The Season of Change chapters 6-7
24 June, 1997
They traveled down the road, both lost in thought most of the morning. They had left with the rising sun, wanting to make an early start of it. The weather had been mild, and they looked forward to a beautiful day. Xena refused to push Gabrielle and herself, keeping a steady but easy pace. Gabrielle walked next to her as she rode her horse, only occasionally speaking.
"Xena, may I ask a question?"
"May the Gods help me! Gabrielle, every time you say that, we end up in tears. Why do you do this to me?" Xena's tone wasn't harsh, in fact, it was gentle by Xena's standards, but the bard still felt hurt by the remark. Normally, she wouldn't be bothered by the warrior's comments, but her emotions were still unsteady. Writing about her fears and feelings had helped, but it hadn't been a miracle cure. She was still very vulnerable to upheavals and mood swings.
"Fine. Never mind.", she spat out. She increased her pace and walked ahead of Xena and Argo, wanting to put distance between them.
Xena had regretted her words the moment she said them, and cursed her reaction. She saw the hurt and anger in Gabrielle's eyes. The woman only used that question when it was something important to her, and she had slapped her down like an errant child.
Xena jumped down from her saddle, and grabbed the reins. "Gabrielle! Please, wait." Her long legs soon caught up to the smaller woman, and she walked along side of her. She looked down at her friend's angry face.
"Gabrielle...please, I'm sorry.", her voice anguished.
The bard kept walking, her eyes locked straight ahead. Her fury a black cloud around her.
"Gabrielle, do I have to get on my hands and knees to beg your forgiveness?"
The red-haired woman stopped suddenly in her tracks and turned towards her friend.
"Well...", a huge impish grin appeared on her face.
"Gabrielle!", Xena laughed. "Am I forgiven?", she said with a silly smile.
"Yes. But I really should be angry with you. The question wasn't even all that tough."
"OK, what's the question?", she asked seriously.
"Why did you let Cecrops talk you into letting him go in your place? I mean, you've never let anyone...Xena? What are you doing?" Xena had turned around and opened her saddle bag. She removed two pieces of cloth, handing one to Gabrielle.
"Let's find a place to sit and talk.", she suggested.
"And what's this for?", Gabrielle held up the cloth.
"For the tears.", she said wryly.
Agraulus stood with her mother at the window, watching the King's army patrolling around their village. Phadius' men had surrounded Ochla almost a moon ago, after the Sparitins had ridden into their town. The villagers hadn't known at the time that these people had fled from prosecution, and had allowed them to set up camp within their walls. Their leaders had known that the King's soldiers would soon catch up to them, and had taken precautions.
They snatched the village elders' children, effectively tying their hands. No one dared to defy them, fearing the safety of their children. So a stand off kept everyone in their place. Agraulus wondered why didn't the soldiers just storm the village and get it over with.
Captain Darlose had sent a message, giving them until the new moon to surrender the Sparitins to them, or he would attack and destroy the entire village. *Why did he delay?*, she wondered.
Captain Darlose scowled once more. This situation was too much. He longed to lead his men into an attack, tired of the inaction he was forced into. He had been a soldier for most of his life, serving the Kingdom since he was a young lad of fourteen summers, like his father before him. His father had died protecting the lives of the King's subjects, and Darlose had felt that he had died happy. The General hoped for a more subdued ending for himself, wishing to retire and enjoy the time with his own family. He stroked the close trimmed beard he wore, a habit he developed when he was aggravated.
It was beginning to turn gray now, and his wife had teased him that she could clearly see the streaks of gray throughout his close-cropped hair. He felt himself relax as he thought about his gentle wife. She brought peace to his warring heart, and eased his troubled spirit. He thought to himself that every warrior should have that balance.
"Xena, I'm sorry. Sort of.", she smiled as she stared at the scrap piece of cloth the warrior had handed her. Xena's sense of humor often bordered on the ridiculous, frequently throwing her off balance. "I never *intend* for us to get all weepy--though you're right. Almost every time I say that, we end up in tears. It's a gift I guess."
"It's not your fault. This isn't the first time I've complained about this little habit of yours--and I doubt it'll be the last. I just don't like getting all..."
