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Chapters 25 - 27
"Come at me!" the words echoed through the leafy glade, followed by the sharp clang of steel on steel. Arcus renewed his assault, launching a tremendous series of over-head strikes at the dark-haired warrior who defended and drove him back, before leaving the ground and somersaulting through the air, to land on the other side of the clearing. She grunted on impact, yet the leg did not fold. Satisfied at last, she sheathed her sword and crossed back to Arcus. "Good," was her only comment. He regarded her with undisguised respect. She walked with a pronounced limp, and fought to keep a grimace from her features, but by the gods, the wound hadn't reduced her fighting abilities. It was pain, she had come to realized, not structural damage, and pain she could handle; so far. They had spent most of the break from travel testing that ability, Arcus pressing to find a weakness, being rebuffed by moves he couldn't execute on his best day. Xena, for her part, held out her sword arm to grasp his in a gesture of respect for the soldier's abilities. "Thank you Arcus, I have been tested by a master," she said simply.
A few yards away Drusander and Barrus had watched fascinated, explaining each battle sound and flurry of activity to the excited Teremon. "I can see it," he cried out once, "Xena flashing through the air, bright swords waving..." He shrank back to his dark world and replayed the picture again and again. Drusander wondered what the boy's mind pictured, what 'flashing', and 'bright sword', could mean to a boy who hadn't seen the real world since infancy. The boy ran to Xena as he heard her walk by, calling: "Warrior. You were grand." She grunted in response, without breaking stride. Behind her, Arcus watched the boy's smile fade, puzzled yet again by the coldness of the woman he revered. He bent and whispered something in the boy's ear. Teremon's features brightened, lit by a shared confidence. A warrior confidence.
Drusander had mixed feelings about the woman. Her manner wounded Teremon, he knew, yet his anger faded when he thought of the price she was paying to keep him safe. He admitted that he knew little about warriors; observing one first hand had been an education. Perhaps his repertoire of stories could stand expansion. Then there was the woman herself. From that first night in the courtyard she had excited him. He longed to see her face lit by a real smile, one free of constraint, or tension; a smile which would light those gem-like eyes. He sighed and watched her disappear beyond the trees.
In a cool, marble room in Prestia, Ephiny thoughtfully chewed the last of her apple, watching the old man and the young girl. Cletus had been shaken by the tale of Callisto's visit to Gabrielle, shaken out of his belief in the security of his secrets.
"So Radec knows all, of Callisto, Teremon..."His voice trailed off as his mind followed a hidden path. At last he spoke aloud. "Since they have learned that Xena is no fugitive, it's likely someone has been sent to thwart her mission."
"You mean to kill her?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes. To kill her, and Teremon," he replied quietly.
"Can't forget Teremon," Gabrielle said sarcastically. "I guess he's no warrior, that he needs his big sister to be put at risk so that he can be king"
"Teremon is six years old, Gabrielle. I couldn't think of anyone else I'd rather have safeguarding him." Gabrielle turned away. Prestia had a way of dropping surprises in your lap.
"How did they learn Xena was on a mission for you?" Ephiny asked. "Spies?"
"Prestia, I've learned has plenty of spies. Some in high places. Xena's true mission was more likely the revelation of an escaped prisoner." He looked perplexed. "I wouldn't have expected Xena to be taking prisoners, given the situation, and her mood. A young guardsman, Woody," he said looking at Gabrielle, "talked her into sending him home alive, instead of killing him on the road. Woody nearly paid for that kindness with his life. Fancy Xena listening to a green soldier at such a time." Cletus watched Gabrielle's face blanch. "It wasn't Woody alone," she said softly. " I persuaded her to let him live."
Cletus nodded, his suspicions confirmed. "Xena plays a deadly game, Gabrielle. She's an experienced player. You must let her make the moves. "
Gabrielle didn't speak, afraid to imagine what dangers Xena may have faced because of her impulse to mercy. "Woody's all right? She asked at last,, concerned for the ruddy-cheeked soldier who was so fond of stories.
"He'll live," Cletus replied gravely, " and be the wiser for the experience."
It was only mid-afternoon, yet Ephiny felt as if she had been up forever. The women had found time for a fragrant bath before Cletus, in response to Gabrielle's scroll, had arrived with a cold lunch to share in Ephiny's sitting chamber.
The Amazons have lost none of their natural charm and grace, Cletus acknowledged with a grateful sigh. Ephiny was a worthy successor to Melosa. Gabrielle was magnificent in her Amazon garb. He envied his oldest child. Ephiny caught his eye as it moved back to her cleavage. "The point is," she said, pulling them both back to the problem at hand, that Xena is somewhere on the road between here and ...?" she raised an eyebrow in question.
"Dracatha," he said, surprised she didn't know. "Gabrielle, didn't Xena tell you?"
The blonde head shook a 'no'. "She only said you had given her no choice. " Ephiny knew some hidden understanding had passed between them. Cletus understood that the remark referred to Solon. He read the sorrow in her eyes to mean that things had not been mended between the two friends.
Ephiny's voice cut in again. "We came to give you a warning," she said, "hoping it might help Xena."
"She has good friends."
"Xena has been a friend to the Amazon nation, and to my family," Ephiny said. "Can you send help to meet her on the road?"
He nodded with decision. "Yes. I will."
"Would you like Amazons," she offered. "I have good warriors with me." Again he nodded.
"I'll go," Gabrielle said eagerly.
"You won't," Ephiny and Cletus replied together. Cletus continued: "There will be several scouting parties sent out, along the likely routes. It's doubtful you'd be in the one which finds them." It occurred to him that they might not be found. He set that thought aside. "And I am not placing Amazon royalty in danger while on a state visit. I have arrangements to make." Abruptly, he left the room.
Gabrielle voiced a small concern. "Ephiny, if she knows before she arrives that Amazons are here, maybe she won't return at all. Just send Teremon on with the escort."
