The Season of Change chapters 4-5
Xena went up the hallway, which was dimmer than the main room in front. She decided to first try their room. She opened the door, and peeked inside. The room was dark except for a small candle at the far end. She gave herself time to adjust to the lighting, and then entered the room, shutting the door behind her.
Gabrielle was laying on the bed, curled into a ball, crying silently. She jumped when she realized she wasn't alone. The young woman froze in place until she recognized the soft steps of Xena. She tried to stop the tears, but they had been held back for too long, and refused to end. Gabrielle was frightened, confused, and embarrassed by her actions. She was a wreck, and knew it. She heard Xena walk closer, and sit slowly on the edge of the bed.
"Gabrielle? For the love of Gaia, I don't know what to do. I can't stand seeing you like this, it's tearing me apart.", she confessed hoarsely.
Gabrielle couldn't speak, her emotions were dangerously close to the surface. She didn't want to feel anything, but they were crashing down on her. She was just as lost as Xena.
"Gabrielle, can I.. could you let me hold you for a moment? It's the only thing I can think of--the only thing I have to give.", she said.
Her friend paused in place, even her tears, as the words seeped into her wounded soul. Gabrielle felt a small amount of the ice around her heart give way, allowing the warmth of the offer to come in. The request didn't come easily to Xena, and it wasn't lost on the young woman. Gabrielle raised herself and met the blue eyes that were misted with helpless tears. She felt her own tears return, but for another reason.
Once again, when she needed it the most, the withdrawn warrior gave way to the caring and loving woman inside. Gabrielle gave Xena a weak smile and moved towards her, meeting her half-way. Xena pulled her close, her long arms wrapping around her smaller friend. The relief she felt for the trust shown by her friend gave her hope. They had gone through Tartarus and back again before, and they'd make it through this one as well. They just needed time to heal.
Xena felt Gabrielle's tears as they fell unceasingly along the bard's cheeks, and onto the crook of her neck and collarbone, seeping into the leather below. Xena ran her hand along the length of the red-gold hair of her friend, stroking the long strands, then placed her hand on the back of Gabrielle's neck, kneading the tight muscles gently. She felt the tightness ease, as Gabrielle relaxed into her arms. A huge sigh escaped the bard's lips, and the tears ceased. Xena softly ruffled the girl's hair, and placed a quick kiss above her brow.
"Thank you Gabrielle--for trusting me. I think I needed a hug as much as you did.", she confessed.
"I've always trusted you. The fear just got in the way. I've never felt such terror in my life, and I can't seem to control it. I hate being afraid like this." Xena gave her a reassuring squeeze.
"Gabrielle, I've always thought of you being one of the bravest people I know. How many would have left the security of their homes to follow a grouchy warlord around? The fear you feel is normal under the circumstances, and it won't go away overnight. Those three bastards are dead, and can't hurt you again."
At her own words, Xena felt the shame return. She had allowed that dark side to overcome her, breaking the promise she had made to Gabrielle by the campfire so long ago. Her promise not to become a monster if anything were to happen to her friend. She had meant it with all her heart, knowing that it was important to the peace loving girl. She didn't want Xena to revenge her, but to forgive and move on---but for Xena, when it came to the woman she loved as much as her own family, forgiveness wasn't in her. She had reveled in the deaths of those animals, and regretted that they hadn't suffered more.
If the attempted rape had occurred in the forest, she admitted to herself, she would have hacked those men to little pieces, starting at their feet, working her way up until they died. Her outrage and hatred had been that strong. Now all that was left was a load of guilt on her shoulders, and a terrified girl in her arms. Xena realized that she had been lost in thought, and had missed part of what Gabrielle was telling her.
"...myself. I hated them too. If they were still alive, I'd be terrified that they would find me again."
Xena didn't hear the first part, but understood enough to follow the conversation. "I think they got off too easy. I wanted to do worse than just kill them. I can only hope that their afterlife is one of extreme pain and suffering." , Xena said as she once again sent a plea to Hades. If the God treated them one-tenth as badly as she wished, the men would be in agony.
"At least they can't ever do that to another woman again. I'm glad they're dead.", Gabrielle said coldly.
Xena felt a fearful shiver run up her spine. The hatred on her friend's face was frighteningly familiar, reminding her of the slavegirl that Gabrielle had become in the altered past--when the Fates had shown her the consequences of refusing to take up the sword. The Gabrielle of that thread had become a bitter and hateful person, with no joy in her heart. Xena never thought she would see that look again, and here it was back on the face of the one person that represented all that was good to the once disillusioned warrior. Xena placed her hand under Gabrielle's chin, forcing her to make eye contact.
