Violence: Yes. Might get a little graphic, too. But nothing too gory.
Subtext: Yup! Rather subtle at the beginning but I'm getting there...<smile>
A Final Note: Okay....again, this isn't what one might consider a 'typical' alternative X/G story. Seems I have a lot of fun coming up with alternative universes (Or xenaverses <smile>) So, don't go looking for similarities with events in the show. They might be here but I gave them quite a twist so please consider yourself warned! And this isnÝt a light piece, either ˝ please, be aware of that, too.
A Final Note - Part 2: I have been asked if this one is going to have a happy ending or not. Weelll...J ....I really don't want to give anything away - but let me say this much: I have two scenarios in my mind regarding the ending of the story. A sad one and a happy one. Neither will make all of you happy, sooo.....<smile> Let's just see where the muse takes me. (And if she returns me in proper working order...<smile>) A small hint: if you read the lyrics of the songs at the beginning of each part carefully you might be able to guess what comes up....although they're merely meant to express the atmosphere of each chapter.
Summary: A young Amazon Queen who canÝt remember her past. A former warlord trying desperately to leave her past behind. And a secret that can destroy them ˝ or save them.
If you like to comment on the story, you are welcome to do so: firstname.lastname@example.org
Distances ˝ part 3
by Grit Jahning
I like the way you wanted me
Every night for so long baby
I like the way you needed me
Every time things got rocky
I was believing in you
Was I mistaken?
Do you say, do you say what you mean?
I want our love to last forever
But I'd rather you be mean than love and lie
I'd rather hear the truth and have to say goodbye
I'd rather take a blow at least than I would know
But baby don't you break my heart slow
I like the way you'd hold me
Every night for so long baby
And like the way you'd say my name
In the middle of the night
While you were sleeping
I was believing in you
Was I mistaken?
Do you mean, do you mean what you say?
When you say our love could last forever
But I'd rather you be mean than love and lie
I'd rather hear the truth and have to say goodbye
I'd rather take a blow at least than I would know
But baby don't you break my heart slow
*"Baby Don't You Break My Heart Slow" written by Vonda Shepard
There were at least thirty of them. Dressed in traditional war attire. Pieces of leather that barely covered the essentials and heavy mask resembling bird beaks.
They stood at the entry of the village. Silent. Observing.
All of them armed with swords or bows.
Melosa turned to the group of warriors behind her and released a slow breath. She'd been afraid something like this would happen sooner or later. She'd just hoped it would be later than sooner.
When she had adopted Velasca it had been out of the need to provide a heir to the throne in case something happened to her or Terreis. And for some time she'd thought the young woman a good choice.
That had changed rather quickly.
Velasca had a very different view as to where the Amazon Nation should be and where they should go. She saw war as the only way to achieve this goal. She wanted to turn the Nation into the great Nation from the stories.
And she was willing to kill to get there. Even if it meant killing her own sisters.
Crunching of feet as Terreis stepped up beside her. A deep scowl on her face. "I knew this bitch would cause problems."
"Terreis." The gently scolding voice came from behind them and they both turned to look at Gabrielle who had taken her place a little to the side of her lover.
"What? It's true. Hades, Gab...she's about to attack her own tribe."
Green eyes studied them for a silent moment and then turned to the masked women in front of them.
"Maybe we can talk to them."
Terreis snorted. "Right. And say what? Oh please, Velasca...don't kill us."
The blonde head tilted a little and a brief flicker of hurt crossed gentle features. Terreis sighed and reached out to caress the soft skin.
"Sorry...just...I don't think they're here to talk."
Melosa nodded. "I agree, Gabrielle.....but..." This to her sister. "I also think we should at least try. I don't want to fight with my own daughter nor any of our Amazons."
Terreis thought about that for a moment and then released a deep breath. "She's going to challenge you."
Dark eyes closed for a brief moment. "Yes, she most likely will....but if this means to avoid an all out assault I will accept the challenge." She lifted a hand to forestall any argument from her sister. "My choice, Terreis."
The younger woman was about to argue but then nodded.
Melosa smiled and squeezed Terreis' arm. Then she turned back to the group of women that had shown up a little while ago.
"Velasca...I'd like to talk to you."
For a moment nothing happened but then one of the masked women stepped from within the group. Walking forward to come to a halt only a few feet away from them.
With one smooth move pushing her mask to the back of her head. A mocking smile playing on her lips, she tilted her head at Melosa. "My Queen."
Melosa didn't even bother to comment on that and straightened to her full height. "I want to know what this is all about."
Velasca actually laughed at that. "What does it look like...mother...I'm here to take what's, by all rights, mine."
"By attacking your own tribe?"
The brunette shrugged. "Are you going to just hand over the throne?"
Melosa shook her head. "Of course not."
The taller woman took another step forward. Any trace of mocking gone...replaced by anger. "Of course you wouldn't. No, you'd rather hand it to that little blonde bitch!"
Terreis instinctively stepped in front of Gabrielle.
As did Ephiny and Eponin. Actually the entire tribe took an almost protective step towards the blonde woman.
Which only fuelled Velasca's anger. Greenish grey eyes sparkled with hatred as Gabrielle slowly walked around Terreis. The blonde head tilting a little as she studied the taller woman.
"I have no desire to be Queen, Velasca." Her voice was soft. Almost gentle.
A cold chuckle. "Right...well, tell you what, little one...you are not going to be Queen. Because after I kill my loving mother and my equally loving aunt....I am going to enjoy killing you." Her eyes travelled down the small frame. "Oh yeah..."
And with that she lifted a hand.
And the air was immediately filled with arrows. There must have been more warriors hiding in the trees. But there really wasn't time to wonder about that because the group of women at the village entry attacked.
And although everybody had expected a fight...it was nevertheless a surprise.
Within moments the village square was covered by dead, bloody bodies. And the air filled with the sound of battle. Hoarse grunts.
And above all high-pitched laughter...
Glittering moonlight on a blade.
Sparkling. Only here and there dulled by traces of crimson-coloured spots.
