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For complete disclaimers see Precursors part 1.
If you haven't read The Peloponnesian War Book I: Precursors, Book II: Poteidaia Under Siege, and Book III: The Mytilene Debate, you're in the wrong place.
EXTRA SPECIAL DISCLAIMER:
This is a long, four-book monster and as such stands to be an intense roller coaster. It's a serious and sometimes disturbing story. Our heroes will undergo difficult tests, the action and psychology of which may prove difficult to read to some. There will be violence aimed at one or both of our heroes and sexual abuse. If you normally choose to avoid such subject matter, please do not read this story. I don't want to upset people, just walk that fine line to make the long read worthwhile.
By late the next morning when Gabrielle woke up for the third time and convinced herself that she really should be getting up before the entire day passed her by, the house was empty. It didn't surprise her, she knew she'd slept past any remotely decent hour and didn't expect anyone to be waiting around for her. Still, it proved a bit unnerving, it was the first time she'd been left alone since her return from Eion.
She bathed quickly and dressed, driven by a gnawing hunger. How much have I eaten lately? Just a bit last night, nibbles the days before that. My last big meal was... gods, too long ago to remember. Fine, I'm hungry.
A note waited for her on the table in the common room. In Ephiny's fine hand it read, "Breakfast is served at Cyrene's Inn, anytime, day or night. Always open." Funny, Eph, I'm awake now, even if it is creeping up on midday. She stepped out into a blinding sun, and shadowing her eyes, lumbered off to the inn.
"Hey, look who finally got up!" Toris laughed and held the door open with his foot while he balanced streamers of bright ribbon in his hands. Gabrielle's eyes followed the streamers up to a grinning Procne, straddling one of the huge beams just under the ceiling.
"What...?" Gabrielle couldn't quite articulate the question.
"Party time!" Toris said, tweaking an eyebrow just like Xena.
Hecuba emerged from the kitchen, wiping flour from her hands onto a towel she wore at her waist. "By the harvest, child, I thought you'd never get up. I had a mind to wake you myself but your Amazon friends wouldn't let me." She cast an evil glare up to Procne, fortunately it soon melted into a smile.
"You could have woken me up," Gabrielle muttered, pulled by her arm to a table in the corner.
Hecuba sat her down, "I'll be right back and don't you lift a finger today! You should hear what they're saying about you! If you've done a half of it... well I just don't know," if she finished her sentence at all, she did it in the kitchen out of Gabrielle's earshot.
Procris limped in through the front door. "Miss climbing in trees?" she called up to Procne?
"Funny. You'd be up here too if you could." Procne caught a ball of ribbon tossed up from Toris, wound it around the beam and pointed to the far side of the room, "Over there next."
Toris, like a well-trained puppy, moved to the exact spot Procne pointed and readied himself to catch the ball of ribbon on it's way down. He missed, yelled something about aiming a bit more accurately, even though the ribbon had hit him squarely in the chest, and set to untangling it before rolling the length back into a ball.
Procris joined Gabrielle at her table, "How are you feeling this fine morning, er, afternoon?"
Gabrielle leaned in and whispered, "What's going on?"
Procris mimicked her movements, answering in a conspiratorial whisper, "They're getting the place ready for a party."
Procris sat back and laughed. "If you don't know, I'm not going to tell you."
Hecuba emerged with an enormous tray of food, flat bread, olives, cheeses, pastries, nutbread, fruit... and a steaming mug of tea. She set it on the table and turned to Procris cheerfully, "Can I get you anything."
"Mother," Gabrielle complained, "you didn't think I could eat all this, did you?"
"Some tea would be great," replied Procris.
"Water's hot, it'll be just a minute," Hecuba scurried back into the kitchen.
"What's gotten into her?" Gabrielle mumbled under her breath, snatching the tea and taking a long sip. "Mmmm, that's wonderful."
"I guess she's not used to a whole town making a fuss over her daughter," Procris' eyes gleamed with pride. "You should bring her to the Amazon Village to meet the rest of your people, my queen."
"That's not even funny!" shot back Gabrielle, under her breath, through tightly clamped teeth.
"I didn't mean it that way," Procris replied in the same tone, not giving in an inch. She let her face relax, "You could bring her, someday, if you wanted to, Gabrielle."
"I don't think she... or I... will ever be ready for that," out of the corner of her eye, she spied her mother coming back and planted a sweet smile on her face.
Hecuba brought tea out for Procris. "Leg better today?"
"Yes, but it's really only a scratch... not bad. Procne tells everyone it's worse than it is so she can climb in the rafters by herself."
"I heard that," Procne shouted down to them, "And even if it's true, which it isn't, you should enjoy the sympathy while you can. You aren't getting any from me."
Sure, thought Gabrielle, and that's why you carried your sister into the field hospital, sat with her while her wound was stitched closed, made her rest, brought her food and drink, and then carried her out again.
Hecuba plucked at the smudges on the cloth she wore, dirty with flour and sticky sweets, "Well, I really must be getting back to the kitchen. We're right in the middle of baking something I've never even heard of before. Xena asked for them... little dumpling things with red stuff inside of them. Very messy, very messy."
Gabrielle enjoyed her breakfast, Procne helping herself. They were soon joined by Procris and Toris, and before they knew it, the pile of food had been reduced to a few crumbs.
A loud thumping noise reverberating through the floorboards had everyone jumping slightly. Cyrene and Hecuba flew into the room, both powdery white from what might have looked to someone, if they didn't know any better, a flour fight. The front door squeaked open slowly, Herodotus poked his head in, sheepishly grinning. "Ah, sorry 'bout that. I dropped my side."
He kicked the door open all the way, disappeared out of view and grunted, then came backing in, stepping very carefully, holding the end of a large wooden tub. Eponin and Solari squeezed in next on either side of him, their leg and arm muscles flexed beneath their skin, then finally Xena sauntered in on the other end, working hard on her impression of someone lifting the weight of an empty bag.
"Where do you want it?" groaned Herodotus. Toris got up and slipped his hands under the wooden monster, taking some of the load from Herodotus.
"Over by the hearth, like I told you," replied Hecuba, quite content to order her husband around.
Herodotus did a quick double take when he got a look at Cyrene and Hecuba's disheveled condition, then smiled quietly, dipping his head to try to hide the grin. They deposited the tub, big enough for a family to bathe in, and positioned it perfectly under the guidance of Hecuba.
"Thank you very much," Hecuba finally said. "Now you can start in on the buckets." A unison groan emanated from the group. Cyrene whispered something to Hecuba, so Hecuba relented, "But first you can take a short break." The pair of matriarchs smiled to each other, then returned to their business in the kitchen.
Xena stood by the tub, hands on her hips, peering in and letting her imagination run away from her. Solari sidled up to the warrior and said, "Don't even think about it, the water's going to be cold."
"Oh, I know that," intoned Xena, a wicked glint in her eye. "And I do wish I could stay and help you with bucket duty, but I need to speak with some people before they leave."
"Oh like that's an excuse." Eponin had collapsed into a chair, her arms flailing out to the either side, feet propped up on the rungs of a nearby table.
"I'd like to say good-bye them," explained Xena, a bit contritely.
"Go on," Herodotus told her, "Give my best to Pleistoanax and Cleridas."
"You're going to see them?" Gabrielle asked, hoping she could say good-bye as well.
"Come on," Xena said, "I'd never hear the end of it if I didn't bring you, too."
"Xena?" Toris called to her.
"Sure, you too, Amphipolitan Envoy." Xena collected them, saving Toris and Gabrielle from bringing in water for the tub, bucket by bucket.
The command tent had been re-pitched on the same spot as before, all other tents were already packed for the journey home. Only one guard stood near the flap, he waved them in with a smile.
"Ah, good," Pleistoanax greeted each of them warmly. "I'm glad you came, I wanted to thank each of you personally."
"Actually," said Gabrielle, "we wanted to thank you."
"Nonsense! Without you none of this would have been possible. Generals are replaceable but you are not. Don't you agree Cleridas?"
Cleridas lumbered up from a chair and strolled toward them. "Indeed. You are replaceable, General Pleistoanax." The two men laughed at each other.
"It's good to see military men so... at ease," said Xena.
"We've been known to relax every now and then." Pleistoanax offered them a drink and small sweets. "But as of a very few days from now, I am retiring my commission and going back to my old job."
"Handy having two careers," Toris jibed.
"That it is, my good man. So, Toris, what are your plans? Would you like to come back with us and have a position of note in my court?" Pleistoanax took on his renewed role as Spartan King, standing taller, recapturing a regal air.
"Thank you, my liege," Toris replied, bowing low in deference to the king but smirking nonetheless, "My Mother would never forgive me if I left her to run the inn by herself."
"Ah yes, and we can't have Mother angry at us, can we?" Pleistoanax teased.
"I wouldn't suggest it," Xena said on the sly but for all to hear.
"And Queen Gabrielle, I assume you'll be returning to rule your Amazons." Pleistoanax bowed ever so slightly, "I extend to you my most humble request that you pay us a visit in the near future."
Pleistoanax was quite serious, Gabrielle noted. She peeked at Xena who displayed an impassive face as usual. I wonder if she's not sure how I'll answer... "Thank you, but I have other commitments. I'm certain that you could finagle a visit from Ephiny, though. She rules in my absence," Gabrielle laughed, "Which is almost all of the time." The iota of released tension from Xena's shoulders wasn't missed by Gabrielle. That, at least, is encouraging, the bard mused.
"Then the Amazons don't know what they're missing," Cleridas suggested.
Xena answered him, "I think they do," but did not look at Gabrielle.
"And Xena," Pleistoanax at last turned to her. "What's your next destination? Staying home for awhile?"
"I don't think so," she replied. Then realizing everyone was waiting for her to elaborate, she added, "I haven't decided what's next."
"Ah, yes, well it's hardly been a full day since the treaty was signed. No need for everyone to decide their future in one journey of Apollo's chariot." Pleistoanax passed the tray of sweets around again, Xena took two.