"Gabrielle, please, don't let the hatred take hold of your soul. Let it go. Don't let it darken the brightness within. They're not worth it. Look at my past, I was so full of anger and hatred. I trusted no one --until you, and I don't want you to go through that."
Gabrielle felt the words cover her like a warm blanket, comforting and soft, easing the warring emotions inside of her. Xena admitted her concerns honestly, and her speech, though simple, meant the world to her.
"OK.", she smiled and received one in return.
A knock on the door caught their attention. Xena pulled away from Gabrielle and opened it. A boy stood there, a large tray in his hands.
"You wanted it brought to your room?", he asked. Xena grunted and took the heavy tray from him. He left without another word.
"Gabrielle, light a few more candles would you?", she requested while she carried it to a small table. Xena heard her get up from the bed, and walk across the room. Within moments, the room was brighter as she lit several candles and placed them around the room in different locations. Gabrielle joined her at the table and studied the contents on the table.
Bread, fruit, and bowls of a thick stew waited for her. She sat down, taking a spoon from the tray. She tasted the stew, and found it to her liking, pleasantly surprised to find that it was made with lamb. Enjoying the rare treat, she ate with gusto. Before she knew it, her food was gone, and she looked over the tray eagerly, hoping for seconds. Xena knew the look, and tossed her own bread to her. The bard caught it, and gave her a smile of thanks.
"If you want, I'll have more brought up after your bath.", she offered as she took her last bite.
"That would be great. I'm starving."
"Ok. Grab your bag, and I'll make sure the bathing room is empty.", she said while standing. Gabrielle nodded and retrieved her satchel from the floor. She followed Xena to the small room at the end of the hall. The warrior knocked and listened at the door. Hearing nothing, she pushed the door open.
Inside the barren room was a small sunken tub. It had been filled, and the water steamed, warming the tiny room. Xena saw that there was no bar on the door, so it couldn't be locked.
"I have to take care of Argo real quick, and I'll be back as fast as I can. Will you be alright while I'm gone?", she asked with concern.
"I think so. Don't be too long though, OK?" Xena gave Gabrielle's arm a squeeze before she left the room. The bard could only stand there, staring at the closed door for long moments, hating the idea of being alone once again. Finally, she shook her head, attempting to rid herself of the self-pity. She began removing her clothing, and stepped down into the tub.
Xena stepped outside and walked over to the horse, who was patiently waiting for her owner. The warrior untied the reins from the post and led her to the stables out back. Torches placed at even intervals lit the pathway, casting glimmering light throughout the area. As she approached the stables, she noted that the doors were kept open. She led Argo through the entrance slowly, always cautious of ambushes. Xena led her horse to a stall and removed the heavy saddle and gear from the horse's back, placing them onto a wide shelf nearby. She found a curry brush and ran it over the horse a few times.
"I'm sorry girl, but I can only stay a minute or two. I promise I'll make it up to you in the morning." Argo snorted softly in response, then tossed her head when her sharp ears detected something moving. Xena glanced behind her and saw Cecrops. She had forgotten about meeting him.
"Hi, sorry I took so long. Gabrielle was upset.", not wanting to admit she had forgotten him.
"Why don't you tell me why? I don't enjoy seeing that kind of fear from someone I care about. I saw the bruises on her face. Who did that to her?", he asked.
Xena took a deep breath before beginning. "A few days ago, she and I were having a problem. I was angry and let her walk into a tavern alone. She was attacked." She turned away from his probing eyes and resumed brushing down Argo.
"Attacked. By whom?", he asked pointedly.
"By three men who wouldn't take no for an answer.", she forced through her lips.
"Rapists! That poor girl. I take it you found them and punished them."
"I didn't have to. I heard her scream and got there before they could finish what they started. I killed them. Gabrielle hasn't been the same since. Cecrops, she saw the dark warrior in me--the woman I was in my past.", she confessed with a rush.
"And that frightened her too.", he surmised. Xena nodded, unable to continue because of the lump that formed in her throat.
"And right now, she's terrified of everything and everybody. Correct?" Another nod. Cecrops sighed and rubbed his face with both hands.
Xena found her voice, just barely. "I've got to get back to her. She can't tolerate being alone right now. Can we talk tomorrow?", she asked.
"I'll be here. Now go to your friend.", he said kindly.
Xena knocked on the door briefly before entering the room, not waiting for an answer. She looked through the misty haze, and spotted her friend still in the tub. Gabrielle seemed preoccupied, not hearing her approach. The hardened warrior looked down, and stared at the bathing woman with worry. Gabrielle was taking a sea sponge roughly to her skin, which was bright pink from her scrubbing. Over and over, she scraped the sponge over her arms and chest, trying to remove some invisible stain.
