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Love's Test by Wolfsword  

Chapter Two

Xena stood, uncertain of the stranger. She thought she recognised the woman before, but she had thought it was her mind playing tricks. It can’t be, she thought.

“Yeah, it's me,” the stranger almost seemed to read her mind. “I’m real.”

Xena was still having trouble thinking. I thought you were dead, her mind screamed.

“I know I’ve changed somewhat, but it can’t be that bad, can it?” the stranger laughed.

“Kae…? How…?” was all Xena could manage. She stared at the newcomer as if she were a ghost.

“Will someone tell me what in Tartarus going on!” Gabrielle cut in. She felt like she was being left out of the loop, in something that seemed to be very important.

Both warriors turned to stare at the small bard. They looked at each other then back at Gabrielle again.

“Sorry.” They said together.

“Look, let's deal with this later. That one who got away, it’s probably gone to get reinforcements. We’re not safe here.” The stranger stated to Xena.

“You’re right. Lets go. It’s only a couple of miles to Cularis. We can stay there for the night,” she told the stranger. “You can explain everything to me when we get there” Xena added angrily.

The stranger looked away, almost guiltily and nodded. They set off at a brisk walk, leaving Gabrielle feeling she’d been left out of something again. As they left the clearing, she looked back one last time at the creatures, still not believing what just happened. What she saw, made her halt mid-step. Xena noticed her pause and stopped as well, alerting the stranger too. Both backtracked to see what was wrong.

“They’re gone…” Gabrielle breathed.

It was true. Xena stood open-mouthed at the empty clearing. Even the blood had vanished it seemed, as if nothing had happened.

“Come on. We have to get going. There’s nothing to see,” said the woman urgently.

The stranger turned and strode away, Xena following, pulling Gabrielle along with her.

They walked in silence, the sound of the birds returning as they left the scene of the fight, the stranger leading the way. After a while, Gabrielle realised that she did not even know the stranger’s name. In fact, she knew nothing, while the woman seemed to know a lot about them. It made her very uncomfortable. She took a breath to ask, but before she said anything, the stranger spoke quietly, her lilting voice drifting back to Gabrielle.

“Its best not to talk until we’re clear of the forest. They might hear us.”

Gabrielle was shocked, and looked at Xena who was walking beside her. She looked unconcerned at the fact that the woman had seemed to read her mind. Actually, Xena seemed to be in a world of her own, her gaze introverted and thoughtful.

Is she another part of your past that you haven’t told me about? Gabrielle thought, surprised to feel a twinge of sadness at it. She sighed quietly, and looked ahead, studying the woman walking in front of her.

Who are you? Who are you, whom Xena follows without complaint? Why was she so shaken when she recognised you? Were you lovers? Gabrielle almost tripped as she felt the spark of jealousy rip through her. The Amazon Queen was surprised at herself. She didn’t think that she was the possessive type, but when it came to Xena, it was different.

She studied the warrior again. She was obviously an Amazon, or she would not have known the traditional custom of bowing, or how to do it so gracefully. Gracefully? Why that word to describe it? she mused. The woman’s mannerisms screamed royalty at the bard. Could she be of royal blood? The woman had respect for authority, as she had shown in the clearing and also a respect for life, when she could have killed the silver-stripe, but chose not to.

Another thing that Gabrielle found strange was that the woman had two swords. It wasn’t that ambidextrousness was uncommon to her, but it was the way that they were placed on her body. One was strapped diagonally across her back, the hilt protruding over her right shoulder, while the other one hung at her waist, at her right hip.

She reminded her in many ways of Xena, a younger version anyway. She must have been around Gabrielle’s age, maybe a little older. She was slightly taller than Xena, although she was of slimmer build, but no less formidable. Although most of her body was covered, Gabrielle had been around warriors long enough to determine the good from the great. From the way that the stranger carried herself, Gabrielle was certain that she belonged in the latter category. A match for Xena in combat? She pondered.

She thought back to the scene in the clearing, and how close she came to dying. If it were not for the stranger, she would have died. Gabrielle knew it, so did Xena, but the other warrior seemed unconcerned, as if it were natural. But she seemed to value the creatures’ lives that she had taken. And what was she doing after all the creatures had been disposed? Gabrielle thought. It was like she was praying for them. Maybe it was an Amazon tradition that she hadn't come across before.

Soon the trees became less dense, and the forest track that they were following, became much wider. Presently, the town walls loomed in front of them and still they walked on in silence. As they passed the gatehouse, Gabrielle heard wolf whistles coming from the guards. She looked up in time to see one of them nudge the other, indicating the strange warrior in front of her. She saw him lean over and say something, causing the other guard to turn his gaze on Xena and her and laugh, but she could not pick up what he said.

“Be nice boys, or believe me, you wont have fun tonight at Bo’s.” came the Amazon’s voice, the threat evident in her tone.

