by Barry Marshall and CN Winters
CN's Note: This story idea was Barry's (whom now runs the Ultimate Fan Fiction Directory). After having the pleasure of meeting face to face with him on a business trip he took to Michigan, he asked if I'd like to join him in this bardic venture. It's been posted on the ex-guards mailing list during its creation and we've saved the ending until we could publish it on this page. We hope you enjoy reading this tale as much as we enjoyed writing it.
Disclaimer: These characters belong to Rob Tapert and Co. We're just borrowing them for creative purposes. This is an alternative tale. Consider yourself warned.
Write the authors at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
The shop wasn't cluttered, or dirty, but it was over-crowded with merchandise neatly organized on shelves and tables -- it was like being in a wonderland where I could find anything I needed. I also noticed the quality of the items for sale was superior, which was a welcome change. My original intent was to buy a rope before Xena returned from putting Argo in the stable, but I knew I was going to have a hard time not being distracted by everything on display.
"Can I help you find something?"
The voice came from a middle-aged man. He had tufts of dark hair on the sides of his head, and his smile was almost lost in his bushy beard. A gnarled wooden cane in his right hand supported his weight since the lower half of his right leg was missing.
I returned his smile. "I need a rope."
"Well, you've come to the right place. I have the finest ropes in Acadia."
Probably the only ropes in Acadia, I thought in amusement.
Even with the cane, he moved with surprising speed and agility to a table stacked with precisely coiled ropes. "Normally, I sell them for fifteen dinars, but to you, it's ten dinars apiece."
I had to keep my eyebrows from going up. I would definitely need to haggle with him. "You sound like a friend I know. His name is Salmoneus." Sadness crept into my smile as I thought about Sal -- I hadn't seen him in a long time and chances were, I never would again.
"Salmoneus? Never heard of him..." The shopkeeper was interrupted by four rough-looking men who entered the building. His pleasant demeanor disappeared like rain into a thirsty sand dune. "Hon," he whispered to me, "for your safety, I think you should leave by the back door."
My smile was replaced by a frown and I shook my head. The situation wasn't looking good, as I saw the four men spread out into the shop, rummaging through the merchandise, scattering things right and left.
"Ho, Meldus!" The leader of the thugs called out to the shopkeeper in a guttural growl. "Luks like bidness be gud. So much da bedder fer us."
"Today is your lucky day," I said to the rogue. "That is, if all of you walk out now and never come back." I grinned inwardly after saying that -- it sounded like something that Xena would say. I guess her influence on me came out at times like this. Besides, if talking tough to them caused them to go away without violence, then I would be happy. I had a feeling I was going to be disappointed, though.
The four of them stopped moving, standing silently with their mouths hanging open. Apparently, a woman had never spoken to them in such a fashion.
The leader's eyes narrowed, as he swaggered over to me. "Oh, we be luky a right. We be gonna cleckt 'taxes' from Meldus, an we git cha ina bargin. Wadcha say lads? Is 'er nuffa dis luv muffin ta go 'round fer alla us?"
My sais were in my hands almost before I knew what was happening. Trying to extort money was one thing, but the hint of rape in his words caused me to see everything with an angry red tinge of rage. There was a time when I would have tried to talk my way out of the situation, but my patience was short these days. I had seen an endless supply of ruffians over the years and like all of them, these men needed a behavior lesson. I was going to be their teacher.
"Sorry fellas, but you're just not my type."
The butt of the sai in my right fist broke his nose, causing him to howl in pain while staggering backward. The man closest to the door hurled a throwing knife at me. I blocked the lethal missile, causing it to scrape off my sai in a shower of sparks. The other two men on my left unsheathed their swords, surging forward in the cramped space of the shop to strike at me. They had to face me one at a time because there was no space to maneuver. I caught the sword of the first man in a fork of my sai, and with a flip of my wrist, disarmed him. A kick to his privates sent him tumbling into the man behind him. They both fell struggling to the floor.
I heard the scuff of a boot behind me and knew the leader had recovered enough to attack me from behind. Without turning, I crouched low, scrambling under a table, then whirled to face him. I had moved just in time -- his sword thudded into the floor where I had been. I kicked the table toward him, causing it to crash into his side. He released the blade, falling to his knees. Another kick to his chin made him sprawl unconscious.
The other two thugs on the floor disentangled themselves, readied their weapons, then charged toward me. The shopkeeper moved at that moment, tripping one of the men with his walking stick. When the man went down, Meldus cracked him over the head with the cane, knocking him senseless. I dodged a slash from the other rogue, then struck him in the belly when he was off balance from the swing.
As he doubled over, I leaned down, grabbing him by the collar and hoisted his ear up to my lips. "Show your faces again in this shop and you're all dead men. Understand?" He gave a quick, frightened nod and I popped him square in the jaw for good measure, knocking him unconscious.
The man who had thrown the knife at me, was a coward -- he fled through the front door. I wasn't about to let him get away. I sheathed my sais, then tossed a bag of dinars to the shopkeeper. "For the damage," I said in haste.
I ran outside, caught sight of him running past the corner of a building and I sprinted after him. Rage drove my legs, causing the distance between us to diminish, but he made it outside the village, disappearing into the wooded hills beyond. I increased my pace so I wouldn't lose track of him. I didn't need to worry; when I entered the woods, I could hear him cursing while crashing through the undergrowth. I followed the sound.
I stood at the top of a rise and saw him climb awkwardly over a fallen log at the base of a hill. He stopped for a moment, looking up to see me watching him. His eyes went wide before he turned to vanish into the bushes. I frowned at that, but it could only mean one thing; he had entered a cave. There were several caves in these hills and I hoped they didn't connect. I plunged after him so he wouldn't escape.
I located the underground entrance, then went inside with sais in my hands. A small amount of daylight pierced the gloom in the front part of the cave, which made me thankful I wasn't blinded by darkness. Still, he was not in sight. I immediately noticed a peculiar burning odor and I realized what it was -- black powder. I was familiar with that smell from the time Xena and I faced Khan's army. How in Tartarus did that get in here?
I turned to flee, but the explosion eclipsed everything. The roof of the cave collapsed, sending boulders falling around me in a choking cloud of dust. The feeble daylight disappeared, making it impossible for me to see to dodge the plummeting rocks. I remembered a cave wall was close to my right, so I lunged in that direction to get away from the cascading stones from above. I was struck on the left arm, my right leg, and finally my shoulder. I slid down the rough wall, barely clinging to consciousness.
I heard the muffled sound of someone screaming my name through the mountain of rubble around me. "Gabrielle! Gabrielle!" The voice belonged to Xena. I thought I was dreaming, but the pain I was feeling reminded me I was awake. She must have followed me out of the village.
I struggled to call out. "Xena," I managed to say weakly. I knew she would never hear me, and that was the last thing I remembered before going unconscious.
When I finally woke up, there was complete silence -- it was like being in a womb. The throbbing from the bruises, cuts and scrapes I had received, was with me from the moment I regained consciousness. The pain wasn't overwhelming, and that assured me I wasn't hurt severely. I focused my attention on my injuries, discovering my legs were pinned by rocks. I was relieved to find I could still move my legs a little, which meant they weren't broken, just immobilized by the stones. The dull ache in my head started to overpower me and my breathing was becoming ragged. I had very little time to escape; the air was running out.
Escape? Who was I trying to fool? There was no way to get out of this mess; I was going to die here. After all the things I had been through with Xena, I didn't want my life to end like this. Tears came to my eyes when it was clear I would never see her again. I decided to spend my last moments thinking about her.
A green glow surrounded me as I came closer to passing to the other side. Funny, I don't remember seeing anything like that before I died on the Roman cross. Then, I discovered where the strange light was coming from. Just above me on the wall was a vein of mineral glowing with the faint, unearthly emerald color. Something about it was familiar -- something that I had heard in a story. That's it! Iolaus had told me about it a long time ago. The mineral had been used to make the Kronos Stone...
If I could get a piece of it, I might be able to go back in time to keep myself from entering the cave. I frantically looked around in the dim green light to find both of my sais on the ground next to me. I stretched toward them, but I couldn't touch them. Ignoring the pain, I struggled as hard as I could. Finally, I was able to grab them. I struck one of the sais against the mineral, silently willing a piece to break loose. A chunk broke free, falling beyond my reach. I tried again and managed to get a small piece of the rock. I clutched it along with my sais, but nothing happened. I didn't know how to use a Kronos Stone, yet I did the only thing I could; I concentrated my entire will to use it to get out of the cave.
Suddenly, I felt as if an unseen force turned me inside out. I became nauseated and had the sensation of falling through a black, yawning chasm. When the horrendous feelings passed, I wasn't in the cave, or even outside of the cavern; I was flat on my back staring at the ceiling of a huge, vacant chamber with an empty throne. The fragment of stone had malfunctioned, but at least I was free.
I sat up slowly, wincing from the pain, grateful I was still intact and could move. I sheathed the sais, then tested my legs to see if I could stand. Satisfied that my limbs were stable, I made it to my feet. I put the Kronos stone down my leather top between my breasts for safekeeping -- I couldn't afford to lose it.
Before I could fully examine my surroundings, I heard voices echoing from outside the stillness of the massive room. I searched for somewhere to hide as the voices came closer. Behind the huge throne was a colorful drape of different purple and blue hues. I steadied my breathing, ignoring my pain, as I limped behind the curtain when a large door opened and two sets of footsteps entered.
"But my Ladyship-," a male voice pleaded.
"But what?" a woman hissed. It was only two words, but I knew that voice even though the material in front of me concealed my eyes. It was Xena!
"With all due respect my Lady, any action taken in the western region will be seen as a threat to Rome." He sounded frightened by his own words, yet still determined to state his mind.
"Lagetus," Xena sighed. "I pay you to make me look good, not to draw up battle plans. Do you think I want this conflict? No. I don't. Do you think I want this land once I win? No. I don't. That has been the downfall of many a great leader. You can only control so much so far, and I'm very content with my 'holdings'. However, if rebels in that region want to challenge my authority, I can't be responsible for the outcome. If it's a fight Rome is looking for in the end, it's a fight she'll get."
"But my Lady-."
"Lagetus, enough! I suggest you leave now before you try my patience any further," Xena stated firmly.
I didn't hear the man make another sound except for the shuffling of his feet toward the door in haste. Seconds later, the door closed with the finality of the conversation and I heard Xena release a frustrated sigh. I peered out from the edge of the curtain to get a view of her, unprepared for what I might see. My first reaction was surprise. Apparently, the stone had sent me into the future.
Xena looked older, much older. In fact, she resembled Cyrene, her mother, in a certain way as she sat at a large desk, quill and parchment in hand. I was on the verge of making myself known when I heard another door open on the far right. I ducked back quickly with the new image of Xena burned in my memory - salt and pepper hair, worry lines around her beautiful eyes and lips. She was still awe-inspiring after what appeared to be twenty years later. She was beautiful all right, and by the recent conversation, very powerful.
My curiosity got the better of me when I heard the light footsteps of a woman. I peeked out again to see a young lady move toward her. She was nearly twenty years younger than Xena. The greeting the woman gave - running her hand up Xena's arm to rub her shoulders - left no doubt about the nature of their relationship.
Twenty years had passed for Xena, but only twenty minutes had passed for me. I tried to tell myself this, yet I felt my blood beginning to boil as I watched the unknown woman stroking MY warrior.
"You're late," the woman chastised playfully.
"Yes, Tani. The affairs of state had to take precedence over the...affairs of state." Xena grinned as she eased back and pulled the woman down onto her lap.
Tani picked up the parchment that Xena had been writing on as Xena wrapped her arms around the woman's waist, snuggling into blonde hair that cascaded over her shoulder. Tani cleared her throat as if to read it out loud and Xena snatched it away, putting it back on the table.
"Oh come now, my Lady," the woman grinned coyly. "Let me read your latest adventure."
"It's a journal, not a scroll," Xena replied. "I'm no bard."
I noticed the sadness in Xena's voice as she said the word 'bard' and I felt my heart pull apart and fuse together repeatedly. I hated to see Xena sorrowful, but I was also relieved that I wasn't simply forgotten in her memory. To say I was unhappy, was an understatement. I always said if something were to happen to me, I'd want Xena to move on, but living to see that 'moving on' was something I was unprepared for. I swallowed my tears that threatened to spill forth. I tried to take as deep and quiet a breath as possible to calm my nerves at the sight before me.
"You could hire a bard," I heard the woman suggest.
I knew what that kind of 'perhaps' meant. It was the one that said, 'I don't see it happening but I'll humor you by giving an answer'. I wondered silently if that young woman could read the warrior as well as I could.
"Why don't you go to bed? I'll be there shortly."
"Promise?" Tani asked before giving Xena a slow, burning kiss on the lips.
"Promise," Xena echoed, returning the kiss with a similar one of her own. "I have something I have to attend to first."
Without further words, the woman worked her way out of Xena's embrace and back to the door where she had entered. Once Tani exited the room, I watched Xena rise.
Quickly I ducked behind the curtain to my hiding place. I felt the air sucked from my lungs as I heard Xena's footsteps - heading not toward her lover's door, but to my space behind the curtain.
Oh no! She's found me!
I prayed she wouldn't draw her sword and stab me blindly through the curtain. I leaned down and pulled my sais in an attempt to thwart any attack that might come.
"Show yourself!" I heard her voice boom. The volume and authority of it made me jump slightly, but I was relieved that she was giving me the chance to expose myself without injury.
Without wasting another moment, I sheathed my sais and slowly moved the curtain back until we stood face to face.
"It's me Xena."
It was all I could say at the moment. Words were hard to form, even for this bard. I had so many questions I wanted to ask, but I knew she would have questions of her own that needed to be addressed first. I watched in silence as her sword fell through trembling fingers to rattle against the floor.
"Gabrielle?! How did you. . .? Why didn't you . . .?"
