Subtext: Yes, yes, and yes. Quite a lot--explicit? You've been forewarned. And yes Kam, you have to read it! Be brave, now.
Plot: This story takes place sometime shortly after the "Them Bones, Them Bones" Episode and before the foray into the Land of Chin. Notice how I neatly skirted the issue of plot? ; )
Spoilers: To those of you in Australia, I apologize? I really had no idea that you hadn't seen any of season five yet.
Please feel free to let me know what you think: firstname.lastname@example.org I love feedback
Gabrielle gave a last parting hug and turned to follow Xena as they led their horses away from the Amazon camp. It was a cold morning and she watched their breath freeze in the air. Xena seemed to be in a contemplative mood, probably thinking about their most recent and final battle with Alti. She decided not to disturb the warrior, electing instead to compose a new story in her mind. She hadn't had much time for bardly pursuits lately. This seemed like a welcome respite. And so, they covered the first several leagues in silence. It wasn't in the bard's nature to remain quiet for long, however. Some things never change and being talkative was just inherent in her nature? "So," she said, deciding that it was time to distract Xena from her darker thoughts. When the warrior glanced at her, she smiled and continued, "Where are we supposed to meet Joxer?"
Xena's lips quirked despite her somber mood and she shrugged; she never could resist that enchanting smile. "Not far from here. There's a leather smith in a village just on the boarder of Chin. Since we're so close, I wanted to stop there. I'm hoping he'll take a look at the tread on my stirrups and replace the worn skirts on my saddle. I sent a message for Joxer to meet us there." She stopped walking, a crooked smile coming to her lips. "We're not supposed to meet him for a couple of days?" She ran her hand up the bard's arm to wrap her long, slim fingers around her neck. Gabrielle's smile matched Xena's as she allowed herself to be pulled forward. A small sigh of contentment escaped her lips just before they met the warrior's. Starting softly, the kiss deepened. Velvet tongue collided with velvet tongue and their bodies melted together.
Reluctantly, they pulled apart, each gasping for air. Gabrielle rested her forehead against Xena's cheek and listened to her warrior's excited breath rush past her ear. She slipped her hands inside Xena's coat to move sinuously up her leather clad back, breathing in that intoxicating scent that was simply Xena. She closed her emerald eyes, just savoring this treasured moment, having her warrior to herself and in her arms at long last. "How long do we have?" she asked when she could speak again.
"There's a small meadow, not half a days ride from here. We can camp there." She turned her head to place a soft kiss on the bard's temple. "I figure we've got three days to ourselves? What do you say?"
"I say," Gabrielle gave the warrior's back one last caress and stepped away, "Not even a dinner of nectar and ambrosia on Olympus would be better. Let's get started."
Xena chuckled, 'taking precedence over the bard's vexatious stomach is high praise indeed,' she thought as Gabrielle turned and gathered the reins of her mount, whose soft brown eyes had been patiently watching the exchange between the two women. After swinging into her saddle, the bard leaned down to pat his neck affectionately. Her green eyes flashed as she smiled down at the woman who had come to mean everything to her.
Xena stood watching Gabrielle lovingly as she smoothly steadied the powerful mount beneath her. She seemed so confident now, so at ease in the saddle. Her body's sleek lines matching the rhythm of the animal as he danced to the side, obviously anxious to be off.
"Xena?" Gabrielle inquired of the warrior, a frown of concern creasing her brow.
"Huh? Uh yeah?" Xena smiled sheepishly at the bard, embarrassed at having been caught woolgathering. At the bard's arched eyebrows, she added truthfully, "I was just thinking about how beautiful you are." She glanced down at her feet self-consciously and missed the blush that tinged the bard's cheeks.
Gabrielle's smile widened as she watched Xena swing into her own saddle, still graceful in her first stages of pregnancy. She felt that familiar thrill that always ran through her when Xena allowed herself to express her inner feelings. Knowing how hard such emotional intimacy was for the warrior made it all the more special.
