Disclaimers: Weve all read disclaimers before, so I figure by now we are well aware of the fact I dont happen to own the rights to them. Pity. I could have made a mint off Xena and Gabrielle by now. At least I would have made sure the action figures were *fully* poseable. <bowing to an unseen LN> Seeing as I dont actually own them, Im not making penny one off writing about them. (Though I can hope someone at MCA notices and asks me to write an episode or two. <grin>)
Violence Warning: Hey, guess what? There isnt any violence in this story. How Xena managed to keep her fists from flying and her sword from removing tender bits is beyond me but for a change, there isnt a drop of blood spilled in this story.
Sex/Love Scene Warning: Oops! None of that in this tale either. (Gods, what did I write about then!!??) Okay, it is fairly clear that Xena and Gabrielle are lovers and if the merest thought of that just curls your nose hairs, then perhaps youll be happier reading something else. Might I suggest Anne of Green Gables.
And Thanks: Many thanks to everyone for being so patient while I recovered from some fairly serious surgery and then moved myself and computer to a whole other country. (Hence the different e-mail address.) I finished this tale just as soon as I could to say thanks to folks for their encouragement as I got over being laid open on some surgeons table and then lost what few wits I had left packing, and packing, and packing. Thanks also to Raid-i-ho and Aunty Em for beta reading the first 30 odd pages of this (before I moved countries) and my ever loving Adored One, Laura, for plowing through the rest.
Praise and comments are always welcome (specially now I am getting so homesick.) Flames wont even rate a second glance.
No ribbons were rendered, nor sashes torn asunder in the production of this fan fic. Though, I am sure Xena considering it quite seriously. Argo, however, ate the flowers.A Jealous Harvest by
The Dark Warrior
Care Of: firstname.lastname@example.org
Xena looked down at the village sprawled out below her as she waited for Gabrielle to reach the top of the hill. Wisps of smoke could be seen rising against the crisp autumn blue sky as the residents of the buildings cooked or warmed their homes. Far to her left, she could just make out tiny figures moving about the nearly barren fields as the last of this seasons crops were harvested in preparation for the winter ahead. The warrior breathed in deeply, letting the cool, morning air fill her lungs. Towards noon it would grow warmer once again but, with the sun barely over the horizon, the cloak draped about her shoulders felt very good indeed. Not that she would have openly admitted to it.
The blonde bard stepped up beside her, hardly out of breath after her rapid climb up the hill. She let her eyes roam over the village below, a gentle smile gradually lighting her face. "I can't remember how long it has been since I was last home. I'd forgotten how beautiful Poteidaia looks from up here," she sighed.
"Meleager," Xena said, quietly.
"Excuse me," the bard asked, not understanding the reference.
"When the elders brought Meleager in to defend the village," the warrior explained. "That was the last time you managed to get home and see your family."
"I'd almost forgotten," Gabrielle replied, mentally totally up the moons and seasons in her head. "Boy, that really was a long time ago. Doesn't look like much has changed, though." Now the bard was level with Xena and Argo, her eyes hungrily drank in the scene of a quiet village preparing for the winter season.
"The village may not have changed, Gabrielle but you certainly have," the warrior said with quiet pride seeing, as though for the first time, the well developed muscles the bard now had after cycles of travelling and working out with her staff. Her tanned skin almost glowed with vibrant, good health, her blue-green eyes clear and shining with happiness.
The other woman blushed a little before answering. "You've changed too, Xena," she replied solemnly. "I might even be able to convince you to have a little fun at the harvest festival. You do remember what fun is, don't you?" the bard asked, a wicked gleam in her eyes.
"Gabrielle," Xena growled down at the smaller woman standing by her stirrup. The answering twinkle in her own impossibly blue eyes making a mockery of the threatening tone in her voice. "I have no intention of making a spectacle of myself in the dance circle."
"And I do?" the bard asked dangerously.
"No. You're a very good dancer," Xena replied evenly. "I just like to watch."
A mischievous smile danced across the other woman's face. "Anything in particular you like?"
Xena's eyes dipped to the ground for a moment, a trace of color working its way up her cheeks. "You know what I like watching, Gabrielle," she said quietly.
"What do you like watching, Xena?" Gabrielle asked. She needed to hear the words even though she already knew the answer to her question.
"I like watching you," Xena almost whispered, before quickly kneeing Argo down the hill towards the village.
Gabrielle began her own descent after Xena, wondering, after all this time, and with all they had been through, why the warrior still had trouble telling the other woman how she felt. "It's not like we do anything shameful," she muttered to herself. Putting that thought to one side for the moment, the bard hurried her pace to catch up with the warrior woman ahead.
Entering the village, Gabrielle immediately noticed how everything appeared, more or less, the same as she remembered; yet it all seemed different too. It didn't take her long to realize the difference was not in the village, but in herself instead. "Have I really changed that much?" she muttered, briefly nodding at a barely remembered acquaintance in the market square. Through the gaily dressed crowd, many buying last minute items for the coming festival, she spotted Argo tied to a post outside the only tavern in the village. Quickening her pace slightly, she headed in the direction of the open door.
From a small side street, a pair of eyes eagerly watched Gabrielle's progress through the crowded market. They noted the well toned strength of the young woman, a simple staff carried confidently in one hand. Waiting until she drew level, the bard's attention diverted by something in one of the stalls, they flew from their hiding place, launching an unexpected attack.
An attack that never found its mark as the bard's reflexes reacted before two hands could connect with Gabrielle's body. Spinning suddenly, the bard's staff slammed heavily into the attacker's mid-section, the wind in their lungs whoofing out as the hard wood made contact.
"Lila!" Gabrielle shouted, as her mind identified the young woman now on her knees clutching her mid-section with both arms. "I'm sorry, Lila. I didn't know it was you," she said, dropping beside her sister as she tried to pull air into her lungs.
"It's all right, Gabby. Really," the younger woman gasped painfully. "I should know better than to sneak up on you like that by now."
The bard gingerly assisted her sister onto shaky feet, red-faced and embarrassed at having struck her at all. Around her, various stall owners had stopped what they were doing to watch the little drama being played out in front of them. "Come on, Lila. Let's go over to the tavern. We can get something for you to drink over there," Gabrielle said, pulling her sister towards the building. More than anything, she wanted to be out from under all those disapproving eyes.
The bard kept apologizing all the way to the tavern until they stepped over the threshold and she felt Lila stiffen under her hands. Glancing quickly about the dim room, expecting more trouble, her eye settled on the scowling figure of Xena standing at the bar, a tankard of port raised half-way to her lips. Mistaking Lila's reaction for fear, she said, "Xena isn't a warlord anymore. She fights for good now."
"If you say so, Gabrielle," the other woman replied stiffly, before allowing the bard to assist her to a chair. She glared at the tall warrior at the bar as Xena's tankard completed its journey to her lips.
The bard signaled for the serving girl to come and take their orders. "Two ales, please," she requested politely.
"Not for me, thanks. Just some water would be fine, if you don't mind, Gabrielle. Father might be angry if he knew I was drinking," Lila said quietly, the reproachful tone echoing loudly in her voice.
"Make that two waters, please," the bard told the serving girl, as she changed the order. She had forgotten her father was an extremely sober man rarely allowing either woman anything stronger to drink than watered wine, and that was only on very special occasions.
As the girl walked off to get their order, Lila quietly hissed at Gabrielle. "I hope you have something decent to wear when we go home. Father will have a fit if he sees you in that," she said, indicating the bard's short, paneled skirt and green top.
Gabrielle looked down at herself, wondering what was wrong with her outfit. It was only one she wore now, though she did still have a longer skirt and brown shirt in Xena's saddlebags. "This is what I like to wear, Lila. It's better for all the fighting I have to do sometimes. It didn't seem to bother you the last time I was here." the bard tried to explain.
Lila carefully looked over the other woman's outfit, taking in the changes she could see. "There was a bit more of it the last time you were here, if I remember correctly," she replied archly. "I know you like being a warrior with that woman," Lila started, glancing narrow-eyed at Xena still at the bar for a moment before continuing. "But Father is never going to understand. Surely you have something decent to wear at home? Do you at least have something to cover that?" Gabrielle's sister pointed slightly at the bard's obviously bare, and well muscled stomach.
The bard thought for a moment about her other outfit. It was slightly more covering than what she currently had on but it would still leave a large area of her mid-rift bare. If Lila's disapproval was anything to go on, her parents would probably be scandalized at her apparent immodesty. The only other clothing option she had was the ceremonial costume she occasionally wore when visiting her Amazon sisters. Not exactly the outfit of choice during her stay in the village. Gabrielle sighed deeply. I should have remembered all this before we got here, she thought. I'd forgotten how conservative my family, and the whole village for that matter, can be sometimes. But they really hadn't said anything to me when I was here last time. "I'll see what I can do about it, Lila," the bard said quietly.
The other woman just nodded as their tankards of water were almost dropped into the table with some disdain by the serving girl. There was no profit to be made from people who simply drank plain water and she had better paying customers at other tables. Lila and Gabrielle sat looking at each other uncomfortably, neither sure how much the other had changed or whether they really liked what they were seeing in front of them.
Xena walked over from the bar, fresh tankard of port in her hand and took up the seat beside Gabrielle. She greeted Lila with a nod of the head before taking a long swallow of the dark liquid in the mug. "Got us a room, Gabrielle," she said quietly, carefully placing her port on the table.
"Us?" Lila suddenly asked, confused, as Xena's words sank in. "I thought you would be staying with the family while you were here, Gab. Mother went to some trouble to set up a room for you. We didn't know you'd have anyone with you." The assumption Hecuba had made was based on the fact Gabrielle had made no reference to Xena in her short note about coming home for the harvest festival. Lila had been reasonably sure the warrior woman would be with her sister but chose to say nothing about it when her mother started organizing a separate room for the bard. She would have preferred to have Gabrielle sleeping in the same room like they used to do as youngsters but Hecuba made it clear the bard was to have a room to herself, in case she wanted to stay up late at night writing some new story.
One of Xena's eyebrows arched upwards as the bard looked at her questioningly. She had gotten a room large enough for them both but if Gabrielle wanted to stay with her family, she could always change it to something a little cheaper.
"I'd rather stay here with Xena, if Mother doesn't mind, Lila," the bard said slowly. "I don't want to make any more work for her than she already has."
"You wouldn't make any extra work, Gabrielle and Mother will be disappointed if you didn't stay. You'd have your own room so you can write, if that is the concern," Lila said, trying to cut through any arguments the bard might have about staying with her own family. After all, aren't they more important than some worn out old warlord?
