by R. D. Elliott
The sounds of fighting could be heard just around the bend in the road.
"Sounds like our cue," whispered an excited bard. The tall dark warrior looked blankly at her as she dismounted quickly, quietly making her way through brush to see what lay ahead. Less than quietly, the smaller woman kept pace behind her. Xena looked over her shoulder to glare at Gabrielle's lack of stealth while the bard mouthed a silent "sorry." Peering around the trees, they saw four large warriors terrorizing a couple of merchants. The battle was already over as the merchants lay crumpled at their feet.
Turning to her companion, Xena simply said, "Stay here."
"Stay!" she growled as she slipped out into the open. "Hey boys, care to take on someone more in your league?" The men slowly turned from pillaging the trunks on the wagon, and began to chuckle sinisterly as they spotted the tall woman.
"Happy to oblige, milady," sneered the tallest letting a crooked, broken smile spread across his face. He easily ambled forward, obviously unaware of who he faced. "Come on, little lady, let me show you what a man is for."
"Don't call me little lady." And with that, the brigand tasted dirt. For an instant his comrades froze, surprised by the quickness of the attack. And then, as one voice, they screamed as they rushed the woman before them.
Gabrielle watched the fight unfold, knowing Xena would dispatch these robbers quickly. However it wasn't going quite as quickly as she anticipated. Obviously the first one had just lowered his guard, because the remaining three were worthy opponents. Though Xena had that feral smile on her face, Gabrielle could tell her friend was concentrating, taking nothing for granted. Then the first one slowly rose from the road. The fury in his eyes at having been taken out so easily shone brightly as he slowly reached for a dagger in his belt. Gabrielle's body moved without thought. Bounding from behind cover, she raced for the man as he drew aim on Xena.
"Xena!" she yelled in warning as she brought her staff down hard on his hand, making him drop the dagger.
Xena worriedly turned at the cry of her friend, distracted from the fight in front of her. She watched as Gabrielle was hit hard to the ground and in that instant felt as a blade cut across her arm. Whirling back to her attackers, she sliced through the two on her right while kicking the one on her left in the head and was rewarded to hear a sharp snap as his head fell back. Without hesitation, the grim warrior turned back to see her companion on her back trying valiantly to ward off blows with her staff. Her war cry piercing the air, Xena ran at the man as he turned to welcome her sword into his belly. Again that look of surprise on his face as he sank down to his knees and then pitched forward. Xena turned her attention to the small woman who was breathing heavily. There was going to be a nasty bruise on her left cheek, but other than that, she looked fine. Inwardly Xena breathed a sigh of relief, outwardly she merely grumbled, "I told you to stay put."
Before the young bard could reply, the warrior had turned on her heel to check on the two merchants who were beginning to regain their senses. After many thank you's and much praising, the two men were on their way leaving behind a sullen warrior princess and a perplexed bard. Xena whistled for Argo then turned, still not saying a word, and continued up the road.
"Xena - wait ... I ..." Great. Gabrielle knew she was in for the silent treatment for a while. Better to wait 'til Xena had had a chance to cool off and they'd set up camp. Gabrielle had to practically jog to keep up with the long legged warrior.
After another candlemark of walking, Xena turned abruptly off the road into a glen and began to set up camp. Gabrielle came breathlessly into the clearing, sinking to her knees and trying desperately to suck in enough air. "And the warrior princess wins again, " Gabrielle panted hoping to alleviate the tension. It was then she finally saw the cut on Xena's arm. "Xena, you're hurt. Why didn't you say something? I should have taken care of that immediately." Gabrielle reached for the medicine pouch as Xena yanked it from Argo's saddle. "Got it." Was all Gabrielle heard as the warrior turned and walked away. This is definitely not good thought the bard. Just what is the problem?
"How about I make the campfire while you tend to your arm?" But a grunt was the only response she received. It's gonna be a loooong night. Resolved, she turned to make the fire, unpack Argo, and start the supper.
Xena watched as the young bard busily tended to everything. Each time Gabrielle turned in her direction, she was careful to be looking elsewhere. What was she thinking allowing this girl to follow her? She was going to get her killed, or maybe get them both killed, she thought as she finished wrapping her arm. She grabbed up some ointment from the pouch as she walked toward Gabrielle who was carefully brushing Argo. Xena stood a moment looking at the innocence before her. She wanted to protect Gabrielle, not punish her, but her emotions warred within her as usual. Sensing her near, Gabrielle turned to look up into cold piercing blue eyes.
"Here. Put this on your cheek." Xena shoved the jar at Gabrielle as she took the brush out of her hand and continued Argo's care.
"Thanks, but I can finish this first. You should rest your arm."
And with that Gabrielle knew the conversation was at an end. She'd give her 'til after supper, but then the two of them were going to talk. She could only stand the silence so long.
"Xena, time's up for sulking. You're mad. Obviously I did something you're unhappy with, but how can I apologize if you don't tell me what I did?" Silence. "Come on, Xena, talk to me, please. I'll listen."
"You didn't listen last moon and ended up in a dungeon. You didn't listen last week and ended up with a knife at your throat. And you didn't listen this afternoon." The warrior grumbled as she picked up her sword and whetstone.
"I told you to stay put."
"You always say that-"
"I said stay. You didn't. Those men weren't simple thugs. I could tell they were trained mercenaries. You could have gotten yourself killed. You very nearly got me killed, distracting me!" Where had all that come from? Xena hadn't meant to say any of it. One look at Gabrielle told her she might as well have slapped her with her hand. Damn. Maybe it was for the best. Maybe now Gabrielle will pay attention to me.
"I'm sorry, Xena," she began timidly, "but the man behind you came to and pulled out a dagger. I couldn't just stand and watch you be hurt or even killed."
Xena hadn't realized this was the reason for her friend's intrusion into the fight. Damn again. Stupid warrior not to have realized. "I could have handled it. Do you think I need you to watch my back? A little bard from Potedeia? Gee, how ever did I manage all these years without you? Next time, just do what I tell you, Gabrielle, and no one will get hurt." Xena glared at her, angry with herself for this outburst.
"I'm sorry." Gabrielle said simply, controlling the tears that threatened to fall.
"Forget it. Let's get some sleep. Tomorrow we'll reach Thessaly."
The walk into Thessaly was uneventful and quiet. Xena was accustom to keeping silent, but for Gabrielle it was very abnormal. Xena had watched as Gabrielle had risen for the first time without prodding, breaking camp and preparing Argo for the trip. She kept out of the warrior's way, after her brief attempt at "good morning" was met with a barely discernable grunt. Usually Gabrielle entertained them both with stories as they walked, but today the bard kept her mouth shut and her eyes ahead. 'Good. It's nice to have a little peace and quiet now and then.' But that's not really what Xena wanted, however, what she did want was beyond her grasp.
As they neared the town, the bustle and noise of merchants and buyers filled the air. There was even a small traveling show set up at the end of the main street.
Xena looked at her companion who was excitedly taking in all the happenings around her. 'She's such an innocent child, delighting in the simplest things.' Xena almost let herself smile as she watched Gabrielle's joy flood her face. "Here," she handed Gabrielle a handful of dinars, "get supplies. I'm going to take Argo over to the smithy's."
Gabrielle felt lost as she watched Xena's back walk from her. Taking a deep breath, she sighed. 'Ok, nothing to be done but try to keep out of trouble. I'll get the supplies quickly, no dawdling this time, keep my mouth shut, really try to do whatever Xena asks, and just maybe this will blow over. Please gods, let it.'
Gabrielle made her way efficiently through the stands, getting only what was needed, and bargaining well enough that even Xena might approve. Just as she was about to turn to the stables to find Xena, she happened to see a small table with jewelry. Beautiful pieces aligned the surface and one in particular caught her eye. "This is very breathtaking. How much?" she asked the artisan sitting behind her treasures.
"Twenty?" she gulped at the high price.
"It's pure silver, very fine intricate work."
"Yes, it is." Gabriel turned to reach for her personal money pouch, counting the meager contents. "I only have thirteen." she sighed wistfully.
"But there is more in your other pouch."
"That's not mine to spend. Please, could I talk you into putting this piece aside? I might be able to come up with the rest a little later. You see, I'm a bard, and sometimes people tip me for my stories."
"You must really want this. It would look pretty around your neck."
"Oh, it's not for me. For a friend." And she could feel the blush fill her face as she thought of the pendant around Xena's strong beautiful neck.
The woman looked into the sweet face of the bard oblivious to her surroundings as she thought of her friend. It must be true love. "Ok, I'm having a sale. This hour only, this pendant is fifteen dinars."
Gabrielle looked at her startled. "That's really sweet of you, but I still only have thirteen."
"You can't borrow just two from the other pouch?"
"No, this belongs to my friend. But thank you," and she turned to leave.
True love it was. "Wait. Traveling bards get a special discount. Only thirteen dinars."
Gabrielle turned excitedly at this generosity. "I couldn't possibly take advantage of you like that."
"I remember what it's like to be in love. Here, take." And with that she slipped the pendant into a small leather pouch and handed it to the surprised bard.
'In love? Just what had been on my face?' Snapping herself out of her thoughts, she handed over her small purse, thanked the artisan profusely, and went running back to the stable in high spirits over this special gift.
Xena was just coming out of the smithy's, feeling confident she had left Argo in good hands. Now the task of finding the bard who undoubtedly had lost all sense of time and was caught up somewhere in the throng looking at each and every offering. To her surprise, Gabrielle found her as she had gotten sidetracked by a display of knives and daggers.
"Xena, look! I got all the provisions, and for a lot less than you gave me. And I also got this!"
Her face beamed as she handed over the small leather pouch. Xena's brow arched in wariness. "Well, it seems that things are back to normal for her. All is forgotten." Xena reached in pulling out the pendant. It was a beautiful carving of a horse with mane flying, strong and proud, reminding her of Argo. 'It is beautiful. But damn the gods, why is she wasting our money on trinkets!'
"Isn't it amazing?!" Gabrielle giggled with anticipation at Xena's response.
"Glad to see you think I'm made of money."
"What - ?"
"Just because I hand you a fistful of dinars, doesn't mean you have to spend every one."
"But I di-"
"Just take it," she said roughly holding out her hand, "I'm sure you can't wait to put it on."
Gabrielle stared at Xena unable to fathom this dark mood. Carefully she put the provisions down at Xena's feet, and then handed her the remaining dinars. "Here's your change. And I got the pendant for you. I know you don't usually wear jewelry, but I thought you'd like it because it looks like Argo." With that, she turned and walked away melting into the crowd.
Xena stood frozen, dumbfounded by this expression of love. 'Dumb, dumb, dumb. What's wrong with me? Why am I acting this way to the one person who's shown me kindness?'
Shaking herself, Xena slipped the pendant back into the pouch and onto her belt, than grabbed up the parcels to tuck safely away with Argo's saddle. Determinedly she dove into the sea of people to find her bard and somehow set things right.
Gabrielle had wondered down to the end of the street to watch the traveling show hoping to distract herself from her conflicting feelings. She watched half-heartedly as one of the troupe juggled balls, then knives, then torches. The spectators stood spellbound cheering and applauding. Next a woman stepped onto the raised platform carrying a lyre and began to strum plaintively. The bard noticed that she was almost as tall as Xena with long chestnut hair. 'Great. I came here to get my mind off of Xena.' Then the woman began to sing and the normal chatter that occurs in a crowd disappeared. When she had finished, the cheers were louder than before.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, " the robust leader Jax began. " If you enjoyed Arianna's music, please feel free to fill the hat. And now we have a special treat for you. We present our master of illusion, Tyrus."
A slender fellow with pinched features stepped out and began with the usual tricks, pulling coins out of ears, making small items disappear. While the children were enthralled, the adults began to talk, quickly losing interest. As the crowd shifted, Xena spotted the strawberry blonde close to the platform.
"Gabrielle." Now that she'd found her what should she do? She looked into the piercing green eyes that were still red-rimmed with dried tears. 'Apologize, you big oaf. Beg for forgiveness. Just say something!' "I'm ready to go." The tiny shoulders visibly sagged just as a voice broke through their tension.
"You there, the little blonde lady in the front, if you would be so good as to lend us a hand."
Realizing that Tyrus was speaking to her, Gabrielle turned, grateful for the postponement, and jumped onto the stage. "Let's give the lady a hand for volunteering. Now my dear, check these manacles for me if you will." He passed the heavy manacles for Gabrielle's inspection which she scrutinized carefully. "Ahh, it seems the lady knows her chains." Laughter rippled through the crowd as Gabrielle blushed and Xena glared. "Now if you would be so good as to secure these to my wrists and ankles. Yes, that's it. Thank you. Now you should search my person to make sure I have no key hidden." This brought another round of laughter, but Gabrielle deftly searched the man to the crowd's amusement. "Find anything of interest, my dear?"
"Well, I didn't find a key," she smiled sweetly as the crowd hooted more.
"And now if you could please stand right behind me. Thank you." And with no further fanfare, Tyrus stretched out his arms shaking the chains vigorously, then bent over as if to touch his toes, and before anyone knew what was happening, somersaulted forward free of the manacles. As he bounced to his feet, he stepped back to direct the crowd's attention to Gabrielle who stood frozen staring at the manacles that she now wore. Cheers exploded as Tyrus beamed, bowing elegantly. "Thank you! Thank you! And I think we should also thank my sweet assistant." Tyrus delicately pulled a key from Gabrielle's bodice and began to unlock the manacles. "Please, my dear, tell us your name so we can thank you properly."
Regaining her composure, Gabrielle let her voice spread over the crowd, "I'm Gabrielle the Bard from Potedeia."
Jax bounded forward upon hearing this. "A bard?! Then surely we are in for even more treats today. Please, Gabrielle, won't you share one of your stories with us?"
"Well, I ..."
"I think our bard needs a little encouragement, folks." And encourage they did.
Gabrielle smiled, took a deep breath, and began to weave a tale of adventure, heroes, love, and redemption. Xena watched as her friend came alive telling her tale. The people became quiet, hanging on her every word. 'She's so beautiful when she speaks. This is what she should be doing, not following me around. Surely this is her rightful destiny.'
As Gabrielle finished her tale, people were applauding as some wiped tears from their eyes. Jax stepped to Gabrielle's side. "That was magnificent," he purred in her ear. "All right, folks, let's give it up for the young Bard of Potedeia." Applause continued as Tyrus and Adrianna walked among the people holding out coffers to be filled. Bounding back on the stage, they passed the brimming containers to Gabrielle. "Thank you, Gabrielle, for giving our small show such a dramatic ending. And thank all of you for your attention to our humble offerings. We have greatly enjoyed our stay in your beautiful town. Good day to you and may the Gods bless you."
In good spirits the crowd dispersed, chattering excitedly.
Jax turned to Gabrielle taking her hands, holding them gently. "You are a talent, Gabrielle. We could use someone like you in our troupe. You would add a whole new dimension."
"It would be wonderful to have another woman in the company," Adrianna ventured.
Tyrus merely beamed, nodding enthusiastically . Gabrielle was overcome with the feeling of comfort these people gave. 'How nice it would be to travel with people who understand me, who see me as contributing to the group. So tempting, but I could never leave Xena. When I'm with her, the world feels right.' Gabrielle looked at the silent warrior who stood listening to the exchange, but offering no interference. There was darkness on that face, but the steel blue eyes flickered for an instant with fear, Gabrielle was sure. "Thank you, but I have other commitments."
A spark lit Jax's eyes for a heartbeat and was gone as he smiled warmly. "Our loss indeed. But if you should change your mind, we're traveling west from here."
"Really? That's the way we're headed, too ... I think." She glanced at Xena for confirmation and was barely able to discern an affirmative nod.
"Perhaps we might travel a ways together?"
"That would be wonderful," Gabrielle blurted out, realizing instantly she had crossed the line with the brooding warrior. Cautiously she glanced at Xena who merely shrugged and headed for the smithy's.
"We'll be packed and ready to leave in a candle mark. Mouse!" A young boy of ten appeared out of nowhere. "Time to close it up and move, boy. Meet you outside the gates, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle couldn't believe they could so quickly gather all their things, and wondered at their haste to leave, but was more concerned with her friend, hurriedly putting the troupe out of her mind. She caught up to Xena at the smithy's where she was just finishing loading Argo.
"Xena, I'm sorry about accepting their invitation. I should have asked you first. I was just excited and-"
"It's all right, Gabrielle."
"It is?" the bard asked startled.
Completing her ministrations of Argo, Xena continued without eye contact, "Things have been a little tense lately-"
'A little? The master of understatement as usual.'
"-and maybe a little distraction would be good." 'and also give Gabrielle the opportunity to think seriously about their offer. They certainly could give more than I can.'
Laughter and excited chatter rang from the wagon as they made their way down the rode. Xena rode ahead in silence very aware of Gabrielle's captivation with her new companions. Before the travelers realized, Xena was signaling that it was time to set up camp for the night. With so many hands to help, camp was set in short order and supper cooking. Though Xena tried to stay on the fringes, Jax would not allow it.