"We best be going," Xena said, after popping them both in her mouth and savoring them. "Mother is putting on a bit of a celebration and she's expecting us to help."
"A well deserved one," Cleridas said, extending his arm to her and clasping it. "Well met, Xena of Amphipolis."
Xena nodded politely, turned to Pleistoanax and did the same. "It's been a pleasure," Pleistoanax said to her then corrected himself, "No. It's been more than that. It has been a humbling experience to know that one person on the battlefield can indeed accomplish what you've only dreamed of being able to do. Hundreds owe you their lives, Xena, hundreds more owe you their ability to go through life with a clear conscience. It is beyond any reward I could offer you. There is no way to say thank you enough."
Gabrielle watched Xena shift uncomfortably while Pleistoanax spoke. You hate this part, but it is so necessary for people to say those things to you, Xena. I wish you could accept it more easily.
"And you," Pleistoanax bellowed at Gabrielle. She flinched thinking he might actually be angry with her. "You should assume the throne. You are a great leader."
"Thanks, but it's not something I'm really interested in," Gabrielle replied weakly.
"And that's precisely why you'd be great! Those who have a desire to lead are often corrupted by power, those who have no innate drive to rule make decisions with a kind heart and for the good of the people. They do not look for self-gratification in everything they do other than that which comes naturally from helping others."
A bit too stunned to argue, Gabrielle managed to say, "I'll think about it." Then she found herself enveloped in a bear hug.
"You are a treasure, Gabrielle!" for which Gabrielle had no answer.
The three of them walked back down the hill, across the bridge, through the gates and toward the inn, Gabrielle lagging behind, embarrassed at all the attention. Xena glanced back at her thinking, you know you really ought to learn how to deal with the gratitude of people you help. They like thanking you for what you've done.
Toris silently laughed at both of them.
The room rocked with music, laughter, good food, potent drink, and dancing. Procne and Procris stationed themselves in a corner, each thumping on a loud Amazon drum while two aulos players improvised with them. Xena never much cared for the aulos, a lot of hot air to play one, she thought, and the only way to get two of them to play in tune was to shoot one of them.
She passed the bar and scooped up another mug, her second of the wine the Spartans gave them for serving the troops that one night, was it just two nights ago? Just around the outer edges of her senses she could feel the numbing effects of the wine, it was the only way to survive this evening.
Being Xena, of course, she always had a path through the crowd, clumps of party-goers yelling at each other to be heard over the din magically parted for her as she made her way to a table by the back wall, the most remote site available, but it was hardly private. Xena plunked down by Ephiny, across from Gabrielle and Solari. "Hi," she said, pushing with her diaphragm so she could be heard.
"Here, have some of these," Solari slid a tray of dumplings over to her. "Your mother said they made 'em special for you."
Xena's eyes widened briefly before she fingered a dumpling and deposited it in her mouth. "Mmmm."
"Try eating seven or eight and then see how you feel about them," Ephiny laughed, tilting her head and adding a guilty smirk.
"Thanks for leaving some for me," Xena frowned, biting into a second one and letting the red, sticky, sweet insides dribble onto the table. Ephiny frantically looked for a towel, Solari told her to be careful, and Gabrielle buried her face in her hands, shaking her head slowly.
"She always does that," Gabrielle leaned into Solari, "There's no sense in telling her to stop. It'll only make it worse."
Someone started banging knives together, trying to get the crowd to settle down. It wasn't until some brave soul pried the mallets out of Procne and Procris' hands that they could be heard at all.
"Everybody, hey, everybody, quiet down! Please, can we have it quiet in here!" Daithus crawled up on top of a table in the middle of the room. "I'd like to say a few things."
"We can't hear you!" someone called from behind him.
"Yeah, go up in front!" another suggested.
By the time Daithus, just a little tipsy from the wine and mead, had gotten off the table and made his way to the front of the tavern, the din had risen again so he was forced to jump up and down wildly, clapping his hands and shouting at them. Finally, the room quieted enough for him to talk.
"I'd like to say a few things," he began.
Xena glanced at Gabrielle, Gabrielle glared back at Xena.
"As you all know, the good name of Amphipolis will be spoken across the lands as the place where the war came to an end." Stomping, cheering, clapping. Xena and Gabrielle contemplated making a break for the door.
"And it took a lot of people to bring this about." More stomping and clapping, and cheering for themselves. Xena pushed her chair back, positioning herself so she could bolt if she had to.
"But we owe a special thanks to two very special people." Ephiny grabbed Xena by the shoulder and held her down, as best she could.
"And that's Xena and Gabrielle!" More wild cheering and stomping. And everyone turned to look at the pair, both deeply blushing.
"So let's give them a toast, shall we. To Xena and Gabrielle!" Echoes of 'to Xena and Gabrielle' filled the air.
Just as the two of them relaxed, thinking it was over, Daithus continued on. "It wasn't but a few days ago that Xena and her Amazon friends," more cheering punctuated by drum beats from Procne and Procris, "came to my house telling me they had struck a deal with Brasidias." A few scattered boos accompanied his name. "Xena thwarted his plan to conquer Amphipolis by offering to make us his ally!" Cheers again.
"And when the battle came on our own doorstep, it was Xena who slew the enemy Cleon, and who took down an insane Brasidias." More cheers, though less heartfelt. Ephiny still kept her grip on Xena, forcing the warrior to stay.
"And after the battle was won, Gabrielle of Poteidaia helped shape the new peace brought to our land." Very loud cheers were augmented by chairs being banged on the floor. Xena relaxed a bit while Gabrielle contemplated crawling under the table.
"Gabrielle, the bard, wrote the treaty, and her powerful words swayed two formerly warring parties to come to an agreement." More cheers and a few whistles.
"We owe to her our gratitude for ending the war!" Wild cheering, stomping, and clapping. Procne and Procris added loud, intricate drum patterns to the general mayhem.
Daithus, however, wasn't finished. He had to once again jump around to get everyone's attention." Pleistoanax made me promise to mention one more thing." Xena and Gabrielle silently swore to each other that if Daithus embarrassed either of them once more, it would be the end of him. Permanently. "He asked me to remember that his own life was saved during the battle by the Amazons. And he has named them Heroes of the Battle of Amphipolis." Daithus produced an ornate scroll and thread his way through the cheering crowd to place it in Solari's palm. It was her turn to blush, so the only one to enjoy every moment turned out to be Ephiny.
"Where's Eponin when you need her," Solari muttered. She tossed the scroll to Ephiny, "Here, you keep it. And how did you manage to come out of this unscathed, anyway?"
"No comment and Eponin's in the kitchen with Hecuba and Cyrene. Just be careful that I don't send you in there, too." Ephiny accepted the scroll and tucked it away in her belt for safe keeping. They may not appreciate it now, but when they go home they'll be glad for the reminder of their roles.
Off in the kitchen, Eponin listened intently to the conversation between Hecuba and Cyrene. She planned to pick up as many interesting comments about Xena and Gabrielle as possible, preferably involving embarrassing childhood moments. Unfortunately, what she received was a detailed lesson on the preparation of venison and root vegetable stew for two hundred guests. She tried the direct approach.
"Cyrene, what can you tell me about Xena as a child? The Amazons have known her for a long time but she's never given us a glimpse into her youth."
Cyrene considered the options and as tempted as she was to spill some of Xena's more ribald childhood antics, she made the more prudent decision, "Tonight is Xena's night. Why don't we just leave at that."
Hecuba turned to Eponin and caught her off guard, "Gabrielle was a perfect child. She never spilled her milk, always did her homework and kept her room spotless. More than that I cannot say."
Eponin laughed. "You both do understand that the reason I accepted kitchen duty was to get some ammunition."
"Of course, dear. We'd do the same in your kitchen." Cyrene's glint perfectly balanced polite banter with a wicked streak. At least I see now where Xena gets some of her habits, mused Eponin, drying pots and pans and hanging them over the work table.
"Of course, if you wanted to hear about how wonderful they've been over the past few years..." Cyrene started.
"I don't know if they've told about all that happened during the siege. Xena practically ran the army while Gabrielle took over the infirmary." Hecuba smiled. "I'd have never thought my daughter capable of standing up to such stress. I guess I got to learn a great deal about her recently."
"Making the war worthwhile," Cyrene half-joked.
And in all seriousness, Hecuba answered, "Just palatable."
"You're both lucky women," Eponin remarked, feeling a bit jealous that she didn't have the chance to get to know her mother, killed long ago in a skirmish with the Centaurs.
Cyrene and Hecuba glowed, "We are that, aren't we," they said in unison. And then laughed.
"We've been spending entirely too much time together!" Hecuba exclaimed.
"So why don't you get out there are talk with that daughter of yours for awhile. I'll join you when I can." Cyrene ran Hecuba out of the kitchen and into the party.
Hecuba stopped in her tracks for a moment, getting used to the noise and the crowd. She spotted Herodotus, sitting by himself and she slinked through the bodies to join him. "You look like you need some company," she said and enjoyed the smile growing on his face.
"Actually, I just got myself out of some company," Herodotus explained, pointing across the room. "Those boys are dunking for apples. I told them I'd had quite enough of that wooden vat, having personally dumped most of the water in it.
They settled back against each other, basking in the festive mood.
"So, my wife. It seems like a new beginning for all of us. What does your heart desire?"
Herodotus lovingly traced little patterns on her shoulder until she slapped him playfully on the arm, pulling his hand away, for she was always embarrassed by such attention in public. "Oh you, dreaming again."
"No, really. If you could have anything, what would it be?" His serious face convinced her he was sincere.
"Let's see. I already have a lot. A wonderful family. Two beautiful daughters, and loving husband," she allowed herself to kiss him very quickly. "But if you really must know..."
Ah ha, he thought. I knew she'd been thinking about something. "Tell me."
Almost squeaking with the excitement of watching someone unwrap a solstice gift, she giggled, "I'd like to run an inn."