"No. I think I am needed here more," Gabrielle replied, searching her mind for some excuse that would allow her to be graceful about her refusal. Taking a stab in the dark, and hoping Xena would go along with it, she continued. "Xena has been favoring her shoulder for a few days now since we got into a fight with some thugs by the road," the bard said, making it up as she went along. "She still needs some help getting out of her armor at night, you see," she finished in a rush, trying not to look at the expression on the warrior's face.
"But surely she could get any person to do that for her," Lila said, not believing Gabrielle for a heartbeat.
"Oh no. It has to be taken off in a special order and Xena doesn't trust just anyone to do that right."
Xena cut in suddenly, seeing that Gabrielle was rapidly digging a very deep hole for herself. "I prefer the bard," she stated simply, stopping the discussion in its tracks. Raising an eyebrow at the blonde woman by her side, she made it clear Gabrielle now owed her one very big favor.
Lila sat grumpily for several moments before she could speak civilly to the two women across from her. "Guess I will tell Mother," she said, the brittleness in her voice clear to the sharp-eared bard. "At least come by for evemeal tonight, Gabrielle. I'm sure our parents would like to see you for a little while anyway." It was plain from the phrasing that Gabrielle alone was being asked to evemeal, and not Xena as well. "I'd better get going. I have chores to do before nooning," she said, rising from the table.
"I'll see you at evemeal then, Lila, and say hello to Mother for me, will you. Though Im bound to run across her in the markets. We both know how she loves to bargain, especially at harvest time," Gabrielle replied, trying to lighten the mood a little.
Lila nodded before walking away stiffly, the bard's eyes following her until she was well past the door and out of sight.
"Wondered where you got that particular skill from," Xena said quietly into her port. "Guess you really did learn it on your mother's hip."
The bard didn't answer, instead she simply stared bleakly into the mug of water she held between her hands.
"I really thought Lila was over the jealousy, Xena," Gabrielle said a little later as she unpacked a few things from the saddlebags. "I mean, she said she understood why I travel with you and that she didn't really mind."
"That was a long time ago now, Gabrielle and you haven't been home since then. People change," the warrior remarked from her position leaning against the window frame of their room, where she could see the entire market square, and most of the village laid out below them. "I can't remember the last time you sent them a scroll, letting them know everything was okay with you."
"But we've been so busy," the bard said, sitting heavily on the pallet. "Some of the places we've been " she started, then decided mid-sentence that she really didn't want to bring up those subjects just yet, at least not until she had given herself more time to think them through. Even though she had forgiven Xena, and knew the warrior had forgiven her, there was still some things they needed to discuss before they could heal all the pain between them.
"Mmmm, some of the places we have been over the past couple of seasons didn't really have any way of sending scrolls to your family," Xena finished for her, seeing the expression on the bard's face. She realized that there were some things Gabrielle simply could never tell her family, not without bringing on a barrage of questions. Questions neither of them were ready to answer.
"I suppose I could have tried a little harder to get word to them," the bard said guiltily. "I don't know what is wrong with Lila though? When I was here last time, she at least respected the fact you're a warrior. Now, it's like she was almost trying to deliberately antagonize you downstairs." Gabrielle chuckled sadly to herself. "I've seen you toss grown men through a wall for lesser attitudes than the one Lila showed you today."
Xena sat down on the bed next to Gabrielle, wrapping her hands around one ankle as it rested on her armored knee. She tried to keep a full arm's length between them but didn't move when the bard edged a little closer. Ever since that almost surreal trip to Illusia, they had both been circling around the other like this, not quite sure if forgiveness also meant trust. They had taken to sleeping in separate bedrolls again, Gabrielle closer to the fire so she would be warm on the increasing cooler nights, Xena beside her, a bare finger-length away.
The tall warrior turned her head, blue eyes catching the bard's for several skipped heartbeats. "I wouldn't toss your sister through any walls, Gabrielle. I was tempted to pour that tankard of water over her head though, just to cool her down again," Xena said, ducking so the other woman couldn't see the wicked grin on her face. "She's probably just annoyed that she isn't going to have you all to herself while we are here."
"You're not angry she didn't invite you to evemeal, are you?" Gabrielle asked tentatively, edging within a hand-span of the other woman.
"No. They're your family, not mine. It's right that you should spend some time with them while we are here," Xena replied, honestly.
"But you're my family too, Xena," Gabrielle commented, meaning every word of it. She cautiously snuggled against the tall warrior's side, breathing out gratefully as Xena's arm slowly rose and draped itself across the bard's shoulders, drawing her a little closer.
Smiling down at the woman tucked under her arm, Xena said, "Well, this member of your family is quite capable of eating here tonight while you go and visit your parents and sister."
Gabrielle nodded briefly. "After all, how bad can it be?" she wondered aloud.
The bard stood for a several heartbeats outside the closed door of her parents home, checking over the clothing she had purchased. The skirt was little more than a length of brightly colored cloth wrapped securely around her waist, dropping just passed her knees, but a clever arrangement of folds and tucks allowed her lower body to move freely if she found herself in some kind of a fight. The blouse; also dyed in eye-catching colors, had three quarter length sleeves, with a high collar, and was tucked modestly into the top of her skirt. It was reasonably close fitting but Gabrielle hoped it was loose enough to pass her father's conservative eye. It was about the best she could do on such short notice. After so many seasons wearing her shorter skirt and top, she found this particular outfit tight and restrictive.
Xena had helped her restitch the seams so if she did have to swing her staff for some reason, she wouldn't rip the material across her shoulders or under her arms. The seams would partially open instead, still leaving her decently covered but allowing her the movement she needed to protect herself. The warrior had also shown her how to fold the length of cloth about her waist so her legs would be free enough to kick in any direction if she needed to do that as well. "Oh well, better get this over with," she muttered to herself, wishing more than ever she was still back at the tavern having evemeal with the warrior. Knocking briskly on the paneled door, she waited patiently for someone to open it.
There had been a time when she would not have bothered with knocking at all but she no longer felt this was her home anymore, so the bard chose to take the polite approach instead.
She barely had a chance to draw a deep, calming breath before someone was swinging the door inwards, flooding the little porch with candlelight. As luck would have it, her father just happened to be the one holding the door open so she could enter. Gabrielle could feel his eyes raking up and down her body, finding fault with her clothes, and the staff she carried in one hand. The look of disapproval was quickly wiped from his face as he slid a welcoming smile into place in its stead. Gabrielle could still see the reproachful glare in his eyes, though and knew her efforts to fit in with his beliefs had failed.
The exuberant welcome she received from her mother, however, soon had Gabrielle forgetting about her father's disapproval for the moment. Peeling Hecuba's tight arms from around her neck, the bard started to speak. "Mother! How are you?" she asked, happily. Gabrielle could see the cycles had added a few more lines to her face and she had lost a little weight as well but she seemed fine to the bard's well practiced eye.
"I'm well, Gabrielle. But let's have a peep at you," Hecuba replied holding the bard at arm's length to look her over. "You look so, so fit and tanned. And where did you get all these muscles?" she asked, gently squeezing the bard's upper arms. "They're like rock." Continuing to run her hands lightly over her daughter's shoulders and back, she commented, "You were such a roly-poly baby when you left here. I didn't think you'd've lasted a day with that warrior but just look at you now." Locking her eyes with the bard, Hecuba asked, "Are you happy, my daughter? Truly? Are you ready to come home yet and settle down in the village?"
"Yes, Mother. I am very happy," Gabrielle answered honestly. She decided at that moment, any mentions of how unhappy both she and Xena had been there for a while were not something she really wanted to bring up with her family. Gabrielle knew her mother would just use the information to convince her to stay in the village and that was not part of the bard's plan for the rest of her life. "As for settling down, well, that's about the last thing on my mind right now."
"Still thinking of Perdicus?" Hecuba asked, somberly. "It's been more than a cycle now since he was killed by that awful woman. You really should start thinking seriously about finding a new husband and having some children soon. You're not going to be young and beautiful forever, you know. Life on the road is going to age you a lot quicker than you realize," she said, noting the marks of hard experience starting to make themselves known of her daughter's face. There was a new depth in her blue-green eyes as well, depths Hecuba knew was not there the last time Gabrielle had visited home. For a brief moment, the older woman wondered what the bard had seen or what she had been through to give her eyes such sad intensity.
"I'm fine, Mother. Honestly. There is still so much to do and see yet for me to think about settling anywhere," Gabrielle said. "And Xena still needs me." Catching the look on her father's face, the bard realized her last statement was not one her parents really wanted to hear.
"Be that as it may, Gabrielle, but that warlord survived quite nicely before you came along. She doesn't need you hanging about all the time," Herodotus said seriously.
"She is not a warlord anymore, Father. And I might remind you that it was Xena who saved us from those slave raiders AND taught me everything I knew about defending the village from those thugs the last time I was here," Gabrielle replied, a little heatedly.
"We had Meleager," he stated primly, trying to pin Gabrielle to the spot with his eyes. He was a little taken back when she simply stood her ground with him and didn't bow before his wishes.
"Who was too drunk to be of any use to anyone until someone kicked him in the butt and reminded him what he was here for," the bard answered, her temper obviously starting to boil.
"Enough, enough. You both as bad as each other. I will not have disagreements the first night Gabrielle is home with us," Hecuba almost shouted into the middle of the impending argument. She listened as Gabrielle and Herodotus mumbled their apologies to her.
The bard turned to put her staff away, surprised when Lila sidled up to her. "Now you've done it, Gab. Annoyed Father and upset Mother. Can't you do anything right?" she whispered. "You should know better than to mention that woman here."
A shocked Gabrielle never had a chance to reply as Lila quickly moved away to help her mother setting the table for evemeal.
Oh gods, she thought. Surely, it can't get any worst than this.
Evemeal had been a fairly strained affair, to say the least, with Hecuba doing most of the talking. Gabrielle had tried to tell them something about her travels but as soon she mentioned Xena's name, the silence following nearly deafened her. Because most of her stories featured Xena in some way, she was left with very little to say as the meal progressed. Gabrielle fell to answering her mother's many questions in grunted monosyllables, concentrating on putting food into her mouth as quickly as possible so she could leave at the first polite opportunity.
Her father had ploughed his way through his evemeal with his usual dispatch, rarely saying anything, other than to ask for some item to be passed to him. Lila, on the other hand, had spent most of her time glaring at Gabrielle from her place across the table, and the bard was rapidly getting the feeling there was more to her animosity than the blonde's decision to stay at the tavern with Xena.
