This Xena: Warrior Princess story takes place after the events of "Justice In Walsas" and "In A Man's World". While not absolutely necessary, it is strongly encouraged that you read these stories first as some of the characters and events in them are referred to in this third story.
The story "The Stars In The Sky" is an old English tale found in William J. Bennett's "The Book of Virtues". The original author is unknown. With no disrespect intended to the unknown author, or those who adapted the story for Bennett's Book, the old English tale has been adapted to suit the needs of this new, American tale based on the Universal's Xena: Warrior Princess Television characters.
1) While not sexually explicit, this story does contain mature themes and
romantic situations involving two women.
2) If you prefer short stories, sorry, this is anything but...(I've never mastered brevity...)
3) If you manage to read it in one sitting, and you feel drowsy, please, wait to operate heavy equipment.
- Enginerd (Feb 1997)
Meleager crept quietly through the bushes with Xena following closely behind. Hearing a noise ahead, he motioned her to stop. Silent communication was a necessary skill for warriors, and second nature to these two veterans. Waiting for the signal indicating it was safe to proceed, Xena had a chance to reflect on Meleager's mission, now their mission. With any luck, no one, especially Gabrielle, would ever find out about her involvement.
Xena recalled the number of times she had confidently come to the aid of someone in their time of need. However, this was a different time. A time she was not so sure she would be able to help....especially considering her recent track record. Yet, as she looked at the uneasy man in front of her, she sighed and silently reaffirmed her commitment to at least try and help her fellow warrior. That look of helplessness in Meleager the Mighty struck an all too familiar chord in her.
A soldier came through the garden, the cause of their delay in getting to the objective. It was a moonless night, enabling them to only see the silhouette of the soldier and what kind of weapons he carried. Neither of them could see his face. Not that it would make any difference.
Meleager nervously wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. "l would feel better if I had my sword." Meleager whispered to her as they watched the unsuspecting soldier pass.
"You shouldn't be needing it." Xena responded flatly as they cautiously stood up, looking for other guards. Meleager wasn't so sure. He felt incredible pressure about the task at hand. "I hate not having it in a face-to-face confrontation." He added as they continued towards the objective. "This is not exactly a face to face confrontation." She countered quietly.
It might have been a sign of her old sadistic tendencies reemerging or her desire to talk him out of this, or perhaps a bit of both, but whatever the reason, she took the opportunity to provide her strategic assessment of the upcoming encounter to the already nervous man. "Although, you WILL be more vulnerable being out in the open. And at a lower elevation, projectiles will be much more effective." Meleager stopped in his tracks. "I didn't count on projectiles."
"Look, this was YOUR idea." She said curtly, unable to contain her irritation with him any longer. Meleager knew he needed help and thought Xena would understand and moreover, have the necessary discretion. "I know and I am sorry to put you through this. But I can't do this alone." Why did he have to be so sincere in his apology, Xena thought and sighed heavily.
"I don't understand why you just don't knock on Sara's door and tell her how you feel." Xena blurted with exasperation, once again offering him an alternative to the planned romantic encounter - an alternative that wouldn't involve her.
"You're really not the romantic type are you?" Meleager asked, still not won over by that suggestion. "It has been a while..." Xena admitted.
"Sara deserves romance!" He spoke with conviction then muttered "Enerall was the romantic type I've heard." Xena sighed, now understanding him better than he realized. Meleager's real motivation for this romantic encounter was his attempt to compete with the memory of Sara's first, now dead, husband. "She would laugh at me if I showed up at her door and just blurted my feelings. I NEED to be romantic Xena." Meleager was emphatic.
"Meleager, you are being foolish. If you are honest with her, that is all that's needed. You shouldn't pretend to be something your not." Xena lectured. "Fine, don't help me!" He started to march towards his objective. However, his newly found resolve quickly abandoned him, causing him to freeze. He turned with a desperate look on his face, the one that caused her to agree help him in the first place. "Please... will you please help me?" He asked earnestly.
Truly amazing, she thought, how easily a confident warrior can become so uncertain when it comes to matters of the heart. "Please?" He repeated his plea for help. "YES." She responded curtly. She was annoyed with herself for being so soft. "I said I would, now let's get this over with..." Xena added, taking charge of the mission and leading the way. A relieved smile crossed Meleager's face as he followed.
Finally arriving at their destination, they looked up at the large balcony off a second-story bedroom. His target of affection was not yet there. There was still time to back out of this plan if he wanted, Xena considered. But no, he's convinced he needs to do this, she sighed. Seeing him hesitate, she shoves him into place, away from the cover of the bushes. "Ok, OK..." He responded as he tried to regain his composure. He stood tall, took a deep breath and tried not to think of projectiles.
Xena returned to the protection of the foliage with the hope this would soon be over.
"Can you hear me?" She asked quietly from behind a leafy branch, keeping an eye out for any other guards who could catch them. The last thing the Warrior Princess wanted was for Gabrielle to find out about this.
Meleager kept staring up at the balcony. Annoyed he didn't answer, she grabbed a rock and threw it at him. "Ouch!" Meleager yelped, looking back at her with irritation. "You didn't have to ...." Meleager started to complain when their attention was diverted to the balcony. "Oh Gods, there she is." Meleager said nervously. They observed the target of his affections emerge from the bedroom for a leisurely evening stroll. Her hair and gown flowed behind her as she walked to the edge of the balcony in a gentle wave of grace and beauty.
