Xena and Gabrielle spent the rest of the afternoon in bed together. Xena made love to the young bard twice more, reducing Gabrielle to a quivering heap each time. As she held Gabrielle in her arms and lightly caressed the young womans back, Xena smiled at her gently. "Thank you," she said softly.
Gabrielle chuckled quietly against Xenas chest. "I feel so good I can barely move and youre thanking me?"
"Yup," Xena replied, as she pressed a kiss to the top of Gabrielles head.
Summoning her strength, Gabrielle lifted her head to look at her lover. "Well then, youre welcome," she said huskily, before leaning up to brush her lips lightly against Xenas, her kiss soft and understanding. Resting her head back against Xenas chest, Gabrielle shifted slightly until she was lying partially on top of the warrior, luxuriating in the warmth of Xenas body. As her hand absently traced circles across her lovers bare stomach, Gabrielle spoke up again. "So will this help get rid of your visions?" she asked softly.
Xena hesitated for a few seconds before responding. "It will help," she replied steadily. "But its going to take me awhile to get over this, Gabrielle, and I honestly dont know how long that will be."
Gabrielle nodded. "I know. I just want to help you though this. After all, its the least I can do, seeing as how youre helping me get rid of my nightmares, or didnt you think I knew about that?" she asked with a smile.
Xena chuckled. "I guess I hadnt thought about it. But to be honest, I dont know that I deserve any thanks for that."
"Because holding you at night keeps my nightmares away too," Xena replied truthfully.
Gabrielle looked up at her friend once again, a sad expression on her features. "Im sorry," she said quietly. "I didnt know you were having them too."
Xena shook her head. "I havent had any since youve been back," Xena replied, as she gently stroked Gabrielles cheek with her knuckles.
Gabrielle smiled and then nestled back into Xenas embrace. The pair lay together quietly, touching and kissing as they continued to refamiliarize themselves with each others bodies. Eventually, though, Xena began to stir. "Its getting late and we have dinner plans, dont we? Were supposed to be having dinner at Ephinys?"
Gabrielle sighed and sat up. "Yeah, we are. I guess wed better get dressed," she said, before glancing back down at Xena. The expression in the warriors eyes, however, caused her to stop what she was doing.
"If we left right now, though, wed be kinda early, wouldnt we?" Xena asked, a seductive note to her voice.
Gabrielle swallowed and nodded her head. "Yeah, we would."
"I dont really want to be early," Xena said softly, as her fingers began dancing across the young bards skin.
"No, I can understand that," Gabrielle replied and then groaned when she felt Xenas fingertips brush against her nipples.
"So why dont we just kill a little more time here and then get ready to go," Xena suggested, as she sat up and pulled Gabrielle into her arms, her lips beginning to trail down the column of the young womans throat.
"Sounds good to me," Gabrielle agreed, before surrendering completely to her lovers touch.
As it turned out, Gabrielle and Xena were slightly late for dinner. Fortunately, none of the others who were joining them seemed to mind too much. Xena had been greatly relieved when Ephiny had agreed to keep the group small. She wasnt in the mood for loud parties anyway and, despite the fact that Gabrielle was recovering steadily from her ordeal, Xena continued to worry about the young woman pushing herself too hard. Having dinner with Ephiny, Solari, Eponin and Cor, however, wouldnt be overly taxing for the bard, while it would still provide plenty of conversation for her talkative friend.
The dinner was nothing extravagant but the food was delicious and the company was pleasant. Cor had apparently endeared himself to the Amazons beyond the fact that he had been instrumental in Gabrielles return. It was obvious that the three women all liked and respected him, and it was equally obvious that the feeling was mutual. As the evening progressed, Xena began to relax considerably and, before long, she was holding Gabrielles hand underneath the table, occasionally stroking it with her thumb. As the evening wore on, Xena began to grow somewhat concerned about her lover. Gabrielle, however, appeared to be holding up just fine, despite her earlier exertions. As more time passed, Gabrielle eventually was prodded into telling a few tales and, before anyone realized it, the hour had grown late.
After Gabrielles third story, Ephiny refilled everyones wine glass and proposed a toast to both Gabrielle and Cor. Cor looked slightly embarrassed by the attention but Xena knew that deep down her friend loved the fact that hed been accepted by Gabrielles sisters. It was clear that Cor was enjoying himself in the Amazon village but Xena had begun wondering why he was still sticking around, knowing that he was needed elsewhere. Clearing her throat, she studied her friend for a few moments before speaking. "So Cor, how much longer are you planning on staying here?" Xena finally asked.
Cor grinned broadly at her. "Trying to get rid of me already?"
Xena shook her head. "No, I know better than that. It never works anyway. I was just curious."
Cor shrugged. "Not sure. I guess Ill stick around another couple of days before I take off," he replied, as he took another long drink of his wine.
Xena arched an eyebrow and looked at him in surprise. "Really? I would have thought you would be anxious to get back to Kieros."
Cor shrugged once again. "I am, but I figured it would be easier to wait around another couple of days before I left. I sent a message to Kieros to tell him that I was going to be a little longer than I thought."
Xena smirked at him. "Trying to get more chobos lessons?"
Cor chuckled. "No. I just thought it would be easier to let Martakas heal up for a few more days before I took him to Baraliam. Hes going to slow me down too much at the moment," he replied, as he reached for another dessert.
"Why?" Gabrielle asked innocently. "Whats wrong with him?"
When he heard her question, Cor looked up with a touch of confusion. Glancing briefly at Xena, he was stunned to see the warrior glaring at him angrily. Suddenly realizing that Gabrielle still hadnt heard about what had happened to the warlord, Cor began growing distinctly uncomfortable. Looking around the table, he noticed that the Amazons had all become extremely interested in the contents of their mugs and were staring at them intently, while they avoided Gabrielles question. Cor cleared his throat and then replied neutrally, "Well hes been injured. I just thought it would be better to wait a few days and let him recover a little more, before he had to endure another ride on a horse."
