The Healing Fires
by Linda Fiorella
The overcast sky matched the mood of the solitary warrior. She had awakened early after a restless night. A small breakfast of dried pork and a few sips of water was all her skittish stomach could handle.
Before bedding down for the night, Xena had placed the phallus back in the saddlebags unused. Her memories were too vivid and she didn't want to think of Gabrielle when she climaxed.
It felt familiar to be on her own. Even though most of her life was spent surrounded by others, intruded on by their actions, battered by their expectations, Xena had never felt like she belonged. She knew what it was like to be alone in a crowd.
She wanted to make good time but she was also not in a rush to get to Pydna. She let Argo pick the pace and leisurely focused on signs of trouble in her surroundings. Her thoughts wandered back to the little girl with the rat. She wondered if she shouldn't have done something to the father to ensure that he would treat his child better.
No one did that for me.
Xena shifted her position in the saddle and concentrated on the sounds of the trees lining the road. The breeze rustled the bright green leaves. Celeste's elbow was right, rain is coming.
It was raining the day I saw Mother on the floor at Father's feet.
She shook her head. This was not what she should be thinking about on the road. There could be bandits or mercenaries anywhere around her. She had no one else to notice any trouble. She had to pay attention and not get distracted by these thoughts of the past.
"Maybe I better not go right back to Amphipolis, eh Argo?"
It makes it harder to forget. Harder to pretend.
Up ahead a cloud of dust swirled above what Xena remembered to be a clearing where she had stayed once on a trip home. She narrowed her eyes and a tight smile formed on her lips in the hopes that it might be some calamity needing her intervention.
As she neared the area of the commotion, she saw a group of four men chasing one half naked man around a campfire. The four were armed but had no weapons in their hands. They appeared to be toying with their prey, only chasing him in earnest when he threatened to go beyond the edges of the clearing. They called to him and teased him with comments of what would happen once he was caught.
Xena's heart pounded. Her muscles tensed. She practically purred with delight. Argo slowed to a stop at her mistresses command. The chased man saw her first and his eyes grew round. Two of his pursuers noticed the mounted vision staring them down with a look of gleeful menace.
The dark warrior unsheathed her sword with smooth confidence and pointed it at the panting man at the center of the fuss. "What's your name?"
"Andros," he answered, his bare chest heaving. He dropped to one knee to rest while the others looked at the intruder.
"Would you like someone to help even the odds, Andros?" she asked, resting her blade across a muscular thigh.
"Andros isn't allowed to speak for himself, fearless warrioress," answered one of the men, shooting a curt glance at the kneeling man before looking back at Xena. "But I assure you he is in no need or want of your assistance."
The other men laughed.
"Oh really, but he is in want of yours?"
"Well, actually he is." The man smiled broadly and his companions snickered.
Xena felt her grip tighten around the hilt of her sword. If this smug bastard was lucky she would wipe that smirk off his face with something besides her shiny blade.
Xena tossed her sword into the middle of the fray. An instant later she somersaulted off Argo's back and landed before the man in distress, catching her sword with a modest flourish.
"All right, boys, let's see who gets to help Andros out."
"Whoa, wait a minute. You've got us wrong. Tell her Andros."
Xena felt something was wrong with this picture from the start but pushed it aside. Now she was all revved up for a rousing bronze-age battle and these guys were holding up their hands in surrender before the first blow.
"Yeah, tell me Andros," she ordered with a sneer, hoping to get the answer she wanted.
The handsome man with the olive green eyes stood to look her in the eyes. His loincloth started to slip and he yanked it back up. "Well, we were sort of playing a game."
"A game? What sort of game?"
"Well, they are supposed to be slavers and I'm supposed to be a runaway."
Xena looked at the men around the camp. Upon closer inspection, they were a little too clean to be marauders. Her gaze settled back on Andros, who shrugged.
"You're kidding, right? Tell me you're kidding."
"We're not kidding. Although maybe next week we'll move farther back from the road," offered the man who had spoken up before.
The frustrated warrior ran her hand through her hair. Andros had a sheepish look on his face. Xena leaned in and asked him suggestively, "Are you sure you wanted to be the runaway this week? I could, you know, rough 'em up just a little if you want."
"No. That's okay, really."
Xena walked back to Argo shaking her head. "Let's get out of here, girl. There's got to be someone worth hurting between here and Pydna."
Cassa struck a relaxed pose on the blanket. Then another. Finally after her third try at looking nonchalant, the weaver sat up and leaned over her folded legs. Gabrielle would be there any minute and she was not ready.
The visiting queen was beautiful and troubled. Cassa had been taken in by her kindness immediately. Although Gabrielle had been going through a lot since she arrived, Cassa was impressed with her willingness to stay and work through the painful feelings that haunted her. When the weaver thought of Gabrielle, she appeared as she had the first time they came to their spot by the waterfall, thoughtful and playful all at once.
But now she was going to tell the visiting queen that she had feelings for her beyond the friendship they had so far enjoyed.
A half-hearted growl rumbled within her. The weaver was an amazon hero, a prodigy with a sword, adn a marvel with a staff. She feared no warrior in hand-too-hand combat. But in affairs of the heart she was a novice. Not that she was a Hestian virgin. Cassa took her share of visiting merchants to bed. This was different. This was a beautiful, strong, intelligent Amazon Queen.
Not that Cassa expected Gabrielle to return her feelings. Even after the look of respect she had given her after the match with Kiriaki the day before. But, Lexia had encouraged her to be honest with the blonde and once she agreed to she had been trying to get the bard alone for over a week. Now was her time.
The sound of a staff scraping the hard worn path alerted Cassa to her friend's arrival. Now *was* the time.
Gabrielle turned the corner to see Cassa sitting cross-legged on a bright green blanket. She looked up to smile at the bard, but the expression in her eyes was more of a condemned criminal. Gabrielle smiled back hoping to put her suitor at ease. She had been confident that she knew what Cassa was going to want to talk about and the fear now evident in her rich brown eyes convinced the bard.
Gabrielle sat next to the weaver after propping her staff nearby. She hadn't returned to the ledge since Xena had left her. The waterfall gurgled below them but the noise and the mist seemed diminished.
"Is it me or is the waterfall weaker now?"
"It is calmer. The summer has been a dry one and the run off from the mountains peaked early from the heat."
"Hmmm. I like it better," the bard remarked. "I can appreciate its beauty more, now that it isn't so overwhelming. Look, Cassa. A rainbow in the mist."
Cassa followed where Gabrielle's finger was pointing. The clouds parted long enough for the colors to form an arc across the date trees opposite the ledge. "It's beautiful."
The bard nodded. She wanted to talk to Cassa about her morning. Both the scolding from Voula and the confrontation with Antigone were weighing on her mind. But she also knew that Cassa had been waiting to talk to her for several days. She could talk to Voula when she finished her work for the day.
"You really are something with a sword, Cassa. But you were even more impressive
with the staff. Maybe we could spar sometime?"
"Sure, I'd be glad to." Cassa paused, trying to come up with something to say besides what she wasn't ready to. "Did you bring anything to eat?"
The bard realized her friend was nervous. All she had brought with her was a staff and her outfit (she was wearing her usual traveling with Xena clothes) could hardly hide a grape, let alone a meal.