"Please, let us share our wine with you," he said as he poured her goblet full, then sat beside her.
"Fine horse you have."
"I raised her from a foal."
"Just beautiful. I once had a horse very similar." And Jax began a rather long-winded tale, barely coming up for air.
'And I thought Gabrielle talked a lot,' the warrior smirked. 'At least he keeps my mug filled. And it really is good wine.' Xena rarely drank this much, especially with strangers, but there was something about it, hard to resist.
"Gabrielle's been telling us of all your adventures together."
"Gabrielle talks too much."
The strawberry blonde head spun sharply at the comment, sorrow in her eyes. She turned back away, busying herself with the fire.
"Still, it must be nice having someone to share it all with."
"What's nice is having someone to do the cooking, when she doesn't burn it, that is."
Shoulders stiffened, but continued their work. Jax's eyes darted between the two, a flicker of a smile crossing his lips. It seemed the warrior was oblivious to the damage she was doing. Maybe he could help things along. "Well, we all have a problem with the fire now and then, but I'm sure there are many other ways Gabrielle helps in your travels."
"When I'm not having to save her ass."
A plate clattered to the earth, breaking.
"Did I mention she's a bit of a klutz?"
Quickly Gabrielle turned, looking questioningly into the steel blue eyes. 'Was Xena teasing? Was she serious? Maybe she'd just had too much to drink. Yeah, that was it. It was the wine talking. Or maybe the wine was letting her talk, revealing her true feelings.'
Jax continued to fill the goblet and encourage Xena's barrage of put-downs. Gabrielle became uneasy with the change in the atmosphere around the little camp. There was something in Jax's eyes that told her he was enjoying this turn of events. Gabrielle glanced at Adrianna and Tyrus and noticed a subtle change in their demeanor, too. Was she being paranoid? Xena certainly was relaxed.
"So, Xena, you never told me if you enjoyed our little show."
"I only caught the end. Tyrus there and the trick with the chains. That was nice."
"I'm sure you've already figured out how he does it."
"Bet I could if I could get a look at them."
"Then you shall. Tyrus! Bring over the manacles you use in the show."
Tyrus smiled and nodded, handed something to Mouse, then approached with the chains.
"Tyrus, let Xena have a look at those. She wants to see if she can uncover your secret."
"Sure thing," he said tossing them to her.
Xena carefully inspected the manacles and soon discovered a hidden switch and hinge. Fiddling with them for a few moments, she soon got them to open for her. "Very clever," she said, handing them back.
"Thank you," Tyrus beamed. "Getting them off is easy. The real trick is slipping them on the person behind you. The key is picking someone short. Care to give it a try?"
"Xena, I'm surprised at you," Jax goaded as he stepped between them. Gabrielle was watching the goings on carefully and thought she saw Mouse move to Tyrus and then disappear.
'Something is definitely up.'
"You've figured out Tyrus's secret. At least indulge him with a try," continued Jax.
"I understand, Xena. Took me 10 tries to get it right. You certainly wouldn't want to make a fool of yourself in the attempt," Tyrus laughed good-naturedly.
The warrior squared her shoulders as she rose. "I think I will give it a try."
"Xena-" Gabrielle interrupted, "I don't think that's such a good idea right now."
"Well, I do." And she turned to Tyrus allowing him to snap the manacles on her ankles and wrists.
"Jax, why don't you stand behind Xena?"
"Glad to oblige."
Xena bent over, feeling for the levers, but couldn't find them. Too late, she realized they'd been switched. One very irate warrior straightened to growl at the men. However the sudden movement caused her to feel even more lightheaded than she already was. Before she could react, Jax had slipped another chain through a ring on the ankle manacle and looped it around the tree directly in back of them. Xena merely yelled in anger, unable to react quick enough, her reflexes having been badly impaired by the wine. 'Damn! The wine was drugged! Why didn't I realize?'
As soon as Gabrielle saw what was happening, she grabbed her staff and took a defensive stance.
"I don't know what your game is Jax, but I suggest you let her go right now."
"Ah, Gabrielle, we're just having a little fun," he sneered sinisterly.
Without hesitation, the bard swung at his head, but Jax was prepared and ducked easily. "Mouse! Now!"
Gabrielle felt a sharp prick in her shoulder. "What ...?"
"Sorry, Gabrielle." He laughed as she valiantly tried to continue her attack. 'Gods! Have I been poisoned or drugged? Doesn't matter ... must get to Xena.' Slowly she sank to her knees and then finally pitched forward, still and unmoving.
"Gabrielle, no ..." Xena was close to crying as she watched the beautiful woman collapse just out of reach.
"So sorry, Xena, but that's it for your little friend. Hemlock is very quick."
Xena turned to Jax trying to comprehend through the fog of her mind all that was happening. "Why?"
"Because I can." And with that he cracked the warrior across the skull with a club.
"Well done, Jax, " Adrianna complimented as she came forward to plant a kiss on his mouth.
"Thank you my dear. Now we better move quickly. Tyrus, grab the girl. Adrianna, slip more of that drug into Xena's mouth. Mouse, start packing up! I'm taking the horse." But try as he might, that proved to be impossible. "Damn nag!" he screamed as he attempted to whip the horse into submission. Suddenly, Argo bolted and ran into the forest.
"Losing your touch, Jax?" Adrianna laughed.
"Shut up! Grab the saddle and weapons and anything else of value you can find. And be quick about it. I want to be as far away from here as possible when Xena comes to."
'Rocking ... the floor is rocking. Where am I? What's going on?'
Gabrielle slowly regained her senses and tried to get her bearings. Her hands were tied behind her and there was a gag in her mouth. She was in some sort of wagon. And then the memories came flooding back. The traveling troupe, they had turned on her and Xena. She looked around trying to find her friend and only succeeded in making herself nauseous.
"Hey Jax, it looks like someone's awake." She could hear Adrianna say.
"Bout time, she slept the whole day away" came the reply from somewhere outside. "Might as well stop for supper and start her lessons."
Gabrielle blinked. She'd been out for almost twenty-four hours. She felt the wagon halt and then rough hands pulled her outside.
"Nice of you to join us," Jax sneered. Green eyes glared at him defiantly. "Oh, you're just dying to rage at me, aren't you?" He just laughed.
'Ok, Gabrielle, get it together. Stay calm. First find out what they've done with Xena.' Gabrielle willed herself to be calm, pushing back the anger from her eyes. Jax noticed the change and smiled approvingly.
"That's better. Here, let's take this off." He reached up and roughly yanked down the cloth. The bard tried to moisten her lips to talk. Her throat was scratchy and her voice barely came out above a whisper. "Please, where's Xena?"
"We left her where she lay."
Calmly Gabrielle attempted to reason with her captor. "Jax, you do realize that she will get out of those chains and then she'll come for me. And I would hate to be you when she catches up to us."
"Scary image, the big bad warrior running in to chop our heads off." Again he laughed and she could hear the others joining in. "There's only one problem with that scenario, my dear, she'd have to be alive to carry it out." More laughter rang in the air.
The blood drained from Gabrielle's face as she weakly blurted, "What ...?"
"Come now, Gabrielle, do you think we'd be so stupid as to leave the warrior princess alive to come after us? And it was easy, too, after she let us truss her up like a pig. She was just asking for me to slit her throat." The fierceness in his smile daunted her and she sank to her knees.
'Xena dead? No, that's not possible. He was lying, he had to be lying.' And then she saw the chakram tied to his belt. 'By the gods, what if it's true?' Tears came unbidden to her eyes and silently ran down her face.
"I know it's a bit of a shock, but certainly it's no surprise, given Xena's dark past. It was bound to happen sooner or later." Jax looked at the trembling woman to watch the impact of his words. "Unfortunately for you, it means no one will be coming to your rescue. You are alone, Gabrielle."
* * * * *
Noises ... soft thudding ... smells ... horse ... blackness slowly giving way to greys. Xena cautiously opened her eyes. The sun was just coming up. No, it was setting. She wasn't sure. Her mind was muddy and it was difficult to think coherently. Her mouth tasted funny. 'Something there ... what?' She spat out the remnant of mushroom trying desperately to focus. 'Mushroom? ... that's why the sun looks funny ...must try to remember ...why had she taken mushrooms?' Then Xena became more aware of her body and realized there were manacles around her wrists and ankles. She yanked on the chains and soon discovered she was tethered to a tree. 'What happened?!' Gently she looked around for captors, but found herself alone. Then she saw Gabrielle's staff lying in the dirt beyond her. The memories rushed at her with ferocity 'til she howled in pain. 'They killed Gabrielle! By the gods, they killed Gabrielle ....' Tears tore at her eyes and she yanked repeatedly on the chains in anguish. Then abruptly she turned and flung herself at the tree, beating at it with closed fists. She had to hurt something, even herself, to deal with this overwhelming grief. But she was weak from the drug and lack of water, and soon collapsed back into oblivion.
* * * * *
"I just wanted a chance to enjoy my supper first. And now it's time for dessert," he smiled wickedly as he rose, moving toward the still figure. Reaching out, he slipped a leather collar around Gabrielle's neck, then attached a short chain to it. Next he cut her hands free, watching as they fell to her sides useless. Then Jax slipped manacles on the slender wrists. "All right, on your feet."
Gabrielle didn't move, she didn't even look at him.
"I said on your feet!" He yelled hauling her up by the chain. Gabrielle's eyes smoldered with hate as she slowly looked at him. "From now on you will do as I say," he began quietly. "I am your master now, girl." Gabrielle merely spit in his face in response. Jax was startled and his anger flared as he heard his companions laughing. Quickly he lashed out, slapping the young woman across the face hard enough to send her back to her knees. Grabbing the chain, he yanked her back up and snarled, "You do that again and you're dead."
"I'm already dead. You killed me when you killed Xena."
"Wrong, little girl, but you'll wish I had when I'm through."
"Not likely, Jax." Slap! Her head snapped fiercely to the side. Blood trickled from her lip.
"From now on you will refer to me as Master."
"I'll refer to the man who murdered Xena as coward." Slap! Slap! The bruise that had begun to heal from two days ago turned ugly in seconds.
"You will call me Master!" he raged.
"Yes, oh master of cowardice," she smiled as the hand fell again.
"When Tarturus is cold, Jax, you pathetic excuse for-" This time he hit her with his closed fist and she went down to the earth, her eye already swelling closed. He yanked up the chain bringing her to her knees while yanking out a dagger from his belt. Gabrielle merely smiled peacefully at him, content that she had brought him to anger so easily. Jax felt a hand grab his wrist and he turned to face Tyrus.
"She got you, Jax. You are losing your touch."
Jax's head snapped back to glare at the girl, then shoved her to the ground, walking away to get his bearings. He paced madly then slowed, eyeing her as that malicious grin again crossed his face.
"Tyrus is right Gabrielle. You got me. But I'll prove to you I'm the Master. When I'm through, you will have forgotten your old life, forgotten Xena, forgotten even your own name." Jax strode across to the wagon with purpose, searching. He returned with a wineskin, grabbed Gabrielle roughly by the jaw prying her mouth open and pouring the bitter liquid down her throat. Though she fought to free herself, it was useless, and she sputtered and gagged and swallowed in spite of her efforts. When Jax was satisfied she had taken enough in, he threw her back down, waiting for the drug to take effect. "I think I'll name you Bug," he said serenely as he circled. "Yes, a bug I can squash at any time. Just think about that ... Bug." Again he yanked her around and poured more of the wineskin down her throat. Gabrielle's mind was beginning to blur and it became hard to focus. Suddenly she was being pulled to her feet. "Now you will stand there until you beg me to allow you to sit." And with that Jax grabbed a stool and sat himself down to wait.
Gabrielle looked at him blearily. No way was she giving in to this piece of scum, but if she could only concentrate, it would be so much easier. Without thinking, she began to sit and was immediately slapped and yanked back up. "You didn't ask first."
And so the night went. Gabrielle would forget the conditions and begin to sit. Jax would slap her roughly and pull her back up. Then he would pour more of that strange drink down her, and then he began to talk. And he kept talking and wouldn't shut up, wouldn't give her a moment's peace. His voice kept hammering at her the whole night, slowly insinuating itself into her mind until she couldn't separate her thoughts from his. There was something she desperately needed to hang onto, but she couldn't remember any more what that was. The night became morning and still he talked and hit and forced her to drink. The morning turned to noon and the sun beat down hot, and still he talked.
His companions went about their business, betting on who would break first. But as noon turned to evening, they became uneasy. They had lost an entire day of travel, an entire day of putting distance between themselves and Xena. And then the moon began to rise and slide slowly across the sky. Tyrus roughly grabbed Jax by the arm and pulled him aside. "Come sun up, we leave. We can't afford to waste another day."
"We leave when I say!" He was obsessed, his face contorted.
And then so quietly as to barely be audible came a weak voice, "Please .... may I sit?"
Jax spun back to the girl with anticipation. "May I sit, what?" he demanded.
"May I sit, Jax?" Slap! "May I sit ...Master?"
A smile spread across his face as he looked at her triumphantly. "Yes. Yes, you may sit, Bug."
* * * * *
"Leave me alone," her voice cracked. "You'd probably be better without me, too." She turned her back on the horse, but Argo wasn't done with her yet. The great horse pushed and prodded and pulled 'til at last Xena sat up, then rose to wrap her arms around the big neck, burying her face into the hide to finally cry. When the tears finally stopped, Xena turned to survey her situation. The first thing she noticed was that there was no body. Surely the troupe wouldn't have cared enough to bury Gabrielle? Where was her body? And then the realization hit her and hit her hard! She was a fool, a self-indulgent fool! It had been a lie! A lie she had believed in her intoxicated state. Gabrielle was alive. 'By the gods! How much time have I wasted in self-pity while Gabrielle needed my help?!' Quickly Xena pulled out her breast dagger and began to pick the locks on the manacles. Her hands shook and her eyes were still having trouble focusing properly so it took time to finally spring the mechanisms. A candle mark later she had gathered what few provisions had been left, and mounted Argo bareback to search for her bard, her friend, her life.
Fear and desperation can make you reckless, careless. Even Xena was not immune as she found herself for the first time overcome with feelings so strong she blindly raced from one village to the next. As near as she could figure, she had been out two whole days, then wasted a day in self-pity. When she had finally taken off, the sun was beginning to set, and the troupe had doubled back causing her to lose the trail in the dark wasting even more time. She was always several days behind. At each village she questioned the inhabitants. Yes, a traveling troupe had been through. No, they'd not seen a small blonde girl. But Xena knew this was the correct group she followed by all the descriptions and so pushed on. But at a price. The warrior became oblivious to Argo and when racing through the night, the faithful horse stumbled and fell. Xena had been thrown free, but cringed as she came to face Argo. Rubbing her hands down the legs, she let out a grateful sigh and prayer to find nothing broken. But the leg had been strained and so Xena was forced to stop her search while Argo recovered. Xena knew she was losing more time, quite possibly allowing the trail to grow cold. Fear and desperation now caused her to do something she never did. Xena, warrior princess, sank to her knees and begged the gods.
"Artemis, Gabrielle is one of your Chosen, your Amazon Princess. Please, help me to find her. Please keep her safe until I can find her. Just let her be all right and I vow to protect her with my life 'til I can get her back to the safety of your Amazons. And then I'll leave! I'll stay out of her life so that I can never hurt her again. Please, Artemis, I ask this for Gabrielle."
The air shimmered for an instant, and Artemis appeared, proud and beautiful. "I also want my Princess safe, warrior."
'Yes! She is alive!'
"I will help you for a price."
Without hesitation Xena snapped, "Anything."
"You will protect her life with your own-"
"You will take her to the Amazons for healing."
"You will never leave her side, unless she requests it."
Xena was struck dumb. Did she hear right?
"I don't understand it, warrior, but my Princess has chosen you as her friend, her companion. Until she tires of you, you will forever remain at her side. Do I have your pledge?"
Xena gulped. This was what she wanted so why was it so hard to say yes?
"Answer quickly. There is little time left before we lose her completely."
Steadily she answered, "I pledge."
Artemis ran her hand over Argo's leg healing it immediately. Then she turned to touch Xena's chest and the warrior felt a tingling straight to her heart. "That warmth you feel is Gabrielle. As you get closer it will become stronger. No more searching. Just follow your heart." And she shimmered away into the air. Before the glimmer had dissipated, Xena was mounted and racing the wind itself.
* * * * *
"Bug! Get me more wine!" Jax's voice called out to someone. Xena watched as a small girl in a tattered dirty shift and heavy manacles shuffled forward. Her hair was dirty and matted and hid her face. She tipped the wineskin and accidentally sloshed some over the mug. "Damn it, Bug, watch what you're doing!" he said, jumping up and slapping her down.
