Full Circle

By Vada Foster

Disclaimer: The story below contains scenes of violence. It also depicts two women who are in a loving relationship. If this offends you in any way please stop reading and reading another story. 

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The fire was little more than ashes, but even in the faint glow of the embers, the figure in the shadows could see two bedrolls on either side of the fire pit. All but invisible under the dense canopy of leaves, and without a sound, the intruder crept toward one of the sleeping forms. At close range, it was obvious that the person nearest the fire was a young woman, with strawberry blonde hair in disarray around her face. A smile played at the corner of the interlopers mouth. How sweet and innocent the sleeping woman appeared, her mouth slightly open, her breathing deep and even. The intruder reached out a hand toward the still form, and immediately, the offending wrist was seized in a viselike grip, the arm twisted viciously behind the crouching figure, and a knife blade was pressed against the throat.

"Just give me the slightest reason to put more pressure on this knife, friend," Xena hissed into the person's ear , "and this will be the last traveler you ever sneak up on."

"I meant her no harm", the captive gasped in pain. "I was just going to move her hair out of her face to get a better look at her." Xena eased off on the arm which she realized was dangerously close to breaking. Something in the voice of this stranger was familiar, but she could not immediately place it.

Gabrielle woke to the sounds of the struggle. She could not see Xena , only the intruder, and for a moment she panicked. "Xena!", she cried out, scrambling out of her bedroll, and scrabbling away from the stranger.

"It's all right, Gabrielle. I'm here." Xena felt a lessening of the tension in the body of the person within her grip, and instinctively pressed down harder with the knife, causing the intruder to cry out as the blade bit into flesh.

"Please, let me speak", the captive whispered, remaining motionless to avoid further injury. Xena removed the blade, but kept it within an inch of her prisoner's neck.

"Talk", she snarled, "but don't even think about moving."

"Are you Xena of Amphipolis?"

"I am", she replied. "Should I know you?"

"I hope so. I am Antea ..." The words were not even out of her mouth before Xena tossed her knife to the ground, and released the arm of her captive. She gripped her shoulders, turning her around so she could see her. Even in the dim glow of the fire, the planes of the face before her were familiar. A smile lit up her own face, as she threw her arms around Antea, lifting her off the ground in a hug. For several moments they remained in a fierce embrace, until the sound of Gabrielle clearing her throat pierced the moment.

"Is this a private party, or can anybody get in on it?", Gabrielle inquired with a wry smile. When she realized the threat of danger was past, Gabrielle came closer to look at the woman that appeared so comfortable wrapped in her lovers arms. At a glance, she would have taken her for a man, since her hair was cut short, and she was dressed in breeches and a tunic. She appeared to be about ten years older than Xena, and stood an inch or two shorter. She had no weapons or armor. Not a warrior, then, but clearly someone that featured prominently in Xena's past.

"Oh, Gabrielle, come and meet Antea." Xena held out her hand to Gabrielle, and when she stepped closer, Xena encircled her shoulder with her arm, pulling her in close to her body. Gabrielle reached out her right hand to grasp Antea's, and gave it a firm shake.

"Hi", she said.. "I'm Gabrielle. It's nice to...."she broke off in mid sentence, noticing a stream of blood making its way down Antea's neck. "Your neck is bleeding! Let me get something to bind that wound with." She untangled herself from Xena's arm, and dropped to her knees to rummage through her pack for some cloth to make a bandage with.

Antea touched her hand to her neck, as if only aware at that moment that she had been wounded. "That isn't necessary", she protested. "It's only a scratch"

Xena put her fingers under Antea's chin and tipped her head back to get a look at the cut. "Gabrielle's right.. It isn't very deep, but it should be cleaned and wrapped. Bring the water skin too, will you, Gabrielle?" Gabrielle nodded. "I'm sorry about the cut, but I thought you were a slaver or something. What were you doing creeping around our camp in the middle of the night, anyway? I might have killed you."

"And I thought you might be part of a band of mercenaries that have been raiding the nearby towns. These woods are on my land, and I was passing through on my way home when I noticed your fire. When I got close enough to see your lovely friend, I knew there was no way you were brigands. I was just about to leave when you grabbed me. You haven't lost your touch, I see", she grumbled, gingerly touching her neck.

Xena shrugged. "I get more than enough practice, I'm afraid. I seem to find trouble everywhere I go."

"She sure does." Gabrielle said, approaching with her arms laden with waterskins and cloth. "Just yesterday we were ambushed by 15 or 20 thugs as we were leaving a tavern in..." Xena interrupted her with a tap on her on the shoulder, holding out her hands for the supplies she carried.

"Gabrielle, there were no more than 7 or 8. You have a bard's knack for exaggeration." Xena dampened a cloth, and carefully wiped the blood off of Antea's neck, then wrapped a longer piece around her neck.

"Well, it seemed like 15 to me. Anyway, they were no match for Xena. She laid out the whole pack of them in a matter of minutes." Gabrielle illustrated with a few chops and kicks how Xena had routed the thugs, causing Xena to shake her head and roll her eyes. Antea laughed, and clapped Xena on the back.

"I wouldn't have wanted to be on the receiving end of that", she quipped.

"I figure I'm lucky I just got my throat cut."

"Don't you start", Xena said with a menacing growl, but her face gave lie to the sounds she made, as the corners of her mouth were turned up in a smile.

"Listen, why don't you two come with me to my cottage and spend the night there? It's not much, but it beats sleeping on the ground. Give us a chance to catch up on things, Xena." She draped her arm across Gabrielle's shoulders, and gave her a friendly squeeze. "And let me get to know this beautiful little treasure of yours as well." Gabrielle favored Antea with a smile that lit up her face.

"Don't have to ask me twice", Gabrielle quipped, wrapping her arm around Antea's waist. "I want you to tell me all about Xena from the old days." Antea looked at her, and raised one eyebrow, surprised to know that Gabrielle had even heard of her. Gabrielle could not mistake the look. "Oh, yes, she mentioned you several times. She almost never talks about the dark times in her life, but she has told me about her family and some of her close friends from Amphipolis. I gathered you were one of the high points in her life." Antea turned toward Xena, but Xena quickly dropped her gaze to the ground, apparently engrossed in the layout of their camp.

"Gabrielle, if we're going to Antea's, we need to break camp. Do you suppose you could lend me a hand? You can gossip all you want tomorrow."

"Oh, sure" Gabrielle said, dropping to her knees and collecting the contents of her pack as well as her bedroll, while Xena did the same. In a matter of minutes, they were ready to go. Xena picked up Argo's saddle, and headed for the meadow where the horse was tethered.

"You two go ahead. I'll catch up", she said, and almost immediately was lost from sight.

"But, you don't know where my cottage is", Antea called after her, and then stopped herself as she realized who she was talking to. Almost in unison, Antea and Gabrielle said "She'll find it" They broke into laughter. Obviously, both of them knew Xena pretty well, even though Antea had not seen her for more than 10 years. Together they made their way toward Antea's cottage, chatting together as comfortably as old friends.

 

Xena had no difficulty following the trail of the two women, and indeed, she could easily have overtaken them, if she had wanted to. She decided instead to let them get to know each other without the potential embarrassment of her presence. Xena remembered telling Gabrielle about Antea, but did not recall mentioning the fact that they had been lovers. It did not seem to be important at the time; after all, it was unlikely that they would ever meet again for the subject to come up. As she slowly followed the tracks of her current and former lover, she made a promise to herself that the next time she told Gabrielle about pieces of her life, she would not leave out anything important, even if the chances of it ever coming to light were remote. At the very least, she owed Gabrielle her honesty.

She reined in Argo at the edge of the woods. In the distance, the glow of a lamp already shown through the window of the cottage, so she knew they were already inside. With a sigh, she dismounted, and lead Argo toward the stable, which faced away from the cottage. Her hands performed the tasks of removing the saddle, and grooming Argo unconsciously. Seeing Antea had triggered so many memories. Xena smiled, thinking of the girl she had been when she first met Antea. It all started because of a senseless act of violence....

 

Cortese was laying waste to the country side around Amphipolis. Xena knew it was just a matter of time before her own home town was reduced to ashes in the wake of the murderous warlord. She had heard stories of women captured by soldiers and abused by them until death seemed preferable. She vowed she would not suffer such a fate, regardless of what it took.

Her older brother Taurus taught her how to handle a sword, and in fact, she soon proved to be even more adept with a blade than he was. When it became clear that she could not learn anything more from him, she set out to find the metal smith that was well known locally as a maker of fine weapons, and also skilled in the art of hand to hand combat. The smithy was also a woman. Xena knew that if she were to prevail in combat with a man, she needed to know how to hurt him in ways her brother simply did not want to teach her. From what she heard of Antea, those were the very skills she taught, but only to a select few. She hoped she could meet whatever criteria Antea had.

It was nearly sunset on the forth day after she left Amphipolis when Xena reached the cottage of the smithy. She was footsore and hungry. Living off the land was also new to her, and food had been scarce for the last day and half, since her provisions from home were exhausted. More than anything she hoped Antea would accept her, as she had neither the strength nor the desire to make the long trek home.

"Hello the house", she called in greeting, and plodded toward the door. Before she could reach the cottage, the door was opened by what appeared to be a man dressed in leathers, in his hand a shining round metal object. Xena stopped in her tracks, believing she had the wrong place. The innkeeper in town had told her that Antea lived alone; there should be no man answering her door.

"What's your business?", asked the man, in a decidedly feminine voice.

"I - I'm looking for the smithy, Antea", she stammered.

"You found her." Xena stared in fascination at the woman before her. She had never seen a woman in men's clothing, nor one whose hair was cut in such a masculine style. Looking more closely at the face, she could not imagine how she had ever thought her a man; her features were fine, her lips full and soft, with dark eyelashes framing eyes the color of emeralds. 'What a contradiction', Xena thought. 'Such soft beauty wrapped in rough leather'. "And who might you be?", Antea asked with a smile, dragging Xena away from her thoughts.

"I'm Xena from Amphipolis."

"Ah. And what is it that this humble smithy can do for you, Xena from Amphipolis?", Antea said with a small bow. She studied the statuesque Xena from under her lowered lashes. Framed by the orange glow of the setting sun, her visitor was as majestic as a goddess. She could not make out the individual features, only a silhouette, but there was no doubt in her mind that the creature standing in her door yard would be beautiful.

Xena closed the distance to the door of the cottage in a few long strides, stopping just in front of the smithy. The sun was no longer directly behind her, and Antea could see that her evaluation of her visitor was correct. The eyes that looked up at her were the clear blue of the Aegean, in a face that Helen of Troy would envy. Xena was trying to think of how to phrase her request, when her stomach produced a series of growls. "Well", she said with a slightly embarrassed grin, " for starters, if you could share a little of what you're cooking in there that smells so good, I would be very grateful."

With a laugh, Antea backed up from the door, and gestured with her arm for Xena to enter. "By all means. Though this simple fare is scarcely worth the walk from the village, let alone Amphipolis. But you are welcome to share it with me while you tell me about your quest."

Xena's recollection of her first meeting with Antea was interrupted by Argo nudging her in the side with her nose. "All right, all right, don't be so pushy. I'll feed you." She dug some grain out of her pack, and put it in the trough in front of Argo, who began to munch contentedly. Grabbing her bedroll, she pushed open the half-door to the stall, and headed for the cottage.

 

The sound of laughter greeted her as she walked through the door of the cottage. Antea and Gabrielle sat at a rough wooden table in the sparsely furnished cottage. Antea brushed tears of laughter off of her face, and motioned for Xena to join them at the table.

"There's some port in that jug. It's not too bad, if you're not picky. Mugs are over there. Help yourself", Antea said, pointing to a cabinet in the area that served as her kitchen.

"Oh, she's not picky", Gabrielle said. "I have seen her drink mead from a barrel that was so thick with sludge at the bottom you could use it for pitch," she leaned toward Antea, and whispered conspiratorially "You should see .."

"Hey, no whispering", Xena grumbled, dropping into a chair beside Gabrielle, nearly spilling her port as she slammed her mug on the table with a satisfying thud. "You already outnumber me; if you want to humiliate me, do it out loud." Gabrielle turned towards Xena to see if she were sincerely angry, or merely acting as if she was, but could not read the look on her face.

"Xena, I was only joking. I wasn't trying to humiliate you", Gabrielle protested.

"I know that.", Xena said, touching her lips to Gabrielle's in a light kiss. "Undoubtedly I already missed a whole bunch of embarrassing stories, so I figured I had some grumbling to catch up on. It shut you up, didn't it?"

"Oh, you.", Gabrielle quirked, slapping Xena on the shoulder. Antea watched the exchange with a smile plastered on her face, but it was a Xena ten years younger she was seeing. A Xena who hung on her every word, eager to learn everything she had to teach.

 

"Ooof!" Xena landed solidly on her back, all the air driven from her body.

Black dots danced before her eyes.

"On your feet", Antea commanded, "How long do you think some soldier is going to let you lay on the ground before he kills you.... or worse?" She reached down to grasp Xena's wrist, and jerked her to her feet. "You have to roll when you fall. Curl up in a fetal position, and come out of it on your feet. Here, let me show you. Drive into me with your shoulder." Antea stood with her legs apart and slightly, as Xena launched her body into her. On impact, Antea propelled herself into the air and over Xena's head, pulling her legs into her body as she flipped over her. She came down on her side, rolling over once to get her feet under her, and sprang to her feet, whirling back to Xena. It all happened so fast that Xena was unable to follow the moves.

"Goddess", she groaned. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to do that." She had been with Antea for almost a week, and it seemed she was no farther along than when she arrived. Her body was one massive bruise; every movement was an agony.

"Yes, you will. But it doesn't happen over night. You have to practice until it becomes second nature to you. One day, these moves will happen without your even thinking about it, and that's when you'll be ready. Now, let's do it again."

And again, and again..

Xena stood by the cistern, and was just about to fill the cup with water, when she heard the sound of running feet approaching. She dropped the cup, whirled around in a crouch, prepared to meet her attacker. Antea lashed out at her with a staff, and Xena leaped into the air without hesitation. While air borne, she kicked out to the side, catching Antea on her shoulder, and knocking her to the ground. Xena landed gracefully, one foot on each side of Antea, and looked down at her friend with a grin of triumph.

"I did it!", she crowed, raising a fist, and looking upward. In the next instant, she was lying on her back, as Antea swept her feet out from under her with the staff. Antea rolled on top of Xena, with the staff pressed against her throat.

"Don't turn away from them until you know they're unconscious, Xena.", she whispered into her ear. She threw the staff away, but remained on top of Xena. "Now what are you going to do?"

"Make you unconscious," Xena snarled through clenched teeth. Xena bucked underneath Antea's weight, but was unable to dislodge her. Her anger grew with each frustrated attempt to remove Antea. Suddenly, she grew still and listened to what her body wanted her to do. Her arms on the ground for leverage, she planted her heels, and with one heave, tossed Antea over her head. Using the momentum from that thrust, she rolled her shoulders forward, jumped to her feet, and immediately did a backwards somersault to land squarely on Antea's chest, her knee against Antea's windpipe.

The look on Antea's face as she gazed down at her was a mixture of surprise, pride, and something else that Xena could not read. Antea waved her arms feebly, and her eyes fluttered shut, and Xena realized she was putting a great deal of pressure on her neck, and that she may actually be losing consciousness. Xena rolled off of Antea, and knelt by her side, leaning close to see if she was still breathing. Without warning, Antea's arms wrapped around Xena's waist, pulling her back on top of her, as she said with a grin, "Now I'm unconscious!"

Xena broke the hold Antea had on her waist, and pinned her arms to the ground, growling low in her throat, "You made me think I really hurt you."

"You almost did; I saw spots in front of my eyes for a few seconds. But I knew you would know when it was time to let up. And you did." Xena relaxed her hold on Antea's wrists, but remained on top of her, their faces only a breath apart. Antea grasped Xena's shoulders and rolled them both over so that she was on top. She looked into the azure eyes beneath her, full of trusting and innocence. Slowly, Antea closed the small distance between them until she could feel Xena's breath against her lips. Softly she touched her own lips to Xena's. Xena groaned at the touch, and felt her stomach clench involuntarily. She parted her lips to allow Antea access to her. Tentatively, Antea ran her tongue around the inside of Xena's mouth, and felt Xena's tongue touch her own. Xena felt like she had been doused in kerosene, and a torch had been touched to her mouth, burning from there into the cleft between her legs. Xena's experiences to that point were limited to the almost childish fumbling of the youth's in her village, and had never produced a feeling that could even compare with what she was feeling now. She was caught in a whirlpool of emotions that threatened to drag her down to....she didn't know where. But she believed she would not be sorry for having gone there.....

"Antea? Are you all right?" Gabrielle asked softly, touching her fingers lightly to the back of Antea's hand as it rested on the table. With a start, Antea jerked upright.

