Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story iteslf are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
NOTE: All works remain the (c) copyright of the original author. These may not be republished without the author's consent.
Note as to chronology: This story begins after Gabrielle's wedding in "Return of Callisto."
"What do you mean?" Xena asked blankly. She struggled to keep any expression from her face.
"I said, Perdicus will be ready to travel tomorrow, and I asked you if we were still headed for the festival. It's not a hard question, Xena." Gabrielle looked up at the warrior with concern. "Are you all right? Your arm's really painful, isn't it?" She reached out to Xena's bandaged sword arm. Xena stepped back half a pace.
"I'm fine," said the warrior automatically. "You and Perdicus were going home, back to Poteidaia." Not in her worst nightmare had she envisioned that Gabrielle would continue to travel with her. Accompanied by her husband.
"Perdicus and I have had a chance to talk about that. Now that we're married, he's feeling better about...things, and after I told him about everything we've done to help people, he's agreed that we should keep travelling with you. Think of all the trips it will save you to Poteidaia." Gabrielle smiled happily, not noticing that there was no answering smile on Xena's face.
The warrior let her gaze drift over the small village, her eyes stopping at the temple across the square where Gabrielle had been married. She'd said her good-bye in that place, thrown a wall around the only good thing in her life, and sealed it away. And now this. Telling Gabrielle that she and Perdicus couldn't travel with her would mean telling her why not. It was too late for that. Four days too late.
Callisto would have been pleased to know that she'd succeeded beyond her fondest hope.
Her arm was throbbing from the tension in her muscles, and she forced herself to relax. 'You're just friends, remember,' she reminded herself,' and remember what you told her. Well, she's happy, so you should be happy.' Gabrielle was still talking, and she tried to concentrate on the words.
"I'm going to pick up extra supplies, so we'll be ready to go first thing in the morning. Is there anything you want me to get for you?" The bard looked expectantly at her. Xena didn't look quite herself, Gabrielle thought, and no wonder, really. She'd been pushed hard by Callisto, and her arm was surely hurting her where she'd deflected that killing stroke meant for Perdicus.
"No," said Xena shortly. She turned to Argo, standing patiently beside her outside the tiny inn, and swung into the saddle.
"Wait a minute, where are you going," asked Gabrielle.
Xena turned an expressionless face towards her. "I have some things to do." She gave Argo a nudge. She had to get out of here, now.
"Ok," replied Gabrielle, puzzled. "I'll see you at dinner." She watched as Xena headed out of the village, and reminded herself to get some of the honey pastry Xena liked, along with some port. They couldn't afford it often, but Perdicus had some dinars to put in with their small supply, and she and Xena had already talked about stopping in the next town so Gabrielle could tell some stories. There was nothing like good times at a Festival to loosen pockets and increase contributions, and Perdicus and Xena could relax over a drink while she told some tales.
Dinner came and went with an increasingly worried Gabrielle looking to the door of the tavern every time someone came in.
"Gabrielle, will you just relax? I'm sure she's fine." Perdicus said, finally. "Here, have another piece of nutbread." He pushed the plate over in front of her.
"What could be keeping her? I told her we'd see her at dinner." Gabrielle looked at the door again as yet another villager came in. It was a small tavern, holding only a couple of dozen at most, and the warrior was noticed wherever she went. She couldn't have come in without someone seeing her. "Maybe she's run into trouble."
Perdicus laughed. "If she has, I wouldn't worry about her, I'd worry about whoever it is that starts it. Aren't you the one who talks like she's invincible?"
Gabrielle frowned. "I might talk like that, but that doesn't mean she is. And she's hurt, after all." She pushed herself to her feet and grabbed her staff. "I'm going to look around."
"No, you're not," Perdicus said firmly. "It's getting late, and if she has run into trouble, she can handle it. We'll wait a bit longer if you want, but I'm sure she's fine. She did tell you she had things to do." He tugged Gabrielle back down beside him. "She's the Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, and you said she's every bit as good as her reputation. So, relax."
The bard frowned. "She doesn't like to be called the Warrior Princess, Perdicus, so try not to say that where she can overhear you. Since she has incredible hearing, it's best not to call her that at all, ok?"
Perdicus smiled. "If that's what you want, Gabrielle. I guess Destroyer of Nations is out, too," he said, good-naturedly.
"Perdicus, you said you were sickened by all the killing. I'm sure you can imagine how Xena feels. What do you think?" Gabrielle glared at him as his expression changed to surprise.
"Hey," he said defensively, "in the army, titles are looked on just a bit differently. Corinth was a classic."
"Well, she's not a warlord any more, Perdicus, and she gets enough reminders of her past. So just let it go and do as I ask, all right?"
"Fine, if that's what you want. Look, it's late, and she's probably not going to make it back tonight. If you want an early start tomorrow, we should go up."
With one more look at the door, Gabrielle let herself be persuaded. Even if she went out to look for Xena, she didn't know where to start, and she could easily miss her in the dark. Better to be ready to go in the morning. Xena hated to be kept waiting, and she liked to get moving early.
Far enough from the village to keep from being found by a casual searcher, Xena stared into a small fire and thought about the Tartarus her life was going to become. Gabrielle leaving her was almost unendurable, and she'd thought nothing could be worse. She'd certainly been wrong about that. Now she had to find a way to deal with this terrible new reality, of the woman she loved, and the man she had married, a constant presence in her life.
Gabrielle's smiles would be for Perdicus, now, her stories told to entertain him, her sympathy and understanding to comfort him. Her love to warm him. Her heart constricted painfully, and she forced her mind to practical considerations.
Perdicus had been a good soldier, but swearing never to lift a sword again made him more of a liability than a benefit to life on the road. Gabrielle was skilled with her staff, and although she always worried about the bard, she could certainly defend herself. Now, Gabrielle would worry about defending Perdicus, and that would increase the risk to her, a situation the warrior wasn't sure she could tolerate. She wasn't even sure that Perdicus would fight to help Gabrielle. He'd failed in that once, damn him, almost costing the bard her life. Gabrielle either hadn't given that any thought, or she'd been so confident of Xena's abilities that she'd dismissed it as a problem.
There was food, although increasing her catch shouldn't be difficult. Perdicus had been raised to farm, not hunt, and soldiering for Troy left no time to learn the skills, even had there been game left in the area. Providing the food had always been her responsibility, although she'd taught the bard how to set snares and fish. She caught it and skinned it, and Gabrielle cooked it. It had worked out fine.
There was the travelling itself. Gabrielle had always preferred to walk, and had only ridden Argo when it had been necessary. Xena had enjoyed having the bard up behind her, but that pleasure was a thing of the past. Gabrielle and Perdicus would both walk, and Xena could scout ahead. That would give them privacy during the day, and when she ran into trouble, the warrior could re-adjust to fighting with no one at her back. It would probably be better that way, in any case. She wouldn't have to worry about Gabrielle. Or Perdicus.
Money might prove to be a problem. Gabrielle had earned most of what they had by storytelling in the towns and villages, and while they seldom had a great deal, it had been enough to provide Argo with grain and themselves with necessary gear and food, supplementing what Xena trapped. Occasionally, they were offered supplies, but that was always an unlooked-for benefit. The bard had insisted long ago that sharing the funds was a fair trade for what Xena gave her, but the warrior wasn't so sure Perdicus would see it that way, and she wasn't prepared to risk Argo's health. At least that was easily solved.
Rubbing her eyes wearily, she contemplated what lay ahead, and how she might best survive until Perdicus grew tired of the threadbare life on the road, and again spoke of home and family to Gabrielle. The warrior didn't think it would take long, and then she could turn her mind to surviving endless days and nights of silences.
Argo whickered softly, and she glanced up. It would be dawn shortly, and it was time to go. She stood, and stretched carefully. The night had been cool, and her arm ached with a dull throb that she knew would be with her for a while yet. She'd been fortunate there had been no damage to the bone.
"Well, Argo," she said to the mare, giving her an affectionate rub between the ears, "I can't tell her the truth, and I won't lie to her. I guess you and I will be taking long, quiet rides again, huh?" Argo nudged her gently. "Good girl."
She'd washed down a couple of strips of dried meat by the time she arrived in front of the inn, to no sign of Gabrielle or Perdicus. Although it was an hour or so past dawn, she'd at least expected Perdicus to be an early riser. Briefly, she thought about going inside and seeing what the delay was all about, but she decided against it. Gabrielle knew her routine, and she would know the warrior would be waiting. She had no intention of changing the habits of years, and for her own sake, she was going to have to reclaim a few she'd lost. Silence seemed the best course to take, right now. The bard was used to that.
Gabrielle rushed out the door about 20 minutes later, her large bag slung over her shoulder, followed by Perdicus with his pack. She looked around and saw Xena sitting on the bench, waiting, with Argo's reins clasped loosely in her hand. Xena raised an eyebrow, and the bard grinned, embarrassed. Then she remembered how worried she'd been the night before.
"Where were you last night?" Gabrielle demanded as Xena wordlessly reached out for the supply bag in the bard's hand. "You missed dinner and I was worried."
"Morning, Xena, beautiful day," remarked Perdicus. He put a reassuring hand on the bard's shoulder. "Calm down, Gabrielle, I told you Xena was fine. And here she is, all ready and waiting for us."
Gabrielle ignored him and advanced on the warrior, busy strapping the bag to a saddle ring.
"Xena? What happened? Are you all right?"
Xena glanced briefly at the bard and swung into the saddle. "I told you, I had things to do. Let's go." She turned Argo, but Gabrielle grabbed at the rein and gave the warrior a long look. Xena looked fine, if tired, but her bandage was tinged with pink.
"Before we leave, I want to check your arm."
"I'll take care of it later. It's time to go." Xena twitched the reins and obediently Argo started to move. The bard frowned and opened her mouth to say something, but Perdicus cut in smoothly.
"Xena's right, we're wasting time. The sooner we get going, the sooner we can get to the Festival. And you promised to show me some moves with the staff, remember?"
The bard smiled, diverted for the time being. "There's a good stand of trees outside of town, isn't there, Xena? We need to stop so we can find something for Perdicus to use as a staff."
Xena nodded silently. She'd already taken in the absence of Perdicus's sword. It was hardly a surprise, she'd expected that, but she should have anticipated that Gabrielle would want him to take up her preferred weapon.
In some ways, their progress down the road was much as usual, Xena thought. Gabrielle was talking animatedly, telling stories and pointing out the sights. She was on Argo, riding silently, and automatically checking both sides of the road for signs of trouble. What was different was that the stories weren't being told to her, but behind her, and Perdicus's voice kept interjecting comments. Every once in a while, there was laughter, and Xena hated herself for what she was feeling. 'Gabrielle is happy, that's what you wanted,' she reminded herself. 'You had your chance, you didn't take it. Be glad she's still with you.' It didn't help.
"Hey Xena, wait up!" The bard's call had her reining Argo to a stop, and she turned in the saddle slightly, an eyebrow raised, and waited for them to catch up.
"What do you think, we should be able to find good wood in there, right?" Gabrielle gestured to the trees beside the road.
Xena studied the forest briefly and nodded. "Probably."
"Great, let's see what we can find for you, Perdicus." Gabrielle set off, Perdicus right behind her, and made it halfway to the edge of the trees before she noticed that Xena wasn't with them. She turned and looked back at the warrior still on the road.
"Aren't you coming?" she asked
"I'll keep watch. Here." She reached back for her sword and sent it spinning lazily toward the bard. It landed upright, quivering slightly, about 5 feet in front of Gabrielle. The bard pulled it out of the earth and grimaced at the weight. "Are you expecting trouble? Something from last night?"
"Not particularly. Go ahead." It wouldn't hurt to keep an eye out, the warrior thought. Callisto was who knew where, and even if she wouldn't be in any condition to fight for some time, Xena wasn't sure where Theodorus and the rest of the men were, either. If they turned up, she had her chakram and whip, and swords were easy enough to get during a fight if she needed one. Gabrielle would likely have some trimming to do, and they'd wait all day if the bard had to use a knife. She moved Argo to the side of the road and settled herself in the saddle, rubbing gently at her still-throbbing arm.
Gabrielle quickly found a likely branch, and carefully swung Xena's sword, starting to trim off the bumps and knots to make it as smooth as possible until Perdicus had a chance to work on it.
"I can do that, you know," Perdicus smiled and took the sword from her hand. He tested its weight and balance and looked impressed. "Nice work," he commented. "Heavy, though, and the hilt's a bit too thick."
Gabrielle settled back and watched as he carefully trimmed along one end. "It's custom made, there isn't another one like it."
Perdicus inspected the length of wood, and resumed trimming. "You know, she saved my life. I'd like to do something for her, and since we're travelling together, I'm sure there's something I can take over. What does she hate doing the most?"
"That's really nice, Perdicus." She paused, thinking over the evening camp routine. "I can't think of anything she hates doing. She just does her jobs, and I do mine. After dinner's cleared away, she usually checks the perimeters, then sharpens her sword and checks her weapons while I work on my stories. We turn in pretty early."
"What about wood for the fire?"
"That's me. Xena hunts and skins. Or fishes"
"Um, I imagine cooking is your job?" Perdicus teased, eyes on the wood.
The bard laughed. "Oh yeah, she's a terrible cook. You wouldn't starve to death, but you sure wouldn't enjoy it."
"I'll remember that. If Xena cooks, no nasty comments. What about her horse? I could take over the grooming."
"That wouldn't be a good idea, and I wouldn't even suggest it. Argo is special, and she won't let anyone near her. Xena takes care of her, unless she's been hurt and can't, and then I do it. The best thing to do is just ask her what she wants you to do."
"I could do the perimeter checks," suggested Perdicus.
"I don't think she'd be comfortable with that. She hasn't let anyone else who's travelled with us do them." She noticed Perdicus frown. "Look, ask her."
"I guess so. Is she always like this?" he wanted to know
"She never says anything. She didn't tell you where she was going last night. I thought you were friends, doesn't she talk to you? She sure hasn't had much to say to me."
"She doesn't talk a lot, never has. But yeah, she is a bit quiet, even for Xena. Her arm is hurting her, probably, not that she'd ever say so. It needs to be checked and re-bandaged. How's that stick coming? I don't want to keep her waiting too long, not after this morning."
Xena sighed as she heard Gabrielle tramping through the forest. After much teaching and practice, the bard could be reasonably silent when she needed to be, but she obviously felt that everything was under control. She wasn't making any effort to disguise her footsteps, and Perdicus could be plainly heard behind her. Gabrielle had frequently teased her about sneaking around, but the truth was that the habit of silence was so deeply ingrained that she walked that way all the time.
The sun was nearly at it's highest point, and as Xena slipped her sword back into it's scabbard, she heard the inevitable words from Gabrielle about stopping for lunch. Without commenting, she lifted the food pack and a waterskin from the side of the saddle and handed it over.
"I'm going ahead to look around. Don't wait too long to get moving."
"You can wait a minute while I look at your arm. I'm not kidding, Xena, it looks like it's bleeding. What were you doing last night? You weren't in a fight, were you?" Concerned green eyes looked up at her, and Xena forced herself into a smile. The bard's raised eyebrows told her that it hadn't worked.
"I wasn't in a fight. My arm is fine, I told you I'd take care of it." She didn't want those once welcome touches, not even for the business-like motions of re-bandaging her arm. She couldn't afford to want them.
"And what about something to eat? Don't tell me you're not hungry."
"I won't." She kneed Argo into an easy canter before the puzzled bard could say another word.