As they rode, the bard took the opportunity to tell Xena the story she had composed earlier. Xena listened quietly to the husky cadence of Gabrielle's voice. These private times had come so rarely of late. She was suddenly struck by how much she had missed these intimate moments, just the two of them. She resolved that, from now on, such moments would come more frequently. Needing to feel grounded by physical contact, she reached out and placed her hand on Gabrielle's thigh as they rode side by side along a leave-strewn trail. Gabrielle placed her hand over Xena's and continued with her story.
A low whirring alerted Xena of danger and her warrior's instinct immediately kicked in. Pulling her hand free, she pushed against Gabrielle's back, forcing the bard to lean forward as she dropped herself down into Argo's neck. The arrow whizzed past them, narrowly missing the bard. Its momentum carried it forward to imbed harmlessly into the trunk of a tree. Clamping her hand onto Gabrielle's reins, Xena kicked Argo into motion. The horses whirled off the path in unison, sliding to a halt safely behind a tree. Both women dropped to the ground, crouching low to await the expected attack.
Several moments passed as they listened for the sounds of impending danger. Gabrielle controlled her breathing as Xena had taught her, listening for any telltale signs of an enemy's approach-the crackle of leaves, the crunch of gravel, the snapping of a twig? None was forthcoming. She looked to Xena for direction. The warrior motioned for her to begin moving to the right, signaling with her hands that she was going to scout to the left. The bard nodded and placed her back against the tree trunk, silently pulling a sai from her boot. Xena nodded one last time and slipped quietly into the trees, almost immediately becoming invisible among the low foliage. The bard crouched low to attain the best possible defensive position and began to circle around to the right, taking care not to disturb the horses as she passed them. She stealthily circled around, stopping at a spot on the other side of the path almost adjacent to where they had begun. Gabrielle spotted Xena crouching low several lengths away and raised her eyebrows in query. Xena shrugged and shook her head. There seemed to be no sign of any attack, or any attackers for that matter. The warrior stood up and quickly covered the short distance between them.
"Stay here for a moment," she uttered gruffly, still upset at having been caught off guard. Xena's long strides carried her to where the arrow protruded from the tree. She shuddered at the thought of how close it had come to hitting her bard.
Xena surveyed their surroundings, still wary of a sudden attack and then motioned to her. "Looks clear, Gabrielle." She reached up to pull the arrow free as Gabrielle joined her on the path, watching quietly as the warrior examined the arrow.
"It's Amazon." Xena mumbled, looking perplexed.
"I don't understand?" Gabrielle said. "Why would an Amazon be shooting at us?"
"Well, it's definitely Amazon," Xena said again as if this would clarify their many unanswered questions. She pinched the narrow shaft between thumb and forefinger, bringing the feathered end up for a closer inspection. "Northern Amazon, but there's no personal markings. Must be a training arrow?" Xena looked at Gabrielle and shook her head, still puzzled.
"This must have been accidental?" the bard speculated, not really believing the farfetched notion. Again, she glanced around uncomfortably, canvassing the area for signs of danger. "Perhaps, a few of the younger girls were experimenting with arrows not knowing we were here? if they realized what had happened, maybe they ran away fearing they would be in trouble."
Xena raised an ebony eyebrow and shook her head. "Not very plausible? What really worries me," Xena narrowed her eyes so that Gabrielle experienced the full force of her ice-blue gaze, "is that the arrow seemed to be aimed at you?"
Gabrielle laughed uneasily. "Don't be ridiculous, Xena." She glanced around again. "It was just a stray arrow." She added as if to convince herself, "We just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"I hope you're right, love. But let's keep our eyes open all the same." Xena pulled the bard into her arms, instinctively knowing that she needed to be held. "and I think we need to put some distance between ourselves and this place."
"Of, course," Gabrielle responded, allowing herself to snuggle into the embrace for a moment. Somehow she always felt totally safe within the comfort of Xena's strong arms.
Several candle-marks of hard riding carried them safely away. The leagues they covered brought with them a sense of security and Gabrielle soon dismissed the incident. Xena was still concerned. She still felt the prickles of awareness that always alerted her to danger, but let it pass.
