THE SEASON OF CHANGE
The story is mine and written by my demanding Muse for your entertainment, but the characters from Xena:Warrior Princess belong to MCA/Universal.
The blacksmith picked up his nails and small mallet before walking over to the pale horse to kneal. He placed the nails into his mouth for easier access, and lifted the unshod hoof off the ground, turning it for a better view. He used this opportunity to look beneath the horse to admire the woman's shapely, leather-clad legs. He watched her walk towards him. She bent down, catching his eyes, her own a cold blue that froze him in place.
"I'm not paying you to ogle me. Finish shoeing my horse before I take that shoe and wrap it around your throat!" she hissed. He looked away and fumbled for his mallet. He could barely place the nails correctly, his hands were shaking so hard, his heart pounding in fear. Sweat beaded his brow and hands, making it difficult to keep a good grip on his mallet as he hammered in the nails. Finishing, he lowered the hoof in relief. She pulled a small coin bag from her bodice and handed him his dinars, roughly slapping them into his palm.
Bachrael watched the cold face of the woman soften as she looked over his shoulder. Curious, he turned to see an approaching young woman.
"Gabrielle! Over here," the warrior called.
The reddish-blond girl neared the woman fearlessly, obviously comfortable with the statuesque warrior's fierce radiance. "Xena, is Argo ready? I have our supplies, and the directions to Atia."
The taller woman hunched slightly, bringing herself closer to her smaller companion, faces inches apart. They stood close together, talking quietly. The fair-haired girl placed her hand on the Xena's arm in an affectionate gesture before loading her package into the saddlebags.
Xena glanced at the blacksmith, suppressing the urge to smash in his face. He annoyed her with his ogling and superior attitudes. He had taken his sweet time in making a simple shoe, acting almost as though the metal was his lover, lingering over every step. It was bad enough that Argo threw a shoe, but to have to put up with the likes of Bachrael made her nerves itch. She spun around and mounted her horse.
They were already running behind, and as much as Gabrielle hated riding, she was going to. Xena lowered her arm to her friend, her face showing her that she wouldn't take any arguments. The bard sighed in resignation, and took the offered arm, grasping the strong arm at the bicep. She could feel Xena's muscles bunch under her hand as she pulled her up onto the horse. Argo shifted nervously under her, snorting softly.
"I know, Argo. Just give me a second, will you?" Gabrielle said with a grunt as she shifted her bottom into a more comfortable position, then placed her hands around her friend's waist. Xena immediately urged Argo into a fast pace that would eat the miles without exhausting the horse.
Gabrielle gritted her teeth, hating the choppy gate. She knew that her stomach would be protesting the motion this evening. It was too much like being on a ship, and she was almost tempted to use that little pressure trick for seasickness that Xena had shown her a few months earlier. Gabrielle smiled to herself, recalling its side effect of numbing the taste buds. Xena never realized how tempting it was to use when it was the warrior's turn to prepare their meal. Xena was a wonderful friend, but as a cook, she left a lot to be desired.
Xena spotted a shady area under a stand of cypress trees. They had been riding for hours, and both were hot and tired. She could tell by Gabrielle's body language that the bard was exhausted. Her body had been slumping heavily against her, shifting constantly. Xena felt a little guilty for pushing them this hard.
Gabrielle leaned back when the horse stopped, curious as to why. She turned in place, scouting the area with her eyes. They were in an open area in the middle of no where. The birds sang cheerfully, a clear indication that there was nothing there to disturb them. All that could be seen was some trees and the road under them. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, she relaxed. She should have known better.
If there had been any danger, her friend would have stiffened, instantly ready for battle. Xena's instincts were sharper than a new blade, and little escaped her notice. Gabrielle released her death grip on her friend's waist, and Xena lifted one leg over the saddle horn to hop to the ground.
Gabrielle slid off the horse and her legs nearly buckled from exhaustion. She grabbed hold of Argo's saddle, steadying herself. She took a few tentative and painful steps, placing her hands on the small of her back, arching and stretching her tired muscles with a grimace.
"Lets take a breather, Gabrielle," Xena suggested kindly, her indulgent smile quirking into a lopsided grin. She pulled a saddle bag from its bindings and headed for the trees.
"Fine by me," the petite blond moaned good-naturedly. Xena turned face away, hiding her smile and biting her lip, preventing a mischievous comment from escaping. The warrior sat under the shade tree, shifting her sword in order to lean back comfortably. She closed her striking blue eyes, enjoying the cooler air and the chill of the grass beneath her bare thighs. Her dark leather tunic, as scanty as it was, tended to be hot in the sun. She scratched absent-mindedly under her leather and metal shoulder armor, wishing for a cool bath. Xena opened her eyes to look at her friend. She envied Gabrielle's sparse Amazon garb, its woven fabrics much cooler in the heat.
"I'd stop longer, but we're already behind. We don't dare take too long to reach Atia, the situation is just too explosive to waste any time."
"I know. I can't believe King Phadius would just execute an entire town for one group's actions!" Gabrielle exclaimed.
"You have to remember, Gabrielle, that he's had to deal with these fanatics for years. He's tired of having them kill their innocent children. That town is hiding the real culprits --either out of fear or defiance, and Phadius can't allow it to continue."
"At least he promised you he'd wait until the new moon."
Xena craned her neck, looking up at her still standing friend. "Mmm. But in all honesty, I'm not sure what I *can* do to prevent bloodshed. How do you convince religious fanatics to stop their practices? They refuse to leave their homelands, and they keep killing the deformed children born to them, in spite of the new laws," Xena said angrily.
" It's stupid. King Phadius offered to take the children and have them raised in foster homes, but the parents refused! It's an old custom that sickens me. Leaving children--babies-- exposed to the elements, just because they were born weak or deformed. Xena, maybe I'm just too soft-hearted, but I don't believe killing the parents is the answer. What if he just imprisoned them? Or exiled them? I don't know, but executing an entire town is like cutting off the rooster's head just because he crows!" Gabrielle waved her hand in disgust, then ran fingers through her hair in frustration. She sat down next to her friend, her normally sweet expression twisted into a deep frown, her outrage and frustration all too apparent.
"You're preaching to the converted, Gabrielle. But I understand his point of view. In my warlord days, I would have executed all violators once I had issued the proclamation banning the practice. Making an example of a few early on prevents more trouble than it causes."
Gabrielle hid a shudder at the words. On occasion, Xena triggered that sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. It wasn't often Xena said something that reminded Gabrielle of that side of her. Until their encounter with the Horde, her understanding of what Xena had once been was just a girl's naive vision. The Horde had made Gabrielle come face to face with that cold warrior of old, frightening Gabrielle with the woman that had once ruled with an iron fist, with the need to win at any cost.
The old Xena had scared and worried her ever since. Would she return? Twice in the last two years, Gabrielle had witnessed the eerie transformation of past and present. The first time had lasted but a moment, when Xena had thought the god Ares, disguised as her father, had been killed by villagers. In her outrage, the warrior had ordered their deaths, her eyes filled with an insane glaze of hatred. The bard had struck her friend with a pitchfork, bringing her back from the edge of madness.
