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A Warrior By Any Other Name
by Melissa Good
DISCLAIMER: The following story contains low level voilence. Please discontinue reading if this will cause you discomfort.
All he knew was darkness, now. Dimly, in a very small portion of what remained of his consciousness, he remembered light. Light that tied itself to a name he would never speak, a voice he would never hear, and eyes that would never again return his gaze. A part of his life, his soul, gone forever. ..
All around him was fear, and hatred, and anger - he felt the dull ache as stones hit him, and sticks poked into his battered sides, but kept his eyes closed against the yelling crowd. It didn't really matter - he could not last much longer. He felt his life force ebbing - taking him further into the darkness and away from the hot sun and dusty street of this small village. The angry cries faded from his hearing, save one last familiar sound,- the brisk tattoo of a horses hooves, then even that slid away from him.
In the late afternoon sunshine, two women and one horse walked steadily down a dirt road.
"Xena" Gabrielle looked up at her companion. "Are we making for Athens any time soon?" The bard asked with studied casualness, while examining the ornate end cap on her staff to avoid the raised -eyebrow stare she knew she was getting.
The tall warrior studied her traveling companion in some small amusement. "Well, I was thinking of it. " she finally answered. "Why? Did we leave something there or..." She slid around in front of Gabrielle and gained eye contact, surprising the bard. "or..do you have some other reason?"
Gabrielle opened her mouth to come up with some slick diversion, but found she couldn't - not with Xena's ice blue eyes locked with hers. .She sighed inwardly. Lying to Xena was nearly impossible. She always had the feeling that the tall warrior saw right into her thoughts with the negligent ease that she did everything else with. Left with no recourse, Gabrielle stuck out her tongue, which got a grin from the usually dour Xena.
"I've caught her speechless." Xena chuckled. Then she swung back around and continued to walk by Argo's patient side. "Ok, your secret. " She scanned the countryside, noting the beginnings of what was probably a small village not far ahead. " We can stop up ahead and grab some dinner, if you like."
Gabrielle sighed in minor relief. She'd been caught..but Xena wasn't pushing, which meant she probably thought whatever Gabrielle had up her sleeve was harmless. "Dinner sounds great." She commented, turning to glance at her companion "You're in a good mood today." Which wasn't as uncommon as it used to be, Gabrielle mused. She wasn't sure when that had changed...well, yes she was, actually, but preferred not to think about it.
Xena took a drink out of one of their water bags draped over Argo's back and passed Gabrielle the water. "Well what do you know? I think I am." she answered back, the reached over and gave the water bag a powerful squeeze just as Gabrielle brought it up to her face.
"Yahh!!!" Gabrielle sputtered, as water exploded out of the bag all over her. Swinging wildly, she squirted the remaining water around in as wide an arc as possble, using her free hand to wipe the water out of her eyes. She heard the water stream hit something, but by the startled snort, she knew it to be Argo. She peered at the horse, who, sure enough, had a dark streak mid withers where the water had hit her. Xena, completely dry, was on the other side of the mare, laughing.
"I'll GET you for that. " Gabrielle growled, pushing the damp hair out of her eyes. "You are SNEAKY". Still chuckling, Xena rummaged through a side pack, and walked over to where Gab was dripping, holding out a folded cloth.
"Here." she said, "I didn't think that much water would come out. " Sighing, Gabrielle took the cloth and wiped down her face. She was about to make a scathing comment when Xena's attitude abruptly changed. She stiffened, and stood taller, searching the horizon, her features going grim.
This sudden transformation always intrigued Gabrielle. This duality that made her friend both a joke playing companion, and deadly fighter. A woman of profound contradictions whose hands could gently groom Argo or take a life with equal skill, equal grace. Complex in ways unlike any one else Gabrielle had ever known and an endless source of fascination to the bard.
Xena's tensed features turned towards Gabrielle, and she gestured towards the nearing village. "Someone is getting beaten." She swung up on Argo, and glanced down at the bard. "Coming?" She proffered a forearm.
"Oh. " Gabrielle blurted, surprised. " You mean I don't have to stay here?" This was a change. Also not unwelcome.
Xena raised an eyebrow and looked off towards the village again. "Only if you want to."
Gabrielle didn't have to be asked twice, even if it meant riding Argo. She grasped Xena's arm, and before she could jump, was lifted up to saddle level and swung across Argo's haunches. She settled quickly. swinging her staff down and out of Xena and Argo's way. "I forget sometimes. " she muttered "just how strong you are. " She felt rather than heard Xena's low chuckle in response, as she grabbed a secure hold on the warrior's waist with one arm.
The pain was beginning to fade out now, much to his relief. He knew it wasn't going to be much longer. Sounds came sharper, clearer - the brisk hoofbeats had now turned into a powerful gallop. He loved horses - missed his beautiful Eris so much..muzzily he thought he would like his last sight to be this galloping animal that was coming towards him, but the effort to open his eyes was so great..a crack only, and the glare of sunlight almost made him shut them tight again. But the horse...determinedly, he forced his one good eye open further, fighting with all his will to clear his vision this one last time. Closest to him were his tormentors. Village men, boys, women, all with rocks, or sticks, one with a yoke pole. Their angry, frightened faces made a solid ring of roiling noise in front of him. He couldn't raise his head to see over them..he couldn't..ah. There.
The horse...beautiful. Prettier even than his Eris, he had to admit. A stunning golden color, with wheaten mane flying in the wind. Where was she running? She seemed to be coming straight for him..oh, it was worth opening his eye for this, yes it was. The setting sun broke out, unnecessarily gilding the golden horse, and setting fire to the armor of her rider.
The villagers hadn't heard the hoofbeats. How could they be so deaf? He wondered. They still pelted him with their stones, the man with the yoke pole slammed it across his ribs with enough force to break them. He didn't even feel it..Instead, he watched the horse - coming ever closer, and now he could see the grinning face of her rider. And knew he would spend his last moments in delighted surprise. A woman warrior..and beautiful as her horse, at that, but dark where the horse was golden. Ohh...he was sorry he wouldn't get to meet her!...His last fading sight was the sun off the sword in her hand as they plowed through the circle of startled and terrified villagers before him. Then..there was only darkness.
Gabrielle held on tight - and tried to get a glimpse of who the crowd was beating. All she could see was a scaffold, and the hands and large muscular arms of the prisoner.
Xena was loosening the sword in her scabbard, and leaning forward, urging Argo on. As they closed in, she drew the sword, and grinned. Oh, she wouldn't kill any of them. Just scare them so bad they'd think twice about stoning anyone next time. "Hang on!" she shouted to Gabrielle, who responded by tightening her arm around Xena and shifting forward towards the horse's momentum.
With a wild yell, she kneed Argo through the circle of suddenly shocked villagers,kicking out at several of the bigger ones. Gabrielle expertly swung her staff around, taking out two women with thorny branches and a stocky younger man holding two stones.
"Nice." Xena commented. swinging the butt of her sword down on someone's head, and using one well muscled leg to kick someone else halfway across the village.
"Thanks." Gabrielle replied, whacking a tall herdsman right in the chest. The villagers scattered, running in all directions. Gabrielle took advantage of that to swing down off of Argo's very high hindquarters and move towards the scaffold, but stopped dead in her tracks when she saw what it held, and just stared. Behind her, Xena also slid off Argo's back, and finished discouraging the last of the captive's tormentors before she joined her friend at the edge of the scaffold and looked at what they saved.
The man hanging from the wooden platform was huge - at least a head taller than Xena, and massively built, with a thick covering of light golden body hair. His head was covered with the same color hair that cascaded down his neck, and formed a sort of collar. His face, beaten and disfigured, one eye closed and covered with blood, had odd proportions, a massive jaw, and a somewhat rounded tooth line, with flattened nose, also hair covered. His remaining good eye was closed, and from the slackness in his body, and the strain on the ropes holding him, Gabrielle guessed he was unconscious. Or dead. No, as she got closer, she saw very faint motions of his broad furry chest.
"What is he?" Gabrielle turned to Xena, bewildered. "Is he a man, or...?" For once, the warrior didn't have a ready answer.
"You're the history expert, oh bard of mine. " Xena shook her head. "I have no idea. But we'd better get him out of here, or you won't get the chance to ask him."
