Xena and Gabrielle spent the rest of the afternoon in bed together. Xena made love to the young bard twice more, reducing Gabrielle to a quivering heap each time. As she held Gabrielle in her arms and lightly caressed the young womanís back, Xena smiled at her gently. "Thank you," she said softly.
Gabrielle chuckled quietly against Xenaís chest. "I feel so good I can barely move, and youíre thanking me?"
"Yup," Xena replied, as she pressed a kiss to the top of Gabrielleís head.
Summoning her strength, Gabrielle lifted her head to look at her lover. "Well then youíre welcome," she said huskily, before leaning up to brush her lips lightly against Xenaís, her kiss soft and understanding. Resting her head back against Xenaís chest, Gabrielle shifted slightly until she was lying partially on top of the warrior, luxuriating in the warmth of Xenaís body. As her hand absently traced circles across her loverís bare stomach, Gabrielle spoke up once again. "So will this help get rid of your visions?" she asked softly.
Xena hesitated for a few seconds before responding. "It will help," she replied steadily. "But itís going to take me awhile to get over this, Gabrielle, and I honestly donít know how long itís going to take."
Gabrielle nodded. "I know. I just want to help you though this. After all, itís the least I can do seeing as how youíre helping me get rid of my nightmares, or didnít you think I knew about that?" she said asked with a smile.
Xena chuckled. "I guess I hadnít thought about it. But to be honest, I donít know that I deserve any thanks for that."
"Because holding you at night keeps my nightmares away too," Xena replied truthfully.
Gabrielle looked up at her friend once again, a sad expression on her features. "Iím sorry," she said quietly. "I didnít know you were having them too."
Xena shook her head. "I havenít had any since youíve been back," Xena replied, as she gently stroked Gabrielleís cheek with her knuckles.
Gabrielle smiled and then nestled back into Xenaís embrace. The pair lay together quietly, touching and kissing as they continued to refamiliarize themselves with each othersí bodies. Eventually, though, Xena began to stir. "Itís getting late and we have dinner plans, donít we? Weíre supposed to be having dinner at Ephinyís?"
Gabrielle sighed and sat up. "Yeah, we are. I guess weíd better get dressed," she said, before glancing back down at Xena. The expression in the warriorís eyes, however, caused her to stop what she was doing.
"If we left right now, though, weíd be kinda early, wouldnít we?" Xena asked, a seductive note to her voice.
Gabrielle swallowed and nodded her head. "Yeah, we would."
"I donít really want to be early," Xena said softly, as her fingers began dancing across the young bardís skin.
"No, I can understand that," Gabrielle replied, and then groaned when she felt Xenaís fingertips brush against her nipples.
"So why donít we just kill a little more time here and then get ready to go," Xena suggested, as she sat up and pulled Gabrielle into her arms, her lips beginning to trail down the column of the young womanís throat.
"Sounds good to me," Gabrielle agreed, before surrendering completely to her loverís touch.
As it turned out, Gabrielle and Xena were slightly late for dinner. Fortunately, none of the others who were joining them seemed to mind too much. Xena had been greatly relieved when Ephiny had agreed to keep the group small. She wasnít in the mood for loud parties anyway and, despite the fact that Gabrielle was recovering steadily from her ordeal, Xena continued to worry about the young woman pushing herself too hard. Having dinner with Ephiny, Solari, Eponin and Cor, however, wouldnít be overly taxing for the bard, while it would still provide plenty of conversation for her talkative friend.
The dinner was nothing extravagant but the food was delicious and the company was pleasant. Cor had apparently endeared himself to the Amazons beyond the fact that he had been instrumental in Gabrielleís return. It was obvious that the three women all liked and respected him, and it was equally obvious that the feeling was mutual. Xena began to relax considerably as the evening progressed and, before long, she was holding Gabrielleís hand underneath the table, occasionally stroking it with her thumb. As the evening wore on, Xena began to grow somewhat concerned about her lover. Gabrielle, however, appeared to be holding up just fine despite her earlier exertions. As more time passed, Gabrielle eventually was prodded into telling a few tales, and the hour began to grow late before anyone realized it.
After Gabrielleís third story, Ephiny refilled everyoneís wine glass and proposed a toast to both Gabrielle and Cor. Cor looked slightly embarrassed by the attention, but Xena knew that deep down her friend loved the fact that heíd been accepted by Gabrielleís sisters. It was clear that Cor was enjoying himself in the Amazon village, but Xena had begun wondering why he was still sticking around, knowing that he was needed elsewhere. Clearing her throat, she studied her friend for a few moments before speaking. "So Cor, how much longer are you planning on staying here?" Xena finally asked.
Cor grinned broadly at her "Trying to get rid of me already?"
Xena shook her head. "No, I know better than that. It never works anyway. I was just curious."
Cor shrugged. "Not sure. I guess Iíll stick around another couple of days before I take off," he replied, as he took another long drink of his wine.
Xena arched an eyebrow and looked at him in surprise. "Really? I would have thought you would be anxious to get back to Kieros."
Cor shrugged once again. "I am, but I figured it would be easier to wait around another couple of days before I left."
Xena smirked at him. "Trying to get more chobos lessons?"
Cor chuckled. "No. I just thought it would be easier to let Martakas heal up for a few more days before I took him to Baraliam. Heís going to slow me down too much at the moment," he replied, as he reached for another dessert.
"Why?" Gabrielle asked innocently. "Whatís wrong with him?"
Cor looked up with a touch of confusion when he heard her question. Glancing briefly at Xena, he was stunned to see the warrior glaring at him angrily. Suddenly realizing that Gabrielle still hadnít heard about what had happened to the warlord, Cor began growing distinctly uncomfortable. Looking around the table, he noticed that the Amazons had all become extremely interested in the contents of their mugs and were staring at them intently, while they avoided Gabrielleís question. Cor cleared his throat and then replied neutrally, "Well heís been injured and I just thought it would be better to wait a few days to let him recover a little more before he had to endure another ride on a horse."