Even Xena was taken aback by this woman's regal beauty. She could understand why Meleager had trouble approaching the Queen. Sara definitely had an intimidating aura about her, especially tonight, Xena admitted. Poor Meleager, she thought. This, in addition to the competition for her affections with an unfailing opponent, a dead husband, made her consider he couldn't have picked a more daunting target. "What do I say?" Meleager whispered in a panic, interrupting her thoughts. "You don't even have an opening line?" Xena asked incredulously.
"What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" Meleager responded, immediately realizing his tavern lines were not going to work well in this case. Not that they ever worked well, he frowned. Xena rolled her eyes, realizing how unprepared he really was. She should have known, she scolded herself. She assumed he just needed a little coaching and moral support - not a complete script! Ugh, Gabrielle is the one with the words, she thought to herself. Yet, she understood Meleager's reluctance in enlisting Gabrielle's help in this matter. It did, after all, involve Gabrielle's sister, Sara.
When he saw his vision of beauty turn to go back into the bedroom, he panicked and looked to Xena for help. "Tell her not to leave" Xena urged the obvious. "HEY! STOP!" Meleager called out, as if his target was running away from a crime.
Xena sighed and rubbed her eyes with her hand. Perhaps this was just a bad dream, Xena considered hopefully. When she opened her eyes again, she had to face the awful truth. It was going to be long and painful night.
"Uh, please don't leave." Meleager added softly. The startled target of affection came out to the edge of the balcony and looked down in the garden to see who just yelled at her. She stopped moving, he observed. Good! Moving targets are harder to hit, he thought to himself. Meleager smiled, considering so far so good.
He looked back at Xena for more help, which he desperately needed. Surprising herself, she recalled a line used on her once, a long time ago. "Tell her... 'it would be CRUEL ... not to SHARE... your BEAUTY... a few more MINUTES... with ME'... " Xena whispered loudly and distinctly to him so he couldn't mess this line up. "Hey that's GOOD!" Meleager responded a little too enthusiastically. "What?!?" His target asked with confusion. "Ah.... it is GOOD of you to stay." He quickly responded. Pleased with his recovery, he gave a thumbs-up sign to Xena, who quietly moaned.
Although he couldn't see it, his target smiled with amusement. "What else?" Meleager whispered to Xena. "Can't you think of SOMETHING you want to say to compliment her?" Xena snapped with great irritation, trying herself to think of something else. She already gave him one good line which he blew. Now he wanted another? Despite the many lines used on her in the past, and there were many, she had trouble remembering them. Perhaps it was because they were so insincere, uninspired or just a means to an end.
She scanned her memory harder, convinced she should be able to retrieve something useful. A memory finally arrived and with it, a smile. Too bad Sara's eyes are not the same color as mine, Xena considered. Now THOSE were memorable compliments, she thought, recalling the time when that flirtatious man happened to come by and ask her for directions to Marapolis. Xena never did let Gabrielle know she was aware the bard was hiding in that tree, listening in on their conversation. She also didn't tell her friend she deliberately encouraged the man to flirt, just to see what Gabrielle would do. Out of the many possibilities, Xena had to admit she did not expect Gabrielle to fall out of the tree.
Xena recalled how Gabrielle later surprised her again by explaining to her that the lost man did her an injustice by just saying "beautiful eyes". Xena had to take the bard's word for it because she really didn't remember what he said. Gabrielle then proceeded to give her a large number of much more eloquent alternatives to the same compliment 'you have beautiful eyes'. Xena sighed, reminding herself Gabrielle was only demonstrating her superior skills as a bard. Still, she remembered those compliments. She remembered all the compliments the bard used to give her, every so often.... before her friend was married.
"What about her hair? She's got beautiful hair" Meleager suggested, bringing Xena back to the present, unpleasant situation. "Don't tell me, tell HER." She prompted him, throwing her hands up in frustration towards the target. While not on par with Gabrielle's eloquence, it WAS at least a sincere compliment, she noted. Perhaps this encounter wasn't going to turn out so bad after all, she considered.
"You've got REALLY great hair!" He gushed bashfully. Xena stared at him, not knowing exactly what to think except that if she had her sword, she would have felt obligated to put her fellow warrior out of his misery.
"What?" The woman blurted with an amused smile. "Sara, I love you and want you to be my wife!" He announced with confidence. The heartfelt declaration surprised both Xena and his target of affection.
Xena was surprised because marriage was an incredible leap from the planned simple romantic encounter, if romantic encounters could ever be considered simple.
His target of affection was surprised Meleager the Mighty could have made such a huge mistake.
"Meleager!...You're at the WRONG BALCONY!" Gabrielle leaned over the railing and called out with exasperation. Meleager turned in panic to Xena, who was thinking of the many ways she could repay him for the pleasure of this evening. Not surprisingly, each would involve pain.
"Gabrielle, I'm glad you're still up." Sara, surprising her sister, entered her room with some urgency and met her on the balcony. She held up the message in her hand to show Gabrielle, who nonchalantly moved away from the balcony's edge. "I wanted to discuss..." She started to explain the reason for her unexpected and urgent evening visit but stopped, noticing someone down on the ground. "Meleager? Is that you?" She asked leaning over the balcony railing. She couldn't see his face but the man's silhouette looked very familiar. "Yes," He responded weakly, feeling a bit nauseous .
Intense pain, Xena reconsidered.