By this time, the villagers had gotten the idea that Xena wasn't going to kill all of them, and were creeping back. But not too close. The village headman cleared his throat nervously. "Ah..is he, I mean..is he a well, friend of yours, warrior?" He edged around to get a good look at the both of them. Gabrielle strode over, holding out her hand. "Hi. I'm Gabrielle. " The headman jerked back, looking anxiously at her staff.. "Oh, don't worry. " She said, brightly. "I only hit people when they're doing something bad to someone else. " She held out her hand again, and this time the headman took it, gingerly. So this is what it's like to be feared. Gabrielle mused, Interesting. while making small talk with the headman to distract him from what Xena was doing up on the scaffold. "Why were you beating him to death?:" she asked, looking the man in the eye. " What did he do to this village?" She stood up, and made a graceful circle with her body, inspecting. "Looks pretty intact. " She turned and leveled her mist green gaze at him.
"Oh, well.." the headman stammered, darting nervous glances at Xena, who had cut the prisoner loose from his bonds, and carefully lowered his bulk to the ground. "I mean, he didn't DO anything to us, exactly..but.." He turned and gestured at the prone figure. " Look at him. How could we let such as him live in proximity to our village, to our wives, and children, who would be defenseless against him? He is a wild and terrible fighter."
"You know." Gabrielle said, conversationally, as she knelt down so that her head was on a level with the headman's, who was standing on the ground. "You really should give your wives more credit than that. Women aren't always defenseless." She smiled sweetly at him. "And did he actually threaten you, or were you just assuming he'd come into the village and eat you for lunch?" He had the grace to flush at her sarcastic tone. She held his gaze for a moment longer, then turned her head to watch Xena and the captive. The headman peered towards them as well. "Ohh...uh..um. Dear. That's isn't er.. Xena, by any chance is it.? " He glanced at Gabrielle, who patted his cheek, and nodded. "You got it."
Xena studied the enigma lying in front of her, having no idea in the world what he was. Never in her long travels had she seen anything like this - like a cross between a man, and a desert cat, more than anything. Could he be part sphinx? She glanced over at Gabrielle, who was occupying the headman so that she could collect her thoughts and assess the situation. A smile etched itself briefly across her face, then she turned her attention back to the prisoner.
His thick chest rose and fell very shallowly, and Xena thought probably he was dying. She leaned over him to study the head wounds he had suffered - they were bloody, but not very deep, except for the one around his eye socket. She winced in reflex at the amount of abuse. Well, perhaps he wouldn't die, but she had to get him out of this village. Even Xena, not usually affected by atmosphere, sensed the fear and hatred that the people surrounding the platform were directing towards this creature, or man, or whatever he was. And probably at me, too, she amended, sardonically. We share that, at least.
She straightened and rose in one fluid motion, and walked over to where the headman and the bard were standing. Gabrielle had turned to watch her approach, and their eyes met in a swift exchange of understanding.
"So." Xena said, grasping the headman by the shirt, and lifting him completely off his feet so that he'd have to look her straight in the eye. The man looked shocked. "I think 'm going to take responsibility for our furry friend there. Do you mind?" . Xena radiated menace, something she was really good at. Gabrielle was privately convinced that Xena practiced for countless hours in still pools and mirrors, that LOOK she gave people. "I think you're going to find some brave souls here to help me load him onto my horse. And I'll be nice..." she paused for a smile. 'and take him off your hands."
The headman swallowed heavily. He glanced at Gabrielle, who leaned casually on her staff and nodded. "It's a good idea to do what she says. She really hates it when people piss her off. " She paused for bardic effect. "They usually end up dead."
"O..O..Ok." He finally answered, and sighed as Xena let him down and released his shirt front. "You'll be sorry, though. He really is wild." He glanced up at Xena's glacier eyes. "Or maybe he'll be sorry. "
He ran off to get some burly villagers to help lift the creature. Xena raised an eyebrow at Gabrielle 'End up dead?" She chuckled as she shook her arm out - the strain of holding the headman off his feet that long had been agonizing. "The things you say sometimes."
The bard grinned back, and leaned on her staff. "Well, if I don't make sure your reputation is kept up, who will?" She leaned forward and touched foreheads with Xena, getting eye to eye with her. "and besides, they usually DO end up dead. Or missing parts. Important parts."
Xena scowled, then gave Gabrielle a push towards Argo. "C'mon we've got to get poor Argo ready to carry our friend there."
Argo was not pleased to be carrying this weirdly smelling load. She kept bowing her neck around to get a good sniff of what was on her back, and snorting. Xena kept a tight hold on her bridle, keeping her moving forward. The creature was still out cold, breathing faintly. They had bound up the worst of his wounds before they loaded him, but some were breaking open due to Argo's movement Xena studied the land's layout, spotting a small stand of trees near a stream where they could make camp. She motioned Gabrielle towards it, and followed leading the still reluctant Argo.
"Xena" the bard turned towards her. "Why did we take him? I mean, I know he was being beaten, and all..but you said he's probably dying.." she furrowed her brow "We could have stayed there and made them help us take care of him, I mean..." She stopped talking at the look on Xena's face. "What's wrong?" The blue eyes had a faraway gaze to them, as though she was seeing something Gabrielle couldn't. She turned her focus back on her companion.
"Truth?" She said, reaching out and brushing the hair out of Gabrielle's eyes. "I don't know. Sometimes, Gabrielle..sometimes you do things just because you feel they're the right thing to do, Even if it doesn't make sense when you think about it logically." She moved forward and started taking off Argo's loads, so they could, somehow, lower her main burden to the ground.
"Oh." Gabrielle whispered to herself, mulling that one over for a while. Then she got the blankets they had commandeered from the village spread out, and moved, uncertainly, towards Argo. "He's pretty heavy." She commented, "How are we going to lift him down?"
Xena was standing next to the horse, studying Argo's burden thoughtfully. Finally, she gently took both the creature's arms, and crossed them over her shoulders. "Back, Argo." The horse, reluctantly, started to back off, shaking her head in protest. "Back!" Xena repeated, gritting her teeth as the weight of the unconscious form came onto her muscular shoulders. She leaned forward to balance the load, and moved away from Argo, towards the blankets. Gabrielle got out of the way, and just watched the path under Xena's feet for rocks and branches that might trip her. Once she was over the blankets, Xena carefully lowered herself to one knee and rolled her burden off her shoulders and on to the ground.
Gabrielle kneeled next to him and arranged his limbs in a more comfortable manner. She glanced up at Xena, who was taking a moment to catch her breath before arranging the herbal kit on the blanket next to him. "I'll get some water, and start a fire."
Blue eyes lifted up briefly to meet her own. "Good idea. Gabrielle. Thanks." The bard stood and walked around the blankets, heading towards their supplies.
It took a long time to get all the creature's wounds cleaned and dressed, since Xena had to cut patches of his furry coat away matted with blood. The fur felt coarse, but not as coarse as a dogs coat. More like very thick human hair than anything else, Xena thought. She looked down. "He wears clothes" She gestured at the remains of trousers on his lower limbs. "and he wears jewelry. " She pointed out the small bracelet almost hidden in the fur of his arms.
Gabrielle looked on, fascinated, as she was by learning anything new. "So, you think he's a man, then." She surveyed his massive form, which even in his sad condition promised an enormous amount of strength. " Do you think the headman was right? If he gets better, will he try to attack us, or them?" she cocked her head and looked questioningly at Xena. "He looks like he'd be pretty dangerous when he's up and around."
"So am I." Xena commented wryly. "I guess it's all a matter of perspective." She glanced down at the creature, who chose that moment to open his one good eye and stare up at them.
Gabrielle gasped..."oh..how pretty!" at the sight of his eye, which was a liquid golden color, with faint sparkles hidden in it's depths. The eye, startled, shifted to her face, then back to Xena's. Faintly, as though under great strain, the corner's of his oddly shaped mouth twitched upward. His jaw parted, revealing human incisors combined with very real curved canines. Intently, the golden eye watched Xena's face for a reaction, but the warrior maintained her stolid composure, and she went back to cleaning the wound near his other eye.
The creature moved his tongue, then managed a whisper. "Thank you.' Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other.
"So." Gabrielle commented. "You were right. Again. As always. " She shook her head, and went for a cup of water for their patient. Xena smiled at her retreating form, and the smile stayed on her face as she looked back down at the creature.
"You're welcome." She looked steadily at him. "You are pretty badly beat up." She glanced up as Gabrielle returned with the water. "I'll do what I can for your eye, here. But you're going to be a few days recovering."
Gabrielle gave her a long, measured look at that, but knelt down and offered the water to the injured..man, she thought now, no longer a creature. Xena lifted him up so he could drink, and he glanced at her in faint surprise. She settled him back down, and finished putting away the herbal kit. She glanced up at him. "Do you have a name?"
The eye searched hers for a very long moment. Then the lips twitched faintly again, and he managed another whisper. "Jessan." He looked steadily at her.
"Xena." she said, and gestured across his body. His eye followed, and rested on Gabrielle's face. "Gabrielle."
