The Season of Change chapters 8-10
We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.
-- e. e. cummings
Two men sat in a small conference room, adjacent to the King's meeting hall. The room was dim, only illuminated by the two sets of standing candelabras. Phandius sat behind a small desk, absently scanning the parchments in front of him while holding a conversation with the lost mariner. Cecrops sipped at a goblet of wine, somewhat annoyed by the behavior of the King. The man could at least look at him--it would only be polite. So far, the man left little to inspire admiration or respect from the former sea captain.
Cecrops looked upon the man he had been sent to help. He tilted his head slightly, curious as to what drove this man. He seemed civil enough, yet something bothered the former sea captain about him. He sighed silently, knowing that with time, the answer would come to him.
Phadius finished reading the letter written by Xena and lifted his head. His gray eyes were emotionless.
"It's not everyday that I meet a myth. It seems the Warrior Princess gets around. I didn't expect this out of her bag of tricks," the King said seriously.
"Tricks?" Cecrops patted his own body, reassuring himself humorously of his existence. "I seem real enough, although Xena seems larger than life. Have the two of you ever met?"
"No. I have only heard rumors and stories of her. They say she uses her strength and skills for helping the innocent now. I took a chance in asking for her aid, hoping her reputation will do the same work of a thousand threats."
"So you wanted to use her as a weapon?" Cecrops asked the king, remembering what she had said about being used to control and frighten the villagers.
"No. A tool. If using her to force the townspeople to relinquish the fanatics would accomplish my goals without bloodshed, then I wasn't above using her. You, on the other hand, can only give me advice. I have advisors swirling all over the castle, yet none have come up with anything as effective as the former warlord. I'm curious--exactly how do you plan on helping me?"
"For one, I plan on going into the city of..."
"Ochla," the King provided, "but I wouldn't recommend that. They'd probably only take you prisoner."
"Ochla and try talking sense into them," he continued, ignoring the warning, "I take it that you have used *threats* and *intimidations* with these people," Cecrops said, not bothering to hide his contempt. The King acted as though he didn't hear it.
"Yes, to no avail. The odd thing about this whole situation is that I've never had any sort of problem with these villagers before."
"Then they must have a reason to defy you."
"True, but no one knows what it is."
"All the more reason to go there and see exactly what is going on."
Gabrielle kept pace with Argo's gate, which was slow enough to allow her the luxury of letting her mind wander. The bard thought about everything, but mostly about her friendship with Xena.
It was funny how things turned out. Who would have thought that such an unlikely pair would become so close? A talkative, naive young girl from Poteidaia and a hardened warrior from Amphipolis. By all rights, they should have hated each other on sight and parted ways as quickly as possible. Yet they had been drawn together so tightly that even death had no meaning.
Gabrielle knew that Xena had allowed her to tag along only by the barest of threads, unable to shake the stubborn village girl who was determined to follow the ex-warlord in spite of her feeble protests. For herself, the real reason she had followed had been the heartbreaking emptiness within the eyes of the tall woman. That reason would always be kept secret.
If her friend had known, she would have been embarrassed and angry at the thought. Pity was not something the strong warrior would have accepted, even in the state she had been in. Xena's pride would have forced her to push her away, losing the chance at the closest friendship they have ever experienced.
True, they've gone through so much together. Sometimes going through pain and grief so great that it bordered on insanity, yet Gabrielle knew that she wouldn't have changed a thing--until now.
The plan she had in mind could make or break their friendship. Her gamble might very well separate them, but the bard needed to do this for the sake of Xena's benefit--and her own peace of mind.
Kind Phadius read the letter from Captain Darlose, feeling even more helpless. His original plan to rush the town and destroy them all was no longer an option. Pity, it would have been easier. Now he was forced to revise his plans.
He shouted for a servant, who rushed into the room within seconds, and ordered the man to round up his advisors as well as Cecrops. The man stiffened, turning pale at the King's command.
"Cecrops, My Liege?" he gulped.
"Yes. Cecrops. Do you have a problem with that?"
"Well..uh..Cecrops has already left the castle. Just after high sun, and..."
"HE WHAT!" bellowed Phadius, not believing what he had just heard.
"He left, sire. He said he was heading for Ochla and he would b..b.. b..be b..back tomorrow," he stuttered.
"Very_well_then," the king said through clenched teeth, "Fetch my advisors and then have a messenger ready. I have a letter to write."
*Why is Gabrielle being so evasive?* thought Xena. Her friend had become unusually silent after asking to stop at Artemis' shrine. The warrior had tried to gently prod the bard into talking, only to be met with monosyllable replies.
*What is on her mind? Has the strain of what had happened to her in that tavern changed her? Does it even have anything to do with that event? What's her plan? Or is she just following an impulse?* The questions bouncing around in her head were driving her around the bend. Xena was glad that they were almost there. If she didn't have an answer soon, the strain was going to kill her.
Cecrops stopped by the camp of soldiers, wanting to let them know who he was and why is was going to enter Ochla. He didn't want to be attacked going in or out of the village, so he was being prudent.
He took in the sight of the typical army camp. Men gambling, chatting with friends, or going through combat drills. Anything to alleviate the boredom of having no battles to fight.
Dismounting Mestares, he ignored the open stares from the soldiers that had been milling about camp while off duty. He took the reins in hand and led the horse to the largest tent, assuming that was the commander's quarters. An eerie silence came over the camp, amusing the towering man. He stopped and tied the reins to a nearby post, then turned towards the open flap. The soldier standing guard at the entrance looked up and visibly gulped.
"Will you please tell your commander that Cecrops is here and wishes to speak with him?" the former sea captain asked with his deep-timbred voice. Cecrops watched the man nod nervously before spinning around to enter the tent.
*I see my reputation precedes me.* he thought dryly. He always thought of himself as a gentle man, yet everyone of late has treated him like a fierce, bad-tempered warrior. He chuckled silently. It certainly made it easier to get his own way. Maybe that's why Xena seemed amused by her reputation at times. It saved her from having to bust heads.
His attention was drawn by the flap being pushed aside. A middle-aged man came through, his movements swift and controlled. His lean, muscular form was proof that this was a man made for living the life of a soldier.
"Did the King receive my message?" he asked brusquely.
"I wouldn't know. I don't even know your name. I had only the briefest of meetings with him and came here. I want to go into Ochla and see for myself what is going on. That's why I'm here. I didn't want your men to interfere."
"I'm Captain Darlose, and I have a villager from Ochla here in camp. There's no need to enter the village. He can tell you what you need to know."
"Fine. I'll talk with him first. I'll decide whether or not to go there after I hear what he has to say."
The Captain glanced at one of his men, who immediately headed for Phandes' tent.