The voice barely traveled to Xena's ears, but there was no mistaking its owner. The blood pounded in her head as she recognized the young bard. Her warrior's cry filled the night and she leapt into the camp startling everyone. Jax was the first to respond, grabbing up the frightened girl as a shield. Then Tyrus picked up Xena's own sword and ran at her. It was the last thing he did. Meanwhile, Adrianna had scrambled to the horses making her escape. Mouse stayed very still looking from Tyrus dead at his feet to Jax slowly backing towards the remaining horses, dragging a helpless Gabrielle, knife to her throat.
"You want the girl? Put your sword down."
"I'll put it down in your black heart."
"Xena, let's be reasonable. I'll give you the girl for my life."
"And why should I believe you?" she snarled, aching to tear him to pieces.
"Because I know I won't live if I do kill her." The warrior's brow arched. "But if you insist on killing me, I promise I'll take her with me."
They stood frozen for long minutes. Finally Xena threw the sword down.
"Mouse, pick it up and throw it as far as you can into the woods."
Timidly the boy approached and did as he was told.
"Thank you, Xena." And with quick motion, he threw Gabriel forward, racing for a horse and for freedom. "Enjoy her, Xena," Jax yelled over his shoulder, "I know I did." And the night swallowed him up.
Though Xena ached to go after him, she knew her first priority was Gabrielle. She raced to her side, kneeling beside her and tried to wrap the girl in her arms, but Gabrielle pulled away whimpering, folding herself into a fetal position.
'She's in shock. Who wouldn't be. I just need to go slow. Give her time to realize it's me.'
"Gabrielle, it's Xena. You're safe now. He's gone. You're safe. Please, Gabrielle, let me help you."
Hollow green eyes barely peeked from behind unkempt bangs before again looking at the ground. The warrior tried again to pick Gabrielle up, but she merely cried more like a beaten dog and grew rigid under her touch. Her heart broke as she looked on this frightened creature.
"By the gods, what did that monster do to you?"
"He broke her." Xena had completely forgotten about the boy. She turned on him now, grabbing him by the shirt and pulling him close.
"I want you to tell me everything that bastard did!" Her eyes were like flame as she stared at the trembling child.
"Are you going to kill me, too?" his voice squeaked.
In that instant, Xena came back to herself. She forced herself to regain control, to quiet the rage. "No, boy. Just tell me what he did. Help me to help my friend."
Mouse seemed to be thinking it over, finally deciding he could trust her word and nodded solemnly. "What do you want me to do?"
"I need to examine her, see if she's hurt. How do I get her to let me touch her?"
The boy turned to the trembling girl. "Bug!" he said firmly. "Come here." Slowly Gabrielle uncurled herself and crawled the few feet to them both, head staying down. "Bug, this is Xena. She's going to take care of you now. Master is gone. You belong to Xena now."
Xena's head snapped around to look at the boy, anger mounting. Fearfully the boy explained. "I'm sorry, but I don't know any other way."
Swallowing, Xena turned back to her friend. 'This is what Artemis meant when she said she might be lost to us.' She would do whatever she had to to bring her back to herself.
"Bug. Her name's Bug."
Xena snarled at Mouse, "Her name is Gabrielle!"
"But she doesn't know that," he pleaded.
"Ok, one step at a time. Gabr- ..." Xena growled deep inside, "Bug ... listen carefully. Your name is Gabrielle. Do you understand? I'm not going to call you Bug. No one is ever going to call you Bug again. Your name is Gabrielle, all right?"
And the bard nodded in understanding.
"Great. Ok, that's one. Gabrielle, I'm going to look at you to see if you're injured. I'm going to touch you, but I promise, I'm not going to hurt you." Xena waited for some sort of response, but realized none would come. Gently, ever so slowly, the warrior reached out and brought Gabrielle's chin up to look in her face. The bard allowed her head to be moved but averted her eyes. Xena gritted her teeth as she stared at old cuts and bruises on the young woman's face. No permanent damage, but definitely in need of treatment. Carefully Xena picked Gabrielle up, sitting her on a log and began her examination. Bruises and cuts laced her body. Xena had seen far worse as a warrior, but seeing her innocent friend like this turned her stomach.
"Ok, first thing we do is get these off you. Mouse can you find the key for me?"
"Sure." And he was off. Xena tried to coax her friend to look at her, but gave up when she saw the tension it was causing. "Here you are, Xena," he said proudly handing her the key.
"Thanks, Mouse." She gave him a warm smile, then turned to remove the chains and collar. Gabrielle's neck and wrists were raw and Xena couldn't stop the tear that ran down her cheek. "Gabrielle, I think the next order of business should be a bath. What do you say? I know you hate to go more than 3 days without one and it looks like you've gone an entire moon. Let's go down to the stream, ok?"
Slowly Xena rose offering her hand, but Gabrielle stood on her own continuing to look at the ground.
"Mouse, grab my pack there on the saddle horn, and the saddlebags and bring them along. Ok, Gabrielle, just follow me." Xena turned, heading for the stream, hearing the shuffling behind her. Every step tore at her heart, but she couldn't think about her feelings. She needed to put all her energies into Gabrielle. "I've got to be strong for her. Artemis, please help me to do this right.' They reached the small stream and Xena removed her armor and leathers, leaving only the light shift she wore underneath. Then she turned to her friend, gently picking her up and carrying her into the water. There she slipped the shift off, stifling a gasp when she saw the woman's back. "Mouse, throw me the soap stone." With a tenderness that Xena had not known she possessed, she bathed the dirt from her friend, washing her hair, cleaning her wounds. And the entire time, Xena talked. She murmured silly things about the water, the fish, the moon, anything she could think of. She tried to soothe her friend with her voice as Gabrielle had done so many times for her. 'To think I ever wished you silent. Gods, forgive me. Gabrielle, forgive me.'
"Ok, Mouse, turn around, we're coming out."
"I've already seen her-" but the rest of the words froze as the warrior glared at him and he obediently turned his back.
Xena carried Gabrielle out of stream and placed her on a blanket, then tenderly dried her. Fishing in her saddlebags, she found the bard's nightshirt and slipped it over her. Drying herself hastily, Xena grabbed a dry shift for herself. "Coast is clear, Mouse." The boy turned and timidly approached, sitting to watch.
"Gabrielle, I'm going to put some ointment on your wrists and neck now." Still no response, just acceptance of her fate. "It might sting a little, but it will help you, I promise." The bard's body jerked slightly as the ointment touched the raw skin, but she kept herself still in the warrior's grasp. "Now I'm going to pull up your night shirt in the back and put this on the lash marks. I'm afraid this will probably hurt a little more. Are you ready?" The girl readied herself, but Xena hesitated. "Gabrielle, I'm not going to do this until you tell me it's all right. Now tell me, are you ready?"
Fearfully the words escaped her lips, "Yes, Mistress."
Xena froze, stung by those simple words. She didn't know what to do. She wanted to scream, to shake Gabriel into realization of who and what they were to each other, but she knew it would only do more harm. Getting herself under control, she began to spread the healing ointment on as gently as she could. There were only two fresh ones that caused the small woman to jerk. Then they were done and Xena lowered the shirt, covering the horror of the last moon. Trying to sound cheery, Xena began, "All right, how about we get a fire going?"
To her surprise, Gabrielle bounded up and quickly began looking for wood almost frantic.
"Whoa, Gabrielle, that's ok. I don't want you to make the fire. I want you to sit and rest, ok? Mouse and I will take care of everything. You just sit down on the blanket."
Gabrielle looked sideways at this strange woman who was allowing her rest. Was this a test? A trick? Would she be punished if she didn't work? She reached for more wood.
"Gabrielle, no." The bard dropped the stick as if it were on fire and braced herself for punishment. Xena saw the fear grip her friend. She would have to be very careful with her tone. Gabrielle was much too sensitive right now. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I didn't mean to snap. Just sit and rest, please .... please." Confused, the bard sat, keeping watch on the warrior.
In record time, Xena had a fire blazing and was making a tea with healing herbs and something to help her friend relax and sleep. When it had cooled enough, she took the mug to her friend, holding it for her. "Here you go. This will make you feel better."
Gabrielle didn't move, but glanced sideways at her. "Gabrielle, this has herbs in it to help your body. It also has something to help you sleep. It's safe. Look," and with that Xena took a sip. "See? Good stuff. Drink it, please." Patiently she held out the cup, not forcing, but waiting. Timidly Gabrielle took the drink and began to sip. "That's my girl," Xena beamed. "Now how about a little fruit or cheese ... maybe some bread? You've lost weight," she finished in concern. Again Xena reached in her packs and pulled the food out. "How about you, Mouse? Hungry?"
The boy nodded eagerly and reached for the offered food stuffing it into his mouth greedily. Then Xena extended the food to Gabrielle who timidly took a small piece of bread, quickly shoving it into her mouth before it could be taken back.
"Would you like more?" she asked, continuing to hold out the offering.
"Yes, Mistress." And she timidly grabbed for a piece of cheese while Xena bit her tongue to keep from snapping at the title, "mistress." Remaining still, the warrior's patience was rewarded when Gabrielle slowly reached for a piece of fruit. "Good. Feeling better?" Gabrielle nodded sluggishly. "Feeling sleepy?" Again she nodded. "Ok, let's all get some sleep. Mouse, help me get the blankets and take care of Argo." The boy quickly fell in step beside her, while Gabrielle slowly lowered herself to her blanket. She tried to keep her eyes open to keep watch, but soon was lost to sleep. When Xena returned to the side of her friend she was fast asleep. Gently Xena covered the bard and lay on her side next to her, careful not to touch her. Propping herself up on her elbow, the warrior watched the face of her friend as it slowly relaxed, becoming more like the face she had grown to love.
Lying still in her bedroll, Xena heard movement in their camp. Reaching out with her senses, she tried to determine if it was wildlife or an intruder. She heard something being picked up and sprang into action. Rolling backwards out of her covers, she grabbed the sword that lay at her head, and stood facing - "Gabrielle?"
The bard fell to her knees, muttering over and over, "Sorry I woke you, Mistress. Sorry I made noise. Please don't hurt me. Please, I'm sorry."
Xena stood perplexed, dropped the sword, and tried to reassure her friend. "Gabrielle, it's all right. I just didn't know who was moving around. Thought it might be someone who wanted to harm us. It never occurred to me it was you up so early. You've always hated mornings." She paused to get her own bearings. "Gabrielle, just what were you doing?"
"I always get up early to stoke the fire and have breakfast waiting, ready for my master."
"Yeah ... ok. Well, it's too early for anyone to be up after the night we had. Please come back and try to sleep some more."
Timidly Gabrielle slipped past the warrior and lay back down on her blanket. Again Xena covered her, but this time Gabrielle watched with wide eyes, fearful. Xena's heart ached to look into those eyes as they were now. 'I'm gonna bring you back, Gabrielle. I don't know how, but I promise you will not stay like this.'
"It's ok, Gabrielle, just close your eyes and sleep." Xena continued to watch as the young woman shut her eyes quickly, remaining stiff. And without realizing it, Xena began to hum an old lullaby she remembered her mother singing. She kept humming as she saw the tension leave her friend's face.
* * * *
The sun rose too soon pushing the weary travelers out of their blankets. Argo whinnied at them as if to ask if they were going to sleep the day away.
"We're up, Argo, I'll be with you in a moment. Mouse, why don't you get the fire going. I'll see if I can catch us something nice this morning. Gabrielle, would you roll up the blankets and get some water from the stream?"
The bard nodded and quickly went into motion. As Xena started into the woods she whispered to Mouse, "Keep an eye on her. If there's any trouble, you yell."
Xena really didn't want to leave even for a short time, but knew food was important for Gabrielle right now. In short order she returned with two rabbits, happy to see all was well with the camp. Skinning them efficiently, Xena soon had them over the fire roasting.
"While we wait for those to cook, I want to put more ointment on you, Gabrielle." Sitting the young woman in front of her, Xena gently applied the soothing cream. "It's looking better already. How does it feel?"
Barely above a whisper, she heard the reply, "Fine, thank you, Mistress."
'Enough is enough. I can't take this anymore.' "Ok, Gabrielle, time for another step. My name is Xena, got that? You will call me Xena, not mistress, all right?" The girl was trembling as she nodded yes. "Gabrielle, I'm not mad. It just makes me uncomfortable. We're friends, don't you remember?"
Slowly the girl peeked sideways at this tall woman. 'She looks like the other mistress, Adrianna. And yet she looks familiar, not at all like the other one.'
"Gabrielle, I know Jax did things to you to make you forget. But I want you to try to remember. We've been riding together almost two years. You're a bard, you tell wonderful stories. You're also an Amazon Princess. You fight with a staff." She looked intently at the young woman's face for some sign of recognition. "It's all right. Don't worry, it'll come back to you, promise. Just call me Xena, ok?"
"Yes, Mis- " a gulp and then timidly, "Yes, Xena."
"Thank you. Thank you very much. Come on, let's eat."
The meal was devoured quickly though Xena kept having to urge Gabrielle to eat enough.
"Let's clean up and get on our way. Gabrielle, would you hand me something to wrap these leftovers in?" Xena turned back to putting out the fire completely. And then felt Gabrielle beside her, handing her some parchment. "Thanks, Gabrielle-" Xena's eyes saw the torn scroll in her hand and cried out without thinking, "What did you do? This was Gabrielle's scroll. It's ruined - it's ...." And tears began to fall as she shook with rage over everything that had come to pass. Xena didn't even notice when the fearful girl had walked quietly away, gotten the warrior's whip, and returned to kneel in front of her. holding the whip out to her. Again Xena was struck motionless with what she saw. Somehow she would find Jax and make him pay for this.
Kneeling beside the trembling figure, she took the whip and threw it far away from them both. "Gabrielle, I'm sorry I yelled. It's just that this is my Gabrielle's story. And she's going to skin us both when she sees it. But it was just a mistake. I know that. And we'll fix it somehow ... together ... all right?" The young head nodded in agreement. "Will you forgive me for yelling at you?"
Green eyes turned fully on her in surprise. 'Is she really asking me to forgive her?'
"Yes, Xena." And she watched as the warrior relaxed and attempted a smile. 'I've seen that crooked half-smile before. Where? Maybe I do know this woman. Maybe she's telling me the truth. Maybe I really am safe.' Slowly, she returned the half-smile with one of her own and watched as this great warrior beamed at her like she'd just given her a treasure.
"Great. All right then, let's head out. Mouse, you jump up on Argo. Ok, Gabrielle, your turn." Xena noted the quick look of apprehension. "Don't worry, you've ridden Argo before. I admit you're not fond of riding, but you do like Argo. And I really don't want you walking. We need to give your body a chance to rest." Helping her friend up, she took the reins and started down the road, leading them away from the memories of past pain.
The day moved uneventfully which was just fine with Xena. They broke for a quick lunch, finishing off the rabbit from the morning, applied more ointment, and headed out again. Along the way Xena and Mouse talked about the troupe, about Jax's method of breaking Gabrielle, and about Jax himself. Checking on her friend, she could see no discomfort in Gabrielle as they talked, almost as if she wasn't there.
"What's going to happen to me?"
"I've got some friends in the village up ahead. They run a tavern and I think they could use an extra hand."
"You gonna sell me?"
"What? No! Mouse, they never had children. I think they'd be good people for you to live with. Also, you'll always have a roof and plenty of food. If you don't like it, we'll find something else."
"Can't I travel with you? I've been a help, haven't I?"
"A big help. But the road is no place to grow up. Just give it a try, see what you think, ok?"
"Ok," he mumbled, not sounding the least bit convinced.
They continued on silently until evening. As Mouse and Gabrielle set up camp, Xena went hunting and returned with more rabbit. This time, her friend needed little encouragement to eat. 'She's getting braver ... or maybe she's beginning to believe I won't take her head off for taking too much.' She couldn't help but smile as she watched the young woman stuffing her mouth almost without stop. Suddenly Gabrielle realized the warrior was watching her. She smiled sheepishly and slowed down, pausing to swallow.
"I'm glad to see your appetite is back. Mouse, could you take care of clean up. I have a project for Gabrielle." Xena dug into her saddlebags pulling out Gabrielle's scroll box. Opening it, she brought out clean parchment, the torn scroll, quill, and ink. "I said we'd fix it. Thought we might get started tonight."
Gabrielle nodded enthusiastically obviously happy to be able to put to right her earlier mistake.
"Good. I'll read the original and you write it down." A look of concern crossed the girl's face. "What's wrong?"
"I .. I don't know if I know how."
"Sure you do. Here, we'll start like this. Look at the words and just copy a few. Go on, try, that's all I ask."
Cautiously the bard placed quill to paper and with great concentration copied the first few words. With determination she continued as the writing turned from rough scratching to fluid movement. Xena left her to her work as she pulled out her sword and whetstone. This is how it use to be at their fire, the sounds of the whetstone on sword and quill on paper. A moment of peace, a moment to believe everything was all right. The hour became late and Xena decided they better get some sleep if they were to make it to the village tomorrow.
"Gabrielle, I think it's time to turn in."
"But I haven't finished." There was concern in her voice and her eyes darted about anxiously.
"You can't do it all in one night. You can work on it again tomorrow. Come on, sleep."