The second time, with the Horde, Gabrielle had stood back in fear and disbelief at the actions of her friend. Terror and hatred had fueled Xena-- and no amount of words could slow her from her path. Xena had taken over as leader to the Athenian soldiers, issuing orders that had chilled the bard's soul. All the old tales of Xena the warlord, told by her fellow storytellers, no longer seemed unreal.
Gabrielle had been stunned when her normally compassionate friend had ordered that food and water be denied to the dying men. As a healer, Xena would have been the first to help them under normal circumstances. Her cold-hearted treatment of the wounded and dying soldiers had been a shock to the gentle bard.
Next came the torture of a captured enemy, Xena's determination to get information by any means necessary had left Gabrielle with a pounding heart, her friend now a stranger. It had almost been like the time Callisto had taken control of her body so long ago, when someone she didn't know had been staring out of those familiar blue eyes.
And then Xena's scathing lecture for *daring* to question her orders and actions in front of her men. Gabrielle had known at the moment, that only the barest of friendship had remained between them. The younger woman's 'defiance' could have ended her life, because Xena's anger had been that strong.
Gabrielle had asked her who she was, what had happened to the Xena she knew, and had been frightened by the answer. Xena had told her *that* Xena was of no use to them, and if that was the price to pay in order to save them all, she would gladly give her up.
"Gabrielle? Are you ready to eat?" Xena asked. The bard jumped, snapping back to the present. Xena was staring at her curiously.
"Uh...sure," she stammered. She took the offered bread and dried meat, eating automatically, not tasting the food. Her thoughts still lingering over her memories.
Xena noticed the faraway look on her face, eyes focused inwards, lost in her thoughts. The older woman had become accustomed to them, but this seemed different. Gabrielle often got lost in her world of stories and epic poems, writing in her mind. But Xena noticed the frown line that formed between Gabrielle's eyes, her breathing seemed a little rapid, and her hands shook slightly as she lifted the food to her mouth. Something was bothering her, but Xena hesitated in voicing her concerns. Gabrielle was an adult, and she would talk when she was ready. Xena tried to lighten the mood instead.
Xena made a show of studying the cypress trees, looking them over with a look of pretended interest. She was hoping Gabrielle wouldn't see the humorous glint in her eyes and guess at what she was doing.
"Gabrielle, isn't the cypress tree the favorite of Artemis?" Xena asked, hoping that the subject would bring out the storyteller in her friend. Nothing cheered Gabrielle like telling a story. Xena watched her and saw the faraway look replaced by the smile Gabrielle often displayed when telling her tales.
"Yes. The cypress tree is her favorite, but it's said she loves everything that grows. She protects her forests and the animals as well. A hunter has to be careful not to stray into Artemis' sacred forests, because killing her game is dangerous. The stories tell of one hunter that took his pack of hunting dogs into her lands, killing her deer. She was so angry that she changed him into a deer was killed by his own dogs."
"That sounds almost like the tale you told General Marmax about King Liberius--except your story then had a happier ending," she said with a small accusation, her eyebrow rising questioningly. Gabrielle looked smug, and tried to assume an innocent expression.
"Well, I had to change it a little to make a point. If I told had him the real story, he wouldn't have learned anything, now would he?" she asked boldly. Xena gave a watery chuckle.
"True, but I've noticed over the last two years that your 'stories' always seem to match the circumstances. Handy little ability you have there"
"I have many skills," Gabrielle said in a fairly good imitation of her friend. They both laughed, enjoying their easy comradery. Xena was pleased that she had been able to bring her friend out of her brooding state. It was only fair.
More often than not, it was Gabrielle that had to be the one to pull the warrior from her sullen and black moods she was prone to. Xena's violent past haunted her nights, reliving those blood-filled times over and over. Faces of those she had slaughtered, the villages raided, the weeping women and children--all tormented her at night. The nightmares prevented peaceful slumber, and carried over into her days. The warrior would often fall into silences that could drive the gentle and talkative bard to the end of her patience.
Xena had come to appreciate the compassionate and loving side of her friend. Gabrielle had a bright spirit that warmed all those lucky enough to know her, embracing all those she loved in a warm cocoon of acceptance and understanding, to see the best in people, rather than the worst. The bard's gift was beyond her storytelling, by making people want to live up to those ideals.
Gabrielle popped the last bite of bread into her mouth and wiped her fingertips on her skirt. Glancing up, she saw a soft smile on her friend's face, one that she rarely saw. A delicate expression that Gabrielle couldn't describe in a thousand words the feelings it provoked. All she could do was bask in its warmth, and cherish the rare gift.
After many grueling hours of riding, Xena finally stopped for the night. She had spotted a clearing near a stream, and stopped. They weren't going to find anything better this late in the day. The sun would be setting within an hour, and they needed the time to set up camp.
They practically fell off the horse in exhaustion as they dismounted. They pulled their gear from the saddle, and threw it wearily into a pile. They would sort it later.
Xena allowed Argo free rein, knowing she wouldn't roam far. The pace had been just as hard on her. She normally didn't carry two people all day. Argo wandered to the stream to drink, occasionally snorting when the water went up her nose.
Gabrielle volunteered to collect the firewood and start the fire. Xena began clearing the area for their bedrolls, while the bard left for the woods. Using a branch torn from a bush, Xena swept away the leaves and twigs that could catch fire. She then used her feet to kick away small stones that would make sleeping painful. Satisfied, she spread out the bedrolls onto the ground, then she collected larger rocks for the fire pit and formed a ring. She heard her friend's footsteps as she made her way back to the campsite.
Gabrielle returned with an armload of sticks and wood and piled it next to the pit. She placed the tinder into the pit and removed the steel bar and flint from her satchel. She struck them together to get sparks, and blew onto the smoldering ember, encouraging it to catch on the tinder. Soon she had a small flame to which she added small bits of wood. It didn't take long to have a fire.
The bard took the pot from the bag, and set up a tripod to boil some water. Taking out her waterproof bag, she pulled out a mixture of semi-dried vegetables she had collected to use for a soup starter. Gabrielle filled the pot with water from the stream and set it over the campfire. With that done, she sliced the mixture into smaller pieces and put them in the water. She wiped the knife off with a rag to prevent rust, and placed it back in the saddlebag. The young woman then added a few herbs for seasoning. Coltsfoot was her favorite because of its salty flavor, as well as chives for taste. Gabrielle sat down, waiting for it to cook.
She thought to herself that it would have been nice to add meat to it, but one look at Xena's weary face prevented her from even suggesting that the warrior do a little hunting. Xena was used to traveling on a horse, but even she could be driven to exhaustion by the pace they had kept today. Xena's usually straight posture was absent as she slumped against the tree trunk. Her eyes were half closed, almost asleep.
"Xena, you're dead on your feet," she said, " Why don't you lie down and I'll wake you when dinner is ready," the young woman suggested.
