her."


The next day went by far too quickly as the opposing armies readied themselves for the coming battle. Both sides were well aware just how much blood was likely to spill when they met.

Xena stormed through her camp, shouting orders and readying her forces to take Marmax's castle. Through it all, she kept her objective in mind. More than once she stared at the walls of the castle until she spotted sunlight on red-gold hair. Her hands flexed at her sides, lust glittering in her eyes. Soon...very soon, Gabrielle would be where she belonged again.


Gabrielle rinsed off the last of the soap, perversely grateful to be clean again after a day of backbreaking labor. Her eyes lifted to the single window in her room. It looked out over the main courtyard, and she could hear the soldiers milling about as they finished the last of the preparations for the battle.

The poor fools were mostly farmers and servants, but they were ready to lay down their lives to defend their homes.

It would be a slaughter.

Already, the sky was acquiring a pink tint as the sun arced toward the western horizon.

She had the power to stop it all--maybe. She was ready to turn herself over, but Marmax and Ephiny both insisted it wouldn't even slow Xena down. She wasn't so certain. Given what she wanted, the warrior princess might not bother with Mitoa. There were other, far richer kingdoms to conquer.

Then there was the oracle's prediction.

One that might -- or might not -- predict Gabrielle's death, but made it certain that Xena could never find peace without her help.

Still staring out the window, she began to pull her clothes back on. She suspected Ephiny had insisted she take the brief break to get her away from the speculative grumbles of the villagers. She found herself wondering if Ephiny would have done differently if she'd known the break would simply give her the chance to sort out her feelings, and make her decision.

She moved to the window, staring out across the land. As she watched Xena's forces moved into position, forming a broad wall of well-armed bodies that fanned over the surrounding hillsides. It was easy to spot their leader, her hair flying behind her in dramatic waves, as she loped her horse to a position directly in front of the walled keep's main gate.

Even from that distance, Gabrielle had the oddest sensation of making eye contact.

"I'm coming, Xena." She whispered almost inaudibly.


In the field below, Xena's eyes swept upward, searching the castle walls. Gabrielle was watching her. She could feel it. A faint smile touched her mouth. "Come to me," she breathed.

Around her, her army nervously shifted in their saddles, not understanding why their leader chose to wait.

Xena wanted to force Gabrielle to choose.

Her options were obvious.

Submit, or watch Mitoa be destroyed.

The warrior princess sat straight in the saddle, careless of the wind that whipped her hair about her face and spread her cape out behind her. She could see soldiers moving about on the wall of the keep, but paid them scant attention. Her sole focus was her young companion.


"You can't do this," Ephiny swore angrily as she watched Gabrielle saddle Argo.

The bard glanced back, meeting her friend's angry gaze with stolid determination not to give way. "I have to," she differed grimly.

"No you don't," she disagreed. "If you think this will save us--"

"That's not why I'm doing it!" Gabrielle exploded, then pressed her face into Argo's neck, struggling not to give in to her own fears.

"Then why?" Ephiny questioned.

The bard pulled away from the horse's warmth, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I have to help her if I can," she said raggedly. She looked back at the former general. "You know...I...I love her."

Ephiny sighed softly and nodded. "Be careful," she husked.

She nodded. "Tell Marmax...tell him...thank you...for everything."

"Tell me yourself," Marmax challenged her from the door to the stables.

Gabrielle flushed, but didn't answer, just climbed onto Argo's back.

"You aren't responsible for protecting Mitoa," he said flatly. "You can stay as long as the walls of this keep still stand."

"I have to do this," the bard responded. "Whatever the cost." She spurred Argo into the courtyard. "Open the gates!" she called up to the guards, fighting to control the nervous horse. When the doors were wide enough, she glanced back briefly, then spurred her horse outside the safety of the Mitoan castle.


Xena held up a hand, halting her men when she saw the gates open and the easily recognizable horse and rider exit. A triumphant smile curved her lips as she spurred her mount forward. A perverse sense of pride burned through the warrior princess at the way Gabrielle stood tall in the saddle, facing the lines of soldiers with absolute courage. Her little companion was a fitting consort even if she had been disobedient for a time.

"Hello, Gabrielle," she drawled as she pulled to a halt in front of Argo.

The palomino mare shied from her former mistress, and it took considerable effort on Gabrielle's part to keep her under control. "Xena."

"I've missed you...missed finishing what we started that night you left."

Gabrielle paled, struggling to keep her breathing normal.

The warrior princess reached out, running a single finger along Gabrielle's jawline. It was a gesture of pure dominance designed to mark her possession in front of the entire world. She snatched the chakram looped over the saddlehorn to hook it on her belt. Finished, she straightened in the saddle. "Hold out your hands," she ordered in a voice that brooked no disobedience.

