by Ella Quince
DISCLAIMER: This story portrays an intense emotional and erotic relationship between two women. If this concept disturbs or offends you, or puts you at legal risk, I suggest you stop reading now. Anyone under the age of 18 should not read this story without the express permission of a custodial adult, but I will assume no responsibility for the consequences if you choose to show it to them.
The sun was halfway through its journey across the sky when I rode into a clearing in the secluded valley. My progress across the rough land had been slowed by the leisurely pace I set for my horse, one that matched the strides of my companion on the ground. Gabrielle could have walked faster if she talked less, but I was in the mood to listen to the music in her voice and to watch the play of sunlight on her reddish-gold hair. My patient silence seemed to be all the encouragement she needed to pour out her excitement.
"Yes," she said, "this place definitely has a literary feel to it."
"Really?" I studied the two steep banks covered with trees bent double with age. True, they cast tortured shadows on the faint, weed-covered path we were following, but otherwise the scene did not stir my imagination.
" 'An olive grove on either side / And yet one more of greater size...' " She turned in a slow circle, counting the decaying groves surrounding us. "One , two, three...yes, I just know this is the place! I've heard a poem about this very spot. If only I could remember the rest of the lines."
Lost in contemplation of classical literature, she paid little attention as I reined in Argo next to the well that stood in the center of the clearing. My own attention shifted to more practical matters, such as the flattened water skin tied to my saddle. As I dismounted, I could still hear Gabrielle muttering to herself, " 'Ta dum, ta dum, the curving road...' then, something about a rustic well."
"Rustic is one way of putting it," I said, with a dubious look at the crumbling stonework and the rotting wooden cover on top. My fingers traced a pattern of shallow lines that had been incised on the circular rim, but the letters were too overgrown with moss and lichen to be read now. Grabbing hold of a warped board, I tugged at the well cover, met unexpected resistance, then pulled again harder. The cover gave way with a groan and fell to pieces in my hands. "I don't think anybody has been this way in years."
" 'Stood guard around the Well of Sighs...' " recited Gabrielle, still rooted in place.
There was no sign of a bucket or ladle, even ones rusted into disuse, so I leaned over the edge and thrust my arm into the cool darkness until my fingers brushed against the surface of even cooler water. Despite the tight cover I had removed, the well was scented with the freshness of spring-fed water.
" 'Waiting for those who would lose...' " Her voice faltered. "...would lose... what?"
I straightened back up, my hand dripping from its immersion in the well.
"Got it!" she cried. " 'Waiting for those who would lose their sorrows!' "
I raised a cupped palm to my mouth.
"Of course, it's the tale of--" Gabrielle whirled around, then froze in place. "No, Xena!"
Startled by her sudden cry, I stopped, lowered my arm. My lips were still moist from the water I had sipped....
"Don't drink the water!"
Even as I yelled out, a wave of embarrassment washed over me. This wouldn't be the first time a melodramatic flight of fancy had made me look foolish in front of Xena. But then I saw all color drain away from her face. And worse than the sight of her suddenly pale skin was the blankness in her blue eyes.
As I took a hurried step toward her, the blankness was supplanted by another emotion. Too late, I recognized her look of rage. Seconds later I found myself flipped to the ground, flat on my back, with Xena looming over me. She planted a knee on my chest; her hands pinned my shoulders back.
"Who are you?" The scowl on her face was terrifying in its intensity.
"Xena..." I fought for breath against the crushing pressure on my chest. "It's me...Gabrielle."
There was no reaction from her, no sign of recognition. "Where did you come from?" She glanced back over her shoulder, her eyes warily scanning the empty clearing. "And what is this place?" she muttered as if to herself. "How did I get here?"
"We followed--" Her two hands wrapped around my throat, abruptly choking off my explanation.
"What's this 'we'?" said Xena angrily, shaking me. "I've never seen you before."
Fighting against the dizziness that threatened to cloud my senses, I mouthed the desperate words, "Let...me...breathe...."
She loosened her grip just enough for me to draw breath and whisper, "I can prove we know each other. You're Xena from Amphipolis. Your older brother is Toris; your younger brother was Lyceus, and you want to be laid to rest next to him in the family vault."
"How did you know that?" There was a chilling edge of menace in her voice, and her fingers began to tighten again.
"Because...you told me," I gasped. "Please...I'll explain."
"It was an accident...you drank from that well...the Well of Sighs."
Xena frowned. "What is this, a riddle?" She didn't sound as if she liked riddles.
"The Well of Sighs...is fed by...the waters of Lethe."
"Lethe, the water of forgetfulness." Releasing her hold on my throat, Xena rocked her weight back on the heels of her boots. "I suppose that could explain this situation."
"Yes." I took a long shuddering breath of air. "And evidently you've swallowed enough water to forget me, which means you've lost all memory of the last two years...or more."
"So how much more is the remaining question," she said, echoing my unspoken thought. Her stoic demeanor projected nothing deeper than a grim acknowledgment of her situation, but I knew her well enough to detect a vein of apprehension in her voice. Xena knew fear; she was just better than most people at hiding that emotion.
I pushed myself up to a sitting position. The ache in my chest was fading, but my throat was still raw and bruised. "What's the last thing you remember?" I croaked.