"Gabrielle, if the mere idea of seeing you would keep her away, there is little point to her coming here at all. Now, let's go. Eponin and I have to choose which Amazons get right back in the saddle."
It was late afternoon when the mixed troop of Amazons and the blue and purple clad soldiers of the king moved out of the castle courtyard. Impossible to keep this secret from Radec, so no attempt had been made to do so. It was hoped it might inhibit him from further action. Ephiny and Gabrielle saw them off, and heard a small commotion as they passed by the stable. "I promise you, it was a slip of the tongue, nothing more." A man was pleading as if his life depended on it. They peered into the stable. If not his life, his beard surely was in danger. 'What's going on here?" Three Amazons held a portly man over a trough, a razor sharp knife at the ready. They looked up at Ephiny's question.
"Just teaching him the penalty for insolence, Ephiny," Solari said. "He made a comment about Gabrielle's royal Amazon -"
"Crest," Salmoneus nearly shrieked. "I meant to say 'crest'. Gabrielle, you know how I am, how easily my tongue gets twisted. Tell them I'm harmless," he said as the familiar face of the bard appeared from the shadows.
"Harmless?" she smirked. "Shall I tell them about the time you were thrown in a dungeon for touching my tomatoes," she grinned wickedly, then laughed as new panic appeared in his eyes. "Salmoneus." She threw her arms around him, a sign to the others that his insolence was to be forgiven.
"Gabrielle, thank you," he gushed. "Really, I only wondered whether you might like some earthenware dishes with your royal, you know," he said afraid to try the word again. "I could get you a good price. You ladies do have royal, uh- you knows?" he asked.
"My mask and necklace are my signifiers of rank, Salmoneus. I don't think I need the earthenware, Thanks anyway." She turned to Ephiny. "This is Salmoneus. A friend. He really is harmless. Salmoneus, this is Queen Ephiny, and no, she doesn't need earthenware either." Ephiny smiled regally, and introduced the other Amazons.
"He may be harmless, but he's sure elusive. We spent half the day tracking him down, after you pointed him out in the crowd, Gabrielle," Solari complained.
"Why didn't you say it was for Gabrielle," he countered. "All I knew was that a group of Amazons was hunting for me. I was trying to remember what I may have done." He grinned sheepishly. "Gabrielle, it's good to see you. You know I heard of this Amazon thing you've got, but I never expected to see you with them. I thought maybe you'd gone back to-where was that? Poatadora?" he guessed.
"Potadeia," she corrected, patiently.
"Yeah, Potadeia," he repeated, and continued, "after what Xena said."
The Amazons froze at his words. He looked up, afraid of some new threat to his beard.
"What'd I say?" he managed.
"You saw Xena?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yeah, a little while ago."
"Where was she?"
He collected his thoughts. "Brinnia, I think. Yes, it was in Brinnia," he confirmed.
"Brinnia? That's on the coast?"
"Must have been on her way to Dracatha," Ephiny observed.
"How was she?" Gabrielle asked, a tiny furrow creasing her brow.
"This isn't the place to talk, Gabrielle," Ephiny said. "Let's go to our rooms." Salmoneus looked puzzled as Ephiny started out. "How is she?" Gabrielle asked again, unwilling to wait for an answer. "Ephiny's right; this isn't the place," he said gently.
They were on a broad terrace, in a courtyard around which was built the wing which housed the Amazons. A mini-Amazon village, in the center of Prestia. Cletus had amused himself with the concept, and it suited the women well. It suited Salmoneus. He struggled with the temptation to peer too closely through open shutters. He had told the tale of his brief meeting with Xena, and waited for the two women to comment. "So she is all right?" Gabrielle asked. "Why then, didn't you just say so?"
"Well, she's okay, but not, okay, if you know what I mean. There was something funny there, as if she was in pain, or, maybe anguish is more the word. But cold. More like the Xena I first knew," he ended.
Gabrielle, swallowed the anxiety that rose in her throat. "Salmoneus met Xena when she was still...you know- "
"A warlord?" he interrupted. "Yes, Queen Ephiny. Is that right? Should I just say 'Your Majesty'?
"Ephiny will do," she replied. "You were saying?"
"I knew Xena when she was a warlord. Knew her? I was her prisoner! I was there when that ended for her. Something about her started to come alive, then, something in the eyes. That was gone, in Brinnia. Those great eyes. So dead." He didn't mention the incident he had witnessed with the sailor.
Ephiny shuddered. She had seen that in Amazonia, and wondered what it meant. It frightened her now to think of it. It frightened Gabrielle even more.
Salmoneus watched the troubled glances being exchanged and felt the need to speak.
"Look. She didn't run that guy through with the sword, when she caught him cheating," he said. "That a comforting thought. And she didn't break that sailor's neck."
"What sailor?" Gabrielle asked pointedly.
His ears colored, as he recalled what he'd witnessed. And heard. "He was just a sailor," he said evasively, as he tried to think of a credible lie. "You know the trouble Xena can find without looking too hard." Gabrielle was certain he hid something, but let it go.
"Gabrielle, this might not be my business, but I've got to say it: Xena didn't look happy, you don't look happy, and if it's got anything to do with the fact that you aren't together anymore..." he fumbled for a finish. "I don't know who left who, but since you're both miserable, maybe someone should just swallow someone's pride and put things back together." She stared up at him with doleful eyes. "Look, Gabrielle, I'm not putting this on you. If Xena was here I'd say the same thing. Maybe. Depending on her mood."
Gabrielle smiled faintly. "I know Salmoneus. Thanks for your concern. I'd swallow an ocean full of pride if it would help. That's not what this is about." The sun hung low in the sky, and lengthening shadows haunted the terrace. Gabrielle rose suddenly. "I promised Hela I'd hear her new song before dinner." Hela was to entertain at supper that evening. "Ephiny? Could you ask Cletus if Salmoneus could stay here too? Well, not right here, but somewhere in the palace. It's an awfully big place, and...I'd like to have him around. If that would suit you, Salmoneus." Salmoneus nodded eagerly. Ephiny looked doubtful. "It seems like an imposition, Gabrielle. You know him better. Why don't you ask?"
