Time to Live
by StarWarrior (Rie)
The young, strawberry blonde woman listened carefully. Closing her mind to the fears that Xena had caused to rise. Her heart thudded with the fear of her love being rejected. I always knew she didn't love me the way I love her. She looked thoughtful for a moment considering her answer carefully. Her heart pounded as she tried to understand her companion's attitude. The warrior had never wanted her to begin with. Had in fact tried to get rid of her on more than one occasion. Now she was ordering her around as though she were a child. Her temper flared and she fought for the right words. Gabrielle saw the intense look in the warrior's eyes and mistook it for the same look she'd seen in so many eyes. The desire to dominate her...to rule her...to cut through her determination...to break her independence...the desire to make her submit. That's what she had run away from...run back to when she'd married Perdicus. Her eyes flashed green fire and she opened her mouth. "I am going." She said determined to maintain her calm.
"I said no!" Xena scowled.
"And I told you I'm a big girl. I can make up my own mind."
"When I say no it's no."
"Who do you think you are?" Gabrielle glared, her anger at being treated like a child overriding her good sense. "You don't have the right!"
"I - I" Xena looked back shocked. "I don't have the right?! If I don't then who does?" She turned away -in disgust, whipped back. "I suppose if Perdicus were still alive he'd have the right!" Pain causing her to strike out in anger.
Gabrielle blanched. Her mouth worked, but words refused to come out.
Xena froze. Shock at her own words evident on her face. She bit her lip. "I'm sorry." She looked into emerald eyes filled with anguish, and flinched. Her fault it was all her fault. She took a deep breath, but no words could take away the pain she had caused. She turned and walked away. At least now Gabrielle would not follow.
Gabrielle stood still trying to breathe. It hurt. Her whole body ached. She felt as though she'd been slammed in the stomach with a staff. She stared unseeing as her best friend walked out of her life. How could she do that to me? How? Finally the words came out. "Noooo!" Tears fell. "Don't! Don't you dare leave me!" She was shaking. "Not like this" Her voice was breaking. "I can't take it. I can't live."
Xena paused midstep. She's speaking to me?! Her heart pounded. The ice that had started to form cracked. She couldn't bring herself to move. She felt more than heard Gabrielle glide up behind her. Shuddered as the young woman placed her hand upon the small of her back. She almost broke down when she heard the whispered words. "I'm sorry." She let her breath out slowly. "I should be the one saying that."
"No." The hand stayed still. The voice almost too quiet. "I asked for it. I goaded you into saying it." She admitted. "I don't know why I did that." The hand fell away. "I'm sorry." She turned away. Stopped and looked out over the small lake. "I," she hesitated trying to find the right words. "I, I guess I..." she brought her hand to her mouth in startled realization and spoke without thinking. "I wanted you to lose control."
Her eyes opened wide as she recognized the truth of her words, and sank in despair to her knees. "I wanted you to lose control." This time she said it in bewildered wonderment. "I wanted to see if you cared...enough to lose control...I couldn't tell. You're always so..." her voice trailed off. Tears continued to fall harder now and her voice fell lower, so low that if Xena didn't have keen hearing she wouldn't have heard her. "I'm sorry, so sorry. I didn't trust your love."
Xena shuddered. She turned and knelt next to her bard. "No. It's my fault." She spoke quietly. "I'm sorry." She reached out and turned the small woman to her. Enfolding her in a warm embrace. Accepting at last all she meant to the young woman. What she'd thought she'd accepted when she first made love to Gabrielle. That Gabrielle meant life itself to her she'd known, but she'd always thought that one day the young woman would tire of her and leave. She held a piece of herself apart for just such a reason. "I thought you knew." She whispered into the head of her beloved. "I need you so much." Her hold tightened. "I thought you already knew." She stroked the beloved head, that now rested comfortably against her chest. "Don't you understand?" She questioned in a low voice. "It's my fear that makes me leave you behind." She kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "My fear that makes me want to keep you safe... far from my battles."
Gabrielle shivered. She felt so cold. Like ice. She blinked. Her eyes hurt. Xena's words were slowly penetrating the fog that clouded her mind. The ice within melting. She shivered again. Xena tightened her hold. She loosened her arms and wrapped them around the warrior. She shuddered. Eyes closed she took a deep breath. Leather. She loved the smell, it made her feel safe. She grinned. Relaxing in the strong arms. She listened as Xena murmured words of love and sorrow, and tried to remember what had started the argument.
Xena tilted the young head up and kissed her. Her heart almost breaking as she saw the young woman was still crying. "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle shook with tremors. She blinked and stared into Xena's eyes. They were wide open and filled with a love and concern that could not be denied. She felt the last of the ice melt and sank gratefully into the warrior's warm embrace.
"Come on." Xena soothed, pulling her to her feet, supporting her with a steadying arm around her waist. "We need to talk." Slowly she walked to the large flat rock by the edge of the lake and lifted Gabrielle up on to it, before pulling herself onto the rock.
Gabrielle looked into soft blue eyes and bit her lip. How could her hardened warrior look so vulnerable? "I love you. You know that?"
Xena nodded gravely but didn't speak. She opened her arms and Gabrielle snuggled against her, rested her head against her breast, snaked her arms around Xena's waist, smiling as Xena's arms cradled her. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the warmth of the moment, trying to hold off the talk her partner would insist on having.
Finally she spoke. "I feel protected."
"It's all I ever wanted...since I first saw you." Xena admitted. "To protect you." She looked down at the red-gold head cradled in her arms. "I was crazy to ever let you go...I'm sorry about Perdicus."
Gabrielle sniffed. "I'm sorry too." She pulled back, smiling when Xena refused to loosen her grip. She looked up at the warrior woman, her eyes full of love. "I never should have married him." She shook her head. "I was afraid." She admitted, sitting up and pulling Xena's arms apart, she moved out of the protective hold.
Xena sat still. Her hands clenching and unclenching. She was unsure of why, but knew Gabrielle needed to sit apart for this talk. She ached to comfort her bard, but respected her young lover and forced herself to remain where she was. She tucked her hands under her thighs to stop from reaching for her and bit back the frustration that she was sure shone in her face.
Gabrielle glanced at Xena's face; the quiet face of the older woman was not easy to read, but she could see a patient acceptance in it. She studied her hands. "I married him because I got confused. He wanted peace and needed someone...someone to help him find peace and I..." She looked out over the water and drew her legs up. Gabrielle bit her lip. To her own ears it sounded as though she were a whining brat. "This isn't coming out right." She rocked back and forth. "I felt so all alone and I didn't know how to tell you."
Xena reached out one hand, let it drop. "But that was long ago." She protested, confused. "Since then we've become lovers. Didn't that tell you how I felt? How much I needed you? I know I've said the words more than once." She bit her lip. She could feel the sting of tears and refused to give in. "How could you doubt that I need you?"
"I doubt it every time you do what you did today." Gabrielle whispered so softly she might have been speaking to herself. "You make decisions without me...for me, and always it's for me to be without you. And when I am alone, waiting for your return I start to wonder..." She let the tears flow and wet her lips. "I think maybe this time you won't come back. I convince myself that you never loved me." She let her head fall onto her arms. "That you accepted my love because you felt sorry for me."
"I never guessed." Xena whispered pain in her voice. "I thought you knew." Her breath came ragged. "I always tried to protect you. Everytime I ask you to stay behind it's because I think it's going to be this time. This time that I might not be returning...because this time I won't be alive to return. Never ever because I don't want or need you." She couldn't believe the pain in her chest. It hurt to breathe. "And so I could die knowing you were safe."
Gabrielle gasped. A look of vulnerability and apprehension shone from Xena that cut her heart. How could she have been so wrong? She turned to face her lover with a look of profound surprise on her face. "I..." She wet her lips uncertain of what to say to set things right, and continued to look pleadingly at her lover.
Xena cupped her face between her strong hands, and gently brushed the tears away with hesitant fingers. She stared deeply into Gabrielle's eyes for so long and so searchingly that Gabrielle thought she surely must be reading the writing on her soul. She held the blue gaze, and tried to make her own eyes say that she was sorry, that she truly loved her, and would gladly die for her love. Finally Xena nodded, then slowly she leaned down, and sealed their bond with a kiss.
Gabrielle sighed with contentment and leaned into her love. "I love you."
"I love you." Xena stated clearly. "I need you." She punctuated each statement with a kiss. "I don't want to live without you."
Gabrielle shuddered, her eyes wet with unshed tears, she looked into Xena's still haunted eyes and placed both her hands on her shoulders. "I believe you." She touched her cheek. "And I need you. I don't want to live without you." She shuddered. "That's why I can't stay behind." Tears remained in her eyes. "Why I don't want to be safe somewhere while you are somewhere else..."
Xena put her own hand over the one touching her cheek, "Never again." She bit her lip. "I may not express myself often or well, but I need you, and now that I know you truly need me, I don't think I could bare to leave you behind for even one night." She stared into the luminous green eyes and felt her heart jump. "Even if I know it would be better for you."
Gabrielle felt her eyes start burning. She rubbed at them with her free hand and tried to figure out what to say. "Great I'm supposed to be the bard and I have no words to describe what I am feeling."
Xena grasped her free hand and placed it on her waist. "Shh." She smiled. "I know." Her own voice was thick with emotion. "No more words of apology for either of us." She kissed her love. "We start fresh from this point forward. No more hiding from each other. From now on we speak our fears and our joy." Her eyes searched her love's face. "Agreed?"
Gabrielle sniffed back her tears. She nodded. "Agreed." Her eyes glistened in the growing shadows. "No more words left unspoken." She kissed her love and the world faded away.
Much later Xena stirred. "This hasn't changed things." She murmured as she kissed her love awake. "I still feel uncomfortable having you near that man.
"I know." Gabrielle whispered with a smile. "But it's you he hated..."
Xena snorted. "But he wanted me to suffer. That's why you should stay as far away from him as possible."
"I will, but I am going with you."
"Yes." Xena grinned. "You are. I need you by my side." Xena said as she kissed Gabrielle. "But he is not our only worry." She smiled at Gabrielle's puzzled frown. "There were twelve of my men that stayed behind. That means other villagers suffered and they might want justice too."
"Oh." Gabrielle tightened her hold on Xena. "I hadn't thought of that. What will we do?"
"Cross that bridge when we get to it." Xena curled her lip upward. "For now we concentrate on taking him to his parents."
"Good." Gabrielle's eyes twinkled with love. "Should we go tell them?"
Xena looked at the setting sun. If they didn't head back soon one of them would come looking. "Might as well." She rose to her feet and lifting the bard into her arms jumped.
"Show off." Gabrielle swatted her lover and laughed as she was lowered to her feet.
Xena grinned. "Yup." She admitted. Keeping her arm wrapped around Gabrielle's shoulder she headed toward the cabin.
Xena frowned. She couldn't believe she had willingly volunteered her and Gabrielle's services to Makarios on his return journey to fetch his parents and bring them back to his sister's new home. The whole family would live in the new valley. She sighed. Why did she have such a bad feeling about this? So far the trip had proven uneventful and she was glad that Gabrielle had insisted on accompanying her. Her heart beat faster at the thought of her love. She glanced to her side, at the lithe form of Gabrielle talking animatedly with Makarios. So much for keeping her away from him. That was his village up ahead and now if they could get his parents and head back without any trouble she could breath a lot easier. Gabrielle sauntered undaunted by the fact that this village had once suffered because of her companion. She believed in the old adage good triumphs over evil. Xena tried to dissuade her from her belief, but so far the younger woman kept getting her belief reinforced by how they survived their many adventures.
News of the arrival of the Warrior Princess swept through the village, more and more people came out of their homes and shops to see. Children with expressions of fear and awe, adults with shock, curiosity and wonder, especially at the sight of the man that walked beside her. Whispers of; "It's Makarios." Followed the small troop of three. Xena grew more tense with each stride. Glad she'd chosen to walk beside her companions instead of ride atop Argo. She felt Gabrielle sizing the people up as they strode confidently down the street.
"Perhaps we ought to stop at the tavern." Gabrielle turned to Xena. "Things have probably changed a lot since either of them were home...it might be a good idea to..."
Xena's eyes lit with joy. Her bard was learning. "Good idea."
"But I want to see my family." Makarios protested.
Gabrielle laid a hand on his arm. "They may not be there." She said gently. "We can find out at the tavern. Make our plans from there."
Makarios faltered. He paled. "I didn't think of that. I just assumed."
Xena lifted her mouth in a slight quirk. "We all do that." She admitted, remembering her own fears when she returned to Amphipolis.
Xena studied the villager who squirmed uneasily, shifting his balance from foot to foot. "What aren't you telling us?"
He looked uneasily from the warrior to Makarios. "Your mother..." he shook his head sadly. "She's much too ill to be traveling anywhere."
Makarios sagged wearily collapsing onto the bench. My fault. The words rang through his head. He put his head in his hands. How do I tell Themis? He moaned.
Xena glanced toward Gabrielle. She bit back a smile. Her companion was already moving to comfort the man. She looked back to the bearer of the bad news. The man was studying his friend with a sorrow born of personal grief. "Parnet." She called softly. The tavern owner looked up. "What did the healer say?"
He shook his head. "My wife." He began as an explanation. "She said there is nothing she can do. All her herbs are wasted when the one that is ill desires death."
Xena frowned. Death. She raised one eyebrow skeptically. Until she studied the woman herself she would reserve judgment. "And his father?"
"Despondent, but healthy." Parnet bit his lower lip. "We're a small village. We take care of each other. Someone makes sure they have food...it's the least we can do."
"Thanks." Xena pressed his arm, before turning to her friends. "Let's go." She pulled Gabrielle up and stood arms folded in front of Makarios. "You need to pull yourself together. Your family needs you." Her eyes were like points of ice. "Are you man enough?"
Makarios felt the old anger flare. How dare she! It was all her fault! If not for her and her army none of this would have happened. He jumped to his feet his arm going for his sword. "YOU!" He roared.
Xena laughed. She knocked the sword aside with one swipe of her arm. "Come on." She egged the man on. "What's the matter, boy? No fight in you? Want to cry for mamma?"
Gabrielle backed up in shocked surprise. What was Xena doing? Makarios was in no condition to fight her. She moved to intercede and was stopped by the tavern owner.
"No girl." He held out a hand. "She's helping him in the only way she can." He spoke with admiration, his eyes following her every move. "I never thought I'd see the day when I would be glad to meet the Warrior Princess, but I'm glad to have really met her."
"I don't understand?" Gabrielle frowned.
"Your friend is helping him get all the anger and frustration out of his system. When you get to his parents home he'll be ready to help them instead of falling apart at the sight."
Gabrielle grinned. "Oh, she is good." I'll have to remember this little trick. She sat down to wait out the battle.
"Stand still!" Makarios cried in frustration. He swung his left fist toward her stomach and followed with a right cross to her head.
Xena blocked the left and ducked the right. "You'll have to do better than that." She taunted weaving in and out as he continued to try and pummel her.
Finally he collapsed on the floor, out of breath. Quickly she knelt by his side. She lifted his chin and looked into the tortured grey eyes. "I'm sorry." She held his eyes until she was positive he read the truth of her words in her eyes and let go. She lifted him gently to his feet. "Come on." She turned toward the door. "Go where?" He asked in a daze. "Home." She brushed the hair from his eyes. "It's time for you to see your momma and dad." "But?" he started to protest and she laid a finger against his mouth. "Shh." She shook her head. "It's okay. They love you. It'll be okay." She led the stricken man out the door, confident that her lover would follow.
Themis sat by the fire knitting. Time seemed to pass slowly now that her brother and the others were gone. She sighed. I wonder if mother and father will come. Her knitting fell unnoticed into her lap as she looked into the fire and saw again her parents as she'd last seen them over a year ago. Mother so pale and weak just sitting in her chair. She bit back her fear. Better not go there she let loose another sigh.
"Beloved?" A tall dark man stepped into the cabin. A sadness fell over his features as her saw the tears in his betrothed's eyes. "What's wrong?" He stepped over to her and knelt at her feet.
"I'm being silly." She ruffled his hair. "Thoughts of home. I just wish they'd hurry up."
A chuckle escaped as the giant of a man realized her fears lay in the waiting and not in them. "Beloved it's a long journey and they've been gone but a few weeks ."
"I know." She quirked her lips. "I said I was being silly."
"There's more isn't there?" He spoke quietly looking into her hazel eyes knowingly.
"Well," She bit her lower lip. "It's just how do we explain you?"
He laughed out right. "Explain? As in my long life? Or as in your choice of a husband? Whatever you wish to tell your parents we will."
"I'd like for them to know the truth." She said shyly. "I think hidden secrets cause more pain in the long run."
He sobered immediately. "If it's the truth you want them to know then it's the truth they shall be told." He lifted her up and slid into the chair, placing her comfortably into his arms. "And you little one? What else do you wish?"
She rested her head against his chest and marveled at how safe she felt cradled against his side. "Your name." She lifted one hand and cupped his cheek. "I'd like to know your name."
He sighed and looked into the fire. "My name?" Sadly he shook his head. "I've been called by so many names I'm not sure which if any are me."
He nodded. "Names are important, just as Gabrielle said. They ground us...give us a sense of belonging. My first name was in a tongue you never heard of. It meant son of the mountain. When I went to my new tribe I took a new name, again it was in a language you never heard, this time my name meant vengeance. You know what I did..." he fell silent remembering his past and wandering if after all this time he would truly be granted the peace he so longed for. Finally he stirred and spoke again. Since that time I have been called many things. Helmar which means warrior's fury, Amar the immortal and Arvad the wanderer and even Leander the lion man. Some of my names have been lost in history and others turned into legends. A few of my names are remembered with honor, for at times I was a hero to the people. Other times I was branded as a villain and my name became a curse. It's true; to one people I was the hero that slew the flesh eating monster who preyed on the villagers in the dark of the night. To another people; I was the flame that destroyed their homes and to another the monster that chopped their beloved king - he was still alive at the time - into little pieces of meat and fed him to the lions...he lived a long time and actually watched the feeding...and yet to another people; I was a demon of the forest attacking and murdering all who dared enter the forest alone. Those I captured died slowly. Torture was a an art I enjoyed." He shuddered. The memories threatening to overtake him. He started to rise. She pressed him back.
"No beloved." She cupped his face . "You're not that man." She stared into his frightened eyes. "Those times are long past. Those deeds were done by a different you. You have changed. The evil is in the past." She paused. An idea formed in her head. She rose to her feet and tugged gently on his hands. "Come with me to the lake."
He stood willing to go anywhere with this one. She was a breathe of fresh air to his sore heart.
At the lake she hesitated, unsure of his reaction, but knowing in her heart that this was the right thing to do. "Trust me?" She asked, smiling at his nod, reading the confusion in his eyes. She stepped into the water, moving outward until she was up to her waist. She gestured for him to join her. She looked deeply into his eyes searching. She nodded satisfied with the truths she saw there.
"When an infant is first brought into this world by the midwife it is covered in blood." Se spoke somberly as though to a crowd and not just one man. "The infant is taken and cleansed of the blood. The new child is no longer a part of it's mother but now stands alone to face the future." She placed her hand on his head and forced him to kneel in the water. "It is time to let go of the past. It is time for a rebirth. It is time for you to live your life anew. It is a time for rejoicing for today the Son of the Mountain is dead, Leander, Arvad, Amar and the rest are no more than dust beneath our feet. A new man stands in his place." And as she spoke she carefully poured water over her man's head. "As the infant is cleansed of the blood of it's mother I wash you clean of your past. No longer are you the same person. You are reborn today. From this day forward you shall be known as Anastasius." She finished pouring the water over his head and stood quietly as it dripped down his face and onto his chest watching his reaction.
He swallowed. What? Washed clean. I can't believe...how can? Reborn. No one's ever done anything like this for me before...she's wonderful. I am Anastasius. He swallowed again this time looking into her hazel eyes with eyes that brimmed with unshed tears. "How can I thank you?" He asked quietly.
She smiled. "Live life with me."
"I shall." He grasped her by the waist and pulled her close. "I shall."
"Mother." Makarios croaked the word in despair. Heart torn with pain at the sight of the frail wasted woman laying listlessly in the high feathered bed.
His father sitting despondently by her side heard the once familiar voice and lifted his head in disbelief. "Makarios?" The name was but a whisper. Eyes as grey as his own looked with awe upon his countenance. "It is you? Come back to us?" He looked past his son. "Themis?" His gaze fell on unfamiliar figures and turned surprised back to his son. "Themis?" His voice cracked.
"She's fine. Father." The young man fell to his knees. "Can you forgive me? I've been such a fool."
The old man held out his hand and rubbed the head that was bent over his lap. "My boy." He stroked the dark curly hair bewildered by this sudden change of luck. "I forgave you when it happened." He looked at the unknown females. Fear entering his eyes as he recognized the warrior. His hand unconsciously clenching his son's head.
"Slsssss." Makarios grabbed his father's arm. "Father." He twisted out of the grasp and half laughed as he looked toward his companions. "Come in Xena, Gabrielle." He turned to his father. "Father, I'd like you to meet two of Themis' friends." He glanced at the women who shrugged. "Ladies, this is my father. Odell. They offered to help me bring you and mother to our new home."
"New home?" The Odell scowled. "Whatever do I need a new home for?"
"Father." He wet his lips worriedly. "It's far from here. A beautiful valley. And Themis is marrying a man that has land and is willing to share with all of us. We can be a family again."
"No." He glared angrily at his wayward son. "You leave to kill this woman and come back claiming she's a friend, and wanting us to leave all we know. I don't know you. Though you wear the guise of my son I must ask...who are you?"
"Father." Makarios cried out in pain at the ache his father's words caused. "How do I convince you I am your son?"
The old man turned to look at the women his son had invited into their home. "Explain this."
Xena stepped forward. "We can explain ourselves." She spoke quietly. "Your daughter was ill. My mother nursed her to health. My friend and I agreed to take her to her brother. When we found him she fell in love with his friend. They are to be married and wish you to join them. As she still tires easily, not having fully recovered from her illness we," She gestured to Gabrielle, who stepped into the light. "volunteered to assist Makarios in bringing you and your wife to them."
She looked at Gabrielle and Gabrielle was surprised to see that her blue eyes were dancing with mischief. "I apologize if we five were wrong in assuming you would want to live where your children and future grandchildren would be, instead of so far from them." She bowed low. "We will take our leave of you. I hope you and your good wife will be happy in your life. Although, I imagine it will be hard to be so far from the little ones." She turned to Makarios. "Gabrielle and I will be staying at the inn we past on our journey through town. If you need us send someone, otherwise we will be here after we break our morning fast to help you gather Themis' stuff and yours." She headed for the door.
Gabrielle bit her cheek to keep from grinning. She'd never heard Xena string so many words together before. And what words. In less than one minute she had let them know what they would be missing and how lonely they would be if they stayed here. She could never have done that...hadn't even considered it. Wonder what made Xena think of it? I'll have to ask when we get outside. "I'm sorry I won't get the chance to get to know you better sir." Gabrielle smiled at the old man. He had Makarios' eyes. "Perhaps I'll get a chance to talk to you tomorrow." She smiled sweetly. "Good-bye." She walked past the still stunned Makarios. "Til tomorrow." She patted him on the shoulder.
"But..." An utterly confused Makarios followed the two woman out of the house. Surprised to see Gabrielle leaning on Xena laughing and the warrior herself chuckling softly. "What?" He looked from one to the other.
Xena placed an arm around her bard and turned a smiling face to her new friend. Friend? She paused in mid thought and examined the idea. Yes, she had finally stopped thinking of him as the enemy and accepted him as a friend. "Makarios." She twisted her lip up a little. "Your parents have been willing themselves to die. Without you and your sister they saw no reason to live. Now we gave them a reason to live...and to move."
"We did?" He glanced into the house and back at the women "How'd we do that? I thought he said no?"
"He did." Gabrielle chortled. "But now he's going to lay awake and wander about those nonexistent grandchildren."
"Oh!" He grinned. "I get it. Thanks!" He looked back to the house. "You really could stay here. There's plenty of room."
"We will." Xena pursed her lips together. "In the barn."
"Okay." He frowned, what was it with these two and barns? "Need anything?"
"No." Gabrielle smiled. "Night Makarios."
He watched in silent awe as the two walked away.
"Do you mind?" Xena asked her lover once they were behind closed doors.
Gabrielle murmured no and looked about in surprise. Other than Argo there were no animals. The barn had been unused for sometime. She moved to the center and twirled around. She smiled. All alone. She let her eyes rest on Xena. She still stood by the first stall, Argo waiting at her side. "What?" She asked. "Did you ask me something and I not hear?"
"No." Xena spoke slowly. "Do you remember our conversation at the lake?"
Gabrielle frowned. "Yes, but what...Oh love." She ran to the warrior. "I trust you...I said nothing, because sometimes when we are in public one of us will have to make decisions for both of us, besides I really, really wanted to be here alone with you." She reached up and drawing the raven haired beauty to her kissed her friend. "It's been too long..." She spoke softly nibbling at her lover's neck as she spoke.
"Husband?" A dry, raspy croaking came from the bed.
Odell leaned forward surprise and relief flitting across his face. "Love?" He whispered. "I'm here. I'm right here."
"Was that our boy?" Came the voice again. It hurt his ears to hear it so rusty from not being used. He reached for the water jug.
"Yes." He held a cup of water to her lips. "Sip, it'll ease your throat." He wiped the dribble from her face. "Our boy has returned and the madness is gone form his eyes."
"Themis?" She opened her eyes, blinking at the unexpected light.