She pursed her lips, as if holding back an answer. Her eyes raked over my body, assessing it, measuring it. "You're fit enough, but you're not dressed like a warrior. Who are you, and why were we traveling together?"
"Well, I'm a bard and--"
"A bard! Why would I be traveling with a bard?"
"I'm also your friend."
Her eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Even less likely."
"You don't believe me," I said, startled by the realization.
"Why should I?" Xena flicked a hand in the direction of the stone well. "I've only got your word for any of this." She started when a gust of cool autumn wind rustled through the leaves of the orchard. Looking up, she tracked the position of the sun, which hung low in the sky even at noon. "But it was mid-summer when I..." She broke off with a sudden scowl and glanced down at her arm. In the bright light of day, I could just make out a fine white scar running from her wrist to her elbow. "And I was wounded this morning--"
"--in Atropis," I said. My stomach lurched, but instinct urged me to keep any sign of my alarm hidden. "You were knifed just after the town's surrender."
"I told you about that?" she asked with obvious puzzlement. "I wonder why. The fight only lasted a few seconds."
With a casual shrug, I looked straight into the ice-blue eyes of the warlord Xena, and said, "I forget how the subject came up." But that was a lie; I remembered all too clearly. She had awakened in the middle of the night, sweating and trembling, nearly choking up her dinner from the memories that had haunted her dreams. Memories of an elderly baker who had approached her with a mug of ale, then pulled out a bread knife and managed to cut her once before she killed him. She had ordered his body hung in the center of town as an object lesson to any other of the vanquished townspeople who were tempted to resist the plundering and sacking of their homes and shops.
"So how long ago was that?" prompted Xena.
After a quick calculation, I said, "Almost three years." Which meant this Xena had already encountered Hercules once, but was several months shy of the second encounter in which he persuaded her to seek a new life. This Xena still followed Ares, the God of War.
This Xena was a very dangerous woman.
"Three years..." After a moment's consideration, she shrugged. "Oh, well, could have been worse. A good gulp from that well would have wiped out every fighting skill I've ever learned." She rose to her feet and stretched. Then, in a movement so fast it blurred, she reached for her chakram and launched it through the air.
I instinctively ducked at the harsh sound of metal skipping off the stone blocks of the well, then whizzing over my head. A series of dull thuds followed, and in my mind's eyes I saw the disc careening against the olive trees. Once the high whining sound had faded away, I looked up and saw that Xena's hand was wrapped securely around the chakram once again.
"I hate it when you do that."
She smiled, and her eyes sparkled like sapphires. "Just checking my reflexes." Apparently satisfied by her body's response, she turned on her heel to face Argo. "Nice horse you have there."
There was a speculative edge to her voice that made my back prickle. "Actually, Argo is your horse."
Xena approached the horse eagerly, but ran her hands over Argo's flanks with uncharacteristic brusqueness. The mare shied away with a nervous stamping of her hooves. I was reminded of Argo's reaction to Callisto, and somberly considered that the comparison might be all too similar.
With a frown of disappointment, Xena said, "She's a bit high-strung. Still, she'll come in handy. I need to get back to my army as soon as possible. Where were they last camped?"
"Your army?" I quickly scrambled to my feet, sensing that I was altogether too vulnerable on the ground.
"Yes, my...Is there a problem I should know about?"
"You could say that," I said cautiously. As a bard, I was all too familiar with stories about dead messengers of bad news. Then again, judging from the impatient look on Xena's face, I suspected that a slow messenger was just as likely to come to harm. "You see, one of your lieutenants turned out to be a little more...ambitious than you suspected."
"Darphus!" she spat out. "It had to be Darphus!"
"Yeah, as a matter of--"
"That low-life scum! I'll gut him!"
"Uh, actually, you've already done that. And your fight made *such* a great story," I said, with what I hoped was a convincing display of enthusiasm. I quickly launched into an account of how Xena had lost control of her army, although my version was somewhat different from the one I had wormed out of Salmoneus; the warlord standing before me didn't look receptive to the idea of an alliance with Hercules. "And then you *plunged* your sword into Darphus, ending his vicious, mutinous life."
"And what about my warriors?" she asked with single-minded persistence. "The ones who ran me through the gauntlet?"
"Well," I said, with an expressive shrug, "most of them were dead by then, or running for their lives."
"I routed them all by myself, you say?"
"You were *very* angry."
She chuckled. "You're right. That is a good story...What did you say your name was?"
"Well, Gabrielle, I've lost warriors before." She grabbed hold of Argo's reins and led the horse onto the weed-choked path. "It's a setback, but one I can handle. You'll see how quickly I can raise a new army."
I froze in place.
Looking back over her shoulder, Xena called back, "Aren't you coming?"
"What? Oh, yeah, I'm coming." I forced myself into motion again, sprinting to catch up with her. "But, Xena, don't you think we should try to recover your memory first?"
"I don't know how, but there's got to be a way to--"
"I'm not going to waste time chasing after a mirage," she said briskly. "Maybe later, after I've secured my army."
"You know, this will be the first time I've had a bard as part of my forces." She laughed at the thought. "But I like the idea. You're entertaining, and that could be good for morale."