Xena spent an almost painfully silent day far enough ahead that she wouldn't be seen, but close enough to respond if she heard any trouble behind. In the late afternoon, she started looking for a good place to stop for the night. A small marker on the side of the road would send Gabrielle towards the clearing, so she took the time to strip the bandage from her arm.
The stitches were tightening painfully, and there was a bit of seepage, but considering who was wielding the sword, she'd been lucky. She'd bear a scar from this slice, though. A careful cleaning reminded her to let it air later, but for now, it needed to be re-bandaged.
Perdicus and Gabrielle came into the campsite as she was taking the last of the gear from Argo.
"Nice spot," said the bard appreciatively. She could hear the stream running not too far from where they were, and Xena had already found some rocks for the fire. A nice thick tree trunk provided a seat, and the ground was fairly even, miraculously free from small stones.
"Yeah, this looks good," agreed Perdicus, slinging his pack to the ground.
"Xena always finds the best ones," Gabrielle smiled at her friend's back, watching Xena go through the familiar routine of unsaddling Argo. She'd water the mare, and then go hunting for dinner while the bard unpacked the rest of what they needed, and perhaps swim if time and location provided the opportunity. She frowned slightly as she noticed the fresh bandage on the warrior's arm, and began to worry if perhaps the wound was getting worse. Xena wasn't usually so hesitant about allowing the bard to check her injuries.
"You don't need to go hunting, Xena. I picked up some dried meat so you could have a break tonight, give your arm some rest." She crossed the clearing to talk to the warrior.
Xena bent to pick up Argo's feet, checking for any small stones imbedded in her hooves before taking her to drink. Gabrielle trailed along behind her.
"Best to save it. There's plenty of game around here." The mare was fine, so she gathered the reins to lead her down to the stream.
"I thought it might be nice to celebrate our first night back on the road. Even with lots of game around, it's going to take a while. This'll be faster, and I bet you haven't eaten all day. Perdicus and I are starving, and we had lunch."
Xena smiled to herself. Gabrielle was always starving There were times she watched in disbelief, as the bard tucked away enough food for three warriors in the middle of a battle.
"You go ahead, then." She started for the stream, Argo following along behind her. Unfortunately, Gabrielle was following along, as well.
"Xena, wait, we need to talk." The bard looked behind, noting that Perdicus was off gathering firewood. She hoped he'd know that the fire needed to be as smokeless as possible. Travelling with Xena presented hazards that weren't part of the usual traveller's experience on the road.
Xena was running her hands idly down Argo's near foreleg as the mare buried her nose in the water, slurping noisily She was expecting questions she didn't want to answer, and tensed as the bard came up beside her.
There was silence for a few moments, and the warrior felt Gabrielle's eyes studying her. She straightened to her full height, looked the bard in the eye, and waited for a demand to explain her behavior.
Those green eyes were looking at her with warm affection, and, the gods help her, understanding.
"Xena, I know your arm is bothering you, so stop trying to pretend it isn't. Now, I want you to rest a bit, Perdicus and I will take care of things. We haven't had much chance to talk since..." she paused for a moment. When was the last time she and Xena had actually had a conversation? "Since right after the wedding, I guess." Xena's jaw tightened slightly, but Gabrielle didn't notice it. She was busy getting out of the way of Argo's shifting hindquarters.
"Anyway, I want to thank you again for everything, Xena. The flowers, and the dress," she smiled, feeling her eyes fill with tears, "and especially for saving Perdicus. I don't know what I would have done if she'd killed him." Now the tears were trickling down her cheeks, and she reached out to hug a stiff and very uncomfortable warrior.
Xena carefully disengaged the bard's arms and took a step back into the water. "You're welcome," she said, forcing herself to gather up the reins. She hated to see Gabrielle cry, but there were other arms for the bard, now. 'She's happy,' she reminded herself.
"It's going to be better now, Xena," Gabrielle said in a determined voice. "You won't have to go out and hunt when you're tired, Perdicus will be a real help when we have to set up defences. After all that time at Troy, he knows all about sieges..." she saw Xena's eyebrow go up, and realized how that sounded. "Not that you don't, you're the best, but it will leave you free to do whatever you need to do. You'll be able to get more rest, Perdicus said he'd walk the perimeters, or take care of Argo, whatever you want..." she trailed off. She wasn't quite sure how to read the expression in Xena's eyes. She'd never seen it before.
Xena supposed this was bound to come up. Gabrielle was a new bride, obviously proud of her husband, and looking forward to being on the road with him and her best friend. At this point, life for her could hardly be better. For Xena, life couldn't be much worse. And there was still the evening and night to face.
"Perdicus should do whatever he feels is necessary. Argo is my responsibility."
The bard blinked. That comment had sounded a bit odd, since there was no question that Argo was Xena's. "Well, of course. I told him that." She was feeling uncomfortable now. She tried again.
"Xena, I know it's going to take some time for...all of us to adjust. But it's going to work out, you'll see."
Looking into Gabrielle's eyes was a mistake. The bard wanted everything to be fine, to be the same as it was, and it was just too late for that. Part of her was proud of the confidence that the bard was showing in her, sure that Xena could grow comfortable with this new situation. Part of her was grateful that Gabrielle was still concerned about her. Most of her wanted to hit something.
"Better get back. You'll need to get the fire started." She turned Argo and headed up through the trees to the campsite.
"Perdicus is doing that," Gabrielle remarked. She was about to say more, but stopped as Xena looked up.
"So I see," said the warrior evenly. Gabrielle noticed the smoke and hurried ahead, the warrior following more slowly behind. There was no point in rushing, the damage was done if anyone was out there looking for travellers. Xena wondered again where Theodorus and the rest might be. She'd be sleeping lightly, if at all, tonight.
As she came into the clearing, Perdicus was saying, "I'm just not used to hiding in the woods. We haven't seen anybody all day, there's no one out there." Xena ignored the comment, but saw Gabrielle glance over.
"We don't know where the rest of Callisto's men are, Perdicus. It's not smart to take chances. Xena, do you want to move?"
After a look at the sun, Xena replied, "it's too late in the day, leave it." She finished unbridling Argo, haltered her, and got her snares out of a saddlebag. She wouldn't be able to go far, but there were a couple of promising game trails she'd noticed earlier, and she'd have a chance to look around.
Perdicus passed her with the waterskins on his way to the stream, and Gabrielle was busy cutting down on the size of the fire. Xena was relieved to see that the bard had her staff close at hand.
"Xena?" The bard's voice called softly. Out of habit, Xena stopped and turned. Gabrielle came over and lifted her chin in a familiar gesture that tugged at Xena's heart. "I'm sorry about that, it won't happen again."
"It's all right."
A hand on her arm stopped her from moving into the woods. "It's not all right, it's my fault, I should have told him." The bard smiled up at her, hoping for an answering look. "Almost the first thing you ever taught me was how to make a smokeless fire, remember?"
"Yeah." The side of the warrior's mouth quirked into a smile and Gabrielle grinned. She tightened her grasp on Xena's arm, intending to see if she couldn't coax a full smile out of her, when Perdicus came through the trees into the clearing. Xena drew her arm away, and headed into the woods, snares in hand, leaving a surprised Gabrielle looking after her.
"What was that all about?" asked Perdicus, dropping the water skins and coming over.
"Mmm? Oh, she's gone hunting," Gabrielle replied absently "We need to talk about fires. And a couple of other things, too, I guess." There was no sound from the woods, but there never was when Xena was out there.
"Now?" asked Perdicus. He drew her into a hug. "Maybe you haven't noticed, but we're alone." He bent, ready to kiss her, but Gabrielle gave him a playful push back.
"We've got work to do. Dinner to start, for one thing. And let me show you what kind of wood to look for, we'll need more, and we don't want any more smoke."
Gabrielle put the water on the fire, and started to cut up the vegetables and dried meat. It would be ready before any game could be cleaned and cooked, and they were all hungry. Afterward, she'd make Xena sit down and rest if she had to tie her down. Warriors could be so stubborn. Fortunately, she had a bribe, Xena never could resist a honey pastry.
Perdicus came back with an armload of firewood, and dropped it down.
"Why don't you go have a swim? I can watch things here." He smiled at the slight hesitation. "I can cook, you know. Go on, enjoy yourself. It's been a long day."
"Ok, you talked me into it." She quickly undressed, wrapped a blanket around herself and headed for the stream.
It was almost dark when Xena approached the clearing, two fat rabbits, cleaned and dressed, gripped in her hand. She'd been careful to make her footsteps audible to prevent any embarrassing incidents, and she was a bit surprised to see the bard coming up from the stream. So much for wandering through the woods to give them time alone, she thought ruefully.
"Two rabbits, Xena? That's great, we can put them away for lunch tomorrow. The stew should be ready by now. I'm starving, how about you?" the bard asked.
'Oh yeah,' she thought, but aloud admitted, "I could eat." The jerky she'd had in the afternoon hadn't filled her, any more than it had in the morning.
"Yup, starving, I thought so," said Gabrielle triumphantly She crossed to the fire, and her clothes lying on the bedrolls. Perdicus smiled at her warmly and offered to help her dress. While Gabrielle hissed at him to be quiet and stop it, Xena pretended she couldn't hear anything and looked for some wood to spit the rabbits. She came back to the fire to find Gabrielle staring incredulously at the cookpot.
"Did you let it boil away, Perdicus? There was a lot more than this, I'm sure of it."
"I had mine already. Don't worry, Gabrielle, I left you plenty. Xena, there's lots of room if you want to put your rabbits on. Hunting must have been good, huh, those are nice big ones." Perdicus looked at the two women, realizing that something was wrong. Nervously, he poked at the re-stoked fire. "I'll push some coals off to the side."
Xena kept her face absolutely expressionless, but Gabrielle looked at the pot and took a breath. Xena knew that sound, Gabrielle was about to have a rare blast of temper. Trouble in paradise, she thought to herself savagely, and was immediately ashamed of herself. She took a firm hold on her own formidable temper. This was none of her business.
"Not necessary." She crossed to Argo and laid the rabbits down. It was the work of minutes to find wood, and start a very small fire that quickly burned down to embers sufficient to start the rabbits. A drink from her waterskin, and she was ready to sooth herself by giving Argo a good grooming. Half consciously, she listened to the quiet argument going on behind her. There was no where else to go, she couldn't leave the fire unattended.
"How was I supposed to know she was eating our stew? You said she was going hunting, I figured she was getting her own dinner."
"Didn't you listen, earlier? I told you that she did the hunting and I did the cooking. For both of us."
Perdicus was getting angry. He'd let his feelings for Gabrielle affect his judgment and agreed to stay on the road, instead of going home with his bride to take up life in Poteidaia again. And nothing was working out the way it was supposed to. Somehow, nothing he did was right. No matter what, he kept running into the big stone wall of habit.
"Well, it's not both of you anymore, there are three of us, and maybe you'd better tell me now just what it is you expect me to do."
"Look, Perdicus, when you left Troy, I know there were several of you that travelled together. Did you each cook for yourselves, or did everyone share?"
"We all shared, of course." His face cleared. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I just wasn't thinking. I've never been a husband before, and that's about all that's been on my mind. I'll try harder, I promise. Now, better eat your dinner before it gets cold. I found some kind of pastry too, so there's some of that left. I don't really like this honey stuff, or port either, so the next time, maybe you could pick up wine and some more nutbread."
Gabrielle watched Xena's even brush strokes on Argo's coat, and felt miserable.
"I'm going to go down for a swim. Why don't you bring your dinner and come with me? We could have some time alone," Perdicus said hopefully.
Xena was whispering in Argo's ear, and the big mare swung her head around to butt the warrior gently. A breath blown from the horse's nostrils signaled her approval of the nightly grain ration, and the warrior chuckled softly as the mare munched. For some reason, Gabrielle's throat felt tight.
"No, you go ahead without me. I'm going to eat, and I usually work on my scrolls afterwards."
"Ok," Perdicus replied cheerfully. "You can tell me some of your stories after I get back. That guy, what's his name? Joxer, yeah, he said you weren't that bad." He missed the bard's eyes narrowing, and planted a kiss on her cheek. "We had some pretty good storytellers in Troy, you know."
The bard studied the stewpot for a moment, then grabbed the other bowl and what was left of the pastry and the port. Finished with Argo, the warrior had started to unstrap her scabbard.
"Hold this," Gabrielle pushed the bowl into Xena's hands and carefully set down the wineskin, stewpot and pastry. "I'll take your armour off, just stay still, and don't move your arm any more than you have to."
Practiced fingers made short work of removing the heavy armour, and although Xena knew she should stop the bard, she couldn't bring herself to do it. Not only was it almost the most comforting thing she could imagine at the moment, she could feel Gabrielle's confusion. Stopping her would only make things worse, and she couldn't hurt her.
She drew the line at having her boots unlaced. "Gabrielle, stop that. Eat your dinner. C'mon, it's getting cold." She spooned the stew into the bowl and wrapped the bard's hands around it. "Eat."
"Will you let me look at your arm?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
Xena tried to get control of things again, to throw up walls that were crumbling much too quickly. More than ever, she needed to distance herself from the bard, but Gabrielle was looking at her hopefully, firelight dancing highlights into red-gold hair, and glinting in green eyes that she'd never been able to say no to. Right now, those eyes were pleading for a return, however brief, to the way things had been. Wordlessly, she held out her arm.
Gentle fingers unwrapped the bandaging, and Gabrielle looked at it carefully in the light of the fire. "This needs to be cleaned again. Let's leave the bandage off for a bit, and let the air get at it." After receiving Xena's nod of approval, she got the pouch holding Xena's medical supplies out of a saddlebag, and used a damp cloth carefully, knowing full well that the warrior was watching every move she made.
"I'm sorry this is hurting you," began Gabrielle carefully. Trying to draw Xena out was always a tricky business, but she needed to talk, and she didn't want the warrior shut away from her.
Xena was wary when Gabrielle started conversations like this. Words were like lifeblood to the bard, and Xena could never hope to fight on that battlefield and win. Veiled comments meant discussions she wasn't comfortable with, and recent events tripled the dangers.
"It's alright," she said cautiously.
"No, it isn't. It's hurting you, and I can't do anything to fix it," the bard said, sadly.
"Some wounds just take a bit longer to heal," Xena ventured. She hated floundering around in double meanings.
Gabrielle looked up into the bluest eyes she'd ever seen. "But they still hurt."
Xena felt a jolt right down her backbone. Did she know? She couldn't know.
Gabrielle read panic, and backtracked with the ease of long practice. At least she'd got Xena out of that locked away place she'd been in, the past several days. "Give me your dagger, this rabbit is ready. There's some port in the wineskin behind you."
She frowned at the breast dagger Xena held out. "Not this one, your long one." She looked up and raised her eyebrows. "Don't you have it?"
Just great. Another one word conversation.
"Where is it?'
"The village? Did you lose it?" Gabrielle couldn't believe it. Xena had owned that dagger for years. It had belonged to Lyceus, and it was inconceivable that she'd be careless with it. Or any weapon, for that matter.
Not exactly, no"
"You sold it?"
Xena was staring into the fire.
"You gave it away?"
What was left? "You traded it?"
"Yeah." Leave it alone, Gabrielle, please.
"Xena, if you wanted something, why didn't you just take some money? I thought we'd settled this long ago." A sudden thought occurred to the bard. Dear gods, maybe she'd wanted... companionship, and... no, never. Xena was beautiful, if she crooked her little finger, man or woman, she could have whom she wanted. Gabrielle had seen too much evidence of that over the last year or so to doubt it. It was something else.
