The next morning was dull and overcast. An early morning fog had beaded everything with a heavy dew and, while the visibility had improved over the past candlemark, you still couldnt make out anything in the gray nothingness a few hundred meters in any direction. An eerie silence engulfed the village, as the damp air itself seemed to muffle all the sounds.
Xena had woken up early again this morning and once again, felt the need to get up and moving. Spotting her weapons piled in a corner of the hut, she grinned to herself. Might as well get in a few practice drills as she waited for Gabrielle to wake.
Gabrielle became aware of Xena moving around the hut. Cracking open one eye, she turned her head and peered out at her companion. Both eyes popped open as she noticed what Xena was wearing.
"Hey!" she managed to croak out.
Xena turned and saw Gabrielle staring at her from half-closed eyelids. "Hi, yourself. How are you feeling this morning?"
Gabrielle managed to roll over onto her side, facing Xena. Moving her hand up to shade her eyes, she watched the warrior as she picked up her sword and chakram.
"Expecting trouble?" she inquired sweetly from the bed.
Xena looked at Gabrielle with a puzzled expression on her face, 'til she noticed the bard was staring pointedly at her armor.
Laughing, Xena clipped her chakram to her waist. "Not particularly. I just thought Id get in some time on the practice field before it gets busy."
Gabrielle looked concerned now. "Xena, are you okay? I mean, your wounds..."
Xena stopped fussing with her armor and walked over to Gabrielles bed, surprising the bard when she sat down on the side of it.
"Gabrielle, Im fine. Really. I dont even notice them any more. But if were going to go back out on the road soon, I need to get off my duff, and get some practice in or youre going to have to defend me out there."
Gabrielle laughed at the image but she also felt a twinge at the thought of going back on the road again. She wished she could convince Xena to stay with the Amazons.
Smiling back, she replied. "I cook: you defend. Thats the arrangement. Youd better go and practice. Just take it easy, okay?"
"Okay" Xena said standing and grinning before she headed for the door.
"Oh, and Xena..."
Xena stopped and turned back to face the bard.
"Play nice. No beating up the locals. Okay?" Although Gabrielles face was still smiling, her eyes had turned serious.
"Dont worry, my bard. Only if they ask for it," Xena grinned back.
The sharpness in Gabrielles voice caught her attention.
"No, please Xena, Im serious. Promise me you wont get into any fights."
"Gabrielle, I promise Ill try." Xena replied. Her smile gone, she took a last look at the bard before heading out the door.
Reaching the eerie gray stillness of the practice field without seeing anyone, it felt like she was the only one alive in this damp world of ghostly trees and shifting mists. She took a moment to just stand and stare into the gray bank of nothingness surrounding the field, relishing that sense of aloneness; of self-reliance; of knowing that the only one she'd to count on here was herself. She missed that feeling of control.
Taking a deep breath, she shook herself a little as she tuned back to the here and now; feeling, rather than hearing, the clips of her swords sheath click into place as she arranged it across the armor on her back. Doing a couple of squats, she tried to loosen the effects of her enforced inaction of the past few days. The damp chill of the morning air made her joints ache a bit; not surprising after all the years of hard use shed put them to.
Taking a few minutes to go through a series of warm-up exercises, the warrior was glad she'd the practice field to herself. She hoped it would be a while before the women of the village began to stir.
Drawing her sword and taking a deep, calming breath, she began a series of ever-increasingly-complicated drills, which let her assess what effects her recent injuries had had on her fighting abilities. She knew she needed to start working on a plan to bring her skills back up to full capacity as quickly as possibly. She was glad when the twinges from her shoulder lessened as the session wore on. And, while she still didnt have full movement, a week or so of drills and exercises would get her back up with the best.
Next, she turned her attention to her injured leg and back.
From a standing start, she executed a series of leaps and backflips, exhilarating now at the sound of the rushing air in her ears and the feel of her mist drenched hair as it swung in an arc before ending as a cold slap on her back. Pausing to catch her breath, she decided that a couple of candlemarks of running a day combined with some aerial drills wouldnt hurt either.
After Xena had left, Gabrielle lay in bed for a while, listing to the fog-muffled sounds of Amazon life around her. Unable to go back to sleep, she eventually decided she was too hungry to wait for Xena to return, so she decided to go in search of breakfast.
