Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Perdicas, Ming Tien, Lao Ma and Argo are property of MCA/Universal Studios/Renaissance Pictures, etc., etc. I am merely borrowing them and will bring them back none worse for the wear. Any god or goddesses that might appear are in the public realm and therefore are not copyrighted by anyone. The story elements are mine and I do claim ownership of the story elements.
Warning: there will be violence in this story as well as one rape. If you cannot read violence, sexual or otherwise, please pass on this story now. It is brief but necessary to the plot line.
Copyright © 1999 by JS Stephens. Lightly edited 2013. All Rights Reserved. Readers may download one copy for perusal offline. Do not fold, spindle or mutilate. Tags (except for metatags) may be removed only by the consumer. Please shake, do not stir. Coffee provided by Peet's of California. Please buckle up and read safely. Thank you and have a safe trip.
Note: This story is loosely based on the alternate universe presented in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys episodes of "Armageddon Now, parts 1 & 2". This is the sequel to my story, Armageddon.
Gabrielle barely made it to the bucket in time. She didn't dare tell Xena that she suspected that she was pregnant, for who knows what the Conqueror would do. Would she keep Gabrielle alive? Would she kill her? Or would she do something to the baby? Gabrielle just wasn't sure, even though her relationship with Xena was starting to change from that of captor and prisoner to a friendship that was forged in the bonds of shared grief. Xena's grief of having lost a son, a husband, a lover, and Gabrielle's grief of having lost a husband to an unknown assassin. Xena had accused her adopted son, Ming Tien, of hiring an assassin and having Gabrielle's husband, Perdicas, killed in front of the crowds. Xena banished the her adopted son to the border lands "to learn more of the arts of war," as she had put it.
"Hello, dearie," said Cyra, the woman who cooked and cleaned, as she entered the bedroom. She shook her head as she glanced in the bucket. "That's the fifth morning in a row, Gabrielle," she commented, "didn't your husband visit before he was murdered?"
"Yes," Gabrielle said slowly as she started brushing her hair.
Cyra took the bucket out, then came back in with the breakfast tray. "I suspected after the second morning, so I've made a bland breakfast for you. Did you and your husband have any other children?" she asked kindly.
"No, I was pregnant once, but I miscarried after a few months," Gabrielle admitted. She set the brush down on the dresser, then turned and asked the older woman, "Do you think Xena will be angry about my pregnancy?"
"Gods only know what that woman will do or say, but I must admit in the years I've been working for her, the only other prisoner whom she treated this well was Lao Ma. I think she really likes you, Gabrielle," Cyra concluded.
"Well, I'm not planning to say anything until I am sure or until I show," Gabrielle muttered. She started picking at the food as Cyra straightened up the room. It still felt weird to have someone to cook and clean for her, but Xena had insisted upon it. Gabrielle was sure that Cyra was supposed to be reporting back to her employer with any useful tidbits of information, yet Xena had never indicated that she had gleaned anything from the older woman, so Gabrielle was no longer sure. At least Cyra was kind and easy to talk to, which was important since Xena did not send for Gabrielle every day.
Several hours later, Xena herself appeared at the house, sending all of the guards outside with a wave of her hand. She flung herself into one of the chairs in the living room, fiddling with her richly brocaded robe as if trying to decide what or how to say something important or unpleasant. Finally, she straightened up and said flatly, "Gabrielle, be packed and ready to travel in an hour. We are going to your hometown for a visit."
Gabrielle's jaw dropped in amazement that turned quickly to horror. "Xena, what have I done to deserve this?" she asked cautiously.
Xena quirked one black eyebrow at the question. "Deserve? You have challenged me, defied me, argued with me and been brutally honest with me. Lao Ma and Borias were the last two people on this earth to challenge me so and they are dead." She hesitated, then continued in a softer voice, "But you are different, Gabrielle, you challenge me because for some reason that only you can see, you claim that I can stop being a monster. And damn it, you make me feel human, you touch my emotions, I just want to do something for you."
"Do something for me? Xena, if you really mean that, then stop your scorched earth policy-" Gabrielle challenged.Xena's black eyebrows slanted together in anger as she snapped,
"Enough! Just be glad I am giving you a chance to see your family and friends and that I keep you alive!" Xena spat out. "Now for once in your life, quit talking so much and do something! I'll be back in an hour to pick you up." She stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind her. Gabrielle lowered her head into her hands, her overactive imagination throwing up scenarios about what might happen.
Gabrielle was grateful that Xena brought a very small entourage on the trip, just two guards and Cyra. Cyra had managed to sneak some herbs in Gabrielle's tea to keep her from having morning sickness, which turned out to be a double blessing since Xena insisted that Gabrielle's cot be placed in her tent. Gabrielle woke up the first morning just in time to catch Xena watching her with an oddly wistful look, one that quickly hardened into detached amusement. It was times like these that convinced Gabrielle that the woman who had wept in her arms over the death of her family still existed and could supplant the monster that the world usually saw. But how could she draw Xena out, get her to balance that gentleness with the strength she needed to rule the land? Was it even possible?
Xena kept that hard, arrogant look around her in public during their week-long journey, checking on various towns, asking city officials about the tax collection, talking to the generals of the armies, taking the time to survey the land she ruled. People seemed confused when they saw Xena with Gabrielle tagging along but if anyone dared to question the younger woman's presence, Xena would silence them with one of her dangerous looks, daring them to question her decision to keep Gabrielle with her at all times. But, the evening before they arrived in Potedaia, Xena asked Gabrielle to take a walk with her down to the river, alone.
As the guards and Cyra went about setting up camp, Xena and Gabrielle walked slowly by the river. Gabrielle was exhausted by the day's travel but dared not deny the Conqueror her wish, especially since she had said "please". When they were out of sight and earshot of the others, Xena turned abruptly and asked, "If you could change the way I rule, what would you do?"
"Do?" Gabrielle repeated.
"Yes, like what would you change? I'm sure you have an opinion, you do about everything else," Xena said quietly, not teasing as she sometimes did.
Gabrielle stopped, deep in thought. Finally, she answered, "I would work with the people, see what they needed for a comfortable life. Before you interrupt, if the people feel safe and secure, they will be more likely to follow you out of loyalty and trust rather than out of fear. People can handle fear and starvation only so long before they will rebel and tear down the existing power structure. Let the people have representatives to court, not the puppets you hand pick, but representatives who know how the people really feel. Work with them, not against them."
Xena listened, giving her full attention to her companion. "Work with the people, huh? As in give them a say in their destinies?"
"Yes," Gabrielle answered boldly.
"You might be years ahead of yourself," Xena commented slowly, "but I will take your words under advisement. I'm sorry if I don't treat you as well when we are around other people, but I can't seem to break the cycle. Tell me, if I let you talk to your family and friends alone, will you tell me what they really think? I can't promise I'll do anything about their opinions, but I will listen to you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle pondered the request for several minutes before replying, "I will give you their opinions, but I must have your promise that you won't have them executed for speaking honestly, Xena."
Xena stepped closer, smiling faintly. "You have my word, Gabrielle." She reached out as if to touch Gabrielle, but let her hand drop. "Will you also ask me to empty my heart of hate, like Lao Ma did?"
Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle admitted, "Yes, I would like to ask you to empty the hatred from your soul, it poisons you."
"Fair enough. I can't promise to let go of the hatred, but I will try." Xena said.
Curiously, Gabrielle asked, "Why?"
Xena answered simply, "Because it is you who is asking. Shall we go eat supper?" Without waiting for an answer, Xena turned and started walking back to the camp. Gabrielle stood, stunned by the reply. Why was Xena so concerned what she thought of her? she wondered. She remembered telling Perdicas that maybe the gods had brought her to Xena's attention to bring out the good in Xena, but she never dreamed that Xena might actually start to respond. Xena's voice broke into her thoughts, calling, "Come on, Gabrielle!" Gabrielle hurried toward the voice, catching up with the queen. Xena stopped a moment, briefly squeezing Gabrielle's shoulder in a friendly fashion, then continued walking toward camp, Gabrielle struggling to keep pace with her.
"Gabrielle, I don't believe a word you've said about that damned glory hog," Alastair thundered. "You know as well as I do that she arranged to have Perdicas assassinated, despite what she told you to the contrary."
"Alastair, she was going to let him live to keep her subjects on edge, to confuse us all. But, she too has lost her husband, she too grieves the loss of a child, " Gabrielle replied.
He snorted. "Sure, Gabrielle, sure. You know, my brother was right, you are naive at times. Don't worry, though, we'll set things right. It's been hard, but I've taken over the running of your farm for you, hiring more hands to keep it going."
"Thank you." Gabrielle said quietly.
Alastair smiled wickedly. "Oh, you are most welcome, and you will thank us more when we arrest Xena for her crimes." He leaned forward, asking, "Just how many guards does she have with her, dear sister-in-law?"
Gabrielle paled, taking in the significance of the question. Before she could answer, Xena stepped into the room, asking, "Are you ready to return to the inn?"
Years later, Gabrielle still wasn't sure how it happened, but the room was suddenly filled with angry villagers. They somehow subdued Xena, tying her in sturdy ropes, dragging her to the village jail, threatening to torch the building with her inside of it. Gabrielle tried to thread her way through the throng to protect Xena but was held back by her brother-in-law. She struggled against him but was rewarded by a clip on the head, sending her into unconsciousness...
Xena struggled to break her bonds that kept her on the rough cot in the small cell. Finally, she leaned back, panting with the exertion, gathering her thoughts and observations. Her guards should be here soon to let her out of this miserable place, she decided, but she didn't want them to see her tied up like this. How could she get out of these ropes? Before she could answer her own question, the door opened. Alastair and three other men walked in, shutting and locking the door behind them. "Who the hell are you?" she demanded.
"I am Alastair, brother of Perdicas, whom you had murdered."
"Ming Tien arranged that and he is being punished," Xena countered.
"That is what your bards say, Xena, but I seriously doubt that you tell the truth." Alastair walked over to the cot, slipping his knife from its scabbard. "I think a little torture in in order, don't you? After all, you do have your prisoners tortured to get the truth from them, don't you?" For the first time since Solon's death, Xena felt the prickling of fear at the back of her neck. She watched the man, half-hypnotized by his voice and the slow descent of his knife to her legs, wondering what he planned to do to her. "By now, you are probably wondering what I will do to you," he continued smoothly, "I'll just let you find out rather than tell you." He stepped closer and picked up her robe, then slowly sliced the material from her abdomen to her feet, then peeled back the layers of cloth like an onion, finally exposing her crotch. She stared, terror starting to wash over her in waves as she saw Alastair untie his pants, then crawl on the bed with her, carefully positioning his erection to plunge into her. She screamed as he penetrated her, as he painfully pumped in and out, until he was finished. He pulled out, then motioned for the next man to take his position. Xena squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block the pain and the torment as the men all took turns raping her savagely, then blessedly passed out.
Xena woke up in a much softer bed with someone gently bathing her wounds. She relaxed under the ministrations for a moment before opening her eyes, thinking of how Lao Ma would bathe her after they made love, encouraging Xena to relax and be cared for. But, this could not be Lao Ma, she had Lao Ma executed years ago, who would dare touch her body in such an intimate manner? Her blue eyes flew open as she prepared a tongue-lashing but was arrested by the site of Gabrielle gently cleaning the blood from her legs. Her naked legs. Her naked body. It took a moment, but the horrors of the repeated rapes struck her full force and she whimpered softly before she could stop herself. Gabrielle dropped the bloody rag back into the bowl and came to sit by Xena's head, saying, "Xena, how do you feel?"
Xena meant to make a flip remark but found that she could not; Gabrielle's kind green eyes watched her intently with true concern. Xena licked her lips nervously, then finally answered, "Terrible. I hurt all over and my insides feel like I've been ripped open."
"I am sorry for what happened to you, Xena." Gabrielle picked up a fresh rag and continued cleaning Xena's thighs as Xena closed her eyes, focusing on the sensation of the wet rag cleansing her body, summoning the arts that Lao Ma had taught her, arts to allow her to go beyond her physical pain and to aid in healing. She was concentrating so hard that she didn't realize that Gabrielle was speaking again for several minutes. "What? I'm sorry, I was thinking of something else," Xena apologized.
"I said, your guards were killed to keep them from rescuing you, but Cyra managed to hide in my basement." Gabrielle dropped the bloody cloth into the bowl, then continued, "I managed to convince the magistrate to arrest the men who raped you. The townspeople want to rip you from limb to limb, but he told them that you had not done anything wrong here, but were instead wronged." Gabrielle smiled bitterly. "He memorized and delivered that speech flawlessly, Xena, just like I wrote it out for him."
Xena's eyebrows drew together in a puzzled line as she started to sit up. Gabrielle pushed her back on the bed, but Xena asked, "You insisted? You insisted that they be arrested, not me? Why?"
"Because you said you would listen to me. Xena, no matter what you have done in the past, you would have spared Perdicas-"
"But that was just for show-" Xena interrupted.
Gabrielle put her hand over Xena's mouth. "Hush, let me finish. You promised me that you would try to purge the hatred from your soul and you must have made a start or you would have been yelling for their heads already. Am I right?" Xena nodded reluctantly. "Good. I have agreed to represent you at the trial-"
"-at the trial of your attackers, Xena." Gabrielle confirmed.
"Wait, how long was I unconscious?" Xena queried, feeling somewhat confused.
"A couple of hours. I had to pay a healer three times the going rate to get him to look at you. Oh, I'm sorry about your clothes, they could not be salvaged. Your bleeding has nearly stopped, but you still have a very high fever. I had to leave you uncovered to keep your fever down."
Xena listened obediently, but at the last remark smirked, "Only my lovers get to see my body, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows innocently as she asked, "Are you offering me something?"
Xena found herself irritated with herself as her remark backfired. "No, not really."
"Xena," Gabrielle smiled. "I am not after your bed, rest assured." She took Xena's hand in hers and continued seriously, "Speaking of beds, you should get some more sleep now." She reached over with her other hand to feel Xena's forehead, then nodded. "Your fever seems to be going down, I think it is time for you to get dressed. I will lend you a nightshirt of Perdicas', then I'll see if any of his clothes will fit you so you will at least have something to wear to the trial."
"When will that be?"
"Next week, when you have completely stopped bleeding," Gabrielle answered. "Now be good and get some sleep, I'll come back with your supper later," she said. Gabrielle let go of Xena's hand and left the room, shutting the door softly behind her.
Xena watched her leave, wondering why the simple farmer's wife affected her so powerfully. She remembered once telling Lao Ma that she loved her, but Lao Ma had simply laughed and said, "Xena, you think you love me, but unless you are willing to learn to give love without thought of return or reward, you will not know what true love is. Love is patient, kind, unselfish, holding the other person's welfare in your heart. You still wonder what I can do for you, not the other way around." Xena had her executed fairly soon after that, then had sulked for days because Lao Ma was dead.
The trial was not going well. The magistrate was allowing Xena to be put on trial instead of the four men who had brutally raped her, which made Gabrielle seethe quietly with rage as she sat by an oddly quiet, detached, Xena. Finally, she was allowed to speak.
"Gentlemen of the jury," Gabrielle began calmly, belying the turbulence inside, "you have heard all sorts of accusations against Xena, implying that it was her own fault that she was raped. I am here to remind you that Xena is not on trial, the four accused are on trial. Yes, it hurts me that my own brother-in-law chose to lead these men in falsely arresting and imprisoning Xena for my husband's death." She took a deep breath, then said, "I tell you now, Xena was not planning to have Perdicas murdered, she intended that he would live."
A gasp arose from the court. There had been rumors that Ming Tien had arranged the assassination, but few believed it, but Gabrielle seemed to believe this terrible woman over her own brother-in-law. "Might I remind you that the laws of our village state that the evidence presented in a trial must be relevant to the issues. Even if Xena had been responsible for my husband's death, it would not be relevant to this trial, but to another trial altogether."
She turned and glanced at Xena, who was watching her with open curiosity. Gabrielle's throat nearly closed in pain as she looked at the woman who was dressed in her husband's clothes, making even simple farm clothes look regal and imposing. She swallowed hard, then turned back to the jury. "You have heard the evidence that was allowed. I was overruled repeatedly when I tried to introduce any evidence, so I will present it now." She glanced back at Xena, asking permission with her eyes. Xena nodded slightly, so Gabrielle continued. "I saw Xena in the jail where she was raped, I cleaned Xena's body myself, and saw the blood, the bruising, the other evidence left behind." A murmur went around the courtroom as Gabrielle raised her voice, continuing, "I was married to Perdicas for three years, and he never left such a huge spot on the sheets, if you get my meaning."
Bedlam reigned for several minutes until the magistrate was forced to hammer his gavel on his chair so hard that it shattered. "I will have order here!" he shouted. When the court was finally quiet again, he asked, "Do you have anything else to say?"
Xena stood up and announced simply, "I do, sir. One of you men who claim that you did not rape and humiliate me will be a father in nine months." She waited as the men stared at her, shocked. She smiled dangerously, then added lightly, "I'll be nice enough not to ask for child support." She looked at the magistrate. "You may continue, sir."
He stared at her for a moment, then took himself in hand and announced, "The closing remarks are ended, the jury will now convene for the verdict." He started to bring the gavel down again, then remembered that it was shattered. "Come back in one hour with a decision," he instructed.
Gabrielle turned to Xena and asked, "How do you know?"
Xena replied blithely, "Oh, I count my cycles so that I won't get pregnant, but I'm already missing my next cycle by several days. I can't confirm it, but it made great drama anyway, eh?" Her eyes twinkled merrily for a moment, then she assumed her haughty face again as the jurors came back into the courtroom.
"How do you find?"
"We, the jury, find that the four accused are guilty of rape and sentence them to death immediately."
The place went in an uproar as the villagers tried to surge toward the front of the courtroom. Xena stood up and commanded, "Stop." The crowd reacted reflexively to the authority in her voice and bearing. She waited until she had everyone's full attention, then announced, "I am using my prerogative as Queen to change the sentence." She swept the room with her intense blue eyes, then said, "They will stay in jail for sixty days, then will work Gabrielle's farm for the rest of her life. If, however, any one of these sorry asses lay a hand on another woman or man again in anger, he will be executed immediately." She turned to Gabrielle and whispered, "Is that close enough to emptying my heart?" Gabrielle nodded slowly as Xena dismissed the crowd.
Cyra decided to take her leave of the two women when they were halfway back to the palace, explaining that they were near her hometown and she would like to visit her grandchildren. Xena allowed her to go, once again surprising Gabrielle, who commented, "You're taking this changing seriously, aren't you?"
Xena nodded as they prepared their bedrolls for sleep. Xena had decided to leave behind her carriage of state, swapping it for a sturdy cart, food, warm blankets, mattresses, a tent and horses. The night was still warm, so Xena left the door flap open for the time being, watching Gabrielle in the declining light. After Gabrielle slipped between her covers, Xena asked, "Why did you defend me? Why not let the townspeople string me up and let someone else take over?"
Gabrielle rolled on her side to face the Destroyer of Nations, the Conqueror, the Queen of the World. Yet, at this moment, she was just Xena, Travel Companion, Mother-to-be. Gabrielle simply looked at this woman for several long minutes, realizing that when Xena was not trying to be a terror, she was quite beautiful. Finally, she answered, "I believe my mission in life is to turn you from evil, to help you find what is good inside. Your death would have only served to rip apart the lands you have united, allowing it to disintegrate into many smaller units, each too weak to fight the barbarians alone. Either we stand united under you, or we fall divided without you. But, you must learn to balance compassion with strength; strength you have with abundance, compassion you have slumbering in your heart."
Xena listened, then asked thoughtfully, "Just what do you know of my heart?"
"The way you have treated me, like a friend." Gabrielle answered honestly.
Xena nodded. "I haven't allowed anyone to get close to me since I had Lao Ma killed, but I was really too young and too much in pain to allow her to be a true friend." Xena ran a hand nervously through her raven hair, then said quietly, "Gabrielle, you showed me kindness when I came storming into the house, after Perdicas had been killed before your eyes. Why?"
"Because you needed it."
"Ah." Xena pondered this for a moment, then asked, "Do you consider me your friend?"
Gabrielle answered honestly, "I really don't know yet, but maybe someday, I will."