"Can I borrow Argo, tomorrow?" She asked.
"Argo? Gabrielle, you hate riding. Why would you want to borrow her?"
"I'm going back to the village to get your dagger," the bard replied calmly.
"Just leave it, Gabrielle. It's not important, it's just a knife."
"It's important, because it's not just a knife. Now, who has it?"
Another battle lost. "I wanted to give you something from me, something special, for... for your wedding. I didn't have anything, so I traded it to the blacksmith. He'd admired it, his wife is a seamstress, and I thought the dress would be something you could keep, and maybe look at every once in a while." She swallowed hard. "You know, to remember your wedding, and...and everything." She stared at the rabbits on the spit as if she expected them to attempt an escape at any moment.
Gabrielle wasn't even trying to blink back tears. Xena's last link to her brother, for her wedding dress.
"Xena," she started, but had to stop for a moment. She couldn't possibly go back for the dagger.
"It's ok" said the warrior, softly. She smiled at the picture in her mind. "It was worth it. The dress looked...you looked...beautiful."
She was in the deepest pits of Tartarus, now. Gabrielle was in her arms, wrapped around her like a blanket, head buried in the crook of her neck, crying warm tears on her shoulder. The woman she loved, the woman she'd die for. Someone else's wife.
"Hey, c'mon now, your dinner's cold, and you're getting my leathers all wet." Xena kept her tone as light as she could. Gabrielle was upset enough, the last thing she needed was a warrior who lost all self-control.
" I don't know what to do." The bard whispered, breath warm against Xena's shoulder.
The warrior frowned. Do about what? She decided on the obvious, taking the easy way out.
"It's just a knife, Gabrielle. I have others."
"Please, Xena, that's not what I mean, and you know it."
The warrior took a breath. 'Tell her what she needs to hear' she ordered herself. "You've only been married a few days, Gabrielle. You and Perdicus are just getting to know each other again, and remember what you told me about adjusting? That's what you and he have to do, adjust to each other. And you will. I know it's hard right now, but everything's going to be fine. All those romantic stories you tell say so, right?"
The bard could easily tell uncomfortable Xena was feeling, so she lifted her head and smiled. "I thought you hated those stories." She drew back and wiped her eyes.
"I don't hate them, I just don't like hearing them a hundred times." Relieved, Xena smiled back. "I'm more than ready for this rabbit, want some?"
Xena was wrapping the remains of the rabbits when she heard Perdicus coming through the trees. Glancing over to the other fire, she saw Gabrielle lost in thought and shook her head. This couldn't go on, and she'd been a fool to allow it. She and Gabrielle had separate lives now, and there had to be a clean break. The bard's happiness depended on it.
"Ready to tell me a story?" asked Perdicus, settling himself down on the bedroll. "Here, come and sit beside me."
The bard's eyes flickered over to Xena, barely visible in the low embers of her fire, packing the rabbit carefully into a saddlebag. This was the time of night she loved best, telling Xena stories while the warrior sharpened her weapons. But nothing seemed quite right, anymore.
"Sure, what kind of story do you want to hear?" Xena was gone, blending into the darkness, checking the perimeters as she did every night to make sure they were safe. At last, something familiar. Maybe Xena was right, everything would be fine.
Moving quietly through the trees, Xena paced a large circle around their camp. Only one more night would she do this, then they would be at the next village. Everyone would be caught up in the celebrations, and it would be easy enough to complete her plan. She'd have to leave some sort of note, to prevent the bard from worrying, but she had two days to think about what to say, and how to say it. Surely she could come up with something that didn't sound like unit orders for a battle.
Her own fire was almost out when she finally returned to their camp, and the other was burning low. Let Perdicus tend it, she thought sourly, and left hers alone. The bedroll was thick and warm, but it did nothing to dispel the coldness inside at the sight of Gabrielle, sleeping peacefully in the arms of her husband.
A kick to his boot had jolted Perdicus from a sound sleep, and the day had gone downhill from there. Xena had obviously been awake for some time, and she'd ridden off to scout ahead, so he'd taken the opportunity to wake his wife with a little husbandly affection. Gabrielle wasn't a cheerful riser, and her rebuff had been sharp. Oh, she'd apologized later, but by then, the lack of breakfast and the hot, dusty road had ruined his good humour. They needed to get to the village as soon as they could, he decided. A good meal, and the safety of an inn would give him back the woman he'd married.
That would be a good time to talk to her about staying on the road. He'd had enough. It was time to take his wife home, where they both belonged.
Only one event broke the monotony of the day. Anxious to get to the village quickly, Perdicus insisted that they ignore the small marker Xena had left at the crossroads to follow the smaller track, heading directly toward the valley the village was in. They had almost made it to the point where the track wrapped around a high rocky hill, when Gabrielle stopped walking. Perdicus had heard the sound of hooves a few seconds later and waited, frowning.
Xena pulled Argo to a stop and slid off her horse. Ignoring the bard, she spoke directly to Perdicus. Gabrielle bit her lip and kept silent. Xena was angry, Perdicus was going to be upset, and she was caught in the middle.
"Didn't you see the marker I left?" The warrior asked evenly.
"I saw it. This way is faster. There's no need to go the long way around."
"Have you thought about why there's obviously little travel on such a faster route?"
"I suppose you know that answer to that?" Perdicus snapped. He was hot, tired, and anxious to get to the comfort of the village.
Xena held his eyes until he looked away. She walked forward, close to the wall, fully expecting Perdicus and the bard to be behind her. Peering around the edge of the cut, she looked down into a low valley, then turned to face them.
"This is what's left of the local talent, after a year and a half." She gestured for Perdicus to take a look for himself.
He'd soldiered enough to recognize a base camp, and estimated that there were probably fifty men camped down there. He stepped back resentfully. Gabrielle looked at Xena with a thoughtful expression.
"What's left of them? What happened to the others?"
"Tyrus thought he was the biggest, baddest warlord of them all. He was wrong. The survivors are little more than common bandits." Xena let her eyes rest on Perdicus for a moment, then turned and walked away. If she hadn't come back to check on their progress, Gabrielle would be a prisoner in that camp, now. As she swung back into the saddle, Gabrielle's words, from what seemed like a lifetime ago, came back to her. "It's the dull, stupid part I have a problem with."
Gabrielle caught only the occasional glimpse of Xena for the rest of the day, and tried to quell her uneasiness by teaching Perdicus the basic staff moves. She was pleased to see that he picked them up without trouble, and by the time she saw Xena's small marker by the roadside, she'd reassured herself that everything was going to be just fine.
That feeling quickly vanished at the sight of a small pile of stone for the fire, a tethered but still-saddled Argo, and Xena coming through the brush with an armload of wood to drop beside the pile. Perdicus lowered his pack with a sigh, and without comment began to lay the stones in a circle, but the bard walked over to Xena in time to stop her untying Argo.
"Are you still angry with me?" She asked quietly. Xena turned her head sharply.
"I'm not angry, Gabrielle."
"I shouldn't have ignored the marker. I'm sorry. Thank you for coming back, I know we would have been in a lot of trouble if you hadn't come when you did."
Xena's eyes narrowed as she studied the bard, sure now that she'd made the right decision in deciding to leave. Gabrielle looked unhappy, and the whole situation was tearing at both of them.
"Stop apologizing for things that aren't your fault." She said shortly. Gabrielle knew better than to disregard a direction indicator. "There's a clearing not too far from here. I'll be close by."
"Wait, where are you going?" asked Gabrielle, grabbing at the warrior's arm as she started to lead Argo away.
Xena glanced at Gabrielle, and flinched at the hurt bewilderment plain in the bard's eyes. Clearly, Gabrielle thought Xena didn't want to be near her because of the earlier incident.
"You and Perdicus need your privacy, and don't forget, we'll be at the festival tomorrow. It'll be a busy day for you." She gave Gabrielle the most cheerful smile she could, and tugged at Argo's reins. Tomorrow couldn't come soon enough, she couldn't handle much more of this.
It was a very long evening. Appetite gone, Xena forced herself to eat some of the rabbit, and sat by her small fire, sharpening her weapons and thinking about the next day. The first day of a grey and empty life.
Gabrielle came to her fire three times. She examined Xena's arm carefully, and agreed that it was healing fairly well. She'd miscalculated, and made too much stew for dinner. She was going to finish the story she'd begun telling Xena days ago.
The last refusal was the hardest. As much as Xena liked the bard's stories, it was the sound of her voice that she loved most. If she closed her eyes and listened, she could see the story taking place, the images drawn in vibrant colours by Gabrielle's words. Most of all, she would miss the bard's voice.
Gabrielle accepted the offered excuses, and watched as Xena left the clearing to check the area. The warrior hadn't declined an evening story since their earliest days together, and that added to the bard's worries. It had been difficult for Xena to adjust to Gabrielle travelling with her, and now there was Perdicus. As thoughtful as Xena was being, giving them as much private time together as possible, the bard missed her friend's presence. If the warrior didn't want to intrude on the evening to hear the end of the story, then that story would be the first one she told tomorrow. And she'd make sure that they spent time together, just the two of them, wandering around the festival and enjoying the sights. That would be a good time to tell her that it wasn't necessary to go off by herself so much.
Although she checked the small clearing several times, she didn't see Xena again that night.
By mid-morning, the village was in sight, and Xena moved Argo to the side of the road, scanning the surrounding area for a good place to camp. Most of the groups walking along the road would be sleeping on the other side of the village, closer to the festivities, and a shorter stagger to welcome bedrolls for those who celebrated too heartily. Gabrielle, well aware of and sharing, Xena's dislike of crowded encampments, waited patiently while Perdicus shifted from foot to foot. Xena had stayed with them today, and the bard was optimistic that things were improving. They all needed a bit of relaxation, and this would give Perdicus and Xena an opportunity to get to know each other.
"It looks like there's quite a crowd, Gabrielle. We need to get moving if we're going to get a room. Much longer, and there won't be any left. Xena, why don't you meet us at the inn? The first drink's on me," offered Perdicus, reaching for the bard's arm.
Gabrielle gave Perdicus a surprised look. "We don't have the money to stay at an inn, Perdicus. Certainly not today. I do need to talk to the innkeeper about telling stories, but we don't have to do that first thing."
Perdicus frowned. "We've got the dinars, Gabrielle, I counted them last night. We've got enough for a room, and a few drinks, until you have a chance to perform."
"We can't pay for two rooms up front. They'll be charging a king's ransom during a festival."
"Two rooms?" Perdicus looked embarrassed. "Sorry, Xena, I didn't realize that Gabrielle was holding your money, too."
Before Gabrielle could speak, Xena cut in smoothly. "She isn't. I don't have any money." She turned to the bard. "It's a generous offer, Gabrielle, thank you, but it's not necessary. You know I'd rather be out here, and it saves having to stable Argo, as well. Perdicus is right, you'd better get to the inn before all the rooms are gone. I'm going to look around, and I'll head into the village a bit later." Somehow, she managed to produce a convincing smile. "Go on now, before they're all too drunk to find their dinars."
She turned her horse to the woods, unable to look at the embarrassed bard's face any longer. Throat tight and the blood pounding in her ears, she could still hear Gabrielle's footsteps, slowly moving away from her.
Light drinkers were also light tippers, but the reception was gratifying enough to satisfy Gabrielle as she took a break and walked to their table. She didn't have far to go, Perdicus had chosen a spot right at the front of the room. He smiled at her proudly as she sat, vaguely uncomfortable with people surrounding her on all sides. Her eyes shifted automatically to the tables that Xena would prefer. They were occupied, but none of them by the warrior.
"Good stories, Gabrielle. How about an ale to keep your throat from getting dry?" Perdicus took a sip of his own and gestured to the serving girl.
"I drink cider while I'm working. Have you seen Xena, yet?" She looked around again.
"Nope. She's probably off beating everybody in the competitions. I guess that's how she gets her money, huh?"
The bard laughed. "Xena never enters those things. She thinks it's showing off, and most of the time, there's nobody good enough to compete against her, anyway. It wouldn't be fair." Her cider arrived and she had a drink.
"Funny, she didn't strike me as the type to hire her sword out." he said casually.
"She isn't," returned Gabrielle. "She's not for hire, and she doesn't take money for helping people. She does that because she wants to."
"So you're supporting her?" Perdicus said shrewdly.
"No, of course not! We support each other. Believe me, all the dinars I could earn wouldn't come close to matching what she's given me." A hard bump to the back of her chair stopped her from going on, and she turned to see what was happening.
"Sorry, we meant no harm. My friend here took a hard crack, and he's a bit unsteady on his feet." A large, friendly looking man had an arm firmly wrapped around another man's shoulders. A fresh bruise was visible through the stubble on his cheek, and he staggered a bit.
"No harm done," said Perdicus amiably. "We were going to go look around, but if there's a brawl going on, we'll stay here for a bit longer."
"It wasn't a fight. Cassion got this in the staff competition." He chuckled. "He's not used to losing, and he got a bit carried away. Charged the winner from behind, and she did this with her boot. Sorry again to bother you." He pulled his friend away.
"Sounds like somebody we know," remarked Perdicus. "So much for not entering competitions."
Gabrielle watched as Cassion was pushed into a chair. "She doesn't, and she wouldn't. Not without a very good reason, and I'm going to find out what it is. Are you going to stay here?" She hoped he would.
"Yeah, you go ahead. I don't feel like wandering around out there right now. Have fun." He swallowed some ale and looked back over to the dice game that he'd been watching periodically.
Gabrielle quickly located the area where the staff contest had been held. All she had to do was follow angry complaints of rigged contests, and ringers. The man who'd organized the event was rapidly running out of patience, tired of defending himself. He was happy to allow himself to be pulled aside by a pretty young woman with no axe to grind.
"Yeah, that was your friend. I wish you'd talked her out of entering, it was ridiculous. And you'd better stay away from the men behind me. They had a lot of bets riding on Cassion, and they aren't happy about having to pay out. This was supposed to take all day, and if I'd known what was going to happen, I'd have given her the winner's purse myself."
"Thanks for the advice. You don't happen to know where she was going, do you?" Gabrielle was finding the situation completely unbelievable, but the description matched Xena, and who else could have put down her opponents so effortlessly?
"Nope, she never said. Just took back that fancy sword she put up for her entry fee, grabbed the money and left."
The bard thought for a moment, then set off for the nearest stabling, keeping a close watch on the crowd in front of her. Xena wasn't an easy person to miss.
Settling behind a building at the far end of the village, Xena stared at the newly purchased parchment in front of her. She knew what she wanted to say, but the words wouldn't come, and time was growing short. It wouldn't be long before word reached the bard about the staff contest, if it hadn't already, and she'd start searching. Argo wasn't in the village, and that would buy a bit of extra time, but not much. It was time to put quill to parchment and say a final good-bye.
I've decided that the best thing for all of us is to separate for a while. I hope that you and Perdicus will travel safely wherever you go. I know you will find happiness together.
Xena scowled. This wasn't at all what she wanted to say. Ten dinars for parchment and quill, and the best she could do was write a letter that sounded like a supply list. Idly fingering the parchment, she remembered Gabrielle telling her once that the best tales came from the heart.
Crumpling the parchment, she reached for another sheet.