As Herodotus wiped the last of the gravy from his heavy plate with a scrap of bread, he leaned back from the table, attempting to pin the bard under his disapproving glare again. Just as before, Gabrielle was not intimidated in the least and returned his gaze evenly. "So, tell me, Gabrielle. What are your plans for the future?" he asked, subtly stressing the word, 'are'.
"After the festival, you mean?" Gabrielle answered, trying to buy a little time for herself.
"Uh huh," her father replied.
"We were thinking about heading for Athens, maybe. I have a friend there, at the Academy of Performing Bards. We thought we might pay him a visit. After that, well, I guess it depends on where we might be needed," the bard finally said.
Herodotus gently stroked his chin with one finger. "You're needed here, Gabrielle," he stated. There was a strong note of finality in his voice that was unmistakable to the bard's trained ear. "You're mother is not as strong as she used to be and Lila will want to be married soon herself. It's not seemly that the younger sister should marry before the older."
Gabrielle was left wide-eyed and spluttering by Herodotus's simple statement. There was little she could do, however, but sit open-mouthed in shock as he continued.
"I have received an offer of marriage from Deon. He has an older son who would be a perfect match for you. The lad's name is Tomisus, I believe. It works out well that you decided to come home for the festival. We can arrange for the wedding to take place just afterwards. That would be convenient for everyone, I think, seeing as Deon and Tomisus will be here to celebrate. You can return to their holding immediately after the harvest festival ends," he said, pleased, as though he had found a suitable solution to a particularly prickly problem. Noticing the look on Gabrielle's face for the first time, he leaned over the table towards her. "There's not going to be anymore of this travelling all over the countryside with that woman. You belong here, and here you will stay. That is my decision," he said loudly, thumping his finger on the table top.
Standing up, he glared down at the thunder-struck young woman still seated at the table. "You'll have tonight to say your good-byes to that warlord but I expect you to have moved back in here by tomorrow's nooning. And before you even think about arguing with me, I am still your father. The magistrate is more likely to listen to me than to some brutal warlord woman without a shred of decency to her name," he stated firmly. Turning on his heel, he left the room. Gabrielle heard the back door of the small building close as her father started out on his nightly chores of settling the animals.
If I thought it couldn't get any worst before, I was certainly wrong about that, she thought, trying to take it all in. What am I to do now? the bard questioned herself, looking from the gently understanding eyes of her mother to the self-satisfied expression on Lila's face.
Xena sat quietly at a back table in the common room of the tavern. She was in full 'Warrior Princess' mode simply to ensure she would be left alone. Glaring for a moment at some roughly dressed farmer who was eyeing her off from across the room, she turned her attention back to the tankard held in one hand. She had switched from her more usual port to the tavern's excellent ale. Allowing another long swallow to ease its way down her throat, she wondered how much longer Gabrielle was going to be with her family. Xena had missed the other woman's bright chatter over evemeal, realizing, once again, just how much she enjoyed watching Gabrielle delight in different tastes and flavors as she ate.
It was one of the quiet pleasures she now allowed herself to indulge in simply because she found it all but impossible to actually talk to the bard about a great many things any more. Part of her desperately wanted to trust the other woman again, yet the old warlord ways were hard to break. She had been betrayed, and though she had forgiven Gabrielle for her actions, something had changed between them and Xena was starting to doubt it could ever be repaired again. When Gabrielle had suggested coming to the harvest festival, Xena hoped it would help heal their damaged relationship if they could return to some happier memories, before Britannia, before Chin.
Glancing about the common room again, she saw the earlier crowd was starting to thin as the evening progressed. Most of those left were the more hardened drinkers or people out to enjoy the company of others for as long as possible before the long winter ahead forced them to remain indoors. It had been a fairly noisy, happy crowd early in the night as everyone reveled in the festival to come and the relaxation of finally getting the last of the harvest chores completed. Altogether, it was a scene Xena was more than familiar with after seeing it for many cycles in her own mother's tavern in Amphipolis.
Draining the last of the ale from her tankard, she considered whether she really wanted another drink, or whether retiring for the night would be the better option. The decision was made for the warrior as she spotted the quick flash of red-blonde hair on the other side of the room, headed for the stairs leading to the bedchambers above the tavern. Rising, she strode purposefully across the room, taking the stairs two at a time once she was out of the immediate view of the patrons below. It wouldn't do her reputation the least bit of good if she was seen hurrying after anyone.
By the time she pushed the door to their rented room open, Gabrielle was sitting on the side of the pallet, a totally miserable expression covering her face. The moment the bard heard Xena's light footfall at the entrance, the warrior saw how she attempted to clear her expression, putting a bright, obviously false smile in its place. "I take it things didn't go well with your family," Xena asked, gently.
"No. Everyone was fine. Mother was so pleased to see me and Father had a fair bit to say as well," Gabrielle replied, almost honestly. Yea, but it was what he said that was so upsetting, she thought. How can I tell Xena about any of that. She'd just go over there and beat the daylights out of him for even suggesting I get married again.
Gabrielle watched as Xena slowly lowered herself to sit beside the bard, still keeping a clear distance between their bodies. The bard sighed mentally. Will things ever get back to the way they were before? she wondered. I miss being able to touch her any time I want, and I miss being touched in return. I really, really miss being able to snuggle up to her at night most of all though. And now I only have one more night with her, she thought sadly. On the walk back to the tavern from her parents home, she had briefly considered going against her father's wishes, simply asking Xena to take her away from the village and a marriage she neither sought nor wanted. But the distance between them had not narrowed in the few moons since their trip to Illusia and Gabrielle was left wondering if it ever would. Perhaps it is time to return to the village? she questioned herself, trying to ignore the sudden pounding ache in her heart. Things between us aren't getting any better, not really. So maybe it is for the best that Father has organized another marriage for me.
"Um, Xena?" Gabrielle queried.
"Yea," Xena said, looking up from the loose stitch on her bracer she had been fiddling with.
"Father asked me to come and stay with the family during festival," she replied hurriedly, before her courage fled completely. "Mother isn't as strong as she used to be and harvest is always a hard time of the cycle for her. I know I made a big deal of staying here earlier today but Mother really looked like she could do with some extra help this cycle and there's more work there than Lila alone can cope with. It's only for a few days," she offered, her fingers twisting in the brightly colored fabric of her skirt.
"Sure. If that's what you want to do," Xena answered, evenly, keeping her expression as neutral as possible. I thought she might like to spend a bit of time with them once she saw her parents and sister again, Xena thought reasonably. It's not like I have any rights to question her anymore, not after what I did to her. A brief image of the bard's bloodied and bruised body being dragged along behind the horse she had 'borrowed' from the Amazons flashed across the warrior's mind before she shoved it ruthlessly to one side. "I can keep myself occupied here. It'll give me a chance to spend some time with Argo. Her hooves need a bit of attention and I can get those repairs done on the saddlebags I've been wanting," Xena said. Looking over at the other woman, she could see there was more going on for the blonde than just wanting to see her family, but the warrior chose not to question Gabrielle's wishes. She'd lost the right to do that the instant she gave in to her hate and fury.
Gabrielle simply nodded before slowly climbing to her feet. Walking over to the saddlebags, she rummage around in one of them until she found her sleep shift. Another change since their trip to Illusia. Before, neither woman had bothered with clothing at night simply because they usually slept naked together, the two women generating enough body heat to keep them warm on all but the very coldest of nights. Sleeping apart meant Gabrielle was feeling the increasingly cooler nights more than she had done in cycles. Sleeping on the inner circle of the fire helped but it didn't make up for the pleasant warmth nestling next to Xena usually produced. Turning her back modestly, Gabrielle quickly changed into her sleepwear before settling under the covers of the pallet.
Xena surreptitiously watched the other woman as she changed her clothes, appearing more concerned with the loose thread she had found on her left bracer. She still thought Gabrielle was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen but assumed her observations would receive a chilly reception, so Xena kept them to herself. Once the bard was tucked into bed, the warrior turned towards her. "I'm just going to check on Argo before coming to bed, Gabrielle," she said. "You might was well get some sleep. It's been a long day."
Gabrielle nodded a little sadly, pulling the covers up to her chin. Xena carefully extinguished all but one candle before silently closing the door behind her as she left. Hearing the warrior's steps moving away from the door, the bard propped herself up on one hand, gently stroking the other side of the wide pallet. She doesn't even like the idea of sleeping next to me anymore, she thought miserably. Maybe this marriage thing is the god's way of saying it is time to leave. Gabrielle didn't even try to stop the single, slow tear as it rolled down her cheek. I thought everything would be better after Illusia? she queried herself. I guess we can forgive each other but we just did too much damage to ever be able to trust like we did before. Another tear quickly followed the first.
Staring into the flame of the single candle burning on the end table; something she often found herself doing at night, Gabrielle wondered all over again what had happened between them. I thought we really loved each other. But Xena never initiates any kind of affection anymore, never teases me. Gods, she barely even shouts at me like she used to when I make some kind of a mistake, just gets that resigned look on her face as though I couldn't possibly do any worse. I thought she still cared. The bard remembered their little chat on the hillside before coming into the village that morning. She said she liked to watch me dance. I wonder if she was just saying that to make me feel better, she thought to herself.
The bard dropped her head back onto the pillow, her left hand still resting on the side of the pallet where Xena would by lying when she eventually came to bed, if she didn't decide to sleep in the stable with Argo instead. More tears were flowing and she had clenched her teeth to keep the forlorn sobbing in her throat so no one would hear them. How many nights she had cried herself to sleep she no longer remembered but the emotional ups and downs were getting to be too much for the gentle bard. The exhaustion of both her body and her heart soon dropped Gabrielle into a restless sleep but not before she decided staying in the village might be the only option open to her anymore. It was the only one her family considered acceptable.
Xena quietly entered the stables, after a slow walk through the yard outside. She had stopped part of the way across, simply to look at the stars and remember the many nights she and Gabrielle had lain side by side, making patterns with the tiny points of light in the sky. She sometimes teased the other woman for her imagination but it was that same imagination which made Gabrielle such a good bard. Xena missed hearing the stories the other woman would often tell around the campfire at night, something Gabrielle had not done in a considerable length of time.