Gabrielle sighed in exasperation. "I gathered that Cor. But that was over a week and a half ago. What happened to him that he still canít travel?"
"Well...uh...broken bones and some other wounds...and...uh....," Cor stammered, looking at Xena helplessly, as she continued to glare at him.
Xena abruptly let go of Gabrielleís hand and reached for her wine. Taking a long drink, she carefully set the mug back down but kept her hand resting on the table. Still looking at Cor, she began to speak in a controlled voice. "This isnít exactly pleasant dinner conversation, Gabrielle. Could we please change the subject?"
Gabrielle looked at Xena in bewilderment for several seconds, trying to figure out what was bothering the warrior. She had sensed the increasing unease in Xenaís body while she had been holding her hand, and she had felt Xena throw up a wall between them the second the warrior had released her grip. Glancing around the table at Ephiny and the others, she realized that they were all studiously ignoring her gaze, and she wondered again about what was going on. "Uh, sure," she finally said. "We can talk about something else. So, Ephiny, how is Phantes Jr. doing?" she asked with a slightly forced smile.
Ephiny breathed a sigh of relief and smiled in return, before she began talking about her young son. As the conversation moved from Phantes to the Centaurs to various and sundry other topics, Gabrielle felt Xena relax slightly. The warrior continued to keep her hand above the table, however, and she had almost imperceptibly shifted slightly away from Gabrielle as well. Xena was polite to the bard and everyone else at the table, but the warmth and ease that had characterized her earlier mood had completely vanished.
Gabrielle and Xena remained at Ephinyís for another half an hour before finally deciding to call it a night. They wandered back to their hut, nodding at and greeting the many women they passed on their way. Once inside, Gabrielle lit a couple of candles while Xena sat down and began removing her weapons and armor. Gabrielle returned to her side, once sheíd finished lighting the candles, to help the warrior remove the last of the pieces, and then began gently stroking her loverís shoulders. "Gods your muscles are tight," she said softly, when she felt the tension in Xenaís body.
Xena simply groaned quietly in response, as she began to relax and enjoy Gabrielleís soothing touch. Slowly the stress of the evening began draining from her body, while low sounds of pleasure were wrung from her throat. After several minutes, Gabrielle leaned against her back and wrapped her arms around her lover. "I love you," she murmured softly, pressing gentle kisses to Xenaís bare shoulders and neck.
Turning around slightly, Xena reached back to cup the back of Gabrielleís head, as she brought the bardís lips to her own to kiss her passionately. She held her lover close for several seconds as she deepened the kiss, her tongue gently probing the warm depths of Gabrielleís mouth.
With a small sigh, Xena finally broke their kiss and rose from her chair. Brushing one last kiss against Gabrielleís lips, she picked up her armor and weapons and walked across the room to hang them up. Moving to her saddlebags, she began rummaging through them as she looked for the medicine to use on Gabrielleís back.
"Xena, now that weíre no longer at dinner, can you tell me what happened with Martakas?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
Instantly on her guard, Xena continued to focus her attention on the saddlebags. "What do you mean?" she asked cautiously, just before she finally found the medicine she was looking for.
Gabrielle sighed. "I mean, what happened when you tried to capture him? How did he get hurt? Whatís wrong with him?"
"He didnít want to be captured, he resisted, he got hurt. End of story."
Gabrielle looked at her in disbelief? "ëEnd of storyí? This is what you considered unacceptable dinner conversation? Come on, Xena. Whatís going on here?"
Xena finally turned to look at her friend. "Nothingís ëgoing on,í" she said calmly. "Thereís just nothing more to discuss."
"Gabrielle!" Xena snapped angrily, as she began to lose control of her temper. "Thereís nothing more to discuss! I donít want to talk about this, so just let it go. All right?"
Gabrielle looked her friend over carefully. She knew that there was nothing to be gained by pushing Xena when she was like this so, for the time being, it would be better to simply drop the subject. After all, she could find out what she wanted to know from several other sources anyway. She didnít actually need Xena to tell her what had happened to the warlord. "All right," she finally said quietly. "We donít have to discuss this now if you donít want to."
Xena sighed with relief. Sheíd been dreading this conversation ever since Cor had commented on the health of Martakas, and she was somewhat surprised that Gabrielle had relented so easily. She wished she could blame Cor for this mess but unfortunately, she knew that if anyone was to blame it was her. She had been the one who had prodded Cor about his reasons for extending his stay in the Amazon village, so she was the one responsible for Gabrielle hearing about the warlord the way that she had. Xena knew that eventually the bard would probably hear about what had happened with Martakas, but Xena was definitely not ready to talk about this issue just yet. She was terrified of what Gabrielleís reaction was likely to be when she learned what Xena had done to the warlord, and she wasnít prepared to see the love in Gabrielleís eyes change to disgust.
Taking another deep breath, Xena gave her friend a small smile. "Why donít you lay down on the bed and let me take a look at your back for you," she said softly.
Gabrielle smiled as well, and then removed her shirt and moved to stretch out on the pallet. She sighed with contentment when she felt Xena straddle her hips a few moments later, as the warrior began carefully applying the salve to her injuries and then stroked Gabrielleís tired muscles. The young womanís back was healing rapidly, and it appeared that any scars that might remain would be faint at worst. As Xenaís hands continued to move across Gabrielleís body, the bard realized that the massage was no longer soothing but was instead highly arousing. With a low moan, she lifted herself up on her elbows and twisted slightly to face the warrior. Xenaís lips covered hers with a searing kiss an instant later, as she moved to take Gabrielle into her arms. Within seconds, Xena was stroking and caressing every part of Gabrielleís body that she could reach, effectively driving any thoughts of conversation far from the bardís mind for the rest of the night.
Gabrielle woke the next morning to an empty bed. At first she was mildly surprised, since it was the first time since she and Xena had been reunited that she hadnít woken up in the warriorís arms. After more reflection, however, she remembered Xena and Cor discussing the possibility of going hunting for a few hours during the morning, and she realized that Xena must have decided to join her friend after all.