"Great! Steady employment." I suppressed a shudder at the thought of facing a host of warriors assembled under the rippling purple banner of the Warrior Princess. But at least it was a convenient excuse for staying with Xena. "I know lots of stories. In fact, there's a tale about--"
"Later," said Xena curtly. Her good humor vanished like smoke whipped away by a high wind. "I need to start making some plans."
*So do I,* I thought anxiously. *So do I.*
Evidently warlords were used to being served. Unlike our usual routine of shared duties, that evening Xena sat down with her back propped against a tree and took a catnap while I set up camp and cooked our supper.
Later, after she had eaten, she openly studied me, tracking my every movement as I walked back and forth through the campsite laying out our bedding.
"How long did you claim we've been traveling together?"
Startled by the hard edge of skepticism in her voice, I said, "Nearly two years now." I settled myself on the ground, close enough to the fire to feel its warmth, but not so close that my face would show too clearly. It had been a long day, and I didn't have the strength to disguise my every expression. "You saved my life," I said, and covered my growing nervousness by recounting the circumstances of our first meeting, again carefully editing out the altruistic aspects that might not impress this arrogant warlord sitting cross-legged by the fire.
She listened impassively while I spun my tale. At its conclusion, she said, "And since then?"
"Oh, well..." I had spent the day preparing myself for this question. With luck, my answer would launch the first stage of my plan to bring Xena back to herself. On the other hand, it could wind up getting me killed. "We've been traveling around from province to--"
"Some mercenary work when money ran out. Otherwise, just passing through every podunk village in Greece."
"I'm not really sure why. Maybe you decided to take a break from the warlord trade," the dryness in my throat threatened to choke me, "or just maybe you had plans you wanted to keep to yourself." There was no way for me to judge whether her silence was ominous or simply a sign that the inquisition was over. My hope for a reprieve was short-lived.
"And we always make camp like this?" she asked.
I caught her expressive arch of an eyebrow, but was bewildered by its meaning. "Like what?"
Xena pointed at the bedding. "Me over here...you way over there."
"Oh, that...Well, yes." Flustered by the unexpected turn in our conversation, I tried to explain what I barely understood myself. "I...you...this is how we've always done it."
"If you say so," she said with a shrug. "But after two years, it seems rather odd to me."
*It does to me, too,* I admitted for the first time. And I winced inwardly at the memory of the one time I had tried to set our blankets side by side. Xena had taken one look at the new arrangement and stalked out of camp. By the time she returned, late the next morning, I had gathered up our bedding and packed it away in Argo's saddlebags. We had never exchanged a word about her reaction, and I had never dared to repeat my mistake.
However, judging by this Xena's remarks, evidently there had been a time when she would have reacted...differently. Just what form that difference might take was too unsettling to contemplate.
I tried to keep my gaze fixed on the fire when the warlord stood, stretched, and began to unbuckle her armor, but I was irresistibly drawn to the movement of long limbs as she cast off her leathers. This woman possessed the same muscular grace as the Xena I knew, but moved in a more fluid manner, like a dancer. And after she had slipped beneath the blanket of her bedding, this Xena looked over her shoulder at me, catching me in the act of watching. With a wry smile, she said, "Good night...friend," and then rolled over.
When the pounding of my heart finally slowed to normal, I sought out my own bed. But the moon had risen to its lofty perch in the night sky before I fell asleep.
"So how come you know so much about me?"
I started at Xena's sudden question. The silence between us had stretched for over an hour, ever since we had broken camp that morning and resumed our trek through the narrowing valley. I looked up her and said, "I'm your friend; you tell me things."
"Funny. I've never been much of a talker." There was a studied carelessness to her comments that warned me of danger.
"Well, I *am* a talker. So, sometimes I think you tell me things just to keep me quiet." Her lips quirked into a smile. "And we've been traveling together for so long that even though you only reveal some personal detail about once a week, it adds up." This time, to my relief, Xena actually laughed out loud.
"You're very clever," she said. "I'll have to remember that."
The remark sounded more like a threat than a compliment, I decided unhappily. However, since she had finally emerged from her reverie, this was a good opportunity to proceed with my plan.
"Speaking of remembering," I said evenly. "I have an idea...There's an oracle that might be able to help us restore your memory, and her temple is only a few day's journey from here."
"An oracle, huh?" Xena kept her eyes on the road ahead, seemingly indifferent to my suggestion. "I've never had much faith in oracles."
"Oh, but this one's good, believe me. That's why you went to her before."
With a sidelong glance at me, she asked, "What for?"
"To save mankind."
"I get the feeling you're about to tell me another of your stories."
I grinned. "Only if you're curious about how you freed Prometheus from enslavement by the gods."
"You have a very lively imagination," said Xena wryly. "But go ahead anyway. It'll help pass the time."
"Well, it all began one fine morning when we were attacked by a band of mercenaries. One of the men was badly wounded when a knife severed his windpipe, and he began to suffocate."
"There's an easy fix for that. All it takes is a hollow reed and a sharp knife."
"Yes," I said, "And that's exactly what you did. You had me bandage the wound after you'd inserted the--"
"Wait a minute!" Her sudden frown made me nervous. "Are you telling me I saved the life of some thug who tried to *kill* me?"