A fingertip almost lovingly tracing along the edge. Barely audible humming.
A cold, cruel smile on thin lips. Oh yeah...it had been a great day. A pleased sigh. The look in Melosa's eyes as she had felt the sword plunge into her body. The warm blood tracing down her fingers. Mmh...oh yeah...it had been great.
Killing Terreis had been almost as much fun.
But even better was the sound of shattering pain in Gabrielle's voice as she had seen Terreis' dead body.
Just seeing Gabrielle holding the dead form in her arms. Crying and whispering her lover's name over and over again. That alone had been worth it all.
Of course she hadn't expected the girl to pick up a sword.
The hand stopped its caress on the blade and reached up to touch a deep scar that still wasn't fully healed.
Nor had she expected her to be as good a fighter as she'd proved to be.
If she didn't hate her as much as she did...she would actually be impressed. As it was Gabrielle's attack had surprised her and the bitch had got in a lucky hit.
The smile broadened.
But she had shown her who was the master of the art.
Unfortunately at that time most of her people had been killed or wounded. A few had even put down their weapons when they had come face to face with friends. So she had to retreat.
And even though only part of her plan had been accomplished it had been very satisfying.
And it wasn't over yet.
The finger started its rhythmic caress again.
Oh no...it wasn't over yet.
"Xena, I'm sorry."
Cyane tried to make eye contact with her friend but the tall woman wouldn't even turn. She was still leaning against the window. Hadn't moved since Ira, Ephiny and Gabrielle left hours ago.
Already the first traces of pale grey at the very edge of the horizon announced the beginning of a new day.
A deep breath and then slowly the tall frame turned. Cold, guarded eyes meeting hers. "Still talking to me? Now that you know what a monster I am?" Her voice was as cold as her eyes.
The blonde woman released a slow breath and stepped closer. "I...I know what I did was wrong and I should have talked to you first but...."
"It was easier to believe what they had told you, wasn't it."
Cyane rubbed a hand across tired eyes. "I didn't want to believe it...and at the same time I was afraid it was true."
Xena didn't answer but her jaw moved with silent emotions. Then those blue eyes turned away again. When she started talking her voice was low. Hoarse.
"I was late because I was already on my way to the border. I...everything was getting too much and the excitement and joy I usually found in the killing and raiding....it had been gone for some time, then. I wanted to leave."
Her hand reached up to brush through long, dark locks.
"But I couldn't. Halfway, I stopped. I told myself I'd be a coward if I leave...here I was, close to becoming the Conqueror of Greece and I was running." The low voice became mocking. "So I turned and headed to the small village we had picked just because it was close to the route leading to Corinth."
Cyane swallowed. It was one of the few times Xena actually talked about her past.
"There was nothing of worth there. Hades...it was a small village full of sheep and farmers. But it would provide a nice exercise for my men."
Pale blue eyes turned to dark ones. "I wanted to destroy this village for sports. No other reason."
Cyane took a deep breath. "Xena..."
Broad shoulders shrugged. "But things went different than I had planned. Draco disobeyed my orders and attacked before I arrived. On the way back I had decided to go around the village...but I was too late."
The tall frame seemed to lose in height. "Her eyes....I....it was like she was looking right inside of me." The last words were barely above a whisper.
The soft sounds of awakening birds. Faintly crunching footsteps as the guards made their rounds.
Xena exhaled and then straightened. Meeting Cyane's eyes for a brief moment before she headed to her cot and picked a few things that she put into a small bag. Not turning, she said: "I'll be waiting at the small clearing to the north of the border. We stopped there the last night."
Her friend tried to find words to make Xena stay. Tried to find the right things to say...and realised that there probably wasn't anything to say.
Xena had already opened the door as she finally found something. Stopping the taller woman with a gentle but firm grip on her arm, she searched pale blue eyes.
"You love her." Not a question.
She felt the tall frame stiffen. Felt the coiling of muscles underneath her touch and slowly let go of the arm she was holding.
The dark head dropped for the briefest of moments and then she was face to face with blue eyes so filled with....She swallowed.
Watching in silence as Xena stepped out of the hut and closed the door. Heard the heavy footsteps leave the porch...fading somewhere to the right of the hut.
Brushing her hands through her hair, she released a soft breath and sat down on her bed. Trying to figure out what to do.
The village lay eerily quiet.
There was no sound of playing children. No laughter or singing. No muted carpet of conversation. Only now and then did someone leave their hut to disappear in the food hut but other than the guards there was no one around.
The village square seemed out of place in all its cheery decoration. Flowers had been added to the colourful ribbons adorning the platform. Benches and tables were placed in an u-form and already decorated with pillows and coloured pieces of paper.
To one side a smaller platform had been built where the musicians would sit during the party.
The place for the fire had been cleared and prepared. Stones circling the spot already covered with old ashes and new wood.
Everything was ready.
Even the weather had decided to give them a break. The morning had dawned with bright sunshine and a spotless pale blue sky. The air was warm if a little humid but it was bearable since a comfortably chilly breeze was brushing through leaves. Tickling them. Their rustling voices breaking the quiet now and then.
It was close to lunch and still the village seemed to be asleep.
The guards exchanged puzzled looks. This was very strange. Usually at this time the village would be filled with Amazons getting ready for the festival. The air would hum with noise...one would have to yell to actually be heard or understood.
The sound of a door opening echoed through the quiet air and the guards saw Ephiny head to the Queen's hut. Her face was a strange mixture of anger and tiredness.
She greeted them with a short nod and mounted the stairs. Briefly talking to the Royal Guards and then without as much as a knock entered the hut.
The two guards looked at each other. Very strange, indeed. Then they shrugged and turned their attention back to the woods.
Whatever was going on they would hear about it soon enough.
It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light of the hut after the bright sunshine outside. The windows were still closed and so only thin beams of light illuminated the room. Barely enough to make out the small form sitting at the table.
Ephiny released a slow breath and took another step forward.
