Shadows Part 2
Aside from a lingering cold, Gabrielle recovered quickly from her near drowning, and several weeks passed relatively uneventfully as the bard spent long hours catching up on her scrolls and entertaining the Pandora's restless crew with her stories. As usual, the action-packed tales of the warrior princess were especially popular. Xena, on the other hand, used the time to mend various pieces of her well-worn armor, and by the time she was through, her gear was in better shape than it had ever been. On one lazy afternoon, she had discovered an innate talent for deep-sea fishing, hooking an enormous swordfish, much to the admiration of everyone on board. The silvery beast had valiantly fought her for hours until Xena's muscles had ached from the strain. Glistening droplets of saltwater shone on its scales in the light of the setting sun as it leaped and twisted, furiously trying to rid itself of its persistent foe, but in the end, Xena won the day, reeling the monster in proudly.
During the lengthening evenings, the warrior and the bard chatted amiably about history, philosophy, and many other matters. "Chat" being a relative term, as Gabrielle did most of the actual talking. If the weather was clear, they often went up on deck to gaze at the stars, and Xena good-naturedly began to teach her companion to navigate with the brilliant points of light. Captain Khreig joined them occasionally, relating wild tales about his adventures at sea. Privately, both Xena and Gabrielle suspected the captain exaggerated most of his exploits, especially the one where he single-handedly freed his ship from the tentacled clutches of a giant squid, but his stories brought a welcome respite from the often tedious nature of sea travel, and they indulged him willingly. In this manner, days turned into weeks, and the weeks stretched into a month.
The weather turned colder the further north they sailed, and a perpetual shroud of fog and mist settled over them, casting a gloomy pall over everything. Gabrielle soon found that she could no longer venture outside without bundling up heavily against the chill. She was tired of the sharp, tangy scent of the sea, tired of the rolling motion of the deck beneath her feet, and most of all, she was tired of their dried rations. Yesterday, she had snapped at her startled warrior friend, declaring that she would rather gnaw on a chunk of marble than swallow one more of those petrified biscuits. The bard longed for the warmth of the sun on her skin, anything other than this endless expanse of water and mist.
The bleakness of their surroundings weighed heavily on Xena's spirits as well and the taciturn warrior had become even less communicative lately, often spending hours just leaning on the ship's rail and staring blankly into the ever-present fog. By her calculations, they should reach Eire soon, and she would be eternally glad to be off this blasted ship. Gabrielle, she noticed, had half a dozen of the crew following her like lovesick puppies. It was not an uncommon phenomenon. The bard's gentle good nature tended to attract suitors like bees to honey. Still, Xena found herself irrationally disturbed by it, and she began to indulge her growing irritation by mentally devising ways to get rid of the hopeful romantics. She was gleefully plotting the demise of a particular young sailor with rust-colored hair and soulful brown eyes when Gabrielle appeared at her side. Not even the faintest whisper of a breeze stirred the air around them. Gazing out at the fog that surrounded the sluggishly-moving ship, the bard laid her forearms on the rail and rested her chin on them pensively. Xena hastily put aside her homicidal daydreams and cocked her head inquisitively at her unusually moody friend.
"Something bothering you?" she asked.
Gabrielle shrugged sullenly. "I'm just bored, I guess."
Xena exhaled thoughtfully. Her mind raced, searching for a solution to the bard's problem. After all, the warrior knew that she certainly wasn't the most entertaining sort of person. Words had never been one of her strong points; she preferred to do her communicating with the sharp end of a sword, so small talk was probably out of the question. Short of teaching her friend new fighting skills, which the warrior was always reluctant to do, Xena was at a loss. Frustrated, she blurted out the first idiotic notion that popped into her head.
"Gabrielle, half the little boys on this godsforsaken bucket are drooling after you. Why don't you quit pestering me and go play with one of them?"
The instant the harsh words were out of her mouth she regretted them. Too busy cursing herself for her stupidity, she missed the look of profound hurt and confusion that flashed across the bard's face.
"Fine. If that's how you feel, maybe I will," Gabrielle was on the verge of tears. She whirled abruptly and stormed off in the direction of the crew's quarters.
Xena watched her go, wrestling with her own indecision. Should she go after the bard and apologize, or should she let Gabrielle cool off first and then go apologize? What made me say such a stupid thing in the first place, she wondered. One of these days, you're going to push her away for good, a tiny voice in the warrior's head warned. Yeah, someday she'll figure out there's a better life out there for her, and then what will you do? Xena scowled darkly and shook her head. I guess this weather's getting to me more than I thought, she mused sourly. Best to go fix this now. She was halfway to the crew's quarters when she was intercepted by the same redheaded sailor she'd been so murderously fantasizing about earlier.
"Um, excuse me, Xena. Could you, I mean, could I maybe ask you something?" he stammered nervously.
Xena glared at him in annoyance. The kid looked barely old enough to shave. What was his name? Jason? Jaron? Something like that? Jared, that was it, she recalled.
"I'm busy right now," she responded curtly, side-stepping the young man.
Undaunted, Jared trotted after her, determined to get an answer to his question. Shortly after they had departed from Greece, the captain had informed his crew that Gabrielle was spoken for, that the pretty blonde was the property of a certain very possessive warrior princess. For weeks, Jared had been trying to figure out if that was true, and if it wasn't, he wanted to know if he stood a chance at winning the bard's heart. Gradually, he had mustered up enough courage to ask the imposing warrior. Without thinking, he reached out and grabbed Xena's elbow, trying to get her attention. Slowly, the dark head turned and icy blue eyes burned into his. He swallowed hard, instantly realizing his mistake.
It took every shred of self-control Xena could dredge up not to knock the boy senseless. Momentarily, she considered tossing him headfirst into the nearby mast. Luckily for Jared, she decided that scattering his brains across the deck wouldn't serve any useful purpose. In fact, it would probably just get her into more trouble with Gabrielle.
"Not now, Jared," she emphasized each word carefully, hoping the lovestruck fool would get the hint.
Just then, the warrior's keen hearing picked up the sound of her best friend's voice raised in fear and anger. Xena roughly shoved Jared out of the way, eliciting a startled yelp from the boy. She sprinted the rest of the way to the hatch leading down to the area where the crew slept, and with a surge of adrenaline pumping through her, she kicked the door off its hinges. The sound of a fist striking flesh reached her ears, and she bypassed the ladder entirely, vaulting through the doorway with a fierce yell. The Pandora's crew was housed in a long, narrow, dimly lit space below the main deck. Rows of sparse cots lined one side of the room. Most of the sailors were above, tending to their daily chores and duties, but as Xena's eyes rapidly adjusted to the scant light, she spotted two figures on the far side of the room.
Xena had landed on the scene just in time to witness Gabrielle slam a well-placed knee into the groin of the muscular seaman she was facing, and he sank to his knees with a sickly groan. The sailor was an ugly brute named Dalton who had been leering at the bard since the day they boarded the ship. Xena assessed the situation and concluded that he must have made an unwelcome advance towards her friend. Her fierce protective streak clawed its way to the surface as she allowed her temper to flare. Lunging forward, she grabbed two handfuls of Dalton's stained, coarse tunic. A vicious growl rumbled deep in her throat as she spun and slammed the brute against the wall with a force that made his teeth rattle. She pressed her armored forearm against his windpipe, cutting off his air.
"Come near her again and I'll cut you into pieces and leave you for the sharks. Got it?"
Cold blue eyes bored into his with stunning intensity. Dalton looked into those blazing orbs and did not doubt the warrior's sincerity for a moment. She would rip him apart without a second thought. Reluctantly, he lowered his gaze and nodded once. Xena released him and he slid to the floor, rubbing at his bruised throat. The warrior turned around to check on Gabrielle and was surprised to discover that her friend had already disappeared. Stepping over the crumpled heap at her feet, Xena climbed the ladder and returned to the upper deck, pointedly ignoring Jared and several of his awestruck comrades clustered around the broken doorway. She looked in both directions and saw Gabrielle pacing alone at the stern of the ship.