"Well, yeah." Thinking fast to construct a plausible excuse, I said, "I guess he had information you wanted, and since he couldn't talk--"
"You guess?" she said sharply. "What kind of information?"
"Xena!" I threw up my hands in exasperation. "I'm a bard, not a mind reader. First you get on my case because I know too much about you, then you get annoyed when I *don't* know everything about you. *I* don't know why you do things. Heck, I'm lucky if you even tell me where we're going!"
"So why do you travel with me?" she asked.
"I'm beginning to wonder," I said as tartly as possible. As I had hoped, the warlord's suspicious nature was providing the opportunities I needed to set and bait my trap. "Now do you want to hear this story or not?"
We both lapsed into a sullen silence.
By late morning the ancient valley had narrowed into a high-walled canyon that barely left enough room for me to walk beside Argo. The faded road we had followed had worn itself into oblivion, becoming nothing more than a dusty streak on the rocky ground. Studying the path before me, I noted with growing uneasiness that the canyon walls continued to converge, then took a sharp turn to the right. My steps slowed at the thought of what might be waiting on the other side of the blind turn. Instinctively, I looked to Xena for guidance, only to find that she had already reined Argo to a stop...behind me.
"Go on ahead," she said calmly. "I'll follow."
"Excuse me? Is that a polite way of saying I'm expendable?"
She shrugged. "Nothing personal. Consider it a field promotion to scout."
"I was happier as a bard," I said dryly. Nonetheless, I tightened my grip on my staff and moved forward. Judging from Argo's placid demeanor, the way ahead was probably quite safe; even if it wasn't, I was too proud to give the warlord reason to question my courage. To my relief, we passed unchallenged through the dying end of the canyon and were greeted by a peaceful vista of rolling meadows beyond.
Glancing back at the mountainside, I marveled at how the exit from the valley was almost undetectable. If I hadn't known exactly where to look, my eye would have passed over the narrow cleft, mistaking it for a shadow in the fold of rocks. It was no wonder the valley had remained untraveled for so long. The entrance Xena and I had found several days ago was hidden by the tangled growth of trees and vines; on a hunt for food, Xena had chased after a hare and accidently stumbled upon the deserted track that had eventually led us to the Well of--
*Oh!* It suddenly occurred to me that our passage through the valley was not the chance occurrence we had both assumed. Looking up at the warrior princess, restored to her former ferocity, I whispered, "Ares...."
"What?" asked Xena, turning in the saddle.
I bit my lip, then said lamely, "The air is colder here than in the valley."
With obvious disinterest in my comfort, she returned to her study of the landscape. Her eyes skimmed the horizon, then fixed on a smudge to the northwest. "There's smoke, probably a good-sized settlement with a tavern. I'll start there," she said as she kicked Argo into motion.
*Start there...to raise an army,* I thought miserably as I broke into a jog to keep pace with her mount. *And somehow I've got to stop you.*
For the first time in two years, I felt completely and utterly alone.
With unerring instinct, Xena wound her way through narrow town streets to the seediest and most ominous of taverns. The last coin in my purse went to the crippled old man who led Argo away to the stables, and when I followed Xena across the threshold of The Cloven Hoof, I choked on the overpowering smell of smoke, stale wine, and sweating bodies. To my embarrassment, I remembered this was exactly the sort of establishment I had delighted in visiting during the early days of our friendship. In my youthful enthusiasm I had thought such places were thrilling and exotic. Eventually, however, the novelty had worn off, and as Xena's confidence in her new life had increased, we had gravitated toward less colorful lodgings. Now, as the soles of my boots scraped on the gritty floorboards, I longed for the haven of a boring and respectable inn. At the very least, it would have been clean.
Our entrance was marked by a drop in the level of raucous guffaws and braying voices. Only a few heads turned to openly stare, yet I could tell all eyes were fixed on us. A murmur of recognition rippled through the room, then one figure detached itself from the crowd around the bar and swaggered up to confront Xena. The man's moon-face was the grey color of unwashed skin and his leather tunic was blotched with greasy stains.
"I've heard of you," he said with a sneer. "You're Xena, the warrior princess. Or at least, you *used* to be a warrior."
I caught my breath and willed myself to remain silent.
"Used to be?" said Xena curiously.
"Yeah, as in 'used up'. Word is the warrior princess has gone soft." He eyed her ample bustline with a leer. His curling lips glistened wetly. "But don't worry, soft is good." Pushing his beefy chest up against her breastplate, he said, "Why don't you take off that armor so I can see just how soft-- "
He gave a low grunt and his eyes widened with surprise.
"What was that?" asked Xena with a look of concern. "I didn't hear you."
The man took a step back. In the silence that suddenly blanketed the tavern, I could hear a liquid gurgling noise coming from his throat. A pink froth bubbled onto his lips.
"Don't be so shy." Xena smiled as she reached out and yanked on the knife handle protruding from his chest. "I'm a very nice person once you get to know me. If you live long enough to get to know me."
The man swayed on his feet, then crumpled to the floor with a whimper. Xena wiped her blade on his back before tucking the knife back into its sheath on her belt. Stepping over the fallen body, she walked up to the largest, surliest looking man in the room and, with her voice pitched suggestively low, said, "You're more my type. Buy me a drink."