"That will have to do. Goodnight, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle suggested that Xena disguise herself as a man during their journey back to the palace so she could hear "what the people are thinking" first hand. Xena balked at first, but Gabrielle stood firm, even when Xena lost her temper and started shouting at her. Finally, Xena gave in and let Gabrielle have her way. "We'll go in as husband and wife to the inn up the road, I've never been there, but Perdicas said it was clean and well run. We'll just tie your hair with this leather strap," Gabrielle explained as she fitted her words with actions. Xena made a face, but allowed Gabrielle to tie her hair, smudge her face with road dust and add a loose vest to her wardrobe. "There, you look like a young man, or at least a fairly passable fake."
"Why do I put up with you?" Xena grumbled.
"It is your destiny, oh tyrant." Gabrielle answered smugly.
Xena snorted. "My dear Gabrielle, you are turning out to be the tyrant, I'm just along for the ride." She started to say something else, but changed her mind. "Do we have names to go with our new identities?" she asked.
"Yes, you are Lyceus and I am Diana, we just got married a few months ago and are on our way to work for my brother Argus in the capital city. Can you remember that?" Gabrielle teased.
"I made more complicated plans for battle, Gabrielle, of course I can remember this." Xena frowned, then asked, "Who are you again? Hey, cut that out, I'm ticklish!" She slapped at Gabrielle's hands, laughing as the smaller woman poked her lightly in the sides, finally grabbing Gabrielle's hands and holding them. "Now, a proper wife wouldn't tickle her husband, would she?"
"I tickled Perdicas, he rather liked it." she retorted, laughing.
"No comment. Let's get in the cart and head into town." Xena said, giving in.
A short time later, they found the inn and managed to bargain for a room, dinner, breakfast and a few buckets of clean water. While Xena paid the innkeeper, Gabrielle wandered around the dining room, looking for a free table, then finally found one near the kitchen. She sat down and waited for Xena, glad to be off her feet for a few minutes. She watched until she saw the tall woman striding through the dining room, then waved and called, "Over here, Lyceus!" Xena's eyebrows quirked in amusement as she made her way over to the table, waiter in tow. After they placed their order, another young couple entered, looking around for a place to eat, but all of the tables were taken. Gabrielle took pity on them and waved for them to join her and Xena, ignoring her dining partner's growls.
"Oh, thank you, my wife is pregnant," the man said as he sat opposite of Gabrielle and Xena, "she'll be back in a moment, you know how many trips to the outhouse pregnant women take."
"Yes, indeed," Xena said smoothly as she draped a casual arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, "Diana here is just a few months along and she already has to stop quite often. I'm Lyceus and this is my wife, Diana."
"I'm Rasmus and this is my wife, Thais. Dear, these folks are Lyceus and Diana. Say, is it your first child?" he queried.
Gabrielle answered, "Yes, it is, we married earlier this year. So, what brings you two here?"
Rasmus and Thais looked at each other, then Rasmus answered slowly, "I'm hunting for work, anything, really, since our taxes went up, and I couldn't pay them. Some soldiers came along and torched our house after I couldn't pay them. We're going to Potedaia to try our luck there."
Xena straightened up and asked quietly, "Who ordered the torching?"
Thais spat out, "It was that bitch, Xena, or so we were told. She told the tax collectors to take in an extra ten percent this year to support her campaign against the Celts in Britannia. He claims that if anyone resisted, he was supposed to burn them out and sell the land."
Rasums interjected "Thais, dear, don't you think you should be careful with what you say?"
"Rasmus, it's the truth, I swear it to Themis! I would even swear it before Zeus himself! That damned bitch has made our lives miserable, how are we ever going to survive? She sits up there so high and mighty, not giving a proper damn about our hardships, not caring that she has made it nearly impossible to make a decent living. I've heard that she wears silk robes, a different one every day, takes lovers at night and then kills them in the morning, just to drink their blood!"
Gabrielle started to say, "I don't think-" when Xena squeezed her shoulder, warning her with a raised eyebrow. "Thais, I'm sorry to hear that," Xena said quietly, "how much were the taxes?"
Rasmus answered wearily, "Two hundred dinars, Lyceus, we just didn't have that kind of money. But, I'm a hard worker, we'll survive." The waiter came over at that moment to set down the food. Xena looked with surprise at the meager amount on their dinner companions' plates and at the huge amounts on hers and Gabrielle's. Xena excused herself from the table, then came back a few minutes later, the waiter in tow with several more plates of food. "Hey, what's this?" Rasmus asked.
"More dinner," Xena answered. "Eat." She followed her own advice, stubbornly avoiding Gabrielle's eyes.
After dinner, Xena and Gabrielle went up to their room and got ready for bed. Xena crawled wearily in bed, falling asleep almost immediately. Gabrielle stood by the window, watching the moon rising, unsure about crawling in bed with Xena, trying to decide if the chair would be comfortable enough to sleep in. She finally decided to try it, pulling her cloak over her for a cover, dropping into a light sleep. Some time later, she felt herself being lifted and carried to the bed, gently tucked in.
The next morning, Gabrielle woke up and had to rush to the bucket. She was embarrassed, knowing that Xena had to have heard her, and would know for sure that she really was pregnant, not just pretending for the role. She sat back, wondering what to do when a cup of water was thrust into her hands with the command, "Rinse out your mouth, you'll feel better, then let me have the bucket. I'll take it out."
"Thanks," she whispered after complying. She crawled back into bed as Xena took care of the bucket detail, dozing lightly until Xena came back. Xena came over, sitting on the edge of the bed, facing Gabrielle, studying her intently. Gabrielle finally asked irritably, "What, did I sprout a mole or something?"
Xena grinned, eyes dancing with mischief. "No, but even sick, you are very beautiful. You have that glow that some women get when they are pregnant. Oh, I can show you a pressure point to keep you from feeling so sick in the mornings," she said. "Just tap here on your wrist when you feel sick, it will make the feeling go away."
Gabrielle tapped her wrist and was pleased when the nausea faded away. "Thank you, Xena." She leaned back against the wall, then asked, "What prompted you to buy them more dinner last night?"
"Oh, I don't know, they looked hungry and gods know that I have the dinars to pay for it. I've also arranged for the innkeeper to give them breakfast and to pack their lunch for them." Xena said casually.
"You can be generous." Gabrielle said with amazement in her voice.
"Hey, 'wife', don't let it get out, you'd ruin my reputation," Xena mock-snarled. Then she laid back on the bed, staring at the ceiling as Gabrielle got ready to go down to breakfast. "Gabrielle?" Xena asked.
"Hmm?" Gabrielle said as she swiftly braided her hair.
"I just wanted you to know that I never intended for my tax collectors to grab an extra ten percent this year." Xena rolled over on her side, watching Gabrielle winding her braid into a small bun. "Do you believe me?"
Gabrielle came back over and sat next to Xena. "Yes, I do. Now, how did I wind up in bed last night? I was going to sleep in the chair so I wouldn't disturb you."
Xena answered quietly, "I heard your teeth chattering with cold, so I carried you to bed." She had a far-away look in her eyes as she added, "I used to carry Solon to my bed when he was cold, when we lived in Chin. Borias and I would huddle around him, warm him up. Solon got cold so easily and the winds whipped mercilessly there. Solon's hair was so blonde, like yours, Borias used to tease him, saying that the wind was so cold that it would blow the color out of his hair. Solon never was sure whether or not to believe him." Xena smiled sadly, then clamed up swiftly. "I'm hungry, let's get some food." She abruptly stood up and started to walk out before she remembered her "role" as husband, then called back, "You ready, my dear?"
Gabrielle walked over to the door to join her. "Yes, dear husband," she said as she took Xena's arm. "I could eat just about anything right now."
Xena smirked, "I was afraid of that. Ow, my ribs are tender!" she huffed as Gabrielle's elbow collided with her side.
Gabrielle fully expected to be sent back to the house she had occupied for the last six months, but Xena asked her to pack up and move in with her in her sumptuous quarters. "But, Xena, people will think that I am your lover."
"I don't give a damn what they think, I need my best adviser near me at all times," Xena answered. "Besides, we can commiserate on our advancing pregnancies together, isn't that what friends do?" She paused. "Am I your friend yet?"
"I still haven't decided," Gabrielle answered seriously, "but you are making a good effort. Okay, now what?"
Xena paced the length of her office as they waited for her ministers of state. "Well, I intend to recall Ming Tien and officially proclaim him as my heir, start grooming him as my successor. I don't think it would be fair to have him just be the regent for my unborn child, do you?"
Xena stopped, then looked curiously at Gabrielle. "Speaking of children, what am I going to do with this child? I'm far too busy to raise a child and train Ming Tien."
Gabrielle looked stricken. "You don't mean you will-"
"No, I won't abort this one, I've already aborted one several years ago. Nasty experience." She resumed her pacing, then announced, "I have it, you can be my nanny."
"Me?" Gabrielle asked, startled.
"You will already have a child, Gabrielle, and this place has plenty of rooms, I'll just have one made into a nursery."
"Xena, I had thought about returning home after the baby was old enough to travel." she protested.
Xena stared at Gabrielle and started to reply but was interrupted by the arrival of her ministers. "We'll talk later," Xena promised as she went to greet the men. Gabrielle noticed that Xena's entire demeanor changed as she started talking to the men, she became more regal, stronger, more authoritative.
Gabrielle was surprised by Xena's assumption that she would make the perfect nanny for Xena's unborn baby. Her brother-in-law Alastair still had nearly a month of prison time to serve and she certainly couldn't take care of the farm by herself, not that she was really interested in farming anymore. She paced as she waited for Xena to come back from her meeting, trying to decide what to do. After several hours, Xena finally came back, flopping in a chair, wearily running her hands through her raven hair. "Gabrielle, the Celts are resisting again," Xena finally said, "and Ming Tien is in the thick of things. Oh, Tartarus, they're not just resisting, they have stopped my army dead in its tracks." She drummed her fingers on the arm of the chair, then asked, "So, what would you do if you were me? I am curious to hear how you would handle this."
"You want my opinion? I'm no warrior, Xena." Gabrielle pointed out.
"No, but you seem to have the pulse of the people under your fingers," Xena answered as she got up and crossed the room. She poured herself a mug of water, gulping it in several loud swallows. "I'm sorely tempted to go to the front to see what is happening myself, but I'm afraid that the rest of my lands would fall apart. So, I'm asking your advice."
Gabrielle thought for a moment, then finally answered, "I don't know, Xena, all I can offer is to listen to whatever intelligence your people have gathered."
"Damn, I really wish Ming Tien were here," Xena said as she set the mug back on the table. "He does make good observations. That damned Aife keeps dodging around, sneaking her people where mine are the weakest, yet I doubt she could rule any of the Celtic lands even if I withdrew my men."
"Xena, do you really need to conquer this one last people? Don't you have plenty to occupy you?" Gabrielle asked innocently.
Xena walked over to the blonde, then leaned over her chair, placing her hands on the arms and saying fiercely, "I must conquer them, Gabrielle, else my people will think I am a weakling."
Unabashed, Gabrielle retorted, "Prove them wrong, show the strength to lay down your arms and negotiate a peace with Aife. If you can't negotiate a peace, send me and I will work with Ming Tien to negotiate a peace."
"NO!" Xena shouted.
"Why not?" Gabrielle asked heatedly.
Xena snapped, "Because you are pregnant, don't you remember that?"
"But you would go, you've considered it and you are pregnant!" Gabrielle retorted angrily.
"That's different." Xena spat out.
"How?" Gabrielle asked.
"This child is not conceived in love and yours was," Xena replied bitterly, "so he or she will never take Solon's place."
"It all goes back to Solon, doesn't it?" Gabrielle asked softly. "His death still rips at your heart, you don't want to have another child and take the chance that another child could die as well."
Xena reared back as if to slap Gabrielle, but dropped her arm, wearily saying, "Perhaps," then turned on her heel as if to leave the room. Gabrielle walked over, placing a hand on Xena's arm, turning her to face her. "What?" Xena asked irritably, "what do you want from me?"
"You promised me that you would empty the hate from your heart, Xena. You can't bear a child and still have hate raging through your heart and soul." Gabrielle licked her lips nervously, then plunged ahead. "I certainly can't be your friend and bring up my child around someone with so much hate in them, don't you know that?"
Xena started to answer as her general burst into the room, holding a scroll. "A thousand pardons, ma'am," he panted, "but I thought you would like to hear the news: Aife has captured Ming Tien and is holding him hostage." He thrust a parchment toward her. "She had Ming Tien write out her demands so you could read them yourself."
Xena took the parchment, turning it over in her hands, then looking at the general. "General, I will meet you and the rest of the council in my war room in an hour. Leave me now." He bowed, then left the room as Xena gently unrolled the parchment and started reading. She finally put down the parchment, then asked softly, "Gabrielle, would you read this to me? Ming Tien tends to write more fluently than I can read."
Gabrielle picked up the parchment and started reading:
Most Exalted Xena:
Aife, Queen of the Celts, has captured me this day and is holding me captive until you can meet her demands. First, I must assure you that I am being treated well. Second, Aife is not a monster, unlike her reputation. Her Lord Druid assures me that she does not eat prisoners for breakfast, or any other meal.
Third, Queen Aife wishes to meet with you and one advisor. The advisor may not be part of the military establishment, someone of the people, say, like Gabrielle, who is wise beyond her years, like my departed mother. I think there may be hope for ending this senseless war, if you can only come to terms with Aife. She will give you one month to respond with your answer.
Gabrielle finished reading, then laid the parchment on the desk as Xena stood, unmoving. She finally asked quietly, "What will you do, Xena? Will you go see what Queen Aife wants, or sacrifice yet another son?"
Xena carefully sat down, looking blankly at the parchment. "Suppose it is a trick? Suppose this queen has already sacrificed Ming Tien?" She looked bleakly at Gabrielle, saying, "I was so furious with Ming Tien, I did not believe him, Gabrielle, suppose he dies? I could not forgive myself. But, suppose it is a trick? How would I know?"
"How does Ming Tien usually sign letters to you?"
Xena looked puzzled, then picked up the parchment again, slowly reading the letter, then laid down with trembling hands. "When he is frightened of me, he calls himself my humble servant. When he is feeling safe, he calls himself my son or my stepson. He must be frightened, Gabrielle." She ran a hand through her raven hair, then took a series of deep breaths, announcing, "We will go rescue him. He asked for you specifically, I can defend us both if need be."
"But what about your army?" Gabrielle asked sensibly.
"My dear advisor, my army is already stationed nearby, certainly they would come running if you screamed. Besides, you keep pestering me to empty my heart of hate, what better way to show that than to actually comply with the demands of this letter?" A ghost of a smile flitted across the Conqueror's face. "There is no one I would rather have by my side in delicate negotiations than you, Gabrielle, you won't let me demand sacrifices or to kill the entire Celtic command, will you?"
"I guess not," she answered slowly.
"Good. Let's get ready to see my army and other assorted powerful men so I can break the news to them." She chuckled, patting Gabrielle's hand. "I think I will need you to defend me when I announce my decision."
Queen Aife looked at the young man before her, wondering what drew her attention so much. True, he was different that the men she was used to, with short silky black hair, warm black eyes, and slight build. He faced her with a combination of deference and pride, as one who was used to dealing with powerful women and yet seeing his own opinion valued. She was also surprised by his fluency in her own native tongue, finding over the past few days that Ming Tien could speak a number of languages, not just his native tongue, but her language, Greek, Latin, Egyptian, and a little trade Phoenician. At first, she had intended just to use him as a pawn in her war against Xena, but her resolve was beginning to falter. She had not taken a lover since her consort, Kevin, died in battle several years ago.
"Ming Tien," the queen said as she seated herself opposite of him, "do you suppose that Xena is considering my offer?"
The captive answered mildly, "We shall see, shan't we? If I know my stepmother well, she will come, and will bring Gabrielle as her advisor."
"Why are you so sure about that, Ming?" the Celtic queen asked, curious.
Ming Tien steepled his fingers together, staring at the tips for a few seconds before replying softly, "Because Gabrielle is a gentle, yet strong soul, she is the only one to penetrate Xena's heart since my real mother died. Oh, Xena has treated me well as my adoptive mother, but since her son Solon died, she has been merciless."
Aife sat, sorting through the complicated sentences to extract the meaning, then finally gave up. Shifting topics, she announced, "You will accompany me to the Beltene fires tonight."
"What may I expect? What will be my part in this ceremony?" Ming Tien asked politely.
Aife smiled as she poured them each a mug of honey mead. "It signals the opening of the pastures for the summer; we drive cattle through between two sacred fires, then we dance to celebrate the coming of summer and fertility of the earth." She took a sip of mead, then added, "It is also said that you can find your true soulmate at the fires, but I doubt that. I will have one of the druids help you tonight, to make sure you are properly dressed." She rose to leave, then added, "If nothing else, it will be something else to convince your mother that we are indeed superstitious pagans."
"Oh, I doubt that," Ming Tien replied as Aife left the room, "I doubt that indeed."
Ming Tien watched avidly as the priests chanted the ancient songs, lighting the sacred fires, then drove the cattle through the fires. He also found himself watching Queen Aife standing proudly in the red and yellow glow of the fires, her copper hair seeming alive in the light, her fierce green eyes raking the assembly. He watched as couples started running between the fires, then off beyond the circle of light. Puzzled, he turned to the queen to ask what happened next when her eyes captured his, hypnotizing him with her fire. She touched his cheek, then hoarsely whispered, "It is foretold by the Druids that the queen will take a consort, he of eyes and hair as the night, his passion rising to meet hers on Beltene night. Are you that man? Am I that woman?"
Her touch burning his cheek, Ming Tien stared at the queen, fairly drowning in her eyes, aware of a rising passion within him. Nodding numbly, he took her hand; she led him slowly through the fires, not running quickly as the common folk did, but slowly, as befitting a queen and her chosen consort. He felt a burning that was more than the fires, a need to meld with Aife, a need to join with her, to share their bodies and souls. He could not explain it, for all of his studies, how he simply followed the woman, now hovering over her, finding their clothes stripped off. Trembling with joy and anxiety, he lowered his lips to hers, tasting the essence of the woman beneath him, feeling her power searing through him, feeling a cloud of desire wrap his senses...
"Xena are you out of your mind?" General Ulysses shouted. "You cannot take a pregnant woman across such rough terrain, into the very heart of enemy territory, even if it is to retrieve Ming Tien. I cannot allow that to happen!"
Xena stared coolly at the general, listening to his objections. When he took a breath, she merely said, "I am not asking your opinion, I am giving a command. If you wish to continue commanding my army, I suggest that you listen to my orders." She stood up and started pacing the floor, hands clasped behind her back. "Ulysses, I have plenty of lands to rule, Gabrielle is right, I need to step back and consolidate what I have, take care of internal problems. If I can get Aife to agree to a border, then we can stop this senseless war."
Ulysses dropped in jaw in shock. Xena, agreeing to draw a border and possibly withdraw her troops? He darted a nervous look at Gabrielle, who sat silently in the corner. "This Celtic queen is insisting that you travel alone with only Gabrielle. Gabrielle is three months along, isn't that dangerous?"
"You haven't listened," Xena muttered as she dropped in a chair beside Gabrielle. "After I received the letter from Ming Tien, Gabrielle volunteered to go, over my objections for her health. We will travel in disguise, as man and wife, taking a covered wagon to the border."
The general looked at her for a long moment, then spun on his heel and left the room. Xena smirked, saying, "He just doesn't know what to make of all the changes, does he?"
Gabrielle shook her head slowly, replying, "He's just baffled, Xena, you must admit that before you met me that you would have never agreed to even meet with Aife, much less consider withdrawing your troops." She yawned and stretched, then asked, "How long do you think you can disguise yourself as a man? I mean, you're not really showing now, but I am and I'm just a month ahead of you."
"With loose enough clothes, I should be able to fake it for another month or two. I didn't show very fast with Solon. Don't worry, I'll make sure that you are safe," Xena added. She touched Gabrielle's arm lightly, adding, "Of course, any first time 'father' would be rather anxious about his wife's health, which will be a terrific cover for us not mingling much after supper at various inns along the way."
"I'm so glad you care," Gabrielle smirked.
Xena's expression softened momentarily after Gabrielle left the room. "I do care," she muttered, "though why I'll never fathom."
