UNDER WESTERN SKIES
Part 1 of 6
by Eva Allen
LEGAL DISCLAIMER: The characters Xena and Gabrielle, along with others who have appeared in the TV series XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, are the sole property of Universal/Studios USA and Renaissance Pictures. All other characters are the clever invention of the author. The use of Universal's characters in this story does not constitute the author's intent to make a profit or otherwise infringe on the existing copyright. The interpretation of the characters in this story is purely the author's own. Copyright for this fanfiction held by Eva Allen, September, 1999.
SEXUAL DISCLAIMERS: This story begins three weeks after the close of my earlier story, "The Cottage," and is meant to be a sequel to that story. Because "The Cottage" contains sexual violence, and not everyone felt comfortable reading it, I have tried to write the sequel in such a way that the reader can understand everything that is going on without having read the previous story. There is NO SEXUAL VIOLENCE in "Under Western Skies." However, in the early part of the story, the characters are still trying to deal emotionally with the rape which occurred in "The Cottage," so there is some reference to it and its aftereffects. In addition, later on in the story, there is an incident of domestic violence involving two minor characters. For readers who would like to read "The Cottage," it can be found on MaryD's site (http://ausxip.com/fanfic.html) or on the Lynka site http://lynka.simplenet.com/
This story includes the depiction of sex between two consenting adult women. If this offends you, please find something else to read!
My special thanks to Jeanne and to Sylvia, for all their time, encouragement, and expertise. It really meant a lot to me.
If you have comments about this story, I'd love to hear them. It's always nice to know that people are actually reading this stuff! You can write to me at email@example.com .
"I can't believe you and Gabrielle are leaving tomorrow," Lydia said, shaking her head and smiling sadly. "I'm going to miss you, you know."
"I know," said Xena. "I'll miss you, too."
The two of them were sitting at a small table in the back of Lydia's tavern, with large mugs of mead in front of them.
"Are you sure you're feeling well enough to travel?" Lydia asked. "It's been less than a month since you got hurt. Maybe you need a little more time to rest."
Xena smiled and reached up reflexively to touch the side of her head where the mace had struck her. "I'm okay, Lydia," she said. "My strength is back and I haven't had a headache for several days now." She picked up her mug and took a long swallow, shivering slightly as her mind flashed back to those first few days of her recovery -- the agonizing headaches, the dizziness and blurred vision, the weakness that had so frustrated her. But remembering those things made her also remember all the loving care she had received from Lydia and Gabrielle. And she smiled then, picturing her lover sitting patiently there by her bed through the long hours of pain and restlessness, telling stories, administering the herbs Lydia provided, and writing in her scrolls while the warrior slept. And each night she had given Xena the additional healing comfort of her gentle embrace.
With a soft sigh, Xena turned her eyes to the front of the tavern room, where Gabrielle now stood on a small platform, telling the tale of Cecrops and of how he had finally found the love which helped him break free of Poseidon's curse. The audience sat in rapt attention, listening to the cadences of the storyteller's voice and watching her expressive face and gestures. Gabrielle was giving a good performance, and yet to Xena's eyes and ears it was obvious that something was missing -- a certain confidence and exuberance which had always been there before. And that lack made the warrior sad. She sighed again, picked up her mug, and took another drink.
"It's Gabrielle who still has the most healing to do, isn't it?" Lydia said quietly.
Xena turned to see the innkeeper looking at her with those deep brown eyes which always looked all the way through to her soul. "Yes," Xena said. "Her physical injuries have healed, but her spirit-- I don't think that wound has even started to close. She's pretty good at hiding the pain when she's around other people, but when it's just the two of us--" She shook her head. "I don't know what to do or how to help her."
Lydia laid a hand on the warrior's arm. "Xena," she said softly, "Gabrielle was raped, and that's not the kind of thing that's easily forgotten. I remember when it happened to my daughter, Lia--" She looked away for a moment, then turned back to Xena. "I know the kind of despair you've been feeling, but I also see how much progress Gabrielle is making. Remember how she was when you first got here? She's already come a long way since then." She paused again and then continued. "This may seem like a strange thing to say, but your getting hurt was actually good, in a way. Gabrielle had to take care of you and that gave her something to focus on for a while besides her own problems."
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
"I know I'm right. And Xena, never underestimate the power of love. You're already helping Gabrielle more than you know -- simply by loving her. Love and time can do wonders where healing is concerned. You just need to be patient."
"I'm not very good at patience," Xena admitted, "but I keep trying." Then she looked at Lydia. "Do you really think she'll get over this?"
"Yes. I really think so."
Xena nodded and then tossed down the rest of her mead. She had learned that Lydia often had an uncanny ability to sense what would happen in the future. If she said Gabrielle would heal eventually, then Xena could take hope from that fact.
Lydia lifted her own mug and smiled at Xena over the rim. "Do you think Gabrielle will be angry because we're sitting back here talking instead of listening to her story?" she asked.
"No," the warrior said with a laugh. "She knows that you've already heard it and that I don't like to listen to stories that have me in them."
"You don't? Why not?"
"Well, because she always makes me out to be something I'm not. In this story, for example, Cecrops is clearly the hero and yet by the time Gabrielle gets finished, it sounds like I am instead."
The applause began just then, signaling the end of the bard's recitation. Lydia grinned and began to clap. Then, leaning close to Xena so that she could be heard, she said, "I think you're more of a hero than you give yourself credit for being."
Xena shrugged but didn't answer. She was watching Gabrielle smile as she received the compliments and dinars of appreciative patrons. Then Xena saw her shake her head, apparently refusing requests to tell another story.
"Good. It's about time she stopped," Xena said. "She's been at it for three hours now and she looks tired."
"Yes, I agree," Lydia said, "but I can't tell you what a pleasure it's been to listen to her stories these last couple of weeks. And obviously I'm not the only one who enjoys them -- you've seen the crowds we've had."
Xena nodded and watched as Gabrielle made her way through the room, stopping to chat occasionally until at last she reached the table where the two women sat.
"Got room for me?" Gabrielle asked.
Grinning, Xena reached out to wrap her arm around the younger woman's waist and pull her down onto the bench. "I think maybe we can squeeze you in," she said.
"Gabrielle, you were brilliant, as usual," Lydia said. "You must be thirsty. How about some mead? Or would you rather have wine?"
"Mead would be great."
"I'll go get it. Xena, do you want some more?"
"No, thanks. I'm finished for the night."
"Okay. I'll be right back," she said and hurried off.
"Is Lia doing all the serving tonight?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yeah. Well, that young man she's betrothed to is helping her. I keep forgetting his name."
"Philippos. Right. Anyway, Lia wanted her mother to have time to spend with us, since it's our last night."
"That's just like Lia. She's such a thoughtful person," Gabrielle said and laid her head on Xena's shoulder.
"Tired?" Xena asked.
"Yeah. How about you?"
"A little. But you're the one who's been doing all the work."
"Uh-huh, but you're the one who got hit in the head with a mace."
Xena laughed softly and pulled her lover closer. "We'll go to bed soon," she murmured.
"That sounds like a good idea," Gabrielle said, then sat up as Lydia arrived at the table with two mugs of mead.
"I really wish you two weren't leaving," Lydia said, handing one of the mugs to the bard and then sitting down. "Gabrielle, can't you talk Xena into staying a few more days?"
Gabrielle took a big swallow of mead. "I'm afraid not, Lydia," she said with a grin. "It's pretty hard to keep Xena in one place for any length of time. If she hadn't got bonked on the head, we would have been out of here long before this, I'm sure."
"Well, I guess I'm lucky I got to keep you around as long as I did then," said Lydia. "And I really know I'm lucky that you got rid of that bastard Paulos for me, Xena. This whole town is indebted to you, as I've told you many times."
"Lydia--" Xena began.
"Shh! I don't want to hear it. Now you have to promise to come back often to visit, starting with Lia and Philippos' wedding at the winter solstice."
"Nothing could keep us away," Xena said. "We've told you that already."
"I know, but I just wanted to hear it again," the innkeeper said with a smile. Then she leaned closer to the other two and her voice took on a confidential tone. "You know, I had the strangest dream last night," she said.
"Oh! Tell us about it!" Gabrielle said eagerly.
"Well, I dreamed that you came to visit me again, but I lived in some other place and it was like I had a whole different life. I was even wearing a different style of clothes. But you two looked just the same as you do now. Is this making any sense?" She looked first at Gabrielle and then at Xena, but before either one could answer, she went on. "No, I'm sure it's not, but the point is that somehow, in spite of all the differences, we still recognized each other and we were still good friends." She laughed. "Well, it was a crazy dream and it probably didn't mean anything at all, but for some reason it made an impression on me."
"I don't think it's crazy," Gabrielle said. "I think it means that friendship is a bond so strong that it can overcome the differences between people." She smiled and reached under the table to lay a warm hand on Xena's thigh.
"That's a good interpretation," Lydia said. "I like that."
"Leave it to Gabrielle to come up with something like that," Xena said with a grin. "I would probably have told you it was just a crazy dream."
Lydia laughed. "That's because you tend to see the world in a purely practical way, but Gabrielle sees it with the eyes of a poet."
Xena smiled and squeezed her lover's hand under the table. The torches on the wall were beginning to sputter and smoke, she noted, and the crowd had thinned considerably. "I think it's about time we went upstairs," she said. "Have you finished your mead, Gabrielle?"
"Yeah," the young woman said, picking up her mug and draining it. "We'll see you in the morning, Lydia." she said, standing up.
Lydia rose, too, and hugged each of them tightly. "Sleep well," she said with a smile.
"You, too," Xena said. Then, hand-in-hand, she and Gabrielle headed for the stairs.
* * *
In the soft candlelight of their small corner room, Xena slipped off her boots and armor, then sat on the edge of the bed while Gabrielle bathed herself at the washstand. The younger woman seemed preoccupied, and Xena was content to sit quietly watching the golden sheen of candlelight that played across her lover's damp skin. But the longer she watched, the more she became aware of the ache of desire inside her, and of the growing wetness between her legs. How long had it been since they had made love? Only one cycle of the moon, she realized -- but at this moment it felt more likea century.
Sighing a little, Xena rose and crossed to the window. The courtyard below was empty except for Lia, who moved quietly among the tables, collecting empty mugs and goblets on a tray. After a few minutes, Philippos came out and began to extinguish the torches. The courtyard soon faded into darkness, but by the pale light of the new moon, Xena could just make out the silhouettes of the two lovers embracing. She smiled a bit wistfully, then reached back to untie the lacings of her leathers, and began working her fingers under the thongs to loosen them.
"Need some help?" Gabrielle asked, pausing on her way across the room.