The bard reluctantly placed the things back into the scroll box and then touched it almost reverently.
"Gabrielle, here, let me put more cream on." She studied her friend's face as she sat before her. It was difficult for her to make eye contact. Though the bard tolerated her touch, Xena could tell she still braced herself for something else. 'Time. Just give her time.' Then she noted the woman's continued glance at the scroll box.
"Did you enjoy working on the scroll?"
"Yes, the words are so beautiful."
"My Gabrielle wrote that." Xena rumbled with pride. "Enough talk. Sleep."
* * * * *
By mid-morning they arrived at the village. It was small but lively and Mouse and Gabrielle looked around with excitement mixed with anxiety. Xena stabled Argo at a smithy's and led them all to her friends' tavern.
A plump, matronly woman looked 'round and squealed in delight as she saw the tall warrior enter. "Xena! Welcome back." And she wrapped her in a big motherly hug.
"Marta, this is Mouse and Gabriel. Mouse has no family and the road is no place for a boy-"
"Say no more." She turned her attention to the child. "Mouse, would you be interested in a place to stay? I can give you room and board for chores done here."
"I don't know ..."
"One of your duties would be to test the apple tarts to make sure they're good enough for the customers."
Mouse licked his lips at the prospect, "I guess I could give it a try."
"Good, let me introduce you to my husband, Whedon. He's out back right now stacking wood. I'll be right back, Xena. Help yourself to a drink."
"Thanks, Marta." Xena smiled, hopeful that Mouse would find the situation acceptable and stay. "How about a drink, Gabrielle?" Xena reached behind the counter and poured out cider for the both of them. "I think we deserve a treat. How about we stay the rest of the day here, make sure Mouse gets settled in. Then we can spend the night in a real bed, before we start for Amazon country. What do you say?"
"Whatever you wish, Mis- ... Xena."
"I'd like to know what you wish."
Gabrielle looked at the warrior, uncertain and yet hopeful. "I would like to sleep in a real bed."
"Good. Then it's settled!"
At that moment Marta came gushing in, bubbling with excitement. "Xena, thank you. Mouse and Whedon are hitting it off I think. This will be so good for all of us."
"Marta, do you have a room for us? Gabrielle and I will be staying the night if you can put us up."
"No problem. Take the third on the left and enjoy. And if you need anything, you just let me know!"
"Thanks, Marta." She grabbed their things and bounded up the stairs with Gabrielle close behind. "What would you like to do first? A bath? Some food? I'll even take you shopping."
"I wish to work on the scroll if that's all right." Her eyes scanned the floor in avoidance.
"If that's what you really want." She pulled the scroll box out, setting it on the table. "I'll let you have a little private time and go see about re-stocking our supplies for the trip. Will you be ok here by yourself?"
The bard nodded gently. Xena turned to leave, then stopped at the door and turned around. "You will be here when I get back, won't you?"
The young woman turned to catch the uncertainty in the warrior's eyes. 'Is she concerned I will try to escape? But she could always chain me if that is her worry. Why doesn't she use the chains as Master did? She has been gentle with me. She's tended my wounds. Could she possibly need me in some way?' "Yes, I will be here ... Xena."
The uncertainty slipped away to be replaced with warmth. "I'll ask Marta to have Mouse bring something up for you. I won't be too long." And she disappeared down the hall.
It was mid-afternoon before Xena returned to find Gabrielle still intently bent over the parchment. "Are you still at that?"
"I'm almost finished."
"Well, take a break. I'm putting the ointment on, then I'm taking you out for some fresh air."
* * * * *
They wandered the streets looking at the various wares vendors had on display. Though Xena hated shopping, this had always brought delight to Gabrielle. She watched the bard secretively to see if she was having any fun. There was interest in the eyes, but none of the old excitement. Until they reached a vendor whose inventory contained parchment. Though she remained perfectly still, her face took on a life of wonderment and awe. Xena just smiled. 'At last she wants something!'
"Shall we get that for you?" the voice over her shoulder gently asked.
"Really?" The smaller woman couldn't believe her good fortune. First freed from the Master, then traveling with this one who was so gentle and caring, and now offered to buy her things! "Thank you. Thank you!"
"You deserve it. Come on, let's head back to the tavern for supper."
They made their way through the streets, Gabrielle fingering the parchment continuously. Even through the meal, she couldn't take her hands off of it. Xena was the most relaxed she'd been since finding her friend and she enjoyed watching the smile on her face.
"I have a feeling you're not interested in staying down here by the fire and listening to the minstrel play." The bard looked embarrassed to have her thoughts read so easily. "It's all right. You go on up to the room and enjoy yourself. I'll be up in a bit." Xena watched as her friend almost ran up the stairs, happiness pouring out of her. 'Artemis, thank you. Maybe we're on the right track now.'
Xena moved over to the bar to talk to Whedon.
"Xena, my friend, have a mug of ale on the house. I want to thank you for bringing Mouse to us."
"How's he doing?"
"Great, just great. Ah, here he is now. Testing the tarts again?"
"Got to keep Marta on target you know," he smiled impishly.
"So, Mouse, what do you think about the place?"
"It's ok, I think I might stick around awhile."
The three of them continued chattering and Xena was much relieved things had turned out so well for them. After several drinks, Xena realized it was getting late and excused herself to go up to her room. She found the bard as she had earlier, bent over parchment at the table.
"Don't you ever get tired of that?" she laughed.
Gabrielle turned smiling broadly. "I finished your Gabrielle's story."
"Then we're safe from her wrath. So what's that you're working on?"
"Just thoughts ... it felt right to put them down ... I hope that's all right."
"Gabrielle, that parchment is yours to do with however you see fit. Write thoughts, write a story, write a shopping list, it's ok."
"I would never waste it on a shopping list," she replied seriously.
"I know," the warrior chuckled as she reached for the healing cream. "Let me do this, and then to bed." This time Xena noticed that the bard was much more relaxed with her touch. She took extra time and care applying the ointment. 'Her skin is so soft ... and she's so beautiful ... but she's also so fragile. Just look at my big hand around her slender wrist. I could hurt her so easily. I have hurt her.'
"What's wrong?" The young voice pulled her from her thoughts. "You looked sad just now."
"Nothing for you to worry about," she said as she pulled her warrior's mask back into place. "All done. Let's get some sleep." Xena moved away to pack their things and distract herself from her own thoughts. When she turned back, Gabrielle was laying out a blanket on the floor. "What are you doing?"
"There's only one bed."
"Oh." 'Damn, that bed would have felt so good right now.' "I want you on the bed." And Xena noticed a shadow cross her friend's eyes. 'What in Tartarus did I say now? This watching herself was getting hard. She turned away annoyed and began removing her armor and leathers, then reached for her nightshirt. As she moved to lie down on the blanket, she saw Gabrielle lying on the bed, eyes shut tight and completely naked. 'By the gods, what now?!' Walking over, she demanded, "Gabrielle, what are you doing?"
'Ouch, that hurts!' Then she noticed quiet tears barely escaping closed eyelids. "What exactly are you waiting for?"
"You, Mistress. You said you wanted me on the bed."
"I didn't mean - I just wanted- oh, damn it, Gabrielle, put your night shirt on!" she sputtered, throwing the shirt at the girl.
Quickly the bard scrambled into the shirt before the warrior could change her mind. "I'm sorry if I displeased you, Mistress."
Xena was at the end of her rope as she spun around growling, "And I thought we had that whole 'mistress' thing settled! My name is Xena! And I just wanted you to sleep on the bed, that's all!"
Gabrielle dared to look at the angry woman pacing the room. 'It's more than anger. She's hurt.'
"I'm sorry. You smelled of drink. You pointed to the bed. I thought ... I'm sorry."
Xena continued to pace a little more slowly wearing herself down. "No, I'm sorry. I should have realized that Jax probably made you ... I guess I just didn't want to think about him doing that to you." She peeked at her friend who was looking at the floor in shame. "It's not your fault, you know. He forced himself on you. He's the one who should be ashamed. Let's just forget about all this. Lie down, sleep," her voice soothed as she pulled a blanket around her friend.
"But I thought you were looking forward to the bed. I will sleep on the floor."
Controlling her tone, Xena reassured the small woman, "It's no big deal. You've been through a lot. You deserve this. Now close your eyes and enjoy."
Taking a breath, Gabrielle dared to ask, "Would it be acceptable to share the bed?"
Xena's head snapped around, "I don't want you to be uncomfortable."
"You don't wish to share with ... someone like me."
Again sorrow filled the ice blue eyes. "I'd be honored to share the bed with someone like you." Gently, Xena slipped beneath the covers, careful not to let their bodies touch. "Thank you, Gabrielle."
"Thank you ... Xena."
And they stared into each other's eyes until Morpheus came to claim them.
Dawn met the two travelers saying goodbye to the tavern's owners. They walked, Xena leading Argo, Gabrielle glancing back over her shoulder at Mouse. It's not that she was close to the boy, it's just that he was the one thing she knew in her life. Now she was alone with this tall imposing warrior. But Xena could stand the slow pace only so long. She wanted to get to Amazon territory as quickly as possible. There she hoped the bard's sisters would be able to bring her back to herself. Easily Xena jumped into the saddle and offered her arm to her small friend. Tentatively she grabbed hold and was swung up behind the warrior.
"Hang on, I'm going to let Argo stretch her legs."
Gabrielle was trying to figure out what to hold onto when Argo gave a little jump forward and settled into an easy trot. Quickly the young woman's arms reached out for the warrior's waist and Xena just as quickly grabbed onto those arms and held her snug.
The morning moved as briskly as the mare, the sun warming them while the wind kept the heat at bay. It was nearing lunchtime as Argo carried them at a crisp walk. Xena was about to pull the horse over for a break when four ruffians slipped onto the road.
'Gods! Just once I'd like to have a nice boring uneventful day.' It was obvious they meant to have what ever they could from the women as they laughed and taunted and twirled their weapons for show.
"Stay here, Gabrielle," the warrior commanded as she slid from the saddle.
"I said stay!" she growled.
'Damn! There goes that tone again. Maybe it's just as well. I don't want to have to worry about her while I'm talking care of these lugs.'
Xena met the group halfway, watching carefully, sizing them up. Her sword slid out of its scabbard as she let it swing in the air. The men began to circle, thinking to put her at a disadvantage. The sword swung wide, but they were quick enough to evade the deadly blade. Then they attacked in earnest, unmercifully showering blows as rapidly as possible. While Xena was busy countering their moves, one of the men slipped away to go after whatever treasure Argo might hold. Gabrielle watched wide-eyed as he approached. Reaching up, he yanked the small bard roughly off the horse, throwing her to the ground. He began to reach for the saddlebags, but Gabrielle reached out to grab his leg attempting to pull him back. A hand quickly slapped her across the face. And then she was under her own assault of raining blows.
As Xena deftly turned to avoid a blade, the sight of her friend being pummeled by the large man met her eyes. The darkness raged in her, pounding in her blood, and a cry to chill the soul leapt from her throat. She vaulted over the men around her and ran at the one who had Gabrielle helplessly pinned. Grabbing his head back, she let her sword slice across his throat, blood pouring down on all three of them. The yells from his companions brought her around where she savagely plunged her blade into one, shoved her fist into the windpipe of another, then neatly spun around to snap the head of the third. The bard lay frozen watching the horror before her. Who was this woman who had been so gentle with her? It was a lie. This was the true nature of the warrior.
With the brigands dispatched, the warrior moved quickly to her friend's side.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?" Concerned blue eyes searched her for injury, hands tenderly touched cuts and bruises. "Just sit while I take care of this." Xena reached for her medical pouch and the waterbag. Pulling out a clean cloth, she wet it and washed Gabrielle's face. Then she applied ointment. Next she felt Gabrielle's sides, having seen the purplish bruise begin to form. "No ribs broken." Xena looked into the eyes that were glazed in shock. "Gabrielle, why didn't you run when he came after you?"
The bard swallowed several times, finally she whispered, "You said stay."
And the warrior's heart broke again. Without thinking, she gathered the smaller woman into her arms, rocking her, stroking her, begging for forgiveness. For several moments Xena continued until she realized she was doing it more for herself than for her friend. Gaining control, she stood, lifting the girl in her arms and placing her back in the saddle. "Let's get out of here."
Xena led them around the broken bodies and several miles down the road before pulling over to a glade and stream. She helped her companion down, then busied herself cleaning them both up and getting food. They ate in silence, each occupied with their own thoughts. Gabriele ate little and Xena kept pushing more into her hands which she would take obediently. When they'd finished, they continued sitting, Gabrielle glancing sideways at the warrior wondering what darkness was sitting on her shoulders and whether she'd have to pay for it.
Abruptly she spoke, starling the bard, "I was wrong to tell you to stay. You need to be free to make your own decisions at each moment. I'm so use to my Gabrielle ignoring me ...." she trailed off, then, "Anyway, I'm sorry."
"Did you punish your Gabrielle when she disobeyed?"
"No! ... Well ... I guess in a way I did. I yelled, then I wouldn't talk at all, or if I did, it would be hurtful. That's what happened when I lost her." Her jaw tightened keeping tears at bay.
"You miss her."
"Very much." Having made a decision, she rose to her feet. "I need to trust your judgement, Gabrielle. I also need to make sure you can protect yourself. You're an Amazon and your weapon is the staff."
"But I don't remember."
"Your mind doesn't, but I'll bet your body does. Here." She tossed the staff to her friend who caught it with ease. "Just follow my moves." Side by side, Xena demonstrated simple defense and attack postures. At first the smaller woman's movements were hesitant, but soon grew in confidence. After a candlemark, sweat was glistening on both bodies and Xena called a halt to the practice. "How do you feel?"
The bard's eyes shone brighter than they had, "I like this."
"Told you your body would remember. Now let's see if we can make up for this little diversion."
In moments they were off again, Argo flying freely down the road. They continued until the sun slipped behind the trees. Since Xena turned to grooming Argo, Gabrielle turned to starting a fire.
Supper was light, cheese, berries, bread, and so was soon over. The minute things had been cleaned up, the bard was kneeling beside Xena.
"Please, will you show me more with the staff?"
An eyebrow arched, amused. "Ok, just for a bit. You already had one session today and I'm sure you're still sore from that beating, so I don't want us over doing it."
Her friend beamed as she ran to get her staff. Again they began the methodical routine of thrust, parry, sweep. True to her promise, Xena kept it short, motioning for Gabrielle to get the healing bag and sit in front of her. It was nice to be still, tending her friend's wounds, to rub the taught knots out of her shoulders, to smell the sweet scent of her hair. Xena stopped. Where had that thought come from? Just over tired she decided.
"There. All done." She reached for her sword and whetstone.
"Xena, would you like me to do the same for you?"
"That's ok, you don't have to."
"I know. You don't ask me to do anything. Surely this is something I can do though." Without waiting for confirmation, Gabrielle began to unbuckle the armor, pulling it off the warrior. Then she dug into the tense muscles kneading them like dough. "Is this all right?"
"Oh yeah, that's great," the dark woman purred.
"Good," was all she said as she kept rubbing, letting her hands travel across the broad shoulders and then to caress the neck and finally her temples. "You've said I deserve good things. I think you do, too. I'm glad I can be useful to you."
'Gods. Jax may have broken her mind, but he couldn't break that heart. She really does deserve good things, but I'm afraid that wouldn't include me.' Xena roughly pulled her mind back and stopped the hands on her head. "Thanks. I'm fine." Quickly she moved away, the darkness inside teasing her. "We've had a long day. Time to turn in."
The bard looked at the woman confused. 'Something is bothering her. Did I do it? Perhaps she's tired of me already. I'm a burden to take care of. I must learn quickly, I must do more or she may leave me.' Quietly she slipped beneath the blanket and willed herself asleep.
Xena kept her face turned to the fire, but listened for the soft breathing of her friend. The warrior lost track of time staring into the flames, until she heard the distraught whimperings of the woman on the other side. She looked to see the red-blonde head tossing restlessly. 'Bad dream.' "Gabrielle ... Gabrielle, wake up." She reached out to shake her shoulders and the bard cried out as if she'd been hit, pulling from Xena's grasp. Dazed, she looked at the warrior as images floated through her mind and she tried to focus on the waking world. "Gabrielle, you were having a bad dream. But you're ok ... you're safe."
She shook her head to clear it. "Yes, a dream." She looked at her surroundings. "But I'm safe."
"Yes, you're safe. Must have been a doozy of a dream. Want to talk about it?" Gentle blue probed emerald green which darted, looking for escape.
Xena could see the tension growing in the small body. "It's ok. Just lie back, try to forget. I'll stand guard. Nothing's going to happen to you." Gabrielle nodded in understanding and slipped back down on the bedroll as Xena pulled the blanket around her. She surrendered herself to sleep as she heard the soft humming of the warrior beside her.
