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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.
"Xena?" Gabrielle rubbed her palm on Xena's shoulder. "We should get back to Pasio's."
Xena straightened slowly, rubbing her eyes and pulling her fingers through her hair. Just when you think everything is too complicated, the simplest answer presents itself. "I'm not afraid of you, Gabrielle."
"Good." The bard kissed her on the cheek. "And I think I knew that already."
"I didn't." Xena caught the slight tremor of panic in Gabrielle at those words. "I mean I really hadn't made myself realize it until you said something."
"Then," Gabrielle relaxed and smiled, "I'm glad I said something."
With the consummate grace available only to Xena, she stretched her hand toward the bard, settling two fingers under her chin and lifting slightly. Using the gentlest pressure she could coax from her trembling body, she touched her lips to the bard's. "I love you, Gabrielle."
Green eyes locked on blue eyes as if they were a precious gift to be thankful for, to be grateful for, to adore and cherish. Every time she looked at those eyes, their intensity astonished her. She would never become inured to their unique ability to mesmerize her, forever hypnotized by the love they expressed for her and her alone.
And they stole her voice away. Burying herself in Xena's arms, Gabrielle's only reply came as a physical manifestation of her need to hold, to touch, to feel, to cry. I never want to move, she let herself think. But... "Okay, we should go." She pulled out of her warm cocoon and looked into tears trickling down Xena's face. First one of us then the other, thought Gabrielle. She wiped the tears away, "We can continue this later."
"Yes," said Xena, and saying it for the first time with conviction. "I guess getting a room at the inn wasn't such a bad idea." She pulled herself up then offered a hand down to the bard. "How did you get up here?"
"Ladder," answered Gabrielle pointing toward the wall.
"How conventional." Xena whisked her off her feet, tucked the bard in tight, dove from the hayloft, completing two somersaults and a full twist before landing on a tall stack of hay bales, then jumping down lightly to a short stack and finally to the floor of the stable. "Much better, don't you think?"
"Xena," Gabrielle groaned, her fingers digging into Xena's breast armor, "I thought I told you I didn't do jumps."
"Did you?" she ruffled the bard's hair, "I forgot." Picking each finger out of her armor one by one, Xena gave Gabrielle a moment to catch her breath before lacing her hand in with the smaller one and setting off back to Pasio's.
He and Ismene sat on short stools outside. Ismene, though clearly exhausted, looked relieved. "They're all asleep," she told them. "Both babies and mama."
"Once again, that tent idea was brilliant." Pasio beamed. "I guess I'll have to take it with me when I go."
"Going somewhere?" asked Gabrielle.
"Home," replied Pasio with a twinkle, "if you'll let me come along."
"If we let you?" Gabrielle teased.
Xena, ever the practical one asked, "Do have much stuff? The cart will be full just adding another body."
"Don't worry, Xena. I have my own cart and horse," he laughed, "I ran across an old man who'd fallen in his olive orchard. I set his leg and he insisted on paying me with his 'extra horse and cart.' I couldn't really say no because I needed to be able to get around, and," Pasio added, "He was getting too old to go toodling around in it."
Ismene yawned. "I must be getting old. I've half a mind to go in there and join them in a nap."
"Go on, Ismene. You needn't stay up just to keep me company," Pasio prodded her. "I'll get you up when it comes time to fix dinner. I do all right by myself, but when there's a family to feed... well, I'll wake you." Ismene agreed to his terms, she'd planned to take care of him as best she could while they were staying under his roof, anyway.
"You're welcome to come for dinner unless you'd like to be spoiled by that innkeeper," Pasio felt comfortable enough tease them.
"Iolcius is an old friend," Xena said. "And I made the mistake of introducing Gabrielle to his cooking on our way up from Amphipolis."
"And as I recall, Gabrielle," he winked at her, "you have a certain fondness for lamb and it is his specialty."
"It was pretty good," she whispered in his ear.
"Go on, get out of here. Cassandra will be fine. They'll all be fine. What they need more than anything is peace and quiet and sleep." Anticipating their next question, he offered, "We can leave day after tomorrow. Why don't you come around tomorrow and help me pack up what I have."
"Thanks, Pasio. We'll be by first thing in the morning," Xena said, earning a slap from Gabrielle. "Ah, in the morning."
"Not too early!" he yelled at them, chuckling. He sat back, following their movements until they turned a corner, disappearing from view.
"It's too early for dinner."
"And I'm not really very sleepy right now."
"Do you think... we could... maybe..."
"I don't know, just sort of..."
"Just sort of what?"
"Gabrielle, isn't that what you're doing already?"
"Um... how much for the blue one?"
"You're joking! I wouldn't pay two dinars for a matching set engraved by the designer..."
Xena had waited long enough, "Wake up!"
"What?" Gabrielle sat bolt upright.
Xena hovered over her. "I'm hungry and I want dinner."
"Did I fall asleep?" asked the drowsy bard.
"Did you just wake up?" Xena teased.
"I guess so." Gabrielle dropped her feet over the edge of the bed connecting with the floor in a solid thump. "Shopping's hard work, especially when you don't have any dinars to spend."
"Sorry, but two nights in the inn and a couple of lamb dinners will use everything we've got." Xena rose from the chair she'd been perched in waiting for the bard to sleep off her boisterous afternoon of haggling and bartering.
Gabrielle smiled. "I know. Still, shopping's fun, even if you only get to peek at what they've got." She punched her fists into the bed and pushed herself up. "And you really work up an appetite, too."
"Now that," said Xena opening the door and gesturing for Gabrielle to go on ahead," I can agree with."
"Ladies," Iolcius greeted them when they reached the bottom of the stairs. "I was worried you might have chosen to skip my lovely repast."
"My fault," admitted Gabrielle. "I fell asleep."
"Then you'll need a starter to wake up those taste buds. This way, please," he lead them to a small table draped with a white cloth, matching the smaller one he had hung over his arm, Gabrielle noticed. Odd custom. Wonder if he uses it to wipe up spills and then puts it back over his arm...
Soon, she forgot all about his unusual mannerisms and directed her full concentration on the soup. It was light yet flavorful. Not too many herbs to overpower a delicate fragrance. And he had placed a few small crumbles of feta right in the middle, a floating white contrast to the soft green of the liquid. "Wow," Gabrielle voiced softly.
Xena got as much pleasure from Gabrielle's face as from enjoying the soup herself. But it was only half the experience of watching the bard tear hunks of rare lamb from the bone, chewing with gusto, a sheen of fatty juices clinging to her chin.
"Wha..." she asked out of the corner of her mouth, pausing with upper and lower teeth poised to sink into another tender bite.
"Don't talk with your mouth full," Xena scolded, loving every moment of it.
The bard placed the bone neatly in the center of the plate, unfolded the piece of linen Iolcius had deposited on her lap, and wiped her mouth in a fluid motion, left to right. "What," she asked again, clearly articulating the last consonant.
"You're cute," Xena answered, face displaying no tenable emotion.
"Thank you," replied Gabrielle, who promptly picked up the bone and returned to her gnawings. Between bites, she said, "You are, too."
Xena grabbed her own piece of linen, and while holding it under the table, twisted it into a tight spiral while, whipping it at the bard's lap. Gabrielle stifled a shriek, knowing full well what, or rather who was behind the annoyance, but she couldn't keep the bone from sliding out between her greasy fingers. Xena reached out and grabbed it before it fell to the floor and chucked it easily back onto the plate. "Yours?" she asked, shaking out her linen and wiping her fingers on it.
"Look, Xena, dessert!"
Xena fell for it, whipping her head around expecting to see a tray of small cakes and sweets. Like lightning, Gabrielle stole Xena's last bite of lamb, stuffing it into her mouth, the sat back and crossed her arms, grinning. "So easily duped, Xena. And to think it was by me, a bard."
Xena smiled and leaned back in her chair, "No one else, Gabrielle. No one else."
Dessert did arrive, followed by a last glass of wine. They'd been at the table for one meal longer than either remembered having done before, even longer than most wedding feasts. Gabrielle noticed her feet didn't want to be lifted as high as the next step, Xena had to help by pulling her up the staircase and guiding her to the door of their room.
"That was extraordinary," the bard pronounced, flopping back on the bed, arms outstretched. "I can't believe I ate as much as I did and don't feel over-stuffed."
"I know what you mean." Xena sought the only spot left on the bed where she could sit, near the headboard. She stacked the pillows vertically and slid back up against the wall. "Are you going to live?" she asked, noticing Gabrielle had almost fallen asleep.
"Hmmm," came the response. "Most definitely. We get to do that again tomorrow and I don't want to miss it."
Xena casually rubbed Gabrielle's stomach. "At least you get spoiled once in awhile."
Opening one eye, she replied, "But it wouldn't seem as extraordinary if it happened all the time, and that would be sad."
"Hadn't thought about it quite like that." Xena smiled. "You're right."
Gabrielle settled back, enjoying the tummy rub. "I don't think that way about you," she said out of the blue.
Sitting up, she pulled even with Xena, back against the wall. "You do the extraordinary all the time, but I always know it's amazing. Sometimes I forget to tell you, though. Like with the tent-thingy and Cassandra."
"Thanks," Xena drawled. "But please remember I don't do it all the time."