"No, I've got it, thanks," Xena said, moving away from the window and stepping out of the garment. Then she went to the washstand and wrung out the cloth Gabrielle had left in the basin. "You know," Xena said as she ran the cloth over her face and neck, "we never have decided where we're going when we leave here tomorrow." She glanced over at her lover, who now lay naked on the bed, staring up at the rafters of the low ceiling.
"Does it matter?" Gabrielle asked in a listless tone of voice. "Why don't we just start out and see where we end up?"
"We could do that," Xena replied as she dipped the cloth and wrung it out again. "But I thought maybe there was someplace you wanted to go."
"No, not really."
"How about Poteidaia? That's where you were headed when you left here before."
"Yeah, I know, but I guess I don't really want to go there anymore." Gabrielle sighed and turned on her side to face Xena. "Is there someplace you want to go, Xena?" she asked.
The warrior was silent for a long moment, staring at her lover's body and feeling again the stab of longing. Then she looked away. "No," she said. "I just-- Well, that morning before I got wounded I had sort of decided I might go look up Hercules and Iolaus."
"Hercules and Iolaus," Gabrielle mused. "It would be kind of fun to see them again." And then she smiled. "Yeah, I think I'd like to do that. Where do you suppose they are?"
"It's hard to say," Xena admitted as she bent to wash the lower parts of her body. "We could just head south toward Corinth and ask if anybody's seen them lately, I guess."
"Okay, it's settled then," Gabrielle said as she turned over on her back again. "We now know where we're going. Does that make you happy?"
"Oh yes, incredibly happy," Xena said with a wry grin. She hung up the washcloth and began to dry herself with the linen towel. "I wonder what Salmoneus is up to," she said. It was the first time she had even thought about the man since he'd left the tavern two weeks ago.
"I imagine he's found some new money-making scheme by now. Or should I say 'scam'?"
Xena laughed. "You're probably right," she said. Then she tossed the towel over the washstand, crossed the room, and stood looking down at her lover.
Gabrielle glanced up to meet her gaze. "Blow the candle out," she said.
"I will in a minute, but would you mind if I took a look at that wound of yours first?"
"Go ahead," Gabrielle said with a shrug, and Xena sat down on the bed. Lifting the candle in one hand, she brought it close to her lover's breast and ran the fingers of her other hand gently along the red scar. "This healed up really well," she said. "Once the color fades out of it, you'll hardly even know it's there."
"Oh, I'll know, all right," Gabrielle said in a voice tinged with bitterness. "It will always be my special little reminder of what Garron did to me."
Without answering, Xena moved her hand up from Gabrielle's breast to caress the young woman's cheek for a moment. Then she blew out the candle and set it back on the table. Stretching out on the bed, she propped herself on one elbow and brought her face close to Gabrielle's in the darkness. Desire still burned strong within her, but she took a deep breath and tried to calm the thudding of her heart. "I love you so much, Gabrielle," she murmured. "What Garron did to you could never change my feelings. I hope you know that." Then she brushed her lips across the bard's cheek in a gentle kiss.
Gabrielle was silent for a few moments, then reached up to take the warrior's face in both hands. "Xena," she said softly, "I want to try making love. I know you want to do it and I think maybe I'm ready."
"If you're not sure, Sweetheart, then maybe we should wait," Xena said. "Don't worry about me. I can be patient. I want it to be a good experience for you."
"No, I think we should try it. If it doesn't work, we'll quit. Please, Xena."
The warrior hesitated, then said, "All right, but I want you to stop me if you feel uncomfortable. Do you promise?"
Xena bent down then and felt a shiver of pleasure run through her as her mouth found Gabrielle's. But she forced herself to go carefully, letting her lips and tongue linger lovingly for some time before moving on to plant soft kisses on her lover's cheek, forehead, and ear.
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the warrior's neck and sighed a little, but there was none of the passion she usually brought to their lovemaking -- and Xena found this a bit worrisome. "Are you doing all right?" she whispered in Gabrielle's ear.
"Yeah. I'm fine."
"Okay. Just checking." Then she shifted her body downward and began to kiss Gabrielle's throat and collarbones. Slowly, she moved her hand to cup the unscarred breast, and gently teased the nipple, first with her fingers and then with her lips. After a time, she shifted her attention to the other breast, softly kissing the scar's raised line of flesh. She felt Gabrielle's breath catch for a moment, but then the bard seemed to make a conscious effort to relax. Xena's mouth found the nipple and began to suck gently.
"That feels nice," Gabrielle murmured, but the statement somehow lacked conviction, and Xena felt her own desire now beginning to ebb.
She raised her head and tried to see her lover's face in the darkness. "Are you sure you want me to go on?" she asked.
"Yes. Go on."
Xena buried her face against Gabrielle's breasts and breathed in the sweet scent of her lover's skin. She continued her kisses there for a time. Then finally, she slid one hand slowly down over Gabrielle's abdomen, caressing the soft skin, and following the caresses with tender kisses. At last her fingers found the soft mound of hair and she slipped her hand between the bard's legs. But there was no wetness there.
And in the moment of that discovery, Xena felt Gabrielle's body suddenly go rigid as she cried out, "No, don't! Please don't hurt me!"
Xena quickly withdrew her hand and moved up in the bed. She could feel her lover's body trembling and heard her breath coming in short gasps. "Gabrielle?" she said softly. "What happened? Are you all right?"
She bent closer, but Gabrielle pushed out against her with both hands. "No! Stay away from me! Don't touch me!" she exclaimed.
"Gabrielle, please don't be afraid. I'm not trying to hurt you," Xena said.
There was a long moment of silence, and then Gabrielle whispered, "Xena?"
"Oh! I'm so sorry!" she said, and her arms relaxed all at once. "I thought--" she said in a choked voice. "I just suddenly had this memory of-- Of Garron--" She stopped and her body began to shake with sobs. "I'm so sorry, Xena."
"Shh, it's all right," Xena murmured and reached out to wipe the tears from Gabrielle's cheek. "Come here. Let me hold you," she said. Then she lay down on her back and pulled her lover into her arms. Gabrielle cried for what seemed like a long time, the tears dripping, warm and wet, onto the bare skin of Xena's chest, as the warrior gently smoothed her lover's golden hair.
"I really thought I could do it," the bard said at last.
"I know. You were very brave to even try so soon."
"I didn't know I would have that kind of memory. It was horrible -- so vivid and so . . . frightening," she finished in a whisper.
Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "It's too soon, is all," she said. "It's like trying to walk on a broken leg before the bone is fully knit. The pain just lets you knowyou need to wait a while before you try again."
"But what if I never get over this? What if I can never make love again?"
"You'll get over it. You just need more time to heal."
"But what happens if I never completely heal?" Gabrielle persisted. "What if I can never really let you touch me again?"
Xena closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. "Gabrielle, I will always love you, no matter what," she said softly, pulling the other woman's body even closer to her own. "Let's not worry about things that may not ever happen, okay? We'll just end up driving ourselves crazy if we do."
"Okay. I'll try not to worry. But sometimes I can't help it."
"I know. I worry, too. But worrying won't do much to solve the problem. Right now what we need to do is get some sleep so we can hit the road tomorrow."
Gabrielle raised up and touched Xena's cheek, then gave her a gentle kiss. "Thank you," she whispered.
"For sticking with me and for loving me -- in spite of everything."
"You'd do the same for me, I'm sure."
"Yeah, I guess I would," murmured Gabrielle as she snuggled her head back down on Xena's shoulder. "Goodnight, Love."
"Goodnight," Xena responded softly. Then she lay staring into the darkness, listening to Gabrielle's breathing as it gradually deepened into the peaceful rhythm of sleep. There were things she ought to think about, she knew, but all at once she felt exhausted, drained of emotion, and unable to keep her eyelids open. The struggle was too much, she soon decided, and with a small sigh she closed her eyes and joined Gabrielle in Morpheus' kingdom of dreams.
* * *
"What do you say we stop early?" Xena asked about midafternoon the next day. "That little grove of trees might be a good place to camp."
"Sure, if you want to," Gabrielle said, looking up at the warrior with a puzzled frown. "Are you feeling all right?"
"My head is starting to hurt," Xena admitted, "and I'm a little tired. I guess I got out of shape with so much sitting around lately."
"Humph, sounds to me like maybe you didn't sit around long enough!" Gabrielle said with a grin. "Let's go check out that campsite."
They had said their goodbyes at the inn early that morning and traveled most of the day riding double on Argo. But for the last hour or so they had walked, in order to give the mare a rest. It felt good to be on the road again -- or at least Xena had thought so at first. But Gabrielle had been unusually quiet, and as the day wore on, Xena had spent more and more time wondering what her companion was thinking about. She could have asked, of course, but she was afraid Gabrielle might resent the intrusion. Besides, she had her own thoughts to deal with -- ranging from gloomy musings of guilt for what had happened at the cottage to painful replays of the previous night's lovemaking.
She sighed as she followed Gabrielle across a wide field toward the trees. She had told her lover that they would get through this thing together, and yet here they were, each still fighting her own separate battle.
There was a streambed near the grove, but now, at the height of the summer, it held only a few stagnant pools. "This may be the best we can do around here, in terms of water," Xena said.
"Well, our two waterskins are still pretty full," Gabrielle responded. "And at least there's a little something for Argo to drink. I say we go ahead and camp here."
They fell into their usual pattern -- Gabrielle unpacking and setting up camp while Xena unsaddled Argo and then gathered wood. What seemed odd was that almost all their equipment was new. The blankets, towels, cooking and eating utensils, even Argo's saddle and bridle -- everything had had to be replaced after the cottage burned down.
"I hope you don't need much of a fire," Xena said as she dropped a small armload of sticks, "because there's very little wood around here."
"Actually, Lydia sent so much food with us that we hardly need to cook anything. But why don't you go ahead and start the fire and I'll make some tea for your headache."
Xena laid a small fire and lit it while Gabrielle put some water and willow bark into the cooking pot. Then Xena took off her weapons and armor and sat down cross-legged on the bedroll. Propping her head in her hands, she closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths, willing the dull throbbing in her head to go away. After a few moments, Gabrielle knelt behind her, and with warm, gentle fingers, began to massage her shoulders and neck.
"Mmm, thank you," Xena murmured. "That feels good."
"It's no wonder you have a headache," Gabrielle said. "Your muscles are hard as rocks. Are you worried about something?"
"No, nothing in particular."
"Just everything in general?"
Xena smiled. "That pretty much describes it, I guess."
Then for a time neither of them spoke. Xena felt herself gradually relaxing as Gabrielle's fingers worked to release the tension. "You're really good at that, you know," she said.
"I had a good teacher," Gabrielle said, leaning forward to kiss Xena's cheek. "How's the head?"
"Good. The tea ought to be ready by now. I'll go get it."