"What? What did you say?" She looked around, seeing Gabrielle's face and then Xena's, both with a look of concern mirrored there. "Sorry....uh, sorry, I was just lost in thought. I didn't hear your question."

"I... well, it wasn't important. We've kept you up past your bedtime, I think. Why don't you turn in?", Gabrielle smiled at their host, thinking that probably she had just dropped off to sleep and missed part of the conversation. She did not want to inconvenience her any more than they already had.

"Yes. Yes, you're right.. It is kind of late." She rose from the table and crossed to a chest near the door. " I'm going to sleep in the stable. I have a mare close to foaling, and I want to be near in case she needs me. Please, make yourselves comfortable. I'll see you in the morning." Antea collected her bedroll from the chest, and without a backward glance, opened the door and stepped out into the night.

"But.....", Gabrielle started, but Xena shushed her with a finger to her lips.

"Let her go", Xena said softly. "She must have her reasons for wanting to sleep out there." And it isn't the mare, she thought. I saw that horse, and she is far from ready to foal.

"OK. Sure." Gabrielle yawned and stretched. "I'm about to fall over myself. Hey," she said with a wicked grin, "betcha I can beat you to the bed...again."

"I'll take that bet", Xena growled low in her throat. She rose from her chair so fast she almost knocked it over. Gabrielle was just about to round the corner of the table, heading for the small sleeping area in the corner, when Xena vaulted over the table, landing in front of her. Gabrielle changed direction, and headed for the left side of the table, but Xena was too fast for her. Finally, she feinted to the right, and as soon as she saw Xena move in that direction, she changed course, coming around the right side of the table just as Xena realized she had been had. Gabrielle reached the bed seconds ahead of Xena. Xena retaliated by tackling Gabrielle, bringing them both down in the center of the bed at the same time. "Tie", she said with a smile. "You lose."

"No fair", Gabrielle grumbled. "You've got those incredibly long legs, and I've got..."

"Me where you want me, if I'm not mistaken", Xena purred into her ear, causing Gabrielle to shiver, with a whole mountain range of bumps raising on her body.

"Oh, yesss", she replied, burying her face in Xena's neck, feeling her pulse accelerate in response to the small kisses she placed from her ear to the base of her throat. "Exactly where I want you. But without all these clothes in the way." She began removing her clothes, without taking her eyes off of Xena, as she also began the long process of removing armor and leather. Gabrielle was finished before Xena, and moved closer to her to help with the removal of the rest of her clothes. As each piece was removed, she marveled, as she did every time she saw Xena unclothed, at what a truly magnificent body she had. Her muscles were sharply defined, but without a lot of bulk. She was tanned and lithe and supple and....

"Gabrielle. Are you still with me?", Xena inquired, bringing her back to the moment. Xena was now completely naked, and propped against the wall, her legs parted to reveal the dark curls Gabrielle loved to run her fingers through.

"Just try to get rid of me", she answered, crawling closer, to place her head in Xena's lap.

"Gabrielle, before you.... oh", Gabrielle was running her tongue over Xena's abdomen, and derailing her train of thought completely.

"Before I what?" she teased, circling Xena's navel, leaving a wet trail behind her. Xena took her chin in her hand, and raised her head to gaze into her eyes.

"Gabrielle, please....I....we...need to talk.

 

Part 2

The tone in Xena's voice made Gabrielle stop. She tilted her head up to Xena, a frown creasing her forehead. "OK, we'll talk." She sat up, and wrapped her arms around her knees, waiting to hear what Xena was concerned about. And there was no doubt she was concerned about something. "Go on, Xena. Tell me."

Now that she had her attention, Xena was not sure how to begin. She took a deep breath. "I know I told you a lot about what Antea meant to me. She taught me everything I know about hand to hand combat and pressure points. She showed me how to live off of the land. I'd have been dead long ago if not for the skills she gave me. But I didn't tell you that she... that we, were lovers." Gabrielle studied her lover's face for a moment. There was no guile there. No guilt. She wondered why Xena felt it necessary to leave that piece of information out of her telling of the time she spent with Antea. Did she think Gabrielle would be jealous of a woman so many years removed from her current life? If so, why tell her now?

"Xena, I... Did you think I thought you had never been with another woman? I don't understand why you didn't tell me before."

"I don't know. It just... didn't seem relevant to mention when I told you about my time with her. You and I weren't lovers then, and... by the time we were, well, it didn't occur to me to tell you. It wasn't that I was hiding it from you....it just didn't come up."

"Well.. I guess I understand why it came up now." Gabrielle looked deep into the eyes she often felt she could drown in. Xena's return gaze was steady, reflecting the love that was in Gabrielle's eyes. There was no cause for either of them to fear this part of Xena's past, and both of them knew it. "Just don't you forget whose bed you're going to crawl into at the end of the day", Gabrielle said lightly, giving Xena a mock punch on the shoulder.

"Count on it." Xena said, her voice deep and soft. "Now, I believe you were just about to....." she drew in a sharp breath, as Gabrielle brought her mouth to her breast, drawing the nipple inside, and nibbling at it softly. Xena's eyes drifted shut, and her head tilted back, as she arched her back to give Gabrielle full access to her breasts. "Oh, yes", she moaned, feeling the effects of Gabrielle's touch radiate from her breast to every part of her body. Gabrielle switched to the other breast, lavishing the same attention on it, while kneading both mounds with her hands.

"You're so incredibly beautiful", Gabrielle whispered, as she trailed kisses from Xena's breasts down her torso. It made Xena remember a time when she had heard just those words for the first time.......

 

"What did you say?" Xena sat near the fire, drawing a brush through her long dark hair. She had bathed and washed her hair, and was drying it by the fire. She smelled faintly of roses, which Antea had heated with oil and poured into the bath water. A simple white shift was all she wore, since she planned to go to bed as soon as her hair was dry. Xena was dozing by the warmth of the fire, and wakened in time to hear the last word of what Antea was saying.

"I said you are incredibly beautiful. The firelight is creating an aura around you that makes me think of the first time I saw you.. I thought you were a goddess. No mere mortal could ever be as breathtaking as you." Antea was working on the carving within a round metal object, but her attention was continually being diverted by the vision sitting by the fire. She could see that Xena was falling asleep, and did not expect her to hear her comments.

Xena stretched, and winced as she felt aches in various parts of her body. Putting down her brush, she began to rub her neck, which was knotted and painful. "I sure feel mortal right now. No goddess ever had as many bruises as I do." She pulled up her shift, revealing numerous bruises in colors ranging from almost gone to brand new.

"Oh, I wish there were a way of teaching you how to defend yourself that did not involve hurting you", Antea said, putting her work aside. "Maybe I can help with some of those knots, anyway." She picked up the warm rose scented oil, and crossed to where Xena sat. She lifted the hair off her back, draping it over one shoulder. Then she slid the shift off of Xena's shoulders, and poured a generous amount of the warm oil into her hands. Gently she rubbed the oil into the soft skin of Xena's neck and shoulders. When her fingers found a knot, she pressed harder, working it until she could feel the muscles begin to loosen. As the fingers worked their magic, Xena relaxed, her head slowly falling toward her chest. She groaned as Antea pressed on a particularly painful spot, and immediately, Antea withdrew her hands. Xena reached up with one hand, and caught Antea by the wrist, pulling her hand back to the shoulder that craved attention.

"Please don't stop. What you're doing feels marvelous." Antea resumed her caresses, running her hands down Xena's arms, causing the shift to slide completely off her upper body. Xena caught the front of the garment, and pulled it up to cover her breasts. "Let it go", Antea asked softly. "Let me work on your entire body. I promise you won't be sorry."

Xena considered the request for no more than a few seconds. Modesty seemed a small price to pay if the glorious warmth now spreading through her shoulders could be all over her body. She was already feeling a warmth that did not originate with the warm oil or the blazing fireplace. It was a feeling she wanted to prolong. She pulled the shift down until it pooled in her lap, leaving her torso bare. She felt Antea's hands slide down her arms, as she leaned in close to whisper in her ear. "Take it completely off," she pleaded. "Don't hide your beauty from me." Antea's tongue touched the edge of Xena's ear, causing a shiver to ripple through Xena's body. "Do you trust me?" she asked.

She didn't even have to think about it. "Yes", she said unhesitatingly.

"But I have never... I don't know.. if this is...right. For me, I mean...."

"Listen to your body. Does it feel right?" As she spoke, she continued to caress Xena's arms, then shifted her hands to lightly touch the sides of her breasts. Xena gasped, feeling the wetness between her legs begin to soak into the shift she sat on.

"Oh, yes. It feels very right. But.."

"No", she stopped her with a finger to her lips. "Don't intellectualize it. Just feel. Let your body take charge. Close your eyes and lean back," she asked. With a nod, Xena complied. "Raise up," she commanded, and once again, Xena did as she was asked. Antea grasped the shift and pulled it out from under Xena, dropping it to the floor. She drew in a sharp breath, marveling at the lovely curves and planes of the creature before her. Kneeling in front of the fire, Antea poured more oil into her hands, and began to work it into Xena's upper arms one at a time, kneading the muscles that were now quite prominent. She worked down to the forearms, and then the hands, feeling the tension drain from Xena's body as she worked. She applied a generous amount of oil to each thigh, running her hands over the taught muscles, feeling them turn to water as she touched them. Carefully she avoided touching the soft curls at the apex of those lovely thighs, knowing that touching there would produce something other than relaxation, which is what she was after. But soon......

Down she moved to her calves, and again she could feel the results of all the work that Xena had been doing in the well developed muscle there. In fact, Xena had been fairly transformed from the soft young girl that showed up on her doorstep a month earlier, to a strong sturdy woman that Antea was certain would be able to handle herself in almost any circumstance. As she felt the strength beneath her fingers, she felt proud that she had contributed to the creation of this glorious being. Lovingly, she caressed each foot, rubbing the arches with her thumbs, and squeezing each toe. She glanced up to see that Xena was completely relaxed, her head lightly resting on the back of the chair, and her hands dangling over the arms. She might thought she was asleep, except her breathing did not have the regular even rhythms of sleep. Antea noticed a smile playing at the corners of Xena's mouth, and it made her long to kiss her. But not yet, she told herself.. Relaxation first, then.....

"Xena..."

"Hmmm?", she opened one eye, and looked down at her teacher, still kneeling before her.

"I need to get to your back", Antea said with a grin. "Can't do that in a chair. Come over to the bed."

Xena shook her head no. "Mmmm, nope, sorry.. Can't walk. It seems I no longer have any bones in my legs."

Antea laughed. "Perfect", she thought. "Then I'll just have to carry you", she said, putting one arm behind Xena's knees, and the other around her shoulders, then straightening up. Xena's eyes widened in surprise. She truly had not expected Antea to pick her up. She was several inches taller, and a good deal heavier than Antea, but it seemed no effort at all for the older woman to carry her. Antea slowly lowered Xena to the bed then stood up, her eyes taking in every inch of the lovely young body she had previously only seen in her mind. She was surprised to see Xena's cheeks flush, as she pulled a sheet up to cover her nakedness. Antea chuckled, almost reaching out to pull the sheet off of her, then thought better of it. She hoped that Xena would be glad to see the sheet go before too long, and was willing to wait.

"Turn over", she asked, a slight quaver in her voice betraying the excitement that was building inside her. Xena seemed to consider her request for a moment, trying to decide how to roll over, and still keep the sheet over her body. She could not think of a graceful way of doing it, and with a shrug, she rolled over onto her stomach. As she lay there, her rational mind waged a war with her emotions, neither side willing to concede, and both with compelling arguments she could not ignore. Her intellect argued that she was burying her head in the sand if she thought this was just about a friendly massage. In the short time she had been with Antea, she had come to love and respect her, and she felt she could trust her with her life. But this was not part of her life plan. She had promised herself that she would save herself for her husband, believing that she would one day find a man that she could give her heart to. Up to now, every man she met was lacking in some way. Without half trying, she could find fault with the best of them. Her emotional side pointed out that she had really never been as attracted to any man as she was to the woman whose hands were causing such delicious sensations all over her body. She decided to do as Antea asked, and just follow the lead of her body. And her body was definitely siding with her emotions in the battle of wills inside her. Relaxing into the pillow beneath her, she sighed as Antea's hands kneaded the muscles of her back. As Antea's hands lovingly trailed from her shoulder blades down to the small of her back, and then to the soft mounds of her buttocks, Xena unconsciously ground her hips into the bed, her breath changing from a deep relaxed rhythm to short ragged gasps. Antea felt her own excitement increase. She climbed up beside Xena on the bed. While continuing to knead the smooth orbs, she leaned over and kissed Xena below her ear, and felt a shiver in response. Slowly she worked her way down, leaving a trail of kisses on her neck and shoulders. She ran her tongue down Xena's spine, and saw the flesh erupt in bumps as she moved down.

Xena was overwhelmed by the enormity of the feelings she was experiencing. Several weeks earlier, while rough housing with Antea, the teacher had kissed her lightly, and that had left Xena tingling, but it was like the difference between a wading pool and a waterfall compared to what was happening to her now. Every touch caused the muscles of her stomach to contract, and she shivered as if she were out in the cold, but her face was flushed, and she was anything but cold. She felt Antea's hands slowing moving down the inside of her thighs, almost touching the wet place that begged for attention, then moving away. Xena groaned, biting into the pillow to stifle the sound. She heard Antea draw in a sharp breath, and in a husky voice she, ordered Xena, "Turn over".

Xena did as she was told, this time making no effort to cover herself with the sheet. Antea's face as she looked at her was consumed by desire that must surely have been there before; she wondered how she could have failed to see it. Antea parted Xena's legs, and shifted her body so that she was between them. Slowly she lowered herself until she was lying fully on top of Xena.

"Xena, I... I wish I had the words to tell you how... much I have longed for just this moment to happen." She brushed her lips lightly over Xena's and felt, more than heard the soft sigh that Xena expelled. Encouraged by the welcoming signs she could read in Xena's every sound and facial expression, Antea kissed her again, more forcefully, playing her tongue against Xena's lips until she felt them opening to her. Xena did not realize that her hips were grinding in a circular motion against Antea until she felt the roughness of the leather britches chafing against her skin. She wrapped her leg around Antea's calf, running her foot up and down her leg, once again feeling the stiffness of her clothing instead of the skin she wanted to feel. Reluctantly, she pulled her mouth away from Antea, burying her face in the side of her neck.

With a low growl, she ordered, "Lose some of those clothes. I want to feel your skin next to me."

Antea laughed softly. "Just some of them?" Xena raised her eyebrow, and turned her cool blue eyes to Antea.

"All of them", she said, in a voice that brooked no arguments. Antea had planned on making love to Xena fully clothed. She knew that if Xena put half of the passion into making love as she had into learning how to fight, it would be all Antea could do to concentrate on pleasing her the way she had been dreaming of without the pupil stopping in the middle to try out her newly acquired skills on the teacher. But the tone in Xena's voice was one she had come to think of as her "the Queen has spoken", voice and arguments were futile when Xena was like that.

"As you wish, my Queen". Antea rolled off of Xena, and sat up on the edge of the bed. Her fingers began to work on the leather ties of her tunic.

"Let me help." Xena edged closer to Antea. She wrapped her arms around her hips, searching for the ties that bound Antea's britches, and loosening them with a few sharp tugs. Xena climbed off the bed and kneeling at her feet, she grasped her boots and pulled them off. "Raise up", she ordered. Antea was forced to smile, remembering that she had said those exact words to Xena such a short time before.. She had no doubt that the pupil would surpass the teacher in this as she seemed to do in everything. She leaned back on the bed, raising her lower body up to allow Xena to pull off the britches. Xena dragged them off, and tossed them away. Antea was still working on the ties of her tunic, and was unable to remove a particularly tight knot. With a grin, Xena straddled Antea's thighs, and gripping Antea's wrists playfully, she moved her arms to her sides, and pinned them down. She lowered her face to Antea's chest, gripped the troublesome knot between her teeth, and pulled. With a rip, the leather cord tore free of the fabric, exposing Antea's breasts to Xena's view. "Oh, sorry. I didn't mean to tear it, really."

Antea grinned, and said with a shrug "Don't worry. I can mend it." Xena released Antea's wrists, and pulled the tunic off of her arms, leaving her completely naked beneath her.

"Oooh", Xena growled deep in her throat. "Who would have thought that such feminine curves were hidden under all those masculine clothes. Why do you wear men's clothing, anyway?"

"My father wanted a boy...."

"I'm glad he didn't get one."

"So am I.....hey", she gasped. Xena had trapped one of Antea's thighs between her own, and was pressing her thigh against Antea's mound in a circular motion. "I thought I was supposed to be the teacher here."

"Oh, you are", Xena murmured. "I'm just doing what you taught me, and letting my body do what it wants to ."