Xena didn't answer, but she did react. She crawled over to her bedroll, flopping down and immediately fell asleep.
Xena heard Gabrielle call her name softly, as though speaking from a great distance. She strained to hear the words, but couldn't make out what was said. The former warlord felt a warm hand on her arm, and she jerked awake.
"It's just me, Xena. I thought maybe you'd like to eat now. I put off waking you for as long as I could, but it's starting to dry out."
Xena didn't speak, in fact, she was so thirsty, she doubted she could. The warrior reached for the water bag, and drank deeply. Once her thirst was slackened, she walked to the fire and took the bowl Gabrielle was holding out to her. She sat down on a nearby slab of rock and began eating.
Gabrielle took the empty pot and took it to the stream to rinse out. She wiped it with a rag and placed it next to the fire to use for their tea in the morning. The bard then sat down on her bedroll and removed her boots. It felt so good to get them off that she began wiggling her toes while a grin spread across her face.
"You look about six years old when you do things like that," Xena teased, speaking for the first time that evening. She had finished her meal and stood to wash her bowl in the stream. She returned to the fire and sat down on her bedroll.
"Gods! Are we back to the 'cute' subject again? I thought we got past that!" Gabrielle moaned, a mild look of suffering on her face.
"No, I didn't say 'cute' that time. I only said you looked..."
"...Like a six year old!" she finished for her. "It's got to be the baby face. When am I going to outgrow it?" she bemoaned.
"Don't try to rush it along. Besides, I've grown used to it. I didn't even care when that one old man asked if I was your Mother a few days ago," she said.
"My Mother! Xena, when did this happen?" she laughed. Gabrielle folded her legs and leaned on them with her elbows, eager to hear the answer.
"I told you, a few days ago. You were telling a story to those kids by the well, and this old man came up next to me and asked if I was your Mother. He proceeded to tell me what a nice, well-brought up girl I had raised. It was just too bad I had didn't know how to dress you though. He thought our attire was a little on the brief side, you know?" she said with suppressed laughter.
"He must have been half-blind, Xena. You're older than I am, but hardly enough to be my Mother!" she teased.
"How old do you think I am?" she grinned while raising her eyebrow.
"Ahhh...maybe about eight or nine years older than myself."
"Close enough. Though sometimes I feel a lot older than that with you--because of my experiences," she added, not wanting Gabrielle to think she was implying anything else.
"I thought so," she said tongue-in-cheek.
"So, what did you tell that old man when he said you should dress me better?" she said with a wide grin.
"Nothing. I grunted and walked away."
"Sounds like you. In your warlord days, you would have probably beaten him black and blue for that remark." No sooner had the words been spoken, that Gabrielle regretted them. She flushed with embarrassment, sure she had hurt her friend, and she was right. The bard saw Xena's smile fade away.
Xena felt the words like a blow to the guts. Gabrielle's words a grim reminder of the shame she has felt ever since their encounter with the Horde. Her old self had returned almost in full force, taking over the Athenian army after their commander's death with a brazenness that stunned even herself. She had thought that old Xena had been successfully subdued for the most part, but the former warlord had reared her ugly head all too easily. Xena had become a bystander in her own body, unable to stop herself from anything.
She remembered the contempt she had shown her best friend, the one person in this world that believed in her goodness completely, and had let her down. Xena had actually grabbed her in a painful hold, while berating her for her innocent views, Knowing that the commander of the troops had been killed, and morale non-existent. The troops had looked to her for leadership, needing someone to infuse hope in their hearts. Xena's reputation was enough to galvanize them into action. Gabrielle had stood back, disapproval marring her gentle features as Xena the warlord had taken over her friend.
She remembered how Gabrielle had pleaded with her not to hurt the Horde Warrior, but she had ignored her, torturing the man in front of Gabrielle to extract information from him. Only Gabrielle's pleas had prevented her from killing him outright, though she had never told her that. Her friend's words had barely made any differences in her actions, but it was enough to keep her from fully slipping completely into her old self. She hadn't even thanked Gabrielle, unable to bring up the subject that had brought forth such humiliation.
Her shame wouldn't allow the words to come, and now it had led to that innocent remark...or maybe not so innocent. Perhaps it was her way of bringing up the subject.
"I still frighten you, don't I? My evil side I mean," Xena asked.
"No!" she answered quickly--too quickly, and Xena could tell she was lying. Gabrielle had refused to meet her eyes, shifting them away instead.
Xena felt a mixture of dismay and something akin to anger and utter frustration. She wanted to reassure her friend that the person she feared would never return, but how could she--when she feared it herself? How many times would Gabrielle be forced to drag her back to sanity? How often had her friend been frightened for herself and others? Xena had come so close to striking out at her best friend, that she still had nightmares about it.
Xena remembered the time she had struck her, when Ares had infested her with battle-rage, and still felt the shame of it. Gabrielle had made excuses for her, compassion in her nature, but Xena had never forgiven herself. How much could her friend take before she gave up? That question had echoed in her mind over and over.
WARNING: THIS CHAPTER CONTAINS A SCENE OF ATTEMPTED RAPE AND VIOLENCE. IF YOU WOULD BE DISTURBED BY THIS, PLEASE, DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER.
A sound woke her. She opened her eyes, trying to focus in the darkness for the sound that had dragged her from her deep slumber. A muffled whimper came from across the fire. *A nightmare*, she thought. She threw off her blanket and went to Xenas side, concern filling her thoughts. The warrior was locked in a nightmare, sweat pooling into the hollow of her neck. She was breathing rapidly, panting in her sleep. Her fingers were digging into the soil, clawing at something unseen. Afraid to touch her too quickly, Gabrielle bent over her and whispered softly.
"Xena, please, its just a dream. Wake up. Im here.", she repeated over and over in a softly spoken mantra, waiting for her words to penetrate into her friends subconscious. Finally, the nightmare seemed to diminish, and Gabrielle carefully placed her hand on Xenas hair, pushing back the damp strands. Seeing her friend like this always brought out the nurturing side of her personality. Xena hated to be fussed over, and this one of the few instances she could allow it free rein.
She took a cloth from her satchel, and wiped away the streaks of sweat that covered her cool skin, afraid shed catch a chill. She pulled Xenas covers back over her, and waited , her hand on Xenas, sitting next to her until she was sure the dream had ended. Gabrielle watched the muscles on her friends face gradually relax as she drifted into a more natural sleep.
Gabrielle sighed sadly, her heart going out the former warlord. Xenas past haunted her all too often in her dreams, reliving the times she wished to forget. Until she could make peace with her pastthe nightmares would persist. Gabrielle looked down at her friends face one last time, and returned to her own bed, falling back to sleep.
Gabrielle sat behind Xena on the horse and sent daggers at the warriors back. Once again, she had ignored her question and remained quiet. Other than an occasional word, she didnt speak, and it was driving Gabrielle crazy. She couldnt tell if her silence was an after-effect of the nightmare she refused to talk about, or due to anger, but neither was a good enough reason for the silent treatment she used, the bard thought.