"Ah, no. I was hoping you did."
Cassa looked into Gabrielle's twinkling green eyes. The weaver could see amusement and compassion mingling there, but she couldn't connect her own thoughts anymore.
"Gabrielle, I...forgot to bring any wine."
The bard was beginning to feel nervous just watching Cassa. She did the only thing she could think of to put the woman out of her misery.
"Cassa, is there something you wanted to talk to me about?"
"Yes," she blurted out at the end of a sigh. "I mean....yes." The weaver just wanted to be done with it now.
"Gabrielle, ever since I met you, I thought you were beautiful. I have to tell you how I feel. I want to... I'd like to... I desire you."
Once she got the words out the amazon weaver slumped forward a few inches, resting her head in her palms. She took a deep breath and looked to Gabrielle for her response.
The visiting queen wanted to reach out and touch the brave woman but thought it better to wait. Cassa picked up the hesitation and thought she had offended the blonde.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."
"No, Cassa, it's all right, really. I already knew you had feelings for me."
"And that's why you avoided me? I knew it. I shouldn't have told you. I should have kept it to myself and..."
"Wait a minute, Cassa, let me talk." The weaver complied, reluctantly. "In a way that is why I avoided you because after what happened when Xena came, I couldn't deal with talking to you. But not because I'm upset with you."
Now she couldn't hold back her instincts and she laid a hand on Cassa's arm. "I am so honored that you would find me attractive." She smiled warmly, knowing that Cassa had already understood where this was going. "But, at this time it would be impossible for me to even consider becoming involved with another woman. I'm not over Xena."
"She's a hard act to follow."
"Yes, I suppose she is. But that isn't what I mean."
"I know that isn't what you meant. But I feel like I would be competing with her anyway. And I want you to know I wasn't really expecting you to say anything else. I just needed to be honest and let you know my heart."
The sun poked through the clouds once again and adn the rays took on an almost liquid consistency on their way to graze the soft skin of the two amazons.
"I'm sorry I can't give you more, Cassa. You deserve someone who loves you. I can't seem to love anyone right now." The bard moved her hand and used it to brush back some chestnut locks from the weaver's face. "Thank you for telling me how you feel."
"Do you still want to stay? I brought some bean salad and a great loaf of bread from one of the southern villages."
"I want to stay if you want me to."
The amazon weaver nodded. "But we better eat fast. I think it might rain."
Two days straight of rain and Xena didn't think she could be any more soaked. She had spent the last two nights in dank caves and had not seen another human being since that run in with the fake slavers before the rains had started. Everyone was staying inside and off the roads as the summer storm relentlessly pelted the earth. Everyone but Xena.
Puddles potentially disguised the potholes in the road so Xena walked before Argo so as not to have the war-horse accidentally step in one and come up lame. Through the loud pounding of torrents on leaves and the slick ground, the warrior barely made out the sound of a waterfall. She wiped the excess water from her face to check her position.
The small clump of trees at the roadside to her left was familiar. It was where she had found the rotting bodies of the thugs on her way to the amazon trading village. She peered to her right. She knew the passageway to the village was back there somewhere but the distance and the rain made it impossible to see it.
Her mother's voice whispered in her head for her to go and get Gabrielle.
Slicked by the torrential rain, Xena's black bangs glistened against her forehead. Her eyes were more gray than blue, almost matching the sky and the fluid that fell from it.
She shook the voice and her answering thoughts out of her head and sparkling droplets whipped about her. With a solemn nod she made her decision and pulled gently on Argo's reins.
The tall warrior kept her eyes to the road, focusing entirely on the path ahead. She felt a pull from deep within her. Or was it from without? It called to her and beckoned her to move to the right. The force yanked at her guts, hooked her ribs and wrenched her very soul.
"No." She repeated it to herself until it made no more sense to her than the gurgle of a fish. That one word became her lifeline to the road she had chosen, the one that lead past the village and past Gabrielle.
Once she was far enough past the boundaries of the village, she stopped to look up. Her eyelids blinked out the rain, her lashes filled with the stubborn drops. "I did it," she said to herself. The warrior opened her mouth and drank some of the warm sweet rain.
"I made a decision to let go, Gabrielle," Xena said after a big gulp. "It may be the biggest mistake I've ever made..." The warrior fought the urge to look back. "But at least as long as you're there, I know you'll be safe."
Xena woke up in an abandoned shack. She felt woozy and reached for a waterskin. It was predawn, but she could tell by the crispness in the air that the rain had moved on and the sun would be out in full force as the day came to life.
After downing half the skin, the warrior stretched her long frame and strolled out to find Argo. The war-horse was waiting for her near the entrance. The two travelers greeted each other, and then Xena went off to relieve herself in the woods.
She still felt a bit out of sorts when she returned to break camp. She knew she hadn't eaten enough the day before or for the past few weeks for that matter. That and her emotional turmoil served to drain her of all but her deepest reserves. She didn't want to think about the previous night's agony of trying to get to sleep without pining over the bard, remembering her childhood, or facing her anger at... well, everyone.
"I better get something in my stomach, girl. You won't mind staying here for a little while will ya?"
The warrior caught herself a rabbit. Once it was skinned, cooked and consumed, she felt ready to move on. "Let's go to Pydna. Yah!"
Argo moved purposefully beneath her, enjoying the brisk pace and the now risen sun after a few days of following her soggy mistress through the muck. The long dry spell had left the earth parched enough to swallow greedily most of the downpour. The roads were already drying in the brightness of the morning. Xena pushed the mare a little harder and began to feel her own strength return.
Her thoughts turned to Gabrielle. She felt strong enough to keep them there for a while. Xena knew she hurt the bard. She knew their relationship was dangerous for the young woman from Poteidaia, in more ways than one. At least Xena felt equipped to protect Gabrielle from the physical dangers of their life together. Now that the blonde had finally realized that she was better off without the warrior, Xena forced herself to be thankful that she had never allowed herself to fully believe that she could have made Gabrielle happy. And she reminded herself that the bard would be well defended by her amazon sisters. Gabrielle could at last find some peace.
By the time the sun was slightly past its halfway mark in the sky, Xena had slowed their stride. Ahead in the road she spotted a wagon stopped on the side of the road and noticed a commotion on the ground beside it. As she caught up to the rig, she could see that the movement and sounds were coming from an old woman wildly flailing her arms and screaming for help and justice.
The white haired relic turned to the sound of nearing hoof beats and screeched, "Friend or foe? Friend or foe?"
Xena dismounted gracefully and landed before the frightened woman. The warrior crouched quickly and stilled the crone's screams with a well-placed hand. "I'm a friend, I'm here to help."
On her way to the scene, Xena had noticed only one set of footprints in the hard-packed mud. They were leading off the road to thick underbrush, so she didn't know how far the assailant had gone.
"Shh. Tell me what happened."
"I've got nothing left to steal. The brute took it all."
"I don't want to steal from you. What did he take?"
"Four bags of gold. I'll give you one if you return them to me."
"There was only one man, right?"
"Yes. Only one, but he was a beast. He molested me. He molested me!"
Something didn't seem right about this, but Xena didn't think this wrinkled old dowager was playing some sort of kinky game like the last bunch. This time she was gonna get to break some bones. Maybe even spill some hoodlum blood. "I'll get him. No charge."