Gabrielle somehow found it in her not to flinch when Xena bound her her narrow wrists.

"You won't be going anywhere this time," Xena murmured, then swung off the charger, dropping easily to the ground. She slapped the animal on the rump, sending it running back toward her own encampment. Within moments, she climbed onto Argo behind Gabrielle, wrapping her arms around the young woman as she caught up the reins, controlling the horse's dancy nervousness with a strong hand. She flattened her free hand against Gabrielle's stomach, holding her close. She leaned in to taste the girl's neck and shoulder. "Not that you'll want to when I'm done."

Hard shudders shook Gabrielle's slender frame and her breath caught as Xena's hand wandered upward, teasing and fondling firm flesh. "Xena?" she husked her friend's name.

The warrior princess' head came up and she peered at Gabrielle's profile with narrow eyed suspicion. "What?"

"I know you're still in there...this is Ares doing, not yours. Whatever happens, I love you." She was under no illusions that the words would change anything, but she needed to say them for her own sake.

Xena didn't speak for a long moment as turmoil roared through her. Love and bloodlust did battle for control. Her lips pulled back from tightly gritted teeth. "Love," she growled. She released Argo's reins to dig one hand into Gabrielle's hair, forcing her head around and up. The lust for power won as she snarled, "This is the only love I want from you." Her mouth came down on the bard's, kissing her with rapacious hunger. "Mine," she groaned through the kiss.

Gabrielle made no move to resist, just gave herself over to the voracious caresses. Realizing she didn't have to fight, Xena released her hold on Gabrielle's hair and took up the reins, pressing her friend into the shelter of her body as she broke the kiss, then wheeled Argo around, spurring her back toward the line of her troops.

General pandemonium ruled the encampment when she arrived. Every man within range stared at the young redhead in their leader's arms with speculative hunger. Xena's eyes swept across them all, her expression glittering with warning as clearly as if she had shouted it. The first man who even tried to touch the bard would forfeit his life. She swung down from the saddle with easy grace and was just reaching up to lift Gabrielle down when Pollix' voice reached her. She pivoted on one foot to face her lieutenant.

"Should I call for the attack?"

Something flickered in Xena's eyes, but quickly disappeared behind a wall of icy control. "No." she turned back, reaching up to pull Gabrielle down.

"What do you mean?'" Pollix demanded angrily.

With Gabrielle settled on her feet, Xena twisted to face him again. "Exactly what part of no didn't you understand?"

Her lieutenant's mouth twisted into an ugly sneer. "You want us to lose our chance at Marmax's fortress while you play with the little sweetling here." He flicked a strand of Gabrielle's hair with an expression of disdain.

Xena knocked his hand away with a guttural snarl. "No one touches what's mine," she growled.

"Seems to me that every man here has earned the right to do a bit more than just touch," he shot back.

Xena smiled, but the expression never reached her eyes. Her sword was out, the blade plunged into his chest before he quite knew what hit him.

Pollix' eyes bulged and he grabbed at the blade, but it was already too late.

Xena lifted her booted foot and used it to shove him off her sword, her expression cold as she watched Pollix tumble to the dirt. "Is there anyone else who feels like questioning who's in command around her?" she demanded.

No one made any offer to challenge her. Every man in the camp had seen her fight, and none of them wanted to be on the receiving end of her skills.

"That's better," Xena murmured. Satisfied she was still in command, she pushed Gabrielle ahead of her as she headed across the compound.

Badly shaken by what she'd witnessed, the bard stumbled and Xena half carried, half dragged her along. A colorful tent -- stolen from an Arab trader -- was set up at the opposite end of the camp. Xena thrust Gabrielle through the fluttering flaps that formed the front entrance. Silk rugs, pillows, and damask wall hangings decorated the interior, turning nearly the entire expanse into comfortable sleeping space. Xena pushed Gabrielle down into the pillows without speaking.

Gabrielle stared up at her friend through a haze of tears. It isn't Xena, she told herself over and over, but she couldn't ignore the diamond hardness in her friend's eyes. She felt sick and lightheaded, at the same time. A hard hand landed on the back of her skull, pushing down.

"Put your head down," Xena instructed coldly. "And breath deeply."

Despite herself, Gabrielle did as told and was surprised to find it helped the nausea. Booted feet landed on either side of her knees, drawing her chin up.

Xena was staring down at her with barely concealed sexual hunger.

As Gabrielle watched, she stripped off her sword and tossed it aside, then unlinked her armor. It landed next to the sword. Her gauntlets followed next. Then her boots. Through it all, she held Gabrielle's gaze with hypnotic intensity. Finally, she peeled off her leather bodice and let it fall to the floor. With only her cotton underdress remaining, she dropped to her knees, straddling Gabrielle's hips. Bracing her hands on either side of the smaller woman's shoulders, Xena leaned forward, lips finding hers with almost savage insistence. Gabrielle couldn't have resisted, if she had some level, she didn't want to end the erotic contact. If she was going to die, she wanted to know Xena's body at least once before it happened, even if it had to take place on these terms. She opened her mouth against Xena's, kissing her back with untutored desperation. Xena threaded her fingers into silky, red hair as she deepened the kiss, exploring warm and willing flesh. The raging kisses went on for long minutes as they both lost themselves in the burning sensations.