Gabrielle scanned the big room carefully when she returned to the inn. It was more crowded now, and beginning to fill up for the evening. Perdicus was engrossed in a dice game and didn't see her come in, but she gave him only a cursory look. She'd walked the entire village twice, and still no sign of Xena, or Argo. Increasingly nervous without knowing why, she headed to the bar for a cider. Xena had been inexplicably absent before, this was nothing new. Surely she'd turn up soon.
Half her cider was gone when the barkeep came back over to her.
"I was supposed to give you this when you came back." She looked blankly at the carefully folded parchment held out to her, her name written across it in Xena's hand.
Perdicus scooped up his winnings and said a temporary good-bye to his new friends. He was looking forward to dinner, then listening to Gabrielle tell her tales for the rest of the evening, and then it was upstairs to a soft bed and his wife. Or not, because Gabrielle was as pale as the parchment she was staring at. Thinking that, somehow, terrible news had come from home, he pushed his way through the crowd.
"Gabrielle, what's wrong? What's happened!" He demanded, reaching out to take the parchment from her. He frowned at the bleak look in her eyes and drew his hand back.
"She's gone. Xena's gone," she whispered.
The far side of the little valley was lit by the dying rays of the sun, and the roofs of the taller buildings, the inn among them, glowed a brighter colour until the advancing shadows turned everything to dusk. The warrior watched from the top of the rise until festival fires burned brighter than the sunlight, then she turned her horse into the darkness of the trees and headed west.
"Gabrielle, I understand you're upset, but let's think about this for a minute, ok? You've been through a lot together, it's natural that you're going to miss her, but you have a husband, now. You have a new life, and we have a future to build. Together. Xena has her own life. It's not the end of the world, Gabrielle, it's the beginning of a new one."
Perdicus paced back and forth in front of the bard seated on the foot of the bed, and looked briefly to the ceiling. He tried to be patient, but it was proving to be increasingly difficult.
"New or old, Perdicus, it doesn't matter. Xena is a part of my life, and I'm a part of hers. How could she leave like this?" She shook her head. "I just don't understand." The bard stared at the parchment gripped in her hands.
"Look, what's not to understand? You're married. Didn't she say she'd come and visit every once in a while? I'm sure she will, especially when she hears we've named our first daughter after her. She could spend a couple of days, get to know the baby, and you could have plenty of time to catch up," he said encouragingly. He wanted to read the letter, but Gabrielle had been amazingly stubborn about that.
Gabrielle looked up at him, but said nothing. Perdicus decided it was time to be blunt.
"Look, a man has certain...expectations of his wife. Xena knows that, and she was just..." he stopped abruptly at the sudden expression on Gabrielle's face.
"In the way?" she asked, furiously. "She was in the way, alright, between you and the sword of that madwoman. Callisto would have killed you, Perdicus, but Xena saved your life! She was hurt doing it! You just don't understand," she continued earnestly, her flash of temper disappearing in a flood of memories. "Xena has always been there for me. She's listened to my stories, taught me, believed in me, protected me and comforted me when I was scared, or sick, or missing my family. I can't...I won't... just say, thanks for the memories, see you in Potiedaia sometime. She's my best friend." She closed her eyes and rubbed wearily at her forehead.
"I know all that, and I'm grateful. She helped you become the woman you are. But all those things are my responsibility now," he reminded her. "Good friends part, Gabrielle, that's the way it is. She knows you're happy, and I'm sure she said so."
"Mmm," the bard agreed unhappily. Xena had certainly written that. Written, in fact, virtually the exact words she'd once said. The bard frowned.
She smoothed her fingertips over the parchment again, and this time, studied the writing. She'd seen a few examples of Xena's hand, and this was undeniably hers, though subtly different in places. She could see the places where Xena had struggled to find the right words, uncertainty plain in the quill stroke, now that she was looking for it. Other places, her thoughts had come more easily, and the letters were bold and firm, as much a presence on the parchment as Xena was in person.
Putting Perdicus and her churning stomach out of her mind, she concentrated on what that uncharacteristic handwriting might mean, and was surprised at how quickly the answer came to her. The firm writing was the public Xena, the warrior who never faltered, or gave up, until her objective was met. Strong and confident, sometimes the bard had thought there was nothing Xena couldn't do.
Until she'd met the private Xena. The one who was afraid to trust, expecting betrayal, afraid to reach out, fearing rebuttal. The one with the haunted eyes and the unvoiced fears.
The warrior's words were convincing, but she'd betrayed herself by her own hand, and the bard felt a wash of guilt. She should have known that Xena would blame herself for all the awkward moments, all the hurts, large and small, of the last week. Leaving was the only way the warrior knew to heal those hurts, and give the bard her happiness.
They had to find Xena, and somehow, she'd have to make the warrior realize that staying together, and working things, out was the best thing for both of them. And if she was wrong, if Xena really felt that their time together should come to an end, she'd have to tell Gabrielle that to her face.
Decision made, and engrossed in planning her next step, Gabrielle never noticed when a disgruntled and uneasy Perdicus left the room to return to his dice game.
Xena sat by the fire and idly rubbed her thumb over the hilt of her sword. When she'd taken her stone from her pack that first night, she'd been unable to put it to the blade. There had been no voice across the fire, or beside her, rising and falling in the rhythm of a story. No smile or laugh, no gentle touch, nothing to accompany the sound of that stone.
Her sword unsharpened, her weapons unchecked, she'd re-saddled Argo, kicked dirt over the fire, and ridden on. The nightly duet of voice and weapon was stilled, and she had no heart, now, for the evenings.
She had paid little attention to her direction these last two days, and Argo had eventually brought her to a cliffside over- looking the sea. Too restless to fool herself that she could sleep, she walked to her mare, plucking contentedly at the lush grasses.
"Well, Argo, why here, huh? You just looking for a good meal, or what?" she murmured, stroking the silky coat. Argo lifted her head and nudged her, and Xena gave her ear a rub. She stayed by her horse, absently playing with her mane, and looked out over the water.
The dark sky was speckled with countless, tiny stars, as if an unseen hand had strewn grains of sand and lit them from within. The sea rolled beneath it, always the same, yet always changing, small waves tumbling to throw themselves on the beach below her. And, over it all, sailed the full moon, bathing everything in clear, silvery light.
"It looks just like something from one of Gabrielle's stories, doesn't it, girl?"
Argo swung her head at her mistress's tone, then gently nuzzled at a broad shoulder.
"Over here looks good," said Gabrielle wearily. The day's heat was intense, and any spot for bread and cheese looked too inviting to pass by. She flopped down and fumbled with the waterskin. Cool water dribbled down her chin, and she wiped it off as Perdicus took it from her.
Four long days of walking, and still no Xena. When she'd left the village and the festival behind, a silent Perdicus walking beside her, the bard had been optimistic that it wouldn't take long to locate her. Xena was a woman who tended to be noticed, after all, and Argo was distinctive.
Instead, they'd followed up on a false sighting, much to Perdicus's disgust, and now they were following a second report. Perdicus had wanted to stay a day or so in the last village and only begrudgingly agreed to keep moving, increasingly convinced that Gabrielle would simply have left without him.
He'd already decided that when this report also proved false, as he was sure it would, that would be the end of it. Gabrielle needed to get on with her life, and he was anxious to return home. His father surely needed the help with the farm, and certainly his mother would appreciate an extra hand around the house. Grandchildren had been something they had both been hoping for, and there was that to look forward to, as well.
Lost in pleasurable daydreams of holding his son while his wife looked on, he didn't notice Gabrielle look around quickly to the forest behind them, then stand away from the tree they were sitting under.
"Perdicus, stand up, slowly, and raise your arms over your head." She said quietly.
He looked up at her, puzzled.
"Just do it, now!" the bard said impatiently. He rose to his feet and awkwardly held his arms as Gabrielle was doing.
Three women came down from the trees so suddenly Perdicus moved for his staff, only to have one of the women rush forward, sword drawn and raised. He froze and waited.
"Gabrielle, you can move away, now. It's all right." The tallest of the women came towards them, and gestured to the other two. Perdicus was prodded none too gently off to the side.
"Cyria, it's ok, I'm fine. Can you tell them to drop their weapons?" Gabrielle was smiling broadly. Cyria and Eponin had both worked hard to give her some basic training in the staff, and she was happy to see her. Maybe they had word of Xena's whereabouts.
Cyria gave Perdicus an appraising glance, and nodded. Reluctantly, the swords were lowered.
"I'm glad to see you, Cyria. And you two are...?" she turned to the other women.
"Daphne and Arias. Gabrielle, what are you doing here? Where's Xena?" Cyria's eyebrows rose at the sudden look of sadness in the bard's eyes, and eyed Perdicus again. "And who's this?" she added.
"This is Perdicus. He's...my husband," the bard said quietly. Cyria's eyes widened, and Perdicus scowled when Daphne and Arias looked at each other uncomprehendingly.
"Husband? But we thought you ..." Cyria blurted out, then cut herself off. The doings of royalty were none of her concern, and it was unwise, and unhealthy, to get involved in the warrior princess's business unless invited to do so. Still, Melosa would need to know of this, if she didn't already.
"Thought what, Cyria?" Gabrielle asked.
The Amazon took the bard's elbow and walked her a few paces away. Behind them, Perdicus narrowed his eyes and waited for an explanation.
"Where's Xena, Gabrielle?" Cyria repeated. It was one thing for their Princess to be out on the roads with Xena. It was entirely another for her to be out with no protection at all, except for one man who carried no weapon save a staff.
"That's what I'd like to know. I'm trying to find her. She...went on ahead five days ago and we've been looking for her ever since," Gabrielle answered evasively.
Cyria studied the young woman for a moment. "What happened, Gabrielle? And how long have you been married? I've heard nothing of this, although we've been up the coast arranging trade agreements, and might have missed word." She kept her voice to gentle tones.
The bard bit her lip. "We married about two weeks ago. The day after, we were attacked, and Perdicus was hurt, and so was Xena. We headed this way when Perdicus could travel. There were some problems, and she..left." Gabrielle finished, miserably.
Cyria shot a look Perdicus, who glared back, and she pulled the bard a little further away. Cyria could imagine what the problems might have been, but that was none of her business, either.
"So, you're looking for her. What are you going to do when you find her?"
Gabrielle looked up in surprise. "Talk to her, of course. She's not to blame for anything. It's just going to take time, that's all. I don't want her to leave."
"I'm sure she was doing what she thought was best for you," Cyria said diplomatically.
"Well, it isn't best for me. I miss her, Cyria. I miss her a lot."
Cyria briefly considered the travellers' tales and rumours that had reached Melosa's lands, and Ephiny's graphic account of Gabrielle's death in Thessaly. She had no doubt the warrior missed Gabrielle, as well. What in Hades had happened, that Gabrielle should marry, and the Warrior Princess stand silent?
"Look, I don't like the idea of you out on the roads like this, it's not safe, especially if someone finds out who you are. I'd like you to return to the village. Daphne and Arias can escort you, and I'll keep looking for Xena. When I find her, I'll bring her back with me and you can talk to her there, all right?"
The bard shook her head emphatically. "No, I can't do that. It would take too long, and maybe she wouldn't want to come with you. Believe me, if Xena doesn't want to do something, that's it. Perdicus and I will keep looking." She smiled at Cyria. "We'll be all right, and you..."
"Gabrielle, what's going on? Who are these women?" Perdicus's voice cut across the bard's words, and Daphne's eyes narrowed at his tone.
"They're Amazon warriors, and we've got a couple of things to talk about. I'm almost through, ok?" Cyria looked sharply at the bard. This wasn't the bright, enthusiastic young woman she'd first seen with Xena. Although Cyria couldn't really approve of Xena's leaving, her actions were certainly becoming more understandable by the minute.
Gabrielle's were a mystery.
"Look, I just want..." Perdicus started angrily.
"Silence," said Cyria firmly. "I have matters to discuss with the Princess. If you stay quiet, we'll be finished that much sooner." No warrior would ever have spoken to a royal consort in such a way, but there was no precedent for this, not that Cyria could remember. She turned her back to him and concentrated on Gabrielle.
"If I leave you, Melosa isn't going to be very happy with me," she remarked, and got a slight smile in return.
"Probably not," agreed the bard, "but tell her I talked you into it. You need to get back, and I don't want to waste any time, Cyria, surely you see that."
"Yes, I do see that." Cyria looked at the bard appraisingly. Gabrielle could be stubborn, she knew, and short of physically taking her back to Amazon lands, there wasn't much she could do. "Very well, I'll risk my Queen's wrath. Make sure you stay clear of the coastal area. Some would-be warlord is trying to make a name for himself, and he's got a village sieged a couple of days west of here. So, be careful, and I hope you find Xena soon."
"Thanks, Cyria. I'll find her, she can't hide from me forever, after all." The bard was only half-joking, but Cyria didn't smile in return.
"Travel safely, Gabrielle. Artemis keep you well."
"You, too. Oh, Cyria," the bard's voice turned the warrior. Gabrielle hesitated for a moment, then decided to ask. "When I told you Perdicus was my husband, you said something about what everyone thought. What did that mean?"
Cyria mentally cast about for something to say. "We've heard a lot of stories about you and Xena, what you've been doing," she said carefully. "I suppose I meant, we figured you were always going to travel together."
"Oh." said Gabrielle. "Well, you figured right. And the sooner I find Xena, the sooner I can remind her of that."
Cyria smiled sadly. "Good luck, Gabrielle." You'll need it, she thought.
The bard only gave half her attention to the departing Amazons, the other half was devoted to considering her next move. Xena would take one of two courses: she'd either find a place and go to ground, or she'd head for a battle and lose herself in what she did best. Gabrielle was betting on the fighting, and while that brought its own worries, at least they were familiar and she could deal with them.
"Gabrielle, I want to talk to you," Perdicus insisted.
"Hmm? Oh, sure, Perdicus, come on, we can talk while we're walking." She headed back to the base of the tree for her staff and bag, and looked at him in mild surprise. He was glowering in the middle of the road, not moving, and she felt the faint stirrings of annoyance.
"We're going home," Perdicus said flatly. "I've had enough, and it's time to go home. I'm tired of this aimless chasing across the countryside. I'm sick of the heat, the walking, and sleeping on the ground. I'm sick of the fact that we don't make love unless we're indoors, and I'm tired of being ignored. I'm not a nobody, you know, I was a good soldier, I'm going to be a good farmer, and I'm going to be a good husband and father. And I expect you to be a good wife, and come with me." He looked at her evenly, clearly waiting for her agreement.
Gabrielle drew a breath and let it out slowly. "Perdicus, we've been over this. I told you what it would be like."
"Really?" He said angrily, and paced toward the bard. Instincts borne of more than a year on the road with one of the most dangerous warriors in Greece sent her hand automatically to her staff, and Perdicus's eyes locked on them.
"Look at that, look at you! That woman has turned the gentle young girl I was betrothed to, into someone who sees everyone as a threat. Xena's the warrior, not you! She's turned you into her, Gabrielle! A cold, heartless replica of herself. Well, I won't let her get away with it. We're going home before it's too late."
"Cold? Heartless? You don't know her at all, Perdicus! She has more warmth and compassion than anyone I've ever met. Just because she doesn't show it, doesn't mean it isn't there. I've seen it." Gabrielle took a deep breath and tried to hold her temper, but instead of Perdicus, she saw Xena, sitting beside a small fire, one of her most treasured possessions gone for a simple, homespun dress.
"You just don't see it, do you? She's all you talk about, Gabrielle! everything you say and do revolves around Xena!" He came closer, and she could see the anguish mixed with the anger in his eyes, as she gripped her staff more tightly.