Xena and Gabrielle stood a few hundred paces away from the entrance of Artemis' shrine. The sandstone building was half hidden by the tall cypress trees surrounding it. It looked well maintained; the steps were clean and swept, thickets were trimmed, and small torches were kept at the ready. The priestesses in charge kept everything perfect, yet she saw no sign of them. The building and all the surrounding forrest was quiet. Not even birds or insects could be heard. The warrior didn't like it.
"It's OK, Xena, really," Gabrielle said reassuringly. The bard had sensed her friend's uneasiness without even looking at her. She turned her eyes to Xena, unsurprised to see her friend tense and alert. Not good. Her plan would never work if Xena was on the defensive. Some softening up was in order. She turned to her friend and placed her arms around her waist, giving the warrior a warm hug.
"Thank you for bringing me Xena. This means a lot to me." Gabrielle felt her friend's muscles relax as she released her tension. Xena brought up her arms and hugged her back.
"No problem. So, are you going to tell me why we're here?" she asked, not releasing the embrace. Gabrielle didn't mind.
"In a little bit. First I want to tell you some of the things that have been going on in my head."
"OK. I'm listening," Xena said gently.
"First, I want to thank you for being here for me. I know what happened in the tavern was just as hard for you to deal with as it was for me." Xena didn't speak, but she did give Gabrielle a small squeeze in encouragement.
"Well, something has been bothering me for a long time. It's really a combination of things. One being that Ares is always interfering with your life and that you are constantly worried about my safety. You keep bringing up the subject that I should leave you for my own sake, but I'm not willing to give you up just for the off chance something might happen to me."
"If something happened to you, Gabrielle, it would tear me apart." Xena said, her arms tightening around the smaller woman.
"I know, and the same goes for me. In spite of everything that's happened since I've met you, I wouldn't change a thing. I'm content. That's all that's important to me. But I wanted to do something for us. It's not a perfect solution, but it'll help us a little bit. Are you willing to listen?" Gabrielle asked. She pulled away slightly, looking up into the blue eyes of her friend. Xena looked torn, but nodded. She would listen.
"I was talking to Ephiny on our last visit. You know, just chatting about everything under the sun, and she mentioned something that triggered an idea. Something that would make it a little safer for you, and perhaps for me as well." Gabrielle took a deep breath.
"She told me that a queen with no sisters could adopt someone she was close to into her family."
"Adopt? Like who?" Xena was puzzled.
"Like you, silly! Xena, I want to adopt you as my sister. This would be legal in the eyes of the Amazons, placing you in line of the throne should anything happen to me before I could have a daughter of my own. And besides, I already consider you family and this wouldn't change much except in the Amazon community."
Xena was stunned. Her brain wouldn't work. She just stood there, unable to speak or think. Her heart pounded hard, shocked and surprised by the turn of events. *Where had this come from?*
"Xena? Could you please say something?" the Amazon Queen said fearfully. She couldn't tell how her friend felt. Even the bond she felt between them swirled in confusion. Xena took a deep shuddering breath.
"Have you really thought this through? The consequences of..."
"I have thought this through, Xena. I've had plenty of time since Velasca's defeat to think this over. For one, if I ever have a child--and if I die before the child is grown--I want *you* to raise him or her."
"What?! Gabrielle...why me? Why not the Amazons? I'm sure that Ephiny would.."
"Be willing. Yes. I know that. But I want you to raise my child, Xena. Ever since our first run-in with Callisto, I've worried about you letting the avenger in you take over. We both have. But if I give you someone to love and care for, it'll make it that much easier for you to get past the pain. Even if I die before I can start a family, knowing that you'll be there for the Amazons will ease my fears. I have confidence in you--and so do many of the women in the nation who know you. You won't let anything happen to them. I think you just need something to focus your heart on, and you'll be fine."
Once more, Gabrielle stunned her. How long has she pondered over this?
"And what about you? What happens if I die before you?" Xena asked.
"I already know what it's like to lose you Xena. The pain would be hard to bear, but I have people who depend on me. I'll have something to focus on. I'll be fine." Gabrielle smiled up at her friend, hoping her words had been well received. She still had to reveal one last thing.
"Xena, there's still one thing I have to tell you. I can't lie to you or 'forget' to tell you, because everything hinges on this. If you accept this adoption, you have to accept Artemis as your Patron Goddess."
"What? No! The gods are interfering, vindictive, sadistic..."
Gabrielle placed a palm over her friend's mouth. "Shh. Did you forget where we are?"
Xena pulled her hand away. "No, and they know very well exactly how I feel. It's never been a big secret. Besides, you have a sister already--or have you forgotten Lila?"
"Lila isn't an Amazon by blood or inclination. They won't accept her as my successor. She isn't even a factor in this. *You* on the other hand, have been the sister of my heart," Gabrielle looked away shyly, her voice turning soft. "Someone once said that friends are the family that you would choose for yourself," she looked up at Xena's blue eyes, "I choose you. No other could replace you. There's a connection between us, one that can't be broken. On the island, you said you had felt a thread between us. The thread has become a chain. Please, become my sister."
Part of Xena wanted to deny it because in some ways, she was still very independent. The other part of her knew that Gabrielle was right. In the last few months, she had felt their bond tightening even as they changed. Gabrielle had become more steady in her emotions, less likely to take foolish risks. The pains and experiences that she has gone through had made her a stronger person. She was very much a new person, often surprising the warrior with her gift of understanding and compassion. Gabrielle's ideals had been tested, but remained unbroken. Xena had come to admire her more than ever.
So now what? Did she turn down Gabrielle's request, leaving a rift between them, or accept the adoption? Xena hated the idea of being obligated to one of the gods. Everything in her protested at the very thought, but she couldn't bring herself to hurt the one person that meant so much to her.
The bard just stared at her for long seconds, then with a squeal, threw her arms around her friend's neck.
Xena heard Gabrielle babbling happily. Most of the words weren't even understandable, yet the warrior felt herself break out in what was probably a big goofy smile. Gabrielle's happiness bubbled over like an overflowing river, washing away any misgivings the warrior felt. She returned the hug and lifted the smaller woman off her feet, making the red-haired woman giggle.
"Xena! Thank you! You don't realize how much this means to me!" the bard managed to say once Xena put her down.
"Actually, I think I do. Come on. Let's get this over with."
Cecrops was once again riding towards Ochla. He had spoken to Phandes at length and now understood better what was going on. The former captain also carried letters written by the villager with a message to both his neighbors and his aging mother. Phandes had realized that she would be worried sick over his disappearance. Cecrops had promised to deliver it personally. The other letter was in case anyone questioned his presence in the town. Nearing the gate, he dismounted Mestares and led him through the low arch.
Several townspeople were startled by the stranger entering the town unharmed. No one questioned him, but they eyed him as he strolled in. *Good! You people just leave me be, and we'll get along just fine,* he thought.