"An inn? Like this? Are you crazy, woman?" Herodotus, threw up his hands, he'd had no idea she'd want to do that. "With all the brawls and hard work... you've seen for yourself how little Cyrene gets to do but dote over this place."
"I know," she said soothingly. "I've been right there with her for some time now and I am crazy to think it," she admitted. "But Cyrene gets so much satisfaction from it. She has a job, a career really."
"And you're a little jealous of that," Herodotus understood better.
"Yes, I guess that's it. Maybe I need some direction in my life. Something to do that's just... I don't know... me." Hecuba said with a defiant air.
Herodotus settled back again, pulling his wife a little closer. "Feeling that the last of the baby chicks is leaving the roost, eh?"
"I hardly think that Lila is serious about Perseus," Hecuba picked at a bit of dried food stuck to the table.
"But," he reminded her, "it still makes you think that way."
"Perhaps, Hecuba admitted. "but it's more than that."
"Then we'll find you a career when we get home," Herodotus said pointedly. And he meant it.
"Home?" she asked, tentatively, looking into his eyes for confirmation.
"Don't you agree? Poteidaia is ours again now that..." he smiled, "now that Gabrielle found a way to forge a peace."
"I still can't believe that. I just have to pinch myself sometimes. Our Gabrielle, little Gabby, Gabby-pie, Gabolicious..."
"Okay, you can stop now." Gabrielle stood behind them, hands on her hips, trying to look mad and not doing a very good job at it.
"Sorry, sweetie," Hecuba said. "I was just reminiscing."
"Could you reminisce in a more private place next time? Please?" Gabrielle pleaded.
Herodotus scooted to his right and pulled up a chair between them, "Sit, please. Then we can all reminisce together."
Gabrielle willingly settled down by them. "So what were you talking about, or do I dare ask?"
"We've been talking about you, of course," said Herodotus. He laughed and lightly poked her neck, "Haven't you stopped blushing by now?" He put his arm around her shoulder and hugged her. "Your mother and I are very proud of you, Gabrielle," spoken in a voice that almost cracked.
"Thanks. That means a lot to me." Gabrielle, in return, kissed both of her parents on the cheek.
"And," said Herodotus clearing his throat, "we were talking about going home. To Poteidaia."
"That's wonderful!" Said Gabrielle, and it felt like a knot in her stomach that she'd harbored ever since she believed Poteidaia was lost to them forever, could finally unwind.
"And open an inn!" Hecuba added, thrusting her chin up as if she'd just discovered how to be an aristocrat.
"What?" Gabrielle couldn't believe her mother would want to do such a thing.
"We're discussing it," Herodotus explained. "Your mother envies Cyrene's career. We're going to find her a job."
Gabrielle turned to her mother, mulling the idea over in her head. "I dare say that's a great idea. I'm happy for you, Mother."
"Of course, first we'll have to do some rebuilding. I don't think the Athenians will have left Poteidaia in very good shape," Herodotus started planning in his head.
"And we'll have to get everyone home. And, oh dear..." Hecuba brought both palms to her cheeks.
"What is it, Mother?" Gabrielle asked, concerned.
Hecuba blubbered, "What about Atossa? We sent her away with her sister and the twins when we got wind of the Spartans coming. Someone will have to go get her!"
"I can go," offered Gabrielle. "Where is she?"
"Not far, just up the Strymon about two days, in Berge," Herodotus told her. "I took her up there, but I'll have a lot to do here..."
"I told you, I'll get them. Don't worry about it," Gabrielle was happy for such a simple task, and for getting out of Amphipolis for awhile. Until the celebrating died down, she wanted to avoid the prying eyes of hero worshippers.
"That would be grand, Gabrielle. Thank you," Hecuba once again beamed with pride for her daughter.
Xena had gotten up shortly after Gabrielle did, but instead of searching out family members to talk with, she headed for the door, having had enough of all the frivolity.
"Xena? Oh, Xena!" a sing-song voice called to her. "Wait up. There's somebody I want you to meet."
Xena took a breath to calm her already frayed nerves and steeled herself to be nice for a few more minutes. "Hello, Lila."
Lila's hand gestures were much too large. "Xena, this is Perseus. Perseus this is my good friend, Xena."
Perseus trembled noticeably. Xena grunted a greeting.
"Now, come, both of you. Let's get to know each other better and play a little game. I've been wanting to try this all night." Lila dragged them, one hand pulling each of them toward the wooden vat, sloshing with water. It took all of Xena's willpower to keep her from knocking Lila across the room.
"What are you supposed to do?" asked Perseus as he glowered at all the little red floating treasures.
"You bob for them!" Lila giggled. "Isn't it grand?"
Xena bent swiftly from the waist and grabbed a small apple with her teeth, very carefully choosing the only remaining one with a stem she could bite down on. "Nothing to it," she remarked to Lila and Perseus taking a bite of the crispy apple and noticing that her head spun ever so slightly from the wine she'd consumed.
"Oh wow, I'm next!" Lila leaned over and put her head right at the water's surface waiting for an apple to come floating by.
"No, Lila. You have to be more aggressive, you know, go after one like you really mean it." Xena coached her on. "That's it," she encouraged, as Lila pushed the apples around the tub. Xena let her hand rest on the back of Lila's neck, guiding her ever so slightly. "Now get in there and bit down on one." Lila nodded, intent on her task, eyeballs even with the floating fruits, hands clasped behind her back.
Just as Lila pounced on an apple, Xena pushed down, dunking Lila's head underwater. Lila came up snorting and coughing, frantically wiping the water out of her eyes. When she opened her mouth to complain to Xena, the warrior shoved a tiny apple in and turned her around to Perseus. "See," said Xena. "Lila can do it. Now it's your turn."
Perseus laughed nervously, put his hands behind his back and got to work. Xena smiled and said, "Lila, why don't you teach him how. You're the expert now." Then she left them, entirely convinced that Perseus would soon be as wet, or wetter, than Lila.
Ephiny sat with Solari, Procne, and Procris at the table along the back wall. Gabrielle had left to talk to her parents, and the Amazons all enjoyed watching Xena dunk Lila before finally escaping the party altogether. Eponin limped up to them and collapsed.
"You okay, Ep?" Solari asked, rubbing her back.
"Don't ever let me work in a kitchen again. First you have to put up with inane conversation, nothing juicy at all! Then you wash and dry every pot, pan, knife, and fork--twice!, Then you drop the really big pot on your foot. Then you restock the shelves from the pantry. Ugh," she said, dropping her head on the table.
Solari continued rubbing her back. "Ready to get back to your normal life, Ep?"
Eponin raised her head and nodded then dropped it back down.
"I guess it is about that time," Procne said. "I'll look forward to sparring with the weapons master, especially one who can be run ragged by spending an evening in a dreaded kitchen."
"I heard that," Eponin mumbled, not bothering to raise her head this time.
Ephiny pondered her decision one last time. "Yup, I'd say it's about time you got back home."
Procris double-checked her meaning. "As in all of us or just some of us?"
"I think I'll stay on a little while, but there's no reason you can't go home now. In fact, I think it would be a good idea. If Eponin ever wakes up again, she can run things until I return."
Eponin did raise her head up. She regarded Ephiny seriously. "Don't be too long."
Ephiny answered her very seriously, "I hope it won't take long, but I'll be away as long as I need to be." She smiled softly. "There's still unfinished business."
Procris, who had had too much to drink so she was a little slow on the uptake said, "But who will see you home? We can't just leave you here unprotected."
"I am not unprotected and," she said, "I intend to be escorted home."
"We'll keep the torches burning, Ephiny, but take however much
time you need. We can celebrate when you all come home," Eponin understood
and approved of her motives. Until matters were settled between the Warrior
Princess and their queen, there was no reason to party.
The contrast between the cool, fresh night air and the hot, stuffy tavern they'd just been in, gave Gabrielle, Cyrene, and Ephiny one last burst of energy for the walk home. Toris promised he'd finish the cleaning and close up the inn, some small penance for having spent the last few days as Envoy to the Spartans rather than helping his mother with the chores. He'd also insisted on sleeping in the spare room at the inn, the one they gave away when the inn was full and there was a lonely traveler who still desperately needed a bed for the night. Ephiny tried to talk him out of it, telling him she should be the one to stay at the inn, but he wouldn't hear of it and sent the three of them off to bed, where they should have been a long time ago.
"Wow, that was an amazing party," Gabrielle said, the slight slur in her speech long gone. She'd stopped drinking as soon as she felt the beginnings of a headache.
Ephiny hadn't been so smart, in fact her drinking patterns went quite the opposite, having stayed away from the potables during all the fuss over Xena and Gabrielle, then letting it get the best of her once she'd made the decision to send the Amazons home without her. She let Gabrielle walk with an arm lightly draped around her, not so much in constant support of her weight but in case she tripped over her own feet, which, they both knew, she had a habit of doing when tipsy.
Cyrene took long steps, purposeful and confident. She'd thrown the best party Amphipolis had ever seen and she'd thrown it for her own daughter's sake. And for the fair-headed women she'd taken into her home, as well. "The party was good," she told Gabrielle truthfully, "because we were celebrating a special event... and a couple of my favorite people."
"Not you, too," Gabrielle groaned.
"Face it, Gabrielle, what you and Xena did... makes you heroes," Cyrene smiled. "That's not such a bad thing," she added in a low voice colored with a hint of the motherly tone she used so rarely.
Ephiny, who was walking between them, commented, "She's an Amazon Queen. It's old hat for her and she's not used to being fussed over. Yup, she does it all the time..." and tripped, Gabrielle just catching her before she'd fallen so far forward she'd have taken them both down. "Thanks," Ephiny murmured after having been righted by her queen.
Gabrielle helped her through the door and sat her down in the nearest chair.
"I was wondering if you'd ever come home," Xena said dryly. She was curled up by the hearth next to a lazy fire.
"What are you doing up?" Cyrene asked, shutting the door. She moved to a side table and poured a mug of water, handing it to Ephiny who took it and drained it without question.