"Mushy?", she grinned.
"Yeah. You've dragged more tears out of me than anyone else I've known.", she teased.
"Like I said--it's a gift.", she shrugged. "So--Are we going to talk about what's bothering you or not?"
Xena sighed. She placed her hand at the small of Gabrielle's back and led her to a shady spot under a tree. They sat down. The bard leaned against a tree as Xena sat cross-legged next to her.
"I don't know how to really explain this. Will you promise to hear me out first?", Xena asked humbly.
Gabrielle nodded, her eyes glimmering with worry. Xena didn't use this tone often.
"You wanted to know why I let Cecrops take my place. It was because I was more concerned about you than I was about some villagers I've never met. In all honesty, I was about to hire a messenger to take a letter to Phadius, telling him I couldn't make it."
"Because the way the things were, I couldn't get there before the deadline unless I left you behind."
Gabrielle felt her heart begin pounding, the implications of Xena's words sinking in. Because of the attack--and her fears---Xena was going to ignore those people's problems to take care of her. The bard felt both guilty and touched. Touched because the tough warrior was worried about her feelings, and guilty because there were too many lives at stake.
"Then why didn't you just leave me behind?" Gabrielle felt the tears fall down her cheeks. She knew the answer but wanted to her it from Xena--that the warrior pitied her.
Xena felt her own tears form, and she took Gabrielle's small hand in her own. She knew what Gabrielle thought, but she'd never admit to it. "Because you're my family. You'll always come first with me before strangers--even if it means another black mark against my soul. That may bother you, but you'll just have to accept it, because I refuse to change."
Gabrielle saw the sincerity in her eyes, and nodded. Nothing she said would change her mind, and she would have to accept it like her friend said--but she didn't have to like it. "But it was still pity that motivated you Xena. You can't deny it, can you?"
Xena turned her eyes away for a moment, collecting her thoughts. "If this had happened to me instead---how would have you felt under the same circumstances? Would you have left me behind or stayed?"
"Stayed.", Gabrielle said without hesitation.
"Mmm hmm. So do me a favor, and don't judge me too harshly for following my heart this time. OK?"
"Xena, you may annoy me at times, confuse me more often than I'd like to admit, and act in ways that I don't always understand...but I'll never fault you for following your heart."
Xena lips quirked at one corner as she smiled. "Good. Then can we retire these cry rags for at least a couple of days? I think we've cried enough this week. I'm exhausted."
"Then lay down and take a nap. You said we could take our time getting there."
"Not *that* much time.", she teased.
"No--seriously. Here--put you head down and take a short nap.", she patted her leg, "I'll keep an eye out for trouble."
Xena looked as though she'd argue, but saw that old determined look in her friend's eyes that she remembered so well, and she complied. She scooted back a little and laid down on her side, resting her head on Gabrielle's lap. She had trouble relaxing though---she felt guilty for resting during the day. * It's still morning for Gaia's sake!*, she complained to herself.
"Xena, for the love of Zeus! Can't you allow yourself to be lazy for once? I can see every muscle on you just stiffen up.", she scolded. The bard began softly stroking her hair, remembering that it had put Xena to sleep the day before.
"It isn't going to work.", Xena said dryly.
"It's not? Then how about I tell you a long, boring story. That should do it.". She didn't wait for an answer, but began telling a uninteresting story in a monotone. She continued playing with her friend's hair while she droned on in a flat voice. She knew if all else failed, she'd bore her to sleep. Finally finishing the story, her own eyes drooping, she hunched over to peek at Xena.
"I told you it wouldn't work. Can I get up now?"
Gabrielle sighed in frustration. "Yeah, you might as well. I can't believe you won't fall asleep when you're so tired. I heard you pace all night. Back and forth, back and forth. You ought to be sound asleep by now."
Xena sat up once more. "It's that guilt complex of mine that says you don't sleep during the day I guess. Yesterday was just a fluke. But I'll tell you what---we'll stop early tonight. How's that sound?"
"It'll have to do.", she sighed.
"I'm glad you agree.", she said with a chuckle.