"Not here, but safe." He smiled, brushing her hair from her face and stroking her cheek. "She's to be wed. They want us to go join them...in a new valley." Tears of joy filled his eyes as he gazed lovingly at his wife.
"Married?" Eunice's voice got stronger with each sentence uttered. "Without us?"
"She's waiting for Makarios to return." He shrugged. "When he returns without us I'm sure she will get married then. I'll have him give her my blessing.
"Not be there?" Her eyes sparked with life. "Why won't we be there?"
"Love you are not strong and..." he paused as he heard someone enter the room. He looked up and smiled. It was his son. "Makarios come speak with your mother."
"Son," She lifted a hand but was too weak and let it fall. He strode forward and clasped her hand to his breast. She looked over his head at her husband. "And don't think you can change the subject. Answer my question."
He smiled. "Eunice, the wedding is to take place in a valley a long way from here. If we were to go we'd never return."
She turned to her son. "And you? Where do you live?"
Makarios' eyes danced. "I am to build my own home in the valley next to Themis'."
"Both our children happy in a new valley? And you want to stay here?" She frowned. "Why?"
Odell shrugged. "I-I" then grinned. "We go if you want to go."
"Then rest dearest." He kissed her forehead. "You'll need to regain your strength if we are to make a long journey. Rest now." He turned to his son. "Come Makarios we need to prepare a room for you." He lead his son out into the common room.
"So." He turned and looked his son up and down. "I see before me a healthy man. No longer bent on revenge." He raised his bushy eyebrows. "Explain the presence of that woman to me. Explain how you could be gone so long and waltz into our life as though you'd never left. And explain to me where my daughter is."
Makarios lowered his eyes to the ground. Fear returned and he felt the pangs in his soul. "Father," he spoke softly. "I am sorry. Words can never tell you how sorry I am. I was in the grip of madness. A madness that caused me to lose my way. I became a killer..." He leaned his head against a wall. "The young woman that was with Xena," he swallowed the pain this memory brought him. "I kidnapped her. I beat her. I wanted to kill her and leave her for Xena to find." He shook his head. "So great was my hate that I became that which I hated...I sought to hurt an innocent woman because it would cause pain to someone else." He felt a hand on his back and turned to see his father standing bewildered before him. It was too much. He cried. Odell wrapped his arms around his grown son and lifted him as easily as he had when the boy was a little lad.
"Hush my child." He murmured to him. "It's okay. You are safe at home where you belong. You're gonna be okay." He sat the boy down on the cot he'd been using. "We're a family again." He wiped his son's face.
Makarios gripped his father's arm. "You don't understand papa. Even as I prepared to kill her she refused to tell me where Xena was...but more than that she forgave me. Said she understood my pain and anger. She pleaded with me to stop. Said Xena had changed. She was trying to atone for the bad she had done." He looked into his father's tear streaked face in wonder. "She made me remember Ilena and I knew I would never see my love again if I continued in my ways. I didn't know what to do. I panicked. I ran away. I left her tied there."
Odell held his son's hand. "How did you get from there to here? From all I've heard of the warrior princess she should've killed you for what you did." He brushed his son's hair from his eyes.
"If I had killed Gabrielle I would be dead today. But Gabrielle saved my life...Xena is changed. She brought Themis to me despite knowing that I was the one that had hurt her friend, and she volunteered to bring you and mother to our new home." He smiled ruefully. "Not that I deserve it, but she has become a trusted friend and a good allay. Without her I'd be afraid to take mother to Themis, but with her any trouble on the road will be for the ones that bother us."
Odell smiled. "I will trust her if you do."
"With all our lives." Came the sleepy reply.
"Okay." Odell rose from his seat. "Sleep my son. We will start our preparations in the morning. He walked with a lighter step out into the darkness of the night. He took a deep breath. It was good to be alive. He heard a noise. "Who's there?"
"It's me." Xena stepped into the moonlight. "Gabrielle and I decided to stay in your barn for the night." She took in the state of his eyes at a glance. Crying...hope it was a healing cry. "I hope that's all right with you. Makarios seemed to think it would be."
"That's fine." He nodded. Still a little fearful of this warrior that had caused his life to change so much.
"Did you need something?"
Xena grinned. "No. I was restless and thought I'd check the area, make sure all was quiet."
"Oh." He glanced around at his farm. He didn't know what he felt. Glad and sad. "Thank you."
Xena looked puzzled. "For what?"
"For not killing my boy. For taking care of my daughter. I should never have let her go." He shrugged, "But there was nothing left for her here."
"You raised good children." Xena looked toward the house. "Themis had to leave. It was the only way she could find her destiny." She smiled wryly. A certain bard would have loved to hear me say that.
"We'll go." The words blurted from his mouth.
"Really?" She raised one eyebrow, surprised the decision had already been made. "Does Makarios know?"
"I'm glad." She smiled. "Tomorrow Gabrielle will negotiate for a couple of horses. You and Makarios can repair the old wagon I saw behind the barn. I'll take care of your wife." She grinned at the look of astonishment on the old man's face. "If all goes well we can be on the road in five days." She patted his arm. "Now go rest, you'll need your strength."
Gabrielle screamed a warning as the bandits broke from the trees. Xena who had ridden ahead heard the warning and twirled around. "Ahya!" Argo broke out in a gallop. "Ayiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi." Xena let loose her battle cry as she flipped off Argo to land in front of one of the bandits. "Hello." She smiled, raising both eyebrows and pulling her sword out spoke. "You shouldn't have started without me."
"That can be remedied." The man said as he slashed at Xena.
She laughed and blocked his swipe with her own blade. The clang of sabers filled the air. Xena listened with one ear for the sound of Gabrielle's staff. Smiling as she heard Gabrielle warn one of the bandits before the thwack of wood against helmet reached her. She renewed her attack as a second swordsman joined the first. Flipping into the air and landing behind one, she tapped him on the head with her pommel. Hearing an unfamiliar step behind her she thrust the sword back, catching a second man in the gut. "Two down." She grinned evilly and advanced on the man left in front of her. "Come on." She wiggled her fingers at him. Or are you chicken?"
Enraged the man ran forward. Xena blocked his upswing thrust. He hit at her left, then her right, then aimed for her heart, but she kept blocking. He began to tire. She waited parrying and thrusting finally saw the opening she was waiting for and slipped past his defenses and felt her sword slide home. He crumpled to the ground and she pulled her sword free, turning to assist Gabrielle.
Gabrielle stood leaning casually on her staff. "Hi?" She smiled at her friend. Having a pleasant morning?"
Xena glanced around. Raising one brow at the sight before her. Half a dozen bandits lay all over the place. Makarios stood protectively in front of the wagon. His sword bloody and a couple of dead at his feet. A grim expression on his face. Xena looked back at Gabrielle. She tipped her head to her lover, one brow raised in surprise. "An invigorating morning. After last night's meal I needed a little exercise." Her lips curled up. "And you."
"Oh, not bad." Her grinned matched that of Xena. "I haven't been exercising enough lately."
Xena glanced at their friends. Sighing inward. At least that battle shock look had left Makarios' face. Actually now all three had a look of incredulity. She laughed at the expression on the faces of their traveling companions. "Come on, lets get out of here before they wake up."
Makarios looked at his bloody sword, looked at his parents, and then at Xena.
Xena stepped up to him. She took the sword form his hands. Wiped the blood from it. "It was necessary." She handed it back to him. "There's a difference." She squeezed his shoulder and turned to mount Argo. She held out a hand. "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle sighed, but accepted the hand.
Xena felt a twinge of unreasonable guilt - as if she bore the blame for every bandit they encountered. She sighed. For a moment she wished they could end their journeys...hide away in some back village and while away the hours in blissful ignorance of the rest of the world. She laughed at herself. She'd be bored in two, three days top...
"What's so funny?" Gabrielle cocked her head at her partner.
"Me." Xena swirled her tongue around her gums. "I was thinking about retiring."
"Haaa," Gabrielle grinned. "As if!" She shook her head and glanced sideways at her love, her face sobered. "Are you getting tired of this?" She nodded toward their companions.
"No." Came the quiet response. "Tired of one attack after another but not them...or us." She touched Gabrielle's cheek. "Never us."
Gabrielle smiled, swallowed and nodded. Words not enough to express her thoughts on that subject. She glanced at the family they were escorting and her smile widened. "Doing this," she gestured at the wagon. "it's fun. Makes me feel good inside."
Xena tilted her head, slowing Argo to think about Gabrielle's words. It was true. She did have a good feeling inside. Similar to the feelings she got whenever she managed to exceed her bard's expectations and surprise her with some gift or other. She pressed Gabrielle's hands against her abdomen. Loving the feeling of her friend pressed against her back. "Love you." She whispered.
"It's mutual." Came the muffled response.
Gabrielle sighed exasperated with the small thin woman who stood before her. Eunice was quite headstrong. "I let you go the bathroom alone, but they'll have my head if I let you get into that water. Why it's freezing! And you just out of your sick bed!"
"I stink." She crossed her hands and glared angrily at Gabrielle. If she had her full strength she'd be able to teach this one a lesson or two.
Gabrielle's look softened. She understood how important it was to cleanse oneself after an illness. "I tell you what," she began. "You do like I say and wait, and I'll get water heated up for you and you can take that bath."
Eunice's eyes narrowed. How would this little thing do that? "Okay, I'll wait, but you better come through with that bath."
Gabrielle smiled. "I will." She moved to take the older woman's arm. "Now you rest here under this Oak tree and I'll get everything ready." She hummed as she worked. Filling the big soup kettle with water and placing it over the fire. She pulled the almost empty water barrel off the back of the wagon and rolled it closer to the fire. She glanced at Eunice and was pleasantly surprised to see the older woman had fallen asleep. She heard a noise and quickly grabbed her staff, smiling in relief when she recognized her lover. "Perfect timing." She gestured at the barrel. "Give me a hand with this."
Xena frowned, but moved to help. "What are you doing?"
"She wants a bath and there's no way that cold spring water is healthy for her, so I am making a bath for her."
Xena grinned. "Once again your creativity amazes me."
Finally the bath was ready to Gabrielle's liking. "You go keep the menfolk away for at least a candlemark." She shooed Xena away.
"Great now I get to play baby-sitter to a couple of grown men. Just my favorite thing to do on a sunny afternoon." Xena wondered off to catch the father and son.
Gabrielle stood back to look at the transformation that the bath had caused. Eunice stood slightly over five feet. Her hair once as dark as that of Xena's now streaked with grey, shone brightly now it was clean. She smiled. Themis' mother had obviously been a beauty in her youth. Her eyes were a dark brown and right now they were shining with joy. Gabrielle laughed. "You look great."
"I feel great." She smiled and her eyes crinkled "You were right. I feel more like my old self now."
Gabrielle shrugged. "Well you look great. But I think you need to eat a little more. You still look too thin."
She smiled. The young blonde was sweet. "I saw no reason to go on. Everything I had lived for fell apart. My family was destroyed. What was left?"
Gabrielle shook her head in puzzlement. "I don't understand. You had your husband...your daughter...surely that was reason enough?"
"No." She shook her head sadly. "My daughter was but a shadow of her former self when Ilena died. You see they were childhood friends. She was like a second daughter to me even before Makarios fell in love with her." A single tear fell from her eyes. "Makarios went mad and my husband..." She sat down. "He blamed himself. If he'd been home...and when Makarios left..." She shuddered. "I saw no reason to continue."
Eunice lifted her eyes to Gabrielle. "It's okay. We are a family again." She smiled. "All will be well." She nodded her head.
A noise caught their attention and a shout of hello came from the forest.
Gabrielle smiled. "It's Xena." She rose. "They're back. I hope they brought plenty to eat. I'm starved."
Gabrielle smiled as she recognized the woods they were entering. "Our journey is almost over." She smiled at the woman sitting in the wagon next to her. The village isn't far now. We'll stay there for the night and travel onto the valley tomorrow."
The strawberry blonde smiled as she spotted the tavern's owner. "Detriech." She called out to him. "Hi!"
"Gabrielle!?" The rotund man waddled over and gave the young bard a hug. "I thought you wouldn't be back this way ever again?" He peered behind the young woman expecting to see Xena. He turned back the question in his eyes.
Gabrielle laughed. "She's fine. She's at the stables with Makarios seeing to Argo and his horses. These are -"
"Makarios!?" The innkeeper interrupted. He looked toward the door. "But I thought - "
Gabrielle shook her head exasperated. "Detriech!" She interrupted. "I know what you thought!" She turned to point to the elderly couple behind her. "These are Makarios' parents. That's why we came back."
"Parents?" He looked from Gabrielle to the couple. "Makarios' parents?"
"Yes." Gabrielle nodded. "And we will need two rooms for the night and supper."
The startled man turned to Gabrielle. "Huh? Oh rooms. Sure. No problem." He glanced at the couple again. "I...I am sorry I didn't mean to be rude. My name is Detriech. Welcome to my tavern. Come in and sit down."
Odell stepped forward a slight frown on his face. The man's reaction to Gabrielle made him uneasy and he didn't know why., but she said he was a friend. "I am Odell this is my wife Eunice."
Detriech began to speak but was interrupted by the arrival of yet another guest. Looking up he broke into a big smile. "Makarios!" He stepped forward and grasped the man by the shoulders. "By the gods man you look good!"
Makarios chuckled. "Well between my mother and Gabrielle's cooking I haven't got a chance." He patted his stomach. "She's as good a cook as she is a bard."
"I'll second that." A voice said from behind the two men.
Detriech looked over his shoulder and paled. Xena stood at the entrance and her look was one of ownership. "He...he...hello Xena." He managed to stutter the words out.
Hmm, Odell noticed the reaction to Xena. So it's her he has a problem with. I wonder if maybe we're wrong trusting her? He shook his head at the thought. No. She's saved all our life's numerous times these past months.
"Detriech." She acknowledged his greeting and looked at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle smiled. "Detriech our rooms?"
"Huh?" Rubbing his neck he turned from Xena. "Oh, same rooms as before."
He turned back to Xena. "If you have the time and are interested?" His voice rose questioningly. "I can offer you the rooms and fare for free."
Xena forced a sigh back down. She was weary. The past month on the road had been tough, but then again they had few dinars to spare. "Deal." She stepped over to Gabrielle. "Take our gear to our room. I'll be back...and don't go anywhere."
Gabrielle bit back a grin. "I'll be here when you get back. I promise."
Xena gave the bard a half smile and turned to leave. Makarios placed a hand upon her arm. She glared at him. "No one touches me without permission."
He paled but held his ground. "Where are you going?"
"The first time I came through here I made a deal with Detriech. He provides the cook, the room, and food for a week and I provide him with a deer. I just made the same deal for our rooms and food."
"Let me go with you. I'm a good hunter and - "
"No problem." She interrupted him, enjoying his startled look. He hadn't expected her to agree. "Come on."
Gabrielle stepped up to Xena. Looked her in the eye and said. "Be nice."
Xena replied with a twinkle her in her eye. "Me?"
"Yes you." Gabrielle replied, knowing full well her partner's sense of humor.
Xena stood looking at Gabrielle for a full moment lips pursed together and tongue in cheek. "Okay, okay. I give up." She held her hands in front of her. "I promise no tricks. I'll play nice with him." She rolled her tongue in her mouth. "Okay mommy? Can I go now?"
Gabrielle chuckled. "Get outta here you big oaf."
Glancing at Makarios Xena tilted her head toward the door, "Come on let's get out of here well the getting is good." She ducked outside chuckling.
"How about we put our stuff in our rooms and then eat." Gabrielle smiled at Makarios' parents. "Eunice you can stay here. Save our seats in case it gets busy." She headed toward the stairs. "Come on Odell, I'll show you the way."
Odell chuckled. "Our two lady friends are something else, eh?" He brushed his wife's face with the back of his hand.
"Mmm." She looked thoughtfully at the young woman waiting by the stairs for her husband. "Not at all what you'd expect." She said out loud. "But then again life is full of surprises."
"Too true." He smiled. "I'll be back soon."
Detriech watched the young bard and the older man leave before turning to the frail looking woman at his side. "Xena prefers the back table." H nodded his head in the direction. "If you would go sit there I'll bring you a hot cider to take the chill off."
"You're kind." Eunice replied weaving through the tables to the one against the back wall. She sat facing the front. Hmm...so from here I can see the whole tavern. No wonder she likes this spot. "Thank you." She smiled as Detriech placed a steaming mug of cider before her. "Tell me something?" She stopped him from leaving. "How long have you known the warrior and her companion?"
Detriech hesitated. How much of Makarios' past did his parents know? "Not long." He glanced warily around the room. "They stopped in a few months back. Xena hunted for me and Gabrielle," he shrugged. "Well she's a bard you know."
"Yes I know." She let go of his arm. Still there was something no one would tell her. She could see it in her husband's unease, Gabrielle's quiet warnings, and even her son's tensing everytime he dealt with Xena. Actually it was only Xena that seemed at ease with all of them. I wonder if she would tell me what was going on? She sipped her cider and contemplated on ways she could approach the warrior.
Xena stepped silently through the lush woods pausing now and again to search for tracks. Having been this way once she had a good idea where to find the deer. Makarios followed quietly behind. Silently he marveled at her many skills. A supreme warrior, a healer, and an accomplished hunter. What else?
Suddenly Xena stopped turning to Makarios she whispered. "Men up ahead. We need to be cautious. I doubt they are good guys."
Makarios frowned. He heard nothing...saw nothing out of the ordinary. "How do you know?" He whispered back.
"It's one of my many skills." She grinned. "Follow my lead."
Xena crept behind a small bush and Makarios followed carefully. She peered through the branches. "Damn." She swore softly.
Makarios glanced questioningly at her.
"See the guy in the middle? She pulled a branch aside and at Makarios' nod smiled grimly. "I know him."
"Definitely." She looked around. "If he's around there's trouble."
"What should we do?"
Xena grinned. "Find out what he's up to. There's only a half dozen of them. You stay here." She slid sideways, before she stood up and strode into camp. "Hello Milan."
Milan jumped. "Xena!" He snarled. "What do you want?" The men jumped to their feet, pulling their swords as they moved.
"Now that doesn't look very friendly." Xena wagged a finger at the group. "And here I was just out admiring the scenery, until I came across you." She shook her head and sniffed the air. "Phew. Don't you boys ever wash?"
Xena grinned crookedly. "Bad move." She waited until they were almost upon her and leapt straight up, kicking out with both feet as she gave her famous battle cry. "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyi." She laughed. "Two down." As she landed Xena drew her sword, slashing at the man to her left, twisting and blocking a thrust from a fourth man, and throwing her chakram at the sword in the hands of yet another, she catapulted into the air. Landing in front of Milan. "Thanks for the exercise." She grinned evilly. "Now what are you doing here?"
Milan looked around at his fallen companions. Swallowed hard. "Nothing. We were just passing through."
"You don't really expect me to believe that do you?" Her eyes narrowed and she twirled her sword lazily watching his eyes follow it's path. She grinned evilly as she brought it to rest against his crotch. "The truth or..." She left the rest to his imagination.
He wet his lips nervously and looked furtively around. "I...I...I got an invitation to bring my men to the forest. There was a promise of a very big reward for all who heeded the message and came."
"And?" Her eyes took on an iciness that cut into his soul. She waited a few moments. "Don't make me angry." She sighed rubbed her nose and stepped closer to him. "I didn't want to do this." Two jabs at his throat. "Now I know you know what I've just done so tell me who sent the note? Where were you supposed to meet? And what is going down?"
Panic lit his face. "No." He choked. "Gregor the One-eyed sent it."
Blood dribbled out of his ear. "The edge of the Pel Forest by the grove where the White Tree stands. If you want in on the booty you have to be there by midnight tomorrow. I don't know anything else." His eyes rolled back in his head.
Xena jabbed his throat again, this time releasing the pinch. "My advice to you is to take your boys and turn around. If I see you in this forest or anywhere nearby you're dead." Her eyes held his. "Understand?"
He nodded, wiping the blood from his face. He glanced around the small clearing. No amount of booty was worth it if Xena was against it. "Good pick up your weapons carefully...and get out of here." She stood and waited while the thief gathered his men and turned away. Smiling she called out, "Makarios, you can come out now."
The man joined her and the look of awe was unmistakable.
"Don't you start." Xena warned. "I've enough problems with people I encounter looking like that. You've been hanging with me for a few months now. I think you know I am just another warrior."
"Just another human yes, but" he raised a brow. "Never just another warrior!"
"Oh great." She muttered and turned away. "Come on Gabrielle's going to be mad if we take much longer."
"Mad?" He asked shocked as he turned to follow her.
"Yup. She gets mad when I worry her by staying out too late." Xena grinned. "There's some berries here. If we pick them on our way back she might forgive us." She placed a finger to her lips. "Shh, there are deer over that rise."
Makarios bit back his question. How does she do that? He gripped his bow tightly and followed her lead.
Xena pointed to two deer. Pointed to him and back at one deer.
His? He pointed to the bow, smiling as she nodded. The other was hers. Together they lifted their bows and let loose. Both arrows struck true. Soon two deer lay dead. They set about preparing them for the journey back.
"Can I ask you a question?" Makarios said.
Xena could hear the trembling in his voice and wondered what after all this time could make him afraid of her. "Sure."
"Will you ever forgive me?"
Xena stiffened briefly. She knew exactly what he was talking about. "I forgave you a long time ago." She shuddered slightly, remembering the pain and the fear on discovering her lover had been captured. "She's my life and you threatened her...I didn't think I could ever forgive someone that did that, but she taught me how to." Her eyes darkened as she got lost in the memories. "She made me make a promise once...that I wouldn't go crazy if something happened to her..." She turned her brilliant blue eyes on him. "Ilena's gone, don't let the bitterness of that death warp you...there's enough evil in the world. You have a second chance at life don't blow it."
Makarios stood by looking at the warrior and knew he'd somehow stumbled across one of the things that made her tick. Honor. "Thanks."
She made no comment, but squeezed his shoulder before turning back to their kill.
Xena paused outside the tavern. "Don't tell anyone about the attack in the woods."
Makarios looked in shock at her words, "But I thought - "
She interrupted him. "I'll tell Gabrielle later." She shifted her feet. "I don't think we need to worry your parents about it."
"Oh." He looked down. "No. I don't think that would be a good idea. What are you going to do?"
"I'll think of something." Xena replied, before turning back to the doorway.
Gabrielle stood up as Xena stepped into the tavern. Quickly she made her way to the warrior. "Where have you been?" She asked quietly. "I was beginning to get worried."
"Sorry." Xena smiled at her lover. "We had a slight problem." She frowned at the fear that crossed Gabrielle's face. "Don't worry so. Everything is fine. We'll talk later."
Gabrielle nodded and looked to Makarios.
He smiled a greeting, but continued to move toward the kitchen. He was obviously tired from carrying the deer. Gabrielle bit back a smile. Xena wasn't showing any signs of tiring and her deer was obviously the bigger of the two.
"We'll meet you at the table as soon as we clean up."
Gabrielle nodded and made her way back to the table, to wait for her lover.
Gabrielle grinned and scooted over to give Xena room to sit. "Here." She pushed a bowl of venison stew towards her friend and handed her a mug of port. "I ordered it as soon as you arrived. Eat up." Xena smiled her thanks and took a sip of the port. Gabrielle continued talking. "Detriech asked if I would do my bard thing. That okay with you?"
"Sure." Xena flashed her a smile. "I don't think you should stay up for that." She said to Eunice. "You look tired and you have a long day tomorrow."
Eunice seized her opportunity. "My husband deserves some time with his son. Would you help me up the stairs when you finish eating Xena?"
Xena managed to keep the surprise off her face. "Sure." She raised one eye at Gabrielle as if to ask what's this all about? Gabrielle shrugged. Makarios arrived and talk turned to Themis and her betrothed.
Xena frowned. She'd known Eunice had something up her sleeve when she asked her to help her up the stairs, but this was not what she had expected. To tell her about her son's activities. To explain how she came to be his friend? How could she do that? How can I hurt this woman?
"Xena?" Eunice stared expectantly at the warrior woman.
Xena let out a breathe she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "Gabrielle's the one that has a way with words not me. Why don't you ask her?" She looked away. "Or perhaps you should ask your son...it's his story."
"No." She shook her head. "Gabrielle, if she'll tell me will gloss over the parts she knows will hurt me. My husband refuses to speak about it, and I can't bring myself to ask my son." She stared at Xena. "I know you will tell me the bare truth. Please I need to know."
Xena had never felt so vulnerable before. If this had been her own mother asking it wouldn't have been any harder. "Okay." She turned sad eyes towards the woman. "I don't know what your son has done since leaving your home. I can only tell you how he entered my life."
"Okay." Eunice nodded acceptance.
"First you must promise me that no matter what I tell you, you know that he is a good man and you will continue to love him."
Eunice's mouth opened in surprise. Fear filled her heart. "That bad huh? No matter what you tell me, no matter what he's done, he's my son, I'll always love him."
Xena bit her lower lip, her mother hadn't reacted that way, but then again she'd been a lot worse. "Okay." How should she tell her? Straightforward. "Your son had let the death of his wife warp him. In his tortured state he decided others should suffer like him...specifically me. He learned about my friend...Gabrielle and decided to use her to get me." She wet her lips. "He kidnapped her when I was out hunting and he..." She couldn't stay impersonal. It hurt too much even now...knowing that Gabrielle suffered because of her love for Xena. She shuddered.
Eunice rose from her seat and took Xena's hands. "Child I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cause you such pain." She rubbed Xena's back. Now she saw the side the warrior showed to that sweet girl. No wonder she loved her so. Who would ever have guessed. The warrior had such a tender heart.
