Disclaimer: By now it should be readily apparent that the characters of Xena: Warrior Princess do not belong to me. I'm just borrowing them for the moment.
General Audience: This fic fine for any age. It's just your basic adventure tale. Chronologically, it can be placed sometime within Season Three of X:WP. Let me know what you think!
The smaller blonde one was very talkative. She sat astride the golden horse, chattering excitedly. The creature that watched them didn't know what she was saying, but her voice was grating and painful. The tall dark-haired woman walked before the animal, leading it by the reins. This one was quiet and alert. She thought she sensed a presence, but the silent observer didn't fear discovery. It could be gone before the woman had enough time to draw her sword. So it remained hidden in the brush, waiting for a command from its lord.
"And that's why the gods gave humans eyebrows," Gabrielle finished. "Well? What do you think?"
Xena glanced over her shoulder, not able to resist a wry grin. "Riveting," she answered, then turned forward again to gaze at the trees surrounding the road.
Gabrielle sighed. "Xena, do you think you can offer more to the conversation than monosyllabic responses?"
"I just gave you three," Xena answered matter-of-factly. Her blue eyes were busy scanning the brush.
"What are you looking for?" Gabrielle asked.
"Someone's watching us," the warrior woman murmured. "But I can't pin him down."
"Are you sure?" Gabrielle whispered, leaning forward in concern.
Xena nodded, then stopped in her tracks. Argo paused as well. Dropping the horse's reins, she stood still, one hand held up to bid silence from her friend. It was damned confusing. She was positive she felt eyes watching them, but could not for the life of her tell where the person was. It caused a small flare of fear. She hated being caught unaware.
The one who stood watching felt a sudden presence behind it. It lifted its snout into the air, testing the odors drawn into its quivering nostrils. A faint breeze ruffled the fur along its powerful haunches. Turning its head over one shoulder, the creature saw its lord standing a few feet away, his fisted hands resting on his hips.
His dark eyes glittered wickedly as he gazed down at his servant. "I see you've already discovered our intruders," he said, his voice a deep timbre that set the creature trembling. Then he threw his arms down in exasperation. "Celosia, you know I hate talking to you like this. Get back into form."
The animal, a large black wolf, turned around to face its leather-clad lord. Lowering its head in submission, it shuddered a bit, then began to change. Its body collapsed and stretched upward, the dark fur receding into dusky flesh. In a smooth, gentle movement, the wolf shifted into the form of a woman.
"The warrior woman is Xena," the lord said. "She once belonged to me, but since her fealty has been broken, I have no loyalty to her."
"Do you want her dead?" the woman asked dully. She was unclothed as always after returning to human form, and her lord's eyes roved over her body hungrily.
He smiled. "Let's just wait and see, shall we?" he asked genially. "I'll let you play as long as they remain in our territory. I want you to be…creative. I love how that brain of yours works."
"Yes, my lord Ares," Celosia said, bending her head. As she did, she shifted again into wolf form.
Ares watched his servant slink through the brush. Celosia had been quite a find. She was much more fun to observe than his tedious warlords and soldiers. Her futile defiance even as she obeyed his command was strangely arousing. The woman was as wild as her bestial forms. With a quiet grin, he vanished in a swirl of flame.
"You know, I was told at the village that these woods are haunted," Gabrielle said fearfully. "They say the ghost of a woman who murdered her family torments anyone who travels through."
Xena scoffed at this. "That sounds like the ramblings following one cup of ale too many," she said dismissively. But she felt a twinge. If it was a spirit, it might explain why she couldn't tell where their visitor was.
"I think we should just keep moving. Maybe we can get out of this area before nightfall."
"Yes, because we all know bad things only happen when it's dark," Xena teased. Gabrielle made a face at her as she bent to grab Argo's reins once more. "We keep moving," she agreed.