July 09, 1997
Xena grinned indulgently at her friend. "Oh? We'll see." She uncrossed her legs and stood, smiling down at Gabrielle, offering her a hand up. The Bard smiled wickedly and took the hand, but instead of pulling herself to her feet, she placed a boot on Xena's middle and flipped the warrior up and over her head.
Xena rolled instinctively, and was immediately on her feet. She spun around to face her petite friend, an equally wicked grin on her face. The little bard must be feeling pretty cocky to pull this stunt. That suited Xena just fine because it was better to have her friend confident than submissive and too terrified to defend herself.
Gabrielle had snatched up her staff, as well as Xena's , and tossed it to her. Xena caught it in mid-air, then spun it in an intricate series of spins before charging with a battle cry. Gabrielle met her half-way, blocking the blow that came towards her. The thunk of the wooden staffs vibrated sharply, making her hands sting. This wasn't going to be just a friendly spar between them, but an all-out battle.
The warrior knew her friend's abilities, and was determined to push her to her limits. She delivered a set of blows towards her, first high, then low, forcing Gabrielle into a defensive posture to prevent them from connecting. The bard barely deflected the blows and Xena could clearly see that her attack had spurred her friend into being very competitive. Determination etched her friend's face as she concentrated on the combat. She wasn't going to give up easily. Gabrielle took some risky chances in order to gain an advantage. Some attempts succeeded while others worked against her, leaving herself open for a stinging blow from the warrior's weapon. It wasn't long before each woman had a collection of bruises and welts.
Xena had the advantage of strength and experience, but as the competition progressed, she noted that it was the smaller woman's lower center of gravity and speed that were a benefit. The tide turned slowly, and it was Xena who found herself doing the defending. She decided it was time to end this before one of them got hurt.
Xena ducked, avoiding a maneuver that would have left her unconscious if it had connected, dropping to one knee to sweep the bard's legs with her staff, effectively knocking her to the ground. She held her staff to Gabrielle's throat, the warrior's chest heaving from her exertion.
"Yield?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle nodded, her own breathing labored. "Damn! I thought I had you that time," she complained good-naturedly.
"It was pretty close. All you lack is the aggressiveness to use the more harmful techniques--which is fine with me. I don't ever want to see you change in that way," she confessed. She helped her friend to her feet. They walked over to their camp and sat down to recover from their little sparring match.
"Neither would I." Gabrielle looked pensive, something obviously on her mind. "Xena, when I wrote about wanting to see them dead, it frightened me. Sometimes I'm afraid that I will have to kill some day."
"Me too," Xena confessed quietly, "I have nightmares about that." Xena looked away, her expression one of misery.
Gabrielle saw the look and placed her hand on the warrior's. "Xena? Would you have preferred that I hadn't said that?"
Xena's head snapped back, her eyes locking with Gabrielle gray-green eyes. "No! No. Gabrielle, I..." Xena shook her head, frustrated by her lack of skill with words. She turned her eyes away in embarrassment.
"What were you thinking just now? You don't have to pretty them up to spare my feelings. Just tell me--I'll understand," the bard promised softly.
"I was thinking that... sometimes I wish that I had never met you."
Gabrielle felt her heart contract in pain. The fact that Xena's words had been said without anger, and were spoken so sorrowfully, had more impact than if she had said them in the heat of an argument. She felt the tears that blurred her vision run down her face. Gabrielle did her best to hold back the sob that threatened to break out from her throat.
"Why?" was all she could say.
Xena turned to face her friend. She had heard the pain in her voice, and hated herself for saying anything. Once more, she had caused her friend to cry. She grasped Gabrielle's hand and held on tightly.
"Because one day--because you travel with me--you may have to kill. I don't know if I can handle that. I don't want to be the one responsible for that black mark against your soul. I have enough blood on my hands."
"Xena, if it happens--it's not your fault. Everything happens for a reason. If it's in me to kill, it's up to me to control it--not you." Gabrielle took a deep breath, needing a moment to gain her courage for her next question. She thought she knew the answer, but the younger woman needed to hear it.
"Do you regret our friendship, Xena? We've gone through a lot together. Things I know I would have never done unless it had been with you. You've had a large impact on my life. I'm a stronger person because of it."
"That just it. You've *had* to become stronger. You've endured so much in order to follow me around. If you had stayed in Poteidaia, you..."
