by Marie E. Costa
Here is another story. I hope you all enjoy it! The standard disclaimer. The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong to Universal. No copyright infringement is intended, and this all came from my brain, and is not taken from any literary source or any other source whatsoever. No one gets the blame for my stories except me.
The day had started out pleasant enough. It was a little bit warmer than normal for a late fall day. Gabrielle had woken up without too much prodding. Unfortunately, seeing the smoke rising in the distance put a damper on their spirits. Xena instinctively reached for Gabrielle and swung
her up behind her on Argo, heading into the danger together.
Xena halted Argo and Gabrielle slid off. Both women stared at the ruined wreck of a once thriving village - Gabrielle in horror, and Xena remembering other villages in the not so distant past. Bodies of the dead; men, women, and children were being silently brought to the village square.
One man paused in the roadway. He looked with empty eyes at the two before him, seeing only another warrior; more blood to be shed. "You're too late." His voice shook with rage. "The others took everything. Kill us if you wish, just be quick about it." His family was gone...why should he live?
Gabrielle, jarred out of her shock by the man's words strode forward and grasped him by his arm. "What happened here?" She demanded.
"Isn't it obvious?" The man questioned sneeringly. "One of her kind came through." He glared at Xena. He knew her. Her army had helped themselves to anything they pleased not too many years ago.
Gabrielle followed his eyes to her friend. Xena still sat on Argo, her painfilled eyes looking over the wreckage, but Gabrielle knew she was lost in the past again. "No, not her kind." She responded softly. "Her kind never slaughtered women and children." Slowly she walked back to her friend.
"Xena?" The hurt Gabrielle felt for the villagers - for Xena - was present in her voice.
Eyes haunted by the evidence of past guilt looked down, but no words came out.
"It's not your fault." Gabrielle insisted.
The warrior spoke then. "No, but I have done this and worse." Xena's eyes slid past Gabrielle, to rest upon the young man that had followed her friend. "Who was it?"
"We don't know. They never even told us." He glanced at the dead and back to the woman, puzzled by her behavior. That she was the same warrior that had spent an entire season controlling them he had no doubt. But something seemed different. And where was her army? "They came; demanded all our
food, our blankets, even our women." He noticed that his fellow villagers had started to gather behind him. He shook his head. "Does it matter?"
Gabrielle laid her hand on Xena's leg. "We need to help them."
Xena nodded. She closed her eyes, trying to banish images of other times; took a deep breath and dismounted. Side by side, the two friends went to meet the villagers.
"We'd like to help." Gabrielle said, her eyes roaming from one villager to another, surprised by the resentment and anger she saw in their eyes. Finally her gaze came to rest on an elderly lady. Her eyes appeared to be full of questions, her face a little kinder than the others.
"Unless you have enough food and blankets for a small army to last through a bitter winter then there is nothing you can do." The Elder said. "It'd be best for the two of you to ride on." She glanced at the ruins of the only home she'd ever known. "They took everything. What they didn't take they burned."
"Why?" Gabrielle asked puzzled.
"Because they could." The woman looked at her neighbors. "We few will bury our dead. We need no help for that."
Xena looked thoughtfully at the woman, her brows furrowed. A full minute past before she spoke, "How close to a big city is this village?" She should know the answer, but for the life of her it slipped from her grasp.
"Four days to a week, depending on conditions of the road." The man from the roadside spoke up.
Xena glanced at him. "A week. Not too far." She murmured the words to herself. "Grandmother," She addressed the woman with respect. "If your village had gold, could you rebuild?"
Gasps of shock and surprise rippled through the village. All looked to Xena in wonder, including Gabrielle.
The one addressed looked back at Xena, cool gray eyes calculating the worth behind the warrior's words. Why would a warlord want to help them? She remembered the warrior princess, and none too fondly. Visions of the past sped through her mind and inwardly she cried out in her pain. 'Jerome, my
brother, whatever became of you? I've no reason to trust in her, but my people have nothing left to lose.' Finally she spoke. "Yes. There is enough time before winter sets in for someone to get there and back."
"Xena?" Gabrielle questioned everything with just her name.
Xena turned haunted eyes to her friend. "Gabrielle, you stay here. I should be back in less than a week." Her grief-stricken eyes swept to the small gathering, no more than thirty left alive. She had to make sure they all stayed that way. She owed this village so much...
"No." The single word, spoken quietly, held more force than Xena had expected. Gabrielle's eyes bored into hers.
Xena bit at her lower lip. She didn't want Gabrielle with her when she got the gold. She didn't want the bard to see...
"Afraid to let me come with you?" Gabrielle asked, sensing, but not understanding Xena's fear. She stepped closer to Xena, ignoring the villagers.
Xena's head reared back, shocked that Gabrielle had read her so accurately. Her eyes turned icy. How could she explain about the gold; the guilt; the site she hid it at? There was no way to explain; no way to keep the bard away. "Okay, but it won't be easy."
Gabrielle half-smiled. "It never is."
Xena swallowed a lump in her throat. Why Gabrielle stayed with her, she'd never understand. "Argo will need to stay here." She looked to the man. "Will you take care of her for me?"
The man looked to the Grandmother, who nodded, then back to Xena. "We will."
Xena patted Argo. She took their bags off the horse, handed Gabrielle hers, and set about rearranging the items she'd need onto a blanket. With a skill that astonished Gabrielle, she turned the blanket into a pack, and shouldering it, turned to the villagers. "If we aren't back in one week, we won't be back. You'll have to find another way."
Grandmother spoke, "There is no other way. If you don't return, we are dead." Ironic, placing their future in the hands of the warlord who had years before taken so much from them.
Gabrielle and Xena walked briskly into the forest - Gabrielle a little bit worried about her friend. Xena, never very talkative to begin with, had said nothing since introducing Argo to his keeper. She glanced sideways at Xena and noted the withdrawn, haunted appearance with fear. Xena was once again punishing herself for events from her past, and Gabrielle didn't know how to reach her. Maybe a distraction.
Gabrielle wet her lips before speaking. "Why don't we play a game?"
Xena paused in midstep and rolled her tongue in her cheek, looking at her friend with a hint of exasperation on her face. Finally she replied, "No." She turned away and resumed walking.
Gabrielle shrugged to herself and fell into step behind the Warrior Princess. She'd have to find another way. The two walked for a few hours in silence.
The path seemed a straight forward one so far. Although Xena hadn't explained where they were going or where the money was coming from, it appeared as though they were heading straight over the mountain top.
Eyes rolling back, Xena stopped and turned. "What?"
"Are you going to tell me where we are going?"
"No." She picked up her pace.
"No?!" Gabrielle scrambled after Xena. "Hey, wait up. What do you mean, no?" She reached out and tugged at Xena's arm. "I have a right to know."
Xena stared expressionless at her young companion. "Says who?" Inward, she winced. She watched as Gabrielle's hurt showed plainly on her face; the hand on her arm faltered and fell. Briefly she closed her eyes, willing herself not to see; not to feel Gabrielle's pain, but it didn't help. She stopped moving and turned to face the bard, who stood uncertainly on the path several paces behind her.
The two friends stood and looked into each other's eyes. No words were spoken, yet volumes were said. Finally, a ragged sigh emitted forth from Xena, and the young bard released a bright smile. "I'm sorry." Both spoke together. Both stepped forward together. Together, they resumed walking. Gabrielle smiled to herself, content to know that Xena wanted her with her, even if she hadn't realized it before this moment.
Xena's reluctance to explain anything to her added to the sense of mystery. Silently, she wondered if the gold was Xena's - bounty from her past - or unclaimed wealth waiting to be rediscovered, like the Sumerian treasure. Gabrielle began to pay more attention to the area around her. They were
traveling through a relatively peaceful section of the mountain. The slope was full of fruit and olive trees, and she delighted in picking some fruit to go with dinner.
Xena stopped and looked around. This would make a good campsite. The water was clear and pure looking. A huge, gnarled, old oak tree had toppled to the ground. Its trunk would act as a windbreak. She put down her pack, and began to prepare a fire and wait for Gabrielle to arrive.
"Hi!" Gabrielle smiled at the sight of Xena leaning over the fire pit blowing at a few bits of grass and twigs. "I take it this is where we're stopping for the night?" Gabrielle questioned, trying to get a rise out of
Xena and failing. "Okay, I'll just wash up and get dinner going." She headed for the little stream.
Xena watched Gabrielle go . She knew the bard would want some answers tonight, but she was unsure of what to say and how to explain it. She'd never been big on words, and now the one person that meant everything to her depended on words. Xena sat on the trunk of the old oak and carefully
Gabrielle returned from washing up. She glanced over at Xena, expecting to see her sharpening her sword or cleaning her armor. A puzzled look crossed her face as she realized the warrior was doing neither. "Xena, what are you doing?"
Xena never looked up. "Gabrielle, we are going up a mountain with winter a matter of weeks away at most. We need more protection than what we have on. I have my cloak. You have nothing. I'm making you a cloak." She waved the old blanket at Gabrielle and returned to her sewing.
Gabrielle bit her lip. "What am I supposed to use to sleep with?"
Xena gave her friend a wry smile. "Me." She concentrated on making the stitches as small as possible. Good, tight stitches meant it would hold against the wind better.
"You?" Gabrielle questioned.
"Yes, me." Xena paused in her work and looked at the young woman. "It gets cold at night. We'll use both our ground cloths and my bedding as our cover. Besides, bundling up together for extra warmth in the mountains is a good idea. This way you get a cloak so you don't freeze during the day, and neither of us will freeze during the night. Okay?"
"Ah, ya, it's okay with me." She shrugged, trying to act indifferently. "I just think you ought to have asked me first."
"Right." Xena spoke dryly. "I'll keep that in mind for next time."
Silence descended over the campsite as Xena returned to her work and Gabrielle prepared their dinner, wondering how to approach the question she'd let slip aside on the trail.
Xena ate hurriedly. She wanted the cloak finished before morning. She knew from experience how chill the morning air would be. She did, however, remember to thank the bard for dinner, having learned the hard way about not acknowledging all Gabrielle did for her. As Gabrielle had cooked, she cleaned up.
