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Chapters 15 - 17
"They should both be dead by now," Glaucon reported. "there was enough poison in that food to kill her ten times."However, he thought to himself, sometimes that particular poison was difficult to disperse; if it had clumped together in a portion of food that was not consumed... He needed to cover himself in case she survived. "Of course, it is said that she survives through the good offices of some god. The story is that she came back from Hades to reunite with her body---"
"I've heard that fairytale, Glaucon. I trust anyone over the age of ten would have dismissed it for the patent nonsense it is. You know her friend is a bard. She can embellish every one of Xena's deeds to make her seem a little less than a god." Radec spoke with impatience.
Glaucon kept his silence, but recalled the stories he had heard from his most reliable sources about the death and retrun of the warrior woman. He would be glad when she was well and truly dead. For hours the two men had sat in Radec's castle chamber waiting to hear the outcome of their plot. So far, there had been nothing remarkable stirring in the castle precincts. That could be good or bad. Certainly there would be a hubbub if she were already dead. Yet the quiet might just mean that she had not yet been found to be ill. If the poison were to be detected too early, she could be purged, and Radec's hand would be further exposed. The longer the quiet was maintained, Radec decided, the surer the indication that the plot had succeeded.
"If the bard falls ill we'll be informed?" he inquired.
"Yes," Glaucon answered for the fifth time. The presence of the warrior woman had unnerved Radec like nothing Glaucon had seen in a dozen years of close, dirty service. He understood, in a way. The survival of the two women in Amphipolis had been against all odds. Even now, he yearned to hear that the bard was dead; that was as important to him as the warrior's death was to Radec. Yet the bard's death was considered of no importance to Radec, her presence at the fatal meal was incidental. She would have already fingered Glaucon as the attacker at Amphipolis. She could not harm them in any other way. Radec's focus was on Xena. He was certain she was here, with or without the approval of Cletus, to seize the throne, or be annointed heir. That threat could only end with her death.
The original plan was to set assassins on her. When Atrius presented himself as a convenient sacrificial lamb the plan had changed. Kill Atrius, implicate Xena and she'd be discredited, as well as marked for death. Cletus could seek justice and retribution for an assassinated woman; he would have the support of the people to cut off Radec's power. But the prosecution, the execution, of a well-known murderer would have the support of the people; Cletus couldn't save her.
The plan had changed yet again when Radec received word that the woman had been taken to the royal living quarters for a private meeting with her friend. Radec was not sure of the reason for the meeting, some sentimental nonsense, he supposed. The woman had seemed genuinely concerned about the girl in her cell when he first confronted her. Regardless, a quick message, and her fate was sealed. No waiting for a trial, no witnesses or cunning tricks from Cletus to worry about. The king would have a hard enough time explaining why the woman was in his royal chambers. He would be effectively cut off from action.
Satisfied that there was nothing to do but wait, Radec picked up a sheaf of scrolls. Dawn would soon be streaking the sky. He had little in his life but work; he turned to it now to help the time pass. "Let me know when your sources have news." He dismissed Glaucon with a wave of his hand.
Glaucon crossed the courtyard with a careful eye on the king's chambers. Often a light burned throughout the night while the king pursued one of his crackpot interests. He could at least spend his time on some worthwhile pursuit, turning base metals to gold for instance; instead he wasted time preparing star charts, and playing with magnets. Old fool. Small wonder he'd lose his kingdom. The castle was clothed in darkness now, except for those lights which he knew lit the corridors. As dark as a tomb; the tomb of the Warrior Princess, he fervently hoped.
Gabrielle turned to the unshuttered window in the small room she shared with Delia. A pallet had been brought in for her, and placed mid-way between the hearth and the window. The moon was nearly full, and the room was flooded with it's light. It wasn't the light which kept her awake, however. It was thoughts of Xena. She wondered now whether Xena was bathed in the same moonlight. Then she recalled the layout of the castle and decided little light would reach the dungeon precincts. Xena seldom slept well. Was she awake now? Lying in darkness and cursing her. No, that was improbable. Xena would never curse Gabrielle, the bard was sure of that, but she might be happy not to have to see her for a while. That hurt, she realized with an almost physical pain. She would rather be cursed and forgiven, than set aside. She fondled the small, embroidered pillow, young Xena's pillow. It was wet now with Gabrielle's tears. She pulled it close; heart-to-heart, she told herself, along with the promise that everything would work out. Tomorrow she would do something to make that happen. And it wouldn't include leaving Prestia. She would never leave Prestia except at Xena's side.
"I think she's waking up." Gabrielle gently placed the limp hand on the duvet and began to rise from her seat on the edge of the bed. A firm hand held her in place.
"Where do you think you're going?" Cletus asked her.
"She won't want to see my face," the bard replied sadly, "She's out of danger. I think I'd better be going."
It was late afternoon, hours since Arcus had been dispatched to escort Gabrielle back to the castle. Xena had been found unconscious, gravely ill, in her cell. Cletus had decided Gabrielle belonged there. Together they had kept an uneasy watch over the warrior. A healer had been brought in, determined she'd been poisoned, and purged her of the last of the toxin. She'd slept soundly since, in the king's bed.
"You've sat all these hours hanging on her every breath, bathing her, soothing her with cold compresses, and now, when she's about to awaken, you want to sneak away---"
"I'm not sneaking anywhere," she cut in. "I don't want her to be upset. She's had a rough time."
"All the more reason you should stay." Gabrielle looked at him with a protest on her lips.
"You are the best medicine she could have," he informed her.
Xena heard all this as a dull, unintelligible murmur. She explored her body tentatively, seeking the cause of the feelings of dread which had pervaded her spirit in her last moments of awareness. She still felt ill, her stomach was sore and the ache in her head remained, but the intensity of discomfort was not there. Whatever it was had passed, she recognized with a vague awareness, leaving weakness and painful-sense memories in its awful wake. She lay still, eyes closed and listened for the voices again, wondering who might be there. She had been alone, she recalled. No, Gabrielle had been there; or was that a dream? "Gabrielle," she said involuntarily. Cletus smiled; Gabrielle's eyes closed in silent thanks to whatever gods had heard her prayer. "Xena?" she responded, picking up the weak hand again, and raising it to her cheek.
Xena opened her eyes and saw Gabrielle's green eyes looking back. She remembered looking down at those eyes...She was not on the cross. She made an effort to move as if to verify that.
"Xena, lie still, you've been very ill," Gabrielle said, using gentle force to make the warrior obey.
It was easy to lie still, moving was a painful effort. She registered the fact that she was no longer on a floor. Laboriously, she recalled the dungeon; there had been a rat. Why had she been there? It had something to do with Atrius, and Gabrielle. She focused on Gabrielle's face. The silent stare made Gabrielle uncomfortable, she lifted a cup of water to Xena's lips. "You need to get some fluid inside you," she coaxed her. Xena sipped slowly. This seemed so right, to be cared for by Gabrielle. She began to relax, and her eyes closed again. "I've been sick," she affirmed. "Something I ate." She heard soft laughter as she drifted off to sleep once more.
In the corner of the busy chamber Gabrielle gave the king of Prestia a tongue lashing. "She's not going back to that cell," she declared fiercely. "I don't care if you lose your throne, or if the whole of Prestia is swallowed by the earth, she is leaving this cursed place as soon as she can travel." She stood, hands on hips, to her full height, ready to do battle over her friend.
"All right," he surrendered meekly, having reached the same decision long before. "I agree, that would be best."
Gabrielle was taken off-guard. "You do? What about Radec, and the murder charge?" she asked pointedly. "You could have released her all along, couldn't you?" she accused.
"I could," he admitted. "It would have made things much harder, it still does. But I'm not entirely heartless. I owe her this much at least. She will leave Prestia," he promised. "Now get some sleep," he commanded. "She'll be looking for you when she wakes." Gabrielle wasn't so sure. There had been something in Xena's face when she looked at her...
"She lives!" Radec threw it in Glaucon's face as he approached his chief lieutenant. Contempt mingled with fury in his eyes.
"The poison isn't foofproof," Glaucon reminded him, "I warned of that."
"I don't want warnings, I want results," Radec returned. Three women for targets, and they all survive. You're slipping, Glaucon. What am I paying you for?"
"We can still fall back on the murder charge," Glaucon pointed out.
"A plan we agree has many points where it might fail. And Cletus will be on his guard now. I'll be surprised if he returns her to custody. He might be in a mood to set her loose and let the world know the Warrior Princess is his daughter. It looks increasingly as if her presence here is not against his wishes. He may have invited her here to take the throne. If your poison had worked, the game would be ours. It's failure may seal our doom." He looked at Galucon briefly with accusing eyes. Glaucon knew what was expected.
"How can I redeem myself, Radec?" he asked humbly.
"By not failing me again," came the terse reply. "I have a task for you. Luckily, it doesn't require the skills of an assassin. It does require speed and discretion. You leave at dawn."