"Just had to make sure you got home all right. Looks like only one of you is worse for wear," Xena grinned smugly at Ephiny.
"I had a great time," Ephiny said. Then standing by herself and wobbling added, "and now I think I'd better go to bed." She took two steps and stopped, "No, that's okay. I can make it by myself," though no one had made a move to help her. "G'night," she muttered, disappearing into Toris' room. It would be a long while before she emerged again.
Cyrene let herself collapse into a chair while Gabrielle deposited herself on the floor, not far from Xena, leaning her back against the hearth. "What a night," Cyrene said.
"That's an understatement if I ever heard one," Gabrielle retorted. "It was a party for the ages. And nobody even got into a fight!"
Xena let one side of her lip curl slightly. She'd broken up three fights after she'd left. At least they'd had the decency to take them outside where nobody's blood ruined any party favors. "You sound more sober than the last time I saw you," Xena drawled.
"I kept thinking about how I'd feel in the morning, so I quit at three." Gabrielle rubbed her temples. "At least now I can get rid of some of the hangover before I even go to bed."
"Drink some water, you'll feel fine in the morning," Cyrene said. Then she gathered them both into her gaze, her face softly glowing in firelight. "I'm so proud of you, both of you," she added, making certain they knew she understood that each of them had significantly contributed to the end of the war. "Thank you. Thank you for what you did for us."
"It's nothing, really. Anybody would have done it," Gabrielle shrugged off the compliment as she had done all evening.
"Not true," Xena said, a fierceness piercing the air. "No one else could have convinced Pleistoanax and Nicias to sign that treaty--and besides, you wrote it! Those are your words scribed onto parchment, your words that were agreed to and signed by everyone in a solemn promise to heed them."
Gabrielle hung her head. "You could have done it," she said softly.
"No. I don't do words," Xena corrected her tersely.
"I've heard you, Xena. I've been there when you talked men out of fighting. And besides," she said raising her head to look at Xena, "you were the one who stopped the battle before there was a blood bath. How many lives did you save? A thousand? Two thousand? More? No one would have even mentioned a treaty if Brasidias had slaughtered everyone."
"Perhaps," she said softly, eyes never drifting from the bard's hard gaze.
"And you know I couldn't have done that," Gabrielle smiled, watching it mirrored on Xena's face. "I don't do swords," she added and they both laughed.
"Well, good. I'm glad we've got that settled." Cyrene pushed herself out of the chair. "Now I'm going to bed."
"Sleep well, Cyrene," Gabrielle told, her wishing her pleasant dreams.
"Night, Mother." The warrior's eyes followed her mother's path to the door and into her room, mentally tucking her in.
The two listened to the crackling fire for awhile, letting the peaceful silence have it's way. They hadn't spent much time together lately, certainly not without anyone else around to act as a buffer, and the silence, though welcome, had an uncomfortable edge to it.
And as often happens between friends, they both started to talk at the very same time. "Go ahead," said Xena.
"No, you first," pushed Gabrielle.
"Tell me what you were going to say," Xena won.
"I don't know. I guess I was just going to say... are we on speaking terms?"
Xena froze. "Sure."
"Kind of like a truce?"
"Gabrielle, look, this isn't the best time to talk about it."
"Really?" Gabrielle bore down and continued. "Are you ever going to say it's a good time to talk about it?"
Xena didn't answer her.
"Okay," Gabrielle relented. "Not tonight. It's late and we're both tired. But I do want to ask a favor."
Reluctantly, Xena nodded, "Okay."
"Don't give up on me."
Xena's heart stopped. When it started again, it fluttered for a few beats, then set into pounding against her chest. "Gabrielle..." How can I answer that, she wondered. "I haven't given up."
The bard stood and moved to sit by Xena, cross-legged, facing her. "Good." She reached down slowly and took one of the warrior's hands. "We will get through this."
Xena wrapped her fingers between the bard's. If only I believed that, she thought.
"But you've got to let me help," Gabrielle said, so reminiscent of a conversation they'd had months ago in Poteidaia.
And the tiniest speck of hope rose to the surface for the first time.
"You don't know..." Xena stumbled.
"I think I do, and," the bard said each word distinctly, "it doesn't matter."
Xena shook her head, "Yes, it does!" Gods, it matters.
"Okay," Gabrielle corrected herself. "It matters. It matters because of how it makes you feel. But it won't keep us from working it out," she restated her position. Gabrielle sighed and shifted so she sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Xena, letting the wall take the pressure off her back.
Again, they let the room's silence take over their conversation. But this time, as they were linked at the hand, it was comfortable. And that tiny speck of hope grew larger, forcing it's way into the warrior's hardened soul. She relented, just a little, and lifted her hand out of it's enveloping warmth to pull Gabrielle in, draping both arms around her, until the bard's head rested against her chest. Ah, yes, she said to herself. I do remember this. This is reality. This is what I'm supposed to feel.
Gabrielle stretched one arm around Xena's waist, snaking her other between the warrior and the wall, and hugged back. Thank you, Xena, she said to herself. Now I know you'll let me in.
They let themselves feel. Just soaking up whatever they could until they were bathed in an old, familiar wash of comfort.
Gabrielle groaned, "Oh, gods... I forgot."
"What?" Xena lifted her chin, gently, softly. "What did you forget?"
"I told my parents I'd go to Berge and bring Atossa back. She and her sister went there with the twins when the Spartans got close to Amphipolis." Gabrielle smiled. Xena still had one arm around her, her other hand's thumb caressed her chin ever so slightly. "They're going home," she said. "They're going back to Poteidaia."
"I'm glad." And Xena was, for she knew how important it was to have a home to go to.
Sheepishly, the bard asked, "Can I borrow Argo?"
"What? You want to hitch her to a cart, traipse up to Berge to pick up," she counted to herself, "four people and all their stuff and then wander back here... with my horse?" Xena tweaked her eyebrow in an achingly familiar jab.
"Ah, that's the idea, yeah."
She pulled Gabrielle back into her body, settling her arms around the bard once again. "Want company?" And was rewarded with a squeeze she was reluctant to return in force, fearing for those still-sore ribs.
"Come on," she pulled Gabrielle up with her. "If we don't get some sleep, we'll never get off to Berge."
And without questioning the other, they strode arm in arm to the bedroom, and changed into night shirts. Gabrielle crawled into bed first, taking the side by the wall because Xena always slept in the position best suited to defend an attack, even in her own home. The bard stretched down to her toes and pulled up the sheet, leaving the quilt at the foot of the bed.
Xena slipped in next to her, lying on her back and gazing up at the ceiling.
"Night, Xena," Gabrielle said, fluffing up the pillow.
Xena turned her head and looked at Gabrielle. She held her arms open and waited for that split second while Gabrielle processed the invitation. The bard scooted in, settling her head on Xena's shoulder with a soft sigh.
Xena loved watching the light in the room change from the consummate darkness of the night to the scarcely discernible shadows of the pre-dawn to the yellow-golden shadings accompanying the first rays of the early light. She especially loved it when the yellow-golden hair of the woman curled against her shimmered in that early light.
She took a breath and settled into herself, looking inside for the first time in a long while. Things were different. Sure, the gnawing terror still exerted its influence over everything else, there was no denying its position of dominance. Still, what had begun as just a mote of hope on the horizon had, while she slept, ingrained itself into the rock, much like a tiny mollusk sinking its roots into a great coral reef. It had to hold itself against the tide, fend off predators, and worm its way into the coral. Against all odds, it would survive and grow and eventually propagate an entire bed of mollusks.
"Hey there," a friendly voice called. Xena opened her eyes. "What are you thinking about?"
"The sea," said Xena, accurate though evasive.
"You were smiling," the bard told her. "Must have been a smooth voyage."
"It was," and she kissed Gabrielle on the forehead. "Let's get going."
Xena listened to Gabrielle complaining about the early hour, the throbbing in her head, the hideous furry taste in her mouth, and she smiled again. A slow return to normality for all of us, she thought. Neither Ephiny nor Cyrene were up yet, so they left a note saying good-bye to the Amazon and letting Cyrene know they'd be back in a few days.
In fact, the whole town was remarkably quiet, all of them sleeping off the late hours of celebration and drink. Argo seemed happy to see them, she knew it meant getting out into the open again. When Xena brought a cart around, however, Argo stomped her foot in protest and it wasn't until Xena spoke softly to her, explaining that for the first two days the cart would be empty, and then they'd be doing a favor to some old friends, that Argo settled down and let Xena hitch her up.
They tossed their saddlebags into the back and jumped up onto the front seat, Xena handling the reins and driving them out of town. They had two choices--they could take the main road, a well-traveled way between Amphipolis and Heraclea, or they could hug the Strymon, a longer but more private and scenic route. Beyond Heraclea, Berge lay another half-day north, and the only way there was to follow the Strymon. When Xena turned the cart up along the river, Gabrielle smiled. Either way, Heraclea was more than a day away, so they weren't giving up a night in an inn for the detour. And this way they could enjoy the countryside, something neither had been able to do for the past year.
Back in Amphipolis, a confused and still slightly dazed Ephiny fingered a scrap of parchment. Damn, she said to herself. Did I forget to tell them I was staying? What was I thinking? They'd better be back in a few days, or I'm going out after them.
She did the only thing she could think of, which was to fill a bucket with water, walk out just past the front door, and dump the whole bucket on her head. Shivering against the shock, she shook the water through her locks and headed off to the inn. Might as well help out for a few days...
Lunch came when both women's stomachs growled simultaneously. They laughed at each other and Xena pulled the wagon in under a copse of trees. "We didn't think to pack a snack did we?"
"No, we didn't." Gabrielle hopped down and looked to Xena. "Time to go fishing?"
"If we do that," said Xena unhooking the cart from Argo's rigging, "we'll have to cook them which means building a fire."
"And your point is?"
"It's going to take a while. We won't have much sun left after that to head up north."