Gabrielle sat in silence, watching Xena work - her long hair framing her face, tongue stuck slightly out the left side of her mouth as she gave herself fully to the task at hand. The young woman sighed, and placing another log on the fire; poked at the growing flames. She sighed again and settled down, losing herself in her thoughts and the flames.
Xena frowned. There'd be no rest tonight, if Gabrielle wasn't satisfied. But how much should she tell her? A slow smile came to her face as she thought of a way. "What's wrong?"
Gabrielle looked up, startled. "Huh?"
"What's wrong?" Xena repeated. She was giving Gabrielle the opening she needed, but she'd be damned if she would just spill her guts - especially as she'd sooner the young bard knew as little as possible about that particular time of her life.
Gabrielle looked up briefly, then returned her gaze to the fire. "I was just wondering where we're going to get the gold from."
Xena bit back a smile. "A cave." She answered, brief and to the point, knowing it would never be enough for her bard.
Gabrielle swiftly looked up. She hadn't expected any answer. "A cave." She nodded. "Makes sense." She drew little designs on the ground, "But how did it get there?"
Xena allowed the outer edges of her lips to curve upward. "I placed it there."
Gabrielle stabbed the ground with her stick. Great! Xena was in the mood to play 'twenty questions'! She bit her lip, holding back the anger that had been building all day. Well, at least she was learning something. She refused to look at the warrior. "Why?"
Xena's eyes rested thoughtfully on her. How much of the truth could Gabrielle handle? She sighed faintly, not trusting in friendship's bond. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
Gabrielle threw her stick into the flames and stood up. "That's no answer." She said angrily. "I think I deserve better from you!"
Xena looked at Gabrielle, her face a stony facade for the fires that burned inside. She took a deep breath. "You're right." She looked away. "I'm sorry." She waited as the silence lengthened.
Gabrielle stood, hands on hips, glaring at the Warrior Princess, who refused to look at her. Confusion at the apology was evident on Gabrielle's face. Xena apologizing, gold in the mountains, this trip - nothing made sense anymore. She sat back down, closed her eyes, and forced herself to return to a calmer state. She ignored the apology, and decided to go back to the game Xena had started. "Why did it seem like a good idea at the time?"
Xena laughed, more at herself than anything else - a harsh, hateful laugh that sent shivers down Gabrielle's spine. "All that gold and my army? That seemed reason enough. Anyway, I stashed money all over the land." Her mouth tightened. "It wasn't as though we could carry it with us into battle."
"Where did it come from?"
Xena winced. "All the money, or this particular stash?" She wanted to put off answering this question. This was one of the ones she feared.
Gabrielle looked up. She watched as Xena concentrated on her stitching. The way Xena said that...no, she had to be wrong. Xena didn't want her to ask, but she needed to. "This stash." She said slowly. "I'm not interested in money we might never see."
Xena's hand shook, and she paused in her work. "It," She closed her mouth. Words failed her. Gabrielle waited silently. Taking a deep breath, Xena tried again. "It came from the Roman Empire."
Gabrielle frowned, her puzzlement clearly written over her face. "X-"
Xena stood up. "I'm tired. We have a long way to go tomorrow. Let's get some rest." She turned away from the light of the fire. She couldn't risk Gabrielle seeing the wetness of her face.
"But, Xena?" Gabrielle questioned slowly, rising to follow her friend. "I..." She hesitated, her hand reaching to touch the warrior's back.
"Gabrielle," Xena paused. "Not now. I can't." She quickly lay down.
Gabrielle stood looking at her friend, fear and worry running over her face like a wave lapping at the shore. Finally, she spoke, "Tomorrow, we will finish this conversation." Tears for her friend's pain were in her voice, and quietly she lay down next to her and waited for morning to come.
The quiet of the night was broken by an inhuman scream. Gabrielle jumped to her feet, staff in hand. A quick look around, and she was down on her knees. The scream was from Xena, who lay curled in a ball, hugging herself.
"Xena?" The bard laid her hand on Xena's shoulder. "Xena, whatever it is, I am here." She pulled at her shoulder in an attempt to get the warrior to roll over and look at her.
Xena refused to budge. Tears wracked her body. She was despicable. She couldn't forgive herself, how could she expect Gabrielle to? She would be better off without her. The pain she'd inflicted, all in the name of greed...
"Xena?" The hand pulled a little more insistently. "Come on, I know you're awake."
"Gabrielle." Xena said, fear and pain mingled in her voice. "I -" She swallowed, unable to explain.
"Xena." Gabrielle let go of her shoulder and sat up straight. "Please sit up and talk to me." She shook her head sadly. "I know you had a nightmare because of this gold. We have to talk about it." She emphasized the 'we', tears catching in her throat. "After you died, I thought we knew what...how, important..." She caught her breath, biting her lip, unsure of how to express her deep need for sharing Xena's pain.
Xena's shuddering had slowed. The gut-wrenching pain that had come from reliving the betrayal and M'Lila's death once more under control. She listened to her friend's pain, and knew she had no choice but to add to it by telling Gabrielle the rest of her story. Her voice quivered as she sat up and said, "We did." Her long, dark hair covered her face and she left it that way. If she couldn't see the bard, maybe it would be easier to talk. "It's just..." She stopped, her heart heavy with despair. She tried focusing on the present. It calmed her enough to go on. "I wasn't just a WarLord. Gabrielle, I was evil." Unshed tears clung to her eyelids, and a shudder ran through her body.
Tears filled the small woman's eyes as she listened to her friend's pain. Gabrielle moved until she sat as close as she could to Xena without actually touching her. She wanted to lend her support, but sensed that any touch, or even a word from her, might cause Xena to clam up. Instead, she added a log to the fire, willing her strength to Xena and patiently waiting for Xena to speak.
Xena began talking, her voice cold and impersonal. It was the only way she could speak. She just hoped Gabrielle understood. "The money we are going to retrieve. It's blood money...it's how I lost my ship and all my men." She looked at her friend, her eyes wet with unshed tears. "The treasure for the ransoming of Julius Caesar...a petty godling to his people." She fought to contain her anger, the hate welling up red and hot, despite the passage of time. "He - Caesar - betrayed me." Her voice broke, "My men, including boys I had grown up with, paid with their lives for my pride." Her head dropped down. Faces of people she'd banished to the back of her mind now flooded forth to crowd her thoughts and destroy what little peace she had achieved.
"Xena..." Gabrielle attempted to speak, but Xena kept talking.
"That's not exactly true. I mean, the treasure -it's the money I took off his ships to replace my own money and the ransom he took back, when he tried to kill me." Her blue eyes grew icy as her mind went back in time. "I told you a little bit when I came back from the dead." She closed her eyes, willing her heart to beat slower, and took another deep breath. "I never told you what I did after M'lila died."
Gabrielle, moving quickly, knelt by the still proud warrior. "It wasn't your fault." Gabrielle tried to soothe her friend. Briefly, she wondered who M'lila was. All Xena had told her when she'd come back from the dead was that the healer Nicklio had saved her life at the beginning of her career. Xena had never spoken of this period of her life, before or since, but Gabrielle knew that despite the evil she had done, there was no way Xena had put the money above her men's lives. Something had to have gone hideously wrong, if what Xena had said was true. She wanted to know more, but was afraid to ask.
Xena raised her face, and through tear-streaked eyes, looked sadly at her friend. "No, this time it was my fault. In my pride, I believed he had fallen for me -loved me." She snorted, anger at her youthful innocence evident in her voice as she continued to speak. "I had fallen for him. He said, 'I am fated to rule the world', and I wanted to share in his destiny." She stopped speaking. She found it hard to believe that the bard had drawn closer to her - not moved away in disgust. She pulled away herself, but didn't stop Gabrielle from following her.
The young bard smiled sadly at Xena's movements, but stayed where she was. She maintained an attentive, caring presence, but never moved to touch her, instinctively sensing how negative the warrior woman would react to a touch at this time.
"Later, when his ship turned up near ours, I proved how stupid I was." She looked into the fire, and her hatred welled up strong. "In my arrogance I said, 'It's all right. He's my friend.' That's how I learned you couldn't trust even your friends." The tears finally spilled over. Silently, they poured down her cheeks.
Even as her own mind reeled under the influx of Xena's words, Gabrielle knelt on the ground by Xena's side, her hand rubbing the warrior's back, her mind racing to find something to say that would help Xena regain her peace. Words, normally her friends, were failing her this time, so she sat silently holding her best friend, willing her to feel her warmth and draw strength from it; marveling at the new insight she had been granted into her friend's reluctance to be a friend. Everything was so much clearer with just those few words.
Xena rose with the coming of the first rays of light. The air was chilly, and she lay for a moment enjoying the comfort of Gabrielle's warm body. She sighed, not understanding her good fortune, but accepting it. She moved slowly - so as not to wake the bard - and once out from under the blankets, she shook the sleep from her body and slowly breathed in the crisp mountain air. The night had left a frost covering the land. She'd best get the fire built up before waking Gabrielle. She hurried to get the fire roaring again. Shivering slightly as she worked, she quickly finished the cloak she was making for Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, wake up." Xena sat back on her haunches and called the young woman. "Come on. We don't have all day." She grinned. The girl was almost impossible to rouse. She waited a minute, rose - carrying the heated mush and honey with her - and sat down next to the sleeping girl. Slowly, she waved the bowl under the sleeping girl's nose. A half-smile appeared on Xena's face as the girl's nose crinkled in response, and grew wider as Gabrielle took a deep breath. Xena burst into laughter as the girl sat up, sniffing at the air, eyes still closed.
"Hey!" Gabrielle opened her eyes, delight and surprise warring for dominance, and noting Xena's laughter. "What are you doing?"
"Bringing my lady breakfast in bed, as she refused to get up." Xena said amused, handing Gabrielle the bowl.
Hungrily, she reached for the plate. "Arwharh, it is cold." She said, teeth chattering as she felt the air on her arms. She wrapped the blanket around her shoulders and settled in to eat.
Xena grinned. "I know. I think you'll feel better if you put your old clothes on and wrap yourself up in the cloak."
Gabrielle hurried to comply with Xena's wishes, talking in between spoonfuls, and pulling on her clothes. "So how much further do we have to go?" She was happy that Xena appeared more herself today than last night.