Finally it seemed the Gods took pity on the pair and presented them with several days of boredom. They slipped quickly into a routine of travel, practice, food, travel, practice, food. The only thing marring the time was Gabrielle's repetitive nightmares. They grew in frequency and intensity. Xena tried to coax her friend to share her worries, but it only caused the bard to withdraw more. It baffled Xena for Gabrielle certainly seemed at peace, even happy, during the day. Maybe it was the staff practice or reading the scrolls that caused unrest in her. Or maybe it was the presence of the warrior herself. 'The dreams started after we left Mouse. Maybe she's afraid to be alone with me. She certainly got to see what I'm capable of when we ran into those thugs.' She watched as once again Gabrielle took up the scroll box and lifted out one of the parchments.
"Gabrielle," she spoke interrupting her friend. "Maybe this once you should skip reading."
"Maybe they bring up memories you can't quite remember and so you have the nightmares."
"It can't be the scrolls. I love reading about yours and Gabrielle's adventures."
"Just once, ok?"
Grudgingly, she consented as she reached for her staff.
"And can we skip that, too? Just for tonight."
The bard's shoulders slumped in disappointment. 'She's tired of me. I think this journey's about to end.' She threw herself into her bedroll, turning her back on the warrior.
'Good going, warrior, now she's pissed. Great mood you put her in right before bed. If she has a nightmare tonight, you'll know for sure it's about you.'
Xena kept watch long into the night stirring at each movement her friend made. Finally it seemed that the night would be uneventful, and the warrior surrendered to sleep herself. Just before dawn it began. Visions of Jax invaded her mind, the laughter, the beatings, the invasions of her body. Her whimpers turned to cries, her body thrashed wilder and wilder.
"Gabrielle! Wake up! Gabrielle!" The warrior shook the girl 'til her eyes slammed open. But Xena could tell she was still trapped within the nightmare. "It's me - Xena. You're safe." Reaching out she tried to lay a comforting hand on the bard, but only succeeded in causing her to scoot back.
As Gabrielle tried to escape the tormentor in her mind, her hand landed on a small log. With defiance she swung at the image of Jax as fiercely as she could, hitting Xena squarely on the temple. The warrior was not prepared for the attack and even less prepared when it came again, clipping her on the jaw. She fell forward and covered her head as the log kept coming down. 'I need to move ... why am I letting her beat me silly? Because I know I deserve it.' Xena managed to turn on her back in time to see Gabrielle lift the club for a killing blow. "I love you, Gabrielle. Forgive me ...." she whispered as blackness claimed her.
The bard froze staring at the still form before her. Her breathing was rapid, her vision blurred, but her fear, her anger were subsiding. Slowly her eyes focused and she recognized the woman Xena stretched out before her.
'Gods! What have I done?! She'll kill me when she wakes! Oh Gods, what if I've killed her?' The log fell harmlessly to the ground as Gabrielle knelt to evaluate the woman's condition. Blood was everywhere. Panic began to rise within her. 'No. Can't panic. Breathe, just breathe. And think. You know what to do. Just stay calm and think!' Springing into action, she grabbed the healer's pouch and some clean linens. With the utmost care she cleaned away the blood to look at the gash above the right eye. 'I think it needs a few stitches. Xena says I've done this before. I need to stop thinking and just let my body do what it knows.' She pulled out a needle and threaded it, timidly lacing the skin together. Then she smoothed on the all-purpose healing ointment and wrapped Xena's head to protect the wound. Next she inspected the jaw which was badly bruised, but, to her relief, not broken. Her eyes shifted to the warrior's arm which was purple and swelling. Tenderly she felt for broken bones, and finding none, she wrapped the arm from fingers to elbow. Pulling a bedroll close, she gently rolled the warrior on, then wrapped a blanket firmly around her. Laying her head on the woman's chest, she listened to the heartbeat, strong and regular. 'Thank the Gods!'
The sun had risen lightly touching the camp. Gabrielle set about rigging a blanket over Xena for shade. Digging once more into the medicine pouch, Gabrielle fished out the herbs Xena had brewed for her and set water to boiling. Then she patiently sat at her side, holding a cold cloth to the warrior's face, and did the only thing left to do - wait.
* * * * *
The sun was directly overhead when a groan escaped the waking lips of the warrior.
"Xena? Don't try to talk. Just lay still." Xena felt a hand slip behind her head, lifting her slightly and then a cup pressed to her mouth. She sipped the tea recognizing healing herbs. Thoughts swirled in her head without form. "What happened?" she croaked, barely audible. "Stampeding centaurs?"
Gabrielle hung her head in shame. "I did this."
Dimly the memory of the night resurfaced. "Bad dream."
"Yes, I thought Jax was attacking me again. I struck out. I didn't know - I didn't realize it was you. I'm so so sorry, Xena." Tears were freely flowing down the young woman's face.
"Not ... your fault. Don't cry." Her good arm freed itself to wipe the tears away.
Gabrielle held the warrior's hand firmly against her cheek. "I'll take care of you, I promise. I'll stay by you 'til you're healed. And I'll accept any punishment you choose to give me."
Through the crying, she thought she heard the warrior chuckle, then whisper, "A kiss." What did that mean? She looked at the woman who had already drifted back into sleep. She brushed the raven hair from her forehead, continuing to stroke it as she affirmed, "You rest. I'll be right here."
A candlemark later the warrior stirred again. "Gabrielle?"
"Right here, Xena." The bard knelt beside her, lifting her head and lifting a cup to her lips.
"Here you go." She wiped the warrior's face when she was finished. "Hungry?"
"You need to eat. Let me help you sit up. There you go," she coaxed as she supported the dark woman. "I've got some cheese and picked more berries. What else can I get you?"
"This is fine," she said as she picked at the food.
"Xena, I had to stitch above your eye. I hope I did it right."
"I'm sure you did."
"Xena ... I'm sorry."
"For having a nightmare? For getting kidnapped and beaten half to death? For not even knowing who you are? No, Gabrielle, I'm the one who's sorry. If it hadn't been for me, none of this would have happened."
Silence sat between them. 'She really doesn't blame me. She blames herself. I think she blames herself for a lot.'
"I'm finished. Let's get moving," Xena said as she painfully pulled herself to her feet.
"Don't you think you should rest some more?"
"I'm a tough old warlord. A couple of whacks in the head aren't going to slow me down. Believe me, I've had much worse." She moved slowly to saddle Argo. Grabbing the saddle, she attempted to throw it over the horse's back. Dizziness gripped her, the saddle falling to the ground as she reached out to steady herself. Without a word, the younger woman was at her side, picking up the saddle and placing it on the mare. Deftly she cinched the girth, then began breaking camp. Xena turned to help, but Gabrielle stopped her.
"Xena, please sit and rest. I don't think it's wise to be traveling, but if you insist, at least let me do the packing." Worried green eyes captured her, bending her to compliance. "Thank you."
Argo was soon ready, but Gabrielle was not. "Xena, please wear this sling to support your arm," she said as she slipped it over the warrior's head not waiting for approval. "And I want you to promise me we'll stop if you feel the least bit bad."
Xena's eyebrow arched at the bard. "Any other commands?" she asked dryly.
Gabrielle gulped realizing she had just told her mistress what to do. "I meant no disrespect."
The dark woman chuckled looking at the little one's expression. "It's all right. My Gabrielle did the very same thing." 'And I miss it.' You have a right to express your opinion even if it differs from mine. I want you to speak up, understand?"
Baffled, she queried, "I won't get hit?"
Looking steadily into her eyes, Xena quietly asked, "Have I hit you once since you've been with me?" The golden-red head nodded no. "I'm not your mistress. I don't own you. No one does. I'm your friend. Not the best in the world, but I am your friend and I'd give my life for you."
Gabrielle stood amazed at the words that greeted her. A smile spread across her face and she reached up to kiss her friend on the cheek. It was the warrior's turn to be surprised. The bard noticed, asking, "Did your Gabrielle not show you affection?"
"Rarely. But it was my fault. I'm not very good at handling it and she knew it."
"I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable."
"No - it was nice."
"Good. So - back to my question - do you promise to stop if you need to?"
"May I give you a hand up?"
They were finally off with Gabrielle sitting behind, supporting the larger woman. "Just relax. I have you."
It felt good to relax into Gabrielle's arms. They traveled on in companionable silence, Gabrielle humming occasionally. Xena closed her eyes listening to the sweetness of her voice. It had been silent too long. 'Hopefully soon she'll begin to talk again. I never thought I'd miss her chatter.'
Abruptly the humming stopped and Xena opened her eyes to see a tall lone man standing in the middle of the road, wielding an axe. 'Not again. Son of a Bacchae!' With a sigh Xena slowly began to move to take care of the situation, but before she could, Gabrielle had already slipped off and grabbed her staff.
"Gabrielle, what do you think you're doing?" she hissed in shock.
"Just getting the litter off the road. Stay here, I can handle this."
"Xena, stay." She gave her a quick smile, then turned to address the man in front of her. "Let us pass and no one gets hurt." He laughed seeing this small girl stand up to him.
"I wouldn't laugh if I were you," the warrior called. "If you make her angry, she could do this to you," she finished, indicating her own condition.
The man hesitated, unsure, "You trying to tell me that little girl did all that to you? What did you do for such a beating?"
"I woke her up."
At that, Gabrielle began to swing her staff with a flourish, jumping from one stance to another. "Hey, can't you take a joke?" Gabrielle then let out her own version of Xena's war cry. Without another word, the man turned and fled.
"I could have taken him," she smiled as she returned and mounted.
"Gabrielle, you taught me a long time ago to talk first, fight later. You might save yourself a workout."
"I taught you that?"
"Yes, you've taught me many things during our time together."
"How about that?" She could feel the bard smiling as she began to hum again.
* * * * *
"Gabrielle, I feel fine. Let me go catch us some supper."
"Xena, we have bread, cheese, jerky, fruit. We don't need anything special and you do need to rest. Now relax ... please."
Xena could tell the discussion was at an end. She smiled watching the young woman set the camp, start the fire, and even groom Argo. After their supper, Gabrielle insisted on checking Xena's injuries. She unwrapped her head first, looking seriously at her handiwork. Gently the bard dabbed on more healing ointment. "Do you think I should leave it unwrapped for the night?"
"You're the healer," Xena replied, content to let Gabrielle make all the decisions right now.
"I'll leave it off," she decided as she began applying ointment to the jaw. Then carefully she removed the covering on Xena's arm. "I'd like you to look, too, please."
Xena gazed down at the purplish blue mass that was supposed to be her arm. "Damn. Remind me never to wake you again," she chortled as she looked up at Gabrielle. But the young woman's eyes were clouded. "Hey - don't go there. Not your fault, remember?" Gently Gabrielle lifted the arm and kissed it. "The arm's fine. Really. I just need to keep the wrist immobile another day so wrap it up, healer," she quipped trying to lighten the bard's mood.
With care, Gabrielle rebound the arm and slipped it back in the sling. As she removed her own hand, she lightly brushed against Xena's breast. The touch aroused sensations in the warrior that confused her. 'What's going on - or do I really want to know?' Before she knew it, Gabrielle had slipped in back of her to begin massaging her shoulders.
"Gabrielle, you don't have to do that. You've done so much already."
"I like doing it - honest."
'This is turning into a torture session.' The warrior closed her eyes and began to lean fully into those strong hands. Gabrielle again let her hands travel up the neck and Xena leaned her head back into the bard's chest. The hands moved to the temples caressing tenderly. Gabrielle looked at the face before her, relaxed and serene at the moment. 'By the Gods, she's beautiful. And so caring, so gentle.' As she stared at the face before her, the bard felt herself drawn in and she lightly kissed the warrior on the lips. Xena's eyes flew open and her head snapped up. Gabrielle moved around to face the dark woman. "Have I offended you?"
"No," she gulped.
"You don't look happy."
"Did it please you?"
"Uh ... yes."
"Good," she smiled leaning in to kiss her again
"Wait," she said, pulling back, "I don't think this is a good idea."
"You don't find me attractive?"
"What?! No! - yes! - I mean," she sputtered completely flustered, "it's just that you're not yourself right now and I don't think it would be wise to engage in anything ... uh ... out of the ordinary ... until you do have your memory back ... don't you think?" she gulped again.
"I suppose so," she said as she absentmindedly brushed Xena's bangs from her face. Then she rose to look in the scroll box leaving behind a very hot and bothered warrior.
'What in Tartarus just happened? Did this Gabrielle just indicate she was attracted to me?!' Xena sat worrying it over and over in her mind while the bard sat quietly reading. "Xena?" The voice brought her back to her surroundings. "Yes?"
"I'm reading Gabrielle's journal and-"
"You're reading her personal journal?" her voice tensed.
"Xena, technically it's my journal. I thought it would be a good way to find out about myself. Don't you think?"
"Anyway, according to what I'm reading, your Gabrielle loves you very much."
"I told you we were friends."
"It's more than that. You're essential to her life. You've taught her, protected her, cared for her. You're her family, Xena"
The dark woman sat staring at the flames letting the words soak in. Lost in thought, she didn't notice when the young woman kneeled beside her. "Xena, I have a feeling I was correct when I did this earlier." She leaned in slowly, barely letting her lips touch the brooding warrior. "I also have a feeling you're the one unsure of your feelings."
"I never allowed myself to go there. And I won't take advantage of you now. If you really care about this, you'll wait until your mind is restored."
Gabrielle looked steadily at the woman, contemplating the new feeling roaring inside. "All right. I'll wait because I do care very much ... about you." Giving her one last kiss on the forehead, she went to spread out their bedrolls. "Come to bed." Nervously Xena slipped between the blankets and the bard tucked her in. "We're going to be ok." The older woman looked at this bright young girl beside her in wonder. In such a short time she had regained much of her inner strength even if the memories eluded her. 'Her strength is remarkable.' Closing her eyes, she followed the bard into sleep.
* * * *
Xena woke to the stirrings of the body next to her. The dream had just begun. Before it grew, Xena reached out stroking the bard's head, murmuring that she was safe, that she was loved. She didn't attempt to rouse the sleeper, just kept touching her gently, whispering support in her ear. Slowly the agitation disappeared. But Xena kept stroking the fine hair, kept murmuring words of love until she too slipped back into restful sleep. And when her hand went still, the other body sought its warmth, turning into her, resting firmly against her. And the night was at peace.
Xena woke to gentle snoring on her shoulder. She turned to see Gabrielle snuggled firmly against her. Gently she slipped from the woman's grasp uncertain who would be more uncomfortable if she woke to the present situation
"Gabrielle, time to get up and get moving."
The bard startled awake realizing she'd over slept. "Sorry."
"You're going to spoil me getting up so easily." Gabrielle smiled understanding she had nothing to fear from not beating Xena awake. They ate lightly, then checked each other's injuries. Soon they were on the road with the bard firmly behind the warrior, supporting her.
"We're nearing Amazonia," the dark woman offered after a candlemark.
"So soon?" There was uncertainty in the voice. "Xena, may I ask a question?"
"When we get to the Amazons, will you be leaving me there?"
"I was just wondering. You left Mouse."
"You don't believe me, do you?" There was only silence. 'Of course she can't call me a liar even if that's what she believes.' "Gabrielle, the road is no place for a child. I spoke to Mouse about that before we ever arrived and he liked the inn and wanted to stay."
"The road's no place for the weak either."
"Gabrielle," the warrior laughed heartily, "you're the strongest person I know. You survived an entire moon with Jax and his troupe. When I found you, you were almost catatonic, and yet you've made such great strides in spite of the fact you still have no memory."
"But I've been a great burden to you, and I've hurt you. You said the Amazons were my family. I would understand if you want to leave me with them."
"Gabrielle, I made a pledge that I wouldn't leave you, unless you wanted me to go. Do you want me to go?"
"All right then. We're going to the Amazons because I believe they can help you. And I'm going to stay with you the whole time. Got it?"
"Good, cause we're here. And so are the Amazons."
"Where?" she asked looking all around and seeing nothing.
"Above us in the trees." But still she saw nothing. "Just wait." And in seconds they were surrounded by Amazon sentries sliding down ropes. They lifted their masks, warm smiles bathing the travelers.
"Gabrielle, Xena! How wonderful to see you," Ephiny called and then, getting a closer look at the warrior, continued, "What in Tarturus happened to you?"
"Long story. Ephiny, we need to see the Healer."
"That's for sure."
"Not for me, for Gabrielle." Xena saw the concern reflected in the Amazon's eyes as she stepped quickly toward the princess. Gabrielle took a half step back, tightly grabbing Xena's hand. Ephiny stopped in surprise. "Don't take it personally. She doesn't remember anything. Not even me. We're hoping you can help."
* * * * *
Secured in the Healer's hut, Nashala checked Xena's injuries first, clucking approvingly over Gabrielle's ministrations. Then she turned to the princess, examining slowly and carefully. "Princess, can you tell me the first memory you have? Not what Xena has told you has happened, but your own awareness."
"I guess it was Xena taking the whip from my hand and throwing it away."
"Why did you have a whip?"
"I had ruined one of her Gabrielle's scrolls and she was so hurt and angry. I gave her the whip so she could punish me." The bard heard sharp gasps and deadly looks at the warrior from the other women. "But she didn't. Instead she threw it away and said we would fix the scroll together."