Approaching Argo's stall, she clucked her tongue to let the honey-coated animal know she was there. "Hi ya, girl. All settled for the night, are you?" she asked, brushing one callused hand along the mare's neck as she entered the small enclosure. The horse gently lipped the shoulder plate of Xena's armor, glad to see her mistress again so soon. Still stroking the mare, Argo's head hanging over one shoulder, Xena said, "I'll take you to the blacksmith tomorrow to get you some new shoes. You'd like that, wouldn't you." Reaching into her belt pouch, the one Gabrielle had made for her over a cycle before, the warrior pulled a small carrot she had purloined from the kitchen earlier in the night from its depths and fed it to the horse. Listening to the contented crunching, Xena settled herself on a nearby haybale. "Looks like it's just going to be you and me for a few days, girl. Gabrielle wants to visit her family and is going to be staying with them," she said, quietly. "Might help her forget a few things if she can get away from me and relax a little. The last few moons have been incredibly hard on her," the warrior muttered to herself. "Not that things are any better now though."
The tall warrior sat quietly, recalling images of the better times they'd had together. Teaching the bard how to fish with her bare hands, the first time Gabrielle had said Xena was beautiful, regardless of being stoned out of her mind with henbane. She remembered the first time they had ever kissed, and that first gentle night of making love. There was all the times Xena had teased the other woman about being so hard to get up in the mornings and all the times the bard had teased her back about being a dumb' warrior. Now they were being so careful around each other that the teasing was almost non-existent. Xena's dancing quip that morning had been one of the first times she had dared do something like that. It had warmed a cold place in her soul when Gabrielle had chosen to snarl back at her a little. It showed the other woman was being less careful to be 'polite' nice all the time.
She sat staring off into the darkness, wondering how she could possibly fix the damage between them, if it could be repaired at all, that is. A small, unexpected noise on the other side of the stable wall, had Xena's senses suddenly singing with alertness. Climbing silently to her feet, she moved through the unlit stables, easing out of the still partly open doors. Poking her nose around the corner of the building, she was surprised to see Lila creeping along the wall, headed towards the back. Not calling any attention to her movements, Xena silently followed, slipping from one inky shadow to the next as though she was one herself. She watched as Lila moved around the back corner towards a couple of out-buildings the warrior knew to be there.
Xena wondered what Gabrielle's sister could possibly be doing sneaking about the stables so late at night. Deciding to indulge her curiosity, she quickly followed. By the time she had eased her way along the back wall, Lila had disappeared somewhere. Can't be too far away, Xena thought, sharpening her ears for any sounds of movement. To her left, in the shack where they stored the hay and grain, the warrior could just make out the soft sounds of two people talking together. Ho, ho, the warrior chuckled to herself. Looks like Gabrielle's sister has a secret lover. This oughta make for some interesting listening.
Soundlessly approaching the little out-building, Xena peered though a large crack in the boards. In the darkness, she could just make out Lila's back as she stood wrapped in someone's arms. The deep shadows covered the face and most of the body of the other person, masking their identity from the watching woman. Xena focused her ears, listening to the conversation between the two clandestine lovers.
"Thank all the gods you could make it," Lila whispered. "With all the people here for the festival, I thought you might not be able to get away."
"Father passed out hours ago," a moderately deep voice answered.
Xena wondered at that voice. It didn't sound quite deep enough for a full grown man, more like a younger one who was yet to reach their full growth. Or perhaps it was someone who had come into their manhood later than most. Judging from the little she could see for all the darkness in the building, whoever it was, still had some growing to do by the look of it. She could just make out the curve of a surprisingly broad shoulder barely coming to match that of Lila's. The hands sweeping gently up and down the woman's back appeared rather strong and well muscled. Xena decided it had to be a younger man who was yet to reach his full adult height but clearly did some type of heavy manual labor to be so well muscled at that age.
"Gabrielle's home," Lila commented.
"Hmmm, Father slurred something along those lines tonight after he got back room the tavern. Said he spotted that warrior woman she travels with," the voice said before muffling any further words with a long, passionate kiss.
By the time they came up for air again, Xena was feeling a little embarrassed at watching the intimate moment between the two. She was just starting to move away from the out-building when Lila spoke once more, the sharp tone in her voice stopping the warrior in her tracks.
"Well, Father has put a stop to that," she said. "Means we might be able to live together openly once she is safely married off and got a couple of kids hanging from her belt."
"Do you think she will accept."
"She doesn't have a choice. I'm just glad she came home when she did or it might be me getting married off to that brute, Tomisus," the woman answered, letting her own hands sweep over her lover's body sensuously.
"Can't have that, now can we. I just happen to think of you as mine and I ain't sharing you with that lout," the voice snapped.
Pulling her head back for a moment, Lila looked into the eyes of her lover. "Gabrielle should be used to that by now. I heard what Xena did to her a few moons back and Mother still can't believe that she insists on travelling with the brutal bitch. Tomisus is going to seem like a gift from the gods after what Xena has done to her. Actually, I'm surprised he is even willing to take her as a wife. Xena's probably ruined her for anything even vaguely 'normal'," Lila said.
"Do you really think Xena and Gabrielle are lovers?"
"I wouldn't put anything past that warlord. She probably forced herself on my sister and now Gabrielle is too scared to say anything," Lila replied.
"Gee, did I force myself on you?"
Lila laughed lightly, feeling lips making their way up her neck towards her sensitive ears. "If you did, it was the most willing rape of the cycle," she answered, a sultry stream of desire coloring her words.
Xena forced herself away from the crack in the wall, as the two lovers moved deeper into the shadows, the sounds coming from the darkness making it obvious what they were doing. The warrior almost staggered back to the tavern, thunderstruck by what she had overheard. An arranged marriage for her bard? It was too much for Xena to take in. A little voice of doubt niggled at her conscience. It was not like she was able to offer the other woman very much any more. The careful way they treated each other, the politeness, the way neither was sure about touching the other, even the total lack of a sex life all said that whatever they once had was now long gone, destroyed by all the lies and betrayals they had heaped on each other. Perhaps marrying someone from the village was the best thing for the bard, after all. Yet the aching of Xena's heart told her she was not quite prepared to let the other woman go, no matter what her more pragmatic side told her.
The warrior carefully closed the door behind her, not wanting to disturb the bard as she slept. Xena had stood outside that door for a long, long time, one hand on the catch, the other palm flat against the boards. She could barely bring herself to enter the room, not wanting to see the possible rejection in the other woman's eyes if she was still awake. So that's what was upsetting her when she got back from her parents, she had thought as she leaned her forehead against the rough wood. She didn't want me to get angry when I saw how pleased she was to finally have a legitimate reason to stay here. I wonder why she didn't just pack up and go tonight? the warrior questioned.
The appearance of one of the tavern's staff forced her to open the door to her shared room before someone thought she was waiting to commit a robbery. Stepping silently through the room, Xena gazed down on the beautiful, young woman in the bed as she tossed and turned in a restless sleep. This really is upsetting her, Xena thought to herself. I guess I can try to make it a bit easier for her tomorrow. By the subtle light of the single candle burning at the end of the bed, Xena could see the tear stains tracked down Gabrielle's face as she had cried herself to sleep. You'd think she would be happy to be going at last, the warrior thought. Why is she crying herself to sleep?
Xena knew Gabrielle often wept as she dozed off each night. You couldn't sleep that close to someone and not know. The warrior put it down to the bard's grieving for the loss of her daughter, as Xena sometimes mourned the loss of her own son, or the events in Britannia. On those rare occasions when the weeping was too much for Xena to take any more, she would make the emotional effort to wrap her arms about the other woman, only to have the crying intensify. It certainly didn't encourage her to do it too often. But the bard always did seem more settled the next day.
Easing her way out of her armor, Xena stood for several heartbeats wondering if she should change into her sleep shift as she usually did, or whether to sleep naked as they so often had before everything had gone so wrong between them. Deciding that if this was to be the last night they would ever spend together, regardless of how much Gabrielle might want to be away from the tall warrior, Xena felt she couldn't let the opportunity pass. Stripping her leathers, boots and underclothing quickly, she climbed onto the pallet next to the unsettled woman. Not touching Gabrielle, Xena simply lay next to her, eyes closed, allowing the movements and sensations to engrave themselves onto her mind. A single tear crawled down her cheek as she thought, I'm really going to miss this.
Xena's eyes opened a little groggily in the darkness. Her body senses were not screaming danger to her, so something else had woken her from a sound sleep. The noise that had brought her consciousness to the surface whispered through the blackness again. Beside her, Gabrielle twitched in some nightmare, a low whimpering echoing a little around the silent room. Rolling onto her side, she reached over to gently shake the other woman into wakefulness.
"No. No. Please, not again," Gabrielle begged fearfully before Xena's hand even touched her. "Not again. I can't go through it again."
Xena made a sudden decision and instead of simply shaking Gabrielle awake, she eased one long arm under the woman and scooped her into a tight embrace. Shuffling over onto her back, she intertwined her legs with the bard's trying to have as much contact between their bodies as possible. Gabrielle often had nightmares now but being in separate bedrolls made holding the bard something of a difficult proposition. At least tonight, Xena could offer some solace from whatever night horrors were tormenting the other woman.
Somewhere, in the depths of Gabrielle's terror, the nightmare shattered. The bard didn't wake, the arms around her very familiar and comforting. Allowing herself to relax into them, she drifted off into a calmer slumber. She draped herself limply over the tall warrior as though it was exactly where she was supposed to be before quietly muttering in her sleep, "Love you, Xena."
The tall warrior was surprised to hear those words spoken but decided it was merely a reaction to the nightmare Gabrielle had just endured. No wishing to disturb the now peacefully sleeping woman, Xena kept her arms wrapped about Gabrielle's body, allowing herself to enjoy the sensation one last time. Falling into Morpheus's arms herself, she mumbled, "Love you too, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle's eyes opened slowly, only partly aware she had even woken. The first dim light of predawn was brightening the edge of the window sill, telling the bard it was still way too early to be awake. It was only then that the rest of her mind caught up with her and she realized where she was. Lifting her head a fraction, she was greeted with the sight of Xena's nipple not a fingerlength from the end of her nose, the top of it just brushed with the first golden light of morning. For one all too brief heartbeat, Gabrielle was tempted to reach over and kiss it, as she had done so many mornings before. Sighing mentally, she knew to do that now would just be asking for trouble.
Aside from the fact there was little casual affection between the pair anymore, Gabrielle was still plagued by the memories of the brutal, unseen rape she had survived while in Britannia. It had taken her close to a full moon to stop scrubbing herself almost bloody whenever she bathed, which had been far more often than she usually did. Not to mention the revulsion she still felt when her monthly cycles visited. Being forced to touch that area of her body when she cleaned herself after changing the softened rabbit skin straps they used during that time, usually left her shuddering and uneasy for some candlemarks afterwards. It made any thoughts of physical pleasure close to intolerable.