"Are you allright? What in Hades were you thinking? That overgrown ape could've seriously hurt you," Xena scolded as she approached her friend.
The warrior froze in her tracks as Gabrielle whirled around and glared at her, green eyes sparking indignantly. "What?" she asked, astonished by the bard's reaction.
"I had things under control down there, Xena," Gabrielle blurted hotly. "I'm not a child, in case you hadn't noticed. I can take care of myself."
Xena blinked twice, swallowed, and then blinked again. Her brow creased in confusion. Had she overreacted? She certainly didn't think so, after all, Gabrielle could have been in serious trouble, right? Obviously her friend thought otherwise. Of course she's not a child, I know that, Xena thought sullenly. And she's more than capable of defending herself, she doesn't need me coming to the rescue all the time. Clearly Gabrielle had things well in hand when I went charging in there like a . . . .Xena paused, frowning slightly. Like a jealous lover, her subconscious mind whispered. No, like an overprotective mother hen, the rest of her frazzled brain helpfully supplied. She spread her hands apart in a gesture of apology.
"You're absolutely right, Gabrielle. I'm sorry. I don't know what's wrong with me," she mumbled contritely, staring at her boots.
Gabrielle sighed as her anger dissipated. "I'm not mad at you, really. I'm just. . . tired of being cooped up, I guess," she admitted. "It was a pretty dumb thing to do, going down there alone like that. I was looking for Jared. Didn't expect to run into Dalton like that. . .ugh," she shuddered in distaste.
Xena kept her head down, not wanting her best friend to see the conflicting emotions flickering across her face. She was relieved that the bard wasn't genuinely angry with her, but the knowledge that Gabrielle had been looking for Jared bothered her more than she cared to admit. Kid did seem like Gabrielle's type though, Xena reflected. He was a quiet, gentle sort, not at all like the other rowdy young men on board the Pandora. Maybe I should tell her the kid has a crush on her, she thought. Or maybe I should dump the little bastard overboard when nobody's looking. Xena chuckled evilly to herself.
"Xena? Are you okay?" Gabrielle asked, her eyebrows scrunched together in an expression of concern.
"What? Oh, yeah. . . .everything's fine," Xena lied smoothly. "Listen, I'm gonna go talk to Khreig. Find out when he expects to sight land."
With that, the warrior made a hasty getaway, leaving Gabrielle standing alone and bemused. What's with her lately? Xena wasn't usually so. . . weird. Suddenly feeling drained, Gabrielle sighed and leaned against the rail, grimacing as a splinter bit deeply into her left palm. She turned her hand over and stared in consternation at the long sliver embedded under the skin. Picking at the bit of wood with a fingernail only succeeded in driving it deeper beneath her flesh. Disgusted, the bard gave up and settled for glaring in frustration at the angry red mark on her hand.
"Great. Just perfect," she declared aloud. "I just made a big deal about being able to take care of myself and now I can't get a damn splinter out of my hand."
Irritated, she stomped off towards the cargo hold, unaware of the dark, hateful eyes that followed her movements. After Gabrielle had disappeared from view, Dalton stepped out from where he'd been skulking in the shadows behind the great mast. Gingerly, he touched the tender bruises at his throat and thought about the throbbing ache where the bard had kneed him. Someday, Xena might not be around to protect her. Then he was going to make the little bitch pay.
At the other end of the ship, Xena stood next to the burly captain and joined him in staring pensively at the sea. Cold spray splashed up, misting them both with fine droplets as the bow of the Pandora cut through the waves. In the distance, a whale spouted, sending a magnificent plume of water into the air before the behemoth sank beneath the depths once more. Khreig scratched his bristling beard and regarded the quiet warrior soberly.
"Shoulda been there by now. We need to be catching the wind again or we're gonna have some problems," the captain confided. "Temperature keeps dropping like this and we'll be seeing ice before long."
Damn. That's just what we need, Xena realized sourly. She'd heard of plenty of unlucky ships that had been dashed to pieces by the treacherous icebergs common to this part of the world. Khreig spoke again, interrupting her thoughts.
"Put on extra lookouts, I have. But in this gods be damned fog. . ." he trailed off, leaning over and spitting past the rail. When he looked up, Xena had slipped away, heading back towards the makeshift bunk she shared with the young storyteller.
Down in the cargo hold, Gabrielle was sitting cross-legged on her sleeping fur. A thick blanket covered her legs against the biting cold, and balanced atop a nearby crate, a lone candle gave off a wan circle of light. The bard bit at her lower lip in pain as she dug at the palm of her left hand with a sewing needle. A shadow fell over her and she looked up to find a six-foot tall, leather-clad ex-warlord towering over her. A dark eyebrow rose in an unspoken question as Xena eyed the needle in Gabrielle's hand.
"Splinter," the bard mumbled sheepishly, displaying her injured hand for the warrior.
The corner of Xena's mouth tugged upward in a faint, lopsided grin as she knelt beside her friend on the thick, warm furs. With two long fingers, she plucked the needle from Gabrielle's grasp and took hold of the bard's wrist with her other hand. Carefully, she inspected the pesky sliver entrenched near the base of her friend's palm, noticing the places where rough calluses had popped up on Gabrielle's hands, created by the many months of wielding her Amazon staff with bone-shattering skill. Using her lightest touch, Xena extracted the inch-long splinter and discarded it.
"There. All better," she patted the bard's knee before scooting over to her own furs.
"Thanks, Xena. That feels a lot better," Gabrielle rewarded her friend with a grateful smile. "So what did Khreig have to say?"
Xena made a face, which the bard correctly interpreted to mean that the captain's news hadn't been good. Gabrielle listened attentively while Xena explained their problem with the lack of wind and the dangerous ice they could run across at any moment and her thoughts drifted back to another, not so long ago sea voyage. The last time she'd been near this part of the world, she and Xena were sailing for Britannia with a group of freed mercenaries. Neither one of them had known then what an irrevocable impact that trip would have on their lives. That it would change them both forever. They'd never talked about it. Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip as she observed Xena's strong profile in the candlelight. Not really anyway. Xena seemed to prefer to block the whole ugly mess out of her mind entirely. Sure, they'd gone on that surreal journey to Illusia and found a small measure of forgiveness there, but there was still so much more that Gabrielle wanted to say. But her stern warrior friend kept her feelings locked away somewhere behind that tough exterior, and Gabrielle knew better than to push Xena too hard.
Sensing the sadness drifting over from the bard sitting across from her, Xena put down the small dagger she'd been using to trim her nails and folded her hands quietly in her lap.
"Gabrielle, you know I don't think you're a child, right?"
She had incorrectly assumed that their previous argument was the source of Gabrielle's dark mood.
"I know that. It's fine, Xena. Don't worry about it," the bard leaned back against the wall and nibbled on a handful of nuts she'd scrounged up earlier.
"You're sure?" Xena pressed quietly.
She received a smile and a nod in return, and the warrior relaxed her shoulders. Things had been kind of edgy between them for a while now, but considering all they had been through in recent months, Xena thought they were doing pretty well. They'd essentially been to Tartarus and back, and only a bond as strong as theirs could have survived the horrors they had faced. Like that nightmarish moment when she had burst into Kaleipus's hut and seen that lifeless body sprawled. . .she shuddered inwardly. No, don't go there, she ordered herself firmly. Those memories were still far too raw. She stole a glance at Gabrielle, who was oblivious, absorbed in one of her scrolls. There was so much the warrior wanted to say, but somehow, the words never seemed to come. With an inaudible sigh, Xena ran a hand through her dark, tangled hair.
Gabrielle caught the motion and looked up questioningly. "Something wrong?"
Xena gave a small shake of her head. "Just tired, I guess. I'm gonna try to sleep. Good night, Gabrielle."