The soft voice was hoarse with tears even though Gabrielle still hadn't looked up. Her hands held a piece of cloth. Fiddling with it in an unconscious movement.
The taller woman bit her lower lip. "We did, yes....I mean," She lifted a hand. "Not everything...but some of the things that happened."
Now the pale head turned.
She couldn't make out her eyes due to the darkness but she didn't need to see them to know that Gabrielle had been crying. Again she questioned their decision not to tell Gabrielle what happened back then.
Shit. The blonde woman cleared her throat and took the last two steps to the table. Her fingertips grazing the rough wooden surface. This time it was her turn to avoid questioning green eyes.
"Well, you know...Melosa, Ira, Eponin, Solari and I....and...."
"...Terreis..." Soft. Trembling.
A slow breath. One of Gabrielle's hands reaching up to brush long, blonde locks behind an ear. She felt cold all of a sudden. Goosebumps made her skin prickle and she wrapped her arms around herself.
Looking up, she saw Ephiny's face. Looking at her with a hesitant smile.
"Why didn't you tell me? All those years....I...how many times did I ask you what happened? And you knew." There was no anger in her voice. She didn't even raise her voice. It was still soft, tired. Hurting.
"We...look Gabrielle, we didn't think that you...needed to know. There was a reason you didn't remember any of it and...and you were happy living with us."
For a long time there was only their breathing. And those green eyes looking at her.
Ephiny swallowed. After last night she really wasn't in the condition for this talk. But she knew sooner or later they would have to talk about it. Not matter how difficult it would be.
"After Xena arrived here...you still didn't say anything. Although you could tell that there was something between her and me."
And then there was that. Finally, Ephiny sat down. "I..." She sighed and faced Gabrielle more squarely. Meeting her eyes. "After Terreis' death I didn't think you needed any more pain. You were hurting so bad already....and I didn't know for sure that Xena had anything to do with...." She fell silent.
Green eyes blinked at her for a painfully long, silent moment.
Gabrielle looked tired. She could see that even in the dim light. Her entire posture radiated defeat and pain. Ephiny wondered when had been the last time, she had actually slept through a night.
"She seemed so familiar. Even that first day." When Gabrielle started talking again it was so sudden, Ephiny actually jumped in surprise.
"I felt that I knew her...I just couldn't place it. That first night the nightmares were back." The small frame turned away. "It scared me. And it confused me because...."
Gabrielle got up and walked to the window. Opening it a little to let fresh air in. The wind rifled through her hair and she closed her eyes to enjoy the soft caress for a moment.
Too many things at once.
She exhaled and turned back to Ephiny. "I deserved to know, Eph....if not as your friend than as your Queen." Still no anger. Just quiet and tired.
The taller woman didn't know what to answer.
"Yesterday....I...for the first time I actually felt comfortable..." Safe. "...with her." The soft voice became thoughtful. "She made me laugh...and for a few hours I didn't hurt. I didn't worry about Velasca and if she'll be back or...." Green eyes looked up. "I could just be."
Ephiny shifted a little. Not quite comfortable with the direction of this conversation. It had bothered her to see that Xena and Gabrielle actually seemed to get along. It seemed wrong. Hades...it was wrong.
The blonde head dropped and Gabrielle wrapped her arms tightly around herself. "Today I wonder if any of it was real.....if anything in my life is real."
The younger woman shook her head. "It's okay, Eph.....I need sleep." A tired chuckle. "I need something to eat." Then she looked up. "I need this to be over."
"I know. And it will be. I'm going to ask Cyane to leave today and..."
"No...no, don't do this."
Ephiny looked at Gabrielle in surprise and confusion. Surely, after last night she had thought that... "Why? Gabrielle, you're not going to let this...to let Xena stay? Are you?"
She didn't know. She didn't have a clue what she should do. What she should feel. What was wrong. Or right.
All she knew was that the blurry haze that had been her past - had dissolved into yet another nightmare. One she couldn't wake up from.
And this time the images were painfully clear.
She remembered the look on her sister's face as the blade sliced through her throat. Remembered the wet, guttural sounds she had uttered before her body hit the ground with a low thud.
Remembered his face. His eyes...his grin... as he started touching her. The first hits. The pain.
The heavy scent of blood.
And a pair of pale blue eyes. A low voice. And the rough touch of a strong hand on her face.
She wasn't sure what hurt more. The memories. Or the knowledge that Xena was a part of them.
She felt Ephiny's impatient look and released a long, trembling breath. Her emotions were in turmoil. Gods, she couldn't feel what she felt for Xena. She should hate her.
The rustle of wings and a sparrow came to rest on the window sill. Puffing up its small body, it tilted its head to one side. Small, dark eyes looking at her in an almost curious gesture. The wind was ruffling through its light-brown feathers and it hopped closer. Its feet making a scraping sound as its claws touched the dry wood.
She couldn't hate Xena.
She couldn't because....Green eyes closed against the image of smiling, chiselled features.
Ephiny's voice was impatient and she looked up.
"Are you letting Xena stay?"
The urge to scream was overwhelmingly strong and it took all her willpower to suppress it.
"I have to think about this, Eph...I....at the moment I don't know what to think." She wondered if her voice sounded as helpless as she felt inside.
Hazel eyes studied her for a long, silent moment and then blonde looks shook in an astonished nod. "You're falling in love with her, aren't you?"
Silence. The soft rustle of cloth as Gabrielle shifted.
"You are, aren't you?" Ephiny's voice was indignant and she actually took a step back.
Gabrielle exhaled and sat back down again. Her hands picking up the piece of cloth that might have been a shirt or something. It was cool to the touch and pale brows wrinkled with silent thoughts.
"I don't know Ephiny. I...what I feel for her...it's...scaring me but at the same time..." One hand reached up to rub tired eyes and brush a few blonde strands behind her ear. Then she looked up. "If this is so wrong, Eph...why does it feel so right?"
Her voice was soft and the words barely audible as she turned towards the window. Her eyes far away.
The taller woman swallowed. Caught between anger, disappointment and just plain confusion. The problem was when she was confused she tended to do and say things she regretted later. This was no exception.