The warrior princess groaned low in her throat, and her mouth softened against Gabrielle's, no longer taking so much as tutoring.

Gabrielle spread her palms against Xena's chest, fingers flexing over the firm rise of her breasts. She was so beautiful, so graceful, a perfect blending of soft curves and hard muscles. She let out a soft sigh of disappointment when Xena's mouth left hers, but it melded into a low sound of pleasure as she trailed her tongue along the gentle curve of Gabrielle's jaw, nibbled on her ear, then tasted her cheeks, and pressed light kisses over her closed eyes.

"So beautiful," the warrior princess moaned, lost in her own passion. She'd wanted this for so long. Even before she'd returned to Ares, she'd dreamt of teaching her young companion about sensual pleasure. Her clothes loosened easily, allowing Xena greater access to velvet flesh. She slipped her hands under the rough clothes, fondling easy curves. Gabrielle arched into the tenderly stroking hands, all warmth and eager softness. She groaned and breathed Xena's name, writhing against the knee Xena slid between her thighs.

Their separation and Ares were both forgotten under onslaught of raw sensuality. Xena's need for Gabrielle was stronger than the God's hold over her. Lost in flesh and passion, she trailed her fingers down, encountering the rope that still bound Gabrielle's wrists together. She'd forgotten about the bonds, but the feel of rough hemp yanked her back to the hard realities of their lovemaking. She rocked back on her heels, staring at the sight. Sick horror glittered in her blood dark eyes, fading the grim color ever so slightly. For the first time since being infected by Ares' blood, her expression was free of the darker emotions. "What have I done?" she groaned. Hands shaking, she fumbled knots loose. "I'm sorry," she panted over and over. Ares' influence was there again, burning through her veins like a hot knife, but she somehow ignored the bitter influence to thrust the ropes aside. With Gabrielle free, she sat back on her calves, staring down at the redhead with painful regret. "I...I'm sorry, Gabrielle...I don'," she whispered, her voice ragged with the effort required to resist the God of War's influence.

Gabrielle pushed up on one hand, reaching out to curve the other to the back of Xena's head, drawing her close again. "I know...We're a part of each other," she swore intently. "I knew you couldn't hurt me."

Xena framed her companion's face in her hands, her expression frightened for what might happen. "The's still all here...inside me...I don't know how long I can control it,."

Gabrielle spread her hands up Xena's chest, smoothing them across the breadth of her shoulders. "We'll drive it out together," she promised.

They kissed again, this time slow and sweet, each sharing the deepest part of herself. Gabrielle slipped her hands under Xena's cotton shift, fingers brushing over soft skin as she helped her friend peel the garment away. The remains of her own clothing disappeared a moment later, and they fell into the pillows together.

Flesh slid against flesh while warm brush of fingers, lips, and tongues sought out sensitive erogenous zones. Xena pressed Gabrielle back into the pillows, kissing her way slowly down the young woman's agile frame. She swirled her tongue around a tight nipple, pressed a light kiss into the valley between her breasts, then teased her way downward, using her tongue to outline the faint banding of muscles that criss-crossed her stomach. Gabrielle worked her fingers into Xena's hair, encouraging the deepening caresses as she felt her heartrate accelerate with every passing second. The warrior princess shook her head, letting her hair fall forward so that the silky strands brushed tantalizingly over her lover's velvet skin.

Gabrielle shuddered violently. "I...want," she groaned, "to...share, it with you,"

"Soon," Xena exhaled, kissing her way lower. Her lips feathered over her pubic bone, followed the line of her hip, tasted the faint indentation of her navel, then, finally moved lower.

Gabrielle didn't know what to expect, but she was ready to learn. Xena pressed a light kiss to her inner thigh, then slowly worked her way up, teasing her young lover Her warm breath washed across over-sensitive flesh, sending ripples of pleasure through the young woman.

"Please," Gabrielle gasped, arching up toward the tantalizing promise.

A second later, she got what she wanted.

Startled by the intensity of sensation, Gabrielle arched her back, fingers clenching into Xena's thick hair to drag her closer. The warrior princess responded by increasing the pressure and momentum of her caresses.

Gabrielle arched, wordlessly begging for more. With a low groan, Xena gave her what she wanted, drawing her even farther into a sensual web.