"I'd just as soon not, Ephiny. Please?" Ephiny surrendered, wondering how Xena had ever denied anything to those green eyes.
The stair to the turret room was well worn with time. There had been no battles in Prestia since time immemorial, the security of that kingdom having been early guaranteed by geography and treaties. What had been envisioned as a useful place for espying the enemy had found new uses. Cletus carried an armful of star charts, of his own devising, as he negotiated the winding stair. He nodded to the guard. "Good evening Lestor," he called, before disappearing into his haven. Supper had been entertaining, a diversion from his pressing concerns. The young Amazon who had sung had certainly ended his worries for a few moments. Except for that one song. He recalled the mournful tune, and snatches of the words. "Night approaches, but the stars grow cold; their heat has died with our love...something, something, something" he sang. "Only to death can I give myself now, let my nuptial garb be a shroud..." Haunting, movingly beautiful; it had hushed the room, and infuriated Ephiny, who had spoken from the depths of her own memories to demand a song that celebrated life and hope. The young woman had agreed with alacrity, shaken at the reaction. Cletus smiled, thinking he'd like to have the young woman observing these stars tonight.
There was a sudden noise behind him. "Lestor?" he turned, ready to see the guardsman.
"Lestor? Is that his name? I usually don't learn the names of my victims. Don't worry: I didn't kill him. I just wanted to give us a little privacy."
Cletus stared hard at the woman, hope and fear vying in his breast. "Callisto?" he uttered.
"Yes, Daddy; your other little girl." She brushed a strand of unkempt hair from her face as she closed the door. "I know you've been meaning to ask me over to see my ancestral home; I'm a great procrastinator, too," she confided. "I've been meaning to kill your other daughter, the dark-haired one, for ages. But you know how it is: busy, busy, busy," she said with mock regret. The lights in the many-chambered castle cast their glow even to this room. She observed them with interest. "Which room is mine?" she wondered aloud. "Can I have it done over in pink?" she growled.
So this is Callisto. He couldn't take his eyes from her, from the danger that seemed ready to explode in his face. A sharp contrast to the 'dark-haired one', he thought. Xena's force seemed contained, harnessed, although he knew it hadn't always been so. Callisto was like a rampaging river; no, a flood, he decided, ready to spill over its banks at every moment.
"I'm happy you see you, at last,' he said truthfully, trying to hide the fear which raised the hackles on his neck.
"Oh?" she replied. "Sorry it's taken me so long to show up. Only you forgot to tell me that you're my father. Made things a teensy-bit difficult," she explained through clenched teeth.
"And you have heard this now from...?" he asked, even though he knew who the source must be.
"What was his name?" she asked herself. "Sounded like 'clown'. Or maybe he just acted like a clown? You know a 'Glaucon'? You can't miss him. He'll be the one with his nose smashed flat against his face." Cletus smiled at the thought of the bully receiving a thrashing at her hands. The smile was short lived. "But what does it matter who told me. It should have been you; the same man who told Xena." She was not smiling.
Ah! That was a problem. "Callisto, I didn't tell Xena. She found out elsewhere, and came to me for confirmation."
She heard his explanation and dismissed it. "It doesn't matter. You should have told me. You knew I was alone in the world." There was a quiet anger in her face.
"I tried to find you after Cirra. You had disappeared."
"After Cirra," she sneered. "Where you while Cirra still lived? While it was dying under the heel of Xena?"
He turned away, ashamed to admit he had failed her. "Xena asked the same thing about Amphipolis."
Her lips curled in disgust. "How touching. Is that supposed to move me? Am I supposed to care what that bitch was whining about? Her family survived Amphipolis. Except for precious brother Lyceus. I wish they had all died. They will, and I'll kill them. The Doom of Amphipolis. How does that sound?" Her voice was not loud, but harsh, grating. It was a contrast to the honeyed-sweetness of her sarcasm. He couldn't decide which was more abhorrent, and resolved to draw out another tone.
"Callisto, Xena's destruction of Cirra was a monstrous crime, and you are entitled to your anger."
"Tell me something I don't know," she spat.
He ignored her jab. "Don't let that anger destroy what remains of your life," he urged.
She grinned; it was a nasty grin. "You and Xena are so much alike. Spreading the joys of
redemption; we'll see how long she holds it together now that the little brat is out of her life," she said with gleeful anticipation. "She sure did enjoy the killing she did the other day. Some things just never get out of your blood."
"You've seen Xena?"
"Oh yes. I couldn't wait to share the news. As you can imagine, she was beside herself with joy. Of course she was a little weak from blood loss, and the pain was preventing her from full enjoyment of the news." She looked at him innocently. "Don't blame me for everything," she said. "This wound was caused by another group entirely; they were after the boy prince, I think." She paused, content to let the news out in little bits. "Where was I? Oh, yes. Big Sis got herself stuck; she was so happy to see her kid sister. I think I saved her life," she said with satisfaction. "I stopped the bleeding, anyway."
"What of Teremon?" he asked.
Anger touched her eyes as she heard his question. "You're welcome, Cletus," she smiled sarcastically, "I'm glad you're so appreciative that I saved Xena's life. 'And how is Xena?' " she mimicked a dialogue. " 'She'll be just fine, thanks so much for your concern.' Now, what was your question? The boy-prince? Ah, a father and his beloved son. He wasn't harmed. I'm sure Xena will get him here to you safe and sound, so he can be pampered and coddled, given all the things his sisters deserved." She looked idly at a star chart that hung on the wall. "At least Xena's not getting the throne." She stole a glance at him for confirmation.
"No." He assured her. "She isn't getting the crown; she doesn't want the crown." That seemed to mollify her for a moment. He recalled with interest that she had spoken of them as 'sisters', jointly deprived of their birthrights. Common ground? He wondered.