"Is that how you plan on honouring Terreis? Her body is barely cold and you take the next lover in your bed?"
Slowly...ever so slowly did Gabrielle turn. Green eyes blinked at her for a small eternity. An ocean of emotions whirling in the green depths. Then she swallowed. The sunlight tiny sparkles in unshed tears.
Ephiny was kicking herself. "Gabrielle...I..."
"I need some time to think. Please." Soft. Distant. She wouldn't even meet her eyes.
This time cold green eyes met hers. Those gentle features set in an emotionless mask. "I asked you to leave, Ephiny."
The taller woman released a long breath. Nodded and turned around. At the door she stopped again and looked back at her friend. It was almost painful how lost the small woman seemed in the dim light of the room.
And then the door closed with a soft <click>. Shutting her out just like Gabrielle had.
The sky was a blend of pale grey and blue as thick, heavy clouds were shifting in. Already a wall of dark grey had formed just behind the mountains. Hinting at the rain that was sure to fall within the next hours.
The temperature had fallen and dark forms huddled underneath coats and blankets moved closer to a small fire. Low voices a soft carpet of noise now and then broken by the crackling of wood surrendering to the flames.
Tethered to trees stood horses. They were grazing peacefully. Looking up to study the quiet forms nearby just to resume their feeding.
"How come every time I leave for patrol it starts raining? Is it something I say? What?"
Soft chuckles as Solari shook her head and sighed. Running her hands through her hair, she pulled her coat tighter around herself. Trying to warm up a little. This so sucked! Just once, once, would she like to leave the village and arrive at her destination with the sun shining and birds singing.
But no....no, she had to get the crappy weather every single time. Maybe if she offered more gifts to Artemis and do her prayers more regularly? Mmh. Well, it was worth a try. And she just bet that it was the most beautiful weather back at the village. Go figure.
Swallowing the rest of her now cold tea, she got up and motioned to the others. "C'mon girls. If we want to reach the border by tonight we have to get going."
The other Amazons murmured half-hearted agreements and slowly, reluctantly got moving.
"I bet the festival is going to be a blast. What with the Amazons from the East around and all...damn..." Marina grumbled as she rolled up a blanket. Stuffing it into her saddle bag. The other women groaned and then nodded with wry chuckles.
Only Solari sobered some. Releasing a slow breath, she shrugged. "I don't know if Queen Gabrielle would agree with you."
Silence. Soft sounds of boots shuffling through dry leaves.
They looked at each other and then Marina peeked at the dark-haired woman. "She seems all right, though."
Solari turned away. Busying herself with finishing packing her own stuff. She knew that Gabrielle was most certainly not all right but that she hid it well - as everything else. It was part of her every day life. Pretending to be someone she really wasn't.
Since only a handful of them knew about what happened five years ago and how Gabrielle came to live with their tribe....the others just assumed that she was one of the many young women that showed up in Amazon country. Tired of their boring lives or simply curious. Some running from the lives they had to live in those small village scattered all over the country.
And everybody had thought that Terreis and she made a lovely couple.
Dark eyes blinked. Well...almost everyone. A deep breath. And Gabrielle amazed and shocked, really, a lot of them when she...
Turning her thoughts away from that particular memory, Solari met Marina's inquiring gaze. "By now, you should know better than to judge her from appearances."
Marina swallowed and dropped her gaze.
The others were watching in uncomfortable silence. They were cold, cranky, hungry and really wanted to get going. Not argue about their Queen's emotional and mental condition. At any other time they'd loved to but not now...
"Can we just move on here? I'd like to get to the outpost before the rain sets in."
Solari turned to Gloria who raised her eyebrows in an impatient gesture. "Sure." She was about to grab the halter of her horse as an eerie, high-pitched hiss sounded from behind her.
And then she saw an arrow hitting the tree next to Gloria with a dull thud.
They looked at each other and then at the arrow in shock. Swallowing as a low voice broke through the sudden quiet.
"I don't think you're going anywhere anytime soon, ladies."
From behind trees and bushes leather-clad forms appeared. Their faces hidden behind traditional war masks resembling bird beaks. Decorated with feathers. They had swords and bows in ready position and stopped a few steps away from the frozen Amazons.
One of them took the last step and came to a halt only an arm-length away from Solari.
Reaching up with one hand, the woman pulled back the mask and smiled into the now angry face of the dark-haired woman in front of her.
From the left temple to the right jaw ran a deep, still red scar. Touching the smiling mouth at its very edge and turning the smile into a grimace. The dark head tilted. "Aren't you happy to see me, Solari?"
Solari felt her hands curl into tight fists. Her entire body trembling with the sheer force of the anger and hatred she felt for this woman. Spitting her right into the grinning face, she shook her head.
"No Velasca...only seeing you dead would make me happy."
For a moment time froze. Greenish grey eyes swallowed by madness blinked for a long, silent moment. Seriously considering killing them right here and now. It took all of her willpower to suppress this urge.
She wiped the spittle away and took another step forward. Caressing Solari's face in mock-affection, she chuckled. "Now, we are going to have some real fun."
Funny how peaceful a forest can be. When there is nothing but the wind, the soft whisper of leaves. Birds. Rustle of animals.
When there is no one but you.
Pale eyes traced thick treetops. Rays of sunlight tinted in a soft green.
If she listened carefully enough, she knew she would hear the Gods laugh. Oh yeah...they were probably having a ball up there.
Someone once told her that everybody gets what they deserve.
Well, she had got off easy then, hadn't she? All she lost was... Dark brows wrinkled as she shove this particular thought far away. Had she honestly expected that she could just return home as if nothing had ever happened?
Home. Was Greece really home? Has it ever been home?
Her mind came up with a gently murmuring river, warm sun on her back - and the silent, comfortable presence of...
That day in Potedeia had shown her what kind of a person she had become. And it had disgusted her. The look in....Gabrielle's....eyes. The pain, fear...defeat. It had touched something deep inside of her. Something she had thought long dead.