Her utter surprise left her unable to complete a sentence and I had to smile. Xena wasn't often flabbergasted and I found her reaction endearing on a certain level. When her questions didn't come, she made a simple statement. "You're dead."
"No Xena, I'm not," I insisted. Her eyes narrowed and she regained her sword with a kick of her boot. I watched almost hypnotized as it returned to her hand with ease. I could see her mind working and I knew it wasn't good.
"Impostor!" she hissed.
Uh oh. Not good at all.
"Wait a minute! Wait a minute!" I said in a hush, pleading for my life, hoping not to be overheard. "I can prove it."
She gave a shake of her sword as a means of telling me to continue.
"You're an early riser," I told her. "You like mead more than wine. You only snore when you're on your back. You-."
"Lucky guess. Anyone could tell you those things," she challenged.
"We have a daughter, Eve. She was the Champion Of Rome until we broke free from Ares' ice tomb," I said quickly, struggling to reason with her.
"Once again, this proves nothing...any bard could tell you those adventures. I'm not impressed." She raised her sword to strike and I knew I had to get specific if I was going to live. I stopped using my mind, searching for facts. I had to let my heart speak.
"You said even in death you'd never leave me!"
She hesitated just a moment - enough for me to continue.
"In heaven, you told me our love was an end unto itself."
Acceptance began to take hold in her eyes.
"The first night we made love, was after we defeated Baccus. You told me you'd love me forever and you'd wished I was the first. It was the first time you called me Brie -- you only call me that when we make love... None of these things was written in a single scroll, and you would know, because you read them in the amazon village when you considered taking Eve and walking away from me. Waiting so long to read my scrolls was one of the regrets you voiced in a Roman cell as we awaited our execution. No one knows these things Xena. Just you and I. Well...at least I never told anyone."
Xena's stony demeanor slipped and she began to weep openly. She fell to her knees, laying the sword at my feet. I leaned down and pulled her into my arms. I felt safe and warm, although she was shaking tremendously. In light of her tears, she was still the strongest woman I ever knew. Even though this wasn't the time or place where I expected to be, I could live out the rest of my days here. I had found Xena, and that's all that really mattered.
Xena rose to her feet taking me with her. Her thumbs had wiped away tears on my face I hadn't even realized were there. She gave me that lopsided grin I always loved. The gray in her hair didn't matter. The crow's feet didn't matter. She was still MY Xena. She lowered her head to move in for a kiss, which I was more than willing to accept. We were on the verge of locking lips behind the throne, when we heard a door open.
She and I immediately froze and locked eyes - neither of us sure of what to say upon hearing the female voice calling for her lover.
"I thought you were dead," Xena explained to me in a low, guilty voice.
The grin I gave her was the hardest one I ever had to give in my life. "I understand," I mustered sympathetically. "Go to her."
Xena looked truly torn. She gazed deep into my eyes; then toward the direction where her lover stood, unable to see the two of us.
"I won't leave until I can explain how I got here," I promised her. "So go."
"You won't leave. Period." Xena said forcefully, but low enough for her lover not to hear.
"Gonna hunt me down if I do?" I teased with a wink.
"Yes." Xena's voice was curt.
Her abrupt seriousness caught me by surprise, but I didn't let it show. The passage of twenty years had done nothing for her sense of humor. I think she had been hanging around her soldiers too long...
"Tani, wait in the bed chamber," Xena called out to her lover. The statement was a command, not a suggestion.
"Look Xena, I said I wouldn't go anywhere. You know me. I'm a woman of my word," I told her soundly.
She gave me a grin. "Sorry, it's been a long day for me," she said, then leaned close to kiss me with the abandon of years lost from her. "I'll be right back. I swear it." Her fingertips caressed my cheek before she walked to the bed chamber.
"Go to bed," I heard her order Tani. "I have an unexpected visitor I need to attend to." I couldn't hear Tani's response, but I knew it wasn't favorable, because my warrior's voice boomed through both rooms. "Yes my domain does come first! And I expect you to be asleep upon my return!" With that, the door of the sleeping quarters was slammed shut.
Xena tried to give a smile as she returned, but I could sense her discomfort.
"Xena," I began in a quiet voice, "I don't want to cause you any problems. Maybe my coming here was a mistake."
"Never," Xena replied with a genuine grin on her face this time. "Come now, we'll get you to some sleeping quarters where we can speak privately."
My heart was undecided. I didn't want to cause Xena grief. I didn't want to be the reason for any marital woes for her. But I did promise to explain what had happened. I figured I owed her that much, so I followed her lead from the grand hall.
As we walked through the double doors down the corridor, impressed was far from how I felt. In awe was more like it, but even that paled in comparison to what I experienced. Xena didn't have a castle -- she had a palace. One that rivaled palaces we saw in Rome. The artifacts that lined the hallway came from all corners of the world - a collection of throwing stars from Chin, a suit of armor from Britannia, and many other oddities that I had no idea of their origins. I was compelled to stop and examine them, but I kept pace with Xena as we walked along.
"Dara," Xena called out to an older woman - perhaps in her 60's - who was dusting some of the displays. "Are the quarters in the East wing vacant tonight? I have an old friend here that stopped by unexpectedly."
"Yes my lady," the woman answered respectfully with a nod.
"Good," Xena smiled. "Make sure you have someone send up some food from the kitchen - figs, cherries, some stuffed grape leaves and nutbread. Wine too - not the stuff we give to 'guests' either." Xena stressed. "But the GOOD wine. Think you can handle that?"
"Yes my lady," the woman replied again.
"Oh and make sure you send someone from housekeeping with some of those sheets from Chin - the green silk ones." Xena paused for a moment. "See that a sleep shift in blue arrives as well."
"Yes my lady."
I started to wonder if this woman could ever say anything except, "Yes my lady."
"Thank you Dara," Xena said sincerely.
"You're welcome my lady."
What do you know? She actually said something else, I chuckled silently to myself. Xena and I continued our journey and my eyes scanned the different passages, trying to see as much as possible. After what seemed like a candlemark of walking, I was on the verge of asking Xena if we were there yet, but, before I could open my mouth, Xena stopped in front of a door. A soldier who was standing at his post nearby, dashed over and unlocked the room for her. He opened the door and gave a quick look around to make sure the room was empty, then he handed her the key.
"My lady," he said with a nod. He turned and grinned at me, giving me a nod as well. He appeared to be a little smitten, but I graciously returned his grin and nod with one of my own.
Suddenly, Xena grabbed the young man by the throat, making him gag. "Ogle this woman again," she threatened. "And I'll see to it that you have no--equipment--to be of use for her or any other woman. Got it?"
"Ye...ye...yes my lady."
Xena released his throat and pushed him back. "You may go with your life -- this time."
I was stunned. So stunned that I didn't even notice the young man had left until Xena turned back to me, asking if I was all right. It took me a moment to come back to her question since I was replaying in my mind what had happened.
"Yeah, I'm fine, I'm just..."
"What?" Xena asked, concerned.
"...shocked. I mean that young man. He didn't do anything but smile at me, Xena. Men happen to do that from time to time," I said, hoping some levity might help the situation.
"Not in my domain, they don't," Xena grinned. "Look," she conceded when she realized it still upset me, "I know it seems harsh, but I have to make sure they understand that you're off limits."
"Well thank goodness he didn't goose me," I chuckled. "He might have left with a few less teeth."
"No," Xena replied in all seriousness. "He would have left without his hand, or perhaps some other part of his anatomy. One of my generals thought it would be cute to pinch Tani - all in the spirit of fun, he cried in his defense later. He's mucking my stables now with one hand."
I wasn't sure how to respond. I wanted to tell Xena that it wasn't right, but I didn't know how she would react -- I could see that living like a Conqueror for the past twenty years had given her a hair-trigger temper. I was relieved when we were interrupted by a soft knock at the door.
"Enter," Xena called out.
Three women came inside, carrying the items Xena had requested. They went to work preparing the meal and the bed. Moments later they were off, scurrying away as if they were afraid to overstay their welcome.
As Xena popped the cork on the wine and handed me a glass, she began to speak. "Now you promised to tell me your story Gabrielle," she said in a sober tone.
"I'll tell you mine, if you tell me yours first," I countered, playfully, hoping it wouldn't be considered an act of defiance. I didn't want the impression of her fingertips around my neck as well...
"Okay my bard," she chuckled, pouring the alcohol into our crystal goblets. "Ohh...it feels so good to say that again - 'my bard'." She walked over to the bed and took a seat. "Anyway, where would you like me to start?"
"The cave," I said immediately. "What happened after the cave collapsed?"
I watched Xena down her glass of wine and pour herself another. "I tried to get to you," Xena said softly. "When I realized what happened, I ran back to town to get help. A few people came, and a shopkeeper who said you were a brave young woman." Xena grinned bittersweetly.
"I told them to get to work moving the stone while I searched for another entrance. I went over the whole area, but I found none. When I got back, everyone but the shopkeeper was gone, and when I asked where everyone was, he said they gave up. It was a lost hope. If you weren't dead already, you'd run out of air before we could move the stone. He apologized and made his departure."
I watched as Xena sighed, taking a huge swig of her wine before she continued.
"I clawed at that cave entrance for over a day. My hands were bloody. Some of my fingernails had been ripped from my skin, but I didn't stop until I fell over from exhaustion. When I woke up, I realized what a waste my life had become. I had spent my days defending people, towns...towns like the very one we were in and for what? For them to turn their back on me when I needed them most? We gave our life for them and this was how they repayed us?"
I noticed her eyes were beginning to get moist, but she held back her tears. She paused for a second to drink more wine, staring off in the distance, as if she was seeing all of those painful memories from her past.
"I remembered something that Ares told me," she continued. "He said I was always fighting for a better world, and that I was going to conquer and rule it. But, I realized I didn't want 'the world'. That's why Rome is beginning to fall -- they own so much, they can't defend it. I had a simple goal. I didn't want a complicated life. I just wanted to live. I wanted to make up the rules, and I wanted a place where people could be free from harm."
She turned to look at me, her eyes almost pleading for me to understand. This was not easy for her, and I smiled, placing my hand in hers.
"I realize some of my rules are strict -- no divorce, remarriage only through death, losing limbs for crimes of theft, high taxes to help cover the programs in my domain. It may sound harsh, but people court each other longer, crime is very low and children by age 8 can read better than most adults in other lands. I think I've done a very good job. The people seem happy. Morale is good. And I have an army to defend our way of life -- all volunteer soldiers, by the way. My army is not ordered to serve.
"I may not have the world that Ares hoped for, but I have a place in this world. And, if another rockslide ever happens," Xena said and grinned, "I have the POWER to see you are freed before nightfall."
I couldn't keep myself from grinning, as well. She's in there. My Xena is still in there. She's harsher than before, but deep down she was the same. I realize I must have drained my cup while I listened to her story and she poured me another.
"So Gabrielle," she said lying back on the bed. "That's my tale. Now tell me yours -- fair is fair," she added.
Even though I felt she was MY Xena, I had some apprehension at first when telling my story. I wasn't sure why. Perhaps it was my 'gift of prophecy' that I had confessed to Xena as I lay dying from a Persian arrow a long time ago. My hesitation came from a gnawing feeling inside my gut that said perhaps I was wrong about Xena -- perhaps she would be 'harsh' forever and I wouldn't be able to soften her heart. In that instant, I realized she had someone else's heart -- Tani. And how would that all fit?
"You're not gonna chicken out on me are you Gabrielle?" Xena teased when I didn't respond.
"Well," I replied, as I pulled out the stone I had tucked between my breasts. "This is what saved my life. It's a..."
"Kronos stone," Xena finished.
"Yes. I found it in the cave."
"You leapt forward in time," Xena deduced. "Which is why you look so young."
I nodded. "I remembered Iolaus' tale about traveling through time. I thought I could just use it to get out of the cave, but for some reason I managed to 'land' here. And I do mean land," I said with a chuckle. "I ended up in the middle of your throne room with no idea where, or when, I was."
Realization washed over Xena's face as she looked into my eyes. "For me it's been twenty years but for you...it's only been a few candlemarks."
"Yes," I answered.
"And you saw me with Tani didn't you?"
"Yes, I did."
Xena released a shaking sigh. "Oh Gabrielle. I'm sorry, I --."
I put my fingers over Xena's lips. "It's okay. I didn't come here to complicate your life," I said trying my best to convince her. "I just wanted to get out of that cave - to get back to you."
"You're here now. I'm here. That's all that matters," Xena said quickly.
"But Tani --."
"Is not your concern," Xena answered. "She is my wife, true. But you were my bondmate first."
"I've been gone for twenty years Xena. Don't you have a rule that nulls a marriage after that kind of a departure?" I argued. It was common knowledge that if a husband or wife was gone for five years, then they were considered dead with no 'legal' ties. Xena couldn't meet my eyes after I posed that question.
"This is different," Xena muttered.
"Why?" I grinned, trying to be optimistic. I hoped she would see that she had a good life, a woman who loved her, regardless of my presence. "Because you're the ruler? Do as I say, not as I do?"
"Damn it Gabrielle!" Xena shouted, clearly frustrated. I felt her frustration but there was no point in yelling about it. I watched as she darted from the bed and began to pace.
"Don't damn me," I answered softly. Perhaps my quiet words could calm the tension. "I feel damned already. I'm in love with a married woman. And you should know that I would never take another woman's wife - no matter how much I love her."
Xena stopped in front of me, her blue eyes piercing. "Do you love me?"
"More than life," I answered honestly. I did.
Xena's rage seemed to calm and she knelt beside the bed. "Will you stay? At least a few more days?" she pleaded, her voice heavy with a sob.
I looked into those azure eyes that captivated me from the first day I saw them. I was never able to refuse them.
"I will...for a while longer."
That seemed to appease her and she gave me a nod as she rose to her feet. "That's all I can ask for right now."
"Good," I grinned for show. "Because that's all I can give at the moment."
