A GOOD DAY TO DIE
Written by: Blade Mast and Candace Chellew
BladeMast@aol.com or email@example.com
Part 1 of 7
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo belong to Ren-Pic, Universal, and whomever else wishes to lay claim to them. We wrote and are presenting this fan fiction work without thought to profit of any kind.
Violence Warning: This story deals with episodes of sometimes graphic violence and the aftermath of that violence. Anyone who does not wish to read such tales should be advised to read no further.
Subtext Warning: It is the steadfast belief of the writers that the characters of Xena and Gabrielle share a deep and undying love for one another. While it is true and acknowledged that "an act does not constitute romantic love", it doesn't hurt, either. Therefore, there will be scenes of physical love portrayed between the two main characters of this story, who just happen to share the same gender. If you are underage, are reading this in an area which outlaws this type of thing, or are uncomfortable in any way with such an interpretation of the characters, please continue no further.
Canon warning: This story begins at the end of the fourth season episode "A Good Day" and continues up to and past the crucifixion vision. The episodes in between are skipped, but some homage is played to many of them as well as other episodes within the canon of the episodic series.
Feedback: As always, is encouraged and welcomed. Any comments, concerns or questions should be directed either to BladeMast@aol.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A GOOD DAY TO DIE
Fate is a wheel
It will reveal
All you've become
All that you feel
What has to be
You'll pay the price
Nothing is free.
The battle was raging around her. She defended herself as best she could, felling attackers left and right. Her arms ached with the strain of war. She paused long enough to take in the sights, the smell, and the sensations of the fighting. In the distance, a compatriot fell. "No!" she screamed above the din of battle. Even from here she had the ability to save his life, and take out his attacker, but the words of the Fates rang in her ears. I can't spill a drop of blood in anger, she thought helplessly to herself.
Weapon in hand, she gritted her teeth and threw. At the last minute she turned her wrist, sending the javelin several feet from its intended mark. She turned her head slowly from where the weapon now lay to see the Roman soldier thrust his sword into Phlanagus. Gabrielle shouted in frustration as an arrow pierced the heart Roman soldier, too late to save Phlanagus' life. She rushed to his side. Pulling him from the ground she cradled him in her arms. He grabbed her hand and tried to speak. All that emerged were the gurgling sounds of death approaching. As Phlanagus died in her arms Gabrielle shook him violently and screamed her frustration. The anguish came from deep within Gabrielle. Her deal with the Fates and the new arrangement they had made in her and Xena's
life together had cost this man his life.
Gabrielle leaned on her staff, listening as the last strains of Xena's tribute faded into the cool, smoky air. 'Is this what my life has come to?' she pondered, too empty for the release of tears. 'Standing in front of yet another funeral pyre, listening as Xena sings more men to their rest?' She felt the tendrils of fire as their shadows seared over her face and slumping form, baking in her guilt, her remorse, her desire to do nothing save run as far away from this place of death as possible. "I can't do this anymore," she whispered into the smoke that caressed her face. "I just can't."
Looking up, she caught the slow, hesitant paces Xena took to be near her side. The warrior's expression said all that her voice could not. 'I don't deserve it, Xena,' she thought. 'I don't deserve your compassion. I don't deserve the kind words I know you'll speak to soothe me. I don't deserve any of it.' What came out of her mouth, however, was much different. "I could have saved him." She shook her head in self disgust. "How do I get over that?" Gods, she sounded selfish, even to her own ears. How could she want to get over such a thing? She had let a man, no, a friend die. And for what?
"I can't answer that question," Xena replied, her face a mask of tragedy and hope. "Maybe 'cause there's nothing I can say that can take away that feeling you have." The tears that Gabrielle could not shed came to her eyes then. Answering ones came to the warrior's. "You wanna know that what you did was for all the right reasons. But with that pain in your gut and that weight on your shoulders, the best you can come up with is that it was a good day of fighting." As Gabrielle shook her head in negation, Xena smiled slightly, her eyes full of love, and continued. "I've seen so many changes in you; things that I could never have expected. But as hard as the changes have been, you've gotta know that it's for a reason. All this is for a reason. Otherwise, what's the point? I was asking myself that same question when I first met you."
Wiping her eyes, Gabrielle looked at Xena for the first time, then across the flames to where Temeculah stood, keeping his own vigil over his flame-enshrouded kin. She came to a decision, spouting her words more by rote than by any deep belief in them. Anything to let Xena off the hook. Anything to allay the warrior's own guilt over the events which had transpired. Anything. She spoke the words she thought Xena wanted to hear. "I should talk to Temeculah. I should tell him that . . .that what he did was for the greater good and that there is a reason for it." Gabrielle's eyes met Xena's, begging her to believe the deception, just this once. The bard lowered her head, then raised it again, smiling sadly. "It was a good day of fighting."
Temeculah stared out over the flames, his mind falling in upon itself, devouring the child he was just that morning, regurgitating in its place the blood-stained soul of the man this battle had made him. What had it been that Gabrielle had said to him just hours before? "Everything changes. Everything." She was right on that, if nothing else. It gave him little comfort, though. He watched with disinterested eyes as the small woman made her way around the flames to come to him, hoping to offer words of comfort, he guessed; useless platitudes that would have no bearing on the man he had become.
"Temeculah," Gabrielle said softly, hesitantly as she stopped more than an arm's length away, looking at him through saddened, wizened eyes.
"Don't," he said, holding his hand up, surprised that his voice wasn't somehow deeper. "There's nothing you could say to me that would make me feel any better so please," he lowered his arm, sighing, "save your breath."
"But I need to . . . ."
"This stopped being about what you needed back on the battlefield, Gabrielle." The young man didn't mean to sound so cold; but he needed to lash out at something, anything, to take away the bone-deep pain he was feeling.
"What do you mean?" Her voice barely carried over the sound of the flames.
The words were out before he could stop them. "You needed to kill that Roman butcher before he had the chance to murder Phlanagus." He turned to face her directly, taking a step forward so that there could be no distance, no deception between them. "What I need to know is . . .why didn't you?" He held a hesitant arm out, unsure whether he wanted to brush the new-falling tears from her cheeks or snap her neck. "Why did you let him die, Gabrielle?"
Xena watched, frozen, as Gabrielle bowed her head and covered her face. The sounds of her partner's heart-rending sobs carried clearly over the space which separated the two. The warrior took two long strides toward the pair, then stopped again. 'I can't help her with this.' The realization hit her, as it had before, like a blow to the gut. 'She has to get through this on her own. Oh, Gabrielle . . . .'
"I . . .couldn't . . . ."
This had come too far to stop now. "Couldn't what? Couldn't kill one man to save another? Couldn't save the life of a man who trusted you?"
"I couldn't kill!!!" The scream was shrill and mournful, the howling of a shattered soul.
Temeculah lowered his hand to latch onto Gabrielle's arm. "Why couldn't you kill? I could! I did!"
"But what you did was for the greater good!" She had to get those words out somehow; had to show this tortured young man that there was a reason for what he did.
"The greater good? What greater good? Phlanagus was already dead when I drew back my bow, Gabrielle. Don't you get it? He was already dead! I killed that man for revenge! I killed him because I had to! Phlanagus was like a father to me! And when he died, I . . .I don't know . . .I just had to do something!" He ran a shaking hand through his hair, heart tight with rage and pain. "And now it's over. I killed a man and Phlanagus is still dead." He turned searing eyes to Gabrielle. "So where's the 'greater good' in that, huh?" Releasing her arm, the young man turned sharply and strode from the pyres, dropping his bow as he left.
With a shattering cry, Gabrielle dropped to her knees, the weight of her actions on the battlefield crushing onto her shoulders, forcing her body onto the ground. Xena covered the distance quickly, likewise dropping to the ground and gathering the bard up in a fierce embrace. "Shhhh, Gabrielle," she whispered into the bard's fair hair, cradling the young woman's trembling body. "We'll get through this. We will. You'll . . . ."
"Don't . . .please, Xena. If you tell me I'll wake up tomorrow and have hope again, I think I'll scream." Gabrielle's choked voice was muffled against the warm skin of Xena's chest.
"I'm sorry," the warrior replied softly, stroking a still heaving back. "I just want to comfort you."
"Just hold me, Xena. I think all the words have already been said."
Dusk had finished painting shadows on the sky when Xena came to stand outside of the caves the villagers had made their temporary haven. Slowly, in singles, pairs and family units, the villagers shuffled past her and into the next phase of their lives. Many were going on to stay with friends and family in neighboring villages. Some would simply travel until they found a place to lay their meager belongings and call it home. There was no talk about rebuilding the village that had been reduced to scattered ashes. Too many horrifying memories poisoned the soil. It would lay, as desolate as Cirra; a testament to the true ambiguity of war.
Phlanagus' wife stopped before the Warrior Princess, a sad smile on her face, her son in tow.
"Where will you go?" Xena asked softly.
"I have a cousin who lives in a village not far from here. Though we haven't spoken in several years, I'm sure he will take me in. Especially now that Phlanagus . . . ." Trailing off, she raised a hand to wipe the tears from her soot-marked face. "They never got along well. Persius hates the Romans; could never understand why my husband would fight for them." Forcing a brave smile to her face, she met the warrior's eyes. "Thank you again, Xena." Seeing the protest about to spring forth, she held up a hand. "No. You were right. It was the only way." She looked down at her son, tossling his hair fondly. "I want my son . . .our son . . .to grow up free, not as a slave to Roman ideals. Caesar kept my husband away from me. You saw to it that he didn't do the same to my son. And for that, you'll always have my thanks." She placed her raised hand gently on Xena's wrist. "Be well, Xena. And take care of Gabrielle. She loves you very much but is too unsure to reach out. Help her through it. One day she'll realize that she did the right thing. My husband died a hero. Let her honor his memory instead of wallowing in the guilt of his death. He wouldn't want that." Looking up, she met the bard's grief-stricken eyes across the space that separated them. She raised her voice slightly. "And neither do I." With a last squeeze to Xena's bracered forearm, Phlanagus' wife took the hand of her child and walked, with the others, onward.
The last villager to leave the caverns was Temeculah, looking tired and drawn, his eyes dull, his face an emotionless mask that Xena knew all too well. Nodding solemnly to the warrior, the young man stepped past her, moving to where Gabrielle stood. "I . . .I'm sorry for what I said back there, Gabrielle. It's just that you were right about everything changing, and I didn't want you to be. I was angry. I still am. But I shouldn't have taken it out on you. I'm sorry."
"No, Temeculah. You had every right to say what you did. You spoke from your heart, and that's a very hard thing to do." Sighing to keep back fresh tears, Gabrielle tore her eyes from his, bowing her head and studying the sooty ground at her feet. "I'm sorry I let you down."
"You didn't let me down, Gabrielle," the young man answered with conviction, "You didn't let anybody down. Phlanagus forced command into your hands. Even I could tell you didn't want that. But you came through for everybody. You should be proud of what you did."
"I'll never be proud of that, Temeculah. I'll never be proud of allowing a friend to die when I could have done something to prevent it. . . ." Her voice trailed off as she stared at the ground.
After a long moment of silence, the young man turned a beseeching gaze at Xena, then sighed. "Goodbye, Gabrielle," he whispered before stepping around her and following the slow trail of villagers leaving the field of battle behind.
Xena stood still for a moment, her instincts warring with one another. Part of her wanted to run over to the bard, take her up in her arms and make everything alright again. Part of her wanted to keep her distance, knowing this was something Gabrielle had to work out on her own. She damned herself for these new feelings; damned them for keeping her feet so firmly rooted to the ground; damned, in part, Gabrielle for bringing them out in her.
Realizing that she could no more fail to give comfort to her partner than she could stop the sun from rising, Xena forced her legs to move, gathering speed until she almost ran to her friend's side. Forcing herself to remain calm, she stopped just outside of the grieving woman's personal space, saying nothing, yet offering the support of her very presence, should Gabrielle choose to take it.