Gabrielle also felt, in some strange way, that her attentions would probably be rebuffed anyway. Xena did not initiate any contact between them and seemed to just barely tolerate it when the bard did. To be woken so early in the morning by an unwelcomed kiss on her breast would probably put Xena in a right royal mood for the rest of the day. She wanted their last few candlemarks together to at least be reasonable.
As the bard slowly woke, she became aware of other things around her, like Xena's arms for example. Gabrielle had no memory of how she had gotten into Xena's embrace in the first place but was counting it as a blessing anyway. Relaxing, she allowed herself to enjoy the feeling of those two strong arms around her. Arms in which she had once felt no harm could come to her. She now knew differently but she still found a lot of gentle pleasure in simply being held so tenderly. I probably crawled into her arms by mistake during the night, knowing it was our last evening together, and Xena was just too honorable to toss me over to the other side of the bed like I deserve, Gabrielle thought. The bard was also aware of Xena's well muscled legs twined around her own like two mating snakes. Even that felt good to the blonde after being parted for so long. And after today, I'll never feel it again, she realized sadly. I'm going to miss this.
Dropping her head back onto Xena's chest, she listened to the strong, even beat under her ear, letting it soothe her back into sleep. Gabrielle knew she should have moved while the warrior still slept but past experience had taught the bard just how sensitive the taller woman was to her movements, so rather than wake Xena, Gabrielle simply let sleep overtake her again. Yea, I'm really going to miss this, she thought.
When the bard opened her eyes the next time, the sun was well over the horizon and she could hear the sounds of the market below increasing in noise, as people from leagues around Poteidaia came to buy, sell and trade their produce. This time, instead of feeling the muscular softness of Xena's relaxed and sleeping body under her own, Gabrielle could feel the faint scratchiness of the linen sheets. Turning onto her side, she saw the warrior's leathers and armor was not on the table where Xena would have put them the night before. "Must have been gone a while," Gabrielle muttered, feeling the coolness of the other side of the pallet with one hand. "I was really asleep if she was able to sneak out from under me like that," she giggled. To be honest, it didn't surprise her how easily the other woman had gotten out of bed. The warrior just had a way of gently moving that was so familiar and known to the bard, she would continue to sleep because some part of her always knew it was Xena.
Sitting up, she spotted a covered tray on the table at the end of the bed. The two travelers didn't get to stay in taverns or inns very often but whenever they did, Xena usually made a practice of getting a breakfast tray for the bard. It was one of the little acts of kindness the warrior habitually performed, never saying anything about it, just simply doing it. Gabrielle always made a point of thanking the tall woman for the tray, even though Xena usually brushed it off, embarrassed.
Shuffling forward in the bed, Gabrielle slipped the tray from the table, pulling it onto her lap. "Breakfast in bed. How incredibly decadent of me," she mumbled, lifting the bright cloth. For the moment, she was allowing herself to believe nothing had changed between them and today was not the last time they would be together. Xena knew the other woman well because nearly everything on the tray was a personal favorite of the bard's. The smell of freshly baked nutbread was the first thing to tantalize her senses, closely followed by a sweet porridge which the bard could see was almost buried in dried fruits and nuts. There was fresh apple juice, tart and refreshing as well as new bread, still a little warm from the oven with a pottery bowl of honey butter to spread on it.
"Damn. You really don't make it easy, do you," Gabrielle grumbled. Usually, on other breakfast trays, she was lucky to get whatever was going when Xena went downstairs. "She must have rousted the cooks out of bed a candlemark early to prepare all this for me." Not that is was going to stop her from enjoying every bite of the meal laid out before her. Spreading the honey-butter thickly on a slice of the bread, she took a huge bite, savoring the sweet taste as it rushed over her tastebuds. Alternating between the bread and spoonfuls of the porridge, the bard rapidly demolished everything on the tray, washing the last of the nutbread down with the apple juice.
Belching contentedly behind one hand as she settled back against the headboard of the bed, she wondered how long it would be before Xena made an appearance. The warrior usually managed to show up just as Gabrielle would finish breakfast and was thinking about getting ready to face the day ahead. Only today was not like other days for the bard. Today she would be moving back into her parents house in preparation for a marriage she didn't really want but figured was her only option now things between her and Xena had gone so completely wrong. Suddenly, Gabrielle's good mood evaporated. Climbing slowly from the pallet, she wearily dressed in the clothing she had bought the day before, once again feeling restricted by all that fabric.
She slowly began to go through the saddlebags, searching for her things and piling them haphazardly into her own bag. No matter how she tried, she couldn't stop the tears from falling and after a while, she no longer cared.
Xena glanced back over her shoulder towards the tavern. She had been wandering around the markets for some time now, having taken Argo to the blacksmith's for new shoes. She chose to ignore the odd hostile stare and occasional muttered comment but she had been privately amazed that almost everyone in the markets seemed to know some, usually erroneous, version of the story about what she had done at the Amazon village. She assumed Joxer must have said something to someone, and word had rapidly spread from there. Xena couldn't blame him for that. Any rumors, good or bad, about her were likely to spread with the speed of a forest fire, especially the bad ones. People seemed to delight in gossiping and someone like her always made good scandal fodder.
She had heard one version of the story already from some trader who didn't immediately recognize her. He had been regaling her with the horrors of the tale as she had looked over his selection of small weapons. The trader managing to exaggerate the length of the drag to almost a full league, the number horses had mysteriously grown to six and she, herself, was supposed to have beaten the bard into a bloody pulp before attempting to throw her from the top of Mount Olympus. Gabrielle had been cast as the courageous, home-town hero, somehow escaping the clutches of the evil warlord, even though she had more broken bones and open wounds than most fighters saw in a lifetime of battles.
Xena had taken no small amount of enjoyment when someone helpfully pointed out exactly who she was to the trader, once she had safely left his stall. The blanching of his face could clearly be seen from some distance away and Xena had almost stopped his heart by winking saucily at him before ducking behind another booth. I shouldn't have done that, she thought. Gabrielle would have yelled at me for being so mean. Just thinking about the other woman cause the warrior to turn her eyes towards the tavern again.
Wonder if she is up yet, she thought. She was pretty restless last night before I came to bed. Xena found herself smiling at the thought of Gabrielle's expression when she finally woke and found the breakfast tray Xena had 'arranged' for her. It had meant getting the cook out of his bed to make some of it but the warrior had given him an extra dinar for his trouble. She also remembered the look of apprehension on his face as she had stood over him, wanting to make sure everything was just right for the bard's breakfast. Xena sighed deeply. It was hard to organize surprises for the other woman sometimes, especially in a place where the warrior was so obviously disliked. But because it was for Gabrielle, she was willing to put up with the unfriendly looks and fearful expressions.
Organizing a breakfast tray for the bard was something Xena really did enjoy doing but if today was going to be the last time she got the chance to do it, then she was going to make sure everything on it was Gabrielle's favorite. Xena had spent the best part of a quarter candlemark just looking at the blonde woman as she slept before forcing herself to leave the room and get on with the few errands she had set for herself. Focusing her mind on those and nothing else, she had managed to forget, for a little while at least, after that morning, she would be alone again. The being alone part didn't worry her so much. It was the being disliked by Gabrielle that caused her heart to ache.
Hesitating at the entranceway of the tavern, she wondered if Gabrielle would even tolerate her presence this morning. The bard's mind was doubtless focused on her up-coming nuptials and would probably see Xena as an intrusion. The tall, dark-haired warrior had already decided she didn't want to be at the ceremony this time. Seeing the bard married to Perdicus had been hard enough, they had still been friends back then. For all the battles she had faced in the past, she couldn't bring herself to be in the same room as the bard when she married again. Xena knew her courage would simply fail her and she might end up on her knees begging for the other woman's love. Shaking the image from her mind, and the following one of the blonde rejecting her impassioned pleas, Xena strode into the tavern and headed upstairs to say her silent good-byes to the one person who truly meant anything to her.
Gabrielle had said nothing about the impending marriage, probably hoping to spare the warrior's feelings, so Xena decided not to say anything either. If the bard wanted to continue the charade of it being nothing more than a simple visit to her family's for a few days, then Xena was going to make it as easy as possible for her. Resting her hand on the railing of the stairs for a moment, the warrior forced a small smile onto her face, hoping she could hold it there until the bard finally left. She wasn't sure what she was going to do after that.
At the sound of the catch on the door moving, Gabrielle managed to paste a wan smile on her face, sweeping the evidence of her tears from her cheeks with the bit of cloth she held in one hand. She had finished the last of her packing some time before and was now simply sitting on the side of the pallet, hoping Xena would return before she had to leave. The bard knew she couldn't tell the touchy warrior about all the up-coming wedding nonsense but she did want an opportunity to say her final good-byes before being forced into married life.
"All ready to go, then?" Xena asked casually, noting the lumpiness of Gabrielle's bag on the floor. Must have packed everything she owns, by the looks of it, the warrior thought.
"Yea, I think I have everything I want. Mother has fitted out the old guest room pretty well, from what she said last night," the bard lied. She hadn't even looked in there, to be honest, when she had visited the night before but knowing her Mother's desire to have the blonde stay with them, Hecuba probably tried to make sure everything Gabrielle could possibly want was there.
"Mother's can be like that sometimes," Xena commented, quietly.
"Ummm, Xena?" Gabrielle started. How to broach the subject of getting Xena out of Poteidaia and away from the wedding? the bard wondered. If I can get her to come back again well after I have gone to Tomisus's holding, she may never find me. Then she might get on with her life without me. That thought caused a painful contraction of the bard's chest. "I thought I might stay on for a little while after the festival. Mother could do with the extra help and I really would like to visit some of my friends here. It might be cycles before I can get back this way again," she said, trying to sound convincing.
"Whatever you want, Gabrielle. I can visit my mother for a few days, maybe catch up with Toris. I'll organize to go once Argo's hooves have been taken care of. That stable where we had her billeted didn't take very good care of her in that respect. I might be stuck here for a couple of days," Xena replied.
"Sounds like a plan to me," the bard mumbled. She can hardly wait to get away, Gabrielle thought sadly. It's just that Argo needs some attention which is holding her here. "Anyway, I had better get going, Xena. Mother wanted me back in time for nooning and it is almost that now. You know what they can be like if you're late for a meal."
