The following story uses the characters of Xena, Warrior Princess, and Gabrielle of Potadeia, who are the property of MCA/Universal. The story is mine, with thanks and apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien, and Robert Frost
There is violence, death, and nasty sex in this story. If that disturbs you, please make another selection.
Miles To Go
By M. Parnell
" That last bit makes no sense."
Gabrielle looked at Xena, puzzled. "What last bit?"
"That last story. Why did the lovers agree to part forever? If they were in love, they should have fought harder to stay together." Xena shook her head at the lack of logic.
The warrior and the bard were on a seldom used trail which wound through low foothills. Xena walked, holding Argo's reins; it made for easier conversation. Gabrielle was certain that when Xena was tired of her stories, she rode the horse. She had never even suspected that until Ephiny had joked about it. She was flattered now that Xena had not been on horseback all day.
"Xena, I finished that story before we stopped to eat. That was ages ago. Have you been thinking of it all this time?"
"Yeah. Not constantly, but it keeps coming back to me. I can't see it. He should have confronted her father, and if the gods didn't like it---"
"Xena, he was a poet, a philosopher-poet, not a warrior. If you were a bard, would everything end with a bloody confrontation?" she asked, amused.
"Maybe. It would be more realistic," she threw up her hands as if stating the obvious. "And my characters would get what they wanted in the end," Xena finished with a firm nod of the head.
"Really? Well, speaking as one whose entire life is one bloody confrontation, do you have what you want?" Gabrielle regretted her words immediately. Xena's face clouded over, eyes narrowed, as she considered a response. "Of course, you've got a lot of the story yet to write. I'm sure in the end you'll have what you want."
Xena knew her friend had spoken to let her off the hook, and she made an effort to reward her with a brightened countenance. "We're almost at your temple, Gabrielle," she said.
"You wanted to come back here."
"Well, we were in the vicinity. And the women are so nice; especially Jocasta. Have you ever met anyone so serene, so selfless? It was like visiting a refreshing spring, after wandering in the desert."
"I guess that makes me the desert," Xena observed. "Thanks."
"I'm just using poetic imagery," the bard said. "And hyperbole. As I recall, you enjoyed the day we spent there."
"Yes, I did," she admitted freely, "and I don't mind returning. But if I decide to look after Argo, please don't point out that Argo takes care of herself, okay?"
The small temple was as they had left it, carefully tended gardens spoke of the hard work and dedication of the temple women. Wind chimes sang through the air, and the swallows that made the stone eaves home were as active as ever. Otherwise, an eerie quiet greeted them. Gabrielle began to call out; Xena put a strong hand on her mouth, warning her to silence. Alone, the warrior entered the temple, sword at the ready. Before the icon of Eos three women lay supine, as if in worship on scarlet carpets. At Xena's shoulder now, Gabrielle was puzzled at the scene, until Xena gently touched the nearest woman, turning her face to the light which streamed through the high windows.
"She's been dead for hours," Xena said flatly. She left the others to Gabrielle and continued through the precincts of the temple. She could recall six, or seven residents. Three of them were only girls, six to ten years old, novices, preparing to be servants of Eos. She found them in the next room, their throats slit ear to ear. She knelt amongst them, brushed the hair from their faces, satisfying herself that they had not been violated. Small comfort, but it was something. Face rigid, she returned to Gabrielle. "The others are in the next room," she said bleakly. "No sign of whoever did it. And no sign of Jocasta."
"The children?" Gabrielle's eyes were sick. "Xena, why? These women were no threat to anyone. This temple has no riches, nothing but warmth and hospitality for anyone who needed it. Why?" she repeated.
Xena shrugged, looking around for anything that might answer the question. She knew what they had to do first. She wondered if there were any rituals for burial these women would have wanted. No way of asking them, she acknowledged.
"Maybe Jocasta escaped," Gabrielle suggested hopefully.
"Maybe. If she doesn't turn up, we'll look for her after the burials."
Little words were needed for the hard, grim work. The two women worked stony-faced, Gabrielle washing the corpses, Xena digging the six graves. She considered a seventh, half-certain that Jocasta would require one, when she was found, yet unwilling to express that pessimism to Gabrielle. The sun was casting long afternoon shadows by the time they had finished. As they washed at the well, Xena speculated about Jocasta's fate.
"She could have run away, but I don't think that's her style."
"Which means they took her, or we just haven't found her body yet," Gabrielle observed.
Xena nodded. "So we take a good look around. Keep your eyes open for anything that looks out of place. I'll take another look inside."
The temple was darker now, and chilly. Long experience with violent death did not make it easier for Xena to reenter the scene where six defenseless women had met a bloody end. The blood stains were washed away; anyone happening on the scene now would expect that the temple women were attending to their chores. But one would have always been present, paying homage to Eos. With a start Xena caught movement at the edge of her vision. Her sword was instantly in hand, her eyes trained on the shadows. A figure in the saffron and blue robes of the temple virgins shuffled toward her, clutching her side.
"Jocasta?" Xena caught her before she fell to the ground, and cradled her gently in her strong arms. The robe was drenched with fresh blood; the pallor on the woman's face revealed whose blood it was.
"Gabrielle!" Xena called. "I've found her!" Rather, she's found me. Xena couldn't guess where the old woman had been. The small room beyond the doorway had no other exit, and no place to hide.
"Xena. The gods have sent you."
"I'll be with my sisters soon, Xena," she rasped. "I have one more obligation to fulfill. The ring must be passed on." She held out a blood-caked fist. "Take it to our sister temple in Cyllae."
Xena looked at her fist blankly.
"Take it," Jocasta implored. "help me Xena, take the ring."
"The ring of Eos?" Xena asked, knowing the answer. Suddenly all was clear.
"I can't do that," she demurred, gently pushing Jocasta's fist away.
"You must. This can't fall into the wrong hands."
'Jocasta, MINE are the wrong hands. We'll bury the ring with you," she promised. "I'll tell them in Cyllae---"
"Don't be stupid, Xena. You know that won't work," she replied, a sting in her voice.
Xena shook her head vigorously, insisting: "I can't be the one; I'm not strong enough."
"Not strong enough for what, Xena?" Gabrielle asked, as she approached the two, unnoticed. Jocasta ignored her, her eyes fixed on Xena.
"You are stronger than you know." Now her eyes took in Gabrielle. "The young one will help you."
"Xena, what's going on? Will Jocasta ..."
"I'm dying Gabrielle. I have a request---"
"We'll do anything," she pledged, "won't we Xena?"
"Gabrielle, you don't know what you're saying," Xena snapped. "You're asking too much, Jocasta."
Gabrielle moved past Xena and took Jocasta's hand. " I'll carry out your request, Jocasta," she said, with a puzzled look directed at Xena.
"Gabrielle, you haven't heard it," Xena exploded.
Gabrielle looked at her strangely, then asked Jocasta what she needed to do.
'This ring needs to go to our sister temple in Cyllae," the old woman said, again she held out the closed fist.
"That seems easy enough," Gabrielle said, looking at Xena reproachfully. 'Why not try to make a dying woman happy, Xena? What will it cost." As Gabrielle reached to take the old woman's fist Xena knocked her hand away.
'Don't touch it. You want it to go to Cyllae, I'll get it there, " she said in anger. What will it cost, she wondered. She pried open the surprisingly strong fingers which clutched the ring, and snatched the gold band even as Jocasta's fingers curled again into a fist.
Gabrielle stood, shocked at Xena's violent reaction. Before she could speak, Jocasta shrieked, and clawed weakly at Xena's hand. "Bitch!" she screamed, "Whore! No better than the others, taking what's mine!"
Xena pushed her hands away and lowered her to the floor, leaving her to Gabrielle. She emptied the contents of her small leather pouch onto the floor, tucked the ring inside and stuffed it in her leather corset. "Is she dead yet?" she asked over her shoulder to Gabrielle.
"Not quite, why? What's the hurry?"
"The sooner she dies, the sooner we get her buried and get out of here," she said, as she picked up the contents of her pouch. Gabrielle looked at her in disbelief.
"Xena, what's wrong with you?" she asked concerned and a little angry. "I know you must get tired of doing things for people, but this isn't such a big deal. Cyllae is what? Three days from here? Is that too much to ask? I meant what I told Jocasta. I'll do it myself, if you'll give me the ring."
Something flared in Xena's eyes. "You'll never touch this ring," she warned. She turned and stalked out of the temple.
When Gabrielle emerged from the temple a short time later Jocasta's grave was already dug. The final burial was accomplished with little ceremony. There was little light remaining. The dark and silent temple seemed suddenly inhospitable. Gabrielle was glad to leave, yet the journey ahead was forbidding. Watching Xena's face as they moved along the empty road, Gabrielle saw fear in her eyes. When Xena caught her watching, she made an effort to smile, or made an innocuous comment. Now, for the forth time in an hour, the warrior commented on the quickest route to Cyllae.
'Xena, from what you've said, the shortest route to Cyllae hasn't changed, and is not likely to change before we get there. So why don't you move on to something else, tell me for instance, why you didn't want to take the ring to Cyllae."
"Didn't? I still don't. I seem to have no choice."
"I'm sorry if I forced your hand, but it makes no sense to me why this is such a big deal. I know that you must get tired of people always expecting you to do things for them, but the way you upset Jocasta when she was dying." She shook her head. "I wouldn't have believed it if I wasn't there."
"You think I upset her? Didn't you think it was odd that she got upset when I finally agreed to do as she asked? When I actually took the cursed ring?"
"That was odd," she agreed, "It wasn't at all like Jocasta."
"So you found the whole scene unbelievable?" Xena asked, pointedly. "You didn't know what in Hades was going on, yet you were prepared to take the ring to Cyllae? Could you sometime, just once, just to humor me, leave things alone!"
"Xena, why are you so angry?" Gabrielle almost whispered the question, anxious to pour
oil on the roiled water. "Is it Cyllae, or is it the ring?" Her tone, and the hand she put on Xena's arm caused her to stop. She looked past the bard to a crest of hill beyond.
"Let's make camp. It'll be dark soon, and I'd just as soon not be on the road." Her eyes had a hunted look, Gabrielle noticed, and uneasily, she followed Xena into the woods.
Xena ate little and spoke less. The fire was small, at her insistence. She reminded Gabrielle
that the attackers of the temple might still be in the area. Gabrielle wondered if it was fear of them that she had seen in Xena's eyes. But she had never known Xena to be afraid of any mortal.
"Xena, you've hardly had anything to eat." Xena nodded by way of reply. "Would you please say something? I feel as if I'm living with a mime."
"There's some wine in the skin---"
"None for me. Thanks"
"Are you becoming an ascetic? Are you fasting to win the favor of the gods?" She paused, "Is that part of the ring-thing?"
Xena's eyes rolled to the heavens, before she closed them, tightly. Gabrielle waited, afraid to speak. "You want to know about the ring, you need to know. So listen carefully. I won't say it twice." She focused on Gabrielle's rapt face, paused and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly to relax her muscles. "You know that Jocasta and her sisters tended the altar of Eos, provided comfort and aid to travelers, generally did good deeds. Did you know the virgins of Eos began as a warrior cult?"
"I never heard that."