"Even on our wedding night, you were thinking of her. Well, she doesn't have you, I do! It was my hands that touched you, my body that took you! You made vows to me, Gabrielle...to me!...and you're going to keep them. We're going home, and Xena can be damned to Tartarus for eternity, for all I care!" He started to move towards her.
The bard was cold and shaking as she faced the stranger she was married to. Her body had unconsciously obeyed its' training, and her staff had swung into a defensive position. She couldn't separate the thoughts jumbled together in her mind, and she spoke without thinking.
"Then I'll be damned with her."
Perdicus blinked as the bard's words hung between them. "Why, Gabrielle? Can you just tell me why?" he asked despairingly.
"I can't explain, Perdicus, because I don't know. There's just...I don't know, a connection, a thread, between us that's just there, and I know she feels it, too." Gabrielle sensed the rise of his anger again, and said helplessly, "I never wanted to hurt you, Perdicus."
Pride in shreds, he lashed out, meaning to hurt. "Didn't you?" he spat. "What were you planning, Gabrielle? Did you want someone around for the nights when Xena was too tired? Was she willing to share you, or was..."
The bard watched with detached horror as her staff swung and cracked against Perdicus's shoulder. He cried out and dropped to a knee.
"I'm sorry, Perdicus, I shouldn't have done that," she whispered numbly. Her hands were cold, and she couldn't feel the staff in her hands. "Xena and I don't..."
"Are you really that blind, Gabrielle, or don't you want to see it?" He staggered to his feet, and the fury in his eyes sent her back a pace. "But it doesn't matter. She can't have you, because you're married to me."
Satisfaction crossed his face as he gave the bard a last look before gathering up his things. "Remember that, Gabrielle. You're married to me."
She watched for only a moment or two before she turned stiffly and headed toward the coast road.
Five long days, and she didn't know the name of the village. She didn't care if she ever knew it. The village needed help, and she needed to fight, and that was enough.
Xena walked the perimeter, uncaring of the eyes that tracked her and the silence that followed her. The villagers obeyed her orders and recognized her desire to be left alone, and that was all she asked. She was sure she didn't look very approachable, she never did.
She glanced out over the barricades, seeing the flickering of the campfires and automatically assessed probable numbers. There were less than last night and Xena wondered how many had deserted the inept young fool leading them. He got more reckless every day, frustrated by his inability to overpower and raze this place, and she knew it was just a question of time before this would be over, and she would move on. She could find another village, and another young hothead with more followers than brains. And that would continue until the odds caught up with her and she died.
The small stable was snug and warm after the cool night air, and she smiled slightly at the dozing mare. Argo didn't seem to mind being wakened when the warrior felt the need to talk, and she wondered if Gabrielle would have minded, or if she'd have been struck speechless with surprise. She'd never had the courage to try.
"You've been very patient, Argo, but we'll be on our way in a day or so," Xena said, rubbing the mare's jaw. Argo flicked an ear in approval.
"I'm sorry I don't have an apple for you. I guess you miss Gabrielle's little treats, huh?" Argo's quarters shifted, and the warrior smiled. "Yeah, I saw her sneaking you apples, so don't pretend she didn't. I miss those little pastries she used to surprise me with," she said quietly. "I miss everything. I'll see if I can find an apple or two for you, ok?"
Her bedroll was lying with her saddlebags in the next stall, and she dropped her sword, armour and chakram beside it, not bothering with anything else. Stretching sore, tired muscles, she lay down, rolled over and hoped for sleep.
Gabrielle settled herself behind the log and prepared to wait while the encampment finished eating, and started drinking. She was closer to them than she would have liked, but it couldn't be helped. The straightest route to the village was from this point, and while it was still dusk, she'd planned her way carefully. All she had to do now was stay awake, stay concealed and wait for the right moment.
She looked toward the village thoughtfully. Xena was in there, she could feel it, and if she'd needed confirmation, the snarled reference to "that warrior bitch" by a young, frustrated man who seemed to be the leader would have provided it.
All her energy had been directed to bringing her here as rapidly as possible, and she hadn't given much thought to Perdicus's words. Now, with leisure to consider them, she found it was unnecessary, after all. Closing her eyes, she called up one of her favorite images of Xena, and thought of every touch, every look or word, every hesitant confidence that had added to a growing closeness over the last year or so. She remembered Thessaly, the almost undetectable inflections in the warrior's voice after the wedding ceremony, and cringed at the memories of the three of them travelling together.
All the tales of doomed, tragic love that she spun so effortlessly in the inns and taverns couldn't begin to describe the heartache she was feeling now.
Gabrielle told herself to concentrate on one step at a time. There was nothing she could do at the moment to draw Xena's feelings out, and there was no point in worrying about what would happen when she did. First, she had to get to the village without being killed by either side, and then she'd find Xena. She hoped there would be time to throw herself into the embrace of those strong arms before she dissolved into the tears that weren't far away.
Her feet fought for purchase in the grass as she struggled against the hard hands that reached out for her. There was no way of telling which side had her, village or raider, so her staff spun through tight arcs, seeking vulnerable flesh and bone. If these men were villagers, she'd be taken to Xena, and pride demanded that the Warrior Princess have visible evidence of the bard's abilities.
If they were raiders, the best she could hope for was to inflict enough damage that they'd consider her too much of a risk to leave alive.
Her staff whistled through the darkness, cracks and grunts of pain bringing a sense of satisfaction and the thought that any minute, they'd try a new tactic. As that ran through her mind, she sensed someone behind her, and half-turned, realizing her mistake too late to sidestep. A hard blow crashed down on her shoulders and drove her to her knees.
The warrior stirred restlessly in her sleep. Dreams of bloody battlefields and torn bodies had given way to new torment. She stood before a small fire outside of her village, on the road to anywhere, and looked as an intruder made her way into the circle of firelight. Once more, she faced herself in the dreamscape, and cut down the warriors of the renegade priest of Morpheus. Again, she watched a slender form turn and walk away from her. She fought for balance on teetering ladders as the bard dropped onto the other end. And once again, she cradled a dead friend in her arms, and cried out at a suddenly drawn breath.
On it went, until Xena forced herself to wake, alone in the darkness of the stable, only emptiness meeting her outflung arm.
Relief soon gave way to apprehension as the bard realized her captors were heading for the village. Safety no longer an issue, Gabrielle felt the sudden weight of responsibility for the happiness of two people. Xena had held her silence before the wedding, and all the determination in the world might not change that now. Forcing down the fear that Xena would leave her again, the bard promised herself that, no matter what happened, there would be no more running, for either of them.
As they entered the village, one man going ahead to alert Xena of the captured spy, the bard looked around, assessing what she could in the darkness. The would-be warlord that Cyria had described had certainly been greatly over-matched by the undeniable presence of the Warrior Princess. There was relatively little damage, save for a few buildings on the edge of the perimeter, and coming into the village from the surrounding fields had involved detouring around more than a few little surprises for mounted men. Nothing fancy, hastily done, but very effective.
Xena carefully placed the light so that it shone on the far side of the stall, allowing her to remain in the shadows. It was an old, cheap trick, but she was suddenly weary of the village, and anxious to be gone. The spy was young, and if there was any useful information to be had, Xena wanted it quickly, and with a minimum of trouble. The sooner this ended, the sooner she and Argo could leave. No quick wash, she decided, and assumed the coldest expression she could manage. She leaned back against the rough boards and waited.
The bard smiled as she saw Argo placidly pulling on a full hay net, but there was no time for more as she was pushed roughly to the stall next to the mare's. She reached out to steady herself, boots slipping in the bedding, and caught sight of the shadowy figure at the other end. It stiffened, even as the breath caught in the bard's throat, then started to move.
"Gabrielle! Wha..." The warrior rocked on her heels as the bard threw herself forward, arms wrapping tightly around Xena's neck. Automatically, the warrior leaned into the smaller body molding itself against her, and pulled the now crying bard as close as she could.
Neither paid any attention to the embarrassed patrol backing out of the stall, leaving them alone.
Xena waited until her heart stopped threatening to hammer it's way out of her chest, then tried to disengage herself from Gabrielle. She needed to see for herself that the bard was uninjured, but Gabrielle simply refused to let go, arms tightening even more, head firmly buried against the warrior's shoulder. Reassuring herself with the thought that Gabrielle couldn't hold her like this if she was hurt, she gave up the attempt and just held on. She'd find out soon enough what had happened.
Eventually, she felt Gabrielle's tight hold on her lessen slightly, and lifted her head from soft, red-gold hair. Neither willing too completely let go, they stood in a loose embrace and studied each other.
Xena checked first for visible wounds, and lifted an eyebrow at the bard's appearance. Dirty, red-eyed and obviously exhausted, still those green eyes caught and held her as they always had, but there was something new in them that sent an ache straight to the warrior's heart.
Gabrielle was also examining Xena's body for any sign of wounds, and her eyes went first to her sword arm. The bandage that was still there was old and dirty, stained with dried blood. The leathers were grimy and stained as well, and it had obviously been sometime since she'd been able to wash. Forbidding dark eyebrows were drawn with worry, and the icy blue eyes met green. The bard could have cheered at the sudden wariness there. Xena did, after all, have something to hide.
Xena dropped her arms and straightened. She needed to get herself, and the situation, under control, but the warmth of the bard's body was fading too slowly from her leathers. Reminding herself of what she'd often told Gabrielle, she tried to focus on the problem, whatever it was. She gripped Gabrielle's arms gently, releasing the hold on her neck.
"What happened? Where's Perdicus, outside?" she asked, taking a short step back.
The bard frowned slightly. The warrior's retreat wasn't lost on her, and inwardly, she smiled with relief.
"No, he's not outside." the bard said.
Xena raised an eyebrow, clearly expecting more, then realized what that must mean. She closed her eyes for a moment, sure that Perdicus would still be alive had she not left them at the festival. This was her fault, and now Gabrielle was here to lay the blame where it belonged.
"I'm so sorry, Gabrielle, I never meant for any of this to happen," she said quietly. "How did... ?"
"He's not dead, Xena. The last time I saw him, he was going back to Poteidaia." The bard said gently, and watched the confusion flash in the warrior's eyes.
"Poteidaia?" Xena asked, pushing a hand through her hair. "I don't understand. Why?"
"First, I want to sit down, I'm really tired. And you look exhausted. C'mon over here, let's sit." Steered by the bard, Xena dropped down onto her bedroll, long legs stretched out and crossed in front of her, and Gabrielle uncomfortably close beside her.
"I want an explanation, Gabrielle. Why is Perdicus going home without you? And what are you doing here? In case you didn't notice, we're under siege."
"Oh, that won't last for long. The bad guys aren't very happy with you, and I don't think they're going to stick around too much longer. I'm here because I was looking for you." Gabrielle looked at her feet, unable to think of what to say next.
Xena glanced over cautiously. Gabrielle seemed lost, somehow smaller, and the impulse to just sweep her into her arms until that look was gone was almost impossible to resist. Her fingers curled into fists, but she kept her voice as even as she could.
"Gabrielle, every husband and wife have their disagreements. Sometimes they say things to each other that they don't really mean, just to hurt each other. The important thing to remember is that, when you really love someone, you just...get past it." The warrior looked away, angry at herself for having nothing but useless advice to offer, and angry at Gabrielle for putting her into the position of having to offer advice in the first place.
"Have you ever been married, Xena?" the bard asked softly.
"You know I haven't," replied the warrior. "What's that got to do with it?"
"Then how would you know about husbands and wives?" Gabrielle kept her voice quiet and soft. Xena had drawn the obvious conclusion, that she and Perdicus had fought over some triviality, and she'd responded exactly as Gabrielle had hoped.
Xena paused, then said lamely, "Well, everybody knows that." Gods, where was Gabrielle going with this? She got to her feet, and reached out to pull the bard up.
Gabrielle didn't move. "Xena, can I ask you something?" Without waiting for an answer, she dug into her bag and carefully withdrew a parchment Xena recognized immediately.
"What did you mean, exactly, when you told me that if I was happy, you'd be happy as well?" The bard looked at her curiously.
The warrior took a breath. "Just what I said." She looked at the door, feeling as if she was being led into a trap that she couldn't see.
Gabrielle considered her next words carefully. "Lots of things would have made me happy, Xena, but you wouldn't go along with them. Remember that guy in Delion, the one who wanted to take me to the festival?"
The warrior scowled. "He wasn't interested in the dancing, Gabrielle. At least, not the kind going on in the square."
Gabrielle smiled slightly. "I left camp when you were out hunting, and when you caught up with me, you were as angry as I've ever seen you."
"You didn't speak to me for almost two days," muttered Xena, staring at the wall. She remembered that argument. And the man. She'd seen that type a thousand times, and she'd warned him away from the bard, but he'd approached Gabrielle behind her back. The bard had been furious at her interference, and Xena winced as she recalled the things she'd said to Gabrielle.
"But I remembered the most important thing, Xena, and I got past it." Blue eyes swung and locked on hers. "And you decided that we should spend an extra day in the next town, so I'd have a chance to hear the bard everyone had been talking about. When you asked me if I'd enjoyed it, I told you I did, and you said you were glad to hear it, and you smiled. So you remembered the most important thing, too."
Gabrielle got up and stepped over to Xena, the bedding crunching slightly under her boots. She stopped within arm's reach of the warrior, careful not to get too close.
"Perdicus and I didn't have an argument, Xena. We had an ending. I can't stay with him because we'd both be miserable. Him, because I will never be the person he wants, and I'd be miserable because..." she took a deep breath, and met Xena's eyes. She'd seen many things in those blue depths, but seldom fear, and yet, there it was, mixed with something that she thought might be despair. All or nothing, she reminded herself, and no more running. Suddenly afraid, she rushed on.
"...because I don't love him the way I love you. Everything he said, everything he did, all I thought about was you. I tried so hard to be who I was supposed to be, and I couldn't, Xena, because that's not who I am. I didn't see that until you left, and I felt half of me die." Tears in her eyes, she stared at the blurry outline of the rigid warrior. "And half of you died, too, Xena. I know it."
Xena knew what Tartarus was like. It was being so close to having the only one she wanted, and not to be able to reach out and accept the best part of her soul, to take and give some measure of happiness. She had to make the bard see that the gift she offered could never be, before it was too late.
"Gabrielle," she started, and clenched her fingers so tightly the nails dug into her palms. "Gabrielle," she repeated, "think about what you're saying. You're young, you've just married and you've had an argument. We've been through a lot together, it's perfectly natural that you'd...."
"Stop it, Xena and listen to what I'm saying!" Gabrielle's hands went to the broad shoulders and pushed enough to put Xena's back to the wall. Every muscle in the warrior's body was tight with strain, and the bard felt her react to her fingers on the warm skin.
"I love you. I know you think you're protecting me, but you're not. I know you think that, by leaving, Perdicus and I would be happy, but we wouldn't. We could never be happy, because I can't be, not without you." She reached up and lightly held the warrior's chin in careful fingers, forcing Xena to meet her eyes. "When he kissed me, it should have been you," she said softly, "when he touched me, it should have been you." She was so close to the warrior, she could feel the warmth of her body through the leathers, and see the pounding pulse at her neck.
"Xena, no one could ever make me feel the way you do. I think you've been just as unhappy as I've been." Gabrielle gathered her courage. "Because you love me, too." She watched the warrior's face intently.
Xena closed her eyes and fought as hard as she ever had. The bard's fingers felt as if they were melting into her skin, and every nerve ending wanted to react to their touch.