Xena knelt beside the tub, and reached slowly for the sponge, removing it from the woman's hand. Gabrielle gasped, then turned her head away.
"Gabrielle, what's wrong with you? Your skin is almost raw.", she fussed. Gabrielle only gave a pitiful sniffle, and remained silent. Xena could guess at was going through her friend's mind, but refused to dwell on it, not wanting to become angry once more. Gabrielle needed kindness right now, not a friend that was seething mad.
"Here, I'll do your back.", she offered. Gabrielle bent forward in compliance. Xena worked carefully, trying not to press too hard against the bruises and cuts on the bard's flesh. Xena did her best to hide the pity and worry she felt from her friend, by keeping her face neutral. Taking a lump of soap from a bowl located next to the tub, she gently applied it to the abused skin. She felt Gabrielle tense up, but the bard didn't fight her. She dunked the sponge back into the water and then rinsed the soap away.
"Would you like me to wash your hair?" Gabrielle though about it, and nodded her approval. The bard's silence shook Xena. Gabrielle's wild mood swings confused her, and she couldn't begin to understand the conflicting emotions that she displayed. Xena felt like she had to do something--anything--but she was floundering. Usually Gabrielle told her stories in an attempt to get her to talk, but she didn't have the skills. Suddenly it occurred to her. Why not?
"I think it's time for pay backs. How about I make you listen to a story for once?", she didn't bother checking for an agreement, but continued.
"I heard this story from a man I met a long time ago, about a land far to the east. Their languages and customs were so very different from our own, but their stories are fascinating. Once there was a prince who upon his father's death, had to fight against all his brothers who coveted his throne for themselves. His enemies were his own family, and those who would rule through them. He...."
Xena repeated the tale she had heard while washing the bard's red-gold hair. Between the gentle washing, and the softly spoken tale, Gabrielle began to relax. The stress lines on her face disappeared, and her shoulders loosened. Xena took the sponge, and rinsed the soap from Gabrielle's hair.
"... hunting this legendary creature. I think they called it a Tiger. It's like a panther, only it's huge and has an orange pelt with black stripes. They stalked the..."
"Orange? Xena, they had to be pulling your leg. I can't imagine the gods creating such an animal.", she laughed. Xena felt some of her own tension leave at the sound. Until this moment, she hadn't known how much she missed the easy humor of her friend.
"It's true. I saw the hide of one once. The fur was a shiny coppery orange that faded into cream on the belly. It had black stripes from head to tail. It was the strangest thing to see. You should have seen the size of it's claws. They were about this long...", she indicated the size with her fingers, "and the canine teeth were about this long.", once again showing the length.
"Thanks. Now I'll have nightmares about giant orange cats.", she joked wryly."
"Don't worry, if that nasty ol' cat comes your way, I'll grab it by the tail and tell it to go away.", she teased lightly.
"Gonna tell it 'shoo'?", she asked with a wide grin.
"Yep. I'll tell it to go pester Joxer for awhile.", Xena smiled impishly.
Xena stared into the darkness in the general direction of the ceiling. She couldn't sleep, her active mind kept mulling over the events of the last few days.
First there was the problem between them about her darker side. Gabrielle wouldn't allow herself the luxury of admitting that she was afraid of the evil side of Xena. Xena herself was afraid of her, but that fear she admitted only to herself. Gabrielle pretended it didn't exist, which drove a wedge between them. She had to face that fear.
Secondly, the attempted rape. It had left her a nervous, scared creature even afraid of her own shadow. Xena was doing her best to be understanding, but she had no idea how to help her young friend. She felt that Gabrielle needed to deal with her emotions in some way. The bard had resisted the idea of talking or writing her thoughts. Xena would have to push a little more tomorrow, about it because they couldn't go on like this forever.
And thirdly, what to do about King Phadius. The idea of breaking her word left a bitter taste in her mouth, but she couldn't see any other way to handle this. Gabrielle just couldn't be pushed any harder than she had been, and she was unwilling to leave her behind. The only option she could think of was to hire a messenger to deliver a letter to the King, explaining she wouldn't make it before the deadline, and asking if he could delay his plans. Whatever she decided though, had to be done quickly.
Gabrielle was locked in a nightmare, one she desperately wanted to escape. It was one of darkness and cruel laughter--hands that grabbed in the darkness. She felt the shame and humiliation of it, but couldn't get away. The voices whispered nasty things in her ears, and breathed their foul hot stench over her in an unnatural fog. She cried out for help, unable to save herself. Couldn't anyone hear her?
She pleaded for what seemed an eternity, begging for release. Where was Xena? With the strength of the gods themselves, she could make them go away. But where was she?