Gabrielle had caught a twinge of something from her friend. She couldnt put her finger on it, but it was almost like anger. Who it was directed at, she had no idea, but Xena stubbornly refused to talk about anything, much less what was bothering her. Several times, the bard had been verbally and emotionally slapped down this morning, or just plain ignored. So she just gave up. It hurt too much to keep trying.
*Fine, if thats the way she wants to be, let her stew in her own juices for awhile!*, she decided. She kept her hands on her own thighs, rather than holding onto the warriors waist. She might have to ride with her, but she refused to have any more contact than necessary. It was petty of her, but she wanted Xena to know what it was like to be ignored.
Pride and shame kept Xena from acknowledging out loud the fact that Gabrielle had withdrawn from her. The bards refusal to hold on while riding had been noticed all too well. Not only was it dangerous to ride that way, but Xena had actually missed the contact between them. She had grown used to it, she admitted reluctantly to herself.
Early in their friendship, Gabrielle often made her uncomfortable with the easy way she displayed affection, she had even found it embarrassing at times. The girl had grown up in a family where being openly affectionate had been normal. Xena had witnessed it during their few visits to Poteidaia, watching her family kiss and hug often. Xena had envied their closeness, but was never the touchy-feely type herself, her own family more reserved with each other.
The difference had made her jumpy at first, especially with her warriors training and reflexes. All too often, she had barely stopped herself from harming Gabrielle in the beginning of their relationship. A few close calls had taught Gabrielle to use a little caution when around her, like not touching her from behind unexpectedly, but had never prevented her from acting like herself. Xena was considered family in her heart, so she was treated her that way.
But with her refusal to touch her was like a blow from a whip. She not only withdrew from contact, to Xena, it was like she withheld her love as well.
They stopped in a small village, which was nothing more than a sleepy and dusty place that few visited except by mistake. The homes were sparse and little was done to maintain them. Garbage was piled in heaps, decaying in the summer sun. The odor was foul, and they each made up their minds not to stay for long. The village had a few people milling about, and a dog barked at their presence as they rode through the small rutted trail they called a road. The two women looked around, watching for any signs of trouble, but the place looked too lazy to cause it, so they were glad for the break.
Each were still caught in their own private thoughts that they wouldnt share. They hadnt spoken a word to each other the entire morning and for half of the afternoon. Both were hurting themselves and the other, yet neither knew how to stop it. Xena stopped the horse in front of the small tavern. Gabrielle quickly hopped off of Argo, relieved to get away from the coldly angry woman in front of her. She didnt even wait for Xena to get off herself before she entered the building. Xena stared at the bards retreating back, both hurt and mad at her behavior.
Gabrielle entered the dim interior of the small tavern and thought to herself that going in alone was a big mistake. The tavern was filled wall to wall with the ugliest group of men she had seen in a long time. Not only was there the brutish warrior types, but also bandits and thieves seemed to be represented as well.
Several of them made lewd and suggestive comments at her entrance, causing her to blush. She turned to leave, but was stopped by a large greasy man who blocked her path. He reached for her, but she sidestepped his hand, and held her staff in front of her, ready to defend herself. Another stood up, approaching her from her left side, so she stepped back, trying to keep clear of their reach.
"Look, I don't want any trouble. I'll just leave and..."
"She thinks shes too good for us fellas!", a man shouted with humor. Others echoed their laughter, and Gabrielle couldnt make out everything they said, but she knew she was in trouble.
*Where in Tartarus is Xena?*, she thought.
Xena left Argo tied to the fence in front of the tavern and walked away. She couldnt bring herself to follow her friend inside, not while she was on the verge of tears. She headed for the outskirts of the village, needing some time alone. She stalked in a circle nearby the edge of the village, not willing to travel far, but needing to keep moving.
She trudged through the tall grass, stumbling a little over concealed rocks and tree roots, which only fueled her anger. She kicked the stones in frustration, venting some of her fury. A loud ruckus suddenly caught her attention, as she passed near the back side of the tavern. Shouting and sounds of painful female outcries made her pause in panic. *Gabrielle!*
She ran around the building, fear pumping into her veins. As she neared the front door, she removed her sword from its scabbard, and rushed inside. She searched the room, her eyes looking for her friend in panic. The room got quiet as the men became aware of her presence, all eyes turning to her. A female warrior ready for battle didnt come along every day, and they eyed her warily. She ignored them on the most part, since none made any aggressive moves as yet, and she continued her search for her friend.
Then she heard a muffled female cry, and she turned in the direction it came from. Her heart landed in her throat as she saw Gabrielle being held down by three men, who had managed to remove her green Amazon top, and were doing their best to remove the rest in spite of Gabrielles struggles.
They were unaware of her entrance, too busy with their actions to notice. She made her way through the crowded tavern, her eyes locked on the scene.
One man was holding her down by the throat with his forearm and attempting to pin down Gabrielles arm with the other hand. Another was squeezing the bards breasts with his meaty hands while he was shouting encouragement to the others, laughing while they groped and fondled the helpless young woman. One of the men got his hand too close to Gabrielles mouth, and she bit down on the hand. He howled his outrage and punched her in the face. Stunned, the bard almost blacked out, but her instincts to live prevented it. Xena felt her blood freeze in her veins from the sight.
Her friends face was bruised and bleeding, her bodys skin covered in scratches and even larger bruises. Fury filled her soul, hatred and blood-lust boiled in her veins. Gone was the controlled warrior. Once again, the Warrior Princess returned with a vengeance.
With an animal-like snarl, she attacked the three men, their deaths her intention. She swung her sword, and chopped at the man who was grasping at her skirt. His blood splattered over his friends and Gabrielle and he fell to the side. The two remaining men did their best to get to their feet, but she never allowed them the chance to defend themselves. She swung her sword, chopping off the head of the nearest man, then lifted the sword with both hands and thrust it into the chest of the remaining man, a feral smile of pleasure on her face.
Gabrielle stared at Xena, her tears mixing with the blood on her face. The sight of this infuriated and insane warrior frightened her almost as much as the attempted rape, more so even, because she unsure of how to deal with Xena in this state. She could only sit there, trapped by the killing glaze she saw in her eyes, unable to act.
Xena took action for her, and grabbed her by the arms, pulling her roughly to her feet. She retrieved her top and thrust it into her hands, then picked up the staff from the floor. She never spoke, only pushed her towards the door. None of the men inside the tavern moved to stop them.
Once outside, she reached for the reins to Argo, who pulled away from her, sensing the strong emotions radiating from her. Xena pulled the reins cruelly, forcing the animal to stay still. She turned to Gabrielle, who was painfully putting on her top, and growled at her to hurry up. Gabrielle jumped at the harshness and fury that came from her friend/now stranger, and held back the tears that threatened to overwhelm her. She was in shock, and the behavior of Xena sent her reeling. Unable to take any more, she passed out.