"Yes you do!" Gabrielle titled her head until she ran into Xena's armor. "Ow, can you take this off now?" she asked, tugging on the metal plate. Xena leaned forward, letting Gabrielle loosen the clips and then pulled off her breastplate. Together, they removed the remainder of her accouterments, piling them on the floor by the bed. "Do you think Iolcius minds you wearing your armor to dinner?"
"Do you think he has a choice?" Xena re-positioned herself, getting comfortable, and pulled Gabrielle's head into her lap.
The bard settled in, drawing designs over and around the closest knee. She desperately wanted to finish that afternoon's conversation but opening lines were always so difficult. "Xena?"
"Do you trust me?"
Gabrielle could feel the muscles contracting beneath her, then slowly releasing the tension as the warrior forced herself to calm. Softly above her she heard a whispered, "Yes."
"Then why don't you ask me?"
"Ask you what," Xena replied, turning one question into another, returning the bait to the bard.
"Why don't you ask me," the bard said as confidently as she
could, grateful that Xena couldn't see her face, read her fear, "how
I feel about it?"
Xena's mind raced as fast as her heart thumped against her chest. So why don't I ask her? I trust her, right? Right? "How do you feel... about... it?" She cringed at using the word 'it.'
"That's a complicated question and there is no simple answer." Gabrielle wanted to be as honest as possible, there was no sense in painting the picture any other way, Xena would read through it and then everything would come tumbling down. "Why don't I tell you how I felt at every stage, so you can see how I've been working it out?" A response couched in an attempt to help Xena but one also admitting the bard had been hurt initially.
"Okay," Xena replied, drawing out the word.
Gabrielle sat up, she needed to see Xena's face to talk with her about the situation, needed to know nothing would be hidden from her." When I first heard about it, I was on the boat to Eion and Athena told me. I wasn't in a very good space at the time."
Xena groaned, "I've never even asked you about that, have I?"
"One thing at a time, Xena." Gabrielle didn't want to complicate matters anymore than they already were, adding Delia and Athena's treatment of her wouldn't help anything. "Athena told me every detail. I didn't want to believe her. The last thing you and I had talked about, when we were Sappho's, was trusting each other, me trusting you to know how to handle Orithyia. But I wasn't in a state of mind to believe in that trust and I was... devastated. I was afraid I'd lost you. Athena said..." she cleared her throat. "She said you'd been released and there was no going back."
Needing the contact now for her own stability, Gabrielle linked her hand with Xena's. "I didn't sleep that night, I kept shifting between believing Athena and believing in you and I didn't know what to think. I was so afraid what Athena had said would be the truth. The next day, Delia tormented me and the strangest... no a repulsive feeling grew inside of me. Delia was the only contact I had, the only person I could talk to, otherwise I was left with my own mind, worrying about you, not sure of what had happened, flying back and forth between two significantly different answers to the only question I knew of."
Xena switched Gabrielle's grip from her left hand to her right so she could put her arm around the bard. For however hard it was to hear what Gabrielle said, Xena knew it was just as difficult for her to say it, maybe even more so. The bard waited in silence, reminding herself that Xena was there, she was real, and everything she was talking lived only in memory. It was gone, in the past, like Xena's former life.
She continued, "What I found out about myself really scared me. I started looking forward to those moments when Delia would come and talk to me. It was my only escape from the torment I felt inside. I knew it was wrong. I knew that Delia was my worst enemy, but I was stuck between two horrible choices... Well, she pushed it too far once and then I was okay."
"What do you mean?" Xena asked quickly, she couldn't let that remark go by.
Gabrielle turned her head, pressing her cheek against Xena's chest. It's okay, she told herself. This really is Xena. "Sometimes... Delia would touch me. That contact was so... it was the only contact I had. Then..." Gabrielle was fighting with something, Xena could tell. She tightened her hold on the bard. "Then she touched me... too intimately... and I kicked her. That's when she broke my ribs." Gabrielle remembered that was the second time, but she didn't think Xena needed that kind of detail now.
I should had savored her death, thought Xena.
"Then we got to Eion and I saw Athena again. She talked to me about Demeter and Persephone and I figured out she was really afraid of us." That tinge of disbelief came back to her voice. "Afraid of us, Xena. You and me." Gabrielle blinked the thought away. "And I wasn't afraid of her anymore. I knew somehow you and I would find a way to stop her. Then Athena said something about you, something about how it was 'easier with you.' I finally realized that everything she'd done was with malicious intent, she meant to turn us against each other. It was the only way she thought she could win. So I vowed not to let that happen. And I was worried about you, Xena. Because if what Athena said really was true, I knew how you would be feeling."
Gabrielle fell silent, once again needing to know the arms around her belonged to Xena, they supported her, they held her just as she held the warrior in return. But it seemed that with every inhale, a wave of emotions would rise up inside her until she pushed them back down with every exhale. Teetering back and forth, she listened to her own body, forgetting she'd stopped talking.
"Gabrielle?" Xena called gently, softly. "Go on."
"Oh, sorry. Where was I... Eion... yeah, okay. Next thing that happens is I find out Alcibiades is there but he and Delia mostly argued about me, fighting with each other. I got dragged down to see Cleon, he decided I had to be executed... oh, now I'm really off on a tangent, Xena."
Executed? What else hasn't she told me? "It's okay. You need to talk about it."
"I do, but not now. Anyway, Nicias came to talk to me and when I told him Sophia was Athena I felt like I finally had some power, some worth. It had been a long time... Then it came out that I was an Amazon Queen, so Cleon couldn't execute me, but there I go again off in another direction."
"Gabrielle, you have a lot to tell me about."
"Oh, not really. I'm just about to the part where you show up. And I knew you would, Xena. There was never any doubt in my mind."
"That's true," said Xena. "No matter what, I couldn't have left you there."
Gabrielle gave her a squeeze. "Next thing I know, I'm waking up in your old room in Amphipolis and Ephiny is there." She felt Xena stiffen. "It's okay, Xena. I already knew Athena had done something to you, tormented you. I was worried about you. I kept asking Ephiny where you were, how you were but she wouldn't answer me. That's when I got up and came to find you. I had to see if you were okay."
As the conversation got closer and closer to mentioning Orithyia, Xena felt a raging desire to pull away. She fought the demon using her powerful need to comfort Gabrielle as the tool to beat her own fright into submission. Whatever it takes, she told herself.
"I asked you about Orithyia, and you told me it was true. I was so angry, I was furious that you had betrayed me, betrayed our trust. But I remember feeling sad, too. Sad that you'd let Orithyia beat you, sad that she'd won out over me. And I desperately wanted to know what Athena had done to you, I knew they were related somehow. Finally, I got it out of Ephiny--that Athena had disguised herself as Orithyia. Then everything finally made sense."
"Made sense?" Xena almost yelled out of frustration. "How can you say it made sense? You must not have gotten the whole story. I was a willing partner, Gabrielle. I let Orithyia make love with me--no that wasn't love, that was fucking. I had a wild passionate fuck with Orithyia and didn't do anything to stop it!"
Gabrielle grabbed Xena's arms and held them around her, not letting the warrior break from her. "Xena, tell me what you said when Orithyia first walked in."
"Oh come on, I don't remember details like you do. I don't know what I said," she lied. She remembered every detail in vivid, unexpurgated color.
And Gabrielle could tell. Xena's eyes bore a gray tint, she spoke a little too animatedly about not being able to remember. But, Gabrielle said to herself, if I say something wrong now I don't know when I'll ever get this close again to the real truth. "Xena, do you trust me?"
"I already told you I did," Xena answered half-heartedly.
"Do you trust me... right now?"
Those demons fought with a strength that almost defeated the warrior. Almost... "Yes."
"Then tell me what you said to Orithyia."
I can't lie to her. "I told her to stop."
"See, you tried, Xena."
"But not hard enough! Sure, I told her to stop, but it didn't take long for Orithyia to convince me otherwise," Xena hated admitting a defeat, any defeat. But none so much as this defeat.
"No, Xena," Gabrielle corrected her. "It didn't take long for Athena to trick you. It wasn't Orithyia, it was Athena and she found that one and only weak spot you had and took advantage of it. The weakness is that you once loved Orithyia, that's all, Xena. There is no shame in that. I believe in you Xena. You wouldn't have been with Orithyia without interference from the gods."
"Gabrielle, that's not true. I'm guilty because I didn't know it was Athena. I thought Orithyia was with me and I did what I did because of that."
"And what of Orithyia? Would she have done that? Have you ever asked yourself that question?"
"That's a pointless question, Gabrielle. I believed she would have... did do it, and I let her."
"Xena," Gods... this is it, isn't it Gabrielle? "Let me tell you what I think, and promise me you'll consider it as a possibility."
Now what? "Okay."
"I think," please don't let this send you over the edge, Xena. "I think you have a very hard time with people who try to control you. In fact, you'll do just about anything to keep someone from controlling you. But a god can, Xena. A god has that power. And I think you've convinced yourself that you were in control, that you let Athena have her way with you, when you really had lost control of the situation." Gabrielle steeled herself for the one final blow. "It's easier for you to tell me you meant to sleep with her than it is for you to admit to yourself that you were controlled by a god."
Xena's arms hung limply around Gabrielle. She'd heard the words spoken by Gabrielle, but they'd yet to sink in fully. She only knew it was something she didn't want to hear. Didn't want Gabrielle to have said. Words, unconnected to her thoughts, or so it seemed, came out of her mouth, "That's not true."
"Xena, Athena controlled you."