"Gabrielle, there can't be anything between us," she tried to say it firmly, but it came out as a choked whisper. "I've got weapons and a horse, and I'd be lucky to get thirty dinars for everything else. I don't expect a long life, or the Elysian Fields at the end of it, and that's no more than I deserve. You're not going to condemn yourself to that, I won't let you." She had to leave, now, before the bard heard her heart breaking, and tried to step sideways. With unexpected strength, Gabrielle held her in place.
"Xena, tell me you don't love me," the bard said quietly. "Tell me you don't feel anything for me. Tell me you don't want me to do this." Xena felt the hand on her chin smooth it's way up her jaw, around her neck and tug carefully to draw her head down. Powerless to prevent it, she felt soft lips gently touch her own, withdraw just slightly, and touch again, more firmly this time. The warrior's entire body quivered against the bard.
"Tell me you don't love me, Xena." The warrior almost didn't hear the whispered command, lost in the sensation of the bard's body pressed against her, the hands on her shoulder and neck, unbearably soft lips warm against hers. "Tell me you don't feel anything."
Xena fumbled for the one thing that would stop the mindless spiral of her emotions, even as her arms wrapped around the bard, long fingers speading out to touch as much of Gabrielle as possible.
"Don't," she whispered desperately against the gently brushed kisses, "oh Gods, please don't. You're married to Perdicus, this is wrong!"
"No, this is the way it was meant to be. We're meant for each other, Xena, let yourself feel that." The bard's voice was quiet with absolute certainty, and as her words wrapped themselves around the wildly beating heart of the warrior, Xena believed, and gave herself up to her fate.
There were moments during battles, in the space between heartbeats where there was no sense of time, when the warrior could see every choice, every move and countermove laid out before her as if drawn on a scroll. The beauty of it awed her, brought a grin to her face, and she'd fight on, glorying in the sheer, inevitable perfection of the moment. She was lost in such a time now, the bard's lips yielding to her own in a surrender so complete, so right, there was no room to doubt. This was meant to be.
"I guess you do feel something," the bard murmured inanely. The rapid thumping of the warrior's heart against her cheek made her words unnecessary, but she needed to get her breath back.
"Mmm," was all Xena could manage. She was holding Gabrielle so closely against her, the warrior couldn't quite tell where the boundaries of her body ended, and the bard's began. She'd had lovers, and any number of bed partners, but never before had she felt as if something fundamental had shifted and changed. Helpless clinging was new as well, and with just one kiss. The thought of making love was almost terrifying, but with a growing inner grin, Xena reminded herself that she'd never backed down from a challenge before, and she certainly wasn't going to start now. Especially not now.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and drew her head back to look up at Xena. She was rewarded with the blinding smile she saw far too seldom, and a look in the blue eyes that took her breath away all over again. Her knees felt weak.
"Much as I want to kiss you again, it's going to have to wait," Xena said, lightly stroking her hand down the bard's cheek. Her smile broadened at the look of disappointment on Gabrielle's face. "It's almost dawn, and I have some business to take care of. Then we've got a long ride ahead of us. I need my strength," she finished wryly.
"Business?" asked Gabrielle. She slid her arms around Xena's neck. "Right away? I can think of something I'd rather do"
Xena looked down, both eyebrows raised. "So can I, believe me, but there's those raiders out there, and...Gabrielle...." the bard pulled down and effectively drove every thought from the warrior's mind. When she found them again, they were both breathing hard, and Xena barely managed to keep herself from picking the bard up and carrying her over to the bedroll.
"I need to go find those raiders. It shouldn't take long, then we're going to find Perdicus." Xena watched Gabrielle carefully, trying to gauge her reaction, and wondered just how bitter their parting had been. "We can't leave it like this, Gabrielle. You're married to him, and..."
The bard backed away, green eyes flashing angrily. "I can't believe this, Xena. After what just happened, you want me to go back to him? You love me, don't deny it, and I love you! How can..."
Xena stepped forward and gripped the bard's shoulders. "I'm not denying it, I do love you. I don't want you to go back to him, I want him to release you!" The anger faded from Gabrielle's face. "You exchanged vows, Gabrielle, and those vows meant something to you. I know you, and sooner or later, as much as you love me, you'd start to feel guilty. I know what guilt can do, and I don't want that between us." She frowned, confused. "What's wrong?" Her thumb stroked a tear from the bard's cheek, and she felt her stomach tighten.
Gabrielle slid her arms around the warrior's waist, and felt Xena's arms go around her. "He said you'd never have me," she whispered against soft leather. "He said to remember I was married to him."
Xena let the anguished words register as she held Gabrielle and let her cry. She could understand Perdicus's feelings. He'd offered his love, Gabrielle had accepted it, and he'd every right to feel that love had been thrown in his face. The gods knew, she'd never let Gabrielle go. It did no good to think that if she'd spoken, the marriage might never have happened. She hadn't known that at the time, and Gabrielle hadn't realized her feelings until it was too late, and she was married.
Bitterly, she thought about her warlord years. Countless times, she'd taken who she wanted, never caring whether they were husbands or wives, intent only on slaking her own needs. Honor was for the battlefield, not the bed. How things had changed. There had to be a way out of this. Perdicus wouldn't want to stay a husband, in name only, all of his life. Surely, if Gabrielle could love him, he wasn't the sort of man to stand in the way of her happiness.
"We'll talk to him, Gabrielle. He was hurting, and probably not thinking about what he was saying. We can explain it to him, surely he'll see that this whole thing was something that should never have happened." The warrior tried to sound as convincing as she could, but this was totally unknown territory, and she wasn't looking forward to asking a rejected husband to release his wife to another woman. Pride be damned, she thought grimly, tightening her grip on the bard, I'll get down on my knees and beg him, if that's what it takes.
Gabrielle laughed shortly, and wiped her cheeks. "I think I'd better handle the talking, Xena." She looked up fearfully, meeting the warrior's worried eyes. "What happens if he doesn't release me? What if he won't agree?" She could barely say the words.
"That hasn't happened, let's not borrow trouble. I've got to go." Xena smiled encouragingly. "We'll get through this, Gabrielle, everything will be fine." Privately, she wasn't so sure. She didn't know Perdicus, really, but no man liked to think he'd been made to look a fool. She and Gabrielle would be together, no matter what Perdicus said, but he'd always be a presence between them if he wouldn't release her, and the warrior wanted Gabrielle completely, without reservation. Anything less, and the bard would never be truly happy.
Xena armed quickly, anxious to be done and on the road. She was ashamed to remember that she'd prolonged the village's problem, how she'd used innocent people to avoid dealing with her own pain, and promised herself that she and Gabrielle would come back here to help with the rebuilding. She was settling her sword when the bard spoke.
"What are you planning to do?"
The warrior glanced over at her. "Take over the raiders," she said matter-of-factly "What?" she asked, seeing the bard unsuccessfully hide a smile
"Just like that?"
"Just like that," Xena agreed. "I'll challenge, their leader will lose. If they're as dissatisfied as you said, that should be it. They've been pretty half-hearted about this, anyway." She arched an eyebrow in professional disapproval, and drew a laugh from the bard.
"I'm ready when you are," Gabrielle said, and frowned when Xena looked as if she might say something. The warrior read the look easily, and changed her mind about suggesting the bard stay behind.
"You'll have to ride," Xena warned her.
"No problem. That means I get to hang on. Tight." The warrior's look of surprise was quickly followed by a pleased expression that altered the bard's entire outlook on riding Argo.
"Then let's get moving."
Even to the bard's eye, the camp was poorly laid out and maintained. Xena had strict habits when it came to stopping for the night, and she'd made certain that Gabrielle followed them. It was important, the warrior had stressed, to have gear in the same position all the time, so that confusion was minimized and weapons could be quickly reached in case of night attacks. With an army, it kept discipline tight, decreased the time it took to break camp, and allowed for faster troop movement, something Xena had proven many times, to the dismay of towns who expected more warning of attack.
No wonder Xena was unimpressed, thought Gabrielle, as Argo moved at a businesslike walk toward the group gathering ahead of them. She could smell the camp garbage pit all the way from where they were.
Xena lazily swung a leg over Argo's neck after reining her to a stop, and lightly landed on both feet, paying no attention to the bard sliding down behind her. Not quite swaggering, but certainly leaving no doubt as to her complete self-confidence, she moved toward the gathering men. Gabrielle watched with interest, looking at the long legs, the broad shoulders, what could be seen of the warrior's back, and blushed as a mental picture of that body appeared in her mind, naked and lying over hers. She blinked quickly and realized she'd missed the preliminaries, because Xena's sword was in her hand, her opponent opposite her, both of them almost completely circled by raiders.
Gabrielle didn't bother walking any closer. By the time she got there, this would be over.
"Are you sure you don't want me to talk to him," Xena asked, "or at least go with you?"
"I'm sure. This isn't going to be easy for him, and I think it would be best coming from me. I married him, after all." The bard felt nervous, and her stomach was tight. Xena had her best expressionless look firmly in place, but her worried eyes told the bard she was just as concerned. "He's not a bad man, Xena, really."
They'd finished with the now disbanded raiders shortly after arriving at their camp, and immediately returned to the village with the news that the attacks were over. Gabrielle had forced Xena to stay long enough to clean up, re-bandage her arm, and sleep for a few hours, but they'd been on their way in the early afternoon. The warrior hadn't spared Argo, and they'd finally caught up with Perdicus in the same village where Gabrielle and he had been married. Xena wasn't happy about approaching him here, of all places, but the bard was insistent. The sooner this was over with, she told Xena, the sooner they could get on with... things. The last had been said in a tone of voice the warrior had never heard from Gabrielle before, and she'd been glad that she was sitting down.
Both of them looked up as Perdicus came down the stairs. Xena tried to get a sense of what he was thinking, and felt better as he greeted them pleasantly enough. She'd had her doubts about the wisdom of Gabrielle being alone with him, doubts she hadn't shared with the bard, but she relaxed a bit, and didn't object when Gabrielle suggested they go for a walk.
After a port that she took her time over, and still no bard, Xena was restless. The inn seemed even smaller than it had before, so she headed outside, needing to be doing something, anything. This was taking a far greater toll on her nerves than any wait for a battle ever had, so she took refuge in the familiar, and started sharpening her sword. She was still working on it when she heard the rapid hoofbeats of a horse heading towards the village.
The rider was slumped almost sideways in the saddle, and as the horse slowed to a frightened stop and she walked carefully towards it, she could plainly see the blood covering the man's chest. Waving back milling villagers, speaking in soothing tones to the horse, she felt her stomach tighten up uneasily.
Pulling the rider down calmed the horse, and once away from the smell of blood, he settled enough to be led away by the blacksmith. Xena steadied the wounded man, and started a quick check to see how badly he was hurt. The man's eyes fluttered open and he tried to speak, so she bent low to hear.
"Back..." he gasped out, "she's back...headed south. She...did this..." his head fell back as he passed into unconsciousness.
Xena looked at him, fear and understanding coming quickly. "Take him," she shouted at the crowd, and didn't wait to see if anyone did. She was running for Argo, and the mare was halfway out of town before Xena was fully settled in the saddle and pushing her as hard as she could go. There was no doubt in Xena's mind about the attacker's identity. Callisto was back, and she was looking for Gabrielle.
Thundering through the creek and back up the road, she rounded the corner and felt her heart almost stop. Perdicus was on the ground, and Callisto was standing over the bard... her bard... enjoying the moment before she drove her sword down, ending three lives. The cold rage of battle took over, and there was only one thought: protect Gabrielle.
Hands covered in blood, the bard didn't say a word all the way back to the village. Perdicus was laid across Argo's back, and the warrior led her silently along the road, wondering what she could say to Gabrielle, and replaying Callisto's unexpected and sudden attack on Perdicus. The warrior's entire focus had been on the bard, but she had to ask herself if she could have prevented Perdicus's death. 'It was possible,' she thought, 'I might have been able to stop her, but if she'd got behind me...' she shuddered, unable to go on, even to herself.
Joxer was there when they got back, shocked into silence at the sight of Perdicus. Gabrielle had still said nothing beyond a few words while she'd held Perdicus, and Xena didn't know how to approach her, or what to say if she did. Feeling helpless and angry, wanting to know what Perdicus had said to the bard, and hating herself for wondering, the warrior sent Joxer out to the seacliff with instructions to construct a pyre, and silently helped Gabrielle prepare Perdicus's body. After borrowing a cart from the sympathetic blacksmith, Xena carried him out, and together, she and the bard headed out of town.
Worried about the bard's continued silence and desperate to break it, she offered to sing the dirge, and was grateful for the few words of thanks. More than anything, Xena wanted to fold the bard into her arms and make everything all right, but Gabrielle seemed so distant, Xena could easily imagine that the events in the sieged village had never happened. Panic gripped her, the pain of rejection hit again, and her stride faltered for a step. Gabrielle might never say so, but it was possible that she blamed her for Perdicus's death. She was afraid to ask.
At a complete loss, and helpless to change that, the warrior walked on in silence.
Xena stared at the flames, and wondered what was ahead for them, now. She was shocked at the rage that seemed to consume the most gentle soul she'd ever known, and terrified that Gabrielle had started down a long road Xena had already travelled uncounted leagues on. Whatever happened between them, the warrior swore, she would do whatever it took to prevent that. She wouldn't lose Gabrielle to the darkness, even if that meant losing the bard's love. She wouldn't allow it. She couldn't.
No price would be too high to pay.
Sisyphus's island trap was receding behind them, and while she and Joxer handled the sails in the rising wind, the bard had only a few quick moments to check on the warrior sitting silently in the bow. Now that they'd settled to a course, Joxer blessedly quiet, she took a moment to eye Xena more closely. The burst of energy that had come with being back in her own body had worn off, and the warrior had said next to nothing since that quick hug on the beach, virtually the only physical contact they'd shared in what seemed like weeks.
Gabrielle looked out to sea and tried to make some sense of everything that had happened. It was going to take time to work through everything she'd learned about herself, but if one good thing had come from the recent horrors, it was the insight she now had into Xena's soul. She had lost her sense of herself, but Xena had paid a much harsher price. It hurt to remember how she'd treated the warrior, shutting herself inside and pushing Xena away every time she'd tried to break through the guilt and anger. It hadn't taken long for the warrior to stop trying, retreating back behind familiar walls, and now Gabrielle ached to think that they might never be able to get past this distance between them.
How could she possibly explain to Xena about Perdicus? Xena had only known the Perdicus of Troy, not the one that liked to be the center of attention, the one who'd talked for days about leaving for Troy to become a great warrior, despite his parents' protests. Lila had shaken her head in disgust over that, Gabrielle remembered, and no one had believed that he'd actually do it. Perdicus had been perfectly suited to the life he should have led, the one he might still be leading, married and happy, if she hadn't left behind a jilted bethrothed with no explanation.
"The docks are ahead," said Joxer quietly, breaking into her thoughts, and the bard lifted her head from her hands and looked shoreward.
"Right," Gabrielle sighed, and reached for the tiller.
The sunlight winking on the waves was hypnotic, and Xena tried to loose herself in the movement of the water. Every inch of her body was aching, and there were sharp pains. That had her concerned for the amount of damage Callisto had been able to inflict while she'd been in possession of it, but that was nothing compared to the ache she felt in her heart every time she looked at the bard. So many things had changed so quickly after Perdicus had died, but now Callisto was gone, she was back in her own body, and there was nothing left but to try and find some way to go on.