"They were trained to protect certain objects they considered to be sacred. They were sworn to die rather than fail in their duty. Over time, many of them did die. Their temples were looted, and the sacred objects disappeared. Their original purpose was obscured; they stopped training in the warrior arts. It was supposed that the sacred objects were all lost. I believed that. Apparently we were all wrong. One object, at least, remains."
"Those women all died because someone knows of the ring and wants it. Badly."
"Why would anyone kill for it?"
'People kill for less," Xena shrugged. "I've killed for less." She sat cross-legged across the fire from Gabrielle. "It isn't just an ornament. There were four objects, one for each wind."
Gabrielle nodded, "Eos is the goddess of the winds."
"They were forged were forged by Haephestus, each imbued with a different power..." She faltered. Gabrielle guessed the rest: "Which could be dangerous in the wrong hands."
"Gabrielle, almost any hands are the wrong hands. Do you think I'm the right person to have possession of that ring? Even for a few days?" She looked at the bard. The desperation in her eyes surprised Gabrielle.
"Xena, you would never use that ring for an evil purpose."
"I hope I won't" she said earnestly, "my bigger fear is how it might use me."
"I don't understand."
"Gabrielle, the thing has a mind of it's own, a will of it's own. It wants to feel it's power, wants to impose its will. In the temples of Eos those objects were in a sort of prison, locked away, only handled, if necessary by the strongest protectors. Now it has to sense the possibility of freedom. I don't know if I'm strong enough to resist." She didn't try to hide the fear.
"Xena, the temple virgins were able to contain its power. You're a strong person, not just physically..."
'The temple virgins are trained from childhood to deny their own wills, to deny their desires, to have no avenue through which they can be tempted. Only the strongest of them are ever trusted with the burden. You saw Jocasta. As serene and selfless as she was, in the end, the ring exerted its power over her. I had to rip it out of hand---"
"That's why she called you those names. It was the ring."
"No. It was Jocasta. It didn't make her do it. It can't MAKE you do anything. It ALLOWS you to do it. The controls, the defenses we build up can't stand before it. Jocasta was human; she couldn't resist. In the end that thing became all important to her. It became the object of intense desire. And SHE had spent a lifetime learning to kill desire. Gabrielle, I spent most of my life fighting for power, I never even thought of saying no to my desires. Gods help anyone who tried to stop me. Even now, there are impulses I struggle with. Everyday I wonder if this will be the day I give in. How do I carry this thing for three days, and not succumb?"
Slowly Gabrielle absorbed the horror of the situation. Xena carried with her the seeds of her own destruction. Her refusals to Jocasta had been those of an alcoholic refusing a drink. She moved to sit next to Xena, taking her hand, touching her hair until she turned to face her.
"Xena, why did you take it?"
Xena snorted in disbelief. " 'Why not try to make a dying woman happy, Xena. What can it cost, Xena'," she said, her voice pitched higher in imitation of Gabrielle.
'Xena, I'm sorry, I had no idea," she began numbly.
"No. You didn't, but why let ignorance stop you." Xena's voice was low and cold. "I remember a time when I was that certain of myself. It helped me lead an army, conquer lands..." She swore softly and shook her head. "That kind of certainty can get you into trouble Gabrielle. Remember the Titans?"
Gabrielle did remember. She had unwittingly freed and had at her disposal the power of three titans. While she concocted grandiose plans to employ them in service to mankind, Xena had recognized the threat they posed, and Xena had prevented wholesale slaughter and destruction.
"I didn't handle that too well, did I?" Gabrielle admitted softly. "I'm not up to dealing with the ring am I?"
"Gabrielle, can you stop calling it that?"
"Yes! Call it anything else."
Gabrielle realized that Xena had avoided the word. "Why?" she asked.
"It likes to hear its name, likes to know it's being thought of, talked about. It's like the dead in Hades," she spoke from experience.
"Xena? How do you know so much about the" she reached for a word, "thing?"
Xena's eyes gleamed, remembering. "I was a diligent villain, Gabrielle. I sought every advantage. I heard rumors of these things, and wanted-No , I LUSTED after one. Or all. I tracked down every lead. I went to the temple of Cyllae once. If they have anything there, they hide it very well. Luckily, for me more than anyone, I never got my hands on one. The thought that I'm carrying one now, next to my heart..."
"Okay," Gabrielle said loudly, to break Xena out of a dangerous memory. She shook her head, and was silent momentarily while a thought took shape.
"Xena. Why are you walking? The faster you get rid of that thing, the better. Ride Argo. You'll cut the journey in half."
It was obviously an idea Xena had already considered and discarded. "Argo can't carry both of us in this terrain at any speed. Not for long."
"Go alone. I'll survive without you for a few days, " she urged.
"That's not at issue Gabrielle. The question is, would I survive without you? You heard Jocasta. The 'young one will help'. I need your strength Gabrielle. I can't do this alone, much as I'd love to. I'd like to send you as far and as fast as possible in the opposite direction until this is over. "
"Xena, I want to be here for you."
"We'll see how you feel in three days."
"It won't change."
"Gabrielle?" Xena held her hand, and examined the fingers while she spoke. "What ever I do, or say over the next few days, please remember that I love you, that I never want to hurt you."
"Wait. I try to keep things about me out of sight, out of reach. If the-thing exposes everything, I don't know what I might do, what you might see... Try not to hate me, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle pressed her cheek against the warrior's strong arm. "Never," she whispered fervently.
Gabrielle woke to the familiar sound of whetstone on steel. Xena sat where she had the night before, tending to a familiar chore.
"Good morning, Xena. Did you get any sleep."
"Enough," she nodded. "I think I've worked out an approach to this, Gabrielle," she said, eyes steadily on her blade. "It needs your help."
"Anything. I feel very responsible for this."
"No. You're not responsible," she shook her head emphatically. "I was stupid to suggest that. Once Jocasta asked me, I couldn't say no, and mean it. The thing saw to that. It remembers my lust. And now I have to deal with it. So: we don't discuss it, we think about it as little as possible."
"Talk to me about anything else. Tell me stories, tell me about Lilla and Potadeia, your pony; ask me riddles, name all the countries in the known world, with capitals. Just keep my mind off it," she implored. "Above all, don't give me choices. Don't ask me, if, or when or what I want to do, or eat. Hand me whatever there is for the meal. Tell me when we're stopping, when we're moving again, when it's time to sleep." She looked up to see Gabrielle's confused face. "This thing feeds on desires Gabrielle. I can't have any just now. If I refuse to exercise my will, just stop wanting anything for a little while, maybe I'll get through this." She forced a smile. "Until further notice, I'm yours to command."
By mid-day the strain was beginning to show on Gabrielle's face. Xena had heard all about life in Potadeia, listening politely, asking no questions, waiting silently for the next topic. Xena was seldom chatty, but this was much like traveling with a mute animal, Gabrielle decided. No; even Argo would occasionally whinny in discontent, or discomfort. After two hours travel Gabrielle noticed that Xena was limping. At her command, Xena removed a boot to reveal a painful blister caused by a pebble lodged in the boot.
"Xena, this can't be right," Gabrielle scolded. "This isn't denying the will, it's self abuse. I won't be party to it." She dabbed at the sore with a soothing ointment. "You must have "wanted" it to stop hurting. Wouldn't that just be increasing your desire?"
"I didn't think about it. It didn't hurt much."
"You had to notice it! It made you limp. A limp slows us down. We don't want this to take any longer than necessary."
Xena pursed her lips and nodded, accepting Gabrielle's ministrations stoically, absenting herself from both the pain and the comfort of her touch. Gabrielle padded the
sore spot as well as possible before she handed the boot back to Xena.
"Put it on," she said, " as if addressing a child, "then get on Argo. You're riding for a while." Without comment, Xena obeyed.
Gabrielle knew that those who aspired to serve at certain altars went through a period of apprenticeship. They surrendered their will to superiors, and were trained in obedience.
They had no choice in coming or going, were fed sparingly with no regard for tastes. In the end they were perfectly conformed to the will of others. She had never understood why anyone would choose to totally deny herself. She recalled a wandering philosopher who had stopped in Potadeia one day, and spoken at the town well about the cessation of desires being the key to peace and happiness. Perfectly serene and calm in his rags, he had made a good case for the logic of his argument. He certainly seemed to have found happiness. He shunned offers of lodging and food, choosing instead to sleep in the fields. He ate the berries and nuts he gathered in the wild. Gabrielle's life with Xena was not very different. When they enjoyed the comforts of a town Gabrielle was sure it was to please her. Xena seemed truly content under the stars, eating of the bounty of the earth. Except for alcohol. Sometimes she welcomed that a little too much. But she sometimes didn't sleep well without it. So being content with little did not bring peace to Xena, as it did to the philosopher. She didn't know how this could help now. She looked at Xena, who gazed without interest at the road before her. She wondered if she was hungry? Or thirsty? Did she need to relieve herself? Gods, it was hard being the steward of another person.
"Xena," she began, trying to sound light-hearted, "did I ever tell you about my Uncle Merops?"
Up on the horse, Xena was trying hard to picture Uncle Merops. Gabrielle had neglected to mention his coloring. Was he fair like her? Had she ever mentioned that before? She could see the wart and could picture the stumps where three fingers of his left hand had been severed by a drunken rail-splitter. She wondered if he had worn a ring on one of those fingers. Bad thought; she brought herself up sharply, and listened to Gabrielle even more closely. She was finishing a story about a mouse which had run up Merops' trousers. Twice she had provided rodent-like squeaks as sound effects. Xena had laughed at that, and found herself hoping she would do it again. That was bad. Don't go wishing for things, she reminded herself. She wanted to tell Gabrielle how much she had enjoyed the story, but that seemed too close to hinting that she'd like another one like it. A cough escaped her. Gabrielle's head snapped around. She must be thirsty, she decided, and handed up the waterskin. "Drink. Finish it. We have plenty."
Xena complied, gratefully, but a small doubt played at the corners of her mind. Why had she coughed? Was it a way of manipulating the situation to get what she wanted without asking? As she raised her arms to drink, she felt the small bulge where the pouch nestled inside her corset. She had been aware of it on and off for a while. It was wet with perspiration, and she wished it rested any place but there. Why had she put it there? She couldn't remember, and didn't try. These were dangerous thoughts. All thought seemed dangerous. She rested her eyes on a small bruise on her hand. She didn't recall getting the bruise, and didn't try to now. She merely focused on the blending of colors and allowed herself to rest there.
'Xena?" Gabrielle brought her back with a start. They were further down the road, how much further she couldn't tell. "This looks like a nice place to stop, what do you-I mean, dismount. Water Argo. I'll get the food."
Xena walked her horse to the edge of the broad stream which flowed past, concentrating on the grass before her feet. If she had let herself think about it, she would have wanted to undress and immerse herself in the cool water. Despite her efforts, things intruded on her consciousness as she waited for Argo to drink her fill. The air was unnaturally still, and the bird noises which had accompanied them through the day were absent. She tore her mind from the observations, and focused on the ripples that Argo was creating.
