Evemeal that night was even more unpleasant for the bard than the one she had endured the night before. Putting a platter of new bread on the table for the meal, she had heard Tomisus arriving. She risked a quick glance around the corner of the door and what she saw set off every internal alarm she possessed. Tomisus was tall, broad and very muscular, as were many of the folk who worked the land. To most eyes, he probably appeared quite handsome but to Gabrielle, well, she had seen his type all too often in her travels with the dark-haired warrior.
Overly-dressed in rich blue and green silks with soft leather trousers, his clothes had obviously been chosen specifically for this occasion. Several large, golden medallions depended from chains around his neck and every finger seems to have some kind of an over-sized gold ring on it. A wide, tooled belt encrusted with semi-precious stones was hung low on his hips. Even his boots had a ring of gems around the top. This show of ostentatious wealth had clearly dazzled her father but didn't do anything to improve Gabrielle's opinion of the man.
But it was Tomisus's eyes that caused the bard the most concern, however. There was a coldness to them. Not quite a deadness but she had seen eyes like this before and they usually belonged to someone who was unfamiliar with the gentler emotions. She had seen eyes like that on almost every thug and raider she and Xena had ever faced. There was a cruel glint in them that someone might have missed if they didn't already know what it was. Nodding to herself, Gabrielle realized Tomisus was one man to watch very closely.
The meal itself had passed in polite conversation between Herodotus and Tomisus about the festival due to start the next day and in the state of their various fields. Hecuba, unlike the night before, offered surprisingly few comments, content to simply watch the man who was to marry her daughter. Gabrielle found herself examining Tomisus carefully throughout the meal as he charmed her father. She could almost see the oil dripping from the blatant comments he was heaping on Hecuba about how wonderful the food was or how well she kept her house. At least Gabrielle's mother didn't appear to be taken in by Tomisus's well polished compliments. From the firm set of her jaw and the occasional tightening of her hands, the bard could see her mother was no more impressed with her suitor than Gabrielle herself. It soon appeared all Herodotus could see was a chance to secure Gabrielle's future, away from Xena, as well as making sure there was a place for his wife on Tomisus's holding when he finally stepped through to the other side. If Gabrielle's father had any reservations at all, he was keeping them locked behind the knowledge of Deon's position in the village and how that position would probably be passed along to Tomisus in the fullness of time.
Once Hecuba started to clear the dishes and plates from the table, Herodotus sat back gratefully. So far, the bard had managed to stay her tongue in regards to her travels and that blasted warlord woman. Why he had let his daughter follow after Xena was still a mystery to him but Hecuba had been fairly clear about it at the time. If it wasn't Xena Gabrielle took off after, then it might be someone far worse, though he was hard pressed to think of who. Herodotus was not completely unfeeling, however. He had seen the restless in the young woman for some time before the slavers had turned up that day. Allowing his daughter to travel for a few moons was probably all she needed to work the wanderlust out of her soul before she returned to the village and settled down with some suitable man. If he had known at the time those few moons were going to turn into three entire cycles, Herodotus would never have let Gabrielle leave in the first place.
But that was over now and it was time for the bard to accept her responsibilities to the family and get on with having children of her own. Smiling generously at Tomisus, he said, "Why don't you two young people go for a walk by the river. Get to know a little about each other." Herodotus focused his attention on Gabrielle, lowering one eyebrow at her to remind the bard there were certain subjects she was not to raise with Tomisus, at least not yet anyway.
As he heard the front door closing behind the couple, he started wondering if he could possibly make a match this good for Lila as well. There were many other distinguished families in the area, several with sons looking for suitable marriage partners. That would give Hecuba two options on where she might like to stay when he finally passed over. Thinking of his younger daughter, he wondered where she had been all through evemeal. Hecuba had mumbled something about her eating with someone else tonight but he hadn't really been paying attention at the time, too concerned with making the best impression possible with his prestigious guest. Wandering out into the kitchen, he leaned against the table in the center of the room, watching Hecuba as she cleared and washed the dishes they had used at evemeal. For some reason, she seemed a little pre-occupied but that was not so unusual for his wife.
"Hecuba?" he asked quietly. "Where did Lila say she was eating tonight?"
The old woman stopped to think for a moment, dragging herself away from her own private thoughts. "Over at the blacksmith's family, I think she said," she finally answered. "You know what festival is like, Herodotus. Everyone visits everyone else before we all get stuck indoors for the winter," she said cheerfully. "Speaking of visitors, I have invited someone over tomorrow night after evemeal," she said casually.
"Anyone I know?" Herodotus asked, a little suspiciously. He had been married to Hecuba long enough to be well aware of her devious streak. Usually it showed itself in the simple pranks she occasionally played on him. He really didn't like them all that much but he loved his wife a great deal, so let her have a little fun at his expense now and then, even though it wasn't seemly for someone of his position in the village to the butt of some prank.
"No, dear. I don't think you know her all that well at all. She's an old friend of Gabrielle's though, so that makes her all right with me. I do trust my daughter's judgement when it comes to the people she meets," Hecuba replied, smiling at her husband. "Besides, once she is married and living on Tomisus's holding, who knows how long it will be before she can see some of her friends again."
Herodotus was sure there was a bee in the honeypot somewhere but he didn't want to appear as though he didn't trust his own child either. Other than making friends with that warlord, the bard could generally be trusted. "Well, if she is a friend of Gabrielle's, I guess it's all right," he said, turning to leave.
Wandering back to the common room, Herodotus was left wondering what kind of a prank his wife was planning now but Hecuba always seemed to be inviting people over, so it certainly wasn't out of character with her.
Standing by the side of the river, listening to the sound of the water flowing past, Gabrielle looked up to the sky, seeing the countless points of light, and recalled all the nights she and Xena had slept under them. She was trying to have some kind of a conversation with Tomisus but so far she'd had no luck finding any subject they could possibly have in common. The big man beside her simply stood, arms folded across his chest, staring off into the distance. The bard was having difficulty believing he had actually heard a single word she had said to him since leaving the house. At least with Xena, I always knew she was listening, even when she wasn't interested in what I was talking about, she thought sadly.
Taking another stab at it, she said, "My father has built me a new desk, Tomisus. I'm wondering if there might be a place to put it. You know, a little corner somewhere, with maybe a window above it. I really would like to keep up with my story-telling after we're married."
"You won't need it," Tomisus replied disinterestedly, still staring off at the darkened horizon.
"Oh. You already have one, then. Father's is really gorgeous and he did make it just for me," Gabrielle challenged.
Tomisus looked down at the blonde bard as though seeing her for the first time. "No. I don't have a desk for you to use. There isn't going to be time for you to write stories. You're going to be too busy for that," he said.
"Too busy doing what?" Gabrielle asked, a warning edge in her voice.
"You're going to be my wife. As far as I remember that means you're going to be busy cooking, cleaning and having my children," he stated, as though it should have been obvious to the young woman beside him.
"You make me sound like one of your breeding cows," Gabrielle snapped.
"Whatever," he shrugged. "My father said I had to get married and decided you'd do. He wants a decent woman." The sneering tone in his voice alerted the bard that Tomisus didn't think she quite fit the bill for the sort of woman his father was looking for him to marry.
"And I'm not decent?" Gabrielle queried, the fire lighting in her eyes.
"No decent woman would leave her village to follow some damned warlord, and they wouldn't be going into taverns pretending they're a bard. Only men can be bards, don't you know that by now," Tomisus answered, amazed that Gabrielle wasn't aware of this. "Are you stupid as well as unseemly? You can forget about the barding and writing. Leave that to the men. I just want you to get on and have as many children as possible. That is my only interest in you. Understand now?"
Gabrielle was left so thunder-struck by Tomisus's statement, she had absolutely no idea what to say in reply. What could one say in the face of an attitude like that? She was still too astounded to offer any resistance when the big man took her arm. He silently walked her the short distance back to her parent's house before bidding her a cool good-bye and a pleasant festival. It was only as he disappeared into the gloom that the bard's temper ignited in white hot fury.
Blasting through the front door of the house, Gabrielle stormed down the hallway to her room before slamming the door behind her furious back. "There is no way I am going to marry that man, and Father can't force me to do it," she snarled through tightly clenched teeth. Suddenly she spotted a beautiful white dress, hanging from a hook on the wall. Her mother had obviously made it for her eldest daughters wedding and Gabrielle realized she didn't have a choice about who and when she married. The bride price had been paid and the dowry arranged. The heat of her anger drained away, leaving behind the ever increasing ache the bard felt for Xena. Dropping face first onto the bed, she began to cry bitterly, wondering why she had even thought visiting home would be a good idea.
Outside the door, Hecuba heard the barely muffled sobbing. She had seen Gabrielle storming passed the common room when she returned and had stood to find out what was wrong. Herodotus had grabbed her arm, shaking his head at her. "She'll be alright once she gets used to the idea," he had said quietly. Gabrielle's mother, on the other hand, knew the little bard would never get used to it because she already had given her heart to someone else. A particular, dark-haired warrior woman who was still over at the tavern.
Stretched out on a stone altar, manacled at wrist and ankles, a man lay calmly waiting to be sacrificed to his god. Gabrielle couldn't understand what was happening. Why wasn't the man struggling? She stepped forward to get a closer look at his face, the wall of robed bodies parting to let her through. She knew that face! It was the face of a priest who had been telling her of his god. She had believed his story and now he was about to be sacrificed for those beliefs. Abruptly, she found herself standing by the altar, a knife suddenly gripped in her hand. Was someone expecting her to take the priest's life. "No," she muttered to the assembled crowd. "I can't. I won't take the life of another mortal being," she said.
Gabrielle tried to drop the knife, her fingers unwilling or unable to release their hold on its hilt. Someone was coming towards her. A woman. The bard knew, somehow, she was going to kill the priest if Gabrielle did not. The bard tried to push her away. There was a blur of confused motion and she saw the blade of the knife sinking deeply into the woman's stomach, the look of satisfied pleasure on her beautiful face seemingly out of place with the gruesome scene.
Blood. All over her hands was the blood of the young woman, pumping obscenely from the open wound, staining her palms and dripping grotesquely from her fingers. The shock of what she had done slammed into her mind. "Sweet Artemis," she gasped. "I've taken a life. An innocent life." Turning back, the crowd was gone. The only person still there was the priest, standing by the altar, no longer bound. At his feet lay the body of the woman she had killed. He smiled at her, nodding his head, before disappearing.
The images blurred again and she watched, horrified as the flames leapt from the altar, coming towards her. "No! Not again! I can't go through it again," she cried out to the empty temple. She could feel the flames clutching at her ankles, pulling her upwards. They stroked over her body lewdly, forcing her to feel its fiery touch. "Oh gods, please, no. I can't," she whimpered as that burning touch began to work its way up her inner thighs.
Suddenly, strong, familiar arms surrounded her, protected her from the nightmare images, blanketed her in a warm cloak of love and caring. Feeling their safety around her, she peeped out to see the flames of Dahok receding into the dark mists once more. Fading away, until nothing existed except those loving arms and the safety they offered her battered soul. Looking up, she saw the ice blue eyes of Xena gazing down on her tenderly. "I'll always be here for you, Gabrielle. Trust me," the warrior said quietly. "Now go to sleep. I'll be here when you wake."
Nestling contentedly into those comforting arms, Gabrielle allowed her eyes to close in grateful, exhausted sleep, knowing, so long as she remained in those arms, no harm could possibly come to her.
Xena relaxed as Gabrielle's breathing slowed, the muscular tension of the nightmare fading away as she fell into a deep, natural sleep. She stayed where she was for the moment, the bard snuggled into her chest, arms wrapped around the other woman's slighter frame. Xena knew she would never be able to explain her presence in Gabrielle's room but for now, she was not concerned with the opinions of anyone else. Her only concern was for Gabrielle herself.
What had woken the warrior from a restless sleep, she couldn't say. What had all but driven her from the tavern room was also a mystery. Xena had simply given in to the impulse and walked through the dark night hours, eventually finding herself at the back of the house where Gabrielle and her family lived. She had honestly meant to move on immediately but some impulse had urged her to tip-toe a little closer to the bard's open window. Peering through, seeing the bard illuminated in the bright light of the harvest moon, the warrior had felt the warming glow of her love fill some of those empty places in her heart again. Xena had leaned against the window frame, allowing a tender smile to dance its unimpeded way across her usually forbidding features. As she had pushed herself off the wall, intending to head back to the tavern, and hopefully a better night's rest, the blonde had twitched savagely in her sleep, mumbling under her breath. It hadn't taken the warrior a moment to realize Gabrielle was having another nightmare. She hesitated for several heartbeats before deciding the risk of being caught in the room was worth it.
Climbing soundlessly through the open window, she had quickly stripped her breast and back armor in rapid, well-practiced movements before easing her way onto the narrow pallet. Pulling the bard into a tight embrace, she soothed the sleeping, distraught woman gently until the nightmare had broken and Gabrielle slipped deeper into Morpheus's arms.
Once the blonde was soundly asleep once more, Xena slid reluctantly from the pallet and quickly strapped her armor back into place. Taking one more moment to drop a gentle kiss on Gabrielle's forehead, she exited through the window again as silently as she had first entered the room. Scanning the alleyway before moving off into the darkness, she started to make her way back to the tavern.