Gabrielle sighed in exasperation. "I gathered that Cor. But that was over a week and a half ago. What happened to him that he still cant travel?"
"Well...uh...broken bones and some other wounds...and...uh....," Cor stammered, looking at Xena helplessly, as she continued to glare at him.
Xena abruptly let go of Gabrielles hand and reached for her wine. Taking a long drink, she carefully set the mug back down but kept her hand resting on the table. Still looking at Cor, she began to speak in a controlled voice. "This isnt exactly pleasant dinner conversation, Gabrielle. Could we please change the subject?"
Gabrielle looked at Xena in bewilderment for several seconds, trying to figure out what was bothering the warrior. She had sensed the increasing unease in Xenas body while she had been holding her hand and she had felt Xena throw up a wall between them the second the warrior had released her grip. Glancing around the table at Ephiny and the others, she realized that they were all studiously ignoring her gaze and she wondered again what was going on. "Uh, sure," she finally said. "We can talk about something else. So, Ephiny, how is Xenon doing?" she asked with a slightly forced smile.
Ephiny breathed a sigh of relief and smiled in return, before she began talking about her young son. As the conversation moved from Xenon to the Centaurs to various other topics, Gabrielle felt Xena relax somewhat. The warrior continued to keep her hand above the table, however, and she had almost imperceptibly shifted slightly away from Gabrielle. Xena was polite to the bard and everyone else at the table but the warmth and ease that had characterized her earlier mood had completely vanished.
Gabrielle and Xena remained at Ephinys for another half an hour, before finally deciding to call it a night. They wandered back to their hut, nodding at and greeting the many women they passed on their way. Once inside, Gabrielle lit a couple of candles, while Xena sat down and began removing her weapons and armor. Once shed finished lighting the candles, Gabrielle returned to Xenas side to help the warrior remove the last of her armor and then began gently stroking her lovers shoulders. "Gods your muscles are tight," she said softly, when she felt the tension in Xenas body.
Xena simply groaned quietly in response, as she began to relax and enjoy Gabrielles soothing touch. Slowly, the stress of the evening began draining from her body, while low sounds of pleasure were wrung from her throat. After several minutes, Gabrielle leaned against her back and wrapped her arms around her lover. "I love you," she murmured softly, pressing gentle kisses to Xenas bare shoulders and neck.
Turning around slightly, Xena reached out to cup the back of Gabrielles head, as she brought the bards lips to her own to kiss her passionately. She held her lover close for several seconds, as she deepened the kiss, her tongue gently probing the warm depths of Gabrielles mouth.
With a small sigh, Xena finally broke their kiss and rose from her chair. Brushing one last kiss against Gabrielles lips, she picked up her armor and weapons and walked across the room to hang them up. Moving to her saddlebags, she began rummaging through them as she looked for the medicine to use on Gabrielles back.
"Xena, now that were no longer at dinner, can you tell me what happened with Martakas?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
Instantly on her guard, Xena continued to focus her attention on the saddlebags. "What do you mean?" she asked cautiously, just before she finally found the medicine she was looking for.
Gabrielle sighed. "I mean, what happened when you tried to capture him? How did he get hurt? Whats wrong with him?"
"He didnt want to be captured, he resisted, he got hurt. End of story."
Gabrielle looked at her in disbelief? "End of story? This is what you considered unacceptable dinner conversation? Come on, Xena. Whats going on here?"
Xena finally turned to look at her friend. "Nothings going on," she said calmly. "Theres just nothing more to discuss."
"Gabrielle!" Xena snapped angrily, as she began to lose control of her temper. "Theres nothing more to discuss! I dont want to talk about this, so just let it go. All right?"
Gabrielle looked her friend over carefully. She knew that there was nothing to be gained by pushing Xena when she was like this so, for the time being, it would be better to simply drop the subject. After all, she could find out what she wanted to know from several other sources anyway. She didnt actually need Xena to tell her what had happened to the warlord. "All right," she finally said quietly. "We dont have to discuss this now if you dont want to."
Xena sighed with relief. Shed been dreading this conversation ever since Cor had commented on the health of Martakas and she was somewhat surprised that Gabrielle had relented so easily. She wished she could blame Cor for this mess but, unfortunately, she knew that if anyone was to blame, it was her. She had been the one who had prodded Cor about his reasons for extending his stay in the Amazon village, so she was the one responsible for Gabrielle hearing about the warlord the way that she had. Xena knew that eventually the bard would probably hear about what had happened with Martakas, but Xena was definitely not ready to talk about this issue just yet. She was terrified of what Gabrielles reaction was likely to be when she learned what Xena had done to the warlord and she wasnt prepared to see the love in Gabrielles eyes change to disgust.
Taking another deep breath, Xena gave her friend a small smile. "Why dont you lay down on the bed and let me take a look at your back for you," she said softly.
Gabrielle smiled as well, and then removed her shirt and moved to stretch out on the pallet. She sighed with contentment when she felt Xena straddle her hips a few moments later, as the warrior began carefully applying the salve to her injuries and then stroked Gabrielles tired muscles. The young womans back was healing rapidly, and it appeared that any scars that might remain would be faint at worst. As Xenas hands continued to move across Gabrielles body, the bard realized that the massage was no longer soothing but was instead highly arousing. With a low moan, she lifted herself up on her elbows and twisted slightly to face the warrior. Xenas lips covered hers with a searing kiss an instant later, as she moved to take Gabrielle into her arms. Within seconds, Xena was stroking and caressing every part of Gabrielles body that she could reach, effectively driving any thoughts of conversation far from the bards mind for the rest of the night.
Gabrielle woke the next morning to an empty bed. At first she was mildly surprised, since it was the first time since she and Xena had been reunited that she hadnt woken up in the warriors arms. After more reflection, however, she remembered Xena and Cor discussing the possibility of going hunting for a few hours during the morning and she realized that Xena must have decided to join her friend after all.