"The Warrior Princess will still be here..." he commented, bewildered.
"I expect so," Radec agreed. "But the Warrior Princess is not his only heir. We find an alternative, with a reasonable claim..." He spread his hands.
"Civil war?" Radec interjected. "Yes, I expect it will mean exactly that."
When Xena woke again the room was still, and her thoughts more clear. She remembered the meeting with Gabrielle, she remembered being sick, she remembered the dream. She was happy to be alone now, she needed time to think. Her eyes swept the room, seeking clues to the riddle who was the king. It was far more cluttered than any palace in Prestia should be. Too much in so small a chamber. Near the window was a long table, piled high with glass beakers and small caskets of things. A pile of scrolls occupied one end of the table, all a jumble, as if in constant use. Pinned to the wall was a scroll with what appeared from her vantage point to be the constellations. Gabrielle would like those, she thought absently. She became weary sorting mentally through the stuff the monarch had collected, Yet in the chaos there were islands of repose: simple tapestries, subtly colored patterns that invited contemplation, a simple vase of cut flowers, such as grew all over the kingdom; their fragrance perfumed the air, soothing even that sense. It seemed that the King of Prestia was a man of many facets. Like most of us, she acknowledged.
She focused on a mirror hanging on the wall, it allowed her to see the rest of the chamber without stirring. Allowed her to observe Gabrielle, who she realized for the first time was sleeping in a chair not ten feet away.
She was curled in a ball, her head cushioned on one of the needlework pillows which were everywhere. Her face was relaxed, framed by the soft blonde hair which suited her so well. Even now it caught and magnified the sun which streamed in through the window. "My light," Xena breathed. The image of the night before returned unbidden.
She shook her head to rid it of the false image. "That could never be," she whispered. Yet it had been so clear. Betrayal. What did it mean?
The soft words woke the sleeping bard. Her eyes opened and she saw Xena looking back at her through the mirror. The intensity on her face brought Gabrielle to her feet instantly.
"Xena, is something wrong?"
Caught off guard, she shook her head silently.
"I thought you said something," the bard offered, hesitantly.
"I thought I told you to leave this place," came the stern reply.
"Oh," Gabrielle, said, crestfallen. "Well. It was the middle of the night," she explained. "And then you were sick, and I've been here...and I wasn't going to leave anyway," she ended defiantly.
Xena searched her face, then turned away abruptly. "I'm glad you stayed, Gabrielle," she said quietly. "It wasn't smart, but I'm glad you're here."
Gabrielle let out a long sigh and knelt beside the bed, laying her head next to Xena. "Xena, I've been so worried, you wouldn't want me..." she began.
A strong hand moved to stroke the blonde head. Not want you? How could that be, Gabrielle? she thought, even as she pulled her hand away. This is crazy, she told herself, it has to end sometime. She said only, "I didn't want you to leave before I spoke to you."
Gabrielle looked up, puzzled, she had felt so much in that brief touch, and yet the warrior wouldn't even look at her now, had focused her attention instead on a piece of quartz on the bedside table.
"You do have to leave here, Gabrielle. You know that?" she asked her gravely.
"I know, Xena," she nodded. "You must leave here, too." Her eyes searched Xena's for some answers to this puzzle.
"I will," was the only response.
"I take it we're not leaving together?" she ventured.
"We can't do that Gabrielle," she said, as if stating the obvious. "It would be dangerous."
"Since when has danger bothered you?" Gabrielle asked flippantly, and was instantly sorry. "I didn't mean---" she began.
"It's all right," Xena said mildly. "It's just that I haven't been in top form in this place. I've already found myself chained up in a dungeon, filled my gut with poison; and I'm supposed to have friends in high places," she added with an ironic smile. "The thing is Gabrielle, I don't know who to trust here. I can't turn my back on anyone."
"All the more reason to keep me around, guard your back, you know," the bard suggested, longing for Xena to return her anxious smile.
"I know, Gabrielle, you would never betray me." She made it a statement, and looked at her closely for confirmation.
Gabrielle heard only the word 'betray'. Cletus had used that word. Xena's greatest fear.
"Xena. I would die first," Gabrielle said earnestly.
Xena nodded, wanting to believe it.
"But I'm not leaving without you Xena, you're still sick."
"No, Gabrielle, I'm fine." As if to prove her point she swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood up. Weakness betrayed her and she swayed, clutching at the table. Gabrielle placed an arm around her waist. She pulled away. "I'm fine, really," she insisted, yet sat on the bed again. "Do you know how to get in touch with the king of this castle," she asked.
Gabrielle still smarted from the too-clear indication Xena wanted no contact. She roused herself. Cletus had probably heard everything from some hidden spot, yet she said nothing about that.
"There's a bell pull over here," she said, giving it a hard tug. She turned back to Xena. "You said you wanted to talk to me."
The dark woman looked up. She wore a long white nightshirt that belonged to her father, the King of Prestia. Her face was still pale beneath the tan, and although she sat erect, her strong hands gripped the bed as if to prevent her toppling over. "I've said it all Gabrielle. I want you to understand how important it is to trust me now. If I tell you to leave, it's for the best. For both of us." Her tone said she would brook no argument.
The blonde head nodded in understanding. "Xena? Will I see you again," she asked frankly.
"This isn't good-bye," the warrior assured her. Not yet.
Cletus felt as if he'd walked into a battlefiled truce. Xena sat propped on one elbow, studying a rock, Gabrielle was staring out the window. They turned their grateful attention to him as he entered. "Feeling better," he said looking from one to the other.
Xena sat upright and gave an order: "I want Gabrielle provided safe escort from this place. Tonight."
"Yes, we're feeling better," he confirmed. "Are you comfortable with that, Gabrielle?" he asked the startled bard.
"I guess," she said apathetically. "Thanks for asking. I have my things to collect, at Woody's."
"Gabrielle knows it's for the best," Xena said defensively.
"Xena, I'm in the room. I can answer for myself." Her irritation was evident.
"Yeah," the warrior acknowledged. "You'd better get started, there isn't much light left."
"Here's your cloak, what's your hurry, eh?" Gabrielle commented as she moved to the door.
"I'll need to make the arrangements," Cletus told them. "You have a few minutes."
"No," Gabrielle demurred. "I think Xena wants to be alone."
"You sent her packing rather abruptly," Cletus commented on his return.
"Something you should have done last night," Xena observed. She appeared not to have moved.
"Me and my entire army, Xena? That's what it would have taken."
"Then that's what you should have used. This kingdom is lethal. You can't even serve a safe meal in your castle," she threw at him. "If Gabrielle had eaten anything last night, you'd find out the meaning of the word 'consequences'."
Cletus listened thoughtfully. The two women had parted wordlessly, Xena had as good as dismissed her, yet her concern for the young bard was of primary importance. This was more than loyalty, more than responsibility he was hearing. Xena loved the girl, he was certain of that, yet she was not yet ready to forgive her error in judgement. He had miscalculated badly about that when he spoke to Gabrielle the night before.
"It must be hard to be your friend," he blurted out.
"What?" she asked, at the non-sequitor.
"You're demanding, bossy, arrogant and unforgiving. A thankless task having you for a friend, I should think. I can't imagine you have many."
Her mouth twisted in a scowl. "That's right," she conceded, "So I'd rather they not end up dead."
"I think Gabrielle would rather be dead than sent into a bewildering exile," he told her.
"That's none of your business," she countered.
"I like that young woman, and I'm making her my business." He turned to his desk and began to write, keeping up a dialogue while he wrote. "I'm told she's a fine bard."
"She is," Xena affirmed proudly.
"Amazon royalty by right-of-caste."
"She loves the Warrior Princess of Calmai." He looked at her sharply. She held his gaze and asked her own question. "What of it?"
"Love is a rare commodity, Xena, not to be trifled with, taken lightly, sent away." He watched her turn away to regroup as his words hit home.
"Your throne is tottering and you have time to lecture me about love?" she asked, incredulous.
"No, I'd rather Gabrielle were sitting beside you, and together we were formulating plans, but in her absence I must take time to speak a word on her behalf. If you knew what she did for you while you were sick---"
"I know what she'd do," she threw at him. "Listen, Cletus, I don't much like you or your kingdom. I'll sort things out with Gabrielle," she promised harshly. "I can't do it here, I can't do it now. If you want to sit here playing a tinpot Zeus, spreading your seed around the world and watching the results, I can't stop you. I don't have to sit and listen to it."
He chuckled. "Tinpot Zeus? I like that. You think I'm playing god, do you?"
"Looks like that from where I'm sitting," she nodded, annoyed at his levity. "Only like most of that gang on Mt. Olympus, you're not doing a very good job. Have you considered that your bouts of illness this year may have been due to poisoning?" she asked him pointedly.
"It almost sounds as if you care."