She handed Xena the steaming mug and then went to get her own small pack. Carrying it to the bedroll, she sat down and rummaged through it. After a short time, she pulled out a partially charred scroll, carefully unrolled it, and laid it on the ground in front of her. Then she got out a fresh piece of parchment, her quill, and a bottle of ink.
"How many of those have you got left to rewrite?" Xena asked.
"Only three more, I think. This one got pretty badly burned, so it's going to be harder to do than some of the others. I still can't believe they all survived the fire, though."
"It was kind of a miracle, wasn't it?" Xena blew into her mug and then took a cautious sip of the hot tea. The real miracle, in her own mind, had been that Gabrielle herself survived.
She watched the bard lean over to examine the burned parchment. The golden hair fell forward to hide Gabrielle's face, and Xena suddenly felt the same sense of being cut off from her lover that she had been feeling all day.
"Gabrielle?" she said.
"You've been pretty quiet today. Have you been doing a lot of thinking?"
"Yeah, I guess so," Gabrielle said without looking up.
"Can you share any of your thoughts with me?"
Gabrielle looked at her for a moment and then turned her gaze toward the fire.
Xena waited for her to answer, but when she didn't, she asked, "Were you thinking about last night?"
"Yes, I thought some about it," the bard said quietly, "but mostly I was thinking about Garron." Then she looked at Xena again. "I was thinking about the fact that I killed him."
"No, Xena, I know what you're going to say. You're going to say that it wasn't murder because I didn't really mean to kill him. You're going to say that I was out of my mind with fear and anger when I started that fire in the cottage, and I wasn't thinking about the fact that Garron would die. But the truth is I didn't have to do what I did. After I knocked him out, I could have just tied him up and left him for you to deal with. I let my anger and my hatred control me, and that's why I started the fire."
Sighing heavily, Gabrielle got to her feet and began to pace slowly back and forth. Xena took a sip from her mug and waited.
"Xena, I was going to break the cycle of hatred and violence, and instead, I ended up taking a life and losing my blood innocence." She stopped pacing and looked at the warrior in despair.
"That cycle is incredibly hard to break," Xena said, "but you did it once before, remember? You chose not to kill Callisto, even though you had the chance to do it."
"But if I could break the cycle then, why couldn't I do it this time?"
"Because breaking the cycle isn't something you just do once and then you're finished with it. You have to do it all over again with each new situation. Sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail." Xena stopped speaking. Gabrielle had turned away to stare at the fire, but the warrior knew she was listening. "You had a terrible experience," Xena went on after a moment, "and you reacted in a way that you now wish had been different. But you can't undo the past -- you can only learn from it and hope to do better next time. Right now the best thing you can do is try to forgive yourself and go on with your life."
"Forgive myself," Gabrielle said softly. "That's very hard to do."
"Yes, it is," Xena agreed. She took a long swallow of the bitter tea and then wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. "I'm still trying to forgive myself for letting this whole thing happen to you in the first place."
Gabrielle turned and looked at the warrior for a moment, then she crouched down and laid a hand on her arm. "Xena, what happened to me was not your fault," she said. "I know I tried to blame you at first, but I was wrong to do that. I was just hurting so bad that I lashed out without thinking, and I ended up hurting you, too. I'm sorry."
"It's okay," Xena said with a soft smile. Then she set the mug aside and took both of Gabrielle's hands in her own. "I don't know if this will help or not, but I want you to know that I don't blame you for killing Garron," she said. "If you had tied him up and left him for me to deal with, I'm almost certain I would have killed him myself -- and in a much less humane way than you did. That's how enraged I was about what he did to you."
The bard leaned forward and kissed Xena on the forehead. "I really admire you, you know," she said.
"Why are you saying that now -- after what I just told you?"
"Because now I understand just how much strength it takes to keep from acting out of anger."
"But Gabrielle, sometimes I don't have that much strength. I've disappointed you before and I'm very likely to do it again."
"Yes," Gabrielle said, "but you keep trying to do better, and that's my inspiration."
"And who do you think inspires me to keep trying?" Xena said with a smile. "If it weren't for you, I would have given up long before this."
Gabrielle laughed and resumed her seat beside the warrior. "Listen to us," she said. "We sound like a mutual admiration society."
Xena laughed, too, and took another swallow of tea. Her headache was almost gone, she realized, and she felt better than she had all day. "I'm glad we've started talking about this, anyway," she said.
"Me, too. We should have talked before this, but it was just too painful for me at first, and then after you got hurt, I sort of used that as an excuse to avoid any discussion."
"But you talked some to Lia. Did that help you?"
"Yes, it did," said Gabrielle, nodding. "It was really good to talk to someone who had been through the same experience." She was quiet for a few moments and then looked at Xena. "But you and I need to talk about it, too," she said. "I feel like I've still got a lot to work out in my mind, and with my conscience, but I'm willing to let you help me do that."
"I'll do the best I can," Xena said. Then she put an arm around Gabrielle and pulled her close in a warm hug.
During the next two days, they covered a lot of ground -- both on the road and in conversation. After Gabrielle's initial unwillingness to talk about her experience, it now seemed as if the floodgates had opened, and she could talk of little else. Sometimes Xena felt as if they were travelling in circles, with the same points of discussion coming up over and over. But she tried to be patient, knowing the process was important to Gabrielle, and hoping that all this talking would somehow lead at last to healing.
At midday on the third day, they stopped to eat lunch on a hillside, sitting in the narrow shade of a rock. The road before them descended to a treeless plain whose rocky outcroppings and scattered boulders appeared to shimmer in the heat of the sun.
"This is the last of the bread and cheese," Gabrielle said as she handed the food to Xena. "And we finished off the dried fish last night, so I'm not sure what we're going to do for supper."
"I'll try to hunt something," Xena said, as she bit into the hard, dry bread. "Hey, there's a lizard!" she exclaimed, reaching for her chakram. "We could have lizard stew tonight!"
"Forget it, Xena! I'm not eating lizard. I'd rather go hungry."
The warrior laughed. "Well, with any luck, we won't have to do that. And tomorrow we should reach a town where we can get some supplies."
"Good," said Gabrielle. "Eating this dried-up cheese is like trying to eat rocks. Where's the waterskin?"
"Right here, but go easy on it. We really need to find water before we camp tonight."
Xena quickly finished her food and washed it down with a swallow of water. Then she leaned her head back against the rock and closed her eyes. She had not had another headache since their first night on the road --a fact which pleased her. And at this moment, she was not so much tired as she was hot, and still feeling hungry after the unsatisfying meal. "Is there any fruit left?" she asked.
"A little, but I'd rather save it in case we don't have anything else to eat tonight."
"No confidence in my hunting skills, huh?" Xena said lazily without opening her eyes.
There was no answer -- only the slow buzz of insects in the midday heat. Even the earth smelled hot, as if it were baking in some titan's oven. It was much too warm for travelling, Xena thought. A nap seemed like a better idea. The warrior let out a long, slow breath and relaxed. She was just dozing off when Gabrielle laid an urgent hand on her arm.
"Hey, Xena, take a look at that man on the road down there!" she said.
"Man? What man?" Xena opened her eyes reluctantly and sat up.
"Down there. See?"
She peered in the direction Gabrielle was pointing, narrowing her eyes against the sunlight. On the road below, she could just make out the figure of a stoutish, bearded man who was wearing a long, blue garment and leading a heavily-loaded donkey.
"Does that look like anyone we know?" asked Gabrielle.
"Yeah, that's what I thought. But why are those two men following him?"
Xena didn't answer, watching the merchant glance back at the mounted men, then wipe his sleeve across his brow and hurry his pace. But the men were gaining on him, and within a few minutes they had caught up. Leaping from their horses, one grabbed Salmoneus and the other began ripping into the donkey's pack.
"What are they doing? Robbing him?" Gabrielle asked.
"Looks like it," Xena said, scrambling to her feet and brushing the dust off her leathers. "We'd better get down there." She whistled for Argo and vaulted into the saddle, pulling Gabrielle up behind her.
The road descended the hill in two long switchbacks which Xena navigated as quickly as possible, and once on the level, she kicked Argo into a full gallop. Salmoneus and his attackers had been lost from view, but as the two women rounded an outcropping, they came upon them rather abruptly. Xena reined Argo to a halt amid a cloud of dust.
"I haven't got it!" they heard Salmoneus wail. He was standing with his arms pinned behind him, held firmly by one of the two thugs.
"Sure you've got it! Now tell us where it is!" the second thug said as his fist slammed into the merchant's face.
Salmoneus sagged heavily against his captor, blood running from his nose and a cut lip. "Please don't kill me," he begged. "I'm much too young to die -- in spite of what you may think!"
With a loud war cry, Xena somersaulted over Argo's head and landed just behind the second thug.
"Xena!" Salmoneus exclaimed, his face lighting up.
"What the--" said the thug, turning to face her. But he didn't get to finish. Grabbing him by the arms, Xena issued a knee to his groin, then bashed her head against his own and tossed him, senseless, to the ground. Drawing her sword, she turned to face the other man and saw that he now held a dagger at Salmoneus' throat.
"Drop your sword, or I'll kill him," the thug said.
"That wouldn't be a very nice thing to do," Xena said, taking a cautious step forward.
"I mean it! I'll do it!" And he drew his blade across the skin beside the windpipe.
Salmoneus screamed as blood ran down his neck from the cut. "Xena, I think he's serious!" he cried.
Xena hesitated a moment and out of the corner of her eye caught sight of Gabrielle, staff in hand, working her way surreptitiously around behind the two men. What a woman, she thought, hiding a grin, and threw down her sword. Now all she had to do was stall until the bard got into position.
"You know, if you kill Salmoneus, he won't be able to give you whatever it is you want," the warrior said. "And that would be a shame, wouldn't it?" She edged forward a bit, but the thug, clearly nervous, tightened his grip on the merchant and took a step backward.
"Don't come any closer," he warned.
Xena stood still. She kept her eyes on the thug, but saw Gabrielle slip behind a large boulder that stood at his back. "Why don't you put that dagger down and we can talk this whole thing over?" she said then, trying to keep her voice calm and persuasive. "I've known Salmoneus for a while now and I just might be able to convince him to cooperate." She moved again, but this time more to the left than forward.
"I don't need any help," the man with the dagger replied, countering her move by shifting to his own left.
"Don't be so sure," the warrior said with a smile as she watched him step almost directly into Gabrielle's path. The bard swung her staff, hitting him squarely in the back. The dagger flew out of his hand and he pitched forward, taking a startled Salmoneus to the ground with him. Grabbing the thug by the back of his tunic, Xena dragged him off of Salmoneus and then over to the first man, who was just moaning his way back to consciousness.
"All right, you two," she said, hauling them to their feet, "what did you take from Salmoneus?"