Gabrielle chuckled softly when she thought about Xena and Cor spending time together, although she wasnt particularly surprised that Xena would want do so. The two of them had been friends for years, even though circumstances had kept them apart for most of that time. Still, Xena cared deeply for Cor and, considering the fact that he would soon be leaving them, Xena undoubtedly wanted to take the opportunity to catch up with her friend. There had been a time when the thought of Xena wanting to spend time with Cor had filled Gabrielle with intense jealousy. Now, however, she was forced to admit that being with him was probably a good thing for her lover. Cor was not only one of the few people that shed met who wasnt intimidated by Xena, he was also unafraid to push, prod and tease the warrior as well. Cor completely ignored the icy glares that cowed most people into submission and he had no qualms about telling Xena exactly what he thought about anything and everything that the warrior did.
Realizing that it might be quite some time before Xena returned, Gabrielle decided to find something to keep herself occupied. Rising from the bed, she quickly got dressed and then began to work once again on the scrolls she had promised Cor. By the time she was halfway through the second one she was ready for a break, so she put the scrolls back into her pack and then walked outside to get some fresh air.
She wandered through the village, not having any particular destination in mind, simply wanting to reacquaint herself with everything. After awhile, she ended up in front of Ephinys hut and she remembered that there were a few things shed wanted to discuss with her friend. Knocking on the door, she was somewhat surprised when it was almost instantly answered by a young Amazon. The young woman smiled at her warmly and informed Gabrielle that Ephiny was currently busy with other matters but could be interrupted if Gabrielle needed to talk with her right away. Gabrielle quickly assured the Amazon that it was nothing pressing and asked to be informed when Ephiny was available. The girl willingly agreed and Gabrielle thanked her before walking away.
Sighing thoughtfully, Gabrielle pondered what to do next, as she continued to stroll through the village. After a few more minutes, she came within sight of the prison. Remembering that Martakas was being held in that building, a sudden wave of curiosity washed over the bard and she decided to have a look at the warlord for herself. This way shed be able to kill two birds with one stone. She could make certain that the warlord was being treated properly and shed finally be able to find out exactly what had happened to him during his capture.
Entering the prison building, she looked around for a few seconds until she caught sight of two women standing outside one of the cells. As she approached, both women straightened up and bowed their heads slightly. Gabrielle returned the gesture and looked both of them over carefully before speaking. "Id like to see the prisoner," she said evenly.
The two guards looked at her in confusion for a few seconds, before one of them finally spoke up. "You want to talk to him?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "No. I just want to have a look at him. I want to see what condition hes in."
The guards face lit up with understanding. "Ahh. Yes My Queen. Just a second," she said, before looking into his cell through the barred window. Turning back to Gabrielle, she nodded her head. "Hes sitting on the opposite side of the room. Go ahead and look through."
Gabrielle smiled slightly at the womans concern and then moved to look into the cell. When she saw the shape the warlord was in, she gasped slightly, causing him to look up at her, a defeated, beaten expression on his features. Gabrielle studied him for a few seconds more, noting the pain that seemed to accompany every movement he made, before moving back away from the door to look directly at the two guards. "Has he been mistreated since he was brought here?" she demanded, worried that the women of the village had been intentionally abusing the warlord while he was being held captive.
Both guards shook their heads. "No, My Queen," the first one answered. "In fact, his condition has definitely improved since he first arrived."
Gabrielle stared at her in disbelief. "Improved?"
The guard nodded. "Yes. He was nearly dead when he first got here. Hes recovered quite a bit since then."
Gabrielle swallowed once as she struggled to speak in a normal voice. "I see. And what exactly had happened to him?"
The guard thought for a few seconds before responding. "Well, he had several cracked ribs, a dislocated shoulder, a broken arm and knee and several broken fingers. Lots of sword wounds and marks from a whip, as you can see." Her brow furrowed, as she turned to the other guard. "Do you remember what else was wrong when he first got here?"
Before the guard could reply, Gabrielle spoke up quickly. "Thats all right," she said steadily. "I get the general picture. Thank you," she said and then turned and left the two guards to their duties.
Gabrielle walked a short distance away from the building, before pausing to consider what she had just seen and heard. She remembered that Ephiny had said Xena had come close to killing Martakas, but she hadnt realized until now just how close the warrior had come. On one level, she wasnt surprised that Xena had done what she had to the warlord. The only thing she really found surprising was that Xena had done everything that she had and then hadnt actually killed him. Gabrielle realized that Ares plan had nearly succeeded. Xena had chased after Martakas with the intention of killing the warlord. She had stepped right up to the line and then somehow she had managed to pull back before she crossed it. Gabrielle just wondered how Xena had found the strength to stop herself, before she killed the man she had blamed for Gabrielles "death."
As she stood lost in thought, Gabrielle eventually heard someone calling her name and, looking up, she saw Xena approaching her. The warrior studied Gabrielle curiously and then glanced towards the prison building. Her eyes narrowed slightly, as she closed the remaining distance between her and the bard. "Gabrielle," she asked suspiciously. "What have you been doing?"
Gabrielle looked at her friend with a touch of surprise. "Ive been talking to Martakas guards. I went to check on the warlord for myself."
"Why?" Xena demanded, the growing anger inside her clearly coming through in her voice.
Gabrielle shrugged. "You didnt want to talk about it, so I just decided to find out what had happened to him on my own."
Xena cursed softly. "So you decided to go behind my back?" she asked coldly.
Gabrielle gave her an dumbfounded look. "Go behind your back? I didnt go behind your back. You didnt want to talk about Martakas so I went to see him for myself. Im not trying to hide that fact so dont accuse me of sneaking around," she said heatedly.
"This is none of your business, Gabrielle. You had no right to do this."