"No she didn't. I..." why was it so difficult to say all of a sudden. She'd been saying it to herself for days now. "But I know what I felt."
"Of course, Xena. Ask yourself why you had those feelings? Do they ring true to you now?"
Numb. Everything seemed numb. "I don't know."
"I asked you once before, and I'll ask this again. If Orithyia walked in here right now would you even consider..."
Xena cut her off immediately. "No. And I still mean it. I wouldn't do that now!"
"So tell me the difference between then and now?"
That numbness again. There are no answers to be found. No answers... no answers...
"It will take time, Xena. Just remember this, I'm waiting it out with you. Don't push me away. Don't be afraid of me."
And Xena truly understood why Gabrielle kept saying that. "I'm not afraid of you, Gabrielle."
"Then what are you afraid of?" Gabrielle had figured that answer out some time ago, but it was one she couldn't give Xena. Xena was on her own if it was to really mean anything to her.
That's the hump. We've gotten over the hump... "Xena, look at me." Gabrielle didn't pull her though she wanted to reach out and grab that face, yank it towards her, force her to understand. She waited. This was Xena's redemption, not hers. Slowly, Xena turned to her, raised her eyes to meet hers. "I'm not afraid of you," the bard whispered and even in it's softness, barely audible, it carried a fierce conviction Xena couldn't deny. "I'm not afraid of you. You trust me and I'm not afraid of you. Trust that, too, Xena. Trust me, trust us. The rest will follow."
The muscles in Xena's arms answered her call, they clutched the bard
almost desperately, pulled Gabrielle into her lap, brought her as close
as she possibly could get her. It was all the answer Gabrielle needed. Xena
wouldn't run away.
When Gabrielle woke the next morning, the empty place in the bed next to her was cool to the touch. Xena had been up for some time. Somehow Gabrielle expected this, had even hoped for it. The warrior needed time to think.
A simple breakfast sated her hunger. Iolcius saved his more elaborate menus for dinner, knowing that after a rich and lengthy feast, the morning stomach craved the bland escape into bare necessity. It also prepared the way for the mind to rotate back during the course of the day, to once again come to crave the sumptuous delicacies he took such great pride in.
Her choices for the day were few: stay in the room and await Xena's return, perhaps transcribing more of the incredibly long list of events she promised herself she'd document; go to the stable on the off-chance that Xena was doting over her horse, though it was much more likely she was out riding Argo; or go to Pasio's, see how everyone fared, help pack and ready them for the journey back to Amphipolis the next day. She longed to choose one of the first two options, but opted for the third. No need to spend the day dallying, she didn't need the rest particularly, and it would only make the work more concentrated when they finally did get to it.
"Morning, Gabrielle," Ismene greeted her at the door. "Xena said you'd be along to help."
"She did, did she?" Hmmm...
"She came by early this morning, brought warm muffins from that cook-fellow at the inn," the look of pure delight didn't surprise the bard. "They were good."
"You should have one of his dinners," she whispered conspiratorially.
"And we all will, tonight." Pasio popped his head out from the kitchen. "It's the only thing I'll truly miss about Heraclea. I tried to talk him into moving to Poteidaia, said we'd fix him up with the inn of his dreams."
"But?" asked Gabrielle lightly, leaving room for him to fill in the blank though she already knew the answer.
"But, alas, Poteidaia is not on a major trade route. I tried to explain that we get a lot of business in the harbor. He said he didn't like fish! Can you believe it?" Pasio returned to the kitchen, banging and clanking.
Gabrielle joined him. "You know, for all this talk about not cooking much, you sure do have a lot of stuff here." She eyed the boxes, happily noting many of them were already packed.
"These are my medical supplies, Gabrielle. The kitchen is the only room with storage space. Here," he laughed, opening a cupboard to reveal two mismatched plates, a pot, three mugs (one chipped), and a small assortment of utensils. "This is my kitchen."
"Ah, now that looks more like a man's kitchen!" Ismene propped herself up with the door jamb, arms crossed, one leg casually draped in front the other.
Gabrielle considered stepping in on Pasio's behalf, but when she caught the look in his eye, and checked for a matching daze in Ismene's, she left well enough alone. Ah, the early stages, she mused. Teasing each other. Maybe I will enjoy this day.
Atossa and the twins joined them shortly. The babies were both in a good mood having just been nursed and enjoyed been cooed over by a very indulgent bard. Cassandra liked to be rocked while Hippas preferred bouncing on the knee so she juggled and repositioned them and found a way to do both simultaneously. This is what Xena walked in on and she got the silliest grin on her face, just standing in the door staring at the three of them.
"Hi there," Gabrielle said, rattled at having been caught obliging the babies.
"Hi yourself," she replied, still wearing her half-cocked smile.
"Hey, Xena's here," Pasio called to the sisters.
They came out of the bedroom, sweaters and baby blankets draped over their shoulders. "We're almost packed," Atossa said. "Thanks for sending Gabrielle to baby-sit."
Winking at the bard, Xena said, "You're welcome."
"Lunch first, or should we get started with the heavy stuff?" Pasio gave Xena the choice.
Xena pondered it for a moment and replied, "It's up to you, Pasio." She refused to look at Gabrielle, though she could feel her smiling from across the room.
"Lunch." Since the house was a mess with crates everywhere, they took a few dinars and followed Pasio to one of the street vendors. "He always has great cheese and fresh bread."
And that he did. They had goat's milk cheese, soft and fragrant spread over large deep green basil leaves on warm flatbread. The seven of them sat at a large table under a canopy of bright yellows and reds, long streamers tied to the poles flying in the wind to distract the babies. No one said much, they all seemed willing to invest their thoughts in the surroundings, the tasks ahead, the future...
"Have the last piece, Atossa." Ismene pushed the cheese toward her sister.
"Can't," she groaned, rubbing her bloated stomach.
"Pasio? Xena?" They both declined. "How 'bout you, Gabrielle?"
"I'm thinking about dinner..." the bard made her eyes glaze over.
Xena wasn't in a talkative mood that afternoon. She worked hard in tandem with Pasio, fetching both carts, loading what they could, leaving the rest until the morning. Xena did what needed to be done, but with little or no extra interaction. No opportunities presented themselves for Gabrielle to speak with her privately, whether manufactured or not, so the bard resigned herself to waiting. And she would have to wait until after dinner, for they all gathered at the inn for one last meal.
Glad not to have stuffed herself at lunch, the bard wanted to be as hungry as possible so she could over indulge to her heart's content. Somehow they got lucky and the babies slept through most of the meal, the food and service every bit as remarkable as they'd had the night before. With plans to leave at dawn, they said goodnight, Gabrielle and Xena retiring to their room upstairs.
"Too bad we can't convince Iolcius to move to Poteidaia." Gabrielle reassumed the same position she took the night before, spread out across most of the bed.
"Then I'd never get you to leave there," Xena said, not successfully hiding the fact that indeed she did think that might be possible.
"Not true," said the bard quickly, reading that voice all too easily. She rolled over onto her side, making room for Xena to join her on the bed. When she made no move to do so, Gabrielle patted the sheet by her. "Come here."
A little stiffly, Xena complied, inching her hips back to the wall.
"How was your morning?" Gabrielle asked, leaving it open for her to supply as much detail as she felt comfortable doing.
"Fine," came the oblique answer, though it spoke volumes to the bard.
"I guess everyone will be glad to get back home," Gabrielle shifted the subject away from what was most on her mind, hoping that Xena would want to talk about it eventually.
"There'll be a lot to do. Have you thought about how long you want to stay?"
Ah, thought Gabrielle, that was something she must have been wondering about this morning. "No, I hadn't really thought about it. What do you think?"
Xena shrugged her shoulders, not answering her.
"Xena?" Gabrielle waited until Xena looked at her. "Everything's going to be fine. Is fine," she corrected herself.
"Thanks," Xena responded without conviction.
"Are you mad at me?" the bard dared to ask.
Eyes glued out the window, the last vestiges of light slowly swallowed by the advancing night, "No."
Great, thought Gabrielle. We're back to the one-word answers. Haven't been there in a long time. Do I push her or let her weasel out of it this time? Two long talks yesterday, maybe she deserves a night off? "Well, we have to get up early. I'm going to try to get to sleep."
Gabrielle got up and changed into a sleeping shift noting Xena had moved out of the way, rummaging through saddlebags seeming to look for something. She just needed a reason to get off the bed. Gabrielle got under the covers, "Coming to bed?" she asked as evenly as she could.
"In a little while. I'm going to check on Argo first."
Gabrielle's eyes followed her out the door, then she listened as Xena descended the stairs, heard the door to the inn open and shut, imagined her footsteps across the dirt roads until she could see Xena pull the stable door open and slip in. At some point, she never knew where, the scene became a dream and the night passed by.
"Get up, Gabrielle," Xena called to her.
She groaned, the dawn had barely begun to cast shadows in the room.
"I'm going to get the horses, I'll meet you at Pasio's."
"I'm up, I'm up," she said to an empty room. Dressing quickly, she slung the one remaining saddlebag over her shoulder, stumbled down the stairs, and made her way to Pasio's.
The packing and stuffing, padding and rearranging went slowly. As they finally threw in the last of the blankets for the babies and Atossa climbed up in back with them, Pasio got on his cart and looked over at them, a lonely expression on his face.
"Why don't I ride with Pasio?" Ismene suggested. "That way he can have some company."