Getting dressed and heading over to the cook hut, she entered and spotted Solari sitting at one of the tables, already eating. Exchanging greetings with a few of the women as she crossed the wooden floor, she made her way over to Solaris table.
"Mind if I join you?" Gabrielle smiled at the surprised Amazon.
"Um...no... Pull up a chair."
An awkward silence stretched between them as Gabrielle sat down and reached across to grab a couple of pieces of bread and cheese. Solari had taken the opportunity to turn back and concentrate on her cereal.
Tearing off a piece of bread and popping it into her mouth, Gabrielle watched Solari push the cooked grain around in her bowl for a while before clearing her throat to speak.
"Solari, about the council meeting..."
The Amazons head shot up, her eyes filled with wariness.
"I want to thank you. I know that couldnt have been easy for you."
The dark-haired Amazon was surprised. Shed expected her Queen would be angry with her for trying to have Xena put to death. "Gabrielle, I dont think you understand..."
"I do understand, Solari. Somebody had to represent the voice of the council. Im glad it was you."
Solari stopped moving her spoon and looked directly into green eyes. "Gabrielle. You dont understand. I volunteered for that. I wanted Xena to die for what she did to you; and to Ephiny; and to the others." Solari paused for a moment. "I have to be honest. Im still not convinced letting Xena go was the right thing to do."
Gabrielle tried to control her growing anger, knowing Solari was no different from many of the women in the village.
"Why, Solari? Why do you think Xena should die for what she did?"
Solari took a moment to lay down her spoon as brown eyes met green. "Because if she did it once, she can do it again, Gabrielle. Ive fought in many battles, gone up against some of the worst. But what I saw in Xenas face that day scared me more than anything else Ive ever seen. There was no humanity there, Gabrielle. What I saw was a creature of pure rage. Whats to stop that from happening again."
The bard thought for a minute before returning the Amazons stare. "Solari, I dont know what to say to you. No one can guarantee anothers actions. I would hope it would be enough for you to know that I stay with Xena willingly; with my eyes open; knowing exactly what she is and what shes capable of."
Solaris face took on a look of mild contempt. "Do you, Gabrielle? Do you really know what shes capable of? Her kind..."
Gabrielle held up her hand, her green eyes darkening, a hard edge slipping into her voice. "Dont. Dont talk to me about her kind, Solari. I know her kind. Ive seen Xena lead an army into a defenseless village and order them all slaughtered. Ive seen her ax a retreating soldier in the back and smile." Gabrielles eyes reflected the remembered horror of those images.
Solaris voice hissed in an angry whisper. "Exactly! So how can you stay with her? How can you, of all people, a woman whos based her life around peace and reconciliation, defend Xena?!?"
Gabrielles voice gentled. "Because Ive also seen her save hundreds of lives at a time. Ive seen her, bloody and bruised, risk her life for total strangers, day after day for no other reason than they needed her help. Solari, I cant guarantee Xena wont give into the dark side again. Nobody can; most of all her. But I do know, that living with her is worth the possibility of that happening again."
Solari turned back to her bowl and the two women remained silent; each lost in her own thoughts, until interrupted by the arrival of Ephiny.
Breaking into the awkward silence, the Regent sat down beside Solari and reached over for an apple from the platter in the center of the table. "Mind if I join you guys?"
Solari grabbed her bowl as she rose, calling over her shoulder as she headed for the exit. "Im just finishing up Eph., but Im sure Gabrielle would like the company."
Ephiny didnt try to hide her frown as she turned away from her lieutenants back and regarded Gabrielle across the table from her. "Did I interrupt something?"
Gabrielles gaze remained fixed on the doorway for a moment before she sighed and looked across the table to the gray eyes staring at her. "No, Eph. We were just talking about Xena. And why Solaris still worried about me."
Knowing how the Amazon felt about Xena, Ephiny could imagine how the conversation had gone. Letting her voice drop, she leaned across the table and gave her friend an encouraging smile. "Gabrielle, its going to take some time."
Returning the Regents smile with a grim one of her own, Gabrielle let her eyes drift to the doorway of the hut again. "I know, Eph. I just hope weve got it."