"Don't get over the moon about it, I'd just like to know that your little succession crisis isn't going to intrude in my life any further."
"I would think you'd be happy for a little something in your life, Xena. Looks pretty empty from where I'm sitting," he mimicked. "Especially with Gabrielle out of it." He looked up from the scroll he had written. "But you needn't worry about my little crisis. I have options. You said I should name an heir. I have done so." He handed Xena the partially furled scroll.
"You are my first born, yet I think we both know you're not the right person for the job, even if you would accept it. I have chosen instead your younger brother." She read his name from the scroll. Teremon. "He lives on the island of Dracatha."
She gave him a look that asked 'so what?'.
"He needs to be summoned here."
Xena saw where the conversation was leading. "You have an army at your command."
"Ah, yes, well it appears that treachery has reared its ugly head. I need someone I can trust."
"You'd better look someplace else. If you thought I could help you avert a civil war by sitting in a dungeon for a few days I was willing. The price has gotten way too high. I'm not interested."
He nodded his understanding, then advised her: "You should be interested. You're not alone in this. Finish reading the scroll."
She unrolled the remainder of the scroll and read silently. When she was done she looked at her bare feet against the busy pattern of the plush carpet. She plucked at the linen nightdress. "I feel dirty sitting here in this," she said, her voice charged with bitterness. "You would use Solon this way?"
"If you bring Teremon safely to me, Solon's connection here need never be revealed."
"And if I don't?"
"You've read the scroll. A public proclamation of succession, naming Teremon and Solon, in that order. Teremon is my choice, the only one of my children in whose life I have taken a hand. Once his existence is known, the assassins who have made attempts on your life turn their attention to him. If they succeed, Solon is my heir, and their target. As well as the target of many others, I should think."
"I should kill you where you stand," she hissed.
"You won't," he said confidently. "If that was just to let me know how angry you are, I believe you. I'd feel the same way in your position."
"Tell me, how did this kingdom get by for so many centuries without me?" she asked sardonically.
"I've often wondered. The history of Prestia---"
"Is something that doesn't interest me at all," she glared from narrow eyes.
He regarded her soberly. "You came to me unbidden when you were needed, Xena. That alone speaks of the role you're destined to play in all this."
"And if I hadn't come 'unbidden' would you ever had made contact?"
He squinted, considering. "I don't know, possibly."
"And the royal siblings, do they know who is their father?" she asked with contempt.
"Not even Teremon." She shook her head. "Should be fascinating to watch him receive the news he's to be king of Prestia."
"Are you saying you'll escort him here?"
"As if I have a choice," she replied tersely. "I'll leave my bastard brother at your door." She gestured at her nightclothes. "You have my things?"
"They've been here since the night you were arrested. The chakram is a weapon I only know by repu---"
"Well, I'm not giving you a demonstration," she drawled. "I'd like to get dressed, now."
"Ah," he opened a wooden wardrobe where her leathers and armor hung. Her sword and chakram stood in the corner of the cabinet. "All in good order. Gabrielle---"
"I know," she said simply, a guilty ache in her heart. Gabrielle would have passed the long evening hours buffing the armor. She never spoke about her attention to Xena's gear, but the warrior guessed it was her way of maintaining contact. "Can't you leave me alone for a while?" she asked irritably. The King of Prestia obeyed the command to leave his own bed chamber.
Leather. The well-remembered feel of it against her bare skin was comforting. The smell of it as it slipped over her head was bracing, like salt air to a mariner. The weight of it embracing her body was solid and real. She took a moment to enjoy the quiet sensations. She knew who she was in leather. Cletus opened the door, and a quiet understanding passed between them, warrior to warrior. She accepted his unspoken offer to help with her armor because she'd rather have him help than watch. Without comment he fastened buckles and handed her her sword and chakram.
Beautiful, he acknowledged. She nodded her thanks.
"You've made the arrangements?" she asked.
"Yes. Arcus and Barrus are waiting in the stable."
She allowed herself a smile at the thought of the two stolid soldiers.
"Are you well enough to travel?" the monarch wanted to know.
"Thanks for your concern. I'll get by." She stood facing him, every inch his equal. "Have you any preference where this happens?" she inquired.
"I'll trust your instincts," he told her.
"You trust me?" She shrugged in wonder. "Some people would say you're a fool."
He turned his back to her. "The gods love fools, Xena. It's said they take special care of them."
"Let's hope you're right, Your Majesty," she said grimly, as her elbow struck a short, sharp blow behind his left ear. She knelt for a moment, flicked an eyelid back, then, satisfied, she left him where he lay.
Gabrielle fumbled in the still-dark room for the few things she had scattered around, and stuffed them in her bag under the distressed glare of Delia. "I don't see why it can't wait until morning," the stout matron protested, more than a little sourly. "It's bad business to bolt in the night, like a thief. What will the neighbors think?"
"Mother, the neighbors will likely never know she left at night. They'll likely never know she was here at all.'
Delia fixed her son with a stare that made him retract immediately. "All right, they'll know. The neighbors don't miss the fall of a leaf," Woody explained to Gabrielle.
She paused in her task to respond. "I know; neighbors are the same all over."
"The blasted neighbors will just have to wonder about all then," Woody told his mother. "These orders are from the palace, from Cletus himself, before the warrior..." he stopped himself abruptly.
Gabrielle reassured him with a smile. "Before the Warrior Princess clobbered him and escaped? It's all right. I don't have a problem with what she did. I hope she didn't hit him too hard, but..." Her voice faltered. "She didn't belong in that dungeon. She didn't kill Atrius." She returned to her task, not caring whether they believed her. They had been very good to her, but she could only think about Xena, could barely focus on the simple job of packing a bag because her thoughts were with the enigmatic warrior. Why had she escaped, now, when Cletus had said he was releasing her? Unless Cletus had changed his mind...She wouldn't blame Xena for refusing to return to the dungeon, but she hated not knowing where Xena was. For that matter, Xena wouldn't know where Woody was taking Gabrielle now. Assuming she cared. She tucked her prize cushion into the sack and turned to Delia. "You've been very good to me, Delia. Thank you."
Delia smiled and grasped Gabrielle close for a moment. "It was nice having a young woman under my roof," Delia beamed. "I wish it had been under better circumstances, dear. Now you take care of yourself, and if you meet that warrior again---she hesitated. "She wouldn't hurt you, would she?"
Gabrielle couldn't surpress a huff of exasperation. "Hurt me? Delia, Xena isn't a monster, despite what you may have heard. She didn't kill Atrius," she added with a shake of her head.
"Still," Woody put in, "we all know what she did at Cirra. The Doom of Cirra, we call her."
Gabrielle winced at the title. "She isn't that person any more, Woody, but I guess no matter how hard she tries, she'll never leave that behind her, she'll always be Xena, Destroyer of Nations, Doom of Cirra." Her brow furrowed, as she tried to think of a way to explain.
"I think of her as the Savior of Potadeia. That was my village," she told them. "She single-handedly fought off the soldiers of Draco, the warlord, to stop them selling the girls of my village, me included, into slavery. I think of her as the woman who prevented a war between the Amazons and the Centaurs, unchained Prometheus, achieved a truce between the Mitoans and Thessalians---" She stopped herself. This could take all night. "So don't worry about me being with her. If---when---I see her again, know that I'll be with the finest person I've ever met." She picked up her bag. "I'm ready Woody."
After three days of travel on horseback, Gabrielle had adopted a fatalistic attitude toward the terrifying height of the horse: if she fell off and broke her neck, her posterior would stop aching. She also found that she missed Argo; the big mare was like a rocking chair compared to this jarring beast with the awkward gait. Woody slowed to accommodate her as much as possible, but he had his orders, and "Well, orders are orders," he explained.
He had also revealed their destination to be Amazonia. That suited Gabrielle well, she would be safe and Xena would know where to find her. She wondered quietly if this had been the idea of Cletus or Xena. What a mess, she sighed, not for the first time.
It was mid morning, and they were passing through a lightly wooded area, along a road that Gabrielle knew well from her visits to the Amazons. They had many miles to go, but already Gabrielle could detect the scent of Amazon-favored flora. The warrior-women knew well that their survival depended on the natural world and were careful, diligent cultivators of the soil. Apart from farming they had long ago set to the task of seeding and gathering their most treasured plants for miles on every side Amazonia.
Gabrielle lifted her head, listening for any Amazons who might even now be tracking their progress toward her sisters. She heard nothing. Amazons, were, of course quiet, but Woody didn't make it easier. He trotted alongside her now, continuing an incessant stream of chatter. The bard had learned many things about Woody; she knew his favorite foods, songs...favorite everything. And she knew his favorite stories, knew them almost by heart. She wondered with a small heartache of remembrance whether Xena had ever found her this annoying. Nah, couldn't be she decided, just as Woody called her name.