Gabrielle was startled and she looked at Xena, who shrugged with a knowing smile at her.

“What did they say?” she asked Xena, quietly.

“They said something like ‘She must have had a good time last night with those two beauties,’” replied Xena, watching the slow blush creep up the bard’s neck.

“Oh,” said Gabrielle, fully embarrassed.

Xena smirked, a little of her good mood returning. She would get an explanation soon, and there was no point wondering about it now. She surveyed the road they were walking along.

“So, are you gonna tell me who she is?” asked Gabrielle, trying to keep the impatience out of her voice. “I’ve been silent for the past candlemark. I think I deserve some answers.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry. I just got lost in my thoughts, you know.”

“It's ok. So what’s her name? I can’t believe I’ve been following someone whose name I don’t even know.”

“She’s…” before Xena could finish, a woman shouted out to them.

“KAELIN!”

From behind, came a woman with fiery red hair. She wore a flowing sleeveless red dress, tattered in some places, but obviously not cheap that showed off a small tattoo on her shoulder, of a bright red rose. She was a shade smaller than Xena, and she pushed past between Xena and Gabrielle, nearly knocking the smaller woman over.  The red-haired woman didn’t even acknowledge the other two, but came up to the strange warrior and hugged her fiercely.

“As I was saying, this is Kaelin.” continued Xena, unable to keep the smirk from her face, as Kaelin stood awkwardly, the life being squeezed out of her by the woman. The newcomer reached up and hooked her arm around the taller woman’s neck, pulling her head down, their lips meeting, in a searing kiss.

Gabrielle looked away, unable to keep the thoughts of what Xena’s mouth would feel like from running around her mind. Xena watched the two, an amused grin playing on her angular face. She scratched her cheek with a long finger, and cleared her throat. That snapped Kaelin back to reality, and she pulled away from the woman, breathlessly.

“Well, if that’s the kind of welcome I’m gonna get, I think I should be away longer!” she laughed, winking at Xena. "And to think, I only just met the girl."

Xena narrowed her eyes, wondering if Kaelin knew what she was thinking.

“Jorana,” said Kaelin, looking down at the woman she held loosely in her arms, “This is Gabrielle and Xena.”

Jorana’s head snapped around, her face in shock. Kaelin grinned at Xena and Gabrielle. “I’ve heard a lot about you two,” said Jorana. “You in particular, Warrior.”

Xena’s eyes darted to Kaelin, who shook her head slightly, before answering the red-head. Gabrielle got the feeling again that the two warriors were communicating silently, through a bond formed previously. She could almost hear the click of familiarity between old friends.

“Oh, what have you heard?”

“You know, all that stuff about you becoming a hero for the people, instead of being a cold-hearted warlord.”

Xena laughed, almost relieved. The two warriors’ eyes met again. “Well, I don’t know about being a hero, but I guess you could sum my life up like that.”

“Oh, there’s way more to this Warrior Princess than meets the eye,” Gabrielle said to Jorana, “Maybe I’ll tell you about them some time.”

Kaelin studied the bard and warrior standing opposite her, her mind analysing them.

“Sure! I’d love that,” said Jorana, a little too enthusiastically. “Why don’t you tell me about them now, over dinner?” Jorana left Kaelin’s embrace and linked arms with a surprised Gabrielle. Xena stared as Jorana and Gabrielle strolled towards a well-worn building, the sound of drunken laughter coming from it. Xena cocked a dark eyebrow at Kaelin, who returned the expression, a small smile playing on her lips.

“Come on, I’m hungry.” Kaelin turned and followed the two women, Xena pausing for a second before catching up with the strange warrior.

“So you’re an Amazon now?” asked Xena, “How’d that happen?”

“I told you, we’ll talk about that later. It’s a long story and I have a few things I need to do,” replied Kaelin, “Anyway, how come you ended up with an Amazon Queen? Now that’s really an achievement, my friend.” She winked at Xena.

“Now Kae, don’t you start getting ideas alright.” Xena said, feeling a flush creeping up her neck.

Kaelin snorted. “Yeah, so what. You’re trying to tell me that you didn’t take that beautiful thing to bed the first time you laid eyes on her?!” Xena looked down at the ground. “Gods woman! What’s wrong with you!” Kaelin waved her hands in front of Xena’s eyes, causing Xena to stop walking. “Are you blind or something!?”

“No, of course not,” said Xena defensively, swatting Kaelin’s hand away.

“Then what? You going for men nowadays? Is that it?” Kaelin’s brow wrinkled in thought. “Sheesh, that’ll be a shock to the system if it is!”

“No, No. Nothing like that,” Xena sighed. “It’s just…” Xena took a deep breath. “I dunno. Something’s stopping me.” She shrugged.

“Stopping you? You mean like physically preventing you?”

