Disclaimers: First lets get the usual out of the way. I dont own the characters used in this story who also appear in X:WP. No copyright infringement intended. Everything else is mine mine mine.
This story is ALT. Xena and Gabrielle are lovers. There is discussion of Xenas relationships with others, including men, but nothing more graphic than portrayed in the series. There are other same sex attractions.
There is violence. There is blood. Not much gore.
This story contains spoilers for many of the X:WP episodes through the end of season 3. Except there is no mention of Sacrifice 1 or 2.
Angst alert: This story is high on the angst-o-meter. This is not your typical fan fiction story. Some readers may find this piece very disquieting. If you cant deal with the dysfunctional side of human relationships, read something else.
I have some heartfelt thanks to offer to my beta readers. P.D. Wonder and MWP have been invaluable resources. I thank you. My cyber buddies who encouraged me to write this and post it deserve my thanks as well. You know who you are.
My own personal disclaimer in my own words: This is my first attempt at fan fiction. Ive been wanting to write a story like this since mid-Season 2. It really became a burning desire during Season 3. This story depicts my vision of X and G. It is a long piece already and I am not nearly finished. It takes time to build a relationship and it takes time to heal. Finding out who you really are takes a lifetime for those who dare to try.
Constructive feedback is welcome and encouraged; flames are not.
THE HEALING FIRES
By Linda Fiorella
"You want to stay here. With or without me?" An underlying growl vibrated in Xenas chest.
Gabrielle remained seated at her feet. She raised her head, but kept quiet.
"I see," said Xena, beginning to pace on the narrow ledge. "Does this have something to do with Cassa?"
"Then who? Who is keeping you here?"
Gabrielle answered and began to explain the apprenticeship she was involved in with Voula when Xena cut her off.
"I know who it is. Its that amazon who wanted to shoot me with her crossbow at the border to the village. She is the one."
"Kiriaki tried to shoot at you?"
"So, the amazon has a name, does she?"
"Xena, it isnt like that. Not really..."
Xena swung down and Gabrielle found herself being lifted to eye level with the ex-warlord. The bard swung her dangling feet. Her arms were pinned at her sides. She felt like a doll being squashed by a child. The blue-eyed woman cocked her head and peered into her captives eyes.
"Then what is it like, really."
"Xena please put me down. We are pretty high up here and if you drop me I could fall."
Xena threw the blondes body against the rock wall of the ledge. Gabrielle scrambled to the corner pressing herself hard into the rough surface.
"Whats the matter, Gabrielle? I didnt hurt you. Or are you just afraid to answer my question?" The angry warrior smirked.
The blonde closed her eyes and covered her ears with her hands. Xena noticed the young womans chest rise and fall with short rapid motions. She looked around and realized the sight and sound of the waterfall coupled with Xenas anger and outburst must have brought up memories of what led to their recent trip to Illusia when the couple had tried to kill each other to escape their pain.
On her knees before her friend, Xena swore that she was not going to hurt the bard. She suggested they go someplace else to talk more. Gabrielle could hear the concern in Xenas voice mingled with her irritation.
"Xena, I am not sleeping with Cassa or Kiriaki or anyone here."
"I believe you, Gabrielle. Cmon, lets get out of here."
The younger woman felt safer. This was a different Xena than the one she had been sent home by. This Xena expressed anger, not fury. Although subtle, Gabrielle noticed the change. The hands came down and the panting calmed. "No, Im okay. Id like to stay here."
Xena sat in the hard corner next to her companion. "I dont want you to remain in this village. I want you to come with me. I want to make up to you all the pain Ive caused you these last few months." She paused and added softly, "Im sorry I scared you just now."
"I still love you Xena. I really want to go with you, too. It would be so much easier than staying here and being responsible for myself and learning about me. A lot of what Ive been seeing about myself I dont like. I have hurt you too. I dont want either of us to hurt anymore. I think this is for the best."
She reached over to hold her friends hand before continuing. "There are so many things I havent told you because I was afraid of losing you. I dont know where I learned to think the way I do but I know I didnt get all of these ideas from you."
"Gabrielle," she faced the bard and pleaded. "Cant you come with me and we can work on this together."
Gabrielle knew she was about to start crying. "I wish I could, but I dont think it would work right now. Just the two of us together.... how long could we go before falling back into old patterns."
"But what was so awful about it? I wasnt that bad, was I?"
"This isnt about bad or good, right or wrong. You and I just cant be together. Not now, and maybe not ever." Silent tears punctuated the bards sadness and earnestness. "We are hurting each other all of the time. You want to ignore everything in the past, and pretend that it doesnt affect us. But it does, Xena. I need to deal with it, and I cant be with someone who wont talk about what happened."
"I cant believe that you are leaving me, now. I came here excited about telling you that I want to be true to you and your love, and now you tell me to go away from you." The dark haired woman untied the knot at the back of her head, and removed the strip of fabric. "I dont want to hear anymore. Ill accept your decision. Maybe someday Ill look back and thank you for this." The warrior struggled to her feet. She looked down at the woman she loved. "Goodbye Gabrielle."
She offered the soaked and torn scrap to its owner. It was rejected with a shake of a blonde head. Xena picked her way down the steep path, discarding the frayed memento on the fine mist.
Gabrielle watched her go. as she saw Xena disappear behind a boulder without so much as a glance backward, the sobbing womans mind took her back to happier time . She needed to escape the overwhelming feeling of dread.
The bard closed her eyes.
She found herself in a sunny meadow. The warrior called her. She didnt answer until the third time she heard her name. Xena was getting closer anyway.
"Over here, Xena," the blonde answered between giggles.
The stomping of Xenas boots through the high grass preceded her arrival. "What are you doing over here?" The warrior stopped talking and moving as she took in the sight before her. Gabrielle reclined on their softest blanket. Surrounding her was the closest thing to a feast the bard could muster from their supplies. The rations of bread and cheese were supplemented by succulent berries and strewn about the blanket, and the bard, were freshly picked wildflowers.
"Whats all this?"
"This is a celebration, Xena. Our first night after we declared our love was on the last full moon," Gabrielle explained while tracing the muscles of her abdomen with a sweet-smelling lavender flower.
"And tonight is the full moon," added the grinning warrior.
"Yep. I wanted to show you my, um, appreciation for all youve given me this month. Now stop standing there and get over here."
"Ill be right back." The warrior was gone before Gabrielle could scream in protest. However, she was back almost as quickly with one hand behind her back. Xena felt relieved when the vision on the blankets was unchanged.
Except for one thing. A mysterious package wrapped in crinkled blue fabric rested before Gabrielles breast. "Whats that?"
"Whats behind your back?"
"Thats not an answer, Gabrielle," the raven-haired woman admonished as she joined her companion on the ground. The pair studied each other for a few moments, waiting for the other to crack.
"Oh, all right." The bard was the first to give in. "Here. Open it." She tossed the package to Xena. Despite having lost a battle of will with the warrior princess, Gabrielle sat up and smiled. Xena placed her secret in her lap. Then she began opening her gift.
Gabrielle nearly jittered herself to bits watching Xenas long fingers carefully revealing each layer of wrapping. What the bard didnt realize was the warrior was being so slow and methodical to give her time to savor every second. Xenas blue eyes went round as she uncovered the object.
Gabrielle chimed in; "Its a perfect match, right? I know youve been saying for months that you wanted to find a replacement for the one you lost. You always say that every time you use your dagger, you miss the other one of the pair. Now you have the set."
The look on Xenas face confused Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, these are expensive. How did you get the dinars for this?"
"Dont you like it?"
"Of course I like it. Its the most wonderful gift I have ever been given. That anyone has ever been given." She paused and lifted her gaze from the polished blade with the solid handle. It had an X inlaid in obsidian."Except for the gift you gave me one month ago tonight."
Without taking her eyes from her friends face, the warrior felt around her lap. "Here," she said, "This is for you."
"Xena? You got me something, too?" The bard was stunned as she reached out for the proffered item. It was wrapped in soft leather tied securely by at least a yard of twine.