Gabrielle called her back to a shady spot where she had arranged bread and apples on a cloth spread on the ground. A generous chunk of bread and two apples apiece lay at opposite ends of the cloth. She gestured for Xena to sit, and Xena's eyes traveled to the other place setting as she obeyed. She was certain that Gabrielle's portion of bread was larger, her apples fresher. Frowning, she began to eat. Gabrielle wondered at the pout, decided it was best not to ask questions, but put one of her apples before Xena. The silent warrior snatched the apple greedily from the cloth and inspected it before taking a large bite, with a mouth that was already stuffed. It was a small matter - an apple- yet Gabrielle found it ominous. Xena had always tailored her appetite to the available store of food; when there was little, she was often 'not very hungry', in order to leave enough for Gabrielle. Now she looked at Gabrielle as if she resented her eating anything. Gabrielle rose and walked off through the bushes. When she returned the last of her meal was gone. Xena looked at her, a challenge in her eyes.
"You'd better answer nature now," Gabrielle told her wearily. "We have to get moving."
She folded the cloth and waited for Xena to return, trying to think of new topics of conversation-no- it was hardly that-
"Having a picnic little girl?" She turned to find a tanned and stubbly man entering the clearing, sword in hand. She looked at her staff leaning against a tree, out of reach, useless.
She composed herself to reply and saw two more armed men approaching from the other side of the clearing.
"Just finishing," she said with a smile, in a voice louder than was necessary for the men to hear her. She hoped Xena was close enough to hear. "I have a few apples, if you're hungry," she offered.
"Apples? And what else," he leered, as he advanced toward her. The others chuckled in support. And then a blur flashed through the clearing. and inexplicably, it seemed, their swords had no blades. As they absorbed the changed situation a chilling cry pierced the stillness. In a flurry of boots and fists the three were sent sprawling, and lay dazed as Xena drew her sword. Gabrielle held her staff now, and watched alarmed, as Xena approached the stubble-faced man, cold fury in her eyes. The men were roused to action by her approach and scrambled to their feet, swords abandoned, pushing each other aside in a ludicrous attempt to be the first away. Xena moved faster to overtake them and had one now by the throat. She raised her sword arm. In that instant Gabrielle threw her staff, catching Xena on the side of the face, sending her sidelong to the ground. The man escaped as Gabrielle rushed to Xena's side.
"What happened," she began as she rose to her knees. She saw the staff and the look on Gabrielle's face, and understanding came to her. "Why did you stop me, Gabrielle? They were after it! They wanted to take it!"
"No Xena, they just picked the wrong travelers to bother. I'm sure they don't even know about it."
"You're sure?" she asked derisively. "How? What do you know?"
"I know that you don't kill defenseless people, " the bard answered quietly. "And I know that you'll have a terrific bruise in a few minutes. Let me get a cold compress to stop the swelling."
It was a shaken warrior who mounted Argo a short time later. The realization of how close she had come to killing in cold blood disturbed both women.
"It's getting stronger, Gabrielle. And I'm weakening. Whatever happens, make sure the thing gets to Cyllae." She didn't elaborate, and Gabrielle was afraid to ask. She was beginning to discover what sort of things Xena had been afraid of all along.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked uncertainly, "If I wore it, could I kill?"
Xena paused a long moment before answering. "I've come to believe that we're all capable of everything if the circumstances are right, Gabrielle, with or without divine meddling. This thing in the pouch doesn't dictate, it gives permission, removes the barriers to what you want. I wanted the ring. those men stood in the way, so I wanted them dead. That's nothing new for me, killing to get what I want. I haven't done much of it lately," she acknowledged, "but I know its part of who I am." She looked steadily at "Gabrielle. "You wouldn't kill easily; you might not kill at all. Depends on how much killing would help get you what you most want."
"It's scary," she confessed.
"Gabrielle, the scariest part for me you can't even imagine." Xena's voice was so low Gabrielle strained to hear her. "You think you know me, think you understand the kind of monster I've been---"
'Xena, if you think I'll feel differently about you because of anything you might do, well, then you under estimate our friendship." It was almost a reproach.
Xena didn't bother to argue. "I hope you're right; but this is gonna be harder than you know."
"We'll get through it, Xena," she said quietly. Somehow.
Both women were more alert for signs of trouble as they continued. Gabrielle reproached herself for letting her guard down. She had known that Xena was only half aware of her surroundings, and still she had not been ready, hadn't even had her staff to hand. She watched the edge of the surrounding woods carefully, remembering that the men who attacked the temple might still be around. Xena was much as before, but it was evident that her head was troubling her. A large purple bruise covered the right side of her face, and the eye was closed. In retrospect Gabrielle considered how else she might have stopped Xena from killing the intruder. Best I could do, she comforted herself. She wanted to comfort Xena as well, but the warrior had pushed her away, refusing to accept a word or a touch, not out of anger, but to prevent her crumbling defenses from weakening further.
"Take the other road, Gabrielle." Xena's voice held a hint of command. They had come to a fork in the road and Gabrielle had followed the left fork, remembering Xena's careful, oft-repeated directions.
"Xena, you told me we'd take the left fork each time, for Cyllae."
"No I didn't. You've got it wrong."
"Xena, you DID say the left fork," Gabrielle insisted.
"Then I was wrong," Xena hissed tight-lipped. "We don't have time to argue about it. We'll take the other road." She pulled at Argo's reins and started off, leaving Gabrielle no choice but to follow. An hour later they arrived at a point they'd passed long before the fork. Gabrielle looked at Xena, who hadn't spoken since the mildly heated exchange. Her shoulders were slumped, both eyes were closed, she seemed unaware of the delay caused by the wrong turn. Gabrielle cursed herself. Xena had told her to take command, yet she'd listened to Xena's change of directions and spent a precious hour walking in a circle. It seemed clear that she couldn't rely on Xena any longer. A new possibility had occurred to her when Xena had trotted down the road without waiting: if Xena, or the cursed thing, chose, she could take off on Argo and Gabrielle would never catch up. So now she held Argo's reins, firmly, leaving Xena the saddle horn to hold. She had no doubt that Xena could wrest control of Argo from her. On the next leg of the journey she'd make Xena walk, if the blister was better; if Xena would still listen to her.
"Gabrielle. It's time to stop for the night. It'll be dark soon."
"Xena, there's plenty of light left. We have a lot of time to make up."
"I'm tired Gabrielle."
"We'll stop where we planned," the bard insisted. Xena was silent for a few moments. Then a moan escaped her. She slumped forward onto Argo's neck and said "My head hurts. Where you hit me. I need to lie down."
Gabrielle kept walking, pulling Argo along. She stole a glance at Xena. Her color was good, her voice was strong. She determined that it was the ring at work. "You can lie down when we stop." She scrambled for something to change the focus of the moment.
"This is a story I've never told, I've been polishing it since I was at the Academy in Athens. It's about---"
"Spare me," Xena said dully. "I don't ever want to hear another cute, boring story. Not even about me, unless it's got some color. Why not tell one from when I was a warlord?
I'll give you lots of material."
Gabrielle looked at her alarmed. She could not see into the icy pools which stared back.
'Not interested? Wouldn't play well at the Academy, huh? No moral attached for your little boyfriends to approve of. Which one did you fancy, Gabrielle? Was it Orion? Or Euripedes?"
"Xena, you know it wasn't like that."
"How would I know? I wasn't there was I? Dumb warrior isn't clever enough for you bard-types. Afraid I'd slice someone open at dinner?"
Gabrielle stared at her, open-mouthed. Was that how Xena had really felt about her time in Athens?
"Never mind. I wasn't lonely. I found a friendly inn. A troop of soldiers was stopped on their way back home. They'd been in a terrific battle, and their blood was still hot..."
"Xena, I don't want to hear this."
"It's not as clever as your tales, but I was a participant, a very active participant, so I can supply a lot of colorful detail." She laughed deep in her throat.
Gabrielle yanked Argo to an abrupt halt. She forced her hands to stop shaking and lifted Xena's head from where it lolled on Argo's neck. Inches from her bruised face she commanded her: "Stop it, Xena! I'm sorry I left you alone. I didn't know how much I hurt you. But I don't want to hear this. And you don't want to say this. Xena are you listening?" She wanted to shake her to awareness, but was painfully conscious of her injury.
Unable to escape from the steady gaze of Gabrielle's green eyes, Xena heard the words the bard now repeated. With an effort she recalled what she had said, what it was that had so upset Gabrielle. As it came back, she colored deeply, and struggled to free her head from Gabrielle's firm grasp. "Don't hate me," she murmured. She let her head fall, and Gabrielle resumed her place at Argo's head, mopping tears with a grimy hand.
It was difficult to speak that night by the campfire, and more difficult to be silent. Gabrielle started to quiz Xena on the countries and capitals of the known world, but it quickly became evident that there were too many painful associations for Xena. While Xena tended to Argo, Gabrielle ate her portion of the quick soup she had prepared, deciding it was better to let Xena have all that was left, to avoid a confrontation. When the meal things were put away Gabrielle unrolled the blankets and told Xena it was time to sleep. With any luck, Gabrielle thought, they might pass several hours without incident. The night before had been quiet, but as Xena said, the ring was stronger now, and Xena weaker. And Xena seldom slept well at the best of times. She agreed to lie down, but refused to remove her breastplate, bracers or greaves.
For a time the camp was quiet. Then a barely-sleeping Gabrielle heard movement, and sat up to watch Xena move across the campsite, silhouetted by the fire. Xena saw her watching.
'I'm thirsty," she said, with a diffident shrug and lifted the wineskin from it's branch on a small tree. She held it to her mouth and drank deeply, then carried it to the fire and sat cross-legged, staring at the fire and at intervals drinking noisily, letting the dark red liquid run down her face and chest. Occasionally she moved a hand to the spot where the ring was nestled. The flames highlighted her black-and-purple wound.
'Want some? "she asked at length, holding it out to Gabrielle.
"No. Thank you."
"Good." She directed the mouth of the wineskin toward the ground. Nothing came out.
"It's all gone, " she laughed.
"Then lie down and sleep," Gabrielle said as firmly as she could.
"Sleep? I have put sleep to death. Who said that?" she asked rhetorically. "Somebody will someday, but remember, you heard it here first."
"Xena let me take your breast plate off, you'll be more comfortable---"
"And that would make it easier for you to get at the ring, wouldn't it?" she sneered.
"I don't want the ring," Gabrielle said patiently, and realized that they had both used the word.
"Look, I'll keep you company." She rose, wrapped her blanket around her and joined Xena by the fire. She said nothing at first, but put an arm around Xena's waist, and picked up one tense hand. Xena pulled back warily, her free hand moving to protect the ring.
"I don't want it, Xena. Honestly. And neither do you. Remember? We're just taking it to the stewards at Cyllae. Then we can get on with our lives. Trust me, Xena." She pulled Xena's head to her shoulder, being careful of the swollen face. Xena didn't resist, seemed to welcome the closeness, after being alone for so long. Gabrielle let instinct take over. She brushed Xena's thick dark hair from her face. Cessation of desires be damned! Xena needed, desired, right now to be comforted and cared for, to know that she was not alone in this struggle. She cradled her now, rocking gently, humming softly. After an eternity Xena's body relaxed, and finally went limp in the arms of her friend, and Gabrielle settled herself to wait for dawn.