Xena walked to the dresser and let the sleeping shift fall through her fingers until she held it only by the straps. "I wanted to make love to you tonight," she confessed as she strolled back toward me, holding out the garment. "But I know how strong your convictions are about adultery," she added. "I do however, have one request if I may be so bold."
Xena might be twenty years older, but that come hither voice was still thick and smoky and oh-so-difficult to resist.
"What?" I asked. Anything - I'll give you anything, my mind screamed. But just when my arousal arrived, I realized I couldn't give Xena everything -- not with Tani in her life.
"May I dress you for bed?"
She didn't wait for a verbal response -- she read it in my eyes. She laid the shift on the bed and moved behind me, delicately untying the laces of my halter top until my breasts were free.
"Cold?" she teased as she looked over at my erect nipples.
"Quite warm actually," I answered, swallowing hard to keep my desires at bay. All she had to do was bring those strong hands around me and caress my aching breasts. I would be hers then. But much to my relief, and disappointment, she took me by the hands and pulled me from the bed. She unfastened my belt and my skirt joined my top on the floor. I kicked my boots off and I knew she was appraising my nude form. I reached for the shift but she 'tisked' me away.
"I'll do that," she replied, huskily. She was so aroused I could smell her desire. Of course, she didn't dress me immediately. She took a few more moments to admire me - naked and exposed to her, the way she had earlier that morning in my world.
I watched as she slowly gathered the material in her hands inch by inch in some kind of lover's game. My reserve began to crumble stone by stone with each motion her hands made. When she stepped behind me I lifted my arms, giving her better access. I suddenly held my breath when I didn't feel the material fall like I expected. She was holding it above me, admiring my backside.
When she did finally release it, the silk was a cold contrast to my warm skin and I felt myself suck in more air from the feeling. Her hands then ran over the length of the garment where it stopped mid-thigh and I could feel a cry of passion stuck in my throat that I didn't dare let escape. I didn't want her to see my arrival, but I realized that my desire was always transparent to Xena. This time was no different and I heard her chuckle.
"I could take you right now," she said, confident in my desire, her breath tickling my ear. "You'd love it, you know."
"I would," I confessed. However, I realized this was not the same woman I woke up to this morning. This was a different woman. With different commitments. "But then, I'd hate myself in the morning...because I'd be alone and you'd be waking up in Tani's bed."
Xena's lips were beginning a descent to my neck and she stopped abruptly. The reality of her life clashed with any fantasy she had in the past twenty years. I felt her pull away.
"Sadly that's true," she agreed despondently, as she moved away. I watched her walk toward the door. "Titus!" she called out.
The young man from earlier darted back in, but this time, he avoided any eye contact with me. "Yes my lady?"
"You remember Gabrielle, don't you Titus?"
The man looked a bit shaken, unsure of how to answer for fear of losing his life. "Yes my lady," he replied.
"Good," Xena grinned. "I'm going to formally introduce you. Titus, this is Gabrielle, my dear friend. Gabrielle, this is Titus, your new guard. You are permitted to go anywhere in the palace -- even my bed chambers if you so desire," Xena grinned devilishly to me. I did my best to hide my blush. "Only rule is, you take Titus with you. And Titus, you will guard Gabrielle and no one else. If harm befalls her in any way, then harm will befall you. If Gabrielle dies, then you too, will die. Do you understand?"
"Yes my lady," he nodded firmly with a salute.
"Good man," Xena complimented. "Now go keep post outside. Gabrielle might need her beauty sleep."
"Yes my lady."
As quick as he had entered, Titus left, and I watched Xena stroll casually back to me. "I meant what I said. You can go anywhere...even my bed."
"I know," I replied. "I think it's safer if I just call it a night...here," I added, looking around the massive room.
"Well then," Xena said taking my hand and giving a light kiss to my knuckles. "Until tomorrow...my lady."
The term wasn't lost on me. Xena's servants addressed her in such a fashion. She was their ruler. Applying the term to me meant that after all these years, I still 'ruled' her and I felt my blush return.
"Good night, Xena," I smiled.
"Good night, Gabrielle."
Without a backward glance, Xena was gone and I climbed into the bed. I had been through so much in the last candlemark, I felt overwhelmingly tired because of it. As I climbed into the big bed and covered up, I realized I could very well get used to this 'pampered' life. But, could I be the mistress of the most powerful woman in the world? I have to admit, a naughty chill ran down my spine at the thought of it, burying its way into my sex.
Gabrielle, Mistress Of The Conqueror has a nice ring to it, I chuckled in light of everything. I wasn't sure what I was going to do, but somehow, some way, Xena and I could work together and get things sorted out. We always did before. We could still do it now. I secured the stone under my pillow. I would think about it tomorrow.
I awoke startled, as a sudden weight landed on the bed; I almost lashed out instinctively in self-defense, but stopped myself when I saw Xena. Her eyes were inches from mine and they were glazed from the effect of liquor. The smell of ouzo on her breath was overpowering.
"Grabbbielle...wake up." Xena chuckled. "Did I say Grabielle? I meant Gab-ri-elle."
"Xena, are you all right?"
She suppressed a belch, while nodding. "You been on ma mine all-night-long, ssso I bin all fine."
I wanted to say that drinking had been on her mind all night long, but I kept that thought to myself. I had never seen her this drunk, and I was beginning to get uncomfortable -- drunken conquerors with short tempers were not on my list of pleasant things to endure. "You should get some sleep."
"Sleep with you? Dammmmn. What-a-good-idea."
She wiggled her eyebrows, then tried to hug me, but collapsed giggling on my chest, instead. I gently pushed her off -- I didn't want her to think I was spurning her attention.
"Sssorry 'bout that," she said while sitting up, swaying slightly. She clumsily placed her right hand on my breasts. "I don't wanna crush these."
I sat up in the bed, holding both of her hands. "Xena, I think you should get some rest. We can talk later."
"Gabrielle." Her voice was suddenly soft and serious. There was a look of sadness on her face. "Do you love me?"
"Of course. You know that I do."
"Then tell me...tell me what we can do to make this work..." Her voice became small, trailing off. Moisture made the sky-blue of her eyes bright and her hands gripped mine, not wanting to let go.
I swallowed around the lump of sorrow in my throat. Why did things have to work out this way? She had been through so much in her life -- I didn't want to see depression added to that list. "I don't know yet," I said quietly. "I need time to think about the situation we're in. We both do."
She nodded. "You're right. Have I ever tole you you're alwase right 'bout stuff like this? 'Cause I wanna tell you. I wanna tell you everythin' and anythin' I feel 'bout you. I kud never tell you alla those years. I juss don't wanna loose you..." Her tears started flowing freely now.
I tenderly put a finger on her lips. "It's all right." My own voice was quivering with emotion. "It will be all right."
I hugged her and we rocked slowly side to side. We stayed that way for long moments, then I realized she had fallen asleep. I gently eased her back onto the pillow, smoothing her tousled mane of hair from her closed eyes. I carefully got out of the bed, so I wouldn't disturb her.
As I dressed in my leathers and tucked the stone in my boot, I thought about the situation we were in. Could I persuade her to null her marriage to Tani? It was a selfish idea, with lots of complications as far as Xena's rule in her domain, but, she was ultimately in charge and could do anything she wanted. And, was it selfish after all? I was with Xena first. The dilemma hurt inside me, yet I didn't want to transfer that hurt to Xena, or even to Tani. I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath to clear my thoughts. Perhaps a quiet walk through the palace could help me think better.
Before I left the room, I made sure the heavy silk curtains on the windows were drawn against the morning light and I blew out the guttering candles so Xena could sleep comfortably. When I opened the door, Titus jumped to his feet, looking bleary-eyed -- the poor man had been guarding the room all night with no sleep. I wondered how this guard arrangement would work, especially if he was supposed to be near me all the time. How was he going to get any rest, or bathe? I almost chuckled at that last thought. I certainly didn't want him around if he was going to smell like a pig pen.
"Good morning Titus."
He nodded, looking nervous at my presence. "Good morning Lady Gabrielle."
His discomfort was beginning to bother me, as well. I could see I would have to put him at ease. "Titus, first, just call me Gabrielle."
"As you wish, La...uh, Gabrielle."
"Second, I want you to relax around me. I know Xena can be harsh sometimes, but I won't let her do anything to you."
He nodded, looking a little relieved.
"And third, I want you to get something to eat, take a bath, then get some rest."
The nervous look was back in his eyes. The things I had requested would conflict with his orders from Xena -- he couldn't guard me if he was off taking care of himself. He was about to object, when I spoke first.
"Don't worry, Xena is asleep in my room and probably will be for some time."
"I'm not sure..."
"Titus, I can take care of myself. I have been, ever since the Amazons made me their Queen."
His eyes went wide. "You're that Gabrielle?"
I chuckled. "Yes, I'm that Gabrielle."
Now, he really looked uncomfortable. I could imagine how he felt about following the orders of two Queens -- especially if those orders were contradictory. I wasn't trying to do it on purpose, I just wanted to see his needs were met.
After a moment of silence, he said, "I'm sorry Gabrielle. I can't leave you to do those things."
I sighed. I could see I would have to take a different approach. "All right. I'll talk to Xena when she wakes up and get her to assign another guard to me as well. That way you can look after me in shifts."
His nervousness was replaced by a grateful expression. "Thank you."
I was looking forward to some time to be alone with my thoughts, but since he was going to accompany me, I would have to think of something else. I wasn't used to having someone follow me everywhere. "I'm going to the throne room and I want to be alone. When we get there, you can wait outside."
"As you wish."
"Titus, remember -- relax."
"Yes, Gabrielle." He grinned.
"Much better. Shall we?"
I started walking, taking in the wonders of the palace. The quarters I had stayed in last night were just off a corridor that intersected with the huge, main hallway. Sunshine cascaded into the passage from windows high up in the walls, illuminating everything with the soft, golden light of morning. I marveled at the columns made from pristine white marble that supported the distant ceiling. There were statues of graceful women and well-muscled men, crafted from the same marble, that stood on pedestals beside the columns. The line of figures extended so far, they seemed to shrink to the size of my hand, but I knew it was an illusion.
I glanced to my right, noticing another statue placed by itself in an immense room adjoining the corridor, and my curiosity caused me to go in that direction. When I got a better look at the sculpture, I stopped moving -- I stared in surprise at a perfect marble likeness of me. The inscription on the pedestal read 'Gabrielle - Queen of the Amazons - Requiescat In Pace.'
I felt sorrow as I looked at the statue; the same sadness that Xena must have felt every time she looked at it, knowing in her heart that I was gone. It was the same thing I would feel, if Xena would pass to the other side without me. I abandoned that line of unpleasant thinking, but I still felt bad about our current situation.
I started walking again, with Titus trailing silently behind me. I was so deep in thought, I didn't notice any other features of the palace on my way to the throne room. How was I going to handle this? My options were limited. Xena seemed determined to follow the laws she had established regarding marraige. If I was going to be with her, I had to think of a way to get her to change those rules slightly...
My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a distant wail. I stopped, looking at Titus. "What was that?"
"I believe that was someone in the dungeon." He was apologetic. "It's under the floor of the palace here."
"A dungeon? Why does Xena need such a place?"
"For criminals. There isn't much crime, but when people break the laws, that's where they go."
I was uncomfortable. I knew of the necessity for jails, but a dungeon conjured up images of torment in my mind. "How many people are down there?"
He shrugged. "I'm not sure. I don't think many -- maybe a hundred people, or so."
"One hundred?!" I said, shocked.
He was taken aback by my dismay. "Those are the only prisoners, which isn't bad considering the size of Queen Xena's domain."
Yeah, the only prisoners who are alive, I thought. I wondered what their crimes were. Xena used to have a good sense of justice, but after she lived like a Conqueror for twenty years, I wasn't so sure. I continued my journey to the throne room, quickening my pace to leave the disturbing sound.
When we arrived, Titus opened one of the massive double doors for me, then I went inside. He nodded to me and shut the door, leaving me alone. My mind was whirling with confused thoughts. Things were happening that I wasn't accustomed to, so I had no answers. The feeling of being caught in out-of-control circumstances was not something I liked.
I noticed Xena's journal on her desk, and I decided to look at some of it, hoping I could get an idea of how to deal with our future. I sat in the sumptuous chair behind the writing desk, then started to read the most recent entry, which must have been written last night:
I can't believe it! After all these years, Gabrielle is back in my life. I thought she was gone forever. I had given up hope so long ago and now I have the gift of being with her again. Only this time, I'll do everything right. I'm not going to lose her, no matter what the cost.
And Tani? What am I going to do about her? This is enough to make my head ache and I hate headaches. I have an idea, but I think there are people who may not like what happens. They will see in the end though, that this is the right way...
I closed my eyes, feeling a little relieved. She had come up with an idea -- she always did. I knew I could count on her. I just wish she would have written it in the journal, so I would know what she intended to do.
I opened my eyes with the intention of continuing to read previous entries, when I saw Tani standing before me. I hadn't heard her come in. She must have been in Xena's bed chamber adjoining the throne room.
"So, you're the famous Gabrielle."
"How did you know that?"
"I read the journal, just like you."
"I have the feeling Xena wouldn't like that."
She frowned. "Really? I happen to be her wife -- I don't think she would mind. But, what I want to know, is, what gives you the right to read her private thoughts?"
I knew more about Xena's private thoughts than this woman would ever know, and I even grinned, because I could tell Tani knew that. "I was together with Xena, before you were born."
"But you were gone..."
"Not by choice," I interrupted.
"...and presumed dead," she finished.
"Everyone 'presumed' wrong. I'm here now."
"Why are you doing this?" Her voice quivered slightly. Tears began to form in her gray eyes. "Why are you trying to destroy our happiness?"
She was attempting to make me feel guilty for something that wasn't my fault. "Do you think I wanted all of this to happen? No, I didn't. But now, the question is, what can we do about it?"
She placed her hands on the table, leaning forward to look into my eyes. "We? There is no 'we'. Just Xena and I. . . You must leave and never come back. That, is the solution."