The wolf stayed nearby as they traveled through her domain. This point of the game was merely observational—she would identify weaknesses through their interactions and gain leverage for attack. Celosia knew she served no other purpose but amusement for Ares, and it made her seethe in hatred of him to be bound so completely to his whim. But at least he'd tired of her body for the moment. He hadn't demanded she have sex with him since the night she transformed herself into a skeletal hag covered with warts as he climaxed. She'd been punished for that little prank, and since then her form had soured for him.
She found herself drawn to the rugged warrior woman. Xena had belonged to the god of war and found the strength to escape. Celosia could not imagine such a feat. Bending the will of a god was a tremendous ability. Her little sidekick was more confusing. As of yet she had done nothing but tell tales. She carried a staff, which implied she could fight, but she rode the horse like a coddled child and looked as soft as a flower petal. Celosia sensed that she would be her entrance inside Xena's emotional stability. Ares loved to see her break their spirits.
"I really hate this, Xena," Gabrielle said as Argo stopped.
"Well, we can't walk all night. There's water here. It's as good a place as any," Xena replied.
She reached up to grab the smaller woman's waist as she swung her leg over Argo's side and started to leap down to the ground. Celosia watched this show of affectionate support with interest. Gabrielle smiled sweetly and limped away from the horse.
"I'm not completely incapacitated, you know," she commented. "My ankle is nearly healed now."
"We'll see how long it takes you to try those flips again," Xena answered with a grin. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you were purposely trying for a free ride."
Gabrielle snorted. "Like I want to ride Argo for the rest of my life," she retorted. The horse grunted at this, and Xena patted her side.
"Oh, girl, don't worry. The big mean Gabrielle didn't mean to insult you," she cooed.
"Didn't I?" Gabrielle muttered, but then ruined the effect by giggling afterward.
"I'm going to find us something to eat," Xena said. "Take care of Argo for me?"
Xena started striding away into the trees before Gabrielle had responded. "Just make sure the fire is going when I get back," she called over one shoulder as she disappeared.
Celosia felt the warmth of a plan settle deep inside. The love between them—now this was far too easy. Normally she leapt at a vague sense of distrust or irritation found between the individuals of a traveling group. It was easy to spark a quick hatred when dark emotions were already faintly brewing below the surface. But what greater torture was there than the capricious nature of love? Celosia knew that torment intimately. Knowing how she would begin her attack, the wolf slowly eased away as Xena left her partner alone.
Gabrielle muttered to herself as she picked up branches from the ground for kindling. "She never listens to me. She never takes me seriously. 'Make sure the fire is going when I get back.' We shouldn't even be here. Something is just wrong here."
"Talking to yourself again, are we?" Xena's voice purred behind her. Gabrielle whirled in surprise, clutching the wood to her breast. The warrior woman stood there casually, a rabbit dangling from one hand. The expression on her face was close to a smirk.
"That was fast," Gabrielle commented.
"Yes, well, I'm good at what I do," Xena murmured. She started walking toward her friend.
There was something off about her suddenly. The way she moved when she walked, the flatness in her eyes—something made Gabrielle's skin crawl. She glanced down at the dead rabbit and was shocked to see that its throat had been torn out. She looked back up at Xena's face with a gasp. The woman threw the animal directly at her, making her drop the wood in her instinct to catch it. Then Xena's hand reached up quickly, something glittering in it, and struck her sharply on the side of her head. Gabrielle saw stars explode before her eyes, and then she was falling into complete blackness.
Celosia stood over the younger woman, studying her intently. She'd observed her closely for several minutes as she gathered wood and complained. She would do a much better job of mimicking this one. The girl had known she wasn't the warrior woman, or at least she'd sensed something was wrong. But Celosia knew this one's voice, her movments—she would be this Gabrielle, in Xena's eyes.
Xena carried their dinner in one hand, approaching the area where they were camped. Suddenly she heard the rapid approach of footsteps, making her draw her sword. To her relief, it was only Gabrielle. Her friend raced through the trees, panting as she caught up with her. She nearly collapsed, and Xena dropped her kill on the ground to catch the smaller woman by the shoulders.