Gabrielle chuckled softly when she thought about Xena and Cor spending time together, although she wasnít particularly surprised that Xena would want do so. The two of them had been friends for years, even though circumstances had kept them apart for most of that time. Still, Xena cared deeply for Cor and, considering the fact that he would soon be leaving them, Xena was undoubtedly wanting to take the opportunity to catch up with her friend once again. There had been a time when the thought of Xena wanting to spend time with Cor had filled Gabrielle with intense jealousy. Now, however, she was forced to admit that spending time with Cor was probably a good thing for her lover. Cor was not only one of the few people that sheíd met who wasnít intimidated by Xena, he was also unafraid to push, prod, and tease the warrior as well. Cor completely ignored the icy glares that cowed most people into submission, and he had no qualms about telling Xena exactly what he thought about anything and everything that the warrior did.
Realizing that it might be quite some time before Xena returned, Gabrielle decided to find something to keep herself occupied. Rising from the bed, she quickly got dressed and then began to work once again on the scrolls she had promised Cor. By the time she was halfway through with the second one she was ready for a break, so she put the scrolls back into her pack and then walked outside to get some fresh air.
She wandered through the village, not having any particular destination in mind, simply wanting to reacquaint herself with everything. After awhile she ended up in front of Ephinyís hut and she remembered that there were a few things sheíd wanted to discuss with her friend. Knocking on the door, she was somewhat surprised when it was almost instantly answered by a young Amazon. The young woman smiled at her warmly and informed Gabrielle that Ephiny was currently busy with other matters, but could be interrupted if Gabrielle needed to talk with her right away. Gabrielle quickly assured the Amazon that it was nothing pressing and asked her to let Gabrielle know when Ephiny was available. The girl willingly agreed, as Gabrielle thanked her and walked away.
Sighing thoughtfully, Gabrielle pondered what to do next, as she continued to stroll through the village. After a few more minutes, she came within sight of the villageís prison. Remembering that Martakas was being held in that building, a sudden wave of curiosity washed over the bard and she decided to have a look at the warlord for herself. This way sheíd be able to kill two birds with one stone. She could make certain that the warlord was being treated properly, and sheíd finally be able to find out what exactly had happened to him during his capture.
Entering the prison building, she looked around for a few seconds until she caught sight of two women standing outside one of the cells. As she approached, both women straightened up and bowed their heads slightly. Gabrielle returned the gesture and looked both of them over carefully before speaking. "Iíd like to see the prisoner," she said evenly.
The two guards looked at her in confusion for a few seconds, before one of them finally spoke up. "You want to talk to him?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "No. I just want to have a look at him. I want to see what condition heís in."
The guardís face lit up with understanding. "Ahh. Yes My Queen. Just a second," she said, before looking into his cell through the barred window. Turning back to Gabrielle, she nodded her head. "Heís sitting on the opposite side of the room. Go ahead and look through."
Gabrielle smiled slightly at the womanís concern and then moved to look into the cell. When she saw the shape the warlord was in, she gasped slightly, causing him to look up at her, a defeated, beaten expression on his features. Gabrielle studied him for a few seconds more, noting the pain that seemed to accompany every movement he made, before moving back away from the door to look directly at the two guards. "Has he been mistreated since he was brought here?" she demanded, worried that the women of the village had been intentionally abusing the warlord while he was being held captive.
Both guards shook their heads. "No, My Queen," the first one answered. "In fact, his condition has definitely improved since he first arrived."
Gabrielle stared at her in disbelief. "Improved?"
The guard nodded. "Yes. He was nearly dead when he first got here. Heís recovered quite a bit since then."
Gabrielle swallowed once as she struggled to speak in a normal voice. "I see. And what exactly had happened to him?"
The guard thought for a few seconds before responding. "Well, he had several cracked ribs, a dislocated shoulder, a broken arm and knee and several broken fingers. Lots of sword wounds as you can see." Her brow furrowed as she turned to the other guard. "Do you remember what else was wrong when he first got here?"
Before the guard could reply, Gabrielle spoke up quickly. "Thatís all right," she said steadily. "I get the general picture. Thank you," she said and then turned and left the two guards to their duties.
Gabrielle left the building and walked a short distance away, before pausing to consider what she had just seen and heard. She remembered that Ephiny had said Xena had come close to killing Martakas, but she hadnít realized until now just how close the warrior had come. On one level, she wasnít surprised that Xena had done what she had to the warlord. The only thing she really found surprising was that Xena had done everything that she had, and then hadnít actually killed him. Gabrielle realized that Aresí plan had nearly succeeded. Xena had chased after Martakas with the intention of killing the warlord. She had stepped right up to the line and then somehow she had managed to pull back before she crossed it. Gabrielle just wondered how Xena had found the strength to stop herself before she killed the man she had blamed for Gabrielleís "death."
As she stood lost in thought, Gabrielle eventually heard someone calling her name and, looking up, she saw Xena approaching her. The warrior studied Gabrielle curiously and then glanced towards the prison building. Her eyes narrowed slightly, as she closed the remaining distance between her and the bard. "Gabrielle," she asked suspiciously. "What have you been doing?"
Gabrielle looked at her friend with a touch of surprise. "Iíve been talking to Martakasí guards. I went to check on the warlord for myself."
"Why?" Xena demanded, the growing anger inside her clearly coming through in her voice.
Gabrielle shrugged. "You didnít want to talk about it so I decided to just find out what had happened to him on my own."
Xena cursed softly. "So you decided to go behind my back?" she asked coldly.
Gabrielle gave her an dumbfounded look. "Go behind your back? I didnít go behind your back. You didnít want to talk about Martakas so I went to see him for myself. Iím not trying to hide that fact so donít accuse me of sneaking around," she said heatedly.
"This is none of your business, Gabrielle. You had no right to do this."