As the first streaks of sunlight crept across the sky Gabrielle eased a still-sleeping Xena off her shoulder. She thanked the gods another night was over. Gabrielle had not slept much, but she felt confident that a fully rested Xena would be better able to resist the force that tempted her. She settled a blanket over Xena, and moved to get another for herself. She snapped her head around at a sound in the bushes. Wary after the incident of the previous day, she took her staff and moved to investigate, no point waking Xena to over an early rising rabbit. The hand that caught her by the throat was quick, unyielding; she had no time to cry out. Close to her ear a voice whispered, "That's the horse of the Warrior Princess. You must be her little friend. Be quiet and you might live."
She was pulled into the clearing and held there. Men in dark leather were everywhere, kicking at the embers in the fire, poking blankets with their swords. More than a dozen, the frightened bard guessed, all armed and alert. Xena would be caught off-guard, still sleeping.
"Where is she?" A sharp hand came across her face.
'W-w-ho?" she stammered.
"Xena," he thundered, "where is she?"
They hadn't found her, that was good. "I don't know," Gabrielle replied truthfully, earning another blow across the face.
"I don't believe you," her interrogator said. "And if you don't cooperate, I'll have no use for you. Its Xena I want, because Xena has the ring, doesn't she? Doesn't she, " he repeated.
Gabrielle ignored him, wondering where Xena was, confident she'd come through, then her heart sank as she realized the sword and chakram still lay on the ground where Xena had left them the night before. Okay, Gab, she told herself, that just makes it a little harder.
What happened next surprised no one more than Gabrielle. The grip on her throat was released; her interrogator fell rigid beside her, blood leaking from his nose. She heard a snickering sound move past her. Near the dead fire two men stood puzzled at their leader's sudden collapse. As they began to move, one stiffened, and sank wordlessly to his knees, before pitching forward onto his face. Dead. The other had barely registered what had happened when he joined his companion on the ground. Panic spread through the ranks now, as the others became aware that silent, unseen death moved amongst them. Men ran back the way they had come, and found the touch of death waiting for them. One by one they fell; some few escaped. In minutes the only movement in the small clearing came from the young girl who stood very still, shaking in terror.
The sun was up, the shadows of the night before were gone, replaced by the grotesque shapes of the dead which littered the ground. "Xena?" she whispered, then called again, louder. "Xena."
"Right here," she heard Xena's voice before she saw her, walking toward her out of nowhere.
"Where were you? I was afraid---"
"No reason to be afraid." She held up a small gold band. I had lots of help. See?" She slipped the ring back on her finger and vanished. "Neat trick, don't you think?"
"That's the power of the ring," Gabrielle breathed.
"A power," Xena's voice came out of the darkness.
"How long have you known?"
"Since the temple. That's why we couldn't find Jocasta, and why she suddenly appeared. She was wearing the ring."
"You never said anything."
"We weren't going to talk about it."
"You weren't going to wear it. Take it off."
A chilly laugh came from the space behind her. "Why? I've never been invisible before. It's funny, I can't be seen, but you seem more vibrant than ever. With a little practice I think I could see through rock. Oh, what I could have done with this before, when I was still---"
"Still what? A murderer? Look around Xena, things haven't changed much."
"This wasn't murder. They attacked us," she reasoned.
"They were trying to run away! They were no longer a threat, and you pursued them. That's murder."
After a short silence, Xena spoke from across the clearing.
"All right, it's murder.," she confessed. "Like you said, things haven't changed much. But I've slipped. I'm forgetting to collect my fee."
One of the corpses flopped over. Amid a clanking of metal and a jingle of coins he was stripped of his valuables.
"Must have just gotten his pay. Or else he had a big night at dies. Nice ring," she commented, "but not as nice as mine."
"Leave them alone. You can't stoop to robbing the dead."
"Spoils of war, Gab. They wanted what's mine. They lost. Now I get what's their. WAS theirs," she corrected herself. "They won't need dinars where they're going. And I wouldn't mind having a full purse for a change."
"No, Xena," Gabrielle shook her head as a second soldier's body was vandalized.
"What?" she asked defiantly. "Aren't you just a little tired of sleeping on the ground? Would you object to a warm dry bed occasionally? Well, in my experience, innkeepers like to be paid."
"I never mind the ground, Xena. Not when you're there. Xena, take off the ring. Please.
I need to see you." There was a long pause. Gabrielle tried to guess what Xena was thinking, feeling. The defiance in defending her actions came from the ring. She had to believe that. She had to reach Xena by offering her something else she desired. "I miss you Xena. Come back to me."
There was a slight rustling of leaves where Xena's leather disturbed a bush. The, a few feet from Gabrielle Xena appeared, holding the ring, slipping it back in the leather pouch, tucking the pouch away again.
'Here I am." Her face was hard and her blue eyes gleamed too brightly. An unfamiliar bag was slung over her shoulder.
"Xena, leave the 'spoils' here. We don't need it," her voice was soft, and held no reproach.
With a scowl Xena slipped the bag off her shoulder and it fell heavily to the ground.
"Seems like a waste. Someone else will take it," she said resentfully.
"Let's hope they have a need for it. I don't need as much stuff as I thought I did. We, well, with Argo's help, carry all we truly need with us. Don't you think there's a freedom in that? Of course you must; that's a lesson I learned from you." She stepped forward and reached up to put her hands on Xena's broad shoulders. "And if anything unexpected arises, I know I can rely on you to take care of me. You'll always do that, won't you? Promise?"
Gabrielle thought she could see a struggle on Xena's face. At some level they were all -Gabrielle, Xena, and the ring- aware of the magnitude of Xena's answer.
"Promise," she urged as the struggle continued. "If the answer's "No" I'll have to take my writing more seriously." She pulled a face and Xena smiled with her.
"I promise, Gabrielle."
There was no breakfast that morning. They left the dreadful spot with its corpses and loot as quickly as possible. Gabrielle rode with Xena now, a further concession to the growing power of the thing in the pouch.
"Gabrielle. You know I'm sorry about everything." Gabrielle sat in front of Xena, doing her best to direct Argo. She couldn't see Xena's face, but heard shame in her voice.
"Don't talk about it, Xena."
"This must be rotten for you."
"It's not a picnic for anybody and it's not your fault," she insisted.
"But I knew what I was getting into..."
"Well, that's true. If I'd known. I would have asked Hercules to tie you up good and tight before we set out," she made it a joke, but Xena answered gravely.
"That wouldn't have been a bad idea."
"Xena, that was a joke."
She felt Xena's body move as she shook her head. "It may come to that, now that I've worn the ring. If it does, I don't know how you'll manage."
"Xena, why don't we drag the pouch behind us on the end of a long piece of rope? Or why don't we walk and let Argo carry it?"
"Wouldn't work. It needs to be mastered." She snorted in self-contempt. "Some master. If it weren't for you I'd have given in long ago."
"I don't know what it is I'm doing, Xena," Gabrielle admitted. "I just talk to you, say the things I think you need to hear."
At her back, Xena sighed, her breath hot on Gabrielle's neck. She was only half upright, leaning heavily against Gabrielle. Bits of metal dug into Gabrielle painfully, yet she endured it silently. Xena's comfort was more important now.
"You're the other voice, Gabrielle, the one that calls me back. Just keep doing that. Not much longer. And when I stop listening, do whatever it takes."
"Xena, I don't want to hurt you, not again."
"I don't mean a knife in the gut," she assured her, with a ghostly chuckle, "but you'll know, when it's time."
There was little reason for people to traverse the route they had chosen. The commerce of the region had centered elsewhere. They passed an occasional hay wagon, or farm-folk on foot. Gabrielle nodded amiably. They must have made an odd picture, Gabrielle thought, sharing a saddle, Xena apparently asleep across her back. No one commented, but several took long looks behind after they'd passed. She was glad Xena was quiet, although she knew she was not really asleep. She spoke sometimes, half-heard words, and Gabrielle wasn't sure whom she was addressing. Gabrielle hadn't slept the night before, and the heat of the day, combined with Xena's weight on her back made it difficult for her to sit straight in the saddle. She longed to take a break, but it seemed wiser to press on. The sooner they reached Cyllae, the sooner this nightmare would be over.
It was near a lonely well that the weary bard decided it was time to stop. A few minutes in the shade, a cool drink would work wonders on them both, she decided. She drew Argo to a halt, and half turned to rouse Xena.
"Get down, Xena. We need a break." Xena muttered something, but Gabrielle couldn't make it out. "What did you say, Xena? We need to stop for a bit, get down." Again came the muted voice. Gabrielle couldn't make out the words, but the tone, the syntax told her it was not just garbled speech. Xena was addressing someone-or something. She turned around more fully now and shook her. "Wake up Xena, talk to ME."
Unfocused eyes trained on Gabrielle, and asked "Where were you?"
"Xena I've been right here." But I haven't been she realized. While they rode, Gabrielle, out of exhaustion and - what else?- a loss of focus? had been content to let Xena be quiet, hoped she would be quiet. Yet in that quiet the ring did its subversive work. A surreptitious communication had passed between them. Gabrielle had heard it, had wondered about it and had let it go! 'Just call me back, Gabrielle...' she had said.
She jumped to the ground and pulled Argo close to the well. She tugged at Xena until the
falling motion brought her to her senses and she stood by herself. While the big mare drank from a nearby trough Gabrielle took Xena by the hand.
"Some ring of power if it does this to you,' she thought.
As if in answer Xena said "It drains all your strength when you fight it. If you give in..."
"Well, we're not giving in." Gabrielle sat her on a rock near the well and hauled up a bucket from which she ladled clear, almost cold water. She held it for Xena to drink, drank some herself and mopped Xena's brow with a sopping cloth, letting water drip down her neck and chest. She was filling the waterskins when Xena sat up with unexpected energy, sprang to the nearby woods and after a brief scuffle emerged with a black-leather clad man in tow. She hauled him back to the well and threw him against it's stone sides. She looked at Gabrielle with a question in her eyes.
"Quite a coincidence, choosing to stop so near our old friend," she said accusingly.
'Friend?" Gabrielle repeated, alarmed.
"You paid us a visit last night, didn't you," Xena demanded of the man. He was propped against the well, holding very still, in obvious pain.
"Xena, he's hurt." Gabrielle knelt beside him. Where are you injured?" she asked gently.
"My shoulder. O-o-out of the s-socket," he stammered.
"I'll fix that for you," Xena spat, grabbing him by the injured arm, and, with a foot on his chest, yanking the arm, twisting as she pulled. He screamed, yet when she freed him there was relief in his face.
"Now then, what are you doing here?" she growled at him, her own face close to his.
"I couldn't go on, with the others, this shoulder..."
Xena muttered inaudibly, contempt on her face. "Well, it's all better now, so we can have a little chat. You start: who's after the ring?"
"Ring, what ring? We were just after some loot..."
Xena slapped his face, hard. "Try again," she ordered.
"It's the truth..."
Her fingers flew at his neck, and she stepped back, a tight smile on her lips. "You've got thirty seconds to come up with a better answer."
He panicked when he realized that movement was impossible. A feeling of dread crept over him as he recognized the silent death of the night before.
Gabrielle watched uncertainly. Was this Xena or the ring acting? "Xena," she ventured.
"Quiet Gabrielle, he's trying to decide whether he wants to live or die."