"I'm right here, Gabrielle. You're going to be fine.", her confident voice penetrated the swirling dark mist. Suddenly a vision of her friend appeared, her armor gleaming brilliantly in light that suddenly shined down on her from some unknown source. Her avenger pulled her sword, swinging it into the darkness, driving away the creatures that lived there. They were all gone, driven away by her savior. Gabrielle ran to her rescuer and threw her arms around her in gratitude.
Xena looked down at the now relaxed Gabrielle, who had clung to her during her dream. She had awakened to the sounds of the bard crying out in her sleep, apparently having a nightmare. She had murmured to her, trying to gently calm the frightened woman. Xena had moved closer, trying to bring her out from the dream. Gabrielle had called out her name, her voice small and pitiful. The hardened warrior had felt helpless, unsure how to comfort her in her troubled sleep. Gabrielle had found her own comfort, clinging to her desperately then relaxing.
Xena found the position uncomfortable. She was laying on her side, facing the smaller woman. When she tried to move away, her friend held on tighter to her waist, afraid to let her go, even in her sleep. The warrior sighed, and shifted slightly, bringing her long leg over Gabrielle's. It eased the pressure on her back. With nothing better to do with her free arm, she wrapped it around the small woman and fell back to sleep.
They made their way to the dining area, both rather tired from the night before. Gabrielle's nightmares had kept them both awake half the night. More than once, she had awakened, screaming in her sleep. Xena believed this was because she refused to deal with her fears, pushing them away. If she would only talk about them, she would feel better. She was determined to bring it up again this morning.
They entered the almost empty room. Most of the travelers had already left and the place was practically deserted. Their footsteps echoed against the walls as they walked to a table.
"Always a table against the back wall.", Gabrielle murmured.
Xena heard her and answered. "Mmm hmm. If I did it differently, you'd be asking for that code word, positive that I somehow changed places with Diana or Meg again.". During their last visit, they had chosen a code word to allow Gabrielle the ability to 'test' anyone who resembled her friend. The remarkable resemblance between the three of them had left Gabrielle and everyone else's heads spinning.
"You're consistent all right. For someone who likes planning on the fly, you sure have some deep-grained habits. No matter what happens with us, they'll never change. It used to irritate me, but now I find that reassuring and comforting. It's like knowing that the sun will rise in the eastern sky."
"I'm tempted to ask about my habits, but we've had this discussion once before. So-- I'm going to behave myself and keep quiet.", Xena said wryly, unable to hide her quirky grin.
"I remember--I was mad about the 'cute' remark."
"Well, Little one, you *are* cute, so why do you resent it?", asked Cecrops with his deep timbered voice.
To Gabrielle's credit, she didn't jump at his unexpected words. She looked over her shoulder at the former sea captain and managed a small smile of greeting. Her eyes followed him as he walked around the table to join them.
She took in the fact that he still favored his loose, colorful attire, and long locks of hair. His clothing could be described as colorful, but they seemed to match his style. She couldn't imagine him in peasant's clothing. His proud and regal bearing made it impossible to see him as anything but a larger-than-life presence.
He smiled at her as he leaned forward , crossing his arms before resting them on the table. "You didn't answer, Gabrielle. Why do you resent what you are?"
"I..I don't 'resent' what I am, I *resent* being treated as though I was a kid because I have a baby-face. You wouldn't understand.", she said quietly .
He turned to the warrior. "Xena, have you been teasing this child? I thought you'd know better than that.", he said with a wink.
"I know better now. I won't make that mistake again--not after the last time. She taught me a lesson I'll never forget."
His gaze spun back to Gabrielle. "I've got to hear this tale."
"We don't have time Cecrops." Xena explained briefly about the situation in Atia, "...I have no idea what I can do, but I have to try at least. I'm a warrior, not a diplomat. At best, I think my presence will be used as a threat by the King. My reputation might scare them into obeying, but things will go back to the way they were once I'm gone.", Xena said sadly.
"Then why did you agree to go?"
She shrugged. "I couldn't say no. I knew that he'd just go to that village and destroy everyone if I didn't. I was hoping I could talk him out of a slaughter."
He remained quiet, thinking over her words. He came to a decision and spoke, his voice grave. "Why don't you let me go in your place?", he held up his hand to stop her from arguing, "Let me finish. I know it's been 300 years since I was King of Attica, but I was damned good at it, even if I have to say so myself. I was a fair and just ruler, and my people were prosperous. I had two Gods fighting over the right to be my city's patron, and that must mean something. I'd like to try and help those people. You admitted that you were in over your head, so let me do this for you."