"But Gabrielle, that was the next morning after I'd found you. You don't remember me coming for you at Jax's camp?" The young woman nodded no, slightly embarrassed.
"Why do you think that memory is your first?" prodded the healer.
"I think I knew I was really safe ... that it was all right to be aware of my surroundings."
"Thank you. I don't believe her lack of memory to be physical. Can you tell me everything that occurred?"
"Ephiny, could you take Gabrielle to get some food?" The bard, who was still hanging on to Xena's hand, let go reluctantly, allowing herself to be guided out. When the young woman was gone, Xena began to fill in the healer on all that Mouse had told her about Jax's process of gaining control. Then she continued with her own observations over the past two weeks. "So, can you do anything?"
"I think we can. We'll take her into the sweat lodge and help her to reach a deep state of meditation. Once achieved, we need to guide her mind back through time. It won't be easy. It will probably take many sessions and will undoubtedly be painful emotionally. Do you think you're up to it?"
"It's obvious the princess is uncomfortable with us, and though you say she does not even remember you, at least you've been able to create a bond with her. She'll need someone she trusts to take her through."
"But I don't know how -"
"Don't worry, Warrior, I'll be right there to tell you exactly what to say and how to guide her. Can you handle it?"
"When do we start?" she asked with grim determination.
"I warn you, Xena. You will need to follow my instructions exactly or we could do more harm than good. Let's let Gabrielle rest the remainder of the day. We'll start tomorrow."
"Don't thank me yet, warrior."
* * * *
"I'm scared. Xena, why do I have to do this?"
Xena's low voice rumbled back, "If you don't remember, you'll always be a slave to what Jax did to you." The warrior noticed the bard flinch when she said she'd always be a slave.
"But I'm doing better. You said so yourself."
"Don't you want to be whole?"
"I don't see the importance of remembering," she said turning her back on them all.
"You want to know the importance? Fine, I'll show you." Taking a deep breath, the dark woman barked sharply, "Bug! Come!"
Without hesitation Gabrielle fell to her knees at the warrior's feet trembling. She remained there frozen. The other women stared in shock. Slowly the young woman's shaking ceased, awareness of what had happened creeping into her brain. She was embarrassed by her reaction in front of these proud warriors. Xena knelt down to her. "Gabrielle, I'm sorry I did that. You needed to understand how easy it is for someone to intimidate you right back into the slave mind set. My Gabrielle never submitted to anyone. Don't you want to find that again?"
There was silence for a long time, finally she stood, taking a deep breath, "Let's start."
"Good girl, " Xena said proudly. " You heard the princess."
Ephiny lit candles and incense, Solari and Eponin began beating small drums to give a steady rhythm to induce the meditative state. Xena led the young girl to sit on soft furs in the center and then sat opposite her. Nashala sat on a stool right behind Xena.
"Close your eyes and listen to the drums, Princess," the healer instructed. "Breathe with the drums. Xena, help her to descend."
The warrior nodded and began the process the healer had carefully explained. "Breathe ... down ... down ... down to the depths ... take a step down the staircase of your mind. Breathe and step ... breathe and step ... breathe and step ... down ... down to the bottom. Three more steps ... down one ... down two ... down three." The bard's head sagged forward.
"Remember, Xena, she won't hear my voice. Just repeat everything I say. Gabrielle, you are going back to the moment Xena found you."
"Gabrielle, you are going back to the moment Xena found you. Can you see it?"
"Tell us what you see."
"I'm pouring wine for Master, but I spill it. He hits me and I fall. I think he's going to hit me again, but we all freeze when we hear a wild warrior cry. A tall woman is running into camp. Master grabs me in front of him with a knife to my throat as if it would matter to the strange woman. Master Tyrus charges at her and she kills him. I think Mistress is escaping on one of the horses."
"What happened next?"
"Master tells the warrior woman to drop her sword or .."
"Or he'll kill me," the words escaped through trembling lips. "Why does Master think it will matter to her? I'm just a slave, nothing at all. I know I'm about to die. They stand glaring at each other and then she throws her sword down. I don't understand. Why did she do that?"
"Master pushes me to the ground and flees. I'm left with the warrior. I stay on the ground. I'm afraid to move. Then Mouse calls me over. Tells me I belong to her now." Gabrielle went on to describe in detail all events that led up to the bard being on her knees in front of Xena, offering her the whip. The Amazons eyes filled with sorrow listening to the state that their princess had been brought. Gabrielle was rocking where she sat on the floor, arms wrapped around her knees, tears sliding down her cheeks.
"Xena, that's enough for today. Bring her back." The warrior nodded, grateful the ordeal was over. "We're going to walk back up the staircase, Gabrielle. Breathe deep and take a step up." Slowly the bard became more relaxed and unfolded herself, her face at peace. "Last three steps. One ... two ... three."
Gabrielle's eyes opened as memories materialized in her waking mind. Her face clouded, tears threatening to fall again. "He was going to kill me."
"And you risked your life to save me."
"Just returning the favor," she smiled.
"Princess, how do you feel?" queried the healer.
"All right, I guess. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. And it does feel better having a few blanks filled in."
"Good. Now go eat, take a nap, then do something relaxing. We'll do this again tomorrow."
They left the sweat lodge heading for the hut they'd been assigned. Ephiny volunteered to bring food over and Gabrielle ventured to invite the Amazons to eat with them. Then she looked at Xena, "That is all right, isn't it?"
"Of course. It's your hut. I'm the guest," she replied with a quirky smile. The smile was returned and remained the rest of the day. All the women enjoyed re-telling old stories, Gabrielle laughing and cheering. Xena watched her friend, hopeful that healing was in reach now.
But the joy of the day didn't reach into the night. The nightmare started almost as soon as Morpheus had claimed the bard. The warrior was ready, reaching out and rubbing the young woman's back, whispering into her ear. Turning into the warrior, Gabrielle became quiet as she snuggled close. 'At least I can give you this. So little to make up for so much.' Gently kissing her on the forehead, Xena herself slipped back into sleep.
* * *
"We will follow the same procedure as yesterday. Now that we've broken the ice with remembering, we'll try going back to the beginning before this whole thing began."
Gabrielle nodded, obviously more at ease with the undertaking. Again Xena helped her descend into her mind, and with the healer's guidance, took the bard to her first memory, chasing butterflies in a field. With that early childhood vision, the rest seemed to race each other to emerge. Childhood gave way to adolescence with first love and first heartbreak. Xena could see why Gabrielle was who she was, her life so full of joy and love. Then the invasion of her village occurred and the introduction of the dark warrior into her life. Xena turned to Nashala behind her, hoping they'd done enough for this session. The healer seemed to understand the unvoiced plea and consented. "That's enough for today. Bring her back."
Xena was happy to comply, nervous to see herself though her friend's eyes. Gabrielle's eyes opened with amazement as the memories slowly flooded her waking mind. "I remember. I know who I am." The smile encompassed the entire room, her gaze landing on the dark woman. "You saved my village from slavers." She shifted to the other women around her. "Sorry, I still don't remember any of you."
"We needed to stop. Don't worry, next time I'm sure we'll be in there," the healer said warmly.
"Thank you for everything you're doing for me. I don't know how I'll ever repay your kindness."
"No need, Princess. You're part of our tribe and we take care of our own."
"Come on, Gabrielle, I think today's session calls for a celebration," Ephiny chimed in. "Let's do something special." The women surrounded their princess ready to escort her out.
"Are you coming, Xena?" Gabrielle asked hopefully.
"I want to talk to Nashala. I'll find you later."
The Amazons hurried the bard out laughing and talking excitedly.
"What is it, Xena?" The warrior shuffled uneasily. The healer grinned inwardly watching the tall woman wander aimlessly gathering her courage.
"Now that Gabrielle knows who she is, I was just wondering if we needed to go any further?"
The healer suspected this was what had been on her mind. "It's possible the rest may come back to her on its own. But, Xena, having only half her memory means she's only half herself. Why would you want to stop now?"
"Her life before me was happy, full of light and love. Is there really anything to be gained by her remembering all the pain that comes with knowing me?"
"Is that all you think you've given her?"
"I know it is."
"Never thought I'd see the day when Xena, Warrior Princess, was afraid." Dark eyes snapped at the healer. "To answer your question, I don't know how it will effect her to be only half a person. Perhaps you should let her make that decision since it is her life."
* * * * *
The stars were twinkling brightly in the dark velveteen sky when Xena approached the hut they shared. She paced nervously outside, took a deep breath, and quietly tiptoed in.
"Xena?" came a voice from the dark.
"Sorry, Gabrielle, didn't mean to wake you."
"I wasn't asleep. I was worried about you."
"No need to be. You better get some sleep," she said as she began to remove her armor.
"What makes you think something's wrong?"
"Other than the fact you said you'd catch up to us later and never did, and now you're sneaking in when the entire village is asleep?"
"I lost track of time."
"Xena, I haven't known you very long in my mind, but I know you're not telling me something."
She studied the young woman's face in the flicker of the lone candle. "I was thinking maybe you didn't need any more sessions. Now that you know who you are, the rest is just clutter." The green eyes seemed to pierce to the depths of her soul and she busied herself elsewhere avoiding further contact.
"Worried I'll remember the pain I've had traveling with you?" The warrior's head whipped around. "Xena, did you really think just because I don't remember the past, I won't ask about it? And the Amazons were happy to answer those questions."
"I bet they were," she mumbled.
"Xena, they didn't paint a picture of you causing the pain. But they did paint the picture of you trying to protect me, and blaming yourself whenever you felt you had failed." The young woman watched her friend digesting the words. "Xena, I want to know you in my heart, not just know facts on a parchment. But," she hesitated, "if you'd rather not be there, I understand."
Blue eyes studied green which darted about unable to settle on anything. "Trying to get rid of me?"
"What? No, of course not. I just don't want you to feel obligated."
"Then we'll do it again tomorrow."
"Are you sure?"
"Are you?" Care and concern reflected at the bard. She nodded gratefully at the warrior, relieved she wouldn't have to face the sessions alone. "Decision made then. Better get some sleep."
"If I can."
"Don't worry, I'll keep the nightmares away," she said as she slipped beneath the covers with her friend.
"I think you really do. Thank you." She kissed the great warrior on the cheek, then turned snuggling down deep in the covers for the night.
* * * * *
The session began as usual, drums, incense and Xena guiding her friend down the steps of her mind. Xena squirmed as Gabrielle began to re-live her life after meeting the warrior. Images of pain, anger, and loss filled all their minds, yet the warrior was now seeing it all through the bard's eyes. There was no blame from her, only awe and love for the tall woman who tried so hard to protect her and make things right. 'She's not seeing things the way they really happened. How did I get so lucky to have this forgiving creature in my life? I don't deserve her.'
And then the warrior heard her friend recounting that last week before they met the traveling troupe. She listened as she described the warrior's dark mood, the bard's doubt of being wanted, the commitment to try harder to make Xena happy. 'She blames herself for my mood? She thinks I don't want her around? Of course, what else is she to think the way you behave?'
"Xena," Nashala whispered bringing her focus back to her friend.
"Go on, Gabrielle," the warrior prodded.
The woman began describing the meeting of the troupe. She saw Gabrielle's delight in these people who seemed so interested in her. Then she saw Gabrielle's mood change as she relived that horrid night when it all went wrong. She listened, ashamed of her behavior, but I was only trying to show Gabrielle that the warrior's life was not for her, she thought in her own defense. She could feel the Amazons' gazes on her as they listened to the strange events. Then her friend reached the part of the story where Jax easily tricked the warrior chaining her helpless to the tree. The bard's heartrate increased and her breathing became rapid as she recounted trying to help the warrior only to be rendered unconscious.
Again Nashala had to prod the warrior to continue. Xena realized for the first time she was just as afraid to face what had happened as her friend was. Resolutely she took a deep breath, guiding her friend. "All right. You were hit with a dart that knocked you out. Now it's much later and the drug is wearing off. You're waking up. Where are you?"
"Inside the wagon, lying on the floor. My hands are tied behind me and there's a gag in my mouth. I'm looking for Xena, but I don't see her and I'm getting worried." 'She's the one in trouble and she's worried about me. Amazing.' "Then the wagon stops and Jax pulls me out. I'm trying hard to stay calm so I can find out about Xena. I try to convince him to let me go - that Xena will track him and down and then - then ..." Her breathing became ragged, tears began to flow freely. "Oh gods - gods, no!"
"Gabrielle, what is it? What's he doing to you?"
"Xena's dead! Oh gods, he says they slit her throat! She's dead!" The bard began to wail and rock and hit her fists repeatedly on her thighs.
"Gabrielle, it's all right. I'm not-"
Whipping around, Xena growled, "I'm not letting her go through that pain again."
"She has to, to get to the other side of this."
"No!" Turning back to her friend, she tried to break through the sobs to get her attention. "Gabrielle, this last memory - what he said - you're going to forget it again."
Ignoring the healer's warning, she continued, "We're going back up the steps - with each step up you'll forget those last words he spoke. As you step up the memory will fade. Step up - let go - breathe - step up - last three steps - up - three - two - one."
The bard's eyes flew open as she shuddered, gulping down a breath. Confusion filled the green orbs. Memories were flooding her mind to the point she felt she might drown. Xena sat before her anxiously watching. Finally the young woman gave the warrior a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. "Hello, my friend," she said reaching out to take Xena's hand. "I remember you." She looked up at the Amazons who stood waiting hopefully. "Yes, I remember you, too," the smile becoming broader. Unable to contain themselves any longer, they scooped up their princess enveloping her in hugs and kisses.
"Princess, how are you feeling?" the healer worriedly inquired.
"I feel a little shaky for some reason. I keep feeling something horrid happened, but I can't remember." The bard caught the look the healer threw at Xena. "I remember my life with Xena and the Amazons and meeting the traveling troupe. My last image is Jax pulling me from the wagon. Was there more?"
"No," Xena lied quickly. "We thought that would be enough to handle this time around."
Gabrielle looked from warrior to healer sensing much more was going on, then realized she felt exhausted this time, and only wanted to get out of the enclosed lodge. "I want to lie down for awhile." Xena stepped forward putting a protective arm around her friend, guiding her out.
"Warrior, we need to talk."
"Later," she growled.
The warrior and bard made their way across the village, Gabrielle calling happily to each Amazon she knew by name. But as happy as her voice sounded, her eyes held apprehension. Inside the security of their hut, the young woman sagged, almost collapsing into the bed.
"Gabrielle, are you sure you're all right?"
"Yes - just tired. Today's session was a hard one for some reason," she explained as she lay down closing her eyes.
"Maybe we should skip tomorrow - just to give you a chance to rest." She waited as the young woman seemed to struggle with the thought.
"That might not be a bad idea," she finally sighed.
The warrior's brow arched. 'That was easy - too easy. It really has worn her out. I'm glad I took that last memory away. She doesn't need it. Maybe now that she knows who she is, she won't need any of the memories from her stay with the troupe - gods willing.'
* * * * *
"I just want to go to bed, Xena," she said irritably unaware of her tone.
"All right ... hey, how about a back rub?"
"You're offering without bribery?"
"You want it or not?" she said with lightness.
"Yes - thank you."
They slipped into sleep shirts and settled on the bed. Xena straddled her friend beginning a slow relaxing massage. As she worked, she noticed how tight Gabrielle's muscles were. The warrior worked an entire candlemark before the bard began to relax. Abruptly she spoke, "Thanks, Xena, that was nice. Good night." She turned over away from the warrior without another word. The briskness with which she'd been dismissed took the warrior by surprise.
"Good night, Gabrielle." She lay down noticing that the bard was practically on the edge of the bed. 'Don't take it personally. Today was rough on her. Besides, it's better if we don't get so comfortable sleeping together.' Though she told herself this, she still missed the closeness of her friend.
* * * * *
Somewhere in the middle of the night, it began. The young woman started whimpering and tossing. Xena reached as always, rubbing her back, whispering in her ear, but this time it didn't quiet the tortured bard's mind. The twisting became more intense, the cries louder, and sweat broke out all over her body. Realizing more aggressive intervention was needed, she grabbed her friend by the shoulders, shaking her and calling her name. The young girl screamed, sitting bolt upright. Guards outside broke in to defend the princess, swords drawn.
"Just a nightmare. Everything's under control," Xena assured them. The bard's eyes were wide with fear as she looked around the room trying to get her bearings.
"Princess?" the guard questioned. She wasn't sure she trusted the warrior. Gabrielle had to take several gulps of air before she could answer. "Nightmare - like she said. I'm all right - thank you." Skeptically the pair withdrew. The bard continued to breathe heavily.
"That was a bad one. I'm sorry I wasn't able to stop it this time." She reached out to wipe the wet bangs from her friend's face. "Are you really all right?"