Xena looked down at her friend as she slumped to the ground, sanity returning like a recoiled whip. Horrified at what had just happened, she almost wished she could join her friend in blissful unconsciousness. But she needed to act. She carefully picked up her battered friend, cradling her like a child, and ordered Argo to get down onto her front knees. She lifted both of them into the saddle and Argo struggled back to her feet. She urged the horse forward, wanting to leave as quickly as possible.
She left the village, afraid they might be followed by angry friends of the dead men. She left the road, heading into the forest. She didnt have time to deal with an angry mob, and did her best to hide their trail, passing through streams when possible. Satisfied that the trail she left was blurry at best, she stopped at small clearing that was hidden by thick foliage. She looked down at Gabrielles swollen face, which was buried into her neck.
One eye was swollen completely shut, the other she couldnt see while hidden by her own shoulder. Her parted lips were swelling and split from a probable fist, and her nose was bleeding as well. Gabrielles blood and the blood from the slain men covered her entire upper body, and matted her pale hair. Xena ran a finger through her bangs, not wanting to touch her abused face, but needing to touch her. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she pulled her friend closer, holding off the tears that would release her pain for the guilt and regret she felt.
She gritted her teeth in self-loathing and lowered herself and Gabrielle to the ground. She carried her friend to a thick patch of grass and put her down, trying not to jar her. She went back to Argo, and removed what she needed to make camp and to treat Gabrielles wounds. She placed a bedroll on the ground on top of another grassy patch for the cushioning it would provide, and moved her friend to it.
She started a fire and put water on to heat. She not only wanted to treat her wounds, but wanted to remove all the bloodhopefully before she woke up. She knew that Gabrielle would be upset enough as it was, and didnt want her to wake with the dead mens blood on her skin. She pulled out her medical pouch and removed the clean cloth bindings she kept there, along with some herbs to clean her wounds.
Getting a larger cloth, she soaked it in the warm water and wrung it out, then dabbed carefully first at her hair and face. She removed Gabrielles clothing, throwing them into a pile next to the stream, then proceeded to clean the rest of the bloodstains from her skin. She noted the bruises on her arms and torso, actually able to see on her pale skin, the fingerprints of the animals that attacked herand the monster that had rescued her. The bruises were all too clear where she had grabbed her by the arms to drag her to her feet.
She touched the marred skin, wishing she could remove the evidence of her brutality, to ease her own guilt. She had broken her promise, and she doubted Gabrielle could ever forgive her, nor could she forgive herself.
Gabrielle drifted awake , becoming aware of the dull aches that throbbed throughout her body. Sunlight flashed on her eyelids, and she slowly opened them to see the sun peeking through the leaves of the tree branches above her. She allowed a small groan to escape her lips, as she tried to lift herself up. Xena immediately appeared next to her and gently helped her to sit up. Still in shock, she wondered what had happened, her memories not yet clear.
"How do you feel?", Xena asked softly.
*Feel?* She didnt know, her mind was fuzzy at best, and she didnt seem to have the energy to answer. All she knew was that within Xenas arms, she felt safe. She leaned into her shoulder and drifted back to sleep.
The warrior looked down at her sleeping friend, with mixed emotions. Part of her relished the trust she was shown, and the other half thought that the young woman was crazy to do so. The tears once more came to her eyes, and she placed a whispering kiss on her forehead, then lowered her back down to the ground.
The smell of food cooking tempted her into waking once more, as her stomach rumbled, making itself known. She opened her eyes, seeing the darkness of the night sky. She gave herself a few moments to adjust to dim light, her first thought, to find her friend. She saw Xena, lost in thought, twirling a stick in her hands.
The expression on the warriors face was one that she had seen many times in the middle of the night, when Xena had thought her asleep. It was one of self-torture and pain. The look always caused her to bleed for her friend, not knowing how to help her. She knew that Xena would be embarrassed and a little angry if she tried to make her talk about it, so she had always avoided the subject.
She got up slowly, trying to make subtle noises, and pretending to have just awakened, allowing the warrior the time she needed to compose herself. Xena rushed to her side, and helped her up.
"Im here, Gabrielle. Dont move too fast, I dont want you to get dizzy.", she said with concern lacing her voice.
"Im Ok, but Id give my right arm for some of that food I smell.", she said, lightly teasing.
"You got it. Stay right there and let me bring it to you." She got up and filled a bowl with the stew she had prepared, along with a chunk of bread and cheese. She took them to Gabrielle, and handed them to the waiting young woman. She sat down next to her, needing to be nearby.
"Aren't you going to eat, Xena?"
"Already did.", she lied feebly.
"Xena, please, dont lie to me. I dont think I could take it right now.", she pleaded, "Go get something for yourself and join me." Xena sighed and nodded wearily. She got up, and took some for herself, but not much. Her stomach was in knots, and she wasnt sure she could hold the food down as it was. She sat down on the bedroll next to her friend and took a small bite, chewing slowly.
They ate in silence, each feeling uncomfortable. For Xena, it was the wave of guilt that tortured her. She had not only abandoned her friend, but she had made the ordeal that she had experienced worse by adding to the assault. For Gabrielle, she was slowly remembering what had happened that afternoon, scenes from the tavern flashing before her eyes.
She saw the dark brown eyes of the man that had punched her in the face, and the stench of his breath as her forced a kiss on her lips. Another flash of groping hands on her breasts, and the arm that pinned her down by the throat as she struggled to get free.
Her hands began shaking, and she put down her food, unable to hold on to it any longer. Xena threw her own meal down, and put her arm around Gabrielles shoulders, not sure what to do. Gabrielle began shaking, unable to stop the flow of memories from returning. Sobs tore from her throat as she tried to control the shaking, but the shock was too great. Her world was suddenly darker, a piece of her innocence had been ripped from her, and she was lost in the turmoil of her emotions. She buried herself into the warm body of her friend, the only stable thing in her life and cried.
Xena held on for dear life, wanting very much wanting to join her in her tears, but unwilling to allow herself the luxury. Gabrielle cried for what seemed an eternity, then as the tears slowly ended, she remained where she was and fell asleep, emotionally exhausted. Xena grabbed the blanket from behind her and wrapped it around her best friend. With the tenderness of a mother, she lowered them to the ground and joined her in the escape of slumber.
Gabrielle woke slowly, becoming aware of a the fact that her pillow was moving. She opened her good eye and saw the dark tresses of Xena shifting in the breeze. By the rhythm of her breathing, she could tell that she was still asleep. She remained still, unwilling to break the contact, or to risk waking her friend. Judging by the height of the morning sun, Xena was sleeping in very late indeed. She probably needed the rest as much as she did after watching over her all night.
She re closed her eyes, and let herself get caught in the gentle motion of Xenas breathing. Gabrielle found it almost hypnotic, and she soon drifted back to sleep.
Gabrielle woke again, only to find Xena missing. She threw off the blanket and stood up in panic. She spun around in a full circle, but didnt see her friend. Her heart began beating wildly, overcome by panic at being left alone.