"Gabrielle, your turn for a story." He loved to hear stories as much as he loved to tell them. "No more about the gods," he told her flatly. "I want one about Xena. You must know some stories about her."
Gabrielle hadn't told any tales of Xena's exploits in the three days she'd been traveling with the young soldier, afraid of an unfriendly response. Even though Woody was asking for the story now, she considered carefully before responding. This would have to be a tale which showed Xena's heart, as well as her warrior-skills. A smile lit her face. She would tell one of her favorites: Xena's trip to the underworld at the behest of her dead lover.
"All right Woody, I'll tell a story about Xena, and her beloved Marcus, who summoned her to the Underworld. It begins one evening in a tavern---" She broke off. Woody was looking past her at something in the woods. His eyes grew wide and he smacked her horse's rump to send it careening down the road while he turned and drew his sword. More frightened by the galloping of the horse than by anything which might be in the woods, Gabrielle strained against the reins and pulled the obedient military horse to a stop. She looked back to see Woody, unseated, in a circle of armed men. Gabrielle's staff was unassembled, hanging in a pouch from the saddle. Can't be helped she thought, as she took a deep breath and spurred her horse back into action. Maybe I can manage to collect him as I ride by she thought vaguely, but I can't sit and watch him die. She opened her mouth to alert Woody of her approach, but the feeble strains were drowned out by another cry, which chilled her blood at the same time as it warmed her heart. Ahead, Xena dropped from a tree into the ever tightening circle around Woody, and immediately the battle changed. In a flurry of movement she turned the attackers into a heap of corpses, one sliced open around the throat, one with his hands pressed to hold his viscera in his stomach cavity, a third lay in the road as if his head had been attached to his neck backwards. The last man held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. Xena scowled as she jabbed his neck. Woody retrieved his sword and took silent inventory of the carnage around him as she sheathed her own sword. Gabrielle managed to stop her own horse and dismounted gratefully as Xena began the interrogation.
"You've got a few seconds left to live so why not tell me who sent you? You'll be beyond his reach." The man remained silent, eyes widening in terror as he realized his peril, at the hands of the woman he'd kicked so visciously in the dungeon in Prestia. "Radec?" she guessed. "Glaucon? Nothing to say? Then I'll say goodbye. Oh," she said with a humorless smile, "you fight like a girl too."
She turned on her heel and whistled for Argo. Woody looked from the figure on his knees in the road, to the tall woman who had just delivered him from death. "Wait. What have you done to him?" he asked, as blood leaked from the man's nostrils.
"I've killed him," she said over her shoulder.
"Xena." Gabrielle spoke sharply.
"Well, he's still alive," Woody blurted out, watching the man helplessly.
"Not for long," Xena said simply.
Woody drew his sword. "Xena you're a fugitive from Prestian justice. I won't allow you to kill again."
"Yeah, well this isn't Prestia, soldier. And I don't think you get it." She seemed not to have moved, yet suddenly her boot was against his face and his sword fell from numbed fingers.
"Gabrielle, you'd better tell your friend to keep his sword in its sheath."
"Xena, release him, please. There's been enough killing," Gabrielle implored her.
"I'm not equipped to take prisoners Gabrielle," she explained.
"Then let him go.
"To report back to Radec?" She shook her head shortly. "There's too much at stake."
"He'll be my prisoner." Woody offered without moving, waiting for leave from the dark warrior. Xena turned and jabbed at his neck a second time, releasing him from death. "Fine. Get him out of my sight," she growled. "Think you can manage to get him all the way back to Prestia?" Snotty nosed kid, she thought. If she ever saw Cletus again she'd tell him off for sending a lone, unseasoned escort with Gabrielle.
"Xena." Her head snapped around at the tone in Woody's voice. "I have a duty as a soldier of the Kingdom of Prestia to return you as a prisoner. You'll probably kill me when I try," he acknowledged coolly, "but I wanted to thank you first for saving my life."
Xena's jaw dropped in amazement at the little speech. She turned her back on him and spoke to Gabrielle for a second time: "Next time I might kill him, Gabrielle," she warned.
"Woody, leave it," she pleaded. "You'll never take her back, and no one will find fault if you don't. Think of your mother," she ended.
"Yeah," Xena agreed, "or think of Arcus and Barrus. I don't need them pissed off at me, we've got too much work to do. And you might want to tie your prisoner up; he's starting to look lively."
Woody's attention was torn between the man writhing on the ground and Xena's last words. "Arcus and Barrus? What are you saying?" he asked with narrowed eyes.
"If you wait a few minutes, you can ask them yourself. They're on burial detail up the road." She turned her attention to Gabrielle. "You okay?"
Gabrielle started, surprised to be addressed. This was as close to a greeting as she would get.
"I'm, I'm fine," she stammered. "You're bleeding."
Xena looked down to a blood-soaked strip of cloth wrapped around her thigh, just beneath her leather gambeson. A red stream ran steadily down her leg. "Yeah," she said with annoyance, "it's been a busy morning." She looked over to Woody, who had finished securing his prisoner. "Those corpses aren't going to bury themselves. See what they might have on them first, and don't cover their faces until Arcus and Barrus arrive. They just might recognize them. Not that it matters. Radec's hand is all over this." Woody looked at her as if ready to protest. She returned a withering glare. "I'm not doing all the work here, Woody. I killed them; you bury them."
"Xena, why are you being so hard on Woody? He's really sweet, and he tries hard," Gabrielle said softly.
"Sweet? That's not the first quality I look for in a soldier. He's not out for a stroll in the meadow. You could have been killed." She looked away quickly, but not before Gabrielle recognized the fear in her eyes. "They should be joining us soon," Xena commented, squinting at the sun.
"Arcus and Barrus?" Gabrielle asked. "Xena, I could guess you're not really a fugitive."
"Right," she nodded.
"You didn't attack King Cletus and escape?"
"I knocked him cold and left without permission, if that's what you mean. We had to make it look real. I didn't hurt him," she ended defensively. She noted with annoyance the relief in Gabrielle's face. She supposed the bard had succumbed to Cletus' charm. Why not? Cyrene had not been immune. She had extracted a length of thread and a needle from her saddlebag. She sat on a grassy hillock at the edge of the road and bathed the wound in her thigh with a copious stream from the wineskin. Gabrielle ventured to sit close to her.
"Want me to do that?" she offered.
"I can manage." Xena drew the flesh together and inserted the needle.
Gabrielle watched Xena's fingers closely. "You're still angry," she said.
Xena finished a stitch before answering. "I'm not angry." She set her jaw before inserting the needle again. "I've prefer my needlework to yours, that's all," said from tight lips. She finished the last stitch, bit off the thread and wiped the traces of blood from her lips.
"So, when did you learn to ride?" she inquired.
'About halfway between here and Prestia. There are wide variations in horses," the bard observed. "Argo's the cream of the crop. I missed her. I missed you, too."
"It was only a few days," Xena said off-handedly.
That answers that question, Gabrielle thought morosely.
"Did you run into any problems, leaving Prestia? I mean besides this little skirmish?"
"No. No one bothered us. I was worried about you," Gabrielle confessed. "I've been pretty much in the dark about things. They said you were on the run, and soldiers were after you...I was worried," she repeated.
"So you and Woody weren't informed of the plan? We've been heading toward this meeting since we left Prestia. And the men after me aren't really soldiers, they're Radec's private forces. If Cletus let me do a little housecleaning, he'd save himself a lot of trouble," Xena said with disdain.
"Housecleaning. You mean like what you did to those men in the road?"
"Yeah. Just like that. You know how I am, people try to kill me, I try to kill them back. So far, I've been more successful than they have. Come on Gabrielle, be a little happy for me," she said in response to the disapproval on the bard's face.
"Xena," she said after a moment, "you have to help me understand what's going on here."
"Sure. Cletus has no recognized heirs, just an assortment of bastard offspring as far as he's roamed, I guess. Doesn't surprise you to know I'm the only one?" Gabrielle tried to think of nothing, afraid Xena would read the name 'Callisto' from her face. "The old man seems to have a lot of admirers." She gave her head a shake as if to demonstrate her bewilderment. "But he hasn't been a wise ruler. Radec-I think you two have met-has developed his own considerable base of power. He plans on choosing the next monarch, and being the power behind the throne. I don't think he was ready to move yet. I forced his hand by blundering into Prestia. Now he needs to collect his candidate for the throne and make his move before I return with Cletus' choice. I don't know whether Radec realizes that's what I'm doing. If he can believe I'm a fugitive, that I really attacked Cletus and escaped, he won't guess that I'll be returning with the heir to the throne. Might buy us some time."
Gabrielle smiled. "You act so tough," she chided Xena, "yet you say 'us'. Could it be that you're a little concerned about Cletus? I mean, you could have refused to help."