"Sure, go ahead," replied Atossa, hiding a smirk. She knew what electricity had passed between them and happily nurtured it along.
Gabrielle and Xena sat up front in their cart, Xena waiting until Pasio had headed out before urging Argo on down the main road.
"Smells clean and fresh today," the bard said, trying to engage Xena in some small talk.
"More like rain," Xena quipped.
"Did you get some sleep last night?" Gabrielle asked.
Well, this isn't working, she thought. Before long, the bumping cart made two angry babies and Atossa's hands were full with the twins. "I'll help," Gabrielle said, climbing in back and taking Hippas. "It's the little bouncer. How come you don't like this? You liked it well enough yesterday." Gabrielle sat him on her knee but it didn't do any good. In fact most of the morning passed with one or the other, and sometimes both babies screaming. Atossa grew tired of it and Gabrielle was fed up with it, they'd both run out of ideas.
A lunch stop at Pasio's suggestion, some time with aunt Ismene and even nursing didn't do any good for the twins' demeanor. Pasio examined them both, coming to the conclusion that neither was ill, just cranky, and reminding them that babies just get that way sometimes. Xena remained closed to everyone, as cranky as the babies but with the adult version of sensibility which said not to let it out in a public display but rather to keep the frustration inside, brooding over it, letting it fester and build.
Gabrielle's own frustration at Xena, and at her inability to calm the now frantic babies drove her to silence as well. She at least knew to promise herself that she would find time tonight to talk to Xena, no matter what it took.
As the afternoon wore on, there was no improvement in anyone's mood and the weather started to look a little iffy. The sky clouded over, the wind whipped up, and although it didn't turn cold, everyone knew a storm was on the way. Still they plodded forward, Pasio's cart in the lead, Xena's a short distance behind, babies screaming, adults unhappy.
Toward sunset, Pasio ducked off the road into a small meadow. "Let's stop for the night," he called back to Xena. She followed him over the grass, bringing Argo to a halt. "It might rain," he said. "I hope not, though."
Ismene helped Atossa with the babies, letting her nurse one while the other fussed in Ismene's arms. Pasio unhitched his mare and tied her with a long rope to a stake in the grass, letting her feed on her own. Xena hadn't made a move to do anything, she just stood by Argo, absentmindedly petting her.
"Xena?" Gabrielle came up to her. "Aren't you going to unhitch Argo?"
"Uh, sure," she replied and bent to the task.
Gabrielle gathered wood, found their bedrolls and laid them out while Pasio started the fire. When the bard looked for Xena, she still stood by Argo, now unhitched and munching on the tall grass near the edge of the meadow. She couldn't take time then to go talk to her, the babies needed their night clothes on, a place to sleep, everyone else needed dinner, water hot for tea now and dishes later, the usual campfire chores.
Before they'd finished eating dinner, it started to rain and they scrambled to collect their bedrolls before everything got wet. "Throw them under the carts," instructed Gabrielle. She pulled out the saddle blankets and draped them between the carts, effectively providing a small tent. Ismene and Atossa crawled under the carts, thankful the grass was dry, and spread out the blankets, both hunkering down to coax the babies to sleep. Pasio joined them and things got cozy under there. Gabrielle realized that if two more were to sleep down there, it would be too close for Xena, even Xena in a good mood.
Gabrielle looked around for her, spotted her in among the trees,
on a fallen log, sharpening her sword. Well, now's as good a time as any,
she thought. And we're going to end up sleeping out here anyway. She fetched
their cloaks and headed to the trees to get out of the rain and see what
she could do for Xena.
"Here. Thought you might like this." Gabrielle tossed Xena's cloak to her and donned her own, pulling the hood up over her head. Though it hadn't rained hard she'd been out in it for awhile and her wet clothes clung to her, igniting a series of shivers.
Xena slowly pulled the woolen garment over her head then returned to her task of sharpening. Gabrielle sat by her on the log, reached over and pulled Xena's hood up. Xena paused in her movements, then restarted as if nothing had happened.
Great. Now you won't even talk to me. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to mention the part about Athena controlling you. Well, it had to come out sometime.
Gabrielle listened to the sound of stone against blade. The cadence seemed slower, she missed the usual finishing flourish at the bottom of the blade, when Xena gave the whet stone its final push.
"Xena?" Gabrielle said softly. The stone stopped. "We need to talk."
"Do we?" Though Xena spoke as softly as Gabrielle, her voice carried a sharpness, a symptom of the turmoil within.
"Please." She waited. She waited some more. "I guess I hoped you'd lead this conversation," she said, trying to pull Xena out of her funk.
"Really?" Xena turned, angry now. "First you say I control you too much, then when I give it up to you, you want me to take it back. Make up your mind, Gabrielle. I can't deal with this flipping back and forth."
Ah, this made more sense now. "Xena, did you know it would rain?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" Xena replied, dropping the stone into a pouch at her waist and sheathing the blade, returning the scabbard to the ground near her feet.
"Did you spend the whole day 'giving up control'?" The cold, tired, and frustrated bard started to let her temper get the best of her.
"I thought that's what you wanted," Xena countered roughly.
"Xena, stop making everything so... black and white. There's a continuum here, a line that has so much more than a beginning and an end."
Xena glared at her. "You're talking gibberish! You're not making any sense."
"In your world, I guess I'm not." Gabrielle tilted back slightly, then rocked forward, standing to face Xena. "Do you really think I meant for you to be so... impotent... that you'd deliberately let us travel today with babies, one of whom is just getting over a nasty sickness, knowing it would rain; so inadequate that you didn't stop us in time and tell us we needed to make a shelter?" The green eyes flashed red. "You're supposed to temper everything with common sense, Xena. I can't provide that for you." Gabrielle kicked at a rock by her toe and missed. "I'm going to see if I can find a dry place to sleep."
Gabrielle stepped over the log and trudged farther back into the woods, the light rain accompanied by louder drips from the ends of branches. She found a old tree with a wide girth and several thick, woven limbs. A heavy canopy of leaves overhead had kept the ground dry. She threw herself down, bunching the hood of her cloak as a barely adequate pillow and closed her eyes even though she knew sleep would be elusive at best.
This might have been stupid, she began to think, as the shivers penetrated deeper, invading her bones. She pulled the cloak around her tighter, starting to wonder if it would be better to strip out of her wet clothes and just wear the cloak or if that would make any difference at all. Finally curling into a tiny ball, she rattled against herself from her teeth to her toes.
Xena found her like that, a tiny lump of brown, almost invisible in the darkness, even to her keen eyes. The chattering teeth, however, worked like a beacon, leading her right to the bard. "Gabrielle?"
The brown lump stilled for a moment, uncurled a little until a head popped out.
"I'm sorry," Xena said.
Gabrielle tried to answer, but her jaw had clamped shut. The next best thing was to smile, a crooked little grin sitting over her shivering shoulders.
Xena lay down by Gabrielle. "Come here," she said, pulling her into her arms. "Gods, you're freezing." Xena lifted her cloak and drew Gabrielle in, covering her with the extra layer of wool, sharing her own body heat. Blowing on her hand to warm it, she rubbed the bard's back, using friction to generate some extra heat. "Your clothes are wet."
"I... know..." the bard managed between chatters.
Xena chastised, "Off with them." Gabrielle squirmed out of the cloaks, frozen fingers making little headway with the lacing on her top. "Here, let me." Xena made quick work of the laces and helped her out of her skirt. She flung them over a low tree limb then re-wrapped the bard in her cloak and once again brought her in under her own cloak.
"You'll feel warmer soon." She enveloped the bard with arms and legs, rolling under her to keep her off the cold ground.
"Thanks," Gabrielle whispered from somewhere under all that material, warmth seeping into her bones at last. "Thanks for coming to my rescue."
"I'm sorry you needed it. I'm..." She dropped her voice, "That was my fault. I've been pigheaded. I don't know what I was thinking."
Gabrielle threaded her arms out of her cloak and around Xena. "It's okay."
"No it's not. I let everyone down, left them to deal with the rain. And to answer your question earlier, yes I knew it would rain. I guess... I guess I just wanted people to think..." her voice grew softer and softer, "I was worth something."
Gabrielle crawled out of Xena's cloak. "Hey," Xena said, "Get back in there. You're still cold."
"Yes, but I can't talk to you when I'm in there. And Xena, you are... worth something. You know that and I know that and blessed be if half of Greece doesn't know it, too." She ran a slightly warm finger down Xena's cheek.
Xena closed her eyes at the touch. The touch. Her touch. "I know," she said hoarsely. "I don't know why I did what I did."
"Xena, you are the most amazing person I know, but even you have to give yourself more than a day to make sense out of something like this. I dare say it, my love, but you are human. And you've been acting quite like one."
Tears mingled with Gabrielle's fingers on her cheeks. "It's hard," she admitted. An admission of enormous proportion for Xena.
"Of course it is. What you had to go through was horrible. But it wasn't your fault."
"Then why does it feel that way?" Gabrielle could feel her trembling as she spoke. "Why does it feel like it was all my fault?"
"Because it's so hard to imagine anyone, even a god, doing that to you without a reason. She treated you like a dog so the natural reaction is wonder why you were a dog. But that's not what happened, Xena. Athena wanted to hurt you, that's all the reason there was, all the reason there had to be. And she wanted to hurt you because you had the power to defeat her. We had that power."
