Shadows, part 3
By midday, the Pandora had sailed into port on the southeastern shore of Eire. Two women waited anxiously on the deck of the great ship as its crew prepared to lower the gangplank. The taller of the two scanned the docks alertly, searching for any signs of trouble, while the smaller blonde eagerly drank in the first sights and sounds of this new, unfamiliar land. Everything about Eire was so different from anyplace she had seen before, nothing at all like Greece, Gabrielle thought. Even the way people talked was different. Here, their speech had an odd, musical lilt that the bard found absolutely enchanting, and she practiced the sounds in her head, determined to try duplicating the accent later. It might come in handy for a story, she reasoned. She tilted her head up to look at her expressionless companion.
"So this is Eire, huh? Boy, it'll sure be nice to put my feet on solid ground again," getting no response from the taciturn warrior, she continued chattering aimlessly. "I don't see any signs of the Romans. Maybe they're in another part of the country. So how are we supposed to find your friend, anyway?"
Keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the teeming docks, Xena replied curtly. "She's not my friend." Something wasn't right here. True, she'd been expecting a visible Roman presence, and there was no sign of them anywhere. That alone was enough to set the warrior's nerves on edge. But there was something else nagging at her, a vague, uneasy feeling that things in Eire were not as they seemed.
The end of the gangplank connected with the edge of the dock, generating a loud thump that nearly made Xena jump in spite of herself. She looked up as Khreig approached, arm extended toward the warrior. Xena grasped his forearm in the customary gesture.
"Well, then, I guess we'll be parting ways. "Twas a pleasure having you aboard, Xena. And you as well, Gabrielle," the captain added hastily, receiving a sincere smile from the bard. "Good luck to you both and may the gods smile on you."
The captain departed then, going off to supervise the unloading of the precious trade goods he had transported from Greece. Xena shouldered the worn leather bag that contained her scant personal belongings and waited while Gabrielle did the same. There was no going back now. Without a word, she turned and led the way down the gangplank, feeling a strange shiver run down her spine as soon as her boots touched the dock. Xena frowned, wondering about the odd reaction. She was just being overly paranoid, she decided, dismissing the sensation. She put a guiding hand on Gabrielle's elbow and steered the bard forward, making sure not to lose her friend in the crush of humanity populating the crowded dock. Someone shouted her name and Xena turned her head in that direction, trying to locate the source of the voice.
The crowd parted slightly, allowing a striking young woman to emerge from its midst. The woman was tall, nearly as tall as Xena, though she lacked the sheer physical presence of the warrior princess. Instead, this woman was whip-thin with sinewy muscles that indicated a strength far greater than her size. Dark auburn hair cascaded to her slim waist in thick waves, and enigmatic hazel eyes peered out of a face dominated by impossibly high cheekbones and a thin, aristocratic nose. Intricately wrought silver armlets encircled her upper arms, and she wore light chain mail over a thick tunic and leggings. Twin daggers poked above the tops of her soft leather boots, and a thin sword hung from her belt, telling all those within range that she was not someone to be toyed with. She carried herself with the ease and the confidence of a fighter, striding forward with utter confidence.
"Xena, you made it. I was starting to think you had changed your mind," the woman said, with that same musical quality to her voice. A hint of disdain flickered across her features.
"Siobahn," Xena greeted her former comrade coolly.
So, this was Siobahn. Gabrielle eyed the woman speculatively, aware of the undercurrent of tension running between Xena and her former colleague. Almost immediately, the bard decided she didn't like this faintly arrogant woman who had summoned them halfway around the world. She directed an insincere smile at Siobahn, which the other woman completely ignored. Suddenly, Gabrielle realized that Xena hadn't even bothered to introduce her yet, a fact which raised the bard's ire. Stepping forward, she impulsively stuck her hand out to the auburn-haired woman.
"Hi. I'm Gabrielle. I'm a friend of Xena's. So I heard you're having some Roman trouble."
Siobahn regarded her thoughtfully, wondering why on earth Xena was letting this little farm girl tag along after her. She studied the bard's face, seeing youthful innocence there, mixed with a healthy dose of reality, indicating to Siobahn that the kid had been around the village once or twice. Then, as she her eyes swept appraisingly up and down Gabrielle's lithe form, noting the firm, toned muscles lurking under the flesh, a cruel, knowing smile played along the edges of her lips. So, Xena's tastes have changed, she thought. Finally, she took the bard's hand, holding it for a bit longer than necessary.
"Gabrielle. It's an honor to meet you. Any friend of Xena's is a friend of mine," Siobahn oozed insincere charm, and she lightly stroked Gabrielle's hand as she spoke.
The action was not lost on Xena, nor was the almost predatory look in her old colleague's eyes, and she made a mental note to warn her somewhat naïve young friend about Siobahn's games. Siobahn could be quite the charmer when she wanted to be; she knew she was attractive and she wasn't above using that to get what she wanted. Not so different from the way I used to be, Xena admitted sardonically. Carefully, she composed her face into a threatening mask and she very deliberately stepped between Siobahn and Gabrielle, her hard blue eyes boring into her former comrade, sending her a message that the bard was off limits. Siobahn raised her eyebrows at Xena's display of possessiveness, but she backed off, conceding the game for the moment anyway.
"Well. I'm sure you're both starved for something other than sea rations. Follow me, then. There's a tavern up the ways a bit that serves a decent meal. We'll have a bite and I'll fill you in on the situation here," Siobahn said, directing her comments toward the glowering warrior.
The tavern that Siobahn led them to was cramped and dark, filled mostly with rowdy sailors from the ships pulling in and out of port. Smoky, sputtering torches were spaced sporadically along the walls, casting a dim light over the room. Siobahn directed them to a rough table in the corner, telling them to sit while she arranged for their meal. Xena's gaze surveyed the other patrons, and she took a seat, making sure that she was facing the rest of the room. Around them, drunken sailors were telling bawdy stories and singing in off-key voices that grated on the warrior's nerves. Several rude comments floated in their direction, but Gabrielle followed Xena's example and ignored them as she slid onto the bench beside her friend and idly traced the patterns that some long ago patron had carved into the surface of the table. She had noticed the unspoken exchange between Xena and Siobahn back at the docks, and now she searched for a way to bring the subject up to her friend.