"And your point is?" Gabrielle asked again.
"We'll have a very long day tomorrow," Xena tried explaining for the last time.
"Whose schedule are you on, anyway?" Gabrielle teased.
Xena thought about it for a moment and although Gabrielle was right, there was no need to hurry, it felt wrong to Xena. They had a journey to complete, they should just get in the damned cart and get there. "My own schedule?" she offered as a rather lame excuse.
"Xena," Gabrielle lay her hand on the warrior's arm, "we've been stuck in towns or on a boat for months on end. Let's just enjoy ourselves for awhile." Then a little smugly she added, "Apparently we've earned it."
"Okay, you win," Xena pronounced, though on the inside she had to battle the monster pushing her to win the argument just for the sake of winning it. Then with a pulse of sheer will, she slung the monster aside and said, "First one to catch a fish gets out of all the chores."
Gabrielle dug in with her toes and started running as fast as she could to the river, tearing off her clothes and boots before diving in. Xena followed, walking calmly, and undressed more carefully, taking care to loosen each gauntlet and arm band, unclipping her armor to the accompaniment of Gabrielle splashing around. She pulled her leathers down, stepping out of them to the side, and hung them over a branch. Then she went upstream until she located a cove. Dipping her toes in the water, wanting nothing more than to float downstream for awhile, she ventured out until the water came over her hips. Stilling her movements, her breathing, even her heartbeat, she waited. The fish would come to her. A faint glimmer of silver caught her eye, patience, she said. Another hint of silver, this time within striking distance, and she coiled her arm, thrusting it below the surface, hooking her fingers in the gills so there was no means of escape for their lunch.
She pulled out a river carp, not the best eating fish but certainly good enough. Then she indulged herself by leaning back, letting the water carry her weight, and while holding the fish securely underwater, she floated downstream towards a great deal of splashing and swearing.
"There you are," said an exasperated Gabrielle. "You should have seen what just came by. It was the biggest fish I'd ever seen and I had him, really I had him and he just..." She brought her hands down, palms open, onto the surface of the water sending a surge Xena's way. "He just got away."
"Clean this for me, would you?" Xena said, floating by and grabbing the bard's hand. She stuck Gabrielle's fingers into the gills, then let go and kept on floating. "I'll catch up with you in a little while."
"Can you be any more proud of yourself," she heard the bard muttering, soon muted under the slogging sounds of someone dragging themselves out of the river.
Having made Gabrielle set up camp, unsaddle, brush and feed Argo, collect firewood, cook and clean up, Xena realized she was getting pretty frisky herself. Here they were, back in their own home, so to speak, and the idle lifestyle just didn't mesh.
Gabrielle could sense her edginess and had a good idea about it's source. "Why don't you take Argo out for a ride. I think she'd really appreciate the exercise."
Ah, how well you know me. "Not a bad idea," she said. With one low whistle, she called her steed. Argo came trotting towards her, kicking high and prancing. Vaulting onto her bare back, Xena turned a somersault in mid-air for no reason at all other than they joy of doing it. A quick compression of her knees told Argo she meant business, and the horse was more than happy to oblige, taking her into a full gallop in just a few strides.
Xena loved the feel of her hair whipping behind her, the rhythmic canter they fell into so easily, horse and master thinking as one. A tangible freedom flavored the ride. No path to follow, no destination in mind, no time limits, no boundaries. But that wasn't really true, she reminded herself. And that was okay, too. For all the boundaries and limitations in her life were by choice now. She had made few and careful choices through the years, and by them had earned a love like no other.
There was a path to follow in her life, and there was someone else walking beside her at all times. Their destination was wrapped up in the intertwining to two fates. To have fallen away from the path is to have seen its ultimate value. One action, one moment in time, one decision she didn't even understand anymore, pulled her away from that path. And then she spent days being afraid to get back on it, for the fear that she would walk alone once again.
It seemed better to make the decision never to know than to ask and be rejected.
What a fool you are, Xena. You can turn your back on your life as a powerful warlord, you can confess your crimes in front of Callisto, you can stand up to and defeat the commanders of two huge armies... and yet... She planted her heels in Argo's flanks, directing her back to camp.
Gabrielle had fallen asleep. Why the little... Xena sent Argo off to graze along the banks of the river while she tiptoed in on her victim. Very quietly, as only Xena could really do, she crept up on the bard, a delicious sense of victory driving her. She got close enough to kneel by her, raising her arms to capture her prey.
Until Gabrielle spoke. "I know it's you, Xena, you needn't bother with the follow-through."
"Oh yeah?" and she changed tactics in mid-stream jabbing fingers into the very most sensitive spots, tickling her unmercifully until Gabrielle cried uncle and then explained that meant she surrendered and it was high time the big, bad warrior quit teasing her. They sat back in the grass, laughing hard.
"Felling better?" Gabrielle asked, wiping away the last of the tears and laughing a few more times out of sheer reflex.
"Yeah, thanks. I am." Xena rolled over on her back, stretching her arms out wide above her head. "How did we do without this for so long?"
"Hmmm?" Gabrielle asked, not sure she knew what Xena meant.
"This. You know, out here. Just being out here."
Ah, yes. I know exactly what you mean. "We endured... somehow..." She thought about it more, letting the warm air, the sun, the smells of wild grass and the lazy river seep in. "I missed it, too."
"Gabrielle, I know I'm difficult, but I do want you to know that I never wanted to hurt you."
That caught Gabrielle off-guard. She didn't think Xena would bring up the subject without a lot of cajoling on her part. "I know that," what else can I say?
"I really don't know why I did what I did. That whole... whole time... seems so long ago, it doesn't even seem real." Xena still stared into the skies above. "I've asked myself why I let Orithyia... do that. I don't have an answer for it."
Having spent countless hours pondering just how to approach the subject, Gabrielle was prepared. At least she was ready for how the conversation should start. "Xena, if Orithyia walked into this camp now, would you be tempted to repeat it?"
Xena bolted up and grabbed Gabrielle's shoulders. "No! No, of course not. How can you even ask that!"
Though she'd expected her to say no, she hadn't considered that her response might be so vehement. This is good, she thought. "What was so different about that night?"
Xena let Gabrielle go, propping her elbows on her knees and letting her face rest in her hands. "I keep asking myself that question over and over."
"What's your answer?" Gabrielle remained remarkably calm on the outside but her insides were trembling.
"I don't know," Xena admitted. "I can't... seem to answer that question."
"The answer will come, Xena. You just have to give it time."
Xena lifted her head and looked at Gabrielle. She's not going to tell me what to think, is she? "I have to figure this out by myself?"
"Not by yourself. But you do have to figure it out and there's
only so much I can help you with. The rest you have to do inside."
Because, said Gabrielle to herself, if I tell you what I think the real
reason is, you'll never believe it coming from me. And you have to believe
it, understand it, and come to grips with it or this really is over. But,
I have every intention of making sure you do figure it out, my friend, and
in this matter, at least, I intend to get my way.
"Fish for lunch, fish for dinner... we only ever eat fish..." Xena sat back against a smooth rock, her feet resting on a strategically placed log, hands folded across a very full stomach, eyes closed.
Gabrielle sat by the light of the fire, tongue just peeking out at the corner of her mouth, scratching out something on a new parchment, trying to get it right before she committed ink to surface, but not being able to do it, and writing very tiny so as not to take up too much space. She hated to work things out on parchment, preferring to do it in her head, but the details of the last few days swam around randomly in her memory and she needed to see them to organize her thoughts.
"So now I can just complain to myself and no one will mind," Xena prodded. "I could just talk about fish, about the one you said was so big but got away." Xena peeked out one eye. "Hey! Are you listening?"
"Huh? Oh, sorry, Xena. Yes, I'm listening. Now what were you saying?" Gabrielle put down the quill and folded her hands in her lap.
"I was babbling," Xena replied, eyes closed again.
"Really?" asked Gabrielle getting more animated. "You were babbling and I missed it?"
"Yup, it was your only chance to hear it and it's passed you by, like the big fish that got away from you today."
Gabrielle protested, "It was big. Really big. You should have seen it! I mean," she held her arms our measuring the length, checking the distance between her left and right hands, spreading her arms farther and farther apart until she just gave up and extended them fully, "It was this big."
Xena laughed, "Yup, that's what they all say." She sighed and resumed her methodical breathing.
Gabrielle got up and walked over to Xena. "Are you falling asleep on me?"
"Then why are you lazing around, not even sharpening your sword, with your eyes shut tight?" Gabrielle prodded, knowing the business with sharpening her sword was a little out of the playing field.
"You're doing the chores."
A wicked look splayed across the bard's face, Xena missed it. Gabrielle dug around in the saddle bags, found the whet stone and returned to the warrior. She reached for Xena's sword, as always right by her side, until her wrist was cuffed in a strong grip.
"You said I had to do the chores, Xena."
"That's not a chore. It's a labor of love," Xena corrected her, letting her wrist go and smiling. "But thanks for offering."
"Fine," said Gabrielle. "I'll just put this back." She fingered the whet stone, its surface such a disparate combination of a smooth texture intermixed with roughness.
"That will be fine. That's a chore. And when you're done with that," Xena called to her as the bard tucked the stone back inside the saddlebag, "I've got another one for you."
Gabrielle sauntered back to Xena and sat down by her. The warrior still hadn't opened her eyes. "What would you like, Queen Xena?"
"I'd like you to tell me a story."
Two unexpected phrases tumbling from Xena's lips in a single day. "What do you want to hear?" the bard asked.
"Anything, so long as I'm not in it," she smiled as she made her request.
"So you want to make it hard on me? Okay, okay, I can do this. Let me think here. How about... no, that won't do. Then there's... no, I don't want to hear that one." Gabrielle drummed her fingers on her knee. "I've got one, it's about Arion, the musician."
She glanced at Xena and saw the little smile on her lips.