"This place is crawling with Amazons," she commented. "I gave the little bard a scare, huh? Did they come to warn you about Callisto?"
"No. To warn me of something else."
"Ah, that the cat was out of the bag about me," she grinned knowingly.
"And Teremon." He was feeling his way as he went with her, hoping his trust would strike a chord in her heart. "My enemies seem to have more knowledge than I had expected."
"I don't look much like you," she changed the subject abruptly. "Are you sure about this thing? I don't want to start thinking of this place as home only to be made homeless again."
He wondered if she had been serious about a room. "I'm certain, Callisto. May I ask a question?" She shrugged indifferently. "Where did you go after Cirra?"
She tossed her head and laughed. "Wouldn't you like to know?" That seemed to end the visit for her. "Lestor will be awake soon. I'd better go, before I have to hurt him again."
"Callisto, wait,-" he began.
"Don't worry. I'll be back," she said brightly. "Ask Xena. I just keep turning up."
Camp was broken quickly and earlier than usual. Teremon rubbed sleep from his eyes with grubby fingers. They had not camped near a water source, and there had been no water to spare for washing. A new complication had arisen, and although no one else could make sense of it, Xena was uneasy, and pushing harder than ever. After an hour's travel she called the group to break and took Arcus aside.
"They're still out there, Arcus, I'm not sure where, but there is movement on the road, even along the hunters' trails." The day before, those had felt unsafe to her, he recalled. They had spent a good part of the day moving along ever more obscure paths, until their progress toward Prestia was at a near standstill. At that point, they had stopped and hidden for the day. Arcus trusted her now, despite his inability to understand what she was feeling. "We can't spend another day like yesterday." She looked around the little group, eyes narrowed as if examining a world of possibilities, and made a decision.
"I'm going ahead. I think it's that way," she waved vaguely up the road.
"Is this a sixth sense?" he asked.
"No, it's just five, working hard."
"Uncanny." His admiration was evident in his face. Too much, she thought.
"If it were uncanny, I would have known about that bunch that grabbed Teremon." She draped a water skin around Argo's pommel and mounted. "Keep moving along this line."
As she made her solitary way through he woods she pushed away thoughts of the possible danger to those left behind. They had fallen another day behind; Prestia was still a good two day's ride way, and she was determined to find away around, or through, these
latest, unseen companions on the journey. The birds and small game told of a presence
to her left. Travelers on the parallel road. She urged Argo to pick out a trail and moved swiftly to be ahead of them. The mare was sent on ahead riderless, and Xena made a quick foray into the canopy of tree cover overhead.
In a perch high above, one with the trees, she waited patiently for the others to approach. She didn't know her next move; it would depend on numbers and other factors at yet unknown. Senseless to predict; it might turn out to be a wedding party hastening to another village, or a- It was no wedding party, she knew as they came in view. She abandoned her perch to fly down and to the right of the forward riders. She winced on landing, but the leg held, and she erased the grimace that distorted her features before the
mounted Amazons could focus. An involuntary smile spread lit her face at the sight of old friends. "Eponin. A little far from your homeland?" The raised eyebrow brought a smile in return. Eponin eyed the path from the trees to the ground. "Sure you're not one of us, Xena?" She leaped from her horse to clasp the warrior's arm briefly. "We've been looking for you for two days," she informed her. "Have you got them all hiding in the treetops?"
"No; but we did spend most of yesterday hiding from your party."
"We're not the only ones looking; it could have been another troop."
"Then I'm glad I came to investigate. We could have played hide-and-seek for a long time." She looked at the mixed group of soldiers and Amazons that rode toward them.
"How did you get into this?" she asked. "Callisto?"
"You've heard of her visit to Gabrielle?" Eponin was surprised.
"Yeah. She didn't hurt anyone?" Eponin nodded reassurance.
Xena's face showed her relief. "I had a little visit too."
Eponin looked at the list to one side, a clear indication of injury. "Was that from Callisto?"
Damn, it's that obvious, even when I just stand here, Xena thought sourly, repositioning her body to distribute the weight more evenly. Xena shook her head. "No, that wasn't Callisto." Not entirely. " Something else. What are you doing riding with Prestia?" she persisted.
"The day of Callisto's visit Ephiny decided it was a good time to pay a state visit to Prestia. You know we can travel on short notice. There are about forty Amazons in Prestia now."
The dark head nodded understanding. Looking out for me. It was appreciated, but foolish of Ephiny, she thought, to place Amazons at risk over the troubles of outsiders. It was probably done at Gabrielle's urging, she considered unhappily, and Gabrielle would be there now, waiting for word, worrying and hoping. She gave a whistle, and Argo burst through the underbrush, startling and amusing the collection of riders that surrounded them now. "Let's collect the others."
One more night, one more campfire with this group. With a good, long day's ride they should reach Prestia by nightfall of the next day. Riders had been sent to tell the others to return to Prestia, ensuring the safety of the road ahead. For the first time in many days Xena ate her meal relaxed. The searchers had been well provisioned, and the fare around the campfire this evening was more palatable and varied than the fish and small game that had been their staple fare. Her gaze moved over the scene: Teremon had been thrilled to meet Amazons. Any novelty intrigued the little boy whose life until now had been bound by the rocky coast of Dracatha. Drusander had done well to keep him so lively and bright. He must have been quite a tutor, she decided giving him his due. He would have given up a lot to stay in Dracatha with the boy. Teremon was performing on Eponin the same tactile examination he had performed on her that night in the stable; the Amazon warrior was clearly entranced by the child, and replied to his questions with uncharacteristic animation. Arcus and Barrus sat quietly together, Arcus ever solicitous to his comrade's needs. The other few soldiers and Amazons, those not posted as guards, mingled by the fire, sharing stories and comparing weapons. It would be nice for Arcus to have a full night's rest after so many nights sharing guard duty she thought. She would not be needed for duty tonight either, she knew, and yet it gave her little comfort. It was good to be occupied through the night. Her eyes continued to roam the area. Where was Drusander? She spied him at last, half hidden by a gnarly tree trunk. His eyes were on her. She gave no sign that she noticed. After a moment she drank deeply from a wineskin and took it, and her bed roll to a place beyond the clearing.