"What is he doing down there?" Sara asked her sister. "I found him out enjoying the evening air, like me." Gabrielle quickly responded. "It IS a beautiful night, don't you agree?" Gabrielle looked up at the sky and took a deep breath, then risked a quick glance at her sister to see how well the explanation was going over. "Very beautiful." Sara agreed flatly, still having trouble believing Meleager would have the same appreciation.
"I didn't know you liked evening walks Meleager." Sara asked, staring down at her normally gruff Captain of the Guard. "Well, uh, I do...your majesty... But I prefer to walk with...ah...you said you wanted to discuss something with your sister. I'll let you two..." He tried to leave but Sara stopped him. "No, I want you to hear this too Meleager." The Queen responded.
"Splendid." The bushes muttered.
"I'm probably over reacting, but you know Lila is late in returning" Sara sighed. That fact didn't concern Gabrielle, who considered Lila was still visiting with their Uncle Ustas. Not surprisingly, the man also had the family trait of talking a lot. "I just got word two girls were reported missing from Marapolis, which is on the way to Uncle Ustas'." Sara held up the message. "...like I said, I'm probably over reacting." Sara repeated, then forced a laugh. "She's just probably stuck listening to his stories of Mother and Father."
With that news, Gabrielle fully understood Sara's concern for Lila. "I think we should still check this out. Besides, Lila may need rescuing from Uncle Ustas." Gabrielle quipped to ease her sister's nerves, knowing her concern was of slavers. Sara was all too familiar about what they could do to a young girl.
"I'll go tell Xena what's going on." Gabrielle mentioned to her sister as she started to leave. "You don't have to go anywhere, she's right here." Meleager the Efficient announced, pointing to the bushes.
Slow... intense.... pain, Xena reconsidered.
Xena finally emerged, as if it was a normal occurrence to be found hiding in the bushes under someone's balcony. "We should discuss this inside." Xena spoke evenly, with a cold glance directed towards a nervous Meleager. "Xena? Why were you...." Sara asked.
"Actually..." Gabrielle jumped in with another explanation, her bardly skills coming in very handy this evening. "...they didn't want to unnecessarily worry you, but, Meleager was concerned the soldiers were getting lax so... he asked for Xena's help in testing them." Gabrielle shrugged. "Now THAT's the Meleager I know." Sara smiled. "Did they fair well in your tests Captain?" Sara called down.
Meleager stared up in amazement at Gabrielle's recovery of the situation. "Wow" He thought, reconsidering his reluctance in asking her for help. She was very good at this, he mused. Perhaps she would be able... "Ugh". Meleager blurted, his silent appreciation of the bard interrupted by Xena's sharp elbow. "YEEEEsss," He responded to the Queen's question, trying not to disclose his pain.
"Yes, better than I expected. You have nothing to worry about your majesty." He added after getting his wind back.
Meleager started to head inside but with one step, Xena blocked his path. Even though she wore her Warrior's Mask which successfully hid all traces of emotion, he correctly concluded she was not amused with this evening's events. "Amazing how many balconies this castle has..." Meleager relayed, unsuccessfully hiding his discomfort at the absence of her expression of what he knew to be her feelings - great annoyance with him.
"Good thing Gabrielle is really good at this..." Meleager nervously laughed. Without seeing any change in the Warrior's Mask, Meleager cleared his throat and carefully stepped around her.
Inside the castle, the sisters were not surprisingly in the kitchen. The kitchen seemed to be the one place in the home that their family would always congregate to discuss serious matters. Many a family problem had been solved in the comfort of the warm and cozy kitchen, Gabrielle remembered fondly. Although looking around this kitchen, she noted that it could hardly be considered cozy, being the nearly the size of their childhood home.
"Do you want something?" Sara asked Gabrielle while they waited for the two warriors. "No thanks." Gabrielle responded, watching her sister rummage around the pantry in a less than regal manner. "I guess it's time for a heart-to-heart talk with my cook." Sara muttered inspecting a piece of moldy cheese, shaking her head with disapproval. She tossed it over her shoulder and continued her search. Gabrielle knew that her sister Sara was disturbed about more than just the moldy food. "Now where did it go?" Sara asked herself, peering in and around a number of boxes.
Meleager looked over to Xena for an explanation. "A family thing." She responded simply. At least the embarrassment was being spread around tonight, Xena mused.
"Hand me the flour." Sara ordered Gabrielle, who immediately complied with an embarrassed smile. Even if the Queen had to bake it herself, Sara was going to have her nutbread.
"Don't just stand there you two, get the oven ready..." Sara now ordered the two warriors. "Won't it take a few ... hours..." Meleager started to questioned why she would want to start baking this time of night. However, he wisely stopped when he noticed glares of warning from the three women. "I'll go get the wood..." He offered, wisely retreating to do his chore.
Sara's worry and guilt grew as they discussed Lila's absence. "I should have never let her go." Sara relayed while kneading the dough. "Hand me the nuts..." She ordered to Gabrielle.
"LET her go?" Gabrielle responded with a laugh, as she spotted a jar likely to contain the delicious morsels. "Just because you are a Queen now doesn't mean you have any more control over her than when we were children." Gabrielle added while trying grab the jar off a high shelf, just out of reach.
"Hmmmm." Sara responded, acknowledging that truth. Both Lila and Gabrielle were definitely handfuls when they were children, she remembered. And they didn't seem to be any better as adults, she smiled to herself.