"Siobahn's not what I expected," Gabrielle said casually, trying to draw some more information out of her notoriously close-mouthed friend. Xena raised an eyebrow at her, but said nothing. "She's younger than I thought she would be, for one thing. She can't be more than a year or two older than me," the bard continued.
"Mmm, no she isn't," Xena agreed. "She was very young when she hooked up with Boadicea."
The warrior's attention darted to something behind Gabrielle, and a moment later, Siobahn returned with a tray of roast lamb in one hand and a platter of bread and sweet butter in the other. The auburn-haired warrior placed the food on the table and signaled to a serving girl nearby. Three foaming tankards of ale were set in front of them, and Siobahn dismissed the girl with a negligent wave of her hand. The savory aroma of the lamb wafted up to Gabrielle's nose, and she breathed in deeply, her mouth watering at the prospect of a non-fish based meal. Taking two slices of the bread, she laid several pieces of meat between them and took a healthy bite, chewing happily. Xena slowly unsheathed her dagger and speared a chunk of lamb with it. Gabrielle knew that was Xena's way of reminding everyone that she was armed and dangerous, as if the massive sword strapped to her back and the deadly chakram hanging at her hip weren't enough of a reminder.
"Allright, Siobahn," Xena started, swallowing a mouthful of the succulent lamb. "What exactly am I doing here? 'Cause I sure don't see any Romans."
Siobahn took a long swallow from her tankard and wiped the foam from her lips with the back of her hand. She leaned forward, lowering her voice to prevent those around them from overhearing their conversation.
"The Romans just took a town about three days east of here, but they're definitely heading this way next. I have an army camped in the woods outside this town and I intend to stop Caesar's advance here," she leaned back and waited for Xena to respond.
"Okay. That's your goal. Now what's your plan and how do I fit into it?" Xena demanded.
"It's no secret that you and Caesar have a history together, Xena. I want you to distract him while my army decimates his legions," Siobhan stated simply.
Gabrielle's blood ran cold. This was more than they had bargained for. They had intended to sail in, bash some Roman heads and head back to Greece as quickly as possible, not to use Xena as bait to entice Caesar away from his conquest of Eire. She shook her head, hurriedly swallowing a mouthful of bread.
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," she began. A look from Xena silenced her and she stopped.
"So Caesar's the rat and I'm the cheese," Xena summed it up succinctly, her eyes narrowing as she regarded Siobahn soberly.
"Something like that," Siobahn agreed as she tore a chunk of lamb from the roast in front of her.
A commotion at a nearby table interrupted their discussion as a serving tray fell to the floor with a loud clatter. Xena's eyes quickly found the source of the problem. A hulking, barrel-chested, obviously intoxicated sailor was pawing at a frightened, very young serving girl, and she was desperately trying to pull free while the sailor's friends cheered him on. In a fluid motion, Xena rose and strode across the floor to loom over the drunken man. Gabrielle followed her, clutching her staff in her hands.
"Let her go," Xena commanded. She kept her voice low, and Gabrielle had learned over the years that the quieter Xena was with an opponent, the more danger that opponent was in.
"Who's gonna make me?" the belligerent man asked, emboldened by the strong ale.
Xena answered him with a chilling smile. With a sudden flash, two long fingers jabbed at familiar points on the man's neck, and his eyes went wide with terror. He choked and gasped for air that would not come and a thin line of blood trickled from his nose and dripped from his pointed chin. The terrified girl took the opportunity to free herself, and she ran away, disappearing behind the bar. Xena bent over the stricken man and purred silkily in his ear, while Gabrielle brandished her staff with the most threatening posture she could come up with, effectively holding off the sailor's friends.
"I'm gonna make you," Xena murmured in the man's ear. "I've shut off the flow of blood to your brain and you'll be dead in less than thirty seconds unless you do as I say. Got it?"
The man nodded frantically, a pathetic whine emerging from his throat. Xena continued.
"You and your buddies clear out of here. And if I hear of you bothering anyone else in this town, I'll hunt you down and turn you into a eunuch."
Xena released the pinch and the man collapsed to his knees, sucking in huge lungfuls of air. His friend's picked him up and hurriedly ushered him out of the tavern, giving the seething warrior a wide berth. Xena's challenging gaze swept across the rest of the room.
"Anyone else wanna try my patience?" she called out, her voice ringing in the silence.
No one else was brave enough or foolish enough to meet her eyes. Soon, muted conversations sprung up again and the altercation was forgotten. In waterfront taverns like this one, brawls were a frequent occurrence. Xena and Gabrielle returned to their table where Siobahn was watching them with an appreciative grin.
"Nice. I see you haven't lost your touch. And your cub there has a backbone, standing up to all those big, bad men with nothing but a stick."
Gabrielle bristled at the remark, but she forced herself to stay calm. She smiled sweetly at the woman that she was beginning to like less and less.
"This stick has saved my life more times than I can count," she said, feeling the rough surface of her staff in her hand.
"Gabrielle, why don't you see if they have any rooms available here? I know I could use a bed after all those weeks of sleeping on the floor," Xena spoke up, defusing the growing tension. She turned to Siobahn. "We can meet up with you tomorrow and finish our discussion."
Gabrielle recognized that Xena wanted a moment alone with Siobahn, and she went off in search of the innkeeper. Xena waited until the bard was out of earshot before she turned back to Siobhan, cold anger flashing in her eyes.
"Leave her alone, Siobahn," she snarled at the woman who was openly smirking at her.
"Why, Xena, whatever do you mean?" Siobahn asked innocently, laughing as the warrior's expression darkened further. "I never thought I'd see the day when the Destroyer of Nations would go sweet on a little farm girl. Of course, you always did like 'em young."
"You have no idea what you're talking about," Xena returned blithely, feeling her temper starting to rise.
Ah, so it was like that, then, Siobahn realized. The kid didn't know that Xena was totally sprung on her. Her mind worked as she considered ways to use that little tidbit to her advantage. Xena was already angry, and pissing her off even more probably wasn't a good idea, so Siobahn switched tactics and bestowed a disarming grin on the woman across from her.