Slowly, like a flower unfurling to the first spring light, Gabrielle straightened, closing the minute distance between them in one easy movement, wrapping her arms around Xena's leathered waist and laying her flushed cheek against the warm skin of the warrior's chest.
Wordlessly, Xena enfolded Gabrielle into her strong embrace, kissing her bowed head and stroking her tense back. Words died on her lips unuttered. Gabrielle needed her strength, so that's what she gave, without reservation or remorse. Finally, when the silence between them became too much to bear, Xena tightened her hold around the bard, then loosened it slightly. "Let's get outta here," she whispered into golden hair.
Gabrielle lifted her head and gave her partner a look of profound gratitude. Forcing a smile to her tear-stained face, the bard nodded, then took one last look around at the carnage this day had wrought. "Please," was all she said.
When a light scud of clouds started to overlay the full moon, Xena knew they had traveled as far as they could go this night. With a gentle nudge on the reins and a whispered, "Water, girl", the warrior made her way off the overgrown path and into the thicker woodlands, searching out a likely campsite for the night. Reaching down, she tightened her hold on the arms of the slumbering bard melded to her back as Argo carefully made her way through the dense undergrowth toward the sound and scent of water they both sensed.
Part of the warrior was loathe to end the travelling, since it meant waking Gabrielle, which in turn meant a return to the physical distance between them. Only when the young bard was sleeping did she let her guard down enough to be held for extended periods of time. Their physical relationship was non-existent, and had been since Gabrielle's return almost a month before. Figuring she knew the reasons, Xena didn't push her lover, and was content just to have the woman with her at all.
Relaxing into the warmth at her back, Xena turned these thoughts off before they could lead her down a path she was reticent to tread, especially in the darkness of night. Instead, she tuned her senses to the night sounds of the forest and the water which was steadily becoming closer.
With a soft nicker, as if cognizant of the slumbering charge on her back, Argo slowed to a halt before a small meandering stream. Stretching her long limbs slightly, Xena looked around in approval at the site her horse had selected, then took a long moment just to appreciate Gabrielle's presence behind her, the bard's soft breaths tickling the hair hanging over her shoulders. With a sad smile, the warrior loosened her companion's vice-like grip and gently tugged at the arms she held in her hands. "Gabrielle. C'mon, Gabrielle, wake up."
With a yawn and a tired mumble, Gabrielle burrowed further into Xena's warm back before coming awake enough to realize where she was. Stiffening slightly, she pulled away from the warrior, pulling her arms back to herself as Xena released them. "Um . . .where are we?"
"I managed to get about ten miles from the battle site. It's too dark to travel anymore tonight. We'll make camp here and start off again in the morning, alright?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle sighed, running and hand through her hair and slipping off of Argo's tall back.
Xena soon joined her, leading the still drowsy bard over to a fallen log and helping her to sit back against it. "Just relax here. I'll take care of Argo and set up camp. You hungry?"
The thought of food made Gabrielle's stomach churn and she swallowed against the bile rising in her throat. "No, not really."
The warrior smiled sadly and nodded, understanding. While she herself was hungry, having battled through entire legions to get to Gabrielle's side, the look on her friend's face made her stomach flip lazily in her body. "Alright then. I'll just go get some firewood." Leading Argo to the water, she removed the horse's tack before letting her drink her fill. Instructing the warhorse to guard her companion, Xena laid the tack on the soft grass at the bank of the river and stepped deeper into the woods for suitable wood.
Gabrielle gathered their gear from Argo's saddle and went about setting up camp. Her movements were by rote. Years of traveling with Xena had made this a rather mundane chore.
She unfurled the bedrolls and without a thought laid them out side by side. Suddenly she stopped. 'Oh, Gabrielle, you're setting yourself up for it tonight. You'd better put your stuff on the other side of the fire. Xena might get the idea that something's going to happen.' She shook her bedroll out and moved to the other side of the fire. 'Wait,' she reasoned to herself. 'If I keep separating our bedrolls Xena will get suspicious. When she starts asking questions then I'm dead, literally. She'll force the story out of me and then I'm dead. I'll just have to find another way.'
Gabrielle sighed in frustration. She crossed to Xena's bedroll, laid hers beside it, and plopped down on a piece of deadwood. 'Damn those Fates and their stupid deals,' she thought angrily. 'How did this get to be such a mess?'
The only thing that Gabrielle remembered about the fall into the lava pit with Hope was the name on her lips. "Xena!" she yelled in terror as she felt the heat of the lava on her back. The next thing she knew she was standing, fully intact, before the Fates.
Atropos, the Fate who cuts the thread of life, spoke first. "It is not your time to die, Gabrielle."
"More of your thread remains," added Clotho, the spinner of the thread.
"Your destiny has not been fulfilled," concluded Lachesis, the Fate who decides such matters.
"Then why am I here?" Gabrielle asked. "Why not just send me back?"
"Your debt to Ares changes things," Atropos said. "We cannot just put you back where you were."
"To erase the debt you must fulfill your destiny," Lachesis informed her.
"What is my destiny?" Gabrielle was getting annoyed with the obtuse ways of the Fates.
"One must live a life to find the purpose of the life," Atropos answered obliquely.
Can the Fates be killed? Gabrielle wondered in frustration. She gritted her teeth and spoke, "Then tell me what I must do to live."
"A deal must be made," Clotho chimed in.
"A deal," Gabrielle repeated. "What kind of deal?"
"We will restore to you your blood innocence," Clotho told her.
"But, you must not ever kill again," Lachesis added.
"Restore my blood innocence?" Gabrielle gasped.
"It's what you want, isn't it?" Atropos asked.
"Yes, " Gabrielle studied the floor, "it is."
"Then you have it," the Fates said in unison.
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. If she'd learned anything from Xena it's that gods never give gifts for free.
"What's the catch?" she asked firmly.
The Fates exchanged looks and Atropos spoke for them. "Dahak has released an evil into the world that only you can stop."
"How am I supposed to defeat evil without killing anyone?" Gabrielle nearly screamed at the Fates.
"Defeating evil is your destiny," was the cryptic answer.
"Fine," she sighed. "Is there anything else?"
"You cannot tell Xena of our deal," Clotho instructed.
"Also, you can't tell Xena that you love her, or make love to her."
Gabrielle's head spun. "Do you know what you're asking of me?"
"Yes," the Fates answered together.
"Then you know I can't possibly live with, and in effect, without, Xena," Gabrielle tried to reason with the Fates.
"You must learn how."
"I won't," Gabrielle insisted. "I can't. If that's the deal, I can't make it. I'd rather die than not be able to be with Xena completely."
"You must know the consequences of refusing the deal," Atropos spoke slowly as if explaining to a child.
"What consequences?" Gabrielle demanded. "What could be worse than my death?"
"Xena's death," Atropos cocked her head and caressed her shears.
Gabrielle found herself standing in a forest. She could hear the sounds of a fight raging.
"Xena!" she yelled.
She caught a flash of movement above her and could see Xena engaged in a mid-air battle with another woman.
"What's going on?" she asked the Fates as they stood behind her. "Who is that woman?"
"Her name is Alti," explained Lachesis. "She is a shamaness from Xena's past. She can kill people by making them live the pain of their future death in the present. Watch, she's showing Xena how she will die."
Gabrielle surveyed the suddenly snowy field before her. On the hill stood a row of crosses with tortured bodies in various stages of suffering and death. She looked down to see the face of her lover only inches from her boots.
"Xena," she let out a gasp and dropped to her knees.
She tried desperately to touch the vision before her, to comfort her battered and dying lover.
She could see Xena's mouth moving and leaned in closer to hear her.
"Gabrielle," Xena could only manage a whisper. "Where are you, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle choked on a sob, and covered her mouth with her hand. "Oh, Xena."
Gabrielle heard Xena's scream as Alti overpowered her, sending her flying toward a tree. She stood and looked up just in time to see the limb run through Xena's chest, impaling her to the tree.
"No!" she screamed. "It can't end this way!"
"It will, if you refuse our deal," Atropos spoke into her ear.
Gabrielle turned around to find herself back in the Fates' domain. She turned back to try to catch one more glimpse of Xena only to find a cold stone wall.
She fought an emotional battle of anger and frustration. 'Damn all gods to Tartarus,' she thought bitterly.
"How can you just play with our lives like this!" Gabrielle lashed out angrily at the Fates.
"Anger is the key to keeping your life, Gabrielle," Lachesis stated simply.
"If you spill one drop of blood in anger, or break any of these rules, Gabrielle, you will die," Atropos slowly closed her shears to make her point clear.
Gabrielle's ruminations were abruptly cut short by a familiar hand on her shoulder. She jerked slightly at the touch.
"Sorry," Xena apologized softly. "I didn't mean to startle you."
Xena climbed onto the log behind Gabrielle and wrapped her arms around her waist. She nuzzled the bard's neck. "I've missed you, terribly," the warrior's words were muffled by blond hair.
Gabrielle instinctively pressed herself into Xena's chest, feeling the warm flesh on her back. Xena had removed her armor and Gabrielle could feel her lover's breasts through the thin shift she wore. A tremble of desire shot through Gabrielle. She gasped as she felt warm lips on her shoulder. Xena kissed a light trail from her neck to her shoulder. The first few kisses involved only lips, but Xena used her tongue and teeth as she made her way down the bard's shoulder.
Gabrielle began to relax into the warm, familiar embrace. She felt the tension of the day begin to melt away when she suddenly tensed, remembering the Fates and their warnings. She sat bolt upright and quickly freed herself from Xena's embrace. She nervously paced in front of the fire.
"Gabrielle, what's wrong?" Xena implored, reaching out for her.
Gabrielle eluded Xena's grasp and went to pace on the other side of the fire.
"Xena, I just can't," was all she could manage to say.
"Gabrielle, we haven't had time alone together since I got you back," Xena was almost pleading. "I need to be with you, to feel you, to love you."
Gabrielle stopped pacing and stared at the fire. "I need that, too," she said softly.
"Then there's no problem here," the warrior said logically.
Gabrielle let out a long sigh. "Xena, I can't," she repeated.
"Why not?" Xena was across the campfire in a flash. She put her arms around Gabrielle, only to have the bard squirm out of the embrace.
"Please, Xena," Gabrielle kept her back to the warrior, hoping she could keep control of her mounting desire. "This whole situation has been too stressful. I just can't be with you in that way right now." 'This is too hard,' she thought to herself in frustration. 'The Fates have asked too much of me. How can I stay with Xena and deny her the love we've shared before?'
Xena gently laid her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and slowly turned her around. It took all of Gabrielle's strength to look into her lover's eyes. Expecting to see hurt and frustration she only saw deep concern and love in those blue eyes.
"I understand, Gabrielle," Xena said softly. "You've been through a lot lately. I'm sorry if I'm rushing you. We'll wait until you're ready."
Tears of gratitude, mixed with frustration, came to Gabrielle's eyes. She wrapped her arms around Xena and sobbed softly into her warm chest.
The warrior held her close and planted firm kisses in her hair.
"I'm sorry, Xena, " Gabrielle laughed softly, "I think I've sprung a leak. I don't think I've cried this much since my pony Timpani died."
Xena pulled away from Gabrielle and looked deeply into her eyes. "Don't ever be ashamed to cry, Gabrielle. It's not a sign of weakness. It means you know deeply the joy of life. Only those who know that joy can cry when it's suddenly taken away."
The eloquence of the warrior's words hit Gabrielle deeply since the joy of Xena as her lover had so recently and so cruelly been taken from her. She bit her lip and nodded.
"I love you, Gabrielle," Xena smiled.
"Oh, Xena," fresh tears found their way to Gabrielle's cheeks. "Will you please just hold me tonight?"