"Xena, could you cut this?" The warrior obliged, using her new dagger. Gabrielle clawed at the leather covering until she found her present. She gasped.
In her hand was the most delicate, beautiful, unusual quill she had ever seen. There were intricate engravings of amazons and centaurs on one end. At the writing end a thin sheet of silver clung to the wood below. The engraving there was a perfect replica of the bards own signature.
"Oh, Xena." The tears were coming in full force now. Its perfect. I dont know what to say."
"Dont say anything. When we stop in the next village you buy scrolls with the money youve been saving and write all you want. I know how hard it has been for you lately to not have scrolls." As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Xena felt her stomach clench. Gabrielle, you didnt use the money youd been saving for scrolls to buy me this dagger, did you?"
Gabrielle nodded. "But it was worth it to me to see you happy, Xena. I can always save up more money for scrolls. Cmon," she said in a hurry, anxious to get the focus off herself. "Lets see if that dagger is an exact mate. Where is your other one?"
Xena looked at her companion a mix of guilt, joy, apprehension, and amusement on her face.
"Oh, no. You didnt?"
The warrior nodded.
"You sold your dagger to buy me this quill? The one that I cant use because I spent my dinars to buy you a matching dagger instead of scrolls?"
The warrior nodded again. They started laughing at the strange symmetry of it all.
"Well, I know something that we can give each other right now. Something that I could really use."
Xena raised an eyebrow at her friend and spent the rest of the day making sure that Gabrielle would remember their anniversary for more than an ironic mix-up.
The bard opened her eyes and returned to the painful present. She stood on wobbly legs and walked to the ledges edge. Xena was really gone. How did it come to this? Twenty- four days ago, I was annoyed that she didnt wipe the sweat from her brow. The blondes bloodshot eyes closed. "No, there was more to it than that," she whispered to no one. "Much more."
A heavy mist of sweat layered the air around the travelers. The tall warrior felt the tiny trickles of moisture at her hairline rush into her eyes as she tilted her head down. Her booted feet ached from the heat and the constant pounding on the cracked, hard ground. Her companion saw the warrior blink the salty droplets out of her eyes and huffed.
The smaller traveler turned her nose up and away. That motion and the resulting sweat dulled swing of honey colored hair were the only answers forthcoming. The sturdy war-horse led by the warriors right hand cocked her ears toward the two humans but refused to look. Her tail swatted at the hungry flies chowing on her rump.
"The air is so humid I think I could cut it with my chakram."
Still no answer.
A sigh slipped from the warrior. Maybe thisll get her, she thought.
"Fine. Youre still giving me the silent treatment. How many years have you been trying that with me?" The dark-haired woman paused. " "Funny," she said with a chuckle. "You know it never works."
"What are you talking about, Xena? It always works."
Xena smirked. "Gotcha, Gabrielle."
Gabrielles face reddened when she realized she had been tricked into talking. "That doesnt count. Besides, its too hot for me to be expected to think straight. And I can just stop talking again, anyway."
The smug grin stuck to Xenas face. Her gaze scanned the shimmering horizon for signs of a coming storm to ease the parched earth and foul moods of its inhabitants. Seeing a scant few drab clouds in the distance, her expression faltered.
Even the birds were silent, saving their strength. The only sounds were the buzz of insects, the shuffling of their steps, the switch of Argos tail, and that damned clunking of Gabrielles staff on the road. Xena knew that the bard was already annoyed at her for something but if she didnt stop plopping that stick down to the same slow beat and adding that little twisty scraping sound...
"Thats it. Were stopping. Argo needs to get out of the sun."
Around the next bend in the road, the troupe turned off the narrow road and proceeded single file through an even narrower path through some bristly brush then down a short but steep embankment. Xena led Argo who was followed by a tight-lipped bard. The streams edge was fairly level and shaded well enough by trees lucky enough to have grown up along side a water source. The stream itself was shallow and lazy due to the non-existent rainfall of the past few weeks. Xena tested the water first, and deemed it fit for consumption.
Gabrielle dropped her staff and immediately made her way out across protruding rocks until she was about in the center of the clear water. Kneeling down she reached her arms into the cool liquid, brought up handful after handful of the stuff, and poured it on her uplifted face, about half of it spilling into her greedy throat. Xena watched her thoughtfully from the bank and tried to pinpoint when her companion had stopped talking to her this time. It started when we left Kallipolis; she mused while laying Argos saddle beside their supplies. But she was snippy before that. That began the night we ate at that tavern.
Once Xena had filled the waterskins she yanked off her boots and let her feet dangle in the stream and began to drain one and then another of the skins. She went over the events of their meal that evening three days ago while she kept an eye on Gabrielle who was now naked and up to her waist in gentle current. Eventually, at a loss for clues to what might be bothering the blonde, the exhausted warrior leaned back on her elbows and listened to Argo chewing on tough grass. She was determined to wait it out until Gabrielle felt she had been sufficiently punished and would finally tell her what she had done wrong.
The smoldering fire of Gabrielles anger cooled each minute her body remained submerged. She pulled herself up on the sun-baked rock where she had left her clothes and peered over at where Xena reclined. No longer angry with the warrior, she instead sensed a sob welling in her chest and tears forming in her eyes. Oh, gods, she thought, Why does it have to hurt so much? When is she going to see what she is doing to me?
Xena sat across the campfire from Gabrielle, lost in her own thoughts. Her stomach was tight, too tight to eat more than the few bits of rabbit she had already forced down. The heat was less oppressive since the sun had set, but not by much. That wasnt helping her appetite any either. After their short rest in the afternoon, Gabrielle had made no further move to tell Xena what she was so angry about. But she had begun to speak in short bursts about their activities like asking the warrior to pass some water, or if they could stop for a moment to get a stone out of her boot. Each time, Gabrielle had sighed almost painfully before forming her words.
Things between them had improved since all of that business with Dahak tore them apart, mused Xena. There had been some residual guilt and tension to work out since their visit to Illusia, but that was cleared in part by Gabrielles trip to the temple of Mnemosyne. Xena smiled at her own cleverness in getting the bard to face her demons. For her part, Xena worked diligently on trying to make Gabrielle feel more important, and to reassure her of how much Xena needed her to continue on her path of redemption. Of her own part in their turbulent year, the warrior felt certain that eventually she would be able to truly forgive herself for her failures.
The extra heat from the slowly dying fire gave rise to beads of sweat on Xenas upper lip to match the trickle down the small of her back and the sticky patch between her legs. The bards clothing was more suited to the weather and she was seated further from the fire so her only discomfort existed within. Her face wore a slight scowl as she picked at her food and looked everywhere but at Xena.
"I give up," said Xena.
Gabrielle thought she heard pain mixed with the exhaustion in her companions voice. As much as she didnt want to admit it, she liked that Xena was hurting, even if the warrior didnt know why.
Still not looking in her direction, Gabrielle answered Xena while focused on Argo nibbling on a bush. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, I give up. I dont know what I did to make you so angry and I cant stand thinking about it anymore. So, Im ready for you to tell me. Then I can apologize and we can make up."
Gabrielle swallowed a bundle of rage at Xenas suggestion that she could be so easily appeased. She was too tired and too afraid to lay it at the warriors feet. The ache she carried around with her had to come out eventually she knew that. However, this was not the time to start this discussion with Xena. Plus, Gabrielle hoped, there was still a chance that Xena would realize on her own that Gabrielle was her soulmate. And if she had to explain it to her, it should not be done when she was still so upset about that guy in Kallipolis. Once she had found some outlet for her jealousy over seeing Xena flirt so obviously with that old cohort in the tavern, even kissing him in front of her, well, then and only then could she talk to Xena without risking it all exploding into some big argument.
"Okay, Xena. I admit it. I was mad," Gabrielle said, adding as much sadness and fatigue to her voice as she could. "But Im over it now, and I just want to go to bed. Can we talk about it some other time?"