"How?" Xena shut her eyes, reopening them to release more tears. "How did you manage to... not let her..."
"I guess I got lucky. I figured out what she was doing, and as soon as I knew it, she'd lost the ability to threaten me. But Xena, remember she came to you as Orithyia. You never even had the chance to figure it out." Gabrielle smiled. "I think she was a lot more afraid of you than she was of me."
"Afraid of me?" Both of Xena's eyebrows soared.
"Yes," Gabrielle tapped her nose. "She had to disguise herself, trick you with something you'd already been grappling with, and, by the way, you'd pretty much taken care of before Athena ripped that apart."
"I guess so." Xena recalled the conversation she'd had with Gabrielle at Sappho's. "At least I'd stopped worrying about it."
"Yes. And Athena manipulated you, pulled away everything you'd resolved, dug down to the last bit of remaining doubt."
"But I did have doubt..." she turned away from Gabrielle. "I still couldn't be trusted."
"No, there's a huge difference there and I want you to really listen to this, Xena." Gabrielle tugged on the warrior's chin, bringing their eyes together. "We all have doubts. We have this huge gamut of thoughts and feelings that run through our brains. In fact, the more you let yourself wonder about things, the more you'll be able to learn... and love. Because otherwise, you'd just be a wooden plank without feeling and without love. You've got to risk thinking of something you don't like, feeling it, sensing it as real. Then when you make the decision that it's not for you, you've made it based on a tangible truth, not on some idle speculation. Speculation isn't good grounds for decisions, it wears thin and breaks at the slightest bit of temptation." She took a breath.
"That's what happened when you first saw Orithyia again on the boat. I think you let yourself feel what you once felt for her to make some judgments about how far you'd come since then. When she was a part of your life, you were a very different person and it's one of the ways we can sense directions in our lives--to mingle the past and the present and see how they fit together when they're side by side. So you let those old feelings for Orithyia surface and you and I worked it out together. Remember how you felt when you left Sappho's? I know how I felt. More sure of who we were and why we were together. Without talking about Orithyia, I wouldn't have been able to up it a notch."
"I felt that way, too," Xena whispered. "I felt like I could trust in our love to make me whole. But... I didn't... couldn't... Gabrielle," she heard herself say, "I kept begging for more. I can't believe how much I wanted it."
"Xena," Gabrielle spoke with a purpose, "do you think the gods have powers mortals don't?" A simple question.
A simple answer, "Yes."
"Okay, let me ask you something else, then. Imagine if I were to get drunk, rip-roaring, flat-on-my-butt drunk, and some kind man took it upon himself to get me to bed. Let's just say he got a little too nice, and in my drunken state, I made an attempt, feeble as it might be due to my inebriated condition, to get him off me, but it didn't work. And in fact, because I was drunk, I kind of let myself think it might be fun, and so we slept with each other. If you walked in on us, discovered I was drunk and he was cold sober what would you think?"
"I'd kill him," Xena answered without having to think.
"Because he was raping me, right? And even if he claimed I was a willing partner, even if I thought I was a willing partner, you'd want to kill him anyway because you'd know he took advantage of me, that he raped me."
"Yes..." she stopped, trying to get the frightening image out of her mind. "But Gabrielle, I wasn't drunk."
"Athena did something to you, Xena. Sure you weren't drunk, but it was the same kind of insidious exploitation. Xena, you had no intention of sleeping with Orithyia before the incident and none since it, right?"
"Right," Xena replied.
"So something different went on during it. And that something was a god who was intent on hurting you, using every resource she had available to her to do it. It was the same thing as getting someone drunk and using their intoxicated condition to get into bed with them. She raped you, Xena. You were not a willing partner."
Xena let herself remember how she felt, how nothing quenched her desires, how unworldly it all seemed, so impossible, so improbable. "Gabrielle..." she reached for the bard with trembling arms, let herself be held, let herself feel and remember everything... "Wait."
She'd said it with such intensity that Gabrielle immediately pulled away to get a good look at her face. "What?"
"There's more. I need to tell you something," Xena fit her speech into a pattern, hoping the self-imposed pacing would help the words keep flowing. "I... It wasn't just.... her... Once I..." she dissolved, unable to say it.
"Shhh," Gabrielle held her again, talking softly until she regained her ability to breathe without shuddering. "It's okay, Xena. You were lost there, everything was out of control, you were trying to wrest it back. It was a way to regain some power." She continued to hold her, speaking right into her ear. "How did you feel then?"
It took a long time for Xena to answer, but Gabrielle waited. "I don't remember feeling anything but an intense... sense of urgency. I needed something... release? I couldn't get it. Even when I turned the tables on her, I couldn't get it... so strange..."
That left Gabrielle with a gnawing question, one she didn't want to ask for fear of what the answer might be. But a bard with a gnawing question... "How did it end?"
Xena sighed, "Ephiny walked in on us. I was mortified. It was like I suddenly woke up from a dream to realize I'd done something horrible."
"But don't you see, that just reinforces what I've been telling you. You weren't responsible for your actions, Xena. Athena took that away from you. When Ephiny came in, she brought reality back with her. She broke Athena's spell."
"Maybe..." Xena said, wondering if it really was possible for all that Gabrielle had said to be true.
"Good." Gabrielle kissed her on the nose, "And now I'd like to take you up on your offer if it's still valid."
Gabrielle tugged on the cloak, Xena laughed and lifted it, letting the
bard snuggle in to the warmth, holding the little body against hers. When
they lay together like that, everything seemed so right, and it did seem
within the realm of possibility that one morning she could wake up and look
in Gabrielle's eyes as she once had, with a sense of purity and passion
unmarred by her guilt. The present seems so fleeting until you have to revisit
it in the past. Then it takes a gargantuan effort to sort and clean up.
"Gabrielle?" a soft voice called her. "Time to get up."
"It's still dark," she grumbled.
Xena pulled her cloak up exposing the bard to the already brilliant early light. "No it's not."
Gabrielle slept what was left of the night after their talk on top of Xena, clinging to her with almost as much ferocity as Xena held her. They looked like two complicated puzzle pieces, intricately fit together in the only way possible.
Gabrielle lifted her head from its incredibly comfortable pillow, glanced at the trees around her, and dropped her head back with a thunk.
"Ouch!" said Xena, not really meaning it.
"Sorry," mumbled the bard, well aware that she hadn't hurt Xena in the slightest.
"Come on, everyone's going to wonder where we are." Xena patted her with the kind of movement meant to push her off, but without the force behind it. Gabrielle complied, rolling over onto to her back and the forest floor. Letting her eyes drink in the sight of the yellow-gold hair spilling out of the drab cloak, the soft, pleasant expression on the sleepy bard's face, Xena turned over onto her side, propping up her head with her hands.
"Thank you, Gabrielle."
The bard opened her eyes, gauging the warrior sincerely. "You're welcome. And you're warm."
Xena spied Gabrielle's still-wet clothes hanging limply from the branch. "I guess you're not going to put those on yet."
"Ugh, cold and clammy..." The bard crossed her arms over her eyes, shielding out the thought. "I wonder if I remembered to throw the saddle bags under the carts... otherwise I might not have any dry clothes."
"Well, it's only a short trip back to Amphipolis. You can wear the cloak." Xena smiled and somehow the bard knew to lower her arms, open her eyes and look just then. They lost themselves in each other's eyes, letting their vision make the visceral connection, instinctive, intimate. It served as a renewal, a reawakening, and rekindling a passion between them they both believed they would soon consummate. A sensory threshold fell, a barely perceptible, liminal barrier they'd both put up, and only with its passing did they realize it once existed, only with its absence could they remember the freedom they possessed with each other, within each other.
Linked at the eyes led to linked with a touch, their lips alive with sensate excitement, contagious, escalating. Needing the friction, the smoothness of skin gliding against skin, they met with an exploratory tongue, now a pair, flickering and quivering with and over each other.
They broke apart only when the need to breathe outweighed the need to express. Dropping their heads onto the other's shoulder, hearing the other's heart thumping in response to their own.
"I love you, Xena," the bard whispered.
The warrior whispered back, "As I love you, Gabrielle."
Reluctantly, they rose, hands intertwined, and collected the damp skirt and top from the branch nearby, walking together back to the campsite.
Pasio spotted them, waving from across the meadow. The carts were once again packed and ready, he was collecting his horse to hitch him. Atossa and Ismene sat by a small morning fire, each holding a baby. "How'd they sleep?" Gabrielle asked, taking the offered cup of tea.
"Not bad, actually. I guess all their screaming yesterday wore them out. How about you two?"
"We found a dry spot," Xena said cryptically. Sipping her own mug of tea. "Thanks, this is great."
"There are some biscuits left if you want some," Ismene pointed to the cart. "They're stashed away for you."
"We can eat on the road, if you like. That way, we'll be to Amphipolis for lunch," Xena suggested. "And get that one some dry clothes," she added with a grin.
Gabrielle itched all the way back, the wool of her cloak getting to be too much for her naked skin underneath. But that was the only bother as the babies were mostly sleeping or happy. Xena took the lead with her cart, leaving Pasio and Ismene to trail them, and have the privacy to talk or do whatever they liked.
Xena made Gabrielle head home first and change her clothes while she and Ismene decided what could be left in the carts and what had to be hauled into the inn for what everyone hoped would be a short stay in Amphipolis. While Xena and Ismene gathered what was needed, Atossa and Pasio took the twins in, and they could hear the shouts of greeting: how much the twins had grown in just a week or so, how Pasio looked well, what a surprise it was to see him.