"Yes," the warrior whispered.
The pair stretched out on the bedroll with Xena cradling Gabrielle's head on her chest. Gabrielle quietly cried herself to sleep as Xena stroked her hair.
"Xena?" the bard shook her partner slightly, "Are you awake?"
"I am now," was the slightly irritated reply.
"I'm sorry about earlier," Gabrielle said, "about turning you down. I've changed my mind."
Gabrielle shifted and laid herself on top of Xena. "I want you, now." Gabrielle claimed the warrior's lips before any protest could be uttered. She kissed Xena passionately, tenderly and deeply, all at once. She packed every ounce of love she had ever felt for the warrior into one single embrace of lips.
She heard a growl come from deep within Xena and she knew she had pressed all the right buttons.
Xena smoothly flipped Gabrielle onto her back and made short work getting off her top. Like a prisoner seeing sunlight for the first time in years, Xena paused to take in the wonderful sight of her bard. Lightly caressing each nipple with her fingers she looked deeply into Gabrielle's eyes.
"I have missed you so," Xena whispered.
"By the gods, Xena, I've missed you, too," Gabrielle gasped as the sensations of the warrior's hands on her breasts took her breath away. "Make love to me," Gabrielle pleaded.
Xena smiled as she took a breast into her mouth.
Gabrielle ran her hands through Xena's hair, taking in the texture and softness of the warrior. The air was filled with the smell of leather, the dying campfire and her own mounting desire. Gabrielle felt Xena shift lower, kissing a trail from between her breasts to the top of her skirt.
Xena looked up and said, "I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I wanted to take this slowly, but I can't wait anymore."
"Please, Xena," was all Gabrielle could manage.
Instead of removing Gabrielle's skirt she roughly pushed it up. She quickly removed Gabrielle's underwear. The warrior paused long enough to look at the delectable feast before her.
Gabrielle moaned as Xena softly kissed the blond curls. It was only moments before Xena raised Gabrielle's knees and claimed the lips with her own. Gabrielle thrust her hips to meet the warrior's rhythm. Gabrielle could feel her lover's tongue demand entry and finally hit its mark. The bard felt her release coming. As she began to climax a different sensation washed over her. Instead of quickening with the anticipation of orgasm her heart began to slow down. Instead of the warm tongue of her lover she felt an icy hand of death at her core. The grip tightened, slowly draining the life from Gabrielle's body. "Xena!" she screamed.
Gabrielle shot up from the bedroll with an anguished cry of, "NO!" upon her lips. She hugged her knees to her chest and rocked back and forth repeating, "No, no, no ... "
Xena's arms were around her in an instant. "Shhh, Gabrielle." Xena stroked her sweat-soaked hair. "It was just a dream," she whispered, "just a bad dream."
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle tried desperately to catch her breath, "I don't know how much more of this I can take."
"What was the dream about?" Xena asked with concern.
"Life and death," Gabrielle shook her head. Now she was beginning to talk like the Fates.
"Yeah, that's a nightmare all right," Xena said with a crooked smile.
Despite herself Gabrielle had to laugh.
"Want to lie back down and try sleeping again?" Xena asked.
"I think I'm done sleeping for tonight," the bard answered wearily. "Can we just lie here together."
"I'm all for that," Xena responded with a sly smile. Xena cradled her lover to her chest and lowered them both to the bedroll.
The spent several minutes in silence just relishing being together. Xena made lazy circles with her fingertips on the bard's upper arm, enjoying the softness of the woman she loved. "Hey, Gabrielle."
There was no answer.
Xena craned her neck to see the bard's face. Gabrielle's eyes were closed, and her breathing was calm and steady.
"Done sleeping," Xena chuckled. "That'll be the day."
Sunlight lanced through the trees, dappling the slightly overgrown path on which Xena and Gabrielle trod. From atop Argo, the warrior watched as her lover strode down the trail, her boots kicking up small clouds of dust and pollen with each step, her staff biting into the ground in a steady counterpoint to her gait. To the warrior's keen eyes, the bard seemed edgy, as if her skin didn't fit her anymore.
Not more than a handful of words had passed between the two women since the day had dawned, though Xena bit back a smile, remembering waking with Gabrielle's warm body twined around hers. To keep her companion from becoming uncomfortable with the intimate positioning, the warrior had disentangled herself neatly and went about the tasks of breaking down the camp before waking the bard with a gentle touch to the shoulder.
The smile Gabrielle had shown her was radiant in its beauty, but gone all too quickly behind the emotionless mask the young woman had adopted from Xena as her own. With saddened eyes, the warrior watched as her lover efficiently and joylessly packed up her bedroll and stepped onto the path, never saying a word to her companion.
While still keeping an eye on the bard's steadily walking form, Xena allowed her mind to slip back to the night before. It was the first time she had made an advance to her lover since Gabrielle's return and wasn't too much surprised to have it rebuffed. In truth, making love had been the last thing on her mind when Xena reentered the camp with an armload of firewood, but Gabrielle's skin had been so soft and her scent so sweet . . . .
And the warrior knew more than she let on about the nightmare Gabrielle had had. She could smell the bard's arousal as easily as she could scent the water burbling nearby or the dense undergrowth of the forest. And with her lover's propensity for talking in her sleep, Xena knew well of whom she was dreaming. It made the warrior, in turns, hopeful and afraid. Hopeful that since physical pleasure had obviously returned to Gabrielle's dreams, it wouldn't be long before it would see the light of a conscious reality. Scared because perhaps in dreams would ever be the only place her beloved would be able to express those feelings. Those thoughts left Xena feeling confused and out of sorts.
Her musings were interrupted as she stiffened, sitting upright in Argo's saddle and cocking her head slightly.
Because the warrior had caught up to Gabrielle's steadily pacing form, the bard caught the unnatural tension and looked up at the tall figure, immediately guessing the reasons for the stiffness and angled head. "How many and how far?" Her voice held a faint hint of amusement.
Detecting the long-missed tone in her friend's voice, Xena shifted her gaze to the young bard, smiling slightly. "Seven," she said softly, "just around that bend." She raised her gaze back to the tree line, her smile broadening just the faintest bit. "Easy or hard?" Inwardly, she felt no small sense of satisfaction. A good fight would be just the thing she needed to get her mind off the all too maudlin paths it seemed to be following lately.
Gabrielle lifted her eyes to the sky, pretending to ponder the question for a moment. "Well, it's such a beautiful day, and those guys have probably been up for hours just waiting for some unsuspecting traveler to blunder into their ambush." Her grin broadened as she met Xena's eyes, though it had a bit of a manic edge to it that sent warning bells through the warrior's always hyper-alert instincts. "I guess it'd be kinda rude if we went and messed that surprise up for them."
"S'ppose so. Easy it is then." With a gentle nudge to the warhorse's sides, Xena set Argo in motion again, schooling her face into a mask of innocence.
Shooting a wicked grin at her friend's back, the bard tightened her grip on the staff, looking forward to pummeling some bad guys before breakfast. Some small part of her brain screamed out in protest, flashing scenes of yesterday's bloody battle behind her eyes, but Gabrielle squelched those thoughts savagely, not wanting to swim those dark waters again. She lengthened her stride to bring her back abreast of Xena again and together they stepped into the ambush awaiting them.
Xena's analytic mind took in the six well dressed bandits waiting for them at the bend of the overgrown path. She catalogued each strength and weakness, plotted out her strategy and saw the outcome without ever changing the innocent expression in her face and in her eyes. Opening her mouth to speak, she snapped her jaw shut as Gabrielle uncharacteristically took the lead, stepping forward with a sunny smile.
"Hello there, boys. My, aren't you a handsome bunch. What are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere? Are you lost?" Her green eyes sparkled with false compassion.
Taken aback by the seemingly friendly greeting, the six men looked at one another, confusion in their expressions. After a long moment, one of the men chose to take the initiative, stepping forward and brandishing his sword. "Naw. We ain't lost. But you're gonna wish you were unless you give us all your valuables."
Gabrielle cocked her head, her brows knit as if deep in thought. "Valuables? I don't think we have any of those." She looked over at the warrior still astride her horse. "Do we?"
Nonplused, Xena shrugged, her eyes darting between the bandits and her lover.
Nodding to herself as if Xena's reaction settled the matter, the bard turned back to the men. "Sorry we can't help you, boys. Now, if you'll just step aside and let us continue on our way, we won't bother you any further." She smiled warmly. "Maybe the next travelers on this road will have what you're looking for."
"Now wait just a minute," the leader protested, holding up a hand to halt the bard's determined progress. "You can't just . . . ."
"Can't just what? Do this?" With a quick move, Gabrielle brought the end of her staff against the leader's skull, dropping the man to the ground. A feral grin split her features as she eyes the rest of the now shuffling men. "Anybody else want a piece of me?"
The men looked at one another, dumbfounded, then turned beseeching gazes to the mounted warrior. Rolling her eyes, Xena vaulted from the saddle, landing behind the group and sending two of the men to their knees with doubled backfists. Spinning around, she aided another to his stomach with a sweeping round kick. She eyed the two still-standing men, hands on her hips.
Predictably, the first of the two unsheathed his sword and lunged at the warrior while the smaller man came hard at Gabrielle. Convinced her lover would have little problem with this sub-par band of thieves, Xena showed her teeth in a joyous grin, freeing her own sword from its encasement and twirling it around twice. The man's swordplay was pitiful, but Xena much wanted the workout, so she expertly maneuvered the bandit so that his back was to the action. She watched her companion as she toyed with her persuer. What she saw shocked the warrior, capturing her attention enough so that the clumsy bandit almost landed a blow. With a lightning-fast move, she disarmed the inept bungler and put him out of his misery with a pommel to the skull, then stepped forward to watch Gabrielle, her mouth slightly widened in shock. It was almost like looking in a mirror and that thought twisted hard in her guts.
Gabrielle grinned and whooped with laughter as she played with her prey. "Oh, so you liked that, huh?" she asked after slamming one end of her staff hard against his chest. "Well, buddy, there's plenty more where that came from." Three quick hits, all to the armored chest of the bandit, causing him to drop his sword and hug himself, gasping for breath. The bard backed off a pace, letting him catch his breath as she twirled the staff around her body, laughing. The thug's eyes rolled in his head as he tried to follow the weapon's blurred movements. "A little dizzy, huh?" Gabrielle asked in mock sympathy. "Good. Then maybe this won't hurt so much!" Angling her staff, the bard brought it up in a savage arc, grinning as it buried itself between the man's legs. As he screamed and clutched at his genitals, she finished him off with a wickedly hard crack across the jaw. As the bandit dropped bonelessly to the ground, Gabrielle brought the staff down once again, this time at his unprotected neck, stopping just a hairsbreadth away from crushing his windpipe. "Hah! That'll teach you to take someone for granted!"
"Gabrielle . . . ." Xena warned, having seen much more than enough.
The bard turned to face her companion. The look in her eyes stopped the warrior cold. There, amidst the manic joy of a battle won was a pleading look so strong, so heart-rending in its intensity that Xena felt her body grow cold and numb. "Gabrielle," she whispered again, locked into her lover's desperate gaze.
Just then, there was a sound from the trees and the seventh man stepped from his hiding spot, smiling.
"Velaris," Xena spat, tearing her eyes from the bard's. "I should have known. As bad as ever picking out the help, aren't you."
The handsome man grinned more fully, displaying a set of even, almost blindingly white teeth. His pale grey eyes raked over the body of the Warrior Princess as he licked his lips. "Xena," he purred. "It's been a long time."
"Not long enough," the warrior countered, narrowing her eyes dangerously.
"You are, of course, entitled to your opinion," he replied, sketching a bow. Looking around at his fallen comrades, he smiled again. "I'm sorry about this little . . .test of your abilities, Xena. I'd heard you'd gone soft." His eyes returned to her body, his grin deepened into a leer. "I'm glad those tales were false ones."