Xena estimated that the journey would take ten days by wagon, so she sent a runner ahead with a brief message that she would meet Aife at the last big battlefield in ten days time. "As you requested," she had written, "I am bringing Gabrielle." Almost as an afterthought, she added, "Tell Ming Tien hello for me." Gabrielle proofread the letter, then nodded her approval. They set off, falling into a routine of traveling for several hours, stopping for lunch, traveling again, taking an afternoon break, then stopping for the night either at a campsite or at an inn. Gabrielle was amused at how Xena took to the role of anxious husband, keeping her close to her side, escorting her through towns on her arm, waiting patiently as Gabrielle haggled in village shops for supplies. It was a side of Xena that most would not believe existed, almost tender, almost affectionate.
On their last night, Gabrielle fidgeted in bed, unable to fall asleep. Xena muttered dire threats that Gabrielle ignored. Xena finally came through on one threat -- she started tickling the younger woman with great glee. Gabrielle laughed until she was exhausted and tears were streaming down her face. She laid back in bed, looking up into Xena's grinning face as Xena laid beside her, head propped on a hand. She suddenly felt a contraction and gasped, "Xena! I felt a contraction!"
Xena carefully spread her hand over Gabrielle's belly, face intent as she slowly felt the entire abdomen. Finally her face relaxed as she answered, "It's normal, my midwife says that women get these all during their pregnancy as a warm-up for the final delivery." She graced Gabrielle with one of her rare honest smiles. "You will do fine, I promise, I will have the best midwife available to attend your delivery." Without thinking, she slowly rubbed her hand over Gabrielle's belly, soothing the other woman. She glanced down at her hand and withdrew it, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to get so...personal."
"No, that felt good," Gabrielle said as she pulled Xena's hand back on her belly. "Your hand is so warm, you can be so gentle when you want."
Blue eyes met green eyes in gentle communication. Xena leaned forward, touching her forehead to Gabrielle's, asking, "Is this what friendship is about? Taking care of each other?"
"Yes," Gabrielle replied, her voice unexpectedly husky, "I think you may have passed the test. I hereby dub you my friend." She reached up and stroked Xena's cheek. "Am I really the first friend you've had since Lao Ma?"
"Yes," whispered Xena, throat closing unexpectedly. She swallowed hard against the unexpected tears, sliding down until her face was buried in Gabrielle's shoulder. "I was wrong to execute her, I wish I could take it all back," she whispered.
Gabrielle tentatively stroked the black silky hair, then continued stroking it more boldly. "Xena, my village priestess always told me that the dead can hear our thoughts, so Lao Ma knows how you feel, how you are changing." She heard a muffled sigh from Xena. "Just send your love your departed family and they will know." She felt the Destroyer of Nations trembling like a child who is trying not to cry; a tenderness stole over her heart. "Hey, you can cry, if you need to, I'll be here to hold you," she promised. She turned her head slightly and kissed Xena's cheek. "That part of what friends do." She felt Xena take in and then expel a long shuddering breath, then relax against her. "Xena?" she queried softly. Heavy, deep breathing met her question. "I guess sleep is good, too," she murmured as the warrior princess snuggled more tightly against her, claiming her with an arm and leg thrown across her breasts and legs. "Sleep is definitely a good thing," she yawned.
Ming Tien looked up into the face of Aife, Queen of the Celts, and smiled. Aife had told him that usually Beltene couplings rarely lasted, they were just representing the God and Goddess fertilizing the land, not true love between a man and a woman, but she had to admit that there was something different. "You may well be the man that the legends spoke of," she said, stroking his smooth cheeks. "I have not been with a man, except for Beltene, in the five years since my husband and child were killed by Xena's troops." He caught her hand against his cheek, enjoying the sensation. "Tell me, my fine young man, have you ever been with a woman before this?"
"No, I have not," he admitted sheepishly. "My true mother, in her last days, taught me that physical love expressed was a sacred thing, not to be entered into lightly. She taught me that it was better to wait for the right one to come along than to couple with the first person who presented themselves to you."
"I notice that you keep saying person, not woman." Aife said curiously.
"Ah, yes, well, Lao Ma and Xena were lovers after Xena's husband and child died." A look of sadness stole across his face as he spoke. "Lao Ma hoped to heal Xena with love, but it did not work. After that, I watched Xena take on many lovers, but never love them. I decided that my future mate had to be very special, someone I could love, before I gave myself over to them."
"Did I pass the test?" Aife teased.
Ming laughed joyfully, pulling the woman to him in a tight embrace. "Most definitely, my queen." She pulled back up, still looking at him questioningly. The smile faded as he said, "I cannot explain it, my queen, but I feel like you are the other half of my soul."
Aife stroked his chest lightly, asking, "Would you be happy here, among my people? I know we don't have as many civilized comforts as Xena's court, but would you consider staying?"
Ming started smiling again. "Yes, I would consider staying, my queen. Queen of my heart, that shall be your name, but enough talk," he growled, pulling her to him, "more love."
Xena woke up wondering how in all the gods' names she had become entangled with Gabrielle. They had slept together for nine nights without hardly touching, but on the tenth night... She let the thought peter out as the morning light crept through the window, touching Gabrielle's face with gold. Xena managed to wriggle away enough to prop herself up on one hand, gazing at the enigmatic woman beside her. She found herself grinning as she remembered Gabrielle's open defiance of her so many months ago, boldly stating the view of the people. She had been curiously drawn to the woman even then, thinking she would play with the woman before executing her, yet found Gabrielle's intelligence and sensitivity a refreshing challenge.
She had to admit that she enjoyed spending time alone with Gabrielle, away from the overwhelming hustle of the court, time to talk lightly of many things, to listen to Gabrielle spinning fantastic tales, to open a chink in her armor for just a few minutes. Now, Gabrielle would bear a child in a scant six months, hopefully a fine son, maybe with her blonde hair and gentle green eyes. Xena let a smile play on her lips as she pictured them picnicking along the stream, running through the fields. The smile faded as she thought about her own pregnancy. What would she do with this unwanted child?
Green eyes fluttered open, taking in the flash of wistfulness crossing Xena's face. Gabrielle reached up, cupping Xena's chin in her hand, asking, "What is it, Xena?"
Xena tenderly kissed Gabrielle's palm, then replied, "I was just thinking that today we meet Aife and that our time together will come to an end. No, I'm not deserting you, but Ming Tien will be returning with us."
"You will miss this?" Gabrielle queried.
"Yes." With that simple answer, Xena laid bare her heart. Gabrielle sensed how hard it was for Xena to be so open, to give as well as to accept friendship. Without a word, Gabrielle reached for the dark woman, pulling her into a long hug, then finally pushed Xena away. Seeing Xena blinking back tears, she decided to break the mood by announcing plaintively, "I'm hungry."
Xena laughed as she rolled over to the other side of the bed and bounced up. "You, my friend, are always hungry."
Gabrielle scooted off the bed, reaching for her clothes. "I'm pregnant, I'm supposed to be hungry," she snipped. Xena continued to laugh as she dressed quickly, saying that she would go down and order breakfast. Gabrielle muttered something under her breath about husbands making themselves useful, which cause Xena to grin delightedly as she left the room. Why couldn't Xena show this joyful side to others, she wondered.
High noon. Xena and Gabrielle stood patiently on the battlefield, waiting for the arrival of Aife and Ming Tien. Gabrielle insisted that they wear simple clothing, nothing to indicate Xena's grip over most of the known world. Xena surprised her by acquiescing without argument, content to wear a simple blue robe with a white sash tied around her waist. Gabrielle wore a simple brown linen dress with a tan robe over it. She stood nervously, wondering if everything would work out, not realizing that she was fidgeting until Xena laid a hand on her shoulder.
"There they are!" Gabrielle cried out. Xena smiled, squeezing Gabrielle's shoulder in acknowledgment. A beautiful woman and a handsome man approached them, finally cresting the hill and meeting them.
"Ming Tien!" Xena called, letting go of Gabrielle's shoulder, "I am pleased to see you looking so well, my son." Her blue eyes danced happily, belying the formality of the greeting. She turned to the woman, bowing slightly. "You must be Queen Aife of the Celts. I am Xena, this is my advisor, Gabrielle."
Ming Tien bowed formally, not missing the happiness in Xena's eyes. "Honored Mother," he said, "my lady Gabrielle. Welcome to the land of the Celts."
The four stood awkwardly for a heartbeat, then Xena held out her hand to Ming Tien, who grasped it firmly, then pulled the young man into a solid hug, finally releasing him. She sank down to her knees, holding his eyes with her own, asking, "Will you forgive me, my son?"
He glanced at Aife, who nodded once. Taking Xena's hands in his own, he answered joyfully, "Mother, I forgive you, please, come and feast with us, let us talk of peace between our peoples."
Aife added in strongly accented Greek, "Please accept our hospitality, we have a boar roasting even now." Glancing at Gabrielle, she added dryly, "You look peaked, my lady, I think you will be glad of food."
Gabrielle blushed becomingly as her hand stole toward her belly. "Yes, my queen, I will be very glad to partake of your food." Aife smiled, then tucked her hand through Ming Tien's arm and motioned for the others to follow them back to the camp. Gabrielle followed suite by tucking her hand in the crook of Xena's arm, as she had for the past week and a half while they posed as man and wife. Xena glanced down with a raised eyebrow but chose not to say anything.
After a splendid repast, Queen Aife dismissed her servants, then looked directly at Xena and said, "So, my worthy opponent, I understand that you are willing to hear my proposal of peace."
"That is correct," Xena agreed.
Aife leaned forward over the table, a serious expression settling on her face. "How do I know that I can trust you?"
Xena spread her arms wide. "Search me for weapons, Aife, if you doubt me. Search Gabrielle while you are at it, to make sure that she is not an assassin in disguise." Ignoring Gabrielle's startled yelp, she placed her hands flat on the table, saying, "You have my heir with you, I would not do anything to harm him."
"I heard differently, from his very lips," Aife remarked, "I heard that you accused him of setting up the murder of Gabrielle's husband, then banished him to the front lines of battle, hoping he would die."
Gabrielle spoke up for the first time since before lunch. "Xena had no intentions of killing my husband, she meant to throw her subjects off by letting him live. Ming Tien, unfortunately, was a handy scapegoat, but she did not have him killed, she had him banished instead. For her, that was a very humanitarian thing to do, and she has regretted it every day since."
Silence descended on the group for several minutes. Ming Tien broke it, asking, "Is that true? Did you regret sending me away?"
Xena looked at him steadily, saying, "Yes, I regretted it. I have pushed away everyone I could have loved since Borias and Solon died. I have done many horrible things, some of which I regret, others which I honest do not regret. Please come home."
He looked at Aife, then turned back to Xena. Gathering his courage, he said simply, "I appreciate the invitation, but my place is here now, by Aife's side as her consort and husband."
The color drained out of Xena's face at the announcement. Ming Tien held his breath, anticipating a storm, but Xena merely said, "I suppose congratulations are in order. Aife, you are taking on a fine man. Gabrielle, let's go, we can finish the negotiations later." She stood abruptly as she spoke, turning for the door flap, then turning back and adding, "Aife, you have my word that I will do my part to stop this war." She turned back and left, Gabrielle scrambling to keep up with her.
"Her heir?" Aife asked. "You did not tell me that you were her heir, that you had a throne to ascend to after her death."
Ming Tien took her hands in his. "No, I did not, for I never really believed it myself. But, my place is here with you, my love." He kissed her gently, wondering about the strange turn of events. Who would have believed that Xena would simply walk out without bloodshed over such an announcement?
Xena wasn't sure whether to laugh or to cry over Ming Tien's refusal to come back home, but instead, to stay with her enemy. She rubbed her forehead, unsure for once what course to take, what to do. For a moment, she had a tantalizing fantasy of giving up her throne, just settling down in some village with Gabrielle, bringing up their children far away from the horrors of warfare. She shook her head to rid herself of such visions, wondering why she even thought of settling with Gabrielle. She should really find a man for her, someone with power, but would Gabrielle really be happy with that kind of marriage? What did Gabrielle want besides remaking the world in her view?
"Xena, look out!" Gabrielle screamed as a crowd of warriors hurtled toward them, yelling obscenities at them. Xena's head snapped up as she surveyed the field even as she shoved Gabrielle away, screaming, "RUN!" Gabrielle ran back toward Aife's tent as the sounds of battle followed her. Glancing behind her, she saw the men beating Xena viciously. She stopped in mid-stride, then ran back toward them, screaming, "Get away from her, she's unarmed."
"So?" a man sneered as he bobbed around Xena. Xena glanced over at Gabrielle just as he wound up for a kick, meeting her square in the belly. Time seemed to stand still for a moment as Xena slowly crumpled to the ground. Gabrielle dove through the crowd and fell on top of Xena, daring them to come through her to get Xena. One man raised his weapon but had his arm caught by a strong hand. He found himself whirled around, face to face with his leader, who asked icily, "Is this any way to treat my guests? Do you want a permanent war on your hands, the blood of innocents on your soul?" She stared at the rest of them, then ordered her personal guards to round them up and throw them in jail. Aife finally turned to Gabrielle and Xena, asking softly, "Are you badly hurt?"
"I'm okay, but Xena is bleeding," Gabrielle answered shakily.
"Then I will send her to my best healer," Aife promised, "then I will execute the bastards."
"No, give them a trial first," Gabrielle insisted.
"A fair trial," Gabrielle clarified. "A fair trial."
Xena drifted in and out of consciousness for several days before finally coming to for good. The first sight she took in was Gabrielle's worried face hovering over hers. "Hey," Xena called weakly, "Will I live?"
Gabrielle buried her face in Xena's shoulder, unable to speak for a long moment. Finally, she raised a tear-stained face and said unsteadily, "You lost your baby, Xena, I'm terribly sorry."
"My baby?" she asked
"Yes." Gabrielle affirmed gently.
Xena swallowed hard as she considered the news. She didn't want the baby in the first place, but Gabrielle had, and now that Ming Tien was not going to come home, she had no heir to the throne. She could feel the pain now, but it was distant, just a dull reminder of what used to be. She groped for Gabrielle's hand, squeezing it, holding on for dear life. A sound at the door drew their attention; Ming Tien quietly entered the room. "Are you awake, Mother?" he asked softly.
"Yes," Xena answered dully.
He came to sit on the other side of the bed, taking Xena's other hand in his. "Mother, I heard that you lost a baby, I grieve with you." He looked around the room, then back at Xena. "If you wish, I will come home with you to be your heir. I did not know about the baby, but maybe you can find me a suitable wife with whom I can have an heir."
"I do not understand, Mother."
Xena struggle to sit up, then repeated, "Why? Why sacrifice your happiness for me?"
He shrugged helplessly. "Because it is the honorable thing to do, Mother."
"No," Xena said, "you will stay here with Aife. I have seen how you look at her, how she looks at you. It reminds me of Borias," she said brokenly, "and I cannot stand in the way of your happiness. Just promise me one thing, son."
"Anything." he said instantly.
"Think long and hard before starting any wars."
"No buts, son." Xena drew Ming close and kissed his cheek, then released him. "Can you at least hold the wedding off until I am well?" He nodded, eyes brimming. "Then go and find your intended." He nodded, then left the hut. "And how is your baby?" Xena asked after Ming left the room.
"Oh, fine," Gabrielle answered, "better now that you are awake."
Ming Tien visited Xena and Gabrielle every day while Xena recovered from her miscarriage, working on the details of the negotiation of peace and bringing news of her armies from General Ulysses, who was camped nearby. Xena refused to see anyone except for Ming Tien, Gabrielle, and Aife, saying that no one else should see her while she was weak. Finally, Aife came in one day and demanded that the others leave the tent while she talked to Xena, ruler to ruler.
"So," Xena said as she propped herself up on her cot, "to what do I owe this pleasure?"
Aife pulled a stool up to the side of the bed and bluntly announced, "Xena, you need to make some decisions. Ming Tien has been working with you on peace negotiations for nearly a month now and yet you refuse to make the final commitment to peace between our peoples. The longer you wait, the more likely that your army will simply decided to attack, or that your peoples will revolt and tear your lands apart."
Xena studied her fingernails intently while she tried to think of an answer. Aife suddenly yanked Xena up by the arm, shouting, "Make a decision, woman! or I swear I will send Ming Tien to take your throne by force. Is that what you want?"
"No," Xena growled back, "I don't want that. But, I also don't want...Gods, Aife, I don't know what I want any longer. I've lost Ming Tien, I had no idea how much I loved him before I lost him, I lost my second chance for a child, I no longer have anything to live for."
Aife stared at her, green eyes blazing into blue eyes. "Xena, you are a ruler, a leader of your people. You must put their welfare ahead of your own. You may have conquered your lands by force and fear, but you can't hold on to them with fear. You also can't hold on to them without being a visible leader."
"Perhaps," Xena mused, "I am growing weary of ruling."
"Then what would you do?" the Celtic queen challenged her.
Xena yanked her arm out of Aife's grasp and walked over to the door flap, peering out into the camp. She caught sight of Gabrielle talking animatedly to a group of warriors, no doubt telling some fantastic tale. She unconsciously smiled, thinking of the tales that Gabrielle had related during their trip from the palace to this land. Aife watched the transformation curiously, moving closer to see what Xena was looking at. "So, what is it about Gabrielle that brings out the best in you?" she asked.
Xena turned to face her counterpart. "I'm not sure, but she never has given up on me. She is convinced that the gods put her on earth to turn me from my evil ways, to challenge me, to change me from a monster into a human once again." A slight shadow flitted across her face. "I don't see what draws her to me, I have killed mercilessly just to keep my grip on my lands, to keep anyone from getting too close to me." Xena grinned crookedly."
"You love Gabrielle." Aife diagnosed suddenly.
"What?" Xena asked, stunned.
Aife pointed to Gabrielle, repeating, "You love her, Xena, she is the first friend you have had since Ming Tien was a child. He has told me that he loves and fears you, but he would rather love you." Aife turned to face Xena, asking, "So, what are you going to do about her baby? She has only five months before she delivers, you know. We really need to finish the negotiations so you can take her back home."
"I know, but ... what in Hades' name do they think they're doing?" Xena shouted as she watched her army marching into camp. She ran out to intercept them just as Ulysses was trying to grab Gabrielle.
"Oh, um, Xena," he stammered, "I thought you had been captured or killed, I was trying to talk to Gabrielle."
Xena yanked his sword out of his hand, snapping it in half over her knee, then handing the pieces back to him. "I am fine, thank you, just in negotiations with Queen Aife here." As she spoke, Aife and Ming Tien drifted behind her, ready to back her up if necessary. Xena growled, "Let go of Gabrielle, Ulysses. And didn't I tell you to hold the line until the negotiations were completed?"
Ulysses swallowed nervously as he released Gabrielle. "But your highness, you were gone so long that I thought..."
Xena grabbed his tunic and jerked him to her, nose to nose. "You," she spat, "are not paid to think. You are paid to follow my orders, understand? Now, General Useless, take your carcass back to the line and explain to your soldiers that a cease fire means that there will be NO encroachments onto enemy territory, no matter what."
"But-" he spluttered.
"No buts, just follow your orders." Xena shoved Ulysses away. "Go away before I get really angry and strip you of your rank, General." He started slowly walking back to his troops as Xena turned her back on him to face Gabrielle. "Are you okay?" she asked softly. Gabrielle nodded slowly. "Good. We really need to conclude our business here so we can take you back. I can't let you take any more risks with your baby." Xena laid a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, adding, "Isn't that friends do, take care of each other?"
"Yes, Xena." Gabrielle affirmed.
"Then I had better start taking better care of you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle worried about Xena during the entire trip back to her palace. Xena had seemed relaxed and even happy at Ming Tien and Aife's wedding, kissing both of them and even dancing with Ming Tien after the ceremony. Gabrielle was most surprised when Xena had grabbed her and swung her around, blue eyes flashing with delight. The negotiations had finally concluded; Xena and Aife promised not to fight any longer. Xena gave up some disputed territory and Aife promised to open trade routes. Xena once again dressed as a man and Gabrielle pretended to be her wife as they journeyed back to the capital; Xena usually stayed in the dining hall of the inns they stayed at to listen to the gossip while slowly sipping her ale.