She curled up on her side, facing away from the bard, and pulled the heavy blanket up around her ears. The coarse texture of the wool rubbed against her face and made her itch, but Xena willed herself to remain still, very much aware of Gabrielle's steady gaze fixed on her. Finally, the soft scratch of a quill against parchment told her that the bard had returned to her scroll. A tender smile touched the warrior's lips as she let the rhythmic scratching of the quill lull her to sleep.
Gabrielle paused in her writing, absently tapping the feathered end of the quill against her knee. Xena had fallen asleep; the sound of her slow, even breathing drifted across the short distance between them. The bard chewed her lip thoughtfully as she regarded the carefully inscribed words on the scroll resting in her lap. It was an account of one of their lighter adventures, the time when baby Bliss had stolen Cupid's arrows and unleashed havoc on her, Xena, Joxer, Draco, and a temple full of Hestian virgins. She hastily suppressed a giggle at the memory of the lovestruck Hestians chasing after Draco's bewildered men. She cast a quick glance over to where Xena lay sleeping soundly, making sure the sound hadn't disturbed her friend. On more than one occasion, Gabrielle had wondered what might have happened if Joxer hadn't stumbled between them just after they'd been struck by Cupid's arrows. Snap out of it, Gabrielle, she admonished herself mentally. Like that would ever happen.
Gabrielle set the scroll aside to be finished later and stood, feeling her muscles protest from being locked in one position for so long. Moving carefully, so as not to wake the sleeping warrior, she cracked open the shutter on the nearest porthole and peered out at the night sky. She rubbed her arms, shivering at the bite of the cold sea air. The breeze had finally begun to pick up again and the mist swirled lazily above the flat, grey water. Gabrielle tilted her head upward, but the stars weren't visible tonight, still hidden behind a curtain of fog. She shut her eyes and rested her forehead against the wood of the Pandora's hull.
It was so peaceful during the night, after most everyone else had gone to bed. Only the natural creaking of the ship and the slosh of the waves against the hull broke the stillness. Quiet moments like this would probably be pretty rare once they reached land, Gabrielle reflected ruefully. Things usually got crazy whenever Xena was reunited with someone from her warlord days, and this time, the Romans were involved. That was bound to make matters even worse, since Xena tended to have a one-track mind when Romans were around. Privately, Gabrielle hoped that Caesar wouldn't be leading this invasion of Eire personally. Sure, the notorious roman leader could be charming, in an egomaniacal, you-will-all-kneel-before-me sort of way, but she had no desire to meet him ever again. Gabrielle grimaced in distaste. Ugh. . .he gives me the creeps. She shuddered as the bad memories resurfaced, and stubbornly, she pushed them away. It will be different this time, she tried to reassure herself, it won't be like Britannia. This time, it's just a regular, run-of-the-mill war. No evil cults, no dark gods bent on world domination. Nope, it's just us against the Romans, and if anyone can outwit and outmaneuver the great Julius Caesar, Xena can. Besides, Xena promised it would be different this time.
Gabrielle threw a glance over her shoulder at the blanketed form behind her. Xena never broke her promises. The bard banished all of her doubts and her uncertainties about what the future held for them; instead she looked deep within her heart, searching intently for something she feared she had lost in those dark days after Britannia, after Chin, after Solan and Hope. Xena stirred in her sleep, a restless hand clawing at the blankets and shoving them down from her face. Gabrielle studied her best friend's countenance, more open in sleep than it ever was when the warrior was awake. Suddenly, she realized that she was searching for something that had never really been lost. Her trust in Xena. Yes, they had been battered and bruised, stretched almost to the breaking point, but they were still here. Still together. An amazed, wondering grin spread across Gabrielle's face.
"We'll be okay this time," she said softly, believing with all her heart.
She turned back to the open porthole and closed the shutter, fastening it tightly. Leaning over the solitary candle, she blew gently, extinguishing its pale light. In the darkness, she indulged herself with a mighty yawn as she stretched out on her warm sleeping furs. Xena's hand lay just inches away from the bard's face, and in a single impulsive moment, Gabrielle reached out and covered it with her own. She half-expected Xena to wake up, or at least pull her hand away, but to her surprise, the sleeping warrior did neither. Instead, Xena curled her strong fingers around the bard's. Gabrielle smiled again, a thin misting of tears filling her eyes. Yeah, we'll definitely be okay.
"Good night, Xena," she whispered, just before drifting off to sleep.
Hours later, Xena bolted upright, momentarily disoriented in the pitch-blackness surrounding her. Her pulse hammered wildly as she sought to identify whatever had disrupted her slumber. Above her head, heavy boot steps dashed back and forth, thumping against the timbers, and men shouted to each other with voices tinged with alarm. Beside her, Xena could sense Gabrielle beginning to stir, awakened by the commotion overhead. A single word filtered through the chaos and caused the warrior's blood to freeze in her veins. Ice.
"Son of a bacchae," she hissed through clenched teeth as she kicked off her blankets and bounded to her feet.
"Xena? What's going on?" Gabrielle called out fuzzily.
Xena was already charging out of the hold, taking the rungs of the ladder two at a time in an impressive display of power and grace. Gabrielle paused for a brief moment as she tried to clear her sleep-blurred mind, then she rose and followed Xena up to the main deck. As she emerged, a scene of mass confusion met her as panicked, half-dressed sailors scurried about frantically.
"Excuse me, but what's going on? Is there anything I can do to help?" Gabrielle tried in vain to get information from the preoccupied sailors running past her.
Finally, the frustrated woman grabbed the arm of a grizzled older man who happened to be within reach. She repeated her query, noting the man's fearful expression. He mumbled something unintelligible and gestured off to the north before jerking his arm free and running away. Gabrielle looked where the man had pointed and caught a glimpse of her dark-haired, leather-clad, barefoot friend sprinting towards the bow of the ship. She started moving in that direction, her sea green eyes narrowing as she squinted into the murky darkness. A hazy form was beginning to take shape just ahead and slightly to the right of the Pandora's nose, and a sudden, sick feeling washed over her as she recognized what she was staring at. A massive, forbidding chunk of ice loomed ominously before the ship and they were on a collision course.
The young blonde broke into a run as a desperate scene played out before her. Captain Khreig, bellowing like a maddened bull, grabbed a frightened young sailor by the scruff of his neck and tossed the boy aside like a rag doll. Once the boy was out of the way, Khreig seized the ship's wheel and spun the rough-hewn, circular piece of wood over as far as it would go, valiantly trying to turn the lumbering sea vessel before they crashed headlong into the ice. Out of the darkness, a tall, dark presence appeared beside him, and Xena grabbed the wheel, adding her considerable strength to his. Together, the sea captain and the warrior princess fought an impossible battle against gravity and time. Their muscles stood out in sharp relief and they both gritted their teeth from the strain of forcing the reluctant ship to alter its path. Gabrielle skidded to a halt a few feet from her friend, close enough to see the cords standing out on Xena's neck and the sweat rolling down her temples.
From the corner of her eye, Xena saw Gabrielle approach. "Find something to hang onto," she directed brusquely.
She waited until she saw Gabrielle comply, grabbing hold of the slick rail with white-knuckled hands. Xena took a deep breath and delved within herself for that extra measure of strength she needed. The warrior planted her bare feet more firmly against the planks beneath her and pulled with every once of power she could muster, ignoring the screams of outrage from her abused body. They were not going to die on this rickety, godsforsaken bucket. No way. Not if she could help it.
The wooden planking creaked and groaned reproachfully, but finally, the ship began to turn. Slowly, the nose of the Pandora swung away from the deadly obstacle in its path. Everyone on board held their breath as the bow passed within a few feet of the solid ice, so close that Gabrielle could have reached out and touched its frozen surface if she's wanted to. Not that she wanted to, she reflected as she released a shaky breath. As soon as they were clear, a deafening cheer went up from the relieved crew and jubilant sailors surrounded Xena and the captain, slapping them on the back in heartfelt congratulations. Gabrielle noted the barely concealed twitching of the warrior's hands, which meant that Xena was seconds away from losing it. Better get in there, Gabrielle, or this could get ugly, she told herself. Gently, she nudged her way through the exuberant throng until she had reached Xena's side. Khreig, the bard noticed, was happily soaking up the praise and preening like a peacock. Xena, however, had narrowed her eyes to menacing, ice blue slits and was glowering dangerously at the men who were unwittingly invading her personal space. Gabrielle laid a soothing hand on her friend's forearm and felt the taut muscles jerk beneath the skin.