"My mistake," she apologized. "Look, I won't bother your friend if that's the way you want it. Just as long as you help me get these bloody Romans off my island."
"I didn't come all this way just to say hello," Xena pointed out. "I'll help you beat Rome. You just stay the Hades away from my friend."
Siobahn rose and extended her arm across the table. Xena gripped the proffered forearm briefly and then let her hands fall to her sides, indicating that as far as she was concerned, the conversation was over. She looked Siobahn directly in the eye, sending her ex-comrade a clear signal of dismissal. The auburn-haired woman gave Xena a thin, tight-lipped smile, obviously displeased with the warrior's attitude towards her.
"I suppose we've talked enough for one day, then," Siobahn said, salvaging as much control of the situation as she could. "I have to return to my army. We'll meet here in the morning and I'll escort you and your... friend... to my camp so we can discuss our strategy."
Xena assented with a single nod of her dark head. She folded her arms across her chest and waited for Siobahn to leave. A momentary spark of irritation flashed in the hazel eyes of the woman from Eire, but Siobahn quickly clamped down on her anger and swept out of the tavern imperiously, roughly shoving aside a serving girl as she left.
A flicker of motion caught the corner of Xena's eye and she turned her head to spot Gabrielle returning, an expression of outrage plastered on her face. In a huff, Gabrielle stopped in front of her bemused friend.
"Do you have any idea how much they wanted for a room?" the bard demanded.
Xena shrugged. The warrior had never been particularly adept at bargaining, finding it a waste of her valuable time. Besides, few people, aside from the blind or the terminally stupid, ever tried to con the warrior princess out of anything. Certainly, they didn't argue with her over the price of a room. Gabrielle, on the other hand, loved the challenge of haggling with a merchant, so Xena usually left those matters up to her gregarious young friend.
"It doesn't matter, Gabrielle," Xena sighed. "Just pay the innkeeper so we can get some rest. Unless you'd rather sleep under the docks," she added as an afterthought.
Gabrielle shot the warrior her dirtiest look as she imagined a night spent under the smelly, filthy docks with the slime and the rats.
"You're impossible, you know that?"
Xena simply shrugged her shoulders again, infuriating Gabrielle even more. The bard sighed and threw up her hands in disgust, glaring evilly at the recalcitrant warrior. She could tell that Xena was deliberately trying to get on her nerves, and the warrior's plan was working admirably.
"Don't worry. I paid the thieving scoundrel who runs this place," Gabrielle said, raising her voice slightly and getting an admonishing look from Xena.
"Shhh. Keep your voice down. I'm not in the mood for a tavern brawl," Xena warned, noticing the dark look they were receiving from the dour innkeeper. "So, where's this room you got us?"
Recessed in a dark corner of the tavern, a steep staircase pointed the way to the upper floor where travellers were invited to lodge for a price. Gabrielle led the way up to their room, turning left at the top of the stairs and continuing down the narrow hallway until they had reached the last door. She produced a worn, slightly bent key from the pocket of her skirt and fitted it in the lock. A grating squeak brought a pained wince to Xena's face as the key grudgingly turned to admit them entrance into their room. Gabrielle pushed the door open and Xena poked her head in and took a careful look around.
Their accommodations were better than she had expected. The room was spacious and reasonably clean. Someone had swept the bare floor recently, at least, and put a fresh pitcher of water and an empty basin on the small table in the center of the room. Two wobbly chairs sat on either side of the table, and Xena dropped her gear on one of them as she continued to look over their lodgings. One wall held a shuttered window, and Xena peered through the wooden slats at the alley below. She nodded approvingly. It was a long drop, but it was a manageable escape route if they should need one. Much to the warrior's surprise, a small fireplace took up a portion of the far wall and a neat bundle of wood was stacked off to one side. That would come in handy, especially during the long, cold nights, Xena mused. She turned her head and finally caught sight of their sleeping arrangements. Along the remaining wall, a single, large bed waited. Xena stared at it uncertainly. She and Gabrielle had shared a bed numerous times in the past, but that was before Xena had realized her feelings for the bard. Her stomach lurched at the idea of sleeping in such close proximity to the woman she loved but could never have.
Gabrielle frowned as she realized that Xena was staring at the bed with an expression of vague horror. The linens appeared to be clean enough, Gabrielle thought, peering closer at the piece of furniture. What was the problem?
"Is there something wrong with the bed? The innkeeper said this was the only room he had left, and I just thought... ." Gabrielle trailed off, hesitantly. "I mean, we've slept in the same bed before. I didn't think it would be a problem. Look, if it makes you uncomfortable, I can always sleep on the floor."
That jolted Xena out of her dazed state and she focused her gaze on the confused bard at her side. She managed a convincing smile.
"Don't be ridiculous. Nobody's sleeping on the floor," Xena said. "The bed is fine. The room is fine. I'm just tired, that's all."
"Oh, okay," Gabrielle accepted the warrior's explanation at face value. "There's supposed to be a bathing room down the hall. I was going to go check it out. Want to come with me?"
Go with her? Xena was unexpectedly struck dumb. The idea of sleeping next to Gabrielle was making her jumpy enough; bathing together was out of the question. A mental picture formed in her mind, and she stubbornly forced the images of a naked Gabrielle from her thoughts. She shook her head vigorously.
"Uh, no. That's okay. You go ahead, I'll take a peek later," Xena declined the invitation. "A look at the bathing room, I mean," she added hastily, feeling the edges of her ears burn.
Gabrielle gave her an odd look but decided not to pursue it. She set her bag on the table and dug through it for a bar of soap, a piece of linen to towel off with, and a clean shift to change into. She paused in the doorway and turned around to see Xena fiddling nervously with the corner of a pillow.
"You're sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine, Gabrielle. Go. Enjoy your bath," Xena directed. "I'm gonna get the fire built and do a couple of other things first."
Gabrielle hesitated a moment longer, watching as Xena crossed over to the fireplace and started methodically arranging a few sticks of wood in its center. A sudden knot of fear gripped her as she wondered if she had done something to make the warrior angry. Xena seemed to sense her uncertainty and tossed a reassuring grin over her shoulder.
"Go on. Everything's fine, really," Xena repeated, hoping she sounded more sure of herself than she felt.