She stretched out on the blanket, acknowledging for the first time the strain that the journey had been. She felt the tension in her shoulders, and would have welcomed a massage. Or even a good fight, she wryly admitted. There had been no action since that day she met Callisto, just hard days in the saddle. Harder than usual, due to the never-ending pain in her thigh. It puzzled her that there had been no further attempts, but she was too tired to think about it. She lifted the wineskin again, and tossed it aside empty.
Her head swam a bit. I only drink too much with Amazons, she observed. Why is that?
It was the long dream, on the deck of the ship, and she knew where it would go, unable to stop the progress, unable to wrest herself free from the chains, or the rough ropes which bound her to the cross...She looked at the array of faces staring at her. Gabrielle smirked. 'Break her legs', she said. She strained against the bonds in vain, crying out in her struggle. She was upright, held in place by strong arms. She pushed against his chest, worked to understand who it was... "Xena," a voice whispered. "It's all right. I've got you, no one's here." Her arms moved feebly, as she fought back to the present. Who was this one, she wondered? She relaxed against him, and clutched his shoulders, feeling the weight of him on her as they sank back on the blanket, his mouth moving hungrily against hers, his hands stroking the supple leather. No matter who, she decided, through a haze of passion, as she pressed herself to him, accepting the pain which inflamed her thigh.
Eponin had stopped in her walk of the grounds, puzzled for a moment by the brief cry. She had found its source, not surprised it was Xena. She was surprised by the figure which had suddenly been there. What started as a comforting embrace moved quickly to a scene of passionate love-making. Discomfited, puzzled, Eponin moved silently away.
Drusander woke early, and sought with one arm for the woman he had slept with. She was gone. He sat, stumped for a moment. The campsite or the stream? He guessed stream, and found her, as she emerged from the rippling waters. "We've been lucky to find so many sites near water," he said smiling, enjoying the image before him. The early sun glistened off the wet skin, highlighting the play of firm muscles, and the swell of taut breasts. "It hasn't been luck," she said regarding him sullenly. She dried off with a cloth, bothering only to conceal the wound that bore the mark of Callisto. "I'm sorry about last night," she said, avoiding his eyes.
He was startled. "Sorry?"
"I was using you. That wasn't right." She began to don her clothes.
"I was using you Drusander," she said patiently, "I do that. There was nothing to it, so get that moony look off your face and forget it."
"No." He replied as if he finally comprehended her words. "Last night was beautiful. I've dreamed of being with you, like that." Her lips pursed in annoyance. "If the sex was good, I'm happy," she told him. "I don't recall." Angry now, he moved the few steps that separated them and seized her roughly by the shoulders, to pull her to himself. He kissed her hard on the mouth, and let her go, a little breathless, as he said: "Does that help your memory?" She narrowed her eyes and returned the kiss, driving her tongue deep into his throat, touching nowhere else, but reducing him to a mass of trembling flesh. She stepped back, and regarded him with satisfaction. "I can play that game, Drusander. It doesn't go any farther." She stalked away, leaving him bedeviled. A game? Was it always that way? Surely there was a way to touch her heart. He would have to find it, he decided, as he remembered to breathe, and followed her back to camp.
It was near dark when they first spied the lights of Prestia in the distance. Teremon slept in the arms of Drusander, muttering about Amazons. It was a welcome change from his recounting of the brief abduction and rescue. He had passed the day riding with Eponin as first choice, any other Amazon as second. He would have preferred Xena, but she had made herself absent, riding away from the group most of the day. When she was near she behaved toward Drusander as always, despite the extra attention he paid her. Eponin tried in vain to find some meaning in the strained interaction. Her hopes for a quick reconciliation between Xena and Gabrielle had vanished, yet she was sure there was nothing real between the warrior and the blond stranger.
Riders had been sent ahead to alert the castle of the approach of the party, which grew as the advance parties came together. By the time they turned into the castle precincts it looked like a small army, Xena thought with wry amusement. The townsfolk stopped to watch the procession, the second such parade in days. This was no ceremonial exercise they knew, from the weary slump of the riders, and the road-dusted uniforms. Xena had dropped to a position in the rear, nearly out of the line of march. The brown-clad forces of Radec, mingling in the streets regarded her with interest. Xena held back a sneer. In their eyes, I'm still a fugitive she guessed. Cletus wouldn't have moved to take that off my head. It seemed doubtful they would molest her while she rode shoulder-to-shoulder with the king's guardsmen, but she kept a wary eye on them.
In the courtyard, courtiers of both kingdoms waited to greet them. It was almost a party atmosphere. Drusander handed the sleeping Teremon to his father, who looked on his son for the first time with awe. Xena turned away, unwilling to consider the implications of the young boy being named crown prince. It set him up as a target for the rest of his life, unless Radec's power was broken. That troubled her; she liked the boy; and he was her brother. She braced herself as she threw her left leg over the saddle to dismount. She minimized the impact of the ground by retaining a grip on the saddle-horn, but it jarred nonetheless, and she began a quick inspection of Argo's flank as an excuse for turning her face away from the milling crowd. A little to the side, Gabrielle watched uncertainly, wanting to wrap her arms around the warrior, afraid of a rebuff. She knew her well enough to know there was something wrong. Rebuff or no, she was going to offer assistance.