Cecrops peered about him casually, taking in the sights of the once proud town. With the inability to leave, the small community had begun rotting. Garbage was piled in decaying piles because they couldn't burn it or remove it. Anything that could be burned had been cannibalized for firewood. Fences, posts, and furniture had long disappeared. People were forced to eat cold food and huddle together on cold nights. Few people bathed regularly enough, and with the lack of fences, animals had free rein throughout the town, leaving manure everywhere. Cecrops nose crinkled at the smell that promised to overwhelm him. He joked to himself that he needed to loose a few pounds anyway.
He followed the narrow streets, remembering the directions that Phandes had given him, in his search for his mother. He found the tiny home with little difficulty and knocked on the door. No one answered. He peeked into an open window and saw no one.
"Aeta isn't home." Cecrops spun to see who had spoken. A young boy glanced up at him, awe on his face.
"Could you tell me where she is?" he asked gently.
"Sure. She's over there," the boy pointed to a nearby house, "at Actaeus' house."
*Actaeus? By the gods! After all this time, have I finally found Hidsim's family?*
"Tell me," he asked, trying to keep the excitement from his voice, " does this Actaeus have a daughter by the name of Agraulus?"
"Uh huh. She's kind of pretty for an older woman."
Cecrops hid his amusement. The 'older woman' couldn't be more than twenty-two winters if he remembered correctly. Of course, to a boy of about ten, this was positively ancient. The captain thanked the boy for his help and headed for the house he had indicated.
He felt his heart pounding at this unexpected windfall. The gods must be surely looking down on him today! Cecrops dropped Mestares' reins, knowing he wouldn't wander and stood in front of the door. He wiped his sweaty palms on his pants and lifted a shaking fist to the entrance, knocking nervously.
The door creaked open. Cecrops held his breath, staring down at the face of a young woman. She had hair as dark and shiny as a raven's wing, and skin like milk. He looked into her deep amethyst eyes, unable to speak. She smiled shyly up at him, her lips curving gently. Cecrops felt his heart being captured for the first time in over three centuries. He smiled broadly at the woman he vowed to one day marry.
August 20, 1997
"May I help you?" the raven-haired woman shyly asked. She couldn't drag her eyes away from the gaze of the tall man standing before her. Agraulus was pinned by his liquid brown eyes, frozen in place. She didn't feel endangered, but she had the distinct feeling that she was being stalked. The man grinned at her softly, looking like he knew the secret to her capture. Funny thing was, she had a feeling he was right.
Her words seemed to stir him to action. He reached out, taking her hand within his own huge grasp. He lifted her hand slowly, never breaking eye contact, and placed a soft lingering kiss upon her fingers. Her breath caught in her throat as a warm thrill shot to her toes.
"Yes, you may," he rumbled. His deep voice vibrated down her spine as he spoke his first words to her, "Let me come in."
She nodded, feeling disconnected from reality. He released her hand reluctantly and she stepped aside.
The two women walked into the temple, their footsteps echoing upon the stone walls around them. They looked around, looking for a priestess. Seeing no one, they scanned the building for a clue as to where to go from there. There were three hallways exiting the large chamber room they stood in. Two were dark, but one was well lit by torches. By silent consent, they both headed down the lit corridor.
Gabrielle was spooked by the eerie silence, the only sounds were the crackle of the burning torches and the echo of their own footsteps. She reached out to grab Xena's hand, seeking comfort. Her friend curled her long fingers around hers absently, giving her a reassuring squeeze.
The warrior kept her eyes locked straight ahead, her senses on full alert. She wasn't going to relax her guard just because they were in a temple. Xena had more than one battle on sacred ground in her past to blindly assume they were safe.
Finally, the corridor ended, and they found themselves in a small, windowless chamber. The room was bare with the exception of a small altar in the middle of the room. On the altar was a delicate dagger with a thin blade of shining steel.
"Now what? Do you know what we're supposed to do?" Xena asked.
"Not really. I was hoping the priestess could tell us once we got here. All Ephiny told me was to find a temple of Artemis."
"That's it?" Xena asked in frustration.
"That's all she needed to know," a female voice said from behind them.
Xena spun, startled by the fact that the woman had approached them without her sensing it.
They looked upon the middle-aged woman before them. She was dressed in a pale green tunic, a golden belt around her trim waist. Her long red hair was braided into one plait, which rested over one shoulder.
"You know why we're here?" Gabrielle asked incredulously.
"Yes, I do." The woman didn't elaborate, frustrating the Amazon Queen.
Xena scowled with contempt.*Fine, let her keep her little secrets. Let's just get this over with.* She wasn't in the mood for games.
The priestess smiled knowingly, the warrior's expression said it all. Her patience was running thin.
"Gabrielle, you wish to petition for the adoption of this woman (though mentally using the word 'hot-head') as your sister? Have you considered all the factors in this action?"
"Yes. I know that she could claim the throne upon my death if I had no daughter to take my place. I also know that she could challenge me for it if she thought I was an unfit ruler. Ephiny told me all that. I'm not doing this blindly or without forethought. I've thought about this for months. Xena is already my sister in my heart. This adoption is just a formality for the sake of the Amazons as far as I'm concerned. Whether or not you grant my petition, nothing would change how I feel about her. I trust her with my life."
"And you Xena, are you willing to accept the responsibilities of queen should the need arise?"
"Yes," the warrior said simply, hoping it would never happen.
"And you accept Artemis as your Patron Goddess?"
"Yes," Xena said with a wince. The priestess saw it, but hid her smile.
"Xena, I must ask one more question before Artemis will grant this adoption. If you don't answer, then the adoption will be denied," the priestess said warningly. She saw the warrior woman stiffen, then nod.
"Do you love Gabrielle as your sister? If you don't feel the bond as strongly as she does, end this now."
Xena relaxed and smiled warmly, turning to her friend and companion, looking into her eyes. "She's the most important person in my life." The tall woman placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, still directing her answer to the priestess, but keeping her gaze locked with her friend's. She continued, wanting Gabrielle to finally know how she felt, her words somehow easier to say to a stranger.
"She is my best friend, savior, teacher, and family. No one could ever replace her in my heart. I would die for her."
The Amazon Queen smiled up at the woman warrior that she had come to love, gratitude in her eyes. Xena's words meant more to her than all the riches in the world, knowing they had come from her heart. The smaller woman stepped forward, placing her arms around Xena's leather-clad waist. Xena returned the embrace, her own eyes misty.
The priestess grinned and winked at the goddess standing behind the entangled pair. Artemis nodded her approval and vanished just as the two separated.
"Then the petition is approved. There is but one formality. Stand facing one another and place the palms of your left hands against each others'." They did as they were instructed. The priestess took the dagger from the altar and stood next to them.