Standing at the barely opened door, Hecuba had watched the entire incident. Xena was so concentrated on the bard and her needs, she had never heard the old woman's bare feet padding very quietly along the hallway at the first sound of her daughter's nightmare. Gabrielle's mumbling had been subdued but Hecuba was well used to listening for the sounds of distress any of her family might make in the night, and always responded to them. She had opened the door to Gabrielle's room a bare crack, when she spotted the movement of the warrior, her distinctive shadow silhouetted against the bright moon as she crept inside. Watching as Xena tenderly soothed the dreaming bard and then dropping that single kiss onto her forehead, Hecuba was more determined than ever that this was one couple who would be permitted to be together.
"By the gods, I love festival time. It just seems to get better every cycle," Lila exclaimed as she all but bounced into the kitchen. "There so much to see and do, I never know where to start." The rosy glow of excitement colored her cheeks and she could barely sit still after a day of seeing the events and contests in the market square.
"And judging from that fat, little tummy, you must have visited everyone in the village today. Did you at least save a corner in there for your own mother's cooking?" Hecuba asked, patting her youngest daughter's stomach. Visiting other households and sharing in a little of the bountiful harvest were part of the traditions of festival in Poteidaia. A part Hecuba was sure Lila enjoyed to the fullest.
"Always for you, Mother," she replied. "You make just the best sweet tarts in the whole village. I should know too. I've tried enough of them today."
"Well, you're just in time then. These should be just about done," the old woman said, looking into the beehive oven her husband had added to her kitchen a few cycles after the house had been built. Sliding the tray of tarts onto the table, she playfully slapped away Lila's hand as she reached for one. "They're still hot, dear," she reproached. "Why don't you get your sister. She's been writing away in that room all day and I'm sure she must be starving by now," Hecuba asked politely.
"Do I have to, Mother? Gabrielle has turned into such a grump lately. She used to be a lot of fun, especially at festival, now she just sits about moping all day," Lila said. "I asked her to come with me this morning to do some visiting. I thought she liked to do that. It's traditional. Instead she just chased me out of her room and told me to go away," the younger woman pouted.
"Now you be nice to her. Gabrielle's a little heartsore at the moment and we have to be understanding," Lila's mother countered gently. "Stopping her travels and leaving Xena has unsettled her a bit," she said. Tapping her chin with one finger, she stared off at some point in the distance. "Personally, I don't think your father is doing quite the right thing for her, to be honest. Gabrielle was always a bit of a wanderer, even as a little'un and settling down might not sit too well with that roaming soul of hers." Fixing her attention on Lila, she continued, "Gabrielle never was happy unless she could go and see what was over that next hill or discover what was at the bottom of the next valley."
Lila stepped back a little stunned, wondering what the implications would be if her mother could talk Herodotus out of marrying Gabrielle to Tomisus. "Deon agreed to Gabrielle. I certainly don't want to marry Tomisus," she stated flatly.
"Got a beau of your own, have you now?" Hecuba asked innocently.
The young woman answered without thinking, too concerned that she would somehow find herself walking down the aisle of the village temple instead of Gabrielle. "Yes. I mean, no. I mean there is someone I might be interested in," she muttered to a close, blushing redly.
"Thought as much, daughter," the older woman said, patting Lila's arm. "You just make sure you bring them by the house at some point during festival. I'm sure your father and I would like to meet them. After all, it is a traditional part of festival to go a-visiting."
"But but, how'd you know?" Lila asked, wondering if her mother had said anything to Herodotus.
"Oh, a mother has her ways. Now, go knock on Gabrielle's door and see if you can't tempt her out to try some of my sweet tarts. I know she likes them," Hecuba asked, transferring still warm tarts to a decorated plate so she could serve them up to any visitor she was certain would come calling tonight. There was one in particular she was looking forward to seeing.
Watching Lila walk down the hallway toward the bard's room, Hecuba couldn't help chuckling quietly to herself. "What do you think I do all day in the markets, Lila? Discuss the price of eggs? Why is it that every generation thinks theyre the first ones to discover romance?" Still chuckling, the old woman turned to her oven once more to check on her stuffed grape leaves. "Ahhhh, children. Always full of surprises," she mumbled.
Xena stood in the deep shadows of the little alleyway near Gabrielle's home. She had watched Hecuba wave off yet another small group of visitors a quarter candlemark before and was now merely waiting to see if there were going to be any more people coming to see the bard's family. It all seemed to be sorted out ahead of time as to who would be home and who would do the visiting. The warrior simply wasn't able to see how it could possibly work otherwise. It was almost like there was some kind of schedule in operation. Most carried small gifts of prepared food with them to give to the owners of the homes they visited, often leaving with a covered pottery bowl issuing wonderful smells tucked into their basket in return.
Even Janthious had slipped a little something extra onto her evemeal tray earlier that night. 'Festival gift', he had called it when she had glared up at him suspiciously. It might have been the new clothes but the tavern owner seemed to have warmed up a little to the tall warrior over the last day or so. Then again, it could just be festival spirit as well, she thought. Mother would love this. All the visiting and exchanging of food gifts. Just thinking about her mother's cooking made her mouth water. She silently promised herself, no matter what happened in Poteidaia, she would stop by the inn her mother owned the first chance she got.
Poking her head around the corner of the alley where she had been hidden for the past candlemark, she saw no sign of anyone heading for Gabrielle's home. The few people she could see at the end of the little street, all seemed to be hurrying to the square where the sound of musicians warming up floated back to her on the cool night air.
She stopped for a moment by a full rain barrel, checking her reflection before knocking on Gabrielle's door. Tucked under one arm was a little basket of honey cakes she had made herself, following the festival tradition of bringing small gifts when you visited someone. The tavern cook hadn't been too pleased with the idea of a stranger in his kitchen but Janthious had convinced him to allow the intrusion, even if he did insist on hanging over her shoulder every moment. Paybacks can be a real bitch, she had thought at the time. Adjusting her grip on the bard's staff, she walked towards the porch, suddenly nervous about seeing Gabrielle again.
Hecuba hurried to the door after hearing the brisk knock. She had seen the unmistakable stride of the warrior as she had walked up the little street onto the porch. Not that she had been watching for Xena but the old woman had been finding reasons to look out the window all night, actually making Herodotus a little nervous with her constant up-ing and down-ing. Taking a deep breath, Hecuba opened the door to the one person she knew Herodotus didn't ever want to see.
"Good festival to you," she greeted, urging the warrior through the door. "I'm so glad you came." Ushering the tall woman into the entryway, she took the small basket Xena held out to her. "Oh. Honey cakes. Gabrielle loves these," she said with a wink, after peeping under the lid. Easing Gabrielle's staff from Xena's tight grip, and leaning it against the wall, Hecuba took the tall warrior by the arm and led her into the common room.
It took Herodotus a moment to recognize the woman standing next to his wife. When he did, he scrambled to his feet and was halfway across the room, ready to toss her out again before Hecuba stepped in front of him.
"It's festival, Herodotus. And I am not going to break with tradition simply because you are too short sighted to see what is right in front of you," the old woman growled under her breath at him.
Gabrielle's father looked down into those blue-green eyes and saw the stubborn will behind his wife's words. He knew the festival traditions as well as any in the village. If someone came in peace, without weapons, then even your worst enemy had to be welcomed into your home. It was one way the village elders had of maintaining peace. It was difficult to kill someone in cold blood if you had broken bread with them at some point, hence the tradition of visiting during festival.
Glancing over Hecuba's shoulder, he asked, "You have no weapons with you?" Part of him hoped she was carrying something just so he could have the pleasure of throwing her out of his home. If he made enough noise about it, the village itself might decide it was time to call the warlord to justice.
"All my weapons are back in the tavern," Xena replied in complete honesty, stressing the word 'all' slightly. She had felt almost naked when she had changed into her new clothes but she could see the sense in leaving everything behind. It wasn't like she really needed any of them, being more than capable of defending herself in most situations. The warrior had figured the worst she would have to deal with tonight would be the odd drunken farmer or trader.
Pulling a little at Herodotus's arm, the old woman led him back to his chair, making sure he was seated before whispering to him. "Now, you be nice. It's festival," she said. She left him glaring grumpily at her back as she turned towards Xena, standing uneasily in the center of the room. "Why don't you take a seat, Xena while I go and get Gabrielle. I'm sure she will be happy to see you," Hecuba said brightly. Throwing one last hard glance at her husband, the old woman bustled off to get the bard from her room.
Herodotus looked at the tall woman seated, almost demurely, on a chair across from him, trying to find something, anything he could politely say to her. If he hadn't known exactly who, and what she was, Herodotus would have taken her to be simply another woman from the village. Okay, he did have to admit she was a beautiful woman, one who would have definitely turned his head if he had passed her in the markets, but that didn't change how he felt. She was still the same warlord who had come close to destroying half of Greece in her insane quest for power.
Carefully appraising her appearance, Gabrielle's father did find it a little hard to believe this was the same woman he had heard so much about. He had only spoken with her for a moment after she had saved the villagers from the slavers but he knew who she was and how trouble tended to follow her every step. His only desire at that point, was to get her out of the village as quickly as possible in case there was more trouble on her tail. It was clear to him, however, she had taken some care with her clothing tonight. An ankle length homespun skirt, in the deepest green he could remember seeing, with a matching blouse just one shade lighter. Tiny ties closed the cuffs about her strong wrists and the slightly scooped collar modestly covered any swell of her breasts. Both the cuffs and collar had been trimmed in a light gray offering a subtle contrast against the green. As she turned her head, Herodotus caught the brief flash of light blue from a pair of small ear-rings she was wearing. Altogether, she appeared perfectly normal and not at all masculine.
"How are you enjoying the festival?" he finally managed to ask.
"It's not like home but I think Mother would really enjoy some of the traditions you have here," Xena answered, her rich, low voice contrasting with the almost military burr Herodotus remembered from the only other conversation he had ever had with her.
"Where is home?" Herodotus queried, still desperately trying to find something 'safe' to talk about until Gabrielle and Hecuba returned.
"Amphipolis," the warrior replied. "My mother and brother still live there. Mother runs the local inn and a festival like this would really help her profits, if Janthious's grin is anything to go on." Xena suddenly smiled at Gabrielle's father, surprising him completely with the beauteous way it transformed her face.
Herodotus felt his jaw starting to sag slightly and made an effort to tighten his face again. Having run out of polite things to say to the warlord, and beginning to wonder a little at the stories he had heard over the cycles about this woman, he was probably the most grateful person in the room when Hecuba came walking back into the common area of the house.
"Gabrielle will be out in a heartbeat, Xena. She just wants to freshen up a bit," the old woman said. "I didn't tell her who was here, just asked her to come out and say hello." To be honest, she had been forced to order the despondent bard from her room, using the traditions of festival to reinforce that command. Moving towards Herodotus, she gently took the fingers that where drumming a light tattoo on the armrest of his chair, and almost pulled him to his surprised feet. "Why don't you come and help me put some things together on a tray, dear," Hecuba asked, that iron tone back in her voice again.
"But but," the hapless man started to say but the old woman was already towing him across the room. He quickly realized Hecuba had planned all this for some reason. Giving in to his wife's wishes; there was nothing the warlord could do now, considering the bride price had already been paid, he allowed his wife to drag him from the room. Herodotus decided to wait until they were out of earshot before saying anything to Hecuba about this unexpected, and mostly unwelcomed visit by the warlord.
Xena could just hear Hecuba speaking as she passed Gabrielle coming the other way. Suddenly, the warrior was very nervous about seeing the bard. Focusing herself, she quickly got a grip on the butterflies and waited for the blonde to appear.
The instant Herodotus passed through the leather curtain Hecuba sometimes lowered to use as a door to her kitchen, he erupted in delayed anger. "How dare you invite that harlot into this house. Have you no shame, woman?" he demanded, barely keeping is voice down. The last thing he wanted at that point, was for the warlord to come to investigate any shouting he might do.
"During Harvest Festival, everyone is welcome in this home, regardless of what their past might have been like, Herodotus," Hecuba replied, evenly. The old woman made a point of stressing the word 'past' just to reinforce it was Xena's past deeds he was judging her on, and not her most recent adventures with Gabrielle. "She came here in peace, without any of her weapons AND she made the effort to dress appropriately as well. Can you stand there, husband and tell me honestly that you still think she is the same evil person who actually saved Gabrielle and the others three cycles ago. I know you read our daughter's scrolls almost as avidly as I do," she continued.
"I don't care what Gabrielle has been putting in those scrolls. Hecuba. She could have been told to scribe those things by that warlord," he snorted in disgust, imagining the tall woman standing over his daughter, sword at her throat, making sure the bard never mentioned any of the depraved things the warlord might have been doing to his daughter.
The stubborn lines on Hecuba's face suddenly deepened and the fiery light of pure rage ignited in her blue-green eyes. Herodotus gulped audibly, knowing he had just crossed the line. He had seen that fire in his wife's eyes many times before but rarely was it ever directed at him.
"Sit down, Herodotus," the old woman said coldly.
Her tone was so chilling, Herodotus could feel the frigid breeze as it blew around his shoulders as he sank warily into the chair. Never taking his gaze from his wife, he waited for her wrath to fall on him.