"Only a few dinars," whined the first thug.
"Hand them over."
The man reached reluctantly into the folds of his tunic and pulled out a small leather purse. Snatching it out of his hand, Xena opened it and quickly counted the coins within. "Salmoneus," she said, without taking her eyes off the two thugs, "how much money did they take from you?"
"Forty-five dinars," Salmoneus responded in a muffled voice.
Xena glanced over long enough to note that the merchant was sitting up now, holding a cloth over his nose and lip while Gabrielle pressed another one against the wound in his neck. "Okay, here it is," she said, tossing the purse to him.
Then, turning back to the thugs, she clamped a hand on the back of each of their necks. "Now, pay attention, Boys," she said, "because I'm only going to say this once. My name is Xena. Maybe you've heard of me."
"The Warrior Princess?" murmured one of the men.
"Very good," she said with a grin. "Now, here's the deal -- if I ever hear that you've hurt my friend Salmoneus in any way whatsoever, I will personally see to it that your heads do not stay attached to your bodies. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, Xena," they muttered.
"Good. Now get out of here!" She released them with a rough shove and the two men stumbled to their horses, mounted, and set off at a gallop in the direction they had come from.
Xena watched them go, wiping the sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. Then she went and crouched down beside Salmoneus. "How are you doing?" she asked.
"Well, I've felt better," he said, "but thank the gods you came along when you did, or I might have felt a lot worse."
"You're a lucky man, Salmoneus," Xena said as she reached out to touch one of the rapidly darkening bruises on his face.
"We saw you from up there on the hill," Gabrielle said, pointing. "Or at least I did. Some people were taking a nap," she added with a grin.
"Trying to take a nap, you mean," Xena said. "How's that cut on his neck?"
"It isn't very deep," Gabrielle said, "but I think it could use a few stitches."
Salmoneus sighed. "Well, at least I'll have an interesting scar and a good story to tell," he said. Then suddenly he sat up straighter and looked past the women. "My donkey's gone!" he exclaimed. "And my inventory! What have they done to my inventory?"Scrambling to his feet, he rushed over to where the pack and its contents lay scattered on the ground. He stood there, surveying the scene for a few moments, moaning and shaking his head. Then he dropped to his hands and knees and began gathering up the brightly colored objects.
Xena exchanged a look with Gabrielle and then both of them got up and followed the merchant. "What in Zeus' name is all this stuff?" Xena asked.
"Oh, I'm so glad you asked," Salmoneus said as he grabbed hold of her arm to pull himself up. "This," he went on in a reverent tone of voice, "just happens to be the most revolutionary food storage system ever designed!"
"It looks like a bunch of little clay pots to me," Gabrielle said.
"Well, yes, but these aren't just any clay pots! They come in graduated sizes, see? Each one has a lid, and they're color coded -- the little ones are yellow, medium ones green, and the big ones blue. You buy them in sets, and when they're empty, they nest inside each other, like this." He demonstrated by placing a yellow pot inside a green one. "See? That way they take up less space on your shelf. And when they're full, you can stack them."
"What are you supposed to put in them?" Xena asked.
"Well, they're perfect for leftovers. You know, when you make a big pot of stew, but you don't eat all of it -- you put what's left in one of these pots. But really you can put anything you want in them. They're very handy. No home should be without them. Oh, and here's the best part. I call them--" he paused for dramatic effect. "Supperware!"
Xena and Gabrielle stared at him for a moment and then looked at each other.
"Don't you think that's a great name?" Salmoneus demanded.
"It's as good as any other, I guess," Xena said, shrugging.
"Well, I think they're kind of cute," Gabrielle said. She squatted down, picked up two pots, and nested one inside the other.
"Don't even think about buying any of these things," Xena warned. "They wouldn't fit in our saddlebags, and we haven't got anything to put in them, anyway." Then with sudden inspiration, she turned to the merchant. "Hey, Salmoneus, have you got any food?" she asked.
"Uh, yeah, I've got quite a bit of dried meat and fruit."
"Good. We're camping with you tonight," Xena said with a grin. "But not here," she added. "We've got to find some water."
"And my donkey! You've got to go find my donkey! I paid sixty dinars for that wretched beast, and without him, my whole distribution system is shot to Tartarus!"
Xena laid a hand on his arm. "All right," she said. "I'll go find your donkey, but I want you to sit down in the shade of that rock over there and let Gabrielle take care of your wounds."
He nodded. "You're a real friend, Xena," he said. "How's your head, by the way? You were still in kind of bad shape when I left Lydia's."
"I'm all better now, thanks," the warrior said with a grin.
"Come on, Salmoneus," Gabrielle said, taking his arm. "Let's get that place in your neck stitched up so it will stop bleeding."
"All right," he said. "I can be a model patient, you know. I just love having people take care of me -- especially lovely young women like yourself."
Gabrielle laughed and led him toward the rock.
Xena stood watching them for a moment, then bent down to study the donkey tracks in the dust. As soon as she had determined which direction they were headed, she called Argo, mounted, and rode away.
* * *
"Salmoneus," Xena said after they had finished eating that evening, "I need to know what those men were trying to get from you."
The merchant looked at her, seemingly surprised, and then looked away. "I have no idea," he said with a shrug. "As far as I'm concerned, they were just common highway robbers."
She shook her head. "If they were just common robbers, they would have been content to take your money and leave. No, they wanted something specific from you, and I think you know exactly what it was."
The three friends were camped by a small spring on the back side of a ridge some distance from the road. Xena might not have discovered the place except for the fact that she had tracked the donkey there and found him grazing happily on tufts of grass that grew where the water flowed out of the rocks. She let Argo drink and then grab a few mouthfuls of grass while she quenched her own thirst and splashed the cold, clear water on her face and neck. After that, she refilled her waterskin, tied a rope to the donkey's halter, and headed back to get Gabrielle and Salmoneus.
Reloading the small beast had proved to be a time-consuming task, since they first needed to mend the pack cloth and ropes which the thugs had slashed. So by the time they reached the spring, it was late afternoon. Xena had given up on the idea of hunting. Even if she found some game, there would be no way to cook it without fuel for a fire. Instead, they had eaten a simple meal of dried fruit and meat, plus a few carrots Salmoneus had bought with the idea of feeding them to his donkey. Now Xena and Gabrielle sat cross-legged on their bedroll with the merchant across from them. It seemed strange not to have a fire, but the half moon gave enough light so that they could see each other fairly easily.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Xena," Salmoneus said in answer to her last statement.
"Yes, you do," she asserted, "and let me just remind you that it's not nice to lie to an old friend -- especially one who so recently saved your life."
He sighed and gazed meditatively at the ground for a few moments while he fingered one of the bruises on his face. "Okay," he said finally, looking at Xena. "I think those men were following me because they knew I had the Cronus Stone."
"The Cronus Stone!" exclaimed Gabrielle. "Do you mean that stone that has the power to take you back into the past? Autolycus told us about it -- about how he and Hercules went back in time together. Of course, they didn't exactly mean to, but-- Do you remember that story, Xena?"
"I remember," she said flatly, "and I also seem to remember that the story ended with Hercules destroying the stone."
"Yes, all right," Salmoneus said, "I heard that same story, only from Hercules himself, and he did mention that he crushed the stone after he and Autolycus got back to the present."
"So if the stone's been crushed, you couldn't possibly have it," reasoned Gabrielle.
"No, of course not. I'm not saying I have the same Cronus Stone that Herc and Autolycus had. I think mine is a different one."
"A different Cronus Stone?" said Xena, frowning. "But how do we know another one even exists?"
"How do we know it doesn't?" Salmoneus countered.
"Well, we don't, of course," admitted Xena, "but I think the more likely explanation is that your stone is just an imitation of the original. How'd you get ahold of it, anyway?"
"You know, that's a very good story," he said, leaning forward, "because I got a really great bargain on it! I was just getting ready to leave Corinth with my Supperware when this merchant I know pulled me aside and confided to me that he had the Cronus Stone. He offered to sell it for 150 dinars, which was an unbelievably low price to begin with, but I got him down to only 100 dinars!" Salmoneus smiled and rubbed his hands together in a pleased way. Then he lowered his voice confidentially. "Between you and me, I don't think the guy had the slightest idea what that stone was really worth."
"If it's a fake," Gabrielle said, "it's not worth anything at all."
"And if it's real," Xena added, "he may have sold it so cheaply because someone was after him and he needed to unload it in a hurry."
"Oh, well, I never thought of it that way," Salmoneus admitted. "But doesn't the fact that those two guys wanted it mean that it's genuine?"
"Maybe," Xena said. "Or maybe they just think it's genuine -- as you apparently do."
"Where is the stone now?" Gabrielle asked. "Can we see it?"
"I hid it," Salmoneus said, "a couple of hours' travel from here. As soon as I began to suspect I was being followed, I slipped off the road and found a good place to bury it. I figuredI could go back anytime and get it." He leaned forward excitedly. "I tell you, this Cronus Stone is going to make me a rich man!" he went on. "I plan to start a travel service -- maybe I'll call it something like 'Journey to Yesterday.' Can you imagine what people would pay to go back in time and change their lives? Or see their dear, departed loved ones again? What do you think -- twenty dinars? Fifty? Seventy-five?"
"You want to know what I think?" Xena said. "I think that tomorrow we're going back to where you buried that stone and you're going to dig it up and hand it over to me."
"What! What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about saving your life."
"But Xena, you took care of those thugs! They're probably in the next city-state by now! Are you saying they're going to be back?"
"No, I don't think so, but if those two thought that stone was worth killing for, then you can pretty much bet there are others who feel the same way. And that means that as long as it's in your possession, you're going to be a target." She stopped for a moment, noting the dismay that showed plainly on his face. "Salmoneus," she went on in a gentler voice, "you're not a warrior. You can't defend yourself. If Gabrielle and I hadn't come along when we did, you'd very likely be dead now, or pretty close to it. Trust me -- if you just stick to selling those little colored pots, you'll stay alive a lot longer."
"But I made an investment!" he wailed. "That stone represents my financial future -- my ticket to high society and amazing wealth!"
Xena studied him for a moment and then asked, "How much did you say you paid for it?"
"One hundred dinars."
"Fine," she said and fished her leather coin purse out of her bodice. Opening it, she dumped the contents out on the blanket in front of her and peered at the coins in the moonlight. It was unusual for her and Gabrielle to have much money in their possession, but the sale of Garron's horse had brought them a tidy sum -- more than enough to cover the cost of new gear and pay their bill at the tavern. And in addition, Gabrielle had made some money telling stories, although Xena wasn't sure how much. Bending over, she carefully picked out several large coins, then turned to her companion. "Have you got twenty dinars?" she asked.