She slipped the thin blade between their touching palms. With a sudden twist of the dagger, she pulled the dagger back out, leaving a cut on each of their hands, mingling their blood. The priestess ordered them to stay still. Blood trickled down their wrists.
The older woman took the dagger and cut a lock of hair from each woman. They watched as she braided the red with dark, forming a thin rope. The priestess added a flat, gold bead in the middle, then finished it, tying it off with a knot formed by a thin strand of hair.
"I will have this delivered to the Queen's regent as proof of the adoption. Now you are sisters by blood as well as heart. Take care of one another." With that, she left the room silently.
Xena and Gabrielle stood stunned for a moment, then pulled their hands apart. Gabrielle looked at her palm, wondering why it hadn't hurt. To her surprise, in spite of the now drying blood, she could see no cut. "Xena.." was all she could say, showing her unharmed hand to her friend.
The warrior looked at her own hand, seeing that she too, had no open wound. "Hm, that's odd."
"Yeah, but I'm not complaining. Shall we get out of here? I don't know about you, but I'm starving."
Xena grinned and pointed her chin towards the corridor. "Come on." The tall woman placed her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and they strolled out of the room.
Cecrops entered the small home and looked around briefly. It was neat and welcoming. It was homey to a man who hasn't had a home in centuries. He spotted an older, heavyset woman sitting at a small table and walked up to her.
She eyed him nervously, unsure of what to expect from this tall stranger.
"Are you Aeta?" he asked kindly. She nodded her head, hoping it wasn't bad news. She watched him reach into his billowing shirt and pull out a folded parchment. He handed it to her.
"From your son," he said simply. She took it with shaking hands. Aeta unfolded the crinkling sheet and read it carefully, one hand covering her mouth to prevent a cry of relief from escaping as she read the note. Finishing it, she looked to the dark man and thanked him.
"He's alright?" Agraulus asked.
"Yes. He's being detained by King Phadius' men, but he's fine. He told them what was going on in our village, and believes that the King will change his mind about attacking Ochla." Aeta turned to the man.
"Are you truly Cecrops--the lost mariner?"
"Yes, I am. My curse has been lifted, and now I found my journey's end. Cecrops turned to the young woman, taking her hand and embracing it within his own against his heart.
"Agraulus, your father, Hidsim, was one of my men. He died before my curse was lifted, but he spoke of you always. I vowed to find you. I wanted to tell you that he was a good man, a man you would have been proud to call father."
The black-haired woman turned pale. Cecrops scooped her up, afraid she would faint. He looked around, and spotted an open doorway to a bedroom. He carried her inside, placing her gently onto the pallet. He gazed at her in concern. He didn't think to bring up the subject gradually.
Aeta brought in a mug of cool water and a damp cloth. He helped her drink, gently supporting her head and shoulders. He then lowered her back to the pillow and took the cloth from the older woman's hand. He dabbed her face and neck, cooling her now flushed skin.
"I'm fine...really. There's no need to fuss."
"Maybe I like fussing over a beautiful woman," he smiled. The former sea captain took her hand and brought it to his lips once more. He felt her tremble from his touch and watched as a rosy hue stain her cheeks.
"Don't worry, my beauty, I don't bite. You're safe with me--really!" he grinned as he saw her look at him with a bit of doubtful humor. *Definitely a woman to hold on to. She was getting over her fear of me. A little shy, but that is part of her charm.*
"Somehow, I doubt that Captain." She pulled her hand away.
"Would you deny me that small pleasure, my beauty?" he teased, glancing back at her hand.
"Would you trust a hunting wolf?" she mocked.
"You forget, wolves mate for life--and this wolf has found his mate."
"You presume too much. We've just met, Captain."
"Then I'll have to be patient and woo you slowly. I'm not foolish enough to lose you to boyish fumbling. My heart is already yours for the taking--all you have to do is claim it."
*By the gods! He's serious!* Agraulus thought to herself.
Gabrielle walked into the sunlight, her arm around her friend's waist. She looked up at the noon sky, and felt as though a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She turned her head and looked up at her new sister, feeling a bubble of happiness tickle her insides. *Sisters!* she sighed to herself.
Xena looked down at her and saw the sparkle in Gabrielle's eyes. She felt her own mouth spread in a huge grin, feeling like she should be doing cartwheels from the sheer joy that coursed through her. The warrior couldn't believe how much satisfaction she had gotten from doing this for her friend. Putting her fate in the hands of a goddess seemed a small price to pay for Gabrielle's happiness.
*Just look at her! She's as giddy as a child on Solstice Morning!* Xena thought, then grinned wryly, *Yeah, like you're not just as excited as she is!* She couldn't believe how quickly things have changed. Just last week, Gabrielle was a wreck, unable to deal with the terror of a near rape, and now she was back to her optimistic self and then some. The warrior just hoped her friend found a happy medium. These wild mood swings made her a little uneasy, but for the moment, she allowed herself to bask in the glow.
"You said you were hungry?" Xena asked, "There's a pretty little pool with a waterfall just up the road. We can stop there and eat."
"A waterfall and pool? Xena, do I look that gullible to you?--Don't answer that. Going *anywhere* near water when you're in this good a mood is dangerous. I don't want to get dunked."
"Would I do that?" The corner of Xena's lips curled upwards, giving her away. She didn't deny being in a good mood.
"In a heartbeat. Let's just find a quiet spot off the road and have a snack. I'm not really hungry yet, I was just joking before."
Xena looked on in mock horror and shock "You're not hungry?" Xena checked her friend's forehead for a fever.
"Behave yourself 'little sister'."
"Uh huh. I'm the queen and you're next in line--so that must mean you're my little sister," Gabrielle teased.
Xena stopped and stood directly in front of her friend, pulling herself to her full height. She looked down at her 'big' sister and grunted with a "Hmmph!" Gabrielle grinned and placed a quick peck on Xena's chin.
"Okay--so I'm not so big," she admitted.
"True, but you're just the right size for a hug." Xena wrapped herself around Gabrielle, pulling her close.
King Phadius, along with a small troop of guards and advisors, entered the campsite outside Ochla. A soldier took the reins of the King's horse, holding the animal still as Phadius dismounted, then led the horse away.
Captain Darlose greeted him, bowing at the waist.
"Captain. Has Cecrops returned?" he asked tersely as he removed his leather gloves and riding cloak, handing them to a waiting servant.
"No Sire. I attempted to change his mind about entering the village. I had him speak with the villager I had written to you about, but he was still determined to go there. Cecrops said he would return in the morning."
"Very well. Have a tent prepared for me. In the mean time, let's go over our options. There might be a way out of this mess yet."
Darlose bowed once more, and signaled his lieutenant--an amazing man who was always within earshot, regardless the time of day. The man nodded, indicating he would take care of everything. The Captain followed his king and advisors into his command tent.