A week into their journey, Xena sat after supper as usual, listening to the talk swirling around her. Gabrielle was upstairs, presumably asleep. Xena sipped as she mused on Gabrielle's revelation of the night before: her baby was kicking. Gabrielle had insisted that Xena feel the baby moving, laughing happily as the baby kicked against Xena's hand. Xena found herself thinking of when she was pregnant with Solon, how Borias marveled at the changes in her body, how he could hardly wait for the baby to arrive. Xena was amused to find that, even though she had experienced a black time after her miscarriage, she was really looking forward to seeing Gabrielle's baby. She also dreaded the day, wondering if Gabrielle would insist on going back to her village, to be among her family and friends. Her musing came to an abrupt halt when she heard the words, "I hear that General Ulysses is talking to Prince Cletus about joining forces against Xena. The rumor is that she's on to his being behind the extra taxes that she did not authorize."
A second voice agreed. "That's what I hear. I also hear that other rulers are talking quietly about rebellion, angry that she made peace with the Celts. My cousins in Sparta say that much of the military is unhappy, the rumor is that she will cut troop strength in half and they won't have anywhere to go."
Curious, Xena picked up her mug and walked over to the table. "Mind if I join you?"
"Not at all," the two men chorused. "I'm Paul, this is Nicholas. Who are you?"
"I'm Lyceus, my wife Diana is upstairs resting. So, did I overhear you two talking about Xena?"
"Yes," Paul said, "seems like Ulysses is talking to Cletus about running against her. I reckon that a lot of people aren't happy right now."
"And the soldiers are all up in the air, wondering if they'll still have a position come this fall," Nicholas explained. "Now that she's made peace with the Celtic queen, there doesn't seem to be much of a reason for keeping such a large army over the continent."
"Hmm," Xena said, "sounds pretty serious. Do you think that this will lead to riots? My wife and I are going to meet up with her brother, Argus, to see if he needs any help with his farm."
"Well, Lyceus, if Argus lives on the other side of the capital city, I'd say that the chances are pretty slim that you'll get through without trouble. I hear that there are near riots every day, the food supply is pretty low after the last round of taxes. Is your wife the pretty blonde?"
"Why, yes, she is," Xena answered, "and we're expecting our first child in about four months."
"You look awfully young to be married," Paul replied, "you don't even have your first beard."
Xena managed to blush as she stammered, "The baby was a bit unexpected, so we married quickly, if you get my drift. And men in my family grow whiskers pretty late."
"Rough luck," Nicholas commented as he stroked his luxurious beard. "At least you look pretty strong, Lyceus. Well, I've got to go, speaking of wives, or mine will scalp me for staying out so late."
"Good-night," Xena called as he dropped a coin on the table. She sat for a moment, then turned to Paul and asked, "Do you think I'll be able to find work anywhere around here? We're just a few day's journey out of the capital, right?"
"By foot, you're a good five days, but with a cart and fast horse, I'd say you're about three days, Lyceus. But, the closer you get to the capital, the more suspicious folks tend to be, you see. If you know anything about blacksmithing, you could probably round up a job in the capital, Xena still needs weapons and other equipment for her troops, I hear. Well, I'd better go as well, good luck to you, young man." He reached out his hand and Xena grasped it. After he left, she sat, finishing her ale as she thought about the rumors they discussed. Gabrielle had been insisting for several months that she suspected that internal strife was rising, but Xena wouldn't hear of it. Now, it seemed, Gabrielle was right, but did she have an answer to the problems?
Xena undressed as quietly as she could, but Gabrielle woke up and asked sleepily, "What did you learn tonight?"
"Rumors of civil war," Xena replied as she crawled under the sheets, "and that I could probably make a living doing blacksmith work if I need to."
"Blacksmith work? Xena, do you even know how to be a smithy?"
Xena smiled sadly as she rolled over to face her friend. "Truth be known, my younger brother Lyceus was learning the fine art of being a blacksmith and I was bored, so I learned along with him. It beat waiting for my betrothed to quit playing with prostitutes." She flexed an arm, pointing to her biceps. "See? Some muscle remains."
Gabrielle reached out as if to touch her arm, then pulled back. "I should believe you, you really haven't lied to me. Yet."
"Gee, I'm hurt," Xena groaned, "that you would think I would lie to you. Lie to the rest of the world, of course, to you, never."
Gabrielle struggled to sit up, peering into Xena's eyes, asking softly, "Why tell me the truth and not anyone else?"
"Because you remind me that life can go on," Xena answered simply as she laid a hand on Gabrielle's belly. "Because you spoke against me, your husband was taken from you. My evil influence caused his death as surely as if I had plunged the knife in his chest," she concluded calmly.
Gabrielle reached out and took Xena's hands in her own, saying quietly, "Xena, I believe you when you tell me that you had nothing to do with his death. In the grand scheme of things, it brought about peace with the Celts, and it threw Ming Tien and Queen Aife together."
"Gabrielle," Xena asked as she slowly rubbed the other woman's hands with her own, "Do you miss Perdicas?"
Gabrielle looked at Xena for a long moment, considering the question for a long time before answering. "Yes, I do, Xena, I expect to wake up beside him every morning, I expect to see him coming through the doorway every night. But, I also feel guilty, for I was starting to grow impatient with his conservative nature, his insistence that speaking out against you would only lead to more harm, to play it safe." She let go of Xena's hands, molding hers around her belly. "I will have a child to remember him by, but I swear that sometimes it is easier to talk to you than it was to him, you at least humor me when I start rambling philosophically or start telling stories. Perdicas would just roll his eyes and tease me about my pretensions of being a bard." She looked back up and asked, "Xena, what would you have been if you hadn't decided to be the conqueror?"
Xena stared into Gabrielle's green eyes for a long time before answering. "I don't know, I honestly don't know. I've always picked fights, always beaten up everyone who dared cross me, except for Lyceus. And you." She smiled crookedly. "My last real friend was Diana, who grew up to join the Amazons, but I led an army against them and personally killed her."
"Xena, you didn't!" Gabrielle said, horrified.
"I told you that I am a horrible creature," Xena growled suddenly, "killing those closest to me."
"Was this before or after Solon died?" the blonde asked.
"After, I think. I'm not sure, the years blur into one big bloody streak," Xena said flippantly.
"Xena, I'm tired of the games, did you kill Diana before or after your son and husband died?" Gabrielle snapped angrily.
Surprised by the sudden vehemence, Xena answered, "After. I joined Draco's army after my brother Lyceus died, but took over several armies after they died." She swallowed, then continued, "Conquest became a game to me, a way to keep from feeling. Now, I'm pretty damned tired, can we get some sleep?" she concluded.
"I guess so," Gabrielle replied tiredly. "Good-night, Xena."
"Good-night, Gabrielle," Xena huffed as she turned her back to her companion. She blew out the candle, then waited until Gabrielle fell asleep to let the tears slowly course down her face. "I'm sorry," she whispered as she finally drifted off to sleep.
Xena and Gabrielle made it back to the capital without further incident. Xena tried to confirm the rumors that Ulysses and Cletus were joining against her, but found her usual sources curiously silent on the subject. Frustrated with the lack of information, she started slipping out of the palace more often in disguise to talk to her subjects in the marketplace, in bars, anywhere the people gathered. She found it grimly amusing that she was not recognized in plain garb and that people were so angry and frightened that they were willing to talk to her as "Lyceus." These sources did confirm that Ulysses and Prince Cletus were quietly gathering armies that were loyal to them, not to her, and were planning to march on the capital city soon. Xena pondered what to do about this brewing situation, finally deciding to confront the two generals.
"Good morning, gentlemen, please be seated," Xena said as General Ulysses and Prince Cletus marched into her war room. They looked uneasy, but did as they were bidden. It had been years since they had seen Xena in anything but her elaborate robes, so it was a shock to see her in plain leather pants, boots, simple shirt and leather vest. She toyed with a wicked looking dagger as she coolly appraised them, allowing the silence to lengthen before finally speaking again.
"It has come to my attention," she started, "that there is a rebellion stirring in the land. In fact, my sources indicate that the two of you are neck deep in planning this rebellion against me. Care to comment?"
The two men stared openly at her, unable to speak at first. Finally, Ulysses drew a deep breath and answered, "Xena, we've been loyal to you since Borias's death, why should you doubt us now?"
"So, you deny the charges?" Xena asked, eyebrow quirked dangerously.
"Yes." Ulysses said.
Xena looked from one to the other, then casually picked up the scroll that was laying on the table beside her. She untied it, then flicked it open, laying it on the table. "Then kindly explain this map and accompanying letter, Ulysses." He slowly stood up and walked over, face growing pale as he saw his handwriting on the map. "This looks like a battle plan, similar to ones you have drawn up for me in the past. A very brave woman smuggled this to me recently, so I have sent reinforcements to these sites. Now, should I put the two of you on trial for treason, or should I just execute you now?"
They exchanged looks, then Cletus answered, "Put us on trial, Xena. But I warn you, before any trial is through, you will be defeated."
"I seriously doubt that, Cletus," Xena started. She was interrupted by a woman sticking her head in the room. "What is it?" Xena asked.
"Sorry, ma'am," the woman said, "but I thought you would like to know that Gabrielle is in labor."
Xena wrinkled her forehead. "But she still has several weeks to go."
"I know, but her water broke and she's very pale and feverish. She's been calling for you."
Xena closed her eyes briefly, then opened them. "Very well, bring the guards in to take these two to the prison. I'll go see Gabrielle now." The woman bobbed a quick curtsy, then left the room.
"So," Ulysses said, "you still have that little tag-a-long. Just what do you see in her?"
Xena smiled wickedly. "Wouldn't you like to know?" Ulysses and Cletus looked at each other again, then Cletus leapt up and charged Xena, reaching for her neck. Xena reacted quickly, hurling the knife in his neck, then sending her chair skittering across the floor as Ulysses started to lunge for her, knocking him over just as the guards entered the room. "I believe Cletus is dead, but Ulysses is to be taken to the prison. I'll set the trial date later." The guards nodded, then hauled the general off as Xena retrieved her knife from the neck of Cletus. "Damn fool," she muttered as she cleaned it on his sleeve.
"Xena," Gabrielle gasped as Xena strode into the room, "the baby is coming."
"Yes, I know," Xena answered gently as she sat on the side of the bed, reaching to feel Gabrielle's forehead. She turned to the midwife and asked, "is she going to be okay?"
"I think so, the baby is only a few weeks early and is positioned head down. I'm not too worried about the fever yet."
"Good. Gabrielle, we have to talk."
"Now wait a minute, I did not give you permission to upset my patient," the midwife started but Xena cut her off with a harsh glance. "I'll just check on the water," the woman muttered, leaving the room.
"What is it, Xena?" Gabrielle panted.
Xena stood up and started pacing as she spoke. "I confronted Ulysses and Cletus today. I had to kill Cletus, he was going to kill me, but I had the guards put Ulysses in jail until I can haul him into court." Gabrielle listened, but didn't offer any insight. "Did I do the right thing?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle closed her eyes as another contraction hit, then opened them as it passed. "Xena, you did, but if word of this gets out, it may turn the tide against you. But, please, let me concentrate on getting this baby born first."
Xena dropped into a chair. "As you wish, Gabrielle, I'm sorry to bother you."
The day seemed to crawl by for both ruler and expectant mother. Xena grew increasingly uneasy as she wandered in and out of the birthing room, checking on Gabrielle's progress, then going back to meet with the captain of her personal guard unit, trying to feel out what was happening in the outside world. Somehow, the word had leaked out that she had killed Cletus, but the circumstances had been twisted to sound like she had struck him down in cold blood, then send Ulysses to jail just to keep him quiet. Her captain, Theonis, also told her that fights had been breaking out sporadically all day in and around the slums of the city, with full scale riots possible by nightfall. "Come on, baby, get born," Xena grumbled under her breath at one point. She knew her captain was right, she also had come to the conclusion that her inattention to details the last few months had sapped her rule, allowed more doubts and rebellion to crop up.
"A word," Theonis breathed in her ear just as she started to enter the birthing room.
"Yes, Captain?" she asked.
He looked around uneasily, then said, "The riots have spread from the slums toward the palace. One of my men has been undercover all day, he just came back in. You are not safe here, Xena, you need to make plans to leave immediately. There is a rumor floating around that some of the rioters are headed for the jail and will free Ulysses."
She stared at him, then finally asked, "What about Gabrielle?"
"What about her, my queen? Leave her behind, save yourself."
"No," Xena said as she laid a hand on the hilt of her sword, "I will not desert my friend. We need safe passage, Theonis, we need to find somewhere to go." She looked at him, challenging him to come up with a plan.
He scratched his head for a time, looking around the hallway, forcing his tired brain to work. Finally, he took a deep breath, then said, "I can get a few men to personally escort you to your secret house, the one where you kept Lao Ma and Gabrielle. I'm pretty sure that it is deserted, the troops guarding it left to join up with Cletus several months ago. My sister and her husband live a mile down the road from there, she keeps me informed. I could send a runner now, ask her to gather enough food and drink to keep you and Gabrielle for a few days, but you will need to leave as soon as possible."
"Not until Gabrielle has given birth," Xena said firmly.
The captain said reluctantly, "Agreed, my queen." He looked at her sadly, adding, "It has been interesting serving for you, my queen, but now I will have to work to keep the barbarians at bay. I will try to keep your castle safe for your return, but I can't make promises."
She nodded, then clasped him arm in a warrior's grip. "You have served well, Captain. If it gets too tough, then go into hiding." She turned and went into the birthing room just in time to see the midwife catch the baby.
"You have a girl," the midwife crowed excitedly, "a beautiful baby girl. Let me clean her up before I give her to you."
Gabrielle nodded weakly, then looked up as Xena pulled up a chair. "Xena, you look terrible," she observed.
"Yes. I'll tell you about it later, but when you are ready, we need to travel, there are riots in the city. Theonis told me that we can go back out to the house where I held you prisoner, that it should be pretty safe. He's going to have his sister stock it with food and water for us."
"What?" Gabrielle asked, puzzled.
"Gabrielle, please don't argue, just listen. I'm going to go back to our room and start packing, then see about getting the wagon ready again. I hate to move you so soon, but we really don't have any choice, my friend." Xena sighed heavily. "At least I still have some of those farmer clothes we used as a disguise earlier, we can say we're escaping the riots." She grinned, adding, "it would be true for once."
"But, Xena, are you sure?" Gabrielle asked, fear crawling up her spine.
Xena leaned over, kissing Gabrielle's forehead. "Gabrielle, this entire part of the world is about to blow up and for once, I just don't give a damn. I don't have an heir to turn my throne over to, so why should I care? We'll be relatively safe at the house, I think I can trust Theonis." She paused, then asked, "That is, do you want to go with me?"
Gabrielle nodded weakly, then said, "Go pack." Xena nodded and slipped out of the room just before Gabrielle reached for her new baby.
Xena and Gabrielle barely made it to the cabin before the rioting broke into full-scale civil war. The various princes and princesses of the different regions each either teamed up or seized the opportunity to declare independent rule. Xena had enough dinars and gold stashed away to tide them over for several years, provided that prices did not skyrocket, but she worried about what she could do to provide for them in the meanwhile. Gabrielle remained listless and feverish, barely keeping enough food in her to keep her daughter fed. Xena found herself changing and bathing the child, whom Gabrielle finally named Theodora.
Finally, Xena hired a healer to come see about Gabrielle. "Diana," she said as she ushered the young man in, "this is Dezso the healer. I'll be outside if you need me."
"Okay, Lyceus," Gabrielle said weakly as Xena left the room. She eyed the healer, then asked, "So, Dezso, I have been feverish and weak since our daughter was born, what do you suppose could be wrong with me?"
Dezso pulled up a chair beside the bed, then started poking and prodding Gabrielle while peppering her with questions. Finally, he said, "I'm not certain, but let me give you some herbs for a tea. Have your husband brew you a pot of tea every morning and night." He took her wrist, feeling her pulse. "When you feel stronger, have him take you on short walks, but don't overdo it, Diana. Is Lyceus good at taking care of things for you? You really don't need to be working very hard, maybe he could hire a woman to clean for you."
Gabrielle looked up into the kindly black eyes of the healer, answering, "Lyceus has been taking care of everything, thank you. But, maybe he should hire a woman, I keep having to explain how to properly mop the floors."
Dezso smiled, showing strong, even teeth against his black beard and dusky skin. "I'll speak to him, then. I think you may have an infection of some kind. The herbs will control your fever." He laid the sack of herbs on the table, then said, "I'll come back in a few days to check your progress, Diana. In the meantime, remember to drink the tea and to rest, but start walking when you feel better." Dezso turned to leave, nearly running into Xena in the process. "Lyceus," he said, stepping backward as she came through the door, "I think your wife will be fine. I've left her some herbs that I'd like for you to make into a tea for her."
Xena glanced at Gabrielle, then back at the healer. "Tell me what to do," she demanded as she leaned against the doorframe, crossing her arms. Dezso cleared his throat, feeling vaguely uneasy, then repeated all of the instructions. Xena listened intently, then repeated them back perfectly. "We'll see you in a few days, then," she concluded as she uncrossed her arms. "Follow me, Dezso." He cast a final look at his patient, then followed Xena out of the bedroom to the living room. "Thank you," she said simply, "she has had a hard time, we had to flee the encroaching armies right after she gave birth. How much do I owe you?" He gave her a figure, she counted out the dinars, then he left, wondering why Lyceus made him so uneasy.
Xena walked back into the bedroom, picking up Theodora on the way, then sitting in the chair that Dezso had vacated several minutes before. Xena cooed over the baby, letting her wrap her tiny fingers around long, elegant fingers. Gabrielle watched them from the bed, wondering what Xena's child would have looked like if it had lived. Theodora was dark, with brown hair and brown eyes, much like Perdicas, which could be good, since she and Xena were pretending to be married. It still seemed strange sometimes to see Xena playing with her child, so gentle, yet knowing that Xena could be a ruthless killer and tyrant. It was hard to reconcile the two sides of the woman, yet she still believed that Xena could be a force for good in the world, still firmly believed that the gods had brought them together so she could influence Xena in her path to righteousness.
"Gabrielle, Theodora is hungry," she heard Xena say. Gabrielle brought herself back to the present and reached for her child, unwrapping her gown as she did. She held the squalling baby to her breast, feeling her latch on. Gabrielle closed her eyes in fatigue as Theodora nursed, vaguely aware that Xena was still talking to her, content to let her low voice flow over her, recounting her day. "Hey, am I that boring?" she heard Xena ask.
"I'm sorry, I'm just really tired," Gabrielle replied as she tried to sit up. Xena took Theodora, burping her while Gabrielle fastened her gown and managed to sit up against the piled pillows. "Did you say that you found a job?"
"Yes, I'll be starting as the blacksmith's helper tomorrow. I'll hire a woman to clean and cook until you get well." Xena kissed Theodora's forehead before giving her back to Gabrielle. "So, what do you want for supper? More stew?"
Gabrielle made a face. "Xena, I hate to say it, but your cooking leaves much to be desired. I'll eat stew again tonight, but could you please get hurry up and hire that woman? I'll die of culinary boredom!"
Xena chuckled, reaching over to feel Gabrielle's forehead. "I think you're starting to feel better already, you're getting bossy again. Oh, I heard that the castle was stormed yesterday, but for some strange reason, no one could find the terrible tyrant Xena. Where do you suppose she went?"
Gabrielle smiled at Xena's innocent expression. "Hiding, I guess, she's too smart to get caught. If I were the armies, I'd high tail it to the Celtic lands, thinking that she asked her son for asylum, wouldn't you?"
"You are brilliant, my friend, but oh so wrong. Why, I'll bet she's rounding up another army right now, seeking fresh conquests! Xena certainly wouldn't be taking care of a sick friend or changing diapers, you know." She leaned over and kissed Gabrielle lightly on the cheek, then stood up and stretched. "Guess I'll go start supper now. Are you supposed to have your tea before or after you eat, or does it matter?"
"I forgot to ask Dezso. I guess since he didn't say, it doesn't matter. I just hope it isn't bitter, like some of the medicine Mother made us take when we were small."
"If it is, I'll sweeten it with honey," Xena promised as she left the room. Gabrielle watched her leave, then turned her attention back to her daughter, who was now sleeping contently in her arms.