"Gabrielle, what is it?" she asked, concerned.
"I was attacked by a—something. I don't know what it was, but it caught me off guard, and I didn't have a chance to fight back." She turned to look behind herself. "It might still be following me!"
"Are you hurt?" Xena asked. After Gabrielle shook her head, the warrior woman took off through the trees to finish her trek toward the campsite.
"Xena, wait!" Gabrielle called after her. Xena stopped, uncertain. "You shouldn't go back there. I don't know what that thing was, but it's dangerous." She stepped closer to the taller woman. "Besides," she continued. "I don't want to be left alone again."
Celosia knew she had her as she crept closer. The hard frown on the dark-haired woman's face had softened into an expression she knew very well. She had much power in this body. As she came near, having to look up to see into the other woman's face, her arm slithered forward to circle Xena's waist. She would befuddle her rather easily, now that she had her trust—
The hand gripping her throat had struck too quickly for her to see it before it was too late. Celosia froze as she felt her windpipe closing off, choking. The expression on the woman's face was coldly scrutinizing. She thought she might be sucked into the frigid wind of those blue eyes, and almost didn't hear the question she was asked soon after.
"Who are you?" Xena demanded.
Thoroughly surprised that Xena had seen through her masquerade, Celosia reverted back into her original form without knowing it. But she saw the shock in the other woman's face and realized what she'd done. Xena's grasp had slacked somewhat in her surprise. Before she could think about the consequences, Celosia blurted out, "Please. Ares has me—"
A sharp crack of thunder stopped her in mid-sentence. Celosia had no doubts what that warning meant, and wrenched herself away from the woman's hold. Without knowing that she'd spoken the one word guaranteed to have Xena's utter attention, Celosia sprinted away, sliding back into her comfortable wolf body as she did so.
"And just what do you think you were doing?" Ares demanded angrily. He paced the marble floor before her, kicking at some debris as he passed it. The temple of Hestia had been abandoned long before. These woods had been feared long before Celosia ever started haunting them.
She knelt before him, staring down at his leather-clad feet and shivering each time a boot slammed against the floor. What would be her punishment? She hadn't been able to tell Xena anything about her bondage. Would mentioning his name be enough for a beating, or worse? Her blood ran cold at the thought. A beating she would relish over the other threat he held over her head.
Suddenly Ares stopped. Bending over her, he grabbed her hair fiercely and snarled right into her ear, "I don't know if I can keep you after this. Do you know you've set her on my heels again? I haven't the time nor the inclination to deal with that woman at this moment. Maybe I should just finish the task I started years ago, hmmm?"
Quick tears pricked her eyes, not at the tangle of fingers clenching her hair, but the thought of what he might do if he were serious. "Please, lord Ares, no," she whispered. "Spare them any torture."
"Why should I?" he asked, throwing her head away from him and causing her to fall backwards. "It would only be three less mouths to feed. Do you think my expense is minimal? Your brood eats like pigs."
Rubbing her wounded backside, Celosia frowned. Expense for a god? What a silly idea. He had access to more food than all the countries of the world. But direct mention of her children made her pause. This was serious, after all. He usually merely alluded to them in smirking phrases, preferring to hold only the idea over her like the callous lord he was.
"I only—" she started, thinking she'd found a way out of the situation.
"Yes?" he purred, crossing his arms and gazing at her legs where they were revealed under the dress she'd put on.
"I only sought to shift her attention away from me, as she held my throat in her hands. Xena is a dangerous woman," Celosia murmured.
"Dangerous? You have no idea. You've been lost in these woods for so long you've never even heard of her, let alone ran across her before today. She would have killed you on the spot if you didn't make her curious. Just you wait. She'll find you. And when she does, maybe I'll just let her have you," Ares taunted as he vanished in a purple plume.