Gabrielle and Xena sat under a shade tree, nibbling on bread and cheese. They often broke out in silly smiles, feeling more relaxed, happier than they had felt in a long time. The ceremony had bound them together by formality, but once done, the act brought out the part of them they had kept hidden within themselves.
For Xena, it was the acknowledgment that Gabrielle was indeed a part of her. The warrior had forfeited the pretense that she was a loner, needing no one. But amazingly enough, she found that in giving up her independence, she had found a freedom undreamed of. She could be herself. Gabrielle had told her in many ways in the last two years that she was a person of value, but the words, though cherished, had never been fully believed. Xena doubted she would ever be free of the guilt she carried, but the burden was now less--shared by the small woman who called her sister.
Gabrielle glanced at her tall friend, wondering if Xena would now be willing to talk about the bond. The bard had felt it more intensely since their battle with Velasca over the Ambrosia. Xena had entered her, wanting to take control of her body. Gabrielle had willingly stepped aside without hesitation. She trusted her friend completely. The battle only lasted moments, but the time she spent joined with Xena had been incredible.
Gabrielle had experienced all of Xena's emotions. The confidence Xena possessed because of ingrained skills and abilities. The easy grace and balance she used had been felt by the awkward and compact Amazon. It had like being part of a soaring eagle. Gabrielle had not only felt safe--she had felt protected. Xena hadn't been able to hide the protective, caring person she was. All that she was had been there for Gabrielle to see.
"I think it's time to talk about our joining. You avoided it yesterday," *Was it just yesterday? It seems like a lifetime ago.*, "but I think this is important."
Xena sighed almost sadly, but nodded her agreement.
"I just want to know one thing. Do you feel it too? I mean ...well, ever since you fought Velasca through me, I've felt like ...Damn! I don't know how to describe it!" the bard said with frustration. She cupped her face within her hands, rubbing her eyes.
"Like a part of me stayed behind?" Xena whispered.
Gabrielle's head shot up, surprised by the words.
"Yes. How...? Why...?"
"Because I think I took a part of you with me. Funny thing is...I didn't know what to do with it. It's just there."
"You don't have to *do* anything with it Xena. Just accept it."
"I'm afraid of it."
"Because I'm afraid I'm going to find myself telling stories in some damned tavern somewhere," Xena dead-panned.
Gabrielle stared open-mouthed at the warrior. Xena stared back, then suddenly broke out in a cackling laugh. "Gotcha! You should have see the look on your face!" She ducked as Gabrielle playfully threw a punch at her, hitting her on the arm.
"Brat! It would serve you right if you did. Actually--I wish you did one day. You have a nice speaking voice."
"I do? That's the first time anyone said that about me."
"Well, you do! I'd love to hear you read a poem sometime."
"Maybe if you got me good and drunk, I might," Xena half-teased. She found the idea a little embarrassing.
"Come on! Why not? It would make my day. Would you read one for me, please? I promise never to ask it of you again."
"Gabrielle..." Xena made the mistake of looking into the bard's pleading eyes and caved in. Gabrielle saw the expression on Xena's face and knew she would get her wish. She quickly stood and retrieved a scroll from her satchel. She returned to her friend and sat down, handing the rolled up scroll to Xena and smiled.
The warrior sighed and removed the string from around the parchment. She unrolled the thick material and then flipped it upside up. Xena lightly cleared her throat and began reading.
There lay an undiscovered space
Beneath our friendship buried
Where all our walls, once stripped away,
Would show our love unvaried.
And then, to save our world, we joined.
We felt our souls entwine,
And suddenly we shared one heart,
Now neither yours nor mine.
I saw myself within your eyes.
You saw things as I do.
My soul felt sheltered by your love
And you felt cradled too.
The vision of that heart I gained
Explained our bond of gold
And told me I would stay this close
And watch us both grow old.
For what I carry in my heart
(Which now is yours as well)
Is knowledge of your inmost soul
The part you never tell.
We always will be joined like this,
Because we bonded there.
The you I met, both dark and light,
A joy that we can share.
Both women remained silent, taking in the words spoken, neither wanting to break the mood of the moment. The minutes ticked by, and every sound heard took on the effects of Zeus' thunderbolts in its volume. Birds chirping, leaves whispering in the breeze, insects buzzing. Finally, the tension had to be broken before they snapped.
"You do these things just to see me weep, don't you?" the warrior said, her voice serious yet humorous in its intensity.
"Yep." Gabrielle's voice came out roughly because of held back tears. They both allowed a watery chuckle to escape. The bard laid her forehead on Xena's shoulder briefly, getting her hair ruffled for her trouble.
"Come on. Let's get moving." Xena placed a quick kiss on Gabrielle's hair and pulled away to stand. She offered a hand to her friend, helping her to her feet.
SPECIAL THANKS: To Alwayslooking for her poem. She captured the mood I searched for perfectly. She is truly gifted.
Athena watched the two women as they left their picnic site then turned to her sister, Artemis.
"Well, I guess we worried for nothing. And I thought I knew Xena so well," the Goddess of War said.
"I swear that woman is a contrary child. She hates doing the expected. I would have sworn the mortal would fight the idea a lot harder than she did."
"She loves and trusts Gabrielle. There isn't anything she wouldn't do to make her friend safe and happy--even if it means ignoring her own personal feelings. I just hope Gabrielle doesn't take advantage of that love. Your little queen has the power to destroy Xena and doesn't even realize it," Athena said.
"Oh, I think she knows it deep down, but I also believe she has the wisdom not to take advantage of it--except when it's important."
Athena snickered, "Like when she convinced Xena to crawl up that thorn tree to put the baby bird back in its nest--or when the warrior had to drag that kid around, or..."
"Alright! So Gabrielle has a soft heart--but so does Xena when it comes to her friend. If Xena really didn't want to do something, all she would have to do was say no."
The sisters looked at one another and laughed, picturing the Warrior Princess denying the bard anything.
Cecrops reluctantly left Agraulus' home, heading for the section of the large village where the fanatics were holing up. He was determined to scout out the possibilities and make recommendations to the king. He hoped to see some weakness they could exploit.
As he approached that side of town, he had to allow Mestares his head, letting the warhorse choose his footing carefully. This area was probably the most neglected side of town--no one willing to do any cleanup near the Sparitins' location. The stench of the decaying garbage turned his stomach and he swallowed hard, wishing he had no sense of smell.
Finally, the path became too treacherous for his horse. Cecrops dismounted and dropped the reins, confident the mount wouldn't wander. He removed the small map he had gotten from Phandes and studied the surrounding buildings until he got his bearings. The sea captain picked his way through debris, stepping over piles of garbage and abandoned equipment as he approached the building. The tall man did his best to remain in the shadows and behind cover as he drew nearer.