"Girdok. Girdok," he croaked. With a deft she move she removed the death sentence.
"That name is new to me. Where can I find this Girdok?"
"We left him in Panas. He sent small troops of men to scour the countryside for whoever might have taken the ring from the temple."
"Since he couldn't find it, why did he think it was taken? How did he know it was even there?"
"I'm a foot soldier. I don't have his ear!"
She pulled him up by his hair. "You keep a civil tongue in your head and we'll get along just fine," she admonished.
"Aren't you letting him go?" Gabrielle asked.
"Why? So he can tell Girdok we're here? Use your head Gabrielle." Xena answered contemptuously.
Gabrielle looked at her uncertainly. What she said made sense; if Girdok was after the ring, it didn't help to let this soldier go. But what was the alternative?
"Xena, you're not going to kill him."
"No," the warrior smiled wickedly, "I'm sure I'll find other uses for him."
The really worrying thing from Gabrielle's standpoint was Xena's renewed vigor. The ring drains your strength while you fight it, she had said. What did it mean now, that she was stronger? Xena held Argo's reins, had enforced that wish by yanking them from Gabrielle's grasp. The captured soldier walked behind them, hands tied behind his back, tethered by a long rope around his neck. They had made another detour, this time, Xena said, to avoid detection by Girdok's men,. Gabrielle didn't believe her, but did not know how to argue with the woman who was so clearly in command. Gabrielle saw Xena as warrior now, more than she ever had before. If Xena were a sound, she would have been a blare of martial trumpets, at the head of a mighty host. Even alone she inspired dread. Even in Gabrielle, she inspired dread. Something needed to be done. "Be the voice that calls me back," she had said, but Gabrielle was running out of words, and Xena seemed no longer to be listening.
Argo was moving faster now, at Xena's urging. Gabrielle looked back at the prisoner, who had broken into an awkward trot.
"Xena, he can't move at this speed," she pointed out, and pulled Xena around to look. Xena slowed , then brought Argo to a stop. She dismounted and held up an arm to help Gabrielle down.
"You're right, Gabrielle. Any ideas?" As Gabrielle stared open mouthed Xena suggested a solution. "HE can ride with me." She moved past the startled bard, knocking her out of the way with an elbow, and untethered the soldier. His hands were still tied as she hoisted him on to Argo.
"Xena, what are you doing."
"I can trust YOU to catch up, Gabrielle." She clicked her tongue softly in her cheek and Argo moved swiftly down the road.
It was after dark when Gabrielle caught the smell of a campfire. She plunged into the woods, too tired for caution. She had spent frantic hours on the road, alert for signs that Argo had left the narrowing trail, afraid to guess at the motive for Xena's leaving her behind. Had the ring taken complete control? Had she failed Xena, left her to the forces which empowered the ring? She followed the glow of fire that flickered through the trees.
Argo was grazing outside the circle of light, and she looked up in recognition as Gabrielle approached. Relieved, Gabrielle stopped to stroke her soft muzzle. She hadn't thought till now what effect this journey had on Argo. Gabrielle had never thought of horses as being perceptive. Argo had redefined the equine world for her. Muffled noises came from the clearing. She listened for Xena's voice and heard it, as a throaty laugh. She moved toward the firelight, then hesitated, out of the glow, preparing herself for another confrontation. She heard Xena again; this time a low moan escaped her. Gabrielle crept forward and saw the warrior and the prisoner, entangled on a blanket near the fire. Xena was clearly the aggressor: the prisoner's arms were still bound, before him now, and Xena, naked except for the leather pouch hanging from a cord around her neck, dictated the action to the unresisting man. Gabrielle turned away and leaned on the nearest tree. She knew Xena was no innocent; the warrior's own words had hinted at an attitude toward sex that Gabrielle could not imagine. Knowing and seeing were two different things. She returned to Argo, retrieved and assembled her staff. Then she returned to watch Xena writhing on top of the eager soldier, kissing him deeply. Gabrielle averted her eyes from the pair, monitoring the activity by watching the shadows cast by the fire, listening to the rising crescendo of responses. She wanted to stop them, her, but couldn't bring herself to enter the scene; she wanted to be sick. At last it was quiet. She hoped, irrationally, that Xena would come back to herself now. Instead, the dark-haired figure reached to extract a knife from where it was lodged in the ground, close at hand. She cut the soldier's bonds, and moved her head to kiss his chest. "Catch your breath," she warned him. We're just getting started." As she moved her head she caught a glimpse of Gabrielle in the dim light at the edge of the clearing.
"You caught up? Good." Her lips twisted in a lascivious grin. "Want to join us?" Gabrielle swallowed her disgust and moved toward them, speaking softly, firmly as she approached:
"Xena, you don't want to do this." Her staff was down, one hand was held out in invitation. "Come with me."
"I asked first," Xena said coyly. She took Gabrielle's outstretched hand and pulled her closer. As Gabrielle resisted, she purred "Don't be shy. You must want it. Perdicus was a long time ago."
A strangled cry of rage escaped Gabrielle. All the exhaustion, fear and anger of the past two days exploded in a violent movement of her staff, directed at Xena. This time Xena was ready. She caught the staff, and with Gabrielle's hands still in place pinned the bard to the nearest tree, staff at her throat. "You're pathetic!" she spat. She gripped the pouch and waved it before Gabrielle's face. "You can't beat us, little girl! When you tell this story, remember ..." She never finished. Movement nearby caught her attention. She whirled and threw the staff, spear-like, with deadly accuracy. The naked soldier jerked spasmodically, before he hit the ground, and was still. Xena turned back to Gabrielle. No longer held to the tree, the quivering bard stood pressed against it, fingernails scrabbling at the rough bark behind her. Eyes closed tightly against the horrors of this night, Gabrielle could still see Xena's face, hard, haggard, one eye nestled in a mottled bruise, the other, pupil dilated, an impenetrable pool; he cruel mouth saying the name of Perdicus. She tried to picture her gentle husband, but she could not fight through the savage image.
Xena stood transfixed by the sight of Gabrielle, rigid, face stained with tears, mouth stretched in anguish. She reached a hand to her face and the young girl turned her face violently. "No! Don't touch me!"
As if waking from a bad dream Xena looked around. She saw the dead soldier sprawled yards away. Her own garments were scattered around the campsite. Suddenly aware that she was naked, she forced herself to recall the past hours, and recent moments. Sickened at herself, she moved silently around the area, gathered her clothing into the folds of the blanket and disappeared into the forest.
Xena ran through the underbrush, paying no heed to the branches and thorns which tore at her unprotected body. She had no destination in mind, just away, away from the horror she had committed, away from the friend she would die for, who now loathed her presence. At last she plunged waist deep into cold rushing water. She tossed the blanket-bundle onto the bank and immersed herself in the swift current, rubbing her body with handfuls of the stiff weeds which edged the stream. There in the light of a waning moon, she scoured the dirt from her body, and abraded her skin until it bled in places. She could not wash away the self-loathing.
After an eternity she sat on the pebbled river bed and leaned back on her elbows, letting the water beat against her cold-numbed body. Too exhausted to move, she willed herself to think. Gabrielle. The painful reality was that Gabrielle would hate her now; forgiveness was impossible. She felt as if a bandage had been removed from a hideous scar she tried to hide. Who wouldn't turn away? Even worse, Gabrielle was suffering, the taunting words about Perdicus had cut deeply. And that was the ring's intention. It had recognized Gabrielle as the rival for Xena's attention. Hurt her, drive her away, and Xena would surrender. The pouch holding the ring was dashed against her chest by the rushing waters. Too late to let it be carried away by the stream, even if she had the strength to let it go. The task had to be completed. And then, Gabrielle would leave. 'What could it cost' echoed idly though the darkness of her mind.
It was not yet dawn when she returned to the campsite. Gabrielle was not there. She retrieved a rope from the waiting Argo, and followed a faint trail to a mossy glade where Gabrielle had found a cushioned place to spend the night. Xena sat solemnly watching the gentle girl from Potadeia sleep. This will be the last time, she thought, and it was sadly different from the other times. Normally, the bard slept the sleep of the just. In repose her face was soft and her body relaxed. Xena had always envied that. Now her muscles were taut, and her face was puffed and red from crying.
'No more, my friend,' Xena promised silently. 'This thing will hurt you no more.'
Gabrielle woke with a start at the sound of rustling nearby. Her eyes fell on Xena, sitting, watching her, working a length of rope. She got to her feet and backed away a few feet. She made her point. Xena had steeled herself for this reaction. She acknowledged the too appropriate fear with a nod. "I gave you every reason to be afraid; but I won't hurt you again."
"Really? " Gabrielle said, voice hostile. "Well, you're the 'good Xena'. What do I do when the other one comes back? I don't like her. And she doesn't like me."
"I'm hoping you won't have to worry about her. I've got a plan."
" I hope it's better than your last 'plan'. You know, the one where you just wouldn't desire anything? Having watched you give in to your desires I understand better why you keep them hidden. Nasty little secrets."
"Secrets? What have I kept secret from you?" She didn't assume the right to defend herself from the hurt bard, and she hesitated before admitting: "I've done murder. Sex? That was just another arrow in the quiver. I never denied it. It was you who believed I had changed. You almost had me convinced. I always wondered how long it would be, before you really understood. I've lived in dread of this day..." Her voice trailed off. Then she spoke again with new resolve. "Never mind. We have work to do. You're still willing to help?"
"Why stop now?" Gabrielle asked, an edge in her voice. She wanted a fight, and Xena, cool as ice, was denying her that satisfaction.
Xena nodded, and placed the noose she had fashioned around her neck. She pulled it tight and dropped the end over her shoulder. "Please come here. I need your help for this."
Twenty minutes later Xena was astride Argo, hands fastened firmly behind her back and linked to the rope that hung from the noose around her neck. Any attempt to free her hands would result in her strangulation. The other end of the rope was secured to the saddlehorn. Her feet were tied to Argo's stirrups. As Gabrielle followed her intricate instructions, Xena explained: "I'm no threat to hurt anyone, no threat to escape. If we push on, we should reach Cyllae shortly after nightfall."
Gabrielle had one question: "Girdok is still out there. How does this help if we meet him?"
"I'm the bigger threat. We MIGHT run into him. I'm already here. If Girdok, or anyone else, poses a problem, cut me free and I'll do my best. Even if the ring is controlling I'll fight Girdok to protect it." Gabrielle had nodded, looking at the bound warrior without the sympathy she would have felt at any other time.
"One last thing. The gag." Xena directed her to shove a rag in her mouth and secure it with a leather cord. There are all kinds of hurting, she thought. Gabrielle complied without question. One last time, they set out for Cyllae.
Gabrielle rode behind Xena and had to strain to see around her greater size. Her bonds forced the warrior into an upright position; the slightest relaxation caused the noose to tighten ever so slightly. Gabrielle had fastened the ropes tighter than necessary; Xena had made no objection. She wasn't wearing her bracers. She'd demonstrated how easy it was to slip out of the ropes with bracers on. Now those ropes cut into Xena's wrists and forearms unmercifully. If this is some kind of grandstanding penance thing I'm happy to help you out, Gabrielle said to Xena, in her mind, observing her discomfort with no shred of pity.