Mystified, Gabrielle departed in search of the bathing room, which, according to the innkeeper, was located at the other end of the long hallway. As she passed the top of the staircase, she was forced to dodge swiftly to one side when a man in a hooded cloak nearly crashed headlong into her. Refusing to meet the bard's eyes, he kept his face turned away and muttered a few unintelligible words as he hurriedly brushed past Gabrielle. She shook her head at his rudeness and continued down the hallway. The sound of clanking mugs and drunken laughter drifted up from the tavern below, and she hoped that the noise wouldn't keep Xena awake at night. The warrior was a notoriously light sleeper.
At last, Gabrielle stopped in front of a door at the other end of the corridor and she peered closely at the faded writing carved into its surface.
"I guess this is the place," she commented aloud to the empty hallway.
She rapped her knuckles sharply on the wood and waited for a few heartbeats. Getting no response from within, Gabrielle cautiously nudged the door open with her foot and prayed that there were no naked sailors passed out from too much ale inside the room. Much to her relief, the small chamber was empty. She stepped inside and shut the door behind her, settling the crossbar in place to prevent anyone else from entering uninvited. A wooden tub surrounded by flickering candles, sat at the center of the room and a low bench rested against the wall. Gabrielle set her things on the bench and sat down to remove her boots. Rows of buckets lined the other walls, and she padded over on her bare feet to investigate them. The floor, she noted, was warm beneath her feet, and much to her delight, she discovered that the water in the buckets was heated as well. The bathing room must be above the kitchen, she thought.
Going back and forth several times, she lugged the heavy buckets over and spilled them into the tub. She removed her tunic and her leggings, folded them neatly and placed them on the bench. Getting out of the clothing that smelled strongly of the sea was a relief. Carefully, Gabrielle stepped over the dripping candles ringing the tub and lowered herself into the water with an audible sigh. She rested her head against the edge and spent a few blissful moments simply reveling in the sensation of the warm, clean water against her skin. She slid down until her chin touched the surface of the water and she propped her feet against the opposite side of the tub, wriggling her toes happily as she let her mind wander freely. The bathtub was actually just big enough for two people, if they didn't mind snuggling together a bit. If she closed her eyes, she could almost imagine Xena stretched out languidly in it, arms sprawled across the sides of the tub... .
"Oh, stop that, Gabrielle," she chastised herself, blushing furiously. "She doesn't see you like that."
She exhaled slowly, trying to erase the mental picture from her thoughts. When had she realized that she was head over heels in love with the tall, hard headed, danger-prone ex-warlord? Gabrielle searched her memory, trying to pinpoint the exact moment. Maybe it was when Xena had died and I had to take her body back home, she mused. No, that was when I really admitted it to myself, but I loved her before that. She smiled wistfully as a memory surfaced. She and Xena had parted ways so that Gabrielle could fulfill her dream of attending the Royal Academy for Bards. She had been so excited, Gabrielle remembered. There she had been, surrounded by poets and storytellers just like herself. It was all she had wanted growing up on her father's farm in Potadeia. And yet, less than a day after she arrived, Gabrielle had realized that her dreams had changed. Instead of happiness, all she had felt was a profound emptiness. She had missed Xena so much that it made her chest ache, and in that moment, she knew that she had fallen in love with this enigmatic warrior who, back then, steadfastly refused to let her young companion inside her guard even for a moment.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and stared blankly at the wall. Sometimes, like now, she desperately wanted to confess everything and declare her love for her taciturn friend, but fear stopped her cold every time. Xena didn't feel that way about her, Gabrielle knew, and she didn't want to risk ruining their friendship by making the warrior uncomfortable around her.
"Gods, is there anything more pathetic than unrequited love?" she asked herself in disgust, jumping a bit as her voice echoed off the walls.
She retrieved the soap from the floor next to the tub and started to scrub herself thoroughly, noticing that her fingers were already starting to prune from being in the water for so long. Gabrielle slid down further and dunked her head so that she could wash her hair, even though she knew it would take forever for the long tresses to dry, especially in this damp climate. Still, she wanted to be rid of the nauseating stench of fish and brine that had clung to her for weeks, ever since they had boarded that blasted ship.
While Gabrielle was bathing, Xena had built a small, but cheery, fire in their room, and now she listened to the wood crackle and pop as she waited for the bard to return. The warrior sat on the floor, back propped up against the bed frame and her long legs stretched out in front of her as she basked in the warmth from the fire. Idly, she twirled her breast dagger between her fingers and stared pensively into the flames. Footsteps approached the door, and Xena's ears twitched as she attempted to identify their owner. The tread was too heavy to be either Gabrielle or Siobahn, and Xena quickly shifted her grip on her dagger, her wrist cocked and ready to fling the weapon at the first sign of trouble. The steps stopped in the corridor outside the room, and Xena silently got to her feet, calculating the amount of time it would take her to reach her sword and chakram, left carelessly on the table.
She took a step forward just as the door burst inward with a loud bang. Instinctively, Xena dove sideways, hearing the chilling whine as a dagger flew through the air where her head had been seconds earlier. She hit the floor in a tuck and she smoothly rolled to her feet, catching a glimpse of her would-be assassin as he fled. He was wearing a black cloak and the hood was gathered around his face, concealing his features. Xena chased her attacker out into the hall, grabbing her sword from the table as she dashed past. Dimly, she heard a shout of alarm and her eyes flickered towards the other end of the corridor where she saw Gabrielle emerge from a doorway. She returned her attention to the pursuit, closing the distance between herself and the assassin. Pausing at the top of the stairs, he threw a hasty glance over his shoulder at the charging warrior, and Xena got a quick look at his face. She had never seen him before.
Two inebriated sailors were stumbling up the stairs, each with his arm around a heavily made-up whore, and the assassin used them to block Xena's path. He grabbed one of the shrieking women and hurled her towards the warrior as he sprinted down the staircase. Xena caught the woman and pushed her out of the way, but the action had achieved its desired effect, and the assassin was gone. She cursed loudly as the sailors and their women staggered past her and disappeared into a single room. Gabrielle skidded to a halt beside her, barefoot, her hair dripping water all over the floor.