She stood up and trotted into the woods following the path the hurried thief hadn't bothered to try to hide. Xena slowed when the bent branches and broken twigs started coming in longer intervals. She could feel her skin burning with the rush of blood to her muscles. The trail had stopped dead as she came into a small clearing about two of her body lengths across. The warrior princess took two long menacing steps toward the center and stopped.
There was no sound other than the usual woodland ones. She couldn't smell him. She sensed a presence but couldn't pinpoint where. Her eyes narrowed and her lips slid into a sexy grin. An eyebrow twitched in expectation. She knew that she had him right where she wanted him.
"Looks like he got away," she murmured, resting her hands nonchalantly on her hips. "Good thing to, I guess. This shoulder's been acting up so much I don't know if I could have taken him."
The dark warrior saw the shadow just in front of her left boot stretch. He'd taken the bait. She wrapped her fingers around the chakram at her hip and felt her abdomen spasm as she anticipated the next move. The thief lunged at her from the branch over her shoulder unaware that his stalker was ready to slit his throat as she spun to catch him in mid jump.
Their eyes met and he saw his death as the raven-haired warrior grabbed his hair with one hand and swiveled a deadly chakram at his throat with the other.
A cool sharp edge bit into his tender skin as his body hung from her grasp.
"You're a boy."
Xena held the weapon against his throat. She felt a warm puddle forming at her feet. "I almost killed you."
"You mean you're not gonna?"
She lowered the youth to stand in his own piss and let go of his hair.
"Where's the gold?"
He reached into his trousers and pulled out four small spongy pouches. "Here. That's all I took. Please let me go now. Please?"
The boy was crying. Xena was too shocked to say anything. She waved him away, not bothering to watch him take off further into the woods. The warrior fondled the piss soaked linen absently.
"I nearly killed him. What am I doing?"
It was past time for the midday meal when Gabrielle woke up with a pool of sweat between her breasts. She stretched and flexed her shoulders then wiped the salty fluid from her cleavage.
Two days earlier, not long after her conversation at the waterfall with Cassa, the bard had watched as a revered village elder was brought to Voula's on a stretcher. Since then, Voula had determined that nothing more could be done for the amazon and sent her home to die in her own surroundings, according to her wishes. But since her return home, she had gone in and out of consciousness and even when she was conscious, she often didn't recognize the amazons around her.
The apprentices took turns watching and caring for the dying woman. The healer supervised them. Voula was certain her apprentices were skilled enough to care for Palamina; she was more concerned about their reactions to providing comfort to the aged amazon.
The visiting queen had been too busy with her studies and caring for the ailing amazon, that she had made no further headway in her initiation plans or in thinking about her own doubts and questions. Gabrielle's last shift had run late into the night. Palamina awoke in the night's darkest span and called for Thana. The blonde apprentice knew of no amazon named Thana. She tried to comfort Palamina with gentle words spoken in soothing tones, above the constant thrumming of rain on the roof. Eventually the old amazon fell asleep, but Gabrielle was fairly certain she had been of no help. The helplessness of the situation had weighed on her mind for the rest of her shift.
Now, in the light of day, Gabrielle felt less reproachful of herself. Perhaps she could figure out a way to ease Palamina's suffering before she returned to relieve
After a midday meal with Antigone and Voula, Gabrielle went for a walk on her own. She would be able to study by candlelight into the night at Palamina's. The village was teeming with puddles from the brisk rains of the last two days. Merchants and traders tiptoed carefully from stall to stall, looking to gain bargains without sloshing through mud.
The bard greeted a few friends then wandered into the edges of the woods. She followed a narrow path toward an area designated for special rituals on holy days. Knowing better than to go all the way on her own, she planned to stop at a lookout post in the trees for a short time to think.
The taller underbrush nipped at her legs as she passed, while the shorter grasses left droplets of leftover rain on her boots as she passed. When she found the post, the bard looked up and decided not to climb it. Instead, she cleared a spot on the ground to sit and lean with her back to the trunk.
During the meal, Voula said that Palamina was a vegetable merchant. Her longtime partner, Thana, died many summers ago after many years together. They were one of those couples, the healer had explained. The ones that glowed with their love and bond.
Gabrielle would have liked to talk to this merchant. But now it was too late. The dying woman was incoherent and Voula suspected she might pass during the next day or two.
"How is she?"
Elefteria shook her head. She got up from her stool at Palamina's bedside and lead Gabrielle away from the bedroom to the front room of the hut.
"Has she asked about Thana?"
"Once, but I could hardly hear her. She didn't take much food or water all shift," Elefteria answered with a trembling voice. "Gabrielle, I almost feel like a criminal saying this, but I almost wanted to put the pillow over her mouth and put her out of her misery."
"Why, is she in pain?" the bard asked in hushed tones.
"Not much physically. But the look on her face... she seems so afraid especially when she calls for Thana."
The two apprentices sighed in unison.
"I have a plan to help her. You go get some rest Elefteria."
Once she was alone in the house, Gabrielle returned to Palamina's bedside. She pulled the stool closer to the head of the bed where she could see the slightest change in her expression.
Palamina's face was pale. Her chin was decorated with swirls of coarse white hairs to match the softer flowing ones on her head. The old woman's breathing was shallow but regular. Gabrielle held the vegetable merchant's hand gently in one hand while touching a moist cloth to her lips with the other.
"I'll sit her and wait all shift if I have to," promised the bard. "If you die tonight I won't let it be alone."
Voula walked briskly past the queen's quarters on her way to Palamina's. It was the middle of the night and the village was dark and silent. The healer's internal timer woke her up. She would relieve Gabrielle and take the hardest shift herself. The peddler would not last much longer.
Despite her concentration on the woman before her, Gabrielle heard Voula's soft footsteps coming closer. The sounds stopped at the doorway.
"How is she?"
Gabrielle turned to look at Voula. The healer saw the tearstained cheeks of the visiting queen in the candlelight and immediately rushed to the bed. Before she got more than two steps, she saw the old woman's chest rise and fall with a labored breath.
"What is it, Gabrielle? She's still with us." Voula searched the silent bard's expression. "Stand up, let me take a look at her. You go to the kitchen and bring me back some peppermint tea. Not too hot though."
While the blonde was gone, Voula repositioned Palamina's limp frame and gently caressed her cheeks and forehead. She then kissed every spot on her face where her hands had been.
Voula sat on the stool. "I'm here, old friend. We non-warriors have to stick together. We usually don't get to die quick and with a big flourish, do we?" She pictured how Palamina looked the first time that they met. "That doesn't make you or I any less an amazon. Or any less dangerous."
The healer's smile was edged with nostalgia. "You destroyed some of the toughest amazon warriors with a glance in your day. It's a good thing Thana wasn't the jealous type."
A small sniffling sound came from the door.
"Did you bring the tea?"
"Yes," answered the bard as she crossed to the bedside and placed the mug on the table next to the candles. "Good. Mix some of it with the water and then dab it on her lips. Try to get some in her mouth but not much. The taste will soothe her."
Voula checked her patient one more time as Gabrielle began to dilute the tea.
"When you've finished come and meet me outside."