"That's not the answer, and you know it. Xena knows I'm alive -- she'll just come looking for me."
She finally burst into tears, then ran into the bedroom, slamming the door.
I stood, sighing. I hate headaches, too. I decided to go back to my quarters to speak with Xena when she woke. I hardly even noticed Titus' presence as I silently walked back to my room. He opened the door when we arrived. Xena was not there. And moreover, the room looked as if an earthquake had destroyed it. Concerned that someone meant me harm, Titus carefully entered, suggesting that I wait by the door. He checked every 'hiding place,' not finding a single soul.
In a palace this closely guarded, no one could have entered. One person did this damage and I knew who that one person was . . . and just what they were after. I stood for a few moments, thinking about how I could find Xena. I turned to Titus -- he could sense my questioning state before I said a word.
"My lady . . .I mean Gabrielle? What is it?"
"Where can I find Xena?"
"I'm not sure ma'am," he answered politely. "Most of her time is spent in the throne room or her . . . bed chambers," he added with a bashful smile.
I grinned in spite of myself. Yeah, same ole Xena. My grin slipped away, however, when I thought about the reasons I had to speak to her. "Look, I need her right now," I told him. "This won't wait."
He looked uncertain. "She will be most displeased to see the room in this condition," he said, knowing that this 'mess' could cost him his life.
"You're afraid she'll harm you upon seeing this?"
"Yes," he answered. "I know she will."
Titus certainly is quite young, I thought. "I wouldn't worry about this," I said, trying to calm his anxiousness. "I can handle Xena. Besides I'm willing to lay odds that she's the one that did this."
"But why, my lady?" he asked, truly baffled.
I shook my head. I was irritated that Xena had wrecked the room, and concerned about her motivation -- I knew in my heart of hearts she did it, and why. "Power," I told the young man. "Power and control."
"Power over what?"
Power over the stone and . . . "Me," I replied. She tore the room apart looking for that damn stone. I just wondered why she didn't ask for it when I first showed it to her. It seems my apprehension at revealing how I had gotten here was well founded. Maybe after her night of drinking, she had lost a little more of her soul. I HAD to speak with her. "And since it's me that she wants," I added, "it's me she'll get. Can you find her?"
He gave a quick nod. "Guard!" he yelled to a fellow down the hall. "Find Queen Xena and inform her that Lady Gabrielle needs her immediately in her chambers. Search the palace at once!"
I began to put things back in order. Titus came over to help, but I ordered him to wait outside so he could inform me when Xena arrived. Reluctantly he agreed, leaving the room. Before he left, he offered to call for help to clean up the mess, but I politely refused, going to work.
Long minutes passed. I had just begun to make the bed, when I heard a friendly voice behind me say, "I've got maids to do that."
I didn't stop my task. I was still too mad. "That's okay," I answered coldly, not looking up from tucking in the bedsheet. "I'm not that special that I can't clean up after myself . . . or should I say, after you."
Sure, it might cost me my life to speak in such a tone to the 'Conqueror,' but I'd had it up to here with her 'spoiled brat' ways and lack of trust.
"Titus," I heard her say, "leave us." Next I heard the door close as I threw the bedspread over the mattress, smoothing it out. I continued to work silently.
"You know," Xena chuckled, despite the fact I was angry. "I've even missed your 'silent treatments' too. . . Come on Gabrielle. Don't hold this against me."
Finally I looked up to see her take a seat on the bed I just made. Her long salt and pepper hair cascaded over her shoulders. Although I was still angry, I couldn't help noticing how powerful, commanding, and sexy she still looked after all these years. Sex appeal however, was not going to work on me. Not this time. Not today.
"Why did you do this? Don't you trust me?" I asked her. I really needed to understand.
"Easy. You have the stone -- it brought you here and I want it... Come on, Gabrielle. Just give it to me and we can be done with it."
"Why? So you can go back to take Rome? So you can take out a few of your enemies? So you can get more riches than you can spend?"
"No. So I can keep you," she answered honestly. "I already have everything I could want. I could give YOU anything you want - silks from Chin, weaponry from Gaul . . . even those little lamb dumplings you love from Britannia," Xena added with a smile. "Whatever you desire is yours, Gabrielle."
What ever I desire, huh? "Well what if I wanted you - the Xena I knew yesterday morning? Not the one in your reality, oh Conquering Queen, but the one I used to know."
"That Xena's had twenty years without you. She's changed."
"Obviously, since I had to put this place back together." I threw my hands up, motioning around the room. "MY Xena would trust me. My Xena would tell me what she wanted, or what she planned."
"I'm not YOUR Xena anymore, Gabrielle. That's true," she confessed. "After all the battles without you, after all the years as ruler of this land, I'm not the same. In truth, I'd say I'm better. All I want is the chance to prove it to you, which is why I want that stone. I don't want you taking off for another twenty years," she added playfully.
Unfortunately, I wasn't in the mood to play.
"I'm not giving it to you," I answered firmly. "I promised I would stay so we could find a solution. I promised I wouldn't leave before then, and I mean it. I need you to trust me at my word Xena." I felt myself tearing up, realizing that this was a situation we might not find a solution to, and I'd be forced to live without her again. "I just don't know how this will work for us."
"Shhhh," she said, as she crawled over, gathering me in her arms. "Don't cry sweetheart. Don't cry."
Her soft pleas had the opposite effect, making me cry even harder, making me want her the way she used to be, even more than before. I didn't want to walk away any more than she wanted me to walk away. Xena and I were destined for each other -- we were soulmates, but the 'reality' of it didn't matter, be it her's or mine. We were meant for each other, that was the one thing that was a constant.
I pulled back to wipe my eyes, getting myself together. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry," she said. "Be happy." She stood up, her hands cradling my face. "I have a solution to our problem . . . well at least the 'Tani' problem that is."
Here it was! The answer! The solution! My ears perked up and my eyes watched her with intensity. Just what did the Warrior Princess have in mind?
"She committed treason this morning, and treason is punishable by death in my domain," she grinned smugly.
Surely, she was joking. I chuckled and shook my head. "You're something else Xena. Seriously, what's the plan?"
"That is the plan."
That's the plan?! My grin fell so fast, it seemed like my jaw shattered on the chamber floor. I couldn't form a single sentence to pass my lips upon hearing this news. Finally, two words came to me. "You can't."
"Of course I can. And I will. I told her not to leave the bed chamber until I returned, but she did. She told me she spoke to you in the throne room. She disobeyed my order, therefore committing treason."
This was crazy. This was insane. I had to reason with her. "Can't you just...banish her...or something?" I pleaded. "She's young. You have more than enough power and wealth to see she leads a good life somewhere else in your realm."
"That would be the same as a pardon. I have to uphold the law. The law states that the penalty for treason is death."
I was going to be sick. I could feel my face grow warm and my eyesight blurry. This was ridiculous. "What if it were me, Xena? What if I disobeyed you? Would you put me to death?"
"By the heavens, no! Don't even think that!" Xena said, seemingly appalled by the notion.
"Sure, you say that now," I prodded her. "But what's the difference?"
"You're Gabrielle." Xena smiled confidently, stringing out the syllables of my name the way I always loved. At least until today. Today, the sound just brought bile to my throat.
"She's your wife," I told her.
"Perhaps, but you're my soulmate, and that means so much more," Xena countered.
That's true, I considered. But just as quickly, I realized that no matter how true that statement was, it wasn't a reason for that girl to die. But, I also knew if I didn't convince Xena I was 'okay' with the idea, there would be no escape from this situation. I couldn't run. And if I did, I surely couldn't hide for long. Tani would be dead, and despite what Xena said, I would probably meet the same fate if I left. I had to think. I had to buy some time to form a plan to see that Tani stayed safe and that I didn't end up losing MY head in the process. I turned away from Xena and started to pace.
"You are my soulmate," I said, trying to be optimistic, not meeting her eyes. "And, in truth, I was your bondmate first," I added for effect.
"Exactly!" Xena was excited that I seemed to agree.
"So, you think this execution is the only way out?" I asked as I turned to her. "After that, we'll be together again -- like before?"
"Absolutely," Xena grinned, as she walked over to capture my face in her hands.
I looked away, giving a firm nod. "Then so be it," I said. The words almost choked me. "If that's what you feel is best, then that's what we'll do. I don't want to live without you Xena. So...do what you have to do."
I pulled away gently, going to look out the window. I knew if I played it too enthusiastically, Xena would never fall for it. But this way, with a hint of regret in my voice, maybe -- just maybe -- I can pull it off. I felt her come behind me and wrap her large arms around me. She planted the most delicate of kisses on my neck.
"She won't suffer," Xena whispered in my ear. "It will happen so fast she won't feel a thing, I promise you."
I felt the bile return, but I tried to swallow it. I HAVE to pull this off. I couldn't reply, so I just wrapped my arms around hers to give a show of support.
"However it has to be," I told her, trying to keep the grimness out of my voice. "As long as I have you in the end. I know it's selfish Xena, but, I can't help myself. I have to have you."
Oh yeah. I'm good. Xena turned me around and kissed me soundly on the lips. I struggled to hide my reluctance at physical contact with her. I had to play along, though. My fingers worked their way into her hair, making her moan in pleasure as our tongues begin to dance. After a few moments, I felt her lift me up to the window ledge, taking a spot between my legs and we continued to kiss. Her hands began to work their way higher up my skirt and I realized I had to stop her now, or there will be no turning back.
"Xena," I said pulling back from her embrace. "Not yet. Not now. Go do what needs to be done. I'll be here when you return, waiting for you."
Our breathing was ragged from our arousal and she rested her head on my shoulder, to get a sense of control that I had managed to steal with my kisses.
"Oh how I love you," she whispered to me.
"I love you, too," I lied.
Truth is, I didn't love this woman. I love the Warrior Princess, not the Conquering Queen. I knew I could never love THIS woman. But, much to my relief, she didn't sense anything amiss. She smiled at my words, and without another comment, she turned, strolling purposely from the room. She had a mission to accomplish. She had a wife to kill.
After the door closed and I knew she was out of hearing range, I ran to the chamber pot to vomit.
I realized I would have to do something. I couldn't rely on the stone. I still had no idea what I was going to do, but confining myself to my room while Xena went off to kill her wife didn't seem very proactive.
I decided a visit to the throne room might be in order. When I left the room, Titus was there as usual, looking more bleary-eyed. I was sure the young man had been up for at least twenty-four hours now. Damn it. I forgot to tell Xena about getting another guard.
"Have you seen Xena?"
Something had changed; he seemed colder toward me. "Perhaps the throne room," he answered. "She's announcing the sentencing of her consort. The execution will take place in half a candlemark."
"I didn't intend for this to happen," I told him honestly.
"With all do respect Lady Gabrielle, your intentions mean very little at this point. Tani has been a wonderful consort to the Queen. She's a favorite among many."
"And now, because of me, she's going to die," I added.
He nodded his head slowly, meeting me eye to eye. "Quite frankly...yes."
"Well, I'm not going to let that happen. Take me to Tani." I ordered him, as I began to walk down the hallway.
"I'm afraid that's impossible."
"Nothing is impossible. Some things are just more difficult than others. Is she in her chambers?"
"I don't know where she is. But, chances are, she's in the dungeon."
"Take me there," I commanded firmly.
"But Lady Gabrielle-."
"I SAID take me there."
Without further argument, we walked wordlessly to the cells below the palace.
When I entered the dank dungeon, I was dismayed by the number of people crammed into the cells. Titus had said about a hundred people lived here. In truth, it looked more like two hundred, perhaps three. And living wouldn't be a word I would use - existing was more like it. The smell was gut wrenching - a combination of feces, vomit and mildew. My stomach turned, just as it had earlier. When I walked past the cells, prisoners began to clamor by the gates, holding out their hands, begging for mercy. When I got to the last cell, I noticed that it was empty except for one woman - Tani. At least Xena was decent enough to separate her from the other prisoners - they would have probably torn her limb from limb for her association with the Queen.
She was huddled in a corner on a wooden bench, her arms wrapped around her long legs.
"Tani," I call out tentatively.
She looked up, a sarcastic grin on her face. "Did you come to gloat?" she asked despondently.
"No," I answered. "I've come to help you."
"And what can you do? Beg her for my life? Bat your eyelashes and have her do your bidding? Or perhaps you'd have to do something more favorable to the Queen, like dropping to your knees to worship at her 'alter'? I'm sure you've done that already though, haven't you?"
"For what it's worth," Gabrielle answered. "I haven't 'worshipped at Xena's alter' as you put it, since my return. And I don't want to see you harmed."
Tani stood up, walking toward me with a dignified grace. "Well, what are my options? You said it yourself - Xena will hunt you down if you leave. And if I leave, you can guarantee that she'd leave my carcass in the middle of town to serve as an example once she found me. And trust me...she would find me."
"Would you be willing to walk away if I got Xena to pardon your life? Would you go?"
Tani didn't answer immediately. She considered the question. "I've spent five years of my life with Xena. She passed through my town on the way back to the capital. I was still a teenager then. I was betrothed. But the Conqueror saw me. She wanted me. And by order of her law, she took me. It sounds quite harsh, but in reality, I wanted to be taken." She looked at me with piercing gray eyes.
"My life hasn't been easy with her," she continued. "She can be violent. She can be moody. She's even raised her hand against me now and then. But after years of trying, I finally broke through. I finally made her realize it was ok to love again. I would never have her love in the way that she loved you, but she gave me all that she could, and I was grateful for that. Because even a difficult life with Xena, was better than a boring life in a farming town. You probably don't understand that."
"I understand more than you realize," I told her. "But you still didn't answer my question. Would you leave if I could persuade her to spare your life?"
"This morning I would have said no. I'd stay and fight for what I have. But now, with the hour upon me -- yes -- I would leave. Because I love her," Tani chuckled in misery. "Can you believe that? The woman is ready to kill me, but I still love her. And I know I could never make her as happy as you could. So there you have it Gabrielle. I have no pride. I have no shame. If you can save my life, I'm willing to do what it takes."