"Arion of Corinth told tales and sang songs to his friends until his name became known far from his home. Strangers traveling though Corinth would stop and ask about him, having heard of his songs in their own far-away homes. One day, a traveler brought word of a music contest to be held in Sicily and this man convinced Arion he should go and try his luck, for he had never heard a finer master of the lyre.
"Arion considered the proposition, he'd always wondered how he'd fare against others skilled in his art, so he decided to go, and with the blessings of his friends, he set out for Sicily. The journey took many days. Every night he would find an inn, offer to play his lyre and sing a few tales, and in this way he was fed and housed until he neared the shore, for Sicily is an island and he would need to sail the seas to get there.
"Fortunately, a sailor heard of his plight and heard his songs as well. He asked his captain permission to bring Arion aboard, and without so much as making an inquiry, Arion found himself on a ship sailing to Sicily.
"He arrived just a day before the competition began. The people of Sicily welcomed him, his name had been spoken of with great fondness by many of the travelers who had ventured near Corinth. He registered for the competition and was given food and a bed in which to sleep.
"On the first day of the competition, Arion sat through the other contestant's performances. He grew nervous, worried that he had no business appearing on the same stage as these seasoned veterans. But when his turn came, he closed his eyes and thought of home, and he sang from his heart.
"On the second day of competition, the field of contestants had been narrowed to just eight. Arion drew the last performance slot, so he was forced to listen to the other contestant's songs. When at last his turn arrived, he opened his mouth to speak the name of the song. But alas, his voice had left him. Sweat broke out on his brow, he thought of running from the stage, but something inside of him wouldn't let him give up so easily. Instead of singing, as all the others before him had done, he played his lyre alone, letting all of his thoughts channel down to his fingers, intricately weaving embellishments where none had been heard before.
"As he finished, the room was deathly silent. He believed he had failed. But then as one, the audience erupted into applause. They had their winner.
"For the return journey, he hooked up with the first ship he could find. The prize money let him buy passage, and he enjoyed the freedom it gave him. But the sailors on board coveted his prize. They planned to kill him and divide the dinars among themselves.
"In a dream, Apollo came to Arion. Impressed by a talent almost the rival of the great god's, Apollo watched over Arion, and presented him the clue to save his own life. The next day, when the sailors attacked him, he begged to be allowed to sing one last song. At the end of the song, he flung himself into the sea, where dolphins, who had been drawn to the ship by the enchanting melody, bore him to the land."
The bard finished, watching the rhythmic rise and fall of Xena's chest. So I put her to sleep. Wouldn't be the first time. She thought about waking her up and making her stumble to the bedroll, tried to judge just how sore Xena would be if she slept in that position all night, and came up with a compromise. Gabrielle gathered their bedrolls and blankets and she laid them down right next to the sleeping warrior. "Xena?"
"Hmmm," came the very sleepy response.
"Roll over. You'll be more comfortable."
"I am comfortable," she replied, smacking her lips a few times.
"Come on," she pulled on Xena's arm a little.
"Okay, okay," the reluctant warrior muttered. She did as she'd been told and rolled over on to the bedroll. "Mmmm, better."
"Told you so," Gabrielle said, joining her under the blankets. "Sleep well." There was no response from the slumbering Xena.
They set out early the next morning, Xena rising easily from a long and deep rest. Gabrielle required prodding, but eventually the bard got up, wandering aimlessly for a few moments, orienting herself to the great outdoors. They both tidied the camp, ensuring no trace could be found of them once they left. The reasons for this were two-fold stressed Xena time and time again, "No one can track you and you leave it as it was for the next traveler." Gabrielle let the latter reason guide her as she returned the log Xena had used as a footstool to its original location under a large tree.
"Xena?" queried Gabrielle after they'd passed most of the morning in silence, "You must have been to Heraclea before, growing up so close and all."
"Yeah," she smiled privately. "In fact we'd go a lot. Two big festivals are held there every year, one at planting and one at harvest."
Gabrielle could tell Xena chose to omit a few interesting features of those festivals. "And?"
"My mother had a cousin, Acanthus was his name. He used to set up a booth to earn extra money. I helped him sometimes."
"A booth? Come on, Xena. What kind of booth? What did you do for him? Out with it." A little Xena working at a festival, what a precious thought.
"You know those contraptions you can make where you balance a heavy object, a log or something, on one side and then let somebody hit the other side as hard as they can to see how high they can lift the log?" She caught Gabrielle's look of comprehension in among the anticipation. "That's what he did."
"That's what he did. Great. What did you do?"
"I'd help him by going through the crowd and encouraging people to try it," Xena intended to hold back every thread of information to torture the bard.
"Encouraging them?" Gabrielle asked in the 'was that when you were a warlord' tone.
"Gabrielle, I was a little kid!" Xena rolled her eyes for effect. "I just kindly asked them if they'd like to challenge me, that's all."
"Uh huh, I can see where this is going..."
"I was seven."
"And what happened when you were eight?"
Xena shrugged her shoulders, "Acanthus found someone else to help him."
"Why do I get the feeling I know why?" Gabrielle asked smugly.
"Look, I didn't beat 'em all. Just most of them. The big burly guys tended to get mad, claimed Acanthus had rigged it, so I had to let them win."
"How altruistic of you."
"Just helping him earn a dinar, Gabrielle." Xena kept her vision concentrated on the road and refused to acknowledge whatever look the bard threw at her. "There's a good tavern in Heraclea," she said, changing the subject.
"Yeah? I'm getting hungry. It'll be nice not to have fish."
Hmmm, so she did hear me after all. "But, we have to eat and run, otherwise we'll never make Berge by nightfall."
The war turned Heraclea into a bustling little town just small enough to be ignored by the warring parties and yet large enough for diverse trade. Xena led Gabrielle to the tavern, passing by the rows of shops, much to the bard's dismay, and reminded her they couldn't be dawdling.
"Can't we just look... I won't buy anything, I promise."
"No," Xena's answer was firm and would brook no argument.
Fine, thought the bard, muttering to herself as they stepped into the tavern. As often came to pass, someone looked up from their meal, recognized Xena and high-tailed it out of there, sensing something terrible would happen and that he didn't want any of its repercussions bloodying him or breaking an arm. Xena smiled, that sickly sweet one she could manufacture so effortlessly, then steered the bard to a table.
The barkeep sauntered over. "Haven't seen you in awhile." He sounded amazingly neutral about it.
"Nice to see you, too, Iolcius. Food for me and my friend," Xena instructed him.
He shuffled away, not so much as a grunt acknowledging the order. "Nice guy," commented Gabrielle.
"He's okay, just keeps that gruff exterior going to dissuade people from taking advantage of him."
A tactic I recognize in someone else I know, thought the bard. Soon they imbibed in steaming plates of lamb and barley seasoned well and heartily with garlic. Gabrielle took a tentative first bite, almost too afraid to be disappointed. When the divine flavors exploded on her tongue, she moaned softly, chewing with passion. "Wow," she said, swallowing. "That's amazing."
They made quick work of their meals, chasing them with a short mug of good wine. "Happy?" Xena asked, enjoying the blissful demeanor of her friend. Gabrielle smiled. "Good, then let's go."
"Wait. No! After a meal like that you can't just get up and leave. You have to savor it, replay all the textures and spices," Gabrielle rooted herself to her chair.
"You can replay all that on the road. Come on, I told you it would be a short stop." Xena got up and stood with one hand on the back of Gabrielle's chair ready to pull it out.
See, Xena, you always do this. It's a part of every action you take, every thought you have. Are you ever going to recognize it in yourself? "Okay, I'm coming."
Xena swung by the bar, "Iolcius, good as usual." She slapped two dinars down on the shiny wooden surface.
Iolcius propped one foot up on a low shelf behind the bar, he worked a towel over the surface of a brass plate until it gleamed. "Heard about Brasidias," he said in the same uninteresting tone. "And Cleon," he added. "You can keep your coin."
"Thanks, but I'll leave it to pay for someone else's meal."
"As you wish, Xena."
They arrived with the sunset, hellos and how-are-you's shared in the glow of sharply angled rays. Atossa and Ismene found a safe haven in the home a cousin of the friend of the family's who was away on an extended visit to Crete, at least that's how Gabrielle remembered it after a lengthy introduction and convoluted re-telling of history. In a few short moments, all the pertinent information had been exchanged: the war was over and it was time to go home to Poteidaia.
The bard noticed how tired the two women appeared. Looking after twins, who could blame them, thought Gabrielle. She cooed over the babies, just a few weeks old and yet it seemed a lifetime ago when Xena delivered them in a cave on their flight to Amphipolis. When Cassandra started coughing, Atossa, the ever doting mother, took her, "Sorry, she's been croopy lately, sometimes these spells can last awhile."
"How so?" asked Xena, not happy with the sound of the baby's cough.
"Oh, she coughs until she's tired, but then, poor thing, when she tries to sleep, her coughing wakes her up again. Then she gets mad and coughs even more. We've both been up with her most of the last two nights," she cast a tired smile at her sister, Ismene.
Xena put her hand on the baby's forehead. "Fever, I think. It's really hard to tell when they're so young."
"I told you." Ismene sat in a rocking chair holding Hippas. "The child is sick."
"I guess I'm just not ready to admit that, Ismene." Xena held out her hands asking for Cassandra. "Sure, I can't quiet her down so it doesn't matter who holds her."
Xena examined the color of the baby's eyes, looked at her tongue and down her throat, as best she could while the baby screamed, and put an ear to her chest to listen. "How long has this been going on?" Gabrielle moved up next to Xena, laying one hand on the warrior's arm, the other on the baby's cheek, trying to calm her.
"Two days?" Atossa looked to Ismene for confirmation. "Yes, night before last when we tried to put her down, that's when she started fussing and coughing."
"What are you going to do?" Gabrielle asked Xena, knowing that if anyone could treat the baby, Xena could.
"I've never tried to heal one so young. She can't drink teas, I don't think she could even take a poultice," Xena felt at a loss. "At least she's breast feeding, that'll help as much as anything."