Xena bit her upper lip and pursing her lips tightly to gain control she spoke. "I'm okay." She cursed her weakness. Control. It's in the past. I can deal with this. I can. She couldn't look. "Your son tortured her...trying to learn where I was. She wouldn't tell him. He was going to kill her, but she managed to cause him to rethink his ways and he fled." She looked now at his mother and relief shone from her eyes. "Thank the gods that he fled before I arrived, or I...we wouldn't be having this conversation." She felt the older woman shudder. "Yes. I would have killed him. I wanted to go after him, but Gabrielle convinced me to leave it alone." She took a deep breath and admitted, "If she hadn't I'd of missed out on a good friend."
"But how did you become friends?" She asked bewildered by the tale.
"You have your daughter to thank for that, and Gabrielle's forgiving nature." Xena chuckled. "And I guess my mother."
"Yup." Xena actually felt a grin forming. Talk about your mood swings! "My mother nursed your daughter back to health and then sent her to search for Gabrielle and me. Mother told her if anyone could help her find her brother it would be us. Little did she know!" A soft chuckle escaped from her throat.
"So I owe not only you and Gabrielle, but also your mother a debt that cannot be repaid." Eunice spoke softly, under her breath as though to herself.
Xena's keen hearing caught every word. "No, no debt is owed. It's between friends...friends do things for each other they don't owe one another. They just stand by each other." She rose to her feet. "Now I better leave before they come looking for me. You rest. Tomorrow night you'll see your daughter again."
She rose and headed for the door. Behind her came a soft whisper.
"Thank you." The soft voice said. "For making my family whole again."
Xena shook her head sadly. Why didn't any of them understand. If it hadn't been for her the family would never have been torn apart to begin with.
"Hey," Makarios paused on the fourth step. "I was just coming to get you. Gabrielle's on her fourth story." He glanced past the warrior to his room. "Is mother all right?"
"She's fine." Xena rolled her tongue along her teeth. "She just wanted to talk girl talk." She brushed past Makarios. Let him make what he will of that.
Makarios shrugged and after one brief look back at the door turned to follow Xena down the stairs.
Gabrielle rolled her head along her shoulders. Her neck was stiff. "Oh thanks Xena." Her partner's warm hands began a gentle massage "So where did you disappear to tonight?"
"Eunice wanted to talk."
Gabrielle spun around. "You didn't tell her?!"
"I did." Xena replied looking into the shocked green eyes, surprised at the anger she saw flare up.
"You shouldn't have."
"Why?" Xena asked truly puzzled. So Eunice was right, even Gabrielle would have hidden the truth from her. "She had a right to know."
"So she could hate him?"
Xena closed her eyes in pain. Is that what she thought? That I'd tell her the truth out of pettiness...the desire to hurt others left me long ago. Her hands fell from Gabrielle's shoulders. "No." She replied quietly. "It wasn't like that." She turned away.
Damn, I've done it again...I hurt her. Gabrielle stood up, and stepped closer to her lover.
Xena talked on oblivious to Gabrielle's action. "I asked her if what I told her could cause her to stop loving him and she said no...he's my son I'll always love him. No matter what he's done."
"Oh." Gabrielle's shock evident as her mind went back to the first time she'd met Xena's mother. She certainly hadn't been forgiving. How that must hurt. "Oh, love...I am sorry." She pulled Xena to her.
"It's okay." Xena raised the beloved face to look at her. "It's in the past." She kissed the sweet lips. How I wish I could get lost in her goodness forever. "But now I need to talk to you about what happened earlier today...in the woods."
"It's not what you think." Xena shook her, a small, sad, crooked smile the only sign that she knew Gabrielle thought she had done something to Makarios for his treatment of her so many months ago. "In a way it's much worse." She lifted her lover's face so she could look at her eyes. "We came across some men in the woods. It was Milan and his thugs. They were on their way to the Pel Forest to join forces with One-eyed Gregor. Tomorrow at midnight small gangs from all over will converge. One-eye said there would be enough treasure for all."
"So when do we go?"
"We don't." Xena watched her young friend carefully. Such a temper she had.
"Xena. No. It isn't gonna happen." Gabrielle felt the tears come. Why so soon after the last time! "I've told you before where you go I go."
"I know and a couple of months ago I agreed never to leave you behind again, but this time is different. This time - "
"No!" Gabrielle stomped her feet. "Everytime you say that!" She glared angrily at her lover. Tears filled her eyes. "Remember the lake a few months ago? I thought-"
A hand against her mouth effectively shut her up. Xena was grinning. "I don't want you to stay behind. Just listen okay?"
Gabrielle watched her lover in shock and quickly nodded. When the hand was removed she questioned her. "But you said not us?"
"True." Xena looked pointedly around the room instead of at Gabrielle. "Where are we?"
"Where are we?" Xena repeated the question.
"In an inn." Gabrielle replied slowly, confusion on her face.
Xena closed her eyes. Was Gabrielle being stubborn or did she really not understand. "What inn?"
Gabrielle reared her head back and looked at Xena in shock. "Detriech's. Xena what's going on with you?"
"Gabrielle I think if you concentrate on the answers to my questions you might figure out why I said not us." Xena sat down on the edge of the bed. "Why are we at this inn?"
"Okay." Gabrielle sighed. "I'll play along. We are at the inn to escort Makarios and his parents to Themis." She hit herself in the head. "Duh!" She looked at her lover...and fell into liquid blue eyes. Her breath caught in her throat. Gods I love her! Finally she recalled their conversation and shook her head. "So I get to play escort and you go straight into trouble without me."
Xena smiled wryly. "Sorta. You play escort and then ride like hell for the Amazons...I do mean ride." Her smile widened at Gabrielle's expression. "If I am right," She shuddered. "This will take more than the two of us to stop."
Gabrielle's eyes opened wide. "Help? You want me to get help?"
Gabrielle swallowed her fear written clearly for the warrior to read. Xena gathered the bard up in her arms. "I'm sorry love, but I have heard of the Pel forest and the demon like creatures that thrive there. If I am right they plan on joining with one of the two races that dwell there." She stroked her lover's hair. Despite her wish to comfort her lover Xena shivered.
Xena sighed. "The first type demands human sacrifices...at least one young virgin...sex of the virgin is immaterial...as long as he or she is delivered by midnight of the full moon. The second type eats the dead..."
"What kind of a man would join with beasts like that?"
Gabrielle looked into the eyes of her lover and shivered. There was a coldness there that froze her heart. What had placed it there? She caressed her warrior's cheek, surprised to find it cold. She brought her other arm up to touch her other cheek. Gently she held the beloved face within the warmth of her cupped hands. "Xena tell me about Gregor One-eye."
Xena shivered. Just the memories of that hateful time was enough to freeze the blood in her. How can I tell Gabrielle? Minutes ticked by and she looked silently through the bard into her own past.
"Xena." Gabrielle called softly, placing a light kiss on lips that tasted cold. Her heart skipped a beat. Her warrior...what was wrong with her? She pulled the tall woman closer willing her warmth into the too cool body. "Xena, you're scaring me. Please talk to me."
A tear fell from one eye. Scaring Gabrielle? The words brought her back to herself. She started to pull away. Scaring Gabrielle rang through her head.
"No love." Gabrielle pulled her back. Xena looked into her face. The love shone forth as bright as ever. She paused confused. Gabrielle smiled gently. "You're back. I was scared because you went away...somewhere inside yourself and I couldn't follow." She hugged her. "Now please tell me about it."
Xena nodded as relief flooded her body, making her insides tremble. "I'll try." She smiled as Gabrielle brought forth a wine cask. "Might as well get comfortable." Said the bard as she patted the bed, waiting until Xena had settled herself against the head and opened her arms before scooting over to join her. With Gabrielle tucked comfortably against her side and the first sip of wine warming her stomach Xena began her tale.
"It happened when I was still young. You've met Petricles. It was shortly after our breakup." Xena spoke in a quiet dead voice. It scared Gabrielle to hear her passionate lover speaking with no expression of any emotion. "I had led my men in another battle. This time against another warlord...Gregor. I don't remember much of what happened on that day. One minute I was fighting. The next I was hanging from a pole. I'd already been initiated into the fun soldiers like to have with women after a battle...until then I never thought about it one way or another..." Her voice trailed off as she momentarily got lost in her past. Just as Gabrielle began to despair she spoke again. "It was after Gregor that I made the rule, no killing women and children unless they try to kill you. To think I knew what those men were doing and never tried to stop it until I felt it." She shuddered. It was the change in her attitude towards people that began her journey out of the darkness. Until then she never cared one way or another who was harmed in her quest for power. The gods would never forgive her. She couldn't forgive herself. How could they?
Gabrielle turned into her lover and pressed herself tightly against the larger woman's side. She draped her arm over her and squeezed. "I love you." She murmured kissing the soft neck. "I do."
Xena laughed dryly and swigged some wine. "I know. I don't understand it but I know you do." She tilted Gabrielle's head up and gazed in awe at the beautiful green eyes that smiled at her. "I'm the luckiest girl in the world. She leaned forward and received a sweet kiss.
Gabrielle blushed. She wasn't used to the playful Xena and tended towards frustration when it came to speaking her own praises. She settled for rubbing Xena's stomach "No, I'm the luckiest." She returned the kiss enthusiastically, snuggling even closer to the warrior. She breathed in the aroma of Xena and sent a trail of kisses up her neck, ending at the tall woman's lips. She nibbled at her lips forcing her to open her mouth to the her and time disappeared.
Silence fell over the room for a few minutes as Xena allowed the warmth that was Gabrielle to fill her, chasing away her fears. She held the bard tightly as she gathered her wits and picked up her tale. "Anyway, I hung on that pole; bruised and battered beyond recognition. My insides were on fire. My head ached and my clothes had been cut off...with no regard to whether it cut me. How dare they treat me like that! An animal rage welled up inside me. I didn't stop to think. I leaped straight up screaming. As my body flew up I swirled around and around. Men came running. My chain snapped and still I swirled. The chain streaming out from my body whirled with me hitting all that came close enough. I started my descent, still spinning. The scream had stopped, but in it's place was a maniacal laugh. Everytime I heard the chain slapping another man I laughed. I heard someone yell she's possessed. Another yelled for an Archer to take me down, by that time I was on the ground. I lifted the chain and wielded it like a whip. Lashing first one and then another. I've no idea how many I took down before I saw the archer. I dropped the chain as he let loose the arrow and I stood still as the arrow came closer. I smiled. I felt so invigorated. I laughed and plucked the arrow from the air inches from my heart. The men stood silently by. No one knew what to make of it and then he was there." Xena stopped talking the rage was coming back. She could feel it. Just talking about it made it more real. She shuddered. Tightened her grip on the wine cask and raising it to her lips took a long drought. Slowly she focused on the present and smiled. "Gabrielle." She whispered the name and looked down at the young woman looking up into her face.
Gabrielle kept her tight hold on Xena and patiently waited, gazing lovingly into her face. Finally she heard her name whispered and the sound sent a delicious thrill racing through her body, but it wasn't time for fun. As Xena's eyes turned toward her she spoke. "Love, I wish I had been there for you. I never would have let them take you." Inside she added the words that burned in her heart. I'd kill for you before I'd let anyone touch you.
Xena shuddered. She'd seen that look in Gabrielle's eyes before. What had she done to deserve such devotion? Nothing...she'd been evil. Why didn't Gabrielle understand that she was worthless. She loosened her hold on the beautiful woman.
Gabrielle bit her lip. She saw the change in her friends expression and it frightened her. Gone was the confident warrior. In her place a scared and lonely child. "Xena no." In a movement to swift to follow Gabrielle was sitting on top of Xena. She reached for her warrior's arms and placed them around her waist.
Xena looked back bewildered. "Why?" She shook her head. "I don't deserve you."
Gabrielle's eyes were soft and wet but no tears fell. "Xena, love doesn't worry about deserving...it just is.. All we have to do is accept it. I accept my love for you. I accept your love for me. Do you accept your love for me?" She smiled at the quick nod. Now for the test. "Do you accept my love for you?"
Xena hesitated not sure what Gabrielle meant. Of course she accepted her love, she just didn't understand it. Finally she nodded.
Gabrielle released her breath. "So what's the problem?"
Xena trembled. She hated talking. Especially emotional talk.
Xena couldn't resist the small pleading note in the one word. She wet her lips, "I know you love me and I think I've shown you I accept that love," She raised one eyebrow and relaxed a little as Gabrielle smiled her agreement. "But I don't understand how you can love me. Why you love me...and it frightens me."
Gabrielle smiled sympathetically. "I won't leave you. I can't list all the reasons that I love you and I know that in the beginning I didn't always act as though I loved you, but that's because I didn't believe a woman as unique as yourself could ever love me back. Can't you stop trying to figure out the why and just accept it? She leaned back resting against Xena's legs.
Xena looked back shocked at the question. Just accept it? Stop trying to figure out why? But she always needed to know why? It was what kept her one step ahead of all the other warlords when she'd been one. It was what made her such a skilled fighter. She swallowed uneasily. "Just accept without understanding it?" Slowly she wet her lips and Gabrielle's eyes followed the tip of her tongue as it made it's way around her full mouth. She grinned. "I can accept it." How could she not accept it...to say no would be to cut off her own arm. A warmth entered her heart and the coldness that had entered when she first heard the name Gregor One-eye retreated.
Gabrielle leaned down for a kiss. "Good." She smiled and kissed Xena again. The warrior's arms moved up her back and pulled her closer. "Love you." She murmured as their lips touched again. A long moment past before the two parted breathlessly. The coldness completely gone from Xena's body. She was on fire and only Gabrielle had the sweet nectar that could quench her fire. She let her fingers play slowly with the bard's back, enjoying the way she arched into her.
"Xena." Gabrielle hesitated to break the spell, but Xena needed to purge this memory and that meant telling her the rest of the story. "Much as I want this," and her hand rested on Xena's breast lightly her thumb gliding back and forth over the nipple.
Xena breathed heavily. "Gabrielle if you want the rest of that sordid tale you are going to have to stop touching me."
"Oh." Gabrielle giggled. "Sorry." She placed one more kiss on Xena's lips before sitting up. Her eyes twinkled with joy as she watched the warrior struggle to control her raging hormones. It was going to be a fun night once they got through this part.
Xena struggled to regain control. Damn, but all she wanted to do was reach for Gabrielle and get lost in their loving. She slowed her breathing and took a small swig of wine. "Okay, where was I?"
"And then he was there." Gabrielle replied carefully watching Xena's reaction.
Xena shook her head laughing. "I'll never understand how you do that...remember every little thing I say."
"I think it's a bard thing." She shrugged. "I've always been good at remembering what people say, and when it comes to you..."
"You're better than good." Xena smiled briefly. "But than again you're better than good at everything you put your mind to."
Gabrielle flushed. "You think so?" She asked surprise in her voice.
"Yes." Xena kissed her nose. "I do."
"No problem...it's the truth."
Silence fell as the two women enjoyed the moment.
They laughed and both spoke "I know...the rest of the tale."
"Actually there's not much more to tell." Xena let her hands trace Gabrielle's body. "There he stood - Gregor." She shook slightly at the memory but continued her story. He spoke; He looked at me and laughed. "Pathetic. Kill her!" It was enough to break the spell that held me still."
"What spell?" Gabrielle cocked her head.
"Fear. One look at him and I had frozen in fear." She smiled at the look of unbelief on her lover's face. "I'm afraid it's true." She raised one eye-brow. "I wasn't always the cocky woman you fell in love with." Her face sobered. "Although I guess in a way I have always been cocky...just a few times in life I had the cockiness chased away and this was one of them." Her eyes turned distant as she remembered with a clarity that surprised what happened next. "Gregor didn't have a chance. I leaped forward and thrust the arrow I had plucked from the sky into his eye. He screamed and I ran. I ran as if Hades himself were behind me. Naked, save for the chain, into the woods I fled. I heard them behind me, but they were out of sight. I leaped into a tree, gasping at the pain in my side. I didn't know how long I could stay up there. I hurt all over. I was cold and gasping for breath but I wasn't going back there alive. I wrapped the chain around the tree and closed my eyes."
"So that's how he became Gregor One-eye." Gabrielle said fear for her partner welling up as she recognized the personal threat this man held for her. "I don't want to leave you."
"I know." Xena smiled sadly. "And for once I don't want you to." She shuddered. "I want, no I need your love. But this is about more than us."
Gabrielle sighed. Why was the warrior always right? "All right. I'll do it. I don't like it, but I'll do it."
Xena squeezed her tight. "I knew I could count on you." She kissed her gently.
"You said I'd have to ride?" Gabrielle rolled her eyes at Xena's nod. "Can you pick a small horse?"
"Pick?" Xena grinned. "Oh no love, there's only one horse I trust with you. You'll be riding Argo."
Gabrielle felt her insides go hot again. "You're giving me Argo? But what will you do without Argo?"
Xena smiled. "I'll be fine. I won't need her in the woods."
Gabrielle gazed into the bright blue eyes and knew she'd do anything Xena asked of her. Even ride Argo. "Okay." She swallowed hard. Gods keep her safe for me. "But don't you go doing anything without me."
Xena laughed. "Love I have no intention of getting myself killed. I intend to watch and learn what they intend to do. I want you to bring the Amazons here. I'll meet you here and we'll make our plans."
"What if they won't come?"
"Gabrielle, you're their queen. They'll go anywhere you ask them to."
"Oh." She shrugged sheepishly. "I forgot."
"Come here." Xena lifted the lithe form off the bed and laid her on top of herself. "I think that's enough talking for one night. Don't you?" She slid her hand down the bard's back and rested it briefly on the hem of her night shift.
So my warrior wants no words. I can handle this. She placed her hands on either side of Xena's face and pulled her in for a kiss.
Xena's smile turned feral and her hand slid under the shift, a small growl escaped her throat as she responded to Gabrielle's thrusting tongue.
"But I don't like it." Surprising enough it was Eunice that protested Xena staying behind. "What if something happens between here and Themis' new home? I want you with us."
Xena sighed. "I already explained something came up and they need my help here. Gabrielle and Makarios are good enough fighters that if bandits do attack you'll be fine. It's not even a day's ride from here."
"Wife." Odell stepped in. "If Xena no longer wishes to accompany us we must accept her wishes. We have no hold on her, or her time." Inwardly he wandered what could be important enough to make her leave her friend. He watched the way the two of them acted together...no way those two wanted to be apart. It was obvious they hadn't fought and he'd been talking to the innkeeper late last night, nothing was going on then that needed Xena, yet this morning Detriech went along with her story. We owe them too much to let this lay. I'll get to the bottom of it before Gabrielle leaves us..
"But - "
"Hush." He placed his fingers over her mouth. "Accept it."
"Fine." She closed her mouth and glared at her husband.
She turned away from the group and settled back against the blankets in the cart, staring at the road.
Xena stepped up to the wagon. Somehow this old woman had touched a chord in her that few people had. "Eunice." She rested one hand on the cart's side. "Truly I'm sorry. When I am finished with this task Gabrielle and I will come to your new home."
At the unexpected words the older woman turned and looked deeply into the eyes of the warrior woman. How could one person be both the cause of so much pain and so much joy. "Promise?"
Sparing a brief look at her partner Xena responded "I promise." Gabrielle reached out and clasped her elbow squeezing lightly. Xena turned to face her. "Be careful."
Xena nodded and led her friend over to Argo. She held the horse by the nose and looked into her beautiful brown eyes. "Take care of her for me." She stroked the horse and turned back to Gabrielle. "Take care of her for me."
"I will." Gabrielle placed one hand on Xena's arm. "Be careful." Xena nodded not trusting herself to speak. She held the stirrup for Gabrielle and grinned as her friend swung into the saddle with an ease that surprised her.
Gabrielle knew better than to look back. If she looked and Xena was standing there her resolve would dessert her and she would turn Argo around. Fear sat like a lump of cold meal in her stomach. I love her so much. Please Athena keep her safe.
Makarios moved up beside the young woman. ""You okay?"
"Ya." As okay as I can be without her at my side, she thought, but smiled instead of speaking those words. "Xena said we could be at the cabin by dinner time if we hurried."
Makarios ignored her attempt to turn the conversation. "It's because of those men we saw yesterday right."
Gabrielle wet her lips worriedly. Xena didn't tell her anything about Makarios knowing...was he just guessing or? "Yes." She admitted. No need to hide that. "Xena's worried. She thinks that whatever they are up to it bodes no good for the village we just left as well as those nearby and the Amazon Nation."
"Amazons?" He reared back in surprise. "Why would it effect them and why should she care?"
Anger flared up. Gabrielle forced herself to speak civilly. "Because I am their queen."
"You?!" He shouted in surprise.
His parents looked up. "Something's wrong husband." Eunice gripped Odell's arm.
"I know." He continued along the trail, not looking back. "Are they still talking?"
"Yes. But Gabrielle is angry."
"I hope he hasn't said anything against Xena." Odell sighed. Why did everything need to be complicated?
"No." Eunice shook her head. "Somehow I doubt he'll ever make that mistake." She watched the two arguing for a few minutes. "Stop the cart dear."
The cart came to a stop and the two elders waited for their young companions to join them.
As the two drew abreast of the cart, Eunice took control of the situation. "We refuse to go any further until you tell us what is going on around here."
Odell bit back a grin. His wife was back.
Makarios looked to Gabrielle. It was really her decision. Especially in light of the news he'd just learned. He had been guilty of underestimating this woman more than once. Her greatest strength lies in her appearance. No one would ever believe her to be an Amazon...never mind their Queen. And how come I lived here for over a year without knowing that the Amazons claimed a piece of this forest as their hunting grounds?
Gabrielle's face was still tingling from the anger she'd felt at Makarios' words. Despite his apology she couldn't help but feel that he only half believed her. "Fine." She glanced around, "But not here. This is not a safe spot to stop in. We continue on until I find a safe spot." She held her hand up, to forestall any arguments. Gone was the agreeable young bard they'd all come to expect. In her place stood a small but determined force to be reckoned with. She waited for no answer but kicked Argo forward. Expecting obedience.
Eunice moved to complain, but Makarios stopped her. "Mother, she'll do what she says she'll do."
"But..." Eunice turned exasperated eyes to her son.
"No buts." He turned away and followed the bard silently marveling at the change in her demeanor.
Odell watched the proceedings silently. At least another piece of the puzzle had fallen into his hands. She could bear Xena's company because she was an Amazon. He clicked at the horses and his cart surged forward.
Great now what do I explain and how much? Ooh I wish I were with Xena. She looked skyward. Love wherever you are be safe. She refused to look back. Xena had said that half of leading was expecting the followers to do as you said.
"The stand ahead looks like a good stopover point." Gabrielle pointed. "We'll talk and eat lunch there and we should make it to Themis just after dark." She moved forward without waiting for agreement.
Odell turned to his wife. "Whatever is up our son definitely angered her."
"Makarios?" Eunice called and watched silently as her son trotted his horse over. "What did you say to her?"
Makarios blushed. "Mother I...she" he looked away. "She's a lot more than she appears." He sighed. "I just hope she decides to forgive my foolish words before it ruins our friendship."
Her eyes narrowed. "You didn't try?" She looked down the path at Gabrielle and back to her son.
"Mother!" He turned red. "No! She's spoken for. I'd never risk that." He blew out a deep breath. "I just underestimated her abilities and she took me to task for it."
"And you won't explain that."
"No," he shook his head. "But if it makes you feel better I think it's part of the explanation she intends to give us up ahead."
"Oh?" Eunice fell silent, lost in thoughts of the warrior and the young bard and the changing roles people play.
Gabrielle slid off Argo. "Thanks girl." She patted the golden neck. "Now to set up camp." She stretched her muscles, before rummaging through the saddlebags for an apple to give Argo.
She was sitting comfortably by a small fire when the others arrived. "Eat first, talk after." She said as a greeting. I wonder what their reaction will be? Makarios was not pleased and when I questioned him he admitted he never met an amazon before. He disliked them...us...on principle...on rumors handed down through generations. She sighed. Xena I hope you're having a better time than me.
The object of her thoughts lay far away on the forest floor buried by discarded leaves and branches. She forced herself to remain still and breath shallowly. She'd chosen this spot early in the day because she had anticipated the camp setting up close to it. She'd underestimated Gregor's drive. The camp was all around her. As a matter of fact an inch or two to the right and one stake would have been driven right there her sword arm. She was tired, filthy, and sore and wanted nothing more than to stretch but if she did guards would surround her in less than a heartbeat. She felt her heat beat louder at the thought, and forced herself to remain disciplined when everything within was screaming at her to run. Gabrielle is depending on me I can do this. Footsteps nearby. She strained to hear.
"Are you positive it was Xena?" The familiar voice sounded in her ears and Xena whirled back in time.
Blackness threatened to overcome the warrior. Gods no! I can't believe he still has the power to send me into a panic. Breathe she reminded herself. Take another small breath. Calm. Stay calm. He has no power over me.
"Yes." Hmm. That was the man she interrogated. It would have been easier if she could have killed him, but...justice and a sense of fair play forbid it.
"Well," she heard a low chuckle. "Perhaps I'll get the chance to avenge myself. I happen to know she's not as invincible as some think she is."
She heard a flap open and the two men paused by a tent. "Perhaps this venture will bring an end to the warrior princess. She'd make a nice addition to my collection." Gregor loved the thought of the beautiful woman helpless at his feet. If he did succeed in capturing her he wouldn't make the same mistake again. He entered his tent and called for a servant. When the time was right she would be his. Time...he had all the time in the world. Especially if he could pull this merger off.