"What do you want, Velaris."
The man's hand went up to stroke his grey beard reflectively. "I find myself in a bit of a predicament, Xena. It seems that some of my . . .merchandise . . .has been stolen from me. And I need your help to get it back."
Xena closed the distance between them quickly, her hand clamped around his windpipe and drew him off his feet, holding him there effortlessly. "I don't make deals with slavers."
"Ah . . .Xena . . . ."he choked, trying ineffectually to pry the iron grip from his throat, "if you'll . . .just give me a . . .moment . . .I'll explain everything . . .ah . . .to you . . . ." His harsh voice rose in a plea.
"Xena," Gabrielle said softly, laying a gentle arm on the warrior's bracer.
After a long moment, Xena released her grip, slamming Velaris back down onto his feet. "Get outta here, Velaris. Before I don't feel like being nice anymore."
"Ah, Xena, wait! Please just hear me out. That's all I ask."
The warrior stepped back and crossed her arms over her armored chest, giving him her narrow-eyed look. "This had better be good."
"Ah . . .it is. I assure you. You see, a short time ago, I was able to procure a band of twenty . . .ah . . .Amazons and . . . ."
"Amazons?!?" Gabrielle thundered, her staff flying against his chest. "Did you say Amazons?"
Velaris stepped back quickly to avoid being pummeled by the bard. "Ah yes. Amazons. Young girls, mostly."
Xena stepped forward, snagging the furious bard by the back of her top and pulling her back. "Gabrielle, calm down." She put one strong hand on the bard's staff, immobilizing it. "You're about one second from having your head shorn from your shoulders, Velaris, so you'd better start making some sense."
"Uh, yes. Well, you see, I had these Amazons and was making my way to Crete with them to sell them at . . .ah . . .the market there." His eyes drifted nervously from Xena to the barely restrained young woman at the warrior's side. "My attentions were diverted for a short time and the women were stolen from me."
"And you honestly expect me to just go and round up those freed women, is that it?"
"No, ah, no. They weren't rescued. They were kidnapped."
"Kidnapped? By who?"
"There's been some talk among my fellow 'merchants' about a roving band of Norsemen who come into Greece and capture slaves, taking them back to work in their mines and such. I've even heard that they sacrifice those no longer able to work to their heathen gods." He shrugged. "Needless to say, this kind of thing is bad for business."
Xena sneered. "And you just want me to waltz up there and bring back your merchandise, is that it?"
"Ah . . .that would be it, yes. And, of course, fix it so that we no longer need to fear those heathen freaks."
The warrior hefted her sword. "Why you conniving, idiotic, mutated bastard . . . ."
"Xena, wait," Gabrielle commanded softly. "Just wait a minute, please." Tugging on the warrior's arm, she walked with Xena to another part of the clearing. "I know you don't want to do this," she whispered, "but those are Amazons he's talking about. Not to mention the other Greeks who've been kidnapped. Please, Xena, we have to do something."
"Gabrielle, there's no way in Tartarus that I'm gonna do that bastard's dirty work for him."
"Nobody says we have to bring them back when we find them, Xena." She leaned her head closer conspiratorially. "And between you, me and the trees here, I don't think he's gonna pose much of a threat once he realizes you've squelched on the deal."
"You really feel strongly on this, don't you."
"Yes, Xena, I do. There's something pulling me to do as he asks. Something beyond rescuing the Amazons and the other Greek slaves, that is."
Xena looked into the bard's eyes for a long moment before nodding. "Alright, we'll do it your way."
The bard's smile was one of love and happiness. "Thank you, Xena."
Velaris smiled to himself as he left the Warrior Princess and her friend. He had secured his deal, and had told Xena he would meet up with her in the north country to reclaim his possessions. 'That wasn't such a hard job,' he thought, looking forward to his reward. He was brought up short by a small band of Roman soldiers blocking his path. "Hello, boys," he bowed slightly, "What a surprise seeing you here."
Two soldiers jumped him and wrestled him neatly to the ground. "Hey!" he protested. "I was just on my way to see you, honest."
"Caesar has been expecting you long before now, Velaris," one soldier growled in his ear. "He's not pleased."
"But," Velaris sputtered, "I've kept my end of the bargain."
A pristine pair of boots came into Velaris' view as he lay struggling on the ground.
"Your end of bargain came too late to stop the decimation of my army."
"Caesar," Velaris muttered. "You really must tell me who makes your boots."
"You won't be needing new boots, Velaris," Caesar spat.
The soldiers brought Velaris to his knees before Caesar.
"But, I've done as you instructed," Velaris pleaded. "Xena and her harlot are headed north."
"You were supposed to get her out of the country before the battle!" Caesar roared.
Velaris cringed. He had to save the deal and his hide. "You've got to let me keep my end of the bargain and meet them there," he reasoned.
Caesar knelt down to look in Velaris' eyes. "I don't have to do anything," he spoke slowly to the trembling man.
He looked up at the guards holding the hapless slaver.
"Crucify him," he instructed coldly as he stood and walked away.
"Caesar, no! Have mercy!" Velaris cried.
"Mercy?" Caesar turned on his heel. "Fine."
Velaris slumped with relief.
"Cut off his head."
"What!" Velaris yelped.
"Never let it be said that I didn't have mercy," Caesar smirked as the guards drug a screaming Velaris to his fate.
Brutus approached Caesar and bowed his head, "Who shall we send to the north to complete Velaris' deal with Xena?"
"Mark my words, Brutus," Caesar drew himself to his full height, "if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself."
"That's outrageous!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "There's no way in Tartarus I'm giving you 3 dinars for that tattered old cloak."
Gabrielle was deep in the middle of a deal with a merchant and was warming to the battle.
"These are the finest furs in this part of Greece," the merchant smiled a toothless smile.
"I've seen better fur on a mangy dog," Gabrielle countered with a disgusted grin.
"Fine," the merchant huffed, removing the fur from the table, "you don't have to buy it then."
He turned his back on the bard. Her mouth dropped open, then closed. She'd never met a merchant who wouldn't haggle with her.
"Excuse me?" she shook her head, certain she hadn't heard him right.
"I said, you don't have to buy it," he said tidying his shop with his back still to her. "The price is three dinars, take it or leave it."
Gabrielle felt a tingle run the length of her spine. She emitted a low growl of frustration as the anger began to rise in her chest. She opened and closed her hand on her staff, trying to decide if it was worth ending her life to spill the blood of this worthless merchant.
A hand lightly touched her shoulder. Gabrielle spun on her heel, making a wide arc with her staff, only to have it suddenly stop short of its mark. Xena held the staff with a firm grasp, only inches from her nose.
"Gabrielle," Xena said through clenched teeth, "we really need to talk about your temper."
"My temper is fine, Xena," Gabrielle replied tightly, freeing her staff from Xena's iron grip. "It's my bargaining skills that could use some work."
"Having trouble getting the gear for our trip?"
"Yes," Gabrielle snipped, "it appears this gentleman is adverse to bargaining."
"Hmmm," was all Xena said as she surveyed the man's offering of furs and other goods.
"How much for that cloak?" Xena inquired, pointing to the one Gabrielle had earlier fruitlessly bargained for.
The merchant turned and took in the magnificence of the warrior. "Why for you, my warrior friend, two dinars."
"Sold," Xena replied.
"Two .. two dinars?" Gabrielle sputtered.
"Sounds like a fair price to me," Xena raised an eyebrow.
Gabrielle was seeing red. It was all she could do to keep from splitting the merchant's head open like a melon. She turned her back on Xena and the merchant as they continued to make a deal for the rest of the supplies for their trip. It took all of her strength to walk out of the market place. She found a bench on the outskirts of the market and sat down.
'Calm, Gabrielle, calm,' she repeated to herself as she concentrated on her breathing. What was it the Fates had told her? 'Anger is the key.' The key to what she pondered. 'Seems all I am is angry anymore.' She sighed to herself. 'And why shouldn't I be angry? Forced into a rotten deal with the Fates, forced to fight my own demon child and her spawn with that scum Ares, forced to give up my ability to tell or show Xena that I love her beyond measure. Right, nothing to be angry about here,' Gabrielle thought bitterly.
Gabrielle felt anger now more than she felt hunger. It seemed to be her overriding emotion. She had had many close calls with her anger over the past few weeks. Her anger had overtaken her on the battlefield and had cost Phlanagus his life. It reared its ugly head again when the slaver had mentioned selling Amazons into slavery. The anger had been so strong at that moment she was ready to strike Velaris down on the spot without a thought. If Xena hadn't been there to stop her, Gabrielle would be walking the Elysian Fields right about now. 'You've got to focus, Gabrielle,' she lectured herself silently. 'Your anger will get you killed.'
She thought about how Xena handled her anger. A couple of years ago, when Xena seemed forever doomed to walk the earth in Callisto's body, they had discussed Gabrielle's lack of focus for her anger. She clearly remembered the way her anger and hatred had so easily overtaken her, dulling her senses to everything around her. Her only concern was taking her anger out physically on anyone nearby, be they a merchant or Joxer. Xena had told her that those who had lived with anger longer had found ways to channel it, to use their anger constructively to remain focused.
Since anger was now the emotion that could kill her where stood she resolved from this point forward to channel the energy elsewhere, to feel anything but angry. She was slowly getting the hang of it. She had thoroughly enjoyed taking out every brigand she had faced this morning.
The feeling of her staff solidly connecting with flesh brought an exquisite feeling of what she could only describe as joy. But it was a bittersweet kind of joy. The anger had been replaced with a kind of horror at what she had become. She had spilled plenty of blood since her deal with the Fates, but none of it was spilled in anger, only in the beautiful oblivion of battlelust. She was winning the war with her anger, but at what price?
The familiar feeling of tears welling in her eyes made Gabrielle sigh deeply. She longed for a time when she felt nothing but the joy of life. She suddenly missed the innocence of the girl she had once been so long ago in Potedeia. What had she really expected when she left home to follow Xena? She laughed bitterly to herself thinking about the romantic notions she had about life on the road, fighting for the greater good. All she could hear now were the words of Temeculah, "what greater good?" She had to admit she was having trouble with that question. The Fates had told her of a destiny that lay before her, one that included defeating evil. After ridding the world of her child and grandson, she had hoped her destiny had been fulfilled. Watching Hope and the monster die, she felt a part of herself slip away. She had so hoped the Fates would cut her thread right then so she would not have to endure another moment of the evil that seemed to follow her and Xena at every turn. But she lived, and choices had to be made. She chose to stay with Xena, not out of a sense of duty, but because of her love for the woman she left home for. Even if she never made love to Xena or told her she loved her again, she had vowed to stay by her side until death. It was a promise Gabrielle intended to make good on.
"Gabrielle, are you listening to me?" she heard Xena's voice.
"Huh? Wha ..," Gabrielle jumped a bit and was shocked to find Xena sitting next to her on the bench .. a pile of newly purchased supplies at her feet.
"I said, I've finished our shopping," Xena repeated. She stopped and looked Gabrielle in the eye, "Are you all right?"
Gabrielle smiled weakly, "I'm fine, Xena. I guess I'm just tired."
Xena took a long, hard look at her companion and decided she didn't believe the excuse but would let it go for now. "Uh huh," was all she said.
Gabrielle could no longer take the intense stare of her lover and dropped her eyes to the ground.
"Show me what you bought," she tried to change the subject.
"Later," Xena answered, taking note of Gabrielle's unwillingness to talk. "Let's get a room at the inn and call it a night, huh?"
Grateful for the reprieve, Gabrielle could only nod.
Gabrielle wiggled her toes in front of the fire. She let her head fall back onto the backrest of the overstuffed chair she had drug in front of the fireplace. She sighed contentedly as the fire began to warm her cold toes.