But with just one look...
Pale blue eyes closed and she released a long breath. Easily recalling the shade of those green eyes. This curious blend of green, blue and grey. The way a simple smile can make them sparkle. The way that soft skin wrinkled when Gabrielle smiled. Her soft touches.
To realise that the girl in the inn had been Gabrielle ---
The sound of a twig bursting echoed loudly through the quiet forest. And then hesitantly a deer stepped into the small clearing. It was young. Its fur still showing traces of spots of white. Big, dark eyes looked at her for a long moment. Its flicked its ears, jumped and rushed off into the undergrowth.
You were there.
The words echoed in her mind. There had been no anger or hatred or disgust in the softly uttered words. Just ---
--- just anguish.
Yes, she'd been there. And even though she hadn't killed Gabrielle's family or raped her. She might as well could have. It had been her army. Draco had been under her command. Hades, at one time he had been her lover.
Pale blue eyes closed.
Her right hands flexing in an unconscious movement.
She could still feel the knife cutting through his skin. Even then it had felt good. Killing him....making him pay for what he had done to the girl.
It had been an unwritten rule in her army. But even if it hadn't, she would have killed him. If not that very instant than later - because even months after that day she dreamed of those eyes. And the look in them.
A soft breath.
In this one second as their eyes had met....something had happened. Something she still couldn't put a finger on but it had intensified during the few days she had spent here. Gabrielle's mere presence...the sound of her voice...it touched parts of her soul she hadn't even been aware of.
The dark head dropped. Long strands disguising tired, defeated features.
Not that it matter anymore.
Cyane crossed her arms in front of her and surveyed the women surrounding the platform in the centre of the village square.
The strange moodiness of the morning had finally dissolved into giddy anticipation and all faces showed signs of excitement. The air was filled with bits and pieces of murmured conversations and laughter. Mixed with the chaotic noise of the musicians preparing their instruments.
At any other time she would have been just as excited.
But not today.
She actually felt an irrational anger towards the Greek Amazons. Not so much because they were looking forward to the festival but because they were happy while her friend was somewhere out in the woods....swallowed by guilt and a past she just couldn't leave behind.
Last night had been....
The blonde woman shifted a little and sighed. It had been bad. Really bad. Of course she had known about Xena's past and she had no illusions as to what the tall woman had been capable of...what she still was capable of.
To find out that the strange chemistry between Gabrielle and her had been the result of this fateful day years back.......she could only imagine what it had done to Xena.
Especially since she was obviously falling in love with the smaller woman.
After Gabrielle had shown up in their hut they all had looked at each other in silent shock and apprehension. Not sure what would happen next. They had looked at the two women standing so close and yet so far away....
And all Xena had said was: "...yes..." Her low voice hoarse.
That was all. Just yes. No attempt to defend herself even as Gabrielle had taken a step back. The small frame trembling with unvoiced words and emotions. She wasn't sure if the two had been aware of anything but each other at that moment.
It had been Ira who had suggested to let this go for the night. To give them all a little time to think about it and sit down tomorrow to talk. They had agreed. Ephiny reluctantly and she herself because she had wanted a chance to explain to her friend why she had done what she had done.
Xena and Gabrielle hadn't said a word.
Not a word.
And yet they had said more with their eyes than any words could probably have expressed.
The carpet of voices suddenly seized and she looked up to see Gabrielle step from her porch and head towards the crowd.
Amazing how such a relatively small woman could project such an air of royalty and power. Maybe it was in the way she held her body....whatever it was it had quite an impact on the Greek Amazons as well as her own who all dropped their heads in a silent greeting and acknowledging of the Queen.
Cyane studied the youthful face. She wondered if anyone else noticed the expressionless mask on her usually open features.
Only her eyes showed the slightest hint of ---
Dark eyes blinked.
Of something. It was difficult to say what it was that dulled those green eyes.
As she passed the Amazons she smiled at them. Talked to some of them. Touched others briefly. Leaving all of them with an affectionate sparkle in their eyes.
Cyane tilted her head a little.
They obviously adored Gabrielle. Would undoubtedly lay down their lives for her.
She briefly wondered if they had any idea who this young woman really was. What was going on inside of her. If they knew of her pain - or past.
Gabrielle finally joined her on top of the platform and greeted her with a brief smile and a slight nod of her head.
They looked at each other for a long, silent moment. She noticed how Gabrielle's gaze flickered briefly to her back where Arames and another of her Royal Guards stood.
"She left earlier this morning." Barely audible.
The face in front of her didn't show any reaction. But it didn't have to. Everything going on inside was visible in the silent shattering of any shine in those amazing green depths.
Gabrielle seemed to lose in height and nodded again. Then turned to face the women waiting patiently. She visibly collected herself and than took a deep breath.
"Today is a day of joy and new beginnings. And it is a day of grief and good byes." Her voice strong and easily carrying across the square. Belying the slight trembling in her body.
Cyane noticed how a few heads dropped. Lips moving with silent prayers.
"We have lost many of our nation. Mothers, sisters..." A brief pause. "...lovers. I want to take this opportunity to say good bye to them. They fought and died protecting the tribe......they won't be forgotten. It's in our hearts and souls that they will survive and go on. To be remembered in love and joy."
A wave of murmured agreements drifted their way.
"And that is why we will celebrate the festival as we always have. With music, laughter and not in grief and silence. The dead can hear our thoughts. Let us tell them that we love them and miss them."
Gabrielle's warm voice echoed through the air for another moment and then fell silent. Cyane saw her throat move as she swallowed. For a second a shadow of grief flickered across her face.
Ephiny who had stood silently behind her, handed her a sword.
Raising it into the air, her eyes travelled across the quiet crowd. Lingering on individual faces as she named each victim. Every time joined by an echoing cheer from the crowd.
Then another pause. The sword in her hand shaking ever so lightly.
"Here's to Melosa."
The crowd hesitated a bit and then cheered even louder than before. Several faces were damp from tears. The atmosphere almost tangible.