The warrior was almost asleep. She lay on her side with her long arm draped around a wineskin where the bard usually... no used to sleep. So far, the warrior had not had a drink of spirits since her mother told her that her father used to get drunk and chase women. Xena did not want to be like her father. Still, she kept the skin nearby in case the loneliness got to be too much in the middle of the night.
As she felt herself drifting off, the dark warrior heard a sound from nearby. It didn't sound human, but rather like the sound of a four-legged animal foraging around. She heard another sound more of a thud. This put the warrior on full alert.
The smell of blood and sweat came to her and brought forth a surge of energy to the now fully awake former-warlord.
She raised herself to her haunches and grabbed her sword. Xena aimed her discerning gaze at where the sound had come from. She let her other senses scan the area surrounding her in case this was some kind of trick. Her nostrils flared to increase their ability to detect the odors of the intruder. Sensitive ears picked up every rustle of a leaf, every mating call of a mid-summer insect. The warrior raised herself to a semi-standing position and slowly shortened the distance between her and the animal.
As she got the edge of the camp, she reached out and parted some bushes with her left arm, poising her sword to strike with her right. Her eyes quickly became accustomed the darkness beyond the small fire behind her and she made out the glint of a pair of eyes on the ground. They belonged to a deer whose breathing alternated between deep gasps and ragged shallow pants.
Xena felt a trickle of sweat course down her back. She continued to remain on alert to any possible threat around her, but her instincts told her that this was the sole cause of her midnight disturbance. A slight breeze blew through her thin, patched shift and raised goosebumps when in contacted her damp skin.
The warrior lowered her sword and licked her dry lips. She'd been eating too much salty food for such hot weather and it had left its mark on the flavor of her own flesh. As she neared the prostrate deer, the warrior began taking an inventory of the animal's condition.
The young female had been shot in the midsection. The arrow stuck out pretty far, leading Xena to deduce that it may have been shot by a youth practicing with an adult's bow. She drew somewhat closer and saw the blood around the point of impact was slowing. The animal raised her head to watch the nearing human, only to drop it back down from exhaustion. As she got closer, Xena could see that the doe had recently foaled.
The warrior stepped back. She had to make a quick decision. The deer might be saved if she worked fast and there were no major injuries to internal organs. Then again, her interference might only prolong the suffering of the new mother who would be better off being put out of its misery. Even if she lived, she may return to find it's offspring dead.
She looked at the deer struggling for every minute of life that it could hang on to. Was that utter ignorance or some supreme wisdom that provoked the dying doe to fight an impossible battle? Xena knelt at the head of the animal and held down its neck. An instant later the animal was still. Xena rushed back to the fire and let her sword dangle in the flames.
Then she retrieved her saddlebag and pulled the needed supplies with practiced efficiency. After grabbing a log from the fire to use as a torch, she returned to the animal whose movement had been blocked by pressure points.
"Let's see what we've got here," Xena said. She held the flame close to the wound and judged from the angle and position of the arrow that the doe may have escaped serious injury. "It looks like it's gonna be up to you, Mamma. I think I can get this out of you okay. If you haven't lost too much blood we should be all right."
Xena worked quickly to remove the arrow, cauterize the wound, and cover the area with an herbal concoction. The animal rested once the pressure points were released but her limbs and body had been bound and weighted down to keep her still. The warrior sat down to review her handiwork and make sure she had done all she could.
It was too dark to go looking for a frightened foal in the night. "You probably hid your little one too well for me to find it, right Mamma? Then again, if you were so smart, how'd you get hit by that arrow?"
The doe blinked lazily, licked at the air with her tongue, and tried to paw the ground. "Nope, you're not going anywhere tonight. Your big buck can come to try and get you but he'll have to go through me first."
Xena swore she heard the animal sigh. "I promise I'll go looking for your baby at first light." She pondered how she had been on a mission to inflict pain on humans and wound up saving the life of an animal. She heard a sigh escape from her own lips as well. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to give me a hint as to where the bundle of joy might be?"
Xena flung a bloody rag into the new fire she had made over by her patient. "I didn't think so." The warrior thought about laying her head down and trying once more to sleep. Her thoughts were interrupted by the soft neigh of her horse. "What's the matter Argo, are you jealous?" The palomino shook her head. "Good. Don't go getting any ideas, either." I need a friend like you.
The former warlord sat in the dirt as the night dawdled by. Her hands were covered in blood, her main goal of the past several days was finally accomplished but in vastly different circumstances than she expected. Once more, the familiar feeling of anger prickled its way into her gut and beneath the layers of her skin.
"What is going on with me? I want to cause pain because I am in pain? Haven't I moved beyond this? Won't I ever move beyond this?"
The light of the fire flickered over the nearby foliage creating a dancing pattern to accompany the crackles and hissing of the wood. "I need to talk to Gabrielle." But she doesn't want to talk to me. "Then someone else. Who can I find who can help me?"
Xena ticked off a short list of those she would call friends, or at least admirers. None of them would be willing to listen to the warrior princess bitch about losing her bard and her control. "That's a great conversation starter coming from me. 'Hi friend, I seem to be barely in control of my desire to pulverize any human in my sight. Want to give me a hug?'"
The warrior princess leaned back, resting her head against a log. She wondered if she might not hurry back to Amphipolis after all and spend some more time with Celeste. First things first, she reminded herself. I have to find a hungry foal.
Voula was waiting by a post at one end of the village. Gabrielle made her way over to her mentor slowly.
"Should we be leaving her alone like this?"
The healer's gray eyes shone in the moonlight. "We won't be long here. What upset you in there?"
"Can't we talk about it later. She needs us."
"Gabrielle, Palamina is crossing over soon. But you are training to be a healer for many years to come. Your reactions are my concern. I promise you that we will make it back to see Palamina before she leaves us."
"I had a plan, Voula. I wanted to help her and it's too late."
This was not what the healer was expecting but it came as no big surprise either. "What sort of plan, my young friend."
"She kept asking for Thana. I didn't know who Thana was so I didn't do anything except say that she wasn't there."
"But I told you who Thana was this morning."
"I'm sorry, Voula. I meant last night. So when I found out who she was I thought I could pretend to be her when she called for her. I just know it would ease her suffering."
Gabrielle felt wetness trickle down her cheeks again but it was more out of frustration with herself than from sadness.
Voula wrapped herself around the young woman before her and slowly traced circles around the bard's back. She shook her head slightly and waited for the blonde to relax.
"What do you want to tell her, Gabrielle."
"As whoever," the healer said, pulling back to see her apprentice's face.
"I want to tell her that I came back to help her to cross over. And to tell her that I'll be waiting for her there and that it is beautiful on the other side."
"Why is it too late?"
"Because she hasn't called for Thana tonight. I don't think she will before she dies. She can' t hear us anymore."
Voula smiled and laid an arm across the blonde's shoulders, walking them back to Palamina's hut. "Gabrielle, we all have to learn what is in our control and what isn't. You can't take away Palamina's fear or her death."
She held aside the indigo curtain to the vegetable merchant's doorway as she continued to speak. "And you can't fix her longing to be with her lover."
They stopped walking when they reached the threshold to the bedroom. "But what do you think you can do for her, Gabrielle?"
"I can make her as comfortable as possible."
"Right." The healer looked expectantly at the visiting queen who thought about what else she could do.