I could never picture Xena with anyone else but me. However, as I looked at Tani now and listened to her words, I realized that Xena made the right choice. Tani was a good woman. I could see why she was a favorite among the palace staff. Despite the fact she was a romantic rival, I had to admit. I admired her, too. This woman had strength, conviction and ambition. This woman didn't deserve to die. And I knew that I wasn't about to let that happen.
"She won't kill you," I promised. "You have my word."
She looked like she was about to reply, but we heard the main cell door clank open. I turned to see four guards approaching her cell.
"Looks like my time's up." She gave a bittersweet grin.
"It can't be time already," I said to the guards, as they unlocked her cell. "There's still a few minutes left and I must speak with the Queen."
"Who are you?" asked a guard. "And what are you doing down here?"
I have to admit, his cocky attitude began to make me angry.
"She's Lady Gabrielle," Titus replied firmly before I could speak. "A guest of Queen Xena with a clearance to be anywhere she likes."
The other guard's eyes widened. For such a large palace, word had quickly spread. "My apologies," he said with a gracious nod. "But, Queen Xena is with the executioner awaiting Lady Tani."
I stroked the young woman's arm, "It will be okay." I tried to reassure her, but I wasn't so sure if I could appeal to Xena's 'good nature' to do the right thing. "We'll go out together," I told Tani.
She gave me a nod, but I could see she felt it was hopeless. Silently, we all walked from the dungeon and through the palace until we were outside in a court yard. There was a group of onlookers - some who appeared to be on Xena's council and others who were mere spectators crowded the 'grandstands' overlooking the executioners block.
Xena looked stunned as she watched me walking out with Tani and the guards. I wondered for a moment if I would be next for disobeying the Queen by not staying in my quarters. I swallowed any fear I had, moving to meet Xena as Tani was escorted to the chopping block. As I approached, Xena's feet finally set themselves in motion.
"What are you doing here?" She asked, coming over to me. "You shouldn't be here."
"Please don't do this," I implored. "Tani is a bright, idealistic young lady and she doesn't deserve this fate. Please consider what I said earlier. Give her the chance to live in your domain far away and free from harm. Please?"
Xena opened her mouth, but closed it before saying a word. She looked uncertain, as if she still wanted to say something, but the executioner called out, "Shall we begin my Queen?"
Xena stared at me, then at the spectators around us. She gave a nod to the guards to secure Tani's hands and feet with rope, making escape impossible.
"Xena don't do this. You don't have to go through with this."
"Yes, Gabrielle, I do. You don't understand."
"Don't understand what?!" I was growing angry now. "The fact that you would rather kill this woman than lose face with these people by calling it off?" My hand waved toward the onlookers in the courtyard.
She couldn't meet my eyes. "Yes," she muttered, staring at her feet.
"On your word," the executioner called out to his Queen.
Come on Gabrielle. Think! Think! Do something! Anything!
When Xena looked up to the executioner, I made my move. I dashed through the guards lining the block and without hesitation, I threw my body on top of Tani's, holding onto her tightly.
"What are you doing?" Tani exclaimed in a shortened breath, the weight of my body making it hard for her to breathe.
"If you're going to kill her, then you'll have to kill me too, Xena!" I yelled to our lover.
"Don't do this Gabrielle," Xena warned. "I'm gonna count to three, and that's it. Move, so justice can be served."
"Save yourself," Tani whispered to me.
"She won't kill me," I whispered back. "I know Xena."
"You used to know her. You don't know her any longer."
"One!" Xena shouted to us.
"You can't change the course of events," Tani said, resolved to her fate.
"No. This isn't justice. Xena will see that."
"This is justice to Xena. You've betrayed her now, too. You've shamed her in front of her troops. So go!" Tani continued to urge me.
Xena paused for a moment to look into my eyes. I saw so much in them - pain, regret, sorrow - but the strongest of all of these was death. I realized she meant what she said. I also knew it was too late to move.
"Three," she said softly, with a wave of her hand, turning her back to us.
I could see the executioner's ax began to rear back to fall on top of us. If only I had Lao Ma's purity, I could influence Xena like she did years ago and that may have changed things.
As the ax began to make the descent, I closed my eyes, holding tight against Tani, waiting for the inevitable. Suddenly, I felt the stone in my boot warm against my skin, then once again, my body felt as if it was sucked through a black tunnel where I had no control.
Moments later, I was still face down expecting a blow from the ax, but instead, I was on a bed covered by silken sheets with the smell of rose petals in the air. I opened my eyes to see beautiful sights around me. Vibrantly colored rugs covered the floor of a bedchamber, contrasting with tapestries on the walls showing scenes of cranes and ibises beside waterfalls. The song of a nightingale poured from a golden cage near the circular stone shape of a bath filled with steamy, hot water.
I got up from the bed, carefully stepping around the room, taking it all in. Where was I? What year was it? With these questions in my mind, I looked out a window to see mountains far away and just beneath them, tiny from the distance, was a great wall stretching to both ends of the horizon. I realized I was in Chin.
I closed my eyes to calm my whirling brain. What had happened to Tani? In my heart, I knew the answer, which made me deeply sad. But, I found comfort in the fact I had a Kronos Stone; I would find a way to change that situation. And, why did the stone send me here? Moments before, when I was on the chopping block with Tani, I was thinking about how Lao Ma had helped Xena and apparently, the stone had transported me to Chin. Was I in the past, and was Lao Ma nearby?
My thoughts were interrupted as I heard footsteps approach. I quickly turned to see a woman from Chin gliding toward me. I didn't think I'd ever see a woman who could rival Xena's beauty, but I had to admit this woman was positively gorgeous. I stared at her for long moments, with my tongue stuck. I finally found my voice, and it was husky and low. "Are you Lao Ma?"
"Yes," she answered, searching my face.
I was in the presence of a woman who had been such an influential part of Xena's life. She was exactly as Xena had described her. Her raven-black hair was soft like spun silk and her eyes were like dark magnets that imprisoned my gaze. She was dressed in a kimono that had an intricate pattern of hummingbirds among flowers. Beneath her garment, I could tell she had a lithe body that was capable of the most delicate movement, or the swiftest action.
"Would you care for some tea...?" She left the question unfinished, inviting me to tell my name. Her voice was like a tinkling wind chime in a light breeze. She was incredibly gracious to offer tea to a stranger found in her home. I was beginning to become aroused by her, and that was disturbing to me, because I never thought I would have feelings for another woman like the ones I have for Xena.
"No thank you," I answered. "My name is Gabrielle."
She nodded silently, waiting patiently for me to explain why I was in her chambers. There was no fear in her mien -- I sensed a calm assurance that came from the knowledge she could defend herself against any threat. From what Xena had told me, this woman was more than capable of protecting herself. I saw from her relaxed bearing that she knew I meant her no harm, even though she noticed the sais in my boot sheaths.
I wondered at this point in time, if she had decided to assist Xena yet. An idea came to me; what if I was the catalyst that persuaded her to provide guidance to the Warrior Princess? The thought was like a lightning bolt in my mind. I had a chance to participate in turning Xena away from her dark side. "I need your help," I said with uncertainty.
She nodded slightly. "I would be happy to, if I can."
Her willingness took me by surprise. "But, you don't know me."
She smiled. "Although I have just met you, it's easy for me to see you have a kind and compassionate spirit. I also know that you would defend to the death that which you hold dear. Please, join me and we can discuss your request -- I was about to partake of my bath."
My eyes went wide for a moment. If my ears had not failed me, she wanted me to take a bath with her. Now, I was really becoming aroused and I felt my nipples getting hard. I hoped she didn't notice, but there was about as much chance of that as the sun not setting tonight. I hesitated, because I didn't want to do anything improper, since Xena was my soulmate.
She could see the indecision in my eyes. "Don't worry, my intentions are only to see that you are refreshed after your long journey."
"All right," I said grudgingly accepting her offer. Right now, a hot bath was just what I needed to relax.
Lao Ma gracefully removed her kimono, then stepped into the steaming water. I followed her lead by removing my leathers and boots, placing them on the bed. I entered the bath, the warm water lapping luxuriously against my skin. She gazed into my eyes, courteously avoiding looking at my body so that I wouldn't be embarrassed. She waited quietly for me to elaborate on my earlier request.
"It's urgent that I talk to you about helping someone I know," I began.
"You must love this person very much."
Her statement astonished me. She had the gift of seeing into the depths of my soul like it was a scroll with tree-high letters. "I do. Her name is Xena."
Even though Lao Ma appeared to be very adept at hiding her emotions, I detected a subtle change in her bearing; every fiber of her being was suddenly focused on me with keen interest. I had surprised her. "I've heard much about Xena," she said cautiously.
"I know Xena has done some terrible things, but if she is given a chance, she will do tremendous good."
"Perhaps." Lao Ma had recovered her aplomb and started to gently apply soap to her body. "I am curious -- when I went to Borias' encampment, I didn't see you there with Xena. I find it intriguing that you are here in Chin without my knowledge."
Inwardly, I regretted my wording when I told her that Xena will do good. It was a mistake that could possibly lead to disaster if anyone discovered I had traveled here from the future. Lao Ma obviously suspected something mysterious about my presence at this time and place. I struggled with the decision to tell her the truth, and I decided it was the right thing to do.
"Xena and I are together in the future," I explained slowly, gathering my thoughts. "I was trapped in a cave where I discovered a Kronos Stone that allows me to travel through time. When I escaped from the cavern, the stone mistakenly sent me far into the future, where I saw Xena had conquered much of the known world."
Lao Ma nodded, listening intently to my story.
"Xena was on the path of good," I continued, "but grief from my disappearance in the cave caused her to return to the ways of a conqueror." Tears started to form in my eyes. "I don't want to see her that way. Will you help me give her a chance to fight her dark side?"
Lao Ma smiled. "I can see that you're very much in love with Xena. When I met her at Borias' encampment, I observed she has considerable potential." She paused to look into my eyes. "I must think about your request."
She appeared to be reluctant. Perhaps I had to think of something to be more persuasive...
Lao Ma must have noticed the expression of disappointment on my face. "Gabrielle," she said softly. "It's not that I don't want to help Xena, it's a matter of timing. She must be ready to accept guidance."
"I believe she is."
"Perhaps. But, if she isn't, then anything that I do may cause more damage, than good."
"Doesn't every journey begin with one step, though?" I felt a sense of urgency, and my feelings were evident in the tone of my voice.
The musical sound of Lao Ma's brief chuckle eased my anxiety a little. "You are indeed wise. However, the journeys that each of us are on, must be our choice if we are to be successful. We cannot force our plans on someone else."
I knew in my heart that she was right.
Before either of us could continue our conversation, a lady courtesan entered the room wearing a light green brocaded kimono. Her dark eyes stared at me in surprise, not anticipating my presence, and certainly not expecting me to be in the bath with Lao Ma. When she regained her composure, she bowed, then spoke in the Chin language to Lao Ma.
Again, I noticed Lao Ma tense almost imperceptibly -- something concerned her. She replied to the courtesan, and even though I couldn't understand what she said, I could tell from her voice that she was issuing orders.
The courtesan excused herself, bowed, then exited the bedchamber.
"Something is wrong?" I asked, as the feeling of anxiety grew in me again.
"Xena has kidnapped Ming-Tien."
I swallowed hard. "Not long after she met me, Xena told me of her time in Chin. She said that Borias betrayed her and she was captured by Ming-Tsu. He plans to release her, then hunt her down to kill her."
"Yes," Lao Ma said. "Ming-Tsu has already seized her -- Li Li has just now relayed a report from my sentries that he is traveling close to the border of my land with Xena in a cage."
My heart was thudding in my chest. Events were moving faster than I had anticipated.
"Perhaps it's time to help her after all," Lao Ma continued. "I will hide Xena from Ming-Tsu. After that, I cannot promise anything. We shall see what happens."
I smiled in relief. "Thank you." My voice was thick with emotion.
Lao Ma rose to her feet, the water dripping from her supple body. "I must prepare for these events."
"I'm coming with you. I can watch from a safe distance in the forest."
She looked at me. "If Xena sees you, it may change the future."
"Xena won't see me. I'm an Amazon Queen, trained in the ways of hiding in the forest."
Lao Ma smiled. "As you wish. Stay near the main road and from there, you should be able to see everything unfold."
She dressed herself in a scarlet kimono with gold brocade and shoulder epaulettes. A black fur cap completed her clothes. I donned my leathers and boots to be ready to leave with her. After she finished, she quickly strode from the bedchamber with me following her.
When we were outside, her retainers stared at me in surprise, but they didn't say anything. I touched Lao Ma on the arm before she entered the luxurious canopy covered conveyance that she used when traveling.
"Good luck," I said.
She smiled. "And to you, as well."
I turned to run into the forest bordering her home. I intended to follow Lao Ma's entourage, since I didn't know the territory. I made good time -- the terrain wasn't rough, but the undergrowth and trees were sufficient to offer me cover from any prying eyes. I had no trouble keeping Lao Ma's retinue in sight as they slowly moved along the main road.
In the distance, I could see Ming-Tsu and his followers coming toward Lao Ma's retainers. It wasn't long before the two groups met eachother on the road.
I moved closer to get a better view, then, I stifled a worried breath when I saw Xena imprisoned in the cramped cage. Her hair was wild and her nomad leathers were covered with dirt. There was a haunted look in her eyes, giving her the appearance of a trapped animal, but she gazed at her captors with contempt. I wasn't accustomed to seeing her this way, and it made me sad. I took comfort in the fact that she was about to escape from this situation.
If everything went right, that is. I decided that I would make sure events went well, even if I had to interfere a little.
Lao Ma emerged from her canopy covered transport to meet with Ming-Tsu. I strained to hear what they said, but I couldn't tell what they were saying. By the time I edged closer, I could only catch brief snatches of their conversation as they finished talking.
"A beaten, half-dead cripple doesn't...sporting..." Lao Ma said.