From a short distance, he studied the building, taking in the available pathways, doors, and windows. He noticed that the building was quite old, and many of the slats from the upper floor were missing. He cautiously worked his way around to the side hidden from the sun. Cecrops wanted to peer inside, but didn't want his silhouette to be seen.
Once he reached that darker side, he studied the structure and spotted several outcroppings that could be used as hand holds. He climbed up the side of the building until he reached the second story. Taking a deep breath, he peeked in between the rotting slats, focusing on what was inside.
A grim smile reached his eyes. Inside was the room where the captive children were being kept. They were listlessly milling about or sitting, making little noise. He fought the impulse to get their attention, knowing that his presence could frighten them into giving him away. He studied the room carefully, a plan forming in his mind. It could work--with Xena's help.
Captain Darlose got word from one of his men that Cecrops was approaching. The commander nodded and told the man to also pass the word on to the king, who was resting in his tent. The Captain donned his cloak and weapons and exited the command tent, too impatient to wait inside. He was eager to find out what Cecrops had found.
The dark man and horse galloped through the camp, coming to a halt in front of him. Both man and horse were sweaty and dusty as they stopped. Without so much as a hello, Cecrops gave Darlose an order.
"Have your men head out and search for Xena. I have a plan, but we need her help.
"Are you sure you don't want to stop at the pool? It's getting pretty warm out," Xena asked, her expression impish.
"Will you promise no dunking, splashing, or bard tossing?" Gabrielle teased.
Xena pursed her lips together, holding back a smile. She did her best to keep a serious face, but she failed miserably. The warrior sputtered out a laugh. "Bard tossing? That sounds like an Olympic event. And where's your sense of adventure? There's no guarantees in life, Gabrielle. You have to take a risk now and again," Xena said playfully.
"Xena, I take a risk just by traveling with you!" The bard gave her friend an equally playful grin, letting her know she was teasing. Gabrielle slowed down long enough to pick a wild flower from along the road. She sniffed the bloom briefly then stuck it in her hair. Gabrielle saw her friend grin at her actions, but the smile suddenly left Xena's face. She stopped Argo and focused on a sound only she could hear as yet. Gabrielle scanned the road as far as it would allow but saw nothing.
"Move to the side of the road, Gabrielle. I hear a lot of horses coming this way." Xena dismounted and led Argo to the side of the path, trying to place them in a position where they wouldn't be easily seen as the horses galloped by. It didn't work.
A troop of eight men, dressed alike in soldiers' gear, almost passed by completely, but as they came around the bend in the road, one soldier shouted and the mounted soldiers came to a halt. They spun around, riding directly for the two women.
Xena drew her sword and glanced at Gabrielle--and swore under her breath. Her friend had turned pale, fear written on her youthful features.
*This is too soon! Why now? Gabrielle isn't ready for a combat situation yet. Look at her--scared to death!* Xena was cursing the Fates under her breath. Gabrielle was still suffering from her run-in with the rapists to be facing a large group of men now. She needed more time to shore her emotions--and now that option was taken away from her.
The warrior shifted her attention between the incoming troop and her friend. She grabbed the bard by her elbow.
"Focus!" she hissed, "Remember the bucket? Put all your fear inside and use it. Don't let it control you." Xena watched as Gabrielle tried to rein in her terror. The warrior realized that practicing it with a friend was one thing, but facing armed men was another. If Gabrielle froze, there was little she could do to help her friend during a fight. Xena shot a silent prayer to Artemis, asking her to give the Amazon Queen the strength to face her fears. *Artemis--don't you dare let us down now!* she thought with a challenge.
Suddenly, Gabrielle's face took on a look of peace and confidence. Color returned to her cheeks and she stood straighter, yet relaxed. Her knuckles were no longer gripping her staff painfully, but holding it loosely instead. Xena released the breath she hadn't realized she had been holding and grinned crookedly. Her friend would be alright.
Both women calmly waited as the men drew nearer, and that's what the soldiers saw when they were close enough to clearly see their faces. The troop leader saw a confident young woman holding her staff in a defensive, yet relaxed manner--while her companion held her sword, a cocky smile quirking her lips. The leader sent a silent plea to the gods that these were indeed the people he sought. He stopped his mount a respectful distance away.
"Are you Xena?" he asked outwardly calm. He watched as she lowered her head slightly, her eyes still keeping him pinned in place. He had this sudden vision in his head of a bull lowering its head, ready to charge, horns pointed at him.
"Yes, and you are...?"
"Stalos. We're here at Cecrops's request. Our commander sent us to find you and escort you to our camp. I don't know much more than that. Your friend said he would explain." Stalos hoped the woman warrior took his news well--he didn't feel like dying this day.
Xena replaced her sword to its scabbard and relaxed. Giving the man a nod, she mounted her horse and reached out her hand to Gabrielle, who had taken apart her staff and stuffed it into a saddlebag. The bard took her arm and positioned herself behind her friend. They followed the soldiers, who had begun the return trip back to camp at a steady pace.
Gabrielle let out a shuddering breath and felt herself tremble with the aftershock of fear. She gripped Xena's waist and rested her forehead on the armored shoulder in front of her, trying to get a grip on her emotions.
"Are you alright?" Xena asked softly, her voice filled with concern. The warrior felt the strong shaking her friend was experiencing.
"Yeah, I guess so. I'm sorry," she said pitifully.
"For what? Gabrielle, You were attacked by a group of men last week--remember? You can't get over your fears overnight. It doesn't work that way. Actually, you took it a lot better than I thought you would. When they came around that corner--I half expected to see you curled up in a ball and weeping." Xena placed a hand on top of her friend's. "You stood there and faced them--and managed to push away the terror you must have felt. I'm very proud of you, Gabrielle," the warrior said sincerely.
Xena didn't hear an answer, but she heard her friend sniffle and then felt Gabrielle's arms tighten around her waist. The dark-haired woman rubbed her hand along Gabrielle's cold fingers in sympathy and understanding.
Cecrops, Captain Darlose, King Phadius, and Phandes sat in the command tent. The villager just stared at the dark-skinned man in shock.
Phandes stood quickly, resting on his hands on the table as he leaned forward. "You must be mad! It will never work!" he exclaimed.
"I think it will--with Xena's help--and with your people's as well. Everyone needs to work together on this."
"My people aren't fighters, they won't-"
"Oh? Didn't you and some of your friends try and rescue those children on their own?" Cecrops reminded him, "I think they'd be willing to help. We can't bring Darlose's men inside the city--the Sparitins would know within minutes--but if a small party went in--we could pull this off."