"Here ya go," Xena said, handing her a warm mug of tea. "This oughta help you get some sleep."
Gabrielle smiled up at the warrior, "Thank you."
Xena took a seat on the hearth, facing Gabrielle. She watched the face of her lover in the warm glow of the fire. "You're beautiful, y'know."
Gabrielle blushed slightly. "Well, your opinion is a little biased," she teased Xena with a smile.
"Maybe," the warrior shrugged, "but it's still true."
Xena reached for Gabrielle's hand and lightly caressed it. She heard a slight sigh from the bard as she pressed her lips into Gabrielle's palm. She laid Gabrielle's hand on her face and rubbed her cheek into the soft palm.
Gabrielle took in the soft contours Xena's jaw and cheek. She lightly ran her thumb over Xena's lips, only to find her thumb securely locked in Xena's mouth. The warrior gently sucked Gabrielle's thumb, causing a jolt of desire to shoot through the bard's stomach. Gabrielle let out a soft moan. She so badly wanted to let herself go, to get swept away in the strong current of Xena's passion. The exquisite feeling of Xena's tongue on her thumb brought a flood of memories of the times they had made love. It was a feeling that completed Gabrielle -- that made her feel safe and secure. Ever since her return from the pit that was what she wanted more than anything, that feeling of security. She may have gained her blood innocence from the Fates, but it was her safety net that she had lost.
Xena's mouth was progressing up Gabrielle's arm. She gently, and not so gently, laid kisses on the inside of her arm during the journey.
Gabrielle came to her senses just as Xena nuzzled into her neck. She felt a direct jolt between her legs as Xena lightly nibbled the flesh at the nape of her neck. She could no longer resist. She grabbed Xena's head and pulled her up to her for a long, passionate kiss.
She momentarily abandoned her senses to the feeling of Xena's tongue exploring her mouth. Every nerve ending was on fire and her brain was screaming at her to stop. She wanted desperately to continue and lose herself in Xena, but she knew she couldn't. Breaking the kiss she gasped, "Xena, tell me about the northern gods."
Xena tried to move back to Gabrielle's neck. "What?" she said distractedly, desperate to quash any conversation and get down to business.
Gabrielle pushed the warrior away from her. "The Norse gods," she clarified. "Tell me about the gods of the place we're going to."
Xena rocked on her heels, and stared in quiet disbelief at the bard. "Gabrielle, can't we talk about this later?" she implored.
Gabrielle cleared her throat and kept her eyes to the fire. If she looked at Xena she knew she'd lose her resolve and then her life. "No, Xena," she spoke firmly. "I want you to tell me now."
Xena silently weighed her options. She wanted her lover desperately, and the thought of forcing herself on the bard had a certain appeal at the moment. It took all her energy to restrain herself. Gabrielle had not been this physical with her since she had returned, and Xena was hoping the sexual drought had finally ended. She wanted to know why the bard was keeping her at arm's length, but was certain she would get no answers if she pressed the question.
The change in Gabrielle since her return had been profound and subtle all at once. Gabrielle was obviously enjoying the thrill of battle, maybe a little too much. But it was abundantly clear that she still would go out of her way to avoid killing. Xena could also still sense the deep love and passion Gabrielle had for her, but the expression of it had dropped to zero. Gabrielle hadn't even told her that she loved her, even when prompted. Xena's brain turned over all the options. She decided she still didn't have enough information yet to take stab at what had gotten into Gabrielle. She decided to play it Gabrielle's way.
"All right," Xena sighed. She sat back down on the hearth, stretched out her legs and rested her back on the warm stones of the fireplace. "What do you want to know?"
Gabrielle had watched the warrior's internal battle from the corner of her eye. She knew Xena was on to her. It would only be a matter of time before Xena's frustration level would rise beyond even her famous control. She was grateful when Xena relaxed, the coming battle averted for now.
"Are their gods like ours?" Gabrielle began her questions.
"Not exactly," Xena answered. She crossed her legs and made herself comfortable against the fireplace. She knew she wouldn't have to move for awhile as she told Gabrielle what she knew of the far off land they'd soon visit.
"The main god they worship is called Odin, but he's not exactly like Zeus," Xena began her lesson. "He is a god of war and death, but also the god of poetry and wisdom. It's said that he is keenly interested in what mankind is doing. He has two ravens that sit on his shoulders, one is Thought and the other is Memory. He sends them out into the world and they report back to him about the events going on."
Gabrielle found herself leaning forward in the chair, taking in the new information. "Where do the Norse gods live?" Gabrielle interrupted Xena with a question.
"The Norse gods live in Asgard," Xena patiently went on. "There are many halls in Asgard, including Valhalla, where brave warriors are brought after they die."
'Of course she'd know that,' Gabrielle thought with a smirk. "What else?" Gabrielle prompted.
"Well," Xena paused. She hadn't thought of the Norse gods in years and knew there was a lot she was forgetting. "Odin has a wife named Frigg. She's goddess of the home. Then there's Thor, god of thunder, who protected humans and the other gods from the giants. Frey is a god of prosperity, his sister Freya, is a fertility goddess. There are lesser gods, but I can't remember them all. Oh, and evil is represented by a trickster named Loki. He's not a god, but the son of a giant."
"Do you know any stories from there?" Gabrielle was fascinated that Xena knew so much about these gods.
"Only their creation story," Xena searched her memory. "Odin, with the help of his two brothers, killed the giant Ymer. He then used his body as a ground for the new world. His blood became the sea. His skull became the sky. The bones in his skeleton became mountains, his brain the clouds and his tissues were grinded in the great mill 'Grottekvarnen', around whose main axis the universe turned, to become the dirt. The mill was driven by the giantesses Fenja and Menja. Ymer's eyebrows became a wall against the inhabitable surroundings. This new world was called Midgard."
"What a great story," Gabrielle was enthralled with this new information. "I can't wait to get there and find out more."
Xena sat up and stretched her long limbs. "Gabrielle, we're going there to rescue slaves. Amazon slaves, remember? We're not there to learn about the culture, we're there to do a job and get out as soon as possible."
Gabrielle watched with awe as her beautiful lover stretched, but found herself irritated by her words.
"Xena, I know that," her tone was exasperated.
Xena was equally frustrated. "Then act like it and don't fall for any romantic stories when we get there."
Anger gripped Gabrielle. She noted Xena's defensive stance and realized the warrior was expecting her to angrily lash out at her words. She fought back her anger and instead smiled up at Xena. "You don't have to worry about me, Xena. I'm smarter than that now. I think Dahak taught me that lesson."
She stood and stretched before her surprised lover. She gave Xena a gentle peck on the cheek. "Good night," she said simply as she headed for the bed.
Xena was befuddled. Her frustration at being rebuffed for a second time had come out in words of anger to Gabrielle, but the bard didn't fight back. Any other time those would have been fighting words, but not tonight. She watched as her lover prepared for bed. There was a lightness to her step, and she heard Gabrielle whistling happily as she pulled on a clean sleeping shift.
Xena shook her head and decided she'd stay alert and watch the bard just a little longer. Honestly, she didn't know just how much longer she could stand by without saying anything. "Odin, help us all," she muttered dryly.
Early the next morning, Xena stepped through the door to their room, dragging a hand through her wet hair to settle it. She smiled at the sight of Gabrielle sitting on the bed, rummaging through the bags of goods she had procured the day before.
Pulling a shapeless grey tunic out of the bag, Gabrielle turned towards the door, then stopped, staring at the warrior who stood smiling at her. I can't do this, the young bard thought, enraptured by Xena as she stood, clad only in her leathers, wet hair gleaming in the fractured sunlight. By all the gods, I can't do this. You have to, or you're dead, another voice reminded her and she forced her eyes away from the vision. She cleared her throat. "Xena, what is this . . .thing?" she asked, indicating the shift in her hands.
Xena smirked. "It's all the rage in slave-wear."
"'Slave-wear'? I don't understand."
The warrior completed her journey into the room, gently removing the tattered garment from her lover's hands. "Gabrielle, these people kidnap Greeks to use as slaves, right?" At the bard's nod, she continued. "With your coloring, you could fit in perfectly with the Nordic people. I, on the other hand, can't pretend to be anything other than what I am. A Greek. Hence the clothing."
"Oh no, Xena . . . ." the bard replied with some heat. "There's no way I'm gonna . . . ."
"Gabrielle, listen to me. This will work. I'll do what I need to do from the inside while you stay on the outside, ingratiating yourself with these people. When the time comes, I'll need you to set up some sort of a diversion."
The bard reined in her anger, reminding herself of the deadly consequences of expressing it. "How will this work?" she said finally, not trusting herself to say any more than that.
"Easy." Smiling crookedly, Xena replaced the shapeless shift into the bag and withdrew a rough-sewn gown made of thick, hearty material. Matching leggings and thick fur boots completed the ensemble. "You, my bard, are a Northern wife whose husband, unfortunately, passed on to his reward leaving you with no money nor possessions save for an incorrigible slave. You'll be bringing that slave to our friends, hoping to make enough money with her sale to feed yourself through the winter. These people are known for their tight-knit families. Your story should be enough to reel 'em in. They'll offer to house you for the winter in exchange for your slave and, of course, you'll happily accept."
"Xena, I don't think there's any way in the known world that those people are going to believe that I could keep you enslaved against your will."
"There's an herb that's used by slavers to keep their more violent captives subdued when needed. I've seen it's effects enough to be able to mimic it pretty accurately. The Norsemen won't have any trouble buying your story."
"There's only one small problem I see with your plan, Xena."
A raised eyebrow greeted her statement.
"From what you said last night, these Northern lands are huge. Somehow, I don't see us walking up to every tent in the land and asking if they've seen any spare Amazons lying around."
The warrior smirked again. "Got that covered. While you were busy sleeping off last night's 'feast', I made a few inquiries around town. They led me to an old 'friend' who's had dealings with these slavers. Seems he gives them the locations of any slave caravans passing through the area for a cut of the profits. I was able to persuade him to give me some names and locations."
Gabrielle blanched slightly. "You didn't."
"No. But I did manage to convince him that he should seriously consider another line of work. At least for awhile."
Knowing that a conveyer of information needed his mouth for his duties, the bard's hand came up to massage her jaw reflectively.
Blue eyes twinkled. "Well, with two broken arms, I doubt his jaw is going to be troubling him all that much." Her smile became feral.
A slight spark of fear ran down Gabrielle's back. Xena's dark side, and the joy she took in causing violence, was fast becoming a problem for the bard. She thought she had resolved those feelings after Illusia, but with her return, those feelings were starting to become a issue again. She took a deep breath, forcing that issue from her mind to be dealt with at a later date. "So what next?"
Having finished putting on the last of her armor and packing their belongings, Xena threw one of the bags to Gabrielle. "We head north," was all she said.
The day had almost come to a close by the time the pair arrived at their destination. Xena had been typically close-mouthed about the whole affair, but Gabrielle managed not to display her famous impatience with being kept in the dark yet again by humming softly, albeit off key, to herself and appreciating the beauty, what there was of it, around her.
An all too familiar clanking of wet rope on stout timber brought the bard out of her reverie as she looked suspiciously around, taking in the rough-clothed men hastily loading heavily laden cargo nets on board a large-masted ship. "Now I know why you kept quiet about this," Gabrielle muttered, as if to herself.
Xena favored her lover with a half smile as she left Argo with Gabrielle and went ahead to speak with the harbor master. Within a few moments, she returned and took the reins from the bard. "C'mon. They're just about to set sail."
"And I suppose this is entirely necessary?"
"Unless you wanna swim there, yes."
Gabrielle appeared to consider the possibility seriously. "Alright, but I'm warning you, Xena. If I see anything that even remotely looks like squid on that ship, I'll jump overboard and take my chances with Poseidon."