"I swear--if this is another of your ' You could have gotten married and started a family by now ' lectures, I'm going to break my staff over your head! We've hashed this over too many times already."
"BECAUSE I KNOW I'M RIGHT!" Xena shouted, her face red from her anger. She scrunched up her face in frustration and turned away, trying to get a handle on her temper.
"Xena?" Gabrielle said softly.
The warrior returned her gaze to Gabrielle's eyes.
"What?" she asked tiredly.
"I won't leave you--no matter how much you try and push me away."
"That's because you're too damned stubborn to admit I'm right. I'd get along fine without you."
"I'm sure you'd make a good show of it Xena--but our lives are too intertwined to ever fully separate them now. We may separate for some reason one day--but we'll never be complete without the other. That option ended when we shared the same body to fight Velasca."
"That only lasted a few minutes. I was trying to prevent her from becoming a god --and to return to my own body. There wasn't time for any soul searching between us," she protested.
Gabrielle smiled serenely, knowing exactly what the warrior was doing--avoiding the truth. Ever since that moment in time, an unbreakable link had been formed between them. Xena may refuse to see it, but she did feel it--her frantic arguments were proof of that. The warrior could bluster to her heart's content, but she could never drive her away. All Gabrielle had to do was be patient and give her friend the time she needed to come to terms with it. Any arguments from her would only make Xena fight against it that much harder.
"If you say so. Goodnight," Gabrielle said as she made herself comfortable on her bedroll and closed her eyes.
"That's it? No arguments or tears?" the shocked warrior asked.
"Nope." Gabrielle suppressed a smile at her friend's tone. She just knocked out the legs from under the warrior, and Xena was floundering.
The older woman stared at her friend who had closed her eyes. She felt cheated in some way--though for the life of her--she didn't know why.
"The look on her face is priceless!" Artemis chuckled.
"The poor mortal doesn't know what happened. She was raring for a good fight and her friend just stopped and went to sleep." Athena grinned back at her sister before they both faded away.
Phandes and his followers, armed with makeshift weapons, stormed the building that housed the Sparitins. They had no thought-out battle plan, just the desire to attack those who had brought trouble to Ochla. The mob did little to hide their intentions. The din raised in their path gave warning to the awaiting fanatics, who within moments, had their own plan go into effect.
The mob entered the building, weapons raised, looking for the leaders and fighters among the outsiders. What they saw stopped them in their tracks and turned their blood cold. A young weeping girl of only three summers was tied spread eagle between four stakes with an equal number of men poised above her, a sword held high over each of the pinned limbs. The implied threat was obvious. The mob fell silent. Long moments passed until finally, a older man belonging to the outsiders separated himself from the others.
"Fools! Did you think we were bluffing?" he shouted angrily, "Get out of here or I swear, we'll punish this girl for your insolence! Tell your people that if you *ever* try this again, their children will be forfeit."
The now subdued mob left the building, the fire for battle extinguished. Phandes felt an overwhelming shame burn his cheeks as he thought about how close that little girl had come to being mutilated because of him. He had looked at her terrified face as she pleaded to be let go, not really understanding what the men holding the swords were going to do to her.
He could feel his whole body shake with the thought. A limbless girl would never find any happiness in this world. She would have been a burden to her entire family if she had lived. And it would have been his fault. He separated himself from the others, walking towards the outside gates to the town, a new plan filling his mind.
No one had been allowed to exit the city. The few that had attempted to do so had been sent scurrying back under a rain of arrows. No one could leave until the fanatics were given up into custody. The King's soldiers still didn't know why the town sheltered them, and so he was going to try and get the message through--or die trying.
Gabrielle hid her smile once more as she watched her friend stomp through the chore of packing up. The warrior's surly mood, instead of making the young woman nervous, was actually amusing her this morning. Xena's temper was legendary. Many unfortunate people have found out just how volatile it could be, but Gabrielle could barely contain her laughter at the sight of her friend's anger-curled lips, flashing eyes, and a barely reined temper tantrum. She knew better than to laugh out loud at her friend--she'd probably end up being dumped into a lake somewhere--so she bit her inner lip in attempt to hide her glee. Xena didn't like her tactics for avoiding the argument last night--not one bit. Gabrielle just hoped her bad mood would improve later in the day so she could ask a favor of Xena.