"We should reach the cave by mid-afternoon." Xena replied, the light in her eyes dimming as she thought of the cave and what awaited them there. Her thoughts darkened. Today her young friend would learn the truth - we'll see what the word 'friend' means to her then. She sat silently waiting for Gabrielle to finish; staring into nothing.
Gabrielle silently cursed herself. She should have known that any mention of their task would send the warrior back into herself.
"Come on. We need to start." Xena handed Gabrielle a bag, and shouldering the other one, headed for the path.
The sky was grey, and a cold wind blew down from on high. There was snow on the peaks, and Xena feared it would be coming their way all too soon. She angled away from the water and headed for the secret path that only she knew.
Xena cursed silently as she felt the light, feathery - cool touch of a snowflake. "Gabrielle, we have to hurry. It's dangerous to be caught in a snowstorm out in the open." She picked up her pace. At the rate the snow was falling, the path would be obliterated in an hour, and they were still a couple of hours away. A cold wind blew, and the snow fell harder.
Gabrielle fell. She'd never been so cold in her life. She lay on the ground shivering and tried to find the strength to stand. Xena backed down the narrow path and helped Gabrielle stand up. With cold, wet fingers she tied a rope around Gabrielle's waist and then her own. "This will keep us from getting separated." She shouted over the wind. "It's not much farther, but it is a climb up this little bluff." She rested her hand on the girl's shoulder. "You okay?"
"I'm fine." The young bard stuttered, she was so cold. She tried to smile, but her cheeks were frozen and it hurt too much.
Xena stared into the girl's eyes, seeing the weariness, but also the determination. She smiled. "You can make it." She squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder reassuringly and looked worriedly up at the sky.
It was growing colder. The snow had been thickening as they talked, and walking was harder. They were climbing a rocky, narrow, rugged trail that seemed to go on forever. Gabrielle had run out of strength, and Xena was half-pushing, half-encouraging the girl, her own strength waning, as she fought the elements to get to the cave opening. Finally she managed to reach the bluff where the cave stood hidden by the carefully manipulated vegetation that Xena had left growing around its entry way. With fingers
long since numbed by the cold and snow, Xena pulled the vegetation aside and stepped into the cave, pulling Gabrielle with her.
The interior of the cave was black and forbidding. What little light there was came from the small entrance way where Xena had moved the vegetation. Gabrielle shook and snow dropped from her blanket cape. The howling wind blew snow into the cave. Xena quickly replaced the vegetation, cutting off
both the light and the wind. For long seconds the two women stood silently in the dark.
Finally, Xena shook herself like a panther and water and ice drippings sprayed the cave. Gabrielle grimaced as the water hit her, but Xena never noticed - she'd set to work lighting a torch.
As the torch flared to life, Xena noticed how pale and drained Gabrielle looked. Her eyes softened. "Gabrielle," She spoke softly, almost in a whisper. "Here." She held out the torch. "Go ahead and sit down." She jerked her head toward the deeper part of the cave. "I'll gather some wood and get a real fire going."
Gabrielle, too beat to do more than nod, accepted the torch and moved slowly into the cave.
Gabrielle sat on a stone she found by the far left wall. She held the torch high and looked around her. Something about this cave gave her the chills, or maybe it was just the wet clothes. She shuddered as another breath of cold air ran through her wet clothing, and peered into the far reaches of the cave. Hmm...looks like an old cave in. A little strange though. She stood up and walked toward the right side of the cave. She paused in front of the rock fall, moving the torch slowly over the rocks. There really
weren't that many - a couple of big ones and twenty or thirty medium rocks; no real small rocks to speak of. She frowned, puzzled. These rocks looked almost as though someone had placed them in...
"Gabrielle!" Xena called, fear in her voice. Gabrielle was at the entrance to her hidden treasure. How had the young bard managed to discover it so fast?
Gabrielle turned. "I'm right here." She called, holding the torch above her head.
Xena paled, but schooled her face to remain calm. "Come over here." She beckoned. "I've gathered wood. There's a nice spot here for a campfire. I want you to stay right here. We'll make supper and rest this evening. Time enough tomorrow to do what I need to do."
"But Xena," Gabrielle began.
"No, no 'buts' Gabrielle." Xena spoke quietly but with a commanding authority. "We'll get rest tonight." Inward, she was tense as a string on a bow. If Gabrielle would sleep, maybe she could clear the path and get the treasure without the bard learning the truth. She took the torch from the girl and used it to light the fire.
The fire cast strange shadows on the walls and ceiling. Xena's mood continued to shift toward her dark, brooding self of old and Gabrielle was afraid for her. Silently, the bard worked to make dinner, watching from the corner of her eye as Xena prowled restlessly around the cave.
Xena turned from her inspection of the rockwall that she had erected on her last visit, and caught Gabrielle watching her. She grinned wryly. The young woman was obviously worried about her - but for how long? She took a deep breath, and slowly walked back to the fire. She'd try to be better company.
Gabrielle stirred the stew and flipped the bread over, stealing glances at the warrior. Xena appeared lost in thought. "A dinar for your thoughts." She said. Xena didn't answer. "Xena?" Gabrielle questioned softly.
"Hmm?" Xena responded without looking up.
Gabrielle looked worriedly at her friend, no longer certain of what to say.
Xena looked up; sighed at the look on Gabrielle's face. "What did you want, Gabrielle?" She put her sword and whetstone down and leaned forward.
Gabrielle chewed nervously at her lower lip, and asked a question that had been bothering her since the night before. "How did you get the gold up here?"
That wasn't the question she'd expected. Xena's eyes half closed, and the past rose to confront her. Her heart pounded faster as the question reverberated in her head. So much for keeping the truth from Gabrielle. She rolled her tongue around in her cheeks, and looked sadly at the woman she'd called 'friend' for two years. Sighing heavily, she wet her lips. "I left my army in the village." She nodded in response to Gabrielle's raised eyebrows. "Yes, the same village." She looked away. "I took half a dozen of their men to carry my treasure to this cave," She paused, and her eyes darted to the wall behind her. "And here I left them." She fell silent, waiting for her words to sink in.
Gabrielle frowned, trying to find the hidden words in Xena's short tale. Tears formed in her eyes. "You killed them." This, then, was what Xena hadn't wanted her to know. Another cold-blooded act performed by the Warrior Princess. "Why?" She tilted her head to look at Xena. Her food sat forgotten. "Why didn't you let them return to the village?"
Xena snorted. "As if that was a possibility! You know as well as I do that as soon as my army moved on, my gold would have disappeared!" She shook her head. "No, there was never any thought of letting them go. That's why it had to be the villagers and not my army." She refused to look at the bard. The manner of their death was another matter, and one she didn't want to talk about. She shuddered. That, she regretted more than words would ever convey. She stood up and grabbed Gabrielle's dish. "Go to bed. I'll clean
up." She walked to the front of the cave.
"Xena!" Finding her voice, Gabrielle called out to the warrior woman, desperately trying to understand her. "How did you do it? She stood up and faced her friend's back. "How did you kill them?"
Xena froze. Tears of fear filled her eyes, but she willed them away. Slowly, she turned around to face the slight redhead who stood fists clenched, eyes glaring. Her own eyes shut. So she was condemned already.
She opened her eyes and looked at her friend, devoid of emotion. Calmly, she spoke. "You'll see it in the morning." She turned back to the cave opening. Inward, she trembled, and the fear of losing her only friend rose like bile in her throat.
"I want to know now." Gabrielle demanded.
"Morning will come soon enough." Xena spoke without turning around. "Please, just go to sleep now."
Gabrielle looked uncertainly at Xena's back. She wasn't sure of herself. Should she go to Xena; try to comfort her? Or should she let her suffer through the night? Slowly, she prepared herself for bed and lay next to the fire, playing the past two days over in her head, trying to make sense of it all.
Xena waited until Gabrielle's breathing let her know the young woman was asleep. Silently, she moved. Setting two torches into the wall, she began to work.
Gabrielle lay quietly listening to Xena moving the rocks. A tear dropped silently onto her blankets. Did her friendship mean so little to the woman? What did she hope to gain by opening the cave while I lay sleeping? Another tear fell. Did she think I meant to steal her gold? I thought she knew me better than that! But, why else would she want to hide this from me? I'll show her. As soon as she breaks through, I'll get up. I'll let her learn the hard way that I don't care about her precious treasure. Of course, I thought she didn't care about treasure anymore either. She shifted so she could watch Xena working. Confused thoughts continued to run through her head, but she lay quietly watching her friend through hooded eyes.
Almost done. Xena paused and took a drink. At this rate she'd be through the wall and able to move the bodies before Gabrielle woke up. She glanced toward her friend and smiled at the picture of innocence she made lying there with her golden hair spread around her face, dancing firelight playing with her lovely features. She needed to protect Gabrielle from her past. Thank the gods that rule, she'd never see how evil I truly was. She took a drink of water and turned back, more determined than ever to keep Gabrielle from seeing the men inside the cave.
Xena brushed the dust off her hands. She was tired and filthy from all the hard work, but felt good. The cave was opened. Now for the hard part. She grabbed a torch from the wall and stepped through the opening.
Gabrielle waited until Xena had stepped through, and rose to follow her. Stepping quickly through the opening, Gabrielle looked around her and gasped, shocked by the sight before her eyes. Her hand rose of its own accord and clasped her mouth.
Xena whirled in surprise. "Gabrielle!" Her face paled, and fear shone forth.
Gabrielle's eyes moved from the mummified bodies of men to Xena, who stood by one of the bodies. Slowly she stepped forward, until she came next to Xena. Xena didn't move. Gabrielle looked down at the body. Tears formed in her eyes. Turning accusing eyes on Xena she shook her head sadly, "Why?" And not waiting for an answer, she bit her lip. "He's just a boy." She looked back at the twisted body. The dirt encrusted fingers and the ravaged facial expression were enough to let her know that these men, and this boy had died slowly from asphyxiation. A most horrid way to die! She let her tears fall. "How could you do this? What kind of monster were you?"