"By the gods," Gabrielle gasped suddenly, fingers digging into Xena's hair, dragging her back up. Xena's hand kept up a gentle rhythm, as her lips found her lover's with hungry need. They kissed slowly, writhing together, lost in the sweet touch of flesh on flesh.

It was Gabrielle who finally broke the kiss, bracing her hands on Xena's shoulders to press her back into the pillows. "My turn," she whispered, leaning over Xena to flutter kisses over the curving thrust of her collarbone. "I want to learn..."

Xena lifted a hand to the back of Gabrielle's head, threading her fingers into red-gold hair. Her breath came in long, slow pants. Ares was still there--she could feel him lurking at the edge of her conscious mind, but matched against Gabrielle's lovemaking, his power ceded into the background.

Inexperienced, but curious, the girl's attention roamed over her friend's sleek frame teasing, tasting, learning what made Xena gasp and arch with pleasure. She ran her fingers over intimate flesh.

"That's right," the warrior princess encouraged, thrusting in time with Gabrielle's curious caresses.

Gabrielle washed her tongue along the curve of Xena's ribcage, then followed smoothly defined stomach muscles downward.

Xena jumped at the quick brush of her tongue, tightening her hold on silky hair. Smooth hands pressed her thighs wider as Gabrielle leaned forward, sharing the most intimate of kisses. Inexperienced at such things, she initially just tried to mimic Xena's rhythms. But she soon found what pleased her lover, learning the places and rhythms that brought quick gasps and low moans of pleasure. Working on instinct rather than knowledge, she stretched the sensual haze as long as she could, teasing without letting Xena slide over into orgasm.

"Please," the warrior princess gasped.

The moved together in perfect syncopation until Xena suddenly cried out, back arching, muscles pulling almost impossibly taut. Blinding sensation washed over her, leaving her wanting even more intimate contact. She hauled Gabrielle up the length of her body, rolling the smaller woman beneath her to kiss and caress with almost frantic intensity. "Please," she begged against Gabrielle's breast. "Don't ever leave me."

The bard coiled her arms around her lover, curving into her body. "I won't," she promised. "I'll always be a part of you."

Xena raised up on her elbows, peering down at Gabrielle through the threat of tears. "She trailed her fingers down the redhead's smooth cheek and along the easy curve of her jaw. "Whatever happens," she swore. "I love you." She kissed her lightly. "Not even Ares can change that."

Their lovemaking ebbed for a time as both players caught their breaths. Slowly, emotions and sensations began to build again. They made love deep into the night, forgetting the world outside the close confines of the tent, forgetting everything but the warm slide of flesh against flesh.

Gabrielle pressed back against the strong body coiled around hers. Their legs were loosely tangled, Xena's arms wrapped around her from behind, her chin pillowed in the curve of Gabrielle's neck. Exertion had left their skin faintly damp, and both of them thoroughly exhausted.

Within moments Xena lay half-asleep, the madness momentarily burned out.

Gabrielle listened to the steady pattern of her breathing, taking comfort from the natural cadence. She reached up, curving her fingers to the hands wrapped around her torso. The oracle had been wrong. It hadn't required blood to bring Xena back to herself. The way they'd made love proved that much. Confident things were going to be fine, she slid into the welcome arms of sleep.

Only minutes later Xena's eyes snapped open, gleaming with dark highlights, Ares once again her master. Her lips pulled back in a sneer as she realized where she was and who was lying in her arms. The slave thought she could control the master--through sex. Rage flickered at the presumption. With a roar, she hurtled Gabrielle away.

Gabrielle tumbled end over end. Momentarily trapped in blankets and pillows, she barely managed to twist clear of the fast moving shadow headed for her.

Xena's knife tore deeply into a pillow, sending feathers into the air. Another slash...and this time Gabrielle didn't manage to evade the sharp edge. The blade gashed her shoulder to send blood spraying. The wound was painful but not deep, and she didn't have time to worry about it as she fought just to stay alive. She blocked another thrust, then caught Xena's wrist, knocking her hand to the side as they tumbled into the pillows.

"Did you think you could control me that easily?" Xena demanded furiously. "It takes more than sex to control the warrior princess."

Gabrielle experienced a raw surge of rage. Furious that Ares had gotten his claws into her friend again, she slammed a closed fist into her lover's jaw as she surged into her. Despite Xena's superior size and strength, she somehow threw her friend onto her back. Towering over Xena, she used her grip on the warrior princess' wrist to repeatedly slam her hand into the ground until she lost the knife. Careless of the way blood dripped from her injured shoulder and across Xena's skin, she suddenly found herself screaming, "I WON'T LOSE YOU, DO YOU HEAR ME?" She grabbed Xena by the hair, shaking her to drive the point home. "YOU FIGHT HIM, GODDAMN YOU!! YOU AREN'T HIS, YOU'RE MINE!!!"