This time the pause lingered. Gabrielle obviously fighting tears. Then she took a deep breath. "....here's to Terreis....."
Her words had barely faded as the musicians started a slow, heavy song. Accompanying the lighting of the bonfire. The wood crackling and sighing loudly as the flames hungrily caressed along the logs.
Cyane took a step forward. Ignoring Ephiny's scowl.
"I heard about Terreis and you. My condolences."
For a moment she thought Gabrielle wouldn't react but then the pale head turned. Unreadable green eyes looking at her.
Looking through her, really.
Cyane bit her lower lip. There was so much more she wanted to say. So much she felt she needed to say but before she had a chance to start she felt a small hand on her arm.
"It's okay, Cyane....but please, not now." She didn't even try to hide the anguish this time. Neither in her voice or face.
The taller woman nodded. "Of course....I just...."
Gabrielle turned fully. Actually straightening a little to be able to look into her eyes.
"I understand that this isn't easy for you. It isn't for any of us.....but I can't and I don't want to think about this tonight. We're here to celebrate life and new beginnings...." A soft breath. "I think we all could need some time when the only thing we have to worry about is if our cups are full or not."
Cyane studied the young woman. Wondering where she took the strength from. And how long she would be able to keep this facade up.
"Running from the problem won't solve it."
The sun was beating down on them. The air humming with heat and so the soft gust of wind brushing past them brought a welcome chill. It tugged at blonde strands...playfully brushing them along gentle features.
Lifting a hand, Gabrielle pushed them back and then released a slow breath. Green eyes reaching right inside her.
"I am not the one who left...am I?"
And then she turned and stepped from the platform to join a group of older Amazons who had already been waiting for her.
Cyane swallowed. Pursing her lips as she watched the young woman walk away.
At its very edges the sky was a deep black. That slowly dissolved into a silvery grey. Stars only dull spots of light barely visible within the bright shine of the moon.
It bathed the forest underneath in a halo of light. Absorbing any colour and reducing nature to dark and grey. The river seemed to be frozen over with silver. Its surface now and then stirred by a brush of wind.
Through the lines of trees that wove a tight carpet of shadows one could make out the last traces of a large fire. The wind coming from the north brought with it hints of music and voices. Laughter.
But the sounds faded in the dark silence of the forest. Swallowed by a heavy quiet that had settled as the sun had descended.
There was only the soft rustle of leaves. The muted sounds of night creatures.
And the sound of wood connecting with wood.
Every surprised groan of the tree echoing eerily loud through the quiet.
This time accompanied by a choked scream.
Bark split from the ancient body of the tree. Bursting into tiny pieces as a staff hit it again and again. The screams turning into whimpered cries.
The small form lifted the staff again. Already every part of her body ached. Every breath burned within her lungs. But she didn't stop.
Because the physical pain drowned out any image and memory in her mind. And at the moment that was all she wanted.
Another hit. By now they had lost their force and all that was heard was a dull thud as the staff connected with the tree.
Fast, choked breaths.
And then the pale form leaned forward. Her forehead dampened from sweat touching the rough, cool surface of the bark. One trembling hand coming to rest against the side of the tree.
Tears cool on overheated skin.
For a moment a cloud brushed past the moon and the dark crept forward. Reaching for the pale form oblivious to her surroundings. Almost...almost touching....Then the light returned and it crawled back. Hiding within the safety of the surrounding trees.
Leaving a tall form partly bathed in moonlight...partly hidden within shadows.
Pale blue eyes never leaving the small frame.
She should leave. Her mind practically screamed at her. Leave...and not add to the obvious pain Gabrielle was in.
But her heart told her to go over there.
To go to her - and to make it right. Because if she wanted to do anything right in her life - this would be it.
A deep breath. Her hands shaking with the sheer force of contradicting emotions branding through her.
It didn't matter what the voices inside told her. She knew already that she couldn't stay away. Knew that she couldn't just turn around and leave. Because she would leave behind her soul and heart...she was honest enough to admit it, at least to herself.
Her throat tightened as she watched Gabrielle crumble to the ground. Sobbing uncontrollably. The small frame shaking violently.
Everything worth having, is worth fighting for. Who had said that? Dark brows wrinkled in an unconscious frown. It didn't matter because if she knew one thing - than it was how to fight.
And she realised with shocking clarity that she wanted to fight.
If only to never see this look in those green eyes she had seen last night, again. The silent shattering of any shine. Of the hesitant amount of trust that had built between them.
If only to say: I'm sorry.
If only to feel soft skin. One last time. To drown in green depths. One last time.
If only to say: ---
From above her leaves rustled in sleepy annoyance as an owl hopped along a limb. Big, yellow eyes blinking slowly at the dark form underneath. Then it stretched a little and fluffed its wings. To take of in unhurried, silent flight.
Silvery glow caught in dark hair. Turning pale blue eyes into a pale grey.
And with one last, deep breath, she stepped into the small clearing.
Most of the Amazons had fallen asleep by now. Cuddled up in pairs or groups. Here and there snores stirring the otherwise quiet air.
The fire had burned down to smouldering embers. Sparks exploding into the sky every time another log surrendered to the heat of the flames.
Those who were still awake, were sitting in small groups close to the fire or huddled within blankets. Talking quietly. Some were singing....others just enjoying the dance of the flames highlighting the square in a deep orange.
"So they were supposed to be joined tonight?"
The soft voice came from two women leaning against the platform. They were facing the fire. Their profiles lit by the warm light.
"Yeah....Hades, we had it all planned out. A big party. A beautiful ceremony...we were all looking forward to this. It would have been the first Royal Joining in..." Pale brows wrinkled in thought. "...gods, forever."
Another rustle of sparks as the last log crumbled into glowing embers.
"But you were attacked and Terreis and Melosa were killed." The voice carried only a hint of a question.
The other woman released a slow breath and straightened. Turning a little, Ephiny faced Cyane more squarely. "Yes."
"And you still want me to believe that it was just some group of thugs surprising you?"