Something, then, some hint of recognition showed in his expression.. He nodded, and murmured softly. "thought so.." and drifted into sleep.
Xena was more than even usually silent as they cleaned up the campsite after cooking dinner. Their patient slept soundly, without snoring, much to both of their surprise, given his dentition and jaw structure.
"You going to take a swim?" Gabrielle asked, pulling out fresh clothes. She glanced up at Xena, who was staring into the fire, with a absorbed expression. She was about to repeat the question, when Xena finally sighed, and glanced her way.
"Yeah." she rubbed her neck and stretched. "I am. It's been a long day." Gabrielle moved up behind her, and undid the straps and buckles on her armor, which Xena removed, along with bracers, grieves and boots.
"Do you think he can stay here OK for a few minutes? " Gabrielle asked, resting her chin on Xena's seated shoulder. "I think I'd like to take a swim too." Xena slid an amused but indulgent look towards her.
"Oh, you would, would you?": She stood up and grabbed a fresh linen shirt, and tossed one towards Gabrielle. "And here I thought you would have had enough water this afternoon."
"Hey!" the bard yelped. "that's right! I OWE you for that..." she advanced menacingly towards Xena, who was standing with her arms crossed, and giving her that "dare you' look. Gabrielle squinted her eyes in mock anger, and growled "you're going to get yours..."
"Ha. You have to catch me first." Xena replied, and took off for the stream.
Cursing, Gabrielle pelted after her, knowing perfectly well that she couldn't catch the taller woman if she tried, but trying anyway. She was running so hard, she didn't' realize the stream doubled back on itself, and she was in the air over a stretch of water before she knew what was happening as she ran right off the bank. "Oh Hades." she muttered, and closed her eyes, waiting for the icy rush of the stream. She figured she was about to hit the water when she was snatched out of mid air and landed on a grassy bank instead. "Ugh." she wheezed, and opened her eyes to Xena's sardonic grin lying next to her in the grass.
"Gabrielle, don't you ever watch where you're going? Or must you always rush headlong into things!." the warrior was propped up on one elbow, with a smile playing around the corners of her mouth that softened any implied criticism.
"No' Gabrielle gasped, out of breath. "I always rush headlong into things. And look where it's gotten me." She reached out and touched Xena on the tip of her nose, and watched the warrior smile.
"Where, indeed?" Xena chuckled.
The pain was sharper now, Jessan noticed. The numbness he had felt seemed to be wearing off, which could be considered a good sign, he supposed.. He had slept for quite some time, and was only fuzzily aware of his surroundings. He sensed heat from a fire, to his right, and his one good eye told him there was also light from that direction.
So that was Xena, his mind muzzily contemplated. Being what he was, he had heard of the Warrior Princess, oh yes. They kept track, the People did, of fighters that rose above the ordinary, who might pose a danger to his kind. Xena had posed such a danger. His people had developed a very useful trait in avoiding her kind - an awareness of life, he supposed you could think of it as. He could, normally, sense the living beings about him, the green immenseness of the forest, the small flitting creatures, the breathing of the earth itself. People like Xena stood out in that peace like ugly dead things, all dark and unpleasant. Avoiding them was usually easy, he never had to wonder if one of her kind meant him harm or good, he just had to Look, and then fade away into the impenetrable green of his home forest...But these villagers, who he had done no harm to, had done something to his head and now he could sense nothing. It frightened him more than anything he had ever known in all his life. He would have to make decisions about these two people based on his instinct alone, and that was not enough. How could he trust them? Trust Xena? Impossible. The woman destroyed villages, killed innocent children. What would she do with him? Sure, she cleaned his wounds. Probably so she could extract every last bit of information out of him before killing him. No, that made no sense. Maybe she wanted to exhibit him as a animal. He knew others of his kind that fell to that fate. He could hear faint scraping sounds, and concluded that they were probably nearby. He'd better take a look, and begin to plan how to escape. Perhaps...an idea! Maybe he could even kill her...what a bonus for his people, to never have to worry about the Warrior Princess finding them! His father would be very proud.
At first the low flames made him blink and tear, and kept him from seeing anything else around the fire. He waited patiently, and the shadows slowly became clearer and clearer. A well laid out camp. A warriors camp. He felt better at once. He spotted the dim golden form of the horse not far away, heard the crisp sounds of her cropping the grass. Movement...his eye flickered to his left, and met the gaze of Xena, who was reclining against a nearby rock, working on an armor piece. She was lying, linen shirt clad, on what looked like a thick black, fur rug, bare legs extended and crossed, and providing a shoulder cushion for the fair haired younger woman, who was sound asleep.
They regarded each other silently for a moment, as two powerful animals in the forest might, to determine friend or foe. Xena held no illusions about what he was capable of, anyone with eyes could see he was no farmer. But his eye was intelligent, there was thought behind the glance, not the blind fury of a beast. Xena had a feeling he could be reasoned with. At least she hoped so. She really didn't want to have to hurt him further.
They never mentioned. Jessan thought, vaguely amused. that she was also beautiful, for one of her kind The fine field generalship, yes, that they mentioned. The lack of mercy, the cruelties, the disregard for life. All that he knew about. And he had heard, as had they all, that she had given up warlord's ways and turned to wandering the countryside, assisting people when she could. Though they had not believed it , surely no one as blood thirsty as she could just change so suddenly. Could she just stop when she knew, body and soul, what his People also knew; the exhilaration of battle, the incomparable fire in the heart that comes at the kill? The fierce exultation of blood combat that coursed through ones veins like strong wine? Ares' gift! He knew it. He knew she did; it was written in her eyes, for such as him to read. No, they hadn't believed it.
Now his life depended on him finding out if it was really true, and he had only his physical senses and reasoning to do it with. Not fair. It should have been so easy...just a closing of his eyes, and a gentle extension of his awareness, to see her Pattern. Now, all he could do is look with his inadequate vision, and see a dark haired woman, younger than he had imagined her, cleaning an armor piece by a well made fire. Argh. Well, she was alone, except for the bard. That much of the story was true. What about the rest? How could he hope to know? The bard is stirring, ah, she has dark dreams. He watched as Xena's regard left him, and focused instead on Gabrielle, and now he could read the emotion on her face as she wrapped a arm around the girl and soothed her from her nightmare. Ah. He felt much better all of a sudden. Perhaps it was true. Tomorrow he would try to find out. For now, at least, he seemed safe.
Waking next morning, Jessan knew that he would probably live. His cuts were mending, and he felt none of the unhealthy heat of fever around them. The bruises hurt, and his head especially pounded, but he was more alert, and his thoughts were coherent and sane. He opened his eye as footsteps approached him, focusing somewhat blearily on the fair haired young bard, who was kneeling next to him with some much needed water. Gabrielle's eyes met his own without fear, as she helped him to drink.
"Good morning." she said, cheerfully. "Please drink all of this. You need it."
Jessan complied, then searched her pretty face with interest. "You aren't afraid." he commented, watching her brow rise at the question in his raspy voice.
"No." Gabrielle answered, offering more water.
"You should be." Jessan growled, lifting his lips with effort to show his canines. "Even now, I could kill you faster than even Xena could stop me."
"I doubt it." a low, sibilant voice whispered into his other ear. He felt cold steel on his neck, and froze. His golden eye rolled around to meet Xena's blue ones not six inches from his face. Ares! How had she gotten so close! His heart pounded, until he realized the steel he felt was merely the small knife she used to clean wounds and she now continued to do just that around his swollen eye.
Gabrielle chuckled. "It's ok. You wouldn't have anyway." She offered him some grilled meat. "After a while, you sort of get this..I don't know...kind of a feeling about people when they intend to kill you, or beat you up, or something like that. I thought you were pretty much OK." She handed him another piece of meat, since he was absently chewing on the first and doing his best to not think about Xena kneeling with a knife blade to his temple. "And, well, we kind of have to go through this a lot, because lots of people want to kill us, or beat us up, or things like that, you know?" She laid a hand on his arm, and caught his gaze. "I'm really sorry those people hurt you." He stopped chewing, and just stared at her. After a lifetime of hatred from her kind, this was almost too much for him to bear. She patted his arm, and stood up, heading towards the cooking fire.
Bewildered, he turned his gaze to Xena, who was finishing up with his head wound. She gave him a small grin in return. "She sees good in everyone."
He contemplated that. It could be true. Maybe.."She obviously saw it in you." he said aloud, gaining a small victory at the startled look in her eyes. Ah..he was right. He felt better. "I hadn't believed you had stopped killing.": He watched her eyes, mirrors of the soul even in her. "Now I do." He raised himself up on one elbow, and pulled his aching body up so that he could half recline, and talk to her. This opportunity he was not going to miss. He gathered his thoughts, knowing he would have to give some information before he got any. He realized, as he opened his mouth to speak, that he had decided to trust them, at least for now. It was frightening, as though he had jumped off a high cliff with no guarantee of a survivable landing.