Gabrielle stared at her in incredulity. "No right? None of my business? Xena, in case youíve forgotten, Iím the Amazon Queen. The women of my village are holding a man in our prison. He was brought here because he was accused of killing me. I was concerned about his health so I asked the guards about him to make certain that my sisters werenít mistreating him. Now explain to me how none of this is my business," she said sarcastically.
Xena glared at her friend for several seconds before she finally spoke again. "And what did you find out," she asked tightly. "Have they mistreated him?"
Gabrielle looked at her in surprise, somewhat confused by the question. "No, they havenít."
"Thatís right. They havenít, because there was no need to. I took care of that on my own, or didnít the guards tell you all about that too?" Xena asked quietly.
Gabrielle shrugged. "They told me about his broken bones and his wounds. It was enough for me to know that the Amazons hadnít been torturing him while he was here," she replied.
Xena laughed harshly. "No. I tortured him enough for a lifetime," she replied, before turning to walk away.
Gabrielle quickly reached out and caught the warriorís arm. "Whatís that supposed to mean?"
Xena closed her eyes momentarily in frustration, before slowly turning back around to look at her friend. "All right, Gabrielle," Xena said in a dispassionate voice. "Youíve been wanting to know what happened to Martakas so much, Iíll tell you." Xena took a deep breath before continuing. "All those sword wounds...those are from me. I fought him on the battlefield but he was no match for me. I could have kept slicing him to ribbons for hours, but he finally tried to get away, so I broke his knee and then I captured him. I had him. I could have turned him over to the Amazons and been done with it...but I didnít want to. I tied him to a tree and flogged him until he was nearly dead, and when I got done with that I beat him with my bare hands. Thatís how he ended up with all the rest of those broken bones. And when I was finally done with that, I tied him back up and began cutting him to pieces with my sword. I carved the same ëXí pattern across his chest that I thought heíd carved across yours. And do you want to know what the worst part about all of that was?" she asked quietly.
Gabrielle nodded silently, as her voice failed her completely.
"The worst part is that I enjoyed it," Xena said coldly. "I laughed every time I heard him scream, every time I heard him beg for mercy. I destroyed him the way I thought heíd destroyed you, and I was glad."
Gabrielle stared at her friend in amazement. Sheíd heard the incredible self-loathing in Xenaís voice, and sheíd heard the pain as well, despite the warriorís best efforts to hide it. She couldnít even fathom what Xena must have been going through to have done what she had, and it was obvious that she was disgusted with herself for what sheíd done. Learning that Gabrielleís "death" was nothing more than a plot by Ares to get her back could only have contributed to the warriorís mental anguish. The only thing Gabrielle couldnít figure out was why Xena hadnít killed the warlord. Taking a deep breath, she looked her friend over carefully before speaking. "Xena?" she began, "Why...."
"Queen Gabrielle?" she heard a voice call out, interrupting her before she had the chance to ask her question.
Turning slightly, she saw the young Amazon who had been in Ephinyís hut coming towards them. Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, she paused for a moment before responding. "Yes? What is it?"
"Ephiny is available. You wanted me to let you know when....," her voice trailed off uncertainly under the weight of Xenaís intense stare.
Gabrielle glanced at her friend briefly and then nodded to the Amazon. "Yes I did. Thank you, Iíll be there shortly," she replied, and then watched as the woman hurried away.
Turning back once again to look at her friend, Gabrielle began to speak but was stopped by Xenaís upraised palm. "Later, Gabrielle." Xena said tonelessly. "Go talk to Ephiny. Thereís nothing more for us to discuss right now anyway and frankly, I need to be alone for awhile," she said calmly, before walking away from her friend, feeling empty and dead inside. There was no possible way that that could have gone worse and, at the moment, Xena wasnít prepared to deal with the revulsion towards her and the disappointment in her that she was certain Gabrielle must be feeling.
Xena avoided Gabrielle for the rest of the day, as she tried to come to terms with what had transpired between the young woman and herself. She had hoped to figure out a way to explain to Gabrielle what had happened with the warlord, but those plans had gone up in smoke the second she realized that Gabrielle had actually seen Martakas. The words that Ephiny had spoken to her so long ago had returned to haunt her. Donít do anything you would regret Gabrielle knowing about. Good advice, if only sheíd taken it. The pain and torture sheíd inflicted on Martakas was all the proof anyone would ever need to know that Xena had never really changed. How could she possibly hope that Gabrielle would ever forgive her for what sheíd done, or even hope that the young woman would be able to understand it?
Gabrielle tried throughout the day to talk with her friend about what had happened, needing, if nothing else, to know how and why Xena had stopped herself before killing the warlord. Unfortunately, Xena was as adept as always at avoiding her and, no matter how hard she tried, the young bard was unable to corner her warrior friend. The few times she was able to try to talk with Xena, the warrior had flat out refused to discuss anything more serious than the weather and, by the end of the day, Gabrielle was completely worn out by all her attempts to force Xena to talk with her.
Eventually Gabrielle retired to her hut for the night. She waited up for Xena as long as she was able to but, eventually, sheer exhaustion took its toll and the young woman fell asleep. There was no sign of Xena when she awoke the next morning, but Gabrielle knew, although she wasnít exactly sure how, that Xena had been there with her during the night, and she was greatly relieved that at least the warrior wasnít so upset that sheíd decided to sleep elsewhere.
Gabrielle saw and spoke to Xena several times that morning. However, the warrior invariably managed to arrange things so that there were always several other people around them, making it all but impossible to carry on a private conversation. Xena seemed to have relaxed considerably from the day before, though, and Gabrielle began to wonder if perhaps they might actually be able to discuss the Martakas issue, as well as all the other matters they needed to cover, before too much more time had passed.
Shortly after midday, Xena returned to their hut. Seizing the opportunity, Gabrielle quickly followed, determined to try to talk with her about some of the issues facing them, now that she had been afforded the opportunity. As she entered their hut, she saw Xena packing a small backpack. The warrior looked up at her arrival and nodded to her briefly, before returning her attention back to the task at hand.
"Cor and I are going hunting again," Xena said. "I just came in to get a few things to take with us. We may be gone for awhile, so donít expect to see me again before dinner," she finished, as she continued to fill the backpack with a variety of items.