"Sure, Gabrielle," she said with heavy sarcasm. "Just helping out my dear old father. I agreed to help, and the old darling agreed to keep Solon out of it." Her tone darkened. "A lot depends on this mission working out, Gabrielle. If Radec's men get in my way, they're gonna pay," she promised.
Gabrielle absorbed the information silently. Cletus' threat about Solon went a long way toward explaining Xena's mood, but she had not yet answered Gabrielle's real question. "I'm happy to know what's going on about that Xena, but I was asking about---"
A clatter in the road brought Xena to her feet. Arcus and Barrus pulled up and dismounted surveying the clearing before hailing Woody, who was dragging the last of the bodies off the road. Xena watched from a distance as they whispered and gestured, mostly in her direction. They disappeared into the woods for a few minutes to view the bodies. At last Woody approached her, helmet in hand.
"I'm glad I don't have to take you prisoner, Xena," he said simply, earning a slap in the head from Arcus, and a rare smile from Xena. He replaced his helmet. "I'd best get moving. It's a long way home."
Xena raised an eyebrow to his older brother. He shrugged in response. This was Woody's job; he's a big boy, was his answer.
"Yeah, well be careful, Radec's men are less soldiers than thugs. Don't turn your back on him." She held out her arm to grasp his in a warrior-farewell. He beamed at the show of respect, and bid farewell to his comrades.
"When I see you again, I want to hear the rest of the story about Marcus and Hades," he told Gabrielle, and directed a broad wink at Xena. "Must have been quite a guy." He was gone, with his prisoner, in a clatter of hoof beats.
"Time we moved along too." Xena mounted Argo, and watched as Gabrielle looked uncertainly from Argo to her own mount. At last she reached out a long arm. "C'mon.
I don't want you breaking your neck, or slowing us down. How many times have I offered to find a good horse for you?" Gabrielle climbed into the saddle and wrapped her arms around Xena's waist. Good, she sighed. Xena was talking about everyday stuff.
"When this is over I think I'll take you up on that offer."
"Hyah," Xena spurred Argo forward without a reply.
They traveled for over an hour in near silence, Gabrielle content to be in Xena's presence, glad that Argo's speed gave her an excuse to hold on tight. She pressed herself into Xena's back, happy to smell her leather, happy to feel the dark strands of hair whip across her face. She'd spent many miles like this, and knew Xena's body well. There was an unusual tension in the warrior's muscles today; she seemed almost to recoil from Gabrielle's touch. Like everything else about Xena, distancing herself from Gabrielle. Gabrielle's honey-clad head leaned wearily against a strong shoulder for a moment. She couldn't reconcile that with the concern for her she'd seen in Xena's eyes.
"Are you all right," Xena asked now, turning so that Gabrielle had to raise her head.
"Fine," Gabrielle said, as she became aware of familiar landmarks.
Xena turned again, relieved to have the soft cheek off her shoulder. Hard enough having Gabrielle's body against hers for so long...
"Xena, if you turn off this road a few miles up you head toward Amazonia," Gabrielle observed, watching the back of the warrior's head for a reaction.
The dark head nodded. "I know. We'll be taking that turn. Arcus and Barrus can keep moving along the perimeter, and meet us on the other side in a couple of days." She set her jaw waiting for Gabrielle's response. It wasn't long in coming, a disgruntled snort followed by sharp words: "Either there's some favor you need to ask of Ephiny, and we know you don't ask for favors often, or you want a safe place to drop me off," the bard accused.
Xena was glad she couldn't see her face, she knew the hurt, angry look she'd find there. "I need a favor," she admitted after a long pause; before Gabrielle could exhale her relief she added: "and it seems like a good place for you to stay while I clear this mess up."
"Yeah, that figures. And if choose not to stay with the Amazons?" Gabrielle could see the side of Xena's face, knew that her jaw muscle had just tightened, was certain her lips were moving in silent pique.
"Gabrielle, it's your choice. Would you rather be someplace else?"
"Yes, I would, but I guess I don't have that option," she replied with frost in her voice.
"If you mean coming with me---" A fist struck her from behind.
"IF I mean coming with you? What the Hades else would I mean?" Gabrielle exploded.
She wrenched on Xena's arm, pulling her around and forcing her to rein in Argo. Arcus and Barrus halted a discrete distance from the pair. Xena caught a second fist as it flew at her. "What do you think you're doing?" she exclaimed.
"I'm finally getting your attention," Gabrielle yelled, as she grabbed Xena high around the shoulders and wrestled her toward the ground.
"Gabrielle, you're going to get hurt," Xena warned. She stopped fighting the bard and swung her leg over the saddle in an awkward dismount that ended with both women launched headlong toward the ground. Xena twisted her body in the split second before she struck the ground, so that she cushioned the smaller woman's fall with her own long body. Gabrielle's elbow drove into Xena's mid-section, knocking the wind out of her. For a long moment she lay back, the bard's head cradled on her chest. Xena listened for a moment, felt Gabrielle's regular breathing, and caught her own breath. She rose to her knees abruptly, dislodging Gabrielle in the process, and looked quickly to see if Gabrielle had sustained any bruises. Satisfied, she scowled for effect and demanded: "What was that supposed to accomplish?"
"You're talking to me aren't you," the bard asked triumphantly.
"You could have broken your neck," she reproached her as she got to her feet, rubbing dirt from a skinned elbow, "and I don't have time to play."
"This is no game, Xena," Gabrielle informed her evenly, looking up at the tall warrior from her seat on the road. "I'm fighting for something that's important to me, and you'll have to make the time."
Xena looked down at her, hands on hips. "Okay, It's about time for Argo to have a rest anyway. Just get, up, why are you sitting on the ground?"
Gabrielle smirked. "I'm glad it's a good time for Argo," she said with heavy sarcasm. "Wouldn't want little Gabrielle to think her concerns were worth stopping for, would we?"
This was going to be hard. "Gabrielle, of course your concerns are important, but your arguments won't make any difference, I have to do this alone."
"You have to do this alone, huh? Like you had to go to Amphipolis alone to talk with your mother, and Cythera alone to speak to Atrius, and Prestia alone to find out the truth about Cletus? Xena I don't like being left behind," she said plaintively. "For two years, while I still had a choice in the matter, I chose to be at your side, wherever you led. I thought you liked having me there." She wrinkled her nose, as a new thought occurred. "Or maybe I'm assuming an importance I really don't have; maybe you just liked not being alone." You seemed happy enough to have someone to talk to the other night, she was ready to add, but held her tongue. If the past two years were not enough, there was little point in forcing things. Besides, the remark was unnecessary; Gabrielle might have struck Xena a physical blow. Her head ducked quickly as she turned away from the hurt she had etched on Gabrielle's face. She turned back just as quickly, eager to erase that pain. Gabrielle looked up, as before and seemed, suddenly, to be incredibly far away, like in the dream, she realized. For a moment her head swam.
"Get up, Gabrielle," she managed, to no effect. "I said get up." This was a throaty command, and it frightened Gabrielle even as Xena hauled her off the ground.
"Not important? How can you think that," she started to say, but caught herself. What else was Gabrielle to think? Without further thought or words she wrapped her tightly in an embrace that left no doubt about her importance. For long moments Gabrielle heard only Xena's ragged breathing, felt it hot against her neck. Damn, Xena cursed herself, unwilling to release the hug, unable, she knew, to let go of the bard.
At last she stepped back and looked around as if grounding herself in reality. "Gabrielle. Let's go. Whatever else happens, we're stopping in Amazonia for the night." No further explanation was given, none was sought. Gabrielle was still confused, but those few moments in the road had satisfied her that Xena's feelings hadn't changed. When she settled behind Xena in the saddle she didn't hesitate to rest her head on her shoulder.
"It's good to be back here." Ephiny looked curiously at the tall woman who walked beside her. Xena's appreciation was usually more demonstrated than spoken. Today, even after three days of strenuous riding, she had wanted to walk through the woods surrounding the village, and Ephiny had invited herself along. They were on a seldom used trail now, where the undergrowth was thick. Xena liked that. "In some places, Ephiny, they cut the bushes back so neatly they look as if they'd been made by an artisan in a workshop. Identical bushes in front of tidy little cottages as far as the eye can see."
"You prefer the chaos of Amazonia?" Ephiny asked with approval, feeling, as Queen of the Amazon nation, a proprietary interest.
"This chaos lets things live and grow to be what they meant to be. This is real beauty."
Several times Xena had stopped to comment on a flower, or sniff at a bush. Once she asked permission to clip a bunch of leaves from a plant she knew to have healing properties. She tucked the greenery in her gambeson and strolled on, seemingly relaxed, but Ephiny knew her just well enough to see the tension in her eyes.
"I'm glad you like it here, Xena. You know you're welcome, anytime you and Gabrielle decide to settle down, there's a hut waiting."
Xena's half smile faded. "Me and Gabrielle. You always think of us as a pair?"