"So Xena has gone to keep an eye on him and try to discover exactly what his plan is and I will bring my warriors to assist her in ending his tyranny...hopefully before he joins forces with those demons." Gabrielle looked at her audience of three and tried not to laugh at their expression of awe. "Any questions? No? Good let's get back on the road then." She rose and strode towards Argo. She truly wanted to get to Themis so she could hurry up back to Xena.
"Gabrielle?" Odell spoke up. "What's to stop her from returning to her old ways?"
Gabrielle paused midstep and bit her tongue to keep from yelling. Why did everyone they meet think if she fought evil she'd become it again? Slowly she turned around.
Eunice didn't give Gabrielle a chance to answer. She turned on her husband in anger. "How can you ask that? Did you not just spend two months in her presence? Are you not as aware as I as to her desires? Hasn't she proven herself over and over to us? Why must you question her?" She looked at her son. "And you do you question her loyalties too?"
Makarios held his hands out pleadingly. "No! Not me. I owe her my life, Themis' life and yours and father's. I know good when I see it."
Gabrielle stopped. Her mouth dropped open. Eunice protecting Xena? Against her husband and son? What? She stared in shocked surprise.
"Don't stare with your mouth open!" Eunice barked. "Tell these two why she couldn't ever be that monster again!"
Gabrielle wet her lips and stared into the eyes of the older woman. Surprised by the strength and support she felt seeping into her. "Okay." She spoke softly half laughing. "She'll never turn back because she'll never be betrayed again."
"Huh?" Both men stared uncomprehendingly at the bard.
"Xena went slightly insane when the man she perceived as her great love betrayed her and ordered her death...I will never betray her."
"You?" Odell said shocked.
"Me." Came the quiet reply. "She is my everything." Gabrielle looked at Eunice. "How did you guess?"
"Why else would an Amazon Queen be wondering the countryside instead of staying safe within Amazon territory?" Countered Eunice.
Gabrielle nodded a slight smile on her face. "Now what?"
"We go to Themis' home and talk to her man." Makarios said. "If anyone knows about the demons of the forest it would be him."
Gabrielle broke into a smile. "I never even thought of him!" She exclaimed excitedly. "I'll bet he knows all the local folklore!" She jumped to her feet. "Let's hurry."
Makarios looked at his parents and shrugged, but followed immediately.
Odell turned to his wife. "Do you truly believe the bard?"
"Yes." She smiled knowingly. "But more importantly I believe what I have seen and sensed in Xena." She snuggled against her man. "She is a woman bent on righting all the wrongs she ever did and more...she is trying to stop others from having the same pain...I know because she was afraid to talk to me about our son when I asked her too." She felt her husband shudder. "Yes," She admitted. "I know what he did."
"She told you." Although he spoke quietly, anger laced his voice.
"Yes. I made her tell me." She chuckled. "But before she agreed to she made me promise not to hate him." She hit him lightly in the stomach. "Now tell me would she have done that if she were an unfeeling monster capable only of destruction?"
He lowered his eye, "No."
She placed a finger under his chin and slowly drew his eyes to her own. "So what do we do?"
"Help her...them. However we can."
She smiled and dropped her hand back to her lap. "Good. Then lets get going."
Odell watched his wife with pride. She stepped with more spry than he'd seen in years as she led the way back to their cart. If nothing else he owed the warrior for this. A few months ago he thought he'd be burying his wife and now he was following her around a wooded glade and thinking about battling scum. He chuckled to himself.
Time? Xena bit her tongue, what does time have to do with any...Chronos! Her eyes widened with enlightenment. She closed her eyes and stifled a groan. If I'm right we're in big trouble...she shuddered.
Chronos, father of Zeus...maybe I should send for Hercules? I can see that one: Hi Herc. You ever meet your grandfather? Want to? I think I found his stomping grounds and I don't like his playmates....She shook her head. There is no way I want that to happen. I guess I'll have to settle for the Amazons. She snorted silently. Well at least the Amazons are good fighters...it'll be quite the battle.
She was cold and wet. The rain had moved in shortly after Gregor had entered his tent. If she didn't get off the ground soon she'd freeze to death. The sounds from the tent ebbed and faded. Still Xena waited...once the guards went round...twice. Time to move. In one swift motion she rose and flowed into the darkness, slipping from tent to tent until she was back in the safety of the woods.
She laughed silently at her own thought. Safety of the woods? With demons living here? She shook her head. I need to find out what these demons are...and where does Chronos come into it? And just how can I stop them? She climbed up a tree. Time for a little rest. Maybe I can come up with a plan while I sleep.
A demon of the forest watched as the tall warrior woman laid herself along a branch of his tree. She made herself at home as few others ever had. The Sprite watched in wonder at the woman. So pretty...so dark...was she the evil one he'd been warned of? So many humans invading his forest. Which was the evil one? How to tell...how to tell? Father would know. Must go to the father. The father would know.
"Themis!" The tall man strode towards the cabin. "A wagon's coming."
The young woman came running out. "Is it them? My parents?" She rubbed her hands together nervously. "Oh Stas...what if they don't like it here? What if..."
The man laughed. "Little one," He opened his arms and she ran into them." "You have nothing to fear. Your parents will love what you've done here. They'll be happy for you." He couldn't say anything more. He couldn't assure hr that they'd love him...accept him...he wasn't sure that he'd accept himself as a man for his daughter...
They waited silently for the wagon to draw closer.
Themis tightened her grip on his arm. "One's missing." She swallowed her fear. "Can you tell who?"
He strained his eyes. "There's two on horseback. One has to be Makarios...the other must be Xena...he focused on the cart. There's two in the cart...I can't tell who is in it..." He shook his head. "Gabrielle should be walking, but I don't see her...Maybe she's in the cart?" He glanced at Themis. "Maybe someone's laying in the back of the cart...where we can't see." He attempted to reassure her, but his own fear was welling up inside. Silence fell as the two stood waiting.
"Odell!" Eunice smiled. "It's her, our daughter."
Odell smiled and clucked at the horses to move a little faster.
Makarios looked to Gabrielle and grinned. "Looks like our lovebirds are still happy."
Gabrielle returned his smile. She'd been a little worried that once the idea of loving a man who claimed to be immortal ran off Themis wouldn't be happy, but there the two were still arm in arm. She slowed Argo down, giving the family a chance for a brief reunion.
Time seemed to slow as Gabrielle watched the reunion. Makarios leaped from his horse as the wagon drew to a stop next to the couple that stood waiting. He offered his arm to his mother and she stepped lithely from her seat to the ground. Her eyes locked on those of her daughter. Tears sprang to Themis eyes and she ran forward.
"Mama." Themis buried her face against her mother's neck as she burst into tears.
"Hush child." Eunice closed her eyes and let her head fall against her daughter's. She murmured comfort with a fierce intensity that shocked herself as well as those standing by. Eventually the tears subsided and she brought her hands up to wipe the tracks away. "Daughter, forgive me." Her eyes held those of her younger child and the pain of the past few years were in both sets. "I wasn't there for you when you needed me..." She grasped Themis by the arms, "from now on I will be there...right here...for you."
Themis sniffed and wiped a hand across her face. She smiled tremulously at her mother, 'I'd like that." She turned to her father, he held his arms out and she stepped into them. He enclosed her in the circle of his arms and rested his cheek on her hair. "I am proud of you daughter...you started with nothing and found good friends and a new home." He pulled back and kissed her forehead. "How about introducing me to my future son-in-law?"
Themis turned to the tall man standing uncertainly behind her. "Father, mother, this is Anastasius." She grabbed his hand and pulled him forward. "Stas, these are my parents."
"Hi." He reached out to shake the father's hand and bent low as he looked to Eunice. "It's easy to see where Themis got her looks. Makarios it's good to see you again. Gabrielle?" He questioned as his eyes fell on the strawberry blonde girl sitting on top of the golden-haired war-horse that belonged to Xena.
"It's a long story." Gabrielle slid to the ground. "Let's get settled inside before I begin."
"But where's Xena?!" Themis looked bewildered from her brother to her friend. "She's okay? Isn't she?"
"Ya, she's fine." Gabrielle said unconvincingly, too worried about her friend to comfort the girl.
Anastasius waited for the others to enter first and stopped Makarios before he could enter. "Xena?" He looked into Makarios' eyes.
"The last time we saw her she was okay, but there is a problem. Gabrielle will tell you about it, as soon as we get settled." Makarios grinned at the look on his friend's face. "No it's nothing like what you're thinking. She's a good friend...thanks." He tapped the big man on the shoulder. "Anastasius?"
"Your sister's idea."
"I like it." Makarios entered the cabin Anastasius right behind him.
Odell listened with one to Gabrielle's story as he watched the man his daughter loved carefully. There was something different about him, but he'd hold off on making a judgment...Xena had taught him that.
Anastasius' hands curled into fists, "They said the demons of Pel Forest?" He asked a hard edge to his voice. He knew the forest and it's denizen's. They'd saved his sanity a time or two.
"We need to go to the forest."
Gabrielle stirred uneasily. "Xena told me to get the Amazons. I can't go back to the forest without them."
He looked at the young woman. So pure, she'd be fine in the forest. Xena alone out there... without knowing, without understanding, he had to get there as quick as possible. He glanced at Makarios. "And you?"
"I've done my duty. I'm free to go anywhere I want." He glanced at his parents and was heartened by their look of approval. "And I want to go to the Pel forest."
"Then we shall." He returned his gaze to the young Amazon. "So you feel the Amazons are needed?"
"Xena thought so."
"Oh? And I suppose Xena's thinking makes it so."
Gabrielle frowned. Anger flaring unexpectedly. "Yes." Green eyes flashed. "Xena was the best commander ever...if she says reinforcements will be needed reinforcements will be needed."
"Okay." He held his hands up. "Calm it down." He made calming motions. "I needed to ask. I'm sorry if it upset you."
She fought to contain her anger. She wasn't sure where it came from and that scared her. Xena be safe. "It's not your fault." She stood up and paced. "I...I just miss Xena." She turned to the fire and waited sorting her thoughts out. "I need to leave." She looked up. "When you meet up with Xena tell her I'm coming. I won't let her down."
"Gabrielle." Makarios stood up. "Can't it wait til morning? It's almost dark now...you wouldn't get very far."
Gabrielle closed her eyes. Fear for Xena welled up. The longer they were separated the harder it was. She needed to hurry back, but what would Xena do. Wait. Xena would say wait. Get a fresh start in the morning. "Good thinking." She gave them a brief smile. "I'll wait."
Xena woke suddenly. She listened to the forest. All was normal. Nothing out of place. She opened her eyes and blinked. "What? Her hand instinctively reached for her chakram.
"No need for that." The little sprite said sunnily. "The father wants to meet with you."
"The father?" So this is one of the demons of the forest...not so scary.
"Yes. I told him I saw you come from the smelly camp in secret and he said to fetch you to him.." The sprite stood up. "Follow me." He leaped from the branch they rested on to the large overhang from the next branch. "Come, come." He called waiting not all.
Xena watched as the small manlike creature leaped from one to another branch. Shrugging to herself she rose to her feet tested the branch and was soon leaping eagerly behind the sprite. The freedom of movement a joy to her. She grinned as she effortlessly kept up with the creature, reveling in the knowledge that even though the amazons spent their lives in the trees she was their equal in this...humph this is why I keep practicing...I love this ability. She slowed herself down taking in the changing forest and somehow knew they were near their destination.
The sprite stopped and waited for the warrior woman to reach him. He pointed to the forest ground. "Time to touch the floor. The father waits within." He leaped from the branch, grasping the one below and leapfrogged his way down the trunk.
Xena watched for a moment and looked around. Spotting a vine she moved to it. Quicker way down. She grasped the vine, placed her feet and slid quickly to the forest ground. She took advantage of the time waiting for the sprite to join her, by searching the area. Nothing unusual, but there was a cave. Impatient for action Xena headed for the cave. Drawing her sword she stepped inside the cave, prepared to wait for her eyes to adjust to the changing light her eyes opened wide at the unexpected light. There in front of her instead of a dark, cold cave was a bright, beautiful home. She turned around sword held ready, yup that was the forest behind her. She turned back keeping her sword ready. What the heck was going on? Carefully she walked forward looking for some sign of life. Noone. A fire burning brightly...the smell of stew filled the air...her stomach growled. Oh gods!
"Sit. Help yourself." Xena whirled at the sound. There sitting before the fireplace was a skinny, old man with a long flowing white beard a cane clasped lightly between his hands, his head cocked to one side. "Go ahead." He waved a hand at the table. "It's real food. My friends...my family made it for you."
Xena's eyes narrowed. She lowered her sword and tilted her head. "Who are you?" Her gut already telling her...Chronos. "I'm no friend of the gods." She declared. "What do you want with me?
"With you?" He smiled. "I thought it was you who was looking for something from me?"
"Ahm...ya...I guess I do." Xena hesitated. She wasn't used to asking for help...wasn't even sure what kind of help he could give her...of if she needed to protect him...how was one supposed to protect a dethroned god?
"So we have plenty of time and you are hungry..."
Xena quirked her lips. "Okay I can take a hint." She grabbed a bowl and scooped up some stew. She lifted amused eyes to the man, but said nothing. Gabrielle must be making me soft...I didn't even make him check this for poison. Gaia but I miss her...she'd better be all right." A pit formed in her stomach. Suddenly the stew didn't taste very good. Fear gripped her heart...if something went wrong...how could I live without her? I couldn't...Gabrielle be safe.
Chronos watched the dark warrior amusement playing across his face...such an interesting mix of dark and light. "What is it you want of me?"
"I'm not sure." She admitted. "There's a warlord...Gregor One-eyed camped not far from here I overheard him talking about having all the time in the world to take over the world..."
"And immediately thought of me. I'm flattered, but in case you haven't noticed, I'm an old has been...I was tossed out a long time ago."
"True, but I didn't think you would sell out to a blood thirsty murdering scum that would as soon rape as kill your little forest sprites...destroy your forest...is that what you want?"
"No." His smile widened. "You're not what I expected."
"And you are." She snorted. "A typical god changing the topic when you don't like where it's headed."
"No, taking a slight detour perhaps but not a change." He poked his cane at the woman. "What I expected was a warrior who cared not for Sprites and forests."
Xena hung her head, ashamed, there was a time when he would have been right. "That warrior is no more."
"I can see that." He rose to his feet. "So why do you persist in punishing yourself for her crimes?"
"Ah, I..." He had no right...she didn't need this. "I didn't come here to discuss me." She snarled the words.
"True." He bowed his head. "My Sprites..." he laughed. "...demons of the forest...an easy legend to portray...half eaten animals...humans that we did not kill left out for others to find...fear of the unknown is easy to work with. Of course I have a few tricks that helped...and time manipulation is my favorite."
"So how did Gregor find out about you and your talent? How does he intend to gain control of it, you?"
"I don't know." He walked towards the inner cavern. "Come we have very little time and a lot to do."
Xena stood and followed him warily. "Too trusting." She muttered to herself but continued to follow anyway.
The cave opened up as they walked deeper. Xena marveled at the beauty it showed. Drawings of a people and a history she knew nothing of were reveled along the wall. Gabrielle would love this place. She closed her eyes and sent her love flying toward her woman.
"Come warrior." The old man demanded. "Time enough to dream of your lover later." He pounded his cane, as he crossed a threshold. "Now is the time for you to learn of my secrets."
Xena paused at the threshold. She glanced around an oval room. Light shone from many candles. The walls were full of more drawings. The drawings showed the Titans...their fall from power...Zeus...his children...their battles...their fall... Xena stepped closer peering sharply at the wall. It seemed o come alive. The miniature figures moved and if she listened carefully she could almost make out words. She looked shocked and turned her eyes to Chronos. The old god sat on a throne draped in velvet. Xena's eyebrow rose and her lip curled in a snarl. "Am I supposed to worship you?" She asked contemptuously.
"You?" he laughed. "Hardly." He rose from his seat. "I require no more worshipers. My little Sprites are more than enough to keep me happy. Not only do they act as my worshipers they are my friends, my companions...and all they require is my company." He stepped closer to the wall. "Interesting stories for those that have the time to sit and watch them unfold.
"How did they get there." Xena nodded at the wall.
"The forest Sprites." He grinned. "They had time. They sat and watched, and as the stories unfolded for them they drew the pictures. Fascinating isn't it?"
"Hmm." She turned her steel blue eyes towards him, impaling him with their power. "And just what does all this have to do with saving my friends and family."
He swallowed. Amazed that this mortal had actually caused him fear however brief. "Look close. Look very close. The answers you seek are on the wall." He waved at the wall. "I can't tell you...it's a god thing...but you can look, find, and if you ask me the right question afterwards I can answer it."
Xena rolled her eyes. I hate getting involved with gods...any gods. She turned toward the wall and concentrated. The pictures seemed to grow larger, the words clearer. Once again she wished Gabrielle was with her. Then she let herself get lost in the creation of a world.
Gabrielle rose early. She sighed as her hand fell on the cold empty blanket next to her. Well at least I woke early and without Xena to prod me. She would be proud of me. The young strawberry blonde stepped quietly weaving among the furniture and made it out the door without awaking any of her friends. Once outside she ran to the stable. I need to hurry. I have a real bad feeling about all of this. "Hey Argo." She ran her hand over the palomino's mane. "Now let's get you saddled hmmm? The sooner we get to the Amazons the sooner we can get back to Xena." Argo butted her. "Yes girl." Gabrielle chuckled. "I miss her too. Xena wherever you are you better be okay." She leaned against the golden fur. "All my love is with you. Be safe." She whispered softly to the wind. Rising she led the saddled horse out into the morning air. "Okay Argo let's go." She swung into the saddle, looked toward the cabin and whispered good-bye before tapping her mount lightly.
"Gabrielle's gone." Makarios burst into the common room.
"What?!" Themis jumped to her feet Anastasius snagged her and pulled her back down on the bench. "No need to hurry." He said amused.
Odell made for the door and Eunice merely smiled. "Did you expect anything different?" There was laughter in her voice. "She promised us she'd wait til morning...morning has been here for a few candlemarks." She smiled at the stunned faces. "Come, she's off doing what she needs to do. What she promised she'd do. Now if I remember correctly we have two more people that have to leave this morning."
"True." Odell smiled at his wife's wisdom and returned to his seat by the fire. "And what do you propose?"
"Me?" She smiled warmly. "Nothing. We have a wedding to get ready for and a cabin to turn into a home." She looked at her son.
A stunned Makarios still stood by the door. Anastasius stood up. "I think that's our cue." He walked toward Makarios. "Wha...?" Makarios blushed. "Ya, right. Our cue. The horses are ready. I left them just outside the door."
"Then all you need is this." Eunice handed her son a bag. "Food for the journey." She smiled. "I think you'll be too busy to do much hunting.
"Thanks mom." He hugged her close. So much I want to tell you ...so much I'm afraid of.
"Anastasius, Makarios, be careful." Themis hugged her brother and chastely kissed her lover. She turned to her parents, trying to hide the tears of fear in her eyes.
Anastasius stepped forward. Her reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder. She stopped. Gently he turned her around and placed a finger under her chin. He looked soberly into her eyes. "I'll bring your brother home safely...as for me haven't you learned you have nothing to fear...I'll be back."
"I know." She smiled tremulously. "It's just not fair. I...we finally have a chance at happiness and this happens."
"We will have happy times." He hugged her close ignoring the family standing around. "You help settle your parents in and we'll be back before you know it." He bestowed a kiss on her forehead and stepped back swinging into the saddle before he could change his mind. He looked over to Makarios and grinned at his parents fussing. "Come my friend, the faster we leave the faster we will get back."
Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief as she entered familiar woods. She sensed the sentries watching and slid off Argo. Her staff was fastened to Argo's saddle, much like a sword and knowing the watchers were her Amazons she left it there, raised her arms up over her head and clasped them together in the classic friendship pose. Half a heartbeat later she was rewarded with by the sight of masked people sliding down vines enclosing her in their circle. She waited as they acknowledged her going down on one knee and as one breathing "Our Queen."
She lowered her arms, a smile on her face. "Rise." Her eyes twinkled. "Solari." She hugged her friend. "I need an escort to the village. Trouble rides a forest not far from here."
"Xena?" Solari's eyes were full of concern.
"She's fine. Keeping an eye on the men that want to start a war." Gabrielle grabbed Argo's reins and fell in step with her friend a guard of three formed a half circle behind them. "I'm here to get help."
"Help?" Solari skipped a step. "It's that bad?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Xena thought so. I'll fill you in on what I know once we see Ephiny."
The small party paused as they entered the village. Gabrielle felt the tension ebb. This...if not for Xena would be home. She glanced toward the warrior's practice field. Epinon was busy with what looked like a new class of staff trainees. She thought of her own training at the older warrior's hands.
"No." The quiet command had the beginnings of frustration in it. Gabrielle shuddered. It was so unfair. She wasn't a warrior. Why did she have to learn all this stuff? Xena isn't too happy with this whole thing and I'm scared...what if they say I have to stay here? "Ouch." She dropped the staff and grabbed her shoulder. "That hurt."
"If you were out on the road you'd be dead." Epinon said through gritted teeth. "An enemy wouldn't have pulled back when she realized you weren't paying attention. Like it or not you received the Right of Caste...you are now an Amazon Princess and need to learn to act like one...to fight like one...to be one that others can look up to." She tilted her staff down and flipped Gabrielle's staff up into the air catching it and holding it out to the young woman. "So?"
Gabrielle stared hard at the older woman. She knew what the amazon warrior was saying, she just wasn't sure what she should do. She wished she could ask Xena. That's an idea...what would the Warrior Princess say... er do? She squared her shoulders, suddenly she knew, a peaceful feeling settled over her and she reached out her hand. "I am an Amazon." She grasped the staff. "I will learn the staff...learn our laws and do the best I can to help my sisters." She stepped back and slipped into the first stance the warrior had taught her.
Epinon grinned and tilted her head studying the small lithe woman before her. There was something about this one...something that was easy to overlook...she said the words first silently...My sword is yours to command Princess Gabrielle...then outloud, "My sword is yours to command Princess Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle?" Solari tapped the princess on her shoulder. "Are you okay?"
"Huh?" Gabrielle blinked and brought her mind back to the present. "I'm sorry I was just thinking." She moved toward the Queen's hut knowing she'd find Ephiny there, residing over whatever disputes were presently of concern to her nation.
Solari rolled her eyes. Just thinking? And wouldn't I like to know what that grin was for. Turning to the women behind her she quickly dismissed them and jogged after her friend and princess. No way I'm gonna miss out on this one.
"Gabrielle!" Ephiny jumped to her feet interrupting the red headed amazon that was presenting her case to the regent. "What brings you here?" She looked over the bard's shoulder. "Where's Xena?" Suddenly fearful of her Queen's reason for coming back to them.
Gabrielle twisted her lips and let a small laugh fall from her mouth. "Don't worry she's fine...we're fine." She flashed a bright smile at the gathered amazons. "But..." She wrapped her arms around her regent and whispered. "...I do need to speak to you privately." She stepped back. "It's good to see all my sisters again. I wish I could say it was because I missed you that I came, but that is not true. I promise though that as soon as possible I...Xena and I will come just to visit."
Ephiny cleared her throat noisily. "You are all dismissed." She turned to the red head. "Delan, we will continue where you left off as soon as possible."
The red headed woman bowed. "I understand, my queens." She stepped briskly out of the cabin.
Ephiny waited until all except the council had left and nodded to Solari to close the door and stand guard. She winked as her friend obeyed the command, standing at attention inside the cabin. She raised a brow at Gabrielle, who bit back a giggle, but nodded her acceptance of the situation.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and stepped over to the table, where the council of the Amazons - no - where her council waited. I have to remember what Xena said. Command is half skillful manipulation...acting and half knowledge. I can do this. I will do this. "I've come to you my sisters to ask for help. Less than a week ago Xena ran into a band of mercenaries..." She began her tale, using techniques she'd learned as a bard. "...and so I have come here to ask for a squadron of our warriors to return to the Pel forest. To roust the enemy and take back that which is ours."
No sooner did Gabrielle finish talking then bickering broke out. Ephiny and a few others where ready to run to the aid of Xena. Many of the others were wary about getting involved in an altercation removed from their own woods. Gabrielle listened for a few minutes. When she was positive she'd heard every argument for both sides she rose to her feet and waited silently. Xena I hope I can pull this off. She steeled herself as she lowered her eyes, bringing her brows into a stern furrow and mimicked Xena's menacing look.
One by one the arguing amazons fell silent. Many shifted uneasily; those standing from foot to foot, those seated lowered their eyes to stare uneasily at the table in front of them, and a few rolled their shoulders as the tenseness of their queen seemed to roll onto their own shoulders.
"I understand your reluctance to join in this battle." Gabrielle let her eyes rove from person to person, "The main argument for fighting in it is that these people are using woods that are claimed by us, even we haven't used them recently. Should we just give up land that belongs to us? Woods that are meant to be protected by Amazons, that are ours to hunt." She let a very real sigh be heard. "I am your Queen. I could order you to fight with me, but I won't." She looked skyward and silently said a quick prayer that she was doing what was right. "I am going back. I will fight and I would like my Amazon sisters to be beside me in this battle." She swallowed her fear. "I need an answer now. There is no time to waste. I'll be waiting outside."