After a few days of treatment, Gabrielle's fever finally came down for good. Her appetite and strength started returning rapidly, causing Xena to tease her about it costing her nearly as much to feed her as it did her army. Theodora seemed to have inherited her mother's appetite; Gabrielle complained that she nearly ran out of milk before the baby was finished feeding and Xena concurred, earning a scathing look from her friend. They were starting to fall into a routine, however, with Xena going to work for the blacksmith and Gabrielle finally getting well enough to do some cooking, even though they did have to hire a local woman to continue to do the heavy cleaning and laundry.
Dezso the healer came by every few days to check on his patient, more often than not when Xena was away at work. About a month after he had seen her initially, Gabrielle finally asked, "Dezso, I enjoy your company, but I'm well now, why do you keep coming by? I mean, it looks rather strange for you to keep coming by so often, my cleaning woman mentioned that rumors are swirling that we are having an affair."
He blushed and stared into his mug of ale, mumbling, "Diana, I wish the rumors were true."
He looked across the table at her and repeated, "I wish the rumors were true, Diana, I've fallen in love with you. As a healer, I should never fall in love with a patient, but I can't help it. Gods know that if Lyceus found out, he'd probably rip me apart, so I won't act on my feelings, it's enough just to sit and talk with you."
"Dezso, I think you'd better leave," Gabrielle stated. "If I'm ever sick again, I'll make sure Lyceus is with me when you come by." Dezso nodded miserably, pushed his mug away and stood up to leave. Gabrielle got up to walk him to the door. "I am grateful for your healing talents, don't get me wrong," she said as they stood before the door, "but I have to consider my reputation and my daughter, you know."
"I know," he sighed, "but you are so beautiful and so intelligent, I've enjoyed our chats so very much." He hesitated, then took her hands in his, lightly kissing the backs of her hands. "I just hope that Lyceus knows what a wonderful woman he is married to, that's all." Dezso looked deeply into Gabrielle's eyes for a long moment, then leaned over and kissed her lightly on the lips, turning to leave before she could even form a protest. He opened the door and literally ran into Xena.
Xena cocked an eyebrow, asking, "I thought Diana was well, Dezso, should I take it that the rumors are true? Are you two carrying on an affair behind my back?"
"N-no," he stammered, "I was just leaving, I've discharged Diana as a patient." Xena let him pass through, then closed the door behind her.
"Xena, what are you doing home so early?" Gabrielle asked as Xena strode over to the couch and flung herself down. "Is there something wrong?"
Xena eyed Gabrielle, then motioned for her to come over and sit beside her. When Gabrielle perched on the edge of the couch, Xena said quietly, "There are new rumors of civil war in this part of the country, Gabrielle, I've been pulled off of making new plows to make new swords, knives, arrow heads and spear tips. I decided to come home for lunch and surprise you, but it seems that you surprised me instead. Tell me the truth, are you having an affair with Dezso?"
"No," Gabrielle said, "I am not having an affair with anyone, you should know that. I am supposed to be your wife, remember? How can I keep up that image if I start dallying with any man who comes along?"
Xena sighed heavily and reached up to touch Gabrielle's golden hair, playing with a few strands, then laid her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "I don't think I've been very fair, pretending to be your husband, I could have pretended to be your brother and you be a widow, like you really are. I could leave, there is an army forming to defend the town, then you could have your affair with Dezso. No, don't speak yet, Gabrielle, I could desert the army or pretend to get killed, that would free you from me, you could get on with your life and find some nice man to be a husband to you and a father to Theodora. I'm just a broken down tyrant, trying to do what is best, but I'm afraid that I'm not best for you."
"But Xena, I enjoy living with you-"
"No, don't protest," Xena said, sitting up and leaning forward. "I've been selfish long enough, my friend. You've accomplished your mission, you've turned me from my evil ways, now you need to look forward to your future."
"Xena, what about your future? Will you settle down, maybe try to raise a family?"
Xena shook her head. "Honey, when I was kicked so viciously and miscarried, the Druid healer had to cut out my womb to finish getting the baby out."
Gabrielle's eyes grew wide. "I had no idea, Xena, why didn't you tell me?"
"What good would it do? Anyway, Dezso seems pretty smitten, so I'll just take myself out of the picture." She got up and walked back to their room to start packing. Gabrielle started to follow and protest, but Theodora chose that moment to announce that she needed lunch. Gabrielle stood, torn, then finally went to pick up her child and took her in the bedroom, nursing as she watched Xena pack her few clothes. Xena finished packing, then said, "Well, I'll be off. I'll try to write you from time to time and I've left you a stash of dinars and gold hidden in the stable."
Gabrielle followed Xena to the door, protesting all the way. Xena turned to face her one last time, saying, "My friend, this is really for the best." She leaned over to kiss the baby, then dropped her pack on the floor and cupped Gabrielle's face in her hands. "I'll miss you," Xena whispered, rubbing her thumbs over Gabrielle's cheeks, "take care of yourself." She kissed Gabrielle's forehead, then reached down for her pack and walked through the door.
Several months went by. Gabrielle received a few short letters from Xena, the last one stating that she was about to stage her death, then would head for the land of the Celts to visit Queen Aife and Ming Tien. "You are now officially freed from our 'marriage', so go ahead and seek out Dezso," she wrote. Sure enough, Gabrielle received word from the commander of the army that "We have reason to believe that your husband, Lyceus, is dead. I won't go into the details, but please accept my regrets, he was a fine soldier, Diana." Gabrielle wept for days after receiving the letter from the commander, at first to fulfill her role as "widow", then with real sorrow, knowing that Xena had completely deserted her.
But the worst was six months after Xena's "death." Theodora, now ten months old, came down with a high fever, screaming whenever anyone tried to pick her up. Terrified, Gabrielle called for Dezso to look at her, despite her uneasy feelings about the healer himself. Dezso came promptly, reassuring Gabrielle that Theodora would be fine, he just needed to treat her.
Three weeks went by before Theodora was completely well, weeks that Dezso came by several times a day to check on her between his other rounds. Gossip started flying again, but this time Gabrielle was grateful enough to him not to care, even when he started hinting that he was still interested in her. She had to admit that it was nice to have a man around, someone to talk to, now that her cleaning woman was no longer coming by. She had also started taking in sewing; it was not very challenging, but it kept down the gossip about how she supported herself and Theodora and how she paid the healer's bills.
"And today you are one year old," Gabrielle crooned to Theodora as she fed her daughter, "I just wish your father was here to see you, he would have been so pleased with you." Theodora gurgled happily in agreement, or so it seemed. Gabrielle noticed that her daughter's hair and eyes were even darker brown, nearly black now, just like Perdicas' had been. Or, nearly as black as Xena's hair, a tiny voice piped up. It was strange to her that she felt the loss of Xena's friendship more intensely these days than the loss of her husband, to whom she had known all her life. "Do you miss Xena?" she asked Theodora, "or do you even remember her? She loved playing with you, was so good about taking care of you when you were first born and I was so sick. I don't think that Perdicas, bless his soul, would have done that. But now Dezso keeps coming by and he is so good to play with you. Theodora, should I let him court me? What do you think?" Theodora just smiled and clapped her hands, eagerly waiting for more oatmeal. "You're just a pig," Gabrielle laughed as she leaned forward to kiss her daughter.
"Knock, knock, is anyone home?" Dezso called out from the door.
"We're in the kitchen," Gabrielle shouted, "come on in." Dezso walked through the house to the kitchen, patting Theodora on the head before sitting down. "Dezso, what brings you here today?"
"Well, the best I remember, Theodora is a year old today, right? I thought that I would bring her a present," he said as he handed Gabrielle a package.
"Dezso, you shouldn't have," Gabrielle said as she unwrapped the package. "Look, honey, a lamb! Dezso, you must have listened when I talked about that lamb my father made me, right down the the pull string!" Gabrielle set the carved animal on the table, demonstrating to her daughter how to pull the animal along. "Thank you."
He smiled, replying, "You're both welcome, my pleasure." They sat in companionable silence for several minutes as Gabrielle finished feeding Theodora, then Dezso offered to help clean her up. Gabrielle accepted, whisking away the dishes while Dezso cleaned Theodora's hands and face with a wet cloth. "I did this for my nieces and nephews when they were smaller," he commented as he handed the cloth back to Gabrielle, "I miss it, they are all growing up now. I wish I had my own children," he added wistfully as he picked Theodora up.
"Dezso, you are welcome to my little imp any time," Gabrielle laughed, "she's quite a handful. I can't imagine having more children, not the way she is. Did I tell you that she's practically running now?"
"No, I knew she was walking pretty well, though. She says 'mama' plainly," he added.
Gabrielle took her daughter from his arms and said, "I'll be right back, she got me up pretty early and I'd like to lay her down for a nap." Several minutes later, Gabrielle returned. "Would you like something to eat or drink?"
"No, I just came by for a visit," Dezso replied. "I heard that our army managed to push back Ulysses' army, so it looks like Prince Jason will keep his hold on his lands. Oh, I heard a rumor that Xena's personal guard captain, Theonis, was executed for treason a few days ago. I think he was caught trying to smuggle messages to her, she's been sighted among the Celtic armies recently."
Gabrielle nodded, she had heard the same rumor yesterday from some customers. She had privately cried for the brave captain, the man who risked everything so that she, Xena and Theodora could escape the mobs a year ago today. Pushing down her sadness, she said, "I heard the same thing, Dezso."
He shifted in his chair, then said, "I actually came for another reason, Diana. I'm not the most romantic man in the world and I know it is really too soon after Lyceus died to ask, but do you think you would marry me? I have a steady income, I have all of my own teeth and hair, and I've been in love with you since I first laid eyes on you. Will you think about it?"
She had anticipated this for the last month. Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle replied, "I will think about it, Dezso, but I can't promise an answer anytime soon. I still miss Lyceus very much, feel his ghost around the house, but..." She ran out of anything else to say, unsure what she should say in the situation. Dezso was very handsome, very attentive, everything she should want in a man. She found him very attractive, even had odd fantasies about him, but something was missing.
"I will wait until the stars burn out, if you will only consider answering yes," Dezso said fervently, reaching for her hands. "I promise to make a good husband." He turned her hands over, slowly kissing each palm in turn, sending shivers down her spine, then stood up and pulled her into his arms. "My beloved," he whispered as he captured her lips with his. She didn't respond for a second, then gave in to the physical sensations, kissing back deeply, remembering the first time she and Perdicas made love, suddenly wanting that explosion of raw feeling back in her life. She finally ended the kiss and silently led Dezso to the bedroom.
Theodora is now fifteen months old and is running around everywhere. I've heard through reliable sources that you are with Ming Tien and Queen Aife, and that they are expecting a child soon. I know you will be a good grandmother.
I have some news for you. Dezso has asked for my hand in marriage and I have decided to accept. It has been pretty lonely since you took off and I became a "widow" for the second time. He is kind, considerate and good with my daughter. I hate sewing, which I have been doing for to support us since you left, even though you left us plenty of money. I couldn't exactly keep shelling out dinars that seemed to come from an endless supply, so I had to earn my own money. Dezso says he can easily support us on his income. He is planning to build a new house and wants me to sell this one, but I can't unless you say I can.
I wish you could be here, I miss you very much. But, I guess you knew that I would turn to Dezso after you left, so I suppose I have your blessing, but I still miss our long talks. At least you don't snore when you sleep.
Xena read the letter several times, then crumpled it up and tossed it into the fire. Gabrielle, marry that scummy healer? But, Gabrielle was right, Xena had practically thrown them together by leaving, she had seen the way he looked at Gabrielle and had decided that she deserved a chance to have a real marriage. She smirked, though, at the line about Dezso snoring. She guessed it had been too much of a temptation not to sleep with him, especially since she had been forced to sleep with an old tyrant for so long. As Xena watched the fire hungrily consume the parchment, she remembered the feeling of snuggling next to Gabrielle, holding her protectively through the night, feeling Theodora kicking before she was born, remembering the scent of the herbs that Gabrielle used to wash her hair with. She sighed, wondering if things would have turned out to be different if she had stayed. No, it was better this way, Gabrielle would not have to pretend to love her, she could have the chance of a normal life now.
Xena turned as Ming Tien walked into the room, carrying his son, Duncan. Xena smiled and held her arms out for the child; Ming Tien relinquished him to her as he took a seat by the fireplace. Xena cooed at Duncan for a bit, then finally asked, "What is it, my son?"
"Our scouts say that Ulysses is trying to conquer more territory and has moved into your old castle," he said.
"So?" Xena asked disinterestedly.
"Aren't you interested at all?" he asked, surprised at her lack of interest.
Xena turned her attention back to the baby to avoid answering the question, but he repeated the question. She looked back up and said, "Ming, I am dead as far as the world is concerned, I have no home except for here. I'll advise Aife on military issues, but I'm not going to try to reclaim my rule. Is that clear enough for you?"
Ming Tien bowed his head slightly. "If you say so, Mother, but I didn't think you ever gave up."
"Think again," she said bitterly.
He eyed her carefully, then finally asked, "Have you heard from Gabrielle lately?"
Xena snorted as she handed Duncan back, saying, "Sure, I got a letter today, but I burned it. Seems that she's marrying the local healer, sounds like they've already tried out the bed. I wonder if she's pregnant by him yet."
"Are you jealous?" he asked, curious how she would respond.
"No," she answered in a cold voice, "I am not jealous. I just want the best for her."
Ming Tien shook his head as he stood up to leave. "I think you are jealous," he said, "I'll take my leave now."
Xena watched him leave, trying to convince her heart that she was not jealous. Gods, she didn't love Gabrielle like that. She was certain that Gabrielle didn't love her like that, just as a friend. But why even bother to write, to tell her that she was going to marry Dezso? Did she want an excuse not to marry him? Finally, Xena reached for her letter box and prepared a piece of parchment. She dipped the pen in the inkwell and started writing.
This is your old friend, the one you used to know. Congratulations on your upcoming marriage. The war keeps ebbing and flowing, but I am unharmed. Ming Tien and Aife have a little boy, Duncan. He has Ming's dark coloring and hair, but Aife's green eyes -- similar to your eyes, but darker.
Be careful, I heard that Ulysses keeps spreading out his armies. This is good and bad, eventually he will spread them too thinly and be defeated, but I fear that he is coming your way. If you hear that he is coming, don't hesitate to flee to safer villages.
By the way, if you ever need help, let me know. The grocer is a friend of mine.
Gabrielle reread the message several times before tossing it in the fire. Today was to be her wedding day and she was already nervous enough without reading a letter from Xena. She had heard the same rumors about Ulysses and asked Dezso about them, but he assured her that Ulysses wouldn't come to this village, that they didn't have enough men or horses to justify raiding it. "Besides, after your husband died, no one else has been able to produce the same quality of weapons," he added, hoping to settle her down. "After tonight, I will officially take care of you and Theodora," he murmured in her ear.
"I know, Dezso, but I can't help but be nervous," Gabrielle replied as she eluded his embrace. "You aren't even supposed to see me today, it is supposed to be bad luck."
He laughed and obediently headed for the door. "Good point, my love," he said as he left the room. She watched the door close, wondering what she was getting herself into now. They had been more or less sleeping together all the time now, with Dezso slipping out of bed early enough to go back to his brother's house before everyone else woke up. The first few times together were exciting, but now she found herself thinking of Perdicas, wondering if she were betraying him by being with another man. She also kept wondering what Xena was up to, she missed her presence, the sense of excitement mingled with the security that Xena could take care of any situation. Dezso was a self-admitted poor fighter, saying that his mission was to heal, not to harm. She even missed the arguments that she'd had with Xena, she missed Xena's barbed replies and sharp tongue. Damn it, she just missed Xena, period. Gabrielle walked over to the mirror, looking at herself, imagining for a moment that Xena was behind her, hands resting lightly on her shoulders, telling her to grab her courage and just do what she needed to do. She walked back over to the crib, picking her daughter up, asking, "So, Theodora, what should I do?" Theodora just giggled and squirmed to get out of her arms, ready to run around.
The next few hours were torture, waiting for the wedding to start. Finally, it was time to begin, and Gabrielle took her daughter with her to the temple, where many friends from the village had gathered to watch Gabrielle and Dezso get married. Gabrielle's feeling of dread kept increasing as she took her place next to the altar, wondering if it was too late to back out now. She held Theodora firmly by the hand, only half hearing what the priest was saying, trying to restrain her own trembling. She silently prayed that something would happen, that by some miracle Xena would come rescue her from her own foolishness...
"There she is, that's Xena's bitch!"
Gabrielle whirled around to find Ulysses and his men tramping up the aisle, cutting off all avenues of escape. She stood her ground, feeling strangely relieved as Ulysses came up, brandishing his sword. "You!" he shouted, "I'm taking you and your kid, this will give Xena plenty of reason to come out of hiding. Come with me, Gabrielle."
"Wait a minute," Dezso cried, "who do you think you are?"
Ulysses glared at the healer, announcing, "I'm General Ulysses, and I'm taking this woman and child as my prisoners. Any objections?"
"Yes, she is my wife, or is about to be my wife. Get your filthy hands off of her, general or no."
Ulysses laughed harshly, then reared back and slammed his fist into Dezso's chin, knocking him out cold. "I guess I won that argument," he said as he turned back to Gabrielle. "Ready?"
Gabrielle nodded, taking Theodora by the hand and docilely following the general. She heard the buzz of the villagers, wondering why she wasn't resisting and why the general was calling her Gabrielle. She ignored them, knowing that resistance would only lead to punishment, at least that is what Xena would have done in Ulysses' shoes. She had to follow willingly, if for no other reason than to save her daughter.
Hours later, they arrived at a large camp. Ulysses personally escorted them into a comfortable tent, furnished with soft sleeping rolls, a chamber pot, a small lamp, and a small table with two chairs. The table had a simple dinner laid out, one suitable for an adult and a child. Gabrielle raised an eyebrow when she saw the food, but kept her comments to herself as she set Theodora in one of the chairs. "So," she said as she started filling the child's plate, "what will you do with me?"
Ulysses pulled up a stool and sat down, motioning for Gabrielle to fill her plate as well. As she started eating, he said, "As you are well aware, you and your daughter are bait. I want to draw Xena out into the open so I can personally execute her. Once she is dead, I can start consolidating my gains, maybe negotiate a peace with the other princes and princesses of the world. I think I run a kingdom much better than she did, not have such a rule of terror. I want my people to like me, not to hate and fear me, but I can't get this rumor that Xena will come back and liberate my lands stopped."
Gabrielle set down her fork, forcing herself to laugh scornfully. "Xena? Liberate anyone? Ulysses, who has been spiking your wine?"
He glared at her, then abruptly got up and left the tent. Gabrielle watched him leave, then turned back to her dinner. She had to act unconcerned so that Theodora wouldn't get frightened, she reminded herself. She owed that much to her daughter.
A month crept by as Ulysses waited for Xena to pick up his challenge. Fighting among the various factions of Xena's tattered lands dwindled to a standstill, with the heads of the regions starting to come to informal agreements of how to divide their lands and what terms they would use to formalize the agreements. Ulysses was increasingly bad tempered as he waited for Xena to come claim Gabrielle, sending out messengers repeatedly to the land of the Celts, where she had last been seen. The only reply he ever received was a tersely worded note stating, "No deal. Xena." Gabrielle noted that the security was starting to get lax as the entire army waited for Xena, to the point that she was starting to take Theodora for daily walks, sometimes nearly out of the sight of the guards.
One day as she and Theodora were walking along the banks of the river, she spotted a guard hiding in the bushes. She just caught a glimpse of the armor, not really a face, but she knew that someone was there. Gabrielle continued to play with her daughter, thinking that security was being beefed up when the guard stepped out of the bushes and whispered, "Gabrielle, come here!"
"Xena?" Gabrielle queried, unsure whether or not to trust her ears. Xena came close, so Gabrielle could see her. Gabrielle launched herself at the woman, hugging her fiercely, babbling incoherently. Xena stood quietly, holding the other woman, stroking her golden hair, murmuring gently into her ear, grinning uncontrollably as Gabrielle clung to her. Finally, Xena pulled away, asking if she was being treated well. "Yes, Ulysses is determined to sell me to you in one piece, one very nicely kept piece. Theodora is the darling of the troops, I think she reminds some of the men of their own children."
Theodora chose that moment to grab Xena around the leg and babble "Dada?" The two women laughed; Xena let go of Gabrielle so she could pick up the child. "Hey, I've missed you too, little one," she said as she bounced the child in her arms. She turned back to Gabrielle and said more seriously, "I have a camp just a few miles away. Is there anything you need to bring with you? or would this be a good time to sneak off?"