That was an odd question. Ephiny answered truthfully. "Yes. I've never known you to be apart; certainly not when you're here. Yeah, I think of you as a pair...a couple."
Xena seemed troubled by that remark. "And if we weren't together...You'd look after Gabrielle?" It was less a question than a statement, and Ephiny ignored it.
"Xena, what are you thinking?"
"Don't get upset," she raised her hands in a defensive posture. "I need to do something, I don't want Gabrielle along. She's making it difficult..."
Ephiny eyed her with suspicion. "You know that she can stay here. What are you up to?"
"I'm not 'up to' anything. I'd like her to stay here for a little while. When I get back, we'll see." She plunged ahead through the underbrush, leaving Ephiny with a puzzle to be solved.
There was an impromptu feast prepared to mark the return of Princess Gabrielle. Dishes that took days or weeks to prepare were absent, but the fresh vegetables and roots which marked the Amazon diet were in abundance. As was Amazon wine. Gabrielle was seated in the place of honor, to Ephiny's right. Xena had won her own place of honor among the Amazons, and was seated to Ephiny's left. The gathering recalled other occasions; the warrior and the bard had always sat together. A matter of protocol now, they thought, but wondered anew when Xena left the feast before Gabrielle. Solari found her seated in the center of the village, before the ceremonial fire which blazed forth their joy at Gabrielle's return.
Xena had an earthenware jug with her, and Solari recognized the heady aroma of spirits distilled from plums. "You found the good stuff," she winked.
"I think so," Xena agreed. She held the jug out to Solari for her approval. One long draught later and Solari was seated beside her, watching as Xena held the jug to her own lips and downed the fiery spirit.
"It's good you rescued it from Gabrielle," Solari commented, "she's already losing her battle with the wine."
Xena shrugged and made no comment. She took a second drink before passing it back to Solari.
"Xena, save some for later, you'll pass out before the dancing starts."
Another shrug. "I don't dance," she reminded the Amazon. "But I do have things to attend to tomorrow," she recalled.
"Then you'd better see to Gabrielle, if she's part of your plans---" Something in Xena's steady gaze made her break off. "She's not? Oh," she stopped, uncertain how far she was welcome to go. She realized that Xena and Gabrielle had not really been together much since their unexpected arrival that afternoon.
"No, something I have to do alone. But I'd better see to her anyway." People will expect me to look after her," she realized. She took one last, long swallow from the jug before wending her way back to the feast. Gabrielle was still upright, but supported herself by her elbows on the low table, listening to ceremonial chanting from a bevy of young woman. Xena waited for a pause then slipped her arms under Gabrielle's and lifted her to a standing position. "Say goodnight," she suggested, softly in the ear of the tipsy princess. Gabrielle obeyed, and surrendered to the strong familiar arms which she trusted to carry her away.
Xena ambled through the village, Gabrielle in her arms, in no hurry to reach their hut. The air was alive with Amazon songs and laughter. Passing women greeted her with broad smiles as they passed, wishing her a happy evening. She returned the smiles mechanically, wondering how they couldn't guess her mood. When she reached the hut she deposited the sleeping bard carefully and began to undress her, hoping she wouldn't awaken. As she slipped a shift over the soft hair one eye, than another popped open.
"Xena?" she inquired.
"Shhh, Gabrielle, go back to sleep," Xena told her.
"Am I asleep? I thought I was riding a horse," she slurred.
"No, just getting to bed, with a little too much wine inside you."
"Oh. That's why I feel sick then."
"Gabrielle, are you going to be sick again?" Xena asked, afraid she'd put the clean shift on too early.
"Too tired," she decided. "I'll be sick in the morning." Her head dropped on the pillow, and Xena smiled as she stroked her hair back from her face. The eyes opened again.
"I'm still here," she assured her.
"You're mad at me," she said, certainty in her voice, through the alcoholic haze.
That surprised Xena, but she didn't let on as she answered smoothly: "I'm not mad at you."
"Are too," the bard accused.
"Gabrielle, I'm not angry. Go to sleep."
"Stay with me." she demanded.
Xena sighed, "I'll stay until you're asleep."
Gabrielle reached out a clumsy arm out to grab Xena around the neck and pull her close. "Next to me, Xena," she insisted patting the pallet.
"Gabrielle..." Xena demurred. "You've got to get some sleep."
The soft green eyes focused for a moment and filled with tears. "You don't love me anymore."
Without thinking Xena took the bard's face in her hands and gently wiped away the falling tears.
"Gabrielle, I'll always love you," she promised. Gabrielle smiled dreamily, seconds away from sleep. "Stay Xena," she asked again.
Xena eased on to the pallet next to her, slipped one arm underneath the smaller woman and held her, breathless, until she felt the slow, steady breathing of a sleeper. Not love you, she thought, dizzily. I'll stop breathing first, Gabrielle, I swear it, even if I can't be with you. Heart pounding, she disengaged from the sleeping form and stepped outside the hut for air. It was still early, and the drums were just beginning the ceremonial dance rhythm.
Two Amazons sauntered past, carrying a familiar jug. "Xena," they hailed her. "Coming to the dances?"
"No, I've got to stick around here. Sorry I'll miss your spirits," she added, hoping they'd take the hint.
"Spirits?" the second Amazon repeated, then followed Xena's gaze to the jug. "No need," she said, and handed the rather full jug to the grateful warrior. "There'll be plenty around the fire.
"Thanks," she called as they continued arm in arm to the highlight of the party. "Have fun." I'll sit here and quietly enjoy a jug of Amazonia's best. She settled down in the grass at the rear of the hut, under the window to be ready to hear Gabrielle if she were to be sick. Xena didn't think that would happen tonight. She had seen Gabrielle inebriated often enough to know her pattern. She knew it almost as well as she knew her own. Xena liked to drink but had seldom been drunk. She had too often seen men intoxicated, beginning with her early years at the inn her mother ran in Amphipolis. Drunks disgusted her. Competent women became helpless simps; charming men became clumsy oafs. People surrendered to their most base instincts. Yet tonight, she planned on getting stinking. She had chosen a safe spot, surrounded by friends, a full day off to recover. And something far more potent and tasty than she could find in most taverns. She leaned against the wall of the hut and toasted the woman sleeping inside.
It was still dark when she woke, and the night air was still warm. She hefted the jug and was happy to hear the slosh of ample spirits inside. It came to her a moment later that she had been awakened by something, and she held her breath, listening intently to discover what it had been. Something-someone- was moving in the hut. She began to rise when she heard Ephiny's voice come through the window.
"Gabrielle," she called softly.
Damn, Xena thought, just got her to sleep, leave her alone.
"I thought I heard you call out," Ephiny went on, I think you had a nightmare. Go back to sleep."
"Ephiny," Gabrielle's voice had a touch of panic. "Where's Xena?"
"I don't know. Around someplace," she answered.
"She said she'd stay with me."
"I'm sure she hasn't gone far," Ephiny said urgently. "There's no need to cry."
"Oh, yes Ephiny, there is, I've made her so angry, she'll never forgive me."
Ephiny paused for a moment before responding. "Gabrielle, I don't know what you did, but Xena could never stay angry with you for long." Her mind traveled back to her conversation with Xena that afternoon, and she understood some of Gabrielle's fear.
"Ephiny," the bard managed in shuddering breaths, "you don't know. She hardly speaks to me, won't look at me...Since we got here, she's avoided me, makes every excuse to be someplace else." Ephiny had been a witness to all Gabrielle described. She tried to find a reason for it now.
"Xena's on a mission of some kind Gabrielle. I don't know what's going on, but she sure seems to have something on her mind."
"Her mission," she snorted. "All my fault. She didn't want to go back to Prestia, but no, I wanted to see the palace, and then I got her thrown in the dungeon."
"You got Xena thrown in the dungeon?" Ephiny was trying hard to follow Gabrielle's barely coherent rambling.
"Yeah, cause I didn't tell her that her father was dead. Only because I thought she knew," she explained desperate to be understood. "Only that was the problem. I thought she killed him." She came to a stop, out of connections as far as that part of the tale went.
"And now she hates me."
Behind the hut, Xena had followed all this with her own difficulty. I don't hate you she thought now, I could never hate you.
"Gabrielle, why did you think Xena killed her father?" Ephiny was asking.
"Because of what he did to her. Who'd blame her? She was just a little girl..." she broke off, sobbing with the noise of a drunk. Xena's cheeks burned crimson.
"Xena killed her father, because of what he did to her when she was young?" Ephiny asked, not sure if she was following the story correctly.
"Yeah, only he wasn't her father and she didn't kill him, but her real father, the king, he kept her in the dungeon anyway." Gabrielle explained patiently. Moving without noise, Xena left the retelling. "Aren't you listening?" Gabrielle asked the Amazon.