"You look exhausted," she said matter-of-factly. "C'mon. Let's go somewhere a little less crowded so you can relax."
Xena turned her head and fastened a weary gaze on the very welcome sight of her best friend. The corner of her mouth lifted in a weak, self-deprecating smile. Suddenly, the tough-as-nails ex-warlord was painfully aware that she was freezing, aching and exhausted.
"I'm pretty beat," she agreed, allowing Gabrielle to lead her through the crowd.
She followed the bard back down to their cozy, blissfully quiet cargo hold, sighing in relief as the din from above faded from her hearing. The wintery night air was rapidly cooling the sweat coating her body, and her leathers were becoming clammy and uncomfortable on her skin. Xena slumped against a large crate and watched, patiently amused, as Gabrielle rummaged through their packs.
"Here, put this on," the small blonde held out a clean cotton shift. "C'mon Xena, you're making me shiver just looking at you."
Xena accepted the garment gratefully and quickly changed out of her usual leather battle dress. She sank down on her sleeping furs, leaned her head back and closed her eyes. It had been a long, difficult day. Gentle hands wrapped a warm blanket around her shoulders, and Xena's eyelids fluttered open to meet concerned green orbs across from her. She managed a tired half-smile.
"Gods. Haven't been this drained in a while. Think maybe I'm coming down with something," she croaked, wincing at the raspiness of her voice.
Blonde eyebrows bunched together in concern as Gabrielle scooted forward and laid a cool hand against the warrior's forehead. Definitely a little on the warm side. Well, that would explain Xena's moodier-than-usual demeanor, she mused.
"You're running a bit of a fever, I think," Gabrielle said. "Why don't you try to go back to sleep?"
"I should go back up and make sure there aren't anymore frozen surprises for us," Xena mumbled.
"I don't think so, warrior princess," Gabrielle lightly poked a finger at her friend's chest as startled blue eyes blinked at her owlishly. "There are a dozen experienced sailors up there who are more than capable of keeping a lookout. You are sick," she jabbed her index finger into Xena's chest again for emphasis. "You are going to stay right here and get some rest."
Xena's expression darkened slightly, and for a moment, Gabrielle feared she had gone too far. Xena could be awfully touchy sometimes, especially if she was told there was something she couldn't do. Then the warrior's shoulders dropped and she chuckled softly.
"Whatever you say, Gabrielle," she drawled at the astonished bard, who had been preparing for an argument. "What? You weren't expecting me to be so reasonable?" she asked mildly.
"Um, well, no. You usually put up more of a fight," Gabrielle admitted.
"Yeah, well, this time you're right. I need some rest," Xena rubbed at her eyes with the heel of a hand. "Feels like I've been run over by a chariot," she added as she stretched out on her furs. "Wake me up if there's any more trouble."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes at that. "Please, Xena. You have ears like a bat. If there was trouble you'd hear it long before I ever would."
"Gabrielle, you did not just compare me to a flying rat," the dark-haired warrior muttered as she drifted back to sleep.
Gabrielle watched over her friend for a while until she was satisfied that Xena was sound asleep. More than once, she had to restrain herself from checking the warrior's forehead, knowing that even the lightest touch was normally enough to wake her friend. Even while she slept, Xena's finely tuned senses were on a constant alert. Her eyelids fluttered and the tiny muscles in her face twitched at every sound. Up above, it had grown relatively quiet again, as the excitement caused by their near miss with the iceberg had
waned. It had been a close call. By all rights, their ship should have collided with the towering mass of ice and they should have been smashed to pieces, but somehow, Xena had done what she always did. The bard shook her head in silent wonder, remembering the look of stubborn determination on Xena's face. There was no way an iceberg was going to defeat the legendary warrior princess. Nope. Not a chance. Xena had simply tapped into that inner reservoir of strength that never ceased to amaze her friend, and she had just willed the ship to turn. And it had. Amazing. Gabrielle exhaled quietly as she curled up under her own blankets and joined her friend in sleep.
The next two days swept by in a blur as, much to everyone's great relief, a stiff, steady breeze had sprung up from the east, clearing away most of the soupy fog. Propelled by the wind, the Pandora fairly flew across the glassy water. Luckily, there had been no further sightings of the treacherous ice and the spirits of the ship's crew and her passengers had lifted considerably. Equally fortunate, Xena's fever dissipated with the fog, greatly improving the grumpy warrior's mood. By the afternoon of the second day, they were able to spot the occasional sea bird from the upper deck, a sure sign that they were drawing near to solid land.
Near dusk, as the shadows began to lengthen across the surface of the massive ship, Xena was pacing near the bow, her eyes scouring the horizon, hoping to catch the first glimpse of the elusive shore. Behind her, tentative footsteps approached, and the warrior quickly identified them as Jared's. She plastered her best warlord scowl on her face and whirled to face the nervous young man. Xena put her hands on her hips and raised an eyebrow at him expectantly, pinning the boy with a steely gaze.
"Can I help you?" she asked, her voice dripping with danger.
Jared froze in his tracks and blinked rapidly at the imposing figure in front of him. He could feel the flush creeping up the back of his neck and spreading to his ears, the color nearly matching his fiery red hair. He cleared his throat hesitantly.
"Uh, actually, I thought maybe I could help you," he ventured.
Xena didn't respond. She merely waited, her gaze never wavering.
Doggedly, Jared continued. "It's just that. . .Dalton. . .he. . ." he trailed off lamely.
"What about Dalton?" Xena growled, expressing her extreme dislike for the crude, ape-like sailor.
Jared squirmed uncomfortably under Xena's intense scrutiny. "I overheard him telling some of the others that he intends to get even with you. And with Gabrielle," he blurted out finally.
At first, there was no reaction at all from the tall warrior as Xena absorbed this latest threat in silence. Then a hard, chilling smile, completely devoid of humor, spread slowly across her tight lips. The smile, Jared noticed, didn't touch her eyes, which were blazing with a barely contained fury. He shuddered, very glad that he wasn't on the receiving end of the warrior's anger. Finally, Xena spoke in a harsh whisper.
"Just let him try," she said as she brushed past Jared and walked away.
So, Dalton wants trouble, Xena thought. Well, I've got all the trouble he can handle. Just the thought of the ill-bred brute made her blood boil, and her pulse pounded loudly in her ears. Her memory flashed back to the nasty altercation between him and Gabrielle, and her hands unconsciously clenched into fists.
"If he comes anywhere near her again, I'll send him on a one-way boat ride to Tartarus," she declared out loud.
Briefly, she flirted with the idea of hunting for Dalton and taking care of the problem quickly and permanently. Back in her warlord days, that would have been the easiest, most practical solution. . . . take out your enemy before he can do the same to you. A wicked grin tugged at her lips as Xena imagined snapping the burly sailor's neck. If she focused hard enough, she could almost hear the sharp, brittle crack of the bones breaking under her fingers, like dried twigs beneath her boots. Xena sighed heavily and mentally chastised herself for indulging her dark side, even for a moment. Gabrielle, she suspected, would not approve.