Deciding to change the subject, Ephiny took a bite of her apple and observed her friend. "You ready to join us for todays session?"
Gabrielles head swung around and she watched the Amazon wipe away a few drops of juice. "Actually Eph., I was waiting for Xena. I was hoping to have breakfast with her this morning." Looking at the door, she let out a sigh. "Were getting started awfully early today, arent we?"
Ephiny smiled with an apologetic shrug. "If we can get this wrapped up by lunch, we can get the messengers off today, then you and I can meet with King Doraclyse by the end of the week for the official treaty signing." Reaching over, she tore off a piece of bread and stuffed it into her mouth. "Where is Xena, anyway?"
Gabrielle grabbed another piece of the bread as well, but took a moment to combine it with a mouthful of cheese. "Shes off doing drills. Ill let her know Ill be tied up this morning. Im sure shed love the excuse to take Argo out for another run or something."
Throughout the exercises, Xena had been aware she'd started to attract a crowd.
The Amazons stood around the practice field now in groups of two and three. Watching in silence, their eyes reflected grudging respect as the warrior put herself through her paces. Even recovering from injuries, they could see this woman was better than most of their best.
Having realized early in her career the value of advertising, Xena decided to finish with a sequence that she knew was for pure show. With a bloodcurdling "Aiyiyiyiyiyiyi," she began a series of spectacular moves that left her audience stunned. Finishing up with a flip that had her flying through the air in a twisting blur of sliver and black, she grinned to herself as she caught the reactions on their faces, when her boots finally connected again with the ground.
She was tired and a bit sore but still felt the rush of the adrenaline pumping through her body as she worked to calm her breathing, reaching back to sheath her sword as she walked off the practice field.
With an imperceptible stiffening in her back as she noticed a small group of Amazons moving to intercept her, she kept her eyes focused on the path that led off the field. Recognizing her late night visitors, Xena monitored their approach with her senses until Falines voice dripped with sarcasm from a few paces behind her.
"Very impressive, Xena. I wonder how youd do against a real opponent. Or do you only like to hit women who wont fight back?"
A quiet gasp from several in the crowd whod overheard the comment. Xena gritted her teeth and kept walking.
Angered by the warriors lack of response, Faline focused her whole attention on Xena. "Whats the matter? Scared 'cause you dont have Queen Gabrielles skirts to hide behind?"
Despite the situation, Xena shook her head and smiled at that image.
Faline tensed, forgetting who she was addressing, and just focused her rage on the woman walking away from her. "What are you running from, Xena? Truth hurt? Bullies like you never do like a fair fight, do you?"
Xena concentrated on keeping her movements unhurried and her expression neutral, as she ignored the large group following the exchange.
Faline finally snapped. "You wont get away with it, bitch. I dont know what kind of a hold you have on our Queen, but Im not afraid of you."
Instantly picking up the change in tone, Xena stopped and tensed as she heard the whisper of steel drawn against leather. The warrior in her took over as her eyes turned cold and she slowly turned and faced the angry young woman now holding the sword pointed at her chest.
Xenas voice was a low growl. "Look, I dont know what your problem is, and I really dont care. But Im not going to fight you, so just back off and stay the Tartarus away from me."
She turned and began walking again without a backward glance. She wasnt expecting the strangled howl of rage but she was prepared for it and had no problem side-stepping the blade as Faline lunged past her. Xena snagged a foot on the way past and sent the girl sprawling on her sword in the dirt.
Now the warrior shifted her attention to the downed Amazons three friends, who had drawn their swords and were beginning to circle, trying to find their opportunity.
With a feral smile. Xena reached behind and unsheathed her sword.
"Want to play, ladies?" It was a question filled with deadly promise.
She could tell from the way their blades started to dip that their hearts werent really in this. Moving her sword to the ready position, Xena ignored the hoots and calls of the crowd surrounding them now and just concentrated on the girls facing her. She wanted this to end without anyone getting hurt, but at the same time, she was also fast losing patience with these Amazons.
Jess decided to try her luck first and moved in with a right slash to Xenas upper body. With one flick of her wrist, Xena hooked the point of her sword near the base of the Amazons and sent it flying over her head, to land in the dirt a few meters away.