"Yes, but....." Xena silenced her with a kiss. Antea groaned, and gave up the fight. The pupil had indeed replaced the teacher.

 

"Xena, are you asleep?." Gabrielle whispered. If she had fallen asleep, she did not want to wake her.

"No."

"Well, I'm relieved to hear that. I would hate to think that my lovemaking is so boring after only these few months that it was putting you to sleep."

Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle, and pulled her up so that Gabrielle's face was nestled against her breast. "Oh, Gabrielle, believe me, nothing about you bores me. Making love with you is the most exciting thing I can think of." Then why were you reminiscing about Antea?, a voice in her mind inquired. "Shut up", she hissed.

"I beg your pardon?" Gabrielle asked, raising her head to look into Xena's eyes. Xena shook her head, and gave Gabrielle a half smile.

"Ignore that. I was talking to myself." She kissed Gabrielle on the forehead, and Gabrielle snuggled into the crook of her arm again, her face pillowed on a soft breast. She touched her tongue to the nipple, and felt it stiffen instantly. A smile lit up her face to see the response; for a while there, it seemed Xena was somewhere else, but there was no doubt she was here now. Gabrielle rose up on one elbow, leaning over and kissing Xena softly on the lips. Xena returned the kiss with a passion that took Gabrielle off guard. Wrapping her arms around the bard, Xena rolled so that she lay on top. "Gotcha...", she growled, raising one eyebrow, and smirking at Gabrielle, who looked like she still was not quite sure what had happened.

"Apparently so", she chuckled, realizing that Xena had manipulated her into a position of submission yet again, when she had fully intended to take the initiative for a change. "Now what are you going to do with me?"

"I'm going to ravish you.", she declared as she lowered her head toward Gabrielle's breasts. "And when I've finished......", her lips barely touched the end of Gabrielle's nipple, and she withdrew. ".. I'm going to ravish you again." Gabrielle groaned, taking a deep breath, and pushing her breast closer to Xena's face. "Unless you had some other plan in mind?", the warrior teased, running her tongue around Gabrielle's breast, then blowing softly on the moist skin, and watching it contract.

"Oh, nooo, I think that's a fine plan", Gabrielle managed to say. But she was thinking that before Xena turned her body into mush, as she knew from experience she was fully capable of doing, the bard planned to turn the tables on the warrior.

Xena lay full length beside Gabrielle, her leg draped over Gabrielle's thigh. She knew that Gabrielle could feel the moisture of her mons, which was pressed against her hip, because the bard was rotating that hip in a rhythm against her. Deliberately, she raised her leg higher, causing even more of the wetness to spread over Gabrielle. The younger woman groaned, and reaching across her body, she brought her fingers between their two bodies. At her touch, the lips parted completely, soaking her fingers. She started to push a finger inside of those soft lips, when fingers gently seized her wrist, and withdrew her hand.

"Uh uh, not your turn. Did you forget the plan already?", Xena chided her. She still held Gabrielle's wrist, and she raised her fingers to her mouth, tasting the moisture there. "Mmm. Nice. Would you like a taste?", she asked, giving Gabrielle a wicked grin.

"Yes! Please, yes", Gabrielle begged. With a chuckle, Xena released her wrist, and Gabrielle brought her fingers to her nose, inhaling the sweet musky fragrance that was Xena. She shivered as she licked the creamy liquid off of her fingers, and as she tasted the essence of her lover, the muscles in her abdomen clenched involuntarily. Xena kissed Gabrielle gently on the mouth, tasting herself on her lips. Gabrielle parted her lips to welcome Xena's exploration, and as she did, Xena made a growling noise deep in her throat. Her kiss became more urgent as she felt her excitement mount. Gabrielle returned the kiss with a passion like nothing Xena had ever known before, even with the bard.

"Oh, goddess", Xena moaned when she finally came up for air. She buried her face in Gabrielle's neck, feeling her pulse pound against her lips. She breathed in the scent of her, and felt the love, warmth, and comfort that the smell of this precious woman always instilled in her. With a sigh, Xena nuzzled into her neck, planting a row of kisses from below her ear to the top of her shoulder blade. She dipped her tongue into the indentation at the base of her neck, then into the smooth skin between her breasts. She drew a circle around the nipple of the breast closest to her with her tongue, and watched as the skin puckered around the stiffening nipple. Xena shifted her position so that she was fully on top of Gabrielle, giving her access to both soft breasts. She suckled first one breast, and then the other, until both nipples were hard. Gabrielle writhed beneath her, her eyes closed, and her head thrown back. Xena moved slowly down her body, running her fingers over the abs that had become so taut, and kissing the soft skin around her navel. She touched the fine blonde hair at the top of the bard's mound with her fingertips, careful not to part the lips that invited her lips and hands. She wanted Gabrielle to be ready to scream before she touched her there. She nibbled the inside of one soft white thigh, placing her hands on the inside of each leg, and gently pushing them apart, until Gabrielle was completely exposed to her. Her lips traveled back up the same leg she had just kissed, again passing over the curly hair with the barest touch, then repeating the same motions on the other leg.

Gabrielle groaned, her entire body twitching as if she had been struck by lightning. She did not know how much longer she could take this exquisite torture. Xena was licking the crease between the top of her leg and her torso, and her breast nestled between Gabrielle's legs. Deftly, Xena parted Gabrielle's lips and teased her nipple against the swollen bud. Gabrielle thrashed her head from side to side, a low keening coming from deep inside her, and building until she thought she would explode. Xena pressed harder, her breast now completely buried in the wet folds, and her tongue circling Gabrielle's navel.

"Ohhh, Xena, I ........", Gabrielle gasped, unable to complete her thought. Xena shifted lower on the bed, putting her mouth where her breast had just been. Gabrielle's fingers began to clench and unclench against the sheets as she felt her climax begin to build. Xena teased a finger inside of her without breaking the rhythm she had established with her tongue, and Gabrielle could not stop herself from going over the edge. She raised her hips up so that Xena had to get up on her knees to stay with her. Her body was rocked by the power of her climax, until finally she collapsed back on to the bed, unable to bear another moment of such intensity. Xena crawled up on top of Gabrielle, knowing that it was impossible for her to be too close after what they had just experienced. She buried her face in Gabrielle's hair, breathing deeply of the fresh scent of her, thinking of nothing except the peace she felt in Gabrielle's embrace. She felt a wetness on her cheek, and opening her eyes, she looked up to see tears streaming down Gabrielle's face. It was not the first time this had happened, but it was certainly the most intense.

"Are you all right?" she queried, brushing the tears away with her fingertips. Gabrielle could only nod, as she pulled Xena back down so that her head was pillowed on her chest. Gradually her pounding heart resumed it's normal pace, and the tears slowed then finally stopped. She still did not trust herself to speak, so she simply put her hand on Xena's face, lifting it up so that she could see the ice blue eyes she hoped to see every day for the rest of her life. She was surprised to see tears glistening in Xena's eyes. By lifting her head, she was able to reach Xena's lips without losing contact with the warrior's body. She pressed her lips to Xena's, and felt Xena tremble in response. Gabrielle worked her leg between Xena's thigh, and by raising on one elbow and pushing with her shoulder, she flipped Xena over.

"There's been a slight change to the plan", she murmured grazing her fingers softly along Xena's skin, from the top of her breast down to the middle of her thigh. "Any arguments?", she asked playfully, twirling her finger in the dark curls between Xena's legs. Xena raised one eyebrow, and opened her mouth to say something, when Gabrielle dipped her finger inside of her. With a grin, she closed her mouth, and shook her head no, leaning back and allowing herself to enjoy the ride.

 

Part 3

Morning sun filtered through the wooden slats of the window, creating a pattern on the bard that shifted along with her breathing as she slept. Xena had managed to untangle herself from Gabrielle without waking her, and dressed in silence. Now she sat beside the bed, gazing at the woman she loved more than life itself. Gabrielle mumbled in her sleep, rolling over and exposing the lower half of her body to the early morning chill. Gently Xena drew the covers back over her body. Kissing Gabrielle lightly on her cheek, Xena rose and went into the kitchen, and started a fire in the iron stove. The cottage would be much warmer by the time Gabrielle awoke, and if Antea's chickens were productive, she would also have a hot meal prepared for the bard. Noiselessly, she let herself out of the cottage.

Xena planned to see to Argo's breakfast before gathering eggs, so she passed by the chicken coop and headed for the stable just beyond it. Argo nickered and stamped her foot even before Xena entered the room. Xena separated a flake of hay from the bale near the door and hurried to the stall. She rubbed the mares soft nose as she tossed the hay into the stall. Argo buried her nose in the flake, and exhaled loudly, blowing a fine mist of dust and grain into the air. "Shhhh!", Xena whispered, as if the horse would know exactly what she meant. "You'll wake Antea."

"A bit late for that warning", Antea said softly. Xena whirled to find herself face to face with her former lover. "Now we're even for you catching me off guard last night", Antea said with a wry smile.

Xena nodded, and returned the smile. "I guess I should consider myself lucky you didn't slice my throat like I did yours. How is your neck this morning, by the way?", she asked, reaching out to pull the bandage off of the wound. She touched the skin around the area, and it did not feel excessively warm. "No sign of infection. That's a relief." She started to put the bandage back in place when Antea caught her hand.

"It's all right. I don't really need a bandage anymore." Xena shrugged; she was probably right. She started to pull her hand away, but Antea held on to her, caressing the back of her hand with her thumb. Xena made no effort to pull away, but she did give Antea a curious look. She drew in a breath and started to say something, but Antea stopped her by placing her fingers on Xena's lips.

"You don't have to say it. I....I guess I knew it was you and Gabrielle. That's why I wanted you to have some privacy last night. But I hoped....", she broke off in mid sentence, shaking her head. She brought Xena's hand up to her face, and kissed the palm of it, before releasing it. "Well, it doesn't matter what I hoped, does it? It doesn't change what is."

"You're right; it doesn't change it. I'm sorry, Antea." She paused, as if gathering her thoughts, then continued. "But you're also wrong. It does matter. Seeing you again made me remember just how much I loved you. I - I'm saying this badly, I know. I shouldn't put that in the past tense." She captured Antea's hand with her own, and kissed the palm as Antea had done, then looked up to see Antea's eyes glistening with moisture. "I have had many lovers over the years, Antea. But there have only been two that captured my heart, and you were the first. If I hadn't been so intent on saving Amphipolis, and then....." She looked in Antea's face to see if she was aware of Xena's exploits following the battle at Amphipolis.

Antea nodded. The motion caused the tear that was pooling in the corner of her eye to run down her cheek. She turned abruptly away from Xena as if intent on something in the stall, brushing the tear away with her fist. "I know the reputation of the Warrior Princess. I kept track of you , even after I left Thrace. I always hoped you might...try to find me." She managed a light laugh. "Pretty silly, huh?" She plucked a blade of hay from the bale at her feet, and began to shred it with her fingers.

"I can't tell you how many times over the years I wanted to do just that. But I was caught up in the... business of war, I guess you could say. It dominated my life, and clouded my better judgment...for a long, long time. Hercules helped me out from under that cloud, and pointed me in another direction. I looked for you in Thrace, but no one could tell me where you had gone. And then I met Gabrielle..."

"And forgot about me.."

Xena put one hand to Antea's face, softly caressing her cheek. The tears Antea held in check began to spill in a steady stream down her face. Xena pulled Antea to her, and wrapped her arms around her in a comforting hug. "Antea, please believe me, I never forgot about you. You are and will always be one of the greatest friends I will ever have.

And I treasure the months we spent together as some of the very best times of my life. If we had met up again a couple of years ago, it might have been different now, but I...."

"I know", Antea said, lifting her head from Xena' shoulder, and gazing into the face she had seen in her dreams for the past ten years. "I really do understand. But it's .. hard. To let go of the dream." She hugged Xena tightly, then let go. Drawing a deep breath, she straightened her shoulders, and said with a grin that seemed forced, "Let's see about feeding you and Gabrielle. You must both be starving after that workout last night."

Xena's mouth dropped open, and she stared at Antea's back as she strode from the stable. After a moment, she followed. "How did you......", she began, but Antea cut her off.

"How often do you get to sleep in a soft bed with candle light, and walls to keep the chill out? You forget how well I know you, Xena... Besides", she stopped at the gate to the chicken coop, and waited for Xena to catch up. "It's what I would have done."

 

Gabrielle watched from the window as Antea gathered eggs, handing them to Xena to put in a basket. She had wakened to find herself alone, but from the warmth of the fire in the stove, she knew that Xena had not been gone long. She dressed by the stove to take advantage of the heat, and as she dressed. her thoughts kept returning to the previous night. Xena had seemed distant right after her arrival at the cottage, and Gabrielle sensed that it had something to do with Antea. Antea. Xena's first lover. Gabrielle knew that she was not Xena's first woman lover. Xena never volunteered details, and Gabrielle hadn't asked. She really didn't want to know, and certainly never expected to meet Xena's first. It also surprised her to realize she truly liked Antea despite a feeling that she could not quite suppress that Antea would come between her and Xena if she could. "No", she chided herself. "You're making something out of nothing." Shaking her head, she walked back to the window, and watched as the two women strolled across the door yard, laughing and talking.

Xena stopped just out of earshot of the cottage, and put her hand on Antea's arm to stop her. Antea paused and turned to her with a questioning look on her face. "Antea, I need you to listen to me." Antea nodded in agreement, and looked at her expectantly. "You wouldn't let me finish saying what I was trying to say back in the stable. About me and Gabrielle." Antea's eyebrows wrinkled in a small frown, and she drew in a breath as if she were about to protest. Xena shook her head, and raised one eyebrow, and Antea raised her hands in an "I give up", gesture.

"Gabrielle came into my life when I was just about ready to give up on myself. I was having a hard time reconciling the person I wanted to be with the one I had been. There were times when I was impossible to be with, and more times than I can remember, I know I hurt her in little ways. But she stayed by me through it all. And she loved me for all that I was, without judging me. I remember waking up one morning and seeing her sleeping just an arms length away. Her face was almost childlike in the morning sun, and so innocent. Looking at her gave me the greatest feeling of inner peace, and I thought, 'I adore this woman.' And I knew from that day that I would do anything I had to keep her in my life, and safe from harm. I have never given her any reason to doubt my love for her. And I won't now. I'm sorry if I....can't be what you want me to be."

"Nothing for you to apologize for, Xena. I'm glad she was there for you when you needed her. I wish it could have been me, but that's not the way it happened. After the stories I've heard over the years about your exploits, it's just a relief to know you're alive and well. And to have you back as a friend." She hooked her arm through Xena's they walked the few remaining steps to the cottage.

 

Gabrielle jumped back from the window when they started walking again, and hurried to the stove where she picked up a length of stove wood and was feeding it to the fire as the two women came through the door.

"Oh, you're already up. We were going to surprise you with breakfast in bed", Xena said, crossing to where Gabrielle stood by the stove. She kissed Gabrielle lightly on her forehead, noticing how warm she was compared to herself. She rubbed her hands together over the stove to take off the chill, as Antea came into the kitchen with the basket full of fresh eggs.

"If you two will climb off the stove for a minute, I'll whip up some of my special omelets for you.", she said, giving Xena an elbow to the ribs, and nudging Gabrielle with her hip.

"I remember her special omelets", Xena said with a smile. "The special part

is that she throws in everything she can find in the kitchen, so you never

have the same thing twice. We should get out of her way. She's dangerous in

the kitchen"

"We could pack up our gear while she's cooking", Gabrielle said, taking Xena by the hand, and leading her toward the bedroom. She was bothered by the familiarity of Antea with Xena, and wanted to put some distance between them. "We can get on the road as soon as we've finished eating if we pack now." She pulled back the curtain over the doorway that separated the sleeping area from the main part of the house. She waited for Xena to pass through, and stepped in herself, dropping the curtain behind her.

Xena watched for a moment as Gabrielle methodically gathered her things, tying them up in a neat bundle as she always did. Xena smiled to think of the little habits of the bard that were so familiar to her now. Habits that had annoyed her at first, but now made her feel at home no matter where they found themselves at the end of the day.

"Gabrielle", she said softly. The bard stopped her packing, and glanced up with an inquiring look. "Come here." Xena sat on the edge of the bed, and held out her hand to Gabrielle.

"But I have to...."

"No, you don't.. Not right this second. Come over here.. Please." Gabrielle crossed the room, and stopped in front of the Warrior. Xena took her hand, and with a gentle tug, pulled Gabrielle down until she was sitting on her leg.

"I feel like a baby sitting on her mother's lap", Gabrielle groused in a playful tone.

Xena laughed, and hugged Gabrielle close. "You are my baby", she said in a low seductive voice.

Gabrielle smiled. "Well, I'm sure glad you aren't my mother. I can't imagine feeling this way about my mother."

"Gabrielle, I wanted to tell you that....you don't have anything to worry about. As far as Antea is concerned."