The small boat gently nudged the dock, and Joxer hopped out to tie it off, followed by the warrior. Gabrielle watched her disembark, knowing that Xena was hurting and tired. That erect back wasn't as straight as usual and her eyes were guarded against any intrusion. 'I did that,' thought the bard sadly. She might have prayed for me, but it's the light in her eyes that's gone. She felt the sharp sting of tears and had to make a conscious effort not to reach out and help her, but she'd hardly been able to touch the warrior since Perdicus had died. She wasn't sure that she could stand to have Xena draw back from her.
During the short walk from the docks to the small, grubby inn where Gabrielle had a room, Xena felt the bard's eyes on her and kept her face expressionless, hoping that quickly re-erected walls could shield her from the worst of the pain for a little while longer. She would have given anything to feel the warmth of Gabrielle's touch for even a moment, but the sooner she faced the fact that the bard had misunderstood her own emotions. That she had truly loved Perdicus and had fled to Xena in confusion and hurt, the better it would be for both of them. The one thing she couldn't do was leave Gabrielle, and if that was the pitiful decision of a coward, so be it. Even crumbs were a meal to the starving.
Xena raised a tired eyebrow at the noisy, milling crowd in the tavern. Word had obviously circulated about the warlords gathering for the contest, and quite a few of the lower level scum that fed from the trough had come to see who was left so that they could start their own takeovers. She wasn't surprised to see heads turn in her direction, the room slowly going quiet. She recognized almost every face and they certainly knew who she was.
Trouble was something she didn't want right now, she simply wasn't up to it, but if this bunch sensed blood in the water, they'd be on her like sharks, and Gabrielle wouldn't stand a chance against any of them.
She straightened herself unconsciously and let her eyes go cold.
"Xena," said one unshaven hulk, pushing his way towards her, "I'm surprised to see you here."
She looked at him evenly. "Really, Cralus, and why is that?" She held his eyes with hers, sensing the uneasy shifting of the men behind him.
"You don't have an army, and word has it that you don't have what it takes anymore. You're too late," he said with undisguised satisfaction. "They all left yesterday."
Xena let her lip curl up. All the anger and pain that she'd buried roared to the surface, and before Cralus could move, she'd shot her hands out, grabbed his shirt and dangled him off the ground. Her eyes bored into his.
"And they're not coming back. They're dead, all of them. I'm the last one, Cralus," she growled. "Virgilius might have put up with your loud-mouthed swaggering, but I won't. Is that clear?" She shook him, and enjoyed the look of shock on his face. "Clear?" she barked, when he didn't answer immediately.
"Yeah, that's clear," he ground out. Satisfied, Xena released her grip, and Cralus dropped, fighting for his balance. She stepped past him, bootheels impacting solidly on the dirty wooden floor.
Ignoring the enraged glare of the big man behind her, she took a slow turn around the room, taking care to study each man's face. "Now, I haven't decided what I'm going to do, yet. So, stay out of my way, and you'll stay alive a little longer. Unless you don't think I have what it takes anymore. If that's the case, let's find out, right now." She allowed the silence to hold. "Fine. My friend and I are going upstairs, and I'll give you fair warning. If she comes down here, and any man touches her, I take his hands. Keep the noise down."
She took one more look around, noting with relief that not many would meet her eyes. Assured that they wouldn't be disturbed, she gestured to Gabrielle, standing quietly off to one side, out of the warrior's way. After a quick word with the bartender, the bard headed up the stairs and Xena followed behind. They were almost at Gabrielle's end room before the silence broke, and the warrior smiled grimly.
Gabrielle caught the slow blink as Xena turned from throwing the bar across the door. She recognized the signs of pain from many nights spent sitting across the fire from the warrior, and looked away as Xena glanced evenly in her direction. Her throat tightened at the closed look in the warrior's eyes.
As she watched Xena cross to the bed without the fluid stride that characterized her, Gabrielle tried to think of what she was going to do next. Xena deserved to know the truth, however hard it was going to be to tell her.
Propping her staff in the corner of the dingy little room, Gabrielle removed Xena's pouch of herbs and salves from a saddlebag resting on the floor. After lighting the pathetic excuses for candle stubs, she glanced at the warrior and grabbed her blanket as well.
Xena flexed her shoulders slightly, trying to ease the tightness across the back of her neck, and stiffened when Gabrielle moved onto the bed behind her.
"Here, let's get all that off you," the bard said quietly. Practiced fingers started to unstrap her scabbard, not giving the warrior any opportunity to object.
"I can do it," Xena said, more gruffly than she'd intended. Her eyes closed involuntarily as the weight of the scabbard and sword lifted from her back, and she tried not to picture what Gabrielle might have meant, once, by "all that". Savagely, she pulled up a memory of the bard's face, bitter and twisted in rage, taunting her with her refusal to recognize the loss of her innocent Gabrielle. She replayed the bard prodding her with Perdicus's sword, goading and driving her into a cold place the warrior had hoped never to be in, again. She could still remember the force of the bard's furious, uncontrolled blows against her own sword.
The warrior swallowed hard. She'd known that look, and what it meant. She'd face her own death with far less fear than she'd felt for the bard at that moment.
"Yes, I know, but stay still and try not to move." Gabrielle was surprised when Xena didn't say anything. She made short work of removing the armour and let out a breath of relief that Xena wasn't pulling away from her.
Xena set her jaw and willed her body not to react to the bard's warm breath on her back. She should stop Gabrielle right now, but gods, how she'd missed those gentle touches.
Gabrielle let the armour down to the floor at the end of the bed and moved around so that she was facing Xena. The warrior's startled voice reached her when she started on the greaves.
"Gabrielle, no," Xena said. She silently cursed herself at the hurt look in the bard's eyes, and barely stopped herself from reaching out. Gabrielle had to be as tired as she was, and she was just trying to help. "Why don't you see what's ready to eat in the kitchen? You must be hungry."
"The food should be here soon, along with your bath," Gabrielle said, moving back to sit behind the warrior. Xena's hands froze on her greaves as she felt Gabrielle's fingers working on the lacing of her leathers. She was certain the bard could hear the thumping of her heart. Applying herself to her boots and the rest of her armour, she commented as casually as she could, "my bath?"
"Soon," Gabrielle said, working quickly. She loved the way Xena's skin felt, warm and smooth, with the firmness of solid muscle under her fingers. Her stomach tightened as she fought to keep herself from turning her touches into caresses.
"Sounds good. Thanks for thinking of it." Xena kept her tone off-hand, but the bard's thoughtfulness meant that she wouldn't have immerse herself in the cold water tub at the back of the inn. She could have hot water, and be able to soak some of the aches away. Her stomach roiled in disgust at the thought of Ares having her body, definitely something Gabrielle didn't need to know.
The bath arrived as Xena was standing up to remove her leathers, and as the bard went to the door, the warrior wrapped herself in the blanket lying beside her. Even in nothing but that, the bard thought as she let the men in, she isn't at the slightest disadvantage. The bartender evidently didn't think so either, because he came with the food, gave the warrior a respectful look and hurried his men out. Gabrielle barred the door behind them and went to the saddlebags for soap and sponge.
Xena gazed at the bath and gathered her scattered thoughts together. Weariness, temporarily driven away by the bard's touch, had returned, and she gave herself a mental shake. With a sigh, she paced to the tub and let the blanket hang from her shoulders, testing the water. She looked over quickly at the sudden intake of breath from the bard now standing beside her. Gabrielle was staring at her side, and Xena looked down to see the spread of a large bruise, darkly mottled in the inadequate light from the candle stubs.
"Oh Xena, I'm so sorry," said the bard sadly, reaching out a tentative finger, drawing it as lightly as a feather across her ribs. Xena quivered in reaction and Gabrielle snatched her hand away, looking back to the warrior's face with uncertain eyes.
"It's not bad," Xena reassured her, and thought for a moment. She didn't remember this bruise, and it was fairly recent. That meant that her body had been hit while Callisto had possession of it, and if Gabrielle was apologizing, then that might mean....
"You must have been very angry," said Xena carefully. She pushed back her exhaustion. Perhaps the bard was finally able to talk. Maybe, together, they could find a way to be comfortable with each other again.
"I was," said Gabrielle so quietly that Xena had trouble picking up the words. The bard had her head down, concentrating on the placement of soap and the sponge.
The warrior needed to see Gabrielle's eyes. "Would you tell me about it?" asked Xena. Please, Gabrielle, she pleaded silently, talk to me. I don't know how to help either one of us.
The bard's mouth tightened, and she reached to re-settle the blanket around Xena's shoulders. Xena's body automatically tensed in response, until she noticed that the edges Gabrielle was holding were being gripped in white-knuckled hands. Cold fingers crept their way down her back, and she was almost afraid to hear what had happened. What she wanted to do was take Gabrielle into her arms and hold her tightly, protecting her against anything that could bring that pain into the green eyes now looking so hesitantly into hers.
Gabrielle couldn't seem to begin, and fussed with the blanket. Thinking that it might be easier for the bard if she wasn't looking at her while she spoke, Xena slid the blanket off and stepped into the bath, lowering herself with a barely audible groan of pleasure at the steaming water. The sponge was taken from her hand as Gabrielle knelt at the end of the tub, and she fixed her eyes on the wall as the bard smoothed welcome warmth across her shoulders.
"Callisto tied a knife to the end of my staff, and she just kept on me, she wouldn't stop taunting me about how I had to kill Callisto for killing Perdicus, and I got angry and...I hit her. Except that it was your body I hurt. I'm so sorry, Xena." Tears were audible in Gabrielle's voice, and Xena's fists were clenched in an effort to keep from hitting something as hard as she could. She took a breath and forced herself to gentleness. Callisto had made it plain that she was out to kill her soul. It was wounded and tattered right now, but this soul was strong, far stronger than Callisto would ever believe.
She shifted her shoulders slightly to get the bard's attention, then turned her head to look at Gabrielle. "I'm fine, Gabrielle," she said firmly. The bard lifted her eyes from the warrior's back, and Xena hastily added, "a little sore, but I'm fine." Seeing the slight easing in Gabrielle's eyes, she tried out a tentative smile. "I expect she was surprised."
"Yeah, she was," said the bard. She looked at Xena, her face serious. "And that should have told me right there that it wasn't you. And you would never have encouraged me to kill Callisto. If you hadn't asked me about my dreams, I might have stabbed you." She turned away, wiping at her cheeks. "In the back." Her voice was muffled.
Anguish overpowered her resolve not to touch Gabrielle. The pain in the bard's voice cut through Xena's heart, and she reached out to turn her back towards her. Long fingers touched to raise Gabrielle's chin.
"You were trying to protect me, Gabrielle. You didn't know what had happened. In spite of everything you were going through, you tried to save my life. What you did was very brave, but you wouldn't have gone through with it." Xena's voice was flat with certainty..
Gabrielle searched the warm blue eyes, wanting to be convinced. "How can you say that?" she whispered raggedly. "I was so angry, you might not have been able to stop me in time."
"You told me." Xena held the bard's eyes. "You could have killed Callisto easily in the sea cave, but you didn't. You stopped yourself." She reacted without thinking, and stroked tears away. "Gabrielle, you saved both of us."
"I didn't save Perdicus," the bard said quietly. Xena's thumb stopped its gentle journey across her cheek, and Gabrielle felt hollow as the warrior's hand moved away. The dark head turned to face the wall, and for a moment, the sponge resumed its' course.
The warrior tensed as she felt hands, slippery with soap, run lightly over her shoulders. Possibly the trembling she felt was the bard's. Probably it was her own, and she fought her body and heart. The bard needed words now, and somehow she'd have to find the right ones. Her innocent Gabrielle was still there, she just had to find a way to reach her.
"Gabrielle," she began, "you're not to blame for what happened. You couldn't have done anything. If I'd stopped her the first time..." She paused for a moment, pulling a breath through a tightening throat and concentrated on the wall. Those gentle hands never ceased in their movements, and she found the will to continue. "If I'd gone after her, then you and Perdicus would be home in Poteidiea now, starting your life together. I let her get away, and instead..." her voice trailed off. Her heart was aching, and she desperately wished the memory of the small stable in a sieged village wasn't so vivid.
The bard felt the broad muscles in the warrior's shoulders and back shift and tense in an effort to maintain control. Shame brought more tears to her eyes and she angrily wiped them away with the back of a wrist, but the image of the dusty road in the afternoon sunshine didn't go away. The crimson of running blood shone as brightly in memory as it had that day. Xena's blood. Her hands stilled their movements and gripped the warrior's shoulders tightly.
"You didn't let her get away, Xena," she said firmly. "I wouldn't let you go, remember? You were hurt and your arm was bleeding heavily. You were in no shape to go after her, and we didn't know where her men were. She could have led you into a trap." Gabrielle shook the shoulders gently. "You know that as well as I do."
"I should still have gone," Xena said quietly. What the warrior didn't say was plain to the bard. Pursuit would have ended in the death of at least one of them, and Perdicus would still be alive. She beat back the feeling of desolation at the thought of a world without Xena in it, and asked herself why Xena would feel that way. One of the possible answers brought a spark of hope that she hadn't felt in some time.
Gabrielle studied the rigid back. "Xena, you never asked me why I decided to marry Perdicus."
Xena fumbled for the sponge, then remembered that Gabrielle had it. "The usual reasons, I suppose," she muttered. Her lips tightened, and she reminded herself that Gabrielle needed to talk, that she'd been on the verge of begging her to talk If each word cut like a sword, what did it matter, as long as it helped the bard. "You loved him," she added, neutrally. 'And not me,' she whispered to herself
"He was a good man, really, with a lot of fine qualities," said the bard, watching Xena carefully. Gabrielle was sure Xena would be surprised to know just how much that expressionless face gave away, now that the bard was concentrating on reading it. She carefully gathered up the spill of thick hair, moving it over one broad shoulder. More soap on her hands gave her the excuse to touch Xena again.
"I'm sure," said Xena, forcing a smile. She couldn't bear to look at Gabrielle, so she kept her eyes on the wall, trying to memorize each flaw in the wood rather than think about how good the bard's hands felt gliding over her skin.
"He had his faults, though," continued Gabrielle. She could feel the warrior's anguish, and told herself to hold on just a little while longer. Everything had to come out, or this would always be between them. She grounded herself in the bone and muscle under her hands, and waited for Xena to acknowledge her words.
Xena wondered if this was another of those one sided conversations the bard had from time to time, requiring nothing from her, but Gabrielle seemed to be waiting. She grunted, and wished Gabrielle would get on with it so she could fall into the oblivion of sleep. There was something very hypnotic in the way the bard was gently kneading her shoulders and back, and without knowing it, the warrior's breathing had fallen into the rhythm of Gabrielle's hands.
"He was a born farmer, perfectly attuned to the slow changing of the seasons. We used to tease him that it took him as long to accept something new and different as it did for a stalk of corn to grow. He didn't think much of the world outside Poteidaia." Gabrielle smiled with affection at the memory of the boy she'd grown up with. The sudden tension of the muscles under her hands brought her attention back, and she stroked soothingly until they relaxed again.
"When I saw him again in Troy, he seemed so different. Everything seemed so much larger than life in Troy, then things got kind of hectic, and I got a bit carried away, at one point." She stopped to consider what should come next. All of it, she reminded herself. Xena has to know, even if it is embarrassing.
"I had this image built up, of my perfect tree in the forest." She looked for, and found, the tightening jaw. "Brave, of course, good looking, funny, warm, giving, willing to treat me as an equal, and a good kisser." She thought about that. "Actually, that seemed pretty important."