The possibilities ran through her mind. *This is perfect!*, she thought. Cecrops could deal with those fanatics. With his skills, there was a chance for a peaceful solution in Atia. And most importantly, she could stay with Gabrielle, helping her deal with her pain. The anguish she had gone through, trying to find a solution to her dilemma had nearly killed her. Cecrops couldn't have been more helpful. They could follow him at a slower pace, allowing Gabrielle the time she needed. She lifted herself slightly from her chair, and placed a kiss on his rough cheek.
"Thanks. This means alot to me--more than you can know. I'll make arrangements for having a runner sent ahead to King Phadius, telling him about your arrival, and write a letter for you. Xena stood up and bent forward, leaning to whisper in Gabrielle's ear. "Stay here and keep him company. I won't be gone long--I promise." Xena said, and headed for the front entrance. Gabrielle turned to face Cecrops, who smiled broadly.
"Now, Little One, she's not here to prevent you from telling what must be a very entertaining story. I want to hear how you taught her a lesson."
Gabrielle felt the fear and nervousness slip away. The gentle sea captain had found the key to her heart. Telling stories had always been a relaxing and comforting occupation for her. "Well, it all started when she kept laughing at me because she thought I was 'cute' when I..."
Xena returned to the inn, pleased she could find a runner so quickly. The messenger was already on his way, a sealed scroll in his bag. She was sure that King Phadius would welcome Cecrops' help unless he was a fool. The warrior felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders and her step was a little lighter. She looked around the dining area, but didn't see her two friends. The room was empty. Xena's smile disappeared, and worry gripped her.
She headed for their room, hoping to find Gabrielle there, but it was empty as well. Their belongings still sat on the table, and the room had been attended to by one of the servants. Gabrielle's staff still stood in the corner, which let her know that she hadn't come here first. Xena turned around and wondered where Gabrielle could have gone. Returning to the main room, she looked for the door leading to the kitchen. Peering inside, she spotted the old innkeeper from the night before.
"Excuse me?", the woman turned around, a little annoyed that someone had dared to enter her kitchen.
"What can I help you with?", her voice gruff.
"Do you remember my friend that was with me last night? I can't seem to find her and..."
"She's in the garden with that tall brute. Go out the front door and take a right, you'll see a path leading you there.". The woman turned her back to her, clearing ending the conversation.
Xena left the kitchen and followed the old woman's directions. Turning right after leaving the building, she followed the street until she saw a dirt path leading through a stone gate. A small garden was enclosed within tall ivy-lined walls. The area was much cooler than the street because of the overhanging branches of the enormous shade trees that grew around the garden. She went searching for her friend, who wasn't in immediate sight.
Walking around a tree, Xena found Cecrops sitting on the ground, his long arms wrapped around his bent legs, looking up at Gabrielle in an enraptured gaze, who sat on a small bench, absorbed in telling a tale. The tension she had felt left her, and Xena stopped to smile, pleased that the bard had relaxed enough to join Cecrops in the garden. This was a very good omen in the warrior's eyes. She listened briefly to the tale, and rolled her eyes.
"Gabrielle, did you have to tell him *that* story? It's bad enough my mother teased me about the baby tossing!", she grumbled good-naturedly.
"Hush, I haven't got to that part yet." Gabrielle returned her attention to Cecrops, continuing her story. She had sensed her friend's approach subconsciously, even before her voice had been heard. Perhaps Xena's abilities were finally rubbing off on her. Xena joined her on the bench and placed an arm around the her shoulders.
Gabrielle had laid down for a nap, still tired from the night before. The warrior didn't even bothering lowering her voice, knowing that Gabrielle could sleep through anything. Xena had borrowed some parchment from the bard's private stash and had penned a carefully written letter to King Phadius, explaining some of the circumstances. Once finished, she handed the letter to Cecrops and thanked him once more.
"Xena, I have eyes. I see how much you're worried about her. You didn't need this extra burden on the two of you. Take your time rejoining me in Atia. Good or bad, the Fates have already decided their future. It won't do any good to worry about them now. Just concentrate on making her whole again."
"You are a good friend. Until we meet again."
"Until we meet again.", he repeated quietly, and pulled her to him for a hug. She returned it gratefully and gave him a smile. He patted her cheek and left the room.
Xena sat back down at the table with a huge sigh, and rested her head on her folded arms. This week had been the longest in her life, she felt. All she wanted to do was sleep for at least two days and forget everything.
Cecrops loaded his belongings onto his horse, a huge shiny black stallion that snorted its impatience at being stable bound for two days. He flipped his muzzle and nudged the man at his elbow, telling him to hurry it along.