"I am" he stated, darting a glance at Gabrielle who had returned and now seated herself next to Xena. "a child of Ares." This grand pronouncement did not get usual response of awe from his audience, however.
Gabrielle snorted. "Boy, does he ever get around"
Xena just rolled her eyes. "It figures." she muttered. "I should have known."
Jessan glanced from one to the other in puzzlement. Could it be true, then? "You speak as though you know Ares." he said, making his growly voice raise in question.
Xena sighed. "You mean, you don't?" She leaned back against a tree stump behind her, and stretched her long legs out. "Inconsiderate of him.. Not that it surprises me." She gazed down at him. "I used to be one of his Chosen." He maintained eye contact with her, daring her to tell the rest. "until one day I decided to break our contract." Involuntarily, her gaze drifted towards Gabrielle, who quirked a grin in response. "but I've never heard of your kind before. What are you, anyway?"
Jessan remained silent a moment, reviewing what he had learned. She had defied Ares. So the rumors were true. "Ares decided he' was tired of mortals, and wanted to make an army of immortal warriors that would be loyal to him." he cleared his throat a bit, and Gabrielle leaned over to hand him the waterskin. "Thank you." he responded gruffly. "He made us by mixing the blood of a lion with that of a man, and mingled our two kinds into one." He took a long draw on the water. "We are stronger than your kind, and fierce as lions, and we live for battle and death." He jutted his chin out, and gave them his best ruthless warrior look.
Xena's mouth twitched. "Ah. I see." she commented. "So, what happened?"
The big warrior sighed. "Aphrodite."
"Ohhh...." came from both Xena and Gabrielle, knowingly.
"She came upon him while he was finishing up. He made the mistake of leaving her with our forefathers for only a moment." He gazed out at the morning sunlight. "She gave us mortality. She gave us souls, and the will to know them. And..." he stopped here, grief taking his throat in hand and stopping his speech. He looked down, and after a moment back up at their grave, but attentive faces. "And she gave us the ability to love." Ah...Devon. His heart cried out. Taking a deep breath, he forced his memories away, and cleared his throat. "Six years ago, not far from here, your kind surrounded three of us, and shot my Devon to death with coward's arrows." Fiercely, defiantly, he raised his eye to meet theirs, expecting, he knew not what. "She was carrying my son." Now anger colored his words, "We had done NOTHING...to your kind." Gabrielle looked at him, horrified. She reached out and grasped his arm in sympathy.
Xena was shaking her head, and sighed deeply. " I'm sorry " She studied the man carefully, noting the clenching and unclenching of his large fists "That was cruel of Aphrodite."
Jessan looked up at her. "Cruel? How so?" he asked, curiously. "How much crueler than your own people were, to shoot her down in cold blood?"
"We live in a cruel world, Jessan. " Xena answered. "The biggest risk you can take is loving someone." Her face was expressionless. "I can't take responsibility for all the deeds, good or bad, of my people, but I am sorry, for you, and for your Devon." She abruptly stood up, and walked towards Argo.
"Did you ever regret falling in love, Jessan?" Gabrielle asked, quietly. She searched his face, while he deliberated his answer. He really wasn't so gruesome to look at, once you got used to him. His face, though battered, had a certain nobility to it. That probably also came from Aphrodite, she thought, I'm sure Ares wouldn't have made them cute. The fangs, now, they were vintage Ares. The snub nose, on the other hand, definitely Aphrodite.
"No, Gabrielle, I never did, and I don't now." he finally answered, as though the answer surprised him a little. "I mean, Xena's right, you know. We live by the sword, and we always know this could happen. We are what we are, after all." He sighed. "No, it was worth every minute." This seemed to comfort him, for he looked back up at her with a more peaceful expression. "Thank you for reminding me of that."
She smiled at him, and stood. "Excuse me for a minute."
With a sigh, he lay back down, and blinked. That certainly was a surprise conversation. he thought. There's more going on there than I know. He stretched his limbs, feeling the ache in them. He closed his eyes and tried again to extend his awareness,. No. As though a sack was tied over his head. He sighed. Was he sure about them? No..but he couldn't find it in his heart to hate them, either, as he should hate the people who killed his Devon. These two were not those villagers. He knew that. Should he follow his heart? No, too dangerous, both for himself, and his people. Better there weren't Warrior Princesses around.
Xena walked away from them, her mind in turmoil. What she had told the man was the truth. Gabrielle still had nightmares about her death; what she had put her friend through! What right had she to do that? I should have taken my own advice, she thought grimly. Too late. . She sat down on a rock to collect her scattered thoughts, then quickly picked up an armor piece as she heard the bard approaching. She glanced up at Gabrielle, who sat down next to her.
"You OK?" the bard asked, quietly, studying her face.
"Yeah." she answered, polishing the bit of armor.
Gabrielle leaned closer, and whispered in her ear. "You're lying."
This got a half smile. "Yeah." Xena blew out a held breath. "Reminded me that I know what dying feels like."
"Oh.:" Gabrielle said, in a small voice.
Xena glanced up at her. "Sorry you asked?"
"No." the bard smiled.. "glad you answered.". She leaned her head on Xena's shoulder. "So. what are we going to do with him?"
"Hmm." the tall warrior mused. "Depends on what he wants to do, doesn't it? He's pretty far from home. Wonder how he got all the way out here."
Gabrielle shrugged. "I guess we'll have to ask him, won't we?" She gazed across the camp. "I like him. I mean, I know he's pretty scary to look at, and he's probably dangerous, but there's something kind of sweet about him, too."
"Yeah." Xena answered briefly. "Something."
That night, their large patient joined them for dinner around the fire. He healed remarkably fast, a legacy of Ares, Xena suspected. If you're going to spend your life fighting, best you be a good healer, eh? She grinned privately. It sure has helped me, now and again. She finished her fish, and looked over at Jessan, staring pensively at the fire. "So." She said., He looked up at her voice. "You heading home?"
Jessan sighed. "Home is the northwest coast." He smiled grimly. "I don't think I'll make it. There are too many settlements, with too many scared people between here and there." He stared down at the ground. " You are a cruel and foolish kind, did you know that? Our people have never attacked yours, but we live in the shadows, hoping you won't spy us, for when you do, you hunt and hunt and hunt until you kill every one of us you find."
"Fear is a big motivator." Xena responded, her voice cool. "I can see where people would see you - Jessan, you have to admit you are pretty ferocious looking - and would not imagine that you would not attack them if you could." She played idly with a small pebble near her boot. "Having not met you, I would have made that assumption."
Jessan digested this. "And attacked me at once." He glanced at Gabrielle, who was keeping silent, but watching their faces in turn as they spoke.
Xena gave him one of her slow, fierce grins. "Well, once I might have. Now, I probably would have waited for you to attack me first." She flicked a glance at the bard. "I try not to start trouble." Gabrielle snorted, then giggled, eliciting a chuckle from both Jessan and Xena. "Well, " the dark haired woman admitted. "most of the time, anyway." She straightened up, and stretched, catching Gabrielle's eye and raising her own eyebrow. Gabrielle nodded in assent, they having discussed contingencies prior to dinner. "Jessan, we'll be glad to go with you to the northwest border - take you home to your people, if you won't mind traveling with us." She gave another lazy grin. "I think I can keep your skin whole until then."
Could you.? Jessan mused. Could you, Xena? I wonder. Are you as good as your reputation says you are? I doubt it...no one ever is. Oh, yes, I believe you were a brilliant general, but you have no army now. Can you prove your skills on the bodies of your enemies? I wonder. He studied her, as they waited patiently for his answer. All muscle, that was certain. He could see it in the way she moved. Wrists were swordsman's wrists, no question of that, either. That was not a decorative sword, and it was functional armor. Perhaps, perhaps not. A risk he'd have to take. At any rate, it was better than going on alone..and...he forced himself to admit it, despite what they were, his heart refused to bow to his brain. He liked these two. "I would be honored to accept your offer." He said, quietly.
"I'm glad." Gabrielle smiled, and patted him on the arm. "We'll make it through just fine."
Jessan gave his toothy grin. "I would like to get hold of some weapons, though. I feel..." He cast about in his mind for a description.
"Naked." Xena stated, flatly. She raised a sardonic eyebrow at him, but had a small smile playing around her lips. She met his gaze with an understanding twinkle that, Ares...could have been one of his own kind.