They set up their camp in the meadow just as dusk began to paint the horizon. A small brook babbled cheerfully nearby and the meadow soon became a haven in the winter landscape. A cheery campfire and a snared rabbit provided them a respite from Gabrielle's ever present "stomach monster" and they soon found themselves cuddled near the fire. A heap of warm sleeping furs piled on soft leaves providing them with protection from the chilly, evening air.
"Comfortable?" Gabrielle asked as she sat facing Xena, straddling her thighs. Her head rested on Xena's shoulder and she absently toyed with a lock of the warrior's dark tresses.
"Very." Xena stroked her finger through the soft, short locks of Gabrielle's hair as she dropped her head to place a tender kiss on the bard's lips. She felt the small smile coming to Gabrielle's lips as she pulled away.
"Thank you for the rabbit. I was definitely getting tired of venison." She placed several leisurely kisses along the column of Xena's neck. "It really tasted wonderful."
"You taste really wonderful," Xena replied, finding the bard's soft lips again.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to meet the warrior's wet caress with her own. Deep within, she felt a curl of smoky desire ignite into flames of passion. Pressing herself closer, she deepened the kiss, sliding her tongue inside to explore the velvet wetness of Xena's mouth.
"Mmm," Xena moaned. She slid her hands along the soft skin of Gabrielle's back, stopping to release the ties on her leather top, which was easily pulled away, discarded, forgotten.
Gabrielle luxuriated in the feel of Xena's hands on her skin. The heat of her desire leaving her oblivious to the cold night air. The warrior pulled her mouth away to trail kisses along Gabrielle's jaw, down her neck, tracing her tongue along her breast bone, and over the tops of her breasts. When she flicked her tongue at a puckered nipple, Gabrielle threw her head back and gasped. Arching her back, she pulled the dark head forward, moaning her pleasure as Xena took it into her mouth and began to suckle. An electric thrill shot up her spine and a familiar ache began deep within.
Xena's blood hammered through her veins as she released the nipple and focused her attentions on its twin, lavishing it with her tongue. Suddenly, she became aware of Gabrielle's hips thrusting against her midriff. She pushed the bard back into the softness of their sleeping furs and grazed the tip of a nipple with her teeth, eliciting a soft cry from Gabrielle. Slowly, she began to place a trail of kisses along the valley between her breasts. While caressing the rippling muscles of her abdomen with her lips and tongue, she stripped away Gabrielle's breeches with nimble fingers. Needing to be closer, Xena moved her mouth down to tangle her tongue in the soft blond curls that covered the bard's sex. She spread the bard's legs wide and moved to kneel between them, looking down at the flower of Gabrielle's passion "You're so beautiful, my love," she husked. As she watched, a small drop of dewy essence dripped from the velvet petals of Gabrielle's core. Xena reached down to catch it on the tip of her finger. Her blue eyes locked with green, seeing all the pent up desire in the depths of that emerald gaze as she flicked her tongue out to taste the small drop of essence on her finger. That small morsel only served to increase her ardor. Consumed with the need to drink deeply from her lover's passion, she dropped her head to feast at the bard's honeyed core.
Gabrielle moaned, arching her back and thrusting her hips up as she felt Xena's tongue delve into her depths. Xena wrapped her arms under the bard's thighs as her lover began to buck against her plundering mouth. Knowing the bard's climax was imminent, she brought her tongue up to swirl against the sensitive bundle of nerves as she slipped her fingers up inside the bard's silky folds and curled them upwards to rub that special place which gave her love the most pleasure. Sucking the nub beneath her tongue suddenly into her mouth, she flicked it with quick strokes of her tongue and plundered the bard's core with her fingers, bringing Gabrielle to an intense shuddering release. At the pinnacle of her orgasm, Gabrielle lifted her hips off the blankets, a cry of pleasure escaping her throat.