Xena's grin became full-blown as she reached out to tousle her friend's fair hair. "No promises. But I'll try to keep anything tentacled well away from you. Alright?"
"It'll have to do," the bard grumped, walking dejectedly after her partner.
It wasn't long before Argo was settled into her stall and her tack stowed safely away. Xena led the way down damp, narrow corridors until they came to their tiny berth. Opening the rough-hewn door, the warrior slipped inside, taking stock of the area they were given.
"Wow," Gabrielle commented, slipping underneath her partner's long arm and ducking inside the quarters, "talk about your closet space." Hands on hips, she looked around with a critical eye. To say the berth was cramped would be generous. A single hammock swung gently from its moorings and covered more than half the space in the tiny room. The rest of the area was empty, but by the time Xena had stowed their gear in a corner, the two women barely had space to stand side by side without brushing against the walls. "Not much breathing room," the bard remarked, suddenly very much aware of the warm presence beside her. "I . . .um . . .I need to get some air." Brushing past the warrior, Gabrielle quickly stepped out of the cabin, leaving a totally puzzled Xena behind.
The anchor was pulled up by the time the bard made it topside, the gentle swaying of the sea-bound ship causing her to stumble slightly and jab hard at her wrist when the first tinges of nausea settled in her stomach. Keeping a firm grip on her staff, Gabrielle made her way to the rail, looking out over the gentle sea. You can do this, Gabrielle. You just need to focus. You can always bed down with Argo if it gets to be too bad. Yeah, she'll really understand that, won't she. Just keep breaking her heart a little more while you're at it, Gabrielle. I think there's still a little life left in it yet. With a sad sigh, she leaned over the rail and tilted her head back, the fresh salt spray coating her face as she gazed at the starred tapestry of the night sky. Phlanagus, I know you can hear my thoughts. I don't know if you'll want to listen to them though. I . . .I can't ask for your forgiveness. The gods know I'll never be able to forgive myself for what I did to you. But I need you to believe that if there was any way, any way at all, that I could have saved your life without killing, I would have done it. It's important to me that you know that. I didn't know you very long or very well, but what I did know, I liked. You were a good, strong, loving man who cared about his family, and his country, very much. All you wanted was to make a better life for your son. And all I wanted was to help you get that life. And I'm so, so sorry for what happened. You trusted me to lead you into battle. You trusted me to watch your back. And I failed you. I failed your wife and son. I failed Temeculah. And I failed myself. I know you're in the Fields now, enjoying a well-deserved rest. Just know that what you did made a difference. Good rest, Phlanagus.
Xena eased herself onto the deck from the stairs below, her gaze immediately set upon the forlorn figure slumped upon the ship's rail. From her vantage point, the warrior could easily see the tracks of tears sliding down a face covered by the spray of the sea and bathed in the moon's gentle light. Almost unconsciously, she made her way silently across the deck, stopping just short of the bard. Slowly, tentatively, she reached out a hand, leaving it hanging in the air just inches from the flesh of her lover. Her own face was cast in sadness and shadow. After a long moment, she let her hand drop, its goal unrealized, and she turned from the sight, determined to give her cherished companion the space she so obviously needed.
Gabrielle felt the heat from the warrior's body so close, yet so distant, from her own. She knew the thoughts running through Xena's mind and her tears fell more rapidly though she kept the wracking sobs quiet in her throat. When the faint whisper of leather on damp wood alerted her to Xena's leaving, she straightened and turned in one fluid movement. "Xena," she whispered, arms held out.
Closing the distance between them, Xena gathered Gabrielle to her, laying her cheek atop the damp blonde head, saying everything and nothing through the warmth of her body and the strength of her arms.
Leading the young bard back down belowdecks, the warrior gently ushered her into the cabin and sat her still shaking form on the gently swaying hammock, grabbing a spare shift and wiping the salt spray from Gabrielle's chilled skin. After removing the bard's boots, she levered Gabrielle's legs up into the hammock before removing her own armor and boots and joining her companion, again wordlessly holding her close. They rocked for a long span of moments, Xena humming an old melody almost silently to Gabrielle's ever-decreasing sobs.
Finally lifting her head from the strong shoulder upon which it rested, Gabrielle wiped at the tears which were drying on her cheeks. "Sorry about that again," she said with a watery smile. "Seems like crying's all I'm good for these days."
Capturing the bard's hands gently, Xena used her own to gently remove the last of the tears from Gabrielle's face. "Never apologize for expressing your emotions, Gabrielle," she remarked softly. "They make you who you are." Taking a deep breath, she let it out slowly, moving her hands to cup her lover's face gently. "Gabrielle . . .I know something's going on with you. Something beyond what happened on the battlefield. And I know you can't talk about it right now. But I want you to know that I'm here if you need me." She took another deep breath, damning her recalcitrant tongue, before smiling almost shyly. "A very wise woman once told me that there's no burden in the world that isn't made smaller by sharing the load with someone else. And I just want you to know that I'm ready to share it . . .with you. Whenever you're ready." Wrapping the newly tearing young woman in her arms once again, Xena whispered into golden hair. "I love you, Gabrielle."
Again, the statement went unanswered. But to Xena, the fierce pressure to her sides and back was all the acknowledgement she needed.
The next several days passed quickly for the pair. Xena kept out of Gabrielle's way by busying herself with the rigors of sailing the large ship, impressing the captain and his crew with her expert seamanship. For her part, the young bard spent equal time both above and below deck, alternating between writing in her scrolls, staring out over the vast expanse of the sea, and thinking. She kept her thoughts deliberately away from both her deal with the Fates and the bloody battle she had lived through, needing the peace of untroubled thoughts sorely.
Nights were spent together in a close and easy companionship. Xena made no more advances, physically or otherwise, on the bard and Gabrielle was able to relax in the warrior's company once again.
Xena, too, relaxed with the hopes that Gabrielle was finally putting all she had been through behind her. In fact, except for the continued absence of physical intimacy, things were almost back to normal between the pair, or at least as close to normal as it ever was where the two of them were concerned. The warrior would have been almost totally convinced of her lover's slow healing had it not been for one small incident on the third night of their trip which, at its ending, left her wondering whether the past few days had, in fact, been nothing but an act on the bard's part.
Clouds had been gathering since dusk, promising a squall by full nightfall. Xena and Gabrielle had decided to make one last trip topside to breathe in the fresh sea air before the rain would force them back into their cramped cabin. They had almost made it to the stairs when a group of sailors, having consumed what seemed to be a mostly liquid dinner, brushed by the pair. A strong wave collapsed one of the slightly unsteady sailors against Gabrielle, who was forced against the wall by his weight. The grizzled sailor couldn't believe his drunken luck and leered at the captive bard pinned to him. Xena stiffened instantly, a hairsbreadth from ripping the offending man's head from his shoulders. She hesitated, however, secure in the knowledge that Gabrielle wouldn't appreciate her interference unless it was absolutely necessary. So she relaxed again, just slightly, and waited to see how the scene would play out, a smirk affixed to her face in anticipation of some fireworks of the short, blonde variety.
The smirk left quickly as her jaw dropped in shock. Instead of snapping at the sailor and putting him on his back on the deck, the bard had merely smiled warmly at him, cupping one grizzled cheek as she slipped from his embrace and continued on her way. Xena's attention had been split between shooting a narrow eyed glare at the offending sailor and staring in gape-mouthed confusion at the retreating form of her friend.
The morning of the fourth day of their journey dawned clear and bright, the air washed clean by the brief but intense storm of the night before. Xena had spent the long night caring for her seasick friend, keeping the questions she had about the scene in the hall firmly behind closed lips, concentrating instead on getting Gabrielle's sickness under some sort of control.
The next morning, she woke up early, slipping gingerly out of the hammock and leaving her companion to sleep off the last of her sickness. Grabbing her sword and oilcloth, the warrior made her way topside, choosing a quiet spot at the ship's bow to sit and oil her sword to keep it from rusting in the damp, salty air. She kept her mind firmly away from the scene with the sailor as her hand stroked along the blade's sharp edge. The warm sun felt good against her slightly chilled body, the sword comfortable in her hand and she cleared her thoughts of anything else.
Slightly more than two hours later, Gabrielle made her way up from the hold, stepping out onto the spray-slick deck with an expression of profound relief plastered over her still slightly pale features. Seeing Xena at the ship's bow, she smiled and made her way over to her friend, taking in the sight of the sun dappled Warrior Princess seated comfortably on the deck, the cleaned sword laying still across her lap. Xena's return smile was slightly reserved, but Gabrielle didn't let that ruin the beauty of the vision. Maybe I can do this. She's been very patient with me these last few days; more patient than I've ever seen her. Maybe I can talk to her about what's going on inside me a little. The gods know I have to talk to someone.
"Feeling better?" the warrior asked softly as her companion settled in close, but not touching.
"Much. You were a big help last night. Thanks."
"My pleasure." Dropping her gaze, Xena looked down at her glinting sword, drawing one callused thumb gently along the edge as if testing for nicks.
The two sat in companionable silence for a moment before the bard tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear. "Xena, can I ask you a question?"
"Ya just did," came the teasing response.
"Ha ha. I'm serious."
"You can ask me anything, Gabrielle. You know that."
"Ok. Well . . .what would you do if something you enjoyed very much was suddenly taken away from you?"
Sharp blue eyes lanced into green as Xena lifted her head at the question. Something skittered through her mind like an elusive key before slipping away again, leaving her grasping at air. Determined not to push the issue, Xena took in a long breath, calming herself. "I suppose it'd depend on what that thing was that got taken away," she answered reasonably, not sure how far to go with this.
"Well, what if it was, say, your fighting? I know how much joy that gives you. What if, one day, you woke up and you just couldn't fight anymore? What would you do?"
Warning bells clamored in the warrior's dark head, but for the life of her, she couldn't read the signals they were sending. "Well . . .I guess I'd have to find something else in my life to fill in the hole that not being able to fight anymore would leave," she said slowly, carefully.
"Hmmm. Like what?" The look in the bard's clear eyes was one of innocent curiosity.
What's going on in that head of yours, Gabrielle? Why do I feel I should be able to read the deeper meaning in this conversation? Instead of giving voice to those persistent thoughts, the warrior raised her head still further, glancing up at the sails as they strained against the freshening breeze. "Sailing would be good for starters," she said softly. "Just get on a boat and see some places I've never been able to visit. Fishing, maybe."
Gabrielle grinned. "I figured you'd say that," she teased. Her face became serious again. "You'd still miss it though, wouldn't you? The fighting? I mean, it's so much a part of you. Could seeing the world and fishing ever equal the joy a good fight gives you?"
"Maybe not at first." Xena sighed, looking down at her beloved sword again. "Maybe not ever," she whispered. "But, I suppose, it'd get easier with time."
The bard sat in silent thought for a long time after that. Suddenly, her face brightened and she leaned over, planting a wet kiss on Xena's cheek. "Thanks, Xena."
Gabrielle shrugged. "For talking to me. For being you." Rising quickly, she turned to retreat, but was stopped by a loud voice that floated down from the crow's nest. "Land ho!"
Gabrielle's legs wobbled a bit as she stepped onto the dock. Xena watched her unsteady gait with more than a little amusement, but almost laughed out loud when she saw the bard's next move. Gabrielle fell to her knees, raised her arms in what appeared to Xena to be some manner of worship, then bowed deeply to the ground. Passionately and hungrily, Gabrielle kissed the wet and grimy boards of the dock.
Xena turned to busy herself with unloading their gear, assuming her companion would join her when she was finished with her little ritual. The snickers of some of the crew made her turn back around to see the bard still on her hands and knees.
Xena rushed to her side and knelt beside her. "Are you okay, Gabrielle?" she asked, the concern clear in her voice.