"Yeah" He answered, with a sheepish shrug. "Exactly."
"Warriors." Gabrielle sighed, theatrically. "Give em a sword and some raw meat and they're happy." She rolled her eyes at both of them.
"Raw meat?" they chorused in unison, not even looking at each other. "Yuck."
Jessan was strong enough to do some limited traveling the next day, though Xena insisted on a slow pace to keep damage to his healing injuries to a minimum. They passed two small villages, but were not spotted, and had the luck to come upon an old battlefield later in the day. Jessan and Xena spent some time digging patiently in the debris until Xena finally found what she was looking for.
"Ah. Here we go." She lifted her find up, a muck and grime encrusted relic, perhaps three quarters the length of her long body. "Unexpected. Usually they comb the battlefields for usable metal pretty thoroughly. I can't believe they missed this." She looked around where she stood. "Oh. Must have been piled under corpses." A thighbone rattled down the pile she was looking into, she glanced at it briefly. How much time have I spent combing through dead remains? She sighed to herself. Too much.
"What *is* that?" Gabrielle inquired, from the sidelines where she had been reclining in the shade, working on one of her scrolls. She got to her feet and dusted herself off before walking over to where Jessan and Xena were standing, gravely examining whatever it was. Jessan took the find from Xena, and smacked it smartly against the tree next to where he was standing. Grime, dust and rust scales fell off of it in a shower, revealing the general outlines of a large two handed sword. He repeated the sharp smack, dislodging more grime and scales, until they could see the bold outline of a hilt take form.
"Ah. That's more like it." Jessan commented, and grasped the hilt firmly. Xena grabbed the rotted scabbard, and both of them pulled in opposite directions. The results surprised them all.
"Wow." Gabrielle breathed, eyes wide.
Xena raised one eyebrow, and gave a low whistle.
"Ohhhhh" Jessan gasped, as he turned the blade, which, impossibly, was clean edged and had not one dent or ding in it. The cold metal gleamed sharp and deadly. in the dusty late afternoon sunlight. He grinned in delight. "And it's just my size, too." He hefted the weapon gleefully. "Will you do the honor of sparring with me later, Xena?" He bared his canines at her in mock challenge. "It would make for a great story to tell back home." Will she do it? It will give me a chance to kill her, surely she knows that. Will she trust me? Would I trust her?
Xena treated him to an equally feral grin. "We'll see." But the glint in her eyes told him she probably would. He carefully wrapped the sword in some cloth Gabrielle lent him, intending to craft it a suitable scabbard at the first opportunity.
"You really aren't going to fight with one another, are you?" Gabrielle asked Xena in a low voice, as they continued walking down a forest path heavily overhung with trees. She shot her companion a worried look. "I mean..I know..well, that is you..I mean he's.."
Xena clasped her shoulder comfortingly. "Relax, Gabrielle. If he's as good as I think he is, it will be the safest sparring match I've ever had." She chuckled a little at Gabrielle's bewildered look. "It's ok, really." The bard remained silent, and didn't meet Xena's eyes.
The tall warrior considered her for a moment, then shifted her hand from Gabrielle's shoulder to the bard's chin, and turned her face to make eye contact. "Gabrielle?" .She kept her voice low. "We're not going to hurt each other. That's not what this is about."
Gabrielle studied her companion for a long moment before replying. "I know. I'm sorry. It's just that I like him a lot, and you....Xena, accidents happen." She sighed. "I know, I'm being silly, right?"
"No." Xena murmured. "You're not." Unexpectedly, she wrapped an arm around Gabrielle and gave her a hug. "We'll be very careful, I promise. "
Jessan was watching them interestedly from the corner of his working eye. He was too far away to hear their conversation, and truth to tell, he might have moved further if he could have heard them. The People were like that, they valued their privacy, and expected others to value it as well. Useful trait, that.
But what was this? The red haired bard seemed upset about something. What, he mused could it be? It was not his presence, he felt sure. Anyone could put on a good act, but the warmth he felt from young Gabrielle was as real and as tangible as any he had ever felt, even from his own kind. She was not afraid of him, and she was not afraid of Xena. What then?
Ah..what he was learning! She fears..he suddenly could feel it. Ah...at last. Very faint, very unfocused, but it was there, a pale grayness where there was only dark before. He realized that it was because her emotions were so strong, they were breaking through the suffocating barrier his injuries had raised. Fear? What was she...ah...he could See it now. She fears us fighting. Silly bard. She fears harm, to Xena, and...he stopped in amazement. to me as well. Ares. But there, Xena has explained it. Better now.
He couldn't read thoughts. What he sensed was washes of strong emotion, which he had learned by long practice to interpret. Gabrielle's emotions were sharp and very strong - surprising him with their intensity. Xena...the warrior, on the other hand held hers back with excellent control. He sensed almost nothing from her, except just a bit here... Hmm. Very interesting, and unexpected
Jessan's open eye mirrored a momentary amazement. Pah. I'm just a common sneak peep. He scowled at himself, and moved ahead a few paces. He would have been slapped silly at home for eavesdropping in such a manner. He supposed he could use the defense that his life was in danger, but...he knew it wasn't, and there was no excuse for it. Mama would be ashamed of him.
"Come here, Jessan." Xena said, that night after dinner. "Let me get that bandage off your other eye, and we'll see how it's doing." Nervously, Jessan edged over to her, and sat down on the log so his head was within her reach. What if I can't see? His fear gnawed at him. What if she deliberately blinded me? As the thought crossed his mind, he glanced quickly at her, the blue intent gaze fixed on his injury, hands working quickly, but with gentleness. No. This close he was certain. This was no dark and evil thing sitting next to him.
Xena carefully cut away the bandage covering his other eye and examined her handiwork. "Ok, open it." She commanded, shielding his vision from the brightness of the fire.
Heart pounding, he slowly opened the lid of his injured eye, and blinked, sighing in relief as the world came into focus. He almost hugged her in relief as his full range of vision was restored.
"Well." Xena stepped back, with a satisfied look. "That's much better."
Gabrielle grinned, leaning on her staff, and moved a step closer to get a better look at what was now a pair of golden eyes, which reflected the last rays of the sun and the first glow of their campfire. "Hey." She poked him with the staff. "Want to go for a swim with us?"
"Uhhh.." Jessan stammered, panicked. "swim?" He shifted his newly liberated gaze towards the nearby spring, complete with waterfall that Xena had chosen to camp by. "We, er...well, we don't swim much." He tried a gruff scowl at them. "I'll pass."
"You're afraid." Gabrielle stated, flatly. "I don't believe it."
"I am NOT!" Jessan barked, stung. "I just don't like...swimming. That's all!"
"I bet you've never been." The bard commented. "I bet you don't know how." Mischief sparkled in her green eyes. "C'mon, Jessan..we'll teach you." She knelt down in front of him. "It's a really useful skill. Honest." She darted a glance at Xena. "Maybe Xena'll teach you how to catch fish with your bare hands."
Jessan's eyebrows drew together in a deep scowl. He was busted. She knew the truth - he had no idea how to swim. Could they teach him? He tried to keep his defenses up by imagining this as a ploy to get him drowned, but his heart laughed at him in derision. Was it even remotely possible that these two daughters of the greatest enemy of his kind were beginning to fill in the darkness left by Devon's passing? No. Impossible. But...he sighed. Damn. He was going to have to learn how to swim. Wait...catch fish with her bare hands???? No way. That much he did know. "Well, maybe just for a little..uh..swim." He grudgingly assented.
They walked down to the spring's edge, he, hesitantly, they, with a gentle yet inexorable grasp on both his big arms. The water was warmer than he expected, he grunted in surprise.
"Warm spring upstream a bit." Xena commented, correctly interpreting the grunt. "Not too warm, but better than ice cold." She had stripped down to just leathers for the lesson, and was a few steps ahead of him in the water. Are we nuts? She mused, thoughtfully. Teaching him to swim. What was Gabrielle thinking of? She had gone along because, well, because sometimes Gabrielle's instincts on this kind of thing were far truer than her own, that's why. Not that she'd ever admit it.
They got him in up to his waist, then he balked as the surface under his feet dipped more steeply. He shot a glance at them, and found patient expressions, not disgust there. Slowly, he continued in, until he was up to his neck in water, but still standing on the bottom. It felt nice, actually. Xena and Gabrielle tred water just in front of him, waiting. He watched them, it seemed pretty easy. Xena demonstrated a swimming stroke, ah, yes - he could see the mechanics of it. He tried it - wow...his arms pulled him along with far more ease than he had reason to expect. Gabrielle clapped and cheered. "Way to go, Jessan! See? It's not hard."