"Maybe there's a healer in Heraclea. We can stop on the way tomorrow," Gabrielle tried to sound reassuring but by the look on Xena's face she believed tomorrow may be too late.
"Maybe..." Xena thought aloud, "You know how soothing peppermint tea is when you smell it? Especially a new hot mug of tea? Maybe we can get her to smell it, you know, breathe it." She handed Cassandra to Gabrielle, taking care to support the infant's head until she settled in Gabrielle's arms. "Let's put some water on and get it boiling, then if we put mint in the water, it should fill the whole room with the smell."
The sisters agreed, relieved that someone else had taken over, happy to be doing something they believed would help. They put several small pots over the fire to get them boiling as fast as they could and placed a large pot down in the coals. Into that one they would place the mint, refilling it with hot water whenever it threatened to boil away.
Xena re-stocked the fire wood and had Ismene show her where all of the herbs were kept. "Do you have any hyssop? That also helps calm a cough, but we should be careful. Sometimes a cough is helpful, expelling nasty stuff from the lungs."
"But she hasn't slept. She must be so tired," Ismene sighed. She felt terrible watching Cassandra struggle, made even worse by how it effected Atossa. The only thing she could do to help was to make certain Hippas was cuddled and doted over.
Ismene dug back into a large flat drawer and pulled out several tiny satchels. "I wouldn't know hyssop from mullein, Xena."
"That's okay, Ismene. I know what it is." She loosened the small threads holding each bag closed and sniffed until she found one that smelled promising. Snatching a small plate from the shelf above, she emptied the contents out onto the surface, checking the color and texture. "Good. This is hyssop. It's old, but I think if we use it all it will still do what it's supposed to.
Before long, Xena had concocted a wonderful blend of mints and hyssop, a soothing aroma filled the room. Atossa paced the floor holding Cassandra, still coughing and fussing, unable to sleep. Finally, Gabrielle intervened, "Atossa, you're exhausted. Why don't you and Ismene put Hippas down then go to bed yourselves. Xena and I can handle it tonight."
"Oh, I couldn't leave her," Atossa whined. "I wouldn't be able to sleep anyway."
"Atossa," Xena came up behind her and spoke quietly in her special, low voice, "Gabrielle is right. You're not going to do Cassandra any good when you're this tired. She can feel your anxiety, perhaps its making it worse right now."
Atossa pleaded silently with Ismene, her sister's response mimicked Xena's, "If you're half as worn out as I am, and I think you're a lot more tired than that, then you should get some sleep. We have traveling to do tomorrow, at least as far as Heraclea. You can't expect Xena and Gabrielle to do everything for us on the road."
"Fine," she said softly. Handing Cassandra to Xena she stooped and took Hippas from Ismene. "At least you're happy, my son. We should all have your good nature." Ismene padded out after her sister and nephew but not before turning to Xena and mouthing a big thank you.
Xena rocked the baby, Gabrielle rocked her, Xena walked with her bouncing her, Gabrielle told her stories. Nothing seemed to make a difference, she still coughed and fussed, cried and wailed. When she did seem to be near sleep, a cough would jar her awake, each time it took them longer and longer to get her settled.
As Xena refilled the big pot, adding fresh mint and refilling the smaller pots with cold water to heat, Gabrielle did her best to hush the baby. She almost got her to sleep, so close to dropping off for awhile, when a cough did it's trick again, waking her up. Xena slammed a pot against the hearth.
"Sorry," she said, not really meaning it, and she kneeled down to pick it up, staying in that position.
"It's okay, Xena. I know it's hard. It's hard on all of us," Gabrielle spoke in tones meant to quiet the baby, hoping her words would be enough for Xena.
"But... I don't know... I brought her into the world, I guess I just feel responsible for her." Xena stood, frustrated. "I can hardly smell the mint anymore."
"We're getting used to it, that's all. Go outside for awhile and then come back in, you'll smell it."
"But it's not strong enough. What can we do to make it stronger?" Xena paced around Gabrielle and the baby. "If it was a smaller room, it would help, but there's no fireplace in the bedroom so we wouldn't be able to keep the water boiling."
"We just need to find a way to make this room smaller," Gabrielle said, not intending it as a snide remark.
"Make the room smaller..." She plopped down in a chair. "I hate this!"
"I know, Xena," Gabrielle spoke in a tone meant for Xena, not for the baby.
"Not being able to do something... It's driving me crazy!" She rubbed her temples then her eyes. "Sorry."
"It's okay, Xena. Really. I know how hard this is for you." And I really do, my friend.
"Times like these..." Xena lost herself in a memory for a moment then shook it off, "Well, let's just say they're the hardest things I've ever had to go through." Like that temple in Thessaly when there was nothing I could do to help you, Gabrielle. I just had to stand there and watch you fight it.
"Well, I'm not giving up." Xena pushed herself out of the chair. "We'll have to find a way to make the room smaller. She just needs to breathe it in a more concentrated form..."
Gabrielle walked toward the fire and the boiling pot, bringing the baby close to the rising vapor. Instinctively, Gabrielle reached out with one hand, pushing the stream of air toward Cassandra.
"Like that!" Xena stood behind them, her hands on the bard's shoulders. "Is there something we could do to block off the rest of the room?"
"So it would just be this little space here by the fire? I guess we could put up a curtain or something. Ceiling's awfully high, though."
"We'll lower the ceiling."
"Xena, are you crazy?"
"Nope, just thinking," Xena disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a large sheet of linen. "This is all I could find but if I tack one end of it above the hearth and pull the other end down behind us, it should help."
"Kind of like putting her inside a cape?" Gabrielle followed Xena's logic.
"Yup. Here, hold this." Gabrielle took the bulk of the sheet and watched Xena attach an end to the wall with whatever she could find--her breast dagger, boot knife, and three long, sharp splinters from the firewood. Then she pulled the sheet up over their heads, stood very close to the bard, and let the material hang down behind them.
"It does smell a lot more like mint," observed Gabrielle. "It's also kinda warm. You're sweating."
"Be glad the mint covers it up," Xena laughed. "I know it's uncomfortable, but listen to the cough. It's changed from a hacking sort of cough to a deeper, more productive one."
"Hmmm, I guess you're right." Gabrielle swayed back and forth, rocking the baby.
Xena leaned in close, "She's falling asleep."
"So am I," said Gabrielle before she could stop herself.
"Here," Xena reached around her waist, bringing the bard and baby into her body. Gabrielle automatically rested her head in the crook of Xena's neck, and they both rocked Cassandra to sleep.
"It worked," Gabrielle whispered.
"You're a natural," said Xena, tapping Gabrielle's nose with her finger.
"You're the one who figured out this tent-thing," Gabrielle countered, feeling warm and proud of all of them.
"I had to do something, couldn't stand it otherwise. It was out of sheer desperation on my part."
They kept up their dance, lilting from side to side until Gabrielle really did almost fall asleep on her feet. "Okay, my little ones, off to bed with both of you." When Xena lifted the sheet, the air in the room felt cold but also blandly clean. Xena took the sheet down and folded it, leaving it by the fire. "We can do this again later if we need to."
They both crept into the bedroom, shared by everyone living there, and gently laid Cassandra next to her brother. The baby fidgeted, then fell back into a deep sleep.
Once back in the living room, it seemed to them both that a huge weight had been lifted from their shoulders. "That was a hard day's... and night's work," the bard announced. "Is it time for bed yet?"
"I'll say," Xena rummaged through the saddle bags, stacked in a corner of the room, until she found their bedrolls. She laid them out by the fire then lay on them, rolling her shoulders around until her back finally relaxed.
"Just remember," said Gabrielle seeing Xena stretch, "you weren't the one holding Cassandra through that whole last session." She lay down, rolling onto her stomach, propping her head up on her hands to stare at the flame.
"It's probably a good thing I didn't have her, she'd still be awake." Xena got up on her knees, straddling the bard hips, and began to w ork the sore muscles in Gabrielle's back. "Like I said, you have the touch."
"I beg to differ," the bard moaned, flattening out so Xena could really dig into her shoulder blades. "Funny how something that hurts so much actually feel good."
"That's because it's good for you," Xena intoned. "And after all that mint we inhaled, if either of us gets sick..."
"I'll build you your own little tent, Xena. And you can breathe whatever you want."
"Yeah, um, a little lower, okay?"
And when Gabrielle was on the verge of dropping off to sleep, Xena lightened her massage, took her weight of the bard and settled beside her, still rubbing a hand between her shoulders.
"Thanks, Xena," Gabrielle mumbled. "I'm glad you figured it out."
"Me, too. Goodnight, Gabrielle." And with a brief touch of
her lips to the bard's temple, Xena curled up next to her and fell into
a deep sleep.
Fortunately, Atossa and Ismene had acquired only a very few items since leaving Poteidaia. Arranging and tying down two trunks and their own saddlebags and bedrolls, Xena designed a rather comfortable spot for the four of them to ride in the cart. They could curl up and sleep or sit against the front of the cart and the babies could ride without fear of falling out nestled in a hollow between the trunks. Atossa and Ismene, looking much better for having had a full night's sleep cheerfully pulled themselves into the back, chatting about how much better Cassandra seemed and how lucky they were to have friends like Xena and Gabrielle.
Gabrielle dragged herself up onto the seat in front, wishing just a little that she could stretch out in back and sleep more. Though it never showed on Xena, having less than a half-night's sleep after all that could make them both testy.
As the morning wore on, Cassandra started fussing, waking Hippas, and turning everyone's good mood toward the sour side again. Gabrielle could see the slow change come over Xena as her frustration wrangled for attention. White knuckles topped the grip she had on the reins and though she forced herself not to pull the reins taut, Argo could sense her master's tension, the horse's agitation manifest itself in snorts and wheezes.
Gabrielle tried telling stories but two screaming babies, one sick and both angry, and two doting women in the back had no interest in her tales. Xena kept her eyes rooted to the path in front of her, the only movement in her face were ripples from clenching her jaw.