With the last sentence passing her lips, Gabrielle settled her gaze on the warrior, hoping it would add to the effect. It worked but not for the reasons she thought.
"Sure," Xena said, then declaring her own desire to get some sleep. Inwardly she was relieved to find out that Gabrielle didnt want to talk about what was bothering her. If she could fix it on her own without having to include Xena, all the better.
The bard was curled on her side, back to her companion, the same position she had taken when the two had said their quiet goodnights. Xena lay on her back not more than a daggers width from Gabrielle. Very gently, Gabrielle turned to face the warrior. She rested her head on her right arm and hooked her hair behind her ear with the other. Xena lay between Gabrielle and the now smoldering embers of their fire. When she thought of how so like Xena that was, to protect her from even the dissipating heat of a dying campfire on a hot night, she smiled.
As if aware of Gabrielles longing gaze and wistful thoughts, the dark haired warrior turned her head towards her mid-night admirer. Her breathing remained steady. Gabrielle took the chance on reaching for the closeness she craved, no, that she needed to renew her faith in herself and in their connection that had been shaken again. As the blondes hand descended towards her companions sleeping head, she wondered why their love seemed so fragile now, when the depth of her desires proved its strength.
A tear slid past her temple and landed on her bicep just as she let her fingers caress the coal black silken hair still warmed from the glowing cinders like the ebony mane of a charger basking in the fiery sun.
"Why dont you want me anymore, Xena? What changed?"
Although it was barely even a whisper, more a wish of a breath of a thought, Xena heard it. Her eyes opened and their striking blue peered into Gabrielles tortured green. The bard dropped her hand to Xenas shoulder, then to the bedroll beneath them as Xena turned her body to face the blonde.
"Gabrielle, is that what this is about?" Xena waited for an answer. Although, the bard didnt turn away, she opened her mouth to speak and nothing came out.
"You think I dont find you attractive anymore?" Xenas eyes had softened at the expression on her friends face, but now they took on a sparkle of relief and amusement.
Gabrielles lips had closed, but she still looked warily at the warrior princess before her.
Xena knew Gabrielle didnt like to be teased about anything related to sex, so since she couldnt control the mirth on her face, she attempted to balance it with a tender touch and a reassuring word. She hoped the bard would understand that she wasnt laughing at her, but at the absurdity of the statement.
"Listen to me, and listen good," the warrior paused for effect. "The only reason I havent been more attentive lately is because of this damned weather from Tartarus." Xena placed her hand on the curve of Gabrielles hip where it met her waist. "One good session with you in this heat and Id be suffering from heat stroke for sure."
Gabrielle wanted to believe Xena. She had to admit that the warrior sounded sincere. But then what was she doing tongue wrestling with that "good time Kostas" back in that village.
"Oh, yeah? Then what was going on with you are your old war buddy?"
Xena raised her brows and leaned back as if trying to dodge the venom flying from her companions mouth. "What ... do you mean Linus?"
Gabrielle was glad to have the upper hand and to be throwing Xena off guard. She felt better already finally having brought it up. She decided to get it all out.
"Yes, I mean Linus. Swapping spit with him in front of all those people, In front of me. It was pretty hot in that tavern the other night. The heat didnt stop you then, did it? How do you think that makes me feel Xena? To watch you kissing someone else when you havent touched me in weeks."
Gabrielle sat up during her verbal rampage and fought the urge to poke at Xena while she accused her by wrapping her arms tightly around her legs.
"But I ... it...its not like I slept with him or anything," Xena managed to respond.
"Oh, thats supposed to make me feel better?" the bard turned to look at her friend, who now had the nerve to be defensive instead of contrite. "Why didnt you sleep with him, Xena? You obviously wanted to be with him more than me."
Xena felt ambushed. She had not seen this coming. Gabrielle had never cared before if she had a little dalliance along their travels. That she was bringing it up now, and acting like Xena should have known better, that was making Xena mad.
"I dont know why I didnt sleep with him. I guess I just didnt want to. I gotta tell you, Gabrielle, Im starting to rethink that position now."
The last smoldering bits of the fire crackled nearby as the two women looked at each other through the weighty night air. Each was confused, each having nowhere to turn but to each other for comfort, they both knew they were on the brink of something very dangerous. Gabrielle wanted to tell Xena to leave and go back to find her long ago Lothario. She wanted to tell her that but she didnt want her to actually do it.
"Why, Xena? Just tell me why. Please."
After a moment, Xena sighed and leaned back on her elbows. She took a deep breath and tried to sense something sweet, fresh or cool on the almost nonexistent breeze.
"I dont know. Honestly Gabrielle. I dont know why I kissed him. I...it wasnt that he was irresistible, I just knew that it would feel good. I dont know why it stopped there. Except that I wouldnt do that to you."
"So you knew it would bother me."
"Well, yeah, I guess I did. But I didnt think the kissing would bother you."
Gabrielle knew that what was in her heart to be said. She also knew where Xenas line of questioning would go from there. In addition, she knew she didnt have all the answers she should.
"Xena," the bard said while shifting so that her legs were curled under her and she could look at Xena without twisting her neck. "You and I have been lovers for over a year now. How could you think that seeing you with Linus, that way, wouldnt upset me?"
"Because it never bothered you before," the dark-haired warrior answered.
"Well, thats not exactly true."
Here it comes, thought Gabrielle.
Xena already concluded that this was the entire point of the conversation. This at least made sense to her. That little dalliance with Ulysses and probably the flirtation with Rafe had upset Gabrielle.
Xena tensed and Gabrielle could see the emotional walls rebuilding in her demeanor. Those powerful shoulders straightened in response and the chin hardened just beneath the warriors pursing lips.
"Why didnt you tell me sooner?"
There it is. Gabrielle shook her head. "I dont know."
"Well, you know something," Xena said, her voice clearing as she stood up and took a few strides away from the blonde. "You kept it a secret for a reason."
A few strides made with legs that long can take someone a good distance and Gabrielle couldnt see Xenas face any longer.
"I have asked myself that same question so many times," Gabrielle said, the emotion thick in her voice. She looked down into her lap, giving up on trying to make out Xenas face in the darkness. "I came up with so many different answers. None of them will satisfy you. They sure didnt satisfy me."
Gabrielle took a deep breath of moisture laced air before launching into her litany of explanations for her silence. She said she had thought Xena was testing her faith. That maybe the kissing and mushy stuff with the guys was part of her plans. That if she just ignored it, it would stop. Oh yeah, and if she brought it up Xena might be angry. And since she didnt have sex with any of them, then she really shouldnt complain.
The flesh on the crown of Xenas head began tingling and her palms itched fiercely during Gabrielles somewhat tearful and faltering speech. Although the situation with her younger partner aggravated the warrior, these sensations, she knew, were unrelated. Underdressed for a battle wearing only a sleeping shirt, Xena hoped that Ares was just dropping in for a friendly visit of verbal sparring. Cutting her off in mid sentence, Xena took a step toward Gabrielle and said, "Ill be back soon."
"Where are you going?"
Xena picked up her sword and stalked through the prickly brush.
"Xena," the God of War said with a teasing tone. "You still care."
"What makes you say that?"
"You left your little lovers spat to be with me. Whats the matter, married life getting to you?"
With a raise of an eyebrow and a bored air, Xena attempted to dismiss Ares attempt to provoke her and change the subject. It didnt work.
The God crossed his arms, accentuating his formidable muscles. His mouth twitched, but
Xena couldnt be sure whether it was repressed laughter or a nervous twitch. She was sure that he needed a haircut and a different stylist for his facial hair.
"Now, Xena. Weve been.... friends...for a long time. You know if youre having problems in the bedroom with Blondie and needed a little more butch companionship, you can always...come...to...me."
"What do you want, Ares? Why are you here?" Xena used her sword to flip her hair back off her shoulders where it was beginning to stick with sweat. "I know you arent here to give me advice on my love life."
With a nod and a half smirk, Ares tossed off a retort, "Maybe not, but it looks like you could use some."