The roar of laughter that swept through the room signaled approval and acceptance. A flagon of wine was quickly pressed into Xena's hand, and she guzzled it down with obvious relish.
Taking refuge in a shadowed corner of the room, I sagged against the wall and swallowed hard to calm my roiling stomach. I had seen Xena wound opponents before, even kill them, but always in self-defense and always as a last resort; this casual knifing was nothing more than revenge for a petty insult. Perhaps not so casual, though. It was the memory of cruelties like this that fueled her nightmares, so at some level the warlord must have known the high price she was paying for her pride.
As the tavernkeeper dragged the wounded man out of the room, I whispered a prayer to Asclepius for his recovery. A faint streak of red marked the body's passing, but it was soon scuffed and trampled away by the crowd of men who were gathering around Xena, all clamoring for the honor of buying her the next drink. Judging from her encouragement of these attentions, the evening promised to be long and tedious. But I could suffer through it, I decided, as long as I escaped the notice of these--
"So who's your little friend?" called out a scrawny, ratfaced man, jerking his thumb in my direction. Evidently he hadn't been able to muscle his way close enough to Xena, so he'd turned his attention elsewhere. "Is she a camp follower...or one of your *warriors*?"
I cringed at the hearty guffaws that met this witticism.
"Wrong on both counts," said Xena, although she also had laughed at the crude joke. "My little friend is a bard. In fact, she's going to provide some entertainment for us tonight." The warrior princess flashed a mocking grin at me. "You did say you were a bard, didn't you?"
"Yes, I did," I replied, meeting her challenging gaze without flinching. I could feel her eyes following me as I made my way to the tavern's makeshift stage, nothing more than an old table whose legs had been shortened. Stepping up onto the stage, I paused to reflect on the nature of my audience and the kind of tale that would capture the attention of these rowdy men. Then, without having made a conscious choice, I opened my mouth to speak and the words formed as if by instinct. "Death comes to us all, but when Death came to claim King Sisyphus, he had figured out a way to trick her."
As I settled into the rhythm and cadence of my narrative, I noted the slight lift of Xena's eyebrow. This subtle gesture was an open admission of surprise, perhaps even of grudging admiration. And the story -- in which the warrior princess figured prominently -- kept her riveted. At the conclusion of Death's harrowing adventure, as I basked in the enthusiastic applause from the room, Xena sidled over to the platform.
"Prometheus enslaved, Death in chains...where do you come up with these things?"
I laughed at her consternation. "I'll have you know that was a true story."
"If you say so, Bard," she said with a skeptical frown. "But there's no profit in helping gods. It's no wonder we're broke."
"Well, not for long. Let me get back to work earning some dinars." Waving her away, I quickly launched into another story, and then another. I kept up a steady flow of words, gradually raising the volume of my voice to compete with the rising volume of noise in the room. I spun tale after tale until my lips were parched and my throat began to tighten, threatening to trip up my tongue with dry coughs. To my relief, as yet another tale drew to a close, I saw Xena threading her way through the crowd, a large mug in hand. "Oh, great, I was really getting thir--"
"No more of those love stories. Stick with battle epics." She gulped her drink, then added, "In fact, let's hear some of *my* battle epics. Tell everyone how I conquered the city of Thermae."
"Thermae? Sure, I'll do that," I said, my voice tight with indignation. The warlord was arrogantly flaunting one of Xena's bloodiest conquests, one that had haunted her with bitter regrets. "And while I'm at it, shall I also tell how you burned Cirra to the ground?"
The pale color that washed across Xena's face might have been a trick of the flickering torchlight, but the sudden clenching of her jaw was not.
*That was stupid,* I admitted to myself as I watched her stalk away. *I can't forget who I'm dealing with. My next mistake could be fatal.* Nevertheless, I took some comfort in the fact that even as a warlord, Xena had been rocked by the tragedy at Cirra.
Too tired to remain standing, I lowered myself down to the edge of the stage and searched my memory for a fresh story. When nothing came to mind, I sighed and said, "Death comes to us all, but when Death came to claim King Sisyphus, he had figured out a way to trick her." As I had suspected, the few men who were still listening were too drunk to even notice the repetition, so once Death had escaped her chains for the second time that evening, I grabbed the battered donations bowl by my side and abandoned the stage.
Dumping the contents of the bowl onto an empty table in a far back corner of the tavern hall, I quickly sorted and counted the various denominations of coins. I grimaced at the total. An evening's work at a decent inn would have yielded twice this amount. Evidently weary travelers and prosperous merchants were a more generous audience than drunken mercenaries.
A hand covered the pile of dinars. "Is that all?" asked Xena, scooping up my earnings.
"It's more than enough for a night's lodging and a good breakfast," I said defensively.
"Yeah, I suppose it would be." She turned away, taking the money with her.
"Hey!" I frowned as Xena's words sank in. "What do you mean by--"
"The next round is on me, boys!" she shouted out. The answering cheer from the assembly drowned out my protest. Xena tossed the coins onto the tavern bar, and seconds later I had nothing to show for my evening's labor except a dozen tankards of ale being drained almost as quickly as they had been filled.