"XENA!", she screamed. Within seconds, her friend came crashing through the bushes, her own heart in her throat by the frightened scream that had rung through the air. At the very least, she expected a small band of thugs to be waiting for her. She found Gabrielle standing in her shift, pale as snow, shaking and sobbing. She rushed to her, unsure of what was going on. Gabrielle saw her and threw her arms around her waist, holding on with a death grip.
"Gabrielle, what's wrong?"
"You left me alone, Xena!", she said unreasonably, but the words hit home to the warrior. She *had* left her alone yesterday, and the near rape was the result. But Gabrielle wasnt herself, and once she had time to think about it, she would hate her. But for the moment, she would stay with her.
She rubbed her back soothingly, and murmured quiet words into her hair, waiting for the panic to subside. Gabrielles grip finally loosened, and she stepped back in embarrassment.
"I'm sorry, Xena. I couldn't find you and I..."
"Its OK. I understand. Im trying to catch some fish for lunch, why dont you join me by the stream and keep me company?", she suggested. Gabrielle relaxed slightly and nodded her head, grateful for her kindness. She didnt bother finding her boots, but followed her barefoot to the stream. Xena returned to the quiet bank she had been using and waded back into the water.
Gabrielle sat down on the warm grass and hugged her knees while watching Xena bend over the water, hands poised.
Xena kept an eye on Gabrielle while trying not to appear to be doing so. Her mind wasnt on fishing, but on how to help her friend, who was so badly shaken by her ordeal. The glow of joy was gone from her face, replaced by a haunted darkness. The sight of innocence lost made her heart break with the pain, unsure how she could watch it, yet knowing she had to.
Xena felt more helpless than ever before in her life, torn apart by the emotions that flowed through her. Guilt, self-loathing, anger, pity, love, tendernessall swirled through her at once, making her feel lost in the quagmire of her own heart.
She returned her eyes briefly to the water, realizing she had missed an easy catch. She grimaced slightly, and peeked back to Gabrielle, unable to stop herself. What she really wanted to do was wrap her friend in her arms, to ease her painnot stand in the cold water and fish. Xena wanted to kill those men all over again, her frustration was that great. They had taken away her friends trust and innocence that she had once held so dear, and she sent a silent message to Hades, asking him to make those men suffer horribly for what they had done. Glancing once more at Gabrielle, she saw the young woman place her hand on her mouth, her face a picture of misery. Tears brimmed at the corners of the bards eyes even as she tried desperately to control them.
Xena quickly left the water and placed her hand on Gabrielles shoulder. Gabrielle jumped at the sudden movement, unexpected fear making her heart race. Xena saw the terror streak across her face and she quickly removed her hand.
"Gabrielle." It was all she could say. Gabrielle turned her face away, unable to meet her eyes.
Xena sat down next to her, legs crossed, keeping a small distance between them..
"Gabrielle. Look at me.", she demanded softly. Gabrielle could only shake her head in refusal. Frustration flashed through the warrior. *What am I supposed to do?*, she thought.
"Gabrielle, help me with this. I dont know what to do or say here. Im lost.", she admitted.
"I just need time, that's all.", she said with a flat tone.
"So it will eat away at you? Gabrielle, listen to me.", she said as she placed her hand on top of the bards, who immediately flinched. She pulled her hand away.
"Gabrielle, this is haunting you. Talk to me, tell me, what are you feeling?"
The bard remained silent for drawn out minutes, then finally spoke, her voice expressionless. "Im afraid. Everything scares me. My heart is pounding so hard, that I think it will burst right out of my chest.", she confessed.
"And youre afraid of me.", she stopped Gabrielle from making any denials by shaking her head. "You cant hide it from me. Youve flinched twice in just the last few minutes alone. Funny thing is, for once Im the one who wants to touch, and youre the one pulling away.", she said without humor.
"I'm sorry, it's ..."
"No! ", she said a little too harshly", she softened her tone. "No, theres nothing for you to apologize for. This whole thing has sent us both reeling into unknown territory, and well just have to find our way around."
"The blind leading the blind.", the young woman weakly joked.
"You need to talk about this. It can't be good for you to keep it all bottled up inside. Let it out."
Her eyes focused on a distant point, her voice merely a whisper. "I cant. Im holding onto my sanity by a thread now. Im afraid of falling apart."
"Then Ill catch you. Im here no matter what, Gabrielle. Nothing you say can cause me to feel any different about you. This attack wasnt your fault. It was mine."
"Yours? Xena, I was the one who went into that tavern alone!" Gabrielle was stunned. How could Xena blame herself?
"Yes, mine. I allowed you to go in alone. I was angry about everything that was going on yesterday, and I walked away instead of going in with you. If I had been there, none of this would have happened.", she said with self-disgust.
Gabrielle sat in silence, her emotions only felt at a distance, but the need to reach out to her friend broke through the hazy barrier.
"I think we need to talk.", she heard herself say.
"Xena, look at me.", Gabrielle asked. Xena kept her head down, unwilling to look up, "Xena, dont you go all stubborn on me. I need you to look at me."
Xena lifted her chin and met her eyes. Gabrielle felt the breath catch in her chest as she realized what she saw, or rather, didnt see---walls. All the warriors defenses were down, and the bard was allowed to see everything within her without all the barriers. Pain, guilt, sorrow, and most importantly, the love that shined from her eyes. Without words, she saw the plea for forgiveness and trust. Only once had she seen her friend this way. The time Xena had used Autolycus to speak to her from the other side.
Gabrielle had cherished that moment and memory, recalling it when she found herself angry or upset with the warriors intractable behavior. It had been like a gift that had been snatched away, and now returned. Gabrielle felt some of her fears wash away, easing the tension that filled her. She gave her friend the warmest of smiles.
"Im going to say this once, and then there will be no more repeated breast-beating from you, Xena. It_wasnt_your_fault. It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Dont blame yourself."
"But...", Gabrielle placed her hand on top of Xena's lips.
"Shush!", she ordered, then smiled hugely, "Ive always wanted to do that.", she said mischievously as she took her hand away. Xena smiled crookedly, but kept her opinion to herself.
"OK, enough stalling Gabrielle. *You* need to talk about this, or at least write down some of your thoughts if youre not comfortable enough to talk. You have to release this somehow."
Instantly, the girlish behavior was gone.
"I know youre right, but its too soon Xena. Maybe later...OK?", she asked miserably. Xena nodded after watching her eyes for a moment.
"Whenever youre ready. Ill be here." Seeing Gabrielles swinging emotions confused Xena. It was like watching butterfly flittering from place to place, never stopping.
"Thank you, I know this is hard for you, too, and as much as I hate to change the subject, we need to pack up camp and leave.", Xena looked confused, "Atiaremember?"
Xena opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She had forgotten all about the town, and its people. All she could do was nod. She got to her feet and offered Gabrielle a hand up, momentarily forgetting about Gabrielles nervousness. She had almost pulled her hand away when her friend reached out with her own.