Philana and Amara both came at her now, but she had little trouble deflecting their thrusts. They were soon joined by Jess, who had regained her sword. Her earlier exertions caught up with her and Xena started to breathe heavily as she fended off the three girls. Each stayed just far enough away to be able to make a few swings before stepping back out of the reach of the warriors blade.
Growing frustrated with the situation, Xena gathered herself; through the sheer force of one mighty swing, pivoted, and managed to knock the blades flying from the numbed fingers of three very surprised Amazons.
But, not as surprised as Xena was when, as she stopped and straightened, she felt a sword slice through her right side from the back. She looked down to see the crimson covered point emerging from her dark leathers; and she reacted instinctively.
As the triumphantly smiling Faline withdrew her blade, she never saw Xenas roundhouse kick coming. She heard the "Aiyiyiyiyiyiyi" about the same time as Xenas boot connected with her stomach and sent her sailing to the side, landing with a thud in the dirt.
The other three Amazons dropped their newly-regained swords and tried to pile on her, but Xena had had enough. She picked up each girl, in turn, by the leathers; and threw her over the heads of the surrounding crowd, to land a short distance away on the ground.
Worn out and breathing heavily now, she bent over and placed her hands on her thighs, trying to get her breath back while ignoring the pain in her side. It took a moment before she became aware of Gabrielles angry voice.
Gabrielle and Ephiny, having finished breakfast, headed off to the practice field to find Xena. As they neared, they heard the excited shouts of the women and Xenas battle cry. They exchanged a worried glance before breaking into a run, rounding the last hut in time to see Xena hurling Amazons in what seemed like all directions.
"Of all the..." Gabrielle just stood and stared. She was furious. Xena had promised to behave and at the first opportunity, she starts tossing Amazons. And after all the efforts shed put into improving her friends image in the past few days.
Storming over to the bent-over Xena, she didnt wait for the winded woman to look up. "Xena! What do you think youre doing?!? I cant leave you alone for a minute!"
Tired, hurting and angry, the last thing Xena wanted to do at this point was fight with Gabrielle.
Slowly straightening, the warrior growled as flashing blue eyes locked with the bards. "Gabrielle, I didnt start this. But when somebody comes at me with a sword, I damn well finish it."
Gabrielle looked around at the girls slowly picking themselves up, surprised by how young they were.
She let a note of sarcasm slip into her voice. "Xena, do you mean to tell me you couldnt be the adult here and just walk away?"
Ignoring the snickering now coming from some members of the crowd, Xena closed her eyes and tried to maintain her cool. Deliberately calming her voice, she tried once more to explain to Gabrielle what she'd walked in on.
"Gabrielle, this isnt a game. I tried to walk away but they..."
Gabrielle had had enough. "Xena, I dont want to hear it. Go to my hut. Well discuss it later."
A voice as cold as the bitterest winters day froze the surrounding crowd. "Excuse me?"
Gabrielle ignored the storm warnings. "You heard me, Xena. Id appreciate it if youd return to my hut since its so impossible for you to get along with the others here."
All the expression drained from Xenas face as the warriors mask froze in place. She turned and, without a backward glance, strode off towards the Queens hut.
Gabrielle stood and watched the stiff back of the retreating woman until the warrior turned a corner. She then left Ephinys side to check on each of the girls, now slowly getting to their feet.
Solari soon joined the Regent, who had watched the interchange between Xena and Gabrielle along with the others. Glancing over at the taller woman standing by her shoulder, Ephiny raised an eyebrow, "Any idea what really happened here?"
The Amazon shrugged. "Nope. Got here about the same time you did." Solari looked apologetic.
Ephiny cocked her head to the side. "Wanna find out for me?"
"Sure, no problem." Her lieutenant grinned before moving off to mingle with the dispersing Amazons.
Ephiny was rejoined but a still angry Gabrielle.
"I dont believe this. According to those girls, Xena attacked them for no reason. They said she just seemed to go crazy."
Ephiny shook her head, frowning. "Gabrielle, that doesnt sound like Xena."
The bard glared at the woman beside her. "Then you tell me whats going on around here."