With a weary sigh, I sank down onto a low bench and considered my situation. Thanks to Xena, we had no place to sleep tonight. Although, from what I had observed of her incessant prowling through the crowded room, she had no intention of sleeping at all. I briefly considered spending the night with Argo, but judging from the filthy condition of the tavern itself, chances were the tavern's stables were even less appealing. No, it seemed I would have to stay here in the common room watching Xena charm the mercenaries.
And charm them she did. Even as the men got drunker and meaner, she held center stage in the carousing. With a sharp tongue and an even sharper blade she bested the few warriors who were foolish enough to challenge or insult her. Once defeated, each man in turn displayed his wounds -- shallow cuts meant to warn rather than disable -- like badges of honor, and laughed the loudest when the next opponent was brought down by her hand. Whereas the Xena I had known smoldered with repressed power, this Xena painted an image of herself that was larger than life, mercurial, charismatic. This Xena, I acknowledged, was the Warrior Princess who could lead men into battle, chanting her name even as they died.
"Time for you to join the party," a nasal voice whispered in my ear.
I whirled around to find Ratface looming over me. Recoiling instinctively, I winced when my back hit the sharp edge of a table. I was cornered.
"Take a hike!" I said, but he only laughed.
"Now that's not very friendly."
"I'm not in a friendly mood." My annoyance turned to indignation when he reached out to fondle my breast. Knocking aside his groping hand, I hissed, "Are you willing to die for a cheap feel? Because Xena will kill you for what you just did!"
He hesitated, his hand suspended in mid-air as he cast a wary glance across the room. "Oh, yeah? Why should she care what we're doing?" Despite his bravado, there was a tremor of fear beneath his sneer, and he paled slightly when Xena looked straight at our corner of the room, her eyes narrowing as they pierced the shadows...
...and then she turned away.
Ratface guffawed and turned back to face me. "You had me going there for a minute." Then he tried to plunge his hand down the front of my top.
"Get your hands off me, you cretin!" I cocked back my fist to punch him in the stomach, only to feel my elbow caught in a strong grip.
"She's feisty enough for two of us," said a second man as he quickly pinned my arms behind me.
"As long as I get in first," said Ratface. His fingers had worked their way down far enough to pinch one of my nipples.
Ramming my knee straight up into his chest, I knocked a blast of rancid breath out of my attacker, but the man behind me quickly wrenched my arms farther back and chuckled when I gasped at the sharp pain. "No more of that," he said softly, "or you'll break something."
Ratface wheezed out, "I *was* going to pay you for a good time, but now *you* owe *me.*" He grabbed hold of my legs. "C'mon, Dolus, let's just take this little transaction outside."
My anger gave way to genuine alarm as I felt Dolus lift me up off the bench. Without my staff, I was no match for these two men. Nonetheless, I drew a deep breath and steeled myself for a struggle that might well cost me a broken bone or two. I had just tensed my leg muscles for savage kick when the two men skidded to an abrupt halt.
Xena was standing in their way.
"Where do you think you're going?" the warlord snapped, but my relief evaporated when I realized the comment was directed at me. "Sorry, boys, but my bard is still on duty. So she'll just have to wait until later to have her fun."
After a moment's hesitation, the two men exchanged a look of resignation and released their hold on me. I stumbled and would have fallen except for Xena's steadying hand, but once I regained my balance she pulled me out of the shadows and back to the center of the room. I could feel my body starting to tremble in delayed reaction to fear -- and a sense of betrayal -- but before I could voice my anger, Xena said, "Did they hurt you?"
When I could trust myself to speak calmly, I said, "No."
She studied my face, then nodded. "You're no coward." Grabbing a mug from a passing servant, she pressed it into my hands. "Drink this." The port warmed a trail down my throat and loosened the knot of tension in my stomach. But then Xena cocked her head toward the storyteller's stage, and said, "Now get back to work."
"No! No, I--"
"Do it!" she ordered. "You can't afford to look weak in this crowd or you'll be a target again. And there's no point in our traveling together if you're going to get into trouble every time I turn my back."
I nodded, then stumbled my way to the stage. When I began my tale, my voice quavered, and I was too exhausted to embellish the bare bones of the story's plot, but it didn't really matter. In the midst of the drunken revelry, no one was listening to me anymore.
I awoke on a straw pallet, with streaks of strong morning light filtering through half-closed window shutters and the comforting sound of Xena's slumber-steady breathing beside me. A few hours before dawn she had won the room and a small purse of dinars in a knife-throwing contest. I vaguely remembered her urging me up a flight of wooden steps to the second-floor of the tavern to claim our prize...and then remembered some of the shouted obscenities from the crowd as they watched us leave together. The words had meant little to me in my sleep-fogged state, but now I recognized them as crude and vulgar predictions of what Xena would to do to me when we reached our quarters.
Nothing like that had happened. The two of us had fallen into the single bed, and then almost instantly into unconsciousness.
But what if Xena *had* done those things? I wondered. From what little she had revealed of her days as a warlord, she had held few scruples concerning extortion or even murder. Why should she balk at forcing herself on an unwilling bedmate? I tried to imagine Xena's mouth pressed hard against my own, her hands groping my naked breasts, a muscled thigh forcing its way between...