"Gabrielle, I think I'm in over my head here, and maybe you shouldn't be sharing all this with me." She eased Gabrielle onto the pallet. "Go back to sleep. We'll talk about this in the morning," she suggested, "if you still want to."
Two fires burned very early in the Amazon village, that of the bakers, ready for the days loaves, and that of the purifying-hut. Hot rocks baked in the fire all night, and an elaborate system of counter-balanced pots spilled water onto them in a steady stream to provide a source of cleansing steam, made fragrant by the herbs and aromatic oils dashed on by the occupants. Just before sunrise a lone figure disrobed at the entrance of the tightly-woven hut, dashed a handful of herbs onto the steaming rocks and positioned herself on a mat near the far wall. She moved gingerly, as if in pain, and in fact, she was in the pain induced by imbibing too much potent spirits. She began to sweat almost immediately, and sighed, grateful to the Amazons who tended this most useful fire. She was joined a few minutes later by a second figure, who shook out her thick blonde curls before finding her own mat. Unable to see through the heavy steam, she had almost sat on her favorite mat before realizing it was occupied. Both women jumped, then Ephiny grinned.
"Xena. Here you are. We missed you at the dancing."
"Oh. Did you get there?" Xena asked.
"They expect the queen to put in an appearance," she said with self-mockery. "Especially since the guests of honor disappear so early."
Xena settled back on the pallet without reply. Ephiny shrugged and reclined on a nearby pallet. Several minutes passed in silence, save for the hiss of the water as it touched the rocks, and the slow, deep breathing of the two women. Then Xena rose to a sitting position and spoke.
"Ephiny, I'd like to speak with Jalani." She was glad they were not facing.
Ephiny's eyes flew open. This was unexpected. "You need a dream read?"
"Jalani is your dream reader," Xena said through clenched teeth, wanting this conversation to be over.
"I'm sorry, Xena, you can't see her."
Xena stared ahead, dismayed. "No, I'm sorry to ask. I should have known it was an Amazon thing."
She rose to leave; Ephiny sat up. "An 'Amazon thing'? What in the name of Zeus is that supposed to mean? Do you think I'd deny you anything because you're not a born Amazon? Xena, the Amazon nation has never had a better friend. Sit down," she commanded, her patience almost gone. "You can't see Jalani because she's on a spirit quest," she explained. "She's usually gone for weeks. I know you can't wait that long."
"It was a long shot anyway," Xena replied, mustering an unseen smile. "I don't know what I expected her to do."
"This is about you and Gabrielle?" Ephiny asked, wishing she could see Xena's face.
Xena grunted a 'yes'.
"Do you want to tell me? I'm not a dream reader, but I've had dreams read." No response came through the steam. " Listen, if you think I'm too close to the situation, I can understand, but I think I can muster a certain amount of objectivity. Especially about a dream."
"I know you can Ephiny, but I know how you all feel about Gabrielle---"
"Hold on, Xena. I think the world of Gabrielle, but that doesn't mean I think less of you.
I remember how you fought Melosa in the royal challenge, winning the title of queen just long enough to stop the war with the centaurs." Melosa was a good woman."
When I look at my son, it sometimes occurs to me that he owes his existence to you, as much as to anyone. You saved his father from execution, and you saved both are lives by cutting me open to deliver him. In my hut, in my nation, the name of Xena will never take second place to anyone, not even Gabrielle." Xena accepted the accolade silently; under the steam-induced redness, Ephiny was sure she was coloring from embarrassment.
"And I understand you," she continues, changing the direction of her words-most of the time. Gabrielle's a funny kind of Amazon. I mean she's certainly got the heart and the spirit of an Amazon, but some of her ideas..." She shook her head. "The Amazons would have to do a lot of changing to keep up with her," she laughed.
"I know what you mean," Xena agreed slowly, "and she stays true to herself. I twist and turn like a ship lost in a storm, searching for a safe harbor. Gabrielle is like the lodestone, no matter how it's turned, it always finds true north." Ephiny listened, touched by Xena's earnest tone.
"So, you want to do this dream-reading thing, Warrior Princess?" She turned to face Xena, catching intermittent glimpses of her through the vapor.
"Might as well," Xena drawled. "You know a lot of the circumstances anyway."
Ephiny caught her breath, sure of Xena's meaning. "Xena---" she began.
"Don't worry about it," the warrior replied. "I was angry last night, I would have come bursting through the wall if I'd stayed another minute; but Gabrielle needs someone to talk to. I haven't been much good at listening, not lately. Actually, it saves me catching you up with things."
"Not really," Ephiny said reviewing the roundabout narrative. "She didn't make much sense."
Xena didn't know whether Ephiny was sincere, or was merely trying to spare her feelings.
"You got the significant bits, about Atrius?"
Ephiny nodded. "I got that. I'm sorry." Xena shrugged. A leafy branch lay along the wall. She picked it up and began to gently beat it against her skin.
"I didn't understand what she said about your real father putting you in a dungeon. Or was it Gabrielle who put you in the dungeon? I hope she doesn't mix wine with her bardly profession." Xena raised an eyebrow at the word.
"I'm no bard, but I can do better than that." She spoke steadily for a longer time than Ephiny had ever known her to speak. At mid-point, a lone Amazon opened the door. Her queen's face, seen dimly through the mist, warned her to exit. Without being told, she stood guard outside the door. When she was finished with the tale, Xena paused, waiting for Ephiny to speak. Ephiny wiped a rivulet of sweat from between her breasts and stole a glance at Xena. She had met King Cletus once, as emissary to Prestia on business for Melosa. She saw the resemblance now, with hindsight, and wondered at her blindness before. Everything is context, she consoled herself. She guessed that the last thing Xena wanted to hear about was her new father. Focus on the issue here, she told herself.
"Xena," she said frankly, "I can understand its no fun sitting in a dungeon, but I can't see how Gabrielle's earned this kind of anger."
Xena walked over to the krater and dipped a cup of water. When she finished drinking, she brought water to Ephiny. "It's not anger. That passed. I haven't told you the dream."
Her eyes held Ephiny's briefly, before she replaced the dipper and resumed her seat. "It's not so much a dream, as a nightmare," she began.
"It's no secret you have nightmares, Xena. Why do you think we always give you a hut on the perimeter of the village?" Amazon humor. Xena shrugged her appreciation. Ephiny was trying to make this easier. "So what happens in this one? Are you hurting Gabrielle?"
"No," came the quick reply.
"I apologize," Ephiny grimaced. "First rule of a dream reader: don't put words in the dreamer's mouth. Won't happen again," she promised.
"You know the kind of life I've had, Ephiny. And now you know about Atrius," she managed. "There were other men who betrayed me, it doesn't matter how," she told her, shaking her head. "One had good reason; he prevented a lot of harm to innocent people by stopping me, but I loved him, or thought I did," she confessed, her doubt written on her face. "It was what passed for love then. There was another man; I should have known better, but I was a fool, and he, um..." This was hard. "I thought he cared about me." A harsh laugh escaped her. "He betrayed me. My stupid vanity blinded me to what he really thought of me." She looked at Ephiny with self-mocking eyes. "I never saw it coming. All the men I trusted...I thought I was so damn desirable I could twist them around my little finger. But guess who was being twisted?" She laughed derisively, eyes focused on the cloud of steam that rose from the hot rocks. "He knew I was a fool, that I was thinking with my heart. He used that to get close, and then he turned on me. We- my crew and I-were crucified. Only I survived, through the intervention of someone who had no reason to-." She shook that thought away. She had no part in this story. "I lead them all to their deaths; we didn't even put up a fight," she added with self-contempt.
"Xena---" Ephiny tried to break in, but Xena continued.
"He had my legs broken; he might have been clubbing a rat." She looked at Ephiny for the first time. "That's the dream Ephiny, him, the others just looking at me, while I hang on that cross."
"Xena, I don't see how that relates to Gabr---"
"She's there, Ephiny." She held Ephiny's gaze for a moment, blinked back tears which had welled up, and looked back at the Amazon, as if to see if she was understood. "Gabrielle is in that dream, with the others. Taking her turn, despising me," her voice rasped.
Ephiny felt the panic that swelled in Xena's chest. "Xena, it's a dream, that would never be Gabrielle," she insisted. "You know that."
Xena nodded numbly. "I know. Gabrielle would never betray me," she agreed readily, "so why the nightmare?"
"Xena, nightmares aren't real."
"Ephiny, when it visits you every night for years, it becomes real." She covered her eyes.
"This darkness is home to the things I fear most. When I close my eyes, another world is waiting for me, and I can't defeat those terrors with my sword, or my chakram," she told her harshly. "I hated to sleep, because I knew I'd be crucified again, and again, and..." her voice faltered.
Ephiny resisted the impulse to go to her, and waited while the warrior wrestled with her demon. When she spoke again, her face was composed, her voice strong. "I'm just trying to say that it's more than a dream to me, Ephiny. And I have to know what it means about Gabrielle ...and me."