The late afternoon light was fading rapidly as the angry warrior gazed out at the vast expanse of dark water surrounding the ship. They were within days of reaching Eire now. What would be waiting for them when they finally set foot on that unfamiliar shore? Not for the first time since they had begun this voyage, Xena felt a strange shiver run through her body. It was a feeling that was part apprehension, and part wild exhilaration, and Xena was at a loss to explain the odd sensation. She stared sightlessly at the waves as she tried to pinpoint the source of the dread that was nagging at her. As she watched, a silver fin broke the surface of the water nearby, and a monstrously large shadow skimmed along just below the waves. It was a shark, the biggest one Xena had ever seen, easily three times her own body length, maybe even more. She watched, fascinated by the power she could sense emanating from the beast swimming alongside the Pandora. She had always had a healthy respect for sharks; they were swift, ruthless and relentless, one of nature's greatest predators. Unconcerned by the presence of the great ship, the monster was content to keep pace with the ship for a quarter of an hour before slipping beneath the depths again.
"You know, I once saw a shark swallow a man whole," a rough voice remarked flatly.
Xena stiffened at the unwelcome sound of Dalton's voice behind her, and she muttered an oath under her breath, disgusted with herself for not hearing him approach. Slowly, the warrior turned around to face her adversary. Dalton was a few yards away, leaning casually against a half-rotting wooden barrel. Fading bruises were still visible around his thick neck and murderous intent shone from his eyes as he glared at Xena unflinchingly. Xena took a deep breath to slow the rush of adrenaline coursing through her veins. She had no intention of letting him goad her into losing her temper. Deliberately, she lowered her right hand until it rested on the razor-sharp chakram at her hip, and she rubbed her thumb along its flat surface, waiting for her opponent to make a move. Dalton shifted his weight slightly, and Xena tensed, every fiber of her being ready to meet his attack. Instead, however, the sailor just folded his bulging arms across his chest.
"Relax, Xena. I'm not stupid enough to try anything here. Khreig would have my head for it," he said calmly. "Once we get on land though. . . .when you least expect it, I'll be there."
Xena's nostrils flared at the threat, and it was all she could do to keeping from lunging forward and ripping his throat out. Gritting her teeth, she forced herself not to react further. Disdain evident in her expression, she kept her gaze trained on the dark, hooded eyes of the man before her. Dalton's lips curled into an ugly sneer, and Xena could sense that he wasn't the least bit intimidated by her. Rather, he seemed almost amused by the standoff. The sailor let out a short, barking laugh and shot Xena a long, lingering, malevolent stare before turning his back on her and walking away.
Xena waited for several breaths, half-expecting him to come at her in a surprise attack. Once it became clear that he was really gone, she let her hand drop away from the deadly chakram. Scowling, she turned over the details of the encounter in her mind. She couldn't explain it exactly, but every instinct she had warned her that Dalton was far more dangerous than he seemed. His refusal to fight her while on board the ship already made him smarter than the average brain-dead thugs she usually faced. And his utter lack of fear of her unnerved the warrior. No, this guy seemed different. She would have to keep an eye on him. Satisfied that the threat had passed, at least for the present, Xena tilted her head from one side to the other, hearing the crackling pops as much of the tension drained out of her body. She massaged her aching temples with one hand and her stomach rumbled insistently, reminding her that she hadn't eaten since early that morning. As she turned, intending on going in search of dinner, a familiar sound made her pause and brought a wistful smile to her face.
The warrior's ears perked and she listened carefully as the gentle cadence of Gabrielle's voice floated on the cool evening air. The bard was somewhere back towards the rear of the ship, too far away for Xena to make out her words, but from the rhythmic rise and fall of her tone, she guessed that her friend was busy telling a story. Her empty stomach was instantly forgotten as, almost without her conscious permission, the warrior's feet followed the sound of the bard's voice.
There, at the back of the ship, Gabrielle paced back and forth, deeply involved in the tale she was weaving for her rapt audience. Unseen, Xena ducked into the shadows, not wanting to distract the bard from her story. A dozen sailors stood before the young woman in a ragged semi-circle, hanging on her every breath in open-mouthed awe, as she related the vivid details of their battle with the Horde. Flickering torchlight reflected in the bard's jade green eyes and sent ever-changing patterns of darkness and light dancing across her compact frame. As she animatedly described the battle between the Horde and the Athenian army, her hands moved emphatically, spilling interesting shadows across the deck. A strong sea breeze ruffled her fair hair, but Gabrielle's concentration never broke as she tucked the long, reddish-gold strands behind her ears without missing a beat. The same salt-laden gust of air stirred the thin clouds obscuring the sky and, as if on a cue from the gods themselves, the moon burst through, bathing the bard in its pale, silvery light. A soft smile touched Xena's lips as she watched from her hiding place. The sight of Gabrielle, illuminated by the moonlight and surrounded by an adoring audience seemed so fitting. . . .so right.
She doesn't get to do this often enough, Xena thought with more than a touch of guilt. She should be at the Academy in Athens, not following me around for a lifetime of uncertainty and danger. I ought to let her go. It would be better for both of us. Xena slapped herself in the head mentally. Oh, get a grip you big, dumb warrior. Quit with the melancholy, self-sacrificing bit. Gabrielle chose this path, remember? Besides, what would you do without her if one day, she called your bluff and left?
Xena's brow creased in consternation as she considered that for a moment. What would she do if Gabrielle ever did decide to seek her destiny elsewhere? She felt her heart lurch at the mere possibility. It would be more than she could bear, she realized suddenly. Her eyes found the bard's face again as Gabrielle began to wrap up her story, and she noticed the sparkle in her friend's eyes and the way the bridge of her nose crinkled as a tiny grin played across her lips while she spoke. As the warrior watched, Gabrielle's head turned just a tiny bit in Xena's direction, as if she somehow knew that her friend was there. Her eyes darted back and forth as the bard searched the shadows intently, and even though Xena was fairly sure that she was completely concealed, she knew that she had been discovered, nonetheless. Gabrielle knew that her friend was there, and she would wait expectantly until Xena revealed her presence. Might as well get this over with, Xena told herself as she straightened her shoulders and resolutely stepped out into the light. Blue eyes met green. Spotting Xena instantly, Gabrielle's face broke into a dazzling grin, and Xena was stunned as an unexpected jolt shot through her like a thunderbolt. Comprehension dawned on her, and her eyes widened as it wormed its way insistently into her brain.
"Oh gods no," Xena breathed, still too far away for Gabrielle to hear. "This just isn't happening. It's not possible."
Her gaze met Gabrielle's again, and in that instant, she saw the irrevocable truth. Xena, the legendary warrior princess, equally feared and respected around the known world, had finally been conquered by a farm girl from Potadeia. Somehow, without even being aware of it, Xena had fallen in love. The warrior's vision blurred and tunneled, her breath came in short, shallow gasps, and her mind reeled as she examined this realm of emotions that were completely foreign to her. Sure, she had had her share of past lovers, and she had even cared for some of them. But love was a luxury Xena had never allowed herself. Until now.
"Xena? Xena, are you okay?"
"Huh? Yeah, yeah. Just fine. Perfect," the startled warrior blinked.
Internally, she scolded herself for being so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she'd been completely oblivious to Gabrielle's approach. She grinned sheepishly and prayed it was too dark for her friend to see the color slowly staining her face and neck. The ship's crew had mostly scattered after the bard had finished her tale, either departing for their quarters or returning to their duties, and Xena and Gabrielle were virtually alone on the deck. Xena cast an almost shy glance at her bemused friend and cleared her throat nervously, feeling very much like an adolescent schoolgirl paralyzed by her first crush.
"I was just thinking, that's all," she said, attempting to explain her distracted state.
Gabrielle studied her friend closely, noting the slight flush to the warrior's skin and the way Xena was carefully avoiding making eye contact with her. Concerned, the bard reached out to touch Xena's forehead, worried that her recent fever might have returned.
"Are you sure you're feeling allright?"she asked doubtfully.
Xena jerked her head back and brushed the bard's hands away hastily. "I feel fine, Gabrielle. I've just got a lot on my mind, that's all. Really."
"Okay," Gabrielle said slowly, still not sure if Xena was levelling with her. "Listen, I'm starved. How 'bout if we go see if there's anything decent left to eat on this boat?"