"Don't worry. It's only going to take a few minutes, but if you keep fidgeting, it'll take that much longer." The horse dropped its head and snorted softly. Cecrops chuckled and patted Mestares on the neck. He returned to tying off his bags and checking over everything once more. He didn't want to forget anything, his monies too low to replace anything foolishly left behind.
Satisfied that everything was in order, he mounted the stallion and clicked his tongue. Mestares almost bolted in his excitement, but his training prevailed, and he moved forward in a fluid motion. He ducked under the low branches as he went past the gate, brushing aside leaves that slapped him in the face. Once away from the trees, he straightened in his saddle, and looked one last time at the small village he was leaving.
The town was bustling with the activity of mid-morning business. Merchants called out to potential buyers, children ran and played with their friends, mothers did their household chores, and old people sat around the square, gossiping and reminiscing. He smiled to himself, enjoying the sights and sounds of this friendly community.
As he traveled past the edge of the market area, a woman selling flowers held up a wild flower to him with a smile. He returned it, and tucked the blue flower into his braided hair. She turned away shyly, thinking it was a pity he was leaving so soon.
Xena woke to a hand placed on her back. She jerked upright in her chair and grimaced with pain as her muscles protested the slumped position she had slept in.
"Are you OK?", the young woman asked as she leaned over her.
"Fine. Just a little stiff." Xena glanced at Gabrielle, who appeared more refreshed because of her nap. The Bard was still bent down, a hand on the table for support as she rested her hand on Xena's shoulder, her face still showing her concern. "I'm fine--really. You don't need to fuss over me.", she said with a warm smile.
"What if I want to fuss a little? I think you've hovered over me so much lately, that it won't hurt you to accept a little attention for yourself."
Xena could detect a subtle plea in her friend's eyes. Gabrielle wanted to do something for her in order to feel better about herself. The bard was a caretaker by nature, always doing small things just to please others. She felt a satisfaction that only could come from giving. Xena realized that Gabrielle needed this more than she hated being fussed over, so she gave in.
"Well, my arms are stiff, so could you brush my hair? It feels like a bird's nest right now." Gabrielle's relief was apparent to Xena, who was glad to do some small thing for her friend.
The bard opened Xena's saddlebag and searched for the brush she used for her hair. She found it at the bottom, hiding under her spare tunic. Gabrielle pulled it out and walked back to Xena. She placed the brush on the table next to her friend, and stood behind her. Gabrielle reached for the simple braid that Xena had used to hold her hair out of the eyes, and undid it. Using her fingers to comb through the dark hair, she untwisted the braiding and pulled all the hair towards her.
"Lean back a little.", she quietly told Xena. The warrior complied and leaned backwards in the low-backed chair and lifted one leg onto the table. Xena decided it felt good to raise the leg up, so lifted the other and crossed them at the ankles. She rested both arms over her stomach and closed her eyes.
"Settling in for the day?", Gabrielle teased.
"Hmmm. Last time you brushed my hair, you wanted to play for hours it seemed like."
"I find it relaxing. Lila and I would do this all day when it rained, just trying different styles and such.", she said wistfully.
"It brings back good memories?", the warrior asked gently.
"Yeah, it does.", she smiled, though her friend couldn't see it, but Xena didn't need to--she could hear it in her voice.
"Then go ahead and play. We'll leave tomorrow and just rest up until then.", she offered.
"Really?", her voice was happy with this unexpected opportunity, not believing that Xena would be willing to just sit there and let her indulge in one of her favorite pastimes. Thinking to herself that Xena must feel a little sorry for her, but she wasn't going to let this moment slip away. Xena just wasn't the type to allow herself to be lazy very often. She was always in motion--even when resting.
She retrieved her own bag and pulled out a variety of combs and bindings, excited over the prospect of experimenting. Gabrielle began humming off key to herself as she began carefully combing out the tangles from her friend's hair. Thinking to herself with a silent laugh, she wondered if Xena might actually learn to enjoy relaxing some day. She didn't realize that Xena was doing just that.
Xena was still leaning back into her chair, and found that since she wasn't fighting Gabrielle's preening, she was actually enjoying it. The feel of the bristles against her scalp seemed to ease the tension that had plagued her all week, and even Gabrielle's humming seemed to sooth her. She felt her eyelids get heavy, and before she knew it--she was fast asleep.
Gabrielle looked down at her sleeping friend, not sure if she should be annoyed or flattered. She had looked forward to this, and now Xena was sound asleep. The bard sighed indulgently, thinking Xena must have needed the sleep pretty badly. After all--this was the second time in an afternoon that she slept. Gabrielle just hoped that her friend didn't end up pacing the floor all night.