Xena listened to the bard ranting against her and felt her world crumbling. Nothing mattered now. She'd known this would be the reaction, and she deserved it. Hadn't she always said the young woman deserved more and shouldn't be with her? Perhaps now Gabrielle would understand what She'd always known. Silently, she turned from the bard. Perhaps it was too late to do more than bury these men, but she would at least do that. She lifted the boy's body and carefully walked to the far wall, where she lovingly set
him down. She ignored Gabrielle and moved to the second man. Looking at the man brought back images of the journey up the mountain. She marveled at how intact the bodies were. She imagined the cold and lack of air were the reasons the men could still be recognized. A cold air passed through her body and she shivered. Ghosts from her days of evil would surely haunt her now. She moved the last of the bodies to her chosen burial site. A rock cairn for these six, and then she'd get her treasure. Perhaps it would be enough for them to know that the treasure they had died for would now bring life back to their village.
Shock, anger, and dismay. The emotions ran through Gabrielle like fire in a dry forest. She watched, speechless and confused, as Xena used the stones that had entombed the men for their communal cairn. Briefly she wondered what the warrior woman was thinking. She knew Xena had been a vicious
warlord, but she'd always pictured her as being honorable - and trapping unarmed men in a cave to die a slow and painful death was not honorable. Disgusted - whether at her own naiveté or with Xena she couldn't say, she turned and left the tomb.
Xena watched the bard leave and prayed the girl wasn't angry enough to try and leave the cave in this weather. She stood; looked toward the other chamber of the cave, sighed and moved to the corner of the small cave where three chests sat in silent testimony to the evil of her past.
She knelt in front of the chest and carefully opened it, mindful of the painful memories this trip was already evoking. The top popped open and she stared at the beautiful dress that lay on top. A sharp, indrawn breath and closed eyes transported her back to that fateful night when she had stalked
Julius Caesar... "Stygerius..." "Someday you should go back for the rest of it." She blinked the tears away and reached deep inside her for the rage. Remember the betrayal, she told herself and the old familiar anger welled up like an old friend. She tossed the dress to the cave floor and reached for the necklace and bracelets - items she'd once treasured, now meaningless lumps of gold and rock. The only treasure that meant anything - friendship - was no longer in her grasp. A shudder ran down her spine and she stiffened herself against the pain.
Dropping the jewels, she reached for the coins. It was the actual coins the village needed. Quickly, she rummaged through the chests, gathering all the coins she could into one. The chest was heavy, but Xena managed to drag it into the larger chamber. She sighed with relief as she spotted Gabrielle sitting legs drawn tight against her body, against the back wall. Carefully, she laid the coin-filled chest down on the floor, stretching to relieve sore and tired muscles. By the gods, she was tired. She glanced at Gabrielle, who was refusing to acknowledge her existence. She didn't know what to say, so she said nothing. Xena wished Argo was here, then she would at least have something to do to keep her occupied. She laid down on the blankets and waited. If she knew Gabrielle, she wouldn't have long to wait.
Gabrielle stared angrily at Xena. How could she have been so cruel to those men? What warranted that type of behavior? Did she relish the pain and the anguish she had caused those men and their families? So many nights I've watched her toss and turn because of her past crimes, but does she really regret them or is her sleeplessness for some other reason?
"How did you do it?" There was no need for Gabrielle to clarify the question. They both knew what she was asking.
Xena swallowed and her eyes hardened, but when she spoke it was in soft, almost rhythmic tones. "I used them much like I used everyone in those days. I praised them every step of the way. I marveled at their muscles and hinted at how I admired their manliness. I promised a fulfilling reward upon reaching our goal." She smirked.
"Oh, yes. I used the term 'our goal' - it included them and me in a special relationship." She looked at Gabrielle, "I told you I knew how to use people." She smiled through hooded eyes.
"When the treasure was in the cavern, I pulled out the drugged wine. I told them to enjoy themselves while I freshened up and prepared myself for their treat." She laughed. "Oh, they practically fell over each other toasting me while I sat hidden in the large cave waiting for the wine to take effect." She shook her head defiantly, "And when it did, I walled them in and left." Xena lay quiet for a moment with a small smirk on her face. "I was so proud of myself. I laughed about it as I made my way back to the village." She snorted. "And when their relatives asked after them, I said I had given them their just reward and
left them to it." She shook her head, her audience forgotten as she remembered the past.
"I remember one woman in particular." Her eyes grew soft and the smile left her face. "She had the guts to ask what the rest feared." She looked into the darkness of the cave. "When you left them, were they alive? And I was proud to be able to answer truthfully. When I left them they were alive."
Silence descended, broken only by the popping and crackling of the fire.
Gabrielle sat thinking, trying to reconcile her friend to the Xena of old. Unable to, she sighed heavily, and taking Argo's saddle blanket to wrap herself in, she lay down to rest. A stray thought popped into her head and she spoke it without thinking, "I wonder how long they waited for their men to return?"
Xena hissed, the thought cutting across her own heart. She was no longer lying down. She had sat up halfway through her tale and was staring restlessly into the fire. A little tickle in the back of her throat felt
suspiciously like the beginning of a sob. She fought for control. "I knew if you came face to face with my warlord days you'd leave. You have to love to hate." A single tear trickled down her face. "I'm so sorry. I never meant to hurt you."
Gabrielle rolled over and stared in shock at Xena's words. Watching the set of her shoulders, Gabrielle tried to understand the burden she was carrying. "Huh?" And with a quick shake of her head, she denied the words. "I haven't stopped loving you." She said softly. "I am horrified by what I have seen and learned tonight." She wet her lips. "I just need some time to sort it all out. I...just leave me alone, please." She hid her head in Argo's blanket and wished the horse was here...at least it would be a warm neck she could hug and cry into. She'd done it before.
Xena nodded, not trusting her voice and not really caring if Gabrielle could see her or not. No matter what nonsense the bard spouted, she knew their days together were now numbered. Gabrielle had much too gentle a soul to put up with her dark side now that she'd seen first hand just how evil it truly was. She got up from the campsite and moved her blankets to the far corner of the cave. She lay in silent pain, hating herself for her evil past, but unwilling to share that pain. The past was past. Move forward. That was her motto - her creed. Unable to sleep she waited until Gabrielle fell into a deep slumber and then she set to work building a small sled for the chest. No need to break her back getting the treasure back down the
As Xena worked on the sled, the tale she'd told Gabrielle unfolded in her mind's eye.
"I'm looking for six men, boy" The Warrior Princess let her eyes sweep the lanky, thin body of a boy starting his journey into manhood. "You hardly qualify." She said dryly, dismissing him with a wave of her hand.
The boy's eyes narrowed. "I am." He stood stiffly next to his grandfather and held his eyes on the warrior's back. Slowly, Xena turned around and looked thoughtfully at the teenage boy. Still looking into those icy blue eyes, the boy spoke again. "I fought your army and I still live."
A cruel smile lit Xena's eyes. "Oh?" She drawled the word. "I didn't realize I was talking to a warrior." Her lip curled up. "In that case, you can come." Her eyes moved to the man next to the boy. "Old man." A glint had entered her eyes. Eyes that had suddenly gone dark held the man in a piercing glare. "You can go. I won't be needing you."
"Princess." The man fell to his knees. "I beg you, don't take my eldest grandson." Tears fell from his eyes. "I'll do whatever you ask of me, but spare his life."
Xena laughed. "You heard the boy. He's a warrior. That makes him mine. Now go away before I kill you." The laugh turned cold and hard, and wheeling her horse about, she looked over the six men that waited silently for whatever fate she so ordained. "Follow me." She ordered, and turned her horse toward her camp, not looking - just knowing - that all six would follow behind her like docile lambs.
Upon entering her camp, the Warrior Princess ordered the men taken to a tent near hers, and for her Personal Cook to make the most glorious meal he could. For her six guests and herself to dine on. A sly smile shone brightly on her face as she looked over the prisoners' heads, and rested her eyes on those of her latest lover. Tonight she felt like celebrating. Another village was hers, her treasure would be safe, and none of her men would need to die to ensure it's safety.
Xena shook her head, returning to the present abruptly. Had she really been that cold and calculating? How had anyone loved her? She put aside the sled and rose to place more wood on the fire. But love her they did. So many of them, and all now dead. A sad smile found it's way to her face as she fed the fire, and once again she found herself transported into the past.
"I'll get the wood." The boy said, and putting his end of the chest down, rushed to do so, eager for the praise that was sure to follow.
"Here, Princess, let me." The man who used to be the village black -smith stepped to her horse's side. She smiled and laid a hand on his shoulder, caressing his muscles as she expressed her thanks. Inward, she laughed at his blush. She enjoyed her ability to turn men on.
"Princess." Yet another man called. "A blanket has been laid down for you. Please rest, and we will take care of your every need."
A warm smile lit Xena's face, but for those few close enough to truly know the woman, they would have seen how false it was. They would have known to be afraid - for the smile never reached her eyes. "I don't know what I'd do without you men." She said, licking her lips invitingly. Each of the men felt their heart swell, positive that this gorgeous woman was going to give herself to him when their task was done. They had heard talk in the army camp, and knew it was one way she paid her most loyal warriors.
As the six men sat around the fire eating, they talked of their home and joked about lovers and deeds performed. Each wondered if she would make them stay with her army when they finished, but none sounded as if they would mind. The Warrior Princess smiled. Xena gloried in the power she wielded. 'Let's see Caesar top me now'. She thought, and her heart filled with the icy rage that had come over her that first night M'lila had died. It had taken a long time, but she had chased down as many of his ships as
she could, and she had gotten much of her own jewelry back. She'd be damned if she'd ever let the Roman Empire get their hands on it again.
"Turn in." She demanded in an icy tone. The men looked up in surprise, and a touch of fear entered a few faces at the darkness that shone forth from her face. She forced herself to calm down, and smiled apologetically. "What I meant is, if we get an early start tomorrow, we will reach the cave sooner." She batted her eyes and lowered her head - as if suddenly a little shy. Her voice got lower, "As soon as we reach it, we can start our special celebration." Her voice held such a note of promise, that all the men
smiled and nodded their understanding.