How long will this pain persist, Xena asked herself? She had controlled her reaction when she descended from the trees two days before, but the it had required immense effort. Frequent tasks, like mounting and dismounting had become hard. I should have stayed mounted until the stable, she scolded herself. She was startled to find Drusander at her elbow, saying something. He ended with a 'thank you'; she muttered a perfunctory reply, then he leaned over and kissed her, wrapping one arm around her shoulders. Gabrielle froze in her tracks. For a long moment she waited for Xena to wave his aid aside, as she so often did, when she wanted to hide a weakness; it didn't happen. Instead, she gripped his arm and moved off with him, the man holding Argo's reins. He brushed a leaf from Xena's hair. The casual contact burned itself into Gabrielle's memory. How long was it before she had dared to touch Xena that way, even to remove a stray leaf.
Xena caught her look as they approached. Damn, she thought, I didn't want her to see that, didn't want him to do that. She was working hard to minimize the limp, for whose benefit she couldn't say. It was only good sense to hide your weaknesses from your enemies. It had become habit to hide them from friends as well.
They stopped before a knot of Amazons: Ephiny and Solari, Gabrielle and Hela, hearing a report from Eponin.
"Xena," Ephiny spoke first, offering a warm smile. "Eponin says you led them all a merry chase. Hard to believe anyone got close to your camp at all."
"Yeah, well, I screwed up, Ephiny. It happens," she said still reproaching herself for the attack.
"I didn't mean it that way, Xena."
The warrior shrugged, ending the topic. "I was surprised to find Amazons involved," she
commented, taking in Gabrielle for the first time. "Hello, Gabrielle," she nodded, then passed on. "Solari, Hela." Gabrielle's eyes were riveted on her, avoiding the tall man who stood at her side, his arm in Xena's grasp, one hand folded over hers.
"How are you Xena?" Gabrielle found her voice. "You look tired." She could see the weariness, almost taste the dust of the road that hung on her body. She took a moment to absorb the scent of sweat and leather that she knew so well. It was a well-remembered perfume, an aphrodisiac for the younger woman.
"It's been a long road, Gabrielle." She returned Gabrielle's stare for a few moments, no emotion betrayed in the depths of blue. She couldn't quite hide the pain. Gabrielle had seen Xena deny herself the luxury of acknowledging pain, knew how the jaw would clench slightly, knew the deep breath she took periodically, covered by a laugh or huff of exasperation. Xena blew out a sigh now, and flicked a strand of hair from her eyes, disturbed knowing that Gabrielle could read her like a scroll. Abruptly she nodded to indicate Drusander. "This is Drusander; Teremon's uncle, and guardian." Polite nods were passed all around. The Amazons regarded him uncertainly, not sure of his role in the ongoing drama between Xena and their sister Gabrielle.
"Drusander, this is Ephiny, reigning queen of the Amazons. Gabrielle was queen, it's a long story..." Her voice faltered, how to begin to explain that sequence, she wondered?
"I'm Solari, indispensable right hand to who ever happens to be queen on any given day," the raven-haired woman joked. "And I'll tell you the story, anytime you like," she said, rescuing a grateful Xena.
Drusander smiled in reply, a broad, charming smile set in his rugged face, that sported a week's growth of stubble. He would have won them all as friends if his mere presence didn't have such a painful effect on Gabrielle. "I'd love to hear the story, anytime; did you ever meet a bard who didn't love a story?"
Four hearts skipped a beat; Drusander felt it as a chill which enveloped them all. Solari's smile faded. "I'm glad you made it back, Xena," she said, coldly. "If you'll excuse, me, I was about to take a bath. Bet you could use one. Join me, Gabrielle," she offered. Gabrielle, looked away from Xena for the first time, and turned to leave with Solari, Hela in tow.
That's how it is, Xena, realized. They're expecting a big reconciliation, waiting for me to take Gabrielle in my arms. My friends, as long as I'm with their little Princess. She smiled bitterly. "I hate to offend Solari," she said in mock apology, as she took a step away, moving as steadily as she could manage. They'll wait a long time.
"A bard. Xena returns on the arm of a blond bard. What is she thinking?" Ephiny listened quietly, sympathizing with the questioner, yet knowing so much more of the roots of the problem, that she couldn't find fault so easily. "Solari, I don't know that she was thinking anything. She didn't decide that Drusander would be a bard. Or blond. As for being on his arm, she was trying to cover for an injury. He volunteered his arm; she took it."
It didn't satisfy Solari. "Then maybe she should have been thinking. About Gabrielle."
Eponin reclined on a divan in the corner, a rare surrender to luxury for the stoic warrior.
"Solari," she said in defense of a sister stoic warrior, "she's had a lot on her plate. She's tired, stressed, and in a lot of pain. Cut her come slack."
"Pretty quick to defend her, aren't you?"
"Why not? I don't like to see Gabrielle hurt, but we can't decide who other people should, or shouldn't love. It's hard enough making those choices for ourselves." Ephiny nodded at her wisdom, happy to see so much maturity in the younger woman.
Solari crossed to face her, hands on hips. "Are you suggesting she loves that man? How long has she known him, a few days?" she asked in disbelief.
Ephiny prepared to say that Solari was putting words in Eponin's mouth, but Eponin's expression stopped her. "Is that what you're saying, Eponin?" she asked instead.
"I don't know," she shrugged. "I don't think it meant anything. I think it was just... physical." She felt she had said too much already, but tried to explain. "She had a bad dream, I suppose...he woke her, and stayed. Get that smug look off your face, Solari," she growled. "You know, she's only human. And I think she was a little drunk."
"Just covering an injury, huh, Ephiny? Gabrielle's well rid of her. Maybe she can make a suitable match; Hela would do."
"Fine, then get off Xena's back about it," Eponin said, a little heat in her voice. " 'I bet you could use a bath', " she mimicked. "What kind of thing was that to say? You're lucky she didn't flatten you."
"You always did have a thing for Xena, didn't you?' Solari smirked. "If you can't have her you'd rather see her outside the tribe, is that it?"