She returned all her combs and ties back into her bag, careful not to crumple her parchments. Suddenly, her scrolls seemed to stand out in front of her eyes. She pulled them from the bag and searched for a blank one. The bard found one and stared, Xena's advice about writing down her feelings now echoing in her head. Her heart began pounding in nervous fear, for the first time in her short life of picking up a quill and writing.
Gabrielle sat down on the bed and leaned against the back wall. Placing the bag on her lap as a make shift table, she smoothed out the parchment and held her quill over it, her hand shaking. Taking a deep breath, she wrote her first word. Then another, and soon she couldn't write fast enough for the thoughts and emotions that poured out of her. Tears streamed down her face, but she took no notice of them. The words she put down on the scrolls felt like she was ripping scabs off of half-healed wounds, but with each one, she felt the overwhelming burden lift from her. Before Gabrielle realized it, the scroll was filled and she reached for another and continued.
Xena woke up, looking around in sleepy confusion, and saw she was alone in their room. She rubbed her face, trying to wipe the grogginess from her eyes. She yawned and shuddered as she woke a little more. She pulled her feet off the table and sat upright, and then her eyes suddenly focused on what was on the table in front of her. Two scrolls sat there, along with a note addressed to herself. She picked it up and read it.
'Xena--I took your advice and wrote about what happened in that tavern. You were right--I needed to do this. I'm going to the garden to sit for awhile and think. I want you to read the scrolls before joining me. --Love Gabrielle. '
The warrior unfolded the scroll closest to her, and began reading the first one that Gabrielle had started. Each word was like a blow to her stomach, but she continued on, knowing that this was important for both of them.
Gabrielle described each detail and emotion she had felt that afternoon and since then, leaving out nothing. Every foul touch, the smells, and even the fears she had gone through--including how she had viewed Xena while in her maniac rage was included. It was brutally honest and ungarnished.
As she read through the last scroll, she felt the tears run down her face as Gabrielle spoke of how ashamed and dirty she felt over this attack. That she somehow was to blame for what happened. She knew it was irrational, but she couldn't help how she felt. Xena continued reading and came across a section about herself.
' I know that Xena feels guilty for everything that happened, but nothing I can say will convince her that she's not. She insists on carrying the burden for this attack on her own shoulders-- I see it in her eyes. I also see the shame she feels about her allowing that dark side of herself to break free. Only on this scroll will I ever voice my feelings about that. On that day--I was glad she had allowed it to happen. I wanted those men dead for what they were doing to me, and Xena only did what I wished I had been able to do myself. I know this will bother Xena, but it's how I felt.
I think I understand her better now. Even the hatred I had felt for Callisto felt pale compared to what I felt that afternoon. I can only admire the control she has over that side of herself. '
Xena put the scroll down, her feelings swirling inside. She was happy that her friend was finally able to take this healing step, and that she had found her voice to the point she could put it on parchment. This step must have been painful, but it had been necessary.
But she also felt exposed. Gabrielle had come to understand about a part of herself that she had wished to keep hidden from the gentle young woman. Xena feared that she could never truly hide from her again--her heart was now open for the bard to see. Xena smiled ruefully at herself. Gabrielle had long burrowed her way inside, and had stubbornly refused to let her get away with her usual tactics.
Even in the beginning, Gabrielle showed little fear of making her angry. Men of power had trembled at her name, frightened by her reputation. They had feared and respected the Warrior Princess because of her abilities to lead men into combat and outsmart her enemies. No one stood in her way. Except for a little village girl from Poteidaia. A girl that became a strong woman in her own right, and held the power to make or break the Mighty Warrior Princess.
*She doesn't even realize it.*, Xena said to herself. *She doesn't know I'd die gladly if it meant saving her--that her life means more to me than my own.* No one else in her life had loved her so unconditionally. Even her family had passed judgement on her --refusing to understand the angry and confused young woman she once was. Xena mentally shook herself, and got to her feet. It was time to find her friend.
Gabrielle was sitting on the same bench in the garden. She was gazing off into nothing, her attention focused inward. The warrior walked to her and stood in front of her until Gabrielle's eyes focused and looked up at her. They could only stare at one another, communicating silently, hoping the other would understand. They had found a new beginning in their friendship, one based on a more equal footing. Gabrielle smiled gently, sending her love and acceptance to her friend.
Xena felt the tears well up in her eyes, and she knelt before the red-haired woman. She placed her cheek down on the bard's lap, her hands resting along her legs on the bench. Gabrielle placed one hand on Xena's shoulder, and with the other, stroked the dark hair and nape. She felt the hot tears of her friend on her thigh, as the tears of her own happiness streaked her face. They had found their path together once more.
"Ares, why don't you give up?", Athena asked her brother. "These little obstacles you put in their path just makes their bond that much stronger. Give her up."