Xena jumped. She bit back a swear. Her hand was bleeding. She'd accidentally sliced herself while whittling the slat. She'd never done that before. She'd better keep her mind on her work. She rinsed her hand and wrapped it quickly; ignored the throbbing and went back to work, this time concentrating on how she was going to get the gold and Gabrielle back to the village safely. As long as they could make it before the next snowstorm, they would be safe. One more storm and...she let her thoughts trail away.
Gabrielle lay eyes closed, breathing calmly. She had no intention of letting the Warrior Princess know that she was awake. Breathe, she reminded herself.
She lay awake, thinking. Unable to sleep, her mind turned over and over the things she had learned today. The pain in my heart is too great. I can't figure it out. I know Xena was a warlord. The best there was. Which means bad - real bad - but I always thought she lived by a code - an honorable code. Today I learned the truth.
She listened to Xena working and tried to relate this woman to the one that deliberately and cold-bloodedly killed the men in the cave. A shudder ran through her body. Xena saw, and rising carefully, lay her own blanket over the sleeping girl.
Oh gods! Gabrielle cried out silently. This warm and loving friend...her protector and confidant...what was she!? Cold blooded killer? Gods, I can't stand this! My stomach won't settle. Right this minute I wish I had never met the Warrior Princess! No, that's not true. Breathe...gods, don't be listening. I love her. I can't live with this, but I can't live without her. A single tear seeped out of her tightly clenched eyes.
Xena sat cross-legged by the fire. Normally she would have let it die down long before they were ready to move on, but with the cold, damp air of the cave, and the snow outside, she decided to leave it blazing until they were ready to leave.
She'd long since finished the sled and had even loaded two chests of treasure, taking the time for one last, loving, look at the pretty red dress from Stygeria; her wonderful headpiece; the golden bracelets, and her
marvelous coin armor shirt. She'd seized every ship she could to reclaim what was hers. She snorted derisively. I was a pompous ass - so full of myself and my beauty that I was blinded by it. A time best forgotten. She'd left those items in the third chest, safe in the burial tomb of the men and the boy. She could admit it now -she killed that boy because he'd be missed. To this day, she could remember the look the old man gave her - he knew the boy would not be returning. At the time, she'd enjoyed his pain.
Now she wondered why. She raised images of them and spoke in a low, soft voice. " Orestes the boy, Macaire, Jerome, Arsen the blacksmith, and Boliston the farmer, forgive me; accept this treasure I bring to your people as proof of my sorrow. May it grant you rest to know that that which you paid for with your life, will now bring life back to your home.
She glanced up as Gabrielle returned. "Ready?"
"Yes." Gabrielle said as she nodded her head.
"Good." Xena rose, dumping melted snow onto the fire. "You'll have to take both packs." She spoke as she gathered the reins of the small sled into her hands. "Can you manage that?"
Gabrielle flinched at the hardness in Xena's voice. "I think I can manage." She replied sarcastically, and shouldering both bags, followed Xena from the cave.
The heavy sled moved slowly along the path. The harness dug into Xena, chafing her shoulders with every step she took, yet she continued to doggedly place one foot in front of the other. Her sharp mind focused on the task before her, allowing nothing to interfere with its completion.
Gabrielle trudged wearily behind the sled. She'd fallen a couple of times, but Xena continued undaunted, and she'd risen - anger fueling her determination to keep up the neck-breaking pace set by her friend.
Slowly snow began to drift down from the heavens. So slowly that it took a few minutes before the danger penetrated Xena's mind. Swearing softly to herself she looked around. A light coat of white covered the surface of the trees and bushes. She pursed her lips and pulled more determinedly on the sled as she began a search for shelter.
A rising wind whipped the snow into their faces. It was growing colder and the snow was thickening; clinging to everything in sight. If she had only been thinking on the trip up, she could have set a shelter. Too late for that. Xena paused to catch her breath and looked at the small copse of trees in front of her. A smile formed on her frozen face and she bent to the task of reaching the trees. She should have time to build a shelter big enough for the two of them. Once they warmed up, the snow itself would act as an insulator.
The snow stung Gabrielle's cheeks, and the wind whistled eerily through the trees and bushes as she plodded unsteadily behind her friend. She was freezing. Certainly, Xena knew where she was going. A fluttery sense of panic rose inside her. What if she didn't know? The bard blinked and peered straight ahead at the warrior woman. She was moving with a little more speed and determination than she had been a moment before. Gabrielle gave herself a brief admonishment. Of course Xena knew where she was going.
Xena stopped just inside the small copse and immediately set about building a small shelter from the large branches. In no time at all, she had a small, V-shaped shelter with a hole in the top for the smoke from a little fire to exit out. It was just big enough for the two of them to sit side by side or to lay down in.
Gabrielle stood watching Xena, an expression of awe on her face. Even after pulling that heavy sled all morning, Xena had been able to move quickly, wasting no time or energy setting up the shelter and gathering enough branches to make a small fire so they could get something warm inside them. When Xena started to throw snow onto the shelter, Gabrielle moved to help her. The warrior threw her a grateful smile that instantly warmed the younger woman's heart.
Xena set their blankets down on a bed of half-dry pine branches, and laid their packs inside. The sled with the chests, she left outside of the shelter.
"Come on." Xena gestured for Gabrielle to crawl into the shelter, moving in quickly behind the bard. She drew the last, big branch over the opening to cut off the snow and wind.
Trapped together in a small space normally wouldn't have bothered either woman, but today, with the anger and resentment born from the ashes of their last discussion, the two sat in an uneasy silence.
Xena pretended to ignore the thick taste of fear in the air. She pulled the packs out from behind her, and taking out her flint, set about starting the fire.
"If you get out the small pan, we can melt some snow and have a hot meal." Xena forced herself to talk. "We won't be able to keep a fire going, but the snow and proximity of our bodies should be enough to keep us warm tonight."
Gabrielle sighed silently. Dinner had been a silent, dismal affair, and now she and Xena lay side by side in the small, cramped lean-to and the tension was as thick as paste. They were further apart this evening then when they had first started traveling together. If they didn't clear the air, she'd never get any sleep. She swallowed hard and took a deep breath, as tears welled up in her eyes. I don't know what to do; what to say. The silence deepened as she lay lost in thought. I can feel her lying there, stiff as a board. I just know she's thinking of leaving me again. A tear spilled over and Gabrielle bit down on her fist to stop from crying out.
Xena lay still. So many times in the past, she'd teased Gabrielle for talking too much. How ironic that tonight she'd give anything to hear that melodic voice regaling her with stories. To think that soon she'd never hear her again. A tear threatened to spill onto her cheek. When had she gotten so soft? How had the young bard managed to slip in where even her family had never dwelt? How could she go back to the bleak existence she'd known before Gabrielle?
"Gabrielle?" She didn't wait for an answer. She knew the young bard was awake. "I'm sorry." She began with an apology, "I have warned you," She shook her head. "Put people on a pedestal, and they will fall off." She swallowed hard, making a silent note to herself. I liked being on that pedestal. Her face twitched. "After I give the villagers the gold, I'll see you safe to wherever you want to go."
Gabrielle gasped, shock at Xena's words causing her to bolt upright and glare across the darkness at her friend. "That's it?" She exclaimed angrily. "I'm supposed to leave?! Because of this? Because of what I saw up there?" She shook her head. "I have no intention of leaving you!"
Xena turned to face the young woman, surprise written on her face. The moon was shining and the snow had slowed. Light filtered in through the cracks in the branches, and Xena could see Gabrielle's silhouette in the dim light. How could Gabrielle say that she'd stay? Xena had seen the hate; felt the bard recoil in fear. Of course, she was probably too afraid to admit she wanted out. Silent tears fell from her eyes.
Gabrielle trembled as the silence stretched on. No response. I know she cares. Why does she do this to us? Her heart constricted in pain, and she closed her eyes to the fear she felt. I'm tired of fighting her. Tears once more threatened to spill over. Why does she insist on pushing me away? Why can't I tell her how I feel? Why can't she tell me? This silent treatment is killing us.
Xena blinked her tears away. "Gabrielle," Her voice was soft, full of tenderness and regret. "You don't understand." She talked quickly, as if she had a lot to say and only seconds to say it in. "You've seen exactly what I was - what I am. You can't erase the past."
Gabrielle's eyes stung with unshed tears. "You're right, I can't erase the past, but I can help you make new memories. Memories that you'll want to keep. Memories that won't give you nightmares. Memories that can - that will - override the past." She played with her blanket, and looked in the dim light, trying to glimpse her friend. "I know that together we can do it."
Xena snorted derisively. "Don't be so sure. I tend to hurt people that are close to me, or hadn't you noticed?"
Gabrielle drew a sharp breath. With those words, she felt the weight of the pain Xena carried around. Her guilt at her past life is overwhelming, and my reaction to the scene at the cave didn't ease her burden in the least. No, if anything I added to it. She hung her head in shame. Now, how do I get through to Xena? "Xena." She looked in the dim light at the outline of her friend, and focused on her face. "I'm sorry for the way I reacted yesterday." She clasped her hands together, twisting and rubbing her fingers in frustration. "I can offer no excuse. I can truthfully say that maybe if you had told me before-hand, I would have handled myself better, but I can't know that for sure." She hung her head again, and a note of desperation entered her voice, "Together we can overcome anything. Please forgive me. I never meant to judge you." She paused as her voice cracked, "Don't send me away."
"Send you away?" Xena looked up at the bard, shock on her face. "I - I just thought you'd want to leave." She shrugged, confusion evident on her face, even in the dim light.
Gabrielle leaned forward, mere inches separating her from Xena. "Nothing could ever make me want to leave you." A ragged breath escaped Gabrielle's mouth as she attempted to explain herself to the one person she'd thought knew her well enough to need no explanations. She took in Xena's forlorn
look, and immediately realized that Xena's earlier quietness had come from belief that Gabrielle would leave, despite everything they had been through. Anything she might say would be twisted until it made sense to Xena and her warped opinion of herself. Desperation filled her heart. She needed to find a way to make the warrior understand how much she depended on her; needed to be a part of her world; needed her to be a part of her world.
Time stretched on, each woman lost in their own thoughts. Gabrielle studied Xena's expressive face, dismayed by the emptiness that became more pronounced with each passing moment. "Stop looking as if you think the world as we know it is coming to an end!" Gabrielle's voice turned sharp. "It isn't."