Xena agreed readily. The mention of food reminded her of her own hunger, and she followed the bard back towards the cargo hold in search of dinner.
"Oh, by the way, Gabrielle, it's a ship. Not a boat," Xena teased playfully, getting an eye roll and a light elbow in the ribs from her friend.
"Very funny, Xena," Gabrielle replied dryly.
Their boot steps echoed loudly across the nearly deserted upper deck. The cargo hold was shrouded in darkness when they reached it, and Xena hesitated at the top of the ladder. She laid a restraining hand on Gabrielle shoulder to prevent her from descending.
"Let me go first. It's dark down there, and I wouldn't want you to fall or anything," she said in response to Gabrielle's questioning look.
Still confused by Xena's behavior, Gabrielle bit back a sharp reply. Xena didn't mean to be patronizing, she reasoned. The warrior was just being her customary slightly overprotective self, that's all. Gabrielle shrugged and stepped aside, allowing Xena to descend into the darkness ahead of her, and within seconds, the warrior had been swallowed up by the gloom. A loud thump and a string of curses that would make the gods blush drifted up to the bard's ears, and she winced sympathetically, realizing that Xena had bumped into something. There was another noisy clatter, and Gabrielle took a few steps down the ladder. Now she was truly concerned. Even at her worst, Xena was never clumsy.
"Hey, Xena? Everything okay down there?" she called out anxiously.
Met with silence, Gabrielle felt icy fingers of fear close around her heart as she started to imagine the worst possible scenarios. What if Xena had fallen and she was lying down there unconscious? Her heart thundered against her chest as she threw caution aside and scrambled the rest of the way down the ladder. As her boots touched the floor, she was startled by the sound of flint scraping against a striker immediately to her left. A spark flared, and soon the ghostly glow of a lonely candle revealed Xena peering curiously at the wild-eyed bard.
"Didn't I tell you to wait up there until I checked things out?" Xena asked, rubbing irritably at a nasty bump on her right shin.
"Actually, no. You didn't" Gabrielle replied, bending down closer to examine the darkening bruise on the warrior's leg. She felt Xena tense as she used the tips of her fingers to gently probe the skin around the purplish lump, and she assumed that the warrior was in pain.
"Here, give me that," she said, taking the candle out of Xena's grasp. "Go sit down while I fix a poultice for that leg."
Xena shook her head stubbornly and pushed a few errant locks of dark hair out of her eyes as she limped off to light more candles. She could feel eyes drilling into her back, and behind her, Gabrielle let out a frustrated breath. The bard stepped forward purposefully and set her candle down on a crate before she grabbed Xena by the shoulders and spun her around. Normally, she would never be so physical with her sometimes-touchy warrior friend, but Xena's odd behavior was really starting to worry her. Now, Gabrielle forced Xena to look at her.
"Okay, Xena. That's it. Tell me what's going on with you," she demanded. "Look, if you're sick or something, you need to tell me so I can help you."
"I'm not sick," Xena mumbled as she pulled free from Gabrielle's surprisingly strong grip.
"Well, what then? You're starting to scare me," Gabrielle pressed.
Xena took the opportunity to carefully inspect the toes of her boots. When she looked up, finally, a genuinely contrite expression was evident on her face.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to . . ." Xena hesitated, still trying to decide exactly what to tell her companion. "I had a run-in with Dalton earlier today and I guess he got to me more than I thought."
Gabrielle was quiet as she considered this admission from Xena. Even though Dalton had pretty much stayed out of their way so far, deep down she'd suspected that he would cause them problems. Stupid, she berated herself silently. I should never have put myself in that position with him. And now Xena probably thinks she needs to protect me. As if she doesn't have enough to worry about with Caesar and the Romans waiting for us.
"Do you think he'll give us much trouble?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena tilted her head to one side as she considered the question. "Nah," came the response. "Nothing we can't handle anyway. Hey, didn't you say you were hungry?" she skillfully changed the subject, diverting the bard's attention from the potential danger to her rumbling stomach.
Gabrielle allowed herself to be distracted and she set to work digging through their food stores. The prospects weren't very promising, as their supplies had shrunk considerably since they had set out on this voyage and the fish hadn't been biting lately. In another day or two they would be literally scraping the bottom of the barrel, and the fresh water situation wasn't much better. It hadn't rained in weeks and their drinking water was starting to develop a stale, brackish taste. Looking back over her shoulder at Xena, she wrinkled up her nose, displaying her opinion of their dining options.
"That bad, huh?" Xena commiserated.
As an answer, Gabrielle held up a shriveled, desiccated thing that might once have been a dried fish. Now, however, it was a gnarled, hardened, grayish lump that made Xena's stomach churn uneasily at the thought of ingesting it. An idea struck her. It was crazy to be sure, absolutely nuts, in fact. But anything was better than that thing Gabrielle held in her hands. Her eyes twinkled as she looked at Gabrielle, who immediately recognized the expression on the warrior's face. It was that I've-got-a-great-idea-Gabrielle look that Xena always got just before she went and did something incredibly foolish or dangerous.
"Xena, whatever you're thinking, just forget it. We can survive for another day or two on what we've got here," Gabrielle tried to dissuade her stubborn friend from whatever insane plan she was cooking up in her head.
Xena grinned at her. "Relax. I'm just gonna go fishing, that's all," she said as she bounded up the ladder.
"But, Xena, nobody's caught anything in days," Gabrielle called after her. Her eyes fell on a long, thin object propped up in the corner. She grabbed it and scrambled up the ladder after Xena. "Hey, you forgot your fishing pole!"
Xena had stopped next to the rail and begun removing her boots. She struggled impatiently with the laces and finally resorted to ripping the uncooperative ties loose. She wiggled her bare toes and bounced up and down on the balls of her feet as she waited for Gabrielle to catch up.
"Who said anything about a pole?" Xena asked innocently.
The bard looked at Xena, looked at the pole in her hand, and then at the ocean surrounding them. Her eyes widened as she realized what her friend had in mind.
"Oh, no. You can't be serious," she said, watching as Xena tied a rope securely around her waist. "Xena, the water is freezing, first of all. And the ship is moving. What if you get left behind?"
Xena shot her a confident, quirky grin and tossed the other end of the rope to Gabrielle. She hooked one leg over the side of the rail and balanced there precariously.
"Tie that to something and make sure it's tight," she directed, nodding at the rope.
Before Gabrielle could utter another word of protest, Xena smoothly swung her other leg over the side and dropped into the sea with a neat splash. Gabrielle nearly lost her end of the rope, and she hurriedly wrapped it around her wrist a few times to keep the line taut as she searched for something to tie it to. She spied a rusty, salt-encrusted iron ring attached to the rail, and she tied the rope to it, pulling the knot tight like Xena had taught her years ago, when they had first started travelling together. She leaned over the side and scanned the surface of the water anxiously, exhaling in relief when she spotted a sleek, dark head pop up above the waves.
Xena lifted a hand to indicate that she was allright, then she took a deep breath and plunged beneath the surface. It was dark under the water since the moonlight couldn't penetrate the depths, and Xena was forced to rely on her other senses. She ignored the cold water stinging her skin like a thousand icy daggers and instead concentrated on the sounds and vibrations around her. Her lungs ached from the lack of oxygen, but grimly, she waited. Then, to her left, a sudden rush of sound alerted her to the presence of a school of fish, and she went completely still, waiting for her unsuspecting prey to venture closer. In a moment, she could feel them swimming all around her, and swiftly, she reached out in front her and seized a helpless fish by the gills. Her captive twisted and thrashed wildly, trying to free itself from her clutches, but Xena hung on, determined to have a fresh, hot meal for a change. She kicked towards the surface, following the rope anchoring her to the ship. Her head broke the waves and she shook the biting salt water out of her eyes as she looked up to where Gabrielle was waiting. Her mischievous streak reared its head, and with a mighty heave, she flung her catch up out of the water to land on the deck at the bard's feet with a loud, wet smack.