I stopped the parade of images as I considered an even more disturbing question. Just how unwilling would I have been? The rapid beating of my pulse offered an ambiguous answer. Was I reacting with fear or with that other strong emotion that had welled up inside of me the first time I had laid eyes on the warrior princess? After all, this warlord had transformed into a woman who had saved me from Draco's marauders. How different could these two persons be?
Glancing over at Xena, I nearly cried out her name. In sleep, her face had softened. The wariness lurking in her eyes was masked behind closed lids; the harsh curl of her lips was smoothed into a half-smile. She looked just like the Xena I loved. And the knowledge that an honorable and compassionate woman was in there somewhere -- buried deep beneath layers of bitterness and rage -- filled me with an aching need to reach out, to somehow touch the familiar....
My hand hovered just a hairsbreadth away from her cheek when she stirred. I pulled back, but not fast enough to escape the notice of steel-blue eyes.
"Good morning," I said, hoping my voice sounded less shrill to Xena's ears than it did to my own. I flushed under her silent scrutiny, all too aware that her muscular frame was gathering tension like a coiled spring.
Then, with a grunt, she rolled out of bed and reached for her armor. "This isn't going to work," she said as she buckled her breastplate into place.
I fought down a surge of apprehension. "What do you mean?"
"I need money, real money, not that handful of dinars you earn telling tales." She slapped bracers around her wrists as she talked. "It takes gold to buy warriors, gold to buy supplies."
"Yeah, well, that's not exactly hot news."
"What's that crack supposed to mean?" she demanded.
I shrugged and fell silent, then gasped when she lunged forward and shook me by the shoulders.
"I'm in no mood for games, little bard," hissed Xena into my face. "So if you have something to say, spit it out!"
I clawed away her hands. "If you need money now, then you knew that when we started out together."
I resisted the temptation to unfurl my entire scheme now. If my answers came too easily, Xena would grow suspicious. "And I suppose you've been working at it."
"If you'd bothered to tell me what you were doing, I could help you now," I said angrily. "But since you didn't--"
"All that traveling around..." Xena whirled away, then slammed her fist against the wall. "Yes! By the gods, there had to be a good reason for all that aimless wandering. Otherwise, it was years wasted." I held my breath as she paced the length of the narrow room. Turning on her heel, she demanded, "Come on. We're leaving."
I scrambled off the bed, biting back any comments that would set off her hair-trigger temper. I was about to reach for my pack when she stepped in front of me.
"Gabrielle..." She uttered my name like a low growl. "You'd better be right about this oracle."
I nodded, struck dumb by the threat in her voice. This time there was no doubt about what emotion had set my heart racing.
It was fear.
"Xena...wait up...I can't...." My voice gave out as I staggered to a stop. Leaning on my staff, I tried to catch my breath. From the moment we left town Xena had set a brisk pace that pushed me to the limits of endurance, and there was no trace of mercy written on her face when she reined in Argo, only an impatient scowl.
"I just need...a short rest."
"Catch up on your own time," said the warlord. With a kick of her heels, she urged Argo forward into a trot and left me standing alone in the road.
"To Hades with you," I muttered, then gulped for more air. When I could finally breathe without pain, I resumed my walk with a steady stride that would eat ground without leaving me winded.
Usually I took great joy in walking, especially in rolling countryside such as this, but today my anger and the need to hurry robbed me of that pleasure. I must have thought about many things over the course of that long day, but all I remember was muttering curses at the warlord who had abandoned me so easily. Of course, my Xena was also quick to leave me behind on our journeys, and this uncomfortable parallel blurred the line between her and the warlord. By mid-afternoon, when I discovered there was only a crust of bread in my shoulder bag, I was irrationally furious at both of them.
I followed Argo's tracks until the light began to fade, and still there was no sign that Xena had stopped on the road. Dusk darkened into night. Unsure of my way, my steps faltered. I rested at the base of a sheltering tree until a full moon revealed the road once again. An hour later, chilled and light-headed from hunger and thirst, I finally staggered into Xena's campsite.
She was stretched out by the fire, wrapped in her blanket. Without even opening her eyes, she said, "Took you long enough."
I was too miserable to reply. Dropping my staff to the ground, I seized a charred rabbit leg lying on a stone by the dying fire and gnawed at the scraps of flesh surrounding the bone. The meat was cold and tasted of ashes. I washed it down with a half-dozen swallows of water, then fumbled open my bedroll and crawled beneath the blanket. It seemed my head had just hit the ground when Xena was prodding me awake with a swift kick to my ribs. My eyes flew open at the rough call. Dawn barely illuminated the campsite.
"Get up now or you can carry your own bedroll," she said curtly, and strode away into the woods.
Early rising was not my specialty, but I was alarmed enough by Xena's brusque threat to stumble to my feet and fold up my bedding. I gave up any hope of enjoying our usual hot breakfast when I noticed the cold ashes of the fire had already been kicked apart and Argo was fully saddled.
Taking advantage of Xena's absence from camp, I tucked the bundled blankets into a saddlebag, then risked a furtive pat to Argo's neck. Uttering a soft whicker, she turned and nuzzled her velvety nose against my hand. It was a comforting moment for the both of us, this attempt to touch the familiar in the midst of so much strangeness, but I dropped my hand at the sound of Xena's boots coming up behind me. Too late, I realized I had just squandered my one chance to rifle the packs for food.