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle wiped her lips and looked at her lover, "it's never felt so good to get back on land."
There was a look in Gabrielle's eyes that sent a shiver up Xena's spine.
"And this place!" the bard said excitedly as she swept her hand in a wide arc. Xena looked around. The dock looked like any other dock. Wooden, stark, full of grungy men and dilapidated boats.
"Xena, it's beautiful here," Gabrielle grasped Xena's arms and practically gushed. "Can't you feel it? It's something in the air." She deeply inhaled the chilly Norse air. "It's like coming home!"
"Home?" Xena's eyes went wide. She leaned closer to Gabrielle and whispered urgently, "Gabrielle, your home is in Greece. We're here to free some slaves and get the Tartarus out of here with our lives. Get a grip on yourself."
Gabrielle stared at Xena like she was speaking a foreign language. She was unsure what to make of her words. "Xena, I've never felt more myself than I do right now."
"You're not acting like it."
Gabrielle knew she should feel mad at Xena, but instead she felt a deep pity for her best friend. She couldn't feel the energy of this place. The cold air brought a jolt of vitality to Gabrielle's body that she had never felt before. It was as if every nerve ending was ablaze. There was something about this place that beckoned her, that pulled her further into itself. 'Surely, this is my destiny,' she thought joyfully.
Gabrielle felt any trace of anger leave her body. She thought she had finally found the key to the deal with the Fates. If anger was the dangerous emotion, surely she had to rid herself of it before she could fulfill this destiny the Fates had spoken about. 'Yes, I feel it now,' she thought happily to herself. 'With my anger gone I can fight whatever evil the Fates say I must fight and fulfill my destiny. Then my deal will be completed and things can go back to the way they were. Xena and
I can go back to the way we were.' That final thought filled Gabrielle with an immense joy.
The crew of the ship and some of the other men along the dock had stopped to stare at the two women. "Gabrielle, we don't want to make a big scene here," Xena whispered softly. "We don't want to blow our cover before we've even set the plan underway. Please, we've got to go now."
"Okay," Gabrielle whispered back. Her eyes held a certain vacancy that gave Xena pause.
Xena helped Gabrielle to her feet. The strange behavior of her friend was taking its toll on her. She fought for control. She needed the bard to complete her plan and wasn't about to push Gabrielle about what was behind her odd actions. She'd play Gabrielle's game a little bit longer. "I've got to find a stable for Argo. Go into town and find us a room for the night," Xena turned the bard in the direction of the village square. "We can be to the village where the slaves are in a couple of days."
Gabrielle climbed the small hill leading to the village. When she reached the top she turned and leaned on her staff to take in the sight of the lush green mountains and deep blue waters of this new northern land. She leaned her head back as a chilly wind blew through her hair. She raised her arms skyward, letting the briskness of the air blow open her heavy cloak. The air against her bare stomach brought a chill and a rush of happiness to Gabrielle. 'This is certainly what the Elysian Fields must be like,' she mused.
"What is it you seek?" a man's voice cut through her thoughts. "Happiness? Joy? Love? Redemption? Your destiny?"
Gabrielle turned to find the source of the sound. There, in the middle of square, a blond haired man stood on a wooden crate. He wore a long black cloak that looked to be a cleric's coat. He punctuated his words with sweeping hand motions. The people of the village passed by, ignoring his sermon.
"You all have been living a lie," the man continued. "You think you've found happiness and joy and love and redemption. You think you know your destiny. You're fooling yourselves! If you don't know the love of Balder, then you don't know how empty your lives really are."
Gabrielle was mesmerized the man and his words. Her feet carried her down the slope of the hill to stand directly in front of the gesticulating man.
"You!" he thundered at Gabrielle. "Do you seek happiness? Your destiny?"
Gabrielle swallowed hard. She could only give a slight nod to the man towering before her.
His eyes softened. "Of course you are child," he held her gaze. "We all are. Have you found happiness? Have you found your destiny?"
"I thought I had," Gabrielle replied in a small voice.
It was the truth. She thought for sure Xena was her happiness and her destiny. She only questioned that assumption after Britannia and the whole horrible episode with Dahak and Hope. She had decided to stay, still convinced her destiny was at Xena's side, but now she wasn't so sure.
The man had come down off his box and was now standing directly in front of his potential convert. "If you knew Balder, you'd know your destiny, child."
"Who is Balder?" Gabrielle blinked as she looked into the clear blue eyes of the cleric.
"Balder is the god of light, joy, purity, beauty, innocence, and reconciliation," he smiled.
"He sounds wonderful," Gabrielle couldn't find a Greek god that compared to that description.
"He is," the cleric assured her.
A strong hand fell on Gabrielle's shoulder. She saw a flash of brown leather under a heavy cloak appear in front of her.
Xena put herself between Gabrielle and the cleric. "Excuse me," her eyes bore a hole into the man, "I'd like to talk with my friend here."
The cleric's eyes clouded over as he took in the sight of the dark haired woman. He knew all about her kind. He looked at Gabrielle in disgust. "Friend? You have a Greek friend?"
"Yes, she does," Xena spoke curtly, pushing the man out of her way.
"She'll only bring you trouble," the priest called out as Xena led Gabrielle away.
"What are you doing talking to a man like that?" Xena turned to Gabrielle after they had gone some distance.
"I was just asking him for directions to the inn," Gabrielle lied.
"Well, where is it?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "You drug me away before he could say."
Xena relaxed a little bit, trying to weigh the truth of Gabrielle's words. It was possible she only sought directions from the man, feeling it safe to ask someone who appeared to be a man of the cloth.
"Sorry, Gabrielle," Xena said softly. "I overreacted." She reached to put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, only to have the bard dodge the contact.
"It's okay, Xena, we'll just find someone else to ask," she said over her shoulder as she turned to walk away.
Xena's arm was still in midair. She let it fall to her side. With a short glance around her she hurried to catch up to Gabrielle.
The inn may have been a world away, but it looked just like the all the combination tavern and inns they had ever seen in Greece. The dust on the floor seemed to have a life of its own as it coated the aging tables, chairs and bar. The people seemed equally dusty and worn.
"Welcome to Hotel Bergen," the portly barkeep called with a smile to his new customers. "Will you be having dinner and a room, or just dinner?"
"Both," Gabrielle smiled back at the jolly man.
"Wonderful!" he proclaimed raising his arms. "First round is on the house!"
"The people here are so nice, Xena," Gabrielle marveled to her friend, as they found a table. "They're not at all like the Greeks."
Xena's suspicious nature kicked into high gear. "Yeah, but sometimes nice people are the ones you have to really watch out for."
Gabrielle looked at her lover in disbelief. "Xena, do you ever trust anyone?"
Xena let her gaze linger on her friend, "Only you," she answered earnestly.
Gabrielle felt her heart leap at her friend's sincere admission. "Xena, I ..." she began to say the words closest to her heart, but brought herself up short. "Um, I mean, I'm happy to know that."
Xena opened her mouth to speak only to be interrupted by two mugs of port being laid on the table by two meaty fists. "Here ya go, ladies. This is some of my best stuff. It'll do you right after a long trip."
"Thank you," Xena glanced at the man.
"How's about some nice lamb stew to warm up your insides?" he continued with a wide smile.
"That would be wonderful," Gabrielle's stomach rumbled loudly at the thought.
"Coming right up," the man lumbered off toward the bar.
"Xena, that man on the square," Gabrielle turned to her friend, "why did he seem so disgusted that I had a Greek friend?"
"Gabrielle, Greeks have historically been slaves to these people," Xena took a drink from her mug. "But, slavery has been outlawed in some of the bigger towns like this one. Here, Greeks are free, but a few towns away, they're held as slaves. The Amazons Velaris told us about were probably brought in a few towns north of here where they do most of the slave trading. According to my information they were taken to a town called Gudvargen. That's where we're headed tomorrow."
"If Greeks are free here, why would he look at you with such disgust?" Gabrielle was curious now.
"Just because Greeks are free in this town doesn't make them liked," Xena smirked. "There's still a lot of prejudice against our kind."
Gabrielle began to get nervous. "What if someone discovers that I'm Greek?"
"That won't happen, Gabrielle. You fit right in here," Xena assured her. "I'm sure no one will suspect a thing."
"You there," a drunk man called to Gabrielle from the bar, "why do you share a table with that Greek dog?"
"See what I mean?" Far from offended, Xena felt a little vindicated by the disheveled man's challenge.
"It's better company than a Norse pig," Gabrielle shot back.
Xena's eyes went wide. Even though Greeks were not slaves here they still had to know their place. Xena couldn't be Gabrielle's defender in this town, not without risking arrest or worse.
"What did you say?" the Norsman bellowed.
"You heard me, pig," Gabrielle repeated.
"Gabrielle, please," Xena pleaded quietly. "I can't fight for you here."
"I can handle this, Xena," Gabrielle stood and faced the giant of a man who had stumbled his way to their table.
Gabrielle smiled at the man. "I'll share my table with whomever I please. I'll thank you to keep your comments to yourself."
The man lunged at Gabrielle, who ducked cleanly. The man's momentum sent him crashing into several tables behind them.
He desperately tried to pick himself up from the dirty floor, only to be put back down by a swift kick to his butt from Gabrielle.
"Stay in the dirt where you belong, pig," Gabrielle stood over him, staff at the ready.
Xena pulled her away from the man. "Gabrielle, please," she whispered. "We don't want to draw attention to ourselves. Let this go."
The barkeep arrived with their dinner and took in the destruction of his establishment.
"Juergen, you pig," he cried. "I've told you a million times, Greeks are welcome here, you are not. Get out!"
Juergen pulled himself up and let out a string of curses and epithets, mainly about Greeks, as he left.
He turned to Gabrielle. "Are you okay, young lady?" His concern was etched on his face.
"Yes, sir," she assured him. "I'm fine. Nice welcoming committee you have here."
"I'm ever so sorry for that," the barkeep continued. "I beg your forgiveness for his behavior. We usually kick him out long before now." He motioned to the table. "Here, dinner is on the house for you and your friend," he acknowledged Xena with a smile. "As I said, Greeks are always welcome in my inn."
"You're too kind," Gabrielle smiled.
"Thanks," was all Xena could muster.
They settled down to dig into their food. Xena laid her hand on Gabrielle's forearm and opened her mouth to speak.
Gabrielle slid her arm out from under Xena's hand and picked up her spoon.
Xena looked at where her friend's arm was and closed her hand. She cleared her throat. "Gabrielle, you can't go around challenging these people. As a Greek, I can't fight here without serious consequences."
"That's okay, Xena," Gabrielle smiled at her friend. "I'll just have to be your defender then."
Xena visibly paled at the thought. She pushed the bowl away from her. She had suddenly lost her appetite.
Gabrielle stared at the sleeping form of her companion. Xena had turned in hours ago, but Gabrielle had eluded Morpheus' grasp very intentionally. She needed time to think without the warrior looking over her shoulder. She mentally replayed events from the past several months. The fall into the pit, her deal with the Fates, her victory and loss in the barn at home in Potidea, her inability to save Phlanagus' life on the battlefield, and her helplessness in the face of Temeculah's loss of his blood innocence.
A tear slipped down Gabrielle's cheek. She so wanted to stroke the black hair of her lover, to feel the warmth of the warrior's arms around her. She hadn't felt truly safe in those arms since her return. Sure, they had spent several nights together in the hammock of the boat, but the feeling wasn't the same. This was something Xena couldn't keep her safe from. Xena was part of the danger, and couldn't give Gabrielle any comfort no matter how hard she tried.