"It was just a nightmare. It's not like they can kill you." She laid back down staring at the ceiling. Xena stared at her friend wondering how to help. Braving rejection, the warrior offered, "Would you like me to hold you?" Gabrielle said nothing, but turned into her friend's strong arms. Xena was sure she felt the wetness of tears on her shoulder as the night moved on.
Xena informed Nashala that Gabrielle would be taking the day off from her therapy, assuring her it was the bard's decision. Xena watched the young bard throughout the day, joining in the chores of the village, participating in weapons class, sitting in on the council meeting. But in the evening when all gathered to share stories and song, Gabrielle declined to recite even a poem. 'Something definitely wrong. It's like she doesn't want anyone to notice her.'
While the revelry was still going on, the young woman made her excuses to the Queen and slipped out. She said nothing to the warrior so Xena wasn't sure whether she was suppose to follow or give her time alone. 'Damn, I can't just sit here. If she wants privacy, I can always leave.'
Quietly she opened the door, remaining in the doorway. "Didn't know if you wanted company or some alone time." The bard merely shrugged. "I don't mind leaving - " the woman continued getting ready for bed - "but I'm happy to stay." Still nothing. "Gabrielle, are you listening to me?"
Finally she saw the warrior. "Sorry - just distracted."
"What's going on in that pretty little head?"
"Can it be Gabrielle, Bard Extra-ordinaire, has no words?" she teased attempting to wrangle a smile from the young woman. Another shrug as she sat down in front of the hearth looking into the flames. 'She looks as lost as I feel.' Trying to be as unobtrusive as possible Xena slipped parchment and ink in front of her friend. Then she went across the room to sharpen her sword. She knew the young woman liked to write to the music of the blade on the whetstone. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the bard reach over and slowly begin to write. The tall woman let out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding. Confident that things were on track now, she put her attention back on her blade. She didn't notice as Gabrielle's writing became intense, almost furious, finally tearing the precious parchment. With agitation, she ripped it more, then threw it into the fire.
"Gabrielle, what are you doing?!" Xena asked as she leapt to retrieve her words from the flames. But the bard's firm grip was on her wrist. "Leave it." The warrior stared at the hardness in those green eyes that usually filled her with love. "Gabrielle, what is it? Talk to me - please," she pleaded.
"That's a switch, the warrior wants to talk." She rose and went to the bed refusing to talk further. Xena rose, crossing to the door. "Where are you going?" Gabrielle asked more sharply than she intended.
"I didn't think you wanted me around."
"Don't think. Ask."
"Do you want me around?"
Barely audible came the whispered "yes." Removing her armor and leathers, she slipped into the bed. She had to strain to hear the bard say, "I'm sorry I'm being such a bitch. I don't know what's wrong with me."
Timidly the older woman rubbed comforting circles on her friend's back. "You have a long way to go to catch up with me, dear one. Now go to sleep. I'll be right here." Xena watched as her friend slowly succumbed to sleep. Afraid to let down her vigil, the warrior stayed awake watching intently. 'I'll be ready this time the minute the dreams start.'
She didn't have long to wait. It began with a small whimper. Instantly Xena was stroking and whispering to the young woman. Still, it wasn't enough. Moans began along with her hands lashing out as if trying to protect herself. Xena gripped the wrists automatically and the struggle increased violently. "Gabrielle! Wake up!"
"Stop it! Stop it! Get away!" Gabrielle's voice rose in terrified screams and once again the guards were racing to the rescue. They saw the big warrior straddling the princess, hands gripping her wrists, yelling at her while she struggled to free herself. So caught up trying to help her friend, Xena didn't notice the arrival of the guards until she felt a sharp blow and tumbled off the bed into darkness.
Outside Solari was just coming off guard duty when she heard the commotion coming from the princess's hut. Hurrying inside, the Amazon saw Xena unconscious on the floor and Gabrielle screaming hysterically while the young guard tried to quiet her.
"Tala, go get Nashala now! Run!" The guard darted out. "Gabrielle, you're safe - it's all right - look at me!" The frightened woman started to focus on her friend, but the warrior's limp form caught her eye and the screams began all over. Solari slipped behind the young woman, grabbing her arms and wrapping herself around her. Holding on tight, she tried to quiet her. Just then the sleepy healer ran in. "Nashala, I can't calm her!" she yelled trying to control the bard.
The older woman quickly assessed her condition and pulled a small dart from her bag dipping it in a jar. "Hold her still," the healer directed. Solari did her best as the guard joined in to help. Swiftly Nashala jabbed the needle in the bard's neck, held it a moment, then pulled it out. In moments the young woman slumped against Solari. "She should be out the rest of the night." Her gaze shifted to the woman on the floor. "What happened to the warrior?"
Tala spoke up, "I saw her attacking the Princess so I knocked her out. We'll take her to a cell now."
"Stop." The old woman knelt, turning the warrior so she could examine her head. "Good thing it's hard. And as for Xena attacking Gabrielle, that's quite impossible. The Princess was in the throes of a nightmare and didn't know what was happening. I'm sure the warrior was trying unsuccessfully to help her."
"No buts. Just get her on the bed and then get out before she wakes if you value your own head."
The guards did as they were told and left quickly. "Solari, get me a cot. I'll be staying here tonight." As the Amazon left, Xena began to stir. "Welcome back."
Holding her head, she looked around, "Gabrielle?" Turning she found her lying asleep next to her. "Is she all right?" she asked the healer, her eyes never leaving the bard.
"She was hysterical. I had to give her a sleeping potion. None of us could break through the nightmare." She said nothing more, but her eyes drilled holes in the back of Xena's head.
"What?" Xena barked.
"I said nothing."
"This is my fault, isn't it? For making her suppress that last memory."
"Fine. I'll tell her what I did tomorrow and then we'll be over."
"would it hurt to tell her what the memory is?"
"I think it would be all right."
"Nashala, I wouldn't hurt her for the world."
She watched the warrior gently caress the bard's cheek. "I know."
* * * * *
"Ready to head over to Nashala's?"
Keeping her face turned away, Gabrielle replied, "I'm not sure it's necessary."
"I know who I am - who you are - the amazons. Why do I need to know about that month with Jax? That's not who I am. Once I remember, I'm sure I'll work on forgetting it."
"Gabrielle, you've never run from anything. You going to start now?"
"I don't see the point."
"Not letting Jax control any part of you." She stared steadily at her young friend. "Gabrielle, I need to tell you what I did. The last session you were so upset I made you suppress the very last memory. I think that's why your nightmare got worse and it took one warrior, two amazons, and a healer to knock you out."
She grinned sheepishly. "Sorry. What was the memory?"
"They told you I was dead - that they'd slit my throat. I know that must have been terrifying for you. My death would have meant you were all alone - no one to save you."
The bard turned to her. "Oh Xena, if you think that's why I was upset, you just don't understand how I feel at all." The warrior looked at her questioningly. "Xena, you're my best friend - my family. I wouldn't want to live without you." The tall dark woman continued to stare at her friend unable to come to terms with what she'd just heard. "Let's go, my big dumb warrior." Taking her hand, they walked out the door and over to the healer.
* * * * *
Gabrielle nodded and placed herself on the center of the furs. Incense and drums began while Xena's voice melodically called her down to her depths.
"We're going back to where Jax pulled you from the wagon. He's talking to you. What is he saying?" Instantly the bard's breathing became fast, coming in gasps. Tears welled in her eyes. The images resurfaced and wails tore through her throat. Xena ached to stop, but controlled the impulse. "Gabrielle, what's happening now?" she asked attempting to take her beyond the moment. "Focus on Jax. What's he doing?"
"He walking off leaving me with the news of Xena's death."
"He's coming back now."
"He slipping a collar around my neck then cutting my wrists loose. But my arms are asleep from being in one position so long, I can't strike out as much as I want to. Now he's slipping manacles on and yanking me to my feet. I'm trying to goad him into killing me. I almost succeed, but Tyrus stops him." Xena blinked at this disclosure. "He says he'll make me forget - make me into his slave. He's pouring something down my throat. It makes me feel foggy - makes it hard to think - to concentrate."
Going on, she described the long night and day of the battle of wills ending with her eventual capitulation. The women sitting around her were filled with rage, each privately vowing revenge. The narration continued as Gabrielle relived the events that occurred; the beatings, hard work, near starvation, and more beatings. She related all of it without emotion until she reached the night of the rape. Adrianna had been angry with Jax and thrown him out of the wagon. Furious, he grabbed the helpless young woman who quickly realized what was in store for her.
"I know he has the right as my master, but still I fight. I just can't accept this - it feels wrong. But it doesn't matter how much I fight. I'm too weak. He's grabbing the manacle chain and hooking my arms above my head. So I kick with my legs. It's foolish. He's flipping me over and lashing my back 'til it bleeds. Now he's flipping me back. The pain is so great I don't have the strength to fight anymore. He's ripping my shift. His hands are all over me, bruising me, tearing at me. Now he's pushing inside. Gods, let me die! Please, let me die!" Tears are streaming down her face as well as the faces of the women who surround her.
"Take her past this, warrior."
Trying to keep her voice level, but failing, Xena quickly moved the young woman forward in time. "It's over now, Gabrielle. He's left you. What happens now?"
"The boy, Mouse, is coming to me. He's releasing the chain from the hook. Now he's giving me a sash so I can pull my torn shift around me. He's giving me water. He's gentle. Master comes out and starts yelling at us. He tells Mouse to get away. He laughs at me - says no one will want me now - says I'm ruined - says I better enjoy what he gives me because it's all I'll ever know. I know he's right. I don't care anymore. I don't even want my freedom anymore. All I want is to die."
There is silence as the words hang in the air before them. The bard is still now, the tears have stopped. Xena looks to Nashala for direction.
"She's quiet. Let's finish this so none of us has to come back here. Surely we've been through the worse."
"May your words be true," the dark warrior whispered. Fearfully Xena guided Gabrielle through the remaining days and was relieved when that particular event was not repeated. Coming to the end of the time, she brought her friend slowly back. Her eyes opened slowly, blinking to clear tears that still clung to lashes. All held their breath as they watched the images wash over their friend. Recognition filled her eyes and she collapsed to the ground weeping anew. Xena put her arms around her where she lay and held on tightly letting her continue to cry.
"I tell you Ephiny, I don't know what to do anymore. It's been over a week. She stays in that hut constantly it seems. And when she does come out, she barely speaks."
"What did you expect?"
"I don't know. It's just not the Gabrielle I know."
"Xena," she began, trying to broach the subject, "Gabrielle is not the only one who's been effected by this."
"What do you mean?"
"Spouses-" The warrior's brow arched. " - and family of rape victims go through a loss of innocence themselves. They feel guilt for not protecting their loved one. Sometimes they're even angry at the woman herself for letting it happen."
"I don't blame her. If it's anyone's fault, it's mine."
"And how do guilty people react?"
"They get angry at the person they're feeling guilty about."
"Yep. Do you have any idea how you've been acting towards Gabrielle?"
"I've been trying to be supportive-"
"Wrong. You've been doing everything in your power to avoid her."
"No, my dear warrior, I've been watching. You come early to weapons class and leave late. When Gabrielle does venture down to the field, you refuse to spar with her."
"After all she's been through, I can't bring myself to lift a hand against her even in practice."
"Have you told her that?"
"Well ... I .... No."
"So what is she suppose to think?" The tall woman hung her head. "And when you both come to the communal hall for dinner, you actually chatter away but not with her. Gods only know what you do in the privacy of your hut."
Sadly she confessed, "When I am there, I polish my armor to avoid looking her in the eye."
"You're so busy feeling guilty, wallowing in your own self-pity, you haven't stopped once to consider her pain."
The warrior glared at the Amazon, her anger threatening to escape, then just as suddenly it dissolved into sorrow. "you're right."
"I know. Look, Xena, you are the world to Gabrielle. If you're ashamed of what happened-"
"I'm not ashamed! It wasn't her fault!"
"But that's not what your actions are telling her. You can't stand to be around her, you won't talk to her, you can't even look her in the eye. By the Gods, I'm surprised she's not worse!"
"What have I done to her?"
"Son of a Bacchae, there you go again!" The Amazon was yelling now. "What have 'I' done? Stop thinking 'I' - start thinking 'she'. What is she feeling? What is she thinking? What does she want? What does she need? Have you asked her that?"
If possible, the warrior's head hung lower. "No." Suddenly she felt a sharp slap on the back of her head. "What was that for?"
"You were doing it again! Feeling bad cause you screwed up! Well, you don't have that luxury. If you really care about Gabrielle, I suggest you go to her and find out what she wants - what she needs - and now!"
The quiet was interrupted only by birds. "Do you know where she is?"
"Sorry. I saw her leave the hut, but don't know where she was headed."
"Thanks, Ephiny. If I ever behave like a big dumb warrior again, feel free to hit me right away."
"My pleasure," she smiled.
* * * * *
* * * * *
"Xena!" cried Ephiny running in waving a parchment. "Xena, I found this in my hut!"
"It's from Gabrielle giving me her right of caste!" The two friends looked at each other as dread settled on both of them. "We've got to find her fast before she does anything crazy. I'll get a tracking party together. It won't be easy in the dark, but-"
"It's all right, Ephiny, I can find her," she said confidently as she felt the warmth glowing inside her. She raced out of the hall before the Amazon could say another word.
Xena didn't bother to look for tracks or signs, she ran at breakneck speed as if following a beacon in front of her. A candlemark later she found the bard sitting quietly, oblivious to her surroundings, and holding a dagger.
'Artemis, help me to handle this correctly.' Quietly she slipped from the trees and called lightly, "Gabrielle .... Gabrielle."
Slowly the desolate woman turned and focused, "Xena? What are you doing here? How did you track me?"
"I didn't. Artemis gave me a gift. I'm linked to you. I'll always to able to find you no matter where you go."
Dejectedly she asked, "Why would Artemis do that?"
"Because I prayed to her and asked for her help."
"You prayed .... to a god?"
"I just wish I'd done it sooner and spared you all that pain." She said as she approached.
"Please stay there." The warrior stopped. "I want to be alone, Xena. Please leave me alone."
She spoke as gently, but firmly as possible. "I can't do that. You're upset. You have a dagger in your hand and until I know what's happening, I'm not moving."
The ache in her voice was apparent, "I'm finishing off what Jax started." She raised the knife to her breast.
"No!" The warrior was frozen in place, afraid to startle the woman, afraid not to take action. "Please, just tell me why you want to do this."
"Because he was right. No one will ever want me now."
"I want you," she said with all the tenderness she could show.
Lowering the knife, the bard began to chuckle with irony. "That why you can't stand to be around me? Can't even look at me?"
"I was afraid to-"
"You? Afraid? Right."
"Afraid I'd see blame and hate in your eyes."
Exhaustion weighed her down. "Just leave, Xena."
"Gabrielle -", taking another step in.
"Don't." Tensely tightening the grip on the dagger, "You'd say anything to stop me."
"I wouldn't lie to you." The younger woman turned away. "Who's avoiding now?" She watched intently for any sign that would give her a clue as to how to help her friend. "Tell me what you're thinking ... what you're feeling."
The only sound was crickets in the night. The warrior began to wonder if the bard had even heard her when her voice broke the stillness. "Before I remembered everything I felt closer to you. I was unaware of all your rules so I acted freely on whatever I felt. I hugged you, I snuggled in your arms, I even kissed you. And I was happy then. Now I realize you tolerated all that because of your feelings of responsibility for me. 'Have to take care of the little girl from Potedeia, warrior's honor and all.'" Tears were silently making their way down her cheeks. "You've been trying to get rid of me - now's your chance."
"I was only afraid you'd get hurt riding with me," her voice breaking in defense.
"Ironic, isn't it? It wasn't old enemies or some battle that did it. Just a small ragtag traveling show." The bard shuddered. "Thank you for all you've done for me. Now goodbye, Xena." She raised the blade 'til it touched her skin.
"Wait! Please ... if you're determined to do this, I promise I won't interfere ... if you'll grant me one last favor." The young woman glanced at her. "You know I can stop you if I want." She nodded in agreement. "Just grant my request," she pleaded taking a step forward and the bard stepped back. Thinking quickly, the warrior knelt and placed her hands behind her back to show her harmlessness. "I gave my word - no interference." The bard nodded and stepped forward. "Let me see the dagger." She hesitated then lowered the blade in front of Xena's face. She stared in confusion and disbelief as the warrior inched forward to place her own neck against the sharp dagger. "Before you take your life, take mine first." Blue eyes looked up imploring into green. "You tried to trick Jax into killing you when you thought I was dead. Said you couldn't live if I was dead. I feel exactly the same. I can't live without you, Gabrielle. You give my life meaning. You keep me on the path. You help me control my dark side. I actually enjoy waking the next day. With you by my side, I have hope for the first time. You take yourself away and you take away my hope. I can't make it without you. I need you. I love you."
Eyes held eyes searching for a sign that some sort of connection had been made. Finding none, the warrior leaned forward into the blade feeling it begin to bite, and blood trickle down. Startled, it registered on the bard what she was doing. Throwing the dagger as far away as possible, she sunk to her knees, wrapping the warrior in her arms, tears mingling together.