"I could tell her that I am here to help her cross over. And that Thana will be waiting for her on the other side and that it is beautiful there."
"Right. Those are the things that are in your power to do for Palamina. Can you do them?"
"Then you haven't failed." She glanced at the bed. "And it isn't too late."
Palamina's body struggled for every breath. Her caretaker wondered if her mind still held on or if she had long since given up the will to live and the organs continued on out of habit. Voula was in the kitchen heating some water.
Gabrielle took a few moments to center herself. She made a few false starts then offered comfort to the woman she barely knew.
"Palamina, this is Gabrielle. You are going to a beautiful place. You have nothing to fear; your work here is done now. Go find peace with your beloved Thana. We'll be all right without you and you without us."
There was no change in the demeanor of the amazon before her, but Gabrielle felt the joy of accepting what was happening. She was doing all she could and that left no room for later guilt.
This may not be making a bit of difference to this woman, but it is the best I can offer her. The visiting queen held the gnarled hand she was stroking up to her lips and kissed it.
"I'll stay here with you until you are ready to go." She felt a slight tremble in the tendons of the hand. An unexpected fear overtook the bard.
Voula passed behind her apprentice and took a place on the opposite side of the bed. She held the other hand of the dying amazon and whispered something in her ear.
The body on the bed shuddered. Eyes shot opened and looked around the room, settling on one face then the other. After a few more agonizing attempts at breathing, the vegetable merchant slumped down on the mattress. She was gone.
After a few moments of silence, Voula asked Gabrielle to retrieve the water and clean rags she had left in the kitchen. Together they cleaned the body, purified it with incense, and dressed it for the funeral rites.
"It is hard to accept that we are often helpless to fix anther's pain, Gabrielle," said the healer to her apprentice as the dawn lit the village in obscure warmth. The pair walked to the queen's tent to make it known that an amazon had passed.
"Sometimes all we can do is accompany them on their journey, and maybe learn from their example. But believe me, being that witness, that escort on the path can be a great gift."
"It felt like I was the one receiving a gift."
Voula nodded. "It works both ways."
The warrior slept little and spent most of the night keeping watch over her patient. When the sun began to rise, Xena foraged for some tender leaves and fed them to the doe. After checking the wound Xena fastened a makeshift harness around the animal to keep it from bolting, then released all the restraints.
She left Argo with orders to guard the animal and then left to search for the foal. Xena knew that deer often hid their young in bushes while they went to forage themselves. She also knew that deer often began to feed more intently just before nightfall. If the doe was hit around dusk, then the foal may still be safe and waiting for her to return.
She tracked back from where the deer collapsed at her camp and found where she had been shot. There was no sign of other tracks, human or otherwise, nearby. The warrior continued to trace the path the deer had taken, eventually coming across a lush sprouting of bushes and saplings.
The young foal was on the ground in the center of the greenery, with her legs like leaf stalks folded beneath her. Xena blew out a breath and felt her exhaustion wane momentarily. As peacefully as she could, the warrior eased into the tiny space where the foal was situated. Luckily, Xena had spent so many hours close to the mother deer that she smelled of the animal and the little one wasn't afraid.
Unluckily, the smell of her mother reminded the foal of how hungry she was and the mouth below those big brown eyes began an earnest search for somewhere to nurse from when Xena picked her up and carried her out of her hiding place.
The warrior repeatedly told the animal to stop chewing on her leather to no avail. When she returned with her charge, the warrior saw the struggle the mother was putting up to hurry to her offspring.
Her hair in desperate need of a good washing, the tired and hungry former warlord watched the foal race to suckle at her mother and the look of relief and rapture that graced the eyes of the deer. "I told you I'd find her, Mamma deer."
Xena recalled the times in her life that she had been called an animal. None of those times had she ever acted in as loving a way as what she witnessed between the weakened deer and her foal.
The warrior waited a few days before leaving the pair. Once she was sure that the doe was not suffering from any internal injuries, Xena saddled Argo and left the family to fend for themselves. She had a part of her own family to meet.
Xena smelled the tangy scent of the sea on the breeze long before she entered Pydna. The surrounding countryside was peaceful, almost idyllic. Young children played in the fields, accosting their older siblings doing chores. The recent rains had imbued the vegetation with a resolve to flourish for a few more weeks under the glare of the sun.
After a few more days of traveling unsure of what was going on with her emotions, Xena was glad to have made it to her destination and a purpose. The dark warrior steered Argo to the side of the busy road into the port town. Fish peddlers with loaded carts and wagons whistled on their way out while farmers wheeled their produce in. One family of four and their loaded wagon was trying to get around the merchants' larger buckboard.
The family looked spooked. Xena let them go without question, and continued on a leisurely pace toward the village center. There she found a tavern, hitched Argo to a post around the back, and sauntered in.
"Ale or port?"
Her eyes were still adjusting to the damp darkness of the room, but Xena could make out the barmaid pretty well. She was young, beautiful, and obviously miserable.
"Got any cider?"
"Cider?" The barmaid's curiosity was peaked. This warrior woman did not look like the cider type. "Yeah, we got some. But it's in the back."
"But I'm in the front and I'm very thirsty."
Xena watched with amusement as the strawberry blonde mentally calculated which statement would keep her out of the most trouble.
"I'm the only one here, uh, warrior. So if I go back there and something happens out here, I'll get in big trouble with my bosses."
Xena narrowed her eyes at the woman, just for the fun of it. The response surprised her.
The strawberry blonde leaned over the rough bar to lay a soft hand on the warrior's forearm. In doing so, she also exposed her ample cleavage. "You wouldn't want me to get in trouble, would you?"
The bemused warrior tilted her head back and suggested the barmaid go get the cider and leave protecting the front room to her.
After a short look around the quiet room, the napping drunk in the corner, and the tall
dark warrior before her, the strawberry blonde nodded and obliged after a curt warning.
"Don't you lean over that bar and help yourself to any of our reserve stock." The flirtatious manner was gone. But soon in its stead was a pitcher of cool cider.
"I've heard of pirate problems in this area." The warrior's blue eyes watched the barmaid wipe down tables.
"Yes, lately that's true."
"I saw a family leaving town on my way in. Is the threat that serious?"
The barmaid wiped her hands on her long blue skirt and opened her eyes wide. "Why ask me? I'm just a simple barmaid. The town magistrate is a few buildings down on the right."
"I really don't think you are a simple anything. And most of the best information can be gotten in the taverns where spirits have loosened tongues." Xena leaned back on the bar and sipped her drink.
"What's your name?" she asked the now frowning barmaid.
"Jocate, I have one more piece of information I need from you."
After a brief pause, Jocate sighed. "All right, what is it?"
"I'm looking for a woman originally from Amphipolis. Do you know her?"
The barmaid's hazel eyes hardened then turned quickly downward. "What do you want with her?" she asked in a disinterested tone.
"I have a message for her from Amphipolis. From a woman named Cyrene." Xena tried to gauge the reaction.
"Oh. Well, let me think. There are a few women here who came from the East..."
"It's okay, Jocate," came a voice from the back room. Xena turned to see a woman with a striking resemblance to Jocate except for many years of living etched into her face. That and her hair was more red than blonde.
"You are looking for Kostantina?"