"No?" Xena questioned. She knew in her gut that Gabrielle would leave. If not as soon as they got back to the village, it wouldn't be much longer. She had been disgusted with what she'd seen, and her kind heart would make it impossible for her to stay now that she understood how Xena had reveled in her evil power.
"No." Gabrielle's voice was much softer this time. "And if I need to spend a lifetime showing you that it's not that easy to get rid of me, I will."
"Fine." Xena swallowed the tears that threatened her composure. The bard was so close, she could see her shining eyes. If only she could believe her. But too many times in the past she'd believed, only to be betrayed. Why should Gabrielle be any different? Even her own mother had taken the other side when it had come down to choices. She laid her head down, too tired to deal with emotions. Right now, she just wanted to forget the world and it's troubles.
"Let's try and get some sleep. We have a hard day ahead of us tomorrow." She closed her eyes, and tried to banish the images that immediately sprang forth. Sleep tonight would be near impossible. Silently, she begged the ghosts of the village to leave her, promising to right the wrongs of the past by ensuring a future for those villagers left alive.
The sun shone brightly on the freshly fallen snow. The clean, untouched appearance of the cold, white cover made the entire world seem washed anew. Gabrielle took a deep breath. Maybe things were going to be okay. They sure were looking better. Xena had even spoken to her this morning. With a smile
at nothing in particular, she set out behind Xena, determined to prove to the warrior that not everyone in her life would desert her. 'I told her once she wasn't alone anymore, now I have a chance to prove it to her. Only problem is, I still need to reconcile what went on in that cave with the woman I know.'
Despite the early stop yesterday, Xena was sure that if they pushed themselves, and no more snow fell, they could make it to the village that night. It wasn't that she was in a hurry to get rid of the bard - far from it, but she was in a hurry to get rid of the gold. It evoked too many memories; destroyed the peace she had striven so hard for; destroyed the only true friendship she'd ever had. Briefly, she closed her eyes, willing the pain to go away.
Gabrielle rubbed her stomach as it protested angrily. She'd had a small breakfast, and normally would have eaten lunch over an hour ago. She hesitated to speak. Xena was in her super-warrior mode, and that usually meant hours on end of enforced marching. Her stomach took the problem out of her hands as it grumbled quite loudly.
Xena stopped and sighed heavily. She had hoped to avoid this. She shrugged out of the harness and glared back at Gabrielle. "We may as well take care of that problem of yours now." And looked away as the younger woman visibly flinched. 'Damn! I did it again. Taking my anger at the situation out on her. I need to stop this.' She smirked in an attempt to lighten the mood. "After all, if we don't, it'll just get louder and scare all the animals."
'Well at least she's taking the humorous route.' Gabrielle thought silently. "Ahm...thanks." She said dryly. "I think my stomach was contemplating mutiny."
Xena half-laughed. Gabrielle was so forgiving. "We don't have time for a hot meal." She said apologetically as she handed Gabrielle trail rations. "I don't like all the storms we've been having, and I want to get to the village tonight if we can." She explained her actions, something she should have been doing all along.
Gabrielle looked up in surprise. Xena actually explaining her plan? She smiled as she accepted the food. "That's okay. I think I can manage." She bit off a piece of the dried meat.
Xena grinned. It took so little to make Gabrielle happy. The grin faded and anger took it's place, as she realized that she was rushing toward the end of her days with the younger woman. She bit angrily into her ration. The faster she ate, the faster they would be back on the trail. She could lose herself in the rhythmic motions of pulling the heavy sled through the virgin snow. She could forget that soon, she'd be alone again.
Gabrielle sighed as she watched the smile fade from Xena's face. What could possibly have changed her friend's mood so fast? She chewed slowly, lost in thought. There had to be some way to make Xena understand.
"Hey slowpoke," Xena spoke as she popped the last of her trail biscuit into her mouth. "For someone who's stomach was complaining, you're sure taking a long time to eat." Maybe if she pretended this was just one more stop on another long journey, she'd be able to deal with everything better.
Gabrielle shrugged. How could she explain that it was thoughts of the warrior that had her eating so slowly?
Xena waited impatiently. She'd never been good at sitting idly. Finally tired of waiting, she tilted her head questioningly. "Okay if I start? After all, I can't travel very fast, and you should be able to catch up
Gabrielle paused in her chewing. There had been a time, not long ago, when Xena wouldn't have trusted her to go from one end of a clearing to the other alone, now she wanted her to travel on a snowy mountain trail alone? What's up with that? She blinked and replied sadly. "Ya, go ahead. I'm almost done. I'll be right behind you."
Xena hesitated. It had been her idea, but she was still uncomfortable whenever the bard was out of her eyesight. "You sure?"
Gabrielle grinned, relieved. Xena was still worried about her. "Ya, I'm positive. I'll catch up." She watched as Xena hitched the harness up and slowly moved on. She is so strong. I'll bet not even a dozen men that we have encountered could move that sled so easily. As she watched her friend disappear around the bend, she ate the remainder of her lunch. Suddenly feeling very lonely and vulnerable, she jumped to her feet, and shouldering her bags, hurried on her way.
Gabrielle enjoyed the peaceful quietude of the mountains. She marveled at the beauty and sense of wonder with which it filled her soul. Briefly, she wondered if Xena felt the same way, or if the warrior had hardened her heart to such beauty. That thought brought to mind another - how to ensure that the warrior never doubt her friendship. 'To convince her that I will follow wherever she leads me, to the end of my days and beyond. I know that I left her before, but I've learned the hardway...she still doesn't see
The young woman paused to look skyward. Perhaps invoking the goddess of the Amazons, Athena...naaa, it'd never work. She looked back to the ground, instinct born from two years of travel with the Warrior Princess making her check that she still followed in Xena's steps.
Xena had turned off at the bend. Gabrielle frowned as she realized how lucky she was to have caught that move. 'Better pay more attention if I don't want to end up as a frozen bard.' This path was narrow, twisty, and rough. She noticed the parts where Xena had trouble with the sled, and picked up her pace. If they had been together, she could have helped steer it from behind. Finally, she caught sight of Xena entering a grove of pine trees, as she herself entered a small meadow. She almost called to the warrior, but was reluctant to break the silence of the woods. Instead, she doubled her effort, running over the hardened snow in an attempt to close the gap between them.
Xena had been traveling as fast as she could. The rocky trail had been difficult, and she was breathing a little hard. 'When I reach the river, I'll pause and wait for Gabrielle to catch up with me.'
Xena sat on a boulder by the river's edge. They were making good time, and as long as the weather held up, they would arrive in the village shortly after nightfall. Her eyes narrowed as they fell on the chests of gold. Her thoughts turned to days long past.
A captive stood defiantly, head held high, and surveyed the dock and the ship before him as though he were visiting royalty. A smile lit her face. Intriguing - and life had so recently begun to bore her.
Xena grinned humorlessly, and tossed a snowball across the water. 'I was such an insufferable, conceited bitch.' She shook herself. 'It's a miracle I had any friends.' That thought caused a long pause. 'Friends - but none like Gabrielle.' She turned and looked towards the woods. She saw the familiar figure trudging tiredly towards her, and a small smile came to her face. It was a magical moment, as though the thought itself had brought the smaller woman to her.
Gabrielle dropped her bags on top of the sled, and gratefully reached for the small flask Xena held out to her. The raven- haired warrior looked slightly worried as she noted the flushed appearance and the heavy
breathing. "I'm okay." Gabrielle grinned. "I just thought I'd sprint across that last section, and it was a little harder than I thought it would be."
"You sure?" Xena glanced from Gabrielle to the woods.
"I'm sure." She ducked her head down, suddenly embarrassed, but knowing she had to tell the truth. "I...I just missed you."
Xena blushed. "You did?" She blurted, surprised. "After the way I've been acting, I'd of thought you'd have been glad to get rid of me."
Gabrielle frowned. Tears pricked at her eyes. "Never." She said quietly. "You're..." her voice trailed off. Words failed her. She touched the warrior's knee. "I," She tried again. "No matter what has gone on...no,
that's not..." She paused, "Strike that comment." She took a deep breath. "We are friends." She stated clearly, and looked expectantly at Xena, who drew her eyebrows together puzzled, and nodded. "I knew you had a past that was...ahm, how shall I say it? Not one I'd approve of." Her smile was wry. "Yet, I knew I wanted to be your friend. I was aware of the evil you'd done." Her voice got quieter. "You fought so hard, and I've only seen the good. Knowing and seeing are two totally different things." She looked at
her tall friend with sorrow-filled eyes. "Maybe if you had spoken to me...explained it, instead of trying to hide it, I would have handled it better." She shook her head, and her hair tumbled down to hide her eyes.
"Please don't ever shut me out like that again."
The corner of her mouth lifted in a sardonic smile as Xena stared in wonderment at the feisty girl she'd called 'friend' for two years. She swallowed hard, unable to easily adjust to all the bard had said. That she
wasn't mad at her, she understood. That she still wanted to be friends, was unbelievable. What had she ever done to deserve such devotion?
"Xena?" Gabrielle questioned, perplexed by the woman's silence and starting to hate the small smile she'd always delighted in before.
"I'm sorry." Xena slid off the boulder to land in front of the smaller woman. "I guess if we're being honest, I owe you an explanation." The wry smile returned to her face. "Actually," She said, lifting one eyebrow. "I owe you a lot of explanations." She placed her hands on the bard's shoulders and looked earnestly into her face. "I," She twisted her lips up and frowned, biting the inside of her cheek. "Ahm, I never..." She rubbed her forehead, "Let me try again." She laughed wryly. "I didn't say anything because I was afraid to let you know - to let you see - how evil I was. I figured if I could keep you from seeing it, I could pretend to be the woman you thought I was, and not worry about you leaving. I knew if you saw those men - that boy..." She hung her head. "...you'd leave me. And I wanted you to stay more than anything I've ever wanted before." She let go of Gabrielle, and turned away. "I'm sorry to have disappointed you."