“No. It's like, whenever she comes near me, I want her. Gods know I want her.” She looked up at the few stars that were out. “But… then I get this queasy feeling, in the pit of my stomach. And I can’t breathe properly, and my heart starts pumping harder.”

Kaelin studied her friend for a minute before replying.

“You love her.” Kaelin stated, no question in her voice.

Xena looked at her friend. “Yeah.”

“Tell her.”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

Xena glanced away and resumed the trek to the tavern, ignoring the question.

“I’ve heard Cularis has great nightlife,” said Xena, changing the subject. Kaelin shook her head and smiled.

“Ok, Xe, I’ll leave it for now.” Kaelin paused and then whispered. “For now.”

“So… how long have you been with Jorana?” Xena wondered about the Kaelin she had known before.

Kaelin stopped, her hand on the door of the tavern. She turned to look at Xena, her expression disbelieving, a half-grin on her face.

“Been with her?” Kaelin chuckled. “What ever made you think that!”

“Well, I assumed that… I dunno, that you were together.”

Kaelin lost her smile and looked intensely into Xena’s eyes. “I belong to no one, Xena. I thought you of all people would remember that.”

“I do,” replied Xena, slowly, aware that they were on dangerous ground, “But it’s been a long time Kaelin. People change.”

“Not me.” She pushed open the door and strolled into the building.

Xena sighed and followed suit. Guess some people don’t want to change she thought. She looked around, taking in her surroundings. The walls were brown, stained with dirt and grim, but the place was built from strong timber, the floor covered with rushes. It was quite crowded and Xena had to crane her neck to see where the others had gone. It didn’t take her long to find them. There was a large group of people around one particular table and she could her Gabrielle’s voice rising over the din. She made her way towards it, and reached it just as the bard reached the finale. Everyone present burst into raucous laughter, leaving Xena to wonder what she had just missed.

“Another!” cried a burly man, tears of laughter glistening in his eyes.

Gabrielle held up her hands. “If you’re lucky, I might tell you a story after I eat my dinner, but right now I’m famished. A bard can never perform quite as well on an empty stomach. ”

“Well, I think I can arrange for a meal for you. Free of charge of course. As long as you tell us more tonight!”

“Alright, sir. You have a deal,” replied Gabrielle, smiling.

The man left and went over to the Tavern keeper. Gabrielle saw Xena, and gestured to her to sit down opposite, as the crowd began to disperse, seeing that no more stories were going to be told, yet. The table was situated next to the flight of stairs that gave access to the inn rooms and Xena’s irritation grew as people kept walking past their table to get to the stairs. Xena watched as, Jorana who was sitting next to Gabrielle leaned over to whisper something into the bard’s ear. The bard laughed and nodded as Jorana got up from the table and made her way over to a group of men, before turning her attention to Xena. The warrior’s mask was in place, and showed no hint of the jealousy that was raging around inside her.

Gabrielle smiled, causing Xena’s feelings of distrust towards the red-head to soften a little.

“Aren’t you drinking anything?” the bard asked.

Xena shook her head, her eyes wandering around the room, searching for Kaelin. She spotted the warrior talking to the tavern keeper. She saw her nod at him, and then made her way up the stairs to the rooms, not even glancing at them.

“… Xena?”

“Hm?” said Xena, as she realised that Gabrielle had been asking her something. “Sorry, what did you say?”

“I asked if you were hungry. The innkeeper is giving us a free dinner, in exchange for a story.” The bard grinned, hoping her success would please the warrior. It wasn’t like they were poor, but anything that they could get and not pay for was a bonus.

“Ok.”

There was silence between them for a few seconds before Gabrielle spoke. “Xena?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you gonna tell me who she is?”

Xena mentally kicked herself. It was like her brain was turning to mush. There were just too many things happening too fast. “Oh Hades, I’m so sorry. I just got caught up with things, and I’ve been trying to think things through and its just so confusing and…”

“Hey, its ok. I understand,” cut in Gabrielle gently, placing her hand over Xena’s, which rested on the table.

Xena knew then, as she stared into Gabrielle’s eyes, that she could never ever leave this woman. She knew if anything ever happened to Gabrielle, she would not be able to carry on with life. It was a stark fact that hit Xena right in the heart.

“But you know, it’s not a bad idea if you told me about her now.” Gabrielle stated quietly.

Xena sighed loudly. “Ok. Where should I start?” Xena looked at their hands, Gabrielle’s still resting on her own. At the beginning you dumb arse she thought.

“The beginning would be a good idea.” Gabrielle voiced Xena’s own thoughts.

“Right,” whispered Xena. The room had suddenly gone silent for the two of them, each one only seeing and hearing the other. Xena looked down at the whorls on the wooden table and slowly, she began explaining the history between the mysterious warrior, Kaelin, and herself.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Continued... Chapter Three

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