Gabrielle stared at her in incredulity. "No right? None of my business? Xena, in case youve forgotten, Im the Amazon Queen. The women of my village are holding a man in our prison. He was brought here because he was accused of killing me. I was concerned about his health so I asked the guards about him to make certain that my sisters werent mistreating him. Now explain to me how none of this is my business," she said sarcastically.
Xena glared at her friend for several seconds before she finally spoke again. "And what did you find out," she asked tightly. "Have they mistreated him?"
Gabrielle looked at her in surprise, somewhat confused by the question. "No, they havent."
"Thats right. They havent, because there was no need to. I took care of that on my own, or didnt the guards tell you all about that too?" Xena asked quietly.
Gabrielle shrugged. "They told me about his broken bones and his wounds. It was enough for me to know that the Amazons hadnt been torturing him while he was here," she replied.
Xena laughed harshly. "No. I tortured him enough for a lifetime," she replied, before turning to walk away.
Gabrielle quickly reached out and caught the warriors arm. "Whats that supposed to mean?"
Xena closed her eyes momentarily in frustration, before slowly turning back around to look at her friend. "All right, Gabrielle," Xena said in a dispassionate voice. "Youve been wanting to know what happened to Martakas so much, Ill tell you." Xena took a deep breath before continuing. "All those sword wounds...those are from me. I fought him on the battlefield but he was no match for me. I could have kept slicing him to ribbons for hours, but he finally tried to get away, so I broke his knee and then I captured him. I had him. I could have turned him over to the Amazons and been done with it...but I didnt want to. I tied him to a tree and flogged him until he was nearly dead, and when I got done with that I beat him with my bare hands. Thats how he ended up with all the rest of those broken bones. Then I tied him back up and began cutting him to pieces with my sword. I carved the same X pattern across his chest that I thought hed carved across yours. And do you want to know the worst part about all of that?" she asked quietly.
Gabrielle nodded silently, as her voice failed her completely.
"The worst part is that I enjoyed it," Xena said coldly. "I laughed every time I heard him scream, every time I heard him beg for mercy. I destroyed him the way I thought hed destroyed you and I was glad."
Gabrielle stared at her friend in amazement. Shed heard the incredible self-loathing in Xenas voice and shed heard the pain as well, despite the warriors best efforts to hide it. She couldnt even fathom what Xena must have been going through to have done what she did and it was obvious that she was disgusted with herself for it. Learning that Gabrielles "death" was nothing more than a plot by Ares to get her back, could only have contributed to the warriors mental anguish. The only thing the bard couldnt figure out was why Xena hadnt killed the warlord. Taking a deep breath, she looked her friend over carefully before speaking. "Xena?" she began, "Why...."
"Queen Gabrielle?" she heard a voice call out, interrupting her before she had the chance to ask her question.
Turning slightly, she saw the young Amazon who had been in Ephinys hut coming towards them. Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, she paused for a moment before responding. "Yes? What is it?"
"Ephiny is available. You wanted me to let you know when....," her voice trailed off uncertainly under the weight of Xenas intense stare.
Gabrielle glanced at her friend briefly and then nodded to the Amazon. "Yes I did. Thank you, Ill be there shortly," she replied, and then watched as the woman hurried away.
Turning back once again to look at her friend, Gabrielle began to speak but was stopped by Xenas upraised palm. "Later, Gabrielle." Xena said tonelessly. "Go talk to Ephiny. Theres nothing more for us to discuss right now anyway and frankly, I need to be alone for awhile," she said calmly, before walking away from her friend, feeling empty and dead inside. There was no possible way that that could have gone worse and, at the moment, Xena wasnt prepared to deal with the revulsion towards her and the disappointment in her that she was certain Gabrielle must be feeling.
Xena avoided Gabrielle for the rest of the day, as she tried to come to terms with what had transpired between the young woman and herself. She had hoped to figure out a way to explain to Gabrielle what had happened with the warlord, but those plans had gone up in smoke the second she realized that Gabrielle had actually seen Martakas. The words that Ephiny had spoken to her so long ago had returned to haunt her. Dont do anything you would regret Gabrielle knowing about. Good advice, if only shed taken it. The pain and torture shed inflicted on Martakas, was all the proof anyone would ever need to know that Xena had never really changed. How could she possibly hope that Gabrielle would understand what shed done, let alone forgive her for it?
Throughout the day, Gabrielle tried to talk with her friend about what had happened, needing, if nothing else, to know how and why Xena had stopped herself before killing the warlord. Unfortunately, Xena was as adept as always at avoiding her and, no matter how hard she tried, the young bard was unable to corner her warrior friend. The few times she did manage to find Xena, the warrior flat out refused to discuss anything more serious than the weather and, by the end of the day, Gabrielle was completely worn out from all her attempts to force Xena to talk with her.
Eventually Gabrielle retired to her hut for the night. She waited up for Xena for as long as she was able to but eventually, sheer exhaustion took its toll and the young woman fell asleep. When she awoke the next morning, there was no sign of the other woman but Gabrielle knew, although she wasnt exactly sure how, that Xena had been there with her during the night. She was greatly relieved that the warrior wasnt so upset that shed decided to sleep elsewhere.
Gabrielle saw and spoke to Xena several times that morning. However, the warrior invariably managed to arrange things so that there were always several other people around them, making it all but impossible to carry on a private conversation. Xena seemed to have relaxed considerably from the day before, though, and Gabrielle began to wonder if, perhaps, before too much more time had passed, they might actually be able to discuss the Martakas issue, as well as all the other matters they needed to cover.
Shortly after midday, Xena returned to their hut. Seizing the opportunity, Gabrielle quickly followed, determined to try to talk with her about some of the issues facing them, now that she had been afforded the opportunity. As she entered their hut, she saw Xena packing a small backpack. The warrior looked up at her arrival and nodded to her briefly, before returning her attention back to the task at hand.