"Ok, let's say they're willing--then how is the help of two *women* gonna help us? They're weak and a liability, they'd-" Phandes ignorant words were cut off when he was suddenly lifted into the air--then dumped in a heap. He spun around quickly, back-pedaling while in a seated position, trying to see his attacker. He looked up and saw a very tall woman, dressed in dark leather. She wore an expression of arrogant amusement on her face.
"You were saying...?" The female warrior smiled ferally at him, eyebrow lifting, making him shiver.
"Xena, will you behave yourself!" Phandes heard a blond woman chide. She looked at no one in particular and continued. "Some people's children!" The blond brushed past the female warrior and thrust out a hand to him, helping him to his feet. He just stared at her, speechless. He couldn't believe that someone that small would just talk to a warrior that way. *Was she suicidal? *
Cecrops let out a hearty laugh, noticing the return of Gabrielle's spunkiness. "Well, Little One, I think I'll take that hug now." Gabrielle walked over to him, shyly putting her arms around the tall man's waist. He gave her a gentle squeeze and rubbed a large hand along her back. The bard pulled back slightly, letting her hands remain on his sides, looking up at him. He gave her a saucy wink and patted her cheek. She blushed lightly and moved away.
The former sea captain waved to the chairs and introduced everyone.
The King openly stared at the woman warrior he had originally sent for. He took in her impressive height and stance, the way she confidently moved around the tent as though she owned the place. Phadius took in the scant and serviceable leather garb she wore as well as all the bracers, armor, and greaves. The attractive woman wore no jewelry of any sort--nor anything that resembled a memento. There was nothing frilly about the woman.
She looked as tough as her reputation. Xena removed her sword and scabbard from her back, plopping them onto the table.
Xena placed a booted foot onto the edge of the wooden table and leaned back in her chair, a haughty expression on her face. She knew Cecrops would find it amusing. "So, are you going to tell us why you had us fetched--or do I have to guess?"
"I have a plan," Cecrops smiled.
Xena and her best friend were following a young soldier as he escorted them to their assigned tent. Cecrops had suggested they eat and rest for about three candlemarks until the preparations were completed. He had covered his plan from beginning to end, explaining all the details. Xena had agreed the plan could work and left the piddling planning and organizing to the former sea captain.
"Do you really think his plan will work?" Gabrielle asked, worried about the children's safety.
"Unless something goes terribly wrong, I think those kids will be home with their families in five candlemarks--and the fanatics will be wishing they had gone into exile instead."
"The new moon is tomorrow," the bard commented, "and I bet the Sparitins expect some kind of rescue attempt before the deadline--I know I would."
"Mmm. They probably *do* expect it--after dark, just before dawn--but not in broad daylight. I bet they have most of the fighters among them sleeping this afternoon and early evening so they will be rested for any surprise attack during the night."
"When most people's defenses are weakest," the bard said. Xena smiled, pleased her friend understood.
Gabrielle was glad she had paid attention to the lessons her friend had given her during the last few years.
Agraulus heard approaching horses late in the afternoon and peeked out her window. She felt her heartbeat flutter, then race as when she spotted Cecrops nearing with a small group of three people. One was Phandes, and the other two were women she had never seen before.
The women were dressed like fighters and her curiosity got the better of her. She left her home and shyly approached the group. The dark-skinned man saw her and smiled broadly as he dismounted Mestares.
"Hello my beauty!" he greeted, taking her hand and placing a warm and lingering kiss on it. The woman blushed furiously, but was smiling just as widely, pleased at his attention. Agraulus looked up and saw the two females grinning at the scene, though not unkindly.
The village woman watched as the black-haired woman helped her strawberry blond companion get off the palomino, then hopped off the horse herself. The women walked over to them, looking at Cecrops expectantly.
"Allow me to introduce you to one another. Agraulus, these are my friends, Xena," his hand swept in her direction, "and Gabrielle. They are the ones that helped me in lifting my curse. Ladies, this is Agraulus, the woman I intend to marry."
The warrior and bard felt the shock hit them, surprised by this revelation. Gabrielle stood there silently, but her friend just had to tease the man. With hands on hips, she pursed her lips before speaking.
"Did you ask the woman or did you just tell her imperiously?" she grilled good-naturedly though her voice was serious.
"The Captain did *not* ask--he announced it," the exotic beauty informed them.
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips, mirroring her friend, a grin tugging at her mouth.
"Hmph! Agraulus, you had better begin his lesson in manners before he gets in a habit of ordering you around. He's a good and gentle man, but sometimes he forgets he's not in full command anymore. Put your foot down and don't let him step all over you."
"I'll keep that in mind." Agraulus said, peeking at the tall man out of the corner of her eye, noting a deepening of color to his face. *He was actually blushing!* She grinned impishly and lifted herself up to her toes, placing a kiss on his rough cheek. Cecrops' hands came up, wrapping around her waist. He gently hugged her, pleased by her display of affection.
"My Love, I think I should do this properly before my two *friends* say much more, ruining our chance at happiness." Cecrops stepped back slightly and took her small hands into his own, then bent down to one knee.
"Agraulus, I loved you the moment I first looked into your eyes. I didn't think love was possible for me again until I met you. My Beauty, will you marry me?"
The woman was quiet for a moment, stunned by his sudden proposal. She looked down into his dark brown eyes and allowed herself to get lost in them. Agraulus saw his heart staring back up at her, both hopeful and pleading. She also saw love. She let it fill her lonely spirit, warming her own heart.
"Yes," she said simply, allowing a brilliant smile to escape.
Phandes had quietly collected some of his friends, bringing them to his mother's home. They sat, listening to the carefully explained plans of the legendary Cecrops. The group asked questions when they wanted a particular point explained better, but listened respectfully to his words. Phandes had left to fetch some necessary equipment.
Cecrops had just finished when Phandes returned. One bundle he handed to the woman warrior and her friend, who then disappeared into the back bedroom.
Rathelien strolled through the rows of sleeping men and women. In spite of the fact that no one could see his face, he kept it locked into a stoic, calm facade that hid the fear he felt inside. King Phadius' soldiers were located outside the city walls, waiting until the deadline passed, prepared to slaughter them all.
He knew if his people did not surrender--or if the locals didn't turn them in--then those killers would storm the walls in the morning and kill every living thing within. The Sparitins were not fighters. They were simple people who only wished to follow their own religious beliefs. The leader regretted the methods he was forced to use to insure the safety of his people--was actually appalled by his own actions in fact--but had seen no other way.
So now he walked, staring at the people that would probably be dead and buried by this time tomorrow, etching their faces into his memory. Rathelien, lost in thought, didn't hear the argument at first.
He shook himself mentally, trying to make out the words. He could tell that it was two women, furiously and verbally thrashing one another. The Sparitins leader went over to the front door, curious, but not suspicious. The guards that remained awake asked in quiet tones if someone should get one of the young hostages just in case. Rathelien shook his head, this sounded harmless enough. He opened the door.