"Whatever Xena may have done before she met Gabrielle is in the past. I trust my daughter's judgement when it comes to other people, even if you don't. She is not a little girl anymore, Herodotus. Xena could no more influence what Gabrielle scribes than you or I can," the old woman snapped. "That so called warlord has saved our daughter's life more times than I can count. You've read that much in the scrolls yourself. If she is such an evil person, why does she do it? Can you answer me that, Herodotus?"
Gabrielle's father mumbled something inaudible under his breath, not liking the turn of this discussion one bit. Not that he could honestly call it a discussion, he wasn't offering a great deal by way of reply. Hecuba did have a point though. If the warlord truly was so evil, why did she let Gabrielle travel with her in complete safety? The last few scrolls his daughter had sent home had her standing by the warlord's side as a real partner, and not some starry-eyed camp follower. Herodotus wasn't quite ready to give up his opinion on that warlord though, no one could change that much, could they?
"Didn't think you could," Hecuba snapped. "Do you want to know the real reason you dislike Xena so much?" she asked.
Herodotus simply shrugged his shoulders, sure he was going to be told no matter what answer he gave.
"You don't like the woman because you think she isn't good enough to be around Gabrielle. Look at who you have arranged for her to marry. Just the richest, most influential LOUT in the village. I'd back Xena's honor over his any day of the moon. Have you seen how miserable that child has been ever since you told her she was to marry again? Have you any idea how unhappy Xena is?" she asked pointedly. "Did you for one, single, solitary heartbeat even think to ask what our daughter really wanted?"
Herodotus temper was starting to flare at his wife's pointed questions, mainly because they were getting a little too close to the truth. "I don't have to ask her. I know what is good for my own children," he snarled pompously in reply.
Hecuba couldn't help herself and suddenly broke into uncontrollable laughter. Seeing the stunned look on her husband's face at her unexpected reaction to his answer, she regained control of herself through sheer force of will. "Dear Husband, have you any idea how silly you sound making that statement?" she asked, wiping a tear from her cheek. "Just because your family forced you into a marriage you weren't ready for, and made you give up making such fine furniture, doesn't mean we have to continue making the next generation miserable," Hecuba said gently. Walking around the table, she lowered herself into Herodotus lap, wrapping her arms around her husband's neck.
Herodotus sat stiffly, trying to resist putting his own arms about his wife in return. He hated fighting with the old woman because more often than not, she was right with whatever observations she made. "But she has to be married, Hecuba" he said quietly, his temper calming. "It's not right that she isn't settled somewhere, having children. You need a place to stay once I am gone too, and Tomisus has agreed there will be a place on his holdings for you after I die," he offered.
"Hrumph," Hecuba grunted. "That old chestnut. I've told you before, I will continue to live in this house, the house we built together until I finally step over to the Elysian Fields myself. And as for Gabrielle 'needing' to be married, wasn't Perdicus enough for you?" she asked.
"But he's dead. And there weren't any children either," Herodotus replied.
"Which means Gabrielle can live out the rest of her life as an honorable widow. There is no reason for her to be married to anyone simply to appease your injured sense of honor. Whether Gabrielle ever has children is a decision entirely up to her now," she said, lifting the man's chin and dropping a gentle kiss on his lips. She had no intention of telling her sometimes stubborn husband his daughter had already birthed a child. Experience with his attitudes over the cycles told her that the child in question would not be one he would be happy to acknowledge, even if she was still alive today.
"She has to marry Tomisus, Hecuba. I signed a wedding contract with Deon this morning. He wanted to be sure that warlord " he started, quickly changing his choice of words at the sight of his wife's face darkening again. "He didn't want Xena coming in after the wedding and making trouble for his son. Deon thinks she is too masculine to be a proper woman. His reasoning seemed sound at the time," he offered.
"Reasons based entirely on the rumors we have all been hearing over the cycles, I suppose?" she asked, pinning Herodotus with her eyes.
Gabrielle's father simply hung his head. Deon's reasons had made sense while they had negotiated the marriage, finally agreeing on a bride price as well as the dowry. He certainly wasn't willing to admit to his perceptive wife how they had each egged the other on in telling wild stories of Xena's atrocities and lust for killing. Each tried to out-do the other in what they had heard about the woman. Now that he had seen Xena though, in his own home and wearing something other than leather and armor, he did have to question some of what he had heard. Could it be true she had changed her ways and Gabrielle really traveled with the warrior because she wanted to, and not because his daughter was being forced in some way? Not that it mattered. He had signed a contract with the other man and there simply wasn't any way out of it.
Hecuba watched her husband drop his head. So, there is a contract, she thought. Well, I haven't heard of a contract yet that can't be broken in some way. It's simply a matter of finding it. The old woman decided the first person she was going to see in the morning would be the temple priest. If anyone knew a way to break a marriage contract, it would be him. Spotting Xena's little gift, she drew the basket of honey cakes towards her. "Here, Dear. Why don't you try one of these? Xena made them and they do look delicious," the old woman said to her surprised husband.
"She cooks too?" he spluttered, suddenly realizing there might be a great deal more to the warrior than he had been led to believe. Maybe I should read through the scrolls Gabrielle sent home again but with a less judgmental eye this time, he thought, willing to be persuaded by his wife's usually accurate judgement.
"I think she helped Gabrielle with her blouse as well. I noticed the seams had been re-sown when Gabrielle came over for evemeal that first night. Two different sets of stitching," Hecuba offered wickedly.
"By the gods, what can't that woman do?" Herodotus asked, stunned. He never realized Xena had any of the more homely skills, assuming Gabrielle had been forced to take care of all those details. For whatever reason, all he had ever heard about the warrior before had involved the arts of war and very little else. If she could cook and sew, then perhaps there was other things about her he didn't know.
The old woman didn't say anything, knowing full well what Xena had trouble doing. Handing her husband a honey cake, she watched as he nibbled suspiciously on one side. A hesitant smile slowly grew on his face and he bit deeply into the small pastry he held in one hand. "Best honey cake I have ever eaten, next to yours, Hecuba," he finally admitted. "I think we should get back into the common room though. I'd like to make some proper festival conversation with the warrior, if that's okay with you," he laughed. "I may not think she is the best sort of friend for Gabrielle, but I would like to know her a little better."
"They're long gone, dear," Hecuba said. "Heard them leaving just after we started um 'talking' to each other." She handed another of Xena's honey cakes to Herodotus. "With Lila over at her friends tonight, and Gabrielle off in the village with Xena, I'm sure we can find some way of honoring the bountiful harvest we had this cycle," the old woman offered, one hand slipping inside her husband's shirt.
Handing Hecuba the basket with the rest of the honey cakes, Herodotus stood, easily lifting his wife in his arms. Suddenly, fighting with the old woman didn't seem so bad if this was how they could make it up again.
Gabrielle slumped her way around the corner of the doorway into the common room. She really didn't want to see anyone from the village but her mother had been quite clear on her obligations as far as festival customs were concerned. It was just one more thing she felt she wasn't getting any choice about. Turning into the room, she saw the deep green of the skirt and blouse moments before her mind registered who was wearing that clothing. As a pair of sky blue eyes came to rest on her own unhappy blue-green, Gabrielle gasped in absolute surprise, "Xena!"
"Hello, Gabrielle," Xena said, a little unsure of what her reception would be.
The bard didn't stop to think. She almost leapt across the small room and straight into the warrior arms, safe in the knowledge Xena would not let her fall to the ground. "By the gods, Xena. I've missed you so much," Gabrielle mumbled into the other womans long, dark hair. "Everything has been so awful," she said, squeezing harder, not wanting to ever let the tall warrior go again.
Xena hugged the bard with one arm in return, bringing her fingers up to Gabrielle's lips in a silencing gesture. "Shhh. I think your parents are fighting about my being here," she said, her sharp ears picking up the icy tones in Hecuba's voice as she spoke with Herodotus. "Is there somewhere we can go?" the warrior asked. "Not too far away though. Your father might think I am trying to kidnap you or something," she grinned down at the woman in her arms.
"Yea, there's a little place on the river near here. I used to go there a lot when I was a kid. I never liked to hear them fighting either," Gabrielle replied, reluctant to actually leave the other woman's gently enfolding grip.
The warrior neatly solved the problem by simply tucking the bard under one long arm before leading her out of the common room and through the front door. She had so missed being able to hold the other woman, Xena would not allow herself to think Gabrielle might not want to be held. Though she certainly didn't seem to be putting up any resistance to Xena's touch. Feeling the bard tugging her gently towards the river, the warrior let Gabrielle lead her towards some hidden nook by the water.
The little hollow in the bank where Gabrielle took them was less than two hundred paces from the house itself but once settled inside, it was like the entire village had suddenly disappeared. Only the soft sounds of the musicians playing in the square drifted in on the cool night air, backed by the sound of the river just a couple of paces from their feet as it flowed in its journey towards the far away sea. The light of the harvest moon lit the front part of the hollow, leaving the back in a comforting darkness. A thick carpet of last season's leaves, probably blown in by the winter winds, covered the floor of the space protecting the women from the cold ground beneath them. The musty scent of damp earth mixed with the smell of decaying leaf litter and the rich tang of the river in front of them, creating an almost other worldliness about the little hollow. They sat, nestled side by side, for some minutes, thinking their own thoughts, relishing the unexpected joy of being back in each other's company, even if it was only for a short time.
Gabrielle tentatively leaned against the other woman, surprised when Xena's arm came up to circle her shoulders warmly. The bard allowed her hand to drift slowly across her body until it was resting on the warrior's stomach. She almost couldn't believe it when the fingers on Xena's free hand intertwined with her own. For the first time in a couple of days, the bard felt a warm, safe feeling steal over her, lifting her spirits and strengthening her courage. Hoping to start some kind of a conversation, she said, "You look really nice tonight, Xena. Did you buy those clothes just to get past my father's disapproving eye?"
"Thought it might be a bit more appropriate for the occasion than my more usual leathers and armor," Xena replied. "Your father seemed to like it." The warrior decided not to tell the bard about the horrors she had gone through to purchase the outfit to start with. Shopping for clothes was never top of her list but she had let the woman in the clothing tent she had chosen help her pick out something that would look good on the tall warrior's muscular body. Xena had been most adamant about one point though, the outfit had to be green, simply because it was Gabrielle's favorite color. Having gotten that much settled with the trader, Xena had stoically endured the nearly endless ritual of trying things on, standing in front of a polished brass mirror as the merchant twitched and brushed the clothing into place, the trader finally deciding she didn't like the way outfit hung from Xenas broad shoulders or narrow waist, only to start all over again. It had been quite a wearing afternoon but, in the end, the warrior felt the effort was worth it.
The bard nudged herself a little closer until Xena simply reached over and pulled the shorter woman into her lap, wrapping her arms snugly around the other woman's body. Gabrielle reacted by promptly bursting into tears. She hadn't meant to do it but it felt like forever since she was last held so tenderly by the warrior she adored. Burying her face into the soft material of Xena's blouse, she allowed the flood of weeping to take its course, releasing some of the pressures that had been building inside.
Xena gently rubbed her hand up and down the bard's back, soothing her as the tears flowed, creating a damp patch on the front of her blouse. Humming quietly under her breath, she waited patiently until the worst of the storm had passed before asking what had brought it on. She was determined not to pressure the bard in any way. They had already been through too much to allow the possibility of a further friendship to be destroyed in the same way they had decimated their love. Wiping the wetness from Gabrielle's cheeks with the edge of her cuff, she queried softly, "So what was all that about?"
"It's just been so terrible lately, Xena," Gabrielle sniffled, not lifting her head from the comfort of the warrior's breasts. "Tomisus said I wouldn't be able to write any more stories once we're married."
The warrior wrapped one hand over the other woman's head, holding it close to her. "By the gods, why ever not? You're so good at it, and even this worn out old warlord can see how happy it makes you," Xena asked in disbelief.
"He made it clear that I was to be nothing more than another breeding animal on his holding," the bard whispered dejectedly.
"It's obviously not what you want," Xena said, gritting her teeth against the anger she could feel bubbling inside herself.
"No, Xena. It isn't what I want with the rest of my life," Gabrielle answered. What I really want, is to spend the rest of my life with you, she thought to herself. "But I haven't got a choice. Father signed the contract this morning and Deon handed over the bride price."
"Contracts can be broken, Gabrielle," the warrior offered.
"It's not about the marriage contract, Xena," the bard sighed. "It's about the obligations I have to my family. Father expects me to marry Tomisus and I have to obey his wishes."
"Why?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle looked up into the face of the woman who meant the most to her. "Because he is my father," she stated flatly. "If I try to go against him, he could take it to the magistrate and I'd be forced into marrying Tomisus anyway. It's better if I simply go along with it," she explained sadly.
"Even if it makes you miserable?"
The bard dropped her head and nodded, not wanting to look into Xena's eyes at that moment. "It's for the best, Xena. You were the one who taught me about doing things for the greater good, and Father is just trying to secure my future, as well as giving Mother a place to go after he dies. That's important to him," she finally said. "I'm not getting a lot of choice about this. I have to wed. But Xena?" she questioned quietly.
"Hmmmm," the warrior replied, her mind racing for possible ways of solving the problem without going against what the bard believed to be her family duty.