"So she was a shapeshifter?" Gabrielle asked, holding her head. She'd only wakened moments before, finding Xena crouched over her with worry etched across her forehead.
"Yeah," Xena muttered, reaching for her wrist. "Let me look at that," she ordered.
Gabrielle leaned away. "I'm fine," she said. "Tell me more about this. I know that it wasn't you who knocked me out…"
Xena frowned. "Of course not," she responded. "I think it was the elusive ghost you were speaking of earlier. Only she isn't dead. No, she's haunting these woods for other reasons. And I think I know just who else is involved in this. Ares," she sneered, throwing another stick into the pile Gabrielle had begun before she'd been struck.
"Ares?" Gabrielle asked. "Why would he—never mind, I shouldn't even ask. Who knows what he's up to here. That poor woman," she continued, causing Xena to glance at her sharply. "Well, he must be forcing her to do this."
Xena smiled, shaking her head. "You always see the best in people," she answered. "But I wouldn't make this thing as helpless as you'd like."
Gabrielle frowned, and fought to stand up. "She's not a thing, she's a person. For whatever reason, she's been given a gift, and Ares is taking advantage of that. That shouldn't surprise you at all."
"No, I suppose not," Xena allowed. "We'll have to find her then. You ride Argo along the path, all right? You okay to do that?" she added, frowning.
"I said I'm fine, Xena. She didn't hit me that hard," Gabrielle responded. "What are you going to do?"
"Watch for the bait to be caught," Xena answered matter-of-factly, rising herself.
"Great, now I'm bait," Gabrielle grumbled, hobbling toward the campsite once again.
Celosia watched the blonde woman, Gabrielle, riding down the dark road alone. She wondered where the trick was. Xena must be stalking the night for her, then. She grinned in spite of herself. This would be too easy. Keeping in human form, Celosia waited to be caught.
"You weren't planning on hitting her again, were you?" a velvety voice crooned behind her. Celosia whirled in surprise. "Because I have a definite problem with that."
Recovering quickly, Celosia smiled. "Hello, Xena," she answered affably, startling the warrior woman.
"Who are you?" she demanded. "And don't go sprinting off again. I have some questions for you."
"You aren't going to pinch me, are you?" Celosia asked. "He told me about what you do to people."
"Only if it's necessary," Xena countered. "Ar—"
"No!" Celosia shouted in spite of herself. "He's off dealing with some of his men. Speak his name and you'll have his attention again. I have to be alone with you for a bit."
Xena frowned. "What do you want?"
Taking a deep breath, Celosia spit it out quickly, hoping she wouldn't be stopped mid-sentence once again. "I've been bonded here in these woods. He uses me as a plaything to scare the wits out of people, even get them killed. It's only because it amuses him so, but for me—I'm kept for different reasons."
"Go on," Xena said, her voice steely. Now her anger was directed at another source. She knew how easily Ares swayed people to his will.
"My children," Celosia said. "Would you help them? I cannot approach the cave, for he'll know immediately. He has them."
"The story is you killed them," Xena said.
Scowling, Celosia spat in the dirt. "Never!" she vowed hotly. "I killed my husband, yes. He sought to murder us all when he found out what I was. He thought the children might be affected by it, like it's some disease. I protected them, and now I'm being punished for it!"
Xena, surprised by her anger, held out her hands. "I believe you," she said. "Where is this cave?"
"What cave?" Gabrielle asked. She stepped forward from the shadows. "I missed the beginning of the story."
"Gabrielle, I told you to stay put," Xena accused.
"And I say I'm a part of this, too," Gabrielle retorted. She turned toward the other woman. "What is your name?"
"Celosia. You would help me, then?" she asked.
"Oh, of course we will," Gabrielle comforted. "Aren't we, Xena?"
The warrior woman sighed heavily. "Yeah," she said.