They crested a small hill. Xena momentarily lost balance, and fell backward against Gabrielle. The bard poked her sharply in the side with the tip of her staff. "Be more careful; this saddle wasn't designed for two."
With difficulty Xena regained her balance, reached an accommodation between her neck and the rope, wondered if Gabrielle would save her if she were strangling. It seemed to matter little. When she had been hanging on cross in Tartarus she had not felt this alone. She should have stayed there. Gabrielle would have gotten past her grief soon enough, and she would have remembered her fondly. As it is Xena decided ruefully, I'll end up in Tartarus anyway, but with no one to think of me. She pushed the thought aside along with the pain of the ropes and the discomfort of the gag. It occurred to her briefly that her dark side might be in hiding, unwilling to endure the pain and humiliation, uncertain how to counter them. No way of knowing unless she showed up. That thought, too, was discarded. Her eyes were on the road ahead, her senses, tuned to anticipate trouble, sent a shiver down her spine. Her body stiffened noticeably. Her knees gripped Argo tighter, telling the big mare to be still. Gabrielle started to speak; something in the way Xena slightly cocked her head hushed her to silence. For a long moment the warrior listened, then, with difficulty, moved her head to indicate that Gabrielle should take them into the woods. The bard hesitated; which Xena was this? Argo's nervous stamping decided the issue, and she directed the horse to a thick stand of trees and bushes. With in minutes a group of ten soldiers, Girdok's men, tramped past. They remained hidden for a short time, to avoid possible stragglers.
Xena made a guttural sound to draw Gabrielle's attention to the gag. She hesitated, but removed it finally. As Xena worked feeling back into her jaws and tongue, Gabrielle jumped down to stretch.
"He's split his forces," Xena observed. "That's bad and good. More likely they'll find us, easier to take care of if they do. Girdok's band seems to be a sort of tin-pot army. There should only be another ten or so to account for." Gabrielle looked at her, questioning. "I did manage to extract some useful information last night. The men I've killed thus far were about a third of his total forces. He's gotta be hurting, and mad. He expected to get the ring at the expense of a few dead temple virgins. We're making him pay," she said with satisfaction. "I'm betting he's combing the nearby woodland trails, hoping to find us there."
"Because the men who escaped the other night would have reported back, told them who was on the scene, about the invisible force which struck the others dead. He'd know we were taking the ring to the sister temple. Unless..." she trailed off. For a few seconds her face was immobile, except for the narrowed eyes. "...he can be persuaded otherwise. Gabrielle, I have no right to ask, but will you trust me one more time?"
Gabrielle eyed her warily, then listened for long minutes as Xena unfolded her new strategy. "It's the best chance we've got," Xena concluded.
"No. It's crazy. It goes right back to the thing you've been trying to avoid. It's like giving in."
"But see, I can't give in!" She strained vainly against the bonds in demonstration. "Even if I want to, I can't give in. I can barely move." Unable to turn her head, her eyes strained to follow the pacing bard. "Would you stand still?" she pleaded. "Gabrielle, with the gag in, I'm not even a threat to give you away with a shout."
"What's to stop them from killing me? have you thought of that?" she asked accusingly.
Over everything else, she thought, but said only: "They won't do that. It gets them nowhere. They want the ring. At best they'll see you as a source of information, at worst, a bargaining chip."
"Well, I'm good at being used," she commented bitterly, "but suppose they decide to take me, and Argo. What if they try to ride Argo?"
"Argo won't stand still for that." Her voice had a note of urgency. "Why are you hesitating? I won't be going anywhere. One false move, one hint of trouble from the ring and you knock me - her- over with your staff. That ends it. It's the best chance we've got," she repeated. "And I'm not just using YOU, I'm using your skill. You tell a great story. Girdok will never doubt it, " she said with conviction, and pride. "What else Gabrielle?"
'There are a thousand other things Xena, but I'm too tired to think about them now," she said, knowing she had lost the argument.
With an effort she clambered aboard Argo and shoved the rag into Xena's mouth again, fastening it as before. Then she reached between her breasts and extracted the leather pouch which held the ring. She drew out the ring and looked at it briefly, wondering at it's ability to create so much havoc. Xena's fingers were swollen from being so awkwardly held for so long. She thrust the ring on the right pinkie and Xena was gone. She dismounted and took Argo's reins, leading the animal as fast as she dared. One of the thousand objections she neglected to mention was the possibility of Xena, gagged and invisible, helplessly strangling to death.
In two hours they had reached the final fork in the road that would bring them to the temple. They had passed a couple of lovers, too absorbed in each other to pay any attention to the lone girl leading the war-horse. Gabrielle occasionally rummaged through the saddlebags which hung on Argo; she took frequent drinks from the water skins which were draped across the saddlehorn. Each time, she whispered a question to Xena, who managed to make the barest sound through the gag to signal she was all right. Despite her anger, Gabrielle found herself regretting the enthusiasm with which she had bound Xena's arms. What must they feel like now, after two more hours of chafing? Why do you care? her anger asked. You hear Xena's secret thoughts and they're mocking you. Mocking you and your innocent love for Perdicus. You would never, could never inflict that level of pain on Xena.
From a distance, Xena sensed the approach of danger. She didn't share it with Gabrielle, no sense risking the plan's success now, when so little was to be gained by a warning. No point in hiding now; so close to the temple, Girdok's men would be impossible to elude for long. Any attempt at evasion would only make them suspicious.
Gabrielle saw them first as a cloud of dust on the road. She set her jaw and prepared for the biggest performance of her life. The soldiers rode two by two down the center of the road. Gabrielle moved slightly to the right as they neared, prepared to pass them, if possible. It wasn't. The leader, Girdok, she supposed, rode to block her passage. He was swarthy, dark hair hung to his shoulders. He smelled like he could use a bath.
"Get out of my way," she growled, in a low voice, "I'm in a hurry."
'So am I! I'm looking for Xena---"
"Warrior Princess, yeah, I know. Who isn't? Let me know when you find her, and I'll do the same for you, O.K.?" She started to move again.
"Not so fast. That's Xena's horse."
"Very good. What's the point?"
"You'd be her friend, Gabrielle."
"Watch who you call 'friend'. That bitch is no friend of mine."
"Oh?" He scanned the sides of the road nervously, half excepting a trick. "What did she do to you?"
"I fail to see how that qualifies as any business of yours, and like I said, I'm in a hurry."
Again she began to move. Again he moved to block her.
"You're getting on my nerves, now," she hissed. The best defense is a good offense, Xena always said.
"Tell me what I want to know and you can go on your way." Gabrielle had shifted the balance of power in her own favor. For effect she looked at the armed men nearby, then shrugged.
'What do you want to know?"
"When did you last see Xena?"
"What? I can't read your mind."
"Where was she, why did she leave?"
"Who said she left? She started acting a little---crazy, you know? She said some things...
I decided to go. They might still be there." She waved her arm down the road.
"They? She wasn't alone?"
"No," Gabrielle said with distaste. "She had a friend. Dressed like one of your men. Or rather undressed."
He leered. "That's how it was. So she didn't kill them all?"
"He might be dead now," she came back at him. "Like I said, she was acting crazy. She hasn't been the same since..." she stopped. "never mind. Is that it? Can I go?"
"Since she took the ring from the temple? I'm not surprised. It takes a strong will to control that will, few men and are up to it. A woman like her would fall to the ring easily.
Gabrielle resisted the impulse to point out that the stewards to whom the objects of Eos where entrusted were all women. She thought of Jocasta, and realized for the first time that this blowhard before her was the man who ordered the deaths of the temple virgins. She was truly anxious to be done with him now.
"My Lord Ares has chosen me to wear the ring." Gabrielle's head turned, too quickly at the name of Ares.
"Has Ares told you this?" she asked, trying to be cool.
"Ares vouchsafed to me the location of the ring. I am his instrument," he crowed.
His tool, she thought. She wondered if Xena could hear the conversation.
"Where was she headed?" he asked.
"We started out for the temple in Cyllae. You must have figured that out. We were going to leave the ring there."
"Obviously the ring didn't want to return to it's jailers."
"I don't know who changed the plan, Xena or the ring," she said exasperated. 'And I don't know where she's headed. As far from Cyllae as possible, I suppose."
"Why are you headed to Cyllae?" he said suddenly suspicious.
"I'm not," she said with impatience. "There's a stable near there that trades in horses. This one's no good to me."
"Looks like a fine animal."
"Fine for Xena," she snorted. "Won't let anyone else near her." She rubbed a hip to illustrate her point. "Maybe he'll take her off my hands before he discovers that."
He laughed heartily, anxious to be off now himself. In a clatter of armor his men followed him down the road at a trot.
"Dumb warlord," Gabrielle spat at him. "Xena? They're gone." There was no reply.
Alarmed, Gabrielle reached up to touch Xena. Her body shook silently; through the gag came a choked, spluttering sound. Gabrielle's first thought was that... But it couldn't be. She found the ring and with difficulty twisted it off the finger. She was right: Xena's face was red, and her one open eye sparkled with laughter. But gods, the shaking had tightened the noose. She climbed aboard Argo and adjusted the rope, then removed the gag. Xena took in several deep draughts of air. Gabrielle felt the knotted muscles in her shoulders, saw the painful abrasions on her arms and neck.
"I think it was the hip that convinced him," Xena said at last, trying to be still.
"I'm glad I amused you. I fail to see the humor."
"I know it was a strain, Gabrielle, but I knew you could pull it off, " she said, sobered by Gabrielle's clipped tone.
'Now what?" the bard asked flatly. "The road between here and Cyllae should be clear, by your reckoning. The ropes stay on?"
"The ring stays off?"
Xena hesitated. She hadn't realized how great the pain in her arms was until the ring was removed. It had been a soothing companion. "There might be stragglers," she offered lamely.
"We'll take that chance," Gabrielle decided. "The ring stays off." She returned the ring to its pouch and stuffed the pouch between Xena's breasts.
"Maybe I shouldn't bring this up Xena, but it's been very quiet " she observed. Xena knew she meant the ring. Why hasn't it tried anything?" She held the waterskin for Xena to drink.
"We've severely limited its opportunities" she offered. " And I don't think I-or she- my other self- likes pain and humiliation."
"Neither do you," Gabrielle said in a tone Xena had never hoped to hear again.
'I'll be glad when this is over," she said fervently. "but before it's over, this little thing will have one more chance, when it's handed over to its new stewards. If I can't do it, it becomes your job." Gabrielle couldn't see her face, but heard the flinty edge in her voice and knew her eyes would reflect that. "We'd better move," Xena prompted.
Before Gabrielle replaced the gag she asked "Any more instructions?"
"Yeah: ride as if the harpies were after us."
Gabrielle rode as fast as she dared, keeping a close watch on the noose. They stopped periodically to rest Argo, and to attend to necessary business. Gabrielle awkwardly managed to help Xena in that task. She caught her breath at the sight of Xena's arms.
"Xena, it won't make much difference if we loosen the ropes a---"
"There's no room for pity," Xena replied harshly.
"I can't look at them any more," she said weakly.