Eponin was on her feet, a fist cocked, when Ephiny's voice cut through the air. "Stop it! Right now, or I'll send you both back home. Under guard," she threatened. "I don't know what, if anything Xena feels for Drusander, but he didn't cause the rift between Xena and Gabrielle. If they can't be happy together, they may as well know it now." She eyed them solemnly. "I won't have this cause dissension among my people. Especially here, now, in the presence of outsiders. If either of you can't accept that, go home."
Eponin and Solari eyed each other warily for a long moment, then Eponin offered a hand in friendship. Solari accepted the gesture with a smile. "I kind of had a thing for her too, " she admitted. Ephiny rolled her eyes. "Good. That's settled. Now, can anyone tell me where Gabrielle's gotten to?"
More tired than hungry, Xena rose from the still warm waters of the large, marble tub. This part of the palace was better than the dungeon she acknowledged with a sour smile.
A suite of rooms this time. Fit for a princess, she supposed. She picked up a towel from the wide ledge and bent over to wrap a turban around her head. The door opened marginally, as she straightened. "You can leave the food in the other room," she began but it wasn't the servant. Gabrielle stood in the doorway. "I took the tray in for her," she explained. Her eyes drank in the tall warrior all at once, remembering, assuring herself that she was well, and really there. Xena had not moved, transfixed by the green eyes, not prepared for this encounter. Then Gabrielle was across the room, her arms wrapped around the stunned warrior. Xena yielded to the embrace, because she was caught off guard, and because the feel of the soft cheek against her body was irresistible. They stood silently for a moment, Gabrielle pillowed by a soft breast, her tears mingling with the fragrant water that ran down the warrior's body. "I've missed you Xena, I've been so worried..."
"Don't Gabrielle," she breathed. Her arms came up to move the younger woman aside, as she stepped out of the big tub. Gabrielle caught her, maneuvered her to sit on the wide ledge, then knelt beside her, and lay her head in Xena's lap, her arms reaching to circle her waist. On hand moved slowly to explore the warm flesh. Unthinking, Xena stroked the soft golden hair, feeling a rising excitement in her loins. The bard's fingers found the place on Xena's thigh where Callisto had left her mark, she felt the raised flesh, remembering the odd scar she had observed when she had entered the room. Xena stiffened as if touched by a hot poker, and Gabrielle's head came up, to look at her face, then at the wound that told a story. "I'm sorry. Callisto told Cletus you were hurt. How bad is it?"
"Callisto? She was here?" There was no surprise in her voice.
Gabrielle nodded. "She was in the turret room. She spoke to Cletus; I don't know all she said, but she told him she had seen you. You were hurt, and she helped you?" the bard asked unbelieving.
Xena nodded, suddenly awake to the present moment. She took a towel and wrapped it around herself. There would be no misunderstandings tonight, she promised herself.
"Was she awful?" Gabrielle asked, aware of the changed mood.
Xena shrugged. "She was Callisto. You know how she loves to spring surprises."
There was an edginess in Xena's tone she hadn't meant.
Gabrielle guessed what could have made such a scar. "She burned you." Xena nodded tightlipped, then stood and moved away as the bard's eyes filled with tears.
"I should have told you," she admitted.
"It would be nice to know something once in a while before it smacks me in the face," Xena agreed. "It wouldn't have changed anything, but I wouldn't have sat there like a damned fool with my mouth hanging open."
"Xena, I didn't know how to tell you," she confessed.
"How about this: 'Xena, Callisto, is your sister'." This time, facing Gabrielle, the words almost choked her. "If I can get it out, you could have. You're a bard Gabrielle, for Zeus' sake. But then, you couldn't say, 'Xena, Atrius is dead', either, could you? It must be me," she concluded quietly.
Gabrielle still knelt at the edge of the tub, hands in her lap, head raised to look at the tall warrior, who fought the impulse to pace, unwilling to highlight the limp. "I hoped you would never need to know, Xena. I knew it would be - disturbing. You had been through so much..." She paused, weighing her words. "And I had other things on my mind Xena. You and me."
Xena ignored the last remark. "Was it disturbing to you Gabrielle?" she asked instead.
"Learning that I'm kin to the woman who killed Perdicus?"
Gabrielle's brow furrowed, as she looked for the meaning behind the question. "Xena, you share blood. It doesn't make you responsible for her deeds." She guessed at something. "That isn't why I didn't tell you."
Xena sat heavily on a bench against the wall. She hadn't wanted this tonight, had looked forward to a bed, and some sleep, anyway. "It doesn't matter," she said wearily.
"If it gets in the way of us, then it matters Xena." The bard spoke, then held her breath, knowing the risk she had taken, but needing to know. She didn't wait long. Xena held the bard's eyes with her own. "There isn't any us; not anymore." she said. A shudder passed through her, as if someone had walked on her grave.
Gabrielle was prepared for this. "Moments ago, I felt something different from you Xena; don't deny it."
"You shouldn't have come, Gabrielle."
"Xena, Please, I know I've hurt you, and you're right to be angry."
"Get up, Gabrielle. I can't stand to see you begging..." She cast her eyes at the ceiling, unwilling to look down at the bard.
"Please, don't be angry," she persisted.
The dark head shook slowly. "This isn't anger. Do I sound angry?"
"No," a small voice admitted.
"We can't be together. That's all of it, Gabrielle. You have been a good friend. I'll always value the time we shared, but it's time we admitted that we're just too different, and moved on." Gabrielle's lips parted, then her mouth closed, and she swallowed hard, as Xena spoke again. "I should have said something more in Amazonia...left a note. I thought you'd understand."
Gabrielle wondered at the steady, reasoned tone Xena used. If she had told this scene as a story, it would have demanded more than one-sided passion. Even good-byes required passion, if real passion had ever been there at all. "I'd understand, because you left all the things I'd given you? Is that how these things are done?" She nodded thoughtfully, as if coming to an understanding at last. "I'll send some things back to you in the morning."