"Could you come and visit me again, please. It's festival, so Father can't really say anything about you coming to the house. I really would like to spend a little time with you before I have to go to Tomisus's holdings," she asked. When the other woman didn't answer immediately, she rushed to say, "You don't have to if you don't want. I know how hard things have been between us over the past couple of seasons. I'd just like to be able to part with you knowing we are still friends." Gabrielle dropped her head onto Xena's chest once again, afraid of what the warrior's decision might be.
"I'll come, Gabrielle. Every day if you want me to," Xena replied softly, hugging the woman tightly. There is so much I want to say to her, thought the warrior. Why am I having trouble even starting? Holding Gabrielle for a few more moments, the tall woman finally said, "I think we had better be getting back before your father misses you. Probably thinks I have spirited you away into the night by now."
Leaving their little hollow, the two women made their slow way back to Gabrielle's home. Xena brushed a chaste kiss against the side of the bard's face before turning away into the night. She never saw the tear glistening in Gabrielle's eye or knew she continued watching the tall warrior until she disappeared in the darkness. Only when there was no further sign of the raven-haired woman on the little street, did Gabrielle finally turn and enter the home of her parents.
For several moments after closing the door behind her, Gabrielle recalled everything that had happened between herself and the tall warrior. She didn't hesitate to touch me, or to even hold me, she thought. But she never said anything about how she was feeling? Lifting her head to the look at the solid ceiling beams, she wondered about that. Xena had always been a little quiet when it came to talking about her emotions, something the bard had grown used to over the cycles they had traveled together. It was just the fact Gabrielle needed to know, more than ever before, exactly what the other woman was feeling, if she was feeling anything at all. Not that it really mattered in the end. The bard felt she was obligated to marry because it was her father's wish for her. And what about my wishes? she questioned, as she walked down the hallway towards her room. Why can't I have my heart's wish?
Xena wandered back through the village, distracted by her own thoughts. She didn't notice the gaily dancing couples in the village square or the sounds of the music playing brightly. Through the material of her green blouse she could still feel the dampness of the bard's tears brushing against her skin. Her lips still tingling a little for the tiny kiss she had placed gently on the side of the other woman's face just before leaving. Being apart for a couple of days had done some good in easing a little of the tension both women had been feeling for some time. Just being around the bard earlier had felt wonderful in a way it hadn't since before they had gone to Britannia.
At least I can see her again, she thought. Gabrielle actually asked me to come to visit her. Xena smiled a little at the thought. It would only be for a few days and maybe in that time, I can get her to see she needs to stand up for what she wants. Not letting her write her stories will kill her, the warrior realized, grinding her teeth in suppressed anger again. Damn Tomisus for not seeing that. It's being able to tell her stories that give her so much life and passion. Take that away from her and Gabrielle will simply whither like a flower deprived of sunlight. Xena didn't want to admit, not even to herself, that leaving the bard behind was going to have the same effect on the warrior.
Nearing the blacksmith's shop, Xena decided to pop in briefly and see Argo was being taken care of properly. Not that she doubted the smithy but it always paid to keep an eye on things. She had already been there several time before, talking quietly with her horse and enjoying the quiet solitude. Striding confidently through the darkness of the stables the smith had built against one wall of his forge, she soon found Argo's stall against the back wall and checked all was well with her treasured mare. The horse whuffled sleepily into Xena's hair, nibbling her ear lightly as she stooped to feel Argo's hooves. "Enjoy the holiday, girl," she whispered to the honey-coated mare. "We'll be back on the road soon enough." On our own, Xena thought, trying to ignore the tightening in her chest. Hecuba might think she can bring us back together but it will be Gabrielle's decision in the end, she realized. And she was pretty clear about what she had to do there. Leaning against Argo's side, the tall warrior allowed the pain of the pending separation flow over her.
Biting back the tears, Xena let the familiar sounds and scents of her mare and the surrounding stable trickle through her mind, easing the pain a little. Bright beams of moonlight filtered through the cracks in the boards making up the back of Argo's stall. Xena turned her head, looking at the light as it glowed against the mare's light coat. She noticed the way motes of dust, falling from the platform above danced in the moonbeams like tiny spots of silver. It took her a moment to realize there was a lot more dust flashing in the light than there really should have been. It was not like she was moving around enough to disturb the stall that much.
Glancing overhead, she assumed there must be someone in the hayloft. Being festival, it was entirely likely some couple had overcome their inhibitions, deciding to 'honor' the harvest, especially considering the amount of new ale Janthious had brought up from the cellars for the occasion. Xena's warrior instinct just wouldn't let her simply walk away though. Being harvest, raiders could well be out, preparing to make an attack on the village while it was celebrating. Quickly lifting the hem of her ankle length skirt, she tucked it over the waistband, shortening it sufficiently to allow her legs and feet free movement, just in case she did find a raider or two in the loft.
Moving silently, she climbed the ladder into the hayloft, gliding over the boards towards the back. The sound of heavy breathing reached her ears and she slowed her pace further. Edging around a wall of several bales of hay stacked one on top of the other, she came across the sight of a naked back and buttocks, glistening with moisture in the moonlight. From underneath the sweating body came an equally naked pair of legs, wrapping themselves around the hips of the person above. Xena leaned against the bales nonchalantly, waiting for the couple of notice she was standing there. The warrior thrust a straw between her teeth. She knew it wouldn't be long before the lovers finished, judging from the tension in both their bodies, and the grunts issuing from their throats.
The lower body suddenly trembled, fingernails sinking deeply into a well muscled back, legs clasping tightly enough that Xena could hear the faint pops of their hips. The person on the top collapsed gasping for breath before rolling to one side. It was only then the pair became aware of their audience.
"Hi, Lila," Xena said evenly, taking the straw from her mouth. "Going to introduce me to your 'friend'?"
Lila's head snapped up at the sound of Xena's voice coming out of the semi-darkness near the wall of hay bales. Grabbing the first article of clothing she could find, Gabrielle's sister tried to cover the body of the person lying exhaustedly beside her.
Xena couldn't help smiling to herself. Anyone else would have used the clothing to cover themselves, instead the young woman was trying to hide the identity of her lover. "I really wouldn't worry about that, Lila. I already know who he is," the warrior said, placing the straw back between her teeth once more.
"You startled me. Xena. Do you always go creeping about the hayloft at night?" Lila asked archly, trying to ignore the fact she was completely naked and had no idea how long the warrior had been standing there watching them. Then the tall woman's last sentence slammed home. Xena knew who her lover was. "It's not how it looks," Lila said, trying to defend herself.
"And how might that be?" Xena asked. "From where I stand, I can see two naked people. One who happens to be Gabrielle's sister and the other being the son of the blacksmith," she continued wickedly. "By the way, can he speak yet?" Behave yourself, warrior, Xena thought sternly. You're enjoying this altogether too much. I'm sure you could recall a time or two when Gabrielle left the former Destroyer of Nations pretty much speechless too.
"I can speak," the blacksmith's son said quietly. "You're not going to tell Lila's parents, are you?" he asked nervously. "I'm the one who seduced her. Not the other way around."
"What's your name?" Xena questioned, flicking her bit of straw aside.
"My Mother named me Jathamlous but no one ever calls me that anymore. Ever since I was old enough to run about the forge, Father has called me Little John," he explained.
Xena had spotted the young man almost the moment she had stepped into the blacksmith's forge when she had brought Argo over for some new shoes. Even though she had not seen the face of Lila's secret lover, the curve of the lads muscular shoulder and his strong hands were unmistakable to the observant warrior. She had decided to stay silent about Little John though, seeing it as none of her business, for the moment anyway. "Because he's Big John, the blacksmith?" the warrior queried.
Little John nodded. "Mother didn't have any more children after me, so Father decided to teach me about smithing. He had to have someone to hand the skills onto, and there really wasn't anyone in the village he was interested in apprenticing." Little John shrugged his well muscles shoulders. He was well aware of Herodotuss opinion of his profession. Gabrielles father simply assumed he could make a better match.
"Get dressed," Xena ordered.
"Are you going to tell my father?" Lila asked, scrabbling through the loose hay for her clothes, handing Little John his own as she came across them.
Xena appeared to think about the question for a moment. "No. I won't tell your father, Lila. Yours either, Little John. But you have to make me one promise," Xena replied, one eyebrow quirking up in an all too familiar gesture.
"Anything," the young couple said at the same time.
"I want you to promise that if the time ever comes, you both will fight for your love. No matter who it is, you stand strong before them and not allow them to shame you into making choices you know aren't right for you. Promise me that," the warrior requested.
Lila and Little John exchanged several glances before turning to the tall warrior. "We promise, Xena," Lila answering for both, not quite sure what the warrior meant by 'if the time ever comes'.
"Now go and enjoy the festival," Xena said before turning on her heel to leave the loft. Stopping at the ladder for a moment, she continued. "Be sure to get all that hay out of your clothing or you might find yourself in that fight a lot sooner than you wanted. Herodotus is a typical man for these parts but he is not completely stupid." Or, at least, I hope he isn't, Xena thought as she made her way back down into the stable itself. Leaving the building, headed for the tavern, Xena hoped her unexpected champion, Hecuba, was somehow able to change Herodotus's mind about the marriage. If not, she might find herself in a fight of her own.
Hecuba eased from the bed, sure Herodotus was soundly asleep. Padding lightly to the end of their shared pallet, she opened the big trunk and shifted aside the layer of clothing and blankets stored in the chest. Right at the bottom was a small wooden box, its tight fitting lid held closed by an ingenious lock. She gently ran her fingers over its carved and inlaid surface before hugging the box to her breasts. Glancing at her sleeping husband for a moment, she walked out of the room towards the kitchen.
On the side of her beehive oven, a partially broken mud-brick hid a tiny space behind it. Hecuba eased the brick from its place, her seeking fingers quickly finding the little brass key to the box's lock. Seating herself by the still brightly glowing embers of the fire, the old woman opened the box, though she already knew its contents as well as she knew her own name.
The first item Hecuba pulled from the box was a finely carved tortoise-shell comb, its teeth a little worn from use. Across the top of the comb was a thin inlay of lapis, the bright blue of the stone glinting in the light from the fire. The old woman gently kissed the comb before laying it to one side. Under the comb was a pile of folded parchments, creased and stained from the number of times they had been opened and read. Taking the first parchment, she unfolded it. Reading the letter by the light of the fire, she brushed a tear from her cheek. Finishing that letter, she took the next one and read it also. Over the next candlemark, Hecuba slowly read her way through all the parchments in the box until there were no more. Taking the comb between her fingers, she stared into the fire letting her thoughts roam into her past, and the memories she had of a happy, loving time from long ago.
So lost in her recollections was the old woman that she jumped nervously when a hand unexpectedly came to rest on her shoulder. Snapping her head around, she saw Gabrielle standing over her, looking concerned at the far away expression she found on her mother's face.
"Gabrielle, child. You gave me a bit of a start," Hecuba said. "What are you doing up at this time of night?" she asked as the bard settled on the mat in front of the fire beside her mother.
"I was about to ask you the same thing, Mother," Gabrielle replied, trying not to look at the parchments piled in Hecuba's lap or the comb she still held between her fingers. The bard had not been sleeping too well, tossing and turning as she tried to get used to the idea of leaving Xena behind forever and becoming some kind of brood mare for a man who didn't love her. She had given up in the end. Hoping a mug of warm milk might help ease her into Morpheus's arms for the night, the bard had tip-toed into the kitchen, surprised to see her mother sitting by the fire.
"Oh, I was just reading some old letters, my daughter. I don't sleep as well at night as I used to, so sometimes I read a little to help me doze off again," the old woman replied, making no effort to hide the letters or the way she was stroking the comb in her hands.
"Who are the letters from?" Gabrielle asked, curiously.
"Someone I knew a long time ago. I doubt they are still alive anymore but I like to read the old letters sometimes."
"They gave you the comb too?" the bard queried, noticing the beautiful stone inlay. The blue was almost as vibrant as Xena's eyes, though the lapis was deeper in color. The blonde had already made the assumption that her father had not given Hecuba the comb, nor written the letters or why would her mother keep them in a locked box?
The old woman nodded in reply. Thinking for a moment, she asked, "How would you like your old mother to tell you a story tonight? A story about my own past?"
Gabrielle looked at her mother inquiringly. It was not often Hecuba would speak of her past and the bard was curious to know what she might have to say. Nestling in close to the old woman, Gabrielle prepared herself to listen to the tale.
"I think you're old enough to hear this one, and considering your circumstances, it might be worth telling you now," Hecuba started. "A very, very long time ago, before I met your father, I was much in love with another. It was a woman, Gabrielle. Does that shock you?" she asked.
"Not really, Mother," Gabrielle replied after thinking about it for several heartbeats. "You've always had such a big heart that I'm not surprised you could overlook a little detail like someone's sex," she laughed lightly. "But go on. You loved her. Who was she, and what happened?"
"Her name was Arna. She worked in the tavern in my village and to me, she was the most beautiful woman alive. I went to the tavern every night for moons just so she would notice me. A single smile made my heart soar. A few words had me floating on a cloud for days afterwards."