Gabrielle shot a truly pained look at Xena. "I seem to recall someone telling me to stop putting people on pedestals," She tilted her head to look straight at Xena. "That one day they'd fall off, and I would get
hurt." She swallowed. "You were right." She paused before continuing forcefully, "But it was my fault, and my misplaced anger that caused *our* pain. I had no right to strike out at you...to judge you. After all my preaching, I'm no better than all those villagers we ever ran into."
"STOP IT!" Xena commanded. "It's not your fault! You are WONDERFUL! The things you said at the cave were true. I did those things! I enjoyed the pain I caused." She shook her head, and tears filled her bright blue eyes. "I deserve your hate, but you...you don't deserve this pain. What can I do?"
Gabrielle felt a smile tugging at her lips. Xena did care. She looked at her friend, and the smile finally broke free - a soft, sweet smile that lit up her face, causing the green eyes to shine like emeralds. "I need
nothing...just your continued companionship. Do I have that?"
Xena nodded her agreement and smiled wryly. "As long as you want it."
Time ceased to have meaning as the two friends pushed on, both wanting nothing more than to get this latest mission over with. Xena was near the end of her strength. The emotional roller coaster she had put herself on had been draining, and she admitted - if only to herself - that she had caused the entire situation. She needed to remind herself that Gabrielle was no longer the naive, little village girl she had first met.
Gabrielle was an Amazon. She grinned to herself. 'I never thought I'd be happy that she'd been given the Right of Caste, but maybe it was for the best after all. At least I know that if anything ever happens to me, she'll have a home with women who understand her, and not have to go back to that village of hers.' She glanced back at her young friend. 'If I'm at the end of my endurance, I wonder how she's doing?'
"Gabrielle?" Xena called questioningly.
"Huh?" Gabrielle looked up, a haggard and worn expression in her eyes, quickly masked by the warm smile she sent Xena's way.
Xena's heart swelled with joy as she noticed the change. "You okay?"
Gabrielle nodded. She was really too spent to talk - trudging through snow had never been high on her lists of pleasurable ways to spend a day. "But how about you?" She asked worriedly. "You've been pulling that sled for two days now."
Xena gave her friend a wry smile. "Let's just say I'm glad the village isn't too far away." In the not-too-distant past, she would have just said 'no problem', but now, she figured after everything else that had gone on between them, she might as well start letting Gabrielle know that even the Warrior Princess had her limits.
Gabrielle paused in her tracks. Had she just heard Xena admit...? A full smile burst on her face as she realized the gift she'd just been handed. Finally! Partners in the truest sense. Xena was admitting that she was human. 'I'll have to be doubly careful when telling stories...no way I want anyone else to know her like this.' She hurried to catch up to Xena, and laying a hand on her back, asked, "So how far to the village? Do you think they'll have anything for us to eat when we get there?"
Xena laughed. "A little more than an hour, or maybe two hours. It all depends on how hard it will be to pull this, once we run out of snow. And as to food, I don't know."
Gabrielle looked at the ground. She hadn't realized how little snow there was, a sure sign that they were closing in on the village. Less snow in the flat areas made sense.
They walked silently for awhile. Gabrielle kept glancing at her friend. "Xena." She spoke hesitantly. She was not sure if what she wanted to discuss would cause Xena to retreat again or not, but it had been on her
mind, ever since she'd learned what Xena had done when she murdered those men in the cave. And she'd finally figured out how Xena could take care of it.
"Hmm?" Xena raised an eyebrow.
"About the cave," Gabrielle began and sighed sadly as Xena's eyes darkened and the walls started to go up again. "Don't." She said, gently squeezing the warrior's arm. "It's just I've been thinking..." Her voice trailed away. "If I were one of their relatives," Her voice rose. "I would be wondering the rest of my life what had happened. Was he alive or dead...how had he died?"
She paused and looked Xena in the face. "I think you need to tell the villagers what happened to their loved ones...let them know they are at peace; that the treasure you bring was guarded by them, even unto their deaths. No need to state exactly how they died, just that it was in guarding this treasure you now return to the village."
Xena blanched. "Tell them?" She stumbled and stopped, turning to look at Gabrielle. "You want me to just walk in there and say 'hi, here's some gold. By the way I'm sorry I killed six men from your village eight years ago." She shook her head. "The past is past. Can't we leave it there?"
"No, they have a right to know." Gabrielle touched Xena on the arm. "Think. If the situation were reversed, if it were Lyceus, and some warlord had taken him away..." She paused to let the idea sink in. "Wouldn't you want to know what had happened, and where his bones lay?" She watched as
understanding filled Xena's eyes and sorrow shone forth.
Xena shrugged Gabrielle's hand off her, and resumed walking. "I'll think about it." She murmured.
The wind had begun to blow. First, it was a gentle reminder that winter had arrived, but slowly it had picked up speed, until the snow began to rise from the ground to cloud their vision and sting their cheeks. Finally, they reached bare ground. Instead of snow, the path itself was a reddish, clay-like substance that the sled got mired in.
Xena swore softly. The damn thing was stuck again. Her feet hurt, her joints ached, and her nose was frozen. She was getting too old for this lifestyle. She tugged and pulled to free the sled runners for the fifth time. Gabrielle pulled the reins, and after what seemed an eternity, they heard the soft smuuck and plop as the sled came free. Gabrielle fell backwards, and the reddish mud sprayed into the air, covering Xena.
The two women stared, stunned, before breaking into laughter.
"I give up!" Gabrielle through her hands into the air.
"You give up?" Xena wiped mud out of her eyes. "I give up! This just isn't working."
Gabrielle grinned mischievously. "You mean to tell me that the mighty Warrior Princess is giving up; quitting, just like an ordinary person?" She laughed. "I don't believe it." She looked at Xena, then back at the ground where she still sat, and with a twinkle in her eye, scooped up a handful of the mud.
"You wouldn't." Xena stared in surprise.
"Wouldn't I?" Gabrielle said with an evil grin.
Xena closed her eye, an incredulous expression on her face as she slowly lifted a hand and wiped the mud away. A slow smile lit her face through the dirt. "You are dead." She said carefully as she advanced on the bard.
"Oh, oh." Gabrielle used her hands and feet to back pedal away from the advancing warrior. "No." She laughed. "I'm sorry. I'll brush Argo for a month; do the cooking, cleaning and f-"
Xena attacked. Dropping to her knees, she tickled the younger woman. "It's lucky for you that Lila told me your little secret the last time we visited Potedia. Otherwise, I would have taken you over my knees and spanked you for that." Xena said, as her hands continued to cause the bard to squirm and giggle uncontrollably.
"Stop." Gabrielle gasped between her laughter, tears rolling down her face. "I'm sorry." She held up her hands in surrender. "Please, I can't breathe."
Xena stopped, and ducking her head down close to Gabrielle's, laughingly said, "If you can't handle the consequences, don't start it." She stood up, pulling her friend with her. "Now let's see if we can't find our way to that village."
"Ya, you stink." Gabrielle wrinkled her nose.
Xena grinned. "Me? Look at yourself." She snorted. "That's the kettle calling the pot 'black'." She grabbed the reins, and began pulling on the sled again.
"Wait a minute." Gabrielle called, brushing herself off.
Xena stopped. "Now what?" She smiled to take the sting off her words. "It's late, we're muddy, cold, hungry, and tired. I really, really want to get to that village."
"I know." Gabrielle smiled back. She knew Xena wasn't angry. "I have an idea." She dropped her bags onto the sled. "If we both pull the sled at the edge of the path," She pointed. "...where the grass, is maybe it'll glide better." She finished uncertainly, looking at Xena for an answer.
Xena lifted one eyebrow, astonished. "It's worth a try." She eagerly pulled the sled to the side of the path, and helped Gabrielle secure their bags to it.
Gabrielle smiled at the warrior. "Here, let me." She picked up the harness, and with Xena's help, broke the knots apart. She took one side for herself, handing the other off to her friend.
Xena smiled, pacing herself to Gabrielle's step.
Gabrielle sighed with relief as the village came into sight. She would have laughed if she weren't so tired and hungry, but the sled had not co-operated; getting mired in the clay-like mud over and over again. She
was cold and damp and filthy. She smiled as she thought of the reason she was filthy...it had been worth it. Gabrielle shuddered, and wiped the back of her hand across her damp forehead, frowning when she looked at it and saw how filthy it truly was. "Oh, Gaia, Xena, do you realize what a fright we look? We are going to scare those poor villagers half to death."
Xena chuckled. "I don't care." She grinned at her friend. "With any luck, they'll take one look at us and let us have whatever we want." She raised a single eyebrow. "And I want a nice, long, hot bath."
"And food!" Gabrielle chimed in.
Xena's lips twisted up in a half-smile. "And food." She agreed.
"You came back." A man stepped onto the path. Xena raised an eyebrow, but it was Gabrielle who spoke. "She said she would."
The man blinked, surprised by the obvious rebuke. With a sardonic smile, he replied. "And I suppose she's given us plenty of reason to trust her in the past?"
Xena froze, the coldness seeping into her soul. Still, she let Gabrielle speak for her.
"Did she treat you that badly?" Gabrielle looked intently at the man. "Did she burn your village; Leave you with no supplies of your own?" She waited for his reply with a puzzled look on her face.
The man looked from one to the other uncertainly, but was spared answering the angry bard by another voice.
"Isidor," The voice said reproachingly. "The past is past, look at the two you keep waiting. They are tired, cold, wet and dirty. Bid them enter. Talk can wait."
The three turned to look at the young woman in the doorway, Xena with a slightly dazed look, to hear her own words echoed by this stranger. She frowned. It was disconcerting.
"You are right." Isidor sounded contrite. "I apologize." He bowed slightly. "Please come inside."
Xena noted that the apology didn't reach his eyes. "I need to check on Argo, my horse." She didn't say, but fear for her horse sat like a lump in her stomach. Hatred for her could have caused the villagers to harm Argo. She turned to Gabrielle. "Wait for me?"
Gabrielle frowned. Xena didn't think they'd harm Argo did she? She looked into Xena's eyes, and realized that's exactly what the warrior feared. She smiled reassuringly, "I've missed her, too." She admitted. "Why don't we both go?"