"No...entertaining," replied Ming-Tsu.
"Enjoy...entertainment." Lao Ma glanced at Xena before turning to leave.
Lao Ma's entourage went back along the road toward her home until they disappeared from sight. I stayed to see Ming-Tsu's guards open the cage, then they pulled Xena out. She struggled against them, striking a guard, breaking his nose. They threw her to the ground and Ming-Tsu pointed to the forest. Xena glared at him, then got painfully to her feet, limping into the woods.
After she was gone, the guards brought out a pack of four snarling hounds. I drew a sharp breath, my eyes narrowing. In her weakened state, Xena would be no match for the dogs. She was going to get some help from me, though. Those animals would never reach her -- not if I had anything to do with it.
I turned to run through the forest, hearing the hounds baying behind me. I didn't have much time to get in position to delay the dogs since they moved quickly. I hastily climbed a tree to get out of sight, then I drew the sais from my boot sheaths.
I wasn't waiting very long before the hounds came into view. I didn't really want to hurt them, but if it was a choice between doing that to save Xena, or letting them pass by to harm her, I chose the former. I had to stop them long enough to give Xena a good head start.
Just as the lead dog was near the tree I was in, I threw one of my sais. The blunt end of the hilt thudded against the dog's head, causing him to yelp and stagger around senselessly for a few moments. The other hounds hesitated as well, unsure of what was happening. After a few minutes of milling around, they caught Xena's scent again, then ran through the woods after her.
I climbed out of the tree, picked up my sai, and followed them as quick as I could. I prayed that Lao Ma had reached Xena by this time, to get her safely out of harm's way. As I ran, I saw that Xena's tracks entered a small stream; she was attempting to throw the hounds off the scent. The dogs were smart though -- they found her trail and were off again.
The hounds were gaining on her, so in desperation, I gave a brief whistle before coming to a halt. The lead dog continued on, but three of the four dogs turned to see who the intruder was, and they charged toward me, snarling. I stood grimly with my sais in my hands, waiting for them, making sure they wanted to come to me and not follow Xena's trail. I had no desire to get attacked by the hounds, nor did I want to get trapped in a tree for Ming-Tsu's men to find me, so I ran in a different direction to draw them away from Xena.
I scrambled through the forest as fast as I could, until I could feel my breath getting short. The dogs came after me for quite a distance, but soon, they stopped chasing me in favor of following the original scent. I stood panting for a few seconds to catch my breath, then I ran after them again. Hopefully, I stopped them long enough for Xena to escape.
Behind me, I could hear the sounds of Ming-Tsu's riders approaching on horseback. My chances disappeared of delaying the hounds more; I had to hide from the people who were advancing on my position. I readied my sais and concealed myself among thick bushes that had enough foliage to hide me. Moments later, the riders passed quickly, not detecting my presence.
I was too far from the action, and being on foot, I could never reach Xena in time to see that she wasn't hurt. I had to count on Lao Ma to succeed. My only choice now, was to sneak back to her home to find out what happened. I sheathed my sais, then ran in the direction of Lao Ma's house.
When I arrived, Ming-Tsu's troops were searching the buildings and the grounds around them. I couldn't get too close, or they would discover me. After Ming-Tsu's people had left, I noticed the sun was setting, so I decided to wait until after dark to contact Lao Ma. I didn't really want her retainers to see me either, since my appearance would raise questions about where I came from. Even though some of them had already noticed me earlier, I felt it was wise to stay out of sight.
When the night finally settled, I moved silently through the complex of buildings, avoiding Lao Ma's sentries. I approached the terrace outside the double doors leading to Lao Ma's bedroom and before I could even get close, the doors swung open to reveal her. My eyebrows went up in surprise; apparently she had been expecting me.
"How did you know I was here?" I whispered.
"I heard you," she replied softly.
My mouth almost fell open. I had made no sound that I knew of -- she must have unusually keen senses like Xena. "But..."
"I heard your breathing," Lao Ma chuckled, noticing the look of disbelief on my face. "I was able to hide Xena from Ming-Tsu -- she is sleeping inside. Come with me, Gabrielle. I will show you to your room where you can eat and get some rest. Tomorrow is going to be a long day."
"Today was," I said.
She understood my feelings and nodded while closing the doors.
I followed her through the compound until we reached a building adjoining the main house. She opened a door, allowing me to walk inside. Flickering light from candles illuminated the chamber, giving it a warm, cheerful feeling. The room wasn't as large as Lao Ma's bedroom, but it was decorated in a similar fashion with exotic tapestries and rugs. On a table with short legs rested a large bowl of fruit, a platter of cheese, a loaf of round crusty bread, and a tea pot decorated with a painting of flowers.
She poured a little tea into a small, delicate cup, handing it to me. "Get some rest, Gabrielle. Tomorrow, I will begin to work with Xena, to see if she is ready to accept the journey away from her dark side."
I hoped with all my heart that Xena was willing. But, what if she wasn't prepared to change? I set aside my doubts -- if anyone could convince her, that person would be Lao Ma.
"I want to thank you for all that you've done," I said.
Lao Ma smiled. "No thanks are necessary." She placed a hand on my shoulder. "Xena is indeed fortunate to have you for a soulmate. Goodnight, Gabrielle."
"Goodnight," I replied.
Lao Ma turned, then exited the room, softly shutting the door behind her. I stared at the door for several moments after she left, thinking about all that had happened. Yes, tomorrow was going to be a long day.
I woke to the sounds of birds singing outside the window. Rays of golden sunlight filtered into my room, causing everything to glow with a brilliant yellow light. I slipped out of the comfortable bed feeling rested for the first time in two days. After I donned my leathers, I went to the window to look outside.
Beyond the opening, I saw a garden that had a pond thick with lotus plants and water lilies. A trickle of water spilled from a spring into the pond with a soothing sound, relaxing me. On a pedestal stood a dwarf juniper bonsai tree that was two feet tall; judging from its size, the tree must have been hundreds of years old. Flagstones set in neatly trimmed grass led to a sheltered overhang near the window of my room. The garden was like a paradise -- different than any other place I had visited.
I was about to go to the bowl of fruit in my room to eat breakfast to quiet my rumbling stomach, when I heard the sound of footsteps. I stood to the side of the window so I wouldn't be seen, but I was curious, so I stayed close enough to find out who was coming.
Lao Ma and Xena entered the garden, walking toward the shelter. I eased back a little to make sure I was hidden, yet I wanted to observe their meeting. I peeked out of the window briefly and I was glad to see both of them were located where they wouldn't notice me easily. Xena wore a kimono with her hair piled up in the Chin fashion, held in place by a long, thin hair pick.
A clay bottle had been placed on a small table in the shelter. Neither of them said anything, then I saw Xena raise her leg to smash the jug. I wondered if she was releasing some of her frustration.
"Would you use an ax to kill a mosquito?" asked Lao Ma in a slightly amused voice. It amused me too, and I held back a chuckle, grinning widely. Lao Ma moved close, gently taking the pick from Xena's hair. She glided several paces away, gracefully turned, then threw it with surprising force, causing it to lodge into the wood of the table. The economy of her movements demonstrated how little effort was needed to be deadly.
"That's good," Xena remarked.
"It can be a very useful weapon if thrown at the right body part," Lao Ma explained.
"You can kill someone with a hair broach?"
"If necessary. I don't like to kill, however."
Xena grinned. "Everyone has their preferences. I happen to like a good kill."
I winced at that comment. I realized at this point in time she was at the height of her warlord ways, but I was still disturbed by her rough mannerisms. The Xena I knew in the future was different -- she had learned to care for others and it was a sharp contrast.
"You're so full of anger and hate," Lao Ma said.
"You've got to be full of something."
Lao Ma was silent for a moment. "Put up another bottle."
Xena limped over to a stone ledge, picked up a jug, then placed it on the table. As I watched, I realized that Xena was a cripple -- not just physically after her bout with Caesar, but emotionally, too. It shadowed her entire being. Silence descended on the garden as I looked at them from my hiding place -- even the tinkling of the water seemed muted. Lao Ma stared at the bottle, then it suddenly burst into thousands of fragments.
My eyebrows shot up. I had never seen anything like that before. I looked at Lao Ma in amazement. She had managed to break the vessel with the power of her mind and I made a mental note to never make her angry at me.
I wasn't the only one who was surprised. Xena looked astonished and said, "Teach me to do that."
Xena placed another bottle on the table amid the growing mound of clay pieces of pottery. She stared at it and I could almost feel the force of her concentration from where I stood. I waited to see if she could break the container as well, but nothing happened.
Lao Ma laughed softly. "I'm sorry, Xena, but you're trying to break the bottle with your will."
"What else is there?" Xena sounded irritated.
Lao Ma patiently explained, "The entire world is driven by a will, blind and ruthless. In order to transcend the limitations of that world, you need to stop willing. Stop desiring. Stop hating."
"How do I do that?"
"Heaven endures and the Earth lasts a long time because they do not live for themselves. Therefore, she who would live a long time, should live for others. Serve others."
This was the very wisdom that my Xena in the future lived by. I was sad to see she didn't comprehend that at this moment, but I was still glad she would eventually understand.
"I could serve you, if that's what you mean."
I felt a twinge in my gut at her words and the conviction of how she said them. Although Xena had never met me at this point, since I was still a young girl playing with ragdolls in Poteidaia, I nevertheless felt an overwhelming possession toward her. She was mine and mine alone. I swallowed hard, and continued to watch, too captivated to look away.
"Of course you can," Lao Ma said. "It's easy to serve someone you love. It will make them love you more -- it's a good business investment. It's not what I'm talking about."
Xena's expression darkened. "You mean I should serve someone who hates me?"
"More than that. You should serve someone who you hate. Ming Tsu."
"Ming Tsu." The statement was flat, full of controlled anger. I could see the emotions warring in Xena's face and my heart went out to her. This lesson wasn't easy for her.
"Yes," Lao Ma continued. "The man who had you hunted like an animal. He comes here tomorrow with his son."
"Serve Ming? I'd rather die," came Xena's tight-lipped response.
"You've been a dead woman for a long time now, Xena. I'm offering you the chance to live." Lao Ma looked at her for several moments, then turned to leave.
I stood peeking out the window, watching Xena. Her fists were clenched in frustration, yet I could see something in her expression, even at this distance. She was going to try. I could tell. After all my years of being with her, knowing her, and reading her emotions, I was sure of it. Suddenly Xena kicked the table, causing the bottle to shatter on the floor. She stormed out of the garden, but I couldn't help grinning -- she was finally starting on the path to good.
That evening, after everyone had gone to sleep, I went out to the garden to practice with my sais. The moon was half way through its cycle, casting its gray light on everything, adding to the light from the lanterns hanging in the shelter. I went to the spot where Lao Ma had spoken with Xena earlier in the day. The pieces of pottery were cleaned up and the table had been removed -- there was plenty of space to practice.
I removed my sais from their sheaths, then closed my eyes, taking a deep breath to meditate a few moments before starting. When my mind was clear, I opened my eyes. I lunged forward, and back, sweeping my sais through defensive moves. I whirled the weapons to strike hilt first, then with the points facing out. When half a candlemark had passed, I was finished, and I inhaled the night air to catch my breath.
After I ended my session with the sais, I turned to find Lao Ma watching me. She had obviously been there long enough to see part of my routine. I felt myself blush slightly, embarrassed at the encounter. I believed I had a lot of training to do before mastering the sais, and her presence made me a little self-conscious.
"I see you've chosen the tools of a farmer," She said, referring to the sais. "It suits your temperament."
"Farmer's tools?" I asked, curious. The word farmer conjured up pictures of my father -- someone who was so far removed from my beliefs and ideals -- which made me grin at the irony of Lao Ma's statement.
"Yes, sais were made by them for protection against marauders. In my country, farmers are not allowed to carry swords. So, to defend themselves, they created sais, which are actually farming implements."
I nodded. "That's interesting. I didn't know that."
"Would you like me to show you how a Chin farmer would use them?"
I raised my eyebrows in surprise at her gracious offer. Butterflies of excitement caused my stomach to quiver. Here was an opportunity I never thought I would have -- a chance to learn a lesson from Lao Ma. "I would be honored," I said.
She glided toward me, holding out her hands. I gave her the sais hilt first and she said, "Take that sword and strike at me with it." She indicated a long, slightly curved Chin sword on top of a table resting in a wooden stand.
"I'm not very good with a sword," I said with hesitation.
She chuckled softly. "You are modest, Gabrielle. I can see in your eyes that you have a fair amount of knowledge regarding a sword."
I grinned at the compliment, her soft words bolstering my confidence. I just hoped I wouldn't embarrass myself. "All right," I said, retrieving the blade from the rack, then I went to face her.
"Now, strike at me."
Remembering a move Xena taught me, I raised the weapon, bringing it down suddenly, trying to surprise her. In a swift, almost effortless motion, she brought her right hand up to catch the sword in a fork of the sai. She flipped her wrist slightly, causing the blade to fall with a soft thump on one of the carpets in the shelter. She disarmed me so fast I barely saw what had occurred. I stared at my empty hands, then at her and I laughed.
So much for my attempt to surprise her. Silly me. "Could you do it slower so I can see how you did it?" I asked.
"Of course." She joined me in laughter.
I picked up the sword, going through the same motion slowly, watching closely as Lao Ma executed her defensive move. The technique was simple, but effective. I wasn't fooled by the ease with which she used the sais; I knew that her skill came from long candlemarks of practice.
"Your turn," she said, offering me the sais.
I took them and she picked up the sword from the floor. She used the blade to lunge forward in a thrust, instead of the previous attack. I was almost caught unawares, instinctively backing up a step while sweeping both sais up to imprison the blade inches from my face. My eyes went wide. I was under no illusion that this lesson was going to be easy, but it was turning out to be even harder than I anticipated.
"Excellent," she said, praising me. "The thrust is one of the most difficult moves to block. However, you must be ready for this..."