Gabrielle watched her friend steadily for several more seconds, before trying to speak to her once again. "Xena, we need to talk about all of this. Now about Martakas...."
"Gabrielle please. I donít want to talk about him right now. I donít know how to explain what happened and Iím just not ready to discuss that subject yet," Xena said firmly.
"All right, you donít want to talk about Martakas. Will you at least talk to me about your army?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
Xenaís head snapped up in surprise. "My army?" she croaked.
"Yes, your army," Gabrielle repeated calmly.
"How do you know about that?" Xena demanded, before remembering the comment Cor had made when she had first seen the two of them in Ephinyís hut. "Did Cor tell you?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Actually, I told Cor." She hesitated for a few seconds before continuing, "Ares told me."
Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah. When he came and told me about tricking you, he showed me a vision of you riding at the head of an army. It looked pretty big. There had to be over 40 men riding with you along with several Amazons...You...you looked pretty content," she finished lamely.
Xena stared at her in shock. "Why didnít you say something before?"
"It didnít seem like the right time. I was just so glad to have you back, I didnít want to talk about anything else but you and me. I kept waiting for you to bring it up but you never did. So I decided I was going to have to mention it if we were ever going to be able to talk about it."
Xena shook her head as she tried to make sense of the past couple of minutes. First Martakas, now this. How much more was she going to have to deal with before this was all over? Sighing heavily, Xena looked at her friend. "I donít want to talk about my army right now," she said flatly.
Gabrielle chuckled ruefully. "Why doesnít that surprise me? Xena, how much longer do you intend to keep this up?"
"Keep what up?" Xena asked defensively.
"How much longer do you intend to keep pretending like the past couple of months never happened? You refuse to talk about Martakas, you wonít discuss the army that you spent nearly all your time building and leading. What in the godsí names are you so afraid of?"
"Iím not afraid of anything," Xena denied, to herself as much as to Gabrielle. "I just donít think you really want to hear the answer to your questions. I donít think youíre going to like what you hear."
"Iíll be the judge of that. Tell me. Tell me why you raised an army."
Xena began angrily pacing around the hut. "Why did I do it? I raised an army because I thought I could use it to stop Martakas once and for all. At first, it was just me and six Amazons. Then in Nalimore I picked up a few others and, everywhere that I went, people kept joining us, wanting to help defeat Martakas. Before I knew it, I had a couple dozen people with me. We started attacking small armies to rescue villages, then we started taking on bigger and bigger armies. More and more people joined, and I stopped waiting for the other armies to strike first. I was determined that this time I would use my army for good, that this time I would use it to protect people. And it worked. I donít know how many petty armies and highwaymen we took care of before we finally caught Martakas. And when the time came, my army obliterated his. It was so damn easy too. When I was through, I had over 60 men and every one of them was a skilled, capable warrior. It was a fast moving, hard-hitting cavalry that could tackle almost anything."
Gabrielle watched her friend in silence for several seconds. "You evened the odds," she finally said quietly.
Xena looked at her for a few moments before she understood what Gabrielle was talking about. "Yeah, I evened the odds."
"And did you like it? Were you happy?" Gabrielle asked, still in a quiet voice. "In the vision that Ares showed me you looked...well you looked like you were exactly where you belonged."
Xena stopped pacing and gazed out the window. "Did I like it?" She thought about the question for several seconds before nodding her head. "Part of me did," she admitted. "Part of me liked it a lot. All those soldiers, following my orders, following me into battle. No fear, just utter freedom, power, control. Gods Gabrielle. You canít imagine what thatís like. Iíd forgotten just how much Iíd missed it," she said, her voice taking on a faraway quality. "Knowing that youíre respected, knowing that no one can stop you from doing exactly what you want to do. Itís...itís exhilarating," she said softly.
Gabrielle stared at Xena in shock. "And you miss it now that itís gone again, donít you?" she asked in a small voice.
Xena remained silent for several long seconds before finally speaking. "Do you really want me to answer that?"
Gabrielle swallowed hard. "Yes, I do."
Xena nodded. "Yes. Part of me misses having an army, misses the control and the power. Part of me misses what I could do with them and regrets the fact that I wonít be able to do those things without an army behind me."
"So why did you get rid of your army?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
Xena shrugged. "I guess I was just too tired. I didnít have the energy or the drive to keep leading them. Especially not after Ares told me the truth, that heíd been trying to lure me back to his side."
"Do you have the energy to lead an army now? Is that what you want to do in the future?"
Xena turned to look at her friend, as she carefully considered her response. "I still donít have the energy to lead an army at the moment. As for the future...Iím not ready to try to think that far ahead right now."
"I guess Ares was right. He said that there was a part of you that missed leading an army," Gabrielle said softly.
Xena shrugged. "Maybe in that respect, Ares knew me better than I knew myself," she agreed, before grabbing the small backpack and leaving to meet Cor.
As Xena had said, she and Cor didnít return to the village until late that evening. Gabrielle was telling tales around a fire when they returned, and Cor immediately insisted on joining the women, determined as always not to miss the opportunity to listen to one of Gabrielleís stories. Xena joined the group as well, although she was obviously considerably more reluctant to do so. She barely looked at Gabrielle while the bard was telling her stories and, as soon as Gabrielle had finished, she quickly rose and walked away, mumbling an excuse about needing to get cleaned up from her earlier activities.
Cor watched her leave, a confused expression crossing his features as he did so. Turning to look back at Gabrielle, he noticed the glum look on her face and he began to realize that there was some truth to his earlier suspicions. He had been puzzled by Xenaís insistence on going hunting during the day and had been surprised that she had been willing to be away from Gabrielle for so long. Now, however, he was beginning to see that something was definitely wrong between the two women. Before he could press the issue, however, Gabrielle stood up and wished everyone a good night. Cor momentarily considered stopping her and trying to talk to her about what was going on, but decided against it. The two women were going through a difficult time at the moment and it was only natural that there would be some problems as they readjusted to each other. Heíd give things a little more time before he stuck his nose into the middle of the situation once again.