In the not too far distance, Gabrielle could be heard stomping around the campsite. Xena knew she had to get back there and finish their discussion. Although she was grateful for Ares interruption more than she would ever admit. In the low rich voice she used only with the dark god, Xena requested one more time that he get to the point.
"For a change, Xena you are right. There are more pressing matters that I am here to discuss." He was close to her now. Close enough for them to see the flecks in each others eyes. "I am here to do you a favor, Xena. No strings attached."
Xenas eyes narrowed. She waited for him to continue.
"All talked out I see. All right then." The gods voice hardened. He needed her to believe in his seriousness. "Your village has been attacked. Your brother is injured and your mother was taken hostage. Theyve sent out messengers for you, but by the time they find you it could be too late."
Xena felt her chest clench, her guts burn. "Who did it?" She watched him smile.
"Someone from your past." He felt her blade at his throat. It felt cool. How do these mortals stand this heat anyway?
"Whats your rush? Youll find out in good time." He looked down the length of her sword then followed her torso up to her shaken gaze. "This is how you repay me? Threatening me with your weapon?"
He shook his dark head and backed away from the warrior struggling to remain impassive before him.
"Ares, you arent going anywhere before you tell me whats going on. And if I find out you had anything to do with this...."
"Oh, and by the way," he tossed back over his shoulder as her turned to leave and started to fade into the night. "If you leave now, you just might be able to save your brothers life."
Argo trotted into the nondescript village with Xena and Gabrielle on her back. The horses breathing was labored and Xena knew she would have to give the war-horse a chance to rest before continuing on to Amphipolis. They had been moving since Ares gave her his message, except for the time it had taken to break camp.
Xena had filled Gabrielle in on her conversation with the god of war and neither seemed prepared to continue the discussion that it had interrupted. Gabrielle silently berated herself for allowing Xena to change the focus of the previous nights argument away from her actions and onto Gabrielles. Xena thought only of how to keep Gabrielle safe while she went to check on her family.
The blonde dismounted in front of an inn, followed by the leather-clad warrior. Following Xenas orders, Gabrielle entered the establishment and secured a table, cool drinks, and any information on a warlord or raiders in the area that were causing trouble. Xena procured food and water for Argo and a stableboy to brush her down.
As soon as Xena entered the inn, she steeled herself. This part wont be easy, it never is Xena thought as she made her way over and sat next to her friend.
"Did you find out anything?"
"No. The tavern owner says things have been quiet lately. No warriors, raiders, or word of any attacks in the region," Gabrielle answered, pushing the other mug over to Xena. "When will Argo be rested enough for us to move on, Xena?"
The warrior remained mute and stared at a tall muscular man just ducking through the doorframe. Gabrielle followed the intent gaze with one of her own.
"Who is he, Xena? Do you know him?"
"Ill be right back."
For a brief instant, Gabrielle considered that Xena was going to get her back for bringing up the tall womans behavior with men of his type when she saw Xena greet this one warmly. But she wouldnt do that now. Not with this going on with Cyrene and Toris, she reminded herself. Still this one looks to be her type: smart, sexy, a bit mischievous and even clean.
Unable to look away, Gabrielle found her jealousy eating away at her common sense. Xena was blinking the salty drippings from her brow out of her eyes while talking to her friend with the dirty blond hair and the smooth tanned chest. His clothes thin but well mended, stuck to his torso and showed off his taut muscled body.
Gabrielle felt her own fevered temperature rise. She hadnt slept the night through in nearly 10 days since the heat wave began. And what sleep she did get wasnt restful. She saw Xena gesture towards her and the man looked over at her and back to Xena. With a nod and a wink, he turned and left.
"What was that all about, Xena?" The bard asked as her friend returned to their table.
"Youre not gonna like it," came the low reply. Had the bard been listening carefully, she would have heard the note of resignation in Xenas words and seen the deep sadness coloring her eyes.
"What now? Let me guess. You want to marry him and keep me on the side. Sort of have your baklava and eat it too."
Xena felt the sting of welling tears. She stood to leave, but knew that time was of the essence. Her family needed her and she had to make sure Gabrielle would be safe during her time away. Xena sat down and forced back the hurt, the guilt and the anger that Gabrielles accusation brought up. Never one for long speeches or explanations, she knew that she had to tell her friend something to help her understand. But she couldnt refrain from starting with something of a jibe.
"Do you really think that I would take the time for a tryst when my brother and mother may lay dying somewhere?" When the blonde held her tongue and looked properly contrite, Xena continued.
"I know the timing is bad, Gabrielle, and that we need some time to work this out." She put her hand on Gabrielles. But I cant be distracted by you... by us... right now. I know that I have hurt you and Im sorry. What happened with Ulysses.... well...you and I were still pretty new then. And Rafe, well, you have to admit that you encouraged me to think of him that way. You were the one who brought it up if you remember, telling me he was my type."
Xena paused before continuing. She saw the guilt and pain in Gabrielles face. The subtle tensing and turning down of her lips. "Im not saying you are to blame, but I dont understand why you did that."
"I dont either. I think I wanted to act, you know, more worldly or something." Gabrielle chuckled at herself.
Xena smiled a bit too. "I dont want someone worldly. And I dont want Rafe, or Ulysses or Linus. I want you."
"Thanks, I guess. But then why did you kiss him the other night?"
"I had a little too much to drink, Gabrielle. People do stupid things when theyve drunk too much ale. Especially when they were dehydrated to begin with. But I never would have gone to bed with him or with any of them. And that goes for my friend, Petros, who you saw me talking to just now."
Gabrielle wasnt sure she was swallowing the explanations Xena was giving her. But she wanted to keep the peace between them that had been so strained. "Okay, Xena. Im sorry I said that about him. I do know better than to think you would do that now."
"I should hope you do. Especially since you finally told me how much it upsets you."
"What were you talking to Petros about?"
"Ive known Petros for years. He is the blacksmith here. I was asking him if there was a safe way to get you to Poteidaia from here." Xena cringed inside as she said it, fully expecting the bard to shatter any good will between them she had just restored.
"You what?!" the blonde roared. "Xena Im not going anywhere but with you. You need me to help you." She had pulled her hand out from under Xenas and was using it and the other to turn her friend by the shoulders to look directly into her very determined eyes.
"Gabrielle, I do need you. That is exactly why I cant risk taking you with me."
"Wait, hear me out."
Gabrielle relented and Xena continued. "If what Ares said is true, then someone obviously has it out for me and is more than willing to go through those I love to get to me. I know that you are always a potential target," Xena said, stilling the bards waiting argument, "but this is different. This time you are a definite target." And if Ares is lying, then he has a trap waiting for me and I am not willing to bring you into that.
"We shouldnt be separated right now, Xena. Im going with you. Or Ill follow you. Ive done it before."
"Gabrielle, you arent coming. And maybe some time apart is exactly what we need. Not that I wont miss you." Xena got up from their table and pulled her companion up with her. "Will you walk me out to Argo and say goodbye?"
"Youre leaving right now?"
"Yes. Petros will be back here shortly. Hell make sure you can go with a group of merchants that are leaving tomorrow for your village. I promise you, Gabrielle. I will be back for you as soon as I can."
"Maybe I wont be there when you get back," the bard said. Her attempt to hurt Xena with her words was as obvious to her as it was to Xena.
"Then Ill find you. Wherever you are, Ill find you."
Gabrielle sat at the table in the quiet inn. Alone. She could still feel the strong but tender embrace Xena had left her with even though she had refused to walk her out and give her a proper goodbye. Xena had seen through the childish attempt to punish her for not giving the bard her way and made sure that Gabrielle knew that she loved her. Xena had held her and made her swear on her oath as an Amazon that she would not follow her. Yet, something inside Gabrielle told her to run after Xena and scream and yell and drag her back or nothing between them would ever be the same. But she didnt seem to have the strength even to stand.