The bard took it with only a seconds hesitation, and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. The pounding of her heart returned, as she was suddenly aware of the taller womans strength. She hated herself for her reactions, but she didnt seem to have control of her own emotions anymore.
Gabrielle followed Xena back to the camp, gingerly walking over the graveled embankment . She didnt remember the path being this painful to walk getting there, but perhaps she had been too consumed by the fear of being left alone to notice the first trip. She noted with a little envy that the rocks hadnt bothered her friend, who walked across the them as though they were nothing more than sand. She winced with every step until mercifully, the stones met with grass, easing the journey back.
Once back at camp, Xena offered to pack up, while Gabrielle changed into her clothes. The bard smiled in appreciation for her kindness, but insisted that she help. She didnt want to be a complete burden to her friend. She was an emotional wreck that Xena had to bear. She didnt want to make it any worse by being useless as well. She bundled up the bedrolls as Xena made sure the fire was extinguished, pouring water over the still warm embers from the water bag. The fire hissed as its life was drowned out, and then silenced.
"Gabrielle, Im going to refill the water bagIll be right back. I promise.", the warrior said with concern. She didnt want Gabrielle to panic again at being left alone, but she wouldnt be gone but a few minutes. Xena felt a twinge of guilt when Gabrielle displayed a momentary flash of fear at her words, but they needed the water. She gave the younger woman an encouraging smile and headed back to the stream.
Gabrielle hugged herself, trying to hold down the panic rising in her throat. She knew the feeling was irrational, but she couldnt stop it from building up inside of her. She didnt want to be alone.
*This is ridiculous ! Youre a grown womannot a baby! *, she muttered to herself. *Do something to keep busy, you ninny, and you wont even know shes gone.*
She looked around for her satchel, deciding to get dressed. She found it next to the saddlebags, but her clothes she had been wearing were not there except for her old clothing that she had worn when she had first met Xena, and the woolen shirt she liked to wear in the colder weather. She searched some more and finally found her Amazon garb in a neat pile under the pouch Xena kept her tools in. They had been laundered, and were actually cleaner than she had seen them in a quite a while. Xena must have spent a long time scrubbing the coarse material.
She shook them out, and froze. They were clean, but by the rips Gabrielle spotted, Xena hadnt had time to mend them. She dropped them as though they burned her fingers. the memories came pouring down on her, each one clear as glass. She took a step back, as though the torn clothing could harm her, right into the returning Xena.
Gabrielle screamed, and bolted away several steps before turning to face the warrior. Terror held her in its grip. It wasnt Xena she saw, but the faces of the men from the tavern. The sights and sounds, the smells and the touches, all came barreling back. Another scream welled up inside of her, as she felt hands touch her arms.
"Gabrielle! Gabrielle! its me, for Zeus sake. Pleasedont...", she trailed off as she caught her friend as she slumped forward, fainting into her arms.
Xena scooped up her unconscious friend, and carried her to the grassy spot under a nearby tree. She laid her down, and then sat next to Gabrielle. She pulled her knees up and curled into a fetal position, hiding her head in the crook of her arms, shaken by the turn of events. The terror she had seen in the eyes of Gabrielle had been a painful and shocking experience for her. All she had done was walk back into camp, and the bard had fainted. Xena raised her head and gazed down at the pale woman next to her.
*Whats going on inside of you Gabrielle?*, she asked silently. Xena tore her eyes away, and allowed her gaze to wander. Spotting a pile of clothing, she stood and walked over to it, and picked them up. They were Gabrielles clothesthe ones she had worn on the day of her attack. She had hidden them, wanting to mend them first, though uncertain that her friend would wear them again. The warrior realized that the sight of the torn garments had probably brought back the memories of the attack for Gabrielle, causing her hysteria. The seasoned warrior fought back the tears that welled in her eyes, feeling sorrow for the gentle young bard.
Xena fought the impulse to throw the offending clothes into the bushes, and instead, held them tightly to her, in replacement of her friend that couldnt be touched.
Gabrielle opened her eyes in confusion, unsure of just why she was laying on the ground. She could feel the cool grass beneath her, and saw the branches of the trees above her. *This is becoming a habit.*, she muttered under her breath.
She sat up slowly, careful not to rise too fast. She felt weak and unsteady. The bard braced herself with arms behind her, and looked around. The camp had been completely broken up, all of their possessions loaded on the patiently waiting Argo. The horse was nibbling at a clump of grass, her nimble lips getting every blade. Gabrielle twisted back and forth, looking for Xena. The warrior was nowhere in sight.
*Dont panic. Shes probably just in the bushes. Shell be back in a moment.*, she said in attempt to calm her racing heart. She got to her feet and went to Argo, the only familiar thing in sight. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the tall horses neck, seeking comfort from the indifferent animal. Argo kept eating, ignoring the woman.
"Some friend you are.", she chided.
"I hope youre talking to my horse, and not me, or my feelings could get hurt.", Xena teased from behind her. Gabrielle managed not to jump, but she couldnt prevent her heart from leaping into her throat. She gave the horse a final pet, giving herself time to calm down before turning to face Xena.
"Of course not. I was talking to this giant you call a horse." Argo nickered and shook her head in disapproval. Xena gave a watery laugh, and gave her horse a friendly pat on the hind quarters.
"I thought you two were getting along.", she chided.
"Its more like weve come to an understanding. I get on her as little as possible, and she doesnt step on my toes.", the bard teased.
"I thought it was you didnt steal her apples, and she didnt bite you.", Xena quipped.
"That too. Well, are we ready to go?"
"Hm hmm. As soon as you get dressed." Xena noticed the woman stiffen, and she decided to offer the bard another choice. She reached into her old saddle bag, and removed a small bundle.
"Here, try this on for size.", she said while handing it to her friend.
"What is it?"
"Something I was saving as your Birthday present. But I guess it cant hurt to give it to you a little early. Go aheadopen it."
Gabrielle peeled back the corners of the bundle to reveal the material inside. She found an outfit, cut in the Amazon style they favored. She lifted them and studied the clothing, noting the softness of the fine-weaved linen. They were the colors of muted blue-green and golden browns, and she smiled as she held them up to her, checking the size.
"They're beautiful Xena. Thank you."
"Youre welcomed. Now go try them on for size. I had to guess at it when I ordered them." Gabrielle went behind the bushes, unwilling to allow Xena to see the bruises once again. Xena would only look at her with something akin to pity, and she didnt think she could handle it right now. She slipped off her shift and tried to avoid looking at her own skin, afraid to see what she knew had to be large and colorful bruises by the pain she felt with every movement. She took her outfit and donned the new clothing. She looked down at them and decided that they were a perfect fit. She collected her shift, and stepped into view.
"What do you think?", she asked shyly while placing her shift into her satchel.
"Looks like a good fit. They suit you. Now we're ready to go."
Xena mounted the horse and lowered her hand to Gabrielle. The bard hesitated for just a moment, then took the offered arm. She settled behind Xena, and gingerly placed her hands around the warriors waist. The feel of a body in front of her made her cringe, but she gritted her teeth, determined to ignore the irrational fear it brought forth. Xena was her best friendnot some stranger, she reminded herself. She felt Xenas large hand pat her own just briefly in encouragement before she took the reins.