The redhead moved closer to the warrior and studied the stark blue of her eyes. "You must be Xena."
"Yes." Xena's senses were on alert, looking for any hint of hatred or judgment. She found little in the redhead's manner except curiosity, and perhaps hope.
"Your aunt lives here, with Jocate and I. She is at the market now." She offered her arm for Xena to grasp. "I am Galise. Come to our living quarters where you can be more at ease." Galise smiled, more with her eyes than her lips, and beckoned Xena to follow.
Jocate watched them go and felt uneasy. Nothing but trouble could come of this, she thought as she wiped the last table, making sure not to get too close to the snoring head that rested there.
"Were you an amazon?"
Galise nodded. "I had been a slave. My anger brought me to an amazon camp. I wanted to learn how to fight and kill. I left after a short time. Soon after that I met Kostantina."
Xena sat on a chair opposite from Galise. They had been talking about Pydna and Kostantina but nothing in much detail. They both knew they were making small talk until the missing relative arrived. The warrior took the time to take in the room.
They were obviously doing well; everything in the home was good quality. The best furniture and linens. Nothing ornate, but more impressive than the average Grecian tavern owner had.
"You two met here? In Pydna?"
"Yes. I was pregnant and we were both new to town. We teamed up to survive and eventually fell in love."
Xena nodded, unsure of what to say to the lover of the aunt that she didn't remember having.
"That's, uh... nice."
Galise smiled and stood up. "I think I hear her now."
Voula had Antigone and Elefteria wait outside. She entered the apprentice's shared quarters and found Gabrielle still asleep on her cot.
The healer shook the leg of the small bed with her foot. The bard mumbled. Voula kicked it harder and said the visiting queen's name. Still nothing.
"Gabrielle, I've been calling you to get up since before breakfast. Are you sick?"
"No, Xena. I'm just tired." The blonde answered moving her hand up from her mouth to cover her eyes.
Voula leaned down and shook the bard's arm. "Gabrielle, wake up now. The others are waiting for you."
Gabrielle opened her green eyes and tried to focus them. "Voula?"
The lithe healer nodded. "You were dreaming."
"Oh. What did you say about others?"
"Elefteria and Antigone are waiting for you. I thought you'd want to go with them to see Solari."
"Oh yeah, Solari arrived yesterday. Tell them to go ahead," the bard said as she sat up and tried to wake up with a stretch. "I have some things to take care of first."
After a quick breakfast, Gabrielle got washed, dressed, and plucked her list from her bag. She organized the order of her errands in her head and took off with her staff into the mid morning bustle.
She visited the homes of two elder amazons, making short work of repairing worn curtains for one and replacing the crumbling mortar in the fireplace of another. For a silversmith, she made her bed for the second time in a series of twenty. Lastly, a trio of amazon warriors who lived, and possible loved together, although the bard wasn't sure about that, watched Gabrielle clean their kitchen.
"We should have asked her to clean it topless," said one, more than loud enough for the bard to hear.
"We tried, don't you remember. She bargained us back down but agreed to give us a little dance before she left."
"I did not," said the soot-coated blonde. "No dancing, yes clothes."
"Fine, but don't forget you have to reach really far back to clean that storage bin."
The bard was on her knees already leaning over a wooden box that had been filled with onions so old they had turned to mush. She was filthy from cleaning the cooking area and now she was going to smell like rotting vegetables for days. And they wanted to see her bend over and shake her ass while cleaning up their onion peals?
"Look, that's enough. I've cleaned this place better than it deserves to be. I'm going for a long swim with a hunk of soap. If you have a problem with that take it to your queen."
Gabrielle stood up and grabbed her staff. "And don't think I've forgotten that you owe me lessons in the javelin, the sword, and wrestling," she said pointing a finger at each warrior in turn. After that, she was gone.
"She's cute when she's angry," said one warrior with a smirk. The other two nodded. "I always did like feisty women," one added, as she whittled a wooden phallus and elbowed her roommate.
Gabrielle stormed into Voula's front room on her way to get some soap.
"What in Tartarus happened to you?" asked the healer.
"Nothing. I just want to get cleaned up and go see Solari." The ruddy-cheeked blonde brushed past Voula then stopped and came back.
"I don't know how this initiation is supposed to work. All I am is tired, angry, and wondering what is so great about this village to make me want to go through with this."
She spun back towards her room, took two steps and returned.
"I'm fed up with this whole thing, with this gods damned village, and most of all with you."
"Gabrielle, I never told you to make agreements with the entire village in a few days."
"Oh so it's my fault, huh? It's always my fault." Gabrielle's white-hot rage suddenly turned cold. Her jaw clenched and she ducked her head. She had said it sarcastically, to be followed with an accusation. But the truth of the statement left her stunned and speechless.
There was a knock. Voula asked who it was and Athanasia answered that she and the queen were going to bathe in their favorite watering hole and were wondering if Voula would like to accompany them.
"Gabrielle, why don't you and I go together? When we get back we can talk some more."
"I'd really rather be alone. "
"Yes, but you do need to get cleaned up too."
Gabrielle looked at the slime covering her and a resigned chuckle escaped from her throat. "They're not going to want to get into the same water with me."
Voula laughed and told Athanasia that she and Gabrielle would be right along.
Three amazons relaxed in the cool water, enjoying each other's company and occasionally munching on cherries. A fourth amazon scrubbed her hands, arms and legs repeatedly, eventually wearing herself out enough to lean back against the smooth rocks strategically placed in the swimming hole.
"Our visiting queen appears to be having a tough day," offered Tasia. The general and healer nodded.
"Is there something I can help you with, Gabrielle?"
"I wish you could help. I have to stop thinking that I have to do everything perfectly. It makes it impossible for me to ever be satisfied with what I do."
Queen Tasia scooted forward to make room for her warrior, Athanasia, to sit behind her and wash her hair. "Ah, that's nice," Tasia said to the general. "Gabrielle, I think that will come for you in time. You seem to just be realizing what you have been doing. What do you think, Athanasia?"
Athanasia slowed her rubbing motions on Tasia's scalp and fixed her eyes on the bard. "I think there is more to it than that. Gabrielle, you are going through our initiation because you asked for help. You were desperate for it. Yet now you are convinced that we can't help you now."
Voula plucked a cherry from a nearby bowl. She was enjoying the scenery around the watering hole that had been dug many summers earlier and was fed by a pure meandering stream. The healer also enjoyed the interaction between her young friends.
"How can you change the way I think?" the blonde asked. She took a deep breath and considered telling the three amazons the depth of her failings. A throbbing pain in her head seemed to soften her judgment because she began to speak her secret truth. "I realized today, just now that I always blame myself for everything that goes wrong. Even if it has nothing to do with me."
"Can you give us an example?" asked the general.
"I can give you dozens, but I'm not even sure which are and aren't my fault. But there is one from the other day..." Gabrielle felt ashamed but continued. "The other day I was afraid that Voula was going to be angry at Antigone for coming home late. Antigone noticed that I was acting like I was the one who was going to be in trouble. At the time I thought I was just feeling afraid of anger, I get uncomfortable when people I look up to get angry around me."