After saying that, she pulled the sword straight back with blurring speed, then swung it at my lower body, stopping the edge to barely touch my right leg. The muscle of my leg involuntarily twitched as I thought about what could have happened if this was an actual fight. It was sobering and her lesson commanded my undivided attention.
"When you blocked the sword, it could not move forward, up or down, but I could easily withdraw it. To stop me, you should have lowered the right sai to capture the blade."
"Try it again," I requested. I was hesitant, because her skill was far better than mine, but if I was going to learn, I had to go through with this.
She thrusted the blade, which I blocked like before, then she swung at me from the left side. I guessed that she might try to trick me again, so I was ready. I brought my left sai down and was surprised at the results -- the blade was pinned to the floor.
Lao Ma nodded. "See how I am slightly off balance now? A simple kick at this point would either remove the sword from my hand, or you could aim your foot at a part of my body."
I grinned, heady with my success. I didn't want to get too bold though, because I knew she could easily make my skills look pitiful. "I would be grateful if you would show me more."
She smiled, nodding. "Even though your knowledge of sais is extensive, there is much for you to learn."
Over the next candlemark, she moved with incredible speed and grace, teaching me things I never thought possible. It was true what Xena had told me long ago; Lao Ma was a formidable opponent. I was just glad she wasn't my enemy.
"For this next move, hold the sais like this," she instructed, moving close behind me, leaning forward slightly. Her breasts beneath her kimono touched my back for a moment, causing me to totally lose my concentration. I caught my breath and held it to keep from suddenly being aroused. The sensation of contact with her was like a lightning bolt tingling through my body.
She noticed my reaction, stepping back courteously. "I'm sorry -- I didn't intend to make you uncomfortable."
She was the most considerate person I had ever met. Her qualities of compassion, tenderness and wisdom inspired me, but I couldn't explain my feelings of attraction for her, especially since I was in love with Xena. "It's...all right," I assured her. "I just..."
"I understand," she interrupted softly, to save me from an awkward explanation. "Perhaps we should end the lesson this evening."
I nodded slightly. "I was wondering..."
"Can I speak with you?" I had a lot on my mind and needed someone to talk to. I hadn't been able to discuss anything with Xena since the morning of the accident in the cave; I missed my conversations with her. Maybe I could find some of the answers I was searching for by expressing a few of my concerns with Lao Ma.
"Certainly," she answered.
I was grateful she was willing to speak with me. "I've been thinking about how to handle this situation to get everything back to normal," I said, placing the sais in their boot sheaths, then I looked into Lao Ma's eyes. "Everything started with me being trapped in the cave. I considered using the stone to travel through time to block the opening so I wouldn't be able to enter it in the first place. Do you think that's a good idea?"
She looked thoughtful. "That sounds like a clever solution."
"There's more Kronos Stone where this came from, too. If I can make the cavern inaccessible, the mineral won't fall into the wrong hands. The only thing is, how can I seal the cave?"
"Black powder," Lao Ma said softly.
I blinked. Of course! The answer was so simple. And, I was here in Chin where I could get all of the explosive mixture I needed...
"Could you show me how to use the black powder?" I asked, excited with the idea.
"Yes. Tomorrow, I can teach you everything you need to know."
"Thank you," I said warmly. I was beginning to feel a lot better about the situation, but I still had doubts about the outcome of my plan. "The stone I have, worries me, though."
"Why?" Lao Ma asked curiously.
"Well, so far, it's only worked when I've been in near death situations, and even then, it seems to malfunction. I can't control where I go."
"Then, that's the reason for your difficulty."
"I don't understand."
"Don't try to 'control' it," she explained. "Instead, become a partner with the stone -- let it carry you like a ship on the water."
"I'm not sure of what to do..."
She smiled. "I can show you a way to begin, but, you must succeed on your own."
The butterflies of excitement were back. "I will," I said with eagerness. I took the stone from my right boot, offering the piece of mineral to her.
She left the stone where it was, using her hand to close mine. "Focus your mind. Steady your breathing. Let the power flow through you until you become the stone. When you feel this, you can go anywhere you wish."
My vision darkened just like before. I didn't feel the nausea, but disorientation enveloped me and I could feel myself go tense.
"Don't fight it," Lao Ma whispered.
I relaxed, trying to experience the energy around me. After long moments of concentrating, nothing happened. I continued my efforts, but I felt distracted by my lack of progress. "It's not working," I said in dismay. "If the stone doesn't function, how can I return things to normal in the future?"
"I believe this problem will be easier to solve than you think."
"I hope so," I said earnestly, but my feelings of doubt still troubled me.
Lao Ma smiled reassuringly. "Have you considered that everything will turn out exactly as it should be? Perhaps these events were meant to happen."
"You mean I was destined to travel in time to help Xena?"
"Destiny is a mysterious thing. Each of us will have an appointment with it -- there is no escape." She placed a comforting hand on my shoulder, still smiling to encourage me. "Fulfill your destiny, Gabrielle."
I looked briefly at the stone in my hand, closed my eyes, and felt the force of it moving through me. The disorientation appeared again, but was so brief, I almost didn't notice it. When I opened my eyes, I was standing behind Lao Ma. She turned to look at me.
I had to keep myself from shouting. "I succeeded!"
She chuckled, nodding. "I knew you could. Remember to practice, and all will be well."
"Thank you," I said, hugging her. She didn't seem surprised at my show of emotion; she embraced me with the tenderness of a sister.
"I'm very fortunate to have met you, Gabrielle," she said, slowly disengaging from the hug. "Have pleasant dreams tonight."
"You too," I said. I wondered though, if I would get any sleep because I was so excited. For the first time since I became entangled in this time travel situation, I felt I had an excellent chance to make everything right.
Lao Ma glided away, her silk kimono rustling slightly in the stillness. I watched her leave, then I tucked the stone in my boot before going to my room to get some sleep. As I closed my eyes something that Xena told Lao Ma came back to me. She told Lao Ma that she could serve her. I realized as sleep began to calm me that I too, could probably serve Lao Ma if my heart hadn't already chosen it's destiny.
The next morning, shortly after sunrise, I heard a soft knock on my door. I was already awake and dressed, sitting beside the window looking out at the garden. I knew the time for me to leave was coming soon, so I was savoring every moment of my stay, committing every detail to memory. I walked over to the door, opening it. Lao Ma stood there smiling at me.
"Did you rest well?"
"Yes," I answered. "The sound of that water in the garden put me right to sleep. How was your night?"
"Very peaceful. Would you like to walk with me?"
I grinned. "Always."
She led the way through a courtyard lined with creeping cedar beside the walkways. "Xena is occupied at the moment, preparing for the arrival of Ming Tsu today," she said softly. "While she is busy, I can show you how to use the black powder."
"Ming Tsu is coming here?" I remembered she had mentioned it to Xena yesterday when they were talking in the garden, but I still couldn't keep the concern out of my voice.
She nodded. "I invited him to have a meal with me and Xena will pose as a slave to serve him -- it's part of my plan to help her overcome her hatred."
I hoped Lao Ma knew what she was doing. Xena could be unpredictable, even during the best of times. She noticed the look of worry on my face, reassuring me that everything would be all right. "I have faith in Xena. She has chosen to confront this part of herself and once she makes a decision, she can be very determined."
"That's very true," I said. I was glad Lao Ma could see the goodness in Xena's soul, just like she could look into mine as if it were an open scroll.
She stopped in front of a small building that stood apart from the others. When we went inside, I saw there was a good reason for this; the building contained a large keg of black powder. If an accident occurred, the damage would be minimized to the other structures.
"Using black powder is really very simple, but it can be dangerous. You must place enough of the powder at a weak point of the cave roof to cause it to collapse during the explosion."
I listened carefully to her instructions -- I had no desire to get injured or killed when I used it.
"To get the powder to ignite," she continued, "you will have to make a trail of the powder leading to the keg. The dangerous part, is the length of that trail. It must be made long enough to retreat safely after you set fire to it."
I nodded. There was one question on my mind, though. "How can I carry the powder through time to the cave? The stone won't bring anything with me that I'm touching." I didn't mention to her that I was holding onto Tani just before I arrived in Chin -- that's how I knew the stone wouldn't work that way.
She looked steadily into my eyes. "I don't have an answer for you, Gabrielle. Perhaps, the solution is within the stone."
That was an interesting thought. It did seem like it transported me through the currents of time to just the right places. Maybe the piece of mineral acted upon the destiny of whoever used it... Lao Ma was right though; I would have to think about how the stone worked.
"Will you accompany me for a short time while I practice with it?"
She nodded. "Of course."
We found a quiet spot beside a tree in a field, then she and I sat. I held the stone in my hand, wondering if it only worked to fulfill my destiny. If that was true and the stone sent me away, would I ever see Lao Ma again? The thought made me sad -- I wanted to spend more time here. The same feeling I had earlier this morning returned though; I knew in my heart that I would be leaving soon.
"Something is troubling you," she said quietly.
"I have a feeling the stone is going to send me away and I won't be able to see you again."
"It's possible." She placed a gentle hand on my arm. "If you do have to leave now, I will be in your memories Gabrielle and you will be in mine."
"I'll miss you."
"I understand." She looked at me with affection. "I would be unhappy also, but we must meet our destinies."
I reached out to hug her. We embraced for long moments, then I sat back with tears starting to form in my eyes. I didn't even have to concentrate much before the stone warmed in my hand to start the process of sending me through time. Just before I went into the whirling vortex, the last thing I saw was Lao Ma looking at me with a tender smile -- a sight I will remember forever.
I came to an abrupt stop, sitting cross-legged in the middle of a burning village. People were scattered everywhere and I jumped to my feet to avoid being crushed. The town looked very familiar to me and I searched for a face I might recognize, but came up empty. After a few moments of dodging soldiers who were sacking the place, I realized this was the town I was in just days ago -- the town beside the cave. But 'when' was a different matter. My eyes kept searching and I finally saw a man scurrying around in a mauve dress. I did a double take, realizing who the man was...Salmoneus!!
In my excitement, I almost ran over and called out to him, but I stopped myself. Instead, I crept closer, staying in the shadows. The army was killing everyone - men, women and children with no discretion. I couldn't battle all of them and if I did, it might very well change Xena's fate for the worse. Despite all the despair around me, I knew there was nothing I could do to stop it. A sudden calm seemed to come over the village - crying voices had silenced and the only sounds were the scurrying of soldiers regrouping and the crackling of homes on fire. As I looked around at the devastation, another figure caught my eye.
It was Xena.
I watched her argue with a hideously ugly man, obviously her second-in-command. She was shouting about killing the women and children and attacking without orders from her. It was Xena's army, but this battle was not her decision. I watched as she abruptly stopped her conversation, dashing into the ruins of a home. When she turned, she was holding something. My eyes strained to get a better view. She was holding . . . a baby!
With her hand pointing at a soldier to threaten him and the baby in the other, Xena was quite a sight. For the briefest of moments, it took my thoughts back to when Eve was just an infant. The look on Xena's face now however, was very purposeful -- not motherly as I had come to know, but she was still protecting the child. I was glad that Xena had kept the goodness in her heart that Lao Ma showed her.
The men backed down and Xena turned to leave.
I wanted to follow her, but I was delayed as a band of soldiers came near to loot one of the homes. Moving silently, I ducked into a home that was still standing and found a cloak hanging on a wall peg. I donned the garment to help conceal myself from the soldiers, and I knew it would be useful to hide my identity if Xena or Salmoneus caught a glimpse of me. I slipped out of the back entrance of the home to discover that both Xena and Salmoneus were no longer in sight.
I took to the woods in the direction I had seen Xena depart. After a few moments of searching, I found her tracks and they were heading toward one of the caves outside the village. I just hoped she didn't pick the cavern that held the Kronos Stone mineral. I followed the footprints to an underground entrance, relieved that it was a different cave. From outside, I could hear voices echo. I wasn't able to make out what was being said, so I crept stealthily inside to hear the conversation.
Xena, Salmoneus and a woman I didn't know were in the cave. When I heard the voices of Xena and Salmoneus draw closer to where I was hidden, I slipped deeper into the shadows until I was completely out of sight. I heard Salmoneus chattering away to Xena, who obviously was getting annoyed with the funny, round man. He was making a comment about her maternal instincts (or lack thereof) and I nearly chuckled. If you could only see her now, I thought as I listened to Salmoneus rattling on.
Xena said something about dealing with Darphus, and I heard her footsteps approaching. I stayed crouched among the rocks perfectly still. I relaxed after she walked past; she was too focused on her second-in-command to worry about anything else.
In that moment, I realized what my purpose was in all this mess. I understood what the fates had planned for me. I had traveled through time to make Xena the woman she was 'today' by planting the seeds of faith in all of the 'mentors' she had known. I wasn't sure any of those people would have ever helped Xena if not for me. That was my purpose -- my destiny.
Lao Ma was the woman who helped Xena reach through her darkness. Salmoneus was the man to lend Hercules a hand in seeing the potential for good Xena possessed. As for me, Gabrielle, the farm girl from Poteidaia, I had kept her on the side of the light until she was strong enough to find a light of her own.
I had to find a way to get Salmoneus alone to persuade him to help Xena. I knew it was a big chance - at some point in the future, he might remember me from his past. But, with the way I looked now, even my few friends from Poteidaia hadn't recognized me after a recent trip home. It was a chance I had to take. I went outside, waiting to follow him at the first opportunity. He crept out, quickly going through the woods to the village well. I came up behind him to whisper in his ear.
"She's something else, isn't she?" I said, approaching him carefully.
He jumped at the sound of my voice. I had forgotten what a fidgety man he could be.
"Who?" he asked. "Xena?"
I simply gave a slight nod.
"Yes she is," he answered, still obviously nervous.
"She could have killed you today you know," I told him.
He paused a moment to look at me, but I moved my head down slightly, adjusting the hood on the cloak as casually as possible. I tried to play it cool, as if it were part of my persona to be 'mysterious'.