Even before her spasms had ceased, Xena again entered her with her tongue. She pulled her hips close against her mouth, stroking the soft inner folds of her core with deep, slow caresses. Gabrielle matched her rhythm with the thrust of her hips as her arousal began to rekindle, each slow stroke pushing her higher, intensifying her pleasure. "Xena, please?" she whispered between ragged breaths. Her thighs began to quiver beneath Xena's fingers and she felt herself topple over the precipice and into a climax more intense than her first. She felt her spirit expand, flowing outward to encompass the universe and beyond before shattering into a cosmic shower of pleasure.
Xena lay for a few moments with her head resting on Gabrielle's abdomen. She could still feel the tiny aftershocks of her climax coursing within, the bard's muscles contracting in reaction to her pleasuring. She lifted herself up, hovering over the bard's limp form. Balancing her weight on hands that rested in either side of the bard's head, she swooped down to place a soft kiss on Gabrielle's kiss-swollen lips. "You ok?" she asked.
"Perfect," Gabrielle responded and wrapped her arms and legs around the warrior, rolling her over and pinning her body beneath her own. "And now," she said with a feral grin, "it's my turn?" She pressed Xena into the bedding and kissed her soundly, tasting herself on Xena's tongue. Swinging her legs over her body to straddle the warrior, Gabrielle began to worship Xena with her mouth. She traced high cheekbones with her tongue and rained soft kisses over her eyelids, brow, and chin.
Xena ran her hands along the bare skin of Gabrielle's back as the bard kissed her face. Her hands found the soft curve of the bard's buttocks, then ran down along her firm thighs. Taking the bard's mouth with her own to distract her, she slipped her hand between their bodies, pressing her fingers deeply into Gabrielle's hot, silken depths.
Gabrielle's fingers stilled on Xena's leather lacings and she gasped in surprise. She felt so?filled and sat for a moment to simply experience the sensation. She lifted her hips, intending to slip off of Xena's hand, but the pleasure of that friction was overwhelming. She moaned and dropped herself gently back down, feeling the warrior's fingers again buried deep with her. Slowly, she began to thrust against Xena's hand. As the bard pushed against the warrior's fingers, Xena began to rub her thumb along the bard's swollen nub. Gabrielle arched her back, closing her eyes and luxuriating in the pleasure of her warrior's lovemaking.
Xena watched the corded tendons standing out on Gabrielle's neck, enraptured by her beauty. With her free hand, she gently cupped the bard's breast then slid it up and around that graceful neck to pull her down for a kiss. Gabrielle cried out into her mouth as the tremors of climax again coursed through her. She pulled away, looking down at Xena as she thrust against her one last time. The warrior smiled as she stared into Gabrielle's green gaze. "I love you," she whispered as she felt the bard's contractions begin to squeeze her fingers.
Gabrielle closed her eyes, dropping her head back as she rode out the powerful sensations that coursed through her entire being.
With a satiated sigh, Gabrielle fell forward to rest her head in the hollow of Xena's neck. As she lay there waiting for her heart to slow, she drifted quietly into a contented sleep. Xena gently slipped her hand out of the bard. She lightly stroked Gabrielle's back and listened to the night sounds of the forest around them. She still felt as if they were being watched, as if the forest itself had eyes? It was a long while before Xena could join her lover in slumber.
That eerie feeling was still with her when she awoke. Something was definitely not right, but she didn't want to alarm her bard without something tangible to tell her. She also didn't want to give up this small amount of time that they had alone. She felt Gabrielle stir behind her. "Morning," she murmured quietly. She resolved not to tell Gabrielle of her fears just yet. 'I'll just keep a close watch,' she thought to herself. 'Probably just my imagination anyway,' she reached down to stroke her slightly protruding stomach, 'and pregnancy can have that affect?' she silently reasoned with herself. Small hands reached around to cover her own as she felt Gabrielle press close against her back.
"What are you thinking?" Gabrielle murmured, pressing her cheek against corded muscles and running her hands over Xena's.
Xena turned in Gabrielle's arms, taking comfort in the embrace of the small woman that held her. "That it's hard to believe that I'm actually pregnant," she answered. 'It wasn't exactly a lie,' she thought to herself.
The bard smiled sleepily, "I know you'll be a wonderful mother, Xena."