"Mmmm, I know that feeling," Gabrielle offered. She really wasn't surprised at finding out her mother once loved a woman. It certainly helped the bard understand how she could love Xena as she did. The attitudes of acceptance and tolerance of differences was something her mother had gone to some lengths to instill in both her daughters, though it seemed to have taken deeper root in Gabrielle's soul than Lila's.
Hecuba smiled, brushing the hair from Gabrielle's forehead. "One day she more than noticed me. Arna hid a note under my plate one night asking me to come to the stables to meet with her. That was where everything started for us. The sort of love we shared wasn't something really considered right and proper," she continued. "It wasn't something we could be open about."
"That's putting it mildly, Mother. I've seen the way people react when they come across Sapphism in other parts of Greece. The attitude can be really nasty sometimes," Gabrielle said.
The old woman nodded. "As much as things change, some things are always going to remain the same. Anyway, Arna and I would meet secretly in the stables every night after evemeal. I lived for those meetings, and the letters she wrote to me," Hecuba said, indicating the pile of parchments in front of her. "When I reached the winter of my seventeenth year, my father arranged for me to wed Herodotus. It was expected of me and I allowed it. Duty to family can sometimes have us forgetting about our duty to ourselves," the old woman said pointedly. "Herodotus knew I had a close friendship with Arna but he never realized how special she was to me, and I have never told him. I think it might kill him to know how I pined for Arna after our wedding."
"Oh, Mother. It must have been awful for you," Gabrielle sympathized, realizing why Hecuba thought the bard might see the tale as appropriate to her current situation. The bard was giving up the life of travelling she so loved, to be with a man she barely knew, much less like. She didn't think her mother was aware of the 'special' friendship between herself and Xena, but she wouldn't put it past the cunning old woman to have found out somehow.
"It's not so bad, my daughter. Yes, I did love Arna very much but in time, I fell in love with your father. He never could replace Arna in my heart, and I have never forgotten her but he has some special qualities of his own I have come to really appreciate over the cycles. Then, there was you and Lila as well. I would never have had either of those joys if not for Herodotus," the old woman said.
"Why are you telling me this now, Mother?" the bard asked, turning her head a little to look the other woman in the eye.
"Because I don't think Tomisus is right for you. Times change, and people should change with them. Your father honestly believes he is doing what is best for you but child," she said. "only you know what is the right path for you. Only you can choose that path," Hecuba continued seriously. "You can let our wishes guide you but if they are not what you truly want in your heart, then you have to find the courage to stand against us. It might take a little while but eventually, we would understand and accept your decision, whatever that may be."
Gabrielle couldn't quite believe what her mother was saying. Go against what Herodotus had arranged? Stand against her own parents? The bard suddenly felt torn between her desire to fulfill her obligations to her family and following her heart's desire. "Thank you for telling me the story, Mother," Gabrielle finally managed to mumble. "I think I had better get back to bed though. It's been a bit of a long day for me."
Kissing her daughter lightly on the cheek, Hecuba allowed the younger woman to help her to her feet. "In the morning then, my child."
Watching the bard quietly leave the room, the old woman wondered which would be the stronger force in Gabrielle's heart. Her love for her family or her love for Xena. Regardless of the blonde's choice, Hecuba would always love her courageous, adventuring daughter. It was simply a matter of getting Herodotus to see those qualities in her as well.
Xena leaned against the window frame of the room, staring down at the last of the revelers dancing tiredly in the village square. Every night for the past seven-day, there had been feasting and dancing in the square to celebrate the harvest. She was sure by now the drummers and pipers had worn the skin off both their fingers and their drums after so many nights of dancing and frivolity. The warrior shrugged her shoulders slightly, adjusting to the feel of leather against her skin and the weight of armor on her body. After a seven-day of wearing nothing heavier than homespun, it was taking a little getting used to. Before donning her leathers and armor once again she had taken some time to polish the metal to a brilliant shine and oil the leather until it gleamed in the candlelight. It had been little more than an excuse to pass some time before packing the last of her gear. By the time the sun rose above the horizon the next morning, Xena planned to be leagues from the village and Gabrielle's pending marriage.
Shifting her position to the other side of the window frame, she could just make out the thatched rooftop of Gabrielle's home. As she'd promised, Xena had visited every day, spending time not just with Gabrielle, but with the bard's parents as well. On the first morning she had gone to visit, the warrior had just arrived at the house when Hecuba came bustling back from some early morning errand in the village, a pre-occupied look on her face. The warrior had been curious about the look on the other woman's face and the odd glances Hecuba had been giving her over the past seven-day but didn't think it was her place to question Gabrielle's mother. Spotting Xena, Hecuba had invited the tall woman inside to break her fast with the rest of the family before everyone went to the square to see what events and contests were planned for the day. The warrior did have to admit privately that she had actually enjoyed taking part in the simple pleasures of the harvest festival, regardless of the lingering ache in her chest. She had grown so used to that, it was now part of her.
Tonight, however, had been her last night with the bard. They had gone to the village square to listen to the music and watch the dancers, Gabrielle somehow convincing Xena to join her in the dancing circle. The one dance theyd shared was going to remain as a special memory for the warrior until the time she finally stepped through to the other side. It had been like there was no one else in the circle with them. There was just the beat of the drums, the gentle lilting notes of the flutes and the feeling of Gabrielle's weight pressing softly against the tall warrior's body. All Xena could see was the soft blue-green of the bard's eyes as they reflected the torchlight, shadowed by some unnamed sadness Gabrielle refused to speak about, a sadness she would not permit to come between them tonight. Wrapped in the smaller woman's arms, nothing had mattered. Not the pending separation, not the pain of the past several moons. There was just the security of the other and all they had once felt. Xena had wished the dance would never end. It had been the bard who eventually led them both from the dancing circle once the last notes had died away in the still night air.
Xena forced herself to turn away from the window towards her saddlebags sitting on the table at the end of the pallet. Flipping open the flap with one hand, she reached for several small items clustered on the bed with the other. Nestled on the top of her sleeping shift was a tiny parcel wrapped in parchment. "Gabrielle must have paid someone to put this here," she muttered to herself, taking the little package from her saddlebag. Quickly unwrapping the parchment, the warrior found her own sigil ring. She had given the ring to Gabrielle the cycle before though the bard didn't wear it simply because it was too large for her smaller finger. Not understanding the significance of the ring, she looked at the inner side of the parchment to find a note written by an unfamiliar hand.
There was just one line on the parchment.
No choice can be made where none is given.
Reading the line over several times, Xena wondered what Hecuba meant by it. As far as she knew, Gabrielle had made her choices and there was now no going back. Tucking the ring into her belt pouch, Xena absentmindedly tossed the rest of her things into the saddlebags, now looking much emptier without the bards gear filling every available nook and cranny. Sighing a little, she took one last look around the small room before quickly shouldering the bags. Closing the door behind her, she stood for a moment in the quiet of the dim hallway. The scent of beeswax filled her nostrils as the candles slowly spluttered out around her, letting the warrior know it would soon be dawn. If she planned to be as far from the village as she wanted, Xena knew she had better get moving soon. A part of her still hesitated, though. Some small voice in the back of her mind whispered incessantly, urging her to stay. Shaking her head to temporarily stop the voice, the tall woman quickly strode along the hallway, dropping down the stairs two at a time.
The warrior was greeted by the silence of the common room, the last customer having long returned to their home, the bar-keep and his staff tucked comfortably in their own beds, all exhausted after a long seven-day of drinking and reveling to celebrate the festival. The room smelled of a recent cleaning under-laid with the sweet scent of Janthiouss excellent ale. Fresh sawdust had been strewn over the floor in preparation for the day ahead, already rapidly approaching. Xena could just make out the first rays of dawns light as they crept timidly through the cracks in the shutters. Placing the key for her room on the bar top, she laid three extra dinars beside it in thanks for the generosity of spirit Janthious had shown to her over the past seven-day. Janthious could have easily asked the warrior to leave his tavern once the bard had moved back to her familys home. Instead, he gradually warmed to the dark haired woman over the course of the festival, often sharing a mug of ale or port with her late at night as she silently struggled to find the strength to spend yet another night without Gabrielle. Whether it was the change to homespun clothing, or something else entirely, Xena never knew. She was simply grateful to have shared Janthiouss friendly company in those late hours of the evening.
Shrugging the saddlebags higher onto her armored shoulder, Xena let herself out of the tavern. Pausing in the deep shadows near the tavern door for a moment, she watched the last of the revelers as they tried to encourage the musicians to continue for just one more dance. Both the drummer and the piper shook their heads stating they couldnt play another note, not even if their very lives depended on it. The dancers eventually let them go with much good natured ribbing before finally seeking out their own beds in various parts of the village. Once the square was empty, Xena slipped out of the shadows continuing towards the stables.
Argo shuffled in her stall, sensing Xenas quietly reflective mood as she reclaimed her tack from the small room just inside the doorway. The warrior was pleased to see someone had taken the time to polish the metal until it sparkled, as well as conditioning the leather of the saddle. In the first pale light of the coming dawn, the warm brown of the leather almost glowed in her hands as she carried the tack towards the back of the stable.
"Probably Little Johns way of saying thanks for not mentioning anything to Herodotus," Xena mumbled to herself as she began to saddle up the patiently waiting mare.
Argo was soon completely saddled, long practice allowing the warrior to buckle everything into place without really having to think about what her hands were doing. Snugging down the last strap on the bags, checking the weight was evenly balanced; not that her gear on its own was all that heavy, Xena found herself still continuing to hesitate. She couldnt bear the thought of watching Gabrielle getting married again, yet a part of her was still urging her to stay on for some reason.
"Its hopeless staying any longer," she muttered quietly to her mount, as though to silence the insistent voice in her mind with logic alone. "If Gabrielle was going to return, continue traveling with us, she would have made her wish clear by now, surely." Argo lipped Xenas fingers, offering what little comfort she could. "Shes made her choices and now I have to make mine," she said to the mare.
Stiffly, Xena forced herself to mount, nudging her heels gently into Argos ribs to move her forward. Settling her face into its most impenetrable expression as they exited the stables, she locked her misery and grief behind the solid wall of her will. As she rode through the still sleeping village, she silently promised herself she would never again come this way, the pain was simply too great.
Gabrielle found herself waking shortly after the sun had risen fully over the horizon, cycles on the road with Xena seeming to have set the habit in her mind permanently. Disorientated for a moment by the strange looking ceiling over her head, it took her a heartbeat to recall exactly where she was. The instant she remembered, the lonely pain of the past several days constricted her chest again. Lifting the top part of her body from the pallet, she glanced out the open window, realizing this was to be her wedding day. Groaning silently, she dropped back onto the bed, allowing the dread she had been feeling about this day to fill her soul.
"Xenas probably gone by now," she mumbled to no one in particular, staring at the ceiling. "She made it fairly clear last night she didnt want to be here today. She never was one to hang around once her mind was made up about something." Wiping a tear from her eye, she dragged her unwilling body from the pallet. As she washed her face in the cold water from the jug, she could hear someone moving about in the kitchen area of the house. Assuming it was her mother, she tried to force a smile onto her face before leaving the room. Pausing at the still closed door of her room, one hand on the latch, she thought, if I just knew what Xena had been feeling, this farce of marriage might be a little easier to go through, somehow.
Entering the kitchen itself, Gabrielle was surprised to see her sister, Lila, stirring something in a pot over the cheerfully crackling flames of the fire.
Lila turned at the sound of the bards light footfall over the threshold. "Morning, Gabrielle," she said quietly.
"Wheres Mother?" Gabrielle asked, looking about the room. "I expected her to be up candlemarks ago, seeing this is supposed to be the day I am to wed."
"I thought I would let her sleep in for a while this morning. She did drink a little more ale than she is used to last night," Lila grinned, mischievously. "Father was furious but everyone was giving him such a hard time about it that he just had to let it go. Everyones supposed to have fun at festival time, even Mother, regardless of what Father might think. Im surprised you didnt notice yourself," she said archly. "Or did you just have eyes for that warrior woman youve been with all festival? You do realize all that is going to stop after today?"
"Leave it be, Lila. I know what my obligations to Father are. I dont need you reminding me at every opportunity," Gabrielle sighed tiredly in reply. Turning away, she muttered under her breath, "I just wish I could see Xena one last time before I have to go through with this."
Slumping down at the table, she waited for Lila to serve up whatever it was she had in the pot for breakfast. Not that Gabrielle felt the least bit hungry. When a wooden bowl of softly cooked grain covered with sweetening appeared in front of her, she took one look before slowly pushing the bowl back across the table. Just the, usually appetizing, smell of the cereal caused her stomach to tighten in protest. Gabrielle realized trying to eat it, or anything else for that matter, would probably have her leaning over the privy emptying her stomach in very short order. Though the idea of throwing up on Tomisus at the wedding that afternoon did have a certain appeal, if only to convince him Gabrielle was not the wife he needed or wanted. Gabrielles mood lighten briefly at the thought of her future husbands look of pure indignation if she did do something so unseemly at the ceremony.
Lila turned with her own breakfast in her hands, only to look with disbelief at the bowl pushed away from the bard. "I thought you liked cereal?" she asked, settling in the chair across from her sister. "Ive never seen anything put you off your food before."
"Guess I just have wedding jitters," Gabrielle lied. Catching Lilas eye, the bard asked, "If you had a choice, would you marry Tomisus?"