Celosia led them to the spot where she'd spent hours staring longingly at the mouth of a cave. She waited for any hint of her children, and sometimes when she was very quiet, she could hear them laughing as they played together. A quiet sob racked her throat, and she clenched a hand over her mouth, turning away from the other women as she started to cry.
"It is there," she whispered finally, pointing.
"Gabrielle, stay with her. Call an alarm if anyone approaches," Xena ordered. Gabrielle nodded.
"Of course," she said.
They watched Xena approach the cave cautiously, then duck to enter the low opening. Celosia was filled with tension, excited at the chance to see them again. Gabrielle touched her arm gently, and she turned toward her, eyes sparkling. "I'll have them back, won't I?" she asked.
Gabrielle seemed sad about something, but she smiled anyway. "Right," she said with encouragement.
When Xena returned, it was alone. Celosia frowned at the expression on her face, coming forward hesitantly. Her foot crossed the invisible barrier that would warn Ares of her presence on forbidden ground, but she paid this no mind. "They were chained?" Celosia asked, confused.
Her face serious, Xena shook her head. "There are no children in that cave, Celosia."
Confusion faded when she thought she understood what the warrior woman was saying. "Of course! It's been so long…they've all grown up, haven't they?" She looked over toward the cave, thinking she'd see two grown men exiting.
"No, Celosia. Your children are dead," Xena said softly, offering something to her. It was a necklace—her necklace. She'd placed it on Jasher as Ares took them away from her.
Taking the necklace into one shaking hand, Celosia shook her head slowly. "You're lying," she stated.
"She isn't," a familiar voice burst in. Ares had finally arrived.
"You killed them?" Celosia choked, disbelieving.
"Of course not," Ares assured her. "Why would I do such a heartless thing?"
"Because you didn't need them anymore. All you needed was their memory to keep her at your side," Xena answered.
Celosia stared at her in surprise, understanding at last. She was angry, more furious than she'd ever been in her life. Her husband she'd killed without thought, merely defending them against his attack. But Ares had tortured her for years with the promise of seeing them again, and now that she knew it was impossible she hardly knew what to do with herself. As a god, there was little she could do against him. But there was one thing, and she forcefully calmed herself in order to break his hold.
"Then we are done, aren't we?" she commented, turning away from him.
"What?" Ares asked in shock. "You hate me, Celosia. Where is that fierce rage I love so well?"
"You heard her, Ares. It's over," Xena said. "She's done with you."
"She is not done until I say she is done," he said bitterly, then started when Celosia started walking away. "You come back here!"
Gabrielle shook her head sadly at him, making him feel even smaller. "I could kill you where you stand!" he shouted. But this didn't make the woman stop. "Come back here, Celosia!"
Xena looked at him carefully, waiting until she had his attention. "You lost, Ares. Be a man and face up to it." With that they all turned away, leaving him standing alone.
Long after they started walking, Celosia felt the tears finally come. She wouldn't let them halt, however, and left Xena and Gabrielle to watch helplessly. "What will I do now?" she asked. "I have nothing."
"No, you're wrong," Gabrielle said gently. "You have your life back. That's the most important thing."
"I think I'd rather not know any of this, and just keep things the same as they've always been."
"For now that might be the case, but you'll realize how much better you feel knowing the truth," Gabrielle said.
"I don't know if I can believe that," Celosia answered defeatedly.
"Why don't you travel with us for awhile?" Gabrielle offered. Xena looked at her at this remark, but Gabrielle only stared back innocuously. "Only until she decides what to do. She can see how wonderful it is to help people instead of hurt them. You can do a lot with that talent of yours," she added.
Celosia thought about it. "Only for a time, though. I don't think you two are meant to have a third." At the look that passed between the two women after she said this, Celosia knew she was right. "Very well, then. I will travel with you for now."
"Good," Gabrielle said, satisfied. Then she paused. "Hey, do you know how to cook by any chance?"