He flipped over on his back and paddled around with his arms a bit. No, it wasn't, really. And the feeling of the water, the presence of the world all around him, was intoxicating. The brief flashes of his inner sense he had been feeling were getting more tangible, and now that the water was surrounding him, it spoke to him with whispering little chuckles. Gabrielle was now a solid warm presence. Xena, like quicksilver danced in and out of his View. Against his better judgment, he felt his heart warming to them, and was powerless to stop it. Ares! What was he going to do? These were his enemies...and the enemies of his people. It wasn't fair...
Xena dove down, disappearing from site all of a sudden. Jessan glanced at the ripples left by her dive, then up at Gabrielle's face, to see if there was any need for concern. Apparently not. The red haired girl was impishly smiling.
"Yahhhh!!!' He yelped, jumping half out of the water, as something nibbled on his leg. He whirled around, as Xena popped up, with a devilish grin, holding an enormous trout in both hands. "Dinner." She chuckled, and tossed the fish high up the embankment.
Jessan spluttered in indignation, then did what he would have done with his sister Eldwin, unthinking. He dove at her, forgetting the water, and splashed in over his head. Panic overcame him, but before he could breathe in the water, or do something else foolish, strong hands grabbed him and lifted his head up out of the whispering stream.
He coughed, in reflex, and gave Xena, who was holding him, a sideways glare. It should have scared her, maybe it was the fact that she was cradling him like a cub that spoiled the effect. With this much physical contact, he could almost sense warmth from her as well..no..wait. yes. Yes, he could. Buried inside those hard shields was a person capable of deep emotions. She liked him. He couldn't help it. He liked her too. He smiled and returned the warmth, though he knew she could not sense it. . "Thanks." He rasped, softly., though she would have no idea what he was thanking her for. He felt a momentary deep pity for humans. Living only half alive...maybe that's why they killed everything else they encountered..wow..that was profound..maybe they did it because they had no way of feeling the pain they were causing..huh..I wonder....
"Tch tch tch.' Gabrielle clucked, as she paddled in on the other side of him. "Don't try to catch her in the water. Lost cause. I should know." She rested an elbow on his chest. "Did you say something about dinner? I'm starved."
The next day's travel brought the trouble that Jessan had long anticipated. Just after lunch, a band of fairly well armored foot soldiers came upon them. Xena moved to the fore, putting herself between Gabrielle and Jessan, and the soldiers. Gabrielle shifted her staff in her hands and waited. She glanced at Jessan, who was watching both the warrior and the soldiers with careful attention. He looked over at her in question "Let's see what Xena has in mind." She whispered to him. "There's only 8 of them." She grinned at his startled look.
"Shouldn't we help?" He asked, reaching a hand for his sword.
She grasped his arm to stop him "It's ok, I think - usually if I interrupt if there's less than a dozen of them, she just gets ticked off." He didn't believe her. Gabrielle sighed to herself. No one ever did. Not that she blamed them., since it had taken her a really long time to realize that Xena actually enjoyed fighting. Really. Just like she enjoyed storytelling. That had been a pretty steep learning curve, and had almost caused her to consider leaving their travels together before she finally figured it all out. Not that she ever really figured Xena out, of course.
"What do you have there?" The leader of the soldier band asked, looking Jessan up and down. His men formed a wary circle around his back, watching Jessan, but also watching Xena.
"He's a friend." Xena commented, shortly. "We don't want trouble." Her words were conciliatory, but Gabrielle, from long experience, could read the tension in Xena's tall frame, saw the movement of the armor plates across her shoulders that meant she was hair triggered, and waiting for an expected attack.
"A friend?." The man laughed in derision. "You'd should learn to pick your friends better, lady." He moved briskly towards her. "Move aside. We'll take him off your hands, and bring him to town." He motioned his men forward.
"I pick my friends very carefully, thanks." Xena answered, standing her ground, and grasping the hilt of her sword in warning. "I said I didn't want any trouble. I didn't say I wasn't capable of starting any."
"Decent amount of warning" Gabrielle muttered, ignoring Jessan's look. "She's getting better at that."
He moved forward, straight towards Xena. Jessan felt his breathing quicken, saw Gabrielle shift her grip on the staff she held. The man was right in front of Xena, and now reached out to push her out of the way. "Don't make me angry, woman. Just let me do my job." He said, in some exasperation. This woman playing at being a soldier irritated him.
"What an idiot." Gabrielle breathed. "He's toast." Jessan was about to move, when there was a sudden, short popping sound, then a solid thunk. He watched as Xena first nailed the man right in the groin, then kicked him back into his circle of followers.
With a shout, the rest of the soldiers ran towards the waiting Xena, who went into a blur of motion almost too fast for the eye to see. Jessan was never really sure what she did to which soldier, after she let out a wild battle yell, and pulled the sword from it's sheath on her back, and let loose.
At one point, she catapulted into the air, launching herself into a somersault high over the heads of the hapless soldiers. She landed in back of them, and took out one with the flat of her sword, then grabbed two more and cracked their heads together. Jessan felt his jaw drop. When the dust settled, there was one heap of dusty unconscious soldiers, and a muttering Xena, who strolled back towards them as though she'd been out for a walk. Ares! They hadn't so much as touched her!
"Pathetic." She sighed. "C'mon." She grabbed Argo's reins and tugged her forward, then noticed Jessan's glassy expression. "What? Did you get hit?" She glanced at Gabrielle, who was smirking. "What??"
The bard acquired her smuggest expression. "Oh, no. He just saw the Warrior Princess in action." She smothered a giggle at Xena's glare, and poked her friend in the ribs. "And you were dazzling, as always."
"Gabrielle.." Xena growled, warningly, which just got more giggles from her companion., and another poke.
"C'mon, Xena - you know you love doing that." The bard warmed up to her subject. "Whirling through them with the greatest of ease.." She finally stopped when she saw the still, set look on Xena's face.
Jessan finally shook himself, and started to move forward, following Argo. And I was wondering if she could live up to her reputation. He mentally slapped himself. Whoa, boy. He snorted quietly. "Thank you again, by the way." he said, softly.
"Well.' Xena commented, "After all, I do have a deadly reputation to maintain." And managed to keep a straight face as the other two spun and stared at her in startlement. "You know a trail of blood is the only way to do it." She raised an eyebrow at them, a completely serious expression on her face that even reached her eyes. She put on what she knew was an icy glare, and pinned them both with it. They exchanged uneasy glances with each other, Gabrielle swallowing hard, once. Xena let them stew a moment longer, then moved past them, and continued up the trail, leading Argo, in silence. I really shouldn't be so sensitive to teasing. She sighed to herself. And I shouldn't have done that to Gabrielle.
Jessan blew out his breath in obvious relief. "Whoa." He slung an arm over Argo. "wow, Argo..I don't ever want her mad with me." He whispered to the mare, who flicked an ear back towards him in sympathy. He put his head down and kept moving.
Gabrielle was silent for a long time after that, just walking alongside Xena, who was pretty quiet herself. Not that Xena was particularly talkative at the best of times, of course, Gabrielle thought, her stomach still in turmoil after that 'look'. She cursed silently to herself. Stupid, very stupid Gabrielle. When are you going to learn she has a limited tolerance for teasing? She glanced up at her silent partner. "I guess I deserved that" she finally said, as Xena turned her head and peered down at her with amused fondness, a look which Gabrielle missed entirely.
"What do you mean?" Xena asked, knowing perfectly well what.
"You know me - always trying to get a laugh out of a situation. Sometimes I forget..I mean, I think I have a right to...and I don't, and I know you got mad, and I still kept on and..." This was going badly. Mentally, she screamed at herself for not being able to articulate the simplest of sentences when she was under stress and around Xena. Some bard.
"Gabrielle." The low voice was warm. Xena clasped her nearer shoulder. They stopped walking and just looked at each other for a moment. "You do have the right." Do you understand what I'm telling you, my friend? Most of our communication is not done with words. I"m not good with them.
"Do I?" the bard asked, seriously.
"You do.' Xena affirmed. "besides, how many other people do you know who could poke me in the ribs and not get a broken hand?" She waited for an answering smile from her companion, then moved ahead to catch up with Jessan and Argo, pulling the bard with her. "C'mon." Wow. Could I have actually handled that right, for a change? Gabrielle had relaxed and was still smiling. I think maybe I did.
Jessan surveyed the surrounding countryside that evening... "Not far, now - I think two more days and we'll be pretty close to home." He finished his bread and meat with a great deal of satisfaction, and made a slight bow in Gabrielle's direction. "I will miss your cooking, though. Don't tell her, but it's better than my mother's" He watched the bard blush, and grinned. He glanced up at Xena, leaning casually against a nearby tree, also grinning.