"Uh, yeah, I think so." The younger woman seemed a little surprised, but pulled out her own coin purse and handed the money over. Xena added those coins to her own, then gave them to Salmoneus.
"There," she said. "Now you've got your hundred dinars back. You haven't made any money, but you haven't lost any, either."
"But what are you going to do with the stone, Xena?" Salmoneus asked, fingering the coins a bit sadly before he dropped them into his own wallet.
"I don't know. Maybe I should just destroy it, like Hercules did with the other one."
"No! Don't do that!" Salmoneus exclaimed.
Xena shrugged. "Well, I don't have to decide right this minute what to do with it," she said. "And anyway, we have to see if you can even find it again."
"Oh, I can find it," he assured her.
"You know, Xena," Gabrielle said, "we're on our way to look for Hercules. Maybe we can just take the stone and let him decide what to do with it."
"Maybe so, but I think I can pretty much predict what he'll want to do."
"Oh, I just saw Hercules and Iolaus in Corinth," Salmoneus said.
"Good. That's where we're headed," Xena said. "Do you think they were planning to stick around there for a while?"
"Who knows? Those two could be anywhere by now."
"We'll find them," Gabrielle said, "eventually."
"Sure we will," Xena said. Then she grinned and added, "Well, this concludes the business portion of our evening. How about a story, Gabrielle?"
"Oh, yes! I'd love to tell one!" She thought for a moment and then said, "Salmoneus, have you ever heard how Xena and I helped find the lost treasure of the Sumerians?"
His eyes widened in surprise. "The lost treasure of the Sumerians!" he exclaimed. "Well, if you two found that, then how come you're still living like a couple of paupers?""Because we left it all right where we found it," Xe na said.
"But why in Zeus' name would you do a crazy thing like that?"
"We were actually more interested in the ambrosia," Gabrielle said with a grin.
"Ambrosia!" Salmoneus said. "I think this is definitely a story I should hear! And when you finish, I'll tell you one about the time I fell into an underground lost city and came to believe that peace and love were more important than gold."
"Really?" said Gabrielle. "I find it hard to believe that you, of all people, would ever think that!"
"Well, as it turned out, I was under the influence of mind-altering drugs, and so was everyone else down there," Salmoneus said with a chuckle. "But luckily, Iolaus came along and saved us."
"All right," Xena said. "It sounds like we have a good line-up of stories, so let's get started." Then she stretched out on her side, propped her head on her hand, and prepared to listen.
"Shall I go first?" Gabrielle asked, and the other two nodded. "Okay," she said. "Well, it all started when Xena's old friend Lycus got killed . . ."
* * *
They set out early the next morning and traveled south on foot, leading Argo and the donkey. Salmoneus watched the landmarks carefully, while Xena kept a close watch of her own to make sure no one was following them. After a couple of hours, the merchant saw what he had been looking for and led Xena and Gabrielle off the road about two hundred paces. Circling around to the back side of an outcropping, he crouched down, shoved a rock aside, and began to dig in the loose, dry soil with his hands. Shortly, he pulled out a leather drawstring bag, held it up, and ran one hand over it lovingly to brush off the dirt. Then, with a deep sigh, he handed it to Xena.
She held it in one palm for a few moments, feeling the weight of it, while Gabrielle, curious and excited, hovered at her elbow. Then she untied the drawstring, loosened it, and reached into the bag. Her fingers came first upon the point of the stone, then slid down over its smooth hardness and under the metal disk that formed its base. Carefully, she eased it out of the darkness of the bag and into the sunlight.
Gabrielle gasped. "It's red!" she exclaimed.
Xena looked at her. "Is that bad?" she asked.
"No, it's not bad-- At least, I don't think it's bad. It's just that I distinctly remember Autolycus saying the Cronus Stone was green."
"Was it?" Xena said. "Well, I guess that means this one is a fake."
"I disagree," said Salmoneus. "I think the fact that it's a different color speaks for its authenticity. If someone were just trying to imitate the original stone, they would have made it green, wouldn't they?"
"Seems like it," admitted the warrior. She lifted the stone up and turned it slowly this way and that, watching the light play through its ruby translucence.
"It's beautiful," murmured Gabrielle. "Could I hold it?"
"Sure, why not?" said Xena, handing the stone to the younger woman.
"Is that an inscription?" asked Salmoneus. "There, on the base. I don't think I noticed it before."
"Yeah," said Gabrielle. "It says, 'The future leads to the past.'"
"Hmm. That sounds backwards to me," Salmoneus said. It should be 'The past leads to the future.' Are you sure you read it right?"
"Yes, of course I did."
"But it doesn't make sense," Salmoneus said.
"Well, I'm sure there's some kind of meaning in it, or they wouldn't have bothered to inscribe it on there," Gabrielle said. "Maybe it's a riddle or something." She turned the stone upside-down and studied the bottom of the base. "Autolycus said the other stone had instructions, but I don't see any on this one," she said, then turned it upright again. "If I remember right, he said you just rub the stone--"
"Hey, don't do that!" Xena exclaimed, suddenly alarmed both by Gabrielle's actions and by the expression on her face.
"I thought you decided it was a fake," the bard said.
"Well, it never hurts to be careful," Xena said. Then, snatching the stone out of her lover's hands, she dropped it back into the bag. "We haven't got all day to stand around here, anyway," she added as she pulled the drawstring tight and tied it. Walking over to Argo, she stuffed the Cronus Stone into one of the saddlebags and took hold of the mare's reins. "Come on," she said, and started back the way they had come.
"Salmoneus, which direction are you headed?" she asked when they reached the road.
"Well, I was originally going north," he said, "but now I'm thinking I might take that little road back there to the east. There are some villages along the coast where I could probably make a killing with my Supperware."
"Good luck to you," said Xena, smiling as they clasped forearms. "And try to stay out of trouble."
"I'll do my best," he assured her.
"Take good care of yourself, okay?" said Gabrielle, then threw her arms around his neck and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.
Salmoneus reddened and grinned. "Thanks again to both of you for saving my life," he said.
"Any time," Xena said as she mounted Argo. Then, pulling Gabrielle up behind her, she waved goodbye and turned the mare's head to the south.
Shortly after midday, they reached a small town where they enjoyed a lunch of fishcakes and mead, then purchased vegetables, fruit, and dried meat in the market. They traveled hard all afternoon, despite the heat, hoping to reach a small lake Xena knew of before camping for the night. The landscape was rapidly becoming greener, with trees and grass as regular features. Xena might have enjoyed the ride through it, if her head hadn't started hurting about the time they left town. She did her best to ignore the situation for a time, but the pain gradually increased to the point where she could think of little else.
"Let's take a break," she said back over her shoulder to Gabrielle. Then she guided Argo into the shade of some nearby trees and dismounted.
"I think Argo's about worn out," Gabrielle said. "Maybe we should walk for a while." She unhooked the waterskin from the saddle and took a long drink.
"Good idea," Xena said, opening one of the saddlebags and pulling out her herb bag. It didn't take her long to find a small piece of willow bark which she popped into her mouth and began to chew.
"What's wrong?" asked Gabrielle. "Do you have a headache?"
"Must be a bad one, if you're going straight for the willow bark. Maybe we should go ahead and camp."
"No, I'll be all right," said Xena. "If we can get to the lake, we'll be able to take baths and go swimming."
"Well, that would be nice, if you're sure you feel like it."
"I feel like it. The willow bark will help."
"Maybe this will help, too," Gabrielle said, moving to stand in front of the warrior and pulling her face down for a gentle kiss.
"Mmm, I feel better already," Xena said softly.
"You taste like willow bark," Gabrielle said.
"Are you complaining?"
"Yeah. It's not exactly my favorite flavor."
Xena laughed. Then she wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and held her close for several long moments. "I wish we could just do this all afternoon," she said, "but if we're going to make it to that lake, we've got to get back on the road."
"Not yet," Gabrielle said. "Let's rest for a few minutes and cool off. Come sit over here and I'll rub your neck and shoulders."
"You talked me into it," Xena said as she followed her lover to a spot where the grass was especially thick and soft.
* * *
The sun was low in the sky by the time the two women reached their destination. The lake was small and a bit murky, but any body of water would have appeared inviting to the travelers after the last few days' heat and dust. They hurried to unpack, set up camp, and gather firewood. Xena was just stacking her last armload of sticks by the fire circle when she heard Gabrielle call, "Last one in is a rotten egg!" Glancing up, she saw the bard grin and then trot off toward the lakeshore, soap and towels in hand.
Unable to resist the challenge, the warrior scrambled to her feet and sprinted after her lover. She had almost caught up by the time Gabrielle reached the water's edge and stopped to unlace her bodice. With an exultant cry, Xena launched herself into a flip over the bard's head and landed facing her. A deft movement of her foot swept Gabrielle's legs out from under her, and as the young woman tumbled backward onto the grass, Xena pounced on her and pinned her down. The unlaced bodice fell open, revealing a breast which Xena seized playfully with one hand.
"Thought you could beat me, didn't you?" she said, laughing. But then she froze as she caught sight of the look of terror on her lover's face. "Oh, Gabrielle," she whispered as she released her hold on the young woman, "I'm so sorry!"
"It's all right," Gabrielle said in a choked voice. "I just-- I had one of those memories."
Stumbling to her feet, Xena stood uncertainly for a moment. She had almost forgotten about the ache in her head, but now it returned full force. Biting her lower lip, she turned and walked a few paces away. Then, with trembling fingers, she removed her weapons and armor. How could she have been such a fool? How could she have been so rough with Gabrielle, knowing how fragile her emotions were right now? She cursed herself under her breath as she slipped out of her leathers and undergarment, then turned to look at her lover.
The young woman was sitting up now, hugging her knees and staring at the lake. Walking back to her, Xena knelt down and put a hand on her shoulder.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Yeah, I guess so."
"Gabrielle, I'm really sorry. I just wasn't thinking. You know I wouldn't hurt you."
"I know," Gabrielle said in a dull voice. She kept on looking at the lake, not speaking for several long moments. Then finally she said, "I hate this, Xena. I hate having these memories, but I can't seem to control them. They're horrible and they don't serve any purpose -- except to terrify me and keep you from being able to love me."
Xena opened her mouth to speak, but before she could do so, Gabrielle went on. "I just wish this whole thing had never happened! I wish we could go back and do it all again and make it all come out the way we want it to!"
"I wish the same thing, Sweetheart," Xena said, "but the fact is that it did happen, and we have to live with that. We can't change the past, you know."
"Yes, we can, Xena!" Gabrielle said as she turned suddenly to face the warrior. A wild light shone in her eyes. "We can change the past!" she repeated excitedly.
"What are you talking about?"