Solari stepped away from the door and held it open as Gabrielle swept through it. She stepped forward to follow her friend and her queen, paused and looked back at the council. "The queen will not ride out alone no matter what the council decides." She stepped quickly through the door and letting it fall shut behind her. "Gabrielle, wait." She called after the young blonde.
Gabrielle stood with her back to Solari. "I don't have time for this." She said as she felt the other woman come up behind her.
"I'm coming with you."
Gabrielle spun around surprised. "They couldn't have voted that quickly."
"I don't care about the vote." Solari looked steadily into Gabrielle's eyes. "I care about my honor, my family, and my friends."
Gabrielle felt tears rush to her eyes. She wet her lips and blinked. "But don't you have to abide by the council?"
"The council?" Solari laughed. "Gabrielle for one, you are the Queen and if you ordered us to nothing they said would make a difference. Second, Amazons are free to choice their own path. Occasionally that means leaving the village as Ephiny did when she married Phantes, or you did when you chose to stay with Xena, if I chose to leave with you no one will stop me. Even if the Amazons won't follow you into battle."
Unseen Epinon had come up behind the two talking women. "Who won't follow who?" She said anger seeping into her voice. "And where's Xena?" Her eyes darted about looking for the warrior and fearing the answer.
"Ep!" Both women exclaimed.
Shaking her head Gabrielle laughed. "No it's nothing like that." She grinned as the warrior blushed. "Xena's keeping an eye on some mercenary types in the Pel Forest. I came to get some help."
Solari rolled her eyes at Gabrielle's explanation and stepped in. "What she means is Xena's in the woods waiting for some backup because she thinks this time it might be more than she can handle."
"When do we leave?"
Solari bit back a laugh.
Gabrielle stared open mouth at Epinon. "That's it? When do we leave? Don't you want to know what you'd be up against? "
"No." The warrior shook her head. "You and Xena need our help. That's good enough for me. Let me get my traveling kit."
"But?" Gabrielle spoke to thin air. Epinon had already headed toward her hut. Solari smiled at her young queen, who shrugged. "I guess it may be selfish Solari, but I am glad that at least you and Epinon will be with me."
"Not just us, my queen." She pointed toward the waiting warriors that had accompanied her to the village. "I believe they are awaiting your command."
"My command?" Gabrielle's eyes went wide. "But?"
"Well they did escort you to the village. They know Xena wasn't with you. Amazons aren't stupid..."
Gabrielle glanced back at the hut she just left and forward to the waiting guards, then to the woman at her side. "I don't know what to do." She admitted. She was tired, worried, and scared, but she couldn't tell them that. She had to be strong. Xena was depending on her.
Solari started at the call.
Gabrielle turned wearily toward her friend and regent, "Ephiny?" She said questioningly. Knowing in her heart it had been too quick. She squared herself against the bad news. Xena I failed. She cried inwardly.
"Can you come back in?" Ephiny nodded her head toward the hut and held the door open.
"Ahh," She tossed a quick glance at Solari who nodded encouragingly. "I guess so." She smiled tensely at her friend as she walked back into the hut. She held her head high, every inch the queen they had made her.
She stopped at the head of the table and looked carefully around the room, acknowledging each individual before speaking. "I assume a decision has been reached." She broke the silence.
Ephiny grinned, "Yes. You're our Queen. It is Amazon land, even if it has been unused for years. Well I am willing to be your mouthpiece while you are out following your heart we have all pledged to follow you." Now the smile had reached her eyes. "So lead us to Xena and we will fight for you."
Oh gods! She wanted to hide her head in her arms. How could she do this? Earlier she was afraid they wouldn't come with her. Now she was afraid because they would. These are my friends...my family, how can I lead them into battle? I'm asking them to be prepared to die for me...I can't do this. Fear filled her heart and she started to panic.
Ephiny watched the change come over her friend. She leaned over and whispered in her ear. "Breathe." She commanded. "Think of Xena."
Gabrielle felt a smile spread over her face. Eph sure knew the right thing to say. Thoughts of Xena calmed her. Xena thought she could do this and there was no way she was going to let Xena down. She tightened her jaw, and raised her chin a little. "All right. If I have the support of the council I'd like to take two squadrons with me. That will leave enough warriors here to defend the village if need be. We leave in the morning." She turned to Ephiny. "I'll need some help in choosing which warriors to take."
Ephiny nodded. " Shallan is the one you want to help you with that. She is our War Leader. She knows everyone's strengths and weaknesses. Come on, I'll take you to her hut."
Gabrielle stretched wearily. She glanced around her hut. It seemed so strange to be standing here without Xena. Gods I miss her. She sat on the edge of their bed and immediately remembered the first time she sat here with Xena.
She sat silently with her head down, afraid to look at the imposing figure standing in the doorway. She had sensed Xena's anger at the whole situation and was afraid of what her traveling companion was going to say.
Thinking back she realized just how off guard Xena had caught her with her actions. Instead of ranting about it the warrior had quietly walked across the room and knelt at her feet.
"Do you want to stay here?" The warrior asked, carefully schooling her own thoughts on the subject. "Is this what you want out of life?"
"I don't know." The frightened young girl wailed. "I guess it's kind of exciting. I mean being a princess and all, but..." her voice trailed off. She was frightened and still unsure of what Xena thought or wanted. "If I stayed here what would you do?"
Xena snorted. "I'd continue doing what I've been doing. Just like before I met you."
Gabrielle looked up at the strong face of her companion and fell into those beautiful blue eyes again. Would it really be that easy for you? She thought the words but didn't speak. She took a deep breathe and wet her lips. Xena stayed kneeling at her feet looking into her eyes as though telling her that whatever decision she made it would be okay. "And if I choose to stay with you?" That brought a smile to the harsh face and it was a smile that even then caused Gabrielle's stomach to do flip flops.
"Then we continue to do what we've been doing." Came the quiet reply.
"But what about the Am- " Xena interrupted Gabrielle with a hand over her mouth. "I'll take care of the Amazons." She promised.
"And she had." Gabrielle sighed. That had been a major turning point in their life and she hadn't realized it at the time. Artemis, Athena, keep her safe for me. She covered her face with both hands. "I'm not ready for this." She muttered. "And Xena was how old when she started leading armies?" A knock at the door and a soft voice interrupted her musings.
"Gabrielle?" Ephiny called. "Are you awake? Can I come in?"
"Yes." Gabrielle quickly rubbed her eyes. "Come in."
"Hi." Ephiny smiled at her friend. "I thought you might like some company." She glanced uneasily around the room. "I guessed you'd be having a hard time sleeping."
"Ya." Gabrielle shrugged sheepishly. "I guess I ah um..." She snorted at herself. "Well you know."
"Ya, I do." Ephiny smiled. "That's why I brought this." She held up the wine skin.
Gabrielle laughed outright. "I think Xena would have appreciated that more than me."
"Ah but you need it more tonight." Ephiny took a sip and passed the skin to Gabrielle. "Go ahead take a little. It'll help you loosen up enough to sleep and if this problem is anywhere as bad as I think it'll be you'll need all the rest you can get."
Gabrielle sipped the wine enjoying the slow spread of warmth it instantly brought to her. She closed her eyes and sighed. "I can't do this Ephiny. I'm not a leader."
Ephiny bit her lower lip an leaned forward. "You can do this." She spoke earnestly. "You have it in you...you do." She clasped Gabrielle by the shoulder. "Three years ago you accepted this...then you couldn't lead...now you can. You've proved that in the times you spent here with us."
Gabrielle took another sip. "But this..." She shuddered. "It's asking people to die for me." She shook her head. "I don't want people to die for me."
"No." Ephiny took the skin back. "Not for you, but for themselves. For their own values, for each other." She took a swig. "Would you die for Xena?"
"What kind of a question is that?"
"Would you die for me?"
"Ephiny? I don't understand!" Gabrielle became agitated. "You know I would."
"As I would for you." Ephiny smiled. "And yet you would deny me and the rest of your friends the same right?" She looked Gabrielle straight in the eye and held her gaze. "Is that fair to us?"
Gabrielle stared thoughtfully at her friend. The one woman besides Xena that had taught her so much about friendship. She chewed her lip worriedly. "I... I... I ne...never looked at it that way."
"I understand." Gabrielle continued to chew her lip nervously. "These are my people, my responsibility. I will lead them and I will try to see to it that as few as possible die so the nation may live on."
Ephiny smiled. "Good. That's all I can ask." She took another long swig and handed the skin to Gabrielle, who immediately lifted it to her mouth. "I just wish I could go with you."
Gabrielle lowered the skin, swallowed and licked her lips. "Me to, but one of us has to stay with the village."
"You could stay." Ephiny looked away for a moment. "I could lead the war party and you stay here."
"No." Gabrielle shook her head. "My place is out there. Your place is here."
"You sure?" Ephiny placed her arms on her friend's shoulders. "I mean I am more of a warrior than you."
"And you want to keep me safe." Gabrielle stood up and crossed her arms defiantly.
Ephiny dropped her eyes. "Yes." She admitted warily. "I do want to keep you safe. You are my friend and my queen." And silently she added besides I could never face Xena if anything ever happened to you.
Gabrielle sighed heavily. "I know." She stepped closer to her friend. "But I can't stay here. Xena is out there. That's where I belong. Can you understand that?"
Ephiny closed her eyes. Artemis, when did she grow up? "Ya, I can understand."
"Good." She clasped her friend close. "Now get outta here. I have to get some sleep."
"Yes my queen." Ephiny bowed her head, retrieved her skin and walked out.
Gabrielle collapsed on her bed. "Oh Xena I miss you and I am so afraid..." She closed and a tear trickled down her cheek.
"Gabrielle?" A small hand patted her hair. Gabrielle blinked awake. The hand dropped away and tear-filled eyes strained to look into her own.
"Oh." A slight smile parted her lips. "Acacia." She opened her arms and the child slipped into them. She held the trembling form close to her. "What's wrong?" Gabrielle whispered the words, afraid of the answer. Had they made a mistake leaving the child with the Amazons? "Acacia?" She lifted the child's face to look at her. "Why the tears?"
Acacia sniffed and rubbed a hand across her eyes. "Xena." Tears fell again.
"Oh no." Gabrielle wiped the tears away and clasped Acacia close. "Xena's okay." Gabrielle rocked back and forth with the girl.
"But," Bewildered eyes looked up at the queen. "If she's okay why are you here alone?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath. How much to tell a child? I wish Xena were here. She'd know what to say. She thought of the warrior woman and the answer came to her. Gabrielle smiled at the child in her arms. They had told the girl that this was their family and that would be explanation enough. "Xena and I needed some help so I came to get a few of our sisters."
"Can I come?" The child asked excitedly.
"No." Gabrielle said firmly but gently. "The help we need is in the art of war and you my dear are only just learning. In a few years you will be ready to assist us as the women that ride with me tomorrow are doing now."
Acacia frowned. "Will you get hurt?"
Gabrielle bit back a laugh. "I don't know. I can only promise that we will try not to let anyone get hurt."
"Will you come back with the others?"
"We'll see." She smiled. "If all works out well Xena and I will come back for at least a short visit soon. Okay?"
Acacia nodded happily.
Gabrielle tousled her hair. "Good. Now let's get some sleep."
Acacia's eyes lit up. "I can stay with you?"
Gabrielle nodded and laid back on her cot.
"Good." The child wormed her way tightly against the bard's side. "I missed you." She sighed happily as her eyes drifted shut.
"I missed you too little one." Gabrielle whispered into the dark hair and pressed her lips against the child's head, before closing her own eyes.
Xena rolled her shoulders to ease the ache that came from sitting still for so many hours. She rose to her feet and examined the paintings on the wall. Once again they appeared normal. She rolled her tongue around worriedly. Silently she made her way through the cave to the front entrance.
"Are the images reality?" She stopped in front of the old man.
"I don't know." Chronos admitted. "The sprites won't say."
"I need to know." She said.
"And all I can tell you is time will tell."
She snarled. "No, I won't wait for time to tell me." She turned towards the woods, and looked back over her shoulder. "The images are false. I won't let them be true." She stomped into the woods.
Chronos laughed. He turned to one of the sprites. "I think she was upset by the images." He looked to where she'd disappeared. "She was so upset she forgot to ask about time. Yet that's what she came here for." He twirled his walking staff haphazardly. "And that's what they will need to stop him."
Xena fought to contain her rage. The pictures had to be only possibilities not the only way. I can just kill him now. Before the others arrive. Before she gets here. She leaned her head against a tree. I can't live without her. This can't be her destiny. I won't let it be. She stayed still willing her body to calm down. A plan. I need to come up with a plan.
"Arhahahahahahaa." A sinister laugh filled the air. Xena spun around. "Too late warrior princess." She heard the words as something knocked her to the ground. "Bind her tight." Were the last words she heard as darkness descended.
Xena stifled a groan as awareness slowly returned. The rough hemp rope abraded her. A tug against the binding had nearly brought panic. She needed to be free to protect Gabrielle. She could feel the rough bark of a tree against her back. She yanked the rope tightened.
"You won't be going anywhere." A voice that was familiar and amused sounded in her ears. She forced her eyes open despite the fact that the throbbing was enough to make her want to smash her own head against the tree. Gregor. "Ugh." She closed her eyes. "That's not a sight for sore eyes." She muttered.
The same evil laughter that she had heard before being knocked unconscious filled her ears again. Her eyes flashed open. "You?!" She snarled angrily and yanked at her binds. The ropes pulled even tighter.
"Ha. You never should have turned nice. It ruined you. Three years ago I would never have been able to catch you unawares." He spit at her feet. "Now look at you." He rolled his eyes. "Pathetic."
"Untie me and we'll see just how pathetic I am."
"Oh I don't think that would be a very good idea. No," he tilted his head. "I think I'll let your friend Gregor have you."
"I should have known you'd be a part of this." She glared at the man. "It reeks."
"Yes." His eyes gleamed. "Actually after you tried to kill me I set up this little hideaway. The best thing you ever did for me was to banish me from your army." He laughed. "It made me the man I am today."
"Man?" She laughed. "You're no more a man today then you were last time I saw you." She looked meaningfully at his crotch. A sneer plastered on her face.
His eyes glazed. "And you'll pay for that!" His hand flew across her face. "It's easy to a beat an unarmed person." She touched her lip with her tongue, tasting the blood. "At least you were armed when I took care of you."
His face turned purple with rage. He stepped in and slapped her again. "I've waited six years for this. I mean to take you down Xena and I don't care what tool I use to do it."
Stas and Makarios paused by in a small clearing. Stas sensed something was wrong. The further into the woods they'd moved the more uneasy he grew. Now stepping into this clearing he knew something had happened here. He closed his eyes and stretched with his other senses. Something, his nose twitched. That smell. His eyes popped open. "Mak-"
"Stas!" Makarios was kneeling by an Oak tree. He turned to his companion and fear shone from his eyes. "This is Xena's." He held out a small pouch.
The big man nodded. "She was here and I think captured. Come on." He bent low looking for clues and following an almost hidden trail through the woods. They hadn't gone far when they heard voices. The two men looked at one another.
Makarios shook his bow at Stas. Stas nodded his agreement and pointed to the right, holding up three fingers. He nodded agreeing silently to the plan. Get in position and attack in three minutes. He'd always been a good shot. It might even up the odds somewhat. He stepped into position and now he could see Xena tied to a tree. He shuddered. The man standing before her was a cruel one. He recognized the slight insane look. He watched as the man pulled his arm back, and let loose a slap that if she hadn't been tied would have knocked the warrior woman down. The slap echoed in the woods, and Makarios clenched his weapon tighter forcing the desire to kill the man down. Not yet wait for Stas to get in position. The smile of cruel anticipation on the man's face making his mouth go dry with fear. He forced himself to lift his bow and set the arrow. Wait. He reminded himself. I'll know when.
Stas waited until his friend was out of sight, before laying down and wriggling his way in closer to the clearing. He moved slowly and purposely toward the scent that was Xena. He needed to get as close as possible if he were to free her. If it wasn't too late. A smile came to his face as he heard her voice taunting, goading her captor. He was close enough now. How many men were there? He risked parting the brush in front of him. Six, seven , eight that I can see, probably double that amount. Not bad odds. We can do this. He grinned. A chance to battle again. He let the battle fever rise in his veins. The heat, the smell of the blood waiting to be spilled filled his nostrils, and he knew it was time. Rising he drew his sword and stepped into the clearing. "It's easy to beat an unarmed person." He grinned at the startled faces, and let a sneer form on his face. His disdain for the bandits clear. "Especially one tied to a tree. How about you try me instead."
Makarios hesitated not at all. The sight of Stas standing at ease in the bandit's camp was all he needed. He took aim and let loose. Cocked a second arrow and let it fly before the first arrived. As the first arrow found it's mark, Stas' sword took the life of the man closest to him. The one that had been threatening Xena. Cleaving down and through his chest effortlessly, before swinging behind to slice through the rope that bound Xena to the tree. Once freed from the tree Xena rose awkwardly and with feet still tied together joined in the battle. Makarios let loose a second arrow, getting the bandit that had crept up behind the big man. Xena laughed. She grabbed the sword from the fallen man and sliced the rope that bound her legs together. "Now we'll see who has who." She murmured to the remaining men. "Thanks for the help." She spared a glance toward the big man. "I take it Gabrielle arrived."
"Yes." He parried. "She said to tell you she'll be here shortly." He flipped the sword out of his enemy's hand and followed through with a quick slice to the man's throat.
Xena blanched as she heard his words and renewed her fight. Much as she wanted to see her lover she no longer wanted the bard to come any where near these woods. Kicking the man she was fighting knocking him against a tree before an arrow came out of no where to pin him there. Her laughter filled the air. "Thanks Makarios!" She hollered. "Both of you?" She cocked an eyebrow at the man fighting by her side. "I would have thought one would stay at the cabin."
"What and let you have all the fun?" Stas said as he dispatched yet another man and smiled at her. Turning around as no new fighters came to battle him. Makarios stepped out of the woods. The ground was littered with bodies. "None escaped." Came the quiet assurance.
"Good." Xena lifted a knife off of one of the bodies and began slicing the ropes off her wrists. "Thanks for killing him." She nodded toward the first man to have fallen." Stas raised a brow in question. "I should have done that years ago."
"You knew him?"
"Oh ya." She grimaced. "I threw him out of my army after I crippled him."
The two men looked at the body puzzled. "Crippled? He looks okay to me."
"Look again." She sneered. "Only this time take his pants off." She snorted at their look and instinctive reach to their own crotch. "Ya. I cut it off. After I caught him raping a little girl...he'd already finished with her brother." Anger at her own weakness filled her, and weary of it all she slumped to the ground. "I should have just killed him." She shook her head sadly. Why didn't I just kill him back then? "I should have just killed him." She swore softly.
The two men slightly pale at her words looked uneasily at one another. The bigger one stepped forward and crouched at her side. "Killing him would have put him out of this world, but not made him suffer as the past several years have besides it's a moot point now." He reached out and clasped her shoulder. "Come on. Forget him. It's over. We need to go forward now. Let's go set up a camp and you can fill us in on what's going on out here."
Xena let him drag her to her feet. Makarios joined them. Her weapons in his hands. He held them out. "Thanks." She slipped the chakram into it's spot at her waist, and the sword slid back into it's sheath with a comforting sound. "Come on." She stepped towards the woods, glanced back at the body of her tormentor and shuddered slightly. "I know the perfect place for us to rest."
'So you've met Chronos." Stas said slowly after listening to his friend's tale. "And what did you think?"
Xena tilted her head at the men that sat before her. "He's an interesting character, with interesting friends. Don't you think?" She turned her blue eyes onto Anastasius' eyes, ignoring Makarios startled indrawn breath.
He chuckled. "Yes. I agree. How did you know I knew him?"
"I watched the wall."
"He showed you?" Stas' shock was obvious. "But...I mean, I he..." He shook his head as though trying to clear it. "I find this hard to believe." He held out a hand forestalling any argument. "No. I don't doubt your word. I just find it difficult to fathom." He wet his lips and pulled his upper lip into his mouth sucking on it. "In all the years I have known him he has refused to let me see the wall." He looked at his companions. "And I knew it existed. Unless I am mistaken you just learned of it's existence."
"That's true." She tore a piece of meat off the rabbit leg she was holding and chewed thoughtfully. "And I almost wish I hadn't looked." She swallowed, took a sip of water and continued. "The future doesn't always hold things you want to see." Her eyes darkened and her voice lowered. A note of sadness entered and both men shook. It showed a lot of death. Deaths of loved ones." Her eyes glistened. "And I am not willing to pay that price. I will not allow that...those deaths to occur."
'So we change the plan." Stas rubbed his chin. "Who dies?"
"No." She shook her head. "No one dies." She glanced from one to the other. "I won't let anyone die to stop this pig." She picked at her teeth. "I will move against Gregor tomorrow. You guard Chronos."
Makarios stared unsure of what to do. It sounded like something had gone wrong since last time he'd seen Xena. And her eyes they were cold. Sent a chill right through him. He rubbed his arms. I wish Gabrielle was here. She'd know what to do.
Stas chuckled. "I don't recall enrolling in your army." His eyes sparkled. "As a matter of fact the last time I remember enrolling in an army I think I was a couple of hundred years younger than I am today."
Xena clenched her fists together. The rage stayed just below her surface. "So you refuse to do it?" Her voice managed to stay calm, but she was amazed that her heart hadn't jumped out of her chest.
"No." He raised one brow at her. "I question the wisdom of your method of battling our enemy. One against how many, when there is no need for it?"
"There's a need." Her voice was terse, her eyes furrowed with an unseen pain. "I can't risk it...can't risk innocent lives."
"You?" Makarios broke in. "It's not your decision. It's up to each of us to decide when to fight and when not to. Don't deny us the right to fight for our homes...our people."
Xena threw her head back and took a deep breath. She squeezed her eyes shut. Why me? She let her breath out slowly and wet her lips. "A right to fight..." She opened her eyes and looked into Makarios' eyes. A couple of months ago she wanted to kill him, and a month before that he'd wanted to kill her, now all she wanted was to find a way for him to live. "...and a right to die. That's what you want." Her voice was low and throaty a certain chilling quality that made his heart skip a beat.
"If it means dying for our home, for our loved ones I for one am prepared to do just that." He sounded a little miffed that she'd had to ask, that she acted as though he shouldn't be willing to die for his family. He frowned and let his anger seep into his voice. "What? Do you think you're the only person with the right to fight for home and family? Are the rest of us supposed to stand aside and watch you fight? "
She blinked more than a little taken aback by his attack. She nodded her head slowly. "You're right." She admitted. "I've always been like that." She looked away remembering the past. Remembering her first step into the darkness that would be her life for ten years.
"Lyceus, no!" Xena screamed as she saw her brother go down. Her sword flashed left and right spilling blood of any within her reach as she fought to reach her little brother. Villagers and mercenaries alike shrunk away from her. She stood over her brother's body and fought until no more marauders were left standing. Her arms tired and her sword and clothing covered in blood she knelt and wept at his side. She wept until Toris came and told her it was her fault. She believed him. Her own mother turned away when she managed to drag her weary body home. She carried Lyceus with her and placed him on his bed. She knew somehow she'd failed them. It's why they hated her. She'd make it better. She'd find a way to protect the whole village. She'd find Cortese. Make him pay. No one would ever do this to Amphipolis again. Not as long as she lived.
She blinked returning to the present. "What do you want to do?"
Makarios glanced at Stas. The big man sat silently waiting. He looked down at his feet and back at Xena. The warrior woman was waiting for him to speak. "I don't know." He shrugged. "I only know that I want to be a part of the group that ends this threat. I don't want to sit behind the lines twiddling my thumbs and waiting for someone to come tell me it's over and we can all go home.
She nodded her understanding and looked at the big immortal sitting next to her. Sighed when she saw his smirk. "Fine." She raised one brow. "We'll revise the plan. She said glaring at his apparent smuggness. "Do you have any ideas?"
"A few." Anastasius admitted. "And they don't include sacrificing any warrior princess'." He bit back a grin at her look, but continued speaking. "I take it you know where the main camp is?"
Xena snorted. "Yes. I've been there." She drew a quick map on the ground and the three fell into a heavy discussion on battle tactics.
"My Queen there's a small village up ahead." Lessa gestured with her head. "Do you wish to send a scout ahead?"
"Call me Gabrielle." The red head pleaded. For two days she'd been trying to stop the woman from calling her queen with no success. She sighed. Hearing the title always made her shiver a little. It seemed so removed from everyone, and she hated that. "And no, I don't see a need for an advance scout. The villagers know me. We'll have no trouble."
Solari glanced sideways at the Lead scout. A tilt of her head and Lessa sat back in her saddle, without another word. Solari pulled her own mount closer to Argo. "Gabrielle?" She said barley above a whisper.
"Hmm?" Gabrielle murmured without taking her eyes off the road in front of her. She was remembering the last time she walked down this path with Xena at her side.
"I was just wondering," She began hesitantly trying not to offend her young queen. "Do you think the villagers might be scared when they see a troop of twenty Amazon warriors heading there way?"
Gabrielle rubbed her forehead. "I'm not cut out for this." she muttered under her breath. "I hadn't thought of that." She admitted as the full effect of Solari's words penetrated her mind. "Halt the troop." She called to her Lieutenant.
The woman did as requested and swung her horse back to join her queen. "What is it my Queen?"
Gabrielle sighed. "Call me Gabrielle." Another one that insisted in the formalities.
Solari stifled a laugh at the look of frustration on her friend's face. "Briala, our queen truly hates formalities. Please drop the title."
"Sure Sol." The tall auburn haired warrior smiled at her childhood friend before turning to her young queen. "Gabrielle, why are we stopping here?"