'Then look away, throw a cloth over them," she said impatiently. "It doesn't help to remind me about them, and the idea of loosening the ropes is very enticing. If you ask me again, I might say yes, and we can't take that chance. Besides, they're sort of numb now. I'd like to be near a lot of cold water when they do come off. Get me back on Argo."
'Wait," Gabrielle said as she complied. "Will you be able to fight, if it comes to that?"
"Oh, yeah. I've done it before."
"So this is nothing new?"
"Nope. You'd have to be pretty creative to come up with something new to do to me." She saw the surprise on Gabrielle's face. "You know the sort of life I've lead." she said.
"I guess I can't picture you at anyone's mercy. Well, not frequently."
"Gabrielle, I learned all the important lessons of my life, about war, pain and people, like everyone else: the hard way." She eased her shoulders slightly. "You can brush the hair from my face, if you will."
"Sure. I'll fix the braid."
"We don't have time for that. Just tie it back."
Her hair was wet with sweat, dirty with the dust of the road, and it hung like a thick club between her shoulders when Gabrielle was done. Impulsively, she planted a small kiss on Xena's neck, just above the raw wound left by the noose. "I didn't know how to manage a hug," she explained, before spurring Argo forward.
Xena had estimated that they'd reach the temple shortly after nightfall. As dusk approached, Gabrielle felt like a child before the Solstice. She leaned close to Xena's ear to share her optimism; Xena began to twitch spasmodically, then her head rolled a bit to one side. Alarmed, Gabrielle whoaed Argo to a halt and half-turned Xena in the saddle. The noose was tight around her throat; her face was red and her face strained in a desperate effort to be free of the gag. Gabrielle grabbed the small knife she had tucked into her boot. With difficulty she slid the blade under the rope around her neck and pulled to cut it. Momentarily, the noose was tightened by the added pressure of the knife, then it snapped and Gabrielle was pulling the rope away, cutting through the gag, and holding Xena's head steady, as the warrior leaned over the saddlehorn, struggling to force air into starved lungs. As she continued to struggle, Gabrielle jumped from the saddle, freed her feet from the stirrups, and, seizing Xena around the waist, helped her to dismount. Gabrielle shuddered in reaction as Xena knelt gasping on the ground.
"Gab.." she managed.
The bard moved beside her, and reached a hand to massage her midriff, easing the muscles of the diaphragm. " Xena, you almost died! Are we through with that blasted noose yet?"
"Yeah," she rasped. "No more."
"Good," Gabrielle relaxed, letting Xena's weight rest on her, trying to avoid the still-bound arms.
"Gabrielle? Would you..."
"What, Xena? Anything," Gabrielle soothed.
"My arms. Cut the ropes. Please."
Gabrielle reached for the knife in her boot again, then hesitated. "Xena, I can't. It's not much longer."
"Can't get my breath, Gabrielle, please?" her hoarse voice held a note of desperation.
"Just take your time Xena, the breath will come easier," she assured her.
"You're still angry," Xena accused her. "But I'm sorry for everything, I swear."
"Xena, you can't believe I'd let you suffer because---" she stopped as the truth became clear.
"Do it!" Xena growled at her, teeth bared.
Gabrielle backed away. "No. Xena, we agreed, no pity."
Xena rose to her feet and directed a menacing stare at Gabrielle. "I'll show you no pity!" Her eyes closed, lips stretched in a grimace, Xena arched her back and strained mightily at the ropes which bound her. An animal-like cry escaped her throat as the ropes snapped and fell behind her. Head back, she moved her shoulders, savoring freedom, ignoring the pain that flooded in with each movement.
As she watched her sensuous stretching movements, Gabrielle thought of the captive lion she had seen in Athens, and she was afraid. She had not been up to Xena's wiles, despite the sober warnings Xena had given her time and again. She had failed, and now this creature before her would render all the sacrifices and pain meaningless. Worse, it seemed likely that Xena would kill her, and that, she knew, would destroy Xena. So the ring would have won. And Gabrielle had provided the opportunity.
She stepped on something, and fought to keep her footing. Her staff. She stooped to pick it up, eyes steadily on Xena. The warrior had said she would be able to fight despite the long hours bound by the ropes, but she was taking her time. Maybe she didn't think of Gabrielle as a serious threat. No matter the reason, Xena had not attacked yet, was not paying any attention to her. A second lucky throw was too much to hope for; she took two long steps mad was within staff's length. As she brought the staff down in a short swing she grunted and Xena's head snapped around. The staff landed a glancing blow and Gabrielle brought the other end around to land solidly on Xena's ribs; she doubled over, the staff cracked across her back and she lay still. Impossible. Gabrielle froze for a moment, then forced herself to move. She turned Xena over, saw the new bruise on her head, just beyond the hair line of her left temple. No pity. She ignored it, fumbled for the pouch, and tucked it away between her own breasts. She dragged Xena to the cover of some bushes on the side of the road, placed the sword and chakram within easy reach, and only then lifted an eyelid to satisfy herself that she'd be all right. "Gods, Xena I'm so sorry." She kissed her softly on the cheek and approached Argo. She spoke solemnly to the horse. "I know it looks as if I just clouted Xena. I did. But you know Xena hasn't been herself. Trust me Argo. We both want the same thing: our Xena back. Okay?" Argo made no objection as Gabrielle mounted.
When Xena's eyes finally opened, it was dark. Pain stabbed her shoulders and arms. She lifted her throbbing head; no Gabrielle, no Argo. The now familiar bulge against her breast was missing. So Gabrielle had taken the ring. She had known all along that the too-sweet bard had wanted it, and she'd played into her hands. With an oath she got to her feet and secured her weapons. After all this, she would not be deprived of the ring now.
She'd traveled only a few miles, now walking, now running, her mind on the ring, when she heard approaching hoofbeats. She scrambled aboard a large rock by the side of the row, and head down, watched their approach. She knew it would be Girdok and his men. As the last man passed she launched herself to unseat him, and in the covering night cut off the road on the first promising track to the woods that appeared.
Argo was sure footed but Gabrielle was too cautious to trust the instincts of the impatient mare. "Straining at the bit" was inadequate to describe Argo's demeanor under Gabrielle's
restraining hand, so for both of them the last lap seemed interminable.
"I know Xena would give you your head, but I'm not Xena, so bear with me a little longer," she asked.
After expecting it for so long, Gabrielle was curiously unmoved by the sudden knowledge that the end of the journey was at hand. Around them there were now the outlying gardens and fruit groves that the temple relied on for sustenance.
"Hand the blasted thing over and get back to Xena," she repeated to herself, as the wind rushed past. She wondered at the lack of feeling she had toward the ring. It occurred to her that they would have saved a lot of trouble by letting Gabrielle carry it in the first place. "I'll have to run that by Xena," she determined, and stopped suddenly. There were torches on the road ahead. To close to be torches lighting the temple. "Must be a patrol of some sort," was her guess. "How do we get around this?" she muttered. The answer came back to her quickly. It had worked for Xena, it should work again. She slipped off Argo, shooed her into a nearby field and slipped the ring on. The change was so startling she almost cried out. It was still nighttime, but the shapes of things seemed edged in a phosphoresce which made them seem to jump out at her. Things, seemed sharper, more clear, and distance seemed contracted. At the same time, sounds carried further. She heard the voices of soldiers ahead, discussing the tales brought back to them by the survivors of the "silent massacre". They laughed, but it was a nervous laughter.
No wonder Xena was so reluctant to part with the ring, Gabrielle thought. No wonder she hadn't mentioned the exhilaration of wearing it. Gabrielle knew this would add a new dimension to her stories; if she could just wear it now and again, just to keep the creative juices flowing... She was near the soldiers now, and impulsively decided to write a new comic incident for the story. She tapped one on the shoulder from behind; when he turned to it, she touched him lightly on the neck. Surprise, and the power of suggestion sent him to his knees. His companion did not wait for his turn. Smiling, Gabrielle sauntered past, undetected. Too bad no one's here to see, or not see me, she considered ruefully.
But her actions had been observed, by Xena, watching quietly from her vantage point on the temple walls. The torchlight had been enough to illumine the unexplained faint and flight of the soldiers. She knew it was her longtime companion, the ring, returning to her now despite the efforts of Gabrielle to steal it away. She would wait for her to carry it to the temple walls, then gods help anyone who stood in her path.
Gabrielle twirled the ring on her finger as the temple walls came in view, it was not as easy to take it off as she had thought it would be. There was no one to see her, no one to know she had the ring, she could return the way..."Gods..." she said aloud, and pulled the ring off without further delay.
The path through the woods had cut miles off Xena's journey. Only now did Girdok arrive with his troops, cursing at the soldiers who had deserted their posts, afraid that the ring had already eluded him and was back in the temple. He was acting purely on instinct now, but had sworn a blood oath that, if the red -headed girl had sent him on a fool's errand her life was forfeit. As he galloped though the gates of the temple wall, he saw her, horseless, armed only with a staff, alone. And she would have the ring. He made for her, ten mounted men charging behind.
Gabrielle heard them coming and began to run. She cursed now that she had removed the ring so quickly, and withdrew the ring from the pouch, casting her staff aside to free her hands. Once on, the ring would be her safety; with it she could maneuver through Girdok's forces to the temple, or anywhere else. When she stopped, Girdok and Xena both knew that she was staking all on the ring. They converged on the ring, and the defiant bard who held it. Xena's war cry split the air as Girdok jumped to the ground, sword drawn. Xena's chakram flew through the night air, betrayed only by the torch light which caught it's shine.
Five soldiers fell, evening the odds, before it returned to her hand.
"Girdok," she growled, "leave it, it's mine."
"You had your chance, Xena, and lost it, to that little chit. The ring doesn't belong with you!"
Gabrielle fumbled still with the pouch, unable to grasp the ring. As if with a mind of it's own, it eluded her normally deft fingers in the confined space. Finally she emptied it into her hand, and the ring landed on end and rolled off. 'It's escaping," she thought, crazily, and tried to slap one palm over it. She missed. Her eyes followed its path, instead of noticing the soldier who loomed over her. But Xena had noticed, and breaking off her engagement with Girdok, she flew in, feet landing on the soldier's chest, sending him backwards to bowl over two of his mates. Gabrielle barely noticed, intent as she was on retrieving the elusive ring. Xena scrabbled in the dirt beside her now, shouldering her out of the way to reach for the taunting band of gold. Girdok arrived then, and determined to end the competition before joining the hunt. As he raised his sword, Xena's hand closed on the ring. She looked around in triumph, saw the sword flash down toward Gabrielle's skull.
'Wrong target" she cried. Her own sword blocked Girdok's and a kick to his face sent him reeling. "Gabrielle," she called and the bard, still lamenting her lost treasure, looked up.
"Here! Take it, " Xena yelled above the muttering and moaning in the courtyard. She held out one hand and thrust it at Gabrielle. "Take it!" she yelled again to the astonished bard, and turned to face the renewed onslaught of Girdok and his remaining men. Gabrielle took the ring from Xena's hand, held it tightly in a fist and ran headlong for the heavy wooden door which barred the temple. The bell which hung outside was unnecessary. The temple virgins had heard the clamor and opened the door at Gabrielle's approach.
"Welcome, stranger," a slender young woman in white robes said placidly.