"I don't understand what you mean by 'worry'."

"Yes, you do. I've seen that look you've been wearing around since I told you about Antea." She cupped Gabrielle's face in her hands, and kissed her softly on the lips. "Gabrielle, you are the love and the light in my life. You are my sanity and my sanctuary, and I would be completely lost without you."

Gabrielle could not think of what to say right away. She did not realize she had done anything overt to let Xena know that she was having a problem dealing with the fact of Antea coming back into her life.

"You have an uncanny ability to read my thoughts.", Gabrielle mused, "But I guess I'm glad you do. I wouldn't have said anything and, it has been gnawing at me since last night." She kissed Xena and then hugged her, drawing her head down to rest on her breast. "Thank you." she whispered into the dark hair cradled against her chest.

"Soups on!", Antea called from the other room. "Come and get it, or I feed it to the pigs!"

"She means that", Xena said, lifting Gabrielle off her lap, and rising off the bed herself. "It's part of her discipline training, I think." Taking Gabrielle's hand, she stepped through the curtain just as Antea was putting plates on the table. The savory spices in the omelets permeated the room, and Xena's stomach growled at the smell.

"Looks wonderful", Gabrielle said, taking a seat beside Xena at the table. "I don't remember the last time I woke up so hungry." Xena was in the process of taking a drink of tea, and choked as the liquid went down the wrong pipe. Antea looked at her with a knowing smirk, which Gabrielle missed while she concentrated on cutting off a bite of her omelet. "Are you all right?", she asked Xena, giving her a thump on the back.

"Fine. I just..", she coughed to clear her throat. "tried to breathe in some tea." She realized that she too was quite hungry, and she applied herself to her omelet with enthusiasm.

When they had finished eating, Gabrielle and Antea began washing the dishes while Xena went to pack up her belongings. They worked in an awkward silence for several minutes, and then both picked the same instant to try to initiate a conversation.

"Antea, I......"

"I want to...." With a little laugh Antea said, "You're company. You can go first."

"I.....well, really I just wanted to say thank you for opening up your home to me. I know this must have been uncomfortable for you." Gabrielle suddenly realized that she did not know if Xena had even told Antea what their relationship was. "You do know that Xena and I are lovers, don't you?"

"Yes, I know. I guess it has been a little...awkward. But not because of you, Gabrielle. It's me. I should have realized that she would have found someone else. Ten years is a long time." She picked up the dish pan full of soapy water, walked to the door and emptied it in the yard. Gabrielle was stacking plates in a cupboard when Antea came back into the kitchen. Gabrielle turned to find Antea right behind her. "Just.....", Antea began, and then broke off with a quaver in her voice. She cleared her throat. " Just love her. And take care of her. I know she's strong and independent, but she's also headstrong and impulsive. She needs someone to ground her." She smiled at Gabrielle, and then hugged her. "She loves you very much, you know." Antea released Gabrielle, and started to turn away. Gabrielle caught her hand and stopped her.

"She loves you, too. I can see it in her face when she looks at you." She managed not to add that that very look had given her some very anxious moments before her talk with Xena that morning.

"Well...", Antea paused, and gave Gabrielle's hand a squeeze. "If I can't be the woman in her life, I'm glad you are."

Xena strode into the room carrying her own and Gabrielle's pack. She caught the end of the conversation between the two women before parting the curtain, and paused to asses the situation in the room. She was relieved that Gabrielle and Antea had come to an understanding that was amicable. Now that she had found Antea again, she wanted to cultivate a friendship with her, but she would not even consider it if it were to cause Gabrielle discomfort. It seemed she did not need to worry on that score; they were holding hands and smiling at each other like old friends when she came into the room.

"I hate to break up this party, but I think we need to be heading out soon if we're going to make Sounion by nightfall." She dropped the packs by the door, and joined them in the kitchen, draping an arm over the shoulders of each of them and hugging them.

Antea's smile faltered, and she looked at Xena with a small frown creasing her forehead. "I hoped you'd be able to stay for a while. We haven't had a chance to talk at all."

"We'll come back soon, I promise. Gabrielle has been invited to participate in a bard's competition in Athens in two days, and we'll just make it in time if we leave now."

"But I don't have to compete.....", Gabrielle began, but Antea shushed her.

"Of course you do. I wouldn't want you to miss an opportunity like that just to sit around here....." She broke off, and a smile came over her face. " Why don't I come with you? I had planned on going into Sounion with the wagon in the next few days for supplies anyway. Athens is only a half day further. I can give Gabrielle a ride in the wagon and save some time."

"As well as my feet", Gabrielle chimed in enthusiastically. "And you can tell me what Xena was like before she became the Warrior Princess. Like, what kind of clothes did she wear? Oh, and was she always the strong silent type, and..."

"Save your questions for later, or we'll never get on the road", Xena grumbled. Turning to Antea she said, "I'll saddle Argo and hitch your horse to the wagon, if I can trust you two to stop gabbing long enough to get your gear together." Gabrielle was already heading for the kitchen to pack some provisions, and Antea to the bedroom to gather some clothes before Xena left the cottage.

 

They stopped just after midday to rest the horses and have something to eat. Xena did not want to take the time to start a fire to cook their afternoon meal, so they made do with dried beef and fruit from Antea's small orchard. Xena led the horses to a stream to let them drink, while Antea and Gabrielle rested in the shade of a tree, chatting and laughing as if they had known each other for years. Xena leaned on Argo's back and watched them, amazed at how much they seemed to like each other. Antea was making gestures with her hands, ending in a motion that Xena recognized as a chakram throw. She must be telling her the story of how she presented Xena with her chakram, and taught her how to use it. Xena smiled to herself remembering that morning.

 

Xena leaped straight up in the air, and as she came down on her left leg, she kicked out with her right, her foot solidly striking a sack of grain balanced on a bale of hay. The sack flew across the stable, hitting the far wall with a satisfying thud. Walking over to retrieve it for another kick, she noticed a trail of grain across the floor. Sure enough, the seam was beginning to let go on the sack, suggesting she needed to find a new target for this exercise. She had been practicing this move alone all morning while Antea worked on some mysterious thing in her workroom. When Xena tried to see what she was doing, she quickly covered her work with a cloth, and shooed her from the room saying she would see what she was working on soon enough. Antea had been working on something almost every evening for the better part of a month, telling Xena only that it was a surprise, and she would just have to wait. Xena knew Antea's reputation as a maker of weapons; she learned her craft from her father, who was known through out Greece as the finest sword maker of his time. Her father traveled extensively, always looking for unusual weapons, which he would study and then duplicate, after adding some improvements of his own design. He taught all of his skills to his only child, who had been raised as if she were a son instead of a daughter. Antea added touches of her own even to her father's creations, and the result was that her weapons were even better than her father's. She had more work than she could keep up with, and had decided to quit teaching fighting skills because it consumed too much of her time. That was before the vision with the shining black hair and piercing blue eyes appeared in her yard.

Xena picked up the sack of grain carefully to avoid spilling any more of its contents, and tied a knot in the fabric which would hold until it could be sewn. She placed it near a stack of grain in the corner, and selected a new sack to replace it. Straightening up, she turned around to find Antea standing in the doorway. "Oh", she exclaimed, nearly dropping the heavy grain sack on her foot. "I hate it when you sneak up on me like that.", she grumbled.

"I wasn't sneaking. You just weren't listening. That could get you killed." She strolled into the stable with her hands behind her back. "Put down that grain. Time to try it with a live person." Xena turned and dropped the grain onto the stack, brushing her hands off on her skirt. "But first, you should put this on." She pulled one hand from behind her back, and in it she held a leather bustier and short leather skirt. "It'll give you more freedom of motion, and won't get in your way when you're trying to fight." Xena reached out a hand to accept the fine leather garments, which felt softer than any leather she had ever felt before.

"Antea, I..... These are beautiful. I don't know how to thank you."

"You can thank me by... wearing this leather until it's completely worn out. That should take you well past the battle with Cortese. I want you to come back to me, alive and well." A messenger had come from Amphipolis the previous day to tell Xena that Cortese' army would soon be marching on their town. She told him to tell her brothers that she would leave within two days, and sent him on his way.

Xena stripped down to her short white shift, and slipped the leathers on. It was as if Antea had molded the pieces around her body, they conformed so well to every curve.

"You'll need these, too", Antea said, producing a pair of boots with the same black color, but of firmer leather. Xena felt a lump in her throat, and was afraid to say anything, for fear she would start to cry. She accepted the boots, and kicking off her sandals, she slid her feet into the boots. The leather hugged her calves like a second skin, but there was no chafing or discomfort. She took a few tentative steps to get the feel of the boots, and the more she walked, the more confident she became. While Xena was concentrating on the feel of her new clothes and boots, Antea stepped out of the stable, and came back with still more leather items and armor, as well as a sword in a scabbard and one of the shiny round things Xena has seen in her hand the day she arrived. "These will protect your hands and arms", Antea said, sliding the arm bands and gauntlets onto Xena's arms. "And this", she said, fastening a breast plate and shoulder plates in place, " will save wear and tear on the leather. And your body." The look on Antea's face said the gods had better protect the man that brought any harm to that body. "Turn around", she commanded softly, and Xena complied. She fastened the scabbard onto Xena's back, and handed her a sword that was the most magnificent weapon Xena had ever seen. Xena could feel tears welling up in her eyes, but she drew in several deep breaths and managed to stop them from spilling out.

"Put the sword in the scabbard, and pull it out so I can adjust this for height", Antea asked. It took Xena a few tries with the unfamiliar blade to pull the sword out, and the tip caught on the scabbard. Antea lowered the scabbard, and the next time the sword came out smoothly. "That should work, but you need to practice with it for a while before we adjust it permanently." Xena nodded, still not able to trust her vocal chords.

"And this is a chakram." Antea said, putting the shining round object in Xena's hand. The edge looked sharp as a knife, and Xena looked at it curiously, having no idea what use such an item could serve. "I meant to show you how to use this later in the training, so the best I can do is give you a crash course. Hold it in your hand like this", she demonstrated, placing her fingers on the inside of the circle where the blade was broadest. "Feel the design on the side of it with your fingers. This design facing up," she pointed to the odd shapes that resembled the pattern on a snake, " will hit your target like a punch." Drawing back her arm, she launched the chakram toward the far wall of the stable, where it struck one after the other of the tools hanging on the wall, sending them flying into the air. It careened off of the side wall, and made a circle to return to Antea's hand.

She turned the other side up, and prepared to throw it again. "Be careful with this side up. This is the sharp side, and it can take the head right off of a man." She looked around for something to throw it at. Her eyes landed on a basket of squash. "Put one of those squash up on the rail of the stall there", she said. Xena did as she asked, then returned to Antea's side to watch. "Watch closely", she said, once again cocking her arm to throw. The chakram was back in her hand almost before Xena realized it was gone, and the squash still stood on top of the rail. Xena stared at the squash, unable to believe that Antea could have missed her target.

"You missed", Xena said with a smirk.

Antea shook her head from side to side slowly, and said simply, "Look closer."

Xena walked to the stall, intending to pick up the unharmed squash and bring it to Antea. She grabbed the top without really looking, and half of the squash came away in her hand. Xena's mouth dropped open, and she stared at the squash for several seconds. Then she laughed.

"Can you teach me to do that?", she asked.

Antea nodded, but then thought better of it, and said "Well, I can try. We haven't got a whole lot of time, and it's a pretty tricky weapon. Come over here, and I'll show you a few basic moves." Xena came over and stood beside her, watching closely as Antea demonstrated the proper way to hold the chakram, how to bank it so it would return to her, and how to catch it without cutting off her fingers. After watching Antea for several minutes, Xena asked if she could try a throw. With a few more words of caution, Antea dropped the chakram into her hand, and stood back. Xena's first throw ended up imbedded in a sack of grain, spilling the contents on the floor. The next one went wild, knocking over a kerosene lantern, which fortunately was unlit. It banked off the wall and was coming straight for Xena's head, when Antea tackled her, and brought her to the ground. The chakram passed so close to her head she could hear the 'whoosh' as it went by. They lay on the ground, face to face, and Antea said with a wry smile. "I think we need to work on that bank shot some more."

"Xena, did you hear me?" Gabrielle was standing on the opposite side of Argo, trying in vain to catch Xena's attention.

"What? No, sorry, I didn't. What did you say?"

"I said we had everything packed up. If you're ready we can head out.."

"Sure. Take Argo. I'll go hitch up the mare." Gabrielle took the reins while Xena gathered up the other horses lead, and together they walked to where Antea was waiting by the wagon. Within minutes, they were on the road to Sounion, with Xena riding ahead.

 

Part 4

"Xena! Hey, Xena!", Gabrielle waved her arm to try and catch Xena's eye, as she rode just out of earshot. After what seemed ages to Gabrielle, Xena finally glanced back, and saw the bard waving. She wheeled Argo, and came back to the wagon at a dead run.

"What is it? What's wrong", she demanded, her eyes searching the area around the wagon for some sign of trouble.

"Oh, sorry, nothing's wrong.. I didn't mean to alarm you. But..., Antea has just told me a very interesting story." She turned to Antea, and gave her a nod.. "You should tell her, Antea." Antea had brought the wagon to a stop when Xena rode up, and now gave the reins a jiggle to get the mare started up again. Xena fell in beside the wagon.

"Well?", Xena asked with a hint of annoyance in her voice. She was relieved that all Gabrielle wanted was for her to hear a story, but at the same time, she was angry for allowing herself to get so upset over nothing. "What's this fascinating story about?"

"Turns out Antea once....." Gabrielle jumped in, but Antea gave her a soft nudge with her elbow and cut her off.

"Thought you wanted me to tell the story?" she said, shaking her head.

"Oh, I did.. Sorry.. I'll shut up now.. Go ahead." Antea smiled at her. How difficult it must be to stay angry with this precious woman, she thought.

"After you left, I pretty much decided to stick to making weapons, and not do any more teaching. It was too.. time consuming." She almost said emotionally draining, but thought better of it. "My father died, leaving mother alone. I came home, to the cottage I live in now, to take care of her. She died a year later, but I stayed on there because it was closer to Athens. I do a pretty good trade with Athens. Anyway, I was approached in the plaka in Athens by a woman who said she was a friend of yours, and that you told her she should look me up for some training." Xena's brow was furrowed as she tried to think of who she might have sent to Antea for training.. She could not think of a soul, and was about to say that, when Antea continued.

"Her name was Callisto." Xena had been relaxed in the saddle as she rode along, but at the mention of that name, her knees tightened, and Argo jumped forward. Xena loosened her grip, and the mare quieted down.

"What did I tell you, huh? Pretty interesting, don't you think?" Gabrielle was so used to talking, that she almost instinctively said something to fill in the gaps between any conversation that was going on around her.

"Very", Xena said, then shifted her gaze to Antea. "Go on.", she said.

"Well.. I believed her. I had no reason to doubt her. I thought, if she is a friend of Xena's, I'll make an exception. So I took her in, and worked with her."

"That explains a lot", Xena said. "I could never understand how she was so well matched with me. It was as if she anticipated every move. Now I know how she did it. You taught the same moves to her."

"You know I wouldn't have if I had any idea who she really was.. She seemed so....nice. At first. I came up on her once, as I do, you know, to teach her to expect the unexpected. She was practicing with her sword, plunging it over and over into a bale of hay. But the strange part is, she was saying your name each time she struck with the blade. It gave me chills just to hear the tone of her voice, never mind what she was doing. I couldn't get her out of there fast enough after that."

"Did you tell her about....us?"

"No. I almost did, but... well, I thought if she was such a good friend of yours, you probably would have told her, and since she hadn't mentioned it.....", her voice trailed off.

"Thank the gods you didn't", Xena said. "She would probably have tried to kill you. Her mission in life was to kill everyone I loved." Gabrielle sat up straight when Xena said the word "loved". She caught Xena's eye, and was rewarded by a look of such tender loving, that she knew the love for Antea was well and truly past tense.

"She might have tried", Antea answered, "But I was better than she was then.. She would have had her work cut out for her."

"Believe me, she sharpened her skills a lot in the years after that.. She came close to beating me a time or two." As they rounded a curve in the road, the city of Sounion came into view. The promise of a hot meal and a soft bed at the inn in town gave them a reason to increase their pace. They reached the town before daylight was completely gone.

 

"I'll see about rooms for us. I know the innkeeper pretty well; maybe I can get us a two for one special." Antea set off in the direction of the inn, while Xena led the two horses to a stable on the next street. Gabrielle thought about going with Antea; there were still so many things she wanted to know about her brief time with Xena. But she decided to stick with Xena. Having spent the better part of the day with Xena too far ahead to even really see her, she wanted to have some time with her lover alone. Time enough to pump Antea for stories over a meal at the inn.