The Greek Amazon sighed and worried her lower lip. Really, where was the sense in pretending? Tomorrow they would leave and with any luck things could get back to normal. Or as normal as they had been since Velasca's attack.
"No....no, that wasn't the real story."
Cyane brushed a few stray strands of pale hair out of her eyes and raised dark brows in an inquiring gesture.
"Renegades." Said, as if it explained everything.
Dark eyes blinked. "Renegades? From your tribe?"
Ephiny snorted and then took a deep breath. Her voice betraying the turmoil inside. "Yup. Melosa's daughter to be exact. A loon, really. She came back from a trip to the outer regions and turned the entire tribe upside down....she hadn't been here when Gabrielle came to live with us and she sort of set her eyes on her."
A little silence as she kicked a small rock. "Couldn't deal with Gab saying no....and whatever anger she felt because of that turned into hate as Melosa announced that she would step down and that Terreis would take over." A weak, wistful smile tugged at her lips. "That's how we heard that the two would get joined."
Ephiny's chest moved with a silent sigh. "Anyway....Velasca might be a loon but her idea of returning the Amazons to the great nation we once were did find its followers. One day she disappeared....and with her quite a few of our sisters."
The wind that had playfully brushed through their hair had gained in strength and the sky was slowly taking over by pale grey clouds. Crowding around the bright moon.
"Within a month she returned and demanded the throne. Of course Melosa refused and...." She shrugged. But her body lost in height as her shoulders slumped. Her hazel eyes clouding over with grief and the memory of that day.
"Her group had grown and....and they did surprise us but we managed to force them to retreat....but...." Her voice trembled a little. "...we lost a lot. We all tried to protect Melosa and Terreis. And Gabrielle of course but...." A long, heavy silence. "...it was the first time she killed."
Ephiny looked up. Ignoring the tears streaming down her face.
"Seeing Terreis' dead body....she snapped. Killed three of Velasca's bitches before she attacked her." A shaky breath. "She had no chance of course. Hit Velasca on the face but then...we were afraid we lost her, too but she healed."
Her gaze turned to the fire. "Physically anyway."
Cyane swallowed. Not sure what to say. Honestly shocked by what Ephiny had told her. She had figured that the story they had heard lacked a few details but....she hadn't been prepared for that.
She cleared her suddenly dry throat. "How long since..."
It was a miracle that Gabrielle was capable of anything. Let alone negotiating a treaty - and dealing with the horror of her past.
How did she manage not to fall apart? By Artemis...how did she manage not to go insane?
Ephiny took a deep breath. Pushing the images of the battle deep down were she usually kept them. "So maybe you understand why I wanted Xena to leave....Gabrielle didn't need any more pain."
Cyane blinked. Yes. Yes, she did understand. But...she also understood that whatever had happened back in Potedeia, it was obvious that it didn't push the two women apart but pulled them closer.
Gabrielle's face...her voice...as she realised Xena had been in that inn. There had been no hatred or anger...
There had been -
She looked like someone who had been reaching for a saving hand - only to realise that the person reaching for her was drowning, too.
A look mirrored in pale blue depths.
And yet neither of them had seemed willing to let go of the other's hand...
She turned and tilted her head in an unconscious move. "She's in love with her." In a quiet voice.
Ephiny got very still. Her jaw moving with silent emotions. Her eyes blazing with obvious anger. "She's confused....the last weeks were...crazy and this week especially. She needs time to heal...physically and emotionally. Time to grieve. She might think she loves her but...but...Hades! There's no way she can possibly be in love with her!"
Silence. Blinking dark eyes as Cyane took a step forward. Her eyes as quiet as her voice.
"I meant Xena."
Ephiny swallowed. And then exhaled slowly. One hand brushing through long, blonde locks in a frustrated gesture. She looked at Cyane.
"What a mess, huh?"
Despite herself the Queen chuckled and felt her body relax a little. "Oh yeah...." She bit her lower lip and studied the Greek Amazon for a moment. "Gabrielle means a lot to you."
A deep breath and Ephiny shrugged. But her eyes betrayed the nonchalant gesture. "She's one of my closest friends. Yes. And Terreis was my best friend so..." Again her graze drifted somewhere beyond the village. "Losing Melosa and Terreis was awful...but to see Gabrielle try to keep everything from falling apart...including herself...that was the worse part."
She rubbed tired eyes and leaned heavily against the platform. "She wouldn't reach out or talk to me...or any of us. Kept everything inside. Just looking at her you wouldn't believe what she had gone through those last two months but..."
Another shrug. "And when I saw you and Xena enter the village that morning. I don't know...somehow I felt something would happen. I was never happy with the secret we kept from Gabrielle. Eventually it had to come around and kick our butts..." A weak chuckle. "Sure, did. Didn't it?"
Her eyes met Cyane's gaze.
"After what happened back there in Potedeia...how can she fall in love with her?" This time there was no anger in her voice. Just confusion and the need to understand.
Cyane sighed. "I don't know.....but does anyone know why we fall in love? I mean, it's not like it knocks and asks for permission, does it?"
"Right. And I don't think that Xena or Gabrielle choose to fall in love with each other. Hades, I don't want to be in their place...especially knowing what connects them must be terrible." Cyane reached out and touched Ephiny's arm. "Forget Xena's past for a moment....she has changed. I can vouch for that with my life. And I want her to be happy."
She waited until reluctant hazel eyes met her gaze. "And she was happier here...with Gabrielle...than she'd been in the five years she's been with my tribe."
Ephiny released a slow breath. "I don't know if she's good for Gabrielle....and I'd rather kill Xena than have her hurt Gabrielle again." Calmly. Seriously.
"She wouldn't do that." Just as seriously.
They looked at each other for a long moment and then shook their heads.
"Being the best friend sucks, doesn't it?"
Cyane chuckled and nodded her head. "Oh yeah." Then she smiled. Relieved that the tense atmosphere between them seemed to be gone.
Shifting a little to ease a dull ache in her back, she frowned as a sudden thought entered her mind. "About that Velasca woman....do you think she will be back?"
It's strange how life sometimes answers questions all by itself. Before Ephiny had a chance to say anything...a high-pitched bird cry echoed through the dark village and a guard from the entry came running their way.
"Someone's coming. They're not responding to our calls."
Around the square Amazons stirred and blinked sleepily at the three women obviously alert to some sort of danger.
And for the first time Ephiny looked around and realised that Gabrielle was gone. She felt her heart miss a beat and bit back a curse as she stormed towards the entry of the village.
Jumping to the side as a horse came cantering in. Neighing panicky. Throwing its head. Sweat darkening its pale hide... white, steaming foam dripping from its mouth.
It took almost six of them to catch it and another long moment to calm it enough to approach it.
But what they saw - made all of them swallow and take a step back. Some actually vomited unable to stand the sight of the prone form laying on the ground. Tied to the saddle with a long robe.
Ephiny gasped. "...Solari..."
The flickering light from torches placed around the square outlined the bloody form of the dark-haired woman in all its gruesome details.
Every cut. Every bruise highlighted in painful detail. There wasn't an inch on her body that didn't show traces of wounds. And then a hoarse groan stirred the shocked silence.
Immediately someone ran to get Ira while Ephiny crouched next to her friend. "...you're safe, Solari...just hang on, okay? Don't you dare give up."
Behind her she heard the hesitant footsteps of Cyane. Turning a little, she looked at her. "Guess, I can answer your question now."
Her legs seemed heavy as rocks as she stepped into the small clearing. Slowly. Hesitantly.
Gabrielle's cries had quieted down to choked sobs. Her small frame sunk together as if any strength had left her.
Xena stopped. Her chest moving with a deep breath. If she reached out with her hand she would touch soft hair.
A trembling breath. A shaking voice.
"...how long did you know..."
Pale blue eyes blinked. For the briefest of moments she wondered how Gabrielle had known it was her.
Now the blonde head moved and teary green eyes pulled her in for a small eternity. And she tumbled into them. Willingly.
Gabrielle swallowed and then got up. Ignoring the dull ache that had settled in her body. Tilting her head, she tried to look into Xena's eyes.
Somehow needing to see.
To know, maybe...
If what she had felt happening between them was real or if it had been just another illusion. Just another nightmare to wake up from.
Part of her fought the emotions growing inside. Agreeing with Ephiny. Was this really how she planned on honouring Terreis? By falling in love this easily?
But the other part - the one that had started whispering to her the first time she saw Xena - that part reminded her again and again that even this vague feeling for Xena was far more intense and.....green eyes closed in silent grief and guilt.....real that anything she had ever felt for Terreis.
And that was what was really scaring her. Confusing her. Hurting her. It felt like she was betraying Terreis.
The quiet of the night settled around them like a heavy blanket. Dulling any other sound to whispering voices. There was only their breathing. Their heartbeats. Wind rustling through dark and pale hair. The moon stretched behind thickening layers of grey clouds. Peeking at the two silent forms underneath.
A soft breath.
Gabrielle dropped her head. Unable to stand the look in Xena's eyes.
But frighteningly aware of her silent presence. The softest trace of the scent of her warm body. The soft sounds of her leathers as she moved ever so subtly. The rhythmic sound of her breathing.
She closed her eyes and couldn't help but imagine her features. Those high cheekbones. Elegant eyebrows. Reds lips. And the way those blue eyes - those impossibly blue eyes - lit up every time she smiled.
And she felt the warm, incredibly safe presence move closer. So close...
"...what do we do now?..." Green eyes still hidden. Her voice trembling with a myriad of emotions.
"I don't know." The low voice a gust of warm breath close to her face.
Xena swallowed. Inside she was trembling. Scared. Terrified - and yet unable to stop as she felt her body take yet another step closer.
It was like they were drawn to each other. Like moths to a flame. Unable to resist the destructive pull.
The moonlight above outlined their forms in stark detail. Bathing them in silvery light. Baptising their hurting souls ---
And then the warmth of their bodies connected and as she lowered her head she felt warm lips touch hers. Gods, so soft...
In a hesitant, impossibly gentle caress.
Pale blue eyes closed and one of her hands cupped gentle features even as their kiss deepened.
And she felt something inside let go. A weight lifting off of her....to allow her soul to soar. Her senses floating on the scent that was Gabrielle and the warmth of their body. On the feel of soft, downy skin. The light trembling in soft lips.
If there had ever been anything right in her life ---
--- this was it.
Their lips separated ever so lightly. Still touching and warm breath caressed her face. She swallowed and opened her eyes. Her fingertips tracing rounded cheeks. To gently touch trembling eyelids.
Felt the warmth of small hands flat against her belly.
But green eyes still hadn't opened and she saw Gabrielle take a deep breath.
"...please....please go..." A soft, barely audible whisper. Fading the moment it left pink lips. And yet echoing painfully loud in her mind.
She blinked in numbing shock and pulled back a little. Gabrielle didn't drop her hands but didn't open her eyes either. Her features a painful mixture of anguish, longing and confusion.
"Gabrielle..." The low voice almost pleading.
This time the small frame moved. Pulling away. Turning away. Her body painfully still.
"I...I want you to leave."
She almost didn't catch the words they were this soft. And slowly...ever so slowly she felt the warm, ridiculously fuzzy feeling inside dissolve into a dull pain.
She swallowed barely able to keep her voice steady. It took all her strength to keep from falling apart right here.
"Is this really what you want?"
By now the moon had lost its fight against the wall of grey moving in. One last highlight sparkling in green eyes - and then darkness settled. Swallowing them completely. Their bodies all but hints of moving shadows within.
Rustle of wings as night birds brushed through the still air. Twigs bursting as small creatures made their way through the undergrowth.
And above all the shattering echo of souls crumbling into myriad of pieces...
Trembling breaths. And a pained whisper. "...yes..."
Another long silence. Humming with unspoken words...pleas...tears. And then the eerily loud sound of footsteps fading into the dark of the forest.
To be concluded in Part 4
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