"Cor and I are going hunting again," Xena said. "I just came in to get a few things to take with us. We may be gone for awhile, so dont expect to see me again before dinner," she finished, as she continued to fill the backpack with a variety of items.
Gabrielle watched her friend steadily for several more seconds, before trying to speak to her once again. "Xena, we need to talk about all of this. Now about Martakas...."
"Gabrielle please. I dont want to talk about him right now. I dont know how to explain what happened and Im just not ready to discuss that subject yet," Xena said firmly.
"All right, you dont want to talk about Martakas. Will you at least talk to me about your army?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
Xenas head snapped up in surprise. "My army?" she croaked.
"Yes, your army," Gabrielle repeated calmly.
"How do you know about that?" Xena demanded, before remembering the comment Cor had made when she had first seen the two of them in Ephinys hut. "Did Cor tell you?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Actually, I told Cor." She hesitated for a few seconds before continuing, "Ares told me."
Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah. When he came and told me about tricking you, he showed me a vision of you riding at the head of an army. It looked pretty big. There had to be over 40 men riding with you, along with several Amazons...You...you looked pretty content," she finished lamely.
Xena stared at her in shock. "Why didnt you say something before?"
"It didnt seem like the right time. I was just so glad to have you back, I didnt want to talk about anything else but you and me. I kept waiting for you to bring it up but you never did. So I decided I was going to have to mention it if we were ever going to be able to talk about it."
Xena shook her head as she tried to make sense of the past couple of minutes. First Martakas, now this. How much more was she going to have to deal with before this was all over? Sighing heavily, Xena looked at her friend. "I dont want to talk about my army right now either," she said flatly.
Gabrielle chuckled ruefully. "Why doesnt that surprise me? Xena, how much longer do you intend to keep this up?"
"Keep what up?" Xena asked defensively.
"How much longer do you intend to keep pretending the past couple of months never happened? You refuse to talk about Martakas, you wont discuss the army that you spent nearly all your time building and leading. What in the gods names are you so afraid of?"
"Im not afraid of anything," Xena denied to herself as much as to Gabrielle. "I just dont think you really want to hear the answer to your questions. I dont think youre going to like what you hear."
"Ill be the judge of that. Tell me. Tell me why you raised an army."
Xena began angrily pacing around the hut. "Why did I do it? I raised an army because I thought I could use it to stop Martakas once and for all. At first, it was just me and six Amazons. Then in Nalimore I picked up a few others and, everywhere that I went, people kept joining us, wanting to help defeat Martakas. Before I knew it, I had a couple dozen people with me. We started attacking small armies to rescue villages, then we started taking on bigger and bigger armies. More and more people joined and I stopped waiting for the other armies to strike first. I was determined that this time I would use my army for good, that this time I would use it to protect people. And it worked. I dont know how many petty armies and highwaymen we took care of before we finally caught Martakas. And when the time came, my army obliterated his. It was so damned easy, too. When I was through, I had over 60 men and every one of them was a skilled, capable warrior. It was a fast moving, hard-hitting cavalry that could tackle almost anything."
Gabrielle watched her friend in silence for several seconds. "You evened the odds," she finally said quietly.
Xena looked at her for a few moments before she understood what Gabrielle was talking about. "Yeah, I evened the odds."
"And did you like it? Were you happy?" Gabrielle asked, still in a quiet voice. "In the vision that Ares showed me you looked...well you looked like you were exactly where you belonged."
Xena stopped pacing and gazed out the window. "Did I like it?" She thought about the question for several seconds before nodding her head. "Part of me did," she admitted. "Part of me liked it a lot. All those soldiers, following my orders, following me into battle. No fear, just utter freedom, power, control. Gods Gabrielle. You cant imagine what thats like. Id forgotten just how much Id missed it," she said, her voice taking on a faraway quality. "Knowing that youre respected, knowing that no one can stop you from doing exactly what you want to do, its...its exhilarating," she said softly.
Gabrielle stared at Xena in shock. "And you miss it now that its gone again, dont you?" she asked in a small voice.
Xena remained silent for several long seconds before finally speaking. "Do you really want me to answer that?"
Gabrielle swallowed hard. "Yes, I do."
Xena nodded. "Yes, part of me misses having an army, misses the control and the power. Part of me misses what I could do with them and regrets the fact that I wont be able to do those things without an army behind me."
"So why did you get rid of your army?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
Xena shrugged. "I guess I was just too tired. I didnt have the energy or the drive to keep leading them. Especially not after Ares told me the truth, that hed been trying to lure me back to his side."
"Do you have the energy to lead an army now? Is that what you want to do in the future?"
Xena turned to look at her friend, as she carefully considered her response. "I still dont have the energy to lead an army at the moment. As for the future...Im not ready to try to think that far ahead."
"I guess Ares was right. He said that there was a part of you that missed leading an army," Gabrielle said softly.
Xena shrugged. "Maybe in that respect, Ares knew me better than I knew myself," she agreed, before grabbing the small backpack and leaving to meet Cor.
As Xena had said, she and Cor didnt return to the village until late that evening. Gabrielle was telling tales around a fire when they returned and Cor immediately insisted on joining the women, determined as always not to miss the opportunity to listen to one of Gabrielles stories. Xena joined the group as well, although she was obviously considerably more reluctant to do so. She barely looked at Gabrielle while the bard was telling her stories and, as soon as Gabrielle had finished, she quickly rose and walked away, mumbling an excuse about needing to get cleaned up from her earlier activities.
Cor watched her leave, a confused expression crossing his features as he did so. Turning to look back at Gabrielle, he noticed the glum look on her face and he began to realize that there was some truth to his earlier suspicions. He had been puzzled by Xenas insistence on going hunting during the day and had been surprised that she had been willing to be away from Gabrielle for so long. Now, however, he was beginning to see that something was definitely wrong between the two women. Before he could press the issue, however, Gabrielle stood up and wished everyone good night. Cor momentarily considered stopping her and trying to talk to her about what was going on but decided against it. The two women were going through a difficult time at the moment and it was only natural that there would be some problems as they readjusted to each other. Hed give things a little more time before he stuck his nose into the middle of the situation.