Standing up from the pallet, Gabrielle hesitated for several moments before throwing her arms around Xena's neck in a strong embrace. She was surprised to feel the strength of the hug returned in equal measure, and the whispered words 'I'll miss you', just as she finally forced herself to break away. Gabrielle quickly picked up her heavy bag and exited the room before the tears filling her eyes overflowed and gave her away completely. Closing the door behind her, the bard almost ran through the hallway and down the stairs. She barely reached the relative privacy of a small alley on one side of the market square before those threatening tears erupted in a storm of weeping and sobs.
Xena watched Gabrielle's progress across the markets from the window of the room they had shared. Couldn't get away fast enough, she sighed to herself seeing the way the bard dodged through the crowds, disappearing into a small alley on one side. Guess it is for the best. I can't offer her anything anymore. Lowering herself to the pallet, she dropped her head into her hands, not at all surprised to feel hot tears flowing down her cheeks. In the privacy of the little room, she allowed herself the luxury of grieving for a lost love. Whatever else may have been destroyed between them, the bard still carried a large piece of Xena's heart in her gentle soul.
"And this is where you'll be staying until your wedding," Hecuba said, opening the door to the guest room with a flourish. "I tried to think what you might need when you're scribing your tales and then made sure it was here," she said entering the room.
"It's beautiful, Mother," Gabrielle replied, trying to force a little enthusiasm into her voice. The newly renovated guest room was beautiful but the bard wasn't really in the mood to appreciate it. Brightly colored hangings covered most of the walls and between them, the bard could see the fresh liming her mother had done. A single pallet was pushed up against one wall, with a large clothing chest at its foot. A small bureau of drawers was against the opposite wall, a wash basin, jug and cloth on top. Under the widely open window was a brand new desk, sleek and gleaming in the noonday light. Gabrielle couldn't help herself as she drifted over to run her fingers gently across its oiled surface. "Father?" she queried.
"Yes, your father did make that one. I always thought he had a real feel for wood but there just wasn't a lot of money to be made with such fine furniture, and he did have a wife and child to feed and care for. Pity. I think he might have been happier if he had been allowed to follow his heart," Hecuba observed a little sadly.
"It's gorgeous" Gabrielle commented genuinely, running her hands over the finely polished wood, pulling out the cunning little drawers her father had built underneath. Along the top edge Herodotus had drilled several holes suitable for holding Gabrielle's little pots of ink, as well as an ingenious lid arrangement for her quills. With the lid closed, it fitted flush with the desk but once it was open, a little shelf dropped down from the lid itself. Small holes the right size for her quills had been made along the length of the shelf, so she could have a selection in front of her as she worked. "This must have taken him all season to make," Gabrielle breathed out in appreciation of the sheer level of workmanship that had gone into making the piece. She was sure her father hadn't used a single nail in its entire construction. In the bard's eyes, it was more than just a simple desk, it was a work of art.
"He really is quite proud of you being a bard, Gabrielle. This is just his way of showing it," Hecuba replied, gently wrapping one arm about the younger woman's waist. She could see her daughter was upset by the ending of her travels on the road but there seemed to be more to the bard's morose expression than there first appeared.
"He's never actually heard me recite a story, Mother," the bard observed.
"Your father doesn't have to, dear. He knows you're good," Hecuba replied, proudly. "It may not have been what we planned for you but we all have our own special gift, yours just happened to be telling tales, just as he is gifted with wood," the older woman replied. "Now why don't you unpack your things and then we can have nooning. Looks like it'll just be us today. Your father is still working in the fields and Lila is taking her meal with some friend of hers," the woman said busily as she left the room.
"I'll be out shortly, Mother," the bard said, sadness once again tingeing her voice. She heard her mother walking down the short hallway towards the kitchen where they usually took their nooning meal. Turning, she dropped her bag onto the bed before dropping dispiritedly on the pallet herself. Looking around the room, she wondered if she would ever be rid of the ache in her chest. No matter how bad things had grown between Xena and herself, she couldn't deny how much she was missing the tall warrior at that moment.
Hecuba watched as Gabrielle picked at her nooning, barely putting enough into her mouth to keep a small bird alive. Hmmm, definitely more going on with her than just coming home again, the older woman though as the bard moved things around on her plate. "So, tell me, Gabrielle. What have you and Xena been doing for the past season or so? It's been ages since we received a scroll from you," she asked.
The bard looked up into the eyes of her mother, eyes that were almost the same exact color as her own. "Sorry about that, Mother. We were first in Britannia and later on, in Chin. There just wasn't any way to get a scroll to anyone here," she explained.
"Well, we did hear a few rumors but not a great deal else. Now that I have you here, I might as well get it all straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak," the older woman smiled at her daughter.
The bard wearily dropped her eyes to the still full plate in front of her. "There's not a lot I can tell you. Father has made it clear I am not to talk about Xena here and I have to respect his wishes so long as I am under his roof," Gabrielle said sadly, not really wanting to discuss the tall warrior anyway because it simply hurt too much to even think about her, or accept the fact she would never see those impossibly blue eyes looking back at her again.
Hecuba had caught the sound of the bard's voice catching slightly at the mention of Xena name and she was certain it had nothing to do with Herodotus's wishes. "Well, your father isn't here now and while he is away, I want to hear all about your adventures," she stated firmly. "Now, you mentioned a trip to Britannia. I'd love to hear about that one first," Hecuba said gently, leaning forward on her elbows so she wouldn't miss a single word her daughter spoke. The older woman adored receiving the scrolls her eldest child often sent but it was going to be a real treat to hear the tales for the first time from the very person who had lived the adventure, and more importantly, Gabrielle was a very good teller of stories too.
"It all started when we came across some people all chained together," Gabrielle began.
By the time the bard had finished telling her mother about their journey to that far off land even Hecuba's untrained ear had heard the sudden changes and evasions in Gabrielle's story. The older woman quickly realized she had been given an extremely edited version of the tale, and it had been lacking in all of Gabrielle's usual story-telling flourishes. After hearing the bard's account of their trip to Chin, Hecuba herself could have repeated that particular tale in a single sentence. 'We went there and then came home.' Which was about all the information the younger woman had given. Every time Gabrielle had said Xena's name, a strange, sad light filled her eyes and Hecuba could see the slight tightening of the muscles along the side of her daughters jaw as she attempted to hold some emotion in place. A mother doesn't raise two daughters and not learn how to read the things they didn't want to tell.
Piling their dishes and mugs into the washing basin, Hecuba turned to face her daughter, still sitting miserably at the table. Making a sudden decision of her own, she said, "Why don't you take care of these for me, while I go to the markets. I hear the first of the walnuts are due to arrive today and I really would like to get some for the festival feast."
"Yes, Mother," the bard replied obediently, obviously lost to whatever emotions had control of her at the moment. Walking towards the door, the bard picked up the small bucket her mother used to draw water from the well behind the house.
Watching the slumped back of her daughter as she left, the older woman muttered, "Under my nose all those cycles and I didn't even see it. The only way to be sure though, is to ask. So, I'll ask." Draping a bright head-kerchief over her hair, Gabrielle's mother gathered her small coin pouch and shopping basket. Slipping it over one arm, she left her house headed for the markets.
Hecuba stood for several moments outside the tavern, hesitant to actually cross the threshold. For all her cycles in the village, she had rarely been to the tavern simply because Herodotus did not approve of the place. Even now, she could still remember the merry nights she had spent in the cozy, little tavern in her home village. All of that had changed however, the day she had married Gabrielle's father. Reminding herself she was here for reasons other than sheer enjoyment, she squared her shoulders and stepped through the beckoning door.
The nooning crowd had long thinned out until just a few patrons were left sitting at various tables around the well lit room, most people saving themselves for the heavy drinking to be done over the course of the festival itself. Over by the bar, the owner of the tavern casually wiped down its scarred wooden surface with a damp cloth. Spotting Hecuba standing a little uncertainly in the doorway, he gestured her over.
"Well hello, Hecuba. Not often I see you in my establishment," Janthious said happily. Harvest time always put him in a good mood and it wasn't the sudden increases in his profits that accounted for his constantly widening smile. There was all that new ale to taste before he would dare serve so much as a mugful to a paying customer, or at least, that is what he liked to tell himself. "What can I do for you on festival eve? A bottle of my best ale perhaps. A little something to help that square britches of a husband you have relax maybe?" he asked.
"Oh, stop that, you evil man. You know how Herodotus hates to be teased," Hecuba grinned back at the barkeep. Although Herodotus was well respected in the village, his views on alcohol and 'fun' in general were equally well known, making him something of a standing joke at times. Gabrielle's mother made her share of good natured remarks at her husband's expense but if the jokes became serious, then whoever started them had better watch out. Hecuba could have quite a savage tongue on her when she needed it.
"Hmm, if you haven't come to drink, and Herodotus didn't send you over to have a little fun, what can I do to help you?" Janthious asked, sweeping one arm before him in an elaborate bow. There was nothing he wouldn't do for this woman, her sweet nature and gentle assistance had lightened many a long night for him after his wife had died two cycles before.
"Is the warrior woman, Xena, still here?" she queried, placing her very full basket on Janthious's clean bartop.
"Saw her go upstairs just before nooning. Can't say I have seen her go back outside again since but I have been popping back and forth most of the time. She really annoyed one of the cooks this morning," he replied. "I've been trying to calm him down all day."
Hecuba's raised eyebrow silently queried what the warrior had done to annoy the old cook who worked for Janthious.
The bar-owner was more than happy to tell his little tale. "Seems that warlord dragged him from his warm bed just on dawn to make up a breakfast tray, of all things, for your Gabrielle," he explained. "To hear the cook tell it, she loomed over him in the predawn darkness like some monster out of a nightmare when she got him up and then hovered around the kitchen like an annoying insect the entire time he was trying to make up the tray. You and I both know how he hates having anyone in his kitchen at the best of times but first thing in the morning is a bit much, even if she is suppose to be some fearsome warlord."
Hecuba actually laughed aloud. "Sounds like the Xena Gabrielle has described to me in her scrolls," she said merrily. "Always doing some little thing for her."
"Yea, we all heard what 'little thing' that woman did to your Gabrielle," Janthious snorted angrily. "If I wasn't so terrified of her myself, I would never have rented her that room but I knew she had the little bard with her and I wanted to do something nice for Gabrielle, even if it did mean being nice to that woman as well."
Janthious watched as a stubborn and fiery light ignited in blue-green of Hecuba's eyes. He didn't know what he had said wrong but he knew that look like he knew the lines on his own face. Somehow, he had just dropped himself into the privy.