Xena abruptly surged up, throwing Gabrielle aside as she found her feet. She had her sword unsheathed and in hand in a heartbeat. Her breath coming in ragged pants, she stared at Gabrielle.

I am going to die--Gabrielle realized in a moment of perfect clarity. She could only pray her death brought her lover the peace she needed. She was glad they'd had a night together and wished it had been more, but faced her death secure in the knowledge that Xena loved her no matter what Ares made her do.

The dark, hateful part of Xena called out for more blood. She stared at the crimson splotches marring Gabrielle's upper body. The same rich blood had dripped onto her own skin. She licked her lips, tasting the salty iron bite. Blood--Gabrielle's blood--and Ares wanted more.

"No!" she swore and hurled her weapon aside. "Oh, God, Gabrielle," she sobbed, collapsing to her knees.

Gabrielle never quite knew how, but she scrambled to Xena's side, wrapping her arms around her lover as she whispered comforting words. The warrior princess dissolved into tears, her rangy frame wracked by hard shudders. Forgetting her own injury, Gabrielle just held her and petted her hair.

"He"Xena sobbed, clinging to Gabrielle.

Gabrielle felt Xena's hot, wet tears hit her arm and, for the briefest moment, she could have sworn the drop glittered black against her skin before it silvered and disappeared. Another tear fell with similar results, then another and another.

Aphrodite's tears--tears of love--were washing Ares blackness away.

"Just cry," she whispered over and over, standing guard over her friend as she rid herself of the violent influence of the god of war. She lost track of how long the harsh sobs continued before Xena finally quieted in her arms.

"He's gone," Xena exhaled at last, straightening within Gabrielle's loose hold. She reached up to trace the young woman's gentle features. "I could have killed you..." she breathed. "You should have escaped."

Gabrielle shook her head, slipping her fingers into the feathery hair at Xena's temple. "I told you I'd never leave you," she whispered passionately. "And I meant it."

Xena smoothed Gabrielle's hair back from her face and stared at her though eyes that were again their natural silver/blue. "I don't know what I ever did to deserve you...but I am so grateful that you're here." The leaned their foreheads together, sharing a moment of comfort.

"How very tender," Ares' acid voice cut through the darkness.

Xena snapped to her feet, spinning to face the god. She carefully kept herself between Ares and Gabrielle as she faced the god of war. "It's over," she snarled. "You've lost your hold on me, forever." She felt her lover rise to press against her back.

The god's eyes swept disdainfully over Xena. "I told you once I'd never let you go."

"Don't you understand," Gabrielle exploded. "She isn't yours anymore."

Xena reached back, hushing the young woman, as she saw the god's eyes touch on her with barely controlled rage.

"You love each other," he snarled. "How special...."

"Let it go," Xena whispered in a voice somewhere between commanding and pleading. "Please."

A sneer twisted his handsome lips before they broke into an ugly smile. "Not this time...I made you...gave you an army, and now, you throw it back in my face...." He shook his head. "This time, Xena, you're on your own." He seemed to turn insubstantial, but his voice was clearly audible. "You wanted me out of your life...very well..." then he faded away as though he'd never been.

Both women stood staring at the empty end of the tent for a brief moment before it sank in that he was gone.

"What did he mean?" Gabrielle questioned, her voice almost sepulchral in the thick darkness.

Xena let out a heavy sigh. "I don't know, but it doesn't bode well." She spun, grabbing for her clothes. "Get dressed. We're getting out of here."

In only minutes, both women were fully dressed. Xena spared a moment to bind Gabrielle's wound, staring guiltily at the damage. When she was done, she strapped her sword across her back, reaching back to draw the weapon in one smooth stroke.

"I don't suppose you have a staff around here?" Gabrielle said hopefully.

Xena glanced over at her young lover. "Actually, I do," She exhaled and crouched to remove something lying on the floor next to her weapons chest. She pivoted and tossed the weapon to the bard, who caught it easily.

The staff was beautifully carved and finished to a fine satin, leaving Gabrielle to wonder why Xena had kept it. The staff definitely wasn't her weapon of choice. Her eyes lifted, expression questioning.

"Will that do?" Xena whispered.

Gabrielle tested the balance, then nodded. "It'll be fine." But her eyes remained on her lover in silent query.

"I always intended to come back for you...even caught in Ares' madness, I couldn't let you go." The moment stretched between them until Xena abruptly straightened her shoulders and rechecked her armor, looping her chakram on her belt. "If anyone tries to stop us, let me the fighting if you can." She reached out, curving a tender hand to Gabrielle's cheek. "I don't want anything happening now that I've found you again."

Gabrielle nodded in silent acknowledgment. Xena slung on her cape and handed a similar one to Gabrielle, adjusting the frog at the throat for her. Finished, she tapped a knuckle against the underside of the bard's chin. "Now, let's see if we can get out of here without being noticed."