"Aha! That's what the little Queen has in mind! Will you grant her request Artemis?" Athena asked her sister after hearing the bard's thoughts.
"I don't know. I know that Gabrielle loves that foul-tempered warrior, but to grant that wish? I'll have to think about it. I have to admit Xena has made quite a bit of progress in her attitudes, but allow that..." she trailed off, her mind weighing the consequences.
"But if you don't, the little mortal may never forgive you in her heart. You are the Patron Goddess of the Amazons, and she'll show you the respect, but she'll never fully embrace you or trust you again if you don't."
"I know that. Gabrielle is loyal to Xena first and the Amazons second. If I turn down her request she'll hold me in contempt. The big question is--will Xena accept it or refuse it? If she refuses to do it, their relationship may never be the same. I only have Gabrielle's best interest at heart." Artemis said.
" I know one thing though-- I'm glad the little Amazon is under your protection and not mine. I have my hands full with Xena as it is." Athena said with smile.
"She's not so bad. Gabrielle isn't nearly as impulsive as she used to be, so I actually can find time for other diversions once in a while.", she said smugly.
"Oh? Like what? Your taking the time to find *diversions* is what got Gabrielle nearly raped! Ares took advantage of your being out of sight and used the Amazon Queen in a ploy to get Xena back. He won't give up easily and Zeus won't do anything to stop him until he blatantly breaks the rules. Your petition has gone unheeded by Zeus, and I wasted my time talking to Ares. He's obsessed with getting her back."
"Don't you think I know that!" Artemis hissed. She walked several paces away, then spun around. "Ares has never been thwarted by a mortal before, and it's his damned pride that keeps him bound to her. That arrogant son of Zeus refuses to be beaten by her. If Ares gave up--it would be admitting defeat in his eyes--so he schemes and manipulates like a thief."
"Xena's pride isn't exactly small either, my sister. This battle of wills won't end easily."
Mestares pawed the ground, his massive body quivering because of the nervous behavior of the King's guards. They had halted their entrance into the city of Atia, shouting at them to stop, causing the warhorse to side-step away from the perceived threat. Cecrops murmured soothingly to the horse, patting his massive neck. The horse snorted loudly, but settled down a little. The former sea captain sighed heavily and faced the men who stood between himself and Atia.
"My name is Cecrops," he said slowly for their benefit, "I've come to see King Phadius. Now kindly get out of my way."
The men snickered, amused by what they thought was a whopping lie. They elbowed each other and pointed at him while chattering about the lunatics that seemed to be coming out of the woodwork.
"I'm glad you're amused. Now get out of my way. I have a personal letter of introduction, addressed to the King, and a time limit to meet."
"Who wrote the letter? Zeus?" the buffoon mocked.
"No. Xena. She was asked to come in aid concerning the fanatics that are holed up in some small town, and she sent me in her place. If you don't want to allow me to pass, then call someone with a little more intelligence--a jackass perhaps--and have them take a message to the King--telling him that I'm being detained by two fools at the front gate," Cecrops said coldly.
The two men stopped laughing. The man sitting on the dark stallion sat confidently, his nearly black eyes penetrating their mirth. They faltered, unsure what to do. Sharing confused glances, the men took a chance. If he was indeed here on the King's business, it wouldn't be a good idea to thwart him. However, if he was a madman, then it was best that he was locked away for the city's safety. The taller guard waved over two replacements before turning to Cecrops.
"We'll escort you to the castle, but I insist you give up your weapons. Do you agree?" he asked.
"Of course, but I have nothing more than a hunting knife in my saddlebag. I carry no weapons, but feel free to search me if you're afraid of one lone man," he invited challengingly. The sea captain got off the horse and held out his arms in a non-threatening manner.
The guard stiffened at the insult, but remained silent. Time would tell if the dark man was genuine or a liar. If he was the latter, then the guard would take great pleasure in teaching the deep-voiced man some lessons in respect. He watched the flamboyant man take a small leather pouch from a saddle bag.