"Tell me, Barkeep. Just how far is Xena supposed to have dragged Gabrielle?" she asked, coldly.
The tavern owner had just that very morning heard the latest version of the story from a 'reliable' witness but he quickly halved the figures he had been given. "I think it was about five leagues," he replied.
Hecuba snorted. "And how many horses?"
"A full team of eight."
"And just how badly beaten was she supposed to have been?" Hecuba snapped.
"Ummm, every bone was broken from the story I got," Janthious answered quietly, starting to feel very, very small.
"And finally, when was this all supposed to have happened?" the older woman asked, the tone in her voice sharp enough to cut through a metal shield.
Janthious scratched his head for a moment before answering. "Three, maybe four moons ago."
"Have you seen Gabrielle since her arrival in the village?" Hecuba asked, none too gently.
"Uh huh. Last night, and again this morning as she left here," the man answered.
Gabrielle's mother homed in for the kill. "Did she look like someone who had been dragged through the countryside for five leagues, by a full team of eight horses and then had every bone in her body broken in a savage beating just three or four moons past?" Hecuba stood with her arms crossed tightly across her chest as she waited for Janthious's reply to her question.
"Umm, no. Both times I've seen her, she looked fine. Tanned, healthy and a lot stronger than the last time she was here," the tavern owner had to admit shamefully. Gathering his own arguments, he tried to save a little face with the feisty woman. "Come on, you have to own up to the way you reacted when you first heard about what happened," he said. "If I remember correctly, you were all ready to go after Xena yourself and drag her in for justice, behind the back of one of your own horses if need be."
"I over-reacted after hearing a rumor," she stated firmly, not giving an inch. "And that is all it was at the time, a rumor," Hecuba continued, pinning the man in place with one sharply focused eye. "I did not raise fools for daughters, and if such an event actually took place, do you honestly think Gabrielle would have continued to travel with Xena?"
"When you put it that way," Janthious said, pushing one work roughened hand through his hair ruefully. How do I get myself into these situations? he thought to himself.
"Exactly," the older woman nodded, satisfied with her logic. "Now look after my basket while I go upstairs to have a chat with this all too fearsome warrior. If Xena has been around my daughter all this time, she will have gentled out a great deal compared to all the nonsense we heard about her in the beginning. Which room is she in?"
"First door on the right. The warrior asked for a view of the markets. Said Gabrielle would like to watch all the movement." Janthious replied, pointing up the stairs to the bedchambers above. He was just relieved to be out of the immediate line of fire for the moment. The warrior didn't stand a chance against someone as determined as Hecuba if she wanted to get to the bottom of some of the rumors they had all heard.
Turning abruptly on one heel, Gabrielle's mother swept out of the common room and up the stairs with all the grandeur and haughtiness of a visiting foreign queen.
Xena lay curled up on the bed, one pillow clutched tightly to her chest. Everything she had heard and felt since the night before had finally come crashing in on her now that it was certain Gabrielle was never going to return. The warrior had managed to lock nearly all her emotional reactions behind the solid wall of her own will but with the sinking realization Gabrielle had decided to stay in the village and get married again, Xena's usually indomitable will had crumbled completely. Until the moment the bard had actually left the room, Xena was still hoping it was all some kind of sick joke put upon her by the gods.
Once she realized it had all really happened, Gabrielle had really left her for good, she had buried her face into one of the pillows to muffle her heart-broken sobbing, allowing herself to grieve as she rarely did. For a little while, in the safety of that small room, behind the privacy of a closed and locked door, Xena was more vulnerable than she had ever been in her life.
The storm of weeping had eventually passed, leaving the warrior drained and exhausted on the bed. Feeling no desire whatsoever to get up, she had continued to lie there as the sun moved slowly across the sky and the noise outside had waxed and waned with the passing of the day. Now deep into the mid-afternoon, she still felt no inclination to move from the pallet, content to simply lie there, her mind, for the moment, blank to all thought.
A brief, sharp knocking at the door quickly brought her senses back into focus. Not wishing to see anyone at all, she stumbled to her feet, and viciously threw the door open once she had reached it. The last person she expected to see was Gabrielle's mother standing in the open doorway, though a part of her had hoped, unreasonably perhaps, that it was Gabrielle returning to her.
"Mind if I come in?" Hecuba asked, already halfway across the threshold.
Xena simply nodded dully, permitting Gabrielle's mother to enter the room. Closing the door quietly behind the older woman, she turned to see what Hecuba wanted of her.
Running a well practiced, mother's eye over the tall warrior standing slouched near the door, Hecuba did not like what she saw one bit. Aside from the uncharacteristic slump in Xena's shoulders, there were a pair of very red and bloodshot eyes looking warily back at her. The tear stains on her cheeks stood out strongly in the slanted afternoon light. That same light doing little to hide the paleness of Xena's face. Glancing around the room for a moment, Hecuba spotted the rumpled cover of the bed and the pillow, a suspicious damp patch uppermost, tossed to one side. Adding it all together, it took her less than a heartbeat to know exactly what had been going on in there all afternoon.
"Sit down, child. I'm not here to yell at you," Hecuba said gently, taking a seat herself at the small table near the window.
Xena hesitated for a moment before slowly taking the chair opposite. The warrior's face had settled into the same disdainful mask she usually wore but there was little she could do to hide the evidence of her weeping in those reddened eyes.
Gabrielle's mother looked deeply into those ice blue eyes and saw a great deal more than Xena probably realized. But then again, Hecuba was used to dealing with her own daughters who did not always want to admit they were hurting inside. "Hold on a moment," the older woman said and quickly got to her feet again. Walking over to the small table where the wash basin was placed, she poured a little water into it from the jug, damping a cloth. Returning to Xena's side, she gently took the warrior's chin in one hand. Feeling the tall woman resisting, she said, "Indulge an old mother, will you."
Xena sighed but did not resist again as Gabrielle's mother very gently wiped away the tear stains, tenderly smoothing the warrior's dark bangs over her forehead. Tucking one long lock behind the other woman's ear, Hecuba returned the cloth to the basin and sat down once more, the older woman's caring gestures having managed to totally disarm the usually suspicious warrior.
"What can I do for you, Hecuba?" Xena finally asked, when she realized the older woman was patiently waiting for her to speak.
"I came to have a chat with you," she replied, her tone as non-threatening as she could possibly make it.
"I don't feel much like talking right now," Xena said, dropping her eyes to the tabletop, appearing suddenly fascinated with the swirls of the wooden surface.
Work roughen fingers eased under the tall warrior chin and nudge her head up until she was forced to look into those blue-green eyes so like the bard's. "Well, I very much want you to talk to me," Hecuba said. "I want you to be truthful and honest with me, and answer my questions as best you can."
"And why should I do all that?" Xena asked, her suspicions raised again.
"Because I may be the best hope you have of getting Gabrielle back," was the simple reply.
Hecuba couldn't help smiling at the expression on Xena's face after her statement. The warrior looked for all the world like someone had slammed a large wooden plank against the back of her head. Taking one of Xena's hands in her own smaller palms, noting the roughness of the sword calluses as she did so, she waited for the warrior to get over her shock.
For Xena, once the meaning of the words had sunk in, a dawning hope blossomed in her soul. A hope she just as quickly quashed. "Gabrielle has made her choice," the warrior said flatly.
"Some choice. An arranged marriage. When will we ever get over this silly idea that the parents always know what is best for their children," Hecuba snorted by way of reply. "But we can get to that. To help you, I need to understand what has been happening over the past couple of seasons. We haven't gotten a lot of news here of late, other than a few rumors."
"Surely Gabrielle told you about what we've been doing?" Xena asked, wondering what the bard had actually gotten around to telling her family. If it had been the entire truth, then she was surprised the magistrate was not outside her door baying for her blood, along with the rest of the village.
"Gabrielle gave me an extremely edited, possibly not quite truthful version of a few of the events but like every story, there is always the other side to hear. I want to hear your side of the story, Xena. And this time I want to know all the details. No sparing of an old woman's feelings, please. Now, start with Britannia, then tell me about Chin and after that, you can fill me in on what really happened at the Amazon village," Hecuba replied.
"Oh gods, you're not asking much, are you," Xena said ruefully. "I have no idea where to start. Gabrielle has always been the story-teller, not me."
"You can begin with, 'It all started when we came across some people all chained together.' And then go from there," Hecuba offered helpfully, having no intention of letting the warrior escape.
Glancing down at the hands still holding her own, she took a deep breath and began to recite what had happened to the two travelers over the past couple of seasons. "It all started when we came across some people all chained together," Xena said, lifting her eyes to look into the understanding kindness of Gabrielle's mother's.
Hecuba listened carefully as the tale slowly unwound. It was not any easy story for the older woman to hear, the details often messy or violent or outright shocking. Gabrielle's mother kept her own reactions to herself as much as possible, gently encouraging the warrior to continue every time she stopped at some particularly painful point in her story. Comparing the tale Xena was telling against the one Gabrielle had told earlier, Hecuba soon realized, the bard had been honest in her accounting, she had simply left out most of the important details. Simple things like the rape, her pregnancy, the birth of the demon spawn, Xena's forcing of a choice between the baby and herself, and almost everything that had happened in Chin. Hecuba could see the way lies and betrayals had taken place on both sides, amazed they had somehow managed to stay together at all. Told in the warrior's characteristically dispassionate way, a lot of the horror was eased for Gabrielle's mother but her heart still ached for the two women who had both lost their children, and each other over the past few seasons.
The story slowly moved into what had happened at the Amazon village, Xena taking full responsibility for her actions that day. The tall warrior simply refused to allow the bard to take any of the blame for what had occurred. She had reached the point where Gabrielle had screamed her hatred and rage at the other woman and somehow pushed them both off the cliff and into the waters below.
"Then what happened?" Hecuba asked, her need to know burning through her.
"You're never going to believe it. I can barely believe it myself," Xena replied.
"Try me, warrior," the woman challenged. "I am an old woman. Seen a few things in my time."
Xena shrugged her shoulders and started to explain their trip to Illusia and all that had taken place there. By the time her story had finally come to a close, the warrior was exhausted.
"So the rumors we have been hearing about the events at the Amazon village are mostly untrue," Hecuba observed almost to herself. "I suppose you've been hearing them too?" she asked, looking up.
Xena nodded. "I've heard a version or two in the markets today."
"And it doesn't bother you?"
"The opinions of other people rarely bother me. I've got such a dark past that I developed a thick skin for those kinds of opinions a long time ago. If I let every exaggerated story get to me, I would have fallen on my own sword three cycles ago," the warrior stated.