"Mmmm, it feels wonderful to hold you close," the warrior whispered, choosing to change the subject.
Gabrielle sighed contentedly, snuggling her face into Xena's neck where it met the hem of her shirt. "Hmmm," she consented. Suddenly, the bard's eyes flew open and she turned her head to glare at her lover. "Xena!" You never even got undressed!" Gabrielle lifted the blanket for a moment to scowl down at her naked limbs tangled with Xena's fully clothed form. "And I still have my boots on!" she wailed.
Xena chuckled. "I didn't want your pretty little feet to get cold."
"But I didn't get to, I mean, you never?"
"Sshhhh," Xena placed a long finger against the bard's lips. "It's alright love, we've still got tonight."
Gabrielle smiled and whispered against her finger, "and tomorrow."
"And tomorrow," Xena repeated huskily. Her voiced had dropped an octave as she felt Gabrielle's tongue flick out to caress the digit that still rested against her lips. Xena pulled her hand away, replacing it with her mouth, delving her tongue in to return the caress with deep, slow thrusts.
"Don't you want to break your fast this morning?" she husked into Gabrielle's ear after pulling away.
"I want you this morning," the bard growled, pressing her mouth back onto the warrior's lips. Her words; however, had been punctuated by a loud rumble from her stomach.
Xena chuckled into her mouth and pulled away. "The MONSTER disagrees," she said in mock horror. "We must feed the beast!" With a smile, she slipped out from under the fur covering. "I'll see what I can gather up and you get the fire going." She reached down to ruffle Gabrielle's hair, grabbed her chakram, and strode out of the clearing.
Gabrielle sighed deeply as she rose to greet the day. "Morning people?" she muttered to herself.
They passed the morning in companionable solitude, eating a late breakfast, lounging about the campfire and taking the opportunity to simply talk to one another. They now realized that they both had needed this reprieve from their demanding travels. Lethargy settled in and Xena could feel the tension begin to drain from her limbs. The night had passed quietly and the morning as well. Perhaps, Gabrielle had been right. 'I guess I really needed a vacation,' she thought wryly, 'I'm seeing danger everywhere now.' She leaned back, relaxing against a log as she listened to the bard, who had been reminiscing about some childhood adventure. As she finished her story, her small blond head lifted, her eyes searching the warrior's to see if she had been listening to her ramblings.
Xena smiled, intuitively knowing what the bard was thinking. "I wish I could have known you as a child." She lost herself in Gabrielle's loving look, "I know I would have loved you, even then."
"And I, you." Gabrielle returned as she stood. "I'm going to take these pots to the stream and wash them up."
Xena nodded and stood as well. "I'm gonna go through a couple of drills, too much sitting for one day." She watched the bard walk into the trees before beginning her warm up sequences.
Gabrielle sat by the water's edge and quickly dispensed with cleaning the pots. She smiled. 'Well, that's one good thing about traveling light,' she thought. 'Not many dishes to wash up.' She knew Xena would be a while practicing her drills. She knew she should probably go join her, but she felt like being lazy and decided to take the opportunity to wash up a bit instead. She took a clean rag from the bag that she had brought with her and dipped it into the water. She recognized the worn material as part of one of her old tops. She watched the water stain the bilious green fabric into a darker shade and smiled. It used to be a part of her favorite outfit. Now, she wondered why she had ever liked that color? She bent to cup her hands into the cold water, stilling all motion as she heard a familiar whirring zoom past her ear. She looked up to see the small dart impact with the bank near the water's edge, sliding into a pile of dead leaves.
Immediately, she ducked and rolled to her feet, running towards their camp as fast as her legs would carry her. As she ran, she heard that now familiar sound again rush past her head. She ducked and kept running. 'Someone is after me, get to Xena, get to Xena, get to Xena...' kept repeating in her mind. It became her only thought as fear took over her body.
Xena turned as she heard Gabrielle's approach. Sobbing, she threw herself into Xena's arms. The warrior caught her very frightened bard in a tight embrace. "What is it?" she asked, fearing that she already knew the answer.