Her head was spinning. Her heart felt crippled. What would she do in Poteidaia? How could she explain to her family what was going on? She had no idea how long it would take Xena to return. The confusion over the past few days and last night in particular left her off balance and somehow ashamed. Nobody she knew would understand how she felt. She wasnt good enough to help Xena now, when she needed her most. She was a burden, and even worse, she wasnt everything that Xena needed in a lover. She couldnt be, although she had believed Xena when she said she had never intended to sleep with those others. Still, why then did the warrior have a desire to play at seducing them?
Gabrielle knew there must be something lacking in her. She also knew she wouldnt find it in Poteidaia. She would go to the Amazons. But she couldnt tell Ephiny what was going on with her and Xena. She would never understand. She and her sisters would surely blame Xena, especially after the traumatic scene the warrior and bard had played out on their lands. No, Gabrielle couldnt go there.
Petros entered the inn like he was on fire having been delayed finding his apprentice, Georgos. Xena would have his head if anything happened to the young woman she left in his care. Unfortunately, Gabrielle was just on her way out to get some...well...some fresher air was about the best she could hope for on a sweltering day with the sun still high. Once the blacksmith got Gabrielle and her staff back in the upright position and dusted off, Petros apologized and introduced himself to her.
"Gabrielle, I, Petros, am very pleased to meet you. Xena has filled you in?"
Gabrielle was still upset with Xena, but refused to take it out on such a polite and kind man. As they moved out of the doorway she reiterated the bare bones of the plan to get her to Potedia.
"Yes. My apprentice is traveling with a group of merchants headed that way," said Petros, happy to fill in some details. He gestured for the bard to follow him outside. "They leave in the morning and I assure you they can get you there safely." He smiled warmly, as if from his soul. Gabrielle trusted him, of that there was no doubt. But the plan Petros and Xena had in mind was not the one that Gabrielle would follow.
The blacksmith led Gabrielle to his home, giving her a quick tour of the village along the way. Gabrielle asked questions as she went, feigning an interest that would have been genuine had her thoughts not been elsewhere.
During their stroll, Petros explained that Dherveni was not the village of his birth. His family lived in Athens and as a boy he had dreamed of being a great warrior in the Athenian army. As the oldest boy, he was trained to follow in the blacksmithing boots of his father. And that was that.
"I left Athens, young and innocent, to claim my glory in the name of Ares. My father wouldnt allow me to join the Athenian army so I learned to be a warrior from rogues and mercenaries."
"Is that how you met Xena?" Gabrielle asked, finding herself more interested in Petros story than in the history of the village granary.
"Yes," Petros answered, sadness haunting his eyes but awe and pride coloring his voice. "I fought for her for three years." A chuckle interrupted his tale. "Ive been very lucky in my life. Very lucky."
The bard sensed what Petros meant. She felt they shared a special understanding of how everything from blood-soaked deaths to shy first kisses to a new pair of boots can be looked upon as good fortune. Especially if one knew Xena.
They arrived at Petros door when he ended his narrative. "But my family, who had heard tales of my adventures did not feel so lucky to have me in their midst when I returned to hang up my sword. When they turned me away I settled here; close enough to
Amphipolis to enjoy Xenas reputation and the protection it affords the area, and far enough away from the shame her own people felt for her."
As the evening wore on, Gabrielle decided to tell Petros of her decision to go against Xenas wishes and ask him for help. They were sipping tea in front of the simple hearth, waiting for Georgos to finish preparing a makeshift bed for the bard.
"I appreciate all youve done for me, Petros," the bard began. "Especially for the company. I couldnt be alone tonight."
Petros nodded silently.
"But Im not going to Poteidaia tomorrow. I cant and I wont. And I need your help in learning the best way to get to where I am going."
"What do you mean?" Petros asked, more than a little surprised.
"Im going to the Amazon village on the other side of the Echidorus River. Ive never been there, although I am Amazon royalty. I know they will welcome me. At least I think they will." Gabrielle smiled as the look on her new friends face grew to utter shock.
In an instant, the shock was on the other face when Petros stood up and towered over the young woman, grabbing her fighting staff and moving it out of her reach.
"Im sorry, but I cant let you do that, Gabrielle."
A convoy of five merchant wagons trudged along like overstuffed ducklings following a big mama wagon. Each cart overflowed with wares and merchants, and each had its own unique sound and smell. Luckily for Gabrielle, she was packed into the final wagon with bolt after bolt of soft cloth to cushion her ride. Unluckily, this buckboard was directly behind one transporting dozens of cackling hens with no other way to pass the time than squawk, defecate and molt. Add to that the onslaught of stifling heat, the accumulated dust from the wagons ahead, and the fact that her nose was itching something fierce and it was obvious why the fair-haired bard was in a foul mood.
The two hunched and wrinkled women sitting in the front of the wagon seemed determined to get Gabrielle to look on the bright side.
A former redhead now sporting wide streaks of gray turned to take another good look at their charge. The young woman had said she was a bard, but she was dressed more like an amazon, although an awfully peaceful one at that. Her staff beside her, the green-eyed storyteller sat cross-legged and leaned up against an assortment of cheaply dyed wool from Thessaly. Her arms were tied securely behind her back.
"So, young bard, tell me again why you dont want to warm your mothers aching heart and spend a lovely visit in the welcoming bosom of your loving family?" the old women asked.
Gabrielle had tried the mostly honest approach, the tell-her-what-she-wants-to-hear method, the old "change the subject" trick, and the too sick to talk routine. She had had it with the petrified woman and her incessant questioning. She had to get the damned chatterbox to leave her alone so she could figure out a plan to get out of this mess.
"Because Id rather go to an amazon village and preside over an initiation ceremony involving naked women, dancing, wine and whips. That is the bosom of my true loving family." That ought to shut her up.
For several long moments, the two old crones looked at each other. Thank the gods, thought Gabrielle. Finally some peace and quiet. Except for the birds, and the pots and pans in the wagon ahead of them....
The blondes noise related thoughts were interrupted by her anger at Xena and Petros. The night before, Petros and Georgos had tied and gagged her. They loaded her into the wagon this morning. Georgos was now two wagons ahead with his uncle. Petros, having fulfilled his promise to Xena to "Get Gabrielle safely to Poteidaia, no matter what it took," remained back in his adopted village.
Hes probably still amazed that Xena hadnt been joking when she told him that Id probably have to be tied and dragged kicking and screaming, Gabrielle thought, almost finding it amusing. Petros had done his job well. He informed everyone that Xena said that the bard was good with words. Although she might make it seem like a great idea to let her loose, the person responsible for Gabrielle not making it to Poteidaia would be held accountable by the warrior princess herself.
The bard rolled her eyes. Here she was, wasting precious time thinking about the past when she had to get out of this one way ticket to Tartarus.
Too late, she thought, as four ancient eyes turned her way.
"I thought you looked like an amazon," said the one with short silver hair who was holding the reins in her knobby hands. She spat out a chicken feather while the former redhead piped in, "I thought she was an amazon before you did, Athena."
"Whatever you say, Panagiota. Gimme a date. And make sure it is a sweet one," Athena said, shaking a bony fist full of reins at Panagiota.
"Now, now, now. How am I to tell a sweet one before it is tasted?"
Athena growled. She turned back to Gabrielle. "Do you see what I have to put up with here? Youd think by now shed know how to pick a sweet date. After all, the old girl is nearly one hundred."
Panagiota backhanded Athenas upper arm. "You old fool...telling stupid tales. Youre older than I am."
They both started laughing and even one cranky bard joined in when Athena said through her guffaws, "Oh crap. Youre right. I forgot."
"Are you two sisters?" Gabrielle asked once the laughter had died down, her predicament temporarily forgotten.
"Well, you could say that," said Panagiota.
"Nah," Athena countered. "Were a couple of old wives. Weve been together for 53 years."
"Not until next solstice," Panagiota said. "And not without a few separations either."
"They dont count."
"Of course they count."
"Well sure they count, but what are we supposed to do? Say weve been together for 49 and a half years but we started having sexual relations 53 years ago?" Athena asked, her voice rising.
"Fine, youve got a point."