Lila choked on her cereal at Gabrielles question. Washing the offending material down her throat with a mouthful of water, she looked back at the bard across from her. "Its not a choice I have to concern myself with, Gabrielle," she finally replied, the satisfied tone coloring her voice irritating her sister.
"Yea, Father might find someone even worse for you," the bard offered, before rising from the table and leaving the room. Chew on that for a while and see if you can swallow it, Gabrielle thought to herself as she returned to her room, closing the door firmly behind her, totally ignoring the stunned and horrified expression of Lilas face. Paybacks can be a real bitch, little sister, she thought as she sat dispiritedly on the bed, and I learned from the best payback artist in the known world.
Towards mid-morning, dark, threatening clouds began to fill the sky, blocking the light from the sun, deepening the cool, autumnal chill under the trees even further. Xena noticed the storm brewing but simply didnt care if she was going to be drenched by the rain. She was more interested in putting as much distance between herself and Gabrielles village as she possibly could. The stiffening breeze blew and whistled about Argos ears, causing her to snort and shake her head in discomfort. The warrior may not have been concerned with getting soaked to the skin but the mare was certainly making it plain she didnt much care for the idea.
When it was clear to the honey-coated animal her mistress wasnt going to stop and shelter from the coming storm, she bucked slightly, snorting loudly to reinforce her displeasure, letting Xena know the mare wasnt happy with the warriors indifferent behavior.
"Settle down, Argo. Its just a bit of rain," Xena said to the swiveled back ears of her mount. Looking at the sky above them through the trees, the warrior took in all the signs of the storm she could see. "Itll be over before it even gets started. Weve been in worse, you know."
The horse responded to Xenas pragmatic assessment by planting all four hooves solidly onto the ground as though she had magically been turned into a statue. After a seven-day in a warm, comfortable stable, she would much prefer to be under some kind of shelter, at least until the worst of the storm was over. Argo was sensing what Xena couldnt see, and knew this was no gentle autumn rain headed towards them from over the hills in the distance.
"Silly animal," Xena muttered quietly. "Okay, Ill find some place for us to hole up until the rain passes. That make you happy?" she snarled at the mare. The warrior really wanted to keep moving but if Argo wasnt going to cooperate, then there was little she could do to get her moving again, short of taking to the horse with a whip, something Xena would have loathed to do unless circumstances absolutely demanded it.
Argo began plodding down the path again as though nothing had happened, satisfied they would be under cover soon. Xena growled at the back of her mounts head but started to search for some place out of the impending bad weather. Less than half a candlemark later, she spotted the partly tumbled down ruins of an old, disused temple just off the main path. There appeared enough of the roof and walls still standing to shelter them both from the coming storm and Xena nudged the mare towards it, muttering about fussy horses and what may befall them if they did this sort of thing too often.
By the time she had gotten them both under shelter; removing Argos saddle and stowing it in the most protected corner so it would not get soaked in the storm, the clouds had taken on the appearance of a mighty, black cloak covering the sky for leagues in every direction. What light still remained had taken on an odd, greenish hue making everything in the ruins and surrounding area look as though it had come from some other world. The wind kept picking up and then dying away to stillness, like some giant creatures breathing. Just from sniffing the smell of rain on the increasing breeze, the warrior could taste the strength of the storm heading her way in the back of her throat. It was going to be a hard one but thankfully, it would be over quickly, leaving little damage in its wake.
"Maybe you were right about getting under cover, Argo," Xena said, looking out at the gathering power of the coming storm, one hand resting on the mares neck to help keep her calm. "The next time you want to take shelter, Ill remember not to snarl at you quite as much."
Nudging the skittish horse deeper into the ruined temple, the warrior found an area where there were walls on three sides of them, leaving one side open so Xena could watch the forest. Most of the roof seemed intact as well, some of the original paint work still visible under a thin layer of dirt and grime. Once the worst of the wind had been cut by the surrounding walls, Argo quickly settled down to wait out the rain with her mistress. Xena meanwhile, found the remains of an overturned column to sit on. Protected from the weather by the wall on her left, she was able to observe the tree-line and low bushes for any potential attackers who might choose to use the storm as cover during an ambush.
Rummaging in one of the saddlebags, the warrior pulled her sharpening stone from its pocket, drawing her sword from the sheath on her back with the other hand. "Might as well do something useful while were waiting," she said to Argo, testing the edge of her weapon before she started to sharpen it.
Already the tall warrior was missing the bright chatter of her traveling companion, talking to her horse not filling the gap in her life left by the younger woman. Usually, whenever they had been held up by the weather in some way, Gabrielle would take the opportunity to try out new stories on the other woman, polishing them and giving them the right dramatic touches. A captive audience, the bard had joked on several occasions. Xena enjoyed listening to Gabrielle tell her tales, though she rarely said anything. The warrior might not have been much of a story-teller herself, but she knew someone with the gift when she heard one, and Gabrielle most definitely had the gift. Xena was left wishing she had expressed her appreciation of Gabrielles talent a little more often.
Running the stone along the length of the blade, Xena tried to focus her mind on the task at hand. Like someone worrying at an aching tooth, she found her thoughts continually returning to the strange note the old woman had left in her saddlebags. No choice can be made where none is given, was all Gabrielles mother had written, enclosing Xenas sigil ring in the note. The significant of that particular action still evaded the warriors thoughts.
"The only reason she chose not to wear it was because it was too big for her," Xena said aloud, momentarily forgetting about the sword and stone still held between her hands. She had been meaning to get the ring resized for some moons but with one thing or another, shed never gotten around to it. The warrior couldnt help smiling as she remembered Gabrielles shy acceptance of Xenas ring the cycle before. Her thanks for Xenas gift later that night was anything but shy, though. The dark haired woman found herself sighing as she realized, belatedly perhaps, beneath Gabrielles bright and sunny disposition beat a heart of true passion. The bard simply chose when and to whom she showed that passionate nature.
"I was blessed, and the fool that I was never even saw the gift she was giving me," Xena mumbled quietly, wondering if another would ever possibly love her as much as Gabrielle had done in the past. The bard may have freely chosen to love the dark haired woman but Xena had been dragged, kicking and struggling, to the same realization.
Once again, the tall womans thoughts turned to the cryptic note Hecuba had left. "No choice can be made " the warrior said, thinking about the words carefully, "where none is given." Turning the words over in her mind, almost tasting their flavor, Xena tried to sense the meaning behind the sentence. She was sure there was one, or why else would Hecuba have written it?
"No choice where none is given" she muttered to herself. "Did I give Gabrielle a real choice about us, or did I simply decide it was over when things got too hard to deal with anymore?" the warrior questioned herself. The sinking feeling in her stomach made it all too plain to Xena she had not been clear about the choices both of them could have made. She should have made those choices unambiguous between them, right there on the beach after their return from Illusia. It could have possibly saved them both moons of hurt as they circled around each other, unsure if forgiveness also meant the trust between them could also be healed.
Xena hung her head a little shamefully. She had missed her chance to make things better between them, even after promising they would face things together when they were still trapped in Illusia, and now Gabrielle felt she had no other choices, other than to do what her parents wanted. "Shell be miserable but what can I do about it now?" she asked herself.
The small voice at the back of Xenas mind started whispering again, though this time the warrior was more prepared to listen. "Perhaps there is still time to make things right," it said in a hopeful undertone.
The sharpening stone in Xenas hand slipped from her grip, thumping to the ground at her feet. The warriors surprised awareness suddenly returned to the outside world again. Could there still be time, even now? she wondered. Looking up, she saw the storm which had been threatening had veered to the north of the valley, leaving nothing more behind it than the smell of freshly washed earth blowing in on the breeze from somewhere. The dark clouds still covered most of the sky but they seemed to be slowly breaking up as a playful wind now toyed with the weakened remains.
Running back to the protected corner where she had stowed Argos gear, she quickly made the mare ready for a dash to Poteidaia. Xena didnt know what good it would do but she had to make Gabrielles choices clear to her, at least. If nothing else, she didnt want to miss what may well be her very last chance to set things right between them. Even if the bard did choose to marry, Xena knew she would stay for the wedding. She had promised they would face things together and she was going to make sure she kept her word to the other woman.
Mounting Argo in one leap, she spun the mare on the spot until she was facing the right direction. "I know youre going to hate this but we need to make the best time we can. I promise you, get me there before that wedding and you can have warm mashes for a seven-day," Xena pledged her horse. Thumping her heels into the mares ribs and with a high pitched battle yell on her lips, the warrior shot back down the path to the village as though all the harpies from Tartarus were on her back trail.
"Stop fidgeting, Gabrielle. You want to look your best at your own wedding, dont you?" Hecuba said, tightening the wide sash around the bards waist and twitching the light-weight material of the gown into pleasing folds.
"Sorry, Mother," the younger woman replied, resigned, not really caring how she looked in front of Tomisus, so long as it was over quickly. She couldnt stop the shudder coursing through her body when she suddenly remembered what usually happened after the ceremony. Very shortly after, if Tomisus had his own way.
If the mere thought of being intimate with Xena, the one person she truly loved, distressed her to the point of tears and beyond, then sex with Tomisus would probably be little better than rape. She didnt think he would take no for an answer when he had made it clear Gabrielle was to be nothing more than another breeding animal on his fathers holding. Trying to explain her treatment at Dahoks hands wouldnt garner any sympathy either. Just how does one explain being raped by a god? she thought. At least Xena had understood because she had been there and seen it for herself. All Tomisus is interested in is getting as many babies out of me as he can. Guess he feels he has to justify the price Deon has paid to Father.
When Hecuba finally had Gabrielles wedding gown settled to her satisfaction, she stepped back to see the overall effect. "Stand up straight, dear," she said, gently. "You look like youre about to become someones drudge, instead of being the blushing bride. This is your wedding day, after all. I do wish the clouds would break up, though," she continued after glancing through the open shutters in Gabrielles room. "A bright day would be a good omen for your marriage," the old woman stated pointedly, looking her gloomy daughter right in the eye as she spoke.
The bard made an effort to straighten her shoulders but her heart clearly wasnt in it. The miserable expression on her face did little to enhance her look as the blushing bride.
"Hmmm," Hecuba muttered, almost to herself, briefly touching the bards strawberry blonde hair. "Just one more thing and then youll be all ready." Bustling away, Gabrielle could hear her mother rummaging in the other room before returning holding something in one hand. Reaching towards the younger woman, Hecuba slid a finely carved tortoise-shell comb into Gabrielles hair over one ear, its bright blue lapis set off even in the dim light coming from outside. "There," the old woman said, standing back to admire her handiwork. "The comb is old, the gown is new. Your shoes are borrowed and the blue "
"Just about describes my mood. Thank you for the comb, Mother but this is special to you," Gabrielle finished. "I cant take it, not with what it means to you," she said, gently touching the comb in her hair, remembering how the color of the lapis came close to matching Xenas eyes. Close, but it wasnt the real thing, and right now, the bard would have given just about anything to see those eyes one more time.
"Nonsense, Daughter. It does no good locked away in a box where no one can see it. I want you to have it. Lets just call it a remembrance of other times." Hecuba answered cryptically, as she turned to leave the room. "I think you still have a little time before your father comes to take you over to the temple, so why dont you relax until he gets here. Its nice to have some time to think before taking such a big step. Your last marriage was organized so quickly, that I would be very surprised if you had a single heartbeat to think about what you were doing. This time you need to be quite sure what youre doing is the right path for you." Clear in the old womans tones was the message Hecuba felt this marriage was not the right thing for her daughter but it was up to Gabrielle to make that decision for herself.
Sitting carefully on the pallet so not to crease the delicate fabric of her gown too much, Gabrielle stared hopelessly out of the window. She wondered what her mother was trying to do. It was obvious Hecuba thought little of the marriage her husband had arranged for the bard but it was also clear she didnt want to openly oppose his wishes either. The two different sets of messages she was receiving from her parents did nothing more than confuse an already chaotic situation. Her father was stressing her family obligations, while Hecuba kept emphasizing the obligations Gabrielle had to herself. The muddle of mixed signals the bard had been getting from Xena over the past several moons did little to make things any clearer.
Touching the comb in her hair, remembering the aching look in her mothers eyes at the thought of what might have been between her and Arna if theyd been allowed to remain together, Gabrielle suddenly realized what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She knew with all the certainty she could muster in her passionate heart, but it now appeared to be too late. Xena had long left the village and the bard wasnt even sure if the warrior would want her around after everything that had happened between them. Hearing her fathers heavy tread coming up the hallway towards her room, Gabrielle felt her options narrow to exactly what her father wanted; a marriage to someone who refused to see the story-teller in her soul.
The village temple was freshly decked out in bright bunting and sweet smelling flowers, villagers milling about inside dressed in their best clothing for the occasion. The soft notes of a flute could be heard playing near the altar as everyone waited patiently for the bards arrival. The decorations and music were quite an accomplishment for the temple priest, considering the Harvest Festival had only ended the night before. From the back of the crowd, someone quietly shushed a child whose cranky voice carried through a wide doorway to the little area where Gabrielle now stood, her back against the wooden door of the temple.