Gabrielle tried to rasp out what had happened between ragged breaths, beginning to calm now that she had reached the camp.
"Darts?" Xena asked, her eyes narrowing. "Were they white?"
Gabrielle nodded. "I saw the first one hit the ground near the stream."
"A Shaman's dart," She held her at arms length and looked intently at the bard, examining her for puncture wounds. "Did it hit you? The tips are poisoned." As Gabrielle shook her head, she breathed in a sigh of relief and reached down to pull Gabrielle's sai from her boot, placing it in her shaking hands. "I want you to stay here." She said in that Princess Warrior's deadly calm that boded ill for those who provoked her, "Take cover behind that tree, stay armed, and don't come out until I call for you."
The bard nodded, but Xena could see the fear in her eyes. "I need to scout around and you're in no shape to come with me," she said. "I don't think they'll come into the camp." Her voice hardened, "Obviously it's a coward too afraid to meet us in face-to-face combat."
Gabrielle nodded, "I'll be fine, go." She was already moving to a defensive position behind the tree. She crouched low and waited for Xena's return. She had a clear view of the camp, but could remain unseen to anyone in the clearing. She had stumbled onto the perfect spot from which to watch the camp from afar.
The bard waited half a candle-mark before she began to get restless. The forest was deathly quiet. Even the birds had ceased to chirp, sensing that something was very wrong in this part of the forest. She shifted back on her heels and noticed an object half-hidden under the fallen leaves near her booted toe. Bending to pick up the object, she immediately recognized it. She gazed at the necklace with abject horror. "I know who my attacker is?" she whispered. "Xena!" She called out, knowing that if the warrior were within hearing, she would be there soon.
Xena knelt beside the stream, carefully examining the dart she had found near Gabrielle's belongings. When she heard Gabrielle call out, she dropped it and began sprinting back to their camp, fearing she wouldn't make it there in time.
"Well, if it isn't Xena's little bitch, again." Gabrielle swung around at the sound of the familiar voice. "I'll teach you to pour amber on my remains!" her assailant screeched as she attacked. The bard's shock was almost her undoing, but somehow she managed to block that first assault. She flung her body away from the path of the sword, rolling into a standing position just inside the clearing. Her training took over and she began to fend off the blows aimed at her, no longer afraid now that she faced her enemy.
Xena was instantly enraged as she came into the clearing to see Gabrielle being attacked. She approached from behind, sweeping at the legs of her bard's attacker. It worked and the woman was knocked off balance, tucking her body into a roll and coming up quickly to swing her blade at the warrior.
Xena's sword glinted in the sunlight as it arced through the air to connect with bone rattling force against her opponent's sword. The woman dropped to her knees from the force of the blow, but managed to parry Xena's next strike. Xena's rage had somewhat abated, knowing that her bard was unharmed, and she looked down to assess her opponent. As she met the woman's angry glare, she faltered for a moment. "Amarice?"
"Guess again, Xena," the woman hissed in that contemptuous, evil voice.
Xena's eyes narrowed in recognition. "Alti," she said as she lifted her sword back into position, "I should have known you wouldn't have the grace to die this time either." She searched Amarice's face, obviously she had been taken over by Alti's spirit. Friend had suddenly become foe. She watched closely for any signs of weakness, knowing that she had to find it if there was to be any chance of saving Amarice and still destroy Alti. And destroy Alti, she must.
As Alti/Amarice attacked, she noticed that the sorceress didn't have complete control over her movements, as if someone was fighting her. 'Gotcha,' she thought as she parried Alti's blows. With a well-timed flick of her wrist, she sent the other woman's sword flying and threw her body into the woman's shoulders. Both tumbled to the ground, struggling to gain control over the other.
"Help me, Xena," Amarice's voice called out as they rolled across the clearing. Amarice, regaining control of her body momentarily, pushed herself face-first into the ground to give Xena the advantage. The warrior took it and shoved her opponent's head into the leave-covered ground, twisting her hands behind her back. When she had control over the struggling form, she looked up at Gabrielle who was already moving forward with a length of cord to bind her with.