Gabrielle glared at Solari. "I want to go ahead to the village and warn them that we're coming so they won't be frightened by us."
"Good idea." She nodded her approval. "I'll choice two of our scouts for the task."
Gabrielle smiled, "No, you don't understand. I'm not sending someone. I'm going to go myself."
"You're what?" She asked appalled by the prospect. "No way." She folded her arms angrily. "I can't allow you to risk your life in that manner."
Gabrielle's eyes flashed angrily. "You can't allow it?" She questioned with a deceptively calm face.
"That's right. Your life is worth too much to our nation to allow you to enter into such an unknown."
"Well I am going." Gabrielle forced herself to stay calm, after all these women were just concerned with her well being. She clicked her tongue, pulled on Argo's reins and without looking at either woman started towards the village.
"Gabrielle wait." Solari grabbed Argo's reins, wincing at the anger that flashed in her queen's eyes. I agree you have to be the one that enters the village." She spoke quickly, before her friend's anger had a chance to let loose. "But not alone. Take two of the guards with you." She saw the hesitancy in Gabrielle's eyes and pressed her luck. "Please."
Gabrielle sighed sadly. This was worse than being with Xena. "Fine, but only two."
Solari grinned and quickly called two of her best swordswomen to accompany the queen. She watched the three women for a moment before turning to Briala. She patted her friend's shoulder. "Don't worry." She murmured encouragingly. "When Gabrielle gets in these moods it's best to find a way to help her not hinder." She smiled. "Even Xena loses when our Bardic Queen puts her foot down."
"Ya," Briala grimaced and turned her face toward Solari. "but I'm the one that's gonna have to face Xena if something happens to the Queen."
Solari blanched. Face Xena if something happened to Gabrielle? "I'd rather face Velaska again!"
"Me too." Briala said sorrowfully.
The two watched silently as their queen moved further away and closer to the village.
Gabrielle edged Argo slightly to the front of her guard. She kept Argo moving at a slow but steady pace toward the village. She smiled as they approached the village. For her it was a sign that soon she'd be reunited with Xena. The Pel Forest was less than a half day's journey from the small village. Too small to warrant a guard she noted hoe quickly the streets emptied of women and children. Only men, and armed men at that, remained on the streets by the time they reached the small inn she had stayed at with Xena. She let her eyes sweep through the scattered men, searching for one she knew by name. Spotting one near the inn, she smiled. "Karston." She called as she slid off Argo. "Hi."
"Gabrielle?" The tall blonde man stepped away for the wall. "Is that you? It is. Where's Xena? What's going on? Why are you with these..." His voice trailed away as he took in the stance of the two women warriors. Although they had not drawn their weapon their hands were on the hilts and they had moved in front of Gabrielle.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Amazons," she muttered under her breath. "Areta, Rayna, step aside." She spoke through clenched teeth. "Sorry Karston they tend to be a little over protective."
He swallowed his fear. "Ahm, why?" He glanced nervously from Gabrielle to her protectors.
Gabrielle sighed and with a slight apologetic look replied. "I'm their queen."
Karston's eyes nearly popped out of his head. "Their queen? Really?" He stepped back a pace. "But I thought you were a bard? And what about Xena?"
"I am a bard." She took a deep breath. "Look it's a long story and one we really don't have time for. As for Xena, me and some of my Amazons are on our way to join her right now. I rode ahead with these two to let you and your people know we aren't invading just traveling through."
"Oh." Karston turned to one of the men that had come up behind him and raised an eyebrow. The man stepped forward and others milled closer. "Father, this is Gabrielle, the bard that I told you about. Gabrielle this is my father, Philander Elder of our village."
The man stepped forward and bowed his head. "A bit more than a bard I think." He offered his hand. "Come join in me in a drink."
Gabrielle smiled. "Thank you, but first I must be sure my amazons are welcome here."
"Of course." Philander turned to the men circling them. "These warriors wish safe passage though our village. They have no desire to bring harm on us. I say we allow them to come through."
Gabrielle carefully watched the reactions of the men in the crowd. None appeared to resent his words. She tapped Areta on the shoulder. "Go back to the others tell them it is safe for them to enter the village." She tilted her head to look up at Philander. "And now for that drink?"
"This way." Philander waved an arm toward the door of the tavern.
"My Queen?" Areta hesitated.
Gabrielle squeezed her arm. "Go. It is safe. Besides I still have Rayna to guard my back." She smiled.
Areta glanced briefly to her partner before nodding to her queen. She leaped onto her horse and twirled it around raced out of the village.
Gabrielle smiled at the retreating form and ignoring the shadow at her back stepped quickly into the tavern. She waited for her eyes to adjust to the dim light before stepping further into the tavern. Without thought she headed for the last table in the left hand back corner of the room. The few men that had followed her into the tavern, and Rayna joined her at the table.
"Ale for all." Karston called to the barkeep.
"No." Gabrielle spoke quickly. "Thank you, but I prefer cider."
"My apologies." He turned back to the bar. "Make that cider for one and ale for the rest of us."
"So what is this long story of yours?" Karston asked as he slid a tankard across the table to his father and placed one in front of Rayna. Before sitting next to her. "Will it explain where Xena is?"
"Oh yes." Gabrielle snorted. "It'll explain where Xena is." She paused as the door swung open, frowning as she noted the manner of men let in.
Rayna's eyes followed those of her queen and she shuddered. The five men that had entered were unkempt warriors. The type that always meant trouble for her and her kind. She sighed and looked to her queen for guidance.
Gabrielle chewed her lip worriedly. If Xena were here she'd know what to do. The men were talking boisterously and downing ale almost as quick as the barkeep could pour. It was only a matter of time before a fight broke out. She glanced around the room. Most of the townspeople were slipping out the door.
Philander leaned forward and practically whispered his fear evident in his voice. "Perhaps we should go to my cabin and discuss this."
Several of the men sitting with them nodded their agreement. Karston opened his mouth to protest, but shut it again as two of the men causing the fear suddenly loomed over Gabrielle.
"And what do we have here?" An uncouth man with wild slimy brown hair reached out and tousled her hair. "How much for a tumble lass?"
She shuddered. "I'm not for sale." She stated pulling her head away from the filthy hand.
"Everyone's for sale." He leaned closer and grasped her chin. "You might want to be nice to me." He whispered. "Soon I will be one of the richest men in all of Greece."
Rayna jumped to her feet. "Unhand her."
Gabrielle smirked. "I'd take her advice." She allowed him to hold her head, but grasped her staff hidden from his view by the table. "I am not some whore and I don't like rich men."
He laughed. "Oh really?" He glanced at his friends who were egging him on and glanced at Rayna standing by, hands held ready. "I suppose you like women warriors?" He sneered. "Like this one."
Gabrielle knocked his hand away. "Yes." Her eyes glinted. "As a matter of fact I do. Now please go. We're not looking for trouble." As always she tried to talk her way out.
The tavern had grown silent. All eyes rested on the back table. The rest of the man's companions rose to their feet, prepared to join in on the fun.
Anger flashed across his face and he reached out to grab the pretty blonde again. This time he twisted her hair in his hand and yanked hard. "That wasn't very nice. I want you to be nice."
"Oh I am very nice." Gabrielle's eyes flashed. "But not to pigs." Her arm came up and this time it held her staff. She let it snap against his wrist as she rose to her feet.
Rayna leaped backward drawing her sword as she moved. Two of the men sitting with them slid off the benches and hid beneath the table. Karston kicked the bench back and drew his own sword. Philander, having no weapon of his own stepped back to watch the fight. His eyes darted from the figure of his son to that of is companions.
Gabrielle swung her staff knocking his hand back. She stepped back with her right foot and turned sideways raising her staff she blocked the upward swing of his sword and with a slight twist of her wrist she caught the hilt of his sword and pulled it away from him. A quick thrust and then twirling the staff over her head she brought it straight down on the top of her head. The man went down and Gabrielle turned her attention to Rayna.
The amazon was battling a man slightly smaller than herself. She swung her sword expertly. Swords clashed noisily. She blocked he parried she thrust and as he blocked she slipped under his guard and
her sword slid home. He fell with a startled expression on his face.
"Gabrielle!" The scream reached her ears as she sensed the steps behind and she thrust the staff backwards catching her attacker off guard. The man screamed. She twirled around and slammed the staff against the side of his head. The bone cracking could be heard throughout the tavern and sides heaving she glared angrily at the fallen man. Rayna stepped up beside her. "Are you okay?" The amazon warrior asked.
Before Gabrielle could answer a loud noise was heard from the front of the tavern and the two women and their friends - the only people still standing all rushed for the door and were met at the door by Gabrielle's Amazons.
"My Queen!" Briala paused sword in hand and angry eyes glaring.
Solari smiled. She glanced around the room and laughed. "Too late again." She sheathed her sword. "Just once I'd like to get in on a fight before you or Xena end it." She said defusing the tense atmosphere. "So what happened?" She moved over to the bar. "Hey what's a girl gotta do around here to get a drink?"
Solari sighed as she caught sight of the forest that was there destination. She swallowed her fear at seeing Xena again. Not that she didn't like or approve of the tall warrior, but she had a nagging suspicion that the warrior wanted Gabrielle as far away form the upcoming fight as feasible and might take her being in the fight out on the amazon warriors with her.
They rode out of the low rolling hills covered in grass, with their tree lines that marked streambeds and river bottoms and into the valley that led to the forest, with sunset just a candlemark away.
"Gabrielle." Briala turned her mount towards that of her queen. "Do we press on or do we stop for the night?"
Gabrielle hesitated. To be this close to Xena...she sighed. There was no trail and she truly had no idea where Xena was holed up. "Better to wait the night through." She glanced to her right. "We'll make camp here. Far enough away from the wood's edge that no one can attack us using it for coverage."
Briala rose in her seat. "Camp time." She called and the call was heard echoed down the line. Each woman knew what her assigned tasks were an fell to preparing camp at once.
Gabrielle slid off Argo and patted her neck whispering as she fed her an apple. "Almost Argo. I can almost smell her. I bet you can't wait to see her again huh?" Se let her eyes slide over the forest. "Me too."
Dusk had settled in by the time the amazon camp was set and all the women were fed. The guards were set and Gabrielle rested comfortably by one of the small fires. Thoughts of Xena filled her mind and she reached for her scrolls. Better to keep busy then sit and fret. She opened her bag and preparing her quill settled in to write about her and Xena's last adventure.
Xena paused, something felt different. She waited head held high. Nothing. She glanced at her companions. Sighed. Perhaps it's just getting to m...this separation from Gabrielle. "I'm going to check the perimeter." She rose and slipped silently out of the camp. She paced restlessly through the trees, sorting by scent the varied plants and animals life hidden by the darkness. She spotted the glow of firelight in the distance and paused. More mercenaries come to join Gregor? Or perhaps? Her heart quickened...Gabrielle. She breathed the name. Yes. Silently she slid from tree to tree getting ever so much closer to the encampment. She spotted the first guard. Amazon. Her heart began to sing. It was her love. She wanted to run to her gather her up in her arms and her heart thudded. Panic. The wall images. No! She screamed silently, rooted in her spot. A lone tear rolled down her cheek. Her lip curled involuntarily and a small snarl escaped. No! I won't let that happen. A smile came to her face. Time to have a little fun. She slipped past the first guard, aiming for the inner camp where she knew her love waited.
Xena stood in the shadows watching Gabrielle writing. The shine of the red-gold hair in the firelight made her heart pound. She watched in fascination as the hand holding the quill traveled slowly up to her face and she rested it against her cheek, the tip of her tongue showing as she concentrated on her next sentence or perhaps it was a single word that made her brows come together in a furrow that brought a large grin to Xena's face. She couldn't wait any longer in one fluid movement she moved from the shadows to sit on the log opposite Gabrielle.
Gabrielle chewed on her bottom lip. I need a new way to describe Xena's eyes. She brought her hand up to rest on her cheek while she thought. Briefly she closed her eyes drawing a picture of Xena in her head. Cerulean. She smiled ya, cerulean. She opened her eyes to write and blinked. "Xena?" For a moment she thought her longings had conjured the Warrior Princess. She shook her head to rid herself of the dream, but Xena remained. A smile slowly spread over her features. She rose and stepped forward. "It is you?" She breathed and the familiar scent of leather and herbs filled her nostrils. "Xena."
The warrior smiled and her arms opened to catch the smaller woman as she launched herself from across the fire. "Gods but I missed this." She murmured as she buried her face in the red-gold hair and just held on tight.
Gabrielle sighed. Her heart filled with joy. Complete. I feel complete again. "I love you." The words reverberated through her into Xena's chest and filtered through the warrior woman into the darkest corners of her soul chasing away the fears that had been forming in their time apart. She shuddered with the reaction.
Xena pulled back to look into the sea green eyes that held her soul. She lifted one hand and brushed a strand of hair back, placing it behind the bard's ear.
Gabrielle stood very still with Xena's arm resting warmly about her shoulders. She was barely breathing , her senses tuned exclusively in to the warrior. She listened to the slow, steady beat of her heart and her breathe started to synchronize with it. "I love you." She repeated.
That brought a crooked smile to her face. A single beat of the heart. "I know." Came the quiet voice. "I love you too." She admitted, dragging the bard back into her arms and raising her face, lowered her own, and as lips met passion flared. "I've been missing you." She murmured as her hands stroked the bard's bare midriff. Her lips nibbled at the corners of her mouth.
Gabrielle moaned. "I've been missing you too." Se shivered as Xena's hands came to rest on her breasts.
"I've been thinking about this ever since the last time." Xena ran her palms across Gabrielle's palms. "Are you sharing a tent?" She licked the bard's ear.
"No." Gabrielle gasped, as fire ran down her back and a throbbing started deep within her.
"Good." Xena lifted the smaller woman up and began walking slightly unsteadily toward the tent. A smile formed as she sensed another body close by. "Hi Solari." She continued past the startled amazon a slight chuckle bubbling up as she made it to the tent.
"You are bad." Gabrielle whispered as Xena bent low and entered her tent. "How'd you get into camp anyway?"
Xena slowly lowered the bard to her feet, cherishing the feel of the body sliding down her own. A low chuckling noise tickled it's way past her throat. "I walked right through your guards." She nuzzled Gabrielle's neck.
"You just wanted a new reason to tease them." Gabrielle couldn't keep her pride in her warrior's skills from shining through.
"True." Xena admitted as she reached for her lover's lips. Their mouths fused and within seconds they were lost in each other. No more words, no gentle patience, the fierceness of their hunger taking them towards the bedroll on steps punctuated with powerful kisses and mad flurries of activity as they tore each other's clothes off in a frenzy of need.
"Xena?" Solari's mouth dropped open in surprise. "Damn. We'll never live this one down." She continued on her way to the campfire. Smiling at the scattered scrolls she bent to put them away.
"Solari?" Briala glanced around . "Where's the queen?"
"In her tent."
"Oh, thanks." The Lieutenant headed toward the tent.
Solari stifled a laugh. "I don't think you want to go there." She called.
Epinon entered the campsite. "Go where?"
"Why not?" Briala asked puzzled.
"Xena's with her."
"Xena?" The two women glanced at the tent and back to Solari. "You sure?"
"Oh ya." She smiled. "She paused long enough to say hi." Solari set the queen's bag aside and grabbed a wineflask. "No reason for us not to have a small drink or two." She took a sip and passed the bag on.
"Damn how'd she get past us?"
Solari laughed. "Just be glad she wasn't in the mood for pranks."
"Pranks?" Briala looked from Epinon to Solari. "The Warrior Princess pulls pranks?"
Epinon lowered the wineflask. "Boy does she ever." A gentle smile lit her features as she told the tale of the first time she witnessed the Warrior Princess' wicked sense of humor.
"Oh." Xena rolled her eyes in disbelief. "Come on Epinon." She glanced at her companion. "Do you honestly believe that she can stop me?"
"It's her job." Epinon explained patiently. "And she's very good at it. I've never seen anyone get past her."
Xena rolled her tongue. "So if I were to make a bet with you you'd bet she'd detect me and stop me from entering the village without a challenge."
"Right." Epinon frowned, "But you're already here."
"Ah, so the trick is in leaving without being spotted and returning without being spotted." Xena grinned.
"I'll do it."
"How will I know you really did it?"
Xena paused, "Ahm..." She snapped her fingers, "I got it. Who's standing guard at the west end tower?"
"I'll go there. She can verify when I arrived and when I left."
"And how about when you sneak back in? I mean if you sneak in no one will see you and how will I know you came through her checkpoint?"
Xena grinned evilly. "You'll know." She turned away, turned back, "Oh and Epinon you'll owe me big time when I return."
Epinon stared nervously after the disappearing warrior. Na, she wouldn't do anything to cause trouble not Xena. She muttered to herself before dismissing the idea and headed for her cabin.
A scream in the middle of the night woke her and she ran half naked out of her hut and witnessed half the village in various forms of undress rushing toward the scream weapons in hand. A quick look around and she headed not towards the scream, but towards the queens hut. I f they were under attack that's where she wanted to be. She pulled up short as she spotted Xena lounging lazily against the queens hut.
Xena raised a hand to her mouth pretending to yawn. "Hi." Looking Epinon up and down she raised one eyebrow curiously, "New mode of dress?" She asked a devilish glint in one eye.
"What did you-?" She cut off her question as Gabrielle came stumbling out of the hut.
The queen rubbed her hand across her eyes. "What's that ruckus?" Her look took in Epinon's state of undress, blinked, looked again, sighed and turned to her friend. "Xena?"
The warrior fidgeted. Epinon's eyes nearly popped out of her head at the sight. "What?" She feigned ignorance. Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Why is half the village running around undressed and who's screaming, and what did you do now?"
"Me?" Her mouth opened in shock. "Who says I did anything?"
Gabrielle folded her arms and glared at her warrior. "If you hadn't done anything you'd be out there straightening out this mess."
Xena shuffled her feet. Caught. She shrugged. "It was a bet." She mumbled under her breath, tensing as an Amazon approached.
Gabrielle's nose wrinkled at the sudden smell. She turned to see who it was and bit her lip. "Ephiny?" The name was pulled from her lips in shock.
"I'll kill her." Ephiny glared at Xena as she attempted to make her way around Gabrielle. Gabrielle held out her hands effectively holding the amazon warrior away form Xena. "Wait a minute. How do you know it was her?"
"How many other warriors do you think could get past me when I'm on guard duty? She nearly shrieked the words. "And it wasn't enough to get by me but this? She had to do this!!?"
Gabrielle turned to Xena, "Well? What do you have to say for yourself?" She glared hands on hips.
Xena shrugged. "Nothing." Silently she held her breath.
Gabrielle's glare wavered between Xena and Epinon "Fine. If neither of you have anything to say both of you go take Ephiny's place on duty. And stay there until I say you're relieved!" She turned to her friend. "Come on Ephiny. I think a bath will take of your problem."
Epinon grinned through watery eyes, the stench was horrible. Any punishment was worth this. "How'd you do it?"
"Come on." Epinon pleaded.
Xena shook her head. "A woman has to have a few secrets."
Epinon growled, "But you did it to Ephiny! Come on I've never been able to sneak by her...even when she's sleeping." She looked admiringly at Xena. "And you not only made it past her, you managed to spray her with skunk odor. How?"
The warrior ignored the comment. One never knew when one might need to do the same again. Xena glanced sideways at Epinon. "I think you could go put some clothes on before we start the patrol."
Epinon looked at herself. A small smile formed. "I think I'll skip the clothes, if you don't mind I don't want to risk the queen's wrath by being late for duty."
Xena raised one eyebrow. "I don't mind, I'm enjoying the view." She smirked. "But I know your queen, and she isn't going to let us in before nightfall. You sure you want to stay undressed in the middle of a patrol," She paused wetting her lips, "where anything could happen....until she comes to relieve us?"
"Ah," Epinon turned a brilliant red. Great that's all I need Gabrielle ticked at me because of her lover. "Wait here. I'll be right back."
Xena chortled softly. That had been worth it...I'll make it up to Ephiny and Gabrielle will forgive me if I play my cards right tonight. She smiled in anticipation.
Briala looked at each of her companion's carefully. "You're not pulling my leg?" And at the shaking heads she turned her gaze to the queen's tent, a thoughtful expression on her face. "How long did the queen keep you out there?"
"Till three candlemarks past nightfall." Epinon grinned. "She came with the relief guard." She shook her head in memory. "But that's a tale for another day." She stood up and stretched. "Time for us to get some sleep." Silently she padded toward her bedroll.
Briala looked at Solari. "It's true?"
"Yup." Solari stood up. "I was there."
Briala still looked unconvinced. "But Xena and Ephiny get along...aren't they friends? I always thought they were."
"Ya, they're friends." Solari chuckled. "Xena has a way of getting people to forgive her...it's complicated." She hesitated a moment, but knew Briala didn't know...hadn't ever seen Gabrielle in action. "And Briala all the tales you've heard about both of them are true."
"The queen too?"
"Oh ya, she doesn't kill, but she's a fighter...worth dying for." And with that she walked off leaving the first lieutenant to ponder her words.
Xena woke suddenly. Was it the small woman pressed against her side, the new morning sun filtering through the tent, the muted sounds of camp life all around her or just her internal clock going off. She relished the feel of the young woman in her arms. She listened to the deep even breathing of her partner and knew she slept peacefully. She pulled the sleeping woman closer and kissed the top of her hair. Much as she would love to spend the day cuddling they had other things to do and people waiting on them. She slid down and kissed the sweet red lips, deepening the kiss as she felt the bard start to respond. "Morning sleepyhead." She smiled as bleary green eyes blinked open and Gabrielle reached for her. "Ready to face the Amazons?"
Gabrielle burrowed into her lover's chest. "No."
Xena smiled and tightened her hold. "Can't say I want to either, but Stas and Makarios are probably worried about me."
"Xena!" Gabrielle pulled away from the warrior. "You didn't?" Her mouth dropped open in surprise. "You left those men alone and didn't tell them where you were going or that you wouldn't be back!?"
Xena shrugged almost apologetically. "Well I didn't know when I left that I wouldn't be back." She pulled the younger woman back into her arms and kissed her. Then pulled both of them off of the bed. "Come on." She dropped her arms. "Get dressed." She smiled at Gabrielle's sad face. "Hey," She reached out and grasped her friend by the chin and looked deeply into luminescent green eyes. "You're the one that was worried about the men. You get the amazons ready and I'll go get the men."
"Without breakfast?" Gabrielle stood hands on hips.
Xena shrugged, her eyes twinkled. "Food is not what I'm hungry for."
"Xena!" Gabrielle pushed her lover. "What am I gonna do with you?"
"I can think of more than a few things." She wiggled her eyes suggestively.
Gabrielle's eyes sparkled. "And right after we take care of Gregor the One eyed you can tell them to me...and if you're lucky I'll do it."
Xena pulled Gabrielle close, molded her to her body, and ran her hands up and down the young woman's sides. She leaned in for a kiss. Gabrielle's lips parted and Xena slipped her tongue in deepening the kiss until the two of them drew back breathing raggedly. Smoky blue eyes looked into misty emerald eyes. "The things you do to me." She drew a shaky hand across the bard's cheek. "I've missed you."
Gabrielle smiled tremulously. "Ya," She said shakily. "same here." She moved her head into the big callused hand reveling in the feel of the rough skin against her cheek. "I really need to be with you."
Xena shuddered. "You will be. I promise." She whispered huskily, capturing the sweet lips in her own. "I don't want to let you go." She admitted lowering her head to rest on the top of the bard's head.
"I know." Gabrielle murmured from the comfort of her lover's embrace. "But we have..."
"Responsibilities." Xena finished the sentence. "Okay, I can take a hint." She brushed the bard's hair tucking it behind her ear. "One more kiss and I'll get my armor on."
Stas sat staring at the fire. "Damn." He swore quietly. "She never came back." He tossed a stick into the fire. "I should have gone after her." He rubbed his face and glanced over at Makarios. "What are we gonna do now? If she's been taken..." His voice trailed off.
Makarios sipped his water. "If anything's happened to her I don't think I could face Gabrielle." He made a face..."when did water turn so bitter."
"Here let me taste that for you." A hand plucked the water bottle from Makarios. "Tastes sweet to me."
"Xena!" The two men jumped up. Makarios smile threatened to crack his cheeks. "But what-" Stas crushed her in a welcoming hug that would have broken a smaller woman in two. "But where-" The men stumbled over each other and their words.
Xena's eyes sparkled. They'd really been worried. Her heart swelled. It had been so long since anyone except for her bard had cared. She twisted her lips up in a mocking smile. "I got tired of your cooking so I found someone that was willing to invite us over for a meal."
Stas laughed. Just the way her eyes were sparkling he knew she'd met up with Gabrielle. He glanced at his future brother-in-law. "Let's go. Anything has to be better than that leftover stew."
"After you." Makarios bowed low and waved an arm at Xena.
Xena grinned cockily and stepped past the two men.
"I want everything except food and utensils packed." Gabrielle said to Briala and Solari. "When Xena gets back I want everything ready to move. I'll wait to have my breakfast with her."
"Is there anything else?"
Gabrielle thought for a moment. "Yes. I want the two of you and Leda to join us at breakfast."
"For breakfast?" Briala questioned. "But-"
Gabrielle interrupted with a smile. "It's a nice thought, but we do have a battle to discuss."
Solari nodded her head. "I'll inform Leda on my way to the patrol." I always knew she had it in her, Solari smiled to herself as she walked away. Wait til I tell Ephiny about this adventure...she'll be glad to know Gabrielle can rule, and bummed that she missed it.