"Only if you don't mind getting more clothing and baby essentials," Gabrielle said, "I'm more than willing to sneak off right now."
Xena nodded, still holding Theodora. "Okay, my horse is just over the rise, I think the three of us can fit, I'll hold Theodora in front of me if you can hold on behind me. Ready?"
"As I'll ever be." she responded.
"Good, let's go." Xena led the way to her horse, uncharacteristically content for once. The three mounted the horse, fitting a bit snugly, but it would only take an hour to reach camp, so Xena wasn't too concerned. The thought flashed through her mind that she felt at peace now, with the baby in her arms and Gabrielle's arms around her waist. Living with Ming Tien and Queen Aife had changed her life in the past few months, she practiced not only military skills, but also meditation skills. She let her mind wander over some of the teachings of her adopted son, the very teachings that his real mother had written down so many years ago. Funny how life came and went in cycles, she mused, and funny how she was no longer driven to conquer the world.
After they arrived at the camp, Xena warmed up some stew and bread while Gabrielle settled Theodora down for a nap. They ate slowly, catching each other up on what they had been doing; Gabrielle telling of Theodora's great advances, Xena telling of learning meditation from Ming Tien and giving military advice to Aife. They finished with their meal and cleaned up the dishes, then Gabrielle went to check on Theodora. When she came back, Xena was sitting against a tree, pensively staring into the fire. Gabrielle sat down in front of her, laying a hand on Xena's knee, asking, "What are you thinking, Xena?"
Xena laid her hand over Gabrielle's, letting a sad smile quirk on her lips. "Oh, just the usual 'I used to be a terrible tyrant' thoughts, nothing important."
"Oh? Then care to tell me why you went to the trouble to snatch Theodora and me away from Ulysses?"
The former tyrant shifted her stare from the fire to Gabrielle's face, searching it, then finally answering, "I'm not sure, really. I could have fought him for you, but I knew that just walking up to you and asking you to come with me would hurt his pride much more." She unconsciously laced her fingers through Gabrielle's as she thought a bit longer. "Well, that and I missed you and Theodora, it's been so long since I had a friend I could trust that I missed you terribly."
"I missed you too," Gabrielle replied in a low voice, "I kept hoping you would come back, but after you didn't, it was just too easy to drift into Dezso's arms. I'm sorry, but it was easier than being alone."
Xena quirked an eyebrow. "You wanted me to come back?"
Gabrielle let go of Xena's hand and moved until she was sitting between Xena's legs, pulling Xena's arms around her. Leaning against Xena, she replied, "Yes, I wanted you back, I missed you tremendously. I missed your mischief, I missed our long talks, I missed you trying to pick apart everything I said. I missed knowing that I was safe in the house with you, missed knowing that Theodora was safe with you around. You are the best friend I have had since before I married Perdicas, I don't really want to lose you again."
Xena didn't reply right away, she merely tightened her grip on the younger woman. They sat there, listening to the insects as the darkness gathered, enjoying the feeling of each other so near. Xena finally kissed the top of Gabrielle's head and said gently, "We really should get some rest, Gabrielle, I intend on breaking camp and traveling back to the Celtic lands."
Gabrielle turned around and said seriously, "I'll follow you, Xena, I'm tired of being penned up in a little town. I had forgotten how people are while I lived with you at the castle, I was so insulated." She leaned back again for a moment, then reluctantly stood up, offering a hand to Xena, who took it, letting Gabrielle help her up. Xena sent Gabrielle in the tent with her daughter while she stayed out by the fire, stating that she would sleep better in the open. Gabrielle just nodded, cracking a huge yawn.
The trip to Queen Aife's lands was slow and uneventful, giving both women plenty of time to think about how their lives had become intertwined. Gabrielle remarked one day after lunch that they had essentially known each other for nearly three years now, which was almost as long as she had been married to Perdicas. Xena turned and looked at Gabrielle quizzically, asking, "So, what do you mean by that?"
Gabrielle finished packing the leftovers before answering, "I'm not sure, Xena, it was just an observation. I knew Perdicas all of my life, his family lived next door to mine, I was destined to marry him, I guess. Can we sit and talk for a few minutes?" Xena nodded slowly, sitting back down on the blanket, facing Gabrielle and Theodora. "Xena, what do you expect from me? I know that you rescued me and my child, I am eternally grateful for that, but what do you expect in return?"
Xena frowned, drawing her eyebrows together in concentration. "Expect?" she repeated, "I don't expect anything from you."
Gabrielle hesitated, then laid her baby down, watching the toddler roll over in a peaceful slumber while she sorted out her answer. Finally, she said, "Well, in the years I've known you, you have wanted something from everyone, whether it be money, supplies, lands or personal loyalty. I hear that you used to want men as, ah, lovers, but where do I fit in?"
"Oh." The dark woman looked off into the distance for a long time before answering, thoughts fluttering through her mind too distractedly to allow her to frame an answer for many minutes. "Friendship, I guess. First, I wanted you as a verbal sparring partner, I recognized that you were so good with words, so good at holding your own end of an argument that I wanted you around for my amusement. Then, something happened and I wanted you for my friend. Gods know that I've never risked my life to save anyone before, I would have never abandoned my lands for anyone else. I'm not much for emotions, Gabrielle, I'm more comfortable plotting military strategy that plotting relationships. I chose to toy with men because I never felt that deep connection with any man save Borias. I felt that connection with Lao Ma, but it frightened me too much." She stopped, unsure how, or if, to continue.
"Xena," Gabrielle broke into her thoughts, "what do you feel toward me?"
Xena shrugged, spreading her hands helplessly. "I feel protective toward you and Theodora. I like you a lot, you are the first person since Lao Ma whose approval I've sought."
"Yeah, I guess that husband act rubbed off on me a little bit," Xena laughed sheepishly.
Gabrielle nodded. "I've noticed that. Xena, I am not some damsel in distress that you need to watch over, I am a grown woman with a child." Before she could say anything else, Xena jumped up and stormed off without a word. Gabrielle stared after her, then jumped up and yelled, "Wait, I'm not finished!" She looked at her daughter, indecisive as to whether or not to chase after Xena or to wait for Xena to come back. "Theodora, what did I say wrong?" she asked her sleeping daughter. "Why did she act so mad?"
Xena wondered why she reacted so harshly to Gabrielle's comment that she was not "a damsel in distress that you need to watch over." Aife had told her that she loved Gabrielle, now Xena wondered how Aife meant that statement. Loved Gabrielle as a friend, or possibly as a lover? Gabrielle was not innocent by any stretch of the imagination, no woman who had seen as much death as Gabrielle had could be innocent or naive. Gabrielle had even asked Xena about her brief affair with Lao Ma and had not seemed perturbed by the sexual nature of the relationship. So, was she overreacting because she was in love with Gabrielle?
One thing was sure, she absolutely adored Theodora and would do anything to help protect the child from harm. The protectiveness and love that Xena felt for the baby was nearly as intense as her feelings for Solon, her dead son, something that had taken Xena by surprise at first, but had given her a reason to sneak Gabrielle and Theodora away from Ulysses rather than taking them by direct confrontation. So why should she be so worried about what Gabrielle thought? "Damn the woman anyway," she growled to the forest, "she has me caught completely in her net." Sighing, Xena finally started walking back to the camp, afraid to search her feelings any more for fear of what she would discover.
Gabrielle had fallen asleep while waiting for Xena to decide whether or not to come back to camp. She woke, though, hearing a slight noise outside of the tent. She reached for her traveling stick, then glanced over at the baby to make sure she was still asleep, then carefully parted the tent flap with the end of her stick, peering out into the moonless night. It was Xena, sitting on a blanket, staring forlornly off into the distance, as if she had lost someone very close to her. Curiosity overcoming her, Gabrielle quietly slipped out of the tent and walked over to the dark haired woman, touching Xena's shoulder lightly.
Xena jumped at the touch, reaching for her knife before realizing it was Gabrielle. "Oh, it's you," she breathed, relieved that it was not a stranger, "what are you doing up at this time of night?"
Gabrielle plopped on the ground beside Xena, retorting, "What am I doing up? What are you doing up?"
Xena's face hardened for a second, then she wearily scrubbed her face with her hands. "Gabrielle, you should really go back to bed," she said roughly, "I'll wake you up in a few hours."
"There you go again, trying to take care of me. Why?"
"Why not? Isn't that what friends do?" Xena shot back.
Gabrielle caught the bitterness in Xena's tone of voice. Patting Xena's knee, she replied more softly, "I guess so, Xena, but I'm not used to being taken care of, especially not by someone who used to strike fear in the hearts of her not so loyal subjects." She sighed heavily, then continued, "I'm just tired and cranky, Xena, and you ran away from me. Now I want to know why, but I'm so fatigued that I almost don't care. Do you think it is easy to raise a child by yourself?"
"From what I hear, you nearly got remarried before Ulysses' men captured you and Theodora."
"True," Gabrielle agreed, "but I missed you the whole time you were gone. I just don't have very good luck with men."
"I'll agree with that," Xena smirked. The smirk turned into a whoosh of surprise as the blonde lightly slapped Xena's belly, telling her to be good. "Who, me?" Xena gasped. "Never." She fell silent again, not daring to look into Gabrielle's eyes, afraid that the younger woman would see how she really felt. Instead, she stretched, yawned and stood up, saying that she was ready to sleep as she bent over to unroll her bed.
"Xena, you really don't have to sleep outside," Gabrielle said quietly, "you can bring your bedroll in the tent, there's plenty of room. Look, it's getting cold outside, and more bodies will make the tent warmer. I don't want Theodora catching cold."
Xena nodded silently, picking up her bedroll and following the blonde into the tent. For a brief instant, she had hoped that Gabrielle wanted her in the tent for herself, her company, not just for her body heat, but that was not to be. Damn, when did she fall in love with Gabrielle? Why was she so concerned about how Gabrielle viewed her? As Xena slid between her blankets, she looked over at Gabrielle, who was already sound asleep, protectively holding her daughter. Why did she keep running away from Gabrielle? Easy, she answered herself, she didn't want Gabrielle to know how deeply she had penetrated her heart. Besides, Gabrielle had been right when she said that her mission was accomplished, that she had turned Xena from her evil ways. Maybe she should try to find Dezso again and bring him to Gabrielle, let them get married, Xena bitterly concluded as she closed her eyes. Gabrielle did deserve a chance at happiness.
Gabrielle noticed that Xena was very quiet for the next few days, saying as little as possible. When they finally arrived at the Celtic border, Xena told Gabrielle that she would arrange for her and the baby to stay with Aife and Ming Tien for a few months until she could find Dezso. "After all, you can't get married until you have the groom," Xena had told her before abruptly turning on her heel to stalk off. Gabrielle tried to stop her, but Xena shook her hand off angrily, glaring at her coldly and leaving wordlessly.
Aife saw Xena striding rapidly across the encampment, away from the tent where Gabrielle and Theodora were staying, wondering what they had argued about. "Xena," she called out to the woman, "could I have a word with you, please?" Xena stopped, looked at the queen, then headed in her direction. Aife waited until Xena had caught up with her before asking, "Have you heard anything else about Ulysses?"
Aife gestured for Xena to follow her into the campaign tent, leading the tall, dark woman into the tent before asking any additional questions. She poured herself a bit of mead before gesturing for Xena to sit with her in two chairs by a table. "Xena," the queen said, "I need your help." Xena cocked a skeptical eyebrow, but Aife continued. "Ulysses is trying to encroach into my territories and I do not appreciate that. Further, he is trying to drive a wedge between my lands and Prince Jason's and Jason has been my best trading partner lately and has become one of my allies. Before you say anything, I'd like for you to take on a mission for me, a spy mission to gather intelligence. I need for you to infiltrate Ulysses' army or camp and find out what he is planning. Then, come back and we'll plan how best to defeat him once and for all."
Xena stretched her long, booted legs out in front of her, staring at the ground, considering the queen's words. It would be a dangerous mission, one that could result in her death if she were recognized, but it was a necessary mission. Plus, it would get her away from Gabrielle, perhaps she could even sneak over to their old house and find Dezso. "I'll do it. Give me a fresh horse and some supplies. If you have a uniform from a captured soldier it would be even better."
Aife nodded. "Thank you, Xena. I'd like for you to get started tomorrow morning, just after dawn. Ming Tien tried to talk me out of asking you to undertake this mission, but I convinced him otherwise."
Xena looked faintly surprised. "Why would he try to keep you from assigning this mission to me?"
Aife shrugged. "I think, after all is said and done, he worries about you, you are the mother he really remembers the most." She allowed herself a small smile. "He is a terrific father, so you must not have influenced him as much as I thought."
Xena jumped up, fists balled. "What?"
Aife smiled more broadly. "Where is your sense of humor, Xena? Despite how cruel you were to everyone else, he still remembers you staying up with him for three days and nights when he was ten and had that awful fever. He prefers to remember your kindness rather than your cruelty." Xena unclenched her hands, then left without another word. Aife watched the departing woman, wondering, not for the first time in the past few days, what was really happening behind that cold mask.
Xena reported immediately to the supply tent to arrange for her departure the next day. She spent the next few hours having a tailor alter a uniform for her, then choosing a horse and some weapons for her travels. She ate in the common mess hall, avoiding Gabrielle and Theodora until just before bedtime, then reluctantly returned to their tent, hoping to find them already asleep, but the gods were not with her that night. Theodora was sound asleep, but not so Gabrielle. "Xena," she called quietly so as not to wake the baby, "where have you been all day?"
"Talking to Aife," Xena replied laconically. "Why don't you get back to sleep?"
"Xena," Gabrielle said warningly, "don't pull that with me. You are up to something that I'm not going to like, aren't you?"
Xena turned to Gabrielle and replied calmly, "I'm going to infiltrate Ulysses' army and find out how to stop him. Aife asked me to. I'll probably be gone for several months; I'll try to find Dezso while I'm gone as well."
"Hush, you'll wake Theodora," Xena admonished the startled woman, "You'll be better off without me hanging around. If I can't find Dezso, there should be plenty of men who will be willing to marry you and take care of you. You didn't think that I would take care of you forever, did you?"
"Xena, I never asked you to take care of me," Gabrielle replied heatedly, "nor did I ask you to find me a husband. Did it ever occur to you that I can do fine on my own? Or that I hung around because I thought that we might possibly be friends?" Gabrielle watched Xena shrug indifferently, then lay down on her bed. "Oh, just play the ice princess and go to sleep," Gabrielle snarled. Xena merely turned on her side away from Gabrielle, leaving the other woman two choices: stay up and try to win this impossible argument, or go to sleep and hope to talk to Xena in the morning. Neither choice seemed appealing, so Gabrielle finally chose the latter. As she drifted off to sleep, it flashed across her mind to wonder why Xena was so eager to get away from her these days. After all, wasn't Xena the one who seemed to want to have a friend?
Morning dawned cold and drizzly, a terrible day to make a journey. Nevertheless, Xena gathered her belongings and silently went to the stable, hoping to avoid Gabrielle altogether. She had just finished tying her bedroll on the saddle when she heard a noise behind her, she whirled around, sword ready.
"Xena," Gabrielle said reproachfully, "you didn't say good-bye."
"Why should I?" Xena asked lightly. "You seem pissed at me so much lately, I thought you'd prefer it that way."
"Why are you dodging me so much lately?"
Xena re-sheathed her sword, then placed a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Gabrielle," she said in a gentler voice, "I must take this mission. I must help bring peace back to the lands that I helped destroy. Certainly you can understand that kind of mission, can't you? Besides, I'm sure you'll be happier without me."
Gabrielle saw a brief flicker of sadness in Xena's eyes, wondering if Xena was reluctant to leave her. Without thinking, she flung herself into Xena's arms, hugging the former tyrant fiercely. She finally looked up, saying, "I'll miss you, Xena."
Xena nodded, sadness flickering in her eyes again. "I'll miss you too, Gabrielle." She brought and hand up and carefully traced the outline of Gabrielle's face, fingers gliding like silk over the contours. She leaned forward, closing the distance, then suddenly jerked back, turning away from the other woman. "Good-bye," she called out as she mounted her horse and rode away. Gabrielle stood for several minutes, stunned by the tenderness and abruptness of her friend's leaving. She reached up, touching her face where Xena had touched it seconds before, wondering what had been crossing Xena's mind as she had leaned forward then jerked back. "Damn," she muttered softly, "you managed to leave me again."
Xena rode hard, knowing that if she stopped just often enough for her horse to rest, that she would make it to her old castle in three days. She occupied her mind with reviewing all of the secret entrances and exits of the castle, wondering how many of them had been discovered by Ulysses, or how many the captain of her personal guard, Theonis, had been forced to point out before his death. In between thoughts of stealing Ulysses' battle plans and finding a way to counteract them, thoughts of Gabrielle and Theodora drifted through, upsetting her ice cold facade. "Damn," she muttered to her horse, "why won't she leave me alone?"
On the third night, she stopped at an inn, hoping for a hot supper and a place to sleep, the weather had turned from drizzly to deluge. She shivered as she handed the reins to the stable boy, tipping him a couple of dinars to make sure he took good care of the horse before she entered the inn. As she entered and took off her streaming cloak, she noticed that the noise level plummeted from high to silence as the diners caught sight of her uniform. An older man called out, "Go away, soldier, we don't serve your kind in here."
Before she could frame a reply, however, she heard a voice call out, "Lyceus, long time no see!" She turned to see Paul and Nicholas waving at her. Paul called out to the crowd, "It's okay, I know him." Xena found herself grinning as the threaded her way to their table, uncharacteristically overjoyed to see a friendly face. "Gods, man, how are you doing? And what are you doing in a uniform of Ulysses? Have you gone and become a soldier or something?"
"Something like that," Xena replied as a woman deposited a hot mug of mead in front of her. She sipped gratefully at the mead, then asked, "So, what are you two doing these days?"
"Oh, same old same old," Nicholas replied as he stroked his beard. "The wife still complains about me staying out so late with Paul, but truth be known, she enjoys a bit of peace at the end of the day. Say, how is that beautiful wife of yours, Lyceus? Your baby should be running around now, did you have a boy or girl?"
Xena smiled, thinking about Theodora. "A little girl, Theodora, we named her after, um, Diana's aunt," she replied, nearly forgetting Gabrielle's alternate name. "She's sixteen months old now."
Paul motioned for the server to come over, then asked, "Do you miss her? You look like you've been on the road for a long time. Did you ever find that smithy job you wanted?"
Xena gave her order to the server before replying, "Well, for a little bit, but we had to run when the war broke out."
"So, you left your wife to enlist? How come you enlisted in Ulysses' army? And why isn't your hair cut as short as his soldiers'?" Paul asked her.
Xena opened her mouth to reply, but Nicholas laughed and answered for her, "Paul, you idiot, I bet she's a spy for some other army. Lyceus, after dinner I'll take you to my house and have my wife cut your hair for you. You'd probably be more comfortable there than here anyway. Now, since I interrupted you, I'll hush and let you tell us about your wife and daughter."
"I left Diana and Theodora with relatives," Xena started out, "thinking they'll be safer there." She was interrupted by the arrival of her dinner, which she fell to devouring immediately. Fortunately, Paul and Nicholas took up the slack, talking to each other and filling her in on local events while she gulped down her food. Finally, she finished her dinner and paid for it, then followed the chattering men out of the inn. Paul wished her luck, then walked off through the rain while Nicholas waited for her to retrieve her horse so he could lead her to his house.
Several minutes later, then arrived at a cozy house, full of light. Nicholas led her to the barn, saying she could put her horse in an empty stall for the night, then led her into the house. "Honey, I'm home!" he called out. A tall, stout woman appeared, whom Nicholas kissed soundly, then introduced. "Lyceus, this is my wife Grace. Grace, this is Lyceus, a young man I met a couple of years back. He needs a place to stay for the night as well as a haircut. Can we help him out?"
Grace walked slowly around Xena, examining her minutely before answering, "I think we can help you, young man. Nicholas, go get the spare room ready while I cut his hair. This way, Lyceus." Grace led Xena into another room, where she swirled a sheet around her neck, then brought out barber equipment. "My father was a barber and I got his equipment when he died," she explained as she started cutting Xena's hair, "I helped him in his shop until I married Nicholas. So, tell me why you wear a soldier's garb yet don't have a soldier's short hair. I hear that Ulysses is picking up the old Roman ideas of his men having hair too short to grab."