Gabrielle returned to their hut and got undressed for bed. She was just slipping under the covers when Xena entered the hut. The warrior glanced at her briefly before silently getting undressed and getting into bed with her. However, Xena immediately moved to the very edge of the mattress, placing herself as far away from Gabrielle as possible, before closing her eyes and trying to fall asleep.
The two slept together in the bed but didnít once touch each other during the night, not even to curl together in their usual sleeping position. Xena was up and gone from the hut long before Gabrielle ever woke up and the bard realized that things were much, much worse than she had imagined. She was living with a stranger. A cold, unemotional stranger who barely acknowledged her presence, and she knew that there was absolutely no way that she could go on like this for much longer. Things were going to have to change, one way or the other, because she simply couldnít live like this.
She sat in their hut for quite awhile, trying to decide what to do about her friend. Eventually, she decided to try to take her mind off of Xena, so she pulled out the scrolls she had been working on to finish the ones that she "owed" Cor. She had just completed the scrolls and replaced them in the saddlebags, when Xena walked into the hut, surprising her slightly.
Seeing the look on Gabrielleís face, Xena shrugged and shuffled her feet slightly. "Just needed to get something," she mumbled softly, as she walked over to open up one of the saddlebags.
Gabrielle watched her calmly, before a look of resolve finally came over her face. "Xena, we need to talk."
The warrior rolled her eyes slightly. "Weíve been talking, Gabrielle. Weíve been talking a lot."
Gabrielle ignored her. "Xena, I canít go on like this. I canít deal with you pushing me away. I canít deal with your indifference. I canít deal with feeling like you want me out of your life."
"What are you talking about?" Xena asked in an irritated voice.
"Iím talking about the fact that youíre holding back a part of yourself from me. Iím talking about the fact that you donít trust me with any part of your life anymore," Gabrielle replied angrily.
"Youíre being ridiculous."
"Am I? You wouldnít tell me about Martakas until you felt like you were forced into it. You wouldnít tell me about your army until I directly asked you. Ephiny had to tell me what you thought had happened to me because you wouldnít talk about it. You donít trust me enough to tell me whatís bothering you. You donít trust me enough to think that Iíll understand. You donít trust me enough to believe that Iíll still love you after you tell me the truth. You donít...you donít trust me enough to lose control," she finished softly.
"Lose control?" Xena asked in a confused voice.
"Yes, to lose control. To let your guard down when weíre making love." Taking a deep breath, she looked her friend directly in the eyes. "I didnít notice it at first because I was so happy to have you back. But you havenít let me touch you since we got back together."
"What are you talking about? Youíve held my hand, leaned against my shoulder, and youíve definitely touched me while we were making love."
"You mean while you were making love to me," she corrected calmly. "Oh sure, youíll let me touch you a little, but every time I tried to do more than the bare minimum you stopped me. And youíre holding part of yourself back too. It took me awhile to realize it, but youíre keeping a part of yourself locked away from me. Now stop trying to deny what we both know is true and just tell me why youíre doing it."
"Gabrielle, please, you donít want to get into this," Xena warned softly.
"Probably not," Gabrielle agreed, much to Xenaís surprise. "Unfortunately, I have to. I have to know whatís going on with you. Do you...do you still love me?" she finally asked.
Xena sighed softly. "Yes. I still love you."
Gabrielle relaxed slightly but she continued to keep the pressure on. "Then why are you doing this?" she asked.
Xena glared at her lover. "What do you want me to say?"
"The truth. Just tell me the truth. I donít care how painful it is. I have to know whatís going on with you."
"The truth? The truth is that I finally realized that I was right in the first place," Xena said harshly. "The strongest trees stand alone."
Gabrielle stared at her in astonishment. Several seconds passed before she was able to speak, and even then her voice was unsteady. "What are you saying?"
"Iím saying that I love you, but I was right when I said it was a weakness to depend on someone else. Gabrielle, you are my biggest weakness. Thatís what I miss the most about my army. No weaknesses. No vulnerabilities. You want to know why Iím holding part of myself back from you? Itís because I nearly died when I thought Iíd lost you and I donít want to go through that again. Iím trying to get used to this whole idea of having you around again, despite the fact that we both know youíd be better off staying here with the Amazons or anywhere else away from me, for that matter."
"And you?" Gabrielle asked softly. "Would you be better off without me?"
Xena hesitated for a few seconds before responding. "In some ways, yes I would," she replied quietly. "I just donít know if Iím strong enough anymore to walk away."
Gabrielle looked at her friend sadly. "Maybe I am," she finally responded, before walking out of the hut in silence.
Gabrielle and Xena avoided each other for the rest of the day. When night finally came, Xena returned to their hut, laid out her bedroll and fell fast asleep, all without saying a single word to Gabrielle. The next morning she was gone before Gabrielle had arisen, and the process of avoidance continued from there.
It was the middle of the morning by the time Cor was ready to leave. Several of the Amazons wished him well before Gabrielle finally stepped forward to hand her friend the scrolls she had promised him. Smiling broadly, Cor took the scrolls and then placed them carefully in his saddlebags, thanking the young woman as he did so.
"It was no problem, Cor," Gabrielle replied. "I just hope Kieros likes them."
"Iím sure heíll love them," Cor said confidently. "If thereís anyone whoís a bigger sucker for your stories than me, it has got to be Kieros."
Gabrielle smiled warmly at her friend before hugging him tightly. "Good-bye, Cor," she said emotionally. "I owe you more than I can ever begin to pay you back for," she finished, before moving back slightly to look up at her friend.
Cor shook his head. "No. Like I told Xena, you owe me nothing. Just take care of yourself, and take care of her too," he said with a smile.
Gabrielle sighed. "Easier said than done," she said quietly, as she moved out of her friendís embrace.