They held each other for over a candlemark, the big warrior cradling the small bard, rocking her gently 'til the crying faded. Finally the cold of the night broke their embrace. "Let me make a fire. Don't want you catching a chill." The strawberry blonde watched the efficient moves of her friend. She found herself admiring the strength of those arms as they gathered stone and cut wood. Soon it was ablaze and the warrior slipped behind the young woman to keep her back warm. She began to rub her shoulders and neck, rubbing out the knots of stress and pain, feeling safe that this touching was acceptable. 'I don't want to let go of her.'
"Yes, my sweet bard?" 'Oh gods, watch your mouth, warrior.'
"You don't have to rub my back."
"Oh." She removed her hands and contented herself with merely being a backrest for her friend.
"What I meant," she began hesitantly, "is you don't have to rub my back as an excuse to touch. I'd rather you just hold me - that is .... if you want to."
The warrior's heart lightened. "I want to very much." She wrapped her arms securely around the smaller woman stroking her arm. The simple affection stirred emotions deep within the both of them. She felt the bard's hand begin to timidly return the caress on her own muscular arm. Leaning her head back against the warrior, she melted completely into her. Xena buried her face into the sweet hair under her chin. Then she felt Gabrielle's hand take hers. Her thumb caressed her large palm, her fingers gently massaging the back of her hand. The touch was feather light as the fingers traced her own. The tracing continued as the fingers came around to draw circles in her palm and across her wrist. Gingerly the bard's hands reached out to pull the wrist guard away, baring her arm. Then the fingers continued their sweet torture, caressing, circling the palm, the fingers, the back of the hand, and halfway up her forearm. 'Gods! I feel I've just been stripped naked. She is taking me with this simple playing. Does she even realize what she's doing to me? Gods!' Her breath caught in her throat, her heart beating wildly. 'Ok, warrior, get it under control. Stop thinking of you - listen to her!' Trying to calm her warring nerves, she focused on the woman in her arms. "Oh gods, her breath is quick, too - I can feel her heart pounding. She's in the same state I am. I guess she does know what she's doing.' The warrior relaxed, giving herself over to all the sensations coursing through her body. The bard's hands never stopped, so incredibly slow and sensuous. 'If she keeps this up, I'm not going to be able to maintain control. Gods! I want to kiss her.'
Without realizing it, she was leaning forward, her mouth dangerously close to the pristine neck. The pressure in her hand increased, the actions increasing in speed. She felt the bard's cheek press against her own. Ever so slowly the young woman's head began to turn to her, their foreheads touching, the mouths just inches apart, each tasting the other's breath as it came faster. The fingers tightened their grip on her hand, kneading the fingers, hot with desire.
Gasping, the warrior spoke, her voice ragged, "We shouldn't."
The bard's lips almost touched her as she spoke, "Why?"
"It's not ... right."
"I don't ... want ... to take ... advantage."
"What if ... I want you to?"
'Gods, does she have any idea what she's saying?! Of course she does, but she doesn't know what it means to love a warrior." " You're confused ... vulnerable."
The warrior gasped as the lips came to rest on her own, not forcing, but definitely inviting. Despite her better judgement, she responded, drowning in the sweetness. Time stopped, the world disappeared, all that existed was this moment, these lips, the longing that flowed between them. When they finally broke from that one single kiss, they collapsed into each other, breathing heavily.
"Gods, woman!" the warrior gulped, "if you can do that to me with one kiss, I may not be able to survive any more." She looked lovingly into the face which held her heart. 'What beautiful green eyes. And her smile has returned.' She brushed the bard's cheek with her hand. They stayed, getting lost in each other's eyes.
The young woman's voice slipped into the air tenderly, "That was so perfect, I'm almost afraid to do more."
"Then let me just hold you through the night. That's more than enough for me. One thing though ..."
"Keep your hands still, otherwise I won't be held responsible." The smallest giggle escaped the bard's lips as she snuggled down into her warrior for the night.
Ephiny smiled with joy and relief as she saw her two friends enter the village. Running up to them, she threw her arm around her princess while holding out the other to the warrior. "I'm so glad to see the both of you!" She inspected them both, noting that Gabrielle seemed fine, but Xena looked a little worse for wear. "Looks like you could use a visit to Nashala's hut, warrior."
"The forest and I had a few disagreements on my way to find my bard."
Ephiny smiled at the possessiveness of the tall woman's words, then turned to her diminutive friend and took her hands. "I'm going to the temple right now to give thanks to Artemis for you safe return."
They went on to the healer's hut who went about cleaning Xena's various scratches and cuts, applying healing salve. "And how are you, my Princess?"
"Much better, thank you, Nashala."
"No more thoughts of running away?"
With embarrassment, she replied softly, "No."
"Wouldn't do her any good," the warrior chimed in. "I think I've convinced her where she goes, I go. Even to Tartarus." For a moment the two were lost in each other's eyes, oblivious to the healer who watched intently."
"Princess, Warrior, I'm glad to see much healing happened last night." The two blushed noticeably. "Just remember, the wounds are fresh for both of you. It will take very little for them to re-open. So be patient with each other and above all, you must trust each other with your thoughts and feelings - all of them. Don't censure yourselves, you understand?" They both nodded, eyes still fixed on each other. "If you will do this, you will both make it to the other side of this. And give yourselves time. There's no rush, all right??
"Yes, thank you, Nashala, for everything you've done for me." She hugged the old woman, kissing her on the cheek before they left.
* * * * *
"Just watching my big beautiful warrior." Xena humphed, returning to her work, smiling happily to herself.
With good-byes and hugs all around, they were soon on their way. Gabrielle rode behind the dark woman, arms contentedly wrapped around her. The day passed in companionable silence, both women content just to feel the body next to them.
After dinner and chores were completed, they sat together looking into the fire, hands gently playing again. 'How can the touch of this small hand in such innocence set me so on fire? The bard turned in her arms and reached up for the warrior's face. They came together so slowly it seemed Time itself might be altered. In the sweetness of the kiss, the bard's hand gently slid down the warrior's cheek, down her neck coming to rest on her soft chest. She felt the woman's breathing increase rapidly. Her hand slid lower stopping at the top of the leathers, but letting her fingers probe down. Instead of meeting bare skin, her fingers caressed a small leather pouch. Curious, she pulled from the kiss, asking, "Xena, what's this?"
Without a word the warrior pulled the pouch from its resting place, and withdrew the piece within. "It's the chain I got you," the bard smiled happily.
"I've kept it there from the first so it would be close to my heart."
"Why not just wear it?" The warrior looked embarrassed, lowering her eyes. "What? The great warrior princess doesn't wear jewelry?" she teased.
"That's not it."
"Then what?" she prodded.
Hesitantly she replied, "I didn't feel worthy to wear such a beautiful symbol of .... of your caring. Not after how I'd treated you."
The young woman looked at the sadness in her friend's eyes. Without another word she took the delicate chain from her hand. "You're right. You can't wear this as a symbol of my caring. That would be a lie." The warrior's heart stopped. "You must wear it as a symbol of my love," she crooned as she placed it around the warrior's neck and kissed the spot where it laid on her skin. Then looking up into her eyes, she kissed her fully, passionately.
"Before I knew who I was, I kissed you. You remember that?" The dark woman nodded. "I knew I belonged with you even then. You were the one who was hesitant. Now I have my memories --all of them and I want to kiss you even more. I love you, Xena, more than you can know, but I have a question. " She watched the young woman studying her so intently. " And I want the truth."
"Have I ever-" She stopped abruptly looking at the arch of the brow of her friend. "Well ... sometimes to protect-" Another look as the arms crossed. "I promise - the truth," she gave in.
"Thank you. All this affection, the kissing, the touches," she faltered a moment, fearful of the answer. "Are you allowing it out of misplaced guilt or do you want to touch me?" There - it was out in the open. She braced herself.
Surprised at the question, she spoke, "You're asking now?"
"I was just so relieved to be in your arms finally, I didn't question. But now .... Now it's occurred to me I'm always the one who initializes everything. So I began to think ... And I know how you are when you feel guilty. You'd do anything to fix it, right?" She stared at her friend unflinchingly though apprehension was apparent in her eyes.
"I'd do almost anything. Pretending to love you would only make things worse. Everything we've done, I've wanted. And that's the truth."
"Then why do you never ..." she trailed off.
"Why do I let you be the aggressor? Gabrielle, you've been through so much. I didn't want to rush anything. I thought it best to let you lead."
"I was thinking you didn't really want me."
"Never!" she breathed as she wrapped her arms around the young woman, kissing her fiercely.
When they separated, Gabrielle lost herself in the deep blue before her. "Guess this is what Nashala meant by sharing all our feelings uncensored."
"You know I'm not good with words. Those are your department. I may have difficulty starting a talk, but if you begin, I promise to participate."
"All right." A breath. "Then I have another question." Xena rolled her eyes causing the woman in her lap to giggle. "Be serious," she said poking her gently. The warrior straightened up putting on her best thoughtful face. "I believe in love, Xena."
"Well ... I can't have casual sex. Not that we've even gotten close, but I just want you to know that sex itself isn't really important to me. And I realize that you've had a lot of experience and physical may be enough for you - which I would understand. And anyway I have no experience and I'm sure you have certain needs so-" She halted abruptly as her friend placed a finger over her lips to stop her, then released her. "I'm rambling."
She looked at the big strong woman sheepishly, unable to continue for the moment. "Gabrielle, sex is about power. That's how I've always used it. But you mean so much more to me. I don't want to just have sex with you. I want to make love. When you're ready and not before."
"What if I'm never ready? What if I can't ...?"
"Don't worry. You can. It'll just take time. And, believe it or not, I can wait."
Holding the woman's face in her hands, she smiled lovingly, "Do you know how much I love you, my big strong warrior?"
"Do you know how much I love it when you do that?" she smiled in pleasure.
"Say 'my' warrior. It makes me feel safe, knowing that I belong to you.
Awareness filtered into the green eyes. "You do, don't you?"
"Heart and soul."
The two women slipped back into their old routine with the added spice of their mutual love. Swimming and baths tended to take longer now with much fun and frolicking. Though the campfire still held the sounds of whetstone and quill scratching, those times were often cut short in favor of other activities. Nightmares were almost unheard of now. And the staff swung beside the sword as forcibly as ever. The bantering continued now with double meaning, but there was also insightful interaction like never before. The bard almost couldn't believe this was the same silent brooding warrior she had begun her journeys with.
Xena caught her staring again. "What?" she feigned fierceness.
"I just like looking at you."
The warrior fidgeted. As much as she loved the bard's verbal affection, it also caused her embarrassment. "There's a festival in Balin. We could take a little detour and go if you like?"
The excitement in those green eyes always melted her heart. "I know better than to joke about something like that with my bard. You up for it?"
"Of course." She grabbed the arm that had been offered and bounded up onto Argo.
Soon they were in the village with activity everywhere. Music filled the air along with sweet smells and children's laughter. They went from booth to booth sampling different foods, looking at merchandise, even participating in activities around the square. The two companions were more relaxed than they'd been in moons when a familiar voice filtered through.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen! We'll be back after a short break."
Rage filled the warrior in seconds, her blood pounding in her head, every muscle bracing for attack. The bard, however, was filled with dread, her face went white, sweat broke out, her knees threatened to buckle. "Xena ..." the warrior almost missed the plaintive cry. "Please ..." Her breathing was rapid, her hands reached up gripping the tall woman's breastplate. Finally the warrior brought her focus down to the young woman leaning on her for support. "Get me out of here ... please." For a moment Xena struggled with herself between wanting to rip Jax apart and protect Gabrielle. Her love won out as she put an arm around her waist, guiding her out of the village.
Once past the gates, they found a shaded area to sit and catch their breath. Xena looked at the bard as emotions continued to war within. Noting the pale color of the younger woman, she shoved her head between her knees instructing her to breathe slowly. Long moments passed before a voice spoke, "I think I'm ok now. Xena, could you let me up please?"
"Oh - sorry. How're you doing?"
"I'm fine ... really."
"Good. Stay here. I'll be right back." She started to rise, but Gabrielle grabbed her wrist. She looked down into green pools that begged her to remain. The warrior's heart was breaking as she gazed at the fragile creature before her.
"I know you want to avenge me, but you can't just go in there swinging. People wouldn't understand. They'd think it's just another crazed warlord. And you know how charming Jax is, the crowd might even turn on you."
"I don't care. He has to pay for what he did to you."
The bard took a deep breath, steadying herself and making a decision. "You're right of course." She rose slowly, pulling herself up and squaring her shoulders. "But I'm the one who has to do it."
"Xena .... You know I'm right." The warrior tried desperately to come up with an argument to dissuade her, but could think of none. With sadness, she nodded in agreement. "Good. Now let's find the village magistrate and do this."
* * * *
"And now my friends I will need a volunteer. A pretty young lady is preferable," he smiled as the audience laughed.
"Will I do?"
He turned to watch as the strawberry blonde slowly ascended the steps to the makeshift stage, staff still in hand. His eyes flickered with fear. He turned away to escape only to face the warrior coming up the steps on the opposite side. Composing himself, he noticed her sword was still sheathed and she wasn't advancing on him. Turning back to the bard, the smile returned to his lips. "Well, well, well ... so good to see you again. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Gabrielle, Bard of Potedeia." The woman ignored the crowd's applause keeping her eyes on the tricky man before her. "She also happens to be an Amazon Princess. Hard to believe, huh? Such a little thing, no bigger than a bug!" He lashed the word at her as his eyes grew hard. The woman froze, shaking, but met his gaze. The warrior's anger was almost uncontrollable as she took a step. Noticing her friend's movement, she called out, "Xena, stay!" There was no smile in the words. It was a command not to be argued with.
Then the bard moved forward deliberately and called to the crowd while keeping her eyes locked on Jax. "This man is a thief. While your attention is on the show, an accomplice moves among you relieving you of your purses." There was a murmur as folks checked for their money. "But that's not all. He's a kidnapper." More murmurings. "And when he has his victims helpless, he rapes!" The crowd's hostility was growing. "I suggest you surrender yourself to the magistrate while you can, Jax."
"Or what, little bug? Are you going to take me down? You? The nothing? The worthless slave? The damaged piece of meat?!" his eyes sparkled with cruelty.
"You had your chance." She lunged, staff swinging. Jax pulled out a sword hidden behind a box and grabbed the chakram from his belt. He blocked her first blow and immediately went into attack mode. He continued his verbal taunts in an attempt to shake her. But Gabrielle was too focused to be so easily swayed. She parried each thrust and was soon driving him back. The warrior smiled with fierce pride watching her love battle not only this piece of scum, but also her own personal demons. Then she gasped as Jax got in a lucky swipe with the chakram, cutting Gabrielle's shoulder.
But her friend kept fighting, too lost in the battle to notice or perhaps inspired by it to push harder. With renewed force the staff smacked hard into his stomach, then spinning sharply, she slammed him on the back. He fell to the floor where the Amazon kicked so hard he flipped onto his back. Roughly she placed her staff at his throat. The crowd cheered and egged her on to finish him off. But the warrior prayed her friend would resist. 'That's not who you are, Gabrielle. Please don't.'
Candlemarks seem to go past as she held her stance pushing slightly into his windpipe. Then suddenly the staff swung around in an arc to knock him into oblivion. Reaching down, she took the chakram from his limp hand. "And this belongs to my friend." She tossed the weapon to the warrior who was ready to burst with pride. Then she called, "Magistrate, this piece of garbage is all yours." Turning away the Amazon left, warrior following behind content to be the sidekick.
* * * * *
"Only six or seven times, but I like hearing it." Gabrielle felt the salve being gently rubbed into the stitches and then the bandage being pulled back into place. "Hey, no kiss first to make it better?" she teased.
"I'm afraid if I start I won't be able to stop after what I saw today."
"Who wants you to stop?"
"Gabrielle, seriously, I don't think I could stop tonight. I really want you."
"Good. Cause I want you, too," she whispered as she leaned in placing a kiss on the warrior's neck.
"For once, don't talk. We have important things to do tonight. Like getting to know each other properly ... intimately."
"You don't have to do this."
"I know I don't. Xena, I want to do this. I want this more than my words. For the first time I actually feel free that I might be able to have what I want." Taking a deep breath, she continued, "Facing ... that bastard today was terrifying. I really didn't know if I could stand up to him. But I knew if I didn't, I would never be able to have you. And by the gods, I want you."
"What do you want, little one?" she smiled with adoration.
"I want to touch every inch of you. I want to pleasure you, to fill you, to make you cry. I want you to be able to do the same to me. I want to feel you around me, on me, in me so completely I can't breathe. I want to know what release is and I want it with you."
The passion in the green pools burned deeply into the blue. "It shall be as you command, my Princess."
"No. Not for the Princess - or even for your friend. And not for my command or even my desire."
The warrior smiled warmly at the beautiful woman before her in understanding. "For what we both desire, it will be so tonight ... my love."
And so it was that night and all nights to follow.
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