Meleager smiled as he watched Sara try to wipe some flower off her nose with her forearm while her hands were covered in gooey dough. She succeeded only in smearing the flour around. He never saw the Queen more beautiful.
"If Lila has it in her mind to go someplace," Gabrielle continued, feeling a hand on her shoulder stopping her from climbing on a chair. "she will go....Isn't that right Meleager?" Gabrielle asked as Xena handed her the jar and sighed. The bard smiled appreciatively at her tall friend who, as was usual lately, did not return the smile. The bard's smile faded when she sensed the warrior would rather be someplace else.
"Yep and force...I mean, encourage... people to help her too. If it wasn't for her stubbornness, I wouldn't be here today." He added, acutely aware of Lila's determination in getting to Walsas to help her sister. "Besides, she's with one of my best men. He won't let anything happen to her." Meleager spoke confidently.
Sara took comfort in that and exchanged warm smiles with Meleager. She became a little embarrassed by his gaze and looked down at her big bowl of dough, which she noted was still missing the key ingredient.
"Where are my nuts?" Sara glanced over to Gabrielle to see what was taking so long.
There were more than a dozen opened containers scattered on the table which failed to contain the key ingredient. Xena shook her head and sighed as she reached up and retrieved the last container in the pantry. She rolled her eyes when the hopeful bard quickly grabbed the container from her hands and opened it. "Yes!" The bard spurted with a big smile at the discovery of nuts. However, that smile was short lived as the bard also made the discovery of a fuzzy white mold. "Ugh..." Gabrielle looked over to her sister, who was patiently waiting, then back at the nuts.
"I would strongly advise against eating them." Xena warned her desperate friend. Despite the warning, Gabrielle looked like she was still considering it, causing Xena's eyebrows to furrow. "Couldn't we just scrape..." Gabrielle quietly questioned the Warrior Princess about a possible way to salvage the ingredient and her relationship with her older sister. Xena took back possession of the jar and shook her head no. Well, at least she had another sister, Gabrielle concluded with a sigh.
"You're out of nuts...." Gabrielle said bluntly, finally admitting the tragic news to her sister. Sara looked at her sister then stared at the lonely dough. "Nutbread with no nuts." Sara muttered with annoyance as she formed the loaves. "You'd think as Queen, I'd get to have some nutbread with nuts. But Noooo. Nutbread and nuts just seem to disappear around here..." She eyed her Gabrielle then continued to mutter.
Meleager scratched his head. "Maybe you could use some dried fruit." He offered, seeing the kitchen was stocked with plenty of other potential substitutes for nuts. "Then it wouldn't be NUTbread." Sara and Gabrielle countered in unison. Meleager glanced to Xena to see if he was the only one who didn't understand why a nutless nutbread was still better than a nutless nutbread with fruit. Xena knew better than to attempt to explain.
"I'm going to visit Uncle Ustas, maybe HE has some nuts." Sara announced with sarcasm. "You don't have to do that, I'll go..." Gabrielle remarked already having planned that trip when Sara first mentioned her concerns on the balcony. Meleager liked Gabrielle's suggestion. "You can come along if you want to ....." Sara placed the nutless loaves in the oven. "There!"
Meleager couldn't believe his ears. The Queen actually wanted to leave the protection of the castle, even though she was concerned about women getting abducted. A queen would fetch a pretty hefty ransom, especially one so beautiful, he considered. He could not allow this nonsense. He would not!
"Your MAJESTY" Meleager spoke with a commanding tone. "you are NOT going ANYWHERE until we figure .... out......WHAT?!?" He quickly blurted and quickly stopped, not understanding the stares coming from the three women. He, the Captain of the Queen's Guard, was trying to make a very important point about her safety. The Captain didn't have long to wait to learn his of his mistake with the Queen.
In a biting tone that would have put his drill sergeant to shame, Sara bore into him. "You, Captain, are in no position to tell ME what to do. I WILL go visit my Uncle when I so choose. Your job, CAPTAIN, is to ensure me sufficient protection....I WILL be going, and THAT is FINAL." After giving Meleager a royal dress down, Sara angrily stormed out of the kitchen.
Staring at the doorway where the storm just blew through, Meleager sighed, realizing he had much more success this evening in hitting a nerve, than a bulls-eye with this target of affection.
Gabrielle and Xena stared at poor Meleager. Gabrielle considered this setback a learning experience. "Well, that which does not kill us...." Gabrielle waxed philosophical. "...is called torture." Xena completed the bard's comment with a slightly different perspective.
Gabrielle looked up at her skeptical friend with an amused smile. "See you bright and early?" The bard asks. Xena nods yes and lets a smile crack through her warrior's mask, considering the 'early' part not very likely.
Perhaps the trip to Walsas had done them some good, Gabrielle mused, enjoying that increasingly rare gift from her friend. Out of an almost forgotten habit, Gabrielle gently squeezed her friend's forearm. Noting the subtle look of surprise in Xena's face at this once common gesture, Gabrielle retract her hand.
Perhaps not, Gabrielle reconsidered, forcing a smile to cloak her sadness. "It's getting late...." Gabrielle remarked as she looked in her friends eyes. There was something missing from the warrior's gaze. Something Gabrielle hadn't seen in a long time. Something she missed. With a polite nod from the Warrior, Gabrielle sighed and left the kitchen.