Gabrielle looked back and forth at the two women as they spoke. They reminded her of herself and Xena, only more mellow. She wondered if age would do that to Xena too.
Athena elbowed Panagiota in the ribs and nodded toward their captive audience that suddenly seemed lost in thought.
"Are you separated from your amazon?" Panagiota asked Gabrielle.
"Yes. No. Well, Im not sure. And shes not an amazon."
"Then why go there?"
Gabrielle thought about her answer and tried to blow a chicken feather from the tip of her nose, it stuck from the sweat.
"They wont understand at home. And I need to be around people who I can talk to about what I am going through. I want to go to the Amazon village over the Echidorus River. I am the amazon queen of a different region but I dont feel like I can go there either. They know Xena too well there. I need to get some perspective on things...on us."
Without a word Panagiota and Athena nodded first at Gabrielle and then at each other. The old lovers looked straight ahead, staring far past the chickens and the other wagons. Athena reached under her cloak and removed a dagger. She placed it between herself and Panagiota before reattaching her grip to the leather reins.
Panagiota lifted the blade to her lips and held it there for a brief moment. She reached back slowly, wincing at the pain in her shoulder, then let the sharp weapon drop next to Gabrielle.
When the convoy stopped for a break a little while later, Georgos came back to check on Gabrielle. All he found were the ropes from her wrists and some damp chicken feathers stuck to some cheaply dyed wool. The two old women hadnt seen or heard a thing.
Gabrielle wondered if she was hallucinating. The sound of a waterfall and the rustling of a breeze through brittle leaves teased her suspicions. She pushed herself forward; ignoring lessons learned about traveling through unknown terrain. The forest was thick. She didnt know if anyone would search for her after her escape, so she decided to stay away from roads. Two nights of sleeping in piles of leaves left her desperate for civilization. She knew she was headed toward the amazon village, the one that was known for trading and for healers. But she had never been there before and thought she had heard of a special entrance. Right now, she only wanted to not get recaptured and to find that waterfall, if it was real.
Her thirst was making her beyond reckless and she knew it. The bard paused to sense the direction of the sound of rushing water. She could taste the clean mountain moisture on the air. Practically insane with thirst, Gabrielle lunged through a bush so thick the branches seemed woven together.
Tripping on an exposed root, the young woman landed on the side of a narrow winding road. Through the brush on the other side, Gabrielle could see a small waterfall. Just as she was about to use her staff to help her get up on her feet, a trio of horses with dark riders came trotting around a sharp turn in the road. They pulled up in front of her; their stench made her gag.
"Whats the matter, little warrior? Aint you never smelled real warriors before?"
"Ugh. Sure, hundreds of em. Even dead ones smell better than you."
The men were still revving up to laugh at their leaders quip when Gabrielles comeback cut their chuckles short.
"Well, then. I suppose we ought to kill you and find out if youre right. Unless of course youd rather just apologize to us nice marauders and beg us for forgiveness...on your knees." As the leader said this, he dismounted. "Oh. I see youre already there," he said with a leer. His two friends laughed.
The blonde knew she could take them one at a time. Judging from the way they took care of their mounts, they were not the most conscientious warriors. It wouldnt surprise her if their blades were too dull to cut through lard or if their techniques had not been practiced since the last time they bathed.
It didnt seem likely that talking would get her out of anything but being killed after she was raped. She knew running in that underbrush would be impossible. Gabrielle steeled herself to fight. "I dont suppose youd want to just forget you ever saw me, right?" She had to try talking anyway.
"Sorry. I always wanted a real amazon. Especially a mouthy one like you." He took a step toward Gabrielle. He now had a knife in his hand. She sighed, which he took as an acceptance of her fate.
Gabrielle took aim at the first thing she saw. Since she was on her knees she would deliver a debilitating blow to the groin.
As the grimacing warrior squeaked in one long breath, his comrades laughed at his pain.
"Shes puny, eh Marcus?"
"But she sure packs a wallop, dont she, Marcus?"
When Marcus didnt answer and the woman with the staff rose to her feet and cocked her head at their stricken comrade, the two men said in unison: "Marcus?"
Wary to get too close to the soldier, Gabrielle reached out to poke him gingerly with her staff. Marcus toppled over, unable to move or say much besides a cross between a whine and a wheeze.
The two men still mounted spoke to each other in tones too low for Gabrielle to hear. Gabrielle heard Xenas voice in her head telling her to act before giving them time to come to a decision.
"Listen you two. I didnt want to hurt Marcus. But Id have no problem laying you both out. Unless of course you want to get him to help in a hurry and watch me walk away from here."
The green eyes narrowed in concentration and the bards body stood confident and ready. She wanted to look capable but not so threatening as to provoke their egos to challenge.
They looked like they were about to take her up on her suggestion when Marcus finally spoke from his fetal position in the dirt.
The blonde blocked every sword that flew at her, landing several blows in return. But fighting two veteran warriors at the same time with no back-up in sight began to take its toll. Her opponents dressed for battle in leather and armor were also tiring and thankfully, Marcus remained out of commission.
One of the attackers, a stocky man with a full beard, went down with a thud. Soon after the other followed, a dust cloud sailing up around him. But before Gabrielle could leave, the bearded one was back on his feet and facing her.
"Now youre making me mad," he said, spitting out blood from her last strike.
"Oh yeah? Well how do you think I feel?" she countered. The bard was beginning to panic. She knew if she gave up now they would be less than forgiving. The only way out seemed to be striking blows that would cause serious injury and possibly death. To make matters worse, the other combatant was almost on his feet and even Marcus was showing signs of recovery.
She ducked under a roundhouse swing from the bearded warrior and came up with her staff pointed straight at his chin. The impact reverberated down the staff, vibrating her fingers. He fell like a sack of grain, twitching for an instant. Gabrielle froze.
A grimy blade sliced past her face. She swiveled her head just in time to see the soldier who had just missed separating her nose from the rest of her.
Gabrielle noted that the forest between herself and the waterfall seemed to be coming alive just as Marcus succeeded in landing his fist where his comrades sword failed to connect.
Although Gabrielle never left consciousness after the blow to her face sent her reeling, she wasnt aware of the green and brown forms creeping towards her until one was standing over her. She heard the gurgled moans coming from somewhere in the vicinity of where her attackers had been standing. Then she heard the sound of a sword hacking at a body off to her left and on ground level.
She tried to turn to look toward the sound but felt her head held firm by strong hands. Her nose ached and she tasted her own blood and snot. She found herself looking into smoldering blue eyes.
The outskirts of Amphipolis bore no scars of recent battle. Xena slowed Argo and wondered again if Ares had sent her on a wild boar chase. But why would he want me here, she thought. She surveyed the area once again--a farm in the distance, fields gone to seed along the road, a patch of trees lining the road up ahead with her home a few moments ride past them. She urged Argo to pick up the pace. Wont know anything until I get there.
Xena sniffed the air. A tiny hint of smoke hung there. The road showed no evidence of a large number of men heading through on horse or on foot. The flat crack of hammers striking wood called out the first warning. She squeezed her legs and Argos speed increased again, bringing horse and rider into the village center at full gallop.
Villagers stopped the repair work they were doing to size up the arrival. When they recognized the warrior princess most went back to what they were doing, while cautiously keeping an eye on the reformed warlord.
One villager, whose name she couldnt remember, waved and ran to her.
"Xena, youre here. One of our messengers found you then."
"No. No messenger found me."
"Oh. We sent out half a dozen."
She gazed down at him, looking for all the known world like an avenging goddess of destruction. His nerves already frayed from the recent attack, the middle aged man scratched his leathery neck and looked around for someone with more authority.
Xena saw his discomfort and calculated whether it came from deceit or ordinary fear of her. She decided.
"Where is my brother."
He smiled. "Then you heard. Youre here to help us." He tried not to phrase the second statement as a question, but they both knew he was unsure.
"Oh. Thank the gods. They swept into town like madmen. Too many. And with no warning. We did what we could but..."
He wasnt really that old, but he didnt want to dispute the tall warrior. He tilted his head.