"What happened? Who was that guy?" the bard asked, slightly out of breath from her mad dash down the hall.
"I don't know," Xena replied flatly.
The warrior returned to their room with Gabrielle following on her heels. She shut the door behind them and locked it. The assassin's dagger had struck the stone fireplace and fallen harmlessly to the floor, and Xena crossed the room to inspect it. Switching her sword to her left hand, she bent down and picked up the blade, inspecting it in the light from the fire. As she suspected, the tip of the blade was coated with a clear, sticky liquid, and she raised it to her nose, sniffing carefully.
"Poisoned," Xena stated succinctly, wiping the blade clean with a scrap of linen.
She tossed the rag into the fire and watched silently as it disintegrated in the flames. The poison was a fairly common one, and any reputable apothecary was bound to stock the antidote. It seemed that the attack was meant more to incapacitate her than kill her outright, and she wondered about the real motive behind the assault. She looked at the knife again, scanning it for anything that would identify its owner, but the dagger was unremarkable in every way. It could have come from the kitchen below, for all the warrior knew. She turned, intending on sharing that observation with Gabrielle, and she was surprised to see that the bard was shaking and pale. The attack momentarily forgotten, Xena grabbed her friend by the shoulders and guided her to a chair.
"Gabrielle, are you allright? What's wrong?" she asked, her dark brows knitting together in concern.
Gabrielle looked up to gaze directly at the warrior, and Xena saw tears standing in her best friend's eyes. She knelt on the floor in front of the bard and took both of Gabrielle's hands in her own, rubbing the skin gently with her thumbs. She waited patiently as Gabrielle took a long, shuddering breath.
"You could have been killed," Gabrielle whispered, her voice barely audible.
Xena blinked, not quite sure why her friend was reacting so strongly. People tried to kill her every other day and it didn't usually get this kind of reaction from the bard. She put on her best reassuring smile and hoped that brash overconfidence would help alleviate Gabrielle's fear.
"Nah, not by that guy," Xena drawled. "He's gonna need more than that lame brained, half-assed plan to take me out."
"Xena, the dagger was poisoned. He wanted you dead," Gabrielle stared at the warrior, trying to make her understand. "You don't get it."
Xena tilted her head, clearly confused. "Get what? He tried. He failed. What's the big deal?"
"I can't lose you! Not again," Gabrielle blurted.
Xena rocked back on her heels, taken aback. She searched for the right words to comfort the obviously distressed bard. Gabrielle was staring at the floor, and Xena took her chin, gently lifting her friend's face until she could look directly into those jade green eyes.
"I'm not going anywhere. I promise," Xena said softly, a tiny piece of her heart showing in her clear blue eyes.
Gabrielle closed her eyes, swallowing hard against the giant lump in her throat. She sniffled quietly and extracted one of her hands from Xena's grasp, using it to wipe the moisture from her eyes. Gods, she must think I'm a needy, attention-starved, oversensitive kid, the bard thought. Embarrassed, she changed the subject.
"So who was that guy anyway? Did you recognize him?"
"No," Xena said, glad for the lightening of the mood. "Never seen him before."
Gabrielle drummed her fingers on the arm of the chair as she thought. No one knew they were in Eire. No one besides Siobahn, anyway. Gabrielle's eyes narrowed and she wondered if the arrogant woman was behind the attack. The bard definitely didn't trust Xena's old friend. Suddenly, Gabrielle was very aware of Xena's fingers stroking her wrist and her breath caught in her throat. Xena seemed to realize it at the same moment, and she quickly let go of the bard's hand. They remained in a brief, awkward silence until Xena cleared her throat and spoke.
"Maybe it was the Romans."
"The Romans don't know we're here, Xena. Maybe it was Siobahn," Gabrielle voiced her suspicion.
"Hmmm," Xena considered the possibility. "Why would Siobahn drag me all the way to Eire if she wanted to have me assassinated? She could have paid someone to do that in Greece."
"True. But maybe she wants the satisfaction of seeing it done herself," Gabrielle countered.
"Look, Gabrielle, I know the two of you didn't exactly hit it off today, but I really don't think Siobahn was behind this. It just doesn't make sense. Anyway, the guy missed, and I doubt he'll be trying again anytime soon. And even if he does, now I'll be ready for him."
Xena rose and stowed the assassin's dagger inside her bag. Privately, the attack bothered her more than she was letting on, but given Gabrielle's earlier reaction, she decided to keep her concerns to herself for a while. There was no sense in upsetting her young friend even further, she reasoned. Xena crossed over to the fireplace and crouched down to put a few more sticks on the pile, watching as the flames licked eagerly at the new source of fuel. She unhooked her breastplate and set in the corner, out of the way, piling the rest of her armor around it neatly. It had been a long, aggravating day, and suddenly, a bath sounded immensely appealing.
"I think I'm gonna go check out that bath now," she said. "I'll bring the rest of your stuff back with me. Lock the door and don't open for anyone except me."
Gabrielle nodded, following Xena to the door. "Be careful," she said seriously.
"Always," Xena replied with a quirky grin.
Half a candlemark later, the warrior returned, clean and much more relaxed. Gabrielle let her in and then went back to her place on the bed, gathering the blankets up around her legs as she worked on a scroll. Xena took a seat on one of the chairs and began her nightly ritual of inspecting her weapons and armor. She couldn't keep her mind on her task, though, and soon, she set her gear aside and gingerly sat down on the edge of the bed. Gabrielle looked up at her.
"Are you sleepy?" she asked the warrior.
"No, not really," Xena replied.
"Then what are you doing?"
Xena shrugged sheepishly. "I didn't want to disturb you."
Gabrielle gave her an incredulous look. She patted the bed next to her and waited until Xena had stretched out beside her.
"Okay, as long as you're here, I'm gonna test out this story on you," Gabrielle said, grinning at her captive audience of one.
Xena nodded in agreement and settled back to listen as the bard began to recount the story about their misadventures with Cupid's arrows. Arching her eyebrows as Gabrielle described the warrior's sudden infatuation with Draco, Xena was compelled to point out the bard's own fascination with Joxer, getting her a good-natured elbow to the ribs. She chuckled softly as Gabrielle resumed the tale, the warrior's eyes never leaving the bard's profile. Soon, instead of listening to the words, Xena found herself enchanted by the firelight flickering across Gabrielle's face. She inhaled, smiling a little as the scent of Gabrielle's aloe-tinged soap tickled her nose. With extreme effort, she resisted the urge to reach out and brush a lock of hair from the bard's eyes.