"The Cronus Stone!" she exclaimed, clutching Xena's arm. "I've been thinking about it all day. We can use the Cronus Stone to go back and make it so I never got raped! We can--"
"No, Gabrielle! We're not going to try to use that thing to change the past!" Xena said fiercely and pulled her arm out of her companion's grasp.
"But why not? We bought it and paid for it -- why can't we use it? Especially when we need it so much!"
"Because we weren't meant to change the past -- that's why! Hercules knew that, and that's why he destroyed that other stone."
"No! I don't even want to talk about it!" She got to her feet and closed her eyes briefly against the throbbing in her head.
"No! It's a bad idea and that's all there is to it!" Xena turned away abruptly and strode to the water's edge. Her palms were sweaty, and her heart thudded hard against her ribcage. And as she waded into the water, she suddenly realized that she was feeling not anger, as she had thought, but fear.
Diving shallowly, she began to drive her body forward with long, vigorous strokes. When she neared the opposite shore, she turned and swam back, slowing only when she felt her panic being replaced by a pleasant sense of tiredness. In the middle of the lake, she stopped to tread water and saw Gabrielle crouching in the shallow water, scrubbing her clothes with a piece of soap.
Xena sighed and turned on her back to float. There would be more of this Cronus Stone discussion -- she could be sure of that. Once Gabrielle got an idea in her head, she would not let go of it. She would worry it the way a dog worried a bone, and she would drag Xena back into it as many times as it took to wear her down and make her give in. But the warrior knew she could not give in -- not this time. What Gabrielle wanted to do was well-intentioned, but it was wrong and it was dangerous. Xena sighed again. Why, in the name of all the gods, hadn't she just smashed that stone the minute Salmoneus first handed it to her?
Well, she didn't want to think about the Cronus Stone right now. Her head still ached, but the water felt soothing -- it held and caressed her body like a lover. Gradually, she let herself relax and tried to think of nothing but the orange glow of the setting sun as it spread across the sky above her.
She wasn't sure how much time had passed, but when she looked toward shore again, she saw Gabrielle standing in chest-deep water, washing her hair. With slow, lazy strokes, Xena closed the distance between them and let her feet down to touch the sandy bottom just behind her lover.
"Your hair is the color of the setting sun," she murmured in the bard's ear as she wrapped her arms around her.
"That's very poetic . . . for a warrior princess," Gabrielle said with a wry grin. Then she turned in Xena's arms and buried her face against the warrior's neck.
"Yeah, I guess I'm starting to get cold," Gabrielle admitted.
"Why don't you give me the soap and then get out and dry off. I'll be along in a few minutes," Xena said. Then, with a kiss to the top of the golden head, she released her lover and watched as she waded to shore.
* * *
"Xena," Gabrielle said as she handed the warrior a mug of willow bark tea after supper, "we need to talk about the Cronus Stone."
"All right," Xena said quietly. She blew into the mug and then looked up at her companion. "The stew was really good, by the way," she added.
"Yeah, it was nice to have a hot meal again, wasn't it?"
"Tomorrow I'll catch us some fish."
"Good. But don't be changing the subject," Gabrielle said with a smile.
"Okay, I'll try to behave myself," Xena responded as she took a small sip of the hot tea. She waited for the bard to begin, but that didn't happen immediately. Instead, the young woman bent to add a few sticks to the fire and then stood gazing into the flames. She was wearing her nightshift while her other clothing hung drying on branches near the fire. Xena, too, had put her nightshift on early. Somehow wearing the looser garment made her headache seem less urgent.
"Xena," Gabrielle said finally, turning to look at her, "haven't you ever wished you could go back and change parts of your life? Don't you wish you could undo some of the bad things you've done?"
"Of course, but it's not as simple to do that as you might think. Don't you remember when the Fates gave me the chance to go back and live my life without becoming a warrior? The bad parts of my life went away, but so did some of the good ones. My mother was dead and you were a slave."
"I know, but you were trying to change your whole life. I just want to change one little part of mine. I just want to go back to when we first got to the cottage and make things happen differently." She walked over to the bedroll and sat down beside Xena. "You could keep Garron from attacking me," she continued, "and I wouldn't kill him or burn the cottage down. Doesn't that sound easy?"
"Yes, it sounds easy enough," Xena said slowly, "but I'm afraid it might not turn out the way you think it will."
"Why wouldn't it? We know how things turned out the first time. All we have to do is use that knowledge to change the parts we don't like."
"And what about the good parts?"
"What do you mean? What good parts?"
"Well, there's our friendship with Lydia, for one. If you hadn't burned the cottage down, we would never have gone to stay at the inn. We wouldn't have met Lydia and I wouldn't have had the chance to save the town from Paulos and his gang."
"We can still do that stuff," Gabrielle said. "We can still go to town and meet Lydia, and you can still fight Paulos. Only this time, you'll know to watch out for that guy with the mace, and you won't get hurt." She reached out to brush the hair back from Xena's face. "And then you won't have to have all these headaches," she added softly.
Xena smiled at her, took a long drink of tea, and then stared at the fire for a few moments without speaking. "It still won't be the same," she said finally. "Our friendship with Lydia grew so deep in such a short time precisely because of the trouble we were in. If things had happened differently, who knows how it would have turned out?"
The younger woman frowned and considered for a few moments, then said, "So what you're saying is that it was worth it for me to get raped just so you could be friends with Lydia."
Xena looked at Gabrielle in surprise. "No, of course not," she said, reaching out to take the younger woman's hand. "That's not what I meant at all."
"Well, it certainly sounded like that's what you meant!" Gabrielle pulled her hand away and got to her feet, then walked over to stand by the fire with her back to Xena.
The warrior sighed. "I was just trying to show you how changing one thing can affect a whole lot of other things," she said quietly. "Good and evil are often mixed up together, and it's hard to get rid of one without destroying the other. That's why it's not a good idea to mess with the time line. You never know for sure what's going to happen if you do."
Gabrielle stood silent, her shoulders hunched.
"Besides," Xena went on, "we don't even know if this Cronus Stone thing will work. It may well be a fake."
"No, it's not a fake," Gabrielle said, turning around to look at the warrior. "It's real. When I was holding it this morning, I could actually feel its power."
Xena stared at her for a moment, then took a long drink of tea. Her headache seemed to be getting worse instead of better. "All right," she said. "Even assuming that the Cronus Stone is real, we still don't know how to use it. You said there were no instructions, right?"
"Right. But Autolycus told me he just rubbed it and focused his thoughts on where he wanted to be."
"Okay, but what if that doesn't work? What if we end up in the wrong time and place?"
"Then we'll just come back to the present and try again. We can keep on trying until we get it right."
"What happens if we get someplace and the stone gets broken or lost and we can't get back?" Xena asked. "What do we do then?"
"Nothing's going to happen to the stone, Xena," Gabrielle said in an exasperated tone of voice. "Why are you trying to make this so difficult?" Then she turned to face the fire again.
Xena took another quick drink, set the mug aside, and went to stand behind her lover. "Gabrielle," she said softly, "I'm just afraid this will turn out wrong and you'll get hurt, and I don't want that to happen because I love you so much."
"I've already been hurt," Gabrielle said in a dull voice. "I'm tired of hurting and I want to stop the pain."
"This isn't the way to do it," Xena said as she slipped her arms around the younger woman in a gentle embrace. "Not with the Cronus Stone."
"By being patient. By waiting for things to get better -- because they will. Time is the best healer of all."
"No. I can't!" Gabrielle said, turning to face the warrior. "I can't just sit around waiting for the pain to go away. Not when I have a way to change things."
Xena stared at her, seeing a depth of pain in those green eyes that she had hoped never to see again. "Oh, Gabrielle," she said, reaching out to touch her lover's cheek.
"Please try to understand what this means to me, Xena," Gabrielle went on in a low, urgent voice. "I want to stop having those memories. I want to be able to make love again. Don't you want those things for me?"
"Yes, Love, but--"
Xena hesitated. "To be honest," she admitted, "I'm afraid. I'm not sure why, but the whole idea of this is scaring the shit out of me."
"Don't be afraid. I'm not afraid. It'll be all right -- I just know it will."
Xena was silent, suddenly aware of the increased pounding in her head. Maybe Gabrielle was right. Maybe they really should use the Cronus Stone to go back and change the past. How many times had she herself wished that she could have done things differently that day at the cottage?
"Can we try it, Xena? Please?"
"I-- I don't know," Xena said, turning away and clamping a hand against her head. "I can't think right now. My head hurts too much." She looked back at Gabrielle. "Let's talk about it tomorrow," she said. "We don't have to make a decision tonight." Then she stumbled back to the bedroll and sat down, drawing her knees up and holding her head in both hands.
In a moment, she felt Gabrielle's arm around her shoulders. "Isn't the tea helping you, Sweetheart?" asked the younger woman.
"I don't know. Maybe. The pain just sort of comes and goes."
"And this discussion is just making it worse, isn't it?"
"Well, you're right. We don't have to decide anything right now. Do you want me to make you some more tea?"
"No, I just want to lie down."
"Okay, why don't you do that? You need to try to get some rest."
Xena stretched out on her back and Gabrielle put a folded blanket under her head, then covered her with a sheepskin. The warrior closed her eyes and tried to relax, feeling her headache lessen a little as she did so.
"Do you think you can sleep?" Gabrielle asked as she softly touched Xena's face.
"Yeah, I think so," Xena said, opening her eyes again. The sight of the golden firelight shining on her lover's face made her smile. "The headache's starting to ease up now," she added. "I'll be all right."
"Good. I think I'll sit up for a while and work on my scrolls, if you don't mind."
"Sure. That's fine."
"Call me if you need anything." She bent down to give Xena a kiss. "Good night, Love," she said.
Xena closed her eyes again and lay listening to the night, hearing the soft crackle of the fire, the rasping song of the crickets, the sound of Argo moving about as she grazed near the lakeshore. After that came the small noises of Gabrielle adding wood to the fire and then rummaging through one of the saddlebags. The sounds were comforting and worked to soothe the pain in Xena's head. She fell asleep and dreamed of Gabrielle standing naked beside the lake, and the image filled her with desire. But when she reached out to touch her, Gabrielle held the Cronus Stone up between them and said, "We can't make love again until we go back and change the past."
The warrior woke and gazed up at the black pattern of oak branches overhead. Then she raised her head and saw Gabrielle sitting, staring at the fire, her scrolls lying untouched beside her. Turning over on her side, Xena pulled the sheepskin closer and gave herself up to sleep again. There were no dreams this time, only at some point she thought Gabrielle touched her and whispered, "Xena, I love you."