Shouldering me aside without comment, Xena vaulted into the saddle. A quick, hard twist of the reins pulled Argo's nose around and a slap to her rump set the horse in motion.
If tears could have eased my gnawing hunger or soothed the dull ache in my muscles, I would have cried. But tears were useless, and I needed all my strength for walking; so, dry-eyed and silent, I retrieved my staff and began another day's march.
Argo must have been as tired as I was. Throughout the morning I found signs that Xena had stopped often to let the mare graze. In fact, I might have made better time keeping up with them if I hadn't stopped to forage for myself. All I managed to find were a handful of late-season berries and a few tasteless mushrooms. After that I chewed on a bitter-tasting root and fought the temptation to curl up in a nest of dry grass and sleep. In sleep I could escape the pain of my aching feet and my throbbing head...and forget that Xena was responsible for my misery.
For the past two years we had led a spartan existence, one without many luxuries, but compared to my situation right now our daily life had been filled with riches. She had never let me go hungry, and despite her gruff complaints she was quick to indulge me in sleeping late or taking scenic detours. Her reserve could be disconcerting at times, but she had never been cold or indifferent or cruel toward me. But now...
...now Xena was in trouble. She needed me. If I let her ride away, there was no guarantee she would find her way to the oracle or recover her memory. And then I'd lose her forever.
I quickened my pace, determined that this time I would catch up to the warlord before nightfall.
Dusk had just started to leach color out of the landscape when I caught a faint whiff of burning wood and overcooked meat. Following my nose, I found my way to a clearing where Xena was stirring a bubbling pot of stew hanging over the fire. I knew this meal was probably every bit as wretched as any she had ever cooked, but I was so ravenous that it smelled delicious.
"I saved you some," said Xena, and nodded her head toward a bowl set to one side of the fire.
"Thanks." I was so grateful that I forgot to be wary of any favors offered by a warlord.
She waited until I had grabbed the bowl and was turning to find a place to sit. With a sudden movement of her boot into my path, she tripped me. My supper went flying through the air as I fell to the ground, landing awkwardly. Gasping at a sudden stab of pain, I tried to roll off my wrenched shoulder, but Xena's boot stamped down on my right wrist, pinning me in place.
"Why are you doing this to me!" I screamed out.
"Why are you letting me?" she demanded. "Why don't you just turn back?"
I almost missed it: the opening I'd been waiting for all this time. Blinded by rage and exhaustion, I teetered on the edge of a trap that the warlord had set for me...then pulled back just in time to throw my own net over her. "The treasure," I sobbed, letting loose real tears to cover my lie. "I wanted...my part...."
Xena laughed and lifted her foot. "That's more like it."
As I rubbed at my sore wrist, I said, "You knew?"
"I knew there had to be a reason you were so determined to recover my memory, and I knew you weren't telling me why."
She reached down and helped me to my feet, lifting me as easily as a feather. By the time I had taken a seat on a fallen log, she had ladled out another helping of stew. I greedily gulped it down while she laid out our bedding. Then, when I was wiping the last bit of gravy from the bowl and licking my fingers, she settled down on her blanket and faced me.
With a feral grin, Xena said, "So tell me about this treasure."
"Not just any treasure," I said. "Sumerian treasure." I quickly sketched out a tale of Xena tracking down clues to the location of the lost Sumerian treasure, a tale that was very convincing because so much of it was true. Fortunately the warlord didn't remember that we had already found our way to the cavern filled with gold and jewels.
"I wasn't supposed to know about it," I said ruefully, "but I've overheard enough of your conversations to figure out what you were doing. And you were really close to finding the last clue, so as soon as you get your memory back we'll be rich!"
"I'm your partner, aren't I?" With a winsome smile, I added, "Besides, it wouldn't take much gold to make me happy. Really!"
With a chortle, Xena said, "It wouldn't take much effort to kill you either. Really."
"Hey! I'm your friend!"
Shrugging, she said, "Friendship is a luxury for the poor and the helpless; the rich and powerful can't afford it."
"Oh." I sighed heavily. "I guess that's why you're a warlord and I'm a bard. A terminally naive bard."
"There are advantages to being naive, Gabrielle," said Xena. "If you were any less naive, I probably wouldn't have kept you around. As it is," she yawned, and stretched out on the bedroll, "you've lasted longer in my company than any of my lieutenants."
"Two years is a record?"
"Yes," she said dryly. "In my business, two years can be a lifetime...." She stared into the fire for a long time, then asked in a low voice, "During all the time we were travelling together, what did I say about losing my army?"
"Not much, really." Then, against all reason, I yielded to the sudden impulse to tell Xena something of essential importance about herself. "I don't think you missed them at all."
I saw the subtle stiffening of her muscular body, an involuntary confession of tension, but she didn't protest my statement.
Edging a little farther out onto dangerous ground, I said, "It was if you'd grown...bored...with that part of your life." And this was as much as I dared reveal about the turning point in her dark past.
Silence stretched between us once again as she stared unblinking at the dancing flames, her face a mask of impassivity.
At last she shook her head and said, "Go to sleep. We have another early start tomorrow morning." And she closed her eyes.
Concluded in Part Two
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