"Hi there," a voice called from behind her.
Xena swung around. "Ephiny? What are you still doing here?"
"Long story," she replied with a smile. "You must be Ismene."
"Yup, that'd be me." Ismene swung one heavy pack over her shoulder. "Thanks, Xena. Thanks for coming to get us, thanks for everything." The sun lit her face, though it may as well have glowed on its own.
Xena smiled, "My pleasure. Sure you don't want help with that?"
"Quite." She spun on her heels, a light step taking her into the inn.
"How was the trip?" Ephiny asked with more than a hint of what she was really asking behind it all.
"Good," Xena responded. "Things are better." She dropped a saddlebag into the corner of the cart and regarded Ephiny, "That's why you stayed?"
"Should I admit to it?"
Another smile crept onto Xena's lips, this one a bit more shy and yet also more open, "Thanks."
"So, ah, where's Gabrielle?" Ephiny pretended to look under the cart and she lifted the corner of a blanket to peek under it.
Xena leaned her arms on the side of the cart, resting her head on top of them. "I made her go home and put on some dry clothes."
"Why don't you go help her?" she asked, not in a suggestive tone.
"Why don't you come with me?" Xena replied. "She'll want to know you're here."
They caught Gabrielle just as she was about to walk out of the house and go to the inn. "Ephiny?" She engulfed her friend in a warm hug. "Wow, I didn't think you'd still be here, but I'm glad you are."
"Thanks." The three of them went in the house and sat near the hearth. "But now I need a favor from the two of you."
"Anything, Ephiny. You know that," Gabrielle offered happily, knowing full-well that Xena agreed with her.
"I told Eponin and Solari I'd be escorted home."
"So you want us to find you an escort?" Xena laughed when Gabrielle playfully slapped her tummy. "Okay, we'd be glad to. But we kind of promised to make another stop first."
"You know, I've never been to Poteidaia..." Ephiny waggled her eyebrows.
"You're not going to get much of a choice, now," Xena teased.
The door opened, "There you are," Toris said clomping in. He wore his work boots. "Mother said I might find you here. We're trying to repair the east wall... seems our Spartan friends weren't quite the guests we'd hoped for. Sure could use your help."
"I'll go, you two stay," said Xena. Then she turned to the bard, "Okay?"
"Sure. And thanks," Gabrielle answered, appreciating the effort, the reasoning behind it.
Toris winked at Gabrielle, "Welcome home. There's a big dinner planned for tonight. Sort of a farewell feast. Hope you can all be there."
"What do you think, Toris?" She stuck her fists on her hips in mock anger. "Do you really think I'd skip out on a party? Now, Xena might do just that, but not me. I have manners." She pouted, dropping her lower lip.
"And the Manners Queen might have to go to the party in wet clothes," Xena chuckled, imitating the bard's pose and definitely looking more intimidating.
"They'll be dry!" the bard retorted.
"They can get wet, again," said Xena, talking with the tip of her nose.
"All right, you two," Ephiny interrupted. "Xena, go help Toris. I'll see that you're both there, both dry, and," she added with a burst of fire, "both happy about it!"
Toris laughed, beckoned Xena out, and shut the door behind them.
Ephiny glanced at Gabrielle. "Xena said things are better."
"They are," she replied in a tiny voice, a little tired, a little embarrassed.
"I'm glad," she got up and moved to sit by Gabrielle. "So how is she?"
"Coming around slowly. You know Xena, she has lots of skills, but taking care of her own head isn't one of them."
"Yeah, I know," Ephiny said sincerely.
"Ephiny, are you okay with all of this? I mean, Xena told me... you walked in on them."
"I did." Ephiny spoke evenly, trying to constrain some of the emotions she remembered experiencing. "And I was really angry. More like, I was so mad, I didn't know I could ever get that mad." Ephiny put her hand on top of Gabrielle's. "I don't know how much she'd told you, but the next thing I noticed was that she'd been hurt. She was bleeding." And Ephiny could tell by Gabrielle's reaction that Xena hadn't mentioned it. "And I'd never seen Xena like that, she didn't talk, didn't respond, she just lay there, curled up as tight as she could be."
Gabrielle urged her on, she didn't want to hear it, but needed to know.
"Then Ares came."
"Ares?" Gabrielle rolled her eyes, how much more was there of this?
"He told us it had been Athena. He also told us where you were. That's how we knew you'd been taken to Eion."
"Ares told you this?" Gabrielle scratched her head. "Why?"
"His enemy in the war was Athena, remember? He did it only for his own gain, I'm sure." She squeezed the hand under hers. "And as soon as I knew Athena had done that to Xena, I was okay with it. But Xena wasn't."
"That's an understatement. I think she might be finally figuring it out, though. Gods, Ephiny, it's really hard for her to admit that Athena controlled her, duped her, almost drugged her in a way."
"It was no different from being drugged. That woman I saw was so unlike the Xena I know..."
Gabrielle brought her other hand over Ephiny's. "Do you know why Athena did it?" asked not in the manner of seeking information, but to suggest to Ephiny that there was an answer and that Gabrielle already knew what it was.
"I think so. When we were coming back from Athens, she told me about Demeter and Persephone. It has to do with them doesn't it?"
"She told you about them?" Gabrielle smiled. "That's wonderful."
"I thought so, too," said Ephiny, amazed and proud that Xena would confide something so personal to her, so personal to both Xena and Gabrielle.
"And, yes. It does have to do with them," Gabrielle concurred. "They told us that together we could make a difference in the war."
"And you did," Ephiny smiled.
"Eventually. But Athena sure tried to break us apart."
"I can see she didn't succeed."
"That's never going to happen." The bard spoke with such vehemence, it startled Ephiny. "No one can ever do that to us."
"And here I stayed behind to help you two," Ephiny laughed, shaking her head.
"You did? That's very sweet of you, Ephiny." Gabrielle studied the pile of hands in front of her, "And I am glad you did. There are things Xena would never tell me."
"Only because she believed you didn't need to know them. She's only trying to protect you."
Gabrielle raised her head, "Oh, I know that. I trust her to tell me what she thinks is important."
"As she trusts you to do the same."
Yes, and I think I finally really believe that again, thought
She had a drink at every table she visited, starting with her parents. They wanted to know about the trip to Berge, how Hippas and Cassandra were, how they found Pasio, all about Heraclea, what they ate, where they went... She obliged them when her tongue loosened at the bottom of the first mug.
Next, Gabrielle talked with Cyrene and Toris, thanking them over and over again for being so good to her family. Cyrene just laughed and said something about how the lines had blurred between the two families and that it was about time they thought of themselves as one big, extended family. Even Toris agreed, though he'd been into the mead since the wall was repaired in the late afternoon.
Lila had Perseus to herself, and on Gabrielle's third drink she sat with her sister and her beau. She didn't think much of him but it was because he rarely talked, which made her giggle because that's what her family always said about Xena, but she didn't try to explain it and was glad when the giggling caught on, as infectious giggles often do.
She drank her fourth mug with Ephiny, waiting for Xena to come back to the table after being dragged into an arm wrestling match. Poor Xena had to wade through seventeen rounds before they let her go as undefeated, reigning champion. By the time Xena found her way back to the table, Gabrielle had drained her fourth mug of mead.
"Hi ya," the bard slurred, her eyes crossing and uncrossing as they stared, transfixed on Xena's face.
"Uh oh... How many?" Xena asked. She pulled out a chair and sat by Gabrielle, near enough to catch her if she passed out.
"Let's see, one with them," she pointed to her parents, who saw her and smiled, so she waved and they waved back.
"How many after that?" Xena asked again.
"One with your mother and Toris. I'm really going to miss them, Xena. They've been great, said we were all one big family now." She let loose a toothy grin. "And one with Lila and the doofus, uh... I mean Perseus. He talks less than you do. And one with my dear friend, Ephiny."
"Sorry, Xena," Ephiny said apologetically. "I didn't know she'd had that many."
"Four is too many for her, especially because it's mead she's been drinking." Thought she looked at Gabrielle, she spoke to Ephiny. "And this year's honey made for potent kegs of mead..." Xena complained. "She'll be fine, Ephiny, but I really should take her home."
"Need help?" the Amazon asked out of politeness more than anything else.
"Nah." Xena picked up the bard and slung her over her shoulder.
"Hey, you big 'ol warrior!" Gabrielle fussed and made attempts, feeble as they were, to slug Xena's back with her fists. "Put me down!" Her fists stilled in mid-strike, she slumped and murmured, "Ugh..."
Xena walked her through the inn, "Say good night to everyone, Gabrielle."
"G'night," she slurred. When they stepped out of the tavern, the cool, clean night air shocked her, "Hey! What's up?"
"I'm taking you home to bed," Xena told her.
Gabrielle dug down and found the means to articulate her immediate need. "My head doesn't want to be upside down anymore." Xena dropped the bard's feet to the ground, Gabrielle clung to her to hold herself up. "Thanks."
"Wanna walk, or should I carry you?"
"Uh, I think I can make it." Gabrielle put one foot in front of the other, letting Xena lead her back home, an arm securely around the bard's waist. Somehow they squeezed through the door and back into the bedroom, still attached.
"Okay, it's bedtime," Xena announced, pulling the clothes off Gabrielle.