Considering she spent more than enough time with Meleager this evening, Xena started to leave. "What about the nutbread?" Meleager asked her. The question made Xena stop. With a slow turn of her head and familiar cold glare from the Warrior Princess, Meleager was able to figure out the answer on his own. "Ah... I'll take care of it..." Meleager responded, quickly moving to stand guard by the oven.
As Xena left the kitchen, she was once again grateful for her warrior's mask. In her warlord days, she had frequent need for it to protect her from her enemies. Little did she realize then, she would have more need for protection from bard than she ever did for an enemy.
Gabrielle returned to her chambers, her mind once again on Xena. Their trip to Walsas had not closed that distance between them as was hoped. A distance that was hard to define and feared to be growing.
She sighed as she walked out on the balcony and looked up to the star-filled sky. The stars, she mused, something wondrous to gaze at, yet too far away to touch.
Just after Perdicus' death, and for many months after, she could not look into a starry sky without triggering deep feelings of loss and shedding countless tears. But it had been many months since she had that response. She thought she had finally conquered those emotions.
Yet, this evening's starry sky proved her wrong, as a torrent of emotions returned to play havoc with her again. Deep pangs of loneliness surfaced and with them, tears. Why? She asked herself bitterly.
She had finished mourning her husband. She loved him and owed him so much, but she was ready to move on. She was determined to live her life to its fullest. He always wanted that for her. Even when they were children. Especially, when they were children.
Gabrielle's thoughts returned to the woman of few words. The woman who had helped her through the darkest time of her life with such great and gentle love. Gabrielle breathed deeply, missing those silent acts of love.
How, without a word spoken between them, Xena would quietly sit next to the bard and cradle her, gently rocking her until the tears stopped and sleep came.
How, without a word spoken between them, Xena's healing hand would squeeze the bard's shoulder when someone's words would inadvertently strike fresh wounds at the bard's mending heart.
How, without a word spoken between them, Xena knew when the bard needed to be alone and when she desperately needed the warrior at her side.
How is it then, Xena could not possibly know how much she is needed now, Gabrielle asked herself.
"Xena", she uttered her friend's name with a heavy heart. How could she live her life to its fullest with that horrible distance between them, Gabrielle questioned with growing anger. She had mourned the loss of her husband. Did she also have to mourn the loss of a deep and loving friendship?
Gabrielle felt like screaming out. "No," She stopped herself, knowing that if she dared to scream it, it's force would pierce the ears of everyone in the castle. And at this moment, she wasn't interested in trying to explain her rage and the woman of many words wasn't sure she could. Clenching the railing, she closed her eyes and ordered herself to stop crying. "No more tears." She told herself, taking a slow and steady breath. Her hand went to her cheek to wipe the final tears away. "Tomorrow is another day Gabrielle." She told herself and returned to her bed.
Despite having been captured by slavers who threatened to beat her, fed minimal food which left her stomach growling for more, and drug across the country side in the back of a most uncomfortable wagon which had imparted a few choice splinters in a few sensitive spots, Lila still found herself able to get a good night's sleep. She knew her sisters would get her. She was certain. She just had to keep her mouth shut and not aggravate the dumb guy with the whip.
In the stables, Sara mounted her brown steed with the skill of an experienced rider. "Will you be alright on Four Feet?" Sara noticed her sister's slight apprehension while mounting the gray horse. Gabrielle's eyes lit up and she chuckled when hearing the horse's name. "Four Feet? I can't believe you remembered..." Sara grinned, pleased with Gabrielle's response. "How could I forget. Are you sure you will be alright?"
Gabrielle knew if they were to make good travel time they would all need to ride. However, she had surprised her sister by asking to borrow a horse. She also surprised herself. The horse looked gentle enough though. Gabrielle surveyed the horse, the ground, then the horse again, before responding.
"That depends entirely on Four Feet, right girl?" Gabrielle smiled as she patted the horse's neck. Sara shook her head at her sister's inclusion of the horse in their conversation. However, from Gabrielle's experience with horses, she knew they were usually much smarter than people gave them credit for. Argo had reminded her of that plenty of times and Gabrielle certainly didn't want to say anything that would insult her mode of transportation. Surprising Sara and putting Gabrielle more at ease, the horse gently neighed. "Thanks" Gabrielle responded, making her sister chuckle.
As they left the stables and rode towards the two warriors, Sara grinned when she spotted the Captain. "I knew Meleager would come himself." Sara quietly remarked, obviously pleased. Gabrielle was happy Sara had a soft spot for him. That might even help the poor man, she thought. However, if Sara was anything like she was back in Poteidaia, she would still make things difficult on the potential suitor, just to see how serious he really was.
Hearing two horses approach them, Xena turned, surprised to find Gabrielle on her own horse. She assumed the bard would ride with her. Seeing Gabrielle engaged in an enlivened discussion with her sister as they rode over, Xena indulged in a rare moment of self-pity. She doesn't even want to ride with me anymore, Xena sighed heavily. By the time Gabrielle and her horse reached the warriors, the hurt in Xena's eyes was already masked.
"Let's go." Meleager commanded his small band with annoyance in his tone. He was not thrilled with the loss of a few good morning hours of travel. He also didn't like the idea of the Queen coming along. As he headed out, he immediately noticed that Sara wasn't following. He looked down at the ground with a stare he wished to give the Queen. Then, with a long, slow exhale, he lifted his head and plastered on a fake smile. "Your Majesty, if you don't mind, I would like it very much if you would ride with me." He spoke with forced courtesy.