Gabrielle jumped backwards as the medium-sized fish flopped about in front of her. She grabbed the creature, and it squirted through her hands and slid across the deck. Cursing under her breath, Gabrielle looked around for something to capture the wriggling fish and spotted a torn, discarded piece of sailcloth lying nearby. She threw the cloth over the fish and fell on it, pinning the creature to the deck until it stopped its thrashing. She was picking herself up with as much dignity as she could manage when the dripping warrior clambered back over the side. She lifted the fish and flung it at the laughing warrior, hitting her squarely in the chest.
"Very funny. You're insane, you know that, right?" she said, smoothing out her disarrayed clothing.
Xena merely grinned at her. Gabrielle yanked the dead fish out of Xena's hands, shooting her a dire look as she did.
"Go get dried off before you turn into an icicle. I'll clean this thing," she said, giving the warrior a little push towards the cargo hold.
Xena shook herself, spraying Gabrielle with icy droplets and getting a yelp and another evil look from her friend. She smiled nonchalantly as she headed below deck.
"You'll thank me once you've had a hot meal," Xena said, deliberately ignoring Gabrielle's glare.
Xena descended into the cargo hold as frigid water dripped from the ends of her hair and her skirt. Now that she was out of sight, there was no longer a need for the stoic warrior routine, and she shivered dreadfully, her teeth clattering together from the chill seeping into her bones. The water had been even colder than she had expected, and she hurriedly seized a piece of dry linen from their bags and toweled off. She unhooked her leather dress and let it fall to the floor with a sodden thump and she wrapped herself in her furs until the shivering had abated. Still, it had been worth it just to see the look on Gabrielle's face when that fish had landed at her feet. Xena stifled a laugh with the back of her wrist. Besides, fresh fish for dinner would be welcomed by both of them.
Holding the fur closed around her body with one hand, she used the other to paw through her belongings. Quickly, she donned a pair of soft leggings and a heavy tunic that Gabrielle had picked out for her just before they left Greece. The tunic fell almost to her knees and was dyed a deep royal blue that the bard had said brought out her eyes. Xena eyed herself speculatively and shrugged, she'd never really paid that much attention to details like that. Frowning, she searched for her boots and then remembered that she had left them on the upper deck before diving overboard.
Footsteps on the ladder alerted her and Xena looked up as Gabrielle returned with their dinner, neatly scaled, cleaned and chopped into bite-sized chunks. The bard had also slung Xena's boots over her shoulder, and as she descended the ladder, she tossed them at the warrior.
"Hey, thanks. My toes were starting to freeze," Xena greeted her friend.
"Yeah, I'll bet," Gabrielle returned. "Okay, I cleaned your little fish friend here. Now how are we supposed to cook him?"
Xena held up a finger. Working efficiently, she gathered together all of their candles and clustered them on one crate. She lit them all, filling the space with a warm, friendly glow. Next, she dug their small cooking pot out of their gear and filled it with water, then she used bits of twine to string the pot above the collective flames. Gabrielle laughed in amazement at the warrior's ingenuity. Xena directed a cocky wink at her friend as she liberally dusted the fish chunks with spices and dropped them and the last of their dried vegetables into the pot.
"It'll take a little longer, but it'll work. Trust me," she said to the fascinated, and somewhat skeptical bard.
Sure enough, a candlemark or so later, both women were eagerly slurping down bowls filled with the steaming, spicy fish stew. Xena arched an eyebrow that spoke volumes as Gabrielle refilled her bowl for the third time. Immune to the warrior's teasing, Gabrielle simply stuck her tongue out at her friend and took a healthy bite of her dinner.
"This is the first decent meal we've had in days. Don't tell me you're not enjoying it as much as I am," Gabrielle spoke around a mouthful of stew, drawing a fond laugh out of her warrior friend.
"Actually, I could use another helping too," Xena admitted, ladling another portion into her own bowl. "Stuff didn't turn out too bad, considering we had to improvise."
Gabrielle swallowed and wiped a bit of broth from the corner of her mouth. "I was so hungry I think I could've eaten that fish raw. Scales and all. By the way, thanks for catching it," seeing Xena shrug as if it were nothing, the bard continued. "Seriously, Xena. You didn't have to jump overboard like that just to get us dinner. We could've made do with what we had."
Xena tilted her bowl back and drained the last drops from it before setting on the floor beside her. Contentedly stuffed, she folded her hands across her stomach and regarded her friend seriously.
"I know we could've managed," she said. "But I wanted to do something nice. Sort of to say thanks for putting up with me these last few weeks. I know I've been a real pain at times. So, thank you."
Gabrielle stared at the warrior as if she had suddenly sprouted pointed horns and a tail. Xena wanted to do something nice to thank her. Very strange. She studied the warrior in the candlelight, noticing the way the warm glow softened the sharp angles that made up Xena's face and brought out the deep auburn highlights in her hair. She watched as Xena pulled her heavy breastplate into her lap and began making minor repairs and adjustments to it, the warrior's fingers moving with a sureness and confidence that Gabrielle believed she would never possess herself.
"Damn salt air," Xena said gruffly. "Hafta keep wiping down everything so the salt doesn't start to corrode it."
The bard's forehead wrinkled and she found herself uncharacteristically speechless. Was Xena actually trying to initiate a conversation? Xena never did that. Usually their exchanges consisted of Gabrielle asking a dozen questions and Xena responding with one or two words answers.
"Oh," was all she could think of to say, getting her an odd look from the warrior.
Abruptly, Gabrielle rose, scooping up both of their empty bowls with the same motion. Aware that Xena was watching her with a slightly puzzled expression, she carefully wiped the interiors of the bowls with a scrap of linen and then stowed them neatly with their other gear. Xena had returned to fiddling with her armor, but the space between them remained charged with an energy that Gabrielle couldn't quite identify.
"Xena?" she began, waiting until the warrior looked up before continuing. "Is everything okay? I mean, is there something else going on that I should know about?"
"Everything's fine. Why?" Xena replied, a trifle confused by the question.
Gabrielle pondered the best way to approach the subject and then decided that with Xena, the direct route was usually the best. She took deep breath to steady her resolve, aware that she was probably entering dangerous territory.
"You've been acting really strangely lately, and I want to know why," she said bluntly.
Xena was momentarily taken aback. Her mind raced as she weighed her options, wondering what exactly she should tell Gabrielle, who was waiting expectantly for a response. She couldn't tell Gabrielle the truth, could she? Yeah right, the warrior told herself sarcastically, I'll just tell her I'm falling in love with her. I'm sure that'll go over well. That won't make things awkward between us at all. She was on the verge of making up a lame excuse for her recent oddness when she was rescued by a light tap on the outer hatch leading down to their living area. Xena hastily called out an invitation and the door swung open slowly. Jared poked his head in cautiously, surveying the rather cozy scene before him speculatively. Oh, just great, the warrior complained silently, not this kid again. She was glad for the distraction, which bought her some time to construct a reasonable answer to Gabrielle's question, but at the same time, she felt a vague sense of annoyance that she now suspected was born out of jealousy. Her mood wasn't helped any as Gabrielle fairly beamed at the shy young man.
"Jared, this is a nice surprise. Come on down," she called out.
The young sailor shot a wary glance towards the tall warrior glowering at him as he eased his way down the ladder. He moved over to where Xena and Gabrielle were sitting, giving Xena an extra-wide berth as he did. Jared took a seat across from the bard and nervously shoved his slightly shaggy, rust-colored hair out of his eyes. Gabrielle smiled at him, trying to ease his obvious anxiety.
"I'm not interrupting anything, am I?" Jared asked suddenly, noticing the dark looks that the warrior was sending his way.
"No, don't be silly," Gabrielle assured him, apparently oblivious to the bristling warrior at her side. "Friends are always welcome."
Jared relaxed slightly and sniffed the spice-laden air appreciatively. "Wow, that smells great. Much better than the slop we have to eat."