Gabrielle returned to their hut and got undressed for bed. She was just slipping under the covers when Xena entered the hut. The warrior glanced at her briefly, before silently getting undressed and getting into bed with her. However, Xena immediately moved to the very edge of the mattress, placing herself as far away from Gabrielle as possible, before closing her eyes and trying to fall asleep.
The two slept together in the bed but didnt once touch each other during the night, not even to curl together in their usual sleeping position. Xena was up and gone from the hut, long before Gabrielle woke up and the bard realized that things were much, much worse than she had imagined. She was living with a stranger. A cold, unemotional stranger who barely acknowledged her presence and she knew that there was absolutely no way that she could go on like this for much longer. Things were going to have to change, one way or the other, because she simply couldnt live like this.
She sat in their hut for quite awhile, trying to decide what to do about her friend. Eventually she decided to try to take her mind off Xena, so she pulled out the scrolls she had been working on to finish the ones that she "owed" Cor. She had just completed the scrolls and replaced them in the saddlebags, when Xena walked into the hut, surprising her slightly.
Seeing the look on Gabrielles face, Xena shrugged and shuffled her feet slightly. "Just needed to get something," she mumbled softly, as she walked over to open up one of the saddlebags.
Gabrielle watched her calmly, before a look of resolve finally came over her face. "Xena, we need to talk."
The warrior rolled her eyes slightly. "Weve been talking, Gabrielle. Weve been talking a lot."
Gabrielle ignored her. "Xena, I cant go on like this. I cant deal with you pushing me away. I cant deal with your indifference. I cant deal with feeling like you want me out of your life."
"What are you talking about?" Xena asked in an irritated voice.
"Im talking about the fact that youre holding back a part of yourself from me. Im talking about the fact that you dont trust me with any part of your life anymore," Gabrielle replied angrily.
"Youre being ridiculous."
"Am I? You wouldnt tell me about Martakas until you felt like you were forced into it. You wouldnt tell me about your army until I directly asked you. Ephiny had to tell me what you thought had happened to me, because you wouldnt talk about it. You dont trust me enough to tell me whats bothering you. You dont trust me enough to think that Ill understand. You dont trust me enough to believe that Ill still love you after you tell me the truth. You dont...you dont trust me enough to lose control," she finished softly.
"Lose control?" Xena asked in a confused voice.
"Yes, to lose control. To let your guard down when were making love." Taking a deep breath, she looked her friend directly in the eyes. "I didnt notice it at first because I was so happy to be with you. But you havent let me touch you since we got back together."
"What are you talking about? Youve held my hand, leaned against my shoulder, and youve definitely touched me while we were making love."
"You mean while you were making love to me," she corrected calmly. "Oh sure, youll let me touch you a little but every time Ive tried to do more than the bare minimum, youve stopped me. And youre holding part of yourself back. It took me awhile to realize it, but youre keeping a part of yourself locked away from me. Now stop trying to deny what we both know is true and just tell me why youre doing it."
"Gabrielle, please, you dont want to get into this," Xena warned softly.
"Probably not," Gabrielle agreed, much to Xenas surprise. "Unfortunately, I have to. I have to know whats going on with you. Do you...do you still love me?" she finally asked.
Xena sighed softly. "Yes. I still love you."
Gabrielle relaxed slightly but she continued to keep the pressure on. "Then why are you doing this?" she asked.
Xena glared at her lover. "What do you want me to say?"
"The truth. Just tell me the truth. I dont care how painful it is. I have to know whats going on with you."
"The truth? The truth is that I finally realized that I was right in the first place," Xena said harshly. "The strongest trees stand alone."
Gabrielle stared at her in astonishment. Several seconds passed before she was able to speak and even then her voice was unsteady. "What are you saying?"
"Im saying that I love you, but I was right when I said it was a weakness to depend on someone else. Gabrielle, you are my biggest weakness. Thats what I miss the most about my army. No weaknesses. No vulnerabilities. You want to know why Im holding part of myself back from you? Its because I nearly died when I thought Id lost you and I dont want to go through that again. Im trying to get used to this whole idea of having you around again, despite the fact that we both know youd be better off staying here with the Amazons or, for that matter, being anywhere thats away from me."
"And you?" Gabrielle asked softly. "Would you be better off without me?"
Xena hesitated for a few seconds before responding. "In some ways, yes I would," she replied quietly. "I just dont know if Im strong enough to walk away."
Gabrielle looked at her friend sadly. "Maybe I am," she finally responded, before walking out of the hut in silence.
Gabrielle and Xena avoided each other for the rest of the day. When night finally came, Xena returned to their hut, laid out her bedroll and fell fast asleep, all without saying a single word to Gabrielle. The next morning she was gone before Gabrielle woke and the process of avoidance continued.
It was the middle of the morning by the time Cor was ready to leave. Several of the Amazons wished him well, before Gabrielle finally stepped forward to hand her friend the scrolls she had promised him. Smiling broadly, Cor took the scrolls and then placed them carefully in his saddlebags, thanking the young woman as he did so.
"It was no problem, Cor," Gabrielle replied. "I just hope Kieros likes them."
"Im sure hell love them," Cor said confidently. "If theres anyone whos a bigger sucker for your stories than me, it has got to be Kieros."
Gabrielle smiled warmly at her friend before hugging him tightly. "Good-bye, Cor," she said emotionally. "I owe you more than I can ever begin to pay you back," she finished, before moving back slightly to look up at her friend.
Cor shook his head. "No. Like I told Xena, you owe me nothing. Just take care of yourself and take care of her too," he said with a smile.
Gabrielle sighed. "Easier said than done," she said quietly, as she moved out of her friends embrace.