"Very well Captain." Sara responded with a regal air while turning her brown steed to come along side of Meleager. As she turned, she winked at her sister.
"What was that about?" Xena asked having witnessed the wink. Xena then nonchalantly assessed the grey mare of Gabrielle's. It looked gentle enough for the bard, Xena thought.
"A sign. Probably a good sign." Gabrielle responded cryptically. "Come on Four Feet." Gabrielle started to follow her sister. Xena rode along side of her. "Four Feet?" The warrior repeated the name with a raised eyebrow. That usually would have been enough to set Gabrielle off with a long winded explanation. However, Gabrielle just smiled and nodded. A Stupid name, Xena thought.
When the women were taken onboard the ship in the dark of night, no one saw them. After their gags and chains were removed, they all did a fair bit of yelling with hope that someone would hear them. No one heard them. Lila knew there was no use in the continued crying and yelling.
"You should conserve your energy for the rescue." Lila said confidently. One full figured woman called back "Who's going to rescue us little girl? No one can hear us and we are on a ship going to only Gods know where. Who is going to rescue us?" She cried. "My sisters will." Lila said confidently.
The women looked at her and started to cry and yell for help again. Lila then took a different tack with the five women. "Stop it you guys, you'll annoy the dumb guy with the whip. And we really don't want to annoy him." She argued. "She's right" The tall blond who was also captured in Marapolis, responded, thinking more clearly.
Unfortunately, the group didn't quiet down enough. The bolt to the cargo hold's hatch slid back with a thud. Someone descended the ladder - the dumb guy with the whip. "I've had enough noise from you slaves." He snarled raising his whip. "We're done, you won't hear anymore crying or screaming." Lila quickly offered, to hopefully diffuse the potentially painful situation. Though despite Lila's assurances, most of the woman started to cry with fear again. This seemed to please the man.
"Care to make a wager with ...the dumb guy and his whip?" He said as he cracked his whip and eyed Lila, who concluded he probably didn't appreciate that remark.
Gabrielle looked over to Xena who was upset about something. However, Xena didn't say anything and her eyes didn't reveal anything. No surprise there, Gabrielle noted with annoyance. Xena had used that Warrior's Mask of hers so often now, Gabrielle was afraid Xena would forget how to really smile or laugh. Tired of waiting for Xena to say something she would probably never say, Gabrielle thought she would subtly get some dialogue going.
"You're mad at me." Gabrielle stated directly, her eyes fixed on her friend. Ok, perhaps not so subtle, Gabrielle thought to herself. Xena looked at her, seeing a very serious face on the bard. "I'm not mad at you." Xena responded in an unconvincing monotone and looked ahead. "Uh hun." Gabrielle responded and looked forward. After a moment, she looked back at her friend.
"What are you mad at me about?" Gabrielle questioned. Xena sighed. She was not about to let her know she was annoyed with Gabrielle over the horse with that really stupid name.
Thinking it over, Xena could understand the practicality of Gabrielle having her own horse, if that's what she wanted. If she needed to rush off to battle, Xena could certainly go much quicker if Gabrielle was not riding with her. Yeah, very practical, the warrior thought.
"I said I'm not mad at you." Xena said bluntly, keeping her eyes forward. Gabrielle sighed. "Uh hun." Gabrielle responded and looked ahead. A few seconds passed before she looked back at her friend.
"Why are you mad at me?" Gabrielle asked, as if it was the first time that question crossed her mind, which drew a sharp look from the warrior. The biggest reaction the bard got so far from Xena. "Ok, Ok...You're not mad at me." Gabrielle quickly responded. Xena looked forward, hoping they would reach Marapolis soon. Perhaps she would suggest to Meleager to hurry up the pace a bit, she considered.
Four Foot looked over to Argo and whinnied softly. Argo looked over to Four Feet and snorted. Four Feet now understood. Too bad people are not as smart as horses, Four Feet considered.
A silly grin quickly crossed Gabrielle's face. "Well, whatever I did to make you mad at me, I'm REEEAAALLY sorry." Gabrielle apologized. "Gabrielle! I said..." Xena's irritated response was interrupted by a giggling from a very amused bard. The look of exasperation that finally cracked through the warrior's mask was a victory to the bard. Xena couldn't help but let a smile and chuckle also escape from behind the mask. What a precious prize, thought the bard.
They stopped riding forward when Xena noticed Gabrielle intently inspecting her smiling face. "What?" Xena questioned her friend. "I wouldn't worry too much Xena, I don't think that smile permanently damaged your Warrior's Mask...this time. Although, you probably should take it off every once in a while, just to be on the safe side." Gabrielle suggested to her friend. Xena was taken aback by the bard's observation. Was she aware EVERY time that mask was used?
"They've stopped." Meleager reported immediately to Sara. "Good." She said. "Good?" He repeated. "We won't make very good time if we keep stopping." He complained. "We don't have to wait for them, they'll catch up." She breathed in the air deeply, appreciating her open surroundings. She hadn't been on a long trip like this in a long time. Meleager grunted. Whatever his majesty wants, he muttered under his breath.
Gabrielle realized she treaded on uncertain ground when the smile faded from Xena's face. A ground that she seemed to be treading on a lot these days. "Actually, I think it would probably be safest to keep it off altogether." Gabrielle said matter-of-factly.