Cor reached out to catch her by the shoulder. "Whatís that supposed to mean?" he asked in a concerned voice. He looked at her for a few seconds and, when she continued to remain silent, he began to grow even more worried. "Gabrielle? Whatís wrong?"
Gabrielle shrugged helplessly. "Sheís doing it again, Cor," she said softly. "And I donít know how to stop her. She keeps putting up more walls between us, pushing me further and further away. Iíve tried to talk to her, tried to force the issue with her, but she refuses to discuss it with me. She wonít talk about what happened with Martakas, and she definitely wonít talk about her army. I think sheís decided that she doesnít want me around anymore. She already told me that she....," Gabrielleís voice trailed off as she fought the tears that were threatening to fall.
Cor looked at his young friend compassionately. "What did she tell you?" he asked softly.
Gabrielle took a deep, steadying breath. "She told me that she was right all along. She said that the strongest trees stand alone. She admitted that having me around was a weakness."
Cor shook his head sadly. Xena was an idiot sometimes; there was no two ways about it. "Gabrielle, you know she loves you, donít you?" he asked gently.
Gabrielle shrugged. "She says she does. Maybe that isnít enough for her. Maybe she needs something else that I canít give her."
"Gabrielle....," Cor started, then stopped when he noticed Xena and Ephiny leading the bound Martakas towards him. The warlord was still in sorry shape, but at least he was in good enough condition that he wouldnít slow Cor down too much.
Gabrielle looked up to see Xena approaching and forced a smile onto her face. "Good-bye again, Cor," she said warmly, as she deliberately ignored the warriorís presence. "Remember youíll always be welcome in this village," she said, and then turned and walked quickly away.
Ephiny watched Gabrielleís departure with a look of confusion on her face, before turning to look back at Cor. Extending her arm, she smiled when he grasped it firmly. "Thank you, Cor," she said sincerely. "You returned Gabrielle to her sisters. If thereís ever anything we can do to return this favor, let us know and weíll do so gladly."
Cor nodded. "Thanks, but really, it was nothing."
"No," Ephiny corrected him firmly. "It was everything," she finished, before smiling and walking away to try to catch up with Gabrielle.
Cor watched as Xena finished tying Martakas to the saddle of the horse he would be riding and then came back to stand in front of him. "Thanks for taking care of him," she said flatly. "Iím sure the people of Baraliam will be more than capable of dealing with Martakas once you turn him over to them."
Cor nodded, but remained silent as he continued to look at her intently.
"What?" Xena demanded in an irritated voice after several seconds had passed.
Cor shrugged. "I was just thinking. I stopped you from making the biggest mistake of your life, apparently only to watch you do your best to make the second biggest."
Xena glared at her friend. "Whatís that supposed to mean?"
"I just got done talking to Gabrielle, and she confirmed what Iíve been suspecting for days. Youíre trying to push her away again, arenít you?"
"I donít know what youíre talking about," Xena snapped, as she began to walk away.
Cor reached out quickly to grab her arm, stopping her progress. "Donít you?" he asked mockingly. "Iíll admit that Iím not exactly certain why youíre doing this, but the fact that youíre doing it is pretty obvious." Cor looked her over carefully for several seconds before speaking again. "So, do you want to tell me why youíre doing this, or shall I try to guess?"
"Cor, I donít want to talk about it," she growled angrily, jerking her arm from his grasp.
"All right. Iíll guess." Cor pretended to think for several seconds before smiling. "First guess: Martakas. Am I right? No, that would be too stupid. You wouldnít throw away what you and Gabrielle have just because you were worried about what she thought of you for beating him senseless." Cor acted as if he was giving the matter more thought before smiling once again. "Ahh. Is it because of the army you formed? No, that canít be it. That would be just as stupid as the ëMartakas reason.í I know that youíre happier with Gabrielle than you ever were with an army. And I think we both know how dangerous it is for you to be leading an army of any size for any length of time, donít we?"
"Cor thatís enough," Xena warned, her voice soft and low.
Cor just smirked at her. "This is a toughie. Sure you donít want to give me a clue? No? Well all right. Let me see...Iíve got it!" he said, snapping his fingers loudly. "Youíve decided that youíd rather be lonely than spend your life with someone who loves you and who you love as well. Youíre choosing to be miserable instead of spending your days with someone who will make you deliriously happy. No," Cor said laughing rudely. "Only a complete fool would want something like that. Iím stumped, Xena. The only other thing I can come up with is that you are somehow trying to pull that ëitís too dangerous for her to be with meí crap again, and I was under the impression that weíd already covered that once before."
"Cor, things arenít quite as simple as you like to make them out to be," Xena said heatedly.
"And theyíre not as complicated as you like to pretend either," he shot back. "Do you love her?" he asked calmly.
"Yes," she said quietly, "But...."
"No ëbuts.í You love her. Thatís what matters."
"Cor," Xena said helplessly. "I donít know if I can go through this again."
"Go through what?" he asked gently, his heart going out to his friend when he heard the pain in her voice.
"Cor, it almost killed me when I lost her. How can I set myself up for that again?"
"Isnít that what youíre doing right now? Youíre holding her at armís length. Youíre going to end up driving her away, Xena. Donít you think it will hurt if and when she finally leaves?"
"Yeah, it will. But it wonít hurt anywhere near as much as it did when I thought sheíd been killed by Martakas. It will be over and done with, and at least Iíll know sheís alive."
Cor shook his head. "Xena, are we really back to that issue again? I told you once before, Gabrielle is an adult capable of making her own decisions. You canít protect her from the world."
"Itís not the world Iím trying to protect her from, Cor. Itís me," Xena admitted softly.
"You?" Cor asked in surprise.
"Yes, me. Look at what I did to him," she said, nodding towards Martakas. "Think about what I might have done to Gabrielle when I first saw her if you hadnít been there to stop me. Gods, thereís so much anger and violence inside me, Cor. Iím terrified that itís going to end up hurting her some day, and I donít think I could live with myself if that ever happened."