Gabrielle watched her second and third in command walk away with a brief smile on her face. Who would ever have thought...oh if my friends from Potedaia could see me now." She sighed and headed for her tent. If she expected the others to be ready when Xena got back she'd better hurry and pack herself.
Xena ripped into a piece of meat and chewed thoughtfully as she listened to Stas present his argument against using the Amazons to flush out stragglers from Gregor's band.
Solari frowned at the big man. "Are you saying you don't think my girls are up to it?"
"No." He said placatingly. "I am saying it's too dangerous for anyone. Once we get Gregor and the rest are running like scared pigs why should we bother with them?" He turned to Xena. "After all once he's gone the threat is over." He tilted his head. "Right?"
Xena swallowed her meat and looked on the small gathering placidly. "Possibly." She took another bite. "But it's best to be sure. This threat isn't a small one. If Gregor is after Chronos' time crystal you can bet that more than one of his people know what he's seeking and where to find it."
Makarios piped in. "So does that mean we kill them all?"
Gabrielle blanched. "No!" She exclaimed. "To kill in the midst of battle is one thing but my warriors will not kill cold-bloodedly."
Xena bit her lip. "No, Gabrielle. I have no intention of allowing that type of mass murder." Her face showed the hurt that she felt that her bard could believe her capable of that again.
Gabrielle's eyes softened. She reached over and grasped Xena's arm pulling it into her lap and twining her fingers with the warrior's. "I know you feel that way." She let her eyes slide over to the men seated across form her. "It's them I was unsure of." She pulled her eyes back to Xena's and let the warrior look into here eyes seeing the truth of her words.
Xena felt the pain slip away. Her bard didn't think she was a monster capable of nothing but murder. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Once we route the main camp we will have to round up the stragglers. Find a way to get them back to the village for trial and ensure the safety of Chronos and his friends."
Solari listened thoughtfully. She had her own ideas but knew the warrior wouldn't agree. The only good crook was a dead crook. But she was sworn to do as Gabrielle ordered. She glanced at Briala, and smothered a laugh. The war-leader was definitely not amused by the turn of conversation. She slid her eyes over to Leda. The head of the Archers was leaning back sipping a tea and taking it all in.
Leda listened to the ramblings for a few more minutes. She watched the former warlord grow more restive with each passing minute and wondered how she managed to maintain her cool outer shell so much of the time. Deciding they'd wasted enough time she cleared her throat, waiting for her queen to acknowledge her. "My queen, I have a few questions and a few suggestions."
Xena grinned. Nothing like a slap in the face to make sure we all knew who held the seat of power as far as the Amazons were concerned. She squeezed Gabrielle's hand. Gabrielle squeezed back as she acknowledged Leda. "Yes?"
"If this Chronos character is so important and he is here in these woods shouldn't some of us go to him and to protect him?"
Xena smiled. A legitimate question, let's see how they intend to answer it.
Anastasius glanced around the fire. "I for one think that's an excellent suggestion. Chronos is a good man. The creatures that keep him company are in many ways like little children. They deserve to have someone protect them."
Briala spoke up. "You know them?" Her voice was harsh.
"Yes." He glanced at the rest of their mates. "They're not demons." He explained. "Those are tales told in order to keep travelers to a minimum. They're safer that way."
"They don't sacrifice? And eat humans?" Leda questioned quickly.
Xena butted in. "No." All eyes turned her way and she grinned. "I met them a few days ago. Actually I enjoyed a very tasty stew..." A small chuckle fell easily form her throat as she spotted the shocked looks. "I must agree with Stas and Leda," she looked at the immortal. "A small contingent from our war party should stay at Chronos' camp. She forced herself to not look at Gabrielle. Hoping the bard wouldn't see through her this time. "They are not equipped to fight and Gregor is after Chronos and his time crystal."
Briala and Solari nodded their understanding. Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. She knew Xena too well. The warrior hadn't brought this up on purpose. She'd let someone else mention it. What was her plan?
Makarios nodded thoughtfully. "But who should go to Chronos and who to fight Gregor?"
Xena bit back a grin. This was the opening she was waiting for. According to the pictures, Solari, Gabrielle and Makarios needed to be saved. She bit her tongue. No way was she going to suggest it. Gabrielle would be livid.
Stas looked into the eyes of Xena and knew the secrets she'd tried to hide two nights before. Makarios was fated to die. "Makarios." He waited until his future brother in law looked to him. "Would you consider guarding the ex-god?"
"Me?" Makarios was startled. "But why me? I'm not that experienced. Who would help me?"
"As Queen I would think Gabrielle would be responsible for the disbursement of her Amazons." Stas replied with a pointed look at the young bard.
Gabrielle jumped slightly startled by the unexpected turn of events
Briala interrupted. "Not only is that true but I must impress upon my queen the importance of maintaining good relationships with the denizens of the forest." She wet her lips nervously. "That is if you truly mean to repopulate these woods with amazons."
Xena turned to he bard and raised an eyebrow questioningly. "Repopulate?"
"Well it was just a passing thought." Gabrielle shrugged.
Perhaps, a glint entered her eyes. Xena looked into her bard's eyes. "If you want it then it will have to be you that goes to meet Chronos. He wouldn't deal with anyone less than the queen. He might be dethroned but he is still proud."
Gabrielle pressed her forehead against Xena's, oblivious to the others sitting around the fire. "I don't want to go there. I want to be at your side." She whispered the words.
"I know." Xena breathed into her face, not moving away. "But remember what I told you at the inn?"
Gabrielle shuddered. "This isn't about us...it's bigger than us."
"Yes." Xena kissed her. "How many amazons did you bring?"
"Twenty." Gabrielle moved and Xena drew her into her arms.
Solari bit back a grin. Oh Eph is going to be so sorry she missed this.
"So if we split the force in half..." Xena let her voice trail off. Gregor had at least fifty men.
Stas took up her thought. "Ten Amazons, me and you? Against fifty of his men?"
Solari frowned. "Who's to say it'll be Gregor and all fifty of his men you'll be fighting." She started a little at her own words. Without realizing it she'd made up her mind to volunteer to be with the ex god. Interesting. She made a mental note of it, but forced her concentration to the matter at hand.
Xena blinked slightly shocked by the fire in Solari's voice. "We don't." She admitted. "I wish I could know that the whole troop will be there when we attack, but if I believed that I wouldn't want to split our troop in two."
"So you think some of them will be going after Chronos?" Gabrielle asked.
"Without a doubt." She answered.
"And we should protect him?" Again Gabrielle questioned Xena.
"If he's taken...if Gregor gets the crystal." Xena's eyes suddenly looked haunted. "We're doomed. Us and everyone we ever cared for."
"Because of a crystal?"" Briala looked shocked.
Gabrielle leaned back and pulled her knees up, "Then we will have to stop him." She looked at Xena. "I'll have to go to Chronos."
"Yes." Xena ignored the rest of the group. "You not only have a way with words, but I think the Sprites are expecting you."
Gabrielle quirked her lips and looked sideways at her partner. "What makes you say that?"
"Ask them." She smiled sadly and turned to the others. "How do we determine who goes with Gabrielle and who goes with me?"
Solari's mouth dropped open in shock. They were splitting up? "I'm with Gabrielle." She blushed. "I mean that is if my Queen will have me I would be honored to fight at your side." Her eyes silently pleaded. Please say yes. Ephiny will never forgive me if anything happens and I wasn't there to prevent it.
Xena sat still. This was Gabrielle's decision. She wanted nothing more than to gather her bard into her arms and run far from this battle. Fear threatened to overwhelm her. The pictures form the wall haunted her every thought. It was getting close...how could she stop the pictures from becoming reality?
"How are the queen and those chosen to accompany her to defend the gods home?" Leda asked.
"In the cave is all they need. It's a matter of getting everyone inside and protecting them from attack." Stas replied.
The Amazons turned to Xena for verification. She nodded. "Whoever is there should be in a good defensive position. It shouldn't take too many to hold them off."
"So we wouldn't need the full squad." Gabrielle put in.
"No." Xena spoke slowly her mind churning away as she accepted and rejected ideas. "Half a squad should do it." She glanced at Leda. "Archers, four of them, all good with sword, staff, or chobos, in case they break through. Solari you'll have to do for main sword." She turned to her lover. "Gabrielle? Do you mind my making the decision for you?" A corner of her lip quirked up. "I am better suited to this."
"And you are my Champion." Gabrielle smiled and squeezed Xena's hand. "I will go with whoever you recommend."
An inexplicable warmth flooded the warrior's being and she closed her eyes. To be so trusted...she couldn't fail. She opened her eyes. "Then it's settled. Leda will pick four of her archers to go with you, Solari, and Makarios." She let her eyes rest on the man that had been her enemy. "Gabrielle is in charge." She said in a tone that left no argument. "You do whatever she says without hesitation. Understand?"
He nodded his agreement. As long as he got included he didn't care who he followed.
"Great we leave in half a candlemark. Make sure everyone knows their place in the plan."
The small gathering broke up quietly leaving the two lovers alone.
Gabrielle sat silent for a minute trying to figure out the best way to approach Xena. She loved the feel of her warrior's powerful body at rest next to her. She sighed. Something was wrong. Had been since they started their little powwow. Even if no one else had noticed she had sensed the unease. "Xena?"
She put her worries in the warrior's name.
Xena closed her eyes. How much do I tell her? Last night it was easy to forget, but this morning talking about the battle and all...death...her death...it can't be. She clamped down on the fear of that loss. The loss she wasn't certain she could survive.
No answer. Now the bard knew something was really bothering her lover. She pressed closer, squeezed the hand that she still held and tried again. "Don't shut me out." She lifted the face, turning it to face her own. "Please love, talk to me."
Xena sighed. "It's nothing." And at Gabrielle's look of hurt. "Nothing more than usual." She dropped her eyes. "I just wish I could keep you out of it." She flinched from the anger she knew the bard would throw her way, but it didn't come. She risked opening an eye. And her mouth dropped open in surprise. Gabrielle instead of complaining was crying.. "Gabrielle?" Her own looked into tear-filled pools of green. She reached and brushed a strand of red-gold hair back from her bard's face. "Why the tears?" She asked confused.
"You." She bit her tongue trying to hold back the tears. "You still don't trust me. You still want to leave me out of the fighting. I've worked hard to prove myself, to fight at your side and always you do this." She flung a hand in the air and turned away from the warrior princess. "I'm sorry I'll never be good enough for you."
Xena looked confused. "Wha? Gabrielle that's not it." She rose to her feet, reached with one hand but let it fall short of the bard's shoulder. "I trust you with my soul." She shook her head. "I just don't trust what would happen to me if anything happened to you. Or what it would do to you if you killed."
Gabrielle fell back, shocked at Xena's words. "All this time I thought it was my fighting you didn't trust." Her voice was low and husky. "And it wasn't that at all." She couldn't keep the wonder out of her voice. "It's because you were afraid for me...for more than one reason...but mainly afraid that I'd kill?" She turned to face her lover, tear-filled eyes brimming with love. "Which were you more afraid of?" she wet her lips. "That I'd revel in it...or that killing someone would destroy me?"
As the question echoed in Xena's ears Gabrielle reached out and caressed her cheek. It was her undoing. She collapsed, head in her hands. "I'm not that humane...I feared for myself as well as you."
Gabrielle moved her hand to the raven hair and stroked it gently. "Silly. I heard that. I also heard the part where you were afraid of what it would do to me." She sighed. "I can't pretend that I haven't thought about it, wondered about it." She shook her head. "And I just don't know...I guess it all depends on the how and the why. But I know that when it does happen we'll be together and you'll help me deal with it." She looked towards the bend where her amazons waited. "And if it happens today...saving the world from a madman bent on using time for his own twisted purposes will be worth my blood innocence."
Xena drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Whatever happens I don't want you to ever lose your exuberance for life." She hesitated but spoke despite knowing Gabrielle would get angry again. "And I want you to promise me you'll not lose your blood innocence to save my life."
"I can't do that." Gabrielle began angrily, but forced herself to pause and take a deep breath. Slowly she let it out and began again, this time almost in an apologetic tone. "I don't have time to discuss this now...but when this little battle is over we are going to have a very long chat about you and worthiness."
She kissed the top of the bent head. "Now unless you want my subjects to think we separated in anger please kiss me like you'll never let me go."
Xena lifted tear stained eyes to her bard. "I love you...more than life itself." She stood up and took Gabrielle into her arms. Her thumb stroked the softness of her lower lip. "You are my life." She breathed the words as she lowered her head and captured Gabrielle's smile with a heated kiss.
Xena's mouth scorched Gabrielle's with a blistering passion slowly she parted her lips to allow the warrior entrance and she moaned as she invaded the dark recess of her mouth. Her arms instinctively wrapped around Xena.
Xena shuddered, her passion threatening to override her good senses. She forced herself to gentle the kiss. Gabrielle groaned as she sensed the change. She wanted the fire. Frustration blazed in her eyes as she opened them and found herself staring into molten blue lava. Her lips parted involuntarily and her breath came in small gasps.
Xena rested her head on Gabrielle's forehead. "Listen to my heart." She said. It was berating as furiously as though she'd just fought twenty men. She shuddered again as she attempted to gather her control. She moved. Her finger trembled against Gabrielle's cheek as she brushed it softly. "I've gotta go."
"Come back to me." Gabrielle lowered her gaze, knowing that if they maintained eye contact neither would leave.
Xena stood still, her chest heaving and her passion rising again as her eyes swept the bard's body. She turned away with a groan, but as she turned, "count on it."
Gabrielle smiled. She lifted her eyes and watched as the tall warrior strode to her waiting forces and leaped onto Argo. "Gaia keep her safe." She muttered, as she had so many times before.
"And so the bard comes." Chronos smiled at the fighting force that descended on his quiet glade. "Do sit and rest a spell." He gestured to the Amazons and their male companion. "My friends and I have a nice little dinner roasting and the fire is large enough for us all to share."
Gabrielle frowned slightly before forcing a smile. "You were expecting us?" She stood before the farther of the king of the gods and wondered that she felt no awe.
Chronos raised one bushy eyebrow and repeated his gesture for her to sit. "The warrior woman left much unsaid?" He said in a questioning tone.
Gabrielle glanced at Solari, who shrugged. "Xena's not much on words." She smiled.
"True." He held out a mug. "Spiced wine." He said in response to the unasked question. "It'll kill the chill."
Gabrielle accepted the drink and smiled as forest sprites sprang into action carrying drink to the rest of her party. She sipped the wine. "Oh. This is good." She sat on a log next to the god of time and studied him. He was a small man with a long flowing white beard and an unruly head of thick white hair. His eyes were a sharp pale blue.
He grinned and wiggled his bushy eyebrows. "And now my dearest Bard would you like to witness that which the Warrior witnessed?
Gabrielle couldn't help but smile at Chronos, but she gnawed at her lower lip. Xena hadn't been worried for nothing. She looked at her friends and warriors. "As much as I'd like to do that I think we should talk about defending you and your friends from the Warlord that wants to take over time."
Chronos smiled. "It's your choice." He rose to his feet. "Come let's move to my home." He turned to the Sprites. "And you my children, with me? Or to the trees?"
"Father be safe?" The young one that had brought Xena questioned tears in his eyes.
Chronos smiled gently at the youngster. "Swift," He patted the Sprite's head. "The warrior did as promised.
Swift turned to the others of his race. "Then we go to the trees. It's safest for us there. We will come again when the fire roars once more." Turning he leapt into the air and disappeared into the branches of a tree and the others rose with him.
Gabrielle gasped then grinned at Solari. "Perhaps our Warrior friend as a little of the Sprite in her."
Solari smiled back. "It would explain that particular move, but..." She cocked her head at her queen. "what about the rest of her many skills?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I guess we'll have to continue looking." She turned back to the former god. Chronos stood smiling at her. "Lead on." She commanded uneasily. Something about the way he looked at her made her feel strangely worried.
Solari paused at the cave's entrance. "My Queen." Gabrielle turned eyes questioning. "There's coverage enough to hide a couple of us above the entrance way." She nodded to the trees surrounding them. "With your permission I'd like to..."
Gabrielle looked thoughtfully around the cave and back to her friend and guard. She smiled and nodded. "Two out here?" She said questioningly.
"Three." Solari responded. "One above and one to either side. Archers all." And at Gabrielle's acceptance she called forward those she wished to place as guards. "Malantha, Kara and - "
"Makarios." Makarios interrupted Solari.
Her eyes flashed angrily at the man. Her lip curled in a sneer but before she could speak he continued.
"Gabrielle can be your witness that I am very good with a bow." He glanced at the young Queen and made a sheepish grin. "what she can't tell you is I really hate closed in places." He shrugged, and turned full face to Gabrielle. "If you command me to go into the cave I will and I will fight honorably in your defense, but I would be happier fighting out here."
Gabrielle patted the young man's shoulder and turned to Solari. "Let him be our third guard. On our travels he proved his worth to Xena and me both in hunting and in battle."
Solari nodded the fire in her eyes dimming. "Fine. Can you make bird calls?"
Makarios shook his head.
"Okay..." Solari stared thoughtfully into the distance. "Can you make any type of call?"
"No." He shook his head again. "Do I really need to?"
"No." Gabrielle interrupted again. "Solari, he'll be on guard with two others. They can send the alert. It'll be all right."
"Yes, my Queen." Solari turned to the two warriors she had called forward. "Kara take the left, Malantha take the right. The man will take the center." The women faded into the woods.
Makarios winked at Gabrielle nodded to Solari and stepped into the brush.
Gabrielle turned to Solari, "He's not all that bad."
"He's a man." Solari muttered.
"Yes," Gabrielle laughed and if there were no men we wouldn't exist." She stepped into the cave. "They are good for some things...just remember we don't judge we accept."
"Right." Solari shook her head slightly and turned to their remaining companions. "Either side of the door." She commanded and both Amazons stopped and took position. "Gabrielle?"
"Huh?" Gabrielle let her eyes wander over the interior of the cave. A soft yellowish light was coming form the back of the cave. Chronos stood bathed in the light.
"I think this is far enough in, don't you?"
Gabrielle blinked. "Ya, this is good." She watched as Chronos came forward.
"Welcome to my home." He grinned. "Are you sure you won't follow me to the wall of life?"
Gabrielle's eyes bugged out. "Wall of life?"
"Yes." Chronos eyes sparkled with the joy at surprising the young woman.
"Well..." Gabrielle hesitated. "It sounds intriguing, but..." Sadly she shook her head. "It'll have to wait. We have a job to do." She turned back to Solari. "No need to be uncomfortable. I'll start a fire and we can sit near the entrance."
Solari looked at the old god and back to her young queen. She licked her lips as a plan entered her mind. "Why don't you go to the inner cave with him." She let her eyes glide over her queen to rest on the old god. "We can guard the entrance." And you'll be safer inside away from the battle.
Gabrielle frowned. Solari wasn't the type to indulge in what she considered useless pastimes. What was she up to? She bit the inside of here cheek to keep from grinning. "Oh no my friend. They'll be time enough to indulge my idle curiosity after the battle."
Solari rolled her eyes. Bagged. "Okay." She turned to the entrance, "We wait here then." She leaned against the wall, it was going to be a long night.
Xena stood shrouded in the darkness, dawn was but minutes away. She shivered as the cold fall wind brushed against her skin. Winter wasn't far away. She listened to the muted chatter coming from the camp over the small rise where she and her small band were hiding. She shivered again. Her band of warriors...Gabrielle's Amazons...a small smile formed at the thought...and better than any army she'd ever led. The Amazons were the quietest woods people she'd ever led. Living and hunting deep in the forests had taught them how to walk silently, how to keep their bearings, and how to be alert to the subtleties of the wilderness.
Turning to face the waiting warriors she left the smile in place. No words silence was the key to their winning the coming battle. She pointed to Epinon, Briala, Leda, and Stas. Four squads...they could do this...they had to. The four joined her. She tapped Leda and pointed to the trees. The Archer grinned and made to move. Xena held her back. Pointed at the band and raised three fingers. Take three others. Leda mouthed the words and Xena nodded. Leda turned to Briala. In her mind the War leader was her commander in her Queen's absence. Xena raised one brow. Briala nodded her acceptance of Xena's commands, spreading her hands questioning what the Warrior Princess wanted from her. Xena held up five fingers and Briala nodded. The Warrior turned quickly to Stas and held up four fingers and to Epinon three fingers. Then kneeling she drew a quick sketch of what was needed, placing an initial by each of the four entry points to the camp. The others nodded agreement and she rose to her feet.
Now that the battle was near Xena's manner changed. She had been indifferent, looking bored on much of the march, but now there was a gleam in her eyes and she waited rocking silently on the balls of her feet while her chosen leaders pulled their squads together. Briala choosing who would go with Stas. When the squads were assembled she looked into each one's eyes and smiled her most feral smile, and with a wave of her hand scattered her troop to their four corners.
As they silently disappeared into the brush Epinon caught her eyes with her own and the laughter, the joy of battle shone in her deep brown eyes. Xena's grin widened. Yes here was another that understood what flowed in her veins and reveled in it. Today's battle would be good. Slowly she moved forward, her companions falling into place behind her. They paused as one at the edge of the campsite and waited silently for the birdcalls that would tell them the others were in place.
The call sounded, once from the trees twice from the east, north and yes there's the west call. All were ready. Xena nodded to her companions. Then quickly she rose to her feet and strode into the enemies camp. She drew er knife and without aim let it fly into the chest of the first man that looked her way, A second knife was out and away before the cry to arms went out.
"Ayiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" The battle cry sounded through out the camp as Xena drew her sword. She met an attacking warrior head on and the battle joined in full force. A somersault and she landed on a man intent on taking Epinon down and her eyes rested briefly on Epinon's acknowledging a friendship never spoken of. Slicing and kicking her way through the camp she left a wide path of destruction behind her. Searching but never finding Gregor Xena came face to face with Stas.
"There's too few warriors here." He shouted above the din.
Xena stopped in midstep. Her eyes opened wide and her heart thudded with fear. "Gabrielle!" She dispatched the warrior she'd been clashing swords with, let loose her chakram and took down the two headed for Stas. "I've got to get to her." She let loose a whistle and began running for the edge of camp, taking out any of the enemy that got in her way and somersaulting over her fellow warriors. Argo appeared and she somersaulted onto her back.
Briala stopped fighting and stared uncomprehendingly as Xena galloped near her. Xena let loose with her chakram, ending the life of a bandit that had snuck up on the woman. She shouted as she thundered past the stunned Briala. "You're in charge." And she was gone.
Thud! Feet knocked Briala to the ground and a sword came down and with a wicked slice took off the head of the man that had been aiming at Briala. Epinon reached down and pulled the fallen woman up. Looking into the still shocked eyes Epinon explained. "Our Queen's in trouble."
Briala's eyes took on a deadly coldness. "For the queen!" She shouted.
"For the Queen!" The shout went up on all sides and the small band fought with a renewed fervor that quickly overwhelmed the larger force.
Briala left a small group with Epinon in charge, to clean up the mess and raced after Xena. Stas led the way as he was the only one of their group that knew where Chronos' cave was. Epinon watched them leave with a heavy heart. "Come on." She turned to the few that remained with her. "The sooner we take care of these fools the sooner we can join our friends."
Xena's desperation communicated itself silently to Argo and the great war-horse moved at an incredible pace, choosing her own trail. The miles disappeared beneath her hooves at a surprising rate and still Xena's heart refused to quiet down. Her lover's name reverberated over and over in her mind. Sanity was a thread from snapping. Argo slowed to a stop and Xena glanced around. Not far now. "Good girl." She patted the horse's sweat soaked neck and slid off her. She paused to adjust her weapons and tied the reins loosely to the saddlehorn. "You'll be okay here." She rubbed the horse's nose. "I'll call for you as soon as I can." Argo nudged her mistress and Xena gave her a small half smile. "I know. I'm going to get her now." She gave the horse one last rub. "She's okay. She has to be..." Tears in her eyes she turned to make the last part of the journey alone.
Just out of sight of the cave Xena paused, straining her ears, listening to the silence. Her heart skipped a beat. Was she too late? She shivered and strained her eyes against the growing darkness. No one nearby. Slowly, silently she walked the path. Stopping at the edge of the small clearing. A fire burned brightly and bodies were strewn haphazardly about. Fear clenched her heart and she stepped out of the darkness and into the light. Her eyes drawn to the still forms within the fire glow.
A voice from the cavern's entrance. "Xena?" Fear, sorrow, despair in the calling. She turned and her breath caught in her throat. "Gabrielle?" She opened her arms. "Gabrielle!" The young woman threw herself into the strong arms and sobbed into the strong chest. Xena's arms closed tightly around her. "Never again." She whispered to her young love. "I'll never let you out of my sight again."
"Solari's hurt bad." Gabrielle spoke through her sobs. "Makarios nears death...Ilithya says he won't make it through the night. Malantha is dead. She threw herself in front of me." Her hold on the warrior tightened. "I...I..." It was too much. She couldn't talk the tears came faster.
Xena lifted the bard up and cradling her close to her walked to the cave and entered the well lit room. One glance was all it took to see what was happening. Ilithya rose from a cot and came towards them. Gabrielle's sobs wracked her body.
"She refused to sleep." The healer warrior said. "She stayed by the man's side until she heard a noise outside."