"Whose opinion does matter to you then, Xena?" Hecuba asked, already knowing the answer to this question but feeling the warrior needed to hear it more.
The dark-haired woman muttered to herself for several moments before finally replying. "Just Gabrielle's but I think you already know that by now."
"Which brings us neatly back to the reason for my visit this afternoon," the older woman said. "Tell me, Xena. Do you love Gabrielle?"
Reddening slightly, Xena chose her words very carefully before answering. "Yes. She is the best friend I have ever had. The only one, in fact, for a very long time."
Hecuba snorted, annoyed. "That is not the question I'm asking and you know it, warrior. Now, last chance. Do you love my daughter?" The tall warrior could hear the echo of iron under the other woman's gently spoken question.
Xena stared down into her lap for some time before she could bring herself to say anything at all. To admit the relationship once existed might condemn the bard to a truly miserable life here in the village but she could see from the look on Hecuba's face, the complete truth was all she would accept. "Yes, Hecuba. I do love Gabrielle. She has always been my source."
"Thought as much," Hecuba said, surprising Xena with her easy acceptance of the relationship.
"Hecuba, it's over between Gabrielle and I. This marriage has seen to that, even if we hadn't destroy everything ourselves beforehand," Xena said sadly, painfully realizing once more it truly was over.
"Hmmm, things may not be quite as over as you think, Xena," Gabrielle's mother replied cryptically. Glancing about the room, she spotted the bard's staff still propped up in the corner where she had forgotten it in her rush to get out of the room before bursting into tears. "She'll be wanting that," Hecuba commented. "How about you bring it over to the house tomorrow night, after evemeal. Herodotus is insisting that Tomisus comes over tonight to meet with Gabrielle. Yes, bring it by tomorrow night." The sly grin on the old woman's face set off sparkling glints in her eyes.
The warrior nodded her compliance wondering what deviousness Hecuba had up her sleeve, and suddenly understanding where Gabrielle had gotten her own sneaky streak from.
The old woman stood and patted Xena on the arm as she moved passed. "Xena?" she asked, as though stuck by some random thought. She waited for the warrior to indicate she was listening. "Do try to find something to wear that doesn't involve armor, leather or weapons. I'll see what I can do about softening Herodotus's attitude a little but if you appear as a nice, ordinary village woman, that would be a great help."
All Xena could do was mutter her obedience. How is it that mothers can make you do the most amazing things sometimes? she thought as Hecuba let herself out of the room. By no stretch of the imagination could I ever be anything other than what I am. Xena knew she had lost that particular battle to Gabrielle's mother already and mentally prepared herself for the torture of going shopping in the market the next day for some new clothes. Hera's tits, Gabrielle. I just hope all this is worth it, she said to herself as she watched Hecuba moving quickly across the market square headed for home. For the first time in two days, the little smile on Xena face was quite, quite genuine.
Gabrielle was not looking forward to evemeal tonight. Her father had invited Tomisus's over to meet with her for the first time and to be perfectly honest, the bard felt she could have easily done without the honor. Staring out of the open window over her desk, she wondered what he might be like. Come on, Gabrielle. How about telling yourself the truth, she thought. If he doesn't look exactly like Xena, sound like her, move like her, there is no way you're going to like him. Sighing deeply, the bard realized, for probably the thousandth time, the tall, dark-haired warrior had been the only person to ever truly attract her. Oh, there had been a few men before but they were only minor infatuations compared to what she felt for the quiet warrior. Gabrielle knew she had fallen in love with Xena the first time she had seen her.
The memory rose unbidden from the depths of her mind as she recalled the image of this amazing stranger wearing little more than a simple white shift, beating the living daylights of the slavers who had captured her and several of the villagers that day. The woman's aura of barely controlled passion and danger had reached out and touched Gabrielle in a way she was not to understand for some time to come but when she finally did realize she was in love with Xena, it had seemed like the most natural thing in the world. "And now it is over," the bard mumbled to herself. Wiping a tear from her cheek, she tried to dredge up some enthusiasm for the meeting to come, already knowing she would fail.
Lila suddenly bustled officiously around the corner and into the room. "Father wants to talk to you before Tomisus gets here, Gabrielle," she said, looking down at the sad, pale face of her sister.
Standing, the bard asked, "What's he like?"
The blonde nodded. It wasn't that she really wanted to know but having some knowledge beforehand might help her decide the best way to approach her suitor. A little something I learned from Xena, she thought miserably.
"Ummm, loads of dinars. Got a big holding about ten leagues from here. I can't say any of his family gets into the village all that much. They're pretty self-sufficient out there," Lila answered evasively, knowing exactly what Gabrielle really wanted to know.
"That's not what I am asking, Lila and you know it. What is Tomisus like as a person?"
"I really wouldn't know," Lila answered honestly. "I've never really met him personally. Just heard a few stories but who knows how truthful those can be, right? You write stories yourself and I'm sure you stretch the truth sometimes to make the tale a bit more dramatic."
"Tell Father I will be out in a moment. Just want to freshen up a bit before evemeal," Gabrielle replied. She still didn't know if Tomisus was a good man or a bad one. All she did know is the man wasn't Xena. Watching Lila leave, she wondered if there was any way out of this. She knew Tomisus's father, Deon, had already paid the bride price to Herodotus that morning, and her own father had made arrangements for her dowry to be sent over to the holding once the wedding had taken place. Quickly running the brush through her red-blonde hair, she checked she was decently covered before stepping from her room. Part of her wished more than anything to simply continue walking until she was back where she felt she truly belonged, with Xena. It no longer matter to her the warrior didn't love her anymore. The marriage she was about to walk into certainly wasn't going to be any better. At least in her heart, Gabrielle knew she still loved the blue-eyed woman, something she could not say about Tomisus.
Herodotus sat drumming his fingers against the wide arm rest of the big chair in the common room. It was a chair he had made himself some dozen or so cycles before, fitting it to his narrow frame, and padding it just the way he liked. He prayed everything would go well between Gabrielle and Tomisus on this first meeting. Organizing the marriage had taken some doing on his part but he honestly felt he had the little bard's best interests at heart. He was certain she couldn't be happy travelling all over Greece and the rest of the known world with that warlord, regardless of what she said in her scrolls to them, but probably didn't know how to get away from her.
Getting Gabrielle married off again would neatly solve the problem for the bard by giving her a legitimate reason to leave the warlord and finally settle down. It was what he wanted for her, and once she adjusted to the idea, Gabrielle would see it was for the best too. It would also mean Hecuba would have a place to go when the time came. Herodotus knew he still had quite a few good years left in him but life on the land aged a man a great deal more quickly than it did a woman and in all likelihood, Hecuba would easily out-live him. If Gabrielle was married to Tomisus, then she would have the space and finances to care for her mother after his death. Now, if he could just get the little bard through this first meeting, everything else would simply fall into place.
As Gabrielle came around the corner of the door, Herodotus couldn't help noticing how pale she looked under her tan. Surely she can't still be upset about leaving that warlord? he thought. Well, regardless of how upset she might by, he had arranged another marriage for her and now needed to impress on her just how important this particular suitor was.
"Sit down, Gabrielle," he said, indicating a low stool near his chair.
The bard drifted across the room and lowered herself to the stool. She didn't like the position she found herself in, sitting well beneath Herodotus's direct line of sight. Father would have made a great politician, she thought. He seems to have a lot of their methods down pat already, like making me sit lower than him to reinforce his dominance over me. Not that it can work, she silently snorted. Xena taught me that much anyway. Cutting off that line of thinking, the bard focused her attention on whatever it was her father was saying.
"Your mother had probably told you Tomisus is joining us for evemeal tonight," Herodotus began, a little pompously. "It took a great deal to organize this marriage. Originally, I was hoping to set it up for Lila but when we received your scroll, I offered Tomisus's father your hand instead. He was more than pleased to accept it for his son."
"I appreciate the effort, Father," Gabrielle said politely.
"You should. Deon is a very important man in the village with some highly placed friends in Athens. That is always a good thing for a small village like Poteidaia. He did have a few reservations to start with. After all, you were married once before and there was no issue from that marriage. I could have asked for a much higher bride price if there had been proof of your fertility," Herodotus said.
"Father!" the bard gasped. "I was married less than one full day before Perdicus was killed, and you expected me to get pregnant after one night!"
"Your mother and I managed," he replied, a smug look on his face. "But that really wasn't the problem. That warlord you have been travelling with was, however. Deon wanted to be sure that none of her ways had rubbed off on you."
"Xena taught me a great deal, Father. Like how to take care of myself in a fight, for example," Gabrielle said, defending the warrior.
"Exactly!" Herodotus snapped, his eyes blazing a little with a barely hidden anger. "I had to reassure Deon that none of her violent, masculine ways had somehow become part of your thinking. He wants a decent girl for his son." Gabrielle's father waited to see what the bard would say to that. When nothing was forthcoming, he continued. "Now Tomisus is coming over tonight to meet with you and I expect you to behave yourself. No tales about being on the road with that woman, and not one word about the Amazons either," he stated firmly.
"How can I not talk about them, Father?" Gabrielle asked. "I am their queen, after all, even if someone else is looking after things for me right now. If I am to marry Tomisus, then it is only right he know all my kinship ties, not just the ones you think put me in the best light." The bard was starting to get a pretty fair idea of why her father wanted her to marry Tomisus and a lot of it had to do with the fact her suitor would probably inherit most of his father's holdings and wealth.
"Gabrielle," Herodotus said gently. "I am trying to secure your future and that of your sister and mother. I'm not going to be around forever and sometimes a person has to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Once I am gone, you can help take care of your mother and see she has a happy old age. You'll have an entire lifetime to tell your husband all about your past travels and anything else he cares to hear."
"I don't even love Tomisus, Father," Gabrielle offered, in a faint hope it might sway her father's decision. I can't love him because my heart already belongs to Xena, she thought dejectedly.
"You'll learn to love him. Your mother did me," he answered softly. "Now go and help Hecuba get everything organized for tonight. Tomisus will be here soon," he said, making a dismissive gesture with one hand. His little discussion with the bard had not gone as well as he had hoped. Where had she learned to be so stubborn to start with and why can't she simply go along with what was best. She never used to be this way with me, Herodotus thought as he watched his eldest daughter leave the room, the stiffness of her back and jerky movements telling him how angry she was at that moment.
"I just want what is best for you, Gabrielle. You and the rest of the family," he muttered to himself, trying to forget about the prestige such a matching would bring him.
Continued...Conclusion Part 2
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