"I've been telling her that for months, now. I think she thinks I just say that because I don't have a choice.'' The warrior commented, watching her companion flush again, this time to the roots of her fair hair. "I'm glad I got a second opinion. Now maybe she'll believe me." Then she looked over at Jessan. "So, are you ready for that sparring match you asked for?"
The big downy warrior grinned toothily. "Yeah." He stretched. "We have to work off this excellent dinner somehow, and I can't think of a better way." He trotted over to his pack, and drew his sword out, almost bouncing in his eagerness. His thick body hair glimmered in the sun, and rippled over his muscular body like water. He was the very essence of a primal nature, and he exulted in the feel of warm late sun on his back, and firm earth under his powerful legs. He lifted his blade towards the sun, and turned his face up, soaking in the warmth. She's going to do it! Does she trust me? Can I trust her? Oh Father! I could avenge so many deaths with this one moment, she is everything you hate in them. My name would live in our village forever...but papa, oh papa...I look into my heart, and I can't, I can't...she has defeated me already. He smiled sadly to himself. She had been so right. Love was the greater danger.
Xena laughed, watching him, then walked towards a small clearing nearby, turned, and waited. They had stopped a little early, so the very late afternoon sun still provided a good light. Jessan drew his blade, and as he came towards the clearing and faced her, he saluted her with the flat of it. She inclined her head in response, and waited for him to make the first pass, still with her own weapon sheathed. I hope I know what I'm doing here. She debated, as she watched him walk closer. I promised Gabrielle..but I certainly hope I'm as good as I think I am, otherwise this could get bloody. She considered the possibility that he would use this opportunity to rid his people of a dangerous enemy, then shrugged. As she had said, life was dangerous, and if she was at her best, it wouldn't matter anyway. Her heart began to pound.
Ah..don't be overconfident, Xena... Jessan sang to himself, feeling the joy of battle rise in him. I know you are good, but so am I...He swung his arms a little, to loosen up, and moved forward. His golden eyes fastened on her blue ones, watching her for small motions that might indicate her plans, might telegraph her motions. Would she give herself away? No, the eyes were intent on his, the head rock steady. No luck there. He feinted forward, swinging his sword arm back across his body motion, intending to give her a light slap with the flat to teach her respect for his skills. Expecting the light sting of contact, he was startled when it didn't happen, instead, she stepped inside his guard with a lithe, liquid grace, gave him a buffet on the cheek, then was back outside his range before he could so much as react. He blinked. Ares, the woman was touched by Hermes, with that speed. He took a steadying breath and got himself in order.
An impish smile, then she drew her weapon, and waited for him, again.
Fascinated, Gabrielle sat on a tree stump just outside the glade, and watched them.
A solid sword pass, then, from Jessan, neatly turned by Xena, and followed up on with a circular meeting of both blades, sending a primal hissing sound across the clearing. Another pass, another deflection, faster and faster, until the metal was blurring before their eyes, and motions were too fast to see. Jessan found his heart pounding, hoping his skills were up to this. She was better than he had imagined, and if either of them made a mistake, it was going to hurt. Might be fatal, because neither of them were pulling any blows. But adrenaline drove him, the pumping fire in his blood kept him in the match, as a wild grin crossed his face. His arms swung in the precise, defined, disciplined arcs of a master swordsman, looking for gaps in her defenses, a weakness in her technique. He had been practicing for this since he was old enough to lift a blade, when his father took him in back of their snug tcapa, and folded his child's small hands around the hilts, and swung...countless hours of fighting since. He was counted among the best of his kind, and, now, in this glade in the dying sun of a long day, he had met his match and better.
Xena let her body act and react without conscious thought, which would have been far too slow for this bout. The burly warrior was as good as she thought he was - and this sparring match was bringing her own skills out for a good test run, something which didn't happen nearly often enough. She could go full out with him, and not fear his life, or hers - and a fierce smile that matched his own formed on her face. Oh, this was fun. This was fun in a way that she could never explain to anyone who didn't live by the sword, and not even to most of them who did. They swung around in a circle, surging forward, then back, then forward again. He was very good..possibly the best she'd ever fought, and she'd fought a lot of them in the long years since her village had been taken. She had an edge in speed, he an edge in strength. But slowly, she began to see tiny flaws in his technique, and drove for them.
I see what she meant. Gabrielle thought, enlightened. They're both so good, they can spar together and not hurt each other. She watched the two of them, for the first time seeing the artistry of it, beyond the sheer fright she often felt when Xena was crossing swords with the legions of people out there they fought. She had always regarded with some awe Xena's fighting ability, which seemed levels above the average based on the ease with which she defeated most of her opponents, but this was something else again.
Jessan towered over her, but now, even Gab could see that the Xena was driving her bigger opponent back, her sword forcing his behind his body at every swing from the sheer strength of the blows. Finally, in a grand flourish, she captured his weapon on the edge of her hilt, and with one tremendously powerful swing, disarmed him and send the sword flying through the air. Before it could land and embed itself in the earth, she vaulted forward and caught the blade at the hilts, then vaulted all the way over Jessan's head, and slapped him in the seat of the pants with his own sword. She then inclined her head to him again, and handed him the sword, hilt first, as he whirled around to face her.
Jessan took the sword, staring at her, committing every detail to his memory. The sound of his labored breathing, and hers much less so. The flush of blood darkening both their skins, The brilliant, wild sparkle in her very blue eyes, the admiration he knew was shining in his. Her smile. His own. It was glorious.
She let out one big breath, then sheathed her sword. "Well, I needed that." She gave him a lazy grin. " Been a long time since I've had an opponent as good as you. " She stepped closer to him, and let their eyes meet for a long moment. "Thanks..we'll have to do that again." She reached out and patted his arm, and he melted in her regard. No longer could he think of her as an enemy.
"Xena." He breathed, finally. "You are a sister of my heart." He took another breath and sheathed the sword carefully. "Shall we go listen to your bard's newest story?" They walked back towards the fire together, and Jessan trotted towards the creek for a drink of water. Xena continued on to where Gabrielle was sitting.
"Hey!" she growled, kneeling next to the bard. "What's that look for? I promised you, didn't I? Not a scratch?"
Gabrielle shook her fair head slightly, and cleared her throat. "You kept your promise... Xena, that was pretty amazing."
The warrior shrugged diffidently. "You've seen me fight before."
"Yeah," Gabrielle said. "but not like that. That was.."
"Showing off?" Xena interjected, quietly. Sardonically.
"No, Beautiful." Gabrielle finished her own sentence, ignoring the interruption. "And I never thought Id think that about something so violent" Well...she kept that thought to herself, and smiled inwardly. She had silenced Xena, who had no idea how to respond to this startling admission. Gabrielle would have giggled, but knew this would just get Xena mad. And that's not what she wanted to do right now. Now, she'd have to make a light comment, to diffuse the tension. "So, what story did you have in mind?" She raised a questioning eyebrow at her friend, who was sitting there, looking vaguely like she had been Got, but not really sure how or why. She privately enjoyed an all too rare feeling of having Xena off balance.
"Uhm.." Xena scrambled around for a title. She was still trying to figure out what that last conversation was about. "I don't know, ask Jessan. He said you had a new one, do you?" There, that gave her a moment's breathing space. She was aware of the twinkle in Gabrielle's eyes which meant the bard knew she had gotten to her, but wasn't going to push her advantage.
"Oh yeah." Gabrielle allowed herself to be sidetracked. "It's the one where you..
Xena held up her hand. "Uh uh. Please, Gabrielle, not one about me tonight, ok?" She grinned. "You have a new one of Herc's, that you got off of Iolaus, I know - I heard you rehearsing it last week."
Still the twinkle. "Well, I might be persuaded not to tell one about you, but what's in it for me?" Gabrielle couldn't resist tweaking her just a little. She knew where the chinks in that oh so solid armor were.
"Gabrielle..' Xena's warning rumble, but with a smile "Ok, I won't pick you up while you're sleeping tonight and dump you in the creek. How about that?"
One last tweak. "Hmm. I might enjoy that." And Gabrielle was off and trotting across the camp before Xena could answer. Not, she thought to herself. That I would know in the least what to have said to THAT. What got into her? She shook her head, and stood, dusting off her leathers. Maybe she got some weird mushrooms in that stew they'd had for dinner. Whatever. Sometimes she thought she had Gabrielle figured out, but that notion never lasted long. From a simple village girl, to a talented bard, to an Amazon princess. Gabrielle continued to amaze her. The time was coming, Xena knew, that Gabrielle would have to stand on her own, and make her mark in the world. She wasn't intended to follow around a half crazed ex warlord with bad table manners. Yeah, and she might even convince herself it would be the best thing for both of them, if she worked hard enough at it. It would be the best thing for Gabrielle, though, even she wasn't blind enough not to see that. She sighed and walked over to where Jessan was settling by the fire.