"Are you listening to me?" Gabrielle's question jerked Xena out of her reverie.
"Yeah, of course," she said.
"No you're not," Gabrielle accused playfully. "You were about a million miles away just now."
"No I wasn't," Xena insisted.
"You were too," Gabrielle teased, reaching over Xena to set her scroll and quill on the floor next to the warrior's sword.
Gabrielle lay on her back and stared up at the ceiling, watching the shadows chase each other across the surface. They rested in companionable silence for a while. Suddenly, Gabrielle rolled onto her side and propped her head on her hand. Xena's head turned towards her and blue eyes regarded her seriously.
"Tell me more about Siobahn," Gabrielle requested quietly.
"What do you want to know?" Xena asked, just as quietly.
Gabrielle thought for a moment. She wasn't entirely sure how much she wanted to know about Xena's relationship with the imperious woman she'd met earlier that day. Still, the more information she had about Siobahn, the better prepared she would be if it turned out that Siobahn was behind the attempt on Xena's life.
"I want to know everything," Gabrielle decided. "Were you friends?"
Xena sighed. She didn't really want to revisit this incredibly dark part of her past, but she couldn't deny Gabrielle. After all, she'd dragged the bard halfway across the world. The least she could do was tell her friend the whole ugly truth.
"I wouldn't have called us friends, exactly," Xena replied.
"Okay," Gabrielle said slowly, summoning the courage for her next question. "Were you lovers?"
Xena was surprised by the directness of the question. Gabrielle had never asked her anything like that before. In fact, she couldn't remember the bard even asking her if she was attracted to women before now. A vague notion drifted around the edges of her consciousness, but she stubbornly ignored it, refusing to even entertain the idea that Gabrielle might actually be jealous of Siobahn.
"No, we were never lovers," Xena answered truthfully. "Although she sort of wanted us to be."
Unseen by the warrior, relief flooded through Gabrielle as she absorbed this bit of information. The strained atmosphere between Xena and Siobahn was starting to make sense now, as was Siobahn's immediate dislike of her. She sees me as a threat, Gabrielle realized. That could be dangerous.
"She had a crush on you," Gabrielle said, prompting Xena to go on with her story.
"Yeah, I guess so. When I was riding with Boadicea's army, Siobahn used to follow me around a lot," Xena covered her eyes with her arm, not wanting to see the inevitable disappointment on Gabrielle's face as she told this particular story. "One night, I found her waiting for me in my tent and I knew that she wanted me. So I let her think that there was a chance. I charmed her in every way I could, short of actually sleeping with her. That's how I got the information I used to betray Boadicea."
Xena paused, reliving her nightmarish past with vivid intensity. "The night that I sold Boadicea out, Siobahn tried to stop me. She told me that she loved me, and I beat her within an inch of her life and left her for dead," she continued, not a hint of emotion showing on her face. "I actually wouldn't blame her if she wanted to see me dead."
Startled blue eyes snapped open abruptly as Gabrielle leaned over and kissed her forehead. Surprised, Xena stared at the bard, who looked back at her and smiled sadly. Where the warrior had expected to see loathing and disgust, instead she found compassion and understanding.
"You're not that person anymore, Xena," Gabrielle told her seriously, her heart aching for her tormented friend.
"Only in your eyes," Xena whispered, vulnerability showing through the cracks in her carefully constructed emotional armor. Gabrielle was the only person who had ever been permitted to get this close to the woman hiding inside the big, bad warrior shell.
Gabrielle smiled down at her. With a tentative finger, she wiped away the single tear rolling down Xena's cheek, pleasantly surprised when the warrior didn't pull away from her.
"Well, then I'll just have to make everyone else see what I see," she declared lightly.
"That's not gonna be easy," Xena told her.
"That's okay. I can be really persistent," Gabrielle rested on her back again and closed her eyes.
"Yeah, tell me about it," Xena joked faintly, closing her own eyes.
Fortunately, the thick walls to their room muffled most of the noise coming from the floor below. Though Gabrielle, pressed against the wall, thought she could hear the rhythmic thumping and scraping of bedposts against the wood floor coming from the room next door. She turned beet red and had to stifle an embarrassed giggle as she realized what was probably causing the sound, and cracking one eyelid open, she stole a quick glance at the quiet warrior at her side. Xena's eyes were still closed, though Gabrielle could tell she wasn't sleeping. She shut her eyes again and bravely attempted to ignore the sounds from the other room. Oh gods, was somebody squealing over there? She sighed inwardly and moved her pillow against the wall, hoping to block out the noise. Both women lay in relative silence for a long time, though it was many candlemarks before sleep claimed either of them as each was far too wrapped up in their own thoughts.
Xena's would-be assassin threw back his hood as he slipped inside a dark cave outside the sleeping waterfront town, revealing a thin face with ordinary features. His muddy brown eyes darted back and forth nervously and his mouth twitched beneath the sandy brown goatee covering his chin. Inside the cave, two torches burned on either side of a stone altar; the rest of the space was shrouded in inky darkness. In front of the altar, a tall, bulky man clad in the red robes of a priest stood with his back to the assassin. The priest ran his fingers along the edge of the ceremonial dagger in his hands. Straightening his shoulders, he set the blade back in its resting place on the altar and turned to face the interloper. Midnight black eyes stared coldly out of a wide, ape-like face, and his nostrils flared angrily as he regarded the quaking man before him.
"You failed," Dalton rasped, his voice bouncing off the stone walls of the cave.
The assassin bowed his head. "Forgive me, holy one. I was unworthy of the great honor you gave me," he looked up, his eyes beseechingly searching Dalton's face and finding no pardon there. "She moved with the speed of the gods," he said, trying to find some small excuse that would save his life.
Dalton cocked his head and appeared to be listening to a voice that only he could hear. He nodded slowly, and his lips curved into a cruel sneer as his gaze returned to the terrified man who was now kneeling before him. He bent down to whisper into the assassin's ear.