"Yes." He was still looking at me, trying to identify me as he asked, "Who are you?"
"A friend," I assured him. "I mean you no harm. I'm just curious about 'the Warrior Princess'. . . I've been watching her since her army came into town and you have to admit, she's not your normal 'evil' warlord. In fact, she saved a baby today, going against her own men. That's something pretty exceptional, wouldn't you say?"
Salmoneus reflected a moment on that fact. "That's true," he said scratching his beard.
"Just think if someone that powerful could fight for truth and justice? Dare I say...a female Hercules? I'm assuming of course, that you've heard of Hercules?" I was playing him. I knew damn well he was acquainted with Hercules, and I tried to contain my grin at the knowledge of the web I was weaving.
"Are you kidding? We're like that," he answered, holding up two fingers close together.
Exaggerating like always it seems, I thought silently. Grant it, he did know Herc. They got along fairly well but, I knew if any man was that 'tight' with 'the big guy,' it was Iolaus and not the king of cons.
"You know with the right influence," I plotted, "perhaps even some guidance from Hercules himself, she could go a long way. And you know if you become a part of such a change, I'm sure she'd be a powerful ally in your corner should you ever need some 'muscle' unexpectedly."
I knew I had to play it up to Salmoneus. He was a good guy all in all, but his first thought was always 'what's in if for me?' Xena and I had bailed him out of trouble a few times. Throwing that fact out there could be the very push in the right direction he needed.
He grinned. "You know, that's true. Of course that's if she doesn't kill me first," he laughed nervously.
"Well, stacked next to Darphus, she looks like the goddess of love and light," I offered for his consideration.
"You have a point," he said, nodding. "But she's got a temper on her."
"Yes she does," I admitted, "but just be yourself. She seems to enjoy your company so far."
He looked thoughtful, but I could tell he was warming to the idea.
"And if you do see the son of Zeus, perhaps you could tell him what you've seen here," I coached. "He's a reasonable man I hear. I'm sure he could see the potential in her like you do -- it's just something to think about," I added with a wink, looking up for just a few seconds.
Salmoneus grinned at me before looking over my shoulder and giving a hard swallow of fear. It was Xena and she was heading our way. He looked back to me again and then to Xena. Oh yes, the foundation had been set. Now all I had to do, was make a quick departure and let history run its course. Of course, I still had that pesky cave to blow up without any access to black powder.
"Well my friend," I told Salmoneus casually, "be safe."
I didn't wait for a reply. I just walked quickly into the woods so Xena wouldn't stop me. I doubled back, heading toward town to get a look at Xena's troops. It was quiet as I walked through the streets. I decided to do a little snooping. The stone didn't feel the need to take me away yet, so something had to be 'resolved.' There was still something I needed to do...or find...
As I walked through the streets, I noticed some of the Xena's soldiers loading three kegs on a cart -- black powder kegs. Sweet mother of Zeus!!!! I needed that stuff and I knew this was my only chance. No one else in Greece would have the black powder and I certainly couldn't bring some back from Chin because the stone wouldn't transport anything I touched. This had to be the reason I was still in this time and the place.
I knew I couldn't jump in with sais flashing. That would cause too much attention. Doing so might alter Xena's fate as well, so I figured I could camp out until the soldiers were 'indisposed' with liquor for the night. Xena told me a few stories about what happened after her raids - wine, women and song ruled most nights. I knew their guard would be down tonight.
If I could swap out the powder of the keg and replace it with sand, it could buy me enough time to see that everything fell into place. I could hide the powder in the nearby cave that almost became my tomb and jump back early enough in my 'present day' to use it to seal the cave.
I had my battleplan -- now all I had to do was put it in motion.
Nightfall finally came, taxing my patience to the limit. I wanted to sneak in as soon as possible to get the black powder, but the soldiers were still carousing. Even though they started their 'celebration' early, they were still consuming large quantities of drink. I had to wait until they were all in a drunken stupor before I went in -- I didn't want my plan to be spoiled by having one of them discover me.
When the last one fell asleep, I breathed a sigh of relief. I moved silently forward from my hiding place in the forest surrounding their camp outside of town. The wagon had been moved closer to the horses for ease of hitching up the animals. When I approached, several of the horses moved about restlessly, detecting the presence of a stranger...me. I whispered a few reassuring words and the horses stood quietly watching me. I decided to move slowly, so I wouldn't spook the animals.
My next problem was the size of the barrels. They were too heavy to move, so I was left with no choice but to find another container for the black powder. Besides, I didn't need a whole barrel to seal the cave.
I looked quickly around, finding an empty keg of drink, which would suit my purpose better. I climbed silently onto the wagon, then used one of my sais to carefully open the lid of a barrel. I wanted to be able to seal the container after I was done.
I worked as fast as I could in the darkness, but time was moving on. I discarded the notion of replacing the powder I took with sand. I didn't really need to if I could get the barrel closed properly when I finished.
When the small keg was full, I corked it, then placed it quietly on the bed of the wagon. I sealed the barrel and climbed to the ground. As I was about to grab the little keg, I heard a slurring voice behind me.
"Heyyy there honey! Wacha doin in thet waggin? We kin hav lots more fun..."
I interrupted him by slamming the butt of one of my sais in his gut. After he doubled over gasping, I knocked him unconscious. He tumbled to the ground with a thud that seemed to me like thunder after one of Zeus' lightning bolts. With my heart thumping hard, I caught my breath, looking around to see if anyone else was alerted. Apparently, no one was aroused from their snoring bliss.
I breathed a shaky sigh of relief, grabbed the keg, then ran silently out of the camp. Gods! That was close...
I made it to the cave with the Kronos Stone mineral, and I stopped to fashion a torch from a rag and a stick so I could see in the utter blackness within. Careful to keep the torch away from the keg, I went deep inside, hiding the keg among some rocks. Now, all I had to do was use the stone to go forward in time to this same cave to seal it before my 'present' self entered it.
I couldn't help but grin -- I had solved the problem! I took the stone from my boot, feeling the roughness of the mineral in my hand. I was excited that everything would return to normal soon.
Concentrating on the stone, I found myself once again slipping into the dark, whirling void of time travel. When I stopped, the world turned bright around me and I had to shield my eyes from the sudden daylight. I was still standing in front of the cave, but things had changed slightly. The landscape was a little different...trees, plants and rocks had altered with the passage of time, but I wasn't concerned.
I looked around to make sure the forest was deserted, then I went inside. Sure enough, the keg was hidden where I left it. I took it with me, went outside and climbed to the top of the cave. After making a trail of powder, I placed the keg right above the entrance, hiding the container with branches and rocks. I went to the far end of the trail of black powder, removing my flint and steel from the pouch on my belt.
I could hardly wait to see Xena return to normal and I quickly struck the flint and steel together. A spark ignited the trail of powder, then I ran for cover among some rocks on the ridge opposite the cave.
From my vantage point, I waited for the black powder to explode. I didn't have much experience with that stuff -- I must have made the trail of powder longer than it should have been. It was too late though, I couldn't go down there to shorten it, or I would be caught in the blast.
As I was watching, I heard the sudden sounds of someone crashing through the undergrowth. Oh no! It was him...the thug I had originally chased into the cave. And, not far behind him was ME -- my past self. I jumped to my feet, but before I could do anything, both of them ran into the cave. I started down the hill to warn myself to get out of the cavern, but the explosion shook the ground, causing me to fall.
I stood as the dust cleared. I didn't curse often, but I couldn't help it then. That damn stone had sent me back just before the events that started this cycle in the first place. It was I who had trapped myself in the cave!
My brain whirled with the confusion of this time travel problem. Well, I could only do one thing...I had to use the stone to go back a little farther in time to seal the cave before my past self entered it. That way, time should return to normal. At least, I hoped it would. I had no idea if it would work, but I had to try something...anything. I thought about my predicament, and shook my head in exasperation, bending to retrieve the stone from my boot.
Before I could get the Kronos Stone from its hiding place, a strong hand clamped over my mouth, and I was pushed to the ground. I looked up to see salt and pepper hair framing the face of Queen Xena.
"Do you think I'm stupid, Gabrielle?" she hissed. "I went to the cave and my men excavated it; the mineral was still buried there. I knew you would come here, so I used a piece of the stone to meet you. Now...I can bring you home."
My mind whirled to think of something before it was too late. I remembered Warrior Princess Xena -- MY Xena --followed my trail out of the village the morning I chased the thug to the cave. That meant she was on the way, now. If I could alert her to my presence when she arrived and she saw I was all right, maybe she wouldn't turn to the ways of a conqueror. Hopefully, time would reset itself, causing Queen Xena to disappear. It was my last option -- it HAD to work, or I was in big trouble to say the least.
With Queen Xena's weight on top of me, I could barely move. So, I bit the inside of her hand over my mouth, to get her to release me. She grimaced, but held tight.
"Be still Gabrielle, while I use my stone. Everything will be ok once we go back."
I shook my head vigorously.
Queen Xena was about to knock me out, when both of us heard the sound of my name called in the distance.
"Gabrielle? Where are you?"
The voice belonged to my Xena.
Queen Xena's eyes narrowed, as she realized the implications of her past self seeing me. "You're not leaving me again!" she whispered fiercely.
She had obviously gone insane... I had to act quickly. Before she could stop me, I raised my right leg to reach for the sai, yanked it from the sheath, then tossed it down the hill among the rocks. The weapon made a satisfying 'clank' on the stones, hopefully loud enough to bring my Xena to investigate.
A look of hurt filled Queen Xena's eyes for a moment. That expression of pain ripped through my soul, causing me to feel heart-wrenching sorrow for her. Her world was crashing down around her -- she was just trying to keep someone who meant everything to her, but I couldn't live with the monster that she had become. The look of hurt passed from Queen Xena's face almost as fast as it appeared. Her eyes became cold, her hand rising to strike me unconscious.
I twisted with desperate, inhuman strength, breaking free of her grasp, and I started tumbling down the hill. She instantly came to her feet, following me to the bottom of the ridge. I struggled to stand, shouting to my Warrior Princess, "XENA! I'm over here!"
"Gabrielle -- don't do this," Queen Xena pleaded, reaching out a trembling hand toward me. She moved a step closer.
"I must," I said sadly, backing away from her.
Queen Xena's other hand reached out, tears spilling from her eyes. "Don't go." Her voice was soft.
I felt her anguish, which made my own tears threaten to flow. I could hear my Xena getting closer. Queen Xena heard the sounds, too -- she knew the end was near.
"I...love you," she whispered.
Her declaration caused me to sob and my tears finally fell.
When my Warrior Princess burst into view, she saw me and I felt an odd rush of disorientation, similar to when the stone sent me through time. Queen Xena started to flicker out of existence as she looked at her own hands and arms, which were disappearing and reappearing. All at once though, she was gone and didn't return.
I ran to MY Xena, hugging her as tightly as I could. Time had returned to normal; I felt it in my heart and soul. I shuddered a sigh of relief, crying freely.
"Gabrielle, what happened? Are you all right?"
"Yes," I whispered. "I'm wonderful," I smiled with the tears still in my eyes. I had my Xena.
"Who was that person you were fighting? I couldn't see -- you were blocking my view."
"It doesn't matter," I said softly. "It's over now."
Xena smoothed my hair back. "I'm sorry I wasn't here sooner," she apologized. "I didn't know you were in trouble."
"Everything is ok," I said, regaining a little of my composure. "Some thugs were menacing a shopkeeper. I got rid of them."
"Are you sure you're feeling all right?" She tilted my chin up, looking at me with worried eyes, silently inspecting me for any injury.
I smiled, nodding weakly.
Xena grinned. "Well, I'm glad you're ok. Maybe you can relax at the celebration."
"Yes. When I left the stable to look for you, a man begged me to aid his wife, who was giving birth. That's the reason I was delayed -- I was helping to deliver a baby. The couple is going to have a feast to honor Tani, their new little girl."
My eyes opened wide. "I don't feel like going to any festivities right now," I answered quickly.
Since everything was back to normal, I had no reason to believe we would ever be involved with Tani. It was an odd sensation and I began to form another one of my many theories that I love to work on from time to time.
Perhaps everyone we ever met, for whatever reason, is destined to come in contact with us. I think about my fate had I not followed Xena. I would have been just a young farm girl Xena saved from slavers and not the soulmate she had come to know. Xena would never know those future events as the evil queen, because they never 'happened'. Tani was just a baby she helped bring into this world and not the consort of a conqueror. And, this was one story I decided to keep to myself.
"Let's move on," I continued. "I just want to be alone with you under the stars tonight."
Xena looked puzzled for a moment at my brief, wide-eyed expression after she mentioned the baby's name. She shrugged, then grinned and put her arm around me. "Sure. I always love to see the stars with you," she said as we walked through the forest.
I returned the embrace, resting my head on her upper arm as we walked away. The feel of her bracer against my cheek was exquisite. It felt wonderful to be home. I had MY Xena and that's all I really care about. It was also nice to see the close of the longest day of my life. As we walked, an idea occurred to me.
"Can you tell me a story tonight?"
That earned me a chuckle.
"I know. I know. You're not the bard," I grinned. "But I'd like to hear again about how you met Salmoneus," I added.
She gave me one of those 'Where did that come from?' looks and I too begin to chuckle. "Okaaaay," she agreed, still unsure of my intentions.
"It would be nice to hear you tell a story tonight, is all. Besides you tell it so well...especially the part about how pretty he looked in that dress," I added. "I could use a funny tale."
Xena grinned down at me and my heart melted. Gods above, how I love this woman!
"Anything you wish, Gabrielle," Xena replied.
I snuggled close, giving a sigh of contentment. My Xena didn't have a palace. She couldn't drape me in Chin silks. She couldn't put a roof over my head made with the finest oak and marble known to man. But I did know that MY Xena would always strive to give me all she COULD give.
"I love you Xena," I whispered to her.
"I love you too, Gabrielle. I always will."
We walk on joined at the hip . . . and at the souls.
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