The other guard held up a hand and asked to look inside the small bag that contained the letter written by Xena. The actual letter had been sealed, so Cecrops allowed him to inspect the bag. The guard was then satisfied that no weapons were hidden and gave it back.
Cecrops placed it inside his shirt and followed the men up the long pathway towards the castle.
The bard glanced at Xena, trying to gauge her chances in having her warrior friend grant a favor. Her anger seemed less pronounced, so she took the chance.
"Xena? Could I ask a favor?" Gabrielle watched as her friend took a deep breath and sighed before turning her gaze towards her.
"What is it?" the taller woman asked with resignation.
* Not a good sign. Xena must be feeling pretty low to sound like that,* Gabrielle thought sadly. She'd have to work on cheering her up in a little while. "I was wondering if you'd be willing to stop somewhere on the way."
"At the shrine for Artemis. I think it's near..."
"I know where it is. But why stop there?" Xena asked with barely concealed contempt--her mistrust and anger towards any of the gods apparent.
"She sure didn't watch out for you when those men attacked you, and she's *supposed* to be the Patron Goddess of the Amazons. Some protector she turned out to be."
"Xena, they can only help you if you ask for it. I didn't ask for any help from her, so her hands were tied. Please, can we go there? This is very important to me," Gabrielle said, placing a hand on the taller woman's arm while pleading with her eyes.
Xena looked at her with askance, but gave in. Gabrielle knew how to yank on her heartstrings all too well. With a look of annoyance, she gave in reluctantly.
"Alright--just get rid of that sad puppy-dog look!"
"Xena doesn't care much for us," Artemis said sadly. "She doesn't understand that we have to abide by certain rules most of the time. You'd think she'd welcome having a guardian in her line of work."
"Well, she's under my protection, but not by her choice. She knows if she would willingly accept...That little schemer!" the goddess exclaimed.
"Who are you talking about? Xena?" Artemis asked.
"No! Gabrielle! Behind that innocent face hides a master manipulator. She even hid her true intentions from you--but I figured it out!" she shouted towards the sky.
"Care to enlighten me then?"
"Don't you see? If you grant Gabrielle's request, then Xena must accept you as her Patron Goddess--forever blocking Ares' obvious plots. He can interfere only in the slightest of ways or he'd have to answer to Zeus! It's brilliant!" Athena said with admiration.
"That didn't stop him from interfering with Gabrielle. What would prevent him from just continuing anyway?"
"Because, the reason Zeus has turned a blind eye to the whole situation was due to the total lack of respect Xena has for all the gods. If she accepts Gabrielle's request, then she must take your protection--willingly. There's no way around it."
"But will she do it?"
"I don't know," Athena said sadly.
Agraulus tried to comfort Phandes' mother. One of the men that had followed the young hothead into the fanatic's building had told her that Phandes had been seen near the gates, possibly attempting to leave the guarded village. He hadn't been seen since. The mother sobbed hysterically, convinced he must be dead. All the young woman could do was allow the matron weep as she held her in her arms. Agraulus didn't believe that the chances of his survival against the King's men were favorable either.
At that very moment, Phandes stood bound in front of Captain Darlose, bloodied and exhausted, but achingly alive. He had managed, with what must have been the luck of the gods, to avoid the deadly arrow barrage, and had only been nicked several times by the flying arrows that never found their target. He had ran towards the line of soldiers that had been camped behind the tree line. They had held off killing him outright at his approach, curious at why the idiot would charge at them unarmed.
Stroking his beard, Darlose studied the nervously sweating man in the eyes, trying to determine if he was lying or not. The Captain reviewed mentally what he knew of the fanatical group and weighed the possibility. It certainly wasn't beyond them, and if true, this would change everything. He couldn't very well go in and kill innocents for only trying to protect their children. Another solution was needed.
"Very well. For the moment, I believe you. I'll send word to King Phadius and pass on what you've told me. Until I receive word from him, I promise not to do anything in retaliation against your people."
"Thank you. We didn't know what else to do."
The captain grunted and motioned to one of his men to escort Phandes to a tent. Once he was out of earshot, Darlose placed another man in charge of the prisoner and sat down to write a letter to his King.
Continue to Chapter Eight
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