"Our master is displeased with you," he informed the doomed man, a sadistic smile touching his lips as the assassin let a tiny squeak of absolute terror escape from his throat.
Moving with lightning speed, Dalton seized the man's head between his huge hands and twisted sharply. Bones snapped and the assassin's eyes clouded as he crumpled to the ground, dead. Dalton laughed then, a deep, malevolent chuckle that echoed off the stone and filled the cave with sound of evil. Kicking the assassin's body aside, Dalton turned and resumed his stance before the altar. Euphoria washed over him and he sighed in mad ecstasy as a low, sibilant whisper filled his ears, as the torches flared and burned brighter, indicating the presence of his dark master.
"Soon, my lord. Soon she will be ours. I swear it," Dalton hissed, his impenetrably black eyes blazing with hatred.
She was in a maze, its corridors twisting and turning with no discernable pattern until she was hopelessly lost. She turned a corner and found herself facing a solid stone wall. This wasn't the way out. Xena whirled around and strained to see the other end of the corridor in the near total darkness she was immersed in. Mist swirled around her legs like a living thing and she shrank away from its cold touch. Innately, she knew that there was something bad here. Where was Gabrielle? Xena called out her friend's name but her voice echoed off the obsidian walls, mocking her cruelly. She ran blindly, stumbling around corners at random as an irrational terror clutched her heart. Booming footsteps pursued her, and she ran faster, knowing that she didn't want to face their owner. She turned left and crashed into another wall. She staggered backwards a few steps, reeling from the force of the impact. Her chest heaved as she panted from exertion, her breath sounding unnaturally loud in her ears. She thought she heard Gabrielle's voice calling to her from a distance, and she headed in that direction. Suddenly, the fine hairs on the back of her neck prickled and she sensed a presence behind her. Slowly, Xena turned around. A formless, pitch black shape loomed over her, and she tilted her head back, looking up at a pair of fiery red eyes that burned into her soul. Gabrielle called her name again, and Xena looked longingly over her shoulder, wanting desperately to rejoin her friend, but the shadowy creature before her beckoned, and its pull was too great even for the warrior princess. Willingly, she stepped into its dark embrace.
Xena's eyes flew open, and she shoved a fist into her mouth to stifle a scream. It was well before dawn and she forced herself to remain perfectly still in the gloom until the terror from the strange nightmare had passed and she could breathe again and her racing pulse started to slow. Xena was no stranger to bad dreams, but this one had been different. Usually her nightmares were more specific, full of scenes from her past, populated by the many people whose lives she had ruined. She squeezed her eyes shut as her mind worked, trying to decipher the meaning of the disturbing images she had seen. Gradually, she became aware of a weight pressing against her left shoulder, and she opened her eyes and peered down at the spot. Sometime during the night, Gabrielle had cuddled up against her and the bard's fair head was nestled against Xena's shoulder. Since Gabrielle was deeply asleep, Xena dipped her head slightly and buried her nose in the bard's hair, breathing in the warm, clean scent that immediately helped to soothe her frazzled nerves. As her heart pounded for an entirely different reason, she rested her cheek against the bard's temple and savored the closeness. She didn't mean to fall asleep again, but somehow, Gabrielle's comforting presence drew the warrior into a deep, dreamless slumber.
Dawn broke and found the warrior and the bard still sound asleep. Gabrielle stirred, her eyelids fluttering as she dazedly opened her eyes. Her cheek was pressed against something soft and warm ... .and moving. Her mind sprang to attention and she sucked in a deep breath as she realized that she was using Xena as a pillow. Slowly, she eased her head away from the warrior's shoulder. Much to her relief, Xena still appeared to be asleep, and Gabrielle scooted as far as she could to her side of the bed, missing the single blue eye that cracked open to regard her thoughtfully. Gabrielle stared at the ceiling and fervently hoped that Xena had not awakened during the night.
"Gods, it's late," Xena's voice, hoarse from sleep, sounded beside her.
Xena yawned and rubbed at her eyes. Her whole left arm tingled as blood was allowed to flow freely into it again, now that the pressure from Gabrielle's head had lifted. Xena raised her head to examine the dim light streaming into the room between the slats of the shuttered window. Judging from the pale, grey light, she guessed that the day was overcast.
"Good morning, Xena. Did you sleep okay?" Gabrielle inquired, wondering what the warrior's response would be.
Xena seemed to consider the question as she scratched the side of her head. Finally, she nodded, pretending not to notice the curious mixture of disappointment and relief that flashed across her friend's face.
"Yeah, slept like rock," she replied, feeling a pang of guilt at the lie.
She swung her long legs out from under the blankets and hissed as her bare feet touched the icy floor. It was even colder than it had been the previous day, and Xena made a displeased face. She hated to be cold almost as much as she hated to be wet. Sliding the rest of her body out of bed, the warrior stood in the middle of the room in nothing but her cotton shift, letting herself become accustomed to the frigid air. She threw a casual glance over her shoulder at Gabrielle, who hadn't yet worked up the courage to brave the chill.
"Dress warm," Xena advised. "I wouldn't be surprised if it snows."
Anticipating the chilly morning temperature, Xena had draped her leathers and armor across the back of a chair and placed the chair in front of the fireplace. She picked up her clothing and noted that her plan had succeeded, and the residual heat from last night's fire had kept her leathers warm. She slipped into the dress and started to assemble her armor. Meanwhile, Gabrielle slid out of bed and hopped across the floor, gasping at the cold.
"Who are you supposed to be? Gabrielle, the battling bunny of Potadeia?" Xena laughed, both eyebrows raised.
"Very funny. This floor is like standing on a block of ice," Gabrielle shot back dryly, sticking her tongue out at Xena's bent head.
Gabrielle dressed hurriedly and poured a bit of water into the basin on the table. Taking a deep breath, she plunged her face into it, the cold water instantly bringing her senses to full alert. She emerged, sputtering and dripping, and dried her face on a piece of linen.
"Okay, I'm awake now," Gabrielle said. "What's for breakfast?"