The closer they got to Heraclea, the more screaming the babies did, the more quiet the adults got, each engaged in their own inner dialogues. Atossa worried about Cassandra, Ismene worried about Cassandra and Atossa, Gabrielle worried about a sullen Xena, and Xena let her frustration best her. Argo pulled the cart as quickly as she could without jostling everyone too much. Nothing else could be done.
"Iolcius will know the healer. Stay here with them while I go to the tavern," Xena instructed Gabrielle as soon as they drove into town.
The bard knew Xena chose the best course, still she felt the strain from the leagues of tension. "Thanks for asking," the bard muttered under her breath when she judged Xena far enough away. The little skip in Xena's gait, however, showed her she had misjudged this distance. Her words had been heard.
When Xena returned, she walked to the back of the cart and spoke to Atossa. "Iolcius says there's only one healer around. He's new to these parts and Iolcius doesn't know anything about him except to guess he's another refugee from the war. Their own healer was... pressed into military service." She held out a hand to help Atossa down. "Still, this new one may be able to help, let's give him a try."
Ismene handed Cassandra, her face splotchy and red from crying incessantly, to Atossa. She scooped up Hippas and let Xena help them down. As they started walking away, Gabrielle wondered for a moment if she should follow or take Argo and the cart to a stable. One quick run through the possibility of not finding them easily, she was off after the women.
Xena didn't bother knocking on the door, she just slung it open and burst in, then froze. "Pasio?"
"Xena!" his warm greeting lasted but for a brief instant when he saw Atossa behind her holding a little bundle. "What's wrong?" he asked, immediately going to the child.
"She's been coughing, not sleeping..." Xena paused then spoke formally, "Pasio, this is Cassandra. Ismene's holding Hippas."
Pasio swallowed hard, tears brimming his eyes until the healer in him forced them away. Hippas and Cassandra. He hadn't even heard the babies had been born. She named them Hippas and Cassandra... "Right," he exhaled finally looking Atossa in the eye. "Okay, let's take a look."
Gabrielle leaned back against the wall by the door. Some things overlap in the strangest ways, she thought. Here's Pasio. After all we've been through, he's just there when you need him. And he didn't even know Atossa had delivered Hippas and Cassandra. Gods... the last time I saw Pasio, he was trying to get me safely out of the infirmary, away from the Athenian soldiers who'd finally overrun Poteidaia... and the twins we'd known all our lives were killed by those soldiers. So here he sees us again, which must bring back those memories, only to come face to face with their namesakes.
Pasio repeated much the same examination Xena had given the child, looking and listening carefully. "How long has she been without sleep?"
Atossa, whose index finger had four tiny fingers and a thumb wrapped around it, answered, "She went two nights without sleep then Xena and Gabrielle got her down last night."
Pasio questioned Xena with a quirk of his brow. "We boiled mint and hyssop then used a sheet as a tent to concentrate the smell. It calmed her down," she explained.
Pasio let a big grin spread across his features. "Xena, my friend, you and Gabrielle never cease to amaze me." He straightened up. "So let's do it again. I can't think of anything else to do."
Gabrielle and Ismene carried in wood and built up the fire while Xena and Pasio collected pots and herbs, this time adding echinacea to the recipe. They seated Atossa, Cassandra wriggling in her arms, by the fire then tented around her with large pieces of linen. Pasio stayed in the tent with them for awhile until Cassandra did magically calm down and nod off for a nap.
He slipped out of the sheets, "Well, I am impressed. It really works!" Xena merely shrugged. "I have another thought. We know that sometimes women can eat or drink something that irritates a breast-feeding baby. Perhaps it works both ways. If we brew a tea for Atossa to drink, it may pass to Cassandra in the breast milk."
Xena considered that for a moment, "What about Hippas? He'd get the same milk."
"I don't think it will hurt him, but just in case we'll have Atossa take only a little. More mint and hyssop can't do much harm." Pasio measured out bits of dried herbs into a mug. "I wouldn't risk taking her outside again for a few days, maybe two."
"I know," Xena agreed quietly. "She got much worse this morning."
"We should send word to our parents," Gabrielle suggested. She didn't mind staying in Heraclea, and she might even be able to browse the rows of merchants, but her first thought went to worried parents.
"I'll ask Iolcius to get a note to someone headed south," Xena said.
"And get yourselves a room," added Ismene.
"You can stay here," suggested Pasio. "It will be a little cramped, but we'll make do."
"No," interrupted Ismene, speaking firmly. "Neither of them slept much last night. If they stayed here, they'd be up again tonight. They stay at the inn."
Xena's eyebrow notched out of habit, out of the habit of not letting people tell her what to do. Gabrielle saw it and stepped in between them. "Only if you promise to come and get us if you need us."
"Deal," said Pasio. And he exchanged stares with Xena, giving his silent word that he would call for her.
"Good. Xena and I will send a note to Amphipolis and take care of Argo. We'll be back when everything's settled." Ah, a night in a bed without crying babies, Gabrielle realized. I'm tired and cranky and just maybe I'll have a nap myself.
They got three steps out of Pasio's house when Xena stopped, put her hands on her hips and said in a nasty tone, "Thanks for asking."
Gods... Gabrielle whipped around, "So now you know what it feels like." She turned back, not bothering to gauge Xena's reaction, stomping off on her own toward the tavern. Iolcius assured her he could find someone heading out that very afternoon, no doubt her note would be in Amphipolis by the next night. She thanked him, booked a room for the night, then took a deep breath.
What have I done?
Xena hadn't followed her, hadn't been there to explain to Iolcius that they'd need a reliable carrier for the note, still hadn't shown up when Gabrielle bartered for a room. The errands taken care of, now came the time to find Xena and apologize.
I'm just tired and every little thing you've said -- or not said -- lately to bother me just added up and the next thing I knew I just had had enough. Ah, I guess I won't be using that excuse.
She headed off to the stable, hoping Xena had decided to go there and spend some time brushing down Argo, and yet also not hoping to find Xena there. It would be hard to apologize when the whole truth would only make things worse.
She found the stable hand nailing some boards in place over a storage locker along the outside wall of the stable. "Excuse me," she called to him. "I'm looking for my friend, tall, dark..."
"Inside," he said between teeth biting down on a long piece of straw.
"Thanks," she smiled. The door led her in to the middle of a long row of stalls, most of them full. A quick peek sent her in the right direction, few horses had Argo's light coloring. Argo snorted when Gabrielle petted her, the bard noticing she had indeed been brushed and fed. "Hey, where's Xena?" Good, now I'm talking to horses.
Argo whickered and rubbed her nose against Gabrielle's hand, pushing hard against her. Unconsciously, Gabrielle followed the path of Argo's nose, looking up... into a hayloft. "Thanks," she said quietly and didn't allow herself to wonder how Argo had known to answer her.
The ladder consisted of slats of wood nailed horizontally to the barn's wall with nothing to hold onto but those splintered steps. Gabrielle took a few tentative rungs, bounced up and down a little to test their strength, and climbed up, confident that the wood could hold her weight, though not so certain about her own grip. The ladder continued up through a hole in the floor of the loft, once up high enough she only needed to step back and her feet once again had a solid surface under them. Briefly, she let herself worry about the return trip, but she chased those thoughts away and looked around to try to find Xena.
She found her, sitting forlornly on a pile of hay, studying her boots.
"Xena, I'm sorry," Gabrielle started.
"No." Xena's joyless eyes met hers, "I'm sorry."
"I shouldn't have said that." Gabrielle sat by Xena noticing how much the hay tickled her bare legs.
Her gaze back on her boots, Xena said, "Gabrielle, you had every right to say it."
"No, Xena," Gabrielle corrected her gently, letting one hand rest on Xena's thigh. "It was wrong to say it. I hurt your feelings and I'm sorry."
"What? You mean I didn't hurt your feelings? Of course I did... of course I did or you would never have made that remark."
"Okay," Gabrielle dared to spill some of the truth, "I'll admit that I was... bothered... that you'd been making most of the decisions lately without my input. They were right, by the way, I'm not questioning your decisions."
"Just how I leave you out of them..."
"Yeah," the bard relented. "Just leaving me out of them."
"I'm sorry." Xena wanted to say so much more, but didn't know how to articulate what she felt. "I was worried about Cassandra, I wasn't thinking carefully." Lame, Xena. Lame! She dared to peek at Gabrielle's face, so expressive she could never hide anything. "It goes back further than that, doesn't it?"
"You kept pushing us to get to Berge, I didn't know why you couldn't take some time and just enjoy the trip. And," Gabrielle pressed on, "as it turned out, it was the right decision, I know that. It's just that..." she trailed off.
"Go on," Xena urged. "Say it."
That lonely hand on Xena's thigh. She couldn't take it away now, that would send the entirely wrong signal. "I guess," the bard's voice was so soft, "I guess I thought this was my trip, my responsibility. I told my parents I'd bring Atossa and Ismene back."
"And I stepped in a took over."
That frank admission rang a few bells for Xena. "I wish I could give you what you deserve."
"What's that supposed to mean?" the bard unsure of the direction Xena planned.
"I guess I meant... well I do tend to be a little bossy with you." Xena laughed, "And a lot bossy with other people."
"It's hard for you to give up control," oops, thought Gabrielle, perhaps I've just gone too far.
"That's it exactly, yes!" Xena slipped fingers under the bard's hand. "I do feel like I need to control everything. I pick the campsite, I set the pace, I decide where we'll sleep." She squeezed Gabrielle's hand, slowing the rhythm of her speech, "I don't want to be that way."
Gabrielle carefully considered what to say. Xena had just come to a
significant revelation about herself and she needed encouragement--but not
too much. "It's scary, isn't it?" Xena didn't respond, but Gabrielle
could feel her trembling slightly. She wrapped her arms around Xena, the
warrior leaning in to her, finding escape in her embrace. "Don't be
afraid of me," she whispered and felt Xena nodding against her shoulder.
continued in part 4