The brilliant colors and fragrant smells were completely lost on the bard as she waited in the ante-chamber of the temple. Her eyes remained focused downward on the light slippers she was wearing. Slippers which felt totally alien to her after cycles of wearing her much heavier walking boots. Gripped between her sweating palms was a bouquet of flowers Lila had gathered from the fields earlier in the day, several of the blossoms now crushed and broken as Gabrielle clenched and relaxed her hands. In her heart, she knew this marriage was wrong but the bard felt she had no option. Xena hadnt once given her any other choices, not in all the time they had spent together during the festival, not even during the moons they had traveled together after leaving Illusia. The emotional messages Xena had given Gabrielle were so vague and ambiguous, the only conclusion the bard could come to, was the warrior didnt wish to continue their friendship any longer. That thought saddened Gabrielle more than the situation she now found herself in.
The sound of her fathers boots stepping into the chamber brought Gabrielles head up with a start. "Theyre waiting for you in there," Herodotus said, quickly nodding his head at the priest indicating he could start the ceremony whenever he was ready.
Herodotus deliberately chose to ignore the unhappy expression on the bards face, determined to see his daughter safely married to someone he thought suitable. He kept telling himself she would eventually settle to the idea, once she was used to it. He had certainly learned to love Hecuba over the cycles. There was also no way she could overlook the advantages of being married to someone whose opinion would, one day, carry a lot of weight in Athens. The prestige she would gain from that alone surely made the marriage worth it. It was certainly worth every farm animal and finger length of land he had handed over in her dowry, at least in his own eyes.
Linking one arm with his eldest daughter, disregarding the slight resistance he felt, the pair began the slow walk down the aisle towards Tomisus, waiting in front of the village priest. The look of utter indifference he saw on the younger mans face surprised him but arranged marriages were based on hard work and mutual respect, not something as nebulous and fickle as an emotion like love.
Gabrielles eyes had once again dropped to the floor just ahead of her feet as she made the short walk towards the priest, and Tomisus. Every instinct she possessed was screaming at her to get away, to run as far and as fast as she could until she was back where she felt she truly belonged; in Xenas arms. But the warrior was leagues from the village, no longer even caring about the bard who had been so much a part of her life. Sensing her father leaving her side and Tomisus taking his place, she listened numbly as the priest began to recite the ceremony of joining, feeling as though a part of her was dying with every word.
Herodotus actually held his breath and started sweating when the priest reached the point in the ceremony where any of Gabrielles former suitors might state their case, perhaps ending his hopes of having his daughter married into one of the most powerful families in the area. A family who could not only see to her future but would also see to the care of his wife when he finally passed over to the other side. Regardless of Hecubas wish to stay in the house they had built together, his decision was for her to go to the home of one of his daughters when the time came, and that decision was final.
Waiting impatiently for a suitable interval to pass, Herodotus noticed Deon was also holding his breath, fearful someone would suddenly stand up to state their case to the priest. It was clear he was as eager to have his son married off as Herodotus was to make a good match for Gabrielle. Beside him, Hecuba was completely expressionless, her jaw tight as she clenched her teeth together. Gabrielles father took a moment to wonder what was bothering her about this match. He knew she didnt approve completely but like the bard, she was bound to get used to the idea over time. Even Lila wore a slightly apprehensive look on her face as time seemed to pass far too slowly. Behind him, Herodotus could hear the shuffling of feet as the villagers grew restive with this part of the ceremony.
The old priest, on the other hand, seemed to be the only one completely calm as he waited, making sure there truly were no others with a prior claim to the young womans hand. He had officiated over his share of arranged marriages but from the expressions of the faces of these two youngsters, this was surely the most mismatched couple he had ever seen. With other arranged marriages, at least the couple had shown a flickering of interest in each other. These two seemed to be total strangers, completely indifferent in their future partner, and from the look of it, that was how it would remain. When, finally, he was certain no one would step forward, he raised his parchment to begin the most important part of the ceremony; the solemn vows each must take to join them together as one.
With the raising of his parchment, the villagers once again settled their attention on him, and the two people who stood before him. He had barely drawn breath when the solid, wooden door of his temple suddenly blasted inward, sounding like some mountain top exploding in earthen fury. Framed in the wide doorway of the ante-chamber pranced a beautiful, golden coated horse, flecked with foam and lather after a hard run. Atop the mare sat the most stunning warrior woman the priest had ever witnessed in his entire life. Halloed from behind in rainbow colors, the warrior blazed with light like the very sun itself, flashes of pure, white light reflecting from her polished armor and gleaming leathers. For one brief moment, the priest thought she surely must be the goddess, Artemis, she appeared so majestic astride her golden mare. It was only when she swung one leg over the mares back to dismount did he notice her long, flowing hair was jet black and not the blonde of a goddess. The priest, and everyone else in the room, immediately recognized her as she strode powerfully up the aisle of the temple, boot heels ringing on the worked stone floor, to stand beside a speechless Gabrielle and an annoyed looking Tomisus.
Gathering what few wits he felt he had left, the gray haired old priest managed to ask, without sounding too startled by the warriors abrupt appearance, "I take it you have a prior claim to plead before me?"
This was not quite how Xena had envisaged talking to Gabrielle about her options, in front of her family and the rest of the entire village, but she had mentally prepared herself for just about anything as she and Argo galloped towards Poteidaia. Blocking everyone standing behind the wedding party from her mind; trusting her finely honed fighting instinct to protect her if someone decided a knife in her back would solve a rather prickly problem, the warrior focused her attention on the old priest waiting expectantly for her to answer his mild query. She felt her muscles relaxing slightly when she saw the light of an active and lively intelligence twinkling in the old mans eyes. At least the priest was not so bound by tradition its stifling his mind, Xena thought, as she tried to find exactly the right words to express herself.
Xena may not have known the traditions for joining in this particular village but some things were always universal. Dropping lightly to one knee, hands resting quietly on the top of the upraised greave, the warrior bowed her head to the priest for a moment, acknowledging his right to question her. From that position, she allowed herself a tiny smile when she heard the almost soundless sigh of relief the old man whispered passed his lips. Probably thought I would state my case with a swinging sword, she realized.
Lifting her head again, Xena focused on the sparkling eyes looking down at her with great interest. "Yes, Priest. I do have a prior claim to state," she said simply, the warriors rich, low voice carrying easily to all corners of the temple.
"Id just like to make sure of this, warrior. You are claiming the maiden, or the man?" the old priest asked. He knew, perhaps better than anyone else after Hecubas early morning visit nearly a seven-day before, who Xena was there for but the conventions of joining required he ask the question. It would avoid any possible allegations of confusion later.
Xenas eyebrow rose slightly at the priests reference to Gabrielle as a maiden, but it was a minor point. "I claim the maiden," the warrior replied, listening, not at all surprised by the sudden spate of whispering that began behind her and flowed through the room like a soft summer breeze. Well, that should give them something to talk about this winter, she thought wickedly to herself as she waited for the next question from the priest.
"And what can you offer the maiden her contracted suitor has not already pledged?" the old man asked solemnly. This was usually where most other prior claims came unstuck but he felt this warrior woman must have something up her gauntlet, otherwise why risk all for the young bard.
Xena knew this question would come up eventually and she was as unprepared to answer it now as she had been in the past. Rising gracefully, Xena turned to face Gabrielle. She was answering the priests question, but the warrior wanted to look into the hopeful, shining eyes of the woman who meant everything to her as she tried to reply. Ignoring the darkly glowering face of Tomisus she could see over the bards shoulder, Xena hoped her heart could somehow frame in words all that she felt.
Stumbling a little with the words, Xena said, "I cant offer leagues of good farm land or herds of cattle and pigs. I dont have a wealth of dinars in the care of some magistrate. I cant even offer a peaceful home or the prospect of having children. I have only my sword, my skills as a warrior and my honor." Stopping for a moment to lick suddenly dry lips, she locked her sky blue eyes with the bards blue-green before continuing, "I have a past filled with the most unimaginable darkness, Gabrielle. A darkness you have had to pay for with your innocence and purity of soul. Because of me, you have done things you never thought possible of yourself a few cycles ago."
Gabrielle stepped a little closer to the warrior, bringing one hand up to gently brush the other womans cheek. "Oh, Xena," she started to say.
The tall woman carefully placed one finger lightly over the bards lips in a silencing gesture. "Let me finish, Gabrielle," she said, smiling down on the smaller woman.
In the minds of both women, the temple and everyone in it had ceased to exist for them. It was like they were all alone again in the village square, dancing together to the sound of their own hearts beating. Xena took Gabrielles still upraised hand between both of her own strong and callused palms, drawing the other woman close to her armored chest. "The road is the only home I know anymore and the sword is the only way of life I have, but I swear to you, I dont just love you, Gabrielle. You own me completely," Xena admitted. Her low voice dropped to a whisper, a whisper that was still clearly heard by everyone gathered in the temple. "You truly are the other half of my soul, Gabrielle. I have only my heart to offer you, and the hope that it is enough."
Gabrielle smiled up, tremulously, tears threatening to overflow from the corners of her brightly shining eyes. "Its enough, Xena. More than enough. Ive never wanted for anything from the day we first met, and Ill never want for anything as long as I am with you," the bard managed to say before her emotions caused her to drop her head to Xenas breast plate and start weeping gently from the joy of finally returning to the place she knew she had always belonged.
Xena wrapped her powerful arms around the quietly sobbing bard, keeping her own tears at bay by sheer force of will. Dropping her head to kiss the top of Gabrielles hair, she was content to simply stand in the comforting circle of the other womans arms, finally understanding the safety Gabrielle had always said she found when Xena held her tenderly.
"Oh, how sweet," Tomisus snarled sarcastically from behind the bard. "You might think shes yours, warlord but my father signed a marriage contract with Gabrielles father, in case you didnt know."
"A contract that will be honored, unless youre intent on simply stealing that young woman like you have stolen everything else in the past," Deon growled, the metallic sound of a long bladed knife being drawn from its sheath alerting Xena to the mans intentions.
In a heartbeat, Xena made a quick half-turn protectively placing her own body between the bard and Tomisuss angry father. Releasing Gabrielle, the warrior turned back again, whipping her sword from its sheath with the speed of a striking viper. Out of the corner of her eye, the warrior could see the other woman now backing her up, a shoulder high candlestick held confidently in her hands, the bards well toned muscles easily compensating for the heavy base. The sudden raising of Deons eyebrows suggested to Xena that perhaps he didnt know a great deal about the young woman he was attempting to purchase for his son.
"Surely you knew the Queen of the Amazons would know how to protect herself?" Xena asked, her voice shaded just this side of being completely insolent.
"Queen, eh? And just when did I take up that particular title again?" Gabrielle whispered quietly from beside the warrior, knowing her uncanny hearing would pick up the words. "Ephiny wont be impressed when she finds out about that."
"Queen? Of the Amazons?" Tomisus squeaked, slowly stepping back away from the altar. Snapping around to his father, the man continued, his voice high pitched with barely suppressed fear, "Im not marrying anyone who is an Amazon. Shell kill me the first time we have an argument. You promised me a suitable woman, Father, not some forest warrior who has better fighting skills than mine."
"Shes an Amazon?" Deon repeated in stunned surprise. Turning his head a fraction, Deon snarled at Gabrielles father. "You never said anything about her being a blasted Amazon. What kind of fool do you take me for? I paid you good money for a suitable bride for my son and you try to force an Amazon on me instead."
Herodotus had the decency to look ashamed at Deons accusation. "I didnt think it mattered," he mumbled. "I assumed once Gabrielle was married, she would forget all about that kind of nonsense."
Xena felt the bard step a little closer to her father, the candlestick still held firmly in her grip. "You simply expected me to forget about my responsibilities to the Amazon Nation? And just who was it that taught me about responsibility and honoring my obligations in the first place, Father?" she asked, the chill tone in her voice cooling the air between them.
Herodotus hung his head and mumbled soundlessly, his feet starting to shuffle in the stone floor. Glancing up at his angry daughter, he offered, almost as an explanation, "I just wanted what was best for you."
"I know what you wanted, and it certainly isnt what I think is best for me," the bard snorted back at her father. "If only you had thought to ask me, you might have known what I see as my responsibilities. Instead you just tried to order my life around to suit yourself. Forget it, Father. Im not your little girl anymore and its about time you realized that." The tone of finality in the bards voice made it clear to everyone in the temple that Gabrielle had no intention of shifting from her stance. She would follow her own path, for good or bad, and not bow down to the decisions made by her father again.
"That might be all well and good but I paid a damned high bride price to have a suitable woman for my son. If I cant have the older, then the younger will do just as well," Deon growled into the icy silence, raising one hand to point at Lila standing beside her mother.
"Oh gods, no. I cant, Mother. I just cant," Lila said, one hand lifting to cover her mouth as she turned entreatingly towards her mother.
Gabrielle sensed Xenas tense readiness relaxing slightly as Lila spoke. Surely she isnt going to sacrifice Lila just to keep me? she wondered. Hang on, maybe theres more going on here than I know about. Its not like Ive been paying a lot of attention to anyone elses problems for the past seven-day. The bard waited patiently to see what was going to happen next. She was starting to feel this was some kind of complicated game where the only person who knew all the rules was Xena, but she often felt that way around the blindingly intelligent warrior. Things usually worked themselves out in the end, even if it wasnt always the way Gabrielle assumed the dice might fall. Its going to be interesting to see her solution for this problem, the bard thought. Though, she doesnt seem to be doing anything other than waiting like the rest of us.