Xena's narrowed as she tried not to picture Gabrielle kissing Perdicus, tried not to imagine the little sounds the bard might have made, and fought the urge to seize Gabrielle, to coax for herself the small cries and moans that were passion's words. Her fists clenched again. Angrily, she reminded herself that Gabrielle was her friend, and the fire that was running through her wasn't returned. The bard needed her understanding, not her lust.
"I was upset when he didn't leave Troy with us. I was jealous, although I shouldn't have been. How could I compete with Helen?" the bard said wistfully, and Xena scowled. As far as the warrior was concerned, there was no basis for comparison. Gabrielle won, hands down.
"Then he showed up that night." The bard swallowed, feeling the new sting of tears in already sore eyes, and took the courage she needed from contact with the smooth skin of the warrior's back. All pretense at a bath was gone, and she could tell from the rigid muscles under her hands that Xena knew it, too.
Xena looked over her shoulder cautiously. She could see the shimmer of tears in Gabrielle's eyes. Gabrielle crying always left her feeling helpless, and out of control as nothing else could. Wanting to give the bard some comfort, she started to turn, but Gabrielle gently pushed on her shoulder. "Please Xena, it's important you hear this." After the warrior reluctantly nodded, she went on, drawing the wet sponge over Xena's back again, then quickly replacing it with her hands. She wanted that touch, and gradually, she felt the tension easing under her fingers.
"He told me about what had happened, that it got too much, and he'd been ready to kill himself, but he saw my face, and that stopped him." The bard swallowed convulsively and her hands went to the warrior's broad shoulders, fingers shaping themselves to the warm curves.
Xena stared down at the water, cold vying with anger in the pit of her stomach. Perdicus had known Gabrielle all his life, he should have known what effect those words would have on her.
"I still had this image from Troy, and I guess I was flattered that it was me, and not Helen, with the power to stop him." Gabrielle drew a deep breath, just wanting to end it. "Then Callisto's men attacked that village, and he killed one of them. Xena, he threw his sword down, right in the middle of the fight, and I remember thinking, thank the gods you were right there, because otherwise he'd have been killed. And he told me that he'd had enough, he was going home, whether I went with him or not." Her voice rose in remembered anguish, and she choked out, "Xena, I thought he'd kill himself, and I thought about my tree, and growing up with him, and I couldn't let him go."
Xena fought hard for control. She didn't know if Perdicus would have fallen on his sword, although she was sure there was a moment where he wouldn't have tried to defend himself if he'd been attacked. Nor did she know Perdicus well enough to gauge whether he'd meant what he said or not. It didn't matter, Gabrielle believed it, and that was all that counted. Now he was dead, and it was left to Gabrielle to carry a guilt she didn't deserve. She put a hand over one of the bard's, trying to reassure and ease the pressure of fingers digging into her shoulder, holding her down.
"After you left the village, Perdicus seemed a lot calmer. He had a drink with Joxer, and we had dinner, and..." Gabrielle bit her lip, and the warrior's fingers squeezed hers. "By the time I got your note, the old Perdicus was back, and I was beginning to realize that things weren't what I thought they were. When we had that final argument, I knew it was over. He hadn't changed at all, but I had. All the time I was trying to find you, I was thinking about why I'd fooled myself like that, and then I realized that one thing he'd said was true. I'd found my tree in the forest, but it wasn't Perdicus. It was you."
Gabrielle drew a ragged breath, and that was more than enough for Xena. She abandoned any thoughts of not touching the bard, and waves of water splashed onto the floor as she left the tub to fold Gabrielle into a fierce hold. Her voice muffled against Xena's shoulder, the bard forced out the rest of it.
"It's my fault he's dead. I should have sent him home, where he belonged. I was so angry at myself, and I felt so guilty for not telling you what he'd said, but I couldn't. I wanted to believe that someone could need me as much as he said he did. What I did to us...."
"It's alright." Xena's voice was soft against the bard's ear. She looked back through the years to the deck of a ship. It was dark, her men were all around her, and she was in chains. The sheer bewilderment and agony of that moment, when she'd realized the consequences of her misjudgment, still lurked in the dark corners of her mind. She tightened her arms around the bard to drive that fleeting memory away, and settled Gabrielle more firmly into her shoulder. Eyes closed, she treasured the warmth of the bard against her bare skin, wanting to memorize every sensation so she could relive them again on the nights when she lay across the fire from Gabrielle, watching her sleep.
Thank all the gods, she would have those nights again. She steadied herself against the tremor of relief that ran through her.
Gabrielle burrowed in closer, soft strands of raven hair tickling at her back. All the hurt and anger was draining away, but instead of emptiness, she felt filled with warmth and comfort. Many of the people they met found it strange that she travelled with Xena, the warrior's reputation being well and truly earned, but there was no better place to be than in the shelter of those strong arms. She pressed close against smooth, wet skin, listening to the warrior's heartbeat against her ear, and noticed the lingering scent of soap.
"Hmm?" The warrior mumbled, drawing her thoughts back to the room. Gabrielle fit as perfectly against her as her leathers did, and the bard's soft breathing on her skin was sending ripples of warm contentment up and down her body. Opening her eyes, she looked into the green eyes that far surpassed the finest emeralds.
Gabrielle felt an unaccustomed flutter of nervousness, and told herself to stop it. She wasn't a naive young girl worried about her first kiss, after all. "I think you should dry off, have something to eat, and then..." she took a breath, "...then we should probably go to bed." Gods, she'd said it. With an incredible feeling of relief, she smiled up at the woman she privately thought of as 'her' warrior, only to see Xena's expression change.
"Xena? Did I say something wrong?" Gabrielle felt panic grip her, her smile fading quickly. Maybe Xena was angry. Maybe the warrior didn't want her. Maybe she'd felt obligated, back in the stable. "Xena?" she asked, and started to pull back, but Xena's arms didn't relax their hold for even a moment.
"I thought that maybe you'd changed your mind," Xena began uncertainly. She didn't dare to think that Gabrielle actually meant what her words had said. "You didn't say anything, and I thought that maybe... you didn't want me." Try as she might, she couldn't keep the fear from her voice, or control the sudden hammering of her heart.
Gabrielle just looked blankly at her for a moment. The self- confident warrior was missing, this was the private Xena. The one who could be hurt, so easily. Had been hurt. 'Never again,' the bard promised herself. 'We've got a second chance, and we're going to make the most of it.'
Gabrielle's mouth curved into that gentle little smile that Xena loved, and she said the first thing that came into her mind. "Xena, you're the most magnificent tree in the entire forest. Oak, pine, cypress, it doesn't matter. My magnificent tree."
She was almost blinded with the rare, dazzling smile, the one that lit up the warrior's entire face. Gabrielle was more than content to stand, wrapped in the warrior's arms, and just look into those bottomless blue eyes. It was Xena who finally blinked.
"So, you're saying I remind you of a gnarled old oak?" The warrior asked wryly, glancing down at herself.
The bard laughed, and said, "nope, something more along the lines of a big, tall oak, just coming into it's prime. One that's strong enough to endure any kind of weather and still thrive."
"If that's true, Gabrielle, it's because there's an even taller, stronger oak growing right alongside. It shelters me from the worst of the storms, and bends to share the sunlight." Xena's words were quietly penetrating, and her eyes held the bard's, wanting Gabrielle to know that not only was she loved, she was needed, as well.
Gabrielle was speechless. She remembered so clearly the warrior's cynical declaration that the strongest tree stood alone, and she'd known at the time that Xena firmly believed that. An 'I love you' seemed inadequate in comparison to the gift she'd just received. She felt the tears start to come again, and sighed. This was getting tiresome, and she knew how uncomfortable it made Xena feel.
"Hey, isn't this supposed to be a happy occasion?" Xena looked down anxiously, sure she'd said the wrong thing. She loosened her grip slightly, ready to release the bard at the first sign of real distress.
Gabrielle tightened her hold quickly. "I am happy," she said and impatiently wiped at her cheek. "I guess...we've been through so much, and I was afraid I'd destroyed any chance for us to be together. I kept pushing you away," she said miserably, "and I didn't think you'd want to...."
"Gabrielle," the warrior interrupted firmly. She brushed a kiss across the bard's forehead, "I do love you. Never doubt that, because it's true. There are things we'll need to talk about, but...what?" she asked puzzled at the brilliant smile that was suddenly lighting up Gabrielle's face
A soft laugh answered her. "It's hard to believe that you're the one saying we need to talk. That's usually my job."
A eyebrow rose, and the corner of the warrior's mouth lifted into a half-grin. "That's what bards do. Warriors, on the other hand...." Taking advantage of the fact that Gabrielle's arms were already around her, she shifted her hold and lifted the bard easily. Gabrielle seemed feather light in her arms, although Xena felt strong enough right now to carry an entire forest of oak trees wherever Gabrielle might want them taken.
The bard looked startled for a second, then grinned happily. She knew Xena was strong, of course, she saw the evidence of that every day, but knowing it and actually feeling the extent of that strength were two different things. The grin vanished as she was carefully deposited on the bed, and Xena stepped back a pace.
Gabrielle had always known that Xena's body was something special, even before she'd consciously thought about it. She'd seen the warrior naked on any number of occasions, since it was pretty difficult to avoid when the road was home. There was no place for modesty, and the bard had quickly lost any inhibitions she might have had in the face of Xena's matter-of-fact attitude. That had been hard to get used to, at first, but after hearing some of the stories about the warrior princess early in their travels together, Gabrielle had no doubts that Xena viewed her body as just another weapon to be used. And what a weapon it was.
Xena-as-warrior was an awesome sight, one the bard never tired of describing. Xena as wet, naked, soon-to-be lover was beyond words. It was just as well that the candle was a small, guttering stump. She wasn't sure she could handle the view in full light at the moment, but that didn't prevent her from fully appreciating that there was a great deal of Xena to explore.
Xena gazed at the bard and wondered about Gabrielle's words back in the stables, if this was indeed meant to be. It felt so right, it seemed impossible it could be simply the work of chance. She thought about her meetings with the Fates, in the alternate life they'd granted her. Now that she considered what had happened, each event that had served to bring about her ultimate decision to return to her own reality had been connected to one person, and that hadn't been Lyceus. And why had they shown themselves to her so many times? They weren't given to appearing to mortals, and she suspected that even the gods had a healthy respect for them. Gratitude hardly explained it.
"Um, Xena? Are you going to stand there all night?"
The warrior blinked, conscious of the fact that she'd been caught staring, and relaxed as she realized there was no need anymore to steal looks at Gabrielle. Her heart slammed in her chest as Gabrielle started to undress, and as much as she wanted to help, she was frozen in place. The warrior's mouth went dry, and she decided that, if the Fates had taken a hand, for once she wasn't going to complain about interference in her life. Not when she wanted this so badly.
Gabrielle was beginning to feel a bit self-conscious. Nobody had ever watched her so intently, and the bard knew that those incredible blue eyes missed nothing.
"Xena?" Was she going to stand there all night? Gabrielle hoped not.
The warrior smiled, and slipped smoothly into bed as the bard shifted to make room. Moving onto her side, she propped her head up, brushed the hair off her forehead, and noticed that the sheet she was lying on was warm with the heat of the bard's body. Her heart started a slow, steady thump.
Gabrielle shifted to her side, facing the warrior, and smiled. Gods, up close and naked, the woman was devastating.
"Gabrielle, you're so..." Xena shook her head in surrender. "I can only say beautiful, it's the only word I can think of that even comes close." Blue locked on green, and they gazed into each others' eyes.
"That's a pretty good word," murmured the bard, slightly dazed. There was another expression on the warrior's face that she'd never seen there before, but she recognized it. Love was unmistakable, and it was also in the caress of fingertips brushing against her cheek and along her jaw. The bard's eyes closed, and she shivered slightly, remembering the picture in her mind of the warrior's naked body, as Xena walked toward the raider leader.
"You ok?" the warrior asked softly. She felt as if she'd been sharing her life and bed with the bard for years. The warm glow of comfort and familiarity, one of Gabrielle's gifts to her, was never more welcome than it was right now. She wanted to be able to go slowly, remember every touch, every shiver and soft cry, every scent. She wanted to cherish each touch of the bard's on her own body, each tremor and whimper Gabrielle drew from her. The fires could rage late, and she knew they would. If she could hold them off that long.
Gabrielle opened her eyes, Xena's face mere inches away. Unaccountably, the bard smiled, and Xena's mouth curved into that half grin that the bard loved. Both of them moved at the same time to close the gap between them.
"You know, for some reason, I thought you were going to ask me if I was sure about this." The bard pressed herself gently against the warrior's long body. Her skin felt as if it was reaching out to welcome the arm Xena was curling around her back, her hair twining itself around the warrior's fingers to hold them close. The warm, smooth skin was like the rarest silk against hers, and she could feel the gentle flex of the broad muscle on Xena's back as the warrior tightened her embrace.
An amused chuckle rumbled up from Xena's chest. "It's a bit late for that. Anyway, I know you're sure." She drew back slightly, wanting to be serious for a moment before she lost herself in the bard. "It's not going to be easy, but you know that, too."
"Nothing worth having is ever really easy. Things are going to come up between us, Xena, I'd be a fool if I thought they wouldn't." The bard slid a small hand up to cup her cheek, stroking gently with her thumb. "We've always been friends, and we'll just have to trust each other enough to talk about them. But this is where I want to be, and you're the one I want to be here with."
Xena had long since forgotten how tired she was, she didn't even notice the dull throb in her side, the door was barred, she had her best friend back, and in spite of everything, that same best friend was accepting her as her lover. Life couldn't be better. Providing the bard stopped talking. She leaned forward slightly, lips parting in anticipation.
Gabrielle drew back a bit. "You don't want to do the talking thing now, do you?" She raised her eyebrows, and couldn't believe she was actually a bit nervous. She just had time to remind herself who had pinned whom against a stable wall, before Xena decided to take direct action.
"No. Neither do you." the warrior growled, and captured the bard's mouth with her own. She was barely prepared for the ecstatic shocks that ripped through her at the softness of Gabrielle's lips against hers, and judging by the sound that came from deep in the bard's throat, neither was she. Four hands and four arms tightened at the same time, bringing two bodies as close as possible.
"You know," said the bard breathlessly, a few minutes later, "anytime you don't want to talk, I'm good with that." She shivered helplessly as Xena ran fingertips lightly up and down her spine, all the while brushing kisses along her jaw and across her lips.
"I'm not much of a conversationalist," observed the warrior, unsteadily. She was lying on her back, trying to control the little waves of pure need running through her that threatened to become tidal waves at any second.
The bard looked down, and the breath caught in her throat at the expression in Xena's eyes. She let her weight off her elbows so she could wrap her arms around those wonderfully broad shoulders in an exuberant hug. Xena felt the bard's mouth move against her breast into a delighted grin, and she couldn't keep from smiling herself. Gabrielle was surprising her again.
"You seem to communicate just fine," teased the bard. She could feel the warrior's desire, and her own body echoed it.
Xena gathered her up and rolled them over, careful to support herself with her forearms. Her eyes met Gabrielle's, and she felt the bard's heart thumping in rhythm with her own.
"Gabrielle, I want..."
"I know. Stop talking and show me," the bard whispered, sliding her hand up and through the dark hair spilling across her chest. Xena's eyes caught blue fire in the near-darkness.
"Again and again," the warrior promised.