Xena shook her head and ignored the look that the bard gave her. She clipped her sword to her back and settled the chakram on its hook at her waist. The warrior led the way downstairs to the mostly empty tavern. It was only a few candlemarks past dawn, and most of the inn's other guests were still sleeping off the effects of the night before. Xena and Gabrielle seated themselves at the same corner table they had used the previous day, and Xena signalled to the lone serving girl waiting on the early morning customers.
The girl emerged from the kitchen with two steaming bowls of oatmeal, and as she drew nearer, Xena realized that it was the same girl that she had rescued from the drunk. Smiling shyly, the girl placed the bowls in front of them.
"I never got the chance to thank you for what you did yesterday," she said in a soft voice.
"Don't mention it," Xena returned gruffly.
"What she means is 'you're welcome'," Gabrielle translated, giving the girl a genuine smile.
"Brianne, leave those folks to their breakfast," the innkeeper poked his head out of the kitchen and Brianne quickly retreated.
Xena unenthusiastically poked at her bowl of oatmeal with her spoon, watching skeptically as Gabrielle drizzled honey over the top of hers. Gabrielle spooned a substantial bite into her mouth, catching the look on the warrior's face as she did so.
"It's just oatmeal, Xena. It won't kill you," the bard joked, nudging the bowl towards her reluctant friend.
"You never know, it might," Xena replied doubtfully. She had never liked the thick cereal. "Oatmeal isn't food, Gabrielle. It's just... .mush," she complained, a refrain that the bard had heard countless times before.
"Fine, don't eat it then," Gabrielle said, completely unsympathetic. "But don't come crying to me when you're hungry later."
Xena gave her a look and managed a tiny mouthful of the steaming grains, grimacing as the stuff slid down her throat. Gabrielle was about to make a comment when the door to the tavern swung open and Siobahn stepped inside. The auburn-haired woman surveyed the room in a haughty manner, brushing a light dusting of snow from the shoulders of her cloak. Her gaze fell on the two women seated in the corner and she nodded at them as she approached.
"Good, you're awake," Siobahn greeted them brusquely. "Finish your breakfast and I'll take you to meet my army."
Gabrielle hurriedly downed the rest of her morning meal, scraping the last bit of oatmeal from the bottom of the bowl. Xena, she noticed, barely touched hers, but that wasn't unusual for the warrior. All three women departed from the tavern without a word.
Outside, the sky was cold and grey and carried the promise of more snow. A light covering of snow melted on the ground beneath their boots as they walked. Siobahn had left two horses tethered to a post outside the tavern and she mounted one, gracefully swinging herself into the saddle of a sturdy grey mare. With a wave of her hand, she offered the other horse, a glossy black stallion to Xena.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I didn't know if you rode," Siobahn apologized disingenuously. She extended her arm towards the bard. "Here, ride with me."
Gabrielle gave Xena a questioning look, but the warrior said nothing. Xena watched silently, an unfathomable expression on her face, as Gabrielle hesitantly took Siobahn's arm and pulled herself up into the saddle behind her. She mounted the stallion and settled herself on the animal's back, feeling the power beneath her.
"Follow me, Xena," Siobahn directed, feeling a perverse satisfaction at the barely contained jealousy in the warrior's eyes. She glanced over her shoulder and grinned seductively at Gabrielle. "Hang on tight," she said, giving the reins a light flick and easing her steed into a steady trot.
Xena followed suit, hanging slightly behind the mare as they rode out of town. She knew Siobahn was deliberately pushing her, and Xena ground her teeth in frustration as she resolved not to let the woman get to her. Once they reached open territory, Siobahn increased the pace, gradually coaxing her horse into a full gallop. Xena leaned forward in the saddle and the wind stung her face and whipped at her hair as the stallion matched the mare stride for stride. They raced along for a quarter candlemark before Siobahn finally relented and slowed her horse back to a brisk walk. She shot an amused glance back towards the distinctly unamused warrior princess and directed her next comments to Gabrielle, making sure that her tone was loud enough for Xena to hear.
"You've got a strong grip, Gabrielle," she said, patting the bard's hands, which were wrapped tightly around her waist. "And you know how to keep your seat on a horse. That's good," she complimented the blonde, feeling her shift uncomfortably behind her.
Gabrielle reddened slightly, aware that Siobahn was flirting with her. Now that their pace had slowed, she loosened her death grip around the other woman's midsection.
"Yeah, well, I've ridden with Xena plenty of times," Gabrielle said.
"Have you, now?" Siobahn returned lightly, causing Gabrielle's blush to deepen as she realized the double meaning of the words. "So, tell me, why is a nice girl like you hanging around with that crusty old warlord, anyway?"
Gabrielle stiffened, not liking the direction that this conversation was taking, and she wished she hadn't accepted Siobahn's offer to ride with her. "Xena and I are friends," she said quietly.
Using the subtle pressure of her knees against her horse's flank, Xena pulled up along side Siobahn and effectively put an end to the conversation. She glared at her old comrade, silently reminding her of the agreement they had made. Siobahn smirked at her.
"How far is it to your camp?" Xena asked.
"Not much further," Siobahn told her, pointing straight ahead. "It's just over that rise."
They were riding through a flat, open meadow that stretched for miles in every direction. A tall hill rose up from the ground in the distance, its slope dotted with trees. As Xena examined the terrain, something wet brushed her cheek and stared up at the sky in consternation. It was beginning to snow again. Great, just perfect, she groused internally. Within a candlemark, they had reached the base of the hill. The horses were familiar with the territory, and they picked their way through the trees and around the rocks with little guidance from their riders. They reached the top of the rise without incident, and Xena looked down in surprise at the army sprawled through the valley below. She'd been expecting a ragtag group of rebels and mercenaries, but this looked like it might actually be a decent fighting force. Small groups of soldiers were conducting weapons drills, while still others were practicing cavalry maneuvers, and the clash of steel rang out through the open air. Various pieces of wood that would eventually become massive siege engines littered the valley floor, and row upon row of tents fluttered in the breeze.
"Not what you expected, is it?" Siobahn asked, a hint of pride coloring her voice as she noted the expression on Xena's face. Without waiting for an answer, she began the descent into the valley.
Xena watched them go. "Not at all what I expected," she murmured. Touching her heels to her stallion's sides, she followed Siobahn down towards the waiting army.
Continued in part 4.
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