The Regent threw up her hands in frustration. "I dont know, Gabrielle, why dont you ask her? Give her a chance to explain."
Gabrielle didnt try to hide the exasperation in her voice. "Why? So she can come up with yet another excuse not to try to get along here. Ephiny, why is it so hard for her to make the effort?"
Ephiny thought for a moment before answering. She debated just how honest an answer she should give, but decided she owed her friend the full truth.
"Gabrielle, I dont think youre being fair to Xena. I dont know what just happened here, but I can make a pretty good guess. Look, there are many Amazons who still hate Xena." Holding up her hand to forestall the bards protests, she continued, "Like it or not, you have to face facts, Gabrielle. The majority of Amazons will come to accept her again, in time. But, there are many that hate her right now. Thats a fact. And, there are some that may even want her dead. Im sorry, but thats also fact. Incidents like what happened here today are going to keep happening as long as she stays here."
Gabrielle hadnt wanted to face this. She realized now shed known the truth for days but just hadnt wanted to admit it; to Xena, to Ephiny and most of all to herself.
A note of despair now crept into her voice. "Ephiny, what are we going to do?"
The Regent took a deep breath and let it out before replying. "I dont know Gabrielle. But, whatever it is, it will have to be later. We have talks to get to now."
Gabrielle couldnt take her eyes off the route her partner had taken when shed walked off the field. "Eph., I should go talk to Xena. Shes really mad."
Ephiny took the bards arm and began to steer her in the direction of her hut. "Im afraid thatll have to wait 'til later. Youve responsibilities to attend to. Nara and General Andrus are expecting both of us."
Reflecting back on the look on Xenas face, Gabrielle decided not to argue with the Regent. The bard's lips quirked into a wry grin as she shook her head. "Yeah, maybe I should give her time to cool down."
A smile broke out on Ephinys face. "Yeah, maybe youd better. You know her better than anyone, but Ive never seen anyone order her around like that and live."
Gabrielle was a bit surprised. "What do you mean? I didnt order Xena to do anything."
Ephinys face quickly lost its smile when she realized that Gabrielle hadnt been aware of her words. "Gabrielle, you ordered Xena to wait for you in your hut."
Stunned, Gabrielle thought back to what she'd said to Xena during their fight. With a sinking feeling, she realized what she'd just done. As the two women made their way to join Princess Cynara and the General, Gabrielle debated just bolting for her hut but Ephiny, as if sensing the bards thoughts, tightened her grip on Gabrielle's arm.
Entering the Queens hut, Xena stood for a moment, fuming.
She didnt need this crap. What the Hades was she sticking around here for, anyway? Well, thats it. Shes outta here.
She started gathering her things and stuffing them into her bags.
It was only when she felt a tickle on her leg and noticed the blood emerging from beneath her leathers and marking several jagged paths down her right thigh that she remembered Falines sword cutting into her. Swearing as she undid the laces to her leathers and peeling them away along with her shift, she started a new set of oaths as she twisted and probed at the two deep slices just below the almost healed scar of the Amazon crossbolt. The sword point had gone clear through, opening up a finger-length gash on either side of her waist.
Turning, she held her hand to her side as she stomped over to get the healers kit that had been so recently re-packed in their bags. Returning to the bed, she flung it down with some force. Pulling out several scraps of linen, she tucked them under her now bloody hand and pressed them against her side to staunch the flow. With her free hand, she managed to locate her needle and stitching gut and did a pretty good one-handed sewing job, even if she did say so herself. It was awkward, especially the gash on her back, but she managed. After applying a liberal coating of a healing herb to the wounds, her last task was to wrap a piece of linen tightly around her waist to hold the bandages in place.
Changing to a clean shift and putting her leathers and armor back on, she finished throwing her stuff in her bags. Her anger now cooled, she sat down on the edge of the cot to decide what her next move would be. She couldnt stay in the Amazon village any longer: she knew that. It was only a matter of time before someone got hurt. She shook her head with a tight-lipped grin; someone beside herself that is. What she also knew, was that Gabrielle wouldnt be leaving with her right now. She knew her companion wouldnt feel right leaving with the treaty negotiations going on. The bards strong sense of obligation would keep her here.