Cor reached out to catch her by the shoulder. "Whats that supposed to mean?" he asked in a concerned voice. He looked at her for a few seconds and, when she continued to remain silent, he began to grow even more worried. "Gabrielle? Whats wrong?"
Gabrielle shrugged helplessly. "Shes doing it again, Cor," she said softly. "And I dont know how to stop her. She keeps putting up more walls between us, pushing me further and further away. Ive tried to talk to her, tried to force the issue with her, but she refuses to discuss it with me. She wont talk about what happened with Martakas, and she definitely wont talk about her army. I think shes decided that she doesnt want me around anymore. She already told me that she....," Gabrielles voice trailed off as she fought the tears that were threatening to fall.
Cor looked at his young friend compassionately. "What did she tell you?" he asked softly.
Gabrielle took a deep, steadying breath. "She told me that she was right all along. She said that the strongest trees stand alone. She admitted that having me around was a weakness."
Cor shook his head sadly. Xena was an idiot sometimes - there was no two ways about it. "Gabrielle, you know she loves you, dont you?" he asked gently.
Gabrielle shrugged. "She says she does. Maybe that isnt enough for her. Maybe she needs something else that I cant give her."
"Gabrielle....," Cor started, then stopped when he noticed Xena and Ephiny leading the bound Martakas towards him. The warlord was still in sorry shape but at least he was in good enough condition that he wouldnt slow Cor down too much.
Gabrielle looked up to see Xena approaching and forced a smile onto her face. "Good-bye again Cor," she said warmly, as she deliberately ignored the warriors presence. "Remember youll always be welcome in this village," she said, and then turned and walked quickly away.
Ephiny watched Gabrielles departure with a look of confusion on her face, before turning to look back at Cor. Extending her arm, she smiled when he grasped it firmly. "Thank you Cor," she said sincerely. "You returned Gabrielle to her sisters. If theres ever anything we can do to return this favor, let us know and well do so gladly."
Cor nodded. "Thanks, but really, it was nothing."
"No," Ephiny corrected him firmly. "It was everything," she finished, before smiling and walking away to try to catch up with Gabrielle.
Cor watched as Xena finished tying Martakas to the saddle of the horse he would be riding and then came back to stand in front of him. "Thanks for taking care of him," she said flatly. "Im sure the people of Baraliam will be more than capable of dealing with Martakas once you turn him over to them."
Cor nodded, but remained silent as he continued to look at her intently.
"What?" Xena demanded in an irritated voice after several seconds had passed.
Cor shrugged. "I was just thinking. I stopped you from making the biggest mistake of your life, apparently only to watch you do your best to make the second biggest."
Xena glared at her friend. "Whats that supposed to mean?"
"I just got done talking to Gabrielle and she confirmed what Ive been suspecting for days. Youre trying to push her away again, arent you?"
"I dont know what youre talking about," Xena snapped, as she began to walk away.
Cor reached out quickly to grab her arm, stopping her progress. "Dont you?" he asked mockingly. "Ill admit that Im not exactly certain why youre doing this but the fact that youre doing it is pretty obvious." Cor looked her over carefully for several seconds before speaking again. "So, do you want to tell me why youre doing this, or shall I try to guess?"
"Cor, I dont want to talk about it," she growled angrily, jerking her arm from his grasp.
"All right. Ill guess." Cor pretended to think for several seconds before smiling. "First guess: Martakas. Am I right? No, that would be too stupid. You wouldnt throw away what you and Gabrielle have just because you were worried about what she thought of you for beating him senseless." Cor acted as if he was giving the matter more thought before smiling once again. "Ahh. Is it because of the army you formed? No, that cant be it. That would be just as stupid as the Martakas reason. I know that youre happier with Gabrielle than you ever were with an army, and I think we both know how dangerous it is for you to be leading a legion of any size, for any length of time, dont we?"
"Cor thats enough," Xena warned, her voice soft and low.
Cor just smirked at her. "This is a toughie. Sure you dont want to give me a clue? No? Well all right. Let me see...Ive got it!" he said, snapping his fingers loudly. "Youve decided that youd rather be lonely than spend your life with someone who loves you and who you love as well. Youre choosing to be miserable instead of spending your days with someone who will make you deliriously happy. No," Cor said laughing rudely. "Only a complete fool would want something like that. Im stumped, Xena. The only other thing I can come up with is that you are somehow trying to pull that its too dangerous for her to be with me crap again, and I was under the impression that wed already covered that once before."
"Cor, things arent quite as simple as you like to make them out to be," Xena said heatedly.
"And theyre not as complicated as you like to pretend either," he shot back. "Do you love her?" he asked calmly.
"Yes," she said quietly, "But...."
"No buts. You love her. Thats what matters."
"Cor," Xena said helplessly. "I dont know if I can go through this again."
"Go through what?" he asked gently, his heart going out to his friend when he heard the pain in her voice.
"Cor, it almost killed me when I lost her. How can I set myself up for that again?"
"Isnt that what youre doing right now? Youre holding her at arms length. Youre going to end up driving her away, Xena. Dont you think it will hurt if and when she finally leaves?"
"Yeah, it will. But it wont hurt anywhere near as much as it did when I thought shed been killed by Martakas. It will be over and done with, and at least Ill know shes alive."
Cor shook his head. "Xena, are we really back to that issue again? I told you once before, Gabrielle is an adult capable of making her own decisions. You cant protect her from the world."
"Its not the world Im trying to protect her from Cor. Its me," Xena admitted softly.
"You?" Cor asked in surprise.
"Yes, me. Look at what I did to him," she said, nodding towards Martakas. "Think about what I might have done to Gabrielle when I first saw her if you hadnt been there to stop me. Gods, theres so much anger and violence inside me and Im terrified that its going to end up with me hurting her some day. I dont think I could live with myself if that ever happened."