Xena nodded her understanding. She leaned down to place the trembling girl on an empty cot. Gabrielle's arms tightened and she whimpered. "Gabrielle, it's okay. I'm right here." The girl's grip made it impossible for Xena to lay her down. She sat in the cot instead and pulled the girl into a sitting position. "Hey," She spoke softly. "It's okay. I've got you. Come on look at me." She brushed a hand across the tear streaked cheek and pushed a few strands of red gold hair out of her way. Gabrielle refused to look and burrowed her head deeper into the warrior's chest.
Xena's eyes took on a bewildered expression. She's seen Gabrielle in every emotion possible or so she thought. This she didn't understand. She looked from her young lover to the Amazon healer warrior and the healer looked to the ground. Shame shone in her eyes. She lifted a tea from the fire and poured it into a mug. "Here." She handed it to Xena. "Perhaps you can get the queen to drink it. A tea that will help her to sleep. She needs the rest." Xena nodded. "Gabrielle." She nuzzled the neck of the woman. "Love, please" She felt the sobs stop, the heaving chest tucked against her side struggle for breath. "Please love, I need you to drink this. It'll help you feel better."
"Nothing will." Gabrielle muttered into the strong chest. The horror at her own actions overwhelmed her sense of being and she shuddered.
Xena lifted her lover's head. "Please. Drink it for me." She pleaded.
Gabrielle unable to bear the pain and sorrow she heard in her love's voice nodded. "For you." She said in a trembling voice.
Xena smiled and wiped the damp hair from the bright green eyes. She lifted Gabrielle's head up and placed the cup to her lips, smiling encouragingly as the bard's lips parted to accept the tea. She cradled Gabrielle until the young woman fell asleep and then lay her carefully upon the cot. Lovingly she pulled the blanket over her and tucked it in. A quick kiss to her forehead and she straightened up and turned to assess the situation.
A young Amazon lay tossing and turning on a bedroll near the fire. Solari lay white and silent against the far side of the fire and Makarios...she shut her eyes against the pain. The healer was pulling the blanket over his face. She steeled herself and went to Solari. An arrow in the shoulder...bandaged ...and she pulled the blanket down. She bit her lip, a gut wound...not good. She turned to the young Amazon that lay sleeping. "And her?" She asked the healer.
"She's fine. Malantha was her sister. I gave her a sleeping potion." Ilithya shrugged. "Pain of the heart...only time will help that wound."
"Hmm..." Xena's eyes flicked to Gabrielle. "And her? What happened to cause her to fall apart like that?"
"I think that's her story and one she'd rather tell you herself." The Ilithya said with a smile to take the sting out of her words. "Just love her." She glanced at her Queen. "She needs that right now..." She turned back to her tasks.
Xena frowned. A few years ago she'd of taken the healer's head for not answering her question. Today she wanted to strangle the answer out of her, but she'd wait. Her stomach did flip flops as she looked at her lover. She sighed. There was plenty of work to do. She turned to face Ilithya. "Chronos?" A jerk of the hand. She nodded and moved toward the back of the cave., paused at the entranceway to the picture cave. "Gregor One-eye?" She swallowed the bile the name caused to rise in her throat.
"He's one of the ones we put in the fire pit."
Xena grinned. "At least he got what he had coming to him." A littler happier knowing that the battle had been won she headed into the picture room to look for Chronos.
Kara turned from her post. "People coming."
"See if it's ours." Xena commanded, rising to stand in front of Gabrielle.
Kara slipped out of the cave and called. An answering bird brought a smile to her lips. She stepped back in. "It's Briala."
Xena turned to Gabrielle. So pale and lifeless. She bit back a sigh. "Gabrielle." She paused to force her lover to look at her. "They're your people. You need to greet them."
The bard nodded and rose to her feet. An indefinable ache in everything she did. She paused to glance at the sleeping Solari, "Will she be all right?" She lifted swollen eyes to Ilithya. The warrior healer nodded, but spoke not a word. She avoided looking at Makarios. Steeled herself and stepped outside just as the band of warriors broke coverage. Xena stood silently by her side offering her quiet strength.
"My Queen!" Briala reined in her horse and sliding to the ground strode forward. "We were victorious."
She knelt before the small queen. "But not without cost. A few of our sisters this day hunt for Artemis in her holy forest."
Tears sprang to Gabrielle's eyes. More deaths...on her hands...she forced the tears down. "Our sisters died gloriously." The words sounded hollow in her own ears. "When we return to our village we will pay homage to their memories." She faltered. Xena laid a warm hand upon the small of her back and she garnered strength from it. "Our sister Malantha also hunts in the holy forest of Artemis and our friend," She turned to face Stas. "Makarios has gone on to the Elysian Fields."
"No!" The cry tore from Anastasius against his will. He ran to the cave. Gabrielle and Xena followed.
The sight of the blanket shrouded body caused him to stumble and fall to his knees. "Makarios!" He threw his head down and sobbed onto the lifeless chest. My friend, my brother. It should have been me."
Xena clasped his shoulder. "Stas...he was a good man." She glanced at the bard, but Gabrielle was lost in her own fears and for once unable to offer the comfort she was normally so good at. "I'm sorry...we're sorry."
Stas looked up at his warrior friend. "He was the first real friend I ever had. I'd give my life for him."
A chill voice came from the corner of the room. "Would you?"
They all turned and looked. Chronos advanced slowly toward them. Power emanated from him in a way none of them had ever seen. "Would you give your life for him?" He asked again as he glided to a stop before the kneeling man.
"I would." Stas swallowed his fear.
"Despite the fact that today you have more to live for than ever before?" Chronos raised his voice in doubt.
Stas closed his eyes briefly and let the love he felt for Themis fill him. To have had that for such a short time...he opened his eyes. "Yes. Despite the fact that today my life is worth living I would gladly give it for him." Forgive me love, but I have lived many lifetimes and your brother not one.
Chronos caught and held the immortal eyes with his own piercing blue ones. A full minute past as he judged the worthiness of the gift offered. "A life for a life is possible." He looked around. "You are to be witnesses." He looked down at the man that had finally learned the lesson of life and his glance softened. "Life must be taken in order for life to be given." He raised his hand and the changed. A bright green glow filled the cave and the women fought to keep their eyes open.
Xena clasped Gabrielle close to her and watched in amazement as a force was pulled out of Anastasius and bent by the will of Chronos into the body of their dead friend.
"Call to him." Chronos demanded. "If you want your friend back and not just this empty husk call him to you with all the love you have."
"Makarios!" Stas pulled the body of his friend to him. "Makarios, please answer...your parents need you...Themis needs you." He looked pleadingly at Xena. "I don't know what to do."
Xena looked apologetically at Gabrielle before letting the girl go and kneeling by the cot. She grasped Makarios by the head and forced his eyes open. Staring into the empty eyes she called with all her strength. "Makarios!" Her eyes pierced through his burning into his brain. "It's not time for you to go. Come back." She paused. "Ask Ilena. She wants you to live." She pulled him into a sitting position and propped blankets behind his head. "Makarios." She called again.
A gasp, his eyes rolled back and he blinked. Recognition entered his eyes. "Xena?" And a glance over her shoulder. "Stas?" He tried to lift his head and let it fall back down. "I had the strangest dream."
Xena smiled and clasped his shoulder before relinquishing her spot to Stas. Gabrielle slipped up to her side and placed one arm around her waist. Xena moved her own arm around Gabrielle's shoulder and pulled her close. "Come on. We have a miracle to announce."
Chronos smiled at the loving scene and turned to walk back to his throne. He paused as the warrior and the Amazon Queen stopped next to him.
"I thought you said a life for a life?"
"I did." He glanced back at the men. "I wonder when he will realize what I meant."
Xena grinned. "It's good. You're a good man Chronos."
"Me?" He laughed. "I am and always will be the father of time...and time is many things." He stepped towards his door, turned to Gabrielle. "Last chance?" And at her quick no a grin. "Thank you and goodbye." He stepped through the door into his private sanctum.
"What was that all about?" Xena asked puzzled.
"Oh, ever since we got here he kept trying to get me to come see his wall of life." She sighed. "I wonder if it would have changed what I did if I had."
Xena sensed the unease and fear that ran through her friend. "Want to tell me about it?"
Gabrielle turned and burrowed into Xena's arms. Gaia, but she felt safe here. How do I explain what happened and what I felt...feel today. "Later...after we get the Amazons settled." She looked up into worried blue eyes and her heart leaped for joy. She smiled. "I want to be alone with you."
"Tonight." Xena leaned down and brushed the soft lips. "I promise. Just you, me and Argo." She tossed her head towards the woods. "Out there far enough away so they can't hear us. I know the perfect spot."
"Good." Was Gabrielle's only response. Xena's embrace tightened for a minute, then loosened. "Come on." She opened her arms to allow Gabrielle to step out of them. "Let's go organize the Amazons."
Gabrielle didn't move. She tilted her head back into Xena's chest. "I can't do it anymore." She whispered the words, but Xena heard and gathered her close. "You can." She kissed the top of her head. "You will." She squeezed her tight. "I'll stay by your side the whole time." She let go. Gabrielle stepped away and looked up into her eyes. She bent down and kissed her again. "It'll be okay. You just tell them you want them to go home...who's in charge and that we'll join them in the village within two moons. Okay?"
Gabrielle nodded, but reached out and clasped Xena's hand to her.
The Amazons settled Xena prepared Argo for departure. One last check on Solari. The slim, dark haired warrior would be all right. They Amazons were busy building a travois for her and a few days rest before they headed home should be enough for her to make that grueling trip.
Xena paused by Briala's side. "Tell Epinon the Queen will be by sometime in the next two moons...in time of Acacia's ceremony."
Briala nodded. And just how did Xena know when the young girl's ceremony was going to be? She watched silently as the dark haired warrior somersaulted onto her horse and leaning over helped the young queen up. What was it about the woman? She shook her head and sighed heavily before turning to her job.
Xena and Gabrielle rode silently through the forest. Xena content in the feel of her lover's arms wrapped around her waist and Gabrielle content in losing herself in the smell of her warrior. Safe and loved...that's what the mix of herbs and leather would always mean to her. She laid her head down upon the warrior's back and closed her eyes.
Xena reined Argo to a halt and smiled. The glade was perfect. Gabrielle would love it. A small pool at the foot of a medium sized waterfall gurgled a welcome as she tapped her young lover's hands. "Gabrielle?" She called softly. "Wake up." She twisted in her seat, grinning as the hands tightened at her waist. "Hey, I think you'll be more comfortable on the ground."
"Oh." Gabrielle said fuzzily. She let go of Xena's waist and rubbed her eyes, blinking to bring them into focus. "Oh Xena it's beautiful." Her eyes took on a look of wonder, and she slowly took in the sight. The waterfall, the pool for swimming, a big flat stone for sunning, the forest to their back and a small meadow for Argo to graze in. "It's perfect." She slid off Argo and walked toward the water. "How did you find it?"
Xena paused Argo's saddle in hand. "It was back when I was still...let's just say I was out scouting and I stumbled across it." She dropped the saddle and removed the reins. She slapped Argo lightly on her rump. "Go ahead girl I'll come brush you later." She turned to face Gabrielle. "I never told anyone about it...it was too pure...too beautiful for anyone I knew then." She placed her hands on the younger woman's shoulders. "I spent one night here and stayed awake soaking in the beauty wishing I knew someone that would appreciate it."
Gabrielle reached up and covered Xena's hands with her own. "Thank you." She leaned against the warm body and just soaked up the strength that ran through Xena.
"Hungry?" Xena asked as she wrapped her arms around her. Gabrielle shook her head. "No?" Xena frowned. "When did you eat last?"
Gabrielle snorted. Anger was welling up inside her and she didn't know where it was coming from. "Who knows? I had more important things to do then think about food."
Xena's frown deepened. Gabrielle not care about food? This was really serious. "Okay." She spoke slowly. In that case why don't I set up a cozy little lean too...in case the weather turns nasty and you just relax in the sun."
Gabrielle nodded. Her eyes closed in relief...much as I want Xena to know I really don't want to tell her. Later will do just fine. She whimpered a protest as Xena let her go., but smiled as she was spun around and kissed. She opened her eyes and watched Xena walk into the woods. My love...Her eyes glazed over and her smile deepened. I'm the luckiest woman in the world.
Xena smiled as she caught sight of her beloved bard lying on the flat rock, by the small pool. She made short work of setting up the lean-to and building a fire and hurried to join her young lover. "Hi" She jumped up to sit with Gabrielle.
"Hi." Gabrielle smiled sadly. There was no putting it off. Now she was going to have to tell Xena everything and...her heart sank...Xena would be so disappointed in her...I just hope she doesn't hate me for it.
Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle. "So ready to talk to me yet?"
A wry smile appeared. "Reading my mind again?" She shook her head. "I was just thinking about how to tell you."
Xena felt the bard shake and tightened her embrace. "Start at the beginning and take as much time as you need...I'm not going anywhere." She nuzzled her lover's neck.
Gabrielle grinned. For a woman of few words her warrior always seemed to know just what to say to make her feel good. For just a few minutes she basked in the glow of their love. Then slowly, haltingly she began to speak.
"At first things went pretty much as we expected it to. We waited both in and outside of the cave's mouth for the attack. They came at dawn and there were more then double the number we expected. Still we fought on. Malantha was one of the ones stationed outside and when I saw her go down I ran out to stand over her." She stopped and patted the suddenly white hands that encircled her waist. "I know it was stupid." She loosened the grip that threatened her breath and brought the hands to her lips. "I couldn't help it...I just ran...I had to protect her."
Xena lowered her head to rest on Gabrielle's, not even attempting to hide the trembling that ran through her body. "I know...it's one of the reasons I fear for you...your courage...it's also one of the things I love about you."
Silence reigned for more than a few minutes as the two soaked in each other's love. A hawk glided lazily overhead and a deer came to drink at the pond. The sun was starting it's downward swing and a rosy red glow filled the sky. Xena smiled...if not for the woman in her arms she doubted she'd ever take the time to look at a sunset, but now...she drew in a deep breath and let out a sigh of contentment, before breaking the silence. "If you don't want to talk about it it's okay."
"No." Gabrielle protested. "I want to tell you." She hung her head and played with their entwined fingers. "I need to tell you."
Gabrielle's pain tore at Xena's heart and she pulled the bard closer. "Whatever...I only need to know if you want to tell me." She nuzzled Gabrielle's neck breathing in the herbal scent that was a wondrous toxin to her.
Gabrielle let her head loll back on Xena's shoulder. It would be so easy to ignore it...not let Xena know, but if she did that where was the honesty...she shuddered...no she had to let the warrior know. She smiled as Xena's grip tightened. She always felt so safe in these arms. She cleared her throat and sat back up. Xena loosened her hold but kept her arms around the bard.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and began again. "Needless to say as soon as I ran out Solari had to follow me." She shook her head and wiped a hand across her face. Between the two of us we were doing a pretty good job of keeping them away. I don't know when Makarios went down." Her voice picked up and her words began to tumble over themselves. "I was too busy fighting for my life, for Malantha's life and then Solari went down. I continued to fight, but they were coming at me in groups of three and four...I was tired." The tears formed in her throat and she choked. "I fell and my staff went flying." She dropped her head. "When I rose I had Solari's sword in my hand and I swung it. I didn't even hesitate I just swung and swung and swung..." She bit her lip. "I'm sorry. I know I disappointed you. I know you never wanted me to kill. I'm sorry...I've tried not to. I wanted to stay the innocent you loved but I couldn't." The tears started to flow. "I didn't mean to lose my blood innocence." She let go of Xena's hand and dropped her head into her hands.
Xena listened in shock. Her surprise at Gabrielle's words evident. Gabrielle killed someone...more than one...how'd she manage not to kill herself with a sword? Her eyes blazed with rage...at herself for not being there...not protecting her. My poor love. Disappointed? What? She shook her head, fighting to remain calm. "Gabrielle?" She lifted Gabrielle up into the air and spun her around to face her, before pulling her into her lap. "Look at me." She nudged her chin and looked with sad blue eyes at the misty green ones that looked up at her. "I love you." She kissed the bard. "I could never be disappointed in you." Although her words were calm the passion made her voice tremble.
Gabrielle's mouth dropped open in surprise. This was not what she'd expected. No something was wrong. She shook her head. "How? How can you love me? I did something you constantly told me not to do."
Xena cradled her in her arms. "I'm sorry." She kissed the top of the bard's head. "I know I constantly told you not to touch the sword." She wet her lips. "But I never told you not to defend yourself...or your friends...I've killed thousands...I didn't want you to feel the pain I know from taking a life, but I'd rather have you alive and safe then stand by and not kill someone intent on destroying you." She watched the color start to return to the younger woman and gently stroked her cheek. "I'm sorry. I know how hard it must be for you. Taking a life...it's..." She closed her eyes and laid her head upon Gabrielle's shoulder, unable to fully explain that she understood the pain of first kill. Especially when the pain was so closely tied to the joy at the triumph of victory. Please don't let this change her too much.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and let the words flow out explaining it as she relived the battle. "I remember the shock that filled me as I saw the red spurt and the smell of copper as a hot thick red liquid came gushing all over me. The tangy taste of something unfamiliar as I licked my lips and pulled. The sword felt slick as I pulled it out of his body and it made a strange noise as though air was escaping from somewhere...but I didn't stop. No, I turned and sliced another man across the chest he went down. The death hadn't slowed me down at all. I remember thinking it wasn't me doing it...my hand wasn't mine...it belonged to some avenging angel." She laughed a shrill nervous sound that echoed hollowly among the trees. "The tangy smell of blood filled my nostrils and I breathed in another death. An arrow sped past my ear," She reached up and touched the tip of the ear. "I turned swinging the sword," She shook her head, "...it was all instinct. I used it in place of my staff, it was lighter and not as long, but I swung it as I turned and saw it aiming for my opponent's head. I felt the jarring impact as the sword met at the neck, and then it was moving through it." Again came the nervous laugh and Xena clung tighter. "It was like slicing beef." She licked her lips and spared a quick glance at Xena. And the head rolled away and like a ball it rolled back towards us. I couldn't help myself I watched it rolling and as it stopped I looked down to see a One-eyed face gazing sightlessly up at me. I killed Gregor One-Eye...I ended the war." She was shaking like a leaf, but she couldn't stop now. "I couldn't move. I stood staring at his sightless head and all I could remember was what you had said about him...and a fierce gladness filled me. I smiled...I wanted to kick his head...I laughed." Shock was in her voice. "And suddenly I realized what I was doing... and the bile rose in my mouth." She looked up at Xena and her face was a mass of confusion. "I was glad he was dead. Even as I stood there feeling sick I was glad I killed him...glad he you didn't have to see him again...I never hated so strongly...never wished pain on anyone, but as I stood there I was wishing that I he could have died a little slower..." She looked back down at her hands, hands stained with blood. "The only thing that stopped me was the sounds around me intruded. I heard footsteps running, then a familiar voice in my ear, and it was enough. I collapsed, throwing up everything that was in me." She let her voice fade away, wishing she could do the same.
Gabrielle laid cradled to the bosom of Xena as one might cradle a baby. Tears racked her body. I can't tell her that the rest of the day was a blur...learning that Makarios and Solari were severely injured Malantha dead...not a one besides me got off without a scratch...and I had been the reckless one. Finally I understood the battle berserkers that the men of my village used to talk about. I reveled in killing the man that had made Xena tremble. I am worthless...how can Xena still love me?. Afraid of the disgust she was certain was there she refused to look at the woman that continued to hold her safe.
"Gregor? Dead?" Xena sat stunned. She'd thought the man had gotten away scot free. Relief followed by anger spread through her body. She wanted to be the one that destroyed him. Show him what it was like...to grind his face beneath her heel. I wanted to kill him...and she did it...not only killed him but gleefully. Hatred rose and Ares dark power filled her. It blazed from her eyes...she felt it burn it's way into her soul and she fought it. Not now...Gabrielle needs me. Her heart sank. I caused this. I changed her. A bleak sorrow entered her soul and her eyes darkened with pain. She sat in utter confusion and only Gabrielle's deep need for her held her anchored in the present.
Xena rocked with the young woman cradled in the safety of her strong arms. She murmured in an obscure dialect the words strange but soothing and Gabrielle let the warrior's voice wash over her, cleansing her, accepting her, and she sighed with contentment as her eyes drifted shut and sleep overtook her.
Xena sat for hours cradling the bard as she slept off her exhaustion and somewhere along the way the thoughts that were running through her mind began to spill from her lips. "My love. It's all my fault. How different your life would have been if I had made you stay home. If I never rescued you - you'd be a slave...bitter and more than willing to kill. But what if I had sent you home...would you be happily married with children? I no longer know what would have been better for you. You're definitely my better half and I don't want to live without you. Amazon Queen, Bard, Best Friend...Champion of the Underdog...I'd of expected no less from you...how do I convince you that it was all right to kill this time?
That I'm not disappointed in you. That I was afraid of what killing would do to you, but I shouldn't have been. It was never you afraid to kill. I think you were always willing to do what needed to be done...even to kill if needed...you certainly begged me often enough to teach you the sword. It just was never your first choice. It was me...from the first moment I met you I was afraid of what it would mean if you killed...the changes it would cause...afraid you would fall down a dark and twisted path - such as mine. You are too strong in your convictions...and how do I explain that...my weakness and your strength?"
Gabrielle woke slowly. Words were drifting in and through her like a balm from heaven. Explaining, sanctifying her actions. She stayed still and listened. The words penetrated the heavy fog that she'd felt herself fall into at battle's end. She loves me still. She's not disappointed. She expected it to happen sooner or later. It's one of the reasons she tried to leave me behind. Her heart began to soar. The heavy weight disappearing beneath the invading light. She opened her eyes and smiled up at the most beautiful shade of blue she'd ever seen. "I love you too." She said as soft moist lips claimed her own. Long minutes past as the two reaffirmed their trust and love to one another.
Xena pulled back and stared deeply into the vibrant green eyes of her young lover. "You are beautiful." Her voice was husky, her breathing erratic and her eyes smoldered with a passion that set Gabrielle's loin to aching.
Gabrielle let out a soft mew. Xena's warm breath on her face sent chills chasing down her spine. She wet her lips. "I was so afraid...afraid you wouldn't love me anymore." She smiled tremulously at the warrior.
Xena pulled her back to her molding her body closer. She reached out and pulling Gabrielle's hand from around her neck placed it on her chest. "Can you feel that?" She left her hand lying above the smaller one and together their hands moved in tangent with her heartbeat. "That's what you do to me." She lifted her now shaking hand to stroke the silken cheek. "It's what you always do to me...proof that I could no more stop loving you then I could voluntarily stop breathing."
Gabrielle smiled. "I heard your words...what language were you speaking?"
"M'Lila's." Xena pushed the red gold hair away from her beloved's hair. "I always thought it was a pretty language."
"Hmmm." Gabrielle murmured. "She was special huh?"
"Ya." Xena whispered her rely. "She taught me to live again...then Caesar destroyed that...revenge was too good for him...." She closed her eyes and a tear trickled down her cheek. "...and Caesar taught me to hate." She let her head fall back. "Too late...I understand what she asked much too late."
Gabrielle lifted her head to gaze into Xena's eyes. "Asked?"
"Yes." Xena brushed her lips with her own. "She asked if I hated Caesar...and I didn't have a chance to answer." She wet her lips. "But it would have been yes. Especially after he killed her." She glanced away, ashamed of her past.
"What happened?" Gabrielle held Xena's face in the palm of her hands and gazed worriedly at her.
Xena could deny her nothing. "When M'Lila saved my life Caesar sent his army after us. A small group found us at Niklio's and attacked..."A shudder ran through her body and she let a tear fall. "...she threw herself in front of me to save me." She lifted bewildered eyes to Gabrielle. "She barely knew me...we were just learning to communicate...and she died for me." She swallowed the tears. "And all I could get out of Niklio was the repeat of his response to why she saved me. It wasn't my time."
Gabrielle kissed away the tears and cradled the raven head to her bosom. "It wasn't your time to die?"
"Ya." She gave a short harsh bark of laughter. "If she'd only known all the lives I've destroyed...if she left me hanging on that cross...they'd all be alive."
"Not true." Gabrielle rebutted angrily. "Someone else would have run rampant over them. Someone else may not have had your compassion. Imagine if you weren't there? What would have happened to the Centaurs and the Amazons? All good people and all the countless others we've helped." She was truly agitated now and let go of Xena to rise and pace. "And me? If you had died all those years ago..." Her voice trembled. "Who would have been kneeling in a meadow outside of Potedaia two and a half years ago? Who would have saved me?"
Xena's eyes followed Gabrielle as she paced. It was crazy and she knew it, but she felt so much better when Gabrielle ranted about her comments. "I'm sorry." She managed to squeeze the statement in as Gabrielle took a deep breath. "I didn't mean anything by it."
"Yes you did." Gabrielle corrected her. "But I want you to forget all that stuff." She walked over and knelt at the former warlord's feet. "It's time for us to move on." She placed her hands on Xena's knees. "It's time you forgot about atoning and we started enjoying life. It's a wondrous gift and one we need to share. "
"Yes." Gabrielle whispered softly, clasping Xena and pulling her to her feet. and moving toward the lean-to.
Xena grinned. "Only if you promise the same."
Gabrielle sighed a small smile formed on her lips, her eyes lit from an inner glow. "You got me."
Xena smirked and winked. "Ya I did."
"Okay. I promise if you promise."
Xena raised both eyebrows suggestively and Gabrielle laughed.
"I Promise." And an answering light glowed from her eyes. Gabrielle would be okay...She mused as she allowed herself to be dragged to the lean-to. Once inside though and she was going to show the bard what it meant to take time to live.
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