"I not sure if it could handle even one more of your powerful smiles." Gabrielle added, briefly looking away. The bard had a point she had a need to make and she was going to make it, her way. Her eyes once again met Xena's and she continued, this time, taking her bard's gloves off.
"Can it survive the power of a smile that brings more hope to a sad soul than a welcome spring sun after a cold, dark winter?" With the bard's impassioned words, all traces of that powerful smile faded from Xena's face.
"Can it survive the power of a smile that makes those... incredible... eyes of yours twinkle, like rare sapphires, that kings would gladly fight over... just for the chance that a gift of them to their beloved could bring even a fraction of the joy... that a gift of your smile brings to someone lucky enough to receive it?" Gabrielle pauses a moment, with absolutely no threat of interruption.
"On second thought Xena, I am sure." Gabrielle takes a deep breath. "Your warrior's mask couldn't survive."
"They have been acting strange haven't they." Meleager finally commented, looking back at the two women again. "You've noticed too?" Sara asked, surprised he was that sensitive to others. "You'd have to be blind not to." He shook his head. "Have you asked Xena about it?" Sara asked. "You're kidding right?" He looked at her amazed she would ask. She shrugged, thinking it was possible the topic might have happened to come up in casual warrior conversation.
"I like to think myself a great warrior, but I really don't want to have to prove myself against an annoyed Xena." He joked. She appreciated his self-depreciating humor. To her, it showed great self-confidence. "I'd really hate to have to search for another Captain of the Guard...especially since I have gotten so ...." She catches herself. "used to you." Meleager smiles.
"I don't suppose you've asked Gabrielle about ...." He points back over his shoulder to the two. "You're kidding right?" She responses with a grin and they have a good chuckle.
It only took one session with the dumb guy with the whip to reinforce Lila's advice to herself to keep her mouth shut. Her back now sported thirteen welts on it. Something else she now shared in common with the other five women besides lovely prison accommodations. All in all, she faired well considering what he could have done, she tried to cheer herself up.
Luckily for all the women in the cargo hold, the buyer was very particular about the physical condition of the slave girls he wanted to purchase and the dumb guy had his orders to go easy on them. It was also a good thing for everyone when she realized the dumb guy got distracted easily and couldn't count well. She shuttered thinking what thirty lashes, even the "easy" lashes, would have done instead of thirteen.
Lila occasionally had to remind herself that Gabrielle and Sara would be on their way to rescue her any day now. However, if they waited too long, they would have to find her in a far away land which would make it much more difficult for a rescue, Lila concluded. They would rescue her any day now. She was sure.
Xena couldn't smile now if her life depended on it. She wasn't even sure if she could breath. And unfortunately, Xena also was unable to respond to the bard who desperately wanted to hear something, anything, from the Warrior Princess' lips.
After a few painful moments of silence with that Warrior's Mask apparently in place, Gabrielle took a deep, and resigned breath. "Well, I guess it's your mask and you can do with it what you want. Come on Four Feet." Gabrielle called to the gentle horse and rode to catch up to her sister and Meleager. The bard started to believe she would have to start accepting this distance between them and accepting that damn mask.
The slow, gentle rocking of the ship had a calming effect on Lila's nerves and she found herself nodding off. She later woke in darkness to the voices she heard top-side.
"He's late again." The dumb guy with the whip reported with annoyance when someone came onboard. "And the books came up short again." He added snidely. "How much this time?" A woman groaned, surprising Lila. A woman slaver, Lila thought to herself with amazement.
"40 dinars. We did just as well when I did the books" The man remarked sarcastically. "Here" The woman responded, ignoring his comment. Lila heard the clanking of dinars.
"If he weren't my brother, I would kill him." She added after the repayment. "If he were MY brother, he'd be dead by now." The man responded. "You're devotion to family warms my heart." She replied sarcastically. "Careful Dyessa, having a heart in this business is not healthy for you." He advised. "Your concern for my health is touching. However, you need not worry Fagan. I will mind my heart as well as my brother." Dyessa replied. "I'm not worried." Fagan responded, grinning to himself.
Xena continued to ride a distance behind the three, uncomfortably quiet riders. She was acutely aware she had not responded to Gabrielle very well. What else was new, she sighed heavily. Once again she did not know what to say to the bard. Her thoughts and emotions were at war. Despite all her warrior skills, she felt woefully unprepared for this war on uncertain ground.
Her thoughts told her there was nothing to say. The mask was there for a good reason.
Her emotions told her there was everything to say. How she missed cradling the bard in her arms at night.
Her thoughts told her the time for comforting the bard was over. That was all Gabrielle needed or wanted from her. The mask was there for a good reason.
Her emotions told her she was risking their friendship by shutting the bard out.
Her thoughts told her that she would lose their friendship if she didn't shut out the bard. Too much had happened since the days when the warrior could manage her emotions towards the bard. Too many times the warrior left her heart unguarded while comforting her friend. The mask was there for a good reason.
While Xena waited to see whether her thoughts or emotions would win, she did not want to take the chance of saying something that would make her lose everything. So her thoughts kept winning the battles of this war on uncertain ground and she kept her distance.....a safe, emotional distance.
Distracting everyone from their thoughts, a bone chilling scream of a young child pierced through the forest. Gabrielle turned back to find Xena had already made her way deep into the forest, towards the source of the scream. "Oh Gods" Sara uttered. "Stay here." Meleager ordered Gabrielle and Sara as he rode off.