Gabrielle leaned against the side of the stall, as Xena evenly distributed grain between the two horses. When she was finished, she dug around in her saddle bag, and pulled out a curry comb.

"Make yourself useful", Xena said playfully, tossing the comb to Gabrielle.

"Comb down the horses while I clean their feet."

Gabrielle caught the comb, and frowned at Xena "Gee, thanks. What fun. I could be in the inn right now, having a drink with my feet up, and instead I decided to come along with you to spend a little quality time, and what do you do but........"

"Shut up", Xena said laughing. She kissed Gabrielle to stop the flow of words.. Then she kissed her again because it felt so good. The third kiss was because Gabrielle gave a low moan, and pressed her body up against Xena's.

Xena finally broke off the kiss, and looking down at Gabrielle with a smile she said "Oh, my...We'd better not do that any more in a public place.. The stable man might not like it if he came back here and found us making wild, passionate love." She paused a moment, and then added, "Then again, he might. All the more reason to save it for later."

"Well, all right then. But you can bet I'm going to hold you to that. Two nights in a row in a bed, and I'm damn sure gonna get our money's worth. Let's get these horses done so we can go get something to eat. I'm starved" The comb fairly flew as Gabrielle began grooming Argo. With a laugh, Xena bent down to pick up Argo's hoof.

 

Antea's eyes roamed the dimly lit interior of the tavern, searching for the innkeeper. She spotted him at last at a corner of the bar, sitting alone nursing a mug of ale. "That's odd", she thought. He was such an outgoing personable man that she could never recall seeing him without a group of people laughing at his corny jokes, and slapping him on the back. She crossed the room, and smiling warmly, she sat on the stool next to him. He barely glanced at her, and went back to his drinking. "Well, everyone has an off day", she thought, and she tapped him on the shoulder. The look on his face when he turned to her reminded her of a rabid animal. There was no color to his eyes at all; the black pupils were like looking into the funnel of a tornado. Involuntarily she flinched, and recoiled from him, but he reached out with both hands and grasped her arms so tightly she knew she would be bruised. She felt heat radiating from his body, and the hands that gripped her arms were like branding irons. She was preparing to bring her arms up between his to break his grip, but before she could even do that, he pushed her backwards. The edge of the bar caught her in the middle of her back, and knocked the wind out of her for a moment.

"Don't touch me", he snarled, reminding her once again of a feral animal. Her breathing returned to normal, and she rose from her stool, planning to leave. Had it been anyone other than Hector, she probably would have pushed some pressure points. But she knew this man; he was a friend. And undoubtedly there was a reason for his behavior that she did not understand, and she did not want to risk losing his friendship over this. She had taken a step or two away from the bar, when she heard a gurgling sound coming from him. She turned back in time to see him collapse into himself as if there were no substance to his body. He slid off the stool and landed in a heap on the floor.

"Antea", he rasped, his voice barely audible in the noisy tavern. He raised one trembling hand toward her, then dropped it and was still. Cursing herself for standing so long and doing nothing, she dropped to her knees beside him, putting her hand to his neck to feel for his pulse, and felt one or two weak beats of his heart before it stopped. She leaned closer to see if he was breathing, and instantly was enveloped in a cloud of what appeared to be small flying creatures that emerged from his nose and mouth. Before she could do anything to prevent it, the creatures had insinuated themselves into every opening of her body. Her eyes flew wide open, and she grunted once as if a great weight had just landed on her, then she fell, landing solidly on her rear. She sat there for a few seconds before her eyes fluttered shut, and she fell over and lay still.

Xena and Gabrielle walked into the tavern moments after Antea's collapse. A crowd of people were gathered at one end of the room looking at something that was happening on the floor. They had hoped that Antea would have already arranged the rooms, and found a table, and were surprised that she was nowhere to be seen.

"Huh. Funny. She should be here." Gabrielle said. They had looked in every part of the room, except for the corner where the crowd still hovered, talking loudly now. A voice in the melee suggested that they get back and give her some air, and another said he would go an see if he could find a healer.

Xena felt a cold chill crawl up her spine as the people moved back to reveal Antea sprawled on the floor beside a man who appeared to be dead. None too gently, Xena elbowed her way through the remaining people. "Get out of my way", she snarled. She stood for just a moment studying her friend, trying to decide what to do.. "What happened here?" She asked. A few people shrugged their shoulders. None of them had seen what actually happened.

One man stepped forward, and said "I saw. I was sitting just there", he pointed to a stool several seats away from where Antea lay.

Xena stepped closer to him, putting her face just inches from his own.

"What did he do to her?", she asked, her tone intimidating.

The man gulped, and his adams apple bobbed up and down.. "He... I... Nothing.. I mean, he pushed her, is all, but she was all right.. She got up and started to walk away, and then.. Well, I'm not sure what happened.. He just fell over. And she bent down, looked like she was going to help him. Then it got sort of....um, dark, is all I can tell you.. Then she fell over too."

"That's all?"

"Yes, I swear it, that's everything that happened. She just....made a little noise, and fell over." Xena dismissed him with a wave of her hand, and bent down to see what she could do for Antea. Her body was as hot as coals. So hot Xena almost pulled her hand back when she touched her wrist to feel for a pulse. The beat was thready and weak, but there.

Xena scooped Antea up in her arms, and as she walked through the tavern, the people stepped aside to open a path for her. Gabrielle stood where she had been when Xena ran across the room to see to their friend. She figured she would only have been in the way, and Xena did not need her for healing. The look on Xena's face told Gabrielle that what ever this was, it was very serious.. She met her halfway across the room, and even from a few steps away she could feel the heat coming off of Antea..

"Gods! She's burning up!", she said. Xena nodded.

"We have to get this temperature down. I need water. And herbs. Is there a healer in this town?", she asked to no one in particular.

"Yes", a man stepped in front of her. "Follow me, I'll take you there." He was out the door in a moment, with Xena and Gabrielle right behind him.

 

The healer stared down at Antea and shook his head. ""Fraid there isn't nothing I can do for her", he admitted. "Hector.. innkeeper couple roads over?", Xena nodded to show she knew who he was talking about. "Had the same thing, oh maybe four, five days ago. I used every herb and poultice I knew, and he just laid here like he was on fire. Then he sits up one afternoon, puts on his clothes, and walks out. I tell you, he shoulda been dead. But whatever it was that got him up, it warn't none of my doing."

"There must be something you didn't try. We can't just let her lie here and die."

The healer shrugged. "I'm not the best healer. Don't know much, really, just what I picked up. And I'm telling you, I can't do a thing for her that I didn't try on old Hector."

"Do you have an ice house?"

He looked at her curiously. "Yes, out in the back. Why?"

"I need your ice. I'm going to pack her in ice, and take her home."

"But, why do you want to take her home?", Gabrielle asked. "She might not survive the trip."

"Antea has more herbs at her place than anybody I know", Xena answered. "She might have something that will help. If we stay here, she'll be as dead as Hector." She turned to the healer. "I'm going to get her wagon. Break up what ice you have into small pieces, and put it in grain sacks." She walked back to Gabrielle, who held a damp cloth on Antea's head. "Keep doing that until I get back. I don't know what else to do until I see what herbs she has at home."

Gabrielle nodded "She'll be all right", she said with a forced smile. Xena kissed her lightly on the lips, and slipped out the door.

 

Part 5

The wagon wheel ran over a rock, jarring Xena awake. She was not sure how long she dozed as they made their way back to Antea's home. But she trusted the mare to know her way home, as often as Antea made the trip through Sounion to Athens.

Sure enough, the horse turned right with no conscious direction from Xena at the road leading to the cottage. The sky was streaked with orange as Xena brought the wagon to a stop in front of the cottage door. She turned around to see Gabrielle soundly asleep beside Antea, her hand still clutching the damp cloth she had been using to try to cool her down. Xena jumped down, and walking to the side of the wagon, she tapped Gabrielle softly on the shoulder. Gabrielle stirred, mumbled something incomprehensible, and then settled back against Antea's side.

"Gabrielle, wake up. We're here."

"Too hot......", Gabrielle murmured, and a stab of fear went through Xena.

"Gods, no, don't let her have this thing, too", she said, quickly putting her hand to Gabrielle's forehead to see if she was hot. Her temperature was normal. She was probably talking about Antea putting off so much heat, Xena surmised. Logically, since Antea had contracted whatever it was within a few minutes of being with the innkeeper, if it were something contagious, she and Gabrielle would have succumbed hours before. But since she had no idea what they were dealing with, she decided it would be wise to take some precautions. She could make sure that she and Gabrielle did not share any eating utensils with Antea, and that they washed after contacting her body. Gabrielle had lain beside her all through the trip home. If Xena was wrong, and the incubation period varied with different people, she would never forgive herself if Gabrielle came down with this disease.

She gave Gabrielle another shake, and this time, she opened one eye and looked at her. "Did you miss any ruts in the road on the way home?" , she grumbled. "I feel like I was caught in a rock slide." She sat up and stretched. "Ouch" She rubbed the small of her back with her knuckles, and rolled her head from side to side.. Looking down, she saw Antea and realized that it had been hours since she had made any attempt to cool her down.. The bed of the wagon was full of water from the melted ice, and even the grain sacks around Antea were radiating heat. "Oh, gods, listen to me complain when this poor woman...well, don't just stand there, help me get her in the house." Suddenly the aches seemed unimportant, and Gabrielle fairly vaulted over the side of the wagon. Together they eased Antea down to the end of the wagon, where Xena was able to pick her up. Gabrielle went ahead to open the door of the cottage, and then held back the curtain in the bedroom door way. Xena laid Antea down gently, and stepped back from the bed. "Gods", she prayed silently, "let me find something that will relieve this before she roasts alive."

 

The table was completely covered with jars, sacks, and bundles filled with herbs. Xena examined each one, and checked the list of herbs the healer had given her to know what he had tried that had failed. There were quite a few that she thought might take the fever down. The problem was, which ones to try first?

Gabrielle came in with a bucket of well water. Unsure what Xena planned to do with it, she asked "Do you want this water heated, or should I use it to cool her down?"

"Both. Start some of it heating, and use the rest on her." Gabrielle nodded, and poured as much water as she could fit into the pots on top of the stove. The rest she put in a wash basin, and took into the bedroom.

Gabrielle pulled a stool up by the bed and sat down. She put several cloths in the basin. One at a time, she wrung them out, laying one across her forehead, another on her neck, and so on down her body. By the time she put a cloth across the top of her thighs, the one on her forehead was already hot, so she started all over again. At this rate, the water that started out cold would warm up very quickly. She left her patient to draw another bucket of water.

Xena was at the stove, adding herbs to the water that had begun to boil. She wrinkled her nose at the aroma of her concoction. If Antea were awake, she would probably not be able to get it past her nose, but since she had not stirred at all since her collapse, it seemed unlikely she would waken now.

"Whew! That's awful", Gabrielle said as she passed through with the water.

"I agree. But what's a little smell, if it helps?"

"That's not little. That is the biggest smell I ever.... " Xena raised her eyebrow and looked at Gabrielle. "Yes, never mind, of course, it's worth it if it helps her. What are you going to do with it?"

"You are going to get her to drink it."

Gabrielle blinked a few times; her eyes were beginning to tear from the steam coming off of Xena's concoction. "I am? I'm going to get her to drink that stuff?"

Xena nodded. "If it doesn't work, I have to have something else ready to try. You can do it. Just hold her up and pour it down her throat in small amounts. If you see any change in her at all, come and let me know." She poured some of the foul smelling brew into a mug. She handed the mug to Gabrielle, and took the bucket she held. "I'm going to use some of this water for the next batch. I'll fetch you some more in a minute."

Gabrielle held the mug as far from her as she could get it, her face averted, and walked into the bedroom. She placed the mug on a table by the bed, and put one arm behind Antea to lift her. Antea did not move at all , but Gabrielle heard a small moan which she hoped was a good sign. Taking a deep breath through her mouth, Gabrielle picked up the mug, and brought it to Antea's lips. She spilled almost as much as she got into her mouth, but at least some of the liquid went down her throat. When the mug was empty, Gabrielle laid her patient back down on the bed, and watched for any sign of change. She went back to systematically applying the cold compresses. None of it seemed to make any difference. Xena came in with another bucket of water. She poured some into the basin, then set the bucket down and came to stand beside Gabrielle. She put her hand on her shoulder, and squeezed. Gabrielle looked up into her lovers face, and saw that it was lined with worry, her eyes red with exhaustion.

"Did she respond at all?", she asked. Gabrielle shook her head no. Xena sighed. "Well. I have one more thing I can try. And then... I....well, I don't know." She swallowed hard several times, trying to clear the lump in her throat. Gabrielle reached up and covered the hand that still rested on her shoulder with her own, and gave a reassuring squeeze. Xena tried to smile, but it looked more like a grimace. Gabrielle's heart ached to see the pain in Xena's face. She had seen Xena work miracles on people so badly hurt that any other healer would have given up on them. There had been a few who did not survive, despite Xena's best efforts, and she knew Xena blamed herself for not doing all she could. And the look she saw in her face now was worse than all of those losses combined.

"Xena. If there's anything that can be done to save her, I know you'll find it."

"Yeah." She gave a little smile that looked genuine this time. "I'll go get the next batch of herb tea." She walked to the door, then turned back. "Gabrielle, I....thanks."

Gabrielle didn't turn to the door as Xena walked out, not wanting her to see the tears that spilled down her cheeks. As she sponged off Antea's forehead, she leaned down close to her, and whispered in her ear. "I don't know if you can hear me, but...the woman we both love is in there trying her damnedest come up with something to cure you." She dipped her cloth in the cold water again, then wrung it out and continued stroking it across her forehead. Her tears joined with the water that poured off of Antea's face. "So you damned well better live, Antea.. It would break her heart to lose you again, and I don't know how I'd deal with that."

Xena stood in the doorway holding a steaming mug in her hand. After hearing what Gabrielle said, she was more determined than ever to unravel the mystery of the disease that struck down her friend. She made a noise to announce her presence in the room, and Gabrielle sat up on her stool, wiping the tears from her face with one of the damp cloths.

"Doesn't smell so bad as the other stuff", Gabrielle said , using the aroma of the brew to excuse her tearful sniffles.

"It shouldn't. It's mostly henbane, which is almost odorless." She handed he mug to Gabrielle, and kissed her on the top of her head. "I've decided to go back into town to see if I can find out more about the innkeeper. Who he was in contact with, how long before he...died. The key is there somewhere. If this brew doesn't work, I'm out of options. I just can't sit here....."

"But you haven't slept since night before last. You need to rest."

"I napped a bit in the wagon on the way home. I'll be fine. I'll sleep in town tonight, and come back tomorrow, hopefully with some answers. I have to do this, Gabrielle. There's no time to waste." Gabrielle knew that there was no point in arguing. Xena was determined. "Keep doing what you're doing. Feed her as much of the brew as she will take. It's important to get fluids into her. And try to rest yourself. I'll be back as soon as I can." She lifted Gabrielle's chin, kissed her once on the mouth, and without another word, she strode from the room.

 

It was well past dark by the time Xena reached the inn. She slid off of Argo's back, handing the reins over to a stable boy, and giving him a few dinars to take care of the horse. She had no time to do it herself, and she would not let Argo stand in a stall, as lathered up as she was from the hard ride.

The tavern was less crowded than it had been the previous evening. Nothing like death to keep the customers away, she thought. She walked to the bar, and ordered ale from the barman. With a nod, he began to fill a mug, glancing at her as it filled as if trying to place her. Finally it came to him. "You're the one from yesterday, ain't ya , when Hector died." It was a statement, not a question.

"Yes. It was my friend that collapsed beside him"

"Yeah, I saw. Shame about her. She still alive?"

"Yes.. Yes, she is. You say you saw her collapse?"

"Saw the whole thing. Looked like he was about to hit her or something. She got up and started to walk away, and he fell. I think he called her name. Sounded like it, anyway. She bent down to see if he was alive, and then.. Well, it looked funny. It was kind of like she had just been punched or something. She sat down real hard on the floor. I couldn't really see her face very well, it was like she was in shadow or something. But she had a....surprised look in her eyes, when the shadow cleared, and then she just.. crumpled like a rag doll."

Xena walked to the corner where the two people had lain. "The lighting is about the same as it was last night, isn't it?" , she asked. The barman nodded. She sat on the floor in about the same place Antea must have been when she sat down. "Do you have a clear view of me?" The barman nodded again. "How about a shadow? Is there a shadow on my face?"

He shook his head no. "No, not at all. It doesn't make any sense that there was a shadow there last night. Huh... Very strange."

A man a few stools down at the bar had been following this exchange. He turned to Xena and said. "That wasn't the first time that happened."

Xena whirled at the sound of his voice. "What do you mean? Are you talking about the shadow? Or the fact that two people collapsed at almost the same moment."