"Don't bother, Gabrielle. You can toss them in the fire. "I've never given you very much."
Never given me very much? Gabrielle's heart began to pound furiously in wild rebellion at those words. You have given me the world, Xena; you have shown me what it is to be truly alive, to truly love. You met a little girl in Potadeia, and suffered her growing pains, made her wise in ways beyond her years; in ways beyond your years. You let me share a life people would dream about, if they dared dream so large. Never given me very much?
Your warmth of your smile, the strength of your arms, the safety I found in those blue eyes. By the gods, Xena. Who could have given me more? Her chest began to ache with pent up emotion; lightheaded, she saw Xena as a vision far away, her voice muffled as if coming through layers of cloth. The problem is, you've left me with a hunger for so much more. I want to wake up by your side every morning of my life.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?" Xena asked coolly, peering at her.
She nodded dumbly, coming out of her thoughts. "Will you be staying in Prestia? Here in the castle?"
"For a day or two, maybe."
"Well, don't worry. I just, uh, want you to know I won't bother you anymore, if we run into each other here." Her voice was shaky, she was close to tears and both women knew it.
"I'm not worried. It's a big castle," Xena pointed out. "We probably won't see each other." She stood and gestured toward the door. "Now if you don't mind, I'd like to eat and try to get some sleep."
Gabrielle rose to her feet, still managing to stem the tears, afraid to speak, but unable to leave without asking: "Xena? Someday, will you maybe tell me...why?" She was in the hallway, hot tears burning her cheeks before she breathed again.
Xena lowered herself to the bench again as soon as Gabrielle had made her exit, glad for the opportunity to sit at last. She threw off the towel and gingerly massaged the area around the wound. Gods, it felt sometimes as if all the miseries of the world had taken up residence in those few inches of flesh. It felt that way now. She pressed a fist to her mouth and bit on a knuckle to avoid crying out. Maybe Callisto is a witch, she thought darkly. Maybe some vestige of power left over from her days as a goddess, had enabled her to curse the wound somehow. It seemed as plausible as anything else, she decided. She breathed deeply until the pain began to recede, and made her way to the sitting room. It was a bit large for one person, but cozy by palace standards. It was not cool, but a fire blazed in the hearth, and it felt good to recline on the plush carpet that lay there. She had moved the tray to the floor, and picked lazily at the assorted foods. Her mind drifted back to that other meal she'd had here, on leave from her cell in the dungeon. So many things had come from that. The poisoning attempt had prompted Cletus to make his move, to send for Teremon. And she and Gabrielle had seen their lives begin to unravel. She was surprised that Gabrielle could bear to be in the castle; her wound seemed still so raw. She remembered her own pain with a shudder, then felt a touch of surprise that it had passed so quickly. On the ride to Dracatha, in the early stages of the road back, she had desperately sought purchase for her mind to hold onto, anything to avoid thinking of Gabrielle, to numb the pain, if only for a few minutes. Then, like a storm which breaks without warning, and ends as suddenly, it had swept away, leaving a calm in its wake. Not a calm, exactly she supposed, but a dead spot. That was more true, her feelings had not calmed, they had died. She had been ready to wish that surcease from pain for Gabrielle; she reconsidered. Gabrielle was stronger that way, she admitted dispassionately. She would recover from a wound that would have killed Xena. "I hope you're all right, Gabrielle. Find your own peace, gentle bard," she said to the radiant face, that still lived in her mind's eye. For a few moments she allowed herself to savor the feel of that soft flesh against hers, the gentle hands moving on her. It had been hard to end that contact. She still desired Gabrielle, still loved her. It was odd to acknowledge that, and understand the loss, but feel no pain. There had even been a twinge of - jealousy at the sight of Hela near her in the courtyard, and she hadn't felt the need to flee the scene, or rearrange Hela's face. She reached for the wine decanter and remembered the pain that seemed to be taking over her life. Just traded one pain for another, I guess. The wine was good. Content for the moment, she stared at the fire, thinking of nothing at all.
Gabrielle realized it was impossible to enter her room unnoticed. The common courtyard was filled with Amazons and Prestians, celebrating the safe return of comrades, and the friendship between the two nations. Best to just put on a brave face, and slip by, with a few nods and called-out greetings. She hadn't counted on the vigilance of her friends. Ephiny was in her room, and made no explanation for it. One look at her face and she guessed where she had been.
"Did you take my advice?" she asked her sister Amazon, knowing the answer already.
"Your advice?" Gabrielle wiped her face with her hands, unable to erase the redness from her eyes. "oh," she remembered suddenly. "You said I should ask her what happened in Prestia. " She looked at Ephiny. "I didn't do that, Ephiny. I threw myself at her feet." She blushed, embarrassed at the literal picture she recalled. "I couldn't imagine that she wouldn't respond, I would have done anything...and she did respond, I know she felt something; she was even tender, but..." She sought for a way to explain. "There was nothing there, no emotion at all. I would have preferred her to be angry." She began to remove the ornate leather bands that circled her arms, as she remembered the conversation. "She said she would 'always value the time we had shared', that I had been a 'good friend'. It's just time we 'moved on'. She was trying to make it easier for me, so I know she must still care a little, just not enough to want to be with me. Unless," her mind worked in a new direction, seeking any possible answer. "unless she's afraid I'll get hurt in all this mess in Prestia, so she's putting me at arm's length until it's over?" she suggested hopefully.
"No, Gabrielle," Ephiny replied, "this isn't about protecting you. Xena's being selfish." She backed off. "No; that sounds like a reproach to Xena; it's not what I meant. Just believe me, Xena means what she's saying. You won't change her mind by throwing yourself at her, or by arguing." You should have asked the question, she thought.
"I thought I meant more than this. I thought this would be harder for her."
She draped an arm loosely around Gabrielle's shoulders, wanting in vain to console the desolate girl. You don't know how hard this was for her, Gabrielle.
To be Continued - Chapters 28 to 30