Gabrielle felt some of her shame lifting and with it her gaze. She looked at Tasia, who seemed the least threatening of the group and saw a kind understanding expression. "But now I see that I was just afraid of having more guilt piled on my soul. Somehow I felt sure that I should have made sure Antigone had made it home instead of spending the night with Lexia."
The amazons laughed. "It would have taken more than you to separate two amazons in heat, our visiting queen," Tasia said. "You do see that don't you?" she continued with a chuckle.
Gabrielle nodded with a slight smile. "If you can help me, I'd be grateful," she added. Gabrielle's face was flushed. But her headache had lessened as if the pain was being released through the embarrassed blood in her cheeks and coloring her ears.
"We don't want your gratitude. But perhaps we could help," said Tasia as she peeked around to smile at her lover.
Athanasia winked at her queen then spoke to the bard. "You seem to have your responsibilities all mixed up. There is no shame in making mistakes. Or in being wrong, either. You can't just change your thinking. You have to change your beliefs."
"My beliefs about what?"
"The basics..." Athanasia deferred to Tasia to take over when the queen interrupted.
"Who are you?"
"What does this have to do with my feeling guilty all of the time?"
"Trust us, Gabrielle.." The queen said, waving off the gentle caresses of Athanasia to concentrate. "What I'm asking has to do with everything. Now, who are you?"
"I'm Gabrielle of Poteidaia: Queen of the Amazons, bard, and apprentice healer."
"You're only partly right. You are Gabrielle. The rest are things you do and where you are from. Next question: What are you?"
"I just answered that, or is this some trick question?"
"No trick. And you didn't answer it," Voula interjected. "When you can answer that question you will have learned the basics."
Gabrielle looked even more puzzled by the last statement. The healer leaned closer and asked, "What is more basic than understanding who and what you are?"
Xena and her aunt sat side by side on a bench out behindthe tavern. Theirs had been an awkward reunion a few candlemarks before. Kostantina pulled her niece into a bear hug and Xena had attempted to return the gesture. After a quick retreat to stable the war-horse next door at the blacksmiths, Xena returned to watch the two women cluck over what to make for dinner and where their guest would stay.
All the while, Jocate stayed in the tavern area and served the thirsty sailors and villagers. Once the evening help arrived, and the customers became more boisterous, the thick wooden doors separating the living quarters of the women and their business were shut. The young barmaid still remained aloof but kept her gaze firmly on the warrior. Xena ignored the ill-concealed dirty looks of the younger woman and tried unsuccessfully to get the conversation between the older ones around to the problem of the pirates. Both Kostantina and Galise were not willing to discuss anything but what they termed, "the family."
Now that they were alone, Xena hoped to be able to pry some details about the situation out of her stubborn aunt. Instead, she found herself cringing inwardly as the woman placed a large hand on her thigh and squeezed.
"My how you have grown, Xena. Just look at you. I see a lot of your mother in you but you have the height of your father. Let me see," she said reaching up to grasp Xena's jaw with her other hand. "Yes you have his jawbone too. And maybe his lips."
The blonde woman with blue eyes perused the face of her relative. "Those are both family traits. I have the strong jaw and full lips too. Let me see your hands," she ordered reaching for the warriors clenched fists.
"Look, I'm glad to meet you too, but I'm not a little girl anymore," the dark warrior protested as her aunt tugged her hands onto her lap.
"No that's for sure. Why the last time I saw you I don't think you came up much past my knees." The woman ignored Xena's obvious discomfort with the physical intimacy they were sharing and proceeded to attempt a comparison with every part of the warrior's visible body.
"Wait a minute I don't remember ever meeting you," Xena said wresting her hands from the woman's grasp.
"Strong too. Well that could be from your mother's side as much as ours," Kostantina offered. "But I'm surprised you don't remember meeting me. You came here with your mother and brothers once. And you were old enough to remember it. I was exaggerating before about your size. You had to have four or five summers under your belt."
Xena did have a vague memory of a long trip from her youth. "We came here without Father."
"Yes, he was beating your mother again after promising not to. And he had started on your brothers too. You stayed here for about 12 days."
A memory of a big house with a dog and lots of horses came to the warrior's mind. She also saw her brother's playing 'catch me' with another boy and her mother busy in a kitchen with two other women.
"But it wasn't here..."
"Oh, Athena's bounty, no. It was right after I moved to Pydna," Kostantina whispered conspiratorially. "And before I met Galise. I was living on a farm with another woman and her little boy, Autolycus. I remember you wanting to ride the horses all the time. I helped you ride a big stallion..."
"That's right, Leader." Kostantina waited for the reality of the faded memories to sink into the troubled woman next to her.
"I remember you." Xena looked into the eyes of the blonde woman. "You were always laughing and making my mother laugh."
Kostantina nodded. "I loved your mother very much. And I loved you kids too. You all were the hardest things I gave up when I left Amphipolis." The elder woman with the sharp jaw, full lips and strong hands started to cry.
"How is Cyrene, really," she said through the tears. "I know what you said during the meal, but you betray your lies with a soft hitch in your voice, just like your father."
Xena was getting tired of being compared to her father. But she let it go and explained the truth about her mother's condition to her aunt.
"So she needs help at the inn?"
"Yes but cheap help," Xena answered with a frown.
"Oh, but that is just perfect, Xena," the blonde exclaimed. "Galise and I are selling the tavern and moving to Lesbos. Jocate wasn't interested in joining us but we won't allow her to stay here." Kostantina whispered again, "She keeps getting mixed up with sailors, and you know how undependable they can be."
"So you want me to take Jocate back to Amphipolis with me to work at Mother's tavern?" Xena asked, the idea sounding more plausible as it fell from her mouth.
"Sure as long as she agrees to it. And she likes men too much to go to Lesbos with us." Kostantina noticed the doubtful expression on her niece's face. "What's the matter, did she make a play for you, my little warrior?"
Xena winced at the term of endearment. "Well, she did sort of flirt, yes."
The older woman chuckled. "She's good at it too. Takes after her other mother, not me," she said with a wink. "But she has so far exhibited a very marked preference if you know what I mean."
A grin formed on the warrior's face. She was beginning to feel more at ease with her newfound relative. She still wanted to know more about those pirates before the older woman retired for the evening.
"Kostantina, can you tell me what is going on with the pirates?"
"Of course, Xena. Be glad to, first thing in the morning. Right now let's get you settled." The tall woman helped her taller niece up and pulled her gently along into the house. "We have a spare cot we can set up for you in Jocate's room for now. There is a spare room we use for storage and that we can get ready for you tomorrow so you can have some privacy..."
Solari lay back, grateful that the spot she had picked on the edge of the training field was fairly soft and bug free. After staying up late talking with a group of warriors the night before, she was further worn out by spending a good part of the morning with her own village's amazon, Antigone, and her fellow apprentice, Elefteria.
Antigone had explained what had happened when Xena caught up with Gabrielle. The description surprised Solari. She knew Xena and Gabrielle had differences, but the way it had all blown apart was unexpected. She admitted that she had wondered what had happened after she stopped in Amphipolis to find out that Xena had already left to find Gabrielle. Solari reminded herself that she would hear more on the subject from the queen herself.
After a midday meal with another warrior, Solari came to the practice field to spar with amazons different from those in her own village. She often picked up new techniques. The busy visit so far had left the normally quiet amazon nearly dead to the known world.