His eyes widened with realization. "Yes. Forgive me. Hes at your...Inn. The healer is with him. Hes very brave. Dont know what we..." The villager stopped talking as he squinted into the sun watching the warrior woman riding toward her family home. He sighed.
Xena stood in the doorway. The leathers chafed her combat hardened body. Toris, her brother, lay bandaged on their mothers bed. Her jaw and fists clenched. As she walked to his side her hand fumbled for the saddlebag slung over her shoulder.
The healer had met her in the Inns common room where she had been preparing bandages for the wounded man. Accompanying Xena to where her brother slept, she filled the warrior in on his condition and offered any assistance, but stopped walking a few steps before the sickroom. She wanted to allow Xena to see Toris in private, if she so wished. Once she saw the warrior kneel at her brothers side, the healer returned to her work.
The first thing Xena did was check Toris injuries. A recently changed bandage covered an egg-sized lump above his right eye. Stitches held together what remained of his upper lip. Two splints were tied to his forearms and another large bandage protected what Xena assumed was a shallow sword wound running across his left shoulder down to his abdomen.
So, Ares was telling the truth. Mother was taken and Toris is lying here, dying. Xena gently lifted each bandage checking for anything the healer missed. Her brow furrowed. Everything was as it should be. She would have done nothing different. Yet he is dying. His heartbeat is weak, his breathing shallow, and his color is as pale as...well, as pale as Joxers ass in the dead of winter.
"And dont ask me how I know that," she said aloud while caressing Toris cheek.
Why did Ares tell me that I could get here in time to save Toris, if there is nothing else that I can do for him?
The healer came in and stood at the foot of the bed. She held a tray with a large mug and some cheese and bread.
"I thought you might be hungry. And thirsty."
Xena remained impassive.
"Its as hot as Hades realm. You need to keep up your strength." She brought the nourishment closer to the warrior whose ebony hair was matted with drying perspiration.
"Tartarus isnt this hot," Xena said still staring at Toris.
"Oh. Are you satisfied with my treatment of your brother?" The healer wanted to change the subject. It had sounded like the warrior knew first hand the weather conditions on the other side.
"Your name is Celeste, isnt it?" The warrior asked, ignoring the question.
"Did you see who did this, Celeste?"
"Yes. But I dont know who they were."
Xenas shoulders slumped further. "You are friends with my mother."
"Yes Xena. She was the first to welcome me to Amphipolis when I came here twelve harvests ago."
"Was she injured in the raid?"
"Oh, no dear." The healer placed the tray on the bed and moved next to the warrior, placing a comforting hand on each shoulder. "No. Cyrene put up a fight and she probably has a few scrapes and bruises, but they seemed determined not to really harm her."
Celeste felt the muscles tense beneath her fingers, but the woman kneeling next to her didnt pull away. Already exhausted and on the verge of tears herself, the older woman exhaled as if shedding the weight of worry through her lungs.
Her cushioned body and its human warmth felt good against Xenas arm and the warrior longed to lean into her and be embraced by the woman who smelled of her mothers home and was about her age and build.
"Its okay to cry dear. I know the tears sting and burn a warriors eyes, especially a warrior who has seen and done the things you have. But those tears can heal you, Xena. They wont admit defeat, only your humanity."
Xena stood and turned to Celeste, an unreadable expression on her face. "Maybe so. But I dont have time for tears now."
Once Argo was settled, Xena returned to the common room to find Celeste mixing a paste for Toris lip. On the table near her was the tray of food from earlier.
"Sit down and eat, Xena. You have nothing to do until morning. I can answer any questions you have as well as anyone in Amphipolis."
She waited, not looking up to see the warrior trying to make up her mind.
"I just checked on him. There is no change."
Xena shrugged. "All right. But only because Im too tired and distracted to come up with a good excuse."
While Xena ate and drank, Celeste filled her in on all the information available about the attack and the men who perpetrated it.
They had come from the opposite end of town and left the same way explaining why there had been no evidence of an army on Xenas way in. A total of about 40 men, more than half on horseback and all heavily armed stormed into the village at dawn led by a burly dark-haired warrior wearing a bright red shirt and armed with two swords strapped to his back and two daggers strapped across his chest.
Their main concern appeared to be to destroy property, not to exact tribute or death. Only four other villagers besides Toris were hurt enough to require Celestes care. The singular other goal that became apparent was the kidnapping of Cyrene. That was how Toris was injured, defending his mother.
Xena thanked Celeste for the food and the information. She then went to see her brother.
Instead of kneeling at the bedside, this time Xena pulled up a simple chair. The head wound worried her. None of the rest of his outward injuries was really life threatening. She lifted the bandage and examined the swelling. If anything it seemed to have worsened, along with his overall condition.
Again she went back to four nights ago and the visit from Ares. Why did he tell her she could save him when there was clearly nothing more she could do? He had told her to leave immediately and she had. Once she had dropped off Gabrielle she had made even better time than expected, pushing Argo harder than she had a right to in this heat. But what could I have done for him had I arrived a day sooner?
Xena took her brothers hand, careful not to disturb the splint on his arm.
"I cant lose another brother. Not like this. Not because of me, again," she said to the setting sun outside her mothers window.
Her gaze fell to her brothers face. "Im so sorry, Toris. You lost your only brother because of me and now youre losing your life."
Xena closed her eyes and turned away, doubly hiding her soul from the stricken man. "Nobody deserves to die for the sins of another. If I could trade places with you, I would. But know this: I wont let anything happen to mother. I swear." She paused.
"And I want you to know I am proud of you; not that that is saying much coming from me. I heard how you fought to defend her. You are a brave man, Toris."
Toris eyelids fluttered, but Xena didnt see them. His mouth twitched.
"Say that again. Owww," he managed to say, the words creaking from his dry throat and garbled somewhat by his stitched and pained lip.
"Toris," she exclaimed wiping the tears from her eyes as she finally looked at him.
"Xena," he answered.
There was a short silence. Xenas thoughts jumped.
"That is you, Xena," he said. "Isnt it?" He closed his eyes and attempted to raise his hands and feel around for her.
"Owwww. Ow, ow, ow."
"See. Thats what you get for fooling around." She helped him reposition his arms and poured him some water.
"Can you drink?"
"Sure. But not like Dad could."
Xena rolled her eyes and lifted his head. "Shut up and swallow."
Before he took a sip, he started a response. "Xena. I bet you say that to all the....Oww."
"So, youre Queen Gabrielle. My name is Voula."
"Its nice to meet you Voula. Please, just call me Gabrielle."
Gabrielle took in her surroundings and the woman who was rotating soft clothes soaked with cold water from her nose to a nearby bowl. The amazons who had brought her into the camp had finally left the hut and allowed the healer to continue her work in privacy. Gabrielle wondered where the endless supply of cold water was coming from.
As she scanned the room, noting the various herbs hanging to dry, she knew it must have a distinct odor, if only her nose was in working order to smell it.
"But you are a queen. An amazon queen at that. How could I not refer to you as such?" Voulas hands were drenching a cloth in a bowl nearby. Her front was speckled with drops of previous cloths placed on the royal nose, as well as a smattering of blood, also from said nose.
"For one because I am not your queen, as everyone around here is quite willing to remind me. And two, because Id prefer it if you called me plain Gabrielle," the bard said, being careful to enunciate clearly despite her nasal discomfort.
Voula bustled over to Gabrielle who was sitting on a stool with her head tilted back slightly. The amazon healers gray eyes surveyed the blonde and told her to remove the hand she was using to hold the cold compress in place on her own face. She went on to tell Gabrielle that she would call her what she wished.
"But you are not plain anything. And who keeps reminding you that you are not our queen?"
"That woman who led the hunting party that brought me in, for starters."
"Ah. Kiriaki. She can be very stubborn."
"Yeah, well, Im used to stubborn warriors. But they were arguing about whether or not they should bring me here, to the village. They were worried about showing me the secret entrance. Which is really great by the way. Youd never see that opening behind the waterfall if you didnt know to look there."