"Both. Happened, oh, maybe a week ago, here in the tavern. It was earlier in the day, and there was only a few people here. Stranger came in looking for a room, and started talking to Hector. He was the only one working the bar at that hour. Anyway, the man started a fight with Hector. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but I could see that Hector was trying to calm him down. That's how he was, you see.. Real easy going, always avoid trouble.."

"Yes, yes. Go on", Xena said impatiently.

"Well, Hector was trying to get the guy to leave, you know, leading him towards the door. All of a sudden, the guy grabs his head and falls down. Hector bent over him, and wham!, he fell flat on his back, with a.. well, it looked more like a black cloud to me, hovering around him. The cloud disappeared. Hector never got up."

"What happened next?"

"The stranger was dead. Didn't have any wounds or anything you could see.

Just like when Hector.. well, you know.. They carried Hector to the healer. He felt like he had been put in a furnace, you know, real hot to the touch." Xena nodded as she listened. This was all exactly as it had happened with Antea. Clearly, something had been passed from the stranger to the innkeeper, and from him to Antea. How much time did she have before Antea passed it on to.... no, she wouldn't let that happen. Whatever it was, it would end with Antea.

The barman picked up the thread of the story. "Hector must have been over at the healers for two or three days. Pretty much figured he would die from the heat, as the healer never could cool him off. But he surprised us all, and walked in here big as life. Started shoving people around and talking mean. Not like him at all. Mostly he just sat on that stool over there," he said, pointing to the corner where he spent the last days of his life, "drinking. People left him alone, mostly."

"Was he married?" Both men nodded. "Do you know where I can find his wife?"

"Sure.. She'd be upstairs. They have rooms above the tavern. She hasn't been out much since...", the barman's voice trailed off.

"Thank you. Both of you. You've been very helpful" Xena crossed the room and started up the stairs.

"Good luck. With your friend", the barman called after her.

"I'll need it", she mumbled under her breath. She knocked on the door of the rooms above the tavern, and it was opened a crack. The eye that looked out at her had purple and yellow bruises all around it.

"What do you want?", the woman asked, a suspicious tone in her voice.,

"I just need to talk to you for a few minutes. About your husband.. Can I come in?"

"No." The woman started to shut the door, and Xena placed her hand on the edge of the door and prevented it from closing completely.

"Please. I think my friend has the same.....thing your husband did. I have to help her. Please", she asked again. The pressure on the other side of the door stopped, and the woman opened it up.

" I don't know how I can help you, but you can come in." Once she was in the well lit room, Xena could see that the bruise on her eye was only one of many. Her jaw was also purple, and there was a cut above her eyebrow that would leave a nasty scar. As she moved out of the way to let Xena enter, she shuffled as if she were 80 years old, but in reality, she could not have been more than 45. She caught Xena studying the marks of violence on her body. "Real pretty, isn't it? I'm Mary. What is it you think I can do for you?"

"You can tell me about your husband's behavior after he came home from the healers..."

"My husband never did come home", Mary hissed. "Whatever it was that came here was no husband to me. My husband died a week ago."

"But... I saw him, last night in the tavern....", she began. Mary cut her off..

"It wasn't him, I'm telling you. My Hector was the kindest, most gentle man on earth. He never raised his hand to me or my children, and every person he met was his friend. In thirty years of marriage, Hector never.....", she dropped her gaze to the floor, ashamed to meet Xena's eye." He never forced himself on me against my will. The thing that did this", she pointed at her face, and Xena could see tears beginning to well up in her eyes. "to me was not human. Something took over his body. It looked out at me through eyes as black as the pit of Tartarus. If that thing is in your friend, then your friend is dead."

 

Part 6

Antea dreamed she was in the middle of a forest fire. She was completely paralyzed, and knew that it was just a matter of time before the flames consumed her. Another entity shared the space with her. She couldn't see it, but she could feel it, and as hot as the fire was that surrounded her, the thing trapped in there with her was cold. So cold she felt it would freeze her if she touched it. If that happened, she knew she would shatter into fragments like the ice on a river in spring thaw. The cold frightened her; even more than the heat. It felt evil. She shivered as the fire closed in, bringing the evil entity closer with every moment. She struggled to hear the voice that was talking to her from a place outside this hell she was trapped in, but the roaring of the flames was masking the words.

"Here's some more tea. I'll help you up so you can drink it. There.", Gabrielle cradled Antea's head in her arms, and poured some more of the brew into her. She spilled it down the front of Antea's chest. "Sorry. I'm not very good at this nursing business. Xena usually does this but she had to go off and try to find out what's ailing you. You probably can't hear a word I'm saying, but it makes me feel better to talk, so I guess you'll just have to... Huh... Well, I guess you can't do anything just now but lie there, but I know Xena will find the answers. She just doesn't let go. Like a dog with a bone.. But you know that. You know her pretty well, don't you? I wanted to hate you. Could you tell that? When she told me that you and she....well, even before that, I could tell by the way she looked at you that you were not just a casual friend. But I couldn't hate you. I saw only good in you, and I knew you meant me no harm. Oh, mug's empty. Gotta go get some more tea. I know it isn't tea, but I don't know what else to call it." She laid Antea back on the bed, and went back to the kitchen for more brew.

The fire still raged all around Antea, but the evil entity with ice at it's center was suddenly quiet. And the flames stopped their merciless advance at the same time the noise of the entity ended. It wasn't a dream. The fire was in herself. And the entity as well. In the quiet moments, she was able to understand something at least of what was happening.

The entity was from another world. It was one of many who found themselves stranded far from home in a land that was hostile and foreign. They could survive only by combining their consciousness with one of the creatures that inhabited their new home. But the nature of these beings was inharmonious with the native animals. None could live for very long with one of the entities in them. They literally burned up on the inside. To continue, it was necessary for the entity to leave the host at the moment of death, and take up residence in another host, and the cycle had continued like that for longer than the entity knew. It also knew that it was the last of it's kind. Most of the others who found themselves on this strange world perished when the host they were in died with no living creature nearby for them to take up residence in.

Antea probed into the sleeping consciousness of the entity to try to find out what had caused it to release it's iron grip on her. There were no words; the entity had no language she could understand. But she could see a plant in her mind, and she focused on it until she knew what it was. Henbane. Of course. Xena must have given it to her to try to help her. But the entity was only sleeping. She knew it would awaken, and when it did, she would no longer have control over her mind or body. She probed deeper to see if there were something that would kill it, and in her mind another plant appeared. Bitter wort. Thank the gods, she had some growing in her herb garden. All she had to do was find a way to let Xena know that she had to get it, and...... The picture in her mind changed to blood flowing through a vein. She didn't understand. And then she knew. The herb had to be introduced into the blood. It would not work if she drank it. Without warning, she felt the entity stirring again, and the numbing cold started to take hold of her mind. Then it receded again, and she was conscious of liquid flowing down her throat, and for the first time since this nightmare began, she heard a voice that was not alien.

"..all that's left of this batch, so I hope it does the trick. It looked like you were going to wake up for a second there. I could see your eyes moving behind your eyelids. And I think you may not be quite as hot, either. You're not out of the woods, but......Aggh", Gabrielle shrieked involuntarily, as Antea's hand softly grasped her wrist.

Antea opened her eyes to see Gabrielle staring down at her in amazement. Her mouth was sticky from the brew, and her lips were dry. She was able to croak out the word "Water.", and then her head lolled to the side again, and she was still.

"Oh, gods, thank you. Water..." She looked into the basin she had been using to sponge her with, and the water was murky. " This isn't clean.. Wait a second, the bucket. Clean water in the bucket.." She dipped the mug she was feeding her the brew from in the water bucket, and brought it to her lips.. "Here, Antea, please take this.. Please talk to me." She managed to get a good bit of water into her mouth without spilling it, and Antea sputtered and coughed, but was able to drink enough to loosen her vocal chords a little.

"..itter ort", she rasped weakly.

"What? Itter what? I don't understand. Antea, please...."

Antea licked her lips, and tried again. "Bitter. Wort. More water."

"Oh, sorry, here..", this time, Antea was able to drink without spilling, and she was able to keep her eyes open for more than a few seconds. "I still don't know what you're talking about. Bitter word about what?"

She shook her head feebly. "Wort. Bitter wort. In the garden. Xena will know it." she licked her lips again. "Tell her to boil it, and dip my knife in it."

"Okay, boil it, dip knife, got it"

"Put the knife by me on the bed after..... ", her eyes were refusing to stay open, and it felt like her lips were turning to iron. The noise of the entity was increasing. "You have to leave." Gabrielle looked at her and wrinkled her brow.

"No way, uh uh, we're staying until you're better."

Antea tried to shake her head no, but the paralysis was returning. She tried again to make Gabrielle understand. "Not safe. Leave. Both of you."

"Don't worry about us. We'll be fine. And we'll be right here." Antea's eyes darted back and forth behind her eyelids; it was all she could move. " Shhhh, sleep.", Gabrielle said, and leaning down, she planted a kiss on Antea's burning cheek.

The flames were now touching her. In her mind she tried to pull away, but there was no place to go. The icy cold of the entity enveloped her. Where the hot and the cold came together there was a hiss. And it angered her. As the hiss grew louder, so her anger increased, until she felt she would explode in a rage. The part of her that was still

Antea tried to reach through the hissing sound, but the entity would not allow it. In the very heart of the fire, Antea's last vestige of humanity huddled against the raging alien.

Antea's eyes flew open and looked around the room. The body no longer felt tired; all of it's limbs were functioning. Carefully, it stretched each muscle to make sure it would be able to stand without falling. Looking down, it saw a small blonde human with her head resting on her arms. She was sound asleep. The entity that was not Antea smiled as it contemplated this delicious treat that waited within it's reach. It searched through the mind of it's host for the name of this creature.

"Gabrielle." Gabrielle bolted upright, at first thinking she had been having a dream. But Antea was sitting up on the bed, her eyes fixed on Gabrielle's face. Something about her eyes was different.. The color. There was no color at all in her eyes, only pupils. She was just about to remark on it, when Antea seized her by her wrists.

"Hey", she protested weakly. It did not occur to her that Antea could possibly mean to hurt her, so she wrote off the pressure of the hands on her wrists as Antea testing her strength without realizing what she was doing. "Not so hard, OK?"

"Oh, poor little Gabrielle. Did you think that was hard?" She slapped Gabrielle across the face, and laughed as she flew across the room and struck the wall. "Now, I'd say that was hard, wouldn't you?" Gabrielle slid down the wall, and came to rest with a loud thump. She touched her hand to her mouth, and it came away bloody. Despite the evidence, her mind still refused to let her believe that Antea was behaving this way.

"Antea, why are you doing this to me? I only want to help you." Antea said nothing, but she smiled a mirthless smile, and climbed off of the bed. Her legs were a bit shaky, but she got her bearings quickly, and advanced on Gabrielle. Gabrielle scrambled to her feet, yanked the curtain aside, and stumbled into the other room. Behind her, she could hear Antea laughing, and the sound sent chills up her spine.

 

Argo stumbled, nearly losing her footing. She righted herself without losing her precious cargo, but the jarring motion brought Xena fully awake. It took a moment for it to register where she was, and why she was riding like all the demons in Tartarus were on her trail. She pulled back on the reins to slow Argo down to a reasonable pace, knowing the mare would run until her heart burst if Xena asked it of her. She knew she had exceeded her own limits, and was completely exhausted, but she dare not stop. In her mind, she saw Mary's battered face, and she had to stop herself from spurring Argo to breakneck speed again. If anything happened to Gabrielle because she left her alone with that....thing, she would never forgive herself. Gabrielle wouldn't know what hit her. She liked Antea; trusted her.

"I should have stayed", she berated herself. "Gabrielle won't know how to defend herself against this." Her eyes blurred with tears. "Please, let her be safe", she prayed silently. "I don't think I could live with myself if anything happened to her because of me."

The sun was beginning to glow on the horizon. As the shadows crept away from the forest she rode through, she was able to recognize landmarks. Just ahead lay a clearing with an abandoned cottage in it, and she knew that it was less than an hour from there to Antea's house. She rubbed Argo's neck, which was covered in sweat. "Not much farther, girl. I promise, you can rest for as long as you need when we get there." Argo's ears flicked back and forth as if to say she understood, and would be happy to do anything Xena wanted. Xena whistled, and Argo broke into a gallop.

 

Gabrielle had backed herself into a corner of the kitchen. In her haste to escape Antea, she had fled to the kitchen, thinking she might find a hiding place there. Antea's knife was within her reach, but she could not bring herself to pick it up. What was happening made no sense. Her mind refused to allow her believe that she was really in danger from this woman that she had come to think of as a friend. There was no place large enough to conceal her in the kitchen, so she was about to make a break for the door when the curtain in the bedroom doorway was ripped down, and Antea lurched into the room. She stood swaying for a moment, the black eyes glittering as she searched the small cottage for her prey. She spotted Gabrielle where she huddled behind the table, and with a speed that was surprising considering how sick she was just a short time before, she closed the distance between herself and the table. "There must be some way to reason with her", Gabrielle's logical mind suggested. "Talk to her. You're good at that." Gabrielle darted to the end of the table opposite Antea, and just as quickly, Antea changed direction. It was a game of cat and mouse, and there was no doubt who the mouse was. In this small space, it was only a matter of time before she made a false step, and Antea would be on her.

"Antea, please stop this", she gasped. "Tell me why you're doing this. I thought we were friends." Antea was close enough now to grab hold of Gabrielle's sleeve. Gabrielle backed away quickly, and the sleeve ripped off of her blouse, throwing Antea momentarily off balance. Gabrielle seized the opportunity, jumped over a chair, and ran for the door.

"Come now, Gabrielle. Aren't you getting tired of this chase?" The voice was malevolent, and harsh, not at all like Antea's soft melodious tones. To Gabrielle's ear, it sounded like a completely different person, and it reinforced the feeling she had that it could not be Antea acting so cruelly. She had no idea how this entity had claimed Antea's body, but she had no doubt that that was what had happened. There was no point in trying to appeal to Antea; by the empty look in the soulless eyes, Antea was gone.

In spite of the head start Gabrielle had, the entity (for she could no longer think of "it" as Antea) was still able to intercept her before she reached the door. Gabrielle swerved, heading for a chest near the bedroom that had a large pot of some kind on it. She grabbed the pot and whirled around, throwing it in the vicinity the entity had occupied when last she saw it. Unfortunately, the entity was much closer than it had been before, and the earthen jar missed it's target by several inches. It smashed into the wall behind it, shattering into fragments.

"Now that's not very nice", the entity hissed, grinning at the bard. It was almost upon her, and she found herself once again up against a wall. Frantically, she searched for a weapon, but there was nothing suitable within her reach.

The creature was in no hurry now. It's prey wasn't going anywhere. "You have a lot of spunk. I like that in a woman." It's hands gripped her upper arms almost tightly enough to stop the flow of blood to her hands. Gabrielle tried to raise her hands to break it's grip, but it simply laughed and tightened the vice. "But too much spunk can get you hurt, bard. I thought you would have learned that by now. You're so smart." As it said that, it released it's grip on one arm. In one quick move, it grasped the front of Gabrielle's blouse and ripped it off of her. "Oops. How clumsy of me." It ran it's hand down Gabrielle's arm and grasped her wrist, twisting the arm painfully behind her. Gabrielle struck out with her free hand, but the blows had no effect on the creature. "There's that spunk again. I can't wait to feel that when I'm inside of you." Gabrielle gasped, and her eyes widened as she realized what this creature intended to do to her. She tried to drive her knee in between it's legs, but when it felt her draw back her leg, it increased the pressure on her arm until she thought it would break. Her eyes filled with tears at the pain. "That wouldn't have worked with me in this body, you know. How I wish I had a man's body so you would know what it feels like to have a man inside you. You've probably only had sex with the warrior bitch. Did I say bitch? I meant, princess, of course."

"Oh, by the way, I've been meaning to ask. Do you like that skirt you're wearing?" The black eyes bored into her own. The evil in those obsidian depths pierced the haze of tears that blurred her eyes, and she knew she had to answer. She swallowed a couple of times.

"Yes", she stammered.

"Then take it off." It released her arm to allow her to take off her skirt.

Gabrielle hesitated, rubbing the arm that had almost lost all feeling.

"NOW!", it bellowed, "Or I'll rip it just like your blouse."

"No! I mean, all right...I'll take it off." Tears flowed freely down her cheeks as she untied the laces that held the skirt up. She dropped it at her feet, and stood before the creature. in nothing but her panties.

"Those, too. Quickly. You don't want to make me angry. I get down right ugly when I'm angry."

Gabrielle grasped the satin tie that held the garment around her waist, and slowly untied it. As the last small shield between herself and the creature dropped to the floor, she kept repeating Xena's name over and over in her head, as if by willing it, she could make her appear. She knew it was impossible for Xena to be back so soon. She had said she would be there the following night, and the morning sun was just beginning to appear in the windows.