"Xena we can't just kill her. Amarice is in there with her!"
"I know Gabrielle, but it's your safety at stake here. That arrow, those darts? they were aimed at YOU. I can't just stand by and HOPE that Amarice can defeat Alti?"
Gabrielle reached up to grasp Xena's forearms. "You're right. But we can't sacrifice Amarice either. Gabrielle paused, squinting as a thought struck her. "I think I know of someone who can help?"
Xena looked over to make sure that Alti/Amarice was still securely trussed. Turning back to the bard, she raised an eyebrow in question.
Gabrielle answered the silent query. "The Guardian of the cave where I got the amber may know why this happened and how we can fix it. She looked at Xena with resolve. "We have to take her to the Guardian of the liquid amber, I'm sure of it."
The warrior looked at the darkening sky and nodded her acquiescence. "We'll leave at first light."
They packed up most of their gear, keeping out only their sleeping furs and the few items they would need before setting out in the morning. Throughout their preparations, conversation was left at a minimum, even the talkative bard was remained unusually pensive. A dinner of leftover rabbit stew was eaten in silence. Xena sat a plate near Alti/Amarice, who sniffed at it then kicked it away. Xena merely shook her head, returning to the other side of the fire. She sat next to Gabrielle and quietly finished her meal.
Once the remains of dinner had been cleared away, Xena slid into the pile of sleeping furs.
Gabrielle took a fur from the pile, carrying it over to drop over their tethered captive. Alti/Amarice turned to glare at her. "For Amarice," the bard stated quietly before turning away. She felt that cold glare stabbing into her back as she circled the fire and joined Xena inside their bedroll. The warrior immediately pulled her close, spooning her own body against the bard's back. Gabrielle lay in the warmth of Xena's arms, staring into the fading flames of the dying campfire and wondering if sleep would come this night.
"What, no show for me tonight?" Alti laughed wickedly.
At her words, Gabrielle tensed in Xena's arms, realizing that Alti had watched them the night before, witnessing their most intimate, private moments. Xena pulled her closer and they both lay quietly, waiting for rosy-fingered dawn to creep across the horizon.
When no response was forthcoming, Alti snorted and rolled to face away from them.
Gabrielle felt Xena shift so that she had a clear view of Amarice's back as she lay unmoving on the other side of the fire. It was going to be a long sleepless night-for all of them.
They set out at first light. Gabrielle rode behind Xena on Argo. The bard held the reins of her own mount, leading him as he carried the still restrained Alti. The urged the horses into a ground covering canter. Even then, it would take most of the day to reach the cave.
The cave was dark, concealing its secrets in a cloak of damp gloom. The air; however, smelled fresh and clean, as if a spring breeze continually fed its inner chambers. Unlike her previous visit, Gabrielle met no guardian at the entrance of the cave. All was quiet as she stared into the dim recesses of the cave. The three women carefully made their way through the maze of darkness towards a faint glimmer radiating from deeper inside the cave.
They walked on for what seemed like leagues before Gabrielle halted. "We never came this far into the cave. I'm sure of it," Gabrielle whispered with conviction.
Xena placed her hand on the smaller woman's shoulder. "You think it's a trap?"
"I'm not sure?"
The warrior squeezed the bard's shoulder. "Let's go on just a bit farther. The light ahead seems to be getting brighter." With that, she stepped around Gabrielle to take the lead. Amarice and Gabrielle fell in behind her to walk side by side.
"How are you getting along?" Gabrielle whispered to the younger woman, reaching over to check that the bindings on her wrists were not chafing; yet, still secure.
Amarice snorted. "We're not at all, actually?"
Gabrielle chuckled at the joke. If the girl was kidding with her, then the struggle within must have abated-at least for a while.
Turning a last corner, the three came to a halt in a brightly-lit cavern. The room was about the size of a small tavern. The walls rose smoothly into a perfect arch above their heads. It reminded Gabrielle of some of the masque architecture they had seen in India. The stone floor was swept clean, as if it were too sacred for dust to settle upon.