"Hmmm. Okay. Put your hand back up here." Voula sat on a slightly higher stool in front of the blonde.
"But Im not sure I see why its a big deal," Gabrielle continued. "I mean this village has other ways to get here so why the cloak and dagger stuff about the waterfall?"
Voula rested her hands on her lap. She was older than Gabrielle and Xena were but she dressed after the fashion of Amazons having twenty or thirty years. A short leather skirt and sleeveless shirt hung from her taut body. Gabrielle wondered if she usually dressed more her age and this outfit was due to the unusual weather.
"This village is devoted primarily to trade, and we get a lot of visitors from other villages. Although we are not geared towards fighting as other Amazons, we are a warrior people. We need whatever military advantage we can have."
Gabrielle nodded in understanding. "Your village is also known for its healers."
Voula smiled and her spine straightened. "We are. I have a new class of apprentices starting in a few days."
Kiriaki cleared her throat at the doorway.
"Im here to see if she is well enough to meet with Queen Tasia."
"She has a name," said Voula as Kiriakis dark blue eyes flashed anger at her words. "Just give us a few moments to make her more presentable. Is that all right with you, Queen Gabrielle?"
The bard agreed and smiled at Voulas dig at the amazon warriors attitude. The blue-eyed amazon scowled and stalked outside without waiting for Gabrielles answer. Gabrielle couldnt help but think of her own warrior with the lighter blue eyes who was out there no doubt facing horrible odds and personal demons. She felt some of her anger at Xena melt away.
Together Voula and Gabrielle got the bloodied green top off and into some soapy water to soak. Voula found a top that would fit the bard in a pile of clothes donated to be cut into rags and bandages. Considering the source, it didnt look half-bad. It was a rich purple, just a little worn around the neckline.
"Why dont you like me?"
The amazon didnt have to think about the answer to this "amazon queens" question. But she did ponder whether she wanted to speak it. Gabrielle stopped walking and Kiriaki wanted to escort her charge to the question hut and be done with it. If answering the question would get her there, then fine. She would be blunt.
She had stopped a few paces ahead of Gabrielle. Kiriaki halved the distance between them and looked directly into the green orbs.
"Because you are dangerous. You have the ability to start trouble but you dont have the sense to finish it. I saw you with those men today. You could have stopped them. Instead, we had to clean up your mess. Nothing happened to my warriors this time, but having someone like you around willing to pick up a weapon but not willing to use it fully could get someone hurt. I dont know how you can call yourself an amazon, much less an amazon queen."
Her position clearly stated, Kiriaki relaxed her stance and motioned Gabrielle to begin walking again. Gabrielle had no such intention. Although stunned by Kiriakis answer, the visiting amazon was not ready to let the issue drop there.
"Thats not fair, Kiriaki. I didnt purposely put you in danger. I had no idea you were there."
The brunette amazon with the smoldering blue eyes folded her arms across her chest. "Would it have made a difference?"
"I..um... dont know."
Kiriaki thought about leaving it at that, and let the clearly shaken diminutive blonde ponder it out. They were after all, standing in the middle of the village, though most of the amazons were in their dwellings enjoying the evening quiet hour. But something about this pretty but misguided amazon royal who was known to travel with the warrior princess got under her hide. Pretty? Well at least she had been pretty before getting a straight right to the nose.
"Okay, you dont know. But has it before?"
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked, her confidence all but gone.
"You travel with Xena, right?"
The bard agreed.
"Well, when you know she is there to step in if need be, do you take care of yourself or do you let her take over and do the dirty work?"
Gabrielle thought back to the times Xena had done for her what she could not, or would not do for herself. She remembered Xenas giving up a second chance at life and life of her beloved brother Lyceus so as not to see Gabrielle kill. Then there was the time Xena killed Callisto for the bard, and at her bidding, no less. The torment that caused Xena still weighed on her mind. Gabrielles long pause to think about the question gave Kiriaki all the answer she needed.
"I thought so. Its a wonder the warrior princess isnt dead yet. Cmon, lets go."
"Hey," Gabrielle said, having been startled back to the present. "Let go of my elbow. And you dont have to be so mean with the way you say things, you know. I can get your point without the attitude."
Kiriaki knew her last comment wasnt necessary, having been convinced by the womans silence and expression that she understood. She said it merely to hurt Gabrielle.
"Sorry," said Kiriaki, and the two continued toward the queens hut at the east end of the village.
Gabrielle was in no mood for amazon protocol. She was in no mood for anything more than curling up in a dark cool corner somewhere and crying herself to sleep. In a few short days she had been abandoned by Xena, tied up and forced to go where she didnt want to, escaped, and ran through strange woods in oppressive heat. That led to a threat of rape, an attack, and a nearly broken nose. Add to that she almost killed a man--who wound up dead anyway, and she was told off by an obstinate amazon who sparked a conflagration of guilt to erupt within her. Again. Now she had to make nicey-nice with an amazon queen who would probably think she was an incompetent idiot too.
Gabrielle steeled herself for her entrance while Kiriaki entered the queens hut to announce her. The bard could hear Kiriaki and could make out her shape, backlit by the candlelight. She was built very sturdy but lean. Her wavy brown hair fell below her shoulders and was kept off her face by a tan leather band. Not as tall as Xena, Kiriaki wore a similar persona that tended to add height.
"Queen Gabrielle," Kiriaki said, without choking on the words. She was leaning out of the doorframe, her face and its softened yet cautious expression still visible in the orange and pink light of the dying day.
Gabrielle walked past her with as much dignity as she could muster. Her nose ached and her eyes were surely beginning to blacken, but Queen Tasia walked toward her, smiling as if the bard was an old friend whose countenance was to be delighted in.
"Queen Gabrielle, such a privilege to finally meet you. Please come and sit with me and my..."
"Warrior in waiting," interrupted an amazon with curly black hair and a nose that seemed to curl out like the handle on a mug.
"Ignore her sense of humor. She doesnt even know what she means when she says things like that," Queen Tasia explained, sending what she intended to be a withering glance at her companion, who was standing near a table set for a feast.
"I am Queen Tasia," she continued. "And this is Athanasia, our esteemed general. Kiriaki," Queen Tasia said, redirecting her attention. "Wait outside. And draw the curtain."
The queen was casually dressed in pale almost white leathers. Her skin felt cool as she wrapped an arm around Gabrielles and escorted her to the table,
"It is a pleasure to meet you Queen Tasia and General Athanasia," said the bard. As she sat, the general offered to take her staff and place it in a hutch with the other weapons for the duration of the meal. Gabrielle agreed.
Once the three were settled and portions of figs, cheese and seabass taken, Queen Tasia asked the visiting queen the purpose of her visit.
"Or had you not intended on coming here before you were accosted by those soldiers?" added the general.
"No, I was coming here. Mmmm. This cheese is excellent," said Gabrielle.
"Since we are a trade center we get the best of what every amazon village has to offer" explained Queen Tasia.
"And how do you keep the water so cool?" asked the bard taking another sip.
"That was Voulas doing. She had us dig holes into the ground behind the huts under shade trees and deep mini-cisterns of water down there on ropes to be pulled up, emptied, and refilled at will. It takes some effort to keep them fresh but it is more convenient than going to the well or the stream every time you want a cold drink.
Queen Tasia smiled at her generals practical answer. She knew the warrior bristled whenever she was expected to make a good impression. That was part of the reason Queen Tasia kept insisting on her presence on such occasions. She hated the forced formality as well, but felt too trapped by her title to make light of all the pomposity herself. At least during a first meeting, that is.
"So, Queen Gabrielle. You were about to tell us why you are here, unannounced and without escort." Queen Tasia was happy with her general but her curiosity was getting the best of her.
"Yes, I was. But first...do you mind calling me Gabrielle? Im proud of being an amazon queen. Really I am. But sometimes Id rather be just Gabrielle."
Gabrielle couldnt understand why the queen and the general were laughing so hard, until they had explained after they were finished.
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