Gabrielle was desperate to feel safe again. She longed for a simpler time when life with Xena was a happy adventure. They would arrive on the scene, save the day, slay the giant, or free the captives. Afterward she'd write the heroic epic to preserve the event for posterity. She shed a few more tears for those days long gone. 'Oh, Xena, I do love you, with all my heart,' she thought to herself. 'But loving you will make me dead, and what good am I to you dead? The Fates showed me how you'd die if I weren't around. I can't let that happen. I've got to be here with you I just can't be here for you. By the gods I wish I could tell you what's going on. I know you're hurt, angry and confused, and like usual, it's all my fault.'
Gabrielle slipped from the bed and made her way to the fire. She threw another log on and stoked the flames higher. She crouched down on the hearth and warmed her hands. She looked back at the warrior, her stern features softened by the glow of the fire. 'I'm so sorry, Xena. I thought you were my destiny. I was wrong. I've got to let you go, and set us free to find whatever it is that lies ahead for both of us. I'll be here to help you free my Amazon sisters, but I after that I've got to go my own way. The Fates have asked too much of me. I can't live with you and without you at the same time. It's impossible. I can't tell you why I'm leaving you and I know that will hurt you beyond measure. I only hope you'll forgive me one day.'
Gabrielle buried her head in her hands and softly sobbed. Her heart was breaking. All she wanted to do was crawl into the bed and wrap herself securely around the woman she loved more than life. But, she knew the consequence of the action would be her very life. She cried at the futility her life had become. 'Show me my destiny, please,' she prayed vainly to the Fates. 'I will do anything to fulfill it and get Xena back. Please.'
The silence that followed her prayer was deafening. For the life of her Gabrielle wanted to be angry, she wanted to feel a surge of rage so she could pick up her staff and decimate the room or anything else in her way. All she felt was a numbness, an emptiness that had moved into the spot where her soul once thrived. She swore she'd do anything to just feel a good emotion again ... anything.
Gabrielle spent a few more minutes rocking herself in front of the fire. Her mind was a total blank. Thinking about the whole situation was making her head hurt. 'I need sleep,' she told herself. She picked herself up and headed for the bed. She stopped and knelt before Xena.
"Goodbye," she whispered.
The chilled discomfort of goose-fleshed skin woke Xena the next morning. Turning her head, the warrior spied Gabrielle curled in a fetal ball on the far side of the bed and she frowned. For as long as the two companions had shared sleeping arrangements, they had always slept pressed tight against one another, their bodies craving the contact as their minds traveled Morpheus' realm. Xena suppressed a shiver as she noted that the bard had managed to steal the entire blanket on her journey to the far side of the bed. With a sigh, she reached out one long arm to grasp one end of the tattered blanket, tugging at it. "C'mon, Gabrielle, share."
Mumbling incoherently, the bard burrowed further into her blanketed nest, her breathing once again evening out in slumber. Xena's scowl deepened. Realizing that fighting for the blanket would mean waking the bard, something she was loathe to do at this particular moment in time, Xena sat up and got out of bed, wincing slightly at the stiffness of her cold-numbed limbs. Though her internal clock assured her that it was well before dawn, the warrior noted the brightness in the room, a brightness having nothing to do with the long dead fire. Going on instinct, she stepped gingerly to the heavily shuttered window, undoing the latch and flinging it open. "Woah," she said, wincing as a knife-edge of bitter wind streamed into the room, blowing her raven hair off her shoulders. "Great," she muttered from between clenched teeth as she noticed the deep drifts of snow that had accumulated during the night. "Just. Great."
Slamming the shutters shut and securing the lock, she turned from the window and made her way across the room to the cold fireplace. Adding some logs and tinder, the warrior struck her flint and managed to get a small blaze going on the first try. Reaching over to the pile of their belongings, she snagged her heavy cloak and draped it over her leathered form before sitting crosslegged in front of the fire to warm the chill that had sunk deep into her bones.
It wasn't long before the bard's shivering woke her up. Her golden head popped up from the tight cocoon of her blanket as she freed an arm to rub at sleepy eyes. "Xena? What are you doing over there? It's still early yet."
"Trying to get warm," the warrior remarked shortly, staring into the flames.
Looking at the huddled, brooding form, Gabrielle realized what had happened. "I stole the blanket, didn't I."
"By the gods, Xena, you could have woken me up, you know."
"Tried that. Didn't work."
Gabrielle sighed. This wasn't going to be easy. She was hurting her friend and Xena knew it. What the warrior didn't know was why. And Gabrielle couldn't tell her. "I'm sorry," she said in a soft voice, apologizing for far more than a stolen blanket.
Xena dragged her gaze away from the fire to meet Gabrielle's eyes for the first time that morning. "It's alright." She shrugged. "It was almost time to get up anyway."
Nodding, the bard unwrapped herself from her cocoon, shivering instantly as the bitter cold in the room, warmed little by the now blazing fire, touched her naked skin. "Brrr. It's freezing in here!"
"There's a good reason for that." The dark head tilted toward the closed window.
Gabrielle's eyes widened, then she grinned, jumping out of bed like a child on Solstice morning. With a laugh, she threw open the shudders. "Snow!" she shouted happily. "I haven't seen snow since I was a kid! Xena, look at it out there! It's like a beautiful faerie land!"
"It's snow, Gabrielle. Wet. Cold. Deep. Snow."
"Must you always take the fun out of things, Xena?" Gabrielle asked, turning from the window. At her partner's shuttered look, the bard cringed, realizing how she sounded. Twist the knife a little deeper, Gabrielle. You haven't hit bone yet. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it to sound like that."
"Sure ya did," Xena tossed out, shrugging the cloak off broad shoulders and rising gracefully to her feet. "It's gonna be Hades' own time trying to travel through that stuff, so we'd better get an early start." Her back to the bard, Xena slipped out of her leathers and reached into the saddlebags, grabbing the tattered shift she had purchased prior to setting upon their journey. Slipping it over her head, the warrior wrinkled her nose slightly at the garment's musty odor as she draped it down her long body, not bothering to smooth the myriad of wrinkles pressed into it by sheer age. Grabbing her boots, she made her way over to the bed, sitting down and tugging them on. "I suggest you get out of those clothes and into that dress I got for you. Until we're finished with this mission, the Warrior Princess and the Amazon Queen are no more."
"Is that safe? I mean, you said we have at least two days of travel ahead of us and that shift isn't much protection."
"It's a lot safer than going fully armored, Gabrielle," Xena explained with a patience she didn't feel. "As long as these people see nothing but a Northern woman leading a Greek slave, I'm no threat to them, and they're no threat to you."
"I suppose that makes sense." The bard looked down at the heavy gown in her hands.
"It makes perfect sense," the warrior replied with a ghost of a smile. "Now get dressed and meet me downstairs. I think the owner will let a Greek settle accounts with him."
"I'll be right there."
Nodding, Xena grabbed their gear and left the room, closing the door tightly behind her. Taking a deep breath and shaking her head in hurt, confusion and frustration, the warrior made her way down the narrow stairs and into the tavern below.
The tavern's main room was much warmer than the small room they were given and Xena breathed deep of the food-scented air, her flesh prickling pleasantly as warmth was restored to it. The tavern owner smiled as he saw her and bustled over to the bar. "Good morning! Did ya sleep well then?"
"Yes, thanks," she replied, a false smile on her face.
"I assume you'll be wantin' a good hot breakfast before travelin' on. How lucky for us that Balder saw fit to bless us with his most precious possession last night, eh?" The jolly man laughed, gesturing with his arms toward the door.
The man's laughter boomed again. "No need to fear, my Greek friend. Many's the time these old bones wish for a warmer clime. Just sit yourself down at one of the tables and I'll bring you some warm cereal."
"Thank you for the offer, but I'm afraid we can't spare the time. We have a lot of traveling ahead of us today."
"Nonsense. It's too bitter out there to go riding on an empty stomach. Wait here and I'll bring somethin' you can eat while you travel." Moments later, the owner returned with warm bread wrapped in cheesecloth. "It's not much and it'll cool quick, but it'll help keep your stamina up."
"Thank you." The warrior gracefully accepted the gift of food, her hand trailing over to the pouch of dinars at her waist. "How much do we owe you for the room?"
"Won't take a thing. You're the first Greek I've had grace my tavern in a long time. Does this lot good to see you aren't the beasts the upland folk make you out to be."
Years of insults and false compliments had taught the Warrior Princess to read between the lines of the spoken word. Such a skill was valuable, yet limited as it seemed to work with everyone except the perplexing, frustrating young blonde woman who was currently doing her level best to drive Xena off the deep end. Xena smiled and nodded at the man's backhanded compliment, realizing with an internal shiver that it would most probably be the last kind word she would receive in this country. All the more reason to finish this mission quickly and return home. They might not like me any better in Greece, but at least the coldness isn't outside as well as in.
The squeaking of gently rotting wood roused the warrior from her brief musings and she turned her head in the direction of the stairs just in time to see Gabrielle struggle down the last of them, her boots heavy and awkward on her feet. "By the gods, Xena," the bard grumped, at least reaching the relative safety of the ground floor, "did you steal these boots from a cyclops?"
Biting back a sharp retort, the warrior counted internally to ten before she allowed herself to speak. "They may be a little big, but they'll keep your feet warm. And right now, that's a very important thing. As you know," she said meaningfully, "frostbite is a big enemy here."
"Ah yes, I know, of course," Gabrielle responded, her warm smile toward the tavern owner allaying any suspicions he might have had. "We've just spent a long vacation in Greece. I almost forgot what the cold feels like."
The tavern owner returned her smile with one of his own, showing his few remaining teeth to their best advantage. "You'll remember soon enough, young miss," he said. "One deep breath of that bitter air and it'll be like you never left."
"Goody," Xena muttered under her breath. Despite the years she spent with Borias in the wastelands of Chin and the Steppes, the warrior never enjoyed the bitter cold of the open plains. She briefly considered torching the village for old time's sake before slapping the dark wolf back down into his lair. "Ready?" she asked Gabrielle.
"As I'll ever be." Turning back to the owner, the bard grasped his hand warmly. "You were a wonderful host. If everyone were able to receive the welcome you've given us, the world would be a better place. Thank you."
The man blushed, totally taken in by the genuine warmth of the young woman. "You're welcome, young miss. Stop back here soon, if you have a mind. You're always welcome here." Tearing his gaze reluctantly from mesmerizing green, he met the fierce pale eyes of the Warrior Princess. "You too, my Greek friend. Good journey to you both."
Xena didn't progress more than a half-dozen steps through calf deep snow before she stopped, frozen, her wide eyes peering out into the panoramic vista displayed before her. Her heart stopped, then thundered in her chest; all the fluids not immediately frozen by the bitter air dried in her mouth, sinuses and skin. The blood drained from her face, leaving her feeling dizzy and faint. Oh no. By all the gods, no! Oh no . . .no . . .no . . . . It was the new-fallen snow that changed her vision from what was to what would be. Instead of the vast, empty plains, she saw crosses mounted into the frozen earth. She could almost hear the muted speech of Roman soldiers and the unmistakable sound of metal spikes driven through soft flesh by huge wooden mallets. She could feel the wounds on her skin, the gash on her cheek, the blood as it dripped lazily from her nose. Her arms felt taut and stretched, their unparalleled strength eliminated by stout hemp ropes. Her hands curled involuntarily as she felt the first iron spike slip through her unresisting flesh. Turning her head to the right she saw her partner, not standing beside her, but laying bound to a cross as she was. "Gabrielle . . . ." she breathed, her words a plume of vapor released into the frigid air, unaware that she had spoken out loud.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked, alarmed. "What is it?" She looked around but could see nothing.
We have to get out of here. We have to leave. Now! But the vision wouldn't let her go. You've led her into a killing field. You have to tell her of this vision. You have to let her know why you both must leave. No! another part of her mind protested. You must protect her! Telling her would only hurt her. Keep this to yourself!
Gabrielle continued to stare at the warrior as she stood frozen to the earth. What's going on? She looks like she's seen a shade! "Xena?" she tried again.
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