"Mmmm," the bard moaned. "Feels good." She wrapped her hand behind Xena's neck and delivered what she thought would be a searing kiss, but was actually overly wet and sloppy.
Xena pulled her away. "You're drunk and you're going to bed."
"And you're coming with me," Gabrielle demanded.
Xena ignored her words, finished stripping her, snugging a sleep shirt over her head and pulling her arms through the sleeves. "I'm putting you to bed, Gabrielle."
"Uh... yeah, that's it."
Xena lifted her effortlessly and deposited her on the bed, straightening out her legs and covering her up with the sheet. "Sleep well."
"Wait!" Gabrielle grabbed her wrist. "Don't go," she pleaded. "I know I'm drunk. I'm sorry."
"It's okay, Gabrielle. It was big party and you're allowed to get drunk once in a while." Xena took the hand off her wrist and put it in one of her own, kneeling on the bed by the bard.
"But not tonight! I thought... I thought..." Gabrielle sniffed. "You won't touch me now, will you?"
"Gabrielle," Xena said, making every sound in her name sparkle, "you know that I love you."
"But I'm drunk."
"But you're drunk."
"Gods, I can be so stupid sometimes." She rolled away from Xena, sniffling quietly. "Thanks for bringing me home."
Xena let go of the hand she had firmly tucked in her own. She could see the bard's shoulders trembling every so slightly, so she quickly changed into her sleep shirt and crawled in next to her. "Come here," She said, rolling the bard toward her. "It doesn't mean I won't hold you."
"Thank you," Gabrielle mumbled, attaching herself to Xena's body and drifting off to sleep.
Gabrielle, Xena purred to herself, it's the least I can do for you after all you've done for me.
"Mother, I'm old enough to make up my own mind about this."
"Let's just see what your father has to say," Hecuba fumed. Stay behind with some wimpy boy, can't even find it within himself to have a decent conversation. They sat at a table in the inn, Hecuba across from Lila, neither speaking, waiting for Herodotus.
"Well, this better be good, we're trying to get out of here this morning and the horses aren't even hitched yet," Herodotus dropped his work gloves on the table and looked back and forth between his wife and daughter. "Out with it, one of you."
"I'm staying," Lila announced. "I'm going to stay with Perseus and his family. We're meant for each other."
"Oh, are you now?" In his own gut, Herodotus doubted those words. "How will you be paying them back for food and a place to sleep at night?"
"I'll ask Cyrene if I can work here."
"You haven't lifted a finger since we've been here unless we pleaded with you to help," Hecuba shot back. "Don't be so certain Cyrene would give you a job."
Herodotus' morning had already been tense. He'd been up since before dawn, sending hung over people on errands, telling them where and how to pack the carts. He wasn't in a mood to fight. "Hecuba, I know you don't like this, but I don't know if we can tell Lila what she can and can't do anymore."
"Of course we can!" Hecuba pounded the table with the flat of her palm. "We're her parents."
"I'm not a baby. If I say I'm in love with somebody, then I am," Lila pouted, then wiped it off her face when she saw her father's stern face.
"Well, I'm not going to waste time arguing over this. There are people out there waiting on me, waiting on us to get going." Herodotus stood, resting his hands on the table. "You think carefully about this," he said to Lila, the first shades of anger creeping into his voice. "before you make a mistake." But he'd said his peace, so he backed off and returned to his chores with the caravan.
Gabrielle spotted her father leaving the tavern, she could tell by his stiff gait that something was wrong. "What's up?" she asked, trying to be cheerful even through her own hangover, rippling through her stomach and aching in her head.
"Lila's not coming with us," he spoke with a clipped tone.
"Why not? Is something wrong?" she wrapped her fingers around her father's arm to try to quiet him and also out of habit. It felt good to do so.
"Boys," he spat. "Well, I'm not going to tell her what to do one way or the other. She'll just make me miserable for it."
"Father?" Gabrielle spoke calmly. "She said she's staying with Perseus?" Gabrielle almost laughed at the ridiculous notion but her father's perturbed countenance kept the laugh from forming. "It's not going to last very long," she said, trying to soothe him.
"That'll be her problem," he brushed past her, angling for the carts across the way.
"Wait a minute," she yelled, and the fierceness in her voice stopped him. "You've got to tell her she can come home. You've got to make that clear."
"Do I?" he asked coldly.
"Yes. You're mad now because she surprised you with the news. But how are you going to feel tonight?" She tried to convey in her look alone, all that she meant. There was a time when I didn't think I could come home. Did you know that? Don't do that to her, too. Please. "Tell her she's always welcome home, please."
He bowed his head and started back to the inn, walking slowly, but more peacefully. Gabrielle smiled, and wished once again that she'd known that it's always okay to go home. She'd stayed away far too long.
The next time she caught a glimpse of her father, he was seated by Hecuba on their cart, horse hitched, ready to go. He smiled to her and winked. It was all she needed to see.
Saying good-bye to Cyrene and Toris lasted not more than an instant, but its intensity lingered. She hugged them both and stood back as Xena wrapped her arms first around her brother, squeezing hard, and then her mother, more gently and yet more earnest. Xena couldn't say anything but to mumble a good-bye, Gabrielle knew it was because she refused to break down in front of all those people, and she had a hunch that Cyrene knew as well.
Gabrielle crawled up on the seat by Xena, looked back at the people coming with them: her parents in a second cart, Pasio and Ismene, Atossa and the twins in the third. Their cart carried only a few crates leaving Ephiny plenty of room for the ride. Xena urged Argo forward, taking the lead, and the caravan started their way back home. Before long they were in the foothills and then starting the long, slow climb into the mountains.
After an uneventful first day, the second day of their journey brought a few adventures. First, a wheel fell off of Herodotus' cart, sending crates flying off the back. Miraculously, neither Herodotus nor Hecuba was thrown, they didn't even earn a bump or a bruise. Xena and Herodotus fixed the cart while everyone else fetched belongings, strewn all over the road and down an embankment, and repacked the crates. Gabrielle sat with her mother for a time, making certain she felt all right after a jolt like that.
Once they got underway, they endured a quick shower, just enough to get everyone wet and grumpy and make the day turn humid. Then after lunch, they ran into a small band of men, fresh out of jobs after the war, and pleased to find what they believed to be easy prey.
Xena brought Argo to a halt, stopping the cart, "Pardon us, we'd like to get by you," she tried asking nicely for Gabrielle's benefit.
"I'll bet you would," one of them said, smiling as his buddies shouted their support. They spread out and began to flank the train of carts.
"What's going on?" Gabrielle's heart sank as she heard her father's voice. He strode up the side of the cart.
"I can take care of this, Herodotus. Why don't you keep an eye on everyone else?" Xena tried to talk some sense into him.
Ephiny stationed herself just behind Gabrielle, ready to protect her if anything got past Xena. Though unlikely, she knew her place.
"So you keep the women folk on your front line, do you?" The apparent leader of the ex-soldiers taunted Herodotus.
"Don't listen to him," Gabrielle whispered to her father. She knew to leave the direction of such a confrontation to Xena's experience and not to get in the way.
The ex-soldier continued, "Seems you're leading a pack of women refugees. Wouldn't want to sell any of them, would you?" He spoke directly to Herodotus. His mistake came as he drew his blade.
Xena vaulted from the cart, landing between the ex-soldier and Herodotus, sword drawn. "I think you'd better change your mind about this, or you're not going to enjoy the rest of the day very much."
"Right. By my count two women-folk have blades and neither of your men do. I don't think you should be the one threatening us." The men with him laughed. The leader twitched a muscle in his arm in preparation of striking. Xena read it easily and kicked his hand sending his blade out of his grip and landing him on his backside.
"I said," repeated Xena, "you'd better change your mind. Go on, get out of here."
Another of the men scooted up near them, "Come on, let's go," he urged. The man with naught but wounded pride pulled himself out of the dirt and stared at Xena for a moment before retrieving his blade and disappearing into the trees, the rest of the gang following him.
Xena dusted herself off, more for the display than any need, and got back in the cart. "Let's go." She reached for the reins, Gabrielle's hand intervened.
"Father, are you okay?" Gabrielle worried that the incident left him shaken.
He nodded. "Fine," he said before ambling back to his cart. Hecuba helped him onto the seat with trembling hands.
Ephiny lay a hand on the bard's shoulder. "Why don't I go ride with them?" she offered.
"No, I will." Gabrielle jumped down and ran back to her parents.
Xena watched as she sandwiched between them talking and making them smile. Ephiny crawled up on the seat by Xena. "She has a way of doing that, doesn't she."
Xena clucked her tongue, getting underway again, "Yeah, she
Xena had hoped to camp in the same cave they had stayed in on their exodus from Poteidaia, the birthplace of Hippas and Cassandra, but they'd lost too much time that day what with all the extra stops. Instead, Ephiny spotted a flat meadow near an outcropping of rocks with plenty of room for the carts, and Xena eyed it carefully before leading the party off the road.
The camp had been setup, firewood collected and set ablaze, and dinner started by the time Xena caught Gabrielle alone, but she'd been watching the bard, could tell that something bothered her. Finally able to talk to her, all she could think of was to ask, "How are you parents?"
"They're rattled. They don't see that everyday..." Gabrielle said. "I think they got even more upset when they found out I hadn't been scared by it."