Surprised, Gabrielle could only manage: " I ---we came from your sister temple---"
"I know. You have brought us something." Behind her was a cordon of women, bearing a wooden chest suspended from long poles. "We are ready to receive it. You are not alone I think?"
Gabrielle thought of Xena, in the courtyard battling Girdok still. "Not alone. Here, take this." She spoke, but made no movement to surrender the ring. Her fist became tighter and she took a step back.
The soft-spoken woman before her smiled and said quietly, "Give yourself over. This is your home." She held out her hand, and Gabrielle placed the ring in the open palm.
'That was easy."
"At last, the ring knows its master."
In the courtyard, Xena sat cross-legged on the ground, waiting patiently for Gabrielle. It was taking a long time. Girdok's men, fight gone out of them, were engaged in the grim task of bearing away their dead. She considered going to the temple door to make certain all was well, but doubted her capacity to right any other wrongs that evening, with that object. It had all been the nearest thing anyway. Skin of your teeth stuff. Not fighting Girdok and his men, that was easy. Giving up the ring had been hard. Really hard. At the moment, she couldn't recall the sensation of desire for the ring, but knew it had been achingly real. Must be in the hands of its new master, she decided, as the longing for it grew less intense. A light appeared as the door to the temple opened, and Gabrielle stepped into the darkness.
"Xena?" she called tentatively. "Are you there?"
Xena rose and walked out of the shadows. "Right here, Gabrielle."
The bard smiled, relieved. "Fight's over?" She was surprised.
"Long time ago."
"But I was only in there---"
"About an hour." Xena indicated the progress the moon had made across the sky. In reply to Gabrielle's unasked question she said simply: "Reality is a little different when the ring is involved."
"I'll say. The temple virgins want to thank you, they've offered us accommodations for the night..."
Xena's shook her dark head slowly, firmly: "No."
"I guess we'd just as soon get away from here, huh."
Another head shake: "Yeah."
"Just wait until I tell them no thanks, and say good-bye?"
"Hurry up. I'm tired." As Gabrielle turned back to the temple, she heard Xena whistle for Argo. When she emerged a few minutes later, Xena, astride Argo looked at the bundle she carried with her.
"What," Gabrielle asked in response to her raised eyebrows. 'We haven't stocked up on supplies in a while. You're tired. I'm tired AND hungry." Xena smiled and held out an arm to help Gabrielle aboard. She winced at the grip of the bard around her forearm.
As they moved away at a slow walk she asked softly: " Gabrielle? Are we all right?"
"You bet, Warrior Princess."
For the first time in days the campsite was once again a safe haven. Xena had chosen a site by a cold brook. Despite the temperature both women chose to take a quick plunge to rid themselves of the dust of the road and the touch of the ring. Xena immersed her arms in the frigid waters and let the cold remove the sting of pain for a time. Gabrielle turned away from the sight, rueful at her part in the matter.
As they sat wrapped in blankets, warming before the fire, picking at the simple meal of bread, cheese and fruit provided by the temple, Gabrielle took one of Xena's arms.
'Hey," the warrior objected, but Gabrielle didn't let go. She had taken a small earthenware jar from her bag, and with a piece of cloth began to dab an ointment on the deep abrasions and cuts which criss-crossed Xena's arm.
'What are you doing?"
"Hold still," the bard instructed, intent on her task. "This will help you heal faster. The women at the temple gave it to me."
" No thanks, I don't need any smelly ointment smeared over my arms." She tried to pull her arm away, but Gabrielle held fast.
"It's no smellier than the stuff you put on my bee stings," Gabrielle observed.
"Matter of opinion. And it will get my leather greasy."
"You can do without leather for one night. You'd think it was all you had to wear."
"Look, I like leather."
"So do I." Gabrielle agreed, " It's you. But I anticipated that problem, and the women gave me some strips of cloth to bind your wounds."
"Gabrielle, a few scratches hardly qualify as wounds."
"Don't quibble. Next objection."
Xena was silent.
"Feels better, doesn't it?" Gabrielle asked. "Other arm."
"Yeah, all right it feels better," Xena admitted holding her other arm in Gabrielle's reach. As she worked Gabrielle spoke up: " Xena. This was all Ares' doing."
"I know," Xena said levelly. "Like I said, I learned a lot from that poor soldier."
"Why didn't you say something?"
"Why? What difference would it have made? Our objective was the same: get the ring to Cyllae."
"But I would--- I mean. Xena if I'd known this was Ares' work I would have understood why you---"
"Gabrielle, it made no difference," she insisted. "I was behaving badly. I can do that," she wrinkled her nose in self-mockery. "I had to be stopped."
"That's why you insisted on the ropes and the gag, once you found out it was Ares," Gabrielle accused. "So obviously it made a difference."
"Yeah, yeah," she admitted, "to me it did. Once I knew Ares' was involved I stopped pretending I could handle it. I put my pride aside and asked you to bring on the ropes. That was my acknowledgment of Ares' power. Ares, if you're listening," she said to the darkness around them, "you needn't prove your power to me! Just move along and leave me alone! Please!"
"I guess that qualifies as a prayer," Gabrielle observed, as she began to wrap a long bandage around Xena's arm. "But you still have to explain why you didn't tell me."
"First, you didn't need to know, second," she paused. "there didn't seem to be a good time. I didn't want you to think I was making an excuse."
"Because I was so angry," Gabrielle acknowledged, sadly.
"You had every right to be angry," Xena said decidedly.
"Knowing about Ares might have blunted my anger. Maybe I wouldn't have tied you so tightly." She tied the ends of one bandage and began winding the other.
"Well, then," Xena pulled a face, "my loss."
"Funny thing is, I thought somehow, it was what you wanted, that it made you feel better."
You know, lessened the guilt about, what you said..."
Xena looked straight at her friend in wonderment. "Gabrielle, do you imagine for one moment that I was enjoying that? That I like pain?"
"No! Not LIKE the pain; that's the point."
'The point of punishment. It involves pain of some sort. It wouldn't be punishment if you liked it."
"So I was letting you 'punish' me? Gabrielle, I have a healthy aversion to punishment, I don't like pain, and if I knew that was even a tiny part of your thinking, I would have set you straight right away."
Gabrielle shrank back a little at the intensity of her stare. "Well, why did you let me do it, then?"
Xena looked away from her, to closely inspect the bandages. "Gabrielle, you talk to me. From that first day in Potadeia you've talked. I couldn't imagine after the things I said that you'd ever speak to me again. I was so grateful that you were still there in the morning..." Her voice faltered. " But I told myself it was because of the ring, not me. I did feel guilty for having hurt you. I wished you had just said anything, no matter what, to hurt me. That wouldn't be hard for you to do."
"Xena, I don't want to hurt you."
"You did that morning," Xena said emphatically. "But we were on a mission, weren't we. Personal feelings had to be set aside. And you were afraid of me, and how I might react, so you couldn't even pick a fight. Even if I'd let you." She moved a hand to wipe across moist eyes. "How could I object if you were a little rougher than necessary? You had a right to get even." She shrugged.
Gabrielle stared for a long moment, then she began to shake and a low chuckle escaped her. Xena turned, puzzled. "What?"
"Xena, I didn't want to get even. I'm not like that."
"Yes, you are, sometimes. But that's fine," she nodded her approval.
Gabrielle cocked her head to one side and asked pointedly: "Xena when have I ever tried to get even? For anything?"
Well, there was the time I used a tiny piece from one of your scrolls for a-personal matter, and you traded my whip for a cooking pot."
"It was a rather large piece of scroll, actually, and it was a frying pan, not a pot. And I did not trade your whip to get even; I needed something with which to barter, and that just came to hand. If it reminded you of the importance of respecting the property of others, that was a bonus."
"So, you weren't getting even? Okay, then how about the time you bruised your hand punching me?"
" Just because you nearly knocked my head off? If I wanted to hurt you, I wouldn't have hit the breastplate."
"I thought that was just bad aim," Xena said with an arch smile.
Gabrielle returned the smile. "And while we're on the subject, didn't you let the people of that little village abuse you? Chains, beatings: the whole ball of wax? For something you hadn't done? And you don't have a need to be punished? You almost let them drag you to death behind a chariot!"
Xena squirmed, and craned her neck. "Where'd that wineskin get to?"
"Let's not even get into Cirra," Gabrielle continued, warming to the subject.
"Let's not," Xena agreed, with some vehemence as she found the wineskin and tossed it to Gabrielle.
"Did I just win that argument?" the bard asked with delight. 'In one day, I win an argument, and the Warrior Princess is wrong about something," she crowed.
"It wasn't an argument." Xena said tight-lipped. "What was I wrong about?" she asked, with a worried look.
"No big deal," Gabrielle said, "since everything turned out okay in the end, but it's one of the few pieces of evidence that you're fallible."
"I wouldn't be so happy to know I'm fallible, if I were you," she pointed out. "What was it?"
"Well, you said you could fight on a moment's notice if necessary, if I freed you from the ropes."
"And, when you broke free, you were in no shape to fight. Lucky for me! Look what I did to you!"
She touched the bruise on Xena's temple. "How is that?"
"I'll live," she winced. "So. You think I couldn't fight. Sore shoulders and scratches on my arms, and I wasn't capable of even defending myself against you?"
'Well, you didn't," Gabrielle said, uncertainly.
"That's 'didn't' not 'couldn't'. Actually that was the toughest fight I've had these three days."
"You've lost me." Gabrielle shook her head uncomprehending.
"Gabrielle. Who broke those ropes?"
"You. Or whoever you were when you -lost control?"
"That's right. If I had let myself fight in that condition, you'd be dead."
Understanding dawned on the young bard. "You fought to contain yourself. You let me knock you out."
"Yeah. And there was something else. Ares forgot something, again," she smirked. "The ring feeds on desires. I just focused on the one real desire I've had since Ares and I parted company. I want you to be my friend Gabrielle, to keep me company on the road, to tell me your stories, to know me, and not walk away in disgust. No," she put a hand up to stop Gabrielle's comment. She swallowed hard and continued. "Once I really focused on the fact that there'd be no room for both you and the ring in my life, it became a lot easier to say 'No' to the ring." She took the wineskin from Gabrielle's hand, and drank deeply.
"And it had nothing to do with wanting someone to work me over with a staff. Got it?" She wore a crooked smile under arched eyebrows. No more sentiment tonight was the message.
Gabrielle leaned against the warrior's shoulder and relaxed for the first time in days.
"Got it," she sighed.
ntain yourself. You let me knock you out."
"Yeah. And there was something else. Ares forgot something, again," she smirked. "The ring feeds on desires. I just focused on the one real desire I've had since Ares and I parted company. I want you to be my friend Gabrielle, to keep me company on the road, to tell me your stories, to know me, and not walk away in disgust. No," she put a hand up to stop Gabrielle's comment. She swallowed hard and continued. "Once I really focused on the fact that there'd be no room for both you and the ring in my life, it became a lot easier to say 'No' to the ring." She took the wineskin from Gabrielle's hand, and drank deeply.
"And it had nothing to do with wanting someone to work me over with a staff. Got it?" She wore a crooked smile under arched eyebrows. No more sentiment tonight was the message.
Gabrielle leaned against the warrior's shoulder and relaxed for the first time in days.
"Got it," she sighed.