"Does he actually think we will listen to him?" Sara questioned her sister, anxious to follow and help. "I don't think so, but he is supposed to be your Captain of the Guard.
If he fails to protect his Queen, he'll have a hard time getting another job." Gabrielle explained. "Well, perhaps we'll give him a moment before following, I would not want him to HAVE to look for another job." Sara smiled weakly. "OK. Times up. Come on Four Feet" Gabrielle encouraged her horse. "Stay close." Gabrielle advised her sister.
Meleager came to a clearing to find Xena fighting five men. She didn't even draw her sword, Meleager noticed. They foolishly tried to surround her thinking they could overpower her. Meleager watched her as she punched, kicked, somersaulted, punched, punched, tossed, kicked, paused...grinned...squeezed and twisted. "Good Gods" Meleager recoiled sympathetically. Observing her incredible and disturbing enthusiasm in fighting these five, Meleager was very glad he didn't ask her about Gabrielle.
Meleager's attention was diverted away from Xena and her punching bags to a wagon. Three children were tied up in the back and crying. Meleager's blood began to boil. "Innocent children..." He growled. Now he wanted some slavers to take his frustrations out on. He looked over to Xena. Her continued enthusiasm in fighting her five slavers made him suspect she would not be willing to share with him. He concluded he would have to find his own. Hearing noises just beyond the clearing, he had hope.
The scuffle he heard was between two slavers who ganged up on a man cowering on the ground. "You idiot....you fool" They called out, as they kicked him. Meleager easily pulled the bullies off of the man and looked at them. "How good are you guys fighting someone who fights back?" Meleager didn't give them a chance to answer and easily overpowered them with solid punches to their faces.
Gabrielle and Sara came upon the clearing to find Xena pommeling five men. She didn't even have her sword drawn, Gabrielle noticed. Gabrielle also noted it looked like the men were trying to escape but Xena wouldn't let them. Sara and Gabrielle watched her as she punched, pulled, kicked, flipped, pulled, kicked, punched, kicked, paused...grinned...squeezed and twisted. "Ouch" Sara and Gabrielle both recoiled sympathetically. Noticing the incredible enthusiasm Xena fought the men with, Sara was very glad Meleager didn't ask Xena about Gabrielle.
Sara went over to the wagon to release the children while Gabrielle went in search of Meleager.
Meleager looked down at the man on the ground who finally stopped shaking. The man froze seeing the fierce warrior tower over him. "Don't be frightened, I'm not going to hurt you." Meleager reached his arm down to help the man up. The man paused a moment before accepting the help.
"Meleager!" Gabrielle called out, finding the second warrior. "I thought I told you two to stay put!" He barked. Gabrielle shrugged. "Would you believe I really wanted to stay put but Sara kept insisting we join the action?" Meleager thought a moment and eyed her. "No and Yes." He answered.
"Who's your friend?" Gabrielle asked smiling at the man and changing the subject. "I don't know yet." Meleager relayed some irritation. "I was just about to find out but...." He started to explain but Gabrielle interrupted. "Hi, I'm Gabrielle" She introduced herself with a bright smile that made the man smile back. "Good, I was worried there was a shortage of smiles around here, but I'm glad you've proven me wrong." She joked with him making his smile bigger.
The man no longer feared Meleager and took a deep breath. "Th...Th...Thank... Y..Y..You..." He stammered. Gabrielle's smile faded when she heard the stutter. When the man looked back to Gabrielle, her smile returned.
Meleager patted him on his back as they walked towards the clearing. "My pleasure friend. My pleasure." Meleager smiled at him. "Kenis!" A little girl called out with relief and rushed over to her friend. "We were so scared!" She admitted as he scooped her up in his arms. "M..M..Me....T..T..Too.." He responded with a big hug. Gabrielle looked over to her sister, who finished untying the last of the kids. "Who ARE you?" A young boy asked Meleager boldly.
Meleager silently eyed him. "He's Meleager the Mighty and that woman over there is Xena, the Warrior Princess." Gabrielle announced as Xena came over to them. The five men were finally unconscious and of no more use to the Warrior Princess.
The warrior's names apparently meant something to the young boy, for his eyes widened in awe at the two famous warriors. "Who are you?" Meleager asked with a bark. "Trollius...sir..." The young boy responded and shrunk down. Meleager nodded.
"Hi, I'm Grena and this is Vicus." The little girl smiled at him unfrightened and unaware of any warrior reputation. His gruff exterior melted slightly as she held her hand out and he awkwardly shook it. Sara grinned at her Captain, having never seen him so handsome.
Despite their desire to get to Marapolis, Gabrielle and Sara insisted on ensuring the children got back to their home. Xena and Meleager gladly rode in back, away from the noisy children.
"Do you think we will ever get to Marapolis?" Meleager sighed. "Right now Meleager, I'm not sure of anything." Xena responded, observing Gabrielle talking with Kenis. Meleager thought briefly of asking her what she meant by that but decided against it. He remembered vividly what happened to the five slavers and shifted sympathetically in his saddle.
Kenis was very pleased but surprised that Gabrielle asked to sit with him on his wagon. "Do you teach the children?" Gabrielle asked. Kenis laughed. "N...N ... No." He smiled and slowly continued. "I... .ju just he..help out at th. the orph..phanage."
Gabrielle relayed an amused grin to her sister who rode along side. This was the first they learned they would be going to an orphanage. Both knew Meleager and Xena were already not thrilled with escorting three rambunctious kids to their homes.