"I have an idea." Gabrielle said, as she seated herself. "I think Jessan owes us a story, this time. " She grinned at the startled warrior.
Xena raised an intrigued eyebrow. "Hmm. You know, you've got a point there, Gab." She settled back on the large black sleeping fur, and leaned against a low log, watching his twitching face. "We hardly know anything about your people. You must have some stories."
The shadowy light from the fire cast weird reflections off his oddly shaped profile, as he sat there and thought. "Well." He finally said. "I'll try, but I'm not a bard." Here, he nodded his head at Gabrielle, who gave him a sweet smile in return. She slid over to where Xena was sitting, and relaxed against the same log so that they were side by side, facing him. How different they were, he mused, collecting his thoughts for a moment. Like darkness and light itself. He closed his eyes and hoped, and as though a god had touched him, his inner sense returned to him fully. Almost afraid, he extended himself gently, and Looked. Ah..his spirit eased within him. He had been right, after all. Gabrielle was a familiar golden warmth, but the woman next to her, clear his senses at last, was a burnished silver core. He could see the bond between them, and wondered if they knew...no, probably not. Their kind was insensitive to it. Pity. But..well, maybe..hey...
"I will tell you the story of Lestan and Wennid" He said, finally, with a small private grin. "And of the bonding which happens between two of our kind, when we are very lucky" He launched into the story, which told of two of the People, from different tribes, who met one late evening in a moonlit glade in the depths of dark wood.
As he told of their meeting, which started in a fight, and ended in a begrudging liking, he watched their faces. Would they see what he was trying to show them? Probably not. He sighed. "Their two tribes were not friends. They came of different worlds. His tribe was warlike, and wanted to challenge your kind when they came to the forest. And her's was a gentle kind, who slipped into the shadows when humans approached. " He told them of their unwilling courtship, of two worlds which naturally repelled each other being bound together by a force too powerful to resist. Lestan and Wennid, beyond expectation, were bonded to each other, their souls had made a connection that ignored their history, their conscious minds, even their better judgment.
:"So, they fell in love?" Gabrielle asked, entranced with the story.
" The bonding is more than love, Gabrielle." Jessan answered softly, intently. "it's a connection between two souls that goes beyond our knowledge, beyond our understanding, some say beyond death itself." That got a reaction from both of them, that he was unprepared for. It was quickly masked, but he saw it, in both sets of eyes. What did I say? He thought to himself, bewildered. I think I'm missing something here. He cleared his throat and continued the story. "It doesn't happen often. " He told them of the long struggle between the two, to reconcile their respective tribes, with little success. "Then, one night,a large band of your kind found her village, deep in our woods, where we thought none of you ever came." His hands were shaking, he couldn't help it. "They ran them down in the forest, spearing them."
Xena's jaw tightened in anger, and she felt Gabrielle stir in distress next to her. They exchanged glances.
"Lestan had been out hunting, and heard the riders." Here, as always, his blood stirred in pride. " He turned his Garan towards her village, and rode like a god through the woods." He had captured their attention completely, he knew. "Wennid had taken a stand, against a fallen tree, protecting her mother, and three young ones. She was no warrior, but she did what she could, with a stick, against them. Lestan had been teaching her, a little, and to humor him, she let herself learn some of the arts of battle." His voice grew more intense. "Two of them rode her down, with long spears. She saw her death coming, but spread her arms wide, to protect the others, and take the blows herself." Now, the hair was standing up on his neck, so vivid was his recollection. "They came at her, and just as the spears would have pierced her body, Lestan and Garan leaped the fallen tree, and crashed into them, driving them back. " He saw their looks of astonished relief. "And then,he drew his sword, and as though the sprit of Ares was in him, drove them all back. But there were so many. " Here, his throat thickened. "He fought until all of them were dead, or scattered out of the forest, until his body ran red with his own blood, and the ground was steeped in it."
"Did he die?" Gabrielle asked, softly, in agony, not looking at the dark haired woman sitting so close to her.
Jessan gazed at her. "No, he did not." He smiled, a little. "But the toll on him was great, and he lost the use of one arm." He took a deep breath. "And, after that, the two tribes decided to combine, because they saw that there was merit in both their ways. Lestan and Wennid were chosen to be the leaders of the new village."
"Were they happy?" Xena asked, breaking her silence for the first time since he started the story.
"Yes." Jessan answered, a rather odd question, he thought.
"You sound pretty sure." The warrior commented, raising an eyebrow at him.
A mischievous grin crossed his leonine face. "They're my parents." He chuckled at their faces. "So, yeah, I'm sure." Hah! I got them!!! he chortled to himself, pleased with his story, and their reactions. Maybe they even got what I was showing them...no, I'm sure they didn't. Humans were so blind. He rose, and stretched, yawning. "I need some water.." he commented, and moved back towards the stream.
"Well." Gabrielle said, sighing. "I did ask him for a story, didn't I." She gave Xena an impish grin.
The taller woman crossed her arms, and studied Gabrielle's face. "Yes, you did." She said, thoughtfully. "You should be careful of what you ask for in life, Gabrielle. The gods sometimes give it to you." her mouth quirked in a grin.
The bard gazed at her. "If you could ask for one thing, Xena, and have it be granted, just like that, what would it be?" Not fair, Gabrielle...her mind chided her. Not fair...you shouldn't have asked that. You may not want to know the answer to that..it probably involves avoiding certain small villages...
Xena snorted, and laid her head back against the log. What, indeed? Her village, Cirra, Caesar, Marcos, Callisto...M'lila, change any of those, and she would not be the person she was.. She didn't like who she was most of the time, but would she have liked any other path better? The gods had shown her an alternate path once, and she had rejected it. Finally, she sighed, and rolled her head towards Gabrielle. "Nothing."
The bard looked startled. "Nothing?" her brow creased. "What do you mean, nothing?" Instinct was telling her to shut up, to stop pushing, but she couldn't. "You mean there's nothing you'd change?" She twisted around, and stared intently at Xena. "Nothing?"
"Nope." Xena said, knowing she was making Gabrielle mad. Time to cool her off. "Just about anything I'd change would mean I would have been someplace else other than a small clearing outside of Potadiea two years ago. " She quietly enjoyed the stunned look on Gabrielle's face. "And I wouldn't want to have missed that." Ah..you weren't expecting that answer, were you, my friend? "What about you? What would you change if you could?" She asked, more to distract the bard than anything else. She was pretty sure there were a lot of things Gabrielle would like to see differently. Perdicus, for one.
Gabrielle chewed her lip in silence, caught in her own trap. Would she change things? Well, sure there was always little things, annoyances, in both Xena and herself that she often tired of dealing with. She wished Xena talked more, though she'd been positively chatty during this little journey. But change things? She sighed inwardly. "I would.." she reached up and clasped her companions arm firmly. "I would ..take away your pain, Xena." It was not exactly what she wanted to say, but it was close enough. And it got her a long hug, long enough for her to fall asleep in it, in all that peace.
Jessan, curled on his own blankets on the far side of the fire, smiled to himself as sleep claimed him.
Two days later, they looked over a wide stream, to a heavily wooded area that spread to the horizon. Xena and Gabrielle looked questioningly at Jessan, who smiled his assent. "Home' he stated, with a satisfied smile. "I never thought I'd cross this stream again."
He turned to them. "There aren't words enough for me to use to say thank you with. " He hugged Gabrielle first, lifting her off her feet and squeezing hard. She giggled. a vibration in his arms, and squeezed back, as best she could. He let her down gently, then turned to Xena, who gave him a cool look, before breaking down and grinning. He hugged her harder, because he knew he wouldn't hurt her. "I'm going to do this, because I can." He whispered to her, then lifted her up off her feet and spun around with her in his arms. He felt her soft laughter in his ear. He finally set her down and they smiled at each other. "Someday, after I've gotten them used to the idea, you will come and meet my people." He said, seriously. "But you both will always be family to me."
"And you to us, Jessan" Xena answered, clasping his arm. Gabrielle just nodded. They watched him turn, and bound towards the stream. As he crossed, Xena could just make out the beginnings of dark forms emerging from the tree line to meet him. As he got to the first of these, he turned and waved. They waved back.
"I'll miss him." Gabrielle commented, leaning on her staff.
"Mm." Xena agreed, turning Argo away from the long stretch of trees. "but somehow, I get the feeling we'll be seeing him again."
TO BE CONTINUED
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