"Right," the smaller woman sighed as though she doubted it would be possible.

Xena started to exit through the front of the tent, then thought better of it. Retrieving her breast dagger, she used it to slit the back wall of the tent. "Come on," she whispered, waving Gabrielle along behind her. She crept through the impromptu door on silent feet. She'd placed the pickets, so she knew how best to avoid them. If it weren't for Ares, she'd have been confident they could clear the area without being noticed. Unfortunately, she suspected the god would make sure that wasn't the case, so every sense was alive and ready for conflict.

They'd gone about two hundred yards when she heard a twig snap.

Xena froze, holding up a hand to signal Gabrielle to do likewise.

"Here kitty, kitty, kitty," Callisto's high-pitched taunt carried on the faint wind that swept between the trees. The sound washed around them, untraceable and without direction.

Xena hunted through the darkness for some sign of her opponent, but in the thick, black forest, there were a thousand hiding places. She pointed at Gabrielle to warn her back, then moved carefully forward, her sword up and ready as she hunted for the blond warlord.

Gabrielle frowned slightly, watching her lover ease forward while listening for any stray sound that might give Callisto away. For the first time, she began to understand the warrior sense that allowed Xena to fight with the almost preternatural skill she was famous for. She felt as much as heard Callisto approach, sensed the soft whoosh as the brigand lifted her sword to strike.

Gabrielle moved with the speed of thought, dropping to one knee as she lifted her own weapon over her head, blocking the blow aimed for her skull.

Callisto's sword crashed into her staff with a solid thunk that ground the bones in the bard's wrists.

Gabrielle snapped an elbow back into Callisto's midsection, drawing a grunt that melded into a screech of pure fury. Gabrielle pushed off, lunging to her feet and around, just in time to block a wild swing aimed to separate her head from her shoulders.

Xena let out her war cry and spun, running toward the confrontation. She kicked off, spinning in mid-air to gain momentum, before dropping to a graceful landing between the two combatants. She checked a blow from the blond with almost casual ease, then pressed her attack, snarling as she unleashed a battery of lightning thrusts that nearly took Callisto down. "Let's see how you do without Ares' help. He isn't here to trip me from behind this time."

Callisto laughed. "I would have beat you under any circumstances."

Gabrielle scrambled free of the conflict, afraid her presence would distract her friend at a crucial moment.

It was Xena's turn to laugh. "Hardly," she grunted, then ducked one slash, back-flipped over another, and blocked a third before opening up with a series of slashes and thrusts that drew blood on Callisto's arm, leg, and midsection.

Callisto's answering howl of rage echoed through the night, and she delivered a barrage of cuts that opened a narrow wound on Xena's arm, but do much more. "You didn't think I'd let you get away with what you did."

"Ares is only using you to get me back," Xena shot back contemptuously.

Callisto's screeching laugh was almost painful to hear. "Maybe once, but not anymore.... Now, he knows that I'll give him what he wants." The furious battle carried on between the two without regard for their surroundings.

It was Gabrielle who noticed the soldiers headed their way. "Uh...Xena..." she said hesitantly, not wanting to distract her friend, but afraid they'd both wind up dead if they stayed around much longer.

"I'm kinda busy, at the moment," Xena pointed out, without looking away from the furious battle.

"You're about to be even busier. Company's coming."

Xena's eyes flicked over and she spotted her "army" headed their way, drawn by the sounds of battle.

Callisto's blade sliced deep into Xena's gauntlet, but didn't draw blood. "You can't beat me and escape in time," she taunted triumphantly.

Xena cursed under her breath and slammed her fist into Callisto's face, knocking her backwards and drawing blood.

"You'd better run, Xena," the blond taunted. "Because they're my army now. Ares made sure of that."

"Gabrielle, GO!" Xena ordered, then snap-kicked Callisto in the face before breaking into a run. Taller and longer legged, she caught up with Gabrielle in moments.

Behind the two, Callisto's orders shook the bark from the trees. "GET THEM!!! NOW!!!"

Xena heard the sound of hooves and whistled sharply, grateful to see Argo's graceful figure break from a nearby stand of trees and lope toward her. Before she and Gabrielle could reach the horse, a pair of soldiers broke from the trees, swords at the ready. Xena barely spared them a thought. Her sword rolled in her hands, and she plunged it through the man to her right, using her other hand to block his partner's swing She was about to do something about the second man when she felt him tumble to the earth. She looked up and saw Gabrielle clutching her staff tightly. It only took her a heartbeat to spot the already rising lump on his temple.

"He'll have a nasty headache in the morning," Gabrielle panted.

Xena nodded and grabbed for Gabrielle's hand, tugging her forward. "Come on." She caught Argo's reins and was about to swing up into the saddle when her sixth sense warned her.