From somewhere in the back of the crowd of villagers, now pressed against the walls of the temple in case there had been some kind of swordplay, a short, well built figure worked their way forward, quickly crossing the floor to tuck the distraught young woman under one strongly muscled arm, using the other massive hand to gently nestle her against his broad shoulder.
"Im sorry, Deon but you cant have Lila anymore than you could have had Gabrielle," the young smith apprentice said. "If you want to contest my claim, then I am more than happy to fight for the honor of, one day, joining with Lila."
Deons eyes popped open, not knowing whether to be shocked at this particular turn of events, or angry that he had been thwarted yet again in his quest to find a suitable bride for his son. One look at the broad shouldered and powerfully muscled smith told him Tomisus wouldnt stand a chance against Little John in an honorable fight. Turning to face Tomisus, all he got in reply was a resigned shrug of the shoulders before the younger man stepped back away from the altar completely.
Accepting the inevitable, grudgingly, he said, "I assume youll make arrangements for the return of my bride price, Herodotus." Slipping the knife back into its sheath, Deon moved to stand beside his son, wondering if he would ever find someone to ensure the next generation of his family.
Gabrielles father was standing with his own jaw hanging open in surprise. He hadnt even known Lila was interested in anyone, but did it have to be a smith of all things? Nodding numbly at Deon, Herodotus tried to come to terms with the sudden change in circumstances. Smiths were never rich, he thought. Never likely to be either.
Hecuba had kept her own voice still while everything unfolded in front of her but the look on Herodotuss face told her exactly what he was thinking. Cycles of living with the man left him a completely open scroll to her perceptive eyes. Slapping him lightly on the arm, she whispered, "He may never be a wealthy man but hell always be in work, and they clearly adore each other. Which is more important, Husband? Rich and lazy or hard-working and loving. I know which one I chose when we were married."
With just the faintest showing of ill-grace, Herodotus accepted both his daughters had chosen love over the stability a wealthy husband could have given them. Though in Gabrielles case, he still wasnt sure why she loved the warrior woman. It wasnt like she had anything to offer his eldest, not even the prospect of children, but if that was what the bard wanted for her life Herodotus had given up fighting with her about it. Eventually, theyll have to settle down, he thought, mentally shrugging. Even a warrior as fast as Xena has to retire when their reflexes start to slow. I wonder if Gabrielle might make room for Hecuba then?
"Dont even go there, Husband," the observant old woman whispered into Herodotuss ear. "We built that house together and that is where I intend dying." Pausing for a moment, she said, "Come on. Xena is starting to look very awkward just standing there with her sword hanging out and no one nearby to slice up with it."
Herodotus sighed deeply, realizing just how little control he truly had over his family.
Around the temple, people slowly moved away from the walls where they had sought safety during the emotional fireworks, congregating in the center of the room talking among themselves. Everyone had come for a wedding and been presented with something else entirely. Wondering if there was going to be any more excitement to liven up their day, giving them something to chat about during the long, dreary winter ahead, most were not willing to leave just yet. As the noise level slowly rose, Xena carefully returned the sword to the sheath on her back.
"I think you might as well send them all home, Priest. Doesnt look as though anyone is getting married today," she said. "Unless Little John can convince Lila to stand with him," the warrior continued wickedly, catching the young mans eye. She wasnt surprised when they both shook their heads, smiling their regrets at their unreadiness, at least for the time being.
Spotting the disappointed look on the young bards face, the old man snorted in disagreement. "Stay right where you are, warrior, or Ill call down on you the wrath of every god I can remember," the priest stated firmly. "No wedding indeed," he finally muttered as he turned away for the dark haired woman, catching up Gabrielle with one hand as he stalked back to the altar.
"Whats going on now?" Hecuba asked as she moved with Herodotus to stand beside the warrior. The old womans equally perplexed husband watched as the priest spoke first to his daughter, making vague gestures towards the little group, before both suddenly disappeared into a small alcove to one side of the main temple area.
Xena just shrugged her shoulders in reply. She had her suspicions but wasnt willing to voice them in front of Gabrielles parents.
It was several minutes before the pair came out of the alcove, the priest carefully blowing the ink dry on a piece of parchment as he return to his usual place at the altar. Gabrielle continued on her path towards the tall warrior, the expression on her face a mixture of happiness, determination and outright trepidation. Finally standing in front of Xena, the bard reached out, taking the warriors larger hand in her own. The tension Gabrielle was feeling radiated from her, alerting the villagers still in the temple that something important was about to happen.
Smiling nervously, Gabrielle began, "You said earlier I own you. Is that true, Xena? Do I really own you?" Squeezing the hand she held, the bard encourage Xena to forget about the small group of people around them. People who were now listening avidly for the warrior to answer.
Reddening slightly, Xena nodded that it was true.
"Then, if that is the case " Gabrielle started. Abruptly dropping to one knee in front of the taller woman, still keeping hold of Xenas hand for fear she might actually bolt, the bard said quietly, "Will you marry me, Xena? Will you make it official, before my family and my home village?"
The warrior was left thunderstruck by Gabrielles simple request. She had been suspicious something like this was in the wind when the priest took the other woman off, but to hear the bard actually ask, and front of her entire village as well. For probably the first time in her life, Xenas intelligence fled, leaving her grasping the empty air for words. "But its not Legally Theres no ceremony," she stammered in stunned reply.
"There is a ceremony, Xena," the old priest said from her side, flapping his parchment gently. "I just wrote it, with Gabrielles help," he smiled down proudly at the young woman still on her knee in front of the dark haired warrior. "As for legal, that doesnt matter. Morally, on the other hand, well, its fine with me and I am willing to sign a certificate to prove it." The stubborn set of his lined old face made it clear he would state any joining between the pair was legal and moral, at least in this village.
"I wouldnt try fighting it if I were you, warrior. Seems the women of this family always get what they want," Herodotus observed quietly from his position next to Hecuba. The events of the entire day had quite shaken him and he was resigned to going along with whatever else the gods might care to toss in his general direction. Thinking about it for a moment, he wondered if there were any advantages to having his eldest daughter married to one of Greeces most feared, former warlords. Smiling to himself, Herodotus decided it might be worth thinking about.
The old woman laid a gentle hand on Xenas tense arm. The tall woman looked for all the world like a young horse suddenly startled by some noise at their feet, eyes rolling in fright, snorting vigorously to prove they really werent as scared as they appeared. Hecuba almost thought Xena was going to faint from the surprise alone. She stilled her tongue though, allowing Xena to reach her own decision. Any advice Hecuba might offer could easily wait until after the two were wed, if that was what the warrior decided to do.
I came here to make Gabrielles options clear to her and as usual, she has turned the tables on me, Xena realized with a certain amount of chagrin as her wits finally returned to her. And I thought I was getting good at those sensitive chats too. So much for the warrior image, I suppose, permitting herself a purely mental shrug of the shoulders. Smiling down at the woman still waiting apprehensively at her feet, Xena said just one word, "Yes."
"I still cant believe how quickly he did this," Gabrielle said, holding her left hand up to the candlelight.
"The ring, you mean?" Xena queried from her position sitting on the floor of their room in the tavern. She was trying to find a way of fitting all of Gabrielles gear back into the saddlebags but was being stumped. How in Tartarus did she fit everything in here before? the warrior wondered. I sure cant get it back in there now, she thought, looking at the overflow still piled on the floor next to the bags.
"Yes, Xena, the ring. Remind me the next time I need something resized to just let Little John do it," Gabrielle said, turning Xenas sigil ring until it twinkled in the subtle light from the candle. "You cant even see where he took a piece out of it to make it fit my finger," she continued, incredulous at the speed of the young mans superb workmanship.
She was equally incredulous Xena even had the ring to begin with. With the hurried way she had packed her things at the time, Gabrielle was sure she had lost the ring in the market place when shed dashed across it after leaving the tavern. Shed been unaware Hecuba had found it among her things and sent it to Xena the night the warrior left the village. When the priest asked if anyone had a ring they were willing to loan the couple until they could get one of their own, Xena surprised everyone by pulling her sigil ring from the pouch on her belt. Little John immediately saw it was too big for the bards small hand and had dashed over to the forge to resize it while Hecuba, Lila and half the women in the village saw to the details of making the warrior presentable for her own wedding.
Xena gave up on the saddlebags for the moment and climbed onto the pallet with the bard. "Well, your mother must have set some speed records of her own. Hecuba would make one incredible general if she was in charge of an army, she just kinda, well, took over," the warrior observed, the same stunned expression she had worn earlier in the day appearing on her face again. She had stood in the center of a whirlwind of women, wondering if drawing her sword would possibly save her from their ministrations. It would have been a close thing, if the bard had not stepped in at the exact moment Xenas patience finally wore out completely.
Laughing, Gabrielle replied, "And you kept complaining about having to take your armor off before the priest would let you near the altar to get married."
"It wasnt that so much. It was more the garland of flowers Hecuba made me wear on my head," the warrior grumped.
"Not to mention the lengths of multi-colored ribbon and that huge sash Lila found," Gabrielle continued, almost helpless with laughter remembering the transformation of her usually spartan warrior. Xena would have looked wonderful too, if not for the scowl she wore right up until the moment the ceremony began. Once the priest started to speak, Gabrielle was sure Xena could have been stark naked and been completely unconcerned; the warrior only had eyes for the woman by her side.
A wicked gleam filled Xenas eyes as she recalled another incident. "Your father looked like my chakram was going to jump up and bite something tender. Ive never seen anyone hold it quite that way before," the warrior smiled at the helplessly giggling woman lying beside her.
Gabrielle fought to control herself before she could speak again. "Well, you did just thrust it at him. I think the only other weapon he has ever held is some old sword his father gave him cycles ago." The bard paused for a heartbeat and then continued, "Do you think the village will ever recover from that battle yell you let loose with after you kissed me?" she asked, the laughter lurking just beneath the surface.
"Oh, theyll recover eventually," Xena replied, grinning recklessly as she remembered the stunned reaction of the villagers. Several of the more delicate ladies at the back of the temple had actually fainted at the sound of the warriors characteristic battle cry.
Looking over at the other woman, Gabrielle sobered as she tried to find a way to introduce a topic which had very much been on her mind since the ceremony earlier in the day. "Xena?" she asked, seriously.
"Hmmm," the warrior replied, pre-occupied with watching the muscles relaxing and contracting along Gabrielles abdomen as the bard breathed. An abdomen she could now watch to her hearts content because the other woman was once again wearing her familiar traveling outfit, her walking boots on the floor next to the pallet. Stripped of her armor, Xena was stretched out next to Gabrielle, not quite touching her but close enough she could feel the warmth of the other womans skin against her leathers.
"This is our wedding night," the bard stated, quietly.
"Yes. I guess it is," Xena commented, already assuming where this conversation might be headed.
"Arent we supposed to " Gabrielle paused for a moment, uncomfortable. "Arent we supposed to consummate it. You know, to make it binding or something," she finished awkwardly, embarrassed.
The warrior smiled at the other womans wording. "I dont know how much more binding this joining can be, Gabrielle. Three cycles on the road together. Both of us have returned from death because the other called. Weve loved each other with an intensity Ive certainly never experienced before, and weve hated just as intensely. We found our way out of Illusia because we promised to face everything together. I cant see how much more binding things between us can be. But if you really need to consummate the joining, I guess I can oblige you there," Xena replied, a slightly wicked edge to her voice. Moving closer to the bard, Xena drew Gabrielle into her powerful arms.
Gabrielle braced herself for what would be an emotionally wrenching experience, not to mention physically. After the brutal rape in Dahoks temple, she knew she wasnt ready to be completely intimate with Xena but she trusted the warrior, allowing her to do what she wanted. After all, they were married now and this was what couples did on their wedding night.
Xena brought her face closer to Gabrielles, gently kissing the other woman on the lips, gauging the depth of the kiss to the bards reaction. After several long moments, she pulled back, releasing her hold on the shorter woman. "There," she said. "Our marriage is consummated."
"But " Gabrielle spluttered.
"Shhh," the warrior replied. "When youre ready for more, well, Im patient and we do have the rest of our lives together to consummate to our hearts content, you know. I dont mind waiting for a while now."
The bard snuggled against Xenas leather clad chest, sighing happily. "I dont know what I ever did to deserve you but Im glad you came back for me today," she whispered, gently kissing the skin above the warriors bodice.
"Remember that when we have to go through this wedding nonsense all over again when we visit my mother. And again when we stop at the Amazon Nation. Theyre going to insist, seeing we were so inconsiderate about not inviting everyone in the known world to the ceremony this afternoon."
"Oh gods," Gabrielle groaned. "How many times do we have to go through that?"
"Until people get tired of seeing the Warrior Princess with flowers braided in her hair," Xena laughed in reply.
"And covered in colored ribbons and a huge sash," the bard continued. "Oh well, I suppose getting married every few days is better than having to pound on bad guys all the time."
The two women then snuggled down peacefully to enjoy the first day of the rest of their lives together, ribbons, sash, flowers and all.
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