Ephiny wondered when Xena had ever made herself so vulnerable to anyone, saving maybe Gabrielle. It was a sign of her respect for the Amazon, and she was humbled by it. It was also a measure of her desperation. She was leaning against a wall of the hut now, eyes closed, allowing time for Ephiny to think.
"Do you ever have prophetic dreams?"
"Have you talked about this with Gabrielle?"
"Think you should?"
"And say what? 'Gabrielle, I've been having dreams in which you kind of stand with the people in my life who've betrayed me'?"
"Why not? At least she'd know why you've been so distant. She was pretty unhappy last night to know that you hadn't stayed in the hut."
"I heard. I don't want to wake from that nightmare with Gabrielle lying beside me," she said desolately.
Ephiny nodded her understanding.
"Anyway," she shrugged, "I can't talk to her about something that makes so little sense, even to me."
"Okay, Xena, listen, this is how I see it: you trusted all those men in your dream and they ended up hurting you, physically, emotionally or both. Then you trusted Gabrielle, and that put you in danger. She's the first person you've really trusted in a long time?" It was not a question. "I guess if it's hard for you to trust anyway, that would awaken a lot of old fears. Maybe the dream is just a warning, like: 'Hey Xena, be careful, trust, love, is dangerous'." She cocked her head to one side, waiting for the warrior's reaction, but she nearly sat, hands by her side, body running with sweat. Okay, Ephiny thought, before she plunged on: "You don't equate Gabrielle's mistake -that's all it was- with whatever those men did to you? Gabrielle would never betray you." Again no reaction. "Xena." Ephiny moved to sit next to her. "Don't you trust her?"
"I've trusted her with my life." The dark head moved slightly, so that the hair hid her features from Ephiny's penetrating stare. "Gabrielle doesn't trust me. Not really. She'd deny it, she might not even know it, but she can't trust me, because she knows what I am."
"She knows you've changed," Ephiny pointed out.
"You know how many men I've killed since I left Prestia, Ephiny? I stopped counting at nine."
"Were they trying to kill you?" she asked reasonably.
"Gabrielle doesn't like it when I kill; she'd die first."
"We've already settled that Gabrielle is an uncommon Amazon. Besides, you've killed in defense of her life. I know that for a fact. You'll go crazy if you try to live by Gabrielle's rules," she ended with a chuckle.
"I know," Xena said sadly. "I can't live by her rules. She knows it too." She ran her fingers through long, wet hair. "You said she'd never betray me. There's something else she'd never betray: her principles. And that's right, she shouldn't," Xena added quickly.
"I just don't want there to be a moment when she has to choose."
"Between you and her principles? Xena, why would that happen?" Ephiny demanded.
"Because we're so different."
"Xena, I'm an Amazon who married a centaur. Are you going to tell me about differences?"
"You two were closer than Gabrielle and I, in all the things that matter."
"Xena. There was only one thing that mattered to Phantes and me. We loved each other. You seem to be getting past that little fact about you and Gabrielle rather easily."
Xena's eyes flashed dangerously. "Easily?" she hissed. "If I didn't love her it would be easy for me to walk out of here and leave her behind. I wouldn't live in dread of the day she finds me out, and chooses against me."
Ephiny reached out and took Xena's face between her hands, surprising both women.
"Xena is that what the dream means? You're afraid it is prophetic? And unavoidable? Don't you see what you're doing? You're so afraid that some day she'll hurt you, that you're beating her to it."
Xena wrenched her head from Ephiny's grasp, and shook it in denial. "No?" Ephiny pressed her. "The little bard I saw last night was sure hurting. Does she have to pay because of what Atrius did, or the man who hung you on the cross? Or whoever else gave you some pretty warped ideas about love? Hasn't Gabrielle managed to change any of those ideas?"
Xena heard her exasperation as scolding and regarded her sullenly. "The Warrior Princess sulks," Ephiny deadpanned. "I must be close to the truth."
Both women glowed pink from the long time in the hot steam. Xena felt limp now, and it was partly that that caused her to rest her head in her hands. It was mostly because she felt the need to hide her shame. "I don't want to hurt her Ephiny. If I thought I could walk away and not hurt her, I would."
"Hurt her? Xena, what about you? Don't pretend that wouldn't hurt you."
She lifted her head and looked at Ephiny with a strained smile. "It would kill me to leave her Ephiny. And it will kill me if she ever---" She hung her head again.
"Xena. Have some faith in her. Have some faith in love." Tentatively at first, she slid an arm around the warrior's shoulders, and gave her a bracing squeeze. She lowered her mouth to the warrior's ear and whispered confidingly: "Xena, you've learned a lot of hard, bitter lessons. Maybe now you can get to the pleasant stuff." It was a wish, a promise and a blessing of sorts. For a moment Ephiny rested her head on Xena's shoulder, guessing, but not quite certain that Xena wept. She heard a noise at the door, and raised her eyes, ready to scold a hapless Amazon. The quick flash of blonde hair that showed through the closing door, caused her breath to stop. She couldn't think...?
"Xena," she said quickly, "I think it's time we refreshed in the pool. If we stay here much longer they'll just find a couple of large puddles on the floor." She would find Gabrielle later.
Gabrielle had stopped moments after leaving the hut, disbelief congealing into a conviction that Xena's recent coolness had a motive after all. As if drawn there, she retraced her steps and followed the sound of laughter which came from the small pool beyond. The two women were there, Xena shaking water from her hair, smiling as Gabrielle had not seen her do in...forever. Ephiny was saying something she couldn't hear, but Xena threw back her head in a rare explosion of mirth. Then she grew sober and looked almost shy as she replied to Ephiny.
"I'll have a lot to say to Gabrielle this morning. And if I ever forget again what really counts, don't be so gently. Give me a---"
She broke off, looking beyond Ephiny to the approaching bard. "Gabrielle," she called, with apparent delight. That puzzled the younger woman, who expected embarrassment, if not shame at being found out. Both women glowed, exhilarated. Gabrielle burned with jealousy. Her anger boiled over.
"No need to cool off on my account," she said with a bitter smile.
Xena was puzzled. "We were pretty hot," she replied. "Why not join us? You've got a little catching up to ---"
"No, thanks. I wouldn't want to intrude. I should have listened to the guard."
"Gabrielle what's wrong?" Xena said suddenly concerned. "Do you feel all right?" She started toward the bank of the small pool.
Ephiny heaved a sigh, then said: "Listen, Gabrielle, I can explain."
"There's no need for that," the bard dismissed her.
"Explain what," Xena asked more confused than ever.
"You're both adults." She looked at Xena. "I have no claim on you. You said you wanted a favor from Ephiny. I should have guessed." She turned and strode off, her shift white against the green of Amazonia.
"Gabrielle, " Xena called.
"No," Ephiny said, "I'd better talk to her." She looked at the uncomprehending Xena.
"She poked her head in before, while I was...When I had my arm on you. It must have looked as if..."
Xena's head jerked around to see the last of Gabrielle before she disappeared from view.
"I'll go," Ephiny said quickly.
"No. I'll go. Xena stormed out of the water and stopped at the hut long enough to collect her garb. She was still adjusting her straps, nearly running, when she caught up with Gabrielle,
"Gabrielle," she called, and was ignored. "Gabrielle," she said again, and grabbed her by the arm.
"Let go of me."
"I want to talk to you." Curious eyes were averted, pretending to ignore the public exchange. Xena pulled her behind the nearest hut.
"What a surprise, you're bigger and stronger, so you get your way, again," poured out of Gabrielle's mouth.
"I'm sorry," Xena apologized, sincerely, "you wouldn't listen any other way."
"Well, I'm listening. What do you want?"
"I want you to apologize to Ephiny. Assume what you like about me, but do you really think Ephiny would go with just anyone?" Her request, and the intensity of tone with which it was delivered took Gabrielle aback.
"Was I wrong?" she asked coolly.
"Yeah. You were wrong. I was---Ephiny was just helping me through something."
"Oh. That was a comforting hug?" Gabrielle said, reluctant to relinquish the role of skeptic. "For a tough warrior you sure need a lot of shoulders to cry on lately." It felt cruel, but oddly satisfying to say those words. "What's the crisis today? Something you once did, or something someone did to you?' she smirked.
Ephiny arrived on the scene, barefoot and disheveled, in time to hear last bit. She shook her head frantically at Gabrielle, but it was too late. Even as the bard threw out her last words, she wanted to pull them back out of the air.
Xena's eyes, so intent moments before, went suddenly blank, as if a window had closed. Her lips were compressed to a tight line, and her jaw clenched. Then her back was to Gabrielle. As she passed Ephiny she grasped her arm briefly, and said simply "Goodbye."
Ephiny looked at Gabrielle, who stood uncertainly, torn between her anger, and remorse.
"I thought Xena could be cold," the Amazon said.