"It's not that easy, Xena," Callisto cackled triumphantly as she stepped from behind a nearby tree.

Gabrielle did a slow pivot, jaw dropping as men stepped from cover all around them. She glanced to Xena for guidance.

The warrior princess held her gaze. "I love you," she whispered, then turned to face their enemies. Gabrielle did likewise, putting them back to back. If they went down, it would be fighting.

"How very romantic," Callisto jeered. "The lovers ready to die for one another."

Xena didn't bother trying to bargain with her enemy. It wouldn't work and she had no intention of giving the madwoman the satisfaction.

"Take them," Callisto ordered succinctly.

A half dozen men started forward.

And fell before they could get more than two steps.

"What the..." Gabrielle breathed.

Xena kicked the younger woman's legs out from under her and grabbed Argo's bridle, dragging the animal to the ground as the air suddenly filled with whistling arrows. Xena threw herself across her lover, protecting her, even as Callisto's army was cut to shreds. Long minutes passed while nothing could be heard but the sound of hooves and men dying. When Xena finally deemed it safe enough to look up again, only the sound of hooves remained. Her breathing unsteady, she searched for, and found, the proud figure that stepped from the cover of the forest.

"Tyldus," the warrior princess exhaled, and slowly pushed to her feet.

The king of the Centaurs cut an impressive figure as he stared down at her. He lowered the bow in his hand, but remained tense. "You didn't think I'd allow your army near my grandson, did you?"

Xena's eyes flicked sideways, noting that her former enemy was taking no chances. Several of his archers had their weapons trained on her. She shook her head. "I'm no threat to you, Tyldus."

The Centaur's brow lifted doubtfully. "I came because I heard about your army, Xena."

"And, in case you haven't noticed," Gabrielle broke in angrily. "They were about to carve us to bits. You thought Xena was your enemy once before and you were wrong. She saved your son's life."

Tyldus' eyes darkened at the mention of his son, the only sign he'd heard Gabrielle speak. "I've spoken to the villagers you attacked, Xena.... They described you perfectly. Are you trying to tell me it wasn't you?"

Xena shook her head slowly, shame audible in her voice. "No." Whatever Ares' influence, she had led an army against innocent villages.

Gabrielle had no such reservations. "She was under the influence of Ares' blood. You must know what that can do," she swore, stepping around her friend to brandish her staff at Tyldus for added emphasis.

The old Centaur nodded hesitantly, his expression still grim.

"She's herself again. That's why her army was trying to kill her.... Ares put a madwoman named Callisto in command."

The Centaur king turned his gaze back to Xena. "Is this true?"

Xena shrugged. "More or less."

"Just ask Ephiny," Gabrielle insisted. "She'll confirm it."

Tyldus considered his options for a long moment, then finally nodded in agreement. "We'll take them to Mitoa to learn the truth." He waved two of his men forward. "Bind them."

The centaurs closed in on the two and Xena tensed, momentarily ready to resist.

"No," Gabrielle whispered, resting a palm over Xena's hand, halting her.

Xena's eyes met Gabrielle's and she nodded. Her manner almost uncertain, she allowed a Centaur guard to take her sword and tie her hands. When it was done, she let out a hard, shuddery breath.

"See, that wasn't so hard," Gabrielle said with an encouraging smile, struggling not to show her own fears as they bound her hands next. "Wait a minute," Gabrielle said suddenly. "What about Callisto?"

Xena's eyes slid around the forest without spotting her enemy's distinctive shock of blond hair. Still, amid the dense trees, it would be easy for a corpse to hide unseen. She shook her head. "I didn't see what happened to her." Her gaze shifted back to the Centaur king. "Tyldus, there was a woman...blond, pretty...leading the army you cut down. I need to know if she was killed or escaped."

He nodded. "I'll leave word with my men to keep an eye out, and let me know," he agreed. "In the meantime...." He gestured them both in the direction of the Mitoan keep.


Ephiny and Marmax were on the castle walls, waiting for the battle, when the Centaur army arrived from the hills. Once they realized it wasn't the conquering army, the gates were thrown wide.

Within moments, Gabrielle found herself enveloped in hard hugs from both the Amazon and the Mitoan king, as she got her story out between questions. Finally, with Ephiny's support, they convinced Tyldus that Xena wasn't a warlord anymore and she was cut loose. Within hours, they were installed in their own quarters. Exhausted beyond measure, the two lovers fell into bed and slept, curled in each other's arms.


Xena leaned her head back against the rim of the tub, careless of the way her movement sloshed water around her shoulders. She closed her eyes and let out a soft sigh, enjoying the soothing comfort of the bath. Two days of sleep, medical care, and good food had done away with the worst of the exhaustion and pain that had been left in the wake of Ares possession, but she was still tired and a little sore.