Right after that, she was jolted into a strange sort of wakefulness. She felt, all at once, as if she were being lifted and hurled through space at great speed. Terrified, she tried to stop herself, or at least to brace herself for some unknown impact, but her arms remained frozen and useless at her sides. When she opened her mouth to scream, she found that she could produce no sound. She was totally helpless, powerless to control whatever was happening to her. And then, as abruptly as it began, the sensation ended. Xena gave a strangled cry and tried to sit up, but Gabrielle was bending over her, pushing her back down.
"It's all right, Xena," she said. "Everything's all right. You had a dream, that's all."
"A dream?" Xena said uncertainly as she sank back down. "That wasn't like any dream I've ever had before."
"It wasn't? Well, that's just like you -- always coming up with new ways to do things." Gabrielle laughed a little nervously and began to glance around the campsite.
"What's wrong?" Xena asked. "Why are you looking around like that?"
"Nothing's wrong," Gabrielle said quickly, turning her attention back to the warrior. "Nothing at all. Everything's just the way it's supposed to be." She brushed the hair back from Xena's face. "How's your headache?" she asked.
"It's fine. It's gone."
"Good. Then you can just relax and go back to sleep. I'll be right here beside you." She snuggled down under the sheepskin and wrapped her arms around Xena. "Did the dream scare you?" she asked.
"No. Well, yes, a little. It was really short, but . . . intense." She buried her face against Gabrielle's sweet-smelling hair. Her fear was rapidly slipping away in the warmth of her lover's embrace. She closed her eyes and let herself drift again toward sleep. But even as she did so, she became aware of a sound she hadn't noticed before. "I can hear the lake . . . lapping," she murmured sleepily.
"Uh-huh, me too," came the mumbled reply. "Lapping. It sounds nice."
Xena woke slowly to the sound of birds singing, and only gradually came to realize that she had never heard these particular birds before. This fact might have struck her as strange, but she was still too sleepy to give it much thought. Snuggling down a little further under the sheepskin, she drew in a deep breath. The air was full of the pungent scent of pines -- a scent she was especially fond of. Turning on her back, she yawned and stretched lazily.
Then suddenly her eyes flew open. Pines! There were no pines at their campsite! She stared in amazement at evergreen branches overhead, where there had been oaks before. Sitting up, she threw a quick look around. The early morning light revealed the campfire with their bedroll and gear beside it, Gabrielle sleeping curled up on her side, and Argo browsing a few paces away. All of this was the same, but the setting had changed dramatically. There was no sign of the lake, and the sound which Xena had mistaken for its lapping now proved to be the rushing of a river along its rocky course.
"Gabrielle!" she said, shaking her companion roughly by the shoulder. "Gabrielle, wake up! What's going on? Where are we?"
"Huh?" the younger woman mumbled. She sat up, rubbing her eyes, and looked around. "Wow," she said softly. She pushed the sheepskin aside, and as she did so, a ray of sunlight fell upon the red crystal of the Cronus Stone.
Xena stared at it for a moment and then snatched it up. "What have you done?" she demanded, thrusting the stone at Gabrielle. "Did you use this thing?"
The younger woman looked first at the stone and then at Xena. "Yes, I did," she said, with a note of defiance in her voice.
"But why? Why would you do that? We were going to decide together."
"No, we weren't," returned the bard. "You were going to decide that we shouldn't do it and that would have been the end of it. It didn't matter what I wanted to do."
"Yes, of course it mattered, Gabrielle. I hadn't exactly decided against it. I just needed more time to think it over."
"Sure, if you say so," Gabrielle said with a shrug.
Xena let out a frustrated sigh and looked around again. "Well, all right then," she said, "where are we? Or where are we supposed to be?"
"We're supposed to be back at the cottage, or at least on our way there, but--" Gabrielle stopped and she, too, surveyed their surroundings. "I don't recognize this place, do you?"
"No, I don't."
"But it's got to be someplace from our past -- from your past or mine. I don't think I've ever been here before, but surely you have. Just try to think back."
"Gabrielle, I've camped in thousands of places. Do you think I remember them all? I told you this travelling through time stuff wasn't as easy as you seemed to think it was. Maybe we ended up in someone else's past."
"Someone else's past? Whose?"
"I don't know. Maybe Salmoneus'." She held out the stone to her companion. "Anyway, it's pretty clear we're in the wrong place, so whatever you did, undo it."
Gabrielle took the stone and studied it for a few moments, turning it slowly in her hands. "Xena," she said finally, looking up, "I think maybe the stone sent us here for a reason. It's not the place we thought we were going, but maybe there's something we're supposed to do here. Don't you at least want to find out where we are?"
"No, not particularly."
"Well, I do. I think we should spend a little time here before we rush back home." She set the stone down on the ground beside the bedroll. "We could eat breakfast here, anyway. I'm kind of hungry, and we've got some nice, fresh bread and cheese."
Xena rolled her eyes and sighed again. When Gabrielle got her mind set on something, there wasn't much point in arguing with her. She glanced around and saw her leathers, armor, and weapons lying nearby. Standing up, she stripped off her nightshift in one quick movement and picked up the leathers. "At least it was nice of you to bring all our gear along," she said in a slightly sarcastic voice. "And Argo," she added.
"Yes, that worked out pretty well, didn't it?"
"I guess it would have been a good trick, if we had just ended up in the right place," Xena admitted. She stepped into the leathers and pulled them up. "How did you do it?" she asked.
"Well, first I kind of gathered all our stuff together and had it sitting here close by," Gabrielle said as she got up and began to lace Xena's outfit. "And I made sure I was touching you, because I didn't want you to get left behind, of course."
"How thoughtful of you."
"Then after that," Gabrielle went on, apparently choosing to ignore the warrior's sarcasm, "I just concentrated on where I wanted us to be and I pictured Argo being there, too, and all our belongings. Then I started rubbing the stone." She finished the lacing and stepped away, pulling off her own nightshift. "You should have seen it, Xena," she said. "The stone just started glowing! It was so beautiful! And then I had this feeling like we were travelling through space, really fast."
"So that wasn't a dream," Xena said flatly. "I didn't think it was." She picked up her armor and put it on.
"No, it wasn't a dream. I'm sorry I lied to you," Gabrielle said. She pulled on her skirt and fastened it, then slipped into the top and began to lace it.
"I'm sorry you did, too."
"Well, I figured there was nothing we could do until morning, and I didn't want you to get upset. I wanted you to go back to sleep."
"And you didn't think I might be upset in the morning, when I found out?" Xena asked as she fastened her scabbard to the back of her armor and hung her chakram at her waist.
"Uh, no, I really didn't think too much about it."
"That figures," Xena said. "Where are the towels? I'm going to go wash my face."
"They're in one of the saddlebags. That's where I--" Gabrielle stopped abruptly and stared at Xena in astonishment.
"What is it? What's wrong?" asked the warrior.
"We're not speaking Greek anymore!"
"What are you talking about? How could we not be speaking Greek?"
"I don't know, but we're not. Listen to the words -- they're all different."
Xena frowned as she tried to remember the sounds they had just uttered.
Gabrielle moved closer and laid a hand on her arm. "This is Greek," she said in that language. "This is how we usually talk." Then she switched. "And this is how we've been talking since we woke up. See? It's a totally different language!"
"But how is that possible?" Xena asked. "Why would we just wake up speaking a new language?"
"The Cronus Stone," Gabrielle said softly. "When it brought us to this place, it must have also given us the language we need to speak here."
"But that doesn't make any sense," Xena said. Turning away, she knelt beside the saddlebags, opened one of them, and pulled out a towel. "If we've gone back into our past," she went on, looking up at her companion, "we should have already known the language from that time and place."
"You don't know this language?"
"No, of course not," Xena said, standing up again.
"But does it sound like anything you've heard in your travels?"
Xena considered for a moment. "It sort of reminds me of the way people talk in Britannia," she said, "but I'm not sure which dialect it is."
"And some of the words seem similar to Greek words," Gabrielle mused. She was silent for a few moments, then asked, "What do you think this means? Aren't we in Greece anymore?"
"I think it means that we don't have the slightest notion where in Tartarus we are," Xena said. "And I suggest we try to get back home as soon as possible."
"An adventure in an unknown land," Gabrielle said. "I think it's kind of exciting, actually,"
"That's because you have a strange concept of excitement," Xena said, and turning, she headed for the river.
* * *
She knelt on the rocks at the water's edge and quickly tied her hair back. Then she drank from cupped hands and splashed water on her face, hoping its sharp coldness would help clear some of the confusion from her mind.
"I can't find my comb," Gabrielle said as she joined the warrior on the riverbank.
"Where did you have it last?" Xena asked, then buried her dripping face in the linen towel.
"I was using it last night to comb your hair after we got out of the lake-- Oh, I'll bet I laid it down and left it there."
"Guess we'll have to go back and get it," Xena said with a grin. She handed the towel to Gabrielle, untied her long, dark hair, shook it out, and ran her fingers through it in an attempt to comb it.
Then, suddenly, she froze, listening intently and staring at the trees further downstream. She laid a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Someone's coming," she said in a low voice.
The younger woman stopped splashing and quickly began drying her face.
Xena stood up just as a man on a chestnut-colored horse emerged from the trees some fifty paces downstream. He guided his mount into the shallow water and let it drink. The man was strangely dressed, with close-fitting tan trousers and a short, sleeveless black garment worn over a light-blue tunic of some sort. There was a red cloth knotted around his neck, and on his head he wore a black hat with a wide brim that curled up at the edges. For several moments he sat, gazing absently down at the water while Xena studied him curiously. Then, looking up, he caught sight of the two women. His face broke into a grin as he glanced back over his shoulder. "Well, lookee here, Boys!" he called. "I do believe I've found us a couple of pretty little whores!"
Gabrielle scrambled to her feet. "We're not whores!" she shouted indignantly.
He laughed loudly and pulled his horse's head up just as a second man rode out into the open. "Take a good look, Isaiah," he said. "Don't those two gals sure enough look like whores to you?"
The second man was dressed much like the first, with the same style of broad-brimmed hat. But what caught Xena's attention was his horse. She had never seen one marked like it before, with large, bold splotches of brown and white.
"Well, they sure are dressed funny," said the one called Isaiah. The two men began to ride slowly toward the women. "I don't know what else they could be. I kind of fancy the little blonde one, myself," he added.
Gabrielle edged closer to Xena and took hold of her arm.
"Not me," returned the first man. "I like the tall one. She's got kind of a saucy look about her. What about you, Bill?" he said to a third man who now joined them. "Which one for you?"
"Hell, I'd do both of them, if we had time -- which we don't," said Bill. "You know we've got that train to catch."
He grinned and ran his eyes appraisingly over Gabrielle and Xena. This was the leader of the group; Xena was certain of it. He was a handsome man with a dark, neatly-trimmed beard, black hat and trousers. He sat his tall bay horse with a casual air of authority which the other two men seemed to respect.