Xena stopped Argo once more. Throughout the day, she had made many brief stops to allow Gabrielle a break. At this rate, theyd never make the deadline. A lump formed in the pit of her stomach. Gabrielle was slowing them down. It wasnt her fault, and Xena wasnt angry at her friend, but she was at the end of her rope. She had agreed to help King Phadius, but the bard couldnt be pushed any harder than she already was. The traveling had been especially hard for the young woman. She had been doing her best to control the uneasiness she felt, but it gripped her unmercifully. The constant closeness to another was too much for her to take, and Xena could sense it.
The younger woman was stiff from the tension that radiated from her small form. Gabrielles experience in the tavern had left her unable to cope with touchingeven from the one person she felt closest to. To the naturally affectionate woman, this was like being in Tartarus. She wanted to be comforted and told everything would be alright, but couldnt stand being held. She swallowed the sob that threatened to escape her throat, and tightly squeezed her eyes closed.
Xena heard the small sound that came from her friend. Gabrielle had often broken into tears, but had stubbornly refused special treatment. The days ride had been difficult for both of them, riding almost non-stop to make up for the lost time. Xena had to be in Atia within three more days, but she knew that it would be impossible unless she did one thing. She hated the idea with everything inside her, but it was the only solution she could think of. Leave Gabrielle behind.
The words echoed in her mind. Her logical side said it was the best course of action, but her heart screamed its protests. How could she leave her behind now? Gabrielle was hurting and vulnerable, and unable to bear being alone. To abandon her in a strange place would be the height of cruelty, and she couldnt bring herself to do it. There had to be another way.
They rode into a small town, the sky darkening from the setting sun. The town, compared to the last disastrous village, this was clean and well cared for. Its people lavished love and time in making it a nice place to view. Statues, fountains, and trees lined the main road through its center. It eased the warriors mind somewhat as she looked around. The merchants were packing up for the day, collecting their wares and loading their carts to make the trip home. The townspeople seemed relaxed and uninterested in the two strangers that came into midst. They must not have much trouble with raiders or vagabonds.
She looked around for lodgings, her eyes scanning the buildings for the markings indicating its business. She spotted one, a smallish building, but she didnt care. All she wanted was a hot bath and a soft bed. She also wanted a meal and a strong drink, not necessarily in that order. She was tense, tired, and hungry, and she knew that Gabrielle wasnt any better off.
The bard was shaking from fatigue, barely able to hold on to the leather-clad sides of the woman in front of her. Her head throbbed in pain from the constant tensing of her neck and shoulders. She was praying to the gods for an inn, and at this time, she didnt care if was clean or not. She just wanted off the horse. She felt Argo slow to a stop and she saw the small sign for the local inn. She sent a silent thank you to the kind god who had answered her prayers, and gratefully climbed off the large horse.
"Lets check to see if they have any rooms available first. If not, well have to travel to the forests edge and camp for the night.", Xena said as she dismounted. Gabrielle nodded, and followed closely behind the warrior into the building.
The interior was brightly lit, casting a warm glow throughout the room. A large fireplace filled one wall, and several tables sat near it to give warmth to the people escaping the chilly night air. Patrons sat around in quiet groups, eating and talking. No one took any undue interest in them as they entered the inviting room. The inn looked clean and well kept, which spoke well in its favor. Xena approached a elderly woman wearing an apron and asked if a room could be rented for the night.
"I have only one---it's been a busy night. Anything else?", she asked helpfully.
"Yes, we could use a meal and a bath as well."
"Well, we have a private bathing chamber at the end of the hall. Im too old to be hauling it around, so I put it in a room by itself. Ill have my boy fill the tub for you. Do you want to eat first?"
"Yes, thank you, and I'll take a port or whatever you have."
"Same here.", Gabrielle piped in. The woman nodded, told them which room would be theirs, and turned away.
Xena looked at the bard in puzzlement. Gabrielle never liked the strong liquor, so why order it? She kept the question to herself. Her friend was a grown woman, and who was she to question her taste in drink. Maybe a strong drink would relax the bard, though Xena made a vow to keep an eye on her. She didnt want Gabrielle to use the powerful spirits as an escape. It was far too easy to become dependent on. She led the way to an empty table near the back. Gabrielle sat down, but Xena remained standing.
"Gabrielle, I'm going to take Argo to the..."
"No!", she said a little too loudly, because the patrons sitting nearby turned around to look at her. She lowered her voice. "Please, cant it wait until were in our room. Im sure that Argo will be alright for a little while longer.", she begged.
Xena felt herself weaken, and she sat down with a sigh.
"Hello Little One, Its nice to see you again.", said a deep voice. Both women turned their heads to look up into the face of an old acquaintance, Cecrops.
The tall man was smiling down at them, his pleasure at seeing them again shining from his features. His dark eyes sparkled joyously at the sight of the two women that had helped him escape his accursed existence. His smile was broad and welcoming. He held out his hands, showing his wish for them to stand and receive a proper hello.
Xena, though not one to habitually hug people, she quickly stood up to receive a warm embrace from the kind-hearted man. His tall frame easily engulfed her own, making her feel small and protected. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, rubbing the bare skin of her upper back with a warm hand. Xena squeezed his torso and held on for a moment longer than necessary, enjoying his comforting presence, before reluctantly pulling away. He smiled down at her and gave the warrior a playful wink before turning his eyes towards Gabrielle.
Xena caught the look, and placed her hand on his arm. When his gaze returned to her own, she shook her head slightly. He was puzzled but nodded back. He took an empty chair from another table and placed it at their own, sitting between them.
Cecrops looked at the pale and weary face of the youthful woman next to him. He noted the swollen eye and lips. Someone had really done a number on her recently. Gone was the vibrant girl that had captured a place in his heart. He remembered that she had shown so little fear of him on that day when they had first met. Her courage and strong belief in her friend had impressed him. She had taken everything in stride, not allowing the circumstances to bring her down.
Now she sat, almost shaking herself into pieces. Her eyes shifted back and forth fearfully, watching everyone at once. She acted as though she was a mouse in a room full of hawks.
"So Little One, how is my favorite cook? Still eating squid?", he teased lightly, his smile soft.
"I...uh..no, Im not eating s..s..squid anymore." Gabrielle looked at Xena in panic, tears in her eyes. She couldnt stay in the room any longer, her nerves shot. "Im going to take my bath now. Excuse me.", she said while rushing to her feet. She was almost running from the room. Seeing the bards satchel left on the chair, Xena got up.
"Cecrops, I have to take care of Gabrielle. Could you ask the innkeeper to send our meal to our room?", he nodded, "Meet me in the stables. Hopefully I wont be too long, and dont worryits nothing you did. Ill explain later." She gave his shoulder a quick squeeze and followed after Gabrielle.
continue to Chapter Four
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