She was still sitting like that, when a butterfly's wing of a kiss brushed her temple. She opened one eye, peering up at Gabrielle with a dry look. "You look...chipper..." she noted.

Gabrielle shrugged. "We're both still aren't trying to kill me...and..." her voice took on a sultry note that was entirely new to the bard, "I hardly got any sleep last night."

Xena's brows lifted, but she didn't give way to the smile that threatened to crack. "What about Callisto?" she demanded practically.

Gabrielle's face fell. "Still nothing," she admitted.

Xena let her eyes slide closed again. It was the news she'd expected, but it was still a disappointment. "Ares must have rescued her...." she sighed heavily. "Which means we'll have to deal with her again."

"Maybe," Gabrielle agreed and leaned down to nip Xena's ear lobe, reaching under the water to slide her palm over slick skin. "But we can deal with that."

Without opening her eyes, Xena reached up and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's waist, intentionally unbalancing her. Gabrielle let out a yelp and barely managed to halt her descent by bracing her hands on the edge of the tub.

Xena grinned. "Don't get cocky," she advised wryly. "We got lucky. If Tyldus' army hadn't shown up, we'd be dead."

"That was good timing, wasn't it?" Gabrielle agreed cheerfully, as she tried to keep her dress out of the water. "At the theater in Athens, I think they call that Deus Ex Machina."

"It wasn't the gods," Xena corrected. "It was just--"

"I wouldn't be too sure of that," Ares voice cut off whatever else she intended to say.

Xena's eyes snapped open, but positioned as she was, there was little she could do against a human attacker much less a god.

Ares saw her internal conflict and smiled wryly. "Relax, I'm not here to kill you...or your little friend. If I'd wanted you dead, I wouldn't have helped the Centaurs find you. After all, your army killed Marmax's messenger."

"So, it was you," Xena exhaled.

He ducked his head, his manner mockingly courtly. "Guilty as charged."

"What do you mean?" Gabrielle broke in. "Why would he help us? He's the one who poisoned you, and sic'ed Callisto on you."

"Only to get back what's mine," the god said bitterly. He flashed a jealous look at Gabrielle, but made no attempt to harm her.

Xena pushed Gabrielle upright, and behind her, as she gracefully rose to her feet, careless of her nudity. "It'll never happen," she said flatly.

Ares eyes slid up her body, his expression appreciative. A smile touched his sensual mouth. "Never is a very long time." He bowed low in acknowledgment. "But for now, you win...just remember, my other still out there." Still smiling, he faded away. For the briefest second, only his teeth gleamed white, before they too disappeared.

"That is so annoying," Gabrielle muttered.

Xena shrugged and sank back down into the bath. "It's his trademark."

"I still hate it."

Xena chuckled softly, and reached up, yanking Gabrielle back down. The bard again managed to catch herself on the edge of the tub. "So, where were we?" she drawled.

Gabrielle appeared to consider the question. "I think you were about to show me a few pointers with a sword."

Xena shook her head. "No."

Gabrielle continued to play innocent. "Show me how to throw the chakram?"

"Not even close."

Gabrielle's hands started to slip on the wet tile. "Er...teach me how to do that yell thingy of yours."

Xena's lips turned up in a suggestive smile. "Much closer," she admitted and gave a solid tug.

Gabrielle let out a quick yelp just before she toppled into the water. She came up gasping and looking like a drowned kitten. "That wasn't fair," she sputtered.

Xena chuckled, and ducked her head to kiss the young woman. "You should know by now ...I never fight fair."

"Hmmm...good point," Gabrielle agreed against her lips.

Long minutes later, when the floor around the bath was nearly as wet as they were, and Gabrielle's clothes were tossed in a sodden pile, she leaned back against Xena's strong hold, enjoying the press of her body. "I guess this means we're stuck with each other now."

Xena's looked up from Gabrielle's shoulder, where she was busy tracing the line of her shoulder with her tongue. "Are you complaining?" Despite the joking tone of the question, there was a hint of fear there as well.

Gabrielle saw her lover's uncertainty for what it was, and her expression turned serious. "No...not even a little bit."

Xena let out a breath she hadn't even been aware of holding, and tightened her arms around Gabrielle. "That's good," she murmured, going back to the humorous tone. "Because you can't get rid of me."

Gabrielle twisted in her arms, so that they were facing each other. "Wasn't planning on trying...I think I'll keep you...for now..."

"For now?" Xena bantered and shoved her head under water.

Gabrielle came up sputtering. "How about forever?" she offered as she pushed wet bangs out of her eyes.

"Better," Xena murmured, then reclaimed her lips, flattening a hand against her back as she drew Gabrielle even closer. Soon, words were lost into soft sighs and groans as the two lovers turned themselves over to passion. The calm wouldn't last long, but they enjoyed every minute of it.


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