Xena gave Gabrielle's hand a reassuring squeeze. "You boys go on now and leave us alone," she called. "We haven't got anything you want."
"Oh, but you're wrong about that," Bill said, looking toward their campsite. "I think we'll just take that big, fat ruby you've got there."
Xena glanced at their bedroll and saw the Cronus Stone sitting beside it, practically glowing in a shaft of sunlight. "Better think again," she said, drawing her sword and moving into position between the men and the campsite. Gabrielle, meanwhile, ran to get her staff and take up her own defensive post near the Cronus Stone.
"Well, would you look at that!" the first man said, laughing. "The whore has a sword!"
"I know how to use it, too," Xena said, "so if you're smart, you'll just head on out of here and no one will get hurt."
The leader chuckled. "George, why don't you go get that ruby and then we'll be on our way."
"Sure thing, Boss," he said, dismounting and leading his horse forward.
As he came closer, Xena could see that he had a long, straight scar across his left cheek, ending where his earlobe should have been. She grinned in anticipation of the fight to come and waited for her opponent to get within striking distance. Then, catching a movement out of the corner of her eye, she glanced up at the group's leader, noting that he had pulled a short, metal object out of a sheath on his hip. It gleamed a cold, bluish color in the sunlight and appeared to be some type of weapon -- perhaps a club.
The man raised the weapon, and it made a strange clicking sound as he pointed its smaller end at Xena. Maybe he was planning to throw it at her. Well, she could easily catch such a thing out of the air before it reached her. Turning her attention back to the one called George, she gave a triumphant war whoop and leaped forward to kick him squarely in the jaw. He spun backwards, landing with a splash in the river. His startled horse shied away.
Suddenly, Xena felt a jolting stab of pain in her left arm and at the same moment heard a sharp cracking sound, like a whip. Staring down in amazement, she saw blood oozing from a gash above her arm guard.
"Drop the sword and get out of the way," Bill commanded.
Xena stared at him for a long moment, then let her weapon fall from trembling fingers. Seconds later, she heard Gabrielle's staff also hit the ground. The warrior backed away slowly as George picked himself up, glaring at her while he jammed the hat back on his head. Then he snatched up his horse's reins and stomped over to the Cronus Stone. Picking it up, he studied it briefly, then thrust it into a saddlebag and mounted.
"All right, let's go," Bill said, keeping his weapon pointed at Xena. "We've got that train to catch, you know." He waited while the other two rode through the camp and out onto the road. Then he returned the weapon to its sheath and touched the brim of his hat. "Much obliged, Ladies," he said with a grin, and reining his horse around sharply, he took off at a gallop after the others.
Xena stood, unmoving, staring after him until she sensed Gabrielle beside her. "Start packing up our gear," she said. "We have to follow them and get the Cronus Stone back."
"No, Xena. You're wounded," Gabrielle said as she applied a cloth to the warrior's arm. "We have to take care of that first."
"I'll be fine," Xena said, pulling her arm away. "We haven't got any time to lose. We have to get that stone back, or else we can't go home."
"We'll get it back. No one is a better tracker than you are. As soon as we get you bandaged up, we'll go after those men. But I'm not going anywhere as long as you're bleeding all over the place."
Only then did Xena look and see the blood streaming down her arm and over her armband. She also noted the determined look on her lover's face. "All right," she said with a sigh, and allowed Gabrielle to lead her to the riverbank.
"Sit here," the bard said, steering her toward a fallen tree. Then she slipped the bracer and upper band off the warrior's arm, dipped her cloth in the water and began to cleanse the wound. "I think you need some stitches," she said after a moment. "Here," she added, handing the cloth to Xena. "Apply pressure while I go get a needle and thread."
Xena sat holding the cloth over her wound and stared at the water without really seeing it.
"Are you okay?" Gabrielle asked a few minutes later as she sat down beside the warrior. "You seem kind of . . . shaken . . . or something."
Xena was silent for a moment, then asked in a low voice, "Did you see that weapon he had? I don't even understand how it wounded me. It must have been some kind of sorcery."
"I know. And that loud sound it made-- It really scared me."
Xena turned to look into her lover's green eyes. "I don't know how to fight a weapon like that," she said. "My sword, my kicks and flips -- everything seems useless, all of a sudden."
"How about your chakram? You could throw it and knock the weapon out of his hand."
"Maybe. But the chakram isn't as fast as that weapon seems to be. I think it would only work if he didn't see me throw it."
"Well, my staff isn't much good either." Gabrielle lifted the cloth from Xena's arm and studied the gash for a moment. "The bleeding's almost stopped," she said. Then she threaded the needle and began to make careful stitches.
"Xena," she said after a few minutes of silence, "what's a train?"
"That man kept talking about having to catch a train. What do you think he meant?"
"I don't know, Gabrielle. If you have to catch it, maybe it's game or something you eat."
"Maybe," the bard said, but she sounded unconvinced. "Who were those men, anyway?" she asked after a moment. "And do you have any better idea where we are?"
"No, I still don't know where we are, but I can pretty much guarantee that those men are the same kind of common thugs and thieves we deal with all the time."
"They had funny-sounding names, didn't they? And those clothes! Did you see how they were dressed? And those bizarre-looking hats?"
"Apparently, they thought our clothes were pretty strange, too," Xena said.
"Yes, but why did they think we were whores? Do the whores around here dress like we do?"
"I don't know. I've never been here before." She meant the words as a joke of sorts, but they came out sounding flat, and Gabrielle did not smile.
The younger woman tied off the last stitch and washed the rest of the blood off Xena's arm. Then she tied a bandage over the wound. "I'll go roll up our blankets," she said, standing up and moving toward the campsite. Xena bent to pick up her armband, rinsed it in the river and slid it up her arm. Then she put on her bracer and followed Gabrielle.
A short time later, they mounted Argo and started along the road in the same direction the men had taken. Once out of the trees, they were able to get a much better look at the landscape. On the other side of the road, a plain of tawny grasses stretched some five hundred paces to where the foothills began. And beyond the hills, there were occasional glimpses of mountains, their rounded peaks standing rocky and bare against the sky.
"Stop for a minute," Gabrielle said, and Xena pulled the mare to a halt. "Isn't it beautiful?" the bard asked.
"It's nice enough," Xena said, "but we haven't got time to gawk at the scenery. We need to catch up with those men." She touched her heels to Argo's flanks and they started forward again. The road was dusty and full of tracks, but Xena watched closely for any indication that three horses had recently left it to go in one direction or the other.
"There's a wagon coming this way," Xena said after a few minutes.
Gabrielle leaned out for a better view. "Looks like a family in it," she said. "Maybe they're on their way to market."
A man and woman sat on the seat of the open, wooden wagon, which was pulled by two horses. The woman held a young boy in her lap.
"Excuse me," Xena called as they came close.
"Whoa!" the man said, pulling back on the reins and looking in amazement at Xena and Gabrielle. He was hatless and wore a faded blue tunic tucked into trousers which seemed to be held up by means of two straps which ran over his shoulders.
"Don't talk to those hussies, John," the woman said, putting her hand over the little boy's eyes.
Xena decided to ignore her and addressed herself to the man. "Have you seen three men riding this way?" she asked. "One of them had a spotted horse."
"Sure, we saw them," the man said, nodding slowly. "Seemed like they were in a big hurry to get wherever they were going."
"What's the nearest town?" asked Gabrielle.
"Well, that would be Corinth, of course. It's about five, six miles down the road," he said, gesturing back over his shoulder.
"Corinth!" Gabrielle said in surprise.
"Don't you two be thinking about stopping there," said the woman. "That town's already got more than enough of your type."
"And what type is that?" Xena asked mildly.
"Why, women of ill repute. Women with nothing better to do than primp and paint themselves up and try to lure good, honest men away from their wives and families."
"We're not--" Gabrielle began.
"Forget it, Gabrielle," Xena muttered, elbowing her companion. "You're never going to convince them." Then she gave the couple her best whore-like smile. "Thanks so much," she said sweetly, and kicked Argo into a canter.
After a few minutes, she slowed the mare to a walk and resumed her study of tracks leading off the road.
"That man said we were near Corinth," Gabrielle said, "but this doesn't look much like the country around Corinth."
"No, it doesn't."
"Do you think there could be another Corinth someplace?"
"I suppose it's possible," Xena said, "but it seems like people could think up new and different names for their towns instead of using the same old ones."
"Seems like it," Gabrielle agreed. She was silent for a time, but then she suddenly leaned out and pointed. "Look! There's smoke up ahead!" she exclaimed. "Maybe someone's house is on fire!"
Xena raised her eyes and saw what Gabrielle had seen -- a plume of black smoke rising from a line of trees at the far end of the plain. Then, to her surprise, she saw that the smoke did not remain in one place, but appeared to move slowly toward them. She was about to comment on this fact when she heard a low, mournful sound coming from the direction of the smoke.
"What in the name of the gods is that?" Gabrielle asked.
"I don't know. It sounds a little like a sick cow."
"No, I don't think it sounds like a cow. It sounds like the wind does when it howls through the chimney on a cold winter's night."
"Well, that would be the poetic description, I suppose," Xena said. "But it's not winter and it's not windy and I don't see any chimneys around, do you?"
"No," Gabrielle admitted.
Xena reined Argo to a halt and the two women watched the line of smoke advancing. The strange whistling sound came again, and as it faded away, Xena began to hear a puffing, chugging noise of some sort. Then, from out of the trees, she saw a black thing emerge -- a weird, fearsome creature spewing smoke and fire out of the top of its head, while its segmented body slithered along behind it.
"What is it?" breathed Gabrielle, tightening her grip around the warrior's waist.
"I don't know."
"Is it a dragon? I've heard they breathe fire. Have you ever seen one?"
"Do you think it's a dragon?"
"Maybe. All I know is I've never seen anything like it before."
The puffing noise was growing louder, and now Xena could see the creature's one white eye and its mouth full of long, sharp teeth, sweeping along the ground in front of it. Argo snorted and began to prance nervously.
"Xena, do you think it's seen us? Will it come after us? Maybe we should run or hide."
The warrior didn't answer. She knew Gabrielle was right. There was danger here, and they should flee, but she could not take her eyes off the dragon. It advanced steadily, moving smoothly through the dry grass of the plain at about the same speed as a galloping horse. It never seemed to tire, but came relentlessly onward. And while it did not appear to be headed directly toward them, such a monster could surely change its course at any moment. Xena tightened her grip on the reins, preparing to turn Argo. Then, suddenly, she saw three men on horseback streaking across the plain toward the dragon.
"It's those men!" exclaimed Gabrielle. "Do you think they're going to fight the dragon?"
"I don't know, but we're going after them to get the Cronus Stone back!"
"No, Xena! It's too dangerous with that monster there!"
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