Cor sighed heavily, as he finally began to understand what was behind Xenas actions. Everything else he mentioned was probably contributing to her anxiety but, ultimately, it was her fear of hurting Gabrielle that was causing the warrior to drive the young bard away. "Youre hurting her now, you know," he said softly.
"I know. But better to do it this way. Shell get over it eventually."
"Maybe. But will you?" Cor asked quietly. "Xena...Xena youre a fool. Most people go through their whole lives hoping to find what you have with Gabrielle, and youre just going to toss it all away. At the very least, you owe it to Gabrielle to be honest with her about this. Or does she mean that little to you?"
Xena glared at her friend angrily. "Thats a low blow, Cor!"
Cor shrugged carelessly. "Maybe. But if it gets you to be honest with Gabrielle then, frankly, I dont care." Walking over to untie the reins of Martakas horse from the hitching pole, Cor led the animal back around to where Xena was standing and then mounted his own horse. "Good-bye, my friend. I hope you come to your senses before its too late," he said sincerely, before urging his horse into a slow walk and heading for the village gates.
Xena thought about her conversation with Cor throughout the rest of the day. He was right about a couple of things, she acknowledged. She was hurting Gabrielle by forcing the young woman away, and she honestly wasnt certain that she could ever get over it if she lost Gabrielles love. Unfortunately, no matter how much she tried, she couldnt get past the one central problem. She was absolutely terrified that someday she would end up destroying Gabrielle completely.
She had been scared for a long time that someone would harm Gabrielle in order to hurt her and now that Ares had apparently figured out her weakness, that fear was magnified. But all of that paled in comparison to the terror that she felt at the thought that someday she herself would be the instrument of Gabrielles destruction. She realized now that shed been fooling herself when she thought that she had changed. She was still the same hardened killer she always had been and, eventually, the tight control she held over the darkness within her was going to slip again. When that happened, Gabrielle could wind up with a lot more than just bruises on her wrist. The young woman could end up dead. The small pain she was putting her friend through now was worth it if it saved her from the much greater pain that would come to her if Xena didnt do something before it was too late.
Late that evening, Xena was sitting alone in their hut when she heard Gabrielle enter. She continued to sit silently, however, as she tried to organize her thoughts. After a few minutes had passed, though, Gabrielle finally spoke. "Is something wrong?" the young bard asked quietly.
"No...nothings wrong. I was just thinking."
Xena paused and then finally looked at her friend. "About you. About you being the Amazon Queen. You have a gift for it, Gabrielle. Youre one of the finest ones Ive ever seen. I think...I think you should keep the mask of the Queen."
"You think we should stay here with the Amazons?" Gabrielle asked in amazement.
Xena shook her head. "No. I think you should stay here with the Amazons," she said quietly.
Gabrielle stared at her friend in shock. Even though shed told Cor that she was worried Xena didnt want her around anymore, actually hearing Xena say the words came like a physical blow. "What are you saying?" she finally whispered, after several long seconds of silence had passed.
Xena sighed heavily before looking away. "Exactly what it sounds like Im saying. I think you should remain here with the Amazons. Youll be happy here and we both know that the women of this village care a lot about you. Theyd be thrilled if you decided to stay and youd do a great job as their Queen. But...but I cant stay here with you. Im not ready to settle down yet, so I have to be moving on."
"What about you and me?" Gabrielle asked softly. "I thought you said you loved me."
"I do love you," Xena replied. "Nothing will ever change that. But sometimes that isnt enough."
"Isnt enough? How can you say that?"
Xena sighed once again. "Come on, Gabrielle. You mean to tell me that in all of the stories you know, there arent a few where lovers are kept apart because of other issues?"
Gabrielle stared at her friend silently for several moments. "Yes, there are," she replied quietly. "Will you just tell me why youre doing this?"
Xena shrugged. "Because its the best thing for both of us," she replied.
Gabrielle studied her friend, not missing the way Xena was avoiding eye contact with her. "And what are you going to be doing while Im here with the Amazons?" she finally asked. "Are you going to raise another army?"
An army? Xena thought to herself in surprise, hearing Gabrielle voice a thought that had never once dawned on her. Realizing, however, that it provided something of a justification for her actions, she decided to use it as an excuse. "Maybe," she replied neutrally, not wanting to commit herself to anything. "But dont worry. I have no intention of going back to fighting for Ares. One way or the other, Ill keep doing what Ive been doing for the past couple of years."
"And this is what you really want? You want me to stay here while you go off on your own?" Gabrielle asked calmly, determined not to break down and beg or cry.
Xena paused for a couple of seconds before nodding her head and turning to look Gabrielle directly in the eyes. "Its what I want," she replied firmly.
Gabrielle simply looked at her friend for several seconds, before finally nodding her head as well. "Fine," she replied, with as much dignity as she could manage. "If thats what you want then thats what well do." She took a deep breath and rose from her chair. "Ill miss you Xena," she said unemotionally, as she struggled to keep the pain and hurt out of her voice. "Ill make the announcement at the celebration the village is having the day after tomorrow and then accept the mask permanently the day after that. I would appreciate it if you would stay until then. I would hate for my...for my best friend to miss that ceremony."
Xena nodded. "Ill stay," she said simply.
"Thank you," Gabrielle said calmly, and then turned and walked out of the hut.
Xena watched the bard go without a word. Part of her desperately wanted to call the young woman back to her side, to tell her it was all a misunderstanding, but she forced that part down deep inside of her and allowed her friend to leave. She felt as if her heart was breaking all over again but she refused to relent. This was for Gabrielles own good. She couldnt allow the young woman to stay with her any longer. It would only be a matter of time before the darkness within her overwhelmed her young friend. Gabrielle had asked her if this is what she wanted and, on a purely selfish level, she admitted that it wasnt. She wanted and needed Gabrielle to be with her. But she wanted the best for the bard and staying with the Amazons, staying away from Xena, was what was best for Gabrielle.
Continued...Part 12 (Conclusion)