Xena smiled her pleasure as Gabrielle's words caused a welcome warmth to spread through her. She nodded her agreement and turned to the villager. "Here's the gold." She handed him the rope. "Where's my horse?"
Isidor looked from one woman to the other, unsure of what he had witnessed, but knew they were on edge. "The horse is fine. It's in there." He pointed to a small, crude building not far from where they stood.
Xena headed for the building, taking long strides. Gabrielle nodded politely to Isidor and hurried behind her friend.
"Xena?" Gabrielle said uncertainly as she entered the building that was passing as a stable. She stood still, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the change in light. She could just make out the image of Xena petting Argo with one hand and running the other over her, checking on the horse's condition. She smiled. "You do realize that if anyone could see or hear you talking to Argo your image would be blown?" She walked over to the warrior and laid a gentle hand upon her shoulder. "Hi, Argo." She reached over and patted the golden mare on the neck. "You okay?"
Xena glanced sideways at Gabrielle. "You asking me or the horse?" She grinned at the young woman, her relief at Argo's obvious health bringing out her teasing nature. The love she had for both horse and bard was evident in her smile.
"Both." Came Gabrielle's smiling response, her joy at the warrior's attitude evident in her own lightheartedness.
"We're both okay." Xena said confidently. "But..." She scratched her forehead. "I've changed my mind about the long bath." She looked with saddened eyes at her young friend. "I just want to leave." The unease she'd felt since returning to the village went unabated.
Gabrielle nodded and squeezed her friend's arm. "I understand. Why don't we get Argo packed up and make ourselves presentable before we say good bye to the villagers?"
Xena nodded agreement, thankful that Gabrielle understood. "It'll have to be a cold cleaning - no fires in here." She said, making it perfectly clear to the bard that she had no intention of leaving the safety of the stable until they were ready to leave.
Gabrielle simply nodded and looked around. "There's a well in the back by the paddock. We can draw water and fill up that big bucket."
"And our packs are here, so we can change into clean gear." Xena picked up the bags they had left in the village and moved to the empty stall by Argo. "Here, you get cleaned and changed while I get Argo ready." She handed Gabrielle the bag. "I'll get ready after Argo and you."
Xena bent to the task, listening with one ear for movement outside the closed door and to Gabrielle as she talked about nothing in particular. Xena's grin stayed on her face, as she took her turn in the cold water. Her young friend certainly knew how to talk.
Xena double-checked Argo's cinches, before turning to Gabrielle, "You ready
Gabrielle and Xena listened in silence to the noise coming from the small building. It sounded like an argument was in progress. Gabrielle looked questioningly at her friend. The warrior gave her a tight smile, squaring her shoulders before walking into the house they'd been invited into
Evidently, the house had been turned into the village meeting area. All the survivors were gathered in the large room, and the treasure chests sat in the middle of the gathering. Silence fell over the small crowd as Xena's and Gabrielle's entrance was noticed.
"Did we interrupt something?" Xena asked with cynicism.
The crowd parted, and Isidor stepped forward. "We don't want your money!" He spit the words out. His anger at the warrior woman had grown in the days she'd been gone. He had been too young to recognize her when she had ridden into the village, but after she left, the elders had spoken of the past. She'd taken his brother...He remembered his brother...
"Really?" She paused before them, crossed her arms and frowned. "That wasn't the way it appeared when I - we," She acknowledged Gabrielle's assistance, "...left on our mission."
Gabrielle smiled her encouragement, but stood silently beside the warrior. This was Xena's battle, and she needed to do it herself. All the young bard could do was support her friend.
The rest of the people stood silent, waiting to see what harm would befall Isidor for speaking his mind. The Warrior Princess' temper was well known. Tales of her winter's reign were still told in hushed voices, on warm summer evenings, when the warmth of the day could dispel the fears.
Xena took a deep breath and looked to Gabrielle. The smile was enough to spur her onward. "Do you all feel as Isidor does?" She smiled slightly as she noted the looks of doubt passing through the small gathering. She continued, "This treasure belongs by right to this village."
"We know how you got that money. We remember. And we want no part of your ill begotten treasure." He sneered the words at her.
Xena nodded acknowledgment of his words. She bit her lower lip. "I admit that I got this treasure through piracy, but the tale does not end there."
She let out her breath rather slowly, and let her eyes rest briefly on each and every person sitting or standing in the room. "This treasure belongs to all of you because the last blood spilled for it came from this village." She closed her eyes to the gasps that came from the throats of the villagers.
Gabrielle rested her hand lightly on Xena's back, willing the dark warrior to continue; loaning her her own strength with just a touch.
"It's blood money!" Isidor exclaimed. "We don't need it! We'll find a way to survive the winter without it."
"How?" Xena asked angrily. "You forget - I know how harsh the winters are in this area." Quickly, she locked down all her emotions, forcing herself back to a state of calmness. "The treasure is here for you - for all of you - as I promised less than a week ago. What you choose to do with it is up to all of you."
She turned her steady regard to Gabrielle, gathering strength once more. How blessed she was to have this friend. Even now she stood at her back, and not with the villagers. And she knew the whole story. "It's true, this is blood money." She swallowed, and with her voice expressionless, began to talk again. "There are seven reasons I can give to you for accepting this money."
Her shoulders shook slightly as she steeled herself to the task at hand. "Several years ago, I came through this valley with my army. I wintered my army here. I took control of your lives. We took whatever we wanted; food, drink, beds, anything. Before winter set in, I took six men - no, make that five men, and one boy on the cusp of manhood. I took them in order to spare my own men. They carried this treasure up the mountain. I left them in..." She faltered as she felt Gabrielle's hand fall from her back, then continued. "I left them with an order to guard the treasure until I came back."
She shuddered slightly as she admitted, "I never went back for them. Instead..." She couldn't face the accusing faces. She turned her back from Gabrielle and faced the room sideways. "I triggered a rockslide and left them buried there to guard the treasure. I thought if I didn't find a way to keep them there, they'd leave as soon as I was gone, or maybe after my army moved on in spring...I couldn't risk that...I needed to make sure it would be safe...so they died." Xena looked sideways at the bard, concerned with her reaction, despite their words to one another. Gabrielle's face was white. Xena's eyes narrowed and hardened. She'd been right. Gabrielle couldn't handle her dark soul. A feeling of despair and defeat came over the warrior. She waited, her face a mask; stern and impassive, but her mind was churning.
The old one - the one she'd called grandmother - stepped forward, and looking Xena in the face, asked the same question she'd posed to the warrior when she was a young woman. "When you left them, were they alive, or had you already killed them?" The woman waited, staring into Xena's expressive blue eyes with her own fathomless, black eyes, searching the warrior's soul for the answer.
This time Xena looked away first. "Both." She answered. "They just didn't know that they were dead men." With bleak eyes, the warrior faced her elder and admitted, "But I knew."
Turning away, unable to bear the hate pouring from thirty souls, she prepared to leave, but was humbled by the words of Gabrielle - words that haunted her still - 'If it were Lyceus...' She paused to share one last
thought. "If I could change the past, I would. The treasure is here. Use it or not, but know the choice is yours to make. There is no taint on this money - not for this village."
She paused in the doorway. Her second sense that let her know where Gabrielle was told her the younger woman hadn't left her spot in the room. Gabrielle was standing still. And from the feeling in her shoulders, the bard was staring at her.
"Gabrielle?" She asked quietly, not turning around. When there was no reply and no movement behind her, she smiled bitterly. It was, after all, what she'd expected...Her shoulders slumped, alone again. She stepped through the door and moved quickly to Argo. She turned as she stepped into her stirrup, and at the sight of the empty doorway, her heart froze. Abandoned. It was nothing new. She waited silently for the deadly cold to steal over her soul and deaden her pain, and as she felt the wall going up, she welcomed the ice as a long missing friend.
The young bard missed the soft calling of her name, anger at the treatment Xena had received blocking out all sound.
Gabrielle stared sadly after her best friend, before turning accusing eyes on the hapless villagers. "You were willing to accept the treasure before it was here." She glanced around the room. "She risked everything; her life; mine; our friendship...to bring you this treasure. Partly in reparation for misdeeds from the past, and partly because it was the right thing to do. This is how you repay her?"
She stepped forward, anger propelling her to threaten and counsel in the same breath. "Rebuild your village, use the treasure she brought you, but use it wisely. Flaunt your wealth, and you'll have every warlord between here and Egypt seeking the source of your wealth - and she won't be here to
protect you. She'll never step foot in your village again."
She turned to go, but couldn't resist the chance to let some of her anger out. "Are you all innocents? What gives you the right to judge her so?! Have none of you ever done wrong? Haven't we all done something that we will regret for the rest of our lives? Don't judge someone unless first you've walked in their shoes."
She looked straight at the elder as she said her last words. "She buried your dead and left a marker...she remembered each one by name." She smiled at the look of understanding. Her anger dissipated, she hurried for the door, eager to leave this village to its own fate.
Stepping through the doorway, she spotted the warrior already astride Argo. She paused and glanced toward the sky. Nightfall wasn't far away. They needed to hurry if they were to get anywhere this evening. She frowned as she realized that Xena hadn't acknowledged her arrival. Normally, the warrior would have made some sarcastic comment about finally being able to leave, or at least lifted an eyebrow in her direction.
"Xena?" She rushed to the warrior and laid a hand on her leg, surprised by the shudder she felt, but her new understanding of her friend made this easy. "You thought I wasn't coming." She spoke soberly. "I thought we had this conversation up the mountain?" She shook her head. "I seem to be repeating myself a lot lately, buuut, if that's what it takes..." She smiled softly up at Xena. "Remember, no one is perfect...no one."
Xena felt the ice retreat from her heart. A tear slipped out as she opened her eyes and looked down at the young bard, love and relief shining from the blue orbs. "Want to ride?" She reached down to pull her friend up.
Gabrielle grinned. "Much as I hate riding, now seems like a good time to ride. That is, if we want to be a good distance from here before it gets too dark." She accepted the hand up, and snuggled tight against Xena's back. Taking advantage of her position, she murmured into her friend's ear, "Friends forever." She clung tighter as Argo was spurred into a canter. "If it takes me a lifetime to convince you, so be it."
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