Cor sighed heavily, as he finally began to understand what was behind Xenaís actions. Everything else he mentioned was probably contributing to her anxiety but, ultimately, it was her fear of hurting Gabrielle that was causing the warrior to drive the young bard away. "Youíre hurting her now, you know," he said softly.
"I know. But better to do it this way. Sheíll get over it eventually."
"Maybe. But will you?" Cor asked quietly. "Xena...Xena youíre a fool. Most people go through their whole lives hoping to find what you have with Gabrielle, and youíre just going to toss it all away. At the very least, you owe it to Gabrielle to be honest with her about this. Or does she mean that little to you?"
Xena glared at her friend angrily. "Thatís a low blow, Cor!"
Cor shrugged carelessly. "Maybe. But if it gets you to be honest with Gabrielle, then frankly I donít care." Walking over to untie the reins of Martakasí horse from the hitching pole, Cor led the animal back around to where Xena was standing and then mounted his own horse. "Good-bye, my friend. I hope you come to your senses before itís too late," he said sincerely, before urging his horse into a slow walk and heading for the village gates.
Xena thought about her conversation with Cor throughout the rest of the day. He was right about a couple of things, she acknowledged. She was hurting Gabrielle by forcing the young woman away, and she honestly wasnít certain that she could ever get over it if she lost Gabrielleís love. Unfortunately, no matter how much she tried, she couldnít get past the one central problem. She was absolutely terrified that someday she would end up destroying Gabrielle completely
She had been scared for a long time that someone would harm Gabrielle in order to hurt her, and now that Ares had apparently figured out her weakness, that fear was only magnified. But all of that paled in comparison to the terror that she felt at the thought that someday she herself would be the instrument of Gabrielleís destruction. She realized now that sheíd been fooling herself when she thought that she had changed. She was still the same hardened killer that she always had been and, eventually, the tight control she held over the darkness within her was going to slip again. And when that happened, Gabrielle could wind up with a lot more than just bruises on her wrist. The young woman could end up dead. The small pain she was putting her friend through now was worth it if it saved her from the much greater pain that would come to her if Xena didnít do something before it was too late.
Xena was sitting alone in their hut late that evening when she heard Gabrielle enter. She continued to sit silently, however, as she tried to organize her thoughts. After a few minutes had passed, though, Gabrielle finally spoke. "Is something wrong?" the young bard asked quietly.
"No...nothingís wrong. I was just thinking."
Xena paused and then finally looked at her friend. "About you. About you being the Amazon Queen. You have a gift for it, Gabrielle. Youíre one of the finest ones Iíve ever seen. I think...I think you should keep the mask of the Queen."
"You think we should stay here with the Amazons?" Gabrielle asked in amazement.
Xena shook her head. "No. I think you should stay here with the Amazons," she said quietly.
Gabrielle stared at her friend in shock. Even though sheíd told Cor that she was worried Xena didnít want her around anymore, actually hearing Xena say the words came like a physical blow. "What are you saying?" she finally whispered, after several long seconds of silence had passed.
Xena sighed heavily before looking away. "Exactly what it sounds like Iím saying. I think you should remain here with the Amazons. Youíll be happy here and we both know that the women of this village care a lot about you. Theyíd be thrilled if you decided to stay, and youíd do a great job as their Queen. But...but I canít stay here with you. Iím not ready to settle down yet, so I have to be moving on."
"What about you and me?" Gabrielle asked softly. "I thought you said you loved me."
"I do love you," Xena replied. "Nothing will ever change that. But sometimes that isnít enough."
"Isnít enough? How can you say that?"
Xena sighed once again. "Come on, Gabrielle. You mean to tell me that in all of the stories you know, there arenít a few where lovers are kept apart because of other issues?"
Gabrielle stared at her friend silently for several moments. "Yes, there are," she replied quietly. "Will you just tell me why youíre doing this?"
Xena shrugged. "Because itís for the best for both of us," she replied.
Gabrielle studied her friend, not missing the way Xena was avoiding eye contact with her. "And what are you going to be doing while Iím here with the Amazons?" she finally asked. "Are you going to raise another army?"
ëAn army?í Xena thought to herself in surprise, hearing Gabrielle voice a thought that had never once dawned on her. Realizing, however, that it provided something of a justification for her actions, she decided to use it as an excuse. "Maybe," she replied neutrally, not wanting to commit herself to anything. "But donít worry. I have no intention of going back to fighting for Ares. One way or the other Iíll keep doing what Iíve been doing for the past couple of years."
"And this is what you really want? You want me to stay here while you go off on your own?" Gabrielle asked calmly, determined not to break down and beg or cry.
Xena paused for a couple of seconds before nodding her head and turning to look Gabrielle directly in the eyes. "Itís what I want," she replied firmly.
Gabrielle simply looked at her friend for several seconds, before finally nodding her head as well. "Fine," she replied, with as much dignity as she could manage. "If thatís what you want then thatís what weíll do." She took a deep breath and rose from her chair. "Iíll miss you Xena," she said unemotionally, as she struggled to keep the pain and hurt out of her voice. "Iíll make the announcement at the celebration the village is having the day after tomorrow, and then accept the mask permanently the day after that. I would appreciate it if you would stay until then. I would hate for my...for my best friend to miss that ceremony."
Xena nodded. "Iíll stay," she said simply.
"Thank you," Gabrielle said calmly, and then turned and walked out of the hut.
Xena watched the bard go without a word. Part of her desperately wanted to call the young woman back to her side, to tell her it was all a misunderstanding, but she forced that part down deep inside of her and allowed her friend to leave. She felt as if her heart was breaking all over again, but she refused to relent, refused to change her mind. This was for Gabrielleís own good. She couldnít allow the young woman to stay with her any longer. It would only be a matter of time before the darkness within her overwhelmed her young friend. Gabrielle had asked her if this is what she wanted, and on a purely selfish level, it was the last thing in the world that she wanted. She wanted and needed Gabrielle to be with her. But more than anything else, she wanted what was best for the bard, and staying with the Amazons, staying away from Xena, was what was best for Gabrielle.
Part 11 -(End)
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