The walls of the cavern shimmered as if hundreds of candles bathed the room in a soft glowing light. Xena looked around for the source of the light, but couldn't find it.
A bright flash momentarily filled the cavern with dazzling light. When it subsided, the glowing form of a woman stood before them. Gabrielle gasped in surprised as she looked into the face of the Guardian. The figure floated forward to address her. "My sister, I posses that answer which you seek," the figure replied in a gentle voice that resonated through out the cave. "The answer lies with the gift that on you I have bestowed."
"The amber," Gabrielle said quietly.
Xena turned to look at Gabrielle. "Do you still have it?"
"No," she said with a shake of her blond head, "I used it all on Alti's bones."
The Guarding nodded, looking down at Gabrielle solemnly. "I cannot twice bestow the same gift upon an Amazon." She raised a glowing hand to forestall Xena as she stepped forward to speak. "And only to an Amazon, can I bequeath my gifts."
All eyes turned to rest on Alti/Amarice. Both bard and warrior held their breath as she began to speak. "I?I," she stammered as she fought for control. Her throat constricted and she began to shiver violently a sign of her inner struggle as she silently fought against Alti's spirit. Her voice was barely audible even in the quiet stillness of the cavern. "I? request, as an?Amazon in the? service of my?queen? Gabrielle," beads of sweat began to break out on her forehead, but she doggedly persevered. "That? you? grant? me," she paused to catch her breath, her chest swelling as she took ragged gulps of air. Closing her eyes, she struggled to continue, "the use? of the? liqu? liquid? amber."
The Guardian bowed her head, "Your request is granted, my sister. Drink and be you rid of the demon that holds you."
A small flask of the precious liquid appeared at Amarice's feet. She looked down at it, but remained still. She couldn't seem to make her hands reach for it. Gabrielle retrieved the vile and held it to the young Amazon's lips. As the liquid slipped into her mouth, she fell to her knees. She stayed there for several long moments, her head bowed, kneeling at Gabrielle's feet. When she finally raised her head to gaze up at the bard, tears trailed their way down her cheeks. "I'm sorry. Forgive me," she said quietly.
Gabrielle shook her head and smiled as she placed a gentle hand on her young head. "There's no need. I know it wasn't your fault. There's nothing to forgive."
"Thank you? my Queen."
"Gabrielle," the Guardian's musical voiced again resonated quietly around the cavern. "There is yet another gift that to you I must bestow. I only await the asking of it."
The bard turned to face the glowing form. "Sacred Guardian, I humbly ask for your gift."
At her words, the glowing form brightened. "Step, then, into my light."
Gabrielle stepped forward, disappearing into the light. Xena looked on with concern, but did not intervene.
Several moments passed before the bard reappeared, a look of wonder on her face. She stepped toward the two women who stood waiting for her.
"What happened?" Xena asked the bard as they made their way towards the entrance of the cave.
"Someday," Gabrielle, still awed by her extraordinary experience, turned an enigmatic smile on the warrior. "I promise to tell you about it someday?"
Outside the cave, Amarice returned Gabrielle's hug. As she stepped away, she reached up to touch the necklace that her Queen had again placed around her neck.
Gabrielle raised her hand, bestowing the formal blessing of the Queen. "Go with honor, my sister."
Amarice bowed. "And you, my Queen," she said before turning away, heading back to the Amazon settlement. She knew that she still had much to learn from them.
Xena came to stand behind the bard, wrapping her long arms around her. They both watched in silence as the young Amazon disappeared into the forest.
Gabrielle turned in her warrior's arms. "Xena, the guardian told me we could stay in the caves for a while? if we wanted?"
Mischief flashed through icy blue eyes. "We really need to get going, if we're gonna meet Joxer on time?" She looked down at the bard, sincerely hoping she would argue.
"Joxer can just wait a few days!" Taking Xena's hand, the bard turned and led the warrior back into the cave. "Xena, I demand that you take your clothes off this instant."
The warrior chuckled and answered in mock humility, "As you command, my Amazon Queen."
She was already planning to turn the tables on her demanding bard?