Xena's insides quailed as she realized that her raven hair, her one remaining vanity, was about to be sheared down to an inch or less. But, she must complete her mission, she reminded herself, even if it meant super short hair. "Well, to tell the truth, I stole this uniform. I'm working for a small outfit that is trying to find out what Ulysses is up to," she explained.
"I see," Grace said as she continued cutting Xena's hair. She fell silent as she concentrated on her task, then finally whisked away the sheet. "There, you look like a soldier, young man. I have a mirror on the wall, nothing fancy, just something Nicholas found in his trading, go look at yourself."
Xena crossed the room to the plain silver mirror, picking up a lamp to see herself better. The short hair left the skin around her hairline white in contrast with her deep tan, something she had not thought about. Her cheekbones seemed more prominent, her eyes more hooded, her ears small against her head. She turned around, carefully replacing the lamp before saying, "Thank you, Grace. Any suggestions about the white skin?"
Grace frowned as she thought, then went into the kitchen, rummaging around. She came back with a bottle, saying, "This dye is safe, you can use it to blend your skin tones. Let's wait until morning to try it, though, I wouldn't want you to get it on my clean sheets, Lyceus." She smiled. "If that is your name." Before Xena could speculate on what the woman meant, Nicholas came back and announced that her room was ready. Grace made shooing motions, saying, "Go along, dear, I'll call you for breakfast in the morning. Good-night."
"Good-night," Xena replied, slightly dazed. She followed Nicholas into the spare bedroom, nearly overcome with sudden weariness. After Nicholas shut the door, she stripped off most of her clothes, then washed her face in the basin. She crawled into the soft bed, dragging the covers over her, falling into a deep sleep almost immediately.
"Gabrielle, come here." Xena whispered in a husky voice.
"Coming, Xena," Gabrielle answered.
"You are so beautiful tonight." Xena said, stroking Gabrielle's silky blonde hair.
"Thank you," she said, leaning into the caress.
"How is Theodora?" Xena asked, letting her fingers drift to Gabrielle's chin.
The blonde shivered, whispering, "Missing you. Just like I am."
"I miss you too, Gabrielle." Xena looked up into Gabrielle's deep green eyes, lost in the depths. Shivering with emotion, she slowly pulled the other woman to her chest, feeling the warmth of their skin making contact. She tilted Gabrielle's head up, leaning down to kiss her lips...
"It's morning, Lyceus, the missus is putting breakfast on the table now," Nicholas' voice floated into her dream. Xena shot up, grabbing the blankets to cover her chest as she stared at Nicholas' head poked through the door. "You must have been exhausted, Lyceus, you were sleeping pretty soundly."
"I do sometimes," she growled in reply. She waited for him to shut the door back before dressing quickly and going to the breakfast table. The food was good, the conversation mercifully general and no one expected her to offer any great insights. When breakfast was over, Xena thanked her hosts and went back to the room to repack her belongings. Grace followed in a few minutes with a bag of food for the rest of her journey, saying that she could not send a soldier off without a good meal. "Thanks," Xena replied as she surveyed the room, making sure that she had not left anything behind.
Grace stood there for a moment, then asked softly, "What is your real name, Lyceus? Nicholas may be fooled, but I'm not. Why are you pretending to be a man?"
Xena slowly turned around, carefully laying her saddlebag back down on the bed. "Now why would you ask that?"
"Because I'm just curious what would drive a woman to pretending that she was a man. Nicholas kept mentioning your wife and child, but you hardly brought them up yourself. Indulge me, I won't tell anyone."
"How do I know that?" Xena asked. "What guarantee can you give me that you won't spill my true identity? No, it is better for both of us for me not to say who I really am, but I will tell you this much: the woman I've called my wife in our travels is actually a friend of mine who lost her husband when she was just under a month pregnant. She needed someone to take her away from her home town and I was available."
Xena coolly appraised the older woman, eyes turning to chips of ice. Grace shrugged her shoulders, giving up the line of questioning as Xena went back to her packing. When she was finished, Grace asked, "So, will you go back to her?"
Xena hoisted her bags over her shoulders and answered, "I'm not sure. I do know this: there are many wrongs that I must right before I can answer that question." Without further ado, Xena brushed past Grace and left the house to retrieve her horse.
"Where's Xena?" Theodora asked for what seemed like the millionth time. "Miss her."
"I miss her too, Dora," Gabrielle replied as she sewed. Damn, she thought, Xena left me again, and here I am sewing for Aife's army just to stay useful! I HATE sewing! "Baby, she'll come back one day, just you wait and see."
"I don't know, baby, I just don't know." Gabrielle stopped, stretched, then tied off a knot in the thread. She had offered to baby-sit Duncan, but Ming Tien said that he was better at babysitting his son than at trying his hand at military strategy. "Just one more repair, then we can go visit Ming Tien and Duncan," she told her daughter. Theodora clapped happily, toddling around the room as Gabrielle bent over her sewing again. She hoped that Xena would accomplish her mission, then come back home for them. Not that this encampment was home, she hastily corrected herself, but she wanted Xena to come back. She felt bad about their arguments over the past few months, especially since Xena had risked her life to take them away from Ulysses.
What was it about that woman that both drew her in and infuriated her at the same time? She knew that Xena could be cruel, yet she was so gentle with children, so loving with Theodora and Duncan both. Would Xena have kept running away if she had been able to carry her baby to term? Gabrielle wondered, or would she simply have stuck Gabrielle with the baby, like she had originally claimed that she would do? She finally picked up her cloak and Theodora's cloak, then led the child out for a walk along the river.
She had to admit to herself that she was almost relieved that she had been kidnapped before the wedding started. She liked Dezso, and he was a gentle lover, but there was something missing, some connection. She wasn't sure what she was seeking, really, other than a deeper love than she had experienced with any man she had been with in the past. Perdicas had been a good husband, very dependable and honest, yet he never understood her need to try to right wrongs and change other people's viewpoints. Dezso was very kind, and even seemed to understand her gratefulness toward Xena, yet he was jealous of her friendship with Xena, claiming that Xena would only hurt her. Maybe he was right, she thought, maybe Xena would only hurt her, gods know that she had already hurt Gabrielle enough in the past few years, but sometimes she realized that Xena was simply trying to keep from getting too close to her.
Xena stopped her horse on the outskirts of the capital city, watching the troops marching by in exact lines and formations, following a predictable pattern. She unsaddled the horse, stowing her gear and bags in a hidden cave, then climbed a tree to watch the troops for a few hours.
Late that night, Xena determined that she could enter the castle compound itself fairly easily; parts were left unguarded for several minutes at the time as the guards swept by on their regular rounds. She scrambled down from the tree, going back to the cave to get a few items, then set out for the castle itself. She snuck through the gates, then scurried in the shadows, hugging the wall of the castle until she found the slight indention at the base of the wall that she was looking for. Glancing around, she satisfied herself that no one was looking, then she scruffed away the dirt and leaves from a small trap door in the ground and pulled it up. Xena slipped under the door, then slowly let it back over the hole, climbing down by feel and memory until she reached the bottom of the ladder. She grabbed the torch from the wall, then lit it with a few strikes of flint, then carried the torch in front of her as she walked carefully through the corridor.
Her progress was slow, but Xena was not concerned, she was more concerned about someone meeting her in the corridors before she made it up into the castle proper. This was one secret tunnel that she never showed anyone, not even her personal guards, one that she had dug separately from the others, then personally killed all involved in the creation of the getaway. She chided herself for even thinking about all the deaths she had caused, telling herself that friendship with Gabrielle was causing her to go soft in her old age, but also feeling a sharp pain of emptiness as she thought about Gabrielle. She stopped, took a deep breath, then focused solely on her goal: to gain entrance into the main war room and to look at Ulysses' plans for attack.
Xena finally surfaced through the entry portal, cleverly disguised as a column in her private chapel, devoted to Ares, God of War. She had always thought it appropriate to have her most secret getaway in this chapel, since Ares had assisted her in her rise to fame. She fleetingly wondered why she never heard from him, then decided that he wasn't needed much since it seemed like the entire world was at war. He was probably just enjoying it too much to bother coming down to see the puny mortals.
Xena checked her weapons and clothes to make sure she looked like an ordinary soldier, then went to the door of the chapel, listening for movement before venturing out into the hallway. Satisfied that coast was clear, she extinguished her torch and hid it in the column, then listened at the door a moment longer before opening it and slipping through. She walked confidently toward the war room, holding a scroll container as if she were delivering a message, then paused to make sure no one was following, went into the war room. Once in the room, she pulled out a small clay jar and set it by the door, so that any slight movement of the door would cause the jar to topple over and break. She then turned her full attention to the plans, pleased that Ulysses had kindly provided several full lamps for her to see the parchments with.
An hour later, her mission was complete. She had made sketches and and copious notes on blank parchment, then carefully rolled up the sheets and poked them in her scroll container, sealing it with wax and Ulysses' personal seal, which she had made a copy of years ago, just out of routine paranoia. She was amazed at the far reaching plans, but could immediately see weaknesses in his plans, assuming that the plans were real and not planted for spies such as herself. But Ulysses had always been a vain man, she remembered, unable to believe that anyone would go against him for long.
When Xena finally finish making her notes, she picked up her parchment case, extinguished the lamps and then headed to the door. She carefully opened the door, looking both ways until she was satisfied that there was no one in the corridor. She carefully closed the door behind her, then headed to the chapel of Ares, were she headed for the empty column. Before she could reach for the indentation and in the side of the column, she heard the door open and one of Ulyssesí soldiers came through the door. The soldier look at her, and asked, "What you doing here? Didnít you know that nobody comes into the chapel of Ares except for Ulysses himself?"
Xena stared at the soldier for long moment, then picked up for parchment case and held out to him saying, "I was sent by to my commander to hand deliver this to Ulysses. Have you seen him around? I have no idea what he really looks like, just what some of the other commanders had told me."
The soldier reached for the case in Xena seemed to hand it to him, but is it is his hands touched the case, she hit him on the head causing him to fall unconscious on the floor. She realized that her last hiding place the been compromised, and sat down for a moment to try to think of an alternative. Xena decided that the easiest thing to do would be to try to do would be to walk through the halls and through door just as if she belonged there. Which, ironically, she reminded herself the she did belong there, it was just that Ulysses was the usurper.
The rest of the journey to the outside of the castle was uneventful. Once she had the plans in hand, she snuck back out of the compound and headed back to the cave were she had been hiding. Once safely back in the cave, she pulled out her notes from the parchment case, reading over her notes in the fading light. She put the notes bank in the parchment case careful to reseal it so that it once again looked like an undisturbed wax seal. And Xena built in small fire in the mouth of the cave to ponder what her next step would be. Should she take these plans directly back to the queen, or should she take them to Prince Jason who seemed to be an ally? Xena finally decided that the best thing to do would be to get the good nightís sleep, then take the matter up again in the morning.
During breakfast the next morning, Xena decided that the best thing to do would be to go to Prince Jason. However, she did not think the she should go as Xena, but instead as a soldier of Ulysses who did decided to turn against Ulysses. Once her decision had been made, she re-packed her bags, and headed for Prince Jasonís camp. When she finally arrived at his camp, she was initially detained by some of Prince Jasonís soldiers, but when she showed them the parchment case with the wax seal, they decided to that the best thing would be for her to see Prince Jason himself.
Jason insisted on seen Xena alone, assuring his soldiers the once her weapons have been taken from her, that she would not be able to harm him. "So, what have you brought me today?" Xena wordlessly handed over the case to Jason, who looked at the seal with raised eyebrows. Jason carefully broke the seal, then extracted the pages of notes. He read them over, the asked Xena, "Where did you get these notes? Are they really from Ulysses?"
Xena made a quick decision, relying on her gut instinct to trust her former lover. "Jason," she said slowly, "I am Xena. Before you have me tossed from your tent, please listen to me."
Jason looked surprised, but merely said, "Please continue."
"I have been working with Queen Aife of the Celts for some time now to keep Ulysses from encroaching her borders, ones that I personally negotiated with her nearly two years ago. I don't appreciate what he has done to me, stirring up civil war, then kidnapping innocent people to get my attention. Well, he has my attention now and he will regret it. I broke into the castle and took notes of his plans, which I have delivered to you, to do with whatever you will. If you want my opinion on how to break his army, I will give it to you, otherwise, I'll leave and go back to Aife and help her. However, if you should take my opinions, I think that you and Aife can work together to squeeze Ulysses' army in a trap, one that he would rush into without forethought."
Jason stroked his beard, wondering whether or not to believe or to trust her. She did not look or act like the Xena he had intimately known, she looked like a man, dressed just like one of Ulysses soldiers. Yet, the words rang true, but how had she obtained his seal? "Xena, before I trust you--"
"How did I get the seal? I'll tell you how, every noble, prince, king, or general who had an official seal had to get them through my people, right?"
"I always had a duplicate made and hidden away in my treasury. It just so happened that when the war started, I took the extra seal for Ulysses, hoping that it would come in handy some day. It looks like it has."
Jason finally smiled, comprehension flooding his face. "So, how else can we take advantage of his seal?"
Xena grinned wickedly. "It is a well known fact that Ulysses relies more on his official seal than other other general in my former armies since he hates to read and write. We pool our considerable military talent and come up with a series of plans that seem reasonable, yet will drive his far-flung army right where we want them -- in a vise between your army and Aife's army, where we crush this rebellion into the dust."
Jason nodded, then countered, "If I let you do this, Xena, what assurance do I have that you will not try to take over my army and rule the world again?"
"Good question, Jason, I'm glad you asked that," Xena replied. "Let me ask you a question in return: have you heard any rumors that I was gathering an army in the past two years?"
"No, not that I can think of."
"Nor do I plan to gather one. I'll be quite honest, I'm excellent at conquering people but lousy at ruling them. I've seen how Queen Aife rules her people through trust rather than fear, seen how my adopted son Ming Tien helped settle a war through diplomacy rather than bloodshed. Jason, the time has come for people to have a voice in their own destiny, not to follow someone else's version of their destiny, or we will continue this cycle of conquest and rebellion for now and forever."
"Xena, I've never heard you talk like this. Come to think of it, I've rarely heard you talk this long."
Xena merely smiled. "Jason, if you are referring to our shared past, I no longer take men to bed merely for pleasure or profit. It took a very brave woman to change most of my views, braver than any man I've ever known. Now, I must find her finance' and bring him back to her so she will have a chance at happiness."
"But what about your happiness, Xena?"
She shrugged. "It will come, I suppose, but if I can make Gabrielle and her daughter Theodora happy, I've done my part." With that, she turned to the parchment. "Now, if we drive his army here..."
Prince Jason stared in horror as Xena staggered back to the camp, clutching her side. He could see the blood seeping through her leather armor and staining her fingers, but there were no red bubbles at her mouth, for which he thanked the gods. "Dezso!" he bellowed, "wounded soldier!"
The tall, thin healer came dashing out of his tent to meet the wounded Xena, looking shocked as he recognized the face. "Lyceus, you're alive!" he stammered.
Xena quirked an eyebrow, replying, "Not for long if you don't stitch up my side. Help me into your tent, we need to get to work on this." Without waiting for an answer, Xena started off in the direction of Dezso's tent, nearly falling in the process. Dezso shook off his shock and helped Xena into the tent, then motioned for her to lay down.
Once they were in his tent, Dezso started peeling back Xena's leather armor and tunic, then stopped in shock when he saw the curve of her left breast. "Lyceus?" he asked in a strained voice, "What is going on here?"
Xena answered lightly, "Oh, I didn't bring up my sword fast enough, Dezso, so the bad guy sliced me. If you are referring to what else you see, it is true, I am a woman, but I have my reasons for hiding my true identity."
"Oh." Dezso took a deep breath, then forced himself to concentrate on cleaning the wound. He looked at the wound critically, then pulled out strip of cloth to start winding around her chest, then stopped. "Um, you need to take off the rest of your tunic, Lyceus." She pulled it off, wincing as the jagged skin hit the edge of the tunic. Dezso concentrated on carefully winding the cloth around her chest, managing to avoid touching her at all. Xena smothered a silly grin at his extreme care, pulling her tunic back on after he finished. "Okay, come back tomorrow and let me check it, make sure no infection is setting in." He put a hand on her shoulder, then yanked it off as if he had touched hot metal.
"Dezso," Xena said as she stood up, "I think you need an explanation." He nodded, fumbling for the chair behind him. Xena waited until they were both seated, then spoke. "Diana, whose real name is Gabrielle, lost her husband before she knew she was pregnant. I knew her, knew that she had no one else to take care of her, so I volunteered to fill in and pretend to be her husband until she could find a way to support herself after the baby came. I was, shall we say, a mercenary, but had apprenticed to a blacksmith in my youth, so I was able to support us both in town. After you came and cured Theodora, I saw how you two watched each other, so I decided that you were great husband material and that I could leave the scene, confident that she would marry you and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, the fates were not so kind and General Ulysses kidnapped her. I rescued her; she is staying with Queen Aife and Ming Tien, helping the Celts in their bid to stop Ulysses."
Dezso sat quietly, digesting the news. Xena waited patiently for him to say something, watching his face carefully, seeing the conflicting emotions crossing it. "Lyceus. No, what is your name, ma'am?"
She smiled and replied, "Lyceus will do for the moment, it was my brother's name. He was killed, but that doesn't matter now."
"I'm sorry to hear that. Okay, Lyceus will have to do for the moment, then. After Diana, no, Gabrielle was kidnapped, I waited for word of her rescue or death, prepared for the worst. I missed her, I missed Theodora, I grieved for nearly a year. But, life has a funny way of going on, Lyceus, and before I left for the war last month I fell in love with another woman from the village, a wonderful woman named Ephiny. As soon as I get back from the war, we are to be married." Dezso fumbled in his shirt, bringing out a bronze medallion with a bas relief of Aphrodite on it. "Ephiny gave this to me just before I went to battle, to remind me of her love for me while I am away. If the fates are kind, I will be able to go home to her in a few more weeks, another healer is coming to take my place." He rubbed his chin, then asked worriedly, "Should I write a letter to Diana, or will you tell her for me, Lyceus? I mean tell Gabrielle. Gods, this is confusing!"
"It is confusing, Dezso," she agreed, running a hand through her short black hair, "but I will tell her for you, if that is what you wish. Good luck in life and may you and Ephiny find much love together," she added as she stood up to leave.
"No, I'll write a letter for you to carry back, it would be cowardly for me to let you do my dirty work," Dezso said sadly. "I missed her, but I truly thought she and Theodora were dead, or I would not have looked at Ephiny."
"I believe you, Dezso," Xena replied quietly, "I should be going back in another few weeks, so you have a little time to compose that letter."
"Thank you, Lyceus."
"You're welcome." Xena gingerly touched her side, then waved jauntily at the healer as she left the tent.
Tobias rubbed his eyes wearily as he reviewed the newest battle plans brought to him via courier just hours ago. As he stared at the bold writing and map, he mused that Ulysses had found yet another secretary, the last one had not been around for more than a few messages. It sure would help if Ulysses had learned to write better, Tobias was always uneasy about how many people knew about the plans before he received them at the battle front. It was a bold plan, engaging both the Celts and the remnants of the Spartan army at once, driving the Celts back deep into the British Isles and driving the Spartans into the sea. He didn't like the plan at all, but Ulysses had made other plans just as bold that had worked just fine. Too bad that Caesar fellow had been killed early on in the war, he had been even more brilliant than Ulysses in battle. He just hoped that the Roman army hadn't managed to join the Chin, the Chin were unusually vicious in battle and the Roman unusually disciplined in their battles. He sighed as he carefully rolled the plans up and stuck them back in their case, deciding to work out his details in the morning.
Gabrielle watched as Theodora and Duncan ran around, shrieking happily, then turned back to Ming Tien. "They seem so happy together," she commented.
Ming smiled broadly, watching the toddlers running between the tents. "I agree, they are happy, Gabrielle." He turned back to the table; it was a beautiful fall day, too nice to stay inside. "You have the touch of a poet, my friend."
"Oh, I just try to write what I feel," Gabrielle replied as he picked up another scroll. "I just feel that someone should be capturing the battles from not just the soldiers' viewpoint, but also the viewpoints of those who support the behind-the-lines operations, like supplies and healing."