He saw a young woman, tears running down her face (He didn't see the freshly cut onion in her pocket) as she looked at a young man and a tall woman as they straightened their clothing.
"...my own sister! How could you!" the young woman screamed.
"Look, it was just this one time, we didn't plan it or anything. It just happened!" the young man whined.
Rathelien watched as the older woman rolled her eyes. The Sparitins leader chuckled silently. From the looks of her--she had planned a seduction and was caught with her skirt up by her younger sister. The young man had probably been the younger woman's beau. He watched as they argued back and forth, totally amused by the scene before him--and he wasn't the only one, the guards were behind him, placing bets on the outcome.
Cecrops and another young man propped the ladders up against the back side of the building as the others pulled out the large sheet of heavy canvas they had carried with them. They unrolled it in preparation.
The young man that climbed up with him had a younger brother inside and had volunteered to come along, knowing the children would need reassuring. They quickly climbed to the second story, not knowing how long the three in front could keep the Sparitins distracted. Antonio peeked between the slats and saw his brother.
"Gretan! Psst!" he whispered loudly. The children suddenly realized someone was outside, and excitedly ran to the wall. "Shh! Quiet! Do you want them to know we're here? Stand back and don't make any noise," he ordered. The children did as they were told, excitement on their faces.
Cecrops and Anteros pulled flattened iron bars from their belts and began carefully breaking the loose wood from the wall until they had a hole large enough to bring the children through. The children saw a stranger and was a little nervous, but Anteros called his brother over to him. A young lad of about eight winters came over, a smile on his face. The hole wasn't large enough to allow a hug, but Anteros ruffled the hair of his brother as he greeted him.
"Gretan, could you do me a favor?" he asked. "We're here to take you all home, but someone has to be brave and show the other children how to get out." Anteros pulled gently on his brother's arm, then pointed to the young men below, holding open the large canvas.
"I need you to be the first to go down. Do you think you could be the leader and show all the others how it's done? I know you can do it because you are a very brave boy."
Cecrops watched as the lad almost puffed his chest out with pride. He nodded and told the other children that he was going first. The children behind him watched as the dark stranger and Anteros grabbed their friend and threw him off the building. Gasps and muffled shrieks came from the frightened group.
"It's alright--they caught him. See?" Cecrops said gently. Several of the youngsters looked out the hole and saw their friend down below, his body laying flat on the canvas that was suspended between six men. Gretan laughed and waved at his friends.
"Okay, now we have to hurry. Line up and don't be scared!" Anteros said. One by one, the two men tossed the children below. As they landed, another young man pointed them up a path, telling them to go to a wagon where a woman would be waiting for them. Agraulus had volunteered to guard the wagon, freeing one of the young men to help with the children.
Finally, they were down to one child. A girl of about four winters. She hung back, too frightened to approach the hole. No amount of pleading could get her to come near and the men were too large to fit through the hole. They heard a set of footsteps coming up the stairs and they whispered loudly for the child to hurry, but she huddled down, afraid. Cecrops pulled out a horn, blowing on it twice, letting Xena know that something went wrong.
Xena, Gabrielle, and Phandes heard the horn. The bard and young man knew this was their signal to run for safety (Xena had fought hard with her friend over this issue--Gabrielle had wanted to stay and fight), and took off. Xena ripped the peasant clothing off of her, leaving her in her linen shift. She pulled her sword from the hidden spot behind some rubble and charged for the door.
Rathelien and the guards had looked around in confusion at the sound and hadn't seen her transformation. They were bowled over by the running warrior as she forced her way inside.
Xena quickly looked around, spotting the staircase. The only person she saw moving around was at landing on the second floor, opening a door. An older man was trying to unlock a door hurriedly, but had dropped the keys when the horn had startled him. It must be the door leading to the children's room. She ran up the stairs and the man backed away when he saw she was armed.
He shouted to the others below, warning them that an intruder was among them. People began rousing themselves. Xena knew she had to hurry. One well-placed punch took out the cowardly guard and a foot to the door knocked it out of the way. She rushed inside and spotted a girl huddled on the floor. Looking towards the opened wall, she saw Cecrops' worried eyes. She shot him a cocky grin and shouted for him to go below, she'd join him in a minute. The warrior saw him and the other man scurry down the ladders. She re sheathed her sword.
The warrior gave the wall a few good kicks, enlarging the hole. Xena then scooped up the terrified child, who tried to squirm out of her arms. Xena wanted to take time to calm her, but knew time wouldn't allow it--she could already hear the pounding of footsteps as the Sparitins came up the stairs. She wrapped one arm tightly around the girl and threw herself out the hole, twisting in mid-air, her battle cry filling the air.
The six men below that were holding the canvas rushed into place as the woman and child came down. The impact of a heavier body almost made them lose their grip, and they were barely able to hold onto the canvas as the two of them landed hard. The men lowered the warrior and child to the ground, abandoning the canvas, as they all scrambled to make it to the wagon and horses.
Agraulus saw the last of them approaching and quickly began striking a brass gong. The gong vibrated loudly, its sound carrying to the waiting soldiers located outside the village. They came rushing out of hiding, heading for the gates.
Xena held the reins as she walked by her friend's side as they left Ochla. The last few days had been tiring with all the excitement and celebrating that had been going on almost non-stop. Almost every citizen of Ochla had insisted on a party--with Xena, Cecrops, and Gabrielle as the guests of honor.
The warrior was exhausted and knew road travel would be more restful than remaining in the village. The older woman had asked Gabrielle if they could leave early, unable to take it any more. She looked forward to a peaceful night's rest that she and her friend would find by sleeping under the stars, listening to the sounds of the crickets and the crackle of a fire.
Gabrielle reached out a hand, wrapping it around the warrior's elbow.
"Are you alright?" Xena asked.
"Yeah, I'm okay--really. I just think everything has finally caught up to me--I'm a little tired I guess. By the way--thanks."
"For just being here for me, for being my friend, for helping me deal with what happened. I'm not sure I could have made it with my sanity intact if it wasn't for you being with me-- "
"There's no where else I'd rather be. Gabrielle, I know I don't say it often enough--but you are my best friend and family. Your pain is my pain, your joy is my joy, and for as long as you can tolerate this poor old beaten up, grumbling ex-warlord--I'll be here for you."
"Gabrielle smiled up at her friend, for once floundering for the words. She laughed at herself, knowing Xena didn't need them. The bard changed the subject.
"Let's stop early. Captain Darlose told me that the pool and waterfall you had mentioned was just a candlemark's walk away. We can stop and be lazy for the remainder of the day and leave in the morning," she suggested.
Xena grinned, "Willing to take that risk, eh?"
"What's life without its risks? Besides, I figured you are too damned tired to compete in the bard tossing competition," she sassed.
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