 

Part 7

Xena vaulted off of Argo's back outside the stable door. Giving the mare a swat on the rump, she sent her into a stall, promising that she would remove the saddle and bridle as soon as she checked on things in the cottage. She prayed for the hundredth time since she began the long ride home from Sounion that Antea was still sleeping, and that Gabrielle was OK.

Staying out of sight of the windows, she crept silently to the front of the house. Her instincts told her to burst through the door with her sword drawn, but she knew such an entrance would scare Gabrielle half to death if she was sitting there quietly ministering to her patient, as Xena hoped she was. She put her ear to the door, but she could not hear anything. Even the sounds of normal activity were absent. A chill went up her spine. Something was horribly wrong in the house, she could feel it. Steeling herself for the worst, she grasped the door knob and turned it. She leaned her shoulder against the lower part of the door, and when it opened, she rolled in and landed in a crouch.

A voice she did not recognize rasped, "Hm. That was a bit of a disappointment. I had expected so much more from the warrior bitch." Xena's hand was drawing her sword as she whirled toward the sound of the voice. Antea - no, not Antea - she reminded herself, sat in a chair with Gabrielle on her lap. One hand held Antea's knife firmly at Gabrielle's throat. The other hand roamed over Gabrielle's naked body, stroking. pinching, and prodding. "I wanted to start the party already, but our little bard wanted to wait for you." Eyes as black as coal raked over Xena's body, and the face broke into a lascivious grin. "I can see why she would. You're a tasty looking package. Do you taste as good as she does?" The entity probed it's fingers inside Gabrielle's sex, and then brought them to it's mouth. "Mmmm. Yummy."

Xena wanted to drive her sword through this creature and skewer it to the back of the chair. Involuntarily she took a few steps toward it, and the entity responded by pressing the knife harder against Gabrielle's throat. Gabrielle whimpered as the blade pierced her skin. "See what you made me do? Now, why don't you just stop where you are." Xena stopped several feet away from her foe, and watched in silent fury as a stream of blood trickled down Gabrielle's neck. "That's good. Drop the sword and kick it away."

Xena decided that it would be too risky to try to stop this creature with such a cumbersome weapon with Gabrielle between them. She dropped the sword without hesitation, and pushed it away with her foot. "Excellent. Now slide that breast dagger out of it's hiding place and throw it behind you." Xena's mouth dropped. How could this creature have known that she had a knife concealed between her breasts? As if reading her mind, the entity laughed and spat, "I know everything this bitch knows." It said, pointing to Antea's head. " For instance, I know about that mole on your thigh shaped like a sleeping cat. Remember how she used to run her tongue over it to see if you would purr? " Xena felt violated to hear this beast speak of such intimate things. She wanted to put her hands around it's throat and squeeze until it was dead, but she noted that the entity referred to Antea in the present tense, and she knew if she killed it, she would also kill Antea. She would do anything she had to to save Gabrielle from this creature, but she prayed she did not have to sacrifice Antea to do it. Somehow she had to subdue the creature long enough to find a way to exorcise it, and hope that Antea would survive the separation.

"Let Gabrielle go", Xena snarled. "If you're so bent on rape, why don't you try someone a little more challenging."

The evil, mocking laugh rang out. "Oh, but I will. First things first. Our little bard has been anticipating this for a long time, so I think it's only fair she goes first. Make no mistake; if you come one step closer than you are, I'll slice her from ear to ear." The creature stood Gabrielle up and slowly straightened up, the knife never wavering. Gabrielle's eyes met Xena's. She read fear in those eyes, but there was faith there, too. The unshakable belief that Xena would find a way to free her. Xena wished she had as much confidence in herself.

"We're going into the bedroom so we can get comfortable. You walk ahead, and stop in the far corner." Xena started walking. Her eyes took in everything in the room as she entered, looking for potential weapons. There was nothing She would just have to catch this creature off guard and get the knife away from it. Before it succeeded in raping Gabrielle. She stopped in the corner as instructed, and turned around.

The entity had Gabrielle's arm twisted behind her so high that she was forced to walk on her tiptoes to prevent it from breaking. Xena's heart ached to see her treated so harshly. But she was relieved that Gabrielle did not try to fight back, as she suspected that this creature would have no qualms about breaking bones if opposed. It would probably enjoy it. She shuddered to think of what would have happened if she had not turned around and come back immediately from Sounion.

Without taking it's eyes off of Xena, the entity lowered Gabrielle to the bed, shifting the knife from her throat to her abdomen. Gabrielle had been afraid to try to speak with the knife at her neck, but now she cried out to Xena, "It's not Antea! Don't...." She was stopped by a slap across her face that made her ears ring.

"She knows that, you stupid cunt." It stared at Xena, whose jaws were clenched in rage, hatred radiating from her electric blue eyes. "Don't you, warrior bitch?"

"Yes," she seethed. "And I'm going to kill you. Whatever you are."

"I don't think so," It glared back at her, a look of pure evil glittering in it's eyes. "Besides, if you killed me, you'd miss all the fun" The creature got down on it's knees beside the bed, bringing the knife once again to Gabrielle's neck. "I hope you're not one of those that thrash around a lot when you're having sex, my pretty." She made a slicing motion on her own neck with her free hand.

Gabrielle's eyes stung with tears. Since this nightmare began, she kept swallowing back the tears, knowing that if this creature could make her cry , it would control her completely. Her heart soared when Xena came into the cottage, so certain was she that Xena would find a way to stop this from happening. She tried to cling to that faith, but with each passing moment, and every touch by the hand of this strange creature, it seemed less likely that Xena would be able to stop it before it succeeded in raping her.

Xena watched closely for an opportunity to make a move against this thing. It had only taken it's eyes off of her once or twice since they came in the room, but those times were very brief. She needed a distraction. It didn't have to be anything major; she just needed to get it's attention off of her for a few seconds, and she would have it. Using just her eyes, she studied the room again, this time looking for something she could use to create a diversion. On top of a chest almost within her reach was Antea's coin purse. If she could throw that through the doorway, the jangle of the coins might make it think someone was out there. She inched her way out of the corner, and closer to the chest. Another two inches, and she would be able to reach it. The creature was bending over Gabrielle, just about to take her breast in it's mouth, when Xena snatched the purse off the chest, and in the same motion, threw it in the other room. It opened up as she hoped it would, and the coins rattled as they hit the floor and wall.

The entity stopped what it was doing, and turned toward the door. It was all Xena needed. Bending at the knees, she launched herself into the air and flipped over, landing behind the creature. She could see the hand with the knife begin to move toward Gabrielle once again, but before it reached her, Xena dug her fingers into the neck of the entity, deftly activating the pressure point there. The knife dropped from limp fingers.

"Since you know everything Antea knows, I don't have to tell you that I have just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. She taught me that trick." Xena picked up the knife and tossed it to the floor. "Gabrielle, get something to tie it up with." Gabrielle scrambled off of the bed. She remembered seeing a long leather tie around Antea's bedroll, and she dug through the chest until she found it. She pulled one of Antea's tunics out of the chest as well, and pulled it over her head. "Gabrielle, quick! We have to get this thing tied up before..." Her voice trailed off. Xena knew that if Antea's body died, the entity would be released to take up residence in the closest body. She did not intend to let Gabrielle be anywhere near if that happened. She grabbed the leather cord from Gabrielle's hand. "Go start some water boiling, please, Gabrielle", she asked. She really had no use for hot water, but she wanted Gabrielle out of the room.

Gabrielle nodded. She could not imagine what Xena wanted with hot water, either, but she did not begin to understand the healing skills Xena possessed, and trusted that she had a use for it. She turned and left the room.

Xena swiftly bound the creatures wrists, then pushing it over onto the bed, she brought the cord down to wrap around it's ankles as well. That done, she pressed it's neck and allowed the blood flow to resume.

The creature fell back on the bed, it's eyes glittering with hate. "I'll still have my way with you, bitch", it spat. It struggled against the bonds, but only succeeded in making them tighter.

"Guess again. This is the last person whose life you'll destroy. If I don't find a way of killing you without killing my friend, you can be sure there won't be anyone in this room when she dies."

The entity screamed out in rage, and spat at her. A stream of obscenities followed Xena as she walked out of the room.

 

Gabrielle felt numb as she went about the process of building up the fire in the stove and pouring water in a pan to heat. Everything that had happened in the last hour was a blur, and she could not get her mind around any of it long enough to understand what had taken place. Except that Xena - her Xena - had found a way to free her. She recalled having doubts at one point that Xena would succeed, and she chastised herself for allowing such thoughts. Never again would she doubt this most amazing woman.

Xena found her standing by the stove like a statue, still wearing nothing but Antea's tunic, which barely reached the top of her thighs. Looking around, she found her skirt near the chair and picked it up. The blouse was in pieces, and she left them where they lay. She walked to the table and stood waiting for Gabrielle to notice her presence. She did not want to shock her by touching her or speaking until Gabrielle was ready.

Gabrielle flinched at the first sound of approaching footsteps, but when she recognized the tread as Xena's, she turned to find Xena standing by the table, holding her skirt in her hand. The strength she had found to keep functioning in the wake of the nightmare she had wakened from evaporated. At the sight of Xena's beloved face, tears welled up in her eyes and poured down her cheeks. Her legs threatened to give out, and she grasped the back of a chair to prevent herself from falling.

Xena let the skirt fall from her hands, and in one great stride she was by Gabrielle's side. She wrapped her arms around the bard, and gently pulled her toward her chest. Gabrielle buried her face in the comfort of Xena's breasts, but instead of soothing her, it only seemed to make her sob harder. The horror of what Gabrielle had been through hit Xena like a fist, and reflexively, she clutched her tightly. Tears she did not even know were there leaked out of her eyes, and fell on the blonde head resting on her breast. After a few moments, Gabrielle broke the embrace. She looked up at Xena's face, and saw the tears.

"Is it.....over?", Gabrielle asked. "Did you have to...", she left the rest unsaid, knowing Xena would know what she meant.

"No. It's still alive. And Antea, too. At least, I think she is. I have to find a way to kill that thing without killing her. I'll tell you what I found out in town, but first you have to tell me everything that happened while I was gone. I hate to make you relive even one moment of that nightmare, but there could be an answer in it somewhere." She picked up Gabrielle's skirt where she had dropped it on the floor, and handed it to her. "Why don't you put this on. You might feel more comfortable in your own clothes." Gabrielle slipped the skirt on, but since her blouse was in shreds she kept the tunic on.

Xena took Gabrielle's elbow, and led her to one of the kitchen chairs. " Why don't you sit down and tell me what went on. I'll make you some tea to help you relax." She rummaged through the herbs in the kitchen looking for what she wanted, then put it in a mug.

"Well", Gabrielle began, "I was talking to Antea. She wasn't awake or anything then, but... you know sometimes I just talk to hear myself talk."

Xena smirked, and raised one eyebrow. "I know. Believe me, I know. Go on." Gabrielle scowled at her, and punched her in the shoulder. Xena rubbed the spot, and gave Gabrielle a menacing look. It was a familiar game, and it made them both feel that things would be all right again, in time.

"Like I said, I was giving her the tea, like you told me. I was finally getting the hang of it and got more of it in her than on her. I think I must have fallen asleep, because I didn't see her wake up, but I heard her say my name very softly. She asked me for water, and I gave her some, and then she said something that didn't make any sense. Wait a minute, I'll think of it." She furrowed her brow while trying to recall the words that Antea told her to say to Xena. "Oh, yes, I've got it. She said 'bitter mort'. Then she said you would know what that is, and that she had some in the herb garden."

Xena looked puzzled. She had never heard of bitter mort, and could not think why Antea thought it would have meaning for her. Then it hit her. "Bitter wort, not mort. It's an herb."

"Yes, well, I kind of figured that out for myself, since she said it was in the herb garden. She also said you were to boil it, dip her knife in it, and lay the knife beside her on the bed."

"Are you sure it was Antea talking, and not that creature inside her?" She couldn't imagine what use Antea would have for a knife, but she could easily see the entity wanting it to protect itself.

"Oh, it was Antea, all right. It didn't register on me until just now, but I remember noticing her eyes were bloodshot. And those eyes were blue. When that thing came at me, all I could see was black in the eyes." She shuddered as she thought of the look on the face of the entity right before it grabbed her. There was no trace of Antea's kindness in that countenance.

"Did you notice any other changes in her condition after you gave Antea the brew?"

"No, not.... well, maybe she was a little less hot. It was hard to tell. You felt how hot she is. But it seemed she may have been a few degrees cooler. Is that important?"

"I'm not sure. It could be. I added henbane to the second brew, thinking it might work on the fever. Maybe it acted as a sedative for the creature, and allowed Antea to take control." A smile lit up her face, as she rushed into the kitchen and searched through the bottles for the henbane. Snatching the bottle from the shelf, she poured a liberal amount in the tea that was brewing for Gabrielle.

Gabrielle wrinkled her nose as she watched Xena pour henbane into her tea. Remembering what happened the last time she had a run in with henbane, she said, "Um, thanks, but I think I'll pass on the tea."

Xena laughed. "Sorry about the tea. I'll make some more for you in a while. This cup is for Antea. If this does what I think it will, we may be able to drive that thing out of her."

 

Part 8

Xena picked several bunches of bitter wort from the herb garden, while Gabrielle fetched another bucket of water to boil. Without knowing how much would be required, Xena figured more was better, and put all of the bitter wort on to heat. She picked up the mug with the henbane tea and headed for the bedroom, with Gabrielle right behind her. Turning, she placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, and said "Stay here." Realizing that what she meant to say as a simple request sounded rather harsh, she added, "Please."

"But you'll need help. I can..." Xena shook her head vigorously.

"I can't let you in that room again until this is - over. One way or another. I can't risk letting that thing get inside of you." Gabrielle's eyes widened in alarm.

"What about you? What's going to keep it from taking you? Xena, I couldn't stand it if that... if you......." her voice trailed off. The thought that Xena could possibly turn into the beast that Antea had become drove the words from her head.

Xena squeezed her shoulder, and tried to give her a reassuring smile. "That won't happen..." Gabrielle opened her mouth to say something, but Xena shook her head again, and said. "I think Antea's will is still strong, and her desire to live so great that I should be safe enough for the moment. But if I'm wrong, and I should...collapse..." She did not have to finish the sentence. Gabrielle would recognize the symptoms. "Then you would have to kill me before the creature could take over."

The color drained from Gabrielle's face, and she felt as if she were about to faint. "No! I couldn't! I couldn't end your life, even to kill that monster. Xena, there must be another way! Don't go in there. Kill Antea, if you have to, but don't go in there!" Her voice was shrill, tinged with hysteria. The look on Gabrielle's face at that moment gave Xena a chill.

"Gabrielle...." She paused, trying to think of the right words. "I really do believe I'll be safe. It was several days after the creature took over Hector before he died." She leaned down and kissed Gabrielle softly on the lips, and felt her tremble. "Oh, Gabrielle, I wish I could reassure you that I feel... right, about what I'm trying to do. I can't just walk away and let Antea die without trying to do something. I promise, if it seems her death is imminent and I have not had any positive effect on her, I'll come out of the room."

"Xena, I have never wanted anything as badly in my life as I want you to stay right here with me until this is over." Tears, her ever present companions today, slowly ran down her face. "I know it's cowardly, but I would sacrifice Antea without hesitation to keep you safe. But I know you wouldn't forgive yourself if you didn't do what you could to try and save her. And I think if anybody can do it, you can. But, you keep your promise, and get out of that room if you think for a second she might die, do you hear me?"

"Yes, I will." But she was not sure she could keep that promise. She would stay as long as there was a faint hope Antea would survive, but if she misjudged.... It did not bear thinking about. "Keep an eye on the bitter wort brew. If it looks like it's going to boil away, take it off the stove." Gabrielle nodded, and with a resigned sigh, she turned and went back to the kitchen.

 

The entity glared at her from the far side of the bed. The black holes of it's eyes blazed with hate, and just possibly, fear as well. Obscenities tumbled from it's mouth again as if there had been no break in the conversation.

"I'm getting a bit sick of that song", Xena snarled. Her patience with this foul mouthed monster was at it's limits. "But, no hard feelings. I brought you a nice cup of tea."

It's lip curled in sneer, and it snorted in disgust. "You think I'm deaf, you fucking slut? I heard you and your whore talking about henbane. There's no way you're going to get me to drink that shit."

"Hide and watch", Xena hissed. She put the cup down on the chest, well out of reach of the creature in case it should kick out. Crossing to the bed in two strides, she applied pressure to the side of it's neck, and watched as the muscles grew slack, and it's eyes rolled back in it's head. "I have many skills." Taking up the mug, she brought it to the creatures lips, and with it's head tilted back, there was nothing for the liquid to do but run down it's throat. She poured the entire contents of the mug down it, before she felt it might be safe to relieve the pressure that paralyzed it.