She heard footsteps approach, and despite her need for rest, her warrior senses recognized the gait and the soft thud of the staff between the steps.
"Hello, my Queen," she said while she opened her eyes and began to rise.
"Don't get up, Solari," answered the bard and she sunk to the ground next to the warrior. "It's good to see you."
The bard waited a moment then said, "I assume you've already heard the story from Antigone."
"Have you seen or heard anything? About her?"
"No. Do you want me to ask around on my way back home?"
Gabrielle thought a bit. "I'm not sure Solari. Let me think about it and I'll let you know before you leave."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"Solari, what are you?"
"What do you mean? I'm an amazon warrior."
"Are you sure? Are you anything else?" The bard spoke with such a sweet sincerity, that Solari knew she was serious.
"No. I'm a warrior, that's all. Do you think I'm something else?"
The blonde wore a look of disappointment. "No, I think it's just a riddle." She looked around at the few remaining warriors sparring. "I'm sure I'll want to talk to you about it eventually, but first I want to hear the dirt." The warrior noticed the slight glint in Gabrielle's eyes and they both knew that the bard was forcing herself to be jovial. But there was no need to press the matter.
"Okay, where do you want me to start? With the new one that Ephiny is sleeping with or what the old one did when she found out?"
The pair of visiting amazons walked through the final glow of dusk. Solari insisted on seeing her queen home. As they arrived, Voula greeted them and escorted them in.
"Did you two get something to eat?"
"Yes we stopped at Lexia's and had some summer stew. She also gave me this," said Gabrielle as she placed a mug on the table. "I want you to have it, Voula."
The healer embraced her friend, kissing her on the forehead. "Thank you, Gabrielle, that is more than kind of you. I'll cherish it always."
The healer turned to Solari. "Are you enjoying your stay?"
"And how long will you be here, Warrior Woman?"
The healer let go of her apprentice and faced the dark warrior. "Good. That gives us time to catch up," she said with a smile.
"Yes," answered the brunette with more than a hint of lust.
"Yes. It will be a pleasure to partake of more of your wit and mastery of the art of conversation," said Voula. "Goodnight, you two. Don't stay up too late chatting." She gave Gabrielle another peck on the forehead and to Solari, she gave a slap on the butt and a wink.
"She's a great teacher and an amazing healer," said the bard.
"She's got a great body and she's and amazing lover," purred Solari.
Gabrielle slapped her friend and asked her if she would like some tea. Solari shook her head and saw Gabrielle's expression falter.
"Oh, I was hoping you had some time. I wanted to talk to you some more."
"Who said anything about leaving. I just don't want any tea."
The blonde sat down and Solari sat across from her. "What happened, Gabrielle?"
"It is complicated, Solari. And part of my problem in talking about it is that I don't feel right talking about her behind her back. Not that I am saying anything bad about her. Just that I don't think she'd like it."
"You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to. You were at the waterfall, right?"
"Yes. I told her that I wanted to stay here."
"What did she say?" asked the brunette.
"Not much. She was angry. She wanted me to go with her and work things out. But Xena always tries to protect me and work things out for me. It is one of the things I love about her, but I need to learn to take care of some things on my own. I just didn't get to explain it right when she was here."
"She left without listening?"
"Sort of." The bard knew this came close to going past that line of comfort she warned Solari about. "Sounds like you know her pretty well too."
"Yes and no. If I were really angry, I might do the same thing too. Maybe it's a warrior thing." She saw that Gabrielle was only partly encouraged by the answer.
"If she were here right now, what would you tell her?"
"I'm not sure I'm ready to do that. I want her to know that I am sorry that I did things that were harmful to her and to us. And I want to know if she sees that she was less than supportive of my needs sometimes. And I want her to know that even if we did things in the interest of helping, that sometimes we still hurt each other. I'd tell her and ask her many things."
The blonde's green eyes looked to Solari for an answer she couldn't give. "I just wish I knew if it would make a difference.
The dawn came faster than Xena expected and her body resisted getting out of the soft cot. She had dreamt of riding Leader with her aunt at her back. Jocate was still sleeping so the warrior took her armor out to the backyard to put it on.
Kostantina welcomed the dark woman and offered her some fresh goat's milk. When they sat down for some breakfast with Galise, Xena asked again about the threat from the pirates.
"Oh, that," Kostantina said with a chuckle. "You are obsessed with that aren't you Xena?"
Galise laughed a bit too, and fluffed her baggy sleeping shift. "Don't pick on her, Kossy, she is a warrior you know."
"I know all about you warriors, Sweetmeat."
"I want to know what the problem is so I can figure out how to take care of it for you." Xena carefully tried to extract the memory of someone she was related to using the term Sweetmeat.
"That's the thing, Xena. The problem is already taken care of...most probably." Galise looked to Kostantina.
"True enough. We, the entire village, have been chipping in and paying off a warlord protection money for the past..."
"I thought it was six, Galise."
"I know, that's why I interrupted you to say seven."
"Seven summers. We give him a certain number of goats, fish, dinars, and horses a year. He doesn't bother us and neither does anyone else. The problem now is that the pirates aren't afraid of him. Or they're just so hungry or greedy that they no longer fear him."
Xena felt her anger rising and this time the focus of it seemed assuredly deserving of it. "Who is this warlord and where is he?"
"We don't know his name but he goes by 'The Red Titan' and he keeps an army a day north of here between the cities he protects," Galise responded.
"I've never heard of him." Xena's thoughts turned inward, searching for some piece of information about the warlord. "This is usually a peaceful area."
"Exactly Xena, that *is* what we pay him for." Kostantina ruffled her niece's hair not knowing how close she was to losing that hand.
Galise stood and offered to give Xena a tour of the backyard.
"But we are right in the middle of a conversation, Sweetmeat."
"I'll bring your niece right back. I just got it into my head to show her our tool shed. You know how we warrior types are." The redhead gently but firmly pulled on Xena's arm, leading her out into the sunlight.
"After more than twenty years of living with me, she knows absolutely nothing about warriors," the former amazon whispered. "Not that I was one for very long, mind you, but one can learn an awful lot from a short stay with those women." The redhead winked and Xena's stomach turned as she thought about Gabrielle getting amazon lessons.
"Yes I know about amazons," was all she could say, but the warrior forced a smile. After all, Galise had just rescued her from her aunt's hair ruffling.
"I know this may be hard for you to believe, Xena, but this warlord has been a boon to our village. From what I have heard of you from traveling bards, you are on a mission to reverse the damage you caused during your...dark period."
"That is one way to describe it," Xena said.
"So you, no doubt, want to rid Pydna of his tyranny and have us fend off pirates and warlords with our own means. Am I right?"
Xena nodded, already not liking the direction of the conversation.
"And that is a very noble and good intention. But Xena," Galise said opening the shed to pretend to show her guest a myriad of bronze tools. "We like having 'The Red Titan' protect us. If we formed a militia, we could defend ourselves, yes. But we would be doing so with the blood of our loved ones."
The redhead looked deeply into the eyes of her lover's kin. She saw some of the turmoil within and was honored that the warrior before her did not keep her emotions fully behind the pale blue walls.
"At least consider what I ask before you move to remove our paid protector. He is as beneficent a warlord as I have seen."
To be continued...
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