Getting a quill and a piece of Gabrielles parchment from the bards writing kit, she thought a few minutes before scribbling a note to her friend. Smiling now, she placed the note on Gabrielles pillow and put the writing supplies away. With one last glance around the hut, she grabbed her bags and slung them over her shoulder as she left and headed towards the stable. Passing an open campfire, she paused to drop a small bundle into the orange flames. No point in worrying her friend needlessly.
As soon as Xena had disappeared around the corner, a shadow detached itself from the side of the hut beside the Queens, and after pausing outside the Queens door, quietly slipped inside. Moving swiftly around the inside, the intruder did a quick search and confirmed what she'd suspected; Xena had packed up and left with all of her things.
Noticing the note on Gabrielles bed, the intruder picked it up and frowned when she tried to read it. Turning it over several times, and even trying it upside down, she was puzzled until it dawned on her the note was in some sort of code. Glancing up quickly as she heard voices pass by outside, she folded it several times before tucking it inside her bracer for later study.
Not wanting to risk being found in the Queens hut, she slipped over to the door and listened for a moment before opening it and easing herself out.
Solari joined Ephiny during a break in the morning session.
Pulling the Regent aside, the stocky warrior made sure that they wouldnt be overheard. "Xenas gone."
Ephinys eyebrows shot up. "What? What do you mean shes gone?"
Meeting her friends glare, the Amazon shrugged her shoulders. "She packed up and rode out of here on Argo shortly after leaving the practice field this morning."
Ephinys frown deepened. "Why wasnt I informed?"
Solari took a meaningful glance around the hut. "Youve been tied up in meetings all morning. This is the first chance weve had to talk."
A bit mollified, the Regent took a moment to think. "Right. Does anyone know?"
Solaris eyes instinctively sought out Gabrielle and watched the bard as she talked quietly with Princess Cynara. "Except for the border guards, Im the only one so far."
"Good. Lets keep it that way for a little while longer. I want to talk to Gabrielle."
Ephiny stood lost in thought for a few minutes before turning back to Solari.
"What did you find out about this morning?"
Solaris eyes met the Regents. "It seems it was a setup. According to witnesses, Faline and her little pals deliberately goaded Xena into that fight."
Ephiny frowned. "That doesnt make sense, Solari. I dont care how young and stupid they are, nobody in their right mind would want to take Xena on in a fair fight."
Solaris dark features took on a look of anger. "I dont think that was the plan, Ephiny. From what I can tell, Jess, Philana and Amara kept her busy while Faline ran her sword through her back."
The Regents eyes widened. "What! Solari, are you sure?"
"Not everybody I talked to saw it. But those who did said Faline seemed to hang back and wait 'til Xena had her hands full with her three friends. Then she snuck up behind her and ran her through."
Ephiny couldnt keep the skepticism out of her voice. "Solari, I know Xenas good, but even she couldnt have thrown those girls around like that if shed been that badly hurt."
Solari reached into her bracer and extracted a charred piece of cloth. Handing it to Ephiny, she shrugged. "I dont know. You tell me."
Turning it over in her hands, Ephiny decided the small piece of dark fabric looked like it had seen better days. "Whats this?"
"I saw Xena throw a bundle into one of the campfires after she left the Queens hut heading for the stables. I got curious so I went over and pulled this out of the ashes."
The small scrap looked like it was from a womans shift. Ephiny swore when she realized the brown stain almost covering it was dried blood.
"Oh Hades! Any idea where she might have gone?"
The Amazon just snorted. "Yeah, right, like shes gonna tell us anything."
"Lets just keep this to ourselves for right now, okay? Until I talk to Gabrielle."
Straightening, the two women began to walk towards the door of the hut. Solaris gaze followed Ephinys to where the bard was sitting with the Princess. "Do you want me to send out a couple of scouts and see if we can pick up Xenas trail?"
Ephiny shrugged as she turned her gaze back to the Amazon beside her. "She isnt going to be found if she doesnt want to be but I suspect if we dont look, Gabrielles going to want to know why. So..."
Solari was already pushing aside the curtain. "Ill take care of it."
The Regent turned back to the remaining occupants of the hut as she sighed and mumbled to no one in particular. "And Ill talk to Gabrielle"
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