 

Antea was aware of the silence again. It was almost strange to her now not to hear the raging anger of her parasite, she had become so used to it. Stretching out her consciousness a little at a time, she also perceived that the heat had lessened. She tried to move her limbs, but could not. She could feel her heartbeat increase as a growing sense of panic enveloped her. Her only hope lay in being able to move while the creature slept, and she prayed Gabrielle had given her message to Xena so that the knife she needed was beside her. She stretched again, and this time she could feel her muscles respond. Her heart leaped. Opening her eyes slowly, she looked up to see the most beautiful face this side of Olympus.

Xena thought there was going to be no response when she released the pressure. For long moments, there was no movement. In fact there was no sign of life at all, except for a faint pulse in the neck. Then she noticed a twitch of the hand, and a fluttering behind the eyelids. Suddenly, the eyes opened. They were red rimmed and inflamed , but the irises were undeniably cornflower blue. Xena had been unconsciously holding her breath since she saw the motion of the hand, and she let it out with a whoop. "Thank the gods!", she intoned with a glance heavenward. She loosened the ties that bound the creature's hand and feet, having no fear now that Antea was in control of the body.

"....drink....", Antea rasped, running her tongue over her lips, to no effect. She seemed to have no moisture in her at all. Xena dipped the mug in the bucket of water by the bed, and gave Antea small sips, careful to avoid choking her. When Antea had enough water to allow her to speak, she reached up one trembling hand, and pushed the cup away from her lips.

"Xena......" Her voice was weak, and her body was wasted with fever. She hoped she would have the strength to do what she had to do. She groped around, trying to find the knife, and her hands encountered only damp sheets. "The knife", she croaked. "Where is it?"

Xena realized that she had forgotten about the knife, which still lay on the floor in the bedroom. She got up and retrieved the knife, then sat back down, holding it up so Antea could see it. "I have it. But I haven't dipped it in the bitter wort yet."

Antea's eyes widened with fear; not for herself, but for Xena. She had no idea how long she would be able to maintain control, and without the bitter wort, she knew Xena had no chance against the entity. "Please.. hurry.... I need... knife while I still have control."

"What do you plan to do with the knife?", Xena asked, even though she suspected she already knew the answer.

"Kill it."

"I've made a brew out of bitter wort. You can drink it, like the henbane."

Antea shook her head. "It... has to go..into the blood."

"But if you kill it with a knife, you'll kill yourself, too", Xena argued.

"I'm dead...already," she said, her voice no more than a whisper. "If I can kill this...thing, my death...won't be for nothing."

Xena refused to believe that plunging a knife into Antea was the only answer. She must find a way to get the brew into her bloodstream without killing her. But how? Then it came to her. She would use a reed...no, something smaller, perhaps a blade of hay or straw. With the ends removed, it would be as effective as a reed, as long as she could get the brew into it. She would figure that out when the time came.

Antea's eyes fluttered, and it was becoming more and more difficult to keep them open. Not much time. It was all she could do to reach out her hand to grasp Xena's. "Hurry...please...." Xena nodded. She knew she had to hurry, but her plan was not the same as Antea's.

"I will", she said softly. She brought her face close to Antea's, and the scent that she caught was very much like the smell of death. "No!", she screamed silently to herself. "I won't let you die! I won't!" She pressed her lips to her hot forehead, and saw the tears she did not know she was shedding drop onto her scalding brow. "Please, hold on for me", she said aloud.

"I'll...try....don't know... Tie me up.. before you..go for the...brew. I may not be here when...you get back. Then you'll...have to do it.. Promise me." It was the same thing she had asked Gabrielle. And she knew she could not do it, any more than Gabrielle could have killed her. There was no point in telling Antea that.

"I promise." She wound the leather around her wrists and ankles, praying that Antea would still be in control when she came back. It would be difficult enough to do what she had to do with Antea conscious, but it could be the end of both of them if the creature was awake.

 

Part 9

"I need your help." Gabrielle turned from the stove where she had been stirring the foul smelling brew to see Xena striding across the room with a determined look on her face.

Gabrielle offered up a silent thank you to whatever gods had delivered Xena back to her intact.

"Sure. What do you want me to do?" She was pleased to be included in Xena's plans, whatever they might be.

"I need you to find me a piece of straw about so big around", and she held her fingers fairly close together. "It should be five or six inches long, and straight. No bends or breaks in it."

"OK." Without hesitation, she headed for the door. She wanted to ask what the purpose of the straw was, but could tell from the look on Xena's face that this needed to be taken care of quickly. She also knew that Xena would tell her when she could.

Xena stirred the bitter wort, and saw that it had cooked almost to pieces. It was too filled with particles to suit her purposes. She looked around for something to strain it with, and her eyes fell on the remains of Gabrielle's blouse. She picked it up and , fitting it over the top of a jar, she tied it in place with a piece of lace from the bodice. She poured a cup of brew into the well created by the fabric and let it run through. She transferred the cloth from the jar to the cup, making another well out of part of the dry fabric, and poured the previously strained liquid into the cup. Still too much sediment was on the fabric, so she repeated the procedure until the cloth was stained, but had no solid material on it at all.

She set aside the cup with the strained liquid, and proceeded to wash the knife in the rest of the brew. She had no idea how much of the bitter wort would be required to kill the creature; perhaps the amount on the end of the knife would be sufficient. If not, she would be ready with the straw.

Gabrielle rushed through the door clutching several lengths of straw in her hand. "I wasn't sure I got the right size, so I picked up some extras", she said breathlessly.

Xena took the straws from her and examined them.

"Thanks. Any of these should do." She selected one of the longer pieces, and trimmed it with the knife so that one end narrowed to a sharp point. She only hoped it would be able to hold it's shape with moisture in it.

"What are you going to do?", Gabrielle asked.

"I'm going to pour this brew into her through this straw." Gabrielle knew Xena had healing talents that no one could rival, but this was a new one on her. Still, if Xena said it would work, she had no cause to doubt it.

"Would you like me to sharpen some more of these straws... in case the first one breaks or something?"

"Sure. Good idea. Use my knife", she said, taking the knife from between her breasts, and handing it to her. She really did not expect to need a second straw; if she couldn't accomplish it the first time, she would probably not get a second chance. But she did not need to worry Gabrielle with those thoughts. Better she should keep busy doing something she believed to be useful than to have nothing to do but sit and worry about whether Xena would ever walk out of that room again. "With any luck, there will be enough bitter wort on the knife to do the trick. The straw is just a last resort." The knife had been soaking in the brew for some time. She fished it out, wiping off the handle on the last dry bit of Gabrielle's blouse. Ironic that the blouse the creature had destroyed could play a part in it's own destruction. She picked up the mug and the straw, then looked into Gabrielle's worried face. So much for something to do keeping her mind off of what Xena was doing. "I'll be all right", she assured her once again. She kissed her and whispered "I love you ." Putting what she hoped was a confident smile on her face, she strode across the cottage and into the bedroom.

 

Antea did not appear to have moved since she left. She hoped that was a good sign. The creature had far better mobility than Antea, and could easily have shifted it's position. To be safe, she still put the mug out of reach, but brought the knife with her as she crossed to the bed.

"Antea", she called softly, kneeling down by the side of the bed. Antea's eyes opened, and Xena held her breath waiting to see what they would look like. She sighed in relief when she saw the pale blue eyes. She smiled reassuringly and said "Might as well untie you." She turned her over gently, and removed the bonds. Then she crossed to the chest and picked up the mug and the straw and turned around to find the entity crouching on the bed. Before it fully registered on her that Antea was not in control, the creature was on it's feet. With a screech, it launched itself at her, knocking the mug from her hand and spilling it's contents onto the wooden floor.

"Fool!", it bellowed, leering at her as it retreated to the other side of the room. "Do you think I've survived so long by being stupid? I let her out just long enough for you to see her, and then I took over again. I know what you're planning, and I'll tear your heart out before I let you put that knife into me. Then I'll take over your pretty little slut."

Xena knew she could subdue it if she could use pressure points, but the creature was not going to fall for that trick a second time. It was keeping it's distance.

"This bitch doesn't have much life left in her.", it taunted. "Women just don't have as much strength as men. They burn out much faster. I wish one of you was a man..." Xena's heart lurched in her chest. She had hoped she would have more. The creature had lived in Hector's body for several days before burning him out. Maybe she was a fool to think she could stop the inevitable from happening, but she couldn't give up. She watched the creature, looking for a weakness or an opening. Xena's back was to the door, and for an instant, the creature looked over her shoulder at something in the house outside, and Xena chose that instant to launch herself at it. Unfortunately, the entity really did know all of Antea's tricks, and even as Xena sailed through the air, the entity was rolling away from her. It came to it's feet with it's back to the bedroom door.

"Give it up, warrior bitch. You won't get close to me until I'm ready for you. And now I have you trapped inside this room, stored up just like a ham in the smokehouse, eh?"

"Not quite." Looking over it's shoulder, she said softly, "Now, Gabrielle." The entity whirled, believing that Gabrielle was right behind it waiting to strike. There was nothing there. By the time it turned around again, Xena was there, her fingers deftly pressing into the side of it's neck.

She lowered Antea's still body to the floor. She pulled Antea's sleeve up to reveal her wrist, reassuring herself that she still had a pulse. The knife was still in her hand, and she used it to open up one of the veins in her wrist. She held her thumb over the wound, putting pressure to prevent it from bleeding too much. Picking up the straw that had fallen from her hand with the mug, she put the blunt end in her mouth, and sucked at the puddle of brew on the floor until she tasted it on her tongue. She held her tongue over the end of the straw to keep the liquid inside it until she could replace her tongue with her finger. She lost a little bit in the transfer, but hoped it would be enough to do the job.

She pulled her thumb off the wound. Quickly she inserted the straw into the vein, and taking her finger off the end, released it's contents to pour into the vein. She grabbed a tunic from Antea's chest, and folding it into a square, she held it firmly against her wrist.

The body on the floor began convulsing, and it was all she could do to keep the compress firmly in place. Suddenly, the eyes flew open, and her heart sank to see the inky darkness there. But almost immediately, the pupil shrank, revealing the blue irises once again. She dare not assume that it truly meant the creature was dead; she would not be caught by the same trick twice.

The convulsions ended, and the body was still once again, but the pulse was steady, if somewhat faint. Xena put her hand on the forehead, and the flesh was noticeably cooler than it had been before. Within a matter of minutes, the temperature had returned to normal. Xena was almost certain that meant that the creature was dead, but she could not be sure. She decided to put the leather straps back on until she could get Antea herself to confirm that she was the only one in residence. She picked her up and put her back on the bed, retying the straps for what she hoped would be the last time.

 

The silence now was complete. No flames, no ice, no raging voices, just utter quiet. Still she was reluctant to come out of the safe corner where she huddled. The last conscious thought she had was of looking into Xena's beautiful face, and she clung to that as if it was a lifeline. If she was dead, she could think of nothing better to do for eternity than to stare into that adored face. She really didn't think she was dead; being dead shouldn't hurt, and she was in a lot of pain. It felt as if the fire that raged there had melted her insides into a molten mass, and just the thought of it caused her more pain. She burrowed deeper into her safe place, and with a sigh, she felt the pain recede.

 

Xena woke up to find her face buried in a pile of hay. She sneezed when she inhaled some of the chaff. She sat up and stretched, looking around to find Gabrielle. There was no sign of her in the stable. Then she remembered that she had asked Gabrielle to stay in the house to listen for any signs of life from Antea, while she went out to tend to poor Argo, who had spent the better part of a day standing in a stall with her saddle on, and no food within reach. She explained to the mare what had happened; she knew she wouldn't understand, but it made her feel better to tell it. And Argo really did seem to be listening, as she munched contentedly on the oats that Xena had put in the stall. Xena decided she could rest for just a few minutes before she went back into the house, so she sat just outside the stall, and leaned against the wall. That had to have been hours ago. It was now full dark. She wondered why Gabrielle had not come out to check on her, and she had a fleeting moment of panic as she thought something might have happened to Gabrielle. Wide awake now, she leapt to her feet and dashed across the yard, flinging the door open and bursting into the room. Gabrielle looked up from where she sat sewing on one of Antea's old tunics.

"Are you all right?", Xena gasped even though the evidence of her eyes told her there was nothing wrong.

"Sure. I'm just turning one of Antea's old tunics into a blouse for myself. See?" She held it up for Xena to admire. It was a fawn brown color, with a darker fringe in leather around the sleeves. It would take some getting used to, seeing Gabrielle in a tunic that was once so masculine looking. But she had to admit, with the hem of it raised so that it fell just below Gabrielle's breasts, it would probably be hard to keep her eyes off of the bard.

"Yeah", she grumbled half heartedly. "It's adorable. So why didn't you come out to the stable and get me? I woke up thinking you had been killed."

"Well, miss grouch, I did come out to the stable. You were sleeping so peacefully, I decided to leave you there. With Antea on the bed, it's probably the most comfortable place to lie down. And you obviously needed your sleep. There", she said, biting off the thread. "All finished." She pulled the other tunic over her head, and slipped the shorter one on. As Xena suspected, it just covered her breasts, forcing them up so that she had a lot of cleavage. And bare midriff. Xena felt herself getting wet just looking at her.

"You like it?", Gabrielle asked coquettishly. She could see by the look in Xena's eyes that she did, but she wanted to hear her say it.

"No, I always have moisture running down my legs like this."

Gabrielle chuckled. She sidled up to Xena, and pressed her breasts against her seductively. Xena moaned deep in her throat, and pulled Gabrielle closer to her. Putting her hands on the sides of her face, she leaned down and kissed her, darting her tongue out, and teasing it between Gabrielle's lips. Gabrielle gasped, and opened her mouth wider to allow Xena's tongue to explore her mouth. After several moments, Xena broke away.

"Wait", she moaned. "We can't do this now. We have to keep watch on Antea."

"I've been watching her. She's sound asleep. And she'll be OK for a little while. We can go out to the stable where it's comfortable." Xena opened her mouth to protest, and Gabrielle covered it with her own. When she broke the kiss, she buried her face in Xena's neck, then worked her way up to her ear. Nibbling on the lobe, she whispered, "I need you." The sound of her voice turned Xena's resolve, and her knees, to putty.

"Me, too. You.", she said huskily. Taking Gabrielle by the hand, she led them to the stable.

 

On the morning of the second day after the creature died, Xena woke on her pallet to a sound that was different than the normal sounds of the house. Sitting up, she looked around, but saw nothing out of place. Gabrielle's breathing was even, her lips slightly parted in sleep. Xena's heart swelled with love for this precious woman. She was about to cuddle back down with her, when she heard the sound again. It was a moan, and it came from the bedroom. Disentangling herself from her blankets, she leapt to her feet and ran to stand in the bedroom door, still not sure it was safe to go any closer. Antea turned her head slowly toward the sound of Xena's footsteps. Her eyes were open for the first time in two days, the whites no longer red, and blue the color of spring flowers.

"Untie me...Please....."

"Antea, I want to, but I have to be sure first. Is the creature dead?"

Antea licked her lips, which were dry and cracked. "There's only me in here."

Xena crossed the room in two strides, and swiftly undid the bindings. Antea rubbed her wrists to restore the circulation, and winced as she touched the bandage covering the vein Xena had opened. "Did you use me for target practice?" she complained.

"Sorry about that. It was the only way I could get the herb in your blood."

"Xena, I don't know how to thank you. You risked your life, and Gabrielle's to free me from that monster. I ...", she choked, and her eyes brimmed with tears. "Every day for the rest of my life, I'll thank the gods for sending you to me the first time, and for bringing you back. If not for you..", she shuddered, and the tears that collected in her eyes dripped into her ears, "that thing would be in someone else now." She didn't add that the someone could have been Gabrielle, or even Xena, and that the very thought of that was enough for her to have planned to kill herself with the monster.

"Listen to me blubbering. Haven't done this much crying since I was in diapers." She smiled at Xena, and took a deep breath, trying to will the tears away.

"Same here." She laughed, "This has been the most....emotionally draining week I've had in my life. But you and Gabrielle gave me a reason to keep on trying when I thought I couldn't do any more. I'm just so grateful that you're both alive. I... oh, I don't know what I know. If I keep talking, I'll be crying again." She picked up Antea's hand, and turning the palm up, she kissed it. "Thank you. For not giving up. On yourself, and on me."

"Another private party?", Gabrielle asked. poking her head in the door. "Got room for one more?" Xena and Antea each held out a hand to Gabrielle at the same time, and they looked at each other and laughed. Gabrielle walked to the side of the bed, and took Antea's free hand in one of hers, and Xena's in the other. Xena looked from Gabrielle to Antea, and back. Her first love. And her last love, together. The circle of her life was complete.

the end

 

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