"I think there's a little bit left. You're welcome to it, if you like," Gabrielle offered politely.
"Uh, no, thank you. I'm actually not really hungry," Jared declined. "Um, Gabrielle, I sort of wanted to talk to you. Privately," he added, darting another glance at the imposing figure sitting next to the object of his adoration.
Gabrielle blinked in surprise. "Oh, um, okay, I guess. Xena, you don't mind, do you?"
Xena bared her teeth in a completely insincere smile. She rose, taking advantage of her intimidating height to tower over Jared. "Of course not," she agreed, forcing the words out of her throat. "I'll be up on deck."
She directed a last, evil look towards the completely intimidated boy before she departed, leaving Jared and Gabrielle alone. Jared hesitated, unsure of how to begin. The grand speech he had prepared had suddenly escaped him, and now he was at a loss for words. Fortunately, Gabrielle took pity on him and broke the awkward silence first.
"Listen, if this is about Dalton, don't worry. Xena and I can handle him," she said, trying to guess the reason for Jared's visit.
"No, that's not it. I mean, I don't want him to bother you or anything, but that's not why I'm here," the young man said, summoning his courage as Gabrielle waited in perplexed silence. "I wanted to tell you that I think you're the most beautiful woman I've ever met in my entire life and I know the captain said you were unavailable but I wanted to know if that was true because I think I might be in love with you," Jared said, turning beet red as the words tumbled out all at once.
Gabrielle's eyes widened in shock at Jared's out of the blue declaration. This was the last thing she had been expecting the shy young sailor to say, and she wondered how she should respond. A sudden thought popped into her head and rolled around in her mind, repeating itself incessantly. I wonder how Xena will react to this. The bard realized that Jared was watching her intently, waiting for her to say something and she took a long breath before opening her mouth to speak.
"Um, Jared, I don't really know what to say," she began, trying to figure out the least painful way to break the young man's heart. "You're a really nice guy, but. . . ." she broke off, noting the crestfallen look on his face.
She tucked a few unruly locks of hair behind her ears before continuing. "Jared, you can't possibly be in love with me. You don't even know me."
Jared spoke up, knowing that he had nothing to lose. "I know everything I need to. I know that you're kind and honest and brave. And that you make me feel like I want to be a better man so I'll be worthy of your love."
Tears of frustration threatened to spill from Gabrielle's eyes and she covered her mouth with one hand as she desperately sought a way to salvage the situation. In her heart, she knew that Jared was a good man and that he would love her forever if she let him. At the same time, however, she knew that she didn't love him back, and she never would. Not as anything more than a dear friend, anyway. Again, she found her thoughts turning to Xena, wondering what the warrior was thinking, worrying that Xena wouldn't understand that she didn't return Jared's affections. And then it hit her; she couldn't love Jared because her heart already belonged to someone else. She looked at the young sailor standing across from her, and she realized that she had to tell him the truth, so that he would know without a doubt that there wasn't any chance for them.
"The truth is, I'm incredibly flattered that you feel that way about me, and I wish I could return the feeling. But the captain was right. My heart is already spoken for," she said as gently as she could.
He was quiet, his eyes downcast as he absorbed her words. Finally, he looked up at her, disappointment clearly written across his face. "I hope Xena knows just how lucky she is," he said.
Without another word, Jared turned and walked out, almost bumping into Xena once he reached the upper deck. The warrior evidently had been pacing back and forth in front of the door, and now she stopped and eyed the young man suspiciously. Swallowing his fear of the tall, imposing woman before him, Jared squared his shoulders and looked her directly in the eye. She returned his gaze coolly, one eyebrow quirking slightly.
"You don't deserve her," he said flatly. Brushing past the startled warrior, he stalked away, still aching from Gabrielle's rejection.
Xena watched him go until he was out of sight. She started to return to the cargo hold, but paused just outside the closed door as Jared's words echoed through her brain. Obviously, the kid had professed his love and Gabrielle had turned him down. Xena felt a relieved sense of satisfaction at that. But what on earth had the bard said to him? She started to push open the door leading down to the hold, jerking back in surprise as the handle was yanked out of her hand and Gabrielle crashed headlong into her. Xena reached out and steadied her friend to keep her from tumbling backwards . Gabrielle quickly regained her balance and slid past her friend.
"So what was that all about? I just saw Jared bolt out of here, too," Xena said, trying to sound casual.
"He came to tell me he was in love with me," Gabrielle replied, watching Xena closely for a reaction. "I told him I wasn't interested."
"Really?" was all the warrior said.
"Yeah, he's not my type."
Xena shifted uncomfortably, suddenly feeling like a clueless fish being lured to its doom. Gabrielle, she noticed, was looking at her with a very odd expression. Oh gods, she wondered frantically, she doesn't know how I feel, does she? What if she does? What should I say?
"You know what, Xena, it's getting awfully late. We should probably get some sleep," Gabrielle said, interrupting the warrior's steadily building panic attack.
Still more or less tongue-tied, Xena simply nodded in agreement and led the way back down the ladder. In silence, they settled in for the night, blowing out the candles and crawling under their sleeping furs. Both women were aware of the almost tangible tension in the air between them, but neither knew what to say.
"Hmm...what is it Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle hesitated as her courage failed her. "Nothing. Good night."
In the darkness, Xena could hear Gabrielle tossing and turning restlessly for a very long time before she finally went still. She waited until she heard the soft snoring that indicated that the bard was deeply asleep.
"I love you, Gabrielle," she whispered out loud for the first time, marvelling at the way the words felt on her lips. She closed her eyes and waited for sleep to take her, but it was nearly dawn before she made that journey into Morpheus's realm.
The first pale rays of the morning sun spilled through the cracks in the shutters covering the portholes of the great ship and fell across two sleeping forms. In her dreams, the smaller blonde woman had reached out towards her companion, and now her hand rested flat on Xena's stomach, which rose and fell with the warrior's slow, even breathing. Xena stirred as the light gradually made its way across her face, and she wrinkled her brow in sleepy confusion at the unfamiliar pressure on her midsection. Slowly, she opened her eyes and looked down at the bard's hand draped across her body, and she froze. Ignoring the mix of emotions that Gabrielle's touch was producing in her, Xena carefully moved her friend's hand away, wanting to spare them both any embarrassment when the bard woke. The warrior's keen ears picked up the sound of Gabrielle's voice mumbling her name in her sleep, and her lips twitched in a wistful smile as she wondered what the bard was dreaming about. For just a moment, she allowed herself a fleeting indulgence and imagined that Gabrielle felt something for her other than friendship.
"Knock it off, Xena," she told herself, her voice sounding unusually loud in the early morning stillness.
Bracing herself for the cold she knew she would face, Xena slid out from under her sleeping furs and quietly rolled to her feet. She straightened her tunic and smoothed out the wrinkles caused by her restless night, and then she grabbed her boots in one hand and headed for the ladder. She padded noiselessly up the rungs and emerged into the chilly air outside. Smells like snow, she mused, sniffing the air judiciously while she pulled on her boots. Several sailors were quietly going about their business, swabbing down the deck, checking the sails and doing various other routine chores, but Jared, Xena noticed, was not among them. With a long, lazy motion, she stretched her arms above her head, sighing in contentment as her spine realigned itself and her stiff muscles relaxed and loosened. She tilted her head up, squinting at the dim profile of the lookout high above the deck in the crow's nest. While she watched, the sailor began to wave his arms frantically and his excited voice rang out, bringing the rest of the crew out into the morning light.
"Land! Land ahead!"
Xena looked in the distance where the lookout was pointing, and sure enough, barely visible on the horizon, she could see the rough outline of Eire's rocky shore. She grinned in pure reflex, feeling an overwhelming sense of joy and relief infuse her spirit. Soon, very soon they would feel solid land beneath their feet.
"Thank the gods," she muttered as she descended back into the cargo hold to tell Gabrielle the good news.
Continued in part 3 .
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