"You know I won't. She was one of my best students. No one has been able to compared to her in ages. The fire she has inside warms me, my sister, and if my relatives would stop interfering...I would have her back by now.", he complained.
Athena smiled inwardly. She had led Cecrops to that village in hopes that he would offer his help. The rules wouldn't allow her to intervene enough to prevent the attack Ares had arranged, but it didn't stop her from bringing in outside help. Ares had hoped that with the rape of Gabrielle, Xena would finally and permanently give in to her hatred. But Ares lacked the ability to understand the relationship between the two women, and had inflicted unnecessary harm upon the young mortal. His petty little schemes were offensive to the Goddess of War.
But then again, his methods and attitudes have always bothered her. His view of war was one of brutality, glory, and bloodshed. She believed that war was a means to an end. There had to be a purpose behind the battle, or there was no use for it.
"You attack Xena through her friend, Ares, because Xena is under my protection--even though Gabrielle is under the protection of Artemis. You fear me more than our sister, so you prey on Xena's weakness. But our sister has brought her complaints to Zeus himself, and if you're not careful, he'll end your little plots personally. Give her up--for your own sake."
"I haven't broken any rules, Athena--only stretched them a little. Zeus won't interfere until I do. At most, he'll give me a fatherly warning.", he said with contempt.
"So be it. But heed my warning--I'll be watching." She faded from his sight.
Ares took one last look at the disgustingly sentimental sight before him, and angrily disappeared.
Gabrielle shivered from the eerie feeling that come over her. She looked around her, eyes darting nervously around her.
"What's wrong?", Xena asked. She had raised herself to one knee, sensing Gabrielle's uneasiness. She wiped the tears from her eyes, clearing her vision. She glanced around her, but saw nothing.
"I don't know. I just had this weird feeling--like we were being watched.", she whispered.
"I didn't feel anything, and I don't see anyone around us. Maybe it was just...ah...Damn! I don't know. I don't want to dismiss your feelings as trivial, but you've been through alot lately, and maybe it was just nerves.", she said apologetically.
"Maybe. It's getting late, and I could use a meal right now."
Xena nodded, but remained silent.
"What? No comment about my stomach?", Gabrielle mocked.
"Not today. Teasing you takes energy, and this was supposed to be a lazy day--remember? Tomorrow I'll be unmerciful, so get your rest.", she warned. She got to her feet and pointed to the inn with her chin. Gabrielle smiled and put her arm around Xena's waist as they returned to the building.
Cecrops made camp by an abandoned farm house. The farm was burned down, probably destroyed by raiders. Its charred remains less than a month old. There was a well with fresh water and he held a bucket under Mestares' muzzle so he could drink. The horse wasn't a dainty drinker, and he dribbled water onto Cecrops' boots. The man gave his horse an irritated glare, but said nothing.
He hadn't planned on owning a horse, he had enjoyed walking from place to place in his search for Hidsim's daughter. But the Search had been a driving force and purpose for him, so he had bought this devilishly spirited horse.
He knew of his crew member's home town, but it had been raided during the time Hidsim was gone. No one lived there any longer, and neighboring villages had taken in most of the survivors. Cecrops had visited every one of them within leagues of the destroyed village, yet he couldn't find Hidsim's wife or daughter. No one seemed to know where they had gone.
He followed every clue, regardless of how vague. One person had told him that the widow had remarried and moved away, but he had no idea as to where. He only had the name of the husband--Actaeus. He knew it was probably futile, but he had made a promise to himself to find Hidsim's daughter, Agraulus, and tell her of her father's life and death. Cecrops didn't want the young woman to think she had been forgotten by her pirate father--or that he had died as a pirate.
Cecrops thought about the man who had foolishly sacrificed his own life to protect him. He hadn't understood that Hidsim had loved him as a brother until after his death. He didn't realize that the sailor had found him a good and honorable man, worthy of being saved. He had never known love like that from anyone but Tarae, his betrothed, until then. It took Gabrielle and Xena to bring that kind of love to his attention.
He had watched the warrior woman jump from a cliff onto his cursed ship in order to join her friend. Cecrops had no idea of the loyalty and love that bound these two women in friendship. He had thought Xena to be a mad woman, leaping onto a ship of eternal imprisonment. To him, there had been no friendship worth being cursed for, but then he saw them together, and had been both puzzled and touched.
The caring shown by the two women for each other had stirred forgotten feelings within him. Memories of his family long gone, and friends that had guided and loved him. Of times shared during feast and famine, of days spent together in celibration and strife. The feelings had lain dormant for centuries, but they had brought them back.
Continue to Chapter 6
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