"And..." And you must have heard the talk about staying home with them, not going back out into the world with me where you face those dangers routinely, often enough not to be scared by them.
"And nothing," Gabrielle said, smoothing her skirt. "I'd better check on dinner."
Xena caught her by the arm, "We've got a camp full of people who are taking care of dinner." Xena tugged at her, "Let's go for a little walk."
"And leave them alone?" Gabrielle questioned Xena's judgment.
"Ephiny's there. Besides, we're not going far... just far enough." I can't believe I'm the one begging for a talk, she laughed at herself. When they'd gone a few dozen steps, Xena put her arm around the bard. "So what'd you chit-chat about all afternoon with your mother and father?"
"Oh, stuff," Gabrielle replied evasively. "You know."
"I'm sure they must have gotten their digs in about me," Xena said, though she did feel Gabrielle's parents understood her better now, maybe even liked her.
"No, Xena. Father thinks you're great. He kept talking about how you stood up to those guys, kept your cool, and made sure we didn't all get dragged into a fight." The last rays of the sun lit Gabrielle's face. "He really likes you and... I think he understands us, too."
That deserved a quirk of the brow. "Really?" Xena asked, not really believing her. "How did that come about."
"He's... a wise man. That I've known for a long time." Gabrielle's voice was thick with pride and adoration for the man. "And he's not nosy."
Ah, so he didn't pry for details, good. But... "Your mother?"
"She's not having a good day, you know. First Lila stays behind, then she almost gets thrown from the cart, finally her husband tries to ward off a pack of bandits only to be outdone by you... well, let's just say she got... testy."
"So she tested you?" Xena asked lightheartedly knowing full well she was making headway here.
"Just the usual stuff." Gabrielle picked a few leaves from a branch near her, they were soft and pliant, colored with the dark green of youth.
"You're not making this easy." Xena let an undercurrent of impatience bubble up.
The bard looked up quickly, worried she'd offended Xena and immediately let out a sigh of relief at the big smile on Xena's lips. She let one grow to equal the warrior's. "Sorry."
Xena stepped toward her, the bed of leaves under her feet giving her an extra spring, and gave the bard a hug. "Okay, so now tell me what's bothering you. Please."
The bard returned the hug saying, "Oh, it's no big deal. Like I said, the usual. Mother is worried that my being out in the world is too dangerous, she wants me to come home. Stay home." Gabrielle squeezed a little harder.
"Really?" Gabrielle leaned back to see into Xena's face and found a peaceful surface but layered on top of conflicting dreams: one to continue her journeys with the bard, the other to settle down and go home herself. "I guess you do understand," she said.
Xena cupped her fingers around Gabrielle's cheeks. "It's hard, I know."
"Not really. It's only hard knowing you want something you can't have." She read the flash of confusion on Xena's face. "Xena, there's really no choice involved, I'd never choose to stay at home, my life is with you. Always will be."
"As mine is with you," Xena said, dipping her head to kiss her. She meant it to be confirmation of her word but it became much more. Each time they let themselves share a physical connection, it always grew larger than either expected. This kiss quickly encompassed more than their conversation, it released their desires, becoming a confirmation of their lives together, their intertwined souls. Equally passionate, equally honest, never one without the other.
"I love you," the bard said, out of breath.
Xena enveloped her with her arms, molding Gabrielle to her body, to her soul. And she thought about how it felt and realized that the love she shared with Gabrielle was even more extraordinary than it had been before and at the same time, others memories were fading away. Wherever Orithyia--or Athena, as she would now admit to herself--once was, Gabrielle had found a way to worm in there and claim it as her own. And I gave it to her willingly, Xena reminded herself.
"Gabrielle?" Xena murmured right into her ear, not relinquishing her hold.
Gods, I hope this doesn't sound too trite. "I'm happy."
Gabrielle gazed up into those eyes, her own a bright green under a wash of tears. You know Xena, you know I understand what that means. "Me, too."
Ephiny did a double take when she saw them walking into camp. They came armed with berries Xena had spotted on the way back, taking only a little detour and getting pricked by only a few thorns. What caught Ephiny's attention wasn't the berries. No, it was the glow that had returned, the little gestures, the short glances, the need never to be farther than arms length from each other. Well, thought Ephiny, it was fun to see even if I didn't really have anything to do with it.
After dinner, after the berries were passed with the wine skin for dessert, talk turned to what they might find when they got to Poteidaia the next day.
"I'm worried there won't be anything left," Pasio grunted. "The way the Athenians were barreling around, not to mention what looters may have come through afterwards, I'll be surprised if anything is left standing at all."
"Well, I for one will be happy to get back no matter what things look like." Hecuba could be a formidable woman when she had a mind to be. "We'll just have to spend some time setting everything right and then we'll be back, good as new."
"It may take some time." Xena spoke as the voice of authority, but her experiences long ago were mostly of doing the sacking and looting. Still she knew what damage could be inflicted even in only a few short weeks. "And we should be careful tomorrow. I think I should ride in first just in case."
"I'll come with you," Gabrielle offered quickly.
"If you do," said Ephiny, "then I will and then everyone else will."
"Maybe everything will be fine, Gabrielle. Let's just wait and see." That served as Xena's contrition for making an announcement before talking it over with the bard. Still, if they did have to argue it, it would be one argument Xena intended to win and she knew she had Ephiny on her side. "Why don't we all try to get to sleep. That way we can get an early start."
Some time later as Xena sat by the fire sharpening her sword, Gabrielle got up to join her. "Couldn't sleep," the bard said.
"How come? Are you worried about something?" Xena asked. She put her sword and stone down and pulled her knees up to her chest.
"Nah, just wanted to be by you." Gabrielle leaned to the side, putting her head on Xena's shoulder, felt the warrior watching her, scrutinizing her. "Okay, what I really meant to say was that I'm worried about how hard it will be to leave. What if we get there and the place is a mess. It could take weeks to make repairs."
"Gabrielle, we'll stay as long as you need to," Xena smiled at her, trying to let her know she really meant that.
"No, this has to be our decision, Xena." Gabrielle reminded her, "We'll have to come to an agreement about it."
"Fine." Slowly, she got used to this idea, forgetting occasionally that equality came from both sides, not just hers. "But do we have to do it now?"
"No. Of course not." And she fought the urge to kiss Xena just in case anyone else's eyes were on them. "And of course, we need to think about getting Ephiny home."
"If we," and Xena emphasized the word, "want to stay, we can always send word to the Amazons to send an escort."
Gabrielle felt Xena stiffen, her senses go into hyper-awareness and somehow the bard managed not to ask her what was going on. Xena reached for her sword turning her head slightly as if to hone in on the right direction.
"Seven," she whispered to Gabrielle. "They've surrounded us. Probably the same ones we met this afternoon." Xena looked at how spread out everyone was, some sleeping near the fire, others farther away. "Go wake Ephiny." She smiled as she watched Gabrielle slink over to the Amazon, she knew Ephiny would guard her with her life. Xena disappeared into the trees and the darkness beyond.
"Eph?" Gabrielle shook her, "Xena told me to wake you up."
"What is it," the Amazon warrior focused instantly.
"Visitors. Xena said there were seven of them."
Ephiny closed her hand around the hilt of her sword, hefting it and feeling it's familiar weight. "Where is she?" she asked, scanning the camp.
Gabrielle turned quickly to look behind her. "Ah, I don't know. She was right there."
"She's probably not far, maybe she's laying a trap or coming up with a diversion." Ephiny got up and moved toward the others who were blissfully asleep, all the while keeping Gabrielle in front of her. "Did she say where they were?"
"All around us. She thinks it's the same guys we met earlier." Gabrielle peered into the darkness hoping to see something, anything.
"No doubt," Ephiny chuckled. "She made them look bad."
"She has a way of doing that," the bard agreed. The sleeping faces of friends and family, content in their dreams of what tomorrow might bring stole her thoughts. So peaceful. "Should we wake them up?"
"Xena didn't say to?" Gabrielle shook her head. "Then let's wait to see if we need to or not," Ephiny decided.
"Maybe we should go and help Xena," Gabrielle took a few steps before Ephiny grabbed her, hauling her back.
Serious eyes bore into the bard. "I don't think that would be a good idea. Why don't you stay here where I can keep an eye on you." Ephiny sounded paternal but looked much more like someone ordered to defend the queen's life with her own.
Admitting defeat and sitting by the fire, Gabrielle grumbled, "Now I know why she had me wake you up." She crossed her arms and harumphed.
"It might also have to do with the fact that I'm the only other one with a sword," Ephiny smiled and waggled her blade, itching to have an excuse to use it until she threw up a hand. "Shh... I hear something."
Gabrielle stood again, listening to the utter stillness of the forest.
"I don't hear it anymore," Ephiny said.
Gabrielle scanned the edge of the clearing, uneasy again. "What was it?"
"Not sure... a thump maybe."
"Come on, Eph, we need to find Xena." She tugged on Ephiny's sleeve with desperation.
"No, we're going to wait here. Xena's fine, I'm certain of it."
Gabrielle whisked her head around behind her, "Hear that?"
"Yes," Ephiny whispered. She crouched lower, ready to pounce but neither woman heard anything else.
"This is creepy..." Gabrielle whispered, assuming the same volume Ephiny's voice had.
Then, from behind them once again, they both heard something crashing
through the bushes, turning in unison they stared first into the blade and
next into the face of the man who'd threatened them that afternoon.
continued in part 5