He nodded, about to say more when a young girl raced up, thrusting a scroll in his hand. He tipped her a coin, then untied the string and read the message. "Gabrielle, I think I see Xena's fine hand," he said, relieved. "Ulysses' army has been trapped between three armies and he is signaling for a peace conference." He stood up to find the queen, asking, "Can you look after Duncan for a few more minutes?"
"Sure," Gabrielle replied. She watched the young man stride off in search of his wife, then turned back to watch the two youngsters at play. It was hard to believe that Theodora was just turned two and that Duncan would be eighteen months next week. She remembered Xena's happy face when she found out that her foster son was becoming a father, saying that it was high time that she was a grandmother. She frowned as she remembered the violent way that Xena's pregnancy had ended, with a sword slicing through her belly, killing the baby and rendering Xena unable to have any other children. Xena had nearly died as well, then had acted as if nothing had happened, but had taken an extreme interest in Gabrielle's health after that. She could still remember waking up in Xena's quarters, watching through slitted eyes as Xena had kept vigil next to her bed as her time drew near, sometimes feeling Xena slipping into bed with her and holding her protectively. Damn the woman, she stirred the most complicated mixture of emotions, Gabrielle thought. Some days she missed Xena like crazy, other days she wished she could forget the Conqueror had ever existed.
She was still thinking about Xena when Ming Tien came back, scooping up his son as he proclaimed happily, "Aife wants me to go negotiate the peace between our peoples and Ulysses, Gabrielle, and she wants you to join us!"
"What, as nursemaid?" Gabrielle asked sarcastically.
"No, Gabrielle, as official scribe. We have treated you as nursemaid and seamstress, haven't we?" he asked guiltily. "Never mind, why don't you go pack, we leave tomorrow right after breakfast. Aife thinks that you will be of great use in making sure that the needs of the people aren't overlooked during the treaty negotiations, after all, if you got Xena to listen to you way back when, certainly you can do the same with the princes and chiefs."
Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Will Xena be there?"
"Most likely," he answered, eyes softening. "I miss her, don't you?"
"Yes," Gabrielle admitted, "but so does Theodora. Well, I guess I should go pack now," she added as she reached for her daughter. "See you at supper."
Ming Tien watched the woman and child walk toward their tent, then turned to his son. "Let's go, little one, we've got a lot to do tonight." He carried his son toward his own tent, already thinking about treaty terms. He hoped that there would be peace for at least his son's lifetime, he was getting tired of war and death.
"XENA!" Theodora screamed, running across the open field. She leapt at the tall woman, forcing Xena to catch her; she clung to Xena's neck with all the force that a two year old can bring into a fierce embrace. "I missed you!" she said exuberantly, kissing the embarrassed woman repeatedly. Xena returned the embrace, feeling somewhat silly at being so relieved that the child remembered her. She kissed Theodora's cheek, then tried to put the child down, but Theodora had other ideas, namely, hanging on for dear life. Xena gave up and simply held her until Gabrielle walked up to her, laughing about her leech. Xena found herself grinning, unable to maintain her usual stoic expression, reaching out a tentative hand to place on Gabrielle's shoulder. Gabrielle smiled back at Xena, then held out her arms to take her daughter back, but Theodora would not turn loose. Finally, Gabrielle gave up trying and simply asked Xena how her mission went.
Several hours later, Theodora finally consented to turn loose and go join Duncan and Gabrielle while Xena talked to Queen Aife and Ming Tien about her mission. When the children had finally fallen asleep, Gabrielle joined the other three for supper, listening to Xena's tales of sneaking in and out of her former castle, distributing false plans to Ulysses' field commanders, then finally working with the Normans and Chinese to help squeeze her former general into a trap. Aife and Ming Tien asked many questions, but Gabrielle was unusually quiet during the meal, not sure how she felt about Xena's return. After a long supper, Aife and Ming Tien announced that they would retire for the evening, offering to look after Theodora for another hour or so, claiming that Gabrielle got left with the children far too often. Xena took the cue to ask Gabrielle if she wanted to walk along the river.
The two women silently walked for several minutes until the campgrounds were lost in the darkness. Xena finally motioned for Gabrielle to sit beside her on a large boulder, then looked into the bright, moonlit night for inspiration. Finding none, she forged ahead. "Gabrielle, I saw Dezso while I was helping Prince Jason," she started, "actually, I saw him professionally for a slight cut on my side."
"A slight cut?"
Xena grinned nervously. "Okay, maybe deeper than that, but it didn't require stitches." She looked down at her hands, flexing the fingers as she tried to figure out how to say what was on her mind. Finally, she stated, "I wanted to bring Dezso back, give you the opportunity for happiness, but he is engaged to another woman, a woman named Ephiny. I think she's with the Amazon tribe, damned good fighter. Anyway, he sent this letter to you." She pulled a small scroll out and handed it to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle untied the scroll, then unrolled it, holding it up in the moonlight. It was easy to read, nearly too easy to read.
Or should I say Gabrielle? I am most sorry, my dear, but after I did not hear from you, I feared the worst and assumed that you and Theodora were dead. Lyceus told me what happened, how she saved you from Ulysses, but it is too late, I have fallen for another woman, Ephiny. We are to be married next month when I come back home from war.
I'm no poet, I do apologize for this being so abrupt. But although Lyceus, or whatever her real name is, carries this scroll, she does not know what it says. Be gentle with Lyceus, Diana, for I think she cares more for you that most men care for their wives, or even for their battle comrades. I don't know how else to say it, but I think she is in love with you, so be gentle with her, dear Diana.
Your former love,
Gabrielle stared at the writing for a long moment, then up at Xena. Did Xena love her? If so, how? She knew that Xena loved Theodora unreservedly, but what kind of future could they have together? Did he mean love like lovers? She looked back down at the scroll, rolling it up and tying it back, trying to fathom the answers to her questions. She knew that her feelings about Xena were complicated; she knew the gentleness that her friend could exhibit, she also knew the cruelty that Xena could wreck. She also knew that she could have merely left Aife's camp and made a new life for herself and her daughter, yet she waited for Xena to come back, one moment hoping that the tall woman would come back and take her off to new adventures, the next moment hoping that she would never return.
"Gabrielle? Are you okay?" Xena queried softly.
"Yes, I'm fine," she answered abstractedly. Then, realizing that Xena was asking about Dezso's desertion, she continued, "I didn't expect him to wait forever." In fact, she hadn't thought of him in months, she realized. "Really, it's okay, Xena, I hoped that he would find someone else."
"Are you sure?"
Gabrielle leaned her head against Xena's shoulder. "Yes, I'm sure." She thought back, trying to remember her almost wedding day, trying to remember the emotions she had felt back then. Another memory popped up, one after Xena had rescued her, and her telling Xena that she didn't need someone to protect her. She remembered Xena's hurt look, then the terrible silence that followed. "Xena," she said slowly, "did you miss me?"
Xena put an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and squeezed slightly in a friendly hug. "Yes, I missed you," she answered simply. "How could I not, you are the best friend I've ever had?" She started to speak again, but seemed to change her mind and just sat for a few more minutes with her arm around Gabrielle. Finally, she stood up and said, "I need my sleep, Gabrielle, we need to go back to camp now."
Gabrielle took Xena's hand and let the other woman haul her to her feet. She looked into Xena's face, searching, but unsure what she was searching for. She settled for touching her short hair and asking, "Why did you cut your hair off?"
Xena's face relaxed. "I cut it off as part of my disguise. Why, don't you like it?"
"It will take some getting used to," Gabrielle admitted.
Xena grinned. "I might keep it short, it sure is easier to take care of," she teased. "Come on, time to head back," she said firmly, turning Gabrielle around. "Morning will come far too soon."
The negotiations seemed to drag on forever, with the Normans nearly coming to blows with the Celts at one point. The Chin were very wary of Xena, who finally took herself out of the negotiation process altogether, insisting that Gabrielle stand in for her. Finally, a halt was called for a day, so Xena suggested to Gabrielle that they take Theodora for a picnic.
The trio settled by the bank of the river, spreading out several blankets and what looked like mountains of food to Xena. Theodora insisted on sitting in Xena's lap during lunch, which Xena claimed that she didn't mind. Gabrielle talked a little about her youth, how she and her sister had been best of friends and worst of enemies and how she missed her sister and parents. "I guess I married Perdicas so early because my folks died when I was sixteen," she commented. "Lila married the same year to a local greengrocer, Saul. What about you, Xena, when did you marry Borias? How did you meet him?"
Xena laid back on the blanket, stretching her legs out, smiling as Theodora mimicked her. "My village was overrun by the warlord Cortese when I was young, nearly a woman. I was captured along with several other girls to be his harem, but one of his warriors took a liking to me. Borias was very intelligent and wily, deciding that he liked me from the start. He asked Cortese if he could 'have a prize' since he had fought so well in the battle for my village. Cortese agreed and Borias asked for me, leading me back to his tent. At first I was pretty scared, sure that I would be raped before the night was out, but he merely talked with me for several hours before fixing me a pallet on the other side of the tent. He was the first man who ever tried to woo me and it worked. Borias was also very ambitious, wanting territory of his own, and somehow saw talents in me that would help him in his quest for conquest.
"To make a long story short, we married several months later, then Borias broke away from Cortese, taking half of his army with us. Borias discovered that I was unusually good at pulling together plans to defeat other armies, a raw talent for military strategy. We had conquered some lands, then were invading Chin when Solon was born. This brought our conquest plans to a standstill temporarily, but we continued when Solon was a few months old. We fought to a standstill, then negotiated with La Mao for joint ownership of the lands. This went well until Solon was two, then he came down with a fever and died. Borias never recovered from his grief and killed himself, which left me in sole charge of the army. In my grief, I went crazy and started raiding nearby lands, which led to the foundation of my later empire. La Mao tried to reason with me, even became my lover to try to bring me back to some state of normalcy, but nothing worked. I had her executed for trying to reason with me, for trying to redeem me." Xena paused, then suddenly asked, "Where's Theodora?"
"She was lying beside you," Gabrielle said as she sat up. "Theodora! Where are you?"
"Oh gods," Xena muttered, leaping to her feet. "Theodora!" She and Gabrielle stared at each other for a second, then Xena said, "you go that way and look for her, I'll go by the river." Without waiting, she ran off, following the riverbanks, calling the child's name over and over again.
Nearly an hour later, Xena came up to a eddy in the river and heard a faint scream. She spotted the child bobbing up and down, screaming her name. Xena stripped off her clothes as quickly as possible, yelling, "Hang on, I'm coming!" She ran into the river, fighting the currents until she came up to the child. "Theodora, I'm here," she said soothingly as she hooked an arm around the child's body. "Don't fight me."
"I'm scared," Theodora said, teeth chattering. Xena didn't reply, just struck out for the riverbank. She nearly got swept downstream several times before she stumbled on shore, panting heavily as she dropped on the grass, hugging the child fiercely to her chest. "You saved me," Theodora said in a small voice. Xena, too exhausted to talk, merely nodded and kissed the child's face, trying to summon the strength to walk back to the picnic site.
"Come on, we need to get you dried off," Xena finally mumbled as she staggered to her feet. Too tired and too wet to get dressed, she rolled up her clothes in a bundle, then picked up them and Theodora before setting off for the picnic site. Theodora promptly fell asleep, making her feel twice as heavy as usual.
"My baby!" Gabrielle exclaimed as she saw Xena and Theodora cresting a small rise. She had given up searching and had concentrated on the mundane task of repacking the picnic items, finished except for rolling up the blankets when she spotted her child and friend. She ran over, pulling them both into a tight hug, not caring that Theodora was damp and Xena was naked, just thrilled to find them both safe and sound. "Gods be praised!"
"Mama, Xena saved me," Theodora announced with a yawn as Gabrielle let go of the two and started undressing her child to dry her off. "I was in the river and Xena saved me."
"Thank you, Xena," Gabrielle said softly, looking up at her friend. Xena merely shrugged as if she saved small children every day, grabbing the other blanket to finish drying off herself. Gabrielle glanced up, seeing the long scar on Xena's side for the first time. She stood up, reaching out to touch it, to trace the thin pink line, then blushed and yanked away her hand when she realized what she was doing. "Sorry," she mumbled, turning back to the task of drying off Theodora. She heard Xena chuckle, but refused to look up until she was sure that Xena was completely dressed again.
Gabrielle was confused the rest of the day. She and Xena had walked back in silence, only Theodora chattering away, insisting being between them, holding both of their hands as they went back to the camp. Gabrielle's mind was swirling with incomplete thoughts and confusing emotions, fear for nearly losing her child, gratitude for Xena saving Theodora, the unbidden desire to pull Xena close and bury her face in Xena's chest. To make matters worse, Theodora was very insistent that Xena stay with them in the tent that night, saying that she wanted to sleep with Xena. "Honey, Xena may not want to stay with us, our pallet isn't that big," Gabrielle tried to reason with her daughter. Xena picked Theodora up, gravely explaining that their tent was too crowded for three people and that she should stay with her mother. Theodora finally gave up as they reached the campsite.
Gabrielle couldn't get to sleep that night. She kept checking Theodora, who slept soundly, then finally walked out of her tent to the main fire, just a few steps from her tent. To her surprise, Xena was there as well, sitting on a split-log bench, staring into the fire. When she saw Gabrielle, she motioned her over, then asked how Theodora was doing. "Oh, fine, she's sound asleep," Gabrielle replied, "but I can't seem to get to sleep yet."
"I know what you mean," Xena answered. "I keep seeing her swirling in that river, fearing that she would die before I reached her."
"I'm glad you found her." Gabrielle sighed. It was comforting to sit next to Xena, staring into the fire, feeling the warmth of the fire and Xena's body next to hers. She turned to look at Xena's face, highlighted and shadowed by the dancing flames, beautiful and sad all at the same time. "So, what will you do when the negotiations are over?"
"I don't know, Gabrielle, I might try to set up my own blacksmith shop. Aife promised me some land, I could ask for some near a settlement, establish my forge. I've picked up some additional techniques from the Celtic smithies, I'd like to try them out." Xena smiled wryly. "Not many other opportunities for my other various skills, not much call for conquerors now."
Gabrielle had to laugh at that statement. "No, I agree with you on that, Xena." She fell silent again, then looked up into Xena's beautiful face, catching a slight wistful expression. "What is is?" she asked, reaching for Xena's hand.
"Come on, we're friends, you can tell me."
"Gabrielle, what would you say if I offered you and Theodora a place to live? It's going to be lonely for me and I'd miss you so much if you were gone." She hesitated, unsure how to continue. "Oh, forget it, it's a lousy idea anyway." Xena jumped up and stalked away, leaving a very confused Gabrielle staring after her.
"Xena? Come back!" Gabrielle waited, torn between going after Xena and going back to check on her child. That woman was so irritating, she decided, it would serve her right if I didn't go after her. Her maternal instinct took over and she went back to check on her sleeping baby, then deciding that Xena could just wait. Theodora was more important to her right now.
"Aife, something is wrong between Xena and Gabrielle," Ming Tien said to his wife as they settled down for a light breakfast. "They keep avoiding each other. Theodora splits her time between them. What do you think is going on?"
Aife shrugged. "I don't know, sweetheart," she admitted, "but I know that Xena seems very upset these days. Have you ever seen her like this before?"
"No, can't say that I have," he said. "Xena has always been hard to read. She took such joy in torturing people, but now she acts like she is the one tortured. Gabrielle has been so quiet lately, just replying to direct questions. I think something happened that day they went on a picnic, neither one will talk about it. Do you think they quarreled?"
The queen pondered the question as she sipped her tea. "Maybe. Something has driven them apart, and we can't finish the negotiations with two of our chief advisors at odds with each other. Maybe we should call a halt for a day or two, then send them off by themselves to resolve their problems. We can look after Theodora for the day, she adores Duncan."
Ming smiled. "Duncan adores Theodora as well. Wouldn't it be funny if they wound up marrying?"
Aife groaned. "He's far too young to even consider marriage, so get that thought out of your head!"
"Okay, just a father's fantasy. What should we send them to do? It can't be too blatant, Xena would not agree to it."
"I'll come up with something."
"I still don't get it," Gabrielle muttered as she struggled to keep up with Xena's long stride, "why send us to scout out a location for a mill?"
Xena ignored the comments as she ran her eyes over the river. Unfortunately, the best place for a grinding mill would be near where she found Theodora, a place which held bad memories for her still. But, they had been tramping up and down the river for several hours now without much luck, and she was getting hot and sweaty, wishing she could just strip her clothes and take a long swim. An unbidden memory of Gabrielle tracing her scar popped into mind, memory of not wanting Gabrielle to stop touching her, wanting to take the smaller woman in her arms and--
"I'm hot, Xena, could we go for a swim? I mean, up there, in that still pool below the falls."
Xena drug herself back to the present and looked at the pool that Gabrielle was pointing to. It looked fairly shallow and still, maybe it would be a good idea. "Okay, but only for a short time. You can swim, can't you?"
"Like a fish, my sister used to say," Gabrielle quipped, smiling for the first time in days. Better get this over, she thought as she quickly stripped off her clothes and ran to the river. The cool water shocked her as she entered the pool, just deep enough to cover her breasts. She forced herself to dip her head under water as she sensed that Xena was undressing, looking at the falls until she felt the waves signaling that Xena had entered the pool as well. She turned to face the tall woman, who was just surfacing from dunking her own head under the water. "A bit chilly, don't you think?"
"Yes, a little," Xena drawled lazily. She floated a little closer to Gabrielle, careful to keep her eyes on the blonde's face. "Beautiful day."
"Yes, very beautiful," Gabrielle replied. She could feel herself relaxing a bit. Xena always did that to her, made her both relaxed and anxious, she mused as she turned her face to the sun. She let herself float up, kicking her legs a bit, trying to keep her body level with the water. She felt Xena's hands under her back and legs, steadying her, encouraging her to relax more. She smiled, then opened her eyes and locked her gaze with Xena's, surprised to see friendly blue instead of stormy gray. "See, I can float," Gabrielle said, unable to come up with anything better.
"With a little help, yes," Xena chuckled, pulling her friend a little closer. She watched as green eyes closed again, serenity flickering across Gabrielle's features. How long had it been since she had seen Gabrielle so relaxed? Now that this war was behind them...no, she'd better not think of that.
Gabrielle opened her eyes just in time to see the glimpse of sadness steal across Xena's face. She shifted so that she was standing again, placed her hands on Xena's shoulders. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Xena answered quickly.
"Xena, we haven't talked in days. Theodora is sad, keeps asking me why you don't come around except to take her off to play." She reached up, touching the beautiful face before her.
"Gabrielle, it was stupid for me to ask you and Theodora to come with me again, I should let you go home to your family."
So that was what this was about. Gabrielle blurted out, "But I have no family left, you and Theodora are my only family."
Xena shook her head. "No, I want more," she confessed in a husky voice, "much more."
Gabrielle looked quizzically at the warrior, her own conflicting feelings rising to the surface. She had loved Perdicas, thought she loved Dezso, but had waited for Xena time and again, treasuring their moments together, feeling empty and sad when she was gone. The truth became plain, she wanted much more as well, wanted to have Xena by her side every night, wanted more than to pretend to be husband and wife, wanted to cross over the boundary.
Xena saw the changes in Gabrielle's eyes, saw the pupils dilate with sudden desire, felt her own mouth go dry with anticipation. She had realized that she didn't just love Gabrielle, she was in love with Gabrielle that night she rescued Theodora and had asked Gabrielle to come live with her. She had been sure that Gabrielle was avoiding her out of shame, shame that a woman wanted her sexually, but now Xena was confused more than ever.
They stood there in the pool, breathing raggedly, neither one wanting to be the first to cross the line, both feeling desire raging in their bodies, desire mixed with the deepest love, souls suddenly bared to the light. Gabrielle finally closed the short distance, claiming Xena for her own, kissing her with fierce passion, melting in the the warrior's embrace, wishing the moment could last forever.
Hours later, they finally went back to the camp, shyly holding hands. Theodora spotted them first and ran toward them, grabbing Xena's leg, hugging as tightly as she could. Xena picked the child up, swinging her up on one side, draping the other arm around Gabrielle's shoulder. Theodora buried her face in Xena's neck, giggling happily, as if she knew that her family was now complete.
Ming